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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Challenge and Care

I am nearly finished a fascinating book "Pastoral Counseling with Adolescents and Young Adults" by Charles M. Shelton (1995, Crossroad Publishing). I picked it up in a used book sale and stored it away for future reference. Planning, as I am, to commence a Masters in Counseling in Feb 2007 I decided to pick it up and give it a read. Not expecting much I have found it to be a good read by someone who is clearly passionate about both care and Christian transformation of individuals.

Shelton is an American Jesuit and despite both cultural and theological differences I found the text very engaging. For anyone considering any type of care ministry I would thoroughly recommend it but especially so for those ministering to youth and young adults (hence the title).

Two of the key axioms that Shelton embraces in his ministry approach are "compassionate care" and "loving challenge". The compassionate care "fosters the trust and openness that allows loving challenge to be accepted and bear fruit" (p176). At a fundamental level this approach seeks to build a bridge between the liberal and conservative theological traditions. Although this is a generalisation there is a definite body of Christian teaching that emphasises care but without the courage to challenge. Likewise there is theological teaching that is prepared to challenge but not always in a loving manner and certainly not with the long-term approach that compassionate care entails.

Shelton writes for those in pastoral ministry and so he encompasses, in parts of the book, the need for the congregation to be a part of the caring ministry. I found this aspect of the book encouraging because, since working with psychiatrically ill men, I have begun to question the Church's approach to many marginalised people. It is easy to come up with a "position" on issues such as schizophrenia, homosexuality or drug addiction to name a few but it is far more difficult to formulate a response when people who are marginalised come amongst a Christian community or interact at the fringes in a manner that precludes the Church hiding its head in the sand.

The "loving challenge" of Shelton's work does not presume to completely change people. It holds open the possibility that for a number of reasons people may not completely move to a Church's position on a particular issue but the compassionate care allows for individuals to be loved as they are in line with God's grace and mercy. Loving challenge is not just an attempt to present another viewpoint though. It is an approach that over time and with patient questions at appropriate times can help someone consider there lifestyle or condition more widely and therefore develop a direction that is more oriented towards Christ than themselves.

In saying this I understand that mental illnesses can be long-term and need ongoing medication but the individual responses to these conditions can be challenged in a loving, nurturing environment. In a similar manner, there are those who would consider their gay lifestyle to be a lifelong position but a church can still show care and can engage in loving challenge to move the person into a Christ-centred focus.

I offer these points as steps in my own journey and provocations towards an integrated Christian ethic of care and responsibility.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Much Afraid

"All of these things
held up in vain
No reason or rhyme
Just the scars that remain
Of all of these things
I'm so much afraid
Scared out of my mind
By the demons I've made
Sweet Jesus, you never ever let me go
Oh, Sweet Jesus, you never ever let me go."

Jars of Clay - "Much Afraid" (1997).

Why are we afraid of being afraid? Why are we scared of fear? Why do we need fix everything, to have everything neatly ordered and resolved? Where does this thinking originate from? Not the Bible, surely?

The Bible speaks of time when all will be resolved but it is not now.

Rev 21:4-5 - "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a beautiful bride prepared for her husband.
I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, "Look, the home of God is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will remove all of their sorrows, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. For the old world and its evils are gone forever." And the one sitting on the throne said, "Look, I am making all things new!" And then he said to me, "Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true."

I must make a confession; I will get to making some more advanced comments on this passage soon but right now I am tired - very tired. I have just been wrestling with my two older boys after a day at work and then I read to them both and put them to bed (I know, pull out the violins). For now I want to leave some thoughts that life in the here and now is fragile and delicate. We live, to varying degrees, with the awareness of our finite humanity but we can also live with the possibilities that emerge from our God-given spiritual new life.

There is no doubt in my mind that there will be a time when there is no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. I believe in this, I endeavour to introduce others to the one who can lead us into this eternal future and I stand firmly upon the promise of this future contained in the word of God but...

I also want to affirm those who are confused by the sudden encroachment of death into our world; the way it can snatch away loved ones at the "wrong" time. I want to learn to stand with those who sorrow and cry and I want to sit with those who really feel pain. I can theologise but pain is real. Pain hurts. Pain confuses and numbs our thinking. The time for these things to pass is one step closer every day.

I also believe that Jesus is "making all things new" and I am not sure what this really entails except that I trust him to engage in the process of making all things new in a way that is fully in line with his Father's will.

I am not making excuses. I am not turning away from prayerful trust or from faith but I am seeking to listen more and talk less to those who hurt.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Coming into the Light

"Understanding is something one does best when one is on the borderline."
-Peter H√łeg (1994), Borderliners, p. 37

I came across the following quote this week and it spoke to me as I contemplated coming out of my dark period of reflection. There is something vaguely comforting in the knowledge that one has made it through a dark period and that God is still with us but in a fresh and interesting new way and also one's understanding can grow through the process of struggle.

