7 months of foodbanking.

I’ve now worked for Trussell Trust for 7 months. I had another of what I think of as my ‘reality of foodbank’ moments today.

We were in a meeting with someone who wanted information about how a Trussell Trust foodbank works. As we explained the model that we use, causes of food poverty and talked through some statistics of foodbank use in Northern Ireland and the wider UK network, I was again experiencing the contrast of feeling that comes with this job.

Working with foodbanks is simultaneously saddening, infuriating, uplifting and inspiring. Working with people of such passion and commitment to serving and helping those in crisis in their community is humbling and challenging. Engaging with the causes and reality of food poverty in 21st century Northern Ireland is shocking and crushing.

When I shared some statistics about foodbank use with our friend, I was shocked at how easily the number 32,000 rolled off my tongue. It’s just a number and I am used to sharing it; but I should never lose track of its meaning. Last year 32,000 people received food parcels from Trussell Trust foodbanks in Northern Ireland. With every number we count two stories are being told; the story of hunger and the story of hope.

Each food parcel that leaves one of our foodbanks tells the story of an individual or family who had fallen into hunger. It tells a story of someone brave enough to ask for help. In a nation this wealthy the reality of that statistic breaks my heart. Each number counted tells a story of a crisis; real people, with real lives, real dreams, real pain and real feelings. When numbers get to a certain point we can lose track of the humanity behind them and the story they tell. We don’t see faces in statistics.

Yet each number tells a story of hope; that when one person fell into crisis others were there to help. For at the same time as these very real people, in very real crisis needed help, very real strangers bought an extra tin of vegetables, a bottle of UHT milk or a jar of peanut butter and put it in a collection basket.

At the same time as someone reached for help, others reached their hands out to welcome them to a foodbank with a cup of tea, a smile and a biscuit. The fact that foodbank volunteers and donors are out there shines a little more light into the world.

Food poverty should not exist but it does, and I’m grateful for the 40,000+ volunteers who hate its existence as much as I do but will stand in the gap and generously give for as long as it does exist. I’m blessed to get to spend my time with them. There are no big names, no bright lights but there are thousands of heroes.

This wasn’t meant to be a marketing but if you want to know how to get included involved click here


Lament: it’s not just ok to cry, we should.

I found the next sentence very hard to type. I cried today. Whether it is an inherited Ulster Protestant stoicism or the yet to be expunged remnants of my foray into neo-Calvinist machismo, I don’t cry often and still struggle to admit and come to terms with the fact that I do. I’m working on that.

I should have seen it coming. We were driving and a song I’ve never paid attention to before came on the radio; What About Us by Pink. Lyrically, it is pretty hard hitting;

“What about us?

What about all the times you said you had the answers?

What about us?

What about all the broken happy ever afters?

What about us?

What about all the plans that ended in disaster?

What about love? What about trust?

What about us?”

We talked about how the song is like a Psalm, but not the poster on the wall, fridge magnet kind of Psalm. The Psalms later in the book where the writer is barely holding on and screams to God in His rage, sadness and desperation; that kind of Psalm. The gritty, real life type of Psalm. The type of Psalm that I worry we’ve forgotten how to engage with.

The last few years have at times been wonderful for us but also at times they’ve been incredibly hard. There’s been physical illness, financial pressure, bereavement, pain in relationships, a mental health crisis leading to walking away from the job I’d worked towards my whole adult life, a car crash and recovery physically and mentally, unemployment and relocation stress. These things didn’t come one at a time. They came together. They came in pairs, in threes and fours. They came in gangs and beat away at us. They have taken their toll.

I believe that the theology we hold writes a commentary over our experience. Whether our beliefs are wise or foolish, they throw up lenses through which we focus and unfocus particular details of our experience. These details form the narrative that becomes our truth.

Somewhere along the journey I picked up the notion that the pain in our lives is God’s plan and we should see it as a sign of some coming promise. Somewhere along the line an idea planted itself into my mind that if something bad happens it should be seen as an indicator that something good is about to happen; that all pain is actually just a signal that joy is coming, that every defeat is a sign that winning is near. If not that God is testing us and we should rejoice.

