On Pain

I can’t concentrate. I’ve not been able to concentrate for a good few weeks now. Every time I move, as well as sometimes when I don’t, several parts of my body hurt at once. Even lying down results in yelps of discomfort. Not fun.

A few months ago I pinned a joint in my shoulder from twisting around the wrong way. It was painful and expensive to ‘fix’. Now that the weather has turned damp and cold, the problem has come back. With it has come pretty constant back and core muscle spasms, shooting nerve pain up and down both of my legs, tight ankles, fairly fixed shoulders, neck pain, stomach spasms and nerve pain in my hips, along with ringing in my ears (a fun one, that) and increased shaking/tremors in my right hand and wrist. Secondary symptoms include grumpiness, irritability, even more tiredness than normal, feelings of weakness and failure as I’ve not been able to be the kind of person  I want to be or, through the evil fallacy of comparing myself to others think I need to be, and a greatly increased appreciation of the joys of Netflix.

If you’ve seen me recently, whether at work or socially, you probably don’t know much of this, even though I have moaned about my shoulder a lot. I’m good at keeping going. I have an over-developed sense of duty I inherited from members of my family. I have a fear of failure a mile long, or longer, which tells me that if I admit to any or all of this, someone somewhere will say that I’m not ‘enough’, that I can’t do my job, which has become somewhat tied in with my identity and so on. I’m a vicar. Christmas is coming. It’s a busy time. All vicars say they’re busy, all the time, but from mid-November onwards, it’s actually legitimately true. My diary is pretty full for the next few weeks.

I know a lot of people who live in similar situations day by day. It’s easy to get so self-absorbed that I can think I’m the only one who experiences this kind of thing. As it’s the International Day of Disabled People today I thought I’d write a nuanced reflection on what it’s like to live with pain.

It’s crap.

Having got the nuanced reflection out of the way, here are a few more thoughts.

I preach a lot about the perfect love of God casting out all fear. It came up yesterday as we were looking at Advent, a time of waiting and preparation for both remembering Jesus’s birth all those years ago and looking forward to the return he promised to make sometime in the future. Please, let it be soon. When we talk about things like fear, hope, trust and so on, it’s very easy for them to become glib, over-used statements, particularly in a society in which feeling pressurised for our faith is usually people daring to question us or call us out for some of the more blatant contradictions and hypocrisies which most people see very clearly in contemporary Christianity. It’s easy to be a Christian in the UK, or most of the Western World. It really is. Christianity was never designed as a project of societal governance. It really wasn’t. Christians are meant to serve, not be served. They are meant to trust and obey, not demand adherence. So, in this country, when the perfect love casts out fear, it means something quite different, I would imagine, to what it might mean to a Church family waiting for, expecting, pain, even death, for the simple reason of being known as a follower of Jesus. All things need to be held in perspective.

That said, here’s a fear I have as my body asserts itself: this pain won’t end before I die.

Here’s another one: how do I talk about joy and hope when I don’t really feel it myself?

Aging with my impairment scares me. It’s not been massive fun so far.

I’ve achieved a lot in my life. Disabled people do that. Loads of them. It’s not that noteworthy.

But it does feel like I’m fighting against a tide a lot of the time. The tide is mostly flowing in the sea of my own mind. I am very sensitive to any sense that people might view me as weaker, different. I hate disappointing people. Especially because of tiredness or impairment-related stuff. I hate it so much that I do it quite often. And so I hate that too. Whether anyone else disables me or not, I quite often disable myself. I think ‘you won’t be able to do that’, or ‘people like you don’t get to do things like that’. I really do. That’s part of my daily internal dialogue. I share it because however many ramps or lifts are put in to make the built environment more accessible, and I’m deeply appreciative of every single one, the biggest battle I face as someone who lives with pain and impairment is to change my own response to it, or allow God to change it for me. It’s been such a part of me and my life and experience that I don’t know what a ‘good’ response or attitude to it is anymore.

But I do know that it hurts. A lot more, recently.

On this International Day of Disabled People, I’m thinking of and praying for all those who aren’t able to moan about their experiences on the internet. All those who aren’t able to articulate requests for understanding, for opportunity. And I’m thankful to a God who considers disablement to be an abomination. A much greater abomination than some of the other things Christians shout about as abominations, of that I am certain. God does not disable people, so why do I, why do you? Why does your Church? Your denomination? Your workplace? If you see it, call it out, root it out, kill it at source.

A time is coming when there’ll be no more pain, no more fear, no more death, no more tears. It really is. It can’t come soon enough. While we wait for it to come, let’s bring closer the time when there is no more disability, no more discrimination. Let’s start with ourselves and choose not to disable or discriminate. And then let’s talk to the people we love, the organisations we work with and for, everyone we possibly can, to make it clear that although pain is a reality of life, there’s no need for it to by feeling like admitting to being in pain is a weakness that dare not speak its name.

