Carried Away by Passion

If you leave the windows on the west side of your house open, there is a risk that the sluagh – fairy host – will come and carry you off to their own country, a land of enchantment and confusion. It was a little like that for me on Friday evening when some folk from the west (well, Barvas) persuaded me to a place where nothing much was as I expected.

Even although it was our communion weekend in Stornoway, I had agreed to go with these enchantresses to view a production of Bach’s St John Passion at An Lanntair. We were intrigued by the idea that a venue which has cultivated such a reputation for hostility to the Christian faith should be hosting an evening of sacred music. Of course, I do not yet begin to hope that this is any kind of a softening of their position: evidently, many people consider this work by Bach to be great music and nothing more.

How very wrong they are.

It struck me quite powerfully, as I sat in church the following night, listening to the visiting minister preach about the two thieves on the cross. Both were in the presence of God, both heard and experienced the same thing; but one went, blaspheming, to a lost eternity, and the other to glory with his Saviour. And in every place where the gospel is preached, that is potentially true. Some will hear and believe; some will go on rejecting the salvation message.

I would imagine that there were some listening to, and perhaps also performing in, the St John Passion who would fall into the unbelieving category. They may have the highest appreciation for Bach’s undeniable talent as a composer, and they may very well think the libretto attractive, but that will be as far as it goes.

Except, of course, that is never as far as it goes. In fact, their decision to utter, or even just listen to the words of John’s gospel places them in a position of responsibility. Every time you have the truth placed before you, there are only two possible responses: acceptance or rejection. There is no third box marked ‘appreciation’.

This glorious – and beautifully performed – work is still, at heart, a proclamation of the gospel message. It carries the audience through the harrowing final hours of Christ’s life on earth. Each time I read that account, I feel a potent mixture of things: guilt, shame, empathy, gratitude. But, of course, when I read the Bible for myself, I do so in faith; and when I hear the gospel message preached, it is from men who have been called to proclaim it.

If you do not believe John’s account, then it cannot touch your conscience, nor move your heart. But neither does it leave you as you were before you heard it. Every instance of the good news being broadcast provokes a reaction.

Many years ago, I said to my parents, ‘I’m off to Martin’s Memorial to see the Messiah’. Ignoring my father’s wry rejoinder – ‘I doubt it’ – I set off in the company of some equally unbelieving friends to enjoy an evening of sublime music. Despite the fact that it draws significantly on Isaiah, some of the minor prophets, the Psalms and the Gospels, it didn’t bring me, there and then, to Christ.

I was, however, sufficiently impressed to buy a CD of ‘The Messiah’, performed by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, which I listened to many, many times. Even when I wasn’t reading my Bible, I listened, and even when I didn’t see any beauty in the feet that brought good tidings, I thought this the most glorious noise I’d ever heard.

Music of this kind, though, is more than just sound: it’s ministry. Closing our eyes so that we can appreciate the beauty is fine; closing our ears so that we do not hear the still, small voice is not.

Although I was not converted the evening I first heard Handel’s beautiful composition, its message resonated with me throughout the years. Sometimes, in church, a verse would leap out at me and I would recognise it from his oratorio – crooked paths being made straight; comfort ye, my people; by his stripes we are healed.

The reason for that is to be found, not in me, not in the beautiful music, but in the book of Isaiah.

God’s word will not return to Him void, but will accomplish what He has sent it out to do. I need have no anxiety for those hearing the gospel message in whatever form it reveals itself to them, because He has a plan – for every note, every recitative, every rest in the great and glorious composition of which He is the author and conductor.

Whether An Lanntair knows it or not, last Friday, it was beaming out the word of God into its own auditorium. And from there, none of us knows where it might go. Pilate asked ‘what is truth?’ while standing before its living embodiment; but God opens eyes and hearts where He will.

Yes, even in an arts centre in Stornoway.

 

Now the Precious Years are Gone

I was not part of the exodus from the Gàidhealtachd last weekend. The crowds making their way over land and sea were a mildly interesting sideshow – a filler at the end of the Gaelic news, a spectacle from which I tried hard to avert my eyes. It is certainly not that I don’t care for the music of Runrig, because they have been the soundtrack to my life since I can remember. These guys made a song of my outlook and experience over four decades and, all things being equal, I should have been there for the last dance.

