Secularists in the last stronghold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lantern Beams & the Hebridean Cringe

‘Our distinctiveness lies in being ‘of the place’, rooted in who we are’. Does anyone want to guess who I’m quoting? The Free Church? Harris Tweed Hebrides? Comunn Eachdraidh Nis?

No, it’s ‘An Lanntair’ in Stornoway, the arts centre which serves the community hereabouts.

Even although I’m a Calvinist and, therefore, have to avert my eyes from anything remotely resembling an artistic representation, I am an occasional patron of the said Lanntair. I have watched films, seen plays, listened to talks, and drunk coffee there. Being a bit of a weirdo, I enjoyed their Faclan book festival a few years back, on the theme of the supernatural. Respectfully, I refrained from commenting on the fact that in amongst all the second sight and ghost stories, they had crowbarred Alistair Darling’s book-launch into the program too. Bernera connections and those eyebrows probably do qualify him for a space in the netherworld, after all.

So, because I have been a frequenter of the arts centre, I believe I’m allowed to comment on their latest foray into distinctiveness.

They have already this year devoted an entire calendar month to a celebration of LGBT culture (whatever that is). Apparently it’s important to celebrate diversity, and many of our resident secularists rushed to virtue-signal their support for the Lanntair, and their intention to attend at least one film, while also very carefully declaring their own heterosexuality, just in case. The same people also nearly got stuck in the door marked ‘Yes please’ when the plans for a small Islamic meeting place for Stornoway were unveiled.

They are for diversity. This doesn’t just mean simple respect – which I hope that all decent human beings are capable of – but actually celebrating difference. From what I can work out by observing their behaviour, it means that they are in favour of the LGBT community, and the Muslim community having a voice, and are swift to set down anyone who takes an opposing stance. Especially Christians.

And now, they are delighted that An Lanntair – which is ‘of the place’, remember – is going to trial Sunday film screenings. It is tediously posited by the usual suspects as the long-awaited provision of ‘something for families’.

When did family life consist of spending as much time as possible out of the home, and surrounded by other people? I remember Sundays which involved walks, reading, board games, talking to my parents . . . does that not happen any more? Am I being obtuse? If children are in school all week, and shepherded around various organised activities all weekend, where does the much talked-about ‘quality time’ come in?

This is all very well. People of a HASP+ (that’s Humanist , Atheist, Secular, Pagan and whatever else) tendency will say that they’re quite delighted. It is time that diversity had its moment in the Lewis sun. Anything that’s a bit new, a bit different is absolutely welcome. Everyone is just tired of those Christians, trying to spoil everything with their hackneyed old beliefs and their inconvenient lifestyle.

Do you know what this is? It’s a great, big, ugly extension of the Hebridean cringe.

Novelty wins every time over heritage. Tradition is an embarrassing affront to innovation. People are plastering the label ‘Hebridean’ on everything, while all the time disdaining what makes us distinctive.

When did this happen to the island? Why are we delighted to show tourists sites like Callanish, or Eaglais na h-Aoidh, or St Clement’s, but not the living, functioning reality of Christian worship? What makes us so proud of our Celtic music, but not our Celtic church?

What kind of revisionism is taking place when Lewis can be portrayed as some sort of microcosm of any of our larger cities, and no one bats an eyelid?

Well, I’m batting one now. This island in which I live, has far more cultural distinctiveness than to need to emulate London, or Glasgow. It is physically shaped by geology and by climatic forces, and by hundreds of years of crofting life. My ancestors scraped a living from the soil, and from the sea around our shores; they trooped off to war and some even trooped back again. They spoke Gaelic, and they worked their land in line with the seasons.

And on Sunday, they both rested and worshipped God.

Keeping Sunday as a day of rest is good for the body and for the mind. I’m not even going to mention the soul, because that’s a given. Our European neighbours know this to be true, and they’re not trying to scrap it in order to desperately ape what they do elsewhere.

That would be culturally insecure behaviour – and no one does that quite the way we do in Lewis. We’ve been embarrassed by our language, our accent, our faith, and now our very way of life.

