Image is Everything

Returning to work after the summer break, I was intrigued to see that one of the in-service sessions on offer was ‘Initiating Difficult Conversations’. Life can be full of those, I have found. Just last week, I felt the need to explain to everyone I met on my way in and out of the prayer-meeting how I came to be dressed like a female Johnnie Cash, instead of the usual picture of demure Calvinist womanhood I like to present. No one actually cared what I was wearing, however, so all the awkwardness there was in my own head.

But, then, awkwardness often is.

I have often agonised over broaching certain topics of conversation, composing emails, or even – believe it or not – writing blogs. When my blog led to an invitation from the Free Church’s monthly magazine, ‘The Record’, to submit a regular column, I was delighted. It quickly became apparent, however, that I couldn’t approach this with the same freedom that I allow myself in the blog. Don’t misunderstand me, this was not because of the editor imposing some draconian rules on me, but because of some psychology within myself. When you are perceived as speaking on behalf of an organisation, or a cause, then you do need to be more circumspect.

What I am appalled by is that my own concern for the public image of the Free Church probably exceeds my care about misrepresenting the cause of Christ. At a recent Bible study session, where we discussed James’s assertion that faith without works is dead, I was misunderstood by another group member, when I mused upon whether people would be able to tell we were Christians, if they didn’t know it. ‘I don’t think we’re supposed to shout about it’, she chided, regarding me as though I were a suspect package (which I probably am). This was not even remotely what I meant, which I tried (unsuccessfully) to explain.

Do I ever think about how I am coming across to people who know I’m a Christian? Am I sufficiently attentive to avoiding being that person who provokes others to say, ‘some Christian – if that’s what they’re like, they can keep it.

There are instances in the Bible of the unrighteous behaving in a more moral manner than their righteous counterparts. And, if they are there in Scripture, we are certainly here in life. I have said and done some quite unlovely things in my time. There are many moments in my everyday life that, were they captured for posterity, would provide an unbelieving world with every excuse to shun my company.

Listening to our midweek sermon on the sixth commandment, quite a number of the difficult things the minister had to communicate resonated with me. I have never slain anyone nor, I hope, caused them injury. But Christians can’t cop out on ‘do not kill’, ticking the box and smugly assuming it’s one we’ll keep in perpetuity. For, if you’re anything like me, you will have breached it many times.

In Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica, a collection of the hymns, blessings and incantations of the Gaels, there is a fascinating account of how the bean-glùine, or village midwife, would baptise a newborn infant prior to the rite being carried out by clergy. She begins her description of what she would do, with these words: ‘When the image of the God of life is born into the world . . .’

The essence of the sixth commandment is in her words – that we should regard one another in this manner throughout our lifetime: each one of us, as James said (3: 9) ‘made in the likeness of God’. When we look at our fellow human beings, we ought, as we would with a valuable piece of jewellery or porcelain, to seek the Maker’s mark because it is certainly there. His thumbprint is on each one of us, including those that you and I find it difficult to love. Our prisons are filled to the brim with God’s creatures, just as are our churches.

And our schools are where we send these images of God to be educated. Yet, nowadays, there is no certainty that your child will hear the name of his Maker spoken in that place, except possibly as an oath. Parents who have sought to eradicate Him from their own lives, are busily turning God out of schools, so that no one dare mention His name there. We take away moral authority, and then we throw our hands up in the air in wonder when it all goes wrong.

The commandments are linked to one another. You cannot begin to dilute one without it affecting how another is observed. As a society, we have all but dispensed with the first, foundational requirement: honouring God as God, and placing His wisdom far above our own.

Secularising forces tell us that religious belief is on the decline. Research bears out the truth of what they say. Most people don’t believe in God, so they must be right. That’s a majority of people who think this world is better run by humans, with no reference, and certainly no deference to supernatural agency.

We don’t believe in God, so we don’t defer to His supremacy. And we don’t respect His Creation – the world, or the people in it. Our own wisdom is king. When we die, we die, so we may live as we please ‘as long as it hurts no one else’. But who will decide what hurts others, when all anyone cares about is pleasing themselves?

It’s just not working our way –please, can’t we go back to His?

 

 

 

Community – We’re All In It Together

North Tolsta is seriously lacking in celebrities and, so, they asked me to be the guest at this year’s school prize giving. My duties were to hand out certificates and trophies to the winners, and address all the children for five minutes or so, preferably without boring or frightening them – two things I struggle to avoid with most adults, let alone anyone smaller.

Co-dhiù, despite having been somewhat rudely referred to as ‘z-list’ by one of our councillors, I was still sensible of the honour bestowed upon me. I even had a few Princess Michael of Kent moments, placing medals around necks and handing over cups that were bigger than some of the worthy recipients.

