“I have said at least once a week my whole adult life that there is an absolute disjunction between our Father’s love and our deserving. Still, when I see this same disjunction between human parents and children, it always irritates me a little. (I know you will be and I hope you are an excellent man, and I will love you absolutely if you are not.)” – Gilead [p73]
No witnessing of amazing churches, revival meetings, or miracles of healing, can ever substitute for the ongoing transformation that our Great Physician must undertake in each of us personally. And this operation can take place in any and the most unusual of circumstances.
I think I stumbled across a recommendation of Marilynne Robinson (the author of Gilead) in one of the Christian blogs I follow, which was discussing the lack of quality Christian authors in the mainstream, in the light of William Young’s The Shack and other populist paperbacks like that which tend to appeal in the main to those who are already believers. I remember her being referred to as a ‘reformed’ or ‘Calvinist’ author, and some kind of critique for her retaining strong values but at the same time appealing to a very broad audience and yet exposing some tough unpleasant issues to chew over. Anyway I ended up doing a search on Amazon marketplace and bought both her novels second-hand for a few pence! I’m not sure I knew what I was buying. I then added them to the pile labelled “Sabbatical Reading Mountain”.
Robinson had only written two novels until recently. She wrote Housekeeping, which I read after reading Gilead, in the early 1980s. It is a quite different tale, told in a quite different way. It possesses some of the descriptive genius of Gilead but perhaps lacks the depth of her later work. She has just published a third novel, Home, which picks up the Gilead characters and community but from a different angle, I look forward to reading it.
Gilead may have been the trigger but once fired, it was like God had pre-ordained everything I was reading, watching, listening to or generally experiencing to speak directly, personally, and specifically to me. I went out in search of great strategies for the Church and the Kingdom and found again and again God confronting me with his great strategies for my heart.
There is no doubt that those who think that regular long-distance jet travel would be a glamorous lifestyle are seriously mistaken, or have rarely had to use this form of transport. Perhaps flying business or first class might add a touch of glamour (not that we’d know) but for me waiting around in airports, regularly getting delayed, then spending hours confined into a small place will never be my idea of fun.
Nevertheless, Judith and I have discussed this often and we feel there are certainly some small touches that can make up for the usual cramped legroom, bland, tasteless reheated food (worse – sickly-sweet desserts), Mr Grumpy (who always needs 2 armrests) plonking himself down in the seat next to you, lack of sleep, Ms Mona plus her ten children aged 15 weeks to 15 years returning sun-burnt from holiday establishing herself and her clan in the rows in front of you and immediately reclining the seats, swollen feet and ankles, one in-flight movie on a tiny screen so far away you need opera glasses (made worse if it’s a film you actually would like to watch – but this is rare on such flights), queues for the WC which stretch back to the tail area, seats positioned just infront of these same public conveniences and so close that, inconveniently, they do not recline (but remember Mona & her groaners in the row just infront of you spend the whole flight recumbent – so much so that you can literally inhale their dandruff as the uncontrollable air-con freezes your face, flight attendants who are engaged in deep and meaningful conversations at the rear of the cabin and thus are never available, lukewarm medium-dry Greek white wine and tepid Russian beer. Yunno.
Not that we’re complainers of course! Where was I? Oh yes, there are certain things we really feel airlines can do well if they give some thought to it, even in economy; those small touches which make up for all these things. These are things like:-
- Hot towels just before take-off
- Free mints to help keep your ears unblocked for take-off and landing
- Bottles of water at the start of the flight
- Good, simple, tasty meals
- Pre-meal G&Ts
- Foot rests,
- An in-flight entertainment system that you can manage individually, has a wide selection of movies and videos and… actually works (both audio and video I mean)
Cue: QANTAS which as you know, stands for Queensland And Northern Territories Aerial Services. The majority of our flights had been booked with this Spirit of the Flying Kangaroo airline (as opposed to perhaps the Ghost of the Flying Donkey we have in Guernsey’s Aurigny – see the blog title photo above) not because we had ever experienced them before (we had not) or because others had recommended them (they had not) but because they offered the cheapest deals, especially for my flights which would be an around-the-world ticket. They form part of the One World alliance which includes British Airways also so we felt confident we were not going to be treated worse than we’d experienced on BA. Up to this point our top flying experience had been either with Emirates to Dubai as few years ago, or more recently on the excellent Qatar air service to the Maldives. However let it not be said that Oz cannot compete with the UAE. Our experience on QANTAS was superb. The seats were roomy, comfortable and adjustable, the food was good. Yes good. Edible. Tasty even. A choice of wines! Plenty of loos, small queues. Overall the service was superb: sweets and hot towels around take-off, friendly attentive customer care, when you want it, without being overbearing. Excellent! And… the in-flight entertainment worked well and had a fine selection of movies, both old and new.
