Bearing Shame

Jerusalem

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.

calvary

As Philip Bliss has it:

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,

In my place condemned He stood…

Hallelujah,   What a saviour!

Crawford Mackenzie

SADNESS, ANGER AND SHAME

lost

The desperate plight of the people on the Sinjar mountains, as they await their fate, remind us again, if we ever need reminding, that we still have no idea what we can do to save and rescue the vulnerable peoples of the world who find themselves at the mercy of ruthless savages;  bloodthirsty bullies  who shamelessly and brutally pursue their defenceless victims , forcing them from their homes and off their land and brutally murdering their men women and children, in the most gruesome ways, in an insatiable genocidal fury.   We just don’t know what to do. We have no clear idea how to respond. We are caught without a coherent plan. Our hand to mouth efforts are limited to a few attempts to knock out some guns and drop some food parcels from the sky.  All we can do is impotently watch as the homes are blown to pieces, the children slaughtered and the families starve on the mountainside.  We have lost the will to intervene and the enemy knows it.  It makes me so sad, makes me so angry and so terribly ashamed.  If I met one of Yazidis now, and they looked me in the eye, what would I say? “I am sorry, but we didn’t want to get involved. It’s not our struggle. We have made so many messes before, we feel it’s better to stay home. we will send some tents..”  It is almost certain, if you can read anything into world affairs and understand anything of history, that when our parliament decided not to get involved in Syria, the signal was given. Every scheming warlord knew then that this was the time to advance. It wasn’t just that the western powers were looking the other way, but they had washed their hands and effectively thrown in the towel.

It all comes, I believe from a single fatal failure to understand the human condition and the reality of evil. It is based on the hopeless delusion that evil somehow will ultimately capitulate when faced with good.

But what can I, as one single person, do? I know what I would like to do. I would like to sign up tomorrow and get on a plane and be out there on the ground and do everything and anything I could to save these people. I would take up arms, if necessary, to do it. 20 years ago I wanted to do the same for the people in Sarajevo but they wouldn’t accept 45 year old recruits then and they won’t accept a 65yr old one now. That is pure fantasy. But, yes, I do know what I can do. I can make representations and petitions to the one who holds all the power and the ultimate ruler of the earth. I can cry to him for mercy for these people. I can call on him in Jesus name and I will do that, today and, with other Christians together, tomorrow.

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

I am not ashamed

cell

Sin is a troublesome word. Like so many words in our vocabulary its meaning changes over time it mutates and takes on other baggage and selective nuances so that it can mean quite different things to different people.  Preachers and communicators of the bible often struggle with this and try hard to find a new word or words that would resonant better with the original meaning. Rebellion is one, missing the mark and being messed up, are others. The problem, of course, is the word itself and the idea it imparts. It is offensive. It is the implicit suggestion that there is something wrong with us – whoever we are. That cuts to the core of our self.  It is a blasphemy against the ego.  It is strange that there is such a revulsion against this approach when we are very relaxed about using the same approach with other more acceptable wrongs.  The first step on the recovery from drug addiction, alcoholism, sexual offending, or any socially recognised disorder, is to admit it.  No one has any problem with that. Yet we have enormous difficulty in owning up to this core problem.  Preachers, who have tried to avoid the issue for fear of coming over too censorious or self-righteous, or worried that it presents too bleak and pessimistic a view of humanity, have not helped either.  The focusing on nice things like the celebration of love and positive affirmative strokes, to the ignoring of this essential truth in the Christian faith, has been disastrous.  Because acknowledging the reality of sin is one of the most liberating and essential parts of the good news.  Now we understand that there is a reason for the way things are. And that must be good to know. Pretending that there isn’t a problem or that it is one that with enough willpower and the right conditions we can overcome is pure fantasy. The Gospel, on the other hand, exposes the problem and reveals the solution. But of course it is not the small slightly naughty unimportant thing that it is so often made out to be. It is not just about making bad decisions or errors of judgement it is deadly serious, more than deadly serious. Sin at its core is a vile, corrupting and corrosive thing. It is not good. It is destructive and left to its own will continue to degenerate and destroy all and everything in its path, everything that is good. It contaminates everything and seeps through the personal, the social and the institutional. It is that bad. It is that serious.

This, of course, begs the question, if it is that bad why has it not destroyed good already after all it has had plenty of time to do that and yet good still seems to survive.   Many, I suspect, would believe that it is because humanity is essentially good, that evil with all its manifestations is a temporary blip and that in time this unfortunate character trait will be resigned to history.  But, to hold on to this view must take extraordinary faith and a remarkably optimistic view of human nature without any real evidence to support it.   The reason, I believe, good continues to survive, is because ultimately it is to do with God. He is good and merciful  and he has put in place at certain times restrictions so that we do not yet destroy ourselves -The angels with the flaming swords at the garden, the confusing of the languages and scattering of the people on Shinar’s plane, the flood and other events throughout history. He also chose a man and a family and a people to be witness of him and tell the world. He gave them the law in the Ten Commandments and other regulations to help them in their approach to him and in how they relate to each other. Finally he promised and sent his son, who would be the one who would reconcile people to himself and once and for all deal with the problem of sin.

Last night I was sitting with the small group of internationals, who meet each week in our home. They come from countries in all parts of the world, with backgrounds in all types and shades of faith. It is a precious moment in the week.  After sharing a meal, we spend the time reading, studying and discussing the bible. We had just begun to read through Paul’s letter to the church in Rome and it is hard to describe the sense of joy and liberation as we touched base with the cosmic reality of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The dawning of this truth is like a massive door being opened to let light flood into a stale and dingy room and we could understand why Paul was able to say “I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes”.

Crawford Mackenzie