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 Bible Study

It is half past eight on Saturday morning. The room is dull dusty and sparsely furnished: a red painted concrete floor, two sofas covered with sheets, a table with some chairs, an empty bookcase, a make shift curtain separates an area for two double beds where a family sleeps, children pad in an out and a cat wanders through to the kitchen. We are four, three young men and myself. All three are married and two have lovely daughters. One is the new pastor of the local church; one has completed his studies and looking for work. One is blind. Those who can, read verses from the bible in turn. The study is focused on Ephesians 4: 17-32. The pastor leads while others chip in with thoughts reflections and questions. The aim is to understand. We speak about anger and abusive treatment of others, about how our thinking affects what we do and say, about practising honesty and forgiveness. The privilege (an overused word) of being able to share in this time is awesome (an even more overused word). Here in the dusty crumbling slopes of this great city, tucked away in an anonymous street, are a group of men who are grappling with what it means to live a life of faith. We are not talking about football, or cars or politics, we are talking about what really matters. When we finish, they ask me to pray, mercifully, in English. While my Spanish sometimes surprises me, I knew this is one occasion when it would not be up to the task.

It would be very hard to describe the breath-taking wonder and the sense of honour I felt, leading these men in prayer in that moment. I was humbled, challenged and, yes, truly blessed and it is something that I will never forget.

Crawford Mackenzie

The Failure of Men (looking for a model)

Since early days I had an interest and love of songs, song writing and the songwriters art. From David’s psalms where the tunes have been lost, to Bob Dylan, who epitomises the pinnacle in contemporary song writing and whose work has so far not yet been eclipsed.  Many people have written good songs but few have produced consistently good material. Many of the singer songwriters I have admired have been women. From the soft and lyrical, country voices caressing words to the biting snarl of pent up rage. Singer songwriters like:  Sinéad O’Connor, Nanci Griffith, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Pat Benetar, Bebe,  Souad Massi, Coco Mbassi, Suzanne Vega, Charlott Dipande and others .  Many of these write and perform songs which often display their deep dissatisfaction with the men in their lives and with men in general. Sometimes it is wistful disappointment in “He never will need me” to the savage “Malo malo malo eres ”. I was always curios why I, as a man, should be drawn to this material.  Why would I choose to hear my gender mocked and savagely ridiculed?  Why would I be drawn in the way that some men are drawn to the strand of pornography which show men being humiliated by women in feminine dominant sadomasochism scenarios .  It took me some time to realise that I shared in this frustration in this disappointment with men and this inevitably meant with myself. I too was frustrated with the way we were and how far we fell short of what we should or could be.  But to have a sense of disappointment you must have a standard or a model you can aspire to. You must have a vision of something better.  What was it?

I had many male models to admire friends and colleagues and leaders in society and in the world. I had three older brothers who I looked up to and through whom I learned: the desire for exploration and finding out, the beauty of hard work and order and doing things well, the constant pushing beyond the obvious of what we were told to the other side of the argument, the cynics art of lifting the lid on pretentions and self-authority and, I had my father.  On the long walk homes from Cleadale in the dark after visiting a home with tea and scones he would tell stories, or round the Raeburn in a morning, when there was time, he would read from the bible and excite us with tales of David or Paul.  It was in the way he told the stories that I knew that he admired these men in their courage and commitment, despite all their obvious flaws.  In the same way as he was excited and drawn to the lives of these men, I was most affected not as much by what my father said, as by what he did. His commitment was all the way. Once set on the path He was never half hearted. Even when he insisted on praying publicly and giving thanks to God for a meal in a crowded fish and chip shop, to the embarrassment of his children,you could not but admire someone who was not afraid of ridicule or shame in the eyes of others.  He was not as the Scottish Paraphrase puts it “ashamed to own my lord or to defend his cause”.  I often sung that in church uncomfortably thinking that I would be a little ashamed at times. He didn’t ever seem to be. Later I discovered the character Job, specifically; when he describes the kind of role he had in his community. Reading this through a 21st century lens, with our twisted sense of humility, it might seem a little arrogant, but pride would have been furthest from him when he longed for the days past that had been taken from him so cruelly:

“When I went to the gate of the city
    and took my seat in the public square,
 the young men saw me and stepped aside
    and the old men rose to their feet;
 the chief men refrained from speaking
    and covered their mouths with their hands;
 the voices of the nobles were hushed,
    and their tongues stuck to the roof of their mouths.
 Whoever heard me spoke well of me,
    and those who saw me commended me,
 because I rescued the poor who cried for help,
    and the fatherless who had none to assist them.
The one who was dying blessed me;
    I made the widow’s heart sing.
 I put on righteousness as my clothing;
    justice was my robe and my turban.
 I was eyes to the blind
    and feet to the lame.
 I was a father to the needy;
    I took up the case of the stranger.
 I broke the fangs of the wicked
    and snatched the victims from their teeth.

Here I thought was an example, a model to follow. The respect he had was not because of his position or his wealth or his skills of gifts but because he rescued the poor cared for the orphans and promised the dying man that he would look after his widow. He took up the case of those who couldn’t and if this required boldness and firmness and necessary force against the wicked who caused the suffering he would not hesitate.  He was neither a macho misogynist nor a soft in the middle new man. His was a life to emulate. Here was model to follow.

