In Praise Of The Beautifully Inessential

It began with a hushed conversation in a library. I was in my first year of theological study, preparing to enter ordained ministry in the Anglican church. I was talking to one of the more conservative students at our conservative college and said something along the lines of this: ‘My problem is that if theologians really believe that God is the most beautiful and significant being in the world, why is so much of what they write so boring?’. ‘Ah’, said the man listening to me. ‘You need to read some Eugene Peterson’. In my mind, up to then, Eugene Peterson was know only for The Message, a translation of the Bible in the language and idiom of the congregation he pastored in America. I hadn’t really considered that he might have written other things. That started a journey of discovery of theological and devotional writing that is characterised by clarity, deep theological thinking and an intoxicating love for words. It’s also true that unlike many theological writers, Peterson could write with a combination of economy and beauty.

It’s not essential for theology to be beautiful, of course. The Nicene Creed is generally accepted as a binding confessional statement for Christians; it’s full of good theological truth – but one could hardly call it beautiful. For its form, beauty is unnecessary. Beauty is unnecessary for objective truth to thrive, it seems.

All of which leads to me to a 10-year-old documentary film about a Canadian rock band. The film is Anvil: The Story Of Anvil. Back in the mid 1980s, Anvil was one of a series of rock/metal bands that appeared poised on the brink of massive global success. Whilst most of them went on to achieve that, Anvil got stuck. The majority of the film tells the story of Anvil, 30 years on, still writing, recording and performing with the band members in their 50s; only now they have ‘proper’ jobs on the side to pay (some of) the bills. The film bears many of the hallmarks of the rock documentary – backstage footage, gig footage, the writing/recording process, arguments between band members. What’s different here is that the band is not making money in the process; they’re not even in the ‘critically acclaimed, commercially under-appreciated’ sector.

There are many possible reasons for Anvil not becoming Metallica. Bad management and bad production stand out. To be blunt, they will never write a song as threatening and thrilling as Enter Sandman. That, however, is not really the point here. What matters for Anvil, and for us, is they glory in their process and output; although they dream of recognition and adulation, that’s not what they’re in this for. They want to make music and to play music. To them, that’s success.

There’s something here to think on. I often hear parents (and sometimes their children) talk of the need to get a qualification – and hence a job – that will produce something; that will contribute the economy and provide for all their current future needs. What the child must do is do some necessary, important and tangible; she must produce. Clearly we need lawyers and doctors and engineers and builders and the like. Sciences matter. I’m not denying that; but they are not the sum and total of what we need. The moment we think of ourselves as units of economic production we run in to trouble; we’ve allowed an un-critiqued version of capitalism to overwhelm our identity. I studied for a degree in English Literature, not a degree renowned for its job prospects. I jokingly refer it as ‘a degree in reading’. Stop, though, before laughing too hard: when was the last time you (or someone you know) seemed incapable of seeing the real meaning of Facebook post or an email? Why do so many people swallow fake news uncritically? Now do you want to tell me that a ‘degree in reading’, in truly understanding a text, is unimportant simply because it doesn’t lead to a tangible end-product?

woman playing ukulele

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

 

God has given us some clues here. God didn’t have to create; before creation, He was perfect within Himself. In his relationship with the 3 parts of Himself, he needed nothing. Yet create he did, an expression of love that wanted an outlet, a glorious,  indulgent extravagance. Seas, mountains, rivers, plains, plants, insects, animals, fish, plankton, stars, planets, sun, moon, woman, man, snow, rain. All so unnecessary, all pouring out of an abundant self-expression of light and sound.

Or think on music. Almost all religious expressions involve music and singing; it has often been where new musical expressions have taken root. But why? Do we need to sing? For the Christian the words of Be Thou My Vision or My Jesus, My Saviour remain just as true if they’re spoken aloud. The music isn’t necessary in that sense. But can you imagine a world in which congregations just said those words, to the backdrop of silence?

Music, and art in general, may not be objectively necessary but they do something to us. They speak to us in a form that’s more true than mere facts, deep calling to deep (in itself a Biblical metaphor that achieves a truth that is more than factual). Jesus and the prophets don’t just speak in objective statements of truth; also stories, metaphors, poetry, word pictures, dramatic actions.

Why, then, do we settle for less in our or our children’scareers? Only pursuing that which is productive? A nation consisting solely of tangible product may be economically booming, but it would be colourless.

Why, then, do our churches often seem to only use one form of music (whichever form is the preference of that one subset of the culture)? Is there space for new melodies, rhythms and harmonies alongside the established?  Why is so much Christian ‘art’ of recent years so plainly didactic? Why not take the poet’s eternal advice:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Emily Dickinson

The truth is that Anvil just aren’t that good a band; having seen this film I won’t be downloading their albums. But I am reminded with fresh energy that meaning matters more than material production; that fruitful labour may look different to that which is deemed apparently successful. I’m concerned that, within the church especially, we are uncritically accepting a fully capitalist worldview where even the pastor’s role must be described with precision and point towards outputs and markers. That church members must serve an ‘end product’ of a church machine geared to keep us busy and numerically growing, forgetting to allow the beauty of relationships and creativity in the image of an endlessly relational and creative God to flourish.

Do we, our life choices and communities, allow meaning and beauty and relationship to define us? Or are we too busy making and producing to simply be in the presence of God and each other, basking in the beauty God showers us with and invites us to co-labour with Him in creating? Do we want to build a society of units of production and end product, or a kingdom in which God-given gifts are allowed to flourish in response to One who delights in the unnecessary and inessential?

 

Advertisements

A State Of Unrest: Neither Triumph Nor Tragedy

When I first met the woman who would become my wife, she didn’t look ill. This was 1996, and I had just moved into staff accommodation for the job I had taken in London. I was in the lounge, a day or two after moving in. Bev was coming back from a weekend visiting her parents, and as she made her way to her room, past the lounge, she carried with her a computer. Like I said, this was 1996, so carrying a computer was no mean feat. My memory tells me that a friend was helping her. She may not have looked ill, but she was. At that stage she didn’t know what the problem was; she was increasingly tired, increasingly drained by the shifts she was working, and subject to a variety of tests to discern what the problem was. She moved job, within the same project, to an office-hours role; but the health problems didn’t go away. Some days she wasn’t able to get out of bed; not in the sense of simply feeling tired. In the sense of being unable to move. As a series of diagnoses were ruled out, eventually one was ruled in: M.E. – also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or (more cruelly) Yuppie Flu. No one really knew what that meant; allergies were tested for, but none found. Anti-depressants were prescribed for someone who wasn’t depressed. Some people live with M.E. for life; fortunately for Bev, she recovered.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is still, in some places, a controversial disease. The film Unrest (which I watched on Netflix South Africa) is a striking and moving self-produced documentary about one young woman’s experience of the disease and her attempts along with other sufferers to build awareness and get better treatment for it. Along the way there’s much that’s disturbing and light-shedding to learn: 85% of sufferers are female. Many medical ‘experts’ refer to it as caused by childhood trauma (known as conversion disorder – what was in times past called hysteria) despite a dearth of hard medical evidence to support this. In Denmark, a young woman suffering from the disease was forcibly removed from the care of her parents and treated for mental illness against her will for three years; at the time the film was released, she was still ill. We meet one young man who has been so afflicted by the disease that he has been unable to speak for a year. We watch the woman at the centre of the film lie motionless on the floor; we watch her and her husband both laugh and suffer through various attempts to change life-style in order to find a cure. We learn that with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – as with many other chronic diseases – there is strong correlation with depression and suicide.

woman with crossed hands

Photo by Nelly Aran on Pexels.com

One moment in particular bought me up short and caused me to recognise myself. After a period of elevated activity and stress, we watch a sufferer ‘crash’ – shake uncontrollably as she lies on her bed; a response that we’re told happens after periods of emotional or physical exertion. This felt familiar; I have Ankylosing Spondylitis, a chronic, incurable arthritic disease affecting the spine and many other joints, along with a variety of other symptoms. I have been in various levels of pain every day for around 20 years; I can’t remember what being pain-free, and not taking medication, feels like. That also coincides with the length of my engagement and marriage. Occasionally, in the relatively early days before medication was found to manage my pain, I would shake uncontrollably from the pain as I tried to get in to bed or put on socks. One day I found myself shaking uncontrollably in a more or less empty school chapel, a few minutes after presiding at the funeral of a friend murdered by terrorists, a funeral filmed by television cameras, attended by over 1000 people including Desmond Tutu. It was, by any definition, a period of intense physical and emotional stress. I shook for about 30 minutes, and when I got home afterwards I barely moved for 3 days. The shaking was variously ascribed to needing something to eat, the heat in the chapel and plain old tiredness – all of which probably played a role. But from Unrest I see now it was also the crash of the body responding to the stress of keeping my diseased spine and joints functional under immense pressure. With pressure released, a valve was opened and the stress could be let out.

A.S. is not Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but like many chronic diseases it is misunderstood and under-researched; both are more common than, say, M.S., but much less well-known or understood by medical professionals, let alone the general public. They are both invisible, and that is often the hardest part for the sufferer and the ones supporting them. Time and again I, for instance, will have to say ‘no’ to helping push a car or move a stack of chairs because of invisible pain. No one will give a sign of compliant; but you can’t help thinking … do they believe me? Am I really that sore? People will talk of being able to do … whatever it is … with a sore back, so you should do; doing another thing after a short night’s sleep, so the CFS sufferer should. This rarely happens to me these days; though many years ago, in a job reference, my then employer referred to me as ‘lazy’ for sometimes not helping with physical chores when I was in pain. I didn’t get the job.

