The Minister and the Otherworld

‘Our minister’s away with the fairies’, might very well have been the intimation from the Rev Robert Kirk’s pulpit following his disappearance in 1692. You see, his congregation did not believe that he had died, but rather, that he had been kidnapped off to fairyland. His interest in the creatures of the Otherworld had finally – they thought – been his undoing.

What was his interest? Well, strange as it sounds now, fairy belief was so prevalent at the time that Kirk felt it necessary to write a treatise on their nature. Two common ideas – that they were the spirits of infants who had died without baptism, or that they were fallen angels – could not be countenanced by him, or by the church. Instead, he sought to displace these heretical theories by investigating for himself and laying out his findings in a book, ‘The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies’.

His conclusion was that they were ‘of a middle nature, twixt man and the angels’. It’s an unusual statement for more than one reason. Firstly, well, a minister who believed in fairies. . . If that was nowadays, the very least he could expect would be some odd looks at Session meetings. Secondly, anyone with the most rudimentary grasp of scripture will know that God made man a little lower than the angels, so Kirk was essentially placing fairies above mankind. Above us, yet not perfect like the angels. The fairies required appeasement, and careful handling. Without warning, they might mete out punishment, or simply take from mankind what they coveted.

The writer, Ronald Black, described the function performed by fairyland for our ancestors as similar to modern soap opera. It was a medium for exploring and working out social dilemmas and concerns. To put it another way, it was humankind trying to sort itself out in a way that excluded God. Poor Kirk was somehow trying to accommodate fairy belief into his theology, but it was always going to end badly.

If we humans are proof of anything, we are proof of our own lostness. No matter how bad we make things for ourselves, we still think it’s somehow up to us to fix it, and that we’re capable of fixing it. And, in the absence of God, we have constructed our own doctrine. Just be nice, do no wilful harm, be kind to the poor. Tolerate everything as long as it hurts no one. It will all be fine in the end.

Not like that, it won’t.

Kirk was making the kind of mistake you would hope no modern minister would make. Sometimes, what secular culture thinks is fine, is really not. There are times when what the world wants has to be opposed by Christ’s church. You can’t always accommodate it and you shouldn’t always try. It falls to His followers to hold up a hand and gently say, ‘no further’. And it’s a challenge. No one wants to be called a killjoy, or a bigot, but then, they called our Saviour worse.

I see our local Christian Party candidate being soundly mocked and derided by the usual social media suspects. He has had the temerity to subscribe to Biblical teaching and not conform to the right-on views of the secular lobby. As far as I can make out, his approach is informed by God; their view is shaped by no authority superior to their own. By that logic, if they say his beliefs, or my beliefs are stupid/bigoted/immature, well, then they are. They probably think I’ve been told by my church to vote for him as well. (Obviously I haven’t – the elders don’t know that women have the vote now, and I’m not going to be the one to break it to them.)

Christians have to live in this world for a time, but they should never belong to it. Kirk’s mistake was to think he could walk too closely with worldly ignorance and still be safe. There were two things which might have released him from the enchantment which held him: iron and salt.

We must pray for a good measure of both in our walk through this world.

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

Samhain and the Power of Darkness

The veil between this world and the world of spirits was always at its thinnest on 31st October: Hallowe’en to the kids of today, but Samhain to our long-dead ancestors. Samhain was a fire festival, marking the end of harvest and the beginning of the dark months. It was also a sort of passage in time, no longer in the old year, nor yet quite into the new. The spirits of the Otherworld could insinuate themselves into such breaches in continuity; they could return to warm themselves at the hearths of the living, and even take possession of their bodies in order to remain in the earthly realm well beyond Samhain.

Don’t run away with the idea that our Celtic ancestors were morbid, with a fixation on death, though. No, no, that sort of glumness didn’t kick in until 1843, when the Free Church outlawed fun, laughing within a six-mile radius of the minister, and wearing your hat at jaunty angles. Think instead of Samhain as a jolly festival, with flames to light up the encroaching darkness and a whole lot of clamour to confuse the ghosts.

