The Flowers of the Field

It was book I read a while back by the American novelist  Sue Miller “The story of my father”. It was not a novel and not the kind of book that I would naturally go to, but I heard her read part of it on the radio and it touched me.

Maybe it was something about the father daughter relationship, maybe it was the account of someone who was a believer by someone who wasn’t, but somehow it resonated with me and I was deeply moved. In my excitement I bought a couple of copies and gave them to friends. They didn’t share my enthusiasm and I have since learned that this emotion is not always contagious. They were unmoved by the story and critical of the authors’ motives

Sue Miller’s father died after a long period of Alzheimer’s, during which time she tried hard to hold back the inevitable break down that was taking place in his brain. Later she painfully recognised that all her efforts had no effect. What was happening to him, the fracturing of his mind, was taking its own inevitable course and nothing she could do would change that. At his memorial service she was asked to read psalm 103 which may have been a favourite of his. He was Christian pastor. She, though not herself a believer, was able to read through the beautiful words of this ancient song until she got to verse 15 where she almost choked. “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field: the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.”    She resolved there and then to show that her father’s life was not like that “I saw now, that my father was not as a flower of the field, dammit; there was sense, meaning to be made of his life in terms of a narrative structure, an explanation of his self – the story of my father- as told my me” She would, in the writing of this memoir, redeem his life from oblivion.

I was recalling this when talking with a client, who is also a friend, over a long car journey recently. He is a lawyer and recently retired and we were musing on reaching this stage in life and wondering what actually we had achieved. What had we got to show for a life’s labours? “At least you will have designs and buildings that will outlast you. All I did was put words together and now they are gone.” It was true I might have buildings and designs that I have had some part in creating but they too will only last for a little time. They will change, be demolished and many probably are already on the way to decay. It is true that if you are famous your name might still be known and your achievements documented, or your legacy, recorded in history. But as for you, yourself, your essential being, it will be forgotten.  People will quickly counter that your memory is retained and kept alive in your children and grandchildren if you have that privilege. The curious phrase in obituaries “He/She is survived by…” comes to mind, and there is certainly a lot of comfort sought in these words. But the fact is, it is simply not true. 

I remember my parents, I don’t think of them every day, maybe not every week but I do remember them and at times wish they were here to talk over something or just for who they were. I knew my paternal grandparents but only a little. I seldom saw them and they seemed distant and stern. I didn’t really know them. As for my great grandparents, I know nothing. I don’t actually know their names (though guess I could find out) I know nothing about what they did or who they were. So in such a short space of time, three generations, they are forgotten and in three generations I will be forgotten too. “The place will remember (me) no more” It is a desperate and despairing thought to dwell on and yet its reality cannot be denied. The fact that our life is so very brief and it will be forgotten so soon isn’t something you really want to dwell on too long.

Sue Miller was devoted to her project but when she got to the end of the story which hinged around Psalm 103, it came to her with astonishing clarity that her father didn’t need her to make sense of his life. “What I learned was that in this way, as in so many other ways, my father didn’t need me to rescue him, to make sense of his life. He accepted what was happening to him, the way he was fracturing and breaking apart, as he had accepted it in possibility well before it happened. For him his life and death already made sense. For him, Psalm 103 could be read through without irony to its conclusion, which goes as follows:

But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children, to such as keep his covenant and to those that remember his commandments to do them… Bless the Lord O my soul”

Crawford Mackenzie

IT’S THE CLIMATE STUPID


We were in the middle of a congenially post lunch conversation at our annual get together of architect buddies, having demolished the designs of local planning and building efforts moving on to Brexit and independence for Scotland. All was going swimmingly well, when we somehow wandered into global warming and climate change and I foolishly confessed to being a sceptic. The faces froze with an unconcealed shock. Suddenly I was not one of them. When people say  “ You are, of course, entitled to your point of view …” You know you have the wrong one.  I realised that I had touched on something sacred. Something that was not up for discussion. This was a religious issue and what I had said amounted to blasphemy

I was reminded of this when watching the BBC documentary  “Climate Change – the facts” which started with David Attenborough speaking from a field somewhere in England and ended with the school strikers in central London and  Greta Thunberg.  It was difficult to take any of this seriously. The hurricanes, the droughts the wildfires the dying bats and the deforestation are, without a doubt, desperately serious and devastating events, but it was the seismic jump in thinking, the incredible leap of faith that placed all these events as a direct result of human action, that was breath-taking.  There was a small admission that not all can be laid at the foot of human activity but the central message was that they did.  I wonder if the BBC team actually chose the title to put down the collection of essays of the same name which challenge the accepted view. There was no debate and no quarter given to sceptics. In fact, their intervention was seen as part of the problem. The sceptics have effectively delayed action.

