Life Should Mean Life

My employers, in their wisdom, decided that I should learn the dark art of genealogy, believing that it would augment the other subjects I teach. They would not listen as I protested, tears streaming down my cheeks, and they turned aside from my plaintive cries of, ‘my grandfather was a Hearach, I don’t need to know any more’. Nothing else would do but that I should be forced to gaze upon the full horror of my own private gene pool, without so much as benefit of clergy.

The clergy, as it turns out, would be no good anyway. I confided in the minister on Sunday that I had been wading in the murkiness of my ancestry. He told me that he had discover a forebear of his own was someone fairly horrifying. My best guess was Genghis Khan, but he shook his head solemnly, ‘worse, even, than that’.

And so, if the person I might otherwise have turned to for counselling is, himself, traumatised by the past, what am I to do? I am left to confront the worst that Miavaig, Achmore and (whisper it) Ranish, have to offer.

To be honest, I had approached this research with some trepidation and not because of my mother’s bizarre network of Deasaich and Lochies. Sometimes you just have to accept that you’re descended from werewolves and move on.

It was my father’s side that was causing the real concern. He was the product of my granny’s liaison with a man she met while working at the herring fisheries in Fraserburgh. All my life, he had been a taboo, an unmentioned and unmentionable shadow; he was a gap in the family tree and likely to remain so.

Still, I had a few clues. Armed with those, I went looking in earnest last week, and found more than I ever expected. He married six months before my father was born – another lady who was also expecting his child. Tracing back from there, I discovered that his own mother had a child to another man before finally marrying my great-grandfather.

So much personal and social turmoil in one line – and so many repetitions of that hateful word: illegitimate.

I realise that it was a legal term, but it carried so much weight of disapproval in society that the child could be forgiven for thinking that he or she was indeed ‘not lawful’. But, then, that all depends on whose law we are following.

When I try to imagine how hard it must have been for my granny to tell her parents of her condition, in Doune in 1927, my heart goes out to her. She had to face their disapproval and disappointment, while also facing up to her own fear, and the heartbreak of finding out that the man she had hoped to marry was married to someone else.

And I wonder, if it was now, whether she would just quietly book herself into a clinic, and end the life she was carrying. Would she be crushed by her mother’s anger, devastated at being made unwelcome in the family home? Or, would the thought of gossip in the small village where everybody knew each other drive her to blot out the mistake as quickly and as cleanly as she could?

See, there are many who would say that, had that option been open to her, it would have been my grandmother’s right to take it. Her body, her choice.

But, she did not have the option, and so she had to suffer all those things I mentioned. It could not have made for an easy life, but neither did it kill her. It’s said that, when she bravely went to seek baptism for her baby boy, the minister was kind. The fact that I even know that speaks volumes. There would have been precious little kindness, little softness in how she was met, as someone who had so spectacularly breached the rules of society.

She weathered the storm. My father not only survived his upbringing, but grew into a man that any mother could be proud of. He was a good father to his sons and his daughters, a good husband to his wife, and a very kind human being. It was not unusual for people to turn up at our house, just to thank my father for how he had dealt with their loved ones when they had been in his care.

He was actually, for me, the epitome of human dignity. Not just because of his own character, but because of how it was formed. Unplanned, illegitimate, inconvenient – but a life, with all the potential that holds. My granny could probably only see the heartbreak of her own dashed hopes, her ruined reputation, and the expense of another mouth to feed. Who knows what all that pressure might have led her to do, had she been due in 2018, instead of 1928.

Nobody knows what the child in the womb might become.

John the Baptist recognised his Saviour, and leapt for joy, though they were both as yet unborn. Life is precious from the moment it is conceived, and its destiny belongs only in the hands of its Creator. It may be inconvenient, it may be frightening, it may be painful, it may be difficult.

But, then, that’s the point of this wonderful life – in God’s hands, it may be anything.

