God In The Slow Lane

It’s often said that the urgent can drive out the important. From responding to emails to health issues and much in between, there’s evidence to suggest this is true. Our attention is automatically – and often necessarily  – diverted to that which is most pressing. If your house is on fire at the moment when you’d set aside time to work on your tax returns which are due in a month’s time, then you’d be a fool to do anything other than deal with the urgent, important as tax returns are.

How do we discern which is which? Rarely are faced with such a binary or obvious choice. The minister by whom I was trained told me many things which have lodged in mind: one of them was the importance of discerning the difference between a good idea and a God idea. It might be – for example – a good idea to introduce a church service led by the youth to the programme of services; but is it the right idea at the right time? Are the youth ready? Is the rest of the church ready? That’s the leadership decision; Victor Hugo is paraphrased as writing that no-can resist an idea whose time has come. There’s truth in that.

What makes this leadership decision so difficult much of the time is that people have very different ideas of what’s urgent and what’s important. I’m always hesitant to blame the still-new tool of social media, but certainly Facebook and the like can amplify this tendency – the louder you shout or the more dramatic the news or the tighter the deadline, then the more likely you are to get heard. And there does seem to be an awful lot of shouting. The ticking time-bombs of climate-change, American mid-term elections, Brexit and the like all scream for attention. Not to mention the varied issues that are – or appear to be – related to these and other situations; the gap between rich and poor in various countries, volatile economies, diplomatic relations strained to near breaking point, racial tensions, the rise of political extremism. It seems that something must be done on each of these, now.

We bring this to church, too. Can you give me 5 ways to improve my prayer-life? What’s the best way to read the Bible? Can we have a course to improve marriage/parenting/surviving as a single person? The need screams importance and urgency; set up a solution, now.

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The problem is that God seems to work to altogether different timetables. The God who defends the poor and is concerned for justice and liberation seems to wait most of Moses’s long life-time before finally sending him to lead them to freedom … which in the end turned out to be 40 years of wondering apparently aimlessly in the wilderness. Jesus waited for 30 years of presumably normal education and manual labour before doing much that was worth recoding for future posterity. As the letter-writer says in 2 Peter 3: ” With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” That’s to say – God is not so much concerned with any one thing we do or don’t do as He is the state of our souls, our relationship to Him. He’s prepared to give us a lot of time.

All this is somewhat fraught with problems. It may seem quite easy for me to say that God is patient and is biding his time for my eternal sake; but unlike some who live in this city, my house didn’t just burn down leaving me homeless and shorn of resources. The mid-term elections have a date on them, as does Brexit. If I were to receive a terminal diagnosis tomorrow (there’s no likelihood that I will), then every day would suddenly take on new weight. We’ve become so accustomed to having much of what we want or need on demand that we expect the same of the spiritual life and the faith communities we are part of or lead. Added to that, one of the perpetual burdens of leadership is to be able to see with clarity the gap between where an organisation is and where it could or should be. This gap between our time-bound urgency and God’s slowness seems to be a recipe for human frustration and angst.

What to do, then? I’ve never understood prayer, and am rather suspicious of anyone who claims to do so. I am aware, however, that when I am able to pray, two things happen – often simultaneously – something changes in the situation or person I’m praying for, and something changes in me. So I should pray, then. That’s all well and good, but in this period of my life – children, not great health, full-time job and the like, I don’t have much time. I pray a version of the daily office some days; I fire off prayers at some points in the day if something prompts me so to do. But it’s hard to turn attention to God when there’s so much that is, dare I say it, both urgent and important. Like many parents, I’m tired. I go to bed tired, and I wake tired. Prayer is hard when you’re tired.

God is working in my life very slowly at the moment. I’ve only recently realised the truth of something that happened to me around 25 years ago. Why didn’t God help me do it earlier, and save us all a lot of time? I don’t know. Things in church happen slowly; of course, we’ve never really arrived, we’re always changing and adjusting and growing – but it strikes me that in one particular area of my church’s life we’re only now beginning to reach a place I first dreamed of about 8 years ago. For so many people – including myself and my own relationships – I can see where we or they could be, but we all seem to take an inordinately long time to get there.

I read this week that in Paul’s great hymn to love, 1 Corinthians 13, the first definition given of love is patience; or as older translations have it, long-suffering. God seems to love me, you, us so much that he’s willing to suffer long for us to get to where he needs us to get to. He won’t rush us because to rush us would go against his innate love for us. He loves us more than our deeds, more than our urgent actions or calls to action, more than any one thing we can make happen. He wants us to work for him – but he wants that to come not as duty or forced obedience, but as loving response to his long-suffering on our behalf.

There is much we come up against that might be fixed by urgent labour or donation of money or the like. Sometimes that will need to happen; but more often, perhaps, we will find ourselves called to what Eugene Peterson termed the ‘long obedience in the same direction’; the long-suffering with ourselves and others, as God does with us. There’s no 12 week course to fix injustice; there’s no quick fix for my prayer-life; there’s no easy route to better relationships. Love is patient, long-suffering – requiring us to exercise the kindness and the benefit of the doubt to ourselves and others that God is so willing to exercise to all of us. That doesn’t allow us to be lazy, or to make excuses for damaging or violating patterns of behaviour; but it does mean that we are to find within us that part of ourselves that bears the stamp of the long-suffering creator, to let His patience call out our own with ourselves and others.

Saving And Harming; Is A Star Is Born A Film About Abuse?

There’s a theory often quoted that when it comes to plots of stories there are only seven (some people come up with a different, but similar, number). Every story ever told falls into one of the seven templates, maybe with subtle differences to others versions – but recognisable all the same. Originality has not always been seen as a virtue; much of what Shakespeare wrote was predictable in terms of the template of the stories; what was unique about his plays was the beauty of the language and the way he extracted profound and universal themes from old material.

Even so, it’s rare that unoriginality is so clearly signalled as it is in A Star Is Born, directed by and starring Bradley Cooper and co-starring Lady Gaga. This story has been made into a film four times under this title (including this one); I haven’t seen any of them until now, but it was no less predictable for that. It’s a story that has been told and retold in countless versions with different titles and variation over the years. That’s not to criticise it; simply to say that if you’ve seen a few films, there won’t be many surprises here – although the gasp from the row of young adults behind me at one major development which I saw coming before I’d even seen the film, indicated that something is always new to someone. Bradley Cooper is an ageing rock star whose career has passed its peak; he meets part-time singer Lady Gaga in a club where she’s performing. He takes her under his wing as lover and protegé; the rest … well either you can guess it, or you’re like one of those young adults.

The film has much to recommend it. Bradley Cooper’s direction is deft, telling the story engagingly and compellingly. His own performance is excellent; and he’s clearly a more than able musician, able to convince as a genuine rock star. Wherever you stand on Lady Gaga, you can’t deny the power of her voice – and she shows it off here to its full capacity. Hearing her sing on a big screen with a big sound system is a treat indeed – hers is a voice to truly stop the listener in his tracks. She can act too – her gradual ascent is believable, her nervousness and discomfort palpable. She’s a proper star; one of those people who I suspect, rather annyoingly, can put her mind to most things successfully. To make it even worse she’s probably a nice person to boot.

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There’s a big question hanging over it all, that I can’t find a satisfying answer to. It hinges on this: is the film portraying something and critiquing it, or is it indulging it? The ‘it’ here is the endemically patriarchal music industry, expressed through the abuse, control and manipulation of a young woman by powerful men. There are moments throughout the film where Ally (Lady Gaga) appears to have a choice, but in reality doesn’t; Bradley Cooper’s character – who has had her privately flown backstage to his gig – introduces one of her songs to the crowd and invites her out. She’s free to decline, of course … but who could possibly do that? Quickly she becomes essential to his fading glory; and as her star ascends and her career takes off, his jealousy and incapability of coping without her is writ large. He slips into bouts of substance abuse and depression; she keeps boomeranging  back. In one disturbing moment, he ends an angry, drunk tirade at Ally (vulnerable, naked, in the bath) by calling her ugly (amongst much else). She stands up to him, for a time. All the time, her (male) manager makes choices for her and controls her career; some of which she eschews anyway (and gets an angry response, of course), some of them she submits to. Her music is changed; from piano or guitar led (she reminded me almost of Tori Amos in the beginning) to making the sort of music that (almost all) white, male critics deem insubstantial and empty; dance-pop, appealing to girls and young women.

