The Real Lewis & Harris

The minister crept up behind me and took the bottle out of my hand. ‘You’re going to need water in this’, he lectured, ‘or this stuff will burn right through’.  I was caught off guard.

It’s not that my fondness for the Laphroaig has got the better of me, in case you’re wondering. No, it was screen wash. And before you think, ‘mo chreach, how far she’s fallen’, it actually was intended for the reservoir under my car bonnet. Not to be trusted with such a masculine endeavour, though, I was rapidly surrounded by a quorum of the Session, and the task taken out of my daft wee hands. They probably thought I wouldn’t manage the child-proof lid.

Sometimes, though, I have to admit that it’s nice when someone comes along and says, ‘shift, you handless clown, I’ll do it’. Not that I’m suggesting for one minute that those were the minister’s words. (Actually, I believe his exact opener was – in Gaelic – ‘what are you up to now?’). That other kind of impatient takeover was more the style adopted by my brother two weeks before when, on communion Sunday, heading to church, my tyre blew out.

It was good to have someone capable – though crabbit- to sort it out, to hand me the keys of his car and to save the day. And it was good to see the minister pour an entire bottle of concentrated screenwash into the windscreen washers because if, as he suggested, it destroys the rubber on my wiper blades, I can blame him. Sort of.

But then there are those things which we have to do ourselves, which no one else can do for us.

I have been to many wakes and funerals simply because, although no one would have missed me if I hadn’t been there, I needed to do it for someone else’s sake. Friends, colleagues, neighbours who have all done as much for me too. Life teems with obligations that we don’t want to fulfil, but are constrained to. We do these things because they are the right things to do, because they are part of life in a community like ours.

A community like ours. Lately, I have been wondering what that is. If you are to believe half of what you read about it in the press, it’s the kind of place where ministers creeping up behind you are most likely planning to influence your vote. Or intimidate you into standing for council.

I have been speaking to a growing number of people who feel that something very precious to them has been trampled underfoot by a vocal minority making this kind of claim. There are, I appreciate, those living in Lewis who do not necessarily share my love for the culture, nor indeed my positive experiences of being an islander where, every six days, the pace is dialled right back.

This, it has been widely suggested, is old-fashioned, embarrassing, anachronistic, a disgrace, and an all-round poor show. Those of us who value all aspects of our heritage have been mocked or lambasted by turns and  told repeatedly that there is nothing so very unique about this island.

Oh, but yes, there is.

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This island – the Long Island of Lewis and Harris, that is – when the chips are down, will never cease to amaze. It is a community with a mind of its own and a fierce pride in its identity. Don’t ever try to second-guess what we islanders will do because we sometimes don’t know ourselves until we’ve done it.

I did not know what the reaction would be to the creation of a pro-Sunday group on social media. Three of us had spoken about it before, but during my lunch-break on Wednesday, I had one of those dangerous, ‘what the heck are we waiting for?’ moments.

I had just re-read a ludicrous interview in a national newspaper in which one resident compares life in the islands to the experience of those under Sharia Law in Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps it was an off-the-cuff comment, exaggerated by a canny journalist; I don’t know. But, if people are going to persist in the fiction that says this island is under an oppressive regime run by men in black suits who rig elections, but are still not too big on it to notice whether you’ve left a blouse on the line on Sundays, well, there has to be a counter-narrative.

It hardly needs saying that there is a world of difference between an existence under the Sharia regime and the maintenance of a much-loved traditional way of life, which contributes greatly to the winsome character of Lewis and Harris.

But ‘hardly needs saying’ can no longer equate to us remaining quiet. If we value it, if we want to keep it, we have to be prepared to say so.

Our group has started off well and, within 48 hours, had a membership of 1700 and rising. People are sharing reminiscences, photographs, gentle jibes; the group has Christians and those who are not; there are island-dwellers, island-lovers, and emigrants; there are born and breds and here by choices. It is, in short, a microcosm of the Lewis and Harris we recognise and love.

And it has done something that we have not been able to say in a long while – it has united this community behind a common purpose.

That common purpose is, itself, unity.

