If not you, then who?

The patron saint of Dubrovnik, where I visited recently, is a man called St Blaise, frequently depicted as carrying the city in his hand. While you are there, even just visiting, it is said that he holds you in his palm also.

Now, a few days of visiting cathedrals and monasteries isn’t quite enough to make me subscribe to the notion of sainthood. I know enough of humanity to doubt that any such perfection will ever be seen this side of heaven. But, as I consider my own home island, something beguiles me about the thought of it being held safely in a protective hand. Lewis needs that more than ever before, as the powers and principalities seek to destroy all in it that is right and good.

If I don’t accept the notion of patron saints, though, who should be the protector of Lewis? Whose role is it to ensure that all we hold dear is kept safe?

Well, call me a heretic, but I’m going to invoke another Roman Catholic saint here, St Teresa of Avila. Addressing the Christian body in its entirety, she said:

‘Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world’.

If we, the Christian community of Lewis, are indeed his hands, his feet, his eyes, then to us, surely, falls the protection of our island.

That, my friends, means a bit more than we’ve been doing. Lewis is not the last stronghold of the gospel. As I have said before, the stronghold is not a place, but a person, and we have no more claim on him than anywhere else. But he has a claim on us. If we have called out to him, and said, ‘Lord, Lord’, we have to be prepared for the inconvenient possibility that he might have a job for us.

Not a comfy, predictable nine-to-five, and not a highly paid, glamorous position either. This is the God, remember, who sent the Apostles with almost nothing to their names, out to build his church. Might he not be asking us to put ourselves out a little? Is it at all possible that he’s speaking to us, that when we ask in prayer what he would have us do, he has answered many times, but we’re deaf to what we would rather not hear?

I know the answer, because I’ve been there more than once. God doesn’t check with us whether now is a good time. He doesn’t even ask if it’s what we want to do. No, if we listen, here’s what he’s saying:

This is what I have for you. It may not have been in your plan, but it’s always been in mine. Don’t worry about what you will say, or how you will do this – I send my people nowhere alone, or unequipped.

I’m sorry, in one sense, to be repeating myself – but this is important, and must therefore be said over and over.

We all know that society has changed and now, moral decline is catalysed by government. Where once we had leadership, we now mainly have populist politicians, seeking to please the people, like a painted troupe of dancing girls. They say what they think we want to hear. And we obediently become the creatures they have pictured in their minds – approving everything that once we knew to be wrong, and revolted by any hint of the truth.

We know it. But are we, a believing people, going to just accept the rapid decline as a done deed? If we shrug now and throw up our hands, will it go well for us later?

Every one of us already knows the answer. We pray for the state of our world, of our country, of our island.

There is a mission field right here. When I see the anger in people and the hostility that manifests in a community like ours over little things of no lasting consequence, I realise the need.

It’s a need for Christ. People who think they are secularists lash out at the church and its traditional influence. They hiss and spew venom at those who profess the Saviour. In a desperate attempt to not face facts, they mock and deride what they secretly fear, and what their soul actually craves:

Rest in him.

The duty to show them this rests with those fortunate enough to have realised their own need. It rests with people like me, and with most of you reading this.

We cannot simply pray for them, though, with our hands over our ears, and our feet rooted to the spot. Believing people have to take their faith public – to go into these positions where difficult decisions are made.

Surely, in a country where governments sanction the murder of the unborn child, the reinterpretation of God’s fixed law, and the excising of the Bible from public life, there is an expectation that we will try to be where such decisions are made.

Moses did not want to go to such places. He thought someone else should do it, but God told him to open his mouth, and the words would be supplied.

If we don’t believe that, what do we believe? And if we truly do, what are we going to do about it?

Comforting His People

, All summer, the blacker of my two cats – let’s call her ‘Mo’, for that is her name – has been largely absent from the house, except for the occasional visit to fill up on Whiskas and slap the dog. If I petted her, or even addressed a casual remark in her general direction, I was invariably met with a hard stare, or a high-pitched mew of disdain.

The moment, however, the weather turned a little colder, a little wetter and a lot windier, Mo became my best friend again. She can now mostly be found curled up in my wardrobe (don’t ask), or stretched on the radiator in the front hall. Cuddles are welcomed, and she even seeks out my company from time to time. However objectionable my personality and conversation, Mo clearly realises when she’s onto a good thing – I am a warm and cuddly guarantee of food and shelter. In short, I am her source of comfort.

For human beings, there are two levels of comfort. There is the ordinary, everyday kind – or, at least, it’s seen as such by we privileged westerners – which consists of all the things we take for granted: warm, clean clothing, a secure home, income, a steady food supply, good health and good healthcare, relative peace and safety.

I don’t know why, particularly, but this morning I was moved to thank God in prayer for the howling wind and driving rain sounds to which I awoke, to which I often awake. They remind me of my blessedness in living where I do, in a place I love, and in a home which is a stronghold against the elements.

The other level of comfort, though, is a deeper one – it caters to our emotional and spiritual needs. Like Mo, our craving for it can be particularly acute during the onset of a soul-shaking storm.