It doesn’t take a long look at my past to see that sometimes bad things happen and that’s it. There’s no grand redemption for some tragedies. Sometimes life kicks us in the head and moves on to the next person. Sometimes there is no imminent victory. Sometimes there is no ‘something good.’ Sometimes life just is.

I should have known that tears were near because I had begun to deconstruct that theology. I had begun to take it apart because of what it was doing to me. My passive and unconscious belief in a connection between all the good and bad in my life, that one paved the way for the other, silenced my ability to grieve properly.

The silent (and unintended) lesson in that theology is that a full embrace of the pain is an act of weak faith if not an act of faithlessness. A still, small voice whispers, ‘Don’t you trust God anymore?’ ‘Don’t you believe His promises?’ ‘You’re letting doubt take root in your heart.’

Have we forgotten how to hurt? I worry that we’ve lost sight of lament. Do we still know how to engage our faith with the pain of our lives without having to contort ourselves to think that our tragedies are God’s paths to blessings? The Bible is full of lament. It’s full of men and women, including Jesus, yelling at God in his apparent absence.

“How long oh Lord?”

“Am I the only one?”

“Kill me here under this tree!”

“My God, why have you forsaken me?”

I’m sure there are people who are barely limping through life but feel silenced from being real about it with their Church families. I know from messages I’ve received after writing about my own mental health that there are a lot of people who feel unable to tell their church they are ill because it would be seen as a sign of weak faith or even demonic activity.

Faith is not mindlessly smiling through the pain. Faith is a belief that the same God you hope will come through for you, whether that hope is vast or a mustard seed, is also big enough to hear your anger and sadness and desperation.

Faith is believing that you can pause the TV and sit on the sofa, sobbing out random sentences about your feelings of being forgotten or abandoned by God when things went wrong, and knowing He doesn’t love you any less for it.

Faith is getting up everyday and trying to get through to bedtime whether the pain goes away or not; because sometimes it won’t go away, but sometimes it will. Sometimes we need help to get through it. Sometimes we can do it on our own.

Faith without reality is a sad thing to live with. It doesn’t set me free and I’m sure it doesn’t set you free either. Faith is as much in our anger and pain as it is in our joy and gratitude. Embrace it and engage it; shout and sob. I already feel better for it, it’s like a weight off my chest.

We are each far too precious to force ourselves not to engage our pain for fear of being faithless. It’s bad for our health.

“What About Us?”

We are searchlights, we can see in the dark

We are rockets, pointed up at the stars

We are billions of beautiful hearts

And you sold us down the river too far

What about us?

What about all the times you said you had the answers?

What about us?

What about all the broken happy ever afters?

What about us?

What about all the plans that ended in disaster?

What about love? What about trust?

What about us?

We are problems that want to be solved

We are children that need to be loved

We were willing, we came when you called

But many fooled us, enough is enough

What about us?

What about all the times you said you had the answers?

What about us?

What about all the broken happy ever afters?

What about us?

What about all the plans that ended in disaster?

What about love? What about trust?

What about us?

What about us?

What about all the plans that ended in disaster?

What about love? What about trust?

What about us?

Sticks and stones they may break these bones

But then I’ll be ready, are you ready?

It’s the start of us, waking up, come on

Are you ready? I’ll be ready

I don’t want control, I want to let go

Are you ready? I’ll be ready

Cause now it’s time to let them know

We are ready

What about…

What about us?

What about all the times you said you had the answers?

So what about us?

What about all the broken happy ever afters?

What about us?

What about all the plans that ended in disaster?

What about love? What about trust?

What about us?

11 Resolutions for 2018 that might make life a little better.

New Year’s Day is the same as any other day but it’s worth taking the opportunity to reflect and focus when we can.

Here are 11 resolutions for 2018 that might make life a little better for all of us.

1. Stop assuming people’s motives for doing things you wouldn’t do yourself. We don’t all have the same life experiences and opportunity for free choice.

