South Africa, God is especially fond of you

We all like to think we’re special. The truth is, we are.

We are immeasurably special.

Yes, even you. You, you as an individual, you. You are made bearing the indelible and unique hallmark of the divine Source of all things. You were bought for Him at an unimaginable, inexpressible, uncountable cost. He’d have done it for you if you were the only one left. You are precious and deeply, personally, intimately loved in ways you can’t express or hope to understand this side of mortality.

You are special.

A pretty average book helped me understand that. Remember The Shack? A decently written novel about suffering and God. The God character whispers in the ear of the one who suffers “I am especially fond of you”. Beautiful, that. The only part of the book that stayed with me. God is especially fond of me.

What made that powerful in The Shack was that it eventually became apparent that God whispered of special fondness to each and every person. It’s utterly personal, deeply unique … and equally addressed to each and every person. That makes me deeply loved and very special – but also not that special at the same time. God performs the clever juxtaposition of boosting my self-esteem and keeping my ego in check at the same time.

The same is true for countries. Every country is special. Every country is unique. I suppose we might even be able to say that God has a special purpose for each country. Every country is different, so every country has its own purpose to perform. He chose one country through which to make that plain, but only so that each country and each person could find their own special place and purpose.

I’ve thought about all this a great deal recently, and it became inescapable for me when a meme started popping up in my social media feeds. South Africa – where I live and work – is experiencing a convulsion of rage and protest which will lead we know not yet where. It’s shaking a lot of people – which it should do, needs to. The meme talked of God not letting South Africa go – to which I heartily and fully say ‘Amen’. It said other things, though. Like this: “He loves you too much to let you keep the racism”. There are other things that meme says that God loves the country too much to let it fall back into.

I understand the sentiment, and it sounds Godly. It’s certainly true that God doesn’t want people or countries to be racist or to foster poverty. But the existence of those things is down to us, not Him. Keeping racism? That’s on me, not God.

God has special purposes for South Africa – just as He as special purposes for every country – but embracing those is up to the people of the country. If we get it right, it’s a reflection of His grace and good and to His glory. If we don’t, it’s on us. To suggest – even by implication – that God loves us too much to fall back into old traps  is to imply that one country is favoured over another. What about the countries where those things are happening (and let’s be honest, most of them are already happening  in South Africa anyway)? Does God love them any less because those countries are further down the rabbit hole?

No.

God is incredibly fond of South Africa. But no more so than He is of any other country. Expressed uniquely, personally, locally to South Africa for sure; but the love is shared around to every other country also, and none are left unequally unloved. South Africa is very special to God, and is also just like every other country. He gives us the tools, the invitation, the capacity to let go of poverty and racism and corruption. But it will be for no lack of God’s love if they seem to win; that’s on us, and us alone.

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Room: trauma, love and beauty

Giving meaning to tragedy and trauma is dangerous ground. Whether you’re a preacher, a writer, a journalist, a film-maker or just somebody trying to walk alongside a person experiencing trauma, the traps are the same. Say too much and you risk the trite, the trivial, the weightless; say too little and you risk a silence which is filled by worst imaginings. Try to find meaning and you flirt with missing the point, not doing justice to the pain; try to let events speak for themselves and you come close to nihilism. There’s so much that can go wrong it can feel like it’s safest to do nothing if you don’t have to, unless events don’t force themselves on you. Trauma is distant to most of us; but as I found out when my when friend was murdered by terrorists, that approach is ultimately of no use. Sometimes the worst case happens, the unthinkable becomes your daily concern, the unimaginable your lived experience.

This is the territory we are in with Room, the film adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s  massively successful novel (an adaption written by the novelist). I had little knowledge of the book personally, but the film-makers want us to be in no doubt as to where this film goes – the bare facts may make this a hard sell, but the publicity wants us to believe that this will affirm life without patronising or dismissing pain. It’s the story of a young woman (faultlessly played by Brie Larson) confined in one room for seven years where she’s repeatedly raped by her captor; she inhabits the room with her five-year old son to whom she gave birth in the room as a result of the rapes. Jack’s world is one in four walls; it’s all he’s ever known, all he’s ever seen save for what he sees through the single window in the form of a skylight and the television. This is a child’s eye view film; it is through him we perceive the abuse which we never see; it’s through him we learn of his mother’s past life on the outside; it’s with him that we eventually journey to the outside world in the film’s final third.

