Community – We’re All In It Together

North Tolsta is seriously lacking in celebrities and, so, they asked me to be the guest at this year’s school prize giving. My duties were to hand out certificates and trophies to the winners, and address all the children for five minutes or so, preferably without boring or frightening them – two things I struggle to avoid with most adults, let alone anyone smaller.

Co-dhiù, despite having been somewhat rudely referred to as ‘z-list’ by one of our councillors, I was still sensible of the honour bestowed upon me. I even had a few Princess Michael of Kent moments, placing medals around necks and handing over cups that were bigger than some of the worthy recipients.

I was also supposed to say something inspirational to the kids. Not really being that type, I decided instead to opt for saying something not too depressing. I’m sure you’ll agree that’s a more realistic goal for a gloomy Wee Free. After all, reared myself on a diet of loch an teine for heinous crimes like picking flowers on a Sunday, I have to be careful not to go too old school with my advice.

In the end, I went for something I feel strongly about – our community, and the need to put something back. It would be easy to forget the adage that it takes a village to raise a child, especially nowadays, when every man seems indeed to be an island. Children may not be as aware of the fact that they are part of something beyond themselves as once was the case, and it really doesn’t hurt to remind them.

Someone beat me to the punch, though, and far more effectively than my five-minute ramble ever could.

Willie Campbell and the school choir performed his lovely composition, ‘Innse Gall’, a tribute to the children’s island identity. It was so good to hear their young voices united in praise of home. There hasn’t been a lot of that lately. From where I’m standing, there seems to have been a storm of criticism, of complaining, of belittling. But precious little of the praise that is due.

Our home is beautiful. No controversy there. However, that isn’t really what I was trying to say to the kids, and I don’t think it was the message of Willie’s song either.

Personal achievement is a good thing, and much to be lauded when it is the fruit of hard work and dedication. No one makes the grade by themselves, though. Behind them are parents, families, teachers . . . a whole community, even. I have always relied upon the support of others, and have been peculiarly blessed by encouragers throughout my life. Sometimes these were teachers, sometimes family members, sometimes colleagues, sometimes friends. We all need that. It doesn’t matter how confident or ‘together’ a person seems to be, they will always benefit from a kind word, and to know that someone believes in them.

It works the other way too, however. Those of us who have benefitted from that kind of help have to be prepared to pay it back. Not out of obligation to those who have supported us, but out of a desire to please God, by whose grace we receive all that we have. The great encouragers of my life are all gifts from Him to me. And His placement of me in this unique and wonderful community, that also is His gift.

Community is a wonderful providence, bestowed in Eden when Adam was given a companion so that he would not be alone. We are meant to work together, and to do for one another, as well as for ourselves. But, there is one fatal flaw in all of us which makes it very difficult to act in this way. We can only do our best by others. How that is received is certainly not something we can control.

And you cannot legislate for opinion. You know, sometimes we will disagree about what is best for the place that we love. A few days before the prizegiving, that same community hall was the scene of some heated debate regarding proposed development for the village. Such plans are frequently controversial – but only because we leap to ascribe motive to others that would offend us if levelled at ourselves.

Years of active political campaigning has taught me the futility of this kind of attitude. I remember, as an eleven year old, my parents returning from a public hustings, and speaking of the hostile atmosphere and of verbal exchanges across the floor. Last week, I heard the same kind of thing again from my own family and neighbours, who had been at the meeting in Tolsta.

We can, all of us, get carried away by our love for the place that made us. It can make us strident, defensive, and even devious. But if we are truthfully going to teach these children what it is to love your community, and how rewarding it is to give something back, our example is going to have to be as good as our word.

In striving to make the place that we care for as good as it can be, are we really prepared to lose touch with the most important thing of all? By God’s grace, we live in an area of outstanding beauty, of unparalleled peace, and of almost total security. He put us all here to look after it, and to look out for one another. If we do it properly and with good conscience, we glorify Him.

That’s the example of community we need to be setting our young people. Nothing matters more.

 

 

 

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.

Immovable Object, Irresistible Force?

In his excellent, ‘Lewis: A History of the Island’, the late Donald MacDonald makes the following comment about the churchgoing people of his native land:

‘The religious communities in Lewis are extremely devout. In addition to the two two-hour services held on Sundays, there are midweek prayer meetings. There are also special meetings for communicants and, every year, two communion services are held by each congregation, one in the Spring, and one in the Autumn’.

I would question whether spending six or so hours per week in public worship is any great sign of devotion. It is, rather, indicative of the extent to which other things fill our time – work and family life being the principal distractions when the above was written.

