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.)
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.