Chosen and Special

 The Girl In The Orange Dress by Margot Starbuck

 An adopted child’s journey toward accepting her Father’s love.

“Girl” + “Dress” = “Chick book.”  Well not in this case.  I have no doubt that women would enjoy this book, in fact I have now passed my copy on to my mum.  But this is a book for anyone searching for a sense of belonging and value in a world of disappointment, betrayal, abandonment and rejection.

This is not the story of an unhappy childhood, far from it.  Margot Starbuck felt special as an adopted child because she had been chosen to be loved: the more her family fragmented into divorce, the more grown-ups she had to love her.  When she herself had grown up and was looking back it was then than the injustice of the men in her life surfaced.  None of her “daddies” had hung around – so why would God?

I enjoyed the description of a life of faith lived in spite of the bruises.  I connected with the honest and heart-felt questioning of God’s capacity to care, and with how the worst place to be when in pain is amongst the pleasantries of your local congregation.

Sometimes we have to choose to be chosen.  If we choose to be chosen then God does come through.  Still, I am relieved that according to Margot Starbuck there are at least two of us in the world today who had to make it happen.  Perhaps you’re the third.

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Convers(at)ion

McDays_104

In his book “A New Type of Christian” Brian McLaren writes that he would like to shift the focus of “evangelism” in the Christian Church from counting conversions to counting conversations.  The saving message of God revealed in Jesus Christ should not be reduced to an annual profit/loss equation defined by a series of “my personal decision” events. Christians in conversation open up a way towards forming genuine relationships, which in themselves will lead to conversions.

I like this way of thinking.  My work as a Christian involved in Pastoral Support was conversational.  I talked to people.  More often they talked to me and I listen.  I know that people were being lead to Christ by this: to the Christ who sat by the well in Samaria and talked to a lonely, ostracised woman in direct affront to both social conventions and the unwritten rules of “shun”.  You can’t trust Jesus as saviour until you know him as friend, and the best way to make friends with Jesus is to make friends with one of his friends.  I am a friend of Jesus, his best friend actually, and I love talking about him.  But I also love talking like him to people who have yet to speak with him personally.

Sometimes I struggle with this.  As a school chaplain I was pressured from opposite ends of the scale.  Some non-Christian teachers were suspicious of me because I represented “church and rules” in a supposedly secular environment.  They appeared concerned that I was there to judge or change children against their will.  Yet at the same time some local Christians were suspicious of me because I am a “social justice advocate not interested in souls”.  I am interested in souls, but I believe, as I am certain Jesus did, that souls come attached to stories.

English: Christ and the woman of Samaria at Ja...

English: Christ and the woman of Samaria at Jacob’s Well (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The conversations of Jesus always hit the nail on the head.  He got to the heart of the matter with patience and love, but without distraction.  The work of God in an unbeliever’s life is more than just the decision to believe, (although such a decision is an important one).  Unbelievers on both sides of the point of conversion need more of God than the cross.  They need the man sitting beside the well, they need the man weeping at his friend’s tomb, they need the man turning water to wine to hide their embarrassment, they need the man who calls them out of their isolation and invites himself home for dinner.

They need the man cooking a fish breakfast on the beach.

The Pharisees hated Jesus because he came eating and drinking.  He spent time with outcasts, “quality” time over meals and flagons.  Jesus was a mate to many before he became the saviour of all.

As a “Christian” Pastoral Support Worker, how could I have been any less?

Ouch, That Helped!

Commonsense

This is not one of those stories.  I need to write the disclaimer before we get too much further into this in case the thought arises.  “Oh, it’s one of those stories.”  Well I’m telling you it’s not.  I know about those stories, too much actually, far more than I’d be prepared to admit, so I know that this isn’t that.

Oddly it is a story of healing.  Perhaps a story of pleasure, (although this is not one ofthose stories), but it truly is a fine fine line Christina Joy.

