We Can’t Go On Together With Suspicious Minds

This time last year, I was wrestling prayerfully with a decision that I thought I had already made. I had concluded – entirely on my own flawed wisdom – that people like me did not have any business seeking election. Campaigning for others, yes, that was fine, but never chucking my own Free Church hat into the ring.

The idea of being a candidate for anything actually made me feel a little panicky. But, God often asks us to feel the fear and do it anyway, trusting that he will keep us.

I am not going to bore anyone by revisiting the way in which the ensuing campaign lived up to all my horrified expectations, and indeed, exceeded them on many occasions. Suffice to say that I saw both the best and worst of human behaviour, and still find it incredible how much vitriol five (unremunerated) seats on the board of a community landlord can provoke.

It has been an interesting year and I have achieved one personal goal at least: I have learned an awful lot about the Stornoway Trust and the community it serves.

And I can say without flinching, without fear, and definitely without favour (unless you count the brown envelopes, back-handers and holidays to France) that I am glad to have been persuaded into the fray.

I am proud to have been elected by the community I love, onto the board of an organisation that, no matter what the keyboard warriors may say, has consistently retained its dignity.

These keyboard warriors are, in many cases, the same ones who have been baying for a wicker man in which to put the Lewis Sabbath.

As a dyed in the wool Wee Free, it is with no small sense of irony that I say this: they are iconoclasts. Is it old? Has it been a long-established tradition? Can we say that it’s unique to Lewis? Might it even be classed as a local ‘institution? Yes? Oh well, destroy it. Stamp on it, smash it, burn it, change it – rebuild it in the image of something better. Modernise it, copy what they’re doing elsewhere . . .

Or, and here I make a suggestion which I know is doomed to fall on deaf ears: find out a bit more about it; try to understand it, even value it for its idiosyncrasies.

Please, though, before you do, understand one thing: it is completely unique. It is not like the post 2003 Reform Act community trusts – they were welcome political developments; Stornoway Trust was an ahead of its time oddity, which has had to run as a business since 1923.

It’s idiosyncratic as only an organisation of its vintage, and one-off constitution can be. The governing deed is, nonetheless, a pretty robust document and it permits the Trust quite a bit of latitude in terms of the kinds of activity permissible to – and please forgive the brutish, modern parlance about such a graceful old lady – keep the business afloat.

Folk obsessed with denigrating the Trust (yes, it appears to be a hobby for some and, of course, a paid enterprise for others) are falling into the usual trap that seems to dog the more negative Leòdhasaich: comparison. No, the Stornoway Trust does not conduct itself like those younger community-owned estates: it is not a membership organisation and therefore, has never held an AGM. However, and I know I’m repeating myself here, but it bears repetition:

Just because something is not done in the public gaze, that does not necessarily mean it is being purposely hidden from sight. And even if it is being purposely kept under wraps, why ascribe sinister motives?

I am more sorry than I can say at what is being fed to the public here in Lewis as news. This past week, we have seen gossip, hearsay and – at times – slander being elevated to the status of investigative journalism. The local paper even seemed to suggest that personal attacks on trustees are justified because people don’t know what happens at Trust meetings.

Well, I’ll tell you what happens. We are a board of nine volunteers. Many of us have full-time jobs, spouses, families, and additional voluntary commitments. On the last Monday of every month, we meet in the estate office. At 5.30pm, in fact, lest you suspect me of being evasive. The agenda contains a minimum of twenty eight items. (Obviously, the hidden agenda has quite a few more, but that’s the sort of thing I only discuss with my cronies).

The meeting may go on until fairly late. Several of the staff, therefore, have to work a very long day, but they don’t complain. Just as they don’t complain about the unforgivable way some people speak to and about them; or the nasty letters and snide online remarks, all of which conveniently forget that the recipients are actually real, live, human beings.

Once a month, we come together as a board – but it doesn’t end there. In any given week, there may be two or three additional meetings of our sub-committees, or with other organisations. Again, the trustees have to come away from their other commitments to be there; and the staff have to slot all of this into their own tightly packed schedules.

Four of us are rookies, all coming up to our one-year anniversary. I cannot speak for the others, but I can tell you that my learning curve, which I alluded to earlier, has not been of my own making. Yes, I certainly have committed time and effort to picking up the moves – but I have had good and (usually) patient teaching from more experienced trustees, from the ladies in the office (for whose presence I am eternally grateful) and from the only occasionally eye-rolling Factor.

