Carried Away by Passion

If you leave the windows on the west side of your house open, there is a risk that the sluagh – fairy host – will come and carry you off to their own country, a land of enchantment and confusion. It was a little like that for me on Friday evening when some folk from the west (well, Barvas) persuaded me to a place where nothing much was as I expected.

Even although it was our communion weekend in Stornoway, I had agreed to go with these enchantresses to view a production of Bach’s St John Passion at An Lanntair. We were intrigued by the idea that a venue which has cultivated such a reputation for hostility to the Christian faith should be hosting an evening of sacred music. Of course, I do not yet begin to hope that this is any kind of a softening of their position: evidently, many people consider this work by Bach to be great music and nothing more.

How very wrong they are.

It struck me quite powerfully, as I sat in church the following night, listening to the visiting minister preach about the two thieves on the cross. Both were in the presence of God, both heard and experienced the same thing; but one went, blaspheming, to a lost eternity, and the other to glory with his Saviour. And in every place where the gospel is preached, that is potentially true. Some will hear and believe; some will go on rejecting the salvation message.

I would imagine that there were some listening to, and perhaps also performing in, the St John Passion who would fall into the unbelieving category. They may have the highest appreciation for Bach’s undeniable talent as a composer, and they may very well think the libretto attractive, but that will be as far as it goes.

Except, of course, that is never as far as it goes. In fact, their decision to utter, or even just listen to the words of John’s gospel places them in a position of responsibility. Every time you have the truth placed before you, there are only two possible responses: acceptance or rejection. There is no third box marked ‘appreciation’.

This glorious – and beautifully performed – work is still, at heart, a proclamation of the gospel message. It carries the audience through the harrowing final hours of Christ’s life on earth. Each time I read that account, I feel a potent mixture of things: guilt, shame, empathy, gratitude. But, of course, when I read the Bible for myself, I do so in faith; and when I hear the gospel message preached, it is from men who have been called to proclaim it.

If you do not believe John’s account, then it cannot touch your conscience, nor move your heart. But neither does it leave you as you were before you heard it. Every instance of the good news being broadcast provokes a reaction.

Many years ago, I said to my parents, ‘I’m off to Martin’s Memorial to see the Messiah’. Ignoring my father’s wry rejoinder – ‘I doubt it’ – I set off in the company of some equally unbelieving friends to enjoy an evening of sublime music. Despite the fact that it draws significantly on Isaiah, some of the minor prophets, the Psalms and the Gospels, it didn’t bring me, there and then, to Christ.

I was, however, sufficiently impressed to buy a CD of ‘The Messiah’, performed by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, which I listened to many, many times. Even when I wasn’t reading my Bible, I listened, and even when I didn’t see any beauty in the feet that brought good tidings, I thought this the most glorious noise I’d ever heard.

Music of this kind, though, is more than just sound: it’s ministry. Closing our eyes so that we can appreciate the beauty is fine; closing our ears so that we do not hear the still, small voice is not.

Although I was not converted the evening I first heard Handel’s beautiful composition, its message resonated with me throughout the years. Sometimes, in church, a verse would leap out at me and I would recognise it from his oratorio – crooked paths being made straight; comfort ye, my people; by his stripes we are healed.

The reason for that is to be found, not in me, not in the beautiful music, but in the book of Isaiah.

God’s word will not return to Him void, but will accomplish what He has sent it out to do. I need have no anxiety for those hearing the gospel message in whatever form it reveals itself to them, because He has a plan – for every note, every recitative, every rest in the great and glorious composition of which He is the author and conductor.

Whether An Lanntair knows it or not, last Friday, it was beaming out the word of God into its own auditorium. And from there, none of us knows where it might go. Pilate asked ‘what is truth?’ while standing before its living embodiment; but God opens eyes and hearts where He will.

Yes, even in an arts centre in Stornoway.

 

Time Travel, Grace & The Castle Green

I am thoroughly ashamed of myself. For years, I have been coming to sit front and centre in the gallery of Stornoway Free Church, and it never once occurred to me that the inner workings of the clock sit right under my hand.

It took no less a person than . . . well, I won’t name names, but let’s just say that a visitor not unconnected with the manse pointed out the possibilities of manipulation and mayhem which had lain unexploited before me all this time.

