Suffrage, Tippex, and the Feminist Free Kirk

As a noted local feminist, I was disappointed that my recent election to the Stornoway Trust failed to attract the expected plaudits from the sisterhood. They can’t have heard. It’s a pity, because I had hoped they would take heart, now we’ve seen that  women can be elected in Lewis after all. Should any of you see them, please mention it.

Maybe don’t mention my complications, though. I do stuff that they might think messes with my girl-power credentials. And I don’t just mean the fact that the last person to put screen wash in my car was the minister. Or that I have several men on speed-dial who tell me what to think about the complicated stuff (the Blue Book, the interconnector, the offside rule).

No, there’s that obedience thing as well: the Biblical authority, the Saviour ruling my life. The Free Church.

Somehow, the patriarchy that I am expected to rage against, they’re the same guys who put me on the Trust. According, that is, to a letter in the newspaper formerly known as the ‘Stornoway’ Gazette.

Do not adjust your screens – I am indeed talking about the same Free Kirk that’s been keeping women down for two centuries.

Elders took a few nights off from chaining swings and intimidating witnesses to go out bribing voters, and Tippexing any ballot papers that people had completed without their say-so. I am not exactly sure what their motive in getting a blone elected was, especially a daft airhead like myself who, apparently, needed the ‘big boys’ (whoever they may be) to explain wind turbines to her.

Actually, before the ballot, one of the patriarchy, who shall remain nameless, suggested that it would be a good thing if I were elected. I waited for him to say, ‘because it might get you off our case for a while’, or even, ‘you girls need a wee hobby to keep you out of mischief’. But no. He suggested that I might contribute something to the decision-making process (and not just fruit loaf either).

He meant it sincerely. Nor did he conclude by winking and adding, ‘Don’t you worry, we’ll make sure it happens, a ghràidh’. I think he’s probably more of a feminist than all the badge-wearing, card-carrying types who were casting around looking for an explanation for my election – and finally came up with the contemptible cop-out, ‘it was the church that rigged it’.

Feminism, however, for me, is the simple fact of women getting on with things, and rational folk of both genders accepting that they can.

I want to inhabit Biblical womanhood, because my first love and first loyalty belong to God. This is a colossal challenge, first and foremost because of my own nature. It is in me to think, ‘why shouldn’t I?’ And, although I’m not excusing myself, I feel bound to add that this instinct is probably exacerbated by being a woman on her own. Who deals with the frightening stuff – the spider in the bath, talking to mechanics – if not me?

So, then, it’s hard when you’re the sole breadwinner and householder, to still be the kind of woman God requires.

It is also a challenge because society tells you to assert yourself, not to allow others to trample over you, to know your rights. Society is about being confrontational: me before you; my wants over your needs; my opinion trumps yours.

The problem with society is it’s made up of people, and we are – all of us – fundamentally flawed, and broken in our own way. And we are shot-through with sin. So, what the world will tell you to be is very rarely in agreement with what God wants.

That, sisters, is where we have to rely on Him.

God has not said ‘subdue your femininity’ – He wants us to embrace it and inhabit it in all its fullness. That means not seeing myself in relation to men, not comparing myself to them in terms of what is permissible, but fitting myself to God’s template for my life. I don’t want to be anyone else, or do the things that other people do, of either gender.

My life is not what I planned. Mercifully. It’s easy to tug at your heartstrings and say I hadn’t planned to be a widow now. And, of course, that’s true. On the other hand, I had not planned to commit my life to Christ, to accept His free gift of salvation. Thankfully, you see, God had it all in hand. Submitting to Him is the wisest thing I ever did; and even that wasn’t me.

There are many examples, in His Word, of womanhood which I might try to follow. A friend recently mentioned  a sermon on Ruth, in which the question was posed, ‘where, in all of Moab, did Ruth come to know God’? And the only conclusion to which the preacher could come was this: it must surely have been through  Naomi’s dignity and faith in the midst of great grief.

This would certainly explain that famous and beautiful speech from Ruth to her mother in-law, and particularly, ‘your God shall be my God’.

Ruth must have seen a beauty in Him to desire, and that beauty was clearly revealed to her in Naomi’s steadfast devotion.

That, now,  is the sort of feminist I would like to be: loving God, and witnessing faithfully for Him, no matter where He leads, so that other women – and yes, even men – might see Him too, and be freed from ‘isms’ of every kind.

Mosque ✅ Church ❌

Finally, after many years, the Muslim community in Lewis is to get its own meeting place. Local Muslims have, I imagine, been meeting and worshiping in one another’s homes since first coming to Lewis. Now they will have somewhere set aside for that purpose, which is only as it should be.

