Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Do not fear

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash
When I was 15 years old there was a particularly unpleasant murder which was splashed all over the news. The culprits were identified, given long prison sentences and, many years later, new identities upon their release. I remember watching news footage of the defendants being brought to trial in a prison van, angry crowds screaming abuse as it drove past. My mother's perspective on this was interesting. "We all have darkness inside us," she explained. "It's easier to scream at it in someone else than to face our own."

Today is All Hallows' Eve: for the past week, pumpkins, skeletons, witches and ghosts have loomed at us out of shop windows, from supermarket shelves and strung up as decorations outside homes. Tonight it reaches its peak as many of us, adults and children, dress up in the things we most fear. Axe murderers, which come to mind whenever we're alone in the house and hear a creak on the stairs. Ghosts, because many of us sense there's a spirit world, and don't know how to make sense of it, and don't know if it's benign. Witches, once blamed for bad crops, dying animals and sick children, in an age when we had no way of explaining the many types of human suffering visited upon us. Skeletons, because above all we fear death. Devils, because we know that we are far from innocent, each containing the capacity to do evil, though most of the time we keep it locked away.

As a Christian, why am I writing about all this? Shouldn't I be condemning it, whitewashing it, telling everyone to stay home with the lights off? Well, if you have small children or elderly relatives, that might be a wise move, but as a Christian I believe that All Hallows' Eve has something important to teach me. As a Christian minister I spend my time teaching people about the God who experienced all the horrors that life could throw at him. He was screamed at by angry crowds; he suffered terrible violence; he felt abandoned by God as the dark powers, both human and spiritual, had free reign. He even experienced our worst fear: death. God identified himself with a human corpse, lying dead and decaying in a tomb for two nights and a day. So as I walk down the street and see images of death and darkness, my Lord is there with me, because he is a stranger to none of it.

But All Hallows' Eve gives way to All Hallows, and then All Souls, two feast days many Christians have forgotten about, in which we celebrate the fact that the dead body of Christ did not stay dead. He did not come back just in a spiritual sense, either: the Christian hope of resurrection rests in the fact that when Jesus' followers went to the tomb on the third day after the crucifixion they found it empty, and then they met the living, breathing, solid, human Jesus, still bearing the marks of violence in scars on his hands and feet, but transformed.

C.S. Lewis wrote, in The Screwtape Letters, that there were two equal and opposite errors into which people could fall regarding the devil. The first was to have an unhealthy interest in him; the second was to deny his existence entirely. The devil, Lewis believed, was equally happy with either option. Revelling in horror, filling our minds with scary films and frightening images, is probably not helpful for anyone. Closing our eyes and ears to all that is dark in the world and in ourselves is not healthy either. As a follower of Jesus I can face up to my own darkness and even my own death knowing that he is there with me - and has changed the grave from a dead end to a thoroughfare.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Redeeming Halloween 2

In recent years I have become more and more intrigued by Halloween as it has become more and more prominent a phenomenon in the UK. I don’t remember Halloween being a big deal when I was little, but over the last few years trick or treating seems to have become more and more common - interestingly, among quite young children. On 31st October there are frequent rings on my door as small witches, wizards and zombies ask me for sweets, their parents usually hovering in the background. I love it.

Yes, I love Halloween, for three reasons. Firstly, I love the community atmosphere. I live in the suburbs, and suburban people are notoriously bad at getting to know their neighbours, particularly in areas like the one where I live, where a large proportion of the population are commuters. Halloween is the one day in the year when people are out on the streets knocking on their neighbours’ doors. We Brits have a tendency to social awkwardness (read Watching the English by Kate Fox if you don’t believe me); the crazy costumes are disarming and the agreed “Trick or treat?” script helps us to talk with people we don’t know. Some people argue that children shouldn’t be taught to demand chocolate from people. I think it’s a fun, rather cute new tradition, especially bearing in mind the young age of most of the trick or treaters I encounter. And actually it seems many parents have taught their children to say “Happy Halloween” instead - a Halloween blessing. In addition, most trick or treaters will only approach houses with Halloween decorations - there is a shared understanding that by putting out a Jack o’ Lantern you are signalling your participation in the festivities.

