Planting, Prayers and Trench Warfare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fire and Remembrance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Revving Reverends and Remembering Revival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.