Does My Ego Look Big In This?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep A Thing Seven Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Compassion of the Christ

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

It was enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A devilish noise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things that went ‘bump’ in the past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Few topics so successfully bridge the generation gap.

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

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

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

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

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

Naw, naw, minister

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sìth is ‘peace’ in Gaelic

Keeping the Snail’s March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ultimately, they are our battles too.

Another Man’s Croman

(A belated tribute to the late Eachann Dòmhnallach)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reputation or Character?

Many years ago, the post office at Achmore briefly became a crime scene. Over a period of time, small sums of money had been disappearing and, as is bound to happen in such cases, people were beginning to regard one another with suspicion. This is an unhealthy state of affairs in a small community, and so a plan was hatched.

Two people lay in wait on a given night, hoping to apprehend the light-fingered culprit.

Imagine their shock, then, when he turned out not to be light-fingered – or, more accurately, not to be in possession of any fingers at all.

‘How sad’, you say, ‘what all that inbreeding can cause’.

You misunderstand me: he had a long tail and whiskers.

‘Yes, Achmore’, you nod sadly.

You’re still not getting it: he was a rat; a felonious rodent with a penchant for bent accounting. When his little stash was discovered, the money was even arranged according to denomination. 

Still, isn’t everything in this part of the world?

History doesn’t record the relief this discovery must have occasioned. We are far too ready to regard our fellows with suspicion, and they in their turn to think badly of us. That the real culprit turned out to be a rat must surely have been welcome news all round.

I was thinking about false accusations recently, and the harm they – and gossip – can inflict. It is the instinct of every person to protect their own good name, and to lash out at those who would defame it. That drive is no less present in the Christian, but there is a very particular reason why we have to fight it.

In surrendering your life to Christ you are giving him control of everything. You are acknowledging his complete ownership of all that you are, and all that you have.

Including your reputation.

That’s his too. Remember Job? Joseph? King David? All three saw their good names sullied without cause. David was exiled, Joseph imprisoned, and Job had the particular pain of being doubted by his friends. Surely – as Eliphaz believed – a Christian who suffers loss of reputation must certainly have offended God deeply.

That’s a logical stance for the world to take. They cannot distinguish between character and reputation. And, of course, they refuse to accept that their view of the matter is not final. It is a state of affairs as old as time (or very nearly). Read the Book of Psalms for repeated exhortations that God not allow his servant to be put to shame by the enemy.

Inevitably, these petitions conclude in the same way: remembering God’s faithfulness and praiseworthy name.

The key to bearing trial, whether bereavement slander, or scandal, is to place yourself back where you belong: in God’s hands. See his strength actually perfected in your own weakness. 

These are not just nice words: I have lived them.

Sadly, I have also failed to live them. The unregenerate part of me wants to defend myself against liars. These efforts tend, however, to be fruitless – not because I am wrong, but because my appeal fails in the courts of men. 

The courts of men are built on the very street in which truth is fallen.

We have all, therefore, to seek after the weakness of which Paul boasted, ‘for when I am weak, then am I strong’. God owns my reputation; it is not mine to defend.

Can a Christian be slandered and wronged with impunity, then? Yes. And no. It all depends whose verdict you value. We can, it would appear, be subject to all the vilest jibes and condemnation of the world. Christians may even – as Job was – be judged wrongly by the brethren.

However, we can also stand fast in the love of Christ and pray as he did. If our reputation is God’s then, the awful truth is that our enemies are much to be pitied, for they really know not what they do.

And their voices prevailed

I like getting my own way of at all possible. In that, I’m probably no different to the majority of the population. We can all be single-minded in our pursuit of what we desire, and the fact is that when I get my way, it may be that someone else’s hopes are simultaneously dashed. As I triumph, there is potentially another who weeps. 

That is why, in pursuing our aims in life, we need to be very careful about the impact realising these can have on others. We need to be sure that slavish attachment to our own opinions are not the means of doing great harm. 

I think, for example, of the people who wish to remove the Bible and Christian teaching from school life. They say they wish children to have a choice, and not to be brainwashed . . . but see the means of achieving this as being to excise all information about God from their young people’s experience. 

They know this is illogical, but they want it anyway. People who are doggedly pursuing a goal will justify it to themselves any way they can. 

When Jesus was brought before Pilate, the charges against him were found to be without foundation. Nevertheless, the crowd bayed for his life to be forfeit. They did not want to hear Pilate’s logic; they wanted Jesus dead.

And what did Pilate do? ‘He delivered Jesus over to their will’.

Look at the devastation our will can wreak. In that moment, they insisted on getting what they wanted – and what they wanted was to see God himself hanging on a cross. 

Of course, they chose to free Barabbas instead. I wonder if he witnessed the crucifixion of Christ, and if he marvelled at the innocent man dying in his place. 

And I wonder what the people who had demanded this did next, I wonder what they thought. Luke’s narrative only describes their collective behaviour. Every mob, though, is made up of individual souls, and each one is capable of being reached by Christ. Did any leave the scene broken by what they had done? Were there contrite hearts in that assembly?

We saw in the previous chapter how Jesus freely surrendered his own will to God. Where would the human race be if he had insisted on his own way, so that the cup of death would pass from him? 

If Jesus who is perfect had been so consumed with being right that he had insisted on his own way in everything, we would be a hopeless race indeed.

But Jesus, in his perfection, submitted to the Father’s will. God’s will is that none shall perish.

What is so good about your own way when it opposes eternal life?