We heard in church recently how the idea of comfort in the Bible carries with it the sense of getting alongside the person who needs it. It is not unusual, when we anticipate going to the home of a bereaved family, to worry that we will not know what to say, as though the perfect choice of words from us could make any difference at all. The words don’t matter; the being there does. And, comfort comes from knowing that there is solidarity in grief, which is surely the most universal of all human experiences.

This week, two families I have come to know and love in the Lord have parted with loved ones. In their different ways, these deaths have touched the church and wider community in Scotland. It isn’t simply that Anna and Murdo Alex were so young, though that cannot fail to give the hardest of hearts a thought of eternity. I think it is the strength of their faith that compels everyone standing near to confront the fact that this comfort which we get from God, it’s real. There is no quick-fix, this’ll make you feel better for now-ness about it – this is the solid, all-encompassing, unchanging, faithfulness of God writ large across the lives, and deaths, of those who love him and, more crucially, whom he loves.

He has created his church as a body, to experience his providence – easy or challenging – collectively. I tend to think that’s what Ecclesiastes is getting at when it says, ‘in the day of prosperity, rejoice, but in the day of adversity, consider’. We learn something in our own providences, yes, but it is something we were made to share with the rest of God’s people too. I feel able to speak to people who have lost loved ones, from a place of greater understanding because it has been part of my own experience too.

The thing is, though, I hope that what I’m sharing is not so much my experience of death as my receipt of God’s comfort. For me, the miraculous thing is not that I got through the worst thing that has ever happened in my life, but that I was comforted by the presence of my Saviour, and by my knowledge of his sufficiency in that and all things.

That received sense of peace would be meaningless were it not for the complete trustworthiness of the source. A made-up God that I was choosing to believe in would be a thin comfort blanket indeed against the chills of grief. Yet, poor unbelievers persist in the delusion that Christians ‘choose’ to accept the existence of God as a crutch to get them through.

God exists; that is not up for debate. It is not the mere existence of God which keeps his people in their darkest hours, however – it is his provision, through Christ, of a love that will not let them go. Our relationship with him is often at its most beautiful when we need him most. Hardship and trials in this world, even those less painful than bereavement, drive us into his arms.

It does not remove, or even lessen our difficulties in this world, but it does help put them in their proper perspective. We are the body of his church, and what hurts one, should pain all. Equally, the comfort which we individually receive at his hand is for sharing, that we might bear one another’s burdens.

“ ‘Comfort, comfort, my people’, says your God” – not empty words, not a ‘there, there’ pat on the hand, but a prelude to his own coming among us in the person of his Son.

That’s comfort of the most complete, all-encompassing kind. And there is no comfort apart from him. I know, because it is mine, and it is enough.It will  always be enough.

 

It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

In ‘Bambi’, Thumper’s mother advises him, ‘if you can’t say nothing nice, then don’t say nothing at all’. It was very much in this spirit that I refrained from blogging over the last few weeks. Every time I tried to put finger to keyboard, a host of ideas would march in hobnailed boots through my mind, and I found that I didn’t want to share them with you.

There is, right at this present moment, enough ugliness in the world. I am tired of the brutal language from parliament; I am weighed down by the solemn-faced teenager from Scandinavia who speaks to us of apocalypse; and I am tired in my heart at the many ways in which I encounter discouragement and opposition. It is so very easy to feel that you are making no difference to the world at all, except by contributing to global warming and voting for the wrong people to govern us.

It’s at moments like these, more than at any other that we have to rest on the promises which are ours in Christ. This really is no continuing city; the road we are on, as Christians, will carry us far beyond all of the strife and fear that sin has created, into the haven of eternity in his presence.

Meantime, however, is it possible for us to retain our grip on that peace whilst avoiding the accusation that we are too heavenly minded to be any earthly use?

Yes, I think it is.

For me, a particular verse from scripture has become very important in all of this. Naomi, speaking to Ruth, advises, ‘Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out’.

Even reading it floods me with a sense of the difference between God’s purpose and our understanding of it. We know that he has his own timing, his own plan, and yet we continue to behave as though these are our hands upon the steering wheel, and our foot on the accelerator.

I have taken that verse to heart because it has a very practical application. Recently, I received news that was simultaneously concerning and disappointing. My initial reaction was negative, and then I remembered Naomi’s wisdom. We are so quick to assume that something is ended because it feels that way for us.

Do we not believe that the Lord blessed Job even more in the second half of his life than in the beginning?

If we do, then we have to live believing it. By that, I don’t just mean that we have to live while believing it; I mean we have to live out our belief in how we think, in what we do, and how we are with other people.

I thought, the day I married my husband, that this was God’s intention for me. And, indeed, so it was – it was his intention that we should have eleven years and eight months of marriage. The last few months were not filled with the same kind of happiness we had known, of course, because they were marred by pain and sadness. That, however, was not some aberration from God’s plan. We – Donnie and I – had not foreseen, nor desired such a thing, but it was in our providence. We take the good things from God’s hands unquestioningly, never doubting our deserving of them; why, then, would we question the same hand when it deals with us in ways we would not choose?

So, let’s take that individual lesson, which so many of us have learned at some point in our journey, and apply it to the world around us.

