But if not . . .

I was set a challenge this week, by one of the overbearing blokes of Stornoway Free Church. ‘Shut up, woman’, he ordered, ‘your blog titles are too long-winded – and who permitted you to have ideas, anyway?’ Or words to that effect; no doubt I am paraphrasing somewhat. ‘Write about this, and stay out of trouble’, he said finally, firing a Biblical reference at me and departing.

He had quoted Daniel 3: 18 and, specifically, these seemingly negative, doubting words: ‘but if not’, uttered by Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, when King Nebuchadnezzar is telling them of their imminent punishment in the fiery furnace. Their answer is along the lines that we always expect from believing people: do what you will, our God will protect us, and pluck us out of the flames.

‘ . . . but if not . . .’

So well-versed in Scripture was the wartime generation that a naval officer at Dunkirk telegraphed only these three words home and had the Allied plight immediately understood. The situation was desperate. Indeed, in the ordinary sense, the situation was hopeless.

Was that officer telling his loved ones to prepare themselves for German invasion, then, for the loss of all Allied hopes of success? Not any more than Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were preparing for the possibility that God might leave them to a fiery death. He was, in fact, telling the people at home that whatever happened, God would be with them.

We have our own ideas about how we would like the Lord to salvage a situation. It may be that we pray for a desperately ill loved one to be cured; it may be that we want him to stop our enemy’s mouths; it may be that we beg him to not send us into a particular situation. These are all prayers I have uttered, some of them many times. And in every significant example I can recall, God gently shook his head, ‘no’.

At this point, the unbeliever scoffs. The book of psalms brims over with examples of the enemy mocking and asking, ‘where is your God now?’ In the world, they see our relationship with the Lord as being similar to that between a small child and Santa Claus, or perhaps Aladdin’s genie. He is not, though, a capricious granter of wishes. God hears my prayers before they leave my heart, before I know them myself. But he is wiser than to let me direct him in how these should be answered.

When I prayed for my husband to be cured, and was comforted by the verse, ‘this sickness is not unto death’, I was hearing only what I wanted. I was stopping short of the next clause  ‘but to the glory of God’. In my understandable human pain, I wanted God to make everything all right, to make it stop hurting there and then. In his infinite goodness and wisdom, though, he took my request and granted it more fully and completely than I would ever have the grace or courage to ask for myself.

In times of sore oppression – verbal, rather than physical, lest anyone feel the need to accuse me of exaggeration – and slander, I prayed that God would silence those who lifted their voices against me in hatred. The chorus only intensified and became nastier and more vitriolic. Far from stopping their mouths, God seemed only to lengthen the lead to give them more latitude. And, in the end, the freedom of that leash became the rope from which their unkindness swung, for all to see. He caused them to stop their own mouths.

There have been situations I wanted no part of and asked God to let me go around. These requests he has also denied. I have lived through confrontations, through spiritual and emotional difficulties that I would have just as soon avoided. More times than I like to admit, I would ask God, ‘why have you put me through this’, and concluding over and over that my soul seems to require an inordinate amount of honing! But hone me he does. Every trial, every mistake, every misunderstanding between me and my brethren, every word I say out of turn, every relationship that I enter into, every partiality I show, every decision I make for good or ill, God is there.

That is what those three little words mean: ‘but if not’. They are immediately followed by an affirmation that, even if God does not deal with them as they have proclaimed, still they won’t turn from him. It is the same submission to his will that caused Christ to ask for the cup to pass from him, and then to add ‘not my will but yours’.

‘But if not’, however it sounds in the mouth of an unbeliever, is the very opposite of doubt. It is faith, born of an intimate knowledge of this God, who does everything perfectly. It is the confident proclamation of the believer who knows that he may not always take them out of the fiery furnace, but neither will he leave them to suffer it alone.

I hope this blog encourages you to believe, or to remember that God is with us always – but, if not, he is, just the same.

The First Blast of the Trumpet Against More Rough Wooing

Were John Knox alive today, I don’t think the Protestant church in Scotland – if such a monolith existed – would be wise to choose him as a spokesperson. He had a somewhat unfortunate way with words, and a bit of an uncompromising manner, particularly when it came to ladies in government. It’s not that he was sexist, just that he believed female rulers were an abomination and ought to stay at home having babies.

