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.

Votes for women – as long as they’re ‘progressive’.

Our local council is all man . . . and not necessarily in the swoon-inducing, gosh, have you been working out way a girl might wish. Of the thirty-one elected members, a nice, round number (zero) are women.

This week, some of the more hysterical sections of our community – and well beyond it – have been getting all bent out of shape about the Stornoway Trust, co-opting three men to replace . . . erm, three men. I am having to get used to being referred to as, variously, ‘only one female’ or ‘the token woman’.

Gee, thanks, none taken – are any of you still wondering why women don’t stand for election here?

I recently invited a friendly local councillor in to the college where I work, to talk to my (mostly female) Democracy students about why local government needs the likes of them. It does. 

The last time I wrote about the council election results, I was fairly sanguine, feeling that men of sense ought to be able to represent women perfectly competently. And so they ought. However, I am no longer sure that the question is actually one of representation.

In fact, I’m a raging complementarian and simply believe that we reflect God best when men and women work together. The point of women on the Comhairle, or anywhere else, is the same as the point of men – to be themselves, and bring their own unique skills to bear on the situation. 

Speaking to my class, though, the golfing (but not on Sundays) councillor put his finger on one aspect of the problem, when he mentioned the ‘p’ word, and women’s lack thereof.

He was referring, of

course, to profile. But absence of profile is only half the issue. There are plenty women currently serving their communities in all kinds of ways, who would not require Saatchi or even his partner, Saatchi, to boost their well-kentness to election standard. I went from being a shy, retiring unknown to being electable enough for the Free Church to collude with me. In my weaker moments, I fool myself that it was my skills and character that stood me in good stead, but ‘everyone knows’ it was really the suidheachan mòr that swung it for me.

See, ‘profile’ can be a burden. That’s the other, thornier half of the problem. It is also the uglier part.

If the baying mob doesn’t like your profile, they will try to dismantle it as best they can.

For me, the onslaught began as soon as I put my hat in the electoral ring. ‘Does she have a chance?’ the small-minded secularists sneered. Then, when they began to fear what they are pleased to call ‘the tyranny of the majority’ (that’s ‘First Past the Post’ to the rest of us), the nay-saying became more vicious and predicated upon hatred of Christianity. It took them places that still make me shudder on their behalf. 

But it has not gone away. The same names pop up repeatedly on social media, desperately clinging to the handle, ‘progressive’. That is, to their way of thinking, everything that is unbiblical, and against what the majority supports. If you were to ask them to define what ‘progressive’ means to them, I feel their truthful answer would be ‘anything but this’.

Now, I don’t care that much what some stranger thinks of me, when that assessment is based on a caricature of my faith and nothing more. I do, however, despise the negativity, spite, and downright lies which some are prepared to tell. And I am angry that this negative, bitter faction is polluting the atmosphere for others.

My own feeling is that, if we are truly serious about overhauling democracy in the Western Isles, we have to remove the toxicity. What example do we set our young people when we behave like the closing chapters of ‘Lord of the Flies’? Is it not rank hypocrisy to talk about eradicating bullying in our schools, while gleefully embracing it everywhere else? You can talk about progress, you can set up feminist networks, you can even pretend that, because you’ve worn a rainbow badge, you’re all about the tolerance.

But if you are complicit in the defamation of innocent people because you disagree with their way of doing things . . . well, then, you are a bully, my friend. Verbal abuse and unfounded accusations of criminality should have no part in public life. If you’ve never met me and yet you hate me, ask yourself why that is.

And then, ask yourself why more women and younger people are reluctant to stand for election. 

I have lost count of the number of capable women who have said they couldn’t handle the hatred that comes my way. No, I’m not surprised – and I couldn’t handle it either, ironically, were it not for the very faith which attracts it like a magnet. But is that really a proud boast for us as a community? We’ve lowered the tone of public debate so far that good people are afraid for their reputations.

Shame on us if we let it continue.

Were there no men?

One hears that drugs are more readily available than ever, but to be offered them at a Free Church event was, frankly, rather shocking. I was speaking at the Women for Mission away day in Inverness last weekend and mentioned that I had a mild headache to the young woman sitting next to me at lunch. In a trice, she’d spoken to one of her contacts, and I was passed a foil strip, containing two ibuprofen. If we WILL encourage them among us, I suppose it’s inevitable that they will bring aspects of their youth culture into the church.

That headache notwithstanding, I had a glorious trip.

I flew out on Friday evening, and spent the night in a rather luxurious bedroom at the Drumossie. ‘It’ll be like a wee holiday’, my mother said, and she wasn’t wrong. Fluffy robe, fabulous shower, cheeky Laphroaig . . . A wee glance at my notes after dinner, and a deep sleep in the middle of a tennis-court-sized bed. It has been a pretty exhausting few months between one thing and another, and this was a gift from God: a brief oasis to recharge my mental and physical batteries.