It would be easy to be overwhelmed by grief at the state of God’s cause in our midst. I have grown up in a country which increasingly ignores his imperative, and countenances the murder of the unborn child, the warping of the biological code, the reinterpretation of marriage. In a well-intentioned move not to demonise people for their differences, we have deified those very differences. The apparent conclusion of all this is that we will continue to be wise in our own sight, and shut God out of his own creation forever, just as he cast our first parents from Eden.

Mankind seems bent upon avenging Adam through warfare with God. Parents wilfully prevent their children from being exposed to the truth, in open defiance of the contract that says they should raise their families in fear and admonition of the Lord. They admit no such contract; they admit no God but their own reason.

Yet, I am not overwhelmed by grief. Instead, I consider Naomi’s words again: ‘Wait, my daughter . . .’

God is not finished. Into such a maelstrom of sin and rebellion, he has come many times, and bent the people to his will. What cause have we to believe that this is any different?

The Bible assures us that he does not leave himself without witnesses. While this is true, we may feel at time that our numbers are too few to fight so many foes on so many different fronts. This has certainly been my own feeling during the darker nights of discouragement in my soul.

Then, though, I remember that the fight is not ours, but his. Just as in our own personal circumstances, we trust that God is working everything for good according to his purpose, we have to see all of creation in that same light. Global warming, prorogued parliaments, abortion, war . . . everything is accounted for in his plan.  He will make good his promises to us, and we have to keep faith with him.

That doesn’t mean wringing our hands or turning our faces to the wall. The world, however broken, still has a chance. While we wait to see what wonders God will do, we must be about his business more urgently, because it isn’t over until he calls time.

Romeos, cailleachan and spiritual undress

I went on an outing with Balaich an Trust last week, and, after a relatively brief car journey with one of them, discovered I was an item of clothing short. Searching high and low, I could not find it anywhere and was forced to confront the fact that I was out minus  that which no respectable Lewiswoman willingly divests – my cardigan. 

What rush of blood to the head, you ask, had overcome me, to the extent that the knitted reputation-saver had been lost . . . 

I remembered in my confusion, my father’s tale of a woman at whose door the vehicle of a well-known lothario was frequently parked. My father – driving for the dry-cleaners – went one day to deliver freshly laundered garments of which it turns out she was in dire need. She had been, he told us, many years later, up to no good with the visiting reprobate. ‘How do you know that?’ myself and my sister scoffed, believing our own generation had a monopoly on shenanigans. His answer was hard to argue against: ‘Because’, he said decisively, ‘when she answered the door to me, she had taken off her apron’.

The implication, of course, was that she had been carried away. Such had been the allure of the local romeo that she had lost her head – and her wrap-around floral pinny. If you are unfamiliar with the complexity of these garments, let me assure you that it’s unlikely one was ever removed by accident.

We set a lot of store by clothing, don’t we?  Apparel has a kind of cultural importance, beyond the merely practical one of preserving decency and keeping out the cold/midgies. I was reminded of this when visiting the fabrication yard at Arnish that cardiganless day. Aside from the hard hat and hi-vis jackets, we were told to don steel-toecapped footwear that will always be referred to here in Lewis by those of a certain age, as ‘Arnish boots’. They achieved currency during the heyday of the yard, and have come to be inextricably linked with its name. 

I can remember, too, when the windows of local clothing retailers, Murdo Maclean’s, and its rival, Nazir Bros, would be filled with ladies’ hats, deftly to coincide with communion season. For most who still attend church assiduously, headgear is not part of their wardrobe, and so the shop displays no longer reflect what was once very much a local event. Of course, we still celebrate communion but it is less of a community affair now.

My own personal dress code for public worship has relaxed somewhat over the years. I have come to the conclusion that the outward trappings don’t matter too much. God listens to me when I pray at home in my pyjamas; I can’t imagine for a second he’s going to turn his face from the earnest petitions of one of his own, just because they’ve gone to church in jeans. Truthfully, I would rather see our pews packed with folk in biker leathers than sparsely populated by ‘correctly’ attired ladies in hats and posh frocks.

I have found, anyway, that there is really only one outfit necessary to the Christian: armour.

Ephesians 6 tells us what ‘the whole armour of God’ consists of: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, feet shod with the readiness that stems from the gospel of peace. All of this should be accessorised with the shield of faith, the sword of the Spirit, and the helmet of salvation.

Do I agonise over this outfit as much as I might over my outward apparel? Is it my habit to make an inventory, checking that all the pieces are in place?

Honestly? No, I don’t always. Sometimes I go far too long in neglecting to fasten and refasten the buckles that hold everything together.

In recent weeks, something happened to remind me about being a better soldier. I had not been in prayer so much, I had spent less time in the Word, and I had skipped the means of grace far more frequently than was wise or necessary.

And then I was brought up short by an incident. Petty, anonymous hatred of the most insidious and accusatory kind, intended to steal my peace. It reminded me of a very precious truth: the world is poles apart from God, and it is, therefore, not my home.