And yet, my own description of church life would be little different today. In a typical week, I attend church twice on Sundays, each service going no more than ten or fifteen minutes over the hour. Mid-week, the prayer meeting lasts for about the same length of time. Our congregation marks the sacrament of communion four times a year, with special preparatory services each time.

We are, as a churchgoing people, more like the world than we used to be, in that we spend less time in community with one another than in years gone by. The spontaneous house gatherings have all but gone, just as the unannounced visitor who would enter your home without knocking is also a thing of the past. In both the Christian community, and the secular world of Lewis, opportunities for the young (in experience, perhaps, as well as years) to learn from their elders have diminished. They come together in neither the taigh-cèilidh nor the taigh-adhraidh.

Our young people are no longer growing up in a secure environment, where God is the acknowledged Creator of all things, in whose hand we rest. They are increasingly encouraged to figure things out for themselves, to look to science – in all things, essentially, to rest on their own wisdom, or the untested wisdom of self-declared wise men.

I am always suspicious of people who admit to there being no higher authority than their own, anyway. Frankly, I don’t know how they can suggest such a thing with a straight face.

But the lack of understanding cuts both ways. I don’t get where they are coming from and they, as is becoming all too apparent, really do not know what Christianity is either.

I don’t want to get into another controversy here. Recent experience has taught me that there is not a lot of secular tolerance of my Christian standpoint; reading and reflection has taught me that this is because the greatest opponents of my faith are people who think they understand it, but don’t.

So, I thought that I would try to lay out, as graciously as may be, what it is I believe, and why.

If there are still any secularists reading my blog after I so offended (and, apparently ‘intimidated’) them with my thoughts on the emptiness of their creed, I would like them to make a bit more effort to understand that my refusal to compromise is not personal; I am not saying, ‘I refuse’, I am saying ‘I cannot’.

A Christian is someone who is persuaded that Christ willingly died for them, and in being resurrected that He defeated death so that it could no longer claim any hold over His followers. The eternal life to which a believer is reborn is spiritual, and it begins the moment they accept Christ as their Saviour. Professing faith – in Lewis, usually ‘going forward’ or becoming a church member – simply means that you are outwardly declaring your oneness with Christ. Inwardly, the believer experiences a deepening spiritual relationship with God through Christ. The more you know Him, the more you want to know Him.

As a Christian, I am aware of God acting in my life – of His interventions on my behalf, of His protection, and of His rebuke. I communicate with Him through prayer; He communicates with me through the Bible and through His providence and, indeed, His people.

Without Christ’s willingness to be the sacrifice for my sin, I would be leading a bleak life in a world without hope. If I had not accepted that same Christ as my Saviour, I would be leading an ultimately meaningless existence with an end destination whose name is desperately unfashionable, but whose reality is undiminished: Hell. Because, despite my inherent unworthiness, He has redeemed me from that eventuality, and because of His gracious dealings with me more generally, I feel immense love towards Him.

I am fully aware that this sounds hilarious to the unbeliever; I was once pretty nonplussed by it all myself.

So, I maintain a position of obedience to Christ, not because I think myself perfect, but because I know that I am not, and never could be. I am obedient to Him because I love Him, and want to please Him. In that light, Sunday is a special day for me because, untramelled by working day cares, I can focus on that relationship with Him, and fellowship with His people. It is God’s gift to us – not a burden to be borne, but a privilege to be enjoyed in the fulfilment of our destiny as people.

That destiny is that we should glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Whether we accept this or not, it is fact. And it is such a relief when we finally accept it, giving up our pointless rebellion that leads nowhere good.

I don’t write what I write, ministers don’t preach what they preach, in order to upset anyone. It really isn’t about power, or control: it’s about love. We have something so wonderful that we want everyone else to share it too.

Not because we’re nice, or good but because He has shown us how to love others, simply by loving us first.

Lewis Culture: An Uncivil War of Words

The letters page of the ‘Stornoway Gazette’ was always something of a curiosity to me. I remember thinking many times that it was pointless to air debates about religious matters as both sides traded Biblical texts in an entrenched war of words. It managed, somehow, to be strongly-worded without – often, anyway – becoming offensive. People could have a debate about the things which separated them, and then change the subject back to the things which unified them.

Now, however, people get offended so easily. Which would be fine, if they didn’t then act as though being offended is a terminal illness. My advice if something offends you, is this: ride it out, bottle it up and wait; because as parents up and down the land used to say before the thought police put an end to such child cruelty, you’ll soon be given something to really cry about.

