Not a Fairy Godmother

Saint John writes – we deceive ourselves if we say we are not sinners – and my most frequent prayer is probably the Orthodox Jesus prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’…  Christian leaders are not shiny, gingham souled fairy-godmothers, waiting to smile benevolently and agree with every opinion that other Christians air. I wonder if being provocatively honest is a sin?

Today I shocked one man by explaining that there were many black bishops and leaders in the early church, as the church began on the continent of Africa, and that we pallid Europeans came late to the party as far as knowledge of Jesus was concerned – I gave the example of Saint Nicholas of Myra – who although he came from Turkey, anthropological reconstructions show clearly a curly-haired, broad nose, strong-framed man of North African appearance; but there are many more, both middle-eastern and African, amongst the Church Fathers and Desert Fathers. He was stunned, and I gleefully watched him try to fit the information into the furniture of his brain. He looked like he gave up – the next conversation I overheard him having, he was trying to explain that the Israelites might have been Vikings… I fear my breath was wasted.

Last week I commented unthinkingly (whilst in civvies and ‘off-duty’, looking after my daughter at a pool party in a town miles from where I live and work), that I believed rural ministry can be as challenging as urban ministry, and that some village communities can be quite tribal and even antagonistic (as can some urban communities in fact)… the next thing I know, a stranger has found my email address and I’m being told that ‘our village is not tribal’… and it’s ‘a shame’ clergy from my parish haven’t been more helpful to their village… !

It is a challenge to remain honest and loving in a world where close relationships are few and distant opinions travel far… because here-say and opinion, misinformation and guesswork can easily travel indefinitely… as can this blog… but I think maybe love really cannot.

Some people may actually read this – it says there are about 49 people who ‘follow’ this blog, though perhaps some of those numbers are ‘bots’ and others may subscribe to many blogs and read very few in reality… but though my random thoughts may reach you, any of you reading this will in all likelihood never know me – never eat a meal that I have cooked, nor see a doodle I have drawn, I will never crack a joke to lighten your mood, or give you a hug when you are looking down; I probably won’t visit you in hospital or help you move house, and I’m unlikely to encourage you to apply for that new job, or help you get back in touch with that relative you’ve argued with.

It makes me wonder whether to continue with these thoughts – as more and more often I fear that my words will only add to the load of sins that must be forgiven, sins of misunderstanding or unhelpfulness; sins of self-centredness or lack of empathy…

Don’t mistake me, I’m not feeling self-pity about this, it’s just that perhaps this blog has run its course, and it’s time I took my reflections back into a journal format that can still enable me to keep track of the things I encounter and feel, but that won’t add to the unnecessary noise of the world.

If you are out there – and you DO need love, I am sorry I cannot help you out – but for the 49  people who once read this – may God forgive you the things that trouble you, as I hope he forgives me, and those I inadvertently wind up, and may you find encouragement and empathy in the people around you. gardenpic

 

 

 

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Unmeetable Needs

I read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s book, ‘Reimagining Britain’ a week or two ago, and one phrase in particular stuck with me, it wasn’t part of the main content, which is broadly a brief analysis of the state of the nation and the loci where our society could start mending/ rebuilding and suggestions of ways the Church and Christian Faith generally may be able to speak into that brokenness.

No, what stuck with me was a phrase that the Archbishop recalled when speaking to a fellow bishop from the Democratic Republic of Congo… he had asked the Bishop how many refugees there were in his diocese, and the answer… around 2,000,000. Two million people having fled violence and without a settled community. Two million. In one small, economically and socially unstable area.

The Archbishop was understandably struck by this…

‘What do you do in the face of such unmeetable needs?’ he asked.

‘We do what we can, with God’s help,’ was the reply.

Unmeetable needs. That line struck a chord. I wondered how I could possibly minister under those circumstances, with 2,000,000 people in constant and urgent need of help, support, and community… would I stay hopeful? I couldn’t imagine it, that scale of need.

But on a smaller scale, every day there are unmeetable needs… like the awful hollow grief of the whole school who lost a young staff member in a car accident last week. The young man who died, only 19, was well liked by all and had barely begun a life of service and encouragement to the next generation, something sorely needed in this community. He was also the son of another staff member. A brokenness and pain that can’t be fixed and can’t be rushed, and cannot be denied.