You see, Samhain wasn’t really about death at all – it was about keeping these very forces at bay. It was about marking the safe in-gathering of the harvest. And, while we look on winter as the end of life, the Celts saw it quite differently. Time, for them, was cyclical and Samhain was both an end and a new beginning. They realised that the budding and blooming we witness in the spring does not just happen spontaneously, but is the latter-end of a process which begins many months before.

In nature, regeneration first requires darkness. You plant a seed. Then you water it. And you watch. Nothing happens. Repeat the watering, the watching and – yes, probably – the despairing, many times. One day, though, your patience and your care are rewarded: a single, green shoot has made its appearance. Conceived and prepared in the dark, but flourishing in the light.

I recall an evening last summer, planting flowers in the long bed at the front of the house. It is surrounded and shaded by trees planted and lovingly tended by my late husband. With the warmth of the sun causing sweet fragrance from the fresh-cut grass to perfume the air, and the sound of birdsong beginning to drowse above me, I listened to a sermon on Genesis 1. Never has it been brought home to me more powerfully that we were meant to live in a garden.

Listening to those familiar words, ‘In the beginning, God . . .’ being described as a prelude to the whole Bible, I found myself wondering what it would have been like had we lived only in a Genesis 1 world.

For an idea of how it might have been, play Haydn’s oratorio, ‘The Creation’: all is the glory of God and the perfection of His handiwork. Indeed, the Catholic Church took great exception to it and banned its performance in places of worship precisely because of its portrayal of a perfectly-ordered world. Its emphasis is, undoubtedly, positive because it largely dwells on God’s perfect work. Nonetheless, the Fall does intrude towards the end, however minimised it is by the composer.

In a work entitled ‘The Creation’, Haydn might well have been excused for excluding sin altogether. But for one thing. He had been inspired to compose his great work after hearing Handel’s ‘Messiah’ performed for the first time. It made a powerful impression on him. No one who has once encountered the Messiah can then look upon Creation in the same way again, nor be unaware of the need sin has created for salvation.

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It is just as well that we humans do not know what lies ahead, because with our small minds, and limited life-spans, we frequently reach the least optimistic conclusions.  Adam and Eve must have been so weighed down with sorrow on leaving the garden; they couldn’t see the Saviour who would come to make reparations on their behalf. Perhaps, for them, the story ended like Haydn’s, with the Fall.  But God, omnipresent and omniscient, is also wholly trustworthy.

Nature witnesses to its Creator. It has an inherent wisdom, and a completeness to it. Where we see darkness and decay, nature is actually resting and regenerating. Last year’s roses shrivel and fall, the shrub a desiccated stick. Yet, beneath the ground, the roots are gathering strength, ready to produce new shoots.

As it is in Creation, so it is with the Creator: He nurtures that growth, hidden from our view until He is ready to reveal it to our sight, and to His own glory.

Glamorous witches and grammar lessons

Words are very powerful – written, or spoken, they have the capacity to build up, or to tear down; to encourage, or to dissuade. I have often spoken unwisely, wished my last sentence unsaid, or regretted the line I failed to add at the end of a note, or email, or the word of encouragement I could have dropped into a waiting ear. So many people have been kind to me, have reassured me, have taken an interest in whatever nonsense I had to say. . . but did I do the same for them? Too often, I know I fall short, despite being full of love and admiration for so many of my fellow humans: even some of those I know personally.

We are reticent people here in Lewis. Not long ago, I complimented an elder on his precenting that evening in church. He actually reeled backwards, as though I’d physically struck him. Perhaps, on reflection, that says more about my habitually sarcastic tone than it does about his ability to graciously accept praise. Nonetheless, it taught me a valuable lesson. It is wise to reflect on how infrequently I offer the kind observations that are in my mind, and how readily I manage to unleash the other variety.

Compliments were, historically, frowned upon in these parts, though. Remarks such as, ‘your cruach looks beautiful in the moonlight’ were viewed less as a prelude to romance, and more as a prelude to some serious peat thieving. To point out the beauty of a person’s cow would, today, merely be regarded as a bit weird. People would assume that you didn’t get out much, and that small-talk wasn’t really your forte. In your great-granny’s day, however, it would be seen as a possible precursor to witchcraft of the sort that left your cow producing skimmed milk. Fine, you might think, have a skinny latte and get on with it. Not your great-granny, though: she would have recourse to her own, or someone else’s eolas.

