Suffrage, Tippex, and the Feminist Free Kirk

As a noted local feminist, I was disappointed that my recent election to the Stornoway Trust failed to attract the expected plaudits from the sisterhood. They can’t have heard. It’s a pity, because I had hoped they would take heart, now we’ve seen that  women can be elected in Lewis after all. Should any of you see them, please mention it.

Maybe don’t mention my complications, though. I do stuff that they might think messes with my girl-power credentials. And I don’t just mean the fact that the last person to put screen wash in my car was the minister. Or that I have several men on speed-dial who tell me what to think about the complicated stuff (the Blue Book, the interconnector, the offside rule).

No, there’s that obedience thing as well: the Biblical authority, the Saviour ruling my life. The Free Church.

Somehow, the patriarchy that I am expected to rage against, they’re the same guys who put me on the Trust. According, that is, to a letter in the newspaper formerly known as the ‘Stornoway’ Gazette.

Do not adjust your screens – I am indeed talking about the same Free Kirk that’s been keeping women down for two centuries.

Elders took a few nights off from chaining swings and intimidating witnesses to go out bribing voters, and Tippexing any ballot papers that people had completed without their say-so. I am not exactly sure what their motive in getting a blone elected was, especially a daft airhead like myself who, apparently, needed the ‘big boys’ (whoever they may be) to explain wind turbines to her.

Actually, before the ballot, one of the patriarchy, who shall remain nameless, suggested that it would be a good thing if I were elected. I waited for him to say, ‘because it might get you off our case for a while’, or even, ‘you girls need a wee hobby to keep you out of mischief’. But no. He suggested that I might contribute something to the decision-making process (and not just fruit loaf either).

He meant it sincerely. Nor did he conclude by winking and adding, ‘Don’t you worry, we’ll make sure it happens, a ghràidh’. I think he’s probably more of a feminist than all the badge-wearing, card-carrying types who were casting around looking for an explanation for my election – and finally came up with the contemptible cop-out, ‘it was the church that rigged it’.

Feminism, however, for me, is the simple fact of women getting on with things, and rational folk of both genders accepting that they can.

I want to inhabit Biblical womanhood, because my first love and first loyalty belong to God. This is a colossal challenge, first and foremost because of my own nature. It is in me to think, ‘why shouldn’t I?’ And, although I’m not excusing myself, I feel bound to add that this instinct is probably exacerbated by being a woman on her own. Who deals with the frightening stuff – the spider in the bath, talking to mechanics – if not me?

So, then, it’s hard when you’re the sole breadwinner and householder, to still be the kind of woman God requires.

It is also a challenge because society tells you to assert yourself, not to allow others to trample over you, to know your rights. Society is about being confrontational: me before you; my wants over your needs; my opinion trumps yours.

The problem with society is it’s made up of people, and we are – all of us – fundamentally flawed, and broken in our own way. And we are shot-through with sin. So, what the world will tell you to be is very rarely in agreement with what God wants.

That, sisters, is where we have to rely on Him.

God has not said ‘subdue your femininity’ – He wants us to embrace it and inhabit it in all its fullness. That means not seeing myself in relation to men, not comparing myself to them in terms of what is permissible, but fitting myself to God’s template for my life. I don’t want to be anyone else, or do the things that other people do, of either gender.

My life is not what I planned. Mercifully. It’s easy to tug at your heartstrings and say I hadn’t planned to be a widow now. And, of course, that’s true. On the other hand, I had not planned to commit my life to Christ, to accept His free gift of salvation. Thankfully, you see, God had it all in hand. Submitting to Him is the wisest thing I ever did; and even that wasn’t me.

There are many examples, in His Word, of womanhood which I might try to follow. A friend recently mentioned  a sermon on Ruth, in which the question was posed, ‘where, in all of Moab, did Ruth come to know God’? And the only conclusion to which the preacher could come was this: it must surely have been through  Naomi’s dignity and faith in the midst of great grief.

This would certainly explain that famous and beautiful speech from Ruth to her mother in-law, and particularly, ‘your God shall be my God’.

Ruth must have seen a beauty in Him to desire, and that beauty was clearly revealed to her in Naomi’s steadfast devotion.

That, now,  is the sort of feminist I would like to be: loving God, and witnessing faithfully for Him, no matter where He leads, so that other women – and yes, even men – might see Him too, and be freed from ‘isms’ of every kind.

Mosque ✅ Church ❌

Finally, after many years, the Muslim community in Lewis is to get its own meeting place. Local Muslims have, I imagine, been meeting and worshiping in one another’s homes since first coming to Lewis. Now they will have somewhere set aside for that purpose, which is only as it should be.

The people who are outraged by that other Abrahamic religion – Christianity- are in agreement with me on this. They are delighted by the news that crowdfunding has come good. I don’t remember quite the same warm welcome for the news that the Stornoway High Free had identified a site for its new building, however, but I suppose that, in cases such as these, a long memory can be inconvenient. Besides, let’s be charitable: maybe this is not mere virtue-signalling on the part of local unbelievers.

As someone who is only just discovering the extent of her own naivety, and the depth of her gullibility about people, I say we give them the benefit of the doubt. It is possible that this cheerleading for Islam marks a turning-point in the secular antipathy towards faith. Perhaps there has been a collective realisation that religious faith is not a threat to freedom, nor does it represent some kind of power-grab after all. Indeed, maybe our unbelieving friends have had an epiphany of their own.

Or, the cynic in me shouts, perhaps they ARE virtue-signalling. Support for Islam is right-on; support for Wee Frees . . . well, that’s right-off.

Why, though?

Well, I’m going to take some responsibility here. I acknowledge that the Presbyterian churches in Lewis may not always have presented the best example to the world. We have had our fair share of factionalism, of division, of schism, of pettiness, of brother against brother warfare, which is surely the ugliest kind.

And, yes, in the past, some of our people may have acted in ways that were both unloving and unlovely towards the wider community. There are undoubtedly people who have been hurt by their relationship with a church: I see their bitterness bubbling to the surface in all the debates about Sunday opening.

Some profess to be haunted by the memory of a remote and distant figure threatening from the pulpit, shouting about hell and damnation. It haunts me, in my turn, to think that should be anyone’s last contact with God’s Word.

It calls to mind the text I saw once, displayed on the wall of a local church, ‘For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’.

Of course churches, and even individual Christians have a responsibility – a burden, even – to warn folk of the danger their souls are in. It is real, it is immediate, and it is so unwise to avert our minds from it. But there is no sense and no love in telling people of the danger, without bringing the solution before them also.

The verse immediately following that one used by the church, reads, ‘and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus ‘.

A Christian church, like the Wee Frees, is filled with sinners at varying stages of recovery. Some have just lately given their lives to Christ, some did so decades before – but not one of us is perfect. The difference between me and the man who was put off church years ago is that little word, ‘grace’. By God’s free gift, freely-given, I am taking the cure for sin. I know I will be sin-free one day, but not as long as I live in this world. Like an alcoholic, I am always recovering, never ‘recovered’. And, like any addict, I have to fight a daily battle with my problem, which is sin.

We do not think we are perfect; please dismiss that idea from your minds. In fact, a Christian is more painfully aware of their imperfection than anyone. Nor are we interested in power, or control. However the debates raging in our community appear to you, please believe me when I say that the root of all this is love.

I understand that, if your last experience of Christianity was unpleasant, you feel the church has nothing to say to you. But, consider this: the church is made up of flawed, recovering sinners like me. We are not sin-free, and we do not pretend we are. Anything I say or do, is filtered through my own human nature, which is horribly flawed and distorted by my sinfulness. You are right to mistrust my motives, which may be self-seeking, or intended to harm you. Of course, I would hope they are not, but I freely admit that sometimes badness gets the better of me, even without me realising.

But, if you needed a doctor, would you look at his patients and reject him simply because their recovery was slow? If he was your only hope, or your loved one’s only hope of a cure, would you dismiss his credentials because you witnessed the occasional relapse? Would you choose to let your nearest and dearest die because one of this physician’s clients had once let you down?

I have somehow managed to offend great swathes of our unbelieving community. They think I am a bitter fundamentalist, a Pharisee. And perhaps there are indeed Pharisaic moments in my life. No one knows better than me how I fail to live up to my Saviour every single day.

So many have read my blogs and been angered by them because of what they think I’m saying. Or because of what they think I represent. They think I represent a long line of men in black hats, whose mission is to chain up the swingparks and stop people from having fun.

Muslims have been unjustly portrayed as potential terrorists, always with one eye on imposing Shariah law wherever they can gain a majority. People view them askance, sidling away from them on the underground, and avoiding the seat next to them on planes.

Why can the unbelievers in Lewis see past that relentless propaganda, to view Muslims as real people? Someone explain to me how they are capable of reason in that much more negative and charged situation, yet they cannot – or will not – accept that their neighbour, Dòmhnall Murdo, the elder, probably isn’t out rigging elections and bribing politicians on a Wednesday evening.

How I wish they could let go of these stereotypes and stop hating. At a recent communion fellowship, a friend of mine suddenly said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if all those people who hate us could be here right now to share this?’

‘This’, was laughter, love, and real community. For that is what goes on behind our closed doors.

 

Christian or Psychopath?

There were times during the recent Stornoway Trust election when I might have voluntarily asked to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act, just to get out of it. Or the Crofting Act of 1886, for that matter. Only, that wouldn’t really have been a section, more of an apportionment . . .

Anyway, I wasn’t sectioned, despite my frequent exposure to the excesses of other people. But it was what we are pleased to call a steep learning curve. Very, very steep.

God sets us on little journeys, I believe, in order that we might learn and grow spiritually. If I really think about it, I have grown more, and grown closer to Him, in the times of adversity than in the times of prosperity. The former have, as the Bible says, led me to consider. I didn’t want them, but I did profit from them.

During the campaign, I knew that I would suffer a spiritual onslaught. The devil uses every means at his disposal when he’s on the ropes. He will spit poison at you until you think you can take no more.

And, make no mistake – you can’t. God can, though, and does. You have to stick close to Him, and never try to do anything on your own.

I was caught a little off guard on Sunday. Some strangers who, according to themselves, believe all aspects of my life are fair game simply because I’ve written about them, took up a very painful topic in unimaginably callous style. Because I’m a Christian, I am apparently not supposed to grieve Donnie’s death. My husband. The man I intended to spend my life with.