We will have troubles here. People might let us down, hurts will come – but we should receive these as they are intended by God: to persuade us that we really do belong to him. For me, the whole sorry debacle was an opportunity for the Lord to show me the truth of Joseph’s words to his brothers, ‘you intended to harm me, but God intended it for my good’

He brought me swiftly back to his side, where I am safest. And I have straightened out my armour, reattaching what had worked loose, and preparing both my sword and shield so I might follow him more closely.

But, even in that fray, when I was undoubtedly tussling with Satan, there was one element of my outfit that did not move.

As with any soldier, it will remain fixed until the battle is over.  That gives me comfort because I know I will fail again: my arm will flag in holding up my faith as a shield, and I will try to fend off the blows without it.

But the one item I will never – indeed, can never – lose, is the helmet of salvation. Christ puts it in place, and only he has the authority to remove it.

Which no soldier does until the battle is over.

Downcast, but not Outcast

Usually I look at the mirror only out the corner of my eye. I figure that’s the kind of glance most others will give me throughout the course of the day and anything that doesn’t scream at me out of the reflection – giant spot, cow’s lick etc – is unlikely to be noticed by a passing stranger either.

Sometimes, though, I’m brought up short. Lately, the circles under my eyes are darkening, and bags are starting to form. Altogether, I look uncannily like my Carloway granny. This will mean nothing to most of you, but suffice it to say that my late husband, when he wished to pay me a compliment, would remark on how lucky I was to have taken after the other side of the family. Let me tell you, things are bad when you’re hankering after the days people thought you might be from Achmore.

Eye bags and blemishes notwithstanding, this is still not the most disturbing reflection I have encountered this week. I have to confess to something of a struggle; one of those challenges to my faith that cannot simply be brushed aside. It is something I have heard often from others, and always tried to talk them out of – but lately I find myself tested by the same question: what are we supposed to do when the church behaves worse than the world?

There is no sense in pretending that this is not sometimes so. The Bible provides us with plenty examples of it – righteous men, like Jacob, for example, using deceit to achieve their own ends.

So, if it’s there in God’s word that a cheat can still enter the kingdom, who are we to doubt it?

This week, I have been disappointed by the behaviour of some fellow Christians. It is not something that needs to be discussed here, but it has caused me much reflection. And, as always, God provides direction. I shared a favourite Bible verse on Facebook – Peter’s exhortation that we should always be ready to give a defence of the reason for the hope that is in us – and I expressed sadness that no one ever asks for a reason; they merely mock my faith.

Might that not, however, someone pointed out, be my own fault? I should clarify, he wasn’t being unkind, and he didn’t single me out – he actually said ‘the fault of believers’. However, I am singling myself out, because he was absolutely right. If I don’t show forth the hope that is in me, who is going to ask about it? The very same day, in the course of searching for something else, I discovered an old tweet in which I was described as representing Christians the same way that Richard Dawkins represented atheists.

Suddenly, all the pieces fell into place. Unbelievers have consistently described me as ‘bitter’ and ‘hate-filled’ – because that is how I come across to them. I have failed to go where they are, to get alongside them, and to represent Jesus as what He is to me, and what He could be to them. Hung up on protecting our Christian heritage, I have somehow managed not to show love, but judgement.

This was never my intention. It just shows you, though, there’s a wide gulf between the person we see in the mirror and the face we present to the world.

We have to be careful of that. I am not suggesting that we compromise on the message, but that we have to be careful of its presentation. Of course, I know that a certain amount of whatever we might say will always be met with derision, regardless. At the weekend, I inadvertently offended a whole lot of the Twitterati by sharing the petition to retain prayers in parliament. It was deemed arrogant, and I genuinely don’t think that it was anything I wrote which gave this impression – simply the fact that some are determined to despise public expressions of faith.

I am downcast, but I have been downcast before. Failure in the Christian life is actually an opportunity to relearn that we are not to do this on our own strength, or in our own wisdom. Ironically, that’s exactly why I think all public bodies should preface their daily business with prayer.

We have, as Christians, to be doubly careful because, as the quote goes, the world may not read the Bible, but it will certainly read us – our lives, our conduct, our motivation, the way that we treat others. Instead of me being disillusioned by what I perceive as unChristian behaviour in others, I need to work a lot harder on the page I am presenting to the world myself.

Am I displaying Christ, and the unparalleled hope, the joyous freedom I enjoy in Him? Yes, I write about it, and I talk about it too – but am I living it? Do those currently outside Him look at me, and at my life, and see nothing there to recommend this path? Am I actually hiding the marvellous light from them, instead of testifying to it in a life filled with joy?

I am reminded of an old lady who was asked if she ever doubted her salvation. She replied that she would often pray to God that if He had not already begun a good work in her, please would He start now. It’s never too late to begin.

God doesn’t speak in order to dishearten us, but so that we might rebuild the wall where it may have tumbled down. He has given me my answer – never mind the speck in their eyes, but worry about the beam in your own. All the while I’ve been getting bent out of shape over the behaviour of others, I have been drifting away from where I ought to be. That is not God’s plan, but the enemy’s.

