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.

Erase your Ebenezer?

If you are ever tempted to believe that the Free Church in Lewis has become less hardline of late, consider this: one of our ministers waved a bayonet at the children during a recent Sunday morning service.

Context is everything, however. He was using an ancient (and very blunt, health and safety fans) family relic to illustrate a spiritual truth. This wasn’t learn your catechism with menaces. He wasn’t threatening, or intimidating – and he was safely on the far-end of a camera anyway.

But, if I merely told you that he had wielded a bayonet at the children of the congregation, and left it there, might you not get the wrong impression? We human beings are terrifically adept at picking the erroneous end of any given stick, anyway. Sometimes, of course, we do it wilfully. It suits us to think the worst of those we don’t like, or those of whom we are envious. In such situations, it is all too easy to cherry-pick our facts and dwell on those that paint the blackest picture of all.

When I stood for the Stornoway Trust, I was accused of being ‘ashamed of my Saviour’ because I had not mentioned in my election address that I was a Christian. Now, my reason for omitting this information was simple: while I don’t deny that many people voted for me because of my profession of faith, I would never ask for anyone’s vote on that basis. Being a Christian doesn’t automatically qualify you for (or disqualify you from) public service.

What my accuser failed to take into account was the fact that I patently was not hiding my allegiance; far from it. However, he looked narrowly at my conduct in this one area and judged me – harshly, I feel – based upon it. For him, because I had not explicitly declared myself a church member, I was ashamed and guilty of denying Christ.

We are, all of us, guilty of something. Not one living person can claim perfection in this world. I freely hold my hands up and admit that I do not always speak up for Christ when and as I should. Worse still, my conduct is often far from what it ought to be, so that I am not even a silent witness for him. People can rightly point to Catriona Murray and accuse her of saying and doing plenty that is at odds with her profession of faith. And how much more evidence they would have against me if they could read my black and venomous thoughts. Let me be frank: I am cynical, sardonic, frequently lax in my prayer life, slow to forgive, self-righteous and narrow-minded. If I witnessed in proportion to what I owe, I would be a paragon; but I am not. What I am is a sinner, saved by God’s grace, and a work in progress.

Mercifully, other people’s opinions of me are none of my business. I have no control over them or interest in them. People will try to remind you of what you are at your worst – how many converted Christians are still spoken of in terms of their youthful excesses. ‘There was a day and he was in the pub every weekend, not the church’, and that sort of thing. The world doesn’t permit us to be changing and improving. It freezes us at our very lowest point.

That is why memorialising the past has become such a vexed question. Do we retain the statue of a man who made his money on the back of slavery? Are we right to permit the Duke of Sutherland’s image – ‘erected by a grateful tenantry’ – to remain, looking down upon the broad lands decimated by his plans of improvement?  The boardroom of the Stornoway Trust, too, is dominated by a portrait of our benefactor, Lord Leverhulme, a man whose exploitation of forced labour in the Belgian Congo does not cover him with glory.

So, what do we say about such people? Can we use the rather odd defence someone made of Knox recently when they accused me of judging him by modern standards: he was of his time? Being ‘of your time’, though, is surely a euphemism for just following the herd, being of the world. Knox was not falling short of my standard by being a misogynist; he was falling short of Christ’s. If we let Knox off the hook so easily, then we must make a similar defence for the Duke of Sutherland and Lord Leverhulme.

And that just will not do. Otherwise, we have to look around us, at modern slavery, at child labour, at homelessness, at abortion, at eugenics, at sexual exploitation, at the wilful warping of the education system, at the censorship of free speech . . . and we must wink at it, saying, ‘ah, it’s just the modern way’.

That’s the world’s defence of sin.

I would not remove the memorials. Leave the mannie on top of Ben Bhraggie, and keep the portrait of Leverhulme above the boardroom table. Remember them, though, not as stainless paragons, but as people in whom there was the capacity for both darkness and light. Make sure generations to come see them as three-dimensional.

And, more importantly, let’s think about what this controversy teaches us regarding image. Not the stone, marble or canvas variety, but our own fractured selves – made in the likeness of God, and marred by sin. We too, even if we are being restored, bear the hallmarks of fallenness. Somewhere about our person is the Maker’s thumbprint; it is this, and this alone, which preserves us from destruction.

For, if we were dependent on one another’s mercy, or on our own perfection, who would raise a memorial to any of us?

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.

Roll the Stone Away

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

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

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

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

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

God truly has healed me.

