By no means it is easy

George Johnston

By no means is it easy

I am not a cook but I know my way around a kitchen, sort of. I know how to open a fridge and stare into it slack jawed and glassy eyed. I can press the buttons on a microwave. Ok I exaggerate a bit. The man sitting opposite me today at this coffee shop really does knows his way around a kitchen. In his younger years I wouldn't have recommended that you push his buttons because he enjoyed conflict. He worked in the high stress, high pressure zones that are large commercial kitchens. Lots of shouting, lots of emotion a recipe for disaster unless you thrive on this kind of thing. He did.

You may have heard of the phrase, 'If you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen.' This gentleman loved the heat. He loved the pressure. He loved the conflict. The question I have is why? The simple answer that he enjoyed it belies a complexity we can never understand. We can guess by identifying contributing factors but the picture will always be incomplete.

He was the one who would always be causing trouble at home. It was easy to get a reaction from family members so their reactions just encouraged the fire in his belly, the passion in his actions. Medicated for Attention Deficit Disorder from the age of eight till he was eighteen his behavioural issues and anxiety didn't get any better. By his own admission he had a nasty streak, an ingredient in his DNA that flavoured his character. When he came off the prescribed medication in his teenage years he replaced it with drugs and alcohol.

In the high pressure kitchens where he eventually worked drug and alcohol abuse was tolerated. So he had a place where he could be himself. But being yourself and living with the consequences of your actions can have a habit of colliding catastrophically later in life. He had already been thrown out of home by his parents, he had plenty of contact with the police and was familiar with evenings spent in the watch house.

When he was nineteen a stranger told him about God. This stranger hit a nerve because his words seemed to be informed by an understanding that his partner at the time had just aborted their unplanned child. Consequences, they were sneaking up on him giving birth to regret.

When he was twenty five another stranger much like the earlier one told him about God. This time he chose to respond to the stranger with a commitment to turn around, the very definition of repentance. But the motivation was very much centred around just killing off regret. What he did not realise at the time was that when you turn around the view is quite different. You see different things in front of you. You see your purpose. But it's not necessarily just something you find as much as it's something that finds you. A gradual process. An evolving relational journey.

When he first visited prisons with groups of people from different Christian organisations he recognised the same kind of high stress conflict zones much like the kitchens he had worked in. A melting pot of actions and consequence.

He knew from his time in kitchens that once you understood a recipe you could change it gradually until with years of trial and error you had your own signature dish. In a way this was what he did. But it was surprising to him how old life ingredients could be repurposed. His intimate familiarity with conflict grew, in time, into a really effective capacity to work as a qualified Prison chaplain.

An inmate once said to him that love is the difference between life and death. This really stuck with him. But everyone has different love needs. Everyone follows a different recipe which they often can't change because they don't know of any alternatives. How could he find some universal language to communicate hope. One answer, the answer that appealed to him was music.

If that sounds too simple you should remember that big things often begin with simple changes. Music therapy gives inmates something that they can make their own. Following the notes like following a recipe till they discover their own songs, the ones that tell their story. When you know your story, when it becomes music it can evolve into something better. Your own signature piece.

I leave our meeting with an appreciation that there are prison chaplains out there who are quietly doing the work that comes naturally to them. Just because it comes naturally does not mean that it is easy. So spare a thought for their efforts and dare to tweak the life recipe you've been given. Who knows - you might just have some undiscovered gifts that people are really hungry for.

31 March, 2023

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