… and Lent begins …

I’ve been musing for days – weeks, probably – for something to do on here for Lent. I thought about posting music; I thought about Bible studies: I thought perhaps another attempt at ‘poetry’. I thought about a film a week or so for Lent (I still might do that, actually, if I can get the time). I thought about reflections on giving things up or taking things on as a discipline for the period. I thought about my frustration with how far we seem to have drifted from Jesus’ instructions on fasting, especially when it comes to fasting from social media: advertising it rather it than hiding it (the latter being what Jesus explicitly prefers).

I thought about advertising a just cause every so often for Lent. I thought about green issues, carbon fasting or recycling more. I thoughts about reading book for Lent – a Bible book or something else. I thought about using the period more intentionally to get to the gym. I thought about dieting. I thought about fasting from food once or twice a week.

I thought about chocolate, alcohol, caffeine, shaving, not shaving, my language, my thought life, television, social media, music, films. I thought about dog walks, about cooking, cleaning, saving, giving, buying presents, doing favours, being more welcoming, being more generous, being kinder.

In sum, I thought about a lot.

Then I realised that Lent had actually started, and I hadn’t noticed.

As far as I could tell, God didn’t seem to mind.

On her birthday

It was my wife’s birthday this week, so I wrote this. 

uslondon2012Happy Birthday to Bev, my favourite human being.

42 years of fun, championing the poor, challenging others to be more, courageous honesty, beauty, fearlessness, wisdom, and changing hair colours.

She’s even better than you think she is. After all she’s still married to me despite being on the other end of the bullying, rumours, scheming against us and general nastiness that comes along with the good parts of my calling.

She supports me through Ankylosing Spondylitis, chronic depression, anxiety, PTSD, two learning disabilities and inspires me to keep going.

She always sees and expects the best of people even if they can’t see it themselves.

She dreams impossible dreams and makes them happen.

She drags the future into the present.

She defends those who won’t or can’t defend themselves.

She’s not worried about reputation or approval or being good by the standards of a broken world.

She’s always learning.

She’s a brilliant photographer.

She’s an organiser.

She’s kind and good and true.

Some seem to insist on believing the worst of her and still she keeps going and keeps being who God calls her to be.

She’s a blessing in the truest sense of the word.

If you don’t know her, or don’t believe me, it’s your loss.

Pride

It’s disconcerting when the news of your childhood becomes the historical movies of your adulthood. Pride did nothing if not confirm for me that I have officially hit middle-age.

It’s a British comedic-drama about events during the Miners Strike in the UK of 1984 (I was 11, just about aware of what was going on in the wider-world). It focuses on two small communities: one is a small mining town in Wales of the sort that suffered most during that time. The other is a London-based group of gay and lesbian people who form LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners). They take on the small Welsh community as a project for which to fundraise. The film is that story, of unlikely friendships and culture-clashes. In tone it is closes to British comedies like The Full Monty or Brassed Off; an edge of social realism and a triumph of underdogs storyline.

There’s some fine performances – Bill Nighy is at his understated best, drawing laughs at times without uttering a word; the comedic tone sits well with some serious themes of social distress and prejudice and it’s hard not to leave the cinema without at least a small air-punch of satisfaction at the film’s feel good narrative arc.

It’s not without flaws though. Some things just seem a little too easy to be true; did they really, for instance, break into singing that easily in the minibus? At times the adventures of the London-based characters come off too much like a school outing rather than engaging with one of the biggest social issues of the day. More seriously is an overly romantic view of history. The miners’ strike was a brutal and painful period of British history for all sorts of reasons, not least because it fractured families and communities. The film presents to us a picture of communities and towns united in their stand; I can’t speak for the individual town in question, but the brutal reality of the strike is that it was opposed from within the community of miners as well as by the government. Members of families fell into bitter, lifelong dispute; strike-breakers were, and maybe still are, ‘scabs’. All this because some felt they and their families couldn’t pay the price of their families’ well-being. It’s tempting to, as the film does, to play the strike as a unified struggle; but it wasn’t and it does a grave injustice to the complexity of real people in unimaginably difficult situations to pretend otherwise.