 

 

 

Image is Everything

Returning to work after the summer break, I was intrigued to see that one of the in-service sessions on offer was ‘Initiating Difficult Conversations’. Life can be full of those, I have found. Just last week, I felt the need to explain to everyone I met on my way in and out of the prayer-meeting how I came to be dressed like a female Johnnie Cash, instead of the usual picture of demure Calvinist womanhood I like to present. No one actually cared what I was wearing, however, so all the awkwardness there was in my own head.

But, then, awkwardness often is.

I have often agonised over broaching certain topics of conversation, composing emails, or even – believe it or not – writing blogs. When my blog led to an invitation from the Free Church’s monthly magazine, ‘The Record’, to submit a regular column, I was delighted. It quickly became apparent, however, that I couldn’t approach this with the same freedom that I allow myself in the blog. Don’t misunderstand me, this was not because of the editor imposing some draconian rules on me, but because of some psychology within myself. When you are perceived as speaking on behalf of an organisation, or a cause, then you do need to be more circumspect.

What I am appalled by is that my own concern for the public image of the Free Church probably exceeds my care about misrepresenting the cause of Christ. At a recent Bible study session, where we discussed James’s assertion that faith without works is dead, I was misunderstood by another group member, when I mused upon whether people would be able to tell we were Christians, if they didn’t know it. ‘I don’t think we’re supposed to shout about it’, she chided, regarding me as though I were a suspect package (which I probably am). This was not even remotely what I meant, which I tried (unsuccessfully) to explain.

Do I ever think about how I am coming across to people who know I’m a Christian? Am I sufficiently attentive to avoiding being that person who provokes others to say, ‘some Christian – if that’s what they’re like, they can keep it.

There are instances in the Bible of the unrighteous behaving in a more moral manner than their righteous counterparts. And, if they are there in Scripture, we are certainly here in life. I have said and done some quite unlovely things in my time. There are many moments in my everyday life that, were they captured for posterity, would provide an unbelieving world with every excuse to shun my company.

Listening to our midweek sermon on the sixth commandment, quite a number of the difficult things the minister had to communicate resonated with me. I have never slain anyone nor, I hope, caused them injury. But Christians can’t cop out on ‘do not kill’, ticking the box and smugly assuming it’s one we’ll keep in perpetuity. For, if you’re anything like me, you will have breached it many times.

In Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica, a collection of the hymns, blessings and incantations of the Gaels, there is a fascinating account of how the bean-glùine, or village midwife, would baptise a newborn infant prior to the rite being carried out by clergy. She begins her description of what she would do, with these words: ‘When the image of the God of life is born into the world . . .’

The essence of the sixth commandment is in her words – that we should regard one another in this manner throughout our lifetime: each one of us, as James said (3: 9) ‘made in the likeness of God’. When we look at our fellow human beings, we ought, as we would with a valuable piece of jewellery or porcelain, to seek the Maker’s mark because it is certainly there. His thumbprint is on each one of us, including those that you and I find it difficult to love. Our prisons are filled to the brim with God’s creatures, just as are our churches.

And our schools are where we send these images of God to be educated. Yet, nowadays, there is no certainty that your child will hear the name of his Maker spoken in that place, except possibly as an oath. Parents who have sought to eradicate Him from their own lives, are busily turning God out of schools, so that no one dare mention His name there. We take away moral authority, and then we throw our hands up in the air in wonder when it all goes wrong.

The commandments are linked to one another. You cannot begin to dilute one without it affecting how another is observed. As a society, we have all but dispensed with the first, foundational requirement: honouring God as God, and placing His wisdom far above our own.

Secularising forces tell us that religious belief is on the decline. Research bears out the truth of what they say. Most people don’t believe in God, so they must be right. That’s a majority of people who think this world is better run by humans, with no reference, and certainly no deference to supernatural agency.

We don’t believe in God, so we don’t defer to His supremacy. And we don’t respect His Creation – the world, or the people in it. Our own wisdom is king. When we die, we die, so we may live as we please ‘as long as it hurts no one else’. But who will decide what hurts others, when all anyone cares about is pleasing themselves?

It’s just not working our way –please, can’t we go back to His?

 

 

 

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.