How I might have played mindgames
with the occupants of the pulpit, if I had only shown sufficient imagination . . .

It reminded me of a conversation I’d had a while ago with another friend, also about manipulating time. He asked me which Biblical event I would choose to witness if I had the ability to travel back there.

To be honest, I had little trouble deciding. For me, it would simply have to be that road to Damascus with Paul.

Aside from the fact that his teaching has become so precious – yes, even that bit about women keeping quiet in church – Paul has become something of a touchstone for me in the midst of all my dealings with unbelievers.

He is a symbol of real hope that the most outspoken and outrageous enemies of Christ can be turned. God acted decisively and changed that zealous heart into one that would act unstintingly for the cause of Christianity.

This is something that I have tried to keep in mind while engaged in what feels like battle with people who reject Christ. I have prayed – at times through gritted teeth – for those who wound me simply because they no longer have Him before them to revile.

Paul was once like them; worse, even. And there, on the road to Damascus, the Lord remonstrated with him: ‘why do you persecute me?’

Imagine the effect of those words on Paul. That moment was the beginning of his transformation from persecutor to persecuted – and he counted it all gain. He grew in understanding, as every Christian does and, because his was a life of conflict and confrontation for the Lord, the Apostle also grew in grace.

Grace, I am learning, is what you need in order to act in ways the world does not expect. It is God’s gift to His people. I have seen it in them so often – the curbed tongue when every instinct says ‘bite
back’; the polite acceptance of undeserved criticism, or unwanted advice; the uncomplaining demeanour of someone who is suffering . . .
Grace. It is an attribute of the Lord, and it is imputed to us. We grow in it by knowing Him better, and relying on Him more.

Only grace can explain how Saul, the slayer of Christians became Paul,
singing in his prison cell and rejoicing in the thorn that God would not remove.

Grace alone allows the Christian to maintain deep peace in their soul, regardless of how they suffer in their body or their mind.

I live in a community that has seen the effects of grace over and over. We are beneficiaries of this God-given, unearned gift. And yes, that includes those of you who think this is all just crazy talk from
a woman who believes in fairies. You, with every breath you take, are enjoying His common grace. Which is badly named: because it is anything but common.

Speaking to people about the shameful way that our heritage- and especially the Christian aspects of it – have been sidelined and denigrated, I got to wondering why we were letting that be. An Lanntair takes public money from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, amongst
others, but feels no loyalty to the local culture. In fact, it celebrates absolutely everything but one of the most influential
factors that has shaped our community.

Everything we have by God’s grace – even grace itself – we are so apt to take for granted. And this year, maybe more than any other, as we mark the centenary of the ‘Iolaire’ tragedy, I feel we ought to be reflecting on His amazing dealings with our island.

And then, just like Him, just like He always does, God holds up a silencing hand, and whispers, ‘grace’.

He is speaking very clearly indeed to the Christians in this community. Just like He told the Apostles of the New Testament Church to get out there and claim the world for Christ, I believe He is saying to us, ‘take it back’. We need to reclaim our heritage, because our heritage in Him is something we want to pass on. And no one else will do it for us.

An Lanntair won’t do it because, for all its pretension to pushing the envelope, it’s actually just another mirror for the prevailing view. If it was truly edgy – and it’s not; it’s disappointingly conventional – it might do something really radical, like reflect the culture in which it used to be anchored.

So, let’s quit waiting and celebrate our Christian heritage ourselves, our way. After all these years of hitting the high road to Keswick, let’s hold our hands up to God in thanks for what He has done for THIS community. Yes, this very one.

In the spirit of reclaiming our Christian heritage and proclaiming its beauty aloud, come and be part of ‘Grace on the Green’. On the Castle lawn in Stornoway, we will have a July night filled with praise, going up to God from His people, in thanks for the providence that is our
inheritance.

And let it be our prayer that on the road to the green, many will see that He has been active in their lives also, and will join us in lifting up their voices in joy for His amazing and unparalleled grace to us all.

 

Arts Centre with an Inferiority Complex

I turned 11 years old in the centenary year of the Crofting Act of 1886. The social and historical significance of this piece of legislation has never left my consciousness since then – learning about how the Gaels had suffered before security of tenure; of communities broken and scattered; of a way of life halted; of a population depleted; of emigration for want of a better choice. The kernel of truth planted in my young mind in 1986 led me on the path to where I am now, both professionally, and in my concern for this community and this culture.

