Planting, Prayers and Trench Warfare

This week, people in Lewis came together to plant trees in memory of the 201 men who lost their lives on the ‘Iolaire’ in the early hours of 1919. Fittingly, these have been planted on the road that leads to the war memorial, officially opened in 1924 by Lord Leverhulme – his last public act in Lewis.

Despite the tensions that have been evident in some parts of the community lately, over who has the right – or the wherewithal – to develop wind farms on a particular patch of moor – it was possible for unity to reign during the few hours it took to create this living monument to bravery and loss. I think the Lancashire soap magnate would have liked what he saw. We were largely united in our common purpose: to create something dignified that will serve as a reminder for many years to come.

The Lewis war memorial was built on Cnoc nan Uan, because it overlooked the four parishes which had sacrificed their men in the cause of freedom. From somewhere in each, this barional-style tower can be seen, pointing skywards. It is constructed of Lewissian gneiss, dressed in Aberdeenshire granite.

And, when it was officially opened by Lord Leverhulme, the watching crowd must surely have believed that this was a memorial, not just to their dead, but to war itself. This had been the conflict to finish all such. Weeping widows and bereaved mothers could comfort themselves with the thought that they were looking upon the last edifice of its kind.

Only, of course, we know that this was not the case. They were not really laying war to a peaceful rest, because it rose again – bloodier and more terrible than before.

Planting my first tree on Wednesday afternoon, I thought about the symbolism of the wych-elm. The first element in its name has nothing to do with ladies who cast spells, and everything to do with pliability – so an eminently suitable species for one such as myself to be planting, biddable creutair that I am.

More importantly, it is a crucial quality if we wish to avoid unnecessary conflict. We have to be prepared to bend a little. Too much rigidity and we are liable to simply break under stress.

I remember going out in a neighbour’s boat as a child. His advice for avoiding seasickness has remained with me, and can be applied to other areas of life too: go with the movement; don’t resist it by holding yourself taut. Given that he would insist on nosing the vessel in between the Beasts of Holm, with all the mythology surrounding them in my young mind, it was quite hard to relax.

This does not mean, of course, that you allow yourself to be buffeted by every prevailing wind, changing your mind on a whim. What I suppose I mean is that you should never be so uncompromisingly devoted to your stance that your treatment of those in opposition becomes less than it should be.

What we have today –and what fortunate Leverhulme did not have – is social media. It can be a useful tool for communicating, and for disseminating information. But, misapplied, it can become a battle-ground of bad manners and bad attitudes. There are those who use it to address others as though they were inferior beings, using the sort of belligerent, barracking tone that would never be countenanced in real life.

The result is something not unlike trench warfare. People become so identified with a particular point of view that everything else about them recedes into the background. We have to work very hard so that this does not become our attitude.

I appreciate very much all the good advice I have had over the years in this regard. It was useful to one so dangerously liable to veer into sarcasm when under duress.

My mother taught me many years ago to avoid putting myself in situations where I would have to apologise. I try, therefore, to think through the consequences of my words before I utter them. Once they are said, they cannot ever be taken back.

Even my years of political campaigning taught me something very valuable indeed – the vast majority of people are turned off by negative rhetoric. Slandering and smearing your opponent says more about you than it ever could about him.

Being a Christian, more is expected of you than to sink to the gutter-level of mud-slinging which can become the modus operandi of Facebook and other such platforms. Titus says: ‘To speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy towards all people’. It is a challenge that I could never meet on my own poor strength.

Sometimes I have to draft and redraft my written responses so that they are tempered with the humility and courtesy that ought to be my portion. And I thank God that He has surrounded me with people who are of that same mind, and who make me want to walk as I should because of their example.

Just for balance, he has also surrounded me with a few hotheaded crazies who would thoroughly approve my ranting first drafts . . .

I need prayer to keep my speech seasoned with salt, to not defile myself by what comes out of my mouth. And our community needs prayer – for unity, for perspective, for proportion.

Standing in the shadow of that tower, hewn from Lewis rock, I realised that the remembrance needed most is the petition that goes heavenwards; prayer for unity, and for the ability to disagree without stooping to revile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Port We Long to See

This week, since donning my own ‘Iolaire’ pin, I have noticed them on other lapels also. Like the poppies which we are so used to seeing annually, they are a silent, unifying act of remembrance. To wear one, I think, says something about how much this place and these people mean. For me, the men who were lost on that night, and those whose lives were changed forever, are still part of the chain to which we belong. That lovely custom of patronymics – bearing not only your own name, but that of your father, and grandfather before him – has kept us linked to one another across years, across great distances, and even on either side of death.