The message was simple: Extreme weather is increasing, It is a result of global warming which is a result of green house gases, the principal one is CO2 which was due to carbon emissions and for which the human species is culpable. From there, the prediction was for more “extreme weather” with tipping points which will trigger “climate collapse”. Now all of that may be true, although the connections were not always clear, Among the “facts”  there was no mention of the sun which has probably the greatest influence on the changes in climate, nor clouds, their cooling effect during the day and milding effect during the night. The forests were described as soaking up the carbon without any mention of the other side.- how the trees actually need CO2 to grow and green the planet. There was no acknowledgement that the predictive models were anything other than fully trustworthy or that past predictions were wrong, some spectacularly so.

I happen to think that the destruction of the planet is a very serious issue and that our careless exploitation of resources is morally corrupt. I believe that humankind has a heavy responsibility to care for the natural world of which we are an intrinsic part. And I know we are not doing that. I take it very seriously and have done so for decades.  It was a subject we agonised over as students in the 60’s and early 70’s when pollution was how it was presented. Paul Ehrlih’s “The Population Bomb” was a text that really scared us.   What I can’t take seriously is the para-religious dogma that will not allow any discussion, that simplifies a complex subject into soundbites, that are preached in sermons often by people who have actually no special expertise, no qualification or authority in the subject and it doesn’t help the cause. The fact that the celebrity activists play fast and loose with their own carbon footprints doesn’t help either. It is the classic preacher’s sin of not practising what you preach.

But it was not just the sermon – telling us how bad we are and how we are heading for a cataclysmic disaster- It was the belief that we can find our own salvation, was what troubled me most.  It is the unconscious arrogance of the thing that lacks any sense of realism. The repeated mantra “We can save the planet” doesn’t bear any scrutiny. It is not true. We can’t.  This misplaced confidence hasn’t eradicated hunger, or poverty or disease or crime. It hasn’t brought us world peace and there is no indication that it ever will. And no, this is not a counsel of despair. It is a counsel of reality and sanity. The truth is we can’t save the planet. We can’t stop storms and hurricanes. We can’t abolish flooding or ban earthquakes. None of these things are in our gift. We can’t tell the sea to be still or the wind to be quiet. There was only one person who could do that and there is only one person who can.

And this gets to the nub of the problem, how can we expect to protect the natural world and make it a place fit for human flourishing, in harmony with the rest of creation, if we ignore the Creator and lock him out of our discussions. The problem is not climate change denial; the problem is God denial.

Losing the sense

Losing one of your senses is a very disturbing and often distressing experience. But at times it can occur so slowly and imperceptibly that you hardly even notice, until, that is, it has almost gone. One of the loses we have experienced in the public exchange of ideas is the appeal to, what we used to call, common sense. In just about every big issue that is debated today, common sense seems to have gone AWOL.

Common sense would have told us that the pre 2008 economic tigers could not be sustained and warned us of the collapse. Common sense would have told us that covering the land with concrete, cutting down the forests and piling plastic into the sea would have negative effects on our world and it could come back to bite us. Common sense would have told us that humans are different from animals, that men and women are not the same, that you can’t just decide to change from one to the other, that men can’t have babies, and that an unborn child is still a human being. Common sense would have told is that we are not just a collection of random cells. Common sense would have warned us that before you cut down the tree, you should remember how long it took to grow.  Common sense would have told us that when we empty the bath we should make sure that the baby doesn’t go down the plug hole too. Common sense also would have told us there could be exceptions but that it is best not to rip up the rule book over an exception or a hard case.

So, it is the loss of common sense that distresses me. I often come to a debate thinking “Why on earth are we even talking about this?” Time was when you could close a ridiculous argument, disengage from a pointless debate, halt the indulgence of bizarre and crazy ideas by simply appealing to common sense. Not so now. No matter how crazy or insane or outrageous the notion may seem, you have to do battle on an even field, respect the other view as if it were an equally valid opinion and argue the case from a logical evidential footing. The assumption of course is that all views are equal and should be given the same value and debated with the same rigour and even-handedness. Common sense tells you they are not.