Eolas was what you might call a spell, or a charm. It usually combined ritual with verses of some sort, which were to be uttered in order to relieve the ill-effects of the evil eye. Witches were known to keep such valuable words in a book known as a ‘grimoire’, which comes from the same root as ‘grammar’.

Yet, despite these dark associations, the two most abiding grammar lessons I ever received were when I was sitting in church.

Just recently, a visiting preacher reawakened a precious memory for me. He read from 1 Corinthians 1:18 and I remembered the first time, nearly twenty years ago, that I heard a minister use the phrase ‘being saved’. I still recall that feeling, like a small spring bubbling up in my heart, joyous that salvation could be described as a process. Even now, I don’t fully understand why it made me so glad.

But it IS real cause for joy. Something that is called ‘the present progressive tense’, when applied to God’s work, has two great qualities: it is NOW and it is GROWING. ‘Being saved’ is better, even than simply ‘saved’, I think, because it reminds us of the Lord’s activity on our behalf, and in our lives all the time. Because He is present, we are progressing.

And the other grammar lesson? Some weeks – possibly months – ago now, our minister preached on Jesus’ command to us, if we do not yet know Him, simply to ‘come’. You can see in your mind’s eye, His hand stretched out towards you, imploring you not to delay. There are so many reasons not to put it off, but the main one relates to a straightforward question of grammar too; as the preacher reminded us: ‘the imperative has no future’. His command for us to come means, ‘come now’.

From the same source as  ‘grammar’, and ‘grimoire’, we also get ‘glamour’. Oh, not the kind we associate with supermodels and sirens of stage and screen. No, this was the indefinable magnetism witches used in order to draw you to themselves. It is the same glamour that the world uses to attract us, and ensnare us. Ultimately, we will discover that it’s empty, just a pale ghost of a thing, without form or substance. But, ultimately is too late.

Jesus wants us to come now, so that we may be among those who are being saved. He wants us to pick His grammar over the glamour of the world, and it is imperative that we listen – now.

No Denominations in Heaven

The Wee Frees are famously not big on symbolism. Step inside one of the denomination’s churches and your nostrils will not be assailed by the aroma of incense, nor your eyes by art and effigies. There may be coloured glass in the windows, or there may not, but there is no gilding on display, no costly baubles adorning the walls.

Yet, it is not without its idiosyncrasies. It is like every other community in the sense that it has its own unwritten codes and customs which only those who belong to it ‘get’. Those who belong to it feel great affection for it; those who do not belong to it may be a little nonplussed. I’m speaking here of the Lewis incarnation of the Free Church, of course.

Communities frequently have their own language. Elsewhere, I have spoken of the inelegant description of regular churchgoers as being ‘out both ends’. At a conference some months ago, one of the speakers mentioned the confusion that might be experienced by those not ‘in the know’ when their Free Church friends declare with delight that, ‘Margaret came out on Wednesday night’. And, recently, I confused a friend who is still new to worship in our congregation by casually alluding to a ‘retiring collection’.

All of this just witnesses to the fact that our denomination has a long history; that we function as a community with a rich culture all its own. Our roots go deep in this corner of the world. Yet, somehow, the Free Church remains a mystery to those who only view it from outside. They see their friends, neighbours and even relatives trot off to church each week and still have an incredibly warped notion of what goes on inside these edifices.

In recent months, the non-church (honestly, it’s the only label I feel safe to use) section of our community has displayed a woeful ignorance of, and sometimes incredibly imaginative take on, Free Church practice. From what I can gather, they think that women of this denomination are weak, biddable, suggestible automatons, who allow their menfolk to tell them what to do,read, think, and even how to vote. The men are bullies with a very 17th century take on marriage. Kirk sessions instruct their congregations in political matters and hold secret, sinister power over the local council (though not, apparently, the Licensing Board). And, let me say again, those who take this view are people who know us personally: our friends and our neighbours. They know us in our villages, our schools, our workplaces, our clubs and our committees. Their children and ours play together. Yet, despite all those real connections, they seem to believe this utter nonsense about people who have  given their lives to Christ.

