Shadow Sides 2: Paul and the problem that won’t go away

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine. 

Think of the man who wrote a good part of the New Testament (Paul) and the first words that come to mind probably aren’t “man whose prayer didn’t get answered”. There are good many other phrases that might come to your mind: genius, great writer, leader, certain, inspired, ethical, apostle, convert, road to Damascus, church-planter, missionary. Or maybe there are other, less-complementary words that come to your mind (of which the equally Biblical ‘hard to understand’ may be the mildest). Love him or hate him, he’s one of the single most influential people in the history of the Christian faith. It’s apparent that God used him to communicate some eternal truths and to help us understand what the story of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection as told in the 4 gospels means for us.

So what sort of person was he? What, when pressed, defined him in his own eyes and, most importantly, in God’s eyes? We get a fascinating insight into that in the letter we now call 2 Corinthians. It’s markedly different to the CV’s of the influencers in the early 21st-century:

I’ve worked much harder, been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times with the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes, beaten by Roman rods three times, pummeled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. In hard traveling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those I thought were my brothers. I’ve known drudgery and hard labor, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather.

And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. When someone gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut.

If I have to “brag” about myself, I’ll brag about the humiliations that make me like Jesus

(2 Corinthians 11:23-33, The Message)

We want our leaders to be in control; Paul admits to anxiety.

We expect leaders to have good relationships; Paul’s had arguments with friends.

We expect moral cleanliness from those in charge; Paul openly admits to plenty of time in prison and to being on the receiving end of brutal punishments.

We want to follow people characterised by strong competence; Paul invites us to follow him because he’s weak and he’s suffered.

He boasts about the things that have humiliated him and led to suffering because it’s in them that he finds himself to be similar to Jesus. Jesus, so anxious that He sweat drops of blood; feared God had abandoned Him; was betrayed and let down by close friends; was punished by the powers-that-be.

That’s not all. For Paul, there was more.

I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,

My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.

(2 Corinthians 12:7-9, The Message)

Paul, so close to God that Jesus speaks directly to him; Paul, so inspired by God that 2,000 years we still read what he wrote to keep us going; Paul, writer of some of the most influential words in human history; this Paul has a problem he can’t shake, that God won’t take away no matter how much he pleads. It’s probably a physical problem – one serious enough to make him ‘beg’ for relief.

I know how that feels. I’ve been in pain every day for more than 16 years. On bad days, I’m told by people who know about these things, my levels of pain are worse than those of childbirth. I’ve begged for it be removed, and so have others on my behalf, many more than 3 times. Newsflash: I’m not as close to God as St. Paul.

It limits me. I’m also clinically depressed and anxious; I recently ended a church business meeting by breaking down in tears. I’m limited by mind and my body.

That, says Paul, is the point.

God’s fond of those who struggle, close to those in pain. Because when you’re weak, His strength is seen through you; His power is made apparent because mine is stripped away.

Got it all together? Sorted? Ducks in a row? That could be your biggest problem.

Painfully aware of limitations and dis-ability? Wrestling with weakness? Desperate for relief? God’s especially close to you.

 Also in this series:

Moses – frustrated and angry at God’s people

These posts are based on a series of sermons.

Shadow sides 1: Frustrated and angry Moses

The first in a series of posts adapted from sermons about some great characters from the pages of the Bible, with weaknesses and frailties that we might find all too familiar. 

Anger and frustration are frightening. They suggest being out of control – either ourselves, or at the hands of others. They speak of abuse and violence, fear and quaking in the corner. Good Christians shouldn’t get angry or frustrated. They should let go and let God.

Or should they? What if anger and frustration, rightly handled, take us closer to Jesus, mean we’re more like Him, not less?

Take Moses, for example.

We know about Moses. Performing signs and wonders in the courts of a despotic ruler; courageously leading a fear-stricken people; not afraid to lead a wander through the wilderness; parting seas and bringing water from a rock; receiving stone tablets of law in the handwriting of God. We know about Moses. Murderer with a speech impediment; often angry and frustrated, dying on the doorstep of his destination. Despite his successes, hardly a model leader. Or is he?

Let’s focus in on Moses, for the time being doing what he should be doing. At the end of Exodus 24, we read about him heading up a mountain with Joshua. For 6 days he watches; on the 7th day God speaks; for 40 days he’s on top of the mountain, enveloped by cloud which signifies the very presence of God, receiving the law which will shape the worshipping life of God’s people. It’s written on stone tablets, apparently by the hand of God Himself (Exodus 31:18).

