Before Bethesda

I have never been able to tell when God opened my eyes to His marvellous light of truth. It dawned gradually, I think; so much so that day had broken long before I felt the warm rays on my face.

What I can recall is when that blessed assurance became mine. It was simultaneously the worst and the best day of my life.

My husband was in hospital. He had a raging infection after his third dose of chemotherapy for metastatic bowel cancer and needed specialist care. They had scanned him the previous day, and the news was encouraging – it appeared that the tumour was responding to treatment. In the midst of a truly awful, bleak period of four months since his recurrence was diagnosed, this was more than a glimmer of hope.

So, imagine how it felt the next morning when his Macmillan nurse phoned to summon me to the hospital. ‘He’s a lot less well’, she said, ‘and you should come’.

I drove, I parked, I ran to the ward. She told me, as I held his hand, that we were more or less out of options. He could go to Inverness for extensive surgery, but they doubted he’d survive the journey. Besides, she said, he’d had enough, and only wanted my say-so to lay down his arms. It didn’t give me a moment’s hesitation. Donnie had been through enough; he had battled bravely, and not once opened his mouth to complain.

The ambulance came within the hour and took us to Bethesda. His family were there, and my sister. I cried then. But from then on, I was surrounded by what I have only ever been able to describe as a bubble of peace. If I called to God, it was with my heart, not my voice – but those prayers, He hears them too: perhaps even more so. My soul inclined to Him instinctively, because somewhere along the way, it had become His property without my knowing it.

Donnie lived a week after that; Friday to Friday. We were both in God’s tender care, I have no doubt about that. All of this I have said before, many times.

But what I have not done justice to is the instrument God chose. For the last week of my married life with the man I will love forever, Bethesda Hospice became God’s hands and feet.

I can’t recount every instance of their ministering to us, but I can tell you enough. The kindly-stern nurse who insisted I eat a proper meal at lunch and teatime; the one who brought me tea and toast each morning. Those lunchtime naps I was forced to take, away in a room by myself where I could weep, and pray, and then gather myself again to face everything. And halfway through the night, I would leave his room for a little while so they could tend to Donnie, making him more comfortable.

One evening, nearing the end of the week, I was exhausted. There’s a little room with a recliner and a sort of giant lava lamp. The nurse more or less shoved me in there, dimmed the lights and shut the door; within seconds, I was away. That nap refreshed me; but the memory of the kindness with which it was orchestrated remains to this day.

And I will certainly never be able to repay the nurse who sat with me as I held Donnie’s hand for the last time, who gently confirmed for me that he had indeed gone home.

All of this might have been so different. For many families in years gone by, it was – loved ones died in the clamour and bustle of a hospital ward. Or, far worse, inadequately medicated against pain, and frightened, in their own homes, helpless relatives looking on, unable to help.

That was before Bethesda. A group of like-minded people, largely drawn from the Christian community, sought to provide a facility for palliative care in the island.

Having been in receipt of that care, I see how inadequate a word like ‘facility’ is to describe Bethesda.

Because of the hospice – the staff, the people who raise money to fund it – I can look back on that week with no regrets. The merest flicker of a frown on Donnie’s peacefully sleeping face was noticed by nurses, and more pain medication administered ‘just in case’. They ensured that I did not worry for one second that he was suffering. He was, I can truthfully say, gentled into death.

They couldn’t take my pain away, but they did everything short of it. I could not have thought of or asked for better treatment for him, or for me.

I left there the night he died, his wedding ring clutched in my hand. Thanks to the care I had – God’s own care administered by human hands – it was possible to reflect upon a good death for my husband. Their tenderness made me strong enough to return home unbroken.

And home was not a nightmarish place, littered with hospital paraphernalia, as it might once have been, in the days before there was Bethesda. Because of that, I was returning to a cocoon of happy memories, to a place I had shared with someone who did not have to die there, our much loved home becoming his prison of pain.

I don’t think the authorities realise what they have in Bethesda. It’s the kind of place that shouldn’t have to beg for the resources to do what it’s doing – making the awfulness so much less awful for people who just need to be upheld.

For me, the hospice is symbolic of the Saviour’s love. There is an untouchable peace and dignity at its heart, even as the politicians and the money men wrangle over every last penny. Still, Bethesda stands as a beacon of all that is kind and caring. Established to minister to the sick and dying, used by God to draw near to His own suffering people, we surely cannot let it become a tawdry pawn in the hands of politicians.

I don’t write this as emotional blackmail – it wouldn’t work anyway; but as a letter of thanks to Bethesda, and praise to the God who established it for all such hours of need.

May it be there for others as it was for us.

Glory in the glen . . . or anywhere

‘These are our Castle Grounds’, I found myself thinking on Thursday night as I watched the little tent in the glen fill up with people. There was something special about seeing them arriving in knots of two and three – intentionally leaving their homes to come and gather under canvas in worship of the Lord. Psalms, songs of praise, prayers and Scripture readings. It was all about ascribing to Him the glory that is due and, nestled there in the hollow of God’s hand, we were not several denominations, but one church.

And I feel that this kind of event is all the more important in our day. Just as, last summer, a couple of hundred of us gathered in the glebe at Baile na Cille, for worship, this too felt like a statement. It is primarily an opportunity to spend time in adoration of our Lord – but it is also a witness to a world that seems blind to His glory. Being outside, though, is not just important because we are more likely to be overheard than when we are closed up in a building.

No, there is something else; there is as much of reclamation as there is acclamation in our al fresco praise. Every place where God’s name is spoken with reverence, I feel a flag is planted for His cause. Where two or three gather in His name, He is in the midst to bless. And so, on Thursday night, in Willowglen, God was undoubtedly present.

