9 (or more) things I’m going to do, and would like others to do too

The tipping point is a helpful idea, but in this case I can’t point to one. I’m sure being a (foster) dad to a young girl for a few months has been part of the picture; I’m not aware of a news item pushing me to this point, but there may be one or two sub-consciously in the mix.

This has been a long time coming. My wife and I play to very few traditional gender roles or characteristic stereotypes and archetypes. I have become increasingly aware of rape culture, male privilege and patriarchy; and on a few occasions I’ve deliberately acted to fight against them. I’ve realised, uncomfortably, that as a white British male in the early-21st Century, I’m one of the most privileged people in humanity’s history. I’m also aware that not one iota of this privilege is earned or deserved.

So I’ve taken a decision to do what I can to walk away from it. If you’re a man, I invite you to walk away from it also. Because if girls and women suffer or are held back, then I suffer and am held back. That’s what it means to be a fellow human, also made in the image of God, also part of the body of Christ. There is no such thing as a truly isolated human – especially one who follows Jesus. I’m doing this because I’m a man, a husband, a father, a friend, brother, son, citizen, Christian, minister, blogger, sports-fan, culture-consumer. Many other things, too.

I’m not seeking to start a movement or get publicity. I don’t have a hashtag for this, a website to promote, a t-shirt to sell you or a book deal to anticipate (of course, I can’t promise that none of those things will happen – but I’m not looking for them). I’m doing this because I should, and I want to. I need to, and so do you. I’m doing this in a public forum so that I know I’ve done it and I can’t get out of it. As well as inviting you to join in, I’m inviting you to hold me to this (lovingly), especially if you’re a woman. Do it sneeringly, nastily, self-righteously, or in an attempt to show me that it’s doomed and useless, then I’ll try to ignore you. Do it to help me do it better, then I’ll listen to you and I’ll try to act.

So here’s what I’m going to try and do. There aren’t ten of them because that would just be too comfortable, and it would suggest completion. If you have other suggestions, then please make them.

1. Take responsibility for my own thoughts and actions.

2. Raise my foster daughter to insist that only ‘yes’ means ‘yes’.

3. Raise my foster son to take responsibility for his own thoughts and actions, and to                 teach him that only ‘yes’ means ‘yes’.

4.  Act on the basis that only ‘yes’ means ‘yes’.

5.  Critique and challenge men when I become aware of them acting out of rape culture,            patriarchy and privilege.

6.  Without evading my responsibilities or God’s call, I will step away from an                                 assignment when I know of a woman who could do as good or better a job than me.

7.  Consciously empty myself of privilege when I become aware that I am                                         acting out of it; and to examine myself for signs of acting out of rape culture,                             patriarchy and privilege.

8.  Allow others to point out to me when I may be unaware that I am acting out of                         rape culture, patriarchy and privilege.

9.  Work towards breaking patterns of rape culture, patriarchy and privilege in                               church ministry.

 

Advertisements

Shadow Sides 3: Hagar, used and abused

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

We know that Abraham is a miracle father. He and Sarah are promised children in a seemingly impossible situation, and become parents at an absurdly old age. No wonder the son to whom they eventually give birth is named Isaac; it’s laughable if it’s literal. So laughable that little Hagar, a servant, is called into action. Sarah can’t see how the promise of a child is going to come true, so she suggests to her husband that he sleeps with Hagar to get her pregnant and become a second wife.

That may shock us, but it may perhaps be even more shocking to discover that the Bible doesn’t expressly condemn polygamy. Servants exist to be at the service of others, and Hagar’s life doesn’t appear to get any better; she’s used for her body parts and biological capability. Her body can do what Sarah’s can’t, and so becomes the classic female victim of a patriarchal society, passed from servitude to servitude because of her body.

She becomes pregnant, and then finds herself victimised by the woman whose idea this all was in the first place (Genesis 16:6). Even more unpleasant, God won’t let her run away somewhere safer (16:9). She can’t catch a break.

