Give Truth a Helping Hand

The written word has an enormous amount of power and beauty when deployed in the right way.  I am a slave to its attractions – always in pursuit of the perfectly crafted sentence, and willing to search out the tools with which to do the job. Being an old-fashioned girl, I still like to write my thoughts out longhand. Give me a fountain pen, and some good quality paper, and I am as happy as any other stationery-loving geek in notebook and ink heaven.

Every writing occasion, however, demands a little subtle tailoring. For the all-too-necessary reminders of where I’m supposed to be, and what I’m supposed to be doing, it’s a raspberry-coloured Filofax (A5, so I can cram it with other ephemera as I go). Notes on the go are jotted down in either a pocket-size Field Notes book, or my beloved Traveller’s notebook system. Proper, sit-down, I’m going to write a blog situations will bring out the big guns – a silver Waterman fountain pen, and thick, Japanese paper.

But the most problematic situation of all has been what notebook and pen combination to use in church. I have tried them all – hardback, floppy covers, clipbooks, reporters’ notebooks, Field Notes steno pads, microscopic pocket notebooks . . . and, oh, the difficulty in finding the appropriate pen! You don’t want a scratchy nib that annoys the people around you, so that caused me to ditch the weird experience that is the friction pen (ink you can rub out).

After much trial and error, though, I have found the perfect combination: the Midori Color Paper Notebook (in yellow or brown), and the phenomenal Zebra Sarasa clip pens in vintage shades of green, brown, burgundy and blue-black.  The notebook is the right size to rest on my psalm book as I write, and the pen glides noiselessly over the yellow paper so my neighbours in the pew can listen undisturbed to the sermon.

By this point – if you’re still reading – it’s possible that I have been written off as a bona fide oddball with too much time on her hands. Here’s the thing, though, these tools matter to me because I love the craft of writing, of placing words on the page, and I don’t want anything to mar the experience.

I single my sermon notes out for particular attention here, though, because it is a very specific kind of writing. The reason I write is in order to summarise the minister’s sermons for publication on our church social media account and website. Given our very good audio sermon section, it may seem like a bizarre idea to have written summaries too. However, you can read one of my summaries in five minutes, you can reread it, and you can find any Scripture references or other quotes made by the minister in the course of his preaching.

Whatever value these summaries may or may not have to our online followers at Stornoway Free Church, they have been of immense benefit to me. I listen deeply in order to note down the main points of what is being preached, and I always finish writing the digest version, feeling that I have really had to engage with the text meaningfully myself.

Two Sundays ago, the striking element of a very interesting sermon was something said as an aside by the minister. He referred, in the context of talking about Amos and the plumbline applied by God, to something quite remarkable from the prophecy of Isaiah.

‘Truth’, he said, ‘has fallen in the street’.

I nearly broke the nib, skidding to a sharp halt when he uttered that sentence. How could the words of a prophet who lived over 2000 years ago be quite so apt for the age in which we are now living?

The image is one we are well used to, of people who lack the advantages we have in life, of homeless folk, and of those whose lives have been blighted by addiction. Of course, the Christian response to that kind of need is certainly not to walk by on the other side. We are supposed to view each and every one of those people as what they are: made in the image of God.

Scribbling frantically in my yellow notebook last Sunday, I listened to our minister preaching on – I believe – one of the most beautiful texts in the Bible: ‘He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power’ (Hebrews 1:3).

Christ conveys the exact imprint of God and, because of that, Christ is Truth. And this is the Truth we have allowed to fall in the street. We have permitted it by our failure to stand up on its behalf. I said as much to someone recently, while we were discussing the sad state of our society, and he disagreed, saying that it was not our protests, but our prayers that are needed.

Well, I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive. Prayer and action are frequently different sides of the same coin: not alternative, but complementary to one another. It is we who have failed the Truth and if we go on our knees in contrition before God, ought we not to expect that he will have a task for us in restoring it to its rightful place? When we are part of the problem, it is only right that he ask us – and that we are willing – to be part of the solution.

Writing the truth, as best I can with God’s help, is my small contribution to lifting it out of the gutter. It is not nearly enough; it is not even enough from me. Writing the word of God, as it is preached, though, reminds me of the great importance of doing linked to hearing.

Another of my jotters is crammed with notes on last year’s group Bible study relating to the Wisdom of James, surely one of the most practical letters in the whole Bible. It reminds us of the importance of prayer, yes, and urges the Lord’s people not to neglect spending time with him.

But he does not separate that from the edict that we should be doers, as well as hearers of the Word. Truth has fallen in the street, expressed in the passive voice though it is, does not absolve believers of blame for its sad condition. On the contrary, it is a plea to our conscience to clasp our hands in prayer, and then extend them in labour to raise it up once more.

Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name

This weekend is one that many have been looking forward to. It will be, for them, a time of joy, of colour, and of togetherness. They will come out of their homes, and they will gather together to celebrate that greatest and most unifying of all human experiences: love.

It is all about love, and about life. All they ask is the right to live abundantly, and to love wholeheartedly and unashamedly.

They were persecuted from the earliest times; forced to pursue their chosen lifestyle in secret. Many the world over have been disowned by their families, tortured and even killed. And yet, through it all, that great love persists and drives them on.

