Romeos, cailleachan and spiritual undress

I went on an outing with Balaich an Trust last week, and, after a relatively brief car journey with one of them, discovered I was an item of clothing short. Searching high and low, I could not find it anywhere and was forced to confront the fact that I was out minus  that which no respectable Lewiswoman willingly divests – my cardigan. 

What rush of blood to the head, you ask, had overcome me, to the extent that the knitted reputation-saver had been lost . . . 

I remembered in my confusion, my father’s tale of a woman at whose door the vehicle of a well-known lothario was frequently parked. My father – driving for the dry-cleaners – went one day to deliver freshly laundered garments of which it turns out she was in dire need. She had been, he told us, many years later, up to no good with the visiting reprobate. ‘How do you know that?’ myself and my sister scoffed, believing our own generation had a monopoly on shenanigans. His answer was hard to argue against: ‘Because’, he said decisively, ‘when she answered the door to me, she had taken off her apron’.

The implication, of course, was that she had been carried away. Such had been the allure of the local romeo that she had lost her head – and her wrap-around floral pinny. If you are unfamiliar with the complexity of these garments, let me assure you that it’s unlikely one was ever removed by accident.

We set a lot of store by clothing, don’t we?  Apparel has a kind of cultural importance, beyond the merely practical one of preserving decency and keeping out the cold/midgies. I was reminded of this when visiting the fabrication yard at Arnish that cardiganless day. Aside from the hard hat and hi-vis jackets, we were told to don steel-toecapped footwear that will always be referred to here in Lewis by those of a certain age, as ‘Arnish boots’. They achieved currency during the heyday of the yard, and have come to be inextricably linked with its name. 

I can remember, too, when the windows of local clothing retailers, Murdo Maclean’s, and its rival, Nazir Bros, would be filled with ladies’ hats, deftly to coincide with communion season. For most who still attend church assiduously, headgear is not part of their wardrobe, and so the shop displays no longer reflect what was once very much a local event. Of course, we still celebrate communion but it is less of a community affair now.

My own personal dress code for public worship has relaxed somewhat over the years. I have come to the conclusion that the outward trappings don’t matter too much. God listens to me when I pray at home in my pyjamas; I can’t imagine for a second he’s going to turn his face from the earnest petitions of one of his own, just because they’ve gone to church in jeans. Truthfully, I would rather see our pews packed with folk in biker leathers than sparsely populated by ‘correctly’ attired ladies in hats and posh frocks.

I have found, anyway, that there is really only one outfit necessary to the Christian: armour.

Ephesians 6 tells us what ‘the whole armour of God’ consists of: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, feet shod with the readiness that stems from the gospel of peace. All of this should be accessorised with the shield of faith, the sword of the Spirit, and the helmet of salvation.

Do I agonise over this outfit as much as I might over my outward apparel? Is it my habit to make an inventory, checking that all the pieces are in place?

Honestly? No, I don’t always. Sometimes I go far too long in neglecting to fasten and refasten the buckles that hold everything together.

In recent weeks, something happened to remind me about being a better soldier. I had not been in prayer so much, I had spent less time in the Word, and I had skipped the means of grace far more frequently than was wise or necessary.

And then I was brought up short by an incident. Petty, anonymous hatred of the most insidious and accusatory kind, intended to steal my peace. It reminded me of a very precious truth: the world is poles apart from God, and it is, therefore, not my home.

We will have troubles here. People might let us down, hurts will come – but we should receive these as they are intended by God: to persuade us that we really do belong to him. For me, the whole sorry debacle was an opportunity for the Lord to show me the truth of Joseph’s words to his brothers, ‘you intended to harm me, but God intended it for my good’

He brought me swiftly back to his side, where I am safest. And I have straightened out my armour, reattaching what had worked loose, and preparing both my sword and shield so I might follow him more closely.

But, even in that fray, when I was undoubtedly tussling with Satan, there was one element of my outfit that did not move.

As with any soldier, it will remain fixed until the battle is over.  That gives me comfort because I know I will fail again: my arm will flag in holding up my faith as a shield, and I will try to fend off the blows without it.

But the one item I will never – indeed, can never – lose, is the helmet of salvation. Christ puts it in place, and only he has the authority to remove it.

Which no soldier does until the battle is over.

Turning Over the Tables

I was told on Sunday – by a member of my own church – that ‘Christians shouldn’t strike – not for more money anyway. And certainly not on your salary’. Leaving aside the etiquette of commenting on anyone else’s financial situation at all, let alone in front of others, I found this remark pretty dispiriting. It belongs, I feel, in that all too prevalent school of thought which exists both in and outside the church, and which says that Christians should just be nice, bland, inoffensive people who turn the other cheek and take whatever blows the world feels like doling out.

