Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Radiotherapy, Chemo and God

So my treatment has suddenly moved up a gear.

In addition to the hormone therapy I am receiving, I start 5 days of radiotherapy later this week, and chemotherapy next month.  Like other cancer patients, I am going to have destructive beams and chemicals pumped into my body on a regular basis.  Suddenly, it has all become very real.

The hope is that these treatments will kill enough of the cancer cells to keep everything under control. 

The other hope in my life comes from prayer.  Since my last post, I have been overwhelmed by people saying they will be praying for me, and I am acutely aware that hundreds, if not thousands of people are praying for myself and Mel, Isaac and Iona.

I have to say that I have a chequered history with prayer for healing.

In my teens and twenties, I saw some remarkable answers to prayer.  I saw people healed, physically and emotionally.  I saw heroin addicts come off drugs with little or no side effects in response to prayer, when they had tried many times before and given up, because withdrawal was unbearable. 

Yet when my wife was horrifically injured in 2003 with excruciatingly painful and life threatening injuries, I sat by her hospital bed day after day for months, praying for God to ease her pain – all to no effect.

Coming on top of questions about why God let her accident happen, this daily disappointment left my prayer life scarred for years.  I became unable to reach out to others in prayer, and only began to find my own healing last year, for the scars this left on my soul.  (See Healed to Pray for more.)    As a result of that inner healing, I have felt able to pray for others again in the way I used to.  I have not seen dramatic results, but have been aware of God moving in and through those prayers.

When it comes to praying for myself however, the block still remains.  Why would God answer prayers for me, when he wouldn’t answer my prayers for Mel?

So while I have valued all the messages of prayers from friends around the world, I have found it difficult to believe that God would answer.  My name has been added to prayer lists and candles have been lit in all kinds of Christian communities, from Pentecostal intercessory prayer groups, to Convents and Abbeys, and I am deeply grateful.  I just wish I had more faith that God would answer them.

Yet when I visited Southwark Cathedral last week, around the anniversary of my ordination there, I felt drawn to light a candle and much to my surprise, found myself simply praying “Lord, in your mercy, heal me”.

As I reflect on this, it occurs to me that I don’t know how effective my radio and chemo therapy will be, but I am still going ahead with them.  I hope they will have a beneficial outcome and extend my life, but I don’t know how much good they will do.  Similarly with prayer, I don’t know how God will answer the many prayers being offered on my behalf, but why should I be any less hopeful that they will have a positive effect?

I find myself standing alongside a man who brought his child to Jesus to heal him.  When Jesus said to him that everything is possible for one who believes, he replied, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9)

Not that prayer is predictable, of course.  It does not follow clearly defined rules.  It is not like a political petition, where the greater the number of signatures, the better the chance of being noticed.  In the end we are all subject to God’s will, both active and passive.

I am reading ‘Fear No Evil’ by David Watson at the moment.  It is his story of his struggle and death from cancer at the height of his ministry.  He had seen God heal many people at services he led, and hoped for God’s healing for himself, all to no avail.  John Wimber’s story is not dissimilar.  So even if there seems to be no discernible answer to prayer, I feel that I will be in good company (if a little overshadowed!).

All things considered, I am choosing to be hopeful.

Hopeful in the radio and chemo therapies I will soon be receiving, and hopeful in God for the prayers which are being prayed for me.  They are part and parcel of my treatment and I will embrace them both, with a mixture of belief and unbelief, faith and doubt, hope and realism.

So thank you to everyone who is praying for me, and if you have time, please continue to do just that.

Monday, 25 September 2017

The Enemy Within...

I never thought I would get cancer.

Arrogant of course, considering the number of people who suffer from cancer at some point in their lives – but I never thought it would be me.

There is no history of cancer in my family, as far as I am aware. My grandfather had his early adulthood stolen by the horrors of the trenches in the first world war.   He lived a hard life and smoked 40 cigarettes a day for as long as anyone can remember.  He lived until he was 82 when finally a stroke got him.

My father died just over a year ago in his eighties.  He had chronic back problems and heart disease which led to a triple bypass in his early 70’s, but it was post-operative complications which finally finished him off after major abdominal surgery at 84.

My mother developed Alzheimer’s in her early 60’s and over the years which followed she lost all recognition of the world around her, including her family, and yet she still reached her 80’s before finally giving in.

Heart disease I had expected at some point in life, Alzheimer’s I would understand, but cancer?  Never.

So it has come as somewhat of a shock, at the age of 54, to be told that I have Advanced Prostate Cancer.

