Postcards from Haiti 8

IMG_9980Dàvid.

Today* I met Dàvid. (I can’t show his picture). The others have been speaking of him and I got my first chance to speak with and hear his story. We chatted as we made our way back to the centre of town. He lost both his arms in a horrific accident. He was working with high voltage cables and received a severe shock which set his arms on fire. At the hospital without knowing or with out been asked, the surgeon removed both arms at the elbow. That was two or three years ago now, but he still feels pain. He says “My arms are dancing” which might be what we describe as pins and needles. He was particular distressed that his favourite uncle had died the previous day in Port O Prince. He just heard. Dàvid. speaks four languages English, Spanish, French and Creole and is clearly very intelligent but won’t be able to work. No one is likely to offer him a job as he would be considered cursed. People have told him, with his obvious disability, he should beg on the street and make some money that way, but he refuses. “I will not beg” he says, “I trust in God and I know that he will supply my every need” 

When I practice my creole and ask how he is ” Kooman ou yè” he replies “M’ bien avek Jesus”

*9/10/2017

The Village Fire

zambiaI don’t where I heard it, or from whom, but it was about a wise Nigerian pastor who was preaching to a congregation of restless young men in a town north of Abuja on the Jos plateau. They were disaffected, frustrated and angry young men and he was struggling to get through to them and beginning to lose their attention. Some had been drawn to a new awakening in the old religions in the demonstrable power of the witch doctor, Some were stirred by Marxism while others were beginning to see Islam as the one true religion.

He told them a story.

There was a fire in a village up north in the bush. The flames tore through the fabric of roundavel so quickly that all the family inside were burned to death but, in the melee in the darkness, somehow, a two month old baby was plucked out of the inferno and was carried away alive. It was cared for by one of the families and miraculous survived unscathed.  The next morning the elders gathered to decide what to do. The most pressing issue concerned what was to happen to this child who the gods had so clearly blessed. Many wanted the honour of adopting and approached the elders with their claims. One said that he was rich and with money, could ensure a prosperous future for the child. Another said that he was educated and could give the child something that money could not buy. A third said that his wife had already raised six children; she had vast experience and was best placed to look after this special infant. The fourth claimant came forward but said nothing. When they asked him to speak, he showed them his arms. They were charred black with open wounds and third degree burns. He was the one who had plucked the child from the fire.

The pastor leaned over the makeshift pulpit and fixed the eyes of his congregation. “I don’t doubt” he said “ that the old religions, the religion of our ancestors are powerful, that they have much to teach us about the way we should live in harmony with nature and that the witch doctor is able to do amazing things, I don’t doubt that that we can learn much from Marxism especially in our post-colonial world, I don’t doubt that Islam is a great religion acknowledging that there is only one God and worthy of much respect, but…… you see…… I have to follow Jesus, because my God has charred arms. My God has nail holes in his hand. He is the one who plucked me from the fire.”

Crawford Mackenzie

Bearing Shame

Jerusalem

At the back of the hotel, where we were staying, just outside the walls of the old city and close to the Damascus gate there was a marshalling yard where buses were turning, reversed and revving with cars and taxis horns from early in the morning.  You couldn’t sleep after that.  At the edge of the yard was an outcrop of limestone rock pitted and hollowed with small caves and vegetation. If you looked closely it would not be too difficult to imagine the shape of a face or a skull in the fissured rock. I fancied it was here.  I somehow imagined it as a place like this, not up a hill, but on a principal artery leading out of Jerusalem to Damascus, a very public place for a very public spectacle, deliberately chosen by the Roman occupiers to make examples of those who would defy their authority, to terrorise any would be rebels and subdue these troublesome Jews.  The chosen execution of nailing the criminal through the hands and the feet to a wooden post was itself designed to inflict the greatest pain and prolonged suffering. But the greatest terror was the shame of it, the curse of it. The words written on the cross in three languages were “The King of the Jews”  but the word written across this whole defining scene, as if in six foot letters or in indelible ink was “SHAME”.

 They say that shame is an emotion that has been banished and eradicated from our contemporary life. I don’t believe it. I have seen it deeply ingrained on the faces of the men who I used to visit in prison. The awful sense of having been so bad that the punishment was incarceration, with their freedom removed and the forced separation from the friends, family and their normal lives. I found it a very powerful and strange experience on these visits and very hard to deal with. The worst point was when you said your farewells and left, they to their cells and we to our freedom. I have also known shame in my own heart: the emotion that goes beyond an awareness of guilt provoked by an active conscience that could not be silenced. It goes beyond the sense of failure and foolishness to the shock and realisation that you could be such a person who would think these thoughts say these words and do these deeds.  It is one, if not, the most powerful emotion in the human spirit, which has the ability to permanently cripple and ultimately destroy any sense of self-worth or value. It is present in the memory of punishments being meted out, the beltings, the penalties, the exclusions, the reprimands, the forfeit of freedom and, in the ultimate case, the forfeit of one’s life.

