This is Hilary Cottam in a TED talk from 2015.[i] She’s a social entrepreneur whose been thinking much of her life about how we solve some of these deep and complex social problems that have been perplexing us for some time now.
She has a new book out, called Radical Help[ii] that takes a deep dive into the welfare state and how we might remake it. As you can tell, she’s doing her work in Great Britain, and has spent most of her life in Europe and Africa exploring these questions. But I think her work speaks to our own experience in the states as well, and to the needs for many of our institutions to adapt to changing realities.
In her presentation, Cottam goes on to provide a pretty stark picture of how the system as it currently is does not serve Ella well or others in similar circumstances, but may, in fact, work to keep them imprisoned in a cycle of despair, even as the people and the institutions they serve were and continue to be well-intentioned.
Ella’s story is a compelling example of this. Cottam notes that, when she met Ella, 73 different services run out of 24 departments in one city were currently offering social services—that’s just in one city, mind you. And Ella and her partners and her children were known to most of them. And they knew the services. They were not shy about calling in help when an argument or a crisis broke out. And the home was visited on a regular basis by many professionals: social workers, youth workers, a health officer, a home tutor, and the local police.
But nothing changed. None of these well-meaning and highly-skilled visitors were making a difference—even though, by its own measures, managing these social problems cost the government more than a quarter of a million dollars per year, per family.
In her book, Cottam adds more background.[iii] After meeting Ella, she asked the city leaders if they could also introduce her to a family whose lives had been changed by their interventions. They couldn’t. Police, fire services, health services, social services, education and youth services could tell stories about how they had helped individuals navigate particular crisis, but no one was able to cite an example of a family who no longer needed help, who had been supported to grow and flourish. Indeed the system seemed to be doing just the opposite, further ensnaring people like Ella in a safety net that was meant to free them.
I am grateful for people like Cottam. She strikes me as someone who looks beyond not only our stuck systems, but our stuck conversations which seem only to wedge us more and more into two ideological prisons—each spending too much of its time blaming the other. She asks interesting questions. She trusts those of good faith around her, including the helpers—and most important of all—those our systems seek to help.
Two findings are worth a little further attention. First of all, Cottam looked more closely at the government’s cost claims.
So many hours, so well meant. And yet, ultimately futile.
Cottam captures one snapshot of an almost universal reality of our time. Our institutions all seem to be at a point of fracture and even failure. They are all being tested, and our trust in them is failing.
We’ve been talking about this for a number of years now, of course. You will remember just one of many voices—Phyllis Tickle, who more than a decade ago began to alert us to the changes that were already upon us in her books The Great Emergence[iv] and Emergence Christianity. Tickle noted how its not just religion and its institutions that are being stretched.
Every part of our lives is shifting. Intellectually, politically, economically, culturally, sociologically, religiously, psychologically—“every part of us and how we are and how we live has, to some degree, been reconfiguring over the last century…and those changes are now becoming a genuine maelstrom around us,” she wrote, back in 2012.[v] Institutions of all kinds are built around realities that no longer exist.
In her book, Cottam affirms that one of the greatest challenges is releasing ourselves from the prison of conventional thinking:
The left say that more money must be spent. Our welfare state is still comparatively cheap by international standards and therefore, they argue, more money will solve these problems. In contrast, the right claim that the welfare state is too big and too bloated, hindering the ability of individuals to stand on their own feet. Further cuts must be made, they say, and if the state stopped interfering people would do better. The diagnoses are different but the programmes for action are remarkably similar. Both sides want to focus on the money and to rearrange the institutions. Above all, they want to manage things differently.[vi]
The good news in Cottam’s story is that the institutions she was working with found the courage to try something different. Realizing that 80% of all resources were essentially supporting the system and only 20 percent the families and that in reality they were ultimately just gate-keeping and managing the lines and keeping the system in business, they agreed to reverse the ratio.
