The Wee Free Church of Weaker Vessels?

Some things don’t change. You no sooner write a blog about feminism in the Free Church than your whole congregation gets a loud reminder from the pulpit that women are the weaker vessels, and they really need to remember to address men as ‘sir’.

As if that wasn’t pointed enough, the minister threatened me afterwards not to go undoing his efforts with my renegade talk. I swear all the blood drained from his face when he saw me later, sitting at a table full of women in the church hall.

Isn’t it great how you can alter the whole meaning of something simply by taking it out of context? It’s a wee trick I’ve learned lately. You can make the very truth a lie if you are prepared to go far enough.

When I heard what the topic of the sermon was going to be, I’ll be honest, I was not looking forward to it. There are lots of things that can creep up and stab you in the heart in church, but the duties of husbands to wives, and vice-versa, is a guaranteed killer. It can bring on my ‘poor me’ complex with a vengeance, if it catches me in the wrong mood.

This didn’t, though. Actually, it caught me in more of a, ‘how the heck is he going to pull this off, then?’ frame of mind. A quick advance look at the passage confirmed my suspicion that this was, indeed, the one that talks about women being subject to their husbands, and husbands remembering that blones are the weaker vessels.

Oh well, I thought, this could very well be the first schism caused by ladies exiting en masse from a Presbyterian church. What WILL they call the new denomination?

But, then, that’s just the world’s way of looking at relationships, isn’t it? Everything is about power.

That’s how we got into this mess in the first place. We sought after a knowledge we couldn’t handle, because it came to us out of context; divorced from God’s wisdom as it was.

And because it was untempered by His wisdom, we allowed our knowledge to rule us, and we became drunk on it, until we finally forgot that the wine we were taking was fermented from fruit that was never meant for us at all.

We now think that if the Bible – the unerring word of God – says something we don’t like, then surely the Bible is wrong.

Breathtaking arrogance – and I am as guilty of it as anyone. I bristle at the idea of being subject, and more especially at the thought of being deemed ‘weak’. Although I do a very unbecoming line in self-pity, I certainly don’t want to be ‘poor Catriona’ in anyone else’s eyes.

Until Sunday night, though, I had been labouring under the misapprehension that weakness is . . . well, a weakness. A woman’s propensity to greater emotional sensitivity can, however, truly be a strength, while still making her vulnerable to hurt in ways her husband may never experience for himself. That is why he should exercise understanding towards his partner in life – because her womanness is a crucial element of their relationship in God’s eyes.

And, it made me think of that other amazing passage, where Paul glories in the thorn given to him by God, concluding, ‘for when I am weak, then am I strong’.

One of the great spiritual truths I have learned is that my own strength is a puny thing that would have sunk me in the Slough of Despond long since. Just as well I’m not relying on it. I wonder, in fact, after Sunday night, whether women have the advantage over men here. Not, of course that it’s any kind of competition . . .

But, if we are the weaker vessels, then surely it is easier for us to put our ‘amen’ to Paul’s great proclamation. The less we have of what the world is pleased to call strength, the more we will depend on His.

Being subject to your husband is an interesting one, in an age when many brides choose not to use the word ‘obey’ in their wedding vows. The feeling is that it compromises equality. But, actually, the only equality which really matters is that men and women are similarly precious in the sight of God. After all, it is He who weighs us all in the balance.

It was not God that introduced the tension between the genders over who gets to be in charge. A Godly man does not abuse or mistreat his wife; a Godly wife, likewise, honours her husband.

I am not a wife any longer, but I do live in the world, and must meet with the occasional man. Elsewhere, I have written of how I don’t see the brethren in my church as competition to be beaten, or the elders as having a status to aspire to. They are what they are, as God ordained; and I am, likewise, what I am.

Last night, however, the challenge of living as a Christian woman, while trying to make my way in this world was brought sharply into focus. At the end of a meeting, I instinctively gathered my own coffee cup and those nearest, and carried them through to the kitchen. The men mostly left theirs on the table.

Even as I did it, I thought, ‘don’t become the stereotype’. But this is the problem with the gender war that sin has created – if we all stand on our rights, who will serve? And how will we honour God?

