Inspirational but OTT: review of ‘Dirty Glory’ by Pete Greig

The ambition to ‘form a movement’ is one I have heard expressed by many leaders over the years. Movements are perceived as exciting, purposeful expressions of collective will and spiritual energy. They often stand in contrast to the more mundane task of managing an organisation.

Pete Greig is one of the few contemporary Christian leaders who can legitimately be credited with starting a movement. 24-7 Prayer has had a huge impact in fusing prayer, mission and justice, especially with younger people.

And it is easy to see the qualities that Greig has brought to the movement. He is an inspirational communicator, brim-full of stories, infectious energy and positivity. His exuberance is contagious.

Provocative teaching

This book, Dirty Glory is packed full of stories, provocative theology and challenging teaching. Take this as an example when he discusses ‘dirty glory’ of God’s incarnation in Jesus:

“We believe in the blasphemous glory of Immanuel; ‘infinity dwindled to infancy’, as the poet once said. We believe in omnipotence surrendering to incontinence, the name above every other name rumoured to be illegitimate…The creator of the Cosmos made tables and presumably he made them badly at first.” (p15)

Ancient wisdom

A key strength of the book is the way that Greig fuses the spiritual wisdom of previous ages with the energy of contemporary evangelicalism. Greig quotes Augustine, Teresa of Avila, John Donne, St Benedict, as well as Karl Barth and Oscar Romero, in a way younger people will be able to connect with and appreciate.

Another strength is the continual emphasis on the integration of prayer and action:

‘Prayer must outwork itself in action…it is about the saying of prayers for sure, but also the becoming of prayers in a thousand practical ways’ (p7)

And there is a strong challenge for anyone who wants an other-worldly spirituality which is detached from the struggle for justice:

‘Down the ages, it has always been the tendency of the rich to reduce salvation to a purely spiritual experience…the consequences of the gospel are profoundly structural as well as spiritual’ (p278-9)

In these ways, Dirty Glory expresses an inspirational form of radical orthodoxy – challenging readers to integrate spiritual practices with a vibrant and activist faith.

Story inflation

Greig is a brilliant story-teller. Lengthy expositions of the journeys of a handful of activists inspired by 24-7 Prayer make up a large chunk of the book.

But as I read these I could not get away from a nagging concern about whether the reality behind the stories truly measured up to the way they are presented. I tried hard not to be cynical but I could not ignore a growing hunch that the stories being told are over-done: that too much was being made of the events and activity described.

Stories are a like a currency. And for writers and speakers, they are a fundamental way of trading ideas and inspiration. But like financial currencies, stories can be liable to a being inflated beyond their true value. Stories can be injected with a significance that they cannot bear.

Over the top

I know one person who is referred to, so I got in touch with them to ask them about their view on how they are presented in the book. They replied as follows:

‘It is highly dramatized. Enough truth in it to remember it happening but quite a lot of OTT stuff. And a fact or two at variance with the truth. It has left me scratching my head a little.’

I think this sums up my main concern with Dirty Glory. I am not saying there is outright deceit but there is too much of what the essayist William Hazlitt defined as ‘cant’:

“Cant is the voluntary overcharging or prolongation of real sentiment.”

The curse of evangelical sub-culture

The ‘over-charging or prolongation’ of stories is the curse of evangelical sub-culture.  Too often, inspiration is valued over all-else.

Time and again I have seen the damage caused by the disconnection between the stories shared by inspiring leaders and what is actually done in reality. It is rooted in a dangerous temptation among charismatic communicators to over-hype what they are involved in. It is a key reason for the growth of disillusionment and cynicism within the church.

Honesty and humility

The best antidote to hype is the counter-cultural example that Jesus gives us. He went out of his way to downplay what he was doing, avoiding big crowds and consistently not doing what his supporters wanted him to. And the Bible is littered with commands for us to be humble.

We need to have faith that humility and honesty increase the power and integrity of our message. This is truly the dirty glory that Jesus has shown us and the life God calls us to.

Posted in Recommended books | Tagged | 8 Comments

‘I am neither an optimist or a pessimist’ – the hope of Easter

“Mission begins with a kind of explosion of joy. The news that the rejected and crucified Jesus is alive is something that cannot possibly be suppressed. It must be told. Who could be silent about such a fact?

The mission of the Church in the pages of the New Testament is more like the fallout from a vast explosion, a radioactive fallout which is not lethal but life giving.