That philosophy, which adheres to ‘it’s nice to be nice’, is what is going to march us blindfold off a cliff if we don’t wake up to the danger.

When Christ turned over the tables of the money lenders, and ejected them from the temple, he wasn’t concerning himself with being nice. In fact, whenever I hear the phrase, ‘righteous indignation’, it is this scenario that plays in my imagination. I would think it was the straw that broke the camel’s back; he had watched them sin against his Father in so many ways, but this defilement of the temple must have been just too much to take.

We all have our limits. For the past few weeks, I have been involved in a whole variety of situations and conversations which cause me to fear for this generation in which we live. I have been speaking to politicians about the role of Christians in public life, and I have been thinking about the way that we ‘do church’ in Lewis. There is a disconnection between us and the harsh reality of a world that embraces as progressive just about everything that opposes God’s will for us as a people.

Christians should be the most political people of all. We should be joining political parties, lobbying, writing letters, attending meetings, starting petitions, and, yes, joining trade unions. As a member of EIS FELA, what sort of Christian would I be if I told my colleagues that I could not strike for more pay because it breached my principles? What sort of Christian would let them lose several days pay in order to obtain justice for themselves – and me? If, as believing people, we place ourselves apart from society, from our communities and our colleagues, we are most assuredly not following the example that Jesus, friend of sinners, set for us.

This is radicalism. It means going back to the roots, and the Free Church was certainly born out of a concern for moral and social justice. Why? Because it was born out of a passion to see the headship of Christ recognised, and the centrality of the Bible restored to public worship. But that doesn’t just mean having a nice, tall pulpit with a big book open from which the minister preaches every Sunday – although that is certainly an important element – it means carrying that book and its message around in our hearts every day of the week.

I was lectured yesterday, too, about the privilege of Christians, and that we should not abuse it by preaching intolerance against people whose lifestyles we question. The point that everyone seems to be missing when they say such things is this: I would not preach disapproval at those of the LGBT+ persuasion because, although I know their lifestyle is at odds with God’s teaching, so has my own been: many times. Their sin might be different to mine, but it is no worse.

Besides, as I have said before, I see no merit in talking to sinners about sin. They are like the dead people in ‘Sixth Sense’ – they don’t know they’re sinners. I can hardly stand over them and tell them that they’re sinners, because I’m one as well. It takes Christ to show them what they are lacking. Only in the light of his truth will they see what is awry, and what must be put right. All I can do is point to him, and try in my own imperfect way to witness to his perfection.

You can’t witness from a church pew, however. Take it from me, there’s a big clue in the fact that our most vocal unbelievers approve of us being Christians in private. Worshipping in church or at home, you’re bothering no one.

What the world wants is to push Christians back to the margins. While we were sleeping, they turned mainstream, Bible-based morality into bigotry. We live in a country that so misunderstands the tenets of the faith upon which it is founded that it has recreated them as hate speech.

I could sit with fellow church members and debate the finer points of trade unionism, or purity of worship, or the myriad other things we do that equate to fiddling while Rome burns. But I happen to think that we have bigger problems than that. In fact, I think that, instead of firing shots across one another’s bows, we ought to be a little more willing to go out into the real fray.

There is a reason why the Bible uses so much military metaphor. We are a people, a unit; not a rag-tag band of mavericks. The voice of one crying in the wilderness was all very well for John the Baptist – but this current desert requires teamwork. Pulling each other up, circling one another’s efforts with prayer, and presenting a united front: that’s where our energy needs to go now.

From there, we have to spread out and ensure Christ’s influence is every place we are able to go. And, because he goes before us, there are no limits except in our own small minds.

 

 

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.

Downcast, but not Outcast

Usually I look at the mirror only out the corner of my eye. I figure that’s the kind of glance most others will give me throughout the course of the day and anything that doesn’t scream at me out of the reflection – giant spot, cow’s lick etc – is unlikely to be noticed by a passing stranger either.

Sometimes, though, I’m brought up short. Lately, the circles under my eyes are darkening, and bags are starting to form. Altogether, I look uncannily like my Carloway granny. This will mean nothing to most of you, but suffice it to say that my late husband, when he wished to pay me a compliment, would remark on how lucky I was to have taken after the other side of the family. Let me tell you, things are bad when you’re hankering after the days people thought you might be from Achmore.

