Sunday, February 25, 2007

Ingenious Temptations

One of my jobs during the week is fundraising for the local community in Darnall where I work. Darnall is a very disadvantaged neighbourhood in Sheffield. It has lots of good causes which require support, it needs money, it needs plenty of it, and it has never seen its fair share. If I could conjure funding out of thin air I would become a local hero. But, of course, I can't.

'If you are the Son of God,' said the Devil to Jesus, 'Command this stone to become a loaf of bread.' [1] What's so wrong with that? I could certainly do with help from someone who could command sheets of paper to become successful funding bids, or piles of earth to become suitcases filled with crisp new fifty pound notes. Isn't the important thing, how you use the money, not where it comes from?

There's a story called 'The Monkey's Paw', written in 1902 by someone called William Wymark Jacobs. An old soldier tells his friends how, while he was serving in India, he was given a monkey's paw by a dying man. It was supposed to have magic properties which meant that it could grant three wishes to its owner, but the soldier has been so dissatisfied with the outcome of his own three wishes that, even as he ends his story, he takes the monkey's paw from his pocket and throws it into the fire.

One of his friends snatches the paw out of the flames and afterwards makes a wish – that the mortgage debt on his house might be cleared. The following evening, while the man is at home with his wife, there is a knock on the door. Someone has come from the firm where their only son works to break the bad news that the son has been caught up in some machinery and is now in hospital, in a coma. The visitor says that the firm will disclaim all responsibility for the accident but, as a mark of their regret, and to help the family with their medical bills, he makes an immediate payment to the family which just happens to be the right amount of money to pay off the mortgage on their house.

In the next few days the son dies of his injuries and is buried. Only after a week or so does his mother suddenly remember that her husband still has the monkey's paw. She forces him to make another wish – this time that their son might be alive again. But, by now, the father has begun to realise just how treacherous these wishes can be and when – after a couple of hours – someone starts to knock frantically at the back door he grabs the paw and makes a third and final wish before his wife can open it.

It's just a silly story, of course, but perhaps it offers us a clue why the power to turn stones into bread is not the wonderful opportunity it first seems, but instead a dangerous temptation.

In Darnall we've had a less tragic reminder that the offer of easy money is not always unalloyed good news. Every year we organise a community carnival, which costs thousands of pounds to run, so you can imagine how delighted we were when a housing developer offered us two thousand pounds towards the cost. Our excitement was somewhat dented, however, when we discovered what kind of houses the developer was planning to build.

There is a new national standard for energy efficiency which grades houses according to how much gas and electricity their owners are likely to use: level one means that the house will be extremely energy efficient; level two means that it will be about average; and level three means that it will be below average but still a little bit more efficient than new houses were even a few years ago, before people started to worry so much about global warming. Anything below level three is, of course, simply unacceptable.

Well I guess you can imagine what standard the developer was planning to work to in Darnall. The houses were going to be so basic that their level of energy efficiency would be at the unacceptable level. The forum members felt that they simply had to complain, and now we think we might have to give back the developer's money because it's difficult to oppose someone, and say that their policies are wrong, when you're accepting their help. We are hoping, however, that the developer might change his mind and upgrade the houses.

Having the power to turn stones into bread seems, at first sight, to be a force for good, but that kind of power can interfere with people's motives and upset their good intentions. Does the way that Jesus rejects the temptation give us a clue, then, as to how we should understand the miracle of the loaves and fishes? Is that miracle simply about Jesus feeding the hungry? And, if it is, does that explain why some of the people in the crowd immediately wanted to proclaim him as their king? Or is the miracle really about something else – about finding that Jesus meets our deepest needs when he stands among us and breaks, blesses and shares the bread? In holy communion we are reminded that we do not live by bread alone. We need to receive the power and presence of Jesus if we are to discover 'life' in the fullest sense of the word.

We often imagine that the temptation which comes from having money and material things is a problem only for rich or godless people. But it isn't. It's a problem for many churches, too. How many times have I heard church meetings agree to do something not because it was God's will, but because they wanted either to save money or else to make money?

