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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I totally agree with myself!

Written and inspired by a shopping trip the other day, the following is an excerpt from the book I’m working on, set in the context of some reflections on the instinctive, deep-rooted changes that took place in my mind and heart and total life direction when I came to Christian faith in ’87 – transformative changes that could be defined as ‘repentance’, but which happened quite independently of any church’s teaching on repentance or call to conform – pressure which could potentially have had the opposite effect.

Also to put the excerpt in context, the chapter of my book in which this appears discusses something of the relationship between spirituality and psychology, in terms of how the Bible and contemplative Christian traditions espouse positive, healthy psychology (compassionate altruism springing from deep experience of God’s love, for instance), whereas the pressure from some churches to conform or to do this or that can be psychologically damaging, promoting incongruence (a mismatch between our values and our actions) and therefore, potentially, hypocrisy.

Without further ado, here’s that excerpt:

Today, while out shopping, my attention was grabbed by the slogan I spotted on a small girl’s T-shirt: “I totally agree with myself”!

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I was immediately struck by the sheer profundity of that ostensibly self-oriented statement, and couldn’t help but wonder how many shoppers walking past the girl missed its significance.

To totally agree with oneself is a surprisingly noble aim – to reach that place where one’s values and actions perfectly line up. A place of absolute integrity. I know one Person, at least, who lived that dream.

Churches (and other groups) that encourage individuality and diversity of thought help their members to become more fully human, more fully themselves and, therefore, (this may come as a surprise to some) more God-like!

Jesus was fully himself and, as well as being fully God, was fully human, which is almost not that different, as full humanity mirrors the human’s Maker.

Unfortunately, I’ve experienced situations where conformity of thought is so prized that human-ness is squashed, thus wiping away God’s messy, living fingerprints, settling instead for bland, sterile fakery.

However, I’m chuffed also to have been in churches and groups where individuality is allowed to flourish, or even fostered, thereby revealing the manifold wonders of God in the diversity of his people.

At least that’s my view, on which I totally agree with myself.

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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)

COMPASSION IS REST

Compassion is rest.

To live with compassion means we don’t need to prove ourselves – that we don’t try to be better than someone else.

Compassion means that we don’t judge or criticise those who say and do things we disagree with, but accept that they, like us, have their weaknesses.

Compassion means that sometimes we do judge and criticise, even those close to us, but at that very moment we can forgive ourselves, as we’re forgiven, for these disturbing attitudes, and we’re free to move on.

Both they and we need compassion at the same moment. We discover that we’re in it together.

Compassion is a level playing field, where all have gone astray, all need mercy. No one is better or worse.

Which means that we can empathise with people who seem either less or more moral, whether posher or poorer, than us. Levels of morality, class and wealth, fade to grey, in light of compassion.

There are, in fact, no levels.

To accept that we need compassion makes us no better than someone who hasn’t yet realised that they too need compassion. We’re just lucky to be in that place.

Compassion means that we go easy on ourselves. After all, who are we to argue with God?

Compassion means that in every thought, word and deed, with so many mixed motives, honourable and dishonourable, even when we mistakenly think we’re doing the right thing… we’re honoured.

It means that this very moment, right now, we’re forgiven and free…and this moment…and this one.

Yes, and this one, too.

And this one.

And even this one.

Mercy is not just new every morning, but every moment.

Compassion means that every single second we can start afresh with a clean slate.

We don’t need to wait for a new day.

Which means a permanent state of restfulness, and of freedom.

Freedom to do what’s right.

Freedom to get things wrong.

Freedom from chains of society, religion, consumerism, one-upmanship, and showmanship.

And freedom to forget that we’re free from chains of society, religion, consumerism, one-upmanship, and showmanship – when we act as if we’re still enslaved. We can be forgiven for that, too!

In the world of compassion, even our hypocrisy is forgivable.

Compassion means that we don’t have to do anything!

To live with compassion is to be at rest.

 

Compassion is action.