2. Speak to people you disagree with face to face rather than via Twitter or Facebook. The loss of tone in social media posts fuels anger and misunderstanding.

3. Eat vegetables and drink water. It does change your mood … eventually.

4. Go to the woods, the beach, the hills or beside water. Nature is magic.

5. Read wider than your own tribe. Engage with the world outside your own world. There is truth and beauty everywhere and we miss so much of it.

6. Generalisation is the shovel that digs the chasms between us. All Leavers or Remainers, Trump voters or Hillary voters, are not the same. Generalising them as such pushes millions of people away from millions of others.

7. Give more away. It really can be better to give than to receive.

8. Turn of the internet for a couple of hours a day and enjoy the space your mind will find by doing so.

9. Find a quiet space and sit in silence for ten minutes a day. Focus on a candle. Read the same positive, life-affirming quote over and over. You’re blood pressure and stress levels will go down, even if just for a moment.

10. Encourage people. Send messages to people whom you admire and tell them why. Thank your area’d elected officials, hospital staff and emergency service workers. Buy chocolates for you colleagues (ignore resolution 3 for this one) just to encourage them.

11. Reconcile if you can, especially with yourself. Find ways to leave the past behind if it is possible. Choose to live as much as you can in 2018 not in any of the years previous.

Do not be afraid.

image1“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” Luke 2:10

I am scared of heights. Apparently, it is quite common. I find my stomach churning and my knees get a little more rickety as I climb a ladder of any height. I think it goes back to falling off a tree when I was a child but no matter the cause it follows me today. I have faced up to
this fear on numerous occasions.

Perhaps the most significant moment of overcoming fear was at a youth summer camp when by some cruel trick of an administrators pen I was destined to lead a group of teenagers on an afternoon of abseiling. As I hung off a wall at what felt like 220 miles up in the air I remember whispering to myself, ‘Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.’ I was afraid, but somehow I overcame and walked down the wall. Even managing a strange backward roll in the process. Don’t applaud me for my bravery. I am just a mere man.

The phrases ‘Do not be afraid’ and ‘Fear not’ are littered all across the Christmas story. I am sure in part that the angels who speak these comforting words are speaking against the fear that seeing a celestial being must strike into the heart of a person, but it is not their goodness that brings the comfort that they promise, it is their message.

To Joseph he is told he must not fear but marry Mary anyway, she has been faithful.

To Mary she must not fear as she is highly favoured by

The shepherds should not fear as the angelic messenger and his backing band brought them an exclusive on good news and joy for the whole world.

At the centre of the story of Christmas is a promise that we should not be afraid. I think it is no coincidence that the heralds who bring the news that the promised rescue is arriving speak first against fear. The world we live
in is often a fearful place.

The 24 hour news cycle if taken in isolation and at face value would drive us all to barricade ourselves in our
house for fear of being killed by disease, famine or violence. Magazines strike fear into the hearts of women that they are the wrong size, wrong weight, wearing the wrong clothes, with the wrong coloured hair and the wrong shaped face. Men are told to be afraid that their abs are not visible enough and their car is too slow or that women are out to get them. We are told to fear recession, or to fear consumerism.

Fear is marketed with a steady rhythm and the world spins to its beat. Yet out of this clamour speaks
the voice of the Christmas angel, ‘Do not be afraid.

In moments of fear, I have always tried to pluck up my own courage. When faced with the unknown I have relied on myself to gather my bravery and face the moment. Fear has always seemed like an attack on my strength and courage, yet I think that fear is actually an attack on our identity. I think fear distracts us from who we really are.

Fear removes our attention from the God’s love
and puts it on our own weaknesses and failures. Fear amplifies the voice of accusation and dulls our ears to the song of hope sung by Angel choirs. Fear tells us who we were and what we have done, not who we are and what we are becoming. It will silence our song and stop our hands from bringing blessing and kindness and goodness to the world.

As we approach the end of the year, with Christmas carols of good tidings to all people still ringing in our ears, may we remind ourselves of the truth of who it is who has called us His children. May we know who we are as because of the baby Christ in a stable. May we know His love for us and His hope in us. May our hearts be reminded that in the baby in Bethlehem came the hope that even we are loved beyond our imaginations by the God who is for us and will get us through.

