Living in the Compound

Stepping into the third world is a strong experience: like venturing beyond the garden gate for the first time, like being blindfolded and swung round in a party game. It is disorientating. All the comforting re-assuring things we rely on to guides us through normal life are gone. We find ourselves in a world without the norms and mores we expect and take for granted: of language, culture, food, smells, toilet and sleeping arrangements, customs, services, institutions and time, especially time. It is as if we are set loose in a wild landscape where nothing is certain any more.

In the west, it seems, we have a very skewed view of the reality of world. We describe the third world as if it were an undeveloped part of our world, when in fact it is the world and we are only a tiny part of it. We are in a very small walled garden, a compound with its walls, gates and barbed wire. Inside we are protected, safe and warm and free to think and discuss and plan and be creative without the crippling business of surviving.

My sense is that the walls of our compound will not, in time, be able to hold out against the inevitable tide which will overrun them. We will not be able to protect our way of life forever. It is not sustainable. Anyone can see that. It is patently clear, yet the impression I get is that we are in denial. We have confidence that we are able to respond to crises that come our way and carry on with our lives. Whether it is a financial collapse, a terrorist threat or the current refugees’ crisis we feel we will be able to sort it out and it won’t threaten our existence. (Interestingly enough the big three still very much threaten us and don’t show any sign of going away.) Even using the word “crises” suggests that they are nothing more than temporary irritants and so we are seduced into thinking that everything will be ok and our culture, so strong, it will see off all comers. Witness Andrew Neil’s rant on BBC (, following the Paris attacks. It is a belief that our democracy and civilisation will not only last for a thousand years but for ever.  This unashamed arrogance is astonishing as it is breath-taking in its blindness. We seem to have a collective short memory and are wilfully ignorant of the reality of history and of biblical prophecy.

So my heart is not in reinforcing the walls and securing the gates. My heart is for reaching out, sharing what we have left, while we still have it. All the good things:  our education, culture, structures and institutions, laws and orders, the sense of the common good, honesty and integrity in public life, what we have learned and found to work, most of which has, it has to recognised,  come from the Bible.  Sharing as much of it as we can before the wreckers and vandals destroy it completely. In my experience it is what the people of the world want. It is what they come here for. It is not for the weather. The business of trying to protect and shore up our way of life, our British values, whatever they might be, by building walls, and bolting doors is in itself a hopeless and futile project. It is futile because the destruction of our way of life is happening from within. The vandals are home grown. Bit by bit we have chipped away at the foundations, grubbed out the roots and the structure has become very unstable. It won’t take much to push it over. We have broken away from our moorings and set adrift in an uncertain sea, scrambling about for anything, any common denominator (usually the lowest)  that will hold the thing together. Yet still we carry an over inflated confidence in our ability to ride out any storm. We believe that our way, the way of liberal democracy, is somehow invincible. It isn’t.

This is not the time for erecting fences, getting the wagons into a circle or retiring into a lager. That will only prolong the agony and the inevitable fall. This is the time for breaking out. It is the time for opening our hearts and our lives and telling the Good News while people are still listening.

Crawford Mackenzie

The Fishing Net


When I arrived in Aberdeen in the autumn of 1967, to begin my studies at the School of Architecture, the first thing I did with my student grant, after paying my dig money, was to buy a guitar. It was nylon string bottom of the range Tatra classic from Bruce Millers in George Street.  At the same time I became involved in a Friday night coffee bar run from the basement of the Salvation Army Citadel at the west end of Castle street. You entered through a small door on a side street, where the North Sea wind hurled its way up into town, and down a flight of stairs to a brightly painted room with a small stage and mic and a counter at the other end serving hot milky coffee, Coke and Fanta. The café was called “The fishing net” a reference to Jesus’s commission to Peter “I will make you a fisher of men”. It was decorated with paintings of fish, seaweed, brightly colourer nets and fishing tackle. During the evening a small folk trio or solo artist would play and sing and someone would speak with a message. It was run by a number of churches in the city with the aim of making connections with young folk on the streets on a Friday evening. , They were invited in, befriended and engaged in conversation.  I had only been going for a few weeks when one of the leaders asked me to play and sing on the following Friday. With foolish naivety, I accepted, completely oblivious to the fact that I had no material and had never sung, far less played guitar, in public before.  Hastily I scratched a couple of songs together, one which had a remarkable and not unconscious resemblance to the Kinks “Sunny afternoon” and the other to the Beatles “a day in a life” The third was a spiritual. I practised hard but as the day grew nearer became more and more aware of my foolishness. I remember the night very clearly, walking across to the stage with guitar over shoulder shaking like a leaf, thinking “I can’t do this” and praying “lord if you really want me to do this, let it be you who does it”. It is a prayer I have found myself praying each time I have been asked to sing, since. The noisy room was suddenly stilled and as I ham fistedly clunked my way through the songs I had this strange experience as if standing outside myself looking on as someone else took over, carrying the message to the hearers.

