Casting Providence on the Minch

I was sitting in church a couple of weeks ago when one of the elders came in with a mixing bowl on his head. Not balanced on his head either, like a graceful woman of Biblical times heading to the well, but worn like a tin hat, as though auditioning for a budget version of ‘Dad’s Army’.

Now, in case you’re thinking our services must be very visually entertaining in the Free Church, I should clarify something. This was a weekday, and the church was empty. The gentleman in question was running a pop-up charity cafe in the Hall next door, and I was there to welcome visitors and show them around our place of worship. None of which really tells you why he was wearing a bowl on his head, I confess. It was mine and had, originally, contained potato salad. He was, I can only assume, trying to be creative in his manner of returning it. These arty types are all the same, and we must simply let them have their wee foibles. Although I’m not sure that’s what the Blue Book has to say on the matter.

We may make allowances for it being a busy time, the weather being warm, and even sensible folk going a bit . . . well, doolally.

When the Hebridean Celtic Festival is on, the population of Stornoway doubles. That is, the town which is the catchment area for our church, becomes even larger. A few years ago, this was not an issue for us: what did a music festival on the Castle green have to do with Stornoway Free – or any other – Church? Now, however, it has become very much a matter for our consideration. This year, we opened our church every single day of the Festival week, we had the two-day cafe (where most people managed to resist wearing the crockery), and, on the Sunday, we had our annual Free Breakfast @ The Free Church.

I don’t feel the need to explain any of this as I did a year ago. Feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, getting alongside people where they are . . . these are surely well-understood facets of the Christian faith. But I will say this: it was an absolute privilege to be involved, and I gained a new perspective during all this activity.

On the Friday following the Celtic Festival, a couple who had come to Lewis for the whole fortnight, accompanied me to an outdoor service in Uig. For me, this was a refreshing in the midst of what had become a tremendously busy time. To sit on that beautiful hillside and be reminded of God’s promises in the context of our own island history, well, that was something special. I love Lewis, I love my church, I love our heritage.

And that was when it dawned on me.

Those summer weeks of sharing who we are, and what we believe, had taught me something. This is not just for us. So many visitors to the church had said to me that Lewis ‘still has something special’. They urged us to hang onto it. ‘Don’t make the same mistakes we did’, one lovely lady from Suffolk urged, ‘don’t let them chip away at what you’ve got here’.

She’s right; we mustn’t. For whatever reason, God has given us a precious heritage here in Lewis (and Harris). Every summer, He brings visitors to our shores. Those two facts are not, I believe, unconnected. I have long been convinced that our personal providences are not merely for ourselves. My experiences of grief and of secret discipleship and of spiritual attack, I share, because they may profit more than me. Likewise, then, our corporate providence, surely?

This is why we must, as Christians, be more open. It is why our churches have to be more welcoming. And – contrary to popular opinion – it is why we must resist the drive to make places like Lewis and Harris carbon copies of everywhere else. We are not a reservation, we should not live for tourists. Going on valuing God’s providence, however, and casting our precious bread upon the water, I think we will have something to offer our visitors all the more worth having.

Just because there has been a little time of apparent calm, however, please don’t think our island slumbers in peaceful waters. The eyes of the enemy are still upon us. This heritage we have from God, the evil one covets for himself – and he will use, indeed IS using, whatever means at his disposal to destroy it. We must be in prayer, not only for revival, but that we ourselves would not be the instrument by which, nor the generation in which, Satan achieves his goal.

Hold Your Tongue and Shame the Devil?

I have loved my denomination with an irrational affection which mimics what I feel for many human beings. Overlooking obvious faults, chuckling at foibles which irritate others, and even adoring the very character flaws which may repulse less tender onlookers,it’s only ever been the Free Church for me. Give me psalm singing, give me the blue book, give me the envelopes for the collection plate, and give me 1843.

But, my goodness, give me also a mind open enough to admit that NONE of those things are a substitute for a right relationship with Christ. And to admit that nothing is more important than that His salvation should reach the lost – by whatever means He chooses. It is, after all, in His hands, and by His design; not ours.

Last week, while I was halfway across Europe, a dream came to fruition on the lawn in front of Lews Castle. It was not my dream to begin with, but the vision of somebody who loves music, and who loves the Lord. When he first painted a word picture of how this evening would unfold, I was captivated by it – ‘people gathered together for praise . . . a single voice singing ‘Amazing Grace’ . . . hymns . . . praise bands . . . and the crowd dissipating to the strains of a lone piper, playing again, ‘I once was lost, but now am found’ – the heart’s cry of every saved soul, and their deepest desire for those they love.

That this idea came from  someone who thought that ‘Bangor’ begins, ‘oh, didn’t we have a lovely time the day we went to . . . ‘ just made it all the more winning. We are not all the same, and we do not all value the same things; but we are one in Christ, who loves us equally, and who gave Himself for the strummers of guitars, as much as for the hummers of psalms.