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

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

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

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

What is it about lockdowns and conspiracy theories?

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

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

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

He had risen.

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

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

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

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

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

He IS risen.

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

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

God for one, God for all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Nudism, Acrobats & the Liberal Commandments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they still have the last word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘None is righteous; no, not one’.

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

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

Politics, prayer and my inner Pharisee

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

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

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

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

So, local Christians breathe a little more easily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No medium required: Gaelic is alive

When I was in primary six, our class teacher asked who among us spoke Gaelic. I regarded the unexpected question with suspicion and decided not to put my hand up. He wasn’t so daft, though, and fixed his eye on me, before asking several questions, all of which I answered fully . . . in Gaelic. There was no denying it after that. So, three out of his thirty pupils were labelled ‘native’, a category which has long since fallen into disuse because of its supposed ‘ethnic’ connotations.

Having progressed through primary school to the point where I was staring down the barrel of my penultimate year, here was someone asking me about my first language. I hadn’t thought about Gaelic as belonging in the classroom, any more than I would have welcomed the sight of my father with a deamhais in the GP’s surgery. It was a peculiarity of my home life, nothing more. And, in a house where your mother plays the bagpipes and your father insists that someone named Bodach Brùgan lives in the cavity walls . . . well, you can understand why this example of their craziness manifesting in school was unexpected to say the least.

The reason we were suddenly being asked about our fluency was with one eye on preparation for secondary school. I realised this many years later but, at the time, I merely obliged the teacher by doing as I was told.

What a funny way to realise that your mother tongue is a relevant part of your identity. Six years of education and not one mention of its existence, far less its influence on my life and, ‘next thing, suddenly, this change of mood’, as Seamus Heaney once wrote about the power of education.

Education HAS power, and as with every other tool of its kind, there is potential for misuse. Over several centuries, education was used to teach the Gaels of their inferiority. Don’t believe those who tell you that Gaelic was beaten out of the population; it wasn’t – it was taught out of us. We so equated the acquisition of English with progress, with the fabled ‘getting on’, that anything tying us to the traditional way of life was . . . well, a bit embarrassing, frankly.

As I was being asked that question by my teacher, however, a bit of an ar-a-mach was taking place in the unlikeliest of locations: Breasclete. There, for the first time, primary school children were beginning to be taught entirely in Gaelic.

And this week, the news began to filter out that Comhairle nan Eilean Siar is taking the momentous step of making Gaelic the default language for new enrolments. In other words, the ‘GME’ box is pre-selected and, if your child is bound for an English education, you will have to untick ‘Gaelic’. AS Donald Dewar once said about something else entirely, ‘I like that’.

It doesn’t materially change anything. If you don’t want GME for your child, you will simply have to say so, like Gaelic speakers have done since its inception. I’m a little puzzled by the objections I have read to this small administrative change, but not remotely surprised.  We have to remember that what may be one small administrative change for the Comhairle, is one giant shift in mindset for the electorate.

See, I can’t have been the only one whose identity was largely ignored by the education system until 1985. Indeed, I know I wasn’t.

So, we struggle now to comprehend the fact that we are accepted. The perverse types among us even object to it – how dare the Comhairle make Gaelic the default choice for enrolment.  Bring back the glory days of persecution, of the maide-crochaidh, of the ignominy and shame at being labelled a ‘maw’.

Sometimes, I have to confess to that mindset myself. When Gaelic is talked about in terms of percentages, and of cost to the taxpayer, and even when its champions cite the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, I just want to snatch it out of their hands and run for the hills.

For me, Gaelic is my home, my parents, the laughter at one liners no English monoglot could get. It is the distinctive clipping sound of the sheep shears, and the smell of the freshly-shorn fleece. Gaelic is psalm singing and kind-faced bodaich and cailleachan who looked at you with the sort of Christian love that your soul can feel, even if your tongue cannot name it. Lewis Gaelic for me is warmth and security and humour. This Gaelic so derided by parliamentary committees and small-minded unionists, is the umbilicus linking people like me to a place and a people we love so much it defies description . . . even with two languages at our disposal.

The time of which I write here is gone and many of the people with it, though the place remains. I cannot capture for you what Gaelic means to me because it is elusive, beautiful and fragile as a soap bubble. But I can say that Comhairle nan Eilean has finally lived up to its name with this decision to normalise Gaelicness in the heartland.

No child in Lewis – or Harris, or Uist, or Barra – should wait ten years to speak to a teacher in their first language. And now they won’t have to.