Free speech? What free speech?

You won’t be surprised to learn that, as a Lewiswoman of the Wee Free persuasion, there are certain things which I am not encouraged to have an opinion on. These include, but are not limited to: whether elders should wear ties, the use of more innovative psalm tunes, or anything to do with the carpark.

That still leaves me with baking, when to use doilies, and what colour of shirt is most becoming to the ministers. That last one needs very careful consideration if they’re standing against an all-white backdrop, and had a late one at the Session the night before. Peelie-wally face, grey shirt: you see the problem.

However, the restrictions imposed upon my thinking within church confines are as nothing compared to those that society has put my way.

Indeed, the overbearing Free Kirk patriarchy which has repressed my kind for so many years seems positively liberal by comparison. Why, this week alone, they allowed me to press buttons on the recording equipment unsupervised. And when the singing elder ran at me, shouting, ‘who let you loose on that?’ the minister reprimanded him. Progress, you see?

But what happens inside our secret society of Calvinist oppression  is well-known to those who merely look on. They know that the men rule with a rod of iron and the women meekly obey. It is a matter of common knowledge that the minister tells us how to vote, what to watch on television, which newspapers are acceptable, and which horse to back in the Grand National. Well, no, not that last one. Our local intellegentsia are not daft enough to think betting is encouraged; just that their neighbours are robots.

They are particularly good at making those kinds of judgements – what is harmless, what is harmful, what is important, what is not. And, of course, they are well aware that we Presbyterians are strangers to rational thought . It is for our own good that they tell us what to think, what to say, and when to be quiet.

This week, I shared a ‘Spectator’ article on facebook. It was called, ‘Questioning transgenderism is the new blasphemy’.

So, I questioned transgenderism.

The response? I was variously accused of being uncaring, ignorant, commenting on something that didn’t concern me and, inevitably, I was told to be quiet.

All of which rather made the author’s – and my – point. You cannot discuss transgenderism rationally. The same applies to abortion, to gay marriage, and to any number of other social phenomena which have quietly been ushered onto statute books in the west, without anyone really talking about it.

The responses are always the same: those arguing against you position themselves as caring, and will use words like ‘hurt’ and ‘shame’ and ‘rejection’. With no evidence whatsoever, they will tell you that generations of islanders suffered shame, mental illness, and even took their own lives as a result of being judged and rejected for things over which they had no control .

And perhaps that is true. But Christians do not mean to add to anyone’s unhappiness. It’s just, no one has asked their opinion. Had there been debate, they could and should have been part of that. Then, an appropriate response could have been discussed – by which I do mean with all sides being heard, not just those voicing the socially acceptable view.

What is not socially acceptable, as I am fast learning, is Biblical authority. People will dismiss it, using words that I find chilling – not because I am offended, but because they are.

They are offended at the idea of submitting to anything that is not their preference, or their will. In all of this, the supreme irony is that they are in chains of their own making. Like Jacob Marley, they have forged them inch by inch, and tightened them further with each half-turn away from the will of God.

There is, of course, another taboo here. You may not talk of sin. In this fruitless online exchange, the opponents of free speech write emotively and scathingly of the shame inflicted on generations of people for their lifestyle choices. While I have no doubt that may be true, and regrettable where there was a want of empathy, the truth has not changed.

So, don’t be offended at the mention of ‘sinner’, because I freely admit to being one of equal, if not greater guilt.

No Christian calls sin into question to humiliate, or judge anybody. That is never the aim.  Yes, we may indeed quote you Romans 3: 23, ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’.

That means you, but it means me as well, and I speak to you, not as a would-be judge, but as a fellow convict who has been granted the key for my cell door.

You see, Romans 3 has a 24th verse. It says, ‘ and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus’.

That is the key. If a Christian tells you you’re imprisoned, it’s not to cause you despair. They want you to open the door to freedom like they have.

Perhaps, after all, your hurt and offence has nothing to do with hearing the word, ‘sin’, and everything to do with being out of step with the only One who can truly dry your tears.

