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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Pastors, Priests and other roles

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It seems like I spend a fair amount of time as a Methodist Pioneer actually defining, and describing exactly what it is I am to myself and to others. It seems to be made more complicated to some because of the fact that I am not ordained, and by the fact that I have work and lay roles that often overlap. As a Methodist Local Preacher (lay) I cannot completely divorce from my day job as Pioneer employed and commissioned by the Methodist Circuit, its impossible; and yet the roles are different. The former brings me into contact and demands I minister (in)to “traditional” mainstream church, the latter calling me to move beyond, to those distanced from that space and those traditions.

So what am I? I’m a pioneer, but I’ve been talked about and addressed as: Pastor, Priest, Lay Minister, Father, Reverend and others…. so let’s explore.

The term “Pastor” derives from the Latin for “Shepherd”,  “Priest” has a more complex linguistic background it seems, emerging from Presbyter (Late Latin) meaning “an elder” and / or  from Latin praepositus a “person placed in charge”. Of course the linguistics aren’t the sole arbiter of what we might now imply and understand by these terms today, but they do give us an interesting start point.

Most obviously Pastor resonates with Jesus words to Simon Peter recorded in John 21.16 “…take care of my sheep”. It suggests a role of care, nurture and guidance “[The role of the pastor is] to help people pay attention to God and respond appropriately.” so wrote Eugene Peterson “… [and to] keep the community attentive to God.”  The shepherd also plays a protective role and where necessary sacrificial one (John 10.11) putting the needs of the “flock” above the needs of self. In the mission context in particular perhaps, this latter part can be very real, as people from our little community of volunteers and helpers put themselves into vulnerable positions sometimes with relative strangers; taking food into their homes, drawing close to them in order to in turn minister to (and receive from) them.

I guess priest isn’t a term we use in Methodism with any great regularity, preferring instead the term Minister for those who are ordained. As a pioneer however, I am working both “within” and “outside” the tradition of Methodism, working with, missioning and ministering amongst people not of that tradition, and of no traditions.

“Chaplain” is a term that I sometimes use. indeed I am as part of my role formally recognised as Chaplain in two of our local schools. Traditionally the chaplain role is to be an ecclesial role somehow attached to secular institution. Typically therefore we might encounter chaplains in hospitals, schools, the military etc. However it is an approach to ministry to feels to somehow fit with much of what I am, and the role I play – encountering the secular over the overtly religious, or ecclesial. The Chaplain role is closer to just being – being present, being alongside, being available as a resource, being a friend – but I guess it doesn’t fit the bill entirely in all circumstances.

So if we go back again to those linguistic roots to consider this “priest” role we see again it is one of being “in charge”. Now where I work there’s a bit of a workplace banter around this, one of our community even bought me a giant mug (they understood my addiction to coffee) with the words “THE BOSS” written big on it. Banter yes, because although I try to hold the role very lightly, although I try to encourage and empower others around me – in the end as the person paid by the Circuit to be here, to be responsible – the scary fact (for me) is, I am in charge!

Priest, is in the end understood as a hierarchical term, and that’s probably for me as good a reason as any to steer clear of using it, but at the same time it would be completely wrong of me to deny I have power, I do – and an authority to exercise it within the bounds given to me by the wider Methodist Church. As all Spiderman and Stan Lee fans know “with great power there must also come great responsibility” and the denial of oneself holding any power is not being in least bit responsible. Each of us has power in different situations, and each of us has to decide how we choose to exercise that power – hierarchical power and authority however brings its own issues and complexities.

And so as I undertook my first baptism this Sunday of the beautiful Rebekah Ann, her young life full of hopes and possibilities; and as the parents, godparents, and church were each asked in turn to make our promises and commitments – I felt myself as both priest and pastor. In charge of the occasion, responsible for dutifully and humbly serving  God and the Church through this particular sacrament, and also aware of the part I was playing in helping each one of us there to be attentive to God and the grace that is conferred upon us all.

My “Grubby Jesus”

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img_2714This painting is by Chris Duffet, a fellow pioneer who I met at Breakout Conference last year, it is a piece of art work that he has now worked and reworked in his Pioneer Ministry a number of times. It is a piece of art that when I saw it spoke immediately to me and reminded me of one of my own encounters with Jesus.

I wouldn’t by any means call myself a Christian “mystic”, I’ve got far more reflective friends and colleagues who are nearer that mark, and who remind me, by their very different way of being, that my activism sometimes leaves me with little time to encounter God in this particular way (and maybe that is my loss), but there are, and have been times, when I have encountered what might be called the “mystical”.

The first of these was on my return to faith, after around 30 years of disbelief and atheism. The memory fades over time and seems slightly “less tangible” but it is important to remind myself from time to time. I remember going to bed arguing with a God I didn’t acknowledge (wrestling almost like Jacob: Genesis 32.24-32) saying that I didn’t really believe but IF there was God in the universe, I needed to know, I needed a sense of it. I remember sleeping on and off that night, I remember crying, I remember a brightness and a feeling of being wrapped in a kind of soft cotton wool feeling that I can’t describe, and I remember in the morning waking and knowing I was different, and knowing I had encountered God.

But Chris’ painting reminded me not of that but of a more recent encounter. At the beginning of 2015 I was afflicted with kidney stones (an experience I don’t want to repeat, but one that is commonly repeated once experienced). It finally led to me hospitalised with a severe kidney infection on Thursday evening of Easter Holy Week. For those reading this who want “another” explanation let me say: I know I was ill and had a severe infection, I know I was significant doses of prescribed drugs (including morphine), I know it was Easter and so my mind was set to that mode – but none of these things to me preclude an encounter with the mystical elements of my faith.

It was in the early hours of Easter Sunday morning, I was again dozing in and out of conciousness and remember hearing a doctors voice talking in the next set of beds to a very distressed old lady. His calmness, gentleness and compassion were balanced by his authority and command of the situation, he was going to bring healing to her, but first she needed to feel safe. I drifted off again and at some point I remember seeing stood before me my “Grubby Jesus”. I say grubby because he was, he appeared olive skinned but also with a grubbiness that comes from perhaps being on the streets for a long time without good access access to soap and a shower, and he wore a “coat” that again was not dirty as such but that had certainly seen its share of wear and tear.  It was a Jesus who had worked and laboured, who had sat by dirty roads, and in doorways with those living on the streets, a Jesus who was at home with the poor and vulnerable. His face was unknown to me and yet immediately I “knew” and recognised it as Jesus, at that point he held out his hands (as in Chris’ painting) and I heard him say the words “Do you trust me?”, yes I answered – he nodded and vanished. Once again I was left with a strange, unworldly, feeling of peace and happiness that overwhelmed me for some minutes.

I know there are folk who will explain this in completely  “scientific” and “earthly” terms, and put it down to my condition at the time, the drugs, the conversations I’d overheard, my own religious Easter baggage that my mind had brought; and I accept all these things. I also KNOW what I experienced. I know the feeling I experienced, beyond the vision and the words, I know my own reality of the encounter with my “Grubby Jesus”.

And what of my “Grubby Jesus” in the real world, as we call it? Well I suppose I still catch glimpses of him, amongst the people who come for help at the food bank, amongst my friends with learning disabilities and mental health problems, in the community garden and on the allotments, and on the streets of where I live and work. He doesn’t always look the same, but when he catches my eye I recognise him and remember.

Chris Duffets blog can be found at: https://chrisduffett.com/2016/06/16/hands-hands-and-more-hands/