The Two Macmillans

In strange disorientating times when fear and social suspicions take root, when we are trapped, grounded and demobilised with no clear idea of where the end will be or what it will lead to, there are many strategies for coping.  A friend reminded me that those incarcerated in prisoner face a level of deprivation that puts our restricted life into the shade and we could learn from them. It has also been pointed out to me that these times of unusual privation often produce great creativity. This includes scientific advancement, special illumination and works of strategic significance. This should not surprise us, after all so much of what we know as the New Testament was written from prison and some of the most valued works of Christian literature too. I have just finished reading Franz Jagerstater’s “letters and writings from Prison” and it is full of astonishing light and inspirational hope.

So it is perhaps a time when artists, poets and musicians have a special role to play.

 Artists do have many roles. One is to shine a light into falsehood and hypocrisy and challenge evil where it is found. One may be to explore and see things beyond the visible and another may simply be to entertain and charm.  One of the roles I look for in in an artist is the challenge to look up. To see beyond our own self-absorbed existence to a greater reality. It is essentially a spiritual issue. Finding artists who fulfil that role in contemporary society is not always easy. I have written in the past of my experience at college degree shows and my dismay at so much of contemporary art. https://crawfordmackenzie.net/a-death-affirming-experience/, But there are two figures, which stand out for me. They are the two Macmillans. Sir James Macmillan the composer and Robert Macmillan the painter.  

James Macmillan is well known in Scotland and throughout the world. You get a lovely personal introduction to the man in his interview with Giles Fraser on Confessions https://soundcloud.com/unherd-confessions/confessions-with-sir-james-macmillan. I have yet to truly explore his work. It will take time. He has said that listening to music requires a sacrifice and that is true. But it is one that brings great rewards. The piece that I have focused on, have listened to many times, and never tire of, is his choral work “Miserere” It takes David’s penitential Psalm 51 in Latin and draws us in  an astonishing journey through a range of choral languages from classical motifs, plain song to a very distinct Scottish feel in the final section when, as if finally reaching the summit, the piece breaks into the major key. It is when you get to that part, you realise you have tasted something great.  It is recorded by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen  (Coro: COR16096) but you can also hear it on youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=st2E_uhy5Mo,with a car-back firing in the earlier section.

Robert Macmillan is a relatively young artist who survived the art school experience with his faith in his work intact and continues to paint in oils. His doggedness and commitment moved me when I visited him in his studio some years ago. So much of his work reminds me of Rembrandt and Turner in their continual struggling and searching after light. His figures have a wonderful mysterious quality, caught in space and time but looking somewhere else and his landscapes are exphansive and deep, nudging and drawing you in and saying “there is more than this ”.  I am privileged to have one of his works in our home. It hangs on a wall at the foot of the stairs and brings me enormous joy every time I see it.

With these two, I can just about cope with house arrest.

“You don’t need to die alone”

It’s another stunningly beautiful day, a clear blue sky and the river widening and lazily heading seaward. It is a day to cheer the spirits, but it is clouded with a heavy weight of sadness hearing this morning of the passing of Dominic Smart, one of the most significant and principled theologians in Scotland this century. I couldn’t say that I knew him well, we corresponded from time to time, but I often devoured what he wrote in books and especially in letters to his own congregation in Aberdeen. I was always often deeply, moved, challenged and lifted when I had the opportunity of hearing him preach. He had a special gift of bringing the timeless message of the Bible into the here and now and he, more than any other, saw the significance of Post Modernism and the loss of the meta narrative.

The special memory that I have and the one that I will hold on to, was when he took the funeral service of his brother in law after his tragic death some seven years ago. I had never heard the gospel message explained/proclaimed/commended so clearly, so tenderly, so passionately, so winsomely before. It was, of course, a tribute but it seemed like a sermon and I thought, as I mentioned to him afterwards, if he was only to preach one sermon, that would be it. It could only be the most indifferent, the most stubborn, and the most icy heart that would not be melted by the grace and love and beauty of Jesus present throughout the whole service.

The fact that this message came out of a very dark and bitterly sad situation, with no attempt to sweeten the pill or cover over the pain but bluntly and courageously facing the un-adulterated truth  straight on, with a steady eye, was, in itself, remarkable, and demonstrated amazing and, no doubt, costly courage. 

The words meant so much and I recall them as clear as day: in the Good News contrasting with the bad news and its hopeless message –“try harder….to a bird with broken wings – flap harder” , the throwaway line “This Jesus, who forgives sinners rather than feebly turning a blind eye” the laying bare of the shallowness of our understanding of what goes on in someone’s mind, when the family were encouraging him to believe it was getting better and he knew it wasn’t –  “he was right all along – and we were wrong”,  and the tender love and comfort in the lines..” and when there was no hope, still underneath him were the everlasting arms”.  At the end of the sermon was the final gentle but firm appeal “It took them some time to find the body but he didn’t die alone and you don’t need to die alone”.

