Lessons On The Way 4: Tables and chairs are spiritual

“When do you discuss the drains?”

It’s a strange question to lodge in my mind a good few years later.

It was voiced in a room full of us who were training for full-time for ministry in the church. The class in question was, I think, supposed to be teaching us about the nuts-and-bolts aspects of leadership. A local minister was leading the session, and the questioner (not me) was asking a perfectly reasonable and sensible question. When and how do you take decisions to do with buildings and maintenance and technicalities?

There lies behind that question a strong and often verbalised feeling, one with which I fully identify. Namely that those of us who are chosen from within the church to lead churches are usually neither able to address, nor enjoy dealing with, such things.  So when and how do I deal with these parts of church life which are unavoidable but in relation to which I am neither passionate nor gifted?

One way we’ve tried to deal with this at the church I currently lead (a small-medium sized church in urban Cape Town, South Africa) is to do something that first seems to be counter-intuitive: we’ve created more committees. These are all sub-committees of the church council with at least one member of the council on them. Anyone who’s interested in or able in these areas can join them. I am on three or four of them. I don’t touch finance or buildings and maintenance. I just stay in touch as I need to. The result is that I’m much less stressed, more gets done and more members of the church are involved with different parts of the church’s life. It’s by no means a perfect system, but it’s working well for us now in this season.

We can’t, though, avoid everything we don’t enjoy. As our church council meeting came up last week, I glanced at the agenda and realised with a sinking heart that we’d be most likely spending a long time discussing things like tables and chairs. I sighed. I don’t lead council meetings (another decision that has been good for all of us; the woman who leads the meeting is really good at doing so) and I knew we needed to talk about these things. I could just see, however, the tedium coming down the track towards me.

So much for that. What I got was a deep and rich experience of the Holy Spirit; the chairs and tables put us on holy ground.

Our church is located in one of those areas of Cape Town which was affected by the Group Areas Act, one of the legal planks of apartheid which zoned cities by skin colour and forcibly moved black and coloured people to less desirable areas exposed to the elements and with less access to basic amenities. White people had the pick of what remained. One of the few things those removed could still do was travel to their parish church, even if they’d been forcibly removed long distances. So they did that  – taking unreliable public transport every Sunday morning to the place of worship of their choice. Apartheid may be long dead, but the symptoms remain. Still these people and their descendants travel to their family’s church. Apartheid couldn’t stop them, so nothing else will.

There was no great resistance to replacing the tables and chairs. They’re heavy and unwieldy, recognised as impractical for our needs. The chairs have been there longer than a parishioner who’s been worshipping in this church for over 50 years. What was an issue was what to do with the chairs – made from fine quality wood, they’re in good condition even now. There was talk of selling them for scrap for the price of the wood; the response to that was that we need to make sure they went somewhere they were wanted or needed  – or if we couldn’t find such a place, sell them for scrap and donate the receipts to a church or project with which we are in relationship.

Throughout the meeting stories were told and barriers broken through – people talked about the past and the future, with hope and expectation as well as holy trepidation. It was only after the meeting, in conversation with one person, that the penny finally dropped for me. People who had experienced forced removal from their homes were now rightly seeking to ensure that the chairs and tables, part of their church throughout much of apartheid, were not also forcibly removed. Their removal needed to be positive – not just to make way for an incomer. In the course of the conversation lights went on throughout my mind, scanning the history of our 4 years here, seeing the same theme pop up. Forced removals – named or not – remain a scar which is still visible.

A while back a tentative plan was made to have some days of story-telling in the church; getting the saints young and old to relate the joys and sorrows of life, capturing the triumphs of grace that make up our church’s life. Two weeks ago we had arranged a date for the first of these days; no sooner is it in the church diary then this happens. Chairs, tables, drains and bank balances in 2014 merging with the first-time expressions of hurts and injustices long since past but very  much alive.

Few of us who lead and work around churches decided to do so because we are interested in or capable in relation to tables and chairs, spreadsheets and budgets, drains and kitchens. We were set aside for the divine, devoted to the spiritual. Or so we like to think. Much to our embarrassment, it turns out that everything is spiritual, that as one theologian put it:

Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’ (Abraham Kuyper)

Christ is all in all; everything, everywhere. He is unavoidable, inescapable. Even in the tables and chairs and spreadsheets and drains.

It’s not wrong to encourage those who are good at these things to deal with such matters; if they suck the life from you, don’t do them if it all possible. They’ll get done better and quicker if I’m not involved. Never assume, though, that where you are is spiritual. It is spiritual, of course. So is everything and everywhere else. Even if we don’t like it, even if the very thought of it makes my heart heavy. It’s still spiritual, and touching it may be the gateway for Christ’s good work.

