Secure Tenure in a Better Country

There is a line in the Runrig song, ‘Flower of the West’, which says that ‘the breathing of the vanished lies in acres round my feet’. For me, that articulates something that I feel very much here in my own community – the almost palpable sense of history everywhere. I know people who claim no interest in the past, who dismiss it as irrelevant. We are here, now, they will say, what’s the point in looking back?

Well, the point in looking back is to see how we got here. I am firmly with William Faulkner on this, when he said, ‘The past is not dead. The past is not even past’. How could it ever be, in a place like this?

That’s why I think it is a tragedy that Gaels do not learn their own history. For many years, the only formal access to it was through the Higher Gàidhlig course where, if you studied the poetry of the 18th and 19th centuries, you would also be taught about the Jacobite cause, the clearances, the famine, emigration and the Land War. And that knowledge is so empowering. When you know about these things, you can see where your community, your family, and you as an individual fit into the bigger picture.

That is where I derive my identity from.  I am a Gaelic-speaking hybrid of Maclean and Macdonald. My father’s people were cleared from Mangersta and settled at Doune: that’s Doune Carloway of the Iron Age broch. And my mother’s folk were from Harris on her paternal side: na Fìdhlearan, hereditary foresters to the Campbells of Scalpay, in the deer forest of Amhuinnuidhe, before relocating to Ardhasaig, via Taransay.

Today, I work in the very college from which I graduated in 1997. Our pretty campus is situated in the grounds of Lews Castle, built by Sir James Matheson in 1851 and gifted by Lord Leverhulme to the people in 1923, when the Stornoway Trust Estate was created – the first community-owned estate in Scotland.

I sit on the board that manages the Lancashire soap magnate’s legacy. Despite all the talk, the iconoclasm, and the liberal sprinkling of meaningless words like ‘progressive’ throughout public rhetoric, I see at least part of my role there as being to maintain the dignity of such an historic organisation. Stornoway Trust has always had a sense of its own historicity, and that’s why I feel an affinity with it: knowing your roots will always strengthen your sense of identity.

Of course, there are other aspects of my identity too. On a Sunday, I worship at the Free Church on Kenneth Street  – itself a relic of that great chapter in our history, when ministers and congregations walked out of the Church of Scotland to form a denomination free from the power of patronage, and outside interference.

Its establishment precipitated other radical acts. Described as ‘the crofting community at prayer’, it is believed that the community cohesion and leadership provided by the early Free Church, contributed to the events that followed, culminating in the Napier Commission and the Crofting Act of 1886, which finally granted security of tenure. Beyond that there were – here in Lewis – the raids which saw crofters clashing with landlord and government in their thirst for land on which to subsist.

I grew up in the relatively new village of Newmarket, where there is a mixture of crofts and of allotments, rented from the Trust. Our home was built on one of the latter, but my father still ran the croft at Doune, shearing and dipping sheep within the tobhta of his old home.

Land, you see, runs through it all. The soil under our feet, and the landscape before our eyes, seem to form the boundaries of our being. We ache for places we have left, and love those in which we make our homes. It is a universal experience, but always rooted in a familiar landscape – one whose form and history is meaningful to us.

And yet, however strong my sense of self is, however anchored here in Lewis, and however much the past whispers to me as I move through the landscape of my life . . . this is not really home. Yet, this is not the contradiction that you might think, because – like many other refugees – I have a dual history and a dual identity.

As much as the Fìdhlearan of Ardhasaig are my people, I would claim kinship also with the Israelites. Their yearning for the land of promise speaks to me in my own geographical and historical context. Because I know who I am as an islander, I can recognise in myself that desire for true belonging.

The most famous articulation of this, unsurprisingly, comes from Paul in 2 Corinthians 5: 8, when he says that he would prefer to depart this world to be with Christ. In a letter he left for us, his family, before his death, my father expressed his love for us all in just those terms. Though he said that another lifetime with us would be wonderful, he was prepared to go and be with his Saviour, which – he wrote – was far better.

Is that not an extraordinary witness? When we are blessed to have family and friends for whom we care deeply; when we are intimately tied in to the landscape and history of a particular place; when our identity here on earth is made of something older and finer than ourselves . . . what a testimony, then, to be able to say that there is something more awaiting us beyond those limits.

