A few weeks before I became a vicar in the Church of England a good friend asked me - quite sincerely - if taking this step would mean I would have to change my taste in music. That was about 15 years ago. This week I bought tickets see The Pixies at their March 2017 gig here in Cape Town.
As Blur sung a few years before that question was asked of me, we all live with stereotypes. As a British vicar who has moved to Cape Town, I live aware of many of the stereotypes carried about me (and that I carry about others). About what a Christian, a vicar, a white person, a British person, a married man can do and is. I fit few of them.
I don't drive (if it's unusual in the UK for a man not to drive, in South Africa it's almost unheard of; one person told me that is was 'incredibly humble' of me to 'admit' in a sermon that I don't drive). I have a limiting chronic illness (Ankylosing Spondylitis - you may need to Google that, but I suggest you copy and paste it as it's a hard one to spell), two learning disabilities, chronic depression, anxiety and PTSD. In terms of the confusing world of Christian theology, I'm a charismatic evangelical ... absolutely not a Trump-supporting one. I believe God can and does heal people, but He hasn't done it for me in the way I'd like Him to. As I write, I'm on the 9th day of an Ankylosing Spondylitis flare - a level of pain my (female) rheumatologist once told me is somewhere in the region of childbirth. I'm shaking from the pain so much that I fear falling over if I stand up. I feel I need to solider on because that's what the church expects, and expects of men like me; my therapist tells me I need to be kind to myself. Currently the church is winning that tug of war.
I'm a man in a fairly patriarchal culture, in a stream of the Christian church that has often overtly pushed the idea of 'strong' masculinity; where male Christians are routinely referred to as 'warriors' and the 'head of the family'; where a mega-church pastor once spoke of not wanting to worship a Jesus that he could beat up. My wife does the accounts, the DIY and the driving. I couldn't beat up an egg the way I'm feeling today. My wife and I take decisions together. I cry and cook and enjoy arty movies. Barely a day goes by that I'm not aware of an expectation I'm supposed to fulfil, a mould it would be better for me to slip into to make someone's interaction with me smoother, their view of me kinder.
I see a Jesus who cried and spoke of Himself in motherly terms towards Jerusalem as much as He got angry and kicked tables over. I see a Jesus who refused to be what others told Him He should be; and that included begging for a way out and sweating drops of anxious blood the night before His execution. Not much soldiering on there. Following Jesus and stoicism should be uneasy bedfellows.
Becoming a follower of Jesus means admitting you're weak, needy and that you need help that you can't provide for yourself. So why, so often, do we (the church) expect Jesus' followers - and here I'm thinking of men, but it's as much an issue for women too - to be a certain way? Victorious. Wild At Heart (to steal the title of a popular Christian book on masculinity). Achievers. Influencers. I live within limits imposed on me by my mental and physical health; I'm not so much wild and victorious as I am trying to play out a boring 0-0 draw; at home, on the sofa, with the curtains closed. And a cup of Earl Grey by my side.
Boxes and expectations are a recipe for a life depleted by the limitations others want for me. I don't want my foster daughter to grow up to be a Good Christian Woman any more than I fit the ideal of a Good Christian Man. When I live a day trying to fit what the prevailing (church) culture tells me to do, the waves of anxiety lap irresistibly at my feet; the black dog of depression barks a little louder, enjoying the water he's being given to play in. Living as I'm made to live, as Jesus encourages me, uniquely - like everyone else only in their uniqueness - doesn't promise me healing. But it does promise me freedom.
Which, ultimately, is what I was made for.
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