But the spiritual battery, well, that got the best treatment of all. What an absolute privilege it was to be among two hundred of the Free Church’s finest oppressed, and to get a palpable sense of God’s love in these women.

Some particular encounters stand out for me. First of all, there was Megan Patterson, the other speaker. Aside from the fact that it is immediately obvious she is a very special person, her address left me completely humbled – something which did me absolutely no harm at all on that particular day. Whatever struggles I may think I have had, hearing someone with her missional experience always puts my own ministry in perspective as the small thing it is.

And then there were the three amazing women who spoke on behalf of Bear Necessities. What warmth, what humour, what simple goodness. They are the very essence of Christian service, and radiated the kind of love that makes me want to be a better person.

I met two women who are also widows, like myself – only, not at all like me. They are the kind of people whose faith shines out of them and you know, the minute you meet them, who guides their life. We discussed what it is to be a widow in a church setting, and whether there is something we could do collectively for those that are. Losing the person you had hoped to spend your whole life with has a particular effect, I have found, on your ability to cope with certain challenges. It may indeed be of benefit to find others who are on that same journey.

It was a particular gift to me, as well, to finally meet a lady from Tolsta who was able to speak to me about Donnie. In fact, she unexpectedly reduced me to tears – not in the usual way that Tolstonians have, but because she spoke so warmly of him that he actually became real again. She worried that perhaps she shouldn’t have mentioned him just prior to my second talk (yes, they had to endure me twice) but, actually, it gave me something in the day that was uniquely my own. Life has changed in the three years since his death, so that I sometimes feel I don’t know this woman who writes and speaks, and generally bombards innocent bystanders with her opinion. But, in that moment, I was anchored back to someone very special, someone who also used to make me want to be better than I am.

The outgoing chairperson, Rona Matheson is another of those people that you feel you’ve always known. She had, like myself, blown in from the Hebrides, after a whistle-stop tour, speaking about her work with Blythswood. And she shared something from one of her island experiences. She was interviewed for Isles FM’s ‘GLOW’ programme, by its . . . well, let’s call him ‘laid-back’ host, for I feel ‘cognitively-challenged’ would be going a little too far. In true depressive Leòdhasach style, he had asked whether the comparative emptiness of our churches made her downcast. Her answer is a reminder to us all about perspective, and how it can make or break a situation. Rona said that we are always better being thankful for what we do have, than bemoaning what we do not.

What good advice. But how inclined we are to sit down, weeping, as we remember our own particular Zion.

I had spoken about the attention we must pay to our own hearts, that they would be ever-prayerful, attuned always to God. Proverbs 4: 23 reminds us to guard our hearts, because it is from them that all we do will flow. In fact, I think that true prayer, like water, is purest at its source – and the wellspring of our truest prayer is always our heart, not our lips.

A day like last Saturday is so helpful. I was beginning to feel the weariness of a too-busy life. Repeatedly, I have promised myself – and others – that I would take a weekend to go and chill out somewhere. Of course, it hasn’t happened. So, God gave me this particular blessing. Every obstacle was smoothed over, and I arrived back in Stornoway into the darkness and rain, renewed and refreshed.

And even my mother didn’t ask ‘were there no men?’

 

 

 

Your Gender-fluid Granny

There was some difficulty in ascertaining what species I was, the day my parents brought me home from the hospital. My brother – a mere 20 months old at the time – was held up to peer into the carrycot and hazarded three guesses. I was, he mused, either a bird, a kitten or a hen. In my defence, I must say that he had a limited vocabulary and life experience, and it was that, more than any weird fur or feather arrangement on display which led to this misapplication of ‘isean’ ‘piseag’ or ‘gog-gàg’.

And then, when I was a little older, my father seemed to be labouring under some misapprehension that I was a collie. He worked myself and my brother like a brace of sheepdogs, every time he wanted some of the woolly halfwits moved from one part of the croft to another. We always had an actual dog, but never one that was helpful in the usual ways one might expect. Seonaidh Mòr was adept at wearing hats and escaping; Tim was the king of intimidation and burying things, but neither canine cv had ‘working with sheep’ as a life-skill.

Finally, however, I settled on just being a girl or, as modern parlance would have it, ‘the gender I was assigned at birth’. It’s the use of ‘assigned’ that amuses here. Whose decision is it? I imagine the midwife approaching my mother and saying, ‘Well, Mrs MacLean, regardless of what biology seems to be suggesting, we’re making this one a boy, because we’re out of pink blankets for the moment’. To think the future course of my life may have depended upon the laundry efficiency at the Lewis Hospital . . .

