Man Of Steel

Some people just don’t know when to stop. Zack Snyder, director of this new Superman movie, is one of those. With films like 300 and Watchmen in his past we can’t say we don’t know what to expect. A slightly surreal comic book aesthetic, stylised destruction and violence, a lack of humour and a very loud soundtrack with Wagnerian pretensions. I’ll be honest: I haven’t enjoyed his previous films. Hopes were higher here, though – not least because Christopher Nolan is the producer and co-writer. If anyone could reign Snyder’s excesses in, its the man who can handle huge budgets, gargantuan expectations and big stars and still produce something exciting, commercially successful and that’s still artistically and intellectually satisfying.

The result is Snyder’s best film. To put that in context, it’s possibly the worst film that Nolan has put his name to in any form. Granted, in this age of dark superhero reinventions, Superman was always going to present a challenge. He’s too easy to poke fun at – red underpants outside the trousers, flying and an enemy called Zod. Seriously.

Snyder deals with this by constantly cutting back to Superman’s back story. Whether it’s his origins on Krypton born to Russel Crowe or his Earth-bound childhood of self-discovery with his father Kevin Costner these scenes are handled well. Lois Lane is the reporter trying to unearth if the elusive rescuer of people in danger is an urban myth, a figment of her imagination or an alien. All of this works well – it’s exciting, occasionally moving, and well handled. Crowe and Costner are especially well cast.

Where the film strays is with a distinct lack of wit and the climactic, seemingly endless battle with Zod. The missing wit and humour is notable because of the two scenes where it actually exists: one brilliant visual gag after a narrowly avoided bar-fight when Superman is still trying to remain anonymous; the other when he teaches himself to fly   – a scene which pops with exhilaration, grins and joy. In the aftermath of those you realise you haven’t smiled at all otherwise, and probably won’t. Snyder, crashing orchestral soundtrack and buildings together, wants to ram the portentous events down our throats, to see profound parallels, to take it all Seriously. We can’t. Because it’s too much and too long. The supposedly serious parallels (puberty, religion, identity) are so po-faced they wash over us; the wit so minimal we never have the chance to have fun. Christopher Nolan showed in his Batman trilogy that you can do serious superhero movies and still have fun; if he tried to teach Snyder this, then he didn’t get his point across.

British unknown Henry Cavill does a decent job in the lead role; he certainly looks the part and manages to invest the character with a modicum of depth. It’s a shame, that for all the bombast and spectacle, that’s lacking in the rest of the movie. When an actor of Richard Schiff’s skill is reduced to a few scenes where he stands and gawps, you’ve missed an opportunity. It’s not a bad film; there is much to enjoy. It just would have been so much the better 45 minutes shorter and with a sense of control. Here’s hoping the inevitable sequel learns the a little less could leave us much more satisfied.

I rated this movie 3/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 6/10 on imdb.com

Searched and known

“you have searched me and you know me” (Psalm 139, verse 1)

How do you read that?

There are so many ways.

Do you take comfort in being searched, known, understood?

Do you worry what may be found, that of which you are not aware?

Do you fear that which you strive to keep hidden will be dragged blinking and shame-faced into the light?

Do you wonder at the motives?

Do you submit or seek escape?

Do you fight or fly?

I’m not sure how I understand this at present. The Psalm from which that handful of words is taken is one of the more famous ones, so often the source of ‘inspirational’ posters and social media memes, black print on blue sky telling us it will all be alright.

I should find it comforting.

But do I?

It’s hard to trust my instincts. It’s hard enough as one born in sin. It’s harder still if I’m in the grip of a depressive episode. Serotonin and its chemical companions are all over the place. Maybe there’s other stuff going on too. If there’s medication, what does that add to the mix?

In those circumstances, what can I trust? Thoughts rushing, emotions whirring, stomach churning, head pounding.

What’s God saying? He knows me.

Does He? Does He know this?

Or how about this, from elsewhere in that same Psalm:

“you created my inmost being;

you knit me together 

in my mother’s womb.”  (verse 13)

That helps, doesn’t it?

He made me … with chronic illness and tendency to depression.

Thank you.

He knit you together … wherever you find yourself born, with whatever you have to carry.

Fine if you’re one the minority. If not … how do you read it?

I don’t know.

“where can I flee from your presence” (verse 7)

Is he trying to escape?

No, but it could feel like it. He’s trying to say that wherever he happens to be, God is with him.

Which sounds lovely but could be threatening.

The creator, the one who knit me together … with this … is with me?

One day I’ll know even as I’m known, be with Him even as He is with me.

Will the puzzle resolve, the loose ends tie-up or will it be forgotten?

A risen Jesus still bore the scars, so I suspect the former.

So I wait.

Some days fretfully, some days patiently.

Always expectantly.

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 3: Worship … or life as it should be (Psalm 122)

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday June 16th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the third of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 122. It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.

For links to the previous posts in this series, scroll to the end of this post.