I was moved afterwards to take the words from Deuteronomy and write a song. You can hear it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4FXdR6-D98&feature=youtube_gdata

Let us go

Walking through the park in the beautiful yet eerie stillness of the morning, the words to Psalm 122 come to mind. I know them off by heart and recite them to myself. I also know them in the 1620  metrical form. We sang it as children to the 18c tune St Paul  with the almost clumsy double note at the end of the line in the second verse, to cope with the extra syllable. I remember singing it on one summer Sunday morning  on the Isle of Muck. We had travelled earlier in a launch from our home in the nearby island of Eigg and scrambled over the slippy rocks to be treated to tea and fresh scones before making our way up to the school building. Through the tall windows behind the make shift pulpit, some sheep had left off their grazing to stare at the strange creatures standing inside singing. Somehow the relevance of the psalm, with the tribes gathering in Jerusalem and the houses packed together, so far away in space and time was quite lost on me. But today they have a special resonance.

The Psalm moves beautifully and quickly from the first person to the second to the third and then to the destination the home of the King. “I was glad when they said to me let us go to the house of the Lord”. It is full of movement in a single direction, a going up, a coming together, a closeness, a sense of belonging, and a sense of security, prosperity and of peace. You know that the Psalm writer is not describing something ephemeral, virtual or abstract. He is not talking about an idea, but an actual physical event and the joy that the invitation gives him.

Deprived of that special blessing, meeting each week together in church, I feel the loss so keenly today. This absence makes the heart go much more than a little bit fonder and the virtual replacements only make the longing for the reality that bit more intense.  We have a weekly digital service and a sermon from one of the finest young preachers I know and afterwards we have digital coffee in cyberspace with our online home group. It is astonishing what technology has achieved and the blessings that can come from it, but it just doesn’t compare.   

And I wonder why the church has, without, it seems any protest or question, followed the government instructions, cancelled services and closed buildings and so easily surrendered this most precious thing.   It is not, of course, surprising that a secular government would view these gatherings as an unnecessary luxury in a crisis, while bicycle shops, pet shops, DIY  centres, and off-licences on the other hand, are seen as essential to life. It is surprising, that the churches themselves think so too.

Still, in the vacuum, with social distancing, in the new normal, I will pray for the peace and security of Jerusalem. “For the sake of the house of the Lord our God I will seek your good”

Learning to read

We were three, siblings, stretched out in an orange tent with the rain, which never seemed to stop, hammering on the flysheet and taking every opportunity to get inside when the wind brushed the sheet against the inner lining. We were on a return visit to the island we grew up on, discovering how small it had become and how wet the ground was, thick with bracken and long grass.  This was the second of three visits for me each with its own magic (https://crawfordmackenzie.net/2013/09/26/46/). Mercifully the temperature had dropped and the midges had disappeared temporarily. And so the time waiting for a window in the weather was spent drinking coffee, and making the best of the mouldy bread the shop had sold us. When it was bought, the previous day, in the dingy tin hut half a mile away, I clearly heard someone say from the back “well they’ll eat it if they are hungry”. So we amused ourselves with a bit of singing and talking about words and language. They were, that is, I was listening.  I had learned the art of keeping quiet. There is a proverb about that: a fool who holds his tongue can appear wise.  But generally, it was because I was out of my depth

I was a late developer, a slow learner. Always have been. I discover things late in life that others take as second nature from nursery school. Even today when I find that all of my architectural contemporaries have retired long since, I am only now beginning to feel that I getting the hang of it. I could put my slow learning down to the fact that my education hiccupped from school to school as our family moved around the country. I could blame it on being at the tail end of a large family. When it came to me, my parents were so engrossed in the trials of the others that they were exhausted and left me to my own devises. I could blame it on other things too, like being mildly dyslexia when the words and letters seem to jump around on the page, but the truth is it was more likely to be laziness. But I knew how to not look lazy by busing myself with other things, rather than the thing I was supposed to be doing.

So I was listening when my brother was demonstrating how contemporary language was a poorer thing quoting almost verbatim from an essay by George Orwell “Politics and the English language” where the writer compares a modern day example of what a passage from Ecclesiastes might sound like compared to the King James authorised version.  This was nothing new. My siblings would spend hours of an evening discussing and laughing in a literary world which I could never connect to. I seldom got the jokes and the references went over my head. When I even interjected, I realised it was a tactical mistake, as my ignorance was mercilessly exposed. I remember coming back from school during the holidays having spent some time in the library. I had discovered Steinbeck, traveller’s stories in soviet Russia and China and the war poets. I was taken with the romance of the revolution in Cuba and the accounts of Castro and his band of guerrillas working their way through the forests, their affinity with the peasants and the victorious ride into Havana. Sitting around the Rayburn in the kitchen I chanced my arm and tentatively introduced my leftist views. It was a bad move. I was totally out of my depth and quickly, though kindly, my theories were shown to be the half-baked ideas that they were.

