Sunday Swimming & the Flood to Come

It isn’t often that you see the Leòdhasaich clamouring for equality with the people of Uist, but there’s a persistent wee group that is making just that demand. What is it the deasachs have that we could possibly desire? Shoddy ferry services? Ropey Gaelic? Stinky Bay?

No, of course not: it’s their enviable public pool opening times. In any one week in Uist, you can swim for a few hours every day – fewer, that is, than if you were in Lewis. But the real object of the Green-eyed Leòdhasach monster is the one hundred and eighty minutes on a Sunday afternoon when amphibious types in the vicinity of Benbecula can enjoy splashing about in the municipal baths. Never mind how available – or otherwise – this activity is the rest of the week; the Uibhistich cannot be allowed to have anything their northern neighbours don’t have, no matter how small.

There’s something faintly disturbing about the article on the BBC Alba news site, which says that equality legislation prevents councillors voting against Sunday opening of the Stornoway facility on religious grounds. Call me pedantic, but I don’t think that’s equality, then, is it? I mean, Christians who are councillors are being told that they should vote against their faith because a minority in the community wants (not needs) a leisure facility to open on Sundays. If I was a councillor right now, I’d be faced with the prospect, therefore, of breaking the law, or of abstaining – how does that protect my right to equality?

I know, because this argument has been rehashed many times, that the unbelievers who persist in campaigning for Sunday opening think that’s acceptable. They fall into two camps: those who say Christians should keep out of elected office altogether, and those who say that Christians who ARE elected should abstain from voting on anything which is liable to be coloured by their faith.

But, here’s the thing – Comhairle Nan Eilean is still a representative democracy. Tough though this concept seems to be for some keyboard warriors, elections sometimes produce unwanted results. The inability to accept defeat is what leads to nonsense like ‘#NotMyPrimeMinister’, and the sort of silliness that suggests this or that person ‘doesn’t represent me’.

Maybe we need to go back to school and relearn how democracy of this variety is meant to function. Councillors are elected to represent the generality of their ward; no elected member, no matter how chameleon-like, can possibly be representative of each individual voter, and it is childish in the extreme to deploy that argument.

So, bearing this in mind, the Comhairle is representative of the community. Every voter has an opportunity to express their views through the ballot box – and the fact that we in Lewis persistently return a conservative council, many of whose members have an active faith, speaks to the will of the people. It isn’t an accident, it isn’t a sinister and highly improbable collusion between the Free Church and the returning officer . . . it’s the voters.

There’s a rag-tag remnant of the local secular society which turns up every so often on social media, making wild claims that corruption and theocracy are rife in this island. They seem to have the idea that the Free Church, the Comhairle and the Stornoway Trust are all working together to suppress ‘progress’. Yes, three male-dominated organisations cooperating seamlessly and following a plan, that’s plausible – as long as you’re not getting them to assemble flat-pack furniture, obviously.

If we can’t put this stupid fantasy to bed once and for all, though, how can debate about local issues ever rise above the juvenile?

This reopening of the debate about Sunday swimming is destined to play out along the same tired lines yet again. Those who so desperately want to see swimming pool attendants forced to work on a day that most of us – including the petitioners – take for granted as a day of rest, will argue that this is progressive. They want ‘family time’, but they don’t see any inequality in causing others to forsake Sunday at home in order that they can have the option of a heated swimming pool if the fancy takes them, now and again. It is, they argue, their right, under equalities legislation.

Their right. How absolutely hollow that sounds in an island where home care provision is pared to the bone, where lifeline bus services are under threat, where village schools are closing, where many roads are more potholes than surface, and where the local hospice is under threat of closure.

How petulant, how trivial, how utterly First World does it sound to you? It’s a miracle that we have a swimming pool at all, given how harsh the cutbacks have been.

The reason the swimming pool will not open on Sunday is threefold. First of all, there is no money. Secondly, there is no need.

And, finally, there isn’t even much appetite for it. Yes, there are undoubtedly some very vocal people who want it, and probably quite a few strong, silent types as well. Ditto Sunday golf and Sunday anything you care to name – cinema, shops, cafes.

How, they will howl, do I know there isn’t much demand? Surely they have made themselves abundantly clear on Facebook – blimey, they’ve been insulting and personal enough, surely the message has penetrated by now?

Well, here’s the message. If you are a Christian in Lewis, or even just someone who likes Sundays the way they’ve always been, take heart. It would be easy to let the mob rule of social media con you into believing that things are worse than they are. But, read what they say – it is mostly bluff, bluster and the occasional towering rage. Battles are not won or lost on either Facebook or Twitter; these have become somewhere for the politically impotent to vent their fury.

Be encouraged by the fact that our community consistently returns a council that reflects the values of the many, not the few. Candidates who criticise our island and who profess shame in relation to our heritage do badly at the ballot box.

But these same people then become frustrated and embittered by the proper function of democracy, even calling it ‘tyranny’. They hiss and spit, and try to subvert the work of organisations like the Comhairle. Most alarming of all, they are aided and abetted in this by daft laws about equality.

We Leòdhasaich have a conservative and fairly traditional set of councillors – and we came by them fair and square. If a minority can demand the sort of ‘equality’ which mutes the very characteristics for which many of us actually voted them in, it is way past time for action.

If legislation for equality actually can stop our democratically elected councillors voting with their conscience, then that is surely a hint to Christians in our island that the tide is indeed lapping at our feet, and we have received all the flood warnings we have any right to expect.

