Woodworking – Pine Cross in Oak

I’ve been reliving my teenage years when I used to love working with wood.

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CDM: moral injury caused by the absence of God’s love.

The human cost of the Clergy Discipline Measure is enormous.  37% of respondents to the Sheldon Hub survey experienced thoughts of suicide.  62% suffer depression.  Many clergy have left ministry and others, like me, survive but experience ongoing institutional betrayal trauma and psychological or moral injury.  This paper explores an understanding of moral injury before establishing how CDM inflicts such injury.  I will then propose a starting point for establishing effective discipline in the light of the true love of God. 

What is Moral Injury?

Psychology Today defines moral injury as ‘the social, psychological, and spiritual harm that arises from a betrayal of one’s core values, such as justice, fairness, and loyalty. Harming others, whether in military or civilian life; failing to protect others, through error or inaction; and failure to be protected by leaders, especially in combat—can all wound a person’s conscience, leading to lasting anger, guilt, and shame, and can fundamentally alter one’s world view and impair the ability to trust others.’

The Lancet published an article in March 2021 exploring this relatively new area of mental health where severe psychological stress is induced by the violation of a person’s moral code.  ‘Morally injurious events threaten one’s deeply held beliefs and trust…can cause profound feelings of shame and guilt, and alterations in cognitions and beliefs (eg, “I am a failure”, “colleagues don’t care about me”)…with a 2018 meta-analysis finding that exposure to potentially morally injurious events was significantly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and suicidality.’ 

The work carried out by Sheldon Hub into the lived experience of CDM respondents included the observation that ‘The personal pressures under which respondents usually continue outward ministry place psychological burdens upon them which manifest most often as the symptoms of anxiety, depression and, in some cases, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).’

The authors of the article in The Lancet believe existing approaches to the treatment of mental health issues, such as exposure-based approaches and CBT, are either unhelpful, ineffective or inappropriate for treating moral injury.  ‘Approaches that focus on self-forgiveness, acceptance, self-compassion, and (if possible) making amends, might hold more promise. In cases in which the effects of moral injury extend beyond psychological to spiritual harms, spiritual care providers could have a role alongside mental health clinicians.’

In short, to use the findings of Williamson et al and Christian approaches to sin, CDM subjects respondents to social, psychological, and spiritual harm that arises from a betrayal of one’s core values, such as justice, fairness, loyalty, repentance compassion, forgiveness and restitution. The process must be renewed with the true love of God as the starting point.   

What causes moral injury for CDM respondents?

The Sheldon Hub report, I was handed over to the Dogs, outlines a toxic combination of the circumstantial causes of PTS due to CDM.  A caustic cocktail of a prolonged investigation, poor communication, minor complaints escalated by risk averse registrars into more serious allegations, no accountability within the system, conflicting rules, lack of confidence in the procedures, punitive meetings, broken trust with senior clergy, unresolved conflict with parishioners and strain on marriages and family members induce stress and trauma.  

The discipline process will never be straightforward or easy.   The complex and messy facts of a case need to be understood in the context of relationships which are separated by distance and time.  Bishops, registrars and tribunal panel members must try to work out what actually happened in a remote community, not their own.  The disjointed and often mishandled process is not the root cause of moral injury.  Respondents would be protected from moral injury by a careful application of God’s love in Christ.

Moral injury caused by a lack of God’s love

Love is one of the most distinctive and attractive qualities of the church of Jesus Christ.  When a member of the clergy is subject to the CDM process, the complainant, bishop and registrar seem to fail to demonstrate the love of God in Christ and this induces moral injury.  The respondent’s deeply held understanding and experience of God’s love is betrayed.

The love of God in Christ is both expiatory and propitiatory.  Everyone who experiences the perfect love of God in Christ no longer fears God because fear is to do with punishment.  CDM requires bishops to answer one, closed question, ‘What level of sanction, ranging from a simple rebuke to permanent removal of licence, does the respondent deserve?’  The respondent endures an open-ended process under the threat of severe punishment, at worst, the loss of vocation and home.  This approach to discipline is sub-Christian, denying the love of God in Christ and so causing severe moral injury to respondents.

The Apostle John writes specifically about the kind of love God demonstrates towards sinners in his fourth chapter of his first letter:

7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: in this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

John’s teaching on the love of God in sending his Son as an atoning sacrifice for sin needs to be applied every time sin needs to be addressed.  John helps us see why the CDM process lacks true love.