The people who are outraged by that other Abrahamic religion – Christianity- are in agreement with me on this. They are delighted by the news that crowdfunding has come good. I don’t remember quite the same warm welcome for the news that the Stornoway High Free had identified a site for its new building, however, but I suppose that, in cases such as these, a long memory can be inconvenient. Besides, let’s be charitable: maybe this is not mere virtue-signalling on the part of local unbelievers.

As someone who is only just discovering the extent of her own naivety, and the depth of her gullibility about people, I say we give them the benefit of the doubt. It is possible that this cheerleading for Islam marks a turning-point in the secular antipathy towards faith. Perhaps there has been a collective realisation that religious faith is not a threat to freedom, nor does it represent some kind of power-grab after all. Indeed, maybe our unbelieving friends have had an epiphany of their own.

Or, the cynic in me shouts, perhaps they ARE virtue-signalling. Support for Islam is right-on; support for Wee Frees . . . well, that’s right-off.

Why, though?

Well, I’m going to take some responsibility here. I acknowledge that the Presbyterian churches in Lewis may not always have presented the best example to the world. We have had our fair share of factionalism, of division, of schism, of pettiness, of brother against brother warfare, which is surely the ugliest kind.

And, yes, in the past, some of our people may have acted in ways that were both unloving and unlovely towards the wider community. There are undoubtedly people who have been hurt by their relationship with a church: I see their bitterness bubbling to the surface in all the debates about Sunday opening.

Some profess to be haunted by the memory of a remote and distant figure threatening from the pulpit, shouting about hell and damnation. It haunts me, in my turn, to think that should be anyone’s last contact with God’s Word.

It calls to mind the text I saw once, displayed on the wall of a local church, ‘For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’.

Of course churches, and even individual Christians have a responsibility – a burden, even – to warn folk of the danger their souls are in. It is real, it is immediate, and it is so unwise to avert our minds from it. But there is no sense and no love in telling people of the danger, without bringing the solution before them also.

The verse immediately following that one used by the church, reads, ‘and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus ‘.

A Christian church, like the Wee Frees, is filled with sinners at varying stages of recovery. Some have just lately given their lives to Christ, some did so decades before – but not one of us is perfect. The difference between me and the man who was put off church years ago is that little word, ‘grace’. By God’s free gift, freely-given, I am taking the cure for sin. I know I will be sin-free one day, but not as long as I live in this world. Like an alcoholic, I am always recovering, never ‘recovered’. And, like any addict, I have to fight a daily battle with my problem, which is sin.

We do not think we are perfect; please dismiss that idea from your minds. In fact, a Christian is more painfully aware of their imperfection than anyone. Nor are we interested in power, or control. However the debates raging in our community appear to you, please believe me when I say that the root of all this is love.

I understand that, if your last experience of Christianity was unpleasant, you feel the church has nothing to say to you. But, consider this: the church is made up of flawed, recovering sinners like me. We are not sin-free, and we do not pretend we are. Anything I say or do, is filtered through my own human nature, which is horribly flawed and distorted by my sinfulness. You are right to mistrust my motives, which may be self-seeking, or intended to harm you. Of course, I would hope they are not, but I freely admit that sometimes badness gets the better of me, even without me realising.

But, if you needed a doctor, would you look at his patients and reject him simply because their recovery was slow? If he was your only hope, or your loved one’s only hope of a cure, would you dismiss his credentials because you witnessed the occasional relapse? Would you choose to let your nearest and dearest die because one of this physician’s clients had once let you down?

I have somehow managed to offend great swathes of our unbelieving community. They think I am a bitter fundamentalist, a Pharisee. And perhaps there are indeed Pharisaic moments in my life. No one knows better than me how I fail to live up to my Saviour every single day.

So many have read my blogs and been angered by them because of what they think I’m saying. Or because of what they think I represent. They think I represent a long line of men in black hats, whose mission is to chain up the swingparks and stop people from having fun.

Muslims have been unjustly portrayed as potential terrorists, always with one eye on imposing Shariah law wherever they can gain a majority. People view them askance, sidling away from them on the underground, and avoiding the seat next to them on planes.

Why can the unbelievers in Lewis see past that relentless propaganda, to view Muslims as real people? Someone explain to me how they are capable of reason in that much more negative and charged situation, yet they cannot – or will not – accept that their neighbour, Dòmhnall Murdo, the elder, probably isn’t out rigging elections and bribing politicians on a Wednesday evening.

How I wish they could let go of these stereotypes and stop hating. At a recent communion fellowship, a friend of mine suddenly said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if all those people who hate us could be here right now to share this?’

‘This’, was laughter, love, and real community. For that is what goes on behind our closed doors.

 

Whose providence have we inherited?

Working in the College, which is situated right in the grounds of Lews Castle, I have always been aware of the legacy left by Lord Leverhulme to this island. It has been on my mind rather more this week, however, as I continue in my quest to be elected onto the Stornoway Trust – the body which administers the estate he gifted to the community.

