Revisiting Old Places, or Lessons From My Music Collection

I’ve just finished. A self-satisfied glow of smugness arranges itself all over my aura. I burst over the finish line with a flurry of productivity and the appropriate adrenaline rush of satisfaction at a target reached.

It wasn’t quite like that, truth be told.

Just over a year ago I, for reasons I won’t bore you with, managed to delete my entire music collection from my computer. If you played every song back-to-back without break that would be about 16 days’ worth of aural accompaniment.

Fear not, dear reader, for I rescued the situation. In the process of doing so I discovered all sorts of music I’d forgotten I owned.

I became aware that my listening habits had shrunk to the most recently purchased.

So I Had An Idea.

I decided I’d listen to it.

All of it.

In what order?

A to Z, by album title seemed the way to go. I’d include single songs; but not any recorded worship music of the type you sing in some churches as, frankly, I don’t enjoy it enough to do that to myself. I’d also omit compilation albums I’d got free with magazines. This was for the simple reason that I’ve got about a gazillion of those so I figured that if this was to be realistic I needed to make that decision. I also skipped on anything you may term ‘classical’ music for the entirely fair reason that I don’t own any.

I pompously developed my own social media hashtag for the purpose and format for the tweets relating that to which I was listening at any given time. Thus:

achtung baby – u2 #atozalbums

All lower case was important.

Like I said it’s only taken a year or so; confused by what I do with new music bought which by the alphabetical format should have come earlier in the project. All sorts of similar problems presented themselves. On I struggled, making up the rules as I went along. My game, my rules.

At the end of the project I’m now considering what I could do next – with music, with movies, with … anything I enjoy, really. All suggestions welcome.

While I’m here, a selection (in no special order) of Very Important Life Lessons I’ve gleaned from this.

1) I still don’t feel a vast need to get into ‘classical’ music. It’s not that I don’t like it; it’s just not my thing, really. I speak other musical languages. No, I’m not a philistine. If you really think this makes me culturally ignorant or stupid then let’s have a conversation about Shakespeare or the Victorian novel or Marlowe or Donne or Coupland or Milton and see if you still hold that opinion at the end.

2) I was strangely reminded of all the music I’d given away/thrown away/sold/lost over the years. The first CD I bought was the soundtrack to Back To The Future. I have no idea where that is now, and I didn’t put it on my laptop at any stage. Then there’s some Prince albums. Where have they gone?

3) Even some music that I might be slightly embarrassed to admit to owning I still quite enjoy. All Saints, I’m thinking of you. Among others.

4) If you’d have told me 10 years ago that I’d be into some of the hip-hop or folk I now like then I’d never have believed you.

5) As with ‘classical’ music (see point 1) so with other greats like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones and so many others. I can recognise greatness but still not enjoy it enough to buy it or listen to it often. Enjoying something and acknowledging greatness are two very different things and that’s OK with me. There’s some ‘holes’ in my collection I have no intention of filling.

6) I really enjoyed this. So what else, in the dark recesses of my own soul, might I have forgotten I enjoy but pushed down to give attention to the new and the urgent and the demanding? Acting. There’s one I really need to give some thought to. Silent prayer is another.

7) As with point 3, there may be some stuff in me I’m faintly embarrassed by but actually that’s OK too. I don’t have to impress anyone with what I’m into as long as it’s not damaging me or another person.

8) Why is ‘Christian music’ SO unimaginative? Why do these bands keep impersonating U2 and Coldplay? I like those 2 bands quite a lot, but I also like Kanye West and R.E.M. and Radiohead and Faithless and Manic Street Preachers and so much more. So … you know, don’t get stuck! Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins puts it really well in this short little clip.

9) Doing this bought back some fantastic memories of when I first heard certain albums (e.g. I stopped everything I was doing when I first heard Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’,  lay on the bed and cried at the beauty of it), or gigs I went to (e.g. Radiohead again, the guy in front of us threatening to punch me and my mate Mark for jumping up and down).

10) Here’s one for you. Try something similar. It needn’t be music, it needn’t be art at all. You don’t have to blog it, tweet it, Facebook it if you don’t want to go public. Find some old books, pull out that box of letters and mementoes, have a read of something you wrote years ago, randomly look at old emails. Anything, really. How have you changed since then? In what ways are you the same? How do you respond to this now that is different to how you responded then? Are you ashamed of or embarrassed by something you have no need to be that way about? Do you need some help to think something through?