Secondly, I love the fun. I have always been rather drawn to some aspects of goth culture, although unfortunately black hair doesn’t suit me (I once tried it for two weeks. Not a good look.) As a child I adored the Tim Burton film The Nightmare Before Christmas and I’ve always rather liked skull patterned clothes. Unfortunately I once unthinkingly wore a skull hoodie to a Roman Catholic mass for the dead. That was embarrassing. In every other respect I am quite a cheerful, positive, high-energy person, drawn to bright colours and life in all its fullness. I sometimes wonder whether my fascination for gothic imagery is the shadow to my cheeriness. I am drawn to what I cannot understand. So for me Halloween is a lot of fun - a chance to be playful and dress up and eat cakes in the shape of eyeballs. Quirky fun.

I can hear my Christian friends shaking their heads in disapproval, so I will hastily add that thirdly, and most importantly, I love the message of Halloween. Last year my Halloween post quoted other Christians who had come to see Halloween as a kind of mini-Easter, facing the reality of death on All Hallow’s Eve and proclaiming the truth of resurrection on the following day - All Saints’ Day, 1st November, when traditionally Christians have remembered people who have died in faith over the past year. Christians believe that Christ has defeated the powers of darkness through his death on the cross and even overcome death itself. Halloween seems to glory in all that is dark, frightening and malevolent, and that seems a contradiction of the gospel. I respect those who hold this view, but personally I see it differently. Yes, Christ has defeated the powers of darkness, even death itself. But during our life on earth we will continue to be affected by these dark powers, and we will still die. Christians understand us to be living in an “in-between” time, the time in between Christ’s coming and his second coming; between the inauguration of the Kingdom of God and its final consummation. We ultimately have nothing to fear from the defeated enemy, but it can still hurt us deeply. When someone dies in the hope of resurrection their friends are left with a great hope, but they still dearly miss their friend. Think of Gandalf declaring to the Balrog: “You shall not pass!” in The Fellowship of the Ring. The Balrog doesn’t pass, but in its death throes it takes Gandalf with it. Ultimately and mysteriously he does not die, but comes back as Gandalf the White. In the same way, Christians die in the hope that they will rise again. Nevertheless, we can see how a defeated enemy in its death throes can still do terrible harm.

I believe Halloween gives people the opportunity to confront their deepest fears and, in doing so, to break the power of these fears. Christianity is not about skating over or ignoring the harsh realities of life to hold on to a glorious future hope. It is about hanging on to that hope won for us by Christ while staring those harsh realities in the face.

Consider this wonderful reflection by William Brodrick, courtesy of the Northumbria Community:

We have to be candles,
burning between 
hope and despair, 
faith and doubt, 
life and death, 
all the opposites.
That is the disquieting place 
where people must always find us.

And if our life means anything,
if what we are goes beyond 
the monastery walls
and does some good, 
it is that somehow, 
by being here, 
at peace, 
we help the world cope
with what it cannot understand. 

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Let's banish shame from slimming

Photo by Oliver Sjöström on Unsplash

I’ve recently been watching Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s documentary ‘Britain’s Fat Fight’ on BBC iPlayer - it’s a great programme which I’d highly recommend. Since joining Slimming World two and a half years ago I have become very passionate about healthy eating, having struggled to control my weight for most of my life so far. There is much that is really helpful, informative and inspiring in the documentary. I was most struck, however, by what celebrity chef Hugh says about shame. I guess it's been said before, but it struck me as a fresh insight: it's really hard for us to talk about our weight. There is a lot of shame bound up with food, weight and body image.

Even GPs (this bit really surprised me) apparently find it difficult to talk with their patients about their weight. Hugh talks with a group of GPs in Bristol who say that their patients already know they're overweight, so their doctors find it hard to bring up the subject. The receptionist explains that she's had patients come out of their appointment furious, saying that the doctor has just called them fat. I've had a doctor bring up my weight with me and I did not enjoy the experience. Even though he spoke gently and with compassion, I felt profoundly shamed. 

