A devilish noise

When I was at the height of my seeking, certain verses spoke to me, and I committed them to memory without really knowing why. In the past few years, I have begun to see that I already had in my possession the very thing I sought. And, consequently, the significance of those verses – still marked in that old study Bible – has unfolded gradually, bringing a fresh lesson every time.

One which rises to my memory often is John 14:30 – ‘for the prince of this world cometh and hath nothing in me’. The ‘me’ in whom Satan has nothing isn’t, of course, myself. He prowls around hopefully, encouraged by my many failures, thinking he may yet win me back. Some of his tactics I have learned to recognise, though that certainly does not mean that I am always equal to conquering the weaknesses he seeks to exploit. Shrewdly, he appeals to my self-righteousness, my pride, my desire to have the last word. Satan is not about to give up the possibility that I could yet be his.

I know differently, of course. He cannot take me from my Saviour’s hand because my Saviour will not let him. Yet, he can steal my peace and make the journey much more challenging . . . because I do let him.

A friend this week shared a quote from Elisabeth Elliot with me, which contains the key to this conundrum: if I know the devil’s aims and even some of his methodology, how does he keep getting to me?

She wrote, ‘The devil has made it his business to monopolise on three elements: noise, hurry, crowds. He will not allow quietness.’

God is in the silence. He is the still, small voice. It is he who leads us the quiet waters by. And he asks that we should be still and know that he is God.

Satan will have none of this. He wants us busy, hectic, clamorous. If we close out the external noise, if we switch off the WiFi, and withdraw to a quiet corner to pray, there is a real risk that we will meet God. So, at all costs, the devil must circumvent this. The problem is that Christians often think this means  ‘other’ noise – loud music, clubs, pubs, violent and profane television shows, slasher films and raucous comedians.

You’ve got to realise, though, Satan is smarter than that. He doesn’t have God’s power, so he goes for the easy options – he persuades us into situations that we were half-attracted to in the first place. His subtlety recognises our weaknesses and predilections, so that he may just as easily prey on our piety as anything else. It would be ludicrous to suggest that the only means to drive a wedge between God and his people would be to have us all out clubbing and taking drugs.

It comes back to that basic truth: want of conformity to God’s law is our overriding sin. And we can be farthest from him when we appear to be doing the most for his cause.

Believe me, I know. Before Covid, I was a one-woman hive of activity: asked to speak at this fellowship or that WFM; churning out blogs; sparring with secularists; and sometimes writing my column for the ‘Record’ in the early hours of the morning, or preparing a Sunday School lesson in the car after the service. Even my ‘non-church’ commitment to the Stornoway Trust came about as a direct result of faith. 

I was running, if not quite on empty, certainly at times on mere fumes. And there was no one to count the cost but myself. 

The cost was that, into the melee of apparently godly activity, the devil would come creeping. He exploited my tiredness, my sense of being unsupported, the chaos of my week.

God, on the other hand, permitted that I should be blessed in the strange providence of a global pandemic. He removed the noise and the hurry, and he dispersed the crowds. It was as though he had given me a gift and, as with all that he bestows, coaxed me to see its full and beautiful purpose.

I have time now, and peace, to hear that still, small voice. There is no need for prayers as I drive to work, or hasty preparation in the car before bringing Jesus’ message to others. And Sunday doesn’t pass in a haze of getting from A to B and back again: I can wait to hear my Saviour’s voice; there is time for turning his answers over in the quietness of my mind.

Because of this, I am more ready to serve than when I spent myself in keeping up a ludicrous timetable of appearance.

And when I consider John 14:30 now, I can repeat it with confidence. Why? Because in this peace I better know the ‘me’ who stands between myself and the tumultuous wiles of the devil.

Things that went ‘bump’ in the past

I know that people sometimes find my apparent preoccupation with the supernatural world a little perplexing. Admittedly, I do ham it up a little for effect and make much of my residence in the witchcraft capital of Lewis. For that matter, I have been accused by one irate lady of being ‘flippant about the fey’, which is not advisable if you value your life. However, there IS – I flatter myself – a serious side to all of this, and it became very apparent to me this week.

As has been the norm every Halloween for some time now, I made my way across a stretch or two of moorland (by car) to speak to some fellow islanders about ghosts, witches, fairies, the second sight and the evil eye.

This time, my destination was Bragar on the Taobh Siar, which has become synonymous with the recent debate on the prognosis for Gaelic in the islands. As I drove, I thought about an event which took place fifteen years ago, at which I was not present. It was a conference, entitled ‘Eachdraidh a-màireach’, and brought together all the people who were active in the Comunn Eachdraidh movement at that time. The late James Shaw Grant was their keynote speaker, and he addressed a phenomenon of which we are all aware, usually when it’s too late: the need to capture memories and stories which our older folk carry around with them.