Which got me thinking about that perennial problem – the misconception about what being a Christian is. Apparently, this woman (who I have never met) feels that I should be happy he’s dead. Yes, read that again slowly. This person, a member of the human race, has dehumanised me sufficiently in her own mind to write such an extraordinarily stupid thing. What she is describing is not a Christian, but a psychopath.

Unrepentant, despite me questioning the mindset of anyone who would write such a thing, she went on to justify her actions. I have blogged about Donnie, so I can’t complain if she feels the need to stamp all over his memory, despite knowing neither of us. Or, rather, because she knew neither of us.

I am less than human to her – because I am an online Christian, presumably.

But I am human, with a family and feelings, and a heart that felt her words like a knife.

Last Sunday, reading the horrible, callous words that she had written, I was crying and shaking. I felt sick that anyone would sink so low. My first instinct was to hide away, to stay at home and weep.

But I needed to go among my own people, where I feel safe. So I made the effort. And I told someone what had happened – a kind man, one of our elders, charged with the spiritual oversight of the congregation (as well as election-rigging, obviously). He looked pained. His reaction mirrored my own: disbelief at the callousness.

The prayer restored me. Being with His people revived me. Everything returned to its proper order. And then I began to feel pity for this woman’s ignorance of Christ. No one who knows the Jesus who wept with the family of Lazarus could think a Christian forfeits the right to mourn. So, when I got home that night, I prayed for her.

It cost me a lot to do it. I despised her for the way she made me feel, for the upset to my mother, to my sister, to my friends. Left to myself, I would have driven to her house and let her know that I am not just an online caricature for her and her friends to denigrate.

But I am not left to myself, thank God. And so I brought her before Him, where I leave her.

I hope she understands one day that my tender writing about the man I shared my life with was never intended as a sacrifice to her, or her kind. My identity as a widow is God-given; my faith leads me to believe that He wants me to inhabit that identity for the good of others, as well as myself.

Those who justify their godless and inhuman trampling on the feelings of others need pity much more than I. In recent weeks, I have seen for myself how very, very low the human condition can sink when it removes itself from God. I had not thought to see it on my own doorstep.

Pray for them. There but for the grace of God go any of us. They cannot save themselves, and they will not ask His help.

He expects this much of us. That is what a Christian is: someone who has feelings, yes, but lays them aside in obedience to His greater love. And His love, like many other things, can only truly be understood from the inside.

The Savour of Life . . . Or Death?

Coming up to the anniversary of Donnie’s death this week, I worried. You see, I’ve learned that you never quite know how you’re going to be. It is almost as though you are watching another person, because you have zero control over your own feelings in this regard.

Nonetheless, you gather yourself inwards, tentatively approaching the dread day on metaphorical tiptoes. I suppose, three years on, I am afraid of waking the sleeping beast of grief.

Sunday was wonderful. I had missed the midweek service because of another meeting. And I felt its absence, limping towards the weekend. So, Sunday and my church family received me into their warm embrace. Preaching, praise, prayer and fellowship somewhere you can just be yourself is not to be beaten. It poured strength into me, reminding me who He is.

And, when Tuesday came, I awoke, feeling . . . fine. Better than fine. Time with Himself, a stroll with the dog, and I was chilled out. There were messages of care and love and prayer – many from people who had never known Donnie but who have become important in my life since then.

Just as He has done three years ago, God surrounded me with His peace. For that day, I could read the barrage of nastiness about me online and not be troubled. Not be troubled for myself, at any rate. The people making snide remarks struck me as rather sad, forlorn figures. What kind of person hates someone they’ve never met to that degree? I felt sorry for them.

But I’m ashamed to admit that the feeling of pity did not last. You can only hold yourself taut for so long and, by the time I went to bed, my heart felt so full of resentment I thought it might splinter.

‘Even today’, I complained to God, ‘they couldn’t leave me alone’.

I have learned to live with the fact that I am despised for being a Christian; I have learned not to be bothered by the casual lies they tell about me. This is not actually about me anyway – I could be their darling tomorrow if I denied Christ. He is the unpopular one, not me. These days, I am reviled for His sake, just as He was reviled for mine.

And there the comparison ends.

He bore His infinitely greater suffering with perfect fortitude. I simply ended up feeling sorry for myself.

On Wednesday morning, I stomped about the house, and went to work in the worst of humours. It was a culmination of things: too much coffee, too little sleep, too much holding it together on my own inadequate strength, and not enough time pouring out my heart to God. At one point, I told my sister that the day was bound to end with me hitting someone – anyone – or bursting into tears.

The day, in fact, ended in laughter and in gratitude.

What effected this miraculous transformation? Not ‘what’ – who? And I think you already know the answer.

First of all, there are friends. The friends God puts in your path are not necessarily those you would expect. Sometimes, the world might look askance at these relationships, and even wonder what you could possibly have in common. But I found the value of those God-honouring friendships right then. While I was seething through my day, these friends were, it transpired, worrying for me.

And, if you’re not a Christian, you may be thinking, ‘that’s nice – but hardly remarkable’.

Wrong. It is extraordinary in the truest sense of the word. Christian concern goes heavenwards. These friends, in their anxiety for me, were bringing me before God. In being on their hearts, I was also on His.

