Does My Ego Look Big In This?

Humility isn’t in fashion at the minute. Ditto submission. But like my human parents did in the eighties with some Danger Mouse wellies, and that orange jacket, my Heavenly Father has imposed these unwanted accessories on me, very much against my will. 

‘Cuir ort iad’, the good Lord commands, giving me no say. I can peel them off and chuck them in a corner, but he will simply dust them down again, remind me – as my mother used to – that they’re perfectly serviceable and I will grow into them one day, and stand by while I sulkily don the hated garments. Humility suits me, he seems to think, and it goes SO well with submission. 

And I hate this stupid uniform so much sometimes I could spit. I ask, him why I always need to wear them. He says nothing. And I’m learning what his silence means. It’s his gentle way of saying, ‘look inwards; you know why’.

I do, of course. Submitting to the will of God is a position of strength – but one I’m more likely to assume when he brings me low. While I don’t know why it was necessary this time, I do know it must have been, because God doesn’t arbitrarily wound us. He just doesn’t.

A few months ago, I began praying for guidance. It had been laid on my heart to think about standing for council. But I wasn’t getting a clear answer from God: was I being flattered into it, I asked him; was this my ego telling me I should? He didn’t answer. Although he didn’t say ‘no’, he wasn’t exactly yelling ‘go for it’ either. Someone suggested that perhaps my burden was a sign that this was the right thing to do. So, I changed my prayer. I stopped asking for an answer to whether or not I should do this and begged, instead, that he not let me have victory against his will. When you have looked at life from both sides, as I have, you would never choose to be at odds with your Lord, no matter the prize.

The answer I got on the sixth of May was that my first instincts had been right: this was not the path laid out for me. Yes, I’d have been a good councillor; I know that, even if I couldn’t convince the already content people of Loch a Tuath. I’d have cared about them and fought for them, and never been afraid to speak the truth. But it is not where God wants me.

People have been very kind and sometimes overly solicitous since the election. I am not heartbroken at being passed over in favour of the incumbents. The odds were never much in my favour – and not at all,indeed, now that I know it wasn’t God’s will for me. But I don’t think I have been disobedient, because I now believe he wanted me to stand. Just not to be elected.

‘Why’? you might well ask. ‘Did he wish to humble you’?

Very possibly. But if he did, I needed it. Perhaps I was overdue a reminder that the house will not stand except the Lord builds it. 

Another reason has come to light too, which has nothing whatever to do with me and my ego. So many people have been in touch to say my experience has helped them. Some heard the radio programme about my campaign and responded to what I had to say about widowhood – an audience I could never have hoped to reach had Radio 4 not followed my bid for the Comhairle. Others read my response to electoral defeat and saw submission to God’s will as a possibility for themselves.

I am an odd choice of person to make that point, but that’s what the Lord does, isn’t it: he uses the foolish to confound the wise. In the process of renewing my humble acceptance of his lordship over me, and of requiring that I submit to his will, God has helped others to see the beauty in such a path. He did it as elegantly as you’d expect, using what could have become vehicles for my ego, to broadcast his own name and his own perfect sufficiency to people who needed that message, just as I did.

As I left the count, someone said to me, ‘it would have been good to get another Christian in there’. He didn’t mean it – or, at least, he didn’t mean me. It was the only thing he could think of to say without actually lying or giving offence. Like so many others, that’s what he thinks I have to offer – that I sail under ‘church’ as a flag of convenience, brandishing Jesus like an ‘access all areas’ pass.

Being a Christian councillor, though, is like being an Independent one: your allegiance isn’t what you say, or what others think – but how you act. And maybe God knew that my witness for him would take a back seat if he permitted me this win. I would rather face any amount of other people’ schadenfraude than be guilty of that for a second.

Victory – in him – does not always take the shape we expect or want. Yet, it is victory, nonetheless.

Keep A Thing Seven Years

There’s a Gaelic saying which suggests that if you keep a thing for seven years, a use will be found for it. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t take that long.

This Sunday, I will have kept my grief for seven years. Like many new possessions, I carried it with me everywhere for the first while, moving it around as self-consciously as a child walking in stiff, leather shoes. When it was worn in a little, I started to forget for minutes at a time, only to be assailed by the reality of it when I least expected. In the last few days of Donnie’s life, I had been painfully aware that some time very soon I would no longer be a wife, but a widow.

I didn’t like the word and still less the idea that it represented.

