Fairies in the Church Hall & Light after Dark

Last Sunday, I sat quietly as the minister wagged his finger and said severely, ‘you know fine that was bad and wrong’. Trying to remember if he’d maybe seen me parked on a double yellow line, or if he knew about how I mess with the audio controls in the Seminary, I finally had the courage to look at him. To my relief, I saw that he was addressing his little dog. Once again, I had got away with it.

But, if he hears about this Friday , and the subject matter of the talk I gave at the senior fellowship, it’ll be the Session for sure.

I can say with some confidence that I’m the first person to talk to them about ghosts and fairies. There were a couple of elders present, so I avoided the topic of witches, just in case.

It wasn’t, of course, a practical lesson in how to spot fairies (they only have one nostril), nor how to keep them at bay (iron, oatmeal). Nor was I suggesting that they were ever real. Instead, I was trying to show how mankind was once in thrall to fear and superstition, until the light shed by Christianity in general, and the Reformation in particular, finally drove out the darkness.

More particularly, I was trying to draw parallels between that, and what happens in the life of the individual Christian as well, when they eventually see the light.

It’s a mystery that every believer must surely ponder on – how was it that I saw Christ, had Him brought before me repeatedly . . . and yet, didn’t see Him at all? Last Sunday, before bullying his diminutive canine, the minister fenced the communion table with a reflection on Isaiah 53. There is in that chapter a contrast. First, we have the Christ that our unbelieving eyes beheld – nothing in Him to attract us, punished because He had displeased God. But then, there is the realisation that this bruised and battered Christ is that way because of us; because He has taken our sin on Himself and died for it so that we don’t have to.

Surely, a battered man was never more beautiful than this.

I have seen physical suffering close to. My husband’s last weeks were not always easy. But, there came an end to his pain, and he did not have to endure the agony of God’s wrath.

He did not, and we do not, because Christ took that on Himself in order to spare us.

When you fully take that in, how then can his wounds and his bruises be other than lovely?

I’m realising that you can’t appreciate all of who and what He is right at the beginning of your Christian life. It is in the nature of enduring love to grow with knowledge; and there is no more enduring love than the one between our Saviour and His people.

It was not until I loved Him back that one phrase repeated throughout the Old Testament began to really terrify me. In Deuteronomy 32:20, ‘I will hide my face from them’; in Ezekiel 39, ‘I hid my face from them’; and the desperate pleas of psalms 55, 102, and 143: ‘do not hide Your face from me’.

Like a helpless child – which is what I am, spiritually speaking – I need to see Him, to reassure myself constantly that He is nearby. And it’s only when I accepted this dependence upon God that I began to fear that He might turn from me.

And I probably thought I was the only one until we were preparing for the communion last weekend, and the preacher said: ‘imagine the rest of your life if the Lord was silent’.

Imagine it? I prefer not to.

This doesn’t stem from any question over God’s faithfulness, but my own. When I first received assurance, but remained a secret disciple, I feared my own constancy. More than anything, I worried that this would be like all those times before – that the Word would become cold in my hands, and the prayers dry up. Every morning, I met God in prayer and reading; but I tormented myself with fear that, one day, I just wouldn’t go to the well. And that would be followed by another, and another, until these days of refreshing became a dim and distant memory.

I thought it was just me, until last weekend’s preparatory service, and the revelation that fear and faith often co-exist. Psalm 28 calls on ‘the Rock’, and pleads ‘be not deaf to me’, but the psalmist is not doubting God in the least.

When you have truly got to know God, you cannot doubt Him. But you can prize communion with Him so highly that you are terrified of being without it. Especially when you remember what you were before, and what you would be without Him.

When I gave my ill-advised talk about the Otherworld to the good folk of Stornoway Free Church, I was introduced as the author of ‘after darkness, light’. This blog, and my monthly column, of course, bear that title.

But, I am like the moon in that I would have remained in darkness, except that the true source of light shines upon me. What I am is not the author of light after darkness, but merely a reflection of the true Author’s work.

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)

 

Hold Your Tongue and Shame the Devil?

