Postcards from Haiti 7

IMG_9780The Church

The church meets in a rented building outside the courthouse. Like everything else it is built of concrete and tin and has a bombed-out look with vent holes, which, for all the world, could have been made by shells. It is filled with wooden benches, a dais at the front with fabric drapes, a lectern and a band section with drums and massive speakers. At the rear is a small room with a toilet and here a homeless family live. From the outside it looks grim, all misshapen concrete with holes as windows and two ill fitting metal doors opening out wards onto sand. At the top is an attempt at a church like pediment unfinished. These are all things you notice at first, but strangely with every visit it becomes familiar even homely and invested with a sense of peace and blessing. It is open every day and people come to pray or sit or lay out on the benches while prayer and praise services happen in the middle of the day.

The service begins at 8am but we get there at half past and mingle with the crowd outside. The pastor leads us in, through the narrow aisle between swaying sweaty bodies up to the front . The band is in full swing and the congregation with raised arms are dancing in praise. The noise is incredible, as the silence is remarkable when the bible is being read and the sermon preached punctuated only by a chorus of “Amen” and “Hallelujah” . Various elders take turns to lead in praise and we are welcomed. Richard brings greetings from the church in Scotland.

Later he preaches with the Pastor translating, but before that, the proposal for the new school and church building is presented and discussed. This was particularly useful as we now have a much clearer picture of what the people want and need and not so much what we or the architect, think they should have. Despite my initial misgivings (my design was effectively binned) I am heartened, as it represented an act of genuine consultation. The service continues, with the sermon, more praise and prayer and closes with the blessing. A Sunday school starts followed by a second service and, six hours later, we make our way back to the hotel in the ferocious heat. It was hard to take in. There were 400-500 at each service and 300plus at the Sunday school. The congregation is exploding. There were 6 new communicants admitted that day. The irrepressible joy expressed in worship seems contagious and we need time to think.

A Purposeful Habit 4

Reading the Bible.

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It is hard to speak about private daily devotions, because they are, just that, private. In some ways it is an intimate thing. It is better to be doing it than talking about it. Sometimes sharing on the subject can be singularly unhelpful. When hearing about the person who gets up at 5am and reads through the whole of Jeremiah, one of the Gospels and Psalm 119, before spending two hours in prayer, for lists of people in their prayer book, you are tempted to say “Oh come on, get a life”. They are not usually people who have been up half the night dealing with a vomiting child, struggling to get a teenager out of bed, living with a flatmate who left the kitchen in a tip, coping with a husband on the drink, caring for a demanding elderly relative or someone who has to work night shifts.  These testimonies are given with an encouraging intention but the effect is demoralisation. You might just want to give up. So we are treading on thin ice, walking over glass here. It’s just a shame that we find it so hard to talk or enquire about. In all my Christian life no one has asked me “How are you finding your daily reading of the Bible, Crawford?”  I wish they had. There again, I guess I might have told them just to mind their own business.

I have been a Christian a follower of Jesus for as long as I remember. So it’s maybe quite strange and even shocking, (it’s shocking to me) that it is only in the past year or so, that I have finally learned something about the practice of daily bible readings. Something I should have known years ago. It was not that I was never taught, more that I was never listening.

With the strong influence of Scripture Union, Churches and other organisations, I have tried to follow schemes compiled to help us find a way through the bible. Often these would be supplied with helpful notes and encouragements to think through the passage as well as to see how this impacts our life with pointers for prayer. But I always found the imposition of this kind of discipline from outside hard to deal with, which probably says more about my stubbornness than anything else. The critical point came when I would embark on a scheme with very good intentions and then fail and fail again and it led to a spiral of discouragement and resignation.  That way of doing things clearly works for so many people, maybe be most Christians. I don’t know. But they didn’t work for me.

