Trauma, 1 year later

A year ago we were hit by the full in the face with a trauma for which we didn’t ask, which we didn’t provoke and of which we had no warning. On Saturday 21st September, 2013, we received news that our friend and church member James Thomas was missing in the terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. 24 hours of hope, prayer, fear and waiting later we heard that he’d been identified as one of the first victims of the attack. He died from gunshots sprayed at random around the mall by members of the Al-Shabaab terrorist group. As far as we can tell from what we’ve been told, he’d been in the supermarket and had left a little before his colleagues; as a result he died, and his colleagues lived.

Living with this reality for a year is surreal. There are times when you forget it happened and life just goes on. Then something catches you – a mention of terrorism on the news or in a film; seeing his usual seat in church is unoccupied; discovering the things he’d left undone because he was going to pick them up when he got back from Kenya. If nothing else, this year has confirmed for me the reality that grief is a strange companion; the more so when the only person to blame at the end of it all is a hooded, anonymous young man bearing a gun and an ideology he can barely articulate.

Was it really a year ago? Wasn’t it more? Also this; it feels like it was only yesterday.

How can such different things both remain true?

My journey through this year has been personal; it has been that of a pastoral leader, in my care for others, too. Sometimes that’s offering comfort or silence; sometimes that’s thinking ahead ‘how could this be heard in the light of trauma?'; sometimes it’s planning ahead ‘what could happen or be felt next?’. Sometimes I find myself simultaneously working both in spite of and from the energy of my own grief. It’s a strange and divided sort of energy. As a community we remember, we help each other, we talk to each, we get on with things. It falls to me to lead and to accompany at the same time.

What remains true, then? For me, that resurrection wins. It always does. Randomly spraying weapons around a shopping mall is about as nihilistic a deed as you can imagine. Whatever the political or religious motivation, we mostly know that it makes no sense. It speaks to a view of the world so blackened with hopelessness that only the perpetrators can claim to make sense of them. Though they can’t. Not really.

The problem is, though, that these deeds always fail. Always. I’m not talking politically here – though I could be – but wider than that. It’s an act that seems like the final triumph of pointlessness. Yes, our friend died; no, it didn’t work. Despite our tears and anger, thousands on thousands heard about resurrection and still talk about those days as significant. Ghastly, yes; but also strangely formative in connecting us to a deeper reality.

This Sunday, the day on which the anniversary, we will engage in corporate acts of worship, prayer and remembrance.

It will be hard; there will be tears, I’m sure. There will be hope too.

Death, especially violent death, is awful. But a year on, resurrection is still winning. And always will.

In the box below you can watch the eulogy Colleen, James’ wife, gave at the funeral. You can read my sermon from that funeral by clicking here.

 

 

Lessons On The Way 7: It’s Probably Me

The answer is ‘me’.

Typical church leader, making himself (and would be himself, wouldn’t it?) the centre of it all. The world has to revolve around him.

That was this morning’s revelation. At this stage it may help to know what the question was that prompted such an egotistical answer. So here it comes.

Ready?

The question was this: who or what is holding the church back?

By church in this case, I mean not the denomination or the world-wide body of believers; I mean the local expression I’m called and paid to lead.

Not quite as egotistical as it first looked, perhaps. Actually, it probably is because now I’m writing a post about on my blog in which I use the word ‘I’ a lot.

Oh dear. If this carries on any longer I’m going to spontaneously combust in a haze of self-referential introspection, like a character in an aside in a Douglas Adams novel.

I’ll plough on regardless. I meant it like this. Not that there’s a specific problem in our church; it’s just that it’s always good to ask the question … ‘what could be stopping this church from being all it could be?’.

I have a rhythm about which I am very protective. On Monday mornings I detox from Sunday with a trip to the gym and then sitting in a coffee shop with a coffee, a Bible and other reading material, earphones and something to jot some thoughts on. I find this rhythm essential for my physical and mental health; it’s not time off. It’s part of my working week. This morning I was reflecting on what had been a vibrant and positive church service the day before (it hadn’t been me preaching, which made it easier for me to really see how it all was). The question bubbled through my mind: why aren’t there more like this?

