Monthly Archives: November 2013

WAR! What is it good for?

War

WAR! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!

I love watching Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker singing this soul classic by Edwin Starr in the Rush Hour films. A powerful song that resonates with many of us.

We hear of so many dubious decisions by Western governments, so many civilian deaths and too many other atrocities in the Middle East and around the world, and we readily say ‘Amen!’ to this pacifistic statement.

Hold that thought for a moment while I tell you about my Dad….

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My Dad was a stiff-upper-lipped Brit, who didn’t easily express sorrow or admit fault. My relationship with him from childhood and throughout my teens was one of heated, warring exchanges and mutual lack of understanding, contributing ultimately to my impulsive escape from the rat race to the highways of America with just a rucksack and not so much as a goodbye, just an acrimonious postcard from Gatwick airport (see My Life’s Soundtrack).

My reconciliation with him surprisingly didn’t come as an obedient response to having received forgiveness for myself when I came to faith in Jesus in ‘87, but earlier, while I was still an atheist, through a spontaneous, supernatural Holy Spirit moment (as I see it in hindsight).

One evening, sitting in my tent during my second (this time solo) trip round the States, I was suddenly overcome with remorse for the hurtful ways I’d treated my Dad and with forgiveness towards him for the failings in his fatherhood. I realised for the first time that we all (including my Dad and me) have faults and he’d done his best to be a father to me.

When, some months later, I returned to the UK with a seedling of Christian faith in my heart, reconciliation had already happened. From that moment on, our relationship grew and grew, and we enjoyed each other’s company through his later dementia-inflicted years until his death in 2006.

I now remember my Dad with immense fondness.

He liked a laugh, he liked the ladies, and he embarked on youth-oriented skiing holidays right into his 70s! He was a character. Yet he also retained a real sense of dignity about him.

My Dad, at about 70

My Dad, at about 70

Perhaps it was simply his upbringing, his generation, but I wonder also whether his service as an air gunner and then flight lieutenant with the RAF through the Second World War had instilled in him a sense of honour. He experienced loss and tragedy both in war and in his personal life. His inability to express grief may have been a psychologically unhealthy relic of a bygone era… or perhaps a particular facet of his character. Or maybe both.

He and I were very different. Our differences, together with my Dad’s stoic exterior, made for a difficult relationship in my early years.

And yet… maybe such stoicism had been a necessary survival technique through the horrors of war and the losses in his own personal life.

My Dad had fought for his country – and won. I enjoy the freedoms of Western democracy that he and countless others had struggled for, and many died for, during that dreadful war.

He had served a greater purpose. He had fought for the common good.

He had risked his life for his country and for generations to come.

After the war, working as a lawyer for the magistrates’ courts, he saw himself as a servant of the state.

There was incredible dignity and honour in his service to the country.

WAR! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!

And yet…

When I see the indignity, the dishonour, in much of our British culture, I mean the kind of culture that revolves around self-interest, acquisition of stuff,  junk TV and alcohol for example, this thought crosses my mind, like a guilty secret:

This generation has lost out by not having experienced war.

Now of course, that isn’t true. We don’t need war. We don’t need bloodshed, hatred or mindless destruction.

What we do all need is a greater purpose to fight for.

We do need a higher reason for living than simply satisfying our own needs and watching reality TV.

We need a reason not to emulate Jim Royle (of the Royle Family)!

A reason not to be an A&E statistic, another casualty admitted with a debilitating alcohol-related disease.

A reason to realise there’s more to life than Facebook and drawing attention to the trivia of our own lives.

A reason to love our neighbour as ourselves, and to love our loved ones enough to find a way to overcome relationship problems, to work for peace.

I remember reading John Bird explaining in his autobiography Some Luck how he didn’t want to live as his parents had done, simply coming home from work every evening to watch TV. An endless, futile cycle of work, TV, work, TV. He wanted something more, to achieve something worthwhile.

That desire, that passion, resulted in The Big Issue, an incredible organisation that has given thousands of homeless people the opportunity to work and begin to regain some self-belief.

I have the privilege of working with a great many professionals serving vulnerable people. I have huge respect for them all, each having his or her own motivation for their work, but each striving for the common good, each one seeking to make a difference in our broken world, many of these giving their time voluntarily.

My own motivation lies in my stumbling faith in Jesus. Or in his non-stumbling love. When I took my first faltering steps towards him way back in ’87… my life turned instantly from hedonism to altruism. From sex & drugs & rock ‘n’ roll (and travel) to the pursuit of a caring career.

