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.

Empty pews & the fellowship of the Spirit

I feel like a child in a fairytale. It feels as though, just by wishing hard enough, I have made the thing happen. ‘Which thing?’ you ask, fearing that I’m going to say I’ve met a handsome prince, and that you’ll have to send someone to show me that really it IS only a frog. No, not that thing. The thing I needed, the thing I secretly longed for has happened.

The world has stopped. And I have been able to stop with it.

For the few (I’ve lost track of how many) weeks of lockdown, I have been harbouring a secret. It has made me feel out of step with everybody else, but at the same time absolutely wonderful. And, if this really is just an enchantment from which we will all soon wake up, it’s safe to tell my secret, however it may shock.

In fact, I know it WILL shock, because right from the beginning of this, the Christian church has been chided for its readiness to embrace online worship. ‘You should be weeping for what you have lost’, we were told, the very first week, ‘you should grieve the loss of fellowship and count electronic services a poor substitute’.

It has been said before, of course. In the book of Numbers:

‘And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat!

We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”’

Am I being harsh? No, I don’t think I am. We are shown repeatedly in Scripture the danger and folly of looking back to halcyon days that were less than the perfection in our minds. God took the Israelites out of Egypt for a good reason: it was not their home, of course, and it was a corrupting influence, teaching the cults of paganism and idolatry. Their longing for the varied diet of the oppressor as opposed to the wholesome manna provided by God needs no interpretation.

It is this which makes us all repeat the mantra, ‘when we get back to normal’. We are human and we want what is easy and familiar. That’s hardly surprising.

Surely, though, the church cannot want to go back to what it was before. I cringe at the repeated requests that we not get too comfortable with live-streaming our worship. Why? What is ‘too comfortable’? It’s the provision God has made and there is no better application for man’s creative ingenuity than tribute to the Creator himself, who made it possible. Of course, I’m being deliberately obtuse; I know very well the point that’s being made.

What about fellowship?

Well, I’m here to tell you that occupying the same physical space does not add up to that. Fellowship is spiritual, not geographical. It is literally ‘of the Spirit’: we are united in him, wherever we are, and have the concern and care of one another, regardless of proximity or distance. How else can we have brotherhood with the global church or a heart for mission?

Is there not a very real danger that, when life is too easy and the pews too – figuratively speaking, obviously- comfortable, we mistake merely being in the same place twice-weekly for the deeper spiritual bonds of Christian fellowship?

Perhaps, then, God has removed that privilege for a season, so that we would understand its illusory effects.

As for the exhortation to weep, I don’t have much time for that either. Grief can paralyse in ways that do nothing to aid spiritual growth. Witness psalm 137:

‘By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our lyres.

For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” ‘

They sat down. They hung up their lyres. Grief and looking back rooted them to the spot and dried up their praise.

WE are in a strange land and never more so than now. This, though, is all in God’s providence and we must – surely – be called on to be like Paul and to worship him in all circumstances.

Which brings me to my secret. I know it is fated to be misunderstood, but still I think it’s worth airing.

I am glad the churches are closed.

On a personal level, it’s a relief. Life for me was so out of hand busy that, frankly, Sunday had ceased to be a day of rest. It was frequently one more day on which I had to drag myself out of the house and follow a timetable. More often than not in recent months I went to save face and to avoid answering awkward questions.

I was exhausted and verging on burnout.

Please don’t misunderstand me: this was never about coldness towards the Lord, his word, or his people. It was the cumulative effect of too much everything.

Now, I have the joy of worshiping without the tiredness. I can pare it all back to essentials and focus on the word and the praise.

This is not about one person’s convenience, of course, though I do wonder how many others feel as I do right now. It is about what the Lord is saying to his own people. We still have the privilege of corporate worship; he has not taken that from us.

I take two things from the current situation. First, he has demonstrated that fellowship is not a closed shop. We have been forced to go public and it is a real joy to know that the unchurched are finding comfort in acts of online worship. It is, as far as I am concerned, the ‘go’ of the Great Commission being partly fulfilled.

