being made a patron

Some people can't help looking down on others...

Some people can’t help looking down on others…

Apparently patronising is the word to use to describe what someone does as a patron. For example, if the Queen became patron of a Hospital, she will patronise that hospital. But will the hospital also patronise her in the same way that someone who is made a saint is canonised, or do we have to say ‘being made a patron’? I am not sure that we should patronise the Queen!

Someone patronises a business or shop by frequenting them as a customer.

And of course we patronise someone if we treat them condescendingly. ‘Condescending’ means treating someone as if they are inferior to you in status, ability, understanding and in other ways*.

One of the worst things that churches can do is to patronise people. Not by making them into patrons, or by frequenting them as if they were a shop or a business, but by acting as if we are superior. We have the knowledge about God, we have the understanding, we have the experience… let’s explain it to you in ways that you will understand.

We patronise people who are suffering in ways we have not experienced if we tell them that, “God is in control.”

We patronise people who are experiencing loss if we offer a platitude such as, “God knows how you are feeling.”

We patronise people who are struggling for spiritual breath and who are hanging on to their faith by their fingertips if we say, “God won’t let you go through more than you can cope with.”

Don’t get me wrong, Christians, and please put down those e-rocks that you are ready to lob at me. I do believe in the truth of those statements. And there are times when they will be the right thing to say. But I also believe that we need to be selective about when we say them. They are probably not what someone needs to hear in the immediacy of a difficult situation.

Surely it is better for the person who is suffering to hear you say, “I am here for you and I am not going away.” Perhaps through your friendship and faithfulness they may catch a glimpse of God.

Isn’t it more like Jesus simply to weep alongside those who weep? And in our sharing their tears people may sense God’s empathy.

To the person who has more questions than answers and to whom God seems a distant memory our ability to sit with them and listen to their doubts and respond with gentle grace may enable them to hold onto our faith as a drowning person clings onto the lifeguard.

You don’t need to be a Minister to say and do these things. You don’t need any sort of training or qualification. Simply ask that God’s Spirit will be with you and minister through you and take the step of faith to make the phone call, write the letter or email, or arrange a visit…

You will be a blessing and may well be blessing.

*He says patronisingly! That was a deliberate illustration for you.

(He said patronisingly again.)

an attitude of platitudes

Jesus face-planted as the church made another public statement

It will all come out in the wash.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

You’ll feel better after a nice cup of tea.

God’s in control.

These are all platitudes. Platitudes may or may not be true. But they are patronising statements that trip off our tongues almost by-passing our brains and they take on a veneer of banality because of the frequency with which they are spoken. It’s not so bad when things are going okay, but when life sucks platitudes are at best insensitive and at worst offensive.

Before you get too huffy about the fourth one above let me explain what I mean. If God was in complete control of everything he would surely not allow bad things to happen. He would have intervened when the terrorists attacked the shopping mall in Kenya. He would have stopped planes flying into the World Trade Centre. He would not allow people to be trafficked or kept in bonded labour / slavery. He would intervene in Syria and stop the bloodshed. Surely, if he is in complete control and is consistent with his character as we see it in Jesus he would not allow innocent people to suffer at the hands of evil people.

But these things happened (and keep happening). So we are left with two options: either God is not in control, or he is some sort of tyrant. I reject the latter option completely because of my experience of him, so I am left with the former. Now here is the difficulty a lot of people may be having with that. We say that God is King of the Universe (or similar). How can he not be in control?

There are plenty of monarchs, presidents and prime ministers who have been in charge, but not in complete control. Notice that difference. They are in charge, but not in control. Lawlessness still happens. People rebel against them. ‘Natural’ disasters happen that they cannot prevent. Do you see the difference?

I believe wholeheartedly that God is in charge of his world, but he is not in control because there are rebellious, malevolent forces at large (and in human hearts) that do not submit to his will.

So, back to the platitudes. When life sucks for someone, if we say ‘God is in control’ we are suggesting that it is happening because he has a purpose for it. A version is the misquote: “All things work together for good.” Friends, God is not in control. Sometimes life sucks. Sometimes it’s not fair. Sometimes it’s horrible. Sometimes it makes us want to scream and shout and swear.

