Wee Frees & Defective Hunks

’This hunk is defective’, the minister said, gesturing to one of the elders. Not wanting to agree too readily, I pretended not to have heard, and mumbled, ‘pardon?’ He sighed deeply, and repeated, ‘In hunc effectum – the meeting is in hunc effectum’. Really none the wiser, I nodded my acquiescence, but I’m sure he wasn’t fooled. After all, how would  a daft wee airhead like myself be as versed in Latin as those fellows who presumably use nothing else at their Session meetings? The point is, I am a mere woman and impossibilium nulla obligatio est.

We use language – jargon, even – according to the situation we are in at the time. My Stornoway Trust life involves talk of wayleaves and resumption, of decrofting and apportionment. And we never, ever approve anything; we just homologate.

I don’t mind admitting I had no idea what on Earth that meant the first time I saw it written.

In my job as a lecturer, I occupy a world of blended learning, of internal and external verification, of validation, of curriculum offer.

There was a day, I suppose, when I didn’t know what any of that was about either. I had come to it fresh and green from a world of grant monitoring reports, of capacity building, and of exit strategies.

Yet, none of this rich and varied vocabulary made much practical sense until I started to use it for myself.

Which brings me back to Wednesday night and the single-item meeting. Or, really, just before it.

Prior to convening our church communication committee, that ‘defective hunk’ of an elder had been part of my Bible study group. We were looking at the wisdom of James (the Biblical one, that is). And we were using a whole lot of words that I feel I’ve always been hearing: salvation, works, faith, justification. When Wee Frees like me were wee, we learned our Catechism, which was brim-full of vocabulary we didn’t understand.

Rote-learning filled our heads with words that were longer than ourselves. And, somewhere along the way I learned the TULIP acronym for five-point Calvinism. Oh, the hours of torture my wee brain has suffered over the years in trying to grasp unconditional election, and averting my eyes from my total depravity.

And then, when I grew older, I thought I could book-learn my way around these words. The Bible is God’s instruction manual for us, I reasoned, so I’d better try to figure out what He’s saying. I thought I could do it with a concordance and a few text books. When that didn’t work, I tried a course of study, hoping to unlock the mystery in the code wrapped around salvation. Surely a course accredited by no less an institution than the Free Church College would set me straight.

But no. All I was amassing for myself was so much head knowledge. I could read every single book ever written on salvation, and every treatise on grace, and never really understand their meaning. Oh, yes, I could have written you an essay. In fact, I recall one such, on the emotional life of Jesus. The brief was to demonstrate that He was indeed a human being with the full range of feelings that implies.

The fact that I wrote enough to pass actually shames me now. How could I calmly write of His joy and His pain, of the depths of His anguish on my behalf – and not be broken-hearted?

Simply, because I had not really learned these two words: atonement and salvation. I knew what they meant, yes; but not yet what they meant to me. And I thank the Lord every day that He, and only He, opened my eyes.

Powerfully, though, as we read what James has to say, I thought of those who have not yet accepted His definition of salvation. The letter runs:

’Even the demons believe – and shudder’.

I know what it is to have a cerebral knowledge of God, to be acquainted with His vocabulary, but not to have Him. Satan knows more of the divine attributes than many who profess to love God. He could, I’m sure, deliver a powerful lecture on justification, and not mean a word of it.

In the lexicon of faith, there is only one word that Christ Himself would place before us,exactly as He did to Jairus: ‘believe’.

He came into the world, taking our humanity – out emotional range – to Himself, in order that He might suffer in our place, wholly and substitutionally.

But we don’t have to define substitution; we merely have to accept it. And the reason for that?

It’s because Christ’s appointment at Calvary was most assuredly in hunc effectum.

 

Life Goes On (and On)

A good friend told me a story about a lady who, some years ago now, was renowned for her tour of the communion circuit. She was something of a legend in her own lifetime and, when she passed away, a neighbour asked her husband what he was going to do now. He replied, ‘keep her in the house for a few days – something I never ever managed before’!

Women who are rarely at home are the stuff of Lewis humour. ‘Falbh nan sìtigean’, ‘rèibheireachd’ and ‘sràbhaicearachd’  have all been used as slightly judgemental ways of  referring to these shameless hussies who will not settle to the domestic life.

I have become one such. In a short space of time, I have been transformed from a  woman who rarely left her own fireside, to one who hardly gets to see it at all. Before I was widowed, I spent a lot of time in my own company, which I didn’t dislike. Donnie, before falling ill, worked all week at Dounreay. He would phone at the back of seven in the morning, and at teatime, and again at bedtime. It took me many, many months not to feel anxious away from a phone at ten in the evening; and I have only now stopped taking my morning shower with the bathroom door open, so that I could hear if he rang.

Life revolved around him, around us and around our home. I was content to ‘potter’.

So, when he had gone, I suppose I worried that time would sit heavy on my hands. At first, it didn’t matter, because other people filled the hours, or I walked the dog, or watched television, or worked in the garden. During that initial raw stage, I kept myself safe, and didn’t stray too far from home. I did a little redecorating, planted flowers, and slept soundly at night.

