Meeting Half-Way (or, Not the Messiah)

The beautiful Christian faith community that I’ve been a part of for over a decade had its very last service of worship last night. There was a sense that the community itself contained something good and rare and precious, but somehow the form in which we met was inhibiting those things. So we’re taking a break. And in a few weeks we’ll re-gather, but this time to share a meal. We’ve been uncertain about a lot of things, but one thing we still believe is that God will meet us when we meet together to eat.

My worshipping community brought together a delightful assortment of people. It was one of the things that kept us coming, but also one of the things that sometimes kept us away! All of us had our struggles; all of us were very needy. Perhaps some brought their needs to bear on the community more than others.

We all have our needs. My question, which I’ve been asking everybody about lately (in one permutation or another) is this: “How do we mutually support one another, in all our needs?” I’ve been wanting to know how we can resist our communities being made up of some people who are the rescuers, and others who are the rescued. I've blogged about this kind of thing before, but I still haven't got there. 

I was pondering this question when I went out to Yarraville to have afternoon tea with my friend Gregory. Gregory is also a member of my worshipping community, and we met the day before the final service.

Gregory is a wonderfully blasphemous person who heckles people up the front in church. I sipped my tea and he drank his vanilla milkshake, and I asked him a variation on my question about mutuality. 

Gregory said, “Do you want to meet my Muslim friends at the fish ‘n’ chip shop?”

We wandered down. Gregory’s Muslim friend was lowering bits of potato into the deep fryer. “Tom, this is my Jesus friend, Andreana,” he said.

Gregory and Tom joked around for a while, and we ordered deep fried dim sims. After a bit we sat down in the plastic seats facing the counter, and Gregory showed me a poster that was sticky taped to the side of the Coke fridge. On it were some photos of an older, slightly overweight woman who gave the impression of having had an interesting life. In each of the photos she had her arm around someone. Some handwritten words on the poster said something like, “We miss you so much." 

“That’s Michelle,” said Gregory. “She used to go around the streets talking to everyone, and often she would be mouthing off and hurling abuse. But everybody loved her. She had a really warm, fun personality. Sometimes I used to sit with her at a café, having drinks together. She was a really funny person to be around, but she died of a heart attack recently.”

“Here you go,” said Tom, handing a white package over the counter.

“My shout this time,” I said to Gregory, because he had got our drinks before.

“No, take it, just take it,” said Tom, and shooed us out of the shop.

Because I’m a bit slow, and “edu-ma-cated” as Gregory put it, I needed him to be explicit about how he does these mutually life-giving relationships. “I just go half-way,” he said.

Just go half-way. I think part of what Gregory means is that he doesn’t try to rescue people. He just meets them, human-to-human, at a point on the road where neither is giving or taking any more than the other. He seems to be able to just appreciate people, without trying, for example, to convert them, or to reform them. He just likes them.

By only going half way, you give the other the opportunity to come and meet you. You have a deeply mutual, humanising experience.

For now, this will be my starting point. Just go half-way. The issue with going further is that you risk de-humanising the other person by turning them into a problem. And you risk de-humanising yourself by turning yourself into a saviour.

And yet sometimes, we are not able to travel very far to meet others. In those moments, our needs outweigh what we can give. Some of us spend a lot of time in that space, usually because the world has treated us unjustly. We are wounded, and have little to give.

For those of us who need to be carried, there is the community of Christ. The church cares for those of us who are struggling because it is called to be a place of healing. It’s a matter of justice, in what is an unjust world.

The key is that we do it together. We spread the load of our needs amongst us.

Some of us are called to journey more closely with those who have little to give. But when we are called to give in this way, we must resist the urge to de-humanise: to paint one as the rescuer and the other as the rescued. In the end, we are all in need of rescue, and God is the saviour, not us.

Even when, in that particularly moment and context, we cannot meet another half-way and decide to give more than we will receive, we must always, always be open to the gift they may give. That is the essence of a shared humanity.

So as we go our own ways, and come together in a few weeks to share a meal, that’s how I hope our Christian faith community will relate to one-another. To expect to meet each other half-way on the road, and walk side-by-side. To spread our needs amongst us, for the sharing of the load. To discern carefully as to whether to we are called, in this particular relationship, to give more than we can receive. And to always, always be open to the gift another might have to give.

To do this is to be fully human, and to be fully human is to experience something of the essence of Christ. 

Thanks for giving me an ego, God

Here’s a funny thought. God created an entire cosmos, and then created me in God’s image.

Is there any wonder that I have a bit of an ego?

As a species, we have an inbuilt drive to create universes: to birth them, to build them, to nurture them, to heal them. And yet, it is this God-given creative impulse that is wound up in our tendency to build universes – empires – that dominate and destroy. In our desire to create, we can forget who created us.

We are at our best when we are co-creators. Good work is spurred on by our inbuilt desire to birth, build, nurture and heal, but is ultimately a partaking in the creative and restorative ways of God. 

It’s a dance between Self and God – refusing to quash Self; submitting my moves to the Dance Partner. 

Long-lost blog comments found

The best thing just happened to me.

I was poking my way around the back end of my blog website, and I found a whole pile of comments awaiting moderation, which I never new existed. It felt like this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I just thought that nobody ever commented! But I love blog comments (especially the really nice, affirming ones).

Apologies if you thought I was ignoring you. I really wasn't. I was just being oblivious. 

And thanks for your comments - I really really appreciate you engaging with my work! And that applies even when you are providing a critical response, which is equally valid and in fact appreciated, because it means we are having a dialogue (if I see it, that is).

I went through and approved the comments, and even replied to some. If you get a response to a comment you make in November 2011, this is why.

Anyway, thank you. I feel most encouraged. 

Creating community on the Edges of Things

I have often been proud of the fact that I have tended to prioritise relationships with people who are on the Edges of Things – you know, the non-Kool Kats, the Out-Group, the generally Marginalised and Despised. 

This I have put down to my own experiences of being on the Edge of Things, at various stages in my life. After all, I know how it feels, and so why wouldn’t I draw from my own pain to help others feel included?

How very noble of me.

It has dawned on me recently, however, that my drive towards inclusion is a little more nuanced and a little less holy than the above stated rationalisation. My motivation for building relationships and community with people on the Edges of Things is partly because I feel passionately that all people need a place to belong. But perhaps more significantly, it turns out that I need a place to belong.

When you feel excluded by the Kool Kats, you have one of two choices: (1) try to get the Kool Kats to like you; and (2) forget about the Kool Kats, and start your own club.

Trying to get the Kool Kats to like you is hard work, rarely works, and is thus depressed and demoralising. I learnt a while ago to screw Option 1.

So that leaves Option 2. Start your own club! Make yourself into a Kool Kat! This is an excellent idea, because not only are you no longer on the Edges of Things, but you are now at the Centre. It’s a Centre that you have created yourself. 

