Monthly Archives: October 2013

Fall, With Style

Saturday mornings. Don’t you just love ‘em? (Unless you work weekends, maybe.)

Saturdays were full of cartoons & cereals, sweets & comics, when I was a kid.

I still love Saturday mornings. Although having a toddler means I’m out of bed just as early as on Monday to Friday and weekend family life is pretty busy, my time isn’t as structured as during the working week. The day is less determined and life feels a little more like the adventure it’s meant to be.

Some Saturday mornings, to give my wife Janine a bit of a break, I take Hannah, our nearly-two-year-old, to the swings down the road. This little play area is nestled in some wildlife-rich woodland, shaded by magnificent oaks, and I enjoy time with Hannah as well as the squirrels and birds, often early enough to pre-empt the noisy rush of other young families.

Oak trees, Alexandra Park, Hastings

Oak trees, Alexandra Park, Hastings

In recent weeks those mighty oaks have been firing tons of ammunition with fury down at innocent civilians in the play area. At least, the speed at which these acorns come down makes it feels like they’re being fired. Peow! Peow! Duck!

They’ve been falling, of course, not being fired. But falling fast.

Falling with style – like Buzz Lightyear.

Autumn’s my favourite season. Well, one of my top 4, anyway.

Definitely my favourite season when it comes to running. Tearing along leaf-carpeted trails through rainbow-coloured woodlands in just-right, cooler temperatures.

Autumn – nature’s firework display. Fall, with style. A kind prelude to unforgiving winter.

Being pelted by acorns, I found myself gazing up for the first time, admiringly, at these wise old oaks, with their hench trunks, twisty-turny, tangled branches and rugged bark.

There’s nothing ordered about these trees.

How on earth did their branches first of all end up spreading out from the trunk at such random intervals, and then grow outward in so many haphazard directions?

There may be a scientific answer to the ‘how?’. But the aesthetic effect is one of awesome, majestic magnificence.

Beauty for the beholder.

Dignity in disorder.

If I were God or Nature, I’d have probably arranged the branches at neat, evenly spaced intervals, growing in boring, straight lines, and there’d be no beauty to behold.

My kids think I have OCD. That’s a term that’s banded about far too lightly these days. I’ve seen the torment experienced by people who suffer genuine Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and I don’t have that distressing condition. But I am the type of person who can’t stand mess – clutter is even worse! – and if it were down to me, I’d keep all our CDs, DVDs and books in alphabetical order.


on the other hand

isn’t like that.

Like the mighty oaks, Life takes unexpected twists and turns.

It’s full of intrigue…

…and MESS!

It has a habit of taking us by surprise.

We often don’t understand the hows and the whys of life. Maybe we would choose for things to be different, if we could.

For life to be neater, simpler, easier, tidier.

Sometimes you might feel like screaming. Or crying. Or shouting, “Why?!”

Sometimes, even when we know the answers, we still need to express that cry of anguish. That cry of frustration, confusion, despair or distress from the soul.

Even Jesus, knowing




why he was on the cross

and why his Father had left him alone,

had to cry out, “My God, WHY…?!”

It wasn’t meant to be like this.

And yet it had to be like this.

Not for his sins, but for ours.

For our healing and wholeness.

For the veil between us and God to be ripped apart.

There was a bigger picture, which he knew.

But it’s hard to see it when you’re peering through a mist of blood, sweat and tears, and all you can do is let out that cry of anguish from the soul.

Jesus was tangled up by the biggest twist in the tale. But like the oaks, he rose magnificently out of it all.

God never promises that life will be easy – even when you decide to follow him. Perhaps especially when you decide to follow him. I recently came across a brilliant blog: Confronting the lie (that God won’t give you more than you can handle) by a pastor called Nate Pyle, on his experience of going through an excruciatingly difficult time: well worth a read.

Twists and turns.

But these lives – lives of those who have been through seemingly random twists and turns, tragedy and apparent failure, even – often adopt the strength and splendour of those rugged oaks. And could not have come to that place of dignity and beauty without those unfathomable experiences.