Second, he is chipping away at our complacency. To be together means much more than haphazardly sitting under one roof. It is love, care, gladness to be a people, concern for one another, sharing one another’s joys and woes.

If I survive to see the end of this pandemic, I will be glad to go to church. I pray that I will be doing it – that we will all be doing it – with a new heart and a new vigour. This is not a make-do and mend situation; God is giving us a blessing by keeping us apart, so that we might better learn what it really means to be together.

Roll the Stone Away

Last night, someone introducing himself as ‘your friendly, local elder’ telephoned. I was briefly distraught, thinking something had happened to the usual grumpy (but ultimately loveable) fellow. And then, I realised, no, it IS him, he was just trying to confuse me. He was doing a pastoral visit by phone, checking that I was surviving the lockdown, and not going off my head at the full moon.

Slightly shame-facedly, I admitted to him the thing that I have hardly dared admit to myself: this situation has brought me armfuls of blessing. Now, don’t misunderstand me, I don’t for one minute forget the gravity of what we face, or the tragedy it has visited upon our world. Yet, while I am mindful of all that, I have to confess to feeling the lightest and easiest in my mind that I have for years. There is nowhere to go, no one asking this or that of me. I am in my own home for most of every day. I am growing to love that again.

Because of technology, I can speak to my family and friends – and our conversations are more meaningful because they are our only means of contact. Last Wednesday, it was a revelation to Zoom into the prayer meeting. I felt genuine joy at seeing the familiar faces on-screen, faces I used to take for granted, faces I barely noticed when we shared the same space. And on Sundays, I can sit exactly where I usually go to read and pray at home, but also hear God’s word preached by our own minister.

We are scattered, but still able to be together in all the ways that matter.

It has afforded me that too rare commodity: time. I have not rushed my devotions, nor had to skip them in order to dash off somewhere else. My life and my mind are both uncluttered and I see something very clearly now that I was afraid to even look at before.

God truly has healed me.

See, five years ago just now, I was on leave from work, coming to terms with my new and unwanted status as a widow. From there, I hurtled into this commitment and that, afraid to have any unoccupied minutes. I have been utterly unfair to myself, because all that bustle prevented me from truly experiencing God’s care.

Now, it’s true that most of what fills my time I do because of him. That’s how I have been able to tell myself it’s not inconsequential busyness. Nor is it. But it has left me little scope to just breathe, to look around my new landscape and thank God for bringing me up out of the valley. I have been darting from one place, one thought, one commitment to the next, never once taking in the view from where he has brought me to.

It might seem strange that it took a lockdown for me to realise that there is nothing to fear from solitude, nor from having time to contemplate. Then again, not really so odd – because it was actually another lockdown that set me free to begin with.

On that first Good Friday, when they rolled the stone to the mouth of Jesus’ tomb, his followers must have been in despair. His persecutors surely thought there was no more harm he could do them. He was dead, and his body locked in for good measure. They placed a guard on him just to be sure. The risk, they thought, was that the disciples would steal his body and fake the prophesied resurrection.

What is it about lockdowns and conspiracy theories?

Three days passed during which his own people would have felt all kinds of despair and grief, the death of hope leaving a bitter tang. Meanwhile, those who hated Christ revealed something of the nature of their enmity. It was born of fear: fear of his power, fear of his true status – why else surround a dead man with soldiers?

And at last, on the third day of nothing much happening, the angel came and the stone was rolled away.

We know very well what was found there. The grave clothes for which he had no further need, were placed where he had lain. And our Saviour was no longer there.

He had risen.

Sometimes, it’s only when everything seems to be over that real hope springs forth. I know it for myself and I count it as blessing.

No one who stood, guarding over that tomb could have suspected the work being accomplished within. It was the end, it was the ultimate lockdown.

When God brings all to a standstill, he is doing more than reminding us who is in control. He is giving us the gift of time – perhaps more than those three days, perhaps much less – in which to stop, and regard him in all his glory.