Or so it seems. This is where things starts to turn, and Hagar starts to get a glimpse of a the bigger picture. She is indeed to have a son. The description given of him in Genesis 16:11-12 doesn’t seem complementary, but the translation may be filtered through some misunderstandings. It speaks of him being the child who will stand out from the crowd, stand up and think and act independently.

In a moment of fleeing, Hagar’s been spotted by God, so she names the place for that truth (16:14). When you’ve been used because of biology, mistreated at the hands of the originator of the plan, being seen is significant. The see-er has seen past the obvious to who you are as a person, and the bigger picture of which you are a part. You are no longer just a womb; you carry within you the father of nations. God’s purpose through Abraham was always to do something for every nation; with Hagar and thus Ishmael in the picture, blessing will flow to what we now call the Arab nations. The conspiring, conniving abuse of the aged Jewish couple becomes the birth of whole nations.

What’s more, she’s the first to know. This won’t become apparent to Abraham (and Sarah) until much later. Isaac is born, as promised, and there’s no longer any need for Hagar and Ishmael – or so it seems to Sarah (Genesis 21). She insists that her husband sends Hagar and her son away; she can’t stand a reminder of abuse and unfaithfulness in her house. Out of sight, out of mind. Guilt encroaches on Abraham’s conscience, and it’s as he realises the extent of what he’s done that God steps in and sets his mind at rest. He may have used and abused a woman, but God will knit that into the birth of nations (21:12). In the economy of God, nothing is wasted.

Hagar is off into the wilderness again, this time sent away rather than running. She is hopeless to the point of death. At which point, the God who sees proves He is also the God who hears (21:17). Not for the last time in the Bible, water flows in the wilderness and hope is restored.

If you’ve been bullied, used, abused (and if you haven’t, then you’ll know someone who has been), then you’ll know how reductive is. You become an outlet for a person’s needs and whims. The book and film Room takes this to unforgettable lengths. A woman is kidnapped, given a life limited to one room – and used for sex whenever the captor wants it. This leads to a child, a son. When escape is eventually effected, the beauty of the boy doesn’t exactly eradicate the pain that’s an inescapable part of the family history, but it does harmonise it into something all together more remarkable. Which is the way of God; He doesn’t wipe evil out. He does something far more difficult, and much more creative – he takes evil, and weaves into the warp and weft of grace. He brings nations from a single cell.

Ever been astonished that someone who’s suffered can offer forgiveness? Ever been floored by the generosity of someone with very little – giving away something that is, in the scheme of things quite small but in reality is everything to the giver? This is grace, the work of God, writ small. God does it on the macro – at the extreme, taking the torture and murder of an Innocent and bringing redemption through it.

Have you been the bully, the abuser, the user? You need to repent. When guilt threatens to overwhelm, listen for the distant harmonies of grace that can be weaved. It doesn’t excuse you, but it does mean that your evil wasn’t the end of the story.

Bullied? Victimised? Used? Abused? It’s not the end. Let the master composer play a tune beyond compare.

Also in this series: 

Moses: frustrated and angry at God’s people

Paul: impure and limited

These posts are based on a series of sermons

I’m angry about International Women’s Day, and you should be too

International Women’s Day (March 8th) really got under my skin this year.

Let me tell you about that, please.

I saw some of my (mostly white) fellow men protesting that it was unfair.

That there isn’t an International Men’s Day (there is). Or that International Men’s Day doesn’t get the same attention.

That some of the posts and work I posted, by other people, about the objectification and mistreatment and injustices that are the daily reality of women everywhere skewed the picture unfairly because men are victims too.

Men do experience injustice. Of course we do. I have experienced injustice. I meet many men who have been or are on the wrong side of the scales. Those injustices need to be addressed.

