Erase your Ebenezer?

If you are ever tempted to believe that the Free Church in Lewis has become less hardline of late, consider this: one of our ministers waved a bayonet at the children during a recent Sunday morning service.

Context is everything, however. He was using an ancient (and very blunt, health and safety fans) family relic to illustrate a spiritual truth. This wasn’t learn your catechism with menaces. He wasn’t threatening, or intimidating – and he was safely on the far-end of a camera anyway.

But, if I merely told you that he had wielded a bayonet at the children of the congregation, and left it there, might you not get the wrong impression? We human beings are terrifically adept at picking the erroneous end of any given stick, anyway. Sometimes, of course, we do it wilfully. It suits us to think the worst of those we don’t like, or those of whom we are envious. In such situations, it is all too easy to cherry-pick our facts and dwell on those that paint the blackest picture of all.

When I stood for the Stornoway Trust, I was accused of being ‘ashamed of my Saviour’ because I had not mentioned in my election address that I was a Christian. Now, my reason for omitting this information was simple: while I don’t deny that many people voted for me because of my profession of faith, I would never ask for anyone’s vote on that basis. Being a Christian doesn’t automatically qualify you for (or disqualify you from) public service.

What my accuser failed to take into account was the fact that I patently was not hiding my allegiance; far from it. However, he looked narrowly at my conduct in this one area and judged me – harshly, I feel – based upon it. For him, because I had not explicitly declared myself a church member, I was ashamed and guilty of denying Christ.

We are, all of us, guilty of something. Not one living person can claim perfection in this world. I freely hold my hands up and admit that I do not always speak up for Christ when and as I should. Worse still, my conduct is often far from what it ought to be, so that I am not even a silent witness for him. People can rightly point to Catriona Murray and accuse her of saying and doing plenty that is at odds with her profession of faith. And how much more evidence they would have against me if they could read my black and venomous thoughts. Let me be frank: I am cynical, sardonic, frequently lax in my prayer life, slow to forgive, self-righteous and narrow-minded. If I witnessed in proportion to what I owe, I would be a paragon; but I am not. What I am is a sinner, saved by God’s grace, and a work in progress.

Mercifully, other people’s opinions of me are none of my business. I have no control over them or interest in them. People will try to remind you of what you are at your worst – how many converted Christians are still spoken of in terms of their youthful excesses. ‘There was a day and he was in the pub every weekend, not the church’, and that sort of thing. The world doesn’t permit us to be changing and improving. It freezes us at our very lowest point.

That is why memorialising the past has become such a vexed question. Do we retain the statue of a man who made his money on the back of slavery? Are we right to permit the Duke of Sutherland’s image – ‘erected by a grateful tenantry’ – to remain, looking down upon the broad lands decimated by his plans of improvement?  The boardroom of the Stornoway Trust, too, is dominated by a portrait of our benefactor, Lord Leverhulme, a man whose exploitation of forced labour in the Belgian Congo does not cover him with glory.

So, what do we say about such people? Can we use the rather odd defence someone made of Knox recently when they accused me of judging him by modern standards: he was of his time? Being ‘of your time’, though, is surely a euphemism for just following the herd, being of the world. Knox was not falling short of my standard by being a misogynist; he was falling short of Christ’s. If we let Knox off the hook so easily, then we must make a similar defence for the Duke of Sutherland and Lord Leverhulme.

And that just will not do. Otherwise, we have to look around us, at modern slavery, at child labour, at homelessness, at abortion, at eugenics, at sexual exploitation, at the wilful warping of the education system, at the censorship of free speech . . . and we must wink at it, saying, ‘ah, it’s just the modern way’.

That’s the world’s defence of sin.

I would not remove the memorials. Leave the mannie on top of Ben Bhraggie, and keep the portrait of Leverhulme above the boardroom table. Remember them, though, not as stainless paragons, but as people in whom there was the capacity for both darkness and light. Make sure generations to come see them as three-dimensional.

And, more importantly, let’s think about what this controversy teaches us regarding image. Not the stone, marble or canvas variety, but our own fractured selves – made in the likeness of God, and marred by sin. We too, even if we are being restored, bear the hallmarks of fallenness. Somewhere about our person is the Maker’s thumbprint; it is this, and this alone, which preserves us from destruction.

For, if we were dependent on one another’s mercy, or on our own perfection, who would raise a memorial to any of us?

The Power of Love . . . Or the Love of Power?

The first Baron Acton believed that power corrupts and that the tendency of absolute power is to corrupt absolutely. He was right, as we have almost daily proof. Our national politicians find themselves at the centre of scandals which would put a soap opera script editor to shame. It sometimes seems as though they consider themselves above the law – or at least immune to its effects.