I had been meaning to go the doctor for a while, as my toilet patterns gradually changed.  I started to think that something was wrong when I started to suffer fatigue – acute tiredness for no apparent reason.  When I finally went, it was after two episodes of debilitating pain in my hip and right leg.

The result of initial tests pointed to Prostate Cancer, and having now had a full suite of scans and biopsies, I know it is Advanced Pc.  For those who know about such things, my Gleason score is 9 and my PSA is in the 300’s.  It has spread to my lymph nodes and my bones.  It is beyond surgery or any other cure.  It is simply a case of ‘managing’ it now.

The irony is that, following my first course of hormone therapy, I felt fine again.  The fatigue subsided, and my hip pains had largely gone (until earlier this month).  Yet now, I know that lurking deep within, many of my cells are slowly mutating against me and there is no way to get rid of it.

Treatment is, of course, improving all the time, and Prostate Cancer UK’s website says that ‘treatments can help to keep it under control, often for several years’ but suddenly life seems different now.  The finite nature of life which we prefer not to think about, has suddenly come into sharp focus.  Long term plans, dreams and expectations suddenly seem obsolete. Retiring to the west coast of Scotland with my wife Mel, buying a RIB, and exploring the beauty of the Inner Hebrides.  All seem like folly now.

I am reminded of the story Jesus told about the successful farmer who built his barns bigger and planned to ‘take life easy’.  That very night, his life comes to an abrupt and untimely end with God’s words “You fool!” ringing in his ears. (Luke 12)

At times like this, people often re-evaluate their lives.  We ask ourselves what is really important in life?  For me, as for so many others, the two things which come to the forefront are family and faith. 

Both, of course, are inexorably intertwined. Since my first visit to the doctor, I have found my most uttered prayer to be,

“Really God? Is this really my time?  Because I don’t think it is!” 

My wife Mel is partially disabled after a road accident and in chronic pain.  For 14 years, I have been her principle carer to a greater or lesser degree.  She isn’t getting any better, and in time may well get worse.  Really God? Is this my time? 

My children at 17 and 19 and will soon be off to University.  I want to see them graduate, perhaps marry and have children.  I want to see them establish their lives and be the wonderful people I know they are, and I want to be there for them when life is not straightforward or easy.  Really God?  Is this my time?!

On the positive side, this makes me want to fight.  To be determined to be alive in several years’ time, whatever the odds may be.  Determined that I will not give up, and will take every opportunity to be there for them, for as long as I possibly can.  To be determined not to go gently into the night.

When it comes to my faith, I know what is waiting for me.  I am not afraid of death because I know what Christ has done for me. I know that one day I will stand before his throne in awe and wonder, not because of anything I have done, but because of Him who died for me and rose again.

That does not mean I don’t have my issues with God, of course.  Sometimes life just doesn’t seem fair, and Mel and I have had our fair share of those times.  Like Jacob, I sometimes wrestle with God and will not give in.  Like Job, I sometime find that God seems far away and oblivious to my petty concerns.  Like Jonah, I sometimes don’t want God anywhere near me, and yet God is there.

Putting all of those together, I press on.  Life is different now.  And I will treat each day, each month, and each year differently, as I join others in living in the paradox of life and death.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Here we go again...

The Church in Wales have vetoed an openly gay priest in a celibate Civil Partnership from being appointed as Bishop of LLandaff.  This is especially shocking as the Church in Wales has been one of the more supportive Anglican provinces towards LGBT people in the past.

According to a letter published by Jeffrey John, whose appointment was blocked, the reason is anti-gay discrimination.  Despite unanimous support for Jeffrey among the appointed representatives for the Diocese of Llandaff, and a reminder by the presiding bishop that being in a Civil Partnership was not a bar to appointment, 2 of the 5 Bishops objected to his appointment on the grounds of his sexuality, effectively blocking his appointment.  In his letter Jeffrey John notes that, “This is the way that anti-gay discrimination always works.”

He should know.  He has been blackballed from the club of Bishops on a regular basis for the last 14 years.

In 2003, Jeffrey John was forced to withdraw from being appointed Bishop of Reading by the then Archbishop of Canterbury because of his sexuality.  The conservative backlash which followed the announcement of his appointment resulted in him being hounded by the press, pilloried by conservatives, and hung out to dry by the church which appointed him.  It all culminated in an ‘invitation’ to Lambeth Palace where he was subjected to several hours of emotional blackmail before finally caving in and withdrawing his acceptance.

At least that was all out in the open.