I do not pretend that certain places are more sacred than others, because that would be to confine our boundless God, and make Him small. Nonetheless, it is difficult to see how a place where His spirit has moved can ever be mundane again. Will I be able to pass through Willowglen and not remember with joy the night it became a place of worship for its own Creator and mine? Hopefully not.

This lovely corner of God’s handiwork has been abused lately. Instead of a protective instinct for all this beauty, something much uglier has been in evidence. Many have chosen to vandalise and sully the Castle Grounds in a fit of pique about policy. It is too petty for words. But it is a stark reminder of where we are.

I reflected on the harsh words of the last few weeks, even as I listened to these much more attractive ones drifting out of the tent:

Ach mise molar leam do neart;
gu moch a’ seinn do ghràis,
Airson gur tu mo thèarmann treun,
‘s mo dhaingneach fhèin ‘s gach càs.

God is the defence of my life. With every passing day I am more conscious of my need for such a refuge. And why? You have no use for protection except when you are in enemy territory. But, then, that’s what this is, even the beautiful Lews Castle Grounds: made perfect by God, but marred by man. From this enmity against the very Creator stems the mistreatment of what His hands have made, whether that is earth, trees, water . . . or humanity itself.

Nothing is sacred: not even life, and certainly not places like Willowglen.

On Thursday, though, there were all the elements assembled that we might need to recreate Psalm 137. We had a river to sit down by, and boughs of willow in which to hang our lyres. Here we were, being required to praise the Lord’s song in the midst of hostility.

I felt, however, that it was not a time for weeping – not for ourselves, anyway. Gathered under that canvas shelter, we testified to the impermanence of our sojourn in this world. We pitch our tent for a while, yes, but the house of many mansions is home. What God makes, what God provides – whether it is a garden, or a temporary place to gather – we should esteem, because it is by His grace and from His hand, the hand His children love, that we receive it.

That evening, for a few hours at least, we remembered Zion. It’s a particular kind of memory, though. Just as the prophet Isaiah spoke of the coming Christ in the past tense, we sing for joy at the recollection of Glory that awaits

Meantime, we have to rise up to our feet on that riverbank, and take down our lyres from the willow branches. I am more certain than ever that this strange land is crying out in its captivity to hear the Lord’s song; and who shall sing it for them, though they try their utmost to quench the sound with mocking?

That’s why Grace on the Green matters. The world does not believe that we are free, that we are filled with joy that no amount of their hostility can kill. We usually worship shut away from them; we politely contain our praise for God in buildings from which little sound escapes.

Those confining edifices are not the church: we are. And our oneness with Creation is never more apparent than in praising the Creator’s name in the midst of all He has made.

The least we owe Him, then,  is to sing His song for those whose eyes remain blind to amazing grace, and the immeasurable glory of God. It isn’t found in a place, but in a person. And they might find Him anywhere – but  certainly wherever His church gathers to adore Him.

 

Sunday Swimming & the Flood to Come

It isn’t often that you see the Leòdhasaich clamouring for equality with the people of Uist, but there’s a persistent wee group that is making just that demand. What is it the deasachs have that we could possibly desire? Shoddy ferry services? Ropey Gaelic? Stinky Bay?

No, of course not: it’s their enviable public pool opening times. In any one week in Uist, you can swim for a few hours every day – fewer, that is, than if you were in Lewis. But the real object of the Green-eyed Leòdhasach monster is the one hundred and eighty minutes on a Sunday afternoon when amphibious types in the vicinity of Benbecula can enjoy splashing about in the municipal baths. Never mind how available – or otherwise – this activity is the rest of the week; the Uibhistich cannot be allowed to have anything their northern neighbours don’t have, no matter how small.

There’s something faintly disturbing about the article on the BBC Alba news site, which says that equality legislation prevents councillors voting against Sunday opening of the Stornoway facility on religious grounds. Call me pedantic, but I don’t think that’s equality, then, is it? I mean, Christians who are councillors are being told that they should vote against their faith because a minority in the community wants (not needs) a leisure facility to open on Sundays. If I was a councillor right now, I’d be faced with the prospect, therefore, of breaking the law, or of abstaining – how does that protect my right to equality?

I know, because this argument has been rehashed many times, that the unbelievers who persist in campaigning for Sunday opening think that’s acceptable. They fall into two camps: those who say Christians should keep out of elected office altogether, and those who say that Christians who ARE elected should abstain from voting on anything which is liable to be coloured by their faith.

But, here’s the thing – Comhairle Nan Eilean is still a representative democracy. Tough though this concept seems to be for some keyboard warriors, elections sometimes produce unwanted results. The inability to accept defeat is what leads to nonsense like ‘#NotMyPrimeMinister’, and the sort of silliness that suggests this or that person ‘doesn’t represent me’.

Maybe we need to go back to school and relearn how democracy of this variety is meant to function. Councillors are elected to represent the generality of their ward; no elected member, no matter how chameleon-like, can possibly be representative of each individual voter, and it is childish in the extreme to deploy that argument.

So, bearing this in mind, the Comhairle is representative of the community. Every voter has an opportunity to express their views through the ballot box – and the fact that we in Lewis persistently return a conservative council, many of whose members have an active faith, speaks to the will of the people. It isn’t an accident, it isn’t a sinister and highly improbable collusion between the Free Church and the returning officer . . . it’s the voters.

There’s a rag-tag remnant of the local secular society which turns up every so often on social media, making wild claims that corruption and theocracy are rife in this island. They seem to have the idea that the Free Church, the Comhairle and the Stornoway Trust are all working together to suppress ‘progress’. Yes, three male-dominated organisations cooperating seamlessly and following a plan, that’s plausible – as long as you’re not getting them to assemble flat-pack furniture, obviously.

If we can’t put this stupid fantasy to bed once and for all, though, how can debate about local issues ever rise above the juvenile?