So, as I reflect on all the challenges which we undoubtedly face as a self-financing community landlord, and on the historic legacy of which we trustees are custodians, do I resent the time commitment of which I speak? No, not one bit; at least, not when I’m allowed to get on with what I was elected to do.

The biggest frustration is all the energy wasted on responding to the negative and bitter narrative which consists of repeating sweeping generalisations like ‘the Trust is corrupt’, and other equally ill thought out remarks. But, as I have said before, and will go on saying, those who are bent on destroying the reputation of others only succeed in damaging their own.

I opened my campaign for the Trust the same way that we open our meetings – with prayer. When I was persuaded that this was the right path for me, I committed to it utterly. ‘Whatsoever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might’, as Ecclesiastes says, which does not, however, give me licence to indulge in corruption or any other sin that Perceval Square might have on offer.

Of course I am not beyond doing wrong, nor can I claim to be immune to temptation. But – and I really don’t mean to sound disappointed – there has been precious little outlet for either at the Stornoway Trust.

We Are Jolly . . .Honest.

When the minister announced that the theme of the evening would be ‘joy’, I wondered what we were in for. Surely not another lecture about excessive smiling, or raucous laughter in the church stairwell. Surreptitiously, I glanced down to ensure that I wasn’t wearing anything too gaudy. Nope: the usual hodden-grey as befits a Presbyterian widow of a few years’ standing. Oh well, I thought to myself, maybe it’s some other denomination that’s been bringing the cause into disrepute, because it certainly ain’t us.

Only, it turned out that he wasn’t warning against joy; he was actively promoting it. Not in a Ken Dodd, how tickled I am, sort of manner, I hasten to add; he was speaking up for spiritual joy – the real, enduring kind.

Now, Lewis Christians are not widely associated with joyfulness. That, for anyone who doesn’t recognise such things, is a monumental understatement of the type that only a dour Presbyterian can make with a straight face.

Anyone can – and, apparently, will – tell you of the myriad ways that Wee Frees (other denominations are available) have of spoiling your fun. We have taken an integrated approach, restricting not just dancing and the singing of worldly songs, but all forms of audio-visual entertainment and the reading of fiction (which we equate to lying). Thanks to people like me, families are being forced to spend time together at weekends instead of in municipal facilities, with disgruntled local authority employees who want . . . well, to be at home with their families.

It is time, social media tells us, that Lewis moved on and left all this stuff behind.

I have frequently drawn attention to the terrible things that are written about Christians on the likes of Facebook, and I will continue to call out that kind of bigotry for what it is. But, oh, how I wish we wouldn’t keep providing unbelieving folk with an opportunity to drag the cause through the mud. We have to be so careful: as wise, indeed, as serpents, while always endeavouring to be as gentle as doves. More is expected of believers than to simply blurt out the truth uncompromisingly in a ‘take it or leave it’ manner. That way lies the kind of misunderstanding that has caused our own community to think followers of Christ are joyless.

It comes down, however, to a definition of ‘joy’ which transcends the world’s understanding of it.  You will understand that it is not the kind of superficial feeling that is emotionally-led, and tied to our circumstances. My own moments of deepest spiritual joy came in the midst of the greatest grief of my life – because I had assurance of salvation for the first time. And, as the minister reminded us in the course of his unexpected sermon on joy, that salvation comes with a whole host of non-optional bonuses. Two of those – joy and peace – are interrelated and, I believe, feed one another. No matter what happens in my life, I have the abiding joy of knowing Christ, and the peace that comes along with that.

This is true of every Christian, of course, not just me. So, why are we such a poor advert for our faith? Why does the view persist that our ministers are of the I.M. Jolly stamp, and we ourselves a narrow-minded chorus of nay-sayers and lip-pursers?

Well, there are several reasons, I think. Some people just naturally incline towards seriousness, and this is how they will be as Christians too. Our essential personality does not change that dramatically. There is also the division between believer and unbeliever created by the simple fact of our once having been as they are, while they have not yet had the privilege of seeing things from our vantage point.

This divide causes a certain spiritual blindness in the unbeliever, and Christians should be sympathetic to it, because we were all afflicted with it once ourselves. Being sympathetic to it, however, also means that we have to engage a certain amount of emotional intelligence in our witness.

Let me offer an example. In the midst of all the dignified commemoration of the ‘Iolaire’ disaster, there was one discordant note struck. A local minister wrote an article for his district’s magazine, which was subsequently shared to the national press, and dragged back to the lair of Facebook to be torn asunder. I have read what he wrote and – spiritually speaking – there is nothing wrong with it. It was taken out of context, though, and has been most shamefully spoken about in various public forums.