Yet, Grant pointed out, what is the point of preserving this lore if we go no further than preserving it?

And he had a point. I learned a lot from my late father –things that seemed interesting but of little wider consequence at the time. Yet I have learned that these small things are vital to the greater whole, to our conception of who we are and what we are, as individuals and as a people. It is my privilege to share them with the community to which they rightfully belong.

Fairies, ghosts and witches must take their place in the Gaelic revival because they were part of what we very nearly lost in the dismantling of our culture.

This is not exclusivism at work, nor a denial of the valid urban Gaelic experience. However, if the tiniest fragment of Gaelic’s soul may be found buried within the folklore so assiduously built up by our forefathers, then surely we must do our best to keep that alive. Stories were made for the telling. We owe a lot to the folklorists who collected and salvaged – and, ultimately, published – but it would be poor recompense for their labours if we let this rich heritage moulder on a library shelf.

Every time I talk about the Otherworld to groups like the one in Bragar, it stirs something that I am terribly tempted to call ‘folk memory’. All I had to do was drop the word ‘cnocan’ into my narrative, and the room was alive with murmurs of recognition. Old ladies became young again, remembering half-overheard conversations from their girlhood when this cailleach or that one was discussed by mothers and aunties who always clammed up when asked directly about the significance of the ball of wool. Youngsters listened, rapt, to their memories and – for a little while – the Gaelic community of which we have heard was restored.

Few topics so successfully bridge the generation gap.

As I made my way back home, keeping one eye open for fairy cattle (or ‘deer’ as you might know them), I thought about what it is in the supernatural world that we all seem to find so compelling. Some hard-line theologians argue that it points to spiritual poverty – that people are looking to fill a God-shaped hole in their lives with anything but God. However, I refute that entirely. We are not actively seeking to believe in these otherworldly beings, nor yet indulge in their macabre practices; we are simply trying to understand the place they had in the lives of those who went before.

We live in a place where, as Runrig put it, ‘the breathing of the vanished lies in acres round your feet’. It seems counter-intuitive in such a society for our ancestors to simply recede from the scene, and for us to allow their wisdom to go with them.

Gaelic is a living language, and some say we need to lose the whiff of the croft and the peat fire to ensure it remains that way. There are few plants which can thrive without roots, however, and it seems to me that we are at a crossroads in our history as a people. Either we value our heritage, and weave its threads back into the story of Gaelic, or we let it go and never look back.

James Shaw Grant compared the task to drying peats. If you do not stack them into a proper rùdhan, they won’t achieve their purpose, but will eventually sink back into the ground from whence they were carved.

Stacking our knowledge together, one supplementing and sheltering the other, that’s how we can carry the legacy of the past into a sustainable future for Gaelic.

Naw, naw, minister

My mother is fond of sharing a story from her days in the tents. No, not the ones they used to pitch by the Blackwater, but the Faith Mission variety. ‘O, mo chreach’, groan the Men in Black, ‘if you must bring up this sort of heresy, would you ever just leave folk thinking your mother is a tinker, instead of mentioning that other lot’. They forget, though, she began life in the Church of Scotland, before marriage and the Wee Frees taught her to respectably narrow her horizons. It’s not their fault or mine that the woman has a past.

The yarn she tells is of a minister somewhere in the north-east, who liked to call upon a certain godly, old woman in his congregation. On one such occasion, he asked her who her most welcome guest was, and she politely informed him that he was probably the frontrunner. This touchingly humble man of the cloth didn’t like her answer, and hadn’t expected it. Gently, he prompted her, ‘wouldn’t you say that Jesus is your favourite visitor, though?’ Without having to consider for even a moment, the cailleach shook her head: ‘naw, naw, minister’, she contradicted him, ‘he’s no a guest – he bides here’.

He bides here. In those three words, that woman summed up a beautiful testimony and one to which I can absolutely put a wholehearted ‘amen’.

And it brings me to another aspect of the person of Christ which I think we don’t do too well at communicating. Sometimes, we may shy away from it because we fear straying into territory that is irreverent. So, we place before the world the Saviour that is King, having defeated death. He is the Son of God, one of the three Persons in the Godhead, and the Prince of Glory.

And he is more than worthy of every honour we can give, more than Lord, more than King. Magnificent, majestic, glorious, powerful . . . there is no hyperbole when we describe our Saviour in these glowing terms.