I wish I could say I’m surprised at how little people seem to know of the history associated with the Leverhulme era, but it is one of the greatest frustrations of my professional life. The Gaels are generally ignorant of their own past: that is why it has been possible for many of the wrongs of history to be replicated in the present day. Those who do not learn those lessons are doomed to repeat their mistakes.

That is not what shocked me at all, then, but the response to what I thought was a fairly innocuous comment, left by an outgoing Trustee on my campaign page. He was echoing my endorsement of another candidate, and made reference to the importance of having a ‘God-honouring Trust’.

Cue shrieks and howls of derision. But – honestly – what did people think Christians were going to want, if not that? After all, if an organisation is not honouring God, where does it stand in relation to Him? Our nihilistic friends would probably say ‘nowhere’, but that is a child’s answer; God does not leave us that option. We are, quite simply, with Him, or against Him. And that’s fine, that’s free will; you make your choice, and you take the consequences, as with anything else.

So, you are – as an individual, God-honouring, or God-denying. And, as an organisation, the same is true.

Honouring God, for the Christian, is the foundation and framework of their life. It is their first thought and their best hope. I am a poor example of this, but I do try. When I remember, I ask Him that anything I do would be to His glory and not mine; I ask Him to keep me humble. Clearly, I do a very bad job because there are those in our midst who accuse me of thinking I’m ‘the new Messiah’.

Like we need another one.

So, I don’t make a great job of humility. But I know this, and I work on it, and with His help, I will be kept where I belong. And even when I am making a mess of it, and thinking that anything I’m doing is of myself, in my soul I know it’s Him – it’s all Him.

Which is why I do not understand why this man’s comment caused such outrage, even amongst some Christians. There was one suggestion that it was ‘undemocratic’ to define the Trust this way because Leverhulme’s deed establishing the body which would have oversight of the estate, made no mention of honouring God.

I think, in a week of reading and hearing some pretty astounding points of view, that one knocked the wind out of me most – like a punch in the stomach. Are we, honestly, at this stage, when we need a legal document to permit us to honour God? Do we really think that democracy – a manmade system necessary to mitigate against our sinful tendencies to exploit and bully one another – sits in superiority over the Creator of all things?

In His own providence, I had heard a sermon on our relationship with human authority, just last Sunday evening. Christians have a dual citizenship – in Heaven, in the highest sense, but also in this world. We are required to submit to rightful authority, as long as it does not lead us to sin against God.

The best way of ensuring this is to elect godly people into authority. And the best way of ensuring that we do, is to be a prayerful people. Our voting, our decision-making, our every action must be clothed in prayer that God will guide us to honour Him.

All of this, I realise, reads for those who suspect me of having a Messiah complex, as being a plea for ‘the church’ to hang onto ‘power’. No matter what I say, or how I couch it, my words will be warped and twisted and I will be described as a hateful and bitter killjoy.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that every Christian wants God to be honoured in all that they do. Therefore, in standing for, or serving on the Trust, in doing your day job – whatever that might be – in bringing up your family, in speaking with your friends, in living your life, that is what must come first.

I am still naive enough to hope that people reading this will understand, therefore, that this is how Christians approach service. They wish to honour God first and foremost; and so they should. Far from meaning, however, that they will neglect their duties to the people they are supposed to serve, the opposite should be true. Enemies of Christianity shout, ‘keep them out of government; sweep them off every committee’.

And, as in so many other circumstances of unbelieving life, there is no thought to the long-term consequences of a world without God. People are free to create power structures without Him – but there is a question that remains unasked by many, perhaps because it is too frightening even to contemplate:

If we remove God from every corner of public life, what manner of thing will fill the void?

 

Forgetting the Sabbath Day

Last weekend, I had to confront the idea that perhaps my teaching ability is not, as the Americans say, ‘all that’, when we had a quiz about Moses in Sunday School. Asked which two foods the Israelites had enjoyed in the wilderness, one team confidently wrote, ‘pigeons and napalm’.

Ah, yes, the diet of champions.

However, they did exceptionally well on the Ten Commandments, both teams recalling nine correctly.

They each listed the same nine. And they each missed out the same one.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

We joked afterwards amongst ourselves that we must be terrible teachers if none of the children remembered the fundamental rule of our faith. You would think, we said, sitting in a Sunday School, discussing the commandments, that’s the one they WOULD remember.

But, then, reflecting upon it afterwards,
I thought that maybe the kids had demonstrated something very valuable. Christ has told us we must be as childlike as them in our faith and in this, as in so many other of His teachings, I have not paid enough heed.