However, he must surely have known that this was a possibility and it was, at best, naïve of him to attach the comments he did to a piece on this very emotive topic. I realise, because I am theologically literate, that he did NOT say those on board the ‘Iolaire’ particularly were all sinners who deserved to die; he was speaking in more general terms. But it’s a nuance that is easily lost on those less versed in Scripture, as well as those who wilfully misunderstand what, deep down, they fear.

This is where we surely have to employ some wisdom. While something may be true, is it necessarily the best thing to present to those who still have not met Jesus? I would contend that the first thing to do with such people is effect that most important of introductions, and all other things will follow from there.

I am certainly not saying that we should hide the offensive truth from them, but I am saying that we should not brandish it in their face at every opportunity. Wouldn’t it work better if we showed them the pleasure we take in belonging to God?

The recent sermon on joy ended with words from the book of Nehemiah on the dedication of the rebuilt wall, ‘The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away’. That has to be our aim too, if we are serious about bridging the gulf in our community between those who love the Lord, and those who have not met Him yet: let them hear our joy, and crave it for themselves.

 

Your Gender-fluid Granny

There was some difficulty in ascertaining what species I was, the day my parents brought me home from the hospital. My brother – a mere 20 months old at the time – was held up to peer into the carrycot and hazarded three guesses. I was, he mused, either a bird, a kitten or a hen. In my defence, I must say that he had a limited vocabulary and life experience, and it was that, more than any weird fur or feather arrangement on display which led to this misapplication of ‘isean’ ‘piseag’ or ‘gog-gàg’.

And then, when I was a little older, my father seemed to be labouring under some misapprehension that I was a collie. He worked myself and my brother like a brace of sheepdogs, every time he wanted some of the woolly halfwits moved from one part of the croft to another. We always had an actual dog, but never one that was helpful in the usual ways one might expect. Seonaidh Mòr was adept at wearing hats and escaping; Tim was the king of intimidation and burying things, but neither canine cv had ‘working with sheep’ as a life-skill.

Finally, however, I settled on just being a girl or, as modern parlance would have it, ‘the gender I was assigned at birth’. It’s the use of ‘assigned’ that amuses here. Whose decision is it? I imagine the midwife approaching my mother and saying, ‘Well, Mrs MacLean, regardless of what biology seems to be suggesting, we’re making this one a boy, because we’re out of pink blankets for the moment’. To think the future course of my life may have depended upon the laundry efficiency at the Lewis Hospital . . .

Thankfully, however, there must have been a good supply of the apropriate colour of blankets, and I was, according to the hospital wristband, ‘Baby MacLean – Girl’. Born the day before my granny’s birthday, but arriving early, as is my wont, there was really nothing for it but to name me after her.

Naming children for their relatives is a practice that seems to have fallen into disuse, unless I have misread the situation and there actually are a whole lot of bodaich on the Taobh Siar called Dylan. There was a time, however, when it was de rigeur, and when a family dispute could well be sparked by parents’ failure to honour a sensitive relative in the naming of their child. Regardless, that is, of whether said child was of the same gender as the relative who expected this honour.

Yes, those of you who think we islanders so narrow in our outlook, and so unsophisticated in our response to contemporary issues, read this and consider: gender fluidity started in the Hebrides.

Amongst our older generation, it is not difficult to find legions of women named Angusina, Murdina, Duncanina, Kenina, Hughina, Willina . . . Each one of these is testament to two things: their parents’ commitment to family honour; and a complete lack of chauvinism. Some people will jokingly say that it’s tantamount to saying to your daughter, ‘we really wanted a boy’ but I think you have to look at it in its social and historical context.

The really important social custom being observed here was the preservation of traditional names, and the giving of due place to senior members of the family. It is not about gender at all really, and it is certainly not about the superiority of male over female.

There is something else as well. The number of firstborn girls who were named for male relatives testify to the fact that parents were well aware that this might be their only such blessing. My sister was named for our great-grandfather – my father’s seanair, and the only father figure he ever knew – because, I imagine, my parents sensibly accepted that there might be no siblings and, even if there were, there might be no boys. As it happened, two boys followed, but neither of them had the name ‘Donald’ bestowed upon him. That distinction belongs to my sister, Donna.

I used to think that it was only we islanders that had this obsession with genealogy, and with naming. But many other civilisations have the same interest. God, in His wisdom, placed our Saviour within a human lineage, so that even prophets like Isaiah knew that the Messiah would come through the house of David. The name of David remains linked inextricably with that of the Lord, giving Him that identity which was so necessary for our understanding of Him, and for Him to experience fully what it means to be human.