 There is something here that is so difficult to comprehend. It is hard to begin to feel yourself into the situation.  It is hard to make sense of it and it proffers a very disturbing and unsettling problem. The prospect that you could be found guilty of a crime so heinous that it could justify the forfeiting of your life, stirs at something so deep and so worrying, way beyond any fear or distress and I think it touches the rawness of shame.   You would have to be a clinical rebel if you could shut your heart to its sting.

 So on this day, this Good Friday and on every day, I want to remember the one who took my shame who bore it willingly so that I can stand guilt and shame free before the Holy God now and when I see him face to face.

calvary

As Philip Bliss has it:

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,

In my place condemned He stood…

Hallelujah,   What a saviour!

Crawford Mackenzie

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

I am not ashamed

cell

Sin is a troublesome word. Like so many words in our vocabulary its meaning changes over time it mutates and takes on other baggage and selective nuances so that it can mean quite different things to different people.  Preachers and communicators of the bible often struggle with this and try hard to find a new word or words that would resonant better with the original meaning. Rebellion is one, missing the mark and being messed up, are others. The problem, of course, is the word itself and the idea it imparts. It is offensive. It is the implicit suggestion that there is something wrong with us – whoever we are. That cuts to the core of our self.  It is a blasphemy against the ego.  It is strange that there is such a revulsion against this approach when we are very relaxed about using the same approach with other more acceptable wrongs.  The first step on the recovery from drug addiction, alcoholism, sexual offending, or any socially recognised disorder, is to admit it.  No one has any problem with that. Yet we have enormous difficulty in owning up to this core problem.  Preachers, who have tried to avoid the issue for fear of coming over too censorious or self-righteous, or worried that it presents too bleak and pessimistic a view of humanity, have not helped either.  The focusing on nice things like the celebration of love and positive affirmative strokes, to the ignoring of this essential truth in the Christian faith, has been disastrous.  Because acknowledging the reality of sin is one of the most liberating and essential parts of the good news.  Now we understand that there is a reason for the way things are. And that must be good to know. Pretending that there isn’t a problem or that it is one that with enough willpower and the right conditions we can overcome is pure fantasy. The Gospel, on the other hand, exposes the problem and reveals the solution. But of course it is not the small slightly naughty unimportant thing that it is so often made out to be. It is not just about making bad decisions or errors of judgement it is deadly serious, more than deadly serious. Sin at its core is a vile, corrupting and corrosive thing. It is not good. It is destructive and left to its own will continue to degenerate and destroy all and everything in its path, everything that is good. It contaminates everything and seeps through the personal, the social and the institutional. It is that bad. It is that serious.

This, of course, begs the question, if it is that bad why has it not destroyed good already after all it has had plenty of time to do that and yet good still seems to survive.   Many, I suspect, would believe that it is because humanity is essentially good, that evil with all its manifestations is a temporary blip and that in time this unfortunate character trait will be resigned to history.  But, to hold on to this view must take extraordinary faith and a remarkably optimistic view of human nature without any real evidence to support it.   The reason, I believe, good continues to survive, is because ultimately it is to do with God. He is good and merciful  and he has put in place at certain times restrictions so that we do not yet destroy ourselves -The angels with the flaming swords at the garden, the confusing of the languages and scattering of the people on Shinar’s plane, the flood and other events throughout history. He also chose a man and a family and a people to be witness of him and tell the world. He gave them the law in the Ten Commandments and other regulations to help them in their approach to him and in how they relate to each other. Finally he promised and sent his son, who would be the one who would reconcile people to himself and once and for all deal with the problem of sin.

Last night I was sitting with the small group of internationals, who meet each week in our home. They come from countries in all parts of the world, with backgrounds in all types and shades of faith. It is a precious moment in the week.  After sharing a meal, we spend the time reading, studying and discussing the bible. We had just begun to read through Paul’s letter to the church in Rome and it is hard to describe the sense of joy and liberation as we touched base with the cosmic reality of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The dawning of this truth is like a massive door being opened to let light flood into a stale and dingy room and we could understand why Paul was able to say “I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes”.