Yet – and please don’t misinterpret my intention here – I don’t think those descriptions do him justice when we are introducing unbelievers to Christ. Our use of words like these place him where he belongs, far, far above ourselves, but we have to take care that our verbal glorification of him doesn’t place him psychologically beyond the reach of those who are not yet saved.

One of my own watch texts (as I like to think of them) comes from 1 Peter 3:15, and was preached on the night I first professed faith publicly. It is that famous passage where we are told to always be ready to give a defence of the reason for the hope that is in us. Knowing the trepidation with which many of us approach the imperative to witness, though, Peter gives this advice first – ‘in your hearts sanctify Christ the Lord as holy’.

If you acknowledge him as Lord in your heart, it is not always necessary for your lips to speak of him in that exalted way: he IS exalted and no speech of ours can defile him, or elevate him higher. Until you know Jesus, he is the Lord of Glory, enthroned in heaven and as far from you as the very stars and moon he made. Isn’t this what  caused his own disciples to almost lose hope, after they saw him crucified? What kind of King, what kind of hope is hoisted by cruel hands onto a cross to die in ignominy and shame?

It was, however, in his humble status as a man of no reputation that he set his people free. He did not come to any of them as a King, gorgeously arrayed in cloth of gold – but as a homeless itinerant who washed the feet of his followers and spent himself to heal the sick and minister to the poor in spirit.

Jesus knew only too well what an evil poverty was. He would hardly have come to the hungry, the widows and the orphans, the sick and the lame, therefore, in the form of a great ruler. He came instead as a man into whose compassionate eyes the lowliest of us could look without flinching. We are surrounded by those in need of all kinds. Surely the Jesus they need to meet is the one whose hands broke bread, bathed dusty feet, opened the eyes of the blind and healed the sick.

That he sits victorious in heaven, his work accomplished, is simply a matter of fact. God is God, whether we acknowledge it with words, in our hearts or not at all.

Christ, though, the Christ our broken world needs, when you reach out to him, will kneel in the dirt with you. He will dry the tears that spring from fractured hearts. This Jesus will hold your hand in the darkness, and he will catch you up into the safety of his arms when you stumble.

If you reach out to him, know that you are reaching out to one in whom humanity is perfected. And once you do, he will bide here with you forever – wherever ‘here’ might be.

Sìth is ‘peace’ in Gaelic

Hope Springs Eternity

As I drove the forty miles or so to attend the funeral of my friend’s father in Ness, I thought about his wife – a lovely, warm and cheerful lady, and a sister in Christ. After all their years, and four children, together, she is now a widow. But how wonderful too, I thought, that she does not grieve as those who have no hope.

What does that actually mean, though? They are words often repeated at wakes and funerals, where the doubting, the unbelieving and the seekers gather alongside the saved. Even some who belong to Christ may never have stopped to consider the difference between Christian hope and the everyday, common or garden kind.

When my late husband was diagnosed with cancer, he underwent a battery of tests and scans. The consultant told us that all these were clear and therefore, he said, ‘there IS hope’. It didn’t impress Donnie who, a Lewisman through and through, interpreted it as a forlorn attempt to make the grim certainty of death a little less imminent. Hope, he argued, is all we have to cling onto when reality is a bit hard to take. And ‘hope’ seemed like a weak word in that moment, implying an outside chance at best.

We are often asked to prepare for the worst whilst hoping for the best and – again – this has trained us that hope is little more than a comfort blanket, and a thin one at that.

It was, as I’ve written before, at my own father’s funeral that I really began to understand the nature of Christian hope, and its difference from the common way. As a friend clasped my mother’s hand and told her, ‘he’s in the happy land’, I saw something in both these women that was much stronger than words: it was certainty. They had placed faith in so trustworthy a Saviour that there could be no doubting his promises. This was not a frail hope that the Gospel might just possibly be true, but a living reality, played out in front of me and anyone else whose eyes were open that day.

How strange it must seem to those as yet living in unbelief that death is often the place where Christians display the greatest hope. To those with no faith, the valley of the shadow is a desolate spot, a featureless wasteland where they must part forever with someone they have loved very much in life. That last clasp of hands, the dying breath . . . they are final. It is here in the valley that worldly hope perishes.

For the disciples, there was a time like this too, when the man they thought was the Saviour died, and their hope with him.

But even though they didn’t realise it, they were certainly not grieving as those who have no hope: they were grieving for a Saviour who accomplished so much more than they could have imagined. Jesus did not escape the cross because he did not want to merely cheat death; he embraced his punishment because he had promised to conquer death.

And conquer it he did.

We are asked to always be ready to give a defence of the reason for the hope that is in us. Well, I say you can do worse than look to the widows. 

