Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Blessings of Heart-Friendship, Part 3

Our final look at Anthusa / Chrysostom's On Ideal Friendship (late 4th century) begins with the letter-writer's question: How long shall we confine our love just to one or two people?

Love is such a productive thing! It turns an individual into a thousand. Why do we not take possession of this strength? It is better than all power and virtue, more than health, more than the light of day.

By way of a quotation from the Apocrypha [Ecclesiasticus 20:16, "A fool will say: I have no friend"], the writer turns the coin over and considers the lot of the friendless. Even among animals, the most savage and intractable are those which do not herd together. The friendless person is most pitiable. He may live in abundance and luxury, but without friends he is destitute and naked. Such a one also lacks protection. Not even the Emperor's bodyguards are as careful as one's true friends, for the former guard through fear of discipline, but the latter guard through love.

Answering an imaginary questioner, attention turns to monks and hermits. Surely, if they live in caves or on mountains, they haven't got friends? Chrysostom writes that these do indeed have friends. Admittedly, they have fled the tumult of the marketplace, but the friends whom they do have are true heart-friends, bound closely to them in Christ. For, just as zeal in business leads to many disputes, [monks and hermits] have left the world in order to cultivate godly love with greater strictness. They prove the strength of love in their fervent prayers.

The letter concludes - a trifle hurriedly, I thought - with the maxim: If we apply ourselves with due care to these precepts, we shall administer present things well and inherit the kingdom of God.

The full text of the Anthusa / Chrysostom letter can be found here.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Blessing of Heart-Friendship, part 2

True heart-friendship, as introduced in my last post, cannot be learned by study, nor by any words of explanation, but only by the experience itself, Chrysostom / Anthusa continues. I know that many do not understand this. It is as if I were speaking of some plant growing in India, of which they have no experience. Language could not represent it, were I to utter ten thousand words. This plant has been in Heaven!

Perhaps the reason for this incomprehension has to do with the apparent contradictions of true friendship:
Whoever loves does not wish to command nor to rule, but feels more grateful being subject and being commanded. He wishes to confer favors rather than receive them. He is not so much delighted at experiencing kindness as at doing kindness. For he prefers to hold his friend bound to him, rather than he should be indebted to his friend: or, rather, he wishes to be indebted to him, and also to have him as a debtor.

Such a friendship is as dear as life itself. This is why many have not wished to live on after the death of one such friend. "With a friend anyone could willingly endure banishment; but without a friend no one would choose to inhabit even his own country. With a friend even poverty is bearable, but without him health and wealth are unbearable."

There follows a more complicated section where the writer considers the idea that to have a true friend is to have another self. In fact, it is like being ten people, not one. So in situations of conflict, an enemy attacks not merely one, but ten. When hardship comes, up to nine may suffer but one will still be secure and prosper.

Personally, I found this section rather overdone (twenty hands and feet, ten souls, etc.), but the point still stands: the enlarging and enriching power of true heart-friendship. See the excellence of godly love! How it causes one individual to be unconquerable and equal to many.

Monday, 5 December 2011

The Blessing of Heart-Friendship, Part 1

I continue to trawl through historical Christian writings on the subject of friendship. Next up is a fascinating piece with an obscure origin. It claims to be a letter to John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, from his mother, Anthusa, entitled On Ideal Friendship. It would date to the final quarter of the 4th century.

What complicates matters is that Anthusa is otherwise unknown and isn't referred to by any other Early Church writers as an ancient authority. Meanwhile, the bulk of the text of the letter can be found, almost word for word, in various of Chrysostom's own works, especially his Homilies. So we are probably looking at "John Chrysostom on Ideal Friendship".

The letter is not long and most of it is eminently quotable. In this post I'll look at the introduction and opening section. It speaks for itself.

The letter opens with a verse from the Apocrypha: "A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter," [Ecclesiasticus 6:14a], and the comment: Though you were to name a thousand treasures, there is nothing comparable to a real friend. The first section is then devoted to the pleasure that true friendship brings.

A friend overflows when he sees his friend. He is united to him in a union having a certain ineffable pleasure of the soul. If he merely thinks of him, he rises and is carried upwards in his mind. I speak of genuine friends, who are of one accord, of those who would choose to die for their friends, of those who love warmly.

A true friend is such that places and times are loved on his account. For, as shining objects shed a lustre upon the adjoining places, even so friends impart their own grace to the places they have been. And oftentimes, when standing in those places without our friends, we have wept and groaned, remembering the days when we were there together.

The writer notes that those who have known the beauty of such a depth of heart-friendship will instinctively understand this, but that such people are relatively few. "When (such friends) make a request of us, we are grateful to them, but when they are slow to ask, then we are sad. We have nothing which is not theirs. It would be better to live in darkness than to be without friends. And how can I say this? Because many who see the sun are in darkness."

I speak of the spiritual friends who set nothing above friendship. Such was Paul, who would willingly have given his own soul, without having been asked, and would have willingly fallen into Hell for his brethren [Romans 9:3]. With so burning an affection is it proper to love. Take this as an example of friendship. Friends surpass fathers and sons, that is, friends according to Christ.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Anger, the Scourge of Relationships

We continue with John Cassian's Conference 16: On Friendship, of around AD 415. Abbot Joseph, writing from within a monastic context, is clear on one thing:

Nothing is more damaging (to true friendship) than anger and vexation. Our enemy, the devil, sows the seeds of discord even between spiritual persons, on the ground of some difference of thinking. Therefore it is of no use to have removed the first ground of discord, which arises from the outward things of this world, unless we also cut off the second, which arises from wrong feelings. In everything we must gain humble thoughts and harmonious wills.

He goes on to look at the subtle differences between love and affection. Perhaps surprisingly, Joseph maintains that "agapé" love (the New Testament word for Christ-like, self-sacrificing love) can be shown by Christians to anyone, on the basis of "doing good to all people, especially those who are of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:10). Genuine heart-affection, however, he sees as shown only to a few: those who are united to us by kindred dispositions or by a tie of goodness. There are levels to this, he points out, and they are variable: not all parents love their children to the same degee.

The remainder of Conference 16 is concerned with a more specifically monastic danger: of conforming and going through the motions of true brotherly affection, when the heart has lost the desire for it. There may be applications here for us, not least for married couples, but the detail of Abbot Joseph's discourse does not belong to our theme here.

Still, it all made an impression on Cassian and Germanus, who conclude: Thus the blessed Joseph discoursed on spiritual friendship, and fired us with a more ardent desire to preserve the love of our fellowship as a lasting one.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

The True Foundation of Friendship

First up in my trawl through historical Christian writers on friendship is John Cassian (c.360-435). As a young man, he was greatly exercised over how to live a godly life with true brotherhood. So he and his best friend, Germanus, travelled from his native Romania to visit the hermitages and monasteries of Palestine and Egypt.

While here, Cassian documented the structures, lifestyle and teachings of the Desert Fathers. Years later, in 415, when he himself was abbot of a monastery near Marseille, he published these under the title Conferences. They are a seminal tool for the student of early monastic life. For this blog post, what concerns us is Conference 16: The First Conference of Abbot Joseph, on Friendship .