None of this detracts from the joy of the film; it should also be noted, though, that the nature of the film means that the humour is broader than The Full Monty (it really is); and sometimes that too (especially towards the end) seems a bit too easy to be true. The film also suffers slightly from Return Of The King-itis in that seems to have about three endings. By the time the last one rolled around I was ready for the film to actually end.

It doesn’t out-stay its welcome, though. The reservations are real, but not major problems.

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

Lessons on the Way 8: The Hero Trap – what if I’m Goliath?

The Old Testament is a pesky document. For a start it’s often blamed for many of Christianity’s PR problems – it’s claimed by its critics to present a picture of God that’s all smiting, vengeance and wrath as opposed to the fluffier, grace-filled God of the New Testament. Anyone who’s spent any serious time studying the Bible knows that this is a woefully simplistic misreading of very complex texts but it’s still easy to see why people do tend to fall into this all too obvious trap. In an instant age it’s easy to avoid some hard theological work and take the headline-grabbing response.

That doesn’t really concern me, though. There’s a more insidious type of trap that Christians of my flavour are in danger of falling into. It plays to my flawed vision of myself, appeals to my sin-ravaged self-esteem and is especially toxic to someone who’s paid to lead Christian communities. I call it The Hero Trap.

The Old Testament is full of derring-do, of larger-than-life characters doing larger-than-life things in ways which give lessons for life and insights into the way God deals with people. There’s a Promised Land (I know that in itself is problematic to many, but that’s a subject for another day) to take, and it’s occupied by an army so fearsome that they look like giants. There are people who fight lions, there’s visitations from angels, there’s vengeance and there’s war. It’s all exciting stuff, and preachers of my tradition often like to use it to draw parallels: we too have land to take, we too face opposition that appears to be over-whelming and we all know that we’re in a battle against powers and principalities too much for us by ourselves. There’s truth in there, but it’s not the whole truth.

Consider one of the most famous stories of them all; David and Goliath. We know it well from Sunday School and sermons galore; young David is the only one brave enough to stand up to the overwhelming and overbearing Philistine champion. Armed only with a sling and stones he takes out the enemy with one shot (incidentally, Malcolm Gladwell’s take on this story in his book David and Goliath should be essential reading). We know, I’m sure, how we’re to read this story: we’re all puny in front of our enemy, but in the power of God we can overcome any opposition.

There’s truth in there, but not the whole truth. You see, as much as I may be a David, I could also be a Goliath. The Hero Trap is appealing because it casts we in a heroic role that will stir the blood in film adaptations and sunday school stories. My ego is fragile and it needs to be rubbed and nurtured.

The trouble is that my ego also needs to be kept in check. The Bible’s actually quite good at that, reminding me that without God I’m dead; I can do nothing and I need Him if I’m to do or be anything, if I’m to have a life worthy of the name from an eternal perspective. So this should give me pause; might I not, sometimes at least, be the giant in the land, the one who causes fear and who needs to be opposed? What if I don’t need to conquer, but need to be conquered? What if I’m learning the lines of the wrong character in the script?

It’s a slightly less inspiring thought and somewhat harder to preacher appealingly. However the reality is that I’m more naturally capable of opposing God’s purposes than I am of being the one through whom they come about ; I’m more likely to stand in the way than I am to be used to remove problems. That’s not going to change anything eternally – to be blunt, God will still win – but it should at the very least make me less eager to cast myself as the hero in the story.

Peter is often said to be one of the characters in the Bible to whom it is easiest to relate. There’s good reason for that:  he may end up as a formative figure in the life of the early church, but he gets there by way of denial, being called Satan by Jesus and a brush with a watery grave. He’s a funny sort of hero, one whose weaknesses are appealingly real. At my best I’m Peter flirting with disaster. I, and we, would do well to remember that next time there’s ground to take. It may just be that we’re already occupying the ground; and we may need to vacate it.

Put that in a Sunday school lesson.