And I wonder how this has come about. Could it be that there is no such thing as common sense? Just a vague but useful tool that has managed to smooth things over the centuries and made it work?  If that was all it ways, it would still worthwhile. But when the foundations are in question there is nothing to build on and so, with the death of truth, comes the death of common sense. If my common sense is different from your common sense, it is no longer common. Yet for any debate to be of value there needs to be some founding principles. If there isn’t, we just end up shouting at each other and this is exactly what happens.

Crawford Mackenzie

THE WORDS OF THE PROPHETS

Maybe they have always been there. Maybe I have just become aware of them. But we seem to live in the time of the Prophets. The ones who see beyond the media undergrowth to the horizon, who know the seasons and understand the times and who speak out with a consistent and a clear message which stands in stark defiance of the spirit of the age. Like the prophets of old they are marginalised, often ridiculed, silenced and abused with all the usual dismissive name calling and pejorative ists  and phobias. Yet they are characterised by an honesty, transparency and clarity of vision, with logical and often irrefutable arguments, based on facts and evidence and who are unintimidated and fearlessness in debate.

 I am thinking of: Peter Hitchens, Jordan Petersen, Brendan O Neil, Dave Rubbin, Roger Scruton, David Robertson, Anne Maria Waters, Camille Paglia, Claire Fox, Ben Shapiro, Obianuju Ekeocha, Melanie Phillips, Mark Steyn, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Frank Furedi, Majid Nawaz, Rod Liddle, Heather Macdonald, Brigitte Gabriel, Imam Tawhidi, Douglas Murray, Janice Fiamengo and Laura Perrins. 

 There will be many more but these are ones who have come across my radar and have stuck out for me. Of course, I do not agree with everything they might write or what any individual might say and I am sure they would all disagree with each another. With many I have no natural affinity, I might dislike their particular style of presentation or simply their tone of voice, but that is quite beside the point. The astonishing thing is that they come from so many different backgrounds and influences yet speak with one voice and shine a startling light on the precarious nature of our western civilisation. Some are journalist, politicians, philosophers, art critics, historians, atheists, theologians, Christians, Muslims and Jews, from left and right and centre and various stratus of society,

 In common they seem to hold these principles:

An unembarrassed love for a home country, a nation, its land and geography, history, culture, its people and its sovereignty. Without whitewashing or denying all that is wrong or what evil deeds were done in the past, unashamedly proud of that identity. That inevitably means a country with a defined and protected border. Not internationalism.

 A desire to preserve the language and protect it from its abuse as a political tool where truth defers to ideology. Not politically correct gobbledegook.

 A respect for science, honest enquiry, investigation, research and independent. Not pseudo-science hijacked by political ideologies

 A celebration of the miracle of western Christian civilisation. Recognising the singular contribution it has made to the modern world, in freedom, democracy and the rule of law. Not cultural self-loathing.

 A belief that while western civilisation has been enriched with the impact and insights of many other cultures, the particular heritage of structures, orders and values, which we have been entrusted with, is worth defending. Not multiculturalism.

 A firm believe in the intrinsic value of the individual. Not group identity

 A recognition of the self-evident natural orders which are the building blocks of a stable society: male and female, marriage and families, the sanctity of life from conception to death. Not the insanity of queer theory and trans ideology

 The freedom to trade labour. Not slavery

Now I could be quite wrong. They may be  false prophets, but there is a simple way to test if a prophet is true or false. If they say, what won’t happen, doesn’t and what they say will happen, does, then you can be sure they have been speaking the truth.

As for me, I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet but I am convinced that we are witnessing the final demise of Western Christian Civilisation in Europe and all of the seers and polemicists seem to foretell and warn us of it. For my part, I think it is too late. We have too much invested in the status quo and comfortable with the way things are to try and reverse the trend or hold back the tide, even if we wanted to. We won’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone.

 Yes, I am sure pockets and outposts will remain. There will be monuments and cultural artefacts and visual reminders of what once was. Some of our historic city centres and sites could become theme parks for tourists from China, India and Brazil, but the basic values and orders will be lost in the pursuit of a socialist utopia or surrendered to Islamisation*. The prospect is extremely depressing and would be particularly bleak were it not for the fact that hope, as I see it, lies elsewhere. It lies in countries we call the third world. The lands where poverty is real and the things, we are so willing to devalue and jettison, education, marriage, the family, individual responsibility, community cohesion, respect for experience, etc are highly prised. It is astonishing to see what families will sacrifice to allow just one member to get an education and it is revealing to hear international visitors speak with admiration on such simple things like queuing, freedom of religion and expression, security, care, concern and respect that extends beyond familial or group boundaries.