I suffer from a disease that seems to disproportionately target men, for reasons no one quite understands – and that receives relatively little research next to other conditions. That’s an issue. The epidemic of young/middle-aged male depression and suicide is a health emergency that urgently needs money and attention. In my professional capacity I have dealt with several cases where men are the victims of domestic abuse at the hands of women; its devastatingly painful to watch and needs more attention to solve, to help men report, seek help with. For years I have been involved with work amongst those who are homeless – who are usually male. All these and more are true and important, and are issues at which I continue to work.

But today I find myself staggered that so many white men can’t see our privilege, or that we need to consciously lay down that privilege so that people who are not like us – women, and men of other ethnicities – have more access to what we have always taken for granted. That means saying no to things for which we consider ourselves equally or better qualified – and yes, that may include lucrative jobs or ego boosting speaking opportunities. That means calling out other men on their sexism, their contributions to rape culture, their mindless entitlement to privilege – and allowing other men to call us out on it in ourselves. That means expressing sorrow to women when they experience daily acts of sexism. That means following the example of a Middle Eastern Jewish man who gave up rights and status in order to serve; who sought to alleviate the injustice of others rather than complain when he was on the receiving end; who identified himself, one without sin, with those wracked and ruined by sin; who consciously emptied himself of privilege without complaint or self-validation.

It’s my responsibility as a white male husband, father and church leader to side with the one who called me and actively pursue justice for those who are so often on the wrong side of it. Sometimes I will be on the receiving end of injustice; in those moments I will know that He (and sometimes others) will side with me and somehow come to my aid.

But the world is unjustly balanced in my favour; my voice is easily heard; I am safe most places I go; I have more opportunities and more protection than any other demographic on the planet. I am one of the most privileged people in the history of humanity. In all these ways and more, I am rich – so it is hard for me to enter the kingdom of heaven. My only hope is to serve the Servant, and serve Him in those who have less than me.

Adventures of a mis-firing immune system and why you should shut up about man ‘flu

Adventures of a mis-firing immune system and why you should shut up about man ‘flu

With flu, without a voice

I’ve been absent from blogging for a while because I’ve been ill. As previously recorded, I have an ongoing chronic disease. This particular disease is a product, as I understand it, of a misfiring of my immune system. So to treat that disease, medication must override the part of my immune-system that is misfiring.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll spot a possible problem at this point. Immune systems are important. They protect us. So if you override part of your immune system, it follows that you’re more likely to get sick. So to combat that I take other supplements, boosters and the like. Usually this is enough; I also get an annual ‘flu jab; and in the case of something exceptional like swine ‘flu, I get two innoculations; and anybody who lives in the same house as me gets one too. Not for their sake; for mine. All this carries the label of being ‘immune-compromised’, which sounds like something out of a spy story and possibly quite cool, until you actually experience it.

This is how it plays out. I experience chronic pain from my ‘regular’ disease; I’m also vulnerable to infection in ways other people aren’t. If I’m going to get something like the ‘flu, I will get the ‘flu with a style and intensity beyond the experience of most; and I’ll be left more tired than most for longer than most after the worst of the symptoms have abated because it takes my immune system, such as it is, a while to recover.

About three or so weeks ago now, the ‘flu hit me hard – for the first time in years. I croaked my way through a Sunday service and spent the rest of the day lying on the sofa. I woke up the next morning without a voice; as well as the whole package of ‘flu symptoms. I didn’t think people actually lost their voice until it happened to me. I was unable to speak at all for about 3 days; and it was a real effort for another 4 days or so. I ended up missing two Sundays due to the ‘flu; now I am more or less back in action, though I’m still at reduced capacity due to a pretty much permanent sense of exhaustion.

I bloody hate feeling like this. I’m quite a good patient with my ongoing chronic illness; to be honest, you have to be a good patient and just get on with it as best you can if you’re to have any sort of life. Add a a bonus ‘flu to the package? Not so much. I moaned (sometimes inaudibly, I grant you), I complained, I grumbled and generally moped. At least I got to read and listen to and watch stuff. Still I grumbled, though. I wanted to work, but couldn’t. I still can’t do so; not at full capacity, anyway. Yesterday I slept for two hours in the afternoon; at least my job allows me to shape my time to do that, but still that’s not me. If I ever sleep during the day, it tends to be for 20 minutes; not 120.

