Carried Away by Passion

If you leave the windows on the west side of your house open, there is a risk that the sluagh – fairy host – will come and carry you off to their own country, a land of enchantment and confusion. It was a little like that for me on Friday evening when some folk from the west (well, Barvas) persuaded me to a place where nothing much was as I expected.

Even although it was our communion weekend in Stornoway, I had agreed to go with these enchantresses to view a production of Bach’s St John Passion at An Lanntair. We were intrigued by the idea that a venue which has cultivated such a reputation for hostility to the Christian faith should be hosting an evening of sacred music. Of course, I do not yet begin to hope that this is any kind of a softening of their position: evidently, many people consider this work by Bach to be great music and nothing more.

How very wrong they are.

It struck me quite powerfully, as I sat in church the following night, listening to the visiting minister preach about the two thieves on the cross. Both were in the presence of God, both heard and experienced the same thing; but one went, blaspheming, to a lost eternity, and the other to glory with his Saviour. And in every place where the gospel is preached, that is potentially true. Some will hear and believe; some will go on rejecting the salvation message.

I would imagine that there were some listening to, and perhaps also performing in, the St John Passion who would fall into the unbelieving category. They may have the highest appreciation for Bach’s undeniable talent as a composer, and they may very well think the libretto attractive, but that will be as far as it goes.

Except, of course, that is never as far as it goes. In fact, their decision to utter, or even just listen to the words of John’s gospel places them in a position of responsibility. Every time you have the truth placed before you, there are only two possible responses: acceptance or rejection. There is no third box marked ‘appreciation’.

This glorious – and beautifully performed – work is still, at heart, a proclamation of the gospel message. It carries the audience through the harrowing final hours of Christ’s life on earth. Each time I read that account, I feel a potent mixture of things: guilt, shame, empathy, gratitude. But, of course, when I read the Bible for myself, I do so in faith; and when I hear the gospel message preached, it is from men who have been called to proclaim it.

If you do not believe John’s account, then it cannot touch your conscience, nor move your heart. But neither does it leave you as you were before you heard it. Every instance of the good news being broadcast provokes a reaction.

Many years ago, I said to my parents, ‘I’m off to Martin’s Memorial to see the Messiah’. Ignoring my father’s wry rejoinder – ‘I doubt it’ – I set off in the company of some equally unbelieving friends to enjoy an evening of sublime music. Despite the fact that it draws significantly on Isaiah, some of the minor prophets, the Psalms and the Gospels, it didn’t bring me, there and then, to Christ.

I was, however, sufficiently impressed to buy a CD of ‘The Messiah’, performed by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, which I listened to many, many times. Even when I wasn’t reading my Bible, I listened, and even when I didn’t see any beauty in the feet that brought good tidings, I thought this the most glorious noise I’d ever heard.

Music of this kind, though, is more than just sound: it’s ministry. Closing our eyes so that we can appreciate the beauty is fine; closing our ears so that we do not hear the still, small voice is not.

Although I was not converted the evening I first heard Handel’s beautiful composition, its message resonated with me throughout the years. Sometimes, in church, a verse would leap out at me and I would recognise it from his oratorio – crooked paths being made straight; comfort ye, my people; by his stripes we are healed.

The reason for that is to be found, not in me, not in the beautiful music, but in the book of Isaiah.

God’s word will not return to Him void, but will accomplish what He has sent it out to do. I need have no anxiety for those hearing the gospel message in whatever form it reveals itself to them, because He has a plan – for every note, every recitative, every rest in the great and glorious composition of which He is the author and conductor.

Whether An Lanntair knows it or not, last Friday, it was beaming out the word of God into its own auditorium. And from there, none of us knows where it might go. Pilate asked ‘what is truth?’ while standing before its living embodiment; but God opens eyes and hearts where He will.

Yes, even in an arts centre in Stornoway.

 

Now the Precious Years are Gone

I was not part of the exodus from the Gàidhealtachd last weekend. The crowds making their way over land and sea were a mildly interesting sideshow – a filler at the end of the Gaelic news, a spectacle from which I tried hard to avert my eyes. It is certainly not that I don’t care for the music of Runrig, because they have been the soundtrack to my life since I can remember. These guys made a song of my outlook and experience over four decades and, all things being equal, I should have been there for the last dance.

Some things are just too much, though. Apart from that long-ago concert in the hangar at Stornoway airport, I shared every other Runrig experience with my husband. If I had gone to listen to them once more, I would only have spent my time looking for him in the crowd.