And the doorway to my own people, to a better sense of my own identity, was opened by none other than An Lanntair.

This was my first awareness that such an organisation even existed. It encouraged schoolchildren all over the island to explore the history leading up to the passage of the Act. The arts centre, operating out of a network of unsuitable rooms in the Town Hall, did a phenomenal job with the iconic Às an Fhearann exhibition. And I cannot have been the only person for whom it was a seminal experience.

It was because of An Lanntair, then, that I set off on a path of discovery which led me to see not just the intrinsic value in Gaelic and crofting culture, but the injustice which our community has suffered down through successive generations.

We were, just a couple of centuries prior to that, a strong, sea-going, Gaelic kingdom. Our laws, our culture, our mindset and, yes, of course, our language, were all thoroughly and completely
Gaelic.

But, by 1886, we were broken, scattered and well on our way to being ashamed of everything that identified us as different.

Different to what, you may ask?

Well, different to the mass culture that surrounded us – the English-speaking, English-thinking, imperialist mindset that could not bear to look upon difference without wishing to homogenise it. They
set about dismantling our language. You have, no doubt, heard tales of
schoolchildren thrashed for using their mother tongue, of the maide-bualaidh, and of the maide-crochaidh.

They didn’t beat our language out of us, though, or our culture – they shamed it out of us. I suppose, they educated it out of us. If you want to get on in the world, you will have to stop being so . . . different. That was the message. And, worst of all, though I say ‘they’, it was more often than not perpetrated by those from inside the culture who had, themselves,been made ashamed of their roots.

Make no mistake, that is still the message. Only now, it is done under a different guise. We are not told to stop being different in order to get on; we are told that preserving our difference breaches equality legislation. And we are told, like before, that our otherness makes us a laughing stock, and an embarrassment to ourselves.

And who is leading the charge against our difference, our otherness?

An Lanntair, sadly, that’s who. Housed these days in an expensive, if ugly, purpose-built centre, the local bastion of arts and culture is turning on the community it was created to represent.

I know the argument, such as it is. It’s all about exploring new horizons, and pushing the boundaries . . . But as a centre for arts in a minority and fragile culture such as ours undoubtedly is, can An Lanntair really look itself in the mirror and say it is doing the right thing? Of course not. This is a clear case of carry on regardless.

We have had two soundings of community opinion in recent times. The Stornoway Trust election showed a real appetite in the community for maintaining the precious remains of our heritage as much intact as we can. And the We Love Lewis and Harris Sundays Facebook group has a membership in excess of 2300 at the time of writing.

An Lanntair has taken no cognisance of what is unquestionably the prevailing
view. It has carried out a frankly bizarre trial, opening one small part of its operation and extrapolating from that to surmise that there will be great demand for its other services. There is no joined-up thinking in evidence here, and there is utter disregard for the culture of the area.

I would support the removal of local authority funding to a different cultural provider. Perhaps the £60k + could be distributed amongst the Comuinn Eachdraidh network, or the Fèis movement to more directly support island heritage. Whatever else An Lanntair is doing, it is not doing that.

Actually, it is complicit in sabotaging a very precious element of who we are, all in the name, not of pushing boundaries, or challenging norms as they pretend, but of appeasing a vocal minority who either understand nothing, or care nothing for the very thing which makes
this place special.

Apologists for this cultural vandalism have tried to invoke equality legislation. Who is being discriminated against? You may well ask.

Well, An Lanntair’s predecessor opened my eyes to who I am, and where I came from, and what is valuable about my history and heritage. My eyes cannot be closed, therefore, to what is being done, or why. This is not about equality; this is not about fairness – it is about shame. An Lanntair is choosing to represent those who are ashamed of this island and its identity, and is disingenuous enough to call that progress.

The shame is all theirs, however. That kind of progress dates back to well before 1886. We fell for it then, but we won’t be falling for it now; we are not ashamed of our heritage, we are not ashamed of who we are.

And I don’t think that an arts centre with an inferiority complex is the kind of thing this community really needs.

