Immovable Object, Irresistible Force?

In his excellent, ‘Lewis: A History of the Island’, the late Donald MacDonald makes the following comment about the churchgoing people of his native land:

‘The religious communities in Lewis are extremely devout. In addition to the two two-hour services held on Sundays, there are midweek prayer meetings. There are also special meetings for communicants and, every year, two communion services are held by each congregation, one in the Spring, and one in the Autumn’.

I would question whether spending six or so hours per week in public worship is any great sign of devotion. It is, rather, indicative of the extent to which other things fill our time – work and family life being the principal distractions when the above was written.

And yet, my own description of church life would be little different today. In a typical week, I attend church twice on Sundays, each service going no more than ten or fifteen minutes over the hour. Mid-week, the prayer meeting lasts for about the same length of time. Our congregation marks the sacrament of communion four times a year, with special preparatory services each time.

We are, as a churchgoing people, more like the world than we used to be, in that we spend less time in community with one another than in years gone by. The spontaneous house gatherings have all but gone, just as the unannounced visitor who would enter your home without knocking is also a thing of the past. In both the Christian community, and the secular world of Lewis, opportunities for the young (in experience, perhaps, as well as years) to learn from their elders have diminished. They come together in neither the taigh-cèilidh nor the taigh-adhraidh.

Our young people are no longer growing up in a secure environment, where God is the acknowledged Creator of all things, in whose hand we rest. They are increasingly encouraged to figure things out for themselves, to look to science – in all things, essentially, to rest on their own wisdom, or the untested wisdom of self-declared wise men.

I am always suspicious of people who admit to there being no higher authority than their own, anyway. Frankly, I don’t know how they can suggest such a thing with a straight face.

But the lack of understanding cuts both ways. I don’t get where they are coming from and they, as is becoming all too apparent, really do not know what Christianity is either.

I don’t want to get into another controversy here. Recent experience has taught me that there is not a lot of secular tolerance of my Christian standpoint; reading and reflection has taught me that this is because the greatest opponents of my faith are people who think they understand it, but don’t.

So, I thought that I would try to lay out, as graciously as may be, what it is I believe, and why.

If there are still any secularists reading my blog after I so offended (and, apparently ‘intimidated’) them with my thoughts on the emptiness of their creed, I would like them to make a bit more effort to understand that my refusal to compromise is not personal; I am not saying, ‘I refuse’, I am saying ‘I cannot’.

A Christian is someone who is persuaded that Christ willingly died for them, and in being resurrected that He defeated death so that it could no longer claim any hold over His followers. The eternal life to which a believer is reborn is spiritual, and it begins the moment they accept Christ as their Saviour. Professing faith – in Lewis, usually ‘going forward’ or becoming a church member – simply means that you are outwardly declaring your oneness with Christ. Inwardly, the believer experiences a deepening spiritual relationship with God through Christ. The more you know Him, the more you want to know Him.

As a Christian, I am aware of God acting in my life – of His interventions on my behalf, of His protection, and of His rebuke. I communicate with Him through prayer; He communicates with me through the Bible and through His providence and, indeed, His people.

Without Christ’s willingness to be the sacrifice for my sin, I would be leading a bleak life in a world without hope. If I had not accepted that same Christ as my Saviour, I would be leading an ultimately meaningless existence with an end destination whose name is desperately unfashionable, but whose reality is undiminished: Hell. Because, despite my inherent unworthiness, He has redeemed me from that eventuality, and because of His gracious dealings with me more generally, I feel immense love towards Him.

I am fully aware that this sounds hilarious to the unbeliever; I was once pretty nonplussed by it all myself.

So, I maintain a position of obedience to Christ, not because I think myself perfect, but because I know that I am not, and never could be. I am obedient to Him because I love Him, and want to please Him. In that light, Sunday is a special day for me because, untramelled by working day cares, I can focus on that relationship with Him, and fellowship with His people. It is God’s gift to us – not a burden to be borne, but a privilege to be enjoyed in the fulfilment of our destiny as people.