  • Christian love is God centred.  Love comes from God because God is love. (v7-8)  Knowledge of the God who is love should render the Christian judicial process distinct to the judicial practices of the world, which does not know the God who is love. 
  • God’s love is demonstrated to us by the giving of the person of Christ as he died on the cross, an atonement for sin. (v9-10)  CDM cases sometimes involve very serious sin.  The cross declares that there is no sin which is beyond the atoning sacrifice and love of Christ. CDM is narrowly focused from the outset on the level of sanctions or penalty available to the bishop.  These penalties range from rebuke to removal of license.  With penalty as the focus, the love of God in Christ crucified for sin is absent from the process.
  • God’s love is experienced in the church and made visible to the world by the way those who are born of God love one another. (v11-12)  Complainants, bishops, registrars and respondents are compelled by the love of God to love one another.  The love of Christ is more than compulsion, his people are obliged to love one another, we ought to love one another as he first loved us. 
  • God’s love is made real by His indwelling of believers by His Spirit, through their belief in the Father and Son, who mutually indwell believers and bring His love to life.  Believers know and rely upon God’s love. (v13-16)  When CDM narrowly focuses on the judicial process and penalty, divorced from God’s love, this betrayal results in moral injury.
  • God is just.  Justice is the fair, right, moral and deserved or merited application of the law to law breakers.  God’s law has both moral and penal components.  As God is just, he has set aside a day of judgement when he will act with perfect justice. (v17)  If CDM is judicial, then the outcome ought to be just.  The process ought to establish the truth, the facts and penalties ought to be deserved.  The process cannot be just in cases where both complainant and respondent are at fault, but only the respondent can face sanctions.
  • God’s love drives out the fear of punishment.  The love of God (as Trinity) sent the person of Jesus as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (v10).  The love of God is expiatory and propitiatory and this is experienced in Christ, as He removes the fear of punishment by his death on the cross (v18).  For CDM to be truly loving, as God loves his people, the fear of punishment needs to be absent.  Sanctions need to be seen and understood as discipline and protection for congregations, not punishment of the respondent.  Sanctions must also be applicable to complainants, as personal discipline and protection for the congregation, including the respondent. Both complainant and respondent need to be offered restorative pastoral care and counselling with the potential for sanctions to be lifted.
  • Christians are to love one another as God loved us, by not punishing one another for sin.
  • The people of the world punish one another with aggression, anger, violence, retribution, murder or silence, isolation or withdrawing love and support.  Some people turn to the police or courts to punish someone, and will lie to increase the severity of the punishment.  This kind of behaviour is particularly prevalent in areas of urban deprivation.  It has also been evident in the large number of vexatious CDM complaints.  In some cases, complainants, registrars and bishops appear to want to punish clergy.
  • Christian love is marked by love from God and for God, compassion for one another as his children, who are His dwelling places, and the people for whom Christ died to atone for sin.   Love is expressed between believers by repentance for sin, confession, forgiveness, self-forgiveness, acceptance, mercy and grace.  This kind of love needs to be the atmosphere in which CDM is done.
  • CDM respondents do not experience this kind of love.  Instead, their lived experience is of a prolonged, punitive process with the threat of severe penalty (loss of vocation, home and livelihood) at its conclusion.  Moral injury is caused, at the deepest level, because core values of Christian love (atonement, expiation and propitiation) are absent in the CDM process.   Post traumatic stress is induced by the continued threat of repeated punitive complaints.

CDM: a failure to love one another like Christ

CDM unlovingly escalates all complaints to a legal/judicial process with the possibility of five levels of punishment, ranging from rebuke to removal of licence.  The process is, from the outset, sub-Christian, inducing the fear of punishment throughout.

The true love of God in Christ compels Christians to love one another by NOT punishing one another for sin.  CDM needs to recover gospel love by framing sanctions as protection of church members from the sinful behaviour of abusive clergy, not punishment.  CDM should recover the love of God which disciplines transgressors for their good, seeking to transform, restore and reconcile, where possible. 

Moral injury occurs because clergy routinely seek to reconcile broken relationships through the love of Christ by encouraging compassion for one another, repentance for sin, confession, forgiveness, self-forgiveness, acceptance, mercy and grace whilst protecting the flock from wicked or evil people.  Anglican liturgy reinforces this message of openness, honesty, repentance, love and charity.

You then, who truly and earnestly repent of your sins,
and are in love and charity with your neighbours,
and intend to lead a new life,
following the commandments of God,
and walking from this day forward in his holy ways:
draw near with faith,
and take this holy sacrament to your comfort;
and make your humble confession to almighty God.

The love of God in the death of Christ for sin is held out week after week at holy communion.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who, in your tender mercy,
gave your only Son our Saviour Jesus Christ
to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption;
who made there by his one oblation of himself once offered
a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction 
for the sins of the whole world;
he instituted, and in his holy gospel commanded us to continue,
a perpetual memory of his precious death until he comes again.