I have loved my denomination with an irrational affection which mimics what I feel for many human beings. Overlooking obvious faults, chuckling at foibles which irritate others, and even adoring the very character flaws which may repulse less tender onlookers,it’s only ever been the Free Church for me. Give me psalm singing, give me the blue book, give me the envelopes for the collection plate, and give me 1843.

But, my goodness, give me also a mind open enough to admit that NONE of those things are a substitute for a right relationship with Christ. And to admit that nothing is more important than that His salvation should reach the lost – by whatever means He chooses. It is, after all, in His hands, and by His design; not ours.

Last week, while I was halfway across Europe, a dream came to fruition on the lawn in front of Lews Castle. It was not my dream to begin with, but the vision of somebody who loves music, and who loves the Lord. When he first painted a word picture of how this evening would unfold, I was captivated by it – ‘people gathered together for praise . . . a single voice singing ‘Amazing Grace’ . . . hymns . . . praise bands . . . and the crowd dissipating to the strains of a lone piper, playing again, ‘I once was lost, but now am found’ – the heart’s cry of every saved soul, and their deepest desire for those they love.

That this idea came from  someone who thought that ‘Bangor’ begins, ‘oh, didn’t we have a lovely time the day we went to . . . ‘ just made it all the more winning. We are not all the same, and we do not all value the same things; but we are one in Christ, who loves us equally, and who gave Himself for the strummers of guitars, as much as for the hummers of psalms.

An old minister once, saying grace before a meal, was almost inaudible to his companions. ‘I didn’t hear a word of that’, one of them complained when he had concluded. ‘It wasn’t to you I was speaking’, came the swift reply. And so it is with worship- it’s for God, and Him alone.

Except, that’s not entirely true. It is also for us to find pleasure in worshipping Him. What does psalm 100 say – ‘enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise’ – but come to Him with that joy already in your heart and upon your lips. Glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. Anywhere and everywhere.

The more I go on in the Christian life, the more I realise its semi-solitary nature. Yes, the fellowship of God’s people is there as an encouragement but, I am bound to say that it can be equally dispiriting at times.

If I listened to the criticism, to the whispers, I would be far from lifted up by my fellow Christians. I have recently joined those legions who must be pilloried by their own for committing the heinous crime of organising worship in a tent. Faith Mission, Billy Graham, Grace on the Green – you name it, if it’s happening under canvas, these folk are opposed to it. And not so mindful of my feelings as a fellow Christian – a relatively new one at that – that they are prepared to pull their punches.

Some, recently, did not want people praising God in a tent when they could (should?) have been doing it in a church. Personally, I think He can receive all manner of worship simultaneously, wherever it emanates from – a cathedral, a marquee, a hovel, a ditch, a hospital toilet.

That last one, I can testify to. Let anyone – deacon, elder, minister, even – tell me that God grades our petitions according to where we are, or what we’re wearing, and I will call them false. I prayed more fervently in the Bethesda Hospice shower cubicle than ever I have in the Free Church. God met me there too, without a doubt – and yes, He answered my prayers.

This week, I have had to ask Him to answer prayer again – and it’s not so very different. I need grace not to say what’s on my mind, not to walk away from the whole sad and sorry denominational mess that we’ve created. Novice I may be, and whipping-boy for all the more ‘seasoned’ Christians, but I am going to stop the self-censorship right here, and ask my questions. How else is a new girl to learn, after all ?

Why is a prayer meeting in a church better than praise in a tent? How is it folk can come together to worship in the town hall, but not in one another’s churches?

And, doesn’t your Bible teach you about dying to self? Mine does. I’d rather hold my tongue than hurt another Christian, or harm the cause. Maybe I’ll grow out of that, though. One day, when I find where in the Apocrypha they’ve hidden the Book of Denominations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Sunday Is Not About Religion At All

There have been one or two articles in the last week, written in defence of the Lewis Sabbath from a non-church perspective. At their heart, they say basically the same thing – Sunday is not just for religion.  While I welcome their input to the debate which has hitherto consisted mainly of secularist blackening of the church through the medium of stereotype and ignorance, I cannot entirely subscribe to the sentiment. As far as I am concerned, Sunday is not about religion at all.

