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.

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

If it’s not hard enough to remake/reboot one of the more loved cult movie series in cinema history without alienating fans of the original, film-makers make it harder on themselves when the films in question are about talking apes. Tim Burton had already tried  – and largely failed – to recreate Planet Of The Apes in 2001, with a film high on visuals but low on most other things. So when it was all tried again – this time from the beginning – in 2011’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, expectations were not high. How wrong we all were. It was an intelligent, chilling, engaging triumph – most of all in Andy Serkis’ brilliant motion-capture performance of lead-ape Ceasar; but there was more. The human interest story worked; the performances worked throughout the story had a brilliant momentum. It was, at times, genuinely disturbing; and it never forgot to entertain or amuse.

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes picks up right where the previous film left-off; a credits sequence portrayal of the spread of the simian flu virus setting us up for an advanced colony of apes outside of San Francisco and a decimated, bruised and battered humanity struggling in vain to make some kind of life for itself. From there human and apes come into contact, and conflict builds: between ape and human, ape and ape, human and human. Andy Serkis is back again, with a wider supporting cast of motion-capture performances. His colleagues are good – he remains utterly outstanding, and long overdue major award recognition. It’s a performance provoking awe, fear and joy in equal measure and is a masterclass of its type.

In a blockbuster season which again sees Michael Bay return to milk the Transformers cash machine with all attendant hype, cynicism and disregard for the viewer, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes represents everything the big blockbuster could and should be. Thrilling, intelligent, artful, entertaining – and not overlong. It’s a worthy sequel; not a perfect one. Like the predecessor, the script has weaknesses. Occasionally the inter-human interplay is somewhat forced. Other than that, it’s as it should be, and all the better for it. Entertainment with heart, guts and a soul.

I rated this film 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 8/10 on imdb.com

A story

I often write here about stories. They could be films, they could be books, they could be parts of  my own story. It’s because I like stories. Stories are a fundamental part of human existence. We are the only beings on the planet with the capability of telling stories to one another. Stories worm under our defences, help us walk in another’s shoes, see something from a way we haven’t seen before.

Large parts of the Bible are in the form of stories – histories, parables, gospels. They burrow away with truths that detonate in our heart and mind repeatedly days, weeks, months, years after encountering them.

I’m increasingly of the opinion that the debates we enter into as Christians would be changed for the considerably better if we stopped and listened to some stories for a while. Stories take debates out of the abstract and into the everyday. They give a theory a name, an idea, a face, an argument flesh and bones. It’s much harder to use rude names when you’re confronted with someone with their own name.

I was born and raised and remain one of those Christians who broadly fit under the label evangelical. I’m also, in many ways, what you might call an evangelical of a charismatic flavour. I’m not going to explain what those labels mean for me, now: that’s my story and that’s a story for another time. Part of that story is, though, that I grew up with a conservative view of homosexuality. That view of homosexuality remained static over many years; more recently I’ve tried to take a walk round the issue and examine it from different perspectives. It occurred to me that I’d never really examined other points of view on the subject; I’d simply gulped one in with the air I breathed. That can’t be good. As I walked I’ve learned that there are many other stories out there. I’ve learned that there are people in churches of the flavour that I like, who are gay; and they’ve received the message that they’re vile, hated by God and detested. That they can’t love Jesus.

I haven’t finished my wandering around this subject. I can’t say where that wandering will finish, if it ever does. I’m don’t want to call all conservatives homophobes; neither do I want to accept any lifestyle or choice or practice unquestioningly. But I do need to listen. Wherever I finish my wandering, I want to commit to always listening to stories, and always listening well.

So listen with me, will you? And before you and I opine, call people vile or abominations or detested or not-Christians, let’s remember we’re not talking about ideas. We’re talking about a person Jesus died for. A name, a face, a history, a person for whom their sexual orientation is just one part. An important part, to be sure, but only one part nonetheless.

Let’s start by taking 10 minutes to listen to this engaging, humbling, disturbing story.

What, then, shall we say?