Spiritual Journey to a Destination Unknown

In a couple of weeks, I plan to visit Ness, to speak to the ladies of the WFM there. Believe it or not, I rarely address any group without having put some thought into what I will be saying. I have a technique which works reasonably well for me in this respect and I started to put it into practice this week, while driving my car.

Actually, a lot of my spiritual journey centres on the car and it was only while sitting in it, thinking about Ness, that I realised just how long this has been true for me.

Life became frantically busy last year, and each day I spend at least 50 minutes just driving to and from work. On the mornings when I am pushed for time, I wait until I am underway before speaking to God as I drive. At first, I felt guilty about doing this, as though I was being disrespectful. But then it dawned on me that I had always spoken to Him on car journeys . . . just that I was now doing it out loud, and calling it ‘prayer’.

And, this year, I have taken things a step further. I am following a plan which allows me to listen to the Bible being read over the course of a year. As soon as I start the engine each morning, therefore, David Suchet’s calm voice reads to me a portion from the New Testament, followed by a reading from the Old.

When I worked in Ness, I drove back and forth across the moor every day. I was single and living with my parents, and enjoying life. There was nothing to trouble my mind. To while away the miles, I began to listen to recordings of sermons our own minister had preached. This being well before the digital revolution, I was limited to the cassettes that were available to me and so I listened to some of these sermons repeatedly, and two in particular.

One spoke of God as a refiner of silver, retrieving the object from the fire only when it was finished, and the Maker could see in it His own image. The other favourite was on Paul’s famous utterance about God’s strength being made perfect in weakness. I loved these – yet if anyone had asked me, I wouldn’t have been able to tell why.

But I know now. Reflecting on it as I prayed over what to say to the ladies of Ness, I realised that all those years ago, God was preparing me. I was not in the midst of troubled waters yet, but I stored up the precious truths in my heart against a time when I would be. This was not because of my far-sightedness, but because of His.

When the man I had not yet met was taken from me, I would fall back on these precious words and the reassurance that they convey: God is not punishing you; He is drawing you closer to Himself.

That our eternal God plays the long game should not surprise us, but it should certainly give us comfort. We often speak about the difficult providences which we encounter, and the fact that we often cannot comprehend their meaning. I think it’s important to remember something else, though: God equips us for the journey He has set before us; not the one we think lies ahead.

I didn’t know why I was listening to those sermons repeatedly back then, but God was working in me the faith that would hold me to Himself when that was all I had.

It was sitting in my office in Ness that I enrolled on the very first Free Church Saturday course in theology. This was an uncharacteristically bold move on my part, because I was terrified that I would be the only non-Christian (I was) and possibly the only non-elder (I wasn’t) in the class.

By the time the Ness chapter of my life had closed, I found myself no closer to being a Christian. Although I had found happiness with my husband, and a new job, everything else seemed to have been a waste of time. The theology books I had bought sat in the bookcase, mocking me – reminding me of that other sermon message which replayed in my memory: do not begin building the tower, unless you are sure you have the tools to finish the job.

But that was just spiritual myopia, and a failure of faith on my part. I didn’t start the job – God did, and when He begins a good work in us, He will see it through.

Perhaps you are reading this, feeling discouraged, thinking you are no nearer to Him than you were many years ago. It’s just possible you feel that way because you don’t see what He sees: this is a journey, and He knows what you will need along the way. God is making sure that you are trained and equipped as you need to be for all that providence has in store.

It was because of this period in my life that I knew there was Someone there to catch me when I fell. There is no wasted time with God: He knows the plans He has for us, and every breath we take builds towards the moment when He calls us by name.

 

 

The Port We Long to See

This week, since donning my own ‘Iolaire’ pin, I have noticed them on other lapels also. Like the poppies which we are so used to seeing annually, they are a silent, unifying act of remembrance. To wear one, I think, says something about how much this place and these people mean. For me, the men who were lost on that night, and those whose lives were changed forever, are still part of the chain to which we belong. That lovely custom of patronymics – bearing not only your own name, but that of your father, and grandfather before him – has kept us linked to one another across years, across great distances, and even on either side of death.

It will soon be one hundred years since that night which entered the Lewis psyche, arguably never to leave. I am a believer in Carl Jung’s collective unconscious: that there are areas of the subconscious mind which are motivated by experiences we did not personally have, but which are inherited from our ancestors. Because I believe also in original sin, this makes perfect sense to me. Add to that the strength of what we now call community in this island, and it is small wonder that wounds inflicted a century ago have not quite healed.

And, of course, our own particular experience may add a poignancy even to something so far in the past. When I was younger, I could listen to Murdo MacFarlane’s ‘Raoir reubadh an Iolaire’ with relative equanimity. Now, I find his description of the woman’s dawning grief virtually unbearable:

Sguir i dhol chun an dorais

‘S air an teine chuir mòine

She ceased going to the doorway

Or putting peat on the fire’

I had so many years of waiting for my husband to come home that, even now, three and a half years after his death, on some level I think I am still waiting. Nonetheless, I know what it is to feel your hope dying, and for loss to move from being an abstract thing that happens to others, to being a reality from which no earthly power can liberate you. For me, it didn’t happen when I was told he would die within a matter of days; it happened when they removed the PICC line, which had delivered the hope-giving chemotherapy into his arm. It was symbolic of the death we were now all having to accept. There would be no more going to look hopefully out the door for me either.

