Light in the darkness: fighting the misunderstanding and stigma of mental illness – by Giles Fraser

carrie-fisherCarrie Fisher was more than a princess. At the age of 24 she was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder – or manic depression as it used to be called. And throughout the rest of her life she fought to demystify this condition from misunderstanding and stigma.

She called her illness “an opportunity to be a good example to others”, talking about her condition without shame, and encouraging others to do the same.

Dark and empty  

Which is why I thought it appropriate for me to say a few words about my own episodes of depression. Mine are different to those Carrie used to have, without the same up and down mood swings. For me, its extended periods of feeling dark and empty, like being submerged in cold black water. They are bleak desperate times when no one can reach me and when, at extreme moments, I have struggled with the most self-destructive of thoughts.

And when I have been overtaken like this, people telling me its all going to be OK feels like an insult. Even worse are those who want to proscribe Jesus to make all things smiley and well. During these periods I feel that God is absent, uninterested or even non-existent. And whilst I know this sounds a lot like atheism – and indeed often feels like it too – it’s not really the same at all.

Not self-saving creatures

For despite the experience of the absence of God, there is something important that orthodox Christian theology has to say to me when I am trapped in this darkness – and that is: that we as human beings are not supposed to be self-saving creatures.

That was the ancient heresy of the Scottish monk Pelagius – he thought that human beings were capable of saving ourselves from the darkness, that we are able to pull ourselves up from our own boot-straps. The church officially disagreed. We are dependent creatures, the church insisted, fundamentally reliant on that which is outside our control.

The courage of waiting

Which is why much of the religious life, like depression itself, is constituted by the quality and courage of one’s waiting. Faith is often a determination to sit in the darkness without cheap consolation and to wait it out, to wait for the dawn to break.

Like the story in Luke’s gospel of Simeon and Anna who hung around in the Jerusalem Temple for years, with little idea of what they were waiting for. Eventually they found their light in the appearance of a baby boy, recently born in a Bethlehem shed, who was being taken to the Temple for the very first time.

Rescued from the dark

My favorite Christmas reading comes from the prophet Isaiah:

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them have the light shined.”

And when I hear those words read out in church I often cry. And then whisper a quiet prayer of “thank you” that I too have been rescued from the dark.

Giles Fraser is vicar of St Mary’s Newington, near Elephant & Castle in south London. This text is taken with permission from his Thought for the Day on BBC’s Radio 4 which was broadcast today.

Posted in Social commentary | Tagged | 2 Comments

‘A thorn in the side of comfortable socialism’: an appreciation of Bob Holman (1936-2016) – by Dave Wiles

bobholmanI first met Bob Holman in 1973. Following on from a turbulent adolescence I had experienced a radical conversion to Christianity. At the same time Bob was considering his future as Professor of Social Administration at Bath University.

With an amazing sense of vocation from him and Annette, he resigned his academic post and moved, with his children, onto the council estate where I lived at the edge of Bath.

He was the answer to my prayers!  However, he seemed to see me as an answer to his prayers as he looked for ways to connect with the community that he has just moved into.

It was not long before we, together with others, were running about 30 groups a week for young people. Before-school clubs, lunch clubs, holiday clubs, after school clubs, women’s groups, play schemes, youth clubs, local events as well as work with hundreds of local individual young people and adults. Even as an young man I could barely keep up with Bob’s energy and passion for community action!

Experimental community work

Bob and Annette’s home was open to all. Little did I know at the time, but Bob was experimenting with a pioneering approach to neighbourhood work that would later cause many interesting debates in the world of social work. What does it mean to ‘live on the patch’? Was it possible to develop ‘indigenous workers’?

Bob didn’t parachute in with answers; he trod the street listening to local people and engaging potential activists to respond to their own concerns. His East End humour and warm personality helped.  His social work was not confined to fancy rhetoric about empowerment, facilitation and development – he practiced it with gusto!

Purposeful relationships

Bob would remember details about people’s lives and show such interest and pleasure in others that everyone in my neighbourhood soon adored him. On Monday mornings we always met to catch up on our plans for the week and pray. Bob would always be found writing out the birthday cards for that week.  He remembered hundreds of people a month in this small act of human compassion.