Through those months, I was sustained by my new-found assurance. Nothing was too big, or too terrible to bear because all my trust was not in a fragile human being who could leave me at any moment, but in Christ, who never will.

It was, of course, a sad time. All my routines, all my touchstones, all my plans . . . these made little sense any more in this strange, new world. But, when I look back on it now, I also see that it was a precious time.

I am reminded of the life of Elijah. In case any elders/ministers/outraged cailleachs are reading this, I am not comparing myself to the prophet. Well, alright, maybe just a little.

When this tower of strength and obedient zeal for the Lord was frightened, he took to his heels. And an angel of God ministered to him, persuading him to rest. This lovely interlude in the account of Elijah’s life reminds us of the need to conserve energy, and to draw back from the fray when it becomes too much.

My life has changed radically since those first months when I was ministered to tenderly by God. He gave me that time, I believe, as a gift, to prepare me for everything that would follow. I don’t suppose it ever entered my head as the first gaping wound slowly healed, that I would eventually regard that time in my life as an oasis. But it was.

Now, three years on, I have what Lady Bracknell would disparagingly call ‘a life crowded with incident’. I am rarely to be found in the house at a sensible hour, and hardly a day goes by without some sort of extra commitment – or even two or three. I have had to start operating a ‘system’ to keep abreast of where I am meant to be.

None of this is helped by the fact that home is a twenty-minute drive away from work, church and the various other places I now spend my time. Last week, I had a post-work meeting every single day. The previous week was about the same.

And, I hit a wall of tiredness and discouragement. So, I did exactly as Elijah did. Oh, you’re thinking, how very wise Catriona is. Follow the prophet’s example and you can’t go wrong.

How did he end up being ministered to by the angel, though? He took to his heels in fear and he ran – not to the Lord, but to find shelter for himself. That’s the behaviour I replicated: Elijah ran for the shelter of a broom tree; I took myself away from church and the fellowship of God’s people. I skipped a Sunday evening service because I was tired, and then a midweek prayer meeting. And, while I’m in confessional mode, I may as well say that my private worship was not all it should be either.

Thankfully, this weekend was an ‘in-house’ communion. There is a quietness and a peace about it, which encourages a spirit of restfulness. We heard about the strength and power in the Lord’s hands, but also the tenderness – and the knowledge that before His hands were extended towards me, they were first outstretched on the cross.

How did I ever allow myself to forget, in the midst of all the bustle of life, that my best shelter is there, under their protection?

 

 

 

What did Gaelic ever do for you?

A sardonic gentleman of my acquaintance recently dismissed the phrase, ‘saoghal na Gàidhlig’ as making it sound like we live in Brigadoon.

Brigadoon was, of course, the eponymous village in a Hollywood musical, which emerged from the Scottish mist for one day every hundred years. And that, coincidentally, is about the frequency with which the Gàidhealtachd attracts the attention of the media, or the government, or the two-bit celebrity out for cheap publicity.

The filmic village was protected by the local minister’s prayer. By those terms, Brigadoon went on in peace and harmony, as long as its people kept within its boundaries, and it remained mostly unseen.

Sound familiar?

We are good, though, for a few column inches from lazy journalists. Or, no, let’s call them what they are: racist journalists.

I have seen all the counter-arguments made by my fellow Gaelic speakers. They will quote statistics, they will use scientific evidence for the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, they will even travel through history to prove to a few bigots that Gaelic WAS spoken outside of the modern-day Gàidhealtachd.

And that’s all great. It really is. Make those arguments if you have the appetite for them.

But, here’s the thing, I don’t see why I have to justify my identity to anyone, least of all a tabloid journalist, or a Lowland politician.

In a world where you can identify as a teapot, or a dog basket, or a Taiwanese figure-skater, why is my honest to goodness Gaelicness still a problem? And, more importantly, why is it allowed to be a problem?

Why are people permitted to say and write the things that they do about Gaelic?

I read a comment on social media recently, where it was suggested that the racist abuse levelled at Gaels does not signify because snide comments don’t cause a language to die.

No, but they can make people ashamed, which causes a culture, a way of life, to die – and that’s what Gaelic is to me. It is not simply a language and it certainly isn’t a cash cow, or a political football either.

It is long days in the potatoes with my parents. And it is the laughter of older folk, sharing that unique humour that only makes sense if you’ve grown up with it. Gaelic is knowing words like ‘tobhta’, not because I am seeking linguistic richness, but because, in my world, there only was one tobhta. Gaelic is the taigh fhaire chairs from the village hall, piled up at someone’s door like the sorrows that they represented, or the blessings they counted.

For me, Gaelic was long, tedious sermons in the homely setting of the Seminary and understanding the spiritual significance of ‘dà cheann-latha’. It was the kindness of the old folk – that particular keen-eyed concern. And it’s handshakes, more warmly expressed in Gaelic as ‘breith air làimh’ – ‘grasping hands’.

That, for reasons of clarity, I should add, is not grasping as in mean, as in looking for money. It is grasping as in hanging on for dear life to the things that matter.

Language, however, doesn’t matter to me at all. I don’t want Gaelic if what’s on offer is a sterile thing in a test tube: a synthetic language without a cultural context; a wild animal placed in a zoo because we have let its habitat be destroyed.

