This was me post-op, listening to an 8 hour long worship playlist which got me through!
So most of you know I had surgery on my back last summer. I had a prolapsed disk which was pretty big and really flippin’ painful. It meant 3 months off work, ongoing physio, giving up my beloved running (hopefully temporarily) and a lot of bed rest.
However, you might also know that this time was a total blessing, I’ve written about it before and how I wouldn’t change the experience as it was just a wonderful time with God.
Anyway now here I am, 8 months on and still living with some pain. I’m not going to go into the boring medical details but basically it is just taking a long time to heal, plus I have another dodgy disk. It’s not terrible pain, I’ve still got my pharmacy of painkillers ready and waiting if needed but largely the hard stuff isn’t needed. I saw a physio last week for some ongoing advice and she described what I was suffering from as ‘chronic pain’. I did not like this phrase at all. It suggests to me something that isn’t going away and whilst she did talk about trying to be pain free (and I’m trying some new stuff) there was an element of ‘managing’ the pain. I don’t know why this phrase offends me so much, after all it is chronic, it’s on-going and has been for a while, I guess it’s the naming of it that I find hard. I don’t want to be someone who has ‘chronic pain’ it sounds so terrible, so final, so debilitating… so… weak. I can’t handle being weak…
So in recent weeks I’ve been anxious about the pain and worrying about whether it might get worse, or if the same thing happen again. I’ve been cross and grumpy, cried a fair amount and yes I’ve prayed a bit too, or if I’m honest, more like moaned at God like some whiny teenager…
Then this morning I was chatting to someone about it all and as we were then praying I really felt a bit of a correction from God. Well quite a big one actually. I had just been saying how I wouldn’t change the whole experience for anything, how it was a complete blessing and had changed my faith as a result of it all, and God was like, ‘oh, really? But I thought you said you wanted this pain to go ?’. All of a sudden I realised actually I had disassociated the pain I am feeling now with that ‘experience’ from last summer. I was just being grumpy about it and not recognising that actually without it, I wouldn’t have had that time with him, it’s all part of the same thing. Does that make sense? I’ve basically been a total hypocrite saying yes it was amazing, I wouldn’t change it and then on the other hand whinging about the pain and wishing it gone!
Have I actually been asking God to change it, after all? Do I really wish that time away?
This scripture was one that really kept me going…
No! Of course not, and in fact the experience is continuing as I have to take time to walk each day which means more prayer time, I have to lie down and rest which means time to read or reflect and I am just so much more focussed on God. So what is it that I am moaning about? Actually in the suffering (which is really not that bad in the scheme of things) He is with me so much more than ever.
So now I’m repenting and turning about, 180 degrees, aVolte Face moment. I’m praying that whenever I feel the pain I would see it as a blessing, or at the very least as a reminder of God. Instead of being anxious or frustrated I want to embrace the experience that God has given me, to reflect on his presence in my suffering, to be filled with joy at what he has done. So when I feel pain, I will turn to Him, when I feel a twinge, I will not be fearful but turn to joy, when I feel down and disheartened that I can’t yet run, I will remember all the wonderful prayer walks I have had with Him. I will see this as a lingering blessing rather than chronic pain.
Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s circumstance, maybe it’s God, I don’t know, but I seem to be becoming more and more aware of the ever increasing gap between the rich and the poor in this country. Look, don’t get me wrong it’s not that I’ve had my head stuck in the sand for 42 years, it’s just that recently, certainly in the last 5 years or so it seems to me to be getting worse.
Jesus said, the poor are always with you, you can help them any time you like (Mark 14:7) and his point was that actually they needed to focus on him at that moment in time. But was that remark saying something more? I mean will the poor always be with us? Reports seem to suggest that actually we have all we need in the world for us to live reasonably well, for people to eat, have somewhere to live, for people everywhere not to live in poverty. Yes, some people will probably always have more and some people will probably always have less, but does there have to be such vast extremes?
Apparently more than half the worlds ‘wealth’ is now owned by just 1% of the global population. Perhaps I’m just late to the agenda but WTF? How can 1% of people on the planet own that much? How does that make sense? I mean it just doesn’t make sense to me at all. Surely that is not what God has planned? Even if Jesus did say the poor will always be with you, I’m sure this is not the divine plan, right?
Last week we went to Les Mis at the theatre – I had a chat with a homeless guy on the way home, who jokingly said to me ‘oh how la-de-dah’ – well, indeed. But it was fabulous and I literally cried all the way through. Not because it was brilliant, which it was, but because in every scene God was speaking to me about inequality, poverty and love.
How was it that a man who stole a loaf of bread to feed a starving child could be sentenced so harshly? How could such inequality and lack of compassion exist? How could it be that a Mother just trying to provide for her daughter had to resort to prostitution just to feed her? And the thing is it doesn’t seem to be much different now does it? Ok so you might not face 12 years in prison for stealing some bread but the principle is the same, the inequality between those in need and those who have. And so often it’s about misunderstanding and judgement. We make snap decisions about people or judge them on our terms from one thing we see, or one thing they did. A person is more than one action or one decision.
The irony of sitting in a theatre in London’s West End whilst pouring my heart out for the poor was not lost on me of course, that’s partly why I was crying. So often it’s just one decision in someone’s life that leads to poverty, to brokenness, to a destructive path. It doesn’t take you there immediately of course, but it starts that journey. More and more I see in my work how people who want to help themselves just can’t because the system is stacked against them. How can that be? It’s like we want to keep people trapped in poverty and brokenness rather than helping them to step out of it.
What makes me mad too, is that once upon a time we helped each other out, it was not the state’s responsibility to support those in need, it was ours to look out for each other. Communities pulled together, people rallied, not because we had too but because we just did. Because people had a sense of compassion, or maybe duty, or understanding. How have we become so selfish?