Standing up for what we believe, and for what we hold in high regard, is a duty that no one else can fulfil on our behalf. But, as I always knew they would, the islanders have risen to their obligation admirably.

This, I can say with some confidence, is the Lewis and Harris we want the world to see.

You Can’t Make Them Drink – But You Can Lead Atheists To The Well

I was advised by the minister a while ago to take my needle and thread with me wherever I might go. Yes, I thought, typical of the patriarchy, remind the wee woman of her domestic responsibility. He wanted me to be ready, I supposed, for the moment one of the brethren might lose a cuff button in the course of wagging an admonishing finger at a flighty, hatless lady.

But I realised afterwards that he was speaking metaphorically. In recommending I leave my scissors at home, he was simply reminding me that the role of anyone who is going to faithfully witness for their Saviour must surely be that of peacemaker.

It was apposite advice for me, whether he knew it or not. Far too prone to sarcasm, I do need to keep a guard on the things that I say.

Recently, however, I  have come to the realisation that there are certain things which will offend, no matter how you couch them. It is a valuable lesson in humility that, no matter how well we express ourselves, or how carefully, not everyone will receive our message with gratitude.

And so it was that I reached a point in the week where I decided just to shut up. You may not have noticed, of course, because it was really just that . . . a moment.
It has been an exhausting time, this almost-year since starting the blog. I have had a little anonymous hassle, some upfront vitriol, and more than a few broad hints that I’m getting on people’s wicks. When things rile me, or trouble me, things that are happening locally, I sometimes wonder if it’s just me that’s bothered. Am I giving the secularists the oxygen of attention they so obviously crave? Would I be better advised to simply ignore them and let them carry on as they are doing?

During my brief, slightly dusk hour of the soul, I genuinely posed these questions to myself. Was I taking to do with things that are nothing to do with me? Am I stirring the pot unnecessarily? In short, was I taking a great big pair of scissors to a tiny tear, instead of quickly stitching it together?

The best advice I can give myself now is not to fall into the trap that the secularists have: not to keep looking outwards and blaming other people. Look inward to check whether I am guilty, and look upward for everything else.

People like to mock and taunt Christians by asking them, ‘what would Jesus do?’ We do have to put this question to ourselves, though, in a serious manner. He it is we are imitating, after all; His is the perfect nature we would love to emulate as far as possible.

When he met the woman at the well, he did not throw her adulterous and immoral lifestyle at her, he didn’t rail against her for it, or try to make her feel ashamed. But he didn’t avoid the subject either. In fact, he simply said it as it was.

If he met those people who think Stornoway needs a secular lifestyle, I don’t think he would waste valuable time on telling them where they had gone wrong, or on debating the finer points of human rights to spend Sunday in a manner of their choosing. He would, as he did with the Samaritan woman, simply tell them what he offers and, in the light of that offer, their demands would fall away. His word is power and is capable of taking the most unrepentant unbeliever from the jaws of death.

But how are they going to meet him? Will they find him in letters condemning their behaviour? Or in blogs critical of their attitude to a Sabbath they don’t understand?
I am in no position to second-guess what he might be doing in their lives right now, or how directly he may be speaking to them. That said, I am in a position to know that his own people are called on to witness so that unbelievers may at least meet him in them.

And so, whether I am working with the needle and thread, or applying the scissors, he is the pattern I should be following. He is truth and wisdom and love.

Ultimately, those who meet with him will always feel their wrongness without being told. Perhaps the fault is mine if I don’t introduce more people to him. It is just possible that I have been looking at this whole sorry mess the wrong way.

I cannot save people’s souls. The church cannot save people’s souls. But we could work harder at introducing them to a man who can. Instead of wasting everyone’s time reasoning, imploring, or worse – hectoring- we would be better employed living as we should so that the blindest of the blind might see Christ in us.

Then, like the Samaritan woman, they might go about relating their own experience of him. Instead of talking about how narrow and bitter and strict Christ’s followers are, as they do now, they might see past us and our failings, to that man who will tell them everything they ever did.