I have something I’d like to say to such people:

When you live next door to someone who is a Christian, regardless of denomination, don’t you take them at face value? If they seem nice, reasonable, ordinary . . . isn’t it just possible that they are? And, if they are, what is your hostility about? Might it be something in you? Couldn’t it be that you have created a foe to despise because, to see things as they really are might be dangerous? What if something in their lifestyle appealed to you?

There is absolutely no point in attacking a denomination, for the same reason that there is no point in me defending one. They are all made up of people – individuals whom you know. Turning your attention onto some outdated Iain Crichton Smith meets Lars Von Trier meets the Wicker Man parody of the Free Church is a painfully obvious, nay, childish tactic. Don’t do that to yourself. You are worth more than that. Instead, get to know someone who lives for Christ, and ask them why. Ask them why they follow Him, and why He rules their lives, instead of why they won’t compromise over Sunday openings. Once you understand their faith, I guarantee that their obedience will make more sense.

I heard a story of a man who had a dream, in which he saw buses arriving at the gates of Heaven. The first, marked, ‘Church of Scotland’, was waved away. Then, the second, labelled, ‘Free Church’, was similarly dismissed. Being a Free Presbyterian, he was surprised when their bus met with the same response. Then, though, one arrived, bearing the legend, ‘Church of Christ’, and the gates opened wide to admit it.

Do not, in your fear, try to make Christ small. He isn’t interested in denominations; and He isn’t in one more than another. Come to ours, come to any – but do come. Please, in the words of the hymn, ‘turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face. And the things of this world will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.’

Follow Christ, not Christians. We will let you down; but He never will.

Don’t count the empty pews

When Reverend Alexander Macleod arrived in Uig, in 1824, he found that practically everyone in the district was a communicant member in his church.This may sound like a sign of great spiritual life, but was in fact a sign of the times, as MacLeod was soon to discover. Early in his ministry, he witnessed two elders of the church at prayer – one beseeching the Almighty to send a shipwreck to their shore, and another lamenting the death of Christ as a dark day for mankind. They were victims of moderatism, the same kind of outward observance that causes some to believe – even today – that if you lead a good and decent existence, harming no one, then you have as much right to call yourself a Christian as the next man.

While MacLeod’s communion table was full to capacity, new research suggests that the pews of the Western Isles are no longer exactly bursting at the seams. 44.3% of the local population regularly attends the means of grace which, if you’re the pessimistic kind, means that 55.7% prefer doing something else with their Sunday. And if you’re the atheistic kind, you probably think that this is a welcome sign of Calvinism having to relinquish its cold grip at long last.

Well, you say cold grip; I say warm handshake. In a country where those going to church account for only 7.2% of the population, forgive me for thinking that the statistic for our islands is not cause for distress. Nor – sorry, unbelievers – is it the silencing of a strong voice in this community. It is, rather, a call to arms. Or, at least, a summons to the field. Ploughshares are what we need now, not swords.

The Free Church has been mission-minded since its inception, sharing the gospel of Christ with people all over the globe. Statistics like these simply demonstrate an exciting challenge by reminding us that the field has narrowed, and labourers are required on the very thresholds of our churches.

We could weep and wail and bemoan the loss of those days when some referred to Lewis as ‘the last stronghold of the pure gospel’; or we could work and pray for refreshing. This is not a numbers game and God did not promise this island that Christians would always be in the majority; but we were promised that, where two or three gather in His name, the Lord will be present. Two or three – and we’ve got twelve thousand.

Last November, worshippers from all over Lewis packed into a meeting at Stornoway Free Church, as part of the denominational Day of Prayer. It closed with five minutes of silent prayer, during which the power in that building was almost palpable.And that particular gathering represented a mere fraction of those who belong to the church of Christ in the Western Isles.

But there’s one more fraction I should mention here – the 24% of worshippers who ‘disappeared’ between 1984 and 2016. Where are they now? Well, I am inclined to think that they’re in God’s storehouse, safely gathered in. He isn’t willing that any should perish; percentages don’t come into it.

When you look at it in its real context, 55.7% isn’t a defeat at all: it’s a latent harvest.