Lessons from a Coke can

You might associate meditation and mindfulness with Buddhism and modern psychology more than with Christianity, but there’s also a rich Judeo-Christian tradition of such practices, which are slowly being rediscovered by the western church.

(In fact, meditative and mindful practices are common to humanity. You could say they are traits of being human, before being spiritual or religious.)

Ancient Jewish prophets and teachers would take time out in the countryside, the mountains and deserts, to be still and listen, using all their 5+ senses to attune to the Divine. They’d observe all that was around them, in prayer and stillness, and maybe discover spiritual or prophetic metaphors in the sights and sounds of nature.

God, who they believed was the source and sustainer of everything, could surely be seen and heard through the things he’d created.

This becomes obvious when we read the Psalms of David, who spent days and nights on the hillsides minding sheep (see for example Psalm 23: The Lord is my Shepherd), or Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, where he offers invaluable and insightful advice on life from his reflections on the sparrows and lilies of the lush Judean countryside.

One example I’m particularly fond of, though, is the Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah. Right at the start of his contemplative prophetic accounts, he describes a moment when God asks him, ‘What do you see?’

When Jeremiah replies, ‘A branch of an almond tree’, God creates a word play, saying:

‘That’s right, and I’m watching [the Hebrew words for “watch” and “almond” sound very similar] to make sure my words are fulfilled.’ I’m glad I’m not the only one who likes puns.

‘What do you see (or hear/smell/feel/sense)?’ is a good question to ask ourselves in mindful prayer or contemplation.

I asked myself this question the other day.

At least, I think it was me who asked the question. It might have been God who asked me. There’s little difference, really. If we’re looking to live in tune with the Divine, whatever we call him/her/it, then the voice of I Am (as God revealed himself to Moses) is going to resound in the inner voice of the little I am, who is us.

I share this preamble with you on the traditions of faith so that what follows may not sound quite so wacky as it might do otherwise….

So the other day, as I sat in the comfortable heat of a gorgeous October day, resting from work for a few minutes’ contemplative prayer on a sunny, grassy spot, my eyes alighted on a half-crushed Coke can lying on the ground just a few yards ahead.

‘What do you see?’ I asked myself (or God asked me).

The following are the thoughts that came to me in response.

I see a Coke can.

I see a can that is bruised but not crushed. It reminds me of the traumatised people I work with, bent and bruised – but not crushed – by life. Who get up and keep going against all odds. But they, like you and me, sometimes need others to nurture in them that resilience. To ‘top up’ their courage levels. To inspire them to keep going. Getting alongside someone, showing support, not giving up on them, makes the world of difference.

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The can in question (phone pic)

I see a Coke can.

…that had contained a caffeinated drink. That played a part in energising someone, stimulating activity, productiveness, work perhaps.

Maybe it will be picked up and recycled, becoming useful again. But for now it lies dormant, in a restful state. We, too, need times of dormancy, of non-productiveness. Rhythms of work and rest. Times to bear fruit and times to soak in the soil.

There’s ‘a time to throw stones and a time to gather stones’, as another ancient prophet wrote. Times to be energised before we can energise others.

 

I see a Coke can

…even in its twisted condition, reflecting the sun.

And we humans – even in our damaged state, reflect the light and dignity of the Divine.

In fact, Judeo-Christian spirituality sees the poorest and most marginalised of society as representatives of God: how we treat them is the measure of how we treat God.

There is accumulating evidence that austerity measures (the effects of which are clearly far from over, whatever our Government might say) are directly killing the poor, and are therefore seen by many as expressly anti-Christian. Such Government actions are not neutral. In their blatant disregard of the poor, the Conservative Government demonstrate spiritual blindness of the worst kind. (Just a little political aside there…)

But those who have eyes to see (whether religious, spiritual or not) perceive the precious light, the holiness or divinity, you could say, of those who, bruised and battered, are trying to battle their way through the obstacle course of their lives.

 

I see a Coke can.

The thought that came to me most strongly – from the Spirit or my spirit, my mind or the mind of the Spirit – was this:

‘I want you to have a “CAN do” attitude’.

That’s right. A play on words, like the words heard by Jeremiah.

You CAN do it.

Around this time, I was facing a new challenge at work.

Because of not uncommon issues I grew up with at home and at school that demoralised and demotivated me, I’ve always tended to lack a certain confidence to try new things, to believe in my abilities and, like a lot of people, tend to fear not getting things just right.

But one of the greatest changes in my life over the years has been a growth in confidence and I actually felt quite prepared, if still daunted, to face this new challenge.

The Spirit says to me – and to you – ‘Yes, you CAN.’

You CAN do it.