Yet, in seven years, I have been taught to wear the mantle with something approaching acceptance. Instead of being allowed to push the garment from me, God has gently shown me that it IS mine to put on, every day. Traditionally, it also took seven years to train a piper, before they would be allowed to perform in front of an audience. There was no such apprenticeship for me, though – just straight in at the deep end.

I often think how this might all have been, had but one thing been different.

These seven years would have seen me grow bitter, perhaps, or reckless. I might have spent my time in wishing my husband back, or wishing I’d never met him – anything, in short, to remove the excruciating pain. The memory of his suffering could have tormented me to who knows what depths of anguish.

The one thing, though, which saved me from all of that was the hand on my shoulder. It wasn’t simply Christ saying, ‘I’m here, you can lean on me’. That would have been wonderful enough. In fact, his message was subtly different. He was actually telling me, ‘Remember I’m here. You know what to do’. This wasn’t the beginning of a wonderful new relationship, but a life-changing development of one that I hadn’t truly known I was in.

While I have carried – and will carry – Donnie in my heart, it is not loss which dominates my reflections over these seven years without him. It is gratitude. I had such a marriage that I didn’t think I could live without him. But God used that blessing to show me a much deeper and more enduring love. He has fulfilled me in the years of my widowhood, and shown me that, in Christ, all situations are an opportunity to know blessing.

I have profited from his teaching. It goes without saying that I have benefitted in more ways than I can count from his love and mercy. From the very beginning of this journey, though, God has laid it on my heart to share my providence with you. He did that, and then he made it possible.

Most miraculous of all, he took what might have destroyed me and blessed it to the extent that I can say that the Lord gives more than he takes away. Last Sunday, our minister used the sermon time to remind us of the glory and holiness of this God. And, right at the end, that devastatingly beautiful flourish of truth: ‘Remember, though, he is also your Father’.

Glorious, holy, perfect – of course; but tender and loving to the last. Not ‘also in our hard providences’ but especially. If you don’t believe it, I will take you to see a man who told me all things I ever did, and loved me just the same.

‘Daddy, paste it’.

In what would undoubtedly be considered revealing by any psychologist – especially the cod variety – I had an unfortunate childhood habit of removing my dolls’ heads. My father would then be called upon to reattach the noggin, which he did over and over again, without much complaint. I had an unshakeable belief that he could fix anything, therefore – an attitude also displayed in the film, ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, when Zuzu’s flower sheds a petal and she demands, ‘Daddy, paste it’.

This morning, I echoed Zuzu’s request. Our world – handed to us in perfect working order by our heavenly Father – has been broken and broken again. Today, the people of Ukraine are suffering the consequences of that, as their country is torn apart around them, and many are forced to flee for refuge elsewhere. As Putin’s relentless display of ‘strength’ continues, the collateral damage is immense. Homes are destroyed, families separated, loved ones killed in the midst of terrifying chaos. Other world leaders wring their hands hopelessly and look at each other, wondering how – short of military action – they can stop the despot in his merciless tracks.

Political leaders fear the might of Russia, and despair at the idea of China rallying to Putin’s side. These presidents and prime ministers do not know where to turn because what they see with their eyes is bigger than all their forces put together. The media invokes the imagery of World War II, when Europe and America last found themselves in a pickle to equal this.

But there is a vast difference between then and now. Then, you had leadership that, instead of wringing its hands in despair, might have clasped them in petition to the Lord; then, you had some people of faith, who knew that the mightiest army of all was fighting at their shoulder.

The helplessness we are witnessing in our leaders is the consequence of believing that you are the ultimate power, and that there is nothing beyond yourself to which you might look for guidance, for wisdom, or for strength. When you are strong, Biden, when you are strong, Johnson, then are you weak.

Yes, the church elders are praying, and calling upon their people to do likewise. But it isn’t at the moment of crisis, this witness is needed most. As a Christian community, we are doing what the Ukrainian leader is doing in his desperation: chucking weapons into the hands of civilians who have no idea how to deploy them. We ought to be testifying unceasingly to our political masters, interceding on their behalf with God and begging that they would see their own need of him – in all situations. Glancing through the March issue of the Free Church ‘Record’, I saw something incredibly wise in the prayer diary. It was a request to pray for people whose lives are so great that they see no need of God. No one is wishing them pain or suffering; but we do wish them the sincere yearning for the Lord that seems so absent in easy situations. I think we need to be in prayer, likewise, for our political leaders, that they would lean on God’s wisdom and strength in times of peace, so that it’s familiar and instinctive to do so when trouble comes.

