A tribute to carers

My mother died recently after some years of gradual decline due to dementia, hastened by a bout of pneumonia. She was 92. I happened to be the family member with her in hospital in the early hours of the morning when her life ended. The nurse on night duty was wonderful. She had supplied a mattress, sheets and pillows for me to stay the night. When I told her what had happened, she was kind and compassionate well beyond mere efficiency. Her care that night has prompted these musings.

Over the last few years as a family we have met countless health care professionals – carers, nurses and doctors – the vast majority of them women. I am beyond admiration for every one of them. Carers visiting at home do so under poor rates of pay, working unsocial hours, doing often extremely difficult work under unrealistic time pressures. Yet, they not only do their job but forge genuine relationships of care and love with elderly and often helpless people.

Nothing speaks to me more of the distorted priorities of Western culture than how poorly funded and valued are carers and nurses. They work at the sharp edge of human mortality. While capitalism appeals to self-interest and pursues accumulation of wealth, my mum’s carers do their job out of a sense of vocation. Of course they work for pay, but to a woman, they give of themselves far beyond any contract of employment in order to maintain human dignity and care to some of the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society.

We are embodied beings and our bodies wear out and die. I’m musing here, but it seems to me that much of our culture is effectively gnostic. By that I mean it values the abstract above the physical. We fear death and prize fickle and transient things like respect, image, status, power, beauty and success. Money itself is simply a means to such ends and it is pursued relentlessly. When the capitalist system fails, no price is too high to fix it, regardless of the cost to ‘less important’ and ‘soft’ professions like caring and nursing, mental health provision or disability services.

In saying this, some may retort ‘What’s your alternative?’ Hospitals need funding. Funding comes from taxes. Taxes come from those who work and create wealth. If everyone was a carer the system would collapse. Yes, but I’m pushing back against distorted priorities within recent neo-liberalism (or ‘turbo-capitalism’) and the damage it is wrought globally – and in Ireland particularly. See this excellent article on ‘financialisation’ for more detailed discussion of what has happened.

Nor does a rampant capitalist culture contain any logical impulse towards doing justice, righting wrongs or, dare I say, loving others. It prizes individual happiness, comfort and pleasure, but is largely indifferent to those that fall by the wayside of the capitalist dream.

At the risk of massive generalisation, I wonder if women tend to be less seduced by such gnostic dualisms than men? Is that why it is overwhelmingly women who get their hands dirty in the mess of sacrificially tending and respecting ageing bodies? I honestly do not know the answers to those questions, save to say I want here to pay tribute to all those wonderful carers who contributed to looking after my mum in the last years of her life.

But I do know that the Christian faith is anything but gnostic. The entire Bible values the earthly, physical and material aspects of life. It begins with God willing a good creation into being. It climaxes with the incarnation of God’s Son. He enters human history, born of Mary and is Israel’s promised Messiah. He heals the sick and raises the dead. He is crucified under Pontius Pilate. He sheds real blood and suffers real death. His resurrection means that all in him have hope of a resurrection body in a renewed creation.

You can’t get more committed to the pain, complexity and physicality of the world than that. The cross reveals the true nature of our God. As one theologian puts it, ‘The uttermost depth of human misery has been plumbed by the incarnate Lord.’

And that is very good news indeed.

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The Incredibles 2

One of the greatest works of cinematic art of the early 21st century was The Incredibles. Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but only slight. I never get round to ranking films but if I did it would be right up there in a top 5.

So, as with a lot of fans of that first film I guess, I went to see Incredibles 2 with some trepidation. It’s taken 14 years to make a sequel. Would it play it safe and essentially re-play the first film? Worst case scenario – would it ruin the perfection of that first movie with some crass plot and character development?

Well, all I can say is it is a worthy successor – and that’s a pretty big compliment.

We pick up where the first film left off. So our beloved family of Bob/Mr Incredible (Craig T Nelson), Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Violet, Dash and baby Jack-Jack is as was we left them. Supers are illegal. Helen is flattered by a smooth-talking mega-rich salesman and persuaded to get back into Super mode to fight bad guys. Bob becomes a stay-at-home dad doing the supposedly easy stuff of guiding Violet through teen-age heartbreak, teaching Dash maths and minding Jack-Jack. What could be simpler?