Of course, centuries of tradition have created this situation where Lewis continues to observe a commercial shutdown on Sundays. It does indeed date back to times gone by when the norm throughout Scotland would have been that the population rested and worshipped on the Lord’s Day. While other influences have reshaped and changed other parts of the country, Lewis continued to plough its own furrow as far as Sabbath observance was concerned, partly because churchgoing continued here at much the same level as it always had. Elsewhere it has been dwindling at an alarming rate, though 44% of islanders still maintain the practice of regular worship.

That is roughly the same percentage of regular worshippers as there are Gaelic-speakers in Stornoway, and it would take a very ignorant person indeed to suggest that the language is culturally irrelevant.

It is part of that tendency among those of an unbelieving bent to wish to rubbish and revise anything which interferes with their agenda. They do not wish it to be the case that the Christian church has had an influence on shaping the local heritage here in Lewis, and so they simply deny that it is so.

Worse, they imply that the people have been too stupid to resist the wiles of sinister ministers and elders who, on some non-specific power trip, have had things all their own way these three centuries or so.

But I’m tired of that argument. It isn’t up for debate anyway – the facts speak for themselves. Much of what we can all regard as precious about life in Lewis has been shaped, one way or the other, by the influence of the Presbyterian church.

I’m more concerned by the turn that this whole tired issue is taking, that we ought to preserve the Lord’s Day because ‘it isn’t just about religion’. This is a standpoint that should shock Christians into speaking up for their Lord’s Day.

Or are we honestly going to remain silent, and leave it to our non-Christian friends and neighbours to argue for the preservation of the Lewis Sabbath based only on tradition?

Well, shame on us.

The importance of keeping the Lord’s Day is not, for me, a matter of tradition, ritual, or even religion. I would imagine I also speak for my brothers and sisters in Christ when I say that it is about my relationship with Him. He it was who said that Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around.  Of course, like many more of His words, these have often been used by people to suit their own ends. However, I think that He meant the day as a gift to His believing people, when they could expect to put aside work for one day, and have the time for spiritual rest and refreshing.

Last Sunday, I slept a little later than I can during the week. I walked the dog a little further. My coffee was finished at home, instead of being decanted into a travel mug. The time I had for devotional reading and prayer was more relaxed. I drove for twenty minutes to get to church, through some of His best work – turbulent seas to my left and the green sward of machair to my right. It was a leisurely preparation for the hour of worship.

At the door of the church, there was a mixture of warm welcome and downright cheek from the two elders on duty. I approve of that Lewis brand of cheek – the gentle mockery that is very much a family thing.

And inside, contentment. Catching up with news. The silent subtle passing of the mint imperials. Psalms in Gaelic. Prayer. Preaching.

The sermon was about a man I can identify very much with. We both started out the same way, Nicodemus and I: secret disciples, the pair of us. He hid his interest in Christ, but eventually came out on His side.

We, both of us, finally came out for Him because of His death. For Nicodemus, it was right there and then, after the Lord had been crucified by the very people that he himself had feared. He had feared them and hidden his allegiance from them; and then he had faced their derision when he identified publicly with Christ.
For me, it was at a time of commemorating His death that I too finally felt the last shred of resistance falling away.

I have faced what all Christians in this part of the world do – being mocked and derided for my beliefs, sometimes from people who should certainly know better. It is not violence, of course – not yet – but it can be very trying just the same.

Sunday is a day of rest for me. I do not go ‘ religiously’ to church, nor do I read my Bible ‘religiously’. Sadly, I am monumentally selfish, and could never keep up such a religion.

Christians need this day. It offers the peace that St Augustine summed up so well – ‘ our heart is unquiet until it rests in you’. It is a different kind of rest because it is in Him.

He gave and gives and will give. Sunday was His precious gift to us. If we have identified with Him once, I would say now is the time to show that forth once again.

And again.

Sunday is not precious in Lewis because of religion, that much is true. It is precious because of Christ. And because of Him, we surely have the courage to say so.

The Sofa & the Ghost of Christmas Past

Sometimes, you know, church can be uncomfortable. Oh, I don’t mean the pews: Calvinists are genetically adapted to fit those. If anything, the addition of those pesky cushions has interfered with nature. No, I mean more of a spiritual discomfort – the kind of thing that starts like a niggling little itch, but finally develops into a full-blown ache.

