No Nudity Please, We’re Leòdhasaich

Accompanying six Lewismen on a road trip this week, I met a work colleague at the airport. She said she had been trying to work out what manner of group we were. I could see her point. Too late for the General Assembly, too early for the AGM of the Crofters’ Union, and altogether unlikely that they were mature students on a field trip . . .
It was actually a delegation from the Stornoway Trust, heading for the mainland as fast as Loganair’s usual two-hour delay would allow.

We were going to be spending the best part of two days together in a car, and so I had a stack of questions ready, designed to flatter the Leòdhasach male ego, and based around what I assumed to be their main interests. Can you explain the offside rule? Which is your favourite brand of sheep drench? Have you really got your own tractor?

But, on the very first day, the unprecedented levels of nudity drove all such conversational niceties out of my head . . .

Returning to the hotel to change for dinner, I discovered my bed to be occupied by a scantily clad (well, naked) couple. The hotel had somehow managed to check me and them into the same room, and it seemed we had radically different plans for how to spend the evening.

As I explained my predicament to the horrified and ashen—faced receptionist, she offered me all manner of restitution. A room upgrade, free drinks, a unicorn . . . anything and everything to provide metaphorical bleach for my eyes.

Because that’s what we do with mistakes, isn’t it? If we can make everything look the way it should, and if we can make everyone happy again, somehow the bad events can be swept away, as though they never were at all.

In this case, my part in the whole business was sorted very quickly. A much nicer room, in a better location and with a prettier view, bought my silence. Well, not silence, exactly – what’s a blogger to do – but my temporary contentment, at any rate. Not so my roommates, I would imagine. Their grievance is greater than mine, after all.

They had their privacy breached, and I suppose, they feel some sense of shame. The grovelling required from management towards them must have been quite spectacular. Perhaps they will never feel secure in a hotel again. Indeed, I took a deep breath before entering my own replacement accommodation, lest there should be a family of gipsies encamped there. But it was fine.

Mistakes happen, and no one – not even this sensitive Wee Free widow – was materially harmed. The Trust has, of course, offered me counselling, but I don’t think I will accept. Not every mistake is so very easily swabbed away, though.

As fallible human beings, we can all too easily make the wrong choices, and be in a position where it is we who have to make restitution. Some good friends will forgive our worst excesses, whereas others will hold it all to our account. We are not, as a species, terribly forgiving.

Yet, we except to be forgiven. Nothing we do is ever so bad in our own eyes that we should be made to pay.

And I’m not talking now about the sort of professional lapse committed by the hotel management. I am talking about being at odds with our Creator.

The day after the debauchery, I stood on a hill with a quite breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside, including a large herd of red deer. All that, the work of His hand. And, all that in the hollow of His hand.

He made it, and He made us. No, correction: He made it, including us. We tend to see ourselves as something apart, something above. Even those of us who know that a Divine hand created the world and everything in it, we still see ourselves as being distinct from His other handiwork. And we see ourselves in that light, not because we actually are superior, or special, but because we’re out of sync. We fail to realise that God made everything as one functioning system. It was not the hills, or the trees, or the birds that caused the perfection to stall; it was us.

In fact, we failed far more catastrophically than any hotel booking system ever could. That glitch, however humiliating for several of the parties involved, was easily smoothed over. For us as a species, however, the perfect Son of God had to die. Nothing less would do.

Yet, we act, in all manner of petty situations, as though we’re something special. We withhold forgiveness from our fellow creatures – as if it was ever ours to give in the first place. I am not good at letting go of grudges, and my displeasure, once provoked, is hard to turn away. But, turn it I must.

Just as I reassured the tearful hotel receptionist that there was no real harm done, I need to look to the pet grievances that I harbour. I have been forgiven everything that ever mattered by the only One who could truly be hurt by my sin; who am I to stand on my injured pride?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Your Gender-fluid Granny

There was some difficulty in ascertaining what species I was, the day my parents brought me home from the hospital. My brother – a mere 20 months old at the time – was held up to peer into the carrycot and hazarded three guesses. I was, he mused, either a bird, a kitten or a hen. In my defence, I must say that he had a limited vocabulary and life experience, and it was that, more than any weird fur or feather arrangement on display which led to this misapplication of ‘isean’ ‘piseag’ or ‘gog-gàg’.

