money

Poverty’s End

(A six minute read)

A typical view

A friend of mine expressed anger recently over the seeming heartlessness of billionaires. The rich are oppressors, she says, because they ‘exploit others for their own wealth and comfort.’ After some discussion about making a general case out of a specific, we agreed that this generality is no more apt than saying poor people are morally deficient.

But it’s true that some people who make seemingly unthinkable amounts of money employ thousands who, even with a full time job, can’t afford the basic stuff of life.

That’s just to say that vast inequities exist, as they have throughout history. Many of us think we have answers, but if the solutions were so obvious, wouldn’t they be in place by now? Jesus said there would always be some people who are poor. 1 Obviously He was right, but we work to feed them just the same.

The number of families who rely on food pantries is shocking. Recent studies in the US put the number reliably at one household in seven. This is especially true in urban areas where the better jobs are, because the cost of living is higher there.

Here in the UK the situation is the same.

It’s easy to say ‘there is no justice in this.’ And it’s difficult to make a dent. My church, located in the borough of Lambeth, has a food bank each week, serving perhaps 150 people. This is out of nearly 50,000 Lambeth residents thought to live in poverty.

It’s hard to ground myself when I dive into a sea of statistics. Big data is a big ocean with mighty currents. Not only is this sea of information hard to swim in, it’s also hard to grasp the fullness of it from the shore.

It’s far more meaningful to find a partner, ignore the sea, and take a walk on the beach. That leads me to people like Brian.

An atypical view

I met Brian one windy wet November day as he huddled in the grimy entrance of the Clapham Common Underground station. There’s a small landing at the top of the stair where an unhoused neighbor often hangs out with a cup to attract spare change, or asks for a bite to eat.

Something about Brian was compelling, so I asked if I could join him, dropping to the cold pavement to introduce myself. Many of these conversations jump right to ‘the story’ and the reason they are in need, and oh – do I have any money?

Not so with Brian. He was welcoming, not suspicious. His greeting was warm. He asked after my health, about my family. He was full of curiosity and joy. It was as though I had knocked on the door of his home and was invited in.

18 months prior, Brian was standing precariously on the Albert Bridge, steeling himself to give his life over to the cold swiftness of the Thames below. He’d lost his job, had a couple of other bad knocks after that, and found himself on the street. He was in despair.

Death, interrupted

At that moment, a small group of people happened along.

‘Hey mate! Y’all right?’ one of them cried.

Brian wavered, he told me, unhappy that they broke his concentration as he summoned the willpower to jump. But something about the young man’s voice drew him back.

‘It was like I knew that voice,’ he told me. ‘There was hope in it, something I needed.’

After he answered their questions about why he was there, they asked to pray for him. He said yes. As they did, a warmth came over him, he said.

He looked off in the distance, as though seeing the scene again in real time, and then continued his story. ‘I felt a love like I’d never known,’ he said. He felt truly seen by another person for the first time in a long time. Someone was listening. Someone cared. Someone stopped to love him.

What happened next astounded him. ‘It was like my eyes were opened for the first time. I knew God had a plan for me and that I should trust him.’ He chuckled and shook his head in wonder. ‘Those kids. They said, “Don’t blame God for your troubles. He’s the one who came to save you!”‘

He smiled so hard his eyes closed. ‘And to prove it, He sent those young people to save my life and give me true life.’

An answer that satisfied

Brian said the Jesus they talked about was a different Jesus than he’d known growing up in church. This Jesus, they said, will eventually come to judge the world, ‘but first He came to save the world. He came to save me,’ he said.

Brian walked off that bridge full of God’s love, and with a gift. One of the group gave him a Bible, which he pulled out of its waterproof wrapper to show me proudly.

‘I’m working through the book of John right now,’ he continued. We talked for a while about the Father as ‘the vinedresser’ in chapter 15, and how he prunes us so we will bear more fruit. Brian allowed as how he was being pruned by his life on the street. I shared about how I was currently receiving cancer treatment.

God didn’t cause those things, being a loving God. But He meets us there when we reach out for Him.

I sometimes pray for my neighbors whom I encounter like this. Brian and me? We prayed for one another. I felt a need for the grace that was on his life, and the peace he knew. Here was a man with no physical resources, and yet he refused to consider himself impoverished. ‘I have riches beyond count,’ he told me.

After we spent a half-hour together I was getting stiff, and the cold was seeping into my bones.

My privilege allowed me to get up and move on. As the rain came in earnest, I descended into the Underground. At the landing I looked back and saw him above me, now intent on the next person coming into his life.

