Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Spaces of encounter, vulnerability and pausing

I recently shared my PhD work with a group of clergy. It was great to get some encouraging, stretching responses, energising the next steps of the journey. But one of the most precious gifts of that encounter was being pointed to a poem by R.S. Thomas, which in Thomas' raw, sparse choice of words, evokes a space of encounter, vulnerability, and pausing - painfully necessary in the world that we find ourselves living in today.


They keep me sober,
The old ladies
Stiff in their beds,
Mostly with pale eyes
Wintering me.
Some are like blonde dolls,
Their joints twisted;
Life in its brief play
Was a bit rough.
Some fumble
With thick tongue for words
And are deaf;
Shouting their faint names
I listen:
They are far off,
The echoes return slow.

But without them,
Without the subdued light
Their smiles kindle,
I would have gone wild,
Drinking earth’s huge draughts
Of joy and woe.

R.S. Thomas 1913-2000
The Echoes Return Slow. 1988, London: Macmillan, p.63.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Why #Listen?

"Someone's crying, Lord..."

Someone's crying... in anxiety... in suffering... with longing... with hope... with possibility...

Someone's crying, in isolation, longing to be heard.

We all need 'a good listening to'.

Listening builds understanding and empathy between people.

Listening establishes real, lived evidence, challenging and undermining our own prejudices and those of others. It builds an authority, a rooted, shared authority - a foundation from which we can speak and act.

Listening bridges divides, and builds relationships of trust, friendship and power-through-connectedness.

Listening interrupts our hurry into action, disturbs our 'instinctive responses', comfortable patterns, and what we think we know we should do. It shapes and energises 'good', careful, attentive action.

Listening 'hears to speech' those things and people that have not been heard, or have even been silenced. Listening ushers in the 'new thing', the 'outsider', the 'hidden'. Listening unlocks gifts and unleashes possibility.

And as listening 'hears others to speech', it empowers them as new 'hearers' in turn. Listening builds a movement for change.

That's why we listen.

(Reflection offered at Citizens UK in Birmingham Founding Assembly, 25/4/13)

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Children, Community & Sustainability in tough times (Part 2)

In Part 1, I outlined our 'instinctive' approaches - shaped by our current social and political climate and its dominant language of 'austerity', 'scarcity', anxiety and fear - to children, being human, 'community' and, particularly for voluntary organisations, 'sustainability'. Now I want to 'shift the focus', change the language, tell a different story - that might just shape a different, practical approach.

(If you're one of those, dear reader, whose natural instinct, when faced with apparently 'religious' language, is to get cross and/or turn off - I beg of you a little bit of patience - I'm not, by any means, suggesting that Christianity has, or is, 'the answer' to all our problems - I am simply starting the journey again from where I am - where we go, I hope you might find interesting, promising even.)

Shifting the Focus
"Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.
       He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’
       Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’" (Mark 9:33-37)
This little story, right in the centre (the 'hinge', even) of Mark's gospel, is, I want to suggest, a big clue. Jesus' disciples, his followers, have been arguing: about who is the 'greatest'. They are anxiously competitive - it is as if 'greatness' is a scarce commodity that they desperately need some of - as much as possible, in fact. Suspicion, pre-emption, accumulation - all the 'core principles' of the 'fear business' are at work here.

So what does Jesus do? First, he sits down. Not as insignificant as it might seem. This is to be no stand-up row. Jesus presses the 'pause' button, he creates a 'breathing space', some 'time out' from the pressures of the economy of scarcity for reflection, face-to-face conversation. He diffuses the anxiety in the air.

And then... Then, he takes a little child, and places her or him 'among them' - in the centre. He shifts the focus, changes the conversation, points to a different centre around which thinking and talking and responding might be re-organised. And this 'different centre' is 'a little child' - in Jesus' society, quite literally a 'nobody' - one of the 'least', most marginal, most insignificant. And around this centre, Jesus weaves a new economy...

  • It is a 'bottom-up' economy where it is 'the nobodies', first and foremost, who are understood to be of divine value.
  • It is an 'abundant' economy - because there are more than enough 'nobodies' around, no scarce supply - and 'nobodies' who bring a wealth of gifts previously unseen and unimagined!
  • It is a non-competitive economy, because it is not about 'who is the greatest', but simply 'whoever'.
  • And it is a hospitable economy, because the 'way in' is not through accumulation of status (or money, or whatever), but through the simple practice of welcoming...