Part of the answer is, of course, that you can’t live on a perpetual high; you need some average services, and because we’re human there’ll be some pretty poor ones. Factor in the Holy Spirit too; He, of course, is capable of taking a shoddy, poorly prepared and delivered effort and weaving something significant in the heart of some present. That’s not an excuse for poor work; it’s grace and a fact of the way God always seems to be.

Part of the answer is also that I get in the way. I get in the way, because 4 and a half years into this post and with no expectation of leaving, my desires, habits, personality and ways become increasingly part of the shaping of what’s going on. That’s just inevitable. So who I am and how I am matters; not in an egotistical way (though there’s a real danger that it becomes that), but in the sense that I’m the full-time, paid leader so … it just does, matter. Which is good in some respects. I believe God’s behind this sort of thing, so He must want to use my strengths and abilities and interests.

It cuts both ways, though. My blind spots, my foibles and failings, my mistakes, will impact more, get in the way more and people (including myself) will generally need to clear up after me. So I really do need to be ruthless with myself; which is why I was thankful this morning when the penny dropped that certain variants of my reactions to certain types of things cause problems in the development of the church; that my fears and limits are most likely to be holding things back. I need to be aware of them, account for them and as far as it lies with me, work around them (or at least enable others to work around them and make up for them).

We all know the truths about God’s will being made perfect in our weaknesses; and we know that it’s all about grace so it doesn’t depend on us leaders, it depends on God and God alone. All that’s true and important.

None of that negates the truth that the longer I’m in one place the more likely it is that my faults and weaknesses will create blockages and bottlenecks in the life of this expression of church. So I need to be aware of them, able to be challenged on them and working to do something about them.

In a way, then, it really is all about me. And God. Him most of all. But me too.

Also In This Series:

1: I Don’t Have To Do It All

2: How To Make Sure Your Church Leader Doesn’t Turn Into A Psychopath

3: The Dangers And Offensiveness Of Grace

4: Tables And Chairs Are Spiritual

5: I’m (A Bit) Like St. Paul

6: Nothing’s That Important

 

Boyhood

I’ve sat with the aftermath of this movie for a few days now; as will all films I want it to settle and not rush to conclusions. I’ve done that; now’s the time to allow an opinion to take some sort of shape. It may change – in greater or smaller ways – over time and re-viewings, of course. However I need to allow something to emerge out of the haze. What emerges is simply this: it’s a masterpiece. It’s not much less than three hours long, but I could have watched another three hours. It’s funny, sad, gripping, moving, engaging, disturbing and comforting. The acting is flawless, the direction almost miraculous, the soundtrack addictive, the dialogue real and true at the deepest levels.

You may have heard about how this film has come to be: the story of a family’s life, told from the viewpoint of a son, shot over the course of 12 years (think of the boggling level of vision this requires on the director’s part), each year, as the actors grow up. If it sounds like a gimmick, nothing could be further from the truth. Through fracturing marriages, birthdays, rites of passage, fads and life-shaping decisions, the family’s life is tracked with a compassionate eye for the little details that tell us more than a library’s worth research project.

Pushed to say what it’s about, you’d be hard-pressed to say: other than boyhood, girlhood, motherhood and fatherhood. We all have something to see here. It’s probably not perfect; some of the bit-part players seem to find hard to find the right tone of performance; occasionally you’d like to linger longer on a life-moment. Really, though, those are faults for the sake of it. Basically it’s perfect, and there’s not a soul that wouldn’t have an enriched life for having seen it.

Over the course of twelve quiet years, one of the era’s definitive artistic achievements has emerged.

I rated this movie 5/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 10/10 on imdb.com

The Scottish earthquake

Edinburgh’s Royal Mile (Bev Meldrum Photography)

Maybe this is what it’s like what for parents when they see a child’s marriage gradually fall apart. Watching the increasingly bitter Scottish referendum campaign tumble into its history-shaping final few days is agonising. Like the proverbial parent, I’ve tried to stay out of publicly or privately opining on the debate and campaign; over these last few days, however, the intensity has become so deep, the race so close, the stakes seeming to rise exponentially, so that I can’t keep it in any longer.

Some context is needed. I live in Cape Town these days; my formative years, however, were spent in Edinburgh. My parents are both English, but because of my father’s choice of work I was born and raised in the Scottish capital. I lived there throughout my childhood, attended a Scottish university and a spent a year further north in the country before moving to London in 1996. Since then I have only returned to Scotland for holidays.

So there’s a good, some would say flawless, argument for describing me as Scottish. If I were a professional sportsman, I would be able to choose which of the auld enemies I would represent. I was raised with a strong English consciousness, and that is something I never for one moment thought of contradicting. I have always, and will always, consider myself to be a Briton of the English variety. That came at a high price in a Scottish school (albeit a posh one); even long after that, adult-to-adult barbs about my Englishness cut deeply. The first time I ever heard a racist comment (aimed from the rugby stands at the majestic French player Serge Blanco), it carried a broad Scottish accent. Helpfully, racism aimed at such a consummate person made it nakedly apparent to me even then that such a view was utterly without foundation and was simply a result of ignorance and fear.

Despite what some think of these choices and then assume about me, I love Scotland. Deeply. I understand perhaps as well as any why so many yearn for a fully independent Scotland; I know why Westminster is so reviled in parts of the country; I cringe when I hear the unthinking ignorance of many English people in relation to their neighbours and relatives.

I don’t have a vote; if I did it would be a ‘no’. My personally preferred option of ‘devo(lution)-max’ is not on the table; I’d want to hold out for that, and that alone. My opinion is largely irrelevant; though I suppose it’s not inconceivable that it may sway a couple. Which in this race may just be enough to change the course of my country’s history.

What’s been agonising, though, has been the watching. Seeing divisions in families and streets and businesses crack open with fear and resentment. Some say this referendum has divided the country; I disagree. I believe is simply dragged the deep divisions out of the darkness of denial blinking into an unfeelingly harsh but cool (this is Scotland after all) sunlight. Those divisions aren’t going back into hiding, whatever the result. The earthquake has already happened; it’s simply a matter of deciding how the landscape looks, for now.

The watching is increasingly unbearable. I care deeply but can do nothing. I have a mountain of very important things on my work and personal agenda, and I’m giving them attention; but my heart is in Edinburgh. It’s walking the streets, smelling the air, shivering a little. It’s breaking, slowly, imperceptibly; but breaking.

The country I love, the country of my birth, the country that gives me an essential part of my identity is about to take the biggest decision that’s faced it in 300 years. About which I can do absolutely nothing.

Whatever the result, nation-building will be required; reconciliation will need to be at the top of the agenda. Maybe South Africa could send a delegation, for mutual benefit.

Tread gently, Scotland.

 58

The Union flag, flying over Edinburgh Castle (Bev Meldrum Photography)

 

Adventures of a mis-firing immune system and why you should shut up about man ‘flu

Adventures of a mis-firing immune system and why you should shut up about man ‘flu

With flu, without a voice

I’ve been absent from blogging for a while because I’ve been ill. As previously recorded, I have an ongoing chronic disease. This particular disease is a product, as I understand it, of a misfiring of my immune system. So to treat that disease, medication must override the part of my immune-system that is misfiring.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll spot a possible problem at this point. Immune systems are important. They protect us. So if you override part of your immune system, it follows that you’re more likely to get sick. So to combat that I take other supplements, boosters and the like. Usually this is enough; I also get an annual ‘flu jab; and in the case of something exceptional like swine ‘flu, I get two innoculations; and anybody who lives in the same house as me gets one too. Not for their sake; for mine. All this carries the label of being ‘immune-compromised’, which sounds like something out of a spy story and possibly quite cool, until you actually experience it.

This is how it plays out. I experience chronic pain from my ‘regular’ disease; I’m also vulnerable to infection in ways other people aren’t. If I’m going to get something like the ‘flu, I will get the ‘flu with a style and intensity beyond the experience of most; and I’ll be left more tired than most for longer than most after the worst of the symptoms have abated because it takes my immune system, such as it is, a while to recover.

About three or so weeks ago now, the ‘flu hit me hard – for the first time in years. I croaked my way through a Sunday service and spent the rest of the day lying on the sofa. I woke up the next morning without a voice; as well as the whole package of ‘flu symptoms. I didn’t think people actually lost their voice until it happened to me. I was unable to speak at all for about 3 days; and it was a real effort for another 4 days or so. I ended up missing two Sundays due to the ‘flu; now I am more or less back in action, though I’m still at reduced capacity due to a pretty much permanent sense of exhaustion.

