Why I still go to church

black watch

The questions comes up, of course, because so many of my friends, my family, people I love and care about, folk I admire and respect, don’t.  Some flirted with church in their formative years but got bored of the petty politics, struggled with the institution, were turned off by the back biting and hypocrisy, felt excluded, marginalised, betrayed, and overwhelmed with the sheer absurdity of belief that they left for the sake of their own sanity.  I find I share an awful lot in common with them and have a fair bit of sympathy with their position.  I sometimes wonder why I never joined them.  But I haven’t and I won’t and I can’t. Because….

Because the church is much more. The bonds are stronger than friendship.  The ties are thicker than blood. It is bigger than family.  The local church might seem like a collection of misfits and oddballs, rough diamonds and smoothies, saints and martyrs (“the martyrs being the ones who have to put up with the saints”*), people we get along with and people we don’t.  It is made of people of different age groups, different cultural backgrounds sometimes speaking different languages, people who don’t share the same outlook, standards, interests. All of this must point to the fact that something else is going on here.  That something else is God.  It is God’s church and so he does the choosing. He brings us together. He does the deciding. He does the planning.  He does the perfecting. It is his business and he does it and will do it in his way and in his time.

Because we live in a world that is full of fantasy and illusion, false God’s and paper kings, soaked through with a powerful pervasive philosophy that says that what we see and hear and can touch is the real world. It bombards our thoughts, bends our minds and coerces us into believing this is true. So we need to find ourselves somewhere else where we can be brought into the real world.  Where we can regularly make contact with what is really important. With what is more important than life or death. And that somewhere else is the church. That is why the call to worship “We are here to worship God” is pivotal. It is a call away from the false realities to the true reality and of his purpose of salvation and redemption and glory. In his presence the other world with its great show, its charms, its promise, its money, its power, seems so pathetic, so foolish, so small and so sad.

Because, in church, I am reminded of where my true identity lies.  It is not in being a man, a father, a grandparent, an architect, a dabbler in painting, music and DIY, a Scot, a European a White Anglo Saxon Protestant Christian.   My identity is not in my interests, my family, my roots, my sexual orientation, my ability or disability, or in  my race. My identity is in Christ.  I don’t need to wonder “Who am I?”  But I need that regular reminder of this knowledge which is found in the strange setting of a group of ordinary people meeting together, bowed in worship before the one true God.  I need to know again that I am a sinner, who has been accepted by God because of Jesus, with nothing to bring but empty hands accepting his grace.

That’s why I still go to church.

Crawford Mackenzie

* Quoted by Eugene Peterson in “The Wisdom of Each other”   Zondervan

The Great Divide

In a recent article in Scottish Review1, Gary Hasson powerfully opens a lid on what is possibly the biggest problem threatening our society, yet is hardly ever spoken about. It is the festering wound and the major source of division in contemporary Scotland. It is the elephant in the room, the war we mustn’t talk about, the brother we never had.  It is starkly illustrated by the sharp difference between life in the peripheral housing schemes and the leafy west ends of our cities. Yet it is possible to live out your life without ever noticing it. Maybe you have to be in a prison waiting room, be searched and have your arm stamped or live in a burned out close which has become a shooting gallery, or see a gang fight explode at close quarters, or be routinely insulted and humiliated by some wearied official behind a grill, or just had to learn to accept tenth rate service from medics, educationists, and councillors just because they can get away with it.   It sounds like something that every politician should be agitating for but I do not believe it is within the gift of politicians to fix even there was the will. I don’t believe it is to do with money or a solution could be bought. I don’t think the psychology and sociology and educational theorists have the whole answer either. Neither Darwin, nor Marx nor Freud,  “Three most crashing bores of the Western world” 2come anywhere near. The problem lies much deeper. On one side is the arrogance, greed, pride and indifference or simply obliviousness of those who have the power the wealth and the wit to be sorted, on the other an almost total lack of self-esteem, self-worth and self-respect of those on the other side of the tracks. Apart from the odd outburst, the odd riot, the odd march, there is a resigned acceptance that this is just the way it is. It all became very clear to me early on in my work with the Mains of Fintry Urban Ministry Trust and it is not new. Nick Davies wrote about it in 1997 “Dark Heart, the shocking truth about hidden Britain”3. The book was, and is, a desperately depressing insight into the underbelly of urban life in the late 20c, but he was simply an investigative journalist and had no real answer.  The crippling lack of self-worth and the sense of being trapped with no way out is deeply ingrained in the psyche. It is reinforced with every attempt by those with the resources, time, skill and money to help. “You are only helping because you can and we can’t”  Even the acknowledgement of gifts, the positive strokes, the affirming comments are taken as yet another nail in the coffin “You are only saying that to make us think we are good when we know and you know we are rubbish”  It is seen as yet another patronising put-down.  Our Kosovar friend made an interesting comment on this. When volunteers and NCO’s came to her country to help rebuild the nation, after the war, they were treated with disdain and suspicion.  “They must have done something really bad to be sent to a dump like this” was what they said.  It was only later that she saw the thing differently.

