Homeless Jesus

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Jesus lies on a park bench, covered by an inadequate blanket. You might just ignore him, write him off as just another homelessness statistic, a junkie or a skiver or a veteran with PTSD who can’t handle civilian life. But take a closer look – his feet are scarred with nail marks. We know who this is.

Homeless Jesus is a sculpture by Timothy Schmaltz, copies of which are on display in Texas and the Vatican. Currently, there’s a controversy about if and where a copy should be displayed in London (story here, petition here).

There’s something about the statue that gets to the heart of the Incarnation. Jesus doesn’t appear as a spiritual entity untouched by the world around him – he’s down here in the dirt and grime. This is someone who went through hell and spent 18 years on building sites. We tend to forget that – we put him on a pedastal as a great moral teacher and a source of inspirational quotations. And if he’s up there on a plinth, then it’s disruptive to see him sleeping on a bench.

But we divorce Jesus from the marginalised, or move him from the fringes, at our peril. This is a man who, were he here today in the flesh, would spend more than a few nights sleeping  in the doorway of an off licence or contending with security guards and defensive architecture. That’s the sort of person he is. That’s why he had such a following among lepers and prostitutes, the beaten and the broken.

And so we want to honour him as Lord and Saviour, sure, but he’s the Servant King, and so it doesn’t feel appropriate to put him next to luminaries such as Churchill and Nelson. Homeless Jesus has the power to be prophetic, to speak truth to power, to remind us that whatever we do for the least of these, we do for him.

I’ve signed the petition to get the statue displayed in public. Because we don’t need a stained glass Jesus, we need the disruptive Jesus, Jesus of the margins, Jesus of the nail scars, Jesus of the benches and the doorways.

We need a homeless Jesus.

Autism Parents and the Church: Exile

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There are times when raising children with disabilities is like walking through a wilderness, like an exile from the communities around us, to use a biblical image.

That’s not because of the children themselves, nor is it the disability. Don’t get me wrong – things get tiring and frustrating and nerve-shredding – but it is what it is, and acceptance is the first step you have to make in getting your family through this. No, the Wilderness is something else.

The Wilderness is all those people who think you’re exaggerating your experiences, or even that your child’s difficulties are all in your head.

The Wilderness is filling in brutal government forms that ask you to justify every scrap of support you get while writing down, in black and white, every single negative aspect of your child’s life, balanced by none of the positives, the successes, the joys.

The Wilderness is reading of the desert experiences of people with disabilities who lost their support and saw no other option than to take their own lives.

The Wilderness is when people think you must not be praying hard enough for your kid to be healed.

I’m a step-dad, and coming into this late, these things have shocked me. I was naive enough to believe that support was there for those with disabilities, that people were treated with, if not respect, then with a sort of well-meaning bumbling empathy, the sort of clumsy sympathy I’ve found myself doing over the years.  I’ve learned the hard way that there’s a darker side to all this: when you’re stuck in the Wilderness, there aren’t that many people who’ll help you find your way out. Sadly the church isn’t always great at this either; some of you reading this feel like exiles from your local congregations, through no fault of your own, through no fault of your kids.

I’ve written about this a lot over the last couple of months, and I’m probably sounding repeating now. I think all these pessimistic posts, and the more positive ones sitting there in my notebook, are a way of dealing with the experience of exile.

See, there are different responses to being stuck in the Wilderness. Wandering around lost is one, and an understandable one. But it’s not sustainable; sooner or later you’re going to starve. So maybe the first thing you do is buddy up with others stuck in that same Wilderness to see if you can find a way out together.

Or you can figure you’re going to be there for a while, so you start to adapt to the terrain; the image of The Autistic Gardener team making a weird oasis in a desert wasteland is stuck in my head; creating something new is sometimes the only way to survive.

(One of the first things we learn about God is that he’s a creator.)

Or, by ingenuity and good navigation skills and sheer bloody mindedness, you figure out how to escape the Wilderness, how to find your way back to civilisation and convince those you find there to provide signs and fences and provisions and shelter to prevent others from getting lost in the desert in future.

But here’s the thing – whatever path you end up on, God’s always been in the Wilderness, wandering with his people. He may light the way out in a pillar of fire, or he may just pitch his tent next to us – either works. But he’ll be there. That’s one of the things that need to be accepted, even though it’s damn hard at times.

Still, the church isn’t just a monolithic organisation, nor is it just a bunch of local congregations singing and holding coffee mornings. It’s the Body of Christ and we’re all part of that Body – whether we’re disabled, whether we’re feeling lost, we are the church through our relationship with Christ.

And so I have to believe there’s a way out. Because we’re part of the Body not brcause someone gives us a membership ticket but because Jesus says we are. Because while I’ve had many doubts in my life, and been eaten up by resentment, I’m sure that God loves my kids, and I have to trust he loves me too. And while his church may sometimes, either by mistake or through willful ignorance, be silent, the God who camps in the desert won’t be.

 

 

A Virtual Round the World Pilgrimage: Ethiopia

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The background to this post is here.

Ethiopia
As I was growing up, Ethiopia was synonymous with one thing: famine. The BBC broadcast heart-breaking footage of children with swollen bellies covered in flies, and Live Aid was born out of those scenes of genuine human catastrophe. Those images stuck with me for years, and even though I grew to appreciate that a country is bigger than the 10 o’clock news and a moment in history, Ethiopia still conjured scenes of dust and despair.

But there are other images of Ethiopia. The Church Forests, mainly concentrated around the source of the Blue Nile, were created as a physical reminder of God’s creation, symbolic Gardens of Eden in areas where much land has been cleared for agriculture.