And then, when I was a little older, my father seemed to be labouring under some misapprehension that I was a collie. He worked myself and my brother like a brace of sheepdogs, every time he wanted some of the woolly halfwits moved from one part of the croft to another. We always had an actual dog, but never one that was helpful in the usual ways one might expect. Seonaidh Mòr was adept at wearing hats and escaping; Tim was the king of intimidation and burying things, but neither canine cv had ‘working with sheep’ as a life-skill.

Finally, however, I settled on just being a girl or, as modern parlance would have it, ‘the gender I was assigned at birth’. It’s the use of ‘assigned’ that amuses here. Whose decision is it? I imagine the midwife approaching my mother and saying, ‘Well, Mrs MacLean, regardless of what biology seems to be suggesting, we’re making this one a boy, because we’re out of pink blankets for the moment’. To think the future course of my life may have depended upon the laundry efficiency at the Lewis Hospital . . .

Thankfully, however, there must have been a good supply of the apropriate colour of blankets, and I was, according to the hospital wristband, ‘Baby MacLean – Girl’. Born the day before my granny’s birthday, but arriving early, as is my wont, there was really nothing for it but to name me after her.

Naming children for their relatives is a practice that seems to have fallen into disuse, unless I have misread the situation and there actually are a whole lot of bodaich on the Taobh Siar called Dylan. There was a time, however, when it was de rigeur, and when a family dispute could well be sparked by parents’ failure to honour a sensitive relative in the naming of their child. Regardless, that is, of whether said child was of the same gender as the relative who expected this honour.

Yes, those of you who think we islanders so narrow in our outlook, and so unsophisticated in our response to contemporary issues, read this and consider: gender fluidity started in the Hebrides.

Amongst our older generation, it is not difficult to find legions of women named Angusina, Murdina, Duncanina, Kenina, Hughina, Willina . . . Each one of these is testament to two things: their parents’ commitment to family honour; and a complete lack of chauvinism. Some people will jokingly say that it’s tantamount to saying to your daughter, ‘we really wanted a boy’ but I think you have to look at it in its social and historical context.

The really important social custom being observed here was the preservation of traditional names, and the giving of due place to senior members of the family. It is not about gender at all really, and it is certainly not about the superiority of male over female.

There is something else as well. The number of firstborn girls who were named for male relatives testify to the fact that parents were well aware that this might be their only such blessing. My sister was named for our great-grandfather – my father’s seanair, and the only father figure he ever knew – because, I imagine, my parents sensibly accepted that there might be no siblings and, even if there were, there might be no boys. As it happened, two boys followed, but neither of them had the name ‘Donald’ bestowed upon him. That distinction belongs to my sister, Donna.

I used to think that it was only we islanders that had this obsession with genealogy, and with naming. But many other civilisations have the same interest. God, in His wisdom, placed our Saviour within a human lineage, so that even prophets like Isaiah knew that the Messiah would come through the house of David. The name of David remains linked inextricably with that of the Lord, giving Him that identity which was so necessary for our understanding of Him, and for Him to experience fully what it means to be human.

I think that there is a lesson for all of us in the fact that our Lord’s identity was not something that could be neatly summed up in one word. There were many facets to the only perfect man who ever lived, but that did not diminish Him one bit. And even we, who are made in His image – albeit now like a shattered looking-glass – are greater than the sum of our parts.

In my case, I am happy to be the gender I was assigned by my Creator. And I am happy to be nighean Mhurdanaidh Catrìona Dhòmhnaill Iain Ruaidh. Or banntrach Dhòmhnaill Chaluim Sheonaidh. Some people know me as Post Tenebras Lux, or the woman who taught their kids in Sunday School, or their Gaelic tutor, or that blone on the Trust. Catriona Murray, nee Maclean is a daughter, sister, auntie, friend, lecturer and widow.

But, in any and all of those things, I am who I am, what I am and where I am because God ordained it so. It is, like everything else He does, fixed and secure. And, contrary to what modern wisdom will tell you, this does not box you in – it liberates you in ways that doing as you please, and being who you think you are, never will.