Sin: Catch It, Bin It, Kill It

There is usually a man standing by the roundabout as I drive to church on Sunday mornings. He wears a t-shirt that proclaims, ‘God Hates Divorce’. I fell to wondering recently whether we’d run out of denominations before we ran out of things God abhors, were we to dress every churchgoer in Stornoway similarly, listing a different object of divine wrath on each garment.

‘God hates gossip’ and ‘God hates lies’, or ‘God hates cheating’. Maybe even ‘God hates schism’ for someone edgy in the Church of Scotland.

Or, how about, in the interest of brevity, ‘God hates sin’?

I have been wrestling with sin myself lately. Sin is very much like . . . now, wait while I spend a convincing amount of time pretending to think of a suitable analogy. Hmmmm . . . erm . . . Oh, I know, just plucking one out of thin air: sin is like rubbish. We generate it; we have to be the ones to deal with it. And if we all took care of our own, there would be a lot less of it about for other poor souls to have to mop up.

When I fell victim to someone else’s badness recently, I was reminded of an old neighbour we had when I was growing up. Plagued by crows, plundering his garden and stalking his newborn lambs, he took matters into his own hands. Catching one, he killed it, singed it and nailed it to a fence post as an eloquent warning to other feathery felons.

It was in light of his display of native ingenuity that I finally agreed to report my foul-mouthed online stalker to the police. Make an example of just one loose cannon and the others will get the hint.

I made an error of judgement, though. Crows have the intelligence to recognise their own likeness, even when it is charred and nailed up and quite dead. Not so much with the keyboard warriors, though. They failed to see why, having reported one bona fide weirdo to the police I should not still go on submitting myself to their barbs and jibes as well. Oh, that person had gone over the score, some of them admitted – but not them.

They are, if you will permit me just one more Castle Grounds-related analogy, a little bit like the rhododendron ponticum. A great show is made, a display of concern, but every single one contributes to the toxicity of the environment. Each person who forcefully and repeatedly hammers home their opinion, and does so by naming names and making accusations that have no basis in fact, poisons the online atmosphere and makes it just that little bit harder for the fragrance of truth to break through.

You see, other people’s sin is much easier to spot than our own. I can see in the flamers and trolls that twisted humanity which enjoys humiliating and victimising their fellow man. If I could, I would make them t-shirts that read, ‘God hates bullying’.

But the point of bullying, like any other sin, is that we have to diagnose ourselves. Before we can don any garment emblazoned with our guilt, we have to own that sin, admit to it and meet it head on. I cannot do that for the many people – strangers mostly, but some who are not – who think that it’s acceptable to use a public forum to pillory and threaten me for having a different opinion to them.

That is actually their burden to bear; not mine. Besides, I think that someone who loses their dignity and their decency, ostensibly over the question of litter bins in a public garden, has bigger problems than poor online etiquette.

Episodes like this are distasteful. They upset the people who care about me and they persuade onlookers that public life in Lewis is a harsh and lawless thing. No one is encouraged into any kind of community service by witnessing my experience. Who would want to have their good name trodden upon for being . . . well, what? What am I that attracts such hatred?

I am a sinner – saved by grace, yes, but still a sinner. My wardrobe could be filled with t-shirts enumerating my guilt for the world to see. And that is for ME to deal with; it is between myself and God. It’s a daily struggle, and never more so than when I’m denigrated by strangers and have to remember one important truth. While that behaviour is theirs, and I have no control over it, or guilt for it, I DO have agency in how I respond. That’s the real test.

Do not, the Bible tells us, repay reviling with reviling. The world hated Christ to death and it shouldn’t surprise me to be loathed for his sake. I have looked on him, nailed to a cross, his human countenance marred by violence and hatred, made sin for our sake – and I have recognised myself.

It is simultaneously the lowest and the most exalted point in his story, and in that of any repentant sinner. You see what you are and what you have done, but at the same moment you realise that this is also the route to redemption.

From then on, the path is not smooth, as I have found out. Once you have seen yourself as you truly are, every day is a battle against that – but it’s a beautiful battle because of the template to which he is conforming us, little by aching little. What do I care, really, for lies told about me by strangers?

If there is any Christian looking on and questioning why I would expose myself to this kind of life – and I know there is – I can answer that very simply. He has called me to witness. I don’t serve an ungrateful community that hates me; I serve an incomparable Saviour that loves me. Christ loved me, as he loves them, before I ever knew his face. When they finally lift their eyes to him, as I pray they will, that understanding will become theirs too.

Sin is like rubbish. It is we who produce it, and it is we who must dispose of it. No one is asked to manage other people’s sin; only their own. Ignoring it is not a solution, nor is dumping it on others.

God hates sin, and he’s asking us all to deal with our own, leaving the rest up to him.

We Can’t Go On Together With Suspicious Minds

This time last year, I was wrestling prayerfully with a decision that I thought I had already made. I had concluded – entirely on my own flawed wisdom – that people like me did not have any business seeking election. Campaigning for others, yes, that was fine, but never chucking my own Free Church hat into the ring.

The idea of being a candidate for anything actually made me feel a little panicky. But, God often asks us to feel the fear and do it anyway, trusting that he will keep us.

I am not going to bore anyone by revisiting the way in which the ensuing campaign lived up to all my horrified expectations, and indeed, exceeded them on many occasions. Suffice to say that I saw both the best and worst of human behaviour, and still find it incredible how much vitriol five (unremunerated) seats on the board of a community landlord can provoke.

It has been an interesting year and I have achieved one personal goal at least: I have learned an awful lot about the Stornoway Trust and the community it serves.

