Most of the posts here on World Without End are reflections on theology and the Church. I don’t tend to write many posts with a more personal angle. However, every now and again it seems appropriate. The occasion this time is my leaving Uist to pursue a new calling as Assistant Minister of Kilmallie and Ardnamurchan Free Church. There’ll be plenty of time to post about that new adventure, but now is the time to reflect on over ten years in Uist…
Back in February 2004, Rachel and I arrived here from Llantrisant in Wales with two small children (and a cat). It was a big move, especially arriving in mid-February! In the words of the Runrig song, the Outer Hebrides are islands ‘at the edge of the world’. At the north-west periphery of the UK, clinging to a spot on the edge of the vast expanse of the North Atlantic, over 50 miles from the Scottish mainland, Uist is in every sense remote. Life here isn’t easy. The winters are long, stormy and dark. The isolation is more than can be got used to, with the huge distances involved in travelling to see family and friends. But, we came here to help in rural ministry, and to learn about rural ministry. And we’ve been here much longer than we thought we would be back in 2004.
South Uist has been our home for ten years. It is both wild and beautiful, with mountains on the east, and flat machair land to the west behind white sandy beaches. The treeless landscapes show a variety and richness far greater than the island’s size suggests. Over time we all form bonds not only with people, but with places. Our lives are set within a landscape. We learn its contours, its horizons, the patterns of the weather, the seasons, the plants, the birds. Places grow into us, set roots deep down. Living here, battling through fierce storms, standing under dazzling night skies and aurora, crossing the water, watching eagles, fish jumping, deer on the hillsides, and walking amongst the myriad tiny flowers on the summer machair – all this has both enriched our lives and profoundly influenced my own theology.
As we leave, we don’t just take away a love for this island, but for its people – and all Uibhisteachs. There is something about the Hebridean people. Of course, they can’t all be lumped together like that, but whether Leodhasachs, Hearachs or Uibhisteachs, many Hebrideans carry a dignity and warm-heartedness which marks them out as folk of quality. The Gaelic language binds them together and infuses a rich culture of music and song. It’s been a privilege to live amongst and to share our lives with so many islanders. We are incomers, but our desire has always been to love the local folk, their land, their ways. Of course, these islands have been especially marked by Christian faith. Whether the Presbyterianism of the north, or the Roman Catholicism of the south, Christianity has shaped these communities. I’m glad to have spent ten years living amongst communities where the vast majority of people belong to the Roman Catholic church. My encounters with that tradition of the Church, and with faithful people from it, have brought me to a fresh appreciation not only of our important differences, but also of the great truths of Christianity which we as Presbyterians share, in the holy catholic Church.
The crisis of faith which is taking so many away from the church is evident here, yet a greater faith remains than in most places. Our prayer for this island of ours, and for all the Uists, is that there would be a return to faith. Not a return to forms of dead religion which keep people from Jesus and his transforming power (whether Presbyterian or Roman Catholic, this is most of the explanation for the crisis of faith in these communities), but a return to true faith, which leads people to follow Jesus Christ as disciples, and which results in true religion. Not Presbyterianism (!), but the true religion seen in beautiful lives of real-world holy people, people living for God – Father-Son-Spirit – and his kingdom. People whose lives make a difference through words and actions. This can happen in any church! Our prayer for these communities is that folk would find and follow Jesus – and from him find life in all its fullness.
And yet, it’s the South Uist and Benbecula congregation of the Free Church of Scotland – its people and its story – that will always hold a very special place in our hearts. This is the congregation we came here to work with and to learn from. To spend ten years amongst such a wonderful church family, being taught so much, and being able to teach, sharing so much joy and sadness, facing challenges and seeing God at work in people’s lives – it has been an immense privilege for which we thank God. We came to help here. But, we’ve received far more than we have given. We came to learn, and we have been taught so much and been equipped so well for the next chapter of our lives. The congregation has been the perfect backdrop to my own seven years of theological study and biblical research. It’s been a privilege to pass on to folk here what I have received. It’s been a privilege for us to see folk growing in faith, and to see folk come to faith in Jesus Christ. And there are people here, and departed, whose example and influence will never leave us. Here in this small congregation are jewels of people! Thank you all for your fellowship over ten years. And to God be the glory.
In a few day’s time we will, along with two teenagers, a cat, a dog and an extra cat, be leaving Lochboisdale for a home on the mainland. We thank God for the path that brought us from our home in Wales to this island at the edge of the world. We’re not Gaels, but in Fort William, we’ll own the words of the emigrants’ song: ‘Mountains divide us, and a waste of seas… Yet we in dreams behold the Hebrides’.