Joseph first looks at many kinds of friendship outside the Christian framework, which can be motivated by self-interest, nepotism, the longing for recognition, or selfish desires. True Christian friendship, on the other hand, he sees as founded on two things: like-mindedness and a common purpose.

"Love can only continue undisturbed in those in whom there is but one mind, to will and to refuse the same things. This is the sure and indissoluble union of friendship, where the tie consists only in being alike in goodness and having a union of character in God."

For such friendship to come into being, Joseph tells Cassian, "whatever things the world might offer cannot be regarded more highly than what is most valuable: love of a brother. Everything, even what one deems useful and necessary, must be subordinate to the blessing of love and peace. Realising that, all too soon, one must pass from this world, one cannot permit any vexation to linger in the heart."

"For if one is walking along the the path outlined above, how can he ever differ from his friend, if he claims nothing as his own and entirely cuts off the first cause of any quarrel. He observes to the best of his power what we read in the Book of Acts: The company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common (4:32)."

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

A Friend Indeed?

Loneliness is the most terrible poverty. Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Back to the blog after quite a lay-off, but the various strands that make up community are still very much uppermost in my thinking. Today I want to turn to the matter of FRIENDSHIP.

"I don't know why but I just can't make 'real' friends very easily. I feel lonely all the time," writes a 20 year old to Yahoo Answers. The advice in this case (join a sports club) struck me as a complete travesty. OK, the malaise might be temporary, a teenage angst, so joining a club might sort it. But surely the issue is much deeper and more existential, reaching to the deepest parts of our conscious human need.

Jesus Christ knew how vital friendship was. He became a friend to the friendless and unwanted (Luke 7:34). As He neared the end of His earthly walk, He reserved the highest accolade for His inner circle: "I have called you my friends" (John 15:15). And most telling of all, in the horror of his own personal agony in Gethsemane, He wanted His closest friends near Him - and opened His heart to them in the most open, vulnerable way (Mark 14:33-34).

With this in mind, it is certainly surprising that Christian writers down the ages have been remarkably silent on the subject of true friendship, heart-brotherhood and the like. In the next few posts I hope to unearth some of what has been produced on the subject and see how it feeds into the desperate need in our own society today.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Various Aspects of Gratitude

As I consider the subject of Christian gratitude, I'm struck by the low level of search engine hits on the subject. Under the heading of "thanksgiving" there's a fair bit, including online bible dictionary and theological dictionary entries. But it's noteworthy that these deal almost exclusively with our debt of gratitude to God. It is this that has predominantly occupied Christians down the ages also.

There is vary little on the simple issue of "saying THANK YOU" to other people. The first Church at Jerusalem was of one heart and soul, sharing what they had with glad and generous hearts [Acts 2:46, 4:32]. Gratitude all over the place. But now it has almost become a lost art. Could this be a tacit proof of the individualism that has pervaded Christianity down the years?

Anyway, here are some of the links I found interesting in the course of my musings.

Here is an interesting selection of quotations and one-liners on the subject of gratitude, from Classical, secular and spiritual sources. This one got me thinking:
Next to ingratitude, the most painful thing to bear is gratitude. (Henry Ward Beecher)

Which of us hasn't sat on the horns of that dilemma when we've been kind to someone and they thank us? False modesty this way, self-praise that way...

This piece shows the importance of gratitude in the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Some of the quotes are a little odd to Western thinking, but there are some gems here.

Here, the wonderfully named "Sarcastic Lutheran" looks at 'gratitude and whole-life stewardship'.

Also from the Lutheran fold comes this piece on "Radical Gratitude: Experiencing life with thanksgiving by acknowledging God's abundant grace and living in generous freedom" - right next to a large blue GIVE NOW button!

If you're ready to get your brain aching, Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) writes this about gratitude in his vast compendium, Summa Theologica.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Gratitude In The Darkest Hour

Humanly speaking, Martin Rinkart (1586-1649) was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In God's plan, though, he was in the right place and destined to be a shining example of gratitude to God in the direst of circumstances.

He had just been made Lutheran minister of the walled town of Eilenburg, north-east of Leipzig, when the Thirty Years War broke out. It lasted for the rest of his life, almost exactly 30 years. For all this time he served the townsfolk and the many hundreds of refugees who sought shelter there.

Soldiers were billeted in his house and they stole his belongings and the food meant for his family. But this was small compared to the suffering in the town. In 1637 a plague swept through the overcrowded slums, and in that one year alone, 8,000 people died. At that time there were four pastors in the town. One fled for his life and never returned. Two others contracted the plague while serving the sick and died.

As the only pastor left, Rinkart was in constant demand, visiting and comforting the sick and dying, and sometimes conducting funerals for 40-50 persons a day. In May of that year, his own wife died. Before long, plague victims had to be buried in trenches without services.

Even worse was to follow. After the plague came a famine so extreme that thirty or forty persons might be seen fighting in the streets for a dead cat or crow. Rinkart and the town mayor did what they could to organize relief; Rinkart gave away everything but the barest rations for his own family, and his door was usually surrounded by a crowd of starving wretches. So great were Rinkart's own losses and charitable gifts that he had the utmost difficulty in finding bread and clothes for his children, and was forced to mortgage his future income for several years.

And yet, living in a world dominated by death, Martin Rinkart's spirit was unbroken and clung to the true life of God. After years or horror and agonies, he wrote a prayer for his children to offer to the Lord. It was soon turned into a hymn, known to the English-speaking world through Catherine Winkworth's translation. It is a remarkable testimony to the faith of a remarkable man but also to the triumph of generosity and thankfulness over bestiality and despair.

Now thank we all our God
With hearts and hands and voices;
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom this world rejoices.
Who, from our mother's arms,
Hath led us on our way,
With countless gifts of love,
And still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God
Through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts
And blessèd peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace,
And guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills,
In this world and the next!

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

More on the Grateful Heart

It's nice to hit the ground running sometimes. No sooner have I posted on "the generous heart", than the HTB Blog (Holy Trinity Church, Brompton, London, UK) posts this useful piece. "Thanksgiving is a lens through which to view our entire lives." Absolutely!

I especially like the emphasis on 'the sacrifice of praise', interpreted as a public act of thankgiving in the context of worship. King David in the book of Psalms often makes mention of this - and that it was a positive delight to offer such gratitude.

The post also gives a sober reminder from the New Testament: Although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him (Romans 1:18–21).

John Schmidt, meanwhile, offers these thoughts on the grateful heart, linking it with material generosity.

Under the catchy title "The Attitude of Gratitude", Christianblog.com looks at the natural selfishness of human nature and urges a discipline of thanksgiving as the antidote.
"The attitude of gratitude takes a conscious effort to master. Bombarded by negatives every day and surrounded by selfish people who are only looking out for themselves makes it extremely difficult to stay thankful. But, if the effort is made to always remain thankful no matter what the circumstances; the reward will be one of peace in the midst of the storm, joy in the midst of despair and a willingness to share of all one has."

Here, David Burchett considers the correct response when our act of generosity towards someone (in this case, a turtle, by the way!) is not received as rapturously as we would secretly like and expect.

Monday, 3 October 2011

The Grateful Heart

Phil Whittall has the knack for getting me thinking. This post on his Simple Pastor blog looks at the logical corollary to the issue of generosity, namely gratitude.

Taking first the aspect of gratitude to God for His many mercies, where better to follow this up historically than with the following section from the "Long Rule (alternatively "Detailed Rule") for Monks, by Basil of Caesarea († 379).

What words can adequately describe God’s gifts? They are so numerous that they defy enumeration. They are so great that any one of them demands our total gratitude in response.

Yet even though we cannot speak of it worthily, there is one gift which no thoughtful man can pass over in silence. God fashioned man in his own image and likeness; he gave him knowledge of himself; he endowed him with the ability to think which raised him above all living creatures; he permitted him to delight in the unimaginable beauties of paradise, and gave him dominion over everything upon earth.

Then, when man was deceived by the serpent and fell into sin, which led to death and to all the sufferings associated with death, God still did not forsake him. He first gave man the law to help him; he set angels over him to guard him; he sent the prophets to denounce vice and to teach virtue; he restrained man’s evil impulses by warnings and roused his desire for virtue by promises. Frequently, by way of warning, God showed him the respective ends of virtue and of vice in the lives of other men. Moreover, when man continued in disobedience even after he had done all this, God did not desert him.

No, we were not abandoned by the goodness of the Lord. Even the insult we offered to our Benefactor by despising his gifts did not destroy his love for us. On the contrary, although we were dead, our Lord Jesus Christ restored us to life again, and in a way even more amazing than the fact itself, for his state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God, but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave.

He bore our infirmities and endured our sorrows. He was wounded for our sake so that by his wounds we might be healed. He redeemed us from the curse by becoming a curse for our sake, and he submitted to the most ignominious death in order to exalt us to the life of glory. Nor was he content merely to summon us back from death to life; he also bestowed on us the dignity of his own divine nature and prepared for us a place of eternal rest where there will be joy so intense as to surpass all human imagination.

How, then, shall we repay the Lord for all his goodness to us? He is so good that he asks no recompense except our love: that is the only payment he desires. To confess my personal feelings, when I reflect on all these blessings I am overcome by a kind of dread and numbness at the very possibility of ceasing to love God and of bringing shame upon Christ because of my lack of recollection and my preoccupation with trivialities.

Monday, 12 September 2011

An Early Church Allegory of Generosity

The Shepherd of Hermas is an anonymous early Church writing, probably composed in Rome around AD 140. It consists of a series of pictures or revelations made to a character named Hermas, which are then interpreted to him by an angel (called the Shepherd) or by an ageless woman representing the Church.

One of these pictures is an allegory of generosity and how it benefits both the giver and the receiver in equal measure - which is what God intended in the first place. I have abridged it slightly, as the original is rather wordy, and modernised some of the phrasing to make it more readable.

As I was walking in the field, I observed an elm and a vine. As I considered them and their fruits, the Shepherd appeared to me and said: "These are intended as an example for the servants of God.

"The vine produces fruit; the elm is an unfruitful tree. But unless the vine is supported by the elm, it cannot bear much fruit, and the fruit which it does bear is rotten because it trails along the ground. Therefore, when the vine is cast upon the elm, it yields fruit, both from itself and from the elm.

"This is a similitude for the poor man and for the rich." "How so, sir?" said I; "explain the matter to me." "Listen," he said: "The rich man has much wealth, but is poor in matters relating to the Lord, because he is distracted about his riches; he offers very few intercessions to the Lord, and those which he does offer are small and weak, and have no power above. The poor man, with fewer distractions and greater needs, is often in prayer, and his intercession has great power with God.

"So, when the rich man refreshes the poor, and assists him without hesitation in his necessities, the poor man (being helped by the rich) intercedes for him, giving thanks to God for the one who bestowed gifts upon him. This moves the rich man to continue to interest himself zealously for the poor man, that his wants may be constantly supplied. For he knows that the intercession of the poor man is acceptable and influential with God, and by it he (the rich man) is blessed.

"Thus, both accomplish their work, and it is a great work, acceptable before God. Poor men, interceding with the Lord on behalf of the rich, increase their riches; and the rich, again, aiding the poor in their necessities, satisfy their souls. Both, therefore, are partners in the righteous work."

Thursday, 8 September 2011

A Bold Testimony to Generosity

One very early Christian writing gives us valuable insights into how the Early Church practised kindness and generosity. It is the Apology (reasoned defence of the faith) by Marcianus Aristides.

Aristides was a converted philosopher from Athens. Other writers suggest he had sat at the feet of the Apostle John. In all likelihood, he prepared this Apology in AD 125, because the emperor Hadrian visited Athens that year.

Here are some sentences on generosity from Aristides. His style of writing is heavy and rhetorical, and so is the Victorian English of the translation! Here I have at times modernised the phrasing without (I trust) altering the sense of what was written.

"Christians live in hope and expectation of the world which is to come. So they do not embezzle what is held in pledge, nor covet what is not theirs. If one or other of them has servants or slaves, through love towards them they persuade them to become Christians, and when they have done so, they call them brethren without distinction.

"They love one another, esteem widows, and rescue orphans from any who ill-treat them. Whoever has [wealth] gives to him who has not, without boasting. When they see a stranger, they take him into their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother.

"Whenever one of their number who was poor passes from the world, each one of them according to his ability contributes to his burial. And if they hear that one of their number is imprisoned or afflicted on account of the name of their Messiah, all of them anxiously minister to his necessity, and if it is possible to redeem him they set him free. If there is among them any that is poor and needy, and they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to have food which they can supply to the needy one.

Monday, 29 August 2011

The "Law" of Generosity?

Several blog posts have caught my attention as I look at the subject of generosity.

Larry Jones writes about "Is Giving Really Giving?". He questions the supposed absolute of not expecting to receive anything in return (Luke 6:35). Through the act of giving we do experience an equivalent or reward. I believe that God has created a "universal law", whereby when we give back to Him and others, He opens up at least the possibility for equivalent rewards.

Here are some bible study notes on the morality of benevolence.

David Matthias offers an inspiring testimony of generous giving which did not involve any money changing hands! Read about how several people's pressing needs were met by sharing possessions.

Zach Nielsen offers some challenging insights on "financial peace" - the contentment that comes through being generous and unselfish with what has been entrusted to us. His post is particularly useful in that he links to various articles for and against the notion that money is by nature a danger to faith.

