“We have failed ….” Reflections on Food Banks & Universal Credit

Standard

1548024_756218877804998_2840865046813675527_o

This Saturday (20th October 2018) I’ll be leading worship at the start of the annual Pilgrimage organised by Sheffield Church Action on Poverty. As I prepare it’s has reminded me of a previous event organised by the group, and the words I spoke then.

It was a conference held in Sheffield on 30th November 2014, and I spoke about how we as a society would have “failed” if food banks were still with us and were needed in five years time. That date is nearly on us, and presently there are no signs of the need for, and reliance upon food banks lessening, either by the people who use them, or by the state and welfare agencies (who now seem to have them written into their plans and strategies).

The “failure” of food banks now seems both inevitable and clear, even before the deadline I spoke of has been reached.  Now I am called into meetings and briefings about the roll out of Universal Credit in my city of Sheffield; and am told by council staff and others that food banks are part of the infrastructure that will help my neighbours and fellow citizens cope with the new system of welfare. I am asked how might local government and other agencies help support food banks in order that they might better meet the likely increased demand for them following the roll out of Universal Credit (other areas have seen increases of 52% in food bank use following the introduction of the new system).

Lets be clear;  the crisis facing food banks is not one of somehow better ensuring supply meets demand – the problem facing food banks is more fundamental, how do they escape from helping perpetuate a base injustice that is becoming enshrined by the dismantling of the post war consensus around social security, and the return of pre war models of  the “deserving and undeserving poor relief”. Food banks with their “quasi systems” of referrals, and time limits on the like are simply reinforcing the hoop jumping  exercises already faced by people and families on low incomes who rely on the state and other agencies to help maintain a decent standard of life. Austerity is not just a set of political choices made by the current Conservative Government but is also a political culture and tone that has established itself in the aftermath of the global financial crash, and the crisis of neo-liberalism. Sadly its is one that despite our talk of solidarity, despite our best intentions, food banks have not overturned, and in fact may have (without ever intending to) in fact helped perpetuate.

Where does this leave us? I don’t now but here’s some thoughts.

I am grateful for those around me who are helping to unpick and challenge what the next steps might be. Politically we need to find new models of community based support that meet the needs of those struggling on low incomes (and temporarily no income) but that do so with dignity, compassion and inclusion, at the same time we need to find ways of going upstream to the heart of the problem. Some politicians are now too happy to avoid the issue of poverty and food bank use by arguing that the issue is “complex” – yes it is and therefore it needs sound public policy responses not simplistic solutions. Poverty comes in many forms and with many complexities:

  • Poverty and poor mental health
  • Poverty and low wages
  • Poverty and disability
  • Poverty and isolation
  • Poverty and debt
  • Poverty and addiction
  • Poverty and deskilling
  • Poverty and ill health

This list of course could go on, which is of course why food banks aren’t the answer – and neither is any simplistic approach like “the best route out of poverty is through work” – but there are people not able to work, or not able to get secure work, or work with a level of decent wages (and I don’t simply mean paying the “national minimum wage”) sadly their are plenty of people working who are still experiencing hardship, and yes even visits to food banks!

But for many of us the problems are not just political but also theological – so much of the food bank response has been through churches and other faith based organisations, we must also challenge ourselves about what we are doing. Yes we are responding to a call (as phrased within my own Christian tradition) to “feed the hungry” and provide for those in need; but lets examine our deeper motivations too. Are we sometimes only too glad to have found a new “centre stage” for our civic presence? Are we sometimes guilty of stepping into “saviour” mode?

Many of us involved in food banks know that we cannot simply continue as we are – we are at something of a crossroads, the next few years will likely see a number of things, and these will set the pattern for our future.

  1. We are likely to see an increase in the “corporatisation” of some food banks. Franchised food banks, securing local (and possibly even central) government funding, national deals with supermarkets (and other companies) and increased pressure for the need for “robust” referral systems to ensure public accountability.
  2. The closure of many smaller, “independent” food banks as they struggle to cope with the increased needs and demands upon them.
  3. The emergence of new models (which will no doubt throw up their own problems and questions) of community support.

I’ll finish this blog reflection with the words I have chosen to start the pilgrimage this Saturday with – they seem fitting for the times we are in:

Today we set off on a journey together; 

a journey of discovery, 

a journey of understanding,                                    

a journey of emotions,                                            

a journey of prayer.

One step at a time,                     

we journey onwards with God.                         

This is pilgrimage.

Advertisements

Holy Week (2) – Good Friday Lament – What’s wrong with the world?

Standard

DZiMXgqW4AAPVMK

This Good Friday the two local Methodist Pioneer Ministries (Share & Open House) took the opportunity to worship together. A drum beat led us before we nailed to the cross, where we held a prayerful lament based around words suggested and collected from people attending food bank sessions over the last couple of weeks. People then named and added additional “wrongs”.

In the evening the cross was taken to Judiths Open House where it remained until Easter Sunday.