But don’t mistake me. I am not talking about Gaelic as a thing of the past – I am talking about it as something that formed me. Like my parents, my family, my home, I carry it with me. It is who I am; it is my very self.

When I worked as a development officer in Ness, I spent a lot of time applying for funding. It would have been much easier to obtain if more of the Nisich had been Welsh, or lesbian, or . . . well, just not so . . . Niseach. They were just boring old White British – no extra cash for that. But then, I thought, no, they ARE part of a minority ethnic group, and so the heck am I. Repeatedly, then,the National Lottery received forms from me with ‘Other’ ticked and, under ‘Details’: ‘crofters and speakers of Scottish Gaelic’.

That’s who we are. It is what we are. Why should we apologise? We have been doing that for centuries.

It’s time to clear the taigh-fhaire chairs from the door, and build up the walls of the tobhta. Restore. Revive.

We are an indigenous people, still occupying our ancestral lands. Despite clearance and emigration, despite famine and despite concerted policies to eradicate our way of life, we remain.

Gaelic in Edinburgh and Glasgow is all very laudable, but I tend to think of the proverb which says the bird sings sweetest where it was born.

This was never just about language. And working hard to save the language is rather missing the point, if there survives no place on earth where it is woven into the hearts of the people.

Gaelic is my father and my mother, and it is my home. When people denigrate the language, and deride our way of life, that’s what they strike at.

And all the shame is theirs.

 

 

 

Time On My Hands

Last week, I was looking for something else entirely, when I came across my husband’s pocket watch. It was nestling in its box, in the top drawer of what I still think of as his bedside table. He was, as I am, a great fan of timepieces. After he died, I gave both his brothers wristwatches that he had worn and cherished – but this remained where his own hand had last placed it.

He used to joke about my obsession with clocks, especially when March or October rolled around, and their hands had to be moved in the requisite direction. Sometimes he would jokingly suggest starting on them a week before.

I counted them today – not including the cooker, or other electronic timers, there are eleven clocks in my house. The sitting room is home to both a grandfather and a mantle clock, with a resonant tick-tock, and lovely Westminster chimes.

I also have numerous watches, but far and away the most precious is the one I wear most days. It is Swiss with a mechanical movement, bought by Donnie for me when we celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary in Barcelona. It was two months before he was diagnosed with the cancer that would take his life.

I can sit here and look at the present  he gave me, and remember how it was before we knew that time would end for us. It is almost like having the ability to go backwards through the years. This object seems to connect me, not just to Donnie, but to that last perfect holiday.

Because it’s mechanical, like the pocket watch, it stops when it has been off my wrist for a while. When the nurse handed me Donnie’s wedding ring, I felt like that too: everything seemed to grind to a halt.

Time became my enemy. It had ticked relentlessly away towards 7pm on Friday, 20th March, 2015. One minute, he was still alive, and the next, he was not. One minute, I was holding my husband’s hand, and then elders from the church were shaking mine, newly-widowed and bewildered.

How many years might I have to get through without him? How soon could I reasonably hope to die? Those were my very real thoughts.

But I didn’t stop. My cogs and gears kept moving, and time carried me along with it. It still does.

Even now, I have probably got too many timepieces, and a certain tendency to anxiety if late for anything. But, in every real sense, time has lost its hold over me.

Just one glimpse of the eternal will do that.

I don’t pretend to have had a vision of the celestial city, although, for a while, the idea of heaven possessed me. Once, at a house fellowship, someone casually mentioned having read a book about heaven. At the first opportunity, I bought a copy and read it in two sittings.

Christians can’t help but be curious about this home that they have never seen. It is a frequent, speculative topic of conversation. But I have lost any appetite that I may once have had for reading books about it. None of us can possibly imagine what it will be like. If God is too perfect to behold our sin, then it follows that we are too sinful to conceive of His perfection. Never mind that we cannot grasp what eternity actually is, with our finite minds – we cannot imagine heaven with our sinful hearts.

Of course, as a Christian, I associate the word ‘eternal’ with its companion, the word, ‘life’. And whatever my tiny, science-avoiding brain cannot comprehend, my heart tells me this for certain: eternal life begins, not after death, but the moment you accept your Saviour. That’s when time loses its grip on you, and concedes to its Master.

And it’s why, whatever I felt on losing Donnie, time did not win. Nor did it stop. For him, it gave way to eternity.

Receiving his wedding ring back after he died, I see now, was so appropriate. The circular band is a symbol of eternity, without beginning or end. Beautiful as that seemed on our wedding day, it actually achieved its full resonance the evening he went home. I keep it now as a reminder, not of our promises to one another, but of God’s promise to us both.

And the pocket watch I kept because it was lovely, and it was his, no longer carries the same meaning. Because it only moves when it’s worn. I don’t want it lying in a drawer like some morbid memorial to Donnie – as if, like grief first made me fear, time stops with death.

I know that isn’t true. Time goes on for me. Now, my wee mechanical wristwatch has ticked me three years forward from the night I last held Donnie’s hand. But when it finally stops for good, and is laid aside in its box, I know with certainty that eternity beckons.