Apparently 2/3 of us in the UK are now overweight, so it has become the new normal. And no wonder when you consider our busy lifestyles and the kinds of foods on offer all around us. If we work or have caring responsibilities full time, cooking takes a chunk of our time each day that we may not easily be able to spare. And there are so many quick, easy, unhealthy options. Ready meals, packed with sugar, salt and fat. Pies and pizzas, which we can just shove in the oven. Takeaways, which can give us as many calories in one meal as we should be eating in a whole day. And as for breakfasts and lunches, many of us grab what we can on the go, or skip meals altogether. A breakfast pastry from a coffee shop (watch the bake off to see just how much butter goes in a batch of croissants). A pasty from a petrol station. A chocolate bar as a pick-me-up during a busy day. These are the kinds of snacks we can most easily find when we are harassed and hungry. Five-a-day is a great principle but putting it into practice can be very hard. Sometimes struggles with weight can be dismissed with the glib exhortation "just eat less and move more". Simple but not easy. And actually incorrect. In my experience, reaching a healthy weight is not about eating less but eating better. You can't just cut food out - you need to replace it with something, otherwise you'll feel hungry, hard done by, and desperate for the diet to be over so you can go back to enjoying food. 

Excess weight is associated with greed - those of us with extra weight are taking in too much, taking up too much space in the world, and need to punish ourselves back into a socially acceptable body shape. Of course, that's not ever said openly, but I think it's the message many of us receive. But feeling bad about yourself does not help you lose weight - actually it's the reverse. The more you love yourself, the more you want to give your body good, nutritious food. The more you love yourself, the more likely you are to take time out to cook and eat properly, because your body is worth it. And let's get rid of "should", "ought" and language of naughtiness and badness around food. I've done it myself, but I'm trying to stop. No, I haven't "been bad" today, I've chosen to have some treats, and maybe tomorrow I'll choose to level things out with salads and fruits. No, I'm not "being good" today, I'm choosing foods that are good for my body. Slimming World taught me that I have a choice how I eat, and I can educate myself and my taste buds to make healthy choices. And, as my consultant says, "there's no shame in a gain". 

Food and weight is not usually seen as a spiritual issue, but when it affects our self-image, I think it becomes one. God made us and loves us. He made our emotional, spiritual and physical selves. He made our bodies. Actually there is an awful lot in the Bible about food. Friendship with God is often expressed in terms of a meal. “Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends". (Revelation 3:20 NLT) Food is good, and so are we. God made both. 

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Sunday's sermon: From Shame to Shalom

A woman in the crowd had suffered for twelve years with constant bleeding. She had suffered a great deal from many doctors, and over the years she had spent everything she had to pay them, but she had gotten no better. In fact, she had gotten worse. She had heard about Jesus, so she came up behind him through the crowd and touched his robe. For she thought to herself, “If I can just touch his robe, I will be healed.” Immediately the bleeding stopped, and she could feel in her body that she had been healed of her terrible condition.

Jesus realized at once that healing power had gone out from him, so he turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my robe?”

His disciples said to him, “Look at this crowd pressing around you. How can you ask, ‘Who touched me?’” 

But he kept on looking around to see who had done it. Then the frightened woman, trembling at the realization of what had happened to her, came and fell to her knees in front of him and told him what she had done. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace. Your suffering is over.” 