We need more stories like this, don’t we? Stories of Jesus and grace and cross and iron nails and visions on beaches. Jesus often seems to do important things on beaches, doesn’t He? Who am I to call this man vile? Who are you?

You’re not, you say. You say you’re just repeating what God says.

Well, Jesus had many hard words to say to those who claimed to speak for God, didn’t He?

What, then, shall we say?

Let’s find a better story.

 

Movies that move me 5: Amadeus

I don’t speak the language of classical music. Not because I don’t like it, not because I can’t recognise it as beautiful or brilliant, not out of some sort of inverted snobbery. It’s simply that it takes much work for me, like a very alien language. I don’t have the time or energy for another language in my life, so I leave well alone.

As proof that this is the case, not dislike or ignorance or whatever else people have opined to me as the reason, I offer consistently one of my favourite films. Amadeus was released in 1984, the year of my eleventh birthday. I can’t recall when I first saw the film – I suspect about 3 years later on its television premiere – but it made a huge impact on me. In the year of forty-first birthday that impact hasn’t diminished.

It’s directed by Milos Forman (most famous for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and adapted by the great Peter Shaffer from his own stage play. It tells the story of Mozart’s professional life through the lens of court composer Antonio Salieri, a man tormented by his own relative mediocrity. It opens with an elderly Salieri in some kind institution for the mentally ill, claiming he killed Mozart and unburdening himself to a priest. Through that relationship, with the priest claiming to offer God’s forgiveness, Salieri confesses his awe, jealousy and manipulation of the young genius, ultimately playing a key role in driving him to an early, overworked death.

It’s majestic, moving and utterly beautiful. It’s a study of guilt – who doesn’t reach Salieri’s age without secrets they need absolution from? It’s a study in the corrosive powers of success – the film’s Mozart is perhaps most akin to a modern-day elite sportsman, feted with praise and money he doesn’t have the maturity to handle. It’s a study in marriage under pressure – Constanze, Mozart’s wife, is brilliantly played by Elizabeth Berridge; devoted to her husband, but one partner always just out of reach of the other.

Most of all, it’s a study in creativity and what we who benefit from the creativity want the creators to be like. Mozart should be as sublimely beautiful, dignified and upright as his creations. Instead, as this film and Tom Hulce’s performance renders him, he’s an obnoxious brat with an annoying laugh, no discipline and no self-control. It’s that laugh that divides viewers; it’s that laugh that Salieri hears even before he first lays eyes on the man he discovers to be Mozart. How can this man create such beauty? Thereby hangs the crux of the film, and Salirei’s existential torment. It drives deals he strikes with himself and with God; it defies belief and offends the ears as much the music entrances them. It reaches its height in a spellbinding, unforgettable scene where Salieiri helps a bed-ridden Mozart work on his Requiem (a piece commissioned by a shadowy figure Mozart doesn’t realise to be Salieri himself). Mozart hears the music in his head and dictates it to Salieri, who even then can barely keep up. Even with his nemesis at death’s door, he can’t hope to match him.

Based in truth as it is (though how true it actually is, I don’t know), the film achieves a kind of truth much more true than mere facts, uncovering the deeper realities of limited humanity’s quest for transcendence. That’s why, for instance, the American accents the actors keep throughout the film don’t bother me one jot. The film is so true that the accents are frankly irrelevant; I’m not distracted by them, which I most certainly would have been by bad European accent imitations.

It’s a film which teaches me about beauty, hope, work, creativity and the freedom to take all my prayers – not just the safe, nice ones – to God and leave theme there. In my life as I live it, it’s unmatched, unique and irreplaceable. I can’t imagine my life without it; and I don’t own a single note of Mozart’s music.

