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Category Archives: Thoughtful

Will you see the Noah movie?

noahThere has been some heated discussion online recently about the new movie Noah, a Hollywood blockbuster starring Russell Crowe, which releases in the UK on 4 April.

It’s 10 years since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out, so many Christians were looking forward to another good, bible-based film. But then came the news that the Genesis story had been dramatically (and contentiously) rewritten for Hollywood.

Even the film’s director, Darren Aronofsky, was quoted as saying “it’s the least biblical biblical film ever made”. Apparently Paramount bosses were worried about the negative reactions test screenings had received from Judeo-Christian audiences, so they tried editing it to create a few different versions. These fared no better, however, so it is Aronofsky’s account that will be shown to worldwide audiences from the end of this month.

Objections from Christians

A few days ago UK digital radio station United Christian Broadcasters offered a competition prize of a trip to London for a special preview screening of the film. This prompted concerned responses from one or two believers who objected to the film’s unbiblical interpretation and accused it of promoting deception.

One follower, however, said they saw the picture as an opportunity to share their faith, and to discuss with non-Christian friends how the movie deviates from the truth of the account in the Bible.

Elsewhere on the web opposing views have been detailed in articles such as ‘Should Christians support the movie Noah?’ on the Huffington Post’s religion page – which makes some valid points and ultimately gives the movie the nod, versus the blog Around the World with Ken Ham which cautions movie-goers against the film, citing its bizarre storylines, while Christianity Today balances five positive facts about the film with five negative features.

Make up your mind

Having read some of the arguments I might be inclined to give this one a miss, preferring to spend my shekels on the new independent film Son of God about the life of Jesus which, while not necessarily blockbuster, looks like a more uplifting experience that remains true to the text.

I guess each of us needs to make up our own mind about how we respond to pop culture art that calls into question elements of our faith. Thankfully, God is greater than it all and the truth of his Word, along with the Holy Spirit’s revelation, is all we require.

What’s your response to a ‘re-writing’ of a biblical truth?

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Jesus, in unexpected places

It says in the Bible that it is the Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth (John 14:17), and it is a beautiful mystery that He often helps us encounter Jesus in so many places we would never think to look or expect to find Him.

Recently I watched for the first time the 2007 film The Kite Runner, based on the bestselling book by Khaled Hosseini from 2003.

It focuses on the friendship between two boys – privileged Amir and poor Hassan – and is set against the background of Afghanistan under the rule of the monarchy in the 1970s, then Soviet Russia, and finally the Taliban.

Exploring themes of innocence, sacrifice and redemption, the story unfolds in a Muslim context, so I doubt very much that the author or producers ever intended the film to make any reference to Christ. Yet for me, He was unmistakeably present.

The servant boy

I was profoundly struck by the Christ-like portrayal of Hassan, the servant boy, who willingly endures great suffering for the sake of his well-to-do friend.

It begins early in the film, when we see the brave little Hassan choosing to protect the weaker, fearful Amir from neighbourhood bullies, the same persecutors who mock Hassan as being of inferior race.

Then, the movie’s pivotal scenes, Kabul’s kite-flying competition which Amir so desperately wants to win in order to gain his father’s approval, show Hassan refusing to hand over to the bullies the winning kite he has fetched for Amir.

His loyalty costs him dearly – he is subjected to a brutal, physical and sexual assault by the leader of the gang, a vicious sociopath. And this while Amir hides in the shadows, too afraid to stop the attack, and unwilling to risk losing the love and admiration of his father that failure to bring home the winning kite will mean.

The blood

He is riddled with guilt and feelings of unworthiness, contrasted strongly with Hassan’s sacrificial goodness, and in a fit of rage strikes his friend with ripe pomegranates, the crushed, blood-red flesh staining Hassan’s clothes. In an unmistakeable moment, Hassan picks up the fruit to crush it against his own forehead, willingly accepting the punishment that should have fallen on Amir.

Amir’s actions have profound consequences. The depth of his guilt and Hassan’s love eventually lead to Hassan accepting his friend’s false accusation that he is a thief, and he and his father must leave their home and employment out of shame. Ultimately, Hassan’s faithfulness to Amir’s family results in his death many years later.

It is a supreme act of sacrifice, where the Jesus-like figure – a humble, scorned boy – lays down everything for the sake of the friend that has betrayed him.

The Kite Runner is a profoundly moving story, but it was made all the richer for me by the presence of Jesus… in such an unexpected place.

Have you met Jesus in an unexpected place recently? How did it make you feel?

How I found grace in a gooey, chocolatey indulgence

Florentines

June was a difficult month in our household and I didn’t feel able to do any blogging. Somewhere in the middle, I experienced a crushing disappointment.

It wasn’t completely unexpected, and I found myself responding as I usually do to life’s hurts. I withdrew from all but my dearest. I ignored pinging text messages, the telephone and the doorbell. I took time to cry, sleep, think and mooch about. I know from experience that solitude and space help me recover.

But what I hadn’t anticipated was a sweet moment of grace that taught me something new about myself.

In the midst of my sadness, I thought about baking. Seriously.

And this from a woman who in the past could have given lessons in kitchen avoidance techniques.

It wasn’t so much the idea that some extravagant treat would produce a feel-good sugar rush and sweet-coat the bitter pill I had swallowed. It was more that the process itself might have some kind of mind-and-heart soothing effect.

Perhaps I reasoned subconsciously that a concentrated focus would help me forget the ache for a while. Or perhaps I was inspired to create something new and satisfying out of disparate parts, or to bring joy to those who would eat the treats. I really don’t know.

But I trawled through my recipes and settled on Florentines. Despite them being one of my favourite indulgences, I haven’t made them before. So bake I did.

And those mouthfuls of crunchy nut-and-toffee deliciousness, layered with dark chocolate turning more gooey with every mouthful, not only delighted friends and family, but – surprisingly – took me a step closer to my healing. Making them brought a fresh and different rhythm of grace into difficult circumstances.

It is such sweet moments of grace, gifted to us by a loving Father who knows what we need just when we need it, that often sustain us on our journey.

*****

Chocolate Florentines

Here’s the Sainsbury’s recipe I used (it makes about 12). The combination of nuts, toffee and chocolate is difficult to resist (and why would you want to)!

50g unsalted butter

100g light brown soft sugar

1tbsp plain flour

75ml crème fraiche

50g flaked almonds

¼ tsp mixed spice

125g unsalted peanuts & raisins

50g Brazil nuts, roughly chopped

125g dark chocolate, broken into pieces

25g white chocolate, broken into pieces

 

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (fan 160°C). Line two baking trays with baking parchment.

2. Put the butter and brown sugar in a pan and melt over a gentle hear. Stir in the flour and bring to the boil. Stir in the crème fraiche and remove from the heat. Add the almonds, mixed spice, peanuts and raisins, and Brazil nuts, and mix well.

3. Spoon tablespoonfuls of the mixture onto the trays and gently flatten with a spoon. Space them well apart as they will expand as they cook.

4. Bake for 12 – 15 mins until golden. Leave the Florentines on the baking parchment and lift onto a cooling rack. Once cooled, turn them over ready for the melted chocolate.

5. Melt the chocolate in separate bowls in the microwave (on medium, in 30 second bursts; keep checking). Or bring a little water to a simmer in a pan and suspend a heatproof bowl over it (don’t allow the base of the bowl to touch the water). Add the chocolate pieces and stir until smooth and melted.

6. Spread the Florentines’ bases with the melted dark chocolate. Then drizzle over the melted white chocolate in thin lines. Chill to set.

 

If I make them again I’ll probably avoid adding the crème fraiche when the mixture’s boiling, and follow the Hairy Bikers’ instructions to gradually combine it over a medium heat, stirring continuously.

The Florentines really do spread over the baking sheet, making them thin round the edges. Next time I might try spreading the mix into a baking tray, and cutting it into neat squares once it’s cooked and slightly cooled. Another recipe suggested using walnut-sized scoops of the mixture and, once baked, immediately reshaping them into circles using a cookie cutter or knife, before allowing them to cool. Enjoy!

Does your phone benefit or burden you?

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I admit I’m no technology geek. Actually, I’m more backwards at going forwards, but fortunately I have a techie husband who patiently imparts what he can. He gets excited about how technology works and how to manipulate it. I, on the other hand, am what he calls “a user” – I only appreciate what it can do for me.

A few years ago when he offered to pass on his old smart phone to me, I resisted. I was quite happy just making calls and sending messages. Eventually I relented and now, I’m embarrassed to admit, I’m rather hooked. I could sound super-spiritual and say I use it just to aid my Christian walk, but that would be fibbing. It’s become a part of my everyday in so many ways.

I use it to stay connected

If I’m out and need to see who’s replied to an urgent e-mail I sent, I can check and respond. If I’m at the pharmacy waiting for medication, I’ll quickly scan Facebook to see what they’re talking about on the writers’ page I follow. And if I spot a beautiful scene somewhere, I’m able to take a photo and instantly share it with loved ones far away.

If I’m in Tesco, contemplating the fresh rhubarb, I’ll check out the Hairy Bikers’ rhubarb and custard tart recipe online to see what ingredients I need. If I want a friend elsewhere in the world to appreciate my latest concoction, I’ll send her a quick WhatsApp message and pic and we can ‘chat’ while it’s bubbling on the stove.

At night in front of the television I might read the latest news, investigate tomorrow’s weather (I use that ALL the time!), look into a book I’m considering buying online, or type up an idea for a future blog post.

I’ve also used the microphone to record an interview, and recently my tech-savvy sister-in-law used an app to scan and e-mail to me some signed documentation. She wasn’t anywhere near a scanner or computer!

It has a higher purpose too

I enjoy using my phone for its spiritual advantages too. I can download a podcast of a sermon (or ‘preach’ as its called now – when did a verb become a noun?) and listen to it through my headphones while I’m vacuuming. If I’m taking a walk, I’ll sing along to my worship music playlist.

On a long drive, I’m able to play UCB (the digital Christian radio station) through the car’s sound system off an app on my phone. Or I might be at Lifegroup when God reminds me of a Bible verse and I fire up the YouVersion app to locate and reference it.

But I must be the one in control

There’s a darker side to all this immediacy, though. I dislike the way my phone tries to call to me first thing in the morning when my waking thoughts should be of God. When I long to sit in his presence, listen to him and soak up his Word, I find myself being nagged to check my mails, type a to-do list or set a reminder. And as I hear that soft ping telling me a new e-mail has arrived, it’s all I can do to stop myself going to look! (I guess I should turn that function off.)

It can be a battle – one that many of us share I think, and sometimes we may need to take authority over it. Let’s use technology for its benefits, and not be used by it.

Do you use technology to your advantage, or do you sometimes battle its grip?

Hands up, who remembers the drive-in?

drive_in

A picture similar to this was doing the rounds on FB not so long ago, along with the caption: “Like this if you recognise what it is.” Ha, ha! Most kids today couldn’t even begin to guess.

Last week found me reminiscing about the family excursions we used to make to the drive-in [theatre] during my childhood. The conversation about drive-ins was unfamiliar territory for my British friends who had never experienced them.

I guess this way of watching movies was a benefit of growing up in a country with great weather. But it was being together as a family that made it a joy.

Occasionally we went down to play on the swings in front of the giant screen until it was time for the film to start, but usually my brother and I would wait impatiently on the back seat, fidgeting and arguing over something trivial like who had the best view.

If it was a balmy evening we sometimes laid a blanket down on the tarmac, still warm from the day’s sunshine. Our excitement mounted as the sun began to set and Mum pulled out the packed sarmies. “Yum, egg mayonnaise,” I declared. “Yuck!” gagged my brother, preferring the ham. If we were lucky there were homemade scotch eggs too, followed by fruit or biscuits and washed down with milky coffee. And if Dad was feeling magnanimous he would walk us over to the cafeteria where they sold “horrogs”, chips, Coke and other childhood delights.

Only one drive-in movie has stayed with me all these years… Grease. My little-girl imagination was entranced by the music and dancing, along with Olivia Newton-John’s golden curls and dazzling smile.

With the film over it was usually a long wait to get out, with all the cars queuing for the same gate. There were always several smart alecs who left early – before the film had even finished – their headlights spoiling the enjoyment of the rest of us as they tried to miss the rush. The pillows and blankets we’d brought along drew us into happy sleep as Dad safely trekked us home.

Johannesburg’s last drive-in theatre closed its gates in 2012, and I don’t know if the drive-ins in Port Elizabeth, where I was born, are now shut. But the joy-filled memories remain with me.

Do you have happy memories of the drive-in? Or any other family traditions you remember fondly?

I’m only human

A friend sent me a link to this advert for a US company called Liberty Mutual Insurance. It made me laugh!

To the soundtrack of the 1980s song ‘I’m only human’ by The Human League, the voice-over says: “Humans. We mean well. But we’re imperfect creatures living in a beautifully imperfect world.” The advert goes on to show a series of calamities befalling various hapless human beings.

Been there, done that

We probably wouldn’t be laughing if all those accidents had happened to us (and I’ll leave you to guess which one befell my household!). But what makes the ad endearing is our ability to relate.

We’ve all done something stupid (I’ll admit to more than a few!) where we ended up looking foolish and feeling bad, and when we see others blundering and slipping up we recognise our own human frailty. That’s why the ad not only made me laugh but also feel warm inside. I recognised my own shortcomings and mistakes, and didn’t feel alone in them.

The freedom of honesty

Yesterday I read a post about someone’s vision for an ideal church where people can be completely honest about who they are and the struggles they’re going through, with the aim of being healed and transformed.

While we must be careful not to overly dwell on the things we get wrong, there is amazing freedom in acknowledging the truth of our inadequacies. And it reminds us of our dependence on the One who understands our weaknesses and who faced similar challenges.

“So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.” (Hebrews 4:15–16)

 

I find it challenging to be open about my really cringe-worthy disasters and inherent weaknesses. Are you the same, or do you find it liberating to admit to them?

Loving the unlovely – how one woman’s compassion is helping the condemned reclaim their humanity

prison bars

Sam spends his days alone in an 8ft by 10ft cell. His meals are passed to him through the bottom of the door on the end of a long pole. On certain days of the week, he may leave the cell for two hours of exercise in a cage outside. There is no television. Once a month he is allowed a two-hour visit, but no one comes.

Sam has no dad, and his mom turned to prostitution when he was very young. From the age of five he looked after his younger brother and himself. In his teens he learned that drugs helped numb the loneliness and rejection, and he found comfort in the companionship of others like him.

One fateful night, a drug-addled Sam watched as his buddies robbed an all-night shop and murdered the assistant. He was sentenced to death. Today, 15 years later in a high-security prison, he remains on death row.

The door’s thin strip of wire mesh allows him only a sliver of a view of the world outside his cell. The same opening channels in the incessant clamour reverberating around him. His fellow prisoners on the row shout, bang, whistle and sing 24 hours a day. Sometimes the inexhaustible uproar, along with the wait for the execution chamber, pushes his mind to the edge. Fear stalks him.

But there is a glimmer of light in Sam’s otherwise dark life. Each month he receives a letter.

Its content is the stuff of ordinary life… a trip to see the spring daffodils, a meal shared with friends, volunteer work at church. But to Sam it’s a vital connection to the outside world, a reminder of normality, a kindness that helps him regain something of the humanity he once lost.

A life-changing decision

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The letter-writer is Ann Stevens, a warm and openhearted Englishwoman whom I’m privileged to call my friend. In 2000 she overheard a discussion about voluntary pen-friendships with US prisoners and that life-awakening conversation, as she describes it, stirred up her spirit. “I knew that God had work for me to do,” she explains. “I began writing to my first death row prisoner, and a year later when I travelled to the US to see friends, I decided to visit him. That’s when others started asking me to write to them too.”

It developed into Concerning Captives, her self-funded ministry of letters and visits to inmates. She now writes regularly to 53 prisoners in the US and one in Zambia, and makes an annual trip to visit 23 of them.

Condemned to death

Do their crimes upset her? “Yes, the stories are terrible. I do not condone what they’ve done. But they’ve been judged and condemned to death; they don’t need me to condemn them as well.

“A prison guard said to me, ‘These ain’t humans lady, these are animals.’ But I have learned that no one is beyond redemption, and many of them are not the same men (or boys, as some of them were) who committed the crime. I look at the person behind the act, and feel compassion.”

Ann’s faith is the reason she gives so much of herself to the inmates she’s befriended, and she doesn’t hesitate to share her beliefs. Many respond; others don’t feel able to. She has noticed that it is those with a strong faith who cope better with their impending execution.

Human contact

She loves meeting with them and fits in as many visits as she can while in the US. The extensive travelling, followed by three two-hour visits per day as well as trips to some of the prisoners’ families, is physically exhausting and emotionally draining. But for her friends, who experience little human interaction, the visits are priceless.

“I can’t imagine,” says Ann, “how it must feel to never have any human contact at all, other than being manhandled and shackled, of course.” In some cases she has been the first visitor an inmate has had in up to 11 years.

Last year she attended the execution of one of her friends. “It was awful,” recollects Ann. “Those I visited afterwards wanted me to describe exactly what had happened and what it was like. It was very difficult for me.”

Common Ground

But she’s grateful for her sense of humour (which includes a habit of launching into show tunes!) as it not only helps her through the bad days but also builds common ground with the prisoners.

This year she will celebrate her birthday while in the US, and some of her friends have promised to sing to her. Rather than Happy Birthday, it’s likely to be a soulful Luther Vandross song they’ll gift her with. It’s a bizarre scene: a 60-something English lady serenaded by a hardened criminal through a glass cage in a high-security American prison. That’s testimony to the mercy and grace God can bring into even the darkest places.

Far from average

This is not your average Christian woman’s ministry, and in her book Concerning Captives Ann describes the times she wasn’t sure she was up to the calling, asking God if He couldn’t have found her an easier path to follow.

“Sometimes I’ve felt I’m fighting a losing battle trying to make people understand why I love these guys. But the more I have felt God’s approval, the less concerned I’ve been about man’s approval. I really believe that I was born for such a time as this, to reach out and to love the supposedly ‘unlovable’.

“In sharing my heart with people who are said to be heartless, baring my soul to those said to be soulless, and finding priceless treasure in ‘ugly’ vessels, I’m going about my Father’s business.”

“When did we ever see you… in prison and visit you?” the righteous ones will ask Jesus at the final judgement. And he will reply, “When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.”

If you’d like to support Ann’s ministry, you can contact her through her website: http://www.concerningcaptives.com

US Death Row Data

  • There are more than 3 000 prisoners on death row in the US
  • The average amount of time spent on death row is almost 15 years
  • 101 prisoners put to death since 1970 have since been found innocent
  • California has the most death row inmates, followed by Florida and Texas
  • Texas has had the most executions since 1976 (when capital punishment was reintroduced)
  • 35 US states carry the death penalty