That destiny is that we should glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Whether we accept this or not, it is fact. And it is such a relief when we finally accept it, giving up our pointless rebellion that leads nowhere good.

I don’t write what I write, ministers don’t preach what they preach, in order to upset anyone. It really isn’t about power, or control: it’s about love. We have something so wonderful that we want everyone else to share it too.

Not because we’re nice, or good but because He has shown us how to love others, simply by loving us first.

Building Bridges to Nowhere, Sheltering Trolls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wee Free Frankenstein

This time last year, I was a sinner saved by grace, marvelling at the year of blessings I’d enjoyed since coming out for Christ. Today, I am writing my one hundredth blog, almost a year on from where it all began – aptly enough, at the Stornoway communion.

When I met the man who would somehow become my blogging mentor, I was minding my own business, enjoying tea and fellowship and – more than likely – one of the house special pancakes. We discussed other subjects, I think, before we got round to talk of blogging.
‘You should think consider getting your thoughts down in a blog of your own’, he said, casually and unwittingly creating a monster every bit as uncontrollable as the one cobbled together by Dr Frankenstein. I am one of those dim-witted and suggestible Wee Free women you’ve heard tell of and so, I duly trotted off home to dream of blogging.

Only when the communion weekend was over could I even begin to think of beginning. I didn’t want to do anything controversial which might bring the wrath of the Session down on my head, so I wrote an article about the Free Church and the fairies.

I had long been thinking it was high time we aired the positive influence of churches like the Wee Frees (other denominations are available) on our community. The church had not, historically, engaged in debate about its demeanour or influence, maintaining a dignified silence despite heavy and frequently unwarranted criticism.

Someone else less dignified was going to have to speak up for it. And I owed that much.

You see, this time last February, I was able to look back on almost two years without my husband, and see where the church had been his substitute. I was able to appreciate the anchorage it had provided, the purpose, the kindness. Its loving arms had held me up through those hard, hard months. Yes, it was a challenge to be there sometimes, but it was more of a challenge not to be.

And so the blog really began as a labour of love. Love for my community, for my heritage, for my church and, most of all, for my Lord.

I don’t think I appreciated just how much those loves would upset other people. You see, even although I have no power except the one vote that we all get on gaining the requisite age, my opinions seem revoltingly offensive to some. All I have is this blog, through which I continue to voice my loves. It offends me when people say of Lewis that there is no distinctive culture. Somehow, I feel like Scarlett O’ Hara slapping her petulant sister, and saying, ‘don’t say you hate Tara – it’s the same as hating ma and pa’.

It saddens me that in this supposedly enlightened age, I have to explain that loving my heritage – Gaelic, crofting, Free Church – does not make me a bigot. I do not despise people who are different; but I do question why my difference, the distinctiveness of Lewis has to be a problem to solve, not an attribute to celebrate.

I am sad that a narrative has crept in which is entirely critical of this island. It’s backward, it’s repressed, it’s secretive, it’s got a dark side. Well, maybe I’m just the delusional closed mind some say I am, but that is not my Lewis.

My Lewis is warm and welcoming. It is that particular brand of island humour which manages to be sharp and gentle all at once. Lewis people are polite, never ones to push themselves forward or demand a hearing. And they are unfailingly kind. This is an island of hands clasped in friendship, of ‘placing’ one another, of being interested. When you die in Lewis, there will always be someone to attend your funeral.

We respect the dead, but crucially, we don’t wait until then – we respect the living too.

Blogging has been a revelation, then. Like a poultice, it seems to have drawn an awful lot of poison to the surface. It is no surprise in one respect: Christians are prepared to be hated, after all, for the sake of who they follow. But He does not send us out into the field unprepared, or unarmed. Their slings and arrows may graze, but the wounds they leave, like their arguments, are always superficial.

Far and away the greatest revelation, though, has not been the hatred – the anonymous messages, the disrespectful language, the bullying; it has been the fullness of God’s love that I have experienced through writing the blog.

