Tag Archives: poverty

Houses of the Holy

The following is adapted from a chapter of my book: Coming Home for Good.

 

“A tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure.”  – Charlie Chaplin, describing himself

 

In Buxted, where I grew up, there were a couple of tramps we saw from time to time. I guess these guys suffered with a mental health disorder, or autism, and didn’t fit neatly into mainstream society. They seemed to wander through, sporadically, like ragged spirits. I’ve no idea why they’d turn up every so often, pacing along the main road, or where they’d been in the meantime. As a child I never thought about it.

Perhaps, like many homeless people today, there was trauma or tragedy behind their lives on the move.

But there’s also an ancient association between itinerancy and spirituality, a travelling lifestyle serving as a useful means for the widespread distribution of a pastor’s, preacher’s or prophet’s message, especially before the days of electronic or even postal communication. A far more personal touch.

Itinerant ministry has been closely linked with religious asceticism, with the practice of travelling light and dependence on divine provision. The idea of moving about with little more than trust in God played a part in my own journey to faith, as I became increasingly curious to test out whether “God”, if he was there, would provide on my travels when I had nothing but the shirt on my back.

Travelling ministry, in Christian traditions, is characterised by intentional dependence on human hospitality, opening the way for those heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul connections in people’s homes, those “being with”s, that are so close to God’s heart for his children.

It’s therefore not surprising that Jesus chose homelessness, not out of any psychological damage or disconnection like me; rather, to forge those human/human, human/divine connections and bring healing to his hosts’ psychological dysfunctionality and physical brokenness.

Nor is it surprising that he sent his disciples out on the same kind of missions to bring healing and wholeness.

Man connecting with man. God connecting with man.

People becoming reconnected with themselves by connecting with God.

Jesus chose homelessness also because he sided with the marginalised, the weak, the despised, the poor, the “sinners”. He chose a lifestyle that would demonstrate solidarity with them.

“The son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”

His mother’s accounts of his homeless birth must have echoed prophetically in his head as he figured out his Father’s calling to live a life of identification with the poor.

And, as he went about his transient ministry, he searched out people, mostly the kinds excluded by the religious authorities of his day, who would take him into their homes to share a meal, benefitting both them and him. He created those mutual “being with”s, not always even waiting to be invited.

Like the time he invited himself to the house of the notorious tax-collector Zaccheus, creating a scene of celebration and forgiveness, much to the disgust of the shocked religious onlookers.

This was the equivalent of Jesus today celebrating with Pride revellers in full view of a crowd of American fundamentalists.

Jesus felt at home in other people’s homes. By moving about and entering the houses of the poor, eating, talking and praying with them, he gave them a sense of acceptance and worth and dignity – bringing healing to bodies, minds, human divisions and disconnections.

In so doing Jesus created a homecoming for both him and them.

I believe he still does that, his life on earth reflecting the eternal God – the itinerant Spirit who searches out hearts to make a home in and turns ordinary people into houses of the holy [1].

I learned early on in this spiritual journey that if we want to see God, a good place to start looking is in the faces of the poor.

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I learned early on in this spiritual journey that if we want to see God, a good place to start looking is in the faces of the poor.

 

The Jewish prophets of long ago, like Solomon and Isaiah, and Christian apostles like James and John, not to mention Jesus himself [2], all concurred that if we mock the poor or ignore their plight, if we fail to take care of the needs of the broken, the rejected, the vulnerable, then we mock or ignore God, and all our worship services are useless.

Just as Isaiah describes those who are homeless, hungry or destitute as our own flesh and blood, Jesus similarly identifies them as his brothers and sisters and even his representatives. Whatever we do to them – help or ignore – we do to him.

As I delved into the Christians’ book, I discovered almost from the start the Bible’s claims that if we want to know God’s identity, then we need to look into the faces of those who are crying out for our help – these houses of the holy – often a silent cry from deep within their hearts, but which can be heard by those with a trace of human empathy and compassion.

There is so much to love about Christian spirituality – that challenges the complacency of the rich and powerful and lends dignity to those who are materially or spiritually poor.

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Some questions for reflection:

  • Who would you find it difficult to hang out with? What would happen if you did? What might you learn from them?
  • How easy do you find it to “be” with people?
  • Who might you connect with this week?
  • What place do “the poor” have in your faith, spirituality or worldview?
  • How, if at all, does this kind of spirituality influence your political persuasions?

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Coming Home for Good is autobiographical, using examples of personal life experience to discuss “physical, psychological and spiritual homelessness”, and to reflect on identity, individuality, addiction and belonging – which, while especially pertinent in the context of homelessness, are issues that affect everyone.

Coming Home for Good is available on Amazon, at just £8. Find out more here, or click on the picture below:

Coming Home for Good

[1] A nod to Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy (album), Atlantic, 1973.

