Of children, idols, suicide and lament.

Very little that is good starts with “I posted something on Facebook…”. Nevertheless that is how I am starting.

A few days ago I posted an article on Facebook. I do that quite a lot. I do so not necessarily because I agree with everything in the article but because on some level I feel that the article expresses something interesting and of importance. In this case the article pretty much hit the nail on the head for me – it was a simple comment piece expressing a dis-ease with the way it can seem to those of us without children that society revolves around the needs of children and their parents. It provoked a (to me) staggering response in the form of 49 comments – comfortably a few times the average of what a post of mine might more normally produce. Many of them were from people who are parents of children, angered or hurt by the article, feeling misunderstood and telling stories of how difficult it is to be a parent. You can read that article by clicking here. It should be noted that it was written by someone who has had her own children. Interestingly after I posted the article  I was privately contacted by a few married people without children and single people who wanted to thank me for raising an issue they were afraid to raise even with their closest friends.

Later in the day I posted an article on the epidemic levels of suicide among men – especially young men – in the UK. It reflects well on how gender stereotypes can have serious consequences, and that our views of masculinity are causing major problems. The result of posting this urgent and important article (which you can read here)? 2 comments.

Now this is unscientific. There could be all manner of reasons for this. I’m not pretending to draw something definitive from those statistics alone. However one of the commenting parents (let’s be honest, she and some of the others did come to start to see something helpful in the article) did ask me to write something expressing what I thought the article on children was trying to get at. So this is me trying to do just that. It’s that contrast in the level of responses that has given me a place from which to start.

I like children. Many of my friends have children whom I am glad am part of my life in their own right. My wife and I do not have children – a fact of our own choosing. This is not because we don’t enjoy children, but because we feel it’s not right for us. It does not mean (as we have been told) that we are selfish, rejecting God’s plan for marriage, that my wife is unfulfilled as a woman, or that I worry about my old age (I don’t know either). As a pastor it does not mean (as I have also been told) that families will not join a church I lead (our Sunday School is growing and I’ve started a monthly all age service). It just means we don’t want children of our own.

In all this time as a married couple without children, and as a church pastor, I have never – ever – been asked by parents of young children how they could make my life easier as someone without children (I don’t mean in terms of not asking their kids who are making a noise to leave the dining room – that they do – but I mean the big stuff of life). I’ve never had a parent in any church ask what they could do to help make church better for those without children.

It is inevitable that a life-event as huge and long-lasting as having children fundamentally changes the way you see everything. I know that – I really do, although many don’t believe me. I’ve walked the road of longing for and then finally having children with friends often enough to see that to be true. I can’t fully get it because I don’t have my own kids, but I get the point. Of course there’s always more that can be done by churches and other groups to help those with children; but to those of us without children it can feel that even the slightest expression of exhaustion or stress at having to sit in a noisy environment with kids around me is selfish. If you don’t have kids you probably don’t have that innate parental ability to tune out loud kid-generated noise; so sometimes I’ve just had to leave a cafe or a church service or a park because I can’t hear myself speak, let alone think.

That’s not enough, though. Because there always more steps to take, more resources to spend, more planning around how to engage kids and families in church and society. Which is fine. As I said, ours is a church which is doing that.

As the article on male suicide pointed out, however, if a new virus was killing in the way suicide is killing men in the UK, we’d see waves of public funding aimed at it. More than that, I suggest, there’d be church programmes to help those affected by this new killer; there’d be theologising; there’d be public debates. The cry would go up … ‘How do we protect our children from this?‘ Family pressure groups would start, charities would fundraise off the back of it.

The point has been made time and again about the prevalence of male suicide and people just don’t seem to get worked up. There’s a sadness … but that’s it. No real action, no pressure, little in the way of money spent or raised. Stick a child’s face on a marketing campaign and watch the donations roll in.

God hates it when blessings become idols, when a precious gift from him becomes a subtle replacement for the energies, the resources, the time we should be pouring at his feet. Which is part of why Abraham got to the point of having his knife hover over the beating chest of his precious son in one of the Bible’s most troubling passages. He needed to prove to himself that his eyes were still on the giver, not the gift. Lest we say that this was barbarous of God, He went one step further and allowed the murder of His own Son, apparently sitting by as nails tore flesh and bone. His son felt abandoned, anguished, sweating blood in anticipation of what was to come.