So it was that over the course of flying to Hong Kong, and then on from there to Australia, Judith and I watched perhaps 5 or 6 movies between us. We talked about them, exchanged ideas and recommendations. No, Judith did not feel obliged to watch Borat just to be able to understand the cultural humour of our teens. And yes, I thought My Life in Ruins was a complete waster – more of a poovie-movie than a chick-flick – and not 1% as funny as My Big Fat Greek Wedding which I did watch with my daughters. There were some fun ones, like Duplicity, and some edge-of-your-seatbelt thrillers, like the Matrix series (which I’d never fully seen before!) and gripping historical drama like The Young Victoria. But what pierced me to the heart were two very different films both Judith and I watched – The Soloist and Disgrace.
Now, again I don’t want to say too much about the plot in either case. In fact again, you may not be that affected in the same way, or indeed in the slightest, for I reckon the Holy Spirit had deliberately placed these two movies on the Qantas list for August & September, having already previously destined their respective producers to make the films in time for my Sabbatical. It was clearly aimed at me. And deliberately after I had by now read both Gilead and a book entitled The Emotionally Healthy Church by Peter Scazzero – this latter was recommended by our good friends Derek & Jenny Gibbs, on the leadership of New Community Church Sidcup.
Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of reading these and then watching the movies, or maybe it was just the Holy Spirit, but one way or the other I ended up a blubbering wreck in my quite comfortable Qantas seat, slightly reclined.
The Soloist recounts the true story of a very gifted but mentally ill young black boy from an impoverished background whose love of music and ability to play the cello send him soaring up musical ladders at an early age, even attending the prestigious Juilliard School in New York. However things go wrong when through stress caused by a type of schizophrenia his life disintegrates into confusion, fear, anguish and anger and he drops off the radar screen and is accidentally ‘rediscovered’ years later playing a beaten up old violin on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, by a reluctant journalist looking for a good story. The movie charts the relationship between this would-be-carer-journalist Lopez and the schizoid-homeless-musician Ayers, contrasting the difficulties both have in relating to the institutionalised and statutory care and assistance offered by agencies, with the non-professional volatile love-hate relationship that Lopez develops in his attempts to help Ayers single-handedly with the lone tool of his LA Times Column.
The movie really ends up being more about how Lopez is changed by his reaching out to Ayers. He becomes more gracious, merciful, yet determined, even though Ayers doesn’t really change much. It is a rhapsody to friendship.
Disgrace is directed by Steve Jacobs and is based on a novel by award-winning author James Coetzee. It touches many themes and could be described as one critic succinctly put it as a “lethal look at the after-shock of apartheid”. It is set in South Africa, largely in Cape Town and the main character is John Malkovich, but this is not like many films he has acted in before.
I have got into trouble in the past for recommending Malkovich movies, some of which, it is true, are a little bizarre or avant-garde. In this one he plays a university professor of literature who has an affair with a student and ends up quitting his job because he won’t apologise publicly. Instead he leaves the city and takes some time out with his daughter who runs a small-holding in the remote Eastern Cape. What seems at first like an idyllic setting is shattered by an horrendous crime which affects the black/white relations in the area, his relationship with his daughter and his view of his own life. Disgrace is shocking, beautiful, and touchingly poignant in places. I found it drawing emotions out of me, questions about how I viewed the world, sin, weak Christians, fallen people, friends who have back-slidden, those who had been close once and now out of touch. Questions which had been ignited primarily by my reading of Gilead, Emotionally Healthy Church, and praying with Judith thus far in our Sabbatical journey.
This all made for a divine coup d’état on my soul.
I was thinking about so many things but rising within me was a unexpected tide of fresh mercy, sweet grace and an overwhelming desire for the love of Jesus to wash over people’s lives.
Near the end of Disgrace John Malkovich’s character, David Lurie , visits the home of the parents whose daughter he had an affair with at the start of the story. He now desires their pardon, even going as far as humiliating himself he kneels before the mother to beg forgiveness. But what struck me was the harsh, unforgiving Islamic legalism of the father, and I found myself saying “Lord, I’m a father also, but save me from becoming like that!” Trouble is, I think I have been already; not in situations involving my own children of course, but with those in my flock, in my ‘care’ who have been sinned against, and desiring to protect and defend, towards those who have perpetrated the sin, and who may, perhaps, have been willing to seek mercy. I don’t know.
But this I do know: by God’s grace I want to be different. By God’s grace I am different!