Saturday, 21 January 2017

Healed to Pray

Part 2 of the amazing things God did during my recent trip to Hong Kong for a celebration of Jackie Pullinger’s ministry.

Jackie’s Jubilee celebrations were a joy and a delight.  It was almost 30 years since I was a helper at St Stephen’s Society and yet as I walked into the worship marquee on the site of the old Walled City, the sense of praise and worship was just as strong, just a vibrant as all those years ago.

God did some amazing things in me during the weekend.  I have already written about one strand, but there was more.  Another special thing God did, was to heal me of a deep scar which had been inhibiting my Christian life and ministry for over a decade.

Thirteen years ago, when I was a vicar in Brixton, London, my wife Mel suffered a horrific road accident.  She was dragged under the wheels of an 18-ton truck while riding her bicycle and when the truck came to a stop, her pelvis was shattered, half of one thigh was missing and she had huge wounds.

Mel was blessed to survive for which we thank God, but the accident led to months and months in hospital, scores of operations, and immense pain.  Even with all the medical technology available, it took 3 years for her wounds to finally close, with painful daily dressings, procedures, and infections all adding to her agony.

For me it was almost unbearable, to watch her going through such pain. Even when maxed out on morphine and other pain relief, the pain was more than she could bear.  So I sat with her, holding her hand and praying for God to take away (or just reduce) the pain.  I did this day after day, week after week, month after month.  Around the UK, hundreds of people were also praying for the same thing. I don’t know why, but our prayers were not answered.  Her agony continued unabated.

The effect of this on my faith is hard to express.  In Hong Kong thirty year ago, I had prayed every day for new brothers coming off heroin and I had seen God do wonderful things.  After a while I had to remind myself that we were seeing miracles almost every day as God took away their pain and suffering.  Yet now, for the person who I loved more than anyone else in the world, those prayers went unanswered.

As the weeks and months rolled on, a kind of fatigue set in.  It became harder and harder to pray for healing, until one day I realised that I couldn’t minister to people in prayer anymore. I could say prayers for them – but I couldn’t minister to others in prayer like I did before.

As a vicar, this was really difficult.  People often ask vicars for prayer for all kinds of different things.  Before Mel’s accident I would instinctively say “Right – lets pray then!” and spend time with them, seeking God and ministering in the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes I saw God act directly, sometimes not, but now I found myself unable to do that anymore.  I was even frightened of people asking me for prayer.  If they did, I would often promise to remember them in my prayers, and even say a short prayer, but there was no expectation – it had all been drained away.  I knew this wasn’t right.  It was like a dark cold wall cutting a part of me off from God and the ministry he had called me to.

Walled City before its demolition

So as I came back to Hong Kong for Jackie’s Jubilee, I came with both hope and fear. 

Hopeful that God would do something in me but fearful that he wouldn’t, that the dark cold wall would remain.

Over the weekend a wonderful thing happened.  In the praise and worship, in the prayer ministry I received and in the profound sense of God’s presence there, God melted that cold dark wall.  I didn’t even realise it was happening at first, but by the second day, I remembered the principle we were always encouraged to embrace at St Stephen's Society.  If you aren’t receiving ministry, go look for someone else who needs ministry and pray with them.

After so many years of not being able to pray for others, I suddenly realised that I was ministering to others again.  I was laying my hands on them, and expecting God to speak and act.  I had my eyes open again, looking for what God was doing.  I was listening for God’s prompting again.  I couldn’t believe it and tears of gratitude came to my eyes.

Walled City Park today

God melted my cold dark wall of pain on the site of the old Walled City.

I still don’t know why my prayers for Mel went unanswered.  I am not sure that I ever will.  But I know that God’s love has set me free from needing to know and from the paralysing scar which had become a part of me.

On the last day of the Jubilee, I sensed God wanted to speak to me, and I wrote down these words.

You thought that you had lost, but in fact, you have won.
You have come through the fire
and you have stood fast in the days of darkness.
Now my refining fire comes to cleanse and heal you;
not to burn you, but to bring out your inner beauty
and enable you to shine with my glory.
You are my child, and I am your Father.

To God be the glory.

Monday, 16 January 2017

New year, new Benny?

So it’s 2017… another new year.

New challenges, new opportunities, same old you!