Using much the same logic as I once did, the editor of the ‘Gazette’ has decided not to allow any further letters on matters of faith.  I have some sympathy with her motives because, I’m guessing, she has given up hope of moving the debate on. It has probably become tedious, repetitive and circular, to her way of thinking, and liable to scunner the readership.

Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, though, the correspondence page of that newspaper used to have a great deal more religious content. I am tempted to say that the letters provided the only really lively content in the whole publication. People would read them and roll their eyes, or read them and have a healthy discussion over the dinner table, or just skip past them to the obituaries; but they didn’t cause the ripples any kind of faith-based debate seems to be causing in Lewis at the moment.

While the ‘Gazette’ circulation is nothing like it used to be, with the paper now being local in name only, it was at least available as a forum for sharing and debating anything which islanders cared about enough. Once an editor starts censoring the permitted topics for correspondence, however, I think we have to accept that the tide of intolerance is indeed lapping at our feet.

We have sleepwalked towards this state of affairs. What was once a mild and usually polite disagreement has become something unpleasant. Anything that has the merest hint of Christianity about it is sneered at as ‘Wee Free’ bigotry. The critics of ‘What The Church Has Done To Lewis’ (no, I don’t know either) are so well-informed that they don’t know what any of us believes, nor what it means to be a Christian, though they are quick to flag any  apparent lapses in ‘true Christian’ behaviour.

They pride themselves on their commitment to truth and are rigorous in applying their own belief system to everything they do. And, yes, they do have a belief system. It even appears as though they are following a pseudo-presbyterian leadership structure, with their agenda driven by anyone who has internet access.

However, if they would permit me one wee piece of advice, I’d say: don’t let your leaders in Glasgow and Edinburgh dictate how you interact with your local community. Like it or not, they are patronising the secularists from the sticks, and assuming that you can’t handle things on your own patch without them. Say what you like about us Wee Frees, but at least we do our own oppressing, and rarely get the Moderator involved.

It is from this kind of outside interference that we get the sort of poorly researched nonsense which insists that Lewis is in thrall to the Calvinist patriarchy. What I don’t understand is why none of the local chapter of secularists is offended by suggestions that this is a community without the capability of original thought or, indeed, sincere belief. Where, in the midst of all their supposed care for the Western Isles, is the one dissenting voice that will oppose these kinds of slurs? Why is ‘brainwashing’ by the church so offensive, but the secular mantra of, ‘there is no such thing as Lewis culture’ goes unopposed from within their own ranks?

I’ll tell you why. The de-localising of culture in Lewis, the nay-saying and the outside interference from those who will not have to live with the consequences of their meddling is part of a wider stategy. You see, Christianity has informed and shaped these communities for so long that it is fused to the local way of life. And no, I am not claiming that every Lewis person is a Christian, nor even that every Lewis person is a churchgoer. Sadly, there are those in every generation who decide that the truth of the Gospel is not for them. But it has influenced them, because it has helped make this island what it is.

Generations of self-styled island atheists have talked of Christianity as a foreign creed and of the Bible as a hotchpotch of Middle Eastern fairytales. ‘Fragments of the philosophy of Geneva’ was how the poet, Derick Thomson derided the sort of Calvinism which his home island embraced. They despised what they saw as alien intrusion into Gaelic culture.

Which of them, now, will call for the tone of debate to change? Who among them is truthful enough to say that this is a conversation that can continue in a civil manner between believers and unbelievers in Lewis, just as it always has – robust, but never strident.

I think that the ‘Stornoway Gazette’ has made a mistake. If this debate is going to be played out only on social media, directed by the scions of the National Secular Society, what, then, of local culture? Who will speak up for it against malign and alien influence now?

Ask not what your church can do for you

Last time, I wrote of how the church in its Christlikeness, has stepped into the breach left by my husband’s death. My goodness, they take it seriously – one of the elders even nagged me about my driving on Sunday. All it needs now is for one of them to ask me periodically how many pairs of shoes a woman really needs, and they will have fulfilled their role entirely.

The feedback I get from writing, however, often provokes me to further thought, and this was one of those times. I have always believed that Jesus’ words to Peter,’this is for me and for yourself’ are meaningful. Indeed, the comfort of the text, ‘this sickness is not unto death’, which my mother kept getting throughout Donnie’s illness, did not depart when he died. It simply took on its full and – I believe – intended meaning. Our situations are surely for ourselves to learn from, for the benefit of others and, most importantly, for the glory of God. If we see ourselves in the context of eternity (as best as our finite minds can discern it), then it becomes easier to see the trials of this world as a light, momentary affliction.