 My friends, some who live in extremely poor circumstances, in eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and south and central America, do seem to have a much firmer grasp on reality but I suspect we in the west won’t know what has hit us until it does. That is why we need to hear the words of the prophets that are written on the internet’s subway walls and printed in the tenement halls of obscure publishers. 

Crawford Mackenzie

 *Michel Houellebecq, not one of my listed prophets, portrays a disturbing vision in his dystopian novel “Submission” which is shot through with prophetic realism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Torquil’s Ford

IMG_1446It is just after five and  I leave to cross the waist of Scotland, east to west, from the Tay estuary on the North Sea to Ardnamurchan and the mighty Atlantic Ocean. I am not a lover of cars or driving but this journey is a delight, through the small towns, by the loch side over the moors through the glens and always always westwards. Going west is going home.

With the morning har lifting west of Comrie, the sharp shafts of light punching colours into the hillside, sleepy St Fillans and a solitary dinghy crossing Loch Earn creating a perfect triangular wake, I am thinking, as I often do, that I live a very charmed life. Into my 70th year, my three score years and ten, still able to work fulltime in the design and construction of a wide variety of buildings. clinics, schools, churches and domestic properties. Not every project is blissful and none is without hassle, needless complication, frustration and disappointment but this one is a joy.  It is a simple extension with alterations to a croft house sitting at the foot of the hill facing westwards, just up from the shore, with nothing between you and America save, that is, for the sea and the sky.   It is a joy because the site is idyllic, the builders have that rare quality of genuine interest in the work and honesty in relations, the officials, while slow, are understanding and even apologise for their failings and the clients are of the best kind.

At lochearnhead, I turn right and climb up through Glen Ogle, with the line of the abandoned railway still visible in the opposite side of the glen. Over the hill and Ben lawyers come into view and I descend swinging round at Bovain past the garage with that strange land rover with its extended caterpillar tracks.  Here the road has long straight stretches, that encourage speed, along the Dochart to Loch Lubhair. (For legal reasons the actual speeds cannot be recorded here) Soon we are into Crainlarich now wakening up and beginning to go about its business. I pass under the slender railway bridge still carrying a working railway. Crainlarich has lovely charm and evokes memories. The station sits above the village and on southbound journeys the train would stop for an extended period to connect with the Oban line. There would also be a buffet car on board, but meals were too expensive for us, and on this station a private entrepreneur ran a brisk business victualling the eager passengers with sandwiches and hot tea while steam poured from the engines valves in clouds along the platform.

The railway is now my companion like a dog following me, now on the right, now on the left, on the road up to Tyndrum where I stop, sit on the wall to drink coffee with the sun heating up and the midges beginning to gather. Then on past the Oban turn off, climbing again with the ancient hills coming closer and the astonishing “horse shoe bend” where the railway traces a line round the glen at Auch in an almost full circle. There is a railway workers cottage at both side of the glen, only accessible from the railway itself and each with a single platform. I recall a southbound journey, as a child, when the train stopped at one of the cottages and a lady dressed in a heavy overcoat with a suitcase was helped onto the train. It is a long gradual decline now to bridge of Orchy (a wonderful section of road for the cyclist)  past the inn which always seems inviting as a place to rest the night and then  loch Tulla with its strange cartwheel bridge, up to Black Mount and on to Rannoch Moor. The railway leaves us here and finds its own way across this stark landscape. It is late spring, warm and colourful but in winter it can be a very bleak and an unforgiving place. After some long stretches over another cartwheel bridge, the road twists and turns its way down to Glencoe past that awful cottage. Glencoe can’t seem to shake off its brutal past. The notorious massacre and now blighted and scarred by the visual memory of decades of viscous abuse. The cottage should be flattened and some memorial to respect the victims put in its place. That’s my opinion.

 

Turning right at the end of the glen the hills give up their menace and light streams in from loch Leven and Glencoe village. I just have time to make a short detour through the village and up to Glencoe House. It is a solid Victorian turreted and pedimented pile built in 1896 from red sandstone and grey granite sheltered by trees and a sweeping view down to the loch and westwards. On a crisp early summer morning it looks the place to stay and a snip at just under £1,500 a night. My interest in it is quite specific. In the 50s and early sixties it was a hospital with a maternity wing and it was where I and my sister were both born.  It was the first time I had seen it now, as a luxury spa retreat. My sister describes its present state as obscene. I felt the only obscenity was the lack of a plaque commemorating its unique offspring’s.