The story of the empty tomb cannot be fitted into our contemporary worldview, or indeed any worldview except one of which it is the starting point. That is, indeed, the whole point….It is a boundary event…the beginning of a new creation – as mysterious to human reason as creation itself. But accepted in faith it becomes the starting point for a whole new way of understanding our human experience…”

Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (p11 & p116)

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Also on R&R: Proper Confidence in the Gospel: the theology of Lesslie Newbigin

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Finding hope when burnt out – by Corin Pilling

Those on the front line of church, community and care work can from time to time experience a ‘hope deficit’.  The reality of dysfunction and poverty can easily start to outweigh the hope and energy that we can offer.

We may be called to cultivate hope but the reality is often tough. The ideal of community work can feel rather distant from the reality of grinding away at the coalface for many years. Our personal resources can feel depleted and we end up digging into our reserves. Burn out rears its head.

Burn out

Christina Maslach, author of Burnout: the Cost of Caring, describes burnout ‘as a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion. It is marked by physical depletion and chronic fatigue, feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and negative attitudes towards work, life and other people’. She identifies the following symptoms:

  • Decreased energy -‘keeping up the speed’ becomes increasingly difficult
  • Feeling of failure in vocation
  • Reduced sense of reward in return for pouring so much of self into the job or project
  • A sense of helplessness and inability to see a way out of problems
  • Cynicism and negativism about self, others, work and the world generally

If you are experiencing this, you face a huge challenge. The experience of burnout is often accompanied by a deep sense of shame or guilt which arises from an acute sense of helplessness. This double-punishment can be hard to bear. After all, many of us build our lives, ministry or work on a stronger story of hope. We speak of thriving and resilience. When we don’t experience it due to exhaustion, we can feel an enormous burden of not living up to our aspirations.

Avoid comparison 

We can also unfairly compare ourselves to others. We all have such different capacities, gifts, and struggles. The comparison game may be fatal when we look to other leaders who seemingly have it all together. The reality is that we only see the ‘front stage’, and rarely what is falling apart behind the scenes.

Vulnerability can seem costly, yet it is important that there are relationships where we exhibit it. If we do not, we run the risk of living in denial of our unique needs.

Seven ways to help

In a short article such as this, we can only scratch the surface of a complex issue. The list below provides only some pointers of how to respond. It is borne of my own experience of rebuilding after experiencing burn out on the front line.

1) Ask for help. Change will rarely happen without the right kind of structured support. Commit to the time needed to make change, and recognise it will take time.

2) Let go of self-condemnation and aim to practice self-compassion. Our internal scripts might offer only negative thoughts. Instead, ask yourself ‘What would I say to a good friend who was experiencing these thoughts?’

3) Remember that your body needs extra care: It is easy to forget this. Increased rest and exercise are obvious starting points. Also, trying new things can help. Running and meditation worked for me – providing room to experience difficult emotions was also important.

4) Ask yourself the question ‘What gives me life?’ Compiling a list of simple daily pleasures, and spending time with those who ‘get’ you becomes essential. I also compiled of list of ‘death- dealing activities’ as a reminder of what to avoid.

5) Work to change your thinking. Know that this is often the biggest barrier. Just because it once worked, it doesn’t mean it works now – we all change and our needs do, too. Commit to reading up on the topic regularly.

6) Cultivate new spiritual practices. Is there a new gift to be discovered? There may be other ways to encounter God in the midst of struggle that can help you carve a life- giving path. Extroverts may even find themselves drawn to quieter spiritual activities such as retreats.

7) Recognise that your struggle is universal, yet deeply personal. Many of us recover remarkably well from burnout and our empathy may increase for those with similar struggles.

If you are experiencing ongoing exhaustion the first port of call should be your doctor. Don’t take chances with your health.

The burnout cycle of those is church and community work is a well- worn trope. Let’s start to change the script, so we might continue to live hope-filled and sustainable lives in our communities.

Corin Pilling is Assistant Director of Community Engagement at Livability where he supports churches connect with their communities. He lives in King’s Cross where he attends a small church on a large estate.

This article was recently published on Livability’s highly recommended Community Engagement eNews 

Posted in Ethics & Christian living | Tagged | 1 Comment

Prophet warning: a response to Matt Bird – by Justin Thacker

Matt Bird recently wrote an article titled Be for the poor, but not against the rich. According to Matt, God’s material riches of Solomon is evidence that ‘God is not opposed to wealth or the disparity of wealth’.