It’s easy to allow our knowledge of both these stories’ happy endings suck the shock out of them. A parent about to kill his son; another letting his son be killed. We’d never allow that, would we?

Meanwhile, as families plough thousands of pounds, dollars and rands into their children, fervently hoping and praying the sons will grow up into strong, capable fit young men, another 4,000+ men in the UK will kill themselves in the next twelve months.

I don’t know what the solution is, but like all great causes, it will start with lament. Lament for the sons lost at their own hands.

Gravity: Thrillingly adrift, but not rootless thanks to the sounds of silence

A film with two actors which is only an hour and half long. In some respects Gravity couldn’t be more counter-cultural for the big budget star-vehicles we’ve got so accustomed to seeing. Lest this put you off, then you can rest assured that the two actor s are two major stars (George Clooney and Sandra Bullock); it’s a film set in space with jaw-dropping visuals; and it positively flies by quicker than an episode of CSI.

It may be a film of big vision, but the focus is small. We’re focussed throughout the film on two astronauts on a space-walk to carry out some repairs; things go wrong and of them becomes separated from the ship. What we see is the attempt to save themselves, cut off as they are from help on the earth.

On one level Gravity is a simple disaster movie with a small cast; in true disaster movie fashion, everything that can go wrong does go wrong for the two drifters. Several things elevate this film, though. The performances from Clooney and Bullock are fine in their roles, but it’s behind the camera that this film makes things work for the viewer. Alfonso Cuarón is a director who knows his way around lean but effective entertainment; he was behind the best of the Harry Potter films (Prisoner of Askabanas well as the brilliant action film with ideas Children Of Men. He brings all that focussed intelligence to bear on a movie in Gravity that’s almost unbearably tense and having some to say at the same time. This is a film that tells a simple story very well as asking us to mull on a few things:  on what it means to be alone or in company, the nature of sacrifice and when to cling on to life or when to let go of it, the way the deep things of the past shape us in moments of extreme crisis.

All of these would be vague notions if it weren’t for the performances, a well-thought through script and some dazzling technical work. The visuals are dazzlingly brilliant, crystal sharp and vertigo inducing. The real achievement, though, is in the sound. The challenge presented is what you do make the film something more than a silent film, but still remain convincing when we well know that in space sound doesn’t carry. I don’t understand these things, but the sound – the music, the voices of fellow astronauts, ground control and so on – somehow manages to express a strange combination of being alone whilst in communication. I don’t know what’s been done to the sound to make this happen, but whatever it is, it works abundantly. Without it the film would be good but not excellent, tense but not nerve-shredding, memorable but not significant. The sound leads us to be more immersed and involved with the story of two people – and only two people  – than we would otherwise become. So immersed that we’re satisfied with the glimpses we get of the two characters’ lives one earth, enough to grasp how their actions in a crisis are shaped by the rest of their lives but no so much to ever take us out of the moment of the story. That’s a rare balance to strike, between story and theme, which Cuarón here manages with aplomb in similar ways to his other films. Story and theme serve each other without driving each other out.

Maybe I’m just at a moment in life where this was bound to resonate; living through a crisis the sort of which I never dreamed has made me think about why we act the way we do when the pressure is on in whole new ways; I’ve thought again about the nature of relationships and isolation; I’ve thought again about life and death and the relationship between the two. Gravity informed that conversation of mine more deeply than I expected. It’s a brilliant film, one you’ll enjoy and think about to an extent far beyond the 90 or so minutes running time. You should see it.

I rated this film 9/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 14: Community, costly and sufficient

This post is the next in our series on the Psalms of Ascents The original sermon was preached by Mike Keggie on  Sunday September 29th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town.  I have used this sermon as the starting point for my own reflections on the text. It focuses on the fourteenth of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 133 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.

Such a short psalm, and so often quoted. I’ve heard and read it most often in the context of those places where God’s people from different streams come together for a time – a local Churches Together walk of witness or service project; an ecumenical conference; a call to prayer.

Not to diminish such things, for they may well be and often are the call of God to people in a certain place or time, but these are not the best that this psalm has to offer us. This is a psalm that speaks instead to my Saturday night and Sunday morning lethargy, my desire to keep myself to myself, my gravitational pull towards privacy.