“When Words are Not Enough….”

Standard

Lauras prayers 1

Well it’s months since my last post – both Advent and Christmas have passed without comment from these pages, and now we have entered the season of Lent. It is always a time for inner reflection and hopefully (though not always) of some revelation too. In my Pioneer Ministry (Share) we began the forty days with a short prayer time to mark Ash Wednesday; around five of us shared a short liturgy, received and offered ash crosses on our foreheads, and spent time at various prayer stations.

Lent this year has also coincided with the first real steps towards trying to secure funding from Sheffield Methodist Circuit and elsewhere for the continuation of my ministry and other work beyond the end of 2018. This process itself has forced me to re-examine what I do, how and why and do it, and how I work alongside others (in Church and beyond). Needless to say this has brought both positive, and more challenging emotions to the fore; much has been done in so many ways since I began here in 2010. People have come and gone, faces and roles have changed and the world moves on – however it is to this place I still feel called and the ministry I attempt to fulfill that I still feel called to.

Hopefully I will find more words in the coming weeks as I continue to reflect and discern the new paths …. meanwhile I sit and contemplate the prayer poem featured at the top of this post written the other week by my friend Laura.

When words are not enough,

Let us hold the silence.

When prayers are not enough, 

Let us act out our love.

When life turns us about,

Let us find our way.

When all is darkness,

Fill us with hope and love.

When we are weary,

Let us rest.

When we are full of fear,

Send us a bird singing sweetly, a rainbow.

Lift our spirits and remind us of the beauty in this world.

When we are ready to follow you once more;

We will walk your path,

Sing your song,

Dance with the seasons,

Weave the threads,

Mould the clay.

As the tears fall,

We have joy in our hearts,

To be part of your creation.

(Laura Hill 2018)

Re-learning to pray

Standard

C6-F8JLWoAEBxB3

At the start of Lent I wrote a piece called Forty Days, one of the tasks I’ve set myself this year during this Lent season, alongside the fasting and casting off of bad habits, is to renew and re-learn parts of my prayer life.

I’ve often used art and creative writing as a method of prayer, and so it is to this place I’ve returned at this time. Again in that previous blog piece I talked about how the Psalms are for me a kind of go to part of scripture when I’m looking for a prayer focus, and how at the start of Lent I was particularly focussed on Psalm 51, and so it is that for the first fortnight of Lent, this psalm has remained a key focus for me. The photo above is of the prayerful artwork that has emerged from some of that reflection, but I wanted to share and record also some of the process and practice behind this art.

My first act of course was to read and re-read the psalm, in a kind lectio-divina manner, allow the words to lodge inside me, and waiting for particular words and sounds to stand out. The first phrase that stood out in this way was “teach me wisdom in my secret heart”*, and so the first thing I did was to use some of the remaining ash from  Ash Wednesday to finger draw a secret heart on the white card. This heart represents that deep inner self the part of us the we hide from others, and even ourselves; it’s the part of us where our insecurities, fears and prejudices sit – the part of us where we hurt in ways we don’t always understand even ourselves, maybe it’s got similarities to what Freud described as the Id, that most primitive and instinctive component of personality.

Next I created  a clean heart** made from clay super imposing it over the secret ash heart. But I wanted somehow to reflect the process by which I might imagine Gods work in the repentance – forgiveness – healing circle, and the whole Grace thing. That’s where I got the idea of the jigsaw pieces from, and the idea that through grace a new picture is created, the cleansed heart is not just clean, it is also re-newed, re-stored, re-created. Initially I took each piece of jigsaw and on the reverse side wrote more phrases from the psalm that had stood out as I read it yet again, things like: Have mercy, Steadfast Love, Abundant mercy, Wash me, Cleanse me, Purge me, You desire truth, Create in me a clean heart. These were then incorporated into the heart, but not neatly and perfectly, not in a joined up way that might suggest the full picture revealed and all issues resolved – but also not in a broken way, I felt a need to express a healing process. The pieces connect, some to each other, but all to the heart.

Finally I took inspiration from the Japanese practice of Kintsugi, a means by which pottery is repaired using a lacquer mixed with gold, silver or sometimes platinum. This practice embraces the flawed and incompleteness of things, and seeks to still see the beauty that is there. Verse 12 in the psalm says:

“Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit.”

For my the gold paint that I used to fill the gaps between the jigsaw pieces, to unify them with the clay heart, represented this plea from a place of repentance – Gods grace can restore us and sustain us, and even (as with the Kintsugi pieces) reflect the beauty of Gods gift in and through our own incompleteness.

 

 

*Verse 6
**Verse 10 (and Isaiah 64.8 Job 10.9)

 

 

 

 

 

Forty Days

Standard

c51rio9waaaw-q5

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday the start of Lent. It’s a season in the Christian calendar I always look forward to, but often one when I feel like I didn’t quite arrive where I’d hoped. This year, I was fortunate enough to spend the whole of Ash Wednesday morning in quiet contemplation and prayer with friends, as well as sharing in the ashing ritual where we made the sign of the cross on each others foreheads, a ritual that links us with centuries of previous Christian witness, cleansing and prayer.

