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A country kingdom

When my brother and sister and I, in very early childhood, first asked our grandfather, ''What's the kirk?'' he replied in a triumphant voice, ''The kirk! It's life!'' It was indeed one of the outstanding influences of those years. Every Sunday we walked with our parents over fields and past burns to reach the small white-washed building. Hours of childhood and adolescence were spent there.

We looked out from the window at the end of our pew over the quiet countryside. In spring a thrush, perched among the May blossom, sang throughout the morning service; in the evening barn owls hooted from the nearby woods. Autumn leaves, tawny as the butterflies that wintered in the church, fluttered against the panes, December snows swirled over the gravestones.

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In our family were ministers, lay preachers, and students of theology. Every now and then a missionary cousin returned from the foreign field to preach about Mungo Park of Foulshiels on the Yarrow, David Livingstone of Blantyre, and other heroes. This cousin had a way of shouting ''The hea-then!'' that made the skin crinkle on our scalps. We saw those same heathen taking to their heels and fleeing, preferring tiger-infested jungles to any closer encounter with Cousin Rob, bent on instant conversion.

Among the many relations who sat around us in church was only one we really disliked, Uncle Matthew, nicknamed Cruden's Concordance by our father, because of his extensive knowledge of the Bible. He used that knowledge not always to show Christian compassion but rather to put people in their place. He never let the three of us forget that his eye, like the eye of the Lord, was on us.

The sermons we heard weekly set us off on endless, whispered speculations about eternity and the Last Trump. Uncle Cruden, sitting in the pew behind us, would hiss furiously, ''Wheesht!'' and prod us in the small of the back or hook our legs with his umbrella.

In our imaginings of the Last Trump we saw the Recording Angel climbing up into the pulpit with the Book of Records under its wings. And there was Uncle Cruden in the pulpit too, more self-important than ever, eagerly turning over the pages to find out what our sins were. He would see to it that the Angel didn't let us off easily.

Sundays, in between the morning and evening service, had a special quality about them, something of the nature of eternity. There were not only the two visits to church but a gathering of the family over an endless dinner. We would slip away from the table to play, and since it was the Sabbath, our games were Bible ones.

Opening the Bible at random we would compete for the most fearsome passage and read it out in sepulchral voices: ''Behold I am against thee, O Gog, and I will put hooks in thy jaws.'' ''Out of his nostrils goeth smoke as out of a seething pot or cauldron. His breath kindleth coals.''

The kirk was the setting for family christenings, weddings, and funerals, woven into the very fabric of our lives, admonishing, comforting, unshakable as the Rock of Ages. The loving solidarity of so many grandparents, uncles, and cousins seemed to surround us like a protective bulwark. We sat there, week after week, sniffing in the various familiar odours, hymn books, red horsehair cushions, old dark oak pews, knowing the church by heart as our relations knew the Bible.

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Beyond our window the thrush's song from the hawthorns became intertwined with some of our best-loved melodies. All around us sounded the language of the Authorized Version, and with it the plain church took on a kind of splendour. The awesome Be ye perfect . . . imposed its challenge, while the words of the Psalms swept over us, thundering and rejoicing. ''If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand lead me . . . .''

''What are the wings of the morning?'' we would ask one another. We didn't know, yet we gloried in that very obscurity and repeated over and over ''The wings of the morning'' until we felt ourselves flying through space, up and up towards the stars. It was in this country kingdom that we had our first intimations of being in the presence of mysteries, our first glimmerings of the need for symbols to express certain truths as we worked out our own very personal interpretation of Scripture.

It was strange to return after many years and many wanderings and sit there again. The world lying beyond the kirk window was darker, and more menacing than the one of our childhood. New light oak pews and brand new hymnals had dispelled the former perfume of horsehair and black oak. We seemed to be surrounded by ghosts of the past, by indignant phantom Wheeshts from Uncle Cruden's pew.

Our sense of loss was so profound that we could have wept. Then, all at once, the words of Psalm 57 were read and went echoing around us. . . . ''In the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast.'' We knew that the sanctuary was still there in spite of all, unchanged and unchanging, and we took once again the wings of the morning.

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