I suspect that many a new initiative – friendship groups, sporting clubs, churches, not-for-profits – was started by someone or some people who were sick of being on the Edges of Things. And so they decided to create a new group – built on the Edges and drawing in other marginalised people so that eventually, it became its own Centre, and that once-marginalised person has now become a Kool Kat.

I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong with this and in fact, I suspect that maybe Jesus was such a person. And Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day and Malcolm X. These are all people who drew together others on the Edges of Things to create big, powerful groups and movements. I know that all of these people had experiences of marginalisation. 

The only problem lies in lack of insight into one’s own motivations. If I don’t understand that my driving force behind creating belonging at the margins is so that I can belong, there are a couple of possible consequences: 

 

(1) I become complicit and unaware of my own barrier-building activities.

Any group has boundaries, and we feel included because others are outside of those boundaries. However, a good, Christ-like group must hold this inevitable dynamic alongside a commitment to be outward-looking. The whole world will not be in my group (for then it would cease to be a group), but for my group to be good and healthy it must have half of its attention on what is going on in the world beyond. Its boundaries must also be porous, so that people can leave and others can join. How To Not Become A Cult (Or A Gang): 101. 

Yet if I am unaware of my own need to belong In the Group, then I am likely to put my energy into calcifying those group boundaries. This, after all, makes my primal, dinosaur-brain self feel really secure. But for the group, for the world beyond and for myself, these are deadly actions.

 

(2) I become self-righteous.

Hey, look at me, I started a new club for people who were once on the Edges of Things, and now they belong to something! How nice was that of me. Never mind that fact that the initiative was more to do with my infantile need for security, and my own desperate need to be a Kool Kat, than for the righteous cause I am claiming. 

 

Don’t get me wrong – creating community and belonging on the Edges of Things is a wonderful thing to do, and there are Godly vocations to be had doing this. But like all powerful, Godly vocations, their potency comes from that scared, screaming place of neediness that is in us all. In this particular case: my need to belong, whose primal force courses through me as if I were an abandoned child. 

Acknowledging the needs that drive us to do the good things we do may be the first step towards true humility. Here I am, God. Here I am, world. 

Here I am - in all my naked, scrawny glory. 

"I'm sorry - it's the regulations"

“Committee regulations,” she said. “I’m terribly sorry, but I can’t store your bag.”

I was meandering my way back from the Mornington Peninsula town of Rye – home of both my friend D and my Gran. It was going to be a leisurely trip back – listening to podcasts on my phone while someone else navigated the way home. The plan was to hop off at seaside towns along the way, having a pot of tea here and a beach stroll there. 

I had taken my little red suitcase with me, with glided on wheels behind me. It was not suitable for beach walks, but I was sure I would have no trouble finding it some temporary lodging.  

First stop was Dromana, to check out the heritage gardens where the Diggers Club runs its operations. “Do you think I could walk from here to here?” I asked the boy in the hoodie sitting next to me, showing him a bit of green on the map on my smart phone. He shrugged. “Guess so. There’s probably a track you could walk through.” I clutched my little red suitcase as we rounded a bend, BBC podcast drowning out the sounds of the heaving bus.

When we approached my destination, I realised that what had looked like a pleasant walk in a park was a sheer cliff face. The map is not the terrain, the words of my husband echoed in my head. No matter, I thought. Skip Dromana – I’ll get off that boat-and-ice-cream town of Mornington instead.

I pressed the button and the blue light came on with a ping. Lugging my little red suitcase onto the sidewalk, I made my way towards the Information building. I really really needed to go to the loo, but I also needed to get rid of this bag.

“Excuse me, do you think it’s possible to store this bag for me for a few hours?”

The information woman’s forehead creased and furrowed. “Well, not really, no, we don’t really normally do that, do we?” She turned to a talk, short-haired woman who looked equally perplexed.

“Yes well, maybe…what do you think?”

“Well, it’s just that we don’t like to make a habit of this…what do you intend to do, in Mornington?”

“You know,” I said, “eat some lunch, look at the boats, that sort of thing.”

“Ah, I see,” the first woman said, as if this was a surprising way to spend a few hours in Mornington. She looked at the second woman again, wanting someone else to make a decision, but it was obvious from the raised eyebrows on the tall woman’s face that she alone would have to make a call. “Ok, look, here’s what we’ll do,” she said with sudden decisiveness. “Do you have some ID? A drivers licence? Yes, good. Give me that, and I’ll look after your bag.”

“Thank you.”

“But the thing is, there’s a shift change in half an hour. You’ll have to come back then and just confirm with the person taking over that she is comfortable with this situation.”

It was as though I was asking her to look after my pet python. “No worries,” I said.

“I mean, I think it’s only fair – don’t you?”

“Sure,” I said. I really needed to get out of there and find a toilet.  

The in-charge woman nudged my bag under a bench in another room. She came out, still looking worried. “You really must come back in half an hour. I really think it’s only the right thing to do.”

She pushed some brochures into my hand about the history of Mornington, and jotted a suggested walking route on tourist map.

“Thank you,” I said, “I’m very grateful.” And I was. Then I rushed out at the politest possible moment to locate a toilet.

 

As promised, I returned in exactly 30 minutes. This time, the next-shift woman was there.

“Now,” she said, “about this bag.”

Uh oh.

“I’m afraid we simply cannot look after it.”

I looked at the woman from the first shift. She was doing a weird half-smile, with just her bottom teeth showing.

“The committee has made a very clear decision not to look after bags. We have had problems, you see.”

“I see.”

“And just this moment, a committee member was in here! We all could have got into serious trouble.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry,” said the now guilty-looking woman from the first shift. “It’s just that I’ve been away, and I didn’t know about the changes.”

“That’s ok, you can’t be expected to know everything,” I said, summoning up all the grace I could muster. I felt a bit sorry for her really, because she now not only felt awful for giving me the run-around, but was also in trouble with someone who clearly pulled rank, and also, quite possibly, the committee.

“Here’s your bag,” said the first-shift woman. My driver’s licence was sticky-taped to the top. She had been so vigilant about it all. “Do you want any more information?”

“No, I’ll be fine thanks,” and I swung the door open, letting it close loudly behind me. I headed to the bus stop again, and started my way back to Melbourne.

 

I arrived back in the city in a foul mood. A half-empty milky drink lay on the footpath, and I kicked it hard with my foot. People are such pigs! I thought.

I was pissed off because this was a precious day in my Easter break, and it had been wasted talking to self-important, rule-bound Information women, and winding around the back streets of the Mornington Peninsula while busting to go to the loo. I was pissed off that I didn’t just fork out the money and hire a car, and that I didn’t take a freakin’ smaller bag. My little red suitcase was feeling pretty heavy, as I dragged it, jolting and protesting, through the bluestone-paved alleyway near my apartment.

