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

I’m angry about International Women’s Day, and you should be too

International Women’s Day (March 8th) really got under my skin this year.

Let me tell you about that, please.

I saw some of my (mostly white) fellow men protesting that it was unfair.

That there isn’t an International Men’s Day (there is). Or that International Men’s Day doesn’t get the same attention.

That some of the posts and work I posted, by other people, about the objectification and mistreatment and injustices that are the daily reality of women everywhere skewed the picture unfairly because men are victims too.

Men do experience injustice. Of course we do. I have experienced injustice. I meet many men who have been or are on the wrong side of the scales. Those injustices need to be addressed.

I suffer from a disease that seems to disproportionately target men, for reasons no one quite understands – and that receives relatively little research next to other conditions. That’s an issue. The epidemic of young/middle-aged male depression and suicide is a health emergency that urgently needs money and attention. In my professional capacity I have dealt with several cases where men are the victims of domestic abuse at the hands of women; its devastatingly painful to watch and needs more attention to solve, to help men report, seek help with. For years I have been involved with work amongst those who are homeless – who are usually male. All these and more are true and important, and are issues at which I continue to work.

But today I find myself staggered that so many white men can’t see our privilege, or that we need to consciously lay down that privilege so that people who are not like us – women, and men of other ethnicities – have more access to what we have always taken for granted. That means saying no to things for which we consider ourselves equally or better qualified – and yes, that may include lucrative jobs or ego boosting speaking opportunities. That means calling out other men on their sexism, their contributions to rape culture, their mindless entitlement to privilege – and allowing other men to call us out on it in ourselves. That means expressing sorrow to women when they experience daily acts of sexism. That means following the example of a Middle Eastern Jewish man who gave up rights and status in order to serve; who sought to alleviate the injustice of others rather than complain when he was on the receiving end; who identified himself, one without sin, with those wracked and ruined by sin; who consciously emptied himself of privilege without complaint or self-validation.

It’s my responsibility as a white male husband, father and church leader to side with the one who called me and actively pursue justice for those who are so often on the wrong side of it. Sometimes I will be on the receiving end of injustice; in those moments I will know that He (and sometimes others) will side with me and somehow come to my aid.

But the world is unjustly balanced in my favour; my voice is easily heard; I am safe most places I go; I have more opportunities and more protection than any other demographic on the planet. I am one of the most privileged people in the history of humanity. In all these ways and more, I am rich – so it is hard for me to enter the kingdom of heaven. My only hope is to serve the Servant, and serve Him in those who have less than me.

South Africa, God is especially fond of you

We all like to think we’re special. The truth is, we are.

We are immeasurably special.

Yes, even you. You, you as an individual, you. You are made bearing the indelible and unique hallmark of the divine Source of all things. You were bought for Him at an unimaginable, inexpressible, uncountable cost. He’d have done it for you if you were the only one left. You are precious and deeply, personally, intimately loved in ways you can’t express or hope to understand this side of mortality.

You are special.

A pretty average book helped me understand that. Remember The Shack? A decently written novel about suffering and God. The God character whispers in the ear of the one who suffers “I am especially fond of you”. Beautiful, that. The only part of the book that stayed with me. God is especially fond of me.

What made that powerful in The Shack was that it eventually became apparent that God whispered of special fondness to each and every person. It’s utterly personal, deeply unique … and equally addressed to each and every person. That makes me deeply loved and very special – but also not that special at the same time. God performs the clever juxtaposition of boosting my self-esteem and keeping my ego in check at the same time.

The same is true for countries. Every country is special. Every country is unique. I suppose we might even be able to say that God has a special purpose for each country. Every country is different, so every country has its own purpose to perform. He chose one country through which to make that plain, but only so that each country and each person could find their own special place and purpose.

I’ve thought about all this a great deal recently, and it became inescapable for me when a meme started popping up in my social media feeds. South Africa – where I live and work – is experiencing a convulsion of rage and protest which will lead we know not yet where. It’s shaking a lot of people – which it should do, needs to. The meme talked of God not letting South Africa go – to which I heartily and fully say ‘Amen’. It said other things, though. Like this: “He loves you too much to let you keep the racism”. There are other things that meme says that God loves the country too much to let it fall back into.

