Hallowe’en is coming, and the Clocks Are Going Back . . .

Someone – and I’m not prepared to say who – created a bit of bother in Stornoway Free Church last weekend. They posted a flippantly captioned meme onto the church Facebook page, featuring a photograph of our two ministers. This flagrant misuse of the image was bad enough, but to compound the felony, it was heavily implied that one of the reverends could not be trusted to put the clocks back.

Which is ironic, really, because we all know that the Free Church has been setting this island back centuries since its foundation in 1843. What would one hour more have mattered?

I am a little bit obsessed with time myself. In the normal course of things, I like to be early. Sometimes ridiculously early. This is why I don’t like going to things with my less punctual friends and relatives. Walking into an early morning prayer-meeting once, after the door had been shut almost caused me a nose-bleed. It is my uptight side coming out. And there’s not a lot I can do about it.

On Hallowe’en night, I was due to give a talk on the Otherworld. So, I duly press-ganged my sister into accompanying me, and she wrong-footed me by being at our appointed meeting place early. We both arrived at the Leurbost Community Centre a good forty minutes before I was expected to utter a single word about witches. As we sat in the car park until a more respectable hour, hordes of children dressed as ghosts and witches (well, I assume they were children) rushed past. It brought back many happy memories of similarly dark and cold evenings, when a crowd of us would go from door to door, singing for a donation to the party fund.

And nostalgia was the tone for the whole evening. There was something about it . . . talking, as people did long ago, about superstitions, about mysterious lights and unexplained noises, and women who were suspected of being a bit uncanny. Woven into it was Gaelic, and genealogy, and laughter, and scones. My more eccentric granny was from Achmore, and the previous generation from (inevitably) Ranish. All North Lochie genes seem to emanate from Ranish. And there were lovely ladies there who had worked with my parents in the Old County Hospital, or knew my mother, or were related to a neighbour.

It was an old-fashioned evening. People wanted to ‘place’ me, and I in my turn had to figure them out. There was darkness, cold and an atmospherically howling wind outside. Inside, though, I felt like some magic had indeed taken place, and that, in talking about the tales of da-shealladh and taibhsean, I had unwittingly conjured up the past.

The tea and baking that followed my rambling was preceded by a grace. It makes me glad to know that some communities still continue with this, and some still open all their meetings with prayer.

But it makes me sad to think of the people who would see this humble gratefulness to God for His unwarranted goodness to us as just so much more superstition. There are those who would place the dignified words of blessing and thanks in the same category as charms to ward off the evil eye, or rituals to protect a child from felonious elves.

People are interested enough to come and hear about Hallowe’en, and the things that our ancestors believed. They were, I think, afraid of what might come out of the darkness to harm them. It wasn’t really spirits of the dead, or witches bent on evil that threatened them at all, but the nameless fear of things they could not comprehend. Illness, infant death, loss of all kinds . . . if these come at you unexpectedly and without explanation, perhaps you just have to create your own framework in which to understand them.

And people who dismiss God as superstition are just the same. They have built up their own version of the Otherworld, just a lot less plausible than the one populated with fairies and witches.

Their imaginary realm is the one they inhabit now. And they think it is all there is. The atheist thinks that when he closes his eyes on this world, he simply ceases to be. They do not waste time speaking to an imaginary deity now, because they do not expect to meet him later.

But they will. We all will.

I don’t like to dismiss the beliefs of our forefathers as mere superstition. They believed the things that they did in good faith, but also at times out of ignorance. Some of our good old Highland ministers (not at all the sort to forget to wind the clocks) believed that second sight may have been an example of hierophany – God communicating directly with a rural population which was largely illiterate and unable to read Scripture for itself.

The truth is, however, we don’t know. There are indeed, as the Bard (nope, not Murdo MacFarlane, the other cove) once said, ‘more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.

‘Philosophy’ here might well refer to all of learning – whether that is astronomy, biology, or some daft creutair from the local college who has learned a few things about witches and wise women.