And so, I spent Saturday and Sunday in an island that seemed emptied of half its population. Sometimes, I would hear a snippet of their music on the radio, or catch a glimpse of them on television, and I would remember . . .

My mind goes back to the year that I turned fifteen, when they came to play in Stornoway, and I was just so excited at the prospect. And then, horror of horrors, a controversy broke out: their gig was going to clash with the preparatory services for the Stornoway communion. With any other band of their reputation, that would have been brushed aside. Runrig, though, were different. The date was changed, plans remade, and the Free Church minister in Stornoway received an apologetic phone call from Donnie Munro.

You are never too big, or too important to be respectful. This, after all, was the band that sang, ‘cum ur n’ aire air an Iar is air an àite a dh’ fhàg sibh/keep remembering the west, and the place you left’.

When I say that I grew up with them, I don’t merely mean that they were there as the years went by. I have already alluded to their part in forming my political consciousness, and for articulating the dumb love that I felt – feel – for home. Every year, when I speak to students about our history as a Gaelic people, I can do no better than quote Runrig’s ‘Fichead Bliadhna’. It expresses far better than I ever could the disgrace of successive generations kept in ignorance of their own past:

I learned many things
The English language, the poetry of England
The music of Germany
The history of Spain
And even that was a false history

Twenty years for the truth
I had to wait
I had to search
Twenty years of lies
They denied me knowledge of myself.

It was because of Runrig I took an interest in the Highland clearances, because of Runrig I cared about politics, because of Runrig I first read Carmina Gadelica, because of Runrig I discovered the land wars, because of Runrig I understood that Gaelic was more than just a dying language.

They sang more than merely big songs of hope and cheer: they were the singers in my bloodstream who have stayed mainline all my life.

Everything that matters to me about being a Gael, about being an islander – I can find it somewhere in the canon of this band’s work. Their polite and deferential approach to the Rev Murdo Alex Macleod in 1991 was indicative of something that owes much to the soil in which they were nurtured. Every word I ever heard them sing was shot through with love of place, love of nature, love of people and that matchless Gaelic spirituality that shaped our best lyricists. So many of their melodies recall congregational worship, with the psalms at its centre:

Song, sacred, eternal
Lift on high the voice of the people
Song, I am reconciled
Let it rise up from the moorlands

One of the most memorable evenings I spent in their company was at the now infamous gig on the banks of the Ness, when the deluge threatened to sweep us all away. We were, Donnie and I, soaked to the skin, shivering and muddy. It took hours to get back to the hotel, to get showered and warm, but we agreed that it was the finest of all our Runrig experiences. Until, that is, they came back to the HebCelt and we watched the sun set over Stornoway to their unmistakeable sound. Home, Runrig, and the man I was sharing my own last dance with, though neither of us knew it then.

Many have paid their own tributes to Runrig; most had the courage to be there with them as they said that aching goodbye. Mine, however, happened that night, out on the castle green. But Runrig’s own words, as always, speak for me more eloquently than I could ever do for myself:

But now I know and I don’t want to believe it
Where does it leave you now
That the precious years are gone

I know you well, you’ll be nothing but grateful
Never let it be said they were spent in thoughtless ways
Warm winds blow ‘cross the ties that bind forever
For a place in the sun and for the hearts of love a home

(Photo credit: Marie MacDonald)

 

Image is Everything

Returning to work after the summer break, I was intrigued to see that one of the in-service sessions on offer was ‘Initiating Difficult Conversations’. Life can be full of those, I have found. Just last week, I felt the need to explain to everyone I met on my way in and out of the prayer-meeting how I came to be dressed like a female Johnnie Cash, instead of the usual picture of demure Calvinist womanhood I like to present. No one actually cared what I was wearing, however, so all the awkwardness there was in my own head.

But, then, awkwardness often is.

I have often agonised over broaching certain topics of conversation, composing emails, or even – believe it or not – writing blogs. When my blog led to an invitation from the Free Church’s monthly magazine, ‘The Record’, to submit a regular column, I was delighted. It quickly became apparent, however, that I couldn’t approach this with the same freedom that I allow myself in the blog. Don’t misunderstand me, this was not because of the editor imposing some draconian rules on me, but because of some psychology within myself. When you are perceived as speaking on behalf of an organisation, or a cause, then you do need to be more circumspect.

What I am appalled by is that my own concern for the public image of the Free Church probably exceeds my care about misrepresenting the cause of Christ. At a recent Bible study session, where we discussed James’s assertion that faith without works is dead, I was misunderstood by another group member, when I mused upon whether people would be able to tell we were Christians, if they didn’t know it. ‘I don’t think we’re supposed to shout about it’, she chided, regarding me as though I were a suspect package (which I probably am). This was not even remotely what I meant, which I tried (unsuccessfully) to explain.