Compassion means we can’t ignore the plight of the poor and the victimised.

Compassion means we can’t just walk by on the other side.

Compassion means we want to help.

That we will do what we can.

It means that love flows from a place of rest and freedom.

Those who receive compassion cannot help but give compassion.

Compassion means that sometimes we do walk by on the other side, but we discover that even our omissions are forgiven, and we learn from our mistakes.

To live with compassion means empathy with people in their weakness and vulnerability, because we know that we too are weak and vulnerable.

Compassion means that we don’t try and save the world, because we recognise our limitations and the strengths of others.

Compassion means that we care for ourselves too,

that we’re equal to others for whom we feel compassion. We recognise that we too need support, mercy, love and empathy.

Compassion means life with purpose, destiny, and love expressed in deed.

To live with compassion is to be stirred into action.

To have found this compassion so long ago remains, for me, a miracle bombshell blessing:

Compassion in the shape of Jesus.

—–

(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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Life is a beach

As I sat on Hastings beach this week, enjoying taking things at a slower pace while off sick from work due to stress and exhaustion, I took these photos of the view behind me, taking in the various elements of boat, beach, tractor, church, houses, hill and nets.

I wondered how many millions of photos have been taken over the years of picturesque Old Town beach with its fishing boats. There are always people milling around with cameras down here. So I wasn’t going to.

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But then I noticed something about the view I’d been enjoying. The combined subjects seemed to represent the balance I’m seeking to achieve in my life.

  • In the foreground, to the left: a tractor for pulling boats up the beach, important and useful, more functional than aesthetic. This piece of machinery, representing productivity, work, and all things “male” and task-driven, was getting a look in from the side, but the photographer (me) not allowing it to dominate the view.
  • To the right, the main attraction: a fishing boat. Although a working vessel, providing food for many, the boat also speaks to me of aesthetics, beauty and therefore creativity; femininity, love, and therefore my wife, my marriage, my family – all aspects of life to which I’m attaching greater importance (and appreciating as sources of strength and healing), just as the boat appeals to our aesthetic eye in the picture.
  • In the background: a church, representing stillness, wonder, faith and Jesus; reminding me that behind work, creativity and relationships needs to be the presence and love of God, mindfulness, and prayer. For me, faith and prayer undergird everything else.
  • Further back: tucked in behind the church is verdant West Hill with its trees and grassy slopes, representing nature and its close relationship to the Creator. Countless studies have shown us how beneficial spending time in green spaces is to our mental and physical health. Nature seems to be God’s healing agent, a message of love from the Creator, and we underestimate its power to our peril. I’ve never lost my enjoyment and appreciation of the outdoors, whether through running, walking, prayer, birdwatching, or nature photography, but more recently I’ve also realised the importance of nature for my emotional health. Even as I step out of my house into the back garden with its fresh air and fragrant smells of trees and flowers, a wave of peace sweeps over me.

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As my attention was drawn by my Father to this pictorial allegory of the life balance I’m aiming for, I decided to take some photos after all and keep them as a pertinent reminder.

  • Oh, and finally, under it all, under me, is the beach itself, reminding me that in the end, life is of course a beach! Or should be….

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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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A brush with Vincent

If you know me or my blog, you’ll know that I have a little fascination with both van Gogh and Van Morrison. Must be something about vans. I haven’t blogged about white van drivers yet, though – maybe that’s to come…

But both Gogh and Morrison, unlike white van drivers, seem to help unlock a sense of awesome awareness of the Creator’s sweet pervasion of the world around me.

You may even know that one of the reasons for taking my family on a short break to Holland in the recent half-term was to visit the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Having been so enthralled by his life and mesmerised by his art, I wondered what a visit to the museum, which houses over 1000 of Vincent’s works, would be like. Would I be touched even more deeply by the man of myth and magic? Or would I be unmoved – would a museum’s inevitable sterility detract from the emotions normally evoked by this beautiful man?