And although I don’t know what that will be like, this I do know: God is there.

If only our obsession with time would be replaced by a real concern about eternity – it should never take a stopped watch, or a wedding ring without an owner to lift our eyes to that horizon.

 

 

 

 

 

The Trust, the Well and the Council Clock

‘You may lead a Lewisman with a hair, but you won’t drag him with a cable’. Thus spoke Lord Leverhulme, the proprietor of the island in 1920. A mere two years into his tenure, he had already seen enough of the people to know that they were versed in the art of subtlety, as well as masters at being thrawn.

I’ve always been interested in this hard-headed northern businessman. He thought he knew what was best for the crofters of this island – and perhaps he did, in economic terms – but he also reckoned without the strong attachment the Hebridean feels to his land.

It is hugely to his credit that he was willing to gift the very terrain that caused such dispute, back to the people who had opposed him. I wonder how a successful entrepreneur managed to set aside ego to this extent; his financial worries notwithstanding, it was a magnanimous gesture.

Attending meetings of the Stornoway Trust, which manages the estate of the same name, I frequently look upon his portrait, which hangs on the boardroom wall. I think he would find the plans and projects, the obstacles and objections strangely familiar. And I imagine him rubbing his hands with relish, and getting stuck in, bluff wee northerner that he was.

The Trust is guardian of his legacy, yes – but his intention in gifting the land to the community was that the community should run it, not Leverhulme’s way, but the Lewis way.

Just last week, I took a tour of the Castle policies with the man who is responsible for the day to day management of the estate. He definitely has a name, but is known to everyone simply as ‘the Factor’. With him, I got a palpable sense of the way that history is a living thing for us in Lewis. Conversation flowed seamlessly  around which was Lady Matheson’s favourite picnic spot, to a Second World War bunker, to the Millennium Forest project, to a prehistoric chambered cairn, to the Castle School, to Mac an t-Srònaich, to speed bumps, to Lord Leverhulme e fhèin.

I think we generally have an easy relationship with our past. Modern kit houses sit on the site of, or even alongside early white houses and, sometimes, the tobhta of the family blackhouse. We incorporate patronymics into our identity, so we are part of a line which stretches back through history. And the different names we go by – our forefathers’ – inhabit and shape history at different times.

My maternal seanair helped build the iron water well, a landmark in the Castle Grounds. It commemorates a sensitive individual who used to moor his yacht in Stornoway for the peace and quiet. How very strange that he should be memorialised here in that way, and that generations of Lewis children should know the name of the reclusive Robert Alfred Colby Cubbin.

Whatever the plaque says, though, for me it is a monument to Alex Hearach, my grandfather.

Following the Lewis way means guarding our identity. It involves maintaining a relationship with the past in order to move forward. The more I contemplate our close connection with history here in the island, therefore,  the more fiercely I am determined to see all of our heritage protected.

We cannot say ‘yes’ to Lady Matheson, or Mac an t-Srònaich, and ‘no thanks’ to our Christian legacy. There is something incomplete in our understanding of Stornoway’s history if we believe that it includes Lord Leverhulme, but excludes Rev Kenneth MacRae; if we embrace Latha na Dròbh but, frankly, find òrduighean Steòrnabhaigh a bit of an embarrassment.

You cannot separate our civic and religious past, you see. Literally, sometimes. When the Town Hall was razed to the ground in 1918, the clock was lost and folk had no way to tell the time, unless they visited Sime’s shop on Church Street. So, the Town Council came up with an ingenious plan – they erected a public clock on Kenneth Street Free Church.

The building belonged to the Free Church, and the clock to the Council, but the time that moved its hands, that belongs to God. We so seldom look beyond what is right in front of us; we accept the face that history presents, and we do not question.

But we should. I have always thought of that graceful stone monument in the Castle Grounds, built in part by Alex Hearach, as the iron water well. Walking there last week, though, something that now seems rather obvious was casually alluded to: the actual well is some feet away, anonymously supplying the man-made structure with pure, clean water.

That, I think, is as good a metaphor as any I’ve found for what Christianity has been to the history of this place. It is always there, feeding us living water, and giving real meaning to all the events that we foolishly believe are authored by ourselves. While we are busily cleaning up and repointing the facade, the water continues to spring forth and give us life.

We need have no fear that particular well will ever run dry. But equally, it’s important that no one should ever be permitted to stop its mouth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out on a Wednesday

Being out on a Wednesday night in the Free Church in Lewis does not mean that you have become gay part-time. It means that you have started going to the midweek meeting and that you have started following.

Following doesn’t mean that you are stalking someone obsessively. It refers to your lively interest in the message of the Gospel and the possibility that you may well be converted and even contemplating going forward.

Going forward doesn’t mean that you’ve suddenly become very bold and begun addressing the minister as ‘thu’, or pulling the elders up on their grasp of theology. No, it simply means that you are ready to make your public profession of faith.

Funnily enough, that public profession is usually made in a room with just yourself and the Session present.

The Session isn’t a band which does covers of Bob Seger and Neil Diamond. They are the elders, charged with the spiritual leadership of your church. When they aren’t checking your Sky subscription to make sure you only tune in to wholesome entertainment, they do other stuff, like hearing the testimony of newly-professing Christians.

These events have followed a well-trodden path here in the island for many years. Everyone knows the order in which your spiritual journey is supposed to happen.

I knew it. And yet, somehow, I ended up doing it all in completely the wrong order.

Not long ago, I was relating my misdemeanour to another Christian. ‘I didn’t set foot in the prayer meeting until after I took communion for the first time’ I said.

But that’s not strictly true.

Many years ago, a friend’s granny died. I went to the funeral and, afterwards, felt an overwhelming compulsion to be with the Lord’s people. It was a Wednesday. The thought made me sick with apprehension, but I simply had to go. To the prayer meeting. Ignoring my parents’ surprised faces, I headed out, hardly able to believe what I was about to do.

I didn’t do it again for fifteen years.

It has such significance attached to it in our culture that anyone going to the prayer meeting in the past would be marking themselves out as ‘one to watch’. And, when I look back over my own journey – which I understand better now that I have attained a small measure of spiritual maturity – I wish with all my heart that I had kept on going to that Wednesday meeting. Then, I might have been noticed by someone, and the right questions might have been asked of me. If nothing else, I might have asked them of myself.
But no. I allowed the weasel words of Satan to drop into my all too willing heart: you don’t belong here with them; you’re not good enough. And that absolute closer – you’re not ready.

When I was asked, the night I went forward, how I had come to follow the Lord, I could give no very clear answer. I didn’t know, exactly, and I was afraid to tell the complete truth. The complete truth being that I could not remember a time when He was not in my life, or when I did not feel destined to follow Him.

I had no idea how to go about making that a practical reality. And, while I may indeed be as mad as a box of frogs, or the irregular product of a Carloway-Achmore-Ardhasaig mash-up of genes, I would be prepared to bet that I am not unique in my spiritual confusion.

Tradition is great, as long as it isn’t harming people. And, when I reflect upon my own long and perplexing walk, and my failure to recognize exactly where I was at with God, tradition annoys me.

Shy and confused, I was drawn to the Lord and His people, but with no idea what I was doing at a midweek meeting. The whole experience was so uncomfortable that I came home, and stumbled on in lonely ignorance, certain that my discomfort was born of my own unreadiness for being out on a Wednesday.

I was not unready. Seventeen or so years on from then, I can say with absolute conviction that I should have persisted. Who planted in me the desire to be there in the first place? Myself? Absolutely not. Satan? Never. But we were both complicit in deciding that I should never go back.

There is a reason why meetings like these are included in the term ‘means of grace’. These are the outward, and apparently mundane ways in which Christ imparts His grace to His own. They are intended as a benefit to us, but they can only be beneficial to those who actually attend. We cannot understand everything within God’s mysterious dealings with us, but there is one thing I can say with conviction now: if He has implanted a desire in you to be with His people, you should obey.

The Bible counsels us repeatedly not to look back with regret, and so I do not count the prayer meetings that I have missed because I listened to the wrong voice. But I do look back with thanksgiving, that God did not allow me to continue depriving myself.

If you are contemplating coming to a midweek meeting, and you think you are not ready because you are not yet a Christian, or not yet a church member, please view me as a cautionary tale. Wednesday is the wellspring that waters the whole week, and if He has put it in your mind to come to the well, it’s because He knows that you thirst.

The Electronic Mission Field

During a recent gathering in our church hall, the minister asked how many of his congregation were regular users of social media. Quite a few hands went in the air, despite the fear that he may be about to chastise us for wantonly dabbling in a century other than the one to which we belong (the 19th, according to many sources).

It was more unsettling than that, because he just looked mildly interested, and sat back. No shouting, no threatening – okay, he didn’t have a pulpit handy to thump, but really – and no accusatory pointing.

In still greater nonconformity to the stereotype, he was asking this question in the context of a wider discussion about Christianity and media: traditional and social. These have been a growing consideration since the 20th century came to the rest of Scotland and even occassionally lapped at the shores of backward, wee Lewis. Of course, with the advent of radio, and then television, the implications for the church have been catastrophic.

Last week, I challenged an assertion by the Scottish secularists, that it had been the norm for ministers in Lewis to regularly peer through windows, to ensure that people weren’t watching anything mì-chàilear on television. Nonsense – one minister on his own would never have been able to handle the workload – obviously there must have been a crack team of elders supporting him in these endeavours.

No intelligence was offered on what happened in the event that the entertainment being indulged in did breach Presbyterian etiquette. Did the outraged minister burst in and switch the set off? That would certainly have been more impressive and dignified prior to the remote control: imagine the interloper having to first rummage around under the sofa cushions, before he could eventually zap the offending signal.

It must have been an enormous relief to these overworked killjoys when the dear old Beeb closed down with God Save the Queen at midnight.

Now, though, media is 24/7. The recent discussion in our church hall was an acknowledgment of the challenges this poses to Christians. It is a minefield for young – and not so young – people. Satan lurks where we sometimes least expect, and the newer technology has provided him with a host of opportunities for trouble.

