On running, walking, losing weight and receiving grace

On running, walking, losing weight and receiving grace

pexels-photo-1003685.jpegThere are many losses associated with chronic illnesses. I’ve written about this before, so it’s really nothing new. One of them, for me, has been taking part in sport that I love. First is was football – which at one stage I was playing twice a week. When you have a disease like Ankylosing Spondylitis, a contact sport like football really isn’t a great idea; before I was diagnosed I would end every game with what I thought were excruciating shin-splints. I haven’t played any sort of football since then; even kicking a ball too and fro for 10 minutes with my foster son will now leave me in significant pain later in the day and into the next. Then there’s a running. I was never the sort of runner who would take part in races or even run that far in the scheme of things. But I did do it, and I did enjoy it. However eventually the resultant leg and ankle pain became too much and I had to take a pass. Then there’s the gym; which I also quite enjoyed – but the advent of foster children meant we could no longer afford that.

So what to do about exercise? As it turns out, not much. Apart from walking a bit, nothing really. It turns out (who knew?) that a lack of exercise, especially when combined with combatting depression with food, isn’t great for me. You’d have thought I’d have noticed my ballooning waistline, and I kind of did, but I’d been too preoccupied with becoming a parent, dealing with stress at work and in other places to notice. Now that one or two (but by no means all) of those stresses have lessened, the issue has been forced to my attention by a confluence of factors which I can’t really talk about here. When I asked my therapist why I suddenly found myself dealing with this now when it seems like it’s been an issue for a long while, the response was simple; it’s the next thing on your list, and now you can get to it.

As a result, on Saturday morning I found myself awake much earlier than I would otherwise have chosen to be, on the path around a local park with about 900 people, the self-penned refrain of ‘You’re fat, ugly and disgusting and everyone will be laughing at you’ careering round my head. It was my local Park Run. There are 1000s of these round the world and they are, it seems, undeniably a Good Thing in the democratisation of a sport which can seem reserved for Other People. Park Runs are free, community organised 5km runs for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds; there’s probably one not too far from you. For me it was more a Park Waddle – like many, I walked the whole way. I didn’t exactly enjoy it, but neither did I hate it and there was a pleasing variety of dogs along for the ride with their owners.  Sadly, there was none of the post-exercise adrenaline high and mental stimulation that I used to get. What it was, was a welcoming, non-judgemental, relaxed environment – which for at least a morning got the recurring litany in my head to shut up. Maybe that should be enough of a high for now.

I need to go back, to make this regular – and more than once a week. The day I’m writing this is the Wednesday after the Saturday, and I haven’t done much since. I won’t be able to go this Saturday as I have a pre-booked meeting I can’t (and shouldn’t) get out of; but I should be back the week after.

Having lived, and preached, and prayed for many years now I know experientially as well as intellectually that I’m not accepted because of my bank balance or preaching ability or ministry amongst the poor or my health or my looks or my weight or anything else, but simply because of what Jesus has done and says about me. Every time I think I’ve grasped it properly, another layer is peeled off to help me realise I haven’t and I like everyone else am addicted to earning approval and love instead of receiving grace. Here I go again, battling to receive what’s free and desperate to earn what I’ll never properly get.

One of the supposedly little things that makes it harder is that it feels like so many people I know run, and run effortlessly. At least 2 people I know have just completed an Ironman Triathlon. It feels like I can’t move in my social feed without details of someone’s run: a map, distance, time, calories burned etc. You know the drill. If they can, the lie goes, I can. And should.

Maybe I can, maybe I can’t. I want to stick at it; I hope I will. I don’t know if my AS will allow me to run, or if my park run will forever be a park walk. Hopefully it won’t be a waddle for too long. If I lose a little weight, and allow myself to receive grace a little more and strive after acceptance a little less, then it will be worth it.

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Losing Christian Privilege

I blame Jesus. If he hadn’t said that stuff about being blessed when you’re persecuted, then I don’t think we’d be where we are today. St Paul’s not much better, who made a great show of listing all the persecutions and opposition he faced as somehow ‘proving’ something about his ministry. Yep. It’s God’s fault.