 

Suffrage, Tippex, and the Feminist Free Kirk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How many Lewismen does it take to change my mind?

On Sunday morning, the message from the pulpit caused a wry smile from me – ‘following the Lord is an exciting adventure’. Hard on the heels of my reading at home (‘walk by faith, not by sight’) I felt like turning to the Lord and saying, ‘okay, I hear you’. And the thing is, you can speak to Him that way; He wants you to take absolutely everything to Him, to pour your heart and all its cares into His. He wants to hear from us, and He wants us to hear Him.

So, I heard Him. He had been speaking to me for a while on one particular subject. And this was Him, I felt, on Sunday saying, ‘you were right to listen, even if it took you a while’.

I am a stubborn individual who always thinks she knows the right way to do things. It physically pains me to watch other people struggling with just about anything – not because I’m kind or empathetic, but because I am always itching to take it from them and do it myself. Unless they’re doing equations, or changing a wheel. Or icing a cake.

So, I struggle with relinquishing control, even to the Lord. I am getting better at it, but it is inconsistent progress, and He has to keep pausing to wait for me.

For the last couple of years, I have been aware – as have many others – of a growing agenda in public life here in the islands. Anything that relates to the ‘typically island’ manner of doing things has been steadily inferiorised. There are those who seem to think that the way to a Lewisman’s heart is by criticising his culture. Those are people who do not understand Lewismen.

Then again, I also have my moments of that too.

See, God can use any manner of weak vessel to do His work – even the Leòdhasach male. He tried His best to speak to me through them, but He had worked His way through five coves before I eventually got the message. This is not because of their inability to communicate, but my reluctance to hear what they were saying.

And also, at least one of them was a bit of a mumbler.

When the first one suggested that I should consider standing for the Stornoway Trust, I told him that I had no time, reeling off a list of all the other commitments in my life. He’s a reasonable guy so, having planted the seed, he sauntered away. The second one to mention it got much the same excuse. And the third.

But, I was getting no peace about it. All the time I was resisting the very idea, the thought would not go away that it is not enough for us to be watchmen on the wall, alerting others to the danger; we have to be prepared to get our hands dirty in preserving what we value. What is the point in talking – or writing – while the thing you’re talking about saving is being dismantled about your ears.

They used to call it fiddling while Rome burns.

Those who have a secularising agenda have made no bones about the fact that they seek to impose change upon the island by getting themselves appointed or elected onto all the strategic decision-making bodies. And that is absolutely fine – it’s democracy in action; it’s legal; it’s strategic thinking.

So, if we don’t like what they are planning, it is clear that moaning about it is not the way forward. They have stopped making the numbers argument ever since a little Facebook group proved to everyone looking on that the heritage of Lewis and Harris means a lot to more than just the Christians in our midst. Keeping Sunday special for the 2000+ members of that group means just that. It does not mean foisting the will of church elders on the oppressed majority, or denying families the right to be together. We do not tend to be ashamed of those aspects of our own culture which mark us out; if we are ashamed, then perhaps we need to look at ourselves for the reason behind that feeling of inferiority.

The ‘oppressed majority’ have realised that they are not a majority at all. So now, in order to beat their oppressors, they are seeking public office every which way they can. They are prepared to serve because they believe in nothing, and want the rest of us to live our lives according to that.

How much more, then, should those of us who believe in something – in the greatest something of all – be prepared to serve our cause? Its very essence is service. Christ came to serve, and we are to be as like Him as possible in promoting His message to others. It does not matter if we are busy, or we are tired, or we feel inadequate to the task, because He is not actually asking anything of us that requires our strength. If we have that spirit of service, if we are burdened for His cause, then we trust in Him for the rest.

It’s a challenge, but it is one that the Christian can no longer afford to resist.

So, by the time the fourth fellow made his case, I was already beginning to wonder if it wasn’t the right thing to do. The fifth Lewisman called after I had prayed and come to a decision.

That is why I am standing for the Stornoway Trust. I am proud of my upbringing, of my Gaelic, crofting, Free Church, island heritage. For all my joking about the Achmore granny, and the Doune granny, and the Harris connections; for all my gentle irony about the foibles of the Wee Frees and a people sometimes ‘out both ends’, I love this place. There is not a lot wrong with it, and I’m tired of hearing that there is.

