Category Archives: Television

One World Week – On Seeing Things Differently

Following on from my previous post, I’ve been giving some thought to what it means to be the Church in a messy world and turbulent political landscape. The following is a sermon (so quiet on the Tory-bashing, alas!) for One World Week (the texts are Micah 6:6 – 8 and Luke 4:14 – 30):

 

I’m a big fan of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ for my sins, and I’m there on a Saturday night, week-in, week-out, glued to the television. One thing I dislike about the programme, though, is that they always seem to invite one or two people to take part who seem to be there basically for people to laugh at. Apparently, after the first show of this series, in which the contestants were paired up with professional dancers, one of the judges told Robin Windsor, dance partner of Emmerdale actress Lisa Riley, that they had no chance, presumably as she’s a larger person. Thus, when she proved that she can really dance, it was fantastic to see; just like when Susan Boyle wiped the smug smile off Simon Cowell’s face when she began to sing, that first dance challenged lazy stereotypes and forced people to look at things in a fresh way. Our two readings today are, in their various ways, about Israel being challenged to look at things in a different way, to re-think what being God’s people in the world was all about.

When Jesus had been baptised in the river Jordan, the same river that Israel crossed to enter the Promised Land, the Holy Spirit told him that he was God’s beloved Son. Immediately after, he was thrust into the wilderness by the same Spirit to face up to what that meant – he was Israel’s Messiah, and his mission was to re-define what it was to be God’s people, breaking down national barriers, among others. That was bound to lead to trouble, because it would mean challenging not just the ideas of ordinary people, but also the powerful religious and secular authorities of the day. After this time of preparation, which brought together all those years of prayer, thought, studying the Scriptures and wrestling with God, he was ready to begin his ministry.

Jesus returned to Galilee and went about preaching in the synagogues, gaining quite a reputation for himself. One day, as he’d done many times before on the Sabbath, he stood up in his home synagogue in Nazareth and began to read, this time from a scroll of Isaiah’s prophecies. He went straight to the place where it said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to tell the poor the good news. He’s sent me to announce realise to the prisoners and sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free”. When he’d finished reading, he gave back the scroll, sat down and declared, “Today, this is being fulfilled right in front of you”, to the amazement of the congregation. These were words of complete and utter grace, pure and simple. However, the good mood wouldn’t last for very long…

A work colleague of mine supports Manchester City – I suppose somebody has to! – and just before the last match of the season, he fully expected his team to lose and so throw away the title. His experiences of many years had taught him that City had a habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. At first glance, it might seem that Jesus managed to do just that in the synagogue that day. He’d had the crowd in the palm of his hand when he said that he knew they were all waiting for him to perform a spectacular act, like they’d heard about from his time in Capernaum. One can imagine the buzz of anticipation among them. However, he talked instead about prophets not being accepted in their home towns, and God choosing to rescue Gentiles through Elijah and Elisha when he could’ve helped Israelites. The people were furious – so furious that they chased him up to the mountain top on which the city was built and tried to throw him off, but he managed to slip through the crowd unnoticed. What was going on?

Well, expectation was rife in Jesus’ day about the coming of the Messiah, whom they imagined would be a sort of military leader who would violently shake off the rule of the hated Romans and plant Israel firmly at the top of the pile. Given the nationalism that underpinned most people’s thinking, it’s not surprising that the crowd reacted very badly to Jesus’ words. In the face of their hopes and dreams, he was telling them that God wasn’t just interested in one nation, but in the whole world. His message was about grace for everybody, rather than violent judgement for everyone outside of Israel. In quoting Isaiah 61:1 – 2, he was pointing to a broader vision of the Messiah’s role, and ultimately he was laying the foundations for the counter-cultural world of the Kingdom of God. Israel was going to need to think again about who it was and what it was for – what did it mean to be God’s people living God’s way?

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One World Week is both an exciting opportunity, in that it’s a chance to come together and explore key issues in our world, and a deep challenge, as it asks hard questions about the Church. Are we a people who seek to break down barriers, to welcome all into God’s family, to shine the light of hope into the world’s dark places? By the way we live our lives, do we help to free the prisoners, give sight to the blind and bring liberty to the oppressed? This isn’t an easy business; after all, it ultimately led Jesus to the cross. It involves being willing to take risks and build relationships with people who’re in some way ‘different’ to us, which can be scary, but that’s the challenge that God lays down to us. Just like Israel, the Church cannot hope to be all God made it to be if it turns inward and becomes a kind of exclusive club, but instead it needs to look outwards for signs of God’s Kingdom work, role up its sleeves and join in.