I am not a morning person. Despite this, my alarm continues to sound every Sunday morning at 5:30. The combination of these two facts is a kind of perfect storm of unfortunate physiology and job requirements. It means that I’m not always at my best when I am in the church getting ready for the 8 a.m. service. The people there are very patient with me – one of them, Rosemary, has a gift for cheering me up and cheering me on. If you know me, you know just what a profound gift that is. Nevertheless, when the alarm does go off at 5:30, I rarely feel excited about the prospects ahead of me – my body and my mind won’t let that happen. For a while. Some days, not at all.

We’ve come to the third psalm in our journey through the Psalms of Ascents. The first was about repentance, changing the direction we’re travelling in; the second is about trusting God and looking for help; this third is about someone who’s excited to go to church. People like me – and, dare I say, you – need a psalm like this.

There’s a flow to this series of psalms, but we shouldn’t necessarily see them as directly chronological. Where Psalm 122 might sit is, for instance, not entirely clear: it could be when the writer has arrived in Jerusalem and is gazing around in awestruck wonder. It could be anticipating the excitement of arrival; it could be reminiscing about it. It doesn’t matter. What this is about is worship, and how worship changes the way we see things.

Verse one establishes the sense of joy at going to worship immediately – the writer has been invited to join God’s people going up to God’s house to worship God. Verse two is that putting your suitcases in the hall after a long, long way feeling: “Ahhh! We’re here. At last. It’s good to be here. The bad airline food and wearing the same clothes for 24 hours were worth it. Let’s have something to eat together”.  The journey is over.

Verse 3 to 5 move further. If verse 2 was the sense of relief and joy at finally arriving, these are the words of someone looking around and taking it all in. To get to that, we need to get to grips with verse 3:

Jerusalem is built like a city
that is closely compacted together.

This is about more than the cramped hustle and bustle of an ancient middle-Eastern city … though it does contain that. This is about seeing that everything is at should be; at unity with itself, in the right place. Like my friend who just packed all he needed for  six-week motorbike journey into the limited confines of what his bike can carry, in Jerusalem everything is carefully arranged, where it should be. There’s the place where the people of God come to worship God. There’s the line of thrones from where God’s judgements are decided. This is all in the line of the house of David – look! Look at what you see around you. Here is the story of our people!

This is the place where God’s people come to do the things which God has told them to do – and all around are the signs and symbols of the people’s stories. It’s all about things as they should be – judgement (verse 5) in the Bible isn’t just how we think of judgement (deciding what’s wrong and right) … though it does contain that. It’s putting into action those things which God’s law was established to achieve … mercy, the poor cared for, the vulnerable protected, right triumphing over wrong. Biblical judgement is life ordered the way God wants it.

And what are God’s people to do here? They are to worship Him. Worship. Another of those tricky religious words. We think of it, if we do at all, as about the songs and hymns we sing, the music we use, and maybe some of the set prayers (liturgy) we say in church buildings. Worship does contains that … but much more also. Worship is giving somebody the worth they are due – so when kind words are said about a person at birthday, funeral or wedding we might legitimately and appropriately be said to be engaging in an act of worship. Worshipping God is about giving Him the worth He is due – with songs, music, prayers, actions, deeds, thoughts, our jobs, our relationships, our words … our everything. Worship is giving God His worth … and a God who put hills in place is worth a lot.

That’s what God’s people have come to do in Jerusalem – come to God’s house (the temple) to give God the worth He is due (verse 4).

The result of this? The writer prays. He does. He prays (verses 6 -9). He prays that Jerusalem will be at peace. Not just the absence of conflict … though peace contains that. Peace is … life as it should be. The poor provided for. The vulnerable protected. Terrorism ended. Walls of division torn down.

Jerusalem needs peace, doesn’t it? Jerusalem has a special significance in Jewish and Christian history. It needs peace. Like all cities, populated by people like me, it needs to be at peace in the fullest sense of that word. Shalom.

But did you notice? Prayer in the Bible is not just about words uttered … though it contains that. It’s actions carried out. It’s intentionality. It’s activity. It’s work. And the psalm writer is praying that Jerusalem will experience … life as it should be. Isn’t that odd? Because that’s what the writer said he saw when he arrived in Jerusalem when he arrived (verses 3-5).

What’s going on is the writer is experiencing the strange way worship changes what we see and what we do. Fixing our eyes on God and singing, praying, living, acting as He calls us to changes us. It re-centers, re-shapes, re-works us.

Why? Because of all the things we do, worship is the one thing that will survive into the eternal new creation. See one prophetic picture of how this will be if you don’t believe me:

Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:

‘Hallelujah!

For our Lord God Almighty reigns.

Let us rejoice and be glad

and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.’
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.) (Revelation 19:6-8)

Worship goes on and on. Lest we think that’s boring – the proverbial harps on clouds  – consider that worship is about everything. So maybe, in saying worship survives, the Bible is telling us much that’s good will survive. Without the worm in the apple, the snake in the grass, the curse over work and relationships. Anything but dull. Life as it should be.

Worship reshapes us. Doing worship together, in one building, with people we know, has power. It is a good, God-ordered discipline. It is also the stuff of sacrificing everything, though:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.  (Romans 12:1-2, The Message)

Worship changes everything, because it is everything; and in being so it gives us a glimpse of how life can be, is and one day will be  – completely. Our job as God’s people is with every song, prayer, act of service and advocacy for and with the poor; every seeking of justice, every prayer for healing, every protest at corruption, every thing … with all of that to pull that final, eternal reality of life before God in the new creation as it should be a little more into the present reality of people who know God and who don’t, thereby inviting them to join in with a life of worship.