And we owe it to our Saviour to follow His example. Who suffered more than He? It is not just the reason for His suffering, nor the extent of it which often strikes me, though: it’s His conduct in His unimaginable affliction. He bore it in order to redeem His people; and those of us who would seek to sincerely imitate Him are surely never more like our Saviour than when we suffer. But to be like Him, or as like as we can be before our sanctification is complete, surely how we suffer matters too.

So, it follows that there is a flip-side to the question of what the church should be doing for widows. And that question is surely: what can widows bring to the church?

The starting-point for answering that has to be a reminder of whose church it is. I’m not speaking here of any particular denomination, or congregation, but the wider church of Christ. When the Holy Spirit changes our hearts, then we are on a journey of becoming like our Redeemer. We do as He requires and take up our cross.

But that is not all. We are to have a spirit of service for Him, treating the least and the greatest the way Christ would have us do; giving of time and means; being generous, and not grudging anything .

I will hold my hands up readily and admit that I don’t do enough, and I don’t always have the right spirit. That’s something I need to work on, to pray over.

But it’s also worth remembering that serving the Lord takes many forms.

I remember many years ago hearing the story of a woman, newly-converted and full of zeal. She attended every service, every meeting of the church, and still thirsted for more. One day, she spoke to the minister, and said that she wished she could do more for the Lord. ‘He has given you a family to care for’, the minister replied wisely, ‘and you serve Him best by attending to what He has blessed you with’.

He gives us all a role in life; He gives us talents; He gives us responsibilities. As Christians, we are who and what we are for a purpose.

There is no point in denying that I am on a path I would never have chosen for myself in life. I would certainly not have elected to be a widow.

Then again, left to myself, I would not have elected to be a Christian either.

But I do believe that this is what I was made to be. God is good, and He doesn’t inflict unnecessary suffering. So, what is my grief for?

Well, of course, many things are not revealed to us. However, I think that, much as it goes against my selfish and egotistical nature, I have to realise this: it isn’t all about me.

Every Christian has a story – or stories – of the way that God has worked in their lives. Each account is different, but for one common denominator: the Lord.

So the story that we are all part of is about Him. We are, if you like, minor characters, all pointing to God through our individual experiences of His grace.

The logical outworking of that, therefore, is that my suffering is not my own. In Christ, as I have said elsewhere, I have not been left to get on with it alone. My Saviour and His people shoulder it with me, and sometimes for me. It is theirs as much as mine, because we belong to the one body. It is theirs to learn from, and gain blessing through if I share it as I should.

That is, I think, what grief and loss may be for. I have been blessed through it, learning the absolute truth of the verse in Ecclesiastes that says it is better to go to
the house of mourning than the house of feasting. Hard though this journey is, what companions it has brought me along the way! It isn’t, however,their job to be comforting me incessantly.

It is my job to share what God reveals to me in my situation, that it might somehow be a blessing to others. And it is our job, together, to see that no sickness is unto death, but that all our afflictions would be to the glory of God.

It is His church; He is sovereign. Trials are not for breaking us, but for binding us closer in Him.

FPs and children and bears – oh, my!

My grandfather’s cousin Maggie was headmistress of a primary school in Uist for many years. Every communion season, she would faithfully shut the school on Thursday morning and trot all the kids off to the Free Presbyterian service of preparation. She did not ask parents for permission, nor enquire as to the nature of their personal belief system. If it was now, I have no doubt that complaints would be lodged, enquiries initiated, perhaps even suspension of duties agreed. Maggie would be seen as imposing her ‘narrow’ views on other people who profess to possess none of their own.

Maggie would be vilified. And that would be wrong. Sometimes, a bit of perspective is what we need.

Recently, I spoke to someone who had been a pupil in her school. He smiled fondly, remembering the two-hour church services, a great alternative to lessons. Meanwhile, he said, the transport delivering that day’s lunches to the wee school would arrive to find the place deserted, neither teacher nor children to be found.

Her eccentric devotion played havoc with the routine. And yet no one spoke against her.

You see, Maggie was respected. She was a very competent teacher, and a good person, with real heart for the children in her care. When news circulated that Hercules the Bear was on the loose in Uist in 1980, she took steps for the children’s safety. Rather than risk anything happening to them, she kept them in after school. For a party.

Who says Free Presbyterians don’t know how to have fun?

The parents were used to her idiosyncratic approach to educating their kids, but trusted her implicitly. She loved children. I know that because the few times I was in her company as a little girl, I could sense it. Genuine affection spilled out of her, and she did not try to contain it, nor repress it. Everyone was addressed as ‘a ghaoil’; and she meant it.

Her former pupil who spoke so affectionately of her to me added something else. There were sometimes children in her school who were in need. They were not allowed to remain that way for long. Maggie acted, you see, not from a merely sentimental view of childhood, but with a practical, Christ-like love.