When clergy are then treated differently to this core belief and practice, with potentially severe punishment for them and their families, through the loss of home, income and vocation and without reference to the love of God in Christ, the stress is almost unbearable.

The replacement for CDM needs to capture again the love of God in a way which allows complainants, registrars and bishops to demonstrate it and clergy respondents to receive it.  Clergy may be sanctioned by way of protection for the flock, transformation, restoration and reconciliation, but the fear of punishment must end. 

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GS 2219 – failure to prevent the weaponising of CDM

Overall comment

The proposals in GS 2219 make several improvements to the existing scheme for clergy discipline but fall short of what is needed to protect clergy from the destructive weaponizing of the measure.

The CDM process has been shown to be severely punitive to respondents. Terms were unclear, rules contradictory and cases mishandled in a way which was deleterious to clergy mental health and wellbeing.  The avoidance of the abuse of the process needs to be foremost in the mind of the church. The process of seeking justice must be humane.

Bishops, registrars, respondents and complainants ordinarily have existing relationships with one another.   This inter-connectivity makes impartiality and objectivity almost impossible.  Bishops, registrars and complainants may have mixed motives, desired outcomes and personal bias which act against natural justice. If a bishop, registrar and complainant want to make life difficult for a respondent cleric, safeguards need to be provided. This scheme does not adequately prevent the weaponising of the measure. 

Detailed comment, questions and notes

Definition of terms.  The terms Clergy Discipline and safeguarding require definition.  What is a ‘safeguarding concern’ and when do ‘safeguarding matters relate to discipline’?

Para 7 fails to clarify, the role and nature of ordained ministry needs definition.  ‘Areas of relationships within dioceses’ are said to need further work in relation to clergy ‘development, support and accountability’, safeguarding and lay discipline. This is severely problematic. The relationships within the diocese act against natural justice.

Para 10. 

a. The difference between ‘complaints’ and ‘allegations of misconduct’ must be made clear.

b. Effective pastoral support needs to include detailed working knowledge of the Measure, Rules and Code of Practice and the authority to challenge any divergence from these three.

c. What is envisaged by ‘early investigation’?

d. What powers will the independent overseers have during a case?  Will specialist lawyers be trained and employed in place of diocesan registrars?

e. What is proper resourcing?

Para 11.  It is interesting that a 1996 report highlighted the need for a grievance procedure for clergy if discipline is mishandled.  So what?

Para 12 – see above about clarity of definition

Para 15 – definition of misconduct 

Para 16 – the terms will be defined by the implementation group

Para 18 – the advice of unqualified registrars is not appropriate assistance to the bishop.

Para 22 – Impartiality needs to be ensured.  Matters of theological conviction, where the bishop and cleric are in theological dispute, must be removed from the measure.  The diocesan bishop may not be qualified to judge on what constitutes a complaint or misconduct and diocesan registrars may not be suitably qualified to determine a course of action according to the doctrine of the Church of England.  Registrars cannot always be deemed to be impartial, in part due to the interest of keeping on side with the bishop and in part due to potential bias against clergy with whom there is an existing working relationship. 

Para 23 – what qualifies the complainant to determine which is the most appropriate track?  Is this different to asking the complainant what outcome they are seeking.

Para 28 – support for respondents must include detailed working knowledge of the Measure, Rules and Code, akin to a shop steward.

Para 29 – where a complainant continues to worship at the parish church where the respondent is incumbent, the respondent should be offered the option to cease ministering in that place pending the outcome of the investigation or the complainant asked to worship elsewhere.

Para 31 – what effect will a panel which represents the entire diversity of the church have on cases of a doctrinal nature?

Para 32 – unmet deadlines are a significant source of stress and trauma for respondents.  28 days for a referral to an assessor, their investigation and report to the bishop a decision is predicated on assumptions that cannot be guaranteed.  Postal delays, unavailability of the complainant or respondent, unreasonableness or uncooperativeness by the complainant, hesitancy by the bishop, who might say ‘ordinarily” the process would take 28 days but I need further time to come to a decision.’  Communication of delay needs to be prompt and bishops need to be bound to the 28 days without room for dilly-dallying or the punitive use of delays.

Para 36 – how will complaints be determined to be vexatious or repetitive?

Para 50 – who would be responsible for costs in cases where no legal aid was provided but the case is dismissed?

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Working out your salvation with fear and trembling is not a private matter.

In Philippians 2:12 Paul writes, “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

As we read the English translation, which confuses “you” singular and “you” plural, in our individualistic culture, we can turn this instruction into a private and personal development goal. “I need to do better. I should be a better Christian. I must try harder.” But this way of thinking always induces either pride or guilt and this cannot be Paul’s intention.