I believe that the privilege of heritage and history is there to teach us about this greater gift. God placed each of us within a particular lineage, a particular culture, so that we might identify with that international movement of refugees towards our ultimate home.

Knowing who my people are, and where I came from does not tie me faster to this world, as you might expect; it heightens my expectation of what God has prepared in eternity that is richer even, than the security I enjoy now. There, the father who once walked with me over the acres at Doune, was happy to go; there the husband who loved the vista of Traigh Mhòr was happy to go.

One day, I too will finish my journey, and find true security of tenure.

 

 

 

 

 

Blood Brothers are Watching You

Coming towards the Free Church Seminary on a Sunday morning recently, I fell into step with the minister. He opted to walk through the vehicular access gate, which is broad, while I used the narrower, pedestrian gate. We don’t deal in symbolism in this neck of the eaglais, however, so I’ll just leave that there.

I was going to the Gaelic service, something I’ve been doing, off and on, all my life. For that reason and more, it holds many pleasant associations for me. It was certainly in that building the Gospel first touched my needy heart, and it was there, in the packed Session room at the back, I first professed faith.

Just this week, I was discussing with one of the elders what an ordeal it can be, contemplating an appearance before such a large assembly. ‘I don’t think you were there the night I went forward’, I said, which he contradicted. Hours later, I recalled our conversation, and thought, ‘yes, of course he was there – right in my line of sight, smiling and nodding encouragement’. How on earth could I have forgotten that? Because, I think, my mind was in such turmoil before, during and after.

Needlessly, I might add. Because there is one other nugget which has remained in my mind from that evening. It was the minister, telling me how I belonged to the fellowship of God’s people, and how these men were now my brothers.

Of course, I already had brothers – two, to be exact – and a sister. So, I know what family is. It is, and always has been, an enormous blessing to me; a place of safety and support. But, in the interests of absolute honesty, I must add that we have the capacity to get on one another’s nerves, to have misunderstandings, and differences of opinion.

We could attribute our awkwardness to that unfortunate cocktail of Doune/Achmore/Ardhasaig/Newmarket genes. But the main reason for it is that we’re human, with all the selfishness, sin and ego that entails.

And so are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Because, although we are in Christ, we are also still sinners; works in progress.

There is a tendency to criticise unfortunate conduct in the church – ‘Christians squabbling/holding grudges/cheating/lying’. But take that word, ‘Christians’ away, and substitute ‘people’. Everything that is levelled at Christians is also true of the world.

The principal differences are that Christians should be more troubled by their own bad behaviour, and work to remedy it; and Christians are aware that they are being sanctified – it is, though, a process, and not an event.

This is largely a word  to myself, because I have struggled to hang onto these truths lately. In the midst of feeling a bit hard done by, I failed to subdue self, and I failed to judge myself quite as harshly as others. Or, rather, I wasn’t as magnanimous to them as I would be to me. And, as ever, I nursed my hurt to keep it warm.

But, just like my literal family, my spiritual brothers helped me get back a sense of proportion.

One or two of them dispensed sage advice, and more than a little laughter. They encouraged me to loosen my grip on grievance. And then, another provided me with a really humbling moment in a totally unexpected way. It was a song he shared, sung from the point of view of someone worried they had sinned once too often and that this would be the one where God turned His back.

I was cleaning the window as I listened, and the thought made me stop in my tracks. Imagine if I was in God’s place, with that power over people, and refusing to forgive. The idea made me shudder, picturing myself asking such a cold and unrelenting Lord for forgiveness myself. In that moment, knowing what my own heart is like, and how much I’ve been forgiven already, I did indeed start to relent.

God wasn’t quite finished, though. There was the other brother – the one perceptive enough to recognise that I needed support. No fuss, no fanfare, just what I have always had from him: quiet, steady and strong back-up. I know that I can turn to him when, as he puts it, ‘things get really rough’. And things will. The Christian life seems to be about riding out one storm, only to find yourself launched headlong into another. You might be sparring with secularists one minute, and slighted by Christians the next.

No matter: God has made provision for us against those days. He has given us a spiritual family. We will misunderstand one another, we will squabble, and irritate our brothers and sisters because we are human.