But the really wise women are not waiting for revelation in dreams or visions. They are setting their clocks to spend time with the Lord. His book is better than magic, and in His presence you will find more things than are dreamt of in any philosophy, I’m sure – even in the fondest prayers of the Christian.

 

Closed minds and open Bibles

I really think that my boss should sack me. If, that is, what I’ve just read about myself online is true. According to the scions of the Western Isles ‘Secular’ Society, I am teaching students about the links between goblins and the Reformation. Yes, goblins and the development of the Protestant faith, if ever I applied for Mastermind, would probably be my specialist subject.

Exactly where this would fit into the BA Gaelic Language and Culture syllabus, I’m not sure. Somewhere between St Columba and the Pixies, and Fairies and the Clearances, perhaps. Why let logic get in the way of an opportunity for righteous indignation, though? These so-called secularists have me down as a fantasist of some kind, evidently.

They’re not too bothered about that, however . It seems that they’re happy for me to teach the students whatever lunacy I want, because the real star of this story is not me at all:

It is the pulpit Bible, open upon a lectern in the College library which has them coming over all concerned.

No mention of a be-pumpkined display of books next to it, proclaiming the impending festival of Hallowe’en. Nothing upsetting about a skeleton wearing a pointy, black hat. Books of folktales and accounts of how our ancestors summoned the Devil (roasting felines alive, as it happens) are nowhere near as offensive, it seems, as the Word of God.

The Word of God, which many people died to give us in our own language. Now, some people so filled with hatred as to count that nothing think it should variously be closed, removed,or – rather tellingly for a group which claims to be ‘secular’ rather than anti-Christian – replaced with the Torah, the Talmud, or the Quran. Anything, really, except the Bible, isn’t that it?

But the fact is that the Reformation happened, and it is still pertinent now, in 2017. When William Tyndale vowed that the ploughboy would eventually be better acquainted than a priest with the Word, he really meant it. In fact, he died making it possible.

If only this rather negative wee group of people would think about the irony inherent in this.

The ordinary Europeans were once denied access to the Scriptures in their own language, in order to refuse them spiritual autonomy. They were dependent upon an elite who ‘knew better’ to tell them what they should believe. Sound familiar?

Before the Reformation, the church kept the truth from the people by shrouding everything in a language they did not understand. Kings and queens could read, as could princes of the church: but not the ploughboy of whom Tyndale spoke.

Perhaps it is the legacy of the Reformation that makes me suspicious of an ‘open-minded’ and ‘tolerant’ group which wishes to suppress the truth.

Of course, they would argue that it is NOT truth, but mere legend. Then again, if they really believed that, the open Bible would not have offended them any more than Popular Tales of the West Highlands, sitting on a parallel display in the same library.

They don’t believe it, though. If they did, they would leave it alone. The enormous pulpit Bible – which belongs to me, in fact, and not the College library – would be no more offensive to them than the folktales piled high a few feet away.

One offended, though, and one went unnoticed.

The Word of God has always offended. Or, frightened. People frequently fear what they don’t understand. Surely, though, the rational response is to learn more, not to lash out, not to put it from you, like a terrified child who doesn’t want to see the thing that lurks under his bed.

If this wee insight into the ‘secular’ mindset does nothing else, it confirms that you cannot be indifferent to the Bible, because – fundamentally – it is not just a book like Carmina Gadelica or Scottish Traditional Tales. It is breathed out by God, and has about it the savour from life unto life, or from death unto death, depending on how things are between you and Heaven.

I’ve often been frustrated by the kind of people who call themselves ‘secular’ or ‘atheist’, yet can’t seem to leave Christianity alone. After all, if it’s an irrelevant fantasy – like unicorns – why waste so much energy on denouncing it?

But perhaps that is wrong of me. Isn’t it a good and encouraging sign that they are not indifferent to the sight of an open Bible? Saul of Tarsus was not indifferent either, and see who he became.