Our Old Testament passage offers a vision of what it means to live God’s way. Micah was one of the minor prophets, and his ministry took place mostly in the latter half of the eighth century BCE, before the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians; his writings thus span six decades of God’s people struggling with their calling to be a blessing to the nations. In our reading, Israel is represented as a worshipper wanting to know how to please God, and assuming that this can be done through sacrifices and offerings. However, sacrifices were meaningless if the life of the people didn’t reflect God’s life; unless their actions and words matched up, it was empty worship. Micah was trying to point Israel back in the right direction; true worship means seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.

Bringing this all together shows that God’s deep longing is for his people to take the risks required to make his Kingdom visible in the world through the quality of our living, individually and as a community, and in doing so to break down the barriers that prevent there really being ‘one world’. There’s no point in gathering together every week for worship if that worship isn’t the catalyst for lives lived seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. Here are three thoughts on what this might look like in practice:

Firstly, Jesus did perform spectacular acts that gained him a reputation as a miracle-man among some, such as the crowds in today’s reading, but actually, most of the stuff he did was pretty small-scale. Much of his ministry was comprised of lots of little acts, the power of which cannot be underestimated. It’s easy when faced with big problems like those we see on the news every day, to give into despair and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed. However, we follow a Messiah who was prepared to be vulnerable and who made his selfless love known primarily in the small things of life. Never underestimate the power of small acts of kindness.

Secondly, Jesus wasn’t afraid to ask the big questions, and challenge those in authority. He unsettled the social and religious ‘status quo’, not just by meeting people’s immediate needs when he could, but by pointing out the underlying structural issues that caused those needs to arise in the first place. In our day, it’s the equivalent of asking why food banks are needed, rather than simply being pleased they’re there. This does mean getting political, though not necessarily party-political, and whether it’s getting involved in campaigns for social justice, going on protest marches, letter-writing, spending your money ethically or simply thoughtfully exploring the issues, it makes a difference.

Thirdly, Jesus made sure that he took time out to rest and to be with God. There’s always the danger of both burnout and of losing sight of God. Jesus’ relationship with God was the catalyst, inspiration, source and end point of everything he said and did, from the powerful and dramatic to the small and subtle. A living faith means putting things into action, but it’s still a faith – we need to depend on God for strength and energy, direction, and hope when the going gets tough, as it will.

Social action matters because God and all he has created matters. There’s no such thing as a waste person in the Kingdom, but there is light, hope, love and the possibility of transformation. One World Week is as good a time as any to begin put this vision into action…

Young Carers and their Mums

I watched a very moving documentary last night on BBC3 (another from their ‘Adult Season‘) about young carers and the challenges they face. Tulisa Contostavlos, who is apparently part of some pop group or other (I’m showing my permature middle-aged-ness here!) was a carer for her mum who has mental health difficulties. She talks about her experiences and visits a handful of the estimated eighty-thousand young carers in the UK, seeing how they cope with the demands on them and juggling school, friends and future plans.

A lot of the themes of this programme resonated deeply with my own experience. My mum used to have pretty severe OCD to do with cleaning – it was never diagnosed, but she wouldn’t to this day think her behaviour was odd in any way. When we (my younger brother and I) were young, she used to spend six days out of seven cleaning the house, week-in and week-out. Making mess, however minor, was the worst thing one could ever do. It got to the point when I was a teenager were we were told to go to bed at 9pm because she needed to rest but couldn’t go to sleep if she thought the sofa was messy or the bathroom sink hadn’t been wiped after people had cleaned their teeth. She only ever left the house to go to the Post Office or corner shop, and I was never allowed friends around in case they made a mess.

Added to this, when I was around eleven years old (I can’t remember exactly), my brother developed a bowel problem that resulted in frequent painful rushing to the loo. The combination of a clean-freak and a messy illness that took ages to diagnose and get properly treated was a recipe for disaster. Home life was constantly tense, and as my father took refuge in work, I was left basically to be the adult, dealing with my brother and mum crying on my shoulder. It was very lonely and bloody hard work.

As well as practical support and maybe respite care for young carers, one thing shown in the programme was the benefit of having other young people facing similar issues that they could hang out with and talk to.

