“See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land.” (Song of Songs 2:11-12, NIV)
I hope you are enjoying that it is starting to feel like Spring here in Delft. I heard some doves (read: pigeons) a couple of days ago cooing and I was reminded of the verse above, and thought: I am not sure that this is actually a nice noise. Anyway, I should get on with the information I wanted to share with you.
We have mentioned recently in our Sunday meetings we are going to be changing the time of our meetings to 11.00. Apart from the obvious advantages of this for those of us without small children (i.e. not me!), I think there are some genuine reasons to be optimistic about these changes.
The first is that OPEN is going to be closed from the 3 March on Sundays (apart from the last Sunday of the month). Up to now, we had been constrained by the opening time of the building and if you remember, we moved our time to 10.00 for this reason – in a sense we are going “back to normal”. There will be no rush at the end of the service to pack-down and get ready for the building to open.
Secondly, we have had reasonably consistent complaints about the noise from our meetings since our move to OPEN in the summer. It was never our desire to be a nuisance to our neighbours and OPEN have been working to find a solution to this problem with us. By moving the meeting later, the noise early in the morning is minimized and hopefully there will be less problems caused to the neighbourhood.
All in all, I think as we move into Spring, we move into a new season with this building. One that I hope can be a little bit freer and easier for us. As we said from the beginning it is our temporary home, but we will do our best to treat it well during our time here.
Last Sunday, I was glad to be back in Redeemer after a couple of week away. The meeting for me was most of all a real reminder of the joy that our church brings me. It was not going to the building that filled me with joy, it was not the worship time or the message we heard – it was above everything seeing people again. It reminded me of how the Bible talks about the Church as being God’s inheritance or reward. I think sometimes, when we think about reward or inheritance, we think of money, or wealth or riches – God thinks about people, He thinks about His Church – I am beginning I hope to get His point!
I wanted to write briefly about what is coming up. For the next couple of months we are going to be journeying through the book of Ephesians, to call it a book is perhaps an overstatement. It is a letter written to the churches in and around Ephesus in Asia Minor, that’s now called Turkey to you and me. These are the Ephesians and it is Paul, the self-styled ‘apostle to the Gentiles’ (non-Jews) who is writing to them. It is a sweeping and concise declaration of the message that had been entrusted to him by Jesus: the Gospel – the amazing good news about Jesus Christ.
What is this message? This declaration. God is creating in Jesus Christ through his Spirit a new people, a new society, a community set apart in the midst of the rest of the world. In this community, the barriers of division, the “us and them”, that humans build up between each other; those of class, race, sex, wealth and power would be broken down. Instead of divison, God brings unity in diversity. He builds up new relationships, radically transformed by love, through the sacrificial death of Jesus. They have all received grace, the forgiveness of their sins and now they have peace with God, themselves and each other. They have been made free to live their lives for God and each other.
Contrary to the influence of individualism and the Western Church’s accommodation to it. The Gospel is not a message of personal liberation in a vacuum, it is centered in the creation of a distinct and holy people, into which those that believe in Jesus become integrated, loved and known by God and each other. It is the Church, as a whole, as a body, that makes known who God is, who in His own Being is a community. Three Persons in One Being existing in perfect love and unity. On our own, it is simply impossible to have the fullness of what God intended the Christian experience to be. He made us to be part of His new society, he made us to be part of His Church and part of a local church.
As the secular society around us continues to degenerate into ever increasing fragments in the search for its identity, in its fighting for rights and its denunciation of those that are different. We have the solid hope of a society where people’s identity is solid and sure, a people who can be confident yet humble, a people who love each other despite all the differences of culture, age, race, political opinions, etc. This is God’s design of the Church, are you in?
This is the second half. You can find the first half here.
Who are “The Poor”?
Jesus said: you will always have the poor among you (John 12:8). It is a simple fact that the poor will never disappear, they will always be among us until Jesus comes back. No matter how good we are as a society or church, however much we provide systems and social security nets, people will fall through them.
At Redeemer, we want to be open to the poor. We want the poor to be welcome among us. The Bible shows us consistently that both the economically poor and the spiritually poor have a special place on God’s heart: Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20).
Who then are the poor? In the Bible, these are often identified as being widows, orphans, the sick and foreigners (sojourners). We see these are used paradigmatically, you can be poor even if you do not fit neatly into these categories.
Concisely, the poor are those that are disenfranchised in our world (they experience less rights and opportunities than the rest of us even if on paper they are the same). They are the ones that find it hard to succeed in our societal context – they don’t fit into our boxes and God says they need help.