Save to say that things get complicated for both Bob and Helen. The plot rushes along satisfactorily. Frozone (Samuel L Jackson) is along to help and a bunch of creatively imagined new Supers also join the cast.

One of the funniest elements of The Incredibles was the Pixar short of Jack-Jack’s babysitter discovering to her horror something of the baby’s multiple powers – you know, the usual things babies do like laser beam eyes, ‘monsterisation’, immolation, disappearance to the 4th dimension – stuff like that.

Jack-Jack and his out of control powers take centre stage in The Incredibles 2. Two encounters had me laughing out loud – his battle with a racoon and his meeting with the wonderful scene-stealing designer and inventor Edna E Mode (voiced brilliantly by director Brad Bird) who reappears from the first film (if all too briefly). It’s worth reading the wikipedia article on Edna and the sheer creative genius behind her character.

Edna E Mode

The wit, imagination and heart of The Incredibles all continue into the sequel. The animation is bold and stylish, as is the retro 1960s modernist look. Under the surface, there are pokes at capitalism’s ‘more is better’, the superficiality of modern marketing, gender roles in marriage, teenage angst and the human struggle of good against evil / darkness against light.

But most of all it is just great fun.

And that’s a significant achievement.

Mostly serious musings on humour

This blog can be a rather earnest place. Like any social media it presents a particular face to the world – in this case mostly theological ideas and issues discussed through a critical lens. By their nature, the subject nature is on the serious side. And fair enough too – the Christian faith deals with big questions of identity, purpose, injustice, hope, sin, forgiveness, judgement, suffering, reconciliation, death and new creation (for a start).

Larsen GBut life is also absurd, ironic, poetic and funny. This world is bursting with beauty.  Each day is an opportunity to learn, to love, to laugh and praise God for his goodness.

On laughter – has anyone written a good theology of humour? If so, I’d like to read it. Stanley Hauerwas has spent a life doing serious theology in an entertaining way.

I do think, in spite of considerable evidence to the contrary, that theology can and should be, in some of its modes, funny. Theology done right should make you laugh. It should be done in an entertaining manner. Humor is not the only mode of entertainment the discourse of theology can take, but it is surely the case that we are often attracted to speech and writing that is funny. This calls into question the presumption by some that if you want what you have to say to be entertaining, then what you have to say cannot be serious. I have tried to defy that presumption by attempting to do theology in a manner that “tickles” the imagination.  (The Work of Theology)

I think it’s harder to write such theology than speak it. In teaching and speaking there are so many more possibilities for bringing in irony and humour – a facial expression, a tone of voice, a throwaway remark, an off the cuff joke, a witty response to a question. But those are not to hand as easily in writing. Just think how many smiley emojis are needed not to cause insult and offence with an email joke.

I’m a writer. I love writing. If there is one thing I’d like to do better, it is to write serious theology entertainingly and imaginatively. I’m trying to do this in what I am writing at the moment and find it a huge challenge.

Seems to me that humour has multiple facets theologically speaking. I’m sure you can think of more than these three for starters …

Humour as gracious invitation

Po-faced Christians who never smile are somehow life-denying. They tend to take themselves so seriously that they can become inhospitable to others. Only those who share their serious God-given mission are accepted. Humour is hospitable – it invites others to a share in a mini-experience of joy. It is a gift of relationship offered to the other. So one way of looking at the overly serious Christian is someone who is ungenerous and stingy when it comes to blessing others through humour.

This is why a preacher who is deadly-earnest all the time had better be a brilliant communicator to hold people’s attention. He or she is not ‘giving’ people much in terms of generously drawing them in to the sermon.

Humour as humility

At its best, humour helps us to laugh at ourselves. That’s why self-depreciating humour, done honestly, humanises us. (Humour that humiliates the other isn’t funny – it’s just an aggressive power play. Dishonest self-depreciation merely tries to draw attention to the self). We are finite beings, full of desires, hopes, fears, mixed motives and plans. Life is transitory. We are here today and gone tomorrow. All our grand ambitions and projects will be forgotten sooner than we like to think.