As Unrest moves to its conclusion another resonant point is made. The narrator reflects that many diseases (I might name, for example, cancer) end with either ‘triumph or tragedy’. In my example, you become either a cancer survivor, or – like my mother – you die after a ‘brave fight’. We’ve all heard those phrases used. For CFS, AS, and diseases like them, neither happens. You just keep on. Just keep going. Some join you on the road for a while; but you learn to spot the moment when they realise that there will be neither triumph or tragedy, and they stop asking you, stop checking in. And God forbid you, the one suffering, say how hard it is. Struggling, finding it hard to bear the pain and the fatigue and the brain fog and everything else for 20 years past and 20 or more to come; none of that fits the convenient matrix of triumph or tragedy. There’s no prize for just getting out of bed; no awareness month for diseases that just keep on going. Carers lose support and friends; people grow weary of hearing how your finances are affected; how your sex life is affected; why you’re looking sad today; why you’ve put on weight. I’m still here, goes the song at the movie ends, in neither triumph nor tragedy. That’s the goal of the chronic sufferer and supporters – just to keep on keeping on; to many observers it’s an awfully boring goal.

Meanwhile, as Unrest highlights, some researchers do keep working to learn more. As money is raised and spent in its billions on the diseases which end in triumph or tragedy, research on chronic conditions like CFS and AS continues relatively unnoticed and massively underfunded and significantly misunderstood. Films like Unrest will make a difference; as will Becoming Incurable (which will focus on AS amongst other conditions), currently in post-production. For now, people like those in the film, like my wife, like me and many others will keep on, keeping on.

God In The Slow Lane

It’s often said that the urgent can drive out the important. From responding to emails to health issues and much in between, there’s evidence to suggest this is true. Our attention is automatically – and often necessarily  – diverted to that which is most pressing. If your house is on fire at the moment when you’d set aside time to work on your tax returns which are due in a month’s time, then you’d be a fool to do anything other than deal with the urgent, important as tax returns are.

How do we discern which is which? Rarely are faced with such a binary or obvious choice. The minister by whom I was trained told me many things which have lodged in mind: one of them was the importance of discerning the difference between a good idea and a God idea. It might be – for example – a good idea to introduce a church service led by the youth to the programme of services; but is it the right idea at the right time? Are the youth ready? Is the rest of the church ready? That’s the leadership decision; Victor Hugo is paraphrased as writing that no-can resist an idea whose time has come. There’s truth in that.

What makes this leadership decision so difficult much of the time is that people have very different ideas of what’s urgent and what’s important. I’m always hesitant to blame the still-new tool of social media, but certainly Facebook and the like can amplify this tendency – the louder you shout or the more dramatic the news or the tighter the deadline, then the more likely you are to get heard. And there does seem to be an awful lot of shouting. The ticking time-bombs of climate-change, American mid-term elections, Brexit and the like all scream for attention. Not to mention the varied issues that are – or appear to be – related to these and other situations; the gap between rich and poor in various countries, volatile economies, diplomatic relations strained to near breaking point, racial tensions, the rise of political extremism. It seems that something must be done on each of these, now.

We bring this to church, too. Can you give me 5 ways to improve my prayer-life? What’s the best way to read the Bible? Can we have a course to improve marriage/parenting/surviving as a single person? The need screams importance and urgency; set up a solution, now.

autumn autumn leaves branches danger

Photo by David Whittaker on Pexels.com

The problem is that God seems to work to altogether different timetables. The God who defends the poor and is concerned for justice and liberation seems to wait most of Moses’s long life-time before finally sending him to lead them to freedom … which in the end turned out to be 40 years of wondering apparently aimlessly in the wilderness. Jesus waited for 30 years of presumably normal education and manual labour before doing much that was worth recoding for future posterity. As the letter-writer says in 2 Peter 3: ” With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” That’s to say – God is not so much concerned with any one thing we do or don’t do as He is the state of our souls, our relationship to Him. He’s prepared to give us a lot of time.

All this is somewhat fraught with problems. It may seem quite easy for me to say that God is patient and is biding his time for my eternal sake; but unlike some who live in this city, my house didn’t just burn down leaving me homeless and shorn of resources. The mid-term elections have a date on them, as does Brexit. If I were to receive a terminal diagnosis tomorrow (there’s no likelihood that I will), then every day would suddenly take on new weight. We’ve become so accustomed to having much of what we want or need on demand that we expect the same of the spiritual life and the faith communities we are part of or lead. Added to that, one of the perpetual burdens of leadership is to be able to see with clarity the gap between where an organisation is and where it could or should be. This gap between our time-bound urgency and God’s slowness seems to be a recipe for human frustration and angst.

What to do, then? I’ve never understood prayer, and am rather suspicious of anyone who claims to do so. I am aware, however, that when I am able to pray, two things happen – often simultaneously – something changes in the situation or person I’m praying for, and something changes in me. So I should pray, then. That’s all well and good, but in this period of my life – children, not great health, full-time job and the like, I don’t have much time. I pray a version of the daily office some days; I fire off prayers at some points in the day if something prompts me so to do. But it’s hard to turn attention to God when there’s so much that is, dare I say it, both urgent and important. Like many parents, I’m tired. I go to bed tired, and I wake tired. Prayer is hard when you’re tired.

God is working in my life very slowly at the moment. I’ve only recently realised the truth of something that happened to me around 25 years ago. Why didn’t God help me do it earlier, and save us all a lot of time? I don’t know. Things in church happen slowly; of course, we’ve never really arrived, we’re always changing and adjusting and growing – but it strikes me that in one particular area of my church’s life we’re only now beginning to reach a place I first dreamed of about 8 years ago. For so many people – including myself and my own relationships – I can see where we or they could be, but we all seem to take an inordinately long time to get there.

I read this week that in Paul’s great hymn to love, 1 Corinthians 13, the first definition given of love is patience; or as older translations have it, long-suffering. God seems to love me, you, us so much that he’s willing to suffer long for us to get to where he needs us to get to. He won’t rush us because to rush us would go against his innate love for us. He loves us more than our deeds, more than our urgent actions or calls to action, more than any one thing we can make happen. He wants us to work for him – but he wants that to come not as duty or forced obedience, but as loving response to his long-suffering on our behalf.

There is much we come up against that might be fixed by urgent labour or donation of money or the like. Sometimes that will need to happen; but more often, perhaps, we will find ourselves called to what Eugene Peterson termed the ‘long obedience in the same direction’; the long-suffering with ourselves and others, as God does with us. There’s no 12 week course to fix injustice; there’s no quick fix for my prayer-life; there’s no easy route to better relationships. Love is patient, long-suffering – requiring us to exercise the kindness and the benefit of the doubt to ourselves and others that God is so willing to exercise to all of us. That doesn’t allow us to be lazy, or to make excuses for damaging or violating patterns of behaviour; but it does mean that we are to find within us that part of ourselves that bears the stamp of the long-suffering creator, to let His patience call out our own with ourselves and others.

Saving And Harming; Is A Star Is Born A Film About Abuse?

There’s a theory often quoted that when it comes to plots of stories there are only seven (some people come up with a different, but similar, number). Every story ever told falls into one of the seven templates, maybe with subtle differences to others versions – but recognisable all the same. Originality has not always been seen as a virtue; much of what Shakespeare wrote was predictable in terms of the template of the stories; what was unique about his plays was the beauty of the language and the way he extracted profound and universal themes from old material.

Even so, it’s rare that unoriginality is so clearly signalled as it is in A Star Is Born, directed by and starring Bradley Cooper and co-starring Lady Gaga. This story has been made into a film four times under this title (including this one); I haven’t seen any of them until now, but it was no less predictable for that. It’s a story that has been told and retold in countless versions with different titles and variation over the years. That’s not to criticise it; simply to say that if you’ve seen a few films, there won’t be many surprises here – although the gasp from the row of young adults behind me at one major development which I saw coming before I’d even seen the film, indicated that something is always new to someone. Bradley Cooper is an ageing rock star whose career has passed its peak; he meets part-time singer Lady Gaga in a club where she’s performing. He takes her under his wing as lover and protegé; the rest … well either you can guess it, or you’re like one of those young adults.

The film has much to recommend it. Bradley Cooper’s direction is deft, telling the story engagingly and compellingly. His own performance is excellent; and he’s clearly a more than able musician, able to convince as a genuine rock star. Wherever you stand on Lady Gaga, you can’t deny the power of her voice – and she shows it off here to its full capacity. Hearing her sing on a big screen with a big sound system is a treat indeed – hers is a voice to truly stop the listener in his tracks. She can act too – her gradual ascent is believable, her nervousness and discomfort palpable. She’s a proper star; one of those people who I suspect, rather annyoingly, can put her mind to most things successfully. To make it even worse she’s probably a nice person to boot.

art awareness campaign concrete

Photo by Lum3n.com on Pexels.com

 

There’s a big question hanging over it all, that I can’t find a satisfying answer to. It hinges on this: is the film portraying something and critiquing it, or is it indulging it? The ‘it’ here is the endemically patriarchal music industry, expressed through the abuse, control and manipulation of a young woman by powerful men. There are moments throughout the film where Ally (Lady Gaga) appears to have a choice, but in reality doesn’t; Bradley Cooper’s character – who has had her privately flown backstage to his gig – introduces one of her songs to the crowd and invites her out. She’s free to decline, of course … but who could possibly do that? Quickly she becomes essential to his fading glory; and as her star ascends and her career takes off, his jealousy and incapability of coping without her is writ large. He slips into bouts of substance abuse and depression; she keeps boomeranging  back. In one disturbing moment, he ends an angry, drunk tirade at Ally (vulnerable, naked, in the bath) by calling her ugly (amongst much else). She stands up to him, for a time. All the time, her (male) manager makes choices for her and controls her career; some of which she eschews anyway (and gets an angry response, of course), some of them she submits to. Her music is changed; from piano or guitar led (she reminded me almost of Tori Amos in the beginning) to making the sort of music that (almost all) white, male critics deem insubstantial and empty; dance-pop, appealing to girls and young women.

Of course, it’s all about Bradley Cooper’s character’s redemption; she brings meaning to him; she reawakens his songwriting gift. From the end of the film, it’s clear that her career will for ever be defined by the man who spotted her and married her.

I’ve no doubt the music industry is deeply patriarchal and abusive towards women; the question for this film to answer is if it is giving us an honest portrayal to interrogate and critique; or is the film sinking into the same morass it shows us on screen? As #metoo has shown us, the movie industry is no different to any other in the way powerful men abuse, manipulate and control women – especially women at the start of their careers.

Lady Gaga’s Ally wouldn’t have a career without men; and we leave her at the film’s end still in a man’s shadow. She has bought him a measure of redemption – but that’s the point, I think. Her career is about him; it’s for him, heals him, remakes him. She seems to be doing her masters’ bidding all this time.

I left having enjoyed the film, been gripped and moved by it. It left me deeply troubled also. I am only now in the process of identifying and understanding my own abuse twenty-five years ago; I felt reminded of my own past that I can’t yet name fully. Not in a good way, but in a way that seemed to excuse the abuse because of what happened in Ally’s career. I wonder what a woman currently in an abusive relationship might make of this.

I’m sure Bradley Cooper never intended this; therein, though, is the point. We’re so inured to the trope of the (young) woman being ‘saved’ by an older man, who takes advantage of her in such a way as she can never leave, that we expect it to be like this. We’ve forgotten how to tell this story differently, where the young woman has vibrancy and agency that doesn’t depend on a man calling it out of her and keeping her at his beck and call, healing him even as he wounds her. It’s an old story, that for all its pleasures deserves a better, newer telling than this if the wounds of many are to receive some measure of healing.

Glimpses Of The St Peter’s Story: Learning To Be Diverse

Desmond Tutu – The Arch(bishop) as he’s affectionately known – was, I think, the person who introduced the idea of South Africa as The Rainbow Nation; a multicoloured country of different cultures, where new ideas are allowed to compete in the market-place along with established thinking. Where different cultures are allowed to flourish and express themselves on an equal footing. This is an attractive and inspiring idea – not least here, in a country where one people group ruled all the others so oppressively and for so long. It’s a concept that many embraced – and it was used explicitly and implicitly to market the country abroad. You can see the idea – if not the words themselves – behind much of the country’s apparent self-image, in advertising and various cultural expressions.

But it’s hard work; so hard, that some have given up. I’ve heard The Arch say that he believes the dream of the Rainbow Nation is dead; every gain requires some loss, and that seems to be too painful for some to persist.  How do we respond to that in Mowbray, a diverse (economically and racially) area of Cape Town? In former days Mowbray was an area which experienced the forced removals of apartheid law, and the incoming of white people, Some members of this church can still remember waiting with toys in hand for the trucks to come and take them to their new ‘home’ … which even on the day of removal they didn’t know the location of. Things have changed now; Mowbray truly is diverse. But how does the church embrace that?

rainbow color patch on area rug

Photo by Sanketh Rao on Pexels.com

Diversity can sound like a vague idea, redolent of the sort of forced ideals which enrage some extreme cultural conservatives. However, if the church is called to be a local expression of the Gospel (to simplify what one of my theological heroes, Lesslie Newbigin, said) then we have to take that seriously. If we’re try to give people a (fallen) foretaste of the New Creation where people of all nations will be worshipping and working and resting with each other at Jesus’ feet, then a church in area like ours needs to seek to be like that.

