Limitless love

When my second child, Elijah, was on the way I was quite worried.

Not so much about the usual things – finance, logistics of two kids, ‘will me & wifey get time together?’ etc. – I felt pretty calm about that stuff.

But it was more my capacity to love anyone else in the way I already loved so many other people… I kept thinking: “I love my wifey-lady, Kirsty. I love my son Malachi. I love my friends. I love my wider family. I’m a youth pastor with dozens of teenagers to love (…in appropriate ways and an appropriate amount!).

Particularly with the surge of love I often feel when I look at Kirsty or Malachi (especially when he’s sleeping, but also sometimes when he’s roaring at old people who get too close), I wondered how I could possibly have the capacity to love someone else. Do we, as humans, have a limit on how many people we can actually care about? Is that the problem with the world – that everyone can only genuinely care about (love?), say, 150 or 200 people, then just not care after that? What was my limit? Can I possibly love another son the way I adore my firstborn?”

The answer came to me when Elijah was born. I held him, looked at him and simply coming to a realisation of his perfect uniqueness, his singular potential, his artistic complexity – I realised that my capacity to love is not based upon some cosmic metaphysical amount of love I innately possess that might one day hit it’s limit… My capacity to love is based upon on the way I choose to see each individual human being on this earth in the same way I looked at my son. My capacity to love is based upon the perspective from which I choose to perceive people, not the emotions that result from my interactions.

Every human has the potential to be better, to be creative, fruitful, productive, world changing and beautiful.

So we need to choose to see that potential in others rather than decide whether or not to care for them based on the emotional response their behaviour evokes in us. That’s not to say my son doesn’t invoke intense emotional love in me every time I see him, hold him or hear him, it’s just that my love for him is not limited to being an emotional response.

In one ancient book of wisdom, the writer pens a prayer to God. He writes: ‘I thank you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. All your works are wonderful – how well I know this.’

This seems pretty arrogant really – it could be inferred that the writer thinks he is literally God’s amazing gift to the rest of the human race!

And he’s right. Every human is God’s gift to the rest of humanity.

The band Rend collective have a wonderful lyric in one of their songs. It says:

‘Create in me a pure, pure heart,
Create in me a work of art.
Create in me a miracle,
Something real and something beautiful’
Create in Me (Rend Collective)

That’s what I saw when I looked at my tiny baby Elijah. A work of art. Beautiful because he’s real and filled with potential for perfection despite all of the errors I know he will make and the hurt he will undoubtedly cause to others in this world.

But history shows us that some of the greatest works of art can take a lifetime to create and countless mistakes and attempts to perfect…

So if we, as humans, are divine works of art crafted by the hands of an eternal artist, we must learn to see people’s mistakes, flaws and errors as their unfortunate detours on the road to perfection.

That’s how God sees them. That’s how God sees us. That’s how God sees me.

And He limitlessly loves all of the above as he gently sculpts, crafts moulds and occasionally hammers us into the best ‘us’ we can be.

So is there a limit on how many people you can love? I believe the only limit is how we choose to see every individual we meet.

A parable…

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Once upon a time, there was a magical kingdom filled with wonderful people who loved one another and did their best to work for the good of the kingdom. It was a beautiful land, filled with rolling hills, cool streams and towns filled with life and excitement.

It was ruled over by a good and gracious king and his brave knights, who did their best to guide and rule the people with a fair hand.

But as time went by, the people began to look beyond the borders of the kingdom and began to see that beyond the wide rivers, over the snow-capped mountains and beyond the darkest forest, the world was very different…

Foul creatures lived there and much of the land was desolate and barren. There were people in these lands too, but they were preyed upon by the beasts and lived a squalid and tortured existence in caves and rocky valleys.

The people of the kingdom were moved by the plight of these others and felt that they should do something. Some of them went out into the dark lands to do what they could and brought a few people back with them, but these newcomers often struggled to fit in. they couldn’t forget the darkness they’d escaped from and they too longed to rescue those still trapped there at the mercy of the beasts and the desolate wastelands.

So the people of the kingdom, with this vision to see the beasts defeated and the people from the far lands set free, sent out the call for someone to help them and deal with this evil.

Eventually, a lone knight rode into the capital city of the kingdom and, stepping down from his mighty warhorse, he was greeted with great applause and jubilation by the people of the kingdom.