I was clearing out some books recently. One was by an author I knew. He’d signed the front page for me. He seemed to have a long life ahead of him but a few years later he was dead. Now here was his book – all but forgotten and now out of date.

As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like  a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it and it is gone (Ps 103:15-16).

This means that, while we take faith and discipleship seriously, we need to have a healthy scepticism about ourselves.

Humour as weightlessness

Yet humour can be double-edged. There are few things worse (in my humble objective, unbiased and completely reasonable opinion) than a lame joke thrown in to a sermon ‘to lighten up’ all this ‘heavy’ theological talk. Give me the serious preacher any day.

Such humour can point to a lack of faith in the power of God’s Word and the power of the Spirit to speak into people’s lives, bringing transformation and renewal. It can be a rather desperate attempt to make following Jesus a comfortable and essentially unchallenging calling. Such humour can trivialize the gospel and the cost of Christian discipleship. Such preaching lacks ‘weight’.

Which all sounds very heavy theological talk but there you go. I’m back in earnest mode again …

So, to finish on a hilarious note (which makes my German wife roll about in mirth every time):

Question: ‘Where would you be without a sense of humour?’

Answer: Germany.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

“War is necessary to protect the country and the true faith”

We had reason to be in Sweden last week. A particular highlight of a memorable week was seeing wonderful friends again and being taken on a tour of Stockholm.

One of Stockholm’s main visitor attractions is the Vasa – a huge and nearly perfectly preserved 17th Century warship whose maiden voyage made the Titanic look good.

Built with all the resources available to King Gustavus II Adolphus, this magnificent ship made it about 1800 metres before it toppled over and sank in Stockholm harbour where it lay largely undisturbed for over 300 years.

It was overladen with canons and elaborate carvings celebrating the king’s power and status. No-one dared question the orders to build another row of canons. This was to be the most powerful and intimidating warship on the seas. And it is magnificent to see today. The photograph cannot capture its scale.

No-one was found to blame by the subsequent 17th Century inquiry – funny that.

Some photos showing that ‘religious nationalism’ of ‘God and nation’ is nothing new. And how war, sanctified in the name of God, acts to reinforce national identity and the power of the ruling elite.

I couldn’t help but think of America and this book – but the same dyanmic has been, and continues to be, played out across the globe.

The cross of Christ proclaims that there are few worse heresies than “peace requires war”.

After the Referendum

The summer edition of VOX is out. Thanks to a talented team of Ruth-Garvey Williams, Jonny Lindsay and Tara Byrne, it has developed and maintains a high standard, mixing news and articles and opinion pieces. Here’s a piece I have in it reflecting on the aftermath of the abortion referendum.

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I have been trying to think through what the abortion Referendum result means while also trying to sort out my emotional ‘gut reaction’ to the vote. So what follows is unapologetically personal. You might agree or disagree, but hopefully we can learn from each other in the process.

Let’s start with emotions: at a deep level I’m dismayed and saddened. Christians believe that God alone is the life-giver. To take life is to assume the ‘right’ to destroy a precious work of God. But’s let’s also try to think what the result means more widely. I’ve only space to make two points on how I think the result poses profound challenges for Christians in Ireland today.

First, the Referendum was about much more than abortion. A story is a powerful thing. I don’t mean story as fiction, but story as a narrative that carries moral, emotional and personal power. The story of the YES campaign was vote for compassion, safety, liberty, inclusivity, welcome and dignity for women faced with the traumatic situation of an unwanted pregnancy. It was a vote to cast off the last shackles of our religious past: its harshness, judgementalism, cruelty, abuse, enforced adoption, and systematic humiliation of vulnerable women by a patriarchal religious culture that used power for its own ends. This is why, for some Christians I talked to, the vote was far from a black or white issue but posed a real dilemma. It was also, I think, primarily the leaving behind of the final legacy of ‘old Ireland’ that thousands of people were on the streets of Dublin to celebrate on the 26th of May 2018.

This means that in today’s Ireland, to use the language of John’s Gospel, it is the ‘world’, not the church, that embodies progress, hope and, most of all, love. And here’s the thing that churches really need to face up to and own – there is very good reason for the world to think like this. You don’t need me to re-tell the story of religion in 20th century Ireland. And let’s be honest, Protestant, evangelical and Pentecostal churches have plenty of repenting to do about our own divisions and lack of love.

