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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Building Bridges to Nowhere, Sheltering Trolls.

Not far from my home in Tolsta is the famous ‘bridge to nowhere’, an incongruous monument to Lord Leverhulme’s progressive plans to develop this island. The improbably elegant bridge sits between moor and machair, never having performed the function for which it was originally intended – linking two communities divided by miles of untamed wilderness.

Leverhulme thought that his ideas for Lewis were going to bring prosperity and ease of life for a people who had just come through the Great War and suffered the unimaginable tragedy of the ‘Iolaire’, only to be forgotten by the government which had promised homes fit for heroes. The new landlord was filled with philantrophic design, planning to give these hard-pressed people a shiny, modern island.

But they didn’t want his ideas. They didn’t agree with his vision of progress. All they wanted was what they were used to – crofting and the traditional life with which they had grown up. Eventually, Leverhulme understood that he was beaten and retired from the scene with good grace.

Scroll back a few centuries, to 1598, when King James VI high-handedly granted ownership of Lewis by Crown Charter to a group of gentlemen from Fife. The plan was that they would colonise and thereby civilize the island, and the islanders. They would bring in the culture of the outside world and the local barbarians would be forced to conform.

The local barbarians were not in favour of this plan. They razed the new settlement to the ground and forced the interlopers out. King James was outraged and denounced the people of Lewis as ignorant and barbaric.

Well, perhaps they were, but they knew that no one should be able to tell them what to do with their birthright. Centuries of doing things their own way, including the glory days of Tighearnas nan Eilean, the mediaeval Lordship of the Isles, had left them with no appetite to see their cultural heritage further dismantled by the Scottish king or anyone else so wholly ignorant of the Gaelic world and its ways.

Leverhulme gave up when he knew he was beaten; the Fife Adventurers had to be driven away, but both have something in common. They approached Lewis with a mind to ‘improve’ it, giving no thought to whether their idea of progress concurred with that of the people.

Cultural imperialism, they call it. When the representatives of the dominant culture tell those of the minority one that their views do not count, that they are imagining threat where it does not exist, that their interpretation of their own identity is mistaken . . . what else are we to call it?

And yes, I am talking about what is happening in Lewis right now. It needs saying again and again, because I just don’t think it has been taken seriously enough.

Some people in our community believe this is just a wee spat on the internet – the likes of me stupidly debating with trolling secularists who don’t even live in Lewis. There is a creeping, insidious – and let’s call a spade exactly what it is – lying narrative being used by people who call themselves ‘ secularists’ but are actually just negative and bitter enemies of Christ.

They tell us Lewis is centuries behind everywhere else, that we have been duped by a power-hungry church and, like the sheep we are, have followed blindly wherever the ministers have wanted to take us.

It offends me beyond words that anyone thinks that this is acceptable, or that it should go unchallenged.

Christianity does not consist of staying silent when God is maligned by ignorant people; it consists of offering them the truth, that they might have the same chance of being corrected that we were blessed to get. Oh, they will call you names for it. They will say that you too are ignorant, narrow-minded – closed-minded, even. Your intelligence and your integrity will be called into question.

One of them almost silenced me recently by calling me ‘publicly pious’. It would be a deliciously apt way for an unbeliever to shut my mouth, wouldn’t it? By making me believe that my witness is nothing more than Pharisaic.

My silence is what would make me a Pharisee, however. If I opted to remain quiet now, I would be caring more for what my reputation is before men; and I wouldn’t half seem like the ideal meek, quiet Christian – the kind the unbelievers want.

They would love us to be quiet and stand aside; they want us to be ashamed of who we are. Most ludicrous of all, they will have you to believe that they are reasonable, seeking ‘compromise’. You know, that thing where I want the door closed, you want it ajar, so we compromise and have it half-open.

I am not justifying myself to them. They have their opinion of me, which is neither here nor there. But I do have some concern for what other Christians make of everything that is going on. And them I do owe some kind of explanation as to why so much of my writing lately has been on this theme.

This is not a war of words only. Nor is it just happening online – it is having negative and divisive consequences for this community. Our Saviour and His church are being maligned. We, His followers, expect abuse for His sake. But that does not mean we allow lies about who we are in Him to go unchallenged, in case those lies should become a stumbling-block to any as yet outside.