The instruction is not addressed to “you” singular, but to all the church members in Philippi. It is not a private and personal matter but a plural and corporate one.

Euodia and Syntyche, two prominent women in the church, had fallen out. Paul was directing them, and the whole church, to reconcile and get on with gospel ministry together. In their relationships or attitude towards others, they were to have the same attitude as Christ Jesus (Phil 2:5) and then work out their salvation, together.

“μετὰ (with) φόβου (fear) καὶ (and) τρόμου (trembling) τὴν (-) ἑαυτῶν (your own)

σωτηρίαν (salvation) κατεργάζεσθε (work out).”

Paul addresses this instruction to each of you plural (ἑαυτῶν), the ἀγαπητοί (beloved (plural) It is a collective instruction, addressed to individuals who are in relationship with one another.

“Fear and trembling” is an attitude between people in relationship. Paul uses the same phrase in 2 Corinthians 7 to describe the manner in which the Corinthians welcomed Titus:

ὡς (how) μετὰ (with) φόβου (fear) καὶ (and) τρόμου (trembling) 

ἐδέξασθε (you received) αὐτόν (him – that is, Titus). (2 Cor 2:15).

In light of conflict and disagreement in church, to work out your salvation with fear and trembling is to be committed to relating to one another within the church family with the same attitude as Christ; with reverence or respect, humility, compassion and tenderness as you work toward being of one mind (Phil 2:2). The opposite of fear and trembling would be to destain, ignore or take for granted the other person.

The verb κατεργάζεσθε (work out) literally means “to work down to” or “to work to the bottom” which could be translated “to work it through”. It has the sense of “work out what needs to be done to bring to effect your salvation and do it.” Sort out your disagreement with the attitude of Christ.

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Does God expect a victim of abuse to forgive their abuser?

I’ve just watched Mez McConnell talk with Andy Constable, Graham Thompson, and Ian Williamson about the difficult topic of abuse and forgiveness. I want to share it on my blog for some important reasons. If you have suffered abuse of any kind, or are/have been abusive, or if you have had a bust up, and are struggling to know what God expects you to do, this conversation will help you understand the difficulty of that walk.

It’s worth listening to four men who love Jesus and love each other speak about God and a something which has a huge personal impact on at least one of them. The conversation is not detached from the reality of the lives of these men. It is about God and about them. Does God expect ME to forgive MY abuser?

This conversation is realistic about the difficulty of forgiveness. These men have spent years studying the bible, thinking, applying the word of the life to their own lives whilst pastoring others. At least one is an abuse survivor and one was an angry man. They continue to wrestle with what it means to forgive and say some really helpful stuff here. This is one of the deepest and most difficult issues of the human heart.

This conversation is realistic about the long path to forgiveness. The memories, thoughts and feelings are deep and complex. The conversation makes that clear but it also gives some signposts and wise advice for us to head in the right direction.

Forgiveness is something I have been wrestling with personally and with people close to me. It is a great help to listen to others who are on that path, to learn from and to weep with the abused. You might not want to watch this video if you are experiencing the trauma of abuse. If that’s you, and you are local, come and speak with me.

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Being blessed through fear

Know what you fear by the choices you make.

We know from experience that fear drives our choices and behaviour. Phobias make this plain to see. A fear of spiders makes some people scream and run away. A fear of the dark causes us to choose to walk down well lit streets.

We all have other fears which influence behaviour in less obvious ways. If I fear a lack of control, I will try to control everything around me. If I fear failure, I will strive for success in my exams, sport, music, work. If I fear missing out, I will try to enjoy what everybody else is enjoying. If I fear sickness and death, I will do all I can to avoid it.

I have all these individual fears, and more. We all do. Individual fears can also become collective, national fears.  Fear of Covid has taken such a grip that it now influences nearly every choice and decision we make about leaving home, which kind of transport to take, how we shop and who we visit. There is also a deep fear of shame, of being that person who catches and spreads the disease. The fear that my choice might lead to the death of someone else.

This kind of collective fear has increased anxiety, loneliness and redundancy. These fears have led to curse not a blessing.

Blessed are all who fear the LORD,
    who walk in obedience to him. (Psalm 128:1)

The psalm claims that when the fear of the Lord influences our behaviour, then blessings follow. How is this so?

Learn the fear of the LORD by knowing Jesus.

There are different ways that knowing Jesus gives a right fear of the LORD.

First, it is right to fear the LORD because he is just and will punish evil on the last day. Those who fear him will shun evil.

Second, it is right to fear the LORD because he has satisfied justice at the cross for all who turn to him. Those who trust in him will never be put to shame.