Love. A love so strong that though they are spat at, though they are ridiculed, ostracised and called for every name under the sun, they will come out and they will proclaim that love unashamedly before their detractors.

I hope to be among them. Last time, I didn’t make it, and I have regretted it ever since. It’s important, you see, to shout it out with . . . not pride, exactly, but with a complete absence of apology or shame.

It isn’t just one day either: it is a weekend of celebration. On Saturday, we will congregate to prepare our hearts and minds for the sacrament on Sunday. Because this is a small ‘in-house’ communion, the process of readying ourselves is shorter. There is a bit less outward preparation, but the same inward joy.

What joy, though, unbelievers ask, do you derive from being part of a death cult? You are gathering to commemorate the Lord’s death – where is there joy in that?

Well, no, indeed. If this were a mere memorial service for a loved one gone before, it would bring precious little comfort. But there is rather more to it than that. This is not the empty celebration of self; this is not a futile attempt to glorify human frailty and make it immortal. 

In the sacrament, we commemorate the Lord’s death – until he comes again. Think on that: we remember his death until such time as he returns for us. 

That, my friends, is love. He tasted death so that we would not have to. And now, in the Lord’s Supper, we taste life in remembering what he accomplished for our sakes. 

He vanquished death. In Jesus we see the death of death. Life in him is forever. There is nothing bigger or greater than that.

And so, when I walk along the street on Sunday morning, I am making a declaration of love. I carry the props that tell the world of this: the Bible, the Psalter, the monetary offering .

Yes, outward trappings, some will scoff; Pharisaic declarations of your own piety.

Not so.

They are all acknowledgement of his absolute sovereignty and sufficiency. And they are a message to the onlooking world, to tell of what we have in our God. We have a Bible full of his promises to us; a psalter by which we might praise his worthy name; the money to demonstrate that we continue his work until he returns. 

Oh, I missed one, didn’t I?

The communion token: a wee oblong of metal, inscribed with a Bible verse (usually ‘Do this in remembrance of me’). 

Surely, you say, the ultimate badge of exclusivity – the smug wee membership card that says ‘I’m perfect and you’re not’. Insufferable pride? 

No. This wee token tells more than you can imagine. 

It says: ‘you are not enough on your own’. Press it against your palm, and imprint its message upon your heart. You cannot live – you cannot even love – apart from God.

But, it does not leave you there.

It also says: ‘I have made a way. You don’t have to be on your own. Lean on Christ; give yourself up to him.’

Clasp that little piece of metal tightly, taking its meaning to yourself. When you hold it in your grasp, know that you have taken hold of love, and love holds you safe in its arms forever.

Walk unashamedly to join with those who have that truth in their hearts. And let us pray for anyone who has not yet found that love.

It is a love which has been mocked and derided, and crucified to death. Today, it is barely tolerated, and pushed aside to make way for impostor loves.

But it will return in the risen Christ, victorious over death, over lies and over darkness. 

So, this weekend, let us look upon the love of Christ, and the joy we find in him. Let us take to the streets, God’s promises in our hands and on our hearts. And let his pure love be the only one of which we speak.

Secure Tenure in a Better Country

There is a line in the Runrig song, ‘Flower of the West’, which says that ‘the breathing of the vanished lies in acres round my feet’. For me, that articulates something that I feel very much here in my own community – the almost palpable sense of history everywhere. I know people who claim no interest in the past, who dismiss it as irrelevant. We are here, now, they will say, what’s the point in looking back?

Well, the point in looking back is to see how we got here. I am firmly with William Faulkner on this, when he said, ‘The past is not dead. The past is not even past’. How could it ever be, in a place like this?

That’s why I think it is a tragedy that Gaels do not learn their own history. For many years, the only formal access to it was through the Higher Gàidhlig course where, if you studied the poetry of the 18th and 19th centuries, you would also be taught about the Jacobite cause, the clearances, the famine, emigration and the Land War. And that knowledge is so empowering. When you know about these things, you can see where your community, your family, and you as an individual fit into the bigger picture.

That is where I derive my identity from.  I am a Gaelic-speaking hybrid of Maclean and Macdonald. My father’s people were cleared from Mangersta and settled at Doune: that’s Doune Carloway of the Iron Age broch. And my mother’s folk were from Harris on her paternal side: na Fìdhlearan, hereditary foresters to the Campbells of Scalpay, in the deer forest of Amhuinnuidhe, before relocating to Ardhasaig, via Taransay.

Today, I work in the very college from which I graduated in 1997. Our pretty campus is situated in the grounds of Lews Castle, built by Sir James Matheson in 1851 and gifted by Lord Leverhulme to the people in 1923, when the Stornoway Trust Estate was created – the first community-owned estate in Scotland.

I sit on the board that manages the Lancashire soap magnate’s legacy. Despite all the talk, the iconoclasm, and the liberal sprinkling of meaningless words like ‘progressive’ throughout public rhetoric, I see at least part of my role there as being to maintain the dignity of such an historic organisation. Stornoway Trust has always had a sense of its own historicity, and that’s why I feel an affinity with it: knowing your roots will always strengthen your sense of identity.