Even now, though, as the tyrant batters down the gates of what we were pleased to call ‘peace’, it is not too late. Those of us who pray must put our shoulders to the wheel, and ask God to turn our helpless leaders into praying people also. I don’t know how many more messages we can expect him to send, signalling his displeasure, before we turn to him again in earnest. And those among us who do not pray, are you reading this? We have seen that people being the ultimate power does not work – it wrecks lives and it destroys this beautiful world. Ego always tries to triumph over humanity, imposing its will in a show of destructive strength, not caring who it tramples along the way.

The capriciousness you attribute to God is not his, but ours. Putin is a product of the way in which we have chosen to steward creation, with hardly a passing thought for the Author of all things. No wonder that men become drunk with power and blinded by self-importance when they think that they have actually taken God’s place.

Luckily for us, humanity is not the ultimate authority. When we look around us at the harm believing the contrary has done, however, surely we can admit that there is only one course of action left to us. We have got to humble ourselves, hold up this broken world to heaven and beg:

‘Daddy, paste it’.

The Compassion of the Christ

Today was a communion like no other. The old traditions had all been peeled away, and only the essentials remained: the bread, the wine, the table, and a gathering of God’s believing people.

It was enough.

And the words that called to mind the loneliness of Christ’s suffering could not have been more apt for such a time as this. Many of us have gone through a protracted period of aloneness over the last two years. Families and friends have been separated, people have met death without loved ones to hold their hands. I cannot imagine what it must be like to have been bereaved during the pandemic, especially in communities which normally show their support by drawing alongside those who mourn. Who could forget those images of our newly-widowed monarch, sitting quite alone in St George’s Chapel? In that moment, she symbolised the loneliness of many across the nation.

Yet, she cannot feel your grief or mine, anymore than we can experience hers. For that, there is none but Christ.

Not only is he acquainted with grief, he has borne the unimaginable loneliness of being cut off from God. He chose to take that into his own experience in order that he might obliterate it from ours. Listening to the minister today, speaking of the peculiar loneliness of the Saviour on the cross, I was reminded of Derick Thomson’s poem, in which he speaks of peeling back the Lewis sky to behold:

‘the Creator sitting in full view of His people
eating potatoes and herring,
with no man to whom He can say grace’.

No man to whom he can say grace. No man to have compassion upon him in his pain. No man he can send.

Even in my more cynical or despairing moments, when I think there is no one to whom I can turn for advice, no one I can trust . . . there is. In these two years, during which I have been much alone, I have not been lonely. There are friends, there is family – but better than any of those, there is Christ. His advice never fails, his presence never departs; he has plumbed the depths of his own loneliness and so he is the soul of compassion in ours.

We are a society in sad need of compassion. I see a strange set of parallel phenomena creeping in. The more we say, ‘be kind’, the less able we seem to be able to apply that – as Christ does – to everyone. There is a drive to stand with victims of all kinds, which is as it should be. More understanding and not less can only be a positive development. But, are we unable, or simply unwilling, to offer a second chance to people who have gone wrong? Our world sends some into the wilderness forever, guilty of unforgivable falls from grace in our eyes.

That’s not how Christ deals with anyone. It’s not how he dealt with me; it’s not the example he set his followers.

He hung on a cross and endured the ultimate loneliness, to an extent we cannot begin to understand, in order to save us. To take that legacy of love to ourselves, we have to imitate him – he has always known the very worst and darkest details of our hearts, yet never abandoned us. Accepting his gift means sharing it abroad.

Sharing it abroad, means peeling back to the essentials as symbolised in those elements today. The death of Christ accomplished our salvation, but not so that we would keep it to ourselves.

And I bought a field

‘Faith is not a leap in the dark’, the minister told us on Sunday and, if we were not buttoned-up Calvinists, that whole congregation would have been on its feet, yelling ‘amen’, ‘hallelujah’, and punching the air. The tiny dancer in my heart was certainly giving it yee-hah, as it does every time my soul recognises fellow feeling and fellow experience among the brethren. Our man at the lectern was voicing, surely, what we would all wish the unbelievers to understand. This is not some fairy story, a pleasant fiction to comfort the bereaved, or to anchor those cast adrift from all reason.

And do you know why? Because people suffering that depth of anguish cannot be placated with soft words and pretty lies. It takes a life-changing God to be sufficient in a life-changing situation. Whether it’s illness, or grief, the breakdown of a relationship, or the loss of a job – whatever it is, only a fool would suggest that a fable might meet our needs. I know that some of my atheist friends thought that’s what had happened to me; that I had reached out for my nursery God when I found myself in the valley of the shadow of death.

