What do we do in times of trouble?
When we are ‘in trouble’ because of our own actions, or find ourselves ‘troubled’ because of a situation or circumstance beyond our control, it is the uncertainty of the outcome and a fear of the unknown that underpins our discomfort. We dread the future and hope the worst will not happen. We feel anxious, stressful, nervous, agitated, and disturbed. We break out in cold-sweats, wringing our hands or pacing, unable to concentrate or focus on anything but the future hurt, punishment, pain, or grief we expect to experience. Sound familiar?
This week was a tough week. A high-profile Anglican priest, someone I looked up to and helped me on my own path to ordination, has stepped back from ministry and is being investigated for safeguarding issues. He is in trouble. Some of the survivors of the sexual abuse have finally, after many years, spoken out, and this has been reported in a national newspaper in the UK. I feel saddened and betrayed, but it is also a trigger for me, as I too am a survivor of such abuse from someone in authority. I am troubled. It took me 17 years to be able to tell anyone what happened to me, and I felt ashamed and as if it was my own fault. In response to the revelations, and because of my position, I wrote a public message to the survivors on my Twitter feed commending them for their bravery in speaking out.
At about the same time I first spoke out about my own experience, I was working in prison ministry. I remember sitting at a dining table in a prison canteen with a convicted sexual predator — someone spurned by the general prison population, who had to watch his back at all times, and was not permitted to sit with the other inmates — who asked me, “Can I be forgiven?” I hesitated. Part of me wanted to say, “Yes! Of course you are! It’s the gospel message!” and part of me wanted to make him suffer and say, “Someone like you badly hurt me, traumatised me, and the repercussions forever changed my life.” I looked him in the eye, across the table and said, “I forgive you.” He understood, and in that moment, God’s love and grace and mercy was present.
The situation, this week, with my colleague and mentor in the UK also made me think about two things, firstly about the toxic culture that represses sexuality and gender and the inevitable personal disasters that result, but also the culture of celebrity in which we live. We are so normalised to our celebrity culture that we hardly notice it, but as a society we are obsessed with celebrity leaders, celebrity pop stars, celebrity politicians, and celebrity TV personalities. Our celebrity culture is so pervasive that we even have a celebrity church culture. Church leaders, writers, preachers, musicians, are venerated and followed without question. Does it not strike you as even mildly odd that we have ‘big names’ in Christianity? It should.
You may well know the modern-day proverb, taken from boxing, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” which has been transcribed to those in power, “The higher they climb, the harder they fall,” and those in power and leadership will fall. Why? Because they are human and no different to anyone else. Those of us in leadership may be put on pedestals but we are not holier. We are not ‘together’. We just hide our faults and brokenness better, worried that if people knew who we really were or what we were really like, then we would lose our positions of authority and power. We are all fallen and all in need of a saviour. Trouble will indeed come to us all.
For those in leadership of any kind, whether politician, pop star, or priest, our primary calling is to serve. Despite the Anglican Church having a hierarchical structure with King Charles III at the top, then our archbishops, bishops, priests, deacons, and laity, it is a flat hierarchy. Bishops are paid no more than deacons. We are all servants of Christ and of the people, and to this end we have one job and one job only, and that is to point to Christ. My role, as the associate priest of St. Mark’s is to build a self-sustaining community of faith and to effectively do myself out of a job. It should never, ever, ever be about me, and if it ever becomes about me, then that is my cue to leave and move on.
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me,” and, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” When we find ourselves ‘in trouble’ or ‘troubled’ by circumstances beyond our control; when we fear the future consequences or dread the worst outcome; trust in Christ. Have faith in him, for he will hold you and never leave you nor will he forsake you. In him there is no fear — only hope, mercy, grace, and forgiveness.
This week, I penned and recorded some words to a melody written by Angie, our church organist based on Psalm 23, a reminder that no matter what we are going through, Christ holds us:
You are Jesus Christ my God
My guiding, shepherding God
You’re my healing, saving God
And you are holding me
You lead me through the verdant fields
By waters clear and pure and still
On righteous paths that bear your name
When darkness falls, and shadows form
Amid the wild and raging storm
I will not fear, I’m not alone
You are holding me