I know I’ve partly said this before (apologies), but when Christian teaching is all neat and tidy, we do the Bible, God and Life a gross disservice. And perhaps most of all, we do a disservice to all those people whose lives have been tangled and messy.

The Bible, like Life, is full of intrigue and surprise, not ordered and predictable like I’d like my CDs to be….or how some Christians would like their Bibles to be.

Imagine if Christians started making stark, sterile statements like:

“Only Christians are saved, and everyone else will go to hell.”


“Being gay is just plain wrong.”


“Your suffering is your own fault – God is judging you for your sins.”


“You can only interpret this or that part of the Bible the same way as me. Any other way is false.”

Imagine if anyone made such a harsh, black-and-white statement as any of the above!

Thankfully, most Christians I know stand in awe and love of Jesus, and don’t pretend to have all the answers to life’s questions. They know that all they need is in Jesus, who does have the answers.

Thankfully, the Bible, with its messy theology, surprising stories and sometimes-only-three-quarters-answered questions doesn’t do bumper-sticker philosophy. On behalf of God, it respects the dignity of people whose lives have been confused, confusing, challenging, incomprehensible even.

What the Bible does more than anything else…its speciality…its central purpose…is to show us what Jesus is like, to point us to him. So that in spite of our twisty-tangly lives, we can find some order, some sense, through being in the one who is not disordered, who knows the end from the beginning, who is never taken by surprise.

Not that the Bible is incomprehensible, but like the mighty oaks, it leaves us in awe and wonder, with a profound sense of something – Someone – bigger than ourselves. Like life, Someone bigger than we can get our heads around.

In My Life’s Soundtrack I described some of my life experiences, which took some interesting twists and turns in the distant past. In more recent years the arrival of our wonderful daughter, Hannah, in 2011 (see Let’s Face the Music) has been the biggest (and best!) twist. I’m very fortunate that for many, many years I haven’t had personally to face any tragedies or major difficulties.

Recently, though, we changed church. Not a massive change of direction; not a particularly painful twist; but a difficult decision, nonetheless. One not taken lightly, especially as it meant giving up a homegroup, made up of good friends. But the right decision for us as a family, made amicably, in consultation with friends and leaders in both churches, and I’m excited about the new start.

Sometimes a change of direction is part and parcel of the bigger plan for growth, for fruitfulness, for Life. There is a bigger picture. Our lives as a family, the lives of our wider church in Hastings and further afield, will become like those mighty ‘oaks of righteousness’, described in Isaiah 61, bursting with life-giving seed, as we allow God to bend and shape us through the pain and the change.

Remember – according to Isaiah*, it’s the ones who have gone through the twists and turns of being broken-hearted, enslaved, bereaved, deprived, rejected, who become those magnificent, fruitful ‘oaks’.

Watch out, now, for those flying acorns!

*Isaiah 61:1-3

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The Source

Re-posted with photos…


I went to a wedding, recently, of two beautiful young people. The bride, Katy, is my wife’s goddaughter.


I love weddings. Like most people probably, I enjoy seeing love being celebrated and of course I can’t resist a slap-up meal! This couple put on a hog roast. I’d never had a hog roast before and, although I’m not much of a carnivore (I’m no vegetarian but nor do I have the cravings that many people have for bacon sandwiches or KFC, and I’ll often go for veggie options), I have to say that the hog roast was delicious!

But it wasn’t just an enjoyable service and a quality meal. It wasn’t even just the celebration of two people committing their lives to each other with sincerity and adoration that was so special.

All those things are a justifiable source of joy, but there was a far more significant ingredient…

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The Spirit of Healthcare

I shouldn’t have been surprised when my manager’s manager flew into a furious rage a couple of years ago over a small section of a report I’d written on a service evaluation survey. In response to a client’s comment expressing a need for ‘more religious support’, I’d attempted to show how our homeless service could do more to take into consideration clients’ spiritual needs.

As a Christian working for a secular organisation, I have no wish to use or abuse my position by ‘proselytising’ or Bible-bashing at work (nor to do the latter anywhere else!), and my comment in the report was simply a reflection on one client’s wishes (whatever he meant by that) in the context of holistic care.