(Mark 5.21-34 NLT)

Years ago I read Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel, a novel set in prehistoric times. A little girl whose family is killed is taken in by a tribe of neanderthals. Some years later, the girl breaks a very important rule and is condemned to the worst possible punishment. The tribe’s holy man conducts a special ritual which ‘kills’ the girl’s spirit. Although she is still there bodily, the tribe believe she is dead, and even her own adopted mother cries in anguish because her daughter is no more. The girl leaves the home of the tribe – who are now pretending they cannot see or hear her, believing she is dead and just a shadow – and has to survive alone without the tribe’s protection. 
This is an extreme picture of shame. Someone who is shamed is out of relationship with their community. Others refuse to acknowledge them; or else they hide themselves away, not wanting to be seen. A person feeling shame will typically hide their face. If you’ve ever used the expression, “I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me,” you may have been feeling shame. Someone feels shame if they have done something bad – or if they feel that they themselves are bad in their very being.

In the story from Mark 5, Jesus meets a woman who lives in shame. We know she had been bleeding for 12 years. It's not clear exactly what was wrong, but it seems likely to have been some kind of gynaecological problem. Firstly, this would have been physically uncomfortable and may have been painful. Secondly, she has ‘suffered a great deal’ in the care of many doctors: any woman who has had a gynae examination; any man who has had a prostate exam can sympathise with her mortification and pain. Thirdly, this has made her poor – she has spent all she has on doctors, living as she does in the days before the NHS. Fourthly, and this is hinted at in the passage, her suffering has made her an outcast.

Notice that she sneaks up behind Jesus? That she doesn’t speak to him or touch him, but just touches his cloak? There are many, many healing stories in the gospels, but in every other case I can think of the person asks for healing – or their family ask on their behalf. This woman is too afraid to ask. She doesn’t make herself known until Jesus stops and asks, “Who touched me?”… and waits for an answer. She is perhaps just as desperate as Jairus, the man whose daughter Jesus is on the way to heal when she touches his cloak. But she is not a synagogue leader, an important person in society, not a rich person, not even a man. She is a poor, hurting, shamed woman who has been living for 12 years in the shadows.

To understand the depth of this woman’s shame, we need to turn to the Old Testament law, to Leviticus 15:
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron,“Give the following instructions to the people of Israel…
‘Whenever a woman has her menstrual period, she will be ceremonially unclean for seven days. Anyone who touches her during that time will be unclean until evening. Anything on which the woman lies or sits during the time of her period will be unclean. If any of you touch her bed, you must wash your clothes and bathe yourself in water, and you will remain unclean until evening. If you touch any object she has sat on, you must wash your clothes and bathe yourself in water, and you will remain unclean until evening. This includes her bed or any other object she has sat on; you will be unclean until evening if you touch it… If a woman has a flow of blood for many days that is unrelated to her menstrual period, or if the blood continues beyond the normal period, she is ceremonially unclean. As during her menstrual period, the woman will be unclean as long as the discharge continues. Any bed she lies on and any object she sits on during that time will be unclean, just as during her normal menstrual period. If any of you touch these things, you will be ceremonially unclean. You must wash your clothes and bathe yourself in water, and you will remain unclean until evening.’ (15.1-2; 19-23; 25-27). Incidentally, the same rules applied to a man with any kind of bodily discharge.

This woman couldn’t touch anyone – couldn’t even sit on the same furniture as anyone else – without making them ritually unclean. She is dirty.

The culture we live in is very different from the culture of this unnamed woman. We are not ashamed of this kind of physical affliction. And yet shame still haunts us today. We tend to talk more about guilt than shame in churches. We remind each other that Christ has died to take away our guilt, to pay the penalty for our sin, so that we don’t have to carry the burden any more. And this is right and proper, and we need to keep reminding each other of this. But shame is a bit different from guilt. A number of writers have recently argued for a renewed understanding of shame and how it differs from guilt because of the importance for understanding the depth of the salvation Jesus has won for us. This arises from missionary literature on ‘honour/shame cultures’ (e.g. South East Asia, the Middle East) versus ‘guilt cultures’ (the UK, the USA). Shame is described as being focused on the self, a sense of being bad in one’s own being; whereas guilt focuses on the act, a knowledge that I have done something wrong. Guilt can be erased through an appropriate punishment, which justifies the guilty person; shame cannot be removed in this way, however. Shame is not individual but communal, and it requires a restoration of relationship which brings the offender back into the community. It has been argued that the categorisation of cultures into ‘guilt cultures’ and ‘shame cultures’ found in some missionary literature is arbitrary. I would argue that shame-talk is even more powerful than guilt-talk in understanding how Jesus saves us in our culture.