An old minister once, saying grace before a meal, was almost inaudible to his companions. ‘I didn’t hear a word of that’, one of them complained when he had concluded. ‘It wasn’t to you I was speaking’, came the swift reply. And so it is with worship- it’s for God, and Him alone.

Except, that’s not entirely true. It is also for us to find pleasure in worshipping Him. What does psalm 100 say – ‘enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise’ – but come to Him with that joy already in your heart and upon your lips. Glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. Anywhere and everywhere.

The more I go on in the Christian life, the more I realise its semi-solitary nature. Yes, the fellowship of God’s people is there as an encouragement but, I am bound to say that it can be equally dispiriting at times.

If I listened to the criticism, to the whispers, I would be far from lifted up by my fellow Christians. I have recently joined those legions who must be pilloried by their own for committing the heinous crime of organising worship in a tent. Faith Mission, Billy Graham, Grace on the Green – you name it, if it’s happening under canvas, these folk are opposed to it. And not so mindful of my feelings as a fellow Christian – a relatively new one at that – that they are prepared to pull their punches.

Some, recently, did not want people praising God in a tent when they could (should?) have been doing it in a church. Personally, I think He can receive all manner of worship simultaneously, wherever it emanates from – a cathedral, a marquee, a hovel, a ditch, a hospital toilet.

That last one, I can testify to. Let anyone – deacon, elder, minister, even – tell me that God grades our petitions according to where we are, or what we’re wearing, and I will call them false. I prayed more fervently in the Bethesda Hospice shower cubicle than ever I have in the Free Church. God met me there too, without a doubt – and yes, He answered my prayers.

This week, I have had to ask Him to answer prayer again – and it’s not so very different. I need grace not to say what’s on my mind, not to walk away from the whole sad and sorry denominational mess that we’ve created. Novice I may be, and whipping-boy for all the more ‘seasoned’ Christians, but I am going to stop the self-censorship right here, and ask my questions. How else is a new girl to learn, after all ?

Why is a prayer meeting in a church better than praise in a tent? How is it folk can come together to worship in the town hall, but not in one another’s churches?

And, doesn’t your Bible teach you about dying to self? Mine does. I’d rather hold my tongue than hurt another Christian, or harm the cause. Maybe I’ll grow out of that, though. One day, when I find where in the Apocrypha they’ve hidden the Book of Denominations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Birds who Pray and Birds of Prey

Etiquette in Lewis is not like it is anywhere else. One knows, almost instinctively, for example, not to bring up a person’s Balallan connections in polite company. And we don’t need a manual to dress appropriately (no wellies after Ness Gala Day), or which implement to use first when lifting the potatoes.

It is possible, as it turns out, to know all that and yet, still commit a great social taboo. I know, because I did it myself.

‘Will you speak at our fellowship in Kinloch?’ I was asked, an invitation which I happily accepted. But in the breathtaking arrogance of the lifelong Wee Free, I forgot to check which denomination . . . for there are two.

‘Two!’ I hear your exclaim in disbelief. Yes, well, I mean in Laxay. Obviously we have others throughout Lewis – we are Presbyterians after all.

Anyway, I discovered the daftness of my assumption in time and set off with friends for an evening service in the Kirk. Or so I thought.

In another colossal breach of island etiquette, we actually went to the Free Church next door. Such is our indoctrination, and our fear of the Session, that we thought we’d better, or risk censure on our return.

No, not really. In fact, the Church of Scotland notice board declared that they would be having a Gaelic service, and my pal is a monoglot, so . . .

Eventually, we did make it to the Aonadh fellowship. A lifetime of ribbing my mother about her ‘inferior’ CofS upbringing, of questioning the validity of her own and my father’s marriage (it having been Kirk-rendered) . . . all words I’d have to eat, along with some excellent pancakes. Because – and nobody tell the Session I said so – they were a lovely congregation. Aside from some native character flaw which makes them all turn up at the last minute for things, they are a warm, genuine and welcoming branch of God’s family.

I knew they would be. It’s not simply that one or two of them were known to me before, nor my natural Lochie bias, what with the Achmore genes, but something else altogether.

It was God’s timing, and His hand I could discern. My visit to ‘the Lake District’ of Lewis had been planned for a couple of weeks, and it was a standard, share-your-testimony kind of plan. But, I knew, a couple of days before that, whoever else might derive benefit from hearing me, one person really needed to hear that testimony again: myself.

I was running, if not quite on empty, very close to it. Physically, emotionally and even spiritually. End of term, end of tether.