It was when a wise pastor told me, while in my teens, that the Christian life was an integrated life and not a disconnected deconstructed series of activities with boxes to tick, that the light dawned. A “quiet time” could be useful, but not if it became just another thing to do. Something to gain points and help make you feel better about yourself. That, like much of what this pastor said was liberating and I felt a tremendous freedom and a new delight in reading God’s word. Yet in this freedom there still needed to be some discipline, some order, some plan, some direction. It was easy to find yourself in the books of the bible that you liked, parts that suited your temperament. For me it was the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Mark’s Gospel and Paul’s “happier” letters to the Thessalonians and Philippi. I didn’t go naturally to Romans or Ephesians, avoided Hebrews and pretty well ignored large swathes of the Old Testament. It was also easy to pick out nice helpful bits here and there, often quite out of context.

So over the years my bible reading has at best been sporadic, reading to prepare for something: preaching, leading a group, giving a talk, a children’s’ holiday club, working on material for a song, or anything that took my fancy.   Please don’t get me wrong. You do learn so much when you are trying to teach others. Sometime you only fully grasp a truth when you are trying to communicate with others. But the practice of daily bible reading, unconnected with any preparation or activity, for me, was a very hit and miss affair and there was no pattern to it.

So what has changed and what made the difference?

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Well a number of things. Coming to the church we now belong to, was one of them.  It was not the reason for coming, (that is another story) and in a way there was nothing especially different about it, but it was under the ministry of David Robertson that I found a new focus on the Bible as God’s word. It was not that the Bible was not central in the churches where we had previously belonged.  It was.  But here, for me, it took on a new dimension. It was moving up a gear. It was being pulled nearer to where I should have been. It was having my ears syringed. It seemed that the whole of the church’s life was soaked in the whole of God’s word. It was never an add-on.

Another was reading a book by Sinclair Ferguson “From the mouth of God”, which I can’t commend highly enough to anyone who wants to read the bible. It is straightforward, easy to understand, follow and demonstrates with great clarity why we can trust the Bible, how we read it and how we can apply it to every aspect of life.

Another was a comment by Dominic Smart in a monthly letter to his congregation in Aberdeen. It was that reading the bible should be first before anything else. Hearing what God has to say should be before listening to anyone else.

Another was something Billy Graham said in a video, following a campaign some years ago, when he described his daily practice of reading a psalm each day to re-orientate himself with God, and reading the Proverbs to relate to the world we live in.

Another was something from a book, I didn’t read, but which was quoted to me, on meditation and the serious contemplation of Scripture.

So this is what I try and do:

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I try, each day, to make God’s word the first thing that enters my mind: before reading what other people say about it, before listening to, or reading the news, before hearing the musings of clever people or the prattling of a radio commentator, before social media, before listening to music, because music itself speaks to you. Before all these I want to hear God’s voice.

So I read through books of the Bible, generally a chapter a day, with the intent of covering and continuing to cover the whole: a gospel, one of Paul’s letters, one of the prophets, a book of history or wisdom or from the Pentateuch. Then I read a Psalm, working consequently through the ancient songbook and finally I read a chapter from the book of Proverbs which is helpfully divided into 31 so you know where you are in the month. The practical wisdom alone in the later speaks right into the day whether it is work or any other activity.

Then I get outside for a walk: for the the fresh air, to meditate, to let the words, the thoughts, the pictures, the poetry, the wisdom soak into my being and to wonder at the reality of God’s presence and  bask in his love.

That is what I try to do but even as I write this, it sounds almost formulaic, prescriptive and the very thing I was railing against earlier in this piece. But I know that the experience, the reality and the blessings that pour from this purposeful habit, however that habit is integrated in a life, cannot be measured.

Crawford Mackenzie

 

Let us haste to Kelvingrove

They don’t ask me now, but people used to pose the question “As an architect and a Christian, wouldn’t you like to design a Church Building”   They were generally disappointed when I said “No, not really”  You see, I had no desire, inspiration or passion to design a church.  I had always believed (and still do) that the church is not a building.  It is the people of God wherever they are and wherever the met. The building was and is incidental.  That is not to say that I was not deeply affected and sometimes awe struck when visiting great church buildings: with the sheer majesty of the cathedral church of Notre-Dame de Reims, with the intimacy and simplicity of the parish church on Papa Stour, with monasteries in Romania and reformed churches in Hungary, with the work of Alvar Aalto and Corbusier especially with Notre Dame du Haut and many many more. Yet my appreciation of these building was perhaps esoteric and detached and I would have no conviction that they related at all to a real and living church, a gathering of God’s people for worship and service. There was a disconnect in my mind.