And, like an awful lot of people – to be fair not all of them men – once Knox had said a thing, that was it. He was not a fan of taking back ill-chosen words, nor of admitting when he’d been a bit of an insensitive twit.

He even managed to contradict Calvin. Pause for dramatic effect. Yes, THAT Calvin – the one who gets the blame for the unfortunate personality traits of dour Wee Frees, Wee Wee Frees, and Wee Wee Frees to the Power of Three. Calvin had used biblical examples, such as Deborah, to demonstrate God’s willingness to raise up female leaders. Knox wasn’t having any of it, though and maintained that women ruling was a breach of the God-given order.

He inadvertently annoyed Queen Elizabeth I of England, and steadfastly refused to apologise. In typically winning fashion, he corresponded instead with her (male) adviser, Sir William Cecil . . . but, let’s just say, he didn’t win any prizes for diplomacy there either.

The worrying thing for me is that I’m not entirely persuaded that our church WOULD keep Knox away from the microphone. I can almost hear the arguments in his favour: ‘oh, but he’s so godly’; ‘oh, but his theology is sound’; ‘oh but he’s not afraid to speak the truth’. Knox would undoubtedly possess the courage and the drive to speak for the church in Scotland: but are those the only qualifications?

Let me circumvent any misunderstanding. I’m not referring to ‘the church’ in terms of an institution, or as a specific denomination. What I’m speaking about is Christianity, the cause of Christ. There are many in Scotland who love the Lord and who wish to see some restoration of truth to public life. But if we’re ever going to get there, we need a wee bit of the ‘s’-word: strategy. Strategy backed up by prayer and trusting to God, absolutely, but still, a strategy.

First up on my planner, therefore, is ‘silence all the would-be Knoxes’.

Knox was all kinds of things: courageous, straight-talking, and a champion of Christ. We have people like that, though obviously not of his stature, today. And sometimes, I’m afraid that when they speak, I cringe.

It isn’t that I usually disagree with the fundamentals of their message; how could l? Nor do I belong to that camp which feels that Christians need to water down the challenge of the Gospel. God IS love, indeed, but we also have to preach about sin and hell and judgment, and the danger of not accepting his free offer of salvation.

No, it’s about presentation. It’s about the fact that there is no use in battering unsaved sinners over the head with the fact of their sin. I cannot show them their sin and neither can you. Why? Because we’re sinners ourselves. They need the mirror of God’s perfection to see themselves in that light.

So, when Christians speak on moral issues, we do not need a John Knox to remonstrate with people for their sin. We need those who are gifted with diplomacy and, yes, the wisdom of serpents, tempered with the gentility of doves. Every man or woman who professes faith is not destined to champion it effectively in the public arena, and we have to find ways to channel gifts prudently.

I would like to see, for example, more female Christians being encouraged to speak on issues like abortion. It sits uneasily with me when the pro-life lobby is represented by men. Yes, they have as much concern and as much right to a view; but that’s not the point. Knox, no doubt, would be very willing to speak on ‘Reporting Scotland’ about protecting the unborn child – but that doesn’t mean that he would be the best person for the job. Whether we like it or not, perception is important, and we do nothing to win over the hearts of a hostile world by playing up to the stereotypes.

Don’t get me wrong, though, I’m not actually talking about gender. This is not me saying, ‘shut up, men, and let the girls talk’. What I’m trying to say is that we need to get better at representing our cause, by equipping our people to speak. There has got to be love, grace, intelligence and common sense. And, yes, there has got to be strategy.

The church needs people who walk with God, who pursue a holy life, and who are chiefly concerned with glorifying him. However, the world needs a church that can speak comfortably to it, in ways and words it will understand.

We are not going to win Scotland’s soul back with another rough wooing.

Crofting, cùram and the black, black Comhairle

‘The minister and the factor are the cause of all the misery and ruination’, I said last week on live radio. I wasn’t, of course, talking about anyone I know personally, perish the thought. No, I was, in fact, paraphrasing a view held by many of my fellow countrymen, and especially in that context, various writers over the years about the havoc wrought by these two archetypes. 