I don’t fool myself that the local scene is any more decorous. It is simply that the stakes are lower and the local media is . . . not. Catch any  journalist off guard or in their cups and they might tell you things to make your hair stand on end (disclaimer: I said ‘might’). But you won’t catch any of them reporting it. Island politicians are not beyond reproach, but they are – largely – below the radar of public interest. Social media, of course, will do its thing of rumour, innuendo and downright lying, but what sane person believes the ramblings of a stranger on the internet anyway?

Power is, itself, a funny concept, especially when you link it to democracy. As an electorate, we basically play a game of chance in casting our votes, and let the cards fall where they may. Those selected by fickle voters are then left to simply get on with running things. Or they used to be. Nowadays, their every move is scrutinised by keyboard pundits and found wanting.

But they still have the last word.

From the other side of the ballot box, though, as one such elected person, what do I consider the nature of power to be? Bearing in mind I’m not exactly Chancellor of the Exchequer, that is. Well, I think living by the old adage that ‘knowledge is power’ may well be the only way to avoid fulfilling Baron Acton’s dark prediction. Power that is given, whether by divine right of succession or through the ballot box (rigged by the Wee Frees or otherwise) is something I have little interest in for my own part. The power to exercise positive change, however, through a proper understanding of your brief . . . well, now, that is something I can aspire to.

The worst thing any elected person can do is believe their own hype. Simply winning an election doesn’t necessarily mean you know what you’re doing – but it does mean you ought to find out sharpish.

This is true, I think, for anyone who puts themselves forward for election, but especially true for a disciple of Christ. Our defining trait is surely the daily realisation that we are nothing without him. If we seek to serve the Lord, then, by taking up office, we have to do all we can to avoid the corruption such power might bring. Now, before you get too excited, I’m not saying that the Stornoway Trust is a hotbed of intrigue and scandal. Corruption can assume many forms and, for a Christian trustee (or councillor, MSP or MP), the danger is that we become worldly, and start to rely on our own so-called ‘wisdom’ to make decisions.

That wisdom often consists of people basing their conclusions on feelings rather than facts. We are all guilty of it. You’re asked for your take on something and you have a gut reaction, so you go with that. Hunches are a lazy and destructive basis upon which to run anything, though. For Christians, we are back to that justified sinner thing again – we sometimes think that, because we are believers, all our actions will be righteous. And so they might well be, if only we trusted every one to God.

But, I hold up my hands here and confess that I have not done that nearly enough. It is probably painfully evident to those who scrutinise such things, anyway. Yes, I have tried to remember prayerfulness, and I have certainly attempted to learn the ropes of my role – but I have also relied on my own puny strength and my own inadequate wisdom too often. Those are all the times I have gone wrong; those are the days when my motivation is not what it ought to be.

I initially stood for the Stornoway Trust because I felt God was asking me to stand up for his cause, which was being shamefully set low in our community. He didn’t put me there, though – or any other Christian who holds an elected position – so that he could leave me to my own devices. His own know that is not how he works.

Why? Well, because he loves us, and he knows us. God doesn’t walk away from creatures so deluded that, despite Christ having to die for us, we can still be persuaded that there is something of worth in ourselves. He cannot trust us not to ruin things all over again – and so he goes with us.

Abraham Lincoln said that adversity was not a true test of a man’s character – his handling of power was. Sometimes, I have felt that, in my own small experience of (very limited) power, God is testing, not my character exactly, but my faith. Where I have taken my concerns to him, it has gone much better than when I have too much faith in myself.

Politically-acquired power is dangerous. It panders to our narcissism by telling us that we are popular, chosen. What every Christian must remember is this:

‘None is righteous; no, not one’.

It is a truth that those of us who believe in Christ need to remind ourselves of every day. If we wish to work for him in serving our communities, then the servant spirit must set self at naught.

Only, as Gandhi observed, when the power of love eclipses the love of power, will the world know peace. And that has to start with the people of God.

Politics, prayer and my inner Pharisee

Last Saturday, I had coffee  with an incredible young Christian who, less than a week later, would find herself presenting the Scottish budget to Parliament at very short notice. Cometh the hour, cometh the woman and all that.

We talked about the challenge of being female and Christian in any kind of public role. I think it’s safe to say that she has demonstrated that these need not be obstacles to acquitting yourself well. While the jury (including the one in my own head) is still out on me, even in my much more local role, I struggle with the big questions, so any believing politician of national stature certainly has my sympathy and – much more usefully- my prayers.

The Bible is full of people in leadership roles who walked with God and still went wrong. So, if Solomon in all his wisdom could have his heart turned to idolatry, then I’m pretty sure that should serve as a warning to all Christians in public office today. How much easier, indeed, for the devil to get his way when believing leaders are in the minority, and apostasy is the norm. Anyone might succumb to following that particular crowd with the greatest of ease.