[2] For example: Proverbs 17:5; Isaiah 58:6-12; James 1:27; Matthew 25:31-46.

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God’s ‘mini-me’s

Can humans be gods? Of course not. At least not according to Christianity.

Yet, in Psalm 82, one of the Jewish / Christian scriptures, God (Yahweh) addresses Israel’s rulers as ‘gods’! Humans described as gods! This incredible psalm should come as quite a shock to most religious people.

Jesus himself quoted from this psalm to affirm that God did indeed address the people as gods – in order to make his point: “Why is it so hard to accept that I could be God’s son?”

The words of Psalm 82 have mind-blowing implications for our society in various ways:

  • As ‘gods’ or Yahweh’s representatives, our leaders and politicians have a God-given responsibility to exercise mercy and social justice: to care for the marginalised and vulnerable. As numbers of people dependent on food banks due to benefits sanctions rise and rise, and as homelessness grows unstoppably in Hastings where I live and across the UK with no sign of slowing down, I wouldn’t like to be in the shoes of our current government before a holy God – where holiness is not the cold piety of a distant deity, but the fiery, devoted passion for ultimate justice on behalf of the most vulnerable. I suspect there’s a message there for our American friends too, with just a few days to the presidential election.

 

  • As ‘gods’, every human being has an intrinsic worth far beyond that which any of us can ever imagine – far above anything expressed by most theological and psychological schools of thoughts. And no wonder – the idea of us being ‘gods’ is so radical and far-reaching, it verges on blasphemy to Judeo-Christian thinking. To approach the idea of people being ‘gods’ is to walk on holy ground. And yet it is a Christian idea. God is. I am. The mystery of our being mirrors the mystery of his being. We are, literally, God’s children. We carry his DNA, his genes – so much more than his image. So ingrained in Christian thinking is the idea of sin’s pervasiveness, that the holiness, goodness and beauty that underlies our brokenness is usually missed. I would so love for all the broken, hurting, struggling people I know (that’s pretty much everyone, including me) to begin to grasp this core identity that we have. What incredible healing there would be in that comprehension!

 

  • Those regarded as ‘least’ and ‘lowest’ according to the echelons of society, or ‘low-life’ as I’ve heard them described, are nevertheless ‘gods’ according to Yahweh – not just his representatives, they are his ‘mini-me’s – and therefore, as Jesus made plain, whatever we do or fail to do for them, we do or fail to do for him. This affords us amazing privileges and opportunities to encounter the holy love and presence of Yahweh as we serve society’s marginalised, pray for them and press for social justice.

 

Here’s Psalm 82 in full:

God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the gods:

“How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

The gods know nothing, they understand nothing. They walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

“I said, ‘You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere mortals; you will fall like every other ruler.”

Rise up, O God, judge the earth, for all the nations are your inheritance.

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(Wondering what this blog is all about, and who A Child of Grace is?

Please read my About page. Thanks! Roger N)

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MAKING (MYTHS ABOUT) POVERTY HISTORY

Poverty is big TV these days. Benefits by the Sea, On Benefits & Proud, for example. And it’s not just these so-called ‘poverty porn’ documentaries. It’s also the constant stream of news and other media debating the exponential rise of food banks and the effects of Government policy, driving too many people to the breadline and beyond.

MythCo-written by Martin Charlesworth and our very own Hastings local Natalie Williams (both working for an organisation called Jubilee+), The Myth of the Undeserving Poor is a short, insightful book that highlights the media’s pervasive use of lazy, toxic stereotyping of poverty and its influence on the British public’s attitudes to poverty.

The Myth of the Undeserving Poor, in my view, deserves to become a modern classic.

Despite having worked with homeless people for the last 11 years and thinking I’m pretty understanding and empathic when it comes to poverty, there were some real lightbulb moments as I read this book.

So, I decided to write this little blog piece as a book review and recommendation, for all my friends, colleagues, and anyone else willing to receive a wise education – with no guilt trips attached – in attitudes towards British (or even western) poverty.

In The Myth of the Undeserving Poor, Natalie Williams reports on a survey she conducted in 2014, in which she analysed nearly 400 media items (including reports, features, comment pieces, letters and cartoons) related to poverty in Britain, appearing in 10 major (and varied) news sources over a 4-week period.

Her analysis of the findings revealed two particular concerns: a generally negative media bias against those in poverty – unsurprisingly more extreme in certain news sources (such as the Daily Mail and The Sun) than others; and a widespread lack of views and comments directly from those in poverty themselves; both concerns creating an ‘us and them’ mentality amongst the public, or as one journalist described it, a “gradual erosion of empathy” where poor people are regarded as “an entirely different species” and “instead of being disgusted by poverty , we are disgusted by poor people themselves”.*

The authors also report on another survey they undertook in 2014 involving 419 people, comparing attitudes of Christians with those of the general public towards poverty. Although there was evidence of greater sympathy and awareness amongst Christians surveyed, the authors were more interested to discover the principal influences on Christians’ attitudes towards poverty.