He has brought me into contact with so many of His people through it. These people have encircled me with prayer and upheld me in all manner of trouble – even, I suspect, though they sometimes didn’t know it. Messages of support will come when I am on the point of giving in; a portion of Scripture shared when my grief is too heavy a burden; links to music that will uplift my heart when it is struggling to find joy.

I learned something so important last year, which I know I have alluded to before. Why wouldn’t I – it was life-changing; I will share it every chance I get. And I must apologise to the troll who accused me recently of getting all my thinking from the pulpit, but this DID emanate from just that source.

In all of our trials, we are not to be worried how we will maintain our faith in God; we are to see them as a means to experience more of His love for us.

I have experienced His love so abundantly that one hundred blogs more would not do it justice. He has never left my side, and I will not leave His. Where His name is trodden on and where His church and His people, who are also my people, are spat at, I will also go to be spat at.

Love me, despise me, ignore me – I am not going away.

 

None So Secular As Those Who Will Not See

I haven’t read one article from within Lewis which supports the plans of An Lanntair to open on Sundays. There have been several ill-informed ‘national’ contributions, of course, but I think we can safely discount those. After all, what do they know of this community, or what shapes it? And, more pertinently, what do they care?

It takes the arrogance of imperialism to say to a minority cultural group that they are wrong about their own identity. This is not me saying to people who have moved into Lewis that they have no right to an opinion, or a voice. Of course they do. But I am saying that they have no right to tell me that they understand my heritage better than I do. They generously permit tweed and Gaelic (by which they mean the language only, not the other stuff that no one can teach you) and music . . . but not God.

God came here on a magic carpet of stories from the Middle East. He’s the only kind of immigrant the Western Isles Secular Society disapproves of. We’re allowed to call Him an ‘incomer’, or anything else we want.

But they’re not anti-religion. They are vehemently denying that accusation all over social media this weekend. Frustrated by our native ignorance, they keep asking why no one understands that secularism is not against Christianity. If only we would read their mission statement, we would know that they are not against the faith of many in this island.

Oh, aren’t they?

Still, if their Facebook page says so, it must be true. It’s not as though they ever have a go at Christians, or mock their beliefs. They expect us to ignore their sometimes defamatory remarks about individuals, the fact that disgraceful profanity and utter disrespect goes unmoderated, their consistent targeting of the Lewis Sabbath, their blatant lies about the behaviour of local church people . . . and just accept their definition of secularism?

I’m sorry, Western Isles Secular Society, but we Christians are going to need more evidence. We can’t just blindly accept this kind of thing.

What I do see, this week in particular, is a group which cannot tolerate the views of others when they fall contrary to their own. Local blogger, Hebrides Writer, was okay when she was vocally supporting their Sunday swimming campaign, but she has suffered a catastrophic fall from grace by coming out against An Lanntair’s arrogant stance on Sunday film showings. Some have tried valiantly to be measured in their response, but in their own discussion group, she has been pilloried in ways that are utterly unwarranted by anything she has written.

She even has the temerity to be related to someone with connections to An Lanntair. In Lewis! Smaoinich!

And, most defamatory of all, she now stands accused of being ‘anti-secular and pro-faith’. Horror of horrors.

No WISS moderator has stepped in to remove this comment, nor have any of the other members pointed out the obvious. Well, I mean, it contradicts their claim that secularism and faith are not at odds, doesn’t it?

But we don’t need them to tell us what secularism is. We know what it is. God knows what it is.

Actually, the only people who don’t know, are the secularists themselves.

They have long pitied the likes of me in my blind ignorance. Now, they fear for the safety and the sanity of Hebrides Writer because she has deviated from what the cult expects.

I wish they would try to understand, not Christians, but Christ. How I wish they would open their Bibles and read, and find there a man who will tell them everything they ever did.
Just this week, I saw their likeness in His book. On Wednesday evening in church, we read the account of the Israelites and the golden calf they made to worship. When they had built an altar to it, they declared the next day a feast day for the Lord.