It shouldn’t surprise us that tables and chairs lead us to be seated on holy ground. After all, our central act of worship is a meal.

Are you on holy ground?

Also in this series: 

3: The dangers and offensiveness of grace

2: How to make sure you church leader doesn’t turn into a psychopath

1: I don’t have to do it all

12 Years A Slave: Essential and true in every way

Perspective is always valuable ; it’s impossible, really, to say now which of the films of this era will stand the test of time. The greats only become truly apparent much later. What we can say with some degree of certainty is when we’ve seen something genuinely outstanding in this day and time; when a film’s subject matter, artistic contributors, global context all come together with perfect synergy to mark out a film as truly essential. I rarely say that people must or should see a film; our tastes vary, what we need in a night at the cinema might ebb and flow, our individual levels of the appropriateness of difficult content is never universal. We can guide as to quality, but we should be very slow to glibly say that everybody should see a film for fear of wearing out the expression, breeding apathy and cynicism rather than engagement with great art.

With the scene thus set, let’s make this abundantly clear: everyone should see 12 Years A Slave. We can’t say for now if it will become an all time great – though my personal feeling is that it will; we can say with conviction that it’s easily the best film of recent years. It is perfectly directed and shot; the performances are uniformly strong without ever falling into the awards-bait trap of drawing attention to the performer; the story is conveyed clearly and moves quickly – this may be a film about important, urgent themes, but it’s no worthy issue film. It’s a story with characters who breathe deeply and fully. Despite the awful events played out before us, there’s dignity, intelligent insight and perfectly judged moments of wit and humour even in the middle of tragedy and suffering.

The story is the true one of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York in 1841 who is hoodwinked by people apparently keen to make the most of his musical talents and finds himself shipped to New Orleans, losing his name and spending 12 years as a slave. The film is based on the book Northup wrote after he’d gained his freedom, carrying with it a simple lack of sensationalism which refuses to flinch from realities we’d much rather avoid. The casual verbal hand-grenades of the n***** word; people as property; casual violence out of nothing; sexual abuse. It’s not these, though, that really compel me – as haunting and brilliantly conveyed as they are. I was left reeling instead by the normality around the violence and brutality. A scene where is man is left hanging is disturbing for the brutality of the act, for sure; more shocking still is how long the camera lingers on it, letting us see just how long life carries on as normal whilst a life is gradually snuffed out. Will we look away before someone intervenes? Which would we have done? Several times director Steve McQueen (only his third film) lets the beautifully composed camera shots linger far longer than would usually have been allowed, the better to take in the detail and the context, for reality to imprint itself in our minds.

At the centre of it all is an astonishing performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup. It takes a special actor to carry such subject matter and not disappear beneath the weight of it or mug to the camera. His performance is note-perfect; as the camera lingers on him for what feels like an age at different times we see a gallery of emotions across his expressive face, movement barely perceptible but real and unmissable. One remarkable scene after a burial hones in on Northup’s grieving, angry, silent face as those around mourn and worship with the beautiful gospel cadences of Roll Jordan Roll. He’s too angry, too lost to sing; tears hang on the brink of falling. He’s barely containing himself. Until he sings, first quietly then with ascending volume, his hands finding the clapped rhythm. Anger isn’t pushed down; it’s transfigured into worship to find a deeper and truer reality than the awful facts of the situation.

Looking for faults, it would be easy to see Brad Pitt’s character, a moral voice and agent of hope, as a white rescuer. I don’t know the facts of the story – the book is on my ‘to-read’ pile – but it would have been equally unhelpful, I think, to portray every white person in the film as racist abusers. His is, like all the supporting players, a well judged and fleshed out part. That’s one of the many strengths of the writing in the film; no line is too small to get right. A distraught mother forcibly separated from her children hears a simple but unforgettable eight-word reply, delivered with such run-of-the-mill dispassion that it drew audible gasps of shock from the audience of which I was part. There were several moments like that – perfectly under-stated, delivered faultlessly, shocking enough to  result in voiced disbelief.

Do not fall into the trap of presuming that this is a film to simply endure like bad-tasting medicine because it is ‘good for you’. It is good for you. but only because it is, like life, laced with beauty and hope even in the darkest moments. It will live you reeling; if you engage with it properly you can’t be the same person at the end. It’s not lecture or treatise, however; instead it’s a story, a real one, with flesh and blood and soul.

You really, really, really should see this. There is no good reason for it not to win every award, (if Steve McQueen wins the Best Director Oscar, he’ll be the first black man to do so – how very appropriate, should it be so); no rational explanation for anything else being the film of the year or decade. Where it sits in film history we’ll know in due course.