And I can say without flinching, without fear, and definitely without favour (unless you count the brown envelopes, back-handers and holidays to France) that I am glad to have been persuaded into the fray.

I am proud to have been elected by the community I love, onto the board of an organisation that, no matter what the keyboard warriors may say, has consistently retained its dignity.

These keyboard warriors are, in many cases, the same ones who have been baying for a wicker man in which to put the Lewis Sabbath.

As a dyed in the wool Wee Free, it is with no small sense of irony that I say this: they are iconoclasts. Is it old? Has it been a long-established tradition? Can we say that it’s unique to Lewis? Might it even be classed as a local ‘institution? Yes? Oh well, destroy it. Stamp on it, smash it, burn it, change it – rebuild it in the image of something better. Modernise it, copy what they’re doing elsewhere . . .

Or, and here I make a suggestion which I know is doomed to fall on deaf ears: find out a bit more about it; try to understand it, even value it for its idiosyncrasies.

Please, though, before you do, understand one thing: it is completely unique. It is not like the post 2003 Reform Act community trusts – they were welcome political developments; Stornoway Trust was an ahead of its time oddity, which has had to run as a business since 1923.

It’s idiosyncratic as only an organisation of its vintage, and one-off constitution can be. The governing deed is, nonetheless, a pretty robust document and it permits the Trust quite a bit of latitude in terms of the kinds of activity permissible to – and please forgive the brutish, modern parlance about such a graceful old lady – keep the business afloat.

Folk obsessed with denigrating the Trust (yes, it appears to be a hobby for some and, of course, a paid enterprise for others) are falling into the usual trap that seems to dog the more negative Leòdhasaich: comparison. No, the Stornoway Trust does not conduct itself like those younger community-owned estates: it is not a membership organisation and therefore, has never held an AGM. However, and I know I’m repeating myself here, but it bears repetition:

Just because something is not done in the public gaze, that does not necessarily mean it is being purposely hidden from sight. And even if it is being purposely kept under wraps, why ascribe sinister motives?

I am more sorry than I can say at what is being fed to the public here in Lewis as news. This past week, we have seen gossip, hearsay and – at times – slander being elevated to the status of investigative journalism. The local paper even seemed to suggest that personal attacks on trustees are justified because people don’t know what happens at Trust meetings.

Well, I’ll tell you what happens. We are a board of nine volunteers. Many of us have full-time jobs, spouses, families, and additional voluntary commitments. On the last Monday of every month, we meet in the estate office. At 5.30pm, in fact, lest you suspect me of being evasive. The agenda contains a minimum of twenty eight items. (Obviously, the hidden agenda has quite a few more, but that’s the sort of thing I only discuss with my cronies).

The meeting may go on until fairly late. Several of the staff, therefore, have to work a very long day, but they don’t complain. Just as they don’t complain about the unforgivable way some people speak to and about them; or the nasty letters and snide online remarks, all of which conveniently forget that the recipients are actually real, live, human beings.

Once a month, we come together as a board – but it doesn’t end there. In any given week, there may be two or three additional meetings of our sub-committees, or with other organisations. Again, the trustees have to come away from their other commitments to be there; and the staff have to slot all of this into their own tightly packed schedules.

Four of us are rookies, all coming up to our one-year anniversary. I cannot speak for the others, but I can tell you that my learning curve, which I alluded to earlier, has not been of my own making. Yes, I certainly have committed time and effort to picking up the moves – but I have had good and (usually) patient teaching from more experienced trustees, from the ladies in the office (for whose presence I am eternally grateful) and from the only occasionally eye-rolling Factor.

So, as I reflect on all the challenges which we undoubtedly face as a self-financing community landlord, and on the historic legacy of which we trustees are custodians, do I resent the time commitment of which I speak? No, not one bit; at least, not when I’m allowed to get on with what I was elected to do.

The biggest frustration is all the energy wasted on responding to the negative and bitter narrative which consists of repeating sweeping generalisations like ‘the Trust is corrupt’, and other equally ill thought out remarks. But, as I have said before, and will go on saying, those who are bent on destroying the reputation of others only succeed in damaging their own.

I opened my campaign for the Trust the same way that we open our meetings – with prayer. When I was persuaded that this was the right path for me, I committed to it utterly. ‘Whatsoever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might’, as Ecclesiastes says, which does not, however, give me licence to indulge in corruption or any other sin that Perceval Square might have on offer.

Of course I am not beyond doing wrong, nor can I claim to be immune to temptation. But – and I really don’t mean to sound disappointed – there has been precious little outlet for either at the Stornoway Trust.

Transparency, Truth and Trusting Each Other

I hardly have time to sit in my accustomed chair at the Stornoway Trust before a brown envelope is slid across the table to me. It’s such a regular occurrence now that I barely even notice. Wordlessly, I stow it in my bag, alongside my equally ill-gotten gains from the Free Church (two crumpled newsletters, a Bible study guide and an uneaten pan drop).

Normally our meetings commence with us bowing three times to a portrait of Lord Leverhulme, but if there are enough Trustees present from the Free Church (and, I mean, how many is enough?), all that idolatrous stuff goes right out the window. I make the tea, while the men take snuff and talk about the price of bales.

‘A vote of thanks to the little lady’, the chairman will say, patting me on the head, and the others chorus, ‘Well done, a ghràidh – did you not do any baking?’ Then I cry and they don’t know what to do, and it all becomes fairly awkward for a bit.