Aside from the inherent blasphemy, it was an insult to my grief to suggest it is so small a thing that I could tell myself a story to make it all better. That is what you get with the myriad creeds and cults that try to fill the spiritual void in the heart of every human being, but that is not what you get with Christ. And I don’t write these things because I want you to see that I’m right, that I’m not some kind of gullible dupe. In fact, I write about it because I really, earnestly wish that you would want it too.

The particular act of faith under discussion on Sunday was that of Jeremiah who, despite the unpromising circumstances, did as he was bidden by the Lord, and bought a field. Those acres were his testament of trust in God, that the exile would end and that better days were indeed coming.

I have also bought a field. The living God has contended with me all my life, and never washed his hands of me , despite the myriad reasons I give him every day. He would not let me perish, determined though I was to have my own way. And so, when grief came into my experience, he was not arbitrarily hurting me. Of course I don’t understand why the plan had to unfold like that – but I do know that it was necessary, and done to perfection. Faith has taught me that acceptance of this is easier when we trust in God’s purpose; and it is impossible not to trust in his purpose once we know himself.

Going forward in faith is not groping blindly, it is being led by someone in whom you can have complete confidence. Indeed, someone who wants better for you than you ever sought on your own behalf.

The time of pandemic has been a test of many things, but for God’s people, I think it has spoken necessary truths. I hear often that it has fostered a spirit of backsliding in some, which is desperately sad. For me, I feel it has renewed my faith. Throughout lockdown I spent many hours alone. During that first glorious spring and summer, I walked every day, witnessing the Creator’s work, and hearing his voice in everything that surrounded me. On Sundays, through the miracle of technology – which we have by his grace – it was possible for those who are united in the Spirit to share worship. Even more astounding, he added to our number as those who could not join previously began to listen, hungry for the word of God.

These are days in which I do not despise the small things: the tang of the sea, the lilting cry of a distant curlew, the quiet morning time of prayer, and the evening peace for writing in my journal. God is here with me – he fills my mind, because I have sufficient stillness to be able to think of him, to talk to him throughout the day. And I have faith, here in this field of mine, that the renewal I am experiencing is not mine alone. It witnesses to the fact that God is active in the lives of those who belong to him, and that those who are his but do not yet realise aren’t being forgotten.

In the perfection of his own will, and in his own time, he is bringing them in, He is persuading them to purchase their fields.

Life does not look as it did in 2019, and I think it never will again. That doesn’t matter, however. If we are founding our lives on the rock that is Christ, and if the Spirit unites us in worship and a desire to witness for the Kingdom, who are we to question the means by which this is achieved? My life and my home were changed beyond all recognition in God’s providence. But he has turned this humble, grief-blighted building into a place where I can experience the fulness of his love as long as I trust in him, and accept his will for me.

I am only one Christian, but I am a microcosm of the church. In all of this, we are not taking a leap in the dark; we are purchasing fields in the sure and certain knowledge that one day, our exile will end.
But it will be accomplished his way, and in his time.

Tempered Temper in the Temple

The account of Jesus turning the merchants and money-lenders out of the temple is a famous one, well-known even to those who would claim no regular acquaintance with the Bible. I suppose it seems to be at odds with our idea of him. In popular imagination he is either the Christ-child, gentle and meek, or he is the God-man, giving himself up uncomplainingly to the horrors of death. Those are both facets of his character, certainly, but they are not the whole person. His tour de force dealing with the agents of commerce in his Father’s house reveal an aspect of Christ that helps us understand him better.

There is a small incident in John’s telling of this story that drew my attention this week. Having taken a whip and driven the livestock out, along with their retailers, he commands the sellers of pigeons to remove the birds from the temple.

Picture the scene: he has scattered the coins, overturned the tables and personally expelled the merchants with their sheep and oxen. But the pigeon-sellers must take themselves and their wares out with no help from Jesus. What prevented him from sweeping their cages to the floor, or throwing them outside? Of course I don’t know, but I am inclined to believe that it was compassion. To rough-handle these gentle creatures would have been cruel and capricious – and, whatever people who don’t know him say, that is not in his nature. This is someone, in fact, so wholly consistent, so reliably in control of his responses, that he can direct and channel his wrath where it is deserved, and turn on a sixpence to show gentle consideration in the same moment.

His anger is not an emotion in the way that mine or yours might be. Sometimes we are controlled and directed by our feelings to a degree which can be destructive. Indeed, our forefathers believed that envy, for one, could be so powerful as to cause physical harm to the object of our desire, without us even knowing what we had done. That phenomenon – usually referred to as ‘the evil eye’ – is mentioned in a lengthy list in the Bible, alongside a whole host of other evils which are not external, but which actually emanate from within ourselves.