Crawford Mackenzie

His hand

his hand title

His hand could have held on

to all the wonders of heaven

the glory and good things we can hardly imagine…

But it didn’t

His hand let go of all of that and gave it up

to come down and to be one of us

His hand was a baby’s hand with tiny fingers

and tiny fingernails needing trimming

His hand held his mother’s hand till he could walk

His hand followed his father’s hand in working with wood

with saw and plane and nail and chisel

His hand turned wood and turned water into wine

His hand commanded the sea to be still

His hand touched diseased skin and it was healed

His hand touched tongues so they could speak

ears so they could hear

eyes so they could see

His hand took a dead girl’s hand,

lifted her up and brought her back to life

His hand was placed on the heads of children

while adults fumed in the background

and he blessed them saying  “let them come to me”

His hand broke bread and said “this is my body… for you”

His hand was taken, bound and pinned with nails to a timber scaffold

while his life ebbed away from him

Yet… on the morning

His hand pointed to the fishermen on the lake “try the other side”

His hand cooked fish for breakfast

His hand had the marks of nails that Thomas felt

His hand

And now… his hand is offered to you and me

“Take my hand” he says “Be forgiven, come and follow me”

 

 

 

 

 

A Difficult Task

I have been asked and pressed a number of times on facebook and other discussions, to justify why I hold to the orthodox position on homosexual practices and, in particular, what was the basis for this belief. It is not a subject I ever wanted to speak about and I have been very reluctant to make any comment.  I also feel that the onus to explain and justify the moves towards the normalising of same-sex relationships should fall to those who are proposing it.  In a way there is no need to justify what has been the orthodox position for centuries. It is up to others to justify why the change is either, necessary, good or the right thing to do. This explanation should not have been necessary. Still, as the push towards this momentous change in society, which will have far reaching implications, has been overwhelmingly in one direction and the voices against, with some notable exceptions, all but silenced, I feel a need to state the case as best I can. It is difficult to distil the thinking into a few words, when others have devoted whole volumes and years of study to it, but I have tried and here is what I would say.

Homophobia

At the first I have to make the clear distinction between the person and the act. I have nothing to say about the person. I have no authority or qualification to do so.  My position is wholly based on the act – sexual relationships between people of the same sex.  This distinction is very important and has often been conveniently blurred. It is perfectly sensible and reasonable to believe that a person’s actions are wrong and disapprove of them and yet not discriminate against them.  It happens all the time. The prevailing thought, however, is that if you are unwilling to embrace same sex relationships and believe them to be fundamentally wrong, you are harbouring homophobic thoughts and attitudes. This then is the breeding ground for prejudice discrimination, hostility and eventually violence. There is also the suggestion that such an attitude can precipitate the suicide of a perceived victim. Homophobia, in this definition, is just one step up from Nazism.

Self-evidence

For me, the major explanation and authority comes from the Bible, and I know that many who do not accept the authority of the bible will be dismissive of it because of that. But my position is, however, not only based on what has been revealed in the bible, but also from what is clearly seen in nature. What I have called “self-evident” truth, although again some have objected to the use of that term. It is to do with the unarguable anatomical distinction between men and women clearly pointing to a design, and I would say to a designer. If there is a design then, in a world where we have free will, there is the possibility of a distortion, a spoiling of the designer’s intention. It seems perfectly plain. It is unnatural.  It is something a child sees as obvious and doesn’t need to be taught. Even without the bible, I would take the same position that I do.

The Bible

I do believe the bible to be the word of God not just parts of it. It is our one true guide to life but more importantly it reveals God and Jesus, the son of God, to us. I also believe it is a whole and needs to be read as a whole and so I would not try and pick out a verse here and there (what could be called “proof texts”)  to make a point.

The Design

The first thing is that nowhere in all of the books of the bible is there the remotest hint that homosexual sex is anything but wrong and is often condemned in the strongest of terms. No one argues with this. But the place I would start is Genesis and the creation narrative. Nothing could be clearer that God created humans as male and female deliberately. It was the climax of creation and it was only then that he rested and gave his creatures the command to carry on the work of creation from the garden into the entire world. That is enough for me. From there the design is simply clarified and reminded in the positive and the negative. It is possible, as others have done with far greater clarity than I could ever employ, to trace this design throughout the bible, book by book, emphasising its central importance as a picture of the relationship between Christ (the son of God) and the church (his bride). Paul describes this as a mystery. It is a wonder and, at the same time, something extraordinarily beautiful and lovely. Because of that, any distortion any soiling of the picture is a blasphemy against God.