I think that there is a lesson for all of us in the fact that our Lord’s identity was not something that could be neatly summed up in one word. There were many facets to the only perfect man who ever lived, but that did not diminish Him one bit. And even we, who are made in His image – albeit now like a shattered looking-glass – are greater than the sum of our parts.

In my case, I am happy to be the gender I was assigned by my Creator. And I am happy to be nighean Mhurdanaidh Catrìona Dhòmhnaill Iain Ruaidh. Or banntrach Dhòmhnaill Chaluim Sheonaidh. Some people know me as Post Tenebras Lux, or the woman who taught their kids in Sunday School, or their Gaelic tutor, or that blone on the Trust. Catriona Murray, nee Maclean is a daughter, sister, auntie, friend, lecturer and widow.

But, in any and all of those things, I am who I am, what I am and where I am because God ordained it so. It is, like everything else He does, fixed and secure. And, contrary to what modern wisdom will tell you, this does not box you in – it liberates you in ways that doing as you please, and being who you think you are, never will.

The Trust, the Well and the Council Clock

‘You may lead a Lewisman with a hair, but you won’t drag him with a cable’. Thus spoke Lord Leverhulme, the proprietor of the island in 1920. A mere two years into his tenure, he had already seen enough of the people to know that they were versed in the art of subtlety, as well as masters at being thrawn.

I’ve always been interested in this hard-headed northern businessman. He thought he knew what was best for the crofters of this island – and perhaps he did, in economic terms – but he also reckoned without the strong attachment the Hebridean feels to his land.

It is hugely to his credit that he was willing to gift the very terrain that caused such dispute, back to the people who had opposed him. I wonder how a successful entrepreneur managed to set aside ego to this extent; his financial worries notwithstanding, it was a magnanimous gesture.

Attending meetings of the Stornoway Trust, which manages the estate of the same name, I frequently look upon his portrait, which hangs on the boardroom wall. I think he would find the plans and projects, the obstacles and objections strangely familiar. And I imagine him rubbing his hands with relish, and getting stuck in, bluff wee northerner that he was.

The Trust is guardian of his legacy, yes – but his intention in gifting the land to the community was that the community should run it, not Leverhulme’s way, but the Lewis way.

Just last week, I took a tour of the Castle policies with the man who is responsible for the day to day management of the estate. He definitely has a name, but is known to everyone simply as ‘the Factor’. With him, I got a palpable sense of the way that history is a living thing for us in Lewis. Conversation flowed seamlessly  around which was Lady Matheson’s favourite picnic spot, to a Second World War bunker, to the Millennium Forest project, to a prehistoric chambered cairn, to the Castle School, to Mac an t-Srònaich, to speed bumps, to Lord Leverhulme e fhèin.

I think we generally have an easy relationship with our past. Modern kit houses sit on the site of, or even alongside early white houses and, sometimes, the tobhta of the family blackhouse. We incorporate patronymics into our identity, so we are part of a line which stretches back through history. And the different names we go by – our forefathers’ – inhabit and shape history at different times.

My maternal seanair helped build the iron water well, a landmark in the Castle Grounds. It commemorates a sensitive individual who used to moor his yacht in Stornoway for the peace and quiet. How very strange that he should be memorialised here in that way, and that generations of Lewis children should know the name of the reclusive Robert Alfred Colby Cubbin.

Whatever the plaque says, though, for me it is a monument to Alex Hearach, my grandfather.

Following the Lewis way means guarding our identity. It involves maintaining a relationship with the past in order to move forward. The more I contemplate our close connection with history here in the island, therefore,  the more fiercely I am determined to see all of our heritage protected.

We cannot say ‘yes’ to Lady Matheson, or Mac an t-Srònaich, and ‘no thanks’ to our Christian legacy. There is something incomplete in our understanding of Stornoway’s history if we believe that it includes Lord Leverhulme, but excludes Rev Kenneth MacRae; if we embrace Latha na Dròbh but, frankly, find òrduighean Steòrnabhaigh a bit of an embarrassment.

You cannot separate our civic and religious past, you see. Literally, sometimes. When the Town Hall was razed to the ground in 1918, the clock was lost and folk had no way to tell the time, unless they visited Sime’s shop on Church Street. So, the Town Council came up with an ingenious plan – they erected a public clock on Kenneth Street Free Church.

The building belonged to the Free Church, and the clock to the Council, but the time that moved its hands, that belongs to God. We so seldom look beyond what is right in front of us; we accept the face that history presents, and we do not question.