Jack’s mum has helped him create a fantastical world within the four walls of his existence; around his fifth birthday she tries to explain the outside world to him. He’s disbelieving, but gradually grasps towards something resembling truth. When he attempts to affect their escape he’s just about aware enough to cope with the revelation that there are other people and animals and places.

We know there are real-world equivalents to this fictional story, but still this film is trying to imagine the unimaginable. By all rights it should be inadequate or trite or tasteless or just plain unbelievable. In trying to make a film that isn’t a thriller or a drama or comedy but instead a hymn to love and relationships, the film-makers should be falling flat on their faces. Instead they’ve given us a genuinely unforgettable, overwhelming and transcendent film that helps us rediscover ourselves, our loved ones and the world around us. It finds beauty in the desperately ordinary thanks to some remarkable cinematography that makes the small room both a place of captivity and a universe to discover; the relationships are perfectly drawn and life-affirming thanks to Brie Larson’s and Jacob Tremblay’s (the son, Jack) achingly beautiful performances. The depths of their relationship are unfathomable yet also utterly recognisable to anyone who has ever loved. The startlingly brilliant music haunts, prods, pushes and finally engulfs. We never see the rape or abuse take place, but we’re left in no doubt as to its reality, its inescapability. Yet we’re never without hope or beauty, and ultimately the film lets us and the characters find life and love in new, beautiful and subtle ways.

There’s much to say about Room, but at the end of the day there’s little I can properly articulate. I can think of maybe one other film (Pan’s Labyrinth  – in many ways very different, in others very similar) that has come close to making me feel as moved, alive, tearful and full of wonder as this one. It’s a rare work of art that leaves you speechless yet desperate to talk, but Room is one of them.

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

The gift of not being perfect

I’m tired.

That’s partly because I stayed up close to midnight to watch Arsenal’s inevitable demise to the liquid machine of Barcelona’s sublime brand of football. But it’s not the real reason. I’ll get to bed a bit earlier than usual this evening to make up for it, and all will be well. No, I’m tired in other ways. In no particular order …

I’m tired because I’m a new parent. We’ve been fostering 13-year old Mr K and 7-year old Miss J for around 2 months now. We’re told it takes 6 months-1 year to reorient life to a new reality like this. We’re doing quite well, all told, but  we’re making plenty of mistakes and learning plenty of new things. Learning and making mistakes is tiring. The earlier mornings are tiring. The dealing with the overflow of past traumas is tiring.

I’m tired because I lead a church, and it’s a tiring job. It’s never done, you never stop thinking about it, there’s always more I could do and I work more hours than most people know or believe – and I’m pretty good at protecting my time off.

I’m tired because I don’t live in the country of my birth. I’ve lived in South Africa for 6 years now, and it’s home – in as much as anywhere is ever home in my line of work. But I’d lived in the UK for 36 years before that; it’s how I was born and raised, the air I breathed. Living in a place that’s not that of your birth is always going to be a little destabilising; and especially so in South Africa, where as leader there’s the swirls and eddies of the country’s history and present threatening to sweep you away and grab your attention. The issues are so complex, so intertwined with one another, so hard to get a handle on. Add on that something is coming to the boil here, now; violent unrest is coming the surface once again. anger is surfacing and it needs to be faced, understood, listened to and acted in response to.

I’m tired by all these things, because I don’t do any of them as well as I’d like to. I try hard as a parent, but I fail daily. I try hard as a church leader, but I fail daily. I try hard to understand South Africa, but I fail daily. There’s issues that demand attention, articles to read, conversations to have – none of which I seem able to get to, all of which tire me out by their presence in my inbox, mind, newsfeed, book pile.

Then some words spoken came back to me. My therapist said to me, as I was becoming a foster father, that I’ll feel the pressure to be a perfect Dad. But relax, he said. You can’t be perfect – all you need to be is good enough.