I am of the place, and I am rooted in who I am. Gaelic-speaker, Calvinist member of the Free Church, reader of my people’s history. And I am not ashamed of any of these.

If An Lanntair wanted to live up to its name, to its mission statement and to the notion of art being a bit subversive, it could shine a light on what it is about Lewis culture that is so very precious.

‘Lantern’ actually, refers only to the outer casing, which encircles and protects the source of light.

It plays no part in trying to snuff it out.

 

A Silent Voice And The Stronghold Of My Life

Three months after my husband died, I was mildly surprised to find myself sitting under a tree in the grounds of the Cabarfeidh Hotel, meditating upon Psalm 27. It was an unexpectedly special moment in the midst of what was an awful time.

I hadn’t just randomly decided to do this – whatever else I may be, I am still a strait-laced Wee Free. It was an activity in the program of events at a Christian conference for women. And I think those thirty minutes of peaceful contemplation did more for me than the rest of the day put together.

It was against my better judgment I was there at all. Closed in with Christ, but not yet ‘out’ as a Christian, I had been persuaded into it by a lovely friend who has done more for me than she can ever know. She has been to me what her namesake was to Mary: a trusted and comforting presence in a time of change and new life.

When I arrived at the hotel in the morning, feeling like a fraud, the first people I saw were nurses from the hospital. I wanted to turn and run. It had not been long enough. The wound still felt raw and I was vulnerable.

But then, there was psalm 27, and silence.

It was already my special text. God is the stronghold of my life, He is my light and my salvation. How often I had prayed those words, knowing in the midst of my grief that this much was true.

And then, it was as if He had reached down and placed a comforting hand upon my shoulder. Here was my psalm; our psalm. In the midst of all these women, here I was with my Father.

Silence. I needed it and had not realised. The long battle with cancer does not make room for this kind of silence. There are so many words you do not want to hear. And when there are no words, there is no peace – just anxious waiting and that knot of foreboding. And then, after death, a different kind of silence. It is an absence of something in your home and in your heart. For years, I had lived for Donnie. And for months, I had willed Donnie just to live.

In the last week of his life, I spent every night on a recliner by his bedside. I wanted to hear his breathing and I wanted to be there if it should stop. Nothing could make me go down the corridor to the room that was ready for me. My mind recoiled from the idea of leaving him, and even more from the thought of being sent for.

That last silence came gently. He was just no longer there. It was many things, but it was – most of all – an end to his pain, and if not exactly the beginning of mine, a step-change in it.

Sometimes, I feel my widowhood most in the evening when I wish he was here to read and pray with me. I don’t want to be the head, and the whole household too. In my darker moments, I have ceased praying because I am fed-up of my own voice.

But He is the stronghold of my life and, somehow, even when I’m by myself, I am not alone.

There is silence, though not because I feel that God has gone away. In fact, I am aware of His presence constantly in my home. If He is silent, it is because He is waiting for me, or because He is drawing breath, about to speak. And I have learned to let Him.

It is always in my expectant quietness that He has spoken. And when He speaks, He speaks peace. Hearing His voice only deepens my desire not to utter a word, but just to listen. This, I always feel, is real prayer: His heart speaking directly into mine.

That is one of the reasons that I do not, as a Wee Free woman, feel deprived that I cannot pray aloud at public worship. What can I ever say with my lips that my heart cannot tell Him more honestly?

Last year, the Free Church held a national day of prayer. It remains a special memory for two reasons.

The day began for us in Stornoway with an early prayer meeting. For me, to share my morning devotions with others was beyond beautiful. There is something about the morning and prayer, anyway, but this was so lovely.

Our evening meeting closed with five minutes of communal prayer. I don’t know how many of us there were, but to have every heart joined in that way was moving and powerful. And it was silent.

I have come to the realisation that God does not need to hear our voices, or the words we try to say. We, on the other hand, should learn to simply be quiet sometimes, and let Him speak to us.

Only in the stillness can we hear Him.

Silence for the believer is not mere absence of noise; it is the presence of God.

 

Don’t Be Backward At Going Forward

There is very little about Stornoway Free Church which could accurately be described as mysterious . Unless you count the way that the preacher seems to suddenly materialise in the Seminary pulpit, that is. Or the perfect roundness of the pancakes produced by the lady of the manse ‘without a mould’.