We usually perk things up by discussing how to further sell the estate down the river to a French multinational. This is actually the raison d’ etre of the Trust, and although we haven’t yet seen a single turbine go up, our French vocab is coming on a treat. When we next go on one of our wee jollies to the mainland, I’ll be able to tell reception, ‘excuse me, there’s a naked man in my room’ in three languages if necessary.

When we’ve finished guffawing (the men guffaw, actually, I simper) about everything we’re inflicting on the poor peasants, the rent book is brought out, and we decide which widows are up for eviction. Last month we put a woman off her land for a range of infractions, including the heinous charge of looking at the Factor the wrong way, and failing to face Soval when saying her prayers.

It’s usually at this point I manage to settle them down with brandy and cigars, so that we can talk about which lies I should circulate on social media that week.  Once, when I was very green, I suggested that we could maybe just tell them the truth.

‘Don’t be daft’, one of the older hands said, ‘who’d believe you?’

And, do you know what? He was right.

In fact, I don’t really understand why Lewis has not got a thriving film industry. There are more improbable conspiracy theories flying around than even Oliver Stone could cope with. I have had people demand to know what the truth is about a particular issue . . . oh, say, turbines, just plucking an example out of thin air. Yet, when they are presented with the facts, there are howls of derision, and cries of, ‘liar!’

It’s frustrating, to say the least. This, though, is the sad world that we are living in. There is little trust of our fellow human beings, and even less respect. That people imagine you are corrupt and a liar simply because you hold some kind of elected office – however humble – speaks volumes about what we have become.

The stick of choice with which most keyboard warriors now beat their councillors, MPs and even the lowly trustee is ‘transparency’. If you are doing something away from the public gaze, it naturally follows that you are wilfully – and with malice aforethought, as all the best courtroom dramas have it – concealing your actions. My own, undoubtedly flawed, understanding of representative democracy, however, led me to believe that we elect people to do a particular job on our behalf so that we don’t have to be troubled with it ourselves.

It may be a matter of personal taste, of course, but I have heard enough public sector jargon to last me a lifetime. I don’t want my councillor, or member of the local health board knocking on my door to show me their working-out. Just give me the bottom line, fellas, and I’ll trust the rest to you.

But not wanting to know every detail of every decision made in my name does not extend as far as some council members seem to think it should. Those of us discussing our very valid concerns about the underfunding of Bethesda, our local hospice, on open forum this week, were chided by an elected member. His reproof ran along the lines of ‘we’re sorting it in our own way behind closed doors; you’re not helping matters by discussing it here’.

Now, I know that Facebook is cynically used by some for blatant rabble-rousing. You know how they operate: chuck a verbal hand grenade, sit back and count the ‘likes’, pretending their own hands are clean. Must we assume that every discussion which takes place there will descend to that level of puerile insult and name-calling?

In fact, I think that social media, used responsibly, can highlight concerns which go unnoticed – in this case, for a worryingly long time – by public and politician alike. I would like to see it being used in this way more frequently. Every contribution to the thread on Bethesda was respectful and measured, but I cannot blame the councillor in question for blanching at the sight of it, because many local people have discredited Facebook as a forum for rational debate by using it mainly as a space in which to defame others.

We have to be able to talk over the things that concern us as a community, but not in ways that demean ourselves – which is all we do when we resort to character assassination in place of reasoned argument. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion – but not to bandy them about like weapons to the detriment of truth and reason.

I think we need to show less tolerance of such behaviour. When it comes to our use of social media, how about we show a little less imagination, and a little more respect?

 

 

We Are Jolly . . .Honest.

When the minister announced that the theme of the evening would be ‘joy’, I wondered what we were in for. Surely not another lecture about excessive smiling, or raucous laughter in the church stairwell. Surreptitiously, I glanced down to ensure that I wasn’t wearing anything too gaudy. Nope: the usual hodden-grey as befits a Presbyterian widow of a few years’ standing. Oh well, I thought to myself, maybe it’s some other denomination that’s been bringing the cause into disrepute, because it certainly ain’t us.

Only, it turned out that he wasn’t warning against joy; he was actively promoting it. Not in a Ken Dodd, how tickled I am, sort of manner, I hasten to add; he was speaking up for spiritual joy – the real, enduring kind.

Now, Lewis Christians are not widely associated with joyfulness. That, for anyone who doesn’t recognise such things, is a monumental understatement of the type that only a dour Presbyterian can make with a straight face.

Anyone can – and, apparently, will – tell you of the myriad ways that Wee Frees (other denominations are available) have of spoiling your fun. We have taken an integrated approach, restricting not just dancing and the singing of worldly songs, but all forms of audio-visual entertainment and the reading of fiction (which we equate to lying). Thanks to people like me, families are being forced to spend time together at weekends instead of in municipal facilities, with disgruntled local authority employees who want . . . well, to be at home with their families.

It is time, social media tells us, that Lewis moved on and left all this stuff behind.

I have frequently drawn attention to the terrible things that are written about Christians on the likes of Facebook, and I will continue to call out that kind of bigotry for what it is. But, oh, how I wish we wouldn’t keep providing unbelieving folk with an opportunity to drag the cause through the mud. We have to be so careful: as wise, indeed, as serpents, while always endeavouring to be as gentle as doves. More is expected of believers than to simply blurt out the truth uncompromisingly in a ‘take it or leave it’ manner. That way lies the kind of misunderstanding that has caused our own community to think followers of Christ are joyless.