When He acts through the Maggies of this world, the Lord is not narrow, but expansive. She gave with both hands from a full heart. Hers was a life of devotion – to her family, to her community, to ‘her’ children. By loving them, she was serving her Saviour, and I believe she sought no higher honour than that because she had the wisdom to know there is none higher.

And so, to the present. If she was headmistress now, think of the administrative nightmare that Maggie would be. How many risk assessments and PVGs would it take to curb her enthusiasm? What would the food hygiene inspectors say about the congealed lunches served to pupils late back from the day of humiliation? Most concerning of all, what would the liberal thought police say about the children being exposed to Calvinist extremism?

Well, I’ve heard enough of their po-faced, reactionary hysteria to take a guess. They would suggest that she was indoctrinating their children, abusing her position, being unprofessional. She failed to check which god, if any, the families worshipped, before bringing them along to meet hers.

I think we can all understand the need for rules, for standards, and for guidelines. But does no one else long for those days when we didn’t rely on them quite so much? A time when kids came home in the boot of a neighbour’s car because he was giving so many a lift in bad weather. Or when teachers could hold your granny’s displeasure over you as a threat if you didn’t really feel like going to Scripture Union that week.

We didn’t have an obsession with health and safety, nor with political correctness. Yet, we were more tolerant, more caring, more . . . real. There was community, and there was respect. No, we didn’t talk about it half as much as people do now, but we practiced it a lot more.

Maggie had retired from teaching before all of this, and I’m glad. She would not have understood why progress and coming into line with the hallowed land of ‘everywhere else’ had to mean the death of community. There would have been no place for her in this brave, new world.

That alone tells me that we are on the wrong path – one where our children are bound to meet something much more terrifying than any bear.

 

 

 

Tweed, gin and . . . psalms?

‘Just yourself, or the whole Session?’ I nervously asked the minister recently, when he mentioned that he would like a word after the service. I frequently worry that I might unwittingly commit heresy and find myself summoned to where the dark-suited ones are most awfully assembled. On this occasion, however, it was not chastisement that awaited me, but a request that I might stand in for the minister while he took a holiday.

Not in the pulpit, you understand, but speaking to some journalists about our Gaelic and Christian heritage.

For, you see, they are two sides of the same coin.Even the lovely French-Canadian journalist grasped this during her brief stay in Lewis. We met for coffee the day before the interview and I told her of the difficulty that newcomers to the island have with understanding the culture.
‘But you must preserve it’, she said earnestly. Already she could see.

Of course we must. The sad thing is that we even have to talk about it. Our observance of the Lord’s day in this island has given Sunday its special, relaxed quality. We mustn’t say that it’s good for mental health, though. I made that mistake recently on Twitter and the howls of derision from our secular neighbours were quite shrill. How, they asked, could I suggest that having a choice of how to spend the day was bad for anyone’s mental health?

Their question, designed to make me look silly actually reveals something about their own selfish agenda. I was, in fact, thinking of all the people who presently have the peace of mind of knowing that they will not be asked to work on a Sunday. They were, as ever, thinking only of themselves.

Coffee does not pour itself, films do not project themselves onto screens. Behind every person expected to turn out to work on a Sunday so that the secularists have that much lauded luxury – ‘choice’ – is a family. You see, they talk about ‘a family day’ and ‘family time’, and ‘family activities’, but what they actually mean is their family; not yours.

And it wouldn’t be so ironic if it wasn’t for the fact that they try so hard to position Christians as selfish, and themselves as tolerant.

We can’t expect people who were not brought up in this unique, precious and sadly precarious culture to understand it as native islanders do. They simply cannot, any more than I could become a Weegie by moving to Glasgow, or a Cockney by making my home in earshot of Bow Bells. So we should certainly cut them a little slack.

However, we can expect them to try. Lewis is not Glasgow, nor is it London: it is, as James Shaw Grant said, ‘a loveable, irrational island’. Come and live in it by all means, but learn a little about it first. It is open for business six days only. But who really comes to Lewis for commerce? Perhaps you can’t buy a latte or swim in the pool on Sunday, but you can leave your back door unlocked. Maybe your child can’t see the latest Pixar on the Lord’s Day, but then you can let them play outside by themselves without obsessively watching.

When I take a holiday, I do a fair bit of research into my destination beforehand; who makes their home in an island like Lewis without knowing how things are here? Sunday is special to more than just the Bible-bashers and Wee Frees.

Oh, and speaking of Wee Frees, a wee read of the history of the Gaels might help some understand the church they’re so fond of knocking. It holds disproportionate power, they say, over the people; improper influence in a secular world.