And how do you avoid the pitfalls of being a Christian in a democratically-elected position? Here in Lewis, organisations like the Comhairle and the Stornoway Trust customarily open their meetings with prayer. Whenever this comes up in conversation with other believers, they react positively. For the Christian, there is a view that anything of the slightest importance should be put in God’s hands, where all things rightfully belong. Beginning the business of local government in this way, therefore, reassures them that leadership is as it should be, deferring to the Lord.

So, local Christians breathe a little more easily.

Except, I’m a local Christian and it doesn’t do a whole lot to reassure me. Not even considering my own position as an elected member of one such group.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I am not opposed to prayer in the Trust or anywhere else. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I DO worry that those of us who are Christians in elected office, and those of us who are voting Christians, tend to content ourselves with very little. ‘Prayer’ can end up being as formulaic as any other standing item on the agenda.

And the prayerfulness often ends with ‘amen’. I speak from personal experience here. There have been many occasions where I have gone seamlessly from bowing my head in contemplation, to venting my spleen in exasperation. My thoughts, my utterances, my conduct, my motivation often fall short of what they should be.

But never mind: at least we’ve said the words. Who’s to notice when they get stuck on the ceiling and rise no further?

I am not criticising the people who pray; not at all. What I’m saying is that we cannot content ourselves with opening petitions, if our subsequent conduct doesn’t testify to our faith. We cannot keep on expecting God to bless our endeavours if we aren’t really giving them into his keeping at all.

Recently, I was party to a conversation about a public servant whose conduct had been dubious to say the least. ‘But he’s a Christian’, someone protested. Their subtext was not that we should, therefore, expect better of him, but that he was actually beyond reproach.

There is a real danger here, that Christians will fall into a trap of thinking their faith guarantees all their actions to be righteous. We are at risk of the arrogance displayed – albeit to fictional extremes- in James Hogg’s ‘justified sinner’. If I call myself a Christian, if I pray in public and speak out for Sabbath observance, well, I’m doing my bit for the cause.

And that’s my challenge. I worry about becoming a Pharisee if I haven’t already. Many people voted for me in the Trust election, I am quite sure, purely because they knew where I stood on ‘The Sunday Issue’.

Here’s the thing, though: I want to keep the Lord’s Day myself because I love him. I want other people to want to keep it for the same reason. Is it the role of Christian trustees, councillors, MSPs or MPs to impose such things on an unbelieving people? Or is it our responsibility to earnestly pray for guidance ourselves, to show forth the love of Christ in everything that we do, and give it all to God?

We often hear complaints that there are too few Christians in public life. That may well be true, but God has placed some there. Instead of worrying about packing the debating chambers with more believers, let’s pray for those who are already in place, that they would learn to act in his wisdom and in his guiding. And God, I am sure, will give the increase.

Religion, politics & doing your bit

If you don’t want to fall out with people in the pub or on the internet, you should steer clear of religion and politics. So, that’s cleared up why I’m so unpopular, then. According to one of my Stornoway Trust colleagues, I actually enjoy getting in the middle of arguments. Although I can see why some people might think that, it isn’t strictly true. Like most non-sociopaths, I certainly do not relish confrontation, but neither am I content to let lies spread unchecked, if they relate to a cause of any importance.

These days, as far as I am concerned, there is only one cause that fits into the aforementioned category, and that is the cause of Christ.

This does not mean, however, that I’m going to restrict myself to reading, speaking and thinking only of theological and spiritual matters. My understanding of what is required of me as a Christian is a little broader than that. In fact – and yes, I know I’ve said it before – I think that believing people have a duty to bring their faith into the orbit of their fellow human beings, whether that is at work, in the community, in public life, or on the internet. Indeed, we cannot leave it behind anyway, even if we wanted to.

At this precise moment in time, I don’t think we can ignore politics either, however much we might wish to. I know that Christians are having a particular difficulty in deciding how to cast their votes, because the reality is that none of the mainstream parties are saying what we would like to hear. If you consider the issues that matter more to believers than to the general public, there is no party out of the big four with policies a believing person can approve. I hear most about the party of which I am a member – the SNP – and their tendency towards support for unbiblical policy.

That is true. But it is also true for the other main parties as well. Neither Labour, the Conservatives nor the Lib-Dems could satisfy scripture in terms of their view on abortion, same-sex marriage, gender reassignment, or LGBT education in schools either.

So, what do we do? Tear up our polling cards and sit at home on December 12th? Or flounce off in high dudgeon and create our own party? That would certainly be in keeping with the Presbyterian way over the last two centuries. We have turned ‘schism’ into a verb, after all.

I have made no secret of the fact that I have wrestled with this issue myself. As a lifelong nationalist and member of the SNP, I have been disheartened by the direction of travel my party has taken of late. Nonetheless, I still believe in self-determination for Scotland and that – regardless of what some of my more overbearing brethren tell me – is not a point of view inconsistent with my adherence to the faith.