I understand the sentiment, and it sounds Godly. It’s certainly true that God doesn’t want people or countries to be racist or to foster poverty. But the existence of those things is down to us, not Him. Keeping racism? That’s on me, not God.

God has special purposes for South Africa – just as He as special purposes for every country – but embracing those is up to the people of the country. If we get it right, it’s a reflection of His grace and good and to His glory. If we don’t, it’s on us. To suggest – even by implication – that God loves us too much to fall back into old traps  is to imply that one country is favoured over another. What about the countries where those things are happening (and let’s be honest, most of them are already happening  in South Africa anyway)? Does God love them any less because those countries are further down the rabbit hole?

No.

God is incredibly fond of South Africa. But no more so than He is of any other country. Expressed uniquely, personally, locally to South Africa for sure; but the love is shared around to every other country also, and none are left unequally unloved. South Africa is very special to God, and is also just like every other country. He gives us the tools, the invitation, the capacity to let go of poverty and racism and corruption. But it will be for no lack of God’s love if they seem to win; that’s on us, and us alone.

Room: trauma, love and beauty

Giving meaning to tragedy and trauma is dangerous ground. Whether you’re a preacher, a writer, a journalist, a film-maker or just somebody trying to walk alongside a person experiencing trauma, the traps are the same. Say too much and you risk the trite, the trivial, the weightless; say too little and you risk a silence which is filled by worst imaginings. Try to find meaning and you flirt with missing the point, not doing justice to the pain; try to let events speak for themselves and you come close to nihilism. There’s so much that can go wrong it can feel like it’s safest to do nothing if you don’t have to, unless events don’t force themselves on you. Trauma is distant to most of us; but as I found out when my when friend was murdered by terrorists, that approach is ultimately of no use. Sometimes the worst case happens, the unthinkable becomes your daily concern, the unimaginable your lived experience.

This is the territory we are in with Room, the film adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s  massively successful novel (an adaption written by the novelist). I had little knowledge of the book personally, but the film-makers want us to be in no doubt as to where this film goes – the bare facts may make this a hard sell, but the publicity wants us to believe that this will affirm life without patronising or dismissing pain. It’s the story of a young woman (faultlessly played by Brie Larson) confined in one room for seven years where she’s repeatedly raped by her captor; she inhabits the room with her five-year old son to whom she gave birth in the room as a result of the rapes. Jack’s world is one in four walls; it’s all he’s ever known, all he’s ever seen save for what he sees through the single window in the form of a skylight and the television. This is a child’s eye view film; it is through him we perceive the abuse which we never see; it’s through him we learn of his mother’s past life on the outside; it’s with him that we eventually journey to the outside world in the film’s final third.

Jack’s mum has helped him create a fantastical world within the four walls of his existence; around his fifth birthday she tries to explain the outside world to him. He’s disbelieving, but gradually grasps towards something resembling truth. When he attempts to affect their escape he’s just about aware enough to cope with the revelation that there are other people and animals and places.

We know there are real-world equivalents to this fictional story, but still this film is trying to imagine the unimaginable. By all rights it should be inadequate or trite or tasteless or just plain unbelievable. In trying to make a film that isn’t a thriller or a drama or comedy but instead a hymn to love and relationships, the film-makers should be falling flat on their faces. Instead they’ve given us a genuinely unforgettable, overwhelming and transcendent film that helps us rediscover ourselves, our loved ones and the world around us. It finds beauty in the desperately ordinary thanks to some remarkable cinematography that makes the small room both a place of captivity and a universe to discover; the relationships are perfectly drawn and life-affirming thanks to Brie Larson’s and Jacob Tremblay’s (the son, Jack) achingly beautiful performances. The depths of their relationship are unfathomable yet also utterly recognisable to anyone who has ever loved. The startlingly brilliant music haunts, prods, pushes and finally engulfs. We never see the rape or abuse take place, but we’re left in no doubt as to its reality, its inescapability. Yet we’re never without hope or beauty, and ultimately the film lets us and the characters find life and love in new, beautiful and subtle ways.

There’s much to say about Room, but at the end of the day there’s little I can properly articulate. I can think of maybe one other film (Pan’s Labyrinth  – in many ways very different, in others very similar) that has come close to making me feel as moved, alive, tearful and full of wonder as this one. It’s a rare work of art that leaves you speechless yet desperate to talk, but Room is one of them.

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