He chastises a development charity for describing as ‘unacceptable’ the fact that the richest eight people in the world have more wealth than the poorest three billion combined. Such inequality, it would seem, does not matter as long as those billionaires continue to create jobs and give away significant proportions of their income. If they do this, they are to be ‘applauded’ rather than criticised.

The kind of argument that Matt Bird presents is increasingly gaining ground in certain Christian (and especially evangelical) circles. I don’t disagree with all that he has written. I think he is right that trade and business are the ultimate solutions to poverty rather than charity. While aid may be necessary in the short-term, it does not provide the long-term solution that jobs do.

Injustice

However, my difficulty with his argument is that it doesn’t address the way in which the wealthy often contribute to the problems of the poor. As Christians we need to be aware of how the biblical prophets saw poverty. As Donald Gowan put it:

“For Old Testament writers the cause of poverty which produced the most concern and true indignation was not what the poor do or do not do but what others have done to them … There were ways to deal with the problems of being hungry and ill-clothed and homeless; but all of them could be thwarted by injustice, and it is that against which the Old Testament rages.”

Gowan puts his finger here on what is at the heart of the prophetic lament: social injustice. It is not that the rich are not being sufficiently charitable or philanthropic, it is that the rich and powerful are exploiting and oppressing the poor. This theme returns time and again throughout the prophetic books (e.g. Jer 7:5-7; Amos 4:1-2; Zech 7:9-11).

Exploitation

There are a number of reasons why the prophets may have made the exploits of the rich their primary concern.  Firstly, following their return from exile, the economy of Israel changed fundamentally with the development of large agricultural estates. There was a sharp growth in inequality and predatory loaning became a way the haves could exploit the have-nots.

Secondly, there also exists archaeological evidence of increasing disparities in house sizes during this period. Before the exile, most houses in Israel were of a simple four-room design. In contrast, after the exile, there was a rapid and marked transformation whereby these 4 room houses disappeared to be replaced by estates staffed by peasant or slave workers.

The prophets speak of increasing inequality arises precisely because those with power and authority are exploiting the poor and the powerless. They build wealth for themselves at the expense of the less well off.

The prophetic perspective is that the problem lies in the exploitation and oppression of the poor – if only the rich and powerful would get off their backs then the poor could enact their own solutions to poverty:

The people of the land have practised extortion and committed robbery; they have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the alien without redress.  (Ezek. 22.29−30)

Charity smokescreen

Matt Bird downplays the role of the wealthy in contributing to poverty. He doesn’t acknowledge that the so-called generosity of the wealthy can sometimes be just a smokescreen for trade practices that continue to keep the poor in poverty.

At one point, I engaged with the philanthropic wing of a major mobile phone company from whom I was seeking funding for a healthcare project in West Africa. On the surface, this company was in Matt’s terms being very ‘generous’ and helping ‘to alleviate the poverty and suffering of others’.

However, what I hadn’t realized initially was that the same company was depriving the same West African country of millions of pounds of tax revenue through its trade mispricing activities. So while the company very publicly donated thousands of pounds in ‘charitable’ activity, it was also taking away in illicit financial transactions a far greater amount (see here and here for recent reports on this issue).

Caution about wealth

Matt’s argument would appear to ignore this reality. He would seem to believe that wealth creation never involves exploitation of the poor. While it may not always do this, the sad truth is that the rules remain heavily stacked against the interests of the poor. We should not be anti-the-rich, but as the prophets indicate we should certainly be very cautious about wealth. And this is a theme continued in the teaching and example of John the Baptist, Jesus and the early church.

For it is not just God who is the architect of wealth, it is also sometimes our sin:

Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning’s light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it. They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud people of their homes, they rob them of their inheritance. (Micah 2.1−2)

Justin Thacker is the author of the newly published Global Poverty: A Theological Guide

Posted in Poverty, Theology & Church | Tagged | 10 Comments

A soft-touch? Why Christians need to stop being doormats

My recent article on Why Pope Francis is wrong about begging was re-posted on the popular Christian blog Psephizo and a number of church leaders commented on the challenge that this issue poses for them.

It again reminded me of how churches, vicarages and manses are at the front line of this issue because of how often people call on their doors asking for money.