Here Nielsen puts his finger on the moral and intellectual dilemma we all face vis-à-vis our wealth:
'I’m afraid the framing of this discussion leads us to ask the wrong questions. Like the junior high boy who wonders "how far is too far" with his girlfriend, we are quickly caught up in questions about how rich is too rich, how poor is too poor, and the like. Where is the line? Do I feel guilty for having too much? Do the kids have enough? What does “enough” even mean? Should I feel guilty about not giving as much as so and so? If I give more, does that mean I am more spiritual? The hamster wheel of comparison, propelled by our spring-loaded legalism, keeps spinning to exhaustion. We are all tempted to be proud about what we give or feel guilty about what we don’t.'

Friday, 26 August 2011

Ground Rules for Generosity : Scripture

I came across this article, which gives a good overview of the principles and practical application of generosity in the churches of the New Testament.

It somehow seems appropriate, as we start looking at the theme of generosity, not to go to church-historical sources but with scripture. There are good reasons for this, and not least that among evangelical Christians today, few look beyond tithing (giving 10 percent of your income) as a guide for financial giving.

What follows are my own ponderings and interpretations, but they tally very well with those of the article linked to above.

God loves a cheerful giver is still the guiding principle [2 Corinthians9:7]. Human beings are creatures of habit. Drift easily sets in and we lose the freshness of sacrificial giving and the joy of generosity. Many Christians then find convenient ways of justifying personal wealth by giving a bit here and there.

In the gospels, there are examples of 'giving to charity' in today's sense, e.g. John13:29. Yet chiefly we are urged to show justice to the poor by identifying with them and sharing what we have with them in the new, classless society that is the Church. That's why the first Church in Jerusalem shared meals in homes with glad and generous hearts, and met each other's financial needs by sacrificial giving [Acts 2:45-46]. It was the Holy-Spirit-inspired pattern for all ages.

Everyone must give, and the New Testament way is "the apostles' feet": you give to your church for God's work. How much to give? Tithing is an Old Testament practice which is not laid on Christians. It can be a start, but Jesus, the pioneer of a new covenant, shows a new way:
give everything you can - which is usually more than you think you can.

The Apostle Paul gives some helpful guidelines:
* Give as much as you can [2 Corinthians 8:3];
* Give freely, without pressure [ibid, v.3,8];
* Give cheerfully, not grudgingly [chap.9:5-8];
* Give as an expression of care and unity in the kingdom of God [chap.8:4];
* Give, trusting God to bless and reward the lavish heart [chap.8:4].
* Give as an act of worship and thanksgiving, and be blessed in blessing others [chap.9:14-15].

Thursday, 18 August 2011

A Challenge To Generosity

Having looked in recent posts at sustainability and simplicity, the logical next step is GENEROSITY.

This post by Phil Whittall is a good starting point. The issue of generosity, he writes, goes further than simply the wallet - "it reveals the condition of my soul." He assesses very honestly the natural selfishness of his own (and, no doubt, your) conditioned responses, which instinctively says spend and not give. He concludes, bravely: "My hope for my baby son, is that I can introduce him to the greater joy of giving before he figures out the lesser joy of receiving."

One very early Christian text can back this up. The 'Didache' (pronounced "didder-key", it's Greek for "teaching") is of uncertain date, but internal evidence leads most commentators to place it at the latest AD 100. It is a short handbook of moral and practical governance for churches, perhaps in Syria, and it is anonymous.

Here are some quotations on generosity (and meanness) which carry the freshness of Early Church clarity.

Let your money sweat in your hands until you know to whom you should give it.

Be not one who stretches out his hands to receive, but shuts them when it comes to giving.

Do not hesitate to give, nor grumble when you give; remember who is the good Paymaster of the reward [i.e. God].

Share everything with your brother, and do not say it is your own; for if you are sharers in the imperishable, how much more in perishable things?

Whittall concludes: "I want a richer life and that means giving. I want to be like Jesus and that means giving, I want to be blessed by God and that means giving. So I don’t want to work out how to live on less but work out how to give more." It is desires like that which resonate so well with the Early Church, as shown in the Didache. More than that, they're prophetic.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Simplicity - an Imperative for Now

Back in May 2011 I posted this. In particular I wanted to 'big up' Mark Powley's phrase: The pendulum is swinging back to community.

Already I could see a number of branches growing out from that trunk, and the first that I set out to explore was the twin theme of SIMPLICITY and SUSTAINABILITY. My last six posts used Basil of Caesarea's timeless thoughts and provocations to illustrate the theme.

I had thought to move on to the next branch, but then Martin Charlesworth posted this on the Jubilee Blog. It arrested me, challenged me, and rang such bells with all that I've been posting from Basil, that I commend it to you here.

What I have tried to underpin historically, Martin shouts from the rooftop as a word for today. Here are his concluding points.

Simplicity is more about an attitude of heart.

Simplicity is the willingness to ask the hard questions about what we own.

Simplicity is the willingness to be thankful for what we have, rather than restless for what we hope to acquire.

Simplicity is about choosing not to define ourselves by what we own.

Simplicity is about staring out materialism.

Simplicity is about the exciting risk of faith in giving away as much as possible.

Simplicity is about being deeply thankful for the things we possess and then finding joy in living for people.

Simplicity is about remembering the poor every day and thinking about the rich only about once a month.

Simplicity is about travelling lightly through this world.

Simplicity is about following Jesus – the master of simplicity.

The pendulum swinging back to community? I think so!

Thursday, 28 July 2011

A Sliding Scale Of Need?

As we have seen in recent posts, Basil of Caesarea's stance on wealth and poverty is blunt and uncompromising, but also wholly relevant to today, where consumerism has achieved almost god-like status.

This piece shows that Basil was also a keen and unflinching observer of human nature - and human excuses. The writer identifies
'the human tendency to adjust the definition of "need" to fit one's current level of income'.

Basil, he says, was on to this 1600 years ago. His homily (practical sermon) on the man in Jesus' parable, I Will Tear Down My Barns [and Build Bigger Ones] treats the barns not so much as symbols of wealth but rather as representing our definition of needs based on our circumstances.

'In effect', continues the article, 'Basil says that if we never have any extra to share, this is due to the fact that whenever we find ourselves in possession of a surplus, we immediately adjust our definition of need to fit the new situation.'

(You say) "I will pull down my barns and build larger ones.” But if you fill these larger ones, what do you intend to do next? Will you tear them down yet again only to build them up once more? What could be more ridiculous than this incessant toil, laboring to build and then laboring to tear down again?

In his sermon "To the Rich", Basil sees this as a form of madness. "Those who have acquired wealth and have great possessions, desire more of the same, nursing the sickness by perpetual accumulation. Having so much here and now fails to bring them happiness, since they grieve over what they don't have, and convince themselves they're lacking. 'We're poor!', they say. And it's true, because a poor person lacks much, and much are you lacking because of your insatiable desires! What was it that killed Naboth? [1 Kings 21] Was it not King Ahab's greed for his vineyard?"

And so, Basil concludes, you commit injustice to so many when you could have helped them - which applies to any level on the scale of wealth.