When the chips are down, though, as I have found, the family comes together. That the Church family is not perfect should surprise ourselves least of all – we can expect no such thing in this world. What does that actually matter, though, over against the eternity of blessedness awaiting all the children of the King?

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.

Ready for the light

Sometimes in this world, I think we receive tiny glimpses into heaven. Just like the briefest ray of sun might touch you and warm you on an otherwise gloomy day, these are precious moments which can keep us going through many difficulties.

Today, I heard news that confuses me, because I hardly know how to feel about it. One of the loveliest ladies I have ever met died last night. She has gone to be with her Lord, she is free of pain and worry, free of missing her husband, free even of old age. For all those reasons, I rejoice on her behalf. Her burden has been laid down and she can rest in the arms of her Saviour.

But heaven’s gain is most decidedly our loss. We are only human, and we will miss her from our midst. Her family who loved her so much and cared for her so well have now to find their way from here onwards without her wisdom, her kindness and her strength. The particular beauty of this situation, however, is that she herself equipped them very well to deal with the temporary separation that must be theirs.

She had helped all her children come to know her Saviour as their own and to know Him better still at times through her own lovely witness. Lately, knowing that her time with them was growing short, she could rest on the knowledge that the same Comforter who had been with her would also be with her loved ones.

Much as they cared for her, they are in infinitely better hands. He has entered into their grief and, better still, He knows its purpose. It is the ultimate comfort for every Christian at times like these. I can testify to His steadfastness myself, and it never wavers or dims.

The last time I spoke to Rachel, the lady in question, was a week ago. I had a feeling, as I drove home, that I would not see her again in this world. She always seemed to me to be a little too good for it anyway. Not, I must add, in any kind of lofty, impossibly pious way. Let’s not forget that the lady was from Ness and way too authentic to be a plaster saint. It was just impossible – even for me – to be a bad person in her company, or to believe that there was much badness in anyone else.

She was a very wise and seasoned Christian, and I regret not talking more with her. I could have learned such a lot. But we shared many lovely moments and even the last time I saw her, we had such a laugh over . . . well, that will have to remain a secret for now.

Near the start of her battle with cancer, I spent a couple of hours in her company, though. It was an enriching experience just to be with her. She did not wallow in self-pity, nor speak much about the illness at all. It was typical of her that her main concern was for everyone else, and that she maintained an interest in others right up until the end. I have never known anyone to be so much in love with people. But that was because she walked so closely with her Lord.

We have been aware for some time that this moment of parting was swiftly approaching.  Visitors came to, and went from, her home just as they always have, but there was something extra, something different this time.

On the Sunday night before the Stornoway communion, I was privileged to share a time of worship with her and a small group of others in her home. She looked serenely beautiful as she bravely pointed out the verses of psalm that she wished us to sing. And the singing was . . . well, out of this world. There were only six of us in that room, but the sound produced was immense in every sense. It seemed as though we were accompanying her down to the water’s edge, and were afforded a glimpse of what awaits in that haven we all desire to see.

Ever since I heard that she had taken her leave of us for now, I have been thinking of these words, penned by Calum and Rory MacDonald:

Long ago she knew someone who told her
All the things she’d done in life
Now she’s waiting in the morning fields
Ready for the light

We grieve, not as those who have no hope, but as those who have watched a loved one go on home without us. As natural human beings, we miss them from our lives; as believers, our grief is more like cianalas for that better country that awaits us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adoption, supper and the empty chairs

Although my mother repeatedly told me that I had been left on their door-step by some passing tinkers, I always knew I was a MacLean by birth. There is my more than passing resemblance to the said lady, and that hereditary seam of cynicism, sarcasm and general badness which has come down through many generations (on both sides, alas). But, when I made my profession of faith for the first time, I developed a new awareness of what the word, ‘adoption’ truly means.

On the dread night of ‘going forward’, the minister said to me that I was now part of the family of God. Then, he corrected himself, ‘in fact, you were before now’. You are, of course, adopted when you give your heart to the One who created it anew within you, not when you tell everyone else. But I feel he was, in some ways, right the first time.

I think something important happens when you make your love for Christ known to other believers.

