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.

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. 

Glory in the glen . . . or anywhere

‘These are our Castle Grounds’, I found myself thinking on Thursday night as I watched the little tent in the glen fill up with people. There was something special about seeing them arriving in knots of two and three – intentionally leaving their homes to come and gather under canvas in worship of the Lord. Psalms, songs of praise, prayers and Scripture readings. It was all about ascribing to Him the glory that is due and, nestled there in the hollow of God’s hand, we were not several denominations, but one church.

And I feel that this kind of event is all the more important in our day. Just as, last summer, a couple of hundred of us gathered in the glebe at Baile na Cille, for worship, this too felt like a statement. It is primarily an opportunity to spend time in adoration of our Lord – but it is also a witness to a world that seems blind to His glory. Being outside, though, is not just important because we are more likely to be overheard than when we are closed up in a building.

No, there is something else; there is as much of reclamation as there is acclamation in our al fresco praise. Every place where God’s name is spoken with reverence, I feel a flag is planted for His cause. Where two or three gather in His name, He is in the midst to bless. And so, on Thursday night, in Willowglen, God was undoubtedly present.

I do not pretend that certain places are more sacred than others, because that would be to confine our boundless God, and make Him small. Nonetheless, it is difficult to see how a place where His spirit has moved can ever be mundane again. Will I be able to pass through Willowglen and not remember with joy the night it became a place of worship for its own Creator and mine? Hopefully not.

This lovely corner of God’s handiwork has been abused lately. Instead of a protective instinct for all this beauty, something much uglier has been in evidence. Many have chosen to vandalise and sully the Castle Grounds in a fit of pique about policy. It is too petty for words. But it is a stark reminder of where we are.

I reflected on the harsh words of the last few weeks, even as I listened to these much more attractive ones drifting out of the tent:

Ach mise molar leam do neart;
gu moch a’ seinn do ghràis,
Airson gur tu mo thèarmann treun,
‘s mo dhaingneach fhèin ‘s gach càs.

God is the defence of my life. With every passing day I am more conscious of my need for such a refuge. And why? You have no use for protection except when you are in enemy territory. But, then, that’s what this is, even the beautiful Lews Castle Grounds: made perfect by God, but marred by man. From this enmity against the very Creator stems the mistreatment of what His hands have made, whether that is earth, trees, water . . . or humanity itself.

Nothing is sacred: not even life, and certainly not places like Willowglen.

On Thursday, though, there were all the elements assembled that we might need to recreate Psalm 137. We had a river to sit down by, and boughs of willow in which to hang our lyres. Here we were, being required to praise the Lord’s song in the midst of hostility.

I felt, however, that it was not a time for weeping – not for ourselves, anyway. Gathered under that canvas shelter, we testified to the impermanence of our sojourn in this world. We pitch our tent for a while, yes, but the house of many mansions is home. What God makes, what God provides – whether it is a garden, or a temporary place to gather – we should esteem, because it is by His grace and from His hand, the hand His children love, that we receive it.

That evening, for a few hours at least, we remembered Zion. It’s a particular kind of memory, though. Just as the prophet Isaiah spoke of the coming Christ in the past tense, we sing for joy at the recollection of Glory that awaits

Meantime, we have to rise up to our feet on that riverbank, and take down our lyres from the willow branches. I am more certain than ever that this strange land is crying out in its captivity to hear the Lord’s song; and who shall sing it for them, though they try their utmost to quench the sound with mocking?

That’s why Grace on the Green matters. The world does not believe that we are free, that we are filled with joy that no amount of their hostility can kill. We usually worship shut away from them; we politely contain our praise for God in buildings from which little sound escapes.

Those confining edifices are not the church: we are. And our oneness with Creation is never more apparent than in praising the Creator’s name in the midst of all He has made.

The least we owe Him, then,  is to sing His song for those whose eyes remain blind to amazing grace, and the immeasurable glory of God. It isn’t found in a place, but in a person. And they might find Him anywhere – but  certainly wherever His church gathers to adore Him.

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

A Full Moon Tale of Lewis

It was a dangerous mission, but having had the tip-off, I needed to see for myself whether it was true. Now that I HAVE seen, it’s my duty to share with you the darkness that I have witnessed at the heart of life here in Lewis.

Everything the dissenters say is true. I have been a dupe, but no more. Please, though, if anything happens to me – if you hear that I’ve ‘gone to open a craft shop in Tiree’ or to ‘join the foreign mission’, don’t believe it. The powers that be will say and do anything to prevent the truth emerging.

An operative contacted me via Twitter, and informed me that I am a member of a Calvinist cult, and that I need rescuing and rehabilitating into the real world. He was concerned that I was not only leading a restricted existence myself, but also imposing the same on others. At first, I laughed it off, but then a few things started me off wondering . . .

At the end of last summer, for example, the minister and his wife hosted a barbecue for those of us who indoctrinate young people into our cult via Sunday school and youth clubs. While we sat in the garden, I noticed one of the elders, peering over the wall from the church next door. It was a Saturday evening. What was he doing there, I wondered, and why was he spying on us? Was there something in the church we weren’t meant to see – and was the ‘barbecue’ just a distraction?

