Your Father’s Side & The Family Name

It is hard to believe that we Hebrideans have any Viking DNA. I imagine that if a young Lewisman had ever said to his parents that he was off on a summer adventure to sack and loot, to raid and pillage, their reaction would almost certainly have been, ‘ach dè bhios daoine ag ràdh?’ What will people say? Surely marauding on this scale would reflect badly on them and therefore would have to be nipped in the bud.

‘What will people say?’ used to be the refrain of parents and grandparents in the island. Nowadays, people think of this attitude as narrow-minded, judgemental and stifling, but I think it helps to reflect a little on how it developed in the first place.

Your village was your world. The neighbours were as familiar to you as those who occupied the same home and shared the same surname as you. Besides, you didn’t go by your surname – you went by a patronymic, a chain of names stretching back into the distant past, connecting you to people you had never known. Perhaps you had some of their characteristics without knowing it. If you did, some cailleach in the neighbourhood would notice. ‘Iain Dhòmhnaill Sheumais used to walk like that’, or if she was feeling acerbic, ‘It’s a shame you took after your father’s side. Your mother’s people were good-looking.’

People knew one another inside-out, which meant knowing their history. Not just their personal history, either, but being able to place them in the context of their lineage. Forget Burke’s Peerage, your average cailleach had an encyclopaedic knowledge of her own people and those of her neighbours. It meant that they could see where your good points and your bad had emanated from. And so, your personal conduct would be added to that. The responsibility not to tarnish a good family name rested equally with each member, and each successive generation. Any deviant behaviour was likely to be dismissed as ‘rud a bh’ anns na daoine’ – a weakness in your people.

Now, of course, we don’t have villages; we have ‘communities’. Some are more community-minded than others and it’s not always the ones you think. I live in a rural village where there is quite a lot of Gaelic spoken and some crofting still taking place. You will even see the odd peat-stack. Nonetheless, when I was widowed, my immediate next-door neighbours visited, but no one else.

Had I lived fifty years ago, I would have been Banntrach Dhòmhnaill Chaluim and the neighbours might have rallied round; nowadays, I don’t have that comfort, or that status. I am not on their radar. People probably don’t even talk about me, no matter what outrageous – hypothetical – thing I do. It doesn’t matter to them because I am a stranger. Community in that sense has gone and many of us now seek that feeling of belonging and identity elsewhere.

For me, it has come from my church. I have been blessed with a close and supportive family, and my church family has been likewise.

My church family has at least as many quirks as my actual relatives. There are those who make you laugh, who laugh at you, who are always ready to help, who always want you to help, those who encourage and those who gently put you in your place. It has its father figures and mother hens, its bossy big sisters and cheeky wee brothers. This family has get-togethers and minor disagreements, outings and heart to hearts.

And this family knows its own heritage. When we are together, no one has to ask, ‘who do you belong to?’ We have the same father. He knows us all more completely than we know ourselves; and yet He loves us nonetheless. Each of us carries the unfortunate burden passed down from our first parents, and each of us has added some particular sins of our own. It is in our DNA to rebel.

Keeping together, though, returning often to our Father’s house, I think, is the only way we can refrain from bringing shame on the family. Reputation is very important when you are responsible for more than just your own. In God’s family, we need to reflect on our conduct more frequently, and ask the question again: ‘what will people say’? We have to fight against ‘rud a bh’ anns na daoine’.

Surely this is one setting where the ultimate goal is for everyone to see that we take after our Father, and that the family have care of each other. I hope that’s what people will say.

The Emperor of Maladies and the Everlasting Arms

When someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, your world changes forever. Suddenly, you see everything through the prism of anxiety. You are afraid to make plans, afraid to laugh, afraid to presume. Life is no longer about living; it becomes about surviving. Normal service is suspended. A shadow lies heavy over everything and threat hangs in the air. Your life, that fragile, bird’s egg of a thing that you have constructed so carefully, may be crushed at any moment.

I lost my granny to cancer many years ago, when I was nine. Then, when I was eighteen, news came that my friend’s mother, a wonderful, funny, vital woman, pillar of my childhood, was dying. It was the first time in my life I ever experienced the kind of shock that makes the breath leave your body. And when I was 38, my husband was diagnosed.