Administered by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church, they’re home to much of the country’s biodiversity, and while they’ve always served a spiritual purpose, now the church is working with conservationists to help preserve the country’s flora and fauna.

It’s funny how, in that last paragraph, I drew an implicit distinction between the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘physical’. That’s a failing of the western church, I think, where the environment is seen as something New Agey and has a negative impact on how we approach issues like climate change. When we adopt an attitude of domination rather than genuine stewardship, the church can be embedded as part of the problem rather than contributing to a solution.

But the Church Forests have been doing this for over 1,500 years. And while they’re now having to build protective walls around their forests, there’s still a challenge here – what if churches from around the world learned from Ethiopia? What if this was one of the models by which the church engaged with environmental issues? What if one of the priests who look after the Church Forests was asked to speak at one of our big conferences?

What if we became better at learning from each other?

An Online, Round the World Pilgrimage: Introduction

The majority of preaching I listen to comes from white men.

This isn’t saying much. I’m a white male preacher myself. I’m not exactly an outlier when it comes to the church in the UK. I preach in English too, and my lack of language ability means that, when it comes to Christian teaching, I’m pretty monoglottal.

And that means my Christian experience is seriously limited. It’s informed by my experience as a white man living in the suburbs who mainly hears and reads teaching delivered by other white men. And I haven’t really acknowledged that up until now, just like I haven’t acknowledged that when I have sought other voices, they’ve mainly come from the UK or the US. I’ve never heard a preacher from, say Greenland; I’ve never read a blog by a Christian from, say, Kazakhstan. And this malnourished spiritual diet got me thinking: what insights am I missing because the voices I hear are so limited?

An example. Research was conducted into how we hear the parables. It turned out that, while western Christians focused on the reckless living of the Prodigal Son, Christians outside the West paid more attention to the famine he experienced, subtly changing how both sets of readers interpreted the story. I mean, how many affluent westerners have ever experienced a famine? Not their problem, right?

In an age when communication technology has fundamentally changed our societies, I’m not sure we’re doing a great job of curating stories of Christians from outside some very narrow confines. Heck, I suspect the use of the word ‘curating’ there is problematic in itself. But if we’re to learn from each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, we need to find ways of sharing our insights, our theologies, or experiences.

And so I’m embarking upon a pilgrimage of sorts. I’m not in a position to travel the globe, so this will need to be a virtual, online pilgrimage (which immediately renders it suspect, because look at how many people aren’t online) to every country in the world. Because my world isn’t big enough, and I need to learn from people who don’t look like me and who see different things in the Bible. And I have no idea whether I’ll be able to finish this pilgrimage, or if it’s fundamentally condescending, or

But there are signs of hope out there. The Holy Spirit walks the world and spreads grace and mercy and inspiration and art with every footstep. And we need to follow, because otherwise we shrink God and fill the world with blond Jesuses, when the reality is so much bigger and more exciting than that.

There are other voices out there. But they’re still the Church.

Autism Parents and the Church: Sabbath

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'Lost Sheep' by Douglas Ramsey

Sometimes, things get too much.

You’ve run out of tolerance for being yelled at or hit. Or you’re fed up of arguing with doctors, with schools, with random passers-by. Or you’re sick of the staring and the tutting and the whispered comments. Or you’re tired of the guilt and the stress and the routine, you’re tired of being tired.

There are so many autism parents who, for a thousand and one reasons, don’t get to go to church. And that can mean that each day becomes just like the last; seven days you labour with no end in sight. You don’t get to stop, to reflect, to press pause and breathe. You don’t get to rest your soul, to feed your spirit, to lie down in those symbolic green pastures, to drink from those metaphorical still waters.

You don’t get to Sabbath.

(Sometimes you don’t get to Sabbath even when you do get to church, because the two things aren’t identical.)

Parenting in general is already 24-7; autism parenting can be like trying to bend the space-time continuum to squeeze a few extra minutes out of the ether so you can recover from that meltdown, finish those jobs, hide under that duvet. There’s not a lot of room for a Sabbath. And that’s a problem, not because we need to be legalistic but because we need to survive. We need to rest and recharge, recover and reboot. Life happens, and without the opportunity to deal with it, to put it to rest, to achieve some form of closure on the latest blow-up, things can get toxic. You and your kids need that release valve.

So forget the idea of mandatory church attendance and how your granny didn’t let the budgie sing on Sunday, Sabbath is about resting, finding spaces – however big or small – in which you can spend time with God before the world comes rushing in again.

(Cam a commute become a mini Sabbath?)

Carers face a whole range of risks to their mental health. Sabbath isn’t an empty ritual, it’s a physical, emotional and spiritual survival tactic. And the beauty of it is that you can tailor it to your situation, because all of our lives are different and God’s more interested in a relationship than the specifics of how you express that relationship.

It’s Good Shepherd Sunday today. I didn’t know that was a thing until I saw someone reference it on Twitter, but throughout the world, people will be reading and thinking about Psalm 23. And perhaps there’s an opportunity here, to make that Psalm a prayer, to ask God to show us the reality of that poem, to be with us in the face of our difficulties and our exhaustion, to restore our souls as we give out to others.

And if you don’t get to go to church, you’re still part of God’s family. In John’s gospel, when Jesus talks about being the Good Shepherd, he mentions the “sheep” who aren’t with him physically there and then, like the twelve disciples,  but who are still part of his flock – his family. If attending a local church is too difficult, you’re still part of the Body of Christ. You don’t have to walk through church doors, but if you can find other Christians who know what you’re going through, Jesus is there in the middle of that, even if that’s in a coffee shop, even if that’s on Facebook.

We work damn hard. Sabbath’s how we’ll keep on doing that.