My friend’s mother, my own mother and myself are all privileged to know the same thing, and to share in the same hope.

Death is indeed the final parting – because when we are reunited with those who have gone before us, it will be eternally and it will be in a better country – yes, even than Ness! This is not the hope offered by a kindly surgeon, but the security we can all enjoy in the Great Physician.

Keeping the Snail’s March

For me, Kate Forbes epitomises the challenge and the triumph of what it means to be a Christian with a public profile. The church rejoiced openly as she rose through the ranks of her party, trusted with increasingly heavy responsibilities. In our more reasonable moments we remembered to give thanks for her witness.

Sadly, our reasonable moments are all too rare and the reality is that Kate is much more likely to be attacked on questions of faith by fellow Christians than she ever is by the atheist community. For the most part, unbelievers think her faith is irrelevant and would sooner take issue with her nationalism or her fiscal policy. Or the fact that she’s a Teuch. But the brethren, oh, we don’t hold back in our carping. Although the complaints against her take many forms, they can be grouped together under the broad accusation – a perennial favourite of mine – ‘no Christian should support the SNP’. 

Leaving aside the fact that no Christian should be so flipping judgemental, let’s consider what might be behind this opinion. Because the Nationalists are in power and have been for so long, their policies are subject to prolonged public and media scrutiny. So, the opposition parties lurk in the shadows and let the ruling party take all the heat. Amongst all the finger pointing, few remember that those who stayed silent are complicit in wrongdoing as much as those who designed and built it.

A person would have to be either naïve or partisan to believe that the SNP is alone in its stance on the big ‘moral issues’ (which, bizarrely, never seem to include child poverty or homelessness). Let’s be honest, all mainstream parties have a broadly similar policy on gender, on marriage, on abortion, and on euthanasia. 

Why is that, though? Simply because they are the elected representatives of an unregenerate world. They do their secular best to create an environment of justice and social equality, quite divorced from the instruction manual. A Christian like Kate Forbes is all too well aware how doomed to failure such an endeavour is. No politician can save souls, not even if they imposed Biblical law on the nation entire. Obedience to God’s law cannot be the starting point for redemption because it grows from it – it is like expecting the flower without first supplying a seed. 

Besides, party politics is a numbers game. It is all about being in the majority – that’s how you get your views heard at branch level, and nationally. That’s how your party gets elected into power. Strategy, predicated on what the people want will bring you to the place where decisions are made. Remember, though, these are unregenerate people, for the most part, voting in a well-meaning way to get a better society for themselves, their children, and maybe even for those they see as downtrodden and exploited. They do not see Jesus as the way, far less the truth and the life; he, and his irksome followers actually stand between Scotland and progress.

And we prove them wrong . . . how? By turning on our own. We tell Christians in public life that they are falling short. Instead of giving genuine thanks to God that there are a few righteous among us prepared to be bruised and bloodied in the fray, we attack them for being part of a system that actually we all helped to create from the moment we fell. Kate Forbes can’t be a real Christian because she holds membership of a party that condones things that are unbiblical. 

This is an object lesson in shortening the arm of God. It presupposes any number of things – including that a politician cannot be called in the same way that ministers of religion are – and it seems to deny the possibility that human government is not the ultimate authority. 

People who never do anything make the mistake of thinking that they will never, therefore, do anything wrong. But, belonging – as we do – to a body whose mission statement begins with the imperative, ‘go’, stasis and torpor might actually be a greater affront than the occasional misstep. 

I have often avoided asking God his will for me, entirely because I fear his answer. He has had his way of inconveniencing me in the past, and I tremble to let him have that opportunity again. However, that is probably true in the experience of every believer – which is exactly why we should be more mindful of those who have answered his call. By ‘answered’ I don’t mean those who assume the mere appearance of vocation, but people who get their nose bloodied and their knees worn in the journey of obedience.

You pray for your minister and elders, I am sure. Such people report feeling a heightened awareness of God’s protection because of the prayer that surrounds them.

But there are other Christians who have been called and, because they don’t serve the institution we like to think of as ‘The Church’, we not only neglect to pray for them, but actually turn on them when – in our flawed opinion – they ‘fall short’. Spurgeon was well aware that some Christians were jealous of those who appeared to have done more for the cause than themselves; instead of redoubling their own efforts, they sought to drag the champions of faith back. Let’s not hold Kate accountable for the sinful ignorance of others, but let us uphold her in prayer for all the battles she has to fight.

Ultimately, they are our battles too.

Ministry of Offence

When I first started this blog, I felt like a very tiny speck of humanity, shouting out into the unknown from the middle of a vast wilderness. I didn’t represent any particular group, or enjoy the protection of an organisation- I was just a newly professed Christian, shooting her mouth off about salvation.