Unmeetable needs… like the young couple who find themselves endlessly homeless, unable quite to hold themselves on an even keel long enough to contact the council, claim the support, find the flat and sign the lease, without disaster, crisis or their dramatic personalities and drugs needs overtaking them. So many babies taken into care… and so many pets they won’t give up, even if landlords demand it. Even accessing the support services with help, they often can’t get their heads clear enough to make use of it, and when their heads clear they start to bicker like children… it’s hard to tell if they even know what they want, or if perhaps they don’t want to start coping because then they’d have time to remember all that is passed, and instead maybe they are trying to sleepwalk into oblivion? Brokenness that maybe can’t be fixed, because it would reveal so many other pains?

And I go, and I ‘be’ there… and I listen, I cry with them or encourage, sometimes I try to help them think about it in alternative ways, to see if they can change around the pieces of their puzzle and somehow make things fit a little. But mostly I just meet with them, at the place of unmeetable needs, at the crossroads.

In fact that is often all I can do, I stand at the crossroads, whilst others come limping or burdened, and they stop, and talk… And then they move on… still limping, still burdened, but sometimes they have rested their limbs, or set down their burden for a while. And they often leave me with a smile, which always feels like they have given me more than I have given them. And I pray, I pray sometimes with them, but more often I pray after they have left… I pray that they will receive what they need and get to wherever they are meant to go; and I hope earnestly that God hears me… because I cannot meet any of their needs, and standing emptyhanded in the place of unmeetable needs is excruciating.

When I meet Christ in the world to come, maybe I will ask him,

‘Why was it, when you knew how much I wanted to help with all the pain and sorrow, that you called me to be so helpless? Why didn’t you call me to be a vet or doctor to heal? Why didn’t you call me to be a farmer or builder to feed and shelter, or a psychologist or schoolteacher to enable and strengthen… ? Why did you call me to be there at all the times when no-one can help, and to be the one who doesn’t help, but stands there watching others gathering and passing by in pain and sorrow? To hurt for them and cry for them and not be able to make it better?’

I know what kind of thing he’ll say… ‘You saw where I made my stand when I called you to follow me.’

mary weeping

 

 

 

 

 

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Disenfranchised Suffragettes

One hundred years ago, some women in Great Britain finally began to receive the right to vote. It was the beginning in changes in law and society that would allow women rights in the home and family, over property, and over their own bodies. It would lead to societal changes that would prioritise better healthcare for families, consider safety and justice at work, it would change ancient cultural expectations, valuing girl children towards the point of equality, and would gradually open up the old clubs of education and careers to people of each gender and a wider social background.

No longer would it be legally acceptable to regard one’s wife and daughters, and stray female relatives, as possessions rather than people in their own right – and right up to the present day, as more and more people find a voice, it continues to surprise different groups in society that a lot of things that human beings have put up with for a long time, are not really okay from where they have been standing.

Prejudice is prejudice, ‘pre-judgement’… judgement without prior evidence; no matter how culturally broad or how long its been around, and it’s never helpful, even nice big old-fashioned pigeonholes are still pigeonholes, whilst each soul is unique, and it is up to parents and the wider community and society to try to help each new soul uncover their abilities in a way that can sooner or later integrate productively on some level with their fellow human beings, and to encourage them to discover and hone skills and gifts, some which in each generation will be totally new to the society and culture in which they arise.

But when I read the news and look around, that’s not what I see or hear. I see young people who appear to deposit and grow their identity online, more concerned with other people’s judgements than ever, and due to the nature of the platform and the way they initially engage with it (like a baby waving at itself in a mirror), more often wrapped up in outward showand forgetful of their soul – it can’t be instagrammed.

As for the parents who didn’t know or realise they ought to start trying to find out what makes their youngsters tick until they found them annoying and didn’t know why… it’s a tragedy.

At home, in front of shiny bright mirrors, not families so much as crowds of lonely strangers, desperate for kinship search hopelessly for something they cannot find, cannot see or capture in pixels…  obsessed and lost as Narcissus, unhappy and restless as the Minotaur, they look into the little pools endlessly, at their own and other people’s reflections, listen to their own and other people’s echoes. Alone.

But it is NOT GOOD for mankind to be alone.