I rated this film 5/5 on rottemtomatoes.com and 10/10 on imdb.com

Also in this series: 

Introduction

Trainspotting

Fire In Babylon

Pan’s Labryinth

Shaun Of The Dead & Hot Fuzz

What’s in a name?

bev-meldrum-1

 San Francisco Holocaust Monument, Bev Meldrum Photography

 

Names are often significant in the Bible. Think David (beloved of God) or Isaac (he laughs). One has struck me recently: Lazarus. There are two men named Lazarus in the Gospels. The name means ‘God has helped’. This seems odd to me. You could look at the oddness of this name from the point of view of both the two men named Lazarus whom we meet in the Gospels.

The first of these is the one raised from the dead by Jesus. We know how this story ends (spoiler alert: I told you in the previous sentence), so it seems to us readers fairly obvious as to why his name is so suitable. Much is obvious if you know the end of the story. We don’t know much about Lazarus before his (first) death; but it’s fair to assume that after his recall from his own funeral procession he gained a whole new perspective on the appropriateness of his name. It may have previously come to his mind when he was looking for a place to park his donkey in rush hour, but soon that would grow faint by comparison.

This isn’t the Lazarus who concerns me, though. It’s the other one – the one who doesn’t exist. Well, he does exist, of course; but in a symbolic sense as opposed to a literal one. He appears in a strange parable at the end of Luke Chapter 16; a poor man who is carried daily to the outside of a rich man’s home to beg for whatever he can get. He’s in such a state that dogs would come and lick his sores. This is the one God has helped? Really?

We know how this story ends too. He goes to heaven; the rich man to hell. So we know that from an eternal perspective that God has indeed helped him. He just won’t see it until his death. We mustn’t rush to that, however. If we do we’re in danger of the terrible error of saying ‘well the poor will be alright in eternity, so let’s not worry about them now’. That would be to miss the point of the parable, and we don’t want that, do we now?

Parables are not one-for-one correlation stories. We can’t say x in the story equals the wider truth of y in every instance. With that in mind, we should also beware that we don’t miss what the parable might be trying to say to us. It’s here that Lazarus’ name becomes important. In this parable, Lazarus is important because he has a name. Abraham and Moses are both referred to by name. In a Jewish story you’d expect that. The rich man is named … well, we don’t know. He doesn’t get a name. He’s just ‘the rich man’. Lazarus – he of the dog-licking and begging – is named as one whom God helps. The rich man  – outside whose house Lazarus daily begs, just the other side of the wall and security spikes, just in view of the CCTV – has no name. He is anonymous.

Names matter. When we get to know someone we start with a name; couples who have a stillborn baby are strongly advised to give their child a name for very good reasons; a soft-drinks company has made a marketing splash by putting names on their cans for people to buy until they find one bearing their own title. Yes, names matter. Why this, then? Why no name for the rich man?

It’s part of God’s great reversal of all things. The world honours the rich and successful; we know their names well. The one sleeping under a blanket in the doorway. He’s ‘homeless’. Not ‘the one God has helped’ or ‘beloved of God'; just ‘homeless’, ‘poor’, ‘dirty’, ‘smelly’, ‘beggar’. God’s kingdom reverses this; the unnoticed, non-achieving dependants are named; the succesful and feted rich are irrelevant.

We know how this story ends, so it’s OK. We know this isn’t really about rich and poor, it’s about knowing Jesus and being known by Him? Right?

Maybe. Maybe not. It’s definitely about being known by Jesus. He knows who is living truly in the kingdom of God and who isn’t.

This is a parable that too often I keep at arm’s length, keeping away the uncomfortable truth that too often I am the unnamed one rather than the named one I prefer to see myself as.

Am I sure about that?

Try these name-cancelling labels. Which do you use?

Liberal, conservative, gay, straight, black, white, man, woman, young, old, middle-aged, happy, sad, able, disabled, sick, well, happy, sad, depressed, normal, bigot, Jew, Moslem, Christian, atheist, adult, child, teenager, abuser, abused, bully, victim.

Recently someone I’ve known for years told me of his plans to marry the man he loves. It took him years to decide I was safe enough to tell. That’s down to how people who wear labels like ‘evangelical’, ‘Christian’ or ‘church’ are seen and how we act and speak. Years to feel safe. He has a name, but I can’t use it here for he must remain safe.