It is a definite case of what you see is what you get. Any passer-by who cared to peep round the front door would see at a glance what the building is all about. It is self-evidently not a library, or a nightclub, or a doctor’s waiting-room, but a place of worship.

It isn’t secret, it isn’t an impenetrable fortress – it is a solid, no-nonsense Victorian pile, and anyone who wants to can stroll through its front door.

But, as I may have mentioned before, it does have its wee codes. We need not revisit the inelegant language used to describe regular church attendance, nor the ambiguous way that one’s first appearance at the prayer meeting is described. We have a committee of politically-correct elders (yes, they’ve been on a course and now we don’t have ‘bachelor buttons’, we have ‘happily unattached genderless clothing fasteners’) and they’re working on creating new, acceptable terminology.

Meantime, though, what about ‘going forward’?

Susan Parman, an anthropologist who visited Shawbost in the 1970s, described the orduighean as ‘a dominant symbol’ in our communities. And so, I think they are – but one that is terribly misunderstood, and still shrouded in mystery.

People outside of the church think that going forward is for those who have attained an impossibly high standard of conduct in their lives. I believe that they have the impression that only when a Christian is ‘finished’ can they consider such a move.

But here’s how it really is. Or how it really was for me. I was NEVER going to do it. Believe it or not, I’m pretty shy, and the thought of going to that room filled me with horror. Wall-to-wall men in suits catechising me to the point where I probably wouldn’t even remember how many persons are in the godhead, never mind what man’s chief end is.

Besides, once I realised that I was relying on Christ and had been for quite some time, I didn’t think it was necessarily anyone else’s business. My relationship with Him had been secret for so long, I saw no reason why it shouldn’t go on that way forever.

And so it did, for a while. Just myself and Himself, no need for anyone else. But then there were people in my life who were in various kinds of need – illness, bereavement . . . I remember writing a sympathy card and really wanting to encourage the recipient as I had been encouraged. I wanted to tell people I was praying for them. Seeing real emotional pain, I wanted to be able to say, ‘There’s a way through, there’s someone who understands, who will always be with you, even when He goes ahead of you.’ But I couldn’t do that, because no one knew that I loved Him.

The comfort I had found in God was becoming a burden. Following Christ, after all, wasn’t about making me feel warm and fuzzy. And He bore with me for a time, gently allowing the truth to dawn.

There was a sermon which spoke irresistibly to me. I walked out of church that night having tried with limited success to push the tears back into my eyes: it isn’t enough to be healed, you have to tell who has healed you. And I was determined to tell.

Satan had other plans. He always does, of course, and will often use the most unexpected means to execute them. I went to the meeting where our congregation would sign the call for our new minister. Communicant and non-communicant members of the congregation were seated separately. As I looked around at the other adherents (which always makes me think of ‘there’s Klingons on the starboard bow’), I realised something. Older, better, far godlier people than me had not gone forward. Who did I think I was? Five minutes after coming back to this church, was I going to leapfrog these good people, and barge my way into the Session room, declaring my perfection?

No, indeed, I agreed with Satan: that would be arrogance of the most unforgivable kind.

I still went to the opening meeting of the communion. I felt a little flat and distracted. And then, the minister spoke the familiar words of 1 Peter 3:15 – ‘but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you’. There it was again: Christ, my hope.

It isn’t about being ‘good’, it’s about knowing that you are not good, and that the only place you can go for that kind of healing is Christ. He takes us as we are and ultimately makes us as He is. If only perfect people went forward, the cobwebs would have grown across that Session room door long ago.

Going there, you are not claiming anything for yourself except the free gift of salvation. And the people who meet you there are kind beyond words because of two things: they know what it is to come in fear and trembling; and they are pleased to hear another’s love for Jesus.

This public profession, this nailing your colours to the cross, is all you can do for Him, and it’s all He asks. But if you love the Lord, and want to follow Him, that’s all there is. You don’t have to be a great speaker. I’m normally reasonably articulate, but I believe my tongue actually stuck fast to the roof of my mouth that evening. It didn’t matter. He was with me there too.

