Choose Love

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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.”

 

 

 

 

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Love is ….

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Every first Sunday of the month I organise a session called Prayer and Paint, a small group of us meet and contemplate on a piece of scripture or story and respond through some form of creative expression (words, artwork or both), we’re not great artists, we just use that medium as a way of quietly being with each other and God.

Last night we explored “Love”; why not, afterall it’s my own wedding anniversary this week at Valentines day next, so what better excuses (if any were needed). We talked briefly about how CS Lewis in his book Four Loves, describes different types or expressions of love: Storge (Empathic love), Philia (Friendship bonds), Eros (Erotic and romantic love), and Agape (Unconditional love as offered by God).

The world (I mean us by the way – and yes that includes me) gets this whole love thing very mixed up. We confuse it with other emotions, we devalue it and demean by using it to sell things, or gain power and influence over others, we crave it and yet we abuse it. We claim to “love” things that are never worthy of such feelings – we love it would seem everything from ice cream to our nations flag, and yet are often incapable it seems of loving our neighbours (let alone our enemies).* I remember a song I heard when I was young, a song by Burt Bacharach, sung by  Dionne Warwick which said:

What the world needs now is love sweet love,
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.
What the world needs now is love sweet love,
No not just for some but for everyone.

…. at the top of the page is a photo I found today**, and remember:

Love is patient and kind.
Love is not jealous, it does not brag, and it is not proud.
Love is not rude, it is not selfish, and it cannot be made angry easily.
Love does not remember wrongs done against it.
Love is never happy when others do wrong, but it is always happy with the truth.
Love never gives up on people. It never stops trusting, never loses hope, and never quits.

Love will never end. 

 

* Matthew 5.44-44
**NY Times article

Green Wellies and Harvest Feasts

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6685965833_dc8cf987bb_bA few weeks ago I was invited to help lead a YMCA learning hub on the subject of “Disability and Special Needs” -also in attendance was Rev Katie Tupling who offered a timely reminder that in any civil rights cause “Nothing about us, without us, is for us” and she of course is right.

I’m not a person with a disability, and can’t therefore with any legitimacy start to speak of that experience, but I am a Dad (in this case technically ex-foster parent) of a young man who has a diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Moderate to Severe Learning Disabilities (M/SLD). When I speak it’s from this perspective, and with this passion behind it – but my experiences are NOT the same as my sons. I’m not the one who has been kicked, and spat at, not the one who has been called vile and hurtful names, and I’m not the one who has to live it out day after day.

In his case, as with many others, we’ve had to fight and argue (and we still do) for so many of the support services he needs. Even as I write this we have no idea what staff will be around (if any) over Christmas to provide him the support he needs, and whilst that’s irritating to the extreme for us, not knowing the extent of support we’re going to have to provide, because those being paid and contracted to do it won’t or can’t – it’s nothing of the uncertainty and insecurity it causes him. There are some things that we (as parents) have had to deal with that, certainly as a child, he didn’t directly: like when someone had stuck the prayer book pages together to hide the “badly” almost illegible prayer he had written, or the “tuts” we got from some in the early days when he would climb over the pews in his bright green wellies.

But I don’t want this blog piece to just be another set of moans and groans (though believe me it could be) about the negative aspects of dealing with attitudes towards disability, or the difficulties around accessing benefits and support services; instead I wanted to share some good memories from living and working alongside young people with physical and learning disabilities.

One of my Pioneer Ministry roles takes me into local schools, doing assemblies, prayer days, Godly Play sessions and Chaplaincy. One of the local schools I work with is Woolley Wood School, a specialist school for children with special needs. I always say at Woolley Wood that the children there “know how to celebrate” – I can honestly say that I’ve witnessed some of the best Harvest and Christmas celebrations ever there. There is something about how staff, parents and children grasp and live every moment of those times to the fullest. Last years Harvest Festival  in particular, will forever live in my memory. A group of us from the food bank had been invited to the school, we spent time in the classroom, learning new songs and the sign language to go with them, then all of us went into the long wide corridor laid out for lunch like some great feast in the nave of a cathedral. Each class had cooked and brought something to the feast to share with everyone, we sat and we ate and we drank. Then we went outside to dance and play and enjoy each others company, before returning inside for the final act.Once again, we (as guests) were seated at the top end of the corridor and the children seated down the sides, some in wheelchairs, some independently – singing and signing “Love grows stronger when you give it away”. Gradually from the far end of the corridor a small group of children, and adults pulled along a decorated wagon – as it passed each class in turn their harvest offerings were heaped into the wagon, and then each class followed on behind it. For the full length of the corridor it came, piled higher and higher with food for the food bank, and the singing grew, and the laughter and the tears. My few words of prayerful thanks added nothing – all had been said, sung and given already.

 

 

In a Strange Land

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bible-art-Theme-verse-exodus.jpgOn the 23rd June the people of this country made a historic decision to leave the European Union, the political, economic, social, and cultural repercussions of this are still being felt.Immediately after the result, I alongside with many others who had hoped for a Remain victory felt myself in a place of lament, here are the words I wrote the day after the referendum:

A Lament on Leaving

“We must leave” he said, “It will be better if we do.”

But I did not want to leave here,

Here I have enjoyed years of peace,

Here I have made friends, loved my neighbour,

Here is my home.

“Here is not a place for decent folk” he said “We must take back control.”