The first time I went to the Lord’s table, I was accompanied by another woman’s husband. Despite the fact that he is a deacon in our church, he was not actually some Kirk Session-issued escort, there to keep me in check; he was a friend, making sure that I did not have to take this momentous step alone. While I waited for him at the church door on Sunday morning, knots of people – twos and threes – I didn’t even know, approached to say how pleased they were. A lovely group of ladies asked if I wanted to come in with them.

The previous day, after the service where communion tokens are given out, I was met outside church by hugs, kisses and handshakes. There was real, open joy on the faces of these men and women.

We know that there is much rejoicing in Heaven over one sinner who repents. Here on Earth, though, there is also much gladness among God’s children when another joins their ranks. It is like a second layer of adoption. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not suggesting that there is any deficiency in spiritual adoption. However, for myself, I feel that the Lord has heaped extra blessing upon me by placing me into such a wonderful spiritual family.

This family – like any other – can only truly be understood from the inside. What the world may see as odd, eccentric, or downright bizarre, makes perfect sense to us. It creates bonds which are completely pure, between people of the opposite sex; between people of different ages and backgrounds. In meeting together, there is real affection, and genuine enjoyment in one another’s company.

We may greet one another with the holy kiss mentioned by Paul in four of his letters, or we may opt for a hug, a handshake, or a smile. These things signify our delight in each other. The original holy kiss is reckoned to have been especially valued by believers who had been cast out by their people as a consequence of following Christ; it represented belonging to the family of believers.

I have experienced the warmth of that acceptance. One precious relationship in this life ended for me, but He replaced it with many more.

All of this enhances, but does not supplant, what God has done in adopting us to Himself. We love Him, but also each other, because He first loved us. He is the great Father, who adopts us and who in making us ‘joint heirs’ ensures that we have the comfort of fellowship with one another, in addition to the indescribable gift that He has already bestowed upon us.

When I sit at His table, it is because I need Him: His grace, His mercy, His love. I remember His sacrifice in the person of my Saviour. And when I look at my brothers and sisters in Christ, I give thanks for them too.

We are His family. There is joy, love, laughter. And there are tears sometimes too. We may weep a little because we miss those who have left the earthly table and gone on ahead.
But the sorest weeping of all is reserved for those who will not sit with us. We want them here, but they prefer not to come. It isn’t about numbers, or filling empty seats. It’s just that, when we are fed, we want those we love to share it with us. And when He feeds you, those you love are not just those you know.

That is the spirit of adoption brought to life in us all. If you are reading this and you don’t understand ‘Bible-bashers’ or ‘God-botherers’, that is the closest I can get to explaining it.

He brought me in out of the cold and He feeds me; but my adoption is not diminished by multitudes more receiving the same gift. In fact, the joy and benefit is multiplied to His glory with every one who pulls up a chair, sits, and remembers that God so loved the world.

 

So Good I Thought It Was Dead

The thing about Ness is its unpredictability. It is the sort of place where Dr Who’s Tardis could very well choose to land. After all, no other district of Lewis manages to tread that line between loyalty to the past and faith in the future with quite so much aplomb. If I had to sum it up in one word, it would be, ‘authentic’. On the other hand, if I had no such restriction imposed upon me, I’d also add ‘crazy’ and ‘unpredictable ‘, but would be forced, on balance, to include ‘fabulous’ and ‘inspiring’ too.

Last Wednesday, I visited. Or, I should say, revisited. It was there I had my first proper, grown-up job as development manager for Iomairt Nis, a community-run company. For four years, I worked in the wee office behind the stage at Ness Hall.

When we held our millennial Gaelic-Gaeilge link event, Ceilidh san Iar-Thuath, my office served as a dressing room for Danu, a young Irish band.

Another day, a man breezed in and introduced himself to me as, ‘Wylie. I’m a photographer’. I gaped stupidly at him. ‘N-not Gus . . . Wylie?’ I stammered and, when he answered in the affirmative, I responded with, ‘you’re so good I thought you were dead’.

You never really knew what was going to happen from one day to the next in Ness. Inevitably, it was there I got my first taste of infamy.

When I agreed to rent the community hall to the newly-formed Free Church (Continuing), I naively failed to foresee any hassle. I don’t think I’ve ever been called ‘silly’ by quite so many different people in such a short space of time. Even the media wanted to know why I had done something so ‘controversial’.