It will soon be one hundred years since that night which entered the Lewis psyche, arguably never to leave. I am a believer in Carl Jung’s collective unconscious: that there are areas of the subconscious mind which are motivated by experiences we did not personally have, but which are inherited from our ancestors. Because I believe also in original sin, this makes perfect sense to me. Add to that the strength of what we now call community in this island, and it is small wonder that wounds inflicted a century ago have not quite healed.

And, of course, our own particular experience may add a poignancy even to something so far in the past. When I was younger, I could listen to Murdo MacFarlane’s ‘Raoir reubadh an Iolaire’ with relative equanimity. Now, I find his description of the woman’s dawning grief virtually unbearable:

Sguir i dhol chun an dorais

‘S air an teine chuir mòine

She ceased going to the doorway

Or putting peat on the fire’

I had so many years of waiting for my husband to come home that, even now, three and a half years after his death, on some level I think I am still waiting. Nonetheless, I know what it is to feel your hope dying, and for loss to move from being an abstract thing that happens to others, to being a reality from which no earthly power can liberate you. For me, it didn’t happen when I was told he would die within a matter of days; it happened when they removed the PICC line, which had delivered the hope-giving chemotherapy into his arm. It was symbolic of the death we were now all having to accept. There would be no more going to look hopefully out the door for me either.

 But, just as light drives out darkness, life overcomes death. You must go on, and the providences which God gives will shape your dealing with others, as well as your understanding of self.

And, as it is with individuals, so it is – I believe – with community.

The Lewis that awoke from the last year of war into a January filled with nothing but grief must have faltered at first. There must have been, as there is for every one of us who has lost a loved one, the thought that recovery from this would be impossible. And there were difficult times to follow; not least the years of emigration because, much as people wanted to cling to their home island, it could no longer support them all. As Donald MacIver put it, in these lines from the beautiful ‘An Ataireachd Àrd’:

S na coilltean a siar chan iarrainn fuireach gu bràth;
Bha m’inntinn ’s mo mhiann a-riamh air lagan a’ bhàigh;
Ach iadsan bha fial an gnìomh, an caidreabh ’s an àgh,
Air sgapadh gun dìon mar thriallas ealtainn ro nàmh.

In the woods of the west I would not wish to remain;

My mind and desire were always on the hollow by the bay;

But those who were generous in deed, in fellowship and joy,

Are scattered defenceless like a flock of birds before its enemy’.

 Scattered: by war, by the Atlantic, by death. And yet, still those names belonged in the patronymic chain. It may have been strained by absence, and by distance but, like the heaving rope which brought so many men alive from the Beasts of Holm, that chain held fast.

 And it holds fast even now. We don’t wear these badges to mark a distant and remote event, but a personal grief which has permeated life in Lewis and Harris since the turn of 1918. I like to think that it has shaped this community, made it finer and stronger, and knit it closer together. Even though we will have times of drifting apart, and of falling out, remembering is an act which will always unify us.

The sinking of the ‘Iolaire’ ended 205 lives, and blighted many more. This was part of the same providence which the Stornoway motto claims as our inheritance. I have often heard expressions of surprise that such a bitter experience did not turn the survivors against God. That incredulity comes from the same place that caused someone to ask me whether I had been angry with Him for taking Donnie. 

Job’s answer ‘Shall we receive good from God, and not receive evil?’ is the right one here. Like Job, and like the psalmist – over and over – we have to take providence and let it do its work. Those more challenging aspects are not something we recover from, but something which becomes part of our identity. 

To commemorate this centenary is only partly about those who were lost, although of course that’s significant too. We have, also, to be thankful for the fact that God was faithful to this community: a constant in the years of turmoil. Many gave their sons, and who understands that sorrow better than Him? 

The poppy, a symbol of violent death, is paired with the bell, a symbol of holy power on the lapels of islanders this year. May they be tokens to us all of the One who perfectly unites both, and sees all His people safely to the shore.

 

Were there no men?

One hears that drugs are more readily available than ever, but to be offered them at a Free Church event was, frankly, rather shocking. I was speaking at the Women for Mission away day in Inverness last weekend and mentioned that I had a mild headache to the young woman sitting next to me at lunch. In a trice, she’d spoken to one of her contacts, and I was passed a foil strip, containing two ibuprofen. If we WILL encourage them among us, I suppose it’s inevitable that they will bring aspects of their youth culture into the church.

That headache notwithstanding, I had a glorious trip.