This reopening of the debate about Sunday swimming is destined to play out along the same tired lines yet again. Those who so desperately want to see swimming pool attendants forced to work on a day that most of us – including the petitioners – take for granted as a day of rest, will argue that this is progressive. They want ‘family time’, but they don’t see any inequality in causing others to forsake Sunday at home in order that they can have the option of a heated swimming pool if the fancy takes them, now and again. It is, they argue, their right, under equalities legislation.

Their right. How absolutely hollow that sounds in an island where home care provision is pared to the bone, where lifeline bus services are under threat, where village schools are closing, where many roads are more potholes than surface, and where the local hospice is under threat of closure.

How petulant, how trivial, how utterly First World does it sound to you? It’s a miracle that we have a swimming pool at all, given how harsh the cutbacks have been.

The reason the swimming pool will not open on Sunday is threefold. First of all, there is no money. Secondly, there is no need.

And, finally, there isn’t even much appetite for it. Yes, there are undoubtedly some very vocal people who want it, and probably quite a few strong, silent types as well. Ditto Sunday golf and Sunday anything you care to name – cinema, shops, cafes.

How, they will howl, do I know there isn’t much demand? Surely they have made themselves abundantly clear on Facebook – blimey, they’ve been insulting and personal enough, surely the message has penetrated by now?

Well, here’s the message. If you are a Christian in Lewis, or even just someone who likes Sundays the way they’ve always been, take heart. It would be easy to let the mob rule of social media con you into believing that things are worse than they are. But, read what they say – it is mostly bluff, bluster and the occasional towering rage. Battles are not won or lost on either Facebook or Twitter; these have become somewhere for the politically impotent to vent their fury.

Be encouraged by the fact that our community consistently returns a council that reflects the values of the many, not the few. Candidates who criticise our island and who profess shame in relation to our heritage do badly at the ballot box.

But these same people then become frustrated and embittered by the proper function of democracy, even calling it ‘tyranny’. They hiss and spit, and try to subvert the work of organisations like the Comhairle. Most alarming of all, they are aided and abetted in this by daft laws about equality.

We Leòdhasaich have a conservative and fairly traditional set of councillors – and we came by them fair and square. If a minority can demand the sort of ‘equality’ which mutes the very characteristics for which many of us actually voted them in, it is way past time for action.

If legislation for equality actually can stop our democratically elected councillors voting with their conscience, then that is surely a hint to Christians in our island that the tide is indeed lapping at our feet, and we have received all the flood warnings we have any right to expect.

Sin: Catch It, Bin It, Kill It

There is usually a man standing by the roundabout as I drive to church on Sunday mornings. He wears a t-shirt that proclaims, ‘God Hates Divorce’. I fell to wondering recently whether we’d run out of denominations before we ran out of things God abhors, were we to dress every churchgoer in Stornoway similarly, listing a different object of divine wrath on each garment.

‘God hates gossip’ and ‘God hates lies’, or ‘God hates cheating’. Maybe even ‘God hates schism’ for someone edgy in the Church of Scotland.

Or, how about, in the interest of brevity, ‘God hates sin’?

I have been wrestling with sin myself lately. Sin is very much like . . . now, wait while I spend a convincing amount of time pretending to think of a suitable analogy. Hmmmm . . . erm . . . Oh, I know, just plucking one out of thin air: sin is like rubbish. We generate it; we have to be the ones to deal with it. And if we all took care of our own, there would be a lot less of it about for other poor souls to have to mop up.

When I fell victim to someone else’s badness recently, I was reminded of an old neighbour we had when I was growing up. Plagued by crows, plundering his garden and stalking his newborn lambs, he took matters into his own hands. Catching one, he killed it, singed it and nailed it to a fence post as an eloquent warning to other feathery felons.

It was in light of his display of native ingenuity that I finally agreed to report my foul-mouthed online stalker to the police. Make an example of just one loose cannon and the others will get the hint.

I made an error of judgement, though. Crows have the intelligence to recognise their own likeness, even when it is charred and nailed up and quite dead. Not so much with the keyboard warriors, though. They failed to see why, having reported one bona fide weirdo to the police I should not still go on submitting myself to their barbs and jibes as well. Oh, that person had gone over the score, some of them admitted – but not them.

They are, if you will permit me just one more Castle Grounds-related analogy, a little bit like the rhododendron ponticum. A great show is made, a display of concern, but every single one contributes to the toxicity of the environment. Each person who forcefully and repeatedly hammers home their opinion, and does so by naming names and making accusations that have no basis in fact, poisons the online atmosphere and makes it just that little bit harder for the fragrance of truth to break through.

You see, other people’s sin is much easier to spot than our own. I can see in the flamers and trolls that twisted humanity which enjoys humiliating and victimising their fellow man. If I could, I would make them t-shirts that read, ‘God hates bullying’.

But the point of bullying, like any other sin, is that we have to diagnose ourselves. Before we can don any garment emblazoned with our guilt, we have to own that sin, admit to it and meet it head on. I cannot do that for the many people – strangers mostly, but some who are not – who think that it’s acceptable to use a public forum to pillory and threaten me for having a different opinion to them.

That is actually their burden to bear; not mine. Besides, I think that someone who loses their dignity and their decency, ostensibly over the question of litter bins in a public garden, has bigger problems than poor online etiquette.

Episodes like this are distasteful. They upset the people who care about me and they persuade onlookers that public life in Lewis is a harsh and lawless thing. No one is encouraged into any kind of community service by witnessing my experience. Who would want to have their good name trodden upon for being . . . well, what? What am I that attracts such hatred?

I am a sinner – saved by grace, yes, but still a sinner. My wardrobe could be filled with t-shirts enumerating my guilt for the world to see. And that is for ME to deal with; it is between myself and God. It’s a daily struggle, and never more so than when I’m denigrated by strangers and have to remember one important truth. While that behaviour is theirs, and I have no control over it, or guilt for it, I DO have agency in how I respond. That’s the real test.

Do not, the Bible tells us, repay reviling with reviling. The world hated Christ to death and it shouldn’t surprise me to be loathed for his sake. I have looked on him, nailed to a cross, his human countenance marred by violence and hatred, made sin for our sake – and I have recognised myself.

It is simultaneously the lowest and the most exalted point in his story, and in that of any repentant sinner. You see what you are and what you have done, but at the same moment you realise that this is also the route to redemption.

From then on, the path is not smooth, as I have found out. Once you have seen yourself as you truly are, every day is a battle against that – but it’s a beautiful battle because of the template to which he is conforming us, little by aching little. What do I care, really, for lies told about me by strangers?

If there is any Christian looking on and questioning why I would expose myself to this kind of life – and I know there is – I can answer that very simply. He has called me to witness. I don’t serve an ungrateful community that hates me; I serve an incomparable Saviour that loves me. Christ loved me, as he loves them, before I ever knew his face. When they finally lift their eyes to him, as I pray they will, that understanding will become theirs too.

Sin is like rubbish. It is we who produce it, and it is we who must dispose of it. No one is asked to manage other people’s sin; only their own. Ignoring it is not a solution, nor is dumping it on others.

God hates sin, and he’s asking us all to deal with our own, leaving the rest up to him.

The Wrong Coinneach; the Right Christ

Have you ever found yourself on a trip with the wrong Coinneach? It happened to me last Wednesday. I thought I was going to Harris with Coinneach Mòr, in a reliable, BBC car whose satnav would use RP English, probably even pronouncing our destination as Roe-dell. Instead, in a flagrant abuse of licence fee payers’ money, I was issued with Coinneach Beag, ‘driving’ an automatic Yaris, and taking his good time about it.

We were bound for St Clement’s church to do that which no Wee Free ever does in a place of worship: look at art. I fretted all the way there, and almost welcomed the frequent violent stalling as a distraction. When your head keeps coming into contact with the dashboard it’s hard to think about anything else – even heresy.

The exhibition was a visual exploration of the  poem cycle by Orcadian George Mackay Brown, entitled ‘Tryst on Egilsay’, describing the death of St Magnus. Yes, art AND saints all in one day. But an Orcadian saint, whose story the late poet regarded as one of the most precious in Orkney’s heritage.

It was so appropriate to have this in Harris for a number of reasons. For one, it is believed that the account of Magnus’s death was preserved for posterity by one Hebridean eyewitness – Holdbodi, of the farming class, and loyal ally of Magnus.

Magnus was meeting on Egilsay with his cousin, Hakon, to discuss which of them should rule Orkney. The former brought with him two boats and the corresponding number of men, as had been agreed. Much less honourable, the latter brought eight boats, packed with followers. When Magnus saw them approach, he knew what his fate would be.

It is almost unbearably moving to read the account, in Orkneyinga Saga, of Magnus’s steadfast faith in the face of such threat. Instead of fleeing, he went to church and prayed, forbidding his men to defend him.

And then, he bargained in a way that every Christian hopes they would too in the same situation. He didn’t beg to have his life spared. Instead, he asked Hakon to do anything – even putting out his eyes – short of murder. ‘God knows that I think more of your soul than my own life’, he told his cousin, and because this was true, he wanted to spare Hakon the guilt of his blood.

He was persuasive, and would have got his way, but for Hakon’s men. They said that they wanted a single ruler for Orkney and that, therefore, one of the two earls must die. Thus, Magnus’s fate was sealed, and he prayed forgiveness for the perpetrators before being put to death.

Hakon had opted for political power and the death of his soul; but Magnus chose the good portion.

It might seem strange in one way to be marking this Norse-Orcadian earl’s death in a mediaeval church in Harris. But not when you think about it. St Clement’s was probably built a couple of centuries after the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, yet it is part of God’s real estate. In that very church, I felt all manner of hope was represented.

Gaelic culture, so apparently subsumed by the political might of the Vikings flowered when their age was done. St Clement’s testifies to that, belonging as it does to that most Gaelic of eras in our history. A minority language, oppressed by the major language can still be resurgent; and, as the Norse example shows, official status does not make any language the one of your heart.

Magnus, though, and St Clement’s, and the people who visit there to read of his martyrdom, speak the greatest hope of all into the world. Some may choose political power, progress and popularity here in this life; but if you are a Christian, you surely wish to identify with Magnus who, at the hour of his death prayed for his friends, but also his enemies, forgiving their sins against himself.

In the end, it didn’t matter which Coinneach took me to Harris; I needed to go in order to be reminded of something. When even those you have called friends hate you for Christ’s sake, it’s easy and natural to feel bitter, but it is better to remember the lesson of this mediaeval Orcadian Saint: their souls are worth more to Him than my life.

Hakon appeared to have walked away with all the prizes – his life; the exclusive rights to the Earldom of Orkney; and even forgiveness from the man he had put to death. But his cousin, in fact, was the winner, able to discern which were the true riches and, in complete faith, to choose Christ over against everything else.

We have, all of us, to answer for ourselves, but I hope I can continue to say with Magnus, and with Job, ‘though He slay me, I will trust in Him’.

That will meet any deficiencies in myself, in my friendships, and in my journey through this world. Even if part of it has to be in a hybrid automatic driven by the wrong Coinneach.

Bringing it all back home . . .

This week, I have a returning guest blogger, Mr Roy Macdonald Murray. He is a collie of no profession, and shaping up to be a great voice in social policy and community politics. Here, he muses upon the issue of where community ownership interfaces with the disposal of waste:

Myself and the Blone were out for our constitutional at Traigh Mhòr the other night, and I had to answer a call of nature. Instead of letting it go at that, she started this weird ritual that I’ve always been meaning to ask her about – she collected my . . . ahem . . . leavings . . . in a bag, wiped her hands with some wee cloth that smelt of strawberries, and then put the bag and the hand thing into another bag. Obviously the look of incredulity on my hairy face was sufficiently eloquent, because she tried to explain.

‘It’s okay, balach’, she said (‘balach’, indeed – I’m eight years old), ‘it’s not a weird hobby; we’ll take it home and bin it’.

Yeah, see, she’s said this before, and I’m still no clearer as to the thinking behind it. Maybe it’s just a sign of the vast difference in our upbringing – me on a farm in Sandwick, her within a stone’s throw of the Black Water, probably in a tent – but I always thought that’s what servants were for. What is the point of having minions to clear up after you if you do it yourself? Why have a dog and bark . . . but I’m going off topic.

The more I thought about it, the more it bugged me. I mean, when I do a poo, I don’t really want to see it again – that is rather the point of me leaving it on the machair. Then, the people whose lot it is in life to gather other people’s waste will come along and sort it. Actually, she could find herself in trouble with the Servants’ and Minions’ Union for taking work from their members. Extraordinary, really, that I should have a better grasp of how socialism works than she does., when you DO think about the difference in our social spheres.

When we got home that evening, the cat was sitting on the windowsill. She looked marginally less murderous than usual, so I thought I’d canvas her opinion. I pointed out that the Blone is always poking about in her litter box as well, with a sieve shaped like a shovel. The cat continued to stare at me.

‘For me’, she eventually replied, ‘it is less disturbing to see her remove my droppings into a bag, than to watch you treat it as your own personal snack tray’.

I wilted a bit at this. The cat can be very cutting.

‘But’, I persisted, ‘it’s the job of the servants to pick up. We leave stuff, they dispose of it. Everyone knows their place’.

The cat sighed. She closed her eyes. There was a very long silence. I almost gave up, and was about to walk away when she spoke again, in a bored voice.

‘The Blone IS the servant’, she said, ‘that’s why she picks up after us. It’s the lot of those further down the food chain to pick up after cats, and keep things nice for us’.

This was really no help. It explained part of the predicament, but not the rest – yes, cats are superior to almost every living creature on the planet, except the man who makes Schmackos; but why would she pick up my waste when there are people for that? It made no sense.

I thought and thought until I went cross-eyed. Sometimes, she takes me to places where the sniffing is new. There’s one, with a whole lot of trees to pee on. If I poo there, she does the bag thing and sometimes we take it home, but other times she puts it in a wee box next to one of the trees. Probably the fairies collect it. Or the servants. Either way, it’s not our problem, and we don’t have to take it back in our nice car, all the way to Tolsta.

She must see how illogical this is – the woman has a degree, I believe. It comes back down to that Stornoway Truss again. Remember, I explained it to you last time? The land belongs to everyone in the whole community. That means if your dog poos on Truss land, it’s not your problem, it’s theirs – that, apparently, is what ‘community ownership’ means. The Trussees own the poo, and they, or their slaves have to get rid of it. Frankly, I think it’s such a great system that I might have to become a socialist myself, if that’s how it works.

Come to think of it, the machair in Tolsta belongs to the community too, so I suppose the Truss should really send their servants there to pick up after me. Then again, it’s common grazing, so maybe we should let the local shareholders have the privilege. It’s either that or some French multinational will sweep in and take advantage: coming over here, helping themselves to our waste . . .

I don’t know how to tell her that she has not properly understood what community ownership means. She bangs on about collective responsibility, and everyone doing their bit. She hasn’t grasped the fact that what it ACTUALLY means is that whatever happens on Truss land, becomes the Truss’s problem. My poo is their poo, and I just get to walk away. It’s our land, but their problem. Fair enough.

It’s like the good old days in Sandwick, when I was a dog of consequence. And she’s spoiling that illusion by bringing the poo back home.

Crofting, Calvinism & the Colonised Gaels

Geekery comes in many forms, but I have always been particularly susceptible to the uniquely Teuchter variety. Now, before you leap to conclusions, no, I cannot name you every model of Massey-Ferguson ever to set wheel upon the Isle of Lewis; nor am I qualified to identify a brand of dip merely by its bouquet. However, I enjoy the complexities of Calvinist theology and of crofting regulation in almost equal measure. It has been easier to indulge the former, because there are places you can go and books you can read which will help the picture clear.

Crofting legislation, on the other hand, has been a right patchwork quilt. Now, however, someone has actually written ‘A Practical guide to Crofting Law’ – that someone being the well-kent lawyer, Brian Inkster, a bit of an expert in the feannag of crofting law and all its associated vagaries. This is not a legal tome for professionals, but a very usable little book which covers all the main aspects of crofting and its relationship with the law of the land (yes, pun intended).

I warmed to it immediately when I saw that page 1 of chapter 1 contained the word, ‘therefrom’. He was only placing crofting in its historical context – something I do myself fairly frequently for bored students – but couldn’t suppress a lawyerly adverb even at this early stage in the proceedings.

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It’s a depressing feature of life in the Gàidhealtachd that any description of who we are or what we stand for must always involve talking about organisations. We are surely the most regulated people in all of Creation. Reading Mr Inkster’s description of the Crofting Commission and the Scottish Land Court, I couldn’t help smiling to myself. All our resident malcontents (and more than a few non-resident) pile the blame onto churches for the perceived stifling way of life here, but no one ever seems to wonder quite why we need so many bodies to keep an eye on our language, our land, our economy – and that’s before we even get started on the plethora of environmental designations that Scottish Natural Heritage has at its disposal. Before you put a spade in the ground, you’d better find out if it’s a RAMSAR site, an SSSI, an NNR . . .