It comes down, however, to a definition of ‘joy’ which transcends the world’s understanding of it.  You will understand that it is not the kind of superficial feeling that is emotionally-led, and tied to our circumstances. My own moments of deepest spiritual joy came in the midst of the greatest grief of my life – because I had assurance of salvation for the first time. And, as the minister reminded us in the course of his unexpected sermon on joy, that salvation comes with a whole host of non-optional bonuses. Two of those – joy and peace – are interrelated and, I believe, feed one another. No matter what happens in my life, I have the abiding joy of knowing Christ, and the peace that comes along with that.

This is true of every Christian, of course, not just me. So, why are we such a poor advert for our faith? Why does the view persist that our ministers are of the I.M. Jolly stamp, and we ourselves a narrow-minded chorus of nay-sayers and lip-pursers?

Well, there are several reasons, I think. Some people just naturally incline towards seriousness, and this is how they will be as Christians too. Our essential personality does not change that dramatically. There is also the division between believer and unbeliever created by the simple fact of our once having been as they are, while they have not yet had the privilege of seeing things from our vantage point.

This divide causes a certain spiritual blindness in the unbeliever, and Christians should be sympathetic to it, because we were all afflicted with it once ourselves. Being sympathetic to it, however, also means that we have to engage a certain amount of emotional intelligence in our witness.

Let me offer an example. In the midst of all the dignified commemoration of the ‘Iolaire’ disaster, there was one discordant note struck. A local minister wrote an article for his district’s magazine, which was subsequently shared to the national press, and dragged back to the lair of Facebook to be torn asunder. I have read what he wrote and – spiritually speaking – there is nothing wrong with it. It was taken out of context, though, and has been most shamefully spoken about in various public forums.

However, he must surely have known that this was a possibility and it was, at best, naïve of him to attach the comments he did to a piece on this very emotive topic. I realise, because I am theologically literate, that he did NOT say those on board the ‘Iolaire’ particularly were all sinners who deserved to die; he was speaking in more general terms. But it’s a nuance that is easily lost on those less versed in Scripture, as well as those who wilfully misunderstand what, deep down, they fear.

This is where we surely have to employ some wisdom. While something may be true, is it necessarily the best thing to present to those who still have not met Jesus? I would contend that the first thing to do with such people is effect that most important of introductions, and all other things will follow from there.

I am certainly not saying that we should hide the offensive truth from them, but I am saying that we should not brandish it in their face at every opportunity. Wouldn’t it work better if we showed them the pleasure we take in belonging to God?

The recent sermon on joy ended with words from the book of Nehemiah on the dedication of the rebuilt wall, ‘The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away’. That has to be our aim too, if we are serious about bridging the gulf in our community between those who love the Lord, and those who have not met Him yet: let them hear our joy, and crave it for themselves.

 

David, Goliath and the Hub of My Universe

On Friday, I stared into the abyss. Well, it was more of a pit, really. Or, to be totally accurate, a quarry. This was not an existential crisis; just a trip out with the coves of the Stornoway Trust . . . although, come to think of it, the two can be remarkably similar (don’t tell them I said so).

Since I started hanging out with these guys, I’ve been to some unusual – for me – places: a couple of wind farms, a fabrication yard, and, this week, a quarry. Now, if I can just persuade one of them to take me along to a lamb sale next year, I will be well on my way to completing the bucket list.

It continues to be a steep learning curve. The Trust area – including, as it does, the town of Stornoway – has a much more diverse composition than many other community-owned estates. That’s why so much of our time is spent concerned with industrial development, and the employment opportunities it will create. We have a responsibility to what James Shaw Grant, one-time editor of the ‘Stornoway Gazette’, called, ‘the hub of my universe’.

He was inspired in this reference by the large maps which Lord Leverhulme had printed, showing Stornoway as the natural centre of the North Atlantic fishing grounds. The landlord’s ambition for the area’s potential chimed with Grant’s own warm feeling towards Stornoway, and for many years he kept one of the maps on the wall of his own office. For those of us who live in and around it, and who love it because it is home, the town remains indeed the hub of our universe.

I was first acquainted with James Shaw Grant’s book of the same name when I was a young teenager, rummaging in the library during the summer break. He had the ability to evoke a bygone era with his well-chosen words; and his descriptions of both people and places were always infused with equal measures of affection and respect. What a different place this community would be if commentary on public life was as measured now as Grant always made it. Although he was an astute observer of people and situations, he seemed capable of maintaining a line of integrity that was uniquely his own.

You get the feeling that he was well aware of the shortcomings which were part and parcel of community and municipal life – but he was too much of a gentleman, and a local lad, to make it personal.

He was still just a boy when he used to overhear his parents talking about Lord Leverhulme’s ongoing hostilities with the land-raiders. From a child’s perspective, it appeared to be an argument over milk – the landlord not wishing to see farms split into crofts, lest it compromise the town’s supply of the white stuff.

To those looking on, it was a ‘David and Goliath’ (the cliché was young then) battle between oppressed crofters and a thrawn landlord. They were determined that he would hand over what had been promised to them by the government. Single-minded in their goal, they seemed not to be interested in the landlord’s schemes for development. These would not benefit the crofters, of course; only the wider community.

That wider community showed its support for Leverhulme’s plans in the form of a nine thousand signature petition.

However, neither history nor these petitioners judged the crofters too harshly. Theirs was widely seen to be a cause with some merit. It was also acknowledged that the landlord had tried his best in difficult circumstances. At no point did he become a hate figure. William Grant – father of James – was the editor of the ‘Stornoway Gazette’ during the Leverhulme period, and evidently reported on the whole affair with fairness and dignity, permitting both sides to emerge with their reputations intact.