Eye bags and blemishes notwithstanding, this is still not the most disturbing reflection I have encountered this week. I have to confess to something of a struggle; one of those challenges to my faith that cannot simply be brushed aside. It is something I have heard often from others, and always tried to talk them out of – but lately I find myself tested by the same question: what are we supposed to do when the church behaves worse than the world?

There is no sense in pretending that this is not sometimes so. The Bible provides us with plenty examples of it – righteous men, like Jacob, for example, using deceit to achieve their own ends.

So, if it’s there in God’s word that a cheat can still enter the kingdom, who are we to doubt it?

This week, I have been disappointed by the behaviour of some fellow Christians. It is not something that needs to be discussed here, but it has caused me much reflection. And, as always, God provides direction. I shared a favourite Bible verse on Facebook – Peter’s exhortation that we should always be ready to give a defence of the reason for the hope that is in us – and I expressed sadness that no one ever asks for a reason; they merely mock my faith.

Might that not, however, someone pointed out, be my own fault? I should clarify, he wasn’t being unkind, and he didn’t single me out – he actually said ‘the fault of believers’. However, I am singling myself out, because he was absolutely right. If I don’t show forth the hope that is in me, who is going to ask about it? The very same day, in the course of searching for something else, I discovered an old tweet in which I was described as representing Christians the same way that Richard Dawkins represented atheists.

Suddenly, all the pieces fell into place. Unbelievers have consistently described me as ‘bitter’ and ‘hate-filled’ – because that is how I come across to them. I have failed to go where they are, to get alongside them, and to represent Jesus as what He is to me, and what He could be to them. Hung up on protecting our Christian heritage, I have somehow managed not to show love, but judgement.

This was never my intention. It just shows you, though, there’s a wide gulf between the person we see in the mirror and the face we present to the world.

We have to be careful of that. I am not suggesting that we compromise on the message, but that we have to be careful of its presentation. Of course, I know that a certain amount of whatever we might say will always be met with derision, regardless. At the weekend, I inadvertently offended a whole lot of the Twitterati by sharing the petition to retain prayers in parliament. It was deemed arrogant, and I genuinely don’t think that it was anything I wrote which gave this impression – simply the fact that some are determined to despise public expressions of faith.

I am downcast, but I have been downcast before. Failure in the Christian life is actually an opportunity to relearn that we are not to do this on our own strength, or in our own wisdom. Ironically, that’s exactly why I think all public bodies should preface their daily business with prayer.

We have, as Christians, to be doubly careful because, as the quote goes, the world may not read the Bible, but it will certainly read us – our lives, our conduct, our motivation, the way that we treat others. Instead of me being disillusioned by what I perceive as unChristian behaviour in others, I need to work a lot harder on the page I am presenting to the world myself.

Am I displaying Christ, and the unparalleled hope, the joyous freedom I enjoy in Him? Yes, I write about it, and I talk about it too – but am I living it? Do those currently outside Him look at me, and at my life, and see nothing there to recommend this path? Am I actually hiding the marvellous light from them, instead of testifying to it in a life filled with joy?

I am reminded of an old lady who was asked if she ever doubted her salvation. She replied that she would often pray to God that if He had not already begun a good work in her, please would He start now. It’s never too late to begin.

God doesn’t speak in order to dishearten us, but so that we might rebuild the wall where it may have tumbled down. He has given me my answer – never mind the speck in their eyes, but worry about the beam in your own. All the while I’ve been getting bent out of shape over the behaviour of others, I have been drifting away from where I ought to be. That is not God’s plan, but the enemy’s.

Spiritual Journey to a Destination Unknown

In a couple of weeks, I plan to visit Ness, to speak to the ladies of the WFM there. Believe it or not, I rarely address any group without having put some thought into what I will be saying. I have a technique which works reasonably well for me in this respect and I started to put it into practice this week, while driving my car.

Actually, a lot of my spiritual journey centres on the car and it was only while sitting in it, thinking about Ness, that I realised just how long this has been true for me.

Life became frantically busy last year, and each day I spend at least 50 minutes just driving to and from work. On the mornings when I am pushed for time, I wait until I am underway before speaking to God as I drive. At first, I felt guilty about doing this, as though I was being disrespectful. But then it dawned on me that I had always spoken to Him on car journeys . . . just that I was now doing it out loud, and calling it ‘prayer’.

And, this year, I have taken things a step further. I am following a plan which allows me to listen to the Bible being read over the course of a year. As soon as I start the engine each morning, therefore, David Suchet’s calm voice reads to me a portion from the New Testament, followed by a reading from the Old.