In fact, if they would care to step closer to the offending lectern, my ‘secular’ friends would see that the Bible is open at that very Paul’s second letter to Timothy. The magnifying glass is purposely laid to draw attention to this text:

‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work’.

May they, one day, feel its reproof and profit from its teaching, even to the point of righteousness.

Status: in a relationship – and this one’s for keeps

I am hoping to be busy this Hallowe’en, if I’m spared, speaking in North Lochs about the supernatural world. It is an engagement which was made on the very doorstep of the manse, though I should stress that neither the Rev nor the First Lady had any knowledge of it. Nor do I regularly meet Lochies in the manse garden to discuss things that go bump in the night.

Not that I think we should fear the night. It certainly doesn’t bother me that, after an evening spent talking to – let’s just assume there will be an audience – folk about ghosts and witches, I have to drive back to North Tolsta. In the night. In the dark. Through the glen. Alone.

Gulp.

Except, not really on my own, of course. The Christian is never truly alone. Christ experienced that complete desolation so that we wouldn’t have to. Without doubt, the greatest privilege of my life is to be able to say that He has never left me, nor forsaken me. I cannot actually recall what it feels like to be alone.

There are still, however, some things which frighten me more than they should. Spiders. Mice. Exam boards. The minister’s wife when she’s recruiting for the soup and pudding. Or when she finds out I’ve been making odd arrangements with Lochies outside her front door. .

But other fears, I’ve left behind. One, fortunately, is public speaking. It used to terrify me; the very thought of getting up and talking in front of people gave me a dry mouth and a blank mind. Everything had to be written down, just in case all I’d ever known flew out of my head.

Recently, I feel I’ve been doing my best to scunner the Wee Frees of Lewis with my ubiquitous presence, answering questions about my experience of coming to faith. It’s a tough gig to get right – a bit like writing your testimony, where it’s an account from your point of view, but you’re not actually the main character.

And the fabulous Mairiann, who questioned me on behalf of our own congregation, has a great way of putting you at ease. She exudes calmness, which makes you calm. Because she was relaxed, I relaxed. Then, she utterly flummoxed me.

‘God has a particular heart for widows’, she said, ‘what could we, as a church, be doing, to fulfil His desire that we should care for them?’ It’s incredible how much ground your mind can cover in a few seconds. I glanced at the assembled people. How to answer that question? What advice could I give; what request should I make on behalf of the widows among our number?

I believe my poorly expressed response was something like, ‘keep doing what you’re doing’. This is surely not the answer anyone was looking for. Nor, in fact, was that the answer they deserved. Not from me.

The day my husband was buried, the presiding minister prayed that the church would now be a husband to me. Donnie was not a tall man, but, nonetheless, these were big shoes to fill. How could an institution like the church ever hope to be what he was to me? One of my friends, an atheist, actually repeated this sentiment afterwards, and laughed. In that strange fog, which accompanies bereavement, I registered her scorn, but had no reply.

Now I do, though – for her, if she chooses, and for the congregation who got no very adequate response to a reasonable question.

Love. Safety. Friendship. Care. Compassion. Identity. Closeness. Laughter. Acceptance. Freedom. Respect. Generosity. Trust. Protection.

These are the gifts I got from Donnie, as his wife. Since becoming his widow, I have felt moments of fear, of vulnerability, of pain that is almost physical, of lostness, of loneliness. I am no longer one half of a couple; I am simply one half. In the weeks and months that followed his death, I’m sure that was writ large on my countenance.

But always, Christ was at my shoulder. He never left me; He never will.

And listening to His voice always, His bride. Not that I’m suggesting for one minute that Stornoway Free Church is the whole church of Christ; just that it is one lovely limb. It has accepted me, flaws and all; it has supplied all that I need and more.

A church is made up of God’s people. Why should anyone mock the notion that they could be a husband to me? They are in-dwelt by the Spirit, and are moved by grace. To be a widow in their midst is a privilege not afforded to everyone. Unlike Donnie, wonderful though he was, Christ’s church does not love me for who I am, but for who He is.