So what is the answer?

I have only one: one solution, one way, one truth, one life- Jesus. If God was prepared to become one of us and go through unbelievable pain and suffering and die for me then I must be worth it and that changes everything.

But it is also not just a theory. I have seen it happen. I have seen people find God and become Christians and find their lives being transformed. They were no longer cowed and subservient but, without turning their back on the traditions, families and cultures, they stood tall with dignity. I have seen it in both individuals and in communities in the east end of Glasgow, in the north end of Dundee, in the pueblos Jovenes in Lima and in the Quechan communities in the Sierra of Peru. It was something that even an atheist like Matthew Parris recognised, after visiting Africa in 2008 “Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good…..The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world, a directness in their dealings with others – that seemed to be missing in traditional African life”. 4

So, for me, the hope for our nation does not lie with politicians, civil servants and the ruling classes, nor with the educationalists, sociologists and social scientists, nor with the economists, entrepreneurs and  traders in money, nor  with the artists, poets, musicians and architects, nor with the entertainers, celebrities and comedians but, strangely as it may seem, with the humble preacher, who faithfully and carefully studies the bible and brings out its truth and majesty in words that people can understand.  In this simple act the whole of life, for the individual and the community, can be transformed and the great divide breached.

Crawford Mackenzie

1              http://www.scottishreview.net/GerryHassan145.shtml

2              William Golding: Marx, Darwin and Freud are the three most crashing bores of the Western World. Simplistic popularization of their ideas has thrust our world into a mental straitjacket from which we can only escape by the most anarchic violence.”

3              Nick Davies: Dark Heart, the shocking truth about hidden Britain, 1997, Vantage

4   http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/matthew_parris/article5400568.ece

Book Review

I was asked to review a book recently.  It was not for publication or distribution but a friend, who I care about,  had simply asked me to read and comment on a book she had read which had made a big impact on her.  She didn’t say if the impact was negative or positive, so I was given a clean slate and approached it with an open mind.

I have to confess that I don’t read a lot and am amazed by friends who can devour several books in a day, who carry a pile with them on holidays and have their kindles loaded up with, what seems like, whole libraries. The little I read tends to be more in the non-fiction than in the fiction section and I often re-read books a number of times. I am also a slow reader. My English teacher, at school, tried to teach me to skim read but I never learned and now I don’t want to. I prefer to savour the language and the thought and to remember the phrasing and give time for the ideas to sink in. So this was a special and a tough task.

The book was not new. It was first published in 1995 and is reputed to be an international best seller, but it was one of the worst books I have ever read. The writer claims to have had a revelation or series of revelations over some years, directly from God, in which god speaks in everyday language with words of wisdom, stories and humour, contemporary references and many quoted words and verses, mainly from the Bible.  But unlike other recognisable forms of literature, with parables, myths and allegory etc, this writer clearly wants the reader to believe that it was in fact God who was speaking directly to him. This is made clear in the introduction.  “It happened to me” he says “I mean that literally” and “it was for everyone and had to be published”. He describes it as “gods latest word on things”.  Now I have known and heard of many people who claim to have heard God speaking directly to them and I have no reason to doubt that these have been true and real experiences but, in each case, God was speaking to the individual and usually over something specific like a decision or a direction or a calling. In this book, the writer maintains that God is not only speaking directly to him but charges him with telling the message, spreading the word to others and specifically to do this by writing the books, of which there are three. “You will make of this dialogue a book, and you will render my words accessible to many people. It is part of your work”  If he is to be believed and if he is accurately reporting what God was saying, then the Bible is deeply flawed from beginning to end and Jesus was either deluded, mad or simply a fraud.

It would not be difficult to catalogue the ridiculous, bizarre and contradictory claims that are made throughout the book, but here are just some of them:

1)      There is no right or wrong only love and fear

2)      God is not the creator he is merely the observer

3)      There was no such thing as the ten commandments

4)      There is no sin

5)      There was no need for sacrifice

6)      There is no heaven

7)      There is no hell

8)      There is no devil

9)      Self is all there is

10)   We are gods or in the process of becoming gods

11)   Jesus is a master on a level with Krishna and Buddha.

12)   All the gospel writers lived and wrote their accounts long after Jesus had died

13)   We only suffer because we chose to. At any moment we could stop suffering. We could be healed, we could be perfectly at peace and happy if we chose to be.

I can well understand why people would be drawn to this book especially if they have been hurt, disillusioned or damaged in some way with organised religion. It would make them feel better about themselves but so would morphine or heroin or alcohol, for a time. The book is poison.

On the cover, were a number of review quotes. From the Mail on Sunday; “An extraordinary book“ I couldn’t put it down”.

It was extraordinary; I couldn’t get it into the bin fast enough.