The Highlands, explored in literary form, invariably appear to have been torn asunder by these two men: the greed of the factor and the creed of the minister. Between them, many people believe, the landlords and the church pulled down the ancient edifice of Gaelic culture and left it in ruins.

Even to this day, nothing is more guaranteed to get a social media debate going than religion or land. The latter blew up into a Facebook squall last week, with the news that Comhairle nan Eilean has taken legal advice on whether it can include crofts in the valuation of assets, when recouping the cost of providing care.

It was always going to be a turbulent discussion. You have a heady mix of poorly-understood legislation, a local authority which is damned either way, and the rampant emotionalism that seems to accompany every invocation of the word, ‘croft’. Crofters are felt by many to have a moral right to the land, and to be automatically justified whenever pitted against authority. There is a sense in which Comhairle nan Eilean cannot win this debate. Like any organisation which finds its views at variance with those of the crofting community, or even one section of it, the council will inevitably be portrayed as a latter-day Dòmhnall Munro.

Crofts and/or houses which are owner-occupied are straightforward enough. The real controversy centres around tenanted crofts. If you are merely paying rent to a landlord . . . how can the croft’s value be calculated as belonging to you?

Unfortunately, the legal opinion sought by the Comhairle states that one possible way is to file for bankruptcy against the crofter, or his estate after he has passed away. This unpalatable course of action would be time-consuming, potentially costly and by no means certain to produce the desired result for the local authority. Insolvent crofters breach the 1993 Crofting Act. Nonetheless, only the landlord can apply for an order to have them removed, and even if they do so, the events that follow are firmly outwith the council’s control.

So, this is clearly an extremely vexed question and, like everything else of the kind, may well be slogged out on Facebook, but it certainly won’t be settled there.

What the discussion does throw up, however, is an interesting attitude around the perceived intrinsic worthiness of crofting. Evidently, from the comments I have read, many of us feel that it is part of island heritage and deserving of protection. Some even accuse Comhairle nan Eilean of instigating a modern version of the clearances.

The conceit there is that crofts and crofting ought to be the province of the indigenous population. That is an argument which, in the context of language and cultural preservation (where, by ‘culture’ I mean way of life and not some tweed nailed to driftwood, calling itself ‘art’) might have some merit.

We suffer, because of our remoteness, a tension between maintaining a viable population in these islands, and protecting our increasingly fragile heritage. How do you reconcile the need for people to keep services running, and shops and schools open, with the desire to shore up these things which are unique and precious about our islands?

For too long, there has been a concentration on Gaelic as a language, and little heed paid to the fact that it has – and requires – an underpinning culture. Crofting is undoubtedly part of that. Unfortunately, the moral argument posited by many against the Comhairle’s position falls down slightly on the fact that tenancies change hands for sometimes eye-watering sums of money.

You simply cannot have it both ways. If tenancies can be sold to the highest bidder, where is the mechanism for favouring – say – young islanders? It doesn’t exist.

Crofting, like Gaelic, has been subject to a tiùrr of legislation, but there has been the same mistake made in both cases: a failure to recognise the plant in its native soil, or to take measures that might have nurtured it there. With language, experts talk about intergenerational transmission – the passing of the language from parent to child, far and away the most natural learning process. The richness of vocabulary and idiom is then preserved in a wider Gaelic community, not least because communities have an inbuilt code that is mutually intelligible to its members.

In fact, now that the language campaign is waking up to the fact that it has neglected community in its working-out, I wonder whether there isn’t greater scope for an integrated approach to the promotion of Gaelic and crofting. Not, I hasten to add, in some twee, ‘living museum’ way, but an acknowledgement that there are vestiges of both traditions still extant here, into which new life could be breathed. And that they have a close relationship with one another in the communities where they grow wild.

It would take vision to realise, of course. Some years ago, the Crofting Commission published a paper which explored the possibility of designating Scottish crofters as an indigenous people. I wonder whether, under the new Islands Act, and with an eye to further crofting legislation in the next parliament, it may not be time to rekindle that spark of an idea.