As if to prove I’m no philistine, I’ll end with some T.S. Eliot that’s haunted throughout this musical journey:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”  

(T.S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’, the last of his ‘4 Quartets’)

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A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 11: On the uses and uselessness of planning (Psalm 130)

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday August 18th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the eleventh of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 130. 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.

Over the years I’ve taken a number of personality profile tests. You’ll know them. I don’t mean the sort of things you find in the back of magazines; I mean the ones which take your answers to a set of questions and give you a number, a colour, a shape, a series of letters or some such thing to sum you up. They can be of immense value, but they can also be immensely damaging. They are valuable if they give you space to grow into, help you to change and grow and develop and put time and energy into things which actually work. I’ve also seen them used as excuses for not doing things, as tools to bully people with, as a vehicle for saying ‘This is what God says about you’. When that happens it never ends well.

Where these have helped me has been to understand why some things suck the life out of me and the sorts of things I really should get some help with. Planning is one of these – I am not a systematic person. I find it very hard to break things down into logical, achievable steps. So in work and life, that’s something I need help with. That’s something other people at church help me do; it’s what my wife is very good at. When that works well it’s a life-giving synergy for all of us. Knowing strengths and weaknesses like makes life a lot more bearable.

Psalm 130 is one which shows us that it’s good to know who we’re shaped to be  – and that planning isn’t always the best thing.  That starts in the first two verses with the stark reminder that we can’t plan our way around the ultimate statistic.

Death is real and there’s nothing we can do about it. We can put it off, we can pretend it doesn’t exist, we can hasten our journey towards it – but we can’t do anything about the reality. The Bible’s full of mediations on death; and that’s the language unavoidably used of our status without God. As long as we hold out on God, as long as we keep Him at arm’s length and pretend we don’t need Him, as long as we act as if He doesn’t exist or refuse Him, we are the living dead – physically sentient, dead in every other respect. One rebelled – we all rebel – and death is the logical next step of all who turn their back on life.  The first two verses of this Psalm are the cry of someone who knows she’s dead without God; she’s in a mess of her own making and can bring nothing to her situation apart from a shovel to dig herself deeper. Like Jonah, she’s in a pit and all she can do is ask for help. We don’t like moments like this; we want, instinctively, to wrap arms around someone in deep pain, in desperation, on whom the world is caving in and tell them it’s ok. There’s something they can do. It will get better. Only it may not, and they may be able to do nothing. It’s at these points that, if we sit in the dust long enough without offering solutions we can find the hand of God extended. The point of desperation is the very place we often need to find ourselves to discover the mountain-shifting power of the Earth Maker.

We can’t plan our way around death – and neither can we plan our way back into life either.

I once spent some time with a man whose marriage was collapsing. As always there was fault on both sides; he described to me how it felt as if every time he got something wrong, put a foot out of line his then wife wrote it down in a big leather-bound book, a ledger of wrongs done. There was nothing he could do; as quickly as he made amends for one, another was written down. That’s a familiar dynamic  because we all do it – for others, for ourselves. We find it very hard to forget. Many of us take the next step and project that onto God – we do it, so He must too. The Psalm-writer acknowledges that reality – verses 3 and 4 speak of the impossibility of standing before a God who would do such a thing. It turns out, much to our surprise, that God is not like this. One man lived and died well; if we accept that, live in that reality, then it’s counted for us. There’s no ledger of wrongs; just a Book of Life. Forgiveness is this God’s speciality. It can’t be planned by the recipient; a truth gloriously offensive to the recipient.

Death and new life can’t be planned out of or into. Neither can God’s great project; or rather, He can and we can’t. Those who have received life from the Giver are alive but surrounded by death, in the dark but holding an oil lamp. We can’t plan the coming dawn, but we can get on with what’s in front of us. That’s how the second half of Psalm 130 pictures the situation. I used to work night shifts in a hostel for young people who were homeless. 10 p.m. – 8:30 a.m. could crawl by. So I filled the time with the work I was given to do – keep an eye on the hostel and residents; clean; administration; feeding myself physically and spiritually; talking with those who couldn’t sleep; dealing with unpredictable incidents which arose. If I didn’t keep reminding myself that 8:30 was coming I could despair. So much to do, so much need. Morning would come, though, and others would pick up what was left. Or conversely the time would creep by if I didn’t fill it with what I was there to do.