It is not long before the winding road at the edge of the loch brings me to Corran and the ferry that takes us across to Ardgour. It is a short journey but I always get out to stand on the deck to listen to the surge of the water and spray and breathe in that intoxicating air carried over the sea.


The final leg of the journey in long straight stretches and miles and miles of twisting and turning roads takes another two hours, but it is magical and the one road I love to drive on. It swings around land and then sea lochs, through narrows, heavily wooded with birch and beech shrub, moss covered rocks and lichen covered oaks, past tiny half hidden sandy coves with a solitary yacht and through the small hamlets of Strontian, Salen, Glenborrodale and finally Kilchoan. I have to concentrate all the time. There is no radio or music to divert my attention as I set my gaze on the next turn of the road, ready for the unexpected and constantly memorising the next passing place. Kilchoan is resplendent in the mid-morning sun, protected by the hills behind and looking over to mull with the reclining Ben More. It is time for a stop and stretch, a visit to the village shop and the convenience housed within an old croft house with toilets and showers and quant notices from the volunteers who faithfully maintain this facility for the visiting sailors and campers.

And the final part, it takes me up and over, now at a more relaxed pace, round the unmistakable form of a volcano crater before coming to rest at the end of the journey, with the soft voice on the wind blowing up from the beech and seeming to say “where have you been all this time?”

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I change my mind and take the long way home. There is time and somehow this day calls for it. I turn left at Salen and slide into the soporific village of Acharacle. It could just as well be middlearth. Maybe it is the familiarity knowing each bend and rise in the road, maybe it is the mid-afternoon warmth, maybe it is the romantic setting at the end of Loch Shiel with the enchanting names of Mingarry and Dalilea and the sharp familiar grandeur of Resipole.  Maybe it is simply nostalgia and the pleasure of warm memories, but it almost overcomes me.

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I stop and have a look at the new manse. It was one of my projects and I would love to see how it actually works out in practice. It, like most designs, never work out quite the way it was planned. I got on well with the committee till a new chairperson took charge insisting on his version of the plan and an inferior design adopted. It was a lost opportunity. The first incumbent realised this but it was too late. I think about calling in for a cup of tea. The minister is hanging out her washing but I need to move on.

I do have time, however, to walk up to the little church, a Telford building, up from the road beautifully still half concealed by the trees. This was the church where my father was the minister. It was his last parish before retiring and the happiest charge. It is encouraging to see the building in such good condition and clearly well cared for. I try the door and to my delight it opens. Inside is the familiar smell of hymnbooks and polish with a fly buzzing at the window.

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I wander through to the vestry which is now a toilet and open for the convenience of travellers. In the past the vestry like the church was always open. The weekly collection was simply placed in a bag in a drawer in a desk there and at the end of the month the treasurer would take it to the bank. There was no question of it being lost or pilfered. At one time, however, there was a local man with serious alcohol problems and there was a fear that when on a bender he might help himself, so it was decided, for the sake of prudence, to put a lock on the door. This was no problem. My father was a joiner and, truth be told, he would often prefer to be on the tools than in the study. He bought the lock and fitted it. It had three keys. One for the minister one for the session clerk and one to be hung on a hook beside the door. They were taking no chances.

I climb up the few steps into the pulpit. It was where I preached my first sermon. Called in at the last minute when no one else was available I stumbled through assorted musings on the prophet Hosea. It lasted 9 minutes 50 seconds. My father timed me.  The lectern has a bible open at Psalm 107. It was the section from the authorised version that I remember memorising in class at school “they that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, these see the work of the Lord and his wonders in the deep..”  It is an ancient song that has meant a lot to me over the years. It speaks graphically in a quartet of pictures of God’s faithfulness, his willingness to answer the prayer of those in desperate need, and our response in thankfulness to him. I have worked and re-worked it versions of contemporary song many times and tried to illustrate in various ways. Overcoming a strange inhibition, I read it out loud to the empty building and it resonates around the building. It is especially poignant today

Walking down the aisle the memory of my sister’s funeral comes flooding back.  She was 12 years my elder and throughout her short life suffered from epilepsy, mental illness and sever learning difficulties. She spent some time in a mental institution villa nine at Lennoxtown hospital but after a particular illness my parents decided to bring her home, where she was cared for up until the end of her life. It is hard to imagine what life in a mental institution would have been like in those days but contemporary accounts are sometimes chilling. It may well have been something that my parents saw then, that convinced them, home was where she should be. It was a considerable burden for a middle aged couple, all the same, with a large family to care for and already committed to serving others in the community but they bore it with astonishing grace. It was only in later life that I saw something of what that commitment meant.  Barbara was greatly loved by everyone in the community. She brought out something touching in their lives and the whole community was present at her funeral. In the packed church a family friend lead the service and read the verses from 1 Thessalonians  I can still hear the authorative tone “But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.  For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.. ”We sang the paraphrase “How bright these glorious spirits shine” to  the double metre tune of St Asaph with its repeat of the second section to cope with the odd last verse which give its an untended lift and emphasis:

“In pastures green he’ll lead his flock
where living streams appear,
and God the Lord from every eye
shall wipe away each tear.”

The other singing was the children’s hymn “When he cometh” I never liked it with its jaunty tune its repeating predictable rhymes but it was a favourite with my father and I realised then, why it was.  My brothers and I carried the coffin down the aisle. The undertaker had helpfully suggested how we could do this with dignity. The shortest at the front and the tallest at the back the box on our shoulders and holding each other round the waist. When we reached the door friends took over and shared this burden to the graveside at the back of the church. A simple bronze plaque on granite stones marks the spot. As I trace the steps that day I pass the memorial stones of many folk who I knew. Among them the memorial to the committee member who gave me such strife over the manse building and for the first time felt genuine sorrow. Strange how it takes death to stir sympathy.

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There is a soft breeze coming up from the loch and the trees are swaying gently. Ben Resipole is reclining as in an afternoon nap with bees still busy among the wild roses. A lamb bleats in the distance. I really want to stay but another meeting calls and it is time to leave. I reluctantly slip over the Shiel on the triple arched bridge and make my way back eastwards. I am trying not to cry.

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Crawford Mackenzie

*Acharacle is Torquil’s Ford in Gaelic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interpretation

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 “Me, I’m on the road again heading for another joint/We always thought the same way/We just started from a different point of view/Tangled up in blue”    Bob Dylan

When I have had the temerity, some would say folly, of raising and tackling a controversial subject by way of discussion with anyone who is up for it, It has been an interesting exercise and a helpful exposure to how other people think and how they formulate their opinions, where it starts, how it progresses and when the divergence occurs. Inevitably we reach an impasse,  a place where we can go no further. On the subject, there seems to be no possibility of a meeting of minds and we have simply to agree to disagree and get on with things as best we can. If it is a side issue or its importance does not touch our lives, it is easy, but if it impacts directly on our situation it can be seriously problematic.

When the issue relates to the bible, the sticking point is usually over interpretation. The perceived wisdom is that we read through different lens and interpret scripture in different ways.  So it is inevitable, from a reading of scripture we see things differently and can end up with different, sometimes opposing conclusions. That makes such a lot of sense and is quite understandable. It happens all the time and provides the colour and variety as well as the exciting tension of living. It allows us to be inclusive and yet recognise divergence. It is an acceptance of complimentary perspectives.

There is however, one assumption, one given in this position that shows it to be not quite accommodating as it seems. It presupposes, it prejudges that the bible, valuable, insightful, full of great things and a treasure trove of wisdom as it is, is in a way no different from any other writings. It was written by men and while it has been the single most significant influence in the development of western civilisation it is still a book (or library of books) with contradictions errors and most importantly subject like any other book to criticism.  It can be a source of great joy and inspiration and an object of our love. It can contain within its pages what we can believe to be the word of God but of itself it is not the word of God. It is not the words from the mouth of God, complete, authoritative and without error, the voice of God transmitted to us. Instead it is fallible, inconclusive and contradictory . That, I believe is the brick wall we meet in our discussions. That is where the roads part. The issue is not over the interpretation of the Bible, the issue is over what the Bible actually is.

I remember a group discussion many years ago led by a well-respected minister, highly regarded in “evangelical” circles. He was getting us round to thinking about how we interpret the bible and how our view can change and how we look at scripture differently. He described it as looking through different lenses, the lens we wear when we look at the bible. So we could read the prophet Amos, for example, in a traditional way and see certain truths then we could look at it from a more critical way and find quite different truths.   I was rattled, but managed to stammer out “but surely we need to clean our glasses open our ears and let scripture speak to us so that we can find the truth” he replied with one of those kindly sounding but patronising put downs “ Yes I know, I used to think like that too”.