Of course, there are other aspects of my identity too. On a Sunday, I worship at the Free Church on Kenneth Street  – itself a relic of that great chapter in our history, when ministers and congregations walked out of the Church of Scotland to form a denomination free from the power of patronage, and outside interference.

Its establishment precipitated other radical acts. Described as ‘the crofting community at prayer’, it is believed that the community cohesion and leadership provided by the early Free Church, contributed to the events that followed, culminating in the Napier Commission and the Crofting Act of 1886, which finally granted security of tenure. Beyond that there were – here in Lewis – the raids which saw crofters clashing with landlord and government in their thirst for land on which to subsist.

I grew up in the relatively new village of Newmarket, where there is a mixture of crofts and of allotments, rented from the Trust. Our home was built on one of the latter, but my father still ran the croft at Doune, shearing and dipping sheep within the tobhta of his old home.

Land, you see, runs through it all. The soil under our feet, and the landscape before our eyes, seem to form the boundaries of our being. We ache for places we have left, and love those in which we make our homes. It is a universal experience, but always rooted in a familiar landscape – one whose form and history is meaningful to us.

And yet, however strong my sense of self is, however anchored here in Lewis, and however much the past whispers to me as I move through the landscape of my life . . . this is not really home. Yet, this is not the contradiction that you might think, because – like many other refugees – I have a dual history and a dual identity.

As much as the Fìdhlearan of Ardhasaig are my people, I would claim kinship also with the Israelites. Their yearning for the land of promise speaks to me in my own geographical and historical context. Because I know who I am as an islander, I can recognise in myself that desire for true belonging.

The most famous articulation of this, unsurprisingly, comes from Paul in 2 Corinthians 5: 8, when he says that he would prefer to depart this world to be with Christ. In a letter he left for us, his family, before his death, my father expressed his love for us all in just those terms. Though he said that another lifetime with us would be wonderful, he was prepared to go and be with his Saviour, which – he wrote – was far better.

Is that not an extraordinary witness? When we are blessed to have family and friends for whom we care deeply; when we are intimately tied in to the landscape and history of a particular place; when our identity here on earth is made of something older and finer than ourselves . . . what a testimony, then, to be able to say that there is something more awaiting us beyond those limits.

I believe that the privilege of heritage and history is there to teach us about this greater gift. God placed each of us within a particular lineage, a particular culture, so that we might identify with that international movement of refugees towards our ultimate home.

Knowing who my people are, and where I came from does not tie me faster to this world, as you might expect; it heightens my expectation of what God has prepared in eternity that is richer even, than the security I enjoy now. There, the father who once walked with me over the acres at Doune, was happy to go; there the husband who loved the vista of Traigh Mhòr was happy to go.

One day, I too will finish my journey, and find true security of tenure.

 

 

 

 

 

The Crook for all Lots

‘You’ll have been picked up by the CCTV’, the elder informed me solemnly on Sunday. I had tiptoed past his gate early on Saturday morning, glad rags from the previous night’s carousing in my hand, and thought that I might just get away with it. The confusion of waking up in a strange bedroom in Stornoway had probably been at fault; after all, experience should have taught me by now that wayward women cannot fly under the surveillance system of the Free Church: EL-DAR.  There are Wee Free drones everywhere, and they can’t all be watching clothes lines.

I had gone out at the respectable hour of 6.30pm on Friday evening, to enjoy a meal and some speeches in a local hotel, to mark the occasion of the Estate Factor’s 25th year in post. We were doing so a year after the actual event because . . . well, they had been waiting for a blone to be elected in order to remember stuff like anniversaries, and organise parties . . .

A good time was had by all. Appropriate gifts were presented, including an inscribed shepherd’s crook, upon which the gentleman of the hour proceeded to lean in a rather too-settled manner as he articulated his thanks. I imagine there will be many future occasions when he leans similarly upon the stick, and regales his audience with wisdom from his considerable store.

Aside from providing the owner with a prop upon which to lean, however, the shepherd’s crook has a much wider variety of functions.

In fact, for those tasked with the management of sheep, there may be a requirement to travel over rough ground, and it is an aid to them on the journey. Anyone who has ever walked the moor will know the value of any prop which will help you stay upright, and out of the bogs.

Of course, your crook may well come in handy as a weapon too. Your flock can easily fall prey to predators – especially the lambs – and it makes sense for the protector of the flock to have a stick that he can wield in their defence.

And, the curved end of the staff is perfect for hooking a sheep around the neck in order to catch or move it to where you wish it to go.

While any and all of these functions might well be exercised by our Factor – either in his private capacity as a crofter, or his professional role as Estate manager – I am going to resist the temptation to speculate here on how he might use the crook to steer wayward Trustees. Far be it from me, either, to suggest how he might deploy his new weapon against . . . but let’s just leave that there.

A couple of weeks ago, the Factor put me right on an important point of theology. (I should point out that, though his duties are surprisingly wide-ranging, this is not normally considered one of them). He reminded me that sin could be committed in the thought, just as much as in the word or deed and, thereby, threw a carefully-constructed view on a given matter into total confusion. I have still not resolved that particular inner conflict.

But then, the Truth does not exist in order to make us comfortable with sin.