Thankfully, however, there must have been a good supply of the apropriate colour of blankets, and I was, according to the hospital wristband, ‘Baby MacLean – Girl’. Born the day before my granny’s birthday, but arriving early, as is my wont, there was really nothing for it but to name me after her.

Naming children for their relatives is a practice that seems to have fallen into disuse, unless I have misread the situation and there actually are a whole lot of bodaich on the Taobh Siar called Dylan. There was a time, however, when it was de rigeur, and when a family dispute could well be sparked by parents’ failure to honour a sensitive relative in the naming of their child. Regardless, that is, of whether said child was of the same gender as the relative who expected this honour.

Yes, those of you who think we islanders so narrow in our outlook, and so unsophisticated in our response to contemporary issues, read this and consider: gender fluidity started in the Hebrides.

Amongst our older generation, it is not difficult to find legions of women named Angusina, Murdina, Duncanina, Kenina, Hughina, Willina . . . Each one of these is testament to two things: their parents’ commitment to family honour; and a complete lack of chauvinism. Some people will jokingly say that it’s tantamount to saying to your daughter, ‘we really wanted a boy’ but I think you have to look at it in its social and historical context.

The really important social custom being observed here was the preservation of traditional names, and the giving of due place to senior members of the family. It is not about gender at all really, and it is certainly not about the superiority of male over female.

There is something else as well. The number of firstborn girls who were named for male relatives testify to the fact that parents were well aware that this might be their only such blessing. My sister was named for our great-grandfather – my father’s seanair, and the only father figure he ever knew – because, I imagine, my parents sensibly accepted that there might be no siblings and, even if there were, there might be no boys. As it happened, two boys followed, but neither of them had the name ‘Donald’ bestowed upon him. That distinction belongs to my sister, Donna.

I used to think that it was only we islanders that had this obsession with genealogy, and with naming. But many other civilisations have the same interest. God, in His wisdom, placed our Saviour within a human lineage, so that even prophets like Isaiah knew that the Messiah would come through the house of David. The name of David remains linked inextricably with that of the Lord, giving Him that identity which was so necessary for our understanding of Him, and for Him to experience fully what it means to be human.

I think that there is a lesson for all of us in the fact that our Lord’s identity was not something that could be neatly summed up in one word. There were many facets to the only perfect man who ever lived, but that did not diminish Him one bit. And even we, who are made in His image – albeit now like a shattered looking-glass – are greater than the sum of our parts.

In my case, I am happy to be the gender I was assigned by my Creator. And I am happy to be nighean Mhurdanaidh Catrìona Dhòmhnaill Iain Ruaidh. Or banntrach Dhòmhnaill Chaluim Sheonaidh. Some people know me as Post Tenebras Lux, or the woman who taught their kids in Sunday School, or their Gaelic tutor, or that blone on the Trust. Catriona Murray, nee Maclean is a daughter, sister, auntie, friend, lecturer and widow.

But, in any and all of those things, I am who I am, what I am and where I am because God ordained it so. It is, like everything else He does, fixed and secure. And, contrary to what modern wisdom will tell you, this does not box you in – it liberates you in ways that doing as you please, and being who you think you are, never will.

The Wee Free Church of Weaker Vessels?

Some things don’t change. You no sooner write a blog about feminism in the Free Church than your whole congregation gets a loud reminder from the pulpit that women are the weaker vessels, and they really need to remember to address men as ‘sir’.

As if that wasn’t pointed enough, the minister threatened me afterwards not to go undoing his efforts with my renegade talk. I swear all the blood drained from his face when he saw me later, sitting at a table full of women in the church hall.

Isn’t it great how you can alter the whole meaning of something simply by taking it out of context? It’s a wee trick I’ve learned lately. You can make the very truth a lie if you are prepared to go far enough.

When I heard what the topic of the sermon was going to be, I’ll be honest, I was not looking forward to it. There are lots of things that can creep up and stab you in the heart in church, but the duties of husbands to wives, and vice-versa, is a guaranteed killer. It can bring on my ‘poor me’ complex with a vengeance, if it catches me in the wrong mood.

This didn’t, though. Actually, it caught me in more of a, ‘how the heck is he going to pull this off, then?’ frame of mind. A quick advance look at the passage confirmed my suspicion that this was, indeed, the one that talks about women being subject to their husbands, and husbands remembering that blones are the weaker vessels.

Oh well, I thought, this could very well be the first schism caused by ladies exiting en masse from a Presbyterian church. What WILL they call the new denomination?

But, then, that’s just the world’s way of looking at relationships, isn’t it? Everything is about power.

That’s how we got into this mess in the first place. We sought after a knowledge we couldn’t handle, because it came to us out of context; divorced from God’s wisdom as it was.

And because it was untempered by His wisdom, we allowed our knowledge to rule us, and we became drunk on it, until we finally forgot that the wine we were taking was fermented from fruit that was never meant for us at all.

