A Home For All Seasons

I am writing this blog as a howling gale rages outside. Myself and the dog are tucked up by the woodburner, enjoying the warmth and safety of home. And it occurs to me, as I pour another cup of Dark Grey no.4 (tea, incidentally, not malt whisky), that it could all serve as a metaphor for the life that I live.

The house was built many years ago by the father in-law that I never met, as a home for his growing family, of which my husband was the baby. In time, it became his, and I moved here with him as a bride in 2003.

Over the years, we carried out work that made it more our home, including the installation of the Morso Squirrel woodburner upon which I am currently toasting my cable-knit slippers. And Donnie became a tree and shrub aficionado, growing obsessed with screening the house off from the world. I remember saying to him, as we made yet another pilgrimage to Maybury Gardens, to please not mention the word ‘privacy’ again. ‘David Iain is going to think we’ve got something to hide’, I said, as we both laughed at the thought.

It is on a feu, and it is not mortgaged. So, when my beloved Donnie passed away in 2015, I had the comfort of knowing it was completely mine. No one could take it from me. He had, in the last few months of his life, been single-minded in ensuring that I would be secure in every way that he could make certain of. That was always his instinct. 

I remember one evening, a few years before the shadow of death crossed our path. He had filled up the log basket and gone out to close the gates. ‘That always feels good’, he said, shooting the bolt home, ‘everything secured for the weekend, and both of us safe inside’. It was why the trees were so important too: he was putting a circle of protection around what meant the most to him. This house was everything: it symbolised his parents and siblings, and his marriage to me. It was everything warm, safe and positive in a life kindly and gently lived.

So, when that legacy passed into my keeping, I felt very keenly that it was like having his protection still. He cannot put his arms around me now, and I cannot go to him with my troubles – but I have our home, with all its happy memories and warm associations.

Every metaphorical storm – and every literal one too – that has blown since I lost him, sent me to the solace of this place. Here, I feel close to him, and safe. 

But there is an additional reason for this. No, not additional – it is, in fact, the foundation that was there all along. It was what motivated Donnie, it was what sustained us both as we walked through the valley of the shadow, as much as in the sunlit uplands of happiness.

Love. Real love, that is. Not the Mills and Boon sort, nor the kind that breaks under pressure. The original, the best, patented by the Creator.

Over my sitting room door hangs a sign that says ‘The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?’, the first verse of psalm 27. It speaks volumes to me of what home is, of what it always has been. I understand God’s protection because I have always been blessed to have the shelter of a loving home.

Now is no different. I have a home that was built with love, and – as my husband wrote in the last of his diary entries – was always a place of happiness. That sort of legacy is not meaningless, and I don’t hold it lightly.

Not long ago, a friend of mine was talking about a widow who had some slight bother with her neighbours, and kept saying, ‘this wouldn’t happen if Murdo was alive’. I suppose he thought she was full of self-pity and being melodramatic. But I believe that she probably had a point, because people do treat you differently. Kind people treat you more kindly, and those who are only out for themselves seek to exploit your solitude. 

God has a heart for the fatherless and for the widows, though. I don’t just believe that; I know it. He has given me to have a safe place in storms of all kinds. Sometimes, he causes them to be calm, and sometimes he lets them rage and fume and blow themselves out.

But always, I am here, in the warmth and safety of my home. When the forces outside batter and buffet me, I look up and I read once more:

‘The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?’

The answer is this: no one. I am safe in the shelter of one who can silence the storm with a word. 

A humbling thought if you have ever glibly said of yourself, ‘I am the storm’. 

The land, the language, the people

Last night, I dreamt I went to Mangersta again. It seemed to me I stood in a passing place leading to the village, and for a while, I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and chain upon the gate. I called in my dream, ‘fosgail an geata’, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spikes of the gate, I saw that the houses were empty of anyone who could understand me.

Before this vision of mine is entirely fulfilled, can’t we utter some of the forbidden words? Isn’t it past time to talk about why one of Scotland’s last indigenous communities, wrapped and bandaged though it is by legislation, has failed to be protected by any of these measures?

We have reached a point where serious academic research backs up what we have all known for some time: the Gaelic language is in crisis because the community that nurtured it is in crisis.

This is not a problem that can be solved by Gaelic agencies because, quite honestly, this isn’t a purely linguistic problem. And it’s hard to talk frankly about the real issues because people will rush to call you ‘racist’ for using vocabulary that excludes – words like ‘native’ and ‘indigenous’ for example. Because the struggle has focused purely upon language acquisition for so long, they walk among us who will claim, ‘is Gàidheal mi’ just because they’ve learnt to speak Gaelic.

