Bright as the Stars

It’s been a challenging week. More than that, with the events in Manchester, it’s been a tragic week. Our thoughts and our prayers have been with those who have lost loved ones, those whose loved ones have been injured, and everyone who has been affected by a senseless act of violence.

On Thursday, people all around the country will stop at 11am for a minute’s silence in response to the Manchester attack. It’s right that we should do this, even as we feel powerless and overwhelmed by the mounting tragedies around us: Manchester, Westminster, Paris, Stockholm, Mosul, Aleppo, Yemen – the list seems endless.

In my work leading a Homelessness charity, I regularly encounter people who have been pulled under by the riptides of tragedy. Indeed the rest of the staff encounter difficult and moving situations that our service users are facing far more than I do, and yet carry on.

And I still have hope. For me, my faith in Jesus reminds me that all things – no matter how dark – can be redeemed.

MLK

One of my heroes is Rev Martin Luther King Jr. In 1968, at the height of the struggle for freedom and equality for African-Americans – a struggle for which he had been imprisoned, beaten, humiliated, slandered, and which would ultimately cost him his life – King said the following in a speech in Memphis, Tennessee. He described an imagined conversation that he might have with God in which he could choose any point in history to live;

“…Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” Now that’s a strange statement to make because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”

 The world is still messed up. Our circumstances may be difficult. But we can see the stars brighter than ever. And I’m glad I’m living in 2017.

Advertisements

Do Not Worry

Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum.

The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind.

The kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday

When the columnist Mary Schmich wrote these words in the Chicago Tribune in 1997 they, along with the rest of the column Wear Sunscreen became a viral sensation. They so struck a chord that when Baz Luhrmann turned them into an ambient dance track, it became a number 1 hit in several countries.

I was partly responsible for the success of this single (well, I bought the CD along with thousands of others). There are some great one-liners in there: Be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone; The older you get, the more you need the people you knew when you were young; Don’t mess too much with your hair, or by the time you’re 40, it will look 85; and of course, wear sunscreen. But the stanza above has always particularly struck me.

I was recently blindsided in Guatemala when I met José*. I’d gone with my colleagues from the Bible Society to a government-run shelter for children just outside of Guatemala City. All of the 800 boys and girls in the shelter were in some way or another wards of the State. Some were orphans, some had special educational needs, and some had been rescued from gangs – nine year-olds who had been given a gun and told to kill. These children rarely if ever leave the shelter, both for their own safety and for the safety of others.

During my visit I had the privilege to speak to fifty of the boys as part of a gathering organised by the Bible Society volunteers. What do you say in such a situation? I’ve rarely felt so inadequate. As I stumbled through a short talk about David the Shepherd boy, I was increasingly aware of the privileges of my childhood and that of my own children.

After I’d finished a young man, José, asked to speak with me privately. As we withdrew to a corner I asked, via translation, what was on his mind. Immediately his face, which had been a hard and expressionless mask, crumpled as the tears rolled down. Between sobs, José told us that when he was a young boy, he was abandoned by his parents and taken in by his aunt. Not long afterwards, his aunt also abandoned him and he became a ward of the State, entering the government shelter aged 11. In the intervening years he has never been visited by a family member. Not once. This is the same experience as eighty percent of the children in the shelter. Today, aged 17, approaching his birthday and official adulthood, he is facing up to the prospect of having to leave the shelter and create a life for himself beyond the familiar walls. And he was terrified. He was preparing to leave the only home he’d ever known, for a world that had, in the experience of his short life, totally rejected him.

I can’t even begin to imagine the fear, the isolation. And the reality was, as I stood with José in the concrete yard of an institution full of forgotten children, that Schmich’s words on their own, however valiant in sentiment and however beautifully-crafted, had a hollow ring to them.

But there’s another famous passage that exhorts us not to worry. In the Gospels, Matthew records Jesus saying:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

Matthew 6

These words took on a new meaning for me that day. And how, might you ask, do they differ from Schmich’s poignant soliloquy? Because we are in the hands of God himself. Not a distant, impersonal God, sitting on a cloud, itching to punish us. But a God who broke into our world as a helpless baby, born with the hint of human disgrace hanging over his head; the child of refugees, hunted by the authorities, raised in poverty and persecuted for bringing a message of mercy and love.

