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.

April 2016

April 4th 2016: Romans 5:12-21

With apologies to those who have been waiting, and probably given up, for these posts to return after a two-week break. I decided to pare down what I worked on in the week before Easter, and have then been on holiday this past week. Normal service will now, I hope, be resumed.

You can follow today’s reading by clicking on this sentence.

 ‘Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.’

Do we believe what Paul says about the saving work of Jesus Christ (his death and resurrection) here? People have spent whole lifetimes trying to work out the salvific value of the cross, to whom it applies and what must be done in order to benefit from its consequence (or, to be crude, to be saved). Who’s in? Who’s out? What do we do to get ‘in’?

There are things that Christians are expected to do. We are to love others at least as much, if not more, than we love ourselves. We are to love the poor. We are to partner with God in building his new way of life here, because has given us that privilege. We are, primarily, to love God with everything we have, worshipping him, but not just with Rend Collective songs, or Charles Wesley hymns, with who we are and how we live. We’re to prioritise service, with everything we have, including our money. We’re to pray for those in authority, speaking the truth in love to power.

But none of that, in and of itself, gives life to anyone. Jesus Christ gives life and justification, purpose and all that goes with it, to everyone. Not just some people, his one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all, Paul says. All. Not just some. There’s no contraction or contingency here based on us behaving rightly in order to receive the undeserved consequences of the act of righteousness. We don’t even have to say a special prayer at a particularly emotive moment in our lives. Jesus has brought justification and life to all.

If this is true, and I can see already the sharpening of keyboards everywhere quoting various scriptures that might argue against it, doesn’t this have a monumental impact on everything? Perhaps Paul misunderstood salvation. Well, wouldn’t that be interesting. Some of us would struggle with that even being possible. Perhaps he’s journeying with his thinking on the issue. Perhaps what he really meant isn’t what has been communicated to us by the translation here. I wonder what Jesus would have to say about what he is asserting here.

But what about this: what if the greatest lie the devil uses in this age to confuse and concern people, aside from the one about not existing at all, is that Jesus did not know what he meant when he said ‘it is finished’ on the Cross? Wouldn’t that be a neat and powerful trick? See, I believe Jesus did know what he meant. Exactly what he meant. He meant that we have life and justification. Not so that we could build edifices, power structures, empires, whole industries, around his name and following him. We have life and justification so we can share it with everyone, those who know the life Jesus has won for them and those who do not.

A time is coming when evil’s complete annihilation and the total, final victory of love will become plain to all. This is the promise of the Cross and the wonder of the grace and mercy of God. So, lots of fine and fancy words, but what difference will they make to how we live today?



John Herrick – Between These Walls

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been feeling pretty unwell. I’ve been a man with a cold. It’s been a particularly bad cold, certainly, but a cold, nonetheless, has been the whole extent of it. I am a bad patient. I hate being ill. I’m not very good at stopping. Somehow i think that, without me and my particular brand of faith and humour, the world will fall ever further into the depths of depravity, perhaps irreparably, and somehow it will be my fault, because I didn’t do enough of the right things, in the right way, at the right moments.

Now, I hope that as you have read that paragraph a couple of thoughts have crossed your mind: firstly I gratefully accept your sympathy on my plight, thank you. Secondly, I hope you have recoiled, somewhat, at the ridiculous nature of my emotional response to not quite being the man I want to be, the man that God, I perceive, wants me to be. I hope that, somewhere in your mind, you are beginning to reel off a list of affirmations, scriptural and otherwise to indicate that my value isn’t based on my ability, choices, productivity or anything else, but on the grace and mercy of God alone. Following from this, I hope you are chiding me for thinking that it is me that saves anyone. I hope that, too, were the tone of the conversation to be reversed, you would remind me that it is not my weakness or failure, perceived or actual, which disappoints or angers God, prevents Him from acting, or causes Him to act against another person. God’s love and value of us is His to give. It is given completely, without reservation, because God wills and declares it to be done in this way, not because I did, or didn’t do anything. It’s all because He did something, in Jesus, something I could not, ever do, so that I could be the person I was always meant to be, and, all the more, that God might be revealed and shown to be the most glorious element in our universe.