Whatever daunting task or challenge you’re facing.

Whatever new creative or constructive project you’re considering.

You may not get it perfectly right, but it’ll be good, and most importantly it’ll be a beautiful expression of the unique individual you are.

So go for it!

A little self-belief goes a long way.

My colleagues at work, and my wife, are amazing at nurturing that confidence in me.

That willingness to step forward.

I hope and I try to do the same with them, as well as with the homeless and other vulnerable people we support.

I undertook that new challenge a few days later and was very happy with the way it went. I’d be prepared to do it again, learning from what worked well and what could be improved.

Yes, YOU can.

Let’s continue to encourage each other.

And one final question….

What do you see?

 


Coming Home for GoodAs well as this blog, I also have a book! Coming Home for Good is autobiographical, with themes of homelessness, spirituality and identity, and is available on Amazon.

Find out more here.

 

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Stopping the Tide

What do you think of rhetorical questions? It’s OK, you don’t have to answer that.

But some rhetorical questions seem worth exploring…

For instance, in our church we sing a line that goes:

Who can stop the Lord Almighty?

The unspoken answer, of course, reinforced by the description of God as ‘Lord Almighty’, is ‘NO ONE’. But….

As we sing that song, my mind, being the obtuse creature that it is, wanders off in a different direction.

I start to consider how God is defined not so much by ultimate power or control, but as the ultimate source of love.

…and how ultimate love is always, inevitably, expressed in vulnerability.

In self-appointed powerlessness.

This is one of the things that make the Christian gospel (good news) so appealing. According to Christianity, the life and death of Jesus, in loving weakness, reveals the clearest expression of the character of God.

God’s powerlessness in the manger, wholly dependent on a young mum for all his needs.

A chosen lifestyle of relative poverty as an itinerant preacher and healer, again voluntarily dependent on human help for his everyday needs, as he carried out his divine calling.

And ultimately, naked and bleeding on the cross, helpless and hurting, exposed to the world, with no one to rescue him.

Who can stop the Lord Almighty?

Turns out, the Romans and the Jews can. In fact all of us can, as people responsible for his crucifixion. Because, in love, God chose powerlessness, in order to identify with our suffering. To absorb all the pain we cause ourselves and others.

Who can stop the Lord Almighty?

Every day the forward movement of Love and Compassion is hindered by humanity’s acts of injustice, cruelty and unkindness – whether to others or even ourselves!

In self-chosen weakness – the inevitable expression of Love – God allows himself to be stopped in his tracks. When we fall short of self-giving love, we stop the next step of divine grace.

To give an obvious example, God’s consistent, loving provision of food for the world’s people is just as consistently thwarted by unloving governments’ poor, unethical, cronyistic, or power-hungry handling of resources, so that swathes of the world’s population are denied the opportunity to see the full picture of grace.

Who can stop the Lord Almighty?

Turns out, governments can.

Who can stop the Lord Almighty?

Sometimes the traumas of our past seem to act as a blackout blind against the sunshine of unconditional acceptance and affirmation that God wants to stream into our consciousness.

Who can stop the Lord Almighty?

Turns out, we – or the demons of our upbringing – can.

But wait….. What, then, is this good news?

Thankfully, such human hindrance is never the final word in Christian or spiritual thought. All is not lost. The message of Christ, if nothing else, is one of hope.

That onward movement of love will have its way. In the words of Rob Bell, ‘Love wins’.

Those of us who cling to Christ (or whatever name we call him) struggle and stumble and often despise the darkness that still seems to reside within, but glimmers of light always, always appear through the cracks of our vision, opening our eyes to a wider, brighter world just up ahead, round the corner, where Love has found its fulfilment, its full expression.

For mystics, contemplatives and spiritual people, this fullness of Love is not simply some pie-in-the-sky concept to look forward to in the dim, distant future, but a tangible dimension in the present, glimpsed behind every veil in this world. For the kingdom, as Jesus said, is ‘within us’, to be found ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ when we pray or allow it to be so.

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St Leonards beach, near where I live (photo mine)

Love keeps rolling in, like an incoming tide, gently washing away our brokenness, showing us how to love others, how to overcome evil with good, hate with love, slowly breaking down barriers and bridging every gap, till love becomes all.

Who can stop the tide?

Like King Canute, our darkness, deceit and despair cannot ultimately stop the gentle progression of Love and the hope it brings.

Love will win. The kingdom, where Love reigns, is always coming closer.

What do you think? Feel free to take that as a rhetorical question (or comment below).

Blessings,

Roger

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Please read my About page to find out more about this blog.

I also have a book! Coming Home for Good is autobiographical, with themes of homelessness, spirituality and identity, and is available on Amazon. Find out more here.