But we should. I have always thought of that graceful stone monument in the Castle Grounds, built in part by Alex Hearach, as the iron water well. Walking there last week, though, something that now seems rather obvious was casually alluded to: the actual well is some feet away, anonymously supplying the man-made structure with pure, clean water.

That, I think, is as good a metaphor as any I’ve found for what Christianity has been to the history of this place. It is always there, feeding us living water, and giving real meaning to all the events that we foolishly believe are authored by ourselves. While we are busily cleaning up and repointing the facade, the water continues to spring forth and give us life.

We need have no fear that particular well will ever run dry. But equally, it’s important that no one should ever be permitted to stop its mouth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suffrage, Tippex, and the Feminist Free Kirk

As a noted local feminist, I was disappointed that my recent election to the Stornoway Trust failed to attract the expected plaudits from the sisterhood. They can’t have heard. It’s a pity, because I had hoped they would take heart, now we’ve seen that  women can be elected in Lewis after all. Should any of you see them, please mention it.

Maybe don’t mention my complications, though. I do stuff that they might think messes with my girl-power credentials. And I don’t just mean the fact that the last person to put screen wash in my car was the minister. Or that I have several men on speed-dial who tell me what to think about the complicated stuff (the Blue Book, the interconnector, the offside rule).

No, there’s that obedience thing as well: the Biblical authority, the Saviour ruling my life. The Free Church.

Somehow, the patriarchy that I am expected to rage against, they’re the same guys who put me on the Trust. According, that is, to a letter in the newspaper formerly known as the ‘Stornoway’ Gazette.

Do not adjust your screens – I am indeed talking about the same Free Kirk that’s been keeping women down for two centuries.

Elders took a few nights off from chaining swings and intimidating witnesses to go out bribing voters, and Tippexing any ballot papers that people had completed without their say-so. I am not exactly sure what their motive in getting a blone elected was, especially a daft airhead like myself who, apparently, needed the ‘big boys’ (whoever they may be) to explain wind turbines to her.

Actually, before the ballot, one of the patriarchy, who shall remain nameless, suggested that it would be a good thing if I were elected. I waited for him to say, ‘because it might get you off our case for a while’, or even, ‘you girls need a wee hobby to keep you out of mischief’. But no. He suggested that I might contribute something to the decision-making process (and not just fruit loaf either).

He meant it sincerely. Nor did he conclude by winking and adding, ‘Don’t you worry, we’ll make sure it happens, a ghràidh’. I think he’s probably more of a feminist than all the badge-wearing, card-carrying types who were casting around looking for an explanation for my election – and finally came up with the contemptible cop-out, ‘it was the church that rigged it’.

Feminism, however, for me, is the simple fact of women getting on with things, and rational folk of both genders accepting that they can.

I want to inhabit Biblical womanhood, because my first love and first loyalty belong to God. This is a colossal challenge, first and foremost because of my own nature. It is in me to think, ‘why shouldn’t I?’ And, although I’m not excusing myself, I feel bound to add that this instinct is probably exacerbated by being a woman on her own. Who deals with the frightening stuff – the spider in the bath, talking to mechanics – if not me?

So, then, it’s hard when you’re the sole breadwinner and householder, to still be the kind of woman God requires.

It is also a challenge because society tells you to assert yourself, not to allow others to trample over you, to know your rights. Society is about being confrontational: me before you; my wants over your needs; my opinion trumps yours.

The problem with society is it’s made up of people, and we are – all of us – fundamentally flawed, and broken in our own way. And we are shot-through with sin. So, what the world will tell you to be is very rarely in agreement with what God wants.

That, sisters, is where we have to rely on Him.

God has not said ‘subdue your femininity’ – He wants us to embrace it and inhabit it in all its fullness. That means not seeing myself in relation to men, not comparing myself to them in terms of what is permissible, but fitting myself to God’s template for my life. I don’t want to be anyone else, or do the things that other people do, of either gender.

My life is not what I planned. Mercifully. It’s easy to tug at your heartstrings and say I hadn’t planned to be a widow now. And, of course, that’s true. On the other hand, I had not planned to commit my life to Christ, to accept His free gift of salvation. Thankfully, you see, God had it all in hand. Submitting to Him is the wisest thing I ever did; and even that wasn’t me.

There are many examples, in His Word, of womanhood which I might try to follow. A friend recently mentioned  a sermon on Ruth, in which the question was posed, ‘where, in all of Moab, did Ruth come to know God’? And the only conclusion to which the preacher could come was this: it must surely have been through  Naomi’s dignity and faith in the midst of great grief.