There have been difficult conversations around differences of opinion with other Christians. Not everyone sees Grace on the Green as what we intended it to be: an open-air act of public worship, and a nod to the place Christianity has in our culture, all to glorify God. Nonetheless, I appreciate those who addressed their disquiet directly to me, and who did so privately, as Scripture prescribes. No difference of opinion between Christians should result in public displays of pique. And, I might venture, no one should assume they know the heart of another, nor the prayers that have gone out from that heart. God knows, and He deals accordingly.

It has been predictable, but dispiriting. On top of everything else, it gave me a quick flash of ‘why do I bother?’ which, after prayer, dissipated. The freedom I enjoy in Christ is not going to be bound up by anyone else’s idea of conscience. Otherwise, are we really free?

God had prepared the remedy for me last Sunday, however. It was not the good Laxay air, nor the copious amounts of baking, nor even the warmth of the lovely fellowship. No, it was my own testimony.

What is testimony, after all, but evidence – an eye-witness account – of God’s goodness to us? This same God who took my time of unspeakable sorrow and raised it up as immeasurable blessing. It is to Him I pray, to Him I commit every day of my life, and to Him I look for guidance. My faith is sure because of Him, not because of me. And so, I know in whom I have believed. That is more than sufficient for my peace of mind. Remembering His goodness to me reaffirmed that; I rest on Him, and He is enough.

The doubting – and sometimes unpleasantness- of others can shake your confidence. You can begin to question your own judgment and even your own motives. But whatever is anchored in Him is sure and unshakeable. Sometimes you need to remember that all over again.

As I left Kinloch, one of the congregation stood at the door of the church with me, and pointed out two birds of prey flying overhead. Hen harriers, he thought, and I marvelled how he could tell from that distance.

And then I realised that his confidence came from knowledge and a practiced eye. I think we Christians would also know each other better if we spent more time getting acquainted spiritually, and remembering our unity in Christ.

Even from this distance, we should all be able to discern His marks on our brothers and sisters, and them on us.

Out on a Wednesday

Being out on a Wednesday night in the Free Church in Lewis does not mean that you have become gay part-time. It means that you have started going to the midweek meeting and that you have started following.

Following doesn’t mean that you are stalking someone obsessively. It refers to your lively interest in the message of the Gospel and the possibility that you may well be converted and even contemplating going forward.

Going forward doesn’t mean that you’ve suddenly become very bold and begun addressing the minister as ‘thu’, or pulling the elders up on their grasp of theology. No, it simply means that you are ready to make your public profession of faith.

Funnily enough, that public profession is usually made in a room with just yourself and the Session present.

The Session isn’t a band which does covers of Bob Seger and Neil Diamond. They are the elders, charged with the spiritual leadership of your church. When they aren’t checking your Sky subscription to make sure you only tune in to wholesome entertainment, they do other stuff, like hearing the testimony of newly-professing Christians.

These events have followed a well-trodden path here in the island for many years. Everyone knows the order in which your spiritual journey is supposed to happen.

I knew it. And yet, somehow, I ended up doing it all in completely the wrong order.

Not long ago, I was relating my misdemeanour to another Christian. ‘I didn’t set foot in the prayer meeting until after I took communion for the first time’ I said.

But that’s not strictly true.

Many years ago, a friend’s granny died. I went to the funeral and, afterwards, felt an overwhelming compulsion to be with the Lord’s people. It was a Wednesday. The thought made me sick with apprehension, but I simply had to go. To the prayer meeting. Ignoring my parents’ surprised faces, I headed out, hardly able to believe what I was about to do.

I didn’t do it again for fifteen years.

It has such significance attached to it in our culture that anyone going to the prayer meeting in the past would be marking themselves out as ‘one to watch’. And, when I look back over my own journey – which I understand better now that I have attained a small measure of spiritual maturity – I wish with all my heart that I had kept on going to that Wednesday meeting. Then, I might have been noticed by someone, and the right questions might have been asked of me. If nothing else, I might have asked them of myself.
But no. I allowed the weasel words of Satan to drop into my all too willing heart: you don’t belong here with them; you’re not good enough. And that absolute closer – you’re not ready.

When I was asked, the night I went forward, how I had come to follow the Lord, I could give no very clear answer. I didn’t know, exactly, and I was afraid to tell the complete truth. The complete truth being that I could not remember a time when He was not in my life, or when I did not feel destined to follow Him.

I had no idea how to go about making that a practical reality. And, while I may indeed be as mad as a box of frogs, or the irregular product of a Carloway-Achmore-Ardhasaig mash-up of genes, I would be prepared to bet that I am not unique in my spiritual confusion.

Tradition is great, as long as it isn’t harming people. And, when I reflect upon my own long and perplexing walk, and my failure to recognize exactly where I was at with God, tradition annoys me.

Shy and confused, I was drawn to the Lord and His people, but with no idea what I was doing at a midweek meeting. The whole experience was so uncomfortable that I came home, and stumbled on in lonely ignorance, certain that my discomfort was born of my own unreadiness for being out on a Wednesday.

