Category Archives: Spirituality

The undeserving poor..?

I hear the expression ‘the undeserving poor’ a lot lately. For some reason it never fails to get under my skin, but I never really stopped to think about why until quite recently.  They don’t bother working, don’t pay tax, leech off the State and spend all their benefits on satellite dishes and Nintendo Wiis.

But the question I ask myself is, even if this massive generalisation is true (and I doubt it), who are we to say how people on benefits spend their money? Would I like it if I was judged on how I spend my money? Not likely.

It is a big question, I must admit, and one that a welfare state will always need to address: what do we do about welfare that benefits those who give nothing back to the State? They don’t deserve the money they get, because they don’t contribute anything.

But then, that also begs the question, does anyone deserve the money they get, whether wealthy, poor or in between?

Having been thinking about it recently, a couple of days ago I strayed across this excerpt from the book of Proverbs;

It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to desire strong drink; or else they will drink and forget what has been decreed, and will pervert the rights of all the afflicted. Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more. Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and the needy. (Proverbs 31:4-9, NRSV).

Advice from a mother to a son, a queen mother to her king.

I expect this principle could be taken too far, generosity taken advantage of even more than now (though I’d hardly call it generosity from those who are so begrudging that some of their tax money goes to those who have so little). I shouldn’t think King Lemuel’s mother was advocating carelessness about budgets.

And if I’m to be consistent with how I read the bible, I need to be aware that the queen mother was speaking into a particular social and economic context, which may or may not resonate with British society today. Unfortunately, I cannot find any other reference to King Lemuel in the Old Testament which leaves me to work with the text in Proverbs. Is there a timelessness to the truth King Lemuel wrote down in his mother’s words? I think there is.

It remains true that poverty is harsh and difficult.

It remains true that poverty can bring misery.

It remains true that alcohol can indeed help people to forget their troubles – though we also know now, if we didn’t then, about the physical damage too much drinking can do!

But if we take the principle behind the suggestion, which is to give to those in poverty whether it seems they can use what they are given to help themselves or not, this to me sounds like an outworking of grace. Grace doesn’t try to contain us, teach us a moral code, or control us with a strict set of behaviours. Grace accepts us freely as we are, and its power to transform is within that unconditional freedom we are offered. Grace is the difficult way, giving people choice rather than limiting what we offer to them. Grace is sublimating our own judgement so that God’s judgement – which is steeped in grace – can work itself out.

It can of course be argued that it is not the State’s responsibility to be an outworking of God’s grace, and perhaps that is so. But it must be remembered that much of the social reform in Britain since the industrial revolution has been brought about by religious groups working to change government policy. And it remains the responsibility of christians to bear witness to God’s teaching in our society.

And one final question to end on: who on earth is capable of making the moral judgement on whether someone ‘deserves’ welfare or not? Me? Certainly not. And a quick glance at our Cabinet doesn’t reassure me…


Greenbelt questions

Another August Bank Holiday weekend at Greenbelt Festival has come and gone, and as usual has thrown up a whole host of questions, such as; why do we take three young children camping for six nights with limited washing facilities? Will it ever take less than four hours to get us all up, dressed, breakfasted and ready for the festival day? Will there ever be a year that I don’t cry when I see the breathtaking number and spectrum of people present at the Sunday morning communion service? What on earth are people doing wandering around dressed as sofas? Where did the giant policemen come from? And so on.

From all the things that got thrown up at Greenbelt, there was one question that I thought important enough to write down in order to come back to. I can’t even remember where it came from, but it’s essentially about becoming a member of a church: what is the best path to becoming fully integrated into a church community, i.e. to feel comfortable with both giving and receiving one’s time, energy, compassion and commitment?

On the one hand, there are those in public ministry in a church such as the incumbent, the curate or the youth worker. Beginning work in a parish in such a role results in what could almost be described as ‘forced entry’ into the church community. From the very outset you’re in a fairly central position within the life of the church, you quickly get to know those with influence and involvement, and having a specific role to play you begin immediately to implement that role, in the ways that best seem fit to you and others in authority.

On the other hand there are those who begin coming to church for various reasons – they have a friend who goes, they’re curious, they feel drawn, they’ve had contact through a wedding, baptism or funeral – who probably begin by knowing one or two people at the most. If they don’t feel socially confident, or remain unsure of the church’s particular idiosyncrasies (e.g. its language or worship style) they may remain known to only a few people and never feel they have the opportunity or even the ability to participate.

Of course those are two extreme examples of the process of integration, but even for those somewhere in the middle, how many who do play a role in the church community are actually doing what they are built to do? How comfortable are they in the work they are doing? It does sometimes have to be the case that people take the jobs that need doing because there really is no-one else to do them, but I think it’s very unfortunate if people aren’t able to engage with the kind of work that really inspires and fulfils them. And I think it’s possible for a church to have a vision where everyone has the opportunity, should they want it, to explore their gifts and abilities safely as they get to know the congregation, the rhythm of church life and themselves.

What the implications of this question are for church leaders is also part of the question, though we can hope that they have had some measure of preparation for the way in which they integrate into church life, having already had opportunities to explore their strengths and weaknesses, their gifts and abilities. The better they have been prepared, the more equipped they will hopefully be to enable church members, new and old, to explore and develop their involvement in the living, breathing entity that is the Body of Christ.

Is individuality enough for a Christian?

