Why we’re foster parents: it’s not about us

In December last year – around 4 months ago now – my wife Bev and I became foster parents. Within a short period we went from being a family of two adults and two dogs to two adults, two dogs and two children. The children came to us around the same time, but are biologically unrelated. It was the culmination of a long process of thinking, discussing and praying which I chronicled previously in this blog (links at the end of this post).

It’s an exhausting, exhilarating, life-enhancing, sleep-depriving, money-hoovering, faith-stretching, relationship-testing endeavour. Around the time we began to foster, some kind souls were praying with and for me in the context of a work meeting. One lovely person, in the course of his prayer, said something along the lines of “We thank you, God, for this expression in Dave and Bev of the desire to be parents.”

That sentence stayed with me, in a good way. I have a deep respect for the person who prayed it; he’s an intelligent, thoughtful and kind man. I’ve hardly had a spare moment since that prayer was prayed so couldn’t really give much attention to why the sentence had struck me so deeply. Until last week, when a brutal bout of tonsillitis forced me into bed for a few days; when I wasn’t asleep or watching TV, I could just think. In thinking about that prayed sentence, I began to realise why it had struck me so deeply. In saying what I’m about to say, let me make clear that I’m not criticising at all the dear man who prayed that prayer. There’s no reason for him to know my deepest motivations and drivers. And I’m only speaking for myself (and my wife, Bev); I hold no expectation that the same should be true for others.

The truth is that my wife and I have never really wanted to have children. We never desired to be parents. We have never felt a biological or emotional or spiritual urge to give birth. As far as we can tell, doing this is meeting no need in us. Don’t get me wrong: we love doing it. It brings us great joy; our lives are immeasurably enhanced. We are richer people for having these two children in our care, and we love them deeply. It’s a beautiful thing when one of them leaps into our arms for a cuddle or plays a game with us. But for us, that’s not the goal. All of those things; they’re grace given freely and abundantly by God, to us, through these two beautiful divine image-bearers.

So why do we do it? Because God does it for me, for Bev and for everyone who’ll notice and acknowledge. Though my wife and I, and you, are naturally different and cut off from God, He still makes an active, personal, focussed decision to love us and welcome us into His family. It has cost Him much to enable that to happen; we are welcomed into His bloodline at the expense of that blood itself.

So if God has done this for me, then it’s incumbent on me to do all within my power and ability to help other people realise it. So in our own broken, imperfect, faltering ways, in welcoming two children not of our blood; in making an active, personal, focussed decision to love them, we are saying to them and to others – see this? This is but the palest, limpest, most feeble hint of what God has done for me and for you.

We’ve done it also to militate against our hypocrisy. Bev and I speak, pray and preach a lot about the Christian imperative to justice, to ministry amongst the poor, to serving those with less and opening our homes to people whose homes are gone or broken. Fostering brings those we might label as ‘poor’ out of the charity projects, off the streets and the distant estates and into our home, around our dinner table and gives them almost unfettered access to our bank accounts. I am forced, now, to walk what I talk 24 hours a day.

A final reason, linked to these other two. If these two are true, then it’s our belief  – our conviction – that fostering and adoption should be a more central opportunity for Christians. We believe that it should, for many, be a first option not a fall-back. We believe it may just be one of the key invitations to the church of this era. We’ve been deeply challenged to see people we know – single and married – foster and adopt. My wife was herself adopted, and she knows that through that she was bought to a safe childhood and to life in Christ. So we’d be failing hypocrites if we didn’t at least do the same ourselves.

That, then, is why we foster. We are blessed and privileged to do so. That’s all grace, though. We do it not for the benefits, not out of our own desire; but simply because we can and we believe God would have us do so, as He has done for us.

The story can be found in these posts:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

 

On Holy Week, anger, and terrorists

A few months after my friend was murdered by terrorists in a Kenyan shopping mall, I was watching TV. It was Homeland, the thriller series where the lines between good and bad are blurred and the plot is only marginally unbelievable. There came a moment in the episode I found myself relaxing with that one evening where a character has a lead on a likely opportunity to kill a terrorist who was in the early stages of planning an atrocity. He pulls up alongside the terrorist’s car on his motorbike, ready to bomb the vehicle the terrorist rides in. As he does so, he becomes aware of a problem, someone in the terrorist’s car who is not supposed to be there. A child. He rides alongside the car for a while, caught in a terrible moment of indecision. Eventually he rides away, the opportunity untaken, conscience only temporarily salved.