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Ripples and Mirrors

I looked back into the cut-price coffee shop, trying to catch the barista’s eye through the misty shop front. The Americano I’d been so looking forward to slurping now lay slopping all over the pavement, steaming in ridicule at me.

I’d dropped the paper cup while fumbling my way out the door, tired at the end of the day in a busy week with barely a break.

I now had 10 minutes spare, away from the demands of work and life. 10 minutes to chill. Just time to grab a coffee and wander down to the beach for a few minutes to meditate/pray, or just be still, before meeting my family at our church for a brilliant but busy, noisy family event.

10 cherished minutes of quiet me-time.

The coffee shop was just closing. As I looked back, I wondered: would the barista offer to give me a replacement drink for free? The spilled coffee was entirely my fault. I’d already paid for it, and dropped it out of my own sheer clumsiness. The shop had no obligation to give me another.

I think my eyes may have looked slightly pleading and helpless as I walked back in with the empty cup and dripping plastic lid. Would the barista exercise mercy?

I remembered Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy”, that I’d read just that morning in a daily reflection. But what does that even mean? Even merciful people are sometimes persecuted and mistreated. Is it simply the promise of a future heavenly blessing? Or is there more to this than meets the eye, as is so often the case with Jesus’ teaching?!

My job is, in some respects, all about mercy. Making friendly, accessible healthcare available to some of the most vulnerable, dejected people in our community, with kindness and compassion: people who, because of their traumatic histories and complex needs, can be difficult or challenging.

Bringing non-judgmental care to those who need it most.

You could say I get paid to be merciful. Of course, money’s not my motivation. Mercy and compassion are in my blood, my bones, my DNA, as a result of a miracle of grace (as you can read about in my autobiography).

But, just because I tend to be merciful to others, does that mean I can expect mercy back? Could I expect a free replacement coffee??

In the past I’ve refuted the whole idea of karma. Probably for two reasons…

One: I’d drawn clear-cut lines between my Christian faith and other religions. The concept of karma was anathema to my Christianity: it belonged to a different religion, not to the “truth” of Jesus.

Reason number two goes something like this:

I’d heard of Hindus who’d got depressed and exhausted, living under the impossible burden of karma, straining to escape a negative cycle and achieve a better life for themselves in their next incarnation, in much the same way as a westerner who believes heaven is for “good” people might strive to prove themselves by their many acts of charity.

The good news of Christ, the “grace” of which Christians speak, tells a better story: it tells us we’re free of all such reward systems, whether of karma or heaven – that there is a higher principle at work in the world, where God’s goodness is for everyone, no matter who we are or what we’ve done.

All well and good. I’m happy to say I still believe that.

But my more recent understanding of religion and spirituality, including this morning’s reflection from Franciscan friar, Fr Richard Rohr, informs me that there are far more parallels and mutual influences between world religions than we might at first realise.

Some believe Jesus was influenced by ancient Eastern spirituality. Certainly, while remaining within Judaism, he brought fresh ideas – a new, spiritual outlook – to his worn-out religion. “You’ve heard it said….but I say…..”

Rohr is convinced that “Jesus taught a karmic worldview” (through sayings like the mercy quote above and many other examples).

He and others, casting off archaic ideas of external rewards and punishments, suggest that even Jesus (like Buddhism) taught that we’re punished by our sins more than for our sins, and that kindness its own reward in the now – no need to wait for heaven later.

The volunteers I manage in the homeless healthcare service where I work bear this out. They often tell me they get far more out of volunteering than they put in. When Jesus spoke of rewards in a spiritual realm (or “heaven”), I wonder if this is the kind of thing he had in mind: positive payoffs for our minds and souls – the type of profound happiness that’s unshakeable because it’s founded in sacrificial giving.

I wonder, as well, if a kind disposition attracts kindness. I’m convinced it does.

Likewise, when it comes to less attractive qualities, Jesus (in the Sermon on the Mount) likens the effects of our anger and lust on ourselves to the burning rubbish-heap called Gehenna outside Jerusalem. It makes perfect sense to understand this as a description of the mental and spiritual anguish caused by our own negativity and disloyalty. Negative thoughts will destroy us.

Our kindness, on the other hand, will encourage others to be kind, and reflect back on us. Both a ripple and mirror effect.

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(Photo mine)

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The barista looked at me with obvious pity, cheerfully offering to replace my spilled Americano with a fresh one.

I breathed a sigh of relief and walked out with a smile and a coffee.

I have no idea whether that was karma. I’m content to live with mystery and unknowing.

But it made me happy, it caused me to feel good about the world.

It made me thankful to God.