I flew out on Friday evening, and spent the night in a rather luxurious bedroom at the Drumossie. ‘It’ll be like a wee holiday’, my mother said, and she wasn’t wrong. Fluffy robe, fabulous shower, cheeky Laphroaig . . . A wee glance at my notes after dinner, and a deep sleep in the middle of a tennis-court-sized bed. It has been a pretty exhausting few months between one thing and another, and this was a gift from God: a brief oasis to recharge my mental and physical batteries.

But the spiritual battery, well, that got the best treatment of all. What an absolute privilege it was to be among two hundred of the Free Church’s finest oppressed, and to get a palpable sense of God’s love in these women.

Some particular encounters stand out for me. First of all, there was Megan Patterson, the other speaker. Aside from the fact that it is immediately obvious she is a very special person, her address left me completely humbled – something which did me absolutely no harm at all on that particular day. Whatever struggles I may think I have had, hearing someone with her missional experience always puts my own ministry in perspective as the small thing it is.

And then there were the three amazing women who spoke on behalf of Bear Necessities. What warmth, what humour, what simple goodness. They are the very essence of Christian service, and radiated the kind of love that makes me want to be a better person.

I met two women who are also widows, like myself – only, not at all like me. They are the kind of people whose faith shines out of them and you know, the minute you meet them, who guides their life. We discussed what it is to be a widow in a church setting, and whether there is something we could do collectively for those that are. Losing the person you had hoped to spend your whole life with has a particular effect, I have found, on your ability to cope with certain challenges. It may indeed be of benefit to find others who are on that same journey.

It was a particular gift to me, as well, to finally meet a lady from Tolsta who was able to speak to me about Donnie. In fact, she unexpectedly reduced me to tears – not in the usual way that Tolstonians have, but because she spoke so warmly of him that he actually became real again. She worried that perhaps she shouldn’t have mentioned him just prior to my second talk (yes, they had to endure me twice) but, actually, it gave me something in the day that was uniquely my own. Life has changed in the three years since his death, so that I sometimes feel I don’t know this woman who writes and speaks, and generally bombards innocent bystanders with her opinion. But, in that moment, I was anchored back to someone very special, someone who also used to make me want to be better than I am.

The outgoing chairperson, Rona Matheson is another of those people that you feel you’ve always known. She had, like myself, blown in from the Hebrides, after a whistle-stop tour, speaking about her work with Blythswood. And she shared something from one of her island experiences. She was interviewed for Isles FM’s ‘GLOW’ programme, by its . . . well, let’s call him ‘laid-back’ host, for I feel ‘cognitively-challenged’ would be going a little too far. In true depressive Leòdhasach style, he had asked whether the comparative emptiness of our churches made her downcast. Her answer is a reminder to us all about perspective, and how it can make or break a situation. Rona said that we are always better being thankful for what we do have, than bemoaning what we do not.

What good advice. But how inclined we are to sit down, weeping, as we remember our own particular Zion.

I had spoken about the attention we must pay to our own hearts, that they would be ever-prayerful, attuned always to God. Proverbs 4: 23 reminds us to guard our hearts, because it is from them that all we do will flow. In fact, I think that true prayer, like water, is purest at its source – and the wellspring of our truest prayer is always our heart, not our lips.

A day like last Saturday is so helpful. I was beginning to feel the weariness of a too-busy life. Repeatedly, I have promised myself – and others – that I would take a weekend to go and chill out somewhere. Of course, it hasn’t happened. So, God gave me this particular blessing. Every obstacle was smoothed over, and I arrived back in Stornoway into the darkness and rain, renewed and refreshed.

And even my mother didn’t ask ‘were there no men?’

 

 

 

Now the Precious Years are Gone

I was not part of the exodus from the Gàidhealtachd last weekend. The crowds making their way over land and sea were a mildly interesting sideshow – a filler at the end of the Gaelic news, a spectacle from which I tried hard to avert my eyes. It is certainly not that I don’t care for the music of Runrig, because they have been the soundtrack to my life since I can remember. These guys made a song of my outlook and experience over four decades and, all things being equal, I should have been there for the last dance.

Some things are just too much, though. Apart from that long-ago concert in the hangar at Stornoway airport, I shared every other Runrig experience with my husband. If I had gone to listen to them once more, I would only have spent my time looking for him in the crowd.

And so, I spent Saturday and Sunday in an island that seemed emptied of half its population. Sometimes, I would hear a snippet of their music on the radio, or catch a glimpse of them on television, and I would remember . . .

My mind goes back to the year that I turned fifteen, when they came to play in Stornoway, and I was just so excited at the prospect. And then, horror of horrors, a controversy broke out: their gig was going to clash with the preparatory services for the Stornoway communion. With any other band of their reputation, that would have been brushed aside. Runrig, though, were different. The date was changed, plans remade, and the Free Church minister in Stornoway received an apologetic phone call from Donnie Munro.