I can’t plan, but I’ve learned I can write and speak in public. I can bring vision, others can bring the steps to get there. That’s my lamp. I choose to light it in the presence of one who can make it burn brighter or longer than I can dream of.

That’s what it means to wait for the morning – to get on, to do your job safe in the knowledge that dawn will come whether you work or not. So you might as well do what you’re there for. The world is dark, but we all have things to do; we all have lamps to light, illumination to bring. The catch is we don’t know when the dawn is coming. But is coming. So when it comes, will your lamp be ready to welcome it?

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 18th August 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full script.

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 3: Worship … or life as it should be (Psalm 122)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 4: Waiting … and asking (Psalm 123)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 5: Always More (Psalm 124)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 6: Nothing In The Way (Psalm 125)

A Guidebook For A Trick Journey, Chapter 7: Tell Us A Story (Psalm 126)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 8: God’s Glorious Inefficiency (Psalm 127)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 9: Grow (Psalm 128)

 

“Everybody knows … “: Men, women and the deep dangers of universally accepted truth

Everybody knows that men are obsessed with sex. Our predominant temptation is lust. The danger of being sucked into a dangerously coercive relationship with pornography lies around every corner or click. I must train my eyes and constantly monitor the film on repeat play in my head. You know it, I know it, we all know it. Sex is used to sell to men and to women (because what’s being sold will make them more sexually capable or desirable or both); men think about sex every seven seconds. Pull that last often-quoted statistic out in the company of any group containing men (or women, for that matter) and someone will inevitably reply … ‘What about the other six seconds?‘ Laughter, knowing nods and smiles. Men and women alike now Understand Something about themselves and each other.

It’s true.

Only it isn’t. It’s utter nonsense. It’s a fabricated myth spun around a kernel of half-truth with the status of near-divine revelation.

It’s a myth-as-fact proclaimed implicitly from magazine covers and advertisements, from preachers and counsellors. I’ve heard sermons based around it; I’ve experienced marriage preparation use it as a foundation for the evening spent discussing intimacy; I’ve been told – repeatedly –  it’s how I function; I’ve heard it said that my wife must understand this if we’re to have a fulfilling and intimate marriage.

I do not think about sex every seven seconds. I don’t even think about sex every week. I’ve never really had a problem with lust; I am not an especially visually stimulated man. What more often stimulates me are kindnesses, time spent, words uttered. I love my wife deeply and truly and am attracted to her and desire her. That waxes and wanes as it does in all relationships, but after 14 years of marriage I know that our intimacy is far deeper and truer than simply what we do with each other’s bodies.

Sometimes I think about sex but can’t act on it because I experience chronic arthritic pain. More often I experience chronic arthritic pain so I won’t even contemplate sex or pretty much any sort of movement. Sometimes I just don’t think about sex because I’ve got plenty of other really interesting things to think about like work or a conversation with my wife or a movie or the dog to walk or the house move or the emails I need to send or the food I’m cooking or just about any of the other fascinating, thrilling, disturbing, inconvenient things which make up my life.

What am I to think, then? Am I not a proper man? Am I lying to myself? Am I pretending I will never sin sexually? Am I a deviant?

No.

Imagine my relief at stumbling across something resembling actual proof that I am approaching normal. I like busting myths; I like discovering something assumed to be true isn’t. It brings a special kind of freedom. Experience plus the article you can read if you click here leads me to a confident conclusion that there’s little to back up this particular ‘fact’. As the article states, the Kinsey Institute’s research suggests that around 43% of men think about sex a few times a month. That’s a lot of men not thinking about sex a lot of the time.

Not quite every seven seconds, is it?

Now this report and article isn’t definitive; and to be clear I’m not ever suggesting I won’t fall into sexual sin, because I’m human and I may. I’m not suggesting I won’t ever find lust a problem, because I may find myself there. I’m not suggesting that every man who says he does have a problem of this nature is lying, because he may well do so. However my experience, my private conversations and what I’ve read suggest a deeper truth.