The secularist manifesto in Lewis suggests that they are about unity and progress, while the church is about power and control of the 19th century kind. All I am saying is beware, because theirs is exactly the kind of bridge that leads to nowhere.

And, if I’m not mistaken, it shelters the very worst kind of troll.

Who Stands at the Door and Knocks?

As I ascended into the pulpit, I wondered nervously whether anyone would come through the door today. Turning, I looked across the expanse of empty pews. Not one solitary soul. And no bodies either. Still, it was early.

So early, surely – you’re thinking – that I was still asleep and dreaming. What was a woman doing in the pulpit of Stornoway Free Church, if she didn’t have a can of polish and a duster in hand? Well, the truth is that I was taking a photo from the finest vantage-point in the building. It was the first of many times throughout the day when I would stand there. We have opened our doors to visitors this weekend again, inviting them to come and see the building and learn about the history of the congregation and its mode of worship.

Even the visitors were a little taken aback when offered the opportunity to stand in the pulpit. One lovely Danish lady gasped, putting her hand to her chest, and asked, ‘Really?’ Mo chreach, I thought, maybe she misunderstood and thinks I’ve offered her some sort of permanent post. But no, it’s just that she was making the same mistake that we are all inclined to – thinking of the bricks, mortar, wood and glass as sacrosanct; thinking of them as the church.

Culturally, we have been long attuned to the idea that worship can take place anywhere. One does not need to be in a church to pray. Church buildings are wonderful for corporate worship, but private devotions are just that. When the Lord was instructing His disciples how to pray, after all, He said they were to go into their room ‘and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who is in secret will reward you.’ Yet, throughout our programme of open days, I have witnessed the way in which people interact with our building, and it has been very revealing.

So many comment on the simplicity and the absence of distraction. This being the work of dour Wee Frees, there is no gilding, no ornamentation, lest we lose our heads and give our lives over to the worship of idols.

Others have remarked on the cleanliness, which shows how well cared for the space is. And now that we have interpretive boards, the questions about our history have become more challenging. My favourite so far this summer was, ‘So you guys believe that salvation is by faith, it says here, not by works – but you’ve got a cafe raising money for charity next door, so how come?’

It was a better question than ‘when was the church built?’ because it allowed me to talk about not only the Christian hope of salvation, but about the transforming power of the Spirit, who motivates good works.

Many of those who come, though, simply want to sit in a pew and listen to the recording of Gaelic psalm singing, which we have on a loop. Some stay only a few moments, others a bit longer. Perhaps they pray, or contemplate God; it is hard not to when the place is so . . . expectant.

On Friday morning, I entered through the side door and into the church. There in the loveliness of a July morning, this was a place of tranquility. It made me want to linger, to be in God’s presence, just myself and Himself, for a wee while.

Good Calvinists have not traditionally venerated buildings. But that isn’t what I mean, anyway. Think of the generations of worship which these walls have witnessed, the souls moved for Christ in that place. Sit there in the beautiful stillness of the morning, and the very air seems to whisper His name.

I did stop to contemplate. How many prayers had been uttered here, how many verses of psalm? The very grain of the wood must have been nourished with tears: tears of sorrow at times, but so many tears of joy too as the Saviour’s incomparable love became real to one soul after another down through the decades.

The Lord brought people to us this weekend who had need of kindness. This is not an advert for Stornoway Free Church, nor a boast of any kind. It was His work that they came, His provision which supplied their needs – it is all of Him. But He wasn’t, I believe, just speaking to them.

Even as we hold our broken world up to God in prayer, I think He sometimes confronts us with it too. Today, I met some people who have nothing much to their names. I was glad that our church was not covered in gold and draped in velvet; and I was glad it was open.

The same man who asked me about the relationship between faith and works also asked me about Sunday Christians. You know, the kind who ‘put in the time’ once a week, attending services faithfully, but forgetting all about it in between. As I reflect upon that now, I wonder whether the starting point might be having our doors open a little more often.

We have a lovely, clean building, of which we’re very fond; and we use it to worship God for something over two hours a week. Yet, as soon as we opened up on each of these two days, He sent us strangers in need.