No, it has a special place in our affection, because of its history. Our forebears were treated as though their culture was nothing – their way of life, their language, their very selves – and their communities were broken apart in the pursuit of capitalism.

Leadership came from the newly-formed Free Church, established on the foundation of complete sovereignty under the headship of Christ. They saw food to the destitute and spiritual nourishment to hungry souls. This church preached in the language of the people, and helped to lead a generation out of the worst kind of bondage: the one that says the world and its tinsel-show is all there is.

The Wee Frees still march under that banner. And here in Lewis, it’s just as it was in the time of the clearances: the pursuit of commercialism, the desire to be identical to everywhere else, and the blind destruction of something so far beyond price.

It has happened this way in many other minority cultures too. ‘Oh’, they will say, ‘Christianity and culture are not the same’. It is in the imperialist mindset to tell the native what he is and isn’t. Harris gin, HebCeltFest and tweed are in; orduighean and Gaelic psalms are out. And God? Very last century, so they tell us.

This week, the local presbytery of the Free Church is holding days of prayer in its various congregations. Many petitions will be made for the Christian heritage of Lewis. It is not so much about asking to preserve it, but earnestly praying to preserve from themselves those who are bent on destroying it.

My heart goes out to them, for they have no idea what they’re doing.

 

 

 

Lantern Beams & the Hebridean Cringe

‘Our distinctiveness lies in being ‘of the place’, rooted in who we are’. Does anyone want to guess who I’m quoting? The Free Church? Harris Tweed Hebrides? Comunn Eachdraidh Nis?

No, it’s ‘An Lanntair’ in Stornoway, the arts centre which serves the community hereabouts.

Even although I’m a Calvinist and, therefore, have to avert my eyes from anything remotely resembling an artistic representation, I am an occasional patron of the said Lanntair. I have watched films, seen plays, listened to talks, and drunk coffee there. Being a bit of a weirdo, I enjoyed their Faclan book festival a few years back, on the theme of the supernatural. Respectfully, I refrained from commenting on the fact that in amongst all the second sight and ghost stories, they had crowbarred Alistair Darling’s book-launch into the program too. Bernera connections and those eyebrows probably do qualify him for a space in the netherworld, after all.

So, because I have been a frequenter of the arts centre, I believe I’m allowed to comment on their latest foray into distinctiveness.

They have already this year devoted an entire calendar month to a celebration of LGBT culture (whatever that is). Apparently it’s important to celebrate diversity, and many of our resident secularists rushed to virtue-signal their support for the Lanntair, and their intention to attend at least one film, while also very carefully declaring their own heterosexuality, just in case. The same people also nearly got stuck in the door marked ‘Yes please’ when the plans for a small Islamic meeting place for Stornoway were unveiled.

They are for diversity. This doesn’t just mean simple respect – which I hope that all decent human beings are capable of – but actually celebrating difference. From what I can work out by observing their behaviour, it means that they are in favour of the LGBT community, and the Muslim community having a voice, and are swift to set down anyone who takes an opposing stance. Especially Christians.

And now, they are delighted that An Lanntair – which is ‘of the place’, remember – is going to trial Sunday film screenings. It is tediously posited by the usual suspects as the long-awaited provision of ‘something for families’.

When did family life consist of spending as much time as possible out of the home, and surrounded by other people? I remember Sundays which involved walks, reading, board games, talking to my parents . . . does that not happen any more? Am I being obtuse? If children are in school all week, and shepherded around various organised activities all weekend, where does the much talked-about ‘quality time’ come in?

This is all very well. People of a HASP+ (that’s Humanist , Atheist, Secular, Pagan and whatever else) tendency will say that they’re quite delighted. It is time that diversity had its moment in the Lewis sun. Anything that’s a bit new, a bit different is absolutely welcome. Everyone is just tired of those Christians, trying to spoil everything with their hackneyed old beliefs and their inconvenient lifestyle.

Do you know what this is? It’s a great, big, ugly extension of the Hebridean cringe.

Novelty wins every time over heritage. Tradition is an embarrassing affront to innovation. People are plastering the label ‘Hebridean’ on everything, while all the time disdaining what makes us distinctive.

When did this happen to the island? Why are we delighted to show tourists sites like Callanish, or Eaglais na h-Aoidh, or St Clement’s, but not the living, functioning reality of Christian worship? What makes us so proud of our Celtic music, but not our Celtic church?

What kind of revisionism is taking place when Lewis can be portrayed as some sort of microcosm of any of our larger cities, and no one bats an eyelid?