Wee Free Woman Identifies as Herself

After finishing off writing the Sunday evening sermon, I checked my diary for the week ahead. Nothing too onerous. Gaelic department lunch on Tuesday, meeting a friend on Wednesday . . and then, I received an edict from Coinneach Mòr to record an interview for his Thursday morning radio show. Consummate professional that he is, he outlined some of the areas we would cover – blog (fine); monthly column (mmm hmm); how come a woman in the Free Church is being allowed to speak out so much on sometimes controversial issues? (ok . . . er, what!?)

I don’t like that question. Someone else asked me something similar recently and I must admit, it threw me a bit.

But it’s different with Coinneach. He may be, as I said, the consummate professional, but he is also the consummate Leòdhasach. His question was posed in very much the same spirit that I myself apply to writing the blog – mockery of the attitude which prevails outside the Free Church that women inside it are somehow subjugated and condemned to a life of baking scones. Coinneach, I think, understands that this is no longer the case, if indeed it ever was.

He understands, first and foremost, because he comes from within this culture. That is his – and my – privilege. The tragedy for some people is that because of an accident of birth, they can never know what it is to be a Leòdhasach. Some get as close as possible by moving here, and indeed, who can blame them? But there are a few things I would have them know.

First of all, native islanders are not necessarily fools. Some probably are, because there are fools everywhere. However, to suggest that because you hail from Lewis you are automatically (and this is by no means an exhaustive list of the accusations to which we are subject): small-minded, nosy, gullible, brainwashed, judgmental, unsophisticated, dogmatic . . . well, I think they call that racism in the big cities, now, don’t they?

Secondly, yes, there is an indigenous culture. You may shout that there isn’t and that we only say that to be exclusivist, but I’m afraid that’s just cultural imperialism talking. We are a Gaelic people. It is possible to learn the language and not be one of us, just as I can learn French but never be a Frenchwoman.
Thirdly, whether it suits you or not, the Free Church (other denominations are available – buy a book, learn the history of this place you’re calling ‘home’) has done much to shape and influence our culture. People of my generation well remember having to be home by midnight on Saturday, or not being allowed to make a noise in the garden on Sunday. Compliance came from respect for your parents and for the norms of your community. We weren’t quite so obsessed then with pleasing ourselves regardless of who it upset.

Yes, there were always those who didn’t appreciate the Lewis Sunday, but they were never so tormented by their own ego as to think everything should change for them.

It’s all about that – self. The issue of ‘being a woman in the church’ likewise. I clumsily told Coinneach that I don’t think of myself as a woman. Perhaps his journalistic nose twitched at the thought of such a story, ‘Free Church woman identifies as deacon’, but he merely raised his eyebrows quizzically.

And now I will explain: I try very hard not to think of myself at all.

That’s what we’re called on to do as Christians. I didn’t start this blog because I had a Free Church feminist agenda to push; I don’t. My stance is that gender doesn’t matter in the church and to say, ‘why can’t women . . ?’ is really tantamount to asking, ‘why can’t I?’ Don’t whine to your elders; go to God, and see what He says. He has a role for each of us – but it is according to our gifts, not according to our gender.

There have been many jokes about me ‘having my eye’ on the pulpit. The sermon I alluded to writing  at the beginning of this blog was not my own, however, but that of the minister of our congregation. I write summaries of them for the church social media account and help them reach a wider audience that way, hopefully. Those on the outside of the church might pity me these limitations, though, and be horrified at the jokes which are always predicated on the assumption that no woman will ever preach in the Free Church.

But I feel no self-pity. I am not a poor soul. Eldership is not a wee accolade for the person, it is a role endowed with the authority of Christ. Leading the congregation in prayer is not an ego-trip, nor are pastoring and evangelising; these are serious responsibilities which are the lot of those called to serve.

Instead of looking at others and wanting to be who they are, and have what we think they have, we must look upwards and ask God what he wants us to be. He intends each of us for service to His glory. I think we imbue the ‘patriarchy’ with more power than they possess if we honestly believe that they are preventing any of us from being what God intends.

The Isle of Lewis is what it is – James Shaw Grant said it best when he called it a, ‘loveable, irrational island’. It need not try to be like other places. For me, it’s lovely in its own way.

