It is said that Thomas Aquinas went as a young man to see the Pope. A well-dressed cleric met him, and with a derisive glance at Thomas’ black robe and dirty feet, he turned to the opulent gilded ceiling, and declared with pride, “I suppose the church can no longer say, ‘Silver and gold have we none’.” Thomas retorted, “Perhaps that is the reason the church also cannot say, ‘Take up your bed, rise and walk’.”
I have a confession: I want to be able to say, “Take up your bed, rise and walk”. I want my church to be able to say it. I know churches that say it, and I know plenty who don’t think they can. I have a worrying feeling that Thomas Aquinas was onto something that is hard for us to hear.
There is a church in Liverpool where 300 people gather to hear God speak. They are seeking words of knowledge and prophecy. They are expecting healing and deliverance – and they’ve seen some! They are desperate to experience God moving supernaturally. They know God transforms lives. For them this is the stuff of the kingdom. There is another church family in Belfast, which is consumed with their work at a local homeless shelter. The people are passionate about bringing practical hope and transformation to their friends who have nothing. They expect that following Jesus means getting their hands dirty and getting involved in the needs around them. They are not waiting for miracles to make the poverty go away.
When did we decide it was either/or?
Who made us choose between radical service of the most needy and passionate expectancy of God’s supernatural power? I don’t think either is enough on its own. On the one hand I’ve seen too many burnt out, cynical social activists, and on the other I’ve seen too many people flying to
Florida when they could be crossing the street to their neighbours. It’s rare (though wonderful) today to find churches in the UK which are both charismatic and radically serving the poor. The evangelical/liberal split in the last century set up a false dichotomy between a personal and dynamic, biblically-focused faith, and a commitment to radical justice-seeking in the here and now. The journey back towards a holistic or integral understanding of mission is happening in our heads, but is not always affecting our lifestyles. Not long ago in the States, Shane Claiborne surveyed a group of ‘strong followers of Jesus’ asking, “Did Jesus spend time with the poor?” Eighty per cent replied yes. He asked this same group, “Do you spend time with the poor?” This time only two per cent replied yes.
In his book Metavista, Martin Robinson describes some of the changes in Pentecostalism over the past century, in relation to the challenges of poverty. What began as a ‘religion of the poor’ (and is still in many corners of the world) has now moved to wealthier settings and, he suggests, “left behind its designation as the religion of the poor”, often gravitating instead towards prosperity teaching. He maintains that “the poor are part of the heartbeat of Pentecostalism” but often “their theology has not caught up with their heart.”
So why has this happened? This either/or theology certainly wasn’t there at the beginning of the church’s history. We began our life very obviously ‘charismatic’ and very obviously among the poor. In fact we were often a community of the poor. In the second century, the Greek philosopher Celsus ridiculed Christians for giving preference to “contemptible people, slaves and poor women”.
Something started to go wrong when the church was institutionalised as the religion of the Roman Empire. It went from being a group of subversives which had always gravitated towards those most abused by the powerful, to entering into an awkward marriage with those same abusive powers. As John Wesley observed many centuries later, “I expect little good will be done here, for we begin at the wrong end; religion must not go from the greatest to the least or the power would appear to be of men.”
Traditionally, churches in the UK are not on the margins of life, but aligned to the state and visible everywhere. In the second half of the last century, the demographics of church attendance revealed a constant theme – the emigration of Christians from inner city areas to the suburbs. Of course it is encouraging that when people follow God, they often make better life choices that lead to increased flexibility of accommodation and employment.
But we’ve followed the conventional wisdom of the world that prompts us to crystallise that development, and fence it off from others in need. John Hayes, author of SubMerge and founder of innerchange, and a world authority on intentional living among the poor, goes as far as to suggest that “our cultural materialism exerts such gravitational pull” that we cannot break away. “Many may try shortterm stints among the poor, [but] few will be able to break free from this pervasive materialistic way of life to commit long-term.”
The real, lifelong servanthood that Jesus embodied is hard. It asks us to push comfort down our priority list, and other familiar idols like success and impact (as the world understands them). Henri Nouwen writes that we must never “underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.”
When we choose to stick around and become familiar with the scale of need and suffering, it can become much harder to expect God to do miraculously transformational things. Jackie Pullinger describes how “when it gets tough – as it always does – we feel unappreciated and want to give up.” It’s too easy to embrace what theologian and speaker Don Carson calls the “raw secularism” that we swim in, denying the possibility of an unseen realm and miraculous possibilities. I run into far too many people for whom a lack of emphasis on prayer has not sprung from a change in theology, but simply bitter disappointment. I know how this feels. I have a friend who is depressed and unemployed (and has been for most of his life) and I despair when he feels just slightly better after our shared times of prayer, rather than experiencing the earthquake needed to remove the massive obstacles in his life.