We now think that if the Bible – the unerring word of God – says something we don’t like, then surely the Bible is wrong.

Breathtaking arrogance – and I am as guilty of it as anyone. I bristle at the idea of being subject, and more especially at the thought of being deemed ‘weak’. Although I do a very unbecoming line in self-pity, I certainly don’t want to be ‘poor Catriona’ in anyone else’s eyes.

Until Sunday night, though, I had been labouring under the misapprehension that weakness is . . . well, a weakness. A woman’s propensity to greater emotional sensitivity can, however, truly be a strength, while still making her vulnerable to hurt in ways her husband may never experience for himself. That is why he should exercise understanding towards his partner in life – because her womanness is a crucial element of their relationship in God’s eyes.

And, it made me think of that other amazing passage, where Paul glories in the thorn given to him by God, concluding, ‘for when I am weak, then am I strong’.

One of the great spiritual truths I have learned is that my own strength is a puny thing that would have sunk me in the Slough of Despond long since. Just as well I’m not relying on it. I wonder, in fact, after Sunday night, whether women have the advantage over men here. Not, of course that it’s any kind of competition . . .

But, if we are the weaker vessels, then surely it is easier for us to put our ‘amen’ to Paul’s great proclamation. The less we have of what the world is pleased to call strength, the more we will depend on His.

Being subject to your husband is an interesting one, in an age when many brides choose not to use the word ‘obey’ in their wedding vows. The feeling is that it compromises equality. But, actually, the only equality which really matters is that men and women are similarly precious in the sight of God. After all, it is He who weighs us all in the balance.

It was not God that introduced the tension between the genders over who gets to be in charge. A Godly man does not abuse or mistreat his wife; a Godly wife, likewise, honours her husband.

I am not a wife any longer, but I do live in the world, and must meet with the occasional man. Elsewhere, I have written of how I don’t see the brethren in my church as competition to be beaten, or the elders as having a status to aspire to. They are what they are, as God ordained; and I am, likewise, what I am.

Last night, however, the challenge of living as a Christian woman, while trying to make my way in this world was brought sharply into focus. At the end of a meeting, I instinctively gathered my own coffee cup and those nearest, and carried them through to the kitchen. The men mostly left theirs on the table.

Even as I did it, I thought, ‘don’t become the stereotype’. But this is the problem with the gender war that sin has created – if we all stand on our rights, who will serve? And how will we honour God?

 

Suffrage, Tippex, and the Feminist Free Kirk

As a noted local feminist, I was disappointed that my recent election to the Stornoway Trust failed to attract the expected plaudits from the sisterhood. They can’t have heard. It’s a pity, because I had hoped they would take heart, now we’ve seen that  women can be elected in Lewis after all. Should any of you see them, please mention it.

Maybe don’t mention my complications, though. I do stuff that they might think messes with my girl-power credentials. And I don’t just mean the fact that the last person to put screen wash in my car was the minister. Or that I have several men on speed-dial who tell me what to think about the complicated stuff (the Blue Book, the interconnector, the offside rule).

No, there’s that obedience thing as well: the Biblical authority, the Saviour ruling my life. The Free Church.

Somehow, the patriarchy that I am expected to rage against, they’re the same guys who put me on the Trust. According, that is, to a letter in the newspaper formerly known as the ‘Stornoway’ Gazette.

Do not adjust your screens – I am indeed talking about the same Free Kirk that’s been keeping women down for two centuries.

Elders took a few nights off from chaining swings and intimidating witnesses to go out bribing voters, and Tippexing any ballot papers that people had completed without their say-so. I am not exactly sure what their motive in getting a blone elected was, especially a daft airhead like myself who, apparently, needed the ‘big boys’ (whoever they may be) to explain wind turbines to her.

Actually, before the ballot, one of the patriarchy, who shall remain nameless, suggested that it would be a good thing if I were elected. I waited for him to say, ‘because it might get you off our case for a while’, or even, ‘you girls need a wee hobby to keep you out of mischief’. But no. He suggested that I might contribute something to the decision-making process (and not just fruit loaf either).

He meant it sincerely. Nor did he conclude by winking and adding, ‘Don’t you worry, we’ll make sure it happens, a ghràidh’. I think he’s probably more of a feminist than all the badge-wearing, card-carrying types who were casting around looking for an explanation for my election – and finally came up with the contemptible cop-out, ‘it was the church that rigged it’.

Feminism, however, for me, is the simple fact of women getting on with things, and rational folk of both genders accepting that they can.

I want to inhabit Biblical womanhood, because my first love and first loyalty belong to God. This is a colossal challenge, first and foremost because of my own nature. It is in me to think, ‘why shouldn’t I?’ And, although I’m not excusing myself, I feel bound to add that this instinct is probably exacerbated by being a woman on her own. Who deals with the frightening stuff – the spider in the bath, talking to mechanics – if not me?