Besides, you aren’t required to make a great speech, just to trust in the one that He made on your behalf a long time ago:

‘It is finished’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Corncrake, the Medium and the Message

I have a lot of sympathy for the corncrake. For years and years, it was just there, rasping its way through hot summer nights. If I was sleepless, I harboured mildly hostile thoughts towards it which were always forgotten by morning, but otherwise, it was just part of the soundscape of my youth.

And, now, the corncrake is endangered, and needs to be protected. Changes were proposed which would make it feel more welcome in the Outer Hebrides. Bewildered crofters agreed, although it required little or no actual alteration to their traditional practices anyway. Now the corncrake is scrutinised, discussed, counted.

Like the Gael, in a way. I don’t remember having any real concept of myself as part of a Gaelic-speaking family, or a Gaelic-speaking community growing up. We just were. But, like the corncrake, unbeknownst to some of us anyway, we were in serious danger of extinction.

The reason, in both cases, is more or less the same: our habitats had altered and become hostile. A language is not, in and of itself, a terribly precious thing. It only makes sense within a particular set of circumstances, and this is especially true of a minority language. Gaelic worked when there was a Gaelic community to speak it.

This is where the conservationists got it right and the linguists got it wrong: preserve the habitat so that the way of life and everything else falls into place.

The schools, at one time, were bent on homogenising the Gael: making him an English-speaker and a useful member of society. They desired, in short, to destroy his habitat. In church, however, it was the message that counted. They were communicating the Good News in a language that the people could fully understand: their own.

Church was simply reflecting the community in the language that it employed because, ultimately, the medium used is a matter of little importance, as long as the message is faithfully delivered and clearly received.

That community has now changed. Fewer and fewer people are opting to worship in Gaelic; consequently, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to do so.

Even more worryingly, though, fewer and fewer people are worshiping at all. Christ’s name is not revered in our midst as it once was, and that makes me much sadder than any decline in the language through which I first heard His name.

If Christians too are an endangered species, then, perhaps we could learn from what was done for the corncrake.

The needs of that bird centre around two essential elements: it requires a safe resting-place, and something to screen it from harm.

Not unlike the Christian.

Our resting-place is in Christ, and it is Christ who will also cover us when there is danger abroad. That is how it has always been.

The corncrake likes a managed habitat, where it can safely nest, but where there is also tall vegetation in which it can hide. Those have always been its conditions. When crofting declined – and with it the traditional management of grassland – the corncrake began to retreat also. When the habitat was restored, however, the corncrake began to return.

Success in the world of conservation is frequently governed by statistics, and the world equally loves to crow over the declining percentages of church attendance. What they don’t seem to understand is that it was never about numbers.

It has always been about the glory of God. The church I go to has not lost sight of that fact. At every assembly there, the Lord is front and centre. I have heard preaching in Gaelic and English, I have participated in praise and prayer in Gaelic and English, but His glory is in it all, shining through.

Like the church of the Disruption and beyond, which faithfully spoke to the people in a tongue they would understand, ours must also adapt the habitat somewhat to the species it hopes to attract. Then, it was, Gaelic-speaking crofters and their families; now it is the digital generation of (mostly) English-speaking but frequently Biblically unaware people.

This might mean that our habitat will include more than just our lovely 19th century church; it may mean that Stornoway Free Church – amongst others – has to expand into cyberspace, out into the digital highways and byways, where the people are. What must change was never that important in the first place; what stays the same is Christ because He is foundational to it all.

After all, let’s not forget that where the people are, that great predator, Satan, also will be prowling.

Surely, then, it falls to us to tell them of a safe habitat, one where there is cover more secure than they can imagine, and a resting-place so safe they can never be plucked from it. And we must tell them of its complete suitability for their needs.

What does it matter what our habitat has or lacks, what it encompasses or excludes, as long as it has at its very heart the covering shelter of Christ in all His glory?