The truth is this. We have bought a lie, sold ourselves into captivity. We are liberated prisoners running back to prison. We do it as individuals, as preachers, as churches, as citizens, as partners. We do it as consumers and protestors. We do it in relation to sex, work, emotions, thoughts and almost anything we can relate consciously or sub-consciously to our identity as a man or a woman.

The truth is that we will accept definitions of what it means to be men or women so that we can fit in, not stand out, get help and be accepted into the group. We will do so to the extent of agreeing that we have a problem with something even if we don’t. I know because I’ve done that; I’ve nodded sagely at the preacher saying ‘All of us men here tonight have struggles with lust’. I’ve asked people to pray about it with me, totally convinced myself of having a problem that needs to be addressed.

I’ve done it, and other men have told me they’ve done similar. It makes you feel accepted by the church, you’re proclaimed as honest and down-to-earth and ‘real’. Because that’s what real men are like.

Best-selling Christian and non-Christian books alike proclaim this and so many more ‘facts’ about men and women as to leave you buffeted into submission. Men are this way, so this is how your church should be; men want to rescue and women want to be rescued (there’s even a course you can do). Men’s weekends away are full of outdoor activities and outdoor food, women’s with crafts and women’s food (yes, really). The often italicised caveat is that not all men or women are alike; it’s so brief you miss it in a blink and forget you even read it because actually saying that won’t sell, won’t get applause or laughs or money in the bank.

Men and women are different. Of course they are. Try to generalise that, apply it broadly and you end up with all manner of problems. What matters to me is not what all women are like; it’s what the woman I share my life with is like. What matters to me is not what all men enjoy, but what will bring life and hope to me or to the man I’m trying to understand. What matters is the person in the moment with me.

The wisdom of the lives of other men or women will help me. It will not define the other, though. It may shed some light, it may grant a glimpse of insight; but each unique creation is as spectacularly, gloriously different as the other. Men and women were not made to fit a shape; we were made to explore a creation, to bear the image of the eternal, to be saved by One bleeding and dying and rising to give us abundant lives, who said we could do greater things than He.

We will have problems and brokenness, fear and failure; we will sink into sin and messes of our own making. They are ours, though. They are unique to me and you; I may gain help or comfort or encouragement from a shared struggle. Or I may not.

However I do not walk alone. Which is enough.

Now that we know what we have—Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God—let’s not let it slip through our fingers. We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.  (Hebrews 4:14-16, The Message)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 10: Grow, shrink, expand, repeat (Psalm 129)

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday August 11th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the tenth of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 129. 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.

Confidence comes from survival. We are tempted to associate confidence with achieving a goal, reaching a target, making something happen. Psalm 129 is the song of someone who’s confident because they’ve survived. What’s more, it’s not down to the singer. All the singer has contributed to surviving is drawing breath. Sometimes that’s an achievement in itself.

The confidence starts by looking back – at what has been, the agonies of times past, of survival and liberation, of release from immense suffering. It’s a retrospective called out of the singer in the midst of worship – the repeated call and response of verse 1 suggesting that like Psalm 124 this was probably used in corporate worship. The leader starts and invites the gathered to join in agreement and shared experience. Worship should always do this – whether it’s silence or said liturgy or high liturgy or rock band led or organ led matters not. What it should invoke is shared experiences, positive and painful together, gathered, held and presented to God as an offering. In this case it’s the deeply painful.

The specifics of what happened are not given here; they’re alluded to in an image at once absurd and distressing. It’s of the tortured prisoner, bound and stripped to the waist, back exposed to the heat of midday sun, whips recently furrowed the skin, exposing ribbons of flesh like a newly ploughed field (v3). The history of God’s people is replete with persecution and oppression; the specifics of this don’t matter to us now. The alluded effect of it leaves us in no doubt as to the trauma.

It is not the end of the story, though. Such suffering, startling and violent as it was, is simply the content of the parentheses. The defining truth isn’t the suffering, it’s the glorious brackets of verses 2 and 4, keeping suffering in its place. God intervened, bought it to an end, put it in its place. He cut the cords – depending on how you translate verse 4, it’s either the cords of captivity or the cords that yoked oxen to the plough – leaving the opposition absurdly impotent. The captive is free and standing, the plough uselessly stationary in the field, oxen trotting harmlessly off into the distance.