Then, though, a miraculous thing happened: the unknown whispered back.

Messages began to come from people I’d never met, saying that my writing encouraged them and how they could put their ‘amen’ to much of what I shared. Most unexpected of all, some even began to thank me for my ‘ministry’. 

I had never thought of myself as having such a thing. It’s not that I’m so narrow-minded as to think this is the sole dominion of coves in collars, not at all. Ministries, as I understood them, were the province of churches, and all those people you hear prayed for on Sundays. They’re the missionaries, the organisers, the bakers, the committee people – and they’re under the auspices and jurisdiction of their denomination or their Session. 

My blog doesn’t tick those boxes. I didn’t run it past the Men in Black, far less wait to be asked. If you wait to be asked, as a Wee Free woman, chances are you’ll be waiting forever. Well, I ain’t a waiting kind of gal.

And I’m kind of glad now that this is the case. Of course my blog is a ministry. It isn’t enough to be healed – you’ve got to tell people how it happened; and you have to be ready to defend the reason for that burning, bright, unquenchable hope that is in you. God led me to profess my secret faith with those messages, and he’s not going to let me re-cap my pen until the last ordained syllable has been laid down. 

No Session, no church committee, will ever give you that torch. Nor should we expect them to. Every Christian has it in them to be a minister for Christ . . . it’s just a question of how. 

Some people – myself included at times – thought it was mainly cheek a’ mhuncaidh that propelled me on. Again and again, I was asked where I’d found the courage to just speak, when no one had actually invited me to. It isn’t courage though, folks: it’s compulsion. I cannot shut up about Christ because . . . well, look what he’s done for me.

Time and time and time again I denied him. I knew he was there, but I fooled myself and others into believing I was doing it all by myself. Life was great because God had heaped blessings on my ungrateful head. And never – not once – did I say to him, ‘this is too much – give it to someone else’.

Not until the first day I thought I might lose my husband. Then, though, I considered God to be giving more than I deserved. He was exposing my brittle heart to the reality of death. So I cried out into the unknown, ‘how can I bear this’?

And a miracle happened: the unknown whispered back. Even more miraculous, it was not the unknown at all, but a dear and familiar presence that had been with me always, saying, ‘We will bear it. I will never leave you nor forsake you’.

This Jesus. That’s what our ministry is about. It’s not to tell people the answers, but to lead them safely to a Man who IS the answer. 

I may not carry a label that says ‘officially approved by the FCOS’, but written across my heart are these words: ‘redeemed by the blood of Christ; free indeed’. So, even although I don’t have a governing committee or a policy document, I’m going to stop cringing when you lovely people refer to Post Tenebras Lux as ‘ministry’ – it IS a ministry for Christ and it is my privilege to serve at his pleasure.

And if I’ve ever encouraged you in anything, let me encourage you in this: don’t wait for the ‘church’ to call you – get your mobilisation orders directly from its head. He has fewer rules about who can serve.

The crofter, the tourist and the black, black Commission

There is yet another story this week about a croft tenancy for sale in Harris, inviting offers in the region of an eye-watering £200,000. It is obviously with a view to the development value of the croft that this price has been set – acres of glamping pods rather than potatoes are all that could justify such a hefty ticket.

And that’s fine. One person can sell his croft and he’d be a mug not to ask the very highest sum buyers are willing to pay.

The issue here is not with the individual- it’s with the law that permits such a thing to happen at all. In fact, it’s not even that. All over the country, for many years, developers and speculators have brought up prime real estate for all kinds of money-making projects. That’s the kind of malarkey capitalism approves. So, some people scratch their heads, puzzled at the hissy fits being thrown across the Long Island over what is, after all, the legitimate sale of land.

Therein, though, lies the rub. 

Negative reactions to this sort of thing stem from the confusing presence of a relic from a bygone age: crofting legislation. It was created in the nineteenth century to protect our ancestors from landlord whim – the economic imperative (or ‘greed’, if you prefer) that had led to a long period of clearance across the Gàidhealtachd. 1886 was a seminal year, then, with the first Act to protect crofters landing on the statute books.

Read that last sentence again. Notice anything? That’s right – the law was designed to protect crofters, not crofting: the people, not the system; the community, not the commodity.

Over the years, we have become more financially secure, as successive generations left the land to work for the man. Yet, some people continued to work their crofts, until the excesses of headage payments saw everyone packing the acres with sheep and cattle. When I was growing up in the nineteen eighties, the CAP had made it all about subsidy. Then, the greener nineties, with their hole in the ozone layer and their Earth summits, started pushing for better stewardship of the land.