 

May The Force Be With Us (The Real One, That Is)

So, the newshounds  have finally caught up with An Lanntair’s plans to open one Sunday each month. It is a big deal for them, and for those people living in Lewis who don’t like the island very much the way it is. For the media, it is an excuse to point the quaint, wee island out to mainland sophisticates, so they can laugh at our eccentric ways. Somewhere, right now, I guarantee you, a ‘journalist’ is writing copy that contains the words, ‘they’ve only recently been allowed to hang their washing out on Sunday’.

People outside of Lewis love this. To them, we are hilarious anachronisms in black clothes. The only modern thing about us is the microchip implanted in our heads, controlled by the minister from his study computer. Him and his big, fluffy, white cat.

We are other. And we always have been. It makes us fair game.

Here, I’ll empty out the sack of cliches, and you can write the headlines yourselves – just pick and mix. Strictly Sabbatarian. Narrowly Presbyterian. Deeply Religious. Chained-up swings. Swimming prohibited. Wee Frees. Disapproval. Opposition. Planes. Ferries.

You know, the usual sort of thing. Journalists are after a couple of hundred easy words, so I suppose it’s no wonder they resort to rummaging in the stereotype bin. Tomorrow, they will be casually ripping into someone else’s community.

The people I really don’t understand are the ones who live here in the island. I get that they want to make it like everywhere else; no one can punish them for the fact that they apparently lack any feeling for the uniqueness of the place. We have a saying in Gaelic, ‘an rud nach d’ fhuair Niall, chan iarrar air e’. Similar, I suppose to the English: what would you expect from a horse, but a kick?

But do they never stop, in their endless, whining, ‘but I waaaaant’, to think about why Lewis has not ‘caught-up’ with the rest of the country? Could it possibly be because Lewis did not need to be like other places, having enough of its own character to stand apart?

However, the decision is made. The cinema will open one Sunday a month. To begin with. And then the gallery, the cafe, the shop. Will that be enough for our restless secularists who apparently can’t be alone with their families even one day a week? Of course not. Already they are talking about the swimming pool. Then it will be buses, shops, supermarkets . . .

Then, though? Then, they will be satisfied?

Not even then. Discontentment like theirs knows no end. That’s why they are building themselves this house of cards – they think, ‘one more blow against the Lord’s Day and we will be happy; one more victory over Christ and we will have Him beaten’.

They expect opposition from the church. No – correction – they want opposition from the church. It entitles them to rail against religious privilege, if anyone representing an island church raises even one objection to this latest ‘development’.

Well, they won’t get it. The time for that is long past. They are using their God-given free will to spend their time as they choose. Nothing I or anyone else can say will change that. Already, they know that it’s wrong to keep none of it back in tribute to Him. Oh, they’ll deny it. But they know.

It is called the Lord’s Day, not because He commands us to spend it in chains, bored, and reading the Bible without understanding.
He wants us to fulfil our purpose, which is twofold: to glorify Him, and to enjoy Him.

This is not the language of bondage, but of freedom. God wants us to choose to spend time in His presence – He doesn’t compel, or command; and He will not drag you to Himself kicking and screaming.

Though, one day, you may wish He had.

And, even though this step has been taken, it does not mean the atheists have won. They are not victorious in any sense that I can envy. I can say that even though the auditorium will be full on the first open Sunday, because every ticket has already been sold.

It was calculated that way. Some savvy person knew that these superior beings who will not allow their children to be duped by fairytales from the Middle East, would like nothing better than a Sunday afternoon watching aliens and spaceships.

Harmless escapism? I suppose that all depends on what you’re fleeing from.

Meantime, we Christians will be invoking that much talked-about religious privilege. We only have the one, but it really is all we need. ‘The force’, you might call it.

It is our privilege to pray for those who will not pray for themselves. We pray that their eyes will be opened to the folly of what they’re doing; we pray that they will get a heart of wisdom.

Closed minds and deaf ears will not hear our protests; but God is waiting for our petitions. Not – lest they wilfully misunderstand and take offence – petitions that He should smite them, nor anything of that nature. This isn’t Star Wars, you know.

No. Prayers that they will see Him as He really is. And that they will take hold of that for themselves. This is not about power, or imposing a Sabbatarian lifestyle on others.