This is not a plea for votes, but a reflection on the fact that God sometimes inconveniences us by having a different idea of what we should be doing with our time.  Maybe it will only be for a fortnight, but as always when you listen to Him, it won’t be boring, and I am bound to learn something valuable along the way.

A Servant is for Life, Not Just Sundays

Last Sunday I was arrested in church. Before you imagine a group of burly policemen pushing past the elders – who would undoubtedly have tried to stop them – in order to cart me off, I didn’t mean it like that. In fact, I mean I heard something which struck me in its beauty and truth; something, believe it or not, about the deacons. Or, more specifically, about the duty of deacons.

It was this: deacons bring the love of Christ to the church in a practical way.

Yes, deacons – those guys who, in our tradition anyway, are seen as the money men, the fellows who hold the purse-strings and authorise paint jobs for the church vestibule. They are the ones who ‘do’. And their office is all too easily dismissed as being a bit, well, mundane.

Put it this way, if you were writing a novel about the Free Church (and, believe me, I’ve considered it), your hero probably wouldn’t be a deacon. They’d be there alright, but only in a supporting role.

Well, I say ‘only’ but, in Christian terms, a supporting role is the best kind. The main part has already been fulfilled.

There’s a song I love, (introduced to me by someone who has somehow ended up being responsible for my spiritual music education) in which Jesus is resembled to a hero who takes the stage when everything looks hopeless. Which, when you think about it, is exactly what He did.

Historically, He did. Spiritually, He does.

Almost three years ago, I thought my life was over. The person on whom I thought my world depended died. He left our home for what we thought might be an overnight in hospital; a week later I returned there, a widow at the age of thirty-nine, and wondering how many years I might have to get through alone.

The answer? None.

I was not alone, because Christ was there, waiting for me to notice Him. Christ had been there a long time. Maybe even since, as a child of nine, I asked Him into my heart simply because I couldn’t bear to think of Him knocking and not being heard.

He is the main event, the all in all, the ultimate star billing. Yet, He waits in the wings like a supporting actor, and appears to take His cues from us. Only when I turned my grieving heart towards His did I even know He was there.

That was when He took centre stage in my life. Just when I thought everything was finished, He walked on.

So, the bit-parts are for the rest of us. He is the hero; we are the supporting cast, as Christians. Deacons bring His love to the church in a practical way . . . but what are deacons? Yes, I know I said they’re the money men, the guys with the chequebook. But, in a wider sense, what?

Well, ‘deacon’ comes from the Greek, ‘diakonos’, meaning ‘servant’. And all Christians are called upon to have a spirit of service. That is why, in the best sense, we are, all of us, deacons. Yes, even the women. It isn’t about status, or titles – service never is – but about the satisfaction of serving a worthy Master.

This is an unusual Master, though. He is the starring role content to wait for a cue from the support act; and He is the Master who willingly became a servant. It is from Him we learn how to be the walk-on actors in our own lives, and the servants to the King.

Rendering service to Christ is not going to win you any of this world’s accolades. Even in the church, you may feel that the hours you put in, and the time that you give go unnoticed. And perhaps they do – by people. But you’re not working for people, are you? One lady I know who works hardest for Christ’s church has the truest servant heart, and never complains, or expects for herself.

Servants are often overlooked, or even despised. They may have their good name besmirched, their reputation degraded, and their heart bruised and beaten. But never, ever by Him.

He knows, you see, what it is to be a servant. We can only try at all because He first showed us how:

He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.

This is the humble servant upon whom we are to pattern our behaviour. Our men who are deacons should follow Him in showing His love to the church in practical ways. Love is practical, after all: it changes lives.

But beyond the official designation of ‘deacon’, there is a whole church which ought to be showing Christ’s love to the world. Just as the deacons distribute the wealth of the church in the service of the Lord, we ought to follow their example in following His.

I can’t help reflect upon our own mission-field locally, and all the strife there has been recently between secularism and Christianity. The unbelievers, in their ignorance, think it’s all about Sundays. It troubles me that some Christians seem to think so too.

