I watched a pretty good film the other day called, surprise surprise, ‘Bread & Roses’ and it is about mostly poor Hispanic cleaners in Los Angeles USA fighting for their rights, better pay and health care against employers who couldn’t care less, and also the story is about how other people are exploiting them too, and they even squeeze in a love story as well. I enjoyed it to be honest. It made me think of the menial jobs both my parents did when I was younger; my dad worked at various times as a navvy, basically an unskilled labourer, fixed street lighting, worked as a chef, a bus conductor and even did national service, what Americans call ‘the draft’, and served his time in Cyprus when there was trouble there in the 50’s and also a stint in Jordan around the same time. Not all bad jobs by any means but mostly Working class. My mum worked in a big department store at one time and then cleaned pub toilets at another. I suppose for one reason I have had chunks of unemployment in my life, partially due to bouts of severe depression in my life, even though I did get educated. I have come to the understanding that no one wants, or deserves, to be ruthlessly exploited by other people, especially if those doing the exploiting are making lots of money at the expense of those who they are exploiting, and usually for low wages in dead end jobs with no security or real benefits of any kind. It is not about politics, it about fairness and social justice; it is also a moral issue too. If someone claims to be a Christian, and then happily accepts that someone can work for a criminally low wage whilst they themselves are making a fortune, how then is that manifesting a love for your neighbour? It isn’t quite frankly, it is just hypocrisy of the worst kind.
I’ve struggled all my life with low self-worth, for one reason or another. Always felt for this reason or that I was somehow less than other people, no confidence at all in who I was, whoever I was. Why, I can’t really say; not fully anyway. If I have a calling on my life, and how can anyone really understand that or explain that to someone else, then surely that should mean something. Coming from a Working class background could account for some of it, but certainly not all. Many people have Working class and Blue Collar backgrounds, it’s not an uncommon experience at all. We were poor, but not in any way really deprived; no it’s more than that. The house we lived in was a slum, no more or less; no bathroom, no electric sockets, one bedroom for the whole family, one crappy living room doubling as a kitchen, no fridge, TV run off the light socket, a roof that leaked in about eight places when it rained, a loft that had pigeons living in it and to top it all an outside toilet; don’t ask what we had to do if we needed to ‘spend a penny’ in the middle of the night! But even that wasn’t so bad, because for the most part I feel I had an idyllic childhood. You don’t think about such things as a kid, everything that happens or the way you live is just normal to you; only when you meet other people you see that you were ‘deprived’ somewhat or even ‘privileged’ or whatever. So then what can it all mean, we’re all different anyway, all often very different experiences, different ancestors, different stories to tell, not one of us is a stereotype, we are all different people; and yet at the same time, we are all only human. So, back to the story. Perhaps it’s then that I suffered with bouts of at times severe depression from my late teens till I was about thirty. That didn’t help matters to be honest and the subsequent unemployment. But is it something more than all this? If I can’t answer this it’s unlikely anyone else can. But something within me tells me that when I started to be aware of other kids’ affluence that I started to feel deprived in some way, and in another way I was a quiet kid too; sometimes. At other times I was a cheeky, funny, trusting kid who tended, and still do at times, to take people at face value and had a tendency to believe what anyone said; I soon found out that even the nicest people can lie, even if just to amuse themselves. So, is my low self-worth something deeper, is it something that is because of my poor background, or my ‘lower’ class background, or my depression, or what?
If I was transported back to America in the 50’s when Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker was playing in a nightclub in some glamorous or even down at heel downtown big city club, and drinking some great tequila, I’d wonder if I was in a dream, and if I was, just don’t wake me up! American culture represents two contradictory realities; one, a hard-assed, hard-nosed, totally profit oriented reality, and often always combined with the other, an artistic, completely free pursuit of the artistic muse for its own sake that can’t be faked. So we see that with Jazz for example, something which was an underground, sometimes underclass African-American musical expression of their lifestyle, a lifestyle that was different from the mainstream Middle class white experience, becomes an accepted American art form that transforms American society and then a global art form that helps change the world.
What does a calling from God really mean? ‘'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you came to birth I consecrated you; I appointed you as prophet to the nations.'’ (Jeremiah 1:5 NJB) It is obvious that when we start to understand God’s calling on our lives, however that comes about and however we become aware of it, it is something that goes beyond our understanding. But, it must have bearing on our lives, perhaps slowly at first, but eventually completely. I have learnt this the hard way. Does it mean that we are better than other people or that somehow we are more holy than other people? Well I’m not anyway, and I am certainly not particularly holy or religious for that matter either. Read this: ‘Then since the gifts that we have differ according to the grace that was given to each of us: if it is a gift of prophecy, we should prophesy as much as our faith tells us; if it is a gift of practical service, let us devote ourselves to serving; if it is teaching, to teaching; if it is encouraging, to encouraging. When you give, you should give generously from the heart; if you are put in charge, you must be conscientious; if you do works of mercy, let it be because you enjoy doing them.’ (Romans 12:6-8 NJB) It is then that God picks us because He gives us spiritual gifts to use wisely and as part of that calling, especially for the benefit of other people. ‘For the Son of man himself came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:45 NJB) Our calling then is not a selfish one, or to make us look good or feel that we are better than anyone else, because we are not quite simply, but to serve others and to serve God.
What does ordinary mean? What does special mean? I am a big fan of Jimi Hendrix, and although he came from a very fractured and poor background where his dad was often out of work and when he did work it was low paid, and because he was black the employment laws in Seattle meant that black people were kept out of all kinds of jobs, and only the most menial and low paying jobs were open to them, Jimi was one of the most talented musicians and performers and one of the most creative composers in rock and pop, in spite of the fact he grew up in poverty and reduced circumstances. He was ordinary, his background was similar to many poor black people and poor white people of that time, in fact it was when things were slowly beginning to change for poor black and white people, but he was extraordinary at the same time, his talent and genius lifting him out of poverty and obscurity to then becoming, and still now, one of the most famous people on the planet. Then we could look at someone like an aristocrat of some kind, who more often than not may not be very accomplished, not particularly bright, not overly talented but still somehow be seen as special. But, are they? And who says so? In some ways, regardless of talents or accomplishments or lack of them, I feel all people are special and certainly unique, and in other ways we are all ordinary, we do mundane things, we all for the most live mundane lives and have to do normal things whoever we are. We are all extraordinarily ordinary.
Does anything we do, anything we eat, anything we say, anything at all we experience really matter? As long as something happens we all seem happy enough. Was it fish and chips you ate, or the most expensive chateaubriand steak with everything else just right and the finest wine you could afford? Does it matter anyway? Your belly is full whatever you ate. Does any of it really matter after all? Saint Paul said this about the subject, or thereabouts: ‘I know how to live modestly, and I know how to live luxuriously too: in every way now I have mastered the secret of all conditions: full stomach and empty stomach, plenty and poverty. There is nothing I cannot do in the One who strengthens me.’ (Philippians 4:12-13 NJB)