I grew up in a vicarage and homeless people (or ‘tramps’ as we called them) used to come to our door to ask for help. My mum would make sandwiches but I remember one caller being very unhappy with this. Later we found the bag of sandwiches thrown in the hedge just outside the house. The sight of that discarded food stayed with me: a visible sign of the complexity involved in helping people.

The brilliantly researched BBC comedy Rev featured this issue almost every episode, with the crack addict Mick continually coming to the vicarage door with improbable stories:

What is the best way to respond?

The national Christian homelessness network, Housing Justice, have produced a common-sense guide to Helping Homeless Callers who come to your door.  It is very clear that people should not give money and offers some good practical tips, such as agreeing a policy and having information available.

I firmly believe that we should help people in need and be as human and kind as possible. But Christians need to stop being doormats. As referred to in the Rev clip, Christians are often seen as ‘soft-touches’ and this does little good – either for ourselves or for the person begging.

Rejecting the guilt transfer

One important thing to remember is to not accept the guilt transfer that people begging often try with a potential donor. This frequently happens by presenting a scenario designed to make you feel solely responsible for a positive outcome e.g. ‘If you don’t give me the money then I will not be able to see my sick child.’  Recognising and rejecting the attempts to maximise your guilt helps you see what is really happening.

Whether a sick child actually exists or not, it is not your fault that the person does not have the money to see them. The brutal reality is that the missing of an important appointment, or even a night sleeping rough, may have to be the consequence of previous decisions that this person has made about which you may know very little.

Good theology in action

Christian responses to people in need should not merely be pragmatic but be rooted in good theology. The first chapter of John’s gospel says: ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).

John chose these two words to sum up the qualities of Jesus: grace and truth.

When helping people in need, we need to balance our desire to show grace with acknowledging the importance of truth.  I think this is relevant to all pastoral situations but especially when it comes to the issues which surround homeless people.

Grace detached from truth

Churches are doing incredible work across the country with vulnerable people. But one legitimate critique of churches is that too much of the activity focuses on giving free meals and free accommodation which asks little of the person being helped. It can run counter to other agencies’ emphasis on encouraging and empowering them to face reality and take responsibility.  Churches can be in danger of offering a grace which is detached from truth.

We need to recognise that over the long term, transformative work with homeless people will always involve holding together these kinds of tensions:

None of this is easy in practice and it cannot be done by one person, or even just one agency. Joint work and coordination between different organisations is essential for good outcomes – and churches have a vital role to play.

But I firmly believe that balancing grace and truth gives us a strong basis for how we should respond to homeless and vulnerable people. Being a doormat or a soft-touch is tempting and can seem a generous way out of the dilemma. But it doesn’t really help people.

Posted in Homelessness | Tagged , | 3 Comments

The Lord’s Prayer – by Danny Kuhrt 

This post is taken from a talk given by Danny Kuhrt, aged 13, at a youth-led service at Streatham Baptist Church in March 2017. Danny spoke on the first half of the prayer (Matthew 6:9-11).

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Firstly, I would like to ask everyone a question. And I want an honest answer.

Who finds praying easy?

It can be hard to remember to pray. Life is busy – with homework, computer games, sleeping and tidying my room.Finding time to pray can be a challenge.  

But also praying is not easy because we are talking directly to God, our Creator.  Perhaps it’s not supposed to be easy.

Template

But in the passage we heard read, Jesus gives us a template of a perfect prayer. The Lord’s Prayer can help us to know how to pray.

I have heard a few sermons, and I heard it’s important to have 3 points. So here goes:

  1. Firstly we need to remember God’s holiness

Firstly, we need to remember God’s holiness. The first line of the Lord’s Prayer is ‘Our Father, hallowed be your Name’.  What does this mean? Well, hallowed means Holy.

I know it sounds simple but prayer is about focussing on God. It is not about us.

It can be easy to think that the world revolves around us. What we want to do, what we are interested in. So much time can be spent thinking about ourselves.

But at its heart, prayer is about setting aside time to focus on God. This opening line reminds us that God is holy. Our creator. He is perfect. Almighty. All-loving.

I am guilty of not remembering God’s mightiness. It is easy to get casual and lose sight of who we are speaking with. All the people I respect, I respect because they are smarter, or more experienced or nicer than me. We are praying to a God who is smarter, more experienced and nicer than you can possibly imagine.