That’s quite a bitter pill for us to swallow – that we are not always the poor dupes of Satan, but more often than not, the willing perpetrators of badness ourselves. Our anger, our mean-spiritedness, our jealousy, our greed, our lust, our self-righteousness, our unconcern for others – that’s all on us. Satan just seeks to exploit the way we’re already inclined by nature.

What I like about this aspect of Christ is its realness. It demonstrates even further how completely I can trust him with my life. I have often been unjust to others, judging them harshly, expecting more of them than I should, and then feeling angry towards them when they fall short of my unrealistic demands. But he never has ‘a bad day’. When I go to him in prayer, he never casts up at me that I forgot him the day before when everything was going fine; he never grumbles that I do nothing for him, or retreats because he wants a little ‘me time’.

He is not a two-dimensional nursery god – Christ is multi-faceted, but not mercurial; he displays feeling, but is wholly consistent.

This is why people read Scripture: it is a means of seeing a little more clearly the beauty of Jesus Christ. And it is why, in a way, I prefer John for advent reading. The baby Jesus, whose life was in danger from the moment he was conceived, and the circumstances whose birth has become so culturally iconic as to be almost Disneyfied in the eyes of the world, he is easy to love. All babies are easy to love and none more so than the manger-child who gave us Christmas.

John presents us with something more challenging, though – he brings us Christ, who doesn’t lie helpless in a manger. He walks abroad and challenges those he meets with his very presence; and when it is necessary, he shows his wrath. Wrath to the defilers of his Father’s house, and gentleness to the helpless creatures who are guiltless of any wrong. I wish I had the wisdom to know the difference, and the self-control to treat them accordingly.

But, more than anything, this Advent, I’m grateful to know him a little better than I did last year. What an unparalleled feeling it is to be assured that there will never be any unpleasant surprises with Christ – that even his displays of anger are wholly justified, and trained precisely on the target.

My Heart Will Go On

A few years ago, I was asked to write my testimony for the church newsletter. I began by saying, ‘The Lord’s presence in my life is something of which I have been aware for almost as long as I can remember’. It was a conscious decision to begin, not with me, but with him, and to end the article in much the same way. This was not merely stylistically important, but a deliberate avoidance of what Sir Humphrey Appleby called ‘the perpendicular pronoun’. Our coming to faith is never about us per se, but about the miraculous goodness of God, who saves in spite – and not because – of who and what we are.

Testimony is not a static thing, however: it grows and develops as we persevere in the life of Christian discipleship. I think, for that reason, it’s important that we should go on testifying to the power of Christ to save, every day of our lives.

I am spending this advent in reading John’s gospel. It is a slightly unusual choice because, of course, this book doesn’t deal with the birth of Christ; instead, John starts at the real beginning of everything. 

And, fittingly, chapter 1 presents us with the testimony of John the Baptist. He tells who Jesus is, presenting him as the Son of God, and humbling himself as a mere witness to the glory of Christ. John makes himself recede into the background of the story, so that our eyes are not on him, but on the Saviour. On Friday, I attended the funeral of an elderly Christian lady, known for the brightness of her faith. In a lovely and personal service, the minister paid tribute to her, and then added that he was conscious that she herself would not want to be eulogised; but rather prefer that he should spend the time in talking about Jesus.

In that moment, I understood fleetingly what is meant by ‘irresistible grace’. It was hard to believe that anyone listening to this beautiful and moving testimony to faith could harden their hearts against the attraction of Christ. 

And I fell in love with him all over again. 

This is why Christian testimony cannot remain the same: the richness of our relationship with Christ is such that we are discovering new depths to it all the time.

If I had to distil what I’ve learned since writing that first testimony down to two things, I think I would start by saying how practical a thing faith is. It isn’t an idea, a concept, or that most threadbare of things – a comfort blanket. Christianity is a faith to live by, or it is a delusion.

And it is not a delusion because belonging to Christ and following him, however imperfectly, will set you free. I know. Believe me, I know.

The second thing I’ve learned is that no one else has a right to comment on your relationship with God. People will have ‘rules’ they think you should be following, and draw their own conclusions when you don’t measure up. It’s not about them, though. They won’t be there to dry the tears of hurt their thoughtless words provoke . . . but Christ will, always, so fix your eyes on him. Make his the only good opinion you seek and never mind the naysayers.

He is the author and finisher of our faith. Stick with him and he’ll see you through, not merely to the end, but forever.

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