This is the Time

We didn’t get round to doing it, but we had a plan to put a jar in the middle of the table for our evening meal with our international family and every time someone mentioned covid, they would have to drop a coin in. If we did, we could probably have paid for 3 new nightingale hospitals by now, though it turns out that they haven’t been much use despite the £220m price tag.It’s a good time for dodgy deals and backhands. It’s a good time to bury bad news. But its also a good time to take stock and make resolutions and mine, in the coming year, will be to speak no more of viruses and lock-downs, of self-isolating, social distancing, and transmission and these arrrgh rates. Data, Percentages and graphs will be out too. But before then, with a few hours left, it would be good to look back and see if we can make any sense of what happened in this year. This then, by definition, is my personal view. Inevitable there are more questions than answers.

The Barmy Professor

One of the most interesting characters in the whole episode is Professor Neil Ferguson who gave a revealing interview to the Sunday Times last week.  He had disappeared off the scene for a while, following his “error of judgement”, but now back in the centre among the coterie of advisers with the ear of government. He was apparently told to keep a low profile until the thing had blown over, which says so much of how important he must have been to the decisionmakers. It was what he said about how they came to the idea of nationwide lock-down, that was so telling.  They saw how the Chinese had adopted it first in Wuhan and later across the country but they didn’t think such a method would work in a western democratic society. Astonishingly it seemed to work in Italy and so could be tried out here too. So, this was how the mass psychological, economic & social experiment was launched on an unexpecting population, without any real idea of where it would lead or if it would in fact work. It had never been done before and while there was, and is, no evidence that it had any effect, it had to be the only way and so it became the only way. The decision was a binary one. Either this or let the virus rip, our hospitals will be overwhelmed and thousands will die. At the early stage the Prime Minister was unsure and hinted that, while it was done in other nations, this was not how we did things here. We don’t coerce the population in this way, we respect the people and always assume that they would act responsibility. But for whatever reason, he wobbled and the rest is history.

The Lapsed Believer

Having grown up with a more or less general respect for authority, with the feeling that those who knew all the facts, those who understood the reality of what we were facing, those who were intelligent and experts in their field, would be best placed to make the proper decisions and I should go along with that. It might be a military response to terrorism or austerity to a financial crisis. What did I know about viruses, pandemics, terrorism or economics after all? Yet, I was not totally naïve. I knew that politicians have their own agenda and their own self-interest, and like the rest of us are proud, lustful and prone to corruption and deceit, but on those big issues, I had to trust that they would get it right and I would, in the end, give them the benefit of the doubt.  That was what I believed at the start and I suspect most people felt the same. And so, the first weeks and early months of lock-down were rolled out and, for me it was a welcome sabbatical. It was warmth and light and green in the spring and early summer with birdsong and clear blue skies. There was time with family and new pursuits there was a wholesome feeling that maybe this was a good thing. Goodness me it may even be the answer to global warming and climate change.  In reality, however, it was little more than a middle-class indulgence, all the sounds of destruction havoc and the crumbling of society were out of earshot. Isolated in your own cocoon, the sights of suffering were kept conveniently out of sight.  We were kept separate from the horrors of single parents with difficult children cooked up in tiny flats when the playgrounds were chained off.  We didn’t realise how close so many were to a mental health disaster when isolation would tip them over the edge. We didn’t think what the long term effects of wholesale house arrest would do to a population. There were dissident voices, of course, but they were the lunatic fringe – the David Ickes and the Piers Corbyns of this world, the rabid Brendan O’ Neil, the doom merchant Peter Hitchens and the wacky James Delingpole. But with each week, as the thing progressed, as the goal posts moved, as the serious voices, many from the scientific community and the legal profession, starting articulating another different and compelling story, one which was pretty much side-lined and silenced when it could be, my doubts grow and my trust dissolved. The long spiral downwards increased with the wilder claims, the overegging of the statistics the graphs and the gobbledegook, the ladling on of fear, the more and more bizarre restrictions, the ludicrously unachievable aim of controlling a virus, and the absolute unquestionable righteousness of the cause.  I started to see that those guys on the fringe turned out to be right all along, and I was wrong.