Which brings me to man ‘flu. You know what that is. It’s the long-standing, culturally accepted way of rolling out the old cliché that men tend to fake illnesses, or are bad patients, or exaggerate symptoms.

Let me make this very clear. I don’t fake, I don’t exaggerate. If I have a bad day of my regular disease, the level of pain is (I’m told by a female rheumatologist) in excess of childbirth. If I do anything on a bad day, I underplay it so you don’t get sick of me ‘complaining’ about a level of pain most people either never experience or if they do, it’s in exchange for a new life at the end of it. So ‘jokes’ about man ‘flu really, really bother me. They bother me because they load guilt on to me when I have to rest but start to feel an unconscious pressure to get on with life so I don’t look like a fake. It pushes me work (ineffectually) when I should really rest. I don’t fake; I don’t exaggerate. I don’t really know anyone, female or male who does. I know such pressure should be resisted, but when you’re ill your defences are low and your capacity to resist is reduced.

Just be kind, won’t you? Assume the best, not the worst, please. The gap between genders grows moment by moment, assumption by assumption. Be better than that, please. Especially when I’m ill.

Telling a better story: gender discrimination and restitution

Some of you may remember a blog I write a while back to try and get inside the issue of restitution in South Africa. It appeared in a few places and you can read it by clicking here. A couple of weeks ago I gatecrashed a twitter conversation on the issue of restitution in gender discrimination, offering that blog post as an example of how to begin a conversation. That seemed helpful, and resulted in me wondering aloud to one of the people in the conversation if the story could be rewritten to look at the issue of gender. The net result is that I have done so, and you can see the result at Natalie Collins’ God Loves Women, which you can access by clicking here.

That post is neither a last word nor a first word. It’s simply a contribution to help us think. I’ve written it because I think men need to do something about our inherent status of unjust privilege  over and exploitation of women in different spheres. I wrote it because I want to start doing something. A few months ago I was asked to speak on a course; I looked at the line-up of speakers and turned it down, giving my reason that there were too many male speakers and not enough female. I suggested a couple of women I knew who would do a better job than I would have done.

I had real fun doing that. I’ve not done much like that since, and I need to. If you’re a man, so do you. Join me, and let’s tell a better story.

You can read my story about gender privilege here

Of children, idols, suicide and lament.

Very little that is good starts with “I posted something on Facebook…”. Nevertheless that is how I am starting.

A few days ago I posted an article on Facebook. I do that quite a lot. I do so not necessarily because I agree with everything in the article but because on some level I feel that the article expresses something interesting and of importance. In this case the article pretty much hit the nail on the head for me – it was a simple comment piece expressing a dis-ease with the way it can seem to those of us without children that society revolves around the needs of children and their parents. It provoked a (to me) staggering response in the form of 49 comments – comfortably a few times the average of what a post of mine might more normally produce. Many of them were from people who are parents of children, angered or hurt by the article, feeling misunderstood and telling stories of how difficult it is to be a parent. You can read that article by clicking here. It should be noted that it was written by someone who has had her own children. Interestingly after I posted the article  I was privately contacted by a few married people without children and single people who wanted to thank me for raising an issue they were afraid to raise even with their closest friends.

Later in the day I posted an article on the epidemic levels of suicide among men – especially young men – in the UK. It reflects well on how gender stereotypes can have serious consequences, and that our views of masculinity are causing major problems. The result of posting this urgent and important article (which you can read here)? 2 comments.

Now this is unscientific. There could be all manner of reasons for this. I’m not pretending to draw something definitive from those statistics alone. However one of the commenting parents (let’s be honest, she and some of the others did come to start to see something helpful in the article) did ask me to write something expressing what I thought the article on children was trying to get at. So this is me trying to do just that. It’s that contrast in the level of responses that has given me a place from which to start.

