Stations: Malchus

So the mob moves in and panic erupts and Peter draws his sword and suddenly the servant of the High Priest is clutching his ear. First blood spills and Malchus screams and Peter prepares to strike again, because let’s face it, he wasn’t aiming for an ear, he was aiming for Malchus’s head and missed.

It’s not an unusual scenario, lashing out when angry and cornered and scared. Every fist fight, every beating, every glassing in a pub car park,  every shot fired in panic, every indriscriminate carpet bombing… Someone lies bleeding on the ground, someone else vows revenge. Violence never ends anything.

Jesus, of course, calls for this to stop, tells Peter to put away his sword; they haven’t needed weapons in the three years so they’re not going to start now. After all, when Jesus rode into town a week earlier, he did so on the back of a donkey,  not waving from the back of a tank.

But it doesn’t end there, can’t end there. Jesus cannot leave Malchus bleeding in the grass, moaning with pain. The Cross inaugerates a Kingdom built on peace and grace and defeats the violence of the world. For this to be true, Malchus cannot be mutilated in the name of Jesus; the Cross of Christ can’t give his followers an excuse to crucify everyone else.

And so Jesus reaches out and Malchus is made whole again. And Malchus fades from view at this point, but this is an invitation to reflect on how he felt, how he responded to an act of grace from the revolutionary he was there to arrest. In the light of one last miracle on the road to the Cross, does Malchus see the sword swinging down, only to be replaced by an act of compassion from an enemy and a rewriting of all the rules, even as Jesus is dragged away towards trial?

Stations: Judas

 

Judas – The Departue by Ghislaine Howard

 

As Jesus kneels praying the prayer of his life, another man pulls on his jacket and prepares to commit treason. His name, his deeds, even his payment have become icons of treachery and Betrayal,  and although his motives remain murky, their outcome remains the same – no-one ever names their baby ‘Judas’.

He walks through Gethsemane at the head of  a mob, and every betrayal in history is pulled towards this point; every lover who slept with a best friend, every fifth columnist trading secrets, every CEO who raided the pensions of his employer, every knock on the door in the middle of the night as an informer puts down the phone, every parent who returned the love of their children with cruelty and abuse. Betrayal comes to us so easily, and sometimes we convince ourselves that it’s for the greater good; maybe Judas though that provoking a confrontation between Jesus and the authorities would be for the best, maybe he felt a Messiah who loved his enemies could only be a fraud, maybe Judas simply believed himself to be the hero in his own story.

Or maybe he was just in it for the money. It’s hard to say.

Loyalty, however, that’s something else. It takes work to be loyal, to resist the temptation to take the easy way out, to just follow orders. It’s hard not to become a monster if all your life you’ve lived among them. I can’t say I have sympathy for Judas, but I’m also not convinced he set out to become history’s greatest villain; in some ways he’s the banality of evil, selling out the Son of God for silver then hanging himself when he couldn’t handle the guilt. It’s an all too human act of betrayal, with all the terrible consequences that entails.

But wait, listen to what Jesus says: “Do what you came to do, friend.” He looks at his betrayer and calls him ‘friend’, an act of grace and maybe even forgiveness just before the mob closes in and the swords are drawn. And that one word, ‘friend’, sits at the heart of the story, the idea that Jesus welcomes us back, the idea that the everyday betrayals we see all around us could, in the shadow of the name ‘Judas’, be prevented, could even be forgiven, even if the consequences are rightly about to hit us like a freight train.

Judas takes his silver and walks away, but we stand in his footsteps, decisions to make. Do we take the money and run? Or do we take the harder path, steadfastness on the road to the Cross?

Dispatches from the Ploughshares Factory: Issue 2

Somewhere in Shropshire there stands an angel born of knives, 100,000 surrendered weapons transformed into art and beauty and memory. The sculpture was made by artist Alfie Bradley, using knives confiscated by over forty police forces across the UK. Britain doesn’t have much of a gun culture, but knife crime remains a lethal problem. The angel stands as a monument to lives lost, a beautiful sculpture, yes, but also disturbing, reminiscent of something from Game of Thrones or Doctor Who. Somehow that’s appropriate; we can reject the tools of violence and war, turn them into things of beauty, but maybe the sharp edges that remain remind us where the art came from, reminds us that peace in a broken world is an ongoing process, an ongoing battle rather than something to take for granted.

Because peace is something worth fighting for; after all, it’s so easily taken away. We saw this only a few days ago, when a white supremacist gunman opened fire on worshipers at a mosque in Quebec. Six people were killed.

