One of the reasons I’m a feminist is in this urn

One of the reasons I’m a feminist is in this urn

When my mother passed away 18 months ago we undertook that sad task of dividing her possessions and dispensing of those we didn’t want. She didn’t have much left, frankly, having downsized to a room in a nursing home a year earlier. Jewelry, photograph albums, trinkets, a few paintings. And a big old brown urn that she’d had in her home since I was a kid. As we were going through the old photos and jewelry, my youngest daughter Fielding asked if she could have the urn. No one else wanted it, so of course we agreed. On our way to the car with the few items we’d retained from my mother’s long life, I asked my daughter why she wanted the urn. I mean, it’s not the most appealing object I’ve seen. I couldn’t imagine why a young woman would want it in her home. “You don’t know the meaning behind this urn?” Fielding replied. “There’s a meaning behind it?” I asked, baffled. When I reflected on it, every time my mother moved house, from our large family home, to a smaller seaside home after my father died, to an even smaller mobile home, to a room in a nursing home, that urn made the transition with her. Of all the vases, bric-a-brac, and keepsakes that had disappeared over

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The Beast in Me and the Monstrosity of the Cross

The Beast in Me and the Monstrosity of the Cross

The beast in me/ Is caged by frail and fragile bars,/ Restless by day/ And by night rants and rages at the stars,/ God help the beast in me.   If you’ve heard Johnny Cash’s tortured version of Nick Lowe’s The Beast in Me you’ll know he was destined to growl those aching lyrics. God help the beast in me, indeed. The beast in Johnny Cash imagined all sorts of depravity, like senseless violence (“I shot a man in Reno/ just to watch him die”) and petulant arrogance, like shooting a woman because she was lowdown and trifling (“First time I shot her in the side/ Hard to watch her suffer/ But with the second shot she died”). Recently, a friend gave me an old LP version of Cash’s At San Quentin live album. The record opens with the beast in Johnny Cash ranting and raving about how annoying the recording crew were by getting in his way. He swears like a sailor and boasts about his own stints in jail, and his drug use, all the while fulminating about the cruelty of the American criminal justice system. This is Johnny Cash at his most beastly. In fact, this is the concert where Cash was snapped flipping the bird in that now-famous photograph. Little wonder then that Cash was attracted to

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Two apostles walk into a bar…

Two apostles walk into a bar…

Two old men meet in a tavern in a small, unremarkable village. They embrace, their heavy, solid hands slapping each others’ broad backs affectionately. They kiss twice, on each cheek. They sit and drink, hunching over the shared table in a conspiratorial way. The dust that coats their faces highlights the deepening lines around their eyes. Their graying beards betray the years. They are like two old lions, warriors who’ve fought many a battle, but live to fight another day. Wiping crimson wine from his moustache with the back of his hand, one says with a smirk, “You’ve gotten old quickly.” The other looks up and raises his eyebrows. “I just mean,” continues the first man, “I haven’t seen you for a while and you seem to have aged quite a bit in that time.” Another smirk. The other man goes to defend himself or make some equally rude comment, but finally waves his hand dismissively at his friend. “Why do I even bite at comments like that?” he smiles. “You’re not exactly the strapping young fellow you used to be either, you know.” They both smile and the first man reaches across and places his hand on his friend’s arm. The tone turns serious. “It’s the travel that wears me out,” he confesses. “Agreed. And the disappointment. I could

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We can all use a little upgrade

We can all use a little upgrade

This week I saw Leigh Whannell’s new film, Upgrade, a sci-fi horror film that really got me thinking about the nature of Christian discipleship. The movie introduces us to Grey Trace, a bit of an everyman, an old-school car mechanic who loves his wife Asha and distrusts all this new-fangled technology (the action takes place slightly in the future so there’s some cool gadgets on display). When Asha is murdered and he is left a quadriplegic in a vicious gang attack, Grey finds himself confined to a wheelchair seething with desire to track down his wife’s killers but unable to do anything about it. He is approached by Eron, a world-renowned tech genius (with very limited social skills, you know the kind by now) who explains that his company has developed a stop secret, biomechanical enhancement, a beetle-like computer chip, that when implanted in a person’s spinal column can send signals from the brain to the body. Eron calls it Stem, and says he’s willing to trial it on Grey. Stem, he promises, can “bridge the gap between brain and limbs.” It can restore the life that’s been taken from Grey. And sure enough, with Stem implanted in his neck, Grey can walk and move freely. But there’s a catch. Stem can not only interpret brain signals and convey messages