For many young people on the estate, his belief in them awoke their belief inthemselves. This has enabled many of them to achieve so much in their own lives. I know at least ten young people who, despite a lack of early academic success, when on to become youth workers, social workers and community workers through Bob’s influence.

Bob used words like ‘reciprocity’ and ‘mutuality’ and lived them out. He focused on what people could do – rather than problematising their character. One example I remember was a young man with a track record of theft, but who Bob saw potential in and trusted him to run our youth club café. It provided the platform for him to make a success of his life.

Willingness to serve

On the residential camps we ran, if anyone wanted to find this professor of social administration – they would be pointed to the washing up tent. Here, Bob spent hours cleaning up the dirty pans.  He did not do this as a well-meaning philanthropist indulging a middle class need to feel better about himself : he believed deeply in service of others.

Bob was a practitioner of ‘Glocal’ action: thinking globally and acting locally. Through his many books and newspaper articles on social work and poverty he became a significant player on the national and international stage. But his principles always remained rooted in his day to day actions.

Deep, real and rooted faith

Then there was his Christian faith – which was firm and sure until the last time that I saw him. Bob’s faith was the opposite of waiting for ‘pie in the sky when you die’. Rather it was rooted in the present hope and struggle for ‘steak on your plate while you wait’ for one and all.

It was this red blooded, life-integrated faith that kept him (as Helena Kennedy said) a thorn in the side of comfortable socialism. It was a faith that was deep, real and rooted in old fashioned concepts like truth, justice, mercy, love and grace.

Bob was well able to give an account of the hope he had but always did so with gentleness, respect and humility. His faith made him a tireless champion for children and for equality. He was an inspirational activist, a wise social analyst, a loyal friend, a good father and husband. And my much missed dear friend.

This is taken from a talk Dave Wiles gave at a conference this month to remember the legacy of Bob Holman who died in June 2016 aged 79. For more on Bob’s life as a Christian community activist and his later work on the Easterhouse estate in Glasgow see his obituaries in The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph.

Posted in Poverty | Tagged | Leave a comment

‘Dossers’ who choose to sleep rough and the ‘professional weepers’ who care: ‘The Sun’ on homelessness in 1990

the-sun-logo_0I was clearing out some old paperwork this week at the West London Mission and I found some fascinating old newspaper clippings relating to homelessness.

sun-editorial-march-1990One clipping particularly struck me. It was from The Sun, March 1990. It starts:

IT’s time we stopped feeling guilty about the plight of dossers sleeping rough on our streets. 

Professional weepers claim there are 73,000 homeless in London alone.

Their cries of “shame” are loud enough to reach Buckingham Palace and suck Prince Edward into the cause.

It goes on:

The truth is, most dossers are on the streets through CHOICE.

Some are obviously not capable of looking after themselves. Those need all the care that our hospitals can provide.

But spare us this barrage of emotional blackmail from groups driven by POLITICAL motives.

There are far bigger causes to champion in this world.

Dramatic rise 

It is interesting that 1990 was a time when the numbers of homeless people on the streets had dramatically risen and it was becoming an increasingly high profile issue.

I remember it well because I left school in 1990 and got a cleaning job which meant being on The Strand in central London by 7.00am every morning. The extent of the rough sleeping at that time was truly shocking – with 3-4 people sleeping under almost every doorway.  Villiers Street, which runs down from The Strand to the Embankment, was like a homeless village with countless people huddled together under cardboard.  It had a massive impact on me.

Political pressure

Although The Sun peddled such harsh and judgmental views, the political pressure created by homelessness was too much for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government to ignore. The sight of so many rough sleepers, many of them very young, around Whitehall and Westminster did produce policy change.

The Rough Sleeper’s Initiative was launched later in 1990 and allocated £350m over three years to reduce homelessness.  It was the subject of my dissertation at University and in 1993 I started work in a direct-access hostel for homeless young people that it helped fund.

Warning from history

In one way, this editorial is an illustration of how things have improved.  Only this week, The Evening Standard (another paper which used to regularly called homeless people ‘dossers’) launched a front page campaign to support one of my former employers, Centrepoint. There is definitely improved understanding and more humane responses to homeless people.