This would certainly explain that famous and beautiful speech from Ruth to her mother in-law, and particularly, ‘your God shall be my God’.

Ruth must have seen a beauty in Him to desire, and that beauty was clearly revealed to her in Naomi’s steadfast devotion.

That, now,  is the sort of feminist I would like to be: loving God, and witnessing faithfully for Him, no matter where He leads, so that other women – and yes, even men – might see Him too, and be freed from ‘isms’ of every kind.

Sunday Is Not About Religion At All

There have been one or two articles in the last week, written in defence of the Lewis Sabbath from a non-church perspective. At their heart, they say basically the same thing – Sunday is not just for religion.  While I welcome their input to the debate which has hitherto consisted mainly of secularist blackening of the church through the medium of stereotype and ignorance, I cannot entirely subscribe to the sentiment. As far as I am concerned, Sunday is not about religion at all.

Of course, centuries of tradition have created this situation where Lewis continues to observe a commercial shutdown on Sundays. It does indeed date back to times gone by when the norm throughout Scotland would have been that the population rested and worshipped on the Lord’s Day. While other influences have reshaped and changed other parts of the country, Lewis continued to plough its own furrow as far as Sabbath observance was concerned, partly because churchgoing continued here at much the same level as it always had. Elsewhere it has been dwindling at an alarming rate, though 44% of islanders still maintain the practice of regular worship.

That is roughly the same percentage of regular worshippers as there are Gaelic-speakers in Stornoway, and it would take a very ignorant person indeed to suggest that the language is culturally irrelevant.

It is part of that tendency among those of an unbelieving bent to wish to rubbish and revise anything which interferes with their agenda. They do not wish it to be the case that the Christian church has had an influence on shaping the local heritage here in Lewis, and so they simply deny that it is so.

Worse, they imply that the people have been too stupid to resist the wiles of sinister ministers and elders who, on some non-specific power trip, have had things all their own way these three centuries or so.

But I’m tired of that argument. It isn’t up for debate anyway – the facts speak for themselves. Much of what we can all regard as precious about life in Lewis has been shaped, one way or the other, by the influence of the Presbyterian church.

I’m more concerned by the turn that this whole tired issue is taking, that we ought to preserve the Lord’s Day because ‘it isn’t just about religion’. This is a standpoint that should shock Christians into speaking up for their Lord’s Day.

Or are we honestly going to remain silent, and leave it to our non-Christian friends and neighbours to argue for the preservation of the Lewis Sabbath based only on tradition?

Well, shame on us.

The importance of keeping the Lord’s Day is not, for me, a matter of tradition, ritual, or even religion. I would imagine I also speak for my brothers and sisters in Christ when I say that it is about my relationship with Him. He it was who said that Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around.  Of course, like many more of His words, these have often been used by people to suit their own ends. However, I think that He meant the day as a gift to His believing people, when they could expect to put aside work for one day, and have the time for spiritual rest and refreshing.

Last Sunday, I slept a little later than I can during the week. I walked the dog a little further. My coffee was finished at home, instead of being decanted into a travel mug. The time I had for devotional reading and prayer was more relaxed. I drove for twenty minutes to get to church, through some of His best work – turbulent seas to my left and the green sward of machair to my right. It was a leisurely preparation for the hour of worship.

At the door of the church, there was a mixture of warm welcome and downright cheek from the two elders on duty. I approve of that Lewis brand of cheek – the gentle mockery that is very much a family thing.

And inside, contentment. Catching up with news. The silent subtle passing of the mint imperials. Psalms in Gaelic. Prayer. Preaching.

The sermon was about a man I can identify very much with. We both started out the same way, Nicodemus and I: secret disciples, the pair of us. He hid his interest in Christ, but eventually came out on His side.

We, both of us, finally came out for Him because of His death. For Nicodemus, it was right there and then, after the Lord had been crucified by the very people that he himself had feared. He had feared them and hidden his allegiance from them; and then he had faced their derision when he identified publicly with Christ.
For me, it was at a time of commemorating His death that I too finally felt the last shred of resistance falling away.

I have faced what all Christians in this part of the world do – being mocked and derided for my beliefs, sometimes from people who should certainly know better. It is not violence, of course – not yet – but it can be very trying just the same.

Sunday is a day of rest for me. I do not go ‘ religiously’ to church, nor do I read my Bible ‘religiously’. Sadly, I am monumentally selfish, and could never keep up such a religion.