I was also supposed to say something inspirational to the kids. Not really being that type, I decided instead to opt for saying something not too depressing. I’m sure you’ll agree that’s a more realistic goal for a gloomy Wee Free. After all, reared myself on a diet of loch an teine for heinous crimes like picking flowers on a Sunday, I have to be careful not to go too old school with my advice.

In the end, I went for something I feel strongly about – our community, and the need to put something back. It would be easy to forget the adage that it takes a village to raise a child, especially nowadays, when every man seems indeed to be an island. Children may not be as aware of the fact that they are part of something beyond themselves as once was the case, and it really doesn’t hurt to remind them.

Someone beat me to the punch, though, and far more effectively than my five-minute ramble ever could.

Willie Campbell and the school choir performed his lovely composition, ‘Innse Gall’, a tribute to the children’s island identity. It was so good to hear their young voices united in praise of home. There hasn’t been a lot of that lately. From where I’m standing, there seems to have been a storm of criticism, of complaining, of belittling. But precious little of the praise that is due.

Our home is beautiful. No controversy there. However, that isn’t really what I was trying to say to the kids, and I don’t think it was the message of Willie’s song either.

Personal achievement is a good thing, and much to be lauded when it is the fruit of hard work and dedication. No one makes the grade by themselves, though. Behind them are parents, families, teachers . . . a whole community, even. I have always relied upon the support of others, and have been peculiarly blessed by encouragers throughout my life. Sometimes these were teachers, sometimes family members, sometimes colleagues, sometimes friends. We all need that. It doesn’t matter how confident or ‘together’ a person seems to be, they will always benefit from a kind word, and to know that someone believes in them.

It works the other way too, however. Those of us who have benefitted from that kind of help have to be prepared to pay it back. Not out of obligation to those who have supported us, but out of a desire to please God, by whose grace we receive all that we have. The great encouragers of my life are all gifts from Him to me. And His placement of me in this unique and wonderful community, that also is His gift.

Community is a wonderful providence, bestowed in Eden when Adam was given a companion so that he would not be alone. We are meant to work together, and to do for one another, as well as for ourselves. But, there is one fatal flaw in all of us which makes it very difficult to act in this way. We can only do our best by others. How that is received is certainly not something we can control.

And you cannot legislate for opinion. You know, sometimes we will disagree about what is best for the place that we love. A few days before the prizegiving, that same community hall was the scene of some heated debate regarding proposed development for the village. Such plans are frequently controversial – but only because we leap to ascribe motive to others that would offend us if levelled at ourselves.

Years of active political campaigning has taught me the futility of this kind of attitude. I remember, as an eleven year old, my parents returning from a public hustings, and speaking of the hostile atmosphere and of verbal exchanges across the floor. Last week, I heard the same kind of thing again from my own family and neighbours, who had been at the meeting in Tolsta.

We can, all of us, get carried away by our love for the place that made us. It can make us strident, defensive, and even devious. But if we are truthfully going to teach these children what it is to love your community, and how rewarding it is to give something back, our example is going to have to be as good as our word.

In striving to make the place that we care for as good as it can be, are we really prepared to lose touch with the most important thing of all? By God’s grace, we live in an area of outstanding beauty, of unparalleled peace, and of almost total security. He put us all here to look after it, and to look out for one another. If we do it properly and with good conscience, we glorify Him.

That’s the example of community we need to be setting our young people. Nothing matters more.

 

 

 

FPs and children and bears – oh, my!

My grandfather’s cousin Maggie was headmistress of a primary school in Uist for many years. Every communion season, she would faithfully shut the school on Thursday morning and trot all the kids off to the Free Presbyterian service of preparation. She did not ask parents for permission, nor enquire as to the nature of their personal belief system. If it was now, I have no doubt that complaints would be lodged, enquiries initiated, perhaps even suspension of duties agreed. Maggie would be seen as imposing her ‘narrow’ views on other people who profess to possess none of their own.

Maggie would be vilified. And that would be wrong. Sometimes, a bit of perspective is what we need.

Recently, I spoke to someone who had been a pupil in her school. He smiled fondly, remembering the two-hour church services, a great alternative to lessons. Meanwhile, he said, the transport delivering that day’s lunches to the wee school would arrive to find the place deserted, neither teacher nor children to be found.

Her eccentric devotion played havoc with the routine. And yet no one spoke against her.