That breath – that life of Jesus in me – has always, since that day, inspired me to care for others. The nursing career came supernaturally naturally. The need to work with homeless people flows inevitably from a profound sense of being saved by grace and out of my own experience of living rough.

I’m inspired to attempt to show others, through my life, my work and this blog, who I believe Jesus is.

I’m inspired to use my energy for the needs of others, in my own imperfect way. Perhaps, in some sense, I take after my Dad after all!

This is my war, my act of service. Battling against marginalisation, against inequality, homelessness ill-health and feelings of worthlessness in the people I meet. I have honour and dignity in this.

What is this kind of war good for? Quite a lot.

At the same time…

because I do this out of love, out of gratitude for extreme grace,

knowing that I can never earn the Father’s love, that there are no brownie points in heaven,

because Jesus won the greatest battle ever at the cross on my behalf,

knowing that he’s loved me furiously and unconditionally from the start, means that…

it’s no burden!

It means that at the end of the day I can watch junk TV! I can spend time on Facebook, reading and posting mindless trivia. Although most of the time I’d rather be running…

Because that trivia is not what I live for. I have a cause to fight for, battles to win, which carry me through the working week.

It means I don’t burn out.

Because although I have a cause to fight for, even to live for, my battles are not the ultimate thing that define me.

My identity is ultimately as a child of God, at rest in his Father’s arms, who doesn’t need to prove anything. My battles are fought with peace. The peace I’ve received (with God / with myself) is an effectual weapon in these battles.

Other people I know, who achieve incredible things, fight similar – and different – battles. Some work hard for peace and reconciliation with God and others. Some war against sexism and discrimination. Some raise funds for those in need, highlighting causes. The mission for some is simply to put a smile on someone else’s face each day, to speak a word of encouragement.

Some have very different kinds of motivation to mine. I have huge admiration for all of them.

I just still happen to believe that they, you and I, all need the life-giving, life-affirming, source-of-all-grace, Jesus.

Back to the question…

WAR! What is it good for?

Depends what kind of war we’re talking about.

What kind of war are you waging? What gives you honour and dignity in a self-obsessed culture?

Or are you living for the next payday, for reality TV, Facebook and an even smarter phone? Do you need to find a cause to fight for?

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Inclusion Zone

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Hastings Pier is being rebuilt! Having been closed since 2006 due to safety concerns, and suffering severe fire damage in 2010, it’s great news for Hastings residents to see the pier finally under re-construction.

Hence the ‘Exclusion zone’ signs at the entrance. Construction sites can be dangerous places, not least on a pier that’s been falling apart for 7 years. No unauthorised persons – construction workers only.

Not a safe place for passers-by.

Exclusion Zone

Exclusion Zone

I know another place, where fallen, broken people rather than falling architectural structures are under re-construction – a place that can also be hazardous at times, where toes can be stepped on, or cut from treading on broken eggshells.

The church. God’s kingdom. His people. His community.

But that’s part of the beauty of it. The church (and God’s kingdom) is a place where damaged, dysfunctional people will find a refuge, where we will be accepted and forgiven and shown incredible kindness, even when our brokenness and deep-seated pain might sometimes cause us to lash out with unkind words at others in our own community.

Standing with each other through the disagreements and disasters of community life, through the questions and doubts of faith, and the joys and pains of life.

Forgiving; expressing the Father’s grace to each other. Passing on what we’ve received.

Together being built into a human temple of praise, a haven of healing for the hurting, a refuge for the rejected.

Unlike the pier, God’s kingdom is an inclusion zone.

The church is an inclusion zone.

The Father has always invited the lost and lonely, the battered and bruised, the freaks and the foreigners, all of society’s pariahs, to come and be close to him. In Jesus’ parables, and throughout the Bible, we see a bias towards the outsiders, the marginalised, to those who have been treated as inferior by the state, by society – and especially by God’s (apparent) own people.

Often, ‘outsiders’ are closer to God than we realise. Closer than even they realise.

They’re invited, included, welcomed into God’s kingdom.

But of course, sometimes the church isn’t like that. God’s people sometimes forget they’re meant to be an inclusion zone; sometimes we put up unnecessary barriers and obstacles to the very people who are closest to the Father’s heart, making us an exclusion zone, like the pier.