Next time I saw him, a couple of weeks later, he was in conversation with a local mission worker. An appointment was being made to get him undercover – into a room of his own, away from the cold pavement and on some financial assistance. I have never seen him again, and hope he is well.

Poverty’s end

At least I know for certain that Brian’s poverty problem was solved. It was solved that night on the Albert Bridge.

Is yours? Do you think poverty is only about food and shelter? Or is there more to it?

Meanwhile, whatever we believe, we keep working for justice. Even if it’s just one belly at a time, or one soul at a time. Feeding each is a victory.

1. Matthew 26:11

Unity

A Year For Reconciliation

(A five minute read)

I wrote last week that I see 2021 as the Year of Reconciliation. This comes in part because of the message in John 20:21, where Jesus says, ‘As My Father has sent Me, even so I send you.’ He then breathes on his disciples and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven them. If you retain the sins of anyone, they are retained.’

There’s a lot to examine and discuss in this little scene, and that will be a continuing topic of the writing here in 2021.

Reconciliation, that is, bringing together two parties who have been estranged from one another, leads to peace.

We talked about the 14th century English cleric John Wycliffe, who was branded a heretic for translating the Latin Vulgate bible into English. Wycliffe believed knowing the Gospel was sufficient for Christian conduct. He bristled against additional rules and traditions the church had invented to ‘govern men’s conduct.’

Wycliffe’s English translation reconciled the people of his nation back to the Gospel after generations of separation.

The apostle Paul used the phrase ‘ministry of reconciliation’ in his second letter to the Corinthian church. God, he said, ‘has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their sins against them,’ 1

He goes on to say that as we grow in Christ’s likeness, we are to do the same.

Wycliffe’s Accomplishment

Like any good martyr, John Wycliffe is remembered for the things he did to tick off the people in power. He was excommunicated post mortem, which seems like a ridiculous thing. Sort of like sending a hate letter to someone whose address you’ve lost. Full of sound and fury and signifying nothing of an eternal nature (to uplift Shakespeare).2

Some historical context helps

Wycliffe’s world was one where the church had power over all of western civilization – even over kings. The Black Death had ravaged Europe – killing perhaps 200 million people. The church was powerless to stop it, which caused many people to begin questioning the church’s power. People hungered to know the Gospel for themselves.

Wycliffe was declared a heretic and the church threatened anyone who read the Scriptures in English. It burned those translations, when found. Like the destruction of Wycliffe’s body, these were small fires that lasted a short time. But the tinder for a fire of revival was placed and the wood was made ready as a result.

The forbidden fruit is always attractive. Church leaders forgot that truth from their own Bible.

Now, Some Biblical Context

Paul’s idea of reconciliation may come from the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus teaches about anger, and how corrosive it is. He says if ‘you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you’ leave the gift and go make up.3 Reconciliation must come before acceptable worship is possible.

If I understand Jesus as a God of relationships (as opposed to rule-following) then this business of unresolved conflict is mortally grave because it leaves me separated from God.

I must practice reconciliation immediately and completely. Otherwise, I carry the baggage of unresolved conflict, which causes long-term harm to my relationships.

In his ‘Studies in the Sermon on the Mount’, Oswald Chambers teaches that when I properly approach God in worship, Holy Spirit will remind me of any outstanding grievance I have. Chambers says it’s my duty to listen, listen well, and respond immediately and in full, with no reservations. As he put it: ‘Watch the thing that makes you snort morally….unless you are willing to yield your right to yourself…you need not pray any more’. 4

My self-righteousness (where I decide I won’t apologize because I was right and you were wrong) crowds out Jesus’ righteousness. It leaves my heart cold and unforgiving. Chambers refers to it as giving up my right to myself. That’s what I was supposed to have done when I gave my life to Christ, so I’ve no right to take it back.

I confess to doing this way too often.

So, Now What?

We have veered well away from the story of John Wycliffe, but his example was only a point of departure, after all. More important is that we’ve begun exploring the long history of God’s plan to reconcile this broken world and its people to Himself.

I’m glad you are here on this road with me.

1. 2 Corinthians 5:18
2. The Tragedy of Macbeth, Act 5, Scene V
‘She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.’
3. Matthew 5:23-24
4. Oswald Chambers, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, pp 32-33. Discovery House Publishers, © 1995, Oswald Chambers Association Limited. (Used with permission)

Exhumation of John Wycliffe

RIP John Wycliffe

(A six minute read)

John Wycliffe was either one of Christianity’s great heroes, or a complete heretic. It depends on whom you ask, and when you had asked them. I believe he’s one of the great reconcilers of history. For that I honor his memory.