We’re not a big church, but we do have people from a number of different cultural backgrounds who call this church their spiritual home. We’ve been introducing songs and hymns in some of the different languages represented; for some who were forced as children to learn at school in a language that wasn’t their mother tongue, this has been deeply significant, and at times overwhelmingly emotional. We have a diversity of styles of music (sometimes led by the organ, sometimes the guitar and sometimes the keyboard). We try to make sure people who aren’t white men (like me) are involved in leadership positions at different points. It’s hard for people to unlearn the practice of years of sitting at the back of church because that where they felt they had to sit in years past – even when we rope off the back pews; conversely, white people are having to learn to give up (or at least share) their pews at the front.

It’s not easy, though. Because we’re not a big church, there’s only (for example) a few people musical enough to play in services; there’s only so much diversity we can express with a community of this size. The pool is numerically limited, and we want people to be expressing their gifts in a way that gives them joy – not forced into an ill-fitting yolk whuch will burden them. I read and hear people saying that if we don’t have X% of people who aren’t white males in positions of influence, then we’re failing. I agree with the agenda, but not with that way of expressing it; it fails to account for the factor that we, like every other church, are constantly in a process. We haven’t arrived, and may never do so; church’s are organic beings which need a gentle hand on the tiller; they’re not machines where you can simply replace parts with other ones. People need to be loved into change, not driven. Our vision statement seeks to express this sense of not arriving: “We believe Jesus is good news for this city, so we want to be a community where people experience Jesus, embracing the full diversity of Mowbray and beyond”. (Note: we want to be – not are).

We’ve struggled, for instance, to get people who aren’t white males to preach in Sunday services; there are things I could have done better to speed this along, I’m sure. But we also need to wait (and much of ministry and church life and all of life is waiting for God to do things in the time He wants) for the right people to find their home amongst us – and then to have the courage to accept invitations when they are extended.

We are seeking. Seeking a lot of different things, or rather seeking to be many different things. There are things we could do better; there’s also much we’re waiting for.

Seek and you shall find, says Jesus.

Anger Is An Energy: Responding To Paul Greengrass’s 22 July

Anger is an energy sang PIL, and so the punk movement took flight. Behind the now cliché of a colourful mohican was a frantic energy to destroy the status-quo of the elites running culture and politics. This was a music that left everything out on stage – except, perhaps, the instruments themselves which were often thrashed past the point of breakage when the gig has reached its climax. A few bands still do this even now; it’s seen to be a signifier of having given so much to the performance that there’s nowhere left to go, a symbol of the destruction of the established order. It’s also quite good fun to watch. Like most musical genres, once punk muscled its way into deeper public consciousness it seemed to have less energy, and to be a bit tired. That’s not entirely fair, but the hardcore punk fans see neo-punk acts who remain commercially successful as bands who have sold out – many true punks look disdainfully on bands like Green Day and their fans as having somehow failed by virtue of their success. The baton of truth is held, it’s said, by bands most of us would never have heard of; in punk, and in other genres that once betokened rebellion but now command widespread attention – RnB, hip-hop, rap. And so on.

Anger isn’t wrong; it just seems to be something that can easily tip us over into wrong. One New Testament letter writer doesn’t say ‘Your anger is a sin’; it says, instead ‘In your anger, do not sin’. Anger is an energy, which left unchecked can lead us to dangerously lose control; which is why the same letter-writer also recommends that if  we find ourselves angry with someone we love, to sort it out before bedtime.

pexels-photo-987585.jpeg

Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

 

The truth is that there seems to be an awful lot of anger around at the moment. American conservatives are angry that under Obama their America was lost. American liberals are angry at the Conservatives for spreading hate and intolerance. Progressive Christians are angry at conservative ones for supporting Trump; conservative ones are angry with progressive ones for not doing so and for accusing them of selling out the gospel. Women are angry at men for the patriarchy and the abuse and the harassment; some men are angry at women for finding a voice, other men are angry at the rest of the men for speaking up or not speaking up. Brexit supporters are angry with Remainers for demanding a new vote and with their government for selling out the referendum; Remainers are angry with Brexiteers for being Brexiteers and with their government for an indecisive process. Here in South Africa … well, it feels to me as if everyone is angry with one group or another. Apply to your own country or context several times over.

Social media is often blamed for this; and it’s true that never having to see the person you’re typing at makes it easier to get angry and nasty; or at least not having to see them in that moment … a bit like over-spending on the credit-card because it doesn’t feel like real money. If anger is an energy, it’s often a destructive one, whether it’s musical instruments, people or political unity.