The reason, therefore, that I have remained a member of the SNP is that I am still a nationalist. I choose to vote positively, for what I do approve, rather than negatively, against what I do not. Withholding my vote from the SNP because of their stance on abortion, for example, would be somewhat hypocritical if I then put my ‘x’ next to any of the other big hitters – because their record is no better.

More importantly, I do not believe that we can legislate for morality. Nor, really, as Christians, should we want to. Our nation (however you choose to interpret the word) already suffers from the delusion that if people are ‘basically decent, law-abiding citizens’ then they have no need of Christ or his church. What do we achieve by imposing outward morality, then, on a country in state of spiritual decay? I don’t want Scotland to be a whited sepulchre; I want it to obey God’s law because it knows and loves the author.

Early on in the pre-election speculation, I am aware that a wee rumour circulated about me standing on a ‘Christian’ ticket. Despite atheist propaganda to the contrary, I didn’t even stand on such a platform for my election to the Stornoway Trust. I happen to think that it is not a ticket upon which a politician at any level should stand. Be a Christian, and let that speak for itself; let it inform your decisions and guide your behaviour, but never expect that anyone will cast their ballot your way simply because you follow Christ.

Far better for Christians to be part of the electable mainstream parties, and to be a force for change within, than impotent protestor without. It is not an easy matter, to be the lone voice for Christ in any situation – and that is why I fundamentally believe that Christians everywhere have to be tuned into the possibility that God may be asking them to serve him in a different way. We are not all bound to be ministers, or elders; they also serve who only stand for council . . . or parliament, or the grazing committee, or the community trust. Imagine these organisations transformed by the presence of genuinely God-fearing people, elected because they are able and conscientious, and for their personal integrity.

Now, stop imagining it. This is one of these situations, I’m afraid, where you have to quit looking around, quit expecting ‘someone to do something’.

Have you ever thought that someone might be you?

 

Wee Free Feminism & Other Legends

Helping out a colleague this week, I agreed to speak to his sociology class about feminism, coloured by my experiences in those twin male bastions: the Free Church and the Stornoway Trust.

Having already denied being a feminist to no less a person than our church Missions Director, I feel this is ground I had better approach carefully.

It’s not a label I’m particularly interested in claiming because I know, for one thing, that radical feminists like Germaine Greer would laugh their socks off at the notion of people like me aligning themselves with the cause. I belong to a church where the leadership is all-male. The image is very much of men leading and women meekly following in their wake, heads bowed and carrying pans of soup and trays of baking. We appear, in the world’s eyes, to be a Stepfordesque nightmare of gender stereotyping.

Addressing this with the students, I tried to introduce the notion of complementarianism. I probably did a bad job and, even though they were bright and articulate, I’m not sure I explained myself well enough. The problem is that, in such a forum, you are not encouraged to talk too much about Scripture and yet, to properly explain my stance on this, I would have to refer to God’s instruction, and his ordaining of two genders, each with its own distinct role.

Even then, people will say that this is all very well, but don’t men just abuse that belief and use it as a way to keep women out of leadership roles?

The Bible is quite clear about spiritual leadership; it is set aside for men. In my view, therefore – despite my allusions to having pulpit ambitions, or an eye on the suidheachan mòr – that is that. God has decreed, and if I were to start reinterpreting it, then I am doing nothing less than replicating the serpent’s, ‘did God really say . . ?’

Other roles, however – including deaconship – I am not so persuaded about. The early church had deaconesses and, given that the diaconate role is one of managing and dispensing funds and other organisational duties, I see no reason why it should be restricted to men. Ditto the doorkeepers: why must we be welcomed to worship services by men? Shy, awkward men are forced to take that responsibility on, when many women with the requisite people skills are available and undeployed.

And then, there are the committees. In local congregations, women are included amongst the membership of various groups. I am on our congregation’s Communication Committee. Others are on the Catering Committee and the Strategy Group. Is this replicated at national level, though?

It’s not entirely clear. There are six standing committees, according to the Free Church website, and the blurb says that these are made up of ‘ministers, elders and advisers’. I’m dimly aware of there being some female input, but couldn’t say how much, or to what extent their influence extends.

And here is where I have to bring in my other experience – that of being one woman on an otherwise all-male board. I don’t claim to be ‘better’ than my colleagues, nor to be wiser. It may well be that my presence has made no overall difference to the operation of Trust concerns at all. Nonetheless, mine is a different perspective and a different approach because I’m a woman. Not superior, nor inferior; just other.

Now, of course there’s a sense in which every individual brings something unique to the table – all men are not exactly the same, nor all women. However, there is a broadly male approach to things (and people) which I have observed, and a corresponding female one also. Men and women, having both been created in God’s own image, NEED to work together in order to reflect that perfection.