Crawford Mackenzie

Carers, Wasters and Losers

Lessons from the elephant herd


We were travelling the short distance form the ferry which had taken us across the Zambezi from Zambia on our way to the game park in Botswana, when our driver and guide suddenly brought the Landrover to a stop.  He had spotted a lone elephant at the side of the road and swung the vehicle as near as he could without startling the animal.  He need not have bothered. The elephant was fully absorbed in the business of grazing on the grass and small trees and quite unconcerned at his audience of wild life enthusiast leaning out of their seats in the high Landrover with hats, sunglasses and cameras clicking.  “This is an adult male” said our guide and he went to explain how, in common with other wild animals there were three groupings: the first group, the breeding herd, which consisted of the young , females and one significant male, the second group which he termed the “bachelor herd” which was made up of males who were kicked out of the breeding herd at puberty, and the third group which was not a group as such but consisted of the males who did not fit in or were kicked out of the “bachelor group” and who wandered on their own through the bush.  We watched this lonely looking creature with his dusty skin and deep sad eyes pull and munch at the long grass for some time. “This is a lone male” said our guide “He is a loser!”

The rest of the day was spent exploring the game reserve with many close encounters with, kudus, impalas warthogs, water buffalo, elegant antelopes, sinister crocodiles, sad hippos, numerous brightly coloured birds, majestic giraffes and the purposeful elephant breeding herd making their way through the bush in well remembered tracks.  What could not leave my mind was the thought of how the three groupings seem to mirror groupings that exist in society, and  in some measure, in the church. Here was a fascinating insight into clearly defined and differing roles.

We have the “Carers”, the breeding herd,  who are by far the largest and most influential group.  Their principal concern is with the care, protection and nurture of the young.  This demands the greatest priority, resources, time and money. This is necessarily so, as this group protects the future of the species.  The first responsibility of any grouping is just that, the care, protection and nurture of those who will come on after to continue the line.  Within the organisation of the church this is the dominant theme; children, young people and families.

Inevitably this means that there are those who do not fit in to this programme. They have no particular skill to offer and no emotional pull or burden to allow them to participate in this work. These are the “Wasters”.  They may not be described as such, or even spoken of as such, but deep within the psyche is a feeling that, as they don’t have a role with caring, they are in some senses irrelevant.  Perhaps they can find some non caring function on the edge of things but that only reinforces the feeling that they are on the outside.  The result is that they find their home and their fulfilment with the “ Bachelor herd” in sports activities, drinking, and work particularly in the heavy industries ,the miners and shipbuilders of previous years, trade unions and the armed forces. Here they find a common bond and a very deep loyalty to each other. Jackie Bird’s diary of her time with Scottish troops in Camp Bastion illustrates this very clearly. She spoke of the fierce loyalty that the troops had, not for their country, nor for their commander but to each other. In the past these would have been the ones who created the wealth, protected and defended, came to the rescue in disasters and emergencies and often with bare hands and physical strength brought the supplies, made the repairs, restored the peace. In a time of relative ease and calm, when military adventures are despised and when heavy industries have been degraded, their role is diminished. In the church it is almost non-existent.

Despite their complimentary and co dependant roles the carers and the wasters regard each other with a degree of mutual disdain. But there is another group the “Losers” who don’t fit with either “Breeding herd” or the “Bachelor herd”.  They are not club people have no affinity either with the macho world of sport, machines and militarism (usually of men) or with the homely world of the “Carers” . They wander through life on their own. They may have partners and families and they make take part in activities but that is not where there soul lies.  It is in the other world of solitude, of ideas, of beyond.  The “Carers” pity them and think they are lonely. The “Wasters” despise them and think them pathetic. Strangely they may not actually be unhappy and the sad look in their faces often belies a stout contentment.  They wander around on the fringe of society and while not strangers to the church, never seem to have found their potential there and sit on the edge

In our 21st century western smugness, it is easy to be lulled into an illusory sense that we have reached a plateau of civilisation and progress where we no longer need armies or miners or shipbuilders and that the “Wasters” should be given some soft toys to play with, fight with paintballs and vent off steam running naked through the woods. There is no place for the “Wasters” here.

It is also very easy to be lulled into a false sense of security and belief that things will go on just as they have done before.  The worst disasters happen elsewhere and are eventually tamed by television.  Even the most complicate international event will be explained once John Simpson gets to the scene. In this illusory world secured by health and safety, glossed by celebrity and covered by insurance, there is no place for a prophet of doom or a prophet of any kind for that matter. We know the future and there is no role for someone who sees over the hill and round the bend. There is no place for the “Losers”  here.

But the point is that in a healthy society each must have a part to play and in the Church every individual has a gift to bring to the work of the kingdom. Without the “Carers” there will be no future generation.  Without the “Wasters “there will be nothing left after the marauders, bullies and earthquakes have had their way. Without the “Losers” there would be no vision and where there is no vision the people perish.

Crawford Mackenzie