Of course, it’s all about Bradley Cooper’s character’s redemption; she brings meaning to him; she reawakens his songwriting gift. From the end of the film, it’s clear that her career will for ever be defined by the man who spotted her and married her.

I’ve no doubt the music industry is deeply patriarchal and abusive towards women; the question for this film to answer is if it is giving us an honest portrayal to interrogate and critique; or is the film sinking into the same morass it shows us on screen? As #metoo has shown us, the movie industry is no different to any other in the way powerful men abuse, manipulate and control women – especially women at the start of their careers.

Lady Gaga’s Ally wouldn’t have a career without men; and we leave her at the film’s end still in a man’s shadow. She has bought him a measure of redemption – but that’s the point, I think. Her career is about him; it’s for him, heals him, remakes him. She seems to be doing her masters’ bidding all this time.

I left having enjoyed the film, been gripped and moved by it. It left me deeply troubled also. I am only now in the process of identifying and understanding my own abuse twenty-five years ago; I felt reminded of my own past that I can’t yet name fully. Not in a good way, but in a way that seemed to excuse the abuse because of what happened in Ally’s career. I wonder what a woman currently in an abusive relationship might make of this.

I’m sure Bradley Cooper never intended this; therein, though, is the point. We’re so inured to the trope of the (young) woman being ‘saved’ by an older man, who takes advantage of her in such a way as she can never leave, that we expect it to be like this. We’ve forgotten how to tell this story differently, where the young woman has vibrancy and agency that doesn’t depend on a man calling it out of her and keeping her at his beck and call, healing him even as he wounds her. It’s an old story, that for all its pleasures deserves a better, newer telling than this if the wounds of many are to receive some measure of healing.

Glimpses Of The St Peter’s Story: Learning To Be Diverse

Desmond Tutu – The Arch(bishop) as he’s affectionately known – was, I think, the person who introduced the idea of South Africa as The Rainbow Nation; a multicoloured country of different cultures, where new ideas are allowed to compete in the market-place along with established thinking. Where different cultures are allowed to flourish and express themselves on an equal footing. This is an attractive and inspiring idea – not least here, in a country where one people group ruled all the others so oppressively and for so long. It’s a concept that many embraced – and it was used explicitly and implicitly to market the country abroad. You can see the idea – if not the words themselves – behind much of the country’s apparent self-image, in advertising and various cultural expressions.

But it’s hard work; so hard, that some have given up. I’ve heard The Arch say that he believes the dream of the Rainbow Nation is dead; every gain requires some loss, and that seems to be too painful for some to persist.  How do we respond to that in Mowbray, a diverse (economically and racially) area of Cape Town? In former days Mowbray was an area which experienced the forced removals of apartheid law, and the incoming of white people, Some members of this church can still remember waiting with toys in hand for the trucks to come and take them to their new ‘home’ … which even on the day of removal they didn’t know the location of. Things have changed now; Mowbray truly is diverse. But how does the church embrace that?

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Diversity can sound like a vague idea, redolent of the sort of forced ideals which enrage some extreme cultural conservatives. However, if the church is called to be a local expression of the Gospel (to simplify what one of my theological heroes, Lesslie Newbigin, said) then we have to take that seriously. If we’re try to give people a (fallen) foretaste of the New Creation where people of all nations will be worshipping and working and resting with each other at Jesus’ feet, then a church in area like ours needs to seek to be like that.

We’re not a big church, but we do have people from a number of different cultural backgrounds who call this church their spiritual home. We’ve been introducing songs and hymns in some of the different languages represented; for some who were forced as children to learn at school in a language that wasn’t their mother tongue, this has been deeply significant, and at times overwhelmingly emotional. We have a diversity of styles of music (sometimes led by the organ, sometimes the guitar and sometimes the keyboard). We try to make sure people who aren’t white men (like me) are involved in leadership positions at different points. It’s hard for people to unlearn the practice of years of sitting at the back of church because that where they felt they had to sit in years past – even when we rope off the back pews; conversely, white people are having to learn to give up (or at least share) their pews at the front.