That is problem, of course with New Year Resolutions.  We want to be different, we want to be new people, we want to address the less adorable sides to our lives but the ‘new you’ we each want is not new.  The old comes along with it.

And that doesn’t just apply to individuals either.

After 2016, I have heard many people say, “Thank God that’s over! Let’s hope 2017 will be better!”  The problem with that is that 2017 starts with the consequences of the decisions of 2016.  Donald Trump is still heading for the oval office, Brexit will be triggered, bio- science is still advancing faster than the ethical dilemmas which it throws up, the Church of England and the Anglican Communion is still divided on sexuality.  There is no such thing as a fresh start each new year.

But that doesn’t mean that we should simply give up.

Abandoning ourselves to endlessly repeat our old mistakes in some kind of fatalistic prison would lead us to no hope and no vision – a nihilistic approach to life which gets us nowhere.

The real challenge of a new year does not come from a break with the past – it comes from bringing the past into our present with the intention of building a different future.

So what opportunities does the New Year bring to me?  What do I want to do differently in 2017?  What kind of a new Benny am I hoping to be?   I have never been good at new year resolutions anyway.  The only successful one I have made in recent years is to give up making new year resolutions and I might be breaking that one now!

There is something which I believe that God has put on my heart for this year.  I don’t know how it will work out or what it will look like – but I do know that it is where God is pointing me this year.

To explain it, I will need to retrace my steps a little.

A little over two years ago, I stepped down from leading a network which I had helped set up 10 years before.  It is a network which seeks to change the way Evangelical Christians see gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.  Anyone who looks through my past blog posts will find that most of the entries are connected to this goal and the difficult path which that involves.

I did not step down because I had changed my mind, or because I didn’t care anymore.  I stepped down because I was weary.  Weary of the conflict this issue produces.  Weary of the painful comments which get batted around social media and emails – and occasionally face to face.  Putting your head above the parapet on issues like sexuality and faith makes you a target for all kinds of rubbish to be thrown at you.   I needed a rest.

That was not the only controversy in church and faith in which I have been involved, of course.  In the early noughties, I fought the Church Commissioners around their management plans for the social housing estates given them by Victorian reformer Octavia Hill.   At university, I constantly found myself in the midst of conflict between Christian of different traditions – almost being sacked at one point as Christian Union college rep for organising a joint meeting with other Christians who would not sign the CU’s Doctrinal Basis! Ever since I was a teenager, I have found myself fighting the kind of ‘religious respectability’ which looks down its nose on anyone who doesn’t fit.

Such things are part of who I am - who I was made to be – and part of my calling to ministry.

But two years ago I took a step back from all that.  I was bruised and weary, and perhaps worse.  A hardness had begun to form around my heart.  A ‘them and us’ mentality had begun to establish itself as a kind of armour.  I was becoming too angry, too outraged, too potentially sectarian.  I needed to step aside.

And during that time, God has been at work.  He has led me to a new role, encouraging vocations to Christian ministry – a building role rather than a conflict role.  It has been really good to be doing something constructive in the Church, rather than being locked in struggle, but deep down I knew that my weariness and hardness of heart was still there – unresolved.

That was until the end of November.

I received an invitation, out of the blue – to attend JackiePullinger’s Jubilee (50 year) Celebrations in Hong Kong.  I had worked there with the mission she created almost 30 years ago, but had not been in touch with them for over 20 years. Jackie was inviting all those who have worked with her over the years to come a join the celebration.   Straight away I knew I needed to go.  There were going to be three days of praise, worship and ministry and I knew I had to be there.

My time with St Stephen’s Society in Hong Kong had been one of the most formative periods of my life.  I experienced God at work in a more powerful way than at any other time, before or since.  I began to understood God’s heart in a new way and it shattered my preconceptions about how God works and who God will use for his glory. 

In this invitation, I sensed God’s call again.   I went hoping that God would do something in my heart.  I went hoping that God would set me free again.  (I also went hoping that God would heal my frozen shoulder which was still acutely painful after 6-9 months.)

The celebrations were wonderful.  Extended times of praise and worship punctuated by testimonies, words of prophecy and knowledge, and times of prayer ministry. 

Over the weekend, I was ministered to in prayer three times and a number of wonderful things happened, some of which have led to this blog post.

Now there is something which I need to explain about the prayer ministry at St Stephens to make sense of everything which follows.