After all, there in our classroom, talking about the things of God, praying and singing Psalms of praise, and enjoying one another’s company, were we not living the very essence of the missing commandment? Was it necessary to remember the words when we were doing what they asked?

It actually crystallised for me where we are at locally with ‘the Sunday issue’. I have come to despise the word, ‘Sabbatarian’, which is invariably used pejoratively. It is not we Christians who believe that keeping the Sabbath is the fundamental tenet of our faith, but those who wilfully misunderstand what we are all about.

In fact, what we are – or should be – all about is John 3:16. Christ is the centre of our faith. We should be showing people Him, His perfect love and, yes, His authority.

I was not a Sabbath-keeper until I loved Christ. Even now, I am an imperfect keeper of the Sabbath by any human standard. But I love Him unwaveringly. And though my neighbours might judge me as falling far short because of my outward conduct, that is not how He operates.

My involvement, through this blog, and on social media more generally, in speaking up for the traditional Hebridean Sunday, has caused no end of misunderstanding. There have been times when I do not recognise myself from the descriptions of others. Surely, as I remarked to friends this week, that’s Ian Paisley they’re talking about.

Or, perhaps I have fallen into the same communication trap as the late Reverend. Have I been substituting noise and repetition for clarity? When I should be telling folk of quail and manna, are they just getting pigeons and napalm?

I know that there is a prevailing view among some in the online community that I am a hardliner. Sssshhhh. If you listen very carefully, you can almost hear the Free Church fathers laughing.

Right now, because there’s an election going on, there are efforts being made to portray some candidates – myself among them – as single-issue Sabbatarians.

Not only am I not a single-issue Sabbatarian, I am not a Sabbatarian at all. Certainly not the way the secularist lobby means it. And I would be very surprised indeed if any of my fellow Christian candidates see themselves as such.

As I said in the previous blog, I observe Sunday as a day of worship and devotion because I love the Lord. Before that, I appreciated a quiet Sunday because I loved and respected my heritage as an islander.

Different working-out; same answer.

It is not the day itself which matters, but people. God made the Sabbath for man, not the converse. He did it intentionally, though – and God’s intention always comes back to the one thing: the benefit of our souls.

Our souls are in need of rest and refreshing. Without Him, we try to find ways of achieving this. I know, because I speak from experience. Reading. Walking. Films. Time with friends. Sleep. And then, always that Sunday evening realisation that another week of work is about to begin and there will be no rest for five days.

With Him, though, it is different. There is no need for me to achieve that rest and refreshing because I receive it from, and in, Him. Constantly, though – every day. It is a well that never runs dry.

I am grateful for that every day and never more so than this week. It has been a time of cumulative stresses – a very intense situation at work; the inevitable (and increasingly creative) online abuse; and in the background, the knowledge that, three years ago this coming Tuesday, I was sitting by my husband’s bedside, watching his life draw to a close.

But I am a very blessed woman. None of these burdens are mine to carry alone. Every pressure and pain brings Him closer and, if He doesn’t come Himself, He sends others. His peace springs up from within to water the driest days.

And His commandments are no longer written on tablets of stone, but the heart of flesh He has given me.

 

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.

Coming Out of the Wilderness

Among the many things we don’t do in the Free Church – joy, love, peace, freedom, feminism – apparently we are not much into marking Easter either. So I’m told.

We don’t festoon the church with fluffy chicks, or put bunny ears on the elders; and we don’t exit the church en masse to roll eggs down the staran after the Easter Sunday service. The Wee Frees, you would think, are the ideal denomination for an Easter bonnet competition but, well, they’d all look sort of the same, wouldn’t they – black and devoid of fol-de-rols?

Of course, we do mark Easter, in the sense that we have hung onto the heart of it. Next weekend, in Stornoway, we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper – it is a sacrament, dispensed for remembrance of His death, and so that those who believe in Him will meditate upon the benefits they have derived from His sacrifice and, based on that, reaffirm their commitment to Him and the debt they owe.

When, at the beginning of the Supper, the presiding minister utters the words, ‘On the night that He was betrayed . . .’ I shiver. Nowhere else, in no other context could these words be both an accusation of guilt and a proclamation of freedom to the same person. But because Christ died and rose again for us, for the unworthy, we feel both the guilt of His crucifixion, and the freedom in His resurrection.

In other faith traditions, the period of Lent – beginning on February 14th this year, and ending on March 29th – will be observed. My first encounter with it was in school when a classmate from Barra was eating blocks of jelly during our morning interval. I asked her why and she told me that she had given up sweets for Lent. Being teenagers, none of us had much idea of what self-sacrifice was, and the jelly was a good substitute for her, while she technically kept her Lenten vow.

But I’m more than twenty years older now and I still have the same problem with dying to self that my jelly-eating school friend did. As a Christian, I should be working harder to subdue the inner voice that shouts, ‘what about me?’