Both Tulisa and another lass, Hannah, talked about feeling isolated and of their own resulting mental health difficulties. I was first depressed when I was about twelve, and part of the reason I’m sure was feeling that I had no-one I could talk to. My parents didn’t seem to realise the odd-ness of mum’s behaviour, and the family dynamics were such that I felt treated as somehow inferior to my brother.  Teachers would have to have gone to Social Services, and I didn’t want to cause trouble. The lack of being able to go out or feeling able to explain this to my friends led to more bullying. I would have been so grateful for someone I could trust just to listen, rather than having to bottle it up.

I love my mum more than I could express, but I doubt she (or my father for that matter) would be able, looking back, to see the situation as I saw it. It has taken quite a bit of counselling to deal with it all. Knowing that she’ll always be the way she is to some extent has helped me let go of unrealistic expectations of her that were making it hard for me to forgive. These days, we have a decent relationship, even if she never listens!

The positive relationships the young people had with their mums were very encouraging, and remarkable given the burdens they had to shoulder. It shows how, as my own mum said recently in a different context, love can conquer all.

Young, Dumb and Living Off Mum

On BBC3, there is currently a series of programmes as part of their ‘Adult Season’, some of which have been really fascinating and moving. There was a programme about a young woman about to get married who wanted to decide which of the various father figures in her life should walk her down the aisle. Another was about a teenager whose mum is a glamour model (read page three girl) and her journey into adulthood. Her mum has real issues about body image and is addicted to plastic surgery. The programme shows what happens when such surgery goes wrong, and the difficulties mum had of letting her daughter take her own path in life.

Now, having just praised several of the shows, there are some programmes that are far more like Jeremy Kyle – truly awful but an occasional guilty pleasure. ‘Young, Dumb and Living Off Mum‘ comes into that category. It’s about a group of young people, ranging in age from seventeen to twenty-three, whose parents are fed up of their lazy and selfish behaviour. None of them have ever held down a job and some can’t even manage basics like doing laundry or cooking a meal for themselves. Each week, they are given a work placement and are sharing a house together. Their parents get to observe their behaviour and each week the young person voted the most useless has to leave, the eventual winner getting a cruise as their prize.

It would be tempting to have a real go at the young people about their uselessness (the trailer shows a twenty-year-old man getting his mum to wash his hair because he couldn’t be bothered) and blatant immaturity. In the first couple of shows, it was obvious that the only things they seemed to know how to do were giggle uncontrollably at everything, get drunk, fight and sponge off others. Some of them supplemented the household budget by stealing from shops and their bosses. None of them seemed capable of taking anything in life remotely seriously (hence the continuous giggling), of resolving arguments without resorting to shouting, or taking any pride in work.

However, the young people themselves seemed very much to be the products of their parents. One woman seemed to think stealing was perfectly fine, that promiscuity is normal and that using people is acceptable, which explains her son very well. They seemed to struggle to accept that their precious offspring could ever be in the wrong and couldn’t deal with their child being criticised, making excuses for them and setting almost non-existent standards. It reminded me of a time I told a small child off for throwing something at me, and her mum threatened to “f**king kill me”, saying that no-one could discipline her except her. I don’t envy that child’s teachers!

At this point, I should put my hands up and admit a degree of uselessness at eighteen. I’d been in a caring role for a fair percentage of my adolescence and so could do most household tasks, but had never been allowed to cook for myself in case I made a mess (my mum was a bit of a clean freak, to put it mildly!). My first meal at uni was burnt toast and overly runny boiled eggs. Thankfully, school cookery lessons meant I didn’t starve or end up existing off pasta (nice as it is) but it took me a while to get used to doing some things for myself. However, one thing I was not for my many faults was feckless.

It seems to me that clear boundaries and expectations are very important in bringing up children, as well as parents being able to deal with other adults correcting their children if necessary. My teacher friends have complained about the difficulties they have had when parents come charging into school whenever their child is told off. It makes it very hard to maintain discipline in the classroom. Similarly, if the parents in the programme don’t want layabouts for children, they need to get their act together and learn to say ‘no’, for starters. Easy for me, with no children, to say? Yes, perhaps, but my years of caring and working with kids in various contexts have taught me that parents and children need to be really that, not friends, at least until adulthood when there can really be an equal relationship. Young people need nurture, care, praise and encouragement. They also need boundaries.

Any thoughts?