Boys are good at doing things in solitude.  Making use of the lavatory is an example of this.  Even though men piss publicly in ways that that women don’t; shoulder to silent shoulder, eyes front and centred within the council-provided facilities that dot high streets, shopping malls, and seaside promenades, men don’t accompany each other in the way that women will,.  Men don’t have boyfriends in the way that women have girlfriends.  It’s just not done, and whilst it may well be EPL it’s just not cricket.  No, women do things in groups where men do things alone.  Girls find help from others where boys find space unaccompanied.

I had no idea.

The American Crisis

It was Rachael, one of the teachers, who first raised the topic with me.  As the “expert from County” she thought I’d be the one with the wisdom.  Had I not seen it too?  Did I not also suspect?  Once she told me it fell in to place, the scales fell away, I once was blonde but now eyes see, and what I seen was dastardly.

The girls, to put it simply, were getting themselves punished.

(Remember, this is not one of those stories.)

But is it still “self-harm” if it’s a teacher slippering you?

It’s manipulation is what it is.  (Although in the case of County it was womanipulation as schools are strictly regulated in “the use of means” such that only female teachers “dealt with” female students.)

Rights of Man

Rachael spoke of a concern that since the death of her step-father, Brady had newly been getting herself into situations requiring sanction.  Yes she ever appeared in the office penitent and afraid, and yes she cried and cried out upon delivery, (no “pleasure” here), but come time she’d be back in chambers.  And there would be two of them.  Always Brady, but she was never alone.  The other girl was different each time, but there were always two.

What to do?

English: "Old School" at Thetford Gr...

The Age of Reason

The obvious action was to remove the sanction.  But to exclude the a girl instead, to send her home at lunchtime to an unsupervised dwelling, might itself have been a greater evil than allowing her to stay with us, even if seated uncomfortably.

To instead isolate her in a different room of the school merely sent her, with fingernails within the folds of her top to rake across her abdomen, back to the action we were mandated to stall.  Request she desist, she pleads “or else you’ll do what?”

Ignore the disobedience itself, offer no sanction, and in Brady’s case she went the way of all men, asking a friend to help, and thus divulge to her girl-friends and -enemies a further way of “making it look like some else did it”.

What to do?  What to do?

Ouches That Help

Thomas Paine; a painting by Auguste Millière (...

Thomas Paine; a painting by Auguste Millière (1880), after an engraving by William Sharp after a portrait by George Romney (1792) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Commonsense

Not everyone wants to avoid, or cease, pain.  I think Father Peter Damian understood, (and I would know); but The Buddha not so much.  Some people crave pain because pain is safety.  If you have no feeling then you can have no reactions.  If you have no sense then you have no sense, and common sense is not common to all.  How dangerous is this stove-top?  What does “ooh careful sweetie, that’s hot” mean if you’ve never experienced a burn?  What if the only indication that something is wrong is not the blazing agony of nerves screaming blue bloody murder at three degrees of tissue damage but the strange yet not always unpleasant smell of meat frying?  “Hmm…Smells like pork.”

The American Crisis

I remember reading about a professor of medicine from a prestigious college in New England who visited a mission leprosarium in India to discuss methods of analgesia with local doctors.  The Indian men listened patiently and respectfully until the professor had finished; then one reminded him that the problem with Leprosy is the very absence of pain.  As compassionate men of science they were working on ways of increasing the sensation of pain in the extremities of their clients, patients, and brothers and sisters in Christ.

I remember reading about a woman, a mother, from the Pacific North West who told the story of her son to a reporter from the local newspaper.  The boy was not a leper, but he had a very low sensitivity to sensory stimuli.  His nerves could fire motion, the boy was a true rascal in how he could run and hide and jump and yell, but he could not feel.  He had once spent most of an afternoon running around on a sprained ankle, which, apart from a decided lop-sidedness to his balance, he had not noticed.  Traction was later required to heal the dangerous amount of ligament damage in his still-developing foot.  The mother was asked by the reporter how she managed to control her son and she responded, “with a smack”.  What was the point of that, asked the reporter, since the boy could not feel pain.  The mother agreed, but said that the boy had learned from the action and the look of distress on her face that a smack meant “stop” even if it didn’t mean “ouch”.

These are the times that try men’s souls.