So, then, it’s hard when you’re the sole breadwinner and householder, to still be the kind of woman God requires.

It is also a challenge because society tells you to assert yourself, not to allow others to trample over you, to know your rights. Society is about being confrontational: me before you; my wants over your needs; my opinion trumps yours.

The problem with society is it’s made up of people, and we are – all of us – fundamentally flawed, and broken in our own way. And we are shot-through with sin. So, what the world will tell you to be is very rarely in agreement with what God wants.

That, sisters, is where we have to rely on Him.

God has not said ‘subdue your femininity’ – He wants us to embrace it and inhabit it in all its fullness. That means not seeing myself in relation to men, not comparing myself to them in terms of what is permissible, but fitting myself to God’s template for my life. I don’t want to be anyone else, or do the things that other people do, of either gender.

My life is not what I planned. Mercifully. It’s easy to tug at your heartstrings and say I hadn’t planned to be a widow now. And, of course, that’s true. On the other hand, I had not planned to commit my life to Christ, to accept His free gift of salvation. Thankfully, you see, God had it all in hand. Submitting to Him is the wisest thing I ever did; and even that wasn’t me.

There are many examples, in His Word, of womanhood which I might try to follow. A friend recently mentioned  a sermon on Ruth, in which the question was posed, ‘where, in all of Moab, did Ruth come to know God’? And the only conclusion to which the preacher could come was this: it must surely have been through  Naomi’s dignity and faith in the midst of great grief.

This would certainly explain that famous and beautiful speech from Ruth to her mother in-law, and particularly, ‘your God shall be my God’.

Ruth must have seen a beauty in Him to desire, and that beauty was clearly revealed to her in Naomi’s steadfast devotion.

That, now,  is the sort of feminist I would like to be: loving God, and witnessing faithfully for Him, no matter where He leads, so that other women – and yes, even men – might see Him too, and be freed from ‘isms’ of every kind.

A Servant is for Life, Not Just Sundays

Last Sunday I was arrested in church. Before you imagine a group of burly policemen pushing past the elders – who would undoubtedly have tried to stop them – in order to cart me off, I didn’t mean it like that. In fact, I mean I heard something which struck me in its beauty and truth; something, believe it or not, about the deacons. Or, more specifically, about the duty of deacons.

It was this: deacons bring the love of Christ to the church in a practical way.

Yes, deacons – those guys who, in our tradition anyway, are seen as the money men, the fellows who hold the purse-strings and authorise paint jobs for the church vestibule. They are the ones who ‘do’. And their office is all too easily dismissed as being a bit, well, mundane.

Put it this way, if you were writing a novel about the Free Church (and, believe me, I’ve considered it), your hero probably wouldn’t be a deacon. They’d be there alright, but only in a supporting role.

Well, I say ‘only’ but, in Christian terms, a supporting role is the best kind. The main part has already been fulfilled.

There’s a song I love, (introduced to me by someone who has somehow ended up being responsible for my spiritual music education) in which Jesus is resembled to a hero who takes the stage when everything looks hopeless. Which, when you think about it, is exactly what He did.

Historically, He did. Spiritually, He does.

Almost three years ago, I thought my life was over. The person on whom I thought my world depended died. He left our home for what we thought might be an overnight in hospital; a week later I returned there, a widow at the age of thirty-nine, and wondering how many years I might have to get through alone.

The answer? None.

I was not alone, because Christ was there, waiting for me to notice Him. Christ had been there a long time. Maybe even since, as a child of nine, I asked Him into my heart simply because I couldn’t bear to think of Him knocking and not being heard.

He is the main event, the all in all, the ultimate star billing. Yet, He waits in the wings like a supporting actor, and appears to take His cues from us. Only when I turned my grieving heart towards His did I even know He was there.

That was when He took centre stage in my life. Just when I thought everything was finished, He walked on.

So, the bit-parts are for the rest of us. He is the hero; we are the supporting cast, as Christians. Deacons bring His love to the church in a practical way . . . but what are deacons? Yes, I know I said they’re the money men, the guys with the chequebook. But, in a wider sense, what?

Well, ‘deacon’ comes from the Greek, ‘diakonos’, meaning ‘servant’. And all Christians are called upon to have a spirit of service. That is why, in the best sense, we are, all of us, deacons. Yes, even the women. It isn’t about status, or titles – service never is – but about the satisfaction of serving a worthy Master.

This is an unusual Master, though. He is the starring role content to wait for a cue from the support act; and He is the Master who willingly became a servant. It is from Him we learn how to be the walk-on actors in our own lives, and the servants to the King.