Theology, in fact, might well be seen as performing the same role in our lives as that shepherd’s crook, if it is deployed dextrously and for the purpose for which it was intended. And, make no mistake, by ‘theology’ here, I do not mean man-made rules, or academic theory: I mean the Scripture proofed truths which meaningfully direct our lives towards God.

When I have found myself in the terrain that, sometime or another, meets all Christians, I have been – on occasion – slow to reach for the supporting staff of theology. At this point, I am tempted to lean on another one altogether: that of my own wisdom. Let me tell you, though, nothing is guaranteed to sink you in the mire quicker than your own faulty reasoning. That is why Proverbs 3: 5-6 says,  ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths’.

At those times when I have failed to do this (and they are many), the next thing that happens is I leave myself vulnerable to the enemy. When I miss the means of grace, when I let my prayer life weaken, when I fail to open the Word as often as I ought . . . of course the enemy senses that I am distant from the rest of the flock. He moves in slowly, preparing to pick me off. But God has given his people the crook to use as a weapon also; Scripture has so many reminders that there is nothing the enemy can do against the power of Christ. For me, the battles with Satan have been won many times through the strengthening of Psalm 27, and its triumphant reminder:

The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

But, sometimes I find that the Shepherd still has to hook me around the neck, and pull me to himself. Wherever I am, however, no matter how far, his reach extends there, and he will draw me gently and lovingly back. It may be that he achieves this through the preaching of his Word; but more often, it is actually through the love that he communicates via his own people who are, of course, my people.

Like the shepherd’s crook we presented last weekend, then, God’s Truth is lovely, but its real beauty lies in its purpose: to support, to protect, and to draw us to Himself. If we make use of it, then it will uphold us in any situation.

 

 

 

NOWHERESVILLE?

‘Are you wise?’ I hear you ask, ‘letting Ali Moley guest on your blog!?’ Well, he’s an elder now, so he’s basically able to requisition space here whenever he likes . . . However, I am more than happy to share this piece of writing with you, and will be interested to hear people’s reactions to ‘Nowheresville’, by Alasdair ‘Ali Moley’ Macleod.

The Lewis Revival of 1949-53 is one ofthe most famous revivals in the world.

But did you know that there has been, to a greater or lesser extent, a revival a Christian spiritual awakeningleading to an enlivening of the Lord’s people and the saving of many unbelievers – somewhere in the Isle of Lewis every 20 to 30 years for the last 200 years?

Why should this be the case?

Why should it be that at least 10 – 20% of our island population still attend church regularly on a Sunday when only around 7% of the Scottish population as a whole attend regularly?

Why should it be that only 18% of people in the Western Isles identify as having no religion when the average for the rest of Scotland is 3045%?

I know that the number of Christians in Lewis has sadly, significantly declined over the last 50 years like the rest of Scotland, but why is there still such a marked difference in the numbers of Christians and strength of influence of Christianity in the Island compared to the rest of our country?

Are we special? Is our island special?

One Christian from the Central Belt previously exclaimed to me that he was amazed at how many Ministers he knew who had come from such a small place as Lewis, which currently has a population of 18,500 souls.

For example, in the District of Back where I grew up, I can think of three serving ministers and two retired ministers who also grew up there. Extraordinarily, there are another three serving ministers from other parts of the island, who were in my year in school.

Why have so many ministers in Scotland (and missionaries sent to other parts of the world), come from such a small place?

Are we actually the last stronghold of the gospel as has previously been claimed? Are Hebrideans a particularly holy or prayerful people? Are we doing something right?

Some Christians take pride in our islands Christian culture, history and traditions as if we are something special, as if we are ‘getting it right’ when so many other Christians in Scotland are ‘getting it wrong.’

May God have mercy on us if the abundant blessings He has granted to our island lead us to take pride in ourselves rather than give praise to Him.

Scripture clearly teaches us that these revival blessings have taken place in our island solely because of God’s Grace and Mercy to us and not because of our own merit.

But the question still stands – why should God choose to bless our island in this way rather than other areas in Scotland that are, in Christian terms, currently barren and dark?

Well……….

Have you ever heard of Tomasz Shafernaker?

In 2017 he was voted the UK’s favourite weatherman.

Amongst his many on air gaffes, which have made him so popular with UK viewers, is one particularly relevant to Leodhasachs everywhere – in 2007 Tomascz amusingly described the Western Isles as ‘Noweheresville’ during BBC weather reports and later had to apologise to livid Hebrideans who had been watching.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I really love the Island of Lewis and the people in it and am very thankful to live here in our still rich Christian community and culture.

But did Tomasz actually say more than he realised withhis tongue in cheek comment?

The island of Lewis, to most ordinary people in the UK,is ‘nowheresville.’

The Isle of Lewis, to most people in the world, is ‘nowheresville’.

A slice of humble pie, anyone?

But wait…….maybe……just maybe, the fact that we are ‘nowheresville’ in so many people’s eyes, is why God has blessed us so abundantly.

As 1 Corinthians 1:27-31 says –

27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

Has God blessed our insignificant little island in order to shame the strong, more populated, more ‘significant’ areas of our rebellious nation?

Has God blessed our little island, seen by so many as being full of foolish little, backward Christian islanders, in order to shame the haughty, ‘wise in their own eyes’, spiritually rebellious, men and women from the rest of Scotland?