Our starting point with the world cannot be this. A servant does not seek to impose his own will, but, rather, to do his master’s. We will win no hearts for Christ by telling people what they must do and must not. No one will ever desire God’s law without first knowing His love.

And, if this community does not know His love, have I failed in my servant’s duty, to show what it is? Have I said too many words, and not demonstrated enough humility? Did I forget, somewhere along the line, to withdraw and let the spotlight fall on Him?

 

The Real Lewis & Harris

The minister crept up behind me and took the bottle out of my hand. ‘You’re going to need water in this’, he lectured, ‘or this stuff will burn right through’.  I was caught off guard.

It’s not that my fondness for the Laphroaig has got the better of me, in case you’re wondering. No, it was screen wash. And before you think, ‘mo chreach, how far she’s fallen’, it actually was intended for the reservoir under my car bonnet. Not to be trusted with such a masculine endeavour, though, I was rapidly surrounded by a quorum of the Session, and the task taken out of my daft wee hands. They probably thought I wouldn’t manage the child-proof lid.

Sometimes, though, I have to admit that it’s nice when someone comes along and says, ‘shift, you handless clown, I’ll do it’. Not that I’m suggesting for one minute that those were the minister’s words. (Actually, I believe his exact opener was – in Gaelic – ‘what are you up to now?’). That other kind of impatient takeover was more the style adopted by my brother two weeks before when, on communion Sunday, heading to church, my tyre blew out.

It was good to have someone capable – though crabbit- to sort it out, to hand me the keys of his car and to save the day. And it was good to see the minister pour an entire bottle of concentrated screenwash into the windscreen washers because if, as he suggested, it destroys the rubber on my wiper blades, I can blame him. Sort of.

But then there are those things which we have to do ourselves, which no one else can do for us.

I have been to many wakes and funerals simply because, although no one would have missed me if I hadn’t been there, I needed to do it for someone else’s sake. Friends, colleagues, neighbours who have all done as much for me too. Life teems with obligations that we don’t want to fulfil, but are constrained to. We do these things because they are the right things to do, because they are part of life in a community like ours.

A community like ours. Lately, I have been wondering what that is. If you are to believe half of what you read about it in the press, it’s the kind of place where ministers creeping up behind you are most likely planning to influence your vote. Or intimidate you into standing for council.

I have been speaking to a growing number of people who feel that something very precious to them has been trampled underfoot by a vocal minority making this kind of claim. There are, I appreciate, those living in Lewis who do not necessarily share my love for the culture, nor indeed my positive experiences of being an islander where, every six days, the pace is dialled right back.

This, it has been widely suggested, is old-fashioned, embarrassing, anachronistic, a disgrace, and an all-round poor show. Those of us who value all aspects of our heritage have been mocked or lambasted by turns and  told repeatedly that there is nothing so very unique about this island.

Oh, but yes, there is.

tarbert-2001

This island – the Long Island of Lewis and Harris, that is – when the chips are down, will never cease to amaze. It is a community with a mind of its own and a fierce pride in its identity. Don’t ever try to second-guess what we islanders will do because we sometimes don’t know ourselves until we’ve done it.

I did not know what the reaction would be to the creation of a pro-Sunday group on social media. Three of us had spoken about it before, but during my lunch-break on Wednesday, I had one of those dangerous, ‘what the heck are we waiting for?’ moments.

I had just re-read a ludicrous interview in a national newspaper in which one resident compares life in the islands to the experience of those under Sharia Law in Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps it was an off-the-cuff comment, exaggerated by a canny journalist; I don’t know. But, if people are going to persist in the fiction that says this island is under an oppressive regime run by men in black suits who rig elections, but are still not too big on it to notice whether you’ve left a blouse on the line on Sundays, well, there has to be a counter-narrative.

It hardly needs saying that there is a world of difference between an existence under the Sharia regime and the maintenance of a much-loved traditional way of life, which contributes greatly to the winsome character of Lewis and Harris.

But ‘hardly needs saying’ can no longer equate to us remaining quiet. If we value it, if we want to keep it, we have to be prepared to say so.

Our group has started off well and, within 48 hours, had a membership of 1700 and rising. People are sharing reminiscences, photographs, gentle jibes; the group has Christians and those who are not; there are island-dwellers, island-lovers, and emigrants; there are born and breds and here by choices. It is, in short, a microcosm of the Lewis and Harris we recognise and love.