When I was training to be a priest (20 years ago), it was often observed at the conservative college at which I trained that Christians in Britain were too lukewarm; they took their faith for granted, were wooly on some important doctrines, too much drawn to liberalism, weak on evangelism and generally a bit of a let down. What was needed, it was sometimes touted, was a good dose of persecution. Some people even prayed it would be so. People actually prayed that the country would change so much that Christianity would be illegal and that people would die for their faith. It seems an odd thing to pray, to say the least, when this is the daily reality of actual people in some parts of the world, but there you have it.

20 years later, it seems a given in some conservative quarters to state that these prayers have been answered. According to some, the recent court decision in London to put an exclusion zone around an abortion clinic to prevent prayer and protests outside is seen as a threat to religious freedom. The BBC, some insist, is blatantly anti-Christian and – worse, in the eyes of those who protest thus – promoting a gay agenda. Here in South Africa, some Christian groups are loudly defending their God-given ‘right’ to physically discipline children; to disallow that, is to threaten the freedom of the church, it is said. In America the religious right have hitched their wagon to the lucrative gun lobby, and assured anyone who’ll listen that the Constitution’s second amendment enshrines a ‘God-given’ right to own assault rifles.

Pointing out facts is, it seems, unpopular. No one’s threatened with serious trouble over graciously and peacefully (and there’s the key words) presenting a ‘pro-life’ perspective; you don’t have to search the BBC website for long to find stories and programmes which show the Christian faith in a positive and realistic light. I could go on, but the point is probably obvious by now – this isn’t an argument about facts. It’s about perception. Christians feel like they’re losing ground; the Bible shows us we’re blessed if we’re persecuted; look – we’re being persecuted!

The reality is that in all 3 of these countries – and many others – that we Christians are losing ground. And that’s OK. For many years, way before the current generation was born, we were living in a ‘Christendom’ reality. This is the idea that Christianity is assumed as deserving of a preferential hearing. Christianity was the privileged religion, and it was treated as such. These were Christian countries, it was assumed. As the world changes, society is globalised and the influences are more diverse. Suddenly, Christianity is no longer assumed to be primary; it is questioned, in many cases found wanting, and certainly no longer deserving of privilege.

Which is as it should be. Be it in post-apartheid South Africa, levelling the playing field between men and women, or giving other religions than Christianity a share of the platform, the loss of unearned privilege can feel like persecution. But it isn’t. It’s just the lop-sided playing field levelling itself. If the Gospel is as winsome and powerful as we think it is, then this should not worry us and we should not protest it. Jesus and the early Christians were not known for protesting their own rights or demanding a privileged hearing; they were rather more focussed on the rights of others – and in Jesus’ case, emptying himself of all he was really, truly entitled to.

In fact, there’s more to say still. The Gospel tells us that we have no rights of our own before God, but he graciously gives us all things in Jesus. He was all about laying down his rights. If the playing field really is levelling to all religions and world-views, then we should welcome it as a chance to be like Jesus and empty ourselves of all unearned and undeserved power and privilege and see a real demonstration of the power of the Gospel to which we claim to adhere. Further, if we really think we have a God-given right to protest outside abortion clinics or to own a gun or to hit our children (3 very different things, of course), then we need to be asking ourselves some serious questions as to how far we’ve drifted from the Bible we claim to hold in such high esteem.

Maybe, in some mysterious way, God has answered those prayers. He hasn’t given us persecution – though, of course, he remains perfectly entitled to do so. He has simply taken away a privilege that was never ours to begin with; it only ever belonged to him. Let’s let him worry about getting the hearing he deserves; our role is to, like Jesus, empty ourselves of power and simply serve him – where we find him. Which will so often be in the form of the people we were previously loudly protesting against.

In praise of snowflakes

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the next generation will be criticised by the generation that immediately precedes them. You heard it from your grandparents most probably – the repeated complained comparison about what it was like ‘when we were young’. How exams were harder, jobs were more scarce, world wars more likely.