I put it to the back of my mind. Months passed, and I was busy stopping people from playing golf on Sundays. But, last week, I realised the true nature of what happens in the church on Saturday evenings.

There is a prayer meeting, but this just provides the brothers with a convenient excuse to gather in the session room afterwards. That is when the real business takes place. And that is where the story takes a sinister turn.

I disguised myself as a cleaner (apron, can of Pledge), and so slipped unnoticed into the building. The door to their meeting room was ajar, and so I hovered, dabbing with my chamois every so often.

They had divided into groups. Some seemed to be devising a strategy for removing washing from clothes lines unseen. An elite group near the window were filling brown envelopes, some marked ‘CnES’ and others with the label, ‘Stornoway Trust’. All perfectly standard and above board. Disappointed at the ordinariness of what I was seeing, I turned to go.

Suddenly, I heard one of the elders calling for quiet. ‘The minister is going to make the call’, he said. I froze, every particle of my being poised for flight, but wanting to hear this mysterious ‘call’. He punched a number into his phone. The room was utterly silent. Peeping through a crack, I could see the anxious faces of the elders, watching and listening. Then I heard the minister’s voice, and his words dropped like heavy, black stones into my heart:

‘Release the sharks’, he said, and hung up.

I looked at my watch. Eleven thirty. Of course, his terrible purpose dawned on me and, sick with terror, I started to move towards the exit. My treacherous foot, however, landed on a creaky floorboard. All at once, the session room door was flung open, and the passage was flooded with light from within. For a brief moment, I thought what a great metaphor this was for the work of the Free Church . . . but something in me rebelled against this indoctrination.

‘What are you doing here?’ the elder asked suspiciously.

‘Just . . . cleaning. There was a bit of dust on the suidheachan mòr’.

Mollified, he nodded, taking in the polish in my right hand. It was as good a disguise as any Wee Free woman could deploy.

‘How much did you hear?’ he asked then. I feigned my best innocent look, the one I use whenever I’m in the presence of the elders.

‘Not much. You know I don’t understand men’s talk’, I giggled girlishly. He seemed satisfied with this, and turned to go back into the room.

My heart hammering, I started to walk towards the outside door, feigning nonchalance. Pursing my lips, I was about to start whistling, when I remembered God isn’t keen on women doing that. Dizzy with relief, I had my hand on the door handle, when I heard the elder’s voice behind me.

‘Wait’, he said, ‘you’re not the cleaner. You’re a different woman. Come here’.

My knees knocking, I did as I was told, and he led me into the session room. The others, still most awfully assembled, looked at him quizzically.

‘She was listening at the door. I nearly let her go, thinking she was the cleaner. But she lied to me; she said she doesn’t understand men’s talk’.

No one spoke. Then, the minister put aside the white cat he had been stroking and rose to his feet. I shrank back.

‘Well’, he said at last, smiling in a deadly,

Presbyterian way – like the glint off the metal plate on a coffin – ‘that was a daft mistake to make. After we put you into an organisation filled with men just like us, after training you to understand how middle-aged Lewismen tick . . . you try to pull that rookie nonsense. Tsk.’

It was true. Everyone knew I had been trained by the Free Church Covert Operations Unit to blend in with men in their fifties, sixties and even seventies. Indeed, it was no secret that my code name was ‘The Bodach Whisperer’. To try passing myself off as any other simple-minded Wee Free woman was just plain daft. Those scones would never rise.

There was only one thing I could say. My training had given me a faultless instinct for uttering exactly the words Lewismen of a certain age want to hear.

‘You’re right’.

He nodded. I could sense that I had regained a little ground, so bravely decided to push my luck.

‘What are the sharks for?’

His steely smile changed at my question. The room was still, except for the sound of sweets being unwrapped. I could see he was weighing up whether or not to trust me. It seemed the balance was about to tip away from me again . . . and then he told me.

I didn’t expect to get away from there after he’d revealed the awful truth. Now I’m on the run, not knowing who to trust, or where to go. There are some people in the Church of Scotland . . . not friends, exactly (well, I mean, they’re Church of Scotland), but they might help me move my lines, teach me some hymns, get a new identity. 

In case that doesn’t work out, though, in case they get to me first, I want to tell you the truth. It’s exactly as a few astute people suspected all along – worse, even. 

We knew about the election rigging, the indoctrination, the application of a six-day contract to every purchase of clothes pegs. But, the extent of the control was revealed to me by the minister that Saturday night.

‘The sharks’, he said, ‘are released now, and rounded up in twenty-six hours. We WILL eradicate Sunday swimming’. As I stared at him, the full horror of his words dawning on me, he laughed coldly, and added – chilling words that I cannot forget – ‘We’re sourcing moles next. They’ll enjoy digging up the golf course’.

It’s probably too late to save me. But you know the truth now. There are people on social media who have known all along, and were dismissed – yes, even by me – as wild conspiracy theorists. Find them. Only they know how things truly are.

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.