Political preferences were, perhaps unsurprisingly, found to be intrinsically linked to attitudes. Broadly speaking, those who identify with the Conservatives were found to demonstrate less sympathy than those with other or no political affiliation.

Also not too surprisingly – but pertinently – was the correlation found between attitudes and proximity to poverty. In other words, those who worked with or lived amongst people in poverty demonstrated greater empathy, while those who were physically detached showed less understanding.

Of greater concern, perhaps, was the link found between attitudes towards poverty and choice of newspaper read by Christian respondents.

For example, fewer regular readers of the Daily Mail (36%) and The Telegraph (39%) agreed that large income gaps between the rich and poor are ‘morally wrong’, than those who regularly read the Daily Mirror (73%) or The Guardian (65%).

Similarly, 36% of Daily Mail readers believe the level of help available from the State is not enough, causing hardship, compared with 80% of Daily Mirror readers.

Charlesworth and Williams point out that, for Christians, there are (inevitably) factors other than our faith that will influence our attitudes and beliefs about poverty, and effectively apply some guiding principles from the teachings and examples of Jesus and other Biblical sources to current media coverage of British poverty.

Very helpfully, the authors describe and define 4 distinct elements to poverty:

  • Economic
  • Aspirational
  • Relational
  • Spiritual

An example from one of the TV programmes (Breadline Kids, 2014) which would instinctively elicit empathy and compassion from most viewers is juxtaposed with the example of someone who says they’d rather live on benefits because they’re better off that way and that they can get a bigger house by having more kids.

The authors make the case that our lack of compassion for the latter example misses the point that this person is also in a type of poverty – aspirational and spiritual – and that generally adults in this kind of poverty have been raised in poverty and may be unable to see any other way. Not that this means that handouts are necessarily the answer, but it does mean that as a society we need to recognise and understand patterns of poverty and be willing to extend the appropriate kind of help, rather than label some as ‘deserving’ and others as ‘undeserving’ of help.

On the subject of aspirational and spiritual poverty, let me illustrate this with a snapshot from my own life…

In my forthcoming book (I say forthcoming – I mean in about 20 years, when I have time to write it), I’ll be describing spiritual and relational homelessness. I didn’t grow up in any kind of material poverty – far from it – but I did grow up in a very unhappy house that never felt like home and so for this and other reasons I chose homelessness as a way of life.

Although I wasn’t forced on to the streets as many of my homeless clients have been, my physical homelessness was a direct consequence of a relational poverty (dysfunctional family) and spiritual homelessness (my total insecurity and atheism).

I experienced aspirational poverty, in that the ‘rat race’ or pursuing a career was, to me, completely futile, so I flunked exams. My only aim was to live as an itinerant, pursuing self-seeking experiences.

When I found a spiritual home (through coming to faith in Jesus), all of that was changed in an instant. My hedonistic pursuit of sex, drugs and travel, and the sense of futility I felt in ‘normal’ life, was replaced by an inner drive to use what I had usefully to help others in some way, which led me into a career in nursing and eventually to working as a nurse with homeless people, as I do now.

Once my spiritual poverty was resolved, my aspirational poverty was also overturned. This in turn brought an end to my (previously chosen) economic poverty. So, in my case at least, spiritual and relational poverty was the root of other kinds of poverty.

More on that in my ‘imminent’ book….! But back to a book that has been written

One final comment, and this is an observation, not a criticism. The Myth of the Undeserving Poor is written by Christians, from a Biblical viewpoint, to challenge and inform the attitudes of other Christians.

I’ve already recommended this book to colleagues who have a different worldview, yet I don’t know how accessible The Myth of the Undeserving Poor with its distinctly ‘religious’ angle, laced with Bible references, would be for them.

I would love to see a later edition of the book aimed at a wider readership, more designed to challenge prejudices and myths in the wider British public rather than specifically UK Christians, while still maintaining its Christian basis.

That said, there would still be much for people without a Christian persuasion to relate to in this first edition, and I hope they’ll give this a shot. Furthermore, this informative book could serve to break down some prejudices and misunderstandings about Christianity as well as poverty.

The research findings and myth-busting covered by The Myth of the Undeserving Poor are relevant and important reading for people of any or no faith living in 21st Century Britain.

The Myth of the Undeserving Poor is available from Amazon UK for £7.00

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(Wondering what this blog is all about, and who A Child of Grace is? Please read my About page. Thanks!)

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* Moore, S. (2012) ‘Instead of being disgusted by poverty, we are disgusted by poor people themselves’, The Guardian.

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