The current generation to be on the receiving end of this is the millenial generation. Roughly speaking, these are the people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. The perceived truth is that this a generation that has never had it so easy – technology, healthcare, no conscription, travel, and so much besides, are all more free for them than for their forbears. Thus criticisms come – of a snowflake generation in desperate need of safe spaces, scared of giving offence and easy to offend. You can’t move on Facebook for memes about how easy they have it, and how despairing my generation (Generation X) or the one above (Baby boomers) are. It’s no wonder that they are leaving Facebook in droves or just not signing up for it; it’s not a safe space.

Whether it’s true to say, or whether it’s a perception bought about by social media, it seems that the millenials may be the most criticised generation in history. It would be nice to be able to say that Christians were showing a different way – more encouraging, more kind, more willing to see the good. And I’m sure that some are; but by and large what I see and hear from Christians my age and older is much the same as what I see and hear from those outside the church – complaint and criticism. If it’s little wonder, then, that millenials are leaving Facebook, then it shouldn’t surprise us that they’re also largely absent from our churches. Now this is a complex issue – I’m not suggesting that inter-generational criticism is the only reason that millenials are not in church with us; but it seems to me that it is one of the reasons. Would you want to go to a church if it was full of people who regularly and loudly criticised you or people like you? Of course not; history shows us that where this happens, people leave church and don’t come back – or start their own expression of it.

We all need to be called out on stuff every now and then; we all need wiser heads to come alongside us and help us take a good, long look at ourselves. But we all know that people win the right to do that if they have first spent a good time being with us, knowing us, loving us. You don’t just walk up to someone you’ve never met and tell them they’re weak (at least I hope you don’t … ); no. You build a relationship, you point out what’s good about them – and you do that a lot; then eventually you find you have won the right to say “Have you ever thought about … ?”

I see much that’s good in this generation. This is the generation, after all, that’s willing to walk out of school to protest the right to attend school without the fear of getting shot; this is the generation willing to run with #metoo; this is the generation of Malala Yousafzai, for goodness sake. Of course, there are things to criticise, as there are in every generation. It would be better, though, if people my age and older were more willing to listen, more able to confess their own failings and help those that follow us learn from our own mistakes; it would be wonderful if our churches saw the stirrings of faith and courage coming from the younger end of the spectrum and gave space to them to flower and flame into life; that we were humble enough to learn, slow to speak, quick to listen.

After all, it’s written somewhere that a little child shall lead them.

Proudly No Nation

Proudly No Nation

The Olympics are in danger of helping me forget that 2016 is, fundamentally, rubbish. It’s tempting to think of big sporting events like this as bread and circuses (minus the bread); the ancient Roman tactic of staging magnificent spectacles of blood-sports in the Coliseum to distract from some inconvenient facts of life. Used the wrong way, such events can be just that. Put them in their right place, however, and they can serve an important purpose: a kind of holiday from the depressing full-time difficulties that occupy all of us, that when it’s over may leave a bit of a hole but as a result of which we will find ourselves somewhat refreshed with a bit more lightness in our spirits to help us navigate these dark and troubling times.

There are few absolute goods that are of human creation, however. Big sports events in general and the Olympics in particular can fan the flames of the sort of love for nation and exultation in nationhood that can be hard to resist. When a lifetime’s work – most of it away from the public eye – is rewarded on the big stage, it can feel good to wave or wear or post to social media a flag and enjoy the shared afterglow of one person’s achievement. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the acheivement per se – especially if it inspires us to more unseen commitment to our own goals and callings.

I’m a British person who lives in South Africa. For many years I thought myself proud to be British. I’ve let go of that, however. I’m still proud of some of what British people have and do achieve; over the last week I’ve been freshly staggered, for example, by the almost routine commitment to excellence from the British cycling team. It inspires me, and I believe it deserves to be celebrated and rewarded; I want to learn about it, and apply it my own fields of endeavour. Increasingly, however, I find that I can’t call myself proud to be British. Not when I consider a history of colonialism, a present of racial and economic inequality, and much else besides. I’m not proudly British. 414eztpwzkl-_sy450_