We have accepted it, though, as our lot (pun eile) in life. Like every other endangered species on the planet, the Gael has to be subject to much monitoring and scrutiny. There are more schemes and safeguards linked to us as a people than your average violent offender.

Everything, from the air that we breathe to the words that we use is subject to policy. If I start a business, join a committee or put up a polytunnel, there is an agency that needs to know. We have island plans, community partnerships, rural networks – all designed to protect us. We are like wayward teenagers, not trusted to get the bus home by ourselves in case we talk to strangers.

Ah, but, Mr Inkster’s book brings us neatly, in chapter sixteen, to that wee glimmer of freedom – the Teuchter equivalent of turning twenty one and being given the key of the door: community buyout. You’ll have heard of it because it’s been quite the apple pie and motherhood of the Gàidhealtachd over the sixteen years since the 2003 Land Reform Act was passed. The Act afforded the crofting community a right to buy and become its own landlord – not piecemeal, croft by croft, but to purchase an entire estate as one crofting body if so desired.

Now, I’m not rubbishing this development. It’s difficult to, when you recollect the heroism of Assynt, and of Eigg, in challenging absentee landlordism before there was tailor-made legislation to assist their endeavour. What I am merely pointing out is that the crofting community right to buy is something that had also to be granted via an Act of – albeit the Scottish – Parliament. It is arguably benevolent in its tendency, but still regulation nonetheless. Mr Inkster refers to the ‘Scottish ministers’ many times in this short chapter, reminding even the most gung-ho of community trusts that they have what they have at the behest of government, and of the reams and reams of law which have made it possible.

It’s easy to fool ourselves that we are freer than we actually are. Human beings are incredibly gullible, and very liable to convince themselves that there exists no authority higher than their own. That anyone from the seven crofting counties still believes this to be the case is extraordinary, when you consider the weight of legislation under which they live, move and have their being.

When I was a child, we marked the centenary of the 1886 Act, which put the word, ‘crofting’ onto the statute books for the very first time. It has always been cited as a great stride forward and, I suppose it was in many ways. But it was also the beginning of state-sponsored interference in a way of life which had existed previously on its own terms. Yes, it mitigated against some of the worst excesses of private landlordism, but it also sank the Gael into that abiding sense of being a permanent ward of state.

I think we are more at risk than ever these days of regarding ourselves as ‘looked after’. By the time the centenary had come and gone, organisations like the Crofters (as it was then) Commission, the HIDB and even the embryonic Scottish Crofters Union were household names. The folk leading the organisations and formulating policy were known to those most affected by their decisions. Even more crucially, those leaders were affected by their own policy too – because they lived in the communities regulated by these organisations.

Quietly, insidiously, the state moves the machinery that regulates Gaeldom further and further from its beating heart. Leadership has to come from within – for our land, for our language, for our economy, for our very way of life.

I, for one, am tired of seeing the Gàidhealtachd being run like a colony from Edinburgh. It’s long past time for the natives to get restless.

 

 

The Offensive Truth

It’s all getting a little bit boring. I mean, irony is all very well in its place, but I have had it with reading what the so-called ‘progressives’ in our society have to say about the sincerely-held beliefs of Christians. They talk about tolerance, and they talk about everyone being free to do what they want, and believe what they want . . . but they just can’t shut up about it for one minute, can they? For people who don’t believe in God, they sure love talking about him. Any and every chance they get, those so-called unbelievers are tweaking the nose of the Almighty.

Now, if they were here (and I suspect that some of them may be), they would tell you that they find Christian beliefs so laughable that they cannot permit our childish fantasies to inform or influence public life and policy. Or – and I actually saw this from someone on social media last week in response to local decision making in Lewis – they will say that they cannot permit Christians to bully the rest of society into following a lifestyle that society has rejected.

I have a few issues with this. First of all, there is the arrogance inherent in judging my beliefs when you do not share them. Every believer has had the patronising, ‘comfort blanket’ remarks lobbed at them. Indeed, if that were all my faith amounted to, it would be an inadequate covering in times of trouble, and atheists would be justified in mocking. But it is much more. Would that the ‘progressives’ would use their much vaunted reason to consider the possibility that Christians have experienced something that they have not. If I have come to a different conclusion about God, then perhaps it is because I have seen evidence that you have – thus far – not.

Secondly, and I apologise for repeating this yet again, my holding of a different worldview does not make me a demagogue. Last year, while pretending to be reasonable, the local branch of Secularists Anonymous repeatedly invited me for coffee via Facebook, so that they could ‘explain why secularism is no threat to your faith’. I didn’t accept their disingenuous offer because, amongst other things, I already knew that their secularism was no threat to anything I believe. My hope is pinned upon something immovable and unchanging. Only the most arrogant person could think a Christian would feel threatened by their puny doctrine.

By the same token, however, should unbelievers not realise that my having different views to them is no threat – particularly if they are right and I have the intellectual capability of a small child, believing in a non-existent God? Yet, here in Lewis and further afield too, Christians get accused of bullying for . . ? Well, for adhering to the principles of their faith.

We skirt around this sometimes because it’s difficult, and because I’m afraid there are some branches of Christianity which have allowed the world, and even its own followers to exist on a mistaken interpretation of the phrase, ‘God is love’.

Yes, he is: God IS love. That means that he is the very definition of it, the template for it, and the yardstick by which all other manifestations of love are measured. While he is love, God is also truth. God is the blueprint for all that is right. And he is the ultimate in grace, in holiness, in perfection.

