the advent sessions // floorboards

19 12 2013


Have you ever been in a house with bare floorboards? Not the intentional ones all buffed and polished, smoothed to a shine to be cared for and cherished; but cracked and splintery and dark and unfinished.  Have you ever been in social housing before? To visit people with no pennies to buy themselves carpets or curtains so it’s unintentionally spartan; this is rarely a lifestyle choice, I’m certain.

On the subject of poverty I come over all cynical and my opinions may well not be typical; inside my head I’m so angry like the prophets of old my language is not holy and spiritual but shouty and physical with lyrical rage at how we seem to accept Foodbanks as natural.

Well they are a natural result of the free market that lines the rich with deep pile carpet and hold the poor in the deep pit of hopelessness and bare boards and I know some will say that the poor are deserving with their whiny subservient scrounging taking advantage of the generously benevolently incidentally wealthy and I say so bloody what.

Because for every  person who is taking advantage there’s a thousand others without a vestige of boldness to take what’s not theirs. Have you ever been humiliated enough as to walk into a handout and manage to walk out with your head held even higher lifted by the kindness of strangers who lift you from the dangerous pit of despair not asking how you got there by fault or circumstance but giving you a chance to get through 3 days without a glance askance but seeking to enhance your life from existence to living.

I hate the Foodbank not because it’s not a good system but because the society we live in should damn well not need them so if you’ve never used one put yourselves in the shoes those who do before dismissing the few who abuse them before suggesting we lose them or with it the entire welfare system.

So what has this post got to do with advent; well the prophets spoke of one who would be finally sent to deal with the malevolent, the bent, who with cruel intent that stinks so pungent cause an ancient fermenting lament; and this is what’s meant by the arrival of the pregnant, the silent, the unlikely regent, the beginning of the celebration of the benevolent. The Prince of Peace.

Kindness with longevity not just seasonal generosity. Long may it reign. For many need it so desperately.

This is part of a series called the advent sessions, using local images to help reflect on advent.  Previous posts are:
the advent sessions // fork handles
the advent sessions // for candles
the advent sessions // rebuild
the advent sessions // despair    


it’s good there’s poor people

8 11 2013

“It’s good there’s poor people, because we can do mission now.”
“It’s good there’s poor people, because now they need us and when people are in need they listen.” 
“It’s good there’s poor people, because we needed to salve our conscience by helping somebody.” 

Like any good writer, I made those quotes up. Imagine how you would feel if you actually heard somebody say them? The thing is, I don’t think you have to scratch very far in many of us and our churches to find those opinions, however unspoken, however unrealised. Let me explain, and I will begin by saying some really positive things about the church generally at the moment.

The church (or a lot of it) is seizing the moment and being active among the poor and those in need, even parts of the church that didn’t used to do much. The support for FoodBanks, Street Pastors, School Pastors, debt counselling and so on is, without doubt, a Good Thing. And it is being (slowly) collectively realised that much of our contemporary worship is removed from the world in which we live, so there are (a few) songs that actually mention how we live (e.g. Bring Heaven to Earth by Andy Flannagan and Build Your Kingdom Here by Rend Collective). This is good. It almost goes with out saying that church pilgrimages like New Wine/Spring Harvest/Soul Survivor have a practical social action element to them. Brilliant. 10 years ago this was new. 

Now to the crunch though. I was recently in a meeting of church leaders in which a speaker was talking about the link between government welfare cuts and church social action projects; he said that it isn’t and never was the state’s responsibility to care for the poor, but it is the church’s responsibility, and we should see the (positively spun) welfare cuts as an opportunity for mission. To my horror, there was a murmur of approval from many of said church leaders.

Reduced to it’s unspoken core, this says it is good there are poor people, because now we can do mission. For churches who were faltering to find a place and a voice in contemporary society, and who were not engaging with people in poverty in any meaningful way, it is so easily seen that way. I will now tell you why I think this is wrong. 

1. Poverty should never be an opportunity for mission, but an opportunity for service. Service must come first. We serve the poor, relentlessly and selflessly and even if they never come to church we serve and serve.

Sutton Foodbank

2. Poverty needs more than sticking plasters. Martin Luther King said the church is great at being the Good Samaritan, but not good at going back to the Jericho Road to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Desmond Tutu said the church is great at pulling the bodies out of the river, but what we need to do is go upstream and see who is pushing them in. And stop them. Foodbanks are great, an essentially but TEMPORARY sticking plaster. There is one in my church but I don’t want it there – not because I don’t like it, I don’t think we should need them.

3. Tackling poverty is a long-term community-based issue, which means building relationships, asking questions of councillors and MPs, lobbying on behalf of those who do not have a voice. Finding out about people who are not me. 

I feel passionately about this because I am so middle-class I know how easily it is to think you’re helping by buying Fair Trade, supporting a Food Bank and shopping in Waitrose. But it’s not enough. Can you write good letters? Write them. Can you argue well? Argue for the poor. Are you a shareholder who’s CEO salaries are outrageous? Tell them. Campaigning for a Living Wage, for example, must be done hand in hand with FoodBanks, as 60% of people on benefits are IN WORK. 

We need to see the current economic situation not as a wonderful opportunity to do mission but a terrible opportunity to do service. Challenge your church leader. Ask them for a theology of poverty. Do a Bible study on Isaiah 58. And see what happens. 

I’m thinking about joining Christians on the Left (formerly Christian Socialist Movement). Have a look for yourself. 

magnetic attraction to stigmatised people

10 10 2012

Several comments and conversations after yesterday’s post, I want to offer some depth to what I was feeling, because I’m just a local vicar trying to work out my faith rather than being a politician or an economist, and I’ve always aimed to have something positive to say rather than just being another angry blog voice. 

So, here are some stories. 

  • There was a woman who sold sex. Not by choice. She could only hang out with others ‘like her’. Though she wanted to worship, she was always stigmatised for not having a proper job, a proper life. Scum, slag, whore. One day some people came along and actively sought to engage with her, and not for sex. Instead of humiliating her publicly as was the sport of their day, they humiliated the pious who stood in judgement over her. They showed her love.
  •  There was a woman who had had multiple partners. She was stigmatised by others who would not spend time with her. Multiple fathers for your children and a substance abuse problem lost you friends, made you defiant, lonely and stuck in a spiral of hopelessness. The community had given up on her. Failure. Alkie. One day some people came along who would not allow her to be defined by society’s labels even though their own reputations were at stake. That was part of the change that turned her life around. They showed her love. 
  • There was a man who was disabled. Society pitied him and those who could, supported him. He knew it was especially good to beg near where the religious gathered, as they were known to be generous. One day instead of begging outside the gates, he was able to dance in. Someone forgotten, abandoned, judged and shunned suddenly placed at the centre of God’s healing of the world. He had been shown love. 
  • There was a man with mental health problems. He was a bit wild, lived alone, and was stigmatised and best avoided. Loon, head-case, failure. One day some people came along who listened to him even when he ranted at them, who welcomed him into their homes and even bandaged his wounds (well, put a plaster on his toe). For a time he was part of their community, though he was very difficult to love. But he knew he was welcome.  They showed him love.  
  • There was a young man who had grown up with money, and did his best to be good. What he didn’t understand was that being good and showing love are very different. When he was told a story about love for your very different neighbour, it was too much, because given the choice between his personal wealth and loving his neighbour, the wealth would probably win. Showing love is costly. 
  • There was a parent who hadn’t worked for 15 years, who was de-skilled, who struggled with debt, with substance abuse, and was therefore difficult to employ. Accidentally coming across some people who cared about him even though society labelled him, stigmatised him and gave up on him – with good reason – he began to see hope, began to receive training, and maybe one day will work. They showed him love. 

All of these stories are about Jesus; some of them are old real stories, and some of them are new real stories. I tell them not because they ‘prove’ any political point. I tell them because time and time again Jesus had a magnetic attraction to stigmatised people. He came to show the world that God had not abandoned them, and he did that by going to the abandoned and showing them love. It was a love that challenged them (go, and sin no more), but it was first and foremost a love that went to them before the challenge. To challenge someone, make sure they know they are loved. 

We can’t go to Jesus for a model of politics. But we can go to him for a model of society. Not colluding in conversations that stigmatise and demonise another group is a start, because if Jesus were to walk in on those conversations or read those blogs he would probably start talking about specks and planks and humiliate us in front of our friends. 

Our society is heavily in debt, and the government need to do something, of course. Whatever they do, we are the people on the ground, we are the people who can help the people. The church is the biggest people-movement on the planet. The local church is the hope of the world. Let’s be hope. 

forgive us our debts

3 02 2012

Maybe the national debt crisis isn’t affecting you directly. I am pleased for you. There are so many for whom it is tragic. The latest figures from Credit Action are pretty startling. Here are some high (low?)lights: 

  • Average household debt in the UK (excluding mortgages) was £7,948 in December. This is down from a revised £7,972 in November.
  • Average household debt in the UK (including mortgages) was £55,823 in December. This is up from a revised £55,818 in November.
  • The average amount owed per UK adult (including mortgages) was £29,547 in December. This was around 122% of average earnings.
  • 331 people are declared insolvent or bankrupt every day (based on Q3 2011 trends). This is equivalent to 1 person every 60 seconds during each working day.
  • Citizens Advice Bureaux in England and Wales dealt with 8,652 new debt problems every working day during the year ending September 2011.
  • 193 mortgage possession claims are issued and 153 mortgage possession orders are made every day

A lot of this is our fault. We make bad decisions. We are coerced into thinking that we need need need all these things that we can’t afford, and are tempted to borrow borrow borrow so that we can have have have. But sometimes we just have rotten luck and are made redundant. Sometimes life just goes belly-up. I have made more referrals to the Sutton Foodbank in the last 3 months than in the previous 2 years out together. 

So if this isn’t affecting you, spare a generous thought for those it is. And think about how you could help. And if it is affecting you, do something about it TODAY! Contact Christians Against Poverty or search DirectGov here, but do not not not go to a payday loan company. Please! 

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