As I chatted to ‘Steve’ he didn’t want to talk about how he ended up on the streets, but he did tell me he has a son who he doesn’t see, he once had a job, a family, and now he has resorted to begging in the underground. How did that happen? More and more I look at politicians and people in power and wonder what on earth they are thinking. Not just about welfare and support, but they seem to just be so lost in a bubble of their own. I mean PMQ’s? It’s a farce, they make jokes at each other expense when they are supposed to be running the country. It’s not some school playground for goodness sake, they are making decisions about people’s lives. I’ve never wanted to go into politics so I’ve no idea what it’s like to be an MP but someone please tell me that sometimes they do actually think about the people, right?
Again and again I’m drawn back to people. We can run programmes, organise stuff and work hard but at the end of the day what’s it all for? Surely it has to come back to people? Jesus told us to love our neighbour as ourselves – he said it was the second greatest commandment after loving God. Yup, a COMMANDMENT. Not a choice, we should be doing it, no excuses or arguments. And are we?
If you read my blog regularly you’ll know I’ve been wrestling for a while with what love means and what it looks like to love people and I’m afraid this rambling ranty post is just another element of that. I’ve been writing an ethics essay recently about what it means to love your neighbour too and more and more I just feel like we can say what we like, we can try and explain things away or find reasons but there are no two ways about it we just need to love people…
You know what I think our society needs? A movement of love.
Over the last year or so the thing I have felt God talking to me about the most is, all about loving each other, loving people. Our culture now seems to be largely formed upon what is best for ‘the self’ and yet God’s word tells us to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. We seem to be doing ok with the loving ourselves bit, but what about our neighbour?
Individualism is the thing that rules us. We want what we want, and we want it now, often at the expense of others. And well, maybe you could say that’s a good thing, we won’t be lorded over by dictators or tyrants. We have freedom to act and live as we want, there is greater safety and support for the marginalised, we might say we are free to become who we were always meant to be.
I feel that the more we do that the more we are isolating ourselves from each other. We have no responsibility for any other, no concern for our community or clan, no regard for our country, and yet we can feel free to tear down and criticise those who do.
Years ago people generally lived within an area, extended family were nearby, locals knew each other and looked out for each other. Now, how many of us even know who our neighbours are? I live in a tiny little rural village and here, if you are connected in, maybe through the school then you do live a bit like it once was. You walk to school and see people in the village, you get to know local characters, you chat to parents at the school gate, you have probably met the local Vicar, even if you are not a church goer. When I was injured people rallied to cook for us. When a local man dies, people gather. There is something here about respect for each other.
And yet, I know for many, they don’t know their neighbour, they don’t feel connected to their community, they don’t know what is going on locally. They just happen to live there, going in and out daily.
I wrote a while back about us living in bubbles and that’s what has happened, we live in our own individual bubbles, often unaware of the wider world, and when we do take an interest it is largely only because it might affect us.
and we love this right? we love that we get to do what we want and when we want to don’t we?
There are thousands of people living and struggling every day with loneliness. Whether the elderly, isolated and perhaps less capable, stuck at home, no friends to talk to. There are thousands living daily with depression and mental illness, isolated and suffering, often alone. There are refugees in corners of the world who have lost everything and struggle daily just to live, just to feed their children. What happens to them? well now we have organisations and groups and governments to handle them right? We just palm off any sense of responsibility, or dare I say compassion, on to someone else, onto something else.
We need a movement of love.
These are our fellow human beings. In our communities, in our towns, in our villages, in our world. Because of course community means something else these days – we talk of the global community, the online community, and we need that, people need that, the lonely, isolated and suffering need that.
But how can it be that an elderly man can live in squalor and ask for help and after months is still waiting for it? How can it be that a sick woman, once with a life filled with friends and fun, is alone and isolated when she needs love the most? How can it be that a couple struggling, but desperately trying, to find work are treated as pariahs and penalised rather than supported? How can it be that troubled young people are looked upon with disdain and disrespect when they just need someone to love them.
We need a movement of love.
Of course we need organisations and bodies and support groups but above all:
we. just. need. to. love. people.
My Nan was in care home for about 5 years before she died. For the last year of her life I visited her once a week for about an hour. 1 hour a week – not much is it? Sometimes it was a chore, sometimes (often) she was very grumpy but I know she loved me visiting, just being there. In an average week she had 2 visitors – that’s 2 hours a week of just being with other people. How would you find that?
When I was out with my back injury, how many people came to see me? in 3 months – a handful.
This week I made a promise to God that if I passed any homeless people on the way to uni I would stop. I bought coffee and food for two men. And I just stopped to say Hi, ask them their names and bless them. One of them, Simon, was feeling unwell and so I offered to pray for him. When I left he gave me a smile that was full of love. Who is this man? why is he here on the street, begging, in freezing temperatures? He was once a baby, a child, how did he end up here? My heart breaks…
For goodness sake, where is our sense of community? Is it just a word we use for groups and programmes and technology? We need a movement of love that brings love and compassion back to the heart of our communities…
Ask yourself, do you know who your neighbour is? Do you know what their life is like? are there people you know who are sick and just need some human company? Do you have a relative in a care home? how often do you visit them? Do you know someone who has just had a new baby? Why not take them a meal, do some housework for them? Or just stop and talk to people. The homeless guy on the street? buy him a cuppa and ask him his name, he has a story. Make time to meet up with people for a chat, it’s so easy to overlook, we are all so busy but so vital that we do.
It’s Valentines day, so how about we start a movement of love?
There is definitely something about going on retreat and just stopping, that gives you space. Space to be with God of course, but space to process too, space to think. Space for the thoughts that have been at the back of your mind to come, perhaps unwelcomed, to the fore. That’s always been my experience anyway and having just come back from a silent retreat this one was no different. I usually find there is a ‘break through moment’. Here’s some of what I wrote on this one…
Walking along I find myself weeping. I’m not really sure why. It started when someone walked into the room where I was sat, she just looked across and gave me a small smile.
Then going to lunch someone gave me an ‘are you ok’ mime. I felt I had to fight back tears, but why?
What were those thoughts fighting for freedom saying now? I really wasn’t sure but I knew I had to get out and give them some space.
The moment I left the building I could feel them coming. Stinging the eyes and burning the throat. As much as I tried to hold them in, they increased their threat.
They won, this time… perhaps they needed to.
I walked somewhat blindly down the lane, past houses and people, wishing for peace, space, freedom and finally the path turned past fields and woodland with not a soul in sight. Then they really made their presence known, gulping sobs, and heartfelt probing.
Lord what is this, why am I crying? Then…
Then the reality of pain and love and desire and passion and anxiety all rolled into one. I need you Lord. Where are you? Here I am needing you, pleading for you.
I need this. I need you. I need more of you…
I stumble into the old chapel. Dark and musty, the light switch makes little impact on the murk. But here is a place dedicated to you, rebuilt after brokenness and disaster from love of you and a loved one. I breathe in the atmosphere, and breathe you in. Years of church dust invades my nostrils, familiar, like home.
I fall to my knees before the altar, thoughts tumbling, not knowing what you are doing or saying. I see my breath before me in the cold January air that infects this place.
And then they come again, I feel the heat of my own pain stinging my cold face.
Facedown, Lord I ask, what is this?
I look up and there you are, above my head in carved wooden form. I am literally under your feet…
You are my refuge.
You are the reason I live.
O God you are my God. Earnestly I seek you. My soul thirsts for you… My body longs for you in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
My soul clings to you, your right hand upholds me.
In thinking on vulnerability and isolation I have asked my friend Bethan to write a guest post on her own experiences…
Jules has kindly asked me to contribute to her blog, and to be honest I could write an essay here, such is the extent that her recent experiences resonate with me.
A little background history on me – I have Fibromyalgia and M.E. Living with these conditions over eleven years, I have lost a career, found a new career, lost friendships, made new friendships, and found God (or He has found me!) I have used a wheelchair on and off for years, and for just under a year I have been completely dependent on it. The current prognosis isn’t great in mobility terms, but I have had two huge healings in the past, the belief that I am living with the promise of further healing, and the firm knowledge that the Lord’s prognosis is the only one that really matters.
In May this year, I was struck down by a nasty episode that had me in hospital for a few hours, on my back on the sofa for several weeks, and prevented me from getting to my ‘normal’ activities, including church on Sundays. We are created to be in relationship with others, and friendship has enormous value both during times of joy and times of trial. At every point in my Christian life, the Lord has blessed me with wonderful friendships, whether short term or long term. It presents a challenge, though, that friendships change when you become ill, and still more when you become housebound. Some of the people that you are closest to are just not there – for various reasons, and not always bad ones. I have some friends where our contact has always involved me visiting them, at their homes. It seems inevitable that those friendships have lost some of the intimacy that they once had. Other friendships diminish because we tend to become close to those people that we see regularly in social situations – and if those are minimal, I suspect we just go ‘off the radar’ for many people whom we would have considered friends.
For me, in May, there was the added complication that I wasn’t well enough for visitors for a while. Some people were still there when I was, others weren’t. And yet new friendships develop, particularly with those who try to devote time to visiting the sick. A couple of people have surprised me by their devotion to our friendship when the onus is on them to make the effort to visit. History tells me that there’s a chance those friendships may diminish as and when the Lord heals again – as there are ‘fair weather friends,’ there are also ‘foul weather friends’. Life shifts. I always invest in friendships, and so find it really hard to deal with when people who were once my friends pull away. I also fear, when friendships end, that it is down to something I have said or done wrong, and this can lead to a lot of self-criticism. However the Lord is growing me in these areas – showing me that, where people leave, space is opened up for new relationships; helping me to repent of the times when I have been a less-than-ideal friend; and, in his mercy, rebuilding friendships where they are God-ordained. Isolation can be a big thing.
After several weeks of only seeing one or two people a day, my naturally extrovert personality had become very withdrawn, to the extent that when we came to my first big ‘social outing’ – a church family member’s birthday in a local pub – I sat in the car in tears because the thought of going in and being in the same room as ‘that many people’ was terrifying. It took all the persuasion of the loving husband, who could thankfully see how important it was that I did it, to get me in there. As Jules has said in a previous post, it’s a huge change to go from being out and seeing people every day (as I was before the hospital episode, albeit wheelchair bound) to being alone in the house most of the time, in pain and a little bit scared. I have frequently described myself as ‘an extrovert with M.E’ – people with M.E often struggle in social situations because of the over-stimulus. I struggle with that sometimes. But illness aside, I am a true extrovert and get my energy from being around people, so a few days alone in the house (often sofa- or bed-bound, so without even the distraction of household tasks) can leave me exhausted and tearful. I would find myself longing for a friend to just stop by unexpectedly – my hopes soared when I heard a car slowing outside, and fell time and again as they didn’t pull into my drive.