In the second temptation, the Devil offers Jesus glory and authority. Again, it's easy to imagine that this is only a problem for rich and powerful people. Tony Blair agreed to the invasion of Iraq because he dared to think that he and George Bush were powerful enough to make the world a better place just by wanting it to be so. They thought that they would be able to stamp their authority upon Iraq. I don't think they were foolish enough to imagine they could do this just by force of arms. I think they thought that they also had the moral authority to persuade the Iraqi people to embrace Western democracy and create a new kind of Arab and Muslim state which would change the face of the Middle-East and of the whole world. It was a noble idea, but it was also a dangerous delusion.

It is the Devil who offers us glory and authority – who holds out the promise that, if we tell people to do the right thing we can make the world a better place. And not just the world, of course. We all know bosses and managers who believe in telling people what to do. And I guess we have sometimes met church stewards, and circuit stewards, and ministers who were like that, too; people who had the best of intentions, but who mistakenly thought that leadership was all about having authority and being in charge.

And that shouldn't surprise us. One of the astounding things about this temptation is just how widely it is believed. Researchers have found that giving people a job title which makes them feel important is a more effective way to make them happy than giving them a big pay rise. Like the people I knew, from a voluntary organisation in Leeds, who asked if they could all have the word 'Director' in their job title. So the person who answered the phone would become the 'Director of Communications'; and the person who organised the staff rotas would become the 'Director of Personnel'; and the person who did the book-keeping would become the 'Director of Finance'. They said they needed this to happen because it would impress people from the Council. They said, 'When we meet council officers they always have a job title like 'Director of Street Scene Services', so if we have the word 'Director' in our job titles too, we'd be able to make more impact.'

Of course, the management committee agreed to their request, just to keep them feeling happy, but I've been doing a management course designed by the Institute of Leadership and Management, and one of the things it teaches is that Jesus was most certainly right to reject this temptation. The principles of good management and leadership are not a matter of glory and authority. They are about service.

In one of the sessions on the Course we had to list what a good manager must be able to do. And the answer included the following things: a manager must be able to listen; must be approachable and understanding; must be willing to share information and do their share of the most difficult jobs; must accept responsibility when things go wrong; must know when it's not appropriate to tell other people what to do; must be fair; must give praise where it's due; must have their colleagues' best interests at heart; and must lead by example.

Jesus never did a management course, but in one of his stories he commended the example of the shrewd manager as one which Christians would do well to emulate. And, if this list of qualities is anything to go by, it's easy to see why Jesus rejected the Devil's temptation, because he called upon leaders to be servants rather than masters, taking as their example the Son of Man who, he said, was called to be the servant of all. And he not only taught this style of leadership, he also lived and died by it. His crucifixion is the ultimate example of sharing the very worst things that his followers might be expected to endure, such as suffering, death and the consequences of human sin.

One of the most alarming things about the Devil is that he quotes Scripture, which shows that even the Bible can become a source of temptation in the wrong hands. A recent TV programme reminded viewers of a charismatic leader called David Koresh, who convinced his hapless followers that it was right for husbands and wives to stop sleeping with one another, and for the wives to sleep with him instead and bear his children. When federal agents laid siege to their headquarters, and eventually launched an all-out assault on it, he even convinced his followers to perish with him in the flames rather than give themselves up. And, apparently, he did all these things by appealing to – and misusing – the Scriptures, especially the Book of Revelation.

Of course, most of us never misuse the Bible as outrageously as David Koresh, but every preacher and Bible study leader, and every member of the Church who listens to their teaching, needs to beware of the Devil's example. It is almost as easy, unfortunately, to use the Bible to persuade people to stray from the will of God as it is to use it to encourage them to follow God's will. And the same goes for other holy books, of course.

And notice how the Devil uses Scripture to try to persuade Jesus that following God's way can be easy. “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’” says the Devil, “and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

A great many Christians have given in to this temptation down the years. How often we hear people say, when trouble comes, 'Why has God let this happen to me?' The answer, of course, is that God is not in the business of protecting us from all harm and of making sure that his followers never dash their foot against a stone. If that were so, Christianity would be the best insurance policy on the market, and Christians would be the most lucky people in the world.