Pre-Westgate, I would have been where most viewers would have been in that sequence – feeling the anguish, aware of the wrestle with conscience, willing him not to kill the child. But this was a new reality I was now in, one where for one week the headlines had been about my friend. There was no conscious mental process. Just this strong, distasteful feeling: take the shot. Risk the child’s life for the sake of those who will be killed. Kill the bastard. I was angry – at the terrorists for what they had done and the way it had changed me, at myself for stooping to their level, at the world for being so unredeemed. I remembered how I had felt, what I said in the aftermath of my friend’s murder: just give a few minutes alone with one of the perpetrators tied to a chair. It won’t take long.

My anger’s intensity has relented in the months since, but the wrestles of conscience don’t go away. The cinema release of Eye In The Sky presented me with an opportunity to see how, or if, I’ve changed. It tells the story of the hunt for members of Al-Shabaab (the group that murdered my friend). They are tracked by drone to a single house – the order to capture them is about to be given when it becomes apparent that they are preparing suicide vests for an imminent attack. The priority moves from capture to kill; the order to release the missile that will save innocent lives is on the brink of completion when a child sets up to sell bread outside the house in question. She will likely be killed if the missile is fired. The rest of the film is the moral, military and political dilemmas being wrestled with, passed up chains of command inside darkened rooms around the globe, all the while the clock ticking down to massive civilian loss of life. Actually, that depersonalises it. Yes, the clock was ticking – to the murder of my friend, all over again.

The film articulates most of the related dilemmas with which I have wrestled since my friend’s death. It justice to most of them, if not ever really articulating as it needs to the political complexities involved. It is a failing  – though not a significant one – that we never really grasp the geopolitical backdrop that brings countries to these awful choices. It’s economically directed, the lack of violence ratcheting up the tension to levels where you long for some sort of release. The performances are fine  – this an ensemble piece, rather than a star vehicle. Helen Mirren does fairly well despite being miscast; I’d like to have seen more of the brilliant Aaron Paul as the soldier with his finger on the button, Barkhad Abdi is consummate, and every line Alan Rickman delivers makes us ache that at what we’ve lost with his death.

The film offers no answers, no conclusions. Every option is flawed, every character compromised, every view has a valid alternative. The film asks all the questions I have … and leaves them hanging in a Kenyan dustbowl, strewn with rubble and human remains. As a leader I empathise with the personal cost of taking decisions most have no understanding of; thanks to some nameless men and women with guns I now have skin in terrorism game, complicating to previously unimagined levels a decision I’ll never have to take. Some justice systems give – for good reason – the guilty and the judge the opportunity to hear the affect the crime has had on victims and those close to them. I understand that; but now I’ve been as close to violent crime as this, I also understand why such revelations should never be the only factor in sentencing the guilty. I, for one, would be too angry to be just.

I am not by nature an angry or a violent person; though I do have a knack for breaking up violent confrontations. I’ve only ever been properly hit once – by a fan of the same football team I support, in an ironic case of mistaken identity. So it’s strange to find myself intimately involved in the moral quagmire of violence. All I’ve come to know is that my cosy neo-pacifist principles no longer sit so easily or safely  – I think I still hold them, but I hold them with alarming looseness.

I watched the film on Palm Sunday evening, the first day of Holy Week; an inexorable journey towards an act of horrific, prolonged, violent innocent suffering. That knowledge adds to the mix that mine is a Jesus who knows what it’s like to be on the end of both unrighteous anger – his murderers’ – and righteous (the anger of His Father which he took the consequences of that day). He didn’t deserve that latter anger, but He took it anyway. It says to me that, along with some alarmingly violent expressions of anger in the Psalms – there is a place for this emotion which is often the least acceptable to church subcultures. It says that innocent suffering is right at the heart of what I have given my life to; it is identified with and wept over, its cost and consequences eternally felt.

On its own, the film left me in anger – and to an extent, that’s OK. It also made me fear that maybe the terrorists win even when we capture of kill them – they’ve reduced us in some way, whether in mind or deed, to their level, even for a moment. But then Holy Week, with its complexities and denials and political blame-shifting and violence and resurrection come along. I don’t understand it any more than I used – probably less so, in fact. But the week gives me a glimpse of when this will end, and that Someone at least understands. And that, for now, is just about enough.

I rated this movie 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

What’s in a name?

bev-meldrum-1

 San Francisco Holocaust Monument, Bev Meldrum Photography

 

Names are often significant in the Bible. Think David (beloved of God) or Isaac (he laughs). One has struck me recently: Lazarus. There are two men named Lazarus in the Gospels. The name means ‘God has helped’. This seems odd to me. You could look at the oddness of this name from the point of view of both the two men named Lazarus whom we meet in the Gospels.