Some things are just too much, though. Apart from that long-ago concert in the hangar at Stornoway airport, I shared every other Runrig experience with my husband. If I had gone to listen to them once more, I would only have spent my time looking for him in the crowd.

And so, I spent Saturday and Sunday in an island that seemed emptied of half its population. Sometimes, I would hear a snippet of their music on the radio, or catch a glimpse of them on television, and I would remember . . .

My mind goes back to the year that I turned fifteen, when they came to play in Stornoway, and I was just so excited at the prospect. And then, horror of horrors, a controversy broke out: their gig was going to clash with the preparatory services for the Stornoway communion. With any other band of their reputation, that would have been brushed aside. Runrig, though, were different. The date was changed, plans remade, and the Free Church minister in Stornoway received an apologetic phone call from Donnie Munro.

You are never too big, or too important to be respectful. This, after all, was the band that sang, ‘cum ur n’ aire air an Iar is air an àite a dh’ fhàg sibh/keep remembering the west, and the place you left’.

When I say that I grew up with them, I don’t merely mean that they were there as the years went by. I have already alluded to their part in forming my political consciousness, and for articulating the dumb love that I felt – feel – for home. Every year, when I speak to students about our history as a Gaelic people, I can do no better than quote Runrig’s ‘Fichead Bliadhna’. It expresses far better than I ever could the disgrace of successive generations kept in ignorance of their own past:

I learned many things
The English language, the poetry of England
The music of Germany
The history of Spain
And even that was a false history

Twenty years for the truth
I had to wait
I had to search
Twenty years of lies
They denied me knowledge of myself.

It was because of Runrig I took an interest in the Highland clearances, because of Runrig I cared about politics, because of Runrig I first read Carmina Gadelica, because of Runrig I discovered the land wars, because of Runrig I understood that Gaelic was more than just a dying language.

They sang more than merely big songs of hope and cheer: they were the singers in my bloodstream who have stayed mainline all my life.

Everything that matters to me about being a Gael, about being an islander – I can find it somewhere in the canon of this band’s work. Their polite and deferential approach to the Rev Murdo Alex Macleod in 1991 was indicative of something that owes much to the soil in which they were nurtured. Every word I ever heard them sing was shot through with love of place, love of nature, love of people and that matchless Gaelic spirituality that shaped our best lyricists. So many of their melodies recall congregational worship, with the psalms at its centre:

Song, sacred, eternal
Lift on high the voice of the people
Song, I am reconciled
Let it rise up from the moorlands

One of the most memorable evenings I spent in their company was at the now infamous gig on the banks of the Ness, when the deluge threatened to sweep us all away. We were, Donnie and I, soaked to the skin, shivering and muddy. It took hours to get back to the hotel, to get showered and warm, but we agreed that it was the finest of all our Runrig experiences. Until, that is, they came back to the HebCelt and we watched the sun set over Stornoway to their unmistakeable sound. Home, Runrig, and the man I was sharing my own last dance with, though neither of us knew it then.

Many have paid their own tributes to Runrig; most had the courage to be there with them as they said that aching goodbye. Mine, however, happened that night, out on the castle green. But Runrig’s own words, as always, speak for me more eloquently than I could ever do for myself:

But now I know and I don’t want to believe it
Where does it leave you now
That the precious years are gone

I know you well, you’ll be nothing but grateful
Never let it be said they were spent in thoughtless ways
Warm winds blow ‘cross the ties that bind forever
For a place in the sun and for the hearts of love a home

(Photo credit: Marie MacDonald)

 

Time Travel, Grace & The Castle Green

I am thoroughly ashamed of myself. For years, I have been coming to sit front and centre in the gallery of Stornoway Free Church, and it never once occurred to me that the inner workings of the clock sit right under my hand.

It took no less a person than . . . well, I won’t name names, but let’s just say that a visitor not unconnected with the manse pointed out the possibilities of manipulation and mayhem which had lain unexploited before me all this time.