That is what it says in Genesis and it is right – there is nothing about boy meets girl in the Hebrew of the creation story, it is all about Adamah and Chavvah…  Humanity… only a half-being when we are alone, and Chavvah – Life… life only beginning when we are together. That is what those names translate as – Adamah = humanity, earthman; and Chavvah (transliterated in English as Eve)= Life. Humanity has no Life alone.

A generation is dying, pining away in front of these false images we have made for ourselves, of ourselves, avatars that have no power – is it any wonder that some dreamers try to bring their violent gods to life with plans taken from a dreamworld… they, like everyone else, are searching for something real. And all the while, the real connections we have won – families, communities, societies, groups, teams, clubs and committees, parties and governments, are dwindling away – the strength of so many people sapped by the endless demands of the screen gods, the worship we seek for ourselves in ‘likes’, ‘retweets’ and ‘follows’, and they are so HUNGRY.

They will not allow the children to grow up relatively unscathed and fall in love, they want their flesh onscreen before they even know shame or regret. They will not wait for a ballad from the artist as the muse strikes- they’d rather have a hasty limerick NOW. They won’t wait for a carefully thought-out policy, they’d rather have an answer in the form of a soundbite NOW, and hang the knock-on effects. And what the modern Milcom and Molek like best, is lies… lies with fancy pictures.

We are feeding the modern monsters with our own selves – and we are becoming less and less for it instead of growing communities, growing deeper roots and growing our souls. Can we save the coming generation from the sickness of unreality and disconnect that is consuming our societies? Or must we wait until the supply of household gods (that is not a typo) dries up – and people start to realise that they need to find true bread for their hunger? And to do so together.

 

 

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Failing upwards

The longer I live… and I know that sounds like a very old woman, but I think my soul is pretty wrinkly… the longer I live, the more ways I find to fail. Also, the longer I live and more ways I find to fail, the more ways God shows me He will bless my failures, and if anything, appears to prefer them, to my over-planned, over-thought, highly polished and mediocre achievements. I’m beginning to realise perhaps I am like the clown, who styles herself a tragic hero and keeps practicing heroic stances and actions whilst unwittingly setting up for accidents and pratfalls. Unlike that clown, whose actions in reality are planned and highly skilled, I genuinely can’t seem to recognise the value of my own foolish actions until I look up from another spill and feel the divine gaze smiling down on me with benevolent approval.

striped clowns

Though I never seem to spot the custard pies coming, this is not a new revelation to me – God’s apparent preference for failure – nor do I resent it: I remember when I first started to learn it though, that big silly, sensible, peaceful truth emerging from the grim fog of my tense anxiety like a marvellous lolloping pantomime horse. I wrote a poem back in theological college the first time (or more likely the fifteenth or twenty-fifth time) that I made what I felt was a big obvious public mistake… I don’t recall it all now, and can’t find it in my messy office, but it began, “I thank the Lord that I will always fail,’ and ended, “We live by Grace and not by Providence”. 

What do I mean?

Well providence is the things – gifts, talents, materials, support – all that we are given in this life, which ALSO comes from God more or less directly. But Grace… is not a thing at all, it is the miraculous gap which, by the workings of the human heart, and the immeasurable power of love, does more to transform worldly events on the big and small scale, than any amount of income, ability or material wealth. And God’s Grace seems to work best of all in circumstances of apparent failure.

But Grace is also acutely humbling… because by it we no longer stand on our own strength or merit. It pulls the rug out from underneath our feet, often when we thought we were already at rock bottom. Grace trips us up when we thought we had nowhere left to fall. It’s like an overwhelmingly generous gift given to a miser, that belittles all he had horded for himself and makes him see himself anew and more accurately. At least that’s how it feels to me – kind of deservedly embarrassing. But at the same time it is so KIND, so loving, that we have nowhere to go with that embarrassment – like a much needed hug from a great big loving relative,  which overcomes our self-righteousness when we feel we ought to be shouting crossly.

Well as usual I’ve been doing a lot of failing, small and big- and God has been generous in his Grace- so I feel pretty silly but also, as always, surprised and thankful.

One of the silliest failures I made in the last couple of weeks was that I sent a lovely book to some people I don’t know personally, just because I felt strongly moved to do so. And I thought I had done so in complete anonymity. I had certainly made every effort to make it anonymous: I sent it half way across the world via a third-party. I did so anonymously because there was no earthly reason for my action, it seemed almost presumptuous in its warm-heartedness and I felt that what I was doing was, in mortal terms, total foolishness – but as I followed the urge of the Holy Spirit to be bold and silly – I reconciled my embarrassed inner critic with the comforting thought that a) no-one would ever know that it was I who had done that peculiar thing and b) I need never know how strangely or indifferently my unexpected ‘gift’ had been recieved.