That is not nothing.

In their safe company, I unwound. The venom of poor, misguided people lost its sting. I remembered who I was because these friends showed me what I should be.

And we laughed. Mainly at each other. Together, as well, we reflected on the meaning of integrity, which is really  about being straight before God.

It doesn’t matter what those who are wise in their own sight think of me. They have started off from the false premise that there is no God, and so all the working out from then on is bound to be erroneous.

This is not about them, though. They have taken enough of this week from me.

Actually, this blog is not a blog at all, but a love song – to the Lord, and to His people. It is a thanksgiving.

God moves the hearts of His people to small acts of love. It was they, through Him, who soothed my brittleness this week. In the unexpected heat of this election campaign, a little  band of us have supported one another. Each day, we begin by sharing a reading; and each night, we smooth the cares of the day with a song of praise.

And, there are the messages. One person sent me assurance of their prayers, accompanied by the loveliest sound clip of psalm singing from our church. Ladies I haven’t seen in years, but who knew my parents, sending me word of their solidarity. It is worth so much more than I can ever express.

Then there are the strangers. Not the hate-filled people who abuse my good name for what I believe; not the faux-reasonable secuularists who wish I would just disappear and shut my face about who Christ is.

No, the other kind of stranger. People I have never met, but who are my brothers and sisters because they too have known God’s grace. So, so many of them have reached out and blessed me by doing so.

How can the same words cause some to bitterly hate, and others to brim with love? That, I think, is a question for the unbelievers. God, help them.

 

 

Whose providence have we inherited?

Working in the College, which is situated right in the grounds of Lews Castle, I have always been aware of the legacy left by Lord Leverhulme to this island. It has been on my mind rather more this week, however, as I continue in my quest to be elected onto the Stornoway Trust – the body which administers the estate he gifted to the community.

I wish I could say I’m surprised at how little people seem to know of the history associated with the Leverhulme era, but it is one of the greatest frustrations of my professional life. The Gaels are generally ignorant of their own past: that is why it has been possible for many of the wrongs of history to be replicated in the present day. Those who do not learn those lessons are doomed to repeat their mistakes.

That is not what shocked me at all, then, but the response to what I thought was a fairly innocuous comment, left by an outgoing Trustee on my campaign page. He was echoing my endorsement of another candidate, and made reference to the importance of having a ‘God-honouring Trust’.

Cue shrieks and howls of derision. But – honestly – what did people think Christians were going to want, if not that? After all, if an organisation is not honouring God, where does it stand in relation to Him? Our nihilistic friends would probably say ‘nowhere’, but that is a child’s answer; God does not leave us that option. We are, quite simply, with Him, or against Him. And that’s fine, that’s free will; you make your choice, and you take the consequences, as with anything else.

So, you are – as an individual, God-honouring, or God-denying. And, as an organisation, the same is true.

Honouring God, for the Christian, is the foundation and framework of their life. It is their first thought and their best hope. I am a poor example of this, but I do try. When I remember, I ask Him that anything I do would be to His glory and not mine; I ask Him to keep me humble. Clearly, I do a very bad job because there are those in our midst who accuse me of thinking I’m ‘the new Messiah’.

Like we need another one.

So, I don’t make a great job of humility. But I know this, and I work on it, and with His help, I will be kept where I belong. And even when I am making a mess of it, and thinking that anything I’m doing is of myself, in my soul I know it’s Him – it’s all Him.

Which is why I do not understand why this man’s comment caused such outrage, even amongst some Christians. There was one suggestion that it was ‘undemocratic’ to define the Trust this way because Leverhulme’s deed establishing the body which would have oversight of the estate, made no mention of honouring God.

I think, in a week of reading and hearing some pretty astounding points of view, that one knocked the wind out of me most – like a punch in the stomach. Are we, honestly, at this stage, when we need a legal document to permit us to honour God? Do we really think that democracy – a manmade system necessary to mitigate against our sinful tendencies to exploit and bully one another – sits in superiority over the Creator of all things?

In His own providence, I had heard a sermon on our relationship with human authority, just last Sunday evening. Christians have a dual citizenship – in Heaven, in the highest sense, but also in this world. We are required to submit to rightful authority, as long as it does not lead us to sin against God.

The best way of ensuring this is to elect godly people into authority. And the best way of ensuring that we do, is to be a prayerful people. Our voting, our decision-making, our every action must be clothed in prayer that God will guide us to honour Him.

All of this, I realise, reads for those who suspect me of having a Messiah complex, as being a plea for ‘the church’ to hang onto ‘power’. No matter what I say, or how I couch it, my words will be warped and twisted and I will be described as a hateful and bitter killjoy.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that every Christian wants God to be honoured in all that they do. Therefore, in standing for, or serving on the Trust, in doing your day job – whatever that might be – in bringing up your family, in speaking with your friends, in living your life, that is what must come first.

I am still naive enough to hope that people reading this will understand, therefore, that this is how Christians approach service. They wish to honour God first and foremost; and so they should. Far from meaning, however, that they will neglect their duties to the people they are supposed to serve, the opposite should be true. Enemies of Christianity shout, ‘keep them out of government; sweep them off every committee’.