Rights of Man

I have been working in Special Class for four years.  I began as a visiting consultant to classrooms, a job I enjoyed as it allowed me to move about this school and others in the local area.  In July last year I was appointed to this particular school as coordinator for a specific cohort: all of the students in this “area of concern” were to be transferred to this one school and placed in the care of two teachers, two Learning Support Assistants, drop-in visits from the DfES (Quadrant) Social Worker, and me.

What rights do we have if what we do is not hurting anyone else? Is there a free-go so long as no-one else gets hurt?  Or does someone else always get hurt.

Sometimes that is actually the point: and it took all of five minutes for my new group to discover how to use that to good effect.  Sadly, whilst I caught on to how the boys were using the system almost as soon as they discovered the loop-hole I missed the different activity of the girls.

Brian and Toby were the first.  In fact it was Brian who came up with the new name for our room.  We are no longer “Special Class” but “The Cell Farmers”.  He thought it made us sound like a form of cutting-edge (ha-ha) microbiologists working on DNA or stem cells.  Anyway, apart from his considerable skill in semiotics Brian was also skilled in psychological navigation and he quickly cracked the system

In short, the boys, and girls, were in my care because they were considered to be at high risk of self harm and suicide.

All had long histories of cutting their skin or punching walls, jagged scars and misshapen hands were not unusual even if they weren’t quite common.  Our job, the five adults, was to keep the farmers away from their cells and help them to find less invasive ways of letting the black-dog out.

I don’t think there is any doubt that they felt pain.  There were no lepers here, or toddlers on twisted tootsies.  The thing was; they liked the pain.  They wanted the pain.  They needed the pain.  And it was going to kill them one day if they weren’t careful.

It very nearly killed me.

The Age of Reason

Thomas was the step-father of one of the girls in my class.  She was a pretty one who took some care with her appearance.  No visible bruises, indeed no visible cuts on her arms even on the days when she wore the short sleeved summer dress that was a uniform option for girls.  She even wore her hem at knee length, rather than top thigh like many of her mainstream classmates.  (Most of the girls took the “smart black/grey trouser” option, not always with the “smart”.)  Thomas loved his step-daughter, whom he called “Brady”, (as in “Bunch”), but he was struggling with his relationship with Brady’s mother.

One night, in a fit of “who gives a feck for me, I feckin well don’t!” Thomas jumped in his car blind drunk and out on speed, and went out looking for the nearest B-Double to bury himself under.  Unfortunately, as he lived too far from a decent A-Road this took longer than he had hoped so he settled for the first large vehicle he saw.  That is when he cleaned up me and my ten year old Nissan Patrol.

If you don’t care what happens to you, why would you care what happens to me?

Brady didn’t blame me; in fact she was ever so apologetic.  I lost a car, some blood, a tooth, and ten days of term.  She lost her step-father, her mother (to despair), and her mind.

The cleverness of the boys meant that instead of punching walls they would punch each other.  At recess time they would go off to the back corner of the paddock and kick the living snot out of one of the boys.  Next opportunity it was another boy’s turn.  The school soon caught on to this and after a series of short-term exclusions the boys were sent out at different times and to different parts of the grounds: some to the paddock, some to the caf, and some to the asphalt.

It took Brian and Toby, both thirteen years of age, all of two recesses before each had been beaten to a pulp by separate groups of sixth formers.  Small boy picks a fight with a group of big boys and it’s call the rural land agent because it’s time to sell farm by proxy.

Some kids drink themselves to harm.  Others smoke it.  Some drive fast, or drunk, or stoned, or all three.  Some will surf cars, others will surf monster rips.  Some punch walls, some punch bullies, some punch cops.  I was ready for that.  I thought like a kid, even though I had never been that kid.

Trouble was; I had never been a girl.  Boys do those things.  Girls do some of them: but there are things girls do that boys don’t.

I really had no idea.

Letters to a Fellow: Two

And these are the names. That’s not the way to start a sentence, let alone a paragraph, let alone a chapter. In fact they are the first words of one of my favourite books.