All that time passed between my granny’s diagnosis and Donnie’s, and yet the word had lost none of its power to frighten. It feels like the same strong enemy it has always been. There are not too many conditions that’s true of. Small wonder that Siddhartha Mukherjee called it ‘the emperor of all maladies’. A sadistic emperor, I would venture, one that loves to create pain and grief.

What is the purpose of all this suffering? We are no more entitled to know the answer to that question than we are to know the other great mysteries of the universe. Faith is content with the fact that there is a purpose.

I have come to the conclusion that, just as sin is sin, trial is trial: there is no gradation in God’s eyes. If you have Him, you can go through it, whatever it is. Cancer scares us, but He works everything for good; whether that’s healing and recovery, or bringing you home to be with Him.

The biggest question is not, actually, why does He permit this suffering, but rather, how does He want us to go through it? We have already got part of the answer. He wants us to go through it with our eye fixed on Him. And I believe He wants us to be overwhelmed with fear, or pain. Not because He is a sadist or any of the other blasphemy that people like Stephen Fry accuse Him of, but because He wants us to stop trying to do everything on our own. It is possible that, as CS Lewis put it, pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

Not long ago, our prayer meeting heard of Joshua and the parting of the Jordan. The Ark of the Covenant led the Israelites through the river and onwards to the Promised Land. In our own wildernesses, we need to do the same: fix our eyes on the Lord that leads us through every Jordan.

It’s easy to let sheer sick terror paralyse you when you’re worrying about a loved one. But you need to take that worry to the throne of grace. In my own most despairing moments, I did and this was the answer I got:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
2 Corinthians 5:1

In the awful minutes after hearing that Donnie would die, the nurse who broke the news said, ‘if I could take this from you, I would’. It’s exactly how I feel every time I hear of another cancer diagnosis: the word itself is an assault on my heart. Anyone who has gone through it would not on any account see another suffer that fear and that pain which the word, ‘cancer’ always brings.  Yet, I know that God blesses us in these trials too, if we will only hold fast to Him.

Don’t listen to the people who tell you that you will get a back according to the burden; you won’t. He carries the burden with you and sometimes for you. God WILL give you more than you can bear, because He wants you to hand it straight back to Him. Your strength will not be up to this, but His is more than sufficient.

Shared adversity brings people together. How much more, then,  does it create closeness with God when you allow Him to carry you. I know that cancer brought my late husband into much closer communion with his Lord, and gave Him assurance of salvation. It did as much for me too. Cancer was, for us, the ugly messenger which brought good news. We no longer have one another, but we each have something infinitely better and lasting.

Cancer is not a person. It is not an enemy with plans, or feelings. We give it too much power. When it comes into our lives, like every other test and adversity – or, for that matter, every blessing and joy – we need to commit it into God’s safekeeping. He knows what to do with it because He knows its purpose.

In all of this, we have to look beyond the malady, beyond the sometimes gruelling treatment process, and see the Ark going ahead of us and parting the way. He is in the midst of these troubled waters too.

Cracking Pots & Wee Free Code

Those who are out both ends, and follow this up by coming out on a Wednesday night, are often expected to go forward. In the Free Church in Lewis at least, this has been the time-honoured course of things. It is code for regular attendance at Sunday services, leading to appearances at weekly prayer meetings, culminating in a profession of faith.

The fact that we have our own terminology surely suggests that it’s of some cultural significance. A social anthropologist would call it ‘ritual’, which word on its own used to be enough to make any respectable Wee Free faint. ‘Ritual’ evokes images of candles and altars, and . . . I’ll stop there out of respect for any of my denomination who might be reading this in possession of a pacemaker.

It is, however, a cultural norm. Not one set in tablets of stone, though. Contemplating going forward, I used to think of all the things I’d be more comfortable doing. Having a chemical peel, bathing the cat, parachuting out of a plane . . . and I settled it with myself that I wouldn’t – couldn’t – do it. You see, I had an image of what it was going to be like. Let me paint you a picture . . .