Whether you believe in God or not the message of the Christmas story is the same. That even in the chaos and fear of the world there is hope. That even today we can find our way to freedom from fear; we can lead others to places of hope with our words and our actions.

Who can you remind of their identity today in order to point them away from fear and towards hope? Who can speak into your life as you end this year and move towards the next filled with hope? Make an effort today to speak and hear the words of life. Do not be afraid.

#metoo – Men, we have a problem.

I’ve known it was happening for a long time. Through the years, female friends have shared stories with me, sometimes laughing it off, sometimes crying through it, of men they knew and men they didn’t; pushing through physical, sexual and emotional boundaries. Sometimes it was words and stares, sometimes it was hands, too often it was worse. I’ve known it was happening but the #metoo hashtag has shown me that it is so widespread that sexual harassment and assault are almost endemic in our society.

I could write #metoo on my timeline. I don’t talk about it much, but as a grown man I was sexually assaulted at work on two occasions. I was working as a phlebotomist and two different women in their 50s took the fact I had a needle in their vein as a sign that I wanted their hand on my genitals. I didn’t. I reported the incidents. I didn’t feel unsafe, I didn’t feel threatened. I was bigger and stronger and could easily remove myself from the situation. I did feel shame and embarrassment. My manager was brilliant. She believed me and took instant action to stop it happening to me again.

In comparison to what female members of staff faced everyday, what happened to be felt very insignificant. Yet many of them shrugged the gropes, slaps on the bum, graphic invitations to do one thing or the other etc. by male patients as an occupational hazard. What world have we created where a female nurse having her breasts grabbed by the man whose life she is saving is an occupational hazard? These men weren’t always unaware of the behaviour, some were, but the majority were all too aware and felt protected by the nurses’ need to act professionally.

I’ve known it’s been happening for years because I’ve seen it happening for years. I’ve seen the blocks from which the culture, in which a woman’s body is a man’s prize to be won or taken, is built. As a teenager in Christian youth groups I heard one well meaning leader tell the girls to dress modestly so as not to tempt the boys; the unspoken message was that the girls were responsible for the boys’ behaviour. The thin foundation was laid, upon which future excuses of ‘she led me on,’ or ‘she was dressed provocatively,’ could be built. The poor boys and men can’t help themselves when these evil temptresses lead them astray.

I saw it on the school rugby bus, and to my shame joined in as a 15 year old, as celebrities and girls from the other school were graded for how much of a ‘ride’ or how ‘bangable’ they were. These young women’s value to us was measured by how many of us would have sex with them. A strain of that perversion of a woman’s value lay alive in me for far too long. I hope it is now dead.

I’ve known it was happening when I stood in a nightclub watching a man watching the dance floor, scanning every face, then attempting to lead a woman, barely able to stand out of the building. If not for a lull in the music we wouldn’t have heard her.
‘I don’t want to go home with you. I don’t know who you are!’
A hand on his shoulder and he left her alone and left. Her friends arrived half an hour later and brought her home.

I’ve seen it that very same night, walking home from that club. A woman was walking alone ahead of me. By chance my eye spots a man down the alley acting strangely. As she reached where he was, he grabbed her and pulled her into the alley. In a second she had gone. If I’d not been watching would I have noticed? I shouted out and ran towards where they were and he ran off into the night. As we walked home (she lived two streets from me) her friends stopped in their taxi and picked her up.

I’ve seen it when speaking on church men’s weekends as men told me how angry they were about the amount of sex they aren’t having with their wives. They have told me how they have ‘held up their side of the bargain,’ and how ‘I don’t understand, I help around the house and give her compliments.’ In this strange world where sex becomes a reward that they deserve not a gift to be shared; a bargaining tool traded for chores and comments about clothes and hairstyles. Few of them had ever asked their wives opinion on the matter.

