The Harbour They Longed To See

At this time of year, it is inevitable that we find ourselves looking two ways – forward with some uncertainty into the unknown that lies before us; and backwards at the twelve months just gone. It is easy to become reflective, sentimental, and even maudlin as our minds dwell on other times, and on people no longer with us. Each turn of the year seems, in that sense, to carry us further from them, to blur their faces and fade their much-loved voices a little more in our memories.

New Year in Lewis has a particular resonance this time around, marking a whole century since the loss of HMY ‘Iolaire’, no distance at all from the shores of home. 201 men who should have been returning to the warm embrace of their families that night, instead went to their deaths, leaving countless relatives and loved ones bereft for a lifetime.

On Saturday, I went with a friend to look at ‘Sheòl an Iolaire’, the simple, temporary monument that has been created on the foreshore at pier number one. It is made from wooden posts and has been lit with coloured lights. White paint daubs represent the survivors – including one, on the mast, for ‘Am Patch’, the Nessman who clung there for dear life.

I didn’t know until then that the distance the monument is from the sea wall is also the distance the ‘Iolaire’ was from land when she foundered on the Beasts of Holm.

As I looked, and saw other members of the community come also to stand and gaze upon it, I thought about a conversation I had recently, when we had discussed how the churches coped with the aftermath of loss on such a scale. ‘There must’, the other person said, ‘have been prayer meetings, and church services after this. And there must have been doubt – people’s faith must have been shaken’.

Of course that is perfectly possible. For many people, one stage of grief will be anger, and that may well be directed at God in the absence of anyone else to blame.

However, grief is not really corporate. We are commemorating the ‘Iolaire’ centenary as a community, because we were devastated as a community in 1919, and the ripples from that blow were felt for generations. But the reality of bereavement is that it afflicts us individually. I cannot feel your pain, and you cannot feel mine: only Christ can truthfully empathise with any of us to that extent.

I don’t mean to say that there is no such thing as communal grief, either; I very much believe that there is in this case. It is born, however, of many, many individuals experiencing loss simultaneously. So, dealing with that was not the overwhelming task that we now tend to view it as – because ministers, elders, and all those trying to bring God’s comfort could only deal with one heart at a time.

God Himself deals with us on that level. We pray for revival, we pray for communities, we pray for families – but in each case, His work will be personal, based on a relationship with the individual. And it is in that closeness faith finds its home.

I have experienced painful loss. It did not shake my faith – in fact, it drove the roots even deeper. Faith is nothing to do with me, or my circumstances: my faith is in Christ, who does all things perfectly. What He does, and what He permits – though it slay me – must be for the ultimate good. If that is true even sometimes, of some things, it must be true at all times, of all things. If I make that conditional on my circumstances being favourable, and Him dealing with me as I would wish, well, then, He is not God and this is not faith.

Commemoration of the ‘Iolaire’ has permitted more conversations about faith than has been possible in this island for quite some time. All of the events have incorporated psalm singing, Bible readings or prayer.

January 1st, 1919 dawned on a broken community. Families bereft, hearts torn, and a generation at least blighted by terrible grief.

January 1st, 2019 will witness a Lewis which is probably in a worse spiritual condition than it was that morning, one hundred years ago. While we are remembering an old, settled grief, and giving thanks that this is a generation which has known little of conflict or loss, are we looking to God as they did in 1919?

We have surrounded ourselves with reminders of the ‘Iolaire’ generation – beautiful writing, meticulous research, haunting photographs and paintings, monuments, and exhibitions . . . lest we forget. Like all bereaved people, the community is creating memorials because it fears that faces will blur, and voices will fade, and even that this great weight of pain which reminds us may dissipate in time.

But those who clung to God then, and who look to Him now, know that each turn of the year only takes us further from those painted, printed, fading memories – and all the while we are brought closer to seeing them as they really are now: alive in Christ, safe in that ‘harbour they longed to see’.