In bringing so many revivals to our poor little island, and in sending so many ministers and missionaries, the fruit of these revivals, from Lewis to the rest of Scotland and the world, who can boast? Certainly not us Leodhasachs. It is God alone who receives, and deserves, all the glory!

As 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 goes on to say –

30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Next time we think about or discuss our blessedChristian community and culture here on the Island of Lewis then let us ‘boast in the Lord’ and give thanks for what He has done here, for His name’s sake and Glory.

And if……if by God’s grace we, His people, humble ourselves and pray……..God may, by His Grace and in His mercy, bring another revival to ‘nowheresville’……..the fruits of which may spread too, humble and transform for good, all the ‘somewheresvilles’ of our foolish, rebellious, little nation.

 

Romeos, cailleachan and spiritual undress

I went on an outing with Balaich an Trust last week, and, after a relatively brief car journey with one of them, discovered I was an item of clothing short. Searching high and low, I could not find it anywhere and was forced to confront the fact that I was out minus  that which no respectable Lewiswoman willingly divests – my cardigan. 

What rush of blood to the head, you ask, had overcome me, to the extent that the knitted reputation-saver had been lost . . . 

I remembered in my confusion, my father’s tale of a woman at whose door the vehicle of a well-known lothario was frequently parked. My father – driving for the dry-cleaners – went one day to deliver freshly laundered garments of which it turns out she was in dire need. She had been, he told us, many years later, up to no good with the visiting reprobate. ‘How do you know that?’ myself and my sister scoffed, believing our own generation had a monopoly on shenanigans. His answer was hard to argue against: ‘Because’, he said decisively, ‘when she answered the door to me, she had taken off her apron’.

The implication, of course, was that she had been carried away. Such had been the allure of the local romeo that she had lost her head – and her wrap-around floral pinny. If you are unfamiliar with the complexity of these garments, let me assure you that it’s unlikely one was ever removed by accident.

We set a lot of store by clothing, don’t we?  Apparel has a kind of cultural importance, beyond the merely practical one of preserving decency and keeping out the cold/midgies. I was reminded of this when visiting the fabrication yard at Arnish that cardiganless day. Aside from the hard hat and hi-vis jackets, we were told to don steel-toecapped footwear that will always be referred to here in Lewis by those of a certain age, as ‘Arnish boots’. They achieved currency during the heyday of the yard, and have come to be inextricably linked with its name. 

I can remember, too, when the windows of local clothing retailers, Murdo Maclean’s, and its rival, Nazir Bros, would be filled with ladies’ hats, deftly to coincide with communion season. For most who still attend church assiduously, headgear is not part of their wardrobe, and so the shop displays no longer reflect what was once very much a local event. Of course, we still celebrate communion but it is less of a community affair now.

My own personal dress code for public worship has relaxed somewhat over the years. I have come to the conclusion that the outward trappings don’t matter too much. God listens to me when I pray at home in my pyjamas; I can’t imagine for a second he’s going to turn his face from the earnest petitions of one of his own, just because they’ve gone to church in jeans. Truthfully, I would rather see our pews packed with folk in biker leathers than sparsely populated by ‘correctly’ attired ladies in hats and posh frocks.

I have found, anyway, that there is really only one outfit necessary to the Christian: armour.

Ephesians 6 tells us what ‘the whole armour of God’ consists of: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, feet shod with the readiness that stems from the gospel of peace. All of this should be accessorised with the shield of faith, the sword of the Spirit, and the helmet of salvation.

Do I agonise over this outfit as much as I might over my outward apparel? Is it my habit to make an inventory, checking that all the pieces are in place?

Honestly? No, I don’t always. Sometimes I go far too long in neglecting to fasten and refasten the buckles that hold everything together.

In recent weeks, something happened to remind me about being a better soldier. I had not been in prayer so much, I had spent less time in the Word, and I had skipped the means of grace far more frequently than was wise or necessary.

And then I was brought up short by an incident. Petty, anonymous hatred of the most insidious and accusatory kind, intended to steal my peace. It reminded me of a very precious truth: the world is poles apart from God, and it is, therefore, not my home.

We will have troubles here. People might let us down, hurts will come – but we should receive these as they are intended by God: to persuade us that we really do belong to him. For me, the whole sorry debacle was an opportunity for the Lord to show me the truth of Joseph’s words to his brothers, ‘you intended to harm me, but God intended it for my good’

He brought me swiftly back to his side, where I am safest. And I have straightened out my armour, reattaching what had worked loose, and preparing both my sword and shield so I might follow him more closely.

But, even in that fray, when I was undoubtedly tussling with Satan, there was one element of my outfit that did not move.

As with any soldier, it will remain fixed until the battle is over.  That gives me comfort because I know I will fail again: my arm will flag in holding up my faith as a shield, and I will try to fend off the blows without it.

But the one item I will never – indeed, can never – lose, is the helmet of salvation. Christ puts it in place, and only he has the authority to remove it.

Which no soldier does until the battle is over.

One man and his God

Whereas other cultures used to put children up chimneys, the norm for people of my age and background was to be put to work part-time as sheepdogs, in the absence of a suitably qualified collie. My father was hopeless at training his animals, and so he had four children instead who, if not as intelligent as collies, were certainly more responsive to his shouted commands.