While he’s doing what a leader of God’s people should be doing – spending time with God, listening to Him, paying attention to Him, God’s people are getting impatient.

Where is he?

This is taking far too long (32:1); let’s do something instead of just wait.

Aaron, left in charge by Moses, is pressured into collecting golden jewellery; it’s melted down and shaped into the image of a calf. This is what the people choose to worship; this, they say, took them out of Egypt. It’s ludicrous, but no less offensive for that.

God can see what’s going on, so He tells Moses. God’s less than happy, on the brink of wiping them out when Moses intervenes and tells Him it would be better for His reputation not to do so, to remain true to His word to make a great nation out of them. Moses’ self-control is all well and good, until he comes down the mountain himself. He sees and hears the chaos around him; in his anger he smashes the stone tablets of the law in pieces; burns the golden calf and grinds it dust, scattering the dust on water which the people are then forced to drink. Stand in leader Aaron shifts the blame to the people in a ducking of responsibility reminiscent of Adam and Eve; Moses allows those still for God to show themselves, and the rest are slaughtered. Even so, there’s still a plague to come as a reminder of such a naked act of disobedience and idolatry.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us, first, with the reality of frustration and anger. Leadership of God’s people is no easy task. Any attempt to do something under God’s authority – especially an act of leadership – will likely be laced with anger and frustration. You  might even say it’s part of the calling; you can see where you, your church, your people, your project is and where they should be – and the distance is great, the blindness of the people on the ground so rebellious, so wilful, that you might just snap. God feels it, Moses feels it, so you and I will feel it.

Even so, in your anger and frustration do not sin (Ephesians 4:26). Do not go on a crusade that God has not given you; in your anger, do not run ahead of God and try to fix His problems for Him. He is more than capable – and just as angry, but not prone to sin.

Jesus does the ultimate Moses: He sees the sin, bears the consequences in terms of the isolation of people and the wrath of God – death, and provides a way beyond it in the shape of resurrection. Now He lives at the right of God, interceding, praying for His people.

So you feel angry and frustrated at the state of God’s people? Well you might; maybe you’re becoming more like Jesus. So leave the crusading and the fixing to Him, the perfect intercessor.

So often we think anger and frustration are marks of weakness. Too often they lead us into sin. Rightly managed they catapult us headlong to the arms of a God who knows only too well how we feel, yet still acts in love towards the objects of His anger and frustration – you, me.

We must be careful; anger and frustration can be corrosive and destructive. But in themselves they are not wrong. One way or another, they will carry us away. It’s up to us whether we let that be away or towards the one whose image we are made.

 

 

 

 

 

On God’s Silence

When the woman who was to become my wife and I were dating, we would often look at other couples around us in coffee shops and restaurants. We’d pick out the ones we’d want to be like when we grew up, and the ones we didn’t want to emulate. The ones we wanted to emulate – no matter their age – were the ones in lively conversation, laughing and sharing. The ones we didn’t want to be like were sitting in silence, apparently focussing on food rather than each other.

Nearly seventeen years of marriage later, my perspective has changed. On those all too rare nights out together ,Bev and I do have plenty we want or need to talk about. But we’ve also grown to appreciate the importance of just being together. There’s a comfort, a profound kind of silence that can settle over us when we’re together – reading, watching a film or show, enjoying a meal, sleep. I’m naturally a quiet person, and I really value the freedom not to have to fill the silence – that Bev is happy just to be with me. She knows me well enough to know that my silence doesn’t mean a lack of love or ease; quite the reverse. It indicates that I feel comfortable in her presence in a way I don’t feel with others. I can just be with her. I have other friends for whom this is also true, if not at the same depth – we can watch a game together, or look at each other and laugh without speaking, knowing what the other is thinking. Silence can be profound, pregnant with meaning and expectation. Can you imagine feeling safer than (literally) sleeping with someone every night of your life?

This speaks to me of God. It’s not unusual for people to ask why God isn’t speaking to them  – especially in difficult, challenging seasons of life. I feel like I’m in one of those periods right now – many things having to be done or decided, and precious little from God that appears to help. He’s silent. Why? Why won’t He speak?