Rendering service to Christ is not going to win you any of this world’s accolades. Even in the church, you may feel that the hours you put in, and the time that you give go unnoticed. And perhaps they do – by people. But you’re not working for people, are you? One lady I know who works hardest for Christ’s church has the truest servant heart, and never complains, or expects for herself.

Servants are often overlooked, or even despised. They may have their good name besmirched, their reputation degraded, and their heart bruised and beaten. But never, ever by Him.

He knows, you see, what it is to be a servant. We can only try at all because He first showed us how:

He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.

This is the humble servant upon whom we are to pattern our behaviour. Our men who are deacons should follow Him in showing His love to the church in practical ways. Love is practical, after all: it changes lives.

But beyond the official designation of ‘deacon’, there is a whole church which ought to be showing Christ’s love to the world. Just as the deacons distribute the wealth of the church in the service of the Lord, we ought to follow their example in following His.

I can’t help reflect upon our own mission-field locally, and all the strife there has been recently between secularism and Christianity. The unbelievers, in their ignorance, think it’s all about Sundays. It troubles me that some Christians seem to think so too.

Our starting point with the world cannot be this. A servant does not seek to impose his own will, but, rather, to do his master’s. We will win no hearts for Christ by telling people what they must do and must not. No one will ever desire God’s law without first knowing His love.

And, if this community does not know His love, have I failed in my servant’s duty, to show what it is? Have I said too many words, and not demonstrated enough humility? Did I forget, somewhere along the line, to withdraw and let the spotlight fall on Him?

 

A Woman’s Place is Wherever God Wants Her

Ever since Coinneach Mòr reminded me that I’m a woman, I’ve been thinking about whether it matters very much. In past blogs I have made myself subject to misunderstanding because I have played down the importance of my gender, especially where my faith life is concerned. But I wouldn’t want anyone to run away with the idea that I don’t care about that category of things loosely termed ‘women’s issues’.

Nor, for the record, do I think we’re getting it absolutely right. If I said we were, people might suspect me of being manipulated by men . . .

There are two contexts here which must be considered – my relationship with God as an individual Christian, and my relationship with His church as part of the believing family.

My personal interactions with God consist of conventional prayer, continuous prayer, and the reading of His word. In all these cases, I come to Him as myself, whether I want to or not. He knows who and what I am, regardless of the veils I may – even unconsciously- assume. Part of that self surely consists of my womanhood: it is who He made me to be.

But I don’t believe that He hears me differently simply because I’m a woman; rather, he hears me differently because I am uniquely myself.

Christ,for example, did not favour Mary over Martha, or vice-versa, but He did take cognisance of their different personalities and respond to them accordingly.

He lets us be who we are; any obstacles in the way are of our own making.

Our relationship with the Lord is untrammelled by worries about gender. I do not doubt that He loves the supplication of women as much as the petitions of men. We are all His beloved children and the blood ransom He paid had the same value for every last one.

It is really only when you take that relationship into the church visible that problems arise. I have never gone to God in prayer and wondered whether what was on my heart was alright to mention, what with me being a woman. But I have been conscious of my gender in – amongst other things – writing this blog.

Let me be clear: no one from within the church has ever said to me that I should keep my opinions to myself. For all my joking, none of the men has yet suggested I stick to teaching Sunday school and leave the thinking to them. That is not the root of the problem.

I am the root of the problem.

In my own treacherous heart, there is a constant battle with doubt. Every time I go to publish an article, I worry that this will be the one where I really offend someone. Each new blog post fills me with trepidation that I have gone too far and will be castigated for a meddling ignoramus.

And underlying all these nagging fears is the sense that I am a woman in a man’s world. Who has told me this? Well, no one, but it has been the way things have happened over the years. Men are the office bearers, therefore you have to be a man to have a voice in the likes of the Free Church.

Is that true, though? No, I actually don’t think it is. Recently, I was talking to someone about it, and the notion that Free Church women are kept down. He made me laugh when he said, ‘I’d like to meet the man who could oppress _____________’ The lady he named is just one of legions of island women who could never be kept in their boxes by even the most determined misogynist. They have opinions and they have influence just as the men do.

These are praying women, women who have mentored younger Christians. They have participated fully in the spiritual life and nothing God intends for them can be denied by mere men.

But another recent conversation has forced me to think about the role of women in the church as an institution. We were discussing the way in which complementarianism has been interpreted by the Presbyterian churches in Scotland. My friend pointed out that there is a simple enough way to ensure that we are being Biblical in our division of duties. If a role requires spiritual authority then it should properly be restricted to men. Otherwise, it should be fulfilled by whoever is best suited to it.

This isn’t radical thinking. It isn’t even feminist thinking. What we’re called on to have as a church is a spirit of service, of corporate service. Our collective gifts should be deployed in order to maximise their potential to glorify God. That is what we’re about.