Sometimes God can protect us from harm. But Christianity is not a benign version of the monkey's poor. It's not a lucky charm, granting Jesus' followers that their wishes will come true. Christians are the most fortunate people in all the world, because we have found the pearl of great price. But, of course, Christianity does not bestow the kind of conventional good fortune which other people are searching for. We are the servants of a crucified Saviour who heals us by being wounded for our sake, and who calls us to heal others by being wounded for him. Our good fortune is to have his presence with us to guide and strengthen us, and his example to follow as he goes ahead of us on the way.

No wonder Jesus rejected this and all the Devil's other enticements. May we be given the grace, and the courage, and the faith to do the same.

[1] Luke 4.1-13

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Blessed are the Poor

Here are some things which people have said when they were asked whether they felt poor compared to everyone else. 'I do feel poor because I can’t see a better future for my kids, and for my nieces and nephews.' 'I hate having to rely on hand-outs.' 'All my kids have asthma and I think the traffic pollution here is to blame.' 'I don’t read or write very well, and I find it difficult to explain what I'm thinking, so it’s hard for me to fill in forms or even to phone up for advice.' 'I often feel a failure as a parent.' 'The system seems designed to crush you once you're down.' 'I found it hard to bother with school – nobody I knew got a job when they left so it didn't seem worth trying.'

Do you know anyone who feels that way about some of those things? I'm sure you do. You might even feel the same way yourself, even if you have to substitute the word 'grandchildren' for 'kids'. There are times when all of us feel poor – when we're down in the dumps, when we're very ill, if we've lost our job or taken on a big mortgage.

I know a lot of people in Darnall who would certainly echo some of those feelings. And if someone finds that they can put a tick against not just one or two of those statements, but against most of them, then we're on the way to creating a real sense of disadvantage and exclusion where some people feel that others are inside the loop, scooping up many of the good things that life has to offer, while they are definitely on the outside looking in.

Many people are concerned today about the way that a growing number of Muslim people seem to feel alienated from the rest of society. There's much talk of the need for greater community cohesion – bringing together people from different cultures and backgrounds so that they go to the same primary school, to the same shops and to the same meeting places. Part of my job in Darnall is to find ways of building and enhancing that kind of cohesion – helping people to mix with one another so that they find they're not so very different after all and can learn from one another's cultures, faiths and traditions.

But, when you get down to basics, I think achieving community cohesion is mostly a knife and fork issue. Once people begin to feel that they are being included in the prosperity they see around them, and that their faith and culture are not a barrier to inclusion, a lot of the other things which divide us become matters for dialogue and friendly persuasion instead of extra grievances.

Darnall Forum's multi-faith and multi-cultural team of community workers has only been in place for a few months, so these are early days, but already we are working alongside people who feel that they are disadvantaged in various ways, trying to help them gain a stronger stake in society. People like the successful businessman who is still very uncertain, despite years of practical experience, about how to write down a business plan for a new venture. Or the young men and women for whom becoming a security guard or a shop assistant was, until recently, beyond their wildest dreams. Or the children who start nursery school barely able to speak, and the children – not necessarily the same ones – who leave primary school barely able to read and write. Or the young mothers who need a chance to build up the confidence to do new things and seek out new skills.

Does Jesus have a bias to the poor? Reading St Luke's Gospel we could easily think that he does. Whereas St Matthew tells us that Jesus said, 'Blessed are the poor in spirit,' St Luke has a starker version of the same saying, 'Blessed are the poor.'[1]

But before we start to worry about this bias, we have to ask ourselves, 'What does it mean to be poor and is it really blessed to be poor?' Someone wrote a reflection about poverty which goes like this, 'Once I heard someone speak about holy poverty. I thought it sounded good. I longed to share in holy poverty, like St Francis giving his warm cloak to a needy beggar on a cold day. But now that I know real poverty, I know that it isn't good or holy. It is pitiless and cruel, it saps my energy and drains me of feeling. I don't long for holiness any more, because I am poor.'

Well it may be true that desperate poverty, real poverty in the sense of aching hunger or gnawing thirst, is not blessed. But, of course, if we think of poverty just in these absolute terms very few people in Sheffield are actually poor. Most people have a roof over their heads, even if it leaks. Some children may go to school hungry, but there's often a breakfast club to feed them when they arrive. If we fall ill, we can all get to see a doctor, and there are plenty of good second hand clothes shops.

If, however, we think of poverty in relative terms – which is to say, if we think of the gap between the most fortunate citizens of Sheffield and those who are least fortunate – then there are still lots of poor people in Sheffield. At one time, some experts denied that relative poverty was a meaningful term. They argued that, so long as everyone had food, clothes and shelter, no one was really poor. But today even the leader of the Conservative Party accepts the idea of relative poverty.

Of course, as I said at the beginning, in any street in the City we will find some people who are relatively disadvantaged in various ways. One may be unable to work because of poor health. Another may have to rely exclusively on public transport even in cold and wet weather. One house may have several computers, while the person next-door may think that a mouse has four legs and a tail, a net is made of strands of knotted twine and surfing is something which can only be done in the sea.

However, it's not just individuals and households who are better or worse off in comparison with one another. The same comparison can also be made between neighbourhoods. Some parts of Sheffield are relatively well-to-do, and other parts are relatively down-at-heel. And the City has a very precise way of measuring these differences, called 'the SNIS'.

The first time I heard somebody say, 'SNIS' I wanted to reply, 'Bless you!' But it's not a sneeze. It stands for 'the Sheffield Neighbourhood Information System'. It will not surprise you, I guess, to learn – if you don't already know – that Woodseats is one of the ten most affluent neighbourhoods in Sheffield and Darnall is one of the ten least affluent, one of the 'closing the gap' areas where the City Council is taking special measures to reduce relative poverty.

So is it true that the Gospel of Jesus will turn this index upside down? Is it true that the poor will be blessed, that the hungry will be fed, that those who weep now will laugh? And is it true, conversely, that there will be woe upon woe heaped upon the rich, that they will no longer be consoled, that they will be empty instead of full, that their laughter will turn to weeping? Is it true that the gap which really needs to be closed is the gap between the most complacent citizens of Sheffield and those who feel in greatest need, and is it the complacent who need to catch up with their brothers and sisters?

I think there's a lot of truth in that idea. As Christians, each one of us is called to play the prophetic role of disturbing the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, which might not make us very popular in neighbourhoods like Woodseats. We have to challenge the values of a society which measures success in terms of the number of new cars on our driveways, the size of our homes and the amount on our pay cheque and we have to encourage the policy of closing the gap by taking resources from better off areas to lift up those at the bottom of the pile. This is essential if we really want to create community cohesion in Sheffield – not just between people of different faiths and cultures, but between all of its citizens.

However, there is a danger that – in taking on board this idea – we will romanticise poverty and assume that, just because someone is poor they are somehow morally superior to everyone else. That's simply nonsense. If Jesus and the Kingdom of God are biased towards the disadvantaged, that doesn't mean they are biased in favour of some of the things which disadvantaged people do. As Christians, we may be called to be sympathetic to those who find themselves trapped in disadvantage, but we are also called to be tough on the causes and consequences of disadvantage and ignorance. Closing the gap is not about dragging people and neighbourhoods down towards the average, it's about raising the average to a higher level by lifting the poorest communities out of disadvantage.

And finally, I'm not sure that the difference between St Matthew's version of this saying and St Luke's version is really as stark as people sometimes imagine. In St Matthew's version Jesus may talk about spiritual poverty rather than poverty in the sense that I've been describing, but both Gospels are at one in describing the outcome of God's bias to the poor in spiritual terms. The poor will only be happy in the Kingdom of God in so far as their aspiration is to share in the rewards which God wants to bestow. And the rich will only feel woe and emptiness if spirirtual rewards will not be enough for them, because the way they measure propserity and achievement is false.

But the spiritual and the practical sides of the good news which Jesus brings are certainly intertwined. The doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is not just about life beyond death for individuals.[2] It's about regeneration for dying communities, new hope where hope and good news were previously in short supply.

As Christians, our task is to help love to break through where now hatred is being fostered, to let justice and righteousness rule where now it is being undermined or destroyed, to let yearning for change live on where now hope is being crucified, to let faith persist where now truth is being denied, and to let the struggle continue throughout the City until the gap between the way things are now and the way things will be in the Kingdom of God is closed for ever.

[1] Luke 16.17-26

[2] 1 Corinthians 15.12-20

Some resources have been adapted from material for Poverty Action Sunday 2007 published by Church Action on Poverty.