Barriers like these:

  • Endless debates about peripheral matters.
  • Words, ideas and modes of expression so antiquated, they give the impression that God is old-fashioned or simply a relic from a past era, although he’s timeless and way ahead of us.
  • Failure to engage with current issues relevant to the world outside church.
  • Failure to reflect the love and mercy of Jesus to those outside the church. As Brennan Manning put it: “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”
  • Inward looking attitudes and preoccupation with maintenance of the institution, as was the case in Jesus’ time…

Everyone knows Jesus wasn’t always meek and mild, and perhaps his most famous outburst of anger was the one from which we get the English expression ‘turning tables’. But have you ever wondered why Jesus got so furious at the money changers and bird sellers that he started hurling the furniture about?

What could have prompted such outrage, inciting this peace-loving messiah to make a crude whip and start chasing these tradesmen out of the temple?

Way back when (some 700 years earlier), the prophet Isaiah foretold the day when Israel’s temple would be open to everyone, including foreigners and eunuchs (that’s people who… oh, you already know – ok).

There would be this great diversity, and especially those who had been seen as ‘outsiders’ would be welcomed in. And the temple would be this thronging place of celebration, where outsiders as well as those who saw themselves as the ‘in-crowd’ (God’s chosen people) would be able to find the joy of worshipping God and praying together1.

By the time Jesus came around, the outer courts were the one part of the temple where these ‘outsiders’ could come in and worship the true God. So it was a very special place, signifying God’s open arms to the marginalised and all those seen as inferior.

This was meant to be an inclusion zone.

So when Jesus came along and found that this one part of the temple that was meant to represent the Father’s welcoming arms to damaged and marginalised people was instead being used for (possibly) exploitation, (certainly) selfish financial gain and inward-looking maintenance of the institution, making the area an exclusion zone, this made him really mad!

So much so, that he had to go away for the night, reflect with his Father on what he’d seen, and come back the next day to take appropriate action in a self-controlled way2.

Full of fury…anger…rage… and yet a thought-through, self-controlled response to this violation of God’s invitation to outsiders.

As he turned the tables and scattered the cash, he quoted the Isaiah passage: “‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’, but you have turned it into a den of thieves”.

Or, put another way, “This is meant to be an inclusion zone, but you’ve turned it into an exclusion zone!”

Jesus is always passionate about outsiders and angered by actions and people that hinder others from getting close to him. Which is why he (verbally) attacked the Pharisees so vehemently.

God’s people, not any building, are now his temple, but God hasn’t changed. He remains passionate about his temple, his people, being an accessible place of worship, celebration, joy, that all will feel free to come into: different races, ages, sexualities, cultures and classes.

As ever, God defies religious logic and Christian pre-conceptions. He remains closest to the broken-hearted, the rejected, the…..you know the score by now.

And to be fair, the church is engaging better than ever with those who are disadvantaged and marginalised, straining under escalatingly harsh socio-economic times, with church-founded initiatives such as food banks, Street Pastors and homeless night shelters springing up across the UK, as an expression of the Father’s compassionate heart.

My own experience of church here in Hastings & St Leonards has been largely very positive, with many potentially marginalised people of all sorts finding faith and participating in the life and worship and community of the church. I’m very proud of both St Leonards Baptist and St Matthew’s churches for this inclusiveness.

Let me just leave you with a few questions…

Q                 Who are the marginalised today?

Q                 Who has been marginalised most by the 20th / 21st Century UK church? Maybe you’d think of other groups, but I’d say that gay and lesbian people have been excluded more than any other people.

Q                 Could God be closer to many of these individuals than we realise – than even they realise, in some cases – simply because it’s in his nature to get alongside the rejected and marginalised?

Q                 How is the church doing at being an inclusion zone to excluded people now, in 2013?

Q                 What are the modern equivalents of money-changers and bird sellers that are hindering access to God’s worship space – what teachings / attitudes / practices?

Q                 If you’re part of a church, how is your church doing at removing these obstacles? What needs to change?

Answers on a postcard….or in the comments box below….or better still, discuss with your church and your heavenly Father.

If you’re someone who’s experienced exclusion by the church, if it’s possible for this one Christian to apologise on behalf of the wider church, then please accept this apology. Please forgive and please know that God is close.

And if you’re not a Hastings person and you’re over this way in the future, come and see our wonderful new pier (from 2015), and visit one of our churches for (hopefully) a warm, inclusive welcome!

  1. Isaiah 56
  2. Mark 11:11-17
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