You are never too big, or too important to be respectful. This, after all, was the band that sang, ‘cum ur n’ aire air an Iar is air an àite a dh’ fhàg sibh/keep remembering the west, and the place you left’.

When I say that I grew up with them, I don’t merely mean that they were there as the years went by. I have already alluded to their part in forming my political consciousness, and for articulating the dumb love that I felt – feel – for home. Every year, when I speak to students about our history as a Gaelic people, I can do no better than quote Runrig’s ‘Fichead Bliadhna’. It expresses far better than I ever could the disgrace of successive generations kept in ignorance of their own past:

I learned many things
The English language, the poetry of England
The music of Germany
The history of Spain
And even that was a false history

Twenty years for the truth
I had to wait
I had to search
Twenty years of lies
They denied me knowledge of myself.

It was because of Runrig I took an interest in the Highland clearances, because of Runrig I cared about politics, because of Runrig I first read Carmina Gadelica, because of Runrig I discovered the land wars, because of Runrig I understood that Gaelic was more than just a dying language.

They sang more than merely big songs of hope and cheer: they were the singers in my bloodstream who have stayed mainline all my life.

Everything that matters to me about being a Gael, about being an islander – I can find it somewhere in the canon of this band’s work. Their polite and deferential approach to the Rev Murdo Alex Macleod in 1991 was indicative of something that owes much to the soil in which they were nurtured. Every word I ever heard them sing was shot through with love of place, love of nature, love of people and that matchless Gaelic spirituality that shaped our best lyricists. So many of their melodies recall congregational worship, with the psalms at its centre:

Song, sacred, eternal
Lift on high the voice of the people
Song, I am reconciled
Let it rise up from the moorlands

One of the most memorable evenings I spent in their company was at the now infamous gig on the banks of the Ness, when the deluge threatened to sweep us all away. We were, Donnie and I, soaked to the skin, shivering and muddy. It took hours to get back to the hotel, to get showered and warm, but we agreed that it was the finest of all our Runrig experiences. Until, that is, they came back to the HebCelt and we watched the sun set over Stornoway to their unmistakeable sound. Home, Runrig, and the man I was sharing my own last dance with, though neither of us knew it then.

Many have paid their own tributes to Runrig; most had the courage to be there with them as they said that aching goodbye. Mine, however, happened that night, out on the castle green. But Runrig’s own words, as always, speak for me more eloquently than I could ever do for myself:

But now I know and I don’t want to believe it
Where does it leave you now
That the precious years are gone

I know you well, you’ll be nothing but grateful
Never let it be said they were spent in thoughtless ways
Warm winds blow ‘cross the ties that bind forever
For a place in the sun and for the hearts of love a home

(Photo credit: Marie MacDonald)

 

Life Goes On (and On)

A good friend told me a story about a lady who, some years ago now, was renowned for her tour of the communion circuit. She was something of a legend in her own lifetime and, when she passed away, a neighbour asked her husband what he was going to do now. He replied, ‘keep her in the house for a few days – something I never ever managed before’!

Women who are rarely at home are the stuff of Lewis humour. ‘Falbh nan sìtigean’, ‘rèibheireachd’ and ‘sràbhaicearachd’  have all been used as slightly judgemental ways of  referring to these shameless hussies who will not settle to the domestic life.

I have become one such. In a short space of time, I have been transformed from a  woman who rarely left her own fireside, to one who hardly gets to see it at all. Before I was widowed, I spent a lot of time in my own company, which I didn’t dislike. Donnie, before falling ill, worked all week at Dounreay. He would phone at the back of seven in the morning, and at teatime, and again at bedtime. It took me many, many months not to feel anxious away from a phone at ten in the evening; and I have only now stopped taking my morning shower with the bathroom door open, so that I could hear if he rang.

Life revolved around him, around us and around our home. I was content to ‘potter’.

So, when he had gone, I suppose I worried that time would sit heavy on my hands. At first, it didn’t matter, because other people filled the hours, or I walked the dog, or watched television, or worked in the garden. During that initial raw stage, I kept myself safe, and didn’t stray too far from home. I did a little redecorating, planted flowers, and slept soundly at night.

Through those months, I was sustained by my new-found assurance. Nothing was too big, or too terrible to bear because all my trust was not in a fragile human being who could leave me at any moment, but in Christ, who never will.

It was, of course, a sad time. All my routines, all my touchstones, all my plans . . . these made little sense any more in this strange, new world. But, when I look back on it now, I also see that it was a precious time.

I am reminded of the life of Elijah. In case any elders/ministers/outraged cailleachs are reading this, I am not comparing myself to the prophet. Well, alright, maybe just a little.