Recently, I have been subject to some criticism for my beliefs. My last blog touched something of a nerve and the unbelieving community in Lewis, alongside a few professing adherents, were outraged by what I said. Well, no, sorry, let me rephrase that. They were outraged by what I am; no one actually critiqued the writing, unless you consider words like ‘disgusting’ and ‘rude’ a critique (I don’t).

The slurs are mainly inaccurate, but I am not going to bore you with that here. One very kind Christian lady whom I have not yet met, messaged me to point out that people who resort to personal attack when they have never met you, are merely highlighting the fact that they are spiritually bereft. Comments on my personality, lack of Christlikeness (how true), lack of manners . . . well, they are meaningless when they come from strangers.

Some of the arrows hit home, however, as they will do. This is a vulnerable time of year for me. I don’t say that to garner sympathy, nor to claim that I am a victim – I am not and never have been that. But I do make myself suffer. For a little while, I dwelt on the fact that there was no Donnie to make it better; I wallowed in self-pity and the memories of three years ago, when our time was running out. When the going gets tough, I often retreat into that kind of self-harm, picking at the wound, and making everything seem much blacker.

This is Lent. And Donnie’s last weeks were Lent. It is representative of forty days spent by Christ in the wilderness, preparing for ministry and resisting the Devil.

I decided last Saturday that I was going to stop blogging. Or, at least, that I was going to stop commenting on the activities of unbelievers in my own immediate vicinity. When you are alone, and feeling sorry for yourself, you can easily believe the liars. They themselves are speaking, of course, for the great liar. He seems to be fond of hanging about the wilderness.

But I don’t choose to linger there with him; and I am not alone. If the Lord doesn’t come Himself, He sends His people with encouragement and prayer. And His own Word, so full of peace and strengthening – Psalm 31, Isaiah 43 . . . and my own mantra, if a Wee Free can be allowed such a thing: ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid’?

Lent for many who observe it is a pilgrimage. It should bring us, finally, to the very foot of the cross. My journey, three years ago, brought me to rest there, in Him.

On Sunday night, I was powerfully reminded of that once more. Tempted though I had been to find a solution in myself to this latest problem, the preaching reminded me that challenging situations should not be met by doing, but by being.

Your identity, once found in Christ, remains there. He keeps you safe in His hand. Gradually, He takes you, leaning upon Himself, up out of the wilderness. If I am tempted again by the Devil to take refuge in the past, to dwell on my loss and my human frailty; or if I am slandered and inclined to be affronted, I should remember what follows Lent.

At the foot of the cross, and again at the empty tomb, we remember who He is, and who He has made us. No person, no words, no circumstance can ever undo the finished work of Christ.

 

Building Bridges to Nowhere, Sheltering Trolls.

Not far from my home in Tolsta is the famous ‘bridge to nowhere’, an incongruous monument to Lord Leverhulme’s progressive plans to develop this island. The improbably elegant bridge sits between moor and machair, never having performed the function for which it was originally intended – linking two communities divided by miles of untamed wilderness.

Leverhulme thought that his ideas for Lewis were going to bring prosperity and ease of life for a people who had just come through the Great War and suffered the unimaginable tragedy of the ‘Iolaire’, only to be forgotten by the government which had promised homes fit for heroes. The new landlord was filled with philantrophic design, planning to give these hard-pressed people a shiny, modern island.

But they didn’t want his ideas. They didn’t agree with his vision of progress. All they wanted was what they were used to – crofting and the traditional life with which they had grown up. Eventually, Leverhulme understood that he was beaten and retired from the scene with good grace.

Scroll back a few centuries, to 1598, when King James VI high-handedly granted ownership of Lewis by Crown Charter to a group of gentlemen from Fife. The plan was that they would colonise and thereby civilize the island, and the islanders. They would bring in the culture of the outside world and the local barbarians would be forced to conform.

The local barbarians were not in favour of this plan. They razed the new settlement to the ground and forced the interlopers out. King James was outraged and denounced the people of Lewis as ignorant and barbaric.

Well, perhaps they were, but they knew that no one should be able to tell them what to do with their birthright. Centuries of doing things their own way, including the glory days of Tighearnas nan Eilean, the mediaeval Lordship of the Isles, had left them with no appetite to see their cultural heritage further dismantled by the Scottish king or anyone else so wholly ignorant of the Gaelic world and its ways.

Leverhulme gave up when he knew he was beaten; the Fife Adventurers had to be driven away, but both have something in common. They approached Lewis with a mind to ‘improve’ it, giving no thought to whether their idea of progress concurred with that of the people.

Cultural imperialism, they call it. When the representatives of the dominant culture tell those of the minority one that their views do not count, that they are imagining threat where it does not exist, that their interpretation of their own identity is mistaken . . . what else are we to call it?