And likewise, being a woman in the Free Church is also lovely in its own way. It is where God has placed me. I don’t intend to limit myself or Him by looking longingly at the pulpit, or even the suidheachan mòr; I need to fall back on my faith, ask where He wants me, and say to Him, ‘Here am I, send me’.

Health Warning – Being Offended Kills

‘Sinner, not singer’, the minister said reprovingly to me. I thought this was a bit much, seeing only a few days before he’d been emphasising the need for us all to join in the psalms, regardless of vocal ability. And then I realised he was merely pointing out a typo I had made, not suggesting I stick to what I do best.

Oh well, another opportunity to take offence goes by the wayside. Although, if he had been calling me a sinner, it’s only what half the country imagine goes on in Wee Free churches up and down the land every Sunday anyway. Ministers, jumping up and down, frothing at the mouth and thumping the pulpit, castigating all before them for a stiff-necked people, mired in sin.

Don’t get me wrong, sin is mentioned quite a bit. They would be somewhat failing in their duties as pastors not to mention the one thing which stands between mankind and God.
A minister may tell a congregation of two hundred believers that they are all sinners, and they will not flinch. But say this to two hundred unbelievers and there is an outcry.

The first group openly admits that they believe in the existence of sin, while the second says sin is a social construct, invented to keep people in their place. Yet, those who don’t believe in sin are more offended to hear it mentioned.

How come? What’s the difference between the two groups?

Knowing the Great Physician: Jesus Christ.

Because Christians have a saving knowledge of Christ, they know that they are sinners. Sinners saved by grace, but sinners nonetheless. They are more offended by sin than anyone – but by the reality of its hateful, destructive power; not the mere mention of it.

Unbelievers, meanwhile, hate the word being levelled at them, yet, with a fearful irony, take no issue with the reality of sin in their lives.

Why, then, do these people who claim no belief in God, or the Devil, in heaven or hell, take such offence at being told they are sinners? This had puzzled me for a long time, until I experienced something of an epiphany in church recently.

In the context of a sermon, the minister addressed the objection raised by many unbelievers against hell – that God would condemn someone to eternal damnation for living a ‘basically decent’ life. It is an argument echoed by Stephen Fry’s famously blasphemous description of God as ‘mean-minded and capricious’, and it is a device which has flummoxed many would-be apologists in their armchair fights with a would-be Dawkins.

And, like so much else, it is built on a staggering foundation of ignorance. In this case, the minister pointed out, their argument betrays their misunderstanding of the nature of sin.

Sin is not something mean we do to one another. The bad things we do, feel, think, and say, they are the fruit of sin. But at its root, sin is our state of being at odds with God. People are looking at it from the wrong end, so to speak.

In recent weeks, in various conversations – mostly online – I have had to point out the same thing repeatedly: God’s creation was made perfect in His own image. We dismantled it and remade it in ours. Now, standing in the half-built wreckage of the world, we point accusingly at Him, the God of all Creation. And what do we say? What great arguments have Fry and Dawkins, and others like them given their disciples?

Why, the same two excuses that children caught out in misbehaviour have been using since the Fall:

‘He made me do it’, and, ‘It was already broken when I got here’.

It’s pathetic in the absolute, deepest sense of that word. I pity them in their failure to see that God does not condemn them to eternal damnation; they condemn themselves. They listen to false prophets like these blasphemous men who are lauded as clever, erudite, and incisive, and whose great argument against Christianity is ‘your God doesn’t exist, but He’s wicked and cruel’.

The hypothetical two hundred believers who do not flinch at being called sinners are not hardened in their hearts. They do not balk at the diagnosis because they have already begun the cure. I think the devastating news of sin would be impossible to bear if we did not always receive it simultaneous to the remedy. Yet another of God’s great kindnesses to us, though, is that we only feel the pain of being at odds with Him when He has already begun the work of restoring us to life.

But the great question for all such sinners saved by grace is: how do we persuade the afflicted to hospital when they don’t realise they are ill?

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they will. We all will.

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

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

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

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