If it was now, I would probably agonise, consult, pray . . . but I was young and could only see in black and white. I had the management of an underused and decrepit community facility; here was a community group in need of a temporary home. To me, there was no need for fuss. Nor was there any call for me to side against a group of people who simply wished to gather and worship God in much the same way that I was used to doing myself.

It turns out that I was right, though my method of dealing with the situation might have been less than sensitive. Eventually, the dust settled. Those who spoke against such use of the hall probably also regretted doing so. We are human, we all do things in the heat of the moment which we might wish undone a second later. The thing to remember is that our feelings, our opinions and our egos are not all that important in the grand scheme of eternity, or even in the small scheme of community.

True community is resilient, like family. There may be disagreements, hurts and rivalries but ultimately, when the chips are down, everyone clings together. Ness was like that.

And it’s still the same.

In the Comunn Eachdraidh cafe, people breeze in and out. Gaelic is spoken, patronymics are used. Casual conversations take place, and are often about who such and such a person’s family is, or what someone did for a living in Swainbost in 1922. They are comfortable and easily confident in their identity as Nisich because they know and value their roots.

Annie MacSween, who founded Comunn Eachdraidh Nis – the first of its kind – in 1977, is once again its chairperson. I wanted to use the adjective, ‘irrepressible’ in front of her name, but everyone who knows her will mentally insert it anyway, so I needn’t trouble. She told me that their meetings are still conducted in Gaelic. This is not an organisation which commemorates or even reenacts something which is gone, but one which is naturally and easily protecting something very much alive.

The wee dispute of 2000 did not break the palpable sense of community that one gets in Ness. It was, like all family rifts, weathered and then absorbed into the mythology of the place.

In the few hours I spent in Comunn Eachdraidh Nis last week, I spoke to blog readers from Dowanvale – fellow Christians, indeed fellow Wee Frees whom I had never met. Annie received a phone call while I was there from another gentleman I have also got to know through the blog, though we have not yet met either. We spoke, and I agreed to get involved with a pilgrimage he is organising. To Ness, obviously.

I emerged from my day in Ness, blinking in the light of reality, like Lucy tumbling out of the wardrobe from Narnia.

This is a district for which the past is not a foreign country at all, but part of the here and now. Those who died in the wars are not commemorated as names on a stone tablet, but remembered as vital links in the patronymic chain.

And Ness’ secular and Christian heritage co-exist unselfconsciously. For me, this is Lewis at its best: unadulterated by alien notions about identity and inclusivity. There, being a Christian and a Gaelic-speaker did not make me feel odd; it reminded me that I belong to something with roots and longevity.

Community is so good I thought it was dead. Ness proved me wrong.

 

 

 

If You’re Happy & You Know It . . .

There was a time in this island when, if more than three cars were parked at your house simultaneously, reports of your demise would soon follow.

Get two Leodhasaich together, leave them for long enough, and they will eventually start talking about death. One Leodhasach by himself is probably contemplating his own mortality. And a big crowd of Leodhasaich? Well, that’s most likely a wake – why else would a lot of maudlin Teuchters gather in the one place? A couple of hundred years ago they might have been suspected of plotting to put a Stuart back on the throne, but all that kind of fight was knocked out of them along with the Catholicism. No, if Leodhasaich are gathering, it’s probably just to look on the black side as a group.

But why do Christians, and especially those bearing the Calvinist stamp, have such a reputation for misery? I was speaking to a gentleman recently who recalled seeing the order book of a well-known Stornoway draper from some years ago. It consisted of hundreds of pairs of ladies’ shoes, stockings, hats and coats – all black. No style was specified for any of these items. The only requirement was that they should be of the soberest hue so that church-going women could be decently clad on a Sunday.

And it got me thinking: what do we look like from the outside now? I mean, we Wee Free women no longer go out in Presbyterian uniform, so it is not so easy to spot us in a crowd. Yet, though we are dressed in the outward garb of the world, more than ever we are a peculiar people.

Theologically speaking, of course, it is right that Christians should be in the world, but not of it. We must, therefore, expect a certain amount of estrangement from others. But we also want to be faithful witnesses for Christ, and it’s incredibly hard to communicate with people if all they see are barriers between us.