I knock on the door of the session room. The hubbub of voices from within ceases immediately. There is a long pause. Heavy, Calvinist footsteps. With a creak, the door opens a fraction.
‘Yes?’ the elder says. He doesn’t smile. Their smiles have been left on the pegs outside, along with the black coats and hats.
In a tiny voice, I mumble my desire to profess faith. A moment of silence, then a long, drawn-out sigh. The door is opened wider. Behind him, I see a scene exactly like David Octavius Hill’s famous Disruption painting. My eye falls on the minister, who is looking at me in disbelief.
‘You? Really? I mean, really – you?’ he asks incredulously, as the whispers of, ‘who is she?’ rise to a crescendo behind him . . .

IMG_0475

My horrified imagination would go no further and I nursed the label, ‘secret disciple’ to myself. Our cultural norms give you plenty opportunity to justify secrecy. There was, historically, a strange sort of almost-pride in not going forward. It was suggested that such and such a person ‘could’, or even ‘should’. No one ever said it explicitly, but it was always implied that what kept them back was a kind of superior humility – oxymoron, if ever there was one. Nevertheless, secret disciples were a thing and I could be one.

The Lord was having no more of my nonsense, though, and smacked me between the eyes with two truths. First, if He has healed you, you have to tell. Second, if He is everything to you, you must be ready to defend that hope to those who do not yet possess it. And he smoothed my path to obedience. Going forward was not a grim ordeal. There was no one there from the 19th century, but instead a group of Christian men wishing to welcome another person into the visible family of God.

Last Sunday, our church commemorated the Lord’s Supper again. Many outside of this situation misinterpret it. They think those who sit at the Lord’s table see themselves as beyond reproach, perfect and holy. In reality, those who partake of the sacrament do so because of their imperfection, their awareness of the sin that is woven into every fibre of their being. God, we are told, is of purer eye than to bear looking at our sinfulness. We, on the other hand, are of such a sinful heart that we cannot fully appreciate His purity.

Yet, in this sacrament, we are given the chance to contemplate it more deeply.

What a privilege you deny yourself by hanging back. The Kirk Session is not a Heavenly court; it is a group of sinners saved by grace. If you have submitted to your Father in Heaven, what is stopping you from telling them? We allow cultural norms to over-complicate what is actually very simple.

And if the Free Church gets anything right, it is simplicity.

Christ did not ask His church to have lavish festivals in order to commemorate Him; He doesn’t need candles, or gilding, or acres of flowers: His beauty is in His love for us; His love for us is manifest in His sacrifice. That, He asks us to remember.

And how? We are told to remember Him in the two simple elements of bread and wine. These are broken and spilt, as His flesh was broken and His blood spilt for us. His people share these things in communion with one another and their Saviour. To sit at His table is to say that you belong to Him, that you wish to come apart from the world, to die to self, and to identify your life with His.

A perfect man or woman would not need Christ. There is real beauty, therefore, in imperfection – He is the golden weld that mends the pot of clay.

 

Safe Spaces and Dwelling Places

I went to a feminist event last night. It was that thing which we’ve heard there is so much need for in the Hebrides – a safe space for women to talk and exchange opinions. It was a real, face-to-face meeting of Hebridean ladies , sharing a meal and sharing conversation. Women of all ages came together from across the island, to talk, to listen, to laugh, to catch up with old friends and to meet new ones.

There was a guest speaker. She spoke movingly of her work with street children in Uganda. I don’t believe there was a heart in that room of almost 200 women unmoved by what she told us. Children, born to children, growing up without a home or a family. Without, in fact, a safe space.

These are children who don’t know what it is to have a parent’s unconditional love and protection. They are exposed to unthinkable danger every minute of every day. Many of them are on the streets, nonetheless, because that terror is marginally better than the one they faced at home. We all know how short a duration childhood is; in the blink of an eye, it’s past and, for these children, never really happens at all.

The speaker, Marsaili Campbell, is a paediatric nurse who has worked with these children for a long time through the Dwelling Places project. In addressing her audience, she excluded no one, and made no assumption that the room was filled with Christians.

I have already had fingers wagged at me by people who thought I was suggesting that charity is the exclusive preserve of Christianity. It isn’t. The gathering was Women for Mission, but the challenge is for all human beings. Could we not work together to make this world a little safer for everyone? Surely there are more important fights than the ones we are having with each other, and more important rights than that of swimming seven days a week, or keeping your child from hearing about Noah and the ark.