The first van Gogh work I saw on entering the main gallery was a familiar, famous painting – The Sower.

Several things struck me all at once.

Firstly, I was blown away by the obvious fact that I was looking at an original! This was a painting actually painted by Vincent van Gogh himself!

Viewing the popular masterpiece, with its dense, swirling, brush strokes, felt like a mind-blowing encounter with greatness,

beauty,

history,

madness and sanity,

and the brilliant transcendence of the Creator in Vincent’s (and our) world.

Right from the outset, I was overcome with emotion, moved to tears once again, by this brush with Vincent. As it turned out, no cold museum sterility could dampen the reactions sparked by this intriguing character.

As well as being awestruck by the significance of being face to face with an actual van Gogh, I was startled to find it was 3D! It had never occurred to me that the flat, 2-D images we see in a book or on a computer screen could never do justice to the coarse, wild textures or contrasting shades of an oil painting’s brazen, 3-dimensional, brush strokes.

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A flat, 2D image of The Sower, a 3D painting

Such a stark realisation sparked an immediate thought about my prayer life. My recent (last couple of years) journey into a more mindful and contemplative approach to prayer, inspired by the likes of Shaun Lambert, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen and Richard Rohr, feels like a transition from 2D to 3D faith.

Diving into the omnipresence of God.

Being in his being.

Not that prayer, for me, has ever been simply a religious “shopping-list” or an approach to God as a dispensing machine, but this practising of stillness, stopping to soak in the reality of who God is and of who I am, has been a welcome learning curve and a growth into the fullness that Jesus promised.

Vincent never seemed to lose his faith in Christ, but recoiled from the strict religion of his pastor father. Did Vincent ever experience the fullness of life that Jesus offered? My strong suspicion is that, despite being tormented by mental ill health, a sense of alienation from society, and even “existential dread”, as described in the blurb for one painting at the museum, Vincent did indeed drink of that spiritual life.

He seemed to be so wonderfully attuned to his surroundings and, through those surroundings and his depiction of them, to be at one with the Creator he believed in. You could say that his painting really was a form of contemplation.

Even Christians, with our genuine claims of the “joy of the Lord” and “fullness of life”, are not immune to mental illness, depression and “dark nights of the soul”. I, too, have had my moments.

Part of my contemplative learning curve has been a growing embrace of “non-dual thinking”: accepting the “both/and” of life and faith in 3D fullness, instead of the “either/or” often associated with 2D religion.

I think Vincent understood this, through his ups and downs of faith and life. As I browsed the museum, I was intrigued by his Still Life with Open Bible, in which a large family Bible, open at Isaiah 53 that speaks prophetically of Jesus as the suffering servant and “a man of sorrows”, is juxtaposed with a copy of Emile Zola’s contemporary novel of the time, La Joie de Vivre.

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Still Life with Open Bible (sorrow and joy)

I don’t think Vincent ever really rejected the Bible or Jesus but resented his father’s “blind devotion to religion and faith, forever trapped in an antiquated mindset”, and like a lot of people, found that the religion of his time satisfied neither his mind nor his soul’s need for love.

In contrast, La Joie de Vivreand so many other masterpieces paint life as we feel it ourselves and thus satisfy that need which we have, that people tell us the truth,” as Vincent put it in a letter to his brother Theo.

His simultaneous representation of both sorrow and joy in this painting seems to sum up Vincent’s experience of life and faith. Both/and.

As I admired the lavish, almost randomised, multi-directional strokes in Vincent’s paintings, I was drawn to the paint patterns’ apparent disorder, that paradoxically composed such natural order in the finished works. Isn’t life like that?

I don’t know about you, but I struggle with the apparent disorder of my life – especially as a parent! – and of so many aspects of our world. How do we make sense of this? How do we come to terms with our lack of control over our disordered circumstances? Our flawed characters? Our loved ones? The random nature of death and suffering? And all the other things of this world that we care about?

