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On Being A Vicar With Chronic Pain And Depression. And A Man

11/11/2016 16:40
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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.

HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around men to highlight the pressures they face around identity and to raise awareness of the epidemic of suicide. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, the difficulty in expressing emotion, the challenges of speaking out, as well as kick starting conversations around male body image, LGBT identity, male friendship and mental health.

To blog for Building Modern Men, email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com. If you would like to read our features focused around men, click here

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