No sheilings in heaven

I recently took my dog – a gangly, daft collie named Mr Roy – for a walk out to the Pentland Wind Farm. He loves it for pretty much the same reason it appealed to the developer: Wind. Mr Roy loves to feel the breeze rumple his hair. Sniffing and lolloping about, he barely takes any heed of our surroundings, wherever we go.

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On the other hand, I find the place conducive to much thinking. Its solitude promotes meditation.

My mind went back to a conversation I had with my father many times, about his grandfather’s sheiling, out beyond Loch Lacsabhat Àrd. He talked about it often to me, saying that it had a special, peaceful atmosphere. It was evident that, for him, the site of that àirigh had an almost spiritual significance. It held, of course, the sweet fragrance of memory – of people he had loved, and a departed way of life.

I understand that better now. His own passing was the first breach in our small family circle. And I nurse special recollections of places that were dear to him, and where we were all happy together.

Place, and people, and love: they are impossible to separate from one another.

As I walked along the road with Mr Roy, I thought about that day, twenty-five years ago, when my father and I drove out to the Pentland Road – an impromptu spin on an evening in late summer.

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We used to spend quite a lot of time together. A walk here, a drive there, evenings on the croft at Doune. Our conversations were real – about the place, about our history . . . and always, in the end, about spiritual things. He lived his Saviour for long years before he professed faith as an old man. I see that now too. At the time, it was just part of who he was, and I was too blind to see why we both always longed to talk about God while out in His creation.

On this particular day, however, there was something different. Even as he parked the car, I could see that his thoughts were gathering in a particular direction. At long last, we were going in search of his grandfather’s sheiling.

It was no more than an hour’s walk into the moor. Being early August, it was warm, dry and full of midgies. They hastened our steps and made conversation difficult, but did nothing to dampen my anticipation.

Eventually we reached the place where the àirigh had once stood, marked by a few stones scattered across the green sward. We paused just long enough to take some photos and to get our breath back. As we both surveyed the scene, our eyes met, and I could read the question in his. I nodded. Yes, I could feel what he had described: peace and tranquillity of the best and simplest  kind.

All these years it had been a memory to my father, and an enticement to me. We had spoken of it so often that I felt I too had been there. He was obviously afraid that we might go there only to find an ordinary moorland glen, just like countless others.

It was far from it. These many years later, as I took an easier route through the moor, along a road built by progress, I recalled that other walk. With my father going before me, the way had been easy, and the destination absolutely sure.

Afterwards, we talked frequently about the evening we found the sheiling. Our conversation had changed because now I had seen for myself all he had sought to describe. It had been so beautiful in my imagination, but its loveliness was enhanced once we were able to share that memory.

I know that we talked about God a lot. My father clearly felt His presence in the places that he loved. Sometimes, even now, when I sit in church, I remember when we would go there together, and the talks we had afterwards. It’s only human, I suppose, to regret that I didn’t tell him then what the Lord was to me too. Of course, I didn’t really know myself that He was precious, or that I was His. But I know it now; I know that He walked with us out towards the old àirigh. He witnessed the conversations on which His own presence lingered and, as we stood in contemplation of the place, God held us in the hollow of His hand.

At my father’s funeral, a woman I didn’t know said to my mother, ‘he’s in the happy land’. Her words stirred something in me. I knew she was speaking of a place that my father had longed for; that he was standing there at that moment, looking around himself and swathed in peace.

I realise now that this was the beginning of another journey for me – towards assurance. It took almost four years, and another loss, before my eyes settled on that green sward of memory. Then I saw what had been true all along: God leading me on a walk, not to a transient summer dwelling, but homeward to my Father’s house, in which there are many rooms.

 

Out on a Wednesday

Being out on a Wednesday night in the Free Church in Lewis does not mean that you have become gay part-time. It means that you have started going to the midweek meeting and that you have started following.