 

 

Journalism, Satan and Sunday Opening

When the nice journalist from BBC Scotland rang, I thought she might be wanting to talk about wind farms. People do, you know. They’re quite the hot topic here in Lewis – like NATO or Arnish in their own day. People didn’t want these developments either, to begin with . . .
She wasn’t phoning about turbines, though. Do you remember those schlocky old horror films, when you think the Thing is finally vanquished, but it comes back and grabs you by the throat?
Exactly: she was phoning about Sunday opening of the sports centre.
I could have sunk to the floor in despair. My colleagues wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. This sort of stuff happens all the time. Mind you, it’s been a while. Not since I marked an essay which confidently proclaimed that the Picts saw the Vikings coming and ‘went into oblivion’ have I so felt the need to rock in a corner. Instead, I arranged to be plonked in front of a microphone and offer my opinion on why Sunday opening of public services is a non-starter (again).Also, it came in the middle of a slightly hectic week – a period Lady Bracknell would have disapprovingly described as ‘crowded with incident’. I was caught ever so slightly on the hop: halfway between the surreal spectacle of a Scottish Land Court sitting in our church hall, and a Christmas night out with the gents of Stornoway Trust. In case you were wondering, I won all the cracker pulls – and no, they weren’t just letting me in case I cried . . .

Yet, despite the distractions, part of me had been waiting for this call. Not two weeks before, I had been discussing how dangerous complacency is. Just because all is quiet, don’t make the mistake of reading that as lasting peace. Don’t take your eye off the wall because the enemy is likely just waiting to surge over it.

(For the sake of clarity, when I say ‘enemy’, I mean Satan. And, when I say ‘Satan’, yes, I really do mean him and nobody else).

That’s why the Lord said to Isaiah, ‘Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he sees’. We need to be ready and watchful – like the soldiers of Gideon who took the water with their hands, so that their eyes might freely scan for danger.

This latest attempt is neither here nor there. But the whole debate opening up again has reinforced for me the image problem that Christians have. Now, while it doesn’t actually matter what people think of us per se, if it’s damaging to our witness, then that certainly is an issue, and one that needs addressing.

For this reason, I found myself at pains in the interview to deny that I am a Sabbatarian in the sense that the word is usually applied. That would elevate the day itself to an importance greater than the purpose for which it was granted – and that would be very wrong. We have – somehow – to dispel the notion that we want to keep Sunday special out of a desire to impose a draconian will upon the community.

Parliament has recently acknowledged the Christian image problem by running a survey into the discrimination that they face in daily life. Although the necessity of such a thing is a little depressing, it is nonetheless a step forward that the presence of anti-Christian prejudice exists in the UK. Frequently, you will find that it is casual, it is thoughtless. And it goes unrecognised as the bigotry that it is.

Last week, for example, I saw someone on social media had written: ‘We don’t mind Jesus, it’s his friends we have the problem with’. Oh, really? Try separating them from Him, then, and see how far you get with that.

Or, if you’re feeling brave, why not take out the name of Jesus altogether, and replace it with Allah? Does it look a bit more like bigotry now?

There is a lot of anti-Christian prejudice out there. In completing the survey, I was able to truthfully say that I have been met by it repeatedly, right here in my own community in most cases. However, I feel it really is time to start addressing it, and calling it out every time we witness instances of such bigotry. We live in a country that, not so long ago, made racist jokes our staple form of humour. However, within a generation, people have managed to accept that this is wrong.

Surely it’s our duty as Christians, then, to take that same stand for our faith. If someone has grown up using the Lord’s name as a swear word, for example, don’t you think it’s our job to raise an objection so they will see how offensive they’re being?

The journalist who questioned me about opening the sports centre on Sundays also said that she had spoken to parents who were for the status quo, but feared going on the record to that effect. That is a statement that should shame us all. Have public debate in general, and issues relating to the Sabbath in particular, become so controversial that we cannot talk them over openly without fear of reprisal?

Every time this kind of question arises, perhaps we ought to look on it as an opportunity to re-educate people about what Christianity is. Instead of meeting their attacks with slings and arrows ourselves, we could take the moment to demonstrate love.

And, no, Christian love does not mean stepping aside, and letting people do what they want; it means pointing them towards the light by which they might see for themselves how wrong they’ve been. And prejudice IS wrong, however normalised it has become in our midst.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fairies in the Church Hall & Light after Dark

Last Sunday, I sat quietly as the minister wagged his finger and said severely, ‘you know fine that was bad and wrong’. Trying to remember if he’d maybe seen me parked on a double yellow line, or if he knew about how I mess with the audio controls in the Seminary, I finally had the courage to look at him. To my relief, I saw that he was addressing his little dog. Once again, I had got away with it.

