(Not so) happy-clappies

It is a truth universally acknowledged that people who express their Christian worship with the musical accompaniment of a young male guitar-player, drums and a female backing singer (all the people being beautiful) are covering up their darker emotions and experiences with forced happiness and manufactured positive emotions.

Like many universally acknowledged truths there is, well, much truth in it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been in large happy-clappy meetings and found myself engaged in conversation afterwards with people who felt like they were the odd one out in the room; that there a sense of exclusion from the exultation for people like them.

If only all the odd ones out could meet each other…

Anyway. The other side of universally acknowledged truths is that they are often generalisations which don’t bear the weight of the meaning read into them. I’ve been a Christian for a long time and I’ve been paid to work in and for churches for 11 years. Much of that time has been in and around the Charismatic movement so often characterised as happy-clappy. In that time I’ve also been one who has struggled with depression, as well as living with a long-term chronic illness with no sign of cure that affects my quality of life (ankylosing spondylitis, thanks for asking) and a learning disability (dysgraphia, which you probably haven’t heard of). Those things mean many things. For now what’s in my mind is that I am acutely aware of my own brokenness and fragility. People who mock Christianity say that it’s a crutch for the weak. To misquote a West Wing character, what you use as a badge of shame, I’ll take as a badge of honour. I need a crutch. It’s the ones who don’t realise they need crutch whom I pity.

Now many would say to that to live with that sense of brokenness, incompleteness, as I do is incompatible with being a charismatic Christian. Sometimes that’s felt true. I’ve sat in meetings, church services and conferences in which you’d swear no one had ever had a bad day, let alone a sense of weakness now that they’d signed on the eternal dotted line. I’ve heard charismatic Christian speakers say some stupid, ignorant, insensitive things. Many times I’ve said and hoped and prayed that the songwriters of the movement would write about a broader range of emotions and experiences.

And they have. As some of them have grown older, they have grown wiser. Songs have started to take on subtler shades. Emotions of different types are starting to find a place in worship: “You are good, you are good, when there’s nothing good in me”; “scars and struggles on the way…”; “..the road marked with suffering, though there’s pain in the offering..”.

So, then. Whilst I’ve yet to have an experience in corporate sung worship as emotionally rich as a Radiohead album or gig, for me it makes emotional (as well as theological) sense to live with the label of ‘charismatic’ Christian, even if I don’t buy the whole package of subculture and marketing. For me – and recognising that some will not find this – at least in this way my good and bad days have emotional expression in worship. At least I find there that my emotions are allowed in the door of the worship experience.

I lead one church community, and on Sunday evenings attend another. The latter would wear the label of charismatic Christan. My experience of it, where I’ve preached a few times, is of an increasing emotional depth and maturity. People talk from the front and in conversation about dark times and difficult days, of mental illness and suicide. Recently one young man stood in front of that congregation, talking of his recent diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and how he had learned in this community, this charismatic Christian group, that it’s OK for him to have very bad days, to be barely able to see Jesus in the distance. Among the many things I pray for the community I lead is that we will become a place where that kind of thing can be said.

At the worst this expression of Christianity, like anything led by people, can be hard and painful and make you feel crushed into a mould. At the best it gives you a space to make emotional sense of your brokenness before God and with people. The Bible refers to this as the experience of having ‘this treasure in jars of clay’ (2 Corinthians 4:7). It’s a way of saying we’re prone to being broken, chipped and cracked vessels of something we are not worthy of carrying, but find ourselves carrying anyway. It means that what may sometimes be, or seen to be, an emotionally toxic brand of forced happiness is in fact what Christians call joy. That, as the hymn writer says, though things may get very, very dark, it is still well with my soul.

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Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Reactions to books like this can go in a number of different directions. They can be dismissed as money-making exercises in stating the obvious; they can be patronised as tacky self-help which takes no account of reality; or they can be the rather more dramatic ‘Oh. My. God. You have to read this. It changed my life!’.

The first is sometimes fair, but usually isn’t; the second likewise. The third is almost bound to result in one’s experience of the book collapsing under the weight of expectation. One’s also tempted, in such a case, to say ‘Come back and see me in 10 years. Then we’ll know if it really has changed your life’.

