If not you, then who?

The patron saint of Dubrovnik, where I visited recently, is a man called St Blaise, frequently depicted as carrying the city in his hand. While you are there, even just visiting, it is said that he holds you in his palm also.

Now, a few days of visiting cathedrals and monasteries isn’t quite enough to make me subscribe to the notion of sainthood. I know enough of humanity to doubt that any such perfection will ever be seen this side of heaven. But, as I consider my own home island, something beguiles me about the thought of it being held safely in a protective hand. Lewis needs that more than ever before, as the powers and principalities seek to destroy all in it that is right and good.

If I don’t accept the notion of patron saints, though, who should be the protector of Lewis? Whose role is it to ensure that all we hold dear is kept safe?

Well, call me a heretic, but I’m going to invoke another Roman Catholic saint here, St Teresa of Avila. Addressing the Christian body in its entirety, she said:

‘Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world’.

If we, the Christian community of Lewis, are indeed his hands, his feet, his eyes, then to us, surely, falls the protection of our island.

That, my friends, means a bit more than we’ve been doing. Lewis is not the last stronghold of the gospel. As I have said before, the stronghold is not a place, but a person, and we have no more claim on him than anywhere else. But he has a claim on us. If we have called out to him, and said, ‘Lord, Lord’, we have to be prepared for the inconvenient possibility that he might have a job for us.

Not a comfy, predictable nine-to-five, and not a highly paid, glamorous position either. This is the God, remember, who sent the Apostles with almost nothing to their names, out to build his church. Might he not be asking us to put ourselves out a little? Is it at all possible that he’s speaking to us, that when we ask in prayer what he would have us do, he has answered many times, but we’re deaf to what we would rather not hear?

I know the answer, because I’ve been there more than once. God doesn’t check with us whether now is a good time. He doesn’t even ask if it’s what we want to do. No, if we listen, here’s what he’s saying:

This is what I have for you. It may not have been in your plan, but it’s always been in mine. Don’t worry about what you will say, or how you will do this – I send my people nowhere alone, or unequipped.

I’m sorry, in one sense, to be repeating myself – but this is important, and must therefore be said over and over.

We all know that society has changed and now, moral decline is catalysed by government. Where once we had leadership, we now mainly have populist politicians, seeking to please the people, like a painted troupe of dancing girls. They say what they think we want to hear. And we obediently become the creatures they have pictured in their minds – approving everything that once we knew to be wrong, and revolted by any hint of the truth.

We know it. But are we, a believing people, going to just accept the rapid decline as a done deed? If we shrug now and throw up our hands, will it go well for us later?

Every one of us already knows the answer. We pray for the state of our world, of our country, of our island.

There is a mission field right here. When I see the anger in people and the hostility that manifests in a community like ours over little things of no lasting consequence, I realise the need.

It’s a need for Christ. People who think they are secularists lash out at the church and its traditional influence. They hiss and spew venom at those who profess the Saviour. In a desperate attempt to not face facts, they mock and deride what they secretly fear, and what their soul actually craves:

Rest in him.

The duty to show them this rests with those fortunate enough to have realised their own need. It rests with people like me, and with most of you reading this.

We cannot simply pray for them, though, with our hands over our ears, and our feet rooted to the spot. Believing people have to take their faith public – to go into these positions where difficult decisions are made.

Surely, in a country where governments sanction the murder of the unborn child, the reinterpretation of God’s fixed law, and the excising of the Bible from public life, there is an expectation that we will try to be where such decisions are made.

Moses did not want to go to such places. He thought someone else should do it, but God told him to open his mouth, and the words would be supplied.

If we don’t believe that, what do we believe? And if we truly do, what are we going to do about it?

Comforting His People

, All summer, the blacker of my two cats – let’s call her ‘Mo’, for that is her name – has been largely absent from the house, except for the occasional visit to fill up on Whiskas and slap the dog. If I petted her, or even addressed a casual remark in her general direction, I was invariably met with a hard stare, or a high-pitched mew of disdain.

The moment, however, the weather turned a little colder, a little wetter and a lot windier, Mo became my best friend again. She can now mostly be found curled up in my wardrobe (don’t ask), or stretched on the radiator in the front hall. Cuddles are welcomed, and she even seeks out my company from time to time. However objectionable my personality and conversation, Mo clearly realises when she’s onto a good thing – I am a warm and cuddly guarantee of food and shelter. In short, I am her source of comfort.