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I had qualified in 1973 and worked for 7 years with the late Jack Notman in Glasgow.  His output as far as building was not prolific but I learned much during my time with him. I still follow the principles that I learned then: designing buildings, that were of quality and would last, that would provide comfort and convenience and would be life affirming for those who use them, that were designed using the simple elements of space, light, materials, colour and textures, examining how spaces connect with each other, how people move though a building and what it says about who we are and what we are about. The aim was always to achieve something of real value with a timeless quality.

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Towards the end of my time with Jack Notman, I was involved in a number of significant projects, among them, the conversation of  Trinity Congregational Church, in the west end of Glasgow, as a rehearsal and concert hall for the then Scottish National Orchestra (now the RSNO). It was a very interesting project as it involved changing the role of the building from an ecclesiastical one to an arts and entertainment one. It was challenge to de- ecclesiasticise the structure, while retaining its character. It was opened by Princess Margaret in 1978, became a very successful project, won several awards and remained the home for the orchestra up until very recently.   Not long after it was opened, I was at a concert with a friend, who was a minister and, during the interval, he turned to me and said “This would make a good church”.  The throw-a-way comment stuck with me and I came to see that Church Buildings are, in fact, important. They do matter and like the clothes we wear, affect how we feel about ourselves and how others view us.  So began, for me, a new direction in the adapting and refurbishing of church buildings, altering, extending, re-ordering, refreshing , preparing feasibility studies and designs for new buildings which has extended to over 50 individual projects for a wide variety of Christian denominations.

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So it is not difficult to understand my surprise and my delight when I heard, just this week, that Trinity Congregational Church designed by John Honeyman in 1863, converted into the Henry Wood Hall by Jack Notman in 1978 was to begin a third life as a Church Building in 2016 as The Tron Kelvingrove.

Crawford Mackenzie

(I was not the Job Architect on this project but helped with drawings and details. The person who was, and who did all the real work on it, was Nigel Duncan)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bartlett and the Bible

Glynn Harrison has written an extraordinary article in the new edition of “Solas”  “The long shadow” http://www.solas-cpc.org/wp/solas-resources/solas-magazine-launch/ with a very telling insight into the impact of the sexual revolution on our society, from a Christian world view. It is a challenging critique of how the church has failed to respond to this revolution, been caught napping and generally been unable to speak the good news into it. “Our culture has a good sense of what we are against, but what are we for?”  With some noble and notable exceptions, the church has, in the heat of the debate, been found wanting. There has been a deficit in intellectual integrity, a deficit in creativity, a deficit in articulation and a deficit in humour. In contrast the sexual revolution, which was a revolution of ideas, held all the cards and knew how to present the case: the use of the media, being one of the principal planks of that presentation.

For me, nothing exemplifies this more than “Bartlett and the Bible” a scene from the television series “The West Wing”. Jed Bartlett is the president of the USA and throughout the series he exudes a quality of humanity that somehow you do not expect in a politician, far less in the leader of the “free world”. You cannot but warm to him and take to the way he acts, how he responds to his aids and his family, how he seems to genuinely care for the people and takes the responsibility of his office so seriously and even how he shows his failings. It is very endearing. He comes over as such a genuinely good man that people often say they would vote for him if his name was on the ticket. Many have even tried to persuade Martin Sheen, who is a real person, to do just that to stand for president.