As if this degradation was not enough, we would find ourselves subjected to ‘One Man and His Dog’ on television of an evening. I suspect my father hoped that we might pick up a few pointers if we watched enough episodes. He would comment on the shepherds’ control of their dogs, and of the responsiveness and obedience of said dogs. I, however, was always more interested in watching the sheep.

They are not the smartest of creatures, and they have a flair for the unpredictable. Nonetheless, I like their placid faces, and still maintain that the ear of a sheep is the cutest ear of any mammal you are likely to meet. And, having worked with so many of them, so to speak, I had gained an insight into some of their ways.

The outrun and the shedding was all good entertainment, but the moment I found most anxiety-inducing was the penning. Holding the gate open with his left hand, the shepherd would try corralling the flock in, often waving a crook with his right. You would almost be on the point of breathing a sigh of relief when – disaster – one woolly maverick would make a bid for freedom. Sometimes, this would be the end of someone’s dream. Frankly, if your only dream was to win ‘One Man and His Dog’, you probably deserved a reality check, but each to his own.

We too, like sheep, have gone astray. The Lord views us as his flock and it is the work of his church to help bring them safely into the fold. It is towards this end that the work of evangelism and outreach tends – get them on the outrun, win them for the cause. But I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that our eye should be on the ones we are just about to usher into the pen. There is a real flight risk there, and we all know why.

Satan is an awful lot more interested in people who are responding to the Lord than he is to the ones who are lukewarm, or even cold. They are nowhere near God’s pen; they are fully exposed to the ravening wolf, and easily picked off to be devoured.

Surely, then, a master strategist like the devil is going to turn his attention more fully on the ones who are almost – but not quite – safe. They are teetering on the brink of salvation, but the gate to the sheep-fold is not yet safely closed behind them. Something might yet catch them, out the corner of their eye, and they could easily turn and rush towards it.

I have been that sheep, so I know it’s true. It is while you are a churchgoer, a Bible reader, an utterer of prayer . . . but not yet safe in his grasp, that you are most vulnerable to the wiles of Satan. He will tempt you with the world in all its tinsel show; and he will contrast this with the dull rigidity of a life lived for God. Adept as he is at warping truth, he will remind you of all the things you want to do, all the things you have a right to do – and he will tell you that God can wait.

And I know others, now, who are in that position. The pen is open before them, they are almost within the circle of that gate . . . but Satan is up to his tricks again. He shows them the world, yes, but he does something else even more insidious. Coming right up to them, he whispers into their ears: ‘Look. Look at the ones who are already in. Apart from the fact that they are trapped, and can’t go anywhere, how different are they to you?’

He tells those who come to church, who hear the Word, and who are beginning to love the Lord, that they can have all of that – but why hang around with a people who are no better than those who live in the world? How are you, he asks them, meant to have fellowship with ‘these people’; and he lists them. I know he speaks to adherents, and I know he plays on the fact that they have seen bad behaviour from Christians. The church has in it liars, the self-righteous, the unjust, the vain . . . people, in fact, in all their brokenness.

Satan says to them, ‘why should you sit down in fellowship with these hypocrites?’ And they look again at the person in the pew next to them, and they realise that he is right. That upstanding Christian is a fibber. Or self-righteous, or egotistical.

Jesus, on the other hand, says to them, ‘take your place among these people – they are just like you; and yet I have claimed them all as my own’. He loved us while we were still defiled by original sin

We need to be mindful of his portion, to have care of one another. That includes especially those on the brink of life. Satan is watching them, hovering like a bird of prey over defenceless lambs. I have to examine my own life, therefore, and guard against being the stumbling-block that excuses them from coming in.

It gives an added impetus to our witness when we consider that those looking most closely at our example are nearer than we think. They are not necessarily the unbelievers on the outrun, but the almost-theres within the shelter of his gate.

Turning Over the Tables

I was told on Sunday – by a member of my own church – that ‘Christians shouldn’t strike – not for more money anyway. And certainly not on your salary’. Leaving aside the etiquette of commenting on anyone else’s financial situation at all, let alone in front of others, I found this remark pretty dispiriting. It belongs, I feel, in that all too prevalent school of thought which exists both in and outside the church, and which says that Christians should just be nice, bland, inoffensive people who turn the other cheek and take whatever blows the world feels like doling out.

That philosophy, which adheres to ‘it’s nice to be nice’, is what is going to march us blindfold off a cliff if we don’t wake up to the danger.

When Christ turned over the tables of the money lenders, and ejected them from the temple, he wasn’t concerning himself with being nice. In fact, whenever I hear the phrase, ‘righteous indignation’, it is this scenario that plays in my imagination. I would think it was the straw that broke the camel’s back; he had watched them sin against his Father in so many ways, but this defilement of the temple must have been just too much to take.

We all have our limits. For the past few weeks, I have been involved in a whole variety of situations and conversations which cause me to fear for this generation in which we live. I have been speaking to politicians about the role of Christians in public life, and I have been thinking about the way that we ‘do church’ in Lewis. There is a disconnection between us and the harsh reality of a world that embraces as progressive just about everything that opposes God’s will for us as a people.