But that does not mean God is not sovereign: He’s a different sort of sovereign. He is not aloof and indifferent. He is with us in the midst of the pain and the suffering – feeling it with us, enduring it with us, expressing the despair with us.

God is in the chronic pain – not causing it but sharing our experience of it and experiencing the desperation it causes within us as precious prayers.

God is in the squalid rooms where children are kept as slaves for the disgusting depravity of adults – not causing the captivity but experiencing the fear, the shame, the anguish and cherishing the tears because he knows the heart of those who cry.

God was in the Twin Towers and in the planes on the 11th September 2001, feeling the impact of the explosions, sharing the terror of those who knew their deaths were imminent – not in control of the evil men who perpetrated these acts of terrorism but being with the innocent victims and feeling their desperation.

God is with those who mourn the loss of loved ones: feeling the emotional emptiness and sorrow – not because he causes death but because he knows the pain of separation from a loved one.

This sort of God is much greater than one who dictates what everyone should do and runs his Universe as some sort of computer simulation game. He is far more approachable than a god who lights the blue touch paper of life and sits back to watch. He is much more than a god who is in control – he is in charge and he is here with those who experience all that denies his rule, destroys evidence of his love, and dehumanises those whom he has created.

This is much more than a platitude, it is the reality of a God who loves and loves and loves. It is a God whose heart breaks with ours. It is a God who lived among us 2000 years ago and experienced all that evil could throw at him. It is a God whose Spirit is with us.

Let us never reduce this amazing God to platitudes. At best it’s insensitive and at worst it’s offensive.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

being patronised

nom nom nom

For Father’s Day (which I feel is more of a ‘hallmark holiday’) I received a large Toblerone (yum) and a book. I have already finished the Toblerone, which I really enjoyed, and I am really enjoying the book. It’s called ‘1980-81 The Greatest Season In Ipswich Town’s History’. It came in a limited edition sleeve (only 1981 made). It tells the story and contains interviews with the players and staff who were part of the Ipswich Town team that won the UEFA Cup in 1981. For a small team like Ipswich it was an astonishing feat.

I realise that the book is not likely to be a global bestseller, but it is a wonderful story of a team that defied the odds. That would be inspiring anyway, even if I was not an Ipswich Town fan.

Apparent non-sequitur… all may become clear later…

In a meeting last week a friend mentioned that he was a patron of a retreat centre. For some bizarre reason I remembered that this morning and then (dangerously) started pondering what this meant.

Did he have a ceremony where he was patronised? Does he have to be patronising to the staff? Does this mean that he gives patronage? Is he now their patron saint? Is he a supporter or a customer? Will he be able to conjour up a protective spell in the manner of Harry Potter’s patronus?

I did warn you that the patronic ponderings were dangerous. The word ‘patron’ comes from the Latin ‘patronus’ (yes, really) that in turn is derived from ‘pater’ which means ‘father’. Wonderfully, therefore, it means that we are patronised by God! Not in a ‘ooh, that’s nice dear’ way. Nor even as our customer. But he is our biggest supporter. He offers us protection (and I believe that most of the time we are blissfully unaware of it) a lot of love and affection, whether I’m right or wrong… (cue Robbie Williams).

I don’t normally enjoy being patronised, but God can patronise me all he likes. And with his help I know that I as an individual and we as a church can do amazing things. Not so that people will go, “Aren’t they amazing?” but so that they will say, “Isn’t God amazing?”

The first BMS  Missionary, William Carey, famously said, “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.” I say, “Amen!” to that, but would want to add a second stanza: “Achieve great things with God, give great glory to God.”

One summer evening during a violent thunderstorm a mother was tucking her small boy into bed. She was about to turn off the light when he asked with a tremor in his voice, “Mommy, will you sleep with me tonight?”

The mother smiled and gave him a reassuring hug. “I can’t, dear,” she said. “I have to sleep with Daddy.”

A long silence was broken at last by his shaky little voice: “The big sissy.”