As he removed his helmet to speak, the people waited with baited breath, eager to hear the words of this great knight who would soon step out into the darkness…

“People of the Kingdom!” He cried out, “Return to your homes, gather your weapons and meet me back in the square in three days and together, we will ride out to drive back the desolation and rid the world of the beasts beyond!”

His proclamation was met with a stunned silence as the people slowly departed the square, muttering that this was not what they had expected.

For three days, the people of the kingdom anxiously watched one another to see who would take up the call, all afraid to be the first.Their passion to see the darkness driven out was not matched by their willingness to act.

And three days later, the knight stood alone in the square. The darkness would remain a while longer, for alone, he could not hope to prevail.

I’m not the boss of you…

Forgive this somewhat primitive sociological piece ;0)

People think that the mindsets and societies of the USA and Britain are very similar, but there are some powerful differences in the way that we regard our responsibilities to a healthy society. The US American dream says that ‘anyone can become anything they want to if they believe strongly enough, work hard enough and struggle long enough’. It says that every person is uniquely special and gifted and encourages its participants to acknowledge a social order in which status is defined by personal success and achievement – particularly for those who ‘overcome’ their disadvantaged circumstances. Responsibility for success or failure in life and for your own wellbeing depends upon you.

Conversely, British culture is steeped in preconceptions about social class that involve deference and surrender of our own responsibilities because ‘someone else’ is (hopefully) always in charge. British people often allow themselves to be disempowered within their society at all levels precisely because we have a tendency to defer responsibility for not just our societal wellbeing, but that of our own happiness onto others.

For example, we will always demand that the government take care of the poor. They are in power over us, so it must be their job. This is a feudal mindset – our ‘masters’ must fix things! We don’t have the power to do so ourselves! Americans, particularly republicans, would insist that it is up to individuals to a) get themselves out of poverty or b) choose to help people themselves as a mark of their own success and worth.
Another example is found in sports. ‘Its taking part that counts.’ Really? Maybe in Britain, but the US film industry produces film after film featuring underdogs who overcome the odds to win big! British sports films are few and far between and the story is normally about how a dysfunctional team come together, possibly (but not always) winning, but mainly becoming a harmonious, tolerant group or bringing their family back together. Examples of this are ‘run fanboy run’, in which the hero drastically fails to win the race but reunites his family, and ‘chariots of fire’ which is more about the principles and struggle of the protagonists within their cultural hegemony (normal expectations) than the fight to actually win.
On a more personal level, the British will, by default, look for someone in authority to blame before a personal, familial or societal issue when they experience hardship. Politicians, doctors, religious leaders, the legal ‘system’ and big business will all be ‘to blame’ for NOT fixing societies problems before we ever think about our personal responsibility.

This attitude is very much a throwback to the history of our countries. Whilst America was built on the values of those who were seeking to ‘escape’ from the oversight of powerful individuals and states (supposedly due to religious persecution but actually more likely economic freedom from taxes) and later defined by the ‘pioneer spirit’, Britain was founded on and sustained by the principles of ‘divine right’ to rule and authority derived from possession and governance of groups of people – the feudal system. I’m sure it can be pointed out that America was built upon the backs of slaves, but of course this only adds to the mythos of the American dream – the slaves were involved in freeing themselves and now a black man is president!

In this, I think the ‘American dream’ – whilst painfully individualistic and distrustful of corporate responsibility – can teach us a lot about how must individually take responsibility for our world. Whose job is it to fix global warming? The government’s? Or yours? Who should feed and house the homeless? The government? Some charity? Or you? Who should challenge injustice? Lawyers and the police? Or you? Who should help the next generation of young people understand that they are beautiful, unique, gifted individuals who will only thrive by loving and caring for one another? ‘The schools’? Social services? Special youth work projects and experts? Or is it everyone’s responsibility to help, guide and encourage young people around them to be all that they can be? I value all of those organisations and services listed above. But they are not the answer! The answer is a society in which we ALL take responsibility for the injustices and wrongs in our world! Did a government begin the movement to end slavery and segregation in the US? Did the police? Did the army? No. Thousands upon thousands of individuals took social responsibility and a movement was born. We all like heroes, but where the US had ‘the abolition movement’ a national awakening and protest against the slave trade, Britain had ‘the anti slavery society’. The US had a movement. We seemingly needed an organisation to get the job done…

I’m a youth pastor. My role is to build relationships with other people that make a positive difference in their lives to help them make a positive difference in this world.