Jesus

It is probably easier to start from what the advocates for the normalisation of same sex relationships claim the bible says. One of the big ones is that Jesus said nothing about it and so by default he was for it. He would have blessed a same sex union if there was one at the time in the same way that he blessed the couple at Cana by his presence. That is how the argument goes. It is of course a baseless argument. It is arguing from the negative. Jesus said nothing to contradict or supplant or nullify the moral law which condemned such practise in the strongest of terms.  In the Sermon on the Mount he did not water down the moral law but he reinforced it. He said that sin starts in the heart. When it came to marriage he pointed back to the creation narrative which explained that the design was for a man and women to become one.

Leviticus

The moral law was defined in the Ten Commandments which included the seventh (or sixth) and amplified in Leviticus. So many people follow the well-trodden line set out by atheists, bishops and celebrity evangelicals who sneer and savagely mock those who hold to the orthodox view, by saying “You are hypocrites. You disregard some rules (on not eating pork, not wearing clothes made of different materials for example) while choosing to keep others (on homosexuality)”. This is the classic Jed Bartlett put down and is, of course, a great laugh. But those who say this have either not taken the trouble to read Leviticus or have deliberately misread it.  It is not difficult to see there is a clear distinction between the cleanliness laws, the rules that apply to the business of approaching God , the laws that Jesus fulfilled by what he did, and the moral law which remains. The actual verse which specifically prohibits homosexual practise is not amongst verses on clothing or what not to eat, as people would have us believe, but is in a chapter devoted to the prohibition of many kinds of sexual sin and is in fact sandwiched between the law against sacrificing children and the law against sex with animals.  By this logic, which the critics employ, there is no reason why we should prohibit sex with animals or the sacrificing of our children if, in the spirit some future enlightened age, it was thought the right thing to do.

Sodom

In the account, God was about to punish the city because of its many sins but we are not told explicitly what they were. The fact that homosexual rape was involved, may simply suggest how bad thing had become but we are not told.  The suggestion that it was because of their inhospitality to strangers is simply unfounded, as Lot, one of the chief citizens of that town, did in fact, offer and press on the strangers, hospitality, so that obligation was fulfilled.  Also the sin of inhospitality is the not the one Jude has in mind when he wrote his letter.  It is specifically sexual immorality and perversion.

David and Jonathan

The suggestion that David and Jonathan had a homosexual relationship and that Ruth and Naomi were lesbians, as I have heard some say, is farcical.

Paul

It is hard to get round what Paul says about homosexual practices both in Romans, Corinthians and Timothy without somehow denigrating Paul. Some have suggested that he was speaking solely about pederasty and not about long term homosexual relationships, which he would have been ignorant of.  The first position (deciding that you can’t trust Paul) pretty much writes off the most of the New Testament and I think that you either accept the authority of the bible or you don’t. The second stretches language and credibility and also makes the astonishing assumption of what Paul did and didn’t know.  Any reasonable person can see what he is talking about. In Romans he is beginning his thesis on the gospel of Jesus Christ, the core of the Christian faith, by focusing on the reality of God’ anger against sin. But it is not against homosexual sin, sexual sin or other specific sins, for the matter (of which he lists many) but the act of rebellion against God in which we are all implicated.  Homosexual sins and the others he lists are a result of God leaving us to it and the consequences of that rebellion. This is the necessary backcloth to the scene, before he introduces the good news in the wonder and beauty of what Christ has done for us.  It needs someone better than me to explain that fully, but what you cannot deny is that Paul describes homosexual sex as unnatural and a perversion of God’s design

Conclusion

It would be heartless, in the extreme, not to recognise that so much of this is very difficult and can be hard to accept.  Many have been badly hurt and speak of great pain and anguish in the way the church, society and governments have treated them over the years. Being ostracised, discriminated against and left out in the cold. An unloving, censorious attitude has often prevailed but that cannot be traced back to the bible or laid at the feet of Paul or Jesus. The bible makes quite clear that homosexual sin is just one of many, no better no worse. We are all sinners. We are all in the same boat, so there is never any ground for discrimination or thinking of ourselves as better or above another person. Paul himself shows the way when he warns his readers that they will be judged by God, if they continue in their sinful ways, he includes those who practice all kind of sins and says no one will get to heaven, but then goes on to say to his hearers, that they were all like that too but have been washed and made clean. Finally he says that he too is a sinner of the worst kind but he has been forgiven and being made a new person in Jesus. That’s the Good news. The rest is bad.

Crawford Mackenzie