This is a psalm about community and that those who belong to God live in community whether they like it or not. If you belong to the God of Jesus Christ, then you have a family; you are part of a body; you are a living stone in a glorious building. You may not like the other parts of the body, the other stones in the building; it may seem to come more naturally and easily to do this by yourself, but if you insist on that you are doing the opposite of that for which you are made. Since Eden onwards, people have been made for relationship. Family flowed from family flowed into nation flowed into blessing to the nations. Opt out of that and your swimming against a vast tide. You can only lose – or at the very least lose out dramatically.

How pleasant it is (verse 1) … when it works. It’s easy to romanticise relationships and to idolize community – that’s why the one-off event is such a tempting application. How marvellous to come together for a week in the summer and do something together! How beautiful to walk in witness to Easter together once a year! Yes, it may be. I do not mean to mock. Such things can be profound and deep and also hard. It’s more profound, deep … and, yes, hard also if it’s what we do and day on day, week on week.

The psalm is nothing if not realistic. In reaching for an image to unpack how good this is, verse two stumbles across something … costly. Costly. To live in deep, day on day, community is costly. It requires me to give up my desire that things be fitted around my needs, my music preferences, my liturgical desires, my timetable. It needs me to recognise that my needs may not actually be the most important ones this day. It requires me to be a living sacrifice, laid down, poured out like a drink offering because the God who calls and names this community as His church is worth it. It is hard and costly.

God knows this, and has paid this cost Himself. We are invited into a perfect community in the shape of Himself – Father, Son, Holy Spirit in an ongoing relationship of love and deed. It’s been costly for that community, though. Costly in terms of Son taking on the appearance of a son, brittle boned prepared to be splintered, soft flesh ready to be torn. Real community really is costly. Which is why it is so precious. Like the oil (verse 2) flowing down on the one freshly set aside – anointed holy, to use the Biblical phrase – for God’s work. A true Christian community is bought at a high price and set aside for something special – to express and live God’s ways and work in the world. Costly and special – set aside, not for the benefit of itself but so that the community can love in the full view of the world in such a way that others are actively invited and encouraged to join in.

Costly – and also fresh, daily (verse 3). Like the morning dew on the mountains, thick and heavy and daily replenished like the wilderness manna which was rich in the history of God’s people. Miraculous food given daily – enough for each day. Take too much and it would be rotten before you could use it; take too little … well what was the point in that if there’s enough for everyone? This has something deep to say to my view of my Christian community, the church. Opt out, take too little of the manna, and I may get by. However why would I want to get by when there’s a sufficiency, daily? Why limit myself?

The converse is true also. Plunge myself into this community in such a way that I have time for it and it alone, take too much, and I’ll grow fat and lazy. I won’t grow in the directions I’m meant to, I won’t be inviting. Slowly, over time, to me most likely imperceptibly, my arteries will harden and clog and I’ll fade away. This community, lived in aright, is enough for my daily needs, enough to make me grow and flourish, enough to shape me into one who invites others in. That’s where the blessing of God, life as it’s meant to be, eternally, is to be found.

A life equipped, a life poured out, a life blessed and anointed. We have a Bible full of examples of how to do this and how not to do this; we have a God who lives it Himself and has paid the price of it Himself. It’s hard, it’s costly, it’s painful, it’s beautiful and blessed. We’re free to claim we’re opting out, but to do so is to go against the grain of reality itself. How good, how pleasant, how costly. The economy of God and the life of His people.

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)

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

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 12: Rest, dear child (Psalm 131)

 A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 13: Remember … (Psalm 132)

Prisoners: it’s God’s fault, apparently

Prisoners is a crime thriller with a desire to be much more than that.

Two families gather to celebrate Thanksgiving; as the two younger girls of each family go off to do their own thing in the course of the day, there dawns later the frightening realisation that the girls are missing. A parental search becomes a community event, a police investigation and a big news story. Leads are picked at; suspects rise to the surface and fall away again; one of the parents takes things into his own hands, the rest of the adults get sucked in and things get emotionally, morally and procedurally complex.

It’s graphic and disturbing, recalling and alludes to issues of forced detention, torture, faith and suffering, institutionalised abuse and revenge. It’s beautifully shot – cinematographer Roger Deakins once again displays his characteristically painterly eye for seeing what’s in a frame that may otherwise may not be seen. The composition of shots, the colour palette, the decision to cut or linger all enhance the whole film and allow the different themes to float to the surface. This is a crime thriller with much to say.