And so, last Friday, rings of peace surrounded Canada’s mosques as people stepped forward to defend the right to worship without fear. “Houses of worship are sacred and must be protected,” said the organiser, Rabbi Yael Splashy,  but they’re sacred because they’re full of people made in the image of God. We need to protect that inherent dignity rather than allow us to be consumed by demonised language, dehumanising rhetoric.

Of course, dehumanisation is an attitude born out of seeing people as problems to be ‘fixed’ rather than individuals of intrinsic worth. Just look at how much money is spent on keeping the homeless at bay rather than helping them; defensive architecture is big business. In Manchester, spikes were placed in a doorway to deter rough sleepers. Humanity wins through, however and the spikes have now been removed because locals kept covering them with cushions. A similar thing happened in Liverpool, when an anti-homeless ramp was turned into a tea stall. I see that and I see hope, but I also remember the Homeless Jesus statue, and hope and apathy in an awkward dance.

A different Kingdom breaks through, shines out of the cracks, and swords are turned into ploughshares. And yet we can’t stop, can’t relax; harsher visions soon take hold and peace needs to be proactive. But still we proclaim a better world; the ploughshares factory remains at work.

The original post in this series is here.

Meryl Streep, Golden Globes, Disability and the Church

I have two children with autism. They’re great kids and I love them and my wife and I want nothing but the best for them. And so it’s difficult watching their struggles, because we want them to have a full and fulfilling life and yet the barriers keep coming down and sometimes we have to just put our foot down and smash through the roadblocks that are put in place by schools, by churches, by governments, by random people in the supermarket. We try to shield and insulate our kids from that as much as possible. It’s not an easy task, it leaves you battered and bruised, and even though we’re still standing, sometimes it feels less like a great sword-wielding victory and more like the last fight in Rocky

So when Meryl Streep won a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes last night, and used her acceptable speech to attack the way in which political rhetoric legitimises bullying, particularly of people with disabilities, I’m with her all the way. Regardless of what you think of his platform, Donald Trump shouldn’t have mocked a disabled reporter last year.

Others aren’t quite so supportive. Many think she should have kept her mouth shut, not used the occasion to make what they see as a political point. Some of those people speaking out have been pastors.

 But look, this isn’t about partisan politics; I’m British, I have a whole different bunch of uninspiring political choices to make. No, this is about normalising a level of discourse in which criticising the mockery of people with disabilities has suddenly become controversial. And while that may seem to be an academic issue in the rarefied atmosphere of Twitter or Hollywood, on the ground it just continues to poison a culture that already gives less of a damn about disabilities than it likes to think it does.

That’s why it’s difficult to watch the Church cave into this sort of thinking. It’s already a struggle for many people with disabilities, and their families, to be part of church communities for a whole range of issues, many of which I’ve blogged about here. This can be a failure to offer the necessary practical and emotional support that’s needed, or a failure to communicate effectively, or criticism and infantilising of those with learning difficulties. That’s within the church: outside the church, things aren’t pretty either. PWD face regular assaults on their dignity, their fundamental worth as human beings is underappreciated. Trump’s mockery of Serge Kovaleski is part of that culture; yes, it’s horrifying to see this take place as part of a political rally, but let’s not kid ourselves, this happens every day.

So the Church needs to take a stand here, and as the public faces of our congregations, we need pastors to lead on this. Because it’s easy to dismiss Meryl Streep’s comments as the privileged voice of rich and successful Hollywood, but if you, as pastor, have a book deal and a megachurch and a regular invitation to the offices of political representatives, then you too are privileged, you too have a voice. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, provided the voice you use sounds like Jesus.

That’s the thing about the Church. It’s not here to sound like Democrats or Republicans, it’s not here to sound like Meryl Streep or Donald Trump. It’s here to sound like Jesus, it’s here to act like Jesus, and that means treating people with disabilities – and yes, everyone else – with compassion and grace. You want to discuss policy? Fine. You want to disagree? That’s okay. But don’t punch down, never punch down, never hold the coats while others are bullying, because that’s when our mission on Earth becomes fatally compromised. Normalise the indefensible and your church dies, even if the pews are still packed, even if the bank account’s still healthy. The Spirit moves somewhere else; the Glory departs the Temple; Jesus hangs out on the outside with the tax collectors and the disabled people.