 

 

 

Wee Free Fantasy (Here be no dragons)

It must be a drag, heading to the prayer meeting on a sunny evening. Imagine having your everyday life restricted by a list of don’ts as long as Psalm 119; a list that has as its heading, ‘don’t have fun’. And what about bookending your day with readings from the Bible, and conversations with an imaginary friend? What kind of fool submits to all that, and crowns it off by sacrificing their Sunday in order to sit on hard seats, listening to dry, dusty sermons from dry, dusty men?

At least, that’s what I used to think. Church was good in bursts, but then, for the least reason, I would excuse myself from going. A long lie was often more beguiling than the Gospel. Whenever I thought that perhaps I belonged with the people of God, another thought would follow on its heels, ‘live your life first’. And when I would see them going midweek to sit in church, on a lovely July evening, I would breathe relief that I was out in the fresh air, and free.

I’m glad that I can remember these thoughts, because it may help me understand church-avoiders a little better. You see, during these periods of church-going, I had no problem with what I was hearing, indeed I was frequently very much affected by it. The repeated, central message of salvation made complete sense to me.

But, sooner or later, the world would lure me back – I’d miss a service here and there, then a whole Sunday, then the next one. And, before I knew it, I was someone who wasn’t a churchgoer anymore.

People will say – I saw such a claim only this week on social media – ‘I don’t need to go to church to believe in Christ’. No, but it certainly helps. Perhaps not everyone is as weak-willed as me, or as prone to sin, but I think that there is a huge danger to anyone in staying away from corporate worship. We know that it is not a good sign in the Christian; but it can prove fatal in one who has not yet professed faith. Like the prodigal son, before he eventually ‘came to himself’, if you are away too long from your Father’s house, you are liable to forget what it can offer.

Nothing I say could make church an attractive proposition to those who feel as I once did about it. When you are not there, the world puts you under an enchantment until you forget that it has anything to offer. Instead, you listen to Satan telling you that you’re the wise one, using your own time as you see fit and not listening to what some narrow-minded miseries think you should do. Yes, you start to believe, they are enslaved, and I am utterly free. I can go to church if I want, you think . . . or not, if I prefer.

And then, you get drunk on your own wisdom – quickly, because it’s been spiked by the Devil with lies. All of that stuff about Jesus and salvation, that can wait. Live a decent life and deal with God later.

But, what if God chooses to deal with you now?

No, you can dismiss that kind of morbid thought from your mind. That’s just Christians with their doom and gloom, their scare-mongering. Really, most people don’t die young. It’s exasperating that people still feel that way. No wonder you don’t feel like going to church when they’re all so out of touch with reality.

A friend suggested this week, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, that a sermon series from our church could not compare with ‘Game of Thrones’ for boxset entertainment value. The television series is a mediaeval fantasy with swords and dragons. It seems that most people would choose to stay home and watch this of a Sunday evening, while the black-hatted drones obediently trot off to church.

One group is immersed in a realm of darkness; the other group is praying to get them out of it.

Many of those who prefer ‘real life’ to Christianity would tell you that they don’t want your prayers, that you are simply speaking to an invisible friend.

It would be easy to give up hope for them, and it’s heartbreaking to see Christians weeping over their children, worried that they are moving further from Christ all the time, not closer.

Well, to them I will quote Aslan, hero of another great fantasy series, ‘Courage, dear heart’. What unites these two groups, unbelievers and Christians alike, is that they each forget the power of the Holy Spirit.

I didn’t suddenly find the company of the Lord’s people appealing of my own accord. Left to myself, I would probably still be at home, watching implausible television, happy in the knowledge that these dragons aren’t real. Because of the intervention of the Holy Spirit, however, my eyes were opened.

Heading to the prayer meeting on a sunny evening is now one of life’s greatest pleasures. You see the Creator’s work at its best in weather like this, and then you are with His people, who are also your people. Best of all, you get to meet with Him.

This is no fantasy. There are two kingdoms, but only one monarch. Pick your side – but pick the right side. Choose the realm of darkness and you have no king, only a pretender; choose light and there you have a King whose throne is not subject to any game.

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

Identifying as a Wee Free Widow

‘Identity’ is a word much in the news these days. Gender identity, ethnic identity, community identity . . . It’s the jargon of the time in which we live. Much like anything else, though, once the label goes on, the thing in the jar is already dead. We use the word, ‘identity’ so much because we have lost any real sense of who we are.

