Monday, March 24, 2014

Home interprets heaven. Home is heaven for beginners.

Here's my reflection on the closing of our winter night shelter at the end of the season. 
It'll be in our church magazine this Sunday

 Home is where the heart is. An Englishman’s home is his castle. Home is where we kick our shoes off, put our feet up, sink into our favourite arm chair and feel safe and at ease. Home is where we are surrounded by the people and things that give our lives shape and meaning; our loved ones, our books and music, crochet and cross stitch frames, jigsaw puzzles and board games.

We take home for granted. We can’t imagine being without one. And while we’ve worked hard for it, it’s just there, solid and dependable. We leave it in the morning knowing that it will still be there when we return in the evening.

I was thinking all this as I wheeled Maggie’s* shopping trolley into the place in the bug hut where we’re storing it. Maggie and her brother, Frank, have a shopping trolley each; it’s where they keep all the possessions (spare clothes and underwear, a couple of books and various nick-nacks) that they are unable to carry with them during the day as they move between the library, the housing department, the doctor, social services.

They don’t have a home.

They and six other guests who had lived together – shared a home – at our winter night shelter were leaving their stuff with us as they left on the last morning to see what the day had in store for them. I neatly stored their various bags against the time when they’d need them again. Helen hugged her pillow and told me to take great care of it because her mum gave it to her.

As I put things away I was also thinking about what the Bible says about home, how in the Old Testament the picture of life in the Kingdom of God could be summed up as everyone sitting under their own vine, within the confines of their home, content and at peace. When Isaiah looks forward to the time when God will make all things new, part of what he sees is a land where ‘they will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them or plant and others eat.’ (Isaiah 65:21-22). It’s a vision of a life that satisfies the longing of every human heart, a life lived in a place where we belong, where we are at home. ‘Home interprets heaven. Home is heaven for beginners,’ said the American Presbyterian minister and social reformer, Charles Henry Parkhurst

And as I stacked duvets that we’re keeping in case anyone needs one because they’ll be spending the wee small hours on the night bus touring London on the upper deck or curling up behind the back doors of Primark or McDonald’s, I thought of Bernie. He’s a larger than life Irish construction worker who came to us in January following a break down in a relationship and an accident that left him with a broken leg and unable to work. In his early 40s, he’d worked for the past twenty years building homes and offices around London. ‘It’s ironic,’ he said to me over breakfast one morning, ‘I’ve built thousands of homes but not one for myself’. And I thought of Isaiah 65:22 and wondered when he’d have a place of his own.

Well, Bernie was housed and got his job as a crane driver back (his gaffer rated him as a key part of his team). His life is back on track. And in no small measure that’s because of the winter night shelter, the team of volunteers who every day have provided an evening meal, a warm, dry place to sleep and breakfast. But more than that, the shelter has been a home where guests have found friendship and community. On the morning we closed, they stood in the doorway of the bug hut making sure they each had one another’s mobile number. There were tears and hugs, expressions of thanks and a pledge to stay in touch.

The press has been full of stories about the UK’s housing crisis that we don’t need to rehearse here. But the truth of it is that many vulnerable people will be living on the streets as you read these words and many more will be living in crowded, insecure accommodation where they barely feel safe, let alone able to prosper.

So, let’s pray for them. And let’s pray for government – local and national – seemingly paralysed in the face of a mounting crisis of homelessness that they will have the gumption to do something about it.

A final story. Mehmet is an Iranian born, Swedish national who has been working as a dentist in Chislehurst for the past 12 years. From a patient he contracted hepatitis C for which he about to start treatment. He is already an insulin dependent diabetic. Last autumn his marriage collapsed under the weight of financial and health pressures. He came to the shelter in February. I’m not sure I want to live in a country where a gentle man like this with obvious and pressing health needs will be living on the streets, insecure and increasingly at risk of his health deteriorating.

So, let’s pray for these folk, for the council that it will rise the challenge of homelessness, and for the management group of the winter shelter as we learn the lessons of this year (many) and make plans for next year. The dream is that there will be somewhere better than a three month hand-to-mouth project. So can we pray that God is in that dream?