But, if he hears about this Friday , and the subject matter of the talk I gave at the senior fellowship, it’ll be the Session for sure.

I can say with some confidence that I’m the first person to talk to them about ghosts and fairies. There were a couple of elders present, so I avoided the topic of witches, just in case.

It wasn’t, of course, a practical lesson in how to spot fairies (they only have one nostril), nor how to keep them at bay (iron, oatmeal). Nor was I suggesting that they were ever real. Instead, I was trying to show how mankind was once in thrall to fear and superstition, until the light shed by Christianity in general, and the Reformation in particular, finally drove out the darkness.

More particularly, I was trying to draw parallels between that, and what happens in the life of the individual Christian as well, when they eventually see the light.

It’s a mystery that every believer must surely ponder on – how was it that I saw Christ, had Him brought before me repeatedly . . . and yet, didn’t see Him at all? Last Sunday, before bullying his diminutive canine, the minister fenced the communion table with a reflection on Isaiah 53. There is in that chapter a contrast. First, we have the Christ that our unbelieving eyes beheld – nothing in Him to attract us, punished because He had displeased God. But then, there is the realisation that this bruised and battered Christ is that way because of us; because He has taken our sin on Himself and died for it so that we don’t have to.

Surely, a battered man was never more beautiful than this.

I have seen physical suffering close to. My husband’s last weeks were not always easy. But, there came an end to his pain, and he did not have to endure the agony of God’s wrath.

He did not, and we do not, because Christ took that on Himself in order to spare us.

When you fully take that in, how then can his wounds and his bruises be other than lovely?

I’m realising that you can’t appreciate all of who and what He is right at the beginning of your Christian life. It is in the nature of enduring love to grow with knowledge; and there is no more enduring love than the one between our Saviour and His people.

It was not until I loved Him back that one phrase repeated throughout the Old Testament began to really terrify me. In Deuteronomy 32:20, ‘I will hide my face from them’; in Ezekiel 39, ‘I hid my face from them’; and the desperate pleas of psalms 55, 102, and 143: ‘do not hide Your face from me’.

Like a helpless child – which is what I am, spiritually speaking – I need to see Him, to reassure myself constantly that He is nearby. And it’s only when I accepted this dependence upon God that I began to fear that He might turn from me.

And I probably thought I was the only one until we were preparing for the communion last weekend, and the preacher said: ‘imagine the rest of your life if the Lord was silent’.

Imagine it? I prefer not to.

This doesn’t stem from any question over God’s faithfulness, but my own. When I first received assurance, but remained a secret disciple, I feared my own constancy. More than anything, I worried that this would be like all those times before – that the Word would become cold in my hands, and the prayers dry up. Every morning, I met God in prayer and reading; but I tormented myself with fear that, one day, I just wouldn’t go to the well. And that would be followed by another, and another, until these days of refreshing became a dim and distant memory.

I thought it was just me, until last weekend’s preparatory service, and the revelation that fear and faith often co-exist. Psalm 28 calls on ‘the Rock’, and pleads ‘be not deaf to me’, but the psalmist is not doubting God in the least.

When you have truly got to know God, you cannot doubt Him. But you can prize communion with Him so highly that you are terrified of being without it. Especially when you remember what you were before, and what you would be without Him.

When I gave my ill-advised talk about the Otherworld to the good folk of Stornoway Free Church, I was introduced as the author of ‘after darkness, light’. This blog, and my monthly column, of course, bear that title.

But, I am like the moon in that I would have remained in darkness, except that the true source of light shines upon me. What I am is not the author of light after darkness, but merely a reflection of the true Author’s work.

Twenty-five is Silver, but Wisdom is Gold

A quarter of a century ago, I took a life-changing opportunity. It came in the form of the fledgling University of the Highlands and Islands, and its very first degree. It turned out a BSc in Rural Development really was for me.

I was a young Gaelic-speaker whose interest in her own culture was finally being validated. The eclectic obsessions and tangents that had never quite added up to anything clicked satisfyingly into place. Photos by Gus Wylie, a lecture from James Shaw Grant, articles written by Prof Donald Meek, all saying that the ‘rubbish’ I’d amassed in my head was not rubbish at all.