But this morning on the doormat there was a card from half way across the world – with a thank you note

Dear Revd J J SandersHeys, what a gift to receive the book from you! It means so much as it directly connects with one of our upcoming projects called 40 Days & 40 Nights. It will be truely valued.”

Oh no!– I thought, and in fact I said aloud, repeatedly, and at varying pitches, to my laughing husband, how embarrassing to be found out! How had I managed to lose my protected anonymity and reveal myself in all my odd impulsive spirituality and randomly directed and socially inappropriate fondness. But whilst I still remain pretty embarrassed now (You can probably see I’m trying to own the accidental lack of anonymity by thinking about it publicly here – like the clown bowing politely at the applause after a pratfall) I hope perhaps that their words are sincere as well as gracious and polite, because that would be a kind of miracle of grace in itself – I had no idea what artistic project they were working on- only that I, a foolish stranger, had received from them a creative gift that moved my heart and spirit and after thought I wished to respond in like blessing.

It shook me, being named when I thought I was hidden, and made me think, as I walked the dog along the beach in the low winter sunlight, of how impossible it can ever be to deserve all the gifts one receives from others, and how very thankful we human beings should all be for one another,  and I wondered how our small liturgical acts of thanksgiving make God feel… I hope they don’t make him feel embarrassed.

I think because of Jesus, they don’t – after all the omnipotent stuff, which one assumes is so easy for God that our thanks might feel silly – still that sacrifice on earth – his life and love and death with and for us was truly humanly painful and costly and loving. Jesus was always really reticent, almost shy, about people telling others when he had helped and healed them, though they usually couldn’t be stopped, and look at the thanks he received at Golgotha. Without the cost to the Beloved, it might be hard to thank God sincerely, as he made everything out of nothing… we might feel like a pauper receiving tuppence from a King… as it is, Jesus changes everything…

God’s gift cost him everything, everything of himself, he gave us – and he came to deliver it in person.

Anyway though I felt more than ever like a bit of a fool this afternoon, still that distant exchange of kindness made me wish to live up to the unnecessary and unexpected thanks a bit, and try harder to be the kind of person I only am occasionally.

Either that or confess openly to my nature and start wearing a round red nose.

 

 

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Connectivity

It’s funny how things connect, isn’t it, I suppose we move in small patterns that overlap, and I know that none of us are very many connections apart from anyone else – one has only to meet  a couple of famous and well-travelled people, and one is two-steps from meeting almost anyone else.

I think the theory that we are only six-degrees of separation at most from anyone else living was put forward in the 1920s, now as people travel more, it seems likely to be fewer. I’ve met a lot of people who’ve met the Queen of England, including a heck of a lot of bishops and a couple of Archbishops (Desmond Tutu, Justin Welby and Ezekiel Kondo), of England and other countries so I expect I’m about 3 degrees of separation from most folks, as they travel and meet people all the time.

But it’s funny how far from friends and family I often feel – as close to strangers as the people I grew up with, sharing their lives, their worries, their marriages and funerals – more often than I attend the life-events of old school friends.

This Sunday, the Bible reading set is from Matthew Chapter 25, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. I re-read it in the Greek as a fresh translation often helps awaken fresh understanding, and it struck me clearly, what a simple portrayal of the resurrection and coming of the Kingdom of God it is:

All the ladies ‘fall asleep’ as the bridegroom (Christ) is so long returning to the marriage celebration. – They are awakened (resurrected) from their inevitable sleep, to greet the bridegroom, and as he is coming, the wise virgins prepare their lamps. The foolish have no oil to light their own lamps and ask for some, but they are refused…

There is something in the bare Greek that isn’t clear in the tidied English – the literal translation is ‘they prepared the lamps of them’ – and the unprepared foolish say ‘give us of the oil of you’…

‘the lamps of them’

‘the oil of you’

On the one hand that is just a literal translation of ‘their lamps’ and ‘your oil’… but linguistically it is important – it was not ‘they prepared THE lamps’ which would have been grammatically fine, or ‘give us SOME oil’…

It seems to indicate something intrinsic that cannot be shared, and recalls the baptismal promises ‘shine as a light in the world, to the glory of God the Father’ and also ‘let your light so shine before men’ and ‘when a lamp is lit, you do not place it under a bushel’…

In this season between All Saints to Advent, we remember many of those who have ‘shone’ as lamps in the world… and I recall gladly that I still have time to prepare ‘the lamp of myself’ and to stock up on the oil of holiness… so that after I fall asleep and am wakened by that call ‘arise, the bridegroom is coming’… then I should be ready to shine in procession to the celebration.

