It’s a Wonderful Life



One of my favorite movies is It’s a Wonderful Life with James Stewart and Donna Reed, it used to be one of regular go to films over the Christmas period, though I admit I’ve not watched it for a couple of years. In it George Bailey (James Stewart) contemplates and attempts suicide only to be rescued by and angel (called Clarence) and friends and family who all rally around him and his family in his time of need. It’s a wonderful, if slightly sentimental, film about thwarted plans and dreams, of second chances and  of love and hope.

Well …. this year our Christmas, whilst maybe not quite as dramatic as George Baileys,  did NOT go according to plan!

In fact at times it felt like the “worst Christmas ever” – let me tell you about it. First, Angela (my wife) was really ill, she’d not felt well for a few weeks but Christmas morning she started vomitting (I know it’s gross but it needed to be said) in fact it was nearly worse as she was almost sick over the unwrapped presents, and almost fainted into the Christmas tree in the main room. Her being ill was bad enough but then trying to deal with one young adult with ASD and learning disabilities, and an eight year old foster child with emotional and behavioural issues kind of compouned it. Too much stress leads to to many raised voices, and ineviable fall outs. By the end of the day Angela was so poorly that we’d contacted the ambulance and been sent off to the emergency doctors to get treatment.

Meanwhile, we tried to return to a degree of Christmas organisation with my announcement that contrary to tradition (and against the vote of no confidence in my ability) I would cook the Christmas dinner. But these things were not meant to be, just as I started to prepare the roast potatoes I realised – the electric cooker was not working! Surely just a fuse I hoped, but no it wasn’t – whatever it was has put the cooker out of action for the day (and in fact into the new year). So I popped some soup in the microwave to make sure hungry mouths were fed whilst I regethered my thoughts.

This is the point were disaster becomes blessing ……

I went to our neighbour, and begged if she might rescue our Christmas by letting us use her oven to cook. Of course was the answer, come back at two and it’ll be already – and it was. Later in the evening when we had to drive out to see the emergency doctor another neighbour looked after the youngest child so we could have a hassle free consultation. On Boxing Day, with Angela still in bed, still sick and me still reeling; another neighbour took the eight year old out for the day with her own daughter allowing me space to care for Angela. At the same time another neighbour, hearing she was ill, turned up with a bunch of red roses and to wish her a speedy recovery. As I reflected upon such genuine neighbourly love and care, I also thought about how fortunate we are in UK to still have a NHS that is free and available 24-7 every day of the year, and that it is staffed by dedicated people who offer that care and support as needed.

As time goes by, and as Angelas recovery becomes more complete – I’m afforded the luxury of thinking still further about the whole experience:

Was the Christmas we’d planned?

Clearly not.

Would I want to repeat it?


Would I do things differently, not get quite as stressed?

Yes I hope so

But in the end, this Christmas has reminded me of the truth behind the Christmas message – the truth that is love, grace and hope – it’s a wonderful life.




Choose Love



There has been much debate and anger in the last few weeks about the above story of a young girl in foster care, it is without doubt that the story as covered in both The Times and the Daily Mail was at best highly inaccurate, and at worst at deliberate distortion of the facts in order to reinforce prejudice about the Islamic faith and Muslims. I don’t want to go over ground already covered here; to talk about photoshopped images, the actual mixed Muslim/Christian heritage of the young girl (AB) at the centre of this case, the complete inaccuracies about the actions of foster carers, instead I want to talk about love.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres”

1 Corinthians. 13.4-7

As well as my “day job” in Pioneer Ministry, I have for the past 10 years plus been a foster carer; I’ve  met and ministered with, and alongside, parents (especially Mums) who have had children removed from their care by social services due to various reasons – I’ve heard and shared their tears, their pain and heartache, their regrets and yes even their anger at the loss they’ve had to face.

In the time we’ve been fostering, we’ve had a number of young people come and go, some have stayed for a long time, and others not. Each comes with their own backstory, their own hurts and issues, sometimes (often) with hurts and issues they do not fully understand themselves and struggle to make sense of. As a foster carer (just like those in the story above) I’m there to provide a number of things; a place of safety, a place where the child or young person can thrive (as best they can) and develop a sense of genuine self worth, a place where they are loved.

But love comes at a cost to all of us. I (and others in my family) have been kicked, punched, and slapped – we been sworn at, spat at, we’ve had things thrown at us, been threatened with knives, seen property deliberately broken, car paintwork scratched and doors and furniture broken. Of course we’ve also had laughs and smiles, holidays where we’ve run through the waves and shared a sense of genuine “freedom” and joy, we’ve seen children grow into young adults and develop their own independence.