If Jesus came today, who would be the people sneaking up behind to grab at his cloak?
Who are the people we shun, either through disgust, fear or embarrassment?

People who are grieving – they sometimes find that others cross the road to avoid them, not knowing what to say.

People who struggle to find work, or whose health prevents them from working, experience shame in a culture with a protestant work ethic, where productivity is prized.

Beggars are both despised and feared: we are horrified and overwhelmed by their vast need, suspicious that we are being conned, our money used to fund a drug habit, and frightened of being drawn in.

While women don’t experience the same shame over gynaecological conditions as the woman in our Bible story, I suspect there are certain medical conditions that men and women would find excruciating to talk about, even with their closest friends and family.

People who have been abused or bullied often feel shame about what has happened to them – misplaced shame, because it was not their fault – but shame nevertheless which can be hard to shift.

People with disabilities are rightly treated with much greater respect and dignity than they were a generation ago, and yet still face ignorance and embarrassment.

Although the stigma is being challenged, mental illness is often something of which we do not speak. I suspect I frequently embarrass people by talking openly about my antidepressant medication, which has vastly improved my quality of life by relieving my anxiety. And yet there are aspects of my anxiety symptoms I don’t share openly as I’m ashamed of them.

To return to the story, Jesus knows that power has gone out of him and asks, “Who touched my robe?” He may well have known exactly who had touched his robe; in other healing stories Jesus seems to hear the thoughts of others, to know about their lives without their telling him. Someone has received healing from him but he is not going to let them melt away quietly into the crowd. What might this shamed woman, whose body has now been healed, have been thinking to herself? She knows the Levitical laws: anyone in the crowd she has jostled against has been made unclean; even this holy rabbi, Jesus, has been made unclean by her touch. Is he going to remonstrate with her? To shame her further for daring to steal a miracle from him? No. Instead he speaks words of precious blessing:
“Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace. Your suffering is over.” (5.34). Jesus knows, miraculously, instinctively, that her healing will not be complete until she has shown herself to him. This woman has had to hide from the world in her shame, untouchable, unseen. He gently pushes her out into the open, knowing this is what she needs. She needs to be seen. He reassures her that she is worth seeing.

'Daughter' – she is a child of God.
'Your faith has made you well' – he does not scold her for daring, but praises her faith.
'Your suffering is over' – not just her physical suffering, which would have been significant, but her social isolation too. No longer shamed, she is out in the open.
'Go in peace.' 

The Old Testament word for peace is shalom. Wholeness; completion; salvation in body, mind and spirit; restoration to peaceful life in community; the peace of the righteous.
I wonder what it might look like for us to receive this shalom from Jesus?
I wonder what it might look like for us to reach for the hem of his cloak and receive his welcome?
I wonder what it might look like for us to give this shalom to others experiencing shame?
I wonder what it might look like for us to receive this shalom from Jesus – whether we are ashamed because of our own shortcomings or because of something we have no control over, like the woman in the story.

Brené Brown is an American social researcher who has researched and written extensively on the subject of vulnerability and shame. She makes this insightful comment in her book, Daring Greatly: ‘Shame derives its power from being unspeakable… If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither…language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.’ (Daring Greatly, Kindle edition, chapter 3). Brown describes the voices of shame as like gremlins in our mind. When she experiences shame she asks herself, “What are the gremlins saying?”

“It’s too embarrassing. I can’t ever tell anybody.”
“I’ve made a mess of my life, and it’s my fault. I have to deal with it myself.”
“If they really knew me, they wouldn’t love me.”
“I don’t know what to say to that person. I might make a mistake and embarrass myself, or hurt their feelings. They might cry. Better to keep away.”
“Why are they asking for my money? Are they trying to get one over on me? I don’t want to deal with their problems – I have enough of my own. Why can’t they leave me alone?”