How I might have played mindgames
with the occupants of the pulpit, if I had only shown sufficient imagination . . .

It reminded me of a conversation I’d had a while ago with another friend, also about manipulating time. He asked me which Biblical event I would choose to witness if I had the ability to travel back there.

To be honest, I had little trouble deciding. For me, it would simply have to be that road to Damascus with Paul.

Aside from the fact that his teaching has become so precious – yes, even that bit about women keeping quiet in church – Paul has become something of a touchstone for me in the midst of all my dealings with unbelievers.

He is a symbol of real hope that the most outspoken and outrageous enemies of Christ can be turned. God acted decisively and changed that zealous heart into one that would act unstintingly for the cause of Christianity.

This is something that I have tried to keep in mind while engaged in what feels like battle with people who reject Christ. I have prayed – at times through gritted teeth – for those who wound me simply because they no longer have Him before them to revile.

Paul was once like them; worse, even. And there, on the road to Damascus, the Lord remonstrated with him: ‘why do you persecute me?’

Imagine the effect of those words on Paul. That moment was the beginning of his transformation from persecutor to persecuted – and he counted it all gain. He grew in understanding, as every Christian does and, because his was a life of conflict and confrontation for the Lord, the Apostle also grew in grace.

Grace, I am learning, is what you need in order to act in ways the world does not expect. It is God’s gift to His people. I have seen it in them so often – the curbed tongue when every instinct says ‘bite
back’; the polite acceptance of undeserved criticism, or unwanted advice; the uncomplaining demeanour of someone who is suffering . . .
Grace. It is an attribute of the Lord, and it is imputed to us. We grow in it by knowing Him better, and relying on Him more.

Only grace can explain how Saul, the slayer of Christians became Paul,
singing in his prison cell and rejoicing in the thorn that God would not remove.

Grace alone allows the Christian to maintain deep peace in their soul, regardless of how they suffer in their body or their mind.

I live in a community that has seen the effects of grace over and over. We are beneficiaries of this God-given, unearned gift. And yes, that includes those of you who think this is all just crazy talk from
a woman who believes in fairies. You, with every breath you take, are enjoying His common grace. Which is badly named: because it is anything but common.

Speaking to people about the shameful way that our heritage- and especially the Christian aspects of it – have been sidelined and denigrated, I got to wondering why we were letting that be. An Lanntair takes public money from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, amongst
others, but feels no loyalty to the local culture. In fact, it celebrates absolutely everything but one of the most influential
factors that has shaped our community.

Everything we have by God’s grace – even grace itself – we are so apt to take for granted. And this year, maybe more than any other, as we mark the centenary of the ‘Iolaire’ tragedy, I feel we ought to be reflecting on His amazing dealings with our island.

And then, just like Him, just like He always does, God holds up a silencing hand, and whispers, ‘grace’.

He is speaking very clearly indeed to the Christians in this community. Just like He told the Apostles of the New Testament Church to get out there and claim the world for Christ, I believe He is saying to us, ‘take it back’. We need to reclaim our heritage, because our heritage in Him is something we want to pass on. And no one else will do it for us.

An Lanntair won’t do it because, for all its pretension to pushing the envelope, it’s actually just another mirror for the prevailing view. If it was truly edgy – and it’s not; it’s disappointingly conventional – it might do something really radical, like reflect the culture in which it used to be anchored.

So, let’s quit waiting and celebrate our Christian heritage ourselves, our way. After all these years of hitting the high road to Keswick, let’s hold our hands up to God in thanks for what He has done for THIS community. Yes, this very one.

In the spirit of reclaiming our Christian heritage and proclaiming its beauty aloud, come and be part of ‘Grace on the Green’. On the Castle lawn in Stornoway, we will have a July night filled with praise, going up to God from His people, in thanks for the providence that is our
inheritance.

And let it be our prayer that on the road to the green, many will see that He has been active in their lives also, and will join us in lifting up their voices in joy for His amazing and unparalleled grace to us all.

 

Dear Younger Me

In the last blog, I mentioned in passing my ongoing education in spiritual music. Although it was certainly a revelation to be told last weekend that there is no scriptural reason why I might not precent in church, there remain several very good musical (and, indeed, social) reasons why this would not work. I am in this, as in everything else, a follower and not a leader.