We like being uplifted by the preaching. Then, we can sing the psalms with gusto and pray fervently along with whoever is leading. And we go home feeling good and optimistic. When everything comes together and reaffirms that Jesus is everything and you are His, yes, of course, who wouldn’t be happy? Sometimes, you can actually see on people’s faces – their eyes shine – that this has worked on their hearts.

Other times, though, the sermon can prick your conscience. I had one of those moments this week when the minister accused me of worldliness, right in front of everyone.

Now, in case you’re imagining this is some archaic Wee Free thing where the black clad and be-collared minister fixes you with a fiery glare, and shouts, ‘woman, ye are a worldly sinner’, think again. That isn’t how it works in the real church, only in films and newspaper articles by people who have never actually been inside one.

In fact, when a minister is preaching, we are not really hearing the man. Yes, it is his physical voice, and words that he has chosen, but we are to believe that this is God speaking through them. Faith comes by hearing the Word preached and, as the Bible itself tells us repeatedly, faith is not of ourselves.

For me, a warning against worldliness was very timely. I cannot do the whole sermon justice here, but the counsel was not to become too attached to the things of this world, as John warned in his first letter. These things are, as we know, transient, and it’s a very bad idea to tether your life and soul to them.

Now, don’t laugh, but the reason I squirmed at this was because of my sofa. It’s a chestnut brown, soft leather chesterfield. I have had it two years and I have been very careful of it, gently vacuuming it each week, and wincing at the mere sight of people actually sitting in it.

Well, I don’t know who would want to sit in it now. Last Saturday, I trustingly and naively, left Mr Roy in his basket in the sitting room while I went to church. I came home, made a big fuss of how good he’d been, fed him a steak bake and then actually went into the room. There was a large puddle on the seat. Oh, he’d very thoughtfully chucked the cushions onto the floor (presumably so as not to ruin them), before urinating on the one seat in the room least able to cope with such an assault.

And I was livid. You know, in that unreasonable way that disregards the fact you’re addressing a dog and not a person who has done this to annoy you. I told him it was no wonder he’d had so many different homes, that he was unloveable, ungrateful, smelly, thoughtless (!) and even, with unwarranted hyperbole, that he was a ‘menace to society’.

It was several days before I could bear to look at him. I forced myself to pat him and speak civilly, because deep down I knew he had no idea what was wrong, but I was still very upset.

About a sofa. Yes, I do realise how shallow that makes me sound. By Wednesday, I had actually got over it, more or less, having started enquiries about getting it professionally cleaned. I knew that once it was clean again, I could forgive Mr Roy.

That’s why, on Wednesday evening, God accused me of worldliness. Well, not just because of the sofa, but it serves to represent everything else that gets too much place in my life. I recalled what Thomas a Kempis said in a book that has been a favourite since my teenage years, ‘The Imitation of Christ’:

‘To triumph over self is the perfect victory. For whoever so controls himself that his passions are subject to his reason, and his reason wholly subject to Me, is master both of himself and of the world’.

There is no one harder to conquer than yourself because there is no one more likely to allow you moral latitude. But I have begun an important lesson. Perhaps I need to see Mr Roy’s intervention like the visit of Scrooge’s first ghost who, frustrated with the old miser’s lifestyle, called him, ‘man of the worldly mind’.

It is fine to have nice things. And, it is good to take care of those things, being grateful to God for providing them. I do thank him for my comfortable home, and more so when I read of the destitution often faced by widows in the past. But, there is a disconnect between my thanksgiving and my attitude. My house, my furniture, my possessions . . . none of those should come before obedience to God, and trying sincerely to imitate Christ in a life of holiness.

Besides, I love Mr Roy for himself, as much as for the fact that he was Donnie’s faithful companion till the end. He is irreplaceable. And his little misdemeanour reminds me of something I must never lose sight of:

God loved me, even before the stain had been cleansed. If His forgiveness had been predicated on my being clean, I would have been beyond hope forever.