Christians need this day. It offers the peace that St Augustine summed up so well – ‘ our heart is unquiet until it rests in you’. It is a different kind of rest because it is in Him.

He gave and gives and will give. Sunday was His precious gift to us. If we have identified with Him once, I would say now is the time to show that forth once again.

And again.

Sunday is not precious in Lewis because of religion, that much is true. It is precious because of Christ. And because of Him, we surely have the courage to say so.

Lantern Beams & the Hebridean Cringe

‘Our distinctiveness lies in being ‘of the place’, rooted in who we are’. Does anyone want to guess who I’m quoting? The Free Church? Harris Tweed Hebrides? Comunn Eachdraidh Nis?

No, it’s ‘An Lanntair’ in Stornoway, the arts centre which serves the community hereabouts.

Even although I’m a Calvinist and, therefore, have to avert my eyes from anything remotely resembling an artistic representation, I am an occasional patron of the said Lanntair. I have watched films, seen plays, listened to talks, and drunk coffee there. Being a bit of a weirdo, I enjoyed their Faclan book festival a few years back, on the theme of the supernatural. Respectfully, I refrained from commenting on the fact that in amongst all the second sight and ghost stories, they had crowbarred Alistair Darling’s book-launch into the program too. Bernera connections and those eyebrows probably do qualify him for a space in the netherworld, after all.

So, because I have been a frequenter of the arts centre, I believe I’m allowed to comment on their latest foray into distinctiveness.

They have already this year devoted an entire calendar month to a celebration of LGBT culture (whatever that is). Apparently it’s important to celebrate diversity, and many of our resident secularists rushed to virtue-signal their support for the Lanntair, and their intention to attend at least one film, while also very carefully declaring their own heterosexuality, just in case. The same people also nearly got stuck in the door marked ‘Yes please’ when the plans for a small Islamic meeting place for Stornoway were unveiled.

They are for diversity. This doesn’t just mean simple respect – which I hope that all decent human beings are capable of – but actually celebrating difference. From what I can work out by observing their behaviour, it means that they are in favour of the LGBT community, and the Muslim community having a voice, and are swift to set down anyone who takes an opposing stance. Especially Christians.

And now, they are delighted that An Lanntair – which is ‘of the place’, remember – is going to trial Sunday film screenings. It is tediously posited by the usual suspects as the long-awaited provision of ‘something for families’.

When did family life consist of spending as much time as possible out of the home, and surrounded by other people? I remember Sundays which involved walks, reading, board games, talking to my parents . . . does that not happen any more? Am I being obtuse? If children are in school all week, and shepherded around various organised activities all weekend, where does the much talked-about ‘quality time’ come in?

This is all very well. People of a HASP+ (that’s Humanist , Atheist, Secular, Pagan and whatever else) tendency will say that they’re quite delighted. It is time that diversity had its moment in the Lewis sun. Anything that’s a bit new, a bit different is absolutely welcome. Everyone is just tired of those Christians, trying to spoil everything with their hackneyed old beliefs and their inconvenient lifestyle.

Do you know what this is? It’s a great, big, ugly extension of the Hebridean cringe.

Novelty wins every time over heritage. Tradition is an embarrassing affront to innovation. People are plastering the label ‘Hebridean’ on everything, while all the time disdaining what makes us distinctive.

When did this happen to the island? Why are we delighted to show tourists sites like Callanish, or Eaglais na h-Aoidh, or St Clement’s, but not the living, functioning reality of Christian worship? What makes us so proud of our Celtic music, but not our Celtic church?

What kind of revisionism is taking place when Lewis can be portrayed as some sort of microcosm of any of our larger cities, and no one bats an eyelid?

Well, I’m batting one now. This island in which I live, has far more cultural distinctiveness than to need to emulate London, or Glasgow. It is physically shaped by geology and by climatic forces, and by hundreds of years of crofting life. My ancestors scraped a living from the soil, and from the sea around our shores; they trooped off to war and some even trooped back again. They spoke Gaelic, and they worked their land in line with the seasons.

And on Sunday, they both rested and worshipped God.

Keeping Sunday as a day of rest is good for the body and for the mind. I’m not even going to mention the soul, because that’s a given. Our European neighbours know this to be true, and they’re not trying to scrap it in order to desperately ape what they do elsewhere.

That would be culturally insecure behaviour – and no one does that quite the way we do in Lewis. We’ve been embarrassed by our language, our accent, our faith, and now our very way of life.

I am of the place, and I am rooted in who I am. Gaelic-speaker, Calvinist member of the Free Church, reader of my people’s history. And I am not ashamed of any of these.