So the looking back is finished in verse 4. Into the second half of the psalm, and we’re into the present day. The look back to God’s past liberation gives confidence and faith to today’s perseverance. The one oppressed seeks the same useless humiliation for current oppressors as past experienced. May the whip cord be ripped from their grasp; may the plough be severed from the beasts of burden. If healthy crops are a sign of God’s blessing, may those who torture have no chance of being seen as successful. May their crops of suffering fail as uselessly as the frail shoots which sprang up from the thin layer of earth in the organic roofs of the houses of the day. Thin soil gives no harvest; the oppressor of those who belong to God will see no long-term fruit. May they know that.

The prayer of God’s people should be that of blessing and growth – for the things of God. Shrinkage is not from Him, unless it’s the shrinkage of evil. Pray for evil to shrink, to fail, to wither; for people, even the perpetrators,  to move from lives of shrinkage to experience the wide-open growth spaces of God’s kingdom. The trick is not to co-operate with the shrinkage. We may not think we do … but do we? We are prone to do so, drawn to it as moth to flame. We scent a smelly body and shrink the inhabitant to street-dwelling drug-abuser; we see a shivering but scantily clad woman on street corner and shrink her identity to that of seller of sex; we see a man or woman and shrink him or her to the definition of how we have known some of that gender in the past. We see a potential or current disciple and shrink them to too traditional, too alternative, too successful, too poor, too gay, too other to be of any potential, use or worthy of dedicated attention.

We all do it. We are called to pray for and actively grow in blessing, shrink in evil, expand our view of those around and teach others to do so … repeating a virtuous cycle in us and others until a new creation of glorious wide-open space is established in our midst.

If you’ve only lived in a cell you’ll naturally be scared of the open air. You’ll hug the wall, shield your eyes from the sun, maybe even try to dash back inside. That’s alright. There’s plenty of time. The door remains open – you must simply walk through it.

 This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 11th August 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full script.

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 3: Worship … or life as it should be (Psalm 122)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 4: Waiting … and asking (Psalm 123)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 5: Always More (Psalm 124)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 6: Nothing In The Way (Psalm 125)

A Guidebook For A Trick Journey, Chapter 7: Tell Us A Story (Psalm 126)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 8: God’s Glorious Inefficiency (Psalm 127)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 9: Grow (Psalm 128)

 

Giles Fraser, pills and depression: dangerous simplicity and the image of a complex God

In the last few days a major British newspaper published on its website (and in print, presumably) an article by one of the country’s better known priests. Giles Fraser’s career has been studded with controversy, media exposure and challenging output. I can’t claim to always (or even often) agree with him, but whilst not always appreciating the way he’s expressed himself I admit to valuing his voice. He’s from the liberal end of the Church Of England spectrum, prone to political engagement and theological questioning. We need such voices. However his latest column, which he publishes regularly for the same paper, carries with it such a dangerous capacity to damage and destroy that it simply has to be challenged. I’m tempted not to link to it because I don’t want to provide it more publicity. However I’ve chosen to (you can find it by clicking on these words in brackets) because it’s easily available and to save time for those who want more than one side to the story.

The article is a disastrous attempt to challenge the medication often given to those diagnosed with depression and ADHD. His concern appears to be that we are in danger of flattening out our society; that those who don’t quite fit in may be given medication to make them fit. I understand the concern; we naturally want to explain away that which challenges us. Sadly that’s exactly the trap which Fraser’s column falls into in the midst of a no doubt originally laudable desire to challenge the power of pharmaceutical companies and a greying of multi-coloured societies.

However this article was intended, let’s clear up some misunderstandings that have flowed from it. Depression is not sadness. You can be happy, but still depressed. You can have a good life and still be depressed. Depression is an illness, not a mood-swing or feeling a bit down. It is a chemical imbalance, often but by no means always precipitated by the circumstances of life. Medication often helps restore the chemical imbalance enabling the sufferer to function more healthily. Whilst some medications will have unwanted side-effects, they will more often save lives. They will stop people from committing suicide.

On ADHD, the point is similar. I understand the fear. I know people who are diagnosed with this. I have heard them say that sometimes they don’t like the way the medication seems to dull sense or sap colour. That’s a real issue. However none of them refrain from taking the medication. There is an understanding that these medications help the ones diagnosed live the family lives and work lives and leisure lives they want.