The scene in question can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3CPjWd4MUXs but there is hardly any need to supply the link as you would have to be a stranger to YouTube or social media not to have come across it.  It is a very clever, funny and accomplished display by the president of the United States of America where he wipes the floor with the priggish upstart of a radio presenter, in what has become an iconic put down. At a stroke he exposes the inconsistency, hypocrisy, sheer stupidity, and the censorious and unloving attitude of the conservative biblical right. It’s a great laugh and so often as I have engaged with a facebook discussion on the subject it has been brought in to the thread to prove a point and it does just that. It is the killer punch which finally finishes off the argument. There is no more that can be said. The argument is won and lost.

But take a moment to look at the clip, for it is a perfect example of how the media can be used, not simply to make a point but, to close an argument. Ged Bartlett is a fictional character and the scene has been invented in someone’s mind. The dialogue has been written. It is not a real discussion. In fact it is not a discussion at all more of a monologue in which the president berates the limp presenter with a series of quick fire questions.  He does not allow her space or even the opportunity to answer the questions. The implication is clear. There are no answers. Any fool would see that.  He roundly castigates, viscously mocks and abuses her verbally, in way that would make any misogynist proud. It is a blatant display of merciless bullying by a powerful man, while his staff and advisors stand pathetically bye, sheepishly silent, unwilling or unable to take him to task. It ends when he completes the ritual humiliation by forcing her to stand, as everyone must do, in his presence. It is from every angle an appalling display yet I have heard nothing but applause for it and the way people continue to share the clip shows that they see nothing wrong with that aspect of it.

Leaving the bullying and the abuse to the side, the fact that there is no space for a response, a challenge or even offering answers to the questions, shows how propagandist the piece really is. Given the space and the opportunity, which any fair minded person would, there are very obvious responses that could be made. There are answers to the questions too. Timothy Keller at http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/making-sense-of-scriptures-inconsistency gives a perfectly reasoned and convincing response to the charge of inconsistency and others have done so too. But in the media world, these voices are hardly ever heard and it is left to a few to speak out, to challenge the omnidirectional flood of thought, to stick a head above the parapet and face the torrents of abuse and even death threats that come with the territory.

Glynn Harrison’s challenge to the church is simply to tell the good news into this long shadow. “The good news that God has not left us alone. In scripture he not only reveals who he is, but he shows us who we are: he speaks our identity to us.”. That will need resourcefulness, intellectual integrity commitment, creativity and courage, but more than anything, belief in it.

Crawford Mackenzie

A Purposeful Habit 2

cellThe Four Disciplines

I met Dan (not his real name) some years ago when I was visiting a local prison not far from where I live.  I was with a small group of volunteers who went into the prison once a week to meet, chat, share coffee and biscuits and have a bible study  with the men who were interested enough to come. Dan shared in the sessions and we talked a lot. He seemed genuinely interested in discovering Jesus and, I believe, came to faith in him over that time. As volunteers we would often ask after home, and family and work and how long they had before release, but we had one self-imposed rule, which we rigidly kept to – never to ask why they were there. It was simply not our business or our concern. Occasionally, however, some would tell us and Dan let me see his papers: the documents that had been put together to process his appeal for parole.  As well as making an assessment on his character and his suitability for release, they described the actual crime in forensic detail. It involved arson and murder and made for chilling reading. It was hard to reconcile these awful facts with the man sitting beside me drinking coffee and the kind of person that your heart seems to go out to. But sharing in our study of the bible I knew and we knew that before God we were all in the same boat and neither of us had a leg to stand on.

When it came close to his release date or “liberation” as they called it,  Dan became more anxious about how he would be able to continue in his Christian life outside, when he was back in his old environment and under the influence of his old friends. He feared that he would simply return to his old ways.  “I don’t think my faith is strong enough” he would say, “I don’t think I have a good enough hold on God”. I did my best to reassure him by pointing out that it was God who had a hold of him and I tried to offer some practical advice. I suggested four things that were essential in the Christian life: things that you had to work at and make your habit, because they didn’t come naturally. At times it would be a struggle, often a battle as malign and subtle forces pitted against you, intent on damaging your new life and your new desire to follow Jesus Christ.  You had to practice them and continue practising, so that they would become part of you. It had to be a discipline and a regular one – weekly, daily, hourly, and at all times.