I have been told to keep the vision clear before the artists who I lead, myself first amongst them I suppose. Some artists need no more leading than to be continually pointed in the right direction, that is to say the same direction. What direction is that? From the top to the bottom of the common page. For some that is enough, and they must be left alone after that. I like that idea; I shall try it with my team.

A leader of artists must be an advocate: a go-between who goes between the artist and her art, but also between the artist and her commissioning buyer. The needs of artists are not a great mystery, neither are the economics of the council, but if each is not known to the other, or if it is not expressed in a lingua franca, then discord shall arise. Discord sets off a whole other set of artists, and suddenly you have a very colourful mutiny on your hands.

Deadlines are deadly to creativity, and kill creative minds. Pressure is good and a little stress is a wonder of motivation, but unless you are J.S. Bach or of such prodigious talent the demand for something unique and mind-blowing every Sunday for 52 Sundays is not going to end well for anyone.

Artistic and creative integrity are not all that matters. Character issues must be confronted immediately on team: we work in creative tension and harmony requires the use of a set of several chords in the one bar, but there is only one harmonious chord and many more discordant ones.

Artists want to be lead in love.

Letters to a Fellow: One

I wonder whether even artists understand each other. Perhaps that in itself is a rather woolly statement, and particularly self-indulgent, but I have been reading about artists and it has set me to thinking. I once heard a speaker describe leading leaders as being like herding cats, but for the first time I have been shown the difficulties of leading artists.

I am an artist. Not as creative as you are in your chosen field, in fact I am pathetic in your chosen field: but you in your field excels me in mine. And I have two fields that I am aware of, or perhaps it is the one with a peculiarly large annex.

I think artists do understand each other in that we understand that we are artists and that we have “needs” that less creative people do not have. Nevertheless our common needs are not identical, so perhaps there is a unique confusion amongst artists too. Especially so among practitioners of different forms of The Arts.

The house where I have been least allowed to be creative over the past ten years was the one with the most artists in it. Beside me there were three other people in the house, a graphic designer who was also a painter, a singer/dancer/actress, and a make-up and costume designer. I entered the house excited to be living among other artists, and relaxed my defences so as to be able to better breathe the air of creativity. What I found was that with my defences down I was set-up to be hurt. I did breathe the creativity in the air, and at times as able to engage in the background work to what I do, but I also breathed the tension of three artists who had lived and worked together for decades: my presence unbalanced them, and their apprehension-becomes-hostility destroyed me. It has taken more than a year to recover my craft, and some things have been lost eternally, unable to be recovered. I still feel frightened to even remember that house.

Now I live among people who have creative skills, but whose skills have been buried for the sake of propriety in having to do “work” of a different kind. One can draw and paint, and would do for relaxation, if time and supplies were forthcoming. The other was an actress in her youth, and still has ideas and passion for performance and presenting outside the box, but who has been put back in her box far too many times and now she smoulders and explodes with frequent unpredictability. From one there is a vicarious push to shine my light, from the other a veiled desire to hide that light lest it be displayed only to be extinguished

Right now I feel as though if my candle were placed under a bowl it would ignite the bowl and destroy the whole house, which begs the question, is it a safe candle to burn indoors at all?

Dark Nights of the Soul

 

English: Jesus Christ - detail from Deesis mos...

English: Jesus Christ – detail from Deesis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Psalm 22:1-31

There is a short story in the Bible, a story of thirty-one verses. This story begins with the words My God, my God why have you forsaken me?, goes on to say I am thirsty and ends with it is finished. Any ideas what that story might be? Of course we instantly recognise what that story is; it is the twenty second psalm. (Did you think I was going to talk about Jesus on the cross?)

Psalm 22 is a familiar story, but not just because it is the story of six hours one dark Friday. The Son of God is not alone among the daughters and sons of men in going through a time of seeming isolation from his God, his mates, and his senses. Abandonment, confusion, embarrassment and doubts assault each of us at times. A recent example of a seemingly God-forsaken people came to my mind this week because last Wednesday marked the International Day of Reflection on the genocide in Rwanda. I’m sure you are all aware that fifteen years civil war broke out and visited atrocities upon that African land. Wednesday was also World Health Day, and again a reminder to pray for all who are sick and sad, many of them alone, many without the hope that the messages of Easter bring.