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

7: It’s Probably Me

Missing out on missing out, or seeing Frozen at last

Moving countries is a sure way to put all sorts of parts of your psyche to the test. The new culture(s), the change in weather patterns, missing your favourite cafe or radio station or park, the relationships to build .. all of these and so much more splash around the surfaces of the consciousness. You are out-of-place: you know it, others know it. It’s obvious.

When we moved to South Africa nearly 5 years ago we experienced all of this. It felt like we were constantly missing out on something. It’s not so much destabilising as it is the creation of a whole new identity. Much of what you had become accustomed to building around you as part of your sense of self is gone and you have to do it all over again. One of the things I discovered I was missing out on was a name for this experience of missing out on things. I don’t know if it’s especially popular in this country or this part of this country, but I kept hearing and noticing 4 letters as part of speech. FOMO. It sounded like the name of a music festival; it would be casually slipped into a conversation and the locals would laugh. ‘FOMO! Ahh…’ Like the new car I hadn’t seen before, it was suddenly everywhere.

It stands for Fear Of Missing Out, and apparently it’s a thing. I don’t know where it came from and I’m not especially keen on finding out, but some people were having counselling or prayer ministry to deal with their FOMO. I was missing out on missing out.

Another area I was missing out on had nothing to do with moving to South Africa, but has more to do with the fact that my wife and I don’t have children. Though we both love films, this does mean that we tend to avoid seeing films that are aimed at more of an all-age audience and tend to concentrate on more ‘adult’ fare. (no, not that sort of adult). This means that sometimes we miss out; over the last couple of years it felt like we’d Missed Out in a very big way. Because, you see, we hadn’t seen Frozen.

Frozen is one of those animated films that has become a huge cultural icon. ‘Let It Go’ is everywhere. People are always posting hilarious versions of it on social media relating to news events or life in general; comments would be made about the cold not bothering me anyway. There were debates about how feminist it is, or isn’t. None of which I watched, understood or partook in. I was Missing Out and I didn’t like the feeling. Or so I thought.

So we recorded it off the television, and did the decent thing last week. We watched it as originally intended – with an eleven year old who’s currently staying with us along with her mother. Do you think you have ever Missed Out on something? Not only had the 11-year old not seen Frozen before, she’s never seen snow or ice (we live in Cape Town).

Most of you don’t need me to tell you that Frozen is a really good film. The songs really do work; Let It Go is proper ear-worm fodder; the snowman and the reindeer are classic creations. I laughed out loud several times, as did the 11-year old. Finding ourselves thinking about fostering I thought … if I was responsible for an 11-year old girl, would I want her to see this film? Yes, probably, I thought. Not only is it great fun but it’s refreshing to see an animated princess who has agency and decision-making power and who isn’t defined by the colour pink or her choice of man. It’s got a way to go – I was a little troubled by the subtext that a woman’s emotions affects everything and everyone around her – but this is much better a role model for young girls than many an all-age film I’ve come across before.

For me it’s a good animated film; up there with Up and Wall-E but not in Toy Story trilogy territory. But here’s the thing; it was better when I hadn’t seen it. Not having seen it had actually become part of me; a small part of me, but part of me nonetheless. I had gained a bit of cultural kudos from not having seen it; I was the person who hadn’t seen Frozen!!! Now I was one of the crowd, just like everyone else. I was laughing at the jokes. I understand the lines about the cold not bothering me – but the thing is, it kind of does. It was a bit better on the outside.

That shouldn’t surprise me. People tend to experience me as a bit ‘alternative'; just this week a friend in the same group discussion as me started laughing as soon as I took the microphone because he ‘just knew you’d say something subversive‘. I guess he was right; I talked about the way a certain passage of the Bible was used in demonic and dangerous ways by evangelicals like us.

I need to watch this, though. Defining myself by something other than what Jesus says about me is very dangerous territory. I may prefer being a little on the edge but He says I’m chosen and accepted and in. If I’m not careful I could find myself frozen out just to make sure my fragile sense of self is intact. Better to get that from Him, not whether I’ve seen a given movie or what I think about a certain passage.

Frozen is a good movie; I’m glad I’ve seen it. I do miss missing out, though.