If An Lanntair wanted to live up to its name, to its mission statement and to the notion of art being a bit subversive, it could shine a light on what it is about Lewis culture that is so very precious.

‘Lantern’ actually, refers only to the outer casing, which encircles and protects the source of light.

It plays no part in trying to snuff it out.

 

Lost Causes & Bringing Cutlery to Ness

A former minister of Stornoway Free Church once impertinently suggested that I had a bit of a preoccupation with lost causes. His evidence was my membership of the SNP and the fact that, at the time, I was a development officer in Ness. Well, the SNP has done okay since then; and I’ve heard that the Nisich are now – mainly – literate, and able to use cutlery. So much for my causes being lost.

He wasn’t entirely wrong, though. I’ve always known what it is to be in the minority. Being a Gaelic-speaking Calvinist marked me out from most of my fellow men; and now, a follower of Christ, I am a confirmed oddity in the eyes of the world.

Recently, I was interviewed for BBC Alba’s religious programme, ‘Alleluia’, and was asked what kind of upbringing I had received in terms of faith. I think I said it was ‘gu math àbhaisteach’ – fairly standard. Most households had some kind of church connection, and most attended services, even sporadically. For the time – the eighties – it was indeed àbhaisteach. So much so, indeed, that I fear we took it for granted.

Chatting to one of our more senior elders this week, he said that he and his wife had returned to live in Lewis during that very period. The pews were so full that one had to arrive half an hour before the service in order to be guaranteed a seat. Those greeting the congregation at the door had no time to do more than catch their hands and encourage them inwards, a gesture reminiscent of sheep being guided through a dipping tank.

It was easy. All they had to do was unlock the doors, and people would come. Elders and ministers were held in high esteem in the community. Even people who were unconverted, or unchurched for that matter, would go to some lengths to avoid giving offence to Christians. Bad language was refrained from in their presence. There was a culture of respect for the things of God, and even those who thought it foolishness had more manners than to say so.

It is easy when everything is as you would want it. The SNP in the Western Isles had seventeen years of Donald Stewart MP, a man universally admired and respected. When he retired, they had to adjust to a whole new world. I remember those years. Repeated election campaigns when you knew in you heart that things were not going your way. Knocking on doors, only to be told that you were a nuisance, or a gullible idiot. Having your campaign literature torn up in front of you. Being called unrepeatable names and even, on one memorable occasion, being spat at.

Scottish nationalism, though, is no longer the social embarrassment it once was. It has gone mainstream. Properly political now, affiliation with the SNP is not, by itself, enough to get you a reputation for eccentricity. Being a member of the SNP is never going to win you universal approval either, but at least people no longer patronisingly say, ‘oh, so was I – until I grew up.’

The cause of the lost, on the other hand, looks to be in a bad way. Churches are emptier, people no longer trouble to refrain from giving offence to Christians here in Lewis – indeed, some seem to go out of their way to shock. Secularism exercises its vocal cords at every opportunity. Only this week, the results of a questionnaire survey show forth the anti-Sabbatarian agenda rearing its tedious head yet again.

Now that the church in Lewis commands little respect from those who do not share its views, then, are we to assume it has become an irrelevance? Should the Free Church pack away its psalm books and sell its buildings so that they may be converted into pubs, or gyms, or coffee shops – something that people do want?

Of course not. Recently, our congregation heard that the world hates the Gospel, but it needs the Gospel. This is the dichotomy that means we must persevere: it echoes the Great Commission. None of us knew we needed Christ,after all, until He made Himself known to us. We love because He first loved us.

When we thronged, as a community, to church every week, it may very well have been just ‘the done thing’ for many. Teenagers went to please parents, adults went out of habit and obedience to societal norms. But many who went there carelessly were eventually saved.They may have gone for months, or even years, under duress, but their bonds would sooner or later be removed by the truth which sets all who hear it free.

Being unwanted in society is not a new experience for the church of Christ. The head of our church was slain by a culture hostile to His message, yet His mission persevered. He was despised and rejected of men, as is His church – and for that very reason it must endure.

We forget, don’t we, that the cause of the lost is very far from being a lost cause. Indeed, Christ is already victorious, enthroned in Heaven. And so, His triumph should surely be foundational to our worship.

Worship is in the Spirit. Neither preaching, nor praise, nor prayer are mere words. And the same indwelling Spirit who compels our private and corporate prayer can compel people into His presence, no matter how far removed they may be from thoughts of Christ.

The only lost cause, it turns out,  is that of fighting irresistible grace.

 

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 . . .

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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.