Once finished and with the waves of relief pouring over me I relaxed at a table and fell into a discussion with a slightly inebriated leather clad rocker. He wasn’t interested in the songs but wanted to argue about the existence of God.  I was helpless and could offer no good explanation or original thought.  We were soon joined by two others, one clutching a battered bible. Suddenly there was clarity and rational in the discussion and I sat back with dropped jaw listening to the discussion amazed at the command of our new friend. (the one doing the talking) He had understanding and ability to communicate the cosmic realities of creation and redemption and the wonder of the gospel in spell bounding clarity. It was only after he left that I learned that he was already well known in student and church groups, the president of the Christian Union in the University and later a significant figure in Reformed Christian circles both in Scotland and the USA, highly regarded for his teaching, writing and editorial work.  So it was a surprise,  that our lives should cross again some 45+years later, when we both joined with our families, in our new church setting. It was an added and unexpected delight to hear him preach. While some preachers become old and tired and tread well-worn predicable paths and others have spoken for a specific time and place, his preaching carried refreshing  timeless authority, vitality and relevance.   Now endowed with the richness of truth distilled slowly through the years it was presented with crystal clarity, much as it was, around the table, in the basement café, all these years ago.

Crawford mackenzie

A time to speak and a time to be quiet

“What good am I if I see but don’t say?/If I say but don’t do/If I look right through you/If I turn myself off/From the thunder in the sky/What good am I?”

“What good am I?” Bob Dylan

Whenever I wandered into writing or talking and pontificating about my ideas about my work, or on other issues that I was involved in, or just simply things that interested me, (sometimes they could be grand revolutionary ideas or amazing insights of cosmic dimensions), I was pulled back to earth and given the wise counsel, by my best friend, to back off and keep quiet.  “Just do it” was the sound advice, “Leave the talking to others”.  Generally I took the advice, but now and again I slipped off-piste. That’s what I am doing now.  But it is not simply an indulgence. It has a purpose and is partly due to a sense of responsibility to others and to future generations. Sometimes the softly softly, woolly woolly,  wobbly wobbly, approach, the “don’t upset or offend anyone” attitude is not the thing anymore and it’s time for speaking out and saying things as they are. There is a time when you shouldn’t rock the boat but that’s not when it is already titling at 45 degrees. There is a time to speak and a time to be quiet.

Once you decide to speak out there will be flak of course and worse.  You will be called names and not nice ones either. People who you thought were friends can begin to sound like enemies. Others will give you a deafy and you know they don’t like what you have said. Inevitably people will find your statements threaten their position. All too soon, you will begin to wish you had not blundered into the controversy in the first place.

The point of course is that not speaking out makes you culpable. It is the equivalent of turning a blind eye. But if you see over the mountain, it is your duty to tell. If you hear the injustice, it is your duty to call on the judge. If you sense an imminent disaster, it is your duty to warn.  If you know the storm is coming, it is your duty to help get folks ready.

It is never, of course, as hard as it seems. Telling the truth is easier than lying and covering and recovering your lies. There is even a joy in knowing that you can talk about things that matter without bitterness or rancour and the fear of causing offence is often groundless. It is liberating to find that true friendships are deeper than opinions.

But knowing the times, is the hardest part and for me that has to mean looking beyond myself, seeking a higher wisdom and listening to a still small voice.