But I think too with some anxiety, of the people I love, who are around me, and who may fall asleep with their lamps unprepared, and without the oil of holiness that will make them shine ‘like stars’ as the Bible says…  But even if I wanted to (and I know I would) on that day I will not be able to give the ‘oil of myself’ to them, to help them light the way. And I worry, in amongst that six degrees of separation – and all those relationships of love and care… how many of my loved ones lamps will be equipped with oil… I don’t suppose a lot will be needed, only a very little – because as it says in Matthew 12 ‘a smouldering wick He will not extinguish’… we only need a little holiness, but we won’t be able to borrow it on the day that the Kingdom comes.

 

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Sanctity

Sacredness… sanctity… what is it, where is it, how does it work… practically speaking?

Occasionally, not because this is the way the brain works, but because of the way it makes my mind feel, I wonder if there is a special part of the brain that processes sacredness. A place, perhaps in the front of the cortex, on the outside, and then also deep in the middle, where, between the two, the deep tremors of awe and the new light of understanding reach out across the mind from both directions… and miss… and keep reaching, like a searchlight… not in anxious and fretful straining, casting back and forth as for a forgotten telephone number or that noun on the tip of your tongue – but like a light-show or a broadcast or receiver,  outward facing and open… the way our eyes and lungs seek to inhale and open up to a long awaited view on a mountain-top…  open wide and drinking it in, without ever filling up.

Awe… I have, for many years had a subscription to popular science mag ‘NewScientist’ – a habit inherited from my father, who used to work in the field of computer science and AI, and whose copies of NewScientist I used to trawl through avidly, sitting underneath the desk in the study, full of exciting innovation and discovery and research- and stuffed full of new ethical and philosophical discussion points… anyway a couple of months ago, there was an article about ‘awe‘ and how helpful the experience of awe can be to our minds…

I know the positive quality of awe shouldn’t seem like news to a priest, but I’m all for the search for more knowledge of a bit more Truth from every angle and I think it’s helpful (vital!) to approach knowledge from the bottom-up, practical-measurement, field of Science… (always taking into account how fleeting scientific ‘knowledge’ is,  regularly changing shape: when an old scientific theory or law is corrected or disproved or improved or superceded); as well as approaching Truth from the top-down, ancient-revelation, direction of religion and spirituality, (which can trickle off into odd experimental theological detours and get sidetracked unhelpfully  in peculiar cultural eddies: according to what’s going on in people’s lives at that time in history)(… Don’t talk to me about theoretical physics, which does weird wibbly things somewhere between the two and occasionally simultaneously and equally in opposite directions).

Anyway – back to awe, and the sense of sacredness or sanctity…  apparently it’s big enough or widespread enough or repeatable enough to study scientifically and apparently it’s good for us.

Well I don’t know if this is true for all priests, but I certainly find that awe is one of those things that I experience a lot… good news according to NewScientist… as it apparently ‘boosts creativity’, ‘lowers stress’ and can make us ‘nicer people’. But whilst they admit one does not need to be religious to experience awe -[though perhaps it helps]- I think it is certainly one of the main things that actually moves me to respond with prayer.

Actually I would say that at times the sense of sacredness or awe is synonymous with prayer – as though awe is an inner motion of one’s spirit, actively lit up by the numinous and already responding, like a flower unfolding in sunlight… radiance begetting radiance, beauty begetting beauty… awe, sacredness, sanctity is participatory.

Child-tree-awe-small[1]

It is certain that one can ignore all awesome things . Just as one can deliberately choose to ignore the sacred, or even, in a motion that strangely acknowledges the sacred just as strongly and powerfully as religiosity… one can choose to deliberately respond in a negative way, to profane it.

But I do believe it comes from beyond ourselves just as it comes correspondingly from within, and I think that when we respond together to the awesome, the sacred… we truly connect with one another in a way that reaches beyond ourselves and interconnects us… not like a mob temporarily formed in reacting to a gunshot, responding to something baser than reason or thought, but more like a gathered choir, united physically and experientially and in intent focus…in harmony and linked by an intentional involvement or acquiescence above ordinary reason.

I guess I’m kind of waffling on. But I am fascinated by the way in which we can feel the awe, the numinous in many situations, and without a word – be united with others in something beyond ourselves – sometimes over great distances, sometimes over different times in history. Not always in something joyous, but sometimes in grief or loss or passion or concern- with a comprehension beyond words, and an emotional involvement that, at least for me, moves me to compassion and empathy, to prayer – of thanks or pleading or hope or simply questioning.

Very occasionally it even happens in church.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Beyond Words

It has been a long while since I wrote anything on here… which is where I try to reflect more thoughtfully and slowly on happenings, and to digest how I feel about things. I haven’t written perhaps because life has been so full of happenings, or because I hadn’t begun to digest them, or perhaps because I have been afraid of how I feel about them.

For you, reader, it will be more pertinent if I begin with a few actual happenings.

We’ll zoom quickly in: Internationally an apparent grade 1 egotist with a ridiculous degree of ignorance has managed, by lies and hyperbole, to persuade enough of his nation to vote for him, almost as though it were only a game, that he has become President of North America.

Nationally of course, in a display of thinly disguised xenophobia and short-sighted protest, our island nation has voted by a narrow margin, to cast itself adrift from its neighbours and ‘leave’ the European Union.

Locally, we in this borough have been an experimental region for the government’s latest cost-cutting exercise, ‘Universal Credit’… a system so flawed and complicated that it cannot be named ‘Welfare’ or ‘Benefits’ or ‘Support’ although it replaces all of those, and so slow to move into action even when correctly operated, that successfully poverty-stricken and desperate recipients find themselves, after the eight week delay in initial payments, even more desperately in debt than before (if they have been so impractical as to continue eating or feeding their children during that limbo period) and often homeless too.

Take Steve (name changed but only that). Steve had a bedsit and although he did not own a computer, and was not familiar or comfortable using one, when he went down to the JobCentre and found that his job seeker’s allowance and housing benefit was moved to Universal Credit, his landlord took all his ID from him and inputted the details onto her computer and kept him logged on regularly (there is an online journal to complete) so that he would not lose his housing benefit and would keep paying the rent. When Steve became uncomfortable with his landlord having all his ID, passwords, bank details, birth date, proof of ID etc, on her computer, and spoke to her about it- they fell out. Shortly after, she found a reason (walking downstairs with an unlit cigarette to go outside for a smoke) to give him a formal warning and then a week or so later she got a couple of large friends of hers to evict him. He did not argue as the atmosphere was unpleasant and it was hardly ‘home’. Since he left with only a small threat of violence and a lot of threats (but no formal ‘eviction’ process), he was then classed as ‘voluntarily homeless’ and no longer eligible for housing benefit (one part of the Universal Credit funds). So, being an honest chap, he went and informed the JobCentre that this was the case, and they updated his record with the address of the new ‘bedsit’ (B&B) where he had gone to in this emergency, and which was now costing considerably more than the bedsit (£20 a night), and, as he had ‘voluntarily’ become ‘homeless’ – they stopped his housing benefit – as he knew they would.

So now he was paying much more to stay in a B&B, with much less money coming in… so he was paying out of Jobseeker’s allowance-  his food money really. After a few days the B&B was just too expensive, and the remaining money ran out – (please note, Steve is not a drinker or an addict-  although interestingly if he were, he would have received a little bit more state money, as an incentive to avoid using crime to fund his habit… an incentive that doesn’t work, naturally. Anyway, he isn’t an addict so its just the flat support rate from someone totally out of work, but looking). Now in order to PROVE he is looking for work, Steve is having to ‘logon’ to his journal and search for jobs several times a week for a set amount of time as well as attending regular meetings and appointments at the JobCentre. The first part of this is unfortunate- logging on- because, being very poor indeed, and homeless, Steve does not own a ‘Smartphone’ or have a ‘Laptop’ – he has a very small pushbutton phone with very little credit on it.