After the stone was rolled away, a story was put about by religious leaders that Christ’s body had been stolen during the night by his followers.

But they lied. They lied because they were afraid. Yet, they chose fear and denial over acceptance of one great and simple truth:

He IS risen.

If we are spared to see this stone rolled away, I pray that fear will not have won. I pray that we will all use the lockdown to bow our hearts in submission.

Who would believe an ugly lie in place of the beautiful, wonderful truth – that he rose again, and in him, we are free indeed.

Love hearts, captivity and freedom

I’m a bit concerned for our minister’s ego since this live-streaming business started. He stands, uninterrupted, and preaches with nary a cough nor an infant howl to hamper his flow. At intervals of two or three seconds, the screen in front of him is filled with floating hearts, bestowed by his remote audience. The worry is that he may expect us to replicate this experience when ‘normality’ is restored. Will I have to stand on the balcony and shower confetti and balloons down? Will ushers be placed at strategic points throughout the church, ready to silence any sound from the congregation?

It is only one of many questions we have about ‘afterwards’. We are trying, I think, in that very human way, to be stalwart and optimistic, yet not think too much about that great, unnamed date when we can breathe easily and move freely once more. Indeed, the truth is that we have only just begun to experience restrictions designed to preserve life, and it is too sad to think how far off freedom might be.

We are – all of us – trying to make sense of this situation. What is God speaking to us in the midst of lockdown? To me, anyway, he is reinforcing one of the great truths of the Christian life: you are captive if you do not have Christ.

In the privileged West, we have an illusion of freedom. Until this happened, we could go anywhere on a UK passport. We could move freely within our own country, shopping for unlimited food and supplies; twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week in many cases. No one would challenge you, as long as you kept the laws of the land. Parks were teeming with people, roads and retail outlets chock-a-block.

Sundays ceased to be a day of rest quite some time ago for most of the unfortunate populace of Britain. One wee pocket remained, and everything possible has been done to bring us into line with the frenetic activity of the exalted ‘everywhere else’. People here in Lewis – the Western Isles ‘Secular’ Society, FiSH, certain elements in the Golf Club, for example – have repeatedly demanded the same ‘freedom’ as Everywhere Else.

Well, we all have the same freedoms now. The entire UK is under one blanket regime. I don’t say this out of any kind of schadenfreude, but in hope that it finally reveals the illusion we were under.

Freedom of movement, freedom to work and travel and live and love and purchase . . . these are not the real freedoms we should be seeking after. Look how easily they are taken from us; watch how readily we sacrifice them when life is at stake.

When life is at stake. Think about what that means to you. Are we really just intent on keeping well so that we can return to a life of work and travel and retail, and going out with our friends for coffee? Or are we interested now in having life more abundantly? Christ promises us a rich life in him – not, as the atheists would tell you, a vague promise of something better when you die, but a full life beginning the moment you accept him as Lord.

What does that mean in this situation? I can’t speak for other Christians, but I can tell you what it means for me. This pandemic doesn’t remove my freedom in the least because what I value most is my life in Jesus.

I live completely alone, but I can truthfully say that I am not lonely. He is my constant companion, and the channel between us is always open. Unlike our other loved ones, he will never be too busy, too weary or too preoccupied with himself to hear our concerns.

This is an unprecedented time that he has already blessed to me. All those many things and people which normally fill my hours, they have been laid aside. It reminds me powerfully of that time, exactly five years ago, after Donnie died. I was signed off work and had a lot of time alone in the house then too. My relationship with the Lord grew in strength, because nothing else could intrude: not work, not worry, not wrong priorities.

Once again, he has imposed complete rest upon me so that I might rest in him.

And he has taken away our false freedom, so that we might all see the chains that hold us, as well as the glorious means to break them forever.

What a wonderful outcome, then, if this time of exile from the world would be the means to open our eyes. Already, I know that online church services are attracting the unchurched, that many whose Sunday habit does not include God, are coming to worship. No one constrains them to do this; they attend of their own free will.