But this editorial is also a warning from history.  It shows how recently people with chronic needs, affected by trauma and poverty were dismissed contemptuously by the UK’s most popular newspaper.

Over the years, I have heard countless stories from homeless people about being threatened, kicked and urinated on.  And it is spiteful views like the ones in this article which provide fuel, and some warped justification, for these kinds of inhumane behaviours.

Toxic journalism

Reading it today makes me feel proud of my predecessors in this work, dismissed as ‘professional weepers’, who DID stand up for the vulnerable and made their voice heard at a time when this issue was far less fashionable.

Today it is other vulnerable groups, such as refugees, who are often the target of tabloid contempt. We should never underestimate the toxic nature of ignorant forms of journalism which make sweeping statements about whole groups of vulnerable people and mock those who show concern.

Posted in Homelessness | 6 Comments

Love Trumps Hate: responding to the US election – by Stephen Kuhrt

This post is based on a sermon preached by Stephen Kuhrt at Christ Church New Malden on Sunday 20th November 2016. The bible reading was Matthew 7:13-20.

trumpWhat is a Christian response to the election of Donald Trump?

Like the Brexit vote in the UK, Donald Trump’s win is a massive wake-up call for the establishment. It is a major sign of people’s disillusionment with the political class.  It’s a revolution, as people who never turned out to vote previously, have done so this time placing in power someone whom they believe is going to sort things out for them.

Our bible reading this morning speaks into this situation because it’s all about how to respond to leaders other than Jesus. Here, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sets out the stark choice between his programme and the other approaches that were on offer.

The political Jesus

And one of the things that we need to pick up if we’re going to see its proper relevance to today, is how deeply political Jesus was. We can’t depoliticise Jesus and shift his words into a separate category marked ‘spirituality’ or ‘salvation’.

Absolutely no one during Jesus’ earthly ministry, least of all Jesus himself, would have suggested that issues of spirituality or salvation could be separated from the political issues that the people were facing.

The Jews were an occupied people, a people who felt powerless and exploited. Remember – crucifixion was a sign of Roman political power long before it became anything else. Many in Israel were angry and were looking for God, through some anointed leader, to bring freedom from oppression.

Radical vision

And Jesus steps directly into this situation with a radical vision: God will bring the freedom that you long for. But it will come through means of love and service to others, not violence or force.

That’s what those Beatitudes are about. That’s what ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ is all about. It was not an other-worldly spirituality about ‘how to go to heaven when you die’. It was about how God’s kingdom is coming to the here and now: ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.

But Jesus was also aware that his wasn’t the only vision around.  This is why he warned his listeners about the alternatives that were being and would be presented by others. And it’s here that, we might can see a number of parallels today about how we should respond to the vision and agenda set out by someone like Donald Trump.

There are two points from the passage that I want to draw out in application to this this morning. The first is about taking the hard path and the second is that we should reject false prophets.

1. Taking the hard path

Jesus says that the path that leads to life is narrow and its hard, whereas the wrong path that leads to destruction is wide and easy.

When we’re provoked by someone behaving badly, whether its a neighbour or someone at work, the easiest thing in the world to do something bad back in return. The same is true on a political level – when faced with challenges it’s the easiest thing in the world to stigmatise people who are different, to make rabble rousing speeches about banning Muslims from entering your country or building a wall to keep out Mexicans.

Its easy to buy into the simplistic solutions that says this will put everything right. But actually it’s an easy path that leads to destruction.

Donald Trump is responding to genuine problems with easy and ultimately destructive answers. Yes there’s a problem with the establishment and with the political status quo. But simplistic solutions based upon encouraging hate and division can only lead to destruction.

Christians are called to reject this and take the much harder and more difficult path that declares that the only way that evil can be overcome is with love.

2. Rejecting false prophets

The second point his that we should watch out for false prophets, We need to be wary of those who promise all sorts of fine things and judge them by what they actually produce.

This is the reason why we can’t ignore the misogynistic, racist comments that Trump has made. We can’t dismiss it as ‘locker room talk’ or say it irrelevant because its policies that matter. And we can’t pretend its all ‘in the past’ because it is too consistent with the recent attitudes that he has shown. A good tree produces good fruit but a bad tree produces bad fruit.