What is about these people that marks them out as needing of help? They cannot provide for their own needs: food, clothing and shelter. For example:
- – they cannot work to provide for themselves
- – they have no one to provide for them (spouse, children, parents)
- – they have no legal right to work
- – they have no legal right to benefits (bijstand)
- – they are enslaved
- – they are mentally ill
- – they are addicted to alcohol, gambling or drugs
Implicit in some of these and a central theme of poverty is the lack of relational capital. They do not know the right people. Since one of primary ways in which people get on in any culture is through who they know, not what they know or what they can do. The poor do not know anyone to give them a help economically upwards, often the only people they know are in the same situation. The poor have a real need of healthy relationships with people who are for them and not against them.
As Christians, we would also say that the primary need of all people is to have their relationship with God restored. This helps enable better and healthier relationships between people. Poverty is at its core a problem of sin, where some people are trapped in poverty by their own behaviour, and others by the behaviours of others. There are no simple answers, it is messy and not straightforward, but the God who got his hands messy calls us to do the same. Believing that in the gospel, we have the solution to sin: Jesus.
The message of the gospel is that we are all spiritually poor, without Jesus we would be all facing God’s judgement, therefore, those that are rich have no moral superiority over the poor. There are no grounds for thinking that anyone is better than anyone else – our nature is fundamentally the same. The gospel also shows a God who became poor so that we could become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). As the message of God’s self-giving impacts our hearts our attitude is changed to reflect that of God: we voluntarily make ourselves poorer so others can become richer.
What about the State?
Something that makes the discussion about poverty and helping people more nuanced in our context is the Social Security system in the Netherlands. It is one of best in the world, and therefore, when you meet someone who has fallen through this system, it may make you question the individual. Why has this person not gotten help? Why did they not qualify? Are they not really poor? May be questions that go through your head.
For those that are maybe new to the idea, the Dutch government takes large amounts of money in taxes from working individuals and businesses to support those that can not provide for themselves. This form of civic society is founded on biblical ideals and does a great deal of practical good for those in poverty. Everything from healthcare, education, sustenance and housing can be provided by the state. Those that pay taxes here, pay thousands of euros towards helping people in need every year. It could be argued that as a taxpayer you are giving your financial contribution to the poor already.
If the state does everything now, what then is the role of the church in our current time to the poor? Do we still have a mission towards the poor if we no longer can support them as well as the state can? What is the role of the individual Christian in all this? Well, there is no getting out of our responsibility towards the poor. In 1 Timothy 5:16 Paul writing to Timothy makes it clear that if possible it would fall to individual believers to care for the poor around them. Even the local church should not be burdened with people who could be supported another way, i.e. for us through family, the state, or individual believers. The local church should be there as the last resort, the place where those who cannot be helped anywhere else can find help.
Individual Christians should still be open to helping people, especially, those that cannot use the social security system because there is likely to be a deep and difficult issue at the heart of this. The self-giving love of God is at the centre of being a Christian. What practical ways can we do this then?
- – Christians should pay their taxes, therefore, contributing to the social care provided by the state (without grumbling, if possible!).
- – Christian can contribute to organisations set up with the specific care of groups in need. Many churches or even church denominations do not have the resources or skills to provide this kind of care.
- – Christians can equip themselves with knowledge about what help is available in their local area (Stichting Perspektief, Stichting Present, Voedselbank Delft, Leger des Heils)
- – Christians should be open to building relationship with those in need.
- – Christians should be wise in how they seek to serve the poor. Not everyone has the same capacity and skills.
I wanted to return to something that is thankfully very rare here in Delft, it is begging. Firstly, it is worth pointing out that poverty and begging are not the same thing. You do not have to be poor to beg and you do not need to be a beggar to be poor. Correlation does not imply causation in this case.
The goal of begging is to get money from people. As I shared before, it is often done to maximise the emotional weight of what is being said with a looseness to the truth. It is not that they are all cold-hearted liars or fraudsters (although some are), they are desperate and it takes a degree of character to act with integrity when you are desperate.
We would say, and many other groups and organisations agree, that in our context, here in the Netherlands, the giving of money to an individual begging is highly unlikely to be loving towards them. Money is merely a mediator, it is good for the exchange of goods and services, it is not in the end a need of a human being. A human being needs loving relationships, food, clothes and in some cases shelter.