I might get into trouble for this.


Talk Text: December 4th 2016 – Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12 – Repent and Turn to God, the Kingdom Of Heaven Is Close At Hand

These notes formed the basis of my sermon at Emmanuel, Northampton on December 4th 2016. The passages I referred to primarily were Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12. 

‘Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand’

Funny, as I’m preparing this sermon I’m thinking about the times in our society now that we might hear these words. Perhaps you, like me, have been on Abington Street in town of an afternoon, and heard a preacher loudly shouting these words. I wonder, do you stop and listen? I have to admit there have been lots of times when I’ve heard people preaching, using ‘Bible’ language, words like repent and sin and so on, where I’ve crossed over on to the other side of the road, actually been ashamed of fellow believers, brothers and sisters in Christ, because of their methods of evangelism and the force which they often deliver their message. To be blunt, it’s just not cricket. It’s not cool, I think to myself. I spend a lot of time trying to build relationships with people, to get to know them, to find out about them and their stories and to draw them into a relationship with God, and his Church. A foghorn on Abington Street just doesn’t help my method, or a message of inclusion, togetherness and so on. Sometimes, and I probably shouldn’t admit this, I just wish people like this would shut up and leave me to get on with my day. And I’m a minister. Imagine what it’s like for everyone else.

But that’s the thing, these people, these voices in the wilderness, they just keep going, because they have a calling, they’re certain that they need to tell people about the fact that Jesus is coming, and that this matters. My annoyance that, quite often, in the midst of my sadness about the way they’ve chosen to communicate, I feel my conscience being pricked, I feel a prompting in my heart, in my spirit, to do exactly as they suggest and to ‘turn back to God, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand’, well that is only part of the story. I don’t want to be reminded that, at times, I don’t live, or look, much like someone who follows Jesus. I don’t want to be challenged about the choices I make, about whether they help or don’t help the growing of God’s kingdom here on Earth. I have my freedom, and I don’t want someone, particularly if they look and sound like they’ve been in the wilderness for a long time, making any kind of suggestion about how I should use that freedom.

I wonder if that’s what it was like for people who heard John the Baptist. He was confrontational. ‘Repent’ he said, that meant that he thought the people he was speaking to needed to change how they were living, the direction they were facing, the direction they were moving in. They needed to turn to God, because the kingdom of heaven was close at hand. One was coming who was greater than he, he wasn’t worthy to untie his shoes. I suppose these days it might be Converse.

People didn’t like what they heard. Matthew says that it was the Pharisees (they would later be people that Jesus often clashed with, of course) who challenged John and were called, subtly I always think, a brood of vipers. No something you want to be called, I think you’d agree. They’re challenged to prove by how they live that they have repented of their sins. Jesus is coming and he will sort the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad. He will see, he will know and he will judge entirely fairly. Words and piety won’t cut it. It’s motives and actions that will be the measure of whether repentance has happened. Does that challenge you? It challenges me.

We heard about Jesus-Shaped People this week. It was exciting. You’ll be hearing more about it in the coming weeks and months. We’ll be learning about what some of Jesus’s key priorities were and how we can apply them to the life of our Church. One of the key themes we talked about on Wednesday night was about being prophetic, speaking truth to power, challenging evil.

If we’re going to do that, it starts with us. It’s a hard thing to say, but sin, things which turn us away from God, it is evil. Sin is evil. Sins are evil. It doesn’t mean we are evil if we do sin, but we have to bear in mind that to live in a way which is not God’s way is a serious problem, one that needs dealing with. We can’t just challenge the evil we see around us. We have to challenge anything in ourselves which is not Godly, and invite Jesus to judge us fairly, as our readings this morning promises us that he will do. We’ve been reminded again this morning of the forgiveness which is ours because Jesus won it for us on the cross. That doesn’t mean we can carry on living in the way we did before we knew about his offer of forgiveness though. We need to invite Jesus to live in us, individually and as a whole Church, so that he can give us the strength, wisdom and courage to live his way.

Our job is to prepare the way for the Lord, to clear the road for his coming (as people did as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday later in his story). To do that, we need to make a continuing commitment as a Church family to turn towards Jesus, to let him bless the things we do and are that are of him and to challenge us on the things that we do and are that may not be.

Are we willing to repent and return to God? The kingdom of heaven is close at hand. Jesus is coming, not just in our annual remembering of his birth as a baby on that glorious first Christmas day, but he is coming back, to, to judge the living and the dead, to rule in a kingdom where ‘The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.’ He will rule in peace and with fairness when his time comes and we have been offered the chance to live with him, forever. Let’s make sure that we’re facing towards him, worshipping him as the one who offers us the only true route to life and hope, and living his way this Christmas time.

And so, it turns out that those preachers on Abington Street are right after all. Not only that, but we are called to shout, with how we live our lives, as well as with our voices if God calls us to, ‘Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand’