Category Archives: Ministry of Reconciliation

photo of man laying on sidewalk

Another View of Poverty

(An eight minute read)

Billions of us live in physical poverty: hungry, thirsty, exposed to the elements. And billions of us live in spiritual poverty, searching only for those things around us to make us comfortable.

Grasping a billion challenges is impossible, but when I boil it down to just one person’s, perhaps I can see a way through.

Smurfy

I was ministering to the poor on California streets some years ago when I ran across a man called Smurfy. He was disheveled and stank. The stale crumbs in his beard were mixed with other things, probably from sleeping rough on the pavement. He had been so drunk for so long his ability to communicate was reduced to a series of grunts.

The one thing he could still say intelligibly was, ‘Fifty cent? Got fifty cent?’

I offered him a dollar but he turned it down. He knew what he wanted. He wanted fifty cents. Continually being knocked about by life and his own bad choices, he’d set his own bar lower and lower. Smurfy’s view of the world was so overwhelmed by poverty his idea of treasure was four bits.

Here in front of me in London, I speak with men and women every day sitting on the pavement asking for money. Some of them are in it for the next fix: the strung out ones covered with scabs and scars; the shaky alcoholics who need comfort from their friend Stella Artois; those few whose hope still remains as long as they can get £18 per day for a shelter instead of sleeping rough. Not surprisingly, almost all of them welcome prayer. Deep down they know what they need more than money, more than a worldly fix.

For those sleeping rough or hoping to avoid it, food isn’t the issue. It’s opportunity. Plenty of passers-by assuage their consciences by buying these floor-dwellers packaged sandwiches or coffee. After all, they aren’t to be trusted with money, are they? I mean, they might spend it on something we disapprove of. Like Stella, or tobacco, or weed, or heroin.

Rory and Frankie

I had an enlightening conversation a few weeks ago with a young man named Rory. We were on the street outside one of London’s larger railway stations. Rory left home at 15. It was that or be beaten one time too many. That was eight years ago. He’s now living on those sandwiches and coffee and saving his money for needle drugs.

If I’d had cash that day I’d have given it to him. I know what it is like to really, really need a fix. Sure – you can condemn me for that if you like. But I also know what it’s like to hit rock bottom and need radical change. Do you?

In my own neighborhood a few days ago a fellow named Frankie was freshly released from prison. He’s one of those who still has hope – his sign told me he needed £18 a day for shelter. I gave him 20 quid. When he left prison in May he was given back his possessions, handed £46 and told to have a nice day. This is government-induced poverty. And we wonder why our prisons have a revolving door?

Frankie wants more than a kip. He also wants a job. He wants a chance, an opportunity. He’s willing. He still sees a future for himself, and wants to leave his past behind. But how long will we ask him to live in hope?

Giving him my money helped him get through one day. What if I had given him half my life savings? Would he spend it responsibly? Is he ready for that?

If we can meet Frankie where he is – and give him an opportunity (read: dignity) – his life can change for the better, probably faster than we’d expect.

Meanwhile, Rory doesn’t yet know what he wants. He knows he’s trapped but believes he’s powerless to find a way out. What if I’d given him half my life savings? Would he have ultimately used it to OD? Or would he have marched right up to a private drug rehabilitation facility? Rory too needs an opportunity, but needs to be shown first that there is a better way.

Unseen But Not Forgotten

Then there are those I’ll never meet, who are the victims of geopolitical forces that leave them chronically hungry. Imagine a child in Timor-Leste, a small island nation between Indonesia and Australia. Like half her village she’s grown up stunted due to malnutrition. Her younger brother suffers from wasting, which will likely emaciate him until his dies. What if I gave her (or her village) half my life savings? In the long run would it help them build a new life? Or would it run through their fingers like water?

Food alone and money alone, or both together, don’t solve the problem.

Do we want to help these unfortunates? Of course! We are moved to act. But so often we only see outward action as the way to make a change. Adopt an orphan, support Charity Water, pay for schools in rural Africa, support your local homeless shelter, donate to your church’s mission work. This outward action feels good, but doesn’t seem to change the playing field for those trapped there.

I believe it’s our inward action that helps us all make more real and lasting change. At the bottom of it all is the need for reconciliation. And it begins with me.

In affluent countries, mostly in the global north and west, it’s on me and you to begin the conversation and take action. We are the ones who ask our governments to send aid elsewhere. We are the ones who send NGOs to help and missionaries to teach.

Making It Personal

We do these things administratively and impersonally. We send aid elsewhere in an abstract fashion, for example, pushing to share Covid-19 vaccines with other countries. It’s a generous thing to do. It’s the ‘right thing to do’. It’s ‘moral and ethical’. It’s ‘good policy.’ It’s proper use of our ‘privilege’. And yet, it’s not personal. These things cost me nothing. Even before my tax dollars leave my hand I stop thinking about them.

And my charity? That probably costs me nothing either. I’m not motivated to give until it hurts, are you? I don’t want to reduce my comfort, after all. Oh, I’ll vote for those who will spend tax dollars the way I want. Or perhaps I’ll volunteer or even work for an organization that fights poverty. But I won’t choose to go without.

At the end of all my charitable doing and heartfelt giving, I’ll go home to my comfortable flat for a dinner containing as much protein as my young friend in Timor-Leste eats in three days. Then I’ll park myself in front of the telly because I had such a hard day.

See? There are many types of poverty, and many ways in which our growth can be stunted. Billions of us live in physical poverty while billions of the affluent live in spiritual poverty, searching only for those things that make us comfortable. That is, those things that insulate us from the realities those other billions suffer constantly and without cease.

I think each group has something to learn from the other. Both have a mindset that screams ‘poverty’. I can be saved from my poverty mindset, but it takes a long time, or supernatural intervention.

(More coming in a couple of weeks)

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Skeleton With Candy

Giving In

(A five minute read – part of a year-long series on the Ministry of Reconciliation

Reconciliation (noun) /ˌrek.ənˌsɪl.iˈeɪ.ʃən/: The process of making two opposite beliefs, ideas or situations agree.

Original Sin has been debated, discussed, dissected and derided as much as any Biblical concept. I find less difficulty wrestling with the problem than with the solution.

The Bible reports that original sin was the catalyst for God’s plan of redemption, for people and the world. This plan began its culmination in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It continues through the work of the Church in the present age and Christ’s eventual return to judge creation.

You can lose yourself down endless hermeneutical rabbit holes here. Or have some pretty spicy arguments around the holiday dinner table (Been there. Done both. Don’t recommend either.)

What if?

But what if creation didn’t get off track with Adam and Eve’s sin? What if the trouble came because they didn’t repent and reconcile themselves to God?

Hold it. Relax. Call off the Twitter mob. Put away the paintball guns and re-pack the label of heretic so many are quickly adorned with nowadays. This is merely a thought experiment. Rest assured that I believe sin was the problem, is the problem and will continue to be the problem until Christ’s return. But it’s not unsolvable.

Jesus’ work on earth is the answer to sin that Adam and Eve couldn’t quite grasp.

We all know the story, but to recap: Adam and Eve are created to be in relationship with God, tending the garden of Eden. The devil cons Eve into thinking God’s holding out on her and she’s missing something. She agrees to munch on the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam follows suit. In creation’s first face-palm moment, the two of them have their eyes opened to the reality that they’re in Really Big Trouble.

An ‘oh crap’ situation of cosmic proportions has developed. Decision time then. Come clean? Or live in shame?

You know the rest. They selected Door Number Two and decided to become tailors. They sewed garments of fig leaves to cover their nakedness. God dramatically asks a Very Large Rhetorical Question, as He often does: ‘Hey Adam – where you at?’

There is a second decision point and Adam does a bit better this time. He comes half-clean, admitting that he was afraid due to being caught out of his knickers. But he didn’t go far enough to admit outright all they had done.

So, God bears down: ‘Who told you you were naked? Did you eat the fruit?’

Is it Really All Downhill From Here?

Decision time again. The third time pays for all. Adam blows it completely. He blames his wife (husbands take note: this never works). Eve blames the devil (wives take note: not a good idea; better to blame the husband). I imagine Satan standing there with a ‘Who, Me?’ look on his face thinking ‘Curses, foiled again.’ Indeed then, curses are the order of the day.1

But wait a minute.

What if Adam and Eve had made a full confession at that first question and thrown themselves on the mercy of the court? What if they had repented?

There’s nothing in the Genesis story hinting that God would have forgiven them and let everything rewind and start over. But it’s not beyond my imagination to think that He would not have or could not have. Funny things happen in a universe that allows for free will.

We know how things turned out for the ancients. But thanks to Jesus Christ, they can turn out differently for you and me.

Much of Scripture is interpreted to shove sin down our throat: sin is the world’s only problem! Well yes, but let’s not condemn ourselves for sinning just yet. Because there’s a way out. There is forgiveness for sin, because there is grace – again, thanks to Christ. Even if you aren’t a Christian and want to relabel sin as ‘crappy behavior’ it’s all about the same. We screw up and need to make amends to one another and create reconciliation.

It’s just that we need to do that on the spiritual level first, if we are to get out from under the eternal burden of it. But God understands. The Psalmist reminds us that ‘He knows how we are formed. He remembers that we are dust.’ 2

We Are In Trouble, And Yet…

As theologian Karl Barth pointed out, this grace comes from God assuming we are ‘in distress and that God’s intention is to…grant (us) assistance in (our) extremity.’ 3

Isn’t that remarkable? What a relief. God knows we are in trouble. We are constantly and always in trouble. Even Christians who have turned away from a sin lifestyle suffer from thoughts, actions and lack of actions that miss the mark. We are always in some sort of trouble, even if we don’t talk about it.

As I wrote elsewhere, we must learn to breathe underwater because life is always over our heads. The smart Christian admits this, and asks always and constantly for Help.

So, sin dogs me, as it dogs us all, believer and unbeliever alike. That’s unavoidable with us being born into a spiritual war zone and all. But I’ll argue that my ultimate problem is not sin. It’s hard-heartedness, leading to a lack of repentance.

My solution must be a quick about-face to acknowledge the mistake and offer a meaningful apology. Otherwise I’ll fall into a pattern of sin, which will only increase. The better alternative is to step into a pattern of repentance, which will only increase.

That’s the key. Oswald Chambers said ‘the foundation of Christianity is repentance.’ 4 He’s right, because sin doesn’t make us bad. It makes us dead.

(based on an idea from Melanie Searle)

1. See Genesis 3:1-19
2. Psalm 103:14
3. Karl Barth, Unspoken Sermons, First Series
4. My Utmost For His Highest Devotional Journal, Oswald Chambers, (© 1992 Oswald Chambers Publications Association, Ltd. Used with permission). He was commenting on 2 Corinthians 7:10, which says: ‘Godly sorrow produces repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but the sorrow of the world produces death.’

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Old radios

My Stiff Neck

This is based on material developed for my memoir Masterpiece: A Love Story, but not used in the book. It is also part of a year-long focus on Reconciliation. (A four minute read)

Sometimes I get a stiff neck. Not my physical neck, but my spiritual neck. This stubbornness apparently wasn’t fully healed when I began following Jesus. I’ve learned that ending stubbornness is not a one-time deal. It’s a life-long challenge.

With my physical neck, if I hold my head in one position too long the muscles lock up and it becomes painful to move. It’s the same in my spiritual life.

As a lad, I often stayed at the neighbors’ dairy farm. We would all rise about five a.m. to milk the cows. The first thing to happen after the lights went on, even before the cows were led into their stanchions, was turning on the radio. It was a 1940s vintage RCA AM console radio with an analog tuner.

The tuning knob was on a spindle that had a cord tightly wound round it: when the knob moved, the cord moved and it moved the tuning element. There was an indicator that slid back and forth behind an opaque plastic rectangle with frequency markers painted on it, from 540 to 1600 khz, left to right.

The dial was at 830 – WCCO Radio, the same station that guided morning activity in our house, indeed in many tens of thousands of homes across Minnesota in the 1960s. I remember trying to retune that radio one day to another station for some Top 40 music. I turned and turned and turned that knob, and the tuner didn’t budge. It was locked up tight, and no longer moved.

My stiff neck can be just like that. My prideful ego can be just like that. It’s sometimes hard to tune from one frequency (let’s call it ‘The Pride Channel’) to another (‘The Humility Channel’) without pain or outside intervention. That was my experience all the years I pursued a sinful lifestyle. It was impossible for me to hear wise or sensible advice. I was tuned to the wrong channel.

That stiffness reappears in my occasional spiritual stubbornness today. Even though I now follow Jesus, I still become stiff-necked sometimes, to my detriment.

God often described Israel as being a ‘stiff-necked people’ – too much pride, and especially too much for too long.1 Just like me. They seemed to continually turn away from God’s best for them, choosing something inferior: Baal (sexual fertility rites); Moloch (child sacrifice); Astoreth, simultaneously the goddess of war and sexual love.

The ancient Israelites wanted to be like the peoples around them, so they adopted their gods. They did this so much for so long their world view became unhealthily distorted and then locked in place. They could no longer even hear the wisdom of their own prophets.

The same happened to me, earlier in life. By my early teens I was too often tuned to the wrong channel. By my late teens, I was unwilling to be tuned back at all. Like Lucifer, I was too taken with the sound of my own voice – my own veneer of intelligence and talent.2

Amazingly, I learned even from a creature as depraved as the devil. The truth he taught? When I turn away from God, that which turns my head becomes my master. The harder I turn, the more I am mastered, and the more difficult it becomes to turn back my stiff neck.

My answer to this today is simple: keep looking in the right direction and don’t be distracted by all the voices shouting ‘Hey! Over here!’ 3 Simple, yes, but not always easy. You may have noticed a recent four-week gap in publication here. I was busy looking in the wrong direction then and couldn’t be bothered to engage in this dialogue.

Happily, that season was short. Jesus always has the power to retune me, to reconcile me, when I cry out to Him with an open heart. He unlocks everything, even the stiffest of necks.

1. ‘But they did not obey or incline their ears, but made their neck stiff, that they might not hear nor receive instruction.’ – Jeremiah 17:23
2. ‘Your heart was lifted up because of your beauty; you have corrupted your wisdom by reason of your brightness; I cast you to the ground, I lay you before kings, that they may see you.’ – Ezekiel 28:17
3. ‘Ha ha! Made you look!’ – Satan

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