My wonderful husband made me a pot of tea and listened to me bitch and moan for some time. Once I calmed down I decided to think more philosophically about the bag situation.

My feeling of dependence – on these women for their generosity – felt familiar. I realised it reminded me of the times people in Credo asked me if I don’t mind holding onto their stuff for a while. I have a desk, a little secure place to call mine – a thing that you take for granted if you have it, but it cripples you if you don’t. A place to dump your stuff – I had never thought of that as a thing of privilege, but it really is.

I had been offered a thing that determined whether I would have a restful or a frustrating day. Then it was just as quickly retracted. I felt upset at my powerlessness, and angry that those who held the power couldn’t bend a little. 

Today, I couldn’t control my day, and it turned out badly. I went a bit agro about it, and I’m a bit ashamed at my childish reaction. But I can see more clearly now why other people crack it when they are told ‘no’, and how much strength it can take to hold your composure.

 

Especially when it’s not just a day, but a whole life –

of waiting to see whether people will bend a tad,

make just a little bit of space,

for you. 

Mutuality Manifesto

Image with thanks from Trina Alexander, Flickr

At Urban Seed, we practice community development. This is about all people, no matter what they have experienced in life, finding their inner spark, their essential giftedness, their liberation in the face of oppression and their thing that they will contribute to this world. We want people to rise up as leaders, to take hold of their lives and take ownership of their communities.

***None of this is possible without first seeking mutuality in our relationships.***

Now, there are some relationships that are inherently non-mutual. Like a parent and child, for example. Or a teacher and student, or a psychologist and client. In all of these relationships, there no real equality of ‘give and take’. Rather, one party does the bulk of the guiding, teaching, caring or counselling.  The other party receives. 

These particular kinds of unequal relationships – and the power differential that goes within – are entirely appropriate. This is because they are bound by a specific context and purpose. A parent guides, teaches and cares for their child because that is what the child needs at that time; a teacher teaches because the student needs teaching; a psychologist offers counsel because the client has some problems to sought out. There is also a temporary aspect to these relationships: the child will one day grow into a mature adult, at which time she can have a mutual, adult relationship with her parent; a student will stop being a student and may in fact become a peer; a client will also cease going to see the psychologist and will hopefully have come to a place of greater psychological wholeness.

It becomes a problem when these non-mutual relationships seep out from their contexts and purposes. This is surprisingly easy to happen, and is because there are some fantastic benefits that come with non-mutual relationships. The more powerful party (i.e. the teacher, carer, counsellor type) may benefit from the relationship by:

  • gaining a sense of purpose;
  • having a sense of power; or
  • getting to focus on the other person’s problems, and thus not having to focus on their own.

(The last point is my personal favourite, and a reason why I often like to keep relationships non-mutual.)

The less powerful party also usually derives some benefits, such as:

  • having someone else do things for them;
  • getting to blame the other person when things go wrong; or
  • getting lots of attention.

(Personally, I really like getting attention!)

In fact, it is the benefits inherent in non-mutual relationships that make them so difficult to give up. However we can get into hot water when the less powerful party comes to rely to heavily on the more powerful party, and then the more powerful party comes to rely on the positive feelings that come with being powerful. The whole thing breeds a very unhealthy dependency, which is a real inhibitor to healing, hope and justice.

At Urban Seed, we have an interesting problem. The issue is that as community development practitioners many of the roles we play find their frameworks in the context of non-mutual relationships. We assist people to develop skills, we encourage people as they grow in confidence, we support people as they give back to their community, we counsel people as they work through difficult issues. These are the kind of verbs we might find in the vocabulary of a teacher, support worker, parent or psychologist. 

However. We are not welfare providers, and while the tasks that we find ourselves doing may often be done in the context of parent/child, counsellor/client, teacher/student type relationships, our aim is in fact towards mutuality. The aim is a difficult one, because we immediately start on the back foot. We are type-cast, by virtue of the position we are given (staff, resident, middle-class ‘together’ type) into the role of the more powerful party.

What we must do, then, is actively subvert this bestowed non-mutuality, to shift the relationship to one of mutuality. Here are some thoughts on how this might happen. 

 

(1) Take a reality check. 

We may have an ideal of mutuality, but what is the actual nature of this particular relationship? When I undress it of all of its idealised theology, is this, in fact, a mutual relationship? Signs that it may not be mutual include:

one person being the primary advice-giver to the other

one person habitually deferring to the other

one person doing most of the caring of the other

other staff/residents/volunteers talking about a person in a way that suggests that this person is to be helped/cared for

I should probably point out that we can guide, counsel or care for another, whilst the relationship remains mutual. The question is whether the other person also guides, counsels or cares for me. Mutual relationships are about ‘give and take’, and a sign of a non-mutual relationship is that the giving or taking is skewed to one side.

If you realise that a particular relationship is non-mutual, don’t panic. It’s ok to have non-mutual relationships – as long as you are actively working towards mutuality.

 

(2) Acknowledge how you are benefitting from this non-mutual relationship.

Does it give you a sense of fulfilment?

Does it mean you have a job?

Does it feel good to have influence?

Certain professions prescribe non-mutual relationships as best practice. For example, when I studied pastoral care, I learnt to relate to people in a way that was all about their needs and not mine. By focussing only on them I was being a ‘good pastor’, and getting a personal kick at feeling like I had excelled. In fact, I needed to shift outside of that paradigm.

 

(3) Acknowledge how the other person might be benefitting from the non-mutuality.

Good to acknowledge (see above) – although it’s best to focus on ourselves, not others, when breaking down unhealthy dynamics.

 

(4) Seek mutuality, not independence. Ask, “What gift does this person have for me?”

I am reminded of the time I worked in disability support, and there was this woman, ‘Patricia’, who used to order her carers to do all these tasks that she was perfectly capable of doing herself. This was no good, because she was rapidly losing the ability to do things herself. One morning I put my foot down and refused to butter Patricia’s toast. I said, “You are able to do this yourself, so you should.” This was the beginning of a terrible standoff, about who could refuse to butter toast the longest. I was trying to empower Patricia by getting her to regain some independence. What she experienced was nothing close to empowerment – she saw me as trying to take away what little power she had (to refuse to butter toast, if she so wished, and to order her carers about). Forcing someone to act independently can in fact reinforce power differentials.

I wonder what would have happened if I’d approached this situation differently, by asking not, “What can I get Patricia to do for herself?” but rather, “I wonder what Patricia might be able to do for me?” This feels like an odd question to ask of a client, and this is because it undercuts the assumptions that underlie a carer/client relationship. I am recasting Patricia not as a needy person with dependency issues, but as an important person with something valuable to offer – so valuable, in fact, that I need it for my own wholeness.

This is the heart of mutuality: broken people giving to each other out of their giftedness. Who of us is really independent, anyway? All we have is our wounds and our gifts.