Let’s look at the psalm…

Do you see the “it is finished” at the end there? The Lord has done it: it has been accomplished long ago and we will keep telling it.

This is a very private psalm, in scholarship terms it is referred to as a personal lament, more plainly it is one person’s whinge against the world. But we have all been there, even Jesus: this is a sulk with good reason.

The biggest question this psalm asks is in verse eight, which the Good News Bible translates as if the Lord likes you, why doesn’t He help you? (Aren’t you the Messiah? Come down off the cross then!) A good question: one I have asked on my own behalf many times. Just because God was silent when Jesus was on the cross doesn’t mean I have to like it when I am feeling tired and emotional. Indeed I remember asking this question in the company of my minister at a time when I was feeling like this, and he told me that it was a season of the Spirit which is sometimes called “the dark night of the soul”. How many of you have heard that term before? It comes from St John of the Cross and his book The Ascent of Mount Carmel. But in actual fact, this dark night is not about being abandoned in blackness; as we have seen in the second part of this psalm God is, and always was, there. The darkness is not about spiritualised depression; rather it is the steeping beyond the known and through the darkness of what is unknown to come to a new knowing. Teachers know about that, this is the journey we guide our students along all the time; but it’s a lot scarier when God is doing it to grown-ups. This process has more to do with Proverbs 3:5-6 and relying solely on God, andPsalm 23:4 and trusting God in the valleys of the shadows, than with our sins separating us from God. In the Contemporary English Version verse 21 says don’t let lions eat me. There’s no point saying that unless you think someone stronger than you is with you where the wild things are.

It is easy to feel confused and overwhelmed, I am sure that Jesus did. But what we go through in these times of darkness is like driving at night along an unknown road, (or even a known road in a rainstorm), rather than choosing to sit the darkness out. We can act in faith, and with conviction sourced from the deep roots of God’s record in our history. Darkness is mysterious, but that is the reality of our mysterious God. Faith is hope without sight: blessed are those who have believed without seeing, as Jesus told Thomas.

We come to understand, when this psalm turns in verse 22 from a lament to a song of deliverance, that the night is darkness in which a person may appear lost, but which actually leads them to the place in which they will find themselves. This darkness is a way of progress, the tunnel at the end of the light that leads to even greater light. It is sad that so often we try to find a refuge from the darkness, and way of avoiding it, rather than learning lessons of faith by walking with God through the valleys of the shadows.

In this week following Easter, and the first week of the season between the rising of the Son and the descending of the Spirit we remember that our nights of faith are not a phase or a season, they are a metaphor for Christian life. Now we see dimly, then we shall see clearly. We live all our lives in the time between times; but we also know that these dark patches come in bouts, and the more we are growing and wanting to learn the more often the bouts will come. It is scary, but like the wildest of rollercoasters it can also be fun when we remember that in God’s hands we may be spinning and ducking, but we are not crashing and burning. When we are out of control, God is fully in control: and that is a good thing. That is the confidence that lead Jesus to stand up in Gethsemane and greet Judas rather than scramble away to hide at Mary and Martha’s place until the soldiers had gone.

The light of God is the only true light. Sometimes God uses the darkness we have taken ourselves into rather than leading us into a dark place Himself. We learn that where He is there is light; false lights will lead us astray. I have heard it said it is better to be in God’s silence, than in the world’s violence; even if the world at least has neon and noise.

Life with God is thrilling: Easter and Pentecost show that, and as Christians we know it ourselves. The God of the gentle whisper that Elijah heard is also the God of the cloud of fire and smoke that Moses saw; so why can’t He also be the God of absence that Jesus experienced on the cross? Easter Sunday reminds us that God always comes through when all hope seems lost and only He can do it. That’s the testimony of my life: regardless of the tuneful talents of fat ladies I have learned that nothing is over until God proclaims it finished. It is finished when God has accomplished all, and that goes as much for His plans for our life and our church as for His plans for universal salvation through Jesus Christ.

What is achieved in darkness will be proclaimed in the light, forever.

Amen.