Reflections on ‘Love at the Margins’ written for our monthly Live Wire newsletter:
From july edition of the live wire:
Accordingly, our vision of the ministry becomes very small, restricted to those activities that take place in a church building, or which feature a church minister, or some other “endorsing” criteria. And furthermore, these other important activities become consigned to another category we might call “the rest of life”, and begin to seem separate from and unrelated to our “church life.”
During these first four months of ‘Love at the Margins’, I’ve been overwhelmed by the stories that people have shared with me about their experiences at ‘the margins’. Those among us who have struggled to make ends meet; doctors whose patients are in desperate situations; op-shop volunteers serving customers on low-incomes; academics researching issues of inequality; neighbours who have taken an interest in an isolated person across their fence. They are exciting stories to hear! But what is striking to me is that they are not stories I’ve heard told before – perhaps, because they weren’t “official church activities”, we didn’t think they were “relevant” to the ministry we share in together?
While our ‘Love at the Margins’ focus has prompted interest in considering new ministry opportunities in the city, I’m hopeful that it will also renew our appreciation of the way in which God’s heart for the poor is already being expressed through our church community, and offer encouragement for those in our community who are engaged in this work. As I’ve continued to emphasise, this focus isn’t just about “doing more stuff”, but particularly about recognising who we are, and what sort of people God is calling us to be.
From May edition of the Live Wire:
During the last month, a number of home/discussion groups have begun the ‘Love at the Margins’ bible study, and it has been interesting to hear of the questions and ideas being wrestled with in these conversations.
One significant question that has featured in a number of these discussions is whether we should really be concerned about poverty in a context like New Zealand, given that welfare assistance is already provided by the government. Furthermore, it’s been observed that some welfare recipients use this assistance to buy alcohol, or Sky TV subscriptions, or big cars, decisions we might deem irresponsible. Do such people really merit our concern and help?
In the Victorian era, the British government sought to draw a distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving poor,” where any paupers who could be shown to be capable of work would be sent to the “workhouse”, and only those unable to work would receive support.
Such a system became notorious for its inhumanity (not least in the literature of the day), but this distinction between deserving and undeserving poor continues today, albeit in more subtle forms, in the way in which welfare and other forms of social assistance are distributed. The debates in recent years about ‘Working for Families’, which links welfare assistance to one’s ability to work, remind us of the presence of this mentality within NZ politics too.
Interestingly, this conversation has been playing out again in the UK during recent months, as the coalition government has proposed significant reforms to welfare assistance. The Church of England, however, have boldly spoken out against the proposed reforms, providing a prophetic critique that has been described as “the most controversial intervention in politics by the Church of England” in over twenty-five years (Daily Mail).
This intervention by the Church of England is an interesting example of what it means for us to “think Christianly” about these sorts of issues. While they have engaged meaningfully with this political debate, they appear to be doing so in a way that reflects a distinctive Christian voice. While their briefing on the Welfare Reform Bill reminds us that poverty is rarely chosen, and often due to circumstances beyond one’s control, they also note that “Even if there are those who are where they are because of their own bad or foolish choices in the past, that doesn’t mean they are any less in need in the present” (Archbishop Rowan Williams).
To me, such a statement is a powerful powerful witness to a God of grace, whose loving generosity defies our calculating nature. The parable Jesus tells about vineyard workers expresses this well, in which a landowner employs some workers for an entire day, and then later in the day, discovers other workers who haven’t been able to find work, and employs them for the day’s last hour. At the end of the day, he gives a day’s wages to all the workers, regardless of how long they worked.
It’s the sort of story that can infuriate our “Protestant work ethic” sensibilities, but the landowner goes on to say, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Like the all-day workers, it can be easy to find ourselves thinking in a way that some are deserving of our compassion and assistance, and others are not. However, we would do well to remember that God’s generous love is demonstrated in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). If we want to think in categories of “deserving” and “undeserving”, then the truth is that we all belong in the latter.
Read more about these issues here:
From March edition of the Live Wire:
Last month, I spent a few weeks in Manila (The Philippines), in order to participate in our annual Servants international leadership council, and to visit some of our workers in their communities.
As always, the opportunity to be reconnected with the work of Servants at “the frontline” was an energising experience, and I particularly appreciated the chance to spend some time with Maria and Dave in their new home. A gifted couple, they were sent out from Island Bay Presbyterian Church (Wellington) almost two years ago, and are coming to the conclusion of their first season in Manila.
Having finished their “formation” period, Maria and Dave had given thought to which community they want to invest in during their time with Servants, and recently settled on the city of Malabon in Manila, with an population of informal settlers of around 100,000. When researching the area, they discovered that while it is a community of extreme need, very few NGOs are at work there.
Dave took me on a walking tour of the area, and as I carefully tried to find dry footing amongst the muddy pathways and refuse, he explained that the particular community they live in is called Paradise. An irony perhaps, but for me one that pointed towards the unlikeliness of the vision of God’s kingdom in scripture, in which the streets are restored, and ruined cities are repaired (e.g. Isa 58; 61). Apparently, when they first moved in, a neighbour asked why they’d want to live here in a neighbourhood like this. She explained her desire to move out to a better community, and their hope to move in was all upside-down for her.
All this was another reminder of the “upside-down” nature of God’s kingdom, and that to share in the work of the kingdom, often God may need to turn our thinking and priorities, even our lives, upside-down too. Let me encourage you to be open to this possibility this year, as we spend time reflecting on the theme of ‘Love at the Margins’.