And it has done something that we have not been able to say in a long while – it has united this community behind a common purpose.

That common purpose is, itself, unity.

Standing up for what we believe, and for what we hold in high regard, is a duty that no one else can fulfil on our behalf. But, as I always knew they would, the islanders have risen to their obligation admirably.

This, I can say with some confidence, is the Lewis and Harris we want the world to see.

Men in Black and Other Legends

There was a loch in the moor near where I grew up, and it held a strange fascination for us.  Quiet Sunday walks with my siblings often drew us in that direction. But we always went with warnings from our parents ringing in our ears, regarding mysterious lights and a certain eeriness about the place. My grandfather had warned my mother of its uncanny nature, and she, in turn, was warning us of the same.

Stories abounded throughout the islands, of the each-uisge, the water horse. This mythical creature could assume the form of a handsome man, to entice an unwary maiden, and once she was totally taken in by this charming stranger, he would assume the form of a horse and carry her back into the depths of his watery home.

It is not difficult to understand what the true social function of the each-uisge story was – it performed the dual role of warning children against lurking strangers, and of hanging about near water.

The each-uisge belongs to a world of Gaelic folklore which has largely been consigned to books and the archives of local historical societies. It is part of that great corpus of ‘dualchas’ which the Calvinists destroyed in a rush of evangelistic fervour. St Patrick may have banished the snakes from Ireland, but John Knox went one better and drove the eich-uisge out of the Highlands.

All my life I have been hearing that the Free Church did away with our colourful traditions – our ghosts, and our fairies, our witches, our evil eye and our eich-uisge.  Then again, I have also been hearing how it oppresses women and no one has put a gag on me . . . yet.

It amuses me to think that, if it were not for the Disruption of 1843, and all the hard-line fellows in black hats and collars, we would all still be putting out a dish of milk for the fairies before going to bed. Perhaps the local secularists would be mocking us for pouring our beer into the Minch to appease the sea-god, Seonaidh, instead of deriding us for our Christian beliefs. They might even be calling for the closure of pubs on Sundays to prevent us from indulging the superstition.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Free Church was born out of a great act of faith. Ministers and congregations turned their backs on the security of manses and stipends for the uncertainty of a new denomination, loosed from the bonds of patronage which had so stifled their spiritual freedom.

Of course, it was not uncertainty as the world knows uncertainty: they had put their trust in God and knew that He would prosper their endeavours for the furtherance of His kingdom.

This church taught a people hungry for the good news of the Gospel how they might be set at liberty. In the context of forced eviction, of emigration, of famine, of grinding poverty and of disease, the Gaels were hearing something that really does change lives. It was this: none of those things, no earthly suffering, can actually steal the peace from your soul that comes from placing your faith in the risen Christ.

And sometimes, I think we see Him most clearly against a backdrop of fire and pain.

Fire and pain, of course, are not things we desire for ourselves or our loved ones. And atheists will tell you that the idea of suffering outside of Christ is just a story invented by theologians to keep us all under control.

Hell is the Calvinist each-uisge, a story told by ministers so that they can keep the population subdued.

To what end, though? Ministers trudge up the pulpit steps in order to rain down fire and brimstone on the heads of their congregations, threatening them with hell and damnation so that . . . what? So that they can keep their unearned reputations as control-freaks? So that they can be caricatured and vilified by turns? Or, is it really as the more hysterical elements in our midst suggest, all about the fact that they are in a secret pact with the Comhairle to ensure that no one enjoys themselves more than is strictly necessary?

Of course, it isn’t any of those things, as even the people saying them surely know deep down.

The Gaelic folktales warned of theft by the fairies, or drowning by water-horses because people could not see past the threat of sudden death. This is why Christianity displaced superstition, because once people had their eyes lifted to the true horizon, they would never again be in thrall to a fable.

And the only fable we have left is the one which tells people that the Wee Frees are angry and narrow-minded men in black, oppressing the daft women who follow along in their wake.

Saying it over and over does not make it true; telling it to the gawping national media does not make it true. Unlike the traditional tales, this one loses something with every retelling.