And yes, I am talking about what is happening in Lewis right now. It needs saying again and again, because I just don’t think it has been taken seriously enough.

Some people in our community believe this is just a wee spat on the internet – the likes of me stupidly debating with trolling secularists who don’t even live in Lewis. There is a creeping, insidious – and let’s call a spade exactly what it is – lying narrative being used by people who call themselves ‘ secularists’ but are actually just negative and bitter enemies of Christ.

They tell us Lewis is centuries behind everywhere else, that we have been duped by a power-hungry church and, like the sheep we are, have followed blindly wherever the ministers have wanted to take us.

It offends me beyond words that anyone thinks that this is acceptable, or that it should go unchallenged.

Christianity does not consist of staying silent when God is maligned by ignorant people; it consists of offering them the truth, that they might have the same chance of being corrected that we were blessed to get. Oh, they will call you names for it. They will say that you too are ignorant, narrow-minded – closed-minded, even. Your intelligence and your integrity will be called into question.

One of them almost silenced me recently by calling me ‘publicly pious’. It would be a deliciously apt way for an unbeliever to shut my mouth, wouldn’t it? By making me believe that my witness is nothing more than Pharisaic.

My silence is what would make me a Pharisee, however. If I opted to remain quiet now, I would be caring more for what my reputation is before men; and I wouldn’t half seem like the ideal meek, quiet Christian – the kind the unbelievers want.

They would love us to be quiet and stand aside; they want us to be ashamed of who we are. Most ludicrous of all, they will have you to believe that they are reasonable, seeking ‘compromise’. You know, that thing where I want the door closed, you want it ajar, so we compromise and have it half-open.

I am not justifying myself to them. They have their opinion of me, which is neither here nor there. But I do have some concern for what other Christians make of everything that is going on. And them I do owe some kind of explanation as to why so much of my writing lately has been on this theme.

This is not a war of words only. Nor is it just happening online – it is having negative and divisive consequences for this community. Our Saviour and His church are being maligned. We, His followers, expect abuse for His sake. But that does not mean we allow lies about who we are in Him to go unchallenged, in case those lies should become a stumbling-block to any as yet outside.

The secularist manifesto in Lewis suggests that they are about unity and progress, while the church is about power and control of the 19th century kind. All I am saying is beware, because theirs is exactly the kind of bridge that leads to nowhere.

And, if I’m not mistaken, it shelters the very worst kind of troll.

Wee Free Frankenstein

This time last year, I was a sinner saved by grace, marvelling at the year of blessings I’d enjoyed since coming out for Christ. Today, I am writing my one hundredth blog, almost a year on from where it all began – aptly enough, at the Stornoway communion.

When I met the man who would somehow become my blogging mentor, I was minding my own business, enjoying tea and fellowship and – more than likely – one of the house special pancakes. We discussed other subjects, I think, before we got round to talk of blogging.
‘You should think consider getting your thoughts down in a blog of your own’, he said, casually and unwittingly creating a monster every bit as uncontrollable as the one cobbled together by Dr Frankenstein. I am one of those dim-witted and suggestible Wee Free women you’ve heard tell of and so, I duly trotted off home to dream of blogging.

Only when the communion weekend was over could I even begin to think of beginning. I didn’t want to do anything controversial which might bring the wrath of the Session down on my head, so I wrote an article about the Free Church and the fairies.

I had long been thinking it was high time we aired the positive influence of churches like the Wee Frees (other denominations are available) on our community. The church had not, historically, engaged in debate about its demeanour or influence, maintaining a dignified silence despite heavy and frequently unwarranted criticism.

Someone else less dignified was going to have to speak up for it. And I owed that much.

You see, this time last February, I was able to look back on almost two years without my husband, and see where the church had been his substitute. I was able to appreciate the anchorage it had provided, the purpose, the kindness. Its loving arms had held me up through those hard, hard months. Yes, it was a challenge to be there sometimes, but it was more of a challenge not to be.

And so the blog really began as a labour of love. Love for my community, for my heritage, for my church and, most of all, for my Lord.

I don’t think I appreciated just how much those loves would upset other people. You see, even although I have no power except the one vote that we all get on gaining the requisite age, my opinions seem revoltingly offensive to some. All I have is this blog, through which I continue to voice my loves. It offends me when people say of Lewis that there is no distinctive culture. Somehow, I feel like Scarlett O’ Hara slapping her petulant sister, and saying, ‘don’t say you hate Tara – it’s the same as hating ma and pa’.

It saddens me that in this supposedly enlightened age, I have to explain that loving my heritage – Gaelic, crofting, Free Church – does not make me a bigot. I do not despise people who are different; but I do question why my difference, the distinctiveness of Lewis has to be a problem to solve, not an attribute to celebrate.