Third, it is right to fear the LORD because fearing anything or anyone above Him, leads to bad choices and away from blessing. Those who fear him will walk in his ways.

There are several ways that knowing Jesus takes away our fears.

First, our natural fear of being out of control is overcome because Christ surrendered control at the cross and still secured the outcome he had planned beforehand. Those who fear him will trust that what looks like chaos will fulfill the plans of the LORD.

Second, our natural fear of failure is overcome because the cross looks like failure but Christ was successful in achieving salvation for many. Those who fear him will gladly pick up their crosses, bear their responsibilities, endure the pain, because, without adding to what Christ achieved, it is the way of salvation.

Third, our natural fear of missing out is overcome because although the cross looks like Jesus was missing out on life, as he died a young man, He secured an eternity of love, joy and praise. Those who fear him know that the transient and short lived life is nothing in comparison to eternal glory.

Forth, our natural fear of death is overcome because Christ defeated the grave for us. Those who fear him will be fearful of the process of death, just as Christ feared the agony of the cross, but they won’t fear death itself.

The way these fears of the LORD combine changes behaviour and brings blessing. There is the blessing of reduced anxiety, loneliness and redundancy. Those who fear the LORD can always be active in his kingdom through prayer, devotion, study and fellowship.

Blessed are all who fear the LORD,
    who walk in obedience to him. (Psalm 128:1)

Blessed are ALL. This is a collective blessing. As each person is blessed by knowing Jesus and walking in his ways, the blessing becomes shared and spreads.

We can’t make this happen on our own. We need the help of the LORD to grow in knowledge and fear and so, the psalm ends with a prayer of blessing.

May the Lord bless you from Zion;
    may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
    all the days of your life.
May you live to see your children’s children –
    peace be on Israel.

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Jehovah Tsidkenu – 20schemes music

There are not many men who die before their 30th birthday yet go on to influence people for generations.

Robert Murray M’Chenyne was born in Edinburgh (Scotland) in 1813. Gifted by God as a man of words, his essays and memoirs are still in print today. This song, Jehovah Tsidkenu, has been set to a modern Scottish tune and has made a welcome return, thanks to 20schemes music.

This is M’Chenye’s testimony in seven moving verses. Three on his pre-conversion life, when he was unconcerned about Christ. One verse on his conversion to Christ and three on what Christ came to mean to him.

You can read about his life on the Desiring God website. He Died Early in the Smile of God.

His last verse was written after a number of his friends, many in Christian ministry, died in their twenties died during the 1832 Cholera epidemic.

M’Chenye survived only to succumb to tuberculosis two years after the hymn was written, aged 29.

I once was a stranger
to grace and to God,
I knew not my danger,
and felt not my load;
Though friends spoke
in rapture of Christ on the tree,
Jehovah Tsidkenu
was nothing to me.

I oft read with pleasure,
to sooth or engage,
Isaiah’s wild measure
and John’s simple page;
But e’en when they pictured
the blood sprinkled tree
Jehovah Tsidkenu
seemed nothing to me.

Like tears from the daughters
of Zion that roll,
I wept when the waters
went over His soul;
Yet thought not that my sins
had nailed to the tree
Jehovah Tsidkenu—
’twas nothing to me.

When free grace awoke me,
by light from on high,
Then legal fears shook me,
I trembled to die;
No refuge, no safety in self could I see—
Jehovah Tsidkenu
my Saviour must be.

My terrors all vanished
before the sweet name;
My guilty fears banished,
with boldness I came
To drink at the fountain,
life giving and free—
Jehovah Tsidkenu
is all things to me.

Jehovah Tsidkenu!
my treasure and boast,
Jehovah Tsidkenu!
I ne’er can be lost;
In thee I shall conquer by flood and by field,
My cable, my anchor,
my breast-plate and shield!

Even treading the valley,
the shadow of death,
This “watchword” shall rally
my faltering breath;
For while from life’s fever
my God sets me free,
Jehovah Tsidkenu,
my death song shall be.

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It’s okay NOT to be okay. Rico Villaneuva.

It’s okay not to be okay

Rico Villaneuva

It’s Sunday morning. You have just experienced a horrific natural disaster, or the death of a loved one, institutionalised corruption or personal failure. The opening words of the church gathering are a liturgical “open our mouths and our lips shall proclaim your praise.” Or an informal reminder from the Psalms “Praise him with the tambourine and lyre.” The songs continue to focus on praise of God with joyful songs. The music jars against your feelings.

This book reminds us why church meetings can be extra difficult for people facing these kinds of difficulty.

It is also a roadmap through the Psalms offering ways to make church meetings real and accessible to everyone.

Rico Villaneuva has wonderfully opened a door on the Psalms of lament to give permission for us not to be okay.