Our Western society is dogged by cynicism, scepticism and negativism – and no more so than when it comes to matters of faith, religion and spirituality. The dominant secularist (and often prejudiced) agenda often ignores the vast contribution made by faith communities (i.e. mainly churches) to society, week in, week out, and to blame religion for many of the world’s ills. The narrow-minded atheist also pits an unnecessary battle between theism and science…

…whereas the thinking person, atheist or Christian, acknowledges that it’s people and institutions with power, not religion, that cause wars, and sees no conflict between science and belief in God. But that’s another blog post…

Secularists, under the ‘new atheism’ banner, would rid the world of religion, claiming its harmfulness – sometimes out of fear of religion and faith, simply because they don’t understand it, in the same way that ignorance breeds racism and homophobia.

Healthcare and spirituality are inextricably and historically intertwined. But the manager in question had no clinical background. His reaction was founded in ignorance, probably of faith and spirituality, certainly of healthcare.

At this point we could discuss the faith-based history of hospitals and hospices and indeed the organisation I work for. We could also look at research that shows how people who belong to a church tend to have lower rates of ill health – how belonging to a (faith) community bestows proven psychological benefits and promotes altruism.

But rather than tread the well-worn path, however useful that may be, for the sake of freshness I prefer to speak from my own experience, so here are some examples…

First of all, my U-turn from a hedonistic life on the road, to a career as a nurse (see My Life’s Soundtrack) was the direct result of a fairly dramatic conversion to Christianity. An inner change effected a passion to promote the physical, social and spiritual health of others.

Then, early on in my nurse training, I was taught that spirituality was an important yet often neglected part of patient assessment and nursing care.

That spirituality was not just about whether the patient ticked ‘C of E’ on their hospital admission form, but about what gives meaning and purpose and values and joy and hope to that person’s life.

How they feel about death and dying.

How they deal with their own suffering and illness.

What their longings and aspirations are.

And also whether they have a faith or religion in the conventional or unconventional sense, and how they express that faith.

These are spiritual (and psychological) considerations which every healthcare professional needs to be aware of when dealing with patients and clients. And yet, many professionals shy away from such questions for fear of the unknown, being unsure – as many are – of their own spirituality and beliefs, let alone those of others.

Adrift in their agnosticism.

This neglect is further magnified in the world of homeless services, in which clients are hardly ever asked about faith and spirituality, let alone encouraged to engage with their religion and attend places of worship, if they have faith, or to explore their spirituality1.

An uber-secularist world which sometimes goes so far as to actively discourage such discussion, to the detriment of its service users. So much for person-centred care.

On one occasion, as a student nurse on Coronary Care Unit (a small open plan unit where everyone could hear everyone else’s conversation), a patient asked me question after keen, searching question about my faith, and I found myself speaking in some detail about the good news of Jesus and what that meant to me. I felt quite trepidatious (OK, I know it’s not a real word, but it should be) about being overheard by other staff and patients, and wondered if I’d be disciplined for ‘proselytising’.

To my relief and amazement, in my final assessment on the placement, the staff nurse who was my mentor praised me for delivering spiritual care, and again emphasised how often spiritual needs are neglected. The patient made a full recovery, but being hospitalised with a cardiac condition, had perhaps faced questions and fears in his own mind about death, dying and suffering. And perhaps I was the right person at the right place and time for him.

Another time during my training, in the anaesthetic room, I was alone with a patient about to undergo surgery. She seemed especially anxious and yet somehow I ‘sensed’ that she was a Christian and might appreciate prayer. She confirmed this was the case, we prayed, and her anxieties were significantly allayed. Later on, she found out my name and wrote me an effusive letter of appreciation for the difference this encounter had made to her in facing her op. Her spirituality was integral to her healthcare, recovery and wellbeing.

I love being a Christian – for all kinds of reasons. One thing I like about Jesus is that he was (is) such a renegade. Always breaking the rules. Not for the sake of it, but to show us a better way. I relate to that.