If you want ministry there, you simply hold out your hands and someone will come and pray.  You are not asked to tell the person praying what you want prayer for – the way it works is that the person praying for you asks God what they should pray for and then responds accordingly.  The three separate people who prayed with me at different times over the weekend did not know me and I did not know them, and yet each time, the prayers and words shared with me hit the nail right on the head.

The first time, the person praying for me prayed that God would remove the arrows of other people’s words which had pierced my heart – and heal and release me to speak and love again.  I was overwhelmed both by the accuracy of the prayer and by the sense of God at work in me.

The next day, the person who prayed with me said, “I think God wants you to forgive some people.” I knew what this meant.  It meant those who had shot those arrows into my heart as I realised that I had not forgiven them.  I had simply tried to brush off the pain – like snapping off an arrow but leaving the arrowhead buried inside.

The last day, a Chinese brother with faltering English prayed for me – again without me saying a word - and at the end said, “God says to you – they are not your enemies – they are your friends.”

It is this which has struck home to me more than anything else as I returned home.

I had indeed started to see those I was in conflict with as enemies – on sexuality, on social justice, on religious prejudice.  Carrying the pain of those arrows may make that understandable, but it doesn’t make it right.  The people I have been in conflict with, sometimes viscerally, are nevertheless my brothers and sisters in Christ.  They are indeed my friends and yet I had allowed them to become enemies in my eyes.

Put together, these three prayers led me to an inevitable conclusion.

What opportunities does the New Year bring to me?  What do I want to do differently in 2017?  What kind of a new Benny am I hoping to be?

The kind of Benny that is free to speak out again, but remembering that the people I may be in conflict with are not my enemies, they are my friends.  I don’t know how that will work out.  I don’t know what it will mean, but I look forward to discovering that with God.  I do know that God is calling me to take that to heart in all I say and do – bringing the past into my present with the intention of building a different future.

Many years ago, God directed me to Ezekiel 3 when I was praying about his calling for my life.  It talks about speaking whether people listen or refuse to listen.  It speaks of God giving him a forehead harder than stone to protect him from being deterred by negative voices, but I am now reminded that God also promised Ezekiel a heart of flesh, not stone.

So I begin 2017 with a renewed hope in the God who answers prayer and intrigued to see where that will lead.  Oh and yes, God did heal the pain in my shoulder too!   I haven’t recovered full movement in yet – that is work in progress, just like me, but I haven’t needed my painkillers since I left Hong Kong several weeks ago.

“They are not your enemies.” says the Lord, “They are your friends.”

Sunday, 13 November 2016

I hate walls ...

I hate walls – not the kind which hold up the roof of your house – the kind which separate people from people.  The kind that are erected to stake a claim and keep people out.  The kind which are an imposition of power or control.  The kind which Donald Trump has promised to build.

There is a wall in Dorset I particularly hate.  It runs for 3 miles along the A31 in Dorset between the road and the Drax Estate.  In a county famous for its natural hedgerows which support diverse wildlife, living and breathing with the seasons, it sticks out like a harsh impenetrable sore thumb screaming “Get orf my laaand!”.  As you drive alongside, it just goes on and on, punctuated only by large imposing gate arches towering above with huge sculptures of stags and lions – stone sentinels to deter the misguided traveller.

It was built in 1841 by John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge Drax (nicknamed ‘The wicked squire’) as an exercise in power and economics.  It took the road from Wimborne to Dorchester away from their vast stately home in Charborough with its 28 square kilometre estate.   It was built to keep the riff-raff out, and to make money out of them in the process, forcing ordinary people pay for the privilege of making a journey which they had previously been able to travel for free.

Unfortunately for the Drax family, the wall never paid for itself.  The opening of the Wimborne to Dorchester railway bypassed the need for many to use his toll road.  Today it stands with its 2 million bricks as a monument to his greed.  It constantly needs repair as holes appear, sometimes through age and sometimes when mesmerised drivers crash their cars into it when driving carelessly around its sharp bends.  In the words of descendant and current MP for South Dorset, Richard Drax, their bricklayer’s job is assured.

Such walls are built as impositions of power.  The powerful build walls to impose their will on the powerless – usually when the masses won’t do as they are told.

