Sabbatical Day 66: Feet up

This is the first day the Robbies have put our collective feet up since leaving the UK. We have either been travelling, sight seeing, eating with people or visiting church projects. It’s been a brilliant, busy and totally distracting trip but now it’s very good not to have to do anything but read, relax and swim at very easy going Melina Beach Resort.

I brought a few books with me, to help reflect on urban ministry: Tim Keller’s Shaped by the Gospel, Roy Joslin’s Urban Harvest and Wallace and Mary Brown’s Angels on the Walls.

Keller’s book was most helpful on “three ways to live” (religious, irreligious and gospel). I’m not convinced that his highly rational, post-modern approach to proclamation works outside the urban elite or suburbia. Roy Joslin advocates a concrete rather than conceptual gospel proclamation for the working class, where reasoning is less linear and more intuitive, anecdotal and observed. Awareness of the difference has been helpful for me.

Wallace and Mary Brown’s book was given to me by a friend back in 2007. I have only just got round to reading it but the timing was perfect. In fact, I am glad I didn’t read it before now. Wallace and Mary Brown tell stories of church vandalism, middle of the night hoax calls, dangerous brick-wielding vagrants and arson attacks which traumatised them and their young children. They tell these stories in a caring, deeply immersed way, but like many tourists tell tales of visits to foreign countries, the Browns assess the culture and behaviour of the locals as outsiders (though the Browns admit that their middle class values influence their view of life on the estate). I know I am guilty of the same slightly incredulous story telling, when with fellow outsiders. The Brown’s stories resonated with our experiences but it was the way that they handled life on the estate which encouraged me.

Wallace is open about the related sense of failure as a vicar, husband and father. He speaks of the distance and greyness of God and of trying to keep going when on the inside he is emotionally drained and feeling isolated. The similarity of ministry, as an outsider and Anglican, made my sense of isolation reduce. Books like Joslin’s Urban Harvest or Mez McConnell and Mike McKinley’s Church in Hard Places are excellent biblical theories of ministry in the estate. The theory, however, can leave the reader with a sense of inadequacy, as reality is often miles from the theory. Angels on the Walls give a healthy and refreshing dose of reality. Through the balance of theory and reality in the books I brought with me, God has given me increased strength to persevere.

Two lessons have emerged from Angels on the Wall. First, Wallace learned though suffering about God’s work in him. Through perseverance in suffering for the gospel, God grows character in his children and character produces hope. I have always been aware that God uses ministry to sanctify the minister, as he does in different ways in all true Christians. God has used the set-backs at Holy Trinity West Bromwich to make me lay down the desire to be successful in the eyes of the world. The duration and pain of the lesson shows what I slow learner I am!

Second, Wallace learned to tell the people their sins (Micah 3:8). Powerlessness and lack of opportunity creates a sense of victimhood for anyone trapped in an estate. Wallace learned to be direct with anyone whose life was a mess so that they would take personal responsibility for the mess. One man was suicidal. He’d been told that his domestic violence, estrangement from his kids and inability to hold down a job were not his fault, but a product of his poor upbringing. This counselling had trapped him. He felt powerless to change. Wallace told the man his sins, that he had been rebelling against the God who made him. Suddenly the man asked what he could do to be saved and to change. The man gave his life to Christ and ended up in full time Christian ministry.

The ministry of a middle class vicar in an estate can be hampered by a sense of privilege. I can tell myself that I have a “better” life because of my upbringing and that I have no right to minster from a position of privilege. But this is a lie. Sin is sin and needs to be named, owned, repented of and forgiven in Christ.

Now, where’s my snorkel and flippers?

About neilrobbie

I am a 6'6" formerly ginger Scot, in a cross cultural marriage to my lovely Londoner wife. We've lived in SE Asia and since 2005, I have served as an Anglican minister in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.
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