They thought, you see, that they could have everything. Their idea was to give themselves over to doing what they wanted, and offer a sop to God to appease Him. It was their way of pretending that there is room for following Him, and for pleasing yourself.

Or, like one of the anti-Sabbatarians put it, ‘before long it will be the new norm and the culture of the quiet Sunday will continue as usual’.

No, I’m afraid that just isn’t how it works. You have to pick a side. And it has to be the right side.

Forget your movies, people, I know how this ends.

I’ve read the Book.

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.

Always Darkest Just Before Dawn

There is something about a brand new year that is like a clean sheet of paper, waiting to be written on. For some, there is the irresistible lure of the resolution, the resolve to be a better version of themselves in the next twelve months than they were in the previous. Few of these outlast January.

It is a time of renewal, of hope; a time when whatever mistakes were made in the old year can be crossed out in the new. But it is also a time for evaluating how those aspirations that were so fresh last New Year have fared.

I was asked this week which of my prayers have gone unanswered. The question really unsettled me. It has always been my belief that God does not let sincere prayer go unanswered. Sometimes He might say, ‘wait a while’, or ‘no, that’s not best for you’, but I don’t think He ever ignores our petitions. For one thing, they are too precious to Him.

But I do have things which I bring before Him continually, as we all do. For most Christians, the first thing on that list would be for their loved ones to know Jesus as their Saviour. And for many, spiritual revival will also be a priority. Most Ch

ristians pray for those things . . . but I wonder whether we have artificially separated them in our hearts, as well as in our supplication to God.

What I’m saying is that when we pray for our family to be saved, we don’t mean them exclusively; we probably just mean them particularly. In reality, a general spiritual awakening which would include those we know and care for, well, that would be better still, surely. How much more generous are prayers which are expansive in their concern? What largeness of heart it takes to pray for salvation in those we do not know, or perhaps especially those with whom we are acquainted, but do not yet love.

The Rev John Morrison of Petty, a man reputed to possess the gift of second sight, once caught up with a member of his congregation, a young woman, on a stormy night. She was concealing her newborn – and illegitimate – infant beneath her cloak, and was making her way to a nearby loch to drown the child. Instead of remonstrating with her, he simply told her that before letting the baby go she should kiss it and ask a blessing on it. This she did, and – as the wise old minister knew would happen – she could not go through with her desperate plan.

Once you have prayed for someone, there is a bond created. I think that is how the Lord strengthens the love His people have, one for the other. He moves us to pray for each other and, once we have, that kind concern is marked indelibly on our hearts.

Revival for our community, for our country, for our world, has to be willed by God. But we surely have a part to play in readying ourselves for it. It is not a small thing we are asking for, and so we should not behave as though it is. God has shown us, I believe, that He is listening. The waiting is not a divine refusal, but evidence that He hears, and wants to hear more.
Words are easily spent. I have prayed for revival, really meaning it, but more often than not I have prayed the words to fill a silence. That isn’t what God wants; and it shames me to admit that’s what I give Him. He wants the earnestness of heart I bring to supplication which directly affects me.

How I prayed when I feared my husband might die is how I should be petitioning the Lord for our community.

It’s exhausting being concerned for people who have no thought of their own spiritual welfare. A few months ago, I heard this mentioned in a sermon as one of the things which can wear the Christian down in their own walk. And it’s true. I can testify to the frustration and even heartbreak of trying to bring Christ before people who still want to spit in His face.
They pretend it’s all part of this relentless march towards freedom and tolerance; but it’s really their own bigotry got up in fancy clothes. That’s why they’re so delighted about going to see a critically-panned ‘Star Wars’ film at An Lanntair on a Sunday afternoon; that’s why the deck of the first ferry to cross the Minch on the Lord’s Day was thronged with people: ugly triumphalism.

You see, they’ve lost any sense of community they may once have had. It’s all become lost in the morass of selfishness and hatred born of fear.