I felt glad to have made human contact with the kind barista. It inspired me to reflect on the ideas above and put these words together.

It makes me want to pass on kindness to someone else.

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 Please read my About page to find out more about this blog.

I also have a book! Coming Home for Good is autobiographical, with themes of homelessness, spirituality and identity, and is available on Amazon. Find out more here.

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A Prayer For All Seasons

Creator of the Seasons,

Help me to remember that you are to be found not only in the noisy exuberance of summer

But also in the passive introversion, the understated delicacy, of winter,

In dying as well as in living

In darkness as in light.

In happy times and our deepest sorrows.

In our successes, and our struggles. Our failures, even.

When our popularity is at an all-time high, and when all the world seems to be against us.

Perhaps particularly then.

In our church we sing a kids’ song that includes shouting a line that you are “louder than this song”

Yet I’m far more inclined to seek and find you in the silence, in the stillness, in solitude.

Help me to remember that you are in both.

In noise, in peace. In isolation, in crowds. In quiet contemplation, or raucous worship.

In nature, and the city.

On muddy paths and dusty trails.

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One of my favourite woods

There is nowhere you cannot be found

If we have ears to listen, eyes to see, mind to be aware, a heart to connect

With all that you are

In all that you’ve made.

Help me to remember.

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Common Blue Butterfly

So enjoying this long hot summer. Enjoying the weather, the wildlife, the nature photography – especially after the drudgery of trudging day after day after day through the mud of last winter, our first winter with Gorka, our adopted dog. Feeling like I want this summer weather to go on forever and not to have to face winter, I found myself articulating a prayer along these lines. (Photos all my own.)

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Gorka

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Please read my About page to find out more about this blog.

I also have a book! Coming Home for Good is autobiographical, with themes of homelessness, spirituality and identity, and is available on Amazon. Find out more here.

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Kamikaze, my death is gain

“Kamikaze, my death is gain
I’ve been marked by my maker
A peculiar display
The high and lofty, they see me as weak
‘Cause I won’t live and die for the power they seek”

The lyrics of DC Talk’s brilliant classic Jesus Freak, which include the above words, were read at the funeral of a homeless man I attended this morning.

Ben was a beautiful man, who spent much of his time and effort the last few years begging and using substances. He also exuded such warm, genuine, gentle love for the people around him, and love for Jesus, his saviour. He always greeted me with affection, called me “brother”, and had time for me.

One time, a few years ago, when I visited him in the B&B accommodation he’d been provided for a short time by Social Services, Ben recited to me the entire lyrics of Jesus Freak. The song meant a lot to him. Apparently he’d found Jesus in prison some years earlier.

When the words were spoken at his funeral, they took on a whole new significance, new poignancy.

Not that I had any doubt before, but now I felt fresh faith, new assurance, that I would see Ben again in the afterlife, and I was touched by the usual mix of sadness, joy and affection that tend to accompany these occasions. 

Ben, you’ll always hold a special place in my heart. See you again one day.

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Where there is death, there is also life. (Photo by Roger Nuttall)

—–

Please read my About page to find out more about this blog.

I also have a book! Coming Home for Good is autobiographical, with themes of homelessness, spirituality and identity, and is available on Amazon. Find out more here.

 

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Houses of the Holy

The following is adapted from a chapter of my book: Coming Home for Good.

 

“A tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure.”  – Charlie Chaplin, describing himself

 

In Buxted, where I grew up, there were a couple of tramps we saw from time to time. I guess these guys suffered with a mental health disorder, or autism, and didn’t fit neatly into mainstream society. They seemed to wander through, sporadically, like ragged spirits. I’ve no idea why they’d turn up every so often, pacing along the main road, or where they’d been in the meantime. As a child I never thought about it.

Perhaps, like many homeless people today, there was trauma or tragedy behind their lives on the move.

But there’s also an ancient association between itinerancy and spirituality, a travelling lifestyle serving as a useful means for the widespread distribution of a pastor’s, preacher’s or prophet’s message, especially before the days of electronic or even postal communication. A far more personal touch.

Itinerant ministry has been closely linked with religious asceticism, with the practice of travelling light and dependence on divine provision. The idea of moving about with little more than trust in God played a part in my own journey to faith, as I became increasingly curious to test out whether “God”, if he was there, would provide on my travels when I had nothing but the shirt on my back.

Travelling ministry, in Christian traditions, is characterised by intentional dependence on human hospitality, opening the way for those heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul connections in people’s homes, those “being with”s, that are so close to God’s heart for his children.

It’s therefore not surprising that Jesus chose homelessness, not out of any psychological damage or disconnection like me; rather, to forge those human/human, human/divine connections and bring healing to his hosts’ psychological dysfunctionality and physical brokenness.

