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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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

Grace’s inconvenient slap in the face

I am finding Jesus increasingly inconvenient. I’ve been trying to hang around with Him for quite a few years now, and I consistently find that He and His ways play merry havoc with my views on all sorts of things. Grace is the lens through which this is usually refracted; it messes up my views on all sorts of things like politics, myself, sexuality, church, other people, social media, money, parenting, marriage, sport, and plenty of other things in between.

Christians are meant to be good at grace (if that’s not a contradiction in terms), but the reality is we’re rubbish at it. We’re constantly giving ourselves, each other and other people either too much or too little (usually the former). I’ve been off sick this week, and I’ve been terrible at grace – even though my doctor and my wife told me I had to rest and I  do as little as possible. I’ve been sending myself on guilt trips, telling myself I should at least stay on top of my e-mail, wondering if people will think I’ve been faking it or am being too soft.

As you do when you’re sick and unable to do much, I let my mind wonder down a number of different paths to distract myself from the intense pain I was experiencing. Many of these were half-formed paths of previous sleepless nights, but with hours to fill and having reached the head-spinning season finale of  The Walking Dead, I had to find something on which to focus my customarily over-active internal monologue. I thought about how graceless I am – as husband, father, disciple, leader, citizen and social media user. I thought of my capacity to correct error, to point out hypocrisy, to accentuate the negative. I felt pretty rubbish about myself after that.

I thought of the curious lack of grace on display in the way some of us (myself included) use social media. We who trumpet grace (can you trumpet grace or is that a contradiction in terms?) are quick to expose flaws in others; we seem to expect of others and ourselves that our use of social media shouldn’t reflect the fact that we are sinners. I’ve judged people, badly, on social media; people have done the same to me. Offline, people judge how I act online; I do the same of others. It seems that we Christians have such a low understanding of grace that we expect ourselves to come across as perfect to the world. I fear we’ve missed the point.

Then I think about our political discourse. I think of the cries agains corruption in South Africa and tax avoidance in the UK, people – many of them Christians – demanding adherence to the law and transparency … all the while sending text messages whilst driving, parking illegally ‘just for a few minutes, so it’s ok’, downloading TV shows illegally and opting out of accountable relationships themselves. Surely grace should insist we apply at least the same  – if not gentler – standards to others as we apply to ourselves?

What is it we don’t get about grace? Why so slippery? We know it when we see it. It seems to perform a strange kind of trick on me, simultaneously boosting my self-esteem and giving me a slap in the face for being such a legalistic, hard-hearted bastard. Try to explain grace and you usually fall into theological error – for which, of course, there’s little grace in the church. As Philip Yancey expressed at the outset of the wonderful What’s so amazing about grace?, it’s something that’s better portrayed than explained. Explaining takes the wonder away; it’s not that there isn’t a place for explaining – it just needs to stay in that place. Jesus doesn’t try to parse grace into manageable points of a doctrinal statement; instead he tells some stories, gives some guidance on how to live then plunges me headlong into grace by willingly dying. It’s best to be immersed in grace rather than draw a diagram analysing it.

I think that I’ve very rarely experienced true grace. I think the closest I’ve got to it was when someone asked to listen to my story of being a victim of bullying (as an adult); having listened, he got angry at what I experienced; took on representative responsibility for what had happened to me because the bully was never going to take it himself; and point by point apologised to me, representatively. That’s a kind of grace, I think – not the whole picture, but quite a large chunk of it.

I think – no, I know – that I’ve very rarely expressed true grace. I may have flirted it with it (probably by accident)  a few times, but those are pitiful examples, a child’s hacked out Chopsticks on an out of tune piano next to a master’s concert hall rendition of the Goldberg Variations.

The truth is none of us can find grace’s script; we are the monkeys trapped in a room with a thousand keyboards, told to reproduce Shakespeare’s works and occasionally accidentally managing “2 b or not 2 b”. Shakespeare, but only if you look at it in a certain light.

So grace slakes my thirst, and leaves me thirsty for more – in myself, for me, from me, in the world around me. You see it and you long for more; it meets all hopes and dreams and simultaneously tells me I won’t see anything like it again until the end of history, when there’ll be so much I won’t know what to do with it except bathe in its depths and exalt in its previously unheard melodies. It pushes me closer to the only Source of grace, and makes me wish I was closer still, pulling with gravitational irresistibility. It makes a mockery of my self-defence and carefully constructed self-righteousness; it heals me wounds and slaps my face so hard I see things in new dimensions.

Back to the sick-bed, then.

 

 

 

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…

Gran Torino: A Life

There’s a view in some circles that knowing too much about an author’s personal history is  unhelpful. The argument goes that it can obscure us from what’s really going on in the film/book/play; we are too prone to put two and two together, before even making sure that the sum should be done at all in the first place. There may be some wisdom in that at time, but Gran Torino really gives the lie to it; and as such, that’s what I’m drawn to in this film. Another time I could explore the role of faith in this story or the issue of urban integration or male identity. Or so much else. For now, though, let’s allow the star and director to shape reflections.

It’s widely presumed that this is to be Clint Eastwood’s final film in front of the camera, though it’s likely he’ll continue as director (it’s not like he doesn’t keep himself busy – with this and Changling, he doesn’t hang around). If this is his last performance, it’s almost impossible not to hear the echoes and see the shadows of his career all over this. Thematically, it reminds me of No Country For Old Men; a story about growing old, feeling that the world is changing for the worse and we’re not able to do anything about it. In the case of the Coen brothers’ film, though, you’re naturally sympathetic to the character approaching retirement – he is, after all, trying to deal with serial killer. Here, though, the lines are more blurred. Clint’s character is am aging combat veteran, whose wife has died,  in suburban Detroit, the sort of neighbourhood that seems to be only just down the road from seriously run down areas. This impinges materially and socially. He’s next door to a Hmong family, a people from Laos & Vietnam, historically persecuted and finally allowed to settle in the USA due to support given to America during the Vietnam war.

Walt (Clint), though, fought in Korea and sees his neigbours and one and the same with those he fought against. He doesn’t like them, doesn’t understand them and doesn’t want them on his lawn. It’s here that you fear the film is going to drift into ‘life-lesson of the week’ territory – Walt intervenes to protect his lawn and saves one of them, a teenage boy. The boy’s family see him as indebted to Walt, and insist he works for Walt. There the film could go so wrong.

It doesn’t because at times it’s very funny, leavening the uncomfortable issues of social change, multiculturalism and what tolerance really is with brilliant moments of humour. Not least, for example, in seeing the ex-Dirty Harry get so riled over a patch of grass and the fantastic, all too believable rite of passage in the hairdressers.

This is where we can’t get Clint’s career out of our mind. As the story gathers momentum and events take a darker tone, director and performer Eastwood skillfully play with our expectations, and the teenage boy becomes our represantative in that. From the music thorough to words, implications, preparations, [I’m trying hard to avoid a spoiler here], right up to the crucial moment, we all know what Dirty Harry, and so many other characters would have done. We’re expecting the same.

What we get may not be that surprising if we think about for a moment. That makes it no less the powerful. If Clint’s last few years of film making, perhaps from as far back as Unforgiven on, are seen by some as an attempt at atonement for the sins of a violent or amoral back-catalogue, then this is the pinnacle of that. Did he need to make such public amends? That is another debate, not least because we’re the ones who consumed the early films and encouraged their making.

Here, though, we have the most powerful and pertinent act of vengeance and grace possible. Walt gets justice for another in the same breath as he seeks atonement for himself. A picture speaks a thousand words.