I’ve seen it throughout my church life. I’ve seen it in a small group as a wife turned bright red with shame as her husband decried her dereliction of duty to ‘honour him with her body,’ by not having sex often enough, apparently ignoring his vow to do the same by not using her body as a means to gratify his own. I’ve seen other men tell me their love language is touch and that their wives need to respect it. They assume their wives love language is coercion or emotional blackmail.

I’ve sat through sermons and seminars where women are told their husbands will only feel loved through sex or that they should never refuse him because it’s God’s will. The men are rarely if ever chastened for being demanding or claiming ownership of a woman’s body. In a twisted yet persistent theology, sex has all too often been God’s gift to men, and women are nothing more than God’s servants in the exchange.

I’ve seen it on the tube as men with plenty of room stand too close. In a taxi as the driver points out every ‘cracking pair!’ on the street. On a plane as the passenger slapped the crew member’s bum with an ‘oi oi!’ as an attempt to condone himself. I’ve seen friends groped, grabbed or kissed in bars as they try to push off strangers or drunken friends.

I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it everywhere. It pervades all of the society we’ve created. The reduction of women to sex objects is in the male social education we’ve constructed and it starts at a young age. The horror of the fact that millions of women have written #metoo on social media is an unmasking of what we’ve known for a long time.

Perhaps the thing that is most infuriating is that women are the ones who bear the shame. Women aren’t believed when they speak up. They are questioned on their dress sense, their humour, their drinking habits when the only question required is;

‘Were you harassed or assaulted?’ The blame lies with aggressor.

The idea that women should be ashamed of their bodies and sexuality and that these things are their fault is in the female social education we’ve created and it starts at a young age.

Men, we have a problem, and we’ve got to do something about it. We have to stand against it. Report it. Stop it. Question your own attitudes and behaviour. Confess and change. Apologise. Be fairly punished for acts of sexual violence you’ve committed. Don’t shelter others from the consequences of their actions.

The courage of so many women in speaking up, and telling their stories into a world that has so often shamed them for the actions of another, calls for response. The only right response is to weed out the culture that leads to sexual harassment and assault. We must not tolerate this any longer. I know you’ve seen it too, we all have. It’s line in the sand time. We can be better than this.

The Memeing of Humanity

I often wonder what my generation will be remembered for. There will be the great achievements and the trivial tropes, as there has always been with every previous generation. Perhaps the most significant mark the Millennials (or Xennials as one New Zealand sociologist has named those both between 1977 and 1983) is social media. Of course the internet and World Wide Web are gifts from the generation above us but we’ve taken it and run with it giving the globe access to bad jokes, portmanteaus and memes.

Memes are wonderful things at times. In the wake of any world event some genius with a smart phone pulls a captioned photo or ingenious word play out of the bag and draws us a few millimetres closer together. I find myself as that weird guy laughing on a train, all too often from a meme that someone has shared. Recently though, they seem to have taken a nastier turn.

I think I first noticed when a few memes of the phrase, ‘tag her/his boyfriend/girlfriend’ appeared on my Facebook timeline. These words were captioning a photo of a person whom the original poster (OP for the savvy) deemed unattractive. Thousands of shares, tags and likes later the OP had had their hoped for moment in the sun.

Then I noticed other similar memes, ‘Me at the wedding buffet’ accompanying a child suffering with extropia. There is the wholesale mocking of those who can’t spell, or are poorly educated because their statuses are grammatically incorrect. Others include people dancing and being recorded without their knowledge with tags like, ‘me dancing ten drinks in.’ The meme that got to me the most is that of a man recovering from addiction issues, having lost everything and being recorded for the US tv show Intervention, letting out the wrenching and pained cry of a broken heart – this is accompanied by things like, ‘me when the popcorn is finished’ or something equally as trivial.

I’ve laughed at memes, I have laughed at those similar to these, I am guilty and not innocent, but it’s time that I stop. We have created the memeing of humanity and I’m convinced it is causing widespread personal trauma. It is one thing to laugh at a well edited frame from a TV show with a clever moment-relevant caption. It is one thing to laugh at a reality tv clip placed into a different context. Celebrity photo shoots recast as something different can be hilarious too. But the widespread mockery of everyday people for their appearance or education or mistakes is something entirely different.