This meeting is an annual event organised by Women for Mission, a network of committees affiliated to the Free Church, and raising money to fund missionary work. It is the preserve of energetic, intelligent, motivated and compassionate women. If you are one of those, you could come to a WFM fundraiser, just to see what it’s about. You could support the work to help street children, to bring hope to the hopeless. These events, and the planning meetings which precede them, are safe spaces.

The women I met last night are authentic  feminists. True, they haven’t hung that label on themselves, but I think that’s because they are absolutely free, and don’t need to.

I was approached by a smiley, petite lady at the end of the evening, to tell me how much she was enjoying my column in the ‘Record’. That lady taught me – and countless others – to read and write during her 37 years in Laxdale School. Elsewhere in the room, I saw my former boss, a woman who stood up to men in suits in the 1970s to give Ness its Comunn Eachdraidh. That swiftly became a movement which has preserved and recorded our folk heritage up and down the islands and beyond.

The lady co-ordinating the evening is another example of feisty Free Church womanhood. I’ve come to dislike that word, ‘feisty’ because it’s so often applied to militant moaners. Not in this case. Think force of nature with a hundred watt smile. You do her bidding because she semi-charms and semi-terrifies you. And because everything that drives her is what drives each woman in that room: love for the Lord.

A room packed with women, all of one accord: it should terrify the men. Then again, there was one present – just one, mind you. He had a camera. Probably gathering evidence to take back to the Session. I’m fairly sure he caught the woman next to me laughing, so they’ll probably shut WFM down. Women laughing and planning things is surely the way sedition lies.

Actually, women, with their multi-faceted personalities, experience, and gifts, come together in groups like WFM. They work towards a common, humanitarian goal. In striving as one, they become one. There is real sisterhood because the bonds that exist between them are forged in the fire of love. It is that simple love which says that if a child is hungry, you should feed her, and if she hurts, you should comfort her.

That is what feminism looks like in the Free Church.  It is about looking outward and serving the Lord by serving the lowliest in our world.

At the end of the evening, the beauty of 200 women singing Psalm 40 in unison said something to me about real feminism. Each individual voice counts, yes, but how much more power is there when we come together as one?

 

The Minister and the Otherworld

‘Our minister’s away with the fairies’, might very well have been the intimation from the Rev Robert Kirk’s pulpit following his disappearance in 1692. You see, his congregation did not believe that he had died, but rather, that he had been kidnapped off to fairyland. His interest in the creatures of the Otherworld had finally – they thought – been his undoing.

What was his interest? Well, strange as it sounds now, fairy belief was so prevalent at the time that Kirk felt it necessary to write a treatise on their nature. Two common ideas – that they were the spirits of infants who had died without baptism, or that they were fallen angels – could not be countenanced by him, or by the church. Instead, he sought to displace these heretical theories by investigating for himself and laying out his findings in a book, ‘The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies’.

His conclusion was that they were ‘of a middle nature, twixt man and the angels’. It’s an unusual statement for more than one reason. Firstly, well, a minister who believed in fairies. . . If that was nowadays, the very least he could expect would be some odd looks at Session meetings. Secondly, anyone with the most rudimentary grasp of scripture will know that God made man a little lower than the angels, so Kirk was essentially placing fairies above mankind. Above us, yet not perfect like the angels. The fairies required appeasement, and careful handling. Without warning, they might mete out punishment, or simply take from mankind what they coveted.

The writer, Ronald Black, described the function performed by fairyland for our ancestors as similar to modern soap opera. It was a medium for exploring and working out social dilemmas and concerns. To put it another way, it was humankind trying to sort itself out in a way that excluded God. Poor Kirk was somehow trying to accommodate fairy belief into his theology, but it was always going to end badly.

If we humans are proof of anything, we are proof of our own lostness. No matter how bad we make things for ourselves, we still think it’s somehow up to us to fix it, and that we’re capable of fixing it. And, in the absence of God, we have constructed our own doctrine. Just be nice, do no wilful harm, be kind to the poor. Tolerate everything as long as it hurts no one. It will all be fine in the end.

Not like that, it won’t.