 

(5) Recognise and show our own vulnerability.

Even if we see another’s gift, we won’t understand its worth unless we recognise our own need to receive it. To do that, we need to be aware of our own neediness, vulnerability and imperfection – and be prepared to let it show.

One of my most memorable moments at Urban Seed is my attempt to coordinate a mail out. I had asked a few Credo Café attendees to help out. This was quite fortunate, because not long into the process my mail merge became decidedly un-merged, such that the names on the envelopes no longer displayed any resemblance to the names on the letters. I had a melt down, and I am pleased to say that it was the two Credo Café helpers who sorted the mess out. These were peopled I had often ‘helped’ on other occasions, and it was a lovely turning of the tables, to have them carry me through my crisis. It only happened because my imperfection was forced to be very, very apparent.

So we need to be willing to ask for help from the people we are ‘supposed’ to be helping. This could be anything from, “Hey I can’t do up my bag on my own – would you give me a hand?” or “I’m struggling with anxiety at the moment: can I talk to you about that?”

The other thing we can do is stop being awesome for a while. Do something in pubic that you’re a bit crap at – singing out of tune, making funny-looking art, displaying some terrible acting skills. Tearing down the guise of perfection gives others the chance to give. Personally, I am committed to mediocre guitar-playing.

 

Warning: doing these things may make you feel incompetent and unprofessional. But guess what? We are all incompetent, and none of us, deep down inside, is ‘professional’. It is just as well that our imperfection is the road to our wholeness.

In words of Leonard Cohen: “There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in”.

Letting go is a bit scary but good

A few weeks ago some of us did this funny thing where we all brought a random ingredient to church, and then cooked a meal with it. If this sounds like a fun, whimsical kind of thing to do, this is only because you weren’t the person in charge, and also that I’ve told you the end of the story (i.e. we cooked a meal). In fact, I approached the evening with a degree of trepidation and a good dose of shaky faith, partly because I didn’t even know who would show up.

One by one, people emerged through the door with an ingredient in hand. Steve brought three turnips, Esmeralda brought a loaf of bread, Nathaniel brought an array of goodies from the bottom of his fridge. John placed a tin of peaches on the table and the other Steve pulled out a packet of caramelised olives he’d bought at an Asian supermarket.  Someone brought a Woolworths chocolate mud cake, which I don’t think was technically an ingredient, but nobody complained. 

We got slicing and dicing, and ended up with roasted turnip, sweet potato and caramelised olives on a bed of shredded lettuce, accompanied by roasted capsicum and tomato. We found some grape juice in the fridge and shared the Lord’s Supper, using Esmeralda’s bread. And dessert? Tinned peaches served on chocolate mud cake.

I tried to do some structured conversation, but the real joy was sharing an abundant feast out of a myriad of little, seemingly random gifts, all brought quite humbly to the table. The meal was an embodiment of the Kingdom of God. Better to relish in it, rather than talk about it.

I’m not always that good at letting go, at giving up control. Maybe I need to do meals like this more often. It was an exercise in trust – that something good WILL happen, even if I haven’t planned it out in advance. I’m also starting to wonder whether over-planning and refusal to give up control actually inhibits good things happening. 

Structure and control aren’t bad things in themselves. God can be found within tight boardroom agendas or pre-organised travel plans, or highly structured church services. But God will disappear if we insist on dividing our lives into 15-minute pre-arranged calendar slots, or if we never let the road take us somewhere unexpected, to meet someone we never imagined existed. There’s a wild, boundless energy out there, and it is the incubator for new life. We gotta let some of that stuff into our lives!

The other thing that’s happened lately is that I’ve become exceedingly busy. My role at Urban Seed is growing, and for the first time in a long time I’m taking on significant responsibility. I never would have predicted this, but this new responsibility has actually forced me to give up control. I have realised that I can’t actually do – or even have my head around – everything that is in my ambit of responsibility, without getting sick and/or going mad. I have been forced to let go. 

It’s a giddy feeling. On Wednesday I’m running a grant-writing workshop. I thought I had to write all the grants myself, and was stressing that I couldn’t do that. Then my friend and colleague Sarah said, “Why don’t you run a workshop?” I thought, “No.” Then I thought, “Actually, maybe.” I asked people if they wanted to learn how to write a grant, and about 15 people said, “Yes please!!!” So on Wednesday a bunch of us will be taking what grant-writing gifts we have, and humbly putting them on the table. We’re going to see what kind of meal will emerge.

I’m approaching this with a fairly strong degree of trepidation, and some quite shaky faith. But that meal we cooked the other week was really yummy, and fun, and meaningful – so this gives me hope. 

Organisations are like rainforests

When I was in Grade 6 I learnt about rainforests – about the canopy, made up of all the very tallest trees, about the understory, with all the medium-sized plants, and then the forest floor, where there’s not much light at all but there’s lots of life.

If you are a tree in a rainforest, the only way to become part of the canopy is if one of the very tallest trees falls down or dies. When this happens, a stream of light from the sun suddenly becomes available, and beams down into the understory. If you are a lucky understory tree nearby, with the potential to become a very big tree, you can take advantage of that light and shoot up to fill the canopy gap. But if all the very big canopy trees around you stay put, then you must stay put too. 

Organisations (businesses, not-for-profits, churches, schools, friendship-groups) have quite a bit in common with rainforests. There is usually a ‘canopy’ of leaders, with an ‘understory’ of others with some influence (but less than the canopy), and then a ‘forest floor’ which is made up of all the wonderful-awful plebs.

Generally the only way to develop into a leader is if there’s a gap in the canopy, or the layer above you. Then if you happen to be nearby – and have leadership potential – you can draw on the opportunities that stream through that gap, to become more fully developed.

Sometimes the leaders that make up the next layer won’t budge – in which case it is almost impossible to grow. When this happens, I’ve been thinking that maybe it’s best to move to the edge of the forest, where there’s a little less competition for light. It’s good that unlike trees in a forest, we are quite mobile.

Sometimes canopy-dwellers can put a lot of expectation on the forest-floor-dwellers: “Why don’t they show a bit more initiative?” “When I was their age, I was running five committees and cooking dinner for my younger siblings every night!”

What canopy-dwellers sometimes don’t realise is that they are the ones blocking the light.

Some questions:

Are you a canopy-dweller? Are there ways you can move over and make some room for an emerging leader? 

Are you a forest-floor dweller? Do you need to find the edge of the forest?

Way Beyond Outcomes

I have quite a few beautiful friends who live and work in Alice Springs. Some of them have come back to their respective hometowns over the summer, and it’s been wonderful to catch up.

All of these people, like myself, are working in the Trying To Make A Positive Difference sector. It turns out that working to bring about justice for people who have been dispossessed of land and/or had their communities significantly ruptured is slow, humble, often discouraging work. 