Many people with disabilities find church difficult. It’s as simple with that. But if you have authority in a congregation, then you have the ability to do something about that. Your words can build up someone spiritual life and their inclusion in the wider Body of Christ, or they can just add to the impression that disabled people aren’t respected, aren’t valued, aren’t important. You have the ability to change and influence that culture. And I’m not asking you to agree with Meryl Streep’s politics, I’m asking you to hear her words about how people are treated, how people may feel, and think about how that impacts those under your pastoral care, or those who don’t come to your church because the light you give out doesn’t reach as far as people with disabilities.

Your choice. Your call. Go for it.

Christianity and Mental Illness

I didn’t want to write this post. I didn’t want to admit, in public, that I struggle with, and suffer from, anxiety, stress and depression. Mental health remains fairly taboo; no-one really wants to ralk about it, and the subject is surrounded by so much misinformation and shaming that it’s easier to ignore it, to lock it safely away behind closed doors.

But that way lies guilt, isolation, despair. The reluctance and inability to have an open, compassionate conversation about mental health, particularly in the church, is making the problem worse. Our silence strengthens the suffering.

So, in the quiet and the dark of a winter morning, while I feel brave enough to write this in the first place, here are some thoughts on Christianity and mental health…


Mental illness is an illness

Too often, mental health issues are treated as a failing, a weakness, a lack of faith, and in doing so words are inadvertently weaponised, leaving the people hearing them feeling even more crushed and exhausted than before.

But if you have an infection, you get antibiotics, and if you’re diagnosed with cancer, you get chemotherapy. You pray about it, you ask trusted friends to pray about it. And so that should give us permission to do the same when suffering from depression, or anxiety, or stress. You’re allowed to go on medication. You’re allowed to seek counselling, you’re allowed to seek prayer. Because mental illness is illness, and you do what you’ve gotta do to manage it. And no-one has the right to judge or shame you for that, because it’s your mind, your body, your life, your relationships you need to look after.

And for the wider Christian community that has pastoral implications. While churches are great at mobilising when someone’s diagnosed with a ‘physical’ illness, we need to become just as effective at  giving lifts to counselling sessions and offering to pick up prescriptions for antidepressants. The church is family, and families support each other, even when that involves breaking taboos and speaking into silence.

Grace and love abound

You may have been told you lack faith. You may have been told that your anxiety is a lack of trust in God, you may have been told that stress is you being Mary when you really should be Martha.

But this trivialise the problem, doesn’t it? It adds an extra layer of shame and guilt, and most of the time people don’t realise it’s happening. You sit quietly in a sermon as the words fly towards you like bullets.

Waking up feeling scared every day, no matter what’s actually happening, isn’t just ‘worry’. Having a negative physical reaction, shallow breathing and panicked thoughts when you see an email alert isn’t just ‘being a bit overworked’. Spontaneous bursts of anger or paranoia or despair aren’t healthy. You know that.

But in the middle of this, God doesn’t leave us. In the middle of this we are not condemned or damned. Because none of this is about the power of your faith or your acceptance of dogma. It’s about you being a child of God, ir’s about you being covered by grace, it’s about you being loved. And it’s about God being with you, even when you feel abandoned, even when you feel lost, even when you’re trapped in a fog that feels solid as stone. And if there are times you can’t believe that, try to let others believe it for you.

I’m a Methodist local preacher, and after one service someone thanked me for talking about grace,  because they didn’t hear it enough. And that shocked me, because grace is at the centre of all we have and we need to communicate that with every breath. Maybe we need to get better at pointing our stories of grace in the right direction.

Gethsemane is important

We sometimes focus so much on Christ’s divinity that we imagine him walking through the world untouched by everything until he got to the Cross.  But sidelining his humanity does violence to the Incarnation, and that has an impact on how Christ’s humanity impacts on our own.

That’s why Gethsemane is important. After all, no-one who sweats blood is unfamiliar with moments of stress and anxiety. There’s a moment of solidarity here, of recognition, of familiarity. Christianity is centred on God becoming human, and that means having experience of some horrific experiences, including crushing anguish. This should affect how we talk about things like anxiety, should create a space in which it’s safe to have conversations about stress. After all, these concepts aren’t alien to Christ himself, they shouldn’t be alien to our churches.

There are plenty of people out there struggling with mental illness. This needs to be acknowledged as a day to day reality, and we need to create an environment in which it’s safe to talk about this. And this doesn’t need to be scary; sometimes it’s simply about recognising that the problem is there; sometimes it’s about simply giving a damn. And in doing so, find a way out of the dark; find a light to walk towards.