 

Evicted by an Elder and Other Open Doors

Twice in the space of a week the same elder has attempted to have me removed from meetings. In the first case, he simply objected to my presence; in the second, I think it may have been something I said.

It is encouraging, though, to realise that the objection centres on my person, rather than my gender.

That, surely, is progress for womankind, and especially the subjugated Hebridean truaghag of the Wee Free variety – when people start dismissing you for your objectionable personality, and not simply because you are, well, a blone.

At the first of those gatherings, our work SU group, the same elder gave a very interesting and thought-provoking talk on the work of the Gideons. It is an organisation I have always been dimly aware of, but knew little about, and it was good to learn more about the valuable work that they do, placing copies of God’s word into the very situations where people most need Him.

That is to say, anywhere and everywhere we go.

Here in Lewis most of us grew up in homes where there would be not just one, but a good many copies of the Bible. Yet, this man in his work for the Gideons spoke of meeting people who were beyond delighted to be given their very own New Testament, never having possessed one before.

I own a lot of Bibles. There are two pulpit tomes which Donnie bought and lugged home from second-hand bookshops. And the one I gave him when we got married, as well as the Bible presented to us by Stornoway Free Church on the same occasion. We also have a family Bible, which I have not yet had the heart to write Donnie’s death into.

There is the one I use every Sunday, tastefully covered in blue tweed. And the handsome leather-bound study Bible, a gift from my brother, which I use daily at home. By my bed, there is a journaling ESV, with notes on many of my favourite passages; in the car is the pink version I use with my Sunday School girls.

And there is a desperately battered Gaelic Bible in the glove compartment too. I would love to replace it with something less fragile, but you just can’t buy them anymore.

At work, I keep a minuscule New Testament, an even more battered Gaelic Bible, and Donnie’s ESV. Oh, and a Gideon New Testament that all staff received shortly after I started in the college. I even have multiple translations on my iPhone.

No excuse, in other words, to be unacquainted with what my Father wants of me. But simply owning a Bible – or 100 Bibles – will not help, if I never open any of them. They are not holy relics, or sacred objects in and of themselves. God intended that they should be read, and their truth applied. That was what Luther and Tyndale and other great Reformers won for us: the privilege of having the Word of God at our fingertips, in our own language.

The one that I love best, though, is not the beautiful journaling volume, nor even the familiar Sunday blue tweed. It is a well-thumbed KJV Study Bible, stuffed with post-it notes and place markers. I had not picked it up in many a long year until recently, but it is my old friend because, through it, I think I came to a better understanding of the Lord’s plan for my life.

After hearing the elder speak about the Gideons, I came home and took the old KJV down from the shelf, and leafed through it. Seeing what I had marked and written notes on, I can almost trace the development of my relationship with the Lord. Including this, in Romans 15:4:

‘For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope’.

Reading it painstakingly for myself, trying to get closer to God, I must have marked that passage in hope. I struggled to understand anything that I had not heard explained in church, but I’m glad now to see this passage highlighted.

Elsewhere in Romans, Paul tells us that those who believe in God will not be put to shame. As I look back over this very long road, strewn with Bibles that mark every stage along the way, I can acknowledge the truth of that.

Now, as I look at the beloved KJV full of post-its, I realise how very like Gideon I have been. God was speaking to me in every one of those texts. When my heart swelled for joy at the words ‘those that are BEING saved’, didn’t that tell me something? Every word that I marked, I knew in my heart to be His truth.

Yet still, yet still, I needed another reassurance that He was speaking to me.

It did not once occur to me that I would never even have picked up the Bible, far less opened it, unless He had something to say to me.

And no matter how crammed with notes it is, how dog-eared, how tattered, or how pristine, God speaks the same message through your Bible as He did through mine:

‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me’.

Please don’t follow my example, lingering  too long on the threshold between life and death. Pick up your Bible. Hear His voice. Open the door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

May I Speak to Whoever is in Charge?