Christians should be the most political people of all. We should be joining political parties, lobbying, writing letters, attending meetings, starting petitions, and, yes, joining trade unions. As a member of EIS FELA, what sort of Christian would I be if I told my colleagues that I could not strike for more pay because it breached my principles? What sort of Christian would let them lose several days pay in order to obtain justice for themselves – and me? If, as believing people, we place ourselves apart from society, from our communities and our colleagues, we are most assuredly not following the example that Jesus, friend of sinners, set for us.

This is radicalism. It means going back to the roots, and the Free Church was certainly born out of a concern for moral and social justice. Why? Because it was born out of a passion to see the headship of Christ recognised, and the centrality of the Bible restored to public worship. But that doesn’t just mean having a nice, tall pulpit with a big book open from which the minister preaches every Sunday – although that is certainly an important element – it means carrying that book and its message around in our hearts every day of the week.

I was lectured yesterday, too, about the privilege of Christians, and that we should not abuse it by preaching intolerance against people whose lifestyles we question. The point that everyone seems to be missing when they say such things is this: I would not preach disapproval at those of the LGBT+ persuasion because, although I know their lifestyle is at odds with God’s teaching, so has my own been: many times. Their sin might be different to mine, but it is no worse.

Besides, as I have said before, I see no merit in talking to sinners about sin. They are like the dead people in ‘Sixth Sense’ – they don’t know they’re sinners. I can hardly stand over them and tell them that they’re sinners, because I’m one as well. It takes Christ to show them what they are lacking. Only in the light of his truth will they see what is awry, and what must be put right. All I can do is point to him, and try in my own imperfect way to witness to his perfection.

You can’t witness from a church pew, however. Take it from me, there’s a big clue in the fact that our most vocal unbelievers approve of us being Christians in private. Worshipping in church or at home, you’re bothering no one.

What the world wants is to push Christians back to the margins. While we were sleeping, they turned mainstream, Bible-based morality into bigotry. We live in a country that so misunderstands the tenets of the faith upon which it is founded that it has recreated them as hate speech.

I could sit with fellow church members and debate the finer points of trade unionism, or purity of worship, or the myriad other things we do that equate to fiddling while Rome burns. But I happen to think that we have bigger problems than that. In fact, I think that, instead of firing shots across one another’s bows, we ought to be a little more willing to go out into the real fray.

There is a reason why the Bible uses so much military metaphor. We are a people, a unit; not a rag-tag band of mavericks. The voice of one crying in the wilderness was all very well for John the Baptist – but this current desert requires teamwork. Pulling each other up, circling one another’s efforts with prayer, and presenting a united front: that’s where our energy needs to go now.

From there, we have to spread out and ensure Christ’s influence is every place we are able to go. And, because he goes before us, there are no limits except in our own small minds.

 

 

Tolerance Goes Over the Rainbow Bridge

‘That modern deamhais has killed the art of conversation’, one of my gentleman friends at the Trust remarked last week. ‘That’s a bit rude’, I thought, ‘does he not know I can hear every word he’s saying?’

Turns out he wasn’t talking about me, but the actual electric shears used on sheep these days. Not as easy to talk over as the old metallic clippers, with their distinctive sound. The new ones are probably more efficient, but they lack the evocative charm of their manual predecessors.

We are less free to speak in other ways as well, it would seem. This very week, in a shameful display of bullying, the local chapter of Pride attempted to no-platform a politician for his religious beliefs.

Yes, those same champions of ‘love and tolerance’ who demanded the right to march in Stornoway last summer, tried to shut down several public meetings. The reason? They didn’t agree with the views of the speaker. And what are those abhorrent views? Who does this man’s thinking align with – Hitler? Stalin? Genghis Khan?

God. He’s a Christian. Therefore, to try denying him a voice because you disagree with his views is no more and no less than to indulge in religious hatred. That is what it is. Dress it up any way you like, Hebridean Pride should hang its head in shame for displaying the very thing it claims to despise: bigotry. 

It’s part of a wider trend in our society, though, to silence what offends you. Silence it by belittling, silence it by demonising, silence it through mockery: but at all costs, do not permit its voice to be heard. 

We have seen attempts to take the Bible out of school, to stop the utterance of public prayers in classrooms and assemblies. And there has been heavy criticism of church representation on education committees. Christianity, we are repeatedly told, is a private indulgence, and must be kept out of education, out of politics, out of the public sphere altogether.

Christians have consistently argued back that it shouldn’t be banished from politics or education, that the influence of the Bible is necessary and positive. 

But, more than that, I would argue that Christianity CANNOT be kept out of those places. It is an impossibility to filter out Christian influence from public life unless you are prepared to actually debar believers themselves from those spheres also.

If you are a follower of Christ, then, where you go, he goes also. A Christian cannot temporarily suspend his beliefs in order to vote, or teach a class. I love the Lord all the time, and his influence shapes how and what I think. So, if I am asked to vote on euthanasia, on abortion, on Sunday working, on stem-cell research, I will take my direction from him. And if I am asked to teach a child that he can choose his own gender, or that two men can marry, or that this complex world just happened out of nothing . . . well, I can’t do it.