The Berlin Wall is one of the most striking examples in recent history and in its cold inhumanity.   Alarmed by the 3.5 million Germans who used Berlin to escape to the West after the Second World War, the East German Government began construction of its “Anti-Fascist Protective Wall” in 1961. The haemorrhage of defectors largely stopped but at the human cost of up to 200 lives from among the 5,000 who tried to cross, killed by mines and gunfire from its 302 watchtowers.  It was this week 27 years ago that the East German Government finally admitted its failure allowing visitors across for the first time.

The West Bank Barrier in the Holy Land is a present day wall which keeps people apart, and imposes the will of the powerful at the expense of the powerless.  Palestinians along its 420 mile length have had their lands confiscated to make way for the barrier.  It has been built to protect Israel from the threat of suicide bombers and terrorist attacks, but it has also separated families from one another, impeded access to medical care, and made life more and more difficult for Palestinians who live and work on the different sides of its concrete panels and razor wire fences.

Now, the President elect of the USA, Donald Trump has promised to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the USA. At 1,900 miles this will dwarf the “Anti-Fascist” Berlin Wall and the West Bank Barrier.  It will cost up to $25 billion dollars and according to Trump, the Mexicans will pay.  Like the Drax Estate Wall in Dorset, this is yet another example of the rich and powerful making the poor and powerless pay for something their neither want nor need.  Then there is the cost of maintaining it and patrolling it– will the Mexicans have to pay for that too?  The economic costs will be astronomical and ultimately futile.  Like John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge Drax, Donald Trump will find that the cost making good his political promise will far outweigh any economic benefit.  If he builds it, he will find that it is as useless in protecting American interests as the Great Wall of China was in protecting successive Chinese Dynasties from foreign invaders.

Ultimately it is all folly.  Great walls are built by those who think of themselves as superior to ordinary people who live with the consequences.  Donald Trump is certainly one of those people who intends to make a name for himself.  Being elected President of the United States will do nothing to assuage this desire.  He now needs a legacy which will make people remember, giving him a kind of immortality.  Sadly, his narcissistic tendencies will only get worse.

John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge Drax thought in exactly the same way.  To cement his legacy, he had a huge mausoleum built in advance of his death to be his final resting place. It dwarfed the parish church which it was built beside. He rehearsed his funeral several times before his death with his estate workers carrying his coffin.  Perhaps most bizarre, the mausoleum door was complete with a letter box for The Times newspaper to be delivered daily.  He clearly had ideas of immortality which went beyond those of the masses.

In a beautiful irony, however, the financial failure of the Wall meant there was no money to pay for the mausoleum’s upkeep, and over the years which followed, it fell into disrepair and was eventually demolished by his own descendants.  If only the wall had gone the same way.

All such walls go the same way eventually, as do the people who build them.  They all end in ruin.  The only ones who benefit are the contractors who build them. I wonder if Trump Enterprises will be investing more in concrete and construction over the next few years?

Surely not?

Friday, 2 September 2016

Shylvia Shishons, Shpinshter of the Parish of Shaint Shwithens

Following the recent death of my father, I would like to share this short reflection on his early life.  He was an unlikely priest, brought up in a largely unchurched working class family in the 1930's and 40's he overcame considerable odds to follow God's call, and ultimately, he inspired me to listen to God's calling in my own life.

Below is a piece I wrote some time ago.  I guess now is the time to publish it...

David didn’t have a good start to his life.  A few weeks after his birth in 1932, his mother died of complications from the delivery.  His father John was heartbroken.  He had lost most of his friends in the trenches of the First World War and was already a man of few words, but now he retreated further into himself, which left Granny to bring David up.

She was a formidable woman who ruled the household with absolute authority.  She was one of those strong working class Lancastrian women who had a matriarchal power which defied any gender stereotype.  And she was, to all intents and purposes, David’s mum.

They were a proud working class family living in a terrace house in Bolton, Lancashire together with their extended family.  David’s father was a tram driver by day and built wooden model yachts and radios in the evenings.

Things didn’t get any easier for David either.  When he was two, he developed a severe ear infection and was taken into hospital.  In the days before antibiotics, they were soon told that there was nothing that could be done and he was likely to die.  Granny however, was having none of it.  When the doctors had given up on him, she took him home against medical advice, and in a supreme act of will, nursed him back to life.