Villaneuva combines a deep knowledge of the Psalms with pastoral insight and painful experience. The result is a series of reflections on a whole range of real life situations which break us and how God has given us Psalms to allow us to speak to him and each other from that brokenness.

This book is a big red warning triangle to pastors to guard us against a relentless optimism. We don’t need to seek a positive angle in every situation. There’s no need to always pray for blessing or to seek to praise God through gritted teeth.

The Psalms of lament give us the ability to pray in difficult situations through feelings of sadness, darkness, anger, failure, fear, tears and struggle. If you are in difficulty, then this book will guide you to a view of God and the means to speak with God in an honest, biblical and transformative way.

I particularly enjoyed Rico’s use of Tagalog (Philipino) words and phrases to add layers of meaning to biblical interpretation both in this book and also in the seminar he gave at the recent Virtual Keswick Convention.

I commend this book to anyone who is seeking the richness of biblical language to avoid a lopsided prayer life in a culture which tends toward an unrealistic positivity.

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The Good Immigrant and my love/hate relationship with it (Pt 2)

The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla.

In part 1, I wrote about my empathy with The Good Immigrant. I get that is hard, being different, not being understood and assumed to be from afar.

Now my frustrations with what the authors have to say.

I need to adopt the ideas of host and guest cultures (Musa Okwonga uses the term “guest” to express a way he feels about living in the UK). The terms host and guest are inadequate for all sorts of reasons, but are useful.

The idea of guest/host is inadequate because, although people talk about their home country, no one owns the land. A nation is not a possession but the concept of nationhood creates host and guest identities.

My current home is in West Bromwich but, as lots of people, though not all nationalities do this, I talk about going “home” to Scotland to see my family. Am I a guest in West Bromwich or a host? I still feel like a guest after 11 years, but less than I did after 1 year.

Each year makes me feel more at home. Singing spirituals at gravesides, followed by Rice ‘n’ Peas, with mutton curry and fried chicken at the wake (salt fish is not my favourite), only scratches the surface. When you love the grieving family because you’ve shared 11 years together, layers of living together and understanding unfold.

Or the times we stand in the street at the beginning of a wedding party, excitement and joy rising with heart pumping dhol rhyths, we dip a toe in the culture. When you laugh with the married couple, share their struggles and joys, week after week, through the seasons of life, those shared highs and lows create intimacy and friendship which endures.

Guest/host is also inadequate because hosts normally choose to invite a guest into their home. But the local settled British host communities in to which guest communities continue to arrive don’t have an invitational voice. Governments negotiate trade and migration deals and the UN defines asylum and how host nations are to treat seekers.

Host communities are, however, expected to be able to accommodate guests without ever being asked. People are expected to move over, make space, be polite yet without any lessons on how to be hospitable across language and culture barriers. Where is the guide to manners and etiquette for visitors, staring with shoes off at the door?

Guests are also expected to behave themselves without knowing the host language or rules, like how to queue properly. Where is the published copy of “Queuing, a guide for beginners.”?

Next, the guest/host dynamic becomes complex after the first generation of guest. At what point does a guest become host? Are the authors of “The Good Immigrant” guests or hosts?

There is a struggle within each essay (most beautifully expressed by Vinay Patel) about not belonging in either the culture of their parents nor the dominant host culture. How can you be a host if you are not sure about still being a guest? How many new guest cultures need to move in before the first guests feel like hosts? At what point does a sense of ownership of the house take place? These are tough, personal questions which guests and hosts need to be aware of.

It is also very clear that some communities are better hosts than others.

West Bromwich is one of several Black Country towns. This relatively small area is a patchwork quilt of hospitable and resistant local communities. Different parts of this patch, linked by an industrial past, where 19th century migration from agricultural areas formed common bonds through toil, have different reputations among guest communities. There are some homogeneous communities and some multi-ethnic areas within West Bromwich itself, which is a universally deprived town. The patchwork is not related to wealth, but is attitudinal.

Like all host/guest relationships, there are also some communities which are better guests than others.

Homogeneous communities in the UK are not all old English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. Ghettoisation is real. Once a guest community establishes enough local food and clothes shops, travel agents, barber shops, places of worship, local FM radio and imported TV, it is possible to live almost exclusively within the ghetto, speaking only the language of the guest culture. This does not enrich the land, but creates an exclusivity, which can’t be blamed solely on the host.

The experiences of the various guest cultures represented in the book are different but the same.

The host culture doesn’t know or understand the guest cultures, especially as there are now so many to learn about. The pace of migration since the 90s as been both enriching and confusing for hosts.