When I worked in Ness, I drove back and forth across the moor every day. I was single and living with my parents, and enjoying life. There was nothing to trouble my mind. To while away the miles, I began to listen to recordings of sermons our own minister had preached. This being well before the digital revolution, I was limited to the cassettes that were available to me and so I listened to some of these sermons repeatedly, and two in particular.

One spoke of God as a refiner of silver, retrieving the object from the fire only when it was finished, and the Maker could see in it His own image. The other favourite was on Paul’s famous utterance about God’s strength being made perfect in weakness. I loved these – yet if anyone had asked me, I wouldn’t have been able to tell why.

But I know now. Reflecting on it as I prayed over what to say to the ladies of Ness, I realised that all those years ago, God was preparing me. I was not in the midst of troubled waters yet, but I stored up the precious truths in my heart against a time when I would be. This was not because of my far-sightedness, but because of His.

When the man I had not yet met was taken from me, I would fall back on these precious words and the reassurance that they convey: God is not punishing you; He is drawing you closer to Himself.

That our eternal God plays the long game should not surprise us, but it should certainly give us comfort. We often speak about the difficult providences which we encounter, and the fact that we often cannot comprehend their meaning. I think it’s important to remember something else, though: God equips us for the journey He has set before us; not the one we think lies ahead.

I didn’t know why I was listening to those sermons repeatedly back then, but God was working in me the faith that would hold me to Himself when that was all I had.

It was sitting in my office in Ness that I enrolled on the very first Free Church Saturday course in theology. This was an uncharacteristically bold move on my part, because I was terrified that I would be the only non-Christian (I was) and possibly the only non-elder (I wasn’t) in the class.

By the time the Ness chapter of my life had closed, I found myself no closer to being a Christian. Although I had found happiness with my husband, and a new job, everything else seemed to have been a waste of time. The theology books I had bought sat in the bookcase, mocking me – reminding me of that other sermon message which replayed in my memory: do not begin building the tower, unless you are sure you have the tools to finish the job.

But that was just spiritual myopia, and a failure of faith on my part. I didn’t start the job – God did, and when He begins a good work in us, He will see it through.

Perhaps you are reading this, feeling discouraged, thinking you are no nearer to Him than you were many years ago. It’s just possible you feel that way because you don’t see what He sees: this is a journey, and He knows what you will need along the way. God is making sure that you are trained and equipped as you need to be for all that providence has in store.

It was because of this period in my life that I knew there was Someone there to catch me when I fell. There is no wasted time with God: He knows the plans He has for us, and every breath we take builds towards the moment when He calls us by name.

 

 

Planting, Prayers and Trench Warfare

This week, people in Lewis came together to plant trees in memory of the 201 men who lost their lives on the ‘Iolaire’ in the early hours of 1919. Fittingly, these have been planted on the road that leads to the war memorial, officially opened in 1924 by Lord Leverhulme – his last public act in Lewis.

Despite the tensions that have been evident in some parts of the community lately, over who has the right – or the wherewithal – to develop wind farms on a particular patch of moor – it was possible for unity to reign during the few hours it took to create this living monument to bravery and loss. I think the Lancashire soap magnate would have liked what he saw. We were largely united in our common purpose: to create something dignified that will serve as a reminder for many years to come.

The Lewis war memorial was built on Cnoc nan Uan, because it overlooked the four parishes which had sacrificed their men in the cause of freedom. From somewhere in each, this barional-style tower can be seen, pointing skywards. It is constructed of Lewissian gneiss, dressed in Aberdeenshire granite.

And, when it was officially opened by Lord Leverhulme, the watching crowd must surely have believed that this was a memorial, not just to their dead, but to war itself. This had been the conflict to finish all such. Weeping widows and bereaved mothers could comfort themselves with the thought that they were looking upon the last edifice of its kind.

Only, of course, we know that this was not the case. They were not really laying war to a peaceful rest, because it rose again – bloodier and more terrible than before.

Planting my first tree on Wednesday afternoon, I thought about the symbolism of the wych-elm. The first element in its name has nothing to do with ladies who cast spells, and everything to do with pliability – so an eminently suitable species for one such as myself to be planting, biddable creutair that I am.

More importantly, it is a crucial quality if we wish to avoid unnecessary conflict. We have to be prepared to bend a little. Too much rigidity and we are liable to simply break under stress.

