Identifying as a Wee Free Widow

‘Identity’ is a word much in the news these days. Gender identity, ethnic identity, community identity . . . It’s the jargon of the time in which we live. Much like anything else, though, once the label goes on, the thing in the jar is already dead. We use the word, ‘identity’ so much because we have lost any real sense of who we are.

There was a time when, if I told my GP that I saw myself as an Irish tomcat, he’d probably have me quietly removed to a place of safety, having first said, ‘no, you’re a boring white maw lady’. But these days, you can – according to the right-on thought police – identify as anything you want.

I have trouble with this on several levels. There is an aspect of my own identity which I don’t like. Much as I may joke about it, I’m reconciled to the Carloway/Achmore/Harris genes; and I’m happy to be fluent in the language of Eden, even if we Gaels are more endangered than the corncrake.

It’s never troubled me too much that there are only two genders to choose from either because you don’t actually get to choose anyway. Occasionally, when my brother would receive his ‘Beano’, and I was stuck with dull old ‘Twinkle’, I’d wish I was a boy. However, antipathy towards Nurse Nancy and her implausible job at the dolls’ hospital was hardly the basis for such an upheaval, so I let it go.

Besides, if I’d mentioned that I seriously wished to switch genders, my father would have counselled me in the time-honoured way of all sensitive Lewismen, ‘Ist, oinsich.’ Conversation over.

The aspect of my identity I’m least comfortable with is the w-word. No, not ‘witch’. Not ‘weirdo’ either, thank you. It’s ‘widow’ I don’t much care for. And I think that a large part of my discomfort stems from the fact that it makes others uncomfortable too.

I keep remembering CS Lewis’ description of himself following the loss of his wife, as a ‘death’s head’, reminding all couples of their inevitable parting. Often, you fret that your very presence will upset people who are ill. Equally, I worry about ruining people’s parties and gatherings – I don’t want to be the hollow-eyed spectre at the feast while others try to make merry.

The problem is mostly in my head, though not entirely. After Donnie died, the MacMillan nurse advised me to change my shopping routine – ‘otherwise’, she said, ‘you’ll meet the same people you always do, people you know. And you’ll spot some of them trying to avoid you, which will hurt.’ She was right: I spotted people ducking up aisles in the supermarket, or suddenly becoming very interested in displays of teabags as I passed by. There were colleagues who never acknowledged my loss, and there were many expected visitors who did not come.

Two years on, I’m probably deemed safe – unlikely to burst into tears, or embarrass anyone by prostrating myself with grief in public. But I’m still a widow: a forty one year old widow. What are people supposed to do with that ? For that matter, what am I supposed to do with that?

Well, it’s simple. I decided from day one that I was going to be as easy as possible to be around. (Yes, this is the manageable version). If you want company, you owe it to people not to make it more of a challenge than it needs to be. That often means being the Catriona people expect even though I’m not the Catriona I expected. Smile though your heart is aching and all that jazz. My grief is mine, and I have no right to thrust it upon other innocent bystanders so long after the event. Two years is a long time. Unless, of course, you’re the one who has lost someone.

But this is where one other facet of who I am comes into play: my identity in Christ. Even in church, I can feel out of place. There are couples everywhere, and there is so much emphasis on young families that it’s easy to wonder where you fit. The answer, though, is in Him, and the answer is: ‘in Him’. He it was who, as Newton put it, brought me safe thus far. And, He intended my widowhood.

That’s the most startling and challenging thing of all. It’s only natural for people who are condoling with you to say how awful it is for Donnie and I to have been parted so young. We view it as though this world is everything, and to be taken out of it is punishment. Donnie wasn’t taken early; he was taken when and as God intended.

The logical follow-on is, therefore, that I was widowed when and as God intended.

So, God meant me to be who I am right now; this has a purpose. I am not where I am as the result of some unhappy accident. Providence knows no accidents; and Providence doesn’t want my self-pity. I do have such periods when I feel hard done-by  – because I’m a self-indulgent, egocentric sinner.