 

Singing my Sorrow in a Strange Land

The night before my public ordeal by presbytery last Tuesday, I got a message from a friend saying they were praying for me. They didn’t know that I was nervously facing my first gig as a male impersonator (well, you know, sort of), but that only makes it lovelier in my eyes, that these Lochies would pray for me, while I was miles away, sitting by my stove in Tolsta.

On Thursday, after a moving and thought-provoking service of thanksgiving, I went off to Isles FM – our local community radio station- to do a live show, called Glow. It’s a mix of Christian conversation, music and readings. The host is an easygoing Siarach with a pleasant, laid-back style. He manfully endured my ramblings about the Reformation for the entire show, and we parted company late on a very wintry night.

The midnight drive home over freezing white roads was unpleasant. I registered with surprise the unfamiliar sensation of being glad to see Tolsta: I was home. Back within wi-fi range, my phone pinged out messages. Laid-back Siarach doing his ‘mum thing’ and checking I’d arrived safely. A very dear friend reminding me of something so lovely from that evening’s sermon. And a new friend joking that I seemed to be everywhere, but that he’d enjoyed the show.

The road home had been a challenge, but there was light and warmth and kindness at the end of my journey.

It caused me to reflect on other things that had happened this week. Someone who is researching for a documentary about loneliness called on Monday to discuss it with me. And, just yesterday, a friend very perceptively said that she realised how difficult it must be to have no one to talk to about my day when evening falls.

Yes, that silence has got a particular quality to it. There is no one asking about how work went, or telling me I look tired. Donnie was a generous man and gave of his love and concern liberally. He cared in a very practical way because his heart and his conscience were both larger than was sometimes good for him. And, just when I was most tired, or at my lowest ebb, he would do something unexpected. Our life together was one of small kindnesses – and great ones – which I miss very much.

But, even this is something from which I can learn. I know that this life I find myself living is part of something intentional in God’s scheme. So, with His help, I am trying not to follow it as though it’s some kind of plan B.

By extension, then, the inherent loneliness that accompanies my widowhood is something of which God is aware and which He knows will be the lot of anyone in my situation. He supplies much which alleviates it. I am blessed in having a supportive and loving family, good friends and no shortage of activity to keep me distracted.

Which is fine if all I’m supposed to do is survive. One of my initial thoughts after he died was to wonder how many years I might have to ‘get through’ alone on this earth. But that was transient, something borne of the acute despair I felt at the thought of living without him.

Until I remembered that my strength had never come from Donnie. That was a mistake I had made many times before. When it really mattered, though, God gently showed me who it was that had taken me through.

Three things occur to me, then, inspired by what I have heard and where I have been this week. First of all, I believe that being distracted from grief and loneliness is not what God wants for me, nor is it why He has placed so many incredible people along my path. I think he wants me to see my widowhood, and yes, even the loneliness, as a gift through which I can experience more of His love. That was one message in last Sunday evening’s sermon.

And on Tuesday, discussing the Reformation solas, we were reminded that soli deo gloria, or ‘to God’s glory alone’ may sometimes be overlooked. It is a personal challenge to remember in everything I do and, though I try, of course my efforts frequently fall far short. After all He has done for me, how can I even think of keeping the smallest bit of credit for myself?

Reflecting on all He has done was the theme on Thursday as we gathered for a service of thanksgiving on an icy cold evening. Even in sorrow – perhaps especially in times like these – the minister said, God wants His people to sing their sadness to Him. In singing to Him, they remember His name; His name is wedded to salvation; and so in the midst of their sorrow, they remember all that His grace has accomplished for them.

That song of desolation becomes a song of praise and thanksgiving because they are no longer looking backwards at the night, but forward to the eternal daybreak.

It has been a busy week, one in which I have rarely been alone. Now that I am, my mind does not dwell on the silence, but on all the love He has shown me in these last few days. How can I sing the Lord’s song in this strange land? When I think of all He has done – His steadfastness, His forbearance, His mercy, His love towards me – how can I be dumb?

 

Welcome to Lewis: God’s providence is our inheritance

Last Sunday began, somewhat unusually, with me having my feet filmed as they walked up Francis Street to our Gaelic church, the Seminary. It is, of course, possible that the tv folk were trying to be arty and symbolic – you know, walking away from one of the town’s three Church of Scotland buildings, before cresting the hill towards the Free. Or, they wanted to show that Wee Free women can actually be frivolous (I was wearing pink shoes).