We hear about cyber-crime, and the dark web. And every parent should be aware of the threat posed by that laptop, or tablet with which their child spends so much time alone. What are they looking at? Who are they talking to? Are your family safe in their own home, or are you harbouring – unaware – a stranger who means you harm?

Of course we have to be mindful of the dangers. The internet is both an extension and a mirror of this sinful world. There is real evil to be found there, as there is here.

But also real potential for good.

I have heard prayers that people would spend less time on social media and more attending the means of grace. While I completely understand the sentiment, and the intention, I’m afraid it’s an unhelpful approach. Attendance at the means of grace should, without question, take precedence. We all must begin by ensuring our own spiritual lives are healthy before going elsewhere; but there has to be a Christian presence online as well.

Why must there? Well, obedience to the Great Commission – ‘go, therefore, into all the world’. The apostles had to wear out shoe leather doing that, but we can fulfil at least part of the command at the touch of a button.

On Friday, I was able to testify to Christ’s work in my life to a Highland-wide audience, using only my mobile phone. I sat in an empty classroom at work, and shared in prayers and witnessing with people I have never met. We could see each other, and speak like friends.

During the recent Trust election, I maintained a smidgen of sanity because of my WhatsApp support group. We anchored our daily discussion in the Word, and in worship music, and we had virtual – yet very real – human fellowship.

Videos of our church services go online now. A Gaelic sermon, preached to a congregation of perhaps seventy people, will be heard by five hundred more. And they feel connected to it because they can see the preacher and the precentor, as well as hear their words.

Aren’t these valid uses of technology?

Stornoway Free Church has never just been confined to the building on Kenneth Street. It has always been missional, sending people out into the field at home and abroad. Cambodia. Moldova. Uganda. Leaders go off to camp several times a year. And on our own doorstep, Campaigners, Sunday Schools, Christianity Explored – reaching out to the lost.

Now, though, mission has a new dimension. Make no mistake, it has its own difficulties. Christians will be pilloried and despised online as they are in the world; people will ignore your message on the internet, just as they do in person. Those who do not set foot on the threshold of a real Church are unlikely to click on your website link, or Facebook page just because it’s there.

But online mission is important, and I believe we have to get better at it. The people are there, and so many of them are lost.

Instead of praying that Christians would avoid social media, shouldn’t we be encouraging them to bring their witness to it? God does not send His soldiers into battle unequipped and, if we place our faith in Him, He will make us equal to this task also.

I can testify to the fact that technology is not bad, or wrong if, like anything else, we deploy it in His wisdom and not our own. Let’s encourage the world to look through our window, and let’s show them nothing but Christ.

Never Say ‘Amen’

A friend was telling me recently about a job she used to do, which involved supporting families affected by Alzheimer’s disease. She found that the best way of getting people to open up was by going for a walk with them. If they didn’t have to look at her, they were much more likely to share honestly whatever might be troubling them. I was reminded of this today when a colleague alluded to the old adage about how we lecturers are meant to interact with students – ‘the guide at your side, not the sage on the stage’.

Both those pieces of advice caused me to reflect on my relationship with God. He has been, I must say, the guide at my side for longer than I have ever acknowledged – even to myself.

For years, He was there, a presence I am ashamed to say I took for granted. If I had to describe it now, I would say that it felt as though He was just by my shoulder and that I could turn and speak to Him as you do to any companion seated nearby. There were periods of many months during which I said nothing and then, I might speak to Him easily and casually, with no preamble.

I never really thought of it as praying. There was no kneeling, no bowing of my head, no formality. And, I realise now, no amen.

My life, for almost as far back as I can remember, has been a conversation with God. He was there, whether I remembered or not, and whether there was silence, or speech from me. His presence is the reason that I never felt alone, even though I was frequently by myself; and His nearness is the reason I never felt weak, despite being faced by many situations to which I was not equal.

When I was a wee girl of nine or so, I asked Him in. The Victorian devotional for children that I was reading each night urged me to do so, and I was moved by the image of Jesus knocking at the door of my heart and being ignored. It troubled my childish conscience that He wanted my attention and was not receiving it. Yet, I hesitated to make the move because I had gathered that it was not to be undertaken lightly or unthinkingly.

Eventually, though, my defences were breached and I made the invitation.

And, if you had asked me a few months ago whether it changed my life, I would have very swiftly answered in the negative.

Now, though, I am not at all sure that’s true. Something did change for me that day: He did as I asked and took up residence in my heart, so that I was never quite free of Him afterwards. Even when my mind was far from Him, even when my behaviour was a million miles short of what would please Him, God was working in my life, and waiting by my shoulder.

It surprises me now to reflect on how utterly dense I was. All those years of wondering whether He would save me, trying to figure out what I had to do . . . I had to do nothing because He had already done it all.

It has been said that, if all else failed, God would whip you into Glory. I remember, shortly after my husband died, repeating this to the minister who visited me at home. He looked mildly surprised. Probably, on reflection, because this heathen was quoting Professor Collins at him. But I felt instinctively that this was what had happened – not necessarily that the Lord was inflicting pain on me to force my hand, but that He was using my pain to illustrate His own complete sufficiency. To demonstrate, in fact, a truth that has become so precious to me since then: that our trials are opportunities to experience even more of His love.