I often hear it said that Christians in the West now find themselves in a context similar to that of the early Church – as marginalised small communities of believers living within a pagan Empire. I think that’s partially true, but is too easy a comparison. The first Christians had no baggage of church history. Christians in Ireland, rightly or wrongly, like it or not, are perceived as carrying a truckload. The vote shows that a large segment of the population see that baggage as bad news, not good.

Second, this means that the Referendum is primarily a challenge for the church to look at itself. Our job is not to ‘save’ Ireland – as if there is such a thing as a Christian country. The ‘world’ will do what the world will do and we cannot control it, nor should we try. No, our primary job is to be the church of Jesus Christ in the world.

This means being authentic communities of love, grace and good news. Of serving others, of preaching the gospel, of forgiving each other, of welcoming the outsider whatever their history, sexuality or status. If we are against the taking of life in principle, it means being people of peace, not war and protecting and taking care of the elderly. When it comes to abortion, it means not only talking about it, but being communities of such generous love that a woman faced with a crisis pregnancy will be supported and cared for emotionally, financially and relationally so that the community can help her bring up her child. But we can’t do that from a distance. We need to ask ourselves, are we in nice holy huddles, detached from the experience of many women (and men) faced with abortion as the only ‘solution’ to their situation? Or are we taking the time, and bearing the cost, of loving people in need sacrificially?

I’m troubled by my own answers to these questions. How about you?

In love with wealth

Over at the Guardian, there is an article on Lauren Greenfield who has spent years photographing the extreme rich  – ‘How the Modern World Fell in Love with Money’

Greenfield has amassed 500,000 images of the often absurd lives of the wealthy. The highlights – including a picture of go-go dancers hired for a 13-year-old’s bar mitzvah – are published by Phaidon in a £60 2.5kg tome called Generation Wealth. An accompanying behind-the-scenes documentary film is released in the UK next week.

Can’t say that I’ve had much experience hanging around with the absurdly wealthy (unless some friends are keeping their Swiss bank accounts secret).

But I did have a few days in Cannes during the film festival a few months ago (long story). It was a brush with an alternative reality for sure.

Here’s a photo that I really like. Wonder if you have a caption?

IMG_9273

A bit of context. The festival is ticket only. Many main event films require black tie / evening dress. Those with tickets are expected to attend or give their tickets to others so that there are no empty seats. So you get lots of young people dressed up hanging about outside hoping for a free ticket.

And many who do not get in, like this woman, pose for photos in front of the red carpet. Sort of imitation celebrities if you like. Almost touching the dream of limitless wealth that pervades the festival. Literally surrounding the pavilion were hundreds of multi-million dollar yachts, occupied with crews and venues for after-film parties.

Yet that dream is fragile. I grew up in ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland and have never seen more security than at Cannes. Police and army patrols were on every corner. As she posed, this group of policemen marched by. She pretended not to notice them.

Is this picture a sort of parable for late modern Western capitalism I wonder?

  1. The apparently ‘solid’ Western hopes of power, happiness and celebrity offered by wealth dependent on the power of the state to protect its way of life.
  2. An undercurrent of fear under the surface of glitz and apparent perfection.
  3. The exclusion of the vast majority from the lives of isolated elites

As the Guardian article says, more and more people pursue and revel in dreams of limitless wealth. Yet, at the same time, such dreams are both utterly unattainable (except for a tiny few) and unsustainable. Such injustices may reach breaking point as hyper-capitalism collapses in on itself.

A growing number of academics warn that the widening gulf between the richest 1% and everyone else could lead to a backlash. The richest 0.1% of the world’s population has increased their combined wealth by as much as the poorest 50% – or 3.8 billion people – since 1980, according to the World Inequality Report. The report, by the French economist Thomas Piketty and 100 other researchers, also found that the richest 1% of the global population “captured” 27% of the world’s wealth growth between 1980 and 2016. Piketty warns that inequality has ballooned to “extreme levels” in many countries, and will only get worse unless governments take co-ordinated action to increase taxes and prevent tax avoidance.

