Love never fails?
We all enjoy the language of love, but are we willing to entertain its horrific costs, like Jesus? Reflections on a focus group, services; and the necessity and challenge of love. By Michael Manning
I was invited recently to participate in a focus group looking at ‘dual diagnosis in young people’ as part of some wider research. These are people under the age of twenty-five with diagnoses of both substance misuse and psychiatric illness.
There were familiar faces in the room: professionals from Mental Health Services, the education sector, substance misuse services and charities.
There were familiar themes cropping up: we need better services, we need to work together more effectively, services need to be holistic, services need more investment...
And then we started talking about love.
The frustration in the room, full of people who have given their working lives to serve some of the most vulnerable in our midst, was palpable. It’s a familiar trajectory: people start off with the best of intentions and want to improve the system so it better serves those in need. This motivation is invaluable. People pour years of their time, dedication, skills and effort into improving the working of the system. Sometimes there are improvements. Often they end up, as one lady told me afterwards, ‘weary, cynical and ground down’.
At some point, surveying the wreckage of the various ideologies and attempts to reform and management structures and funding models and strategies and reports some people realise that perhaps the mantra of ‘better services’ only goes so far. Services are great but they never get down to the real, gritty, warped root of things. They never go down deep to address the real problems.
Because the real problem is that these are lives marked by an absence of love.
This puts professionals in a quandary. It’s a dead end, because love by definition cannot be paid for. It cannot be a strategy or a measurable outcome. As one participant pointed out: ‘the state can’t mandate people to love someone’.
This explains part of the frustration and the weariness. Compassionate, skilled professionals are brought to a realisation that actually, in the last analysis, in the final reckoning, it is something beyond their expertise and capacity to provide that will only ever begin to work a sustained healing into damaged lives. All our knowledge leads only to this bleak insight: that the systems we are part of can do nothing to effect real change.
So we talked about love...and we all knew that it was impossible, really, to do much about that. And then we left.
It seems to me that Christianity makes some grand claims about its ability to get down to the real roots of problems. We think we know what the problems are and we are bold enough to offer some solutions. We dare to talk of people and a world set right. It just seems we run into problems when it comes to the actual acts of love. We can talk about it, sing about it, preach about it, and continue to refuse to take real responsibility for the wounded in our midst.
We all enjoy the language of love. We are unwilling to entertain its horrific costs. This in spite of the fact that in Jesus we see clearly what love costs: humiliation, pain and death. Who wants that? So we all continue on our way, and the ravaged lives are left to the scourges of systems that can never really help.
There were no church leaders invited to these focus groups. The professionals involved didn’t think they had the links with this ‘client group’. This is a telling absence. These chronic and complex problems of messy lives dealt with by myriad specialist services exist outside of ecclesial life. They belong to a different order of things.
The existence of deracinated lives, flailing around without love and desperate to simply survive, is of course a weeping, open sore on the body politic. It is a clear indictment of our collective failure and collective guilt. Such lives of lovelessness are also the most potent proof of the failure of our faith. If we dare to claim that God loves people, particularly the poor and wounded, then what does it mean to have in our midst, on our doorsteps, people who are patently not loved?
If love means more than words, if love means a tenacious and stubborn clinging on to people in spite of all the horrific things that might and do happen; if love means taking responsibility for people and offering them a relationship that scripture describes as a family; if love means opening our homes and our hearts rather than out-sourcing our compassion to services and charities...what does that look like? If God really does love us all and seems willing to bear all our wounds and betrayals and failures and treachery and pain, then what does it mean for those of us who dare to claim that we consist of his body in the world?
I cannot pretend I have the answers or often the desire to explore these questions.
But neither am I comfortable sitting in a room with good people, and recognising that it is only love that can help the weakest and wounded, and then shrugging our collective shoulders and walking away.
Image | Michael Fenton | Unsplash
Michael Manning is a community worker with Graih (www.graih.org.im), a charity serving those who are homeless and in insecure accommodation on the Isle of Man. He lives with his family in a shared household and belongs to Broadway Baptist Church in Douglas.
He is the author of No King But God - Walking as Jesus Walked
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