When I was a teenager, I used to ask my father questions about God, many of which were greeted with, ‘Ist, a Shàtain’. After one such conversation, I overheard him telling my mother that my ‘atheistic streak’ worried him.

But I remember it differently. I was actually trying to better understand this God who, whatever my parents may have thought, was always real to me. So, when people question and criticise Him publicly now, I flinch and fear for them, but it also causes me to hope.

For myself, I was never further away from Him than when He was totally absent from my thoughts.

So, it doesn’t do to dismiss their challenges out of hand. If we disregard people’s concerns as foolish or wicked, there is a risk that we detract from the seriousness of the argument, or fuel the notion tha He is just a fiction and not worth defending . We may say that it is wrong to challenge God – which it is – but it is equally careless of us not to take the opportunity to increase another’s understanding of Him.

Last Sunday, in passing, I heard the familiar verse from 1 Peter ‘always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is in you’. Those were the same words ringing in my ears when I professed faith for the first time. In the final analysis, it all comes down to confession. I knew in my heart and soul what the Lord had done for me, and I could no longer deny it before others.

Equally, then, when someone takes it upon themselves to accuse God, am I not required to gently say, ‘no, you have that wrong’? If they are maligning Him, should I not interpret that as an opportunity to defend the reason for the hope that is in me?

When a person walks into a church (or a school, or a park) armed to the teeth and bent on murder, I do not believe that God is behind him, spurring him on. This is sin, and our Lord has nothing to do with, can have nothing to do with, sin. We are in possession of free will. If, every time I was about to commit a sin, God reached down from Heaven to stay my hand, I would no longer be free, would I?

Yet, if my fellow human being commits such an atrocity, does that not mean that I also have the same capacity for sin? What has stopped me from doing what this man did in Texas? Why do I choose to take a seat among the worshippers instead of turning the full force of anger and murderous intent upon them?

Is it my innate goodness? My kind-heartedness? My immunity from wickedness?

Of course it isn’t. It is nothing in me. Remember that old-fashioned saying, ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I’? That is the reason: His grace. You have it too, even if you don’t believe in Him, you have benefitted from His grace, just as surely as you bear His thumbprint.

After all, if this God is really a despot, why has He not already struck you down for your unbelief?

And if He really is God of all, why would you not speak to Him about what troubles you in the world?

There is a reason why the Christian response to the events of last Sunday was, ‘pray for Sutherland County’, and it isn’t anything to do with ducking the arguments about gun control. These same Christians are, in fact, praying all the time. They pray for themselves, for their families, for their friends, their colleagues, their communities – they pray for this broken, tragic world.

Even if you don’t pray yourself, there’s a good chance that someone else is doing it on your behalf. Someone who cares about you is holding you up to God’s attention and saying, ‘have mercy on them, and open their eyes’.

I could try to tell you who God is and what He is, but you wouldn’t believe me. He isn’t a cold, careless egomaniacal deity, randomly pushing people off cliffs, or sweeping them to destruction. God loves this world, and He sorrows over what we have made of it. Our purpose is, and always has been, to worship and enjoy Him. Sin, however, has so warped that relationship that we commit evil against Him daily and have the temerity then to blame our actions on Him.

If He exists, that is.

So, please, if you don’t already know, find out for yourself who He is. Talk to Him. I promise you this: He’s waiting for you to speak His name. Ask Him to reveal more of Himself to you. Pick up the Bible and read it prayerfully.

You won’t ever get to know Him by alternately denying He exists and calling Him names. And, if you’re a reasonable person, you won’t denounce Him as a fiction whilst trying to hold Him and His people responsible for all the ills of the world.

His grace has given you every chance to see Him as He really is: take it, please. We are praying that you will.

The hope that saves

I once tried to explain the doctrine of election to some students. It’s fair to say that it wasn’t an unqualified success. One – a Roman Catholic looked at me with mounting horror and, when I’d finished, said, aghast, ‘Well, we have hope’.