I often wonder what happens to the hearts of the people who are the ‘ugly boyfriend/girlfriend’ meme. I know I would crumble and potentially never recover. What happens to the parent whose son is the wedding buffet meme as their son becomes an object of ridicule? Or the person who cannot spell correctly due to their dyslexia or poor education but whose engagement with the world is ridiculed by strangers; what happens to them? Or the recovering addict, whose pain was so evident, who we share and recast to our taste, his shame has become our humour, what becomes of him?

Has the internet made us mean? Has the ability to share or retweet what is essentially the humiliation of another packaged as lighthearted joking made us numb to the consequences in the lives of strangers. I’m sure social media has caused many of us to write cruel things to one another that we’d never say to someone’s face, check every political post for evidence, but I think I also think the instant, disposable forms of online humour have detached us from the reality of what can happen to the subject of a joke.

We are memeing people, not just their facial expressions or their body types. We are memeing their humanity for our entertainment and I am sure it is devastating to their lives. I know that posts like this make me a luvvie, social justice warrior, snowflake or virtue signaller but I’m more than willing to wear those labels. Can we do better? Can we celebrate one another? Can we laugh together at the hilarity in the world that doesn’t destroy the human dignity of others?

I’m sorry that I’ve not been good at this in the past but I want to be better. My Christian faith speaks of all of humanity being created in the image of God and yet I have laughed along at those who carry that same image as me being undermined and humiliated. I have got to change; thus just isn’t right.

We have so much we can laugh at without resorting to this. The world is full of funny things. Feel free to reply with some memes, just try to make sure they aren’t degrading strangers for quick laughs.

(That’s me in the photo by the way – teenaging was confusing and difficult.)

Does (some) Evangelical theology lend itself to climate change denial? 

I listened to this podcast yesterday and have spent the last 24 hours wondering why many Evangelicals don’t believe in climate change. Is there something in Evangelical theology that lends itself to climate change denial.

I realise not all are deniers and that not all believe these things but they are definite badges of many streams of evangelicalism. (This was originally a twitter thread so forgive the shorthand style.)

1. Us vs. Them – There is an idea that Christianity is opposed to ‘secular’ belief. Dividing lines are drawn between the two. Science is often seen as secular and so part of the ‘them’ camp, so subconsciously and even consciously rejected.

2. Sovereignty – God is in control. He would never allow something catastrophic to happen to the world. This ignores disasters already happening. Also removes any agency humanity has over the earth.

3. A Weak Humanity- A low view of humanities ability. How can weak humanity do anything to can damage the planet? Only God has power to do that. We are small and powerless.

4. Creationism vs Evolution – Science has been painted as bad/dishonest for so long with regard to evolution that many distrust ‘all science.’ Climate science part of same ‘dishonest group,’ so easy to ignore.

5. Science is liberal – Much of western evangelicalism has joined conservative political causes. Pervading idea within some of those political ideologies is that science is liberal and so an enemy of the cause.

6. Personal sin – Morality focussed on behaviour modification e.g. sex, alcohol etc. This limits the idea of societal and collective sins like environmental destruction.

7. Leader as ‘Lord’s anointed leader’ – Pastors are final authority on all things so in minds of many congregants know more than scientists about climate. Science therefore is never read by many believers as it has been castigated by their pastor.

8. Blessing over stewardship – In many evangelical streams there is more teaching on receiving of blessings than how to steward blessings well. Western blessing often correlated to wealth, influence and possessions. Planet stewardship low on this agenda.

9. Personal Jesus – Does ‘Me and God’ theology lower sense of being part of and responsible for the wider world?

10. Parachute eschatology – Does living for a future Heaven cause some to negate the value of this life on this planet? Is Earth just a cab ride to heaven and therefore disposable?

11. End times theology – A belief that we are in the last days can cause many to assume Jesus will return within their lifetime. Earth is ending anyway so why care for it?

Any other thoughts on this?