Anger was destructive on 22 July, when right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 young people attending a Labour Party Youth Camp on Utøya Island outside of Oslo after detonating a car bomb in the city. Paul Greengrass’s new film, titled 22 July tells this story. With his background in television journalism, British director Greengrass is attracted to stories like this; most powerfully in United 93 which told the story of the plane hijacked on 9/11/01 that never made it to its intended target. That he managed to tell that story without nationalistic fervour, hatred or voyeurism is one of the great cinematic achievements this century. A similar eye is there in his more action centred films – the Bourne movies (3 of which are his) may be fictional thrillers, but they are ones that seem to live in a nearly-real, believable world. If a film had to be made about Utøya Island (and as someone who knows what it’s like to lose someone to terrorist atrocities, I think that’s an open question) Paul Greengrass is the man to do it. He does so with a cinema release, but primarily on Netflix, to get what he sees as an important story into the medium most likely to reach younger people.

It’s a film with clear segments. The first 30 minutes or so portray the massacre itself – the families of victims asked him to neither sanitise nor exploit it, and he achieves that. It’s a devastating half-hour, shot in the eerie half-light of Scandinavian summer; deaths and injuries are real, but not lingered on. Its cinematography is a mixture of his trademark shaken, handheld cameras which deliberately jar with some powerful longer shots; one, of a group of teenagers huddled fearfully halfway down a cliff face, is especially memorable and moving. From there the film follows two paths – the recovery of one teenager badly injured, and the arrest and eventual trial of Brevik. Throughout nothing is soft-soaped, but neither is it milked; the teenager’s recovery is hard to watch (beyond a couple of scenes which feel a little contrived or clichéd; though I’m aware we can’t know the details of his recovery process). Brevik (brilliantly portrayed) is neither mad nor cartoonishly evil; he’s coldly rational, angry and aware. The moment we all know is coming – when he walks in to court and gives a long Nazi salute – is no less upsetting for it being predictable. That’s all in the brilliance of the direction and the performance.

None of these people are the central character, though. That’s Norway itself; the country Brevik insists is on trial. Greengrass said in his brilliant and eloquent interview with the BBC’s Simon Mayo (Simon Mayo interviews Paul Greengrass) that he wanted to tell the story of how Norway wrestled with the issue of whether to let Brevik tell the court his reasons; should we listen to his anger, or should they deny him the oxygen of publicity? Is it ever right to listen to the people who do these things? Norway decided it was; and the result, Greengrass claims, is that anger is is dissipated. In that interview Greengrass cites the ongoing divisions over Brexit, the rise of the far-right in diverse countries and the political cauldron of the USA as contexts where a similar exercise in listening might be fruitful or even healing.

It sounds true and wise, and probably is. I’ve tried hard to listen over recent years, as best as I am able to practically, given my circumstances. But the thing is, I’m getting sick of it. I’m getting sick of being shouted at – metaphorically in text or in reality through someone’s voice. I’m sick of being told or thinking I might be intolerant on the one hand or racist on the other; of being theologically liberal or conservative or progressive; of being a toxic male or a weak one; of being a parent who’s too strict or too permissive. And so it goes on. If listening really does dissipate anger’s energy, or allow the wrongness of the ideas that drive it to be seen for all it is, then I’ve yet to really experience it. Maybe dealing with it once in Norway just caused it move and take root more deeply elsewhere, like some sick version of Whack-A-Mole.

What do we do with our anger, mine and yours? Unexpressed anger is a breeding ground for all sorts of darkness, of which others or the angry one themselves may both bear the brunt. There are plenty of places in the Bible, for example, where anger and lament is given a voice; but this is rare in our public worship. Saying or singing the psalms doesn’t seem to be something that works in many settings now – so maybe we need new expressions of these texts, or songs and hymns that give voice to very contemporary laments. Still, though, many Christians seems to feel that anger is inherently sinful, and that its very expression or acknowledgement will let the genie out of the bottle. What about the rest of us, though; the increasing majority who are ‘spiritual, but not religious’; atheist or agnostic? What are their options? How do we listen well, and express anger well without the cancer spreading or worsening? How do we find the strength to keep listening when we’re sick of it?

I don’t know.

When Ministry Is An Idol

When Ministry Is An Idol

It’s easy to care too much. Time was when an Arsenal result would affect my mood for a few days; my then girlfriend (now wife) would put her hand on my chest during a match and she’d be seriously worried about the speed of the heartbeat she felt. The truth is, supporting Arsenal is an important part of my identity; it was handed down at an early age from my mother. I have one of those romantic first memories of live football at Arsenal with my mother’s father that Nick Hornby would be proud of (1-1 with Watford, Charlie Nicholas missed a penalty but scored off the rebound, since you ask). It had become too important, though. So over time I learned (mostly) to put Arsenal in its right place in my life – something that’s important to me, that I enjoy and care about … but not a long-term mood-altering drug, like it had been.
Of course, one of the things about a mood-altering drug is that once we grow accustomed to life under its spell we can start to fear who we are without it. It becomes a way of protecting ourselves not only from the world, but from ourselves. One of the keys to healing the addictions we all live with is to allow ourselves to be OK with who we are  – and to allow ourselves to be worked on by ourselves and others (and God) in a loving way that affirms us yet calls us on. At its heart, addiction to anything is about idolatry. We are dependent on something (or someone) flawed, that damages us in some way – rather than the God who works for our good in all things. Idolatry is putting something else where God should be in our lives.