It’s the hope that kills, according to many people in desperate situations. Hope keeps you going, only to be finally dashed on the rocks of reality. Wasn’t it cruel to have false expectations dangled in front of you, only to have them snatched away at last? Isn’t it always better to know the worst?

Well, I don’t think so. Four years ago this month, my world changed forever when the dread word, ‘cancer’ came into my own and my husband’s experience. I imagined the worst; he imagined the worst. And then, little by little, hope was restored. The tumour was contained, the operation was a success, no lymph-nodes were affected. Post-operative chemotherapy was optional, but advised as an extra precaution against the cancer which, seemingly, had an 85% chance of non-recurrence.

Little by little, he got his strength back. He was able to come with me to walk the dog. The first time, I remember, just after getting home from hospital, with a vacuum pump dressing. We walked maybe 1000 yards, but it was all progress.

And, when he was well enough, we both agreed that we had neglected our souls long enough. He knew as I did who had got us through all those terrible times. Twice, I had sat, frozen in terror, as Donnie underwent surgery. The first wait was bad enough; the second – to remove an adhesion, ten days after the resection – was a little foretaste of things to come. I know he thought he might die; I certainly thought so too. When the phone rang at 11pm and I heard the surgeon’s voice, I really thought that he had died in theatre.

But he came home, and the nodes were clear, and everything just might have worked out fine.

It didn’t, of course, as everyone now knows. Things took a negative and aggressive turn very rapidly. So rapidly that one day we were told the scan showed some shrinkage in the tumour, and the very next, that there was nothing further they could do. He died exactly a week later.

We had almost a year, though, of looking forward and of thinking we might just have beaten cancer. A year of hope. That, I believe, was God’s gift to us. He wasn’t cruelly tricking us, letting us believe we had a future together while, all the time, laughing up His sleeve. I think He was dealing with us gently, like the Father He is, knowing the hurt we would eventually suffer.

And isn’t election another example of that? All of us fell in Adam, not one of us deserves resurrection to eternal life, nor even the hope of it. Yet, by God’s grace, that is what we have. Isn’t it the case, therefore, if we can say that we have that hope, then we have everything?

Recently, in church, we heard that it isn’t necessary to understand the doctrine of election to be saved. We must, of course, endeavour to absorb the teaching of Scripture regarding it, but never to make any difficulty in fathoming its mysteries an obstacle to our right relationship with Christ. Being able to explain election to my students will not save me; only submission to my Saviour can do that. Making our calling and election sure is a lifelong task, but it is one founded on faith, rather than doubt.

Faith in God is very different to fragile, human hope. It is knowing your own weakness and dependence, while acknowledging His complete sufficiency. Yes, there will be trials in this world, and hard trials at that, but these are preparing you for an eternal weight of glory.

God does not play with the minds of men. If He has implanted a desire for salvation, and begun that good work in you, He will see it through. If you can say, along with that other lady, ‘we have hope’, then work at that. He does not encourage the harbouring of unfounded hopes, but that is why we have to remember Romans 15:13:

‘Our hope comes from God. May He fill you with joy and peace because of your trust in Him. May your hope grow stronger by the power of the Holy Spirit’.

It isn’t the hope itself that counts, it is the God on whom that hope is founded. He will not see you ashamed.

Status: in a relationship – and this one’s for keeps

I am hoping to be busy this Hallowe’en, if I’m spared, speaking in North Lochs about the supernatural world. It is an engagement which was made on the very doorstep of the manse, though I should stress that neither the Rev nor the First Lady had any knowledge of it. Nor do I regularly meet Lochies in the manse garden to discuss things that go bump in the night.

Not that I think we should fear the night. It certainly doesn’t bother me that, after an evening spent talking to – let’s just assume there will be an audience – folk about ghosts and witches, I have to drive back to North Tolsta. In the night. In the dark. Through the glen. Alone.

Gulp.

Except, not really on my own, of course. The Christian is never truly alone. Christ experienced that complete desolation so that we wouldn’t have to. Without doubt, the greatest privilege of my life is to be able to say that He has never left me, nor forsaken me. I cannot actually recall what it feels like to be alone.

