Thursday, July 28, 2022

"Please sir... I want some more"

For seventeen years I was an Officer in The Salvation Army. I was very grateful for the opportunity I had to serve in this way. Leaving Officership was incredibly difficult but I'm also happy with the new life I'm living now. 

In financial terms, I didn't receive much by way of an allowance as an Officer. In fact, it was below minimum wage. Around $500 per week. I also grew up hearing many stories of Officers scraping by each week on a meagre amount of money and living "by faith" week in, week out. That was part of "the calling". I knew what I was getting into when I signed up and so I 'endured' this 'life of poverty' as a good soldier of Christ. 

I never openly complained about it but I also didn't refuse help from people where it was offered. If someone offered to pay for a meal I never said no. Sometimes someone would provide a gift of some kind. I always accepted. On the surface I did and said the right things, but in reality I was also playing into a cultural expectation of what Officership is like. 

As I reflect on it know I realise that the reality was very, very different. As an Officer I was provided with the following

  • A house, rent free
  • A car, lease free
  • Petrol for the car
  • Health insurance (hospital) for me and my family
  • Officer's Health Assistance for extras for me and my family
  • Guarantee of employment and appointments within that employment. 
Having left Officership and now in regular employment I have come to realise just how valuable these things are and just how much I took them for granted. I have come to realise that the allowance I received was really disposable income and I was able to afford many things then that I would have no hope of affording now. 

I'm now working for a small Catholic theological college where I work with many people who are part of religious orders. They have committed themselves to ministry and taken on certain vows associated with the different orders they are a part of. The "vow of poverty" usually appears high on the list. 

In a conversation around the coffee pot a few weeks back one of the lecturers jokingly commented 
"It's easy to take on a vow of poverty when someone else is paying the bills." 
I've been reflecting on that ever since. It really struck a chord (and prompted this post). I've considered my life of poverty as an Officer in The Salvation Army and, if I'm honest, I had it easy. Someone else was paying most of my bills. Whether that was the organisation paying for my rent, car lease, petrol etc. Or friends and family offering to pay for dinner if we went out for a meal. In many, many settings my 'vow of poverty' was easy because someone else was paying the bills. 

Now, I have deliberately framed this using personal pronouns because I don't want to universalise my experience. Single officers, for example, I imagine would have a much more difficult time making their allowance cover everything they needed. However, there is a cultural norm associated with Officers that they take on a life of poverty to fulfil their calling and serve Christ through The Salvation Army. 

As I look back I realise that's a lie and I perpetuated it with ease. 

Because someone else was paying the bills. 

Friday, July 8, 2022

How do we talk about death?

Trigger warning: Death, Suicide

This is a post I've be thinking about for a long time. The trouble has always been that someone I know has been struggling with the death of a loved one and so, in trying to be sensitive to their situation, I've chosen not to post it. 

But here we are. Death is inevitable.

So why is the church so bad at talking about it? 

I mean *really* talking about it. 

So many funerals, social media posts, or conversations about death and the most obvious word to use (death, died, or its cognates) is avoided. I grew up in, and was an Officer in, The Salvation Army where we spoke of people being "promoted to glory." Other euphemisms are used all the time (I can sense Monty Python skit coming on).


We don't need to do that. 

One of the earliest funerals I conducted was due to a death by suicide. I was forced to consider how I would handle this within the funeral. I read a text which provided me with a principal I have followed ever since.

You've got to mention it. 

As difficult as it may seem, and as counter-cultural as it may be (and really that's all it is), you've got to mention the cause of death. Indeed I would even say "say it and say it early." 

On that occasion the deceased was someone who lived very much on their own and so I simply stated that they "lived their own way and died their own way." Later I used the word "suicide" deliberately so that it was clear for all. 

As a principal I applied this into all funerals I lead. I would say something like "we are gathered here today as (name) has died from (cause of death) and we are grieving together."

There are good practical and emotional reasons for this. It names the "elephant in the room". This brings relief to those present, and this is particularly true in those funerals where the death has been hard (e.g. suicide, long sickness, death of a child). I've been quite amazed at some funerals where there is a coffin in the room that doesn't even get acknowledged! But there are strong theological reasons for using the word "death/died".

Death has been defeated! In the words of Paul "Where, o death, is your victory? Where, o death, is your sting?" (1 Cor 15:55). Avoiding naming death is to give it power that it no longer holds and no longer deserves. Think about this in another way. We don't use a euphemism to describe Jesus dying on the cross ("Jesus passed away on the cross"). Why should we use them in describing other deaths?

What are your thoughts? I'd be interested to hear other people's experiences of times when the word "Death/died" was avoided. How did it feel? If you did it yourself, how come? Share a comment to continue the conversation. 

Sermon: Matthew 13:1

I love questions. Many here would be aware that I’m working on a PhD in theology. I’ve also been a teacher of theology, worship, and critica...