There was a time when, if I told my GP that I saw myself as an Irish tomcat, he’d probably have me quietly removed to a place of safety, having first said, ‘no, you’re a boring white maw lady’. But these days, you can – according to the right-on thought police – identify as anything you want.

I have trouble with this on several levels. There is an aspect of my own identity which I don’t like. Much as I may joke about it, I’m reconciled to the Carloway/Achmore/Harris genes; and I’m happy to be fluent in the language of Eden, even if we Gaels are more endangered than the corncrake.

It’s never troubled me too much that there are only two genders to choose from either because you don’t actually get to choose anyway. Occasionally, when my brother would receive his ‘Beano’, and I was stuck with dull old ‘Twinkle’, I’d wish I was a boy. However, antipathy towards Nurse Nancy and her implausible job at the dolls’ hospital was hardly the basis for such an upheaval, so I let it go.

Besides, if I’d mentioned that I seriously wished to switch genders, my father would have counselled me in the time-honoured way of all sensitive Lewismen, ‘Ist, oinsich.’ Conversation over.

The aspect of my identity I’m least comfortable with is the w-word. No, not ‘witch’. Not ‘weirdo’ either, thank you. It’s ‘widow’ I don’t much care for. And I think that a large part of my discomfort stems from the fact that it makes others uncomfortable too.

I keep remembering CS Lewis’ description of himself following the loss of his wife, as a ‘death’s head’, reminding all couples of their inevitable parting. Often, you fret that your very presence will upset people who are ill. Equally, I worry about ruining people’s parties and gatherings – I don’t want to be the hollow-eyed spectre at the feast while others try to make merry.

The problem is mostly in my head, though not entirely. After Donnie died, the MacMillan nurse advised me to change my shopping routine – ‘otherwise’, she said, ‘you’ll meet the same people you always do, people you know. And you’ll spot some of them trying to avoid you, which will hurt.’ She was right: I spotted people ducking up aisles in the supermarket, or suddenly becoming very interested in displays of teabags as I passed by. There were colleagues who never acknowledged my loss, and there were many expected visitors who did not come.

Two years on, I’m probably deemed safe – unlikely to burst into tears, or embarrass anyone by prostrating myself with grief in public. But I’m still a widow: a forty one year old widow. What are people supposed to do with that ? For that matter, what am I supposed to do with that?

Well, it’s simple. I decided from day one that I was going to be as easy as possible to be around. (Yes, this is the manageable version). If you want company, you owe it to people not to make it more of a challenge than it needs to be. That often means being the Catriona people expect even though I’m not the Catriona I expected. Smile though your heart is aching and all that jazz. My grief is mine, and I have no right to thrust it upon other innocent bystanders so long after the event. Two years is a long time. Unless, of course, you’re the one who has lost someone.

But this is where one other facet of who I am comes into play: my identity in Christ. Even in church, I can feel out of place. There are couples everywhere, and there is so much emphasis on young families that it’s easy to wonder where you fit. The answer, though, is in Him, and the answer is: ‘in Him’. He it was who, as Newton put it, brought me safe thus far. And, He intended my widowhood.

That’s the most startling and challenging thing of all. It’s only natural for people who are condoling with you to say how awful it is for Donnie and I to have been parted so young. We view it as though this world is everything, and to be taken out of it is punishment. Donnie wasn’t taken early; he was taken when and as God intended.

The logical follow-on is, therefore, that I was widowed when and as God intended.

So, God meant me to be who I am right now; this has a purpose. I am not where I am as the result of some unhappy accident. Providence knows no accidents; and Providence doesn’t want my self-pity. I do have such periods when I feel hard done-by  – because I’m a self-indulgent, egocentric sinner.

And then I am reminded of the cup that did not pass from my Saviour’s lips, despite His repeated prayer.

If you catch me feeling sorry for myself, remind  me that whoever I identify as, that’s who I’m identifying with – and He suffered unimaginably so that I wouldn’t have to.

