Leadership Lies: Money Follows Vision

u s dollar bills pin down on the ground

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’m now nearly 17 years into the journey of being paid to lead churches. Over that time I’ve read a lot of books and blogs, listened to a lot of podcasts, and had a lot of conversations about the art of leadership in the context of the local church. Some of those have been helpful, some of them haven’t been; some of those that I thought were helpful at the time turned out not be; some of those that I thought not to be helpful at the time turned out to be rather insightful. I’ve also said and written more than a few things about leadership myself; some of which I still think, some of which I don’t.

Recently I’ve started thinking about some of those things I’ve heard and said myself, and realised that I need to revisit them, take them apart and expose them for what they are. Lies. Well, maybe lies is a bit strong – I don’t think many people actively choose to tell untruths in these matters; but untruths, that like all the best untruths carry an element of the truth in the same way that an inoculation carries an element of the disease it’s designed to protect you against. Hence this series of blogs, of which this is the first. When I say ‘series’, by the way, what I actually mean is more like: ‘One or more posts that I’ll get round to as and when I think of them’. As usual, my writing is more about my own processing of ideas to help me clarify what I actually think – if they help someone else along the way, then so much the better.

So to the first statement with which I wish to raise some issues. Three words: “Money follows vision”. I’ve no idea who first coined it, but it’s prevalent in some circles, and I’ve said it myself. It’s often used when a leader is trying to get a particularly faith-stretching, expensive project approved by the necessary committee. It’s a way of saying – yes, I know we don’t have money for this at the moment, but this a great vision, and God will provide (through His people, of course) because the vision is compelling. The money is duly raised, thus proving that the vision was compelling and from God and therefore God has provided (through His people, and sometimes a bank loan). At core it seems to say: God will provide where the vision is from Him. Hard to quibble with, surely?

No, it’s not. It may carry an element of truth in richer, often suburban areas, where there church members have relatively stable jobs and incomes; but move into poorer areas and the truth is somewhat more complex. For the last eight and a half years I’ve been leading a small-ish church in Cape Town, on the cusp of an urban/suburban divide.  Cape Town, as you may know, is a city of contrasts. It’s often cited as the most economically unequal city in the most unequal country in the world. If you have plenty of money, Cape Town is a wonderful place to live. If you are poor, it’s a living nightmare. My church has people in it who have good, stable jobs; it also has people who live right on the edge of the trapdoor that would send them tumbling into poverty. We have a Thursday night community based around supper, where many of the members sleep outside; for various reasons, the trapdoor opened beneath their feet and they couldn’t cling on to solid ground.

Amongst these groups (those on the edge of poverty, those on the streets, those in informal settlements or townships) I have met many people with powerful, compelling, Godly vision. In a sense, one has to have vision if you live in or on the edge of poverty; avoiding the trapdoor, or surviving once you’ve fallen through, requires nimble thinking and creative action that would shame many leaders and entrepeneurs with more loaded bank accounts. However, money hasn’t followed their vision. It has largely trickled away to the visions of richer, larger churches and projects in safer and more comfortable areas.

If you are trapped in poverty, or in avoiding the trapdoor, your options are closed down. You don’t have the time or the energy to build networks and make connections that might one day yield financial fruit; you’re too busy putting food on the table each day, or making sure there’s enough electricity to keep the lights on in church that Sunday. Whatever great business ideas you may have, whatever creative outreach projects God has laid on your heart, they easily get lost in the daily battle to say alive and just keep a church or a life ticking over.

Here’s a thought. What if the role of the money in the richer churches was to flow towards the vision of those with less? What if, rather than employing another staff member, a church in the safe suburbs walked in relationship with a church in the unsafe inner-city and funded a drug project or a social outreach worker, or whatever God had laid on their hearts?

This is not a new idea; the New Testament seems to suggest it and some churches in different places in the world are doing it. But what if the over-resourced really caught this vision? What if ,instead of planting 50 people into another young adult rich area and claimed explosive kingdom growth instead of actually acknowledging it’s really just sociology, a small handful of people, at the invitation of those in the poorer area, came and walked and worshipped alongside those with less – blessing the church with agenda-free time, abilities and money?

The church I lead was blessed with this around 7 years ago. The people we received were few in number but large in heart and responsiveness to calling. It was – and still is – a hard journey. Some have, for various reasons, found the mess and blurred lines of church amongst the marginalised too much and have needed to return to a context more like what they are used to. This is a calling, a calling that emerges out of agenda-free relationships between leaders, churches and individuals. The question we must face  – especially those of us who lead well-resourced churches – is something like this: ‘Do we give space and time for the calling to be heard? Will we lay down our dream of a church that looks successful for a wider calling of kingdom-shaped fruit to be borne that draws no attention to our own leadership? Will we allow my church’s money to follow a vision in another place? Will we support the social entrepreneurs struggling to survive, the leaders trying to keep the lights on and worried for the house-holds struggling to put food on the table? Will we forego a staff member here to nurture the slow growth of kingdom vision there? Will we die to self, that others may live? Will we respond to the life-giving invitation to take joy in seeing the vision we have flourish amongst those on the margins?’

In the answers to these questions lie the subtle, troubling difference between success and fruitfulness. May those who have ears hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.

 

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Losing Christian Privilege

I blame Jesus. If he hadn’t said that stuff about being blessed when you’re persecuted, then I don’t think we’d be where we are today. St Paul’s not much better, who made a great show of listing all the persecutions and opposition he faced as somehow ‘proving’ something about his ministry. Yep. It’s God’s fault.

When I was training to be a priest (20 years ago), it was often observed at the conservative college at which I trained that Christians in Britain were too lukewarm; they took their faith for granted, were wooly on some important doctrines, too much drawn to liberalism, weak on evangelism and generally a bit of a let down. What was needed, it was sometimes touted, was a good dose of persecution. Some people even prayed it would be so. People actually prayed that the country would change so much that Christianity would be illegal and that people would die for their faith. It seems an odd thing to pray, to say the least, when this is the daily reality of actual people in some parts of the world, but there you have it.

20 years later, it seems a given in some conservative quarters to state that these prayers have been answered. According to some, the recent court decision in London to put an exclusion zone around an abortion clinic to prevent prayer and protests outside is seen as a threat to religious freedom. The BBC, some insist, is blatantly anti-Christian and – worse, in the eyes of those who protest thus – promoting a gay agenda. Here in South Africa, some Christian groups are loudly defending their God-given ‘right’ to physically discipline children; to disallow that, is to threaten the freedom of the church, it is said. In America the religious right have hitched their wagon to the lucrative gun lobby, and assured anyone who’ll listen that the Constitution’s second amendment enshrines a ‘God-given’ right to own assault rifles.

Pointing out facts is, it seems, unpopular. No one’s threatened with serious trouble over graciously and peacefully (and there’s the key words) presenting a ‘pro-life’ perspective; you don’t have to search the BBC website for long to find stories and programmes which show the Christian faith in a positive and realistic light. I could go on, but the point is probably obvious by now – this isn’t an argument about facts. It’s about perception. Christians feel like they’re losing ground; the Bible shows us we’re blessed if we’re persecuted; look – we’re being persecuted!

The reality is that in all 3 of these countries – and many others – that we Christians are losing ground. And that’s OK. For many years, way before the current generation was born, we were living in a ‘Christendom’ reality. This is the idea that Christianity is assumed as deserving of a preferential hearing. Christianity was the privileged religion, and it was treated as such. These were Christian countries, it was assumed. As the world changes, society is globalised and the influences are more diverse. Suddenly, Christianity is no longer assumed to be primary; it is questioned, in many cases found wanting, and certainly no longer deserving of privilege.

Which is as it should be. Be it in post-apartheid South Africa, levelling the playing field between men and women, or giving other religions than Christianity a share of the platform, the loss of unearned privilege can feel like persecution. But it isn’t. It’s just the lop-sided playing field levelling itself. If the Gospel is as winsome and powerful as we think it is, then this should not worry us and we should not protest it. Jesus and the early Christians were not known for protesting their own rights or demanding a privileged hearing; they were rather more focussed on the rights of others – and in Jesus’ case, emptying himself of all he was really, truly entitled to.

In fact, there’s more to say still. The Gospel tells us that we have no rights of our own before God, but he graciously gives us all things in Jesus. He was all about laying down his rights. If the playing field really is levelling to all religions and world-views, then we should welcome it as a chance to be like Jesus and empty ourselves of all unearned and undeserved power and privilege and see a real demonstration of the power of the Gospel to which we claim to adhere. Further, if we really think we have a God-given right to protest outside abortion clinics or to own a gun or to hit our children (3 very different things, of course), then we need to be asking ourselves some serious questions as to how far we’ve drifted from the Bible we claim to hold in such high esteem.

Maybe, in some mysterious way, God has answered those prayers. He hasn’t given us persecution – though, of course, he remains perfectly entitled to do so. He has simply taken away a privilege that was never ours to begin with; it only ever belonged to him. Let’s let him worry about getting the hearing he deserves; our role is to, like Jesus, empty ourselves of power and simply serve him – where we find him. Which will so often be in the form of the people we were previously loudly protesting against.

Why we’re foster parents: it’s not about us

In December last year – around 4 months ago now – my wife Bev and I became foster parents. Within a short period we went from being a family of two adults and two dogs to two adults, two dogs and two children. The children came to us around the same time, but are biologically unrelated. It was the culmination of a long process of thinking, discussing and praying which I chronicled previously in this blog (links at the end of this post).

It’s an exhausting, exhilarating, life-enhancing, sleep-depriving, money-hoovering, faith-stretching, relationship-testing endeavour. Around the time we began to foster, some kind souls were praying with and for me in the context of a work meeting. One lovely person, in the course of his prayer, said something along the lines of “We thank you, God, for this expression in Dave and Bev of the desire to be parents.”

That sentence stayed with me, in a good way. I have a deep respect for the person who prayed it; he’s an intelligent, thoughtful and kind man. I’ve hardly had a spare moment since that prayer was prayed so couldn’t really give much attention to why the sentence had struck me so deeply. Until last week, when a brutal bout of tonsillitis forced me into bed for a few days; when I wasn’t asleep or watching TV, I could just think. In thinking about that prayed sentence, I began to realise why it had struck me so deeply. In saying what I’m about to say, let me make clear that I’m not criticising at all the dear man who prayed that prayer. There’s no reason for him to know my deepest motivations and drivers. And I’m only speaking for myself (and my wife, Bev); I hold no expectation that the same should be true for others.

The truth is that my wife and I have never really wanted to have children. We never desired to be parents. We have never felt a biological or emotional or spiritual urge to give birth. As far as we can tell, doing this is meeting no need in us. Don’t get me wrong: we love doing it. It brings us great joy; our lives are immeasurably enhanced. We are richer people for having these two children in our care, and we love them deeply. It’s a beautiful thing when one of them leaps into our arms for a cuddle or plays a game with us. But for us, that’s not the goal. All of those things; they’re grace given freely and abundantly by God, to us, through these two beautiful divine image-bearers.

So why do we do it? Because God does it for me, for Bev and for everyone who’ll notice and acknowledge. Though my wife and I, and you, are naturally different and cut off from God, He still makes an active, personal, focussed decision to love us and welcome us into His family. It has cost Him much to enable that to happen; we are welcomed into His bloodline at the expense of that blood itself.

So if God has done this for me, then it’s incumbent on me to do all within my power and ability to help other people realise it. So in our own broken, imperfect, faltering ways, in welcoming two children not of our blood; in making an active, personal, focussed decision to love them, we are saying to them and to others – see this? This is but the palest, limpest, most feeble hint of what God has done for me and for you.

We’ve done it also to militate against our hypocrisy. Bev and I speak, pray and preach a lot about the Christian imperative to justice, to ministry amongst the poor, to serving those with less and opening our homes to people whose homes are gone or broken. Fostering brings those we might label as ‘poor’ out of the charity projects, off the streets and the distant estates and into our home, around our dinner table and gives them almost unfettered access to our bank accounts. I am forced, now, to walk what I talk 24 hours a day.

A final reason, linked to these other two. If these two are true, then it’s our belief  – our conviction – that fostering and adoption should be a more central opportunity for Christians. We believe that it should, for many, be a first option not a fall-back. We believe it may just be one of the key invitations to the church of this era. We’ve been deeply challenged to see people we know – single and married – foster and adopt. My wife was herself adopted, and she knows that through that she was bought to a safe childhood and to life in Christ. So we’d be failing hypocrites if we didn’t at least do the same ourselves.

That, then, is why we foster. We are blessed and privileged to do so. That’s all grace, though. We do it not for the benefits, not out of our own desire; but simply because we can and we believe God would have us do so, as He has done for us.

The story can be found in these posts:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

 

On Holy Week, anger, and terrorists

A few months after my friend was murdered by terrorists in a Kenyan shopping mall, I was watching TV. It was Homeland, the thriller series where the lines between good and bad are blurred and the plot is only marginally unbelievable. There came a moment in the episode I found myself relaxing with that one evening where a character has a lead on a likely opportunity to kill a terrorist who was in the early stages of planning an atrocity. He pulls up alongside the terrorist’s car on his motorbike, ready to bomb the vehicle the terrorist rides in. As he does so, he becomes aware of a problem, someone in the terrorist’s car who is not supposed to be there. A child. He rides alongside the car for a while, caught in a terrible moment of indecision. Eventually he rides away, the opportunity untaken, conscience only temporarily salved.

Pre-Westgate, I would have been where most viewers would have been in that sequence – feeling the anguish, aware of the wrestle with conscience, willing him not to kill the child. But this was a new reality I was now in, one where for one week the headlines had been about my friend. There was no conscious mental process. Just this strong, distasteful feeling: take the shot. Risk the child’s life for the sake of those who will be killed. Kill the bastard. I was angry – at the terrorists for what they had done and the way it had changed me, at myself for stooping to their level, at the world for being so unredeemed. I remembered how I had felt, what I said in the aftermath of my friend’s murder: just give a few minutes alone with one of the perpetrators tied to a chair. It won’t take long.

My anger’s intensity has relented in the months since, but the wrestles of conscience don’t go away. The cinema release of Eye In The Sky presented me with an opportunity to see how, or if, I’ve changed. It tells the story of the hunt for members of Al-Shabaab (the group that murdered my friend). They are tracked by drone to a single house – the order to capture them is about to be given when it becomes apparent that they are preparing suicide vests for an imminent attack. The priority moves from capture to kill; the order to release the missile that will save innocent lives is on the brink of completion when a child sets up to sell bread outside the house in question. She will likely be killed if the missile is fired. The rest of the film is the moral, military and political dilemmas being wrestled with, passed up chains of command inside darkened rooms around the globe, all the while the clock ticking down to massive civilian loss of life. Actually, that depersonalises it. Yes, the clock was ticking – to the murder of my friend, all over again.

The film articulates most of the related dilemmas with which I have wrestled since my friend’s death. It justice to most of them, if not ever really articulating as it needs to the political complexities involved. It is a failing  – though not a significant one – that we never really grasp the geopolitical backdrop that brings countries to these awful choices. It’s economically directed, the lack of violence ratcheting up the tension to levels where you long for some sort of release. The performances are fine  – this an ensemble piece, rather than a star vehicle. Helen Mirren does fairly well despite being miscast; I’d like to have seen more of the brilliant Aaron Paul as the soldier with his finger on the button, Barkhad Abdi is consummate, and every line Alan Rickman delivers makes us ache that at what we’ve lost with his death.

The film offers no answers, no conclusions. Every option is flawed, every character compromised, every view has a valid alternative. The film asks all the questions I have … and leaves them hanging in a Kenyan dustbowl, strewn with rubble and human remains. As a leader I empathise with the personal cost of taking decisions most have no understanding of; thanks to some nameless men and women with guns I now have skin in terrorism game, complicating to previously unimagined levels a decision I’ll never have to take. Some justice systems give – for good reason – the guilty and the judge the opportunity to hear the affect the crime has had on victims and those close to them. I understand that; but now I’ve been as close to violent crime as this, I also understand why such revelations should never be the only factor in sentencing the guilty. I, for one, would be too angry to be just.

I am not by nature an angry or a violent person; though I do have a knack for breaking up violent confrontations. I’ve only ever been properly hit once – by a fan of the same football team I support, in an ironic case of mistaken identity. So it’s strange to find myself intimately involved in the moral quagmire of violence. All I’ve come to know is that my cosy neo-pacifist principles no longer sit so easily or safely  – I think I still hold them, but I hold them with alarming looseness.

I watched the film on Palm Sunday evening, the first day of Holy Week; an inexorable journey towards an act of horrific, prolonged, violent innocent suffering. That knowledge adds to the mix that mine is a Jesus who knows what it’s like to be on the end of both unrighteous anger – his murderers’ – and righteous (the anger of His Father which he took the consequences of that day). He didn’t deserve that latter anger, but He took it anyway. It says to me that, along with some alarmingly violent expressions of anger in the Psalms – there is a place for this emotion which is often the least acceptable to church subcultures. It says that innocent suffering is right at the heart of what I have given my life to; it is identified with and wept over, its cost and consequences eternally felt.

On its own, the film left me in anger – and to an extent, that’s OK. It also made me fear that maybe the terrorists win even when we capture of kill them – they’ve reduced us in some way, whether in mind or deed, to their level, even for a moment. But then Holy Week, with its complexities and denials and political blame-shifting and violence and resurrection come along. I don’t understand it any more than I used – probably less so, in fact. But the week gives me a glimpse of when this will end, and that Someone at least understands. And that, for now, is just about enough.

I rated this movie 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

What’s in a name?

bev-meldrum-1

 San Francisco Holocaust Monument, Bev Meldrum Photography

 

Names are often significant in the Bible. Think David (beloved of God) or Isaac (he laughs). One has struck me recently: Lazarus. There are two men named Lazarus in the Gospels. The name means ‘God has helped’. This seems odd to me. You could look at the oddness of this name from the point of view of both the two men named Lazarus whom we meet in the Gospels.

The first of these is the one raised from the dead by Jesus. We know how this story ends (spoiler alert: I told you in the previous sentence), so it seems to us readers fairly obvious as to why his name is so suitable. Much is obvious if you know the end of the story. We don’t know much about Lazarus before his (first) death; but it’s fair to assume that after his recall from his own funeral procession he gained a whole new perspective on the appropriateness of his name. It may have previously come to his mind when he was looking for a place to park his donkey in rush hour, but soon that would grow faint by comparison.

This isn’t the Lazarus who concerns me, though. It’s the other one – the one who doesn’t exist. Well, he does exist, of course; but in a symbolic sense as opposed to a literal one. He appears in a strange parable at the end of Luke Chapter 16; a poor man who is carried daily to the outside of a rich man’s home to beg for whatever he can get. He’s in such a state that dogs would come and lick his sores. This is the one God has helped? Really?

We know how this story ends too. He goes to heaven; the rich man to hell. So we know that from an eternal perspective that God has indeed helped him. He just won’t see it until his death. We mustn’t rush to that, however. If we do we’re in danger of the terrible error of saying ‘well the poor will be alright in eternity, so let’s not worry about them now’. That would be to miss the point of the parable, and we don’t want that, do we now?

Parables are not one-for-one correlation stories. We can’t say x in the story equals the wider truth of y in every instance. With that in mind, we should also beware that we don’t miss what the parable might be trying to say to us. It’s here that Lazarus’ name becomes important. In this parable, Lazarus is important because he has a name. Abraham and Moses are both referred to by name. In a Jewish story you’d expect that. The rich man is named … well, we don’t know. He doesn’t get a name. He’s just ‘the rich man’. Lazarus – he of the dog-licking and begging – is named as one whom God helps. The rich man  – outside whose house Lazarus daily begs, just the other side of the wall and security spikes, just in view of the CCTV – has no name. He is anonymous.

Names matter. When we get to know someone we start with a name; couples who have a stillborn baby are strongly advised to give their child a name for very good reasons; a soft-drinks company has made a marketing splash by putting names on their cans for people to buy until they find one bearing their own title. Yes, names matter. Why this, then? Why no name for the rich man?

It’s part of God’s great reversal of all things. The world honours the rich and successful; we know their names well. The one sleeping under a blanket in the doorway. He’s ‘homeless’. Not ‘the one God has helped’ or ‘beloved of God’; just ‘homeless’, ‘poor’, ‘dirty’, ‘smelly’, ‘beggar’. God’s kingdom reverses this; the unnoticed, non-achieving dependants are named; the succesful and feted rich are irrelevant.

We know how this story ends, so it’s OK. We know this isn’t really about rich and poor, it’s about knowing Jesus and being known by Him? Right?

Maybe. Maybe not. It’s definitely about being known by Jesus. He knows who is living truly in the kingdom of God and who isn’t.

This is a parable that too often I keep at arm’s length, keeping away the uncomfortable truth that too often I am the unnamed one rather than the named one I prefer to see myself as.

Am I sure about that?

Try these name-cancelling labels. Which do you use?

Liberal, conservative, gay, straight, black, white, man, woman, young, old, middle-aged, happy, sad, able, disabled, sick, well, happy, sad, depressed, normal, bigot, Jew, Moslem, Christian, atheist, adult, child, teenager, abuser, abused, bully, victim.

Recently someone I’ve known for years told me of his plans to marry the man he loves. It took him years to decide I was safe enough to tell. That’s down to how people who wear labels like ‘evangelical’, ‘Christian’ or ‘church’ are seen and how we act and speak. Years to feel safe. He has a name, but I can’t use it here for he must remain safe.

 

On being a pharisee for justice

Bev a few minutes after breaking her wrist

It’s been a rubbish 6 weeks. We live in a country that’s not the one of our birth, nor indeed the one in which we’ve lived the marjoity of the majority of our lives. So doing what I do (leading a church), in a foreign context rife with material and social need is a draining experience. Unsurprisingly we often find ourselves looking forward to our holidays. A recent trip back to the UK was going pretty well from that point of view until my wife was walking down the street and got distracted by a fire engine. She stumbled on the pavement, and fell forwards. She instinctively put her arms out to break her fall. Instinct can save us, or it can break us. It broke Bev. Her full, gravitationally assisted body-weight plus the mass of a full backpack was channeled through her wrists, leaving her in agony. The result was a broken and dislocated right wrist.

This led to our stay in the UK being extended by a week so she could have an operation. There were good sides to this – extended time with people we love – but it was stressful, painful and inconvenienced us a great deal . In my case it meant that I had to do a great deal many many more things – if one arm is completely out of use, the other half of the partnership has to help out. At least is was her right-hand; imagine if it had been her dominant left hand…

We’d been back a week or so when our two dogs got into a squabble with each other over some food. Bev attempted to reach for their collars to pull them apart, but she was off-balance due to her arm in plaster. The result was that her left hand missed the collar and found a way between the jaws of one of the dogs, which managed to bite all the way through one of the bones on her middle finger. Another stay in hospital, another operation, another hand out of action. More pain, more inconvenience.

Bev, a couple of hours after having her finger bitten

Life went from hard to very ******* hard. We are both tired and stressed, seemingly all the time. There’s always something to be done, something to be helped with. At some point in all this – I can’t quite remember when – I found myself, somewhat incongruously, thinking ‘I’m really looking forward to the World Cup’.  Now I always look forward to the World Cup; I always really enjoy it. Something about the way I was anticipating it seemed a little odd, though; until the insight dawned that it was because the tournament represented something purely fun, for which I didn’t have to take any responsibility. I could anticipate it with no sense of ‘I’ll have to do this’; yes, I could watch games with others if I wanted to; or by myself. That was the extent of the decisions facing me. The World Cup just represented simple fun.

The World Cup is taking place in Brazil. Ordinarily, in a situation like this, I’d be all over the social justice issues around this  – the public money spent on stadia and other preparations in a country of such poverty; the abusive, controlling approach of overseers FIFA and so on. It’s all entertainingly and intelligently summed up here:

This time, though, whilst I have done some reading and thinking on these things, I haven’t bought the same passion or activism to it. This time, I’m just too tired, too stressed, too in need of some fun. Anyway, I think to myself, enjoying the sport and protesting the pain are not mutually exclusive. Which meant I’ve had to bite my social media tongue at the well-meant but wearying injunctions to ignore the sport and feel the pain. I can’t. Others can, but this time I just can’t. In doing so, I’ve recognised something.

That something is this: that it’s easy to be right in the wrong way. Among other things I’m experiencing a kind of compassion fatigue. I recognised much of myself in an article you can read by clicking here. I am worn out, by everything from the every day need around me to the unique needs I’ve found myself up against over recent months: my wife reduced to half an operational hand out of two, a friend murdered by terrorists, living with my own chronic illnesses. It’s hard to give out more. My capacity is reduced. This has opened my eyes to how easy it can be to use the right thing in the wrong way, to use guilt as a shortcut to motivation. A motivation which will inevitably die out. Do you have enough friends of different ethnicities? Do you shop ethically? Think what happens to the planet because of the car you drive! Do you really know people in poverty? What about the daily atrocities in places of which you’ve never heard?

On it could go. We all do it. Guilt for change. Pharisees for justice.

We need the angry. Sometimes we need to be shocked out of complacency; often we need to be uncomfortable. Never at the expense of grace, though. God knows we can’t get it all right all the time. He doesn’t expect us to. He does expect us to have soft hearts, hands calloused from service, minds busied with seeking the third way. He knows better than you and me , however, that we’re irredeemably tainted by sin and injustice; so those of us born with such need grace, not condemnation. The former will leave us freer to act; the latter will end up dragging us down into inaction and exhaustion.

I, you, we need grace. We need some slack.  Let’s beware of becoming social justice pharisees, those who trade guilt for activism. Sometimes it’s OK to just enjoy, the better to gain the energy we need to actually do something.

Kettle boiling, TV on, happy days.

TV ready…

Preview magazines ready…

Wall-chart ready…

Welcoming the mysterious ‘they’ and the undeserving lowlifes. Like me.

This may or may not come as news to you, but between the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the wisdom of St Paul, it turns out that the Bible is right. Paul is often at pains to point out that salvation – relationship with God through Jesus – is not something we earn, but something we’re given precisely because we don’t deserve it and we’ve admitted as such to God.

On the face of it this is deeply offensive to everybody, apart from really evil people like mass murderers and the people who stick chewing gum on the underside of desks. We’re not worth it, but God loves us anyway and makes us worth it by what He does in Jesus. It’s mind-bogglingly offensive to my sense of my own goodness and worthiness. If we lose the offence of this, then we’ve missed something crucial about the gospel.

There’s a great worship song that manages to unpack some of this. Ignore the tune if you’re not into folk music – it can be translated into something very different on the piano – what this does really well is talk about the offensive welcome of God. It’s the sort of worship song that’s really comforting until you start to pay attention to all the words: God welcomes anyone who’ll come. That includes me, and people I may like – debaters who’ll disagree with me and still allow me my own view and materialists with season tickets to the football who just happen to lend them to the vicar; and people I may not like. The most potentially inflammatory of these in the song are people of ‘every orientation’ or perhaps ‘abusers’. We’re all comfortable with welcoming the abused; churches do that, right? We have prayer ministry and inner healing courses for that. Every church like to welcome the abused. But the perpetrators? If I haven’t stopped to consider that even ‘they’ (whoever my particular ‘they’ might be) will be welcomed by God and redefined by Him if not by me, then I haven’t got a big enough picture of God or His gospel. God is less concerned about His reputation than I am.

Which leads me to giving money to people who beg. All of us who don’t live outside have probably wrestled with this in some form. If someone who is probably homeless is asking for money, what do I do? Should I give indiscriminately? What if ‘they’ spend it on drugs or alcohol or something else ‘they’ are addicted to? How do I know ‘they’ won’t squander it?

Notice how quickly the nameless ‘they’ creep into our discussions. When I’ve led groups in consideration of this question, I’ve often tried to change the terms of the discussion. Let’s imagine a person with a name. Give him or her a history, a path to this point in time. Give her a passion. Give him a sports team to love. Give him a life’s path from this point on. Usually the life’s path leads to a premature death of some kind. What follows is often an uncomfortable silence, and a re-imagining of the conversations around money. For some it no longer matters what the person may do with money handed over or help given; what matters, suddenly, is how that person has been treated in the interaction.

There are many people in our area who live outside. I don’t know many of them. One or two I know well. Ricardo is one of those.

He’s a bright, witty man with a winning smile. He lives on the streets. After a year or so of us getting to know each other, he asked if he could sit down with me and my wife and just tell us his story because ‘I’ve never told anyone before’. So he came round one night for a bowl of pasta and talked for hours about the story of his life. He still lives on the streets, but now he assists my wife on her photography jobs and sometimes he drives our car. Apparently this is shocking to some; I’m not trying to make us out to be something special. Really I’m not – it’s only shocking to me if he’s one of ‘them’. He’s not. He’s my friend Ricardo. He’s going to come round and watch a movie soon, because that’s what I do with friends who have names.

Does he deserve it? No. Might he go ‘off the rails’ at some point and take advantage of us? Possibly. Am I just encouraging him to stay on the streets? Perhaps.

Have I ever spent money on something I shouldn’t have?  Have I ever done things I shouldn’t have or taken bad decisions? Have I ever taken advantage of the kindness and goodness of other? Next question, please.

Did I deserve someone whose name I didn’t know to die for me? I suppose I should probably stop hedging and start answering. No, I didn’t. Might I go ‘off the rails’ at some point and take advantage of that? Yes I do, often. But you’re in no place to judge; you’ve departed the rails on occasion yourself. Does that grace just encourage me to sin all the more? Sometimes, yes. If you’re honest, you do too.

Does any of that change God’s welcome of you?