Maybe He doesn’t need to. In a sense, of course, He’s always speaking. Through the Bible, through people, through circumstances, through creation. But there are times when I could have done with a very clear ‘THIS’ from Him. That does – and can – happen, but rarely these days, it seems.

Take Esther, though. It’s the book of the Bible where God is famously unmentioned by name. It’s a time of crisis, personal and national. Ethnic cleansing of God’s people is threatened and women are used for sex by men (never tell me the Bible’s ancient and irrelevant). Where is God? We might well ask. He doesn’t speak, He doesn’t seem to act. Or does He? He’s strongly implied in the famous ‘for such a time as this’ that is uttered by one to another at a key moment; read the story and it’s hard to shake the sense that He’s the shadow cast inescapably by events, never out of sight but easy to lose track of if you’re not looking for Him. Reach the end of the book and it’s clear He’s been doing something, never far from the centre of events and actions.

Take Elijah, depressed and panicking. Hearing in the quiet rather than the earthquake.

Take Jesus, sweating drops of blood in the garden, no reply – save for an angel.

Maybe I’ve underestimated God’s silence. Maybe He’s the lover content to be with me after a while; content to listen and make me feel really listened to in the way others can’t; at peace with sharing the day with me, living life alongside me, nudging, indicating. Maybe His silence is the silence of deep comfort and a maturity I thought I lacked, an honouring of me as a person, an image-bearer of Him.

Where is He when I am in agony and desperate? With me.

Where is He when I can’t see the way ahead? With me.

Where is He when I can’t hear Him? With me.

Where is He when I stray? With me.

Why won’t He speak? Maybe because all I need is a look.

So I lay me down to sleep.

 

 

Why I’m the sort of Christian I am

Recently I posted one of those semi-serious Facebook things about how the Easter season starts on Easter Day; that the day before Easter Day isn’t Easter Saturday, it’s Holy Saturday. Easter Saturday is the Saturday that follows subsequently to Easter Day. A good friend, part of my church but with his roots in a very different Christian tradition, said he’d value more on why these things matter to me and how they help me follow Jesus. It’s actually something I’d been meaning to try and articulate more fully for myself for some time, and my friend’s comment prodded me to do something about it. Like much of what I write on here, it’s really for my own benefit – if it helps you also, that’s great.

I have lived most of my Christian life in the Anglican (referred to in some contexts as Episcopalian) church context. In 2001 I was ordained as a minister in that tradition. I’m not one of those who thinks it’s the only true church; I am often frustrated and even angered by aspects of how this mode of church works. But it does work for me as an imperfect structure within which I can minister and function as a disciple. For the record, I’m also greatly resourced by many other Christian traditions – but the Anglican one is where my feet stand, with the waters of other traditions intermingling around me, refreshing and renewing me at different times. So here’s a few of the things I value around this expression of Christianity – I do so acknowledging that strengths are often also weaknesses, and this is true here as much as anywhere else. They’re listed in no special order.

1) The Anglican church is often referred to as a ‘broad church’. I take that to mean that what you experience in public worship at one Anglican church may look or feel very different to what you experience at the Anglican church a mile away  – or a few thousand miles away. But they’re united by a few core points of theology (theoretically – and that’s where this can go awry) and practice. Weirdly, one of the places this has been bought home to me is on social media. Through social media I have made contact with numerous Anglicans who express their faith very differently to me – there’s much we disagree on. But we found ourselves drawn together, and connecting together and supporting each other. Similarly, the priest of the next door parish to mine was (he’s just moved on) very different to me, and our parishes’ worship are almost unrecognisably different. But Jesus untied us through something far deeper and firmer, and we’re good friends. I’m going to miss him.