This drive to exhibit national pride easily tips over into hounding good people for not doing what others think they should be doing. Think of American gymnast (and champion from the London Olympics) Gabby Douglas, hounded to the point of tears for not putting her hand over her heart during the playing of the American anthem (read about it here). It starts with criticisms of what this supreme athlete does with her body whilst a piece of music is played; it soon becomes the dog-whistle racism of criticisms of the texture of her hair. In other contexts I’ve lost count of the number of social media posts I’ve seen criticising a South African rugby coach for not being ‘#proudlysouthafrican’ because of his team selection (interestingly, I rarely see that particular criticism made when the coach has white skin). It seems that the message is this: be proud of your nation, and make sure you show that you are in the way I demand – or you’ll be hounded until you change or you’re gone.

This should be especially problematic for us who follow Jesus. When God chooses a nation in the Old Testament, he doesn’t choose it to be ‘great’ in terms of its achievements, victories and international power or fame; He chooses it to be a blessing to other nations. Blessing, in Bible terms, is about speaking well of others (or God) and enabling others to move into the fullness of what they can be, doing and being good towards them. In New Testament terms, Jesus models a use of power and status that empties itself rather than draws attention to itself; that wraps a towel around its waist and washes dirty feet rather than pride in self. We’re invited to take pride in a stigmatised death, a seeming capitulation to power, a use of one’s own power to open life in all its fullness to those who would snuff it out. Jesus, Paul, John, Peter – they all seem to have very little time for the very idea of a nation; let alone taking pride in an accident of birth. The identity and pride of a Jesus follower isn’t Israel or Rome or Britain or South Africa or America; there’s no true greatness in any of those, and there can’t be whilst they consist of sinful people. Identity, pride, greatness for us is in the new creation, in eternity and the way of the cross – suffering, death, sacrifice for others, that leads there.

The flag has no place above, or next to, a cross. We live in the here and now – and that means in a nation, yes. But we die to self that we might live for others; we invite the awareness of the reign of a king who rules over a kingdom that transcends physical borders and breaks down the divisions of race and country and everything else of human construction.

We live under the rule of a servant king, who calls us to serve and love and carry a cross; not wave a flag.

 

The storm is gathering; first, do nothing

2016 is exhausting a lot of people. The trickle of deaths of well-loved celebrities has seemed unchecked; by April social media was already awash with people asking to ‘turn 2016 off and turn it back on again’, or wanting to hibernate until 2017. Dark events stalked the mainstream news as well. In the last 30 days the news has seemed to have become unendingly bleak – or at least potentially world-altering: the Turkey coup, the Brexit vote, shootings of young black people by American police, Bastille Day attacks, Nice, Baghdad, shootings of American police, Oliver Pistorius’ sentencing, the American elections, a week of violence in Germany. Add to the mix ongoing issues in other countries: the famines, droughts, diseases, corruption, poverty. Many feel the world is increasingly dark. It may be so; or maybe we just know more about what’s going on. Either way it, is overwhelming many.

So the plea is for good people to act; for Christians to speak and work and do. We must. History – not to mention God Himself – has a habit of judging the church’s silence and inaction harshly. It’s vital we speak for the oppressed or threatened, act for justice, confront prejudice. All these things and more.

But tired people don’t get much done. If we look closely at what Jesus says we don’t find someone who drives people, who needs to whip up motivation. We find someone who calls, who invites, who beckons. And who travels with people. He invites people to do things, yes; but also to rest, to try on an easy-fitting yoke.The life He invites to is a life of the pendulum swing of rest and work, abiding and bearing fruit. Neither one makes sense without the other. Rest without work is laziness; work without rest is unsustainable. Either rest or work without the other is disobedience to Jesus who calls us and sustains us.