That’s who I am – inadequately – trying to follow. If you haven’t seen him for who he is yet, you cannot know what I know, or see him as I do. He showed me who I was and where I was headed and you know, Christ did me the greatest favour of all by being the very opposite to what the world asks.

If he had been the kind of Saviour our society has tried to build for itself, he would have showed me myself, and he would have said, ‘that’s you, with all your flaws and the blackness of sin – but I accept you that way, because it’s part of your identity, and it’s fine’.  Christ would have told me that if I was happy in the way I was living my life (and I was), and as long as I didn’t purposely hurt others, he’d take me at face value.

That’s not what he does, though. He couldn’t. Society is a mirror that has taught us to say that we can be whatever we want as long as our intentions are good. But it has taken away the gauge by which we measure what ‘good’ means. No wonder we’re adrift, seeking answers in our own flawed wisdom.

Christ, on the other hand, shows us what we are in comparison to him, in light of what he is and what he has achieved for us. I have seen myself time and again, measured against his perfection and found badly wanting. Yet, I have also seen his free offer of the grace that will mould me in his image in the fullness, not of time, but of eternity.

This Christ doesn’t want me to be a bully. It was not how he persuaded people to follow him, and it is not how he would have his church behave. You cannot impose salvation or the freedom of identity in Jesus upon people who are wilfully blind. I cannot make those who have not seen themselves in his light understand that I am not brainwashed, nor enslaved – but committed to following him as faithfully as I can.

That means I will believe things that seem hurtful to them, because they don’t yet realise that, while a lie comes in many editions, the truth only ever had one. We can reinterpret the facts to suit our own narrative, we can deny them a voice, and pretend that they do not exist – but in the heart of every believer, the truth burns as an everlasting and immutable flame.

I’m sorrier than I can say if shortcomings in me, or the church to which I belong have caused people to believe that there is a softer version of Christianity that permits people to live just as they please, to exercise the power of life or death based on convenience, or to write large tranches of the Bible off as irrelevant.

There is no such Christianity. One Christ and one truth – these are all we have. Once we have them, though, we come to realise that they are all we need.

 

 

Give Truth a Helping Hand

The written word has an enormous amount of power and beauty when deployed in the right way.  I am a slave to its attractions – always in pursuit of the perfectly crafted sentence, and willing to search out the tools with which to do the job. Being an old-fashioned girl, I still like to write my thoughts out longhand. Give me a fountain pen, and some good quality paper, and I am as happy as any other stationery-loving geek in notebook and ink heaven.

Every writing occasion, however, demands a little subtle tailoring. For the all-too-necessary reminders of where I’m supposed to be, and what I’m supposed to be doing, it’s a raspberry-coloured Filofax (A5, so I can cram it with other ephemera as I go). Notes on the go are jotted down in either a pocket-size Field Notes book, or my beloved Traveller’s notebook system. Proper, sit-down, I’m going to write a blog situations will bring out the big guns – a silver Waterman fountain pen, and thick, Japanese paper.

But the most problematic situation of all has been what notebook and pen combination to use in church. I have tried them all – hardback, floppy covers, clipbooks, reporters’ notebooks, Field Notes steno pads, microscopic pocket notebooks . . . and, oh, the difficulty in finding the appropriate pen! You don’t want a scratchy nib that annoys the people around you, so that caused me to ditch the weird experience that is the friction pen (ink you can rub out).

After much trial and error, though, I have found the perfect combination: the Midori Color Paper Notebook (in yellow or brown), and the phenomenal Zebra Sarasa clip pens in vintage shades of green, brown, burgundy and blue-black.  The notebook is the right size to rest on my psalm book as I write, and the pen glides noiselessly over the yellow paper so my neighbours in the pew can listen undisturbed to the sermon.

By this point – if you’re still reading – it’s possible that I have been written off as a bona fide oddball with too much time on her hands. Here’s the thing, though, these tools matter to me because I love the craft of writing, of placing words on the page, and I don’t want anything to mar the experience.

I single my sermon notes out for particular attention here, though, because it is a very specific kind of writing. The reason I write is in order to summarise the minister’s sermons for publication on our church social media account and website. Given our very good audio sermon section, it may seem like a bizarre idea to have written summaries too. However, you can read one of my summaries in five minutes, you can reread it, and you can find any Scripture references or other quotes made by the minister in the course of his preaching.

Whatever value these summaries may or may not have to our online followers at Stornoway Free Church, they have been of immense benefit to me. I listen deeply in order to note down the main points of what is being preached, and I always finish writing the digest version, feeling that I have really had to engage with the text meaningfully myself.

Two Sundays ago, the striking element of a very interesting sermon was something said as an aside by the minister. He referred, in the context of talking about Amos and the plumbline applied by God, to something quite remarkable from the prophecy of Isaiah.

‘Truth’, he said, ‘has fallen in the street’.

I nearly broke the nib, skidding to a sharp halt when he uttered that sentence. How could the words of a prophet who lived over 2000 years ago be quite so apt for the age in which we are now living?

The image is one we are well used to, of people who lack the advantages we have in life, of homeless folk, and of those whose lives have been blighted by addiction. Of course, the Christian response to that kind of need is certainly not to walk by on the other side. We are supposed to view each and every one of those people as what they are: made in the image of God.

Scribbling frantically in my yellow notebook last Sunday, I listened to our minister preaching on – I believe – one of the most beautiful texts in the Bible: ‘He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power’ (Hebrews 1:3).

Christ conveys the exact imprint of God and, because of that, Christ is Truth. And this is the Truth we have allowed to fall in the street. We have permitted it by our failure to stand up on its behalf. I said as much to someone recently, while we were discussing the sad state of our society, and he disagreed, saying that it was not our protests, but our prayers that are needed.