The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, wants to speak words of peace and welcome into our hearts. He wants to dwell in us, to overflow from us into the lives of others; to silence the gremlins and bring shalom to all people.

You are my beloved daughter.
You are my own dear son.
I know everything about you, and I love you the same. You never have to hide yourself from me.
For the things you have done wrong, I forgive you.
From the things others have done to you, I will bring you healing.
Let us go into the world together and free other broken people from their shame.

Shame is overcome by reunion. Jesus has taken our shame on the cross, and defeated it. We no longer have to hide our faces from God; he no longer hides his face from us. And as people freed from shame we are called to build a community in which we remind each other of our freedom. A community where we can be open, vulnerable and honest about our shortcomings, about our secret fears and difficulties. A community where it is safe to be honest because we are rooted in the unconditional love of God. A community of people who strive to overcome their shaming of others, so that all people might know of the unconditional love of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

On World Mental Health Day

Mental health affects everyone, just as physical health affects everyone. We all have a mind and we all have a body. Our thoughts affect our physical sensations, and our body influences our mental state. When we're tired, hungry, have a headache, we are irritable. When we're scared our stomach churns and we break out in a cold sweat. We are, each of us, a whole person, body, mind and spirit - and these cannot easily be separated.

We all have good days and bad days. We all 'feel depressed' sometimes - by which we probably mean sad, blue, downhearted. We all feel anxious at times - it's a natural reaction to stressors. We all have to find ways of dealing with our moods, whether it's by thinking things through, distracting ourselves, talking to a good friend or simply getting some sleep.

Sometimes we struggle to manage our moods and our emotions get out of control. We feel sad all the time; we feel frightened of situations that aren't dangerous; we stop seeing the world as it is because we're seeing it through a filter that distorts everything. Sometimes things happen to us that are very hard to cope with and our emotions are bigger and stronger and harder to contain. Sometimes sleep, distractions and friendships aren't enough and we need professional help. Below is a card we recently had printed for use in our church coffee house, with numbers to call to access that help.

It can be hard to do. We may feel that we're not ill enough to access help; that we should be able to cope by ourselves; that our employer or our friends or our church might find out and judge us. Unfortunately there is still a prejudice in some quarters (and perhaps in our own hearts) which says that while a broken leg might need a doctor, a broken heart can heal itself.

Well, it might do. But it might heal a lot faster with help. In my mental health struggles, I have experienced the grace of God most through other people: doctors, colleagues and friends. I pray that that might be your experience too. 


Sunday, 30 July 2017

Broken: shame and guilt

Over the six episodes of Broken Father Michael meets several people going through terrible struggles. One of the saddest is the case of Roz, a lapsed Irish Catholic woman who comes to confession and tells Michael her secret. Roz is holding down a responsible job and living in a nice house with her three teenage children; she is an attractive woman and comes across as successful and capable. But Roz has stolen over £230,000 from her employer over the past eight years in order to fund her gambling addiction. She knows her days of keeping this quiet are numbered: soon her employer will find out and therefore she is planning to end her life. She won't be able to live with the shame, she explains. She can't stand the thought of all her neighbours and friends knowing what she's done and, as she puts it, "wetting themselves"  with glee.

Michael tries hard to dissuade Roz from her terrible decision. He's done much worse things than she has, he confesses, and shares a little of his troubled youth. Roz seems to respond well to his vulnerability, but denies that he understands her predicament. Michael is living with secrets he feels guilty about, whereas Roz's crime will soon no longer be secret. "Guilt is when you know you've done wrong," she explains. "Shame is when everyone knows."