Don’t get me wrong, there were some wonderful friends who came, and one amazing woman in particular who was, and still is, there for me on the phone frequently, and at all sorts of antisocial times, but there were also many of those long lonely hours. I think it just doesn’t take very long lying by yourself before fear and worry creep in, and it is somehow difficult to be content with ‘just’ you and the Lord in such a situation. Oh, the number of times this year that I’ve had that thought, and shaken my head at the ludicrousness of it, when I should know that He is all that my soul needs! And, oh, the longing for that moment when we meet Him face to face and fully realise that!
What has happened over this year, as a consequence of all this, is that I’ve begun to depend less on having humans around me and to depend more on the Lord, who will never leave me nor forsake me. He blesses us with different friendships for different phases of life, all of which are very valuable, but our most valuable relationship is that with our Heavenly Father, and he wants us to be clear on this point. And so I’m looking back on the year as we approach the end of it and, in many ways, thinking what an awesome year it’s been. My prayer over the course of the year has been to find Paul’s level of ‘contentment in all circumstances’ (Philippians 4:12) whether wonderfully well or scarily ill, whether surrounded by friends or lonely – for my soul to rest content in the arms of my Father. I’m not there yet, but the most precious friendships this year have been the ones that bring me right back to that prayer – that point me to God’s word and remind me that I’m never alone.
Now if you know me personally I want you to know that these are not self-pity posts (actually even if you don’t know me personally I want you to know that!). I still say that my time off with my back was a total blessing and I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.
Neither are they finger-pointing posts, ‘why didn’t you do something?’ posts. I have thought long and hard about publishing them and the reason I am now is because I want to highlight things I learned in this time, that people who need help, or support or even just a quick hug, can be so easily be hidden from those who can help. And that for those who can help, sometimes we think we know what a person needs, but really we need to dig deeper and actually find out.
So, all that said, I don’t want people to feel bad in what I am writing. But I think it’s more important to say what might help people so if you do feel bad, well sorry but also, tough!
In my first few weeks of being incapacitated, I felt very alone. In fact probably for more than a few weeks. I love being with people so to find myself at home with pretty much no one to talk to for days on end was tough. I felt starved of human company!
And although I joke slightly, I actually did feel very alone. Going through one of the toughest times of my life, which many people knew about, and yet in the early days no phone calls, cards or visitors (well that’s not true, one friend was a very faithful support from the very first few days and was totally amazing). But on the whole, nothing. (It did improve as time went on, I should say!)
Imagine that for a moment. Going, literally in an instant, from a full life, out at college one day, work another, family, home, seeing people, talking, helping, sharing, doing. Every day. To then nothing. To lying on my back for weeks on end…
In that there were several things.
Firstly pain is debilitating. At times completely. There was a stage when even getting up to go to the loo was agony. And I’m not exaggerating. I waited until I could wait no longer because I just didn’t want to move. I got my husband to make me a little station on the floor or in bed where I could reach all the things I needed while he was out and the kids at school. So this was bad, yes. But what was probably worse was that I couldn’t do anything for my family. No school runs, no cooking, no tidying up. And yes of course that was a good lesson for them (although they all seem to have forgotten it now, conveniently). This affected all of us, not just me. Working out what on earth we were going to do to manage daily life was a mission in itself. Frankly how people cope with this kind of stuff without Jesus I do not know.
Then there’s support… Now here’s the thing, and please don’t think I’m judging or condemning, we are all busy I know that so well. But do you know what, the little support I did get, didn’t come from the church. In fact one of my neighbours told me she had put together a meal rota for me. Didn’t ask, she just did it. This was an amazing blessing that I feel sure both my husband and I would have said no to had we been asked. But the very fact that it was done and there was so wonderful I just sat and cried. A lot. And the people who filled this rota? My neighbours here in the village. Most of whom are not Christians or church goers. In fact I even asked people to sign up to it, which was a massive big deal for me, I can’t tell you how much. I find asking for help so hard even in my desperate need, and yet no one did.
In fact the neighbours and locals here cooked for us for about a month (if not longer). That is a pretty big commitment and yet we had meals every night, some people cooking several in that time, some bringing lovely treats too and going the extra mile. I am so grateful for all they did.
So then I found myself in that time questioning myself – was there a reason people didn’t visit, call, offer to help? Was it me? Am I not a good enough friend? Did people not care?
Of course some of those may be valid questions for me to ask of myself, and I shall continue to do so, but to be honest it’s not really what you want to be thinking about when you are at such a low point.
The reason I am writing this is because I think this is a challenge to all of us as Christians and for our churches. If I felt like this and I was so visible and well known at church, what about those who are not? Those on the fringes, those who don’t come because they can’t, those who don’t have such a strong connection? Our faith is built on love and compassion so are we really showing it?
And as individuals, are we all too busy to actually reach out in love to those around us? Are we too focussed on what is going on in our own lives to think about others?
I know that in all this, if nothing else it has been a lesson to me. A lesson that if I call myself a Christian, take on the name of God, the God of love that is, then I jolly well need to show it!
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
Jesus died for us in love. There is nothing we can do to beat that, so then anything goes surely?! We cannot over-love people! And love looks like lots of things…
For me in my period of being ‘unwell’ there were some key things that stood out to me. Here’s a few:
One was when a friend, unsure what to cook for me (as I have food intolerances) found a jar of gluten free chocolate spread and brought that over! Another friend came and visited, and texted in between with encouraging words that really kept me going. There’s my lovely neighbour who organised the meal rota which was such a blessing. My husband bringing me back gluten free chocolate cupcakes unprompted. These are all such small things but meant so much and are real acts of love. In fact they made me feel loved at a time when I was struggling to feel anything good about myself.
The challenge to me now, and that I want to pass on to you too is: are you loving people in need? Are you showing the love of Christ? Are you seeing people who need support? Are you doing anything about it? Or are you too busy?