"People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them:
      ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’
      And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. " (Mark 10:13-16)
A different response: CHILDREN

These two 'little stories' together paint a very different picture of 'what a child is' - economically, emotionally, socially and politically, morally and spiritually - to that of the 'dominant story' we explored in Part 1. Here, we discover children as:
  • God-given gifts - not 'burdens' or 'commodities'
  • Made in God's image, so 'fully human' - not 'non-adults' but, 'in it together with us'
  • 'Companion disciples' - like us adults, caught up in what we sometimes call 'sin', neither 'innocent' nor 'feral', but bound up with us in dynamics and structures that dehumanise, alienate, induce shame and fear... but understanding this 'caught-up-ness' not as requiring 'punishment', but 'discipleship' - so again, like us adults, and with us adults, learning to 'fall and get up, fall and get up' (as a monk once described the way of faith), learning to detach ourselves from our addictions, learning patiently how to love and live for others...
  • Among 'the least', so, in fact, 'the greatest' - as 'the least' in the economy of scarcity, signs of - judgments on- the state of the world as it is, and how we treat the world's most vulnerable; as 'the greatest' in the new economy, signs of divine presence, objects of our reverence, care and service
  • Agents, teachers, hosts, 'model citizens' of this 'new economy' that Jesus calls 'the kingdom of God' - not 'blank sheets' or 'empty vessels' to be filled, but innately spiritual, and instinctive, natural leaders and subversives who might just - if we pay attention - show us how to live in the economy of abundance ('unless you change and become like...'). 'Play' is one of the vital clues here - but we'll come back to that a little later.
Just some local 'snippets' to ground these ideas...

Firstly, our 'Good Childhood Conversations', facilitated by the Children's Society in one of our local secondary schools, and down at 'The Hub' on our estate, listened to hundreds of local children talking about 'what all children and young people need for a good life', 'what sops children and young people having a good life', and 'what could be changed to make life better for all children and young people'. The earthed 'practical wisdom' gathered in their responses is still feeding our planning and visioning a year on - and they are conversations we're committed to continuing.

Secondly, the 'Youth Know Your Neighbourhood' programme we've developed here has helped young people to map and photograph their neighbourhood, gather statistical information about it, visit local institutions and interview key 'community leaders', with the aim of gathering hopes and dreams, challenges and frustrations, wisdom and possibilities, not just for 'places and provision for young people' locally, but for the common good of the neighbourhood as a whole. These young people have developed their skills and potential as community leaders - not just of the future, but of the present.

And thirdly, the 'Bromford Dreams' cube, an amazing collaboration with international graffiti artist Mohammed 'Aerosol' Ali, enabled some of our local lads who are sometimes labelled 'NEET', seen as being right on the 'edges' of community and society, to give expression not just to their experiences of alienation, but to a profound 'earthed spirituality', crossing divisions of faith and culture, with bold proclamations: 'no struggle - no progress', 'value life' and 'more than money'...

A different response: 'COMMUNITY'

"It takes a village to raise a child", we say (although we're often not very good at practising it). But we discover too that it takes a child to grow a community. With our 'shift in focus', taking an imaginative leap into an economy not of scarcity but abundance, we discover communities like my own not as 'deprived', 'needy', and 'broken', but as places of profound giftedness. As we learn to discover the giftedness of little children and the other 'least ones', we begin to unearth the heart-passions, the head-knowledge, the hand-skills of our neighbours. We discover that our communities have within them the gifts they need to nurture and 'raise' our children, to care for our elderly, to create safe environments around us, to enable all of us to be healthy and flourishing. The language in the business (and we're talking the 'abundance business' now, which is far from 'business' in any conventional sense) is 'Asset-Based Community Development' - it's as easy as ABCD...!

We discover also, in the new economy, that 'community' can be a place generous enough, hospitable enough, to even include us, the 'professionals', the 'outsiders' - so long as we are willing to let go of the baggage of 'providing services' and 'meeting needs' that so often encumbers us, and discover a way of working - a way of being, in fact - that is much more about 'forging solidarities', or even, simply, 'making friends'. If we do so dare, though, we discover the possibility of co-opting the insidious political language about community, and re-framing it within the new economy: we discover 'community' as a place that embraces (and where we can embrace) our own 'troubledness' (a deep-in-the-gut 'troubledness' we see in the Jesus of the gospels when he is moved to compassion, and even anger); and also our own 'brokenness' - our individual brokenness as a gift to share and to connect us with others, and our brokenness as communities and society, as an invitation for reconciliation, rather than 'fixing'.

