Earlier this month Hilary and Haddon Willmer visited Sweden, at the invitation of Sven-Gunnar Liden, a leader in the anti-trafficking movement in Sweden and in the European Baptist Federation. Hilary told large audiences of professionals and parents why parents are crucial frontline agents when children are sexually exploited, and why agencies like police and social services should support and work with parents for the sake of the children. The picture below shows Hilary with Sven-Gunnar Liden.
Since then, Hilary and Graham have been to Westminster, launching the latest Pace publication, Parents Speak Out, to Police and Crime Commissioners, politicians and others. The document, the cover of which you can see above, can be downloaded and saved from https://www.moortownbaptistchurch.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Parents-Speak-Out-final.pdf
Here is the sermon Haddon preached in Sven-Gunnar Liden’s church.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE BEGINNING
For 20 years, Hilary and I have been active in the charity known as Pace, Parents against Child Sexual exploitation.
I have heard many parents tell their story about how they act for their children, against sexual exploitation.
When a parent discovers one of their children is being groomed, they are surprised, horrified, distraught, confused, and feel weak in this disaster…
But being committed to their child, they are also resilient, aroused, driven to do anything they can…
They go searching, through the night, in dangerous places, sometimes in faraway towns, looking for their missing child…
When they see the child, they tell her they love her, through everything; they do everything they can think of to win her back from the insidious corrupting pull of the grooming and from the distrust and resistance it builds up in her….
They do anything they can to stop and disempower the exploiters, acting on their own and in cooperation with police and other agencies …
They do this for as long as it takes, often months, sometimes years, even when no end is in sight, and they hold on through one crisis after another….
I am deeply impressed by so many parents who respond in this way, rising to a task they are not prepared for by experience or training – they are not professionals, who deal with CSE every day.
What is so impressive about parents of this sort? What is their secret? Can we all share it? Will understanding them help us all to find strength and wisdom for our living?
Besides parents, there are many people who respond with care and competence to young people who are sexually exploited. Many Police and social workers, medics and politicians, journalists and theoreticians. They bring resources to bear on the issue which parents do not have. But parents have something they do not have. What is that?
Let me explain it this way:
When a young person is in trouble, and sexual exploitation might be the cause, social workers and police get involved with the family, often for the first time. So their first sight is a teenager in a bad way, physically harmed, disturbed in mind and spirit, alienated from family and friends, unable to break free of devious controllers.
The parent sees all this, but sees more, much more, and sees it vividly and powerfully. For what the parent sees is not just this present moment, this teenage aberration, but the whole life of this precious human being from the beginning. They look with the eyes of the parent who has accompanied the child from birth onwards. The parent looks at the teenager and sees her for what she is now and responds to it realistically. But at the same time, the child is like a transparency to the parent: through the teenager the parent sees the baby they remember and the child they have lived with through the years.
So the parent sees what the professional cannot be expected to see or give weight to. And the parent sees all the yesterdays, which the teenager, eager for life today and tomorrow, may be running away from, not seeing any worth in it. The parent holds on to something about the child which the child finds it difficult to appreciate and build on. The child wants to get away from parents and family and home, which has become boring. It is right for children to grow up and away from childhood; but we all need to grow up in a healthy way, not throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
We none of us remember our own birth, our own beginning. But parents were there unforgettably. The living memory of the child, from the beginning and through all the years, is a source of the parents’ commitment, strength, hope, determination, wisdom. The parents share in making the beginning. They experience the wonder of seeing a new person, a radical novelty, coming into the world. They find themselves committed deeply to an awesome, lifelong responsibility. This happening does something to empower them to love and they find themselves tested and enriched by loving.
Listen to the testimony of Irene Ivison, the woman who founded what is now Pace, back in 1997. Her daughter Fiona was groomed by a notorious pimp, and then murdered by a man buying sex in 1995. Irene wrote a book, Fiona’s Story, and I quote from the Introduction. She speaks directly to the man who murdered her daughter –
Did you ever love a child, Duffy?
Seventeen years later you murdered this precious infant of mine.
Did you never love a child like that?
You can’t have or you would never have harmed her.
Can you conceive of the suffering you caused me when you unleashed your anger and frustration upon my beautiful girl?
I loved her then and for every minute of her seventeen years, no matter what she did.
She was Fiona, a special child, I had held her close, nurtured and cared for her, and you smashed her in your blind, unthinking, murderous rage.
I will never understand what you did to Fiona and my family. There are no answers.
I only know that when I held Fiona at her birth, I loved her so much that I would have died rather than see her hurt – my precious, beautiful, wonderful child.
Parents share in the making of the new. Thinking that they ‘make the child’ is a mistake to avoid, they share actively in the making and it leaves a near indelible print.
Parents are there at the beginning. To be involved in the beginning of anything, like being a founder member of a church, is a deeply formative experience. It is an experience that lives on, and may grow over time.
Seeing parents as people involved in a significant beginning helps us to see God more clearly. In a little way, being involved in the beginnings of a child helps us to understand better the witness of the Bible to God the creator of all ‘in the beginning’, the Source and sustainer and redeemer of all things.
Look again at our reading today: Isaiah 43. 1-7
This passage is the answer to the question of Isaiah 40.27: Why do you say, God does not see, God does not care, God does nothing to help? This is the question of the exiled people, just as it is the question of trafficked and oppressed people, and of parents who wonder whether their child will ever get free of the exploitation and the damage it is doing. Who cares? Who helps? Sometimes it seems, no one or earth or in heaven notices. Isaiah offers an answer to this question. It is not an easy one. You may think it is no answer at all to the pressing question. In exile, we want a solution to our problem now. We want release from our oppressors now. The prophet, speaking for God, does not point us directly to the solution happening now. Instead he asks us to look to the beginning, and to understand our present from ‘the foundations of the earth (40.21). Lift up your eyes and see all things as created by the One who is eternally the Beginning, not in time but outside it (40.26). Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth? See this, and trust God enough to wait for God in constant undemanding readiness.
So we can read chapter 43 expansively:
Thus says the Lord, He who created you, who formed you
Your beginning is by my choice and free act, my commitment to you is rooted there
Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine
You are precious in my eyes and honoured and I love you
So, when you pass through the waters, trafficked, exploited, distraught,
I will be with you.
I will say to the north Give Up and to the south, Do not Withhold Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth Everyone who is called by my name You are precious in my eyes and honoured and I love you I am the Lord who created and formed you, I redeem you, I am committed to you
This text invites us all, whatever the trouble, worry, exile we are in, to lift up our eyes and find anew the strength that is given to those who wait for the Lord.
How do we wait for the Lord? We watch, we wait actively, we wait engaging in life from day to day – and then we are met by the Lord, the creator, who is not a remote once upon a time starter of the world, but is present, the faithful giver and sustainer of all life and goodness.
When we watch and wait for the Lord in our parenting, we find we are close and active companions of God in the world. We are walking with the Lord who gives life, who calls and loves human beings to be his friends and companions, who struggles with us and gives us a share in his struggle.
To be a parent is not an easy ride, not a fair-weather trip. It demands our life and time, our energy and wisdom, our love and grace, and often more than we seem to have.
To be the creator of the world, committed totally to its Shalom and fulfilment, is not a fair-weather trip. It is not easy for God. So we see in the Bible, and most of all in Jesus Christ, that the way God takes in the world is the way of suffering with the sufferers, of holding on in hope, in trying again and again to put things right, and not giving up – this is the everlasting God, the inexhaustible God, the resilient God of resurrection. Resurrection tells us, God is not dead. God is not giving up. We see in the life, death and raising of Jesus, God, who says an unequivocal, irreversible Yes to his creation, a God who wills good.
We are invited to live our lives with this God and no other, in the Spirit of God. And if we are parents whose children are at risk of being sexually exploited, the steady resolve of God to see his creation blossom fully, to realise its beauty, can inspire us and challenge us to go on, even through the dark night.
The Spirit we see in God can be our spirit.
I like the way St Athanasius in the 4th century put it in his book, On the Incarnation of the Word (6), an inspiring rational proclamation of the good news of God in Jesus Christ.
It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon human being by the devil.
It was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits.
As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, What then was God, being Good, to do? Was He to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning?
The question that came to God, as Athanasius pictured it, is the question that comes to parents: If you see the precious creation being ruined, what are you to do?
What then was God, being Good, to do? Was He to let corruption and death have their way with them?
The parent cannot walk away. You cannot say, it doesn’t matter, it counts for nothing. It is precious. So you have to get engaged, and stay engaged, looking actively for ways of doing something effective about the problem.
God does that, says Athanasius, by the incarnation of the Word, by God coming as God into human life, as human being, to redeem and rescue humanity going to ruin, in contradiction to its beginning in God. God comes as the enlightening Word, so that we see God’s way and can walk with God in it, and not be lost in exile, wandering in darkness and waste.
That is how God answers the Question: What are you, being good, to do when you see what you made in the beginning on the road to ruin?
God’s Question is our question too. And God answers it in a way that we can walk in with God.