Sad to say, though, that I’m not really sure what the film is trying to articulate; and neither does the plot hang together. Either one of these faults would be less of a problem if the other wasn’t also an issue. The plot has significant and problematic holes; the themes are so varied that none are developed sufficiently to be allowed to really speak.

[Possible plot spoiler in next paragraph]

The final motivation, when it comes, is one articulated as revenge on God for suffering experienced. Which is fine – well, of course suffering isn’t fine, but you know what I mean. People suffer, and they do truly and often blame God and then act on that blaming. That’s real and true. It’s so undeveloped here, though. One minute you’re thinking about torture and forced detention; next you have to shift gears totally and connect with a pain so deep it leads to radical vengeance. In shifting gears in such a way there’s grinding and groaning; someone forgot to depress the clutch. So the final motivation, which could and should have been the culmination of two hours of tension and counterpoint, building and meditation becomes more of a … well, shrug.

As a result of this, the plot holes become even more frustrating. You’re left wondering why that character has been abandoned, why that action happened at all, why this lead wasn’t followed sooner … especially when you as viewer stroll to the correct conclusion about an hour early. The film has big theological questions but they’re articulated, ironically for a film about missing children, at primary school level rather than the level of true and deep engagement. I was drawn to think of those who kid themselves they’ve engaged with theology because they’ve read The God Delusion, in reality as deluded as someone like me who thinks they have good biological knowledge when I stopped studying it aged 14. Good actors like Jake Gyllenhaall, Hugh Jackman, Viola Davis and Maria Bello are left trying to breathe life into so many shallow-breathing bodies that by the end they’re the ones in need of resuscitation. All of which means it’s a long two hours.

Other crime thrillers do similar things with much more efficiency and power – consider, for example, Gone Baby Gone or Mystic River; both films which remember to tell a story well and focus on one or two themes. They show Prisoners that less really is more. It’s s a shame to have to say that. Prisoners is a film which should tick all my boxes for thoughtful crime thrillers, as the other two I’ve just mentioned do. That this is so does not make it a bad film; just a disappointing, deflating one – which for me is worse.

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

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey Chapter 13: Remember … (Psalm 132)

This post is the next in our series based on sermons preached at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town on the Psalms Of Ascents. The Sunday we were due to cover this Psalm (September 22nd) was the day we found ourselves waiting to hear news of our friend and church member James, at that stage known to be missing in the Nairobi Westgate Mall terrorist attack. Due to the circumstances the sermon touched on the Psalm only briefly as we unpacked what that moment of waiting meant for us that day; so this post is not so much the adaptation of a sermon as it is a reflection on the Psalm in the context of the circumstances we are in a few weeks later. It focuses on the thirteenth of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 133 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’ve long told myself that I have a terrible memory. In many ways, that’s true. My short-term recall is hopeless; my capacity for names  embarrassing for a pastor; my capacity to recall numbers almost non-existent.

Not the whole truth, though. I can recall vividly when and where I first saw the woman who would become my wife. Not because it was love at first sight – it wasn’t, for either of us. I was struck by her, sure. I remember the meeting, though, because of the story that followed that meeting. I can remember facts about sport, books, films, plays, holidays, meals – none because of the facts themselves, but because of the story that’s arranged itself around them in my mind. Stories matter deeply to me, lodging themselves into my being like a comfortable old pair of slippers on my feet.

The singers and pray-ers of the Psalms of Ascents had stories to tell. Stories of their individual journey to and from Jerusalem for the great celebrations of the community’s year. They had stories to tell of what had happened to them since their last journey. They had stories to tell of their community’s past – of Abram, of Moses, of Exodus, of David … and on the list would go, stories recounted and recalled on the way to worship, in the liturgies of the worship and the architecture of the temple. The stories would be told and retold, meanings uncovered and unfurled afresh and again as they were re-experienced with each new journey.

This next Psalm, number 132, was one of those. It prompted, through a series of verbal cues, a whole era of the people’s past.

Lord, remember David  (verse 1)

David. The man who helped find the Ark. The Ark of God’s presence.  A wooden box around which the esteem and identity of a nation revolved. A box which in its history provided proof that the presence of the living God was real and mattered. It mattered where God was and that God’s presence was not taken for granted or exploited like a magical spell. Psalm 132 doesn’t retell the story; instead it coaxes memory into life like a cooling cloth on the forehead of the heat-stricken.