There are socially awkward hosts, resistant hosts, hospitable hosts, good guests and bad guests. It’s a glorious and sometimes undignified mess.

Some hosts and guests are negligent.

Some hosts and guests are ignorant, in either or both the uneducated sense or by being plain rude.

Other hosts and guests are deliberately cruel, taunting, murderous even.

I can understand the struggle of second and third generation “guests” who experience a different relationship with the host culture than the first generation but this does not excuse venting frustration at the hosts.

The first generation need to remember that their children had no choice. In a sense, kids are forced to grow up between two homes. My own children know this feeling of never really fitting in. Is their home in Scotland, London, SE Asia or West Bromwich? They know that they are ethically mixed, Scot and English. My daughter has the race of her parents on her birth certificate. I had to argue for Scot and English, rather than Caucasian, with the south Indian registrar. She only understood my point when I asked how she would feel being called south Asian along with Pakistani and Bengali people.

After several years here, after London and Wolverhampton, my kids spoke about coming to West Bromwich being like moving country.

My major frustration is with The Good Immigrant is the lack of empathy shown by most of the authors toward hosts (Salena Godden’s essay is an exceptional piece, packed with empathy, realism and longing). The essays are mostly packed with bags of empathy for guests.

Most people in the UK only know the culture they grew up in. Two weeks in Spain or Greece with thousands of other British people does not develop an understanding of other cultures.

Good guests don’t criticise their hosts or call them names. They eat together. Wash up together. Talk. Laugh. Argue. Work things out. Bust up. Make up. Love each other.

Living together is difficult. Empathy for hosts should be a large part of the mix of emotions.

The bruising experience of sharing the same living space we all all “home” means we need to drop our guards, be willing to admit failure, move toward one another, be allowed to make cultural faux pas, including unintentional racial slurs, forgive and love across boundaries, get to know each other as neighbours, share our lives and stories.

Writing a book, blog or newspaper article about our experience doesn’t create that sort of community. It might just erect more boundaries than it knocks down. By writing about frustrations as guests, the authors risk creating more division and suspicion, or at least some extra awkwardness. We need to get on and live together in the same space.

I’ve been a guest in SE-Asia. I choose to live to there. I always felt like an outsider despite choosing NOT to isolate in expat Western cliques. My wife and I joined a local church in each country we lived in. We where in an ethnic minority of just the two of us.

There, we loved and were loved by groups of people who were great hosts. It wasn’t always easy. We were sometimes clumsy guests, who broke the best family crockery and forgot to wash up after dinner. We caused cultural clashes when we introduced some of our cultural practices, especially Scottish dancing. We were forgiven because we shared a rich biblical language, love and understanding of God. We saw the world and each other, from different cultural angles, through the same lens of faith. Each human being made by the same creator God, in the image, and so value and dignity, of God. Each one inherently self-centred, culturally conditioned and flawed. But loved, redeemed and united by the death and resurrection of Christ for us.

We’re now trying to break down barriers here in West Bromwich in the ways set out by God, in Christ, who, by his love in us, breaks down all kinds of walls of hostility. It’s not easy to love across boundaries, but I can see no other way this is working, anywhere in the world.

The Good Immigrant raises many issues of race, points out current and historic problems, but offers no realistic solution. Some of the essays create division, sometimes othering the hosts.

Our little church gathering last Sunday, with restrictions under lock down, involved a section of our church family. Even there, we gathered as old West Bromwich families, with Punjabi, Jamaican, Iranian, Irish, Scottish and English migrants to West Bromwich. As we met, we mixed, loved and worked together. Before the days that meeting in places of worship was banned because of Covid19, we would eat together, clear up and relax, sing, play games, with food lovingly prepared from all our home kitchens. This is still only scratching the surface but it sets us up for years of shared experiences.

This is heterogeneous church. I’ve written lots about the heterogeneous church community on this blog. Do click the tag below for a link to other pieces.

The local church should be a home for all the members of the local space we call home.

Who are the guests and the hosts? When Jesus (Yeshua, Yesu, Isa) stepped onto the scene, he shifted the host/guest dynamic.

Jesus owns the house. He designed and built it. He is the perfect host. We are all his imperfect guests. We all have treated him with contempt in different ways.

And yet, he invites us all to come to him as our host, to learn to live in his house, to seek his forgiveness when we break his rules and so to join together with him in the mess, knowing one day his true guests will be perfect and his home will be at peace.

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The Good Immigrant and my love/hate relationship with it. (Pt 1)

The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla.

I loved this book and hated it, in about equal measure.

The various authors deal quite beautifully, sometimes wittily, with deeply painful experiences of immigrant life in Britain without, in most part, expressing any bitterness.