Worship changes everything.

I may still hobble, have arthritis, be prone to depression and be a little moody. But everything changes.

Shall we set our alarms?

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 16th June 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full text.

Also in this series:

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey (An Introduction)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 1: All Is Not Well (Psalm 120)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 2: Looking For Help (Psalm 121)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 2: Looking For Help (Psalm 121)

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday June 9th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the second of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 121. It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.

For links to the previous posts in this series, scroll to the end of this post.

I have an increasing awareness of the things which I’m useless at doing. Right at the head of that list are these three: anything to do with cars, money or even remotely connected to anything under the vague heading of DIY. These are not my skills set. So if something goes wrong in one of these areas and there’s no one around to help I do one of two things. The first possibility is panic – you know, that creeping realisation that you can’t do anything about what’s going on. It’s usually accompanied by short, rasping breaths, a headache or stomach-churning. Or maybe for you it’s more a low-level background hum of anxiety which you can’t shake. Either way, you know it. The second possibility for me is that I’ll try to do something about it – either myself (disaster) or from the hand of someone nearby who knows only a little more than me (marginally delayed disaster). It never ends well.

If Psalm 120 was the song of someone who’d realised something is wrong and had decided to do something about it, then Psalm 121 is the song of someone who needs help. He knows well the temptation to get help from the wrong place. And he also knows a better place to look.

Having taken the decision to set out on the long journey to meet with God, you’d expect this second Psalm to be full of sunny optimism. It isn’t. It’s brutally realistic; and it’s full of hope. A long journey on foot in the heat of the Middle East contained many dangers – from the heat of the sun, to the cold of the night; dangers from wild animals and criminals (remember the Good Samaritan? the set-up for that story was roadside crime); the sheer emotional and physical stress of the journey. Of course you’d look for help along the way. Wouldn’t you?

The writer looks to the hills (verse 1). Hills. In the days before satellite mapping, these contained much that was unknown, of course. Threats, most likely. But hills were also resonant for the people making this journey. Because hills were where gods other than their God were worshipped. Gods who had to be kept happy with human sacrifices, sex or shouting and screaming. And God’s people had a long history of keeping other gods happy, just to be on the safe side. So when the psalm writer looks to the hills, it could be fear of the unknown. But it’s more likely to be the sideways glance of temptation to a god whose demands seem easier, safer or more pleasurable.

The psalm-writer, though, is talked round.

Where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord.
He is the Maker of heaven and earth.

MY help comes from the God who put the hills in place; who put continents on plates, oversaw them crashing into each other, the mountains pushing up through the surface. THAT’S the God this one looks to. He’ll guard me from physical harm (v3); He won’t (unlike Baal) fall asleep. He’ll shade me from the sun’s heat and the moon’s cold (v 5-6). It’s a very complete kind of care:

7 The Lord will keep you from every kind of harm.
He will watch over your life.
8 The Lord will watch over your life no matter where you go,
both now and forever.

And so the psalm ends. God’s care is complete. His people won’t be harmed, won’t suffer, won’t struggle.

Or so it would seem. Until you experience life, and think a little more deeply about the psalm.

We all know Christians experience the same sort of things as everyone else … jobs, redundancy, cancer, health, death, birth, depression. And much more.

The people who first and sung and prayed and said this psalm were on a journey. A journey to the temple, to meet with the God who was IN that temple. What they didn’t know, or couldn’t always see, was that God walked with them too. So they’d look to the hills. As the Israelites found out as they wondered in the exodus wilderness, sometimes you can walk with someone so long you forget that they are there.

We who walk in the footsteps of Jesus are on a journey also. We know God is with us. Or maybe we’ve known that for so long we can’t see Him right next to us. But we DO forget sometimes that we are on a journey towards a mind-scrambling future where we are so fully in His presence that we’ll know Him with a completeness we can’t comprehend now. That God watches us, walks with us, guards us and guides us. What can keep us from getting there? What can stop us from getting to that total presence? Nothing that happens to us, this much we know:

Who can separate us from Christ’s love? Can trouble or hard times or harm or hunger? Can nakedness or danger or war? 36 It is written, ‘Because of you, we face death all day long. We are considered as sheep to be killed.’ No! In all these things we will do even more than win! We owe it all to Christ, who has loved us. I am absolutely sure that not even death or life can separate us from God’s love. Not even angels or demons, the present or the future, or any powers can do that. Not even the highest places or the lowest, or anything else in all creation can do that. Nothing at all can ever separate us from God’s love because of what Christ Jesus our Lord has done. (Romans 8:35-39)

War, danger, redundancy, cancer, depression, crime …. all these and more can and do happen to us. But they can’t stop us from reaching journey’s end.

So eyes off the hills. And onto the God who made them. And onto the road ahead.

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 9th June 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full text.

Also in this series:

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey (An Introduction)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 1: All Is Not Well (Psalm 120)