The Supine Mass

Without really taking it in, we were being progressively dehumanised and infantilised and like the boiling frog we didn’t realise what was happening before it was too late. This phenomenon is very hard to explain or understand. Why is it that perfectly intelligent people can resort to following crazy and foolish half thought up rules that turn common sense completely on its head? One of the most bizarre concerns someone we knew who called on a friend recently and suggested going for a walk. While they lived a short distance from each other the council boundary divided them and the law prohibited moving from a level three zone even if into another of the same level. They did decide, however, to have their walk, but as the boundary ran up the middle of a road, and to keep to the rules, they ended up walking on opposite pavements and carrying on a disjointed conversation across the traffic. Despite the stupidity our friend went along with it not to upset her companion. This sounds like a crazy made-up tale, but it was true.   Why is it that sensible and reasonable people, not only follow the rules, but go way beyond them?  I am thinking of mask wearing in the street and the open air.  Do people like the feel of breathing their own CO2? Have they just forgotten to take it off after leaving the shop? Is it a fashion statement? Is it a badge or a statement of solidarity? Who knows?

The Great Conundrum

From the beginning I have wrestled with this one. How is it that, in the face of an unparalleled assault on personal freedom, the people who I thought would be the ones who would defend that freedom, to the death, if need be, had suddenly become quiet and compliant?  Why were they so relaxed when a right wing and a nationalist government used fear to control the population in an astonishingly effective way and why were no alarm bells ringing? That fear-monger was the official policy, as it was in Germany, is now clear. Where did the rebels and the activists go when democracy morphed into authoritarianism? I have no easy answer. Perhaps they were never really true rebels. Perhaps they had a secret liking for authority. Perhaps they believed that totalitarianism was the only way that utopia could be achieved and that perhaps it needed a worldwide system of control to bring about the long sought-after world where peace and justice would reign and the planet saved from disaster? If so covid-19 might just be the thing to usher in this new normal and the great reset.

The World-wide Phenomena

One of the most persuasive arguments that would convince you that lock-down was the only proper response to the pandemic and the most difficult one to reason with, if you were against it, was the fact that almost all nations adopted the same principle.   They can’t all be wrong, could they?  But truth is, yes, they could all be wrong.  If, however, we start to see possible collusion and coordination between governments over this, we are into the area of conspiracy theories and dark forces.  That’s pretty hard to swallow and yet, and yet we can’t shake the feeling that we have not heard the whole story and there is something that they are not telling us, possibly for fear that it would create a mass panic. The possibility that it could be a military grade virus leaked from some research facility is still perfectly credible.

The Bleak New Year

Unlike all the positive things people were saying with comments in Christmas cards that came through our door, I couldn’t buy into the prospects of a bright future once this “horrible” year was out of the way. The great war was meant to be over by Christmas, this one is set to have no ending. I can’t get excited about the vaccine either. The way it was heralded as the great saviour was disturbing and equally disturbing how soon the caveats were pulled out: It might not stop you getting the virus, it might not stop you spreading it, it hasn’t been tested on pregnant women, it shouldn’t be given to people who might have an allergic reaction, it hasn’t yet been licensed and, the most disturbing one, the manufactures are immune from prosecution if anything goes wrong. Not exactly something to fill you with confidence. So, the prospects for a New Year are pretty bleak and it is hard to be positive about, or get a good feeling about where this is all leading. In Scotland, we have elections in May but politically there is no other voice, no real opposition here nor in Westminster and no genuine party willing to stand and say “This must stop”. No one with any power is willing to shout “This should never be tried again”. The Church, where hope should shine, reimains strangely quiet.  