I remember going out in a neighbour’s boat as a child. His advice for avoiding seasickness has remained with me, and can be applied to other areas of life too: go with the movement; don’t resist it by holding yourself taut. Given that he would insist on nosing the vessel in between the Beasts of Holm, with all the mythology surrounding them in my young mind, it was quite hard to relax.

This does not mean, of course, that you allow yourself to be buffeted by every prevailing wind, changing your mind on a whim. What I suppose I mean is that you should never be so uncompromisingly devoted to your stance that your treatment of those in opposition becomes less than it should be.

What we have today –and what fortunate Leverhulme did not have – is social media. It can be a useful tool for communicating, and for disseminating information. But, misapplied, it can become a battle-ground of bad manners and bad attitudes. There are those who use it to address others as though they were inferior beings, using the sort of belligerent, barracking tone that would never be countenanced in real life.

The result is something not unlike trench warfare. People become so identified with a particular point of view that everything else about them recedes into the background. We have to work very hard so that this does not become our attitude.

I appreciate very much all the good advice I have had over the years in this regard. It was useful to one so dangerously liable to veer into sarcasm when under duress.

My mother taught me many years ago to avoid putting myself in situations where I would have to apologise. I try, therefore, to think through the consequences of my words before I utter them. Once they are said, they cannot ever be taken back.

Even my years of political campaigning taught me something very valuable indeed – the vast majority of people are turned off by negative rhetoric. Slandering and smearing your opponent says more about you than it ever could about him.

Being a Christian, more is expected of you than to sink to the gutter-level of mud-slinging which can become the modus operandi of Facebook and other such platforms. Titus says: ‘To speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy towards all people’. It is a challenge that I could never meet on my own poor strength.

Sometimes I have to draft and redraft my written responses so that they are tempered with the humility and courtesy that ought to be my portion. And I thank God that He has surrounded me with people who are of that same mind, and who make me want to walk as I should because of their example.

Just for balance, he has also surrounded me with a few hotheaded crazies who would thoroughly approve my ranting first drafts . . .

I need prayer to keep my speech seasoned with salt, to not defile myself by what comes out of my mouth. And our community needs prayer – for unity, for perspective, for proportion.

Standing in the shadow of that tower, hewn from Lewis rock, I realised that the remembrance needed most is the petition that goes heavenwards; prayer for unity, and for the ability to disagree without stooping to revile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fire and Remembrance

Once, when I was about seven or eight years old, I awoke to hear my father telephoning for the fire brigade. A few minutes later, my mother appeared in the bedroom and told me to get up and put my clothes on over my pyjamas. The house opposite was ablaze, it seemed, and people were nervous of flying debris which might set other homes alight. 

For a few minutes it was a great adventure, to be getting out of bed late at night to go and stand in the street. But when I actually saw the house in question, blackened timbers against a terrifying orange blaze, I didn’t feel so secure. 

In fact, it sparked off (pun intended) a lifelong nervousness about fire. Even now, I hesitate to light the wood burner on a windy night. I remember only too well what fire can do when it overpowers.

November begins, of course, with fires to commemorate the Gunpowder Plot. My enjoyment of these as a child was always marred by the recollection of that other inferno I had witnessed. Standing further from the flames than my peers, I winced at every crackle and spit. I could not get far enough away from fireworks when they were being lit, though I still enjoyed their colours against the night sky.

Strange that a tradition which unsettles people and their pets alike, and which has seen its fair share of tragedy, is actually about celebrating safety. We do not light our bonfires in tribute to the traitor, Guy Fawkes, after all, but in thankfulness that the King’s life was not forfeit. 

November is a month associated with remembrance, then, and with fire. Around the coast of Britain, beacons were lit to celebrate the Armistice; many will be lit again this weekend to mark its centenary. These practices echo the customs of our long-dead ancestors, who marked the end of the agrarian year by lighting up the darkness in this way. Knowing that months of winter would follow, they celebrated the harvest’s safe in-gathering by creating warmth and colour. 

For them, fire symbolised much that was good – warmth, light and safety. They used it to encircle their newborn children, and their livestock, and they traced the boundaries of their settlement with fiery torches too, to protect everything that lay within.

Over the years, we have lost this sense of fire as a protective force. It is something which the old adage reminds us is ‘a good servant, but a bad master’, and we have become nervous of its destructive power. Even Christians are inclined to think of it in terms of the everlasting torment of hell awaiting the lost.

In the Bible, however, fire is often indicative of God’s presence. When the children of Israel stepped out into the unknown, He lit up the darkness as a pillar of fire. Moses, of course, had already encountered God in the burning bush, when he had to avert his eyes. This suggests that what he was experiencing was God’s glory, as opposed to a His presence – though the two are hard for this novice to separate.