And then I am reminded of the cup that did not pass from my Saviour’s lips, despite His repeated prayer.

If you catch me feeling sorry for myself, remind  me that whoever I identify as, that’s who I’m identifying with – and He suffered unimaginably so that I wouldn’t have to.

 

Hats, hymns and the Holy Spirit

I got a bit of a shock last Sunday night. After the evening service, I met my mother. No, that’s not the shock – I’ve known her all my life. But something was different . . . It took a few minutes before I realised: she wasn’t wearing a hat! My first thought was, ‘I knew it – she’s gone back to the Church of Scotland.’ Subtly, I glanced to see if she was carrying a hymn book, and then it occurred to me that I didn’t know what one looked like anyway. Besides, surely I’d have heard if my own mother had absconded back from whence she came.

Actually, she had just got fed-up of hats and decided, at seventy-eight, that it was time to join the aotrom* throng of bare-headed Free Church women. She really does believe in doing things in her own time, and for that . . . well, I take my hat off to her.

The hat-wearing ladies have long since become a symbol of more so-called ‘hardline’ Presbyterian churches. Somehow, people got the idea that the hat symbolised male dominance and female subjugation. As if the Session appointed a committee to discuss such things. ‘What was in style ten years ago?’, the chairman might ask. After consulting a long out of date JD Williams catalogue, one of the elders would say, ‘pillboxes, with a small veil’. Two hours later, an edict would be issued to the local shops – ‘Stock only pillbox hats (with or without veils) and sell these to our women. No gaudy colours – they’re vain enough as it is.’

The hats are fewer and further between with each passing year. You will see more people (of both genders) wearing jeans to church, and fewer men are opting for the suit and tie look.

Last Sunday morning, the preacher mentioned that thousands of others had once occupied the pews in which we, the congregation, were sitting. In the more than 150 years since the church was built, successive generations have indeed sat under the Word there. Fashions changed many times over that period, and so many ministers have mounted the steps to preach in that very pulpit. Even the language of worship has changed. And the light-fitting, the Habitat-esque monstrosity which replaced – I am reliably informed – two perfectly charming pulpit lamps, was also a reflection of the (lack of) taste and mode of the time.

Were it possible for some of these Victorian worshippers to return to Kenneth Street now, they would undoubtedly be struck by some of the outward changes. They might be confused about standing to sing and sitting to pray, or the purpose of the camera, to say nothing of references to soup and pudding, Tweenies and newsletters. And I am certain that they would wonder why the whole affair was being lit by something resembling an oil drum.

But then, the reading from the Word would reassure them that all is still well with their old church. The preaching is as Bible-centred as it ever was, and the congregation hears the truth, however unpalatable that sometimes can be to us. There may not be much in the way of pulpit-thumping or histrionics from the minister, but the message remains the same. One and a half centuries on, the building still resounds with the Good News. People in varying states of grace are awakened, comforted, challenged and fed, depending on their spiritual need.

What you see may be quite different, but what you hear is the same: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.

And what you don’t hear, or see? That would be the Spirit, abroad in our midst, opening ears and eyes, and changing hearts. He was there in the nineteenth century, and He is there in the twenty-first. The church he occupies isn’t, though, the lovely edifice on Kenneth Street but, as 1 Corinthians 3:16 puts it:
‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s spirit dwells in you?’

With heads covered, or without, in jeans, or suits, or Sunday best frocks, it doesn’t matter a bit. The world sees and laughs either way. The Holy Spirit is as out of style as the pillbox hat, but His work goes on regardless. And the world rejects the Holy Spirit because they cannot see Him. To them, it is all reminiscent of the Emperor whose new clothes were not merely invisible, but nonexistent.

Christians, nonetheless, are to clothe themselves in the Spirit. That garment supersedes trends or fads, and resists the restless human desire for novelty and innovation. Whichever church you go to which claims Christ as its head, this will be the dress code: come as you are, and He will do the rest.

 

Notes

* lit. Light, insubstantial – used colloquially to denote spiritual superficiality. 

