Tuesday 28 May 2013

Ten years on...

(A personal reflection)
Last month was a significant milestone for our family.  It was the 10th anniversary of an event which changed our lives forever.
On the 4th April 2003, at about 9:30am, my wife Mel was cycling to Yoga through the busy streets of Brixton when a lorry turned left without looking or signalling, and she was dragged under its wheels.  She was pushed down the road under one of the front wheels for about 10 metres and when the 18 tonne truck came to a halt, it was quite literally resting on top of her pelvis.

Those who know us or our story, will know that by some miracle she survived, but it led to month after month in hospital after hospital, and on a number of occasions she was at real risk of dying, even years after the accident.  Today she is partially disabled, suffers chronic pain, and has to take tablets by the handful two or three times a day.

As you can imagine, the impact on our lives was dramatic.  For Mel, the effects are obvious:  pain, disability, loss of identity, depression and the side-effects of all the drugs have taken their toll.  Instead of looking forward to returning to work when both kids went to school, she had to limit her ambitions to learning to walk, time and time again, and staying out of a wheelchair for as many years as possible.
Our children were just 3 and 4 years old when the accident happened.  Zac was settled in the reception class at school but Iona was still at home with Mel looking after her as a full time stay-at-home mum.  Mel was just beginning to loosen the apron strings taking her to a play-group while she went to Yoga.  She always left with the promise “Mummy always comes back”.  For both the kids, the change was enormous, going from mum always being there, to seeing her in hospital for a few minutes every other day because she was simply too ill for anything more.

But for me too, the change was greater than I could have imagined.   I was vicar of a busy parish in Brixton, London.  As well as leading the church, I was also responsible for overseeing several projects including a ‘Foyer’ homeless project, employment training company, charity shop, cafĂ©, and youth team.  I was a member of the Church of England’s General Synod and an adviser to the Government on urban regeneration.  I had co-written a resource book on ministry in run-down housing estates and was getting invitations up and down the country to speak to groups of church leaders.
Slowly, one by one, all these things were stripped away as I found I simply couldn’t keep up with my working responsibilities alongside being mum and dad to the kids, supporting Mel in hospital and caring for her at home, and dealing with my own sense of spiritual brokenness.  “Why did you let this happen, Lord?  We were constantly sticking out our necks for you – couldn’t you have watched our backs?”

First to go were the speaking engagements and promoting resources for estates ministry.  I had spent 7 years developing the resources which went into the book, but now I found myself having to say no to invitations to help others use them.
The work with the Government went next as I simply couldn’t attend the residential meetings up and down the country.  I had been one of 20 people selected out of 600 applicants to serve on this national Community Forum, but now I found myself having to tender my resignation.

Then I had to scale back on the local projects I was overseeing, even though many of them were fragile and at a critical stage.
And my work at General Synod (the Church of England’s parliament) slowly became too difficult to do.  I could only attend about half the meetings, and even then had to miss things because of last minute complications, or a sudden downturn in Mel’s condition.

Then finally, 18 months after the accident, after Mel had survived another series of major operations, my health failed.  A combination of exhaustion and PTSD finally caught up with me and I was signed off work by my doctor.  For the first few weeks, I found myself unable to answer the door, pick up a phone or switch on a computer.  When I left the house to take the kids to school, or take Mel to her many out-patient appointments, I could hardly speak to people, except in one-word answers.
Soon we realised that we had to leave London and find somewhere quieter to live – somewhere where we could both heal.  We had been totally committed to living and working in the parts of London where others choose not to go because of poverty, crime or violence.  We never thought we would do anything else, but now we found ourselves moving to the other extreme – a sleepy village in comfortable, rural middle-England.  The stripping away of my previous sense of Christian calling, ministry and vocational identity was now complete.

But in all the trauma and exhaustion, there is one thing that we will always be grateful for.
I now see that for years before that fateful day, God had been challenging my sound, traditional, conservative theology of sexuality. 

Just like Peter on the roof of Simon’s house in Joppa, he had been challenging my perceptions of what was clean & unclean in his eyes, time & time again (see Acts 10) and just like Peter, I had refused to listen.    I had stuck to what I had been taught.  I had remained steadfast in the ‘Biblical’ teaching I had received since my childhood.  I had repeated the conservative evangelical mantra, “The Bible says its wrong” over and over again when it came to same-sex relationships.  I had signed letters to the Church of England deploring any relaxation in this strict moral code.  I had told gay friends who were ordained that I thought they should leave their ministry if they refused to repent and amend their lives.
But then in the brokenness which followed Mel’s accident, God gently lowered the sheet once again, sending to me gay Christians who tended my wounds – who prayed with me and for me when I couldn’t pray – who held me close to Christ when all my spiritual strength was gone.

And when I went back to the Bible to look again at what it said about such people, I found that the blinkers had gone.  The same blinkers which Peter wore when he said “No Lord” – the blinkers which meant that, when I went to the Bible, I already knew what it was going to say, even before I read it.  Those blinkers were gone, and for the first time I saw how weak the Biblical case was for condemning same-sex relationships.
Like the scales which fell from Paul’s eyes after his conversion on the road to Damascus, I now could see properly for the first time, and the world looked very different.

The rest, as they say is history.
The new understanding which came out of our tragedy has taken me down roads I never could have imagined.  I remember sitting in a Communion service at an LGB&T conference recently and feeling more at home than I do in most churches.  My wife and I have been able to talk about her Bisexual orientation – something we both knew, ever since we met, but had never been able to be talk about – and we are closer than ever as a result.  Our children live in a family where there is no conflict between faith and sexuality and their faith has flourished.  Even as teenagers, they are the ones who look disappointed if Mel or I say we can’t go to church this week.

So was this all part of God’s plan?
No – I can’t say that – but I do know that God promises to bring good out of even the darkest situations, and we have been blessed by the good He has brought into our lives despite all the pain.

Sometimes it is only when we are broken that God can work to reshape our lives.  That brokenness can come from our own actions, or the actions of others, or even from random events at work in our world, but God can use even the greatest tragedies to open closed hearts to his love.
I am only sorry that I was so stubborn and hard of heart when God’s sheet was being lowered down to me before Mel’s accident – and that it took such a traumatic event to change my mind.  My prayer for others, who struggle with this issue, is that it will not take such a tragedy to open their hearts to a new understanding of God’s will.

As this 10th Anniversary has passed, Mel and I still struggle with depression, flashbacks and the on-going effects of that terrible day, which is partly why I have been so quiet recently.  But in Christ we are more than conquerors through him who loves us and we are profoundly grateful for the good that he has brought out of the evil of that day.