Is it just me, with my OCD tendencies, that experiences this struggle?

Or do we all to some extent feel the need for neat answers – for order in our world? Current contemplative Richard Rohr, describing Franciscan spirituality in his book Eager to Love, expresses it like this:

“Paul says only ‘the folly of the cross’ can deal with what poet Wallace Stevens called “our blessed rage for order!’ The ‘mystery of the cross’ is Paul’s code-breaking and fundamental resolution for the confusing mystery of life! Without it, it seems most people become cynics, depressed, bitter, or negative by the middle of life, because there is no meaning in the death of all things and the imperfection of everything. For Paul, the deepest level of meaning is ironically the deep, grace-activated acceptance of a certain meaninglessness! We are able to leave room for God to fill in the gaps, and even trust that God will!”

Life is full of paradox and, for me, the cross of Jesus and his resurrection bring meaning to the perceived meaninglessness and disorder of this universe. This faith doesn’t answer all my questions. If it did, the God I believe in would be too small.

But through faith in Jesus, I trust that the almost randomised, multi-directional strokes of this world, that we see in the apparent chaos even at a subatomic level of the universe, make up a magnificent, somehow ordered, painting too big for the eyes of our hearts and minds to comprehend.

Order/disorder. Both/and. My contemplative faith is enabling me to live with the tension between the two.

Thank you once again, Vincent, for helping me accept the breadth and depth of God, and to the van Gogh Museum for its part in expressing the messages of his life and art.

And one day, maybe even the disordered driving of white van drivers will inspire in me a sense of awe at their Creator…

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Previous posts I’ve published, relating to van Gogh, include: A Sense of Wonder, Sunflowers, and specifically Take Me To Church.

 

(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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You can save me

 

You can save me

(Photo: nicked off BBC website)

 

You can save me, screamed Hastings Pier, in its brittle, crumbling, burnt-out state

to anyone who would listen.

Now wondrous once more, restored to its original-new identity,

Giving pleasure to many,

space to breathe and to think,

Tonight from my house I hear celebrations as Madness play at the grand re-opening

of our people’s pier.

 

 

You can save me, we scream from deep in our crumbling, burnt-out hearts

To anyone who will listen – to God, if he’s there,

Save us from our (self-inflicted) wounds, bring us back to who we are,

Give us space to breathe and think

and give love to many.

Help us find the way to life, as angels celebrate the grand regeneration

of our true identity.

 

 

You can save me, I call from the silence of my healing, hurting, burning soul

To Abba, who is love and listens,

Save me from myself, from my broken thoughts, as you have always done,

Give me space to breathe and think

and bring your love to many.

Thank you for saving me, then and now, always restoring me

to my true but sometimes hidden identity,

with you in love.

 

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(Photo: mine)

 

But most people are not consciously there yet. They are not ‘saved’ from themselves, which is the only thing we really need to be saved from. They do not yet live out their objective, totally given, and unearned identity, ‘hidden with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3:3)…. For most of us, our own deepest identity is still well hidden from us.”

Richard Rohr, Eager to Love (page 66)

 

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(Photo: mine)

 

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Here’s another reflection on Hastings Pier, entitled Inclusion Zone, that I wrote in 2013.

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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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A Response to Ricky Gervais’ Easter Message

OB-NN040_gervai_EV_20110414130159Ricky Gervais’ (atheist) Easter message from 2011 was doing the rounds again recently and I just had to write my own response.

OK, so I’m 5 years late. Better late than never.

Of course, Ricky makes some valid points. He’s an intelligent man pointing out some real inconsistencies in the way Christianity is sometimes expressed, as well as some rather obvious and well-worn observations about religious hypocrisy.

What I love about his article, though, is his accidentally ironic assertion that he is “a good Christian compared to a lot of Christians.”

There’s something wonderfully oxymoronic about this statement, that he probably didn’t intend and which I’ll attempt to make clear.

He bases this belief on the fact that, by his own scoring system, he gets 10 out of 10 on the Ten Commandments. He seems to be under the impression that the Bible is some kind of rule book for Christians and that the Ten Commandments are the acid test of religious morality!

I’ll forgive his competitive approach towards Christians, as it’s clearly tongue-in-cheek.

What he seems to fail to realise, though, is that to be a good Christian is not so much about being good but about admitting we’re bad…

A “good Christian”, if there is such a thing, is perhaps someone who takes the teachings of Jesus seriously…

…teachings like the parable of the Pharisee (very moral person) and the tax-collector (bad person). The morally good person stands up in the temple (church) and thanks God for how good he is; the bad person can barely look up, but begs God for mercy because of his immorality. Jesus says the tax-collector, i.e. the bad (but humble) person, the one who knew he hadn’t got it all together, got it right… while the good (but proud) person got it wrong.

The bad person, in this case, turned out to be the “good Christian”.

…or like Jesus’ inaugural announcement in his universally revered Sermon on the Mount, the wisdom that inspired the likes of Gandhi: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”, not “Blessed are those who tick all the boxes on the Ten Commandments.”

In other words, happy are those who haven’t got it together, who acutely feel their moral and spiritual failure; people who know they need a saviour. If anything, those are the people who are “good Christians”.

If someone says they’re a good Christian, then they’re probably not! Herein lies the oxymoron in Ricky’s statement.

I had a eureka moment recently. I suddenly realised that the reason I feel so much empathy with the homeless and other vulnerable people I work with is not just because I was messed-up and lost and then my life turned around; it’s just as much because I’m so aware of the struggles and weaknesses I still face!

I often feel like that tax-collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Coming back to the Ten Commandments…Ricky explains the meaning of them very well in his article; he just doesn’t really understand their place. Although he recognises that they were written for the ancient society of Israel over 1000 years before Christ, he also seems to see them as a set of rules for Christians.

That’s not to understate their significance for Christians (and anyone else) today, though. Jesus often elaborated on the Ten Commandments. He poignantly emphasised that it’s not just the letter of the law (do not murder, do not cheat on your partner, etc) that counts, but the spirit of the law (don’t even insult someone, don’t cheat on someone even in your mind, etc) – again, from the Sermon on the Mount.

I wonder how Ricky would score on that basis? Maybe not much better than me.

However, Jesus didn’t expand on the Ten Commandments to make us feel even more rubbish at being moral people. He came to show us a spiritual way of dealing with spiritual challenges such as following the spirit of the law.

He taught that following him was the way of being freed from our addictions to those actions that hurt ourselves and others, and from the guilt and shame of our moral failures, even from the guilt of our hypocrisy.

He taught that following him entails a life of receiving and giving love.

A “good Christian”, therefore, might be someone who has decided to follow Jesus and is hopefully progressing in this journey of freedom from guilt and shame, and towards a lifestyle of love towards God, others and ourselves.

Ricky concedes that “I am of course not a good Christian in the sense that I believe that Jesus was half man, half God, but I do believe I am a good Christian compared to a lot of Christians”.

Although this at first seems a fair comment, (apart from mistakenly thinking that being a good Christian is about being good) it unfortunately misses the point that being a Christian is less about what we believe about Jesus (although that’s important too, not that we believe he “was half man, half God”, by the way!) than about how we believe in him – i.e. entrusting our lives to him and his teachings. Again, it’s a spiritual path rather than a set of mental beliefs.

Having said all that, Ricky is right to point out the hypocrisy and prejudice displayed in the name of Christianity, because these are the kinds of things that steer people like him towards atheism. Surely we should expect better from people who claim to be followers of Jesus? Yes, we should.

But Jesus didn’t say that his followers would be known by how well they perform on the Ten Commandments, but by their love for one another.

Love should be the key feature of Christians.

And if Christians like have failed at that, as no doubt we have, then the expectation of us that Ricky and other onlookers have every right to hold is a humble, repentant attitude – admission of our failures, like that tax-collector in the parable.