I am sad that a narrative has crept in which is entirely critical of this island. It’s backward, it’s repressed, it’s secretive, it’s got a dark side. Well, maybe I’m just the delusional closed mind some say I am, but that is not my Lewis.

My Lewis is warm and welcoming. It is that particular brand of island humour which manages to be sharp and gentle all at once. Lewis people are polite, never ones to push themselves forward or demand a hearing. And they are unfailingly kind. This is an island of hands clasped in friendship, of ‘placing’ one another, of being interested. When you die in Lewis, there will always be someone to attend your funeral.

We respect the dead, but crucially, we don’t wait until then – we respect the living too.

Blogging has been a revelation, then. Like a poultice, it seems to have drawn an awful lot of poison to the surface. It is no surprise in one respect: Christians are prepared to be hated, after all, for the sake of who they follow. But He does not send us out into the field unprepared, or unarmed. Their slings and arrows may graze, but the wounds they leave, like their arguments, are always superficial.

Far and away the greatest revelation, though, has not been the hatred – the anonymous messages, the disrespectful language, the bullying; it has been the fullness of God’s love that I have experienced through writing the blog.

He has brought me into contact with so many of His people through it. These people have encircled me with prayer and upheld me in all manner of trouble – even, I suspect, though they sometimes didn’t know it. Messages of support will come when I am on the point of giving in; a portion of Scripture shared when my grief is too heavy a burden; links to music that will uplift my heart when it is struggling to find joy.

I learned something so important last year, which I know I have alluded to before. Why wouldn’t I – it was life-changing; I will share it every chance I get. And I must apologise to the troll who accused me recently of getting all my thinking from the pulpit, but this DID emanate from just that source.

In all of our trials, we are not to be worried how we will maintain our faith in God; we are to see them as a means to experience more of His love for us.

I have experienced His love so abundantly that one hundred blogs more would not do it justice. He has never left my side, and I will not leave His. Where His name is trodden on and where His church and His people, who are also my people, are spat at, I will also go to be spat at.

Love me, despise me, ignore me – I am not going away.

 

Fighting Fire With Love

After the morning service last Sunday, I drove past An Lanntair, where a small group of journalists had gathered. The arts centre is opening for three Sundays in the first quarter of the year, in an attempt to establish demand for the particular brand of entertainment it provides. This is newsworthy, I imagine, because people from outwith Lewis lap up news stories about how weird the island is, and how anachronistic. We get the same thing with Gaelic too; we’re used to it.

Sadly, there are local people who all too happily play up to the stereotypes, however, telling the media what they want to hear. They talk broadly of oppression and bullying by the church, of ministers apoplectic with rage because they are losing their death-grip on the local populace. One person even tried to tell me that the opening of leisure facilities on a Sunday would alleviate social exclusion.

Bear in mind that one of the main causes of social exclusion in Scotland is poverty. And bear in mind, also, that a film ticket for An Lanntair costs £7.

But, flawed logic notwithstanding, Sunday was an epiphany for me. I found myself driving home that afternoon, reflecting on the plight of young people in a community which offers them scant opportunities. Leisure facilities are few and far between, and access to these often prohibitively expensive. Political corruption further restricts their chances of personal development and fulfilment. And the church does not want to loosen its hold on them.

The Eastern Orthodox church, that is.

You see, I didn’t go straight home from church but, instead, listened to a presentation from two young Christians to our Sunday School kids, about their trip to Moldova last year. They spoke of a country which is difficult to live in, a society which hardens people because they have to put self-protection ahead of anything else. The teenagers they met at the church camp, funded by donations from Lewis, were getting a week out of a sometimes challenging home life.

The speaker laughed as he recalled seeing the campers arriving. He expected primary school age children, but instead was shocked to see tall, strapping lads with beards disembark from the bus. Later, one of them threw him bodily into the swimming pool, just because he could.

In my head, I knew how the rest of this talk would go. The leaders would tell how they were intimidated by these rough teenagers, but ultimately the week went fine and they themselves returned to Lewis with a renewed sense of thankfulness for having so much, not least a safe place to live and be themselves.
I was wrong.

‘By the end of it we felt quite envious’, the speaker continued. Despite the many challenges in their lives – the poverty, the political corruption, the brutality of society – they were accomplished musicians and sportspeople, each one seemingly full of aptitude in everything they tried. And the people were generous with the little they had. Our speaker mentioned visiting old ladies in the local church congregation and he paid them the highest compliment that anyone can:
‘It was like visiting a cailleach from Lewis, we were plied with so much food’.