What if, even as our bodies are imprisoned, countless souls are set at liberty to float freely like those love hearts for the Word of God? Truly then we could say that our bondage was worth it, for the preservation of life.

Churches, caravans and being apart

It is not untypical of either Lewis or social media that the weekend just past fairly bubbled with two controversies: the persistent influx of visitors to the islands, and the failure of some churches to heed government guidance on social distancing. These, of course, are not two issues, but one. The reason for both is simply that we have been spoilt, we have been used to everything turning out okay without much inconvenience to ourselves.

We humans, on some deep level, believe ourselves to be invincible. Bad things happen to others, not us.

A generation untouched by war or privation of any kind, we have grown hard-hearted. Oh, yes, we speak of social justice and helping the poor; we appease our own consciences with donations and sponsorships – but it is, too often, a cold charity. All this time we have been thinking our duty dispensed with a standing order here, and a retiring collection there.

Witness, though, how we conducted ourselves in the early days of impending crisis. A mad dash for food and soap, for toilet paper and anti-bacterial spray. Ransacking shops and leaving little for those who live from week to week. Retail assistants have been verbally abused, and even threatened; the elderly and poor abandoned to fend for themselves.

Whither now the social media virtue signallers or the ‘be kind’ brigade?

This disease is a great leveller. We are all at risk, and any one of us might die. Shame on us all, therefore, that the response has been so selfish. Not by everyone, of course, but by many. It is hardly surprising. Be in no doubt: here, we are reaping the foolishness we have sown. Like no previous generation, ours is drunk on the rights of the individual. When life was bumping along as normal, this meant that the poor and the elderly were trampled over, but no one noticed.

Now, the selfishness affects us all, and we are concerned. But we cannot figure out what to do.

Just as well there is an answer. There is even an example we can look to.

King Nebuchadnezzar famously hit a bit of a problem. He was, like ourselves, persuaded of his own sovereignty. Other people – his subjects – were equally sold on it. But then his sense of power kept smacking up against the true omnipotence of the God of Israel.

So do we. Only the most determined atheist can deny that God is speaking to us in a clear voice. Are we going to heed it?

Nebuchadnezzar was like us before Corona Virus hit. He walked on his palace ramparts and congratulated himself as the author of his own greatness and wealth. No sooner were the sinful words uttered than God spoke to him. The King would descend into mental illness and lose the kingdom for a period of seven years, at the end of which he would acknowledge God’s sovereignty.

We were walking in arrogance and pride until now. The world seemed inebriated with its own stolen power. Our first parents ate the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil – and since that day we have persistently chosen evil. All that he gave us, including our very own selves, we have warped and sullied with sin.

Where, even, to begin? Rampant consumerism, yet homelessness. The power to end life when it becomes inconvenient. God removed from public life, from education, and even from some of our churches. Unbridled reinterpretation of his ordinances. Truth made a lie, and lies accepted – enforced, indeed – as truth.

And, yes, a faithless, cold church. We have been too comfortable for too long, islands of complacency set amidst a sea of sin. We don’t love one another as we ought, and therefore, have nothing to offer the poor, lost world by way of a compass.

We have this providence now that surely will turn us back to the Lord. He has scattered his church, but then, his people were always thus. Occupying the same building is not what makes us a church, and perhaps he has removed that comfort blanket so that we will truly seek out what binds us – fellowship in him, strengthened by worship in spirit and in truth.

If he has to break us somewhat, it is only to build up his own church again. And that light, set upon a hill, should be a lamp to the feet of those who have wandered far from him, to bring them home.

Then, all this generation might say with Nebuchadnezzar that the Almighty is God indeed, ‘and none can stay his hand or say to him, “what have you done”?’

What he has done – is doing – ought to call us all to prayer. There is still time. 