If you read the accounts of that period, as I have – many times – you get a sense of a world which has largely vanished. We are not the better of its passing. Nowadays, the kind of difference of opinion which divided Leverhulme from some of his crofting tenants can very quickly become personal and ugly.

The advent of social media has a lot to answer for. We have all become familiar with the concept of the ‘keyboard warrior’ – the person who becomes awfully brave removed to that distance, and who will type things they would never say in person.  Such individuals don’t care about community; they care about point-scoring. They build up hatred, resentment and all manner of conspiracy theories in their fevered brains . . . and treat the rest of us to its toxic run-off.

This can be destructive to the person themselves, to those they target and, in a place like this, to community.

Given last weekend’s news regarding the fate of the ‘Stornoway Gazette’, James Shaw Grant’s intelligence, and genial demeanour is often on my mind. We are badly in need of a balanced, good-humoured, intelligent and gentle voice of our own.

This is the hub of our universe, as it was his. ‘We won’t have it said’, a wise man remarked to me recently, ‘that we sank to a level that demeans ourselves’. Or, he might have added, that demeans the place we love.

In fighting for it, we need not fight with each other in ways from which we cannot come back.

 

Lies, Daft Lies and Social Media

Say what you like about the coves of the Free Church, but at least they’ve never placed an exclusion zone around me. Despite all the very many reasons I’ve given them, they will manfully shake hands, and ask how I am every time we meet. Not so the gentlemen at the Stornoway Trust, where news had preceded me to Monday evening’s meeting that I might be harbouring a few germs. As I took my accustomed seat, they all cowered around the far end of the table, and I sat, marooned, in a sea of empty chairs.

As secret societies go, I have to question now whether it was really worth all that effort from the Kirk Session to get me in.

But, no, I can’t do it. I can’t go on letting the Session take all the blame for putting a dim-witted blone in against the people’s will. Besides, the people aren’t fooled, as at least . . . oh, I’d say three or four of them tell us almost daily. They know, you see, they know where the connections are.

I am compelled, therefore, to admit that I lied to the electorate. Someone – a stranger to me – has used the hashtag, ‘lies for votes’, and she’s right. It was, you might say, a sin of omission. You see, I failed to declare that I’m related to another trustee.

Now, don’t despair. I’m not a Soval. Surely you’d know – the moon would have turned blood red at the merest hint of that about my person. Nor am I connected to any of the Rudhaich, not even the one with whom I share a surname.

The surname is the clue, you see. But I’m devious and, back in 2003, concealed my true identity by getting married. I have hidden from the electorate that I am a MacLean, just like Calum. Well, not exactly like Calum – he spent many years of his working life in Point, and I’m simply not that strong – but vaguely related.

So, yes, I concealed our connection. It is just another fib in the tissue of duplicity that I have apparently woven about myself. Actually, while I’m at it, I should say that it’s also possible that my granny once gave up her seat on the Achmore bus to a third cousin of the Factor.

That’s full disclosure now, honestly.

Oh, wait, no, there’s more. I was once married to the Convener of the Comhairle. He won’t remember; he wasn’t really involved – it was very brief and, I suppose you’d call it a marriage of convenience. Actually, it was a lie I told a persistent fellow in the Ness Social Club to get him off my case. When I told him I was married, he asked who to, so I simply pointed out a nearby Mr MacDonald. A convenient untruth.

People used to accept this about Lewis, though: it used to go without saying that folk would be related to one another, and it certainly didn’t used to be a problem.

However, if people want to throw hissy fits about people being related to other people, so be it. They will find that there’s really very little they can ultimately do about it. We’ve all heard the adage, ‘you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your relations’. It being so much a matter of providence, then, are we supposed to live our lives around those with whom we happen to share a bit of DNA, or a big nose, or a tendency to be a bit rag? Must I avoid any and all walks of life where relatives might have preceded me?

That’s plainly ridiculous, and ought to be treated with the contempt it deserves. In mediaeval times, certain families were recognised as having particular skills and they became the hereditary pipers, physicians, bards and so on, to the Lordship of the Isles. Not nepotism: dùthchas. But people weren’t so paranoid then, because they knew their community better.

Social media will turn a mountain into a super quarry, though, given even half a chance. And that, my friends, is where we do need to pay a bit of attention. There are reckless individuals who think that it’s acceptable – even as they talk community – to defame others with vocabulary like ‘corrupt’, ‘liars’, ‘brown envelopes’ and ‘lining their own pockets’. Not one shred of evidence is offered for any of this, and the lie is gleefully shared by others for whom it’s expedient.

The danger in all of this is that we lose sight of what’s actually important. For my own part, I support projects for our island that I believe have the best chance of being delivered and actually benefitting the greatest number of people.  Does my mere belief in a particular way of doing things make me a liar, or corrupt? Is anyone entitled to throw those kinds of accusations around about a fellow member of the community, without a jot of proof? And is defamation now an acceptable substitute for reasoned debate?

What has gone wrong in our midst that neighbours can dehumanise one another to the extent that feelings and reputation don’t matter? Or, indeed, that the truth doesn’t get in the way of a good story? If your case is sound, you don’t need to defame other people to make it.

I’m afraid that saying ‘community’ over and over does not necessarily mean you have its best interests at heart. Not when you’re prepared to tear it to pieces in pursuit of what you want. The word itself originated not as a noun, but as a verb – we would all do well to remember that before we speak, or write, a single syllable.

 

 

 

The Electronic Mission Field

During a recent gathering in our church hall, the minister asked how many of his congregation were regular users of social media. Quite a few hands went in the air, despite the fear that he may be about to chastise us for wantonly dabbling in a century other than the one to which we belong (the 19th, according to many sources).

It was more unsettling than that, because he just looked mildly interested, and sat back. No shouting, no threatening – okay, he didn’t have a pulpit handy to thump, but really – and no accusatory pointing.

In still greater nonconformity to the stereotype, he was asking this question in the context of a wider discussion about Christianity and media: traditional and social. These have been a growing consideration since the 20th century came to the rest of Scotland and even occassionally lapped at the shores of backward, wee Lewis. Of course, with the advent of radio, and then television, the implications for the church have been catastrophic.

Last week, I challenged an assertion by the Scottish secularists, that it had been the norm for ministers in Lewis to regularly peer through windows, to ensure that people weren’t watching anything mì-chàilear on television. Nonsense – one minister on his own would never have been able to handle the workload – obviously there must have been a crack team of elders supporting him in these endeavours.

No intelligence was offered on what happened in the event that the entertainment being indulged in did breach Presbyterian etiquette. Did the outraged minister burst in and switch the set off? That would certainly have been more impressive and dignified prior to the remote control: imagine the interloper having to first rummage around under the sofa cushions, before he could eventually zap the offending signal.

It must have been an enormous relief to these overworked killjoys when the dear old Beeb closed down with God Save the Queen at midnight.

Now, though, media is 24/7. The recent discussion in our church hall was an acknowledgment of the challenges this poses to Christians. It is a minefield for young – and not so young – people. Satan lurks where we sometimes least expect, and the newer technology has provided him with a host of opportunities for trouble.

We hear about cyber-crime, and the dark web. And every parent should be aware of the threat posed by that laptop, or tablet with which their child spends so much time alone. What are they looking at? Who are they talking to? Are your family safe in their own home, or are you harbouring – unaware – a stranger who means you harm?

Of course we have to be mindful of the dangers. The internet is both an extension and a mirror of this sinful world. There is real evil to be found there, as there is here.

But also real potential for good.

I have heard prayers that people would spend less time on social media and more attending the means of grace. While I completely understand the sentiment, and the intention, I’m afraid it’s an unhelpful approach. Attendance at the means of grace should, without question, take precedence. We all must begin by ensuring our own spiritual lives are healthy before going elsewhere; but there has to be a Christian presence online as well.

Why must there? Well, obedience to the Great Commission – ‘go, therefore, into all the world’. The apostles had to wear out shoe leather doing that, but we can fulfil at least part of the command at the touch of a button.

On Friday, I was able to testify to Christ’s work in my life to a Highland-wide audience, using only my mobile phone. I sat in an empty classroom at work, and shared in prayers and witnessing with people I have never met. We could see each other, and speak like friends.

During the recent Trust election, I maintained a smidgen of sanity because of my WhatsApp support group. We anchored our daily discussion in the Word, and in worship music, and we had virtual – yet very real – human fellowship.

Videos of our church services go online now. A Gaelic sermon, preached to a congregation of perhaps seventy people, will be heard by five hundred more. And they feel connected to it because they can see the preacher and the precentor, as well as hear their words.

Aren’t these valid uses of technology?

Stornoway Free Church has never just been confined to the building on Kenneth Street. It has always been missional, sending people out into the field at home and abroad. Cambodia. Moldova. Uganda. Leaders go off to camp several times a year. And on our own doorstep, Campaigners, Sunday Schools, Christianity Explored – reaching out to the lost.

Now, though, mission has a new dimension. Make no mistake, it has its own difficulties. Christians will be pilloried and despised online as they are in the world; people will ignore your message on the internet, just as they do in person. Those who do not set foot on the threshold of a real Church are unlikely to click on your website link, or Facebook page just because it’s there.

But online mission is important, and I believe we have to get better at it. The people are there, and so many of them are lost.

Instead of praying that Christians would avoid social media, shouldn’t we be encouraging them to bring their witness to it? God does not send His soldiers into battle unequipped and, if we place our faith in Him, He will make us equal to this task also.

I can testify to the fact that technology is not bad, or wrong if, like anything else, we deploy it in His wisdom and not our own. Let’s encourage the world to look through our window, and let’s show them nothing but Christ.

What Would You Have Me Do?

I am, more often than not, a failure as a Christian. The ways in which I let Him down, get it wrong and just wilfully disobey are seemingly endless. But the sins which hurt the most are repeat offences. It tells me what kind of material He’s got to work with in me when He needs to give the same lesson over and over.

What was it this time? Forgiveness. Largeness of heart. Grace. Denial of self. These are just a few of the many things I don’t do well.

It’s been a practice of mine for a while now to get involved in online conversations where the cause of Christ is being discussed. Remedial Christian I may be, but I do, of course, realise that I cannot change the atheist heart, nor save the unbelieving soul. Neither, however, do I think that I should let ignorance and misrepresentation go unchallenged. So I don’t. Many Christians probably think I should leave it alone; and I know that many atheists feel that way also.

These things can escalate and a discussion forum on local democracy led to a series of misunderstandings between myself and someone I had considered a friend. We were not on speaking terms by the time it was all over.

I should have climbed down -not on matters of Christian principle, of course not, but on my own ego. What people think of me, or say, or write when I am properly witnessing for Christ, that doesn’t matter. The day I accepted Him, I was meant to die to self. All such brickbats are not meant to matter in the light of His glory and grace.

But I couldn’t let this go. No – correction – I wouldn’t let this go.