A different response: BEING HUMAN

'Whoever does not receive... like a little child...' says Jesus. We discover, in this new economy, an insight which those who are described as having 'disabilities' (physical or intellectual), and those who spend time in their company, know all too well: that “despite our tendencies to value autonomy, freedom and independence, the empirical evidence is that human beings are dependent on one another in all things, even to become persons: ‘I am because we are.” (John Swinton, ‘Who is the God we worship?’)

Embracing our dependence and interdependence, then, we begin to practise something that we might call receptivity. It is, perhaps, the very opposite of the 'initiatives' and 'strategies' that we are so plagued by, from governments, and within our voluntary organisations (and churches!). To repeat a description I've used again and again in this blog, we're talking about learning the art of 'over-accepting':
“In improvised jazz, the musicians in the group are practised at listening carefully to each other. Anything any of the musicians play we might call an ‘offer’ – a snippet of tune, a clever harmony, even a wrong note or two. And the other musicians make choices, in every moment: to ‘block’ an offer – ignore it, write it off as a mistake, or simply pursue their own thread of music unaffected by the other musicians; or to ‘accept’ an offer – to echo it, develop it, creatively run with what they’ve heard from their fellow musicians to make something more of it. The best improvisers are those with the daring and creativity to ‘overaccept’ all offers – to take even what might have been a mistake or a crashing discord, and develop into something musically new, different, beautiful, exciting.”
 I'll illustrate the idea of 'over-accepting' in a moment, but there's one more dimension of 'being human' in this 'new economy' that I want to highlight first.

A different response: 'SUSTAINABILITY'

Learning a different approach to children, to 'community' and to 'being human', the question of sustainability inescapably becomes: sustainability for whom? For us as organisations? Or for the communities we claim to 'serve'? I am reminded of the powerful, challenging words of Aboriginal women activists from Australia in the 1970s:
“If you have come here to help us, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with ours, then let us work together.”
If our liberation is truly bound up with those in the communities in which, with which, we work - if we are not in the 'meeting needs' business but in the 'forging solidarities' business - then I suggest we as organisations, as professionals, as workers, ditch the kind of competitive, scarcity-economy 'sustainability' practices of suspicion, accumulation and pre-emption, for the 'abundant-economy' practice of being overwhelmed. David Ford, who introduced us to the idea of 'multiple overwhelmings' in Part 1, goes on to suggest this:
“the wisest way to cope [with being multiply overwhelmed] is not to try to avoid being overwhelmed, and certainly not to expect to be in control of everything; rather it is to live amidst the overwhelmings in a way that lets one of them be the overwhelming that shapes the others. That is the “home” or “school” in which the practicalities of coping can be learnt.” (David Ford, The Shape of Living, p.xxv)
I want to suggest that we need to learn four dimensions of 'being overwhelmed', which will then shape our responses to all the other overwhelmings we're facing now and in the future:
  1. Being overwhelmed by STRANGERS - practising hospitality but also learning to receive it; discovering that those we once called 'service users' or even 'customers' can actually (need to actually) become 'friends'; and learning the vulnerable, costly, power-yielding art of working in partnership
  2. Being overwhelmed by GIFTS - practising gratitude, and discovering that the gifts are all around us; learning the art of generosity, and especially of throwing a good feast; and re-learning (taught by our children, often) the habits of joy, laughter, and play
  3. Being overwhelmed by BROKENNESS - our own and our neighbours - finding our guts stirred with compassion, our hearts fired towards solidarity; 'hearing to speech' the laments, and placing our bodies in the places of protest
How are these working out in Hodge Hill?

'Hodge Hill Unsung Heroes' invited local people to nominate friends, neighbours, local workers, as 'unsung heroes' who'd shown compassion, generosity, trust, friendship and hope in who they were, or what they did. We were overwhelmed with nominees - 97 in all - and gathered them all together for a party, with food, drink, and awards presented by the Lord Mayor. We shared their stories, and asked each of them: 'if you could find 2 or 3 other people to join you, what would you start in your neighbourhood?' Strangers became friends, feasting and laughter abounded, we were overwhelmed by people's gifts, and the energy of (and indeed the left-over money from) the event overflowed into new connections, new ventures, in the months that followed: a Nigerian Independence Day event and a little catering business; a local theatre group who've already done a panto and a Passion Play (more of that in a moment); to name but two...

