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

 

A Purposeful Habit 3

Telling the Good News

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It was a bright Saturday morning in September. With a fresh breeze and a clear sky we were sailing across the Clyde from  Ardrossan to Brodick, coming late to join a team on a mission to bring the Good News to the hordes of young folk from Glasgow crowding into the Island for one last fling before the winter . It was “Operation Arran”. We were not the only ones who missed the connections the night before and we gathered on the top deck to get reconnected. Among us was Captain Stephen Anderson. He was an evangelist, a former farmer and soldier whose parents had high hopes, at one time, that he would become  the Raj of India, before independence changed all that. He had turned his back on his former life and worked full time, to use the gift that God had given him, to tell the Good News of Jesus to the high and mighty, the ordinary folk and odd balls, the smart guys and rough diamonds and anyone and everyone he met, wherever he went.

Our paths had crossed before on two occasions. One was at Port Seaton holiday camp on the forth estuary. I clearly remembered arriving at the site and being dropped off by my future in-laws who, on seeing the down at heel huts and the noisy crowds made a quick exit. I was to sing for a children’s event outside the tiny wooden chapel at the centre of the camp. An evening service had been interrupted the previous week when a motorcyclist drove throughout the main door up the aisle and out through the south door. It was hot and sweaty and the crowds of children loud and sticky and over enthusiastic would hug you and leave you with the strong desire to start scratching. When I came to sing, I was crowded in and could hardly hear my own voice far less the guitar but when I began something strange happened. The crowd of children and young folk and hangers on were suddenly hushed and seemed to be hanging on every word and when I finished my set Stephen spoke to this rapt audience about Jesus and in his characteristic winsome way.

The second was in the BBC studios in Queen Street Edinburgh, to record a series for “thought for the day” on what was then called the Home Service. The equipment seemed ancient and the microphone looked like it came from the ark. There were lots of tests and misfires before the recordings were put down. I had simply to sing a line of a song as an intro and then stop. There was no cutting and pasting.  While we were sitting in the studio with the producer and technician next door, trying to sort things out,  Stephen suggested we pray. So right there in the dark panelled draughty room with the floor covered in coiled cables and  strange pieces of equipment and quite unaware than anyone was listening,  we bowed our heads and  prayed that God would use this time to bring the message to many across  Scotland . When the team came through to get us started, they were clearly moved.  The prayer had come right through to the monitor.

So there we were, up on deck with crowds of others in the warm sun gliding across the Clyde when Stephen said ” Do you have your guitar with you? Get it out and let’s sing” I was shocked and didn’t like the idea but he was persuasive and we did. Others pulled their instruments from there cases and we gathered in a circle and sang through many of the songs that had become part of our life. Now everyone was listening and Stephen used that moment to speak directly to the crowds of fellow travellers, sitting on the benches and hanging over the deck and gazing out to sea , to tell them who were we were, why we were going to Arran and in the simplest and natural way  why Jesus. On the Sunday afternoon at three when the pub up the hill, discouraged its customers, we were sitting around in the local church hall. Many revellers were diverted into the hall and joined in with the singing, taking over the venue. It became very raucous and we felt we had just about lost control. One of the girls sang “Amazing Grace” recently made into a hit by Judy Collins and the crowd became strangely silent. When she finished, a hush descended and once again Stephen seized the opportunity and speak directly to the crowd.

I learned so much from the man and this was all brought back to mind recently, when I was asked to convene the evangelism committee in our local church. I knew I was not an evangelist. That gift had not been given to me. I do know those for whom the gift has been given and it is a wonderful thing to see, but I knew that was not me.  But reading Paul’s letters, I discovered that Timothy didn’t seem to be an evangelist either yet Paul still encouraged him to “do the work of an evangelist”. So it is for everyone who is a follower of Jesus. We may not have the gift but if we love him, it must be part of our DNA to tell the Good News, for that is what evangelism is.  Leslie Newbigin put it succinctly when he was talking about the difficulties in communicating the gospel to the people of his inner city parish in Birmingham

“How can this strange story of God made man, of a crucified saviour, of resurrection and new creation become credible for those whose entire mental training has conditioned them to believe that the real world is the world that can be satisfactorily explained and managed without the hypothesis of God? I know of only one clue to the answering of that question, only one real hermeneutic of the Gospel: congregations who believe it.