For human beings, there are two levels of comfort. There is the ordinary, everyday kind – or, at least, it’s seen as such by we privileged westerners – which consists of all the things we take for granted: warm, clean clothing, a secure home, income, a steady food supply, good health and good healthcare, relative peace and safety.

I don’t know why, particularly, but this morning I was moved to thank God in prayer for the howling wind and driving rain sounds to which I awoke, to which I often awake. They remind me of my blessedness in living where I do, in a place I love, and in a home which is a stronghold against the elements.

The other level of comfort, though, is a deeper one – it caters to our emotional and spiritual needs. Like Mo, our craving for it can be particularly acute during the onset of a soul-shaking storm.

We heard in church recently how the idea of comfort in the Bible carries with it the sense of getting alongside the person who needs it. It is not unusual, when we anticipate going to the home of a bereaved family, to worry that we will not know what to say, as though the perfect choice of words from us could make any difference at all. The words don’t matter; the being there does. And, comfort comes from knowing that there is solidarity in grief, which is surely the most universal of all human experiences.

This week, two families I have come to know and love in the Lord have parted with loved ones. In their different ways, these deaths have touched the church and wider community in Scotland. It isn’t simply that Anna and Murdo Alex were so young, though that cannot fail to give the hardest of hearts a thought of eternity. I think it is the strength of their faith that compels everyone standing near to confront the fact that this comfort which we get from God, it’s real. There is no quick-fix, this’ll make you feel better for now-ness about it – this is the solid, all-encompassing, unchanging, faithfulness of God writ large across the lives, and deaths, of those who love him and, more crucially, whom he loves.

He has created his church as a body, to experience his providence – easy or challenging – collectively. I tend to think that’s what Ecclesiastes is getting at when it says, ‘in the day of prosperity, rejoice, but in the day of adversity, consider’. We learn something in our own providences, yes, but it is something we were made to share with the rest of God’s people too. I feel able to speak to people who have lost loved ones, from a place of greater understanding because it has been part of my own experience too.

The thing is, though, I hope that what I’m sharing is not so much my experience of death as my receipt of God’s comfort. For me, the miraculous thing is not that I got through the worst thing that has ever happened in my life, but that I was comforted by the presence of my Saviour, and by my knowledge of his sufficiency in that and all things.

That received sense of peace would be meaningless were it not for the complete trustworthiness of the source. A made-up God that I was choosing to believe in would be a thin comfort blanket indeed against the chills of grief. Yet, poor unbelievers persist in the delusion that Christians ‘choose’ to accept the existence of God as a crutch to get them through.

God exists; that is not up for debate. It is not the mere existence of God which keeps his people in their darkest hours, however – it is his provision, through Christ, of a love that will not let them go. Our relationship with him is often at its most beautiful when we need him most. Hardship and trials in this world, even those less painful than bereavement, drive us into his arms.

It does not remove, or even lessen our difficulties in this world, but it does help put them in their proper perspective. We are the body of his church, and what hurts one, should pain all. Equally, the comfort which we individually receive at his hand is for sharing, that we might bear one another’s burdens.

“ ‘Comfort, comfort, my people’, says your God” – not empty words, not a ‘there, there’ pat on the hand, but a prelude to his own coming among us in the person of his Son.

That’s comfort of the most complete, all-encompassing kind. And there is no comfort apart from him. I know, because it is mine, and it is enough.It will  always be enough.

 

Lies, lightning rods and the God of all comfort

I was quite surprised to find myself at the midweek meeting last Wednesday. Having come back into the island that afternoon, after a long weekend in Croatia, I thought I’d be too tired. But there is a tiredness which only spiritual nourishment can refresh, and my need of that outweighed the desire for rest.

My time away had been well spent. I had left the island – unusually for me – desiring to shake the dust of the place off my feet. No one wants to hear how the fortnight leading up to my departure was a storm of hatred, lies and legal action, so I won’t trouble you with the details. Nonetheless, I was under almost intolerable pressure. This time, the tension arose as a result of the bullying I am suffering on one hand, and the well-meaning advice of friends on the other. They tell me I will have no peace until I ‘chuck it all in’.