You can become so acquainted with that mindset as to despair that revival is even possible when no one will have this Jesus to be king over them. But that’s no attitude for a Christian. He wants us to be community-minded, and to pray and pray and pray for these people until all hope is gone.

Jesus is the ultimate lesson in hoping against hope. When the two disciples on the road to Emmaus were filled with despair because the man they thought would be the Redeemer had died a common criminal’s death, what happened? He himself appeared and reminded them how essential all those hardships had been to the fulfilment of His plan.

And His resurrection surely reminds us that He is hope in a hopeless situation.

My resolution for 2018 is to find that fear for others, that comes so easily where I’m concerned myself; and to give it all to God in prayer. He understands loss of hope. And He restores it like no one else can.

 

 

 

 

Lewis Culture: An Uncivil War of Words

The letters page of the ‘Stornoway Gazette’ was always something of a curiosity to me. I remember thinking many times that it was pointless to air debates about religious matters as both sides traded Biblical texts in an entrenched war of words. It managed, somehow, to be strongly-worded without – often, anyway – becoming offensive. People could have a debate about the things which separated them, and then change the subject back to the things which unified them.

Now, however, people get offended so easily. Which would be fine, if they didn’t then act as though being offended is a terminal illness. My advice if something offends you, is this: ride it out, bottle it up and wait; because as parents up and down the land used to say before the thought police put an end to such child cruelty, you’ll soon be given something to really cry about.

Using much the same logic as I once did, the editor of the ‘Gazette’ has decided not to allow any further letters on matters of faith.  I have some sympathy with her motives because, I’m guessing, she has given up hope of moving the debate on. It has probably become tedious, repetitive and circular, to her way of thinking, and liable to scunner the readership.

Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, though, the correspondence page of that newspaper used to have a great deal more religious content. I am tempted to say that the letters provided the only really lively content in the whole publication. People would read them and roll their eyes, or read them and have a healthy discussion over the dinner table, or just skip past them to the obituaries; but they didn’t cause the ripples any kind of faith-based debate seems to be causing in Lewis at the moment.

While the ‘Gazette’ circulation is nothing like it used to be, with the paper now being local in name only, it was at least available as a forum for sharing and debating anything which islanders cared about enough. Once an editor starts censoring the permitted topics for correspondence, however, I think we have to accept that the tide of intolerance is indeed lapping at our feet.

We have sleepwalked towards this state of affairs. What was once a mild and usually polite disagreement has become something unpleasant. Anything that has the merest hint of Christianity about it is sneered at as ‘Wee Free’ bigotry. The critics of ‘What The Church Has Done To Lewis’ (no, I don’t know either) are so well-informed that they don’t know what any of us believes, nor what it means to be a Christian, though they are quick to flag any  apparent lapses in ‘true Christian’ behaviour.

They pride themselves on their commitment to truth and are rigorous in applying their own belief system to everything they do. And, yes, they do have a belief system. It even appears as though they are following a pseudo-presbyterian leadership structure, with their agenda driven by anyone who has internet access.

However, if they would permit me one wee piece of advice, I’d say: don’t let your leaders in Glasgow and Edinburgh dictate how you interact with your local community. Like it or not, they are patronising the secularists from the sticks, and assuming that you can’t handle things on your own patch without them. Say what you like about us Wee Frees, but at least we do our own oppressing, and rarely get the Moderator involved.

It is from this kind of outside interference that we get the sort of poorly researched nonsense which insists that Lewis is in thrall to the Calvinist patriarchy. What I don’t understand is why none of the local chapter of secularists is offended by suggestions that this is a community without the capability of original thought or, indeed, sincere belief. Where, in the midst of all their supposed care for the Western Isles, is the one dissenting voice that will oppose these kinds of slurs? Why is ‘brainwashing’ by the church so offensive, but the secular mantra of, ‘there is no such thing as Lewis culture’ goes unopposed from within their own ranks?