One friend is working in a government-funded program, and has to report on the ‘outcomes’ of her work. She says there is a massive disconnect between the ‘outcomes’ that are set by somebody working in a government department in a city a long way away, and the ‘outcomes’ that she can see in the lives of the young Aboriginal men to whom she teaches literacy. In a world that measures success by the number of boxes ticked, it can be difficult to explain why reality can’t always be check-boxed.

In a related moment, yesterday I was listening to my friend R talk about her vocation as a scientist. Evidently the work of a scientist is also slow, humble and often discouraging. Small advances in understanding can take years of fiddly, time-consuming work. ‘Success’ is the product of many failed experiments. 

What I have gathered is that scientists work in a kind of pipeline – where one scientist finds something out and then passes it on to the next scientist, who passes it on to the next scientist, and eventually there is this one lucky scientist at the end who gets to trial a drug that reduces the growth of cancer cells. But if you are at the start of the pipeline – where you spend a lot more time probing weird growths in petri dishes than chatting with cancer survivors – you have to work pretty hard to stay motivated. 

Quite a number of years ago, R became a Christian. At one point, she had to ask herself (as all Christian must at some point do), “How does my vocation contribute to the Kingdom of God?” The Kingdom of God is the place where God reigns, and is marked by love, truth and justice. Where does a scientist fit into that? Especially the petri dish probing sort, who are several tedious pipeline steps away from the cancer drugs? 

R has thought a lot about this question. She said that when the ‘outcome’ of her work was a hazy point in the distance, which on many days was completely obscured from view, she focused instead on the way she went about her work.  

I think this is really important. The fact is that we can’t control ‘outcomes’. I write a lot of grant applications, where I have to detail the ‘expected outcomes’ of a particular project that we are trying to squeeze some funding for. I write things like:

“Build skills and confidence amongst people experiencing marginalisation”; and

“Provide a place where people who are homeless will feel a sense of welcome and belonging.”

The unfortunate thing is that nobody can make these things happen.

We can put on hot delicious meals and lay out couches for people to sit on; we can offer opportunities for people to learn how to cook and take on leadership positions. We can put everything in place so that our hoped-for outcomes have the best chance of coming into being. But we cannot force people to belong and we cannot guarantee that people will become more confident. Ultimately, we are at the mercy of powers and influences that are beyond our control. We must submit ourselves and our work to the good Spirit, who is liable to disregard all the ‘outcomes’ I wrote in my grant application, and do something else instead. She moves in mysterious ways.

Anyway, I think that Western society is a bit ‘outcomes’ obsessed. I’m going to take a leaf from R’s book and try to focus, instead, on the way that I go about my work.

I was thinking that if a scientist approaches her work with wonderment and generosity, gratefully exploring the ins and outs of God’s creation, and coming to a deeper understanding of how incredible life is, then surely this a most excellent, God-filled vocation. What a delightful and honouring expression of faith. I think that scientists are so important to the Kingdom of God – not just because they help people recover from cancer (although this is also very important), but because, in a sense, they spend their days meditating on the creative power of God. We need people who do that, and we need them to teach the rest of us how to do that too. 

For people trying to bring about justice, we need to understand that we can’t actually do it ourselves. The most we can do – and indeed all we are called to do – is to live our lives in the way of justice. And righteousness and love and trust and courage and all that. We need to walk the way of Godliness, and trust that this road, one way or another, in one time or another, will lead to justice. 

The Kingdom of God is at once the destination and the road. The early Christians called themselves the Way, and I think they were onto something. 

So here’s my rallying cry: Let’s allow God to take care of the outcomes, and let’s instead focus on humbly walking along the Way. 

Hopes for 2014

For myself:

 

That my eyes are opened to the potential that God wants me to know and be. That I have the courage to spread my wings, and the faithfulness to keep on going.

That I have the courage to see and speak truth.

That my love of God and my seeking of the Kingdom of God will override my personal desires for success, achievement, wealth and security.

That God will open my eyes to God’s presence in all places – especially those that are uncomfortable.

That David and I will priorities sharing meal and stories with friends who are experiencing marginalisation.

That our marriage will continue to be one of love, and will serve God and our neighbours.

That there will be healing for my broken family.

That in 2014 I will attend more weddings than funerals.

 

For this nation:

 

That we rediscover justice and compassion.

That the fear that drives so much of the injustice dissolves into love.

That we are jolted into compassion for the strangers that come to our shores (because the barometer of a nation’s heart is in the way it treats its strangers).

That there will be justice and reconciliation for and with our first peoples.

 

For my church:

 

That our hopes for this nation remain not as idle hopes, but that we will become a prophetic voice – speaking and acting justice and compassion.

That we will become an authentic community of Christ – which loves, challenges and transforms.

That we will be a community anchored in our sacred word and reorientated by the fierce wind of the Holy Spirit, so that we are continually turning around and changing our ways.

That we use our privilege well – remembering that we are to build the Kingdom of God, not the church.

That we will be good, generous and grateful stewards of what we have.

That our radical love for those on the margins, and our thirst for truth and justice, will always come first.

That our community will become a vibrant, loving, compassion and truthful slice of the Kingdom of God.

Community Development, Whipped and with Jam

Yesterday we had a long-organised Afternoon Tea with the Ladies. C and I met up at 11, and got to work setting a table with white cloths and Royal Albert serviettes, mixing scone dough, whipping cream. I decided to make finger sandwiches, and ended up with, alongside a huge pile of discarded crusts, some fairly scary-looking piles of lettuce, ham and misshapen bread. I soon reverted to triangles, but even these were challenging enough. Before I knew it 45 minutes had passed.

I said to C, “I thought women just whipped these things up in two seconds flat”. 

C put her hands on the bench, leaned forward and turned her head to raise an eyebrow at me. “Honey,” she growled, in that world-weary yet wizened tone of hers, “there is nothing that women just ‘whip up’ in two seconds flat.”

As I wrestled with my bits of ham and bread and salmon and cucumber, I had a momentary, self-conscious thought: “Which other 29 year old woman is doing this, at 1pm on a Wednesday afternoon?” Probably the ones employed in hospitality, but probably not the ones with degrees in law and social science and theology. I thought of the day’s calendar entry, which had ‘Baking with C’ as the morning activity, and ‘Afternoon Tea’ for the latter part of the day. I mean, it would be the kind of thing you would see scribed into my grandmother’s diary. Actually, probably not my grandmother, because she was more of a career woman. Maybe my great-grandmother. 

I may be something of an embarrassment to the feminist cause when one considers my dedicated engagement with the domestic arts. I’m a novice in the sandwich department, to be sure, but only because I spend more time baking ANZAC biscuits and flourless chocolate cakes. I also put on a cracker roast, and I rather enjoy looking after small children. I have not been unknown to pull out the occasional craft project, either.