There are still, however, some things which frighten me more than they should. Spiders. Mice. Exam boards. The minister’s wife when she’s recruiting for the soup and pudding. Or when she finds out I’ve been making odd arrangements with Lochies outside her front door. .

But other fears, I’ve left behind. One, fortunately, is public speaking. It used to terrify me; the very thought of getting up and talking in front of people gave me a dry mouth and a blank mind. Everything had to be written down, just in case all I’d ever known flew out of my head.

Recently, I feel I’ve been doing my best to scunner the Wee Frees of Lewis with my ubiquitous presence, answering questions about my experience of coming to faith. It’s a tough gig to get right – a bit like writing your testimony, where it’s an account from your point of view, but you’re not actually the main character.

And the fabulous Mairiann, who questioned me on behalf of our own congregation, has a great way of putting you at ease. She exudes calmness, which makes you calm. Because she was relaxed, I relaxed. Then, she utterly flummoxed me.

‘God has a particular heart for widows’, she said, ‘what could we, as a church, be doing, to fulfil His desire that we should care for them?’ It’s incredible how much ground your mind can cover in a few seconds. I glanced at the assembled people. How to answer that question? What advice could I give; what request should I make on behalf of the widows among our number?

I believe my poorly expressed response was something like, ‘keep doing what you’re doing’. This is surely not the answer anyone was looking for. Nor, in fact, was that the answer they deserved. Not from me.

The day my husband was buried, the presiding minister prayed that the church would now be a husband to me. Donnie was not a tall man, but, nonetheless, these were big shoes to fill. How could an institution like the church ever hope to be what he was to me? One of my friends, an atheist, actually repeated this sentiment afterwards, and laughed. In that strange fog, which accompanies bereavement, I registered her scorn, but had no reply.

Now I do, though – for her, if she chooses, and for the congregation who got no very adequate response to a reasonable question.

Love. Safety. Friendship. Care. Compassion. Identity. Closeness. Laughter. Acceptance. Freedom. Respect. Generosity. Trust. Protection.

These are the gifts I got from Donnie, as his wife. Since becoming his widow, I have felt moments of fear, of vulnerability, of pain that is almost physical, of lostness, of loneliness. I am no longer one half of a couple; I am simply one half. In the weeks and months that followed his death, I’m sure that was writ large on my countenance.

But always, Christ was at my shoulder. He never left me; He never will.

And listening to His voice always, His bride. Not that I’m suggesting for one minute that Stornoway Free Church is the whole church of Christ; just that it is one lovely limb. It has accepted me, flaws and all; it has supplied all that I need and more.

A church is made up of God’s people. Why should anyone mock the notion that they could be a husband to me? They are in-dwelt by the Spirit, and are moved by grace. To be a widow in their midst is a privilege not afforded to everyone. Unlike Donnie, wonderful though he was, Christ’s church does not love me for who I am, but for who He is.

And that, I am certain, is a love that will not let me go.

 

Welcome to Lewis: God’s providence is our inheritance

Last Sunday began, somewhat unusually, with me having my feet filmed as they walked up Francis Street to our Gaelic church, the Seminary. It is, of course, possible that the tv folk were trying to be arty and symbolic – you know, walking away from one of the town’s three Church of Scotland buildings, before cresting the hill towards the Free. Or, they wanted to show that Wee Free women can actually be frivolous (I was wearing pink shoes).

My main concern was that, given how infrequently I visit the Seminary, people there might assume I only ever travel with a full camera crew in tow. Fortunately, the visiting minister had been forewarned, so he didn’t think it was some elaborate, attention-seeking ploy on my part.

What is special about Sunday in Lewis, the journalist, Christina, asked me. Indeed – what?