The trauma of the illness took its toll however. His hearing loss was substantial and lifelong.  He didn’t speak again until he was 4 years old.   When he did start to speak he had a speech impediment and would say ‘Sh’ instead of ‘S’ – something which continued into adult life.

Anyone else would have simply been happy that he could speak again, but Granny didn’t give up there, pushing him into school and through school, believing in him no matter what.

When he was 11, she made sure that he was given a place at the Church Institute (now Canon Slade School) and he began to attend Bolton Parish Church.  This was his first encounter with the Church, and it planted many seeds which would grow later.  He sang in the choir but also loved the snooker halls opposite his school which resulted in him having to re-sit his A-levels before being offered a place at Liverpool University to study Physics.  Coming from a working class family in Lancashire, he was the first in his family to even dream of going to University, and Granny must have been so proud.  Her hard work had paid off.

It was in Liverpool that his faith grew and developed at the Parish Church - Our Lady and St Nicholas.   He discovered the ritual and spirituality of the Anglo-Catholic tradition.  When a visiting preacher said, “The question is not ‘Should you be ordained?’ but rather ‘Why shouldn’t you?’” David knew God was calling him to be a priest.

In his final year at University, he went to a selection conference, where his vocation to the priesthood was confirmed, but he was thought to be too much of a ‘narrow minded scientist’ to go straight to theological college.  He was told to go and spend a year ‘broadening his mind’.  Working in a bookshop was suggested to him but here David’s rebellious side kicked in.  Instead of finding a nice comfortable bookshop in which to while away a year, he moved to Sheffield, joined the Industrial Mission and got a manual job on the shop floor in one of the city’s huge steelworks.  There in the noise and heat of heavy industry, he worked at living out his faith and calling at the sharp end of working life.

His mind was broadened in more ways than one.   Despite wondering if he was called to a celibate life, he met Irene there.  They had a lot in common – they were both form working class households – both their lives had been touched by a deeply rooted Anglo-Catholic vision of Christian faith which embraced everyone in a deeply incarnational pattern of life – and both felt called to the religious life.  Irene had been a novice at the Convent of St Mary the Virgin in Wantage, and about to take her final vows when she had to return to Sheffield to care for her sick mother.  Her illness lasted for some years and Irene never did realise her dream of returning to the convent for life.

At the end of his time in Sheffield, David went to St Stephen’s House in Oxford (affectionately known as ‘Staggers’) to train for ordination but Irene was never far from his thoughts.  

David & Irene's Wedding
One Wednesday in his second year, he went to Arthur Couratin - his formidable college principal - and said “Irene is going into hospital in Sheffield for an operation and I need to marry her straight away.”  In the heavily cloistered, exclusively male environment of St Stephen’s House, he was more than a little surprised when Arthur said “Well you better go and marry her then!”  As far as we can tell, he was the first ever student to marry during training at Staggers.

David phoned her on Thursday – having already arranged a special licence for the wedding - to tell Irene that they “were going to be married on Saturday – and could she get a wedding cake?”  On Friday morning, Irene walked into Walsh’s - the big department store in Sheffield - to order the cake.  When she was asked for the date of the wedding she said “tomorrow” which caused more than a little shock, but after checking with the bakery, they accepted the order as long as she realised that the icing might still be a little wet.

After the wedding, they were apart once more as David returned to Oxford.  Women were treated with great suspicion at St Stephen’s House in those days – unless you were the principal’s sisters who acted as chaperone on the few occasions when Irene was allowed to visit.  Even though they were now married, Irene was only allowed to see David in the presence of Arthur’s sisters and was not allowed to stay at the college - having to sleep in a convent down the road instead.

David's Ordination as Priest
On 16th June 1957, David was ordained deacon in Sheffield Cathedral, and went with Irene to Arbourthorne where he was to serve his curacy.  It was a large social housing estate on the outskirts of Sheffield.  David’s ordained ministry had begun.

On his first Sunday, David was asked to read the Banns of Marriage in the service.  He picked up the book and to his horror, he found that he had to read the Banns for “Silvia Sissons, spinster of the parish of St Swithens”.   The speech impediment from his childhood had been an issue all his life.  He had received speech therapy at theological college, but this was a test that few would relish.

Amazingly he read the Banns perfectly.  The 4-year-old boy from a working class terrace house who could hardly speak – and yet had become the first in his family to go to University and had followed God’s call to ordination – found that the God who had called him would not let him down.