And, as in so many other circumstances of unbelieving life, there is no thought to the long-term consequences of a world without God. People are free to create power structures without Him – but there is a question that remains unasked by many, perhaps because it is too frightening even to contemplate:

If we remove God from every corner of public life, what manner of thing will fill the void?

 

Forgetting the Sabbath Day

Last weekend, I had to confront the idea that perhaps my teaching ability is not, as the Americans say, ‘all that’, when we had a quiz about Moses in Sunday School. Asked which two foods the Israelites had enjoyed in the wilderness, one team confidently wrote, ‘pigeons and napalm’.

Ah, yes, the diet of champions.

However, they did exceptionally well on the Ten Commandments, both teams recalling nine correctly.

They each listed the same nine. And they each missed out the same one.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

We joked afterwards amongst ourselves that we must be terrible teachers if none of the children remembered the fundamental rule of our faith. You would think, we said, sitting in a Sunday School, discussing the commandments, that’s the one they WOULD remember.

But, then, reflecting upon it afterwards,
I thought that maybe the kids had demonstrated something very valuable. Christ has told us we must be as childlike as them in our faith and in this, as in so many other of His teachings, I have not paid enough heed.

After all, there in our classroom, talking about the things of God, praying and singing Psalms of praise, and enjoying one another’s company, were we not living the very essence of the missing commandment? Was it necessary to remember the words when we were doing what they asked?

It actually crystallised for me where we are at locally with ‘the Sunday issue’. I have come to despise the word, ‘Sabbatarian’, which is invariably used pejoratively. It is not we Christians who believe that keeping the Sabbath is the fundamental tenet of our faith, but those who wilfully misunderstand what we are all about.

In fact, what we are – or should be – all about is John 3:16. Christ is the centre of our faith. We should be showing people Him, His perfect love and, yes, His authority.

I was not a Sabbath-keeper until I loved Christ. Even now, I am an imperfect keeper of the Sabbath by any human standard. But I love Him unwaveringly. And though my neighbours might judge me as falling far short because of my outward conduct, that is not how He operates.

My involvement, through this blog, and on social media more generally, in speaking up for the traditional Hebridean Sunday, has caused no end of misunderstanding. There have been times when I do not recognise myself from the descriptions of others. Surely, as I remarked to friends this week, that’s Ian Paisley they’re talking about.

Or, perhaps I have fallen into the same communication trap as the late Reverend. Have I been substituting noise and repetition for clarity? When I should be telling folk of quail and manna, are they just getting pigeons and napalm?

I know that there is a prevailing view among some in the online community that I am a hardliner. Sssshhhh. If you listen very carefully, you can almost hear the Free Church fathers laughing.

Right now, because there’s an election going on, there are efforts being made to portray some candidates – myself among them – as single-issue Sabbatarians.

Not only am I not a single-issue Sabbatarian, I am not a Sabbatarian at all. Certainly not the way the secularist lobby means it. And I would be very surprised indeed if any of my fellow Christian candidates see themselves as such.

As I said in the previous blog, I observe Sunday as a day of worship and devotion because I love the Lord. Before that, I appreciated a quiet Sunday because I loved and respected my heritage as an islander.

Different working-out; same answer.

It is not the day itself which matters, but people. God made the Sabbath for man, not the converse. He did it intentionally, though – and God’s intention always comes back to the one thing: the benefit of our souls.

Our souls are in need of rest and refreshing. Without Him, we try to find ways of achieving this. I know, because I speak from experience. Reading. Walking. Films. Time with friends. Sleep. And then, always that Sunday evening realisation that another week of work is about to begin and there will be no rest for five days.

With Him, though, it is different. There is no need for me to achieve that rest and refreshing because I receive it from, and in, Him. Constantly, though – every day. It is a well that never runs dry.

I am grateful for that every day and never more so than this week. It has been a time of cumulative stresses – a very intense situation at work; the inevitable (and increasingly creative) online abuse; and in the background, the knowledge that, three years ago this coming Tuesday, I was sitting by my husband’s bedside, watching his life draw to a close.

But I am a very blessed woman. None of these burdens are mine to carry alone. Every pressure and pain brings Him closer and, if He doesn’t come Himself, He sends others. His peace springs up from within to water the driest days.

And His commandments are no longer written on tablets of stone, but the heart of flesh He has given me.

 

Dear Younger Me

In the last blog, I mentioned in passing my ongoing education in spiritual music. Although it was certainly a revelation to be told last weekend that there is no scriptural reason why I might not precent in church, there remain several very good musical (and, indeed, social) reasons why this would not work. I am in this, as in everything else, a follower and not a leader.

Of course, I was brought up in a tradition of singing Psalms. I love them for their sustaining wisdom, for their ability to speak to me in all circumstances. They have the power to heal and, just sometimes, the power to wound. If I am feeling vulnerable, Psalm 100 can tip me over into lip-trembling wobbliness, simply because it was sung at our wedding and . . . well, I’m only human.

There is, however, more to spiritual music than psalms. I have, by virtue of living in the world and having a mother who grew up in the Church of Scotland, some idea of popular hymns. Once, as a child, I surprised my mother by quoting ‘Blessed Assurance’, probably to help me win an argument.

A couple of years ago, I went to a women’s conference where, on the programme, the – to me – mysterious word ‘praise’ was printed at various intervals. I glanced about me, mildly nonplussed as to who would precent in a room full of dames.

Imagine, then, my surprise at what ensued. Musical accompaniment, and something calling itself ’10, 000 Reasons’. Not a clue. I scanned the song selection. Nope, nothing familiar here. A Christian gathering consisting only of women and no psalms, with added music.  To say that I had been catapulted out of my comfort zone would not be an exaggeration.

The women thing, I realised, was just a blip. Once the Session got to hear about it, I was certain that those responsible would be punished and normal services would resume. But, my eyes – and ears – were opened to the possibility that there was another kind of music out there; that there were ways of singing your faith that didn’t have to be metrical.

My exploration of the possibilities turned up a few singers that I could get along with. There is, after all, absolutely no excuse for bad Christian music. Who has got more reason to sing than us? Like the hymn says, ‘I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free’.

Yes, I’m still quoting hymns. Old habits die hard. But I am also having my musical horizons broadened.

A friend supplies me with seemingly random links to songs he likes, sometimes when I least expect. During a recent public trial by secularist hate mob, he sent Matthew West’s ‘Grace Wins’ – ‘Take a breath smile and say: Right here right now I’m ok because the cross was enough’.

The best songs will do that, just like the word in season, the shared reading: God speaks through it, reminding you who He is and that nothing will overwhelm the person who puts their whole life in His hands.

But then there was the intriguingly-titled, ‘Dear Younger Me’. This is something different because it explores what we might say if we could go back and speak to a younger version of ourselves. The dilemma, of course, is whether you would warn the young you about the pitfalls that lie ahead; whether you would try to head yourself away from dangers and bad experiences. Would you not try to spare yourself pain?

Perhaps there was a time when I would have answered that question very quickly in the affirmative. Why would you not want to spare yourself suffering? It is, after all, how we are expected to behave towards others; why would we not want to do ourselves the same kindness?

Is it a kindness, though? Yes, if you look on that span of life between cradle and grave as what concerns us most. But for the Christian, that can never be the case. The journey we are on here is towards a destination in heaven, yet we are not simply plodding, there, head down; we are being equipped for it as we go.

Not a day passes without me thinking of my late husband, and missing him in countless ways. This time of year, though, I think of how hard it was to fear losing him, to be told I would lose him, and to watch him die. And how much easier it was to know he had gone, and to Whom he had gone.

That is the difference, I think, between wanting to spare yourself burdens, and knowing what pain and loss and thoroughly unwanted providence can do for you in the longer-run.

The song says, ‘every moment brings you closer to who you were meant to be’. I know that if I could go back to Christmas 2000, to that person I used to be, I would not say, ‘See the man you met the other night, maybe don’t meet him for that drink. It doesn’t end well’.

In fact, if I was forced to meet her, 25 year-old Catriona, I would tell her two things you will also find in the song. First, I would tell her that life will bring sadness and joy, but that the deeper peace in her soul has nothing to do with either of those; and then I would tell her that whatever challenges come, she was never meant to carry them beyond the cross.

And if she asked me about the man she had just met. I would smile, and nod, and she would do it all exactly like I already have.

Other Christians I know, too, are a bit battle-scarred, and wondering the same sort of thing – trying to make sense of what they have gone through. If I had the courage, I would tell them the precious truth I have learned:

The roadmap may be hidden from my sight, but it’s hidden in God’s hand. He’s got this, dear younger me. And I would not have Him change a thing.

 

 

 

 

A Servant is for Life, Not Just Sundays

Last Sunday I was arrested in church. Before you imagine a group of burly policemen pushing past the elders – who would undoubtedly have tried to stop them – in order to cart me off, I didn’t mean it like that. In fact, I mean I heard something which struck me in its beauty and truth; something, believe it or not, about the deacons. Or, more specifically, about the duty of deacons.

It was this: deacons bring the love of Christ to the church in a practical way.

Yes, deacons – those guys who, in our tradition anyway, are seen as the money men, the fellows who hold the purse-strings and authorise paint jobs for the church vestibule. They are the ones who ‘do’. And their office is all too easily dismissed as being a bit, well, mundane.

Put it this way, if you were writing a novel about the Free Church (and, believe me, I’ve considered it), your hero probably wouldn’t be a deacon. They’d be there alright, but only in a supporting role.

Well, I say ‘only’ but, in Christian terms, a supporting role is the best kind. The main part has already been fulfilled.

There’s a song I love, (introduced to me by someone who has somehow ended up being responsible for my spiritual music education) in which Jesus is resembled to a hero who takes the stage when everything looks hopeless. Which, when you think about it, is exactly what He did.

Historically, He did. Spiritually, He does.

Almost three years ago, I thought my life was over. The person on whom I thought my world depended died. He left our home for what we thought might be an overnight in hospital; a week later I returned there, a widow at the age of thirty-nine, and wondering how many years I might have to get through alone.

The answer? None.

I was not alone, because Christ was there, waiting for me to notice Him. Christ had been there a long time. Maybe even since, as a child of nine, I asked Him into my heart simply because I couldn’t bear to think of Him knocking and not being heard.

He is the main event, the all in all, the ultimate star billing. Yet, He waits in the wings like a supporting actor, and appears to take His cues from us. Only when I turned my grieving heart towards His did I even know He was there.