2) Many Christian traditions give a rhythm to the church year, and this is a big feature of Anglicanism. That’s illustrated in what I mentioned above about the difference between Holy Saturday and Easter Saturday. Sometimes the application of this can all seem a little Pharisaical, but increasingly I’m finding it deeply beneficial. Let’s take the Holy/Easter Saturday thing. The week that leads up to Easter Day uses readings from the Bible and liturgy (prepared prayers) to tell the story of Jesus’ journey to the cross. Now most of us know how the story ends – with victory and resurrection. But that’s not the whole story. There’s a lot of talk in the world of movie criticism about how much you give away about the plot of a film – spoilers. People don’t want the story spoiled before they see the film; otherwise the story loses power and purpose. To a large extent the point of a story isn’t the destination, it’s how we get there. We know the ultimate spoiler – Jesus rises from the dead, and it’s wonderful! But -and this is important – we only really grasp how wonderful it is if we’ve lived the whole story. The pain, the fear, the despair. The death. Make that journey, and you’re really going to want to party come Easter Day. In addition, we all know that life isn’t all about victory – it will be, in the new creation. And Easter Day gives us a glimpse of that. But in the meantime people still get sick, are still disabled, are still depressed, bereaved, alone, dead, crying, fearful, angry, numb … All those things and more are still part of our story, and the build up to Easter Day helps us to incorporate all those things in our worship and give them their place. It helps me to spend time with Jesus in Gethsemane, sweating drops of blood, pleading with God for another way and being let down by His friends. It helps me because that happens to me to; and if I spend time looking at Jesus experiencing it too then I feel less alone in my experiences, less guilty, better equipped for the trials I face.

3) When it works well – and I know that it by no means always works well – the way the broader Anglican church functions does a good job of holding people and churches accountable. Churches and their leaders get things wrong, step out of line, need comfort, support or challenge. People like Bishops are there – in part – to do that, or to make sure that it happens. When they get it right, it’s wonderful. A small illustration from my own experience. I was here in South Africa when my mother died a few years ago (in the UK). When that happened I was on the receiving end of many helpful comments and prayers. One of those that meant the most to me was my Bishop calling me personally, asking me how I was doing, assuring me of his prayers and support in whatever I needed, acknowledging that this was a hard time to be doing this sort of job – especially so far from my birth family. Years later, I still remember that. Don’t underestimate the power of these things – especially for clergy, who need to be pastored as much they need to pastor others.

4) There are many, many expressions of Christianity and I’m grateful for the variety. God is a big God, so it’s OK that there’s a multiplicity of ways to respond to Him. But for some people who aren’t Christians, there are some expressions that can feel odd (I’m not saying they are odd – it’s just how they can come across to some others), or even a bit cult-like. Anglicanism’s rich history and accountability structure means that this is a rare perception  – and that when things do go wrong, there’s a chance of them getting noticed and addressed. It often surprises people to discover ‘free’ Anglican churches – that are charismatic in theology and practice. The fact that these churches are present within Anglican structures can reassure some that this is, in fact, an orthodox expression of Christianity and not simply a breakaway cult.

5) Quite against some perceptions, the deep roots and wide resources of the Anglican tradition can (when used well) be the bedrock and resource for immense creativity. The rich theology of Anglicanism and the accountability structures can give a space for a lot of new things to happen. I’m thinking of, for example, the Fresh Expressions movement – which seeks to find ways of expressing church for those who don’t come to church and won’t engage with church as it currently is. This movement is by no means limited just to the Anglican Church; but the Anglican Church has been and continues to be a major player in the movement’s development. Hence we find Anglican churches that are based around a multiplicity of networks – meeting in pubs, skate parks, shops, nurseries and the like – which look very different to ‘normal’ church, but have the bedrock theology and accountability of Anglicanism.

6) Sometimes I don’t feel like praying or worshipping. That’s when the liturgy – prepared prayers for use in public worship – kicks in. Saying these prayers with others can carry me – their faith can carry me when I have none. Knowing these have been prayed by others in other places for many years reminds me that my problems may be significant but they’re not the whole picture – and life, faith, the church, God will all go on even if I’m struggling. I remember one day going for a walk on a windswept beach, so depressed and stressed I could barely think … and I found tumbling out of me the words of liturgical prayers I’d been praying my whole life, that I didn’t know I’d memorised. They just embedded themselves in me, and came to the surface when I needed them most, unbidden.

I could go on, and may do so on another occasion, but that’s enough for now. To repeat – I know many people find some or all of the above in traditions other than Anglicanism. And all these strengths can also be weaknesses. But this is me.

 

 

 

Why we’re foster parents: it’s not about us

In December last year – around 4 months ago now – my wife Bev and I became foster parents. Within a short period we went from being a family of two adults and two dogs to two adults, two dogs and two children. The children came to us around the same time, but are biologically unrelated. It was the culmination of a long process of thinking, discussing and praying which I chronicled previously in this blog (links at the end of this post).