Boundaries appear to be broken between members of minority communities by the act of sharing stories of growing up as outsiders in a majority culture, when folk in that culture largely don’t get you or don’t want to get you.

The book creates understanding between communities because readers are left knowing “isn’t just me and people of my culture” who are feeling left out or hurt. The stories also partly educate the majority culture, for anyone who wants to learn by listening.

The reader is left hoping that cringe-worthy attempts to “welcome” or “accommodate” folk who grew up in the UK vanish. You can only feel slight pity for the white yoga lady who clasps prayerful hands together as she greets a complete, British born, stranger with an inappropriate “namaste”, or the white cafe owner who serves “pants chicken”. Who wants to avoid being like them?

The authors pick away at the stitches of racial (media) stereotypes. Individuality shines through, albeit in a liberal chattering class kind of way.

Erudite complaints are mixed with honesty and self-deprecating humour. This affords the authors deeply critical comment which doesn’t really offend but expects some nodding engagement, acceptance or coffee shop debate. The content and perspective of the essays are a sign, to me, of some serious cultural integration with dominant British media culture.

The stories in “The Good Immigrant” stir both empathy and frustration.

First, empathy.

I am a 6’6″ red haired Scotsman who has lived in two SE-Asian countries and now live in multi-ethnic West Bromwich.

My Anglicised Scottish accent and family culture still doesn’t fit in England, twenty six years after migrating.

The day I wrote this review I bumped into a fellow Church of England vicar on a campsite. I said to one of our campsite neighbours “what did you do to deserve having two clergy next door on holiday?” The vicar said “Are you Church of Scotland?” “No, I’m an Anglican.” I replied. “Are you a Scottish Episcopalian?”. “No, I am a Church of England vicar, like you”. “Sorry” he said “Your accent made me think you are from Scotland.” “I am AND I live in West Bromwich’.

Last week, up the market, an Asian market trader and I were chatting away about his business. We spoke bout helping the homeless, he said “You’re from somewhere far away, right?” I replied “No, I am a local. I live just up the high street”. “But you’re not from here. You’re from way up north, right? Your accent is not local like mine!”

True, but I am I not from West Bromwich?

Today, another Asian passer-by, who stopped to talk about my dog, said “You’re not local, are you?” “No I said, but you are.” “Yes, I grew up in Birmingham.” He replied.

West Bromwich is gloriously multi-ethinic. Yet I exist in an ethnic minority of only two Scots, as far as I know. The other Scot is second generation. So, no one gets my heritage.

Many folk will share fond stories of going to Edinburgh or the Isle of Skye on holiday, being stunned by the beauty of the mountains and surprised, contra stereotypes, by the hospitality and generosity of their hosts. The passer-by today had lived in Paisley, and enjoyed it.

But going on holiday doesn’t make anyone an expert on the history, narrative and culture which shapes the people in a nation. Being Scottish, like any other nationality, is caught not taught.

Like some of the contributors to “A Good Immigrant”, I was bullied for being different. Only 2-6% of northern Europeans are red heads. Add to that, I was skinny, gangly, tall, malco-ordinated, clumbsy. John Gordon Sinclair, Gregory’s Girl, was me, except I was ginger.

I was bullied at school, had footballs kicked in my face, was treated unkindly for being ginger and for blushing furiously.

I can’t imagine the added layers of trauma which stem from being different in a culture which your parents chose to live in but is not their own.

My parents lived in Scotland because their parents and their parents parents, as far back as we can know, lived there (although my maternal grandparents migrated to England for work and retired to Scotland). I get being singled out and abused for hair and skin colour, for being different.

It is really hard being different in a world where there are cruel or insecure people who get a rise by picking on people who don’t quite fit. I also know the experience of keeping quiet in front of my patents because of shame after being bullied.

I chose, as an adult, to migrate. First to England then overseas and back again.

Being 6’6″ I get really sick of the question “how tall are you?” or “what’s the weather like up there?”

I remember, with an alloy of sadness and amusement, the various times that complete strangers in the countries I lived in overseas remarked in public on my skin colour, hair colour and height. “Orang Putih/Mat Salleh tinggi, lah” Gyo lo/Ang mo… Gorah…

I am secure in my identity as an adult, but being red head carries childhood insecurity and memories with it.

It’s clear that people like to code and sort each other. To place origins and distinguish on appearance and accent. That, it seems, is just the way we humans operate. How we handle difference, it seems, is the key.

It’s tough being different, when growing up or living in a country where you look different.

I’ve been coded/sorted and bullied for being different. I empathise. So I love the book for the wit and pain.

The next post will reflect why I hate the book.

Hate is too strong, but love and frustrate don’t grab anyone’s attention. I am frustrated by “The Good Immigrant”.

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