This is why we worship God – he is a holy creator. His Name is hallowed.

  1. To pray with purpose

The Lord’s Prayer continues ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

It can be tempting to just lean on God – and leave all of our problems and the community’s problems to him. But God does not just want us to wait passively for his kingdom to come and for his will to be done. He wants us to be his disciples and make the earth slightly closer to his kingdom.

Asking God for help is an amazing thing but God gave us free will for a reason – so that we can be part of his work.  All of us can change the world a little bit.

For example, me and my brother Tom argue a lot.  I can get really angry with him. I do sometimes pray for help and for us to forgive each other. But no real change is going to happen unless I go make up with him, even if it is hard and involves me admitting I was wrong.  Perhaps especially when it involves me admitting I was wrong.

I don’t think that God is like a fairy with a magic wand.

We need to pray with real purpose – for example to ask for courage and hope so that we can fix problems and go out and make the world a better place.  Our prayers can help us be people of action.

Another example is Love Streatham’s annual Fun Day on the Common. Who has come to this?  You can see a picture of me up there if you look hard enough…

Praying for good weather, large crowds and safety and fun is essential. However, if people did not go out, work hard, putting up gazebos – even when it’s a rainy morning – the whole event would not happen. It is through prayers and action that we help God’s kingdom come and his will be done.

  1. To trust in God’s goodness

Lastly, we need to trust in God’s goodness. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer that God will give us today our daily bread. That he will provide for us.  This line is about security that God has given us.

God has assured us that we will not be without our daily bread – what we need for each day.  This assures us that God cares for us and even if things are falling apart then we can still trust in God’s goodness.

An example of someone who trusted God is the Apostle Paul. Travelling around the world, Paul was persecuted, beaten up, shipwrecked, arrested, imprisoned, and put on trial and almost certainly executed – all because of his faith in Jesus.

Despite all this, Paul never lost hope or trust in God. He was the author of half the books of the New Testament, some of which were written from jail.  It is this commitment through the hardship that shows his trust in Jesus.  It is an incredible example for us – we can know that God has our back and is not going to let us escape his love.

In Matthew 6:25 it says: ‘Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink or about your body, what you will wear’. This is possible because God has promised to look out for us and to give us our daily bread.

Worry can easily overtake us and dominate all our thoughts but God does not want this to be the case.

Praying and rowing

The Lord’s Prayer is like a template. It reminds us of the core of prayer.

I want to end with a quote from someone who knows a lot more about prayer than me: Pete Greig who founded the 24-7 prayer movement:

‘Prayer must outwork itself in action. It is about the saying of prayers, for sure, but also about the becoming of prayers in a thousand practical ways.  As the Russian proverb puts it ‘Pray to God but continue to row for shore.’

Pray to God but continue to row for shore. Let’s be people who both pray and row!

You can watch a recording of the talk on Streatham Baptist Church’s website (the talk starts at 2.20 on the video).

Posted in Theology & Church | 3 Comments

Why Pope Francis is wrong about begging

This week I was at a church in central London, talking with the minister when a man came to the door asking for help.

He explained that he was not from London but his wife had just been discharged from UCH (a London hospital) following an emergency operation.  He said they had nowhere to stay and he didn’t have any money to pay for a hotel. He was asking for cash to help them out.

He said that he was due to be paid the next day, so would return and pay the money back in the morning. He earnestly added that both he and his wife are Christians so ‘they knew the church would help them’.

He was convincing and in many ways his story was powerful and moving. There was just one issue.

Both of us were 99.9% sure that he was not telling us the truth.

Wisdom from experience

Many people living in busy cities are used to hearing such scenarios. I lived in Kings Cross for five years, just around the corner from where the main distribution centre for The Big Issue magazine used to be. It was virtually impossible to walk out of my flat without being being asked for cash.

In the situation this week, the minister kindly and calmly explained the places he could go for help. She did not judge, dismiss or treat him harshly. But she responded to the request with the wisdom that comes from her daily experience. She knew how unlikely it was that any money given would be used for the purpose being presented.  On hearing this, the man walked off in search of someone else to try his story.

Giving is ‘always right’

In a recent interview, Pope Francis was asked about how we should respond to people begging. He said that giving to someone in need ‘is always right’. When asked about if the person will spend it on alcohol, the Pope replies:

‘If a glass of wine is the only happiness that he has in his life, that’s OK. Instead ask yourself what you do on the sly? What happiness do you seek in secret?’

The New York Times said the Pope had provided “a concrete, permanently useful prescription” which is “scripturally sound” and “startlingly simple” and which will help all city dwellers with how to respond to people begging: Give them the money and don’t worry about it.

I greatly admire Pope Francis and find his humility and compassion inspiring. But I strongly disagree with this advice. My core reason is because all my experience tells me that giving money to people begging does not actually help them. Basically, it is not showing them love.

Simplistic

It sounds kind to tell people to give money to anyone who asks, but we do not have the luxury of such simplistic approaches. We should not be cynical or harsh toward those begging, but we need to have a compassionate realism about the nature of their problems.

People begging are not intrinsically bad people and almost always have genuine needs. But handing over cash to them simply does not meet those needs effectively.  The homeless charity Thames Reach estimate that 80% of those begging are doing so to maintain an addiction. Rather than helping, handing over cash can actually be killing with kindness.

Friends and family

My professional work is with homeless people, but serious drug and alcohol addictions have also affected close friends and members of my family. Tragically, addictions have contributed the death of people I love, taken far too early.

A key thing to remember is that each person begging or approaching us for money is a precious human being of infinite worth. They are far, far more than an awkward situation to be managed well. Our focus needs to be on them, not us.  We need the courage and confidence to do the right thing, rather than the easy thing.

Over the last 20 years I have spoken with hundreds of people who are currently or formerly involved in begging. My articles on this issue have been read by over 50,000 people on R&R alone. I am yet to hear anyone say that the money they have received through begging has been a positive part of recovery journey.  But I have experienced and witnessed countless scenarios where money gained through begging is part of the problem.

Addictions which kill

The Pope’s references to ‘a glass of wine’ are comically inappropriate for the kind of alcohol misuse which is common for many people who beg. Many of the alcoholics that I have worked with can be drinking up to 9 or 10 cans of super-strength lager or cider (9% proof) a day.  Additional cash often just enables them to buy spirits.

Money given to people begging does not enable them a celebratory tipple: it is generally feeding an addiction which is literally killing them.

The complexity of compassion

I know that the Pope intends to set an example of kindness, justice and grace.  But more and more money given to people begging will not result in a more just world.  We need to go upstream and invest in preventing poverty and family breakdown.  We need to support programmes which help people travel the hard road of recovery. And of course we need agencies which provide emergency help for people on the streets.

We can long for simple answers, but compassion is complex. To be transformative, our efforts to show grace must always be accompanied by a concern for truth. Helping someone in need is ‘always right’ but only if it is done in a way which actually helps them.

If you are left thinking how should we respond to people begging, see this brief article which gives specific practical steps on what you can do: How should we respond to people begging?

West London Mission works with people affected by homelessness and addictions

Posted in Ethics & Christian living, Poverty | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

How I became a Christian – by Andrew Ryland

This is the story of how I became a Christian. To some who know me, this may be a surprise. It’s no secret, I just haven’t been very open about it.

Recently I have felt moved to be more transparent about my faith and how it has transformed me.  I hope that this will help some people on a similar journey to my own.

I was brought up in a loving Christian family. But I didn’t truly understand or engage with Christianity and stopped going to church when I was 16.  I thought that religion was dreamt up by ancient people before science came along.

Dark place

Years later life dealt me a wicked blow.  My wife of 5 years left me.  I was devastated and in a pretty dark place. I was drinking a lot and this began to escalate to dangerous levels. And with the drinking came a return to the smoking that I had previously given up.

The love of family and friends proved invaluable at this time, and there are many people to whom I am so grateful for helping me through. It was reading the autobiography of the cricketer Graham Thorpe that initially got me interested in Christianity. He had been through a marriage break up and found solace through the church.

Wanting to find out more I went on the Alpha Course – an introduction to Christianity.

Sceptical

The course helped a lot. I respected Christianity because of my family’s faith and also because of the charitable aspect of it. I know for many Christians helping others is a way of life.

I was sceptical though. I couldn’t get my head around the belief that Jesus is the Son of God.  I believed in God, as I thought that a higher being must have created the universe.  But would he put a son on Earth to live as a human?

Years went by with this half-hearted engagement with Christianity.  I moved to Singapore with my job, where my life really changed.  I met a lovely, beautiful Christian Filipina called Annie. Just before we got married I started going to church with her. But I was still seeking proof to get over my scepticism.

Transformation

Then, we were in church one Sunday, when I suddenly thought: “Why not just accept that Jesus is the Son of God…you don’t need proof!”

At that moment, I felt an energy surge go right through me.  It was an incredible sensation.  I knew in that instant that it was the Holy Spirit. If I needed proof, then there it was.

Since then my life has been completely transformed.  Annie and I have been blessed with a wonderful son, James.  When we got engaged, not wanting to overdo it, we decided to have just three weddings – in Singapore, UK and Philippines. This all took nearly a year but we didn’t wait for the last wedding to be over before we started praying and trying for a baby.

Answered prayers

Soon after our third wedding, Annie became pregnant.  James came along at the perfect time.  After he was born, the doctor told us that Annie has a condition which makes it hard for her to conceive.  We truly believe that James is a gift from God.

God has answered our prayers time and again.  Just before Annie gave birth there was uncertainty about my job.  We prayed for safe and healthy delivery and for certainty about my work.  Within a month both were answered: James was born, and I was contacted about an opportunity in Hong Kong – the job that I am now doing, which I really enjoy.

To quote one of my favourite comedy characters, Blackadder: “God is very quick these days!”

Inner peace

I have stopped smoking again.  Previously I tried to give up by my own efforts and failed but I know this time it is for good. This is an example of how our relationship with God works. Our faith and belief in Jesus allows him to transform us, not our own efforts.  The more we allow him into our lives, this transformation becomes all encompassing – physical, emotional, spiritual. And it leads us to helping others as a way of life.

Nowadays I feel an inner peace that I never had before.  That is not to say that being a Christian is easy. But I know it is the right way, and the only way.

Andrew Ryland is originally from Croydon and now lives in Hong Kong with his wife Annie and son James.  This is an edited version of his testimony which he shared recently at a women’s prison in the Philippines.

Posted in Ethics & Christian living | 4 Comments

I Believe in a Thing called Sin

speaking-of-sinA few years ago, I was on the south bank in London, near Waterloo station, and I got talking with a homeless man called Richard. He had approached me asking for money.

He was in a bad state.  He showed me the most terribly infected open wounds  on both his arms and legs caused by injecting drugs.  I urged him to go with me to the nearby St Thomas’ Hospital but he did not want to.

Even when he knew I would not give him any money, he made it clear that he did want to talk. He told me about his difficult family situation and his descent onto the street.He then asked me, somewhat out of the blue: ‘How do I find forgiveness?’

I explained what I believe about God’s offer of forgiveness which is available for everyone.  And he asked me to pray for him.  So sitting on a wall by a busy pavement, I prayed the Lord’s Prayer with him.  After I finished he asked me to write it down for him, as he put it ‘so I have the right words to say’.

As well as his obvious physical and medical needs, Richard had clear spiritual needs. He was seeking a form of restoration which social and health services alone cannot provide.

I don’t know what happened to Richard – but I’ll never forget that conversation.  It affected my decision to go back into the homeless work and seek to integrate the practical and spiritual aspects of care.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………..

I was thinking of this encounter again, as I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s short book Speaking of Sin.  She writes about the loss of ‘the language of salvation’ which includes words such as “repentance”, “penance”, “salvation”, and of course “sin” itself.

‘When these words are pronounced out loud, many of them sound like words from an earlier age, when human relationships with God were laced with blame and threat. As old as the words are, they are redolent with guilt. We may not know what they mean, but we know that they judge us.’

Even in churches, these words are used less and less in order to make worship a more positive experience. ‘When we speak of God we go straight for the grace.’

Social and personal

But it is situations like Richard’s which illustrate the reality of sin because they show the end result of a lifetime of trauma, abuse and injustice.  A cycle of pain in which he was both a victim and a perpetrator.

It is in the brokenness experienced in such tragic situations where the concept of sin makes most sense. Homelessness somehow embodies raw reality more vividly than many other issues. There are the social sins of a lack of affordable housing, poverty, inequality and a lack of services. But, there are also the personal sins of abuse, domestic violence and the carnage created by addictions and self-sabotage.

Understanding the world

This is why I believe sin needs pulling out from the slag-heap of discarded, outdated words to which it was been consigned.  Rather than being an outdated way to judge others, it is actually the best way to understand the mess and injustice in our world. More than any other word, it inclusively and universally describes our human condition. As Brown puts it:

“Abandoning the language of sin will not make sin go away. Human beings will continue to experience alienation, deformation, damnation, and death no matter what we call them. Abandoning the language will simply leave us speechless before them and increase our denial of their presence in our lives.”