None of these reactions would be fair on ‘Quiet’, one of the more loudly trumpeted (if that’s not one level of irony too far) additions to a burgeoning literature on the perils of living as an introvert in an extroverted world. Step back from the extreme reactions that might tempt us, and we’ll see in Susan Cain’s book something with much wisdom, not a little generosity of spirit and perceptive cultural analysis. For instance her brief critique of evangelical Christianity is so on the mark that it leaves you begging for a whole book on that alone. Talking to one introverted pastor in the midst of an evangelical mega-church mall, she draws this conclusion: ‘…many evangelicals [have] come to associate godliness with sociability’. I’m a pastor and been around churches a long time. There’s more truth in that one sentence of Susan Cain’s then in many sermons I’ve heard or preached.

Through religion, classrooms, workplaces, marriages, friendships, media and more she highlights the elevation of extroversion as what’s desirable at the expense of ignoring, mocking or isolating the introverted amongst us. Thus her case is built, and guidelines offered – from hard personal experience of her own or clients she’s worked amongst.

Such books need to be built on something of a generalisation – and it’s those that provoke the extreme reactions noted earlier. Take these with the balance and qualifiers the author herself offers, though, and you’re left with an accessible, feet-on-the-ground piece of journalism which talks much sense. The closing chapters on romantic relationships and raising or teaching children will evoke nods of recognition as well as leaving you with applicable tools as opposed to easy steps to change your life.

So: read it, reflect on it, discuss it, apply it. It’s not a missive from eternity on which to build your life. It does, though, talk a lot of sense.

I rated this book 4/5 on goodreads.com

Watchmen

In director Zac Snyder’s head, this film is an epic superhero movie, part-Goodfellas or Godfather, part Shakespearean tragedy. Unfortunately that movie is still somewhere in his head.

Released in 2009, and recorded by myself nearly a year ago, I’ve finally summoned the will to watch the nearly 3 hours of this adaptation of one of the most revered graphic novels. I haven’t read it; I haven’t read any graphic novels. Not because I deem them unworthy of my attention – I’m just aware this a genre I’d need to get to grips with. That’s something I’ve never done.

The problem with adapting any loved source is the faithfulness/adaptation debate. This misses the point – it’s best to think of book and film is 2 separate incarnations of a third party – the story. Look at a film like Trainspotting to see it done to near perfection. The two media are different, and so should the interpretations of a story in those media. Zac Snyder’s film goes, I’m told for fidelity – trying to tell a story set inappropriate alternative 1985 where Nixon is still president, where superheroes are known to the public and where public opinion is on the turn. Then there’s some kind of murder story. And something to do with nuclear weapons. And, apparently, relationship stuff.

The plot doesn’t seem to flow; parts of the script would be returned to a high school film studies student to try harder. It a very, very long two and three quarter hours film.

It’s not all bad – some action scenes are ridiculous and aimless; some nicely handled and artfully directed. It’s at it’s best when it sticks to the detective story elements – sadly, that’s all too little, lost in all the apparently aimless meanderings.There’s probably a good film to be made from parts of this source; sadly, this one doesn’t make the appeal of the graphic novel apparent to anyone who’s not already on-side. A missed opportunity.

I rated this film 2/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 4/10 on imdb.com

The Newsroom and the death of Bin Laden

This series – the first one of West Wing creator’s Aaron Sorkin’s latest offering, The Newsroom – should probably have a post of its own. That will still happen when we’ve finished watching. But one episode I’ve  just seen really set me thinking.

The show is set in and around the production of a nightly news show on American TV station,  a show priding itself on its high news values and quest for the truth. It’s set in the recent past, against the backdrop of recent events – Tahir Square, for instance, and in this episode, the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

Two things surprised me about this episode. The first is that it received a largely negative reaction on airing in the USA. The mixed tone, of light comedy alongside the sober seriousness of the news event did not go down well. I thought it worked brilliantly – with all Sorkin’s trademark wit and drama. It was captivating and unforgettable television.