Those outside of our walls often speak about power- any objection to attacks on Christianity are countered with derisive yells of, ‘you just don’t want to lose control ’. The relationship between the church and the world is not about that, however, and neither should our relationships with one another be.

Properly speaking, I am a Christian before I am a woman. What gifts I have to offer in the service of Christ have nothing to do with my gender. He has not made women less gifted than their brothers.

However, I do believe that there is progress to be made in bringing those abilities to fruition in the church. Not, I hasten to add, because of some attempt to create equality between the genders; God has already done that.

Authority is His; spiritual authority He vests in men of His own choosing.

But the freedom to love Him through active service, exercising those gifts which He has bestowed   – that privilege belongs to every man and woman who loves the Lord.

 

 

 

Wee Free Woman Identifies as Herself

After finishing off writing the Sunday evening sermon, I checked my diary for the week ahead. Nothing too onerous. Gaelic department lunch on Tuesday, meeting a friend on Wednesday . . and then, I received an edict from Coinneach Mòr to record an interview for his Thursday morning radio show. Consummate professional that he is, he outlined some of the areas we would cover – blog (fine); monthly column (mmm hmm); how come a woman in the Free Church is being allowed to speak out so much on sometimes controversial issues? (ok . . . er, what!?)

I don’t like that question. Someone else asked me something similar recently and I must admit, it threw me a bit.

But it’s different with Coinneach. He may be, as I said, the consummate professional, but he is also the consummate Leòdhasach. His question was posed in very much the same spirit that I myself apply to writing the blog – mockery of the attitude which prevails outside the Free Church that women inside it are somehow subjugated and condemned to a life of baking scones. Coinneach, I think, understands that this is no longer the case, if indeed it ever was.

He understands, first and foremost, because he comes from within this culture. That is his – and my – privilege. The tragedy for some people is that because of an accident of birth, they can never know what it is to be a Leòdhasach. Some get as close as possible by moving here, and indeed, who can blame them? But there are a few things I would have them know.

First of all, native islanders are not necessarily fools. Some probably are, because there are fools everywhere. However, to suggest that because you hail from Lewis you are automatically (and this is by no means an exhaustive list of the accusations to which we are subject): small-minded, nosy, gullible, brainwashed, judgmental, unsophisticated, dogmatic . . . well, I think they call that racism in the big cities, now, don’t they?

Secondly, yes, there is an indigenous culture. You may shout that there isn’t and that we only say that to be exclusivist, but I’m afraid that’s just cultural imperialism talking. We are a Gaelic people. It is possible to learn the language and not be one of us, just as I can learn French but never be a Frenchwoman.
Thirdly, whether it suits you or not, the Free Church (other denominations are available – buy a book, learn the history of this place you’re calling ‘home’) has done much to shape and influence our culture. People of my generation well remember having to be home by midnight on Saturday, or not being allowed to make a noise in the garden on Sunday. Compliance came from respect for your parents and for the norms of your community. We weren’t quite so obsessed then with pleasing ourselves regardless of who it upset.

Yes, there were always those who didn’t appreciate the Lewis Sunday, but they were never so tormented by their own ego as to think everything should change for them.

It’s all about that – self. The issue of ‘being a woman in the church’ likewise. I clumsily told Coinneach that I don’t think of myself as a woman. Perhaps his journalistic nose twitched at the thought of such a story, ‘Free Church woman identifies as deacon’, but he merely raised his eyebrows quizzically.

And now I will explain: I try very hard not to think of myself at all.

That’s what we’re called on to do as Christians. I didn’t start this blog because I had a Free Church feminist agenda to push; I don’t. My stance is that gender doesn’t matter in the church and to say, ‘why can’t women . . ?’ is really tantamount to asking, ‘why can’t I?’ Don’t whine to your elders; go to God, and see what He says. He has a role for each of us – but it is according to our gifts, not according to our gender.

There have been many jokes about me ‘having my eye’ on the pulpit. The sermon I alluded to writing  at the beginning of this blog was not my own, however, but that of the minister of our congregation. I write summaries of them for the church social media account and help them reach a wider audience that way, hopefully. Those on the outside of the church might pity me these limitations, though, and be horrified at the jokes which are always predicated on the assumption that no woman will ever preach in the Free Church.

But I feel no self-pity. I am not a poor soul. Eldership is not a wee accolade for the person, it is a role endowed with the authority of Christ. Leading the congregation in prayer is not an ego-trip, nor are pastoring and evangelising; these are serious responsibilities which are the lot of those called to serve.

Instead of looking at others and wanting to be who they are, and have what we think they have, we must look upwards and ask God what he wants us to be. He intends each of us for service to His glory. I think we imbue the ‘patriarchy’ with more power than they possess if we honestly believe that they are preventing any of us from being what God intends.