So what form do these stumbling blocks take? What is it in the church that puts people off? And I’m not asking why the world appears to hate Christians – we know that it ever was and will be thus. No, I’m trying to piece together what it is in our conduct that hands the world another excuse to ridicule the cause of Christ.

Well, there’s the misery. Don’t get me wrong, I think we’ve moved on from the stereotypical Calvinist who was only ever happy when he was suffering. And we’re reticent Leodhasaich, so it might be too much to suggest that our hands should be in the air during worship, or that we should pepper our service with hallelujahs. There is nothing – in my opinion – wrong with the form, or substance of our worship.

It’s more, perhaps, our demeanour. If you are a Christian, you are freed from the burden of sin and the tyranny of death. Really, if that isn’t a reason for the deepest joy, what is?

We’re telling the world that we have been given the greatest gift and that if they follow Christ, they will know true peace and freedom as we do. And the world is responding, ‘Aye? Tell your faces’.

Then there’s the ‘s’ word: schism. We have had some silly spats over the years. There is no point in averting our eyes from it, or airbrushing it out of our story. I think it’s high time we explained ourselves to the onlookers, so that they can’t excuse themselves with it, saying, ‘why would we want any part of it – you’re no better than the rest of us’.

And that’s the truth. Christians are not better than anyone else, nor should we think of ourselves that way. The church is not, as a far wiser person than me put it, a museum of saints, but rather, a hospital for sinners. We are exactly like everybody else, but for one important detail: we know what our biggest problem is, and we’ve taken the cure. It doesn’t make us anywhere near perfect, but it should help us see when we go wrong, and wish to make amends.

Unjustifiable splits in the family of the church are the result of fallible human beings thinking that their point of view is sacred and unassailable. We are all guilty in this regard. There is no value and no dignity in apportioning blame. In reflecting on such incidents we need to pray for forgiveness, humility and hearts that would focus upon Christ.

At a time when the church seems encircled by enemies, Christians need to fix their eyes on the Lord. If we are reaching out to the unchurched, we do have to make sure that there is nothing off-putting in our conduct; we surely don’t want to be guilty of giving them any more excuses. It means doing what we are asked, but what I for one find so challenging – dying a little more to self each day.

We are His portion and His witnesses in and to the world – let’s try acting like it so the world realises what it’s been missing.

‘No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us’. 1 John 4:12

Hats, hymns and the Holy Spirit

I got a bit of a shock last Sunday night. After the evening service, I met my mother. No, that’s not the shock – I’ve known her all my life. But something was different . . . It took a few minutes before I realised: she wasn’t wearing a hat! My first thought was, ‘I knew it – she’s gone back to the Church of Scotland.’ Subtly, I glanced to see if she was carrying a hymn book, and then it occurred to me that I didn’t know what one looked like anyway. Besides, surely I’d have heard if my own mother had absconded back from whence she came.

Actually, she had just got fed-up of hats and decided, at seventy-eight, that it was time to join the aotrom* throng of bare-headed Free Church women. She really does believe in doing things in her own time, and for that . . . well, I take my hat off to her.

The hat-wearing ladies have long since become a symbol of more so-called ‘hardline’ Presbyterian churches. Somehow, people got the idea that the hat symbolised male dominance and female subjugation. As if the Session appointed a committee to discuss such things. ‘What was in style ten years ago?’, the chairman might ask. After consulting a long out of date JD Williams catalogue, one of the elders would say, ‘pillboxes, with a small veil’. Two hours later, an edict would be issued to the local shops – ‘Stock only pillbox hats (with or without veils) and sell these to our women. No gaudy colours – they’re vain enough as it is.’

The hats are fewer and further between with each passing year. You will see more people (of both genders) wearing jeans to church, and fewer men are opting for the suit and tie look.

Last Sunday morning, the preacher mentioned that thousands of others had once occupied the pews in which we, the congregation, were sitting. In the more than 150 years since the church was built, successive generations have indeed sat under the Word there. Fashions changed many times over that period, and so many ministers have mounted the steps to preach in that very pulpit. Even the language of worship has changed. And the light-fitting, the Habitat-esque monstrosity which replaced – I am reliably informed – two perfectly charming pulpit lamps, was also a reflection of the (lack of) taste and mode of the time.