It’s an exhausting, exhilarating, life-enhancing, sleep-depriving, money-hoovering, faith-stretching, relationship-testing endeavour. Around the time we began to foster, some kind souls were praying with and for me in the context of a work meeting. One lovely person, in the course of his prayer, said something along the lines of “We thank you, God, for this expression in Dave and Bev of the desire to be parents.”

That sentence stayed with me, in a good way. I have a deep respect for the person who prayed it; he’s an intelligent, thoughtful and kind man. I’ve hardly had a spare moment since that prayer was prayed so couldn’t really give much attention to why the sentence had struck me so deeply. Until last week, when a brutal bout of tonsillitis forced me into bed for a few days; when I wasn’t asleep or watching TV, I could just think. In thinking about that prayed sentence, I began to realise why it had struck me so deeply. In saying what I’m about to say, let me make clear that I’m not criticising at all the dear man who prayed that prayer. There’s no reason for him to know my deepest motivations and drivers. And I’m only speaking for myself (and my wife, Bev); I hold no expectation that the same should be true for others.

The truth is that my wife and I have never really wanted to have children. We never desired to be parents. We have never felt a biological or emotional or spiritual urge to give birth. As far as we can tell, doing this is meeting no need in us. Don’t get me wrong: we love doing it. It brings us great joy; our lives are immeasurably enhanced. We are richer people for having these two children in our care, and we love them deeply. It’s a beautiful thing when one of them leaps into our arms for a cuddle or plays a game with us. But for us, that’s not the goal. All of those things; they’re grace given freely and abundantly by God, to us, through these two beautiful divine image-bearers.

So why do we do it? Because God does it for me, for Bev and for everyone who’ll notice and acknowledge. Though my wife and I, and you, are naturally different and cut off from God, He still makes an active, personal, focussed decision to love us and welcome us into His family. It has cost Him much to enable that to happen; we are welcomed into His bloodline at the expense of that blood itself.

So if God has done this for me, then it’s incumbent on me to do all within my power and ability to help other people realise it. So in our own broken, imperfect, faltering ways, in welcoming two children not of our blood; in making an active, personal, focussed decision to love them, we are saying to them and to others – see this? This is but the palest, limpest, most feeble hint of what God has done for me and for you.

We’ve done it also to militate against our hypocrisy. Bev and I speak, pray and preach a lot about the Christian imperative to justice, to ministry amongst the poor, to serving those with less and opening our homes to people whose homes are gone or broken. Fostering brings those we might label as ‘poor’ out of the charity projects, off the streets and the distant estates and into our home, around our dinner table and gives them almost unfettered access to our bank accounts. I am forced, now, to walk what I talk 24 hours a day.

A final reason, linked to these other two. If these two are true, then it’s our belief  – our conviction – that fostering and adoption should be a more central opportunity for Christians. We believe that it should, for many, be a first option not a fall-back. We believe it may just be one of the key invitations to the church of this era. We’ve been deeply challenged to see people we know – single and married – foster and adopt. My wife was herself adopted, and she knows that through that she was bought to a safe childhood and to life in Christ. So we’d be failing hypocrites if we didn’t at least do the same ourselves.

That, then, is why we foster. We are blessed and privileged to do so. That’s all grace, though. We do it not for the benefits, not out of our own desire; but simply because we can and we believe God would have us do so, as He has done for us.

The story can be found in these posts:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

 

Grace’s inconvenient slap in the face

I am finding Jesus increasingly inconvenient. I’ve been trying to hang around with Him for quite a few years now, and I consistently find that He and His ways play merry havoc with my views on all sorts of things. Grace is the lens through which this is usually refracted; it messes up my views on all sorts of things like politics, myself, sexuality, church, other people, social media, money, parenting, marriage, sport, and plenty of other things in between.

Christians are meant to be good at grace (if that’s not a contradiction in terms), but the reality is we’re rubbish at it. We’re constantly giving ourselves, each other and other people either too much or too little (usually the former). I’ve been off sick this week, and I’ve been terrible at grace – even though my doctor and my wife told me I had to rest and I  do as little as possible. I’ve been sending myself on guilt trips, telling myself I should at least stay on top of my e-mail, wondering if people will think I’ve been faking it or am being too soft.

As you do when you’re sick and unable to do much, I let my mind wonder down a number of different paths to distract myself from the intense pain I was experiencing. Many of these were half-formed paths of previous sleepless nights, but with hours to fill and having reached the head-spinning season finale of  The Walking Dead, I had to find something on which to focus my customarily over-active internal monologue. I thought about how graceless I am – as husband, father, disciple, leader, citizen and social media user. I thought of my capacity to correct error, to point out hypocrisy, to accentuate the negative. I felt pretty rubbish about myself after that.

I thought of the curious lack of grace on display in the way some of us (myself included) use social media. We who trumpet grace (can you trumpet grace or is that a contradiction in terms?) are quick to expose flaws in others; we seem to expect of others and ourselves that our use of social media shouldn’t reflect the fact that we are sinners. I’ve judged people, badly, on social media; people have done the same to me. Offline, people judge how I act online; I do the same of others. It seems that we Christians have such a low understanding of grace that we expect ourselves to come across as perfect to the world. I fear we’ve missed the point.

Then I think about our political discourse. I think of the cries agains corruption in South Africa and tax avoidance in the UK, people – many of them Christians – demanding adherence to the law and transparency … all the while sending text messages whilst driving, parking illegally ‘just for a few minutes, so it’s ok’, downloading TV shows illegally and opting out of accountable relationships themselves. Surely grace should insist we apply at least the same  – if not gentler – standards to others as we apply to ourselves?

What is it we don’t get about grace? Why so slippery? We know it when we see it. It seems to perform a strange kind of trick on me, simultaneously boosting my self-esteem and giving me a slap in the face for being such a legalistic, hard-hearted bastard. Try to explain grace and you usually fall into theological error – for which, of course, there’s little grace in the church. As Philip Yancey expressed at the outset of the wonderful What’s so amazing about grace?, it’s something that’s better portrayed than explained. Explaining takes the wonder away; it’s not that there isn’t a place for explaining – it just needs to stay in that place. Jesus doesn’t try to parse grace into manageable points of a doctrinal statement; instead he tells some stories, gives some guidance on how to live then plunges me headlong into grace by willingly dying. It’s best to be immersed in grace rather than draw a diagram analysing it.

I think that I’ve very rarely experienced true grace. I think the closest I’ve got to it was when someone asked to listen to my story of being a victim of bullying (as an adult); having listened, he got angry at what I experienced; took on representative responsibility for what had happened to me because the bully was never going to take it himself; and point by point apologised to me, representatively. That’s a kind of grace, I think – not the whole picture, but quite a large chunk of it.

I think – no, I know – that I’ve very rarely expressed true grace. I may have flirted it with it (probably by accident)  a few times, but those are pitiful examples, a child’s hacked out Chopsticks on an out of tune piano next to a master’s concert hall rendition of the Goldberg Variations.

The truth is none of us can find grace’s script; we are the monkeys trapped in a room with a thousand keyboards, told to reproduce Shakespeare’s works and occasionally accidentally managing “2 b or not 2 b”. Shakespeare, but only if you look at it in a certain light.

So grace slakes my thirst, and leaves me thirsty for more – in myself, for me, from me, in the world around me. You see it and you long for more; it meets all hopes and dreams and simultaneously tells me I won’t see anything like it again until the end of history, when there’ll be so much I won’t know what to do with it except bathe in its depths and exalt in its previously unheard melodies. It pushes me closer to the only Source of grace, and makes me wish I was closer still, pulling with gravitational irresistibility. It makes a mockery of my self-defence and carefully constructed self-righteousness; it heals me wounds and slaps my face so hard I see things in new dimensions.

Back to the sick-bed, then.

 

 

 

On Holy Week, anger, and terrorists

A few months after my friend was murdered by terrorists in a Kenyan shopping mall, I was watching TV. It was Homeland, the thriller series where the lines between good and bad are blurred and the plot is only marginally unbelievable. There came a moment in the episode I found myself relaxing with that one evening where a character has a lead on a likely opportunity to kill a terrorist who was in the early stages of planning an atrocity. He pulls up alongside the terrorist’s car on his motorbike, ready to bomb the vehicle the terrorist rides in. As he does so, he becomes aware of a problem, someone in the terrorist’s car who is not supposed to be there. A child. He rides alongside the car for a while, caught in a terrible moment of indecision. Eventually he rides away, the opportunity untaken, conscience only temporarily salved.

