I sit down to write with three very large cardboard boxes in from of me: the Ikea FRIHETEN sofa bed we bought last week and haven’t found the time to assemble.  In this house where every piece of furniture we have is a gift, a cast off, or a timely bargain, this first piece of furniture of our own choice seems too good to be true.  It’s like it represents a new season that I’m both excited and strangely apprehensive to step into by opening the boxes.

What I’m about to say is disproportional and perhaps hypocritical, but the past few years have given me insights into the heavy burdens carried daily in the hearts and minds of the poor.  I know we have been blessed richly through the kindness of friends and family, doing some things like travelling to America which never would have been possible within our own means, and we are not poor, so I realise how incomplete my views must be.  However the inability to afford maintenance and improvements on our home, amongst other seemingly essential things, has felt like a straight jacket tightening around my chest the more I try to fight it.

I have seen true poverty up close in Romania and India.  But to experience in my own life just a tiny taste of the prolonged frustration and knock-on effects of not having ‘enough’, has begun to stir the meagre compassion in my selfish heart for those TRULY in poverty .

I recognise now how the sense of powerlessness in one area has a way of seeping into other areas of life.  So I can only imagine the state of mind of those who have so much less than me, plus great debt, plus less support and opportunity than I have had, plus no faith, plus etc. How can I ever judge how those in poverty behave?  I have new perspective on the neglected houses, antisocial behaviour, destructive habits.  This is what hopelessness looks like – when all efforts have been frustrated you lose the will to make any effort at all.   Or you just put effort into what seems to allow you to survive a bit longer, or to grab a bit of relief or pleasure.

Poverty is destructive, it can sap heart, mind and soul.  However it can also provide the opportunity, indeed the imperative, to reach out for help, to rely on others – if only there is someone around to help.

And yet we can find many examples of how wealth too can lead to misery.  It is potentially even more damaging to community and love because it allows us to think we don’t need others.

It has been observed that poverty is a state of mind.  I have a distant relative with immense financial resources who, for some reason cannot stop obsessively worrying about not having enough.

In all cases, rich and poor, we need to remember that money is not the issue.  I don’t mean that money is not important.  But for someone trapped in poverty, the pursuit of money, even if they find it, will very likely not fix their problems as fully as they might imagine, if at all.  What we all need is support.  Relationship.  Love.  Not dependence but a strength from outside that can lead us to be the best we ourselves can be.  When we are trapped and powerless, it needs to be relationship with someone outside of that cage, someone with greater resources (and I don’t just mean financial).

When people are trapped in poverty, the onus is on the rest of us to reach out to them.  Because in many cases they don’t know how to reach out, or to who.  Or they have just learnt not to trust others.  Perhaps because those who have tried to help before have given up trying because their problems are too deep and complex.  To help those trapped in poverty takes great love, and it is the kind of love that involves sacrifice and personal cost.

In the words of Dr James Chinkyung Kim, quoted elsewhere in this blog,

 The price must be paid by those who are blessed and fortunate for those who are lost and in despair.

And I want to be one of those who pays this price, but I confess now that I don’t think I am up to the task.  Not at all.  I can barely handle my own issues.   Which is why I know my only hope, our only hope, is in Jesus Christ.  He was concerned for the poor – the poor in finances but also the poor in spiritual resources (like me).  He said the poor would be blessed, but also those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (like me) would be filled.  What he calls us to, to find these fulfilments, is not religion, but relationship.  First of all relationship with God, then in turn a right relationship with ourselves and others.

Which is why I have great respect for the work of the Message Trust, who keep the gospel of Jesus central to all they do as they reach out to marginalised young people.  Because it works.   There is no greater hope than the hope of heaven and the peace of a life put right with God.  And hope can defeat poverty of all kinds better than any amount of money.

I am just back from the Proximity Conference run by the Message in Manchester.  It was inspiring and challenging, there is lots I want to remember and apply.  I think the most challenging thing to me personally was Bill Hogg‘s utter refutation of this quote assigned to St Francis of Assisi:

‘Preach the gospel, and if necessary use words.’

He insists it was never spoken by St Francis who in fact preached with words as often as he could.   He further quoted someone else as saying: ‘Unexplained deeds do not constitute the mission of the people of God.’

It cut me to the heart because although I do believe we are called to love and serve with no strings of preaching attached, and I do believe we have to be sensitive to when someone is ready to hear the gospel, I had to admit to myself that these have become reasons for me to hide behind; to avoid sharing the gospel at all.

To take another story from the conference:

A preacher speaks of hell and the need to come to Christ.  A man listening, a tough-looking, intimidating man, comes up to him and says, ‘do you really believe that?’.  The preacher, trembling, mumbles that yes, he does.  The man says, ‘well I don’t.  But if I did, I would not stop going from end to end of the country, even if it was on my hands and knees with every place covered in glass, if it meant I could save one person.’

Where is the urgency, where is the fire of passion, in me?  Forgetting any other hypocrisy, how can I claim to believe what I believe yet be so reluctant to share this hope in clear terms with others?

I am not a natural evangelist, and I am not about to go out and be someone I’m not.  I am in no rush to create socially awkward situations.   I am unwilling to promise things to others beyond what I have experienced for myself.

But if I am not compelled to share what I claim to believe, or to see it as the most important thing that suffering people need to hear, I have to question how deeply it has really gotten hold of me.

Which leads to the other more encouraging challenge from Bill Hogg at the conference – that our own effectiveness all starts with our own proximity to Jesus.  We cannot conjure up passion or wise words, but we can start by sitting at the feet of Jesus.  We have nothing to give unless we are first receiving from Him.

So I think I will go and assemble that sofa bed now, which will be the focus of our prayer room/spare bedroom.  It could be a cop out, another delay from doing the work of God.  But I really intend it to be a place to sit at the feet of my Saviour each day with a renewed commitment to know Him and serve Him.  And then to get up and do what He says!  Which is: to go and make disciples.