Well, I have news for such people: is not Gàidheal thu; is Gaelic speaker thu. There is much more to being a Gael than just speaking the language.

And there is much more to being an islander than just living here. People, sadly, are failing to recognise this, and that is contributing to the death of community. I have firsthand experience of people who bought crofts here in (yes, in) Lewis expressly for the purpose of starting a business. They, and many others like them, think that, because they have bought and paid for a parcel of land here, they have become islanders.

But, just as learning Gaelic does not make you a Gael, owning property in Lewis does not make you a Leòdhasach. And that’s okay, because – presumably – you’ve got your own cultural identity.

So, we get ourselves a culturally diverse Gàidhealtachd and everyone is agreed that this diversity is a good thing.

Except, not everyone. I don’t, for one. At this point, some of you will have decided that I’m just being racist. I’m not; I’m being realistic. We have reached a point where an indigenous people with its own language and way of life is under threat. It’s time to stop being so damned polite and right-on. And so, I am now going to launch into saying the unsayable.

We need a new approach. A complete sea-change in how things are done ought to begin with legal recognition of the indigenous people who inhabit the Western Isles. Once that status is conferred, there has to be robust support for crofting and for Gaelic. I’d like to see the Crofting Commission and Bòrd na Gàidhlig working together – they already share a building (in Inverness, for now, Rome wasn’t built in a day) anyway. One might almost say gun robh e meant.

And we have to look at land ownership legislation. Much is made of the community right to buy – but it’s largely meaningless in the nurturing of real community as long as anyone with a fat enough purse can bag a croft, regardless of background. Young local people cannot hope to compete with that, or with the other blight on our society: housing for tourism.

Tourism is low-hanging fruit for people hoping to make a fast buck, or development agencies looking for an easy ‘win’. It is used as a battering ram to foist change (Sunday opening) or to oppose development (wind farms).

‘What will visitors think’?’ is the constant refrain.

I don’t care what visitors will think. This isn’t a reservation or a living museum exhibit. We were born and brought up here and we are committed to it. But we have complacently permitted the ongoing vandalism of our way of life, and smiled politely as it is dismantled around us.

The recent publication of ‘The Gaelic crisis in the vernacular community’ is a wake-up call. We need legislation that will empower the Crofting Commission and the landowning community trusts to put land the way of young islanders. Under the ‘new normal’, people like me will be at home a lot more during daylight hours. At a stroke, this providence has reduced the sad phenomenon of dormitory communities. What if we saw the economically active generation combining their main occupation – broadcasting, lecturing, weaving, graphic design or whatever – with crofting? Imagine land being worked, and villages where you see activity in the middle of the day; imagine Gaelic being spoken as the older folk pass their skills on.

Maybe I’m a dreamer. I hope I’m not the only one.

I am not saying that incomers shouldn’t be welcome, that would be ridiculous. But I am saying that if we really are serious about our culture, we have got to stop it being reduced to a commodity. If we don’t act now to stop the exploitation of our heritage, one day we’re going to wake up and realise that the thing we’re selling no longer exists. Native islanders – and I include myself in this – have been remiss in not providing a better welcome for those who come to live among us. We consistently fail to demonstrate that there is more to places like Lewis than just scenery and much more to our culture than a few songs or scraps of tweed.

Community, like heritage, is codified in our conduct, and in our relationship, both with the place we call ‘home’ and with one another. You can’t package that up and sell it.

In the post-lockdown period, we have seen the ugly side of tourism. Not just the dirty camping phenomenon, but a disturbing attitude. All over social media, would-be visitors and those seeking to make money from them were talking about ‘rights’. The ‘rights’ of anyone who wanted to visit Lewis, for example. ‘It doesn’t belong to the islanders’ one man said, ‘and I can come if I want’.

No, it doesn’t belong to the islanders; that much is true. But we belong to the island in ways no visitor can comprehend.

As a student, I read Bruce Chatwin’s ‘The Songlines’, a beautiful book about his travels in Australia. In it, he wrote:

‘The whites were forever changing the world to fit their doubtful vision of the future. The Aboriginals put all their mental energies into keeping the world the way it was’.

We are the Aboriginals: custodians of our ancestral lands, speakers of an ancient language through which we construct and comprehend the Gaelic community. It is past time for us to recognise that and to take steps to protect what has been left in our care.

It is time for our indigenous status to be formalised; it is time for everyone to recognise that these communities would be nothing without their people. And it is time for us, as a people, to recognise that we are nothing without the heritage that give us our identity.