You see, Maggie was respected. She was a very competent teacher, and a good person, with real heart for the children in her care. When news circulated that Hercules the Bear was on the loose in Uist in 1980, she took steps for the children’s safety. Rather than risk anything happening to them, she kept them in after school. For a party.

Who says Free Presbyterians don’t know how to have fun?

The parents were used to her idiosyncratic approach to educating their kids, but trusted her implicitly. She loved children. I know that because the few times I was in her company as a little girl, I could sense it. Genuine affection spilled out of her, and she did not try to contain it, nor repress it. Everyone was addressed as ‘a ghaoil’; and she meant it.

Her former pupil who spoke so affectionately of her to me added something else. There were sometimes children in her school who were in need. They were not allowed to remain that way for long. Maggie acted, you see, not from a merely sentimental view of childhood, but with a practical, Christ-like love.

When He acts through the Maggies of this world, the Lord is not narrow, but expansive. She gave with both hands from a full heart. Hers was a life of devotion – to her family, to her community, to ‘her’ children. By loving them, she was serving her Saviour, and I believe she sought no higher honour than that because she had the wisdom to know there is none higher.

And so, to the present. If she was headmistress now, think of the administrative nightmare that Maggie would be. How many risk assessments and PVGs would it take to curb her enthusiasm? What would the food hygiene inspectors say about the congealed lunches served to pupils late back from the day of humiliation? Most concerning of all, what would the liberal thought police say about the children being exposed to Calvinist extremism?

Well, I’ve heard enough of their po-faced, reactionary hysteria to take a guess. They would suggest that she was indoctrinating their children, abusing her position, being unprofessional. She failed to check which god, if any, the families worshipped, before bringing them along to meet hers.

I think we can all understand the need for rules, for standards, and for guidelines. But does no one else long for those days when we didn’t rely on them quite so much? A time when kids came home in the boot of a neighbour’s car because he was giving so many a lift in bad weather. Or when teachers could hold your granny’s displeasure over you as a threat if you didn’t really feel like going to Scripture Union that week.

We didn’t have an obsession with health and safety, nor with political correctness. Yet, we were more tolerant, more caring, more . . . real. There was community, and there was respect. No, we didn’t talk about it half as much as people do now, but we practiced it a lot more.

Maggie had retired from teaching before all of this, and I’m glad. She would not have understood why progress and coming into line with the hallowed land of ‘everywhere else’ had to mean the death of community. There would have been no place for her in this brave, new world.

That alone tells me that we are on the wrong path – one where our children are bound to meet something much more terrifying than any bear.

 

 

 

Our Father, Our Heritage

There is a school in Lewis, I’m told, where the day no longer begins with the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer, for anyone who doesn’t know, was given to us as a pattern for how we should communicate with the Lord.

But someone – and I don’t know who makes these kinds of decisions – has taken it upon themselves to decide that children don’t have to know how to pray. There is someone in the local educational establishment who is so certain that we no longer require God, that they are prepared to take this step.

This person needs our prayers.

They need our prayers, not just because they plainly doubt the central message of Christianity for themselves. Somehow, through their role in education, they have been entrusted with important decisions regarding the welfare of children. And they have chosen to apply that status to this grievous step. Having, presumably, had the opportunity to accept or reject Christ for themselves, they have chosen to turn their face from Him.

But they are so assured of His irrelevance that they have decided that the children for whom they have responsibility do not need Him either.

I stand in awe of such self-belief.

The well-rehearsed argument of the secularists is that Christian parents should teach their own children how to pray. Yes, they should and, I imagine, do. But what about non-Christian parents? Their children will not be taught at home how to call on the Lord, or even that such a path is open to them.

‘My child can decide for himself, when he’s older’, they tell you. Don’t be fooled by the decisive tone in which this is said, however – hear the vagueness of what they’re saying. Their child will decide at some future point. Not now, though. So, when?

 

Children learn about world religions as a matter of course. The same parents who wanted an end to the Lord’s Prayer are perfectly happy to see their wee ones coming home with books about Diwali and Hanukkah. It’s okay to talk about Mohammed and Buddha, but keep Jesus out of it. Let them have superficial knowledge about what others believe, but don’t give them anything practical that they can use; don’t, for any sake, allow them to understand that they belong to a Christian heritage.

Don’t give them the life skill that is prayer.

Whoever has chosen this path is sending a very damaging message to the children. In an education authority where 44% of the population attends church, acknowledges God as its Father, and communicates regularly with Him in prayer, the children are effectively being told: this is nothing to do with you. You may hear prayers, you may know praying people, but what is that to you?

