If words were people

This post is now a bit dated. I wrote this in April, when we first went into lockdown in the U.K.

If words were people . . . and went to a party. 

And entered the room. 

She was met by the familiar buzz. Drink and Cocktail were clearly having a terrific time. As was Laughter. She was often paired with Nervous by the word over in the corner, an attempt to overcome her loneliness. Well, she should know. Isolation was always on her own. But hold on a moment. And moved closer. A large group had gathered round Isolation. She seemed like a different word altogether. 

         ‘I know, it’s all so new to me.’ She giggled. ‘They’re using me all the time. All the time!’

         ‘Not as much as me!’ Self-isolation gave her a wicked grin.

         Normal sighed. ‘Oh come on, you’re just suckers for all the attention. It’ll soon get old.’

         Isolation burst into tears and ran out of the room. It was all too much. 

         ‘Oh, you’re just jealous,’ said Abnormal, though he had been hoping for more action himself. Instead they’d gone for Strange. He turned to And. ‘I mean, come on . . . strange? Strange!? What’s strange about all this? Concerning . . . fear-inducing . . .  worrying maybe, but strange?’ His speech was starting to slur. ‘What kind of a reaction is that? Come on! Isn’t this all very abnormal? Why aren’t they using me? It’s so unfair!’ 

He turned and headed for the bar. 

         And looked across at Strange. He seemed rather subdued, given all the recent attention. He sipped his beer, the one with the lemon poking from the neck of the bottle. And knew he still craved the attention. Oh, they had loved him at first. He was all the rage, but now . . . oh my word, the talk now was just about one word. There she was, lounging among the real favourites. 

         And couldn’t take her eyes off them all. 

There they all were. All except for These and Times who’d paired up and were doing a press conference down the hall. Of course the Big C was just loving it. He was bragging to a whole crowd, including Cough, Persistent and Throat. ‘That word with the number on the end,’ drawled the Big C, ‘what an interloper! Naah, he was never going to knock me off the top spot. I’m still working my way into every news bulletin. Oh, the geeks love the word with the number on the end, but most people, yup, still going for the Big C!’ He leaned back, took a sip from his Margherita and winked at C-19.

         The favourites were all doing their thing – Briefing, Ventilator, Government, Doctors, Nurses, Thoughts, Prayers, Long and Haul, but when it came to celebrity, there was one who filled up her meaning like no other. Her rise to fame had been . . . well, you can imagine.  

         Unprecedented looked like the cat that got the cream. Surrounded by all the really cool words, like caboose, kowtow and krankenschwester (very popular in Germany), she was lapping up the attention. Or at least she was putting on a good show, thought And. Normally hauled out occasionally by journalists with a tendency to use hyperbole, she wasn’t used to all the fuss. 

And studied her a little more closely. 

Worry lines were starting to form on her forehead. 

And was concerned that it might be too much for her. And knew all about short-term fame. Overused and mostly ignored nowadays, And wondered what it must be like for Unprecedented. Especially given the double weight she carried. Not only was she being used all the time, but well, no one had used a word this much before. Which was . . .  unprecedented. It was a lot of pressure. 

All the words kept using her to describe her predicament. She looked like she was burning out. Couldn’t Unusual come to help? Or maybe Strange could pitch in again. What about Unparalleled or even Unique? Surely someone could help her out. The celebrity status was taking its toll. Overused words ended up as cliché, then slang, a halfway house before being discarded. Like Chill, Pill, Dude, Totally, and Boogie. 

And turned round. A tall, thin word with greasy hair had walked in, his suit ill-fitting. 

The babble of voices started to die down.  

Just the ticket, thought And. He would solve all U’s problems. 

The word wandered over to the bar, all eyes following him, the room now hushed. Words moved back as he approached. All except for one word, who seemed to know the new arrival well. He joined him at the bar. They smiled at each other. 

‘Screwdriver?’ said Economy, turning to his friend. 

‘Don’t mind if I do,’ replied Recession. 

What’s the matter with us?! Reflections on racism in America

George Floyd is having an impact. Far more in death than in life.

