The Presence of God

After community breakfast yesterday I visited the home of a friend, clambered over belongings 60cm deep and took in his joy at his painting on the wall.

The Presence of GodEarlier he had arrived late for breakfast but we unpacked again so we could chat while he munched on a large bowl of cereal.

We prayed for his parents and he told me that Mary backwards stands for both

You’re Really A Mess
You Really Are Magical

because life isn’t static but we are always coming out of tough times, recovering; or doing better, enjoying life.

I said it reminded me that we are made in the image of God (magical) but fallen and broken and frail (mess) and that Jesus gave his life to forgive and heal our mess and to restore and discover our magical.

My friend thought this was a reasonable interpretation of Mary backwards.

And I still count it a privilege after all these years to be asked for the simple act of brotherhood of a shared meal and to be given the honour of a private artistic viewing and to discuss the profound meaning of words backward.

I know we in the church (and more broadly) argue a lot about the presence/reality/felt existence of God and some say we only need our faith in the Scriptures and others that we find him as we sing or pray and maybe others think that a pilgrimage is required and perhaps all are correct together.

But I remember Jesus said what you do for the least of these you do for me as if he would be intentionally present to renew and reassure us and that’s what I felt after just a few hours sleep, an hour of setup, serving 40 breakfasts including one home delivery, two after we closed, praying with troubled souls and discussing backward anagrams.

Not tired. Renewed, reassured.

And I know whose presence I was experiencing, right where He said He would be all along.

Likewise the day before nursing a baby in the cool of the night waiting for him to settle into sleep. Likewise the next evening being alongside a daughter and her aged  mother as they negotiated the challenges of daily life and shared grief with nobility and tears and laughter.

The presence of God is everywhere when we forget to look at ourself. Life is not one long selfie.

And just as well… I take a terrible selfie…

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Elusive Archbishop of the slums

It is easy to categorise and be categorised. In many places in society the only way to get ahead is to sublimate yourself in the colours of the tribe.

But a true mark of faith and healthy personality is that you are ‘elusive’ to the box-carrying, label-making mechanisms of our world.

Jesus told a man, who was feeling an elusive breeze rustling through his straight-jacket religion, that:

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
John 3:8

There is something of this about Pope Francis and, as he prepares to visit the US, it has the American box cutters in a frenzy.

There is cause for hope in this archbishop of the slums.

image

Australia’s most hipster suburbs less so for the poor

Sydney inner west suburb Camperdown has been named among Australia’s most hipster suburbs, according to an article in Domain.

I know Camperdown exceedingly well and spend time with people who are invisble to hipster wealth and ideals.

Domain refers to Wikipedia for a definition of hipster:

“[Hipsters are] broadly associated with indie and alternative music, a varied non-mainstream fashion sensibility (including vintage and thrift store-bought clothes), generally progressive political views, organic and artisanal foods, and alternative lifestyles.”

And as a result these suburbs of hip young adults are:

According to Urbis’s Hip List, a hip suburb is at the “leading edge of cosmopolitan trends”, and offers an “unusually rich source of information on future consumer directions”.

In the middle of Camperdown’s hipsterness are a couple of buildings set aside for those who must have missed the hipster memo. Or maybe they are where hipster goes when life falls off (the wrong side of) the tracks.

I dropped in on a few on Christmas Day… home alone in small apartments where they had watched television all day or happily returned from a free Christmas lunch at Newtown.

Some will join us for our monthly Camperdown Community Breakfast at which strangely enough I’m yet to see any hipster representatives.

Not surprising that a real estate website would drool over the property values of a place like Camperdown and not include a paragraph like this:

‘Alongside the artisan cafes, boutique pubs and million dollar apartments, about 400 people live at the heart of the suburb who have never owned any property, do not sip lattes (soy or otherwise) at Deus ex Machina, may wear someone’s preloved clothing (not hipster if you have no choice) and who are variously seeking to overcome the ravages of homelessness, substance abuse, sexual abuse, unsupported mental illness, repeat incarceration, sickness and/or generational poverty. If you walk quickly with your eyes averted, you’ll barely notice.’