These feelings, and the impact they can have on a life are, in essence, what John Herrick has managed to interrogate and debunk in his powerful new novel, Between These Walls, which is released next week. Like all of John’s work (From the Dead and The Landing, his previous two novels, as well as the devotional 8 Reasons Your Life Matters) the book crackles with honest hopes and doubts. It presents the story of Hunter Carlisle, its main character, unvarnished. Even though this is “Christian” fiction, in that it presents faith as a crucial element of human existence, this is, at it’s core, simply really strong storytelling. Like much of John Herrick’s characterisation, you quickly find yourself rooting for Hunter, as he explores issues of identity, sexuality, faith and purpose.

Fear not, however. This is not a preachy book. Rare are the passages of theological treatise, or characters sermonising, which so bedevils much Christian fiction, as the reader is force-fed the theology of the author’s perception of orthodoxy (Left Behind series, I’m looking at you). Instead, as Hunter wonders continually about the place of sexual orientation in his life, I as the reader am hard-pressed to know what Herrick’s own position on the issue might be. How refreshing.

As I alluded to earlier, this is more a story of the power of mis-placed and mis-appropriated guilt and shame than anything else. The battles Hunter faces as he works through his own sense of having disappointed family and God, as well as failing to love himself correctly, are at the heart of this book. Whoever we are, whatever we have or haven’t done, this is a book to make us stop and think: is life about us? Is it about God? Is everything as clear-cut and black and white as we hav been told it is? Does it really matter?

At a time when issues of sexuality seem to trump all others in the ongoing narrative of the church, it is exceptionally brave of John Herrick to write this kind of book. He will be criticised from all sides, no doubt, because of the reality of the darkness he portrays, and the fact that that darkness affects all of his characters, wherever they are in the story.He may well be criticised for not presenting a stridently conservative, or stridently liberal view. Ultimately though, in Between These Walls he presents a human story, populated with characters who seem real, and evoke thought in the reader. In these days of theological bluster and noisiness, a story having the power to make us pause for thought has to be applauded.

I know I haven’t written much about what actually happens, or the other characters in the story, or other such potentially salient details. This is deliberate. This, as well as John’s other fiction, is for you to dive in to yourself. You don’t need me to tell you how to enjoy it, but I do encourage you to give it a chance. John’s is a poignant and brave new voice in faith-influenced fiction. He is willing to ask questions that many of us wish we were honest enough to express. He is willing to leave those questions unanswered, trusting us, whether we have some faith or none, to respond in a mature enough way to the stories that he tells. Best of all, the stories that he tells are strong in every department, reeking of reality and the kind of drama that we might all experience at any given moment. This isn’t so much a book review as an entreaty to you as the reader to be courageous in taking the risk of letting a new literary voice in to your life. I hope you will take up the challenge.

You can read a synopsis of the book here.

You can pre-order the book here (you really should)


2014 Lectionary Ramblings Lectionary Ramblings

August 3rd 2014: 2 Peter 1:1-15

Read 2 Peter 1:1-15 here

“….forgetting that they have been cleansed from past sins”

As with all the readings we look at here, there’s so much richness in today’s passage. I couldn’t hope to cover everything that Peter is driving at here in what I’m aiming for, bitesize chunks to make us think at the start of the day. As I’ve said before, please do return to this reading more than once through the day or during the week, and see what it might be saying to you.

For me, today, a key element of this passage is the part of a verse quoted above. Peter is exhorting us to desire the fruit of the Spirit, in ever increasing measure, so that our knowledge of God, in the holistic, rather than merely academic sense, might increase. It’s powerful rhetoric. We are foolish and without true faith, he argues, if we do not see increase in our knowledge, wisdom, love and hope. But in the middle of it all is the key bit, and the key pastoral message for us today, I think:

It all comes down to whether we truly believe that we are a forgiven, free people, or not. Do we really think that we have been forgiven of past sins to such an extent that God has forgotten them? We struggle, many of us, to forget sins we have done, or things done against us, so how can God forget? But if He does not count our wrongdoing against us, we can live in the positivity and hope of abundant life, knowing that we are secure. We don’t need to doubt, to question, whether we really are forgiven, whether the work of the cross truly applies to us. We can hold to it with confidence. And then we can, gradually, gather the strength and wisdom of God that He gives to us, so that we can focus on our primary task, to love God, our neighbours and ourselves, with everything we have, and to seek justice, care for the poor, widows and orphans, to be the radical world-changers that we are called to be.