Meanwhile, those who think themselves simultaneously wiser than, as well as put-upon by, the power-hungry Calvinists, are at risk of being borne away by a legend of their own making.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not to be Read by Unbelievers

We were all gathered together in the church hall, when the minister picked up the microphone, fixed us with his most intimidating gaze, and asked, ‘who reads the Bible on an electronic device?’

There was an awkward silence. People tried to avoid his eye. I sat, rooted to the spot in terror, thinking, ‘so this is how it ends’. In my paranoia, I even wondered whether he would be able to tell me for a Kindle-user, just by looking. ‘Put up your hands if you have the Bible on an electronic device’, he ordered in his most threateningly reasonable tone. Still, no one moved. None dared.

And then it happened. A miracle. In the finest ever ‘I’m Spartacus’ move, his wife raised her hand. The whole atmosphere changed in an instant, and suddenly hands were in the air all over the room.

I held my breath. What would happen? Surely this show of defiance could not go unpunished. Yet, what could he do when his own wife had openly admitted to using modern technology herself?

Finally, he spoke.

‘I see’, was all he said.

And then I also saw. Sitting there, with a wireless microphone in his hand, he could hardly castigate his congregation for indulging in the odd Bible app. Especially when his own household was patently guilty of making forays into the modern age.

I wondered whether this was history in the making, a momentous event that would be recorded forever as the night the Wee Frees in Stornoway were finally forced into the 21st century.

But then I remembered – no, of course, that could not be. It had already happened . . . sometime around the end of 1999, I think.

However, it is important to be fair. People cannot help conceiving ill-informed ideas about an organisation that is secretive, and a closed shop. Besides, if it seeks to exercise power and control over an entire community, surely its leadership could be more transparent, less misogynistic,kinder, less controlling . . .

That same day, the membership had been told not to read anything written by me, and not to show anything written by me to others. The decree was issued online with no right of reply, and with an Orwelllian postscript that it would be removed from view in due course.

Who did this, you ask – the Moderator, surely would be the only one with that level of power. Or maybe the Presbytery – was it them? Surely no individual minister would be so egomaniacal as to exert his authority in this way . . .

Oh, you mistake me; I’m not talking about the Free Church. My local elder used to visit the house once a month to check the contents of my bookcase, right enough, but they’ve reduced the visits now to three-monthly. I cunningly hid all my offensively heretical books behind the Diary of Kenneth MacRae and Leabhar Aithghearr nan Ceist, which seemed to satisfy him.

No, it isn’t the Free Church telling its members what to read and what not to read. The organisation which seeks to ban certain writers, and to control what its membership looks at online is not the repressive Wee Frees; it’s the tolerant, welcoming people ‘of all faiths and none’ Western Isles Secular Society.

Yes, like a tinpot dictator, one of their administrators has prohibited my blog from being read by WISS members, or shared to the group.

The reason, of course, is that the last time it was dragged back there, the unruly hordes picked over it and in a frenzy of hatred, unwittingly revealed their true colours.

I was variously described as ‘disgusting’, ‘rude’, ‘racist’, ‘spiritually immature’, a ‘zealot’, ‘an embarrassment to the fellowship of the church’, and an egomaniac in pursuit of martyrdom.

Officially, they must not read it, speak about it or do so much as coimhead an taobh a tha mi because I am an intransigent troll.

But, in reality, they must not read it because there’s a danger in being exposed to the truth. Some things are only recognised as broken when they are held up against the light.So, it is safer to preserve them in darkness.

The secularist response to that blog has made me pity them more than ever. Though they hissed and spat, and even tried to use Scripture against me, it isn’t me they fear at all; it’s Christ.

He is so inconvenient, shaking the foundations of their fictional world. And because they don’t want Him, they attack any who try to speak about who He is and what He’s done. They won’t silence Him, though. If Christ intends that any or all of that Society should hear Him and bend the knee, then hear Him and bend the knee they shall.

It shouldn’t surprise me that the Western Isles secularists have obeyed this edict not to read my work; these are the same people who want their own children ‘protected’ from the Bible because it doesn’t tally with their world view. If they are prepared to attempt silencing the voice of God, I can hardly expect special treatment.