What are we to say about the killing of yet another black man by police? This time, there is no controversy. He was not running away, or resisting arrest; he did not reach for a weapon. Instead, the police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on the back of his neck for over seven minutes, while he cried out in pain, ‘I can’t breathe.’ Three other police officers looked on and did nothing.

This was murder, plain and simple. Murder by a police officer who had 18 complaints against him. It seems that the Minneapolis Police Department had a bomb waiting to go off.

And so it did.

Rioting has broken out in many American cities. Stores have been looted. Tear gas canisters have been dispatched. People have died.  At the same time, hundreds of thousands have been marching peacefully to protest. Violence and peaceful protest – both running through the bloodstream of American civic life. On social media, families are falling out over this issue. Friends are being unfriended.

I guess that here, I should probably declare an interest.

I am married to an American. I have dual citizenship. I am an American. I am also British. I lived in California for twelve years. For almost ten years, I worked at the American Red Cross Blood Services. As a trainer, I worked with a cross-section of the Southern Californian population. About 35% white, 30% Hispanic. About 15% Black. Asians and others – 20%. More or less.

I had a black supervisor. I worked daily with black co-workers. Some I liked, some I didn’t. No more than any other race. One was called Dorrice – a very funny man. I happen to think Denzel Washington is the coolest man on the planet. Usain Bolt runs a very close second. I don’t like rap. I do like hip-hop. One of the men I most admire in this world is called Chris. He and his family feed homeless people in the park at the weekends. He is black.

I have had long conversations with black men about their lives in Southern California. Without exception, black men in particular are treated with suspicion by the police. Every single one of them described to me the numerous times they had been pulled over in their car for no reason whatsoever. It happens all time. Everyone knows it. In spite of all kinds of laws against what is called ‘racial profiling,’ it continues to happen. Black men are not necessarily harassed when they’re pulled over, but they must wait while the police check their ID documents. It feels humiliating. It doesn’t happen to white people. It only happens to black people.

I attended a church – predominantly white middle class – in which I had friends who were serving police officers. They were brave and they carried guns. Most of them had been shot at or attacked physically during the course of their work. It is not easy to be a police officer in a country where citizens have the right to bear arms. It is dangerous work.

And so to that slogan, ‘Black Lives Matter.’

First, a little history. It’s hard for us in the U.K. to get our heads around the history of a country like the U.S.A. Just because they speak our language doesn’t mean we understand their experience. It is not very long ago that Martin Luther King made his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. Racial segregation was the order of the day in the 1960s. A country birthed in liberty in 1776 described a slave as three-fifths human. Three-fifths human! The civil war in the 1860s put paid to slavery but unleashed decades of unbearable suffering for black people. Especially in the South. Free, but still victims. The racism of the southern states never really went away. It’s still there today. When I worked for the BBC, I went to Georgia and visited a store selling two items: guns and bibles. Confederate flags – symbols of a racist past – adorned the walls.

So, how should Christians, in particular, respond to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign?

There are some who wish to remind us that all lives matter. And indeed they do. But it’s not helpful. As one commentator put it, when my house is burning down, it doesn’t help me much if the fire department reminds me that all houses are valuable. The reminder that all lives matter is particularly unhelpful right now, because it seems to show an inability to show compassion for those who are suffering. If your son comes to you with a bleeding finger, you don’t tell him that his sister also has fingers and he needs to remember that.

Black Lives Matter is a commentary on the racism endemic within police departments. The demographics of crime have been highlighted by many journalists. Black people are no more likely to commit crime than white people, when you take socio-economic background into account. In other words, poverty is the determining factor for crime, not race. Black people struggle to receive loans, they do not have the same opportunities as white people. I could go on, but I would bore you. The world is not fair.

Do I believe in white guilt? No, I don’t. And I don’t find it helpful at all. I am not guilty for my race. I am not guilty because I’m privileged. I am not guilty because I have advantages others don’t have. And no one will succeed in making me feel guilty. Why? Because I believe the Bible is very clear on this. Guilt is something we each possess for the things we do and think. It is our behaviour which makes us guilty. Furthermore, it is our shared humanity which places us in the category of ‘guilty.’ For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23). So yes, I believe in original sin. I am born with a rebellious heart and am guilty for not treasuring God as he is worthy to be treasured and worshiped. That’s why I’m guilty, not because I happen to be born a particular colour.