Love takes all these things, the ups and downs, the happy and sad, good and bad – it can’t always make things work the way you want, and sometimes it wears you down – completely. You see love isn’t the simple cozy and romantic thing the world often seeks to package and sell it as – love costs.

Jesus knew about the cost of love – it led him to his death and crucifixion, and it’s a choice made by countless others before and since. To love means we make ourselves vulnerable (ironically that’s why so many young people in care find it hard to love and be loved – the cost of that vulnerability feels too high for them – which in turn leaves them truly vulnerable to those whose real intent is abuse not love). But it’s not just them who struggle, sadly other people in sections of our society feel safer hiding from the cost of love. Hiding behind other strong emotions like fear and hate, thinking they can somehow protect themselves in this way, substituting real love, with a false love of things such as money, power, nationhood and even religion. The cost of love is to  be vulnerable, its what the early Christians knew as they were persecuted even to their deaths – but still they chose to love (despite its cost) as to live by fear and hatred was something even worse, or as Martin Luther King Jnr, famously said: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”





Vulnerability & Grace


wp_20160902_09_19_32_proLast week I attended a special evening at St Marks Broomhill to hear the internationally renowned Lutheran Pastor, Nadia Bolz-Webber. It was an inspiring evening, made even better by the presence of many friends and ministry colleagues, come on I even got the latest book signed!

Nadia spoke in a witty, challenging and grace filled way – echoing much of that which she covers in her books. The central message she left me with after over an hour of having my heart “strangely warmed” (I am a Methodist after all) was the beautiful simplicity of the Gospel message, that God loves us and there’s nothing we can do about it other than accept it or deny it. That central message of grace is one we sometimes seem to lose, amongst our own internal church arguments and debates that seem to encompass everything from Gay marriage, to the colours of paint and tiles most appropriate in the new toilet block! Somehow we lose the beautiful simplicity of Gods outrageous love and grace.

Bolz-Webber teaches me to try and understand, and accept, my own flaws (oh yes I have them too) in the same way that she most markedly does, and shares openly. So, for the record: I know at times I lurch into “grumpy old man” mode, I can at times be “tetchy”, in fact I can be outright shouting mad. I sometimes allow my shows of confidence to take on an air of certainty and even boarderline judgementalism and defensiveness, I don’t always listen enough, and am sometimes too keen to offer advice. No doubt my friends and family can pick out other flaws too – but you know what, despite all this I’m still beloved by God. These flaws and frailties are what Nadia Bolz-Webber calls our “jagged edges”. and its in “…the odd, jagged parts of ourselves are what connects us to each other and to God…” says Pastor Nadia.

In the other part of my life, I’m a foster carer. If anyone ever tells you that being a foster carer is a great job don’t believe them (at least not entirely) – sure it’s got it rewards, feeling that you can provide some stability and love into the life of a young person that needs that is a more than worthwhile thing to do, but its also tough. By the time you’ve had your fifth conversation with the school, social worker, or police in a week, believe me it gets a little wearing …. and its then that your jagged edges can show, not to the young person necessarily but to others around you, and even to yourself as you begin to doubt what it is you actually might have to offer, and why your best offer just keeps getting rejected and is nowhere near enough. But as we own and even embrace those flaws  the grace gets chance and can shine through, as the rough jagged edges meet we find Gods path of love. So when my autistic ex-foster son (who has significant learning disabilities as well as his autism) went missing again for hours on Monday night – as we and the other professionals searched arrest sheets, hospital admittance lists, RTA casualties descriptions – and and his phone remained un-contactable, the jagged edges grew again. I was scared, I was angry, I was helpless (one state I absolutely hate to be in). Finally at nearly 3am we make contact – he is safe – and the jagged edges retreat, I am overwhelmed with relief and love and grace. “Glad you’re safe – sleep well son” the only words I can muster.

Each of us is vulnerable in our own ways, Pastor Nadia reminded me that sharing that vulnerability as a minister far from being a weakness can be a wonderful means of grace. As she joked last week about the Methodist doctrine of Christian Perfection “…how’s that all working out for you?” (NBW) it’s a long, long road to travel, and pretending we’ve arrived when we haven’t helps no one really. The truth is God loves us, imperfect, jagged edges and all.