And so I wake to find myself in another place,

No longer knowing anymore where I am,

Or what path lies ahead.

(24th June 2016 – Nick Waterfield)

 

Since then, we have already been given a new Prime Minister, the Conservative, Labour parties and UKIP are all facing, or have faced, not just elections and challenges around the leadership, but ideological struggles for what their party stands for as we move beyond the immediate aftermath, and now there are even calls for a General Election – the outcomes are by no means certain.

Economically the immediate uncertainties have caused short term problems with the longer term consequences still anyones guess.

Socially and culturally it has unearthed and exposed a wave of open hostility and racism, that many of us sensed had been kept “politely” out of sight, but which now seemingly has gained a new found confidence. It has led to increases in overtly racist attacks and abuse, prompting even our own Methodist Conference to take action and issue a statement of opposition last week.

I voted to Remain – I have friends who voted on both sides of the debate – I understand why some of them voted the way they did. I  understand the desire to feel like it was a shot across the bows of the powerful, how it could ultimately be a way of restoring democratic accountability to our own sovereign Parliament, I can even understand (whilst profoundly disagreeing with the sentiment and most certainly the racism that has fed from it) the concerns that immigration has stretched the nations resources rather than assisting them. I understand, but even so I admit that I have spent much of my time since then feeling like “a stranger in a strange land”.

And as I’ve reflected on this feeling I have contemplated two biblical stories:

First, the destruction of the Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile, and in particular the words of lament from Psalm 137 which have gone round my head time and again in the past few months, but especially since 24th June:

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

(NRSV)

Secondly, and the one I want to focus on here is the escape from Egypt, as we read in the book of Exodus.

I guess many of us know the story from Exodus – the people of God are being held as slaves in captivity in Egypt. Pharaoh refuses to listen when Moses and Aaron ask that he set them free, so Egypt is beset by a series of plagues. The Jews flee from Egypt and escape through the Red Sea (Exodus 14). Finally they are free from the shackles of Egyptian enslavement and the domination of Empire.

BUT it’s then that things get interesting, then that things get complicated, and there I want to start.

It all starts with triumphalism, Miriam (Moses sister) leads the songs of victory, yes they are songs that offer thanks to god for their rescue, yes they are songs of liberation, but they are also songs of death and defeat for the enemy Egypt. “The LORD is a warrior…” (15.3) says the song as it tells of how Pharaohs officers, men chariots and horses were hurled into the sea and drowned, sunk to the depths like a stone. The song continues with a tone of expectant and hopeful conquest:

“The nations will hear and tremble” (15.14)

“The chiefs of Edom will be terrified” (15.15)

“Terror and dread will fall on them.” (15.16)

Celebration of victory always takes place, in war, in politics, in sport, anywhere …. But when we are on the winning side, we need to think about the tone of our triumphalism. John Wesley in his advice on voting concluded by saying …. [Our] “spirits [should not] sharpened against those that voted on the other side.” a sentiment that ultimately rings true whichever side we find ourselves on.

But, back to Exodus. Just some six weeks later (on the 15th day of the second month 16.1) they began their complaining; “In Egypt we had food…” now maybe these divisions were already there, some people no doubt did better out of the Egyptians than others, just like some of our fellow citizens were able to gain advantage from the EU that many others couldn’t. The divisions amongst the Israelites, just like our own, didn’t just appear overnight – they’d been brooding for some time. But here in Exodus we hear that just six weeks after leaving those voices were being heard loud and clear. “In Egypt we had food…”

God responds with love and grace …. (16.4) Manna and Quail are somehow miraculously sent so that the complaints over food are silenced (or quietened) at least for a time.

But still the complaints are there, lurking beneath the surface (dissatisfied voices) but also a distrust and misunderstanding of Gods provision. “Why …” repeat the voices (17.3) “…did you bring us out of Egypt?”

God responds with love and grace …. (17.6) Providing water to come from rock

Next the Israelites are attacked by the Amalekites, but Joshua defeats them in battle and makes his mark as a future leader.

Jethro (A Midian priest and Moses father in law) hears of the escape from Egypt and everything that has happened since, and although impressed, offer his son in law advice on how to govern well (Chapter 18)

Then in chapters 19 and 20 we get the familiar story of Moses on Mount Sinai, with another rebuttal of God  by the Israelites when they fashion themselves a new idol (The Golden Calf  ) but once again;

God responds with love and grace ….. ( 20.1-17 ) The Ten Commandments unpinning the basic truths that the best way to live is through a Love for God, and Love for Each Other, all underpinned by a knowledge that God loves the World.

So where does this leave us today?

I guess it depends on who we see ourselves as in the story. Perhaps – over the coming days I might ask that each of us will find time to sit with this story, read it again, try to immerse ourselves in it. And that we think of it in terms of where we are now in the United Kingdom 2016 – and what we as individual Christians, and as the people of God, the body of Christ are challenged to be and to do in the season ahead.

I wonder who you might feel most like?

Maybe you’re feeling in  triumphal mood like Miriam?

Or maybe you’re amongst those who simply want to go back?

I wonder who (like Jethro) might be the providers of wisdom in these times – remembering that Jethro himself was an “outsider”?

and

I wonder where might we look for the signs of Gods love and grace amongst the, perhaps inevitable. mess and chaos we are experiencing right now?