So they look back and see what God has been and has done. Then the focus moves; from looking over the shoulder for reassurance they now look ahead with comfort. This God has always been with us, so He will do us well; the line of David will continue, God’s people will be provided for and blessed and rewarded. So they keept going, keep on keeping on because they remembered well. how God had been.

But.

We’ve been doing much remembering over the last two weeks. As we’ve sat trembling with shock at the loss of our dear friend at the indiscriminately evil hands of terrorism, we remember. Where we were when we heard? Who he is, was (which is it? is or was). We remember him and retell his story in our lives. The hugs, the laughs, the arguments, the things done and left undone simply because he caught a terrorist’s bullet.

Grief is horrible. Grief plus trauma is nightmarish. Grief plus trauma plus an international news story is shattering in ways I can’t yet articulate. All of us close to this have been taken to undreamed of places over the last few days and that will continue for some time, maybe in some form for our whole lives. These are events which shift a life on its axis.

Yes, we’ve been doing much remembering. In doing so some of us ask of God why, some of us want to ask a terrorist why, some of us rage, some of us cry. Most us do all of these things and more, in seemingly random waves and cycles moving to their own inexplicable internal rhythm.

God did not protect James. No angel rugby tackled him to the ground as the bullets flew. The Spirit blows where it will, but that day it didn’t blow a bullet off course. So we rage and ask and long and so much more.

If this is where we finish then this is unbearable.

It’s not, though. True Christian faith both lives with this soul-searing reality and still never understands this life as the only destination. Not that this life doesn’t matter; it does, profoundly, and we are called to live it well. The life, though, is a journey to a new creation just as the pilgrims of the Psalms of Ascents were on a journey to temple. To where God’s presence is poured out fully on everything. That’s what we’re heading for. There is where we, with the Psalm writer, will see the poor finally and fully satisfied – so when we assist with that now we point towards what’s coming. There is where all who follow the One who came in the line of David will see what is right crowned with glory, what is evil and violent lie in filthy rags. There violence will have its place finally defined and completely limited.

None of that changes the direction of a bullet or the sting of a tear now. But it gives them an orientation, a limitation, a divinely electrified fence beyond which they will never move. We look back and see God has been, so He will be, even though now it may not feel like He is. I see that in my friend’s life and death.

God willing, I’ll see it in my own. Or somebody else will.

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)

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

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 12: Rest, dear child (Psalm 131)

Rush

Rush is loud and fast and tremendous entertainment.

High praise coming from one who, in spite of what one of the characters in the film utters as a universal truth, is a man who doesn’t like cars.

It tells the story of the Formula One 1970s rivalry between Austrian genius by way of scientific engine redesign and risk analysis Niki Lauda; and British superstar, playboy and dicer-with-death James Hunt. The film builds towards a climactic brush with death (I’ll avoid spoilers here) and its aftermath. It’s an old-fashioned rivalry story in a conveniently foreign time.

I am a sports fan but not especially fond of Formula One. As I said, I don’t like cars so there’s a limited appeal to watching them drive the same course several times for two hours. I may watch occasionally but it’s not something I choose to engage with. I knew this story, though. I grew up in a sports-following house in the UK, so I knew it as much by osmosis as anything else. In that context, I’m a far from ideal market for this film – not particularly interested in the sport, but knowing how it ends.

Add to that Ron Howard films tend to … well … at their best they entertain and divert but rarely, if ever, touch me. I see him as solid, not exciting; as good, but not great; as thinking but not thoughtful. Rush ticks all those boxes – the performances in the leads from Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl are good; the support cast fade in and out of attention obediently and effectively. There’s a pretence at trying to understand the psychology of rivalry in the context of the risk of death. It’s touched on throughout the film and finds an awkward crescendo in a well-played by unconvincingly scripted exchange between the two leads in an airplane hangar. The script all round, by Peter Morgan, is very shallow; a mile from the depth and insight and economy of his other work like The Last King Of Scotland or The Damned United.

So much for the faults. It’s great fun, it’s exciting and shocking. The race scenes are brilliantly staged and shot; the noise is tangible, the adrenaline drinkable. It passes so fast, so engagingly, so wholeheartedly that you don’t have time to miss the depths. You’re having too much fun in the shallows.

Off the big screen the film’s power will, I suspect shrink and deficiencies will shine brighter. See it where it belongs and enjoy it for what it is.