Nor is it surprising that he sent his disciples out on the same kind of missions to bring healing and wholeness.

Man connecting with man. God connecting with man.

People becoming reconnected with themselves by connecting with God.

Jesus chose homelessness also because he sided with the marginalised, the weak, the despised, the poor, the “sinners”. He chose a lifestyle that would demonstrate solidarity with them.

“The son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”

His mother’s accounts of his homeless birth must have echoed prophetically in his head as he figured out his Father’s calling to live a life of identification with the poor.

And, as he went about his transient ministry, he searched out people, mostly the kinds excluded by the religious authorities of his day, who would take him into their homes to share a meal, benefitting both them and him. He created those mutual “being with”s, not always even waiting to be invited.

Like the time he invited himself to the house of the notorious tax-collector Zaccheus, creating a scene of celebration and forgiveness, much to the disgust of the shocked religious onlookers.

This was the equivalent of Jesus today celebrating with Pride revellers in full view of a crowd of American fundamentalists.

Jesus felt at home in other people’s homes. By moving about and entering the houses of the poor, eating, talking and praying with them, he gave them a sense of acceptance and worth and dignity – bringing healing to bodies, minds, human divisions and disconnections.

In so doing Jesus created a homecoming for both him and them.

I believe he still does that, his life on earth reflecting the eternal God – the itinerant Spirit who searches out hearts to make a home in and turns ordinary people into houses of the holy [1].

I learned early on in this spiritual journey that if we want to see God, a good place to start looking is in the faces of the poor.

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I learned early on in this spiritual journey that if we want to see God, a good place to start looking is in the faces of the poor.

 

The Jewish prophets of long ago, like Solomon and Isaiah, and Christian apostles like James and John, not to mention Jesus himself [2], all concurred that if we mock the poor or ignore their plight, if we fail to take care of the needs of the broken, the rejected, the vulnerable, then we mock or ignore God, and all our worship services are useless.

Just as Isaiah describes those who are homeless, hungry or destitute as our own flesh and blood, Jesus similarly identifies them as his brothers and sisters and even his representatives. Whatever we do to them – help or ignore – we do to him.

As I delved into the Christians’ book, I discovered almost from the start the Bible’s claims that if we want to know God’s identity, then we need to look into the faces of those who are crying out for our help – these houses of the holy – often a silent cry from deep within their hearts, but which can be heard by those with a trace of human empathy and compassion.

There is so much to love about Christian spirituality – that challenges the complacency of the rich and powerful and lends dignity to those who are materially or spiritually poor.

***

Some questions for reflection:

  • Who would you find it difficult to hang out with? What would happen if you did? What might you learn from them?
  • How easy do you find it to “be” with people?
  • Who might you connect with this week?
  • What place do “the poor” have in your faith, spirituality or worldview?
  • How, if at all, does this kind of spirituality influence your political persuasions?

***

Coming Home for Good is autobiographical, using examples of personal life experience to discuss “physical, psychological and spiritual homelessness”, and to reflect on identity, individuality, addiction and belonging – which, while especially pertinent in the context of homelessness, are issues that affect everyone.

Coming Home for Good is available on Amazon, at just £8. Find out more here, or click on the picture below:

Coming Home for Good

[1] A nod to Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy (album), Atlantic, 1973.

[2] For example: Proverbs 17:5; Isaiah 58:6-12; James 1:27; Matthew 25:31-46.

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Killing Butterflies

When I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I collected butterflies. In the ‘70s, when they were far more prolific, I’d enjoy watching buddleias swarming with Small Tortoiseshells, Peacocks and Red Admirals, and I’d seek out more elusive species.

I’d swoop them up in a net, kill them in a special jar using a chloroform-like substance, and set and display them, neatly labelled, in glass or plastic cases. I had all the equipment.

When I was about 13, while watching one flutter to its death in the killing jar, my developing teenage conscience was suddenly horrified by what I was witnessing and I quit the cruelty from that day.

It occurred to me recently that immature religion can be like that. A faith that hasn’t (yet) grown up has a tendency to want to capture God, to display him, neatly labelled, in its cabinets and say, “This is what God is like. These are his ways and his rules, and they are setlike this.”

When an expression of faith fails to develop out of those early stages, it inadvertently (and, of course, metaphorically) kills God. That is, it kills the wonder and the mystery and the beauty of all that is unknown and larger-than-life, larger-than-anything-we-can-know, about our Creator. It says, “We’ve got God all sewn up” and in so doing sets itself up as bigger than God.