In the end awards and instant reaction don’t cement a film’s legacy. For now, whilst we wait, you should simply see it and let it change you.

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

Hatchet Job

What’s the point of it all, really?

No, not life. Something far more important than that. Movie reviews. The job of the film critic. How many of us are really influenced by what the (mostly) middle-aged men say?

Well, me for a start, middle-aged (just) man (definitely) that I am. I’ve been a film fan for as long as I can remember. For me a rare treat in term time was being able to stay up to watch Barry Norman on the BBC’s Film [insert year here]. I know. Most of you would have settled for sweets. I wasn’t and am not averse to sweets but that programme was kryptonite for me, destroying the next day’s productivity and inevitably alerting me to something I had to see. From I don’t know what age I would devour the film review pages of newspapers. Over the subsequent years the opinions of reviewers I trust has shaped what I do and don’t see. Not definitively, but I’ll let a list of 5 or so writers and broadcasters heavily influence for what I’ll give up my time and money. Since moving to South Africa that’s been harder – many of the films I want to see are smaller films which may well not get a release here; or if they do, it will be significantly delayed. This hasn’t deadened my love for good film criticism – if anything it’s raised it. Online, primarily, I read or listen to a good few hours’ worth of content each week. An entertaining and intelligent review of a film I might never see, positive or negative, feeds my soul in a very particular way.

Which brings me to this book, Hatchet Job by Mark Kermode. He’s the best known film reviewer in the UK. I’ve been listening to him on the radio for years, and the internet means I still can here in Cape Town. His weekly show is downloaded by millions. That’s serious reach. He and his co-host, the British broadcasting institution Simon Mayo, witter intelligently and entertainingly for close on two hours each week about film releases and matters related. Over the years these two have kept me going through boredom, busyness, trauma, depression, chronic pain, moving life to the other side of the world, fun, fear and a whole lot more besides. I can’t imagine life without my weekly dose.

This latest book from Mark Kermode asks the simple question of the role of the film critic. It’s easy to read, funny and full of entertaining stories and anecdotes from his years in the business. With the slow death of print news media it’s easy to imagine a world in which the role of the professional film critic becomes ever more irrelevant. After all, as Kermode demonstrates here, it’s not the critic whose opinion shapes how films are made or received. It’s the audience, the money in the bank. Pure and simple. It seems, though, however counter-intuitive this may seem, that more people than ever want a critic’s intelligent, informed and contextualised opinion. Even – or perhaps especially – if they’ve already seen the film. People see something, think about it – then want to know what others who know more about film than they do think. The freely available online content is viewed, read, heard by thousands upon thousands upon millions. Film critics are more consulted than ever before; they simply need to be cleverer about how they use their expertise to pay the bills.

Compared to many amateur film bloggers, the reviews I write here carry little weight. Apparently they shape the film-watching of a few of you; in reality, though, I don’t see enough to be a film critic. I’m simply someone who writes about most of the films I see. I write because I like films, and I like writing. Really, that’s it. Anything else is a side benefit. I need the professional film critics – especially Mark Kermode – because they entertain, stimulate and inform me. When I see a film and prepare to write about it, I remind myself of what he and one or two others have said about it. I never, no matter what others may imagine, allow a critic to tell me what to think; I simply want to see if they’ve seen something in the film that I haven’t or if my facts are correct and so on. I want to know what they think because if they think something different to me it means I may have missed something; that may mean I need to think some more, or even watch again. It may not change my opinion, but it will mean I’ve thought properly about the film and my opinion.

Does that seem excessive? Maybe it is. Or maybe not. When many people spend much time and millions of dollars making a film, I think it’s important not just to arrive blindly at an opinion, but to do justice to the blood, sweat and tears that went into the making of the film to allow that opinion to be informed and well-formed. I enjoy doing so too – this is a hobby for me, something that gives me life to do. If I thought for a moment that doing so, putting my content up for free, was leading to critics like Kermode being made irrelevant or redundant I’d stop in a shot. The pleasure I glean from them means too much to me to lose. For anyone who cares about film, this is a book to read and treasure.

I rated this book 4/5 on goodreads.com

Stumbling towards resurrection’s launchpad

Yesterday I cried whilst the rice was boiling. Not that the rice was taking an especially long time to boil, though it remains true that a watched pot never boils. No, it was more than that. Let’s take a couple of steps back for some context.