When these troubled times recede, even a little, it is easy to slip back into old habits and to reduce God back to nursery proportions. Because of His tenderness to me, and because of how I first got to know Him, I risk making Him smaller than He is. I know this, and it troubles me.

I was discussing this with a friend last Friday, and he spoke of how the heavens really do declare the glory of God – the stars He has placed so precisely, for example. Driving home that evening, I tried to capture some sense of that awe, but it evaded me. It still felt that He was in the passenger seat beside me, that I could tell Him about my day.

And then, on Sunday, I had a brief sense of the wonder I had been seeking. It was not in a blinding flash of lightning, nor the smallness one can feel under a wide-open Lewis sky.

No, it was sitting in church. The sermon was about God’s dealing with the ever-grumbling Israelites when He substituted the bitterness of Marah for the sweet waters of Elim. This God of the Old Testament – the one who is often said to lack love, by people who simply don’t know Him – dealt with the Children of Israel as He deals with me. He is patient, and He blesses in situations when that is the very last thing I expect.

There are not two Gods – Old and New Testament; the God of Creation and the God of salvation; the jealous God and the loving God; the nursery God and the church God. He is one. This God is vast in His power, but intimate in His knowledge of us; He is just, but merciful; He is a King, and He is also a Father.

He goes before me, but He walks beside me. I can speak to Him anytime I want. That does not make Him small – it only goes to show what love there is in the hand that shaped the universe, that it pauses in its work to dry my tears.

 

 
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Rumour, Lies and My Religious Privilege

Many years ago, news swept through Lewis that a particular local minister had passed away suddenly. Fishermen preparing to set out for sea kept their boats tied-up in the harbour out of respect. A solemn air descended over the surrounding districts in response to the loss of such a well-liked figure.

Except he hadn’t actually died. He was very much alive, and in robust health. Not only that, but he was pretty annoyed about the rumour, and made every effort to locate the source. This was finally traced to a bus driver and, so, the next time the good reverend had occassion to use the service, he confronted the gentleman in question.

‘What do you mean by telling people I was dead?’ the minister demanded.

‘Well, the last time you were on this bus, you told me that if you were spared, you would be waiting for me at the crossroads on Friday morning. And, when I drove by, you weren’t at the stop. I know a minister would never lie, so I naturally assumed you had passed away’.

Ministers were minor celebrities. Walk into any home in the island – especially where there was a cailleach – and the sideboard would almost certainly have at least one framed photograph of the local reverend in pride of place. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that they were the Kardashians of their time but, had Lewis had its own version of ‘Hello’ magazine, manse families would certainly have featured prominently. Hard though it may be to believe now, there would indeed have been an appetite for a six-page colour spread on which wallpaper the Stornoway minister’s wife had chosen for the dining room.

Times have changed. The churchgoing population of Lewis – as we are constantly reminded – has fallen from where it was. It is still a national envy-inducing 44%, but that represents a minority nonetheless. We are aware of that position, and reminded of it repeatedly by another – even smaller – minority: militant atheists.

Supposing a mischief-making bus driver wished to circulate a rumour about a man of the cloth nowadays, chances are he would be met with blank stares and ‘who?’ from his audience. These manse-dwellers have slipped in the social rankings because they are seen as representing something irrelevant to the majority of the island population.

I don’t like the label ‘last stronghold of the pure Gospel’ being applied to Lewis (or anywhere) because it is either Pharisaic, or sarcastic in its application. Besides, the stronghold of the Gospel is not actually a place; it is a Person.

Regardless, we have been a peculiarly privileged people in our spiritual heritage. That much is undeniable. It should not be viewed as a a source of pride, though; rather as a solemn responsibility. Luke 12: 48 reminds us of that fact – because we have been showered with blessings as a community, we surely should be paying it forward.

Statistically-speaking, although there are fewer of us with a ‘live church connection’ here in Lewis, there is one reason for evangelical optimism: the mission field is growing all the time. The net figures suggest that there is a trend towards in-migration to the Long Island. That is, somewhere in the region of 100 – 200 new people arriving among us each year.

These people come – according to research carried out in 2007 – largely for lifestyle reasons; drawn to the peace and safety of Lewis. It remains a stronghold in that sense at least.

We want to welcome them in with open arms, and we want them to settle here, so that they will love it as much as the natives do. And one of our priorities has got to be addressing the lie that Lewis somehow suffers because of undue influence from the church. That is an untruth which has gone unchallenged for far too long. It does not come from people who move to Lewis but is, I fear, an unwanted resident of long-standing.

Some born and brought up here, privileged as I was to be surrounded by Christian witness and teaching, have not yet been awakened to their own need of that truth. They have, for whatever reason, opted to reject it. Not content, however, with pushing it away from themselves, they are trying their utmost to dash that cup from the lips of others. I don’t mean me, or other practising Christians either, because once you are secure in the Saviour’’s hand, no amount of angry Facebook trolling by atheists can unseat you.