Imagine: Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Highland Council, the Crofting Commission, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, all working together on policy for the Gàidhealtachd from the inside.

We have much still to learn from the old slogans: the language, the land, the people; and strength through unity.

And the prisoners heard

Sunday afternoon sunshine lured me outside to sit on my recently-painted decking to read, write and contemplate. There were birds singing in the trees and lambs bleating in the croft beyond, but not a sound other than that to pierce the stillness. I had recently risen from morning worship with my congregation, and was in exactly the right frame of mind for a bit of contemplation.

I was also filled with an enormous sense of wellbeing. These are days filled with uncertainty, trepidation and, for many, grief. None of us knows when it may be our turn to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Yet, we know that God is with us, and that ,while a shadow may well encroach, it can never devour.

So, while the world’s media is talking in terms of a global crisis, of catastrophe and lockdown, God is enabling me – and many more besides, I think – to experience this as the day of small things which we are warned not to despise.  As I sat in the warmth of this early spring day, I thought about the week just gone by, and the ways in which I have met with Christ in the long hours of solitude.

There is his word, of course, and prayer. These are constants. Normally, though, they are the launchpad for what Lady Bracknell disparagingly referred to as ‘a life crowded with incident’.

I am rediscovering my inner introvert, however. This week, I have  delivered a number of lectures and tutorials, spoken on the radio about my favourite Scottish novels, attended a meeting of the Stornoway Trust, and participated in a whisky tasting – all without budging from my dining table. In between, I walk, cook, clean, read and write. In the evenings, I chat to friends and family, listen to music, and catch up on television programmes, films and podcasts that I’ve missed.

Friday was glorious. I finished classes, and took the dog for a long ramble on the machair. Confusedly dressed in wellies, linen trousers and a cashmere hoody (I like to acknowledge all seasons in one outfit), I got spectacularly rained on. Showered and pyjama-clad, I lit the wood burner and laid out my various samples of Jura whisky and wild water from the Stornoway Trust Estate in time for the Instagram tasting event.

It was not, I am quite certain, the 46.7% ABV 21-year-old malt that gave me the feeling of complete serenity, but the sense that this was a day of privileges, dispensed by the hand of a gracious God. He has enabled me to continue doing my job, and fulfill other obligations while remaining safe and not feeling isolated in the least.

Discussing this with a Christian friend on Sunday evening, she said that she was concerned by the number of people – believing people – who are not doing so well. She hears from folk who say that lockdown is beginning to pall on them, who say they miss the human interaction of church. These are by no means all people who live alone either.

All of which set me wondering what’s wrong with me that, six weekends in, I am still only able to see the positives.

I have come to a number of conclusions. Ultimately, I don’t go to church for the social aspect. In fact, quietly and without anyone else noticing, I ceased attending organised fellowships of any kind more than a year ago. Church has been a place of worship for me, and that continues to be possible by God’s grace through the technology which it is our privilege to access and enjoy. Yes, there are people whose society I miss, and I will be glad to see them when we are once more able to share a pew. Until then, however, I am getting the essential parts of the church experience at home.

Like many others, I am gratified by the way in which being a church quite literally without walls has enabled new people to join us for worship. An open door may theoretically be welcoming, but there is still a threshold to cross which can seem like a journey of a thousand miles to the stranger. Online worship presents no such barrier.

A lot of Christians are invoking the image of Israel’s captivity to describe where we are at. I don’t disparage other people’s feelings or experiences, however, when I say that this is not my view of things at all.

Christ has freed his people, and we do him no justice if we consider ourselves captive still. We ought to be like Paul and Silas who sang and prayed in their cell at midnight. The walls could not contain them because their hearts were fixed upon worshipping God. He was there with them, he is here in my house too; and he is with all his people wherever they are. Ask the suffering and persecuted church if you can’t believe a Wee Free woman.

My favourite part of that account, though, is the following four words: ‘and the prisoners heard’.

Those who are still enslaved, not by government lockdown, but the bonds of sin – what is our witness to them? Perhaps he has brought us out of our comfortable churches into the information super-highway so that they will hear us, not weeping and complaining, but lifting up our voices in praise of the Christ who will never leave nor forsake us.