 But, just as light drives out darkness, life overcomes death. You must go on, and the providences which God gives will shape your dealing with others, as well as your understanding of self.

And, as it is with individuals, so it is – I believe – with community.

The Lewis that awoke from the last year of war into a January filled with nothing but grief must have faltered at first. There must have been, as there is for every one of us who has lost a loved one, the thought that recovery from this would be impossible. And there were difficult times to follow; not least the years of emigration because, much as people wanted to cling to their home island, it could no longer support them all. As Donald MacIver put it, in these lines from the beautiful ‘An Ataireachd Àrd’:

S na coilltean a siar chan iarrainn fuireach gu bràth;
Bha m’inntinn ’s mo mhiann a-riamh air lagan a’ bhàigh;
Ach iadsan bha fial an gnìomh, an caidreabh ’s an àgh,
Air sgapadh gun dìon mar thriallas ealtainn ro nàmh.

In the woods of the west I would not wish to remain;

My mind and desire were always on the hollow by the bay;

But those who were generous in deed, in fellowship and joy,

Are scattered defenceless like a flock of birds before its enemy’.

 Scattered: by war, by the Atlantic, by death. And yet, still those names belonged in the patronymic chain. It may have been strained by absence, and by distance but, like the heaving rope which brought so many men alive from the Beasts of Holm, that chain held fast.

 And it holds fast even now. We don’t wear these badges to mark a distant and remote event, but a personal grief which has permeated life in Lewis and Harris since the turn of 1918. I like to think that it has shaped this community, made it finer and stronger, and knit it closer together. Even though we will have times of drifting apart, and of falling out, remembering is an act which will always unify us.

The sinking of the ‘Iolaire’ ended 205 lives, and blighted many more. This was part of the same providence which the Stornoway motto claims as our inheritance. I have often heard expressions of surprise that such a bitter experience did not turn the survivors against God. That incredulity comes from the same place that caused someone to ask me whether I had been angry with Him for taking Donnie. 

Job’s answer ‘Shall we receive good from God, and not receive evil?’ is the right one here. Like Job, and like the psalmist – over and over – we have to take providence and let it do its work. Those more challenging aspects are not something we recover from, but something which becomes part of our identity. 

To commemorate this centenary is only partly about those who were lost, although of course that’s significant too. We have, also, to be thankful for the fact that God was faithful to this community: a constant in the years of turmoil. Many gave their sons, and who understands that sorrow better than Him? 

The poppy, a symbol of violent death, is paired with the bell, a symbol of holy power on the lapels of islanders this year. May they be tokens to us all of the One who perfectly unites both, and sees all His people safely to the shore.

 

Birds who Pray and Birds of Prey

Etiquette in Lewis is not like it is anywhere else. One knows, almost instinctively, for example, not to bring up a person’s Balallan connections in polite company. And we don’t need a manual to dress appropriately (no wellies after Ness Gala Day), or which implement to use first when lifting the potatoes.

It is possible, as it turns out, to know all that and yet, still commit a great social taboo. I know, because I did it myself.

‘Will you speak at our fellowship in Kinloch?’ I was asked, an invitation which I happily accepted. But in the breathtaking arrogance of the lifelong Wee Free, I forgot to check which denomination . . . for there are two.

‘Two!’ I hear your exclaim in disbelief. Yes, well, I mean in Laxay. Obviously we have others throughout Lewis – we are Presbyterians after all.

Anyway, I discovered the daftness of my assumption in time and set off with friends for an evening service in the Kirk. Or so I thought.

In another colossal breach of island etiquette, we actually went to the Free Church next door. Such is our indoctrination, and our fear of the Session, that we thought we’d better, or risk censure on our return.

No, not really. In fact, the Church of Scotland notice board declared that they would be having a Gaelic service, and my pal is a monoglot, so . . .

Eventually, we did make it to the Aonadh fellowship. A lifetime of ribbing my mother about her ‘inferior’ CofS upbringing, of questioning the validity of her own and my father’s marriage (it having been Kirk-rendered) . . . all words I’d have to eat, along with some excellent pancakes. Because – and nobody tell the Session I said so – they were a lovely congregation. Aside from some native character flaw which makes them all turn up at the last minute for things, they are a warm, genuine and welcoming branch of God’s family.

I knew they would be. It’s not simply that one or two of them were known to me before, nor my natural Lochie bias, what with the Achmore genes, but something else altogether.

It was God’s timing, and His hand I could discern. My visit to ‘the Lake District’ of Lewis had been planned for a couple of weeks, and it was a standard, share-your-testimony kind of plan. But, I knew, a couple of days before that, whoever else might derive benefit from hearing me, one person really needed to hear that testimony again: myself.

I was running, if not quite on empty, very close to it. Physically, emotionally and even spiritually. End of term, end of tether.