A curriculum which fails to reflect the local community is letting its young people down. I thought that the Western Isles had learned that lesson with the Gaelic language. There was a day when it was the norm for children to hear and speak only Gaelic  in the community; and to hear and speak only English in school. With enlightenment and the lifting of anti-Gaelic prejudice came a desire to let the school be an extension of the culture in which it was situated.

Everyone realised that this was the right way to educate children – the function of a school should never be to wean the child away from his heritage.

Yet, here we stand in 2017. Children from Christian homes, from Bible-believing homes, go to a school where prayer is not uttered. They sit down to eat, and grace is not said. God – their God, and the God of their parents – is not acknowledged.

When I was a child, my parents sent me to school, secure in the knowledge that the values of our home would be extended into my  school day. We began each morning with the Lord’s Prayer; we commenced each meal with a blessing. Nobody tried to impose anything on us – it was simply how the day was framed. Some of my peers have grown up to be atheists, some to be Christians. The place given to prayer in the school day did not ‘brainwash’ any of us – but it did affirm the values of our island community.

Those who became atheists are not, I pray, a finished product, but a work in progress.

I can pray for them because my Lord showed me how. And they, when darkness threatens to overwhelm, can pray for themselves because our school allowed them to learn that skill.

Whoever has decided to end the use of prayer in a primary school in Lewis has made a mistake. But God is merciful, and He allows second chances. He forgives those that trespass against Him.

The Lord’s Prayer begins with an acknowledgement of our Father in Heaven. It ends by giving Him the glory.

I pray, with the entire Christian community of Lewis, that this story will finish that way too.

 

 

The Corncrake, the Medium and the Message

I have a lot of sympathy for the corncrake. For years and years, it was just there, rasping its way through hot summer nights. If I was sleepless, I harboured mildly hostile thoughts towards it which were always forgotten by morning, but otherwise, it was just part of the soundscape of my youth.

And, now, the corncrake is endangered, and needs to be protected. Changes were proposed which would make it feel more welcome in the Outer Hebrides. Bewildered crofters agreed, although it required little or no actual alteration to their traditional practices anyway. Now the corncrake is scrutinised, discussed, counted.

Like the Gael, in a way. I don’t remember having any real concept of myself as part of a Gaelic-speaking family, or a Gaelic-speaking community growing up. We just were. But, like the corncrake, unbeknownst to some of us anyway, we were in serious danger of extinction.

The reason, in both cases, is more or less the same: our habitats had altered and become hostile. A language is not, in and of itself, a terribly precious thing. It only makes sense within a particular set of circumstances, and this is especially true of a minority language. Gaelic worked when there was a Gaelic community to speak it.

This is where the conservationists got it right and the linguists got it wrong: preserve the habitat so that the way of life and everything else falls into place.

The schools, at one time, were bent on homogenising the Gael: making him an English-speaker and a useful member of society. They desired, in short, to destroy his habitat. In church, however, it was the message that counted. They were communicating the Good News in a language that the people could fully understand: their own.

Church was simply reflecting the community in the language that it employed because, ultimately, the medium used is a matter of little importance, as long as the message is faithfully delivered and clearly received.

That community has now changed. Fewer and fewer people are opting to worship in Gaelic; consequently, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to do so.

Even more worryingly, though, fewer and fewer people are worshiping at all. Christ’s name is not revered in our midst as it once was, and that makes me much sadder than any decline in the language through which I first heard His name.

If Christians too are an endangered species, then, perhaps we could learn from what was done for the corncrake.

The needs of that bird centre around two essential elements: it requires a safe resting-place, and something to screen it from harm.

Not unlike the Christian.

Our resting-place is in Christ, and it is Christ who will also cover us when there is danger abroad. That is how it has always been.

The corncrake likes a managed habitat, where it can safely nest, but where there is also tall vegetation in which it can hide. Those have always been its conditions. When crofting declined – and with it the traditional management of grassland – the corncrake began to retreat also. When the habitat was restored, however, the corncrake began to return.

Success in the world of conservation is frequently governed by statistics, and the world equally loves to crow over the declining percentages of church attendance. What they don’t seem to understand is that it was never about numbers.

It has always been about the glory of God. The church I go to has not lost sight of that fact. At every assembly there, the Lord is front and centre. I have heard preaching in Gaelic and English, I have participated in praise and prayer in Gaelic and English, but His glory is in it all, shining through.

Like the church of the Disruption and beyond, which faithfully spoke to the people in a tongue they would understand, ours must also adapt the habitat somewhat to the species it hopes to attract. Then, it was, Gaelic-speaking crofters and their families; now it is the digital generation of (mostly) English-speaking but frequently Biblically unaware people.