Kirk was making the kind of mistake you would hope no modern minister would make. Sometimes, what secular culture thinks is fine, is really not. There are times when what the world wants has to be opposed by Christ’s church. You can’t always accommodate it and you shouldn’t always try. It falls to His followers to hold up a hand and gently say, ‘no further’. And it’s a challenge. No one wants to be called a killjoy, or a bigot, but then, they called our Saviour worse.

I see our local Christian Party candidate being soundly mocked and derided by the usual social media suspects. He has had the temerity to subscribe to Biblical teaching and not conform to the right-on views of the secular lobby. As far as I can make out, his approach is informed by God; their view is shaped by no authority superior to their own. By that logic, if they say his beliefs, or my beliefs are stupid/bigoted/immature, well, then they are. They probably think I’ve been told by my church to vote for him as well. (Obviously I haven’t – the elders don’t know that women have the vote now, and I’m not going to be the one to break it to them.)

Christians have to live in this world for a time, but they should never belong to it. Kirk’s mistake was to think he could walk too closely with worldly ignorance and still be safe. There were two things which might have released him from the enchantment which held him: iron and salt.

We must pray for a good measure of both in our walk through this world.

Make hay on the day of small things

It used to be a practice in some parts of Lewis, when you were constructing the haystack, to place a pat of butter inside the centre of it. Then, partway through the winter, when household stocks began, inevitably, to dwindle, it would emerge from the diminishing goc as a welcome addition to the table.

Our ancestors were inventive when it came to putting things by. Young women gradually built up a ‘bottom drawer’ with all the things they might need to set up a home of their own, should the joyful day ever arrive. Personal and household linens were stored away, in a custom that combined sentiment with practicality. It would have been impossible for them to purchase all they needed at once and so, it was achieved gradually. Happy anticipation salted their frugality and made it a good thing.

When I was a child, I heard the phrase, ‘na dèan tàir air latha nan nithean beaga’ so often that I thought it was a proverb. I think, actually, the older people used it as a sort of mantra for themselves, a wee memo about keeping things in perspective. It is, of course, from the minor prophet, Zechariah – ‘for who hath despised the day of small things?’ – and serves as a reminder that we should not expect dramatic manifestations of God’s work in our lives, but rather that we should be grateful for his constancy, and his faithfulness. These are not, in fact, small things, but great and wonderful things.

Common grace – God’s mercy enjoyed by all, regardless of whether they believe – is probably not talked about enough. Those who reject Christ would certainly argue that they are who they are, and have what they have, through their own efforts and that of other human beings. Many of us have been fooled into that kind of thinking.

Since becoming a Christian, I look back at the years before and see Him acting on my behalf in so many ways to which I must have been blind at the time. It’s like opening up an old, familiar photograph album and seeing a person that you had never previously noticed in every single picture. What did I feel on realising this? Many things. Sadness that I had carried burdens of worry, guilt and sin needlessly; grief, that I had not listened sooner to His voice; shame at my own pride and arrogance. Yet, overriding all of those feelings was joy – joy that now I am His, but also a sort of retrospective comfort. Past trials and celebrations are past, but I see them differently now, knowing that He was always there in their midst.

We are always looking for something significant. I think that I had been a Christian for quite a time before receiving assurance. Perhaps I expected some sort of fireworks display to show that Christ had saved me. No word that all the drama had already taken place 2000 years ago.
And even those who are already Christians sigh and long for the days gone by when churches were full on a Sunday. That’s natural, and we are all praying daily for an increase of God’s Kingdom. Yet, while we are fixing our eyes and our hearts upon the hope of a great and glorious revival, like the kind we read about in books, what is it we are not seeing and hearing now?

The work goes on. God is present. You pray for family and friends who are without Christ, but you remember that they are not completely alone even now. They have not noticed Him at their shoulder, they have not yet turned into His embrace, but He is there. And people are hearing the Word and being changed, sometimes like water wearing away the stone, but being changed all the same. These are the days of small things. We mustn’t give so much of our hearts to longing for a great and glorious miracle that we forget the daily miracle of God’s grace.

Sometimes, He speaks not in wind, nor earthquake, nor fire, but in the still, small voice of everyday. That is something we can put by for later, until the winter passes and the days of plenty come.