It is better to provide for these needs directly than giving money which may not be used in the most helpful ways. It is hard to say there would never be a situation where giving money is appropriate, but in the vast majority of cases it would not be helpful or loving to do so. If the person will only accept money and no other forms of help, I would suggest you simply calmly and politely walk away.
Remember to keep your personal boundaries, you are in control of yourself and your property. You have the right to use them as you choose, not how any other person decides. Ignore any feelings of guilt that rise up. If you sense that you are being manipulated or lied to then remove yourself from the conversation or bring it up (depending on the context and how safe you feel).
With all that said, one of the best things you can do, if you want to, is to build a relationship with the person. Giving and sharing out of an existing relationship is much likely to bear longer term fruit.
If you would like to do something specifically for homeless people, you can put together a package that is going to be helpful for them. Get a waterproof bag and place some of the following items in it.
Any individually wrapped snack or drink:
- – Breakfast bars, cereal bars, granola bars, protein bars (graanrepen)
- – Single-packaged nuts and trail mix (notenmix)
- – Rookworst
- – Hard fruit
- – Coffee
- – Bottled water
Grooming and hygiene products:
- – Combs (kammen)
- – Hand lotion, Lip balm (lippenbalsem)
- – Sanitary wipes (doekjes)
- – Soap (zeep)
- – Hand sanitizer (handdesinfecterend middel)
- – Toothbrush and toothpaste (tandenborstel en tandpasta)
Other useful items:
- – Plastic cutlery (plastiek bestek)
- – Sunscreen (zonnecreme)
- – Resealable bags (hersluitbare tassen)
- – Mints (muntjes)
For those that are interested in finding out more about this topic, we can recommend to you the following books written by those within our family of churches. These are based on a slightly different context to the Netherlands, but many of the underlying principles still apply.
A Church for the Poor, Martin Charlesworth & Natalie Williams
The Myth of the Undeserving Poor, Martin Charlesworth & Natalie Williams
We live in a rich country, in a rich part of the world and being faced with poverty or people begging in the midst of the wealth of Western Europe, and especially in the Netherlands, can be quite confronting to us – as it is fortunately quite alien. There are often feelings of confusion over how to act, guilt over the little we can do, and more than a small sense of helplessness. What is our responsibility before God? What could we, should we do to help?
Our responsibility as a Christian, as a person who follows Jesus, is to act as he did in love. To love your neighbor as yourself out of compassion (Mark 12:31). A set of rules, is therefore, very hard to define. Since what is loving to one person is not loving to another and it requires wisdom, discernment, and more than a few mistakes to recognise the difference (Romans 12:2).
I distinctly remember this time when I was a new believer, eager to help, I spent some time listen to a man who was begging, he said he had no money and needed to get a train ticket to visit his son. We were quite far from the train station and I just went with him to an ATM and withdrew £40 (€45) and gave it to him.
I was a student at the time, this was a lot of money for me, and it turned out that this man was a fraudster. It was his way of making money, I came across him some time later in the city and I was furious. I had been lied to and most of my money for the week was gone, but I decided to forgive him and move on with my life. The moral to the story is, you can act out of the best intentions, and still not get it right.
It may be surprising that Jesus did not help everyone that he came across during his ministry (e.g. John 5:1-14), but he was always loving towards them ready to listen. The key is that Jesus had perfect discernment (John 2:25) and people often went away unhappy when he did not give them what they wanted, but what they needed (John 6:26-27).
Right from the outset, it is good to have some realistic expectations. You are not the Messiah, or even a mini-Messiah. You cannot help everyone who asks of you. Moreover, you should not help everyone who asks of you and sometimes your help is going to be of the “wrong kind”. Following Jesus, is often not the most popular option. In James 1:2-8 it says we should pray for wisdom, trust in faith that God gives it and follow our discernment of the situation we find ourselves in.
We should keep the perspective of faith, even if we cannot help, God is the true provider and He is able to do more in the situation than we can think or hope for if we ask Him (Ephesians 3:20). Ultimately, we need to walk with the Holy Spirit as our guide (John 16:13). We trust that He knows where and when we should be giving and helping and will place this on our hearts. Resisting the urge to act out of a sense of guilt is difficult, but as I have found in my own life that giving and helping out of compassion often results in digging deeper and with longer lasting effects. Why? Because guilt is all about you and making you feel better, whereas compassion is all about them. It builds relationship, trust and crucially restores dignity to people.
The next part of this blog, will go deeper into the topic. You can find it here.