In tough times, Jesus says, you’ll be surrounded by false prophets so its vital that you understand how to assess them. I believe that Donald Trump is perhaps the most obvious and dangerous false prophet that’s currently on offer.

A radical alternative

The challenge to Christians, as we enter into this more divisive, more extremist and frankly more dangerous world, is to model the radical love of Jesus.

We’ve got to be people that demonstrate the power of love by creating communities that welcome everyone equally.

We’ve got to be people who challenge and change the status quo through service and love rather than division and oppression.

We’ve got to people who campaign for justice and take on the establishment but with the weapons of truth and justice.

We’ve got to be people who look out for the false prophets and avoid their simplistic and easy solutions.

Why? Because we know, as followers of Jesus, that love trumps hate.

Stephen Kuhrt is vicar of Christ Church New Malden and is the author of ‘Tom Wright for Everyone’

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Wallowing in nostalgia or facing up to the challenges of today?

cathy-come-homeThis week I was invited to an event at Parliament to mark the 50th anniversary of the famous film Cathy Come Home in the company of MPs and its director Ken Loach.

In 1966, it was watched by over 12 million people  and had a massive impact on people’s views about homelessness. It led to the creation of the organisations Crisis and Shelter and is considered one of the most socially influential films of all time.

After watching a section of the film, Ken Loach, spoke. He strongly criticised the record of recent governments who have failed to build anywhere near enough homes. He powerfully articulated how a misplaced faith in ‘the market’ was the fundamental problem – because it was only through intentional planning and investment that enough housing would be built.   As with his films, Loach’s views were uncompromising, thought-provoking and trenchant.

After this, a number of others representing different homelessness organisations spoke and there was a time for questions and debate.

It should have been a memorable evening. But actually I found it deeply disappointing.

Lack of controversy

Cathy Come Home was a film which shocked the nation. It sparked a huge debate and controversy. A huge number of complaints were made to the BBC from people who claimed it was left wing propaganda.

But at the event this week, there was not a whiff of controversy or even disagreement. Despite the political extremity of Ken Loach’s views (even under Jeremy Corbyn he still refuses to re-join the Labour Party) none of the politicians present ventured to disagree with him. Instead they just heaped the compliments on him and the legacy of his film and uniformly advocated increases in government spending.

Yet, the contemporary political context could not be more antithetical to Loach’s views. A ruling Tory government, continuing austerity, an opposition in disarray and a global right-wing resurgence. Yet no attempt was made to bring any other views into meaningful dialogue with what Loach was advocating.

In our national home of political debate, all we ended up with was a cosy gathering full of nodding heads. As I commented before asking my question, it was the perfect example of a liberal echo-chamber.

Contradiction and challenge

The French theologian Jacques Ellul wrote this in his essay Dialectic in the book What I Believe:

‘Negativity is essential, for if the positive remains alone, it is unchanged, stable and inert… for example, an unchallenged society, a force without counterforce, a person engaged in no dialogue, an unstimulated professor, a church without heretics, a sole party without rivals, is enclosed within the permanent repetition of its own image.

It will be satisfied with what it has done thus far and will see no reason to change…the only thing that can bring about change or evolution is contradiction, challenge…this factor carries with it the transformation of the situation.’

Cathy Come Home is an example of what Ellul wrote about. It challenged society, it broke the inertia and provided a counterforce which created change. And this movement was powerful enough to lead to changes in the law and the development of charities that have helped thousands of people.

What will bring change today?

The situation in 2016 is not the same as 1966. Some things, such as general standards of living have improved. Yet inequality between rich and poor has got worse. Family life, a key theme in Cathy Come Home, has become less and less stable as fewer fathers than ever live with their children. And over the last ten years immigration from the EU has had a massive impact on levels of homelessness.

These are some of the challenging issues that we need to grapple with honestly. Some are issues which the government investment can change – such as building more affordable housing. But others, such as increasing the stability of family life, are more complex and more controversial.