There have been difficult conversations around differences of opinion with other Christians. Not everyone sees Grace on the Green as what we intended it to be: an open-air act of public worship, and a nod to the place Christianity has in our culture, all to glorify God. Nonetheless, I appreciate those who addressed their disquiet directly to me, and who did so privately, as Scripture prescribes. No difference of opinion between Christians should result in public displays of pique. And, I might venture, no one should assume they know the heart of another, nor the prayers that have gone out from that heart. God knows, and He deals accordingly.

It has been predictable, but dispiriting. On top of everything else, it gave me a quick flash of ‘why do I bother?’ which, after prayer, dissipated. The freedom I enjoy in Christ is not going to be bound up by anyone else’s idea of conscience. Otherwise, are we really free?

God had prepared the remedy for me last Sunday, however. It was not the good Laxay air, nor the copious amounts of baking, nor even the warmth of the lovely fellowship. No, it was my own testimony.

What is testimony, after all, but evidence – an eye-witness account – of God’s goodness to us? This same God who took my time of unspeakable sorrow and raised it up as immeasurable blessing. It is to Him I pray, to Him I commit every day of my life, and to Him I look for guidance. My faith is sure because of Him, not because of me. And so, I know in whom I have believed. That is more than sufficient for my peace of mind. Remembering His goodness to me reaffirmed that; I rest on Him, and He is enough.

The doubting – and sometimes unpleasantness- of others can shake your confidence. You can begin to question your own judgment and even your own motives. But whatever is anchored in Him is sure and unshakeable. Sometimes you need to remember that all over again.

As I left Kinloch, one of the congregation stood at the door of the church with me, and pointed out two birds of prey flying overhead. Hen harriers, he thought, and I marvelled how he could tell from that distance.

And then I realised that his confidence came from knowledge and a practiced eye. I think we Christians would also know each other better if we spent more time getting acquainted spiritually, and remembering our unity in Christ.

Even from this distance, we should all be able to discern His marks on our brothers and sisters, and them on us.

Raging & Witnessing

Once, when I was eleven years old, someone really annoyed me. When my shocked teacher returned to the general mayhem of the classroom after playtime, she found me, standing on a chair dishing out a full-blown row to one of the boys. She gave the accustomed blast to everyone to get back to their seats and be quiet. Me, she took aside, and instead of the expected punishment,said that she’d like to see more of that kind of spark in future.

Great displays of temper are largely beyond me. Recently, I was ambushed by an angry secularist who claimed not to have been following the ‘debate’, but still knew that I was in the wrong. I simmered, but stayed calm. It was ill-judged and inappropriate in every sense, on her part, but I should have walked away much earlier nonetheless .

We have been hearing a lot recently in church about situations like these and, more specifically, where you are denigrated in public because of your attachment to the Lord. The correct response is not to say nothing. It is, pretty obviously, not to respond in kind either – we know better than to stoop to that kind of reviling and abuse. God wants a bit more of us than that.

And so I remember the one area of my life where aggression sometimes manifests. I am a pretty impatient driver. People dawdling along in front of me, pulling out at junctions when I’m almost upon them, waiting at roundabouts when they have the right of way . . . these can bring out the Mr Hyde to my normally placid Dr Jekyll.

However, I had the capability to subdue my baser instincts behind the wheel in one significant set of circumstances. At election times, displaying a sticker in support of my party of choice, I would turn into the world’s most courteous driver. Smiles, waves, signalling folk to pull out into the flow of traffic while I waited with a beatific, Mother Theresa-style countenance (or the Wee Free equivalent) – all these were suddenly possible. I could be an ambassador for that cause.

Surely this one deserves that same consideration, and more: much, much more.

What more can we do, then, when someone tries every lie available to sully our reputation? Other than walking away, that is, or standing mute before them.
Well, Peter wants us to bless them. He wants us to bless them so that we can show them by our good conduct how far short their own falls of what Christ requires. In other words, we do not just omit to revile them, but we actively do something for them to demonstrate the power of the Lord in our lives. That’s important to remember, or we just couldn’t do it.

He is in charge; they are not. The fact that they behave as though they are in complete control of their own destiny should cause sympathy in our hearts, because we know that is not the case at all. We have been where they are. And we did not take ourselves out of danger.

Earlier this week, I listened to a talk about the loss of the ‘Iolaire’ at New Year, 1919. There was, after the war, something of a spiritual revival here in Lewis. These men who had been in such grave peril were turning to God in peace time.

I hear some say that this is understandable – that after the unimaginable horror of war, compounded by loss of life on the threshold of home, they looked for something outside themselves.

There is no logic to this. Not in the ordinary sense. In looking for God’s hand, might they not see it as coming down against them? Some of those men witnessed the loss of childhood friends, the stench of battle in nostrils more used to the fragrance of machair and the tang of seaweed at home.

So, when they sought God, why did it lead to faith, and not rebellion against Him? Why were they not angry and reviling like the people in our own midst, who see the Lord only as someone who denies them freedom?

I can only think that it is this: those men saw God as He really is. They looked for Him, and they found Him – His spirit witnessed to theirs, and they were healed in their souls.
For the angry ones here in our own island, there is a difficulty. They are not looking for God, but pushing Him away. As yet, they do not see Him as He really is.