If I had my way, therefore, yes, all committees – in and out of the church – would have mixed memberships.

Before this has any of my more conservative friends reaching for the smelling salts, however, I’d add a rider to this.

When I’m on a roundabout, and I have right of way, it sometimes happens that the person on my left will decide just to go for it first. What is the proper response? Do I enforce my privilege and move, knowing I will probably crash into his side? Of course not – as a driver, you also have a duty to prevent accidents as well as not causing any.

Ideally, then, the church would see the wisdom and – I believe – beauty,

of men and women sharing responsibility more. Not, as I said, in spiritual leadership, but in everything else. However, I would not advocate this if it was liable to damage the peace and fellowship of the church. Internal politics should never be allowed to eclipse the cause of Christ. A woman’s equal ability to contribute in certain roles is neither here nor there in comparison to the greater work. Part of our walk is, after all, subduing self. And even if I know women could, and possibly even should, play a greater role . . . well, the church is not the place to play out gender-based games of thrones.

Ultimately, though God created us male and female, each gender with its own attributes, our relationship with him is personal, individual. He doesn’t deal with me as part of a homogeneous mass of women – he deals with me as myself, as Catriona Murray, nee Maclean. Like everyone else, I have been imbued with certain gifts which are meant to be used in his service. It doesn’t require a badge, or a title to serve the Lord, and wasting time, and causing strife in pursuit of recognition from the brethren . . . well, that’s not something that interests me.

So, the world would call me weak and deny me admittance to the throne-room of feminism. I am not prepared to assert myself, because I know what they do not: my ‘rights’ are as nothing compared to his righteousness.

Christ did not subjugate women. Witness how he spoke to the woman at the well. See his love for Mary and Martha. His coming was heralded to a woman, and it was to women the risen Saviour first appeared.

But, in all these accounts, no matter how you read them, he is the main character, the central figure. The Christian walk follows in his footsteps and offers the only equality that matters: salvation in Christ, freely available to both genders. In light of that, nothing else matters much.

Dead in the Water?

There was a day when every village had its taibhsear: someone who could foretell future events. Inevitably, the visions were limited by the boundaries of his world – that is to say, he saw what would befall the local and the domestic sphere only.

To predict national and even international developments, however, that was the province of the true seer. Think of Coinneach Odhar, lifting that circular stone to his eye and telling Lady Seaforth that her husband, abroad in Europe at the time, was enjoying the company of other ladies. She had insisted on knowing where he was and yet, Coinneach faced the ultimate punishment for ‘speaking evil of dignities’. Legend has it he was put to death, simply for humiliating the lady before her people.

It’s the lot of the prognosticator, I suppose, to risk their own reputation by voicing what has not yet come to pass. Today, in all but the most despotic regimes, making a mistake will not cost your life . . . though it may well damage your credibility. Witness, if you will, the present silence of political pundits on the likely outcome of Mr Johnson’s election. Who wants to put their head above that increasingly unpredictable parapet?

In the Gaelic world, it is a tradition which some think was born out of a purpose other than ACTUALLY seeing the future. The filidh, according to ‘The Textbook of Irish Literature’, tended to combine ‘the functions of magician, law-giver, judge, counsellor to the chief, and poet’. Elsewhere, the word ‘filidh’ is sometimes translated as ‘seer’. So, this person originally was more than the mere poet we have come to consider them. Those other roles were obviously separated off at various points in history, but nonetheless, our poets were at one time also our seers.

Or were they?

In fact, I think it very likely that our poets were more in the order of cheerleaders. You know the kind of thing: ‘we will win this battle and crush the Campbells and their blood will stain the heather while we dance on their graves’. Sort of latter-day locker room pep talks for the clan. And then, full of vim and vigour, with the filidh’s words ringing in their ears, the men would do battle – and win. Thus, poem becomes prophecy and the filidh a seer.

It’s depressing, therefore, that while this tradition appears to be alive in Lewis, the would-be seers are using their dubious gift for a purpose other than cheerleading. For the last few months, we have had something resembling a Greek chorus emanating from parts of our island regarding the prospect of real development. The latest sad chapter of this prognostication reared its head – bizarrely- last Sunday evening.

The PR consultant for Point & Sandwick Trust released another of her copious blogs on the topic of how bad outside investment is for these islands. Sorry, no, not for these islands – for the shareholders of four crofting townships near Stornoway. In this extended piece of writing, we are told (repeatedly), that the interconnector is ‘dead in the water’.

Perhaps the intention behind this singularly morbid article, then, is that it should be regarded as self-fulfilling prophecy, a sort of anti-pep talk for the Comhairle, the Trust and Lewis Wind Power. Is superstition so strong with those behind the blog that they believe repeating the message again and again gives it some sort of power?