Well, I’m batting one now. This island in which I live, has far more cultural distinctiveness than to need to emulate London, or Glasgow. It is physically shaped by geology and by climatic forces, and by hundreds of years of crofting life. My ancestors scraped a living from the soil, and from the sea around our shores; they trooped off to war and some even trooped back again. They spoke Gaelic, and they worked their land in line with the seasons.

And on Sunday, they both rested and worshipped God.

Keeping Sunday as a day of rest is good for the body and for the mind. I’m not even going to mention the soul, because that’s a given. Our European neighbours know this to be true, and they’re not trying to scrap it in order to desperately ape what they do elsewhere.

That would be culturally insecure behaviour – and no one does that quite the way we do in Lewis. We’ve been embarrassed by our language, our accent, our faith, and now our very way of life.

I am of the place, and I am rooted in who I am. Gaelic-speaker, Calvinist member of the Free Church, reader of my people’s history. And I am not ashamed of any of these.

If An Lanntair wanted to live up to its name, to its mission statement and to the notion of art being a bit subversive, it could shine a light on what it is about Lewis culture that is so very precious.

‘Lantern’ actually, refers only to the outer casing, which encircles and protects the source of light.

It plays no part in trying to snuff it out.

 

Bibles, Burials and way-out Wee Frees

I was in Ness again recently, and visited the spot in the old cemetery where the community buried 400 worn-out Bibles in 2006. They had been donated to the local charity shop but were unsalable because of their condition. Yet, people could not quite bring themselves to place the books in a bin. And so, just as the Hebrews used to do with their tattered, sacred scrolls, the Nisich held a funeral for the Bibles.

It seems to me like rank superstition. The Bible – by which I mean the tangible, paper object – is not in itself Holy. God’s word is holy, but the physical form which contains it is nothing more than a shell. And crucially, the Bible gives us no instruction on its own disposal.

Our unenlightened ancestors also treated the Bible in this talismanic way, using it as an amulet to protect them from fairies, witches and visions of death. Not the Word, you understand, but the book itself – carrying it in their pocket, or placing it under a pillow to ward off evil.

At the beginning of my day in Ness, our guide explained to the 45 Americans with whom I was sharing a spiritual pilgrimage, that my denomination did not believe in sacred places. He somewhat took me aback by adding, ‘because everywhere is sacred to them’.

I remember sipping my tea and wondering if I’d fundamentally misunderstood the Free Church, or if this was something adopted at the most recent General Assembly and not fully understood by anyone who doesn’t regularly use words like ‘anent’ or ‘crave’, or indeed realise that stamping one’s feet might still signify agreement in polite society.

Or, did this lovely, gentle Quaker simply not have the heart to tell our guests that I was an unreconstructed Calvinist of the type that burns fiddles and catechises innocent passers-by? Was it just nicer to say everywhere is sacred to us, rather than explain that we don’t have any of the . . . well, the soft window-dressing that people expect of the ‘Celtic’ church?

Sometimes, it’s kinder to chuck the violin on the bonfire than let someone keep trying to torture music out of it. But island restraint dictates that I didn’t contradict this description of my theology. It is not so much that I disapprove: just that I do not understand the need for places to be deemed holy. They are the work of a Divine hand, yes, but any holiness originates with Him and may be imputed to people. Just not places.

It would have been more honest of me to share this with them. Instead, my innate politeness (yes) forced me to nod and smile benignly as folk shared their perceptions of the spirituality of place. Perhaps it doesn’t matter though. After all, when some of my fellow Wee Frees say after a service, ‘there was a lovely spirit in the church tonight’, I tend to think that it accompanies them wherever they go, that they have – unwittingly – brought it with them. Might the same not be true of others, who mistake it as belonging to the place in which they find themselves?

I had hoped they would be able to come to church with me in Stornoway the following Sunday, but they were all leaving the island that day. It might have helped them to see the pared-back character of our building, which I think reflects the pared-back character of our people.
What would they have made, I wonder, of the simplicity of our worship style? To preserve this picture I would, of course, have had to steer them well clear of any tambourine action that might or might not be happening in the church creche. But anyone who keeps to the church will see something quite  lovely in its truthfulness.

The Bible is foundational to our worship. It seems to me that when you fix your eyes on Jesus, through the Word, there is absolutely no need for any other ornament. Read, sung, exegeted: it is all that we require.

You could say that the Bible is, as an object, quite similar to the Christian. In and of itself, it has no spiritual value; but used by God, and transformed by the Spirit, its effect is boundless. This book has crossed continents; it has transformed lives; gone into prisons and war zones; entered hospitals and schools; spoken to the bereaved, the lonely, the frightened, and brought them comfort.