How long might others stand at our door and knock, only to find it firmly shut? And aren’t we worshipping Him by helping the least of these?

This afternoon, an Australian visitor said something quite simple and yet so profound that they might have been Jesus’ own words: ‘I have gone to many churches, hoping to find them open, but I am always disappointed by a locked door.’

Our hearts were locked against the Lord for so long; will we grieve Him more by barring the door to His church on those who need it most?

Keep the Faith for Sunday Best (Part 2)

This is the second part of a guest post by Andy Murray of Ragged Theology. Challenging and thought-provoking stuff as ever.

Men like Thomas Guthrie and William Wilberforce inspired a movement rooted firmly in Micah 6 v 8.  They called the church and nation to love justice, show mercy and walk humbly with the God of the Bible.  They wrote, they spoke, they preached, they persuaded and they campaigned for change to the way the poor were treated.  The work went on long after they were dead.  Their work changed whole communities, changed laws and changed the direction of our nation.  When Guthrie died in 1873 not only was education about to be offered to all, but thanks to Christian social reformers children were finally being offered protection and care instead of exploitation.  Men like Guthrie and Wilberforce were hated and opposed because they challenged the powerful vested interests in the alcohol and slave industries respectively.  But through all the challenges, they had an unquenchable hope in the redeeming gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.  A hope that the most visionary and noble secularist cannot offer.  This is why secularism soon turns to pessimism.  As Blaikie says:

thomasguthrie2

Secularism may try to keep up its spirits, it may imagine a happy future, it may revel in a dream of a golden age.  But as it builds its castle in the air, its neighbour, Pessimism, will make short and rude work of the flimsy edifice.  Say what you will, and do what you may, says Pessimism, the ship is drifting inevitably on the rocks.  Your dream that one day selfishness will be overcome, are the phantoms of a misguided imagination; your notion that abundance of light is all that is needed to cure the evils of society, is like the fancy of keeping back the Atlantic with a mop.  If you really understood the problem, you would see that the moral disorder of the world is infinitely too deep for any human remedy to remove it; and, since we know of no other, there is nothing for us but to flounder on from one blunder to another, and from one crime to another, till mankind works out its own extinction; or, happy catastrophe! The globe on which we dwell is shattered by collision with some other planet, or drawn into the furnace of the sin.

It is the Christian gospel that has been the great agent of change in human history.  Has the church at times been corrupt?  Absolutely.  Has it at times disregarded the poor and even abused them.  Unfortunately, it has.  But what has been the fruit of the revival of true Christianity?  It has always been love, particularly for the poor.  The spirit of self-seeking is supplanted by the spirit of service and love.  Vice is replaced by virtue.  When men love God in sincerity, they will love their neighbour, particularly the poor and the outcast.  The church at its best lives by that early ‘mission statement’ in James 1 v 27 ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.’  As Thomas Guthrie said about the kind of Christianity that brings transformation to communities;

We want a religion that, not dressed for Sundays and walking on stilts, descends into common and everyday life; is friendly, not selfish; courteous, not boorish; generous, not miserly; sanctified, not sour; that loves justice more than gain; and fears God more than man; to quote another’s words – “a religion that keeps husbands from being spiteful, or wives fretful; that keeps mothers patient, and children pleasant; that bears heavily not only on the ‘exceeding sinfulness of sin,’ but on the exceeding rascality of lying and stealing; that banishes small measures from counters, sand from sugar, and water from milk-cans – the faith, in short, whose root is in Christ, and whose fruit is works.

 

Keep the Faith for Sunday Best (Part 1)

This is a two-part guest post by my blogging (tor)mentor, Andy Murray, author of Ragged Theology. Part two of this excellent piece to follow tomorrow.

Philanthropy is not a casual product; it is not a mere outcome of a zeitgeist, or fashion of the age; its roots are deep in the soil of Christianity; it cannot pick up a living either from Paganism, or Agnosticism, or Secularism, or any other system cut off from the influence of the love of Christ.