Let me not, though, hear any further suggestions that they are the voice of reason and tolerance, over against the oppression and control of the Free Church.

One has afforded me a voice; one has silenced me. The leaders of one have encouraged me to think for myself; the leaders of the other have suggested that I am incapable of such a thing.

They don’t want Truth. Pilate asked what it was, even as it stood before Him; they are not prepared to risk Christ getting that close.

One day, I hope they’ll be grateful that it was never up to them.

 

 

 

 

Coming Out of the Wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Who Can See That We Love One Another?

The social media intelligentsia of Lewis has been airing again its conviction that the Free Church has kept the island back. They speak with one voice – the only point of diversion being disagreement as to which century the Wee Frees have tied us to. Some extremists say the 19th and, I must say, it would be understandable. The Victorian era was something of a golden age for our denomination and it would be tempting to linger there. Still, the 20th wasn’t too bad either. With it came swings to chain up on a Sunday and disco dancing to disapprove of, so we would probably be happy to stay in the 1900s too. Well, not happy obviously. . .

Despite our denomination’s apparently famous resistance to change, I found myself recently at two gatherings in our church hall which were . . . novel

They were different to what we have done for the last 174 years and, as far as I could see, no one had a nosebleed. But then I’m not very tall – there might have been one or two swooners at the back. Nonetheless, house policy remains fixed as regards giving them no latitude, and both occasions passed without visible drama.

The first was a Christmas Eve fellowship with carols, mince pies and a Bible quiz. Our lovely hall looked suitably festive, and the general mood was lighthearted. No, we hadn’t bussed people in from another church – this was actual Wee Free laughter.

Less than a fortnight later, we gathered for an entirely new sort of Wednesday meeting. Instead of the traditional format, we sat in groups, and discussed the first of a series of Bible studies on the Epistle of James. It’s a practical book, containing something over one hundred imperatives, and talking about the things of God from a personal perspective can only serve to bring His people closer together.

As I glanced around at these people on Christmas Eve, I saw something on their countenances. There was mutual respect, genuine enjoyment of each other’s company. And when we gathered again, at the start of a new year, there was something even more apparent. Formed into small groups, meditating upon how Christ has revealed Himself to us in trial, we were growing towards one another.

You cannot meditate upon Christ’s love for you personally, or hear how He has likewise dealt with other Christians, without an increase in that love. Towards Him, yes; and towards them.

Love is one of His defining qualities. Greater love had no one. And He has imputed that to each of us to hold in common, to enjoy personally, and to give back. That’s why loving the brethren is easy: it does not come from anything within ourselves.

Which is why we have absolutely no right to keep it to ourselves. Tertullian, a Roman theologian of the early church wrote that the unbelievers looking on at Christians would say, ‘See how they love one another’. It was, he said, how they were marked out and set apart. I have heard ministers pose that question from the pulpit more than once – is that what the world would say of us today?

I think the world just might if it saw us at our best. But when does our community get to see the transforming love of Christ at work in us? Yes, of course we too are of the community – living and working and having our place there. At times of worship and fellowship, however, we come apart from the unbelieving world. It is on these occassions that Christian love for one another is probably most evident.

Only, there is no one there to witness it but ourselves.

I recently heard a sermon on God’s expectation that Christians would be a leaven to society. That means being part of your community, and letting your neighbours see Christ in the way that you live your life.

But one of the most attractive things of all, we hide from view. And I am beginning to think that might be wrong.

Unbelievers parade their sin in open view. They are most assuredly not ashamed of defying God. The word ‘pride’ gets applied to some of the most unlikely motives these days. Shame has left town indefinitely.

So, do we display our love in open view? I hope that our lives are a witness of our love for Christ, of course. But I think we deny an important part of our witness by not allowing those living outside of Him to see how He transforms our relationships with one another.

We are a peculiar people, as Peter said, but that does not allow us to hold ourselves aloof. Retreating to the margins and letting sin hold the floor is not what God intended. Yes, this is a time of undoubted conflict and it is unerstandable that a family should seek comfort and safety in togetherness.

It’s just that there are some of our own still out there, beyond the city walls. But how will they know that their place is with us if we remain in hiding. We have to go to them and let them see what cannot be put into words

Then, surely, they will say, ‘See how they love one another’. And they will recognise, not just that we are family, but that we are their family.