I rated this film 7/10 on imdb.com and 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Like a thunderclap: words at the funeral of a friend

I have been out of blogging action for a while. Initially this was due to post-holiday reintegration. Then my friend and church warden, James Thomas, was killed by terrorists in the attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, on 21st September. This led to a maelstrom of events of grief, pastoral care and not a little media handling. I’ll post more reflections on this, alongside my return to a more usual pattern of blogging, on due course. For now I take up the blogging baton again with the full text of the sermon I preached at my friend’s funeral yesterday, Wednesday October 2nd, at Bishops Diocesan College, Cape Town. The service was attended by over 1,000 mourners.  

Texts: 2 Timothy 1:1-14 & John 12:20-26, read from The Message

James was visionary, funny, generous and reckless.

I mean all of that in a good way.

I think of the time of our first Easter in South Africa. We’d only moved from the UK a month previously. We hardly knew James and Colleen, but they’d still invited us to join in with a tradition of theirs, a Good Friday open house with coffee and hot cross buns. We couldn’t come because I had to undergo that oddly beautiful but taxing churchy version of the Comrades Marathon and lead a three-hour Good Friday service. Later on Good Friday I was lying in recovery at the house we were staying in, when the phone rang. It was James and Colleen, checking in with this minister they hardly knew to see how he was and how the service had gone and if we needed anything.

I think of another time a few months later. We’d got to know the family rather better. We were experiencing a tough and stressful time; and on this particular day James and Colleen were busy celebrating the marriage of their daughter Sarah to Scott. The phone went. It was James. “Shouldn’t you be at a wedding?”, I said, worried that something had gone wrong. “I am! It’s great! We’ve had the service and we’re on the way to the party” he chuckled. “OK … Um … you should probably not be on the phone to me”, I said. “Nonsense!” came the laughing reply. “I’m not driving, so I thought I’d call you and see how you are and tell you I’m praying for you today and that as we celebrate here we’ll blow away the darkness over you”.

How very James.

I think of his CV. Yes, really, I do. You may have seen it, or read about it recently. It contained the usual things and detailed his many achievements and successes. It couldn’t possibly cover the personal impact which he had on so many of us. There’s one odd thing about his CV, though. It has a section entitled “Nice Ideas I Tried That Didn’t Work Out”. Honestly. Who puts failures on his CV? An idea like great big airships with tour guides and orchestras in them to take tourists all over Cape Town. Great idea! Until you consider one of Cape Town’s dominant weather issues: wind … Or there’s one he told me about recently. However many times he told me I couldn’t quite grasp it. It involved, inevitably, lots of people. Peeling lots of vegetables. Every time he spoke about it I could see that he could see it, but I just couldn’t get my head around it.

If you knew James, you had almost certainly been exposed to one of his mad ideas. But sometimes they could take beautiful wings and fly. I think of the time we were talking about how to celebrate Christmas at St Peter’s. James talked about a big table groaning with food from the many different countries which are represented in our diverse little church. He talked of stories shared, cultures meeting, lives intersecting. And our little church made it happen. The table groaned with Christmas food from Kenya and the Cape Flats, from Mowbray and the English Midlands. The hall buzzed with stories of childhood Christmases from Edinburgh to rural mid-Africa, summer and winter celebrations. A man who sleeps outside embraced a British priest. James had seen it before it happened; he wasn’t able to be there on the day. But he saw it into being.

That was how James lived life, and nowhere more so in the context of his love for God, Jesus and His church. From his many, many years at Christ Church, Kenilworth to, in recent years, catching a vision for a rebuilding on ancient foundations at St Peter’s; to the individuals whom he invited to share his family life with Colleen and the girls; James saw what could be in people and places and so often he managed to will the new person, the new life into being by sheer force of personality and a profound resurrection hope that is deeper than mere optimism.

Optimism can be proved wrong. Hope, like that which James inspires in me, sees that the stumble, the failure, the optimism dashed is just a mile post, not the destination.

How awful that we are here. How unbearable to scan the pages of the Bible and search for something suitable to say. How soul-wrenching to prepare a talk I want with all my soul not to give.

How empty, how futile.

What a defeat. Yes. What a defeat.

And yet.