It was all about reading, you see. I was not just behind I wasn’t on the same road and, strange as it may seem, I have only recently learned how to read. Of course I learned at school and of course I have read throughout my life, but never in a serious way. I read because I had to and sometimes to explore some fancy. The new experience, however, was a growing curiosity to dig and explore the stories and ideas to get to the heart of the thing and think through what this meant to the very business of living.   The other thing that may seem strange is that I came to this new experience after learning to read the Bible.  I wrote about this at https://crawfordmackenzie.net/2016/05/02/a-purposeful-habit-4/.

Now there are late developers then there are late developers, and it is hard to describe the wonder of this discovery so late in life. Being able to light upon books written with intellect and wit, with economy of language, knowledge and experience and a pursuit of wisdom. These have generally lent more on the non fiction rather than the fiction side, but not exclusively so. Today I am half way through an 850 page Russian novel, smuggled out to the west in the 80’s and printed without the author being able to make his final changes to it.  It is a quite astonishing work, a beautifully told tale, full of realism, pity and at times latent horror but shot through with the tenderest humanity.

It took me a long time to find what I couldn’t see or share in all these years ago, but I am glad I did.

The Scream 5: Lies, damn lies and statistics

I have always had a problem with numbers and I take most statistics with a pinch of salt.

While the figures themselves may well be accurate, where they come from, how they are achieved, what they did and didn’t cover and how they might me massaged, renders their usefulness questionable and the comparisons made to draw conclusions often worthless.

Nothing could be truer that in our own situation. The government sees fit to make daily pronouncements of cases and deaths. This is immediately a problem because these announcements are not made under normal circumstances so we have nothing to compare it with. We don’t have daily announcement from the government to say how many people die of road deaths or drugs overdose or accidents at work for that matter, so we have no way of measuring how big the things is. We could find out but that is not as easy as it seems. We need the experts in these things and they can run rings round us, as we know.

Even the way the pronouncements have been made makes you wonder. Astonishingly, well into the thing, we found that, Oops, figures outside hospital were not included so the reality will be much higher. Then we learn that the figures relate to those dying with and not necessarily those dying of , and we may never know the actual truth here. To my mind, all of this makes the stats pretty much meaningless.

And then there are the graphs, which are designed in such a way to show what the creator actually wants to show. To confirm the theory. No one produces graphs to show that their theory is bogus.  It seems that scientists with their models have decided that there will be a peak, so the graph shows a peak. They decide there will be a flattened off, so we see that too. People now suspect a second peak, so the graphs will no doubt show that in time. People have done the same with hockey sticks.   It is not that I don’t believe it. I do.  But I am sure it is not the whole story and only part of the story given out to make a specific point. The point I suspect is to drum home the message to stay at home and keep your distance.

Only time will tell if this action was prudent or foolish, but I have my hunch and I have to say I trust that more that statistics.

The Scream 4: Hud and the doctrine of social distancing

I remember watching Paul Newman in the 1963 western “Hud”. It wasn’t a western in the classical sense and the kind of film that would probably have only a passing interest to me, but there was something about it that struck a chord.  It was a simple tale that centred around the conflict between a principled father and his rebel son, on a cattle range, facing a foot and mouth crisis. It was the tragedy of the required slaughter of all these fine animals because of the deadly infection that had to be rooted out. But the real poison and disaster was what the rebel son had brought to his family. When the whole heard were ushered into a giant pit on the farm, under the watchful eyes of the authorities, the Rancher and his men fired their rifles repeatedly into the herd until the last animal was dead. At this point the youngest son turned to his father and said “That didn’t take long Pap” and the father, reflecting on the years of hard labour, skill and diligence that had taken to build his prize herd, replied with these tragic words. “No, Son, killing is easy”.

My genuine concern is that the government’s shut down of social life, which is unprecedented and powered by fear and a good dose of panic, will have far greater damage than any virus could have caused. The term “social distancing” is itself a misnomer. It is a contradiction in terms. There is nothing social about keeping your distance from others. It is anti-social.  It may be thought of as a temporary thing, but it has all the signs of permanence and even if the rules are relaxed, the damage has already been done. The “normal” social relationships will take decades to recover, if they ever do.

One of the most depressing thoughts was that the social convention of shaking hands may be lost forever and all physical human contact restricted to a small group of family and intimate friends. To the rest we smile and bow from a distance. No we know that the virus will not be destroyed, that it will probably mutate into something else and always be with us, so the fear of being contaminated or passing it on, could well  be the death knell for the most beautiful and simple expression of trust between two human beings.  

Destruction can be quick. Building takes time. We are in danger of destroying one of the most precious things in our society by preaching this doctrine of social distancing.

The Scream 3: Going to war

When you take your country into war you must first decide if you are likely to win it. If the odds against success are great then it’s probably wise to think again. Peace with its inevitable compromise might just be the best option. When you drag the country into a “lock-down” you should know how to come out of it. The inability of our government to know how to do that, must be one its most damning shortcomings.