Triumphing over adversity; being generous with what little they have; welcoming the stranger. For those of us who are conversant with the Gospel, this is familiar territory, at least in theory. How wonderful to have it illustrated in these teenagers and their wider community; and how wonderful to hear about the tough young man, the ‘trouble’ of the group and the change which was wrought in him through closer acquaintance with Jesus.

These tough exteriors, they are cultivated by the harshness of this world – layer upon layer of resistance builds up over time so that no one can get in.

No one, that is, except the Saviour.

We are all too easily fooled by a façade, but He never is. I see only your outward demeanour, the face you choose to present; and if you try to act tough, or unconcerned about something, I will accept that is who you are.

Jesus, though, He doesn’t even see your exterior. His relationship is directly with your heart. If you are lonely, or afraid; if you are hurt, or angry, He knows.

The folk who went to Moldova were shown something startling while they were there: a fire engine which had once served Stornoway. Emergency services in Lewis and elsewhere in the Gàidhealtachd donated equipment. Works of necessity and mercy, you see, go on wherever we are in the world. Hearts in one place go out to those in another, far away.

There actually is no far away in Christ, though. If we are in Him, then we are brothers and sisters. We do for one another, not because we are good, but because He is. We love because He first loved us.

That love gives the youngsters in Moldova a chance. It is not that their lives are hard, or that they live in dire poverty; though those things are certainly true. The camp is not merely a lovely week of just being young, free from responsibilities and cares, though it is all of that also.

It is actually a chance to see the Saviour’s work in the love of strangers from Scotland. These volunteers go to Moldova, not because they believe in children’s rights to leisure, but because they believe in the children’s need of the Saviour.

They believe because they have seen it in themselves. Charity like this truly means love; how good would it be if that kind of charity really could begin at home.

 

The Night and the Sacrifice

The sinister side of Stornoway Free Church was revealed to me last Sunday when I was taken aside and threatened by our Assistant Minister. ‘Do NOT record this’, he hissed. Oh my goodness, I thought, all the conspiracy theories were right – he actually suspects me of wearing a wire. But then his meaning dawned on me. Having been called in to take the service at short notice, he didn’t want the sermon recorded as he’d already preached it elsewhere.

His general demeanour was so menacing, however, that I sat with my arms folded throughout the service just so that he could clearly see that I wasn’t even touching the audio equipment. Still, I did manage to take on board some of what he was saying.

It was about Abraham going up to Mount Moriah to sacrifice his son, Isaac, because God had commanded him to do so. The message of this lovely, familiar incident is one of extraordinary faith, of course. Christians aspire to be like Abraham, prepared to give up that which he loves because his God desires it. Imagine, you find yourself thinking, that level of obedience.

Imagine, the minister said, the night before that sacrifice.

We can probably all do that. I have certainly had those nights. Oh, not sacrifice, no – but long, sleepless hours, dreading what the morning will bring. What will the scan show? Has the oncologist got bad news for us? How will I get through my husband’s funeral service?

It’s difficult for me not to let my mind dwell on what I’ve lost, at this time of year more than any other. From January through to March, when Donnie died, I relive the gradual loss of hope, the coming to terms, the apparent end of everything

Perhaps Abraham also felt that way on what he thought would be his final journey with Isaac, that longed-for son of his old age. But he kept putting one foot in front of the other. It was a faith journey, in the truest sense.

Mine was different. I took every step in resistance to what God was gently telling us. If my stubbornness could have kept my husband alive, he’d be here now.

The long, dark nights before, though, they pass, and even they must give way to morning.

How dreadful that dawn must have seemed to Abraham. Despite never having to do what he did, it is not impossible to empathise with him. My faith has not made such demands on me, probably because I do not possess the faith of Abraham. Yet, I can enter into his suffering in a small way, because I can recall the terrible fear that comes in knowing death is close by.

But what about the journey home, and the night after? It is hard to imagine that Abraham’s bed was much easier. His heart must have been overflowing with love for God who had stayed his hand at the eleventh hour and restored Isaac to him. He must have been filled with wonder at the meaning of his test on the mountain. And he was surely reassured at the willingness his son, Isaac, displayed to be the sacrifice that God required.

I don’t think that the joy and the thankfulness were just because Isaac was alive, though. That is not the world-fixated way that faith works. Christian joy is not tied to such variables as life or death.

Donnie died, but I can understand Abraham’s night after better even than his night before.

He did not require a sacrifice from Abraham but, then, He did not require one of me either. God’s great kindness to me was in taking, rather than asking me to give – because unlike faithful Abraham, I would have sinned my soul and refused. And if that route had been open to me, what a world of blessing I would have denied us both.

The night before is all about dread. But the night after, you see His hand, His nail-marked hand guiding you from the place of sacrifice to the place of peace and of love. You rest in Him, and then you see the journey differently because He is with you in it, always.

And in the light of being loved by Him, you forget there ever was a night before.