I have started to make more time in my diary for just this, no matter how busy I am. I read a quote this week – that is particularly appropriate for clergy – which said ‘when you die no one will remember your sermons but they will remember the time you spent with them’. But for all of us, clergy or not, the thing people see of us and the thing they will undoubtedly remember is how we respond to them, how we spent time with them or how we loved them. I’d much rather people remembered that about me that what I preached on!
Another looking back post, there’s going to be a few I think. Another one that was written months back and yet needed time to settle and reflect on. These next two are really about how I found myself feeling vulnerable and isolated when unwell. My whole perspective changed.
So this one is about getting out, well in this case, getting to church. Something I do every week, have done for years. It’s a place where I feel at home, loved, have friends. I have never had a problem going into a church, I spent a lot of time in churches as a child (due to my parents being bell ringers) and so I’ve always felt at home in a church building. But this, well this was different. Suddenly for the first time in my life, church was the hardest place to get to.
So a week after my back going, feeling very emotional, either from pain or pain killers, or both, I attempted to get to church. And boy was it hard. I mean physically it was hard but way more than that was the mental struggle. I am a pretty outgoing person, wear my heart on my sleeve and talk about almost anything but one thing I find really difficult is showing weakness, in whatever form. I don’t need you to psychoanalyse this, I have done enough of that myself, but I do know it about myself. And you know what I’m ok with it, bold and open as I may be we all need some things that are private. So going to church, feeling a shell of my usual self and in a lot of pain was, flippin’ tough.
I wanted to arrive early to avoid seeing people and get a seat at the back so I could hide (we usually sit right at the front), but everyone in my family was late. I was so cross with them because I had specifically said how important it was for me to be able to hide. In fact I was pretty much crying in the car on the way to church and desperately trying to get a grip! I don’t think I’ve ever felt so vulnerable.
So we arrive late, I had to try and sneak in (hardly inconspicuously as I was hobbling along on crutches) then first of all my husband left me to go and get some tea and my kids ran off to find friends. All of a sudden I was isolated.
And wow, did I feel it.
I felt conspicuous and unprotected.
And all this in a place where there are people I love and am very close to. A place where most people know me. A place where I meet with God every week. And yet there I sat, feeling very alone and vulnerable.
The first song began and was all about singing and dancing – the worst possible thing to hear at that moment when I could hardly walk. Not that that is any fault of the church of course, it was just for me, more than I could handle, a simple song and one that I absolutely love normally.
Finally someone came and spoke to me. At that point no one had even said hello. Which on the one hand was a blessing – you know when you feel bad and just about holding it together when someone says ‘are you ok?’ and it all falls apart…
but on the other hand I just needed someone I know to come and just hold my hand.
So then someone did, but to be honest, what they said made it worse, they just didn’t get it. Didn’t get where I was at. And why would they of course? I didn’t need to be second guessed or cajoled, I just needed someone to give me a hug (very gently!) or to sit with me.
Eventually I went to hide at the very back. A few others came over and literally just stood next to me. That was all I needed right then. It made me cry but because I felt they were just standing with me…
Then I was literally pointed out to everyone from the front. So that they could pray, admittedly. Now I’m an extrovert but I didn’t thank him for that at that point, not at all, I wanted to hide, not be seen. Seen by the entire church, in my weakness and pain.
I basically sobbed through that service. In fact it was the last one I went to for a while as after that I was advised to rest at home on my back, then after the op I couldn’t get out for weeks anyway. I don’t know what I expected it to be, I think I just needed to be there. I was drugged up and can’t remember any of what was preached. In all just a handful of people spoke to me. Two in particular really knew what to say, they weren’t people I know amazingly well, but enough, and they understood exactly what I was going through. In fact they made all the difference that morning.
The thing that really got to me was just how hard it was to get there. I have always known that for some it is hard but this really brought it home to me. If someone like me, who knows the church and the people and has felt at home there, can find it hard, how much harder for those who have never been, those who are struggling like I was, for those who feel unworthy, or unloved, or out of their comfort zone?
How often do we either expect people to just come? Or how often do we not even see the difficulties they have to get over in order to come to church? How for so many it’s just way too much to even consider.
And if they do come, how do we support them? make them feel welcome? encourage them? Stand alongside them?
I don’t have any real answers, just that I feel very much more aware of this now. I am so thankful for this opportunity to see how tough it can be, for so many reasons. And I pray that God will help me to keep my eyes open to this and for people who might be struggling…
I wrote this post back in the summer before I had surgery on my back. So if you are reading it now in December, don’t worry, I’m not about to have surgery again, I just needed to leave this for a while to, well I don’t know really, just to settle I suppose. Over the next few posts I’ll be looking back at the summer, when I was recovering, I wrote a lot of stuff then that needed to just sit there for me to reflect on. So now some months later, it’s time for them to come out.
This one I wrote when up to my eyes on painkillers and as you will see feeling a bit, well more than a bit, emotional…
Writing to my kids is not an unusual event. I’m often away for study weekends so I always try and leave them a note, and I pray for words of knowledge for them too which I stash away in places for them to find (usually with sweets attached!). But this…
Well, this is something different. This is the ‘if something happens to me…’ letter.
I’ve thought of doing this before, and now, well now I am having surgery tomorrow and although it’s not a big op, there’s always the risk of something going wrong. So, TBH, I’m writing this post as an avoidance tactic. I decided to this weeks ago when I knew surgery was going to happen and yet now it’s the last few hours and I still just can’t face it. I cry just even thinking about it.
I mean what can you say? If something awful did happen to me, then a letter like this could have a big impact on their lives, and I don’t want to saddle them with a message from the grave, or a list of things to make sure they do right in their lives. But at the same time, I don’t want to leave them with nothing.