Over the past few years I've become very interested in the issues around guilt and shame. Some Christian theologians argue that 'shame' describes the 21st century human predicament - particularly in the West - better than 'guilt'. According to the literature, guilt is knowing you've done something bad, whereas shame is believing you are bad. Guilt is more of an individual problem, whereas shame causes you to be estranged from the people around you. Guilt can be dealt with by taking your punishment - as in the justice system, where you are sentenced to a spell in prison, community service, perhaps a fine, and then you have 'paid your debt to society'. Shame can only be dealt with by a healing of relationships, bringing the offender back into the embrace of the community. In missionary literature some cultures were traditionally described as 'guilt cultures' and others 'shame cultures'. Japan was given as an example of one such 'shame culture', where misdemeanour was understood to be dealt with via community pressure, shaming the offender into changing their ways. This is probably a massive oversimplification, however. Although ours is supposedly a 'guilt culture', personally I hugely identify with the problem of shame, and I suspect I'm not alone. My secret fear is not that I do wrong, but that I fundamentally am wrong, and that one day everyone will find out. Thus I think it's really important to understand how the cross of Christ deals not just with guilt, but with shame too. It's not only that the just punishment is paid by Christ, thus dealing with guilt, but that the shame which has estranged the offender from God and from their community is dealt with too. Christ welcomes us back into a relationship with God and into a community of others which, at its best, welcomes us too.

Unfortunately Roz believes that her community will not welcome her, but instead will delight at her appalling crime and enjoy watching her misfortune. What she imagines God thinks of her we are not told. Father Michael asks her to join him in a prayer, and it's a really simple and beautiful one. "This is Roz Demichelis, Lord.  She doesn't know how much you love her. Please would you find some way of showing her. Amen."

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Broken at the altar

A new drama series by Jimmy McGovern finished a couple of weeks ago on the BBC. Broken  tells the story of Roman Catholic priest Father Michael Kerrigan, a broken person ministering to other broken people in an unnamed northern city. It's still available on BBC iPlayer and I would encourage you to watch it - only be prepared for a few grim hours. I'll try to avoid spoilers here.

Michael has a problem: whenever he celebrates Mass (which I think in the Roman Catholic Church is every day), he has flashbacks. At the moment of consecration - the point at which, Catholics believe, the bread and wine physically become for us the body and blood of Christ - he remembers every shameful thing he's ever done, and every shameful thing that has been done to him. We see his mother screaming at him that he's a dirty, filthy little boy; young women crying because he has treated them badly; mistakes he has made as a priest; people he has let down. His voice falters and he struggles to get through the words he must say to fulfill his duty as a priest.

As a Christian minister, and as someone who suffers from anxiety, I find Michael's conundrum fascinating. I, too, have had times when my anxiety has made it very difficult to carry out the usual duties of my ministry. Interestingly, when my anxiety is bad I have always struggled most with preaching, and in Baptist services the sermon has a similar place in worship that the Mass has in a Roman Catholic service. It's not that Roman Catholic priests don't preach and it's not that Baptists don't celebrate Mass (though we call it Communion or the Lord's Supper, and we understand its significance in a different way). But while Baptists would tend to expect God to minister to them in a particularly special way through the sermon, Roman Catholics believe God's grace is ministered to them in the most holy way as they celebrate Mass.

Michael has a fellow priest to whom he confides his secret struggles. He confesses that, at the "supreme moment of priesthood", as he calls it, he remembers all the terrible things he's done and asks himself how he can possibly think himself worthy to preside over the holy mystery. Roman Catholic Christians certainly have a different understanding of priesthood than Baptists do, but even taking into account our theological differences, it seems to me that it is precisely at the Communion table that a priest, minister, or any Christian should rightly be most aware of their own brokenness. And yet what is missing from Michael's experience - perhaps because anxiety lies to us and prevents us from hearing truth - is the grace that meets us just at the point when we are most aware of our unworthiness. At the communion table all Christians remember that Christ died to save sinners: knowing our brokenness he became broken so that we might be made whole. At the communion table we receive, not God's accusation or disapproval, but his forgiveness, his pardon, his unconditional love.  In the last five minutes of the last episode (and it's worth getting to the end for this) Michael finally receives the love and forgiveness he needs from an unexpected quarter.