Do I ever think about how I am coming across to people who know I’m a Christian? Am I sufficiently attentive to avoiding being that person who provokes others to say, ‘some Christian – if that’s what they’re like, they can keep it.

There are instances in the Bible of the unrighteous behaving in a more moral manner than their righteous counterparts. And, if they are there in Scripture, we are certainly here in life. I have said and done some quite unlovely things in my time. There are many moments in my everyday life that, were they captured for posterity, would provide an unbelieving world with every excuse to shun my company.

Listening to our midweek sermon on the sixth commandment, quite a number of the difficult things the minister had to communicate resonated with me. I have never slain anyone nor, I hope, caused them injury. But Christians can’t cop out on ‘do not kill’, ticking the box and smugly assuming it’s one we’ll keep in perpetuity. For, if you’re anything like me, you will have breached it many times.

In Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica, a collection of the hymns, blessings and incantations of the Gaels, there is a fascinating account of how the bean-glùine, or village midwife, would baptise a newborn infant prior to the rite being carried out by clergy. She begins her description of what she would do, with these words: ‘When the image of the God of life is born into the world . . .’

The essence of the sixth commandment is in her words – that we should regard one another in this manner throughout our lifetime: each one of us, as James said (3: 9) ‘made in the likeness of God’. When we look at our fellow human beings, we ought, as we would with a valuable piece of jewellery or porcelain, to seek the Maker’s mark because it is certainly there. His thumbprint is on each one of us, including those that you and I find it difficult to love. Our prisons are filled to the brim with God’s creatures, just as are our churches.

And our schools are where we send these images of God to be educated. Yet, nowadays, there is no certainty that your child will hear the name of his Maker spoken in that place, except possibly as an oath. Parents who have sought to eradicate Him from their own lives, are busily turning God out of schools, so that no one dare mention His name there. We take away moral authority, and then we throw our hands up in the air in wonder when it all goes wrong.

The commandments are linked to one another. You cannot begin to dilute one without it affecting how another is observed. As a society, we have all but dispensed with the first, foundational requirement: honouring God as God, and placing His wisdom far above our own.

Secularising forces tell us that religious belief is on the decline. Research bears out the truth of what they say. Most people don’t believe in God, so they must be right. That’s a majority of people who think this world is better run by humans, with no reference, and certainly no deference to supernatural agency.

We don’t believe in God, so we don’t defer to His supremacy. And we don’t respect His Creation – the world, or the people in it. Our own wisdom is king. When we die, we die, so we may live as we please ‘as long as it hurts no one else’. But who will decide what hurts others, when all anyone cares about is pleasing themselves?

It’s just not working our way –please, can’t we go back to His?

 

 

 

Gaelic Rock, Gaelic Soil and Community

Next Saturday will be a valedictory one for Gaelic rock, as Runrig perform for the very last time. The week preceding promises to be good for Gaelic soil, marking as it does, the fact that so many acres of this beautiful land are now under the care of those who love them best. This, in case you hadn’t heard, is Community Land Week.

It was probably Runrig who contributed most to the awakening of my consciousness of the land issue. When, at age ten, in the centenary year of the Crofting Act, my eyes were first opened to the fact that I lived at the very edge of political power, I began to see the importance of knowing the hand which history had dealt my people. But my love for the music of this band directed my questions – most of which they had asked before me.

In the song, ‘Fichead Bliadhna’, we have the very real anger of young Gaels, demanding to know why they had learned the history of every civilization on earth but the one to which they belonged. Nothing else Runrig has done, however, compares to the album, ‘Recovery’, for making this very valid point. It is filled with an awareness of how much land and crofting have shaped who the Gaels are.

When I was a teenager, still in school, I used to have to purchase the ‘West Highland Free Press’ in secret, and smuggle it into the house. My father had not outright banned it, but he disapproved of its (Labour) editorial bias. I didn’t exactly love it for that myself, but I adored the opinion columns, and the feeling that even local politics here in the island were important.

And now, in this one week, it feels as though all those strands are somehow weaving back together. While I was thinking about this blog, and letting the ideas percolate in my brain, I listened again to ‘Recovery’. It is just as I remember it, raising past wrongs and the small acts of heroism which brought about change. Its closing track, ‘Dust’, brought something else to mind as well, particularly the line that runs, ‘Oh deep the faith and pure the light that shines inside and guides your people’.