A Calvinist Hallelujah for the Dutch Laddie Wi’ a Fiddle

If I was a storybook Calvinist I would be going about the country burning fiddles. Instead, I am prepared to travel any distance in any kind of weather to hear one in particular played to perfection.

The first Christmas I would spend as a widow – 2015 – was looming unpleasantly on the horizon when I was taken to hear the incomparable Andre Rieu. On a day that seemed like something out of the book of Revelation, my sister and I boarded a flight for Aberdeen. Ours was, I think, one of the only planes to leave Stornoway that afternoon, and I was nonplussed to find myself heading to listen to some eccentric Dutchman play a violin.

The taxi driver who drove us to the hotel gave voice to my own silent incredulity:
‘Fae Stornoway?’ he repeated, ‘That’s an awfy long way to come just to hear a laddie wi’ a fiddle – have you no laddies wi’ fiddles at home?’

Well, quite. My mother’s people on her father’s side were known as ‘na Fìdhlearan’ and yet here we were having to risk being stranded on the mainland over a weekend . . . for what, I wondered.

From the sound of the first drum beats which herald his own and the orchestra’s arrival to their signature, ‘Seventy six Trombones’, something almost magical happens. He cuts a tall and striking figure, with his tailcoat and eccentric conductor hairstyle, but he presides over the music with the warmth and energy of someone who feels – and loves – every note.

I felt, at that concert, pure and unadulterated joy for the first time in a very long while. Music can reach places in your heart that nothing else can and this beautiful programme, played by a man who is devoted to his craft, tapped into wellsprings of delight I thought gone forever.

How strange, you might think, for a Christian to say such things. What of my joy in the Redeemer?

There was very little of that for me in December 2015. I was still nursing Christ to myself, keeping Him small and secret, denying myself the fellowship of His people. And, consequently, I denied myself the largeness of knowing Him and loving Him better which comes through meeting Him in others.

But I think the music of Andre Rieu and the atmosphere of joy helped to unlock my heart.

Knowing Him better has changed how I appreciate the music as well. There is a reason why authors are interviewed about their books, and artists about their paintings. We are fascinated by creativity because it is one of the defining traits of our Father. He speaks to us through music, art and literature. Just as our human relationships with our parents are pale replicas of our relationship with God, the gifts they pass on are surely ghosts of that light implanted into humankind by its Creator.

Although I am one of na Fìdhlearan, perhaps the gift manifests in me as the ability to appreciate someone else’s greater ability to make beautiful music.

Last Thursday, at my fourth of his concerts, Andre Rieu – who claims to be an atheist – introduced Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ as the most celebratory piece of music ever composed. ‘Every voice’, he said, ‘and every instrument is bursting with joy’.

This wonderfully gifted musician who brings the beauty of music into the lives of many people is so near to the truth. The reason these hallelujahs are so heartfelt is not because of the composition, nor yet the performance, but because, as Peter Schaeffer’s Salieri said of Mozart, ‘God was singing through this little man to all the world, unstoppable . . .’

The hallelujahs penned by Handel are alight with joy because they unite everything perfectly – the creative impulse born of God, applied in the worship of Him. Music like that, I think, brings us a little closer to the perfection the Creator made.

Handel was a Lutheran and his famous chorus is replete with the joy of liberation that should be the lot of every Christian. When he had finished composing that particular piece, he said, ‘I did think I did see all of Heaven before me and the great God himself’.

God’s glory will not be hidden. He reveals it in everything upon which our eyes fall, and yet we remain blind. And He reveals it most magnificently in music which seems to soar heavenwards.

Two years ago, listening to the beautiful music arranged by Andre Rieu, God revealed to me that loving Him and being loved by Him are matters for celebrating. Knowing this, dour wee Presbyterian though I am, I want to sing, ‘hallelujah’.

But it wasn’t meant for one voice. It is a chorus which needs as many as possible. For the many ways his beautiful music has helped me, I pray that Andre will discern God’s presence in all he does, and that his voice will join those who sanctify Him in their hearts.