The other thing which surprised me was the extent to which the show didn’t get under the skin of  American jubilation at the news of Bin Laden’s death. It was presented almost unquestioningly; one character was less than warm in her reaction, due in part to an unconvincing family connection to 9/11 itself. The rest was all celebration and national pride – which seems at odds with the tone of Sorkin’s other work – in love with his country, but not without awareness of its faults. Not least, also, an implication of anti-death penalty stance.

It’s not that I can’t empathise with the release of emotion that accompanied the news of Bin Laden’s death – it’s just that I’m surprised and confused as to why Sorkin didn’t interrogate this more. I remember in the days following the event, the almost universal outpouring of joy from a spectrum of American political opinion – conservative and liberal agenda seemed to be forgotten in a rush to celebrate. The occasional voice of concern was there – but it was hard to hear in the din. I’m not sure there’s much else to say  – I’m noting, really, what for me was an odd and strangely incomplete emotion for such a good piece of drama. Maybe I expected too much – especially when Sorkin’s characters tend to prize being right at the expense of grace and forgiveness. Or maybe I’m missing the point. More when the series ends.

When the elephant in the room is a bicycle

There once was a man. Think of a name for him. Go on…

He lived in a poor community in South Africa. He lived with his extended family – partner, children, sister and 2 brothers. In a small shack somewhere. He used his bicycle to get to his job as a car guard in a shopping mall in one of the nice parts of the city. One day he came home from work later than usual. Only an hour so, nothing to worry about. But he was so tired (it was after midnight after all), that he forgot to properly secure the door to his shack when he put the bicycle away inside.

In the middle of the night he woke up. He wasn’t sure why. He heard nothing unusual. Just the township night. So he went back to sleep. It was only when he woke up sharp at 5:15 a.m. as every other morning that he discovered what had woken him so suddenly. The door to his shack was ajar. The bike was gone. That was what had woken him. So he got to work late. Which meant he came home early, his job gone. Which meant he couldn’t buy the food his extended family relied on him for. Which meant …. well he kept looking for another job but they’re not easy to come by. Maybe he begged. Maybe he waited by the roadside with the other men every morning hoping for causal labour. Maybe he got ill waiting there in the early morning cold and the torrential winter rains. Maybe he picked another of the desperately few options open to him and out of desperation turned to crime. Maybe…  You decide.

There was another man. Think of a name for him. He was the one who stole the bicycle. He was desperate too. But his motives don’t matter for now. That’s for another day.  A few months later he realised what he’d done. He was in the church where he goes every Sunday. In the midst of the high ceremony of bells and smells, God speaks to him and he’s convicted of his sin of stealing the bicycle. So he leaves the church service, goes to the shack he took the bicycle from, and finds the owner. I’m the one who took it, he said. I realise now what I did was wrong. I’m very sorry. Please forgive me. I want to be reconciled to you so we can be brothers in Christ again.

The former owner of the bike is surprised. He appreciates the courage of the apology. But he’s also angry. You see losing the bike meant he lost his job. Losing the job meant … well, you know. So he told the man – thanks, but … where’s my bike?

Don’t let’s talk about that, comes the reply. That will get in the way of us getting reconciled. Forgive me, and we’ll move on.

Well, the first man says, I can’t move on. Because, you see, when you took my bike, this is what happened….

And he tells him. Everything. Except he can’t, because the ripples of a simple bike theft go on and on in ways we can scarcely comprehend. What he needs isn’t reconciliation. It’s called restitution.

There’s an elephant still lingering in many South African living rooms, churches, poorer communities and nice suburbs. It’s effects linger from years ago. People displaced from communities they knew and loved way back when … and still love. Their old family homes now holiday homes for the better off – now the 2nd generation of better off. Or maybe it’s the death of a loved one years ago from health care she couldn’t afford. Which lead to food not making it to the table. Which lead to hunger, health problems and desperation. Which lead to… well, you decide.

These are painful issues – for everybody. They’re the usually unacknowledged elephant in the room (or, in the image of our story, the bicycle) that lurk behind so many conversations and decisions and actions…on a national, city-wide, community, family and personal level. People understandably want to forgive and move on.