And we can do this with a spring in our step and hope in heart remembering the words of Desmond Tutu: ‘All over this magnificent world God calls us to extend his Kingdom of shalom – peace and wholeness – of justice, of goodness, of compassion, of caring, of sharing, of laughter, of joy, and of reconciliation. God is transfiguring the world right at this very moment through us because God believes in us and God loves us.’

(*all the names of guests have been changed and since writing this, Maggie and Frank have been given temporary accommodation; the others are still waiting)

Friday, March 21, 2014

New Testament theology at its finest

Very excited this morning at the arrival of the postman bringing me a long-awaited copy of George Caird's New Testament Theology. New copies are ridiculously expensive on-line and seemingly unavailable in bookshops. But I tracked down this second hand version in pretty good nick for under £20 so I snaffled it up.

Caird is one of the great New Testament scholars of the English tradition of the second half of the twentieth century. A contemporary of John Robinson, Charlie Moule, Robert Morgan, and every bit their equal, his sudden and untimely death in 1987 robbed us of sharp minded man of God.

His great gift to scholarship - apart from his deft prose - was his attention to the detail of the text and his love of scripture. The uniqueness of his NT theology is that he has created it by imagining a great gathering of all the NT authors round a table at a seminar convened and overseen by Caird himself. He hears every voice and listens for the differences as well as shared insights and captures it all in words we can grasp.

His death meant that the manuscript was unfinished and the volume was completed by one his students (L D Hurst) who has done a wonderful job rescuing the book from oblivion. Even if it's not exactly what Caird would have written, I shall relish reading it and look forward to passing on some its pearls of wisdom to my NTT students in the coming months.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Listening to the unheard in the 'welfare' debate

The voices that often get drowned out in the debate about the morality of welfare - currently running in the lively exchanges between the Government and various church leaders - are the voices of the poor, those reduced to 'welfare' such as it is.

Well, this morning I heard that voice loud and clear in a scene that played out over breakfast in our night shelter. One guy, who lacks the deposit to get back to the west country where he has a shout at a property where he could live with his partner and children, looked at another, about to go to a drug and alcohol service to see if he can get a referral to residential rehab and said 'you can't go like that.'

He proceeded to produce from his bag a set of hair clippers and having secured my permission to do so, gave his new-found friend a number 2 and a shave, leaving him looking, from the neck up, like any other man in his miod-40s wondering the streets of Bromley this morning.

Having completed his task, our barber turned to the room and said 'that's better; we can't have our mate looking like a down and out.'

This almost silent action spoke more about the morality of the 'welfare' debate than the column inches and indignant responses that have filled the airwaves of late. Here was the articulation of simple humanity, the fact that everyone has a dignity from being made in God's image, and that dignity will force its way to the surface even when a system tries to rub it out.

The indignity of the current 'welfare' system is seen in grindingly slow actions by statutory authorities that leaves people trapped in a money-less and home-less limbo where the will to make a life for oneself is slowly sapped and sucked dry. Reforms driven by any recognisable morality would have at their heart the intention of restoring people's dignity by giving them choice, time and the means to help themselves out of the situation in which they find themselves.

I think it's for this reason that we used to call this system 'social security' because it was premised on a morality that suggested everyone in our society had a right to a minimum level of security and that we who are stronger, richer, more together will assist those who are weaker, poorer, struggling, because we know that there might be a season when we are in their place and need similar support.

It seems to me that this is a system based on a morality of mutualism and human dignity that I find at the heart of the Bible that I read.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Putting rage to good use

Someone unexpected pointed out to me this lunchtime that I hadn't blogged for a month! I made some lame excuse about being busy and having jotted down many blog ideas but not had time to work them up into a blog. I know that misses the point of blogs which are meant to be slightly under-formed musings on life, but hey-ho! Anyway, it spurred me to action, or at least thought...