Does that sound too simplistic? I don’t believe it is.  Evangelism is not some kind of technique we use to persuade people to change their minds and think like us.  Evangelism is the telling of good news, but what changes people’s minds and converts their wills is always a mysterious work of the sovereign Holy Spirit and we are not permitted to know more than a little of his secret working.  But – and this is the point – the Holy Spirit, is present in the believing congregation gathered for praise and the offering up of spiritual sacrifice, scattered throughout the community to bear the love of God into every secular happening and meeting.”

 So we could ask ourselves why is that, as followers of Jesus, we seem to be so poor at this task? Why do we seem so reluctant to tell this Good News? Why do we drag our feet and need to be coerced and organised into doing it? The answer, which we would probably not really want to think about and could be quite disturbing, is that maybe we are not ourselves sure if we believe it.

In the past week, I met up with people on two occasions who bounded up to me, their faces full of joy and excitement, with a generous hug and desperate to tell me-  “I’ve got Good News!” One was over a new job the other that her mother’s visa had at last come through and she was able to come and visit.   And I thought “Yes – that’s it”

Crawford Mackenzie

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Bearing Shame

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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.

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As Philip Bliss has it:

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,

In my place condemned He stood…

Hallelujah,   What a saviour!

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

The wedding

 

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I can’t pretend that I am a fan of weddings. I just can’t get excited about the details, the outfits, the flowers, the hair, the cake, the photographs, the music, the waiting around, the hours mingling with glass in hand, trying hard to make conversations, the partying before and after and the mountains of work in preparation and the outrageous cost that goes into just one day. But… and here is the strange thing, there is nothing that moves me so much, that chokes me up and causes tears to dribble down my face as that moment when you see the bride, radiant and beautiful, the friend, the niece, the sister, the daughter approaching with such confidence and poise, the one you have known for years or for just a little while, perhaps you have watched her grow from childhood and you see her now as you have never done before. Immediately all the mean thoughts are banished. She is worth every bit of it, all the work and all the expense. Nothing is to be spared for this, her day.  And then you catch the look on the bridegroom’s face and see the sheer delight in his eyes and the sense of unbounded joy that fills the whole place… and I am converted.

It is something that is very hard to explain or to understand but yesterday as we were basking in the wonder of Jesus’ first recorded miracle, the turning of water into wine at Cana -the subject of the sermon at our evening service, we were beginning to.

Crawford Mackenzie

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IN THE PRESENCE

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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

“All you really have is God”

I have been a Christian, a follower of Jesus, since as long as I can remember. You could say, I was brought up as a Christian, which was certainly true, but the faith which I saw in my parents had to be true for me too, I could not survive on borrowed faith no matter how strong. At various points, and continually, in my life I have committed myself to Jesus Christ, signed up, and effectively said, “you have saved me, I belong to you and you are boss” But there have always been doubts: sometimes small ripples, at other times gigantic waves that look almost certain to sink this fragile dingy. But doubts do a funny thing. They make you realise that you do actually believe. If you didn’t believe, doubts will never bother you. It is a bit like pain which is a sign that you are still alive. On the mountains when the artic wind is cutting through your clothes and skin to your bone the time to worry is when you stop feeling the pain in your fingers. That’s when frostbite strikes and they can almost literally fall off. The time to worry is when you feel warm and comfortable and just want to lie down in the snow and sleep. It is, of course, a sleep of death.  Feeling pain is a sign of life and having doubts is a sign of faith.

Doubts have many angles: over suffering, over exclusiveness, with science, over the bible, over the whole idea of the supernatural,  but for me it comes with an unannounced sense that the whole things is bizarre, ridiculous and absurd. To believe seems utterly insane and so much nonsense, but the strange thing is that it hits a rock and one that doesn’t seem to want to move. It is the conviction that there is nothing else: that I have nothing but God and that there is no other way but Jesus. It is what Jesus’ disciples said when people were turning away from him and his teaching. (John:6:68). He said “Do you want to leave too”. Peter responded “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”

It all struck home with a new force, when I read Kayla Mueller’s letter, which her parents released after her death, this week. It was not clear when the letter was written or what actually was her fate, but it was hard to read without becoming totally choked up, not so much by the tragedy for her and her family, or the blind wickedness of her captors, but by the sheer beauty of her expressed faith in God and her first concern, not for herself, but for the ones she loved.

“I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no else … + by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall. I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it. I pray each day that if nothing else, you have felt a certain closeness + surrender to God as well + have formed a bond of love + support amongst one another … I miss you all as if it has been a decade of forced separation.”

Crawford Mackenzie