An expression of how poor we are in spirit.

Thankfully, I’m seeing more of these admissions of failure emerging publicly from the church, such as apologies for the way we’ve treated LGBT individuals historically.

What I do see as well is a positive move by the church over at least a decade, away from hypocrisy and negativity towards genuine, loving care for our communities, through the burgeoning growth of street pastors, food banks, homeless projects and much more.

That’s not to say that we can atone for our own sins through good works, but I think it does show a repentant attitude.

However, churches and Christians like me will always have our faults and may never live up to the expectations of others, or even our own.

We will therefore continue to hold on to Jesus, our Saviour, who is able to forgive us and lead us forward in our journey out of shame and into love.

And we will hopefully continue to plead not only with God, but also to observers like Ricky Gervais: “Be merciful to me, a sinner.”

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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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Not poles apart

This morning I was playing with magnets on the kitchen table with my 4-year-old daughter, Hannah. I loved magnets when I was a kid. Turns out, I still do. What is there not to love about magnets?

…unless, of course, you’re a car about to be picked up by one of those huge scrap yard magnets, only to be ripped apart or crushed to bits.

I was showing Hannah how, if you slowly slide a magnet along the table towards a stationary magnet, there comes a point when the stationary magnet suddenly jumps across the gap and latches on to the moving one. Hannah loved it. And each time she did it, it made her jump when the magnet lurched across the table top, making both of us laugh.

It reminded me of how I, and many people I know, are drawn towards the magnetic heart of God. How we can never stray too far from the loving heart of the Father and the (almost) irresistible person of Jesus.

And of how, in that magnetic heart of God, we find answers to our own, broken, human hearts.

As the years go by, I’m less convinced that Christianity or the Bible can necessarily give us all the intellectual answers we need to life and suffering. I was talking to a friend recently who as yet can’t find faith in God, although he would love to, because he can’t understand how an all-powerful God could allow the untold suffering, especially the most extreme forms, that goes on around the world.

I do sympathise with him and, even though I think Christianity can to a certain extent offer some explanation of that question (in fact, I recommended the Alpha course to him, which includes an evening just looking at the question of why God allows suffering), at the same time I’ve become increasingly content with not having all the answers; of living with divine mystery.

I realise that may sound like a cop-out. However, I think it’s borne out of a level of trust in God that’s developed, despite the questions, as a result of a time-tested, experiential faith over so many years now.

While I don’t believe Christianity or theology can necessarily entirely satisfy people’s intellectual questions about life and suffering, I do believe that…

…the person of Jesus – the heart of God ultimately uttered at the cross in self-debasing, sacrificial love – can and does answer the problems of the human heart – the problems of falsehood, hypocrisy, selfishness, brokenness, disconnectedness and fear, for example.

And that maybe the problems are more important than the questions.

That when we’re drawn like that magnet to the heart of God and we experience his compassion, mercy, love, forgiveness, companionship… our intellectual questions become less important and we’re better able to face the uncertainties and trials of this life. And better able to face not only the evil in the world around us, but even the sometimes unbearable darkness of our own hearts.

Maybe we were never intended to face suffering alone; maybe the answer to suffering lies, in part at least, in having the magnetic, empathic companionship of God with us in all our life experiences, transcending our trials.

The magnets also reminded me of that reassuring statement from the New Testament: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” Like the magnet, it only takes a small movement from us, to compel the Father’s heart closer to ours.

When we take time to pray, we tend to find that surprising blessings emerge. Sometimes a change of circumstances, sometimes the strength to go on, or a change in our own heart or in someone else’s. And an entwining of our heart with God’s.

Prayer is like any relationship. When we invest time in prayer – even 5 minutes here and there (what matters most is genuineness, rather than how much time we give) – we find the relationship with God enriched, our lives enriched.

Thank God for magnets

and for his magnetic heart,

so that God and we don’t need

to be poles apart.

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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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