Last year I visited a church, where I stumbled into a talk on a topical, sensitive subject. OK, I’ll tell you what it was: the talk was on gender dysphoria and transgender issues.

You see, even as I write this, I’m trying to avoid discussing the subject, because I know so little about it. But then, in a way, that’s my point.

To be fair, the speaker’s attitude was sensitive, his initial comments reflecting on the compassion of Jesus, as described in the Bible, towards people facing their various challenges.

But the content, I have to say, deeply saddened me.

The practical response the young man advocated for the church to take towards people affected by gender dysphoria was singular. Monochrome. One approach, one solution. Not a trace of nuance or room for individual difference.

(And again to be fair to the young speaker, that talk could well have been my own view 25 years ago; I have hope for the faith and wisdom of him and others to progress from such singularity to a more rounded view.)

This is the only stance Christians should take towards people who are transgendered or experiencing gender dysphoria – was the prescriptive message from this church’s pulpit.

Not only that, it was one of those 3-point sermons, so loved by preachers, each point starting with the same letter, for ease of memory.

But Jesus never trivialised the wonderful intricacy of people by reducing them to mnemonics!

Nor did he ever advocate a blanket approach to sensitive issues. You’ve only got to look at the way he healed, or interacted with people, to see a highly individualised approach, with very specific responses to people with ostensibly similar issues.

His preaching and teaching, often by way of parables and stories, opened eyes to see behind the veil, to a way of living beyond the religious rights and wrongs of his day, to a kingdom beyond the mechanistic way of thinking that dominates those who like to capture, set and display God and humanity in their glass cases, with neat labels.

—–

My fascination with butterflies never waned, and now in my 50s I still love to chase them – with my camera.

But even photography is a form of capturing; even photography can detract from the enjoyment and wonder of the world around us. I find that being still and soaking in the sights and sounds of nature can be more worthwhile without a camera to “capture” the moment. Sometimes moments are best lived in, being present in, instead of being measured and recorded.

My relationship with religion – and ergo humanity – is something like that.

I entered a life of faith at the age of 22. In my early days as a Christian, I was happy to be taught right from wrong, not only morally but theologically too. Sound doctrine, the avoidance of heresy, seemed important. And perhaps there is a place for structural teaching in building spiritual foundations in the early years of faith.

Perhaps.

But, as we get longer in the physical and spiritual tooth, the kind of faith that lacks nuance and leaves little room for mystery does God and humanity a disservice. Like butterflies in a killing jar, the reality of God is suffocated and the divinely-inspired dignity and diversity of human beings is reduced to a set of tightly-defined ideals.

When our religion grows up, we know less and we love more. We’re content with unknowing and yet we know.

Like ants who “know” the universe they live in, we stand and walk and breathe in God. We are immersed in him. We know little other than his love.

God reveals himself as “I am” – transcendent, indefinable being – and declares that we are made in his image. “We are.” “You are.” “I am.” How amazing is that.

To advocate a single response to a complex and sensitive issue is an insult to the breadth and depth of the challenges faced by real people. Simplistic solutions and tidy typology dumb down the reality of God and deny the complex mystery and wonder of humanity.

These days I tend not to capture or display God, neatly labelled, in glass cases, but to enjoy living in the Eternal Mystery of the I Am.

As someone who deals a lot of the time with mental health issues and other complex needs in my work, I’m also learning not to pigeonhole people, preferring instead to be present with them, sharing the humanity of another person with all the idiosyncrasies that make him “him”, or that make her unique. No glass case, no labels.

Butterflies are best enjoyed in colourful flight.

—–

Please read my About page to find out more about this blog.

I also have a book! Coming Home for Good is autobiographical, with themes of homelessness, spirituality and identity, and is available on Amazon. Find out more here, or click on the picture below:

 

Coming Home for Good

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Streetlife

The following is an extract from Coming Home for Good – my autobiographical book on homelessness, spirituality, identity and belonging – describing some of my experiences of an itinerant lifestyle choice as a young man in America:

 

In ’87, money became scarce. I saw myself as “road-wise” rather than street-wise, and lived for the open road. City life’s never been my thing. But when times were tough, I stayed in the cities to donate plasma for $5-$10 a time (depending on the city), which they’d let you do up to twice a week. The clinic would take a pint of blood, centrifuge it to separate the plasma from the red cells, and infuse the red cells back into the donor’s bloodstream.

I have no idea what the screening procedures were like back then, but all the street people used to do it for a quick buck, and I became one of them.

At one clinic, while I was there, they treated and dressed a really nasty, infected ulcer that had developed on my elbow from a simple graze I’d sustained while messing around with a football in a field with Joel and Mikey in Portland. I found that every little scratch I got – and you tend to get a lot when you’re sleeping rough – became infected. The elbow wound was so bad, I still bear the scar quite visibly 3 decades later.