So in order to keep his reduced Universal Credit allowance, now that his landlord is no longer holding all his details, Steve has to walk (of course walk, he doesn’t own a bicycle or car, or horse, or scooter, or roller skates), Steve has to walk 2 miles  into town in the winter weather, and queue up to log on to the small bank of library computers… which of course have their regular Jobseekers in situ. Or to go to the JobCentre, which now has very few computers, and a queue – during opening hours.

Of course the trouble is, that after walking for half an hour (better than the hour it used to take from the other landlord but still not great) in the freezing winter weather, on an empty stomach, Steve’s brain is not in the best possible place to fill out his journal and complete job applications or update his CV. Also the system is new, and Universal Credit is confusing even the professionals who are there to support… so when the 17 page form needs updating, or something gets stuck (because out here on the East Coast of England, the Internet access, even from council buildings, is patchy and sometimes fails)… then Steve, who is not great on computers, needs to ask for help.

So he is directed to phone the helpline. But the helpline costs money. And Steve’s phone does not have credit – because he is very very poor, and homeless, and if he’d had enough money to make a phonecall to the helpline, then he would have used that money to buy himself dinner that day… but actually he spent it all on the B&B so he will just have to be content with breakfast and be glad he has a bed. Though he tries the helpline from the JobCentre’s one single phone at his next appointment… and they are sorry but they have no information and cannot help- because the Universal Credit system is only experimental, and they can only offer help for the old systems.

Oh, I forgot…that as I mentioned four paragraphs back, the B&B is more expensive than the bedsit was, and actually he doesn’t have enough money to pay for it. So he has to leave. So now he is really totally homeless. No roof, no bed, no money. Actually he has a sheet of tarpaulin and his sleeping bag, and he beds down in an unattended corner round the back of a church. But he still has to turn up to his JobCentre appointments and fill out his journal, or the last of his money will be stopped and he won’t even be able to eat once in the day. He pretends that the B&B address is still correct, because if he tells the government exactly HOW homeless he is… that he really has NO address, then they will stop ALL his money.

… It goes on. The ‘up’ side is that after months of planning we started a Winter night shelter the week Steve was really totally homeless… and he was the first guest. It shocked me.

Maybe you are thinking: ‘You’re supposed to follow Jesus, why didn’t you do more?… you clearly have a computer, a home, food etc… Why didn’t you feed him, help him, house him?’

Well actually, Steve has used this computer, the one I’m typing on now, to fill out some of his ‘online journal’ to obtain his credit… and he hates it, computers that is- it is HE who explained how cold and inhuman the system is, how he really would rather speak to a person, and how he feels pity for the people in the Job Centre trying to make bricks without straw… Yes he has taken shelter in the Church, we have fed him many times, we’ve turned all the heaters on him and made him hot drinks, and the first night that the nightshelter we were working to open, opened in January, I drove him over there to make sure he was welcomed, and I got his feedback afterward about the experience. (Okay, but the risk assessment forms we have to start with were almost the straw that broke the camel’s back… for someone constantly having to attend appointments and interviews). He’s sofa-surfing now, and one of the parishioners is storing the stuff he owns that he can’t carry around, whilst he STILL tries to make the system work just a little bit- even though he knows damn well it is broken, we all do.

And also, I can’t do all that needs to be done, Steve is not my only parishioner… and in my parish he is not alone in these difficulties… he is one of very very many and one of many whom I care about. And I must be here for more than one person … sometimes for a lot of people at once, and sometimes for one at a time, sometimes for someone who was a stranger and sometimes for my own family, sometimes for colleagues and sometimes even for myself.

So all I can really do is acknowledge Steve for who he is, he is not an anonymous homeless person, he is Steve, a bit of a philosopher, keen on gardening, and with an NVQ in community theatre… Steve who I bought shortbread biscuits for not as charity but AS A CHRISTMAS PRESENT because he’d helped out round the church… YES I would like to employ him at church… but we are a really poor parish and I haven’t worked out HOW yet.

Anyway… that is just ONE of the happenings that has happened lately… and I am not feeling very philosophical or theological about it – because it is wrong and broken and getting worse.

But I will not give up- that’s the theological bit. I will stay and see and listen, and maybe even manage to help out a little bit… but mostly I will just stay, and be here and not give up. Because Steve matters, and so does Jasmine, and Andy, and Alan and Brian and everyone else…old and young, poor, and occasionally even rich.

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