Not keeping the Sabbath. Because there are people who need healing, affirmation and love every day of the week. A better way.

Not condemning a woman who’d been unfaithful. So that both she and her accusers could learn mercy and a new way of life.

Hanging out with sex workers, outcasts and underdogs, while lambasting religious leaders. Setting the record straight.

The messiah being tortured and executed. That’s not meant to happen, is it? Breaking the rules for our freedom and healing.

The way of Jesus, unlike religion, has no rules. Except perhaps the ‘rule’ of love. Love God, and your neighbour as yourself.

Loving yourself is definitely not a rule, but an inevitable response to being loved. When we’ve received the affirmation and acceptance that Jesus offers, we start to forgive and love ourselves. That kind of self-love, self-worth, changes our attitudes to our bodies and minds, as well as to other people.

There are no rules against smoking, booze or drugs for Christians. No rules against chocolate, all-you-can-eat-breakfasts, espressos or over-working.

Smoking and getting drunk AREN’T ‘against my religion’. Couldn’t resist putting that in BOLD type.

And yet…

I stopped smoking about the time I came to faith in Jesus. Tobacco, that is. Cannabis and all other illicit drugs came to an end for me a bit later. I haven’t wanted to get drunk (or been drunk) since before I first experienced the Holy Spirit about 25 years ago. It would be no big deal if I had been drunk – the point is that Jesus gave me a better way.

I do have my vices (let’s not discuss my coffee habit or chocoholism), but my life is pretty healthy. I have self-worth. I care about my life, because I know my worth to my Father. My spirituality is inseparable from my physical and mental health.

When my homeless and vulnerably housed clients find self-giving love, whether from God or others, they find a reason to care for themselves. They’re less likely to be suicidal or to self-harm. A higher power or higher purpose gives them a reason to live and change. Spirituality cannot be divorced from health, especially mental and emotional health.

Nathan Feb12 004a

Moving from my own experience to an excellent and much-needed recent study…

Clients – not support workers or managers – initiated a spirituality group at a homeless service in London, which they felt lacked the opportunity to explore issues of spirituality and faith.

This client-inspired group then led to research conducted by (self-confessed atheist) Carwyn Gravell on behalf of secular thinktank Lemos & Crane.

This much-needed, much-welcomed study, Lost and Found, reports on the results of 75 in-depth interviews with homeless service users on the subject of faith and spirituality.

Clients “described faith and spirituality as being a significant aspect of their personal lives and identity, contributing to their wellbeing, helping them to recover from mental health or drug and alcohol problems or to pursue a future free from offending”.

Spirituality inseparable from health.

Over 70% described themselves as religious or as having been religious at some stage in their lives. Many saw themselves as spiritual in a broader sense.

Most service users appreciated the opportunity to express their inner selves and their own unique responses to their profound experiences of loss. One interviewee felt the research indicated that the organisation was taking him seriously as a whole person with an individual identity, and not just a mechanical service user.

This thorough, objective report confirms what I and others already knew and has given that knowledge substance and evidence. For those of us who long to move on from the narrow-minded, secularistic-worldview-dominated service delivery model, to give truly holistic care, this report is welcome news.

My manager’s manager – the one who had the tantrum – has left the organisation I work for. That obstacle to holistic care of my homeless clients has gone.

And I’m looking forward to discussing Lost and Found with my line manager and colleagues, exploring how we can implement its findings.

Whatever form that takes, it certainly won’t involve conducting religious services or anything specifically ‘Christian’, but will entail working with clients where they’re at and towards where they want to be.

And I’m so glad that God is able to meet with people where they are. And will be found by those who are honestly searching.

I was thinking about how to finish this post and I don’t actually have a witty or flippant comment as I usually do. Maybe that’s because this is a subject so close to my heart.

If you have any views on the subject of spiritual care in the world of healthcare or social support, I’d be very grateful if you could share this post and/or comment below, as appropriate.

Thank you, and blessings for reading this!

1. Lost and Found: faith and spirituality in the lives of homeless people (Lemos & Crane 2013)

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