The peace, the quiet, the fact that people who don’t offer services of necessity or mercy are guaranteed a day with their family. It has always been this way, as far back as any of us remember. Children were allowed to play outside quietly, not because they were being repressed, but because they were learning respect for other people. My late husband, whose father was an elder in their local church, was allowed to play football on Traigh Mhor with other boys, and remembered almost bursting his lungs running home to be in time for the evening service.

Balance, you see, is something we’ve always been good at here. The writer, James Shaw Grant wrote movingly of the scene on the Stornoway quayside on a Thursday evening towards the end of August in 1939. It was the Stornoway communion, and after the evening service, worshippers thronged the pier to wave the first draft of men off to the Royal Naval Reserve. Despite the great crowd, there was silence at first, and then, a lone voice on the quay took up Psalm 46 in Gaelic:

‘ ‘S e Dia as tearmann dhuinn gu beachd,
Ar spionnadh e ‘s ar treis’

Gradually, the men on board the ship, and the crowd of onlookers joined in, their voices linking across the widening strip of water. Wherever in the world these reservists would be sent, and whatever their fate, they and the loved ones at home were in the hollow of God’s hand. The world was teetering on the brink of a violent and protracted war. In what looked like an act of supreme faith, all concerned put their trust in the Lord to protect them and to strengthen them.

But a few days later, the second draft left to the sound of bagpipes, Gaelic song, and laughter. Balance, you see.

This island has always had a great sense of timing. It has responded to what comes its way appropriately and proportionately. Sometimes, this has been mistaken for fatalism, for cowardice, and even for laziness.

Not so. The burgh coat of arms, designed by the old Stornoway Town Council bore the text, ‘God’s providence is our inheritance’. There was a strong relationship between the people of the island and their God. It served them well in times of trouble, to remember that it is all in His providence, entirely dependent upon Him.

I think that if it was possible to go back in time and ask the people what was difficult and repressive about their life, they might say that it was the relentless hard work for little reward; they might mention the harshness of the weather; they might mention poor housing and unequal access to healthcare. Perhaps those from the outlying districts of Lewis would tell you that they missed their children, who had to stay in hostels all week.

Not everything about Lewis was perfect in the past, any more than it is now. But I believe that those Leodhasaich of times gone by would be puzzled by any suggestion that God was the problem.

Through the devastation of the Great War, compounded by the unspeakable tragedy of the Iolaire in the first few hours of 1919, to the decade of emigration that followed, and the heart-rending fear of the Second World War, the people turned to God.

The night that initial draft left, He was worshipped first. And then it was His strength that the departing sailors and their anxious community called upon. Amongst those who watched their sons board the ‘Lochness’ must have been men who had come through the horror of the trenches, and perhaps survived the breaking of the ‘Iolaire’ on the Beasts of Holm.

They had seen all the agonies of war, and come through it to stand, in Stornoway on the cusp of another conflict, and sing a psalm to God. He had taken them safely through, and He would watch over their sons in the heat of battle also.

Everyone who knows the history of this island will be aware that little Lewis contributed a disproportionate amount of its lifeblood in the last war. We remember that sacrifice each November.

There is always a time for remembrance. We remember the fallen of both World Wars; we remember loved ones that have gone; we remember the Lord’s death until He comes, by drinking wine and eating bread.

That communion in 1939 must have been remarkable. On a day of preparation, these islanders had a vivid reminder of why they needed God’s strength and protection.

Timing is everything. And as I look at the world around me, I think this is far from being the right moment to cast off our Christian heritage. We need to gather on that pier once more, and sing across the darkening water:

Be still, and know that I am God;
among the heathen I
Will be exalted; I on earth
will be exalted high.

Our God, who is the Lord of hosts,
is still upon our side;
The God of Jacob our refuge
for ever will abide.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Secularists in the last stronghold

This week has not been great for my self-esteem. It began, last Sunday, when an elder introduced me to the congregational fellowship in terms of who my dog is. It’s probably because the dog is male and, therefore, the closest thing to a reliable head that this household has. Then, there was the class on Martin Martin which evidently wasn’t as exciting for the students as it was for me. And, of course, there was the realisation that there are people out there who think I’m a selfish, narrow-minded, entrenched bigot.

That’s never nice to hear. Not even, I imagine, if it’s actually true. I am certainly selfish and entrenched about some things, but definitely not narrow-minded. Some of my best friends are Church of Scotland (disclaimer: this is artistic licence and somewhat of a fib).

Calling me a ‘bigot’ is, to their minds, the most offensive insult the secularists could conjure up. I’m not bothered, though, because I realise that it’s a term they use for anyone who opposes their worldview.

Their worldview, incidentally, is something they’ve created for themselves. In their canon, they have no god but Richard Dawkins, no law but that of, ‘do what you like as long as it harms no one else’. The mantra that they claim for themselves is ‘tolerate everything’.

Except, not quite everything. They want a secular society – separation, they will tell you, of church and state. Some of them can get quite verbose on the subject.

‘Blimey’, you might very well think, ‘these people have real drive and enthusiasm. This message of theirs must be worth hearing’.

Lewis has been a six-day society as far back as any of us remember. Sundays are quiet, the pace is slower. It is altogether more . . . well, Hebridean, on the Lord’s Day. Is it selfish of me to want the island that I love to go on being itself for as long as possible? I don’t want to watch it being exploited, stripped of its charm and character, and robbed of its Christian heritage.

I used to be mildly amused by the epithet, ‘last stronghold of the Gospel’, applied to our island. Now, however, it feels true. Or, at the very least, it feels like one stronghold. It is under attack, rattled, battered, miscalled and degraded.

Christianity has given Lewis a lot of its character. Only this week, I attended the evening worship in connection with the death of a neighbour. The Gaelic singing was beautiful, rising and falling gently like a breeze across the machair. Our cadences, our vocabulary, even our unique island humour, have all been enriched by this Christian heritage. It is ours; it is ours as surely as the Gaelic language is ours, as surely as the sharp pain of cianalas for home and loved ones is ours when we are parted from them.

If you are acquainted with our history as Leodhsaich and as Gaidheil, you will also be aware that this is not the first time people who know the price but never the value have tried to take away our identity. It has been done elsewhere too – in the United States it has been called, ‘taking the Indian out of the Indian’.

They tell us we’re backward, ignorant, narrow, bigoted, stuck in the past. It’s what they said to stop us speaking our language. Then they used it to beguile people onto emigrant ships. And now it’s being used to try to remove Christianity from public life.

But, you say, this cannot be mere iconoclasm. These secularists must have a mission, a message, something bold and beautiful to replace te Son of God.

Sure they do, it’s: coffee; swimming; films.

We don’t do enough of those here in Lewis. The Lord is selfishly taking up the space where more cappuccinos and 12-certificates could go. Those who quite like Him being around are reminded constantly that this is a symptom of their native ignorance. Only a stupid, knuckle-dragging maw still believes in Christ. What kind of daft yokel wastes their Sundays on Him when they could be drinking a frothy coffee in a noisy restaurant?

I have said before that the secularists are anti-Christian, and so they are. But I think that may be letting them off the hook a little too easily. Let us go on in the spirit of telling it like it is. We know they don’t approve of fairy tales, preferring unvarnished truth, like the mature, 21st century people they are.

So, here it is. The truth. Secularists, I’m talking to you.

You are not simply attacking the beliefs of many Christians when you glibly call us the many names you have used; you are attacking Christ. When you try to disrupt the Lewis Sunday, you are not merely inconveniencing a few folk in the Free Church; you are offending Christ. And when you talk of Scripture as fantasy and folktales, you are not simply laughing at those who live their lives by it; you are mocking Christ.

Please don’t think that I’m trying to frighten you, or that this is about control – forget what you think you know about Christians. I was once as you are now, and I might still be that way but, quite literally, for the grace of God. No one scared me into putting my faith in Christ; no one could. And no one is trying to do that to you.

We know Him and we love Him. And because of Him and His perfection (certainly nothing in us), we want you to know the same peace, the same joy.

The apostle Paul once persecuted Christians, but came to love his Lord and exhorted others to be ambassadors for Christ. We make a poor show of it frequently, I know, but as long as we are looking on Him, just ignore us, and follow our gaze.

Lewis is not the stronghold; the Free Church is not the stronghold: Jesus Christ is. Make your home in Him and you will always be free.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christianity and the Art of Motorcycle Accidents

Reading back over some of my blogs recently, I wanted to remind myself of what it is I’ve been rambling about. And then it occurred to me that I might be on the verge of creating a false impression. Mostly, when I write about faith, I talk about how it triumphs over adversity, how it has kept me, how it is sufficient for anything.

But I wouldn’t want to be accused of distorting the truth. Sometimes, my faith fails me.

The last time was right in the middle of the communion weekend. I had been to the Friday evening service, done a bit of shopping and was, finally, at half-past nine, making something to eat, having missed lunch and dinner. My home was quiet and my mood peaceful; but then the bad news came.

An accident, my nephew and his motorbike, hospital. In the few short minutes between hearing that the ambulance had picked him up out of the moor, and my sister calling to say that he was alright, I had imagined all sorts of things, but mostly that he was dead.

And, to my eternal shame, my first thought towards God was, ‘why have you done this to us now?’

The Devil can turn us into petulant children: why has God allowed this, haven’t we suffered enough? Surely He would not be so cruel, to inflict more loss on our family. In maybe three minutes, I had entertained despair, anguish, disbelief; that was all the time needed to make me forget who I am in Christ, and who I am to Christ.

Next day, discussing the accident with two people at my kitchen table – one a Christian, one not, as far as I know – we talked about God’s intervention in our lives. The lady, who is a Christian, agreed with me that His hand could be seen in the previous night’s events. Her husband shook his head at this and said that things will happen anyway, and we over-attribute them to God.

My defence was inadequate as ever. I am constantly aware of the words that were in my ear the evening I went to profess faith for the first time. The minister had preached from 1 Peter, ‘always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you’. And I am outstandingly useless at this. It troubles me how often I fail Him in this regard, even though I do try hard to find the right words.

But God did show me His hand in this. First of all, the news of the accident was broken to me by one of His people, which made all the difference. My sister, unusually, was not at home, but out with a friend when she heard, and so the friend drove her to hospital and stayed with her. Ordinarily, I would have been the person to do that, but I didn’t have to, which mattered to me because my last memories of that building are not good ones.

And, of course, Andy is alive and in one piece, apart from a broken and dislocated thumb.

During the not knowing, though, I thought of my nephew and, instead of the strapping twenty five year old who is 6’2″ tall (he doesn’t have the hobbit genes I inherited ), I was picturing the toddler whose hand I used to hold crossing the road. Your own mind can turn against you, which helps you turn against God. Is he dead, I wondered, or maimed; is he scared, is he alone? And all the while, thinking of the vulnerable wee boy, not the man.

Well, no, he was not alone. The people who caused the accident may have callously left him there, but the Lord put other people on the road that night – kind people who waited with him, reassured him and, crucially in Lewis in August,  tried to keep the midgies at bay until the paramedics came.

All of this tells me that, for every clever move the Devil makes, God is several steps ahead.

He protected my nephew, He  protected my sister; and He protected the rest of the family in that, by the time I called to tell them of the accident, we already knew that Andy was not badly injured.

And He certainly surrounded me. I suffered agonies for only a few minutes – He did not permit my anxiety for long. In all my human frailty, though, it was sufficient time to question God. That is certainly something for me to pray over and work upon. If Satan finds a way to drive a wedge so easily, I know he will use it at every opportunity .

Surely, if ever there was a case for the whole armour of God, my fragile heart is it. I am so thankful that my safety comes from the Lord and does not rely upon me.

And, despite my failure of nerve, I can still say, like Hudson Taylor, that though my faith may only be a little thing, it is in a great God. However I falter in my belief, His trustworthiness remains the same.

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.