Calvary: Meditations On The Pastoral Life

I can tell you, but I can’t make you hear. Just as you can tell me words which give some shape to the experience of childbirth or fighting in a war but there’s nothing you can do to make me get, so there’s nothing I can do other than describe to you what it’s like to be a parish priest, to pastor a local congregation. For all the injunctions to walk in the shoes of other people, we all know that well-worn shoes never truly fit anyone other than their original owner.

If you do want to understand what this calling and life is like, then I can’t do much more other than point you in the direction of Calvary. John Michael McDonagh’s film is straightforward, funny and devastatingly true in a way that’s more significant than mere facts. We open in the confessional, Brendan Glesson as Father James hearing the confession of a man. The man, unseen by the viewer, talks frankly of childhood abuse suffered at the hand of a Catholic priest. He will cleanse himself, he tells Father James, by murdering the man who’s listening to him. Not because he is a bad priest or an abuser; far from it, in fact. Father James is a good, honest priest. Which is why his death will make people sit up and take notice, the unseen man says. He will meet him on the beach, a week on Sunday, where he will kill the priest.

The rest of the film is the priest’s journey through his week in the village as he prepares for the day at hand. Some of the week is taken up with trying to identify the source of the threat; some of it with the normal warp and weft of pastoral life. It’s part murder-mystery (before the murder); it’s part comic drama about rural life; it’s all a deep and truthful meditation on faith and calling.

The film is very specifically Catholic, with its storyline fuelled by abuse and Irish setting. It’s in this specificity, though, that the film finds a more general power which speaks so deeply to a missional Anglican-Evangelical-Charismatic priest in Cape Town. Little grace notes in the film’s details were at once desperately funny and so painfully real as to be unwatchable. It’s in the bland ineffectiveness of denominational officials presented with crisis; the wearying sense of superiority of those who earn more in a week than you do in a year; the desperate sense of smug exclusivity so many on the fringe of  or outside the church exhibit towards you because of your collar, and do so thinking you don’t notice but in reality you see it before they speak. It’s in the way the priest has many relationships but no friendships; it’s in the desperate need for a pet because at least the pet won’t talk back. It’s in the being ready to listen compassionately to someone who only a few hours earlier was patronising you. It’s in the carrying for people what they can’t bear themselves; it may be born with you by Jesus, but it’s still ever so heavy a load.

I could go on. The film is not perfect; not because of its artifice, exactly. Many great works are inherently artificial; how you handle the artifice is key. The one really false, forced note is the arrival of the priest’s daughter (not a plot-spoiler); just too convenient a moment for the film’s needs to be entirely smooth and clean. There are other occasional disharmonies, none of them serious.

By the film’s alarming and heart-stopping conclusion, we find ourselves breathing in the wake of a story that Beuchner could have told or (and I can think of no better praise than this) the one Eugene Peterson would make.

I can’t make you hear, but thanks to Calvary I can show you.

I rated this film 9/10 on imdb.com and 4.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

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