Were it possible for some of these Victorian worshippers to return to Kenneth Street now, they would undoubtedly be struck by some of the outward changes. They might be confused about standing to sing and sitting to pray, or the purpose of the camera, to say nothing of references to soup and pudding, Tweenies and newsletters. And I am certain that they would wonder why the whole affair was being lit by something resembling an oil drum.

But then, the reading from the Word would reassure them that all is still well with their old church. The preaching is as Bible-centred as it ever was, and the congregation hears the truth, however unpalatable that sometimes can be to us. There may not be much in the way of pulpit-thumping or histrionics from the minister, but the message remains the same. One and a half centuries on, the building still resounds with the Good News. People in varying states of grace are awakened, comforted, challenged and fed, depending on their spiritual need.

What you see may be quite different, but what you hear is the same: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.

And what you don’t hear, or see? That would be the Spirit, abroad in our midst, opening ears and eyes, and changing hearts. He was there in the nineteenth century, and He is there in the twenty-first. The church he occupies isn’t, though, the lovely edifice on Kenneth Street but, as 1 Corinthians 3:16 puts it:
‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s spirit dwells in you?’

With heads covered, or without, in jeans, or suits, or Sunday best frocks, it doesn’t matter a bit. The world sees and laughs either way. The Holy Spirit is as out of style as the pillbox hat, but His work goes on regardless. And the world rejects the Holy Spirit because they cannot see Him. To them, it is all reminiscent of the Emperor whose new clothes were not merely invisible, but nonexistent.

Christians, nonetheless, are to clothe themselves in the Spirit. That garment supersedes trends or fads, and resists the restless human desire for novelty and innovation. Whichever church you go to which claims Christ as its head, this will be the dress code: come as you are, and He will do the rest.

 

Notes

* lit. Light, insubstantial – used colloquially to denote spiritual superficiality. 

 

Keep the Faith for Sunday Best (Part 2)

This is the second part of a guest post by Andy Murray of Ragged Theology. Challenging and thought-provoking stuff as ever.

Men like Thomas Guthrie and William Wilberforce inspired a movement rooted firmly in Micah 6 v 8.  They called the church and nation to love justice, show mercy and walk humbly with the God of the Bible.  They wrote, they spoke, they preached, they persuaded and they campaigned for change to the way the poor were treated.  The work went on long after they were dead.  Their work changed whole communities, changed laws and changed the direction of our nation.  When Guthrie died in 1873 not only was education about to be offered to all, but thanks to Christian social reformers children were finally being offered protection and care instead of exploitation.  Men like Guthrie and Wilberforce were hated and opposed because they challenged the powerful vested interests in the alcohol and slave industries respectively.  But through all the challenges, they had an unquenchable hope in the redeeming gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.  A hope that the most visionary and noble secularist cannot offer.  This is why secularism soon turns to pessimism.  As Blaikie says:

thomasguthrie2

Secularism may try to keep up its spirits, it may imagine a happy future, it may revel in a dream of a golden age.  But as it builds its castle in the air, its neighbour, Pessimism, will make short and rude work of the flimsy edifice.  Say what you will, and do what you may, says Pessimism, the ship is drifting inevitably on the rocks.  Your dream that one day selfishness will be overcome, are the phantoms of a misguided imagination; your notion that abundance of light is all that is needed to cure the evils of society, is like the fancy of keeping back the Atlantic with a mop.  If you really understood the problem, you would see that the moral disorder of the world is infinitely too deep for any human remedy to remove it; and, since we know of no other, there is nothing for us but to flounder on from one blunder to another, and from one crime to another, till mankind works out its own extinction; or, happy catastrophe! The globe on which we dwell is shattered by collision with some other planet, or drawn into the furnace of the sin.