And, crucially, why does a small number of people derive such pleasure from the dashed hopes of the islands entire? If you haven’t already, ask yourselves who should be gleeful at the prospect of no cable, no renewables industry, no community benefit, for a place so in need of all these. What delight is to be had at the thought of Lewis continuing to lose its young people because we have failed to provide opportunities for them?

We have an unparalleled wind resource here in the islands. What we need now, in order to exploit that for the future good of all our people, is unity.

There has been talk – a lot of talk – about unfairness. It does not lie where some say, however. We would do well to remember the old Stornoway burgh motto: God’s providence is our inheritance. He placed these islands where he placed us and we cannot change geography. Working as one, speaking to the government as one, however, we could definitely mitigate against its disadvantages.

It’s apparent to almost everyone that the case for the cable, far from being ‘dead in the water’, is there to be made. How impressive it would be, how laudable, if those who have stood against progress thus far would add their voices to the clamour for what the Western Isles truly deserve.

Coinneach Odhar’s final prophecy was the desolation of his master’s broad lands, and the destruction of his line. I can’t – despite much evidence to the contrary – believe that this is really what anyone wants to see in Lewis. I hope we don’t forsake this one great chance to secure a future for these islands, simply because we failed to work in harmony.

That would leave more than just the cable dead in the water. 

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.

Bringing it all back home . . .

This week, I have a returning guest blogger, Mr Roy Macdonald Murray. He is a collie of no profession, and shaping up to be a great voice in social policy and community politics. Here, he muses upon the issue of where community ownership interfaces with the disposal of waste:

Myself and the Blone were out for our constitutional at Traigh Mhòr the other night, and I had to answer a call of nature. Instead of letting it go at that, she started this weird ritual that I’ve always been meaning to ask her about – she collected my . . . ahem . . . leavings . . . in a bag, wiped her hands with some wee cloth that smelt of strawberries, and then put the bag and the hand thing into another bag. Obviously the look of incredulity on my hairy face was sufficiently eloquent, because she tried to explain.

‘It’s okay, balach’, she said (‘balach’, indeed – I’m eight years old), ‘it’s not a weird hobby; we’ll take it home and bin it’.

Yeah, see, she’s said this before, and I’m still no clearer as to the thinking behind it. Maybe it’s just a sign of the vast difference in our upbringing – me on a farm in Sandwick, her within a stone’s throw of the Black Water, probably in a tent – but I always thought that’s what servants were for. What is the point of having minions to clear up after you if you do it yourself? Why have a dog and bark . . . but I’m going off topic.

The more I thought about it, the more it bugged me. I mean, when I do a poo, I don’t really want to see it again – that is rather the point of me leaving it on the machair. Then, the people whose lot it is in life to gather other people’s waste will come along and sort it. Actually, she could find herself in trouble with the Servants’ and Minions’ Union for taking work from their members. Extraordinary, really, that I should have a better grasp of how socialism works than she does., when you DO think about the difference in our social spheres.

When we got home that evening, the cat was sitting on the windowsill. She looked marginally less murderous than usual, so I thought I’d canvas her opinion. I pointed out that the Blone is always poking about in her litter box as well, with a sieve shaped like a shovel. The cat continued to stare at me.

‘For me’, she eventually replied, ‘it is less disturbing to see her remove my droppings into a bag, than to watch you treat it as your own personal snack tray’.

I wilted a bit at this. The cat can be very cutting.

‘But’, I persisted, ‘it’s the job of the servants to pick up. We leave stuff, they dispose of it. Everyone knows their place’.

The cat sighed. She closed her eyes. There was a very long silence. I almost gave up, and was about to walk away when she spoke again, in a bored voice.

‘The Blone IS the servant’, she said, ‘that’s why she picks up after us. It’s the lot of those further down the food chain to pick up after cats, and keep things nice for us’.

This was really no help. It explained part of the predicament, but not the rest – yes, cats are superior to almost every living creature on the planet, except the man who makes Schmackos; but why would she pick up my waste when there are people for that? It made no sense.

I thought and thought until I went cross-eyed. Sometimes, she takes me to places where the sniffing is new. There’s one, with a whole lot of trees to pee on. If I poo there, she does the bag thing and sometimes we take it home, but other times she puts it in a wee box next to one of the trees. Probably the fairies collect it. Or the servants. Either way, it’s not our problem, and we don’t have to take it back in our nice car, all the way to Tolsta.

She must see how illogical this is – the woman has a degree, I believe. It comes back down to that Stornoway Truss again. Remember, I explained it to you last time? The land belongs to everyone in the whole community. That means if your dog poos on Truss land, it’s not your problem, it’s theirs – that, apparently, is what ‘community ownership’ means. The Trussees own the poo, and they, or their slaves have to get rid of it. Frankly, I think it’s such a great system that I might have to become a socialist myself, if that’s how it works.