 

Lost Causes & Bringing Cutlery to Ness

A former minister of Stornoway Free Church once impertinently suggested that I had a bit of a preoccupation with lost causes. His evidence was my membership of the SNP and the fact that, at the time, I was a development officer in Ness. Well, the SNP has done okay since then; and I’ve heard that the Nisich are now – mainly – literate, and able to use cutlery. So much for my causes being lost.

He wasn’t entirely wrong, though. I’ve always known what it is to be in the minority. Being a Gaelic-speaking Calvinist marked me out from most of my fellow men; and now, a follower of Christ, I am a confirmed oddity in the eyes of the world.

Recently, I was interviewed for BBC Alba’s religious programme, ‘Alleluia’, and was asked what kind of upbringing I had received in terms of faith. I think I said it was ‘gu math àbhaisteach’ – fairly standard. Most households had some kind of church connection, and most attended services, even sporadically. For the time – the eighties – it was indeed àbhaisteach. So much so, indeed, that I fear we took it for granted.

Chatting to one of our more senior elders this week, he said that he and his wife had returned to live in Lewis during that very period. The pews were so full that one had to arrive half an hour before the service in order to be guaranteed a seat. Those greeting the congregation at the door had no time to do more than catch their hands and encourage them inwards, a gesture reminiscent of sheep being guided through a dipping tank.

It was easy. All they had to do was unlock the doors, and people would come. Elders and ministers were held in high esteem in the community. Even people who were unconverted, or unchurched for that matter, would go to some lengths to avoid giving offence to Christians. Bad language was refrained from in their presence. There was a culture of respect for the things of God, and even those who thought it foolishness had more manners than to say so.

It is easy when everything is as you would want it. The SNP in the Western Isles had seventeen years of Donald Stewart MP, a man universally admired and respected. When he retired, they had to adjust to a whole new world. I remember those years. Repeated election campaigns when you knew in you heart that things were not going your way. Knocking on doors, only to be told that you were a nuisance, or a gullible idiot. Having your campaign literature torn up in front of you. Being called unrepeatable names and even, on one memorable occasion, being spat at.

Scottish nationalism, though, is no longer the social embarrassment it once was. It has gone mainstream. Properly political now, affiliation with the SNP is not, by itself, enough to get you a reputation for eccentricity. Being a member of the SNP is never going to win you universal approval either, but at least people no longer patronisingly say, ‘oh, so was I – until I grew up.’

The cause of the lost, on the other hand, looks to be in a bad way. Churches are emptier, people no longer trouble to refrain from giving offence to Christians here in Lewis – indeed, some seem to go out of their way to shock. Secularism exercises its vocal cords at every opportunity. Only this week, the results of a questionnaire survey show forth the anti-Sabbatarian agenda rearing its tedious head yet again.

Now that the church in Lewis commands little respect from those who do not share its views, then, are we to assume it has become an irrelevance? Should the Free Church pack away its psalm books and sell its buildings so that they may be converted into pubs, or gyms, or coffee shops – something that people do want?

Of course not. Recently, our congregation heard that the world hates the Gospel, but it needs the Gospel. This is the dichotomy that means we must persevere: it echoes the Great Commission. None of us knew we needed Christ,after all, until He made Himself known to us. We love because He first loved us.

When we thronged, as a community, to church every week, it may very well have been just ‘the done thing’ for many. Teenagers went to please parents, adults went out of habit and obedience to societal norms. But many who went there carelessly were eventually saved.They may have gone for months, or even years, under duress, but their bonds would sooner or later be removed by the truth which sets all who hear it free.

Being unwanted in society is not a new experience for the church of Christ. The head of our church was slain by a culture hostile to His message, yet His mission persevered. He was despised and rejected of men, as is His church – and for that very reason it must endure.

We forget, don’t we, that the cause of the lost is very far from being a lost cause. Indeed, Christ is already victorious, enthroned in Heaven. And so, His triumph should surely be foundational to our worship.

Worship is in the Spirit. Neither preaching, nor praise, nor prayer are mere words. And the same indwelling Spirit who compels our private and corporate prayer can compel people into His presence, no matter how far removed they may be from thoughts of Christ.

The only lost cause, it turns out,  is that of fighting irresistible grace.