I like children. Many of my friends have children whom I am glad am part of my life in their own right. My wife and I do not have children – a fact of our own choosing. This is not because we don’t enjoy children, but because we feel it’s not right for us. It does not mean (as we have been told) that we are selfish, rejecting God’s plan for marriage, that my wife is unfulfilled as a woman, or that I worry about my old age (I don’t know either). As a pastor it does not mean (as I have also been told) that families will not join a church I lead (our Sunday School is growing and I’ve started a monthly all age service). It just means we don’t want children of our own.

In all this time as a married couple without children, and as a church pastor, I have never – ever – been asked by parents of young children how they could make my life easier as someone without children (I don’t mean in terms of not asking their kids who are making a noise to leave the dining room – that they do – but I mean the big stuff of life). I’ve never had a parent in any church ask what they could do to help make church better for those without children.

It is inevitable that a life-event as huge and long-lasting as having children fundamentally changes the way you see everything. I know that – I really do, although many don’t believe me. I’ve walked the road of longing for and then finally having children with friends often enough to see that to be true. I can’t fully get it because I don’t have my own kids, but I get the point. Of course there’s always more that can be done by churches and other groups to help those with children; but to those of us without children it can feel that even the slightest expression of exhaustion or stress at having to sit in a noisy environment with kids around me is selfish. If you don’t have kids you probably don’t have that innate parental ability to tune out loud kid-generated noise; so sometimes I’ve just had to leave a cafe or a church service or a park because I can’t hear myself speak, let alone think.

That’s not enough, though. Because there always more steps to take, more resources to spend, more planning around how to engage kids and families in church and society. Which is fine. As I said, ours is a church which is doing that.

As the article on male suicide pointed out, however, if a new virus was killing in the way suicide is killing men in the UK, we’d see waves of public funding aimed at it. More than that, I suggest, there’d be church programmes to help those affected by this new killer; there’d be theologising; there’d be public debates. The cry would go up … ‘How do we protect our children from this?‘ Family pressure groups would start, charities would fundraise off the back of it.

The point has been made time and again about the prevalence of male suicide and people just don’t seem to get worked up. There’s a sadness … but that’s it. No real action, no pressure, little in the way of money spent or raised. Stick a child’s face on a marketing campaign and watch the donations roll in.

God hates it when blessings become idols, when a precious gift from him becomes a subtle replacement for the energies, the resources, the time we should be pouring at his feet. Which is part of why Abraham got to the point of having his knife hover over the beating chest of his precious son in one of the Bible’s most troubling passages. He needed to prove to himself that his eyes were still on the giver, not the gift. Lest we say that this was barbarous of God, He went one step further and allowed the murder of His own Son, apparently sitting by as nails tore flesh and bone. His son felt abandoned, anguished, sweating blood in anticipation of what was to come.

It’s easy to allow our knowledge of both these stories’ happy endings suck the shock out of them. A parent about to kill his son; another letting his son be killed. We’d never allow that, would we?

Meanwhile, as families plough thousands of pounds, dollars and rands into their children, fervently hoping and praying the sons will grow up into strong, capable fit young men, another 4,000+ men in the UK will kill themselves in the next twelve months.

I don’t know what the solution is, but like all great causes, it will start with lament. Lament for the sons lost at their own hands.

Jesus, Marriage and Christian Submission

It’s all about context, as it so often is. More than context, in fact. It’s about context and the well-meaning, not-the-whole-truth, section titles slipped into our sacred text.

Thus …

Rules For Christian Households.

Wives, submit to your husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife … ” (Ephesians 5:22ff)

It’s that section heading that’s the problem. It’s not what Paul wrote. It was added by someone on the way to the printer. On a horse, probably. It’s meant to help us but too often it controls how we understand the text.

Now that’s not to say that the section heading is intrinsically a bad thing. If you want to find the Parable of The Prodigal Son but can’t remember the reference then it helps to have it in italics at the head of a paragraph. Except, of course, when we come to read it properly. Jesus never gave the parable that title. He just told a story. It’s as much about the (F)father or the elder brother who’d been at home all that time, unaware of the father’s riches that had always been at his disposal. Thus in the case of the parable we don’t so much miss the point as shrink it.