The Loneliness of the Socially-distanced Worshipper

We are now in that post-lockdown wilderness I dreaded, where no one seems very sure of what is safe, or what is lawful, to do. As so often happens with we humans, it has caused discussion of our plight to degenerate to levels rarely witnessed outside of the playground: ‘but they’re doing it, why can’t we?’ or ‘it’s not fair’, and, of course, ‘because I want to’.

Pubs, shops, hairdressing salons, and even restaurants are beginning to open up – just not places of worship. Children are scheduled to return to the classroom here in mid-August, but there will be no Stornoway communion at the month’s end. You may visit the zoo to stare at rare breeds, but the Leòdhasach èildear cannot be seen in his natural habitat (the suidheachan mòr) until late phase four, whenever that will be.

And, you know, I’m fine with that.

I will undoubtedly be called ‘selfish’ for saying so, but this is a personal blog, so it’s only to be expected that what you get is MY opinion. Here’s  my thinking.

The government did not wait until the virus had been eradicated, nor till effective treatment or vaccine was found; they opened up shops and businesses because this country, this world, is driven by money. It isn’t a Tory thing, or an SNP thing: it’s a people thing. Sadly, it’s all we know. Money is our security blanket. Without it, we are at the mercy of charity, and the mercy of our fellow men. Ask the 29,000 Scottish homeless how that’s working out for them, and you can begin to understand why we were all afraid for ‘the economy’.

So afraid were we that, suddenly, it was safe for businesses to reopen. And then it became okay for folk to stand one metre apart instead of two. Ask yourself why it is now we’re being told we must wear masks while shopping – could it possibly be that the government knows it has done something unsafe in permitting us to mix in such numbers?

So, yes, it’s the economy, stupid. That’s why pubs are open, but not places of worship. It’s why kids are going back to school in August, but I’ll probably be teaching my classes from home. The students I teach don’t need their mammies to stay at home with them, like the school kids would.

Churches are not businesses. Furthermore, they can do their thing perfectly well at a distance. We have been able to be out both ends on a Sunday whilst staying in, we have had our midweek prayer meetings and – I believe, ged nach e mo ghnòthach e – the Session meetings have also carried on. There has been Sunday school and youth groups. I don’t know about others, but my elder has conducted virtual visits, ensuring that his charges receive the usual high standard of pastoral care.

Besides all that, or, indeed, above all that, we have been open in ways that we have never been before. People are coming under the word who previously felt unable to attend church. That has to be a challenge for us, and the uncomfortable part surely is to ask ourselves why. What does online church have that physical church lacks? Or is it the other way around? Maybe it’s us, the visible church, that puts people off. And perhaps God is keeping us in this holding-pattern for that reason. Amidst all the cries of ‘I miss church’ and ‘I just want to get back’, could it be that God is reminding us that it isn’t all about the comfort of the saved. Is it just possible that he wants us in the wilderness, drawing others to him, instead of back in our time-honoured malaise of Sunday best and ‘fellowship’?

Besides, what would the benefits be to opening up? People like to cite the importance of gathering together. We are doing that. Online church is a gathering together in the spirit. It is possible to see and hear one another, using certain platforms. No, we cannot hug, kiss, or shake hands, but we won’t be allowed to do that anyway. And, I have a massive, personal objection to returning now. This, I guarantee you, will be a reservation shared by many.

Social distancing dictates that family groups and couples may sit together. Individuals – single, divorced, widowed – will have to sit alone in church. It can be a lonely enough experience going to church by yourself, but to have your singleness, your aloneness underlined in this way strikes me not only as uncomfortable, but unnecessarily cruel. I won’t be subjecting myself to it because it will not add a single thing to my relationship with the Lord. He is with me, here in my home, every minute of every day.

He has been in many homes these last three months. I cannot see online church as inferior because, in many ways, it has accomplished part of the great commission in which we were failing. The Gospel has been taken to the people where they are. God’s servants have stepped up to the plate and learned new ways of transmitting his message of hope.

Let’s not lose sight of that in the clamour to get back to ‘normal’. Normal is overrated.

The First Blast of the Trumpet Against More Rough Wooing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crofting, cùram and the black, black Comhairle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the prisoners heard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empty pews & the fellowship of the Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about fellowship?

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

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

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

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

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

On the willows there we hung up our lyres.

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

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

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

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

I am glad the churches are closed.

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

I was exhausted and verging on burnout.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love hearts, captivity and freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Churches, caravans and being apart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God for one, God for all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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