This reached a new level of clarity for me quite recently. It was during Sunday worship and strangely through what they call “The children’s address”. It was quite profound. It was about glasses, how people with poor eyesight need them to see and are lost without them. And it was about the bible. The point was not that you needed good glasses or glasses with different kinds of lenses to read and understand scripture. The point was that the books of the bible are themselves the glasses that we need to look through and see who God is, who we are, why this world is the way it is and how we can begin to make sense of it.

Crawford Mackenzie

 

 

 

 

 

SUNDAY REFLECTION IN OUANAMINTHE

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SUNDAY

Dawn comes at six prompt intimated by a chorus of cockerels, dogs  and motorcycles revving.  Breakfast is in the open bar downstairs a pleasant courtyard with the covering of leaves and a gentle wind flowing through. Eggs scrambled with tomatoes and chili, delicious bananas, stiff bread and good coffee. This is the time when we chat share and bond as a team, read the bible and pray together and …..wait. (Sometimes we wait for hours,  on Friday it was for seven) We wait for our escort, Pastor Rolex Poisson. He feels responsible for us and anxious that he does not lose his Scottish friends. This morning he is prompt and we climb into his 4×4 equipped with air con and a video screen that helps him reverse but at other times plays Christian music in Kompa style.

We turn right into the Main Street that runs from the border. Usually this a two way river of cars, motorcycles, wheel barrows, bicycles and people on foot intersecting  like ants cutting and swerving but somehow  never hitting each other. At the side of the road there are shops and stall selling biscuits, liquor, concrete blocks, metal gates, bags of rice, beans and cement. Today it is much quieter and the motorcyclists seem to be transporting well-dressed people to church clutching bibles. It is astonishing how people turn out in their smart trousers, dresses, shirts, ties and immaculate shining highly polished shoes. The contrast between the church goers and their surroundings is remarkable-especially when you see the almost non-existent washing facilities people have at home and the ever present dust which turns to mud after every thunderstorm.

IMG_3660When we arrive at the church there is a service in progress. The building is full and a couple hold a bar against the door to discourage anyone from entering at this point. We mingle with the people outside. Again this area is normally a hive of activity with stalls of all kinds and people coming and going. Today it is quieter, but at one stall a young man dressed in a blue football shirt and red cap is busy making pasta rolling it out and laying it on the table to dry in the sun. He is assisted by another young man in a bright orange top. The colours are sharp in the strong sun against the white walls of the courthouse, the rich green of the overhanging trees and a cloudless sky.

The church is full when we enter. 400 or so people on wooden benches. Some have brought their own seats, children on the front and people crowded to the side. There is a raised platform with a concrete balustrade where the elders the choir and band sit and we are ushered to a seat there. The worship is led by a strong woman swaying to the rhythms of the song. She is singing a psalm straight from the bible it does not seem to be a metric version. She leads and the band follows and there is a moment or two before the musicians can locate the key. It’s the bass player who gets it first and he hammers out the line with runs followed by the drummer and finally, after a hesitant start, the guitarist on his  “Starcaster” guitar with intricate decoration in a Kompa style. The leader does what was common years ago in the west of Scotland, she “puts out the line” by singing the line of the verse and the congregation follow. There are many verses (I could not see which psalm it was). When it ends it rises to a climax with a crescendo when the whole congregation joins in singing “Hallelujah!” which repeated several times, sores and finally softens like the waves of the sea.

rolex

The pastor comes forward to welcome everyone, give notices, introduces his friends from across the sea, some are well  known now and he seems to making an appeal for help with building of the new church (this is a rented building) The choir sing and Pastor Reme preaches. He takes The parable of the wheat and the weeds as his theme. I can only pick up a few words. I cannot follow the sermon but somehow sense that God is speaking through him by the power of the Spirit. Soon the service is over and we find ourselves outside chatting to David his god daughter, Atheline Pierre, Toussaint  and  Therese . David is eager to read the English bible and points to verses in the psalms, Jeremiah and  Isaiah where his namesake is mentioned. There is something special in that time.