If it’s affecting your mental health, they have said, is it really worth going on with?

The ‘it’ to which they refer is my seat on the Stornoway Trust. Until I relinquish that, one friend told me, I will forever be a target for hatred and vitriol.

It appears to be partly true. Many, many people on social media have blithely shared a lie about me (hence the legal action). Some that I know, including brothers and sisters in Christ, ‘liked’ the lie. That, I have to admit, stings far more than the hatred of strangers. While my reputation with God is what matters, what on earth does it say about the church’s witness to the world when we approve slander of one another? I find I have no answer to that one and must leave it be.

 However, it has helped me to reach a conclusion about one aspect of my life. I opened my mouth with this blog to begin with because I felt the church of Christ had no voice in our community. Things were happening to which no Christian should turn a blind eye; I used this platform to speak the truth.

I have since discovered that no one wants to hear the truth. Even many who identify with the cause of Christ are silent as his name is trampled underfoot. Some say to me, ‘I amn’t articulate enough’, or ‘I amn’t brave enough’. No? Me neither.

The wobble I have suffered this past week is the same one that caused Peter to sink. I have looked at myself and realised my own inadequacy. In that, I include as well the inadequacy of the church of which I am part. We are weak; we let each other down all the time. As imitators of Christ go, we are not merely pale, we are translucent.

I feel, in fact, as Peter must have. Finding myself halfway across deep water, with no visible means of support, I started to go under. Overwhelmed by waves of hatred from without and indifference from within, I couldn’t keep myself upright. And so I retreated to a place of safety. For the first time in my life, that place was not Lewis – it was anywhere else but.

The biggest doubt with which I have had to wrestle over the last while is the suspicion that I am a lightning rod for trouble. Was I bringing more hassle to the Trust and indeed to the Church by the mere fact of being associated with them? Would I, in fact, be doing both a favour if I listened to the wisdom of loved ones and resigned from one, and shut up about the other?

And then, that’s where the other pressure came in: the voice that goaded me with, ‘and let the bullies win?’ While I was away, I read a tweet by a Scottish female councillor who has been forced to reduce her public duties because of harassment. I could quite see why she did this to protect her family – but something in me rebels against doing the same.

Is that because I’m thrawn, or because I’m where I’m meant to be, doing what I’m meant to be doing?

Truthfully, I don’t know. I was very certain once that God was leading me to take a stand for his cause, both as a writer and as a trustee. That certainty is out of reach at present.

But, on Wednesday night, I remembered how it all began. We listened to Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians 1, ‘so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God’.

As Christians, our trials are not ours alone. I have tried to share mine in order that others might see the sufficiency of God in all things. He carried me through the loss of my husband; he will carry me through the hatred of the world and the indifference of my brethren. If I am in the wrong, he will show me, correct me, and then he will comfort me.

In the meantime, I will exercise two virtues with which I am barely acquainted: patience, and silence.

It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

In ‘Bambi’, Thumper’s mother advises him, ‘if you can’t say nothing nice, then don’t say nothing at all’. It was very much in this spirit that I refrained from blogging over the last few weeks. Every time I tried to put finger to keyboard, a host of ideas would march in hobnailed boots through my mind, and I found that I didn’t want to share them with you.

There is, right at this present moment, enough ugliness in the world. I am tired of the brutal language from parliament; I am weighed down by the solemn-faced teenager from Scandinavia who speaks to us of apocalypse; and I am tired in my heart at the many ways in which I encounter discouragement and opposition. It is so very easy to feel that you are making no difference to the world at all, except by contributing to global warming and voting for the wrong people to govern us.

It’s at moments like these, more than at any other that we have to rest on the promises which are ours in Christ. This really is no continuing city; the road we are on, as Christians, will carry us far beyond all of the strife and fear that sin has created, into the haven of eternity in his presence.

Meantime, however, is it possible for us to retain our grip on that peace whilst avoiding the accusation that we are too heavenly minded to be any earthly use?

Yes, I think it is.

For me, a particular verse from scripture has become very important in all of this. Naomi, speaking to Ruth, advises, ‘Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out’.

Even reading it floods me with a sense of the difference between God’s purpose and our understanding of it. We know that he has his own timing, his own plan, and yet we continue to behave as though these are our hands upon the steering wheel, and our foot on the accelerator.