The Isle of Lewis is what it is – James Shaw Grant said it best when he called it a, ‘loveable, irrational island’. It need not try to be like other places. For me, it’s lovely in its own way.

And likewise, being a woman in the Free Church is also lovely in its own way. It is where God has placed me. I don’t intend to limit myself or Him by looking longingly at the pulpit, or even the suidheachan mòr; I need to fall back on my faith, ask where He wants me, and say to Him, ‘Here am I, send me’.

Wee Frees and Wise Men – Not Mutually Exclusive

When the Calvinists of the Free Church in Stornoway are not busy oppressing the people who want to exercise their free will by swinging a golf club on Sundays, we like to sit around, oppressing one another. Old Christians try to prevent young Christians from enjoying themselves, men keep women in their place (the kitchen), and, I suppose, the ministers whack the other elders on the knuckles with a wooden ruler if they overstep the mark. Our times of fellowship are an endurance test, with the first person to laugh put outside by the bins.

It is remotely possible, though, that we are just harsh and humourless by nature. I mean, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to blame everything about us on Calvin. The atheist intelligentsia has been doing that for a long time – they blame him for destroying Gaelic culture, for taking art and music from people’s lives and they blame him for stealing Christmas.

John Calvin, a.k.a. The Grinch.

There was, it is true, a tendency among the Reformers to distance themselves from these holy days which had been so much a feature of the Roman Catholic church. Nonetheless, Luther permitted its observance and Calvin . . . well, Calvin’s position was not exactly as it has been portrayed.

The celebration of Christmas had already been abolished in Geneva before he went there, and it was later reinstated during his temporary expulsion from the city. By the time he returned, Calvin had either mellowed somewhat, or had not been strongly opposed to it in the first place, but he stated his intention to allow Christ’s birthday to be marked as the people had become accustomed to doing.

Knox shared Calvin’s reservations about the celebration of a day not explicitly prescribed in scripture. Christmas was eventually banned in Scotland by an Act of Parliament in 1640. Despite its repeal 48 years later, it continued as a very low-key festival, not becoming a public holiday until 1958.

Now, however, more and more Presbyterian churches in Scotland are tentatively marking the religious significance of Christmas. In what looks like a binning of the rule-book, the dour men in black are decking the halls. Or something similar.

Well, what does the rule book say about the matter?  The Westminster Confession of Faith says that, in addition to the Lord’s Day, there is room for. ‘solemn fastings, and thanksgivings, upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner’.

It is the manner of the celebration that matters: the spirit in which it is done and the intention behind it. If the primary objective is to point to Christ, to glorify God, then the marking of Christmas is entirely compatible with the ethos of every Calvinist church.

Of course, the Westminster Confession of Faith is itself based on Scripture, and it is back there we must go if there is any doubt about the rightness of such a move. One of the objections levelled by people like Knox himself was that the Bible does not offer any authority that December 25th is the birth-date of our Saviour. Far be it from me to call poor Mr Knox a pedant, but . . . Surely the material point here is not when the Son of God was born, but that He was born. Only last weekend, we reflected in church upon the startling fact that, in the storm-tossed boat on the Sea of Galilee, it was God who slept, in the person of His Son. That was the real miracle – that God, as John Betjeman wrote, was man in Palestine.

He was born, then, and we have several accounts of how this came about. In John 6:38, He Himself addresses the why, ‘For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me’.

From that incarnation stems everything that we have as believers, starting with hope. Hope was born the day He came into the world, and gathered in strength towards the cross and finally the triumph of the empty tomb. It is because of God incarnate that we have been redeemed from the bondage of our own sin and the certainty of death.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I cannot think of anything more worthy of celebration.

Not celebrating as the world celebrates. The bloated excess of Christmas as it is marked and commercialized these days would turn the least sensitive of stomachs. In that feast of self-indulgence, all that remains of Christ is the name – and there are those who would expunge even His name from the proceedings.

Last year, Christmas Day coincided with the Lord’s Day and we concentrated in church upon Mary’s Song, and upon the importance of unwrapping and making our own the gift which God has given us in His only begotten Son.

This is the message of Christmas when told properly. The world took Christ, it beat Him and abused Him, and it finally crucified Him.

Now, it is doing the same with His very name.

It was appropriated, and all the meaning with which Christmas is redolent has been leached out, to be replaced by a consumerist frenzy.

Advent is all about waiting. It is about silence. And it is about anticipation of the greatest event our world has ever known. This year, I am grateful that I will be able to draw aside with God’s people, singing His praise for what He did all those Christmases ago:

Sacred Infant, all divine

What a tender love was thine

Thus to come from highest bliss

Down to such a world as this.