God for one, God for all

Five years ago tomorrow, I felt that my world was ending. Everything I knew and had anchored my hope to was gone. My husband slipped away quietly in his sleep, and nothing would ever be the same again.

Unbelievers who have heard this story before are variously appalled or patronising about my assertion that this was a necessary change. I have been asked how the death of my husband could possibly be a reason for rejoicing (it wasn’t, and I have never said so), or told ‘it’s nice you have your faith’. Either way, they don’t quite get what I’m saying, but I’m going to try again, because I believe that providences like mine were made for situations where people feel that their world is indeed ending. Just like now.

What we are seeing is a large-scale loss of control. Suddenly, none of what we previously took for granted is available to us. Here in Lewis, as elsewhere, frightened people are emptying the shelves of food and toilet paper. Events that have been planned years in advance – the Olympic Games, Euro 2020, the Chelsea Flower Show, the Eurovision Song Contest – are all mothballed. Schools and offices are closing their doors, and now churches too. We are distancing ourselves socially from one another, more distance, even, than social media and an addiction to screens has already accomplished.

Life is uncertain. We are fearful for loved ones, for the elderly, and for those weakest in our society.

It is the end of the world as we know it . . . and our behaviour must change. Not just for now, though, not just until the crisis – hopefully – passes.

When I knew my husband was dying, I was privileged to be able to draw on a lesson I had received many years before, at a time when I had no thought of marrying, let alone being widowed. My learning came from a sermon on the Apostle Paul’s moment of revelation: ‘When I am weak, then I am strong’. I thought that these words, and the message behind them, were so beautiful that I stored them up in my heart against a pain I could not even have imagined at that moment.

The wound to my heart could be perceived as a point of weakness, I suppose. Certainly I was more vulnerable to the cruelty and thoughtlessness of others in the months that followed Donnie’s death. But in these things, I have tried to remember Paul’s words, and appreciate the fact that all the hardships I have gone through –mercifully few – are to a greater purpose. God hones us and refines us with heat and friction, only so that we will do the one thing that he has ever asked of us: trust in him.

When I have managed to do that, I have experienced fully what it is to lean on his strength, to be sustained by his courage, and to act in his wisdom. Of course, there have been times when I haven’t, when I have been disobedient, or tried to be self-sufficient – and brought unnecessary suffering upon myself as a result.

God blessed me in the midst of a devastating loss, because I was dependent upon him. In the disorientating bewilderment that followed the news that Donnie was going to die imminently, I instinctively turned to my heavenly Father, and he caught me up in his loving arms.

That is the reality we all have to embrace now. God is speaking to his whole Creation, just as he addressed himself to me in my own providence five years ago.

We have turned away from him, and wandered far from the precepts he gave us to live by. In our misguided arrogance, we have convinced ourselves that we are God. From the moment that Adam and Eve ate of the knowledge of good and evil, mankind has tended towards the latter. What the Creator made and labelled ‘very good’, we have renamed to suit our own purposes. In every conceivable way, we have mocked and insulted our Maker.

God has been patient, and slow to anger. But he has warned us repeatedly that he cannot look upon sin. Instead of repenting, however, and holding our arms up to him, we deny that we have done wrong and try to cover our misdemeanours, calling them by other names. In his love and mercy, he is speaking to us now in the most serious of terms. He is showing us that we are not the authors of our own destiny, and that our ability to create problems far outweighs our capacity for resolution.

Are we going to listen to him, or are we going to persist in the mistaken belief that this is something we can solve for ourselves? Surely humanity is now at a point where it has to confront its own weakness.

I speak from personal experience, and I speak in love, when I entreat everyone to realise that there is only one place to go in our frailty. There has to be a turning back to God. We must learn how to speak to him, how to confide in him, how to ask for his help in all that we do. Not for one second since I did this for myself has he ever let me down. Though I do not deny that I’ve gone through deep waters, I can say with confidence that he led me and held me up so that the storm would never overwhelm.

God doesn’t inflict suffering without reason: he is speaking to us in every providence. CS Lewis called pain ‘God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world’. He has used it to good effect in my experience. And what he does for one, he can do for all.