When this tower of strength and obedient zeal for the Lord was frightened, he took to his heels. And an angel of God ministered to him, persuading him to rest. This lovely interlude in the account of Elijah’s life reminds us of the need to conserve energy, and to draw back from the fray when it becomes too much.

My life has changed radically since those first months when I was ministered to tenderly by God. He gave me that time, I believe, as a gift, to prepare me for everything that would follow. I don’t suppose it ever entered my head as the first gaping wound slowly healed, that I would eventually regard that time in my life as an oasis. But it was.

Now, three years on, I have what Lady Bracknell would disparagingly call ‘a life crowded with incident’. I am rarely to be found in the house at a sensible hour, and hardly a day goes by without some sort of extra commitment – or even two or three. I have had to start operating a ‘system’ to keep abreast of where I am meant to be.

None of this is helped by the fact that home is a twenty-minute drive away from work, church and the various other places I now spend my time. Last week, I had a post-work meeting every single day. The previous week was about the same.

And, I hit a wall of tiredness and discouragement. So, I did exactly as Elijah did. Oh, you’re thinking, how very wise Catriona is. Follow the prophet’s example and you can’t go wrong.

How did he end up being ministered to by the angel, though? He took to his heels in fear and he ran – not to the Lord, but to find shelter for himself. That’s the behaviour I replicated: Elijah ran for the shelter of a broom tree; I took myself away from church and the fellowship of God’s people. I skipped a Sunday evening service because I was tired, and then a midweek prayer meeting. And, while I’m in confessional mode, I may as well say that my private worship was not all it should be either.

Thankfully, this weekend was an ‘in-house’ communion. There is a quietness and a peace about it, which encourages a spirit of restfulness. We heard about the strength and power in the Lord’s hands, but also the tenderness – and the knowledge that before His hands were extended towards me, they were first outstretched on the cross.

How did I ever allow myself to forget, in the midst of all the bustle of life, that my best shelter is there, under their protection?

 

 

 

Time On My Hands

Last week, I was looking for something else entirely, when I came across my husband’s pocket watch. It was nestling in its box, in the top drawer of what I still think of as his bedside table. He was, as I am, a great fan of timepieces. After he died, I gave both his brothers wristwatches that he had worn and cherished – but this remained where his own hand had last placed it.

He used to joke about my obsession with clocks, especially when March or October rolled around, and their hands had to be moved in the requisite direction. Sometimes he would jokingly suggest starting on them a week before.

I counted them today – not including the cooker, or other electronic timers, there are eleven clocks in my house. The sitting room is home to both a grandfather and a mantle clock, with a resonant tick-tock, and lovely Westminster chimes.

I also have numerous watches, but far and away the most precious is the one I wear most days. It is Swiss with a mechanical movement, bought by Donnie for me when we celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary in Barcelona. It was two months before he was diagnosed with the cancer that would take his life.

I can sit here and look at the present  he gave me, and remember how it was before we knew that time would end for us. It is almost like having the ability to go backwards through the years. This object seems to connect me, not just to Donnie, but to that last perfect holiday.

Because it’s mechanical, like the pocket watch, it stops when it has been off my wrist for a while. When the nurse handed me Donnie’s wedding ring, I felt like that too: everything seemed to grind to a halt.

Time became my enemy. It had ticked relentlessly away towards 7pm on Friday, 20th March, 2015. One minute, he was still alive, and the next, he was not. One minute, I was holding my husband’s hand, and then elders from the church were shaking mine, newly-widowed and bewildered.

How many years might I have to get through without him? How soon could I reasonably hope to die? Those were my very real thoughts.

But I didn’t stop. My cogs and gears kept moving, and time carried me along with it. It still does.

Even now, I have probably got too many timepieces, and a certain tendency to anxiety if late for anything. But, in every real sense, time has lost its hold over me.

Just one glimpse of the eternal will do that.

I don’t pretend to have had a vision of the celestial city, although, for a while, the idea of heaven possessed me. Once, at a house fellowship, someone casually mentioned having read a book about heaven. At the first opportunity, I bought a copy and read it in two sittings.

Christians can’t help but be curious about this home that they have never seen. It is a frequent, speculative topic of conversation. But I have lost any appetite that I may once have had for reading books about it. None of us can possibly imagine what it will be like. If God is too perfect to behold our sin, then it follows that we are too sinful to conceive of His perfection. Never mind that we cannot grasp what eternity actually is, with our finite minds – we cannot imagine heaven with our sinful hearts.