That wealth and poverty can coexist with so little genuine interaction is commonplace in the inner city but a tragedy none the less.

If we simply remembered the wisdom of ‘loving your neighbour’ and of ‘sharing our lives’ we might really have something to be proud of. Less hipster perhaps but more just and kind.

So if you live in Camperdown and can afford the rent or mortgage, come along to breakfast on January 4 from 8.30am at the Booler Centre, Lambert St, Camperdown. Hipsters welcome along with everyone else…

Stephen Fry can’t deny the gulf between comfort and pain

As the riots began in and around London, one of the UK’s favourite sons, Stephen Fry, tweeted from the film set of The Hobbit in New Zealand:

 “If I’m honest 12,000 miles away in NZ, I’m not further from Brixton or Tottenham than when I’m at home in London. But my homeland is unhappy”.
Despite nearly 3 million followers on Twitter and having lived in England all his life presumably, Fry is acknowledging the gulf that exists between himself and the millions of disadvantaged, disaffected countrymen and women on his doorstep.
And this from a man who is apparently worldly-wise, intelligent and savvy to the point that his views (and his tweets) are highly prized.
On this occasion what is prized is his honesty. While lamenting what was happening in his country and city, he admitted that he had been removed from the reality of his lowly neighbours. He is no different to many millions of members of the comfortable classes, whether they be in Europe, North America or Australia.
My own experience in the past 10 years has been God’s determined dismantling of my own ivory tower . It was not so much that I didn’t care – I did – it was more that I just didn’t know. I couldn’t have called a poor man my friend, because I didn’t know him.
Now I could do so, by the grace of God, and many of the barriers of arrogance, ignorance and apathy have been challenged. Perhaps these riots are a wake up call to the Stephen Frys and Peter Halletts of the world that we can be far too immersed in our own comfort zones to notice generation upon generation of brokenness reaping an ugly harvest, just around the corner, let alone across the world.
Wake up now, there’s a riot a comin’…

Change comes from global action and the smallest deed

Millennium Development Goals
Image by jiadoldol via Flickr

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called on world leaders to attend a summit in New York next week, to accelerate progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, aimed at halving world poverty by 2015. Newly appointed Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, will be attending.

In the meantime, some good news from Britain today with these comments from British PM David Cameron in an article regarding the Pope’s visit:

‘The Holy See is a partner in pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals, which will be discussed at United Nations headquarters in New York again next week. For our part, we are totally committed to meeting the UN target of spending 0.7 per cent of our national income on aid by 2013. And we want to ensure that the money we spend goes to those who need it most. Sustainable economic development is closely linked to political stability and security. A world in which there is a yawning gap between the rich and the poor will be more dangerous and less secure for all of us.’

Come on Jules and Kev, don’t let the Brits get the jump on us!

Meanwhile in the same article, which touches on the beatification of Cardinal Newman while the Pope is in the UK, David Cameron says: 

‘Cardinal Newman once said that one little deed, whether by someone who helps “to relieve the sick and needy” or someone who “forgives an enemy” evidences more true faith than could be shown by “the most fluent religious conversation” or “the most intimate knowledge of scripture”.’

Huge Chinese mattress hides $US1.4 trillion…

There is no political, social, educational or philosophical quick-fix for human nature. Figures showing the growing gap between the rich and poor in so-called communist China highlight this once again.

Despite decades of communist indoctrination and more recently, greater freedoms and openness to world markets, the Chinese people still like to keep money under their mattress so they can spend it on ‘things’.

And like anything in China, or India for that matter, that’s one big mattress.

A study conducted for Credit Suisse Group shows that China’s households hide as much as 9.3 trillion yuan ($US1.4 trillion) of income not reported in official figures – 80 per cent of it by the nation’s wealthiest.

One reason economists believe this figure is because the strongest area of economic demand in China right now is the domestic purchase of consumer items from designer handbags to flat screen televisions.