Well, I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive. Prayer and action are frequently different sides of the same coin: not alternative, but complementary to one another. It is we who have failed the Truth and if we go on our knees in contrition before God, ought we not to expect that he will have a task for us in restoring it to its rightful place? When we are part of the problem, it is only right that he ask us – and that we are willing – to be part of the solution.

Writing the truth, as best I can with God’s help, is my small contribution to lifting it out of the gutter. It is not nearly enough; it is not even enough from me. Writing the word of God, as it is preached, though, reminds me of the great importance of doing linked to hearing.

Another of my jotters is crammed with notes on last year’s group Bible study relating to the Wisdom of James, surely one of the most practical letters in the whole Bible. It reminds us of the importance of prayer, yes, and urges the Lord’s people not to neglect spending time with him.

But he does not separate that from the edict that we should be doers, as well as hearers of the Word. Truth has fallen in the street, expressed in the passive voice though it is, does not absolve believers of blame for its sad condition. On the contrary, it is a plea to our conscience to clasp our hands in prayer, and then extend them in labour to raise it up once more.

Secure Tenure in a Better Country

There is a line in the Runrig song, ‘Flower of the West’, which says that ‘the breathing of the vanished lies in acres round my feet’. For me, that articulates something that I feel very much here in my own community – the almost palpable sense of history everywhere. I know people who claim no interest in the past, who dismiss it as irrelevant. We are here, now, they will say, what’s the point in looking back?

Well, the point in looking back is to see how we got here. I am firmly with William Faulkner on this, when he said, ‘The past is not dead. The past is not even past’. How could it ever be, in a place like this?

That’s why I think it is a tragedy that Gaels do not learn their own history. For many years, the only formal access to it was through the Higher Gàidhlig course where, if you studied the poetry of the 18th and 19th centuries, you would also be taught about the Jacobite cause, the clearances, the famine, emigration and the Land War. And that knowledge is so empowering. When you know about these things, you can see where your community, your family, and you as an individual fit into the bigger picture.

That is where I derive my identity from.  I am a Gaelic-speaking hybrid of Maclean and Macdonald. My father’s people were cleared from Mangersta and settled at Doune: that’s Doune Carloway of the Iron Age broch. And my mother’s folk were from Harris on her paternal side: na Fìdhlearan, hereditary foresters to the Campbells of Scalpay, in the deer forest of Amhuinnuidhe, before relocating to Ardhasaig, via Taransay.

Today, I work in the very college from which I graduated in 1997. Our pretty campus is situated in the grounds of Lews Castle, built by Sir James Matheson in 1851 and gifted by Lord Leverhulme to the people in 1923, when the Stornoway Trust Estate was created – the first community-owned estate in Scotland.

I sit on the board that manages the Lancashire soap magnate’s legacy. Despite all the talk, the iconoclasm, and the liberal sprinkling of meaningless words like ‘progressive’ throughout public rhetoric, I see at least part of my role there as being to maintain the dignity of such an historic organisation. Stornoway Trust has always had a sense of its own historicity, and that’s why I feel an affinity with it: knowing your roots will always strengthen your sense of identity.

Of course, there are other aspects of my identity too. On a Sunday, I worship at the Free Church on Kenneth Street  – itself a relic of that great chapter in our history, when ministers and congregations walked out of the Church of Scotland to form a denomination free from the power of patronage, and outside interference.

Its establishment precipitated other radical acts. Described as ‘the crofting community at prayer’, it is believed that the community cohesion and leadership provided by the early Free Church, contributed to the events that followed, culminating in the Napier Commission and the Crofting Act of 1886, which finally granted security of tenure. Beyond that there were – here in Lewis – the raids which saw crofters clashing with landlord and government in their thirst for land on which to subsist.

I grew up in the relatively new village of Newmarket, where there is a mixture of crofts and of allotments, rented from the Trust. Our home was built on one of the latter, but my father still ran the croft at Doune, shearing and dipping sheep within the tobhta of his old home.

Land, you see, runs through it all. The soil under our feet, and the landscape before our eyes, seem to form the boundaries of our being. We ache for places we have left, and love those in which we make our homes. It is a universal experience, but always rooted in a familiar landscape – one whose form and history is meaningful to us.

And yet, however strong my sense of self is, however anchored here in Lewis, and however much the past whispers to me as I move through the landscape of my life . . . this is not really home. Yet, this is not the contradiction that you might think, because – like many other refugees – I have a dual history and a dual identity.

As much as the Fìdhlearan of Ardhasaig are my people, I would claim kinship also with the Israelites. Their yearning for the land of promise speaks to me in my own geographical and historical context. Because I know who I am as an islander, I can recognise in myself that desire for true belonging.

The most famous articulation of this, unsurprisingly, comes from Paul in 2 Corinthians 5: 8, when he says that he would prefer to depart this world to be with Christ. In a letter he left for us, his family, before his death, my father expressed his love for us all in just those terms. Though he said that another lifetime with us would be wonderful, he was prepared to go and be with his Saviour, which – he wrote – was far better.

Is that not an extraordinary witness? When we are blessed to have family and friends for whom we care deeply; when we are intimately tied in to the landscape and history of a particular place; when our identity here on earth is made of something older and finer than ourselves . . . what a testimony, then, to be able to say that there is something more awaiting us beyond those limits.

I believe that the privilege of heritage and history is there to teach us about this greater gift. God placed each of us within a particular lineage, a particular culture, so that we might identify with that international movement of refugees towards our ultimate home.

Knowing who my people are, and where I came from does not tie me faster to this world, as you might expect; it heightens my expectation of what God has prepared in eternity that is richer even, than the security I enjoy now. There, the father who once walked with me over the acres at Doune, was happy to go; there the husband who loved the vista of Traigh Mhòr was happy to go.

One day, I too will finish my journey, and find true security of tenure.