I have taken that verse to heart because it has a very practical application. Recently, I received news that was simultaneously concerning and disappointing. My initial reaction was negative, and then I remembered Naomi’s wisdom. We are so quick to assume that something is ended because it feels that way for us.

Do we not believe that the Lord blessed Job even more in the second half of his life than in the beginning?

If we do, then we have to live believing it. By that, I don’t just mean that we have to live while believing it; I mean we have to live out our belief in how we think, in what we do, and how we are with other people.

I thought, the day I married my husband, that this was God’s intention for me. And, indeed, so it was – it was his intention that we should have eleven years and eight months of marriage. The last few months were not filled with the same kind of happiness we had known, of course, because they were marred by pain and sadness. That, however, was not some aberration from God’s plan. We – Donnie and I – had not foreseen, nor desired such a thing, but it was in our providence. We take the good things from God’s hands unquestioningly, never doubting our deserving of them; why, then, would we question the same hand when it deals with us in ways we would not choose?

So, let’s take that individual lesson, which so many of us have learned at some point in our journey, and apply it to the world around us.

It would be easy to be overwhelmed by grief at the state of God’s cause in our midst. I have grown up in a country which increasingly ignores his imperative, and countenances the murder of the unborn child, the warping of the biological code, the reinterpretation of marriage. In a well-intentioned move not to demonise people for their differences, we have deified those very differences. The apparent conclusion of all this is that we will continue to be wise in our own sight, and shut God out of his own creation forever, just as he cast our first parents from Eden.

Mankind seems bent upon avenging Adam through warfare with God. Parents wilfully prevent their children from being exposed to the truth, in open defiance of the contract that says they should raise their families in fear and admonition of the Lord. They admit no such contract; they admit no God but their own reason.

Yet, I am not overwhelmed by grief. Instead, I consider Naomi’s words again: ‘Wait, my daughter . . .’

God is not finished. Into such a maelstrom of sin and rebellion, he has come many times, and bent the people to his will. What cause have we to believe that this is any different?

The Bible assures us that he does not leave himself without witnesses. While this is true, we may feel at time that our numbers are too few to fight so many foes on so many different fronts. This has certainly been my own feeling during the darker nights of discouragement in my soul.

Then, though, I remember that the fight is not ours, but his. Just as in our own personal circumstances, we trust that God is working everything for good according to his purpose, we have to see all of creation in that same light. Global warming, prorogued parliaments, abortion, war . . . everything is accounted for in his plan.  He will make good his promises to us, and we have to keep faith with him.

That doesn’t mean wringing our hands or turning our faces to the wall. The world, however broken, still has a chance. While we wait to see what wonders God will do, we must be about his business more urgently, because it isn’t over until he calls time.

Love IS Love

Love is all around us. We encounter the word incessantly, pouring out of our televisions, our radios, splashed across newspaper headlines and peppering social media. There has never been so much love, nor so much talk of it.

Only, I’m beginning to think that our obsession with the word belies the fact that we have lost track of what it means. For many people, the answer to that question would be, ‘love is love’ – inferring that it comes in many forms and that it can be anything we want it to be. It is yet another example of where absolutes have been removed, making it impossible to have any kind of definition at all. That’s what leaves us with the somewhat meaningless, ‘love is love’.

We don’t need to despair, however, because a proper definition does exist; it just happens not to be to everyone’s taste: God is love.

Instantly you bring Him into the conversation, of course, the eye-rolling starts. He’s a known killjoy. Funnily enough, the least Biblically literate of unbelievers know, almost instinctively, what He disapproves of. And, when you know He disapproves of what you want, then the best thing to do is write Him off as irrelevant, or even better, imaginary.

When you do that, though, there are consequences. You are purposely and repeatedly cutting yourself off from truth and choosing a convenient lie. Indeed, you are doing exactly what many Christians are accused of by atheists: you are creating a pretty fiction for yourself, and denying all evidence to the contrary. Spiritually speaking, you are deranged. For the sake of an easy and self-indulgent life now, you are choosing a hideous eternity.

That, however, doesn’t mean that believing ‘God is love’ sorts everything out. It is more than a mere fridge-magnet sentiment to be parroted in every tight spot and awkward situation. A few years ago, I sat in church as our then minister thundered that many people had gone to a lost eternity believing God is love. He was right. There are those who think that, because He is love, He would not let a basically decent person, who has lived a civilised life, suffer eternal death.