No, they are trying to stop the message of the Gospel from reaching those who need it most – the unsaved. They are a stumbling-block to their own children, and even to many who move to this community and misguidedly believe the lie that the church is a suffocating, dictatorial influence.

We have, as a Christian community, been quiet for far too long on this matter. Gradually and without apology, we are being discriminated against for our faith. Schools quietly ditch decades-old practices like morning prayers and grace before meals on the say-so of one or two atheist parents; but will not reinstate it at the insistence of many more Christian families.

After hearing, last night, from a South Sudanese pastor, of how his people suffer and die for their Christian faith, I hesitate to call what is happening here persecution. It is, for now anyway, discrimination. But the insidious creep of hatred often starts small.

I have lately been told by various vocal individuals that, in holding elected office, I have no right to act according to my ‘religious interest’.

What is my religious interest? If I believe that I am already saved – and I do – what am I striving to hold onto?  Nothing this world offers, I can promise you that. My interest is in becoming more like Christ, and doing what He wants of me; He wants me to be more like Him, and to have a heart for the unsaved.

Praying for those who hate Christianity, and witnessing to them about the power and love of Jesus Christ – that is my religious privilege. Which man has the power over a conscience committed to God?

 

Giving Up Sarcasm for Life

Many years ago, my father was in his local shop, where several neighbours were also gathered, buying their messages. A well-known local lady, noted for her considerable girth, walked past the window, but did not come in. Not a word was spoken as they all followed her progress past the shop, beyond which was nothing but a dead-end.

‘Where on earth is she going?’ one customer asked. The nonplussed silence of the others was finally broken by the shopkeeper:

‘Unless she’s going down to the bridge to turn’.

Nowadays, this might be misconstrued as all kinds of things: sexism, body-shaming, nosiness . . . Actually, it was of its time and of its place – an indication of how community was really an extension of family. These people knew one another. Gentle mockery and robust banter were all part and parcel of village life. The rules were implicit and understood by everyone at an almost instinctive level.

Our island has evolved over the years since then, of course. That kind of exchange would no longer be possible for many reasons, not least the fact that it originally took place in Gaelic. There is also a new seriousness, a carefulness, to people’s interactions. We have become more guarded in our dealings, one with another.

I see this online quite frequently. Not long ago, I witnessed someone being told off for being unpleasant when, what he had actually been was mildly ironic. We are lovers of irony in Lewis – dry wit that puts people in their place. You can get away with that when you are self-deprecating too; when you are equally willing to aim the barbs at yourself. It is all part of the code.

Interestingly, this obsession with political correctness and equality has not created more kindness, however – quite the contrary: it has brought a nastier, harder edge into our exchanges. We are trying to manage human relationships by legislation, and sometimes tying ourselves in knots in the process.

It is sometimes difficult for me, as a Christian, to see where I should fit into this new regime. The situation is complicated by the fact that I am a Gaelic-speaker, and an afficionado of the old way of dealing with folk – show them you care by laughing at them. Well, not at them, exactly; near them, maybe. I can identify with the seanair of a slightly older friend of mine who, having stepped into the breach when her father died, used to greet her brothers with a cuff around the head. Whoever sat nearest the door would receive this treatment; once, it was her new boyfriend from the South.

I get that bodach’s thinking. My slaps are usually verbal, but they are generally a sign of my affection – nothing else. People get that. Or, at least, I hope they do. Sarcastic I may be, but I would hate to hurt anyone’s feelings.

It used to be a major consideration for me: how, if I became a Christian, could I stop being this way? And, one day, I was in church and the message echoed my very concerns. Be wary, the minister said, of starting to build the tower without first being certain that you have the tools to finish the job. I don’t remember the context – I only remember the way I felt. He had verified my self-doubt, validated the sense of unreadiness in myself.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not blaming him. Preachers are not responsible for the way individuals in the èisteachd might be feeling at any given moment, which is just as well. They are not meant to be in the business of pandering to feelings or petted lips, but to laying the truth before us.

No, the point is that I recall that sermon – probably inaccurately – as being a caveat against rashly jumping into Christianity. Don’t start unless you’re sure you will see it through. And, part of my smorgasbord of excuses for holding back was, of course, my quick tongue. How could I even think of following Christ when the first thing I would probably do thereafter is let His cause down by saying the wrong thing?

As it turned out, though, saying things has been very much what He had in store for me. He has turned my . . . well, let’s be generous, and call it outspokeness, on its head. It was not necessary for me to work on ridding myself of sarcasm, or that wry Leòdhasach view on the ridiculous, because God had a use for it.

And it was never going to be up to me to change anyway because, for one thing, I couldn’t do it on my own. I understand that now. He hones you, chips away the rough edges and works at refining any impurities away. Yet, He does not change the essentials of who you are. If you rely on Him as your guide, and ask Him to govern your tongue – and, in my case, keyboard – then He will.

Viewed through the lens of prejudice and hatred, the world will always magnify your flaws. God, though, views you through the filter of the cross, where these flaws are made whole.

Don’t hold back from giving your life to Him as I did because you think yourself imperfect or inadequate. You are both those things, as am I, but the material point is that He is sufficient.

He may even use those very imperfections in His own service.