I say that one's understanding can grow because being "on the borderline" in some manner does not guarantee understanding; it merely provides a catalyst for new insight and understanding into one's mind, will and emotions. I work with men who have reasonably serious psychiatric illnesses. Many of these men do not develop understanding. Instead they become oppressed by the weight of their struggle and become despondent and overwhelmed. A few of the men continue to amaze and inspire me as they see nuggets of gold in a river of despair.

It has been a couple of weeks since I posted. In that intervening time I have reflected upon my role future in "ministry" and have attempted to wait upon God in an attitude of thankfulness and listening. God is the most loving person that I know. I do not offer this as an exegetical analysis but from the depths of the heart of one who has been, and is being, held fast by that love.

I received 3 comments to my previous post all of which I want to acknowledge because they inspired, encouraged and lifted me. One of my foundational tenets is that the Bible is clear that ""By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."(John 13:35). These expressions of love as well as those of my close friends in Australia shows me the importance of this verse. We are not measured by the words that we speak but by the love that we demonstrate.

Patrik referred me to a blog on his site that I thoroughly recommend. I particularly appreciated the following comment

"...God has created us free, and this means that it essentially up to us to decide what we fill our “I” with. This is the great paradox: We are created by God as we are, and we decide ourselves what this is. In a way we create ourselves, but God is present in that creation."

What challenges and what responsibilities lie within this concept. Rather than being paralysing I found that quote to be energising in the sense that it opened up possibilities inherent in a vital partnership with God. I would like to expand on the fact that God needs to be not just present with us but needs to be involved in a relationship with us.

Later in the same blog Patrik writes "
a person who is secure in his or her own identity cannot be manipulated easily." Once again this was an encouragement to me to continue my journey towards greater inner integrity and security.

Renee responded and everything that she wrote touched me deeply but I want to draw attention to her closing words "
Keep searching the possibilities, and don't be afraid to post about this again." In line with my comments re Patrik's blog I would like to help others to "keep searching the possibilities". Surely this is what the church as a network of loving outreach should be encouraging for those who have not felt the embrace of God's love. God makes the impossible possible and it is a part of our missionary calling to point people towards those possibilities.

Chris responded via a comment to the blog as well as a beautiful email that I have kept for the purpose of re-reading when I need a signpost for the journey. Chris made use of Pannenburg's idea that "the infinite Triune God enters into our finitude and transforms us." Wow! That phrase in itself is worth a post or three but it is staggering that God is his majesty and power enters into, and engages with us in, our struggles and leads us into transformation.

Thankyou to all of you for sharing your thoughts and concern for me. Thankyou for those silent voices who have been, and are, praying for me. Thankyou to my friends here in Australia. Am I "better"? Well, I am not sure what "better" is these days but I do not that my load has been shared and that I have been opened up to even more of God's love and grace so in that sense, yes, I am much better.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Will of God

I haven't posted in a while. This is partly due to a virus which laid me off work for a week and has laid low my wife the past weekend but it is also because I have perceived, felt, sensed, imagined (?) quietness from God in terms of the direction of my life. I was going to try and write something erudite and considered as a post in reaction to this time but I am really not in a place to do so. This post is mostly for me to get my thoughts onto a firmer medium than my mind.

I was ordained as a Baptist Pastor. I am still not sure why this is such a big deal for me but, as much as I don't want it to, I believe that it still defines my identity. I'm not even sure what I'm writing but I need to start somewhere with some honesty and why not make my thoughts available to whomsoever?

A key part of my journey was a descent into chronic depression whilst working for a church post-college. I eventually left the church feeling that I was unable to continue in paid ministry. Since then I have struggled to come to terms with my mental illness and also to figure out where I am supposed to be going in my life. Earlier this year I was diagnosed with mild bi-polar disorder. I feel detached from my colleagues in ministry and I feel unemployable right now.

I know that this all sounds morbid but I am in a "down" cycle and struggling to face the immediate future. Money is tight as I am working 3 days a week in a low paid job and I am investigating post-graduate study options. I was seriously looking into a Masters of Theology until my wife asked me where it would lead and I couldn't say so I am looking into the original option of a Masters in Counseling. Then I ask if this is where I am meant to be or is it a "second best" option?

You see, I left Bible College believing that pastoral ministry was where I was headed. I had no idea that mental illness was going to blindside me derail my plans. Despite the circular, garbled nature of this blog perhaps this is my point, namely, were they only my plans and what are God's plans and where is God in the middle of my medicated, confused life and what of my "call" to ministry?

To be sure, I know that I am gifted at counseling and I certainly have insight into abuse, trauma and emotional struggle. For now, I will try and seek God. He seems to be awfully quiet but perhaps I don't want to hear what He is saying? I will go to work, look after my fantastic family and see what tomorrow brings. Don't let anyone tell you that there's a formula for knowing the will of God.