He died 636 years ago today, on the last day of 1384.

Wycliffe was one of the bold precursors to those churchmen who really upset the apple cart in subsequent centuries: Savonarola, Hus, Luther, Calvin, Tyndale. Heretics all.

Wycliffe was only a hero in his own time to those who thought there should be no intermediary between God and the individual Christian. Wycliffe took seriously the Biblical exhortation, ‘Let us then come with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.’ 1

He wanted people to grow in their faith without an intermediary, and in doing so made himself an enemy of the church. To approach God’s throne directly – not through a confessional priest – was a radical idea. ‘Private confession was not ordered by Christ and was not used by the apostles,’ Wycliffe wrote. Possibly he had James 5:16 in mind.2

The existing church structure, Wycliffe believed, threw two huge roadblocks in the common believer’s path: the priesthood, and esoteric language. Workaday Christians in his day were told to go through a priest to ‘get to’ God.

The church hierarchy claimed that it alone held the keys to knowledge, to wisdom, to forgiveness, to the afterlife. People were told they had no right to a direct relationship with God. It was spiritual oppression by elites. It was an abuse of power.

How could the English people know any better until Wycliffe’s translation appeared?

The book was a protest. It threatened the church’s grip on ecclesiastical control, because an English translation could be read aloud to a predominately illiterate congregation. People could hear the word of God in their own language. Hearing it for themselves grew their faith, because faith comes by hearing.3 It also expanded their thinking.

The church was afraid of this. Empower the masses and they might gain their faith independently! They could overthrow their masters! Knowledge in the hands of the oppressed always threatens the oppressor.

Church leaders thought Wycliffe’s crime so vile that it wasn’t enough for them to condemn him in 1415 at the Council of Constance (31 years after his death). They went the extra mile, dug up his remains from consecrated ground, and then burned them.

What was Wycliffe up to? From here, it looks like the ministry of reconciliation. That is, bringing together two parties that have been separated. God came to earth as Jesus Christ to reconcile people back to Himself. Jesus sent His followers out to continue the work. They did turn the world on its head, but like any human, or human-built construct, the church itself fell into sin and error.

Wycliffe must have seen the church of his day reflecting the religious leaders of Jesus’ time. The Pharisees had invented many rules to follow so people could ‘keep the law’. They themselves were the keepers and adjudicators of these rules.

They took what was once a healthy relationship, and squeezed the love right out of it. Fourteenth century church fathers had done the same. Their church was religious, not spiritual; it was about rules, not relationship. It was about shame, not grace.

Wycliffe wrote, ‘The gospel alone is sufficient to rule the lives of Christians everywhere – any additional rules made to govern men’s conduct add nothing to the perfection already found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.’ 4

His English translation of the Bible reconciled the people of his nation back to the Gospel after lifetimes of separation.

This business of reconciliation is something Jesus took very seriously. ‘First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift,’ 5 He said. He only wanted tender, forgiving hearts to worship Him.

Reconciliation is a word God has highlighted to me for 2021. 2021 is to be a Year of Reconciliation. But reconciliation is not only a noun – it is also a verb. What’s more, reconciliation is not just an action, but can be a lifestyle. It can be a full outworking of Christian faith.

Reconciliation is encompassed and then released in my baptismal verse, John 20:21: ‘So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As My Father as sent Me, even so I send you.”’

Outwardly, the world appears to be changing rapidly. Inwardly, its the same old game: the conflict between our hearts and our spirits. We human beings can be at war with ourselves, with one another, and with God. Or, we can choose to reconcile, and be at peace. We can choose to lay down our hearts.

I’ll be writing a lot on this topic in the coming year, and hope to have some guest writers explore reconciliation as well. If you know someone who would be interested in this, either as a reader or a writer, please point them here, so they can join in the conversation.

Next week: More about the practical aspects of Wycliffe’s work, and some truth from the Sermon on the Mount.

1. Hebrews 4:11 ‘Let us then come with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.’
2. James 5:16 – ‘Confess your faults to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed.’
3. Romans 10:17 – ‘So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
4. John Wycliffe quotes collected by azquotes.com
5. Matthew 5:24 – ‘First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift,’

Image: ‘The Exhumation of John Wycliffe’ from the book The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe, vol. 3, 1837 edition. A public domain image via Wikimedia Commons