And then, there are all the instances of God’s wrath being likened to fire – when it burns hot against His enemies, and consumes the faithless. Psalm 89 speaks of this. In other passages fire tests and refined but does not destroy . . . surely all of this testifies to the fact that the Bible DOES contradict itself?

No, it testifies to God’s unchanging nature. He meets those who are His as a loving, glorious God; and He meets His enemies as a judge. In all circumstances, He is a fire – but that fire acts upon Christian and unbeliever very differently.

Britain was tested in the fire of war, and always came through with its faith intact. Services of remembrance have, traditionally, had a strong Christian element – with songs of praise and prayers of thanksgiving forming the central core. Just this weekend, however, I see the usual suspects on social media, trying to make God the culprit for war.

God is not the warmonger; Satan is. He stirs up hatred so that nations think nothing of wilfully taking lives in their hundreds. And he picks his way through the ruins of our lives, blithely walking away from the destruction he has wrought.

Some cling, wisely, to God. They give thanks that He has dealt mercifully with us. Prayers of gratitude and songs of praise go upwards to Him. Even in grief, they see His hand at work.

Still others make the war dead their focus, and berate a God whose existence they deny. They wear the poppy, and bow their heads in silence . . . but it’s an empty sort of remembrance.

We light bonfires on our shorelines to commemorate that our warfare is ended. But if these don’t also kindle an awareness of God’s presence in all our tribulations, what have we learned that’s worth remembering?

 

 

 

 

Revving Reverends and Remembering Revival

Being a Wee Free from Lewis, I am much more at home in the 19th century. So, it was in this spirit I pointed my car towards Uig on Friday evening, bringing two Baptist friends along for ballast. Not fast enough for our minister, as it turns out, because he overtook me in the Valtos glen. Then again, he was preaching, and needed to get into his frock coat and pince-nez before 7pm. His mission was to preach in the glebe at Baile na Cille, the site of the spiritual revival of the 1820s.

When the Apostle of the North addressed the congregation there in 1827, he reckoned their number was more than 7000. On Friday night, we were not 150. In the world’s eyes, this is evidence only of decline, of the irrelevance of the Gospel for our age.

The world, as I am fast learning, does not understand the way that God works. Even His own people do not understand everything He does – but we do trust Him, with very good reason. Down through the ages, He has been consistently faithful, and consistently God. We do not have to second-guess Him the way we do people, because He is not fickle; He is unchanging.

The God who presided over the Apostle of the North’s communion service in 1827, was also present on Friday, as Rev.James MacIver preached in that same glebe, from Psalm 126.

But, the world says, your numbers are so diminished: is your God losing His grip on power?

Psalm 126 is, appropriately, a psalm of revival. God’s people, in Babylonian captivity, struggled to maintain their faith. It is indeed hard to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. Even here in Lewis, still so blessed by the Gospel message, people have tried to unseat God. There are days when we lose heart.

I have read accounts of revival, over and over. Times when God’s spirit came down in power are writ large upon our folk histories. Christians cling to those tales, holding them close, poring over them. And we have all wept, remembering this Zion.

But something I heard in Baile na Cille glebe encouraged me , even before the service began: the corncrake. It is a sound so reminiscent of my childhood that one crake and I am back in my too-hot summer bedroom in Newmarket, trying to sleep while these exasperating birds scrape out their song. And then, for years after that, there was silence; the corncrake was gone because the grassland was no longer managed as it had been. There was no safe nesting-ground, so these shy birds simply did not come.

But suddenly, one late summer, I heard the craking again. They had returned after years of absence. The conditions were right once more and they, it seemed, had not forgotten their former nesting ground. One wonders whether they had found it hard to crake so blithely in other lands.

In the glebe at Baile na Cille, the echoing and unmistakeable call of the corncrake chimed so well with the preacher’s message. God may seem to be inactive, to be silent, to be deaf – but this is the same God who brought the Israelites home from exile, who revived the spiritual deadness of Lewis, and who brought that little knot of people together on Friday evening. We were there, like the psalmist said, to remember God’s goodness in past times, and to pray – believing – that He would bring that miracle again.

Revival seems like a miracle from another age. There is something beguiling in the stories of people so in love with their Saviour that they would walk any distance to hear of Him. And the tales of their fellowship – not polite gatherings around home baking, but the kind of attachment that saw them unable to bear parting from one another, no matter how late the hour.