Following doesn’t mean that you are stalking someone obsessively. It refers to your lively interest in the message of the Gospel and the possibility that you may well be converted and even contemplating going forward.

Going forward doesn’t mean that you’ve suddenly become very bold and begun addressing the minister as ‘thu’, or pulling the elders up on their grasp of theology. No, it simply means that you are ready to make your public profession of faith.

Funnily enough, that public profession is usually made in a room with just yourself and the Session present.

The Session isn’t a band which does covers of Bob Seger and Neil Diamond. They are the elders, charged with the spiritual leadership of your church. When they aren’t checking your Sky subscription to make sure you only tune in to wholesome entertainment, they do other stuff, like hearing the testimony of newly-professing Christians.

These events have followed a well-trodden path here in the island for many years. Everyone knows the order in which your spiritual journey is supposed to happen.

I knew it. And yet, somehow, I ended up doing it all in completely the wrong order.

Not long ago, I was relating my misdemeanour to another Christian. ‘I didn’t set foot in the prayer meeting until after I took communion for the first time’ I said.

But that’s not strictly true.

Many years ago, a friend’s granny died. I went to the funeral and, afterwards, felt an overwhelming compulsion to be with the Lord’s people. It was a Wednesday. The thought made me sick with apprehension, but I simply had to go. To the prayer meeting. Ignoring my parents’ surprised faces, I headed out, hardly able to believe what I was about to do.

I didn’t do it again for fifteen years.

It has such significance attached to it in our culture that anyone going to the prayer meeting in the past would be marking themselves out as ‘one to watch’. And, when I look back over my own journey – which I understand better now that I have attained a small measure of spiritual maturity – I wish with all my heart that I had kept on going to that Wednesday meeting. Then, I might have been noticed by someone, and the right questions might have been asked of me. If nothing else, I might have asked them of myself.
But no. I allowed the weasel words of Satan to drop into my all too willing heart: you don’t belong here with them; you’re not good enough. And that absolute closer – you’re not ready.

When I was asked, the night I went forward, how I had come to follow the Lord, I could give no very clear answer. I didn’t know, exactly, and I was afraid to tell the complete truth. The complete truth being that I could not remember a time when He was not in my life, or when I did not feel destined to follow Him.

I had no idea how to go about making that a practical reality. And, while I may indeed be as mad as a box of frogs, or the irregular product of a Carloway-Achmore-Ardhasaig mash-up of genes, I would be prepared to bet that I am not unique in my spiritual confusion.

Tradition is great, as long as it isn’t harming people. And, when I reflect upon my own long and perplexing walk, and my failure to recognize exactly where I was at with God, tradition annoys me.

Shy and confused, I was drawn to the Lord and His people, but with no idea what I was doing at a midweek meeting. The whole experience was so uncomfortable that I came home, and stumbled on in lonely ignorance, certain that my discomfort was born of my own unreadiness for being out on a Wednesday.

I was not unready. Seventeen or so years on from then, I can say with absolute conviction that I should have persisted. Who planted in me the desire to be there in the first place? Myself? Absolutely not. Satan? Never. But we were both complicit in deciding that I should never go back.

There is a reason why meetings like these are included in the term ‘means of grace’. These are the outward, and apparently mundane ways in which Christ imparts His grace to His own. They are intended as a benefit to us, but they can only be beneficial to those who actually attend. We cannot understand everything within God’s mysterious dealings with us, but there is one thing I can say with conviction now: if He has implanted a desire in you to be with His people, you should obey.

The Bible counsels us repeatedly not to look back with regret, and so I do not count the prayer meetings that I have missed because I listened to the wrong voice. But I do look back with thanksgiving, that God did not allow me to continue depriving myself.

If you are contemplating coming to a midweek meeting, and you think you are not ready because you are not yet a Christian, or not yet a church member, please view me as a cautionary tale. Wednesday is the wellspring that waters the whole week, and if He has put it in your mind to come to the well, it’s because He knows that you thirst.