Of course, I was brought up in a tradition of singing Psalms. I love them for their sustaining wisdom, for their ability to speak to me in all circumstances. They have the power to heal and, just sometimes, the power to wound. If I am feeling vulnerable, Psalm 100 can tip me over into lip-trembling wobbliness, simply because it was sung at our wedding and . . . well, I’m only human.

There is, however, more to spiritual music than psalms. I have, by virtue of living in the world and having a mother who grew up in the Church of Scotland, some idea of popular hymns. Once, as a child, I surprised my mother by quoting ‘Blessed Assurance’, probably to help me win an argument.

A couple of years ago, I went to a women’s conference where, on the programme, the – to me – mysterious word ‘praise’ was printed at various intervals. I glanced about me, mildly nonplussed as to who would precent in a room full of dames.

Imagine, then, my surprise at what ensued. Musical accompaniment, and something calling itself ’10, 000 Reasons’. Not a clue. I scanned the song selection. Nope, nothing familiar here. A Christian gathering consisting only of women and no psalms, with added music.  To say that I had been catapulted out of my comfort zone would not be an exaggeration.

The women thing, I realised, was just a blip. Once the Session got to hear about it, I was certain that those responsible would be punished and normal services would resume. But, my eyes – and ears – were opened to the possibility that there was another kind of music out there; that there were ways of singing your faith that didn’t have to be metrical.

My exploration of the possibilities turned up a few singers that I could get along with. There is, after all, absolutely no excuse for bad Christian music. Who has got more reason to sing than us? Like the hymn says, ‘I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free’.

Yes, I’m still quoting hymns. Old habits die hard. But I am also having my musical horizons broadened.

A friend supplies me with seemingly random links to songs he likes, sometimes when I least expect. During a recent public trial by secularist hate mob, he sent Matthew West’s ‘Grace Wins’ – ‘Take a breath smile and say: Right here right now I’m ok because the cross was enough’.

The best songs will do that, just like the word in season, the shared reading: God speaks through it, reminding you who He is and that nothing will overwhelm the person who puts their whole life in His hands.

But then there was the intriguingly-titled, ‘Dear Younger Me’. This is something different because it explores what we might say if we could go back and speak to a younger version of ourselves. The dilemma, of course, is whether you would warn the young you about the pitfalls that lie ahead; whether you would try to head yourself away from dangers and bad experiences. Would you not try to spare yourself pain?

Perhaps there was a time when I would have answered that question very quickly in the affirmative. Why would you not want to spare yourself suffering? It is, after all, how we are expected to behave towards others; why would we not want to do ourselves the same kindness?

Is it a kindness, though? Yes, if you look on that span of life between cradle and grave as what concerns us most. But for the Christian, that can never be the case. The journey we are on here is towards a destination in heaven, yet we are not simply plodding, there, head down; we are being equipped for it as we go.

Not a day passes without me thinking of my late husband, and missing him in countless ways. This time of year, though, I think of how hard it was to fear losing him, to be told I would lose him, and to watch him die. And how much easier it was to know he had gone, and to Whom he had gone.

That is the difference, I think, between wanting to spare yourself burdens, and knowing what pain and loss and thoroughly unwanted providence can do for you in the longer-run.

The song says, ‘every moment brings you closer to who you were meant to be’. I know that if I could go back to Christmas 2000, to that person I used to be, I would not say, ‘See the man you met the other night, maybe don’t meet him for that drink. It doesn’t end well’.

In fact, if I was forced to meet her, 25 year-old Catriona, I would tell her two things you will also find in the song. First, I would tell her that life will bring sadness and joy, but that the deeper peace in her soul has nothing to do with either of those; and then I would tell her that whatever challenges come, she was never meant to carry them beyond the cross.

And if she asked me about the man she had just met. I would smile, and nod, and she would do it all exactly like I already have.

Other Christians I know, too, are a bit battle-scarred, and wondering the same sort of thing – trying to make sense of what they have gone through. If I had the courage, I would tell them the precious truth I have learned:

The roadmap may be hidden from my sight, but it’s hidden in God’s hand. He’s got this, dear younger me. And I would not have Him change a thing.