The first of these is the one raised from the dead by Jesus. We know how this story ends (spoiler alert: I told you in the previous sentence), so it seems to us readers fairly obvious as to why his name is so suitable. Much is obvious if you know the end of the story. We don’t know much about Lazarus before his (first) death; but it’s fair to assume that after his recall from his own funeral procession he gained a whole new perspective on the appropriateness of his name. It may have previously come to his mind when he was looking for a place to park his donkey in rush hour, but soon that would grow faint by comparison.

This isn’t the Lazarus who concerns me, though. It’s the other one – the one who doesn’t exist. Well, he does exist, of course; but in a symbolic sense as opposed to a literal one. He appears in a strange parable at the end of Luke Chapter 16; a poor man who is carried daily to the outside of a rich man’s home to beg for whatever he can get. He’s in such a state that dogs would come and lick his sores. This is the one God has helped? Really?

We know how this story ends too. He goes to heaven; the rich man to hell. So we know that from an eternal perspective that God has indeed helped him. He just won’t see it until his death. We mustn’t rush to that, however. If we do we’re in danger of the terrible error of saying ‘well the poor will be alright in eternity, so let’s not worry about them now’. That would be to miss the point of the parable, and we don’t want that, do we now?

Parables are not one-for-one correlation stories. We can’t say x in the story equals the wider truth of y in every instance. With that in mind, we should also beware that we don’t miss what the parable might be trying to say to us. It’s here that Lazarus’ name becomes important. In this parable, Lazarus is important because he has a name. Abraham and Moses are both referred to by name. In a Jewish story you’d expect that. The rich man is named … well, we don’t know. He doesn’t get a name. He’s just ‘the rich man’. Lazarus – he of the dog-licking and begging – is named as one whom God helps. The rich man  – outside whose house Lazarus daily begs, just the other side of the wall and security spikes, just in view of the CCTV – has no name. He is anonymous.

Names matter. When we get to know someone we start with a name; couples who have a stillborn baby are strongly advised to give their child a name for very good reasons; a soft-drinks company has made a marketing splash by putting names on their cans for people to buy until they find one bearing their own title. Yes, names matter. Why this, then? Why no name for the rich man?

It’s part of God’s great reversal of all things. The world honours the rich and successful; we know their names well. The one sleeping under a blanket in the doorway. He’s ‘homeless’. Not ‘the one God has helped’ or ‘beloved of God’; just ‘homeless’, ‘poor’, ‘dirty’, ‘smelly’, ‘beggar’. God’s kingdom reverses this; the unnoticed, non-achieving dependants are named; the succesful and feted rich are irrelevant.

We know how this story ends, so it’s OK. We know this isn’t really about rich and poor, it’s about knowing Jesus and being known by Him? Right?

Maybe. Maybe not. It’s definitely about being known by Jesus. He knows who is living truly in the kingdom of God and who isn’t.

This is a parable that too often I keep at arm’s length, keeping away the uncomfortable truth that too often I am the unnamed one rather than the named one I prefer to see myself as.

Am I sure about that?

Try these name-cancelling labels. Which do you use?

Liberal, conservative, gay, straight, black, white, man, woman, young, old, middle-aged, happy, sad, able, disabled, sick, well, happy, sad, depressed, normal, bigot, Jew, Moslem, Christian, atheist, adult, child, teenager, abuser, abused, bully, victim.

Recently someone I’ve known for years told me of his plans to marry the man he loves. It took him years to decide I was safe enough to tell. That’s down to how people who wear labels like ‘evangelical’, ‘Christian’ or ‘church’ are seen and how we act and speak. Years to feel safe. He has a name, but I can’t use it here for he must remain safe.

 

On being a pharisee for justice

Bev a few minutes after breaking her wrist

It’s been a rubbish 6 weeks. We live in a country that’s not the one of our birth, nor indeed the one in which we’ve lived the marjoity of the majority of our lives. So doing what I do (leading a church), in a foreign context rife with material and social need is a draining experience. Unsurprisingly we often find ourselves looking forward to our holidays. A recent trip back to the UK was going pretty well from that point of view until my wife was walking down the street and got distracted by a fire engine. She stumbled on the pavement, and fell forwards. She instinctively put her arms out to break her fall. Instinct can save us, or it can break us. It broke Bev. Her full, gravitationally assisted body-weight plus the mass of a full backpack was channeled through her wrists, leaving her in agony. The result was a broken and dislocated right wrist.