Giles Fraser is an intelligent man. Often he challenges us by pointing out complexities we want to iron out; that’s what he’s trying to do here. Unfortunately this attempt backfires. Badly. We are complex beings made in the image of a complex God who can only be understood in the context of an eternal relationship of self-giving love flowing from one part of the Godhead to another. Just trying to get that into our heads fries our circuits. We are made in the image of that astonishingly complex God. My mind, my soul, my body all interact with each other in ways I can’t comprehend. Throw in my sin, the sin of others around me and the general brokenness of creation and it’s beyond me, beyond all of us. Some of us get depressed, some of us sail through life. Some of us need medication to put our minds on an even keel, a regular dose to save us from the deliberate overdose. Others need medication for stomach or arm or chest.

I am no doctor. I am not a chemist or a businessman. There are ethics within the medical arena which I do not understand but often trouble me. Giles Fraser is right to challenge these. He does so in such a way that subtly, unintentionally leads to guilt not freedom and as a result of which some will toy with withdrawing from medication they desperately need. Those people will already being hearing the message  – from themselves or others – that are they weak, that they are failures, that they shouldn’t need medication, that they just need to play the hand they have been dealt.

That message is a lie. God heals through the miraculous intervention of both prayer and pills. Expensive tablets bring profit to people who have convinced themselves they need more when in fact they need less. That is a serious sickness with complex causes and complex solutions. So is depression. Sometimes people are misdiagnosed for cancer; sometimes for depression. Misdiagnosis and the reasons for it should be explored and challenged. They should be challenged in such a way as to bring healing and liberation. That takes time and space, and many more words than Giles Fraser used. Just because one can say something succinctly doesn’t always mean one should. Go at the pace of the slowest, with the nuance the damaged and at risk need. Or don’t go at all.

 

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 9: Grow (Psalm 128)

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday August 4th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the ninth of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 128. 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.

God doesn’t say things for no reason. His words are there to do something. Take do not fear, an injunction from the divine to humans which punctuates Scripture with alarming regularity. Whenever God or one of His messengers stands in front of someone, His opening line is more often than not along those lines. That’s no coincidence. God knows we’re prone to fear when faced with the supernatural; so He tells us we needn’t.

All of which makes us wonder if the Bible contradicts itself. Our next Psalm in this series, Psalm 128, presents us with this problem in the first line … fear God, the writer seems to be saying, and it will go well for you. Often the writers of the Bible tell us to fear God; the same God who tells us not to be afraid when He shows up. So which is it? Be afraid or not?

The answer, as often, lies in the limitations of language. As Eugene Peterson points out at different points in his writing, this injunction to fear God should be rendered more like this: fear-of-the-Lord … one long word capturing a concept which is hard to verbalise. The sense that as we walk with God, we should do so with the holy anticipation that this is a God who can do anything at anytime – and that He has the right to do so. This is the God of stone tablets and spoken law, of flood and Sinai, of Carmel and Calvary. These stories are written into the very architecture of the temple to which the pilgrims who first sang this were travelling to and from; it was their community’s heritage, the story of their people. This God could do anything; what’s more, He would do anything.

Walk before Him with this holy expectancy of action and it will go well with you, says the Psalm. You will get the rewards of your work, you will see fruitful crops and a growing family. All signs to the people who first heard this that God was with a person. A healthy harvest meant God was close to the farmer. A growing family – especially one of sons and grandsons – was a sign of God’s favour. These were the things to be wished for and the things to wish for others.

Which of course gives us another problem. I know people with mountain-shaking faith for whom life is hard, who do not enjoy the fruit of their work, for whom life is not easy, who do not see the families they long for. So we’re left with some interesting conclusions.

The first is about food. There is no global food problem; there is a global food distribution problem. God has provided; I, we, you have hoarded.

The second conclusion uses a similar route to get to a different place. Children. Those who have children (my wife and I do not, by choice) can not seem to imagine life without them. Such is the seismic impact of new life in the home, that life can never be the same again. Nor should it be. Children are not the point, though. Consider how they are intended to be made. Sexual intimacy is the God-given gift to unify a loving couple physically and emotionally. It is given for pleasure. In the act of self-giving comes deep blessing. From that blessing sometimes flows the blessing of children. From blessing flows blessing. Blessing expands and grows.

Think of the imagery of the family in the Psalm. Olive shoot and vine, sources of staple produce; a good crop from each a sign of blessing. The point of that blessing? The fruit which continues to grow. Blessing grows.