Not to worry. Big Hero 6 has just been released.

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

Paddington

It’s taken me far too long to get round to reviewing this since I saw it so my reflections on it are limited … so suffice to say it’s magnificent.

Like all of us who grew up on Paddington there was nervousness at a precious childhood memory being revisited; I needn’t have worried. It’s a loving, committed, beautifully produced all-age film. I say all-age advisedly; this is not a children’s film. A children’s film will only be enjoyed by children. Paddington will be richly enjoyed by anyone with a heart, a soul and a sense of humour. We laughed a lot throughout the film; and the film’s message of welcoming the different and challenging ‘other’ person into your heart and home community is unmistakably presented without ever ramming it down the throat. The performances are whole-hearted and engaging; the bear himself us hypnotically funny and perfectly presented.

Just see it and love it.

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

The Imitation Game and the slippery search for greatness

Britain is nothing if not arrogant, at the very least in terms of its name. How many other countries attach a statement of quality to their name: Great Britain? Of course there may well be historical reasons for this, and it may not actually be meant as a moniker of significance or quality; but as a citizen of the country it’s always smacked of hubris.

I’ve also always found the whole ‘great nation’ thing a little fatuous. How do we ascertain if a country is great? I hear many different claims for a country to be the greatest on earth, but seldom any independent verification of this. How do you judge a nation? How do you rank in terms of greatness? Most nations are great in the eyes of their own leader or citizens; but it seems a little aimless to try some sort of serious assessment of this. Why does one have to be better than the other?

All this was in my mind during The Imitation Game, a true-story adaptation of one of the Second World War’s more remarkable stories. Alan Turing – the subject of the film, played with characteristic commitment and insight by Benedict Cumberbatch – was the man who led the team which broke the German Enigma code, effectively shortening and/or winning the war for the Allies and saving a load of lives into the bargain. In doing so he not only achieved what many believed at the time to be impossible, but he also laid the template for every computer ever built. By any stretch of the imagination, surely Turing’s was a great British achievement.

It’s certainly presented as such in this compelling and enjoyable film. Even if you are familiar with the story it’s never less than utterly engaging; it’s a story I know well and I still had to restrain an air-punch at the vital moment. It’s a film that’s hard not to enjoy. This is achieved with the understanding that the events of the film were a great moment in a great passage of history for Great Britain. It’s not really a flag-waving film (apart from the entirely fair, correct and brief footage of people celebrating the war’s end) so much as it’s trying to be an honest and factual one. This was a great moment.

(spoiler alert – if you don’t know Turing’s story and don’t want part of the film revealed, skip to the next paragraph)

Or was it? For the film doesn’t leave it there. The euphoria is leavened by what comes next. The code-breaking is intercut with a post-war police investigation into Turing’s private life, and scenes from his childhood. At the same time as his unique role in the war effort is discovered, so is his (then illegal) homosexuality. Given the choice between prison or chemical castration, he opted for the latter so he could keep working, Not long after, he committed suicide. Along with thousands of men of the era, his life was forever stained. It was only in 2013 that Turing received a posthumous royal pardon.

Not so great. Even within the essence of an undeniably great British achievement are the seeds of something deeply shameful and unnerving. Greatness, it turns out, is a slippery and complex concept. We think about too simply. We see something admirable, and christen it with a title. Closer examination reveals it’s not so simple. Whether it’s a person or a country, a team or a charity, no one is entirely great. There’s greatness in everyone and every group, every team and nation; there’s also cruelty, shame, abuse, bullying, perversity and hate and any sin you care to name. There’s only One truly deserving of the title ‘Great'; really all other uses of the term should be with a small letter and a careful qualification.

The Imitation Game is a very good film, but with a keen eye for British irony, not a great one. It’s finely directed with a keen eye for detail and the importance of a good story. Occasionally it’s just a little too mechanical to soar, too safe to really provoke in the way it perhaps could. It is, though, very good, exciting, funny and admirable. You won’t be let down and you will, if you allow yourself, be made to think and look more closely at the previously untouchable and unsullied citizens of that far-off island called ‘Greatness’.

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