So as the hours and minutes tick away, (it’s already New Year in Christmas island), the streets eerily quiet and the only sound we hear is the crumbling of hope in the face of crippling debt, the loss of thousands of businesses, mass unemployment, stunted education and the terrible damage of this awful experiment, it is time for action. It is time for resolve and for devotion. And my new year’s resolution? It can be only one thing. It is to pray and devote myself to pray, to encourage others to pray alone or together, in groups or two and three, and not to give up until the earth is filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.  

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

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

The war against children

baby isaac

No matter how you try the bad news gets to you. You can anesthetise yourself for a time, then the horror of it all grabs you by the throat.  You can be cushioned for so long and then the rock bites. The mud slides, the floods and waves rage on the land. The earth’s crust moves for a couple of seconds and cities are flattened while the lucky ones escape to shiver in tents in the cold mountains.  The famine never ends and peace still does not return to the villages. The merchants ply their evil trade in poison and guns and the wars continue: wars and stories of wars.

This week it was Syria and two distressing reports. One was by the Euro Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN ) “Violence against women: Crimes of impunity”  highlighting again the despicable nature of modern warfare, where women are targeted  and rape is an instrument of war. The second was even more harrowing. It was by the Oxford Research Group “Stolen Futures: the hidden toll of child casualties in Syria”  The statistics alone are damning. During the conflict, 7,557 children were killed by explosives, 2,008 by aerial bombardment, 2,806 from small arms including sniper fire and summary executions and 112 were tortured and killed with infants among them. That means that picking out children to be tortured and executed is, like the raping of women, just another instrument of war. It is almost impossible take in or believe. We have come to accept  that children will inevitably be caught up in conflicts and suffering, but to specifically target children as this report, if true, clearly shows, represents a new level of horror a new depth of evil.  It is hard to come to terms with it.  Immediately there is white hot anger and utter contempt for those who are behind the killings. There is also deep shame and guilt at our impotency. The great powers in the world with all the resources at their disposal can do nothing other than make noises and carry off a few chemical weapons to be destroyed. Our parliament having voted against intervention, has kicked into touch any possibility of standing up to the bullies for some time to come. It is almost as if behind a veneer of liberal niceties we are with Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz “let the brutes exterminate themselves” “It’s not our problem”

But what can you do?  What can I do?

Inevitably I am back crying to God who can do something and I find the voice of the sons of Korah in Psalm 46: God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging…… Come and see what the Lord has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’

 

Crawford Mackenzie

Practical Advice

We gathered together in the corner of the lounge, a bare handful of people in a dark and depressed November evening, mildly weary and tired, busy with lots of other things on our minds and with the unspoken question “what on earth are we doing here?”.  It was a congregational mid-week meeting for prayer, a centuries old tradition, the reputed “power house” of the church and we had come with a dogged commitment to something we believed in even although at times our enthusiasm and our sanity was seriously in question. Our pastor led us and read from Paul’s second letter to the Christians in Thessalonica. Specifically, the final catalogue of practical advice in the last chapter  Always be joyful and never stop praying. Whatever happens, keep thanking God because of Jesus Christ. This is what God wants you to do.” (CEV). It was something so beautiful and simple and intensely practical. It was one of these moments when a shaft of light suddenly breaks through into the gloom and disturbs the moribund weariness.

I went home and wrote these lines.

NEVER STOP PRAYING

“Never stop praying!”

But we leave it to the last

When there’s nothing left ..but to pray

When the crisis is already on us

When the water’s pouring in

When the cancer’s taken root

When the relationship is floundering

When the famine is already raging

When the war has begun

It’s then we stop and start to pray

When we’ve tried everything else

But

Lets pray

And be thankful

At the start of the day

Before we’ve seen it’s trouble

In health

Before we know of sickness

In ease

Before we come into discomfort

In happiness

Before we’ve tasted sorrow

In life

Before death comes knocking

 

Crawford Mackenzie