Late last week I experienced a wave of post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by the reports of the shopping mall shooting in Munich. I woke up on Saturday edgy, tense, nervous, sick in the stomach. I had work I had to get done for Sunday and I was on childcare for most of the day. Neither happened very well. I switched off for a while and was fine; took the child out with me and we were together. We got home, the child was over-active, I was still in the grip of PTSD. I was good with the child, but no so much in communication with my wife. The result was a row with my wife that was unresolved at bedtime. I barely slept on Saturday night. I managed the Sunday morning of work just about intact; a good day with family but still sick in my stomach and nervous. My wife and I only managed to speak late on Sunday. We were back in sync. Still, on Monday I woke exhausted and still tense. A day of reflection, prayer, some task-based work and a little family time got me through to bedtime in one piece. It’s only on Tuesday that I’ve felt rested and restored, capable of being who I need to be and doing what I need to do.

We can’t wholly retreat from the world. There is much for Jesus’ people to do. But we do it out of a place of radical rest and restorative recreation. Our invitation is not to find what drives us but to listen for the still, small voice of God’s call in the midst of the storms around us. Then to follow, and to see Him at work and join with Him as He does the heavy lifting. We are not made to be driven people, working out of motivation and compulsion; we are healed people responding to an invitation, identifying our unique call, walking in humility and obedience with the one who strengthens us and through whom we can do all things.

We need to work, to do, to weep over the state of things . But to do that, do nothing first. Be with family, play games, watch a bit of t.v., take in a movie, read, enjoy some good food. Take the dog out. Pray and enjoy silence and good music. Get lost in playing or watching sport. Laugh until you can’t laugh any more. Turn the news off for a bit; refrain from commenting on everything. Ignore some stuff. You can’t feel about everything, be informed about all events, do something about everything. You’re one person. You’re part of Jesus’ body for many reasons – a very important one being that you’re not responsible for everything. He is, and He distributes callings amongst His church as He sees fit.

We are called to act, respond and do. But only if we first rest, trusting and enjoying grace; and then having worked for a time go back to that rest, trust and enjoyment. Rest as re-creation that we might work for the new creation is subversive; it says there’s Someone and Something else; it says there’s a call on me but it’s up to Him not us.

If you belong to Jesus you are not driven and worked. You are called, kept, loved, invited, adored.

There’s much to do. So first, do nothing.

 

Worship in the minor key

What does ‘no more’ mean, really?

I ask because of some lines from a song. It’s a contemporary worship song written by British songwriter and worship leader Matt Redman. You can find the song, ‘Endless Halleujah’, squirrelled away at the end of his album ‘10,000 Reasons’.

I like the album. From someone who’s not always the greatest fan of worship music, that’s high praise. The emphasis of the collection of songs is upbeat, looking forward. It does so with confidence and faith but also a little realism. That’s especially located in the song ‘Never Once’, a song which musically and lyrically must (at least sub-consciously) take some inspiration from English football culture. The singer finds him/herself looking back how far they’ve come, looking at the scars and struggles, conscious of God’s presence along the way.

So it’s in that context I’m intrigued, bought up a little short and slightly confused by that last song on the album. It looks forward to eternity, to a time where there’s no more sin or sorrow and ‘forgotten is the minor key‘.

I understand, and of course concur, with what I think he’s getting at. The new creation, eternity in God’s presence, is hard to describe – but we can say with certainty that it will be an experience of the old order of things passing away.

So on one level I’m signed up to the direction of the song. On another I’m troubled. It’s the presence of that line. I’m no musician, but I love music. I’m not going to get technical (because I can’t); but I do know that major keys only work because minor keys also exist. Can you imagine a whole symphony, album, show in only the major key, with not a single reference or allusion to the minor key, or without its existence for contrast? No. It would be, surely, absurd or exhausting. To look at it another way, fireworks need a clear, dark night sky to shine. One only works because of the existence of the other.

I know this song is dealing in metaphor, but do we really want an eternity where the minor key is forgotten? I’m not sure. When I say ‘not sure’, I mean it in the sense of ‘not sure’; not disagree. Just not sure. I understand that eternity is an experience without sin or negativity or sickness. But are those things forgotten, or are they rather put in their right place? Won’t the songs we sing then be all the more meaningful because of what we’ve gone through? Doesn’t a risen, crowned Jesus still bear nail marks? That implies suffering isn’t forgotten; it’s better than that. It’s transcended and transfigured; we might say (as I have elsewhere) that God seems to be in the business of harmonising on evil as opposed to eradicating it.