The fact is that these more feminine skills are part of the tool kit that I use everyday, to carry out the job that I have bestowed upon myself. And that job is: ‘Community Development Practitioner (in a church context)’.

As a ‘Community Development Practitioner (in a church context)’, I am part of a long history of people, who have been dedicated to bringing faith communities together, to foster relationships and nurture the body of Christ into being. These people have used the simplest of tools: making cups of tea for people, putting on lunches, gathering people in their homes, ensuring that there is always an extra seat for one more. This is the tradition that I stand in, and I’m not afraid to pull out the old cookie cutter in the process.

If I mentioned to any of the three Barbaras who were at yesterday’s afternoon tea that I was a ‘Community Development Practitioner (in a church context)’, I would receive three quizzical looks. Because the fact is that they have been ‘developing community’ all their lives, sans fancy title.

And that’s why my newly bestowed title is also something of a protest. Why is it that we have Pastors, and Preachers, and Deacons, and Treasurers, but the greatest honour these skilled community development practitioners received was to be called a Morning Tea Lady, and, if they were lucky, thanked for their tireless work?

I have waited a long time for someone to recognise the work I do as important, and give me a title. But that ain’t gonna happen, peeps. That’s why I have to invent my own title, and stand up in it tall and proud, with millions of women behind and at my side. I am a ‘Community Development Practitioner (in a church context)’. If anyone can think of anything catchier than that, please let me know.

The fact is that women have often done this critical work not by virtue of the fact that they are women, but because they are skilled and gifted at engaging in the sacred act of preparing food, and bringing people together. By elevating my own role as something that sits alongside Paster, Preacher, Deacon or Treasurer, I hope to bring out the critical importance of these community-gatherers to the community of Christ.

It is possible that I have developed a fuller philosophical frame in which to place these traditionally feminine tasks than, say my great-grandmother (who I doubt ever used the term ‘philosophical frame’ in her life). This has been the gift of feminism, which has said that women should have the choice to get an education, and go into traditionally male areas if they want. My re-claiming of an historically feminine role, and my ability to imbue this role with status, is only possible in a context where women have a choice not to take on roles that would have once been expected of them. Feminism has empowered women with choice, and I think it has taken up until now for my generation of feminists to say, “It’s ok if I choose to do something that other women, in the past, have done simply because they were women.”

Women have never ‘whipped up’ sandwiches in two seconds flat, any more than they effortlessly put on meals for family and friends, or brought communities together to nurture critical bonds. This is the stuff that brings the Kingdom of God into being, and it is community development at its best. So community development is what I’m going to call it. For myself, and for the many, many women who have come before me.  

 

(I am indebted to my co-conspirator, Carolyn N, for talking through this stuff with me. I have incorporated a good degree of her wisdom into this piece.)

Kitchen-table kingdom-building

Here's the text from a talk I gave to my Dad's Spirituality in the Pub session, in Laurimer.  

 ***

As a child, I remember that Mum and Dad were friends with all sorts of interesting people. Many of these people would drop around without prior arrangement, and would sit at our kitchen table for the better part of a Saturday morning, or afternoon, or more often than not, both. Stan, for example, would sit there eating the special choc-chip biscuits that Mum made – one after the other – telling long winding stories about his horses, or his dog, or his ex-wife. We all came in and out of the room, sitting for periods of time to hear part of a story, before moving off to do something else, while he continued to sit and eat biscuits and talk. It didn’t really matter who was there, as long as there was someone.

Sometimes we also had prearranged visitors, who weren’t just dropping in from down the road but came from further afield. Like David Baretti, who gave us Cherry Ripes and spoke very, very slowly. Or Murray, who was a big man with a square jaw and glasses, who Mum described as ‘a bit simple’. These people would come on a Saturday for a barbeque. I remember Sharon and Ben, who Mum used to laugh hysterically with at the kitchen table, and who had a daughter whose birthday party we all attended.

When I was older, I discovered that Sharon and Ben were drug addicts, and that Murray had an intellectual disability, and David Baretti had schizophrenia. When Stan died, I learnt that he had been a very, very lonely old man.

I am really grateful to my parents for not using those labels. To me, these people were just people – who had interesting quirks, were often funny, who played with us and were generally really nice. For example, Stan taught us how to ride his horses and how to shoot a gun. David Baretti talked to us kids on the phone and always laughed heartily at our terrible jokes, especially when we called him “David Spaghetti Meatballs”. He once shouted the whole eight members of the Reale family to Red Rooster.

For most of my childhood, I was bursting to grow up and leave home, and make new fabulous friends and have a life of my own. As soon as I finished school that’s what I did – packing my clothes and a new kettle into the family Tarago, and setting up my new wonderful life in the Halls of Residence at Monash University. I had always been very social justice-orientated. In school I was involved in the 40 Hour Famine, and later became passionate about the issue of sweatshop labour. I remember handing out fliers outside Disney on Ice, informing the parents of excited children exactly where and under what conditions their cute Micky Mouse toys and printed pyjamas were made in. I decided to study politics and international relations and law, with the vague hope that I would do something ‘social justicey’ with it all, at some point in my life. 

While I was at uni, I was involved in a few different social justice movements. The first was Fair Trade, where I helped set up a group that campaigned for Fairtrade coffee to be served in all the cafés on campus. Then when I was 21, I went off to New Orleans, where I worked as a legal intern to assist people on death row who had no resources to defend themselves. Mainly I did a lot of photocopying.

These were all amazing, formational experiences, and I made some wonderful friends throughout it all. It was not, however, incarcerated people in America, or coffee farmers in Brazil, that won me over, but an old church in the heart of the Melbourne CBD. This church was Collins Street Baptist.

I actually came across this place while I was still in high school, when a small group of students and teachers ventured into the city on a weekday evening, to see how an inner-city church was responding to homelessness and drug addiction. Collins Street Baptist is a stately, Corinthian-pillared church on the Paris-end of Collins Street. Its Sanctuary is stark and formal, with an enormous organ dominating the wall at the front. However it wasn’t the church sanctuary that drew me in, but the church basement. It was a long, oddly-shaped room that was painted in bright colours, with a big long table running down the middle of it and seats all around. It had a peculiar smell, somewhere between candle-wax and lasagne, and a half a dozen flies perpetually flew around some imaginary spot at one end of the room. A battered guitar hung on the wall, next to a heavy gnarled cross. It was love at first sight.

I learnt that the place was called Credo Café, and it was where Urban Seed – a ministry begun by Collins Street Baptist Church – hosted a daily lunch. Most weekdays, a variety of people from all walks of life filed in through the side-door to share a meal. People who were homeless, others who were students, people who were unemployed or struggling with mental illness, people with drug addictions, others from local churches and businesses. Everybody sat around that big long table together, and shared good food and good conversation.