It took a Quaker to make this Wee Free penitent. He knew, somehow, of the ill-feeling between me and this other person, and suggested very gently that I should show her a modicum of support in something very brave she did recently.

Well, I’m not going to lie. He floored me with his mild common sense, and his pure motive. I thought about it from every angle and realised that the only thing preventing me from doing as he said was my own pride.

So I swallowed it. Not as graciously as I could, or should, have. But she, I think, felt as I did and all these months of bitterness and rancour swiftly evaporated.

And it felt good. I didn’t know what a weight had been pressing on my conscience until it was lifted. All because of grace. Oh, not mine. No, God’s grace at work in this man who has somehow fallen into step with me along the journey. If it had been dependent upon me letting go of my pride . . . well, I shudder to think what a state my life would be in.

It set me thinking about people, and about the latent power of the online community. All of this reconciliation hinged, as I said, on God’s intervention. But it was made possible through digital, not face-to-face, connections.

Some folk dismiss social media as being a bit of a fantasy land, somewhere Christians should avoid. I disagree. It is a mirror-image of this world with all the wickedness and danger that entails. There are people there, teetering sometimes on the edge of danger.

So, shouldn’t Christians be there too, shining a light into the dark corners? Isn’t the internet a digital mission field?

I am profoundly grateful to God for putting the wise Quaker in my life, and for teaching me so gently that forgiveness and love must not be forsaken, especially in defending the cause of Christ.

When Christ was nailed to the cross, His Iove never wavered. He was still every inch the Saviour. Remember Satan, in the last blog – he knows he’s defeated, and wants to take as many with him as he can.

Jesus Christ knew at Calvary that victory was His. And as He looked down on the soldiers casting lots for His garments, what revenge did He plan?

‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’.

Though we may reject Him and plot against His cause, He still loves and wants to take as many with Him in glory as He can.

And if I want to be like Him in the smallest way, I need to cultivate that love too.

Mercifully, He reminds me of this when I need reminding. Pray for me that I will not forget this lesson in humility and grace. And pray that, when any of us speaks up for Christ, we ask Him first:

‘What would You have me do?’

Fiery Crosses and Rightful Kings

If you wanted to foment a rebellion today, it would be a simple matter of texting all your supporters the where, when and why. ‘C u @ Gfinnan – B there or die.Charlie x’ . The Jacobites didn’t have Vodafone though, so their technology was rather more primitive, and quite possibly a lot more reliable – the crann-tàra. This was a cross of wood which had been partially burnt and then dipped in blood before being passed from person to person in a kind of relay until all had been rallied.

A scattered population has always presented a challenge to any cause. It was difficult to provide a uniform education system, or equal access to healthcare in all the corners of the Highlands and Islands. And it was difficult to evangelise those who did not live in or near a large centre of population.

That is certainly one of the reasons why the Reformation arrived so late in our neck of the mòinteach. Keeping the effects of the Reformation alive is proving to be an equally great challenge in the present day.

People do not come to church if they don’t want to and, increasingly, they don’t want to. Attendance at the means of grace has dwindled alarmingly across the country and even here in the islands.

There is still a thing or two that we could learn from the Jacobites. They did not sit around waiting for their supporters to show up – they went and demanded loyalty from each one. The symbolism of the crann-tara was that anyone who did not respond accordingly could expect to meet with fire and blood. It was quite literally a life or death proposition.

That, I think, is how the Gospel has to be presented – urgently. All who hear His call must know the truth, that it is a straight choice between falling in with Christ, or dying eternally.

Of course, you have to know where the people are. Otherwise, how can you obey the great commission and ‘go’? We don’t have to trudge across the region, or gallop on horseback, though, to go where the people are.

They’re right here: online.

We can’t assume that methods of communication which don’t work in the real world are going to be any more successful on the internet, however. If people don’t want to walk into our churches, then, why are they going to follow us on Twitter, or click on our Facebook posts?

At Stornoway Free Church we have recently been stepping up our use of social media. This is not in some painful effort to make ourselves cool. (Mo chreach, I’m just not sure we’d know where to start).
We simply recognise two things: Jesus wanted us to go to where the people were with His message; and where the people are, the Devil is always prowling. It is incumbent upon the church, therefore, to bring light into the darkness that can sometimes exist online just as it does offline.

Christ’s church exists to glorify Him, which I think we can sometimes forget, even with the best of intentions. We think it’s up to us to devise the initiative that will be the golden key, the thing that brings people flocking to us.

What will bring people to us, actually, is grace and that is not within the gift of the Free – or any other – Church. We must surely accept the Holy Spirit’s divine authority. So, we ask for God’s guidance, and we continue worshipping and spreading the Good News.

And, we show forth who Christ is, and what He has done on our behalf. That is sufficient. Using social media is just another way of ensuring that people know the truth. We don’t have to do anything more: there isn’t anything more to be done.

If God becoming man, God suffering and hanging on a cross to die for us is not enough; if His defeat of death is not enough, then we are not people who can be satisfied. Gimmickry and hashtags will certainly not impress if His name leaves you cold. But then, if His name fails to rally our heart to His cause, we must be prepared for the consequences.

Like the Jacobites, we should use every means at our disposal to spread the news. But in passing this fiery cross to others, we have to let them see that its terrible beauty and power lie in something not unlike the original crann-tara.

The cross we hold up before them is dipped in the blood of the Saviour, and fired with the power of His salvation offer. How we pass it on hardly matters. He is not willing that any should perish, and so we may be quite sure that it will reach all those who belong beneath His royal standard.