Everyone who came in contact with Ella or a family like Ella’s would spend 80 percent of their time working with the families and only 20 percent servicing the system. Even more radically, the families would lead. Their voices became primary. They would make the decision as to who among this group of seventy-something providers was in the best position to help them. And this small group of providers the family selected formed a team around them. And they even gave them a sliver of the former budget that they could spend in any way they chose.
And very quickly a relationship between the team and the workers began to grow. And even as there were, predictably, steps backwards as well as forwards, Ella completed an IT training course, she got her first paid job, her children are back in school, and the neighbors who dreaded the next disruption from Ella’s flat are now quite happy to have them around.
Cottam found what REACH and many others are discovering as they pay close attention to our current needs—to what is working and what isn’t. Relationships are the critical resource we have in solving some of our most intractable problems. And yet, relationships are all but written of by our politics and our policies, and they have not been historically factored into our institutional structures.
But we know this and we have been on the front lines of some of these changes that are seeking to trust the voices of those who struggle and suffer. And our scriptures have talked for millennia about neighborliness as a key to the foundation of human life and well-being. It’s just that we sometimes get so stuck in our patterns and routines and the systems that support them, that we lose sight of these foundational understandings.
It is neighborliness, the formation of thick relationships—relationships with connections deep and wide—that lead us from the modern prisons of loneliness and isolation at the core of so many of our challenges to the transformation that occurs in the story of Paul and Silas in prison and the girl in the prison of her enslavement, and the jailer who is caught himself in a system that threatens him at every turn so that he has no recourse, no hope, when he thinks the prisoners are gone.
And yet, as this system is shaken to its core by two followers of Jesus who see something beyond the reality that is directly in front of them, they find strength in what unites them, rather than what keeps them apart. All of these who are a equally victimized—the girl, the disciples, the jailer—are drawn together. And everything changes. They find company; they are cared for, and they commune.
Paul and Silas are the brokers of this unity in the same way that John’s Jesus imagines the church might be—perhaps especially as our institutions have lost their effectiveness. Relationships are some of the critical resources we have in solving social problems, and the church as an institution, is enfleshed by this font and its water that is shared by all, and by this table and its call to thick relationships. We are in a unique position to shake open a new reality, to gather together a new community, not just here in this place, but across the street and across the city.
When John’s Jesus says we are one, that this is the goal of the Godhead for us to know and practice this, I think he is at least saying something about the possibility of friendship, lifegiving intimacy, and mutuality as the way to peace and new life.
[i] Hilary Cottam, “Social services are broken. How we can fix them.” TEDGlobal, London. Retrieved May 31, 2019 from https://www.ted.com/talks/hilary_cottam_social_services_are_broken_how_we_can_fix_them.
[ii] Hilary Cottam. Radical Help: How We Can Remake the Relationships Between Us & Revolutionise the Welfare State. Virago, 2018.
[iii] Cottam, Hilary. Radical Help. Little, Brown Book Group. (Location 207ff), Kindle Edition.
[iv] Phyllis Tickle. The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. Baker Books, 2008.
[v] Phyllis Tickle. Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters. Baker Books, 2012, p. 25
[vi] Cottam, Hilary. Radical Help. Little, Brown Book Group. (Location 208ff), Kindle Edition.
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 † Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 † Romans 10:8b-13 † Luke 4:1-13
Possession is nine-tenths of the law. No doubt you’ve heard this adage that suggests that if you possess something, you have a stronger legal claim to owning it than someone who merely says they own it.
The doctrine allowed Floyd Hatfield to retain possession of the pig that the McCoys claimed was their property, although we can imagine it didn’t make their lives better or help to de-escalate the historic dispute between the Hatfields and McCoys.
The old saw has underlined feuds on too many school playgrounds to count. It has destroyed countless friendships. It has been front and center in disputes in U.S. history with tragic results for many of the early dwellers of these lands. It has contributed to the fire between Palestinians and Israelis, and all of their proxies, and in too many stories to tell on every continent throughout every age. The question of ownership and land is arguably at the root of every conflict, all human violence, and the climate change peril that our planet and its inhabitants are facing.
So it may interest us to note that this is something of a theme in the telling of our scriptures today.
“I’m drawn to places,” writes Eric Weiner, “that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again.”[i] He is speaking of what we’ve come to know as thin places.
Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter. The ancient Celts used the term to describe places like the wind-swept isle of Iona where Julie Kae will have an opportunity to spend some time this summer as a part of her sabbatical.
I am an avid reader of the comics. If I’ve read nothing else from the paper on a Sunday morning I will look at breaking news to see what we need to be mindful of, and I will read the comics--religiously!
Pearls Before Swine is one of my favorite comics these days, and I love how this one gets right to the heart of our stress-filled, bubbled, and too-often disconnected existence. And more to the point, I love how it gets to what is at the center of this gospel today: Love your enemies.
Or maybe it doesn’t. To imagine the person who cut you off on the freeway is your enemy is something of a stretch, isn’t it? It’s a verbal weaponization of a pretty mundane event, to imagine my neighbor on the freeway is my enemy, and not instead, someone who may be having a bad day, like I might be.
We probably shouldn’t domesticate the notion so carelessly, because there is much, much worse that is done for which we should preserve such a decisive word like enemy. In these days of Fake News, we should try to be as accurate and truthful as we possibly can.
Jeremiah 17:5-10 † Psalm 1 † 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 † Luke 6:17-26
As I was studying our texts for today, I found myself rooting around for a way to understand blessing as it is portrayed in Luke from Jesus: Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry now. Blessed are you who weep now. God is on your side.
But the more I tried to unpack this idea, the more I tried to understand how really this translates into blessing, the more stuck I got. How is it a blessing to be hungry now even if you’ll get something later? How is it blessing to weep now, simply for the promise of a laugh later? Sure, there are some ways to get at this, but they are problematic, too often approaching some twisted endorsement for suffering or persecution. And how is the promise of the Kingdom a blessing now for a poor one who has nothing and is in danger?
If I’m honest, I have to admit I don’t know the answer. I really don’t know how to understand this idea of blessing. I don’t understand how it is a blessing to be poor and to go without and to live on the edges of society. I don’t see it. I wish I did, but I don’t. Perhaps you do.
Given that, I’ve realized I’m not in a position to unpack this first part of the passage in Luke that is blunt and gritty and material and so much in contrast to the ethereal “blessed are the poor in spirit” that Jesus proclaims in Matthew.[i]
At least part of the problem, if not all, of course, is that I’m not poor. How should I expect to understand something I haven’t experienced—especially something as hard as this? And the fact is, most, if not all of us, by objective standards are not poor. If we measure ourselves and our wealth and well-being through the arc of history, this is abundantly clear. We have access to food and the basic resources needed for survival in far greater quantity and more reliably than previous generations and even more so than our pre-modern ancestors. And even if we measure ourselves in comparison to the world population as it is today, it is difficult to argue we are poor by any standard.
Isaiah 62:1-5 † Psalm 36:5-10 † 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 † John 2:1-11
So what is going on here?
Is this a story about a wedding that hasn’t been planned very well, a potential social disaster, a mother and son bickering because they don’t want their friends to be embarrassed? It could be. “Woman”--mother, why are you asking me. It’s not my time. And yet, apparently it is. Jesus’ objection seems to drown in the flow of the story as water jars are quickly filled, as an oblivious steward is astounded, and as a wedding is saved with about 400 bottles of really good wine no one accounted for.
Or maybe it’s not that at all. Maybe the party wasn’t about to collapse. Maybe this wasn’t about poor planning. It could have been even worse: a story about a poor, struggling family doing their best to pull off a celebration demanded by social customs that they could not afford. Suddenly this gift not only saves the day, but delivers them from shame.
Or, it could be that this was a celebration that was simply winding down: “When the wine had run out,” the story goes, as if this was the expectation, as if there was an understanding that all good celebrations have a closing time.
If we read it that way, this becomes gratuitous. A story about abundance for the sake of abundance—unnecessary, saving nothing, a sign, as John tells us, the “first of his signs” of a story and a savior that is so full of life that nothing will be able to hold it back—not powers or principalities, armies or political leaders. Gratuitousness, generosity, an onslaught of extravagance. There are many ways we could read this. The story does not seem to tip its hand.