And that, I am certain, is a love that will not let me go.

 

Samhain and the Power of Darkness

The veil between this world and the world of spirits was always at its thinnest on 31st October: Hallowe’en to the kids of today, but Samhain to our long-dead ancestors. Samhain was a fire festival, marking the end of harvest and the beginning of the dark months. It was also a sort of passage in time, no longer in the old year, nor yet quite into the new. The spirits of the Otherworld could insinuate themselves into such breaches in continuity; they could return to warm themselves at the hearths of the living, and even take possession of their bodies in order to remain in the earthly realm well beyond Samhain.

Don’t run away with the idea that our Celtic ancestors were morbid, with a fixation on death, though. No, no, that sort of glumness didn’t kick in until 1843, when the Free Church outlawed fun, laughing within a six-mile radius of the minister, and wearing your hat at jaunty angles. Think instead of Samhain as a jolly festival, with flames to light up the encroaching darkness and a whole lot of clamour to confuse the ghosts.

You see, Samhain wasn’t really about death at all – it was about keeping these very forces at bay. It was about marking the safe in-gathering of the harvest. And, while we look on winter as the end of life, the Celts saw it quite differently. Time, for them, was cyclical and Samhain was both an end and a new beginning. They realised that the budding and blooming we witness in the spring does not just happen spontaneously, but is the latter-end of a process which begins many months before.

In nature, regeneration first requires darkness. You plant a seed. Then you water it. And you watch. Nothing happens. Repeat the watering, the watching and – yes, probably – the despairing, many times. One day, though, your patience and your care are rewarded: a single, green shoot has made its appearance. Conceived and prepared in the dark, but flourishing in the light.

I recall an evening last summer, planting flowers in the long bed at the front of the house. It is surrounded and shaded by trees planted and lovingly tended by my late husband. With the warmth of the sun causing sweet fragrance from the fresh-cut grass to perfume the air, and the sound of birdsong beginning to drowse above me, I listened to a sermon on Genesis 1. Never has it been brought home to me more powerfully that we were meant to live in a garden.

Listening to those familiar words, ‘In the beginning, God . . .’ being described as a prelude to the whole Bible, I found myself wondering what it would have been like had we lived only in a Genesis 1 world.

For an idea of how it might have been, play Haydn’s oratorio, ‘The Creation’: all is the glory of God and the perfection of His handiwork. Indeed, the Catholic Church took great exception to it and banned its performance in places of worship precisely because of its portrayal of a perfectly-ordered world. Its emphasis is, undoubtedly, positive because it largely dwells on God’s perfect work. Nonetheless, the Fall does intrude towards the end, however minimised it is by the composer.

In a work entitled ‘The Creation’, Haydn might well have been excused for excluding sin altogether. But for one thing. He had been inspired to compose his great work after hearing Handel’s ‘Messiah’ performed for the first time. It made a powerful impression on him. No one who has once encountered the Messiah can then look upon Creation in the same way again, nor be unaware of the need sin has created for salvation.

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It is just as well that we humans do not know what lies ahead, because with our small minds, and limited life-spans, we frequently reach the least optimistic conclusions.  Adam and Eve must have been so weighed down with sorrow on leaving the garden; they couldn’t see the Saviour who would come to make reparations on their behalf. Perhaps, for them, the story ended like Haydn’s, with the Fall.  But God, omnipresent and omniscient, is also wholly trustworthy.

Nature witnesses to its Creator. It has an inherent wisdom, and a completeness to it. Where we see darkness and decay, nature is actually resting and regenerating. Last year’s roses shrivel and fall, the shrub a desiccated stick. Yet, beneath the ground, the roots are gathering strength, ready to produce new shoots.

As it is in Creation, so it is with the Creator: He nurtures that growth, hidden from our view until He is ready to reveal it to our sight, and to His own glory.