This led to our stay in the UK being extended by a week so she could have an operation. There were good sides to this – extended time with people we love – but it was stressful, painful and inconvenienced us a great deal . In my case it meant that I had to do a great deal many many more things – if one arm is completely out of use, the other half of the partnership has to help out. At least is was her right-hand; imagine if it had been her dominant left hand…

We’d been back a week or so when our two dogs got into a squabble with each other over some food. Bev attempted to reach for their collars to pull them apart, but she was off-balance due to her arm in plaster. The result was that her left hand missed the collar and found a way between the jaws of one of the dogs, which managed to bite all the way through one of the bones on her middle finger. Another stay in hospital, another operation, another hand out of action. More pain, more inconvenience.

Bev, a couple of hours after having her finger bitten

Life went from hard to very ******* hard. We are both tired and stressed, seemingly all the time. There’s always something to be done, something to be helped with. At some point in all this – I can’t quite remember when – I found myself, somewhat incongruously, thinking ‘I’m really looking forward to the World Cup’.  Now I always look forward to the World Cup; I always really enjoy it. Something about the way I was anticipating it seemed a little odd, though; until the insight dawned that it was because the tournament represented something purely fun, for which I didn’t have to take any responsibility. I could anticipate it with no sense of ‘I’ll have to do this’; yes, I could watch games with others if I wanted to; or by myself. That was the extent of the decisions facing me. The World Cup just represented simple fun.

The World Cup is taking place in Brazil. Ordinarily, in a situation like this, I’d be all over the social justice issues around this  – the public money spent on stadia and other preparations in a country of such poverty; the abusive, controlling approach of overseers FIFA and so on. It’s all entertainingly and intelligently summed up here:

This time, though, whilst I have done some reading and thinking on these things, I haven’t bought the same passion or activism to it. This time, I’m just too tired, too stressed, too in need of some fun. Anyway, I think to myself, enjoying the sport and protesting the pain are not mutually exclusive. Which meant I’ve had to bite my social media tongue at the well-meant but wearying injunctions to ignore the sport and feel the pain. I can’t. Others can, but this time I just can’t. In doing so, I’ve recognised something.

That something is this: that it’s easy to be right in the wrong way. Among other things I’m experiencing a kind of compassion fatigue. I recognised much of myself in an article you can read by clicking here. I am worn out, by everything from the every day need around me to the unique needs I’ve found myself up against over recent months: my wife reduced to half an operational hand out of two, a friend murdered by terrorists, living with my own chronic illnesses. It’s hard to give out more. My capacity is reduced. This has opened my eyes to how easy it can be to use the right thing in the wrong way, to use guilt as a shortcut to motivation. A motivation which will inevitably die out. Do you have enough friends of different ethnicities? Do you shop ethically? Think what happens to the planet because of the car you drive! Do you really know people in poverty? What about the daily atrocities in places of which you’ve never heard?

On it could go. We all do it. Guilt for change. Pharisees for justice.

We need the angry. Sometimes we need to be shocked out of complacency; often we need to be uncomfortable. Never at the expense of grace, though. God knows we can’t get it all right all the time. He doesn’t expect us to. He does expect us to have soft hearts, hands calloused from service, minds busied with seeking the third way. He knows better than you and me , however, that we’re irredeemably tainted by sin and injustice; so those of us born with such need grace, not condemnation. The former will leave us freer to act; the latter will end up dragging us down into inaction and exhaustion.

I, you, we need grace. We need some slack.  Let’s beware of becoming social justice pharisees, those who trade guilt for activism. Sometimes it’s OK to just enjoy, the better to gain the energy we need to actually do something.

Kettle boiling, TV on, happy days.

TV ready…

Preview magazines ready…

Wall-chart ready…

Welcoming the mysterious ‘they’ and the undeserving lowlifes. Like me.

This may or may not come as news to you, but between the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the wisdom of St Paul, it turns out that the Bible is right. Paul is often at pains to point out that salvation – relationship with God through Jesus – is not something we earn, but something we’re given precisely because we don’t deserve it and we’ve admitted as such to God.

On the face of it this is deeply offensive to everybody, apart from really evil people like mass murderers and the people who stick chewing gum on the underside of desks. We’re not worth it, but God loves us anyway and makes us worth it by what He does in Jesus. It’s mind-bogglingly offensive to my sense of my own goodness and worthiness. If we lose the offence of this, then we’ve missed something crucial about the gospel.