But first we must humble ourselves, and ask him to be our God again.

 

 

Nudism, Acrobats & the Liberal Commandments

Mine was a bizarre upbringing, what with a granny who was a nudist, and an acrobat for a mother . . . well, ours just wasn’t like other households.

Those who knew my family in those days may well be reading this with one sceptically raised eyebrow. There was probably no outward display of eccentricity from either lady – but, I assure you, they were exactly as I describe them. Every time the kettle boiled, the cailleach would announce, ‘I’ll just have my tea naked’. And whenever my mother went visiting, she would assure my father of her intention to ‘stand on the floor’. Clearly, she had breached this protocol at some earlier date, perhaps cartwheeling into someone’s kitchen, or pogoing along their sofa cushions.

Such is the colourful world of a bilingual child. Idioms which are readily understood in one language become positively bizarre in the other. My all-too-proper grandmama would no more remove her floral pinny than she would audition for Pan’s People (latha dha robh iad), let alone consume hot beverages in the altogether. Yet, Gaelic understood through the rusty old ear-trumpet of English would have it so. Equally, my unathletic mother kept both feet firmly planted on the floor, whether at home or calling on friends.

And it doesn’t go away, that sometimes hilarious dissonance. Just recently, I noticed that the Crofting Commission’s draft Gaelic plan contains some surprising information. I think it’s safe to say that the crofters’ war has been lost, now that the Commission has its very own ‘Surrender Officer’.

Speaking a minority language is a pretty good preparation for the challenge of living in this world as a Christian, unable to communicate fully with monoglot atheists. You may speak sincerely in the vocabulary of faith, only to find yourself labelled as unloving, or even hate-filled by those to whom your words are foreign. So much is lost in that particular translation and it’s hard to see how we can bridge the gap between intention and reception.

I’ll tell you one way we won’t do it, though: legislation.

Once human behaviour and even relationships have to resort to the law for their regulation . . . well, love has left by the window. I wonder what God makes of us having to learn this lesson all over again – that we cannot find satisfaction in legalism, when we leave out the most important element  of all.

‘Ah’, the unbelievers will say, ‘but your lot are the ones obsessed with rules’. No, but you could be forgiven for thinking that, when we talk of keeping the Sabbath and remembering the commandments. Forgive us, because we are flawed, usually well-meaning and frequently misguided human beings, just like yourselves. We have a tendency to forget that what makes us WANT to obey God’s law is a gift you have yet to receive. So, we often try putting the cart before the horse, and try to impose obedience on you.

There will be no such obedience, however, without the love of Christ.And it’s my job, and the job of every Christian to demonstrate that first.

Somehow, though, even when we try to say this, it gets lost in translation.

Let’s not pretend, either, that Christians are the only ones with a legislation habit. Look at the people being visited by the police, even to the extent of being charged and tried, simply because they don’t subscribe to the ‘woke’ agenda. ‘Thou shalt not question liberal values’ may as well be writ large across our nation’s schools and workplaces. Not long ago, a man was told by his local constabulary that they needed to ‘check his thinking’, because he had objected to the idea of gender being fluid.

So, all the while that Christianity is being banished from the public sphere as a divisive and hateful doctrine, we are permitting it to be replaced with a totalitarian one. If you don’t acquiesce, you may lose your job, your reputation, your liberty.

Christ desires his followers to turn the other cheek, not to pay reviling with reviling. He tells us to pray for those who despise us and, as ever, led with his own incomparable example. Even on the cross, it was, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’.

If you ever doubted the brokenness of God’s perfect Creation, see it now in the fact that we are rejecting the one liberating love for the self-made shackles of law.

If you are not in Christ, you are not free. You are living by someone else’s law. When you broke Christ’s rules, he asked that it not be held to your account – do you honestly have faith that the god of this world would be so forgiving?

The Power of Love . . . Or the Love of Power?