So what is the answer to the crisis that’s unfolding? There are two answers and they are not mutually exclusive.

The Inside – This is the traditional Christian answer. It is partly right. As all Sunday school teachers will tell you, the answer is ‘Jesus!’ Christ is the hope of the world. For every human being. He is the one who has reconciled the world to God. He knows all about reconciliation and he calls us to this ministry of reconciliation. Read Ephesians and 2 Corinthians.

The reason that racism is so intractable is because of this rather trite, but profoundly insightful phrase: The heart of the problem is the problem of the human heart. The inside is where we have the problem. No question. Derek Chauvin’s problem was and is his heart. Jesus tells us that our hearts are desperately wicked. Yes, they are. I am not what I should be. I need grace each and every day. Every second. We cannot legislate love and compassion. We cannot change the human heart ourselves. We need God to do that. George Floyd himself had a violent, criminal past. He’d done time in prison. But by all accounts, he was trying to walk a different path. Did he try to pass a forged dollar bill? Does it really matter? He didn’t deserve to die on the streets like that. He was given life by his creator, and like us, he was a man in need of a Saviour. Just like Derek Chauvin.

Just like you and me.

The Outside – This is the response of those who want action from government. Right now, I have every sympathy with this view. Because while we can’t change the human heart, we have a responsibility to speak out to our lawmakers and demand better. One of the challenges for the Black Lives Matter campaign is that the slogan is really the only thing that is held in common. After that, it fragments. Each protester wants something different. What exactly do they want? Some don’t know what they want. They just have a yearning to live in a society in which the killing of black people stops. How to achieve that goal? Laws? Government programs? The answers are all disputed. Nevertheless, at this time, Christians should rally around the simple, basic premise that black lives matter. That lawmakers need to do more. That police departments must tackle endemic racism.

So yes, the only satisfying answer is Jesus, but we also need to recognise that politicians and police departments must do their part to change. We need to urge them to change. We want to live in a world in which a police officer like Derek Chauvin is identified early on as a risk, is disciplined, and if necessary, fired. It’s profoundly disappointing to see the response of the police union chief, Bob Kroll, describing the protests as ‘a terrorist movement.’ That has to change.

The sight of an American president waving a bible while calling in the military has chilled the blood of many American Christians. He is an easy target. Every day, he’s an easy target. He needs our prayers. Our black brothers and sisters need our prayers.

Finally, remember Hope.

For one day, the wolf will dwell with the lamb (Isa 11.6). One day, the Prince of Peace will return and make everything right again. A hope like that should make us bold in our desire to live lives of reconciliation and peace.

Lord, may your kingdom come.

May your will be done.

On earth as in heaven.

Amen.

Do share, if you like.

In praise of great writing

 

We watch the movies, the TV shows, and we think it’s the actors, the stars whose names we know . . . we think they are the important ones.

They are not.

It is the writers who count the most. Always.

It is the crafting of the story which matters most. And it will always be this way, because you can never, ever compensate for a badly written story. No matter how good the actors, if they’re given poorly written lines, they will always end up looking foolish. It is not their fault. Yes, movies and TV are visual mediums, but the pictures are vehicles for the telling of a story. And when that story is written with lines which cut us to the heart, it will remain with us for a long time. Perhaps forever.

So today, in praise of great writing, some excerpts from the TV show Chernobyl, the highest rated TV show of all time, according to IMDb.

Here we go.

First, a heartrending excerpt from an interval in the trial in Episode 5. Boris is the Communist official responsible for the investigation into the nuclear disaster. At first, he tows the party line, but when the horrific truth of what’s happened eventually sinks in, he works with Valery Legasov, the nuclear physicist, who’s the hero of the story. . .

Boris: I’m an inconsequential man, Valery. That’s all I’ve ever been. I hoped that one day I would matter, but I didn’t. (Pause) I just stood next to people who did (pats the shoulder of Valery).