The same thing happened to two symmetric wounds on my back that originated as simple scratches from the split rings on my metal frame rucksack when I walked or hitched with my shirt off in the southern heat. Two decades later, in a physical assessment class as part of my nurse prescribing course, a medical lecturer demonstrating an examination of my back was trying to guess the cause of my scars and surmised I’d had some kind of thoracic surgery. I took great delight in revealing the real, obscure cause was my distant history of hitch-hiking.

My nutrition – and therefore immunity – was no doubt pretty poor, not to mention hygiene. I was never a proud, image-conscious young man – well, except in my younger punkier days, with my all-black clothes and hair. Showers weren’t necessarily a priority when travelling, although I would find rivers to wash in, and one time discovered I could sneak into a high-class golf club through the back door to use their showers. That was luxury!

Homeless people are generally prone to infections, even if their hygiene is good. Like the rest of the population, many are keen to keep themselves clean and tidy, while others tend to let themselves go if their lives and energy are consumed by chasing the next beer or bag of heroin, or their minds distracted by psychotic illness or depression.

Many have health conditions like hepatitis that affect their immunity, which in turn may also be compromised by poor nutrition.

When I was travelling, my weight dropped to about a stone lighter than for most of my young adult life – giving me a BMI of 18 (in other words, quite underweight) – and about 2.5 stone lighter than my current (healthy) weight.

For all these reasons, homeless people have high rates of respiratory, skin and wound infections.

Incredible to think, looking back on the elbow episode, that I’m now running homeless clinics myself, treating wounds, infections and other health problems; that I’m prescribing antibiotics, dressings and nutritional supplements. Who’d have thought it when I attended that plasma clinic in ’87? Certainly not me.

Homeless people tend to have great difficulty accessing healthcare – even in the UK, where they don’t have to have an address to be registered with a GP – although not all surgery staff realise this, unfortunately. Systems are difficult to navigate; making doctors’ appointments is difficult even for people with the most organised lives; and healthcare often isn’t top of the agenda for people in chaotic, vulnerable circumstances.

Despite the eternal, infernal funding challenges in the voluntary sector, I find it incredibly satisfying, working for a charity outside the NHS, to be able to offer informal, friendly, drop-in clinics, making healthcare accessible at venues where homeless people congregate; not being restricted to 10-minute consultations.

Talking of nutrition, I learned to raid the skips just after McDonald’s had closed at night, for free, freshly discarded burgers while they were still warm! That was such a treat.

“Dumpster diving” as it’s known in the US, or “skipping” in the UK, has hit the media in recent years as high-profile cases have heightened public pressure to reduce food waste by supermarkets and to legalise the practice of taking discarded food from skips – to criminalise supermarkets, not the poor and homeless, for this mad situation. It’s been encouraging to see more scope being given for charities to at least accept food that’s going out-of-date.

The other draw to the cities on my travels was the free meals in soup kitchens and hostels, which tended to be pretty grim, to be honest.

In one hostel, lying on a mattress on the floor of a grimy, bare room shared with a male stranger who had wanted to have sex with me, I clung on to my rucksack in my half-sleep, not trusting anyone.

But in every soup kitchen and hostel, the soup and sandwiches were a welcome relief to an empty stomach. Most were run by Christian missions and I’m forever grateful to all of them.

Some of these mission halls insisted on visitors listening through a gospel talk before being given food. Not too sure of the ethics of that now. And I’m not sure how receptive those raucous crowds with ravenous stomachs could have been to the messages being preached.

However, little bits of what I heard made me think, and I ended up debating and arguing one-to-one with some of the preachers. By this time, I had an interest in Buddhism and didn’t much like these Christians’ dualistic ideas of heaven and hell, God and Satan, good and evil, but something was beginning to chip away at me.

But I had no doubt that, if there were a God, then I was a sinner and needed saving. My understanding of sin, if there were such a thing, was simplistic. My stealing, lying and deceitfulness, my general sense of being a bad person, constituted my sinfulness – if God was real. It was self-evident that my lifestyle constituted one of sin before the Christian god.

If I could be convinced of the existence of God, I’d need no convincing of my sin. But if I continued in my atheism, I could continue in the dubious freedom of my amorality….

 

Coming Home for Good is available here, in print and on Kindle.

Comments and reviews always welcome!

Thanks for reading,

Roger Nuttall

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Coming Home for Good: published!

Some of you will know that I previously made a draft of my book available for free as an online pdf. I finally decided it would be sensible and viable to publish it properly after some final, further editing.