As it is they won’t be carefully thought out, there isn’t the time for that now and maybe that’s a good thing I don’t know, maybe it will be more spontaneous, more full of love, rather than a carefully worded essay.
A few hours later…
It’s a mess if I’m honest, crossings out, lines going uphill (as I’m having to write lying down), and I ran out of space. But it is heartfelt, encouraging (I hope) and a few pearls of wisdom in there. ha! who am I kidding? – just a few thoughts I would have told her, have told her actually, but nothing heavy.
I hope she never has to read it, but at least there is something.
Later still, another one down…
Now of course I’m thinking of all the things I should have said. What about this, or that, what if he thinks that’s not important to me…. thing is, actually these were written in one go with the things that came into my head, so I guess I have to trust God in that. I asked him to guide me so I have to let go of it now.
They are done, 3 letters to my kids, in the event of something tragic happening to me.
I’ve done it but I don’t know, maybe I should just burn them. None of them are works of art, none any great story. And I wonder if I should have spent more time doing this. I’m asking myself, will they read into what I’ve written, will they compare with each other – why did she say that to me and not to her?
I don’t think you can ever write a letter like this that is perfect. It’s just not possible. there will always be something…
I ask myself again why am I doing this? what’s the point? what will they gain? In fact it’s made me think what am I even saying here that I haven’t or wouldn’t say to them?
Well, nothing really.
So is this for my own benefit that I write them? Am I kidding myself? how will it help them? don’t they already know they are loved? and if not perhaps I ought to show it more or tell them more!
So what do I gain from this? Would what they gain? All it has made me do is think that I should be telling them this stuff to their face, and more often. How often do I tell them how much I love them? How proud I am of them? How I love watching them breathe when they are asleep? Do they know that every night I go into their rooms just before I go to bed just to check on them and say a last prayer. Every night, without fail.
Do they know they are my very reason for living, even when I’m grumpy or tired or cross because they still haven’t put away their shoes or found their coats?
I wonder when they are worried about school, that they don’t know that I don’t care whether they got an A grade, I’m more excited when a teacher tells me how they look out for their friends or are a delight to have in the class. I love when they share together or laugh with each other. I hope that they know how important friendship is and how family is a bond you just can’t make up.
All these little things, of course I have a lifetime to tell them (I hope), but will I, do I? perhaps I should be writing to them anyway, or perhaps my life, my time with them should just be a continual letter….
Preach // 29/11/15 // Reconciliation // Available to listen here or to watch above.
2 Corinthians 5:11-21
11 Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. 12 We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. 13 If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come, The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Wow, what a great series this has been so far. So good to really get into the message of the cross. The central part of our faith and just to be reminded again all that Christ has done for us, it’s just amazing isn’t it? I heard someone say recently that in the church often we don’t need teaching we need reminding. And this has been a great reminder so far…
So let’s do a quick sum up so far, Tom talked about us being far from God, how our sins pull us away from him. Fiona, our Archdeacon gave us an impassioned talk of rescue and redemption, how we all need rescuing! Will has talked to us on atonement, and victory, these are just amazing amazing truths of the gospel. And today we are looking at reconciliation. How we can be reconciled to God, to have a real and personal relationship with him. THIS IS SUCH AMAZING TRUTH!!!
Scene setting //
So I always like to start with a bit of scene setting so we know where we are (but will keep it brief!). 2 Corinthians is one of Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth. This is a church he had visited previously and so he is writing to them as a friend, as a leader and really as a Pastor. Sort of a Pastor once removed if you like. That’s what Paul’s letters are generally, they are letters from a Pastor to churches he has set up. So sometimes it’s tricky to work out exactly what he’s saying because we are only seeing one side of it, his response to something going on in their congregation. And it’s no different here. Throughout the letter he refers to a situation in which it seems people are questioning his authority as an apostle. The beginning 11-13 he is defending his personal integrity. So he sort of gives a bit of a defence of his ministry and he refers to the situation as needing reconciliation with him as an ambassador of Christ, if they are at odds with him, they are odds with Jesus.
In v’s 14-17 he explains how Christ’s death undergirds his ministry.
And then in 18-21 And he goes on to talk about the ministry of reconciliation, in which he (and we) have a part to play in enabling people to be reconciled to God.
I actually read in a commentary this passage referred to as ‘one of the most theologically charged’ passages of any of Paul’s letters in terms of salvation and Christ’s role in that. And it really does declare, shout out almost, an absolute truth of Christ as Saviour and sacrifice.
Prepping the talk //
I’ve got to be honest This is probably the hardest preach I have planned. I mean this passage just talks about such an amazing fundamental truth of God, I just do not know what I can say to help you to grasp that. As a preacher I think that my role is to explain scripture to attempts to bring it to life and to enable you to see how it is relevant in your life. I hope that whenever I talk that it is actually God talking and not me. I pray that every time I speak he will reveal himself to those who are listening.
But today I just know that my words cannot even begin to encompass this subject of reconciliation. That we are reconciled to God that we can have a relationship with God, a friendship, we can have a conversation with God, we can come before him with our innermost worries and with the things that we wouldn’t tell anyone else the things that we sometimes can’t even admit to myself. And because of Jesus because he died on the cross purely because of that act we get to have that relationship with God. I mean that is unfathomable. Isn’t it? How can we even begin to understand that?
I mean God made this world, this universe even, that is so vast that we cannot see the ends of it even through the most powerful telescopes. Or from the opposite extreme, looking at a square of your garden with a magnifying glass and just seeing the beauty and the detail and see the ants working away and other tiny creatures too. God created in such beauty and detail. And not only that but creation is like an amazing machine – it all works together, the sun provides light, it goes up-and-down, through it we have times we have seasons. We have the tides and the sea, even things that we might think are disastrous – earthquakes, volcanoes, but they are all part of this amazing created machine and it’s been here from millions and millions of years just going, just working. So God, created that because he wants to know me wants to have a relationship with me, and with you, and every one of you.