Valery: There are other scientists like me, any one of whom could have done what I did. But you . . . everything we asked for, everything we needed . . . men, material . . . lunar rovers . . . who else could have done these things? They heard me but they listened to you.  Of all the ministers and all the deputies, the entire congregation of obedient fools, they mistakenly sent the one good man. For god’s sakes, Boris, you were the one who mattered most.

I can barely read these lines without weeping. Why?

Because they are saturated with grace. Oh, they are dripping in grace.

Like so many others, these two men have sacrificed their lives in and around Chernobyl. Their mutual suspicion, often leading to conflict, has been replaced by mutual respect. Yet in this moment, it feels like they are bonded even tighter by their opposition to the Communist system. And it’s grace which emerges from their relationship. In the movies and on TV, when we see grace, it cannot fail to move us.

Yet this scene skilfully avoids sentimentality. There is a resignation before the abuse of power, a shared surrender which binds these two men together, while the writing itself ascends to the magisterial. Notice the use of the words, ‘the entire congregation of obedient fools.’ Elevated language, delivered perfectly by Jared Harris, who plays Legasov.

The pathos is unbearable, yet the beauty is inescapable.

Next one:

Legasov: You don’t need to be a nuclear scientist to understand what happened at Chernobyl. You only need to know this. There are essentially two things that happen inside a nuclear reactor. The reactivity which generates power either goes up or it goes down. That’s it. All the operators do is maintain balance.

This one is an example not simply of good writing but good teaching. In fact, the whole section in which Legasov uses red and blue plastic cards should be used in teacher training colleges around the world. It is a model of good teaching. This particular line is remarkable for boiling down the complexity of a nuclear reactor to six sentences. No frills, no scientific language, just simple language which will guide the rest of the episode.

Next, enter Satan.

This next section is chilling and is intended to be. Legasov has delivered his damning testimony to the court. He has publicly confessed that his earlier testimony in Vienna (presented to the world) was false. He had lied. Now he has told the truth in an effort to force the authorities to make the remaining reactors safe. In this speech, Charkov, the KGB chief, seeks to destroy him:

Charkov: The whole world saw you in Vienna, it would be embarrassing to kill you now. And for what? Your testimony today will not be accepted by the state. It will not be disseminated in the press. It never happened. No. You will live, however long you have. But not as a scientist. Not any more. You’ll keep your title and your office, but no duties, no authority, no friends. No one will talk to you. No one will listen to you. Other men . . . lesser men will receive credit for the things you have done. Your legacy is now their legacy. You will live long enough to see that . . . You will not communicate with anyone about Chernobyl ever again. You will remain so immaterial to the world around you that when you finally do die, it will be exceedingly hard to know that you ever lived at all.

That last line is particularly biting. It’s designed to destroy the soul, to crush it into the dirt. And the fact that these lines are delivered so calmly, without obvious malice, places all the emphasis on their meaning. There is no emotional outpouring; that happened earlier in the scene. There is just a chill wind which blows through the words and the men who inhabit that small space in hell.

Superb. Stunning.

So whose name should we remember? His name is Craig Mazin. He wrote these lines and if anyone wins an award for this show, it should be his name on the statuette. Craig Mazin.

Remember the writers. They are the ones whose work matters the most. They are the story-tellers. And when their writing scales the heights, it is their words which will remain with us forever.

 

 

Latest Post – Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford – The Death of Truth

Emotions are running high. Emotions have taken over the asylum.

Perhaps we should have known. Emotions trump truth every time. Emotions are more powerful in the public square than truth can ever be. Because the reality is . . .

No one knows the truth!

And that’s not even controversial. This is so reminiscent of the OJ trial. I still remember where I was when I heard the verdict on that case. And back then, we actually knew a whole lot. Nevertheless, the U.S. split along race lines.

This time, it’s split along party lines. Republican vs. Democrat. How odd that those who believe Blasey Ford are Democrats and those who believe Kavanaugh are Republicans? Hello, can we please bring in some reality here?

Outside the main protagonists, no one knows the truth!

We’ve been presented with two versions and . . .

No one knows which is right or even if neither is right.

We do know that Christine Blasey Ford can’t remember when the assault took place, or how she got home that night, because she told us. But then again, she can’t remember many of the details. That doesn’t mean the assault didn’t take place. It just means . . . well, it just means . . . repeat above sentences.

Sadly, the Me Too movement will pay a severe price for this. When a woman comes forward with an allegation, her testimony should be investigated. In most cases. But this isn’t a straight case of alleging sexual assault. This is an historical case steeped in politics.  She was immediately in touch with Diane Feinstein, for goodness sake!

So, now a movement championing justice for women has become deeply politicised. Bogged down in party politics of the worst kind. It’s awful to watch it play out. Getting at the truth in an even-handed way, well, that’s the casualty. And Me Too will suffer for it, by openly supporting a stance which, on the face of it, seems to embrace party politics.

I’m afraid the ‘why accuse him right now?’ retort is a legitimate question. Which is awful, because it’s possible, quite possible, that Blasey Ford was assaulted. By whom we don’t know. And then again, maybe she wasn’t. We just don’t know.

Getting that yet? We don’t know. Time for a big word. This is about epistemology. How we know things.

So onto the investigation.

An FBI investigation of a 36 year-old ‘he-said-she-said’ case? In one week. No court of law would hear such a case. Do you remember details from one night 36 years ago? Any response is tainted, as the conclusion of the investigation will be. Talk about a rock and a hard place for the FBI.

And I don’t see a way out from that.

So why is this happening? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it’s because this appointment will tilt the Supreme Court to the right. And possibly do it for a generation. That’s important for unborn children. It’s important for immigration and race relations and all sorts of issues. Some I feel strongly about, some I don’t. But they all have a huge impact on human life. And that matters.

To the women who are stating ‘you’re saying I don’t matter,’ my reply is ‘on the contrary, all human life matters, including yours.’ That’s the whole point of this hoo-ha. The Supreme Court matters, because its decisions can determine life and death and everything in between.

Sadly, the soap opera has been embraced by the nominee. Brett Kavanaugh made a big mistake by accusing the Democrats. HUGE. Because a justice on the Supreme Court is supposed to be impartial, interpreting the Constitution without a clearly expressed political agenda. Having said that, Kavanaugh is overtly political, having supported Republican causes throughout his career. But to respond in the way he did during a nomination process? That’s never done. Until now.

And that’s why, in the end, his combative response to questions may sink him more than the accusations.

Click here for an interesting perspective on the politicisation of Supreme Court appointments.

So, just one final question. And here my cards are placed clearly on the table.

Should a possible crime committed 36 years ago, and which can never be proved in a court of law, be sufficient to destroy this nomination?

In all the uncertainty, I think we do know the answer to that question.

DO NOT JUDGE! REALLY?

 

‘Do not judge!’

‘Excuse me?’

‘I said, do not judge. You’re judging people and that’s wrong, so don’t do it.’

‘I’m sorry, but isn’t what you just said . . . er, a judgement? A judgement about my judging of others?’

‘Yes.’ Harrumph . . . bluster and more bluster.

If the Boss says it, he must mean it, right? And he definitely said it. See Matt 7.1-2.

So, what’s going on?

First, let’s admit that judging is hard-wired into us. We judge all the time. What do you think of Donald Trump? Colin Kaepernick? Taylor Swift?

What do you think of the driver who cuts you off? Or the ex who rejected you? Or loud people? Or rude people? In fact, much of life revolves around trying to assess how other people are behaving and then responding appropriately, sometimes cautiously and hopefully, graciously. Furthermore, Christ tells us that we’ll know people by their fruit. You can’t talk about fruit, unless you make a judgement.

So, what’s going on? A couple of options. The rabbi Hillel, who preceded Jesus, wrote this: “Do not judge your fellow man until you have been in his place.” This is progress, I think. Certainly, it induces humility, because of course none of us has lived another’s life. And it is inching us closer to what Jesus is saying.

Which brings us back to his statement in verse 2: With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

It looks like an Ultimate Judgement is in view here. When will I ever be in a position to truly judge another person fully? Never. I cannot mete out judgement on another person. Only God does that. At some point, a judgement will take place and it won’t be me – or you – who is doing the judging. It will be God.

At this point, we should all experience that horrible sinking feeling at the pit of the stomach. Oh my gosh, this is not going to end well. In front of everyone, my petty moral judgements of others will be unmasked and my own deficits will be revealed. When I judged my brother for his impatience and unkindness, I forgot to consider my own impatience. I’m not what I should be.