The first Baron Acton believed that power corrupts and that the tendency of absolute power is to corrupt absolutely. He was right, as we have almost daily proof. Our national politicians find themselves at the centre of scandals which would put a soap opera script editor to shame. It sometimes seems as though they consider themselves above the law – or at least immune to its effects.

I don’t fool myself that the local scene is any more decorous. It is simply that the stakes are lower and the local media is . . . not. Catch any  journalist off guard or in their cups and they might tell you things to make your hair stand on end (disclaimer: I said ‘might’). But you won’t catch any of them reporting it. Island politicians are not beyond reproach, but they are – largely – below the radar of public interest. Social media, of course, will do its thing of rumour, innuendo and downright lying, but what sane person believes the ramblings of a stranger on the internet anyway?

Power is, itself, a funny concept, especially when you link it to democracy. As an electorate, we basically play a game of chance in casting our votes, and let the cards fall where they may. Those selected by fickle voters are then left to simply get on with running things. Or they used to be. Nowadays, their every move is scrutinised by keyboard pundits and found wanting.

But they still have the last word.

From the other side of the ballot box, though, as one such elected person, what do I consider the nature of power to be? Bearing in mind I’m not exactly Chancellor of the Exchequer, that is. Well, I think living by the old adage that ‘knowledge is power’ may well be the only way to avoid fulfilling Baron Acton’s dark prediction. Power that is given, whether by divine right of succession or through the ballot box (rigged by the Wee Frees or otherwise) is something I have little interest in for my own part. The power to exercise positive change, however, through a proper understanding of your brief . . . well, now, that is something I can aspire to.

The worst thing any elected person can do is believe their own hype. Simply winning an election doesn’t necessarily mean you know what you’re doing – but it does mean you ought to find out sharpish.

This is true, I think, for anyone who puts themselves forward for election, but especially true for a disciple of Christ. Our defining trait is surely the daily realisation that we are nothing without him. If we seek to serve the Lord, then, by taking up office, we have to do all we can to avoid the corruption such power might bring. Now, before you get too excited, I’m not saying that the Stornoway Trust is a hotbed of intrigue and scandal. Corruption can assume many forms and, for a Christian trustee (or councillor, MSP or MP), the danger is that we become worldly, and start to rely on our own so-called ‘wisdom’ to make decisions.

That wisdom often consists of people basing their conclusions on feelings rather than facts. We are all guilty of it. You’re asked for your take on something and you have a gut reaction, so you go with that. Hunches are a lazy and destructive basis upon which to run anything, though. For Christians, we are back to that justified sinner thing again – we sometimes think that, because we are believers, all our actions will be righteous. And so they might well be, if only we trusted every one to God.

But, I hold up my hands here and confess that I have not done that nearly enough. It is probably painfully evident to those who scrutinise such things, anyway. Yes, I have tried to remember prayerfulness, and I have certainly attempted to learn the ropes of my role – but I have also relied on my own puny strength and my own inadequate wisdom too often. Those are all the times I have gone wrong; those are the days when my motivation is not what it ought to be.

I initially stood for the Stornoway Trust because I felt God was asking me to stand up for his cause, which was being shamefully set low in our community. He didn’t put me there, though – or any other Christian who holds an elected position – so that he could leave me to my own devices. His own know that is not how he works.

Why? Well, because he loves us, and he knows us. God doesn’t walk away from creatures so deluded that, despite Christ having to die for us, we can still be persuaded that there is something of worth in ourselves. He cannot trust us not to ruin things all over again – and so he goes with us.

Abraham Lincoln said that adversity was not a true test of a man’s character – his handling of power was. Sometimes, I have felt that, in my own small experience of (very limited) power, God is testing, not my character exactly, but my faith. Where I have taken my concerns to him, it has gone much better than when I have too much faith in myself.

Politically-acquired power is dangerous. It panders to our narcissism by telling us that we are popular, chosen. What every Christian must remember is this:

‘None is righteous; no, not one’.