Neither He would; He has made provision for us to avoid that eventuality. He is not willing that any should perish – but some of us will it for ourselves by failing to accept His gift. Even in this, we are disobedient, messing about with our eternal souls, gambling them on a nursery belief that, because God is love, He won’t condemn nice people to hell.

No indeed; we condemn ourselves.

Which brings me back to that definition of love: God is. That’s really no help if you don’t know anything about God, though. I often hear from unbelievers that He is a figment of the imagination, a patriarchal construct, designed to supress and control successive generations, and to subjugate women particularly.

Every word they utter tells me that, no, indeed, they do not know Him at all. They have believed the propaganda – the tired, dog-eared mantra that the Bible is filled with contradictions, and that God presides over it all like a power-crazed tyrant. This God, who has been built from straw, is all too easy to knock down. He can be dismissed because He is fake.

See, the definition of love extends to a bit more than three words. And, if it’s too big to distil down to, ‘God is love’, then you certainly can’t get off with simply saying ‘love is love’ either.

So, go to the Bible, to the First Letter of John, and the fourth chapter. Here is a complete definition of love. It tells us that love is from God and that God IS love. This couldn’t be clearer, really, could it? Whether we like it or not, and whether we accept it or not, we cannot understand love apart from Him.

Which is the point where unbelievers start to shake their heads at smug, sanctimonious Christians, believing that they have a monopoly on goodness. The arrogance, honestly, of these God-botherers, claiming that only they know what love is, and that anything contrary to their understanding is not love.

See? We have heard all the arguments before.

I know that what I write here will offend some. Mercifully, being offended doesn’t kill; being lied to very well might, though, so let’s not do that. However much people want us all to agree that love is whatever we make it, and whatever we’re comfortable with, that simply does not make it true.

Love is what you see in the fact that God, while we were all in open rebellion against Him, sent His Son to die in our place. He only asks that we accept it, and permit Christ lordship over our lives.

Easy when you know how, but a colossal challenge if you have lived your life apart from God, believing Him to be a fiction. We live in a country that makes it increasingly hard to talk about Him without being mocked, pilloried, or silenced. In my own mother’s lifetime, Britain has gone from depending on the Lord in warfare, to dismissing Him utterly from our public sphere. It is difficult to witness for Christ when people hate you for it. Or, more accurately, hate Him through you.

Why go out with the Gospel, why intervene in debates where God’s name is trampled underfoot when you know that the chances of being listened to are slim, and the chance of being jeered at and derided very great?

The answer is ‘love’. We love because He first loved us. Having that love in us now, we cannot contain it; it has to flow outwards to others where we once were.

We see you, walking through the storm of life, head bowed against the onslaught. Watching, we remember how it felt to be there in the cold, buffeted this way and that, our peace and happiness subject to every prevailing wind. And we are moved, by the Saviour’s love for us and in us, to catch you and pull you in where we are, beneath the shelter of His wings.

That, my friends, is love, which comes from Christ and through Him, and depends only upon Him. God is love and, therefore, when He is the foundation, love IS love.

 

The Little Islands That Could

Despite my reputation in some quarters as a religious fanatic, I am not usually to be found in church on a Friday afternoon. Gu deimhinne, I am not to be found in the Church of Scotland any day of the week, thank you very much, and yet here I was, in Martin’s Memorial, no less, at 2pm, when I ought to have been at work.

Except, of course, this was work. We were gathered for the Lews Castle College UHI graduation and I, along with my colleagues from the Gaelic team were there for two very particular reasons. Our former boss, doyenne of local history and professional Niseach, Annie Macsween, was finally being honoured for her major contribution to Gaelic language and culture. She was receiving a Fellowship of UHI from the University Court. Also, a 2008 graduate of ours, the well-kent broadcaster, Anne Lundon, was awarded UHI’s Alumnus of the Year; her career has long been a source of interest and pride to all of us who were privileged to have taught her.

It made me reflect upon the debt of gratitude that so many owe Lews Castle College, myself very much among them. These islands have always valued education and learning, but were forced to part with their young people – their future, really – in its pursuit. Until, that is, our wee technical and maritime College did what so many Leòdhasaich before it had done – and got ideas above its station.