Of course, as a Christian, I associate the word ‘eternal’ with its companion, the word, ‘life’. And whatever my tiny, science-avoiding brain cannot comprehend, my heart tells me this for certain: eternal life begins, not after death, but the moment you accept your Saviour. That’s when time loses its grip on you, and concedes to its Master.

And it’s why, whatever I felt on losing Donnie, time did not win. Nor did it stop. For him, it gave way to eternity.

Receiving his wedding ring back after he died, I see now, was so appropriate. The circular band is a symbol of eternity, without beginning or end. Beautiful as that seemed on our wedding day, it actually achieved its full resonance the evening he went home. I keep it now as a reminder, not of our promises to one another, but of God’s promise to us both.

And the pocket watch I kept because it was lovely, and it was his, no longer carries the same meaning. Because it only moves when it’s worn. I don’t want it lying in a drawer like some morbid memorial to Donnie – as if, like grief first made me fear, time stops with death.

I know that isn’t true. Time goes on for me. Now, my wee mechanical wristwatch has ticked me three years forward from the night I last held Donnie’s hand. But when it finally stops for good, and is laid aside in its box, I know with certainty that eternity beckons.

And although I don’t know what that will be like, this I do know: God is there.

If only our obsession with time would be replaced by a real concern about eternity – it should never take a stopped watch, or a wedding ring without an owner to lift our eyes to that horizon.

 

 

 

 

 

God’s Unfinished Business

On Sunday evening in church, I was looking, I suppose, for something soothing – a calming, comfortable message that I could take home with me, and rest upon after a frankly awful few weeks. Instead, I left church feeling like the lowest of the low. I had, I was certain, brought myself, my congregation and – worst of all – the cause of Christ- into disrepute.

We are not to repay ill-treatment with reviling; we are not to threaten. That was the message. I thought of my own recent spiritual warfare. Lies were told blatantly about me; insinuations were made; my name was bandied about by unfeeling strangers; and my husband’s death alluded to as though it were nothing. Had I conducted myself badly in response to this? Was this a rebuke, straight from God, via the pulpit, into my heart?

It felt like it. And I responded as though that’s what it was. Sunday night was troubling; Monday more so. All the turbulence of the past months replayed in my head. Where had I let Him down? What should I not have said?

It’s all words, you see. There has been a storm of words. And I am tired of that storm. I am the weary traveller, disorientated and chilled, who just wants to lie down for a rest, wrapped in comfort, and let oblivion claim me.

But, the comfortable text did not come on Sunday night, nor the soothing words. There was nowhere to set down my weariness, just more words that seemed to accuse me. You should  not pay ill-treatment with reviling.

So, I thought, by Monday afternoon – had I? Was the accuser in my own heart being fair in turning the guilt on me?

The passage in question offers Christ as our template, something all Christians know to be true anyway. How did He behave in His afflictions? Just as He behaved in all other circumstances: perfectly. Now, that’s definitely not true of me. It just is not possible.

God knows that’s the case, though, and does not ask for perfection. He does expect, however, that we do everything mindful of Him.

So, had I been mindful of Him? When I was called a liar, secretive, spiritually immature, disgusting, self-seeking, a disgrace to the fellowship of the church? And when I was bombarded with private messages too hateful to repeat? Yes, I believe I was. Did these words hurt me? Of course they did – for a time. And then I brought them to Him, and He put everything in its proper perspective.

I couldn’t have got through any of this without Him. But I have to be honest, there were times when I had to work hard to remember who I am – not least when confronted recently by one of the secularists in an approach which presumably made sense to her. My claims that I have been bullied upset her, she complained, without a trace of irony.

It is a mammoth struggle to be gracious when your tormentor becomes your accuser. But this is where that other great challenge of the Christian life comes into play: crucifying self. I think I understand it better now.

Just as Christ would not come down from the cross to save Himself, despite the taunts, I should not trouble about my own reputation, as long as it’s being pilloried for Him. All that matters is that I am doing what is just in His sight. My reputation before men does not really signify. We are, all of us, liars and warpers of the truth, far too easily impressed by an outward appearance. God sees what is within.

I have been tested far more than I am capable of putting into words. It is unpleasant to be the target of so much hatred from strangers, to see yourself described in the most unflattering and inaccurate of terms, to be shown no mercy.

And yet I have suffered nothing compared to that same Lord. His agonies were so that I would not have to endure. He was spat at and mocked, beaten, and finally put to death, and he spoke not one word against His enemies. Blasphemed and reviled on all sides, He prayed one of the most beautiful petitions of the Bible, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’.

This is the aspect of God I need to be mindful of in these circumstances. I need to imitate His pity and His compassion. I am far from perfect, and I have nothing like the Saviour’s heart, but I have seen His love from both sides now. He has shown me the meaning of forgiveness.