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.

 

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.

Raging & Witnessing

Once, when I was eleven years old, someone really annoyed me. When my shocked teacher returned to the general mayhem of the classroom after playtime, she found me, standing on a chair dishing out a full-blown row to one of the boys. She gave the accustomed blast to everyone to get back to their seats and be quiet. Me, she took aside, and instead of the expected punishment,said that she’d like to see more of that kind of spark in future.

Great displays of temper are largely beyond me. Recently, I was ambushed by an angry secularist who claimed not to have been following the ‘debate’, but still knew that I was in the wrong. I simmered, but stayed calm. It was ill-judged and inappropriate in every sense, on her part, but I should have walked away much earlier nonetheless .

We have been hearing a lot recently in church about situations like these and, more specifically, where you are denigrated in public because of your attachment to the Lord. The correct response is not to say nothing. It is, pretty obviously, not to respond in kind either – we know better than to stoop to that kind of reviling and abuse. God wants a bit more of us than that.

And so I remember the one area of my life where aggression sometimes manifests. I am a pretty impatient driver. People dawdling along in front of me, pulling out at junctions when I’m almost upon them, waiting at roundabouts when they have the right of way . . . these can bring out the Mr Hyde to my normally placid Dr Jekyll.

However, I had the capability to subdue my baser instincts behind the wheel in one significant set of circumstances. At election times, displaying a sticker in support of my party of choice, I would turn into the world’s most courteous driver. Smiles, waves, signalling folk to pull out into the flow of traffic while I waited with a beatific, Mother Theresa-style countenance (or the Wee Free equivalent) – all these were suddenly possible. I could be an ambassador for that cause.

Surely this one deserves that same consideration, and more: much, much more.

What more can we do, then, when someone tries every lie available to sully our reputation? Other than walking away, that is, or standing mute before them.
Well, Peter wants us to bless them. He wants us to bless them so that we can show them by our good conduct how far short their own falls of what Christ requires. In other words, we do not just omit to revile them, but we actively do something for them to demonstrate the power of the Lord in our lives. That’s important to remember, or we just couldn’t do it.

He is in charge; they are not. The fact that they behave as though they are in complete control of their own destiny should cause sympathy in our hearts, because we know that is not the case at all. We have been where they are. And we did not take ourselves out of danger.

Earlier this week, I listened to a talk about the loss of the ‘Iolaire’ at New Year, 1919. There was, after the war, something of a spiritual revival here in Lewis. These men who had been in such grave peril were turning to God in peace time.

I hear some say that this is understandable – that after the unimaginable horror of war, compounded by loss of life on the threshold of home, they looked for something outside themselves.

There is no logic to this. Not in the ordinary sense. In looking for God’s hand, might they not see it as coming down against them? Some of those men witnessed the loss of childhood friends, the stench of battle in nostrils more used to the fragrance of machair and the tang of seaweed at home.

So, when they sought God, why did it lead to faith, and not rebellion against Him? Why were they not angry and reviling like the people in our own midst, who see the Lord only as someone who denies them freedom?

I can only think that it is this: those men saw God as He really is. They looked for Him, and they found Him – His spirit witnessed to theirs, and they were healed in their souls.
For the angry ones here in our own island, there is a difficulty. They are not looking for God, but pushing Him away. As yet, they do not see Him as He really is.

That, I think, is where Christians have a job to do. We must subdue the angry words that rise to our lips when they call us the names that they do. And we must shrug off the lies that they tell, because God, our witness, knows the truth.

It serves no one – least of all our Lord – for anger to seize us. This week, I have watched people tie themselves in knots to prove that theirs is the correct point of view. Ministers, one argued, must place the Bible between human conscience and false teaching. I disagree; I think all believers should position Christ there.

You cannot unsee Christ once He reveals Himself to you. No matter what else your eyes may have witnessed – battle, sickness, death, despair – suddenly they are filled with Him.

He is the truth. And once you have the truth, you are set free – from doubt, from anger, from all the cares of the world.

It is my job, the job of every follower of Christ, to quell our anger, and guard our tongues. Sometimes, I fear we distract from the Saviour, instead of pointing to where He stands.