IMG_9831Later we visit a home. The others know the family but this is my first time. I have always found these visits hard. There is something that always shocks me and I never quite get used to seeing just what little people have and how the means of living and surviving are achieved with astonishing grace and resilience and yes, dignity. This visit is unlike any of the others. The home is as poor as any I have seen but within the cramped and dark concrete interior and the most basic items of furniture, there was an immediate sense of God’s presence. The father is lying on a mattress on the floor his head propped by a cushion yet dressed in a dignified manner his hands shaking involuntarily. He is severely paralyzed perhaps with Parkinson’s or motor neuron disease. We are not told, but his eyes shine with something I can only describe as a deep joy and contentment. It is a look I will never forget as he lies there his face creasing into a smile, surrounded by his family, his five children and his caring wife. We have brought some food: a bag of rice, pinto beans, pasta, stock cubes, a tin of sardines and some cooking oil. The family is touched and grateful. We pray for them, thanking God, asking for his blessing and then leave. Back into the car and the winding bumping ride through the maze of lanes, block houses, goats, rubbish waste ground and naked children, we know that we were the ones who have received the blessing.

REFLECTION

IMG_3772It has been said that the Haitian people carry a deep seated sense of abandonment.

In the Voodou story,  God created the world but was so disgusted with his creatures behaviour that he abandoned it to the demons, good and bad, who are now in control. Typically western commentators and travellers, in their arrogance and ignorance see this simply as a colourful and harmless expression of ancient cultural tradition. As Kim Wall and Caterina Clerici  “Voodou is the soul of Haitian people.” The Guardian (2015)  “ The religion was born with institutional slavery. Ripped from homelands and heritage, thousands of those who would become Haitians were shipped across the Atlantic to an island, where the indigenous population had already been wiped out, for backbreaking labour in cane plantations. They were treated as cattle. As animals to be bought and sold; worth nothing more than a cow. Often less Voodou is the response to that. Voodou says ‘no, I’m not a cow. Cows cannot dance, cows do not sing. Cows cannot become God. Not only am I a human being – I’m considerably more human than you. Watch me create divinity in this world you have given me that is so ugly and so hard. Watch me become God in front of your eyes.’ or Mark Husdon reporting on Leah Gordon in the Telegraph (2012)  “Voodoo is a set of ceremonies that bring down spirits. The spirits indicate they’re present by possessing the celebrants. An animal is sacrificed to feed the spirits, and there’s a lot of dancing and drumming that goes with that. I can’t see anything intrinsically threatening in that. And it’s a lot more entertaining than any church service I’ve been to.”

It is an all too common view which betrays a gross arrogance looking down, as it were, from the high intellectual ground and seeing religions as either dangerous or just quant. In this narrative, it was the Christian missionaries who created all the problems in Haiti. They ought, apparently,  to have left the people to their own beliefs and not interfered.  It is the worst sort of patronizing racism with more than a hint of colonialism in the lust not for the natural resources of materials and labour but  for the colour and distraction needed for a jaded over consumerist  lifestyle;  leaving these pitiful people to their poverty and despair because they seem colourful to us.  Mercifully, the Haitian Christians see it all so differently. The Church resists voodoo in all its manifestations and denounces it unequivocally.  The pastor has to deal with incidents of demon possession almost every day (we witnessed one such) and he doesn’t pussy foot about the issue.  This is a real battle and great care is given to warn the people to have nothing to do with these sinister and evil practices.

IMG_3767The sense of abandonment is played out too through the people’s history. Robbed of their homes, transported across the sea, condemned as slaves and when winning their freedom forced to pay for it, They were massacred by their neighbours, ruled over by corrupt leaders  and suffered a series of natural disastrous culminating in the cataclysmic earthquake of 2010. The world rallied to help in so many ways and, in just so many ways, left a situation much worse that when they had come. This is most graphically illustrated by the appalling cholera epidemic that followed the earthquake and devastated the islands population. Cholera was unknown on the island before and brought by UN soldiers who contaminated the water supply in an act of gross negligence, which they then tried to cover up. This story is told through Jonathan Katz’ vivid first-hand account  of the disasterThe Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster”

The most recent scandal involving Oxfam was just another example of the continuing cycle of despair adding to the overwhelming sense of hopeless abandonment.  Maybe I imagined it, but thought I could detect that sense of resignation in the faces of the people.

It is against this bleak backcloth that what Mission International is doing here is so encouraging and so relevant. The first contact was made with the church in Ounaminthe in 2009 and a team went out from Scotland in the following year.  Every year, and sometimes twice a year, teams have come to visit bringing gifts, words of encouragement, greetings and the promise to pray. This steady and unassuming commitment is beginning to break through the understandable cloud of suspicion, with the knowledge that the God who we serve has not abandoned his people and neither has his church.

Haiti mother and childMaybe it was fancy, but I thought I saw that in the smiles.

Crawford Mackenzie