 

Free Church Android

I have a friend who does not come from a Free Church background. Actually, I have many such friends. In fact, a lot of the people I grew up with have little or no church experience and absolutely no truck with Christianity. Many of them fall into what I think of as the Iain Crichton Smith category – having a pretty tired and hackneyed view of Hebridean Calvinism which is largely based on stereotypes that are no longer true (if they ever were). These stereotypes wear black hats and sombre faces; they shake their heads at mirth and sigh in response to vain worldliness. And they live in the imagination of people who ought to know better.

However, this friend has no such prejudices. She wandered into my life in a haphazard, vaguely work-related way. We hit it off over coffee (me – after all, I’m a neurosis-ridden Wee Free) and herbal tea (her – a bit fancy like that, what with being ‘from away’). One Sunday, I took her to a Gaelic service in the Seminary in Stornoway, which is nothing to do with training priests, despite the name.

And then she came along to some English services too. I was impressed at her tenacity because, the previous summer, on a reconnaissance visit to Lewis, she had been to such a service. The children’s address, about the irrepressible manse dog, had appealed to her, but the content of the sermon had not. She was discomfited, I gather. Now I can’t remember if I explained to her that this would usually be viewed as a good sign in the Free Church. Wallowing in comfort and self-satisfied complacency is not how a spiritually healthy clientele should be. The hard pews, the hard truth, the hard stare from the pulpit: they are all part of the strategy.

Some weeks ago, she and I met up with another friend of mine for dinner on a Wednesday evening. Yorkshire Lass asked Island Girl (yes, I’m aware that they sound like runners in the 3:15 at Aintree) whether she would be coming with us afterwards to the prayer meeting. Island Girl laughed in a mildly hysterical way, ‘On a Wednesday!? No way!’ And so I had to explain why Wednesday was a ‘thing’, whilst simultaneously reprimanding Island Girl for allowing her daft Leodhasach hang-ups to emerge in front of a visitor from the Real World.

Yorkshire Lass has experienced much of what Free Church life has to offer. She has heard fine preaching, beautiful psalm singing, shared in prayer meetings and witnessed the Lord’s Supper being dispensed. This month, she was astounded by the groaning food table at our congregational fellowship. We have experienced the Harris conference together, and the WFM annual dinner. I know she has made lasting friendships besides my own.

Just before our recent ‘off-peak’ communion, she asked whether it would be ok if she attended the Saturday preparatory meeting. When I answered in the affirmative, she said, ‘what do people do who don’t have a you to ask these things?’, as if I’m some kind of Wee Free Siri. A faulty one, at any rate, but perhaps more reliable than Wikipedia.

The fact of the matter is that most people here in Lewis do have plenty people they can ask. They won’t, though, because they’ve already had their heads filled with daft rules. Wednesday night meetings are for communicants only, preparatory services are likewise for the converted . . . the list goes on. Worse, though, is the idea that you may not be welcome, or that people might judge you if you haven’t been to church for a while. They picture it being like the saloon bar in a John Wayne film where the stranger enters and many hostile eyes turn to stare. Wee Frees are gloom merchants and their churches oppressive places. Probably the minister will thump the pulpit, shout a lot about hell and maybe even castigate the newcomer for their sinful lifestyle and lax conduct.

Yorkshire Lass had no such preconceived notions. She came with an open mind and an open heart, but with no very positive formative experience of Christianity. Here in Lewis, she has met Christians whose faith is not about a series of formal steps, but is a living reality. They are far from perfect, but they are authentic. Christ is the centre of their lives. I see my brothers and sisters now through her eyes, as well as my own.

For me, meeting her has been a gift. She may do funny things with nettles, but she has given me the ability to see the Christian heritage of Lewis as something precious. We so often have to defend it against prejudice from within our own community. People get hung-up on the ouward badges and rituals of church life. In her, coming with the heart of a child, to ask questions in good faith, I see Him. I always believed that He had brought her to Lewis so that she might be among some of His believing people. In my blindness, I failed to realise just how much of a blessing her presence might be to us. To me, anyway, because in answering some of her questions, I am answering my own.