I appreciate, though, that God has an inconsistent memory. He never forgets His people; but then He only has to glance from us to the One whose shadow we stand in, and all of a sudden our failure is forgotten, we stand clean in the light and we bear glory not disgrace. Try fitting omniscience alongside that and take a step back as your brain implodes. Never trust anyone who says they’re an expert in theology. How can a finite one possibly be an expert in a discipline that deals with the infinite?

Where are we, then? I can’t escape the idea that the scars will still be there, somehow. We’ll be physically alive, but perfectly so. We’ll be renamed, but very much ourselves. What will that sound like? It will be glorious, yes. It will be celebratory, of course. I can’t help but think, though, that there will be journeys from minor to major and back again. There will be flirtations with dissonance, resolved into previously unheard harmonies.

Try putting that to music.

Shadow Sides 5: Esther and the absence of God

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine.

It’s not that I don’t believe that God does dramatic things; it’s not that I haven’t had times when it feels that God is so close to me I could almost touch Him; it’s not that I believe that God’s closeness to me is dependent on my goodness. It’s just that I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a normative sense of God’s presence in the Christian life. There can be times – maybe illnesses, job losses, money problems, bereavements and the like, when God can seem far off. What do I do when the omnipresent is nowhere to be seen?

If there’s a book in the Bible where God seems absent, it’s the book of Esther. It’s a cracking read, rollicking along at a pace Lee Child would be proud of. The story it tells is one of thunder clouds on an ever-nearing horizon. Men manipulating and mistreating women, acting out of pride and territorial entitlement. Ethnic cleansing not only threatened, but marked indelibly in the diary. Manipulation and scheming. Not only is God not mentioned, not even once; He seems far off from the dark quotidian reality of sex, power and death. If there’s ever a time when one’s going to feel as if God is absent, it’s when you’re in Esther’s shoes. Used by men for sex, she and her people the Jews are facing extinction. There’s no miracles, no prophetic words, no mention of God’s name. Has God left the building?

No. He’s directing events, pushing His people into centre-stage, just where He wants them. Queen Vashti was the original Queen, dismissed by King Xerxes for having a mind of her own and not coming running when he beckoned. Insolence amongst wives across the nation was feared if news of this got out. A weak man dealt with a strong woman by pushing her out of the way. But in Esther another rose to take her place. Esther finds herself, through the misogynist actions of a king, in a place where she has a chance to have his ear and save her people from his threats of death. She’s beautiful inside and out; God doesn’t look at outside appearance, He looks at the heart. It’s Esther’s courageous heart that God uses; but King Xerxes is far from God, so all he’s interested in is Esther’s body. Both her courage and her looks are what we might call ‘natural’ gifts; they’re not the supernatural gifts of prophecy or healing or tongues we sometimes focus on. But they are what enable Esther to win a hearing from the place she gains in the king’s court. All this makes her God’s person in God’s place at God’s time. The most famous verse in the whole book is the one that comes closest to mentioning to God’s name, hinting at His presence behind the scenes:

who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this? (Esther 4:14)

God may not be mentioned by name, but He’s there, asking Esther to act on His behalf. Does God seem absent? Have you stopped uttering His name? Does His action and His guidance seem far away? Trace the story of your life; see how He’s been at work behind the scenes. What are you ‘naturally’ good at? What makes you come alive to do?  What do you often get complimented or thanked for? Who knows, maybe  God has arranged for you to be where you are now, for such a time as this? Maybe you are the bearer of God’s presence for which you yearn so much.

I preached a version of this a couple of days ago, around the time a homophobic terrorist was killing partygoers in a Orlando nightclub. A hate-crime on a frightening scale. This is the worst-case scenario of many gay people, image-bearers of God, around the world. People I know by name are today scared. If it can happen in Orlando, it can happen here. The threat of extinction lies heavy in the air.

For such a time as this?

Also in this series:

Moses: frustrated and angry at God’s people

Paul: impure and limited

Hagar: used and abused

Thomas: the saint who doubted

These posts are based on a series of sermons