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In lovehe predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s gracethat he lavished on us.
That is the God who wants to know us – well anyone who tells me they completely understand that? I think you’re lying! Because how can we possibly understand the awesomeness of that and I say awesome in true sense of the word – how can we understand the awesomeness of the fact that God is so powerful that he can create this amazing thing that goes on and on, over millions of years and will continue to go on, He actually wants to know us and love us.
And that’s what it all boils down to… that the living God loves us and wants to know us, wants to be in relationship with us, He wants to be reconciled to us. That’s what it’s all about. When Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross and died in agony alone, in that act, he reconciled us, humanity to God.
He did that so that every single person on this planet who has ever lived, is living or who will live the chance to become a friend of God – I mean wow right? And it makes me wonder what God is thinking, what he’s feeling, perhaps, when a single one of us turned away from him when any one of us rejects him, when one person refuses to be reconciled / doesn’t want to be reconciled. I truly think his heartbreaks for every single one of us.
And so you can see why I have felt this week completely unworthy of giving this talk today. What can I possibly say? Most of you here already know the Lord I know that but then I ask myself if I know this truth for myself, if I know what Jesus did for me, if I know that I have a relationship that Him, that I am reconciled to the living God why am I not out there telling every single person who breathes and moves?! why am I not spending every waking moment on reaching out to Him, longing to be in his presence, why am I not all consumed unable to do anything that worship him?
Because I sometimes wonder if I cheapen what God has done for me, by my lack of zeal for him.
Don’t get me wrong I’m not condemning myself or anybody else of course. God calls each of us with a different call, with a different plan but it’s just the power of the truth of the heart of the gospel that should surely overwhelm us all. Shouldn’t it?
So I had no idea where to start so I started looking at stories of reconciliation.
Some of you will remember seeing on the news stories of the horrific genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s. A genocide against the Tutsi tribe, incited and instigated by those in power who ruthlessly incited people against each other. Tribe fought against tribe, neighbour against neighbour. Entire families were wiped out. Thousands of people were maimed, raped, injured and murdered.
In fact during a 100-day period from April to July of 1994, an estimated 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed, making up as much as 70% of the Tutsi tribe and 20% of Rwanda’s total population.
I’ve been reading a book called ‘As we forgive – stories of reconciliation’ from Rwanda which is just a staggering read. From the vastness of the killing and hate to the stories of forgiveness and reconciliation, it has just blown my mind, although is not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination.
After the genocide some 120,000 people were detained and accused of bearing criminal responsibility for their participation in the killings. And how can you begin to deal with that many criminal cases in such a short space of time? Rwanda did 3 things:
They had the
International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda,
The national court system
and the Gacaca (gachacha) courts.
The Gacaca trials served to promote reconciliation by providing a means for victims to learn the truth about the death of their family members and relatives. They also gave perpetrators the opportunity to confess their crimes, show remorse and ask for forgiveness in front of their community. Similar to the Truth and reconcilation commission in South Africa following Apartheid.
These stories of people going through this are just so overwhelming too. That people who have suffered such horror can even begin to think about forgiving or being reconciled has to be a miracle in itself. It’s just beyond comprehension, just like the fact that we can be reconciled to our Heavenly Father. These people here, those who have suffered so much are encouraged to be reconciled and forgive so that they can move on, so that their lives can be different, can be transformed from the pain and misery, not to forget, but to be able to live a life fully. In 2014 photographer Pietr Hugo went to Rwanda, 20 years after the atrocity to photograph some of these reconciliations. His photographs are amazing portraits of reconciliation in process. Even some 20 years on.
At the photo shoots, Hugo said, ‘the relationships between the victims and the perpetrators varied widely. Some pairs showed up and sat easily together, chatting about village gossip. Others arrived willing to be photographed but unable to go much further. “There’s clearly different degrees of forgiveness,” Hugo said. “In the photographs, the distance or closeness you see is pretty accurate.’
Reconciliation is not always an easy process.
So what is reconciliation all about anyway?
To be reconciled to someone means to make a change in the relationship between people, to go from being enemies if you like to being able to have a conversation…
As humans need to be reconciled to God. We are supposed to be in relationship with him, not adversaries, not on such bad terms that we ignore him.
When he created humanity, in the garden of Eden, it was because he wanted to know us, to be with us. In genesis God was there with them in the garden, talking to them, being with them.
Now we are not going to get too deep into the fall right now, but that is what happened, something got in the way of their relationship, they, Adam and Eve wrecked that relationship, so special, and were parted from God. Sent out of the garden. Since then, man has needed to be reconciled to God, the relationship needed to be perfectly healed. Throughout the Old Testament you can read of how God desperately sought to be reconciled to his people, that growing population on earth, he so longed to be with.
And yet they failed again and again, turned from him, sought easier ways to live, worshipped idols, didn’t listen.
Until God said enough is enough.
And we’ve been learning throughout this series how God made the ultimate sacrifice and sent his son to die in order that we might be able to come to know him again.
In Verse 14 -15 – ‘one died for all’. Paul declares it, we are convinced of it he says. And Paul is a pretty good example of this:
Paul had the most amazing experience, you can read about it in Acts Ch. 9. In which he turned from a life of great authority, he had people under his command, he was well thought of and very well educated a rabbi, Pharisee, who had ‘great zeal’ for his Jewish faith – ie: he was VERY passionate about it! He would have been so well respected, had a good life, nice home etc. But something happened that made him turn from that to a complete reversal, where he once hated Christians, he became one! Where he was once the persecutor, he became the persecuted, eventually dying for his faith. Now you don’t just make a decision like that one day do you? Something has to happen to change you, not just change your mind, but to actually change you. So that you are ‘a new creation’ as the passage tells us.
For Paul he says that ‘Christ’s love compels us’. He is compelled, he can’t not do something, it’s all or nothing, all consuming. Not because he has to, but because he truly knows for himself, the love of God.
He has been reconciled to the Father, having been far off, having been a persecutor of Christ and his followers. I mean you’d think if anyone was beyond that redemption it would be him right? A murderer deliberately targeting followers of Jesus. And yet Jesus comes to him, invites him to know God, invites him to be reconciled to God.
So you see, a relationship with God is for everyone. If we choose it.
// because as I said it’s not always easy…
I also saw a story this week of 2 US Army VETS, after the Vietnam war, standing before the memorial to their fallen comrades. Both had been kept prisoner of war and seen terrible things, suffered terrible things. One asks of the other, ‘have you forgiven them for what they did?’ ‘No I shall never forgive them’ says the other ‘then they surely still have you trapped in that prison’ replies the first.
Because bitterness, hurt, anger, all these things keep us wrapped up in a world that was not intended for us. God intended for us that beautiful garden, being with him, idyllic, paradise, and yet we do not have that, well not yet anyway, one day. But we do have the choice to life this life differently.
Ministry of Reconciliation
But the other thing we learn from this passage and from stories form Rwanda and others is that we have a ministry of reconciliation too. We have a job to do.
If we are reconciled to God we then are called to the ministry of reconciliation – to share a message of restored relationships to others. v 20 says We are Christ’s ambassadors…
You know I tend to like to leave you with a challenge when I’m preaching and this is it! I said earlier on how I find this passage so challenging. Listen, God has given us a job to do, so are we actually doing it? Paul said
‘Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others.’
And that they are compelled by Christ….
What are we compelled to do? Are we really embracing the truth of the gospel? What does it mean to us? How are we sharing that message of reconciliation. Of restored relationships? that Jesus offers us?
Because sometimes I wonder if we have lost sight of it. Of how amazing it is. Do we get bogged down in life and the brightness of the light becomes dimmed?
or perhaps the time we came to know Christ first of all, becomes a distant memory. Or perhaps something has got in the way, maybe you need your own reconciliation to God before you can take on the sharing of it?
It is interesting that in this last week both the queen and the Pope have referred to this passage.
“St. Paul reminds us that all Christians, as ambassadors for Christ, are entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation. Spreading God’s word and the onerous but rewarding task of peace-making and conflict resolution are important parts of that ministry. So too is the Church of England’s particular vocation to work in partnership with those of other faiths and none, to serve the common good in this land.”
The Pope, this week in Kenya: Saying he was visiting Kenya and Uganda as a minister of the gospel, the Pope emphasised that he was bringing a ‘message of reconciliation, forgiveness and peace’. He called for mutual understanding across all religions and for believers “to support each other as members of our one human family”.
And in our time of troubles perhaps it is a fitting subject. I once read that every generation thinks theirs is worse than the one before, that theirs is facing bigger terrors and upsets than the one before, but I don’t know about you, right now, I worry about our world. Continuing news reports of atrocities and wars, terrorist attacks and bombings. People incited to hate each other, the media trying to pit us against those in absolute dire need. If ever there was a time to think about reconciliation it is perhaps now. For ourselves, for our communities, for our countries and for the world.
Let’s not be dragged down by life, let’s not give up, let’s not keep the message of such amazing truth to ourselves! Let us be compelled to share what we know!
I don’t know about you, but when things happen of such vast incomprehensible magnitude that we are shocked to the core, my response is to pray.
I pray because, to be honest, I don’t know what else to do. Sometimes there is nothing we can do. I mean what can we say in response to the news of Paris, or Beirut, or Syria? What can be said of those 132 innocent lives that were lost so violently in Paris? or to those killed by the Beirut bombs or those fleeing indiscriminate horror in Syria? What can we say when we don’t personally know someone involved? We still stand shocked. We are uncomprehending. We are scared. We wonder why.
What can our response be? There is nothing. Nothing that can make sense of it all.
Even if we know who did it, or why. Even if we know how & where they planned it. It still makes no sense, because no person in a sound mind would do that in the name of God, or for any other reason.
There is no sense to be made.So, we flounder. We share our shock in tweets and posts and conversations, we add a pic to our profile. We read never ending conjecture-filled news reports.
But still no sense can be made. We weep with incomprehension.
This weekend #PrayForParis has been trending worldwide and not just amongst those with faith. Why is that? I think, because we all want to do something. We just don’t know how to respond. It happens time and again, when something like his happens, a ‘pray for’ hashtag starts and people jump on to it. I’ve prayed for, and with, a lot of people over the years and I can only remember 2 who said they didn’t want prayer. Just 2. Whatever people believe, in times of great tragedy, fear and heightened emotion, they want, hope even, that there is something greater, someone greater, who can make sense of it, who can reach those who suffer and mourn, who can comfort and guide all of us who struggle to comprehend. Whatever ‘God’ means to any of us we need him to intervene. And if perhaps we can’t bring ourselves to pray, perhaps asking someone else to, or even just sharing a hashtag, can be enough. After all I believe that prayer can be many more things that just words shared aloud. So why not a simple hashtag? The hashtag #PrayForParis has been retweeted over 10 million times in the last few days. If God hears our prayers then he has to be hearing us crying out to him right now for our heartbroken world…