On the other hand, the charismatic renewal that this country has seen in the past 50 years has been tragically contained within our churches so our religion, geography and politics remain as separate as they were in our school timetables. When Jesus sent out his disciples there wasn’t a ‘miracles team’ and a ‘social regeneration team’ going out separately. The good news he brought changed every dimension of life.
I genuinely believe that many of us who are passionate about this same good news end up doing the right things in the wrong places. Jesus seemed to care most for the last, the least and the lost, but are they the ones receiving healing and blessing on a Sunday night? Probably not, unless they live in the suburbs. Two thirds of the world live in poverty, yet only six per cent of Christian mission workers work amongst the poor. Sometimes we don’t need a specific calling – it’s just simple maths. As Ash Barker, author of Make Poverty Personal, says, “In Jesus’ economy, if the poor have authentic good news it will trickle up to the whole world.”
Living with the poor
So what can we do to change this? We can take inspiration from people who are already holding radical dependence on God’s supernatural power with a sacrificial lifestyle that serves the most needy. Kiwi Mick Duncan will tell you how he was a drug dealer until the day that a Christian offered him a room in his house. He found a Bible in a drawer and fell in love with the Jesus he read about. He suddenly began speaking in tongues, then developed a desire to tell others about his new friend, and ended up in the slums of Manila. When he brought his family back to New Zealand, his youngest daughter was asked what it was like living among “all that poverty”. She’ll tell you that she didn’t see any poverty. She just saw her friends.
Then there’s Jackie Pullinger. Something she won’t tell you herself is that where the Walled City of Hong Kong once was there is now the Garden of Hope. Eight huge stones around the park tell the story of the history of Hong Kong, and stone seven is the Jackie Pullinger stone. The Chinese communist party have erected a memorial that says, “In 1966, this lady came from England to preach the gospel…Through the gospel, the lives of many were transformed…” If we ever needed encouragement for the long haul of serving God where it’s hardest, while hoping for the miraculous, there it is. Pullinger and her army of converted drug addicts and gangsters allow themselves to be channels for ‘supernatural anointing’ on a regular basis, not for show, or to make some middle-class lives slightly more comfortable, but literally to save lives. Because of this, the ‘supernatural’ actually starts to feel natural – an integral and expected part of the everyday battle against poverty, sin and oppression in the lives of those they serve.
People who have chosen to live among the poor report seeing the miraculous more regularly since they’ve made the transition from suburban safety. For them, seeking justice and seeking miraculous transformation aren’t mutually exclusive, but inextricably linked. Those in desperate need are often oppressed by unjust systems and dark spiritual forces operating together, so the fight to free them requires campaigning, practical and prayerful action.
Theologian Bob Ekblad makes the same point in his book A new Christian manifesto, “Open-eyed realism before the myriad of forces in the way of healing and transformation is showing me the need for an approach that brings together social and legal advocacy and deliverance from evil spirits, 12-step programs and inner and physical healing.”
Leaving the comfort zone
So how do we set out on this journey? It’s horrendously difficult in 21st century life because, to start with, we’ve all developed finely tuned ‘suffering avoidance mechanisms’. Stop and think about why you live in the area of town you do, how large your house or car is and why, and what type of people you spend social time with. For most of us the values that inform those decisions are familiar babysitters – namely comfort and safety. I see them in my own life, but worryingly I don’t see them fleshed out in the life of Jesus.
If this sounds too intimidating, we should take a breath and remember that the first disciples were made up of those on the margins, with no education or intensive ministry training modules under their belt. Yet Jesus sends them out in complete confidence, and they do it! It may simply mean talking about four or five people on your doorstep who you will bless with your life. But let’s offer them all of God’s potential blessing. Let’s speak up on their behalf to councils or landlords, let’s include them in social gatherings and care for their kids, and let’s pray for invisible transformation to occur, in slow and fast ways. John Hayes describes Jesus’ approach as “embarrassingly simple. Jesus acted. Christ committed himself to a ministry of compassionate presence, not dispassionate distance.”
Jesus is offering us an enormous invitation. It reminds me of the moment when my dad would ask me to help him wash the car when I was a boy. I felt enormous pride imagining that my dad needed my help. It wasn’t until years later that I realised he hadn’t actually needed my help. He had simply wanted me to be where he was, doing what he was doing. He wanted to get to know me better in the midst of a shared task. We flit around believing that God needs our help to save the world, when in fact our father is very simply asking us to be getting up to what he’s already up to. All over the world our father is healing the sick, restoring the broken and releasing the oppressed in mundane and miraculous ways. He doesn’t need our help, but he wants us to be there with him.