My main concern was that, given how infrequently I visit the Seminary, people there might assume I only ever travel with a full camera crew in tow. Fortunately, the visiting minister had been forewarned, so he didn’t think it was some elaborate, attention-seeking ploy on my part.

What is special about Sunday in Lewis, the journalist, Christina, asked me. Indeed – what?

The peace, the quiet, the fact that people who don’t offer services of necessity or mercy are guaranteed a day with their family. It has always been this way, as far back as any of us remember. Children were allowed to play outside quietly, not because they were being repressed, but because they were learning respect for other people. My late husband, whose father was an elder in their local church, was allowed to play football on Traigh Mhor with other boys, and remembered almost bursting his lungs running home to be in time for the evening service.

Balance, you see, is something we’ve always been good at here. The writer, James Shaw Grant wrote movingly of the scene on the Stornoway quayside on a Thursday evening towards the end of August in 1939. It was the Stornoway communion, and after the evening service, worshippers thronged the pier to wave the first draft of men off to the Royal Naval Reserve. Despite the great crowd, there was silence at first, and then, a lone voice on the quay took up Psalm 46 in Gaelic:

‘ ‘S e Dia as tearmann dhuinn gu beachd,
Ar spionnadh e ‘s ar treis’

Gradually, the men on board the ship, and the crowd of onlookers joined in, their voices linking across the widening strip of water. Wherever in the world these reservists would be sent, and whatever their fate, they and the loved ones at home were in the hollow of God’s hand. The world was teetering on the brink of a violent and protracted war. In what looked like an act of supreme faith, all concerned put their trust in the Lord to protect them and to strengthen them.

But a few days later, the second draft left to the sound of bagpipes, Gaelic song, and laughter. Balance, you see.

This island has always had a great sense of timing. It has responded to what comes its way appropriately and proportionately. Sometimes, this has been mistaken for fatalism, for cowardice, and even for laziness.

Not so. The burgh coat of arms, designed by the old Stornoway Town Council bore the text, ‘God’s providence is our inheritance’. There was a strong relationship between the people of the island and their God. It served them well in times of trouble, to remember that it is all in His providence, entirely dependent upon Him.

I think that if it was possible to go back in time and ask the people what was difficult and repressive about their life, they might say that it was the relentless hard work for little reward; they might mention the harshness of the weather; they might mention poor housing and unequal access to healthcare. Perhaps those from the outlying districts of Lewis would tell you that they missed their children, who had to stay in hostels all week.

Not everything about Lewis was perfect in the past, any more than it is now. But I believe that those Leodhasaich of times gone by would be puzzled by any suggestion that God was the problem.

Through the devastation of the Great War, compounded by the unspeakable tragedy of the Iolaire in the first few hours of 1919, to the decade of emigration that followed, and the heart-rending fear of the Second World War, the people turned to God.

The night that initial draft left, He was worshipped first. And then it was His strength that the departing sailors and their anxious community called upon. Amongst those who watched their sons board the ‘Lochness’ must have been men who had come through the horror of the trenches, and perhaps survived the breaking of the ‘Iolaire’ on the Beasts of Holm.

They had seen all the agonies of war, and come through it to stand, in Stornoway on the cusp of another conflict, and sing a psalm to God. He had taken them safely through, and He would watch over their sons in the heat of battle also.

Everyone who knows the history of this island will be aware that little Lewis contributed a disproportionate amount of its lifeblood in the last war. We remember that sacrifice each November.

There is always a time for remembrance. We remember the fallen of both World Wars; we remember loved ones that have gone; we remember the Lord’s death until He comes, by drinking wine and eating bread.

That communion in 1939 must have been remarkable. On a day of preparation, these islanders had a vivid reminder of why they needed God’s strength and protection.

Timing is everything. And as I look at the world around me, I think this is far from being the right moment to cast off our Christian heritage. We need to gather on that pier once more, and sing across the darkening water:

Be still, and know that I am God;
among the heathen I
Will be exalted; I on earth
will be exalted high.

Our God, who is the Lord of hosts,
is still upon our side;
The God of Jacob our refuge
for ever will abide.

 

 

 

 

Secularists in the last stronghold

This week has not been great for my self-esteem. It began, last Sunday, when an elder introduced me to the congregational fellowship in terms of who my dog is. It’s probably because the dog is male and, therefore, the closest thing to a reliable head that this household has. Then, there was the class on Martin Martin which evidently wasn’t as exciting for the students as it was for me. And, of course, there was the realisation that there are people out there who think I’m a selfish, narrow-minded, entrenched bigot.

That’s never nice to hear. Not even, I imagine, if it’s actually true. I am certainly selfish and entrenched about some things, but definitely not narrow-minded. Some of my best friends are Church of Scotland (disclaimer: this is artistic licence and somewhat of a fib).

Calling me a ‘bigot’ is, to their minds, the most offensive insult the secularists could conjure up. I’m not bothered, though, because I realise that it’s a term they use for anyone who opposes their worldview.

Their worldview, incidentally, is something they’ve created for themselves. In their canon, they have no god but Richard Dawkins, no law but that of, ‘do what you like as long as it harms no one else’. The mantra that they claim for themselves is ‘tolerate everything’.

Except, not quite everything. They want a secular society – separation, they will tell you, of church and state. Some of them can get quite verbose on the subject.

‘Blimey’, you might very well think, ‘these people have real drive and enthusiasm. This message of theirs must be worth hearing’.

Lewis has been a six-day society as far back as any of us remember. Sundays are quiet, the pace is slower. It is altogether more . . . well, Hebridean, on the Lord’s Day. Is it selfish of me to want the island that I love to go on being itself for as long as possible? I don’t want to watch it being exploited, stripped of its charm and character, and robbed of its Christian heritage.

I used to be mildly amused by the epithet, ‘last stronghold of the Gospel’, applied to our island. Now, however, it feels true. Or, at the very least, it feels like one stronghold. It is under attack, rattled, battered, miscalled and degraded.

Christianity has given Lewis a lot of its character. Only this week, I attended the evening worship in connection with the death of a neighbour. The Gaelic singing was beautiful, rising and falling gently like a breeze across the machair. Our cadences, our vocabulary, even our unique island humour, have all been enriched by this Christian heritage. It is ours; it is ours as surely as the Gaelic language is ours, as surely as the sharp pain of cianalas for home and loved ones is ours when we are parted from them.

If you are acquainted with our history as Leodhsaich and as Gaidheil, you will also be aware that this is not the first time people who know the price but never the value have tried to take away our identity. It has been done elsewhere too – in the United States it has been called, ‘taking the Indian out of the Indian’.

They tell us we’re backward, ignorant, narrow, bigoted, stuck in the past. It’s what they said to stop us speaking our language. Then they used it to beguile people onto emigrant ships. And now it’s being used to try to remove Christianity from public life.

But, you say, this cannot be mere iconoclasm. These secularists must have a mission, a message, something bold and beautiful to replace te Son of God.

Sure they do, it’s: coffee; swimming; films.

We don’t do enough of those here in Lewis. The Lord is selfishly taking up the space where more cappuccinos and 12-certificates could go. Those who quite like Him being around are reminded constantly that this is a symptom of their native ignorance. Only a stupid, knuckle-dragging maw still believes in Christ. What kind of daft yokel wastes their Sundays on Him when they could be drinking a frothy coffee in a noisy restaurant?

I have said before that the secularists are anti-Christian, and so they are. But I think that may be letting them off the hook a little too easily. Let us go on in the spirit of telling it like it is. We know they don’t approve of fairy tales, preferring unvarnished truth, like the mature, 21st century people they are.

So, here it is. The truth. Secularists, I’m talking to you.

You are not simply attacking the beliefs of many Christians when you glibly call us the many names you have used; you are attacking Christ. When you try to disrupt the Lewis Sunday, you are not merely inconveniencing a few folk in the Free Church; you are offending Christ. And when you talk of Scripture as fantasy and folktales, you are not simply laughing at those who live their lives by it; you are mocking Christ.

Please don’t think that I’m trying to frighten you, or that this is about control – forget what you think you know about Christians. I was once as you are now, and I might still be that way but, quite literally, for the grace of God. No one scared me into putting my faith in Christ; no one could. And no one is trying to do that to you.

We know Him and we love Him. And because of Him and His perfection (certainly nothing in us), we want you to know the same peace, the same joy.

The apostle Paul once persecuted Christians, but came to love his Lord and exhorted others to be ambassadors for Christ. We make a poor show of it frequently, I know, but as long as we are looking on Him, just ignore us, and follow our gaze.

Lewis is not the stronghold; the Free Church is not the stronghold: Jesus Christ is. Make your home in Him and you will always be free.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Safe Spaces and Dwelling Places

I went to a feminist event last night. It was that thing which we’ve heard there is so much need for in the Hebrides – a safe space for women to talk and exchange opinions. It was a real, face-to-face meeting of Hebridean ladies , sharing a meal and sharing conversation. Women of all ages came together from across the island, to talk, to listen, to laugh, to catch up with old friends and to meet new ones.

There was a guest speaker. She spoke movingly of her work with street children in Uganda. I don’t believe there was a heart in that room of almost 200 women unmoved by what she told us. Children, born to children, growing up without a home or a family. Without, in fact, a safe space.

These are children who don’t know what it is to have a parent’s unconditional love and protection. They are exposed to unthinkable danger every minute of every day. Many of them are on the streets, nonetheless, because that terror is marginally better than the one they faced at home. We all know how short a duration childhood is; in the blink of an eye, it’s past and, for these children, never really happens at all.

The speaker, Marsaili Campbell, is a paediatric nurse who has worked with these children for a long time through the Dwelling Places project. In addressing her audience, she excluded no one, and made no assumption that the room was filled with Christians.

I have already had fingers wagged at me by people who thought I was suggesting that charity is the exclusive preserve of Christianity. It isn’t. The gathering was Women for Mission, but the challenge is for all human beings. Could we not work together to make this world a little safer for everyone? Surely there are more important fights than the ones we are having with each other, and more important rights than that of swimming seven days a week, or keeping your child from hearing about Noah and the ark.

This meeting is an annual event organised by Women for Mission, a network of committees affiliated to the Free Church, and raising money to fund missionary work. It is the preserve of energetic, intelligent, motivated and compassionate women. If you are one of those, you could come to a WFM fundraiser, just to see what it’s about. You could support the work to help street children, to bring hope to the hopeless. These events, and the planning meetings which precede them, are safe spaces.

The women I met last night are authentic  feminists. True, they haven’t hung that label on themselves, but I think that’s because they are absolutely free, and don’t need to.

I was approached by a smiley, petite lady at the end of the evening, to tell me how much she was enjoying my column in the ‘Record’. That lady taught me – and countless others – to read and write during her 37 years in Laxdale School. Elsewhere in the room, I saw my former boss, a woman who stood up to men in suits in the 1970s to give Ness its Comunn Eachdraidh. That swiftly became a movement which has preserved and recorded our folk heritage up and down the islands and beyond.

The lady co-ordinating the evening is another example of feisty Free Church womanhood. I’ve come to dislike that word, ‘feisty’ because it’s so often applied to militant moaners. Not in this case. Think force of nature with a hundred watt smile. You do her bidding because she semi-charms and semi-terrifies you. And because everything that drives her is what drives each woman in that room: love for the Lord.

A room packed with women, all of one accord: it should terrify the men. Then again, there was one present – just one, mind you. He had a camera. Probably gathering evidence to take back to the Session. I’m fairly sure he caught the woman next to me laughing, so they’ll probably shut WFM down. Women laughing and planning things is surely the way sedition lies.

Actually, women, with their multi-faceted personalities, experience, and gifts, come together in groups like WFM. They work towards a common, humanitarian goal. In striving as one, they become one. There is real sisterhood because the bonds that exist between them are forged in the fire of love. It is that simple love which says that if a child is hungry, you should feed her, and if she hurts, you should comfort her.

That is what feminism looks like in the Free Church.  It is about looking outward and serving the Lord by serving the lowliest in our world.

At the end of the evening, the beauty of 200 women singing Psalm 40 in unison said something to me about real feminism. Each individual voice counts, yes, but how much more power is there when we come together as one?