But how do you?

How do you get to restitution?

You decide.

This post was written nearly a year ago and appeared in a couple of different places at the time. I’m posting it on this blog for the first time. It is Dave’s own expression of a metaphor developed by others to help explore the issue of restitution in South Africa. To read about how our good friends at The Warehouse are tackling this and other big issues in contemporary South Africa, have a root around their website here

Preparation Time

Beware of what you promise. That’s a maxim which could easily apply to any area of life, but over recent weeks a variety of different promises I made as I stood in an ancient English cathedral less than 3 months before 9/11 have been re-echoing in my mind.

These are the promises made by those about to be ordained – set apart by the church for service in and to the church and the world. The one echoing loudest at the moment is a few simple words: ‘to prepare the dying for their death’.

A cursory reading of that, together with popular assumptions about the role of the vicar/priest/rector, may lead you to assume that the promise is about visiting, spending time with and praying with or for those who are facing death in an immediate sense. Of course that’s part of it – one of the indisputable privileges of my job is to be there in the big moments of life and death.

But there’s much more. One retired priest told me, just before I was ordained, that part of the role and calling of the priest is to ‘think the unthinkable and say the unsayable’. I don’t know if he was quoting someone else or if it was one of his own truisms, but it’s stayed with me. It’s become increasingly true for me in the 11 yeas since – there are times when we’re called to say things that people just don’t want to hear, compelled to speak when everyone else is wearing earphones. The unsayable I’m thinking of here is that ‘the dying’ of that ordination day promise is all of us, all of the time. We’re all dying. Scientists call it entropy – that all things tend towards decay and disorder; part of the calling of someone called by the church to the church and the world is to hold before a community and a people the fact that we’re all dying and the sooner we reconcile ourselves to that fact and live in the light of it, the better.

Of course, like everything, there all sorts of places we could make a serious mis-step here. We could become sour faced misery-peddlars who sneer at anything remotely fun with a ‘not of this world’ air; we could repeatedly scare people into salvation (finding out much later people saved thus often either fall back into old ways or become disturbingly hard-hearted); we could become so concerned with the after-life that we forget to do any good in this life.

All of those and more are dangers we need to constantly check ourselves against. An awareness of death, though, while being a consequence of our insistence on going our own way, can also be something of a gift to the perpetually busy and stressed. As the writer of Ecclesiastes said, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting” (Ecclesiastes 7:2, ESV). To live and love at least with that awareness, that life is a process of preparing to live eternally with the one in whose image we’re made and in whose creation we dwell, should for the Christian be an immensely joyful and liberating process. It should hone our sense of call – what is MY role in preparing all around me for death? How am I pointing people to a bigger, deeper reality? How do I live well in such a way that I will die well?

This doesn’t mean that we don’t cry at funerals or feel absence and loss keenly and deeply. Of course we do. We all do. Death is an enemy. It is horrible. It’s in the nature of God, though, to take that which may seem intended for evil and transfigured it into something deeper and better altogether. Death is horrible. Death is defeated. Death, then, because it is defeated, can help us live well. Now, and forever.

When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and John Perkins

Essential reading for any Christian, church leader or NGO worker in the field of aid and development. Written from a (necessarily) North American perspective, this book breaks the hard news that much of what we think helps in fact hurts – both the materially poor and ourselves, the materially rich.

Grounded in a good Biblical theology which most orthodox Christians (should) struggle to disagree with, this lays out the case for a longer-term view and commitment. The concepts and practical tools offered can be applied in a variety of settings – from dealing with the caller at the door for food and money to addressing areas of need in the local community to connecting with overseas aid and development. The call of the book is one to repentance and rethinking; to deep relationship with those we might keep at a distance; increased giving of money, time and prayer, and much else beside.

For those of us in a developing context – such as urban South Africa – there’s a need for further material here. There’s another layer of complexity and thinking needed in a context that complex. Like the rest of the book, the challenge lies with us.

I rated this book 5/5 on goodreads.com