Credo Café had not always been there. Here is the story of how it started: 

It was the late 1980s, and Christendom was seriously in decline. Not only that, but the people who were going to church weren’t attending in the city, but were going to suburban churches, closer to where they lived. Gone were the days when every wooden pew of Collins Street Baptist Church creaked with the weight of a family, and when journalists sat in the gallery to take down the sermon in short-hand and report it in the evening paper. Gone were the days when the service was broadcast on 3AW. While Collins Street Baptist Church was once at the centre of life in one of Australia’s largest and most powerful cities, it now faced a crisis of relevance. Like many long-standing institutions, it was forced to ask itself this question: “What is the point of us existing?”

The answer to this question came in an intriguing way. The minister of the church at the time – a guy called Ron – was one day standing under the beautiful white-pillared portico of the church, overlooking the plush Paris-end of Collins Street. His gaze panned across the Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren shop fronts, with their $1000 handbags and garments, and settled on City Square. There he noticed people who were clearly homeless, lying on benches and begging to passers by. Ron asked himself, “How is it that this church is housed in this beautiful old building, while there are people – just across the road – who have no house at all?” And how, he may have added, could we, as residents of the Kingdom of God, let this happen on our watch?

To our question, “How are we relevant?” we heard a clear answer: “Just look outside your front door!” I think that sometimes, when gazing at our navels and wondering what God wants us to do with our lives, what God actually wants us to do is look up, and see who needs our help.

What Collins Street Baptist Church did was invite three young people to move into the church building. There was a caretaker’s apartment on the ninth floor of the building annexed to the church sanctuary, and this is where they lived. They were charged with the task of caring for the church, but also venturing outside and seeing who else was in the neighbourhood. So when they weren’t changing light globes and fixing broken pews, these three young people wandered the streets of Melbourne, meeting the people who called the streets their home. And then they invited the people they met into their own home for a simple meal, sharing in food and conversation. I imagine that it was probably not so different from the hospitality my family offered, to the wonderful, sad, beautiful, troubled friends that sat at our kitchen table all those miles away, in Whittlesea.

Eventually that simple meal, in the living room of the caretaker’s apartment, moved downstairs into the church basement, where many more people could be welcomed. This was Credo Café, the place I fell in love with that day as a high school student. A few years later, as a fully-fledged university student, I made my way back to Credo Café. I found myself instantly at home again, this time in the company of the many unique and wonderful Credo regulars. It’s funny how you can travel such a long way, and you think you are in a completely different world, and then you look up and realise that you’ve come a full circle, and you’re right back at home.

When I was at the tail end of my university course, I became an Urban Seed Resident, which meant I moved into the church building, just like those original three. Here I also practised inviting people who others saw as outcasts into my home, to share in good food and conversation. In some ways, I was simply doing what my family had always done: making sure there was always room available for someone else. 

I don’t live in the church anymore, but live with my husband in an apartment down the street, way up in the sky overlooking the city and the hills beyond. But we continue to open our home to our friends: some of whom are homeless, or struggle with mental illness, or have drug or gambling addictions. There is a group of us that have one of these meals every second week. I was down at Rye the other week, spending time with Gran, when I casually mentioned that I had eight people coming to dinner that night. It was already early afternoon, and Gran nearly had a heart attack at the prospect of me putting on a dinner party for eight people in less than four hours, when I still had to get back home. I think Gran had in mind canapés and beef wellington, but I told her to relax because this was going to be a one-pot wonder. My mum used to cook for eight people every night, and I have learnt over the years that putting on a meal for a group of people doesn’t have to be a big deal. It can be a way of life.

The gospels are full of stories of Jesus eating with people. This was a world in which it mattered who you ate with. If you were Jewish you obviously wouldn’t sit at a table with a non-Jew. If you were wealthy it would be ridiculous to even think about sharing a meal with a beggar. In some ways, it’s no different to how we eat now. We tend to break bread with people who are a lot like ourselves. That’s, of course, when we’re not eating alone. 

But Jesus flouted all of that, by deciding to share food and conversation with people at the bottom of the heap, like beggars and people with disabilities, as well as people that others despised, like prostitutes and the tax collectors that made a career of ripping their fellow-citizens off. And of course, he ate with the religious, economic and political elite as well. Often he would completely do their heads in, but having them all share a meal together. 

In the army, officers are not meant to eat with their soldiers. Social workers are not meant to share meals with clients. Why is that? Well, it’s because breaking bread is a powerful thing. In that moment, we come together, in a way that is deeply humanising and deeply equalising. There is something about partaking in the same meal, dished up from the same one-pot wonder, that says, “We’re not so different, after all.” We all chew, and swallow, and go to the toilet at some point afterwards. It’s an admission of our common humanity, the act of sharing a meal. A nod to our common vulnerability, that says that we are as dependent on the gracious provision of sustenance as the next person – whether private or officer, social worker or client. And it’s a celebration of life – a rejoicing in a party of flavours and textures, that our bodies, delightfully, are designed to take in and enjoy. It’s hard to keep everybody in rank and file with all that going on!

In short, sharing a meal is a kind of bodily communion, of flesh and spirit coming together to give thanks and celebrate life. It is nothing less than sacred.

So that’s what we do, at Urban Seed. It’s pretty simple, really, this coming together of people who are homeless and marginalised, to join in common humanity with other people who are also damaged and broken, in other kinds of ways. In the end, it’s what we all need, right? A kitchen table, or a table at the pub, to sit around; a family to belong to. Not everybody has a family or a kitchen table, which is why it’s important that we share what we have with each other, and why it’s important that we come to the pub, and share in communion there as well.

You know, my family didn’t open their door to all those weird and wonderful people as an act of charity. Neither do I eat lunch in Credo Café out of deep and pure sense of altruism. Basically, we all just really enjoy each other’s company! And the delightful thing about serving our neighbours’ needs by inviting them round for lunch, or going out to the pub together, is that if we do this with truly open hearts, we will find our neighbours serving our needs, too! This is the Kingdom of God at work, and it’s a tasty, wondrous thing to take part.  

Cheers to that!

Due North

When I was growing up, I knew exactly which way was due North. It was the direction our house faced: towards the Mountains, which I greeted every morning when I opened my blinds, and stared at through the window as I ate my breakfast cereal very, very slowly. 

Also, when I stood with Dar Dar at the top of the second story of the house on Sinclair Avenue, due North was the direction of the City, which for some reason I could only see on overcast days, like faint finger marks on a watery horizon. When Dar Dar was living the last hours of his life, I went to the end of the pier at Albert Park, and looked due South – back across the water, to wave goodbye.

I used to be confounded when I heard about people getting lost in the bush. Didn’t they know which way North was? I knew – and I could work the other ones out just by saying ‘Never Eat Soggy Weatbix’. I would never get lost in the bush.