Taking the mattress cash figure into account, it turns out the average urban disposable household income is 32,154 yuan, or 90 per cent more than official figures. The bad news is that this means China’s rich-poor gap is most likely much bigger than realised.

The Gini coefficient is a single statistic used by economists to summarise the distribution of income across the population.Read More »

Dying while bringing sight to the blind

The headline read ‘Taliban massacre big-hearted team devoted to helping Afghans’ and accompanying the written report was a video featuring the widow of one those killed.

Before the video plays, on the SMH online site, it is preceded by an advertisement for electric toothbrushes.

The team killed in Afghanistan was providing basic medical care, including eye and dental care and one of the workers was a dentist who had handed out thousands of toothbrushes over the years, to children who had never seen one.

This juxtaposition reminds us of the implausible position we in the west too often take – that our wealth and freedom has no connection to another’s poverty  and restraint.

This post is in honour of the six Americans, two Afghans, a German and a Briton who were slaughtered on August 8.

Many of them were Christians, most having given up their life in the west to embrace life in Afghanistan so they could be an example of kindness and goodness.

Read the full report here.

Watch the video report (minus toothbrush ad) and particularly note the response of widow, Libby Little, as she calls down God’s mercy on those who killed her husband.

Read the full statement about the deaths from International Assistance Mission, the Christian organisation for whom the team worked. This is an example of a deeply committed, intelligent, genuine Christian response to the world’s poor.

Asking the poverty question.

Aid attack makes Micah’s voices all the more important

Just a few weeks out from Micah Challenge’s Voices of Justice conference, News Ltd publications such as The Daily Telegraph are carrying a story questioning the Australian Government’s overseas aid commitment due to alleged rorting of payments.

The article begins: ‘Australia’s foreign aid program is under siege after revelations tens of millions of dollars are being wasted on mega-salaries for consultants and rich contracts for private firms. An extensive investigation revealed a lucrative foreign aid “industry”, raising questions on the Rudd Government’s decision to double funding to $8 billion-plus a year.’

The main issue raised by ‘aid experts’ is the payment of extremely high salaries to a variety of consultants. Examples listed include a senior justice adviser to East Timor receiving $757,960 tax-free paid out of Australia’s aid budget for a two-year contract. Read More »

Tobacco tax hits the poor hardest

The increased cost of cigarettes is not just a tax or health issue, it is also one of justice and compassion.

The people hit hardest by the Rudd government’s 25 per cent increase on cigarettes, are the ones least able to afford it and the least able to choose the alternative – giving up.

There is little sympathy for smokers when tobacco is slugged with new taxes, the common cry being, ‘let them give up’.

But if you have grown up with smoking from before birth, had every significant person in your life as a smoker and if you have beaten off various other addictions with only nicotine to beat, that cry is offensive and simplistic. Add to this list social isolation, unemployment, mental illness, poverty and violence, and you might understand better why telling people to ‘just give up’ is not good enough.

I know many people who have, over a long period of time, beaten serious addictions, usually well after these addictions have destroyed their life. In almost every case, smoking is the one thing they cannot overcome.

When you live on a disability pension or minimum wage, are locked into nicotine addiction and with no sensible access to support for quitting, a new tobacco tax may as well be an arbitrary fine levied on you – just for being alive.

That’s why I’m urging support for independent South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon’s call to other Senators to block the Government’s recent tax hike on cigarettes unless more money raised from the tax is put towards helping smokers quit.

While the tax has already been introduced, it must be ratified by the Senate within 12 months. Senator Xenophon would like to see subsidies for nicotine patches, money for counselling services and more spending on health awareness campaigns.

‘My plea to the Government, to the Opposition, to my colleagues on the cross benches, is that just a little more money – in the vicinity of $100 million over the next four years, two per cent of this increase – could go a long way in assisting people to quit smoking for the Government to achieve its targets,’ he said.