But I am first and foremost a human being called Joel. And Joel’s responsibility in this world is to build relationships with other people that make a positive difference in their lives to help them make a positive difference in this world. This is always a struggle when people, seeing me as the paid, professional authority figure, defer their responsibility to do this work with people onto me. I refuse to continue to support a societal mindset that allows people to divorce themselves from social responsibility because “it’s not their job”.

I refer you to Micah 6:8 (a classic from a book of sublime wisdom…)

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

So please, act justly – always doing what is right, even if society doesn’t like it.
Love mercy, being compassionate to anyone who needs is regardless of the cost.
And be humble – know who you are and know that the role of every human in this world is to build relationships with other people that make a positive difference in their lives to help them make a positive difference in this world.

And don’t wait for an organisation to do something before you do what’s right.

‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ (thanks Ghandi)

A very ordinary adventure

Every adventure starts with an ‘ordinary’ day. Sometimes in the midst of that day we choose the adventure, like deciding to book a particular holiday, or go to a particular place and sometimes the adventure chooses us.

I was walking to work on Monday this week and saw a wonderfully generic occurrence: a pair of house movers trying to get a piano into a moving van. It was amazing – I actually grinned when I saw it and then one of them actually said: “Do you think we’ll have to take the door off to get this out?” I laughed – it’s just such a beautiful thing to see real-life situations play out the way we expect them to in such predictable ways. I delight in those moments of prescience when you know exactly what is about to be said… When the adventure goes according to the story in your head.

Because it’s nice when things fit. It’s nice when the ‘bad’ people go to jail. When the two lovely friends that you introduced get together and get married and have lovely kids – that’s just how it should be. It’s great when you go on holiday, have a great time, catch all of your flights without delays and come back refreshed and relaxed. But just because it’s how we think it should be, it doesn’t mean that HOW IT IS. Adventures just don’t always work like that.

Sometimes, with those adventures that have interrupted our day, we don’t realize we’re having an adventure, because in the discomfort of our day being disturbed and thrown from it’s preplanned routine, we focus more on what we wish we were doing than upon the adventure in which we’ve found ourselves.

When I lived in Croydon, I saw this first hand. I was walking to work and had a meeting that I needed to be at. NEEDED TO BE AT. It was important. And then as I passed an alleyway I saw a man lying on the ground. Another man – his friend – stood beside him, clearly upset and flustered and not knowing what to do. Two people overtook me and passed by, but on this occasion I made the right choice. I asked what was wrong.

It turned out that the man on the floor had been stabbed and both men had their phones stolen. I immediately phoned an ambulance and the police and, obeying the instructions of the 999 operator, applied pressure to the wound using the man’s jacket. In the midst of this high-pressure situation, an odd thing happened. I realized I was having an adventure. I smiled. It was brief, fleeting, a temporary curling of the corners of my mouth, but I smiled. I was in the midst of a life or death situation and, though I was deeply concerned and worried for that injured man, I was loving it. Absolutely thrilled to be in the midst of a situation that mattered.

That’s what happens in the Hobbit. Bilbo is having a normal day. Then a wizard and a bunch of dwarves arrive and he’s swept up in the adventure before he knows what to do. He didn’t (and wouldn’t) choose it, but it’s there and when it comes to it, that adventure goes on to define the rest of his life and the lives of all those in the world of Middle-Earth.

I’ve tried very hard in my life to make it a principle to realize when I’m having an adventure and to savor the experience. Good or bad, embracing a situation is much healthier and more secure way to exist than denying it or trying to avoid it. We DO all live in the moment, regardless of what we have planned or what precautions we believe we have taken and nothing can ever completely protect or insulate you from the sudden appearance of an adventure.

My 3-week old going into hospital last week was horrible and painful and terrifying. But once again, it was about learning a lesson about how to handle uncertainty, doubt and fear and overcome it. About finding yourself in a place you’d never choose to be, but being secure despite the circumstance.

I’ve had a lot of adventures. I love them. I’d never wish harm on anyone so that I might have that moment of thrill and triumph… But I can’t deny that after the fact, I LOVE to share the story!

I hope that my life is never so safe that it is devoid of adventures. And I pray the same for you. Because you only really know who you are when the fallible and false and finite things of the world let you down… and you discover something, someone, that is unalterably secure.