When you remove all the inside track stuff that needs explaining – who is allowed to go where, when do we stand and when do we sit – there is only one truth anyway. Christ reigns over all, and His people have been released from bondage.

There is also only one church after all: His, and it is most entirely free.

Safe Spaces and Dwelling Places

I went to a feminist event last night. It was that thing which we’ve heard there is so much need for in the Hebrides – a safe space for women to talk and exchange opinions. It was a real, face-to-face meeting of Hebridean ladies , sharing a meal and sharing conversation. Women of all ages came together from across the island, to talk, to listen, to laugh, to catch up with old friends and to meet new ones.

There was a guest speaker. She spoke movingly of her work with street children in Uganda. I don’t believe there was a heart in that room of almost 200 women unmoved by what she told us. Children, born to children, growing up without a home or a family. Without, in fact, a safe space.

These are children who don’t know what it is to have a parent’s unconditional love and protection. They are exposed to unthinkable danger every minute of every day. Many of them are on the streets, nonetheless, because that terror is marginally better than the one they faced at home. We all know how short a duration childhood is; in the blink of an eye, it’s past and, for these children, never really happens at all.

The speaker, Marsaili Campbell, is a paediatric nurse who has worked with these children for a long time through the Dwelling Places project. In addressing her audience, she excluded no one, and made no assumption that the room was filled with Christians.

I have already had fingers wagged at me by people who thought I was suggesting that charity is the exclusive preserve of Christianity. It isn’t. The gathering was Women for Mission, but the challenge is for all human beings. Could we not work together to make this world a little safer for everyone? Surely there are more important fights than the ones we are having with each other, and more important rights than that of swimming seven days a week, or keeping your child from hearing about Noah and the ark.

This meeting is an annual event organised by Women for Mission, a network of committees affiliated to the Free Church, and raising money to fund missionary work. It is the preserve of energetic, intelligent, motivated and compassionate women. If you are one of those, you could come to a WFM fundraiser, just to see what it’s about. You could support the work to help street children, to bring hope to the hopeless. These events, and the planning meetings which precede them, are safe spaces.

The women I met last night are authentic  feminists. True, they haven’t hung that label on themselves, but I think that’s because they are absolutely free, and don’t need to.

I was approached by a smiley, petite lady at the end of the evening, to tell me how much she was enjoying my column in the ‘Record’. That lady taught me – and countless others – to read and write during her 37 years in Laxdale School. Elsewhere in the room, I saw my former boss, a woman who stood up to men in suits in the 1970s to give Ness its Comunn Eachdraidh. That swiftly became a movement which has preserved and recorded our folk heritage up and down the islands and beyond.

The lady co-ordinating the evening is another example of feisty Free Church womanhood. I’ve come to dislike that word, ‘feisty’ because it’s so often applied to militant moaners. Not in this case. Think force of nature with a hundred watt smile. You do her bidding because she semi-charms and semi-terrifies you. And because everything that drives her is what drives each woman in that room: love for the Lord.

A room packed with women, all of one accord: it should terrify the men. Then again, there was one present – just one, mind you. He had a camera. Probably gathering evidence to take back to the Session. I’m fairly sure he caught the woman next to me laughing, so they’ll probably shut WFM down. Women laughing and planning things is surely the way sedition lies.

Actually, women, with their multi-faceted personalities, experience, and gifts, come together in groups like WFM. They work towards a common, humanitarian goal. In striving as one, they become one. There is real sisterhood because the bonds that exist between them are forged in the fire of love. It is that simple love which says that if a child is hungry, you should feed her, and if she hurts, you should comfort her.

That is what feminism looks like in the Free Church.  It is about looking outward and serving the Lord by serving the lowliest in our world.

At the end of the evening, the beauty of 200 women singing Psalm 40 in unison said something to me about real feminism. Each individual voice counts, yes, but how much more power is there when we come together as one?