That was when He took centre stage in my life. Just when I thought everything was finished, He walked on.

So, the bit-parts are for the rest of us. He is the hero; we are the supporting cast, as Christians. Deacons bring His love to the church in a practical way . . . but what are deacons? Yes, I know I said they’re the money men, the guys with the chequebook. But, in a wider sense, what?

Well, ‘deacon’ comes from the Greek, ‘diakonos’, meaning ‘servant’. And all Christians are called upon to have a spirit of service. That is why, in the best sense, we are, all of us, deacons. Yes, even the women. It isn’t about status, or titles – service never is – but about the satisfaction of serving a worthy Master.

This is an unusual Master, though. He is the starring role content to wait for a cue from the support act; and He is the Master who willingly became a servant. It is from Him we learn how to be the walk-on actors in our own lives, and the servants to the King.

Rendering service to Christ is not going to win you any of this world’s accolades. Even in the church, you may feel that the hours you put in, and the time that you give go unnoticed. And perhaps they do – by people. But you’re not working for people, are you? One lady I know who works hardest for Christ’s church has the truest servant heart, and never complains, or expects for herself.

Servants are often overlooked, or even despised. They may have their good name besmirched, their reputation degraded, and their heart bruised and beaten. But never, ever by Him.

He knows, you see, what it is to be a servant. We can only try at all because He first showed us how:

He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.

This is the humble servant upon whom we are to pattern our behaviour. Our men who are deacons should follow Him in showing His love to the church in practical ways. Love is practical, after all: it changes lives.

But beyond the official designation of ‘deacon’, there is a whole church which ought to be showing Christ’s love to the world. Just as the deacons distribute the wealth of the church in the service of the Lord, we ought to follow their example in following His.

I can’t help reflect upon our own mission-field locally, and all the strife there has been recently between secularism and Christianity. The unbelievers, in their ignorance, think it’s all about Sundays. It troubles me that some Christians seem to think so too.

Our starting point with the world cannot be this. A servant does not seek to impose his own will, but, rather, to do his master’s. We will win no hearts for Christ by telling people what they must do and must not. No one will ever desire God’s law without first knowing His love.

And, if this community does not know His love, have I failed in my servant’s duty, to show what it is? Have I said too many words, and not demonstrated enough humility? Did I forget, somewhere along the line, to withdraw and let the spotlight fall on Him?

 

The Real Lewis & Harris

The minister crept up behind me and took the bottle out of my hand. ‘You’re going to need water in this’, he lectured, ‘or this stuff will burn right through’.  I was caught off guard.

It’s not that my fondness for the Laphroaig has got the better of me, in case you’re wondering. No, it was screen wash. And before you think, ‘mo chreach, how far she’s fallen’, it actually was intended for the reservoir under my car bonnet. Not to be trusted with such a masculine endeavour, though, I was rapidly surrounded by a quorum of the Session, and the task taken out of my daft wee hands. They probably thought I wouldn’t manage the child-proof lid.

Sometimes, though, I have to admit that it’s nice when someone comes along and says, ‘shift, you handless clown, I’ll do it’. Not that I’m suggesting for one minute that those were the minister’s words. (Actually, I believe his exact opener was – in Gaelic – ‘what are you up to now?’). That other kind of impatient takeover was more the style adopted by my brother two weeks before when, on communion Sunday, heading to church, my tyre blew out.

It was good to have someone capable – though crabbit- to sort it out, to hand me the keys of his car and to save the day. And it was good to see the minister pour an entire bottle of concentrated screenwash into the windscreen washers because if, as he suggested, it destroys the rubber on my wiper blades, I can blame him. Sort of.

But then there are those things which we have to do ourselves, which no one else can do for us.

I have been to many wakes and funerals simply because, although no one would have missed me if I hadn’t been there, I needed to do it for someone else’s sake. Friends, colleagues, neighbours who have all done as much for me too. Life teems with obligations that we don’t want to fulfil, but are constrained to. We do these things because they are the right things to do, because they are part of life in a community like ours.

A community like ours. Lately, I have been wondering what that is. If you are to believe half of what you read about it in the press, it’s the kind of place where ministers creeping up behind you are most likely planning to influence your vote. Or intimidate you into standing for council.

I have been speaking to a growing number of people who feel that something very precious to them has been trampled underfoot by a vocal minority making this kind of claim. There are, I appreciate, those living in Lewis who do not necessarily share my love for the culture, nor indeed my positive experiences of being an islander where, every six days, the pace is dialled right back.

This, it has been widely suggested, is old-fashioned, embarrassing, anachronistic, a disgrace, and an all-round poor show. Those of us who value all aspects of our heritage have been mocked or lambasted by turns and  told repeatedly that there is nothing so very unique about this island.

Oh, but yes, there is.

tarbert-2001

This island – the Long Island of Lewis and Harris, that is – when the chips are down, will never cease to amaze. It is a community with a mind of its own and a fierce pride in its identity. Don’t ever try to second-guess what we islanders will do because we sometimes don’t know ourselves until we’ve done it.

I did not know what the reaction would be to the creation of a pro-Sunday group on social media. Three of us had spoken about it before, but during my lunch-break on Wednesday, I had one of those dangerous, ‘what the heck are we waiting for?’ moments.