And now, there is tourism. Where the nineteenth century displaced communities for the sheep, our century is doing the same for the visitor. 

For many people, the villain in this piece is the Crofting (no longer ‘Crofters’’) Commission. They exist to regulate crofting as a system of land use and, like opponents of selling crofts as real estate say, it ain’t happening. Social media is full of half-formed opinions which coalesce around the notion that the Commission isn’t doing its duty. But the Commission is subject to the same laws that crofting is, and to woeful underfunding from government.

The problem is that we don’t all agree on why crofting is important. For me, its primary value has been in the way it ensured people could build homes in areas that might – without the grants and loans that used to be available – lie empty. Most of these board houses were built here in Lewis and Harris, anyway, by young islanders wishing to establish themselves in the place they grew up. During those years, ‘community’ in this place was synonymous with the notion of extended family, of continuity and connection with place.

Now, as the progenitors of these homes age and die, they are sold on to strangers. The children of these families are often elsewhere – many went to the mainland for education or work and have made their lives there. It isn’t always possible to keep the family home; and so the houses pass into the hands of those who can afford them.

Times have changed, but crofting legislation has not recognised this. It is a confused mish-mash that actually protects little that is worth having. 

People buy tenancies now in order to make easy money from tourism and related activities. ‘Diversification’ is a bit of a misnomer as far as I can see because non-traditional use of the land is rapidly becoming the norm. The guys with the hay and the cattle or sheep, they’re the real experimentalists. You can even forget about the sanctity of common grazing because you don’t need to be a crofting shareholder to run a business on pasture that was once intended for communal animal grazing. Literally anything goes in some townships.

So, the moment has definitely arrived for hard decisions to be made. We have so-called crofting laws that encourage the destruction of community, and of crofting itself.

It’s time we shifted the emphasis back to the protection of crofters, as opposed to crofting. In doing so, there is a need to define what a crofter is – and that most certainly has got to be a bit tighter than just some fly-by-night who happens to hold a tenancy. Only then will we know what the laws are meant to protect, and evaluate whether they’re still worth the ink that’s been spilt.

And only then will we know if we have any right – or reason – to be outraged by the things that are done under the guise of crofting.

Every Breath You Take, Every Tear You Shed

Every move you make, every breath you take, I’ll be watching you. Unsettled? You should be. Imagine me turning up everywhere you go, keeping a weather eye on all your doings. Not anyone’s idea of a good time, least of all mine. Most of you are probably very boring, putting bins out and booking chiropodist appointments, not working for the secret service or dating celebrities on the Q.T.

Anyway, it’s just a quote from the song, ‘Every Breath You Take’, which has been jokingly renamed ‘the stalker’s anthem’ – and it popped into my head while sitting in church on Sunday morning. Now, before you all start fidgeting in your pews and eyeing one another nervously, don’t bother – it wasn’t any of you who prompted the thought; it was the minister. And, no, he needn’t be rushing out to get a bigger padlock for the manse gate either. It was actually something in the sermon that brought the song to mind:

God has a record of all our woes. The beautiful psalm 56 tells us that he stores up our tears in a flask. 

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve had some big sorrows in my life, the kind that feel as though they’re carved into my very heart. But every droplet that fell from my mourning eyes is numbered and bottled by God. He knows the depth and breadth of my grief in a way that even I do not.

Still more extraordinary, though, is the fact that he also has an exact record of the hurts that I’ve forgotten. I mean, I have cried over a lot of situations and a lot of people that long since passed into oblivion. There were emotional storms that seemed seismic at the time, but that I have certainly no word of now.

Yet my Heavenly Father remembers. Those tears are counted too. God is more tender towards me than I am towards myself.

And that is why, masked up and a metre from all my nearest neighbours, I added a couple more droplets to that eternal flask. These were not tears of pain, however. Relentlessly, psalm 56 unfolded in beauty, and I glimpsed – if only for a brief moment – the inexpressible heart of God.

You see, he not only collects the tangible record of our sorrow. In order to do this fully, he also follows us in all our wanderings. That is, he not only accompanies us on the journey we ought to take, but watches us when we stray from the path. 

Well, of course he does. A parent may smile at their child, safely sleeping in his own bed; but how much more watchful is that gaze when the little one is in danger? It was this that wrung the tears from my Sunday morning eyes – remembering all the foolish times I had tried to do things without him, never knowing that he was coming with me anyway, whether I acknowledged his presence or not.

The context for all of this is a familiar theme in the psalms – strength in the presence of the enemy. It asks the oft-repeated question, ‘what can man do to me’?