I was not unready. Seventeen or so years on from then, I can say with absolute conviction that I should have persisted. Who planted in me the desire to be there in the first place? Myself? Absolutely not. Satan? Never. But we were both complicit in deciding that I should never go back.

There is a reason why meetings like these are included in the term ‘means of grace’. These are the outward, and apparently mundane ways in which Christ imparts His grace to His own. They are intended as a benefit to us, but they can only be beneficial to those who actually attend. We cannot understand everything within God’s mysterious dealings with us, but there is one thing I can say with conviction now: if He has implanted a desire in you to be with His people, you should obey.

The Bible counsels us repeatedly not to look back with regret, and so I do not count the prayer meetings that I have missed because I listened to the wrong voice. But I do look back with thanksgiving, that God did not allow me to continue depriving myself.

If you are contemplating coming to a midweek meeting, and you think you are not ready because you are not yet a Christian, or not yet a church member, please view me as a cautionary tale. Wednesday is the wellspring that waters the whole week, and if He has put it in your mind to come to the well, it’s because He knows that you thirst.

Fools to make war on our brothers in arms

When the national media got hold of the fact that the Muslim community in Lewis was building its own meeting place in Stornoway, they scented blood. The expectation was that the narrow minds in black hats would be out in force, that a trench would be dug with Muslims on one side and ‘Christian fundamentalists (whatever they are) on the other.
Disappointingly for the usual suspects, that is not actually what is happening on the ground. As David Robertson points out in a recent blog, commentators from outwith – and, indeed, within, I would add – our island, fail to distinguish between the different denominations of Presbyterian churches represented here. Far and away the largest denomination is the Free Church of Scotland.

Its size and reach is, I guess, why the responsibility for influencing the Comhairle, rigging elections and intimidating old ladies falls fairly and squarely on the Wee Frees. Other denominations may have taken a different view, but the minister of the largest Free Church in Lewis has voiced what most of us believe: we would prefer that everyone saw the beauty of Christ and gave their lives to Him, but we will not achieve that by force.

Actually, he has articulated an important facet of the misunderstanding many harbour about Christianity: we really are not about power, we are about love.

However – and it gives me no pleasure whatsoever to say this – we need to be better at walking the walk. I can say as many times as I like to the unbelieving public that we are holding them up to God in love, but words alone are not enough. We have to be able to demonstrate our love to win the unbelievers over.

In a famous passage – 1 Corinthians 1: 13 – Paul speaks of the futility of Christianity without love. The older translations render this ‘charity’ which, as we all know, begins at home.

We need to be able, as Christians, to love one another demonstrably, before we are capable of winning the world over. How will an unbeliever be convinced that I am lovingly concerned for him, if I cannot show first that I love my brethren?

As Christ led us to expect, and as my church prepared me for, I have been reviled for my witness. There is no need for me to repeat here what has been said and done against me for His sake. It is because God is the stronghold of my life that I have weathered the excesses of
secular hatred; it is His armour, fastened and refastened by His loving people, that has protected me from the fiery darts of Satan and his – sometimes unwitting – workers.

But who will protect us from one another? When, in the middle of what is undoubtedly a spiritual battle, Christians waste their energy and misdirect their concern, in judging one another, who will make the peace?

Still punch-drunk from having my private grief used against me by unfeeling strangers, I was accused by one of the brethren of being ashamed of my Lord. His justification for this was that I had not, in my election campaign literature, explicitly said that I was a
Christian.

Another of the believing community took it upon herself to ‘name and shame me’ as unsuitable to hold elected office because of . . . well, my many failings. We do not, she said, share the same theology. Indeed
we do not.

But we do share the same Saviour. He is Lord, we are His church – and when we do this to one another, we offend only Him.
The world loves it. I know that unbelievers seize on any chance they can to justify their lack of faith, by pointing to the failings of Christians. It is not, ‘see how they love one another’, but ‘see how
they fight amongst themselves’.

This is a plea to my fellow Christians, of whatever denomination, to think about who it is you wound when you publicly rebuke one of your brothers and sisters in Christ. If we say something that you consider theologically unsound, or otherwise damaging to the cause, then I
believe the correct course of action is private counsel. The Bible has much to say on this subject, but nowhere does it
mention public pillorying, or shaming before the baying mob. In fact, Matthew 18: 15 tells us that our starting point, if we have a grievance against a brother, is to speak privately to him about it.

That’s privately – not on Facebook, not via a letter to the ‘Gazette’, not from a public platform in the Town Hall.

If you are certain that your position is the right one, as a Christian that means right in the eyes of God, and according to His Law. You need, therefore, no other witness than Him, and your erring brother in Christ.

He laid down His life for us; all He asks in return is that we crucify self, and see our brother as greater than we are. If we love our family in Christ, any error is not a subject for public shaming, but for private reconciliation.

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.