For the Christian, this is much more important than lifestyle – it is about life. We would have everyone choose that themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

Always Darkest Just Before Dawn

There is something about a brand new year that is like a clean sheet of paper, waiting to be written on. For some, there is the irresistible lure of the resolution, the resolve to be a better version of themselves in the next twelve months than they were in the previous. Few of these outlast January.

It is a time of renewal, of hope; a time when whatever mistakes were made in the old year can be crossed out in the new. But it is also a time for evaluating how those aspirations that were so fresh last New Year have fared.

I was asked this week which of my prayers have gone unanswered. The question really unsettled me. It has always been my belief that God does not let sincere prayer go unanswered. Sometimes He might say, ‘wait a while’, or ‘no, that’s not best for you’, but I don’t think He ever ignores our petitions. For one thing, they are too precious to Him.

But I do have things which I bring before Him continually, as we all do. For most Christians, the first thing on that list would be for their loved ones to know Jesus as their Saviour. And for many, spiritual revival will also be a priority. Most Ch

ristians pray for those things . . . but I wonder whether we have artificially separated them in our hearts, as well as in our supplication to God.

What I’m saying is that when we pray for our family to be saved, we don’t mean them exclusively; we probably just mean them particularly. In reality, a general spiritual awakening which would include those we know and care for, well, that would be better still, surely. How much more generous are prayers which are expansive in their concern? What largeness of heart it takes to pray for salvation in those we do not know, or perhaps especially those with whom we are acquainted, but do not yet love.

The Rev John Morrison of Petty, a man reputed to possess the gift of second sight, once caught up with a member of his congregation, a young woman, on a stormy night. She was concealing her newborn – and illegitimate – infant beneath her cloak, and was making her way to a nearby loch to drown the child. Instead of remonstrating with her, he simply told her that before letting the baby go she should kiss it and ask a blessing on it. This she did, and – as the wise old minister knew would happen – she could not go through with her desperate plan.

Once you have prayed for someone, there is a bond created. I think that is how the Lord strengthens the love His people have, one for the other. He moves us to pray for each other and, once we have, that kind concern is marked indelibly on our hearts.

Revival for our community, for our country, for our world, has to be willed by God. But we surely have a part to play in readying ourselves for it. It is not a small thing we are asking for, and so we should not behave as though it is. God has shown us, I believe, that He is listening. The waiting is not a divine refusal, but evidence that He hears, and wants to hear more.
Words are easily spent. I have prayed for revival, really meaning it, but more often than not I have prayed the words to fill a silence. That isn’t what God wants; and it shames me to admit that’s what I give Him. He wants the earnestness of heart I bring to supplication which directly affects me.

How I prayed when I feared my husband might die is how I should be petitioning the Lord for our community.

It’s exhausting being concerned for people who have no thought of their own spiritual welfare. A few months ago, I heard this mentioned in a sermon as one of the things which can wear the Christian down in their own walk. And it’s true. I can testify to the frustration and even heartbreak of trying to bring Christ before people who still want to spit in His face.
They pretend it’s all part of this relentless march towards freedom and tolerance; but it’s really their own bigotry got up in fancy clothes. That’s why they’re so delighted about going to see a critically-panned ‘Star Wars’ film at An Lanntair on a Sunday afternoon; that’s why the deck of the first ferry to cross the Minch on the Lord’s Day was thronged with people: ugly triumphalism.

You see, they’ve lost any sense of community they may once have had. It’s all become lost in the morass of selfishness and hatred born of fear.

You can become so acquainted with that mindset as to despair that revival is even possible when no one will have this Jesus to be king over them. But that’s no attitude for a Christian. He wants us to be community-minded, and to pray and pray and pray for these people until all hope is gone.

Jesus is the ultimate lesson in hoping against hope. When the two disciples on the road to Emmaus were filled with despair because the man they thought would be the Redeemer had died a common criminal’s death, what happened? He himself appeared and reminded them how essential all those hardships had been to the fulfilment of His plan.

And His resurrection surely reminds us that He is hope in a hopeless situation.

My resolution for 2018 is to find that fear for others, that comes so easily where I’m concerned myself; and to give it all to God in prayer. He understands loss of hope. And He restores it like no one else can.