Friday, 22 July 2011

The Poor Have Faces

As we have seen from previous posts, Basil of Caesarea was adamant that the hoarding of personal wealth was unnatural and a crime against compassion and justice. For him, the issue was both logical and clear:
"If we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who don't have enough, no-one would be rich and no-one would be poor."
(Homily on I Will Tear Down My Barns)

Basil wasn't alone in saying these things at the end of the 4th century. John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa were equally outspoken. What makes Basil stand out, however, is his humanity. To others, rich and poor were more of a moral dilemma, an issue (albeit of vital importance) without faces. You can resonate with their arguments, value their prophetic courage in offending the powerful, but remain strangely unmoved inside.

With great rhetorical skill, Basil gives the poor an identity as people. In various sermons and homilies he paints verbal pictures: the street urchins huddled in doorways, the old man gone blind through neglect and starvation, the agonised mother forced to sell a child into slavery to pay off a debt.

It was this gut-level compassion that also stirred Basil to do something practical: the building of the Basiliad outside Caesarea, a complex which included a poor-house, hospice, and hospital, and was regarded at the time as one of the wonders of the world.

This page offers some thoughts and practical considerations of how the vision of the Basiliad could affect our Christian discipleship today.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Love Means Distribution

Given Basil of Caesarea's stance on simplicity and sustainability (see last three posts), it will come as no surprise that he pushed hard for sharing and justice. For Basil, distribution of one's surplus to those in need is an imperative, not an option .

If you have been blessed with more money and goods than others, it is so you can meet the needs of those others, he argues. 'It takes wealth to care for the needy; a little paid out for the needs of each person, and all at once there is sharing. Whoever loves his neighbour as himself [as Christ taught], will not hold on to more than his neighbour has.' (Sermon To the Rich)

This post and this article show that Basil's contemporary, John Chrysostom, bishop of Antioch, echoed these sentiments and expressed them even more forcefully.

"Wealth is like a snake; it will twist around the hand and bite unless one knows how to use it properly." The huge injustices that wealth creates are intolerable to him. But Chrysostom is no proto-Marxist. "Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone?"

"Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm. The rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold form the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first — and then they will joyfully share their wealth." (Sermon On Living Simply)

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Disciplines Of Simplicity

This post from GodFirst Blog seemed to chime in harmony with my last two posts on simplicity and sustainability.

It is a summary of key practical disciplines for a simpler life, drawn from Richard Foster's seminal work, Celebration of Discipline, which first appeared in 1978. I reproduce a few below, with echoes from Basil of Caesarea sixteen centuries earlier.

* Buy things for their usefulness rather than for status. Basil: 'When I enter a house and see it shimmering with every kind of crass trinket, I realise that the owner may have given what was soulless a facelift, but he has an unbeautified soul'.

* Develop a habit of giving things away. Basil attacks the 'strange madness' whereby, 'when wealth overflows, it gets buried in the ground in secret places, "in case they need it one day".' And this, while the poor and hungry clamour at their gate.

* Reject anything that will breed oppression of others. Basil castigates the rich: 'How many people could one of your gold-encrusted fingers release from debt? How many broken-down homes could be rebuilt? You say you are doing no-one an injustice, yet you plunder so much for yourselves!'

* Learn to enjoy things without owning them. Basil: 'The world was created for the common benefit of all. The animals use in common the plants that grow naturally from the earth, and all living creatures permit each other to satisfy their need for food. But we hoard that which is common, and keep for ourselves what belongs to many others.'

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Return To Simplicity

Basil of Caesarea wrote his sermon To the Rich sixteen centuries ago, but the context was strikingly similar to today. 'Those who have recently grown rich desire more of the same... They ought to be happy and contented, but immediately they yearn to be equal with the super-rich.' Meanwhile, 'thousands huddle in misery in doorways.'

But a time of crisis had struck, in the form of a great famine. Everyone was afraid of what might come. Social structures were under threat, established patterns of life could not be trusted. Not unlike the global threat of terrorism today.

Basil used the opportunity to press for justice, mercy and equality, but above all for simplicity.
"The soul becomes like the things it gives itself to," he writes in his Homily on Humility, "and takes the character and appearance of what it does. So let your demeanour, your dress, your walking, your sitting down, the nature of your food, the quality of your manner, your house and what it contains, aim at simplicity.

"And let your speech, your singing, the way you relate to your neighbour, be in accord with humility rather than with vanity. In your words let there be no empty pretence, in your singing no excess sweetness, in conversation be not ponderous or overbearing. In everything refrain from seeking to appear important."

Most of all, Basil pressed for a voluntary redistribution of wealth and resources, as in the first Church at Jerusalem. As this writer sees it, Basil 'saw it as a rule of life for all Christians. Moved by the extreme social needs of the population, and enlightened by the Scriptures, Basil insisted that the produce of the earth was intended for all. While God the Creator had indeed distributed it unevenly, he had done this with the intention that the rich should share with the poor.'

To Basil, a refusal to embrace simplicity and sustainability is a crime. "Someone who steals clothes off someone’s back is called a thief. Why should we refer to the one who does not clothe the naked, while having the means to do so, as anything else? The bread that you have belongs to the hungry, the clothes that are in your cupboard belong to the naked, the shoes that are rotting in your possession belong to the barefooted, the money that you have buried belongs to the destitute. And so you commit injustice to so many when you could have helped them." (Homily I Will Tear Down My Barns)

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Back To Sustainability

Continuing the theme from the last post, that 'the pendulum is swinging back to community', I have been considering the evidence. There aren't many indications, from what I can see, of people saying "let's move in together and share everything". But there are definite signs of thinking Christians reaching out for particular strands of what make up community.

One of these is sustainability: the belief that there are enough resources on earth to provide for its population, if only these resources could be used wisely and equally. The Breathe Network (see last post) is "a Christian network for simpler living, connecting people who want to live a less consumerist, more generous, more sustainable life". Their clip "Enough" will give you a flavour (read the comments too).

So, is sustainability in the New Testament mandate? It is certainly the thought behind 2 Corinthians 9:8. God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work.

But there is a much stronger tie-up with the monastic community vision. Basil, bishop of Caesarea (c.330-379), wrote at some length on this issue. In his sermon "To the Rich", he writes:

"But how do you make use of money? By dressing in expensive clothing? Won’t two yards of tunic suffice you, and the covering of one coat satisfy all your need of clothes? Is it for food’s sake that you have such a demand for wealth? One loaf is enough to fill a belly."

Basil inveighs against those "who leave grain to rot but will not feed the starving", who choose ivory sofas and silver tables when ordinary wood is just as suitable. This is more than cheap swipes at material wealth. For Basil, a man steeped in the Christian community vision of the Desert Fathers, the inherent sin of such behaviour is its refusal to accept simplicity for the sake of sustainability. It is as much a sin against the earth as it is against the poor.

This is the context in which Basil in his day, and concerned Christians like the Breathe Network today, saw the devious lie of consumerism and turned against it. To this we shall return.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Looking For Community

The latest issue of Jesus Life Magazine has just reached me from the Jesus Fellowship/Jesus Army. Always a challenging read, but one particular line jumped out at me:
"The pendulum is swinging back towards community"

The speaker is Mark Powley, co-founder of the Breathe Network, who represents a new generation of thinking, activist Christians - concerned about the environment, concerned about consumerism gone mad, keen to recycle, to live simply, and to explore community. He has recently published Consumer Detox, in which he explores how the tyranny of consumerism can be decoded, subverted, and outlived. The upbeat tone is well expressed in the final section, "adventures in generosity".