I’ll tell you why. The de-localising of culture in Lewis, the nay-saying and the outside interference from those who will not have to live with the consequences of their meddling is part of a wider stategy. You see, Christianity has informed and shaped these communities for so long that it is fused to the local way of life. And no, I am not claiming that every Lewis person is a Christian, nor even that every Lewis person is a churchgoer. Sadly, there are those in every generation who decide that the truth of the Gospel is not for them. But it has influenced them, because it has helped make this island what it is.

Generations of self-styled island atheists have talked of Christianity as a foreign creed and of the Bible as a hotchpotch of Middle Eastern fairytales. ‘Fragments of the philosophy of Geneva’ was how the poet, Derick Thomson derided the sort of Calvinism which his home island embraced. They despised what they saw as alien intrusion into Gaelic culture.

Which of them, now, will call for the tone of debate to change? Who among them is truthful enough to say that this is a conversation that can continue in a civil manner between believers and unbelievers in Lewis, just as it always has – robust, but never strident.

I think that the ‘Stornoway Gazette’ has made a mistake. If this debate is going to be played out only on social media, directed by the scions of the National Secular Society, what, then, of local culture? Who will speak up for it against malign and alien influence now?

Advent, òrduighean and the return of the King

This Sunday, I hope to be doing two things at once. In Stornoway Free Church, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper will be dispensed. Those who sit at the table – and, I think, many who don’t – will remember the death of Christ. They will think back to Calvary, and they will begin to measure His love towards them.

But the service does not last long enough for anyone to finish that calculation. His love is the very definition of immeasurable.

Sunday also marks the beginning of Advent. It is the beginning of the waiting, the anticipation. There are four Sundays between now and Christmas Day, counting forward to the date which marks the birth of Jesus Christ.

Was He actually born on December 25th? Does it matter? Like the Creation, it is the same miracle, however and whenever it took place. Those who try to punch holes in the details of timescale and location are guilty of a very human smallness. They try to shrink God to fit their limited vision also, but He will not be contained. It’s the Devil who lurks in the detail, after all.

God is in the greatness, the unparalleled truth, the soaring wonder. He became one of us in order to show how we should live. And to die so that we would not.

We eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of Him. It is not a forlorn ritual, but a meaningful act which brings before us the always remarkable fact that He was perfect, and sacrificed Himself for sinners because He was perfect. Everything about Him is eternal, an unbroken circle without end or beginning .

So, because that is true, we have to look at communion as more than just an act of remembrance . He did not stop at dying, so we should not stop at commemorating His death. We are to mark His death only until He comes again.

It is fitting, then, is it not, that we should partake of the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday of Advent? We are remembering, but we are also waiting. This is not a counting down to the lowly birth in a stable which ends in the horror and ignominy of crucifixion: no,it is something far more wonderful.

Christmas is not something we have traditionally marked in the Free Church. At home, yes, but not in church, not the way other denominations might. Historically, there were no hymns sung, and so no carols either. We do not light candles, nor bring greenery in from outdoors, nor set up nativity scenes in front of the suidheachan mòr.

These, though, are only the outward trappings of Advent. They make a pretty enough show, but are not in themselves Christmas. It may be a festival of tinsel and lights and ‘tissued fripperies’ as John Betjeman put it, but if it is to have any meaning for us, it is not to be found in any of those details.

Bring together, though, the remembering of the Lord’s Supper and the waiting of Advent; then you have something.

Remember Jesus, the baby born into a world already unwilling to accommodate Him. Think of the danger this tiny, helpless child was in. Imagine the hope vested in that infant Jesus, and the wonder of those wise men from the East.

It is lovely to dwell on that Christmas long ago because the people who were walking in darkness suddenly saw a great light. There were angels, hosannas and everything was suffused with hope.

We love that, as human beings – a happy, hopeful story. No one wants to see the dark figure lurking, just in the edge of the frame. Our world has captured the baby Jesus and placed Him in amber, forever a golden hope for mankind.