So, that takes us to a place surely no right-thinking, tolerant, loving human being can condone: Christians must not be teachers, or politicians, or policy-makers. That, though, is what we are being told, in essence.

Not long after I joined the Stornoway Trust, some people tried to make a case against us regarding our abuse of ‘religious privilege’. They took the OSCR guidelines on acting in your own interest and made a crude attempt at reinterpreting those. The charities regulator is very clearly talking about people who abuse their position for personal financial gain; not religious gain, whatever that may be.

What they were suggesting was impossible – that we should separate our Christian principles from our actions. So, where does that leave us?

Are we saying that people like me cannot be councillors, or primary school teachers, or MPs because we subscribe to the Bible? I cannot influence policy, or young minds because I hold to the view that marriage is between a man and a woman, that there are only two genders, that no one has the right to kill another person at any stage of life? Because I will not join the populist throng that says ‘anything goes’, I am to be silenced?

If that is, in fact, what we are saying, we have taken a very dark turn. While our society talks about love, it practices hatred. Where tolerance is writ large on rainbow coloured banners, persecution is just around the corner.

Its names are legion: humanism, secularism, pride, tolerance, diversity . . . but its aim is clear, and it should concern every one of us who truly values freedom. Any ideology or philosophy that thrives on the silence of dissenting voices is a sinister one.

Jesus met his enemies gently, with questions that challenged their misplaced certainties. Could it be that this is what those who march for tolerance while silencing debate truly fear?

Life Should Mean Life

My employers, in their wisdom, decided that I should learn the dark art of genealogy, believing that it would augment the other subjects I teach. They would not listen as I protested, tears streaming down my cheeks, and they turned aside from my plaintive cries of, ‘my grandfather was a Hearach, I don’t need to know any more’. Nothing else would do but that I should be forced to gaze upon the full horror of my own private gene pool, without so much as benefit of clergy.

The clergy, as it turns out, would be no good anyway. I confided in the minister on Sunday that I had been wading in the murkiness of my ancestry. He told me that he had discover a forebear of his own was someone fairly horrifying. My best guess was Genghis Khan, but he shook his head solemnly, ‘worse, even, than that’.

And so, if the person I might otherwise have turned to for counselling is, himself, traumatised by the past, what am I to do? I am left to confront the worst that Miavaig, Achmore and (whisper it) Ranish, have to offer.

To be honest, I had approached this research with some trepidation and not because of my mother’s bizarre network of Deasaich and Lochies. Sometimes you just have to accept that you’re descended from werewolves and move on.

It was my father’s side that was causing the real concern. He was the product of my granny’s liaison with a man she met while working at the herring fisheries in Fraserburgh. All my life, he had been a taboo, an unmentioned and unmentionable shadow; he was a gap in the family tree and likely to remain so.

Still, I had a few clues. Armed with those, I went looking in earnest last week, and found more than I ever expected. He married six months before my father was born – another lady who was also expecting his child. Tracing back from there, I discovered that his own mother had a child to another man before finally marrying my great-grandfather.

So much personal and social turmoil in one line – and so many repetitions of that hateful word: illegitimate.

I realise that it was a legal term, but it carried so much weight of disapproval in society that the child could be forgiven for thinking that he or she was indeed ‘not lawful’. But, then, that all depends on whose law we are following.

When I try to imagine how hard it must have been for my granny to tell her parents of her condition, in Doune in 1927, my heart goes out to her. She had to face their disapproval and disappointment, while also facing up to her own fear, and the heartbreak of finding out that the man she had hoped to marry was married to someone else.

And I wonder, if it was now, whether she would just quietly book herself into a clinic, and end the life she was carrying. Would she be crushed by her mother’s anger, devastated at being made unwelcome in the family home? Or, would the thought of gossip in the small village where everybody knew each other drive her to blot out the mistake as quickly and as cleanly as she could?

See, there are many who would say that, had that option been open to her, it would have been my grandmother’s right to take it. Her body, her choice.

But, she did not have the option, and so she had to suffer all those things I mentioned. It could not have made for an easy life, but neither did it kill her. It’s said that, when she bravely went to seek baptism for her baby boy, the minister was kind. The fact that I even know that speaks volumes. There would have been precious little kindness, little softness in how she was met, as someone who had so spectacularly breached the rules of society.

She weathered the storm. My father not only survived his upbringing, but grew into a man that any mother could be proud of. He was a good father to his sons and his daughters, a good husband to his wife, and a very kind human being. It was not unusual for people to turn up at our house, just to thank my father for how he had dealt with their loved ones when they had been in his care.

He was actually, for me, the epitome of human dignity. Not just because of his own character, but because of how it was formed. Unplanned, illegitimate, inconvenient – but a life, with all the potential that holds. My granny could probably only see the heartbreak of her own dashed hopes, her ruined reputation, and the expense of another mouth to feed. Who knows what all that pressure might have led her to do, had she been due in 2018, instead of 1928.

Nobody knows what the child in the womb might become.

John the Baptist recognised his Saviour, and leapt for joy, though they were both as yet unborn. Life is precious from the moment it is conceived, and its destiny belongs only in the hands of its Creator. It may be inconvenient, it may be frightening, it may be painful, it may be difficult.

But, then, that’s the point of this wonderful life – in God’s hands, it may be anything.