Pre-Westgate, I would have been where most viewers would have been in that sequence – feeling the anguish, aware of the wrestle with conscience, willing him not to kill the child. But this was a new reality I was now in, one where for one week the headlines had been about my friend. There was no conscious mental process. Just this strong, distasteful feeling: take the shot. Risk the child’s life for the sake of those who will be killed. Kill the bastard. I was angry – at the terrorists for what they had done and the way it had changed me, at myself for stooping to their level, at the world for being so unredeemed. I remembered how I had felt, what I said in the aftermath of my friend’s murder: just give a few minutes alone with one of the perpetrators tied to a chair. It won’t take long.

My anger’s intensity has relented in the months since, but the wrestles of conscience don’t go away. The cinema release of Eye In The Sky presented me with an opportunity to see how, or if, I’ve changed. It tells the story of the hunt for members of Al-Shabaab (the group that murdered my friend). They are tracked by drone to a single house – the order to capture them is about to be given when it becomes apparent that they are preparing suicide vests for an imminent attack. The priority moves from capture to kill; the order to release the missile that will save innocent lives is on the brink of completion when a child sets up to sell bread outside the house in question. She will likely be killed if the missile is fired. The rest of the film is the moral, military and political dilemmas being wrestled with, passed up chains of command inside darkened rooms around the globe, all the while the clock ticking down to massive civilian loss of life. Actually, that depersonalises it. Yes, the clock was ticking – to the murder of my friend, all over again.

The film articulates most of the related dilemmas with which I have wrestled since my friend’s death. It justice to most of them, if not ever really articulating as it needs to the political complexities involved. It is a failing  – though not a significant one – that we never really grasp the geopolitical backdrop that brings countries to these awful choices. It’s economically directed, the lack of violence ratcheting up the tension to levels where you long for some sort of release. The performances are fine  – this an ensemble piece, rather than a star vehicle. Helen Mirren does fairly well despite being miscast; I’d like to have seen more of the brilliant Aaron Paul as the soldier with his finger on the button, Barkhad Abdi is consummate, and every line Alan Rickman delivers makes us ache that at what we’ve lost with his death.

The film offers no answers, no conclusions. Every option is flawed, every character compromised, every view has a valid alternative. The film asks all the questions I have … and leaves them hanging in a Kenyan dustbowl, strewn with rubble and human remains. As a leader I empathise with the personal cost of taking decisions most have no understanding of; thanks to some nameless men and women with guns I now have skin in terrorism game, complicating to previously unimagined levels a decision I’ll never have to take. Some justice systems give – for good reason – the guilty and the judge the opportunity to hear the affect the crime has had on victims and those close to them. I understand that; but now I’ve been as close to violent crime as this, I also understand why such revelations should never be the only factor in sentencing the guilty. I, for one, would be too angry to be just.

I am not by nature an angry or a violent person; though I do have a knack for breaking up violent confrontations. I’ve only ever been properly hit once – by a fan of the same football team I support, in an ironic case of mistaken identity. So it’s strange to find myself intimately involved in the moral quagmire of violence. All I’ve come to know is that my cosy neo-pacifist principles no longer sit so easily or safely  – I think I still hold them, but I hold them with alarming looseness.

I watched the film on Palm Sunday evening, the first day of Holy Week; an inexorable journey towards an act of horrific, prolonged, violent innocent suffering. That knowledge adds to the mix that mine is a Jesus who knows what it’s like to be on the end of both unrighteous anger – his murderers’ – and righteous (the anger of His Father which he took the consequences of that day). He didn’t deserve that latter anger, but He took it anyway. It says to me that, along with some alarmingly violent expressions of anger in the Psalms – there is a place for this emotion which is often the least acceptable to church subcultures. It says that innocent suffering is right at the heart of what I have given my life to; it is identified with and wept over, its cost and consequences eternally felt.

On its own, the film left me in anger – and to an extent, that’s OK. It also made me fear that maybe the terrorists win even when we capture of kill them – they’ve reduced us in some way, whether in mind or deed, to their level, even for a moment. But then Holy Week, with its complexities and denials and political blame-shifting and violence and resurrection come along. I don’t understand it any more than I used – probably less so, in fact. But the week gives me a glimpse of when this will end, and that Someone at least understands. And that, for now, is just about enough.

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