I have been afraid at times. Undoubtedly the most frightened I have ever been was when my husband fell ill with cancer. A few days ago, I overheard a television character being asked if he was afraid of something or other and he replied, ‘No. After my wife died, the worst had happened and so nothing else frightens me’. 

That is not how it is for me. When my husband died, before that, even, God caught me in his arms. He was more than sufficient in the worst fear I have ever endured. So, because of THAT- because of HIM – I cannot be properly afraid of anything else. I may get upset, I may be angry at the enemy, but I cannot fear him.

Sometimes in dealing with the onslaught against my faith, whatever form it takes, I forget to leave it with God. I get caught up with trying to tackle the situation myself, and I do so on my own (nonexistent) strength. 

It goes without saying that I make a hash of it. My repetitious tendencies in this regard have been a worry to myself.

Yet, there in church on Sunday morning in Stornoway, I felt a new surge of love and humble gratitude. One metre removed I may have been from my fellow worshippers, but my Father and I are never more than a hair’s breadth apart. Thanks entirely to him. He doesn’t permit that the stubbornness of my heart should lead me anywhere that he does not also go. 

So, why should I fear? Until the stopper is finally placed in the flask, and I reach the place of no more weeping, every move I make, every breath I take, he’ll be watching me. 

Now Only Three

On Sunday morning, I was driving through the neighbouring village of Gress. To my left, the carpark was already starting to fill up, and people were unloading an assortment of beach toys, dogs and children. Over to the right, the cemetery lay quietly, an eloquent reminder that even in the midst of life, we are in death. As I continued onwards, I fell to pondering what visitors make of our cemeteries, plentiful and prominent as they are.

In fact, like our primary schools and churches, the burial grounds are a testament to the way in which Lewis was grown. Each village was a world entire for the people who belonged to it. And note my use of language- it’s something those from outside of the islands would do well to take on board: we make no claim of ownership on these communities, but they have a claim on us. That’s why, to a degree, the concept of community ownership in the literal sense is a bit alien. Traditionally, our relationship with land has not been proprietorial.

Indeed, our relationships were always described in terms of claims on, and not by, us. Where do you belong to? Who do you belong to? 

Thus, the villages had their churches to nurture the spiritual lives of the people, and schools to educate. Land was tenanted, not possessed, and the whole patchwork stitched together by fellow feeling, common experience and mutual understanding. 

The cemeteries are a part of it. One of the first things I did as a grown-up, married woman was to pay the lair fees for myself, my husband and my mother in-law. I began life in Tolsta paying nine pounds, then six . . . and now only three. It is an annual memento mori, a gentle pecuniary reminder nach e seo baile a mhaireas. Unlike many other townships, Tolsta’s cemetery is less prominent and so far removed from the village that you could go your whole life without glimpsing it. That’s a shame, I think, because when burial grounds are at the centre of a village, they do serve as a normaliser of death as something natural. For most villages, too, until very recently, burial itself occupied a central role in community life: everyone turned out to local funerals. 

Lewis funerals were the ultimate act of community – a public solidarity with the grieving family, and a respectful acknowledgement of the deceased person’s place in the tapestry of their lives. We understand better than most how someone you barely knew, or knew only by sight or who was just a name to you, still touched your life in some way, however small. They existed, they shared your heritage, they were a part of the same things you are. And thanks to our very civilised and healthy relationship with death, we are able to give them that dignified place at the end of life. The patronymic system ensures that their memory lives on, a chain linking those of us still in life to the relations and neighbours gone ahead into eternity.  It connects us, across the continents and oceans also, to the emigrated loved ones, keeping them a part of our community in life and in death, just the same.

We are losing our hold on what has kept these communities through the centuries. The church building may be where it was placed, at the centre of our villages, but the actual church is rarely at the heart of community life. And because of this, our relationship with death is also changing, turning into something sour and unhealthy.

It is darkly ironic that the unbelievers who call Christianity ‘a death cult’ are so prepared to argue against the sanctity of life themselves. If an unborn life is inconvenient, terminate it in the bud; if a person’s health is deteriorating or their quality of life poor, remove the burden now. Don’t wait on God’s providence, don’t trust him: push his hand away and do it for yourself. Somehow, we think that a life untrammelled by difficulty or pain is our birthright, and if it isn’t provided for us we must take it for ourselves. That justifies breaking the commandment to protect life. What does God know of our suffering?

The people who placed their churches and their cemeteries at the heart of community life knew better than to turn their faces from him. In accepting his seasons of providence, they showed great wisdom. ‘Fatalistic’, some have called it, but I don’t see it that way. They trusted him with all the moments of their lives. We are linked to them, through that patronymic chain, through all the words of prayer uttered by parents for children, by sisters for their brothers and vice-versa, and by pastors for their flocks.

