Category Archives: Essay

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

The Shoreham Cross

In Memoriam

(A four minute read)

It’s not every day one sees a giant cross overhanging a valley. When it burst into view as we walked up the River Darent, we stopped in our tracks. But that comes at the end of the story, not the beginning.

The beginning of the story was the Great War.

Men suited up and shipped out, knowing death might await them. We remember them now: the sons, the brothers, the fathers, the friends.

Some of the elderly among us undoubtedly remember specific ones. Perhaps he was a grandfather or someone more removed by blood, yet perhaps even one whose hand they once held.

For us younger ones, they are pictures in dusty albums, whispering their stories in quiet voices that drown out the thunder of the cannon that flung death across the blasted wastelands of Verdun and the Somme.

Their voices whisper to us from Flanders fields, from the names etched on a hundred cenotaphs. Far away in memory, but still close to the heart.

As an American living in Britain, I’m touched by these memorials in perhaps a different way than the native-born. I moved from a nation that celebrates its patriotism to one that lives comfortably within its own history. It’s quite a shift. For me, every walk here is a walk back through time.

An unusually chilly October Saturday found me and my wife Melanie paying our respects at St. Peter & St. Paul’s Church in Shoreham to kick off our weekend ramble. It’s astonishing and humbling to stand in a place full of 800 years of prayer.

St. Peter and St. Paul’s held the runway for our ramble: A brickwork walkway; a corridor through trees sheltering the cemetery.

Shoreham is not on the shore; it’s in the middle of Kent, 50 miles from the Channel. As we walk, we travel further back in time as we head uphill through Dunstall Woods. The name seems Saxon: Dunn staell, probably ‘brown building’. Just like Shoreham: scor ham, possibly ‘dwelling at the foot of a steep slope’, that same slope now graced by a memorial cross.

OS Maps showed us more history descending to the river: a tumulus, a Roman villa site and where a Palace once stood. I was sad about stupidly forgetting the lunch, but pleased that a fine Otford establishment was open to give us fare.

It was full of steam, hot coffee and the type of conversation that’s an eavesdropper’s dream. Small towns are the same the world over. Full of intertwined lives and drama to match. There are no secrets there.

That reality undergirds the memories, and explains the memorials. Lives intertwined.

So it was, with stuffed bellies and hearts full of reflection, that we wandered downriver and, with surprise, beheld the cross overhanging the valley of the Darent. The beginning of the story and the end are the same. We find ourselves at the cross.

We lingered, thinking on the loved ones’ blood spilled for freedom: earthly freedom in a free land, and our heavenly freedom in Christ.

Let us never forget man’s sacrifice, nor the Son of Man’s.

Photo of soldier: Library of Congress, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Santa's workshop

12 Step Christmas (Pt. 2)

This is an expanded version of material originally prepared for my memoir Masterpiece (A Love Story).

(A four-minute read – catch up with Part I)

In Part I, the burden of grudges, resentments and petty hatreds, the burden of unforgiveness, was likened to a Christmas shopper weighed down and unbalanced by too many bags of purchases. Shoulders, arms and hands, backpack, all pulled to earth by what is owned.

The burden is not light

So burdened, we can’t skip along, or stride purposefully. We aren’t even walking, really. Because of the mass we choose to carry, we’re trudging, perhaps even plodding, or slogging. It’s no easy way to travel. Why choose it as a lifestyle by refusing to forgive?

Is it any wonder we speak of personal baggage when describing this? Baggage is something we carry. It has our “stuff” in it. When we travel on an airliner, the size and weight of what we can carry is limited. Too much, and the plane would burst at the seams, or not be airworthy. An apt metaphor for us as we journey through life with this junk!

So here we are, resolutely and stolidly toting all our baggage, refusing to relinquish it. What’s inside? Remember, in the shopping metaphor, we spent an entire day spending good money as it were to invest in these things. If they were a good investment, they will increase in value. But how can a grudge increase in value?

It can’t. It has no value in the first place. And anything times zero equals zero.

This begs this question: at what point do we cut our losses and divest? Why is divestment beneficial? And what are the risks, if any?

A frightening prospect. Is it worth it?

Here’s the upside: divestiture makes our lives, and our hearts, lighter. Without carrying baggage, we can pay more attention to what’s in front of us. We can enjoy the moment for what it is, instead of being on a fearful hunt for obstacles. When we carry so much weight, the risk of a drop or a stumble is so great, there’s no opportunity to stop being on the defensive.

Our feet become so occupied they are useless for anything but preventing a fall to earth. Our hands are so occupied they are useless for any good work. Our minds and hearts are so occupied by concentrating on the burden, we can perceive nothing else.

Our internal world consists of what we consider, and the things we refuse to forgive can eventually grow into the only things we consider, trudging along in that state.

Over time, without forgiveness, life then becomes a balancing act, full of deliberate steps not toward anything joyful, but away from or around anything which could possibly be harmful or painful. Our lives become filled with lack, not abundance.

The trap is this: until we lay down our burdens, we can’t feel free and easy, not ever, not for one moment. We can pretend they’re not there, but the pretence itself only becomes more mass in the sack. And on it goes.

Caution: divestiture also hurts. Holding something tightly for too long makes it painful to unclench the muscles. The path of least resistance is to leave it alone. It also hurts to emotionally unclench, because it means admitting failure. The ego resists that.

From capture to release

I started my journey toward forgiveness with self-talk like this: “If you only knew what he did to me…” “What happened was unforgivable…” “She has to pay for this…” “I can never forgive.”

The things I tell myself over and over become the elephant in the room. Living with an elephant in the room is messy and smelly and claustrophobic, but I got used to it. Worse – I became blinded to its presence, just as I become so used to the unhealthy ‘weight’ I carried, I couldn’t imagine living without it.

But if the elephant disappears, how do we clean up its mess and use all the space that leaves? The beauty of true forgiveness is that the space immediately becomes empty and clean, the mess being removed by the act itself.

Christmas should be a season of forgiveness, and the miracle of my AA Christmas was that this freedom was very near. It was right on the other side of one simple act. Forgiving myself.

Jesus says if I have a heavy burden, I should go to Him and get rest. I take off the painfully heavy yoke of my unforgiveness and put on His yoke, which He says ‘is easy,’, adding, ‘My burden is light.’ *

Once I realized I could give this weight to God, I could accept that He forgave me. And I could then forgive others. Everything tumbled into place. I am light, and free, and I refuse to go back.

This is an expanded version of material originally prepared for my memoir Masterpiece (A Love Story).

* Matthew 12:29-30

Image: Public Domain, Jenny Nystrom via Wikimedia Commons