The latest series of the BBC’s Sherlock finally airs here in a few days’ time, and thus far I’ve remained mercifully spoiler free (keep it that way, please). I decided to fill the time waiting for the new series with a re-viewing of series 1 and 2; last night, whilst the rice was boiling I watched the last episode of season 2. Which, as everyone knows by now, [SPOILER] ends with Sherlock apparently plunging to his own (self-inflicted) death, maneuvered into a nightmarish corner by Moriarty. Of course, we know from the final scene of the show and the fact that series 3 is coming that the death was staged. We won’t know, however, how this was achieved until series 3 airs; at the end of series 2 every character apart from Sherlock thinks Sherlock is dead. It ends with a poignant scene as Watson lingers at his friend’s grave asking for ‘one more miracle … don’t be dead‘.

That was what made me cry. This last few days I’d been thinking often of my friend who died at the hands of terrorists just four months ago. I don’t want him to be dead. Rewind history, please. Make the bullets take a different path, make him take the trip to the mall on a different day.

Whatever the circumstances we’ve all been there or will be there one day, wanting someone not to be dead. Which is where I was, and why I found myself crying as the rice boiled. Fiction like Sherlock Holmes is many things, not least wish-fulfilment. We all wish we noticed that much, we  all wished everything could be solved with the ruthless application of logic, and we all wish people who are dead weren’t. The more inevitable a resounding ‘no’ becomes, the more we wish it wasn’t so. Not for nothing is acceptance of the new, painful reality a part of the widely recognised 5 stages of grieving. 

Acceptance is a hard and tantalizingly shifting goal. If the person we’ve lost didn’t mean something to us, acceptance wouldn’t be so hard to attain. It’s often confused with resignation  – a benign shrugging of the shoulders, a reluctant tipping over of the king on the chessboard when there’s no other option. It’s not so; acceptance is hard-bought and hard-fought to hang on to. Circumstances, reminders, anniversaries, anything really, can take us to that place of wishing he was back with us, that she hadn’t gone. Nothing to be done about it, but we go there nonetheless.

As with death, so with any loss – illness, moving house or city or country, end of a relationship or job, a new stage of life for you or someone you love – all these and more are bereavements to which we are constantly challenged to reach that point of acceptance. Even if the change is on the face of it a good one, we need to reach a point of acknowledging and accepting the loss in order to properly re-engage with the new reality. The human desire to turn back the clock or rewrite the story is a ubiquitous one; from social media to games to alternative history fiction and more, all give us the opportunity to un-make something we want to change or are just curious to see what it could have looked like. Entertaining, natural to some extent – but potentially damaging to the process of healing, the journey towards acceptance.

Acceptance is especially hard to hold to when what we need to accept seems to sit in opposition to something we hold dear … justice, equality, the power of our God to heal. To speak of acceptance in such contexts seems like surrender, a lack of faith or courage.

Or maybe not. Maybe true acceptance – the realisation that this is real and isn’t going away any time soon – is the level ground we need in order to take a firm stand. We can’t protest something we don’t really accept the reality of, after all; we can’t seek healing for a diagnosis we don’t believe. Acceptance isn’t surrender – it’s the end of one process, and the beginning of another; one which leads to change.

Think of Jesus in Gethsemane, the night before his death. Desperate for a change in circumstances, sweating blood, asking for help … but accepting at the end of it all that the decision doesn’t lie in His hands, and whatever will come, will come. You can see many of those 5 stages of grief in that once incident, denial being perhaps the one that doesn’t fit with a divine man (though that’s more than made up for by Peter et al.). Anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance are all writ deep in the Passion narrative of the incarnate God. We all know the story ends not with death, but an empty tomb.

Acceptance for most of us may not lead to immediate change; but for the Christian it always leads to resurrection – the transcendence of simply defining an illness as an illness, a loss as a loss, a death as a death. Acceptance leads to resurrection which means the object of our acceptance becomes part of a deeper and wider and truer reality. What that looks likes may be beyond our control, but is ours still to discover, or allow others to discover when we’ve gone. Alternatively acceptance can give us that level ground from which to actually do something. This is real now; we’ve accepted it’s part of reality. Good; then we shall do something about it. Imagine if God had just pretended we people didn’t have a problem. Acceptance of the problem was the start of salvation.

Acceptance really isn’t resignation, defeat or faithlessness. It’s a launchpad for resurrection.

The thing is, though, in this, for now, I don’t want to accept. I’m still asking for the miracle. Maybe it’s something to do with the violence, something to do with the public nature of it all. Maybe it’s connected to my role as pastor. I don’t know. I do know I can see new life springing up, but I’m not quite there in my heart and soul.

As I stumble towards the launchpad, a few steps forward, a few back; as I slouch roughly and reluctantly towards resurrection, stay with me a while, would you?