It is the Christian gospel that has been the great agent of change in human history.  Has the church at times been corrupt?  Absolutely.  Has it at times disregarded the poor and even abused them.  Unfortunately, it has.  But what has been the fruit of the revival of true Christianity?  It has always been love, particularly for the poor.  The spirit of self-seeking is supplanted by the spirit of service and love.  Vice is replaced by virtue.  When men love God in sincerity, they will love their neighbour, particularly the poor and the outcast.  The church at its best lives by that early ‘mission statement’ in James 1 v 27 ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.’  As Thomas Guthrie said about the kind of Christianity that brings transformation to communities;

We want a religion that, not dressed for Sundays and walking on stilts, descends into common and everyday life; is friendly, not selfish; courteous, not boorish; generous, not miserly; sanctified, not sour; that loves justice more than gain; and fears God more than man; to quote another’s words – “a religion that keeps husbands from being spiteful, or wives fretful; that keeps mothers patient, and children pleasant; that bears heavily not only on the ‘exceeding sinfulness of sin,’ but on the exceeding rascality of lying and stealing; that banishes small measures from counters, sand from sugar, and water from milk-cans – the faith, in short, whose root is in Christ, and whose fruit is works.

 

Your Father’s Side & The Family Name

It is hard to believe that we Hebrideans have any Viking DNA. I imagine that if a young Lewisman had ever said to his parents that he was off on a summer adventure to sack and loot, to raid and pillage, their reaction would almost certainly have been, ‘ach dè bhios daoine ag ràdh?’ What will people say? Surely marauding on this scale would reflect badly on them and therefore would have to be nipped in the bud.

‘What will people say?’ used to be the refrain of parents and grandparents in the island. Nowadays, people think of this attitude as narrow-minded, judgemental and stifling, but I think it helps to reflect a little on how it developed in the first place.

Your village was your world. The neighbours were as familiar to you as those who occupied the same home and shared the same surname as you. Besides, you didn’t go by your surname – you went by a patronymic, a chain of names stretching back into the distant past, connecting you to people you had never known. Perhaps you had some of their characteristics without knowing it. If you did, some cailleach in the neighbourhood would notice. ‘Iain Dhòmhnaill Sheumais used to walk like that’, or if she was feeling acerbic, ‘It’s a shame you took after your father’s side. Your mother’s people were good-looking.’

People knew one another inside-out, which meant knowing their history. Not just their personal history, either, but being able to place them in the context of their lineage. Forget Burke’s Peerage, your average cailleach had an encyclopaedic knowledge of her own people and those of her neighbours. It meant that they could see where your good points and your bad had emanated from. And so, your personal conduct would be added to that. The responsibility not to tarnish a good family name rested equally with each member, and each successive generation. Any deviant behaviour was likely to be dismissed as ‘rud a bh’ anns na daoine’ – a weakness in your people.

Now, of course, we don’t have villages; we have ‘communities’. Some are more community-minded than others and it’s not always the ones you think. I live in a rural village where there is quite a lot of Gaelic spoken and some crofting still taking place. You will even see the odd peat-stack. Nonetheless, when I was widowed, my immediate next-door neighbours visited, but no one else.

Had I lived fifty years ago, I would have been Banntrach Dhòmhnaill Chaluim and the neighbours might have rallied round; nowadays, I don’t have that comfort, or that status. I am not on their radar. People probably don’t even talk about me, no matter what outrageous – hypothetical – thing I do. It doesn’t matter to them because I am a stranger. Community in that sense has gone and many of us now seek that feeling of belonging and identity elsewhere.

For me, it has come from my church. I have been blessed with a close and supportive family, and my church family has been likewise.

My church family has at least as many quirks as my actual relatives. There are those who make you laugh, who laugh at you, who are always ready to help, who always want you to help, those who encourage and those who gently put you in your place. It has its father figures and mother hens, its bossy big sisters and cheeky wee brothers. This family has get-togethers and minor disagreements, outings and heart to hearts.

And this family knows its own heritage. When we are together, no one has to ask, ‘who do you belong to?’ We have the same father. He knows us all more completely than we know ourselves; and yet He loves us nonetheless. Each of us carries the unfortunate burden passed down from our first parents, and each of us has added some particular sins of our own. It is in our DNA to rebel.

Keeping together, though, returning often to our Father’s house, I think, is the only way we can refrain from bringing shame on the family. Reputation is very important when you are responsible for more than just your own. In God’s family, we need to reflect on our conduct more frequently, and ask the question again: ‘what will people say’? We have to fight against ‘rud a bh’ anns na daoine’.

Surely this is one setting where the ultimate goal is for everyone to see that we take after our Father, and that the family have care of each other. I hope that’s what people will say.