My silence has been because life in our winter shelter has been more demanding this year than last. I have been serving breakfast most mornings and as a result of that picking up a range of issues to follow-up. And the busy-ness of the shelter has left me fuming about a system that consigns poor, often very vulnerable people to an existence that is precarious at best without a second thought.

And it's not that the people running various  parts of that system aren't hard-working, caring, diligent people who want to provide the best service they can to the people in their care. It's because the system often won't let them.

Things came into focus last Friday when a group of our guests were sitting with a manager from the housing department talking through their options. They were getting very frustrated because their options were very few. Suddenly one of them said that he was going to get petition up on the Downing street website to force a debate on homelessness in the house (touching how people continue to hold faith with our legislative machinery!). And everyone in the room said they'd sign it - the baptist minister, the housing department manager, all the other guests - much to his surprise. I said that I'd get the church to sign and my colleague from housing said he'd encourage his colleagues in the department to sign as well.

Our guest was a bit deflated. I think at that moment he realised that he wasn't fighting our local housing department, that maybe they were doing the best job they can under the circumstances. His battle was with something unseen and amorphous, a set of rules that conspired to keep him in housing limbo. And he boiled with an impotent rage. I must say that as I walked home to reflect on scripture ahead of Sunday's sermon, I too boiled with anger.

I was incandescent at a system that allowed a chronic shortage of housing to keep people homeless. Now, this might be a market failure or a lack of concern and commitment on the part of government; it's probably both. But at root, this is a failure of society to ensure that everyone is properly looked after, our failure to press for, support and pay for a system that ensures everyone gets decent accommodation.

And the system generates rage of another kind too, an unpleasant anger at those who are seen to be ahead of our guests in the queue to be provided for. As one of guests - a young father, separated from his partner, who wants access to his kids but is only eligible for a single room in a shared house, which prevents him from having his children staying with him - exploded 'you have to have tits or be foreign to get a place' (after which he stormed out of the room and disappeared).

Such thinking (I use the word loosely), fed by ludicrous stories in the tabloids, pit one section of the poor against another, so that those with power and wealth do not have to do anything to change the system that keeps the poor in their place and the wealth flowing upwards to those who already have it.

When I got home I read 1 Corinthians 4:8-17 with a view to preparing an erudite thought or two on the contrast between the wisdom of the world and God's wisdom embodied in the crucified Jesus. What I read was Paul telling his wayward hearers that he's sending Timothy to remind them of his way of living. And I began to ponder where people will get a model of community other the dog-eat-dog one on offer from the system we have all participated in creating. Paul's answer, of course, that it will come from the followers of Jesus, the communities who live by the wisdom revealed in Christ crucified, who have learned service and sacrifice at the feet of their master and embody that in their relationships.

It reminded me of the anabaptist vision of the church as a counter-cultural presence on the margins of society embodying the life of Jesus in its discipleship and calling others to join them in a community of love and mutual service gathering around the crucified and risen Jesus. And I began to feel hope rising through my anger, the hope that there is a different, better way of being community. The challenge, of course, is living it in the faith community of which I am a part so that we can bring a little hope to those on the verge of giving up.

Friday, January 03, 2014

New year, new debate...

It's probably true to say that there has not been a furore over PJ Harvey's guest editorship of the Today programme yesterday. 37 complaints to the BBC means it barely registers on the Richter scale of disquiet.

And the response of the usual right of centre suspects only confirms that the programme probably got it about right if it's aim was to offer an alternative view of the world to the one usually served up by the mainstream media - including the BBC. Colin Bloom of the Conservative Christian  Fellowship spoke of it being 'incomprehensible liberal drivel'. I assume that applied as much to Rowan Williams as it did to Julian Assange. And Stephen Glover in the Mail suggested it was 'silly, frivolous and unpatriotic'.

What neither 'critic' (and I use the term loosely) offered was a reason. It seems that for some, debate means dismissing the views of those you disagree with as not worthy of attention. So Harvey is clearly 'unpatriotic' (the unforgivable sin in the warped world of the Daily Mail) and therefore not to be taken seriously; or worse to be silenced as dangerous (as they attempted to do in the misjudged abuse of Ed Milliband's father last year). The fact that Colin didn't understand what was being said should have had him reaching for a dictionary not the twittersphere.

We need to debate ideas. This means that we listen to one another - especially those we disagree with. This is something we learn in church (something Rowan was alluding to yesterday in his thought for the day). We hear voices from many places offering different perspectives, different takes on the common journey on which we find ourselves. It is in this process, according to Paul, that we discern the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2), that we gain a modicum of wisdom.

Given the depth of the hole our country is in with poverty growing, social division reaching epic proportions, and shared values fraying at the seams, we need a debate not the casual dismissal of views of we don't like.

This was the Corinthian problem. They thought the people with the loudest voices, the most arcane theologies and largest bank balances were the ones who deserved to be listened to. Furthermore, they thought everyone else - including Paul - should get with the programme, fall into line or at least have the good grace to shut up. Paul, of course, suggested that such thinking was both secular and childish, that it damaged the body - whether that was the body ecclesiastical or the body politic. What he suggested instead was that people listen to each other - and that maybe we give equal prominence to those voices that society tends to dismiss  - the poor, less well-placed, immigrant, disabled (1 Corinthians 12).

Such an approach to debate might lead to something creative emerging out of the gathering sense of anomie, the deep frustration of those who feel they have gone unheard for too long. Apparently, 2014 is the year it's all going to kick off. I, for one, can't wait to get stuck in.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Something to get up for

Well, today was a first for me. I listened to the Today programme on iPlayer, because I had to hear it again!

I woke this morning as usual at 6:15am, put the radio on and was treated to an erudite, somewhat left-field analysis of the place of the City of London in the life of the nation. This was followed by a wonderful critique of the politics of sport introduced by the flat voiced Rob Bonnet. I wondered if I was tuned to the right station. But I was.

And the contributions kept getting better - Rowan Williams reading his poetry, John Pilger at his polemic best taking the media to task for not reporting the facts, even Tom Waits singing about the weather in the run up to the 6:58 forecast!

And the reason for all this? PJ Harvey was guest editor and wanted to give the programme a fresh twist. She certainly did that - and some! I've no doubt there'll be a lot of whining about objectivity and propaganda but I'd be delighted if Polly Jean were to guest edit the show once a week. It would restore the balance that people are always banging on about by giving us the chance to hear a different set of witnesses from the world's coalface.

Fantastic stuff - thanks BBC (that three hours on its own was worth my licence fee for this year) and thanks PJ Harvey for your creativity, wit and chutzpah!

Monday, December 23, 2013

the politics of Christmas

We were celebrating the beginnings of the gospel last night, Christmas, the start of God's recreation of the world, the making of all things new.. It's a story about God sending a king who will lift up the poor and needy, turn the elite out of their palaces and bring justice for those at the bottom of the pile (Luke 1, Isaiah 9, 11, Jeremiah 23, etc, etc..) 

So when Tory MP Mark Pritchard tweets (as he did  last night): ‘If some parts of the Church of England preached a little more gospel and a little less politics – perhaps [the] Church would be in a better place,’ I wonder if he understands either the gospel or politics! When government ministers refuse to meet the Trussell Trust and claim that they are meddling in politics by linking rising demand for foodbanks with benefit changes, I wonder if they understand either the gospel or politics.

Jesus was born in the midst of political struggle as part of that struggle. The maccabean flavoured magificat, a song of liberation and social upheaval, which many churches sing on a regular basis, is at the heart of the gospel. Jesus came to proclaim a kingdom (a political idea if ever there was one) that questions the claims of every other kingdom.

Politicians who claim that the church should stick to the gospel and not talk about the poor or the injustice of systems that keep people poor, clearly have no idea what the gospel is about. As we celebrate the most political festival in the Christian calendar (apart from all the others!), it is the perfect moment for Christians to be talking about the things that matter to God - justice, equality, being practical good news to the poor, and challenging elites and the wealthy to use the resources under their command to work for God's agenda in the world.