 

 

 

 

A Woman’s Place is Wherever God Wants Her

Ever since Coinneach Mòr reminded me that I’m a woman, I’ve been thinking about whether it matters very much. In past blogs I have made myself subject to misunderstanding because I have played down the importance of my gender, especially where my faith life is concerned. But I wouldn’t want anyone to run away with the idea that I don’t care about that category of things loosely termed ‘women’s issues’.

Nor, for the record, do I think we’re getting it absolutely right. If I said we were, people might suspect me of being manipulated by men . . .

There are two contexts here which must be considered – my relationship with God as an individual Christian, and my relationship with His church as part of the believing family.

My personal interactions with God consist of conventional prayer, continuous prayer, and the reading of His word. In all these cases, I come to Him as myself, whether I want to or not. He knows who and what I am, regardless of the veils I may – even unconsciously- assume. Part of that self surely consists of my womanhood: it is who He made me to be.

But I don’t believe that He hears me differently simply because I’m a woman; rather, he hears me differently because I am uniquely myself.

Christ,for example, did not favour Mary over Martha, or vice-versa, but He did take cognisance of their different personalities and respond to them accordingly.

He lets us be who we are; any obstacles in the way are of our own making.

Our relationship with the Lord is untrammelled by worries about gender. I do not doubt that He loves the supplication of women as much as the petitions of men. We are all His beloved children and the blood ransom He paid had the same value for every last one.

It is really only when you take that relationship into the church visible that problems arise. I have never gone to God in prayer and wondered whether what was on my heart was alright to mention, what with me being a woman. But I have been conscious of my gender in – amongst other things – writing this blog.

Let me be clear: no one from within the church has ever said to me that I should keep my opinions to myself. For all my joking, none of the men has yet suggested I stick to teaching Sunday school and leave the thinking to them. That is not the root of the problem.

I am the root of the problem.

In my own treacherous heart, there is a constant battle with doubt. Every time I go to publish an article, I worry that this will be the one where I really offend someone. Each new blog post fills me with trepidation that I have gone too far and will be castigated for a meddling ignoramus.

And underlying all these nagging fears is the sense that I am a woman in a man’s world. Who has told me this? Well, no one, but it has been the way things have happened over the years. Men are the office bearers, therefore you have to be a man to have a voice in the likes of the Free Church.

Is that true, though? No, I actually don’t think it is. Recently, I was talking to someone about it, and the notion that Free Church women are kept down. He made me laugh when he said, ‘I’d like to meet the man who could oppress _____________’ The lady he named is just one of legions of island women who could never be kept in their boxes by even the most determined misogynist. They have opinions and they have influence just as the men do.

These are praying women, women who have mentored younger Christians. They have participated fully in the spiritual life and nothing God intends for them can be denied by mere men.

But another recent conversation has forced me to think about the role of women in the church as an institution. We were discussing the way in which complementarianism has been interpreted by the Presbyterian churches in Scotland. My friend pointed out that there is a simple enough way to ensure that we are being Biblical in our division of duties. If a role requires spiritual authority then it should properly be restricted to men. Otherwise, it should be fulfilled by whoever is best suited to it.

This isn’t radical thinking. It isn’t even feminist thinking. What we’re called on to have as a church is a spirit of service, of corporate service. Our collective gifts should be deployed in order to maximise their potential to glorify God. That is what we’re about.

Those outside of our walls often speak about power- any objection to attacks on Christianity are countered with derisive yells of, ‘you just don’t want to lose control ’. The relationship between the church and the world is not about that, however, and neither should our relationships with one another be.

Properly speaking, I am a Christian before I am a woman. What gifts I have to offer in the service of Christ have nothing to do with my gender. He has not made women less gifted than their brothers.

However, I do believe that there is progress to be made in bringing those abilities to fruition in the church. Not, I hasten to add, because of some attempt to create equality between the genders; God has already done that.

Authority is His; spiritual authority He vests in men of His own choosing.

But the freedom to love Him through active service, exercising those gifts which He has bestowed   – that privilege belongs to every man and woman who loves the Lord.