God, help me.

So, go ahead and judge. Assess the world around you and don’t feel bad, because there’s a lot about the world that isn’t right. But if you are ever tempted to put on a divine mantle and set yourself up in judgement over others, then just remember . . .

Oh my gosh, that’s not going to end well.

 

 

In Praise of Roger Federer

Hero worship. What seems to be the problem?

‘Ooh, be careful,’ they say, ‘don’t put mere humans on pedestals. Only God is worthy of worship.’ Well, obviously.

But I must say, I love a bit of hero worship. In fact, I think we’re built for it.

Which brings us to the great Roger Federer. He of the sublime tennis shot, able to conjure shots which mere mortals can only gawp at and applaud. Go on. Take a look at this video later.

It’s no doubt because tennis is ‘my sport’ that I love to watch King Fed (as we call him in our family). When you’ve played tennis for years, you know better than most that the shots Federer plays aren’t really possible. Or at least they shouldn’t be. Because those ten shots in the video are ‘just ridiculous!’ ‘Come on!’ shouts the commentator, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me!’

And so it is with Messi and Kobe and any number of sporting geniuses.

Do you have your heroes? I hope so. I think it’s healthy. Here’s why.

Hero worship is a pale reflection of true worship and as such, it reminds us of what is involved in true worship. How so?

Take Roger Federer. He plays tennis. Really? I’m not sure he’s playing the same sport as me. What he can do doesn’t really seem possible . . .  and yet there it is, the ridiculous through the legs shot at a crucial point in the match, which leaves us all in awe. And yes, he did mean it.

So, first, he’s both the same as me – playing tennis – but he’s utterly different to me. He can do things I will never, ever be able to do. That’s the source of my admiration. That explains the dropping jaws.

This should remind us of holiness. God is like us – we are image-bearers – and yet he is utterly separate and different. The Jews used to call him ‘other,’ essentially a being quite different to humanity. And so he is.

And he is capable of accomplishing things we cannot do and never will be able to do. He creates ex nihilo. In Christ, he saves the world. We are but pale reflections of our creator, just as my forehand is a poor imitation of Federer’s . . . although I’m working on it, I’m working on it!

Second, I admire Federer because I want to be like him. No, I don’t want to be married to Mirka and have two sets of twins. My three are quite enough. And I don’t want his personality either, though the guy is very smooth.

I want to play tennis as he does. The skills he displays, I want those too.

True worship should draw us in that direction also. In worshipping God, we draw close to a loving father, who desires our growth. He desires for us to become like his Son. Worship should change us, motivate us to live lives worthy of our maker. It’s not indulgence and mushy feelings but transformative at its best.

Finally, there’s the issue of beauty. Nadal is raw power, Djokovic is metronomic, the supreme athlete, but most commentators are agreed: no one has ever played tennis with such grace, balance and beauty as Roger Federer. The combination of power and control, the way he floats around the court, it’s balletic and beautiful.

So to admire his tennis is to appreciate beauty. And where would we be without beauty? Beauty is one of the great gifts of this earth, based as it is on ultimate beauty. The beauty of God finds pale reflections in our experience here on earth. Yes, we are flawed, damaged and in need of restoration, but we are still able to perceive beauty and of course, we long for it. Beauty calls to us, speaks of divinity.

Are you moved by beauty? I hope so. The Puritans, who disdained it, have a lot to answer for, don’t they? Yet, how much more might we be moved by the creator of the universe? A being who is not simply the source of all beauty, but to use Plato’s language, its pure form? For God is Beauty. Capital B.

So, thank you, Roger. As your career nears its end (please stay a little longer) I’m grateful for the effortless grace and beauty of your tennis, which separates you from mere mortals. You will be sorely missed. Watching you has drawn me towards the worship of ultimate grace and beauty.

Of course, sports fans are especially prone to idol worship. But that’s not me. I’m never likely to mistake the reflection for the real thing. You may be an idol of mine, Roger, but let’s be clear . . . you’re no idol.

I’m after the real thing.

 

 

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