 

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Love’s hard calling: rejoicing in the truth

1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most famous passages in the New Testament. It is also one of the most troubling. It is one particular aspect of the difficult and demanding nature of love that I want to focus on in this post. First, a wee bit of context.

When read at weddings verses 1-13 are often sentimentalised. ‘Love’ is abstracted to be a ‘lovely’ description of the loving couple in a day celebrating their love. The fact that ‘God’ does not appear in verses 1-13 makes it a particularly suitable text for this type of abstraction. ‘Love’ is everyone’s property. You don’t have to believe in God to believe in love.

The same goes for funerals. Prime Minister Tony Blair read these verses at Diana’s funeral in 1997. Now, I admit I find it hard to take Blair at face value in anything he says. But his overly-dramatic performance that day seems a good example of how ‘love’ in death is easily abstracted to become a sort of eschatological hope – that which ‘lives on’ after us when we are dead. Again, this hope is universal since everyone can love.

But 1 Corinthians is anything but abstract; it is highly specific. Paul writes to a church riven by division, bad theology, pride, arrogance, immoral behaviour and misplaced priorities over gifts.

So, as we read these verses they have a hard edge; there is nothing soft and fluffy about them. There are 7 positive descriptions of what love does and 8 negatives ones. A verb is used in every case – love is seen in what it does.

Love Rejoices in the Truth

Let’s take one example of a positive: love … rejoices with the truth (6b). It sits in opposition to love does not delight in evil.

The verb has a sense of ‘joyfully celebrates’ or ‘acclaims’ truth’ At first reading this sounds lovely does it not? But think about the implications for a moment.

In his NIGTC Commentary on First Corinthians Anthony Thiselton argues the emphasis here is not so much on ‘Truth’ with a capital ‘T’ (eg the truth of the gospel) as on relationship. Love rejoices in truth that protects, fosters and strengthens relationship, even at cost to ourselves.

There can be powerful reasons NOT to rejoice in the truth.

Take two current examples in the Christian world

(1) The Church of England

Last week the Church of England published a ‘report into a report’; namely a review of their own first investigation into how allegations of abuse had been handled by the Church. The independent review found that the first report has been ‘botched’ and that negative aspects were downplayed in order to protect the reputational character of the Church.

(2) Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church

This story has been unfolding for some time and appears to be in the process of coming to a head. You can read about the details fully in a recent post by Scot McKnight (who was a member of Willow for many years). Serious allegations against Hybels had surfaced some years ago and had not been dealt with openly then. When more women came forward, the reaction was denial, calling the women liars and failing to implement a robust external investigation.

Now, at last, and only after enormous criticism and widespread concern both within and outside Willow, the elders and the two senior leaders have issued public apologies and promised to seek the truth.

The cost of rejoicing in the Truth

Both these stories are bad news and good news. They begin with the bad news of damaging behaviour. That was compounded by an instinctive reaction to hide the truth, or at least give a partial version of the truth in order to protect the institution in question. But the good news is that both are moving, at last, towards full disclosure.

In both cases, there were powerful motives NOT to rejoice in the truth:

  • money (at all sorts of levels: potential court cases, to book sales and huge ministry budgets at stake etc)
  • reputation and the deep cost of admitting ‘we got it wrong’ (and in Willow, protection of a deeply loved and charismatic leader like Hybels)
  • power – and the threat of a loss of that power
  • God (perhaps persuading ourselves that God needs protection – that the truth will damage the church, the gospel and good kingdom work)

I mention these cases because they are current and in the (very) public domain. If postmodernism has taught us anything, it is to have a healthy scepticism over how institutions tend to act to protect themselves – and that, sadly, is true of churches as well.

The tough calling of love is NOT to act in our own self-interest but in the interests of others, especially when there is a cost to ‘us’.

In both cases, love meant first seeking the good of those damaged and hurt rather than using manipulation, obfuscation or obstruction to hide the full truth and protect ourselves.

That’s why 1 Corinthians 13 is anything but a mushy feel-good ‘ode to love’, but is, rather, a very troubling and difficult text.

Comments, as ever, welcome.