He has a name.

Final story: My son had to have an injection in the hospital a couple of nights back and the nurse warned me how much he would scream when she gave him the injection. As she slipped the needle into his leg and he began to stir – that tiny scream building in his lungs, I began to whisper into his ear in the prayer language that followers of The Way call ‘tongues’ – a secret, sacred and personal language that only the Creator understands and, indeed, defines. Elijah instantly calmed down. The nurse said: “I don’t know what you’re saying to him, but it’s definitely working!” I smiled and replied: “That’s funny. I don’t know what I’m saying either…”

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Aspirations of Daddy-hood

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I’m sitting in the hospital next to my 3-week-old son. He’s got a couple of tubes in him and he’s just begun recovering from the sudden onslaught of a nasty infection, which could have been so much worse. The doctors say we may be here for a week. so I’m thinking about my role as a Dad.

Father’s Day on Sunday was a rather surreal and confusing experience. I was woken by my 22-month-old son Malachi kicking me in the head whilst my 3-week-old Elijah screamed for his morning feed… This was pre-6am and church, being ‘my job’ & complete with an ‘all-age father’s day slot’ that I was to lead, was foremost in my mind.

I’ll be honest – I was supposed to think of a great spiritual link connecting something about fatherhood with the mysteries of ‘Abba’ father and thus wow the 500-ish people at Church with some kind of moving and powerful spiritual insight. I did not do this.

Instead, we played a game where two dads competed to eat as many Ferraro roche’s and put on as many pairs of extra-large Asda brand pants as possible in 60-seconds. I did this because it seemed much more fun than the spiritual option. HERESY!!! But I always thought that was what being a Dad was meant to be about – adventurous, childhood rediscovering, heroics that match your (young) child’s perception of you as their hero.

I guarantee there is no feeling like doing something that your child instantly wants to copy! My beautiful wife often finds our cardboard-sword fighting, indoor-tent-zorbing, furniture-scaling antics less enjoyable than me and Malachi, but there’s honestly no laughter like the joyful sound my son makes when he hits me over the head with a cardboard tube and I comically fall to the floor in a heap! He loves it! So I do it.

I’ve always loved a particular episode of teen drama One Tree Hill in which Jamie, a young boy who loves to wear a cape to school, is bullied for said cape. His Dad, basketball player Nathan, should probably have arranged a parent teacher conference and sought some conflict resolution in line with the school’s anti-bullying policy. He does not. Instead, he comes to Jamie’s school and proceeds to slam-dunk basket after basket in front of the other kids. In a cape. Jamie’s hero is his Dad, because his Dad will do that for him. Because his Dad can fly. Because his Dad takes as much delight in what Jamie shows him about life as he does in teaching his son.

The only thing my son Malachi thinks is better than copying me doing something new, is when I join in with him. A really good Dad isn’t just a Dad who provides. Isn’t just a Dad who’s around. Isn’t just a Dad who teaches his kids what they need to know. A really good Dad is one who can let go of his inhibitions and the ‘adult expectations’ placed upon him and ascend to the simple heights of child-like joy by pretending to be a Jedi or pirate or tyrannosaurus.

I remember a time when I was off-school ill. Me and my Dad had a lightsaber battle with some plastic yellow table legs from a collapsible table. It was epic. My Dad would tell me stories about robots and involve me in creating the plot. My Dad took me and my brother to ruined castles and we ran around defending/capturing them, completely ignorant of the other tourists (well, I was and I guess my Dad chose not to care too much!). My Dad didn’t just let me play, he was part of the games. That made a difference. Because if my Dad, my hero, would play my games, then I figured they must be games fit for heroes. And when, during the many games, I fell or failed or fled, my Dad was a different kind of hero, one who picked me up, helped me try again and held me til I stopped crying.

Thanks Dad. You’re still my hero. The kind of hero-Dad I want to be.

So I’m sitting next to my son in hospital. The nurse is changing one of his drip feeds and checking his temperature. How am I supposed to be this little boy’s hero? I can’t heal him or fix him or make it all better. I believe God could, but He hasn’t. I’ve asked. So what do I do? What kind of cape do I need to put on today?

I reach down, pick up my little boy, and I hold him, smile and stroke his little nose until he calms and sleeps. Cos sometimes, that’s the kind of hero kids need their Dads to be. That’s okay by me.