So…here’s the blurb for the newly released Coming Home for Good, in which I use my autobiography to comment and reflect on homelessness, spirituality, identity and belonging:

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“Growing up in ‘70s and ‘80s Thatcherite Britain, Roger developed a deep longing to escape from society to live as an itinerant, free from possessions and responsibilities. In Coming Home for Good Roger attributes this early ambition – or lack of – to a combination of broken home, educational difficulties, an apparently purposeless universe, and disillusionment with a capitalist society.

After running away from home twice, Roger started to live the dream by hitch-hiking around the USA at the age of 19. At 21 he returned to the States to continue pursuing a free, hedonistic lifestyle after burning all his boats in England, eventually experiencing life with no possessions but the clothes he was standing in.

Everything changed when he unexpectedly found Christian faith on the streets of America in 1987 and returned to the UK to pursue a career in nursing. He has now been managing a homeless healthcare service since 2004.

Coming Home for Good traces the roots of Roger’s lifestyle choices, the adventures and experiences of life on the roads and streets of America, and lessons learned from working with homeless people. He tells of his ongoing, unfolding sense of identity and self-actualisation, the potential for which he sees in the lives of the homeless people he works with. Recurring themes of hope, empathy and compassion are seen as keys to unlocking this potential.

Coming Home for Good uses examples of personal life experience to discuss ‘physical, psychological and spiritual homelessness’, and to reflect on identity, individuality, addiction and belonging, all of which, while especially pertinent in the context of homelessness, are issues that affect everyone.”

One friend, after reading the book, gave this review:

“[Coming Home for Good] has been of huge help and encouragement to me – nice to know that love, empathy and compassion may be enough in the end.”

Follow this link to buy at Amazon UK

Follow this link to buy at Amazon.com

Also available on Kindle.

Hope you’ll find it interesting!

With love

Roger Nuttall

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God’s ‘mini-me’s

Can humans be gods? Of course not. At least not according to Christianity.

Yet, in Psalm 82, one of the Jewish / Christian scriptures, God (Yahweh) addresses Israel’s rulers as ‘gods’! Humans described as gods! This incredible psalm should come as quite a shock to most religious people.

Jesus himself quoted from this psalm to affirm that God did indeed address the people as gods – in order to make his point: “Why is it so hard to accept that I could be God’s son?”

The words of Psalm 82 have mind-blowing implications for our society in various ways:

  • As ‘gods’ or Yahweh’s representatives, our leaders and politicians have a God-given responsibility to exercise mercy and social justice: to care for the marginalised and vulnerable. As numbers of people dependent on food banks due to benefits sanctions rise and rise, and as homelessness grows unstoppably in Hastings where I live and across the UK with no sign of slowing down, I wouldn’t like to be in the shoes of our current government before a holy God – where holiness is not the cold piety of a distant deity, but the fiery, devoted passion for ultimate justice on behalf of the most vulnerable. I suspect there’s a message there for our American friends too, with just a few days to the presidential election.

 

  • As ‘gods’, every human being has an intrinsic worth far beyond that which any of us can ever imagine – far above anything expressed by most theological and psychological schools of thoughts. And no wonder – the idea of us being ‘gods’ is so radical and far-reaching, it verges on blasphemy to Judeo-Christian thinking. To approach the idea of people being ‘gods’ is to walk on holy ground. And yet it is a Christian idea. God is. I am. The mystery of our being mirrors the mystery of his being. We are, literally, God’s children. We carry his DNA, his genes – so much more than his image. So ingrained in Christian thinking is the idea of sin’s pervasiveness, that the holiness, goodness and beauty that underlies our brokenness is usually missed. I would so love for all the broken, hurting, struggling people I know (that’s pretty much everyone, including me) to begin to grasp this core identity that we have. What incredible healing there would be in that comprehension!

 

  • Those regarded as ‘least’ and ‘lowest’ according to the echelons of society, or ‘low-life’ as I’ve heard them described, are nevertheless ‘gods’ according to Yahweh – not just his representatives, they are his ‘mini-me’s – and therefore, as Jesus made plain, whatever we do or fail to do for them, we do or fail to do for him. This affords us amazing privileges and opportunities to encounter the holy love and presence of Yahweh as we serve society’s marginalised, pray for them and press for social justice.

 

Here’s Psalm 82 in full:

God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the gods:

“How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

The gods know nothing, they understand nothing. They walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

“I said, ‘You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere mortals; you will fall like every other ruler.”

Rise up, O God, judge the earth, for all the nations are your inheritance.

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(Wondering what this blog is all about, and who A Child of Grace is?

Please read my About page. Thanks! Roger N)

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