Come to think of it, the machair in Tolsta belongs to the community too, so I suppose the Truss should really send their servants there to pick up after me. Then again, it’s common grazing, so maybe we should let the local shareholders have the privilege. It’s either that or some French multinational will sweep in and take advantage: coming over here, helping themselves to our waste . . .

I don’t know how to tell her that she has not properly understood what community ownership means. She bangs on about collective responsibility, and everyone doing their bit. She hasn’t grasped the fact that what it ACTUALLY means is that whatever happens on Truss land, becomes the Truss’s problem. My poo is their poo, and I just get to walk away. It’s our land, but their problem. Fair enough.

It’s like the good old days in Sandwick, when I was a dog of consequence. And she’s spoiling that illusion by bringing the poo back home.

Secure Tenure in a Better Country

There is a line in the Runrig song, ‘Flower of the West’, which says that ‘the breathing of the vanished lies in acres round my feet’. For me, that articulates something that I feel very much here in my own community – the almost palpable sense of history everywhere. I know people who claim no interest in the past, who dismiss it as irrelevant. We are here, now, they will say, what’s the point in looking back?

Well, the point in looking back is to see how we got here. I am firmly with William Faulkner on this, when he said, ‘The past is not dead. The past is not even past’. How could it ever be, in a place like this?

That’s why I think it is a tragedy that Gaels do not learn their own history. For many years, the only formal access to it was through the Higher Gàidhlig course where, if you studied the poetry of the 18th and 19th centuries, you would also be taught about the Jacobite cause, the clearances, the famine, emigration and the Land War. And that knowledge is so empowering. When you know about these things, you can see where your community, your family, and you as an individual fit into the bigger picture.

That is where I derive my identity from.  I am a Gaelic-speaking hybrid of Maclean and Macdonald. My father’s people were cleared from Mangersta and settled at Doune: that’s Doune Carloway of the Iron Age broch. And my mother’s folk were from Harris on her paternal side: na Fìdhlearan, hereditary foresters to the Campbells of Scalpay, in the deer forest of Amhuinnuidhe, before relocating to Ardhasaig, via Taransay.

Today, I work in the very college from which I graduated in 1997. Our pretty campus is situated in the grounds of Lews Castle, built by Sir James Matheson in 1851 and gifted by Lord Leverhulme to the people in 1923, when the Stornoway Trust Estate was created – the first community-owned estate in Scotland.

I sit on the board that manages the Lancashire soap magnate’s legacy. Despite all the talk, the iconoclasm, and the liberal sprinkling of meaningless words like ‘progressive’ throughout public rhetoric, I see at least part of my role there as being to maintain the dignity of such an historic organisation. Stornoway Trust has always had a sense of its own historicity, and that’s why I feel an affinity with it: knowing your roots will always strengthen your sense of identity.

Of course, there are other aspects of my identity too. On a Sunday, I worship at the Free Church on Kenneth Street  – itself a relic of that great chapter in our history, when ministers and congregations walked out of the Church of Scotland to form a denomination free from the power of patronage, and outside interference.

Its establishment precipitated other radical acts. Described as ‘the crofting community at prayer’, it is believed that the community cohesion and leadership provided by the early Free Church, contributed to the events that followed, culminating in the Napier Commission and the Crofting Act of 1886, which finally granted security of tenure. Beyond that there were – here in Lewis – the raids which saw crofters clashing with landlord and government in their thirst for land on which to subsist.

I grew up in the relatively new village of Newmarket, where there is a mixture of crofts and of allotments, rented from the Trust. Our home was built on one of the latter, but my father still ran the croft at Doune, shearing and dipping sheep within the tobhta of his old home.

Land, you see, runs through it all. The soil under our feet, and the landscape before our eyes, seem to form the boundaries of our being. We ache for places we have left, and love those in which we make our homes. It is a universal experience, but always rooted in a familiar landscape – one whose form and history is meaningful to us.

And yet, however strong my sense of self is, however anchored here in Lewis, and however much the past whispers to me as I move through the landscape of my life . . . this is not really home. Yet, this is not the contradiction that you might think, because – like many other refugees – I have a dual history and a dual identity.

As much as the Fìdhlearan of Ardhasaig are my people, I would claim kinship also with the Israelites. Their yearning for the land of promise speaks to me in my own geographical and historical context. Because I know who I am as an islander, I can recognise in myself that desire for true belonging.

The most famous articulation of this, unsurprisingly, comes from Paul in 2 Corinthians 5: 8, when he says that he would prefer to depart this world to be with Christ. In a letter he left for us, his family, before his death, my father expressed his love for us all in just those terms. Though he said that another lifetime with us would be wonderful, he was prepared to go and be with his Saviour, which – he wrote – was far better.

Is that not an extraordinary witness? When we are blessed to have family and friends for whom we care deeply; when we are intimately tied in to the landscape and history of a particular place; when our identity here on earth is made of something older and finer than ourselves . . . what a testimony, then, to be able to say that there is something more awaiting us beyond those limits.