Driven on by a few local visionaries, it got involved in the delivery of degree-level studies, as part of what was then just the UHI Project. University title and then degree-awarding powers did not follow until some time later. When I graduated BSc Rural Development in 1997, I received my scroll in Stornoway Town Hall, but my name was entered upon the graduates’ list at the University of Aberdeen – for it was they who had to validate these early degrees. My class was, nonetheless, the first to receive a degree through Lews Castle College; and I, merely by virtue of alphabetical order, was the first individual to do so.

Our Principal – my boss – reminded the graduates of 2019 that they should encourage others to follow the path they had. I hope, since coming to lecture at my old college in 2002, that I have been able to do that. There is something special about working there, and about providing the educational lifeline that says to students, ‘actually, no, you don’t need to get out in order to get on’. Indeed, we hardly have to say it anymore. This generation of youngsters has, mercifully, lost the Hebridean cringe that says if it’s home-grown it can’t be any good.

I have never suffered from that particular worldview. And my time as a student at Lews Castle College confirmed what I had already suspected: we may not be the same as anywhere else, but we’re every bit as worthwhile.

Sitting in Martin’s Memorial, applauding the success of our students, and the staff who get them there, I felt a wee surge of emotion. In his speech, the Principal also said that, in the early days, people didn’t really believe in UHI. He was right; they didn’t. I remember the scepticism, the struggle to convince folk it was ‘just as good as real university’ – and I remember that the doubt came mainly from within our own communities. So, watching the ceremony, with the mace, and the gowns, and the big velvet hat with which the graduands are slapped, I got a lump in my throat. This was it; this was a real university town, out in celebration of learning and progress, and of the people who constitute our future.

My degree opened a whole range of doors, the most important ones being in my own mind. I questioned, I listened, I learned, and tested my worldview against all this knowledge that was being shared with me. For a very brief spell, I even flirted with atheism, but I stopped that nonsense when it dawned on me that God knew fine that I still knew He was there. I read about land ownership, and the Highland famine, and community empowerment. And, oh, the dates – 1493, 1746, 1843, 1886 – that unlocked my people’s past in ways I would never forget.

Because of Lews Castle College and the education I got there, I have been able to keep faith with this community. I know, you see, what makes it tick. All along, I have understood and loved it, and believed that it just wasn’t hitting its full potential. Getting out to get on just didn’t make sense to me; staying and making it even better, though, now you’re talking.

I really hope that’s what some of these graduates will do now. We want their enthusiasm for the Western Isles to be invested back into the communities that made them. It’s time they added their voices to the local narrative. These islands are crying out for people who want to nurture them, and to develop them, without feeling the need to obliterate all that makes the place unique.

Perhaps my Lews Castle College education is the reason I struggle to understand the mentality of people whose very raison d’ etre seems to be moaning about Lewis (other islands are available). They don’t seek to put anything in, but they have endless complaints about it all. You name it, they have denounced it. And they reserve their bitterest criticism for people, with certain groups attracting more criticism than others – namely Christians, councillors, Stornoway Trustees, Gaelic speakers/activists, folk who aren’t Christians but like Sundays to be kept traditional, people who work for the council . . .

We have comprehensively defeated the nonsense that said we could never meet the need for undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications without leaving home. That’s done. Now, let’s set about creating a greater mood of intolerance.

Yes, I said ‘intolerance’:let’s not tolerate bitter, sad people who miscall these islands, but make no effort to contribute positively; let’s refuse to permit their negative droning to dominate the narrative about the Western Isles. If these kinds of voices had been listened to before, Martin’s Memorial would have lain empty this Friday afternoon. Instead, the little College that could just went ahead and did, scattering the sceptics in its wake.

I think scattering sceptics should be the island way. According to some, we get nothing right here in Lewis.

See me and my local education, though, we view it differently. We do things our own way, and that’s right for us. Anything else is just an inferiority complex – and I think these islands are just too good to have one of those.

Before Bethesda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glory in the glen . . . or anywhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Way To Go Home

He didn’t look like a threat of any kind, this visiting minister. Taller than what we’re used to, certainly, but of otherwise benign aspect, I unwittingly settled into my pew and surveyed that Sunday morning’s ‘Bulletin’ – and there it was: undeniable proof that we were actually dealing with a dangerous radical. Psalm 118, right enough, but the Sing Psalms version, to be sung while the elements were laid for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Trying to quell my panic, I looked up at the pulpit, and saw our own minister leaning forward, whispering something to the visitor. Ah, I thought, he’ll be pointing out the mistake; he’ll sort this out. Imagine, then, my feeling of betrayal, of abandonment – which I’m quite sure the rest of the congregation shared – as we rose to sing the modern rendering after all.

He had mentioned in his sermon about our tendency towards ‘Jesus plus’. We’ve all heard this before, this human propensity to complicate the saving truth of the Gospel, and to believe salvation requires some input from ourselves. Of course, it doesn’t; God saw what our efforts were worth back in the Garden of Eden. But this radical visitor elaborated on the theme. Adding to Jesus can take many forms, including – he said – our own preferences.

These words came back to me as I sang 118, not to the old, familiar Coleshill, but another tune entirely. Did it matter? Or was I just taken a little bit outside the comfort zone of tradition? I like what I’m used to, but it’s hardly the end of the world if something happens a little differently.

In my folklore classes, I try to teach students about the notion of motifs in traditional tales. There are many versions of, for example, ‘Cinderella’, from a lot of different cultures. Some aspects of it vary from place to place: the characters’ names, perhaps, or their occupations. These things don’t matter very much to the integrity of the story, however. What remains the same becomes a motif, an essential ingredient that cannot be removed without altering the whole message and nature of the narrative.

Well, so it is with celebrating the Lord’s Supper. If he is the host, and we are his people; if we are there to remember his death and be strengthened in faith by meditating upon who he is and what he has done, does it matter which version of a psalm we sing? He is the author and finisher of our faith, not us.

Why, then, would we think that Christ needs our help? This same Jesus who, our visitor pointed out, had been subject to all the traps of this world, yet evaded them in order to present Himself, blameless and clean to God as a sacrifice in our stead – what could we possibly add to Him? I know that I am still liable to be trapped by sin, and even to willingly permit myself to be when it comes to certain of my pet failings. Contrary to what the world thinks we believe of ourselves, Christians do not esteem themselves perfect; it’s just that we recognise sin but – sadly –still sometimes do it anyway.

I suppose that’s one of the main differences between Christians and the world. Having had that meaningful encounter with Jesus, the absolute of truth, you can see where your life is out of true. After all, a line will only be recognised as squint when it’s compared against one that is perfectly straight. If you have not met and been changed by Him, however, you have absolutely no chance of knowing just how far your life has departed from the right road.

So, when we are witnessing – actively or passively, through our conduct – the first, last and most important thing we can do is show people Christ. Otherwise, we risk repeating the mistakes made by the Kirk Session at Cramond who tried to impose godliness on the people of the parish. I’ve been reading Alison Hanham’s book, ‘Sinners of Cramond’, based on the minutes of the Kirk Session over two centuries, and it offers a black and white account of just how futile this is.

It is why, despite much criticism, I stand by what I have said previously about picketing Pride marches or other worldly gatherings. Unless we are telling people about Christ or – better still – bringing them to Him, we are simply exercising our own vanity. We are, whether we intend this or not, being perceived as saying, ‘I’m better than you; I would never live as you do’.

This is why we have ongoing debate about Sunday opening in Lewis. People like me have unwittingly given the impression that the day is the thing that matters; it isn’t. What matters is that people would know Christ for themselves. Then, neither golf nor swimming, nor coffee, nor films would seem all that important – because life would no longer be all about pleasing themselves.

But we have to get better at communicating that fact. I love Sundays in Lewis because they are, for me, an oasis in a frantic week in which I can spend proper time in prayer, in reading, in worship, and in rest. It isn’t my job – or my right – to prevent others spending their Sunday as they wish. It is, however, my privilege to do everything in my power to change their minds so that they will submit freely to the power of Christ.

Others did as much for me. I was not won over by the suggestion that it was sinful to stay away from church, but I was drawn in by the irresistible message of salvation. Christ is enough. And, after last weekend, I am more persuaded than ever that all He requires of us is to point to Him, to His beauty, and to His sufficiency. Show them the Way, and He will bring them home.

 

 

Sunday Swimming & the Flood to Come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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