On numerous occasions since then, he has been shortlisted for posts as a Bishop.  Each time, he has submitted the personal statements required, often been called for interview and then told he was not suitable.   All under the veil of secrecy which shrouds the appointment of Bishops in the Church of England and in Wales.

In 2010, he was shortlisted to be Bishop of Southwark where he was known as a former parish priest, elected member of General Synod, and Canon Chancellor at the Cathedral.  He was well loved by his friends and respected by those who disagreed with him.  It should have been a perfect fit, but the same pattern repeated.  This time, however, substantive leaks followed.  One of the members of the appointing group (the CNC) died the following year, and his daughter made his account of the meeting public.  Jeffrey John’s appointment had been blocked by a ‘bad tempered Archbishop of Canterbury’ who left a number of the members of the CNC in tears.  The Archbishop of York had worked behind the scenes to the same end.  The whole episode had been shameful.

On and on it went, in a pattern which can only be called abuse.

After the appointment of Nicholas Chamberlain as Bishop of Grantham last year, and the subsequent revelation that he was in a long term same sex relationship, it appeared that change had finally come.  Now there was an openly gay Bishop in the CofE.  It appeared that the dam had broken, but there was an important difference.  The fact that Nicholas is gay, and in a long term relationship, was not publicly known before his consecration.  It was privately known, by the current Archbishop of Canterbury amongst others, but it was not in the public domain.  Apparently that still makes a difference.

And so we come to Llandaff.  Here, surely was the appointment that would break the cycle of abuse.  In recent years the Church in Wales has been more supportive of LGBT people in its public statements than its Anglican neighbours in England.  Jeffrey John is Welsh and a fluent Welsh speaker.  The 12 people elected by the diocese to represent the views of the diocese in the appointment unanimously supported him.

But even this was not enough.  After allegedly homophobic comments went unchallenged at the Bench of Bishops meeting, he was blackballed again, along with everyone else who had made the shortlist, just to obfuscate the blatant discrimination at work.

The spiritual and emotional abuse continues.

I talked with Jeffrey John back in 2003 when he was unable to go home because of the press camped out on his doorstep.  He told me of the pressure he was under to withdraw his acceptance to be Bishop of Reading.  I remember encouraging him to stand firm, and said that if he stood down, this opportunity would not come round again for a generation.

Sadly the pressure on him proved too much, and half a generation later, I am increasingly afraid that I might be right.

The irony is that I don’t blame the individuals involved as much as the institution whose culture is characterised by fear more than love or justice.  It was fear that prevented anyone challenging the homophobic statements made at the Board of Bishops.  It was fear that led them to blackball Jeffrey John rather than face any controversy which might follow.  It was fear which paralysed these Christian leaders from exercising true leadership.

The Christian Gospel is not meant to be about fear.  It is supposed to be about justice and love. In fact, the Bible says that perfect love casts out fear.  Perhaps the Bible should have the last word, from 1 John 4:16-18

“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.

This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world, we are like Jesus.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

Friday, 17 February 2017

Walsingham Baby

Today, on his birthday, we interred my Father's ashes in Puddletown church yard, alongside my Mum's.

After his death last year, I posted 'Shilvia Shishishons' - a tribute to his calling to ordination.  Today, I would like to post a short joint tribute to him and my Mum, in gratitude for the way in which I came into the world.

It has taught me never to dismiss the faith of others - even when it may seem very different to my own...

"Getting into parish life did nothing to soften my parents’ Anglo-Catholic fervour.

My dad never seemed to be out of his 39 button cassock with biretta on special occasions.  They were both Oblates at CSMV, the convent where mum had been a nun, and they made regular pilgrimages to the Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham.

After a second curacy in Doncaster, they moved south to High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, where dad was priest in charge of the church at Downley.  He was responsible for a daughter church of the infamous parish of West Wycombe where Sir Francis Dashwood founded the ‘Hellfire Club’ in 18th century and carved caves out of the chalk beneath the parish church for their hedonistic rituals.

The church of St James the Great at Downley Common was much less salubrious.  The initial builders planned a huge church, but only the Sanctuary was ever built which left one whole side of the building sheeted in wood and corrugated iron as a makeshift wall.  Nevertheless life on the Common was a long way from the industrial north and they embraced this new environment.  Irene took on her role as ‘vicar’s wife’ and David served the village community as priest and kept close to his roots by joining the Labour Party.

There was one thing missing from their lives however.  Irene in particular, longed for a baby – but they tried without success.  Long term medical concerns about the health of her womb did not help and they began to wonder if they would ever have children.

Then in 1962, they made the journey to Walsingham with a special intention.  They drank the water from the sacred well, and lit a candle at the shrine of Our Lady, and asked Mary for her prayers for a child.

The thought of not having children grieved Irene deeply, and I am reminded of Hannah praying for a child in 1 Samuel 1 “in deep anguish… praying in her heart… pouring out her soul to the Lord”.  Hannah made a deal with God that if he heard her prayer and gave her a son, she would dedicate him to God for all the days of his life.  I sometimes wonder if Irene made a similar deal with God.

Whether she did or not, their prayers were answered.  From Walsingham, they went for a short holiday in Dorset, and 9 months later I was born in January 1963 at “The Shrubbery” in High Wycombe – a most peculiar name for a maternity unit.

Just as Hannah named her son Samuel ‘because I asked the Lord for him’, Irene and David named me Benedict which means blessing.  Every year in my childhood, we would make the trip to Walsingham to give thanks at the Shrine of Our Lady.  Often this would be during the big annual pilgrimage in May, and we would join with other pilgrims in the great procession and open-air Mass, singing the Walsingham hymn as we processed past the demonstrators from the Protestant Truth Society who were condemning such idolatry.

As an Evangelical Christian now, I am not sure what I think of such overwhelming devotion to Mary, but I can never forget that I was born after heart-felt prayer at the Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham.  Sometimes it feels like a private joke between me and God, when I hear fellow evangelicals being disparaging about a more Catholic spirituality, but it has also taught me an important lesson.  We may not always understand the faith and spirituality of others.  Sometimes we are too eager to dismiss other expressions of faith as mistaken or wrong.  But if God is happy to be at work through those expressions of faith, who are we to dismiss or condemn.

Much later in my teenage years, I remember hearing a South American Pentecostal preacher called Juan Carlos Ortez talking about his children when he returns home from a preaching tour.  His son would come up to him and ask him to play tennis, “Oh dad, I’ve been waiting for you to come back so I can play tennis again.”  Then his daughter would come up to him and ask him to play tennis, “Oh dad, I’ve been waiting for you to come back so I can play tennis again.”   So he would ask them, “Why don’t you play tennis with each other?” and they each had their reasons why they wouldn’t play together; excuses like “He always hits the ball too hard” and “She always loses the balls”.  In the end, he would play tennis with his son and he would play tennis with his daughter – but he also longed for them to play tennis with each other.

Too often that is what we are like as Christians – all wanting to play with God, but full of excuses why we won’t play with each other.  We often separate ourselves from other Christians or other Churches.  We choose who we will play with, work with, pray with – but in the end, we are all children of God.

So in the end, I thank God that I am a Walsingham baby, even if it does not fit my neatly worked out theology.  It reminds me that walking with God is often much messier than our well-ordered categories, and being a Christian is, above all else, about walking with God.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Modern Parable for the CofE

So I went to my local cinema with a friend.

We got to the box office to buy our tickets, but when we said which film we wanted to see, the cinema usher suddenly looked uncomfortable.  The colour slowly drained from her cheeks.

After an agonising pause, she finally said, “I’m sorry but this film isn’t really for you.  It’s for other people… you know, people who aren’t like you.”

My friend and I stood there, caught somewhere between amazement and incredulity.  We began to argue with the usher.  “What do you mean – it’s not for us?  Why can’t we go in?  What sort of cinema is this anyway?”

The more we argued, the more uncomfortable she looked, mumbling things like, “I know, I know... it doesn’t seem fair…  If it were up to me, I would let you in… you are more than welcome to see other films, but not this one – its company policy.”

We stood our ground, continued to argue and after a while, she offered to talk to the cinema manager and see what he could do.  While this was far from ideal, we reluctantly agreed and she disappeared into his office, leaving us standing there wondering if it was really worth staying.

In the end, we decided to wait, and eventually she came back with a smile.

“I’ve talked to the manager, and he doesn’t agree with the company policy either, but his hands are tied.  We can’t sell you tickets to that film – but we can get around it!   If you want, I can sneak you in through the side door, and sit you in a corner where no one will see you.  I’m afraid you won’t be able the whole screen, but you will get the gist of the film you want to see.”

Now we were completely incredulous.

“But” she continued, “you have to agree not to tell anybody, and you mustn’t let anyone see you, and if you hear certain words – words like ‘thanksgiving’ or ‘blessing’ or ‘marriage’ or ‘ring’ – you must put your hands over your ears and remember that those words don’t apply to you.”

Now we didn’t know what to do.  We really wanted to see the film.  We had been looking forward to it, ever since it came out.  We had made a commitment to each other to see it together.

Yet now, faced with all these conditions… faced with the way we were being treated… faced with all the difficulty our presence was creating… we just felt a mixture of angry, deflated, and sad.  All the joy and excitement had gone.

Should we stay and take what we’ve been offered, even though it’s not what we want?  Should we walk away?  Find another cinema?  Surely they can’t all be like this? Perhaps we should just wait for the DVD? But that wouldn’t be the same either...

The cinema usher asked us again, “So… do you want me to sneak you in?”

Tell us, Church of England, what should we do?

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Fractured Families and the House of Bishops

During my 25 years of ordained ministry, I have come across a good number of families who were divided over sexuality.

Most heart-rending would be when visiting a family about the death of their adult son or daughter, I would suddenly realise that there was an unseen partner, not present at this key moment as we planned the funeral service.

It was an innocent question about girlfriend, boyfriend, or children which usually betrayed the guilty secret.  ‘Well, he did have a “friend”’ or something similar was the typical embarrassed reply.  This ‘friend’ in the days before Civil Partnerships was invariably of the same gender, and was excluded by the family from this vitally important part of grieving a loved one.  After a while, I learned to look for them at the funeral.  He or she would be the one whose grief was palpable, almost uncontrolled – far surpassing the grief of parents, brothers or sisters – and yet excluded from the family pew.

I would make a point of spending time with him/her after the service, but even then, their words to me were guarded as I tried to include them in a funeral which they had no part in planning.

The situation has improved over the years since then.  Civil Partnership and now marriage have secured the right of the partner in a same-gender relationship to be the next of kin, but there are still situations when a loved one of the same-sex is marginalised or excluded.

I have done funerals for a parent of a LGBT son or daughter, where their partner has been marginalised of excluded.  The person who would be the best support in a difficult time has been placed at the outer margins of family, or simply excluded completely by others in the family.

The typical line which would accompany this pastoral situation would be something like, “Mum (or dad) never really got used to – you know – the way they were.” The same gender couple were tolerated, occasionally welcomed at family events, but never really accepted into the family.  There was no blessing, no celebration, no real acceptance.  Now they were separated from each other in this most tender time by the ghost of family disapproval.

And that disapproval is the harmful and hurtful message which the House of Bishops have further enshrined in their recent statement on same-sexpartnerships, to be debated in the General Synod this week.

In recent years, LGBT Christians have put their head above the parapet, risked sanction and exclusion, by joining in the Church of England’s ‘Shared Conversations’ in the hope of recognition.  Yet now they have been deliberately put back in their place on the margins.

In suggesting ‘maximum freedom’ for Church members, priests and bishops in same-gender partnerships, but refusing to change the church’s approach one iota to same gender relationships, the House of Bishops is saying we will tolerate you, but don’t get too close, don’t expect recognition, and don’t expect us to celebrate with you or bless you in your love – because at the end of the day, you are still living in sin against the will of God and his Church.

Not much of a welcome, is it?

Under their statement, same-gender Christian couples will still be refused public thanksgivings, blessings or acts of affirmation.  They will still be pushed to the margins of church life – expected to live in the shadows.  The House of Bishops doesn’t want them to get too close for fear of aggravating other members of the family – just like my funeral stories.

Very few people expected the CofE to rewrite its doctrine of marriage to include same-gender marriages anytime soon.  What was hoped for, however, was the same recognition which people marrying after divorce received for years, before marriage in church was an option.  A service of thanksgiving or blessing which did not rewrite the church’s doctrine of marriage “One man and one woman for life” but which did recognise that real life doesn’t always work out in the way the church expects.

Allowing such a liturgy does not require a change of the doctrine of marriage – it simply requires the same pastoral heart which prompted clergy to respond to divorcees in a more positive way.

What will be debated this week however, will be more of the same line which the CofE has peddled for years.  You can’t be blessed – not in public at least – and we won’t sanction giving thanks for your love – but we will tolerate you with our new doctrine of ‘maximum freedom’ for the wretched sinner.

In the light of this report, the CofE remains a sadly fractured family, and yet again, gay and lesbian Christians are being asked to carry the burden of that division – just like the fractured families I have encountered.

Surely there must be a better way?

It is particularly ironic that the next agenda item after the sexuality debate at General Synod this week is entitled “Setting God’s People Free”.  And it is particularly sad that the Church doesn’t seem to recognise the link or the contradiction between the two.

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.”