Powley isn't the only voice wondering whether Christian community (even community of goods) might be coming "in" again. Pastor and academic Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a leader in the 'New Monasticism' movement, who himself lives in Christian community, has recently published <em>God's Economy , in which he critiques the 'prosperity gospel' so prevalent in Western (especially North American) churches, and offers a more just model.

The Jesus Army is finding this too, as churches and groups in many parts of the world make contact, having searched for an alternative to personal health and wealth preaching, which they instinctively mistrust and which simply does not work in their culture. The Jesus Army's relational model, with community living, offers a new direction which many are keen to explore.

So thank you, Mark, for the watchman's cry from the battlements: "the pendulum is swinging back towards community". I hope over the next few posts to explore elements of this subject.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Beautiful Church - a New Hymn

Reading up on the Blumhardts and their developing, at times divergent, views of the kingdom of God and the Church, I remembered my own musings on the correlation a couple of years ago. I looked at Christian hymnody and more recent choruses and found there either Church or Kingdom, but very little that related them properly in God's plan for the earth.

The result was that I had a go at writing a hymn myself! The starting point was the opening line of an obscure hymn by a Victorian high Anglican clergyman, E L Drown. This line, and several others which struck me as beautiful, I kept. Drown, however, goes on to sketch the beauties of church furnishings, liturgy and offices. I wanted rather to place Church within the wider 'kingdom' plan of God for a testimony to, and blessing for, the earth.

Beautiful Church of Christ below,
Radiant in this world of woe;
Welcoming gate to Heaven above,
Sanctified house of God I love.
He who was slain on Calvary
Founded this Church eternally.

Harried and tried by Satan’s horde;
Hated by men who hate her Lord;
Clothed in His righteousness alone,
Seeing in faith His glorious throne;
Bearing His cross she walks His road,
Finding His grace to bear the load.

Temple of Jesus, called the Way,
His human face she dares display:
Grieving at imperfections shown,
Making her intercessions known;
Bearing with brethren, loving all,
She manifests the Kingdom call.

Beautiful hearts this Church adorn,
Giving their lives for God’s Firstborn.
Salvation’s Ark she opens wide,
Beckoning all to come inside;
Bringing new sons to second birth,
She is a praise in all the earth.

Church, the abode and rest of God;
The path that saints and martyrs trod.
Baptism her ensign, Christ her light;
Souls here made glorious, robed in white.
Fitly adorned as Christ’s own Bride,
She reigns for ever at His side!

© Jesus Fellowship Songs / CopyCare Ltd, 2009,
adapted from E. L. Drown, 1863, Public Domain

God's Kingdom Here And Now

"We Christians think of a heavenly kingdom; I came to see that God intended an earthly kingdom, or rather, a heavenly kingdom on earth. God's name was to be hallowed on earth, His kingship seen on earth, His will done on earth. The earth should announce eternity: God on earth."

In a number of writings, Christoph Blumhardt presented his understanding of the kingdom of God and how it is forever breaking in to life on earth - for that was always God's intention.

"The angels have God in heaven, I have not - I want to pray down here. I must have God here. The earth is the stage set for the kingdom of God, because the kingship of God is in direct relationship with this earth: the Saviour, down here. God's intention is the here and now: Jesus challenging poverty, sin and misery on earth."
[my own translation (and in parts paraphrase) from the German]

Here you will find a further meditation by Blumhardt on the in-breaking kingdom of God - and the amazing but urgent opportunities that gives for Christian witness.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Church And The Kingdom

As Johann Blumhardt lay dying in 1880, he spoke a blessing over his son Christoph (1842-1919). The blessing was that Christoph might conquer in the strength of Jesus, the Victor (see previous post).

Christoph, like his father, had trained as a pastor. He was, by all accounts, a fiery preacher. The novellist Hermann Hesse recalls him saying that a Mohammedan with a real and honest heart is closer to God than many Christians.

Blumhardt grew increasingly disillusioned with the established church, so he returned to Bad Boll and assisted his father with the work there until Johann's death passed the mantle to him. He held healing crusades, which carried the same power his father had known.

But Christoph was on a different, more radical road. "A Christian must be born twice", he wrote: "once from the human to the spiritual, and once from the spiritual to the human". In other words, a spirituality or church commitment which had no interest in addressing the sufferings of people and the ills of society was a comfortable lie.

In a letter which he kept secret for years, he reproached his father for three failings:
1. His individualism. Johann had compassion on each person, and for that person to know the healing power of God was sufficient evidence of the in-breaking kingdom of God. Christoph had a more developed notion of God's kingdom: a rulership that included all things, the universe, the earth, nations and structures.

2. His view of the Church. Johann was too accepting of a religious system which his son had come to see as a preserve of the middle-class, concerned only with power and influence.

3. His view of mission. Christoph saw his father's model of outreach as simply feeding a church which was a mere extension of imperialism. His son saw the more 'cosmic' aspect of the kingdom of God - that it was a Body hastening the return of Jesus Christ by shining as a light in darkness, a 'city on a hill' (Matthew 5:14). His father had acted as if the Kingdom was part of the Church; for the son, the Church is part of the Kingdom.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Blumhardt and the Victorious Christ

The other key factor in Johnn Christoph Blumhardt's legacy is his unshakable conviction in 'realised eschatology', that the promises of scripture for the end times are meant for the Church now. His influences here were twofold:

1. He was acquainted with the prophecy of Johann Albrecht Bengel, who had calculated from bible numerology that the Millennium (a period of one thousand years referred to in Book of Revelation, 20:1-10, in which Christ's followers would rule the earth spiritually) would begin in 1836. This had heightened expectancy in some church circles for new outbreaks of the miraculous.

2. From Bible College onwards, he had had dealings with missionaries, doctors and exorcists, who had first hand experience of the power of the risen Christ to free those enslaved by evil.

So when the young woman in Möttlingen was delivered from evil after eighteen months of prayer and spiritual warfare, Blumhardt was convinced of two things: Jesus is victor and His kingdom has come on earth.

Blumhardt's experiences of healings at the sanatorium of Bad Boll caused him to interpret this in-breaking of God's kingdom in an individual way. Jesus was doing for precious people what He did as He walked the earth: making the blind see, opening the prison door and releasing the bound (see Luke 4:16-21).

It would be his son who would take the interpretation of the kingdom deeper and wider, as we shall see.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

"Christ Loved The Church"

So, what makes Johann Christoph Blumhardt significant enough to warrant an English edition of his works? In what ways was he a "mover and shaker"?

This post looks at a key (and at first sight unlikely) factor: his conservatism, his belief in the established church. England by this time had seen the Quakers, then the Great Awakening, the powerful movings of God associated with the Wesleys and george Whitefield (an overview of which is given here). These times of the in-breaking of God's power had, however, led to large numbers leaving the Anglican communion to found new groups and movements.

