Thursday, 28 April 2016

The emergency stop

This week, a friend mentioned that she had noticed a homeless man outside her Battersea coffee shop as she went in to buy a morning coffee. She stopped on seeing him. She noticed how cold he looked. And she asked if he would like a coffee too. He did.
Her story reminded me, ever so slightly, of one told by Donald Nicholls in his book 'Holiness'. He relates the story of a group of American theological students undergoing an experiment conducted by psychologists. They were told it was an exercise in verbal retention. Each of the students was invited to a separate room where they were read a passage, then sent to the end of a long corridor outside to another room where they would try to repeat what they heard. Words were recorded and verbal retention would be measured by comparing the student's words with those in the original passage.
In fact the psychologists' aims were rather different. Half the students were read the story of the Good Samaritan. The other half a random story. They had stationed a person halfway down the corridor in a shallow alcove, someone clearly rather battered and distressed.
The proportion of students stopping to help this person was very low, and was no higher amongst those who had just been read the Good Samaritan parable. One further twist - within the 'parable group', a proportion had been told to hurry to the end of the corridor. Of that group not a single one had stopped to help.
Hurry blinds us. Our lives are lived in a hurry; we are continually 'very busy'. As if our busyness is necessarily a virtue. I attempted to sit entirely still for ten minutes on Thursday. It was not as easy as it might have been, and my mental state remained rather rushed, even when my body was still.
Learning to stop is a prerequisite of a spiritual life. If we cannot stop, what chance is there we might experience God? In his compelling chapter on the discipline of solitude, so asks Richard Foster.
Following her act of coffee-generosity, my friend was pursued by a man who enquired: 'what did you do that for?'
What would it take to make us stop?

Saturday, 23 April 2016

From poverty to power

What is the great spiritual danger of our age?
In his chapter on the discipline of simplicity, Richard Foster makes a strong case, based on Jesus's own teachings, that it is the pursuit of wealth and possessions. Especially in an affluent society such as our own.
This week has reminded me of parallel truth. I have been helping a friend who runs a small charity in inner London. The charity supports parents and families who rely on food banks and yet have no way of paying for fuel to cook the food they're given for their children. Or to heat the water that might keep them clean. So the charity issues vouchers which add credit to high-tariff pre payment meters.
Simple enough. Yet charity volunteers consistently  report the complex web of problems amongst those for whom these basics have, often alarmingly quickly, become beyond their reach. Chief amongst them are the disabling impact of extreme poverty.
The loss of hope. The decline in self-esteem of parents who can no longer provide. The feeling that they are uncared for, at the bottom rung of the ladder. Theirs is more than fuel poverty - it is the removal of power....power to hope, power to trust, power to believe that things might get better.
Luke 6:20-21 reminds us of Jesus's overriding concern for those in poverty.
That there is spiritual danger in wealth, yes, but a deeply concerning spiritual danger in poverty. Of the hidden and the voiceless.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Hope where the heart is

I was in conversation this week with someone involved in City of London fund management. "There's no such thing as a truly ethical investment", he told me. "What is ethical means different things to different people, and no single company - and certainly no portfolio - can satisfy everybody. ".

His words may be a fair reflection of things, and I recalled the Church's struggle to rid itself of stock it regards as unprincipled. However, as a judgement on modern commerce, I found it a little, well - disappointing. It would seem every investment has in it, somewhere, the traces of natural or human exploitation and worse.

Richard Foster presents a very different, and much more hopeful, picture. As we approach the second section of his 'Celebration of Discipline', we read in his chapter on Simplicity an emphasis on 'seeking first God's Kingdom' (p107). He adds: 'when the kingdom of God is genuinely placed first, ecological concerns, the poor, the equitable distribution of wealth...will be given their proper attention'.

We may invest some money in a flawed economic system. But where do we invest those things that matter more? Our hope? Our heart's desires? Our responsibility to each other? Our response to the creator God?

We invest those things first in God's Kingdom. So, my hope is that the acts of spiritual discipline that we'll explore in the pages to come bring you and I closer to the 'how' of the matter.