Blessing. We pray for God to bless us and others. And so we should. The point of such blessing is for blessing to flow from it. For a virtuous cycle of good to infect and flood and bring life. Consider Abram and Sara, blessed with the son they so desperately longed for in their old age. A blessing. From him flowed blessing to the nations. The line of Christ. The soil from which salvation grows. Blessing begets blessing.

There’s a catch. If a blessing Only if we don’t hold on to it. Abram’s child only became a blessing to nations as a knife hovered over his rising and falling chest. The boy was spared, an animal provided, the blessing flowed. Why put people through such unimaginable trial? Simply because God knows the human capacity to take something He has given as good and subtly twist to an end in itself. Be it animals, work, sex, children, family, art, our bodies, the church … almost anything. Anything good and God-given, we can and do turn into God.

If you are blessed, then use the blessing to be a blessing. If you have children, invite others into family life. Adopt children – not for nothing is adoption one of the central Biblical images of what God does for us. What more profound thing can we then do for others. You have a relationship of love? Don’t use it to shut the world out; use it so serve the world. You cook good food? Cook well and feed bodies and souls. You make art? Then don’t hide it – use it to bring light and life.

Let God show you your blessings. Then ask Him to grow them elsewhere, outward, further, wider. It’s what He does.

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 4th Augus 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full script.

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 3: Worship … or life as it should be (Psalm 122)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 4: Waiting … and asking (Psalm 123)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 5: Always More (Psalm 124)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 6: Nothing In The Way (Psalm 125)

A Guidebook For A Trick Journey, Chapter 7: Tell Us A Story (Psalm 126)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 8: God’s Glorious Inefficiency (Psalm 127)

 

 

 

 

Grinning Like A 12-Year Old: Pacific Rim

Some films achieve a kind of breathless beauty which leaves you gasping for air. As I’ve detailed elsewhere, the exquisite Pan’s Labyrinth was one of those for me. Seeing that a few years ago did all sorts of things to me; each re-viewing still does. If the film’s Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro never gets close to that level again he shouldn’t be disappointed. It’s a high-water mark few will reach.

His latest film is not such a film. Pacific Rim is many things, but transcendent beauty it isn’t. It’s a huge blockbuster, a special-effects movie about enormous alien-monster thingies and great big robots hitting the living daylights out of each other. At one point a ship is used. As a hand-held weapon.

What Pacific Rim is, though, is a great big joyous grin of a film. My wife and I haven’t smiled all the way through a movie in quite the same for years. I simply cannot recall the last time I saw a film this much fun.

Right now some of you are thinking … well, maybe you’ve been subjected to a Transformers movie. Forget that. Those are cynical imagination-killing cash cows made with no thought, soul or courage, and a side-serving of leering misogyny. They are boring in the extreme. Pacific Rim is not perfect – the two scientist characters, part comic relief, part key to how to beat the aliens – don’t work well enough to be given as much screen-time as they have. The script has some thick cheese at times – but at others it does what it’s there to do, and when you’ve got a speech which culminates with Idris Elba shouting ‘we are cancelling the apocalypse!‘ then the script has done its job. Idris Elba, by the way – there’s an actor with presence and charisma to light up a coastline. Of course if you’ve seen TV’s The Wire or Luther you already knew that, but if this film puts him on the global stage, then that’s another thing to be thankful for.

What differentiates this film from the interminable and soulless Transformer franchise is that Pacific Rim was made with love. Love for the original concepts and comic traditions the film comes from; love for the creatures and robots themselves, so much so that they actually feel and sound as large as buildings; love enough to know when to almost wink at the camera, and enough to know when to let two really big things hit each other hard in the middle of the ocean. Love enough to shoot the action sequences (Zac Snyder, please learn this for the next Superman/Man Of Steel movie) so that you actually know what’s going on and who’s where. Love enough to keep you glued in your seat for the first part of the visually astonishing end credits and reward you with a cheeky, corny, laugh-out gag.

Pacific Rim, when all is said and done, left me remembering what it was like to be 12 years old and be blown away by something I couldn’t even imagine until I saw it on the screen, and to be so excited about it I wanted to tell everyone about it for days. If cinema doesn’t sometimes do that, it’s failing.

I rated this film 9/10 on imdb.com and 4.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com