You see, my upbringing wasn’t just one of social politics and the plight of the Gael. I, like everyone else of my generation, was steeped in the history of another people whose relationship with land was also a bit complicated: the children of Israel.

It was in connection with them that I was startled to hear the minister use the term ‘security of tenure’ in church recently. Being the central plank of the 1886 Crofting Act, it brought the horror of eviction without just cause to an end. We can scarcely appreciate its importance today, however, if we do not know what went before. That was very much the point that Runrig made so well.

The children of Israel received security of tenure in their covenant with God. Land apportioned to them as part of this was a blessing and only became otherwise whenever the fifth commandment was breached. In other words, when familial relationships broke down, that land of promise became nothing more than a mere commodity to be fought over.

Land is frequently the focus of division – challenged wills, unseemly squabbling over croft tenancies, sibling rivalry carried to the extent of litigation. It is no coincidence that, when you look at the archaeological record, fortifications developed very swiftly after man ceased to be a wanderer on the face of the earth, and began to lay claim to particular territories. Homes were reinforced against marauding intruders; smiths fashioned swords as well as ploughshares.

We are fortunate in Lewis to have so much control over our land, and it is appropriate to celebrate that fact with a special week of events. It would be quite wrong to take the blessing for granted because it is not actually ours by right, but by providence.

Stewardship of God’s providence is not a task to be undertaken lightly, and it is reassuring that it is being done more and more by people who are well-informed, and who genuinely care for the land.

My only worry is when I see attitudes manifest that would suggest land somehow takes precedence over people, which it ought not. Conservationists wish to protect the wildlife and its habitat, even at the expense of human society. Crofting has done much to shape who we are – it has formed the landscape, to an extent, and it has maintained a population where there might otherwise be only ruins and cold hearths. And, in its turn, crofting has been afforded legal protections which allowed a little security, a little breathing space and, eventually, the chance to develop and grow.

I want what is best for the place in which I live. Most of the people here do. We may differ in our opinion on what that is, or how to get there, but we ought to be able to do that respectfully, and without malice.

It was Runrig, channeling the prophet, Isaiah who said it best, I think, in the one song of theirs that I never really liked – ‘Alba’. They sang the prophet’s words in Gaelic, about the accumulation of wealth which so often comes in the form of land:

‘Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land.’

This week, and all the time, community is every bit as important as land.

 

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Casting Providence on the Minch

I was sitting in church a couple of weeks ago when one of the elders came in with a mixing bowl on his head. Not balanced on his head either, like a graceful woman of Biblical times heading to the well, but worn like a tin hat, as though auditioning for a budget version of ‘Dad’s Army’.

Now, in case you’re thinking our services must be very visually entertaining in the Free Church, I should clarify something. This was a weekday, and the church was empty. The gentleman in question was running a pop-up charity cafe in the Hall next door, and I was there to welcome visitors and show them around our place of worship. None of which really tells you why he was wearing a bowl on his head, I confess. It was mine and had, originally, contained potato salad. He was, I can only assume, trying to be creative in his manner of returning it. These arty types are all the same, and we must simply let them have their wee foibles. Although I’m not sure that’s what the Blue Book has to say on the matter.

We may make allowances for it being a busy time, the weather being warm, and even sensible folk going a bit . . . well, doolally.

When the Hebridean Celtic Festival is on, the population of Stornoway doubles. That is, the town which is the catchment area for our church, becomes even larger. A few years ago, this was not an issue for us: what did a music festival on the Castle green have to do with Stornoway Free – or any other – Church? Now, however, it has become very much a matter for our consideration. This year, we opened our church every single day of the Festival week, we had the two-day cafe (where most people managed to resist wearing the crockery), and, on the Sunday, we had our annual Free Breakfast @ The Free Church.

I don’t feel the need to explain any of this as I did a year ago. Feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, getting alongside people where they are . . . these are surely well-understood facets of the Christian faith. But I will say this: it was an absolute privilege to be involved, and I gained a new perspective during all this activity.

On the Friday following the Celtic Festival, a couple who had come to Lewis for the whole fortnight, accompanied me to an outdoor service in Uig. For me, this was a refreshing in the midst of what had become a tremendously busy time. To sit on that beautiful hillside and be reminded of God’s promises in the context of our own island history, well, that was something special. I love Lewis, I love my church, I love our heritage.

And that was when it dawned on me.

Those summer weeks of sharing who we are, and what we believe, had taught me something. This is not just for us. So many visitors to the church had said to me that Lewis ‘still has something special’. They urged us to hang onto it. ‘Don’t make the same mistakes we did’, one lovely lady from Suffolk urged, ‘don’t let them chip away at what you’ve got here’.