It is a truth that those of us who believe in Christ need to remind ourselves of every day. If we wish to work for him in serving our communities, then the servant spirit must set self at naught.

Only, as Gandhi observed, when the power of love eclipses the love of power, will the world know peace. And that has to start with the people of God.

Politics, prayer and my inner Pharisee

Last Saturday, I had coffee  with an incredible young Christian who, less than a week later, would find herself presenting the Scottish budget to Parliament at very short notice. Cometh the hour, cometh the woman and all that.

We talked about the challenge of being female and Christian in any kind of public role. I think it’s safe to say that she has demonstrated that these need not be obstacles to acquitting yourself well. While the jury (including the one in my own head) is still out on me, even in my much more local role, I struggle with the big questions, so any believing politician of national stature certainly has my sympathy and – much more usefully- my prayers.

The Bible is full of people in leadership roles who walked with God and still went wrong. So, if Solomon in all his wisdom could have his heart turned to idolatry, then I’m pretty sure that should serve as a warning to all Christians in public office today. How much easier, indeed, for the devil to get his way when believing leaders are in the minority, and apostasy is the norm. Anyone might succumb to following that particular crowd with the greatest of ease.

And how do you avoid the pitfalls of being a Christian in a democratically-elected position? Here in Lewis, organisations like the Comhairle and the Stornoway Trust customarily open their meetings with prayer. Whenever this comes up in conversation with other believers, they react positively. For the Christian, there is a view that anything of the slightest importance should be put in God’s hands, where all things rightfully belong. Beginning the business of local government in this way, therefore, reassures them that leadership is as it should be, deferring to the Lord.

So, local Christians breathe a little more easily.

Except, I’m a local Christian and it doesn’t do a whole lot to reassure me. Not even considering my own position as an elected member of one such group.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I am not opposed to prayer in the Trust or anywhere else. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I DO worry that those of us who are Christians in elected office, and those of us who are voting Christians, tend to content ourselves with very little. ‘Prayer’ can end up being as formulaic as any other standing item on the agenda.

And the prayerfulness often ends with ‘amen’. I speak from personal experience here. There have been many occasions where I have gone seamlessly from bowing my head in contemplation, to venting my spleen in exasperation. My thoughts, my utterances, my conduct, my motivation often fall short of what they should be.

But never mind: at least we’ve said the words. Who’s to notice when they get stuck on the ceiling and rise no further?

I am not criticising the people who pray; not at all. What I’m saying is that we cannot content ourselves with opening petitions, if our subsequent conduct doesn’t testify to our faith. We cannot keep on expecting God to bless our endeavours if we aren’t really giving them into his keeping at all.

Recently, I was party to a conversation about a public servant whose conduct had been dubious to say the least. ‘But he’s a Christian’, someone protested. Their subtext was not that we should, therefore, expect better of him, but that he was actually beyond reproach.

There is a real danger here, that Christians will fall into a trap of thinking their faith guarantees all their actions to be righteous. We are at risk of the arrogance displayed – albeit to fictional extremes- in James Hogg’s ‘justified sinner’. If I call myself a Christian, if I pray in public and speak out for Sabbath observance, well, I’m doing my bit for the cause.

And that’s my challenge. I worry about becoming a Pharisee if I haven’t already. Many people voted for me in the Trust election, I am quite sure, purely because they knew where I stood on ‘The Sunday Issue’.

Here’s the thing, though: I want to keep the Lord’s Day myself because I love him. I want other people to want to keep it for the same reason. Is it the role of Christian trustees, councillors, MSPs or MPs to impose such things on an unbelieving people? Or is it our responsibility to earnestly pray for guidance ourselves, to show forth the love of Christ in everything that we do, and give it all to God?

We often hear complaints that there are too few Christians in public life. That may well be true, but God has placed some there. Instead of worrying about packing the debating chambers with more believers, let’s pray for those who are already in place, that they would learn to act in his wisdom and in his guiding. And God, I am sure, will give the increase.