This mattered. And now I was beginning to have the tools to say what ‘this’ was.

Tertiary education ought to be a turning-point, and it was in my case. I learned so much about life, myself, and the Gàidhealtachd. It was then that I found out about the Highland famine, about people starving right here in the islands, about the 1872 Education Act, and the warped way that schooling had turned a people from its own culture.

In the quarter-century since Lews Castle College set me on that path of discovery, much has happened. There are, for instance, many more degree programs available, two of which I now teach on. Before coming back to the alma mater to work, in 2002, however, I spent four years in Ness working as a development officer, learning from, and about, people.

It was there I picked up two valuable life lessons: working for a committee is tough; and serving a community is thankless.

Fool me once and all that, but I have recently gone headlong back into the world of community development. By coincidence, the Factor of the Stornoway Trust estate –who works for the committee of which I’m now a member – was appointed twenty-five years ago too, the same year that the BSc Rural Development was validated.

I encouraged him to write me a guest blog to mark this milestone, and then swiftly gave up, because I’m not one to nag a Lewismen, and besides, I also know when I’m beaten. Like a lot of folk who have worked for committees, he has built up a natural resistance to being steered. Nonetheless, like a lot of folk who have worked for committees, I am a stubborn blighter, and will make a wee nod here to his silver anniversary, ge b’ oil leis. With any luck he’ll be sorry for not taking up his own pen instead.

The role of Factor has been fulfilled by some fairly monstrous figures – Patrick Sellar, Dòmhnall Munro – but our fellow’s name doesn’t really belong with those. Faint praise, you may think, but he’s an understated kind of cove, and I don’t want to make him blush.

Oh, alright, then. You’ve twisted my arm.

He’s funny. Not funny-peculiar. Well, yes, maybe a little peculiar. It wouldn’t make for sanity, would it, working with the likes of . . . well, me. But he’s mostly funny-ha-ha. A sense of humour and – if possible- a sense of the ridiculous, make working for a committee bearable.

Come to think of it, there is actually one similarity between himself and Dòmhnall Munro – Matheson’s hated Factor, known variously as the Shah or the Beast.

I don’t mean his infamous treatment of widows. Despite some provocation, he’s managed not to oppress me much anyway.  In fact, I was thinking more of his influence in local life here in Lewis.

Munro was chair of the Parochial and the School boards of all four parishes; he was vice-chairman of the Harbour Trustees; Director of the Stornoway Gas Company; Director of the Stornoway Water Company; Deputy-chairman of the Road Trust; Baron Baillie, and much more besides.

Our Factor is Chair of Lewis Crofters, he is grazing clerk in Laxay, he is a committee member of the Lewis & Harris Sheep Producers, of the Lochs Show; he is a director of the Lewis & Harris Auction Mart, and much more besides.

That is largely where the similarity ends, though. One took all that he could out of Lewis and its people; the other puts all that he can back in.

He (mostly) quietly puts up with a lot. I know, because I’ve worked for a committee and for a community. People don’t count the long hours, or the extra miles; they only want to criticise. They don’t tend to value your point of view, or knowledge, because they’re too busy imposing their own.

And this is the real lesson I have gleaned over the past twenty-five years. No matter what area of life you find yourself in, look to the experience and wisdom of others who have been treading that path longer than you have. A course of study is limited in what it can teach you; but human example is boundless. This island is full of people with much to teach – and most of them are not in classrooms or lecture halls.

I have learned, and am still learning, from people who are usually older, but always wiser, than I. Wisdom can sometimes simply be the art of deferring to someone who knows more, or knows better.

Our society, though, is becoming increasingly hostile to that concept, seeing it as weakness to admit that you don’t know everything. Opinion is pushed into the vacancy left by knowledge and understanding. Youth is exulted over the sagacity of age, despite all the warnings from history that this is rank foolishness.

Well, here I am going on record, twenty-five years on, neither young nor old, and admitting that I am still very much on a learning curve. My favourite writer – Neil Gunn – put it perfectly, as ever, when he wrote:

‘Knowledge of ignorance is the end of so much knowledge, and the beginning of wisdom’.

Come back in another quarter-century and maybe, just maybe, I’ll have something to say that’s worth the hearing.