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Tis Merely a Flesh Wound: when Social Justice Warriors feel like the Black Knight

Tis Merely a Flesh Wound: when Social Justice Warriors feel like the Black Knight

It hasn’t been a good week to be a social justice warrior. And I don’t use that term in its pejorative sense. To me, a social justice warrior is what the term suggests at face value, a person committed to fighting for justice. I know Twitter has turned “SJW” into an insult to describe young progressives, offended by everything, incapable of reasoned debate, blah, blah. But for me, fighting the good fight for justice and peace in this world is exactly what Jesus calls us to, and what his followers have been doing for centuries. Being a social justice warrior shouldn’t put you on the left or the right. It shouldn’t deem you a liberal or a conservative. Rather, it should put you firmly in the will of God. The kind of religion the Bible advocates is rooted in justice that flows from the heart of God. It seeks to bring all things into the wholeness of God. As one justified by faith in the God of all justice, I believe we are to experience the wholeness God brings and extend it to others.   This week, those of us committed to that task were dealt a crushing blow when the richest nation in the world, and the one most likely to refer to itself as Christian, enacted a policies that

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Men in their 60s – afflicted by hope

Men in their 60s – afflicted by hope

Anthony Bourdain’s suicide at age 61 has got me thinking. I know suicide isn’t the exclusive domain of any particular age group, but recently I’ve been troubled by the number of well-known and highly successful men who have ended their own lives in their 60s. Maybe that’s because I just had a birthday and, well, frankly, I’m closing in on 60 myself. The reasons for Bourdain’s suicide aren’t yet known. He was working on a new series of his television show when he died. He was in a new relationship, was exercising, and had given up his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. All good signs. And yet… I won’t speculate on a topic I know nothing about. But, as I said, Bourdain’s is just one of a long list of self-inflicted deaths of successful 60-something men. In 2004, writer and actor Spalding Gray, 62, drowned himself after suffering from depression that resulted from the debilitating effects of a severe car accident some years earlier. Legendary Chilean footballer Eduardo Bonvallet, 60, hanged himself in 2015 after struggling with stomach cancer for several years. Likewise, Tony Scott, 68, the director of such films as Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, and Crimson Tide, jumped from a bridge in LA in 2012 after fighting a lengthy battle with cancer. And comedian and actor, Robin Williams,

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I held an old man’s fragile, weathered hand today

I held an old man’s fragile, weathered hand today

I sat beside a hospital bed and held an old man’s hand today. His skin was thin and papery and he struggled to open his eyes. Even when he did blink them to life, he didn’t initially recognize me. It had been a long time. I first met him in the late 1980s when I had just been appointed the student minister at Seaforth Baptist Church in Sydney’s north. It was a small congregation, many of them aging, which is why they could only afford a part-time student minister. I wasn’t exactly what some of them wanted in a minister. I didn’t wear a suit or preach with a booming, authoritarian tone. I was chastised by one older member because she thought the way I conducted the Sunday services was “too cavalier.” The treasurer – a nervous man who squinted a lot while pushing his glasses up his nose – suggested I should stop spending all the church’s hard-earned money. Although, for the life of me, I have no idea what I was apparently frittering it all away on. I didn’t win any friends when I closed their dwindling Wednesday night prayer meeting (at which I was expected to bring a sermon) and tried to start home study groups. One fellow said I would “go down in history” as the

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Should a pastor ever own a private jet or a luxury yacht?

Should a pastor ever own a private jet or a luxury yacht?

Remember the controversy Tony Campolo caused back in the day when he announced that you can’t own a BMW and be a Christian? Well, the recent revelations about Bill Hybels’ treatment of female colleagues raise the question about whether a pastor should ever own a private jet or a luxury yacht.   Many years ago I recall a Baptist minister telling me how, after moving into the manse or parsonage of his new church, he noticed there were metallic handrails sticking up out of the middle of the back lawn. When he asked the church elders what the handrails were for, he was informed that the church had purchased the property years earlier at an extremely good price but it had a swimming pool in the backyard. The elders felt that it was too ostentatious for a pastor to have a swimming pool, but the house was so cheap they couldn’t pass it up. Their solution: purchase the property, but fill in the pool and plant lawn. Those handrails remained poking through the grass as a tangible reminder of two things – the church’s thriftiness and its modesty. The story about the underground pool always got a laugh and a roll of the eyes every time he told it. Those were the days when pastors were expected to display unstinting

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Four times the church got weird… and was better for it

Four times the church got weird… and was better for it

It feels like the church gets weird every four or five hundred years, and it does the world of good. In fact, it could be argued that the church is at its best when it throws off its desire for acceptance and conventionality and launches into the strangest and most counter-cultural behavior. Here are four times when the church did exactly that, and history was changed.   1. The Hiberno-Scottish missionaries (Sixth Century) The Hiberno-Scottish missionaries were Gaelic monks from Ireland (in Latin Hibernia) and the western coast of modern-day Scotland, who re-Christianized Britain and Western Europe after the fall of Rome. You might have heard of a few of their leading lights: St Columba of Iona, St Aidan of Lindisfarne [pictured], St Columbanus of the Franks. They were wild people from a wild land, who harnessed their considerable passions and energies into Christian devotion. Rather than undergoing complete personality transplants, the Hiberno-Scots disciplined their passions without extinguishing them. They retained their sense of rowdiness and their love of wild, elemental places like the coastline of Scotland and northern England. They harnessed their love of drinking and singing and storytelling and directed it toward God. They practised hospitality, welcoming all comers. They were deeply shaped by their new-found triune faith and saw the Trinity not only as a doctrine but

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Returning violence for violence only multiplies violence

Returning violence for violence only multiplies violence

When I was a kid, I gave an opposing player some lip on the rugby field and he punched me in the face so hard and so quickly I didn’t even see it coming. One minute I was trash-talking him and the next minute I was on my butt, my head spinning, watching him run back to join the flow of the game. It was embarrassing. I remember how for weeks (months?) later I kept fantasizing about how I could have got back at him. I imagined clobbering him, humiliating him in front of others as he had done to me. The impulse to respond to violence with violence is primal. It’s almost involuntary.   When we feel personally assailed we want to return fire, to make our attackers suffer as much, or more, than we have. It’s a very human, visceral reaction. Even when we see horrible acts of terrorism perpetrated in cities like Paris or London or Nairobi, that same impulse rears up. We feel threatened, and we clamor, “Do it back to them. Return violence for violence. If they’re trying to kill us we should kill them.” Whole nations can become inflamed by this hunger for revenge. After the September 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington, the US responded by bombing Afghanistan and invading Iraq.

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Three films that (might) make you believe in God

Three films that (might) make you believe in God

Remember that line in Yann Martel’s book, Life of Pi, when the protagonist tells his visitor, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” Can stories really do that? And if they can, shouldn’t film have even more chance to convey belief in God, given the visceral impact they can have? So, which films would you recommend as those most likely to make someone believe in God? My mind went immediately to films about people struggling with their faith, like Black Narcissus (1947) or Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) or Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), all masterpieces of religious-themed cinema. But in each of these cases, the viewer is invited to observe the characters’ tenuous hold on faith. Would they make someone believe in God? Any film that could evoke a sense of God’s presence would have to be extremely challenging one, the kind of visual experience that demands much of the viewer. I mean, God is worthy of our undivided attention, right? We’re not talking about Bruce Almighty (2003) or The Shack (2011) here. So, here are three admittedly extremely challenging films that I think could at least help you believe in God.   TREE OF LIFE (2011) Written and directed by Terrence Malick, Tree of Life is a film like no other. It

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God Shows Up… roughly:   the Gospel according to Wes Anderson

God Shows Up… roughly: the Gospel according to Wes Anderson

When Wes Anderson’s film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou came out on DVD in 2004, in the extras it included an interview Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach did with Italian film critic Antonio Monda. Typically, it’s slightly absurdist, with the odd moment of sincerity, like the time when Monda asks Anderson and Baumbach if they believe in God. “No,” replies Baumbach without hesitation. So Monda directs his question to Anderson, “What about you?” “I think so,” Anderson says sweetly. Baumbach looks surprised. “Really?” Anderson demurs only slightly, “Yeah, I mean… I mean, roughly.” To me that seems like an entirely appropriate answer for a filmmaker who addresses huge issues like the nature of family, human brokenness, grief and depression, the challenges of under-parented adults, and a hunger for purpose, but in whose films God only appears obliquely. Critic David Zahl writes, “The very mention of a religious dimension to Wes Anderson’s films may sound surprising, even bizarre. It is certainly not what he is known for.” In fact, Zahl observes, rather cleverly, that because Anderson’s films are so extraordinarily intricate and perfectly balanced, “…it seems there is no room in a Wes Anderson film for any deity other than Wes Anderson.” But God does show up in Anderson’s films. It might take some faith to see it, but in

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