Remember, though, that He came to die. Remember that first Christmas as something which was always destined to culminate in crucifixion thirty-three years later.

But remember also, that was not the end. In fact, for believers, that was the real beginning in many ways.

So, we should certainly look forward to Jesus. When He comes again, it will not be as a powerless infant. All of that, pretty though it is, is done with. This time, we await our King.

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine

 

Pan pipes in the pulpit and Wee Free Flower Power

An alternative lifestyle is not the kind of thing one expects to hear advocated from the pulpit of Stornoway Free Church. You imagine that, suddenly, the sober suits will be swapped for tie-dyed cheesecloth, and vegan sandals; or that there will be crystals hanging on the vestry pegs where once there were Homburg hats. Will the cailleachs be unwrapping pumpkin seeds instead of bachelor buttons? And, rather than a precentor . . . pan pipes?

Well, no. That does tend to be our image of an alternative lifestyle, though, doesn’t it? Something a bit way-out, a bit hippyish? But I can’t see us downsizing from manses to yurts, or getting the ministers to do their pastoral visits in a VW camper van. Changes like that would be – in one sense – easy to make. You just dress differently, adopt a new vocabulary, and affect a laid-back demeanour in your dealings with people. Maybe utter the odd ‘peace’, or ‘far out’. Add a CND badge or two, and a Greenpeace bumper sticker to the VW and people get the message: you are not like everybody else.

The alternative lifestyle that was spoken of is something way more radical than deacons with joss-sticks, or ministers with henna tattoos, however. It is following Christ wherever He leads, whatever He asks you to do, and however that changes your circumstances and priorities.

And the change does not begin with anything as superficial as your clothes, or your diet: it begins with your heart. Christianity does what we used to believe of microwave ovens – it warms you from the inside out.

You don’t pick the Christian life from a catalogue. Whatever right-on secularist parents say about letting children ‘decide for themselves’, that is not how this works. No one is drawn by the clothes and the traditions. This isn’t steampunk, or goth, or hipster. I doubt very much if anyone looking dispassionately on says to themselves, ‘yeah, I was just drawn to the whole culture of, you know, prayer meetings, and soup and puddings’.

You don’t have a change of heart – you have a whole new one created in you by the Holy Spirit.

And then you become one of these peculiar people. From the inside, that means you are united to all the others in unbreakable bonds of love for Christ. You all have this knowledge of what He has done – is doing – for you, not because of any cleverness on your part, but because the Spirit has shown you. What He wrought in your life causes you to adore Him, but seeing Him do as much for others does not cause envy; instead, it makes you love them also.

Christians are commanded to lead a different life in the world, and they do so because they see it differently to everyone else. This world is not the point. Restoration to a right relationship with God for all eternity is. And that relationship begins when you are saved by grace. It changes you, and it turns your life into something lived for the Lord – which makes certain that it will also be something that those outside of Him do not comprehend.

From outside Christ, from that cold, cold place, what must Christians look like? Strange, undoubtedly. Spiritual bonds create friendships which the world finds odd, to say the least – and which some will try to taint by looking through a lens of sin. But the world is not our judge: it made that same mistake with our Saviour two thousand years ago, and has been repeating it ever since.

Yet, we are responsible for our conduct before the world. If I greet another Christian with a holy kiss, I should not care if onlookers try to warp that into something unclean. Much more serious is my being heard to slander other Christians before the world, or my failure to offer them the hand of friendship in their need. That is where I may harm the cause of Christ.

If our behaviour is reprehensible to the world, but defensible before God, there is no charge to answer. But if we fail, as Christians, the least of His, then we have failed Him also. That, then, is where our eye should be: upon Him. As Thomas a Kempis wrote in ‘The Imitation of Christ ‘:

‘If God were our one and only desire we would not be so easily upset when our opinions do not find outside acceptance’.

His life is the pattern for ours. If we follow Him faithfully, doing as He would have us do, the world can lay any charge it wishes; but we will be found righteous in the highest court of all.

 

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.