This is a sign—the first of his signs, says the text. But a sign of what? What do the disciples see that makes them believe in him and sets this greater story in motion?
Isaiah 60:1-6 • Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 • Ephesians 3:1-12 • Matthew 2:1-12
I’m currently reading two books side-by-side. I don’t say that to impress you. In fact, I wouldn’t say that I planned it. Mostly, I fell into it. If I were more honest, I’d tell you that I can’t bear to read the one alone, so it is, as much as anything, a matter of survival.
The one—the hard one, the devastating one—is a book by Chris Hedges called America: The Farewell Tour. Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, formerly a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. I’ve talked about him before and about at least two of his numerous previous books. One is called War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. The self-evident title reflected on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another, Losing Moses on the Freeway, was an examination of the ten commandments as they relate to American culture. I recommend them both.
In addition to his years in the Balkans, the Americas and the Middle East, Hedges’ writing is informed by his religious education as a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School—thus the reflection he did on the commandments.
Hedges is a devastating writer. He writes in excruciating detail about the state of things, creating a provocative and difficult-to-deny indictment on where we are currently—the decay of American democracy, and perhaps even civilization itself as the common good has been sacrificed at the altar of greed. “We cannot battle racism, bigotry, and hate crimes, often stoked by the ruling elites,” he contends, “without first battling for economic justice.”[I]
1 Kings 17:8-16 † Psalm 146 † Hebrews 9:24-28 † Mark 12:38-44
Beware the comma! It can change everything.
It can be a matter of life or death.
It can be the difference between “Let’s eat, grandma,” and “Let’s eat grandma.” Or consider another sign I saw not too long ago:
“Hunters, please use caution when hunting pedestrians on the trails” …which could have benefitted from a comma so that it would suggest that one should be aware of the presence of others while hunting.
Now when it comes to our ancient biblical texts, there is an added problem. As you may know, the original texts of both the old and new testaments didn’t have commas, or really, any punctuation at all!
Isaiah 35:4-7a † Psalm 146 † James 2:1-7 † Mark 7:24-37
I had a conversation this week with a mom whose child is something of a challenge at the moment. Her description of the behaviors, the wild fluctuations between kind and crazy, tenderness and nastiness, tolerance and small-mindedness brought me back to my own days as a college student and young adult. I remember even today the struggle that raged within myself. There were times when it almost seemed like an out-of-body experience—I was angry and ugly and yet there was a more mature adult part of me that watched from the outside fully aware of a better way to be but not sure how to get there.
I hope I was helpful to the mom as I was able to reassure her this is a part of the growth from childhood to adulthood—that the work of transitioning from one to the other involves weighing the values and beliefs and perspectives we’ve inherited from our parents and other adults, evaluating them, testing them, and ultimately accepting some for ourselves, making them our own, while perhaps rejecting others.
Many developmental psychologists have spoken of this work and of the importance of creating space for this work to happen. It can be incredibly painful at times for us because, if you’re a parent of mentor, it can feel like you are being rejected, but in the long run it is what’s necessary for identify formation.
There is a sense that there’s some developmental work that Jesus is doing in this story in Mark. It’s a curious thing to consider as we play with these classical Christian notions of Jesus’ identity as both fully human and fully God.
2 Kings 4:42-44 † Psalm 145:10-18 † Ephesians 3:14-21 † John 6:1-21
In the fall of 2014 IHNFA, the Honduran Childcare services were restructured by a Honduran government that was under pressure from UNICEF and in a season of reform. It had been an open secret for some time that the majority of the IHNFA budget was enriching administrators and bureaucrats rather than serving the vulnerable and abandoned children it was charged to protect.
Many services were cut, including the government-run children’s homes and some of its foster programs. This created its own challenges in a country of 8.5 million people in which 138,000 are already without a home and more than 1 million are housing insecure.
St. Andrew Sermons