So come on Mr Rudd, Mr Abbott, Mr Brown and Mr Fielding – do something for the least in our society to take another step towards a decent life.

If you put these resources in my hands, I’ll make sure those that really need them get the chance to give up and be free of this destructive habit. PH

Farm in a bag brings food to the slums

The greatest population  movement in human history is underway as people on all continents leave rural areas and flood into ever-larger cities.

Africa is no exception and one community organisation has devised a way to bring the farm to the city, even the crowded slums of Nairobi, Kenya.

Life is hard in Nairobi’s densely populated slums but thanks to the innovative farm-in-a-sack project, some residents at least are able to return to their agricultural roots.

Poor families in the Mathare slum are given more than 40 seedlings which can be grown into food in just a few weeks. And even though the streets are narrow and garbage is strewn everywhere, mini-farms are cropping up on spare land.

The project was started by the Italian organisation Cooperazione Internazionale  (COOPI), which brought in rural agriculturists to teach community groups how to create vegetable farms in the slums.

COOPI provided each participating household with one sack containing soil mix and 43 seedlings to cultivate: 25 spinach, 15 kale, 2 capsicum and 1 spring onion. 

The vegetables can be harvested many times for at least one year. Capsicum and spring onions provide passive pest control instead of chemicals while the spinach is a rapid growing source of nutrition – sometimes even growing out of the side of the sack before being properly planted.

Claudio Torres, from COOPI, said of the project: ‘There are two effects. First people really have more food,  nutrition and micronutrients. But also, this brings together the community.’

Earlier this year, it was inspiring to meet in Sydney Pastor Evans Mage from Nairobi who is planting churches through the slums. How amazing it would be to join his spiritual planting with this natural planting, to truly change lives. PH (Source: CNN)

Wellbeing snapshot shows huge divide

Imagine you were asked to rate your current life between zero and 10 and your life in five years time? As you chose a number to describe your sense of wellbeing now and prospects for the future, would you be thinking of how you are feeling today (not enough sleep last night… stressful meeting at work today…) or rather the underlying factors (good health, housing, employment, stable government, personal freedom). How might your faith affect your view?

Social researchers at Gallup have collated a global snapshot of wellbeing using data collected in 155 countries or areas since 2005. Gallup classifies respondents as ‘thriving,’ ‘struggling,’ or ‘suffering,’ according to how they rate their lives based on the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale:

Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time? (ladder-present) On which step do you think you will stand about five years from now? (ladder-future)

According to separate research, people tend to answer these questions from the perspective of life evaluation (judgements of life) rather than daily affect (feelings). It is called a self-anchoring scale because it allows people to interpret their wellbeing from their own perspective rather than external measures such as how much money they earn, levels of education or political conditions.

In other words, if the research is to be believed, people across the globe are saying, ‘this is how I feel about my life’ not on the basis of  ‘I have a headache today’ but on the basis of ‘I feel my life looks like this’. A poor person in Africa might actually feel very happy in the midst of their poverty but when stepping back and assessing their prospects, they realise they are up against it and so report low ladder scores. A rich person in Denmark might be feeling gloomy in the midst of their wealth but when stepping back to view their life, realise they have plenty to feel confident about.

So what were the results of Gallup’s global wellbeing research? It reveals a vast divide that underscores the diversity of economic development challenges around the world.

Read More »

No knee caps

“How are you going today, George?” I ask while standing in line for a meal at the Lambert St Lunch, Camperdown.

George is 60ish with long gray hair and unshaven face; is wearing a t-shirt, too-small shorts and joggers and carries his walking stick.

“Oh, not that good. I nearly fell over on the way here.”

“That’s no good,” I reply. “What happened?”

“Have you ever had your leg just slide out, like this, while your walking,” he says while demonstrating a strange sideward leg movement, precariously. A lunch volunteer, plate of food in hand, is watching as our conversation unfolds.

“Maybe George, but have you had that happen?”

“All the time,” he says seriously. “It’s probably because I’ve got no knee caps, so I’ve got to be careful.”Read More »