It’s not easy, though. Because we’re not a big church, there’s only (for example) a few people musical enough to play in services; there’s only so much diversity we can express with a community of this size. The pool is numerically limited, and we want people to be expressing their gifts in a way that gives them joy – not forced into an ill-fitting yolk whuch will burden them. I read and hear people saying that if we don’t have X% of people who aren’t white males in positions of influence, then we’re failing. I agree with the agenda, but not with that way of expressing it; it fails to account for the factor that we, like every other church, are constantly in a process. We haven’t arrived, and may never do so; church’s are organic beings which need a gentle hand on the tiller; they’re not machines where you can simply replace parts with other ones. People need to be loved into change, not driven. Our vision statement seeks to express this sense of not arriving: “We believe Jesus is good news for this city, so we want to be a community where people experience Jesus, embracing the full diversity of Mowbray and beyond”. (Note: we want to be – not are).

We’ve struggled, for instance, to get people who aren’t white males to preach in Sunday services; there are things I could have done better to speed this along, I’m sure. But we also need to wait (and much of ministry and church life and all of life is waiting for God to do things in the time He wants) for the right people to find their home amongst us – and then to have the courage to accept invitations when they are extended.

We are seeking. Seeking a lot of different things, or rather seeking to be many different things. There are things we could do better; there’s also much we’re waiting for.

Seek and you shall find, says Jesus.

Anger Is An Energy: Responding To Paul Greengrass’s 22 July

Anger is an energy sang PIL, and so the punk movement took flight. Behind the now cliché of a colourful mohican was a frantic energy to destroy the status-quo of the elites running culture and politics. This was a music that left everything out on stage – except, perhaps, the instruments themselves which were often thrashed past the point of breakage when the gig has reached its climax. A few bands still do this even now; it’s seen to be a signifier of having given so much to the performance that there’s nowhere left to go, a symbol of the destruction of the established order. It’s also quite good fun to watch. Like most musical genres, once punk muscled its way into deeper public consciousness it seemed to have less energy, and to be a bit tired. That’s not entirely fair, but the hardcore punk fans see neo-punk acts who remain commercially successful as bands who have sold out – many true punks look disdainfully on bands like Green Day and their fans as having somehow failed by virtue of their success. The baton of truth is held, it’s said, by bands most of us would never have heard of; in punk, and in other genres that once betokened rebellion but now command widespread attention – RnB, hip-hop, rap. And so on.

Anger isn’t wrong; it just seems to be something that can easily tip us over into wrong. One New Testament letter writer doesn’t say ‘Your anger is a sin’; it says, instead ‘In your anger, do not sin’. Anger is an energy, which left unchecked can lead us to dangerously lose control; which is why the same letter-writer also recommends that if  we find ourselves angry with someone we love, to sort it out before bedtime.

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The truth is that there seems to be an awful lot of anger around at the moment. American conservatives are angry that under Obama their America was lost. American liberals are angry at the Conservatives for spreading hate and intolerance. Progressive Christians are angry at conservative ones for supporting Trump; conservative ones are angry with progressive ones for not doing so and for accusing them of selling out the gospel. Women are angry at men for the patriarchy and the abuse and the harassment; some men are angry at women for finding a voice, other men are angry at the rest of the men for speaking up or not speaking up. Brexit supporters are angry with Remainers for demanding a new vote and with their government for selling out the referendum; Remainers are angry with Brexiteers for being Brexiteers and with their government for an indecisive process. Here in South Africa … well, it feels to me as if everyone is angry with one group or another. Apply to your own country or context several times over.

Social media is often blamed for this; and it’s true that never having to see the person you’re typing at makes it easier to get angry and nasty; or at least not having to see them in that moment … a bit like over-spending on the credit-card because it doesn’t feel like real money. If anger is an energy, it’s often a destructive one, whether it’s musical instruments, people or political unity.

