The Family Tree and the Well

If you want to change your identity in Lewis, forget fake passports – you had better be prepared to forge an entire family tree for yourself. Even if you do, though, someone is bound to recognise you on your auntie Effie, or your cousin Angus. We cannot escape our dualchas, it seems, and especially not in a place which has eyes everywhere and a memory as long as time. Whatever you do may very well be written-off as, ‘rud a bh’ anns na daoine’. If Effie had one Babycham too many at her sister’s wedding in 1973, well, chances are you’ve got a weakness for the hard stuff too.

We have an interest in our genealogy here that is stronger, I think, than in many other places. People tend to be aware of relatives that are actually fairly distant. Recently, through the wonders of modern technology, I have been corresponding with just such a person about our shared Achmore ancestry. My maternal granny was from that village and it is nice to have names, dates and addresses to fill out the sketchy pictures in my head. It is good to know about my people, and to see Achmore as somewhere other than just the place my father threatened to move us to if we didn’t behave.

That interest can even transcend geography. Relatives long since emigrated to Canada will follow with interest the news from ‘home’. My great-uncle Henry, brother of my Achmore granny, went off to live in Australia as a young man of eighteen or so. He died, while reading the ‘Stornoway Gazette’ (me too, many times . . .) The point is that he died an old man, but was still keeping up with goings-on in Lewis, until the very end.

When I was a student, one of our lecturers mentioned that his brother, who had lived in New Zealand for the greater part of his life, would soon be coming back to Lewis for his first visit since emigrating. ‘I wonder’, he mused, ‘how many people who don’t even know him, will have heard that he’s coming home’. He made a valid point. That is how news is shared in Lewis: people frequently tell me things about people I have never met. I have felt heart-sore for men and women who I wouldn’t recognise if I tripped over them.

A few months ago, at a church conference, I met a lady and we got talking. She began the process of ‘placing’ me. It didn’t take too long. Being a (fairly) young widow in a wee place like this makes me easy to identify. ‘We didn’t know who you were’, she said, ‘but we prayed for you’. I was moved beyond words. No wonder I had felt the Lord upholding me in my grief, no wonder He had seemed so near – even strangers were bringing me before Him.

God, of course, does not need to be told anything about me, or anyone else – that is why the gravestones of those who die unidentified frequently bear the legend, ‘known unto God’. Prayer is not intended to inform Him, but to involve Him; it is the greatest kindness one human being can do for another. Imagine, in the worst moments of your life, that unseen community of praying people, committing you into the care of the Almighty. Whether you cannot, or will not, do it for yourself, it is their privilege to pray on your behalf.

The woman of Samaria did not enjoy these benefits of community. Her lifestyle might have shocked and offended her neighbours, so she lived a solitary life, even purposely going to the well for water when she knew that none of the other women would be present. There, however, she met a man who told her everything she ever did. He met her where she was, and to her declaration that her people were waiting for the Messiah to come and reveal all, Christ responded with, ‘I Am’.

We islanders were not the first to place value upon family history, and upon names to embody enduring truths about us. In the Old Testament, a person’s name frequently tells of their character, or their greatest attribute. God often renamed them to fit their new life – Abram became Abraham and Sarai, Sarah, for example. Jesus, who had a human genealogy, just like you or I, chose instead to use ‘I Am’ when meeting this marginalised woman.

We are not told her name. Not even a family nickname to go on. Had she been from Shawbost, rather than Samaria, the lack of detail might be frustrating. But then, she’d had five husbands, so perhaps we could place her after all. Jesus didn’t concern Himself too much with her past, though. Yes, He mentioned it, to show that He knew her, but He didn’t cast it up against her. The woman’s inward transformation came through hearing His name and knowing – really believing- who He was.

Just as we need to ‘place’ people within their family trees in order to feel that we know them, this woman also had to hear who Jesus was. Even if she had been told his human name, however, it might have meant nothing to her. On the other hand, hearing, ‘I Am’ caused her to forget her outcast status and run headlong towards the very people who had shunned her.

That’s the change of identity we should all be striving for. Your DNA might say you’re descended from Vikings, and your family tree tell you that great-uncle Alasdair was a bit of a one for the boireannaich. But your Saviour says, ‘I Am’ –  and none of that other history matters anymore.

A Highland River of Life

If I had to pick just one day out of my life to relive, I might choose the first time I walked the Dunbeath strath with the man who was, the following summer, to become my husband. It was May holiday, 2002: warm, sunny, just one of those perfect days that stands out in my memory for reasons too insubstantial to put into words: you had to be there; and of the two who were, I am the only one left.

Part of the magic was that this was Neil Gunn’s strath. He has been my favourite writer for many years now and I can still recall the delight I felt as I recognised places mentioned in his novels – the meal mill, the House of Peace, the Prisoner’s Leap. Most of all, it brought to mind his 1937 novel, winner of the James Tait Memorial Prize – ‘Highland River’. Ever since reading that unique book, I found it impossible to walk beside any river without thinking of Kenn, the central character, making his journey towards the source: the source of the river, the source of his own identity.

