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

Why I still go to church

black watch

The questions comes up, of course, because so many of my friends, my family, people I love and care about, folk I admire and respect, don’t.  Some flirted with church in their formative years but got bored of the petty politics, struggled with the institution, were turned off by the back biting and hypocrisy, felt excluded, marginalised, betrayed, and overwhelmed with the sheer absurdity of belief that they left for the sake of their own sanity.  I find I share an awful lot in common with them and have a fair bit of sympathy with their position.  I sometimes wonder why I never joined them.  But I haven’t and I won’t and I can’t. Because….

Because the church is much more. The bonds are stronger than friendship.  The ties are thicker than blood. It is bigger than family.  The local church might seem like a collection of misfits and oddballs, rough diamonds and smoothies, saints and martyrs (“the martyrs being the ones who have to put up with the saints”*), people we get along with and people we don’t.  It is made of people of different age groups, different cultural backgrounds sometimes speaking different languages, people who don’t share the same outlook, standards, interests. All of this must point to the fact that something else is going on here.  That something else is God.  It is God’s church and so he does the choosing. He brings us together. He does the deciding. He does the planning.  He does the perfecting. It is his business and he does it and will do it in his way and in his time.

Because we live in a world that is full of fantasy and illusion, false God’s and paper kings, soaked through with a powerful pervasive philosophy that says that what we see and hear and can touch is the real world. It bombards our thoughts, bends our minds and coerces us into believing this is true. So we need to find ourselves somewhere else where we can be brought into the real world.  Where we can regularly make contact with what is really important. With what is more important than life or death. And that somewhere else is the church. That is why the call to worship “We are here to worship God” is pivotal. It is a call away from the false realities to the true reality and of his purpose of salvation and redemption and glory. In his presence the other world with its great show, its charms, its promise, its money, its power, seems so pathetic, so foolish, so small and so sad.

Because, in church, I am reminded of where my true identity lies.  It is not in being a man, a father, a grandparent, an architect, a dabbler in painting, music and DIY, a Scot, a European a White Anglo Saxon Protestant Christian.   My identity is not in my interests, my family, my roots, my sexual orientation, my ability or disability, or in  my race. My identity is in Christ.  I don’t need to wonder “Who am I?”  But I need that regular reminder of this knowledge which is found in the strange setting of a group of ordinary people meeting together, bowed in worship before the one true God.  I need to know again that I am a sinner, who has been accepted by God because of Jesus, with nothing to bring but empty hands accepting his grace.

That’s why I still go to church.

Crawford Mackenzie

* Quoted by Eugene Peterson in “The Wisdom of Each other”   Zondervan

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