Fake Feminism & the Wee Free Women

I don’t suppose you could really call Cailleach an Deacoin a feminist. Mind you, ‘she’ certainly harboured political ambition. For the uninitiated, the Cailleach was the persona assumed by Murdo Matheson of South Lochs, a female impersonator well before the time of Eddie Izzard, or Lily Savage. It was before my time too, but I have heard the recordings from his gigs in the ‘town haal’, where Cailleach an Deacoin roundly mocks the men in parliament and the church, to uproarious laughter from the audience.

Cailleach an Deacoin would certainly have something to say about the hubbub over an all-male Comhairle nan Eilean, following the recent local election. Of course, her intent was always firmly fixed on Westminster, but I’m quite sure that she would have encouraged less ambitious ladies to try for Sandwick Road first.

Feminism is the new secularism here in Lewis. That is to say, it is being hoisted as the latest flag of convenience over the leakiest vessel in the harbour: the good ship, ‘blame the church’. According to some local pundits, the failure to elect any female councillors can be laid squarely at the door of the Kirk session. Over the years, they have subjugated women, kept them in the kitchen, and out of any really important decision-making. Presbyterian women are submissive, pliable, dumb. I know, because I am one. If I had a brain in my be-hatted ceann, I might object to the picture that these feminists paint of me, but I leave all that confrontational stuff to the men. They’re much better at it than me.

Funnily enough, it was suggested by three different people that I should consider standing for the Comhairle. All three were men: two of them church elders, the other a communicant. I was about to use this as proof that the coves in the Free Church don’t see politics as a male preserve, but I’ve just had an epiphany (don’t tell, though, because I haven’t asked permission from the Presbytery). They probably only wanted me to stand in the first place because I’d be easy to manipulate, plus there would be someone to pour the tea at the members’ meetings. Luckily, I have no desire whatsoever to run for elected office anyway. That is the real reason why I – and probably many other women – did not stand for council.

It has nothing to do with the churches’ influence on the lives of women. That kind of suggestion is insulting to the countless articulate, capable and even feisty women who are also churchgoers in this island. Like so many other popular myths regarding religion here, it springs from a complete ignorance of what the church is to her people. Yes, ‘her’ people. And it is also born of that other insidious misconception, that Christianity must ape and conform to contemporary culture.

God created man and He created woman. Each have their own unique attributes and characteristics. These are to be applied in God’s service. He does not love men over women; He does not single one gender out for special treatment. His Son died for both genders, and people of both genders have followed Him and served Him faithfully. Jesus first revealed His divine nature to a woman, and it was to women he first appeared following the resurrection. Christianity does not discriminate because Christ does not discriminate.

The church, of which Christ is the head, tries its best to imitate Him. Recently, I heard a lecture in which the speaker properly described God as genderless. We think of God, traditionally, as a man because – amongst other reasons – to us, He is God the Father. However, in His perfection, God combines attributes which we think of as male, and those we would consider female. No single human being can hope to emulate that on their own.This being the case, the closest any church will get to imitation of God is one in which men and women work together, bringing their best gifts into the service of the church, and of the Lord.

Church isn’t a gender-based competition. Biblically-speaking, there are roles for both. Yet again, the world fails to understand that the church of Christ does not follow society’s norms and obsessions. Contemporary thinking tells you one minute that gender is a social construct, that it doesn’t matter; and then it tells women that they mustn’t let men push them around, and that they must assert themselves. If we follow every prevailing wind, we will be buffeted to and fro like fallen leaves.

There are indeed places in the world where it is considered normal for women to be subjugated and maltreated by men. The Isle of Lewis is not one of them. When my father died, one of the first things my sister said to me was, ‘he was a great father for girls’. And she was right – never once did he make either of us feel that we were less in his eyes than our brothers, or less capable of . . . well, anything. He loved Christ, he was a member of the Free Church, and he treated women as equals. I am offended on his behalf, and on behalf of the many gentlemen I am privileged to call my brothers in Christ, when I hear it said that they are misogynistic bullies. Equally, I don’t appreciate the inference that my sisters in Christ are biddable simpletons with nary a brain-cell to call their own.

Actually, it’s quite straightforward: there are two genders, each with its own attributes and divine calling, each called on to submit to  the other out of reverence for Christ. This is the blueprint laid down for us in Ephesians 5; wouldn’t it be something if the world tried to emulate that instead

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.

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.

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.’