Uncomfortable though it is, then, I want Him to go on speaking His truth to me, testing and questioning my motives, my conduct, my heart. That is how I know this is a living faith, as well as a faith to live by. And if my conscience is troubled by God’s Word, then that tells me I am still His work in progress, and He is active in my life.

I would have it no other way. And, whatever else may be said about me, I would by no means keep all that grace for myself.

 

 

 

 

The Savour of Life . . . Or Death?

Coming up to the anniversary of Donnie’s death this week, I worried. You see, I’ve learned that you never quite know how you’re going to be. It is almost as though you are watching another person, because you have zero control over your own feelings in this regard.

Nonetheless, you gather yourself inwards, tentatively approaching the dread day on metaphorical tiptoes. I suppose, three years on, I am afraid of waking the sleeping beast of grief.

Sunday was wonderful. I had missed the midweek service because of another meeting. And I felt its absence, limping towards the weekend. So, Sunday and my church family received me into their warm embrace. Preaching, praise, prayer and fellowship somewhere you can just be yourself is not to be beaten. It poured strength into me, reminding me who He is.

And, when Tuesday came, I awoke, feeling . . . fine. Better than fine. Time with Himself, a stroll with the dog, and I was chilled out. There were messages of care and love and prayer – many from people who had never known Donnie but who have become important in my life since then.

Just as He has done three years ago, God surrounded me with His peace. For that day, I could read the barrage of nastiness about me online and not be troubled. Not be troubled for myself, at any rate. The people making snide remarks struck me as rather sad, forlorn figures. What kind of person hates someone they’ve never met to that degree? I felt sorry for them.

But I’m ashamed to admit that the feeling of pity did not last. You can only hold yourself taut for so long and, by the time I went to bed, my heart felt so full of resentment I thought it might splinter.

‘Even today’, I complained to God, ‘they couldn’t leave me alone’.

I have learned to live with the fact that I am despised for being a Christian; I have learned not to be bothered by the casual lies they tell about me. This is not actually about me anyway – I could be their darling tomorrow if I denied Christ. He is the unpopular one, not me. These days, I am reviled for His sake, just as He was reviled for mine.

And there the comparison ends.

He bore His infinitely greater suffering with perfect fortitude. I simply ended up feeling sorry for myself.

On Wednesday morning, I stomped about the house, and went to work in the worst of humours. It was a culmination of things: too much coffee, too little sleep, too much holding it together on my own inadequate strength, and not enough time pouring out my heart to God. At one point, I told my sister that the day was bound to end with me hitting someone – anyone – or bursting into tears.

The day, in fact, ended in laughter and in gratitude.

What effected this miraculous transformation? Not ‘what’ – who? And I think you already know the answer.

First of all, there are friends. The friends God puts in your path are not necessarily those you would expect. Sometimes, the world might look askance at these relationships, and even wonder what you could possibly have in common. But I found the value of those God-honouring friendships right then. While I was seething through my day, these friends were, it transpired, worrying for me.

And, if you’re not a Christian, you may be thinking, ‘that’s nice – but hardly remarkable’.

Wrong. It is extraordinary in the truest sense of the word. Christian concern goes heavenwards. These friends, in their anxiety for me, were bringing me before God. In being on their hearts, I was also on His.

That is not nothing.

In their safe company, I unwound. The venom of poor, misguided people lost its sting. I remembered who I was because these friends showed me what I should be.

And we laughed. Mainly at each other. Together, as well, we reflected on the meaning of integrity, which is really  about being straight before God.

It doesn’t matter what those who are wise in their own sight think of me. They have started off from the false premise that there is no God, and so all the working out from then on is bound to be erroneous.

This is not about them, though. They have taken enough of this week from me.

Actually, this blog is not a blog at all, but a love song – to the Lord, and to His people. It is a thanksgiving.

God moves the hearts of His people to small acts of love. It was they, through Him, who soothed my brittleness this week. In the unexpected heat of this election campaign, a little  band of us have supported one another. Each day, we begin by sharing a reading; and each night, we smooth the cares of the day with a song of praise.

And, there are the messages. One person sent me assurance of their prayers, accompanied by the loveliest sound clip of psalm singing from our church. Ladies I haven’t seen in years, but who knew my parents, sending me word of their solidarity. It is worth so much more than I can ever express.

Then there are the strangers. Not the hate-filled people who abuse my good name for what I believe; not the faux-reasonable secuularists who wish I would just disappear and shut my face about who Christ is.

No, the other kind of stranger. People I have never met, but who are my brothers and sisters because they too have known God’s grace. So, so many of them have reached out and blessed me by doing so.