In physical terms, the Bible is just a book. By the same token, we are just bodies. It is our lot to eventually be buried in the ground, just like those tattered Bibles in Ness. But there are two very important differences.

At the latter day, all the human graves will open, and give up their dead, while the Bibles will remain buried forever.

And the other difference?

God will require the presence of His people in Heaven; but there will be no further need of His book.  By then, the Bible can also rest in peace, for its work will be over and done.

So Good I Thought It Was Dead

The thing about Ness is its unpredictability. It is the sort of place where Dr Who’s Tardis could very well choose to land. After all, no other district of Lewis manages to tread that line between loyalty to the past and faith in the future with quite so much aplomb. If I had to sum it up in one word, it would be, ‘authentic’. On the other hand, if I had no such restriction imposed upon me, I’d also add ‘crazy’ and ‘unpredictable ‘, but would be forced, on balance, to include ‘fabulous’ and ‘inspiring’ too.

Last Wednesday, I visited. Or, I should say, revisited. It was there I had my first proper, grown-up job as development manager for Iomairt Nis, a community-run company. For four years, I worked in the wee office behind the stage at Ness Hall.

When we held our millennial Gaelic-Gaeilge link event, Ceilidh san Iar-Thuath, my office served as a dressing room for Danu, a young Irish band.

Another day, a man breezed in and introduced himself to me as, ‘Wylie. I’m a photographer’. I gaped stupidly at him. ‘N-not Gus . . . Wylie?’ I stammered and, when he answered in the affirmative, I responded with, ‘you’re so good I thought you were dead’.

You never really knew what was going to happen from one day to the next in Ness. Inevitably, it was there I got my first taste of infamy.

When I agreed to rent the community hall to the newly-formed Free Church (Continuing), I naively failed to foresee any hassle. I don’t think I’ve ever been called ‘silly’ by quite so many different people in such a short space of time. Even the media wanted to know why I had done something so ‘controversial’.

If it was now, I would probably agonise, consult, pray . . . but I was young and could only see in black and white. I had the management of an underused and decrepit community facility; here was a community group in need of a temporary home. To me, there was no need for fuss. Nor was there any call for me to side against a group of people who simply wished to gather and worship God in much the same way that I was used to doing myself.

It turns out that I was right, though my method of dealing with the situation might have been less than sensitive. Eventually, the dust settled. Those who spoke against such use of the hall probably also regretted doing so. We are human, we all do things in the heat of the moment which we might wish undone a second later. The thing to remember is that our feelings, our opinions and our egos are not all that important in the grand scheme of eternity, or even in the small scheme of community.

True community is resilient, like family. There may be disagreements, hurts and rivalries but ultimately, when the chips are down, everyone clings together. Ness was like that.

And it’s still the same.

In the Comunn Eachdraidh cafe, people breeze in and out. Gaelic is spoken, patronymics are used. Casual conversations take place, and are often about who such and such a person’s family is, or what someone did for a living in Swainbost in 1922. They are comfortable and easily confident in their identity as Nisich because they know and value their roots.

Annie MacSween, who founded Comunn Eachdraidh Nis – the first of its kind – in 1977, is once again its chairperson. I wanted to use the adjective, ‘irrepressible’ in front of her name, but everyone who knows her will mentally insert it anyway, so I needn’t trouble. She told me that their meetings are still conducted in Gaelic. This is not an organisation which commemorates or even reenacts something which is gone, but one which is naturally and easily protecting something very much alive.

The wee dispute of 2000 did not break the palpable sense of community that one gets in Ness. It was, like all family rifts, weathered and then absorbed into the mythology of the place.

In the few hours I spent in Comunn Eachdraidh Nis last week, I spoke to blog readers from Dowanvale – fellow Christians, indeed fellow Wee Frees whom I had never met. Annie received a phone call while I was there from another gentleman I have also got to know through the blog, though we have not yet met either. We spoke, and I agreed to get involved with a pilgrimage he is organising. To Ness, obviously.

I emerged from my day in Ness, blinking in the light of reality, like Lucy tumbling out of the wardrobe from Narnia.

This is a district for which the past is not a foreign country at all, but part of the here and now. Those who died in the wars are not commemorated as names on a stone tablet, but remembered as vital links in the patronymic chain.

And Ness’ secular and Christian heritage co-exist unselfconsciously. For me, this is Lewis at its best: unadulterated by alien notions about identity and inclusivity. There, being a Christian and a Gaelic-speaker did not make me feel odd; it reminded me that I belong to something with roots and longevity.

Community is so good I thought it was dead. Ness proved me wrong.