This is one of the first paragraphs in William Garden Blaikie’s Leaders in Modern Philanthropy published in 1884.  What follows is a barnstorming tour of all the great Christian philanthropists over many centuries from John Howard, William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Fry, Andrew Reed, Thomas Chalmers, Thomas Guthrie, David Livingstone, William Burns, John Patterson, Agnes Salt and many others.  The claim that some make that Dr Thomas Guthrie was some kind of lone voice in 19th century Scotland is simply not supported by facts.  Guthrie built on the work of Sheriff Watson in Aberdeen and John Pounds in England.  His work was taken up by many particularly Lord Shaftesbury in England.  He was part of a wider movement that rediscovered evangelical theology and roused a sleeping church to the Biblical mandate of fighting for justice and showing mercy to the marginalised.  Their work sprang from their theology.

Wilberforce

William Wilberforce

Despite the UK’s departure from its Christian heritage, much of our society remains rooted in the Bible.  The idea that we are all equal in the sight of the law, the idea of education for all, the concept of compassion for the poor, are all inextricably linked to a Biblical view of humanity.  If you don’t think this is important look closely at other societies and see the radical difference.  The foundational Christian belief that man is made in the image of God has radical implications for the way we treat our fellow man, particularly those who need special protection and care.  Christianity teaches that everyone has dignity and worth.  It also teaches that anyone can be redeemed from their fallen/sinful state.  Man’s fundamental problem is not poverty, housing or power; it is sin (Matthew 15 v 15-20).  The addict, the wife beater, the thief can all be redeemed and transformed by the grace of God.  Christianity is about grace, hope and most of all love.  It is religion of redemption and second chances.

But much more than personal transformation, Christianity places on the believer ‘a strong dynamic impulse to diffuse the love which had fallen so warmly on themselves’ (Blaikie).  Our Saviour, ‘the friend of publicans and sinners, is our ultimate example.  Jesus taught repeatedly about the need to love the poor in parables such as that of the Good Samaritan.  His teaching in Matthew 25 on the sheep and the goats couldn’t be clearer.  He defined true greatness thus: ‘the servant of all being the greatest of all.’  Remember that Jesus was speaking at a time when the order of the Roman empire masked a barbarous culture. Gladiatorial sports slaughtered tens of thousands for nothing but the amusement of the baying mob.  Slavery was commonplace and women were often used as sexual playthings.  Yes, there were occasional spurts of compassion when an amphitheatre collapsed, but there was no systematic relief of the poor.  It was a hierarchical society where groups and classes were systematically oppressed and kept down.  A bit like modern Britain.

It was as the New Testament church grew and spread throughout the Roman Empire that Christianity’s counter-cultural message of love for the poor began to change societies.  As Blaikie says: ‘In the course of time, barbarous sports disappeared; slavery was abolished or greatly modified; laws that bore hard on the weaker sex were amended; the care of the poor became one of the great lessons of the Church.’  This is not to say that the church did not frequently go wrong.  Often the methods of showing love became exaggerated and distorted.  The alms-giving in the mediaeval church became more about the abuse of power than equipping the poor to become self-reliant.   The Reformation was a great return to Biblical Christianity, and while it was a time of great conflict it also saw a return to Biblical philanthropy and care for the poor.  It encouraged education and saw the start of schools, colleges and universities.  The Bible was not only given to the common man but he was also taught how to read it.  This why William Tyndale became a hunted terrorist.  His English New Testament was a threat because it smashed the power of a corrupt church.

So far so good.  Even the most cynical atheist would surely acknowledge that Christian philanthropy has done great good.  But let’s be honest, there have been many inspiring philanthropists who haven’t had an ounce of love for God.  It is wonderful to read of philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie building libraries, donating ornate organs and building palaces of peace.  My family home in Sutherland has many monuments to the generosity of Carnegie.  We celebrate every effort that is made to relieve the poor and change society for the better whether in Christ’s name or not.  Nobody can deny that many charities have sprung up with little or no Christian inspiration.  History, however, shows us that all too often the greatest social reformers have been compelled by a zeal for God that leads to an enduring love for his neighbour.  They inspire followers who, if not always sharing in their theology, agree with their goals and are willing to follow their example.  Often secular philanthropists (such as Carnegie) are blessed with great fortunes and influence, but it takes an exceptional love to persevere in championing the poor without wealth or power.  It is one thing for an inspiring political leader to rise up, but unless it is underpinned with the theology of Christian compassion, how long will it last?