 

 

 

 

A Calvinist Hallelujah for the Dutch Laddie Wi’ a Fiddle

If I was a storybook Calvinist I would be going about the country burning fiddles. Instead, I am prepared to travel any distance in any kind of weather to hear one in particular played to perfection.

The first Christmas I would spend as a widow – 2015 – was looming unpleasantly on the horizon when I was taken to hear the incomparable Andre Rieu. On a day that seemed like something out of the book of Revelation, my sister and I boarded a flight for Aberdeen. Ours was, I think, one of the only planes to leave Stornoway that afternoon, and I was nonplussed to find myself heading to listen to some eccentric Dutchman play a violin.

The taxi driver who drove us to the hotel gave voice to my own silent incredulity:
‘Fae Stornoway?’ he repeated, ‘That’s an awfy long way to come just to hear a laddie wi’ a fiddle – have you no laddies wi’ fiddles at home?’

Well, quite. My mother’s people on her father’s side were known as ‘na Fìdhlearan’ and yet here we were having to risk being stranded on the mainland over a weekend . . . for what, I wondered.

From the sound of the first drum beats which herald his own and the orchestra’s arrival to their signature, ‘Seventy six Trombones’, something almost magical happens. He cuts a tall and striking figure, with his tailcoat and eccentric conductor hairstyle, but he presides over the music with the warmth and energy of someone who feels – and loves – every note.

I felt, at that concert, pure and unadulterated joy for the first time in a very long while. Music can reach places in your heart that nothing else can and this beautiful programme, played by a man who is devoted to his craft, tapped into wellsprings of delight I thought gone forever.

How strange, you might think, for a Christian to say such things. What of my joy in the Redeemer?

There was very little of that for me in December 2015. I was still nursing Christ to myself, keeping Him small and secret, denying myself the fellowship of His people. And, consequently, I denied myself the largeness of knowing Him and loving Him better which comes through meeting Him in others.

But I think the music of Andre Rieu and the atmosphere of joy helped to unlock my heart.

Knowing Him better has changed how I appreciate the music as well. There is a reason why authors are interviewed about their books, and artists about their paintings. We are fascinated by creativity because it is one of the defining traits of our Father. He speaks to us through music, art and literature. Just as our human relationships with our parents are pale replicas of our relationship with God, the gifts they pass on are surely ghosts of that light implanted into humankind by its Creator.

Although I am one of na Fìdhlearan, perhaps the gift manifests in me as the ability to appreciate someone else’s greater ability to make beautiful music.

Last Thursday, at my fourth of his concerts, Andre Rieu – who claims to be an atheist – introduced Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ as the most celebratory piece of music ever composed. ‘Every voice’, he said, ‘and every instrument is bursting with joy’.

This wonderfully gifted musician who brings the beauty of music into the lives of many people is so near to the truth. The reason these hallelujahs are so heartfelt is not because of the composition, nor yet the performance, but because, as Peter Schaeffer’s Salieri said of Mozart, ‘God was singing through this little man to all the world, unstoppable . . .’

The hallelujahs penned by Handel are alight with joy because they unite everything perfectly – the creative impulse born of God, applied in the worship of Him. Music like that, I think, brings us a little closer to the perfection the Creator made.

Handel was a Lutheran and his famous chorus is replete with the joy of liberation that should be the lot of every Christian. When he had finished composing that particular piece, he said, ‘I did think I did see all of Heaven before me and the great God himself’.

God’s glory will not be hidden. He reveals it in everything upon which our eyes fall, and yet we remain blind. And He reveals it most magnificently in music which seems to soar heavenwards.

Two years ago, listening to the beautiful music arranged by Andre Rieu, God revealed to me that loving Him and being loved by Him are matters for celebrating. Knowing this, dour wee Presbyterian though I am, I want to sing, ‘hallelujah’.

But it wasn’t meant for one voice. It is a chorus which needs as many as possible. For the many ways his beautiful music has helped me, I pray that Andre will discern God’s presence in all he does, and that his voice will join those who sanctify Him in their hearts.