Anger was destructive on 22 July, when right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 young people attending a Labour Party Youth Camp on Utøya Island outside of Oslo after detonating a car bomb in the city. Paul Greengrass’s new film, titled 22 July tells this story. With his background in television journalism, British director Greengrass is attracted to stories like this; most powerfully in United 93 which told the story of the plane hijacked on 9/11/01 that never made it to its intended target. That he managed to tell that story without nationalistic fervour, hatred or voyeurism is one of the great cinematic achievements this century. A similar eye is there in his more action centred films – the Bourne movies (3 of which are his) may be fictional thrillers, but they are ones that seem to live in a nearly-real, believable world. If a film had to be made about Utøya Island (and as someone who knows what it’s like to lose someone to terrorist atrocities, I think that’s an open question) Paul Greengrass is the man to do it. He does so with a cinema release, but primarily on Netflix, to get what he sees as an important story into the medium most likely to reach younger people.

It’s a film with clear segments. The first 30 minutes or so portray the massacre itself – the families of victims asked him to neither sanitise nor exploit it, and he achieves that. It’s a devastating half-hour, shot in the eerie half-light of Scandinavian summer; deaths and injuries are real, but not lingered on. Its cinematography is a mixture of his trademark shaken, handheld cameras which deliberately jar with some powerful longer shots; one, of a group of teenagers huddled fearfully halfway down a cliff face, is especially memorable and moving. From there the film follows two paths – the recovery of one teenager badly injured, and the arrest and eventual trial of Brevik. Throughout nothing is soft-soaped, but neither is it milked; the teenager’s recovery is hard to watch (beyond a couple of scenes which feel a little contrived or clichéd; though I’m aware we can’t know the details of his recovery process). Brevik (brilliantly portrayed) is neither mad nor cartoonishly evil; he’s coldly rational, angry and aware. The moment we all know is coming – when he walks in to court and gives a long Nazi salute – is no less upsetting for it being predictable. That’s all in the brilliance of the direction and the performance.

None of these people are the central character, though. That’s Norway itself; the country Brevik insists is on trial. Greengrass said in his brilliant and eloquent interview with the BBC’s Simon Mayo (Simon Mayo interviews Paul Greengrass) that he wanted to tell the story of how Norway wrestled with the issue of whether to let Brevik tell the court his reasons; should we listen to his anger, or should they deny him the oxygen of publicity? Is it ever right to listen to the people who do these things? Norway decided it was; and the result, Greengrass claims, is that anger is is dissipated. In that interview Greengrass cites the ongoing divisions over Brexit, the rise of the far-right in diverse countries and the political cauldron of the USA as contexts where a similar exercise in listening might be fruitful or even healing.

It sounds true and wise, and probably is. I’ve tried hard to listen over recent years, as best as I am able to practically, given my circumstances. But the thing is, I’m getting sick of it. I’m getting sick of being shouted at – metaphorically in text or in reality through someone’s voice. I’m sick of being told or thinking I might be intolerant on the one hand or racist on the other; of being theologically liberal or conservative or progressive; of being a toxic male or a weak one; of being a parent who’s too strict or too permissive. And so it goes on. If listening really does dissipate anger’s energy, or allow the wrongness of the ideas that drive it to be seen for all it is, then I’ve yet to really experience it. Maybe dealing with it once in Norway just caused it move and take root more deeply elsewhere, like some sick version of Whack-A-Mole.

What do we do with our anger, mine and yours? Unexpressed anger is a breeding ground for all sorts of darkness, of which others or the angry one themselves may both bear the brunt. There are plenty of places in the Bible, for example, where anger and lament is given a voice; but this is rare in our public worship. Saying or singing the psalms doesn’t seem to be something that works in many settings now – so maybe we need new expressions of these texts, or songs and hymns that give voice to very contemporary laments. Still, though, many Christians seems to feel that anger is inherently sinful, and that its very expression or acknowledgement will let the genie out of the bottle. What about the rest of us, though; the increasing majority who are ‘spiritual, but not religious’; atheist or agnostic? What are their options? How do we listen well, and express anger well without the cancer spreading or worsening? How do we find the strength to keep listening when we’re sick of it?

I don’t know.