On fire

All photos from Charles Mercer

Some experiences have a habit of stripping my intellectual and spiritual pretensions away. Inescapably seared into my consciousness is the day as a young child I was watching a tense game of cricket and as the bowler approached the wicket I mouthed two simple and hope-filled words at the television: bowl him.

He did. He bowled him. You and I know that my words had nothing to do with what happened, but that doesn’t stop a little part of me thinking that it did; especially when I’m watching an event as a 40-something adult and my team need some inspiration. Bowl himScore. Save. Miss. I’ve mouthed or uttered or shouted all of these and more at the crucial moments in more recent years. I don’t really believe it, of course … but there I go, regressing to childhood innocence once again, offering my incantations to the implacable gods of sport, hoping they’ll remember mercy and act on my behalf.

Photo: Charles MercerI live in Cape Town, which recently experienced an especially severe summer fire. It bears repeating that the professional fire services acted with immense bravery and professionalism; they were ordinary people doing something amazing. So too did individuals faced with trying to save property, businesses or lives.

For some ordinary people this was a devastating experience despite the best efforts of those tasked to help. The natural local plant fynbos was the primary fuel of the fire, aided and abetted by alien plants which only made things worse. (Actually for fynbos, fire is a renewing and life-giving thing, but that’s another post.)

Wild fires like these do something to us as we watch. Personally we were unaffected; however friends were evacuated, and we’ve heard stories of others getting stuck in to rescue a farm or a house. It does something strange to our prayers and our faith and our view of God. The raw, seemingly unstoppable power we see laid bare takes us back to the basics. God, stop the fire. Save us. Send rain. We, with all our sophistication and theology and ideas and science are reduced to begging an invisible being to do something with a visible crisis. We have no power; someone must, though. Photo: Charles Mercer

Now we know that God is a perfect Father, so this stripping away is a good thing if it pushes us into a more childlike honesty with God. Dad, stop the fire please. Please. Pllllleeease.

 We all need to be a bit more like that and a little less reliant on our intellectualisation. However He’s a perfect Father who not only knows best but who exists in and over a complex world, and who does so whilst maintaining an attitude of grace towards His children. Search the Bible and you’ll see no one formula, set of words or system that’s going to get His attention and get Him to work in the way in which we want Him. We all know it’s not that simple; but that doesn’t stop us thinking that if we just pray like this or this hard or this long or with these words that we’ll get the healing/provision/direction/rain we need.

That’s the thing with grace, though. It means we already have his attention, his best intentions, his perfect focus. We don’t need to do or say anything; but like any father He’s desperate to hear from us. Do my words have any effect? I honestly don’t know. I’ve seen inexplicable things happen when we pray and I’ve also seen nothing happen when we pray. So if the fire or other crisis strips us back to a kind of Baal-like set of incantations and lever-pulling before an almighty slot machine then we’ve got a problem. We’ve allowed a most basic thing – fire, an elemental force – to rob of us intimacy and closeness and turn us into helpless subjects of a disapproving and distant taskmaster.

Dad, we need it stop.

I know, He says. Does He stop it, or does it just stop? Does He send the rain, or is it just weather?

I don’t know. I honestly don’t.

But how good is it to hear I know when we breathe out our most fervent and desperate prayers?

It hurts. 

I know.

I need a friend. 

I know.

I need rain. 

I know. 

I need to pay a bill. 

I know.

It does something to us deeper than solving a problem; it tells us we are not and never will be alone, unheard or unloved. It doesn’t solve everything; and some days it will be soul-deep frustrating. Instead of getting the right answer every time, we will get a friend, a father. Which lasts much longer.

Photo: Charles Mercer

Beautiful

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Sunrise over Table Mountain, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town – photography by Bev Meldrum

I’ve said before that we live in what many consider to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Cape Town can be truly breathtaking. The other evening there was an early autumn sunset over Table Mountain that took breath away and prompted a momentary social media awe-struck buzz – similar to the one in the image above. The always changing site of the unchangeable mountain is quite a backdrop indeed.

As I said a while back , though, there’s a few things about this sort of talk that bother me. I’m not an especially visual person; I like natural beauty, but it rarely moves me to awe or worship the way it does for others. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been lost for words at a landscape. I tend to find God in other ways.

Another aspect to strike me was the way some talked of this striking sunset in such a way as to say that Cape Town is the greatest city in the world. It seemed like an odd reflection; why does an awestruck moment have to lead to comparison and ranking? Can’t it just be beautiful and majestic in and of itself? Most of the world’s biggest cities are built around natural landmarks of some kind  – rivers, harbours, mountains. They all have a particular kind of beauty in the right light and on the right day. I’m a city boy through and through; there was, though, one year I spent in a city I just didn’t like, that as a place did nothing for me. I can still remember, however, 20 or so years on, one sunset in that city which just blew me away.

Which leads me to this: none of this was actually about the city. It was about the backdrop to the city.

Be it the mountain or river or sea or sunset or cloud formation, that’s not the city. It may be over or around the city. But it’s not the city itself. The city is people and what’s made by people. The tangible things made – buildings and roads and monuments – as well as the intangibles of art, culture and community. These are why I love cities and find it hard to imagine living in any other context. I love that dynamics and trends and ideas tend to emerge and take root first in cities. I love that big world events congregate around them. I love that in a city like Cape Town, especially a hub area like that which I live and work in (Mowbray), the nations of the world pass by my door every day.

Celebrating Mandela, Cape Town - photography by Bev Meldrum

Celebrating Mandela, Cape Town – photography by Bev Meldrum

That can bring pain and suffering too, of course. Crime and disease spread quickest in urban environments. One summer’s day in 2005 my wife and I were moving house and job closer to central London when we found our packed car overtaken by streams of emergency vehicles. The date was 7/7.   Such things tend not to happen in more rural areas.

A few days after Table Mountain’s sun-bathed glory, a video started popping up in my social media timelines. It’s a reworking of the video for Pharrell Williams’ song Happy set in Cape Town and featuring the people of the city. It’s not the song’s official video; simply a local contextualisation. There’s two things about this. The first is that if you look up ‘genetically perfect pop song’ in a dictionary, you’ll find this song. It’s irresistible, and does what all good pop music is for. Fair warning: if you don’t know the song and you go listen to it as a result of this post, it will be in your head for the day.

The second thing is this: that the video expressed part of what makes a city beautiful. The people and the streets. It’s not everything – there’s plenty of other emotions and experience to be had here, as there are elsewhere.

This video, though, expresses for me where I find beauty – in people and the things made by them. The art, the buildings, the music, the moves. That’s a city. The mountain, the sunset? Scenery. Beautiful, of course. But scenery. The beauty is to be found in concrete and bone, steel and street.

Next time you take a retreat, consider taking a trip into the city, not away from it. Next time you talk a long walk, think about heading for concrete paving not tree-lined horizons. After all, it’s in the former that you’ll find the image of God, multiplied.

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Cape Town station, Cape Town – photography by Bev Meldrum

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

Ordinary People + Angry Music = joy

I think I was unique among the tens of thousands present in being able to say that the last thing I did before leaving for the gig was take a communion service in a home for the elderly. American rap-rock group Linkin Park played their first South African concert at Cape Town stadium on Wednesday November 7th. It was a fierce, gale-force wind-swept early summer’s day. That carried a high price – before the concert a sponsor’s branded scaffolding tower fell (outside the stadium), injuring several people and killing one. It was a tragic accident, and as the exact facts are still (at the time of writing) being ascertained it’s best to comment no further. Thoughts and prayers remain, of course, with those affected.

Linkin Park were born in 1996, a furious blend of aggressive guitar based rock and electronically backed rap, they’re one of the few bands who have survived that music sub-set’s brief moment in the sun of chart success; achieving significant and long-lasting global success. This is a sort of music that’s often dismissed quickly by those who don’t get it – making a sound like this work in a live environment is a huge musical challenge, one to which the band rise. Battling against some of the worst sound I’ve heard at a gig (strong winds are a PA person’s nightmare at an outdoors gig), the band are in the musical equivalent of some sort of high-wire act to make it all work, harnessing the different sounds and images to at times brilliant effect. In fact, I preferred them live to on record; recorded I find the sound (with the exception of the first album) too clean, too produced. They are, after all, singing angry songs about fear, self-loathing and alienation; so the slick production that’s come to mark their sound since the early days has always felt to me a little at odds with the music itself.

This was a crowd which had waited a long time – 18 years – for the band to make it to South Africa; the set, front-loaded with older hits worked brilliantly.There’s an inherent irony here that must be touched on. Cape Town is often referred to as the most unequal city in the most unequal country in the world. So for a stadium full of the statistically richest people in the city being sung to and singing out about alienation and pain is slightly surreal. That, and this is a manufactured, slick set-up – just how angry can a band really be when they find themselves soundtracking video games and movie franchises?

But still. As I’ve alluded, this is angry, loud music about difficult emotions. (If you’re new to their music, go to their You Tube Channel to sample; I suggest starting with the exhaustingly brilliant One Step Closer from the first album, then the haunting and oddly beautiful much later The Catalyst – a prayer for God to draw close; after that, hunt around and see what you find). People, who for all the world look healthy and happy, spent an evening joyfully engaging with anger and suffering. I say joyfully deliberately. I have a memory of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke being asked about his band’s concerts – aren’t they miserable because your music is about such painful emotions and dark subjects? No, he replied – joy is shared truth, so the band’s concerts are oddly joyful. That’s not the whole of a Christian understanding of joy, but it’s certainly part of it – the catharsis of sharing, of acknowledging together dark places, shining the light on the them and so removing the fear.

The Bible does similar things. The Psalms are often referred to the church’s first prayer book or collection of hymns. It contains ecstatic shouts of praise – and not a little anger too. Psalm 139 is mostly a prayer of awe at God’s power and creativity, but in verse 19 it has an alarming turn of phrase: If only you, God, would slay the wicked! Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!.

Or take Psalm 116, verses 10 and 11 I believed; therefore I said ‘I am greatly afflicted.’ And in my dismay I said ‘all men are liars’.

There’s a whole book called Lamentations. The title fits well.

There are many other places in the Bible we could continue with this; there’s a consistent pattern in scripture of the expression of these emotions of anger and fear and pain leading a person closer to God, not further away. So, as a stadium full of people sang “God bless us, every one, we’re broken people living under a loaded gun”; as angry music allowed 90 minutes of joyful shared experience, I wondered … how does this translate? How do we take these emotions, in the Bible expressed towards God, into our contemporary worship? It’s a challenge – and it’s one, as I’ve touched on before, that the writers of worship songs are tentatively taking up. There is further to go, though. Which is why a lot of us – Christians or not – still need bands like Linkin Park to fill the gaps for us.

That, and they’re great live.