Blessed be the Name, the Name be Blessed

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I watched a film on TV the other week and I regretted it long before it was finished. I enjoy watching films and it’s something I hadn’t done for a while. I felt in the mood but sad to say this was a total let-down. It was described as in the “West Wing mode” and starred Clooney et al but I hated it. It had a pretty thin storyline and I couldn’t find any character who was remotely likeable. It was all about ambition and cheating and cutting each other’s throats, but what wearied me was the tone of the whole thing. It was not violent and there was no gratuitous sex but the language throughout turned my stomach. It caused me to think again about why bad language, or what goes under the title of strong language, is a serious issue and perhaps symptomatic of our condition. The crux came late on when the president, on discovering he had been exposed, cursed under his breath “Jesus  f……..    Christ” I felt shiver run through me. It was the casual way that a blasphemy could be uttered with no thought of the one whose name was so casually covered in excrement and dumped in the gutter.  And I wondered why people swear and what they get out of it.

What we used to call foul or profane language, has been reclassified as  “strong” or “colourful” language and its use can be justified, if you feel strongly enough about something. It shows that you have some feeling and some passion about an issue. It is justified by the emotional relief it brings the user, as in “lalochezia”.  It gives you street cred and shows that you have the common touch. Even the Prime Minister slips some into a speech when he wants to make a point. But you just have to think about the categories of words that are used to see what this is really all about.  On the one hand they are words for sexual organs, sexual intercourse, for urinating and defecating, and they are used often with aggressive, sexist and racist overtones with more than a passing hint at rape and sexual violence. On the other, they are names for God for Jesus Christ for the Holy Spirit and sometimes combined with words from the gutter as in the film quote. Why?

Now I know some will immediately respond  “Oh come on, you are a wee bit sensitive here, these are just words… words.. words …you are making such a fuss… your reaction to them is totally out of proportion… you are so concerned with the obscenity of language  rather than the real obscenities that exist in the world”,   Others would go as far as to suggest that if you are concerned about “bad language” it is a sign that you are quite relaxed about all the other evils. But nothing could be further from the truth.  You wouldn’t employ that logic in any other context. Language when it is abusive, inciteful, or discriminatory is taken very seriously, even criminal in some instances. The names you might call people of a different race, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, disability or anything that is different from you do matter and it reveals your attitude to them. It tells what is in your mind and that is one step away from doing. It is not a flippant thing. The words that come out of our mouths in a moment of untamed anger or frustration or passion can betray deep feelings inside us. It is deadly serious. It is not significant that the Psalm writer prays “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your  sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” because if the thoughts and words are acceptable to God, then the actions that follow will be too.

So my appeal to all wordsmiths out there (including myself) is, before we launch out, before we pit into our speech, before we let it rip, think about the words and why we have chosen to use them. Think about why we would take the name of the Holy God, the creator of the world, the Saviour and Lord and the one that we will all stand before at the end, think about why we would stain his name with words from the gutter and drag it through the cesspit. Think about what we are saying.

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.

To the ends of the earth

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Tomorrow morning I will be joining the long queue, shuffling through the cattle pens, waiting for inspection before committing myself to the belly of a giant silver bird on a long haul flight across the sea.  When I have travelled before, it has been to the east to Europe, Israel, Nepal and China, or south to Zambia. This time I am flying across the mighty Atlantic to the western edge of the “New world”, to Peru.  It was an idea half conceived more than 40 years ago and inspired by a friend who on completion of his studies began his life’s work of translating the bible into indigenous languages of the Andes, principally into Quechua the ancient language of the Incas.  It, of course, begs the question “Why would you devote your life to translating a book into a relatively obscure language?” But to ask the question, itself, misses the point, or rather two:

The first is that the bible is not a book but contains all that we need to know about God, ourselves and the cosmos, the starting point for all other explorations. It is the “Word of God”. It communicates what God has to say about who he is and who we are. It is not, in one sense, easy to understand, but like a giant picture with extremely fuzzy edges, (read some of what is said in Genesis and in Revelations for example) when you focus on the centre: moving from all the people to one people, to one person, to one life of 30 years, and specifically, to three days at the centre of history, then its cosmic relevance is revealed.

The second is that, while it is bedded in the culture and language of the period, in which it was written, it transcends these. While it is rooted in real time in history, it speaks to all time. While it begins in the specific geography of the Mediterranean lands, its impact reaches across the globe. While it was inscribed in Hebrew and Greek, it is read and understood in thousands of languages. It is not difficult to see the significance for a Quechua speaker in the high Andes, being able to read the bible for the first time in his own language rather than in the language of the foreigner or possible oppressor, in the same way that native Gaelic speakers were able to do the same in the early ninety century in Scotland. The pragmatist would say “why bother? If you want to read the bible, learn English or Spanish or Latin or Greek”, but that of courses misses the point.  God speaks in words and pictures we can understand. God is speaking and he speaks to me, right into my situation, now, in my mother tongue.

But I have other reasons for travelling. My early fascination with the Incas made me scour the library for every book I could find on the subject and I poured over John Hemming’s “The Conquest of the Incas” I even had a strong feeling to travel and work in Peru and made pathetic attempts to learn Spanish, through a linguaphone course, which had to be donated to the library after a few months. Years later a young Peruvian man from the barrios in Lima came to stay in our home. He had volunteered a year of his life to help in the local church and community and it was not long before everyone, young, old and in between, took him to their hearts and thought the world of him. He brought and gave so much it would be hard to put into words what we learned from him. When he left he was sorely missed and he still is. As we parted at the airport on a grey Edinburgh day, I expressed the hope that sometime soon I would be able to come over and visit. Now several years later that hope is being fulfilled.

As I make my final preparations: thinking about the ancient Incas, their incredible story and anticipating seeing the amazing sites at Arequipa, Titicaca  Cuzco, Ayacucho and Machu Picchu, thinking about the look awaited reunion with my friend, meeting his family and church and seeing something of his life in Lima and thinking of the stories we will share, I can’t help feeling that the story which will eclipse them all will be the one about bringing Gods word to all peoples.

Crawford Mackenzie

Independence: a Slovak’s view

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The white paper might be a help to us when it comes to making the big decision, but it is always good to hear from others outside, especially if they have had some real experience of what independence has meant for them.

I met Jan at a garden party following the wedding service of a special friend in Žilina a northern city in Slovakia.  His English was impeccable but he was keen to improve and he wanted to do that by learning some Scottish idioms in dialect. As usual my mind went blank and all I could come up with was “yerawrit big min” from Glasgow, “Fit Like?Foo ur ye aye daein’?”  from Aberdeen and the legendary  “Twa pehs an’an’inyin’in’an’a.” from Dundee. He practised these and went around the party muttering them under his breath while everyone else gave him a wide berth.  We corresponded by email afterwards and had some interesting discussions on politics, language and nuclear power (he and his wife were both nuclear scientist). On one occasion I asked him about the independence issue. In light of the Czech  Slovak  experience, did he think it would be a good thing for us in Scotland?  His answer came back, simple and straight to the point  “Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye!” . So now I know.

Crawford Mackenzie