If you know anything about the Christian Faith you will know that they are:

  • Praying to God by his Spirit in Jesus’ name
  • Reading the Bible, recognising it as God’s Holy Word, inspired by His Spirit proclaiming Jesus
  • Meeting with other followers of Jesus, to worship God
  • Doing Good, as an expression of your love for God, by serving others, with the help of his Spirit, in Jesus’ name

They are not, were not and never were rule things. Things you had to do to please God. Things if you do better and longer with more zeal and effort would somehow achieve for you a higher place in the scheme of things. It is not the legalism that Paul, in his letters, exposes with such ruthlessness, but aids, means, helps and the essential life blood, food, and fresh air to live a life in gratitude to God.

I lost contact with Dan soon after his release and often wonder where he is and how he is doing. I see him in my dreams sometimes. I keep praying for him, I have never forgotten him and I am slowly learning to listen to my own advice to him – to practice these disciplines.

Crawford Mackenzie

The Purposeful Habit 1

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“How to be a Christian without going to church”  Kelly Bean       A Book Review

I am not in the habit of writing book reviews. I am such a slow reader and others do that so much better, but after creating a little stir with a rather flippant post using a play on the title of a book I had just read, I felt I had to explain myself. It was a light hearted jibe but one with a serious point.

It is “How to be a Christian without going to church”  by Kelly Bean, published by Baker Books.  The title catches the eye as it is clearly intended to do and the book addresses the issue of what the writer calls “No-Goers”, of which she is one. These are people who no longer go to church. They are not people who have been believers, have become disillusioned with the church , “lost their faith” and say that they no longer believe,  they are people who leave, yet maintain and continue to practice their orthodox Christian faith.  From the research, which the writer quotes, this has become, in recent years, an unstoppable flood.

There are a series of stories and testimonies from people who have left, to give put some flesh on the background and explain the reasons for leaving: “for their own sanity”, “the structure was killing my faith”,I felt undervalued”,  “I faced rejection and judgement”,  “The system was broken”, “It didn’t match my style” and many other painful stories. It seemed an endless list of damaged and frustrated people who appear to be stifled but flourish when they finally take the step to leave “After 17 years of not going to church my faith is stronger than ever”.  It is a sad and depressing catalogue of failure, but one than anyone who is involved in the church in the west today will easily recognise.

Kelly Bean makes it clear at the outset that she is not against the church. She wants it to be there, to continue and to grow. She would never discourage anyone from joining or sticking with it, she just feels, with a growing number of likeminded people, that it is not for her or for them. She is not, however, advocating being a solitary Christian in fact quite the opposite and here is where her argument seems a little confused and contradictory. She talks about the big shift from “Going to Church to “Being Church”. The first suggesting simply the activity of regularly going to a place, a building , to do whatever. It is understandable why this should be derided because we are called “to be” a holy nation, a people of God, a light to the world.  But if we are to share with any believing community, it involves some movement –we have to go there unless we are always living together. So “Going to Church” is just as relevant and expression. Towards the end of the book she describes intentional communities “ Something is taking shape and spreading as Christians far and wide come together (my emphasis) in a variety of small communities committed to a life lived in simplicity, humility and for others”  so clearly she sees the new movement of non-goers actually going somewhere and it looks like to another church.

I think she is also a little muddled. On the one hand she makes it clear that the church is, as we have always been taught, not a building, a structure, a denomination, an organisation, but the people of God, wherever they come together in twos or threes or in hundreds.  As a “Non-goer” she doesn’t want to be part of this church but, I believe, despite her protestations to the contrary, she is actually trying to set up another church. In her guide to “alternative forms of Christian community” there is alternative worship, alternative bible study, alternative money, alternative baptism and dedication of children, alternative missionary work and even alternative Sunday school and youth groups. In her turning away from all the structures of the church she has defined another church which looks remarkably like the one she has rejected. And what she fails to see is that this simply repeats so much of what has happened throughout the Church’s history.

All the problems she described in “Why are people leaving” are failings in the structures, the organisations, the leadership, and the people but not with its essential reason for being, or with its King and head. The church, I believe, needs reformation not rejection.