'Open Door' is a weekly, volunteer-run 'drop-in' on a Saturday morning, for a couple of hours. People might be sent from the Job Centre, or just wandered past, and we can help them write CVs, access the internet, search for jobs. But much more importantly, when they come in through the open door they are met with a smile, a warm welcome, a cup of tea and some toast - and a fellow-human being who is not interested in what they haven't got, but in what they have. Our first conversations at Open Door are about people's passions, gifts, knowledge and practical skills. The kind of stuff that might be on their CVs - but often, in fact, stuff they'd never dreamed of mentioning, but in fact comes to the heart of what meaningful, worthwhile activity looks like for them. And out of Open Door we're just developing Time Banking - linking up people's skills and offers of time, with other people's needs - building relationships, drawing out people's gifts, affirming their dignity, growing community, getting things done, and... living out a different kind of economy, where all have gifts aplenty, and an hour of one person's time is valued equally with an hour of someone else's.

Our community lunches are a monthly thing, again with an open door to all-comers - workers and residents, young and old, of all faiths and none - to come together, bring and share and eat and drink and talk and laugh together. And just a little bit of 'work' together: each month, we invite people to think about the things, the people, the gifts, the moments that they are thankful for. Not - at least in this space - the moans and the grumbles and the struggles. There's sometimes a short pause while people think. But every time, the flood gates seem to open, and one thing comes out after another. For friends and family. For opportunities. For a new day. For good-enough health. For neighbours. For sunshine. And on it goes...

And lastly, the Passion Play. I've written here already about how it came about, and how it turned out, but for me it is one of our best examples of letting ourselves be overwhelmed by the gifts of our neighbours - of a stranger turned friend; of engaging in a riskily creative partnership; of deep, mutual generosity; of play and exploration; of much laughter; of giving voice to some of the laments of an estate which, deep in its collective memory, has felt abandoned time and time again; and of discovering, in the ashes, a sense of hope and possibility which, even in its fragility, is just as overwhelming - and shapes and energises our journey onwards from the crucifixion scene under the pillars of the M6.

Which leads me to one last dimension of our 'being overwhelmed'...

4. Being overwhelmed by THIS PLACE, THESE PEOPLE

Remember the words of the Aboriginal activists: “If you have come here to help us, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with ours, then let us work together.”

'Sustainability' is ultimately a concern not for our own organisations, but for the community or communities we have committed ourselves to. In another 'dark age', another age of 'multiple overwhelmings', St Benedict created monastic communities shaped by three vows: 'stability', 'obedience' and 'conversion'.

'Stability', first of all, meant committing to this place, these people, for life. And letting our commitment to this place, these people, shape everything that we do and decide. Here in Hodge Hill, whenever we have recruited a new worker, we've asked them, in the clearest possible terms, to consider moving to live here - to see the 'offer' not just as a job, but as a life-commitment - to put down roots, get to know neighbours, make friends, raise children here, use the local shops, and so on. On Friday nights, a growing group of us meet together, with our kids, to eat and talk and pray (very simply) together - to feast and light candles and laugh and cry together. Into the future, we're longing / hoping / praying to find a house locally that we can develop for people to come and live in, to work (either paid or as a volunteer) locally, to build relationships of trust and friendship with their neighbours, and to offer a place of hospitality, sanctuary, listening and prayer - meeting people at points of need, maybe, but a place committed to discovering, unlocking, and being overwhelmed by the gifts of those who come across the doorway.

'Obedience' for Benedict meant, at root, listening to each other, attentively, carefully. And 'conversion', rather than something that happens in a moment, was a lifelong journey of surprise, change and growth. Benedictine communities were - and are - places of sanctuary, solidarity, support and spirituality.

This is the kind of 'sustainability' that we aspire to here in Hodge Hill. It can be one of the most valuable - if often well hidden! - gifts the local church has to rediscover, and offer, to the wider neighbourhood. It is lived out from day to day in natural, un-forced inter-generational relationships; in spaces for both conversation and silence; in moments to enter into awe and wonder; in opportunities for thanksgiving, generosity and liberation from 'stuff'; in spaces that offer enough safety to be able to take risks, to grieve and fail, and to discover hope and forgiveness; in doorways into a different economy, where power is turned inside-out and upside-down, where there is both time and space to rest, to grow trust, to feast and - most importantly - to play. No less than the great 20th C theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher said "children play - adults practise". What he meant, I think, is that we adults are all too often obsessed with results, with goals, with objectives, with targets. We think meaningful activity needs to have a purpose beyond itself (Liz Truss's recent comments about pre-school provision being an excellent example). Children know a different wisdom: play is an end in itself - we play for its own sake, for its own delight. As we re-learn to play, we find ourselves wandering straight into the 'new economy' - that which Jesus sometimes calls 'the kingdom of God'...