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