That, I think, is where Christians have a job to do. We must subdue the angry words that rise to our lips when they call us the names that they do. And we must shrug off the lies that they tell, because God, our witness, knows the truth.

It serves no one – least of all our Lord – for anger to seize us. This week, I have watched people tie themselves in knots to prove that theirs is the correct point of view. Ministers, one argued, must place the Bible between human conscience and false teaching. I disagree; I think all believers should position Christ there.

You cannot unsee Christ once He reveals Himself to you. No matter what else your eyes may have witnessed – battle, sickness, death, despair – suddenly they are filled with Him.

He is the truth. And once you have the truth, you are set free – from doubt, from anger, from all the cares of the world.

It is my job, the job of every follower of Christ, to quell our anger, and guard our tongues. Sometimes, I fear we distract from the Saviour, instead of pointing to where He stands.

 

Time Travel, Grace & The Castle Green

I am thoroughly ashamed of myself. For years, I have been coming to sit front and centre in the gallery of Stornoway Free Church, and it never once occurred to me that the inner workings of the clock sit right under my hand.

It took no less a person than . . . well, I won’t name names, but let’s just say that a visitor not unconnected with the manse pointed out the possibilities of manipulation and mayhem which had lain unexploited before me all this time.

How I might have played mindgames
with the occupants of the pulpit, if I had only shown sufficient imagination . . .

It reminded me of a conversation I’d had a while ago with another friend, also about manipulating time. He asked me which Biblical event I would choose to witness if I had the ability to travel back there.

To be honest, I had little trouble deciding. For me, it would simply have to be that road to Damascus with Paul.

Aside from the fact that his teaching has become so precious – yes, even that bit about women keeping quiet in church – Paul has become something of a touchstone for me in the midst of all my dealings with unbelievers.

He is a symbol of real hope that the most outspoken and outrageous enemies of Christ can be turned. God acted decisively and changed that zealous heart into one that would act unstintingly for the cause of Christianity.

This is something that I have tried to keep in mind while engaged in what feels like battle with people who reject Christ. I have prayed – at times through gritted teeth – for those who wound me simply because they no longer have Him before them to revile.

Paul was once like them; worse, even. And there, on the road to Damascus, the Lord remonstrated with him: ‘why do you persecute me?’

Imagine the effect of those words on Paul. That moment was the beginning of his transformation from persecutor to persecuted – and he counted it all gain. He grew in understanding, as every Christian does and, because his was a life of conflict and confrontation for the Lord, the Apostle also grew in grace.

Grace, I am learning, is what you need in order to act in ways the world does not expect. It is God’s gift to His people. I have seen it in them so often – the curbed tongue when every instinct says ‘bite
back’; the polite acceptance of undeserved criticism, or unwanted advice; the uncomplaining demeanour of someone who is suffering . . .
Grace. It is an attribute of the Lord, and it is imputed to us. We grow in it by knowing Him better, and relying on Him more.

Only grace can explain how Saul, the slayer of Christians became Paul,
singing in his prison cell and rejoicing in the thorn that God would not remove.

Grace alone allows the Christian to maintain deep peace in their soul, regardless of how they suffer in their body or their mind.

I live in a community that has seen the effects of grace over and over. We are beneficiaries of this God-given, unearned gift. And yes, that includes those of you who think this is all just crazy talk from
a woman who believes in fairies. You, with every breath you take, are enjoying His common grace. Which is badly named: because it is anything but common.

Speaking to people about the shameful way that our heritage- and especially the Christian aspects of it – have been sidelined and denigrated, I got to wondering why we were letting that be. An Lanntair takes public money from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, amongst
others, but feels no loyalty to the local culture. In fact, it celebrates absolutely everything but one of the most influential
factors that has shaped our community.

Everything we have by God’s grace – even grace itself – we are so apt to take for granted. And this year, maybe more than any other, as we mark the centenary of the ‘Iolaire’ tragedy, I feel we ought to be reflecting on His amazing dealings with our island.

And then, just like Him, just like He always does, God holds up a silencing hand, and whispers, ‘grace’.

He is speaking very clearly indeed to the Christians in this community. Just like He told the Apostles of the New Testament Church to get out there and claim the world for Christ, I believe He is saying to us, ‘take it back’. We need to reclaim our heritage, because our heritage in Him is something we want to pass on. And no one else will do it for us.

An Lanntair won’t do it because, for all its pretension to pushing the envelope, it’s actually just another mirror for the prevailing view. If it was truly edgy – and it’s not; it’s disappointingly conventional – it might do something really radical, like reflect the culture in which it used to be anchored.

So, let’s quit waiting and celebrate our Christian heritage ourselves, our way. After all these years of hitting the high road to Keswick, let’s hold our hands up to God in thanks for what He has done for THIS community. Yes, this very one.

In the spirit of reclaiming our Christian heritage and proclaiming its beauty aloud, come and be part of ‘Grace on the Green’. On the Castle lawn in Stornoway, we will have a July night filled with praise, going up to God from His people, in thanks for the providence that is our
inheritance.

And let it be our prayer that on the road to the green, many will see that He has been active in their lives also, and will join us in lifting up their voices in joy for His amazing and unparalleled grace to us all.