It’s interesting how a few chance conversational snippets can cause a train a thought that leads to such a deep question. I realised quite recently that within my own experience, my overwhelming sense is that the Christian faith is between God and the individual. The idea that faith can and should be experienced as part of a wider group of people – even beyond the circle of those with whom we directly connect – seems to be either a thing of the past, or perhaps never existed in the first place. I don’t mean in the sense of people attending church services together, because there is clear evidence of truly deep and moving experiences of communal worship in churches all over the world, but rather I think I mean that there is little sense in which for each of us, our faith belongs to others in the Christian family as much as to God. While many Christians do regularly gather together, and feel a sense of belonging to particular Christian communities, it feels as though there is a sense in which we isolate ourselves either because we are unable or unwilling to reveal too much. I think if there is any evidence of this sense of individuality, it is in, for example, a person’s desire to pursue their own ministry within their church without reference to the needs of whole community, or the Anglican churches who choose not to pay their parish share, or even the lack of interest in Christians from other denominations.

There is a strong sense of group faith in the Old Testament as the story of the Israelite community unfolds and it eventually becomes a great nation which (at least some of the time) worships Yahweh together; their religion is central to their national identity. A reading of the New Testament I suppose could indicate that the need for one’s faith to belong to other people as well as to God is no longer an issue. However I recently read a passage in Matthew (verses 20 to 24 of chapter 11) which suggest that Jesus is holding entire Jewish cities to account for their lack of repentance. The New Testament reports that Jesus’ message was spreading in each of the cities mentioned, so they weren’t lacking in individuals who believed. I tentatively wonder whether Jesus was referring to dishonesty and corruption running deep through the strata of public governance, which could have referred to the Roman occupiers but also the Jewish community leaders such as the teachers of the law. I can’t at the moment come up with any other ideas about what he could have meant, but I do know that Jesus was never vague – his words always had very precise meaning, even if those listening weren’t always able to grasp it! This particular passage is very brief, but does suggest that Jesus feels there certainly is a corporate dimension to what it means to follow him.

I do think it is important to recognise that a full experience of the Christian faith cannot be had simply by relying on other Christians to get you where you want to go. Hiding from God behind other people is unhelpful, if not damaging. Anyone desiring to follow Jesus hopefully recognises that we are called as individuals and therefore can experience an individual relationship with him. However I begin to wonder about how much more enriched our individual faith could be if we were to open ourselves more honestly and more lovingly within our church communities – be they formal or informal – and allow ourselves to be transformed not just by God working directly in us through his Spirit, but by the needs and gifts and hurts and difficult times and joys of the Christians with whom we fellowship and worship. There is a cost to integrating ourselves so deeply within a community,  perhaps a sacrifice of independence or pride or privacy, but cost is part of a genuine faith, and if we’re willing to pay, the rewards of growth and maturity and wisdom – and above all, a greater capacity to love others – are there waiting for us.

Where have all the gardens gone?

I recently had a conversation with someone who is trying to buy a house locally and has viewed probably around twenty houses by now. What really struck me was her comment that the more recently-built houses more often than not have very small gardens.

The reason this comment particularly aroused my interest is that since we moved into our new house I have begun to find the time for and interest in gardening that I have previously lacked, presumably due to the fact that the children are growing older and make slightly less constant demands on me these days. I have found immense pleasure in encouraging and nurturing growth, as well as viewing and tasting the results of my work. I have become eager to spend time in the garden, to watch the progress of the growing things and to keep a protective eye on them so that they might grow to their fullest potential. And it feels as though I have come to understand with far greater immediacy my own dependence on what is produced by the soil because I am so strongly reminded of the process required to produce the food products I buy from the supermarket.

Although it can’t be argued that there was ever a time in history when every family depended on their own garden and growing skills to feed themselves, it is true that in developed countries industrialisation has led us to the point of greater disconnection from the source of our food than, say, four hundred years ago – unless we work in the food production industry, perhaps. And so I have wondered whether the fact that new houses are built with limited garden space could be a symptom of this sense of disconnection, not just from the source of our food but also in a wider sense our dependence on the Earth and all its rich abundance. Obviously following that train of thought there are wider ecological implications, particularly the consideration that as a race, our apparent lack of concern for the damage we cause to the environment we depend upon could in part be fuelled by this growing disconnection. But my immediate response is a much more personal one, because now I find the act of gardening to be such a sustaining and fulfilling work that I feel it draws me closer to a sense of the divine presence, and the sense that all of this eager impulse to life and growth in the soil, as well as the care and dedication it takes to nurture that life, is fully and completely a divine gift.

I’m sure that if any of these musings have truth in them they are only part of the much bigger question of how we relate to our environment physically and, potentially, spiritually. Yet who’s to say that if we all had gardens and worked in them it would encourage a better sense of communal responsibility for our wider environment, or a taste of the divine presence? There is some indication that interest in gardening is growing, particularly given that gardening equipment is becoming more readily available in supermarkets. But not everyone has the impulse or inclination to be a gardener, just as not everyone has the desire to be a midwife or an engineer. And I could not begin to guess whether everyone who gardens considers it to be a spiritual activity. I do wonder though whether in the time before industrialisation, when more people depended on their own growing skills, there was greater understanding of our role as caretakers of the Earth and all it provides. And what might we achieve if as a society we continue to encourage one another to nurture the produce of the soil and provide more green spaces for each other to enjoy?