Guatemala Volcano Antigua

In the light of Jesus’ own story, every one of those children in that shelter can afford to hope. All of them can have a bright future. And if the Bible story and its message of restoration seems distant to them, all the children have to do is look at the lead Bible Society volunteer, Michael*: his tattoo-sleeves, his jail-time for gang membership, and the humility and fatherly love that he brings to them every week in a place that so few will visit.

I and the Bible Society volunteers were able to remind José of some of this. Where my words failed me, God’s words were enough. As we wept together, I was able to remind José of God’s promise to Jeremiah, that “before I formed you in the womb I knew you“, of the words of the Psalmist that he was “fearfully, and wonderfully made”. And I was able to share those other words God gave to Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

 

 

*I’ve changed names for the sake of the safety and dignity of the people concerned.

What We Owe Each Other

I call it the Man Case. If you’re a father or husband of a particular age, you probably have one too. Some guys have a Designated Drawer or Bespoke Basket. You know what I mean: the one place in the house that is exclusively yours, the place where you keep all your assorted bumf that is either useful for recurring man-tasks (bleeding radiators), sentimental (that ticket stub from the cup semi-final a couple of years back) or apocalypse-averting (your replica Swiss Army Knife with the built-in horse shoe stone-remover).

Last week I found myself rummaging through my Man Case, searching for a matching cuff-link, when I accidentally came across a forgotten treasure: my Widow’s Mite. Now, this is no ordinary item on the Man Case inventory. I was given it a few years ago in the Shuk, Jerusalem, by a kind Palestinian Christian who owns a market stall trading in antiquities. Technically, the ‘Mite’ is a lepton, the smallest and least valuable (Roman or Greek) coin used in the Palestine of Jesus’ day. Despite its small worth – both then and today – I was delighted to be given it. There is something particularly cool about owning something which is over 2,000 years old.

The lepton gets its generic name from the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels of Mark and Luke:

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on. Mark 12, 41-44

I’ve been thinking about the story of the Widow’s Mite this week as the debate over the 50p Tax Rate has raged back and forth, following Ed Balls’ announcement that the Labour Party would re-institute the rate (for income over £150,000) should the Party be elected to government in 2015. The coalition government dropped the top rate of tax from 50% to 45% in 2013.

Much of the response to the announcement has become pretty ugly, pretty quickly. There has been the usual ‘bad for business’ rhetoric coming from the Tory Party. Then a group of Business Leaders sent an open letter to the Press, decrying the short-sightedness of the Labour Party, suggesting that this retrograde step would both put jobs at risk and would chase ‘wealth creators’ from the country to jurisdictions where their unique skills would be appreciated with a more lenient tax regime.

Now, leaving aside the fact that several of the 24 signatories to the letter have donated hundreds of thousands of pounds between them to the Conservative Party, it seems to me that this is perhaps one of the most outlandish acts of self-interest I’ve witnessed recently. Through it, we see some of the wealthiest people in the land speaking out against a relatively-modest tax adjustment (in France, the top tax rate is 75%) that is intended to help with balancing the nation’s books, in order to protect their own income.

In fairness, the opponents of the proposed increase argue that it will depress investment in the economy and therefore affect the jobs and income of the less well off. But this is an argument that is rolled out every time there’s a threat to the vested interest of the super-rich. Think that the Bankers Bonus is a bit generous? Well, it’s needed to remain ‘competitive’. But I believe this is a smokescreen. The truth is that the United Kingdom is a great place to live and to do business. It’s a stable, safe, prosperous and relatively non-corrupt society where a good standard of living and global connectedness are possible. Top Executives are not going to give it up and move abroad for the sake of five percent.

Likewise, I find the investment argument unconvincing. The idea of the ‘trickle-down’ of wealth is at best hard to prove and at worst an axiomatic Myth of the Right. It’s much more common in my view – and the current difficulty of securing Credit in the economy lends itself to this notion – that the rich tend to either put their added wealth into their (offshore) bank accounts or spend it on luxury goods, depending on how secure they feel. The following sentence is rarely heard on the lips of a millionaire: “Ah, it seems that I have an additional 5% on my income this year. I think I’ll open a cod-filleting factory in Grimsby”.

What about the claim that the reduction in the top rate actually improves the tax revenue of HMRC? This is something of an intractable and statistic-laden part of the argument, which I confess to being somewhat bamboozled by. Although, I have a sense that most others are too. The variables at stake, and the changing context of the economic climate over the last few years, plus the difficulty of predicting the response that individuals make to changes in tax rates, makes determining the causality of tax rates vis a vis revenue raised a mind-bender for the layman. Yet HMRC’s own figures do seem to suggest that, the last time the 50% rate was in place, it raised around an additional £3 billion per year in tax, and in all of the debate I haven’t heard many voices denying that the 50p rate will actually increase the revenue intake, even if only in the tens of millions of pounds.

But of course, ultimately, the debate over the top rate of tax should not be primarily determined by the bottom line of the revenue it generates, but by the principle of fairness and the connected principle of civic duty.

The key lesson that I take away from the story of the Widow’s Mite – other than the idea that all of our wealth, however big or small is actually given by and therefore owed to God – is the principle that each of us should give to each other according to our ability to give. And what else is Taxation in a democratic society, other than each of us giving to one another for the benefit of the whole?

How we share the cost of our Nation says so much about the kind of society that we want to create. If you were out for a meal with a group of friends and, when the bill arrived, you discovered that one of your friends had recently fallen on hard times financially and so could only contribute a small amount to the bill, you and the rest of your friends would club together to make up the difference. You would also have a loftier view of the contribution your hard-up friend made to the cost of the bill, even if it was much smaller than your own contribution.

This is really the heart of the matter of why the Labour Party is proposing the return to the 50p tax rate, and it’s why I support it. In our approach to taxation, we should prioritise the ideals of fairness, of civic mindedness, of compassion, of generosity and of mutuality. If the Widow can give her Mite, then I and the wealthier members of society can give ours and more.

Jeremy Bentham’s Lost His Head

‘Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher”, they said, ‘We want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory.”

“You don’t know what you are asking”, Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?” “We can”, they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to whom they have already been prepared.”

‘When the ten heard about this they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

As the founder of Utilitarianism, a particularly influential 19th Century political theory, you could argue that Jeremy Bentham was entitled to be proud of himself. His critique of social values, and pursuit of ‘the greatest good to the greatest number’ was already beginning to shape the thinking of political leaders of his day – and as it turns out has continued to do so up to the present. But leaving instructions in his Last Will and Testament for his body to be embalmed, stuffed, dressed in a suit and placed in a glass case at University College London was perhaps a step too far.

And his acolytes have not stopped the posthumous grand-standing there. Each year this ‘auto-icon’ is rolled out for a meeting of the College Council, where Mr Bentham is recorded in the minutes as ‘Present, but not voting’. This hubristic tale is mitigated somewhat by the frequent student pranks over the years since in which his head has been repeatedly pinched and ransomed back to the University. But the impression of an ego writ large remains.

In our world, what we tend to value most are honour, power, wealth, beauty, authority, and yes, intellect. These are the things that seem to make the world go round. But these things in themselves are empty. At root, they’re an attempt to remake ourselves in the image of God, to claim even just a scintilla of his Glory.

I travel regularly to China, and it’s a fascinating country. Chinese culture values good hospitality, respect for authority and the importance of relational capital. One of the ways in which this is reflected is in the etiquette surrounding hosting guests to a meal. The table is always round so as not to offend guests by placing one person at the head of the table. And yet this nicety has been infiltrated by a convention whereby the Host is still given the ‘head’ of the table (the chair facing the door) and the most-honoured guest will sit in the seat to his right-hand side, with the second most-honoured to his left and so on. The elevation of the Host and the Honoured Guest continues with further etiquette, including serving special courses either before the other guests or to them alone, an ‘honour’ which I have at times had to face, as the picture below testifies:

IMG_00000046

In the startling encounter from Mark’s Gospel, above, we see Jesus subverting this human will to power in his response to the egotistical aspirations of James and John. Incredibly, as the most powerful being in the universe, Jesus nevertheless submits himself to the authority of God the Father, in his assertion that even he cannot offer the right and left-hand seats to his disciples.

And, in this subversion, Jesus is not advocating a simple changing of the guard. This is not a spiritual coup d’etat in which the powerful are overthrown in order that their erstwhile subjects can take their places at the top table. It’s a root and branch revolution, a completely new way to live in the world. He is turning the world’s normative power dynamics on their head, insisting that the last should become first, and that his followers should be ‘the slave of all’. Strong words.

In a sense, I don’t blame James and John for their audacious request. In fact, it kind of reassures me. The Disciples have been lionised throughout Church history for the contribution that they made to the spread of the Gospel, and quite right too. But in encounters like this – and in basically everything that Peter did – we see the humanity of the Disciples. These were no Uber-Christians who would put us to shame with their holiness. They hadn’t got it quite yet: despite Jesus repeated teachings on his preference for the weak, the poor, the abandoned, and despite the fact that they’d actually lived alongside him for years. On a more positive note, and to their credit, you can’t fault the faith of the two brothers. They certainly believed that Jesus was who he said he was; otherwise they wouldn’t have wasted their time angling for a place at the top table.

But, ultimately, the Gospel is the great equaliser – the mountains shall be laid flat and the valleys raised up – and through it each of us become equal before God, taking on our full identity of the imago dei, the image of God. Our recognition of God’s authority goes hand in hand with our recognition of the equal and inestimable value of every human being. Yet so often we miss both.

This is not only the tragedy of the powers that be in the world; it has also been the tragedy of the Church itself. And yet again this comes back to our flawed human nature. Like the Fleetwood Mac song, we want to ‘Go our own way’ when the truth, in the words Bob Dylan so famously growled, is that you’ve gotta serve somebody. It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

Sadly we often only realise this when the pretension that we’re in charge of our own life falls away. An illness, natural disaster or accident strikes, and suddenly we become aware of our own powerlessness. All the things that we put our stock in – intellect, beauty, wealth, even human relationships – can’t cocoon us from the messy reality of life. As the author Kurt Vonnegut sagely advises in the song ‘Everybody wear Sunscreen’, “maybe you’ll have a trust fund, maybe you’ll have a wealthy spouse – but you never know when either one might run out.”

If you’ve travelled beyond Western Europe and North America, you’ll probably know what I mean. Oh what I’d sometimes give for an old-fashioned British queue in some airport arrivals halls! Everyone for themselves doesn’t cover it. Or the lifeless, mirror-shaded, eyes of the gun-toting Cameroonian immigration official who’s determined to exercise his authority before he decides to let you enter the country. Or the one on one interrogation and baggage search at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, knowing that just one mention of a visit to the wrong part of the country will see you end up in a room with nothing but a box of rubber gloves and a border guard for company. And in truth, these are relatively minor reminders of how easily our will to power is diluted.

So if, despite He-Man’s claims, we aren’t really Masters of the Universe, what are we to do? Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus dealt with a similar situation. The Disciples were once again letting their hubris get the better of them and were arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest. Again, Jesus taught them that if anyone wanted to be first then he must become last, the servant of all. Jesus also taught that we should both have a faith like children and treat one another as we do little children. What might our world look like if we took the same approach? If politicians, journalists, soldiers, police officers, bankers, and we ourselves put others first, regardless of their status? What would it look like if we didn’t place our ultimate hope in our own power and were instead childlike in our motivation, if our attitude was innocent, simple, vulnerable even, and above all loving?

This is the world that Jesus calls us to make: it’s a world in which we serve one another, where we have a healthy distaste for the trappings of wealth and power, where each person is viewed as having inherent and equal worth, where the least and the last are lifted up by the rest and given the place of honour.

The Good News is that we are not expected to do all of this in our own power. And that’s the wonder of the Gospel: that Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Romans 3, 21-24