The cross is of course for forgiveness, but also to call once more to repentance; an acknowledgement that both individually and collectively we do things that are wrong, that we fall short of a perfected humanity, and the need for us to recognise these things in order that we might move on. The ash further reminds us of our own mortality, “Remember ..” say the words of the liturgy “…you are dust and to dust you will return.”

As in the past, alongside the “giving up” of sweets, cakes and other indulgencies for the season, I’ve also made two other committments this Lent:

  • To try and revitalise my prayer life (which if I’m honest has become somewhat lazy)
  • To genuinely offer a repentant heart before God (to search out my own faults and shortcomings, and allow God to effect changes in me)

One of my key scriptural sources at times when I’m looking for a focus for my prayer and reflections I turn to the Psalms, and it was there that I started again yesterday. I particularly focussed on Psalm 51, a psalm all about repentance and forgiveness:

1. Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin!

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
    and blameless in your judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
    and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
    and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,
    and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and uphold me with a willing spirit.

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
    O God of my salvation,
    and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
    you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
    build up the walls of Jerusalem;
19 then will you delight in right sacrifices,
    in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
    then bulls will be offered on your altar.

As the morning progressed, and I moved into deeper reflection and meditation upon this psalm and others, I wrote these words, which I share with you all now:

How; amongst

all the hurt and the hate,

all the fear and the greed,

all the racism and misogyny,

can we find the Way?

How; amongst

all the fake news and fake smiles,

all the dreams and the nightmares,

all the sales pitches and political spin,

can we find the Truth?

How; amongst

all the dark times and dark places,

all the turned off hearts and switched off minds,

all the snuffed out hopes and blown out dreams,

can we find the Light?

Lent is that time to go deeper, to face the reality of our own lives and existence, our own faults and failings, time to ask the big questions of ourselves, our generation, and of God. It’s a time to journey into the wilderness where (if we are fortunate) we may hear a still, small voice that helps us make a lttle more sense of it all.

Love is ….

Standard

c36wc7uxaaehhge

Every first Sunday of the month I organise a session called Prayer and Paint, a small group of us meet and contemplate on a piece of scripture or story and respond through some form of creative expression (words, artwork or both), we’re not great artists, we just use that medium as a way of quietly being with each other and God.

Last night we explored “Love”; why not, afterall it’s my own wedding anniversary this week at Valentines day next, so what better excuses (if any were needed). We talked briefly about how CS Lewis in his book Four Loves, describes different types or expressions of love: Storge (Empathic love), Philia (Friendship bonds), Eros (Erotic and romantic love), and Agape (Unconditional love as offered by God).

The world (I mean us by the way – and yes that includes me) gets this whole love thing very mixed up. We confuse it with other emotions, we devalue it and demean by using it to sell things, or gain power and influence over others, we crave it and yet we abuse it. We claim to “love” things that are never worthy of such feelings – we love it would seem everything from ice cream to our nations flag, and yet are often incapable it seems of loving our neighbours (let alone our enemies).* I remember a song I heard when I was young, a song by Burt Bacharach, sung by  Dionne Warwick which said:

What the world needs now is love sweet love,
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.
What the world needs now is love sweet love,
No not just for some but for everyone.

…. at the top of the page is a photo I found today**, and remember:

Love is patient and kind.
Love is not jealous, it does not brag, and it is not proud.
Love is not rude, it is not selfish, and it cannot be made angry easily.
Love does not remember wrongs done against it.
Love is never happy when others do wrong, but it is always happy with the truth.
Love never gives up on people. It never stops trusting, never loses hope, and never quits.

Love will never end. 

 

* Matthew 5.44-44
**NY Times article

The Art of Worship

Standard
CoXUuBtWYAA1OUb

Lord, Have Mercy – Hear My Prayer

Increasingly I find myself in times of prayer where I cannot find the words, recent news events such as:

  • Orlando Shootings
  • Nice Bastille Day Killings
  • Baton Rouge
  • Bombing of Syria and the Refugee Crisis
  • The post Brexit rise in racist attacks in UK

and yesterday the murder of 86-year-old priest, Father Jacques Hamel in Rouen, France.

The fact that we struggle often to find the right words, struggle to find words to share with God our outrage, our fear, our sadness, our guilt, our deepest hopes – perhaps finds one modern expression in the popular use of #hashtags at times of collective grievance and solidarity – somehow that shared phrase is meant to encapsulate ALL of our emotions, exactly because our words can’t sum it up. For me increasingly; painting, poetry and art, play that role too – helping me to find ways to express the deep down stuff that I cannot always find the words for, and so it is today.

Romans 8.26 reminds us that when we cannot find the words for our prayers “…the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes  with sighs too deep for words.”