There’s a great worship song that manages to unpack some of this. Ignore the tune if you’re not into folk music – it can be translated into something very different on the piano – what this does really well is talk about the offensive welcome of God. It’s the sort of worship song that’s really comforting until you start to pay attention to all the words: God welcomes anyone who’ll come. That includes me, and people I may like – debaters who’ll disagree with me and still allow me my own view and materialists with season tickets to the football who just happen to lend them to the vicar; and people I may not like. The most potentially inflammatory of these in the song are people of ‘every orientation’ or perhaps ‘abusers’. We’re all comfortable with welcoming the abused; churches do that, right? We have prayer ministry and inner healing courses for that. Every church like to welcome the abused. But the perpetrators? If I haven’t stopped to consider that even ‘they’ (whoever my particular ‘they’ might be) will be welcomed by God and redefined by Him if not by me, then I haven’t got a big enough picture of God or His gospel. God is less concerned about His reputation than I am.

Which leads me to giving money to people who beg. All of us who don’t live outside have probably wrestled with this in some form. If someone who is probably homeless is asking for money, what do I do? Should I give indiscriminately? What if ‘they’ spend it on drugs or alcohol or something else ‘they’ are addicted to? How do I know ‘they’ won’t squander it?

Notice how quickly the nameless ‘they’ creep into our discussions. When I’ve led groups in consideration of this question, I’ve often tried to change the terms of the discussion. Let’s imagine a person with a name. Give him or her a history, a path to this point in time. Give her a passion. Give him a sports team to love. Give him a life’s path from this point on. Usually the life’s path leads to a premature death of some kind. What follows is often an uncomfortable silence, and a re-imagining of the conversations around money. For some it no longer matters what the person may do with money handed over or help given; what matters, suddenly, is how that person has been treated in the interaction.

There are many people in our area who live outside. I don’t know many of them. One or two I know well. Ricardo is one of those.

He’s a bright, witty man with a winning smile. He lives on the streets. After a year or so of us getting to know each other, he asked if he could sit down with me and my wife and just tell us his story because ‘I’ve never told anyone before’. So he came round one night for a bowl of pasta and talked for hours about the story of his life. He still lives on the streets, but now he assists my wife on her photography jobs and sometimes he drives our car. Apparently this is shocking to some; I’m not trying to make us out to be something special. Really I’m not – it’s only shocking to me if he’s one of ‘them’. He’s not. He’s my friend Ricardo. He’s going to come round and watch a movie soon, because that’s what I do with friends who have names.

Does he deserve it? No. Might he go ‘off the rails’ at some point and take advantage of us? Possibly. Am I just encouraging him to stay on the streets? Perhaps.

Have I ever spent money on something I shouldn’t have?  Have I ever done things I shouldn’t have or taken bad decisions? Have I ever taken advantage of the kindness and goodness of other? Next question, please.

Did I deserve someone whose name I didn’t know to die for me? I suppose I should probably stop hedging and start answering. No, I didn’t. Might I go ‘off the rails’ at some point and take advantage of that? Yes I do, often. But you’re in no place to judge; you’ve departed the rails on occasion yourself. Does that grace just encourage me to sin all the more? Sometimes, yes. If you’re honest, you do too.

Does any of that change God’s welcome of you?

 

A lament

They say lament is good for the soul. Certainly it helps to get it out in the light, remove the mystery and drag the darkness into the brilliant glare of the one who names the moon. So.

I lament.

I lament that the church is not as it should be.

I lament that money, sex and power are tools in a power game.

I lament that children suffer as a result.

I lament that progressives blame conservatives.

I lament that conservatives blames progressives.

I lament my rush to judge.

I lament my lack of joy.

I lament that we speak at more than we listen to each other.

I lament that we speak at more than we listen to the world.

I lament that we speak at more than we listen to God.

I lament young people are committing suicide instead of coming out as gay in evangelical churches.

I lament that these churches campaign against same-sex marriage whilst the children do so.

I lament men and women in the church are defining each other by the genders of the people they like to have sex with.

I lament that I am so afraid to take a stand.

I lament that we’d crucify him all over again.

I lament that Lent is a time to give up media or food or drink not focus on the soul’s call.

I lament that theology is packaged as the type of music used in sung worship.

I lament that I am so quick to take offence.

I lament the trials that are held in the space of 140 characters.

I lament my thoughts being both greater and smaller than my deeds.

I lament that all the while people die who have not heard.

I lament disagreement on one thing preventing us hearing the majority on which we agree.

I lament a life of careless ease metres from those with cares too many to number.

I lament pain in my body, mind and soul.

I lament that the pain shows no sign of going.

I lament that I let pain change my mood.

I lament seeing through a glass darkly.

I lament.

 

 

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