I had just re-read a ludicrous interview in a national newspaper in which one resident compares life in the islands to the experience of those under Sharia Law in Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps it was an off-the-cuff comment, exaggerated by a canny journalist; I don’t know. But, if people are going to persist in the fiction that says this island is under an oppressive regime run by men in black suits who rig elections, but are still not too big on it to notice whether you’ve left a blouse on the line on Sundays, well, there has to be a counter-narrative.

It hardly needs saying that there is a world of difference between an existence under the Sharia regime and the maintenance of a much-loved traditional way of life, which contributes greatly to the winsome character of Lewis and Harris.

But ‘hardly needs saying’ can no longer equate to us remaining quiet. If we value it, if we want to keep it, we have to be prepared to say so.

Our group has started off well and, within 48 hours, had a membership of 1700 and rising. People are sharing reminiscences, photographs, gentle jibes; the group has Christians and those who are not; there are island-dwellers, island-lovers, and emigrants; there are born and breds and here by choices. It is, in short, a microcosm of the Lewis and Harris we recognise and love.

And it has done something that we have not been able to say in a long while – it has united this community behind a common purpose.

That common purpose is, itself, unity.

Standing up for what we believe, and for what we hold in high regard, is a duty that no one else can fulfil on our behalf. But, as I always knew they would, the islanders have risen to their obligation admirably.

This, I can say with some confidence, is the Lewis and Harris we want the world to see.

Men in Black and Other Legends

There was a loch in the moor near where I grew up, and it held a strange fascination for us.  Quiet Sunday walks with my siblings often drew us in that direction. But we always went with warnings from our parents ringing in our ears, regarding mysterious lights and a certain eeriness about the place. My grandfather had warned my mother of its uncanny nature, and she, in turn, was warning us of the same.

Stories abounded throughout the islands, of the each-uisge, the water horse. This mythical creature could assume the form of a handsome man, to entice an unwary maiden, and once she was totally taken in by this charming stranger, he would assume the form of a horse and carry her back into the depths of his watery home.

It is not difficult to understand what the true social function of the each-uisge story was – it performed the dual role of warning children against lurking strangers, and of hanging about near water.

The each-uisge belongs to a world of Gaelic folklore which has largely been consigned to books and the archives of local historical societies. It is part of that great corpus of ‘dualchas’ which the Calvinists destroyed in a rush of evangelistic fervour. St Patrick may have banished the snakes from Ireland, but John Knox went one better and drove the eich-uisge out of the Highlands.

All my life I have been hearing that the Free Church did away with our colourful traditions – our ghosts, and our fairies, our witches, our evil eye and our eich-uisge.  Then again, I have also been hearing how it oppresses women and no one has put a gag on me . . . yet.

It amuses me to think that, if it were not for the Disruption of 1843, and all the hard-line fellows in black hats and collars, we would all still be putting out a dish of milk for the fairies before going to bed. Perhaps the local secularists would be mocking us for pouring our beer into the Minch to appease the sea-god, Seonaidh, instead of deriding us for our Christian beliefs. They might even be calling for the closure of pubs on Sundays to prevent us from indulging the superstition.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Free Church was born out of a great act of faith. Ministers and congregations turned their backs on the security of manses and stipends for the uncertainty of a new denomination, loosed from the bonds of patronage which had so stifled their spiritual freedom.

Of course, it was not uncertainty as the world knows uncertainty: they had put their trust in God and knew that He would prosper their endeavours for the furtherance of His kingdom.

This church taught a people hungry for the good news of the Gospel how they might be set at liberty. In the context of forced eviction, of emigration, of famine, of grinding poverty and of disease, the Gaels were hearing something that really does change lives. It was this: none of those things, no earthly suffering, can actually steal the peace from your soul that comes from placing your faith in the risen Christ.

And sometimes, I think we see Him most clearly against a backdrop of fire and pain.

Fire and pain, of course, are not things we desire for ourselves or our loved ones. And atheists will tell you that the idea of suffering outside of Christ is just a story invented by theologians to keep us all under control.

Hell is the Calvinist each-uisge, a story told by ministers so that they can keep the population subdued.

To what end, though? Ministers trudge up the pulpit steps in order to rain down fire and brimstone on the heads of their congregations, threatening them with hell and damnation so that . . . what? So that they can keep their unearned reputations as control-freaks? So that they can be caricatured and vilified by turns? Or, is it really as the more hysterical elements in our midst suggest, all about the fact that they are in a secret pact with the Comhairle to ensure that no one enjoys themselves more than is strictly necessary?

Of course, it isn’t any of those things, as even the people saying them surely know deep down.

The Gaelic folktales warned of theft by the fairies, or drowning by water-horses because people could not see past the threat of sudden death. This is why Christianity displaced superstition, because once people had their eyes lifted to the true horizon, they would never again be in thrall to a fable.

And the only fable we have left is the one which tells people that the Wee Frees are angry and narrow-minded men in black, oppressing the daft women who follow along in their wake.

Saying it over and over does not make it true; telling it to the gawping national media does not make it true. Unlike the traditional tales, this one loses something with every retelling.

Meanwhile, those who think themselves simultaneously wiser than, as well as put-upon by, the power-hungry Calvinists, are at risk of being borne away by a legend of their own making.