When it comes to preaching on idols or idolatry, I sometimes ask the congregation to suggest idols that they think are issues in society today. The responses are usually reasonably predictable: money, sex, sport. Those are the things we good church people can often think of as idols. That’s not wrong – there are people for whom these things have assumed the wrong place in their lives. But I’ll be honest; I’ve yet to meet a Christian in the broadly evangelical church for whom sex is an idol; perhaps sexual purity, but that’s the subject of another post. I sometimes try and prod the conversation: what about family? marriage? church? Could they be idols?

What about me, then? Now I’ve got Arsenal more or less in its place (most of the time), what are my idols? For me  – and I think for many of us in what is loosely, and rather self-importantly titled ‘full time (paid) ministry’ – I think it’s that last word. This doesn’t happen as an instantaneous decision; it’s not as if we make a model of our ministry out of melted down gold; it’s more subtle than that. As I’ve touched on before, evidence of ministry’s idolatrous place in our lives may be slipping out in the form of our over-the-top reaction to criticism or our extreme defensiveness or obsessive controlling. The ministry could be anything, really: (ordained) church leadership, youth work, speaking for justice, writing, preaching, church music (of any era) … The list could go on for a long time. We fall prey to the heresy that God needs us, that our ministry is in some way essential to Him; when in fact it’s a gift of grace which He longs for us to have as part of life in all its fulness, part of our grateful worship back to Him.
Defensiveness is a tricky part of this. I know what it’s like to be publicly accused of something that has no basis in fact. It’s hard to defend the accusation whilst not thinking ‘God needs me here, so I’d best defend this with everything I’ve got’. God doesn’t need me; He wants me. It’s hard to accept the reality that God knows what’s real when people are spreading (and worse, believing) untruths about you. If I react well in those situations, then I’ll confront what’s wrong and do what I need to do to deal with the situation – but I’ll be doing so in such a way that I’m not pretending God’s life depends on it. The Gospel has been around long enough, and God has coped with enough false accusations (against Jesus, for starters), to prove that in the long term His mission of love for the world will not be deflected if a few people believe the wrong thing about me.
How do I know the difference? The truth is that I often won’t; and that our motives and deeds are rarely so easily defined as all-good or all-bad. For me, part of it relates to words spoken over me – words meant with love. When I was waiting to hear if I’d been recommended for ordination in the Church of England my mother (for whom it was a dream to have a son ordained – because she never was ordained herself) said to me ‘I don’t know what you’ll do with yourself if you don’t get accepted’. That was over 20 years ago, and still it haunts me long after my mother’s death. My therapist and I have revisited it more than a few times. In darker moments, I still ask myself: if I lose all this, if it gets taken away from me because of the action of another or my deteriorating health … what will I do? What am I any good for? Then the defensiveness comes; then my God-given calling to ordained ministry has slipped into the place God should assume in my life. I’m holding on to my Isaac, rather than than the one who feely gave me Isaac in the first place.
God, this is a hard one. Another layer of the ‘God doesn’t need me, but He does want me’ dilemma. He can cope without me and you, but chooses not to. He doesn’t define me or you by our ministries or our gifts or our callings or our families or our relationships or our writings or our talks or our worship sets or organ voluntaries or coffee-making or speaking up for those who have no voice or financial responsibility or giving or … All of these matter; all of them we are invited to; commanded to do, perhaps (though maybe it’s less of a command than we often like to make it sound). God defines me and you first, and only, by our status as His children. The rest of it comes from that  – and leads us, and in God’s grace others, back to that basic truth. We are children of a perfect father. If our ministries were for some reason taken from us overnight, God would still be our Father and Mother, perfect in all His ways and endless in Her love.
A fresh realisation of this for me came with our fostering (and planned adoption) of the children who have now been in our care for more than two and a half years. We started fostering, and planned to adopt, not because we need to have children; we didn’t. We simply felt it was what God was inviting us to. I didn’t need children in my life. But I find now that I do want them there; I rejoice in them, I thank God for them, they drive me to prayer and worship like little else I have ever encountered. It would be easy for them to become idols. I am invited to remember that as we have done for them, at some cost, God has done for me at immeasurable cost so that I could be adopted by Him. When that understanding is in its right place, all else flows as it should.