I bloody hate feeling like this. I’m quite a good patient with my ongoing chronic illness; to be honest, you have to be a good patient and just get on with it as best you can if you’re to have any sort of life. Add a a bonus ‘flu to the package? Not so much. I moaned (sometimes inaudibly, I grant you), I complained, I grumbled and generally moped. At least I got to read and listen to and watch stuff. Still I grumbled, though. I wanted to work, but couldn’t. I still can’t do so; not at full capacity, anyway. Yesterday I slept for two hours in the afternoon; at least my job allows me to shape my time to do that, but still that’s not me. If I ever sleep during the day, it tends to be for 20 minutes; not 120.

Which brings me to man ‘flu. You know what that is. It’s the long-standing, culturally accepted way of rolling out the old cliché that men tend to fake illnesses, or are bad patients, or exaggerate symptoms.

Let me make this very clear. I don’t fake, I don’t exaggerate. If I have a bad day of my regular disease, the level of pain is (I’m told by a female rheumatologist) in excess of childbirth. If I do anything on a bad day, I underplay it so you don’t get sick of me ‘complaining’ about a level of pain most people either never experience or if they do, it’s in exchange for a new life at the end of it. So ‘jokes’ about man ‘flu really, really bother me. They bother me because they load guilt on to me when I have to rest but start to feel an unconscious pressure to get on with life so I don’t look like a fake. It pushes me work (ineffectually) when I should really rest. I don’t fake; I don’t exaggerate. I don’t really know anyone, female or male who does. I know such pressure should be resisted, but when you’re ill your defences are low and your capacity to resist is reduced.

Just be kind, won’t you? Assume the best, not the worst, please. The gap between genders grows moment by moment, assumption by assumption. Be better than that, please. Especially when I’m ill.

Robin Williams and Gaza: it just got a little bit darker

image from popwatch.ew.com

Not him. Please not him.

Robin Williams was one of the first people to make me laugh as a professional in the cause. He died today, apparently at his own hand, in the throes of an ongoing battle with depression and addiction.

There’s a lot of rough stuff, dark stuff, painful stuff in the world right now, but this makes it all a little darker.

For people like me, he was the comic voice of a generation. We grew up on his shows and his movies, laughing even at the jokes we didn’t want to admit to teenage friends that we didn’t really understand. He also – let’s be honest here, it does no one any good to gloss over – made some total rubbish. He could ‘do serious’ so very well. Which shouldn’t be a surprise because good comedy is just as hard to carry off, if not harder, than good drama. I have a little acting experience and know that to be true. To be as funny as he was took real genius; so drama should and did come easily to him. In all cases he just needed the right script – the better to improvise from and around.

That’s one reason this news overshadows much else, for a time. When you lose someone you grew up with, you need to take some moments.

Sadder still that he’s another in the litany of those wrestling with mental illness and who wanted out. We need to pause when we hear this news because to those of us who struggle with depression or love those who do, moments like this can feel like a dangerous affirmation of the choice to end the struggle on our terms. If he’s done it, why can’t I?

You can say as much you like that it doesn’t work like that and it’s worth hanging on, but it makes no difference; possibly suicidal depression has a dark internal logic as irresistible as a whirlpool’s pull. News like this can seem to add a little more gravity’s inexorable, inevitable power.

So pay attention. This matters, as much as Iraq and Gaza. Differently, but as much. Do not condemn those who seemed unmoved by Gaza or Iraq but appear to be paralysed by the death of someone they’d never met. You’re on dangerous, holy ground if you’re with them.

If you are feeling suicidal, or know someone who may be, please click here

John, the wild outsider and the gift of being yourself

This post was originally written as part of Diverse Church’s month long study of Luke’s Gospel in August 2014.  It is based on Luke Chapter 3, which you should read first, and have open beside you as you read the post. 

We know about John the Baptist, don’t we? He’s the one who prepares the way for the adult Jesus to come on the scene and do his thing. He’s the one with a troubling message about repentance; he’s a bit fire and brimstone. He’s the one who seems a little outlandish, existing on the strangest of diets and bringing dark messages.