Wallowing in nostalgia about the impact of historic social movements is not being true to their legacy. We need to work harder than that and be committed to thinking and debating about what is achievable to bring about real change today.

Review of Ken Loach’s latest film ‘I, Daniel Blake’

Posted in Politics, Poverty | Tagged | 2 Comments

Closet Christianity and the parable of the religious candles

snuffedoutcandlesimg“There was a power cut the other night. When the lights went out, I fumbled to the cupboard where we keep the candles for nights like this.

I grabbed four of them. I was turning to leave with the large candle in my hand when I heard a voice, “Now, hold it right there.”

“Who said that?”

“I did.” The voice was near my hand.

“Who are you? What are you?”

“I’m a candle.”

I lifted up the candle to take a closer look. There was a tiny face in the wax.

“Don’t take me out of here!”


“I said, don’t take me out of the closet.”

“What do you mean? I have to take you out. You’re a candle. Your job is to give light. It’s dark out there.”

“But you can’t take me out. I’m not ready,” the candle explained with pleading eyes. “I need more preparation and training.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “Training? Preparation?”

“Yeah, I’ve decided I need to study this job of light-giving so I won’t go out and make a bunch of mistakes. You’d be surprised how distorted the glow of an untrained candle can be.”

“All right then,” I said. “You’re not the only candle on the shelf. I’ll take the others!”

But right then I heard other voices: “We aren’t going either!” I turned to the other candles, “Why not? You are candles – your job is to light dark places!”

“Well, that may be what you think,” said one, “You may think we have to go, but I’m busy. I’m meditating on the importance of light. It’s really enlightening.”

“And you other two,” I asked, “are you going to stay too?”

A short, purple-faced candle with plump cheeks spoke up. “I’m waiting to get my life together. I’m not stable enough.”

The last candle had a very pleasant voice and sounded very sincere. “I’d like to help,” she explained, “but lighting the darkness is not my gift. I’m a singer. I sing to other candles to encourage them to burn more brightly.” She began a rendition of “This Little Light of Mine.” The other three joined in, filling the closet with singing.

I took a step back into the darkness and considered the absurdity of it all. Four perfectly healthy candles singing to each other about light but refusing to come out of the closet.”


“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”  Jesus, from Matthew 5:14-16

(I am grateful to Nathan McGuire who shared this parable recently at Streatham Baptist Church)

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Six reasons why Hillary lost it – by Lizzie Schofield

Oh, Hillary! This was your election to lose, girl! Want to know what happened?

Let me make you some tea and share my wise, wise Briddish insights, because obviously if I ran for President of the USA I would do a way better job! Ready? Here’s where it all went wrong (imho).

1. Mudslinging: yes – you too

The Orange One said some outrageous things – correct. Calling him out on them – good. Throwing not just him, but his supporters under the bus with “the basket of deplorables” comment?  Bad.

You should have invested way more energy winning them over instead with your amazing and brilliant vision for New America.

2. Not listening to the opposition

Imagine for a minute, that Trump supporters are not racists, bigots, homophobes and haters. Imagine them saying  “I don’t hate anyone, I just don’t agree with your liberal agenda because…” Except they don’t get to finish their sentence because of the claxons of “Bigot! Homophobe! Hater!” going off in every direction.

Here’s the thing: if you tell people they’re bigots etc, they don’t generally hang their heads and say “You’re right. Thank you for re-educating me.” Instead they say “Why are you judging me? Who made you the High Priest of All Morality anyway? Didn’t I read something somewhere about ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone?’ Then they take out their frustration at the ballot box.

3. Not guaranteeing freedom of speech

This was a massive issue for many Christians which you completely overlooked. It comes up over again in the ‘Why Christians should vote for Trump’ videos on youtube. Most Christians I reckon (me, anyway) are anti-discrimination, and don’t want (for example) gay marriage to be repealed, but they do want reassurance that they can publicly express their convictions on marriage etc without losing their job. This should have been easy to do, so why didn’t you? It cost you politically – bigly.

4. Making the Presidency a feminist issue

Madeleine Albright said “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” But why should I vote for a woman just because she’s a woman and I’m a woman?

Firstly, politicians shouldn’t talk about hell. Why bring eschatology into it? Why not just say “Vote for Hillary?”

Secondly, the whiff of hypocrisy: if a Christian Republican had said a sentence with “a special place in hell” in it, Democrats would never have let us hear the end of it.

Thirdly, why should I prioritise “helping out another woman” over what I think is best for my country, my Dad, my brothers, my husband, society, the economy etc etc? What is inherently most noble about the sisterhood that I should prioritise it? And there was too much banging on about the glass ceiling. Maggie Thatcher is the person to learn from here: she ignored the whole woman angle and let her political agenda do the talking (for good or ill.)

5. Convincingly unconvincing

Hillary, what are your actual political convictions? Because every time you open your mouth, it sounds like a press release entitled “What Hillary should say now to make her sound convincing.” Love him or hate him, the Donald at least came across as a straight talker. In this regard, Bernie Sanders would have been a way better match.

image6. THAT slogan

“Stronger together”…..hmm, where have I heard that before? Sounds a bit like “Stronger in”, doesn’t it? ‘Cos that was a real winner round our way.

On this issue, a picture paints a thousand words:

Lizzie Schofield lives in London, works for Pfander Apologetics

Posted in Politics | Tagged | 2 Comments

What’s more important, what the Church SAYS or what it DOES?

At Streatham Baptist Church last week, I had a debate with the senior Pastor, Phil Robinson about our mission as a church. Should we emphasise proclamation or social action?  What is more important – what the Church says or what it does?

As a preacher, Phil insisted that proclamation and evangelism was the fundamental imperative – people need to hear clear preaching and teaching which explains the gospel message so that they can make a personal commitment. An over-emphasis on social engagement and a cultural reticence to talk openly about our faith has muted Christians and deeply damaged the indigenous church in the UK.

As a social worker, I argued that the world is full of preachers (just go outside Brixton tube station as I do every day) spouting words that don’t connect with people.  We need to show our faith through what we do because actions speak louder than words. Instead of being obsessed with being distinctive, we need to connect with the community and work for social justice and the common good.

It was a passionate and got quite heated. Phil concluded ‘We must reject the social gospel which has sold out Christian distinctiveness and truth’. To which I replied ‘I would rather a social gospel than the heresy of individualism!’

proclamation-presenceAt this point, we put this image up and asked everyone to talk in groups about what their view was.

After the discussions, we made it clear to everyone that both of us had deliberately taken extreme positions which exaggerated what we actually believe and polarised the debate. But we did this to draw out the tension within Christian approaches to mission that clearly exist.

Biblical tension

These tensions are apparent in the Bible. Very early on in the life of the church, a racial dispute broke out about how food was being distributed to widows in need (Acts 6:1) . The twelve disciples decide to appoint others who can look after this ‘social action’ while they focus on preaching God’s word.

The irony that I have always enjoyed is that one of those chosen, Stephen, goes on to preach one of the longest sermons in the whole New Testament – and becomes the first Christian martyr for his trouble. So much for just ‘waiting on tables’!

I would go as far as to say that I believe the biggest challenge facing the church today is how we confidently integrate the message of the Christian gospel alongside our social action.  How do we bring together explicit words about God and implicit demonstrations of His love and care?

proclamation-presence2‘Actions in truth’

Instead of two separate circles, I think its helpful to see them dynamically dependent on each other:

1. Both sides are undernourished without the other.  Authentic Christian mission will always involve both words and actions, as well as personal and social change. On some issues we will need to be distinctive and different, on others we can find common ground and connect with those beyond the church. Faith should always be expressed both explicitly through words and implicitly through actions – this is part of the dynamic inter-relationship of being ‘in the world but not of it’.

2. God’s action through Christ has to remain the core. The heart of Christian faith is about what God has done through Jesus. All our words or actions should be pointing to or illustrating God’s grace, forgiveness and love. This is the best thing the Church can do. All Christians should be ready to speak personally about how this love is changing us and be prepared to stand out distinctively in an unbelieving world.

3. Faith in Jesus must be expressed in action. Christian beliefs must be clothed in actions which embody and authenticate our message. Genuine faith is incarnated in action. So much of Jesus’ sermon on the mount is about actions and the ‘wise builder’ in the famous parable is the one who hears the teaching ‘and puts it into practice’. Faith without deeds is dead.

It’s a fusion summed up well by my favourite verse in the Bible: ‘Let us not love with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth‘ (1 John 3:18).

Posted in Theology & Church | 4 Comments

Personal tragedy and political failure: remembering homeless people who have died in the past year

St Martins Service

Artwork by Don Pollard, inspired by Henri Matisse

The annual service to commemorate homeless people who have died in the past year was held today at packed St Martins-in-the-Fields church, central London.  

As part of the service, The Choir with No Name and Streetwise Opera performed songs and the names of 160 homeless people who have died in the past year were read out.

I gave the following talk on the theme ‘My father’s house has many rooms’ from the Bible reading John 14:1-7.

It is twenty years since Danny Boyle’s film Trainspotting was released. It’s a gritty, tragic and darkly funny story about heroin and those who use it. Innovative production, a great soundtrack, clever marketing – and a young Ewan McGregor in the lead role – all helped make it an iconic film. And for those who enjoyed it, a sequel is coming out in the New Year.

I’ll never forget watching the film because at the time, heroin was such a significant problem in the hostel that I worked in East London. I was a key worker in a large and very hectic establishment where 140 homeless men and women lived.

Mandy was one of my 14 key-clients that I had particular responsibility for. She was a young woman who had been homeless for many years – a real live wire and the life and soul of the hostel. But she was going through a particularly vulnerable and chaotic period and was using heroin on top of taking her methadone prescription.

I vividly remember the shift when I knocked on her door of her room to check how she was. But I did not get any response. I knew she was in so I shouted and knocked a few times before opening the door with my master key. She was there but was slumped on the floor. She had died from an overdose. All my attempts at first aid were too late.

Her death affected the whole hostel deeply. A large number of homeless people as well as staff and family came to her funeral service at Westminster Cathedral.

I know that many here today will have gone through this kind of loss and perhaps on a more personal level. Of course, every one of those whose names have been read out today has a different story, a different situation.

But like Mandy, so many have died far earlier than they should have.

Homelessness starkly brings together both personal tragedy and political failure. It is about both individuals who face difficulties and problems as well as systems which are not working as they should.

So we gather today to remember those who have died in the past year and to honour their memory. But we also gather in solidarity, and in anger, about a society which fails to protect vulnerable adequately, a society where there is such much housing injustice, where the numbers of rough sleepers has gone up every year since 2010.

What does the Christian faith have to say into this situation? I want to draw out two aspects from the reading we heard:

Firstly, there is comfort in our troubles. 

Jesus is speaking to a group who would have been greatly troubled. The authorities are threatening them, a close friend has betrayed them – but as so often Jesus speaks directly to these fears, worries and anxieties. In a context of doubt, he speaks words of certainty: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.’

It is easy to think that Christianity is all about us believing in God, but it is just as much about God’s belief in us.  In Jesus, God has come to meet us in all our weakness and frailty and offers us a deep acceptance and a home with him.

Sure, Jesus clashed with the authorities in power, but he stands in solidarity with those who have nowhere to lay their heads. Throughout his whole ministry he comforts the disturbed but also disturbs the comfortable.

Secondly, there is a hope to build our life on.

We live in uncertain times of political turmoil and change. Many across the world will be fearful about what the US election result will mean for them. My daughter is 8 and one of her school friends who is a muslim girl, said to her yesterday ‘It’s so sad that we will not be able to visit my family in America any more’. Hope can seem in short supply.

And even more deeply, none of us know for sure what is beyond the curtain of this life. In the reading we heard, even the disciples closest to Jesus are clear about their confusion. The Christian faith gives us no precise map about what the future will hold, but it does point clearly to the path to take.  Jesus says that He himself is the Way to follow, the Truth to believe in and the Life to be lived.  In him there is hope to build our lives upon.

It is this hope which underpins so many of the organisations which help homeless people today.  For me, it’s great to work closely with 13 churches and a synagogue in Westminster who offer hospitality and a warm bed so that rough sleepers can in from the cold over the winter months.

One of our current guests, Michael, got into debt and had a nervous breakdown when he became homeless and ended up on the cold streets. He said to me recently:

“I am now residing in 7 different churches who open up to give us a lovely meal and a bed. It’s wonderful to be able to go somewhere so warm and welcoming each night.”

This is just one example of the difference this hope can make when it is put into action – providing a dwelling place, a room which reflects the acceptance and welcome that God offers us.

So we gather in solidarity to honour those who have died. And I pray that each of us, as well as all those affected who are not here today, can receive comfort from a God who believes in us and experience the hope He offers to all. Amen.

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Voting for Trump…or against something bigger? Globalism is the elephant in the room – by Renee McMullen

globalism-1“The Powers That Be are more than just the people who run things. They are the systems themselves, the institutions and structures that weave society into an intricate fabric of power and relationships. The Powers surround us on every side. They are necessary. They are useful…but the Powers are also the source of unmitigated evils.” Walter Wink

Fear and loathing at the heart of Europe (and elsewhere)

Warning bells started to sound after reading media commentators, facebook statuses and posts after the Brexit vote in the UK. There were some really jarring reads: condescension, mockery and pure disdain for those who had voted contrary to the prevailing media and governing class’ opinion.

It was as though those who voted ‘leave’ in the Brexit referendum were somehow not as intelligent or informed as those voting to remain. ‘Exiters’ were quickly labeled nationalistic, xenophobic or narrow minded.  Alongside the labels, a whole rash of stories where spread seeking to sow deeper division in almost every area of society.

God teaches us to be weary of those two things in ourselves: disdain for fellow human beings and a desire to sow division.

We need to listen to the legitimate perspectives of those who are raising their voices – both in the UK, the US and even here in New Zealand where I live.

Globalism…the big Grey Animal

I believe that Globalism is the underlying driver of the turmoil many countries are facing.  It seems to be the outworking of this ideology on the general population that drove the ‘Brexit’ vote outcome and the current Trump phenomenon in the States.

It is the ‘elephant in the room’ which few mainstream media outlets are discussing. Globalism, unlike globalisation is not a fact, but an ideology. A utopian one.

It is pretty easy to find who the key movers are and to whom they are connected. The multi-billionaire George Soros is one of the key advocates for the Globalist agenda. He uses his power and wealth to influence many politicians, corporations and organisations to further his worldview that national economic and political leadership needs to be more controlled and coordinated.

Globalism is said to offer a universal plan to free the world from disease, hunger, war and the effects of climate change.  Many world, corporate and finance leaders have bought into the idea that a One World Government is the only way to achieve peace and economic security.

Undemocratic trade agreements

One of the first step towards ‘hemispheric government’ looks to be via trade agreements such as TTPA, TISA or TPP. Both Hilary Clinton and Obama fully support the TTP agreement and it is likely will vote irrevocably to activate it in Congress this month. These highly secretive agreements diminish individual counties sovereignty by establishing offshore courts to adjudicate on trade regulations.  They take power further and further away from ordinary people.

How can it be citizens don’t get to vote on such things or at least are given information to help them understand the implications of such agreements? How can it be? This is a top down down initiative with shockingly little democratic engagement.  It is easy to see how people see them as Trojan Horses for the globalist agenda.

Open borders

Another key issue is the question of ‘open borders’.  Often these discussions get shut down pretty quickly by people shouting ‘xenophobe!’ But the sustainability of a policy of open borders needs questioning in countries where is there is such pressure on health and housing services. Will we be able to support these new citizens in the way they deserve or want?

Asking these questions doesn’t make you narrowly nationalistic. It is simply a question of being practical and sensitive to the needs of both newcomers and those who already live there. Two traits I am not seeing a lot of in politicians or media commentators.

Shadowy ideology

The lack of clarity around these kinds of questions fuels concerns about the shadowy ideology of globalism.  It was a major contributing factor to the ‘Brexit’ result and now too the US election.

Maybe, rather than simply voting for Trump many people will be simply voting against something much bigger.

Renėe McMullen holds a degree in Theology from Kings College, London and is a part-time teacher, full-time mother and (mostly) Christ follower.  She lives in New Zealand.

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