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?

 

A Highland River of Life

If I had to pick just one day out of my life to relive, I might choose the first time I walked the Dunbeath strath with the man who was, the following summer, to become my husband. It was May holiday, 2002: warm, sunny, just one of those perfect days that stands out in my memory for reasons too insubstantial to put into words: you had to be there; and of the two who were, I am the only one left.

Part of the magic was that this was Neil Gunn’s strath. He has been my favourite writer for many years now and I can still recall the delight I felt as I recognised places mentioned in his novels – the meal mill, the House of Peace, the Prisoner’s Leap. Most of all, it brought to mind his 1937 novel, winner of the James Tait Memorial Prize – ‘Highland River’. Ever since reading that unique book, I found it impossible to walk beside any river without thinking of Kenn, the central character, making his journey towards the source: the source of the river, the source of his own identity.

Gunn believed that the Gaels were united by more than a mere language, that they were bound together by common experience, and by landscape. He was a great believer in the collective unconscious: Jung’s idea that people may share a second-level consciousness which cannot be related to their own direct experience. It describes what we might otherwise call ‘instinct’.

Calvin was a proponent of instinct in a way too. He argued that the light of nature – natural man’s awareness of God’s existence – is in each one of us, however distorted by sin. This was, and is, not to be confused with the light of the world in the person of Jesus Christ. In no way was Calvin suggesting that the sensus divinitatis, this awareness of God, was sufficient in itself; without the Spirit’s illumination, we cannot know God savingly. As the Westminster Confession of Faith has it:

‘Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.

As Kenn nears his final destination, the source of the river, he feels a strong sense of his own abiding solitude:

‘That was his destiny. He saw its meaning in his people, even in their religion, for what was the Calvinist but one who would have no mediating figure between himself and the ultimate, no one to take responsibility from him, to suffer for him.’

Well, true in part: Calvinists do not place their trust in priests, or bishops, in confessionals or man-made absolution. Calvinists, however, do believe in the great and only mediating figure. He has already suffered and taken responsibility for our sins. If, knowing this, we choose solitude and suffering for ourselves, we are not Calvinists, but fools.

Far be it from me to disagree with Calvin – that’s not how I was brought up. There is, I believe, an instinctive awareness of God in us, which the Creation further demonstrates. That, however, is surely as far as one can go with that. You can be aware of the existence of the Creator by witnessing the work of His hand, yes – but you cannot know Him apart from the Son and the Spirit. To truly know Him, you must know how He has dealt with mankind, how He has dealt with you. You must know the sacrifice He has made.

When I go back now, in my mind, to that strath, and to that day, I see Him there. Yes, in the beauty of the river, in the brightness of the sun and in the fragrance of nature. All of that, but this too: He planned that day, we two, and all that would become of us. Not just planned, but ordained, brought into being: authored and finished.

The mere, dim light of nature is not enough. It will leave us like those poor Greeks at the Areopagus, with an altar ‘to the unknown god’. If He is unknown to us, that is not because He is unknowable, but because we have not yet traced the river of our life back to its source.

‘For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light do we see light.’