Strange indeed. He certainly wouldn’t fit any of the boxes of the day, nor those of today. What a calling he has. After decades of prophetic silence, the word of God comes out of a clear desert sky to a long-haired itinerant locust eater (v2). That word is one that points the way at what’s now no longer far-off, no longer a distant possibility, no longer longed for. Messiah is coming, and all had best prepare or be found wanting (v4-9).

Like all preachers, he’s asked the ‘yes, but how?’ question (v10). First it’s the rich and privileged in the crowd who ask (v11), as if already sensing that the Messiah won’t quite be what they were expecting; the answer they get certainly confirms that. From there, the net widens to include those so often counted-out: the dreaded extortioners in the name of government (v12-13) and soldiers of the occupying force (v14). Aren’t they the types the Messiah is meant to be overthrowing? Jesus’ ministry of justice and subversion is being prophetically anticipated.

The result is disarming. John tells his listeners that he only exists to point away from himself, that the baptism he offers is only a hint or taste of the direct connection with God Himself that Jesus will bring (v17-18). Not that this stops John from going further, antagonising the powers-that-be with such dangerous explosiveness that he’s locked away where he can’t be heard any more (v19-20).

John’s calling is a dangerous, troubling one that ends up with him in terminal trouble. It’s explosive in that it detonates a hole in the expectations of the religious for the real Messiah to walk through. It’s prophetic in that in doing so he lays foundations for Jesus’ addiction to gravitating towards those on the outside; the rejected, hurt and ignored.

I’m an evangelical church leader, of a charismatic flavour. That’s my theology and practice; I don’t like everything that people put in those boxes, but it’s the box that’s closest to fitting me. I also have an ongoing wrestle with my own mental health. I’ve suffered three bouts of depression since starting as a church leader; at times I’ve toyed with suicide. I’m still in the midst of one of those bouts of depression, with some post-traumatic anxiety thrown in for good measure. That’s a result of having lead my church in Cape Town through the murder by terrorists of one of our number who was also a close personal friend. Clinically depressed and dealing with my own grief as well as the community’s, I had to handle a nation’s media and run a funeral broadcast on live television which was attended by Desmond Tutu. Eleven months on I’m still reeling.

I don’t fit. These anxious, black-dog hounded parts of me which increasingly seem to be my daily reality do not fit the box of the charismatic evangelical. They don’t fit the take-it-to-the-cross, ecstatic worship which seems to characterise much of my tribe. Not that I’m crticising that, it’s just that it doesn’t seem to fit.

Yet. The more I talk, the more I try – and occasionally succeed – to talk about this, to testify to this reality, the more it seems something explodes around me which allows a real Messiah to walk through the smoke and rubble. A Messiah who does allow us and enable us to be ecstatically joyful; but who also sweat drops of blood in anticipation of trauma and who wept at gravesides. Who died as well as rose.

The detonation isn’t my doing; in my better moments I’m just trying to be myself and describe that self to sisters and brothers. That seems to be explosive, to draw the outsiders in. I find when I talk, others respond; they come out a little bit further into the blinking light of reality and recognition. It’s very scary, and not all the reactions are helpful. However the Messiah I’m creating a space for has been there first.

Not only does He choose to identify with me (v21-22), which is mind-boggling enough in itself; but He models such an approach. He lives a life of bringing it out in the open in such a way that must be part of the reason that so many of those on the outside are sucked into His orbit.

Look at that genealogy (v23-38). No really; look at that genealogy! These were His credentials. These credentials mattered in the Middle East of the first century. David – a man after God’s heart … and an adulterous, lying murderer. Adam – the one who ate the fruit in the first place, for goodness sake! Yes, there’s some heroes in there. There’s also some people who’d be better kept out of the public eye for the sake of reputation. Further than that, there’s a whole load of people in there of whom I can’t even spell the name, yet alone have any idea what (if anything) was special about them.

What shall we say, then; what shall we be? Just ourselves. Say and be ourselves. In all our broken, not fitting, unvarnished, tarnished glory. For in the hands of the real Messiah, that’s explosive.