The greatest weapon evil can wield is a death like this. Violent and sudden like a thunder-clap on a clear summer’s day, it startles us into new reality. We ache with shock, tremble at what and who we miss, weep with Colleen, Sarah, Julie and Sipho. We fear for a new future without a man who could pull the future into the present. It feels awful to receive the blows of this weapon. Yet those blows are, for evil, self-defeating. Cut, wound, kill as they may they ultimately make evil’s loss greater, it’s defeat more total, it’s end more certain. Let’s think of the readings we heard, and that will shed light.

The first one, from an older man to a younger one, Paul to Timothy. A man with stories of adventures to tell, to a man just setting out. A man whose life had been turned from that of one who sought to murder Christ-followers, to one who wanted to see Jesus-churches to grow and flourish; he, to a man about to give the rest of his life to that same cause. 

Paul, the older man, tells of thanking God for the energy and life of Timothy every time he prays. He tells the wonderful story of how God’s work in Timothy was born – one neither he nor Timothy can take any credit for but that leaves the older man with a warm glow of fatherly satisfaction at what God had done and would do.

 So don’t be embarrassed to speak up for our Master or for me, his prisoner. Take your share of suffering for the Message along with the rest of us. We can only keep on going, after all, by the power of God, who first saved us and then called us to this holy work. We had nothing to do with it. It was all his idea, a gift prepared for us in Jesus long before we knew anything about it. But we know it now. Since the appearance of our Savior, nothing could be plainer: death defeated, life vindicated in a steady blaze of light, all through the work of Jesus.

2 Timothy 1: 8-10

Paul’s words, but James could be the writer there, couldn’t he? Looking at Sarah, Julie, Sipho, Scott, those gathered up into the family with him and Colleen. Looking at what he was able to give out of what God had given him. Stories are increasingly told of the ripples James’ life leaves, the people by whom he felt fathered, the inspiration he gave. Now we get the chance to tell those stories without embarrassing him. We wish we didn’t have that chance. But we do; and as we do so, we are inspired to keep going, others are challenged to do the same and we all get reminded of what a life fully devoted to Jesus can do.

This is the way of things. This is how God works. Not, and we must be clear, that Jesus willed the attack. Not that God inspired the shooting. He didn’t. The shooting, the attack remains utterly evil, totally cowardly, an offense to life itself. But the Christian God is One who deals in resurrection. The problem with resurrection is that you have to die first. God promises to those in Christ, resurrection; a life that transcends death, a reality that trumps the fading reality of walls and doors, shopping malls and guns.

Jesus spoke in our reading from John of this strange, painful, divine economy.

Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is, destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.

John 12 24-25

God does not wish for death or violence. Like Jesus at the graveside of his friend, he abhors death. Jesus at a funeral is described as ‘deeply moved’ elsewhere in John’s gospel. It’s a weak attempt to translate a powerful phrase in the original language. It’s the word used of a horse snorting in anger. That’s how Jesus feels about the presence of death in the world.

James reflected that.  He was a conscientious objector to forced conscription who carried a trumpet instead of a gun; hence the Last Post at the start of our service. I don’t know why God doesn’t stop things like this. Anyone who tells you they do understand is most likely talking nonsense.

But I do know that the God we see in Jesus shows us something bigger, fuller, deeper, truer than an answer. He shows us that life, resurrection life blooming out of the dry soil of death, is something that can not and will not be extinguished. Not now. Not in the Westgate Mall. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not in five years’ time when we still wonder why. Not in the new creation awaiting those who are in Him, a perfected creation where the old way of being with all its tears and illness and fear and pain and terrorism and murder and debt and death is no more and things are as God has always said they should and would be.

James would not allow us to praise him in an unqualified way. His CV with his list of things that did not work does not allow us to do so. He would say ‘Come on. You know I’m not perfect. How could I be?”

As we celebrate and honour James, we do so just as much with thankful stories as we do with remembering hurts we may have received from him and releasing forgiveness for things undone and unsaid.

We do that, because we in Jesus are called to something bigger, fuller, deeper, wider which encompasses everything, yet at the same time redefines everything.

There are tears.

There is hope.

The two sit together; the hope gathering momentum and energy to the point of a divine no return, the tears real and aching, but destined to fade when the new creation is born and hope flowers.

Click here to see my wife’s beautiful tribute to James in images and words

This is the full text of the sermon I preached at the funeral of my friend, James Thomas, at Bishops Diocesan College, Cape Town, October 2nd, 2013.