Crawford Mackenzie

Carers, Wasters and Losers

Lessons from the elephant herd

Image

We were travelling the short distance form the ferry which had taken us across the Zambezi from Zambia on our way to the game park in Botswana, when our driver and guide suddenly brought the Landrover to a stop.  He had spotted a lone elephant at the side of the road and swung the vehicle as near as he could without startling the animal.  He need not have bothered. The elephant was fully absorbed in the business of grazing on the grass and small trees and quite unconcerned at his audience of wild life enthusiast leaning out of their seats in the high Landrover with hats, sunglasses and cameras clicking.  “This is an adult male” said our guide and he went to explain how, in common with other wild animals there were three groupings: the first group, the breeding herd, which consisted of the young , females and one significant male, the second group which he termed the “bachelor herd” which was made up of males who were kicked out of the breeding herd at puberty, and the third group which was not a group as such but consisted of the males who did not fit in or were kicked out of the “bachelor group” and who wandered on their own through the bush.  We watched this lonely looking creature with his dusty skin and deep sad eyes pull and munch at the long grass for some time. “This is a lone male” said our guide “He is a loser!”

The rest of the day was spent exploring the game reserve with many close encounters with, kudus, impalas warthogs, water buffalo, elegant antelopes, sinister crocodiles, sad hippos, numerous brightly coloured birds, majestic giraffes and the purposeful elephant breeding herd making their way through the bush in well remembered tracks.  What could not leave my mind was the thought of how the three groupings seem to mirror groupings that exist in society, and  in some measure, in the church. Here was a fascinating insight into clearly defined and differing roles.

We have the “Carers”, the breeding herd,  who are by far the largest and most influential group.  Their principal concern is with the care, protection and nurture of the young.  This demands the greatest priority, resources, time and money. This is necessarily so, as this group protects the future of the species.  The first responsibility of any grouping is just that, the care, protection and nurture of those who will come on after to continue the line.  Within the organisation of the church this is the dominant theme; children, young people and families.

Inevitably this means that there are those who do not fit in to this programme. They have no particular skill to offer and no emotional pull or burden to allow them to participate in this work. These are the “Wasters”.  They may not be described as such, or even spoken of as such, but deep within the psyche is a feeling that, as they don’t have a role with caring, they are in some senses irrelevant.  Perhaps they can find some non caring function on the edge of things but that only reinforces the feeling that they are on the outside.  The result is that they find their home and their fulfilment with the “ Bachelor herd” in sports activities, drinking, and work particularly in the heavy industries ,the miners and shipbuilders of previous years, trade unions and the armed forces. Here they find a common bond and a very deep loyalty to each other. Jackie Bird’s diary of her time with Scottish troops in Camp Bastion illustrates this very clearly. She spoke of the fierce loyalty that the troops had, not for their country, nor for their commander but to each other. In the past these would have been the ones who created the wealth, protected and defended, came to the rescue in disasters and emergencies and often with bare hands and physical strength brought the supplies, made the repairs, restored the peace. In a time of relative ease and calm, when military adventures are despised and when heavy industries have been degraded, their role is diminished. In the church it is almost non-existent.

Despite their complimentary and co dependant roles the carers and the wasters regard each other with a degree of mutual disdain. But there is another group the “Losers” who don’t fit with either “Breeding herd” or the “Bachelor herd”.  They are not club people have no affinity either with the macho world of sport, machines and militarism (usually of men) or with the homely world of the “Carers” . They wander through life on their own. They may have partners and families and they make take part in activities but that is not where there soul lies.  It is in the other world of solitude, of ideas, of beyond.  The “Carers” pity them and think they are lonely. The “Wasters” despise them and think them pathetic. Strangely they may not actually be unhappy and the sad look in their faces often belies a stout contentment.  They wander around on the fringe of society and while not strangers to the church, never seem to have found their potential there and sit on the edge

In our 21st century western smugness, it is easy to be lulled into an illusory sense that we have reached a plateau of civilisation and progress where we no longer need armies or miners or shipbuilders and that the “Wasters” should be given some soft toys to play with, fight with paintballs and vent off steam running naked through the woods. There is no place for the “Wasters” here.

It is also very easy to be lulled into a false sense of security and belief that things will go on just as they have done before.  The worst disasters happen elsewhere and are eventually tamed by television.  Even the most complicate international event will be explained once John Simpson gets to the scene. In this illusory world secured by health and safety, glossed by celebrity and covered by insurance, there is no place for a prophet of doom or a prophet of any kind for that matter. We know the future and there is no role for someone who sees over the hill and round the bend. There is no place for the “Losers”  here.

But the point is that in a healthy society each must have a part to play and in the Church every individual has a gift to bring to the work of the kingdom. Without the “Carers” there will be no future generation.  Without the “Wasters “there will be nothing left after the marauders, bullies and earthquakes have had their way. Without the “Losers” there would be no vision and where there is no vision the people perish.

Crawford Mackenzie