She’s right; we mustn’t. For whatever reason, God has given us a precious heritage here in Lewis (and Harris). Every summer, He brings visitors to our shores. Those two facts are not, I believe, unconnected. I have long been convinced that our personal providences are not merely for ourselves. My experiences of grief and of secret discipleship and of spiritual attack, I share, because they may profit more than me. Likewise, then, our corporate providence, surely?

This is why we must, as Christians, be more open. It is why our churches have to be more welcoming. And – contrary to popular opinion – it is why we must resist the drive to make places like Lewis and Harris carbon copies of everywhere else. We are not a reservation, we should not live for tourists. Going on valuing God’s providence, however, and casting our precious bread upon the water, I think we will have something to offer our visitors all the more worth having.

Just because there has been a little time of apparent calm, however, please don’t think our island slumbers in peaceful waters. The eyes of the enemy are still upon us. This heritage we have from God, the evil one covets for himself – and he will use, indeed IS using, whatever means at his disposal to destroy it. We must be in prayer, not only for revival, but that we ourselves would not be the instrument by which, nor the generation in which, Satan achieves his goal.

Casting Providence on the Minch

I was sitting in church a couple of weeks ago when one of the elders came in with a mixing bowl on his head. Not balanced on his head either, like a graceful woman of Biblical times heading to the well, but worn like a tin hat, as though auditioning for a budget version of ‘Dad’s Army’.

Now, in case you’re thinking our services must be very visually entertaining in the Free Church, I should clarify something. This was a weekday, and the church was empty. The gentleman in question was running a pop-up charity cafe in the Hall next door, and I was there to welcome visitors and show them around our place of worship. None of which really tells you why he was wearing a bowl on his head, I confess. It was mine and had, originally, contained potato salad. He was, I can only assume, trying to be creative in his manner of returning it. These arty types are all the same, and we must simply let them have their wee foibles. Although I’m not sure that’s what the Blue Book has to say on the matter.

We may make allowances for it being a busy time, the weather being warm, and even sensible folk going a bit . . . well, doolally.

When the Hebridean Celtic Festival is on, the population of Stornoway doubles. That is, the town which is the catchment area for our church, becomes even larger. A few years ago, this was not an issue for us: what did a music festival on the Castle green have to do with Stornoway Free – or any other – Church? Now, however, it has become very much a matter for our consideration. This year, we opened our church every single day of the Festival week, we had the two-day cafe (where most people managed to resist wearing the crockery), and, on the Sunday, we had our annual Free Breakfast @ The Free Church.

I don’t feel the need to explain any of this as I did a year ago. Feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, getting alongside people where they are . . . these are surely well-understood facets of the Christian faith. But I will say this: it was an absolute privilege to be involved, and I gained a new perspective during all this activity.

On the Friday following the Celtic Festival, a couple who had come to Lewis for the whole fortnight, accompanied me to an outdoor service in Uig. For me, this was a refreshing in the midst of what had become a tremendously busy time. To sit on that beautiful hillside and be reminded of God’s promises in the context of our own island history, well, that was something special. I love Lewis, I love my church, I love our heritage.

And that was when it dawned on me.

Those summer weeks of sharing who we are, and what we believe, had taught me something. This is not just for us. So many visitors to the church had said to me that Lewis ‘still has something special’. They urged us to hang onto it. ‘Don’t make the same mistakes we did’, one lovely lady from Suffolk urged, ‘don’t let them chip away at what you’ve got here’.

She’s right; we mustn’t. For whatever reason, God has given us a precious heritage here in Lewis (and Harris). Every summer, He brings visitors to our shores. Those two facts are not, I believe, unconnected. I have long been convinced that our personal providences are not merely for ourselves. My experiences of grief and of secret discipleship and of spiritual attack, I share, because they may profit more than me. Likewise, then, our corporate providence, surely?

This is why we must, as Christians, be more open. It is why our churches have to be more welcoming. And – contrary to popular opinion – it is why we must resist the drive to make places like Lewis and Harris carbon copies of everywhere else. We are not a reservation, we should not live for tourists. Going on valuing God’s providence, however, and casting our precious bread upon the water, I think we will have something to offer our visitors all the more worth having.

Just because there has been a little time of apparent calm, however, please don’t think our island slumbers in peaceful waters. The eyes of the enemy are still upon us. This heritage we have from God, the evil one covets for himself – and he will use, indeed IS using, whatever means at his disposal to destroy it. We must be in prayer, not only for revival, but that we ourselves would not be the instrument by which, nor the generation in which, Satan achieves his goal.