Good enough. I can do that. Jesus calls it grace. I can be a good enough Dad; He’ll do the rest. I can be a good enough leader; He’ll make up the difference. I can be a good enough resident of a convulsing South Africa; He’ll bring the perfection. He’ll call people who’ll give to my foster kids what I can’t; He’ll raise up people within my church, and other churches, who’ll do and be what I and my church can’t do or be; He’ll bring forward people dealing with each issue and conversation that really matters. I just need to be good enough, to be obedient with what I’ve been given, to do what I can and not what I can’t.

Good enough.

It’s called grace, and it will mean I can sleep.

 

Sorry, just sorry – a reflection at the start of Lent

It was one of those emails that I’d rather not have had to send. I’m not very good at raising difficult issues at the best of times, and doing so by email is not a helpful way to do it. But the issue was playing on my mind, and I needed to say something about it. I wasn’t expecting to see the person concerned for a while; I knew if I let this run until then my bad habit of assuming the worst would kick in and it would get out of control. So I sent an email that explained what I had heard had happened, and asked for clarification.

The response was swift, and helpful. The person concerned gave a better insight into what had happened, explained the intention hadn’t been to hurt or make life difficult for me, and said sorry. That was kind, and appreciated. Before I had the chance to reply, another email came in from the same sender. The person took it further – it didn’t matter, came the explanation, what the intention had been. What mattered was that wrong had been done, and that the wrong was owned and addressed. If the first email had been helpful, this second one caused my shoulders to lighten  – and I hadn’t even realised I’d been carrying something. I felt even warmer towards the person concerned than I had before this whole thing started; I knew that next time I saw the person concerned I would feel no anxiety.

This caused me to think about how I say sorry – which I’m called on to do every day. My sorry does not measure up to the one I have just related. My sorry is not as powerful, as life-giving as the one I received. What marked this one from which I benefitted as special and good? For me two things stood out – which are rarely features of my apologies.

First, the person owned responsibility. There was no prevarication with what the intention had been, there was no asking me to bear my side of the fault (though as I discovered, I did need to take some responsibility myself). There was an explanation offered – but that was by way of reason and shared insight, not excuse. Responsibility was owned, and it was unequivocal.

Second, the person didn’t use intention as a get-out. If your leg is broken by a bad car driver, it doesn’t matter that the driver didn’t mean to drive badly. What matters is that your leg was broken – it’s not going to get any better because it was an accident. No, your leg needs to be mended; and in this instance the one who broke it can help it mend.

The fact that the apology I received contained both of these elements (and more besides) meant that hurt was addressed, and relationship restored. It also enabled me to apologise too, as I discovered I needed to. What started as potentially awkward and could have spiralled out of control was nipped in the bud, and transfigured into something refreshing and life-giving.

A lesson there that will be good for me to employ in my marriage, my parenting, my friendships, my church. I have much to learn on saying sorry.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of the Christian season of Lent. This is a time for reflection. A time to recognise our faults and inadequacies and harmful dependencies, admit them before God, receive forgiveness for them and turn away from them to something new and better.

I thought about the way I say sorry to God. Too often it’s like my sorry to people – qualified, hesitant, blame-shifting, self-pitying. Something changes when I do it well. I realise how needy I am, how shallow I am, how much of a failure I am; my hands are emptied and I’m ready to receive what I need. My Christian tradition  – the Anglican tradition  – uses liturgy (prepared prayers) to help me do that. Those prayers put in my mouth words which express my failure, need and utter dependence on God. There is no talk of intention, blame or self-pity. I am forced to take responsibility, and turn away from the behaviour. I’m then free to receive spoken over me words of freedom, forgiveness and refreshing. Saying sorry to God, called confession; and repentance, turning away from the wrong, are often thought of as sad, miserable, life-crushing things to do. Bad for the self-esteem, we may think.

Not so. Quite the opposite, in fact. We find ourselves released from burdens we’re not designed to carry, relationships are restored and hurt is replaced by healing. Make it a choice to do this well – maybe start over Lent, but allow it to become a way of life.

The road to life is marked by a sign marked ‘Sorry, just sorry’. Follow it.