So to submission in marriage, that the husband is the one who calls the shots, is the spiritual leader of the family. That’s how this understood in many Christian circles, especially evangelical ones. I believed it for a little while, because that’s what the text (and other texts) said, right?

Now’s not the time for word studies or extensive theological investigation – others on all sides of the argument have done that much better than I ever could do. Here’s the thing for me, though. The model is Jesus, right? So it says anyway, just the other side of some those pesky and artificial section divides I mentioned earlier. It’s not about marriage first; it’s about Jesus and then it’s about how our relationships can reflect Jesus to others.

The call is to submission out of reverence to Christ … then it’s applied for the original readers in three very particular ways, giving us a way of seeing how this might work in practice. What did Christ, the model and only worthy object of reverence, do? He tossed aside His rights, considered himself nothing, put His Father’s glory and my needs first despite not wanting to drink from the cup. To quote a passage my wife and I had read at our wedding, He:

made himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant   (Philippians 2)

It seems to me that in taking texts like this and saying, this then is how marriage should be in all places at all times – wife submitting to husband – we’re missing the point. For the Ephesians it may not have been missing the point. That was a society whose very stability was built on men in charge, women subservient. So Christ’s people needed to be seen as contributing to society, not messing  it up – but still different, still challenging it and calling society to be better. So the challenge was for husbands to actually love wives and not treat them as property; for wives to seek to bless their husband instead of silently resenting one who treated her like dirt. All sorts of change became possible if people did that.  It was a radical kind of way of blessing society but also challenging it.

Things are different now. Society, it seems to me, does not depend on submission of wife to husband; or certainly not any of the ones that I’ve lived in. So we model ourselves on Christ in a different way. We do so by thinking about Jesus in a slightly different way.

I’m going to talk about Jesus here in a way which may offend you so that you can see what I’m getting at.

We might say that Jesus submitted to us. Not that we tell Him what to do; but that if we understand submission as it should be at its best – one laying aside needs for the sake of another – then that’s what He did. He gave up His right to be honoured and worshipped in order to be whipped and mocked. He gave up His right to be understood as truth in order to be gossiped about and executed on a trumped-up charge. So that we could be with Him. At a wedding feast.

So the challenge is for men, women, all of us. To give up what we consider to be our rights for the sake of the ones we’re in relationship with. Might I think, as a husband, of having a ‘right’ to sex with my wife. I suppose I might do (in the days of social media, I feel duty bound to point out the ‘I’ is not necessarily me, and I said ‘might’ not ‘do’). But what if my wife needs an early night? What if it’s better to talk or watch a movie together? I give up my ‘right’ and do what will build the relationship; not to get sex later in the week but because it’s good for the relationship. Because that’s what Jesus did. He gave up rights for the sake of relationship with Father and us, and in doing so gained greater honour, more worship. This, in marriage, is upholding society but still challenging it – liberating men and women alike, but challenging our all to easy fall-back position of rights with something all-together deeper.

Important point, here. Do not misread this, as this text is often misused, as an injunction to those who are being abused sexually, emotionally or physically to submit to that abuse. No. If you are being abused, get help and get out. That’s not what we’re talking about here.

This is about the give and take at the heart of all healthy relationships. Recast that as submission, and yes – husbands should submit to wives because Jesus submitted His right to honour for the sake of relationships with us  – and in the end gained great honour. In that context, wives submit to husbands – it’s the mutual give and take that makes relationships. It’s not about positional leadership; it’s about making a relationship between two unique creations work.

Apply it to marriage, to parenting, churches, to politics, to workplaces, to sports, to paying taxes, to how you treat shop-workers or waiters or people who sleep outside. How might it look to submit to one another in those relationships out of reverence for the one who made Himself nothing?

Exactly.

That’s why I spell Him with a capital H.