The depth of existence

Speaking of Sin achieves a rare combination of being bold about human failure without falling into any finger-pointing judgementalism. Brown argues that despite all the positive social developments, legal and medical concepts can never adequately replace ‘the great words of our religious tradition’.

She quotes Paul Tillich in saying that the best ‘way of re-discovering their meaning is down into the depth of our human existence. In that depth these words were conceived; and there they gained power for all ages.’  It was this line that made me recall my encounter with Richard and the raw pain and search for forgiveness that he expressed.

Helpful and hopeful

Rather than being bad news, sin is a ‘helpful, hopeful word’. In fact, Brown provocatively describes sin as ‘our only hope’:

‘Sin is our only hope because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again…it is the fire alarm  that wakes us up to the possibility of true repentance.’

I will reflect further on this book in future R&R posts. I think it is one of the best books I have read for many years and is incredibly relevant to problems we see around us in the world today.

Speaking of Sin by Barbara Brown Taylor is currently available at Aslan Books for just £2.99

Posted in Recommended books, Theology & Church | Tagged | 4 Comments

Elitism dressed as charity: the injustice of tax breaks for private schools

whigift-school

Whiftgift School, Croydon

Tory leaders have a habit of declaring social justice as their key aim when they come to power. Remember Margaret Thatcher quoting St Francis of Assisi ‘where there is discord, may we bring harmony’ on the steps of Number 10?

Or John Major speaking of his vision of ‘the classless society’?

In her first speech as PM, Theresa May followed suit:

“If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately….but the mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone means more than fighting these injustices…The Government I lead will be driven, not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours…When it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you.”

But what does this rhetoric actually mean in specific and practical terms?

Are private schools charities?

Yesterday, May’s former colleague, Michael Gove, wrote an article in The Times with one specific suggestion: ending the tax exemptions available to the 1200 private schools in the UK due to their charitable status.

I don’t aim just to start an argument about the pros and cons of private education. Rather, I want to focus very specifically on this question: is it right that some of the most elitist establishments in the country are able to present themselves as charities?

Breathtaking facilities

In his article, Michael Gove lists some of the facilities that top private schools enjoy: Millfield has an equestrian centre and clay pigeon shooting facilities, Stowe its own night club and Charterhouse its own stables and golf course.

Every week I go to Whitgift School (pictured above) because my cricket club hires their sports hall. The quality of the facilities are breathtaking.

Many of the top schools have fees of over £30,000 a year, per pupil.  This alone is well above the national average income.

Discounted privilege

Yet each one of them is a registered charity. As such, they get an 80% discount on their business rates and their school fees are VAT exempt.  As Gove puts it:

‘To my continuing surprise, we still consider the education of children of plutocrats and oligarchs to be a charitable activity. This allows the very wealthiest in the globe to buy a prestige service that secures their children a permanent positional edge in society at an effective 20% discount’

He also refers to other state-paid benefits enjoyed by private schools, such as the subsidised uniforms of their cadet forces. But I think this is just so he can fit in this one-liner: ‘The Eton rifles are welfare junkies.’

Bursaries

Of course, supporters of the status quo will point to the bursary schemes that enable kids from families with lower incomes to attend.  And, fair enough, many of these schools do provide for a limited number of people who are not in the tiny % who can afford the full fees.

Also, some will point to private schools allowing state schools to use their facilities. But according to the Independent Schools Council’s own figures only 3% of private schools sponsor an academy and only 5% loan teaching staff to state schools.

These efforts hardly scratch the surface of creating any authentic diversity.  And it is on this tiny thread of noblesse oblige that the legitimacy of their charitable status hangs.

Rampant inequality

For me it is clear that the richest schools in the country are not legitimate charities and should not be given tax breaks.  As Gove says:

‘Are the children of the rich intrinsically more talented and worthy, more gifted and more deserving of celebration than the rest? Of course not. But our state-subsidised private schools continue to give them every advantage.’

If Theresa May truly believes in what she has said then she should end this state-subsidy of elitism.

People on both the political left and right believe that the rampant inequality between rich and poor in this country needs to be addressed. And education is one of the best places to start.

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments