Romeos, cailleachan and spiritual undress

I went on an outing with Balaich an Trust last week, and, after a relatively brief car journey with one of them, discovered I was an item of clothing short. Searching high and low, I could not find it anywhere and was forced to confront the fact that I was out minus  that which no respectable Lewiswoman willingly divests – my cardigan. 

What rush of blood to the head, you ask, had overcome me, to the extent that the knitted reputation-saver had been lost . . . 

I remembered in my confusion, my father’s tale of a woman at whose door the vehicle of a well-known lothario was frequently parked. My father – driving for the dry-cleaners – went one day to deliver freshly laundered garments of which it turns out she was in dire need. She had been, he told us, many years later, up to no good with the visiting reprobate. ‘How do you know that?’ myself and my sister scoffed, believing our own generation had a monopoly on shenanigans. His answer was hard to argue against: ‘Because’, he said decisively, ‘when she answered the door to me, she had taken off her apron’.

The implication, of course, was that she had been carried away. Such had been the allure of the local romeo that she had lost her head – and her wrap-around floral pinny. If you are unfamiliar with the complexity of these garments, let me assure you that it’s unlikely one was ever removed by accident.

We set a lot of store by clothing, don’t we?  Apparel has a kind of cultural importance, beyond the merely practical one of preserving decency and keeping out the cold/midgies. I was reminded of this when visiting the fabrication yard at Arnish that cardiganless day. Aside from the hard hat and hi-vis jackets, we were told to don steel-toecapped footwear that will always be referred to here in Lewis by those of a certain age, as ‘Arnish boots’. They achieved currency during the heyday of the yard, and have come to be inextricably linked with its name. 

I can remember, too, when the windows of local clothing retailers, Murdo Maclean’s, and its rival, Nazir Bros, would be filled with ladies’ hats, deftly to coincide with communion season. For most who still attend church assiduously, headgear is not part of their wardrobe, and so the shop displays no longer reflect what was once very much a local event. Of course, we still celebrate communion but it is less of a community affair now.

My own personal dress code for public worship has relaxed somewhat over the years. I have come to the conclusion that the outward trappings don’t matter too much. God listens to me when I pray at home in my pyjamas; I can’t imagine for a second he’s going to turn his face from the earnest petitions of one of his own, just because they’ve gone to church in jeans. Truthfully, I would rather see our pews packed with folk in biker leathers than sparsely populated by ‘correctly’ attired ladies in hats and posh frocks.

I have found, anyway, that there is really only one outfit necessary to the Christian: armour.

Ephesians 6 tells us what ‘the whole armour of God’ consists of: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, feet shod with the readiness that stems from the gospel of peace. All of this should be accessorised with the shield of faith, the sword of the Spirit, and the helmet of salvation.

Do I agonise over this outfit as much as I might over my outward apparel? Is it my habit to make an inventory, checking that all the pieces are in place?

Honestly? No, I don’t always. Sometimes I go far too long in neglecting to fasten and refasten the buckles that hold everything together.

In recent weeks, something happened to remind me about being a better soldier. I had not been in prayer so much, I had spent less time in the Word, and I had skipped the means of grace far more frequently than was wise or necessary.

And then I was brought up short by an incident. Petty, anonymous hatred of the most insidious and accusatory kind, intended to steal my peace. It reminded me of a very precious truth: the world is poles apart from God, and it is, therefore, not my home.

We will have troubles here. People might let us down, hurts will come – but we should receive these as they are intended by God: to persuade us that we really do belong to him. For me, the whole sorry debacle was an opportunity for the Lord to show me the truth of Joseph’s words to his brothers, ‘you intended to harm me, but God intended it for my good’

He brought me swiftly back to his side, where I am safest. And I have straightened out my armour, reattaching what had worked loose, and preparing both my sword and shield so I might follow him more closely.

But, even in that fray, when I was undoubtedly tussling with Satan, there was one element of my outfit that did not move.

As with any soldier, it will remain fixed until the battle is over.  That gives me comfort because I know I will fail again: my arm will flag in holding up my faith as a shield, and I will try to fend off the blows without it.

But the one item I will never – indeed, can never – lose, is the helmet of salvation. Christ puts it in place, and only he has the authority to remove it.

Which no soldier does until the battle is over.

Fake Feminism & the Wee Free Women

I don’t suppose you could really call Cailleach an Deacoin a feminist. Mind you, ‘she’ certainly harboured political ambition. For the uninitiated, the Cailleach was the persona assumed by Murdo Matheson of South Lochs, a female impersonator well before the time of Eddie Izzard, or Lily Savage. It was before my time too, but I have heard the recordings from his gigs in the ‘town haal’, where Cailleach an Deacoin roundly mocks the men in parliament and the church, to uproarious laughter from the audience.

Cailleach an Deacoin would certainly have something to say about the hubbub over an all-male Comhairle nan Eilean, following the recent local election. Of course, her intent was always firmly fixed on Westminster, but I’m quite sure that she would have encouraged less ambitious ladies to try for Sandwick Road first.

Feminism is the new secularism here in Lewis. That is to say, it is being hoisted as the latest flag of convenience over the leakiest vessel in the harbour: the good ship, ‘blame the church’. According to some local pundits, the failure to elect any female councillors can be laid squarely at the door of the Kirk session. Over the years, they have subjugated women, kept them in the kitchen, and out of any really important decision-making. Presbyterian women are submissive, pliable, dumb. I know, because I am one. If I had a brain in my be-hatted ceann, I might object to the picture that these feminists paint of me, but I leave all that confrontational stuff to the men. They’re much better at it than me.

Funnily enough, it was suggested by three different people that I should consider standing for the Comhairle. All three were men: two of them church elders, the other a communicant. I was about to use this as proof that the coves in the Free Church don’t see politics as a male preserve, but I’ve just had an epiphany (don’t tell, though, because I haven’t asked permission from the Presbytery). They probably only wanted me to stand in the first place because I’d be easy to manipulate, plus there would be someone to pour the tea at the members’ meetings. Luckily, I have no desire whatsoever to run for elected office anyway. That is the real reason why I – and probably many other women – did not stand for council.

It has nothing to do with the churches’ influence on the lives of women. That kind of suggestion is insulting to the countless articulate, capable and even feisty women who are also churchgoers in this island. Like so many other popular myths regarding religion here, it springs from a complete ignorance of what the church is to her people. Yes, ‘her’ people. And it is also born of that other insidious misconception, that Christianity must ape and conform to contemporary culture.

God created man and He created woman. Each have their own unique attributes and characteristics. These are to be applied in God’s service. He does not love men over women; He does not single one gender out for special treatment. His Son died for both genders, and people of both genders have followed Him and served Him faithfully. Jesus first revealed His divine nature to a woman, and it was to women he first appeared following the resurrection. Christianity does not discriminate because Christ does not discriminate.

The church, of which Christ is the head, tries its best to imitate Him. Recently, I heard a lecture in which the speaker properly described God as genderless. We think of God, traditionally, as a man because – amongst other reasons – to us, He is God the Father. However, in His perfection, God combines attributes which we think of as male, and those we would consider female. No single human being can hope to emulate that on their own.This being the case, the closest any church will get to imitation of God is one in which men and women work together, bringing their best gifts into the service of the church, and of the Lord.

Church isn’t a gender-based competition. Biblically-speaking, there are roles for both. Yet again, the world fails to understand that the church of Christ does not follow society’s norms and obsessions. Contemporary thinking tells you one minute that gender is a social construct, that it doesn’t matter; and then it tells women that they mustn’t let men push them around, and that they must assert themselves. If we follow every prevailing wind, we will be buffeted to and fro like fallen leaves.

There are indeed places in the world where it is considered normal for women to be subjugated and maltreated by men. The Isle of Lewis is not one of them. When my father died, one of the first things my sister said to me was, ‘he was a great father for girls’. And she was right – never once did he make either of us feel that we were less in his eyes than our brothers, or less capable of . . . well, anything. He loved Christ, he was a member of the Free Church, and he treated women as equals. I am offended on his behalf, and on behalf of the many gentlemen I am privileged to call my brothers in Christ, when I hear it said that they are misogynistic bullies. Equally, I don’t appreciate the inference that my sisters in Christ are biddable simpletons with nary a brain-cell to call their own.

Actually, it’s quite straightforward: there are two genders, each with its own attributes and divine calling, each called on to submit to  the other out of reverence for Christ. This is the blueprint laid down for us in Ephesians 5; wouldn’t it be something if the world tried to emulate that instead