How can the same words cause some to bitterly hate, and others to brim with love? That, I think, is a question for the unbelievers. God, help them.

 

 

Dear Younger Me

In the last blog, I mentioned in passing my ongoing education in spiritual music. Although it was certainly a revelation to be told last weekend that there is no scriptural reason why I might not precent in church, there remain several very good musical (and, indeed, social) reasons why this would not work. I am in this, as in everything else, a follower and not a leader.

Of course, I was brought up in a tradition of singing Psalms. I love them for their sustaining wisdom, for their ability to speak to me in all circumstances. They have the power to heal and, just sometimes, the power to wound. If I am feeling vulnerable, Psalm 100 can tip me over into lip-trembling wobbliness, simply because it was sung at our wedding and . . . well, I’m only human.

There is, however, more to spiritual music than psalms. I have, by virtue of living in the world and having a mother who grew up in the Church of Scotland, some idea of popular hymns. Once, as a child, I surprised my mother by quoting ‘Blessed Assurance’, probably to help me win an argument.

A couple of years ago, I went to a women’s conference where, on the programme, the – to me – mysterious word ‘praise’ was printed at various intervals. I glanced about me, mildly nonplussed as to who would precent in a room full of dames.

Imagine, then, my surprise at what ensued. Musical accompaniment, and something calling itself ’10, 000 Reasons’. Not a clue. I scanned the song selection. Nope, nothing familiar here. A Christian gathering consisting only of women and no psalms, with added music.  To say that I had been catapulted out of my comfort zone would not be an exaggeration.

The women thing, I realised, was just a blip. Once the Session got to hear about it, I was certain that those responsible would be punished and normal services would resume. But, my eyes – and ears – were opened to the possibility that there was another kind of music out there; that there were ways of singing your faith that didn’t have to be metrical.

My exploration of the possibilities turned up a few singers that I could get along with. There is, after all, absolutely no excuse for bad Christian music. Who has got more reason to sing than us? Like the hymn says, ‘I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free’.

Yes, I’m still quoting hymns. Old habits die hard. But I am also having my musical horizons broadened.

A friend supplies me with seemingly random links to songs he likes, sometimes when I least expect. During a recent public trial by secularist hate mob, he sent Matthew West’s ‘Grace Wins’ – ‘Take a breath smile and say: Right here right now I’m ok because the cross was enough’.

The best songs will do that, just like the word in season, the shared reading: God speaks through it, reminding you who He is and that nothing will overwhelm the person who puts their whole life in His hands.

But then there was the intriguingly-titled, ‘Dear Younger Me’. This is something different because it explores what we might say if we could go back and speak to a younger version of ourselves. The dilemma, of course, is whether you would warn the young you about the pitfalls that lie ahead; whether you would try to head yourself away from dangers and bad experiences. Would you not try to spare yourself pain?

Perhaps there was a time when I would have answered that question very quickly in the affirmative. Why would you not want to spare yourself suffering? It is, after all, how we are expected to behave towards others; why would we not want to do ourselves the same kindness?

Is it a kindness, though? Yes, if you look on that span of life between cradle and grave as what concerns us most. But for the Christian, that can never be the case. The journey we are on here is towards a destination in heaven, yet we are not simply plodding, there, head down; we are being equipped for it as we go.

Not a day passes without me thinking of my late husband, and missing him in countless ways. This time of year, though, I think of how hard it was to fear losing him, to be told I would lose him, and to watch him die. And how much easier it was to know he had gone, and to Whom he had gone.

That is the difference, I think, between wanting to spare yourself burdens, and knowing what pain and loss and thoroughly unwanted providence can do for you in the longer-run.

The song says, ‘every moment brings you closer to who you were meant to be’. I know that if I could go back to Christmas 2000, to that person I used to be, I would not say, ‘See the man you met the other night, maybe don’t meet him for that drink. It doesn’t end well’.

In fact, if I was forced to meet her, 25 year-old Catriona, I would tell her two things you will also find in the song. First, I would tell her that life will bring sadness and joy, but that the deeper peace in her soul has nothing to do with either of those; and then I would tell her that whatever challenges come, she was never meant to carry them beyond the cross.

And if she asked me about the man she had just met. I would smile, and nod, and she would do it all exactly like I already have.

Other Christians I know, too, are a bit battle-scarred, and wondering the same sort of thing – trying to make sense of what they have gone through. If I had the courage, I would tell them the precious truth I have learned:

The roadmap may be hidden from my sight, but it’s hidden in God’s hand. He’s got this, dear younger me. And I would not have Him change a thing.

 

 

 

 

Wee Free Frankenstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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