Gunn believed that the Gaels were united by more than a mere language, that they were bound together by common experience, and by landscape. He was a great believer in the collective unconscious: Jung’s idea that people may share a second-level consciousness which cannot be related to their own direct experience. It describes what we might otherwise call ‘instinct’.

Calvin was a proponent of instinct in a way too. He argued that the light of nature – natural man’s awareness of God’s existence – is in each one of us, however distorted by sin. This was, and is, not to be confused with the light of the world in the person of Jesus Christ. In no way was Calvin suggesting that the sensus divinitatis, this awareness of God, was sufficient in itself; without the Spirit’s illumination, we cannot know God savingly. As the Westminster Confession of Faith has it:

‘Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.

As Kenn nears his final destination, the source of the river, he feels a strong sense of his own abiding solitude:

‘That was his destiny. He saw its meaning in his people, even in their religion, for what was the Calvinist but one who would have no mediating figure between himself and the ultimate, no one to take responsibility from him, to suffer for him.’

Well, true in part: Calvinists do not place their trust in priests, or bishops, in confessionals or man-made absolution. Calvinists, however, do believe in the great and only mediating figure. He has already suffered and taken responsibility for our sins. If, knowing this, we choose solitude and suffering for ourselves, we are not Calvinists, but fools.

Far be it from me to disagree with Calvin – that’s not how I was brought up. There is, I believe, an instinctive awareness of God in us, which the Creation further demonstrates. That, however, is surely as far as one can go with that. You can be aware of the existence of the Creator by witnessing the work of His hand, yes – but you cannot know Him apart from the Son and the Spirit. To truly know Him, you must know how He has dealt with mankind, how He has dealt with you. You must know the sacrifice He has made.

When I go back now, in my mind, to that strath, and to that day, I see Him there. Yes, in the beauty of the river, in the brightness of the sun and in the fragrance of nature. All of that, but this too: He planned that day, we two, and all that would become of us. Not just planned, but ordained, brought into being: authored and finished.

The mere, dim light of nature is not enough. It will leave us like those poor Greeks at the Areopagus, with an altar ‘to the unknown god’. If He is unknown to us, that is not because He is unknowable, but because we have not yet traced the river of our life back to its source.

‘For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light do we see light.’

The Seer and the Promise of Rain

There was a time when every village in the Highlands and Islands would have had a taibhsear, a person gifted with the ability to see into the otherworld of ghosts and death. These people operated at a different level to the seer, whose concerns were less domestic and frequently strayed into national issues. No, the taibhsear was mainly plagued by visions of phantom funerals, of shrouds on his neighbours, and of the visitation of death to the locality.

In discussing these aspects of our heritage with students, I am frequently asked why the gift of second sight seems to be in retreat. Of course, I am not qualified to give a definitive answer to that – no one is – but I do have my own thoughts on it.

Firstly, why do we use the word, ‘community’ so frequently nowadays? It derives from the Latin, communitas and was originally a noun of quality, meant to name, not a physical place, but a feeling of fellowship, of unity, of oneness. In Lewis, my parents’ generation and all of those preceding would never have dreamt of using the word: in Gaelic, they talked about ‘baile’ and in English, ‘village’. The rest was implied. ‘Anns a’ bhaile againne’, meaning, ‘in our village’, was a frequently used phrase which took as read all of those attributes with which we now associate the word, ‘community’. People lived in close proximity to one another, shared a similar worldview and an almost identical experience of life.

Also, if you go back far enough, they feared the same things. The threat of illness, and of death hovered near them and manifested itself in belief relating to the fairies, to the evil eye and to witches. Many of life’s events can seem random and unexpected. If, however, you can anticipate them to some degree, you may regain a little power. To a certain extent, you can even take the sting from death if you see it coming.

And secondly, isn’t it possible that such closeness bred something else – an instinct, an intuition for your neighbours, as much as for your own family? Look at Derick Thomson’s description of a Lewis sky:

Probably there’s no other sky in the world
That makes it so easy for people
To look in on eternity

Did they get some deep sense of their own smallness against the vastness of Creation? Perhaps it caused them to cling more closely to one another in ways that we simply cannot understand. We have lost something more than just the gift of second sight along this way; we have lost the care for one another that used to operate at such a natural level. And, dare I say, we have lost our own innate sense of eternity?

This is how it is possible for division to emerge in our midst where none previously existed. It is sadly inevitable that atheists and Christians will not be able to agree on certain matters. This rift cannot be healed by arguing round in ever more ill-tempered circles.

It can, however, be healed by prayer and by the constancy of God’s people. In the past, many of those who were reputedly gifted with the second sight were ministers and ‘Men’. No less a person than Dr John Kennedy of Dingwall thought of second sight as hierophany – the Lord manifesting Himself to those lacking regular access to the Word. His own father was thought to be thus gifted and foresaw, amongst other things, the Disruption of 1843, though he did not live to see his prophecy fulfilled.

The Disruption, which formed the Free Church of Scotland, was much more than a mere political movement. It was preceded by a widespread spiritual revival in the Highlands and Islands. Otherwise, the people could not have taken such a radical, faith-fuelled step. And such revivals are always precipitated by prayer. Real, heart-felt, expecting prayer.

Recently, in a study on the life of Elijah, our congregation heard of his earnest petitions to God for rain in the midst of drought, with his head bowed between his knees. Though he entreated desperately, he did so in faith. And when his servant reported the appearance in the sky of a tiny cloud, Elijah knew this was the emerging fulfilment of God’s promise.

We are – right now – in the midst of what can sometimes feels like spiritual drought. It would be easy to forget that God does not wish us to sit back in despair, but expects us to pray in earnest. Notice, Elijah was so serious about prayer that he employed someone else to check the sky while he got on with the real business in hand.

Our problem might be that we just keep on checking the sky, shaking our heads sadly before once again fixing our eyes on the parched ground. We need to pray, and we need to be ready to spot the little cloud when it appears – because if we pray in faith, it IS coming. First the cloud, then the deluge and then, up from the barren earth, fruit.

God isn’t silent – He’s simply waiting for our prayers. These have to include the wilfully blind in our midst – for who is to say that one of them is not that very cloud?

The Widow and the Devil

In folklore, the widow was often a witch. I’m unsure whether the assumption was that, without a husband’s restraining influence, a woman was bound to fall into bad ways, or whether there is just something unsettling about a woman who is isolated from the mainstream. Despite living in the reputed witchcraft capital of Lewis, and being a youngish widow, however, I have somehow managed to resist the lure of the darkness thus far.

Gaelic tradition records an unspeakable ritual for summoning the Devil, used by such wicked people – in the taghairm, an unspecified, though considerable, quantity of cats would be roasted alive over a fire. Eventually, their howls would cause the great cat himself to appear to the one foolish enough to have requested his presence in the first place.

And we’ve all seen the Hammer Horror films, dancing women, chalk circles, blood and candles. Awkward, in a good Calvinist community, I’d have thought, buying tapers in bulk. However, the truth is more mundane and, simultaneously, a lot more terrifying. You need not draw a circle, strike a match, nor yet kidnap next-door’s tom. It suits Satan’s ego and his guile for you to believe that bringing him out is such a complex affair. It’s not, though, because he’s already here.

He is interested in everyone and prowls about, seeking whom he may devour. When I, not quite a year into my widowhood, professed faith publicly, I was told, ‘it’s now he’ll really be interested in you’. And this was true, though I already had experience of his torments. The Devil hates Christ and he hates His followers, and tries his utmost to do the impossible – pluck them back out of their Saviour’s grasp. Stealing their peace is his aim. His methods are varied, and sometimes quite surprising in their ingenuity.

One of the ways in which I sought comfort for my loss was in reading CS Lewis’ ‘A Grief Observed‘, adapted from the journal he had kept following the death of his own wife, Joy Gresham. It went well at first and Lewis’ description of grief as being ‘so much like fear’ spoke to me. The death of a spouse leaves you feeling exposed and vulnerable. Just the way the Devil likes it. And then, I read this:

‘How do I know that all her anguish is past? I never believed before – I thought it immensely improbable – that the faithfulest soul could leap straight into perfection and peace the moment death has rattled in the throat.It would be wishful thinking with a vengeance to take up that belief now. H. was a splendid thing . . . But not a perfected saint. A sinful woman married to a sinful man; two of God’s patients, not yet cured. I know there are not only tears to be dried but stains to be scoured.’

I was horrified. Donnie had gone through so much pain and suffering – was Lewis right to suggest that somehow there was more refining and scouring to be done after death? Instead of thinking that he was out of pain, at rest, his cancer finally gone, I was now imagining him still being tested and tried. It tormented me, this idea that he still had no peace. Somehow, all these months of needles and blood tests, of tubes and scans, of endless waiting in rooms packed with white-faced patients and their terrified families, of bleak diagnoses and grim-voiced doctors, had not ended.

Grief IS like fear, Lewis was right about that. The same horrible ideas now took me over once again, just as they had with his illness. What processes, what tests would he be subjected to? How would these ‘stains’ be scoured? Would he be treated gently? Would he be frightened? And would he come through it?

Fortunately, this anguish didn’t last, and all because of one simple, wonderful fact: Christ’s promise to the thief on the cross, ‘today you will be with me in Paradise‘. I remembered that God, who cannot behold sin, would admit no one who was unsanctified; and Christ would not make a promise that He did not keep.

When you lose someone close to you, people are wary about mentioning death. In church particularly, people were very solicitous if a sermon even touched on the subject. I love them for it, but I want them to know that it’s not necessary. CS Lewis’ idea about death made me sick with fear. Every human being who has loved another human being knows that emotion. What we hear about in church, though, that’s different: that’s the death of death; death defeated by a death – THE death. So defeated that after THE death came life again.

And that thing which CS Lewis could not believe: the leap straight into perfection and peace? Oh yes, that too. Only the Devil will tell you any different.