Let us find our way back to a place where God is permitted to be God, and we accept that it is both in and to him we belong.

Another Man’s Croman

(A belated tribute to the late Eachann Dòmhnallach)

I like a laugh as much as the next miserable Calvinist, if only to take my mind off the doctrine of predestination for a minute. Any longer would be too long, even in the context of eternity. Unfathomable immortality may lie before me, but it’s still a sin to waste any of it on frivolity. 

It was in this grudging spirit that I dislodged ‘A View from North Lochs’ from the bookcase where it had been languishing, and took a flip through. Well, it fairly brought me back to the days when I would, as a geeky teenager, eagerly buy my illicit copy of the WHFP purely for Hector Macdonald’s offbeat look at island life. I had seen him once, shaking his fist at an SNP election cavalcade of which I was part, but he otherwise maintained – for me – an air of mystery and legend. He was smart and funny, with a voice that was nothing if not authentic.

Also subversive. A radical, if you will. And even if you won’t. Indeed, especially if you won’t, for isn’t that the way with radicals?

One of my favourite things about him was the way he managed to be a voice for the maws. Any Leòdhasach over a certain age knows that for long enough particular things ran unquestioningly along established lines. Certain roles were to be fulfilled by townies of a specific caste – it was not merely enough to be born within the samh of taigh nan guts and òcrach Bheinn na Dròbha, but it was a start. You certainly couldn’t have the country Maoris with their turned-down wellies traipsing into the town hall or clarting the carpets of Amity House with  anything unmentionable.

Eachann poked fun at this attitude without mercy. He feigned an exaggerated humility and tugged his forelock in such a way that one knew, somehow, exactly what he really thought. Don’t imagine, however, that this was wanton iconoclasm. In those heady days before the faceless nastiness of social media, this man had the art of satirising without giving gratuitous offence. 

And, as I reread the collected columns, published by Birlinn a number of years after his death, something else came back to me. Last week, in the course of my day job, I had to garner a view from Kinloch. (They will honestly do anything to try and provoke my resignation, but I stand firm). This latter-day Lochie commentator had useful insights to offer on the past and present of the crofting community. One thing really stood out, however.

We talk of schemes to regenerate the crofting community and the Gaelic community . . . and in the process, we overlook the common denominator. All these earnest attempts to revive the language and keep an historic system of land tenure alive, they fail to take account of the way in which community has changed.

One of the proofs that what I say is true is the ebbing away of island humour.
Not long ago, I tried to persuade a neo-crofter that he should keep his hens (I may have called them ‘chickens’ to ensure he understood me) to himself, and that if I was the kind of deviant who wanted hens, I’d get some of my own. He has taken the notion of ‘free-range’ to include my weed-killer infested property, so if the egg consumers of Tolsta start to display odd traits (sorry, odder), you’ll know why.  Not totally au fait with the notion of personal responsibility, he replied unconvincingly that he’d try. I, in turn, suggested that a man who is outwitted by hens probably shouldn’t have any in the first place, lest they overpower him with their superior intellect.

This gentle rejoinder was greeted by apoplexy of the sort normally reserved for hauliers ringing the Calmac booking line. He didn’t get island humour. Of course, why would he? And clearly he thinks that’s the worst I’ve got, so I’ll try to be gentler. Any crofter who wears a safety helmet on a quad probably should be handled with sensitivity, right enough.

I’d have had more respect for him if, instead of throwing a hissy fit, he’d replied as the other fellow did when his neighbour complained of a similar feathery invasion.

‘Tha na cearcan agaibhse staigh an seo a-rithist agus ag ith biadh nan cearcan againne’, the first maw complained.

‘O, tha mi a’ creids’ – tha iad glè bheag umhail mar sin’.

People don’t think of others like they used to, relate to others like they used to or, dare I say, know one another like they used to. It’s ironic that when it was merely ‘sa bhaile againne’, we were more of a community; and now that we no longer know or care for each other as we did, we just can’t stop using the word, ‘community’. 

I’m not all that sure who it is we’re trying to convince. What I do know is that most of the wisest people I’ve ever met had the same answer for dealing with the common or garden amadan – laugh at him. Whether he is an amadan sporting the chains of high office, an amadan with a pen, or an amadan on a grazings committee, he is underneath it all, just an amadan. 

And in a community like ours, we’ve all been the amadan at some point. Some come from a long line of amadain, others strike out for themselves. It would be nice if we could remember that, and learn how to laugh at ourselves – and each other – without it causing a fence.