But I also wonder at times if my own attraction to the idea of revival is not a kind of spiritual laziness. You know, ‘please, God, convert all these people and fill all these pews because I just want to see instant results’. Am I praying for revival because I think nothing is happening? And do I think nothing is happening because I am not tuned in to the right channel?

God is not a cheap side-show magician. I do not believe He will simply gift us revival, or the presence of the Holy Spirit in such power, unless we strive for it. And I don’t think He wants to play a numbers game with us. It cannot be all about filling empty churches, just to satisfy denominational targets. We have to be hungry for it.

As I sat on a hillock on Friday (early, of course), watching other worshippers arriving in twos and threes, I felt that sadness, knowing we would not be seven thousand. But I was looking at things the wrong way.

God revives us spiritually, whatever the environment, whatever the outward appearance, just as he always has – one sinful heart at a time.

So, we have to do what we did for the corncrake – create the right conditions for growth, believing that He will send the Holy Spirit.

Just because something seems to be threatened almost to the point of extinction does not mean we should lose hope. Not when that something depends entirely upon the God who has been faithful always, and will remain so to the end of the age.

Blood Brothers are Watching You

Coming towards the Free Church Seminary on a Sunday morning recently, I fell into step with the minister. He opted to walk through the vehicular access gate, which is broad, while I used the narrower, pedestrian gate. We don’t deal in symbolism in this neck of the eaglais, however, so I’ll just leave that there.

I was going to the Gaelic service, something I’ve been doing, off and on, all my life. For that reason and more, it holds many pleasant associations for me. It was certainly in that building the Gospel first touched my needy heart, and it was there, in the packed Session room at the back, I first professed faith.

Just this week, I was discussing with one of the elders what an ordeal it can be, contemplating an appearance before such a large assembly. ‘I don’t think you were there the night I went forward’, I said, which he contradicted. Hours later, I recalled our conversation, and thought, ‘yes, of course he was there – right in my line of sight, smiling and nodding encouragement’. How on earth could I have forgotten that? Because, I think, my mind was in such turmoil before, during and after.

Needlessly, I might add. Because there is one other nugget which has remained in my mind from that evening. It was the minister, telling me how I belonged to the fellowship of God’s people, and how these men were now my brothers.

Of course, I already had brothers – two, to be exact – and a sister. So, I know what family is. It is, and always has been, an enormous blessing to me; a place of safety and support. But, in the interests of absolute honesty, I must add that we have the capacity to get on one another’s nerves, to have misunderstandings, and differences of opinion.

We could attribute our awkwardness to that unfortunate cocktail of Doune/Achmore/Ardhasaig/Newmarket genes. But the main reason for it is that we’re human, with all the selfishness, sin and ego that entails.

And so are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Because, although we are in Christ, we are also still sinners; works in progress.

There is a tendency to criticise unfortunate conduct in the church – ‘Christians squabbling/holding grudges/cheating/lying’. But take that word, ‘Christians’ away, and substitute ‘people’. Everything that is levelled at Christians is also true of the world.

The principal differences are that Christians should be more troubled by their own bad behaviour, and work to remedy it; and Christians are aware that they are being sanctified – it is, though, a process, and not an event.

This is largely a word  to myself, because I have struggled to hang onto these truths lately. In the midst of feeling a bit hard done by, I failed to subdue self, and I failed to judge myself quite as harshly as others. Or, rather, I wasn’t as magnanimous to them as I would be to me. And, as ever, I nursed my hurt to keep it warm.

But, just like my literal family, my spiritual brothers helped me get back a sense of proportion.

One or two of them dispensed sage advice, and more than a little laughter. They encouraged me to loosen my grip on grievance. And then, another provided me with a really humbling moment in a totally unexpected way. It was a song he shared, sung from the point of view of someone worried they had sinned once too often and that this would be the one where God turned His back.

I was cleaning the window as I listened, and the thought made me stop in my tracks. Imagine if I was in God’s place, with that power over people, and refusing to forgive. The idea made me shudder, picturing myself asking such a cold and unrelenting Lord for forgiveness myself. In that moment, knowing what my own heart is like, and how much I’ve been forgiven already, I did indeed start to relent.

God wasn’t quite finished, though. There was the other brother – the one perceptive enough to recognise that I needed support. No fuss, no fanfare, just what I have always had from him: quiet, steady and strong back-up. I know that I can turn to him when, as he puts it, ‘things get really rough’. And things will. The Christian life seems to be about riding out one storm, only to find yourself launched headlong into another. You might be sparring with secularists one minute, and slighted by Christians the next.