Germany had always been resistant to sectarianism - look how it treated the Anabaptists (see some of my posts of 2010). But in Blumhardt, the message of renewal, and the manifest power of God with signs and wonders, came from a solid son of the church who had no intention of seceding from it. This resonated far and wide, and Blumhardt's parsonage welcomed thousands of visitors, including author/parson Eduard Mörike and novellist Hermann Hesse.

A short article in German assesses the reactions of some of these visitors.

1. FAITH. "He really does believe! It isn't magic!", wrote Blumhardt's bishop. Real faith, "the faith that pulls the fire from heaven" (Salvation Army hymn) has always fascinated and attracted. People want to believe in the miraculous. Blumhardt made it seem quite ordinary.

2. LOVE. "Love is his religion", wrote a noted painter. Blumhardt's God was compassionate, offered hope, gave repentance and a new start even to the most damaged and dirty, and any manifestation of healing etc was a signpost to that nature in Him. This too is timelessly attractive, especially to Christians stultified by habit - what Blumhardt called "religion".

3. HOPE. Blumhardt's heightened understanding of light and darkness (through the exorcism of 1842) made him see that God was ready at any moment to invade the darkness of human life with the light that is the real Jesus - not of "religion" but of life . Darkness, he wrote, is contrary to our nature if we are of God, so there will always be a way to escape from it if we put our trust in Him.

All of these, Blumhardt believed, were available within the orbit of the church. But because of much encrusting of "church-ianity", God's lavish heart in these areas had to be actively and stongly preached, which is what Blumhardt spent a lot of his time doing.

Monday, 4 April 2011

The In-Breaking Kingdom Of God

I always appreciate the arrival of the new edition of The Plough, published by Church Communities International. There aren't too many publications emanating from an Anabaptist, "all things in common", communitarian stream, but this is one.

The latest issue heralds a bold and very welcome move: to publish, for the first time in English, the works of two remarkable men: Johann Christoph Blumhardt (1805-1880) and his son, Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt (1842-1919).

"What do such wildly diverse movements as religious socialism, neo-orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, and such Christian thinkers like Karl Barth, Eberhard Arnold, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jacques Ellul and Jürgen Moltmann, have in common?", writes one of the series' editors. "They all trace their Christian understanding of the world and God’s kingdom to Johann Christoph Blumhardt, a humble pastor in Germany who lived in the 19th century."

Johann Christoph was pastor in Möttlingen, a village in South-West Germany as unremarkable as Blumhardt himself. Until 1842, that is, when circumstances plunged him into the realm of 'deliverance ministry', exorcism and healing prayer. A young woman exhibiting the classic symptoms of demonisation, as shown in the Gospels, was released after an intensive season of prayer, spiritual battle and exorcism.

"Möttlingen was swept up in an unprecedented movement of repentance and renewal. Stolen property was returned, broken marriages restored, enemies reconciled, alcoholics freed, and more amazingly still, an entire village experienced what life could be like when God ruled." People started arriving from miles around, drawn by the manifest power of God and the possible hope of freedom in their own lives. Such 'success' was, in fact, embarrassing for Blumhardt, who was a solid and unflamboyant character and freely admitted that he was no expert in these matters.

Even so, "Blumhardt’s parsonage eventually could not accommodate the numbers of people streaming to it. He thus began to look for a place with more room and greater freedom. He moved his family to Bad Boll, a complex of large buildings which had been developed as a spa around a sulfur water spring. His biographer [in German] recounts in vivid detail one story after another of how through the small circle at Bad Boll, desperate individuals of all stripes— burdened with mental, emotional, physical and spiritual maladies—found healing and renewed faith."

What made this a radical movement in the scope of this blog is that Blumhardt had the courage to work through the ideological issues (and plenty of opposition) and to conclude emphatically that the Kingdom of God was perennially able to break into everyday life, with whatever manifestation of the divine or miraculous that the Holy Spirit might choose.

Blumhardt was not a theologian and did not attempt a reasoned theology of his stance. He was a practical man, full of compassion, who was wise enough to realise that the damaged, the sick and the demonised need compassion and hope in their damaged souls every bit as much as healing or exorcism. His sermons pleaded, cared, pointed to a God who is love and who wants us to know it.

But Blumhardt also offers hope to Christians who long for the transcendental, for God's power to be seen in today's world. He was convinced that the Old Testament prophecy of Joel, quoted by Peter when the Holy Spirit was first outpoured (Acts 2:17) had only been partly fulfilled; that the generous and saving God in whom he believed had so much more for the Church to discover and to use for God's glory and the blessing of multitudes.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

God Said "Go!"

I had never heard of Rob Hall, but this article grabbed both my head and my heart.

Rob was a Canadian who heard the call of God, like his hero, Abraham, to 'Go!', without knowing quite where he would end up. He and his wife Kate (cousin of songwriter and worship leader Ben Cantelon) took this full on the chin, knowing it would mean leaving behind everything they'd known and embarking with their three young children on a voyage into the unknown.

'The plan? To learn what it means to be on an adventure with God,' they wrote in their blog. 'Sharing ideas on helping people launch their own adventure and hopefully in some way using our skills to bring justice and mercy to those in need.'

The Halls didn't side-step the radical implications of the call. 'Have you ever wondered what you would do if all you had on earth was the possessions you could carry with you?', Rob wrote. 'What would you keep? What would you get rid of? If you don’t deal with your baggage before you start, it will be an even bigger burden as you move on. This is true both spiritually and practically.' This clip shows what a family of five ended up with.

The path took them via the Christian community at Taizé in France to a Bible college in Zambia, where they taught theology, agriculture and Christian entrepreneurship.

Then, with the vision still in its infancy, Rob was killed in a construction site accident. His funeral was in early March 2011. This webpage set up in his memory shows the amazing impact of his example. Friends are urging all Christians to do "random acts of kindness" to others, in memory of Rob.

I close with some wise sayings that Rob cites in the blog, which illustrate the heart of a passionate disciple of Jesus Christ.

If you want change - take risks.

If you want security - get ready to jump.

If you want adventure - allow for the unplanned.

If you want to write a book - live something worth writing about.

If you think it will be easy - think again.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Christian Social Entrepreneurship Today?

At a recent event it was my privilege to talk with Patrick Shine, senior partner at the Shaftesbury Partnership , "a social business whose mission is to create and inspire trailblazing social reforms that empower communities by tackling disadvantage and generating opportunity".

I remarked on how popular the term "Christian social entrepreneur" seems to be becoming, judging by the number of internet search returns. There is even a blog: "Compassion in Politics; entrepreneurial social change plus faith and Kingdom principles".Patrick admitted that the term had become something of a cachet, with some ambitious young Christian professionals keen to have it on their CV.