I believe that the privilege of heritage and history is there to teach us about this greater gift. God placed each of us within a particular lineage, a particular culture, so that we might identify with that international movement of refugees towards our ultimate home.

Knowing who my people are, and where I came from does not tie me faster to this world, as you might expect; it heightens my expectation of what God has prepared in eternity that is richer even, than the security I enjoy now. There, the father who once walked with me over the acres at Doune, was happy to go; there the husband who loved the vista of Traigh Mhòr was happy to go.

One day, I too will finish my journey, and find true security of tenure.

 

 

 

 

 

The Crook for all Lots

‘You’ll have been picked up by the CCTV’, the elder informed me solemnly on Sunday. I had tiptoed past his gate early on Saturday morning, glad rags from the previous night’s carousing in my hand, and thought that I might just get away with it. The confusion of waking up in a strange bedroom in Stornoway had probably been at fault; after all, experience should have taught me by now that wayward women cannot fly under the surveillance system of the Free Church: EL-DAR.  There are Wee Free drones everywhere, and they can’t all be watching clothes lines.

I had gone out at the respectable hour of 6.30pm on Friday evening, to enjoy a meal and some speeches in a local hotel, to mark the occasion of the Estate Factor’s 25th year in post. We were doing so a year after the actual event because . . . well, they had been waiting for a blone to be elected in order to remember stuff like anniversaries, and organise parties . . .

A good time was had by all. Appropriate gifts were presented, including an inscribed shepherd’s crook, upon which the gentleman of the hour proceeded to lean in a rather too-settled manner as he articulated his thanks. I imagine there will be many future occasions when he leans similarly upon the stick, and regales his audience with wisdom from his considerable store.

Aside from providing the owner with a prop upon which to lean, however, the shepherd’s crook has a much wider variety of functions.

In fact, for those tasked with the management of sheep, there may be a requirement to travel over rough ground, and it is an aid to them on the journey. Anyone who has ever walked the moor will know the value of any prop which will help you stay upright, and out of the bogs.

Of course, your crook may well come in handy as a weapon too. Your flock can easily fall prey to predators – especially the lambs – and it makes sense for the protector of the flock to have a stick that he can wield in their defence.

And, the curved end of the staff is perfect for hooking a sheep around the neck in order to catch or move it to where you wish it to go.

While any and all of these functions might well be exercised by our Factor – either in his private capacity as a crofter, or his professional role as Estate manager – I am going to resist the temptation to speculate here on how he might use the crook to steer wayward Trustees. Far be it from me, either, to suggest how he might deploy his new weapon against . . . but let’s just leave that there.

A couple of weeks ago, the Factor put me right on an important point of theology. (I should point out that, though his duties are surprisingly wide-ranging, this is not normally considered one of them). He reminded me that sin could be committed in the thought, just as much as in the word or deed and, thereby, threw a carefully-constructed view on a given matter into total confusion. I have still not resolved that particular inner conflict.

But then, the Truth does not exist in order to make us comfortable with sin.

Theology, in fact, might well be seen as performing the same role in our lives as that shepherd’s crook, if it is deployed dextrously and for the purpose for which it was intended. And, make no mistake, by ‘theology’ here, I do not mean man-made rules, or academic theory: I mean the Scripture proofed truths which meaningfully direct our lives towards God.

When I have found myself in the terrain that, sometime or another, meets all Christians, I have been – on occasion – slow to reach for the supporting staff of theology. At this point, I am tempted to lean on another one altogether: that of my own wisdom. Let me tell you, though, nothing is guaranteed to sink you in the mire quicker than your own faulty reasoning. That is why Proverbs 3: 5-6 says,  ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths’.

At those times when I have failed to do this (and they are many), the next thing that happens is I leave myself vulnerable to the enemy. When I miss the means of grace, when I let my prayer life weaken, when I fail to open the Word as often as I ought . . . of course the enemy senses that I am distant from the rest of the flock. He moves in slowly, preparing to pick me off. But God has given his people the crook to use as a weapon also; Scripture has so many reminders that there is nothing the enemy can do against the power of Christ. For me, the battles with Satan have been won many times through the strengthening of Psalm 27, and its triumphant reminder:

The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

But, sometimes I find that the Shepherd still has to hook me around the neck, and pull me to himself. Wherever I am, however, no matter how far, his reach extends there, and he will draw me gently and lovingly back. It may be that he achieves this through the preaching of his Word; but more often, it is actually through the love that he communicates via his own people who are, of course, my people.

Like the shepherd’s crook we presented last weekend, then, God’s Truth is lovely, but its real beauty lies in its purpose: to support, to protect, and to draw us to Himself. If we make use of it, then it will uphold us in any situation.