Back in 1986 my home town won the award of being the most deprived area in the European Union. We were all a bit upset about that because we all thought it should have gone to the next valley over Merthyr, which we all thought was far worse than us. Justice was served the following year when Aberdare came thrid with Merthyr winning and some awful place in France coming second.
Growing up in a post industrial area like Aberdare or Stoke makes you think that you know something about poverty. When I was a student I lived in a run down house with some mates spending as little as possible on food and heating. We lived like this so I would have more money for beer. Again living like that made us all feel very poor.
That was until I spent some time in Calcutta working in development projects. We would spend some time in the slums working with the kids and then for lunch the people would give us more food than anyone else. You knew that our lunch was more than any of the people would eat all day, yet they still gave it to us. Over the time I spent there I realised that I had more than these people earned in a year in my money belt. It was only a few hundred quid in my money belt, enough for a few months abroad, but to those I worked with I was rich beyond imagining. Yet they still gave us lunch and a big lunch everyday.
Then in Birmingham I worked with some nuns for a homeless project. I would chat to the men there and play cards and chess with them. It wasn’t unusual to be offered a cigarette off one of the homeless blokes. That’s not a big deal we might think, but that was all they literally own and they gave it away.
Being from Aberdare I often thought of myself as poor, from the wrong part of the country and the wrong part of town. It is only when I stepped out of that world that I saw how much I actually had and gave a true perspective on how I lived.
There are many things that we feel that we cannot live without, essentials we call them. Going to places like India and the streets of Birmingham enables us to realise what is essential and what is not. Every year the list of things that are essential grows and grows. Yet the reality of what is essential actually remains the same.
Working in India and sometimes even in Market Drayton makes me realise that even on an income lower than the national average I am rich.
The opposite is also true. In Mirfield a friend of mind was a barrister before we trained for the priesthood. After his ordination service we went to the party put on by his friend. It was held in this loft apartment in London and in the bathroom was the bar. Seems a bit strange to have the bar in the bathroom, but what he had done was fill the bath half full with ice. Layered on top of the ice were loads of champagne bottles. After leaving that party we all felt very poor indeed.
What all this shows is that how poor or rich we actually are has little to do with the reality and more to do with how we feel about money.
Jesus shows this in the parable of the widow’s mite. It is the widow who gives the most even though it appears that she has given the least. The rich feel very pleased with themselves as they have given so much. But as a proportion of their total wealth they have given very little.
What is hard to see at first is that the single ciggy given by the homeless man or the lunch given in the Indian slum is far more than the bath full of champagne. Jesus tells us that generosity is about attitude not about material amounts. The strange paradox is that the more that we have the less we feel we have. Statistics show time and again it is the poorest who give the most as a proportion of their income.
The more that we have the less we feel we can do without what we have. Perhaps one way that I have failed here in Christ Church is that I haven’t talked about money, almost at all. In my interview for the job I was asked how often I would talk about money. I said once a year or when it comes up in the readings. That is something that I haven’t done, I know because I went back and checked.
One of the things we always believe about the church is that they are always after money and that they always ask for it. We all believe this, it’s a sort of cultural myth we accept without thinking. Perhaps that is why I haven’t talked about money very much. Because I in a strange way believe that I’m always talking about it even when I’m not.
The Gospel talks about money a lot or perhaps a better way of looking at it is that the Gospel talks about generosity a lot. The Christmas story is one of both meanness and generosity. There was no room in the inn, those of Jesus own people did not have any room in their homes or their hearts for him. Yet it was the foreigners from the East, the Wise men who brought the gifts.
At this time of year we are bombarded by messages telling us to buy things that we don’t need. Our lives are full of things that we buy but did we really need them? Perhaps the best tonic for the Christmas spending rush, is the realisation that we have so much. If that is we compare ourselves to those who truly have little. In our society it is easy to lose perspective and see what we want not what we need.
Christmas is the story of the amazing generosity of God. The God who makes himself poor for us all. Our prayer this year can be that we will have that same heart of generosity to others. Seeking what we need and not what we are told that we need by the TV. Then we will have a more joyful Christmas and one of greater meaning that is offered by our world.
Fr Hywel Snook, Parish Priest