How refreshing, then, to read Mark Greene's article on Kim Tan, co-author of 'Fighting Poverty Through Enterprise: The case for Social Venture Capital'. "I am in the business of making wealth [in order] to distribute wealth", he says, and is unfazed by the (to most people) dichotomy of 'Christian venture capitalist'. He has indeed generated considerable assets.

A committed evangelical Christian, Tan lived for some years in Christian community in Surrey, UK, with some 45 others, as a way of rediscovering the radical lifestyle of the early church and "to deal with our material addiction". Without this experience, Tan says, "I wouldn't have learned how to hold things lightly".

Tan is the founder Chairman of SpringHill Management Ltd (UK), a fund management company in biotech and social venture capital investments. He is also co-founder of Transformational Business Network, a UK charity with social transformational businesses in developing countries, including the Kuzuko Game Reserve (South Africa) and the Hagar Social Enterprise Group (Cambodia).

Christian social entrpreneurship, in Tan's view, means helping the poor escape poverty. Micro-credit has been a crucial first step here. He looks for not only to invest in areas of the world where there is grinding poverty, but also to invest in such a way that local people take responsibility and are empowered long-term. In his experience, every job created in a developing country has the potential to affect ten other people positively.

"Some people are like rocks," he says. "they give when you strike them. Some people are like oranges; they give when you squeeze the. And some are like flowers; they give because it's in their nature to give. When I meet people, I ask myself 'do they smell of Jesus?'" Tan's basis for this is his grounding in the writings of the Anabaptists (see previous posts in my blog) and the biblical concept of the Jubilee, a time of social redress, justice and liberation for all the people.

Tan is convinced that his entrepreneurship isn't a special gift. "We have all these highly gifted, talented people: creative, innovative, with superb executional skills - and we let them rot in [church] pews!" Not only can such people make a genuine contribution to justice and the relief of poverty, but they can achieve their true potential in God - daring to dream bigger than they would have supposed.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Labours Of Love

Since 2001 her face has been on every Bank of England £5 note, but who was Elizabeth Fry?

She was born into a banking family in Norwich, England, in 1780. When she was 18, she heard a Quaker preacher speaking and she was converted. She joined a Quaker assembly, where a woman had a prophecy for her: "You are born to be a light to the blind, speech to the dumb and feet to the lame."

Immediately she was moved to charitable acts. She collected old clothes for the poor, visited those who were sick in her neighbourhood, and started a Sunday School to teach children to read.

Marriage took her to London, and motherhood kept her so busy that after 12 years she lamented: "I fear my life is slipping away to little purpose." How wrong she was!

Another Quaker minister told her of the horrifying conditions in the capital's prisons. Fry went to the infamous Newgate jail to see for herself. She found hundreds of women and their children living violent lives in unsanitary conditions and sleeping on the floor without bedding.

Fry sprang into action. Immediate practical needs had to be met. She enlisted local women to make clothes for the children. She got permission to start a school for prison children. She founded an organisation of women who would visit prisoners, pray and read scriptures with them, and provide them with materials to sew and knit goods which could be sold to give them some income.

But more visionary action was required if lasting change was to happen. Fry took to spending some nights in the jail and invited members of the aristocracy to come and do so too, to experience at first had the inhumane conditions. Her brother-in-law, a Member of Parliament, also promoted her work in government circles.

The atmosphere at Newgate changed so noticeably that Fry's model was followed in other towns and even abroad. She became well known. She was the first woman ever to give evidence to a parliamentary select committee, leading to a series of prison reforms in the 1820s. Queen Victoria admired her and made donations.

Fry's work didn't stop there. Even while raising 11 children and suffering from what today would be called post-natal depression, she established a night shelter for the homeless in London; campaigned for more humane treatment of orphans; raised awareness of the plight of newly-released prisoners with nowhere to go; began an outreach ministry to sailors and founded a school for nurses. It was nurses trained at Fry's school who went with Florence Nightingale to the Crimea.

She was incensed at the transportation of women prisoners to Australia. The night before they left, there were always riots in the prisons. The women would reach Australia penniless and with dependent children, leaving prostitution as the only option for many. Elizabeth lobbied parliament and personally visited all deportees, giving them materials for making clothes on the voyage which they could sell on arrival.

Together with her husband, Fry also agitated against capital punishment. At that time, upwards of 200 crimes were punishable by death. After initial indifference in high circles, they gained the ear of Robert Peel, the Home Secretary, who met with them and started the process of penal reform.

Elizabeth’s motives in all these activities were avowedly Christian. Her faith was the centre of all she did. Quakers allowed anointed women to preach, and Elizabeth did so. It is said that her voice carried such emotion that hard hearts would weep.
"Let us cleave to God in spirit," she exhorted, "and make it the first business of our lives to be conformed to His will and live to His glory, whether prosperity or adversity be our portion, and though our years pass away like a brief tale. Through His unbounded love, the blessings of the Most High will rest upon us."

Fry proved it. The prophecy was fulfilled absolutely. Called "the Angel of Mercy" in her lifetime, when she died in 1845 over a thousand people lined the way to her grave, to honour the passing of a truly great woman.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

A Visionary Employer

What did you do for a career if you were a Quaker? They were barred from universities; as pacifists, the armed forces were not an option; they rejected established churches.

One option was business, and Quakers gained a deserved reputation as principled and reliable tradespeople. In the latter half of the 18th century, three Quakers families were attracted to the chocolate industry. They became household names: Fry, Rowntree and Cadbury. There were sound reasons for choosing chocolate. The medical world had declared it a healthy drink, and Quakers (who were teetotal) saw it as a viable alternative to alchohol.

George Cadbury (1839-1922) inherited the Birmingham-based family business in 1861. He was a visionary and a philanthropist. He determined to create a business which would "reflect his religious ideals, his belief in thrift and hard work, worthy products, fair dealing and good employment conditions."

So he moved the business away from the smoke of the city to a greenfield site which he called Bournville. In this healthier environment he created a model village, where his workforce could live. He incorporated parks, a lake and recreational facilities for the health and peace of his staff. Bournville workers enjoyed medical care and a pension scheme. Good workers were rewarded with what was a very good wage for the time.

What made Cadbury a Christian social entrepreneur was that his vision and action took him beyond simple philanthropy. In an interview in 1889 he said:
"Forty years ago I visited among my scholars and knew their hardships and the difficulties men have to contend with when they are reformed - unattrative neighbourhoods, no social life and but few objects of interest in and around their homes. But if each man could have his own house, a large garden to cultivate and healthy surroundings - then, I thought, there will be for them a better opportunity of a happy family life.

Largely through my experience among the back streets of Birmingham I have been brought to the conclusion that it is impossible to raise a nation, morally, physically, and spiritually in such surroundings, and that the only effective way to bring men out of the cities into the country and to give every man his garden where he can come into touch with nature and thus know more of nature's God."

He not only dreamed it, he did it - even exceeded his expectations. It cost him, but he gave willingly. "I have for many years given practically the whole of my income for charitable purposes," he said, "except what is spent upon my family. Nearly all my money is invested in businesses in which I believe I can truly say the first thought is the welfare of the work people employed."