No matter: God has made provision for us against those days. He has given us a spiritual family. We will misunderstand one another, we will squabble, and irritate our brothers and sisters because we are human.

When the chips are down, though, as I have found, the family comes together. That the Church family is not perfect should surprise ourselves least of all – we can expect no such thing in this world. What does that actually matter, though, over against the eternity of blessedness awaiting all the children of the King?

Birds who Pray and Birds of Prey

Etiquette in Lewis is not like it is anywhere else. One knows, almost instinctively, for example, not to bring up a person’s Balallan connections in polite company. And we don’t need a manual to dress appropriately (no wellies after Ness Gala Day), or which implement to use first when lifting the potatoes.

It is possible, as it turns out, to know all that and yet, still commit a great social taboo. I know, because I did it myself.

‘Will you speak at our fellowship in Kinloch?’ I was asked, an invitation which I happily accepted. But in the breathtaking arrogance of the lifelong Wee Free, I forgot to check which denomination . . . for there are two.

‘Two!’ I hear your exclaim in disbelief. Yes, well, I mean in Laxay. Obviously we have others throughout Lewis – we are Presbyterians after all.

Anyway, I discovered the daftness of my assumption in time and set off with friends for an evening service in the Kirk. Or so I thought.

In another colossal breach of island etiquette, we actually went to the Free Church next door. Such is our indoctrination, and our fear of the Session, that we thought we’d better, or risk censure on our return.

No, not really. In fact, the Church of Scotland notice board declared that they would be having a Gaelic service, and my pal is a monoglot, so . . .

Eventually, we did make it to the Aonadh fellowship. A lifetime of ribbing my mother about her ‘inferior’ CofS upbringing, of questioning the validity of her own and my father’s marriage (it having been Kirk-rendered) . . . all words I’d have to eat, along with some excellent pancakes. Because – and nobody tell the Session I said so – they were a lovely congregation. Aside from some native character flaw which makes them all turn up at the last minute for things, they are a warm, genuine and welcoming branch of God’s family.

I knew they would be. It’s not simply that one or two of them were known to me before, nor my natural Lochie bias, what with the Achmore genes, but something else altogether.

It was God’s timing, and His hand I could discern. My visit to ‘the Lake District’ of Lewis had been planned for a couple of weeks, and it was a standard, share-your-testimony kind of plan. But, I knew, a couple of days before that, whoever else might derive benefit from hearing me, one person really needed to hear that testimony again: myself.

I was running, if not quite on empty, very close to it. Physically, emotionally and even spiritually. End of term, end of tether.

There have been difficult conversations around differences of opinion with other Christians. Not everyone sees Grace on the Green as what we intended it to be: an open-air act of public worship, and a nod to the place Christianity has in our culture, all to glorify God. Nonetheless, I appreciate those who addressed their disquiet directly to me, and who did so privately, as Scripture prescribes. No difference of opinion between Christians should result in public displays of pique. And, I might venture, no one should assume they know the heart of another, nor the prayers that have gone out from that heart. God knows, and He deals accordingly.

It has been predictable, but dispiriting. On top of everything else, it gave me a quick flash of ‘why do I bother?’ which, after prayer, dissipated. The freedom I enjoy in Christ is not going to be bound up by anyone else’s idea of conscience. Otherwise, are we really free?

God had prepared the remedy for me last Sunday, however. It was not the good Laxay air, nor the copious amounts of baking, nor even the warmth of the lovely fellowship. No, it was my own testimony.

What is testimony, after all, but evidence – an eye-witness account – of God’s goodness to us? This same God who took my time of unspeakable sorrow and raised it up as immeasurable blessing. It is to Him I pray, to Him I commit every day of my life, and to Him I look for guidance. My faith is sure because of Him, not because of me. And so, I know in whom I have believed. That is more than sufficient for my peace of mind. Remembering His goodness to me reaffirmed that; I rest on Him, and He is enough.

The doubting – and sometimes unpleasantness- of others can shake your confidence. You can begin to question your own judgment and even your own motives. But whatever is anchored in Him is sure and unshakeable. Sometimes you need to remember that all over again.

As I left Kinloch, one of the congregation stood at the door of the church with me, and pointed out two birds of prey flying overhead. Hen harriers, he thought, and I marvelled how he could tell from that distance.

And then I realised that his confidence came from knowledge and a practiced eye. I think we Christians would also know each other better if we spent more time getting acquainted spiritually, and remembering our unity in Christ.

Even from this distance, we should all be able to discern His marks on our brothers and sisters, and them on us.