This might mean that our habitat will include more than just our lovely 19th century church; it may mean that Stornoway Free Church – amongst others – has to expand into cyberspace, out into the digital highways and byways, where the people are. What must change was never that important in the first place; what stays the same is Christ because He is foundational to it all.

After all, let’s not forget that where the people are, that great predator, Satan, also will be prowling.

Surely, then, it falls to us to tell them of a safe habitat, one where there is cover more secure than they can imagine, and a resting-place so safe they can never be plucked from it. And we must tell them of its complete suitability for their needs.

What does it matter what our habitat has or lacks, what it encompasses or excludes, as long as it has at its very heart the covering shelter of Christ in all His glory?

 

 

 

Broccoli and the Secular Delusion

When I was shorter than I am now and even more ignorant, my parents entrusted me to the state for the purpose of obtaining a rudimentary education. It was 1980 and here in Lewis, anyway, it was reasonably safe to assume that the state and my parents were, broadly speaking, pulling on the same oar.

So, when I would go home and bore them with details of the school day, neither of them batted an eyelid at mention of the Lord’s Prayer. Every morning, before a stroke of work was done, our chairs were scraped back and thirty or so little heads bowed to recite the old, familiar and beautiful words.

It’s only now, writing this, that I am struck by the privilege we enjoyed and our parents also, knowing that we were in the care of people who had their priorities straight. Whatever kind of home a child came from, these teachers were helping each and every one to commit their day into God’s hands.

At other junctures in the week, the Psalms would be learned, recited individually, and sung in unison. There were Bible stories – Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Isaac, wonderful stories of faith and strength in the Lord. We learned the Ten Commandments, not just by rote, but really, truly learned their relevance and that they were foundational to all other laws. And yes, we learned action songs: Mr Noah Built an Ark, We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder . . . we were children, and we loved these stories in whatever form they came.

I can’t speak for anyone else in Laxdale Primary, but as I grew up, I grew away from the Bible. There were fallow years when I scarcely considered God. As a student, I briefly entertained the childish notion that there was no Creator and that all of this . . . well, it just sort of happened.

My formative education did not prevent me from asking questions, but rather, it gave me a starting point for my questions. Without even a rudimentary understanding of God’s covenant with mankind, how could I possibly question it?

Nor, indeed, did it make me ignorant of other faiths. In secondary school, we were given an overview of the major world religions. Having first had a grounding in Christianity both at home and in primary school, our teenage years seemed the appropriate juncture to introduce us to what others believe.

So-called secularists don’t want this sensible pattern, however. They want children to be taught about ALL the major world religions from the beginning of their school career. This is – supposedly – going to equip the little ones to select their own faith, or dismiss them all out of hand as their parents have.

A child can no more select his own faith than he can select his own gender, or his own ethnicity. Their faith is an inherent part of who they are, and should surely come from within the home and the wider community. It is not a teacher’s place to lay the kinds of foundations that responsible parents used to provide, making the state responsible for their son or daughter’s very identity.

Of course, it is the parents’ prerogative to not believe in a deity of any description. If that is the case, however, surely there should be consistency. Children who are opted out of religious observance cannot then complain if they are excluded from marking religious festivals – Easter, Christmas, Diwali. Parents object to this on the grounds that their child will ‘stick out’ socially. Sorry, I don’t get this. You say that Christians are trying to brainwash your child with harmful doctrine, but you might be prepared to put your little one in harm’s way if it makes him popular with others?

Besides religious observance, there is religious education. Most of the right-on brigade seem to be of the view that it’s alright to teach about Christianity here, as long as other religions are given equal place. If that is the way our education system is headed, I think I would prefer that Christianity was not taught at all.

It is not an alternative to Islam or Sikhism in the same way that the Lib-Dems are an alternative to the Tories. I am offended by the infantile suggestion that people should be offered a smorgasbord of religions, choosing the one that most appeals to their worldview.

Faith informs your worldview. Not long ago, I was asked how important my faith is in my life, a question which is very difficult to answer adequately. It is my life. It pervades and inhabits: it is the eyes through which you see, the heart with which you feel and the force which drives you on. My instinct recoils at the notion of faith as a decision, a garment coldly chosen from an array of others.

If people think that Christianity is just a philosophy which you may reject because the gods of another belief system seem more attractive, or the mode of worship is more poetic, then they still don’t know what Christianity is. Only this week, an atheist told me that he would ‘consider it if you show me the evidence’. He has the evidence already, of course. The point is that he will not consider it.

When I was a child in Laxdale School, I didn’t like broccoli. Oh, I hadn’t tried it, but I knew by the look of the thing, and by what other children said about it, that it wasn’t for me.