I was also struck by two things, which I have to say coloured my whole feeling about the book:

The first is that there is little or no mention of whose church it is. The church is seen as of the people, by the people, for the people, for the community and for the world, when all the time it is God’s. It belongs to him.  It is the church of Jesus Christ.  It is not ours. So we can’t decide what it should be, what it should be like or who should be in it. That is entirely God’s business not ours. Maybe this was taken as read but the fact that it was never stated makes me wonder if the thought was ever in the writers mind.

The second is that, while the Bible is mentioned in a few occasion and quoted very occasionally, there is no hint that these new alternative ways of being community are based or grounded at all on Scripture. Maybe that is also taken as read, but, again, I don’t think so. This omission is serious. At a stroke it knocks away the foundation, disconnects from the basis of the true faith and opens the way for any kind of whimsical and transient philosophy or personality cult to take over and lead to anywhere. The “Non Goers” movement doesn’t seem to be rooted in the Bible but centred on “shared values” and focused on “core beliefs” like those outlined in one quote:

  • God is good. I will practise trusting God with my life
  • God is love. I will practice taking care of myself and loving others
  • God is with me. I will practice peace and not being afraid
  • God wants to talk with me. I will practice listening to Him and talking with Him
  • God always forgives. I will practice forgiving myself and others
  • I feel blessed with this Good News. I will practice being thankful and celebrating moments
  • God has a story of love. He tells it through us. I will practice partnering with Him to bring it to others

At first sight it is maybe hard to find fault with this. But where does it come from? What is it based on? Where is the underlying authority for such statements? How are they defined? When you actually look at the list, there is nothing specifically Christian about it. There is nothing of Christ in it.  I am curious why his name is not mentioned. Is it because, in this creed, Jesus is unnecessary and redundant?  The “Good news” seems to be that “God always forgives”. He will forgive anyway. “It’s his job” as someone has said. If this is an example of where the “Non-goers” movement leads then it is not just alarming it is potentially very dangerous.

If you have read this far you, may not agree, but you will understand why I am concerned.

This is only my take. Go and read it yourself and see what you think and if you disagree let me know.

Crawford Mackenzie

IN THE PRESENCE

Paul's conversion 2

On Thursday our little group of internationals from China, Nigeria, Cyprus, Malaysia , Ireland, Latvia, Romania, Iran and Scotland shared a meal and sat round the fire to read and think about what Jesus said. We were studying the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. We had come to the part where Jesus speaks about prayer and where he teaches the “how to” in the model for all prayer, which begins with these astonishing words “Our father in heaven…”  Before that he gives two negatives – two “how not to”s: hypocritical praise seeking prayers and mechanical repeating prayers. There was so much to think about but the first one stung. It clearly pointed out that you can’t be praising God and seeking praise for yourself at the same time. It was one or the other.

This was particularly on my mind as I prepared to lead the pastoral prayer at our church on Sunday morning.  I wanted it to be good, which was a worthy thought and I wanted people to think it was good, which wasn’t. I struggled with these two conflicting attitudes for some time and I thought I had it licked. But standing at the back of the church while the congregation were gathering, filling up with so many people, I began to panic and was almost overwhelmed with the dreadful thought of failure. The anxiety continued to grip me through the early part of the service and then something happened. We were singing our confession, a version of psalm 51 to the tune Ottawa, unaccompanied, with the tangible sense that we were in the presence of the almighty God- all powerful and all loving. It was as if the whole place was filled with a dazzling all-consuming light that penetrated every corner and crevice. Then it came to me with astonishing clarity “You are coming into the presence of the Holy God and you are worried about what these people think?!”  “You are coming before the creator of the whole universe, the judge of all the earth, the King of kings, the Lord of lords and your are bothered about this lot ?!

When I reached the podium, the Holy Spirt took over and gave me the words so that I could give voice to the prayers of the people, to our Father in heaven, in Jesus name. It is something I hope I will never forget.

Crawford Mackenzie