So it came as quite a shock to me when I found out that our house didn’t face North at all, and that my bedroom window opened out in some odd non-direction, somewhere between North and East. When I think about it, I really should have twigged earlier. After all, the sun always set behind the house, closer to the direction I had assumed to be South. The power of denial is an amazing thing.

I count that moment – of discovering the truth about which direction our house faced (or didn’t face) – as one of those pivotal points on the way to Growing Up. As a child, there were certain Truths that I just took for granted: that we would always go to Rye for the holidays; that Gran and Dar Dar would always be able to take us down the beach; that there would always be a million of us doing the present-opening frenzie on Christmas morning; that we would always be together. That North was the direction our house faced.

It’s not like I ever really thought about these things. They were deepest, base-level Truths for me – known realities, as solid and reliable as concrete.

There is a point in our lives where we find cracks in the concrete. Cracks that have always been there, but that we never took notice of, as we chalked our hopscotch lines and skipped back and forth.

Grandparents get frail. We go to the beach on our own. A tree that has been there all our lives falls down. Friends perish in a bushfire. A brother dies.  Soon my grandfather is gone: the one who taught me that I’d be okay, just as long as I never turned my back on a wave. I took his advice, and I’ve not yet drowned at sea. But I’m still not quite okay.

I look to Gran and hope to God she is smiling, because if she is then things are still Alright. Gran is sort of smiling, so I’m feeling a bit better, for now.

But the house I grew up in no longer faces due North. Its windows glint towards some strange, in-between, unfamiliar direction, which up until that moment I never even knew existed.  

Winter trees

Anne Lamott wrote something about us all, underneath it all, being like trees in the winter. Once everything is stripped away – all the voluminous foliage and lovely flowers, even the fruit – all that is left is something we all have in common. And this is the naked, quivering frame of a winter tree.

Before I went to visit you, someone told me that I should think of some joke or entertaining anecdote, that I could relate to you with so much enthusiasm that it would transport you beyond the four chipped walls of your hospital room. My gut filled with dread at the obligation of being ‘entertaining’, and the expectation that I would fail at this. But I thought of a funny little story anyway, and I told it to you with great energy and vigour. Your eyes were wide and you moved your lips slowly, trying to understand what it was I was attempting to communicate to you.

I used to be terrified of that moment – of seeing my once-familiar grandparent withered in a chair, confused and disorientated, unrecognisable.

At that point I decided to give up, and to hold your hand instead. I said, “Remember when we used to play table tennis together?” And you turned your face to the side, as it crumpled under the weight of something dense and profound. “I used to love that,” you said. We both began to cry then.

You lay back, stripped bare of all the wit and charm that I had, until then, mistaken as your essence. I propped my entertaining anecdote outside the room. I saw, with relief, that your winter tree was enough.

You gripped my hand with your strong, ancient fingers. And I realised, for the first time in my life, that my winter tree was enough, too.  

"Never turn your back on a wave"

This is a poem I wrote for my grandfather, Dar Dar, and read today at his funeral:

 

The orange sun is melting

into the Bass Strait,

and you stop the engine.

We bolt out of the car

like corks from bottles.

Wind lashing hair,

sand biting legs,

we race along stiff smooth slopes,

the ocean licking our toes.

 

Together we stop to face the water.

The waves roll in silently,

quiet glassy humps,

before dumping the weight of the ocean

at our feet.

The frigid water is thick with foam,

swirling at our ankles.

“Never turn your back on a wave,”

you tell us.

We nod solemnly.

 

All of a sudden

the ocean is here,

and I’m in too deep.

I’m losing my balance and I panic.

 

But you are there,

with your big, strong hand,

which you clasp with the firmness of Earth

into mine.

The ocean sucks its wave back,

but I’m still here.

 

“Never turn your back on a wave,” you say.

I nod, solemnly,

and you let my hand go again,

because you know I’ll be alright. 

Top 10 adventures in Europe...so far!

Well we’ve been travelling within the lush green lands of Europe in the summer time for two and a bit weeks so far. I thought that it was high time I wrote a travel blog post. But rather than detail every breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and tourist queue verbatim, I thought it more interesting and more expedient to give you my TOP 10 HIGHLIGHTS OF ANDREANA AND DAVE’S TRIP TO EUROPE…SO FAR. Here they are, in no particular order:

 

1.     Filling my drink bottle with ablutions water at the Abu Dharbi airport

I am hereby charged with committing a serious religious and cultural faux pas within hours of leaving Tullamarine Airport, by filling my drink bottle with a conveniently located water fountain…which turned out to be the place where Muslim people ritually cleanse themselves before going to pray.

Arguments for the defence:

  •  Ablutions water dispenser looked remarkably like a drinking fountain, and was marked with a sign that resembled a stick figure drinking.
  • Andreana was exceedingly tired (and rather thirsty) at this point in time.

Arguments for the prosecution:

  • The water was luke warm.
  • Even in delirious state, Andreana was vaguely aware of strange looks people were giving her.
  • And most damningly: the ‘water fountain’ was outside a prayer room.

Verdict: guilty

2.     Afternoon tea at Harrods, London

Our trip took a decidedly positive turn upon arriving at destination: London. David figured out the Underground and Double Decker Bus systems quick smart, and soon enough we found our way to Harrods, which is a fancy-pantsy department store with awesome 1920s escalators lined with Egyptian figurines. The food hall is a site to behold, but we made our way up and up to the tea rooms, where we indulged in tea and scones with clotted cream and jam, served in giant art-deco silverware pots and fine-bone china cups. Heeeaaaven!!

3.     East London (including Brick Road) with Wei and Amy

Our good friend and Melbourne ex-pat Wei offered us a personal tour of the East End of London, which is kind of the opposite of Harrods. More the domain of Oliver Twist and Jack the Ripper, is what I gathered. We went to markets bursting with vintage clothes, leather jackets, macaroons and Japanese gyoza, and wandered through the flower market where Londoners walked around with giant pot plants and bouquets, because nobody has a car here! After Wei’s tour it was a delight to catch up with the lovely Amy, who took me to dinner on the Brick Road curry mile!

4.     Frolicking in the green pastures of London’s parks and gardens

Our friends Katrina & Chris, who are once-upon-a-time Londoners, suggested a romantic walk up to Primrose Hill, which we dutifully undertook, and were rewarded with a stunning view of London, observed while sitting in green grass and basking in the afternoon sun. The adventure may have triggered David’s allergies, but there is something magical about London’s parks and gardens (think ponds, deck chairs, roses and green green green) that made the expedition more than worthwhile (for me, at least). One scene that completely captivated me was that of long, wild grass in the municipal parks of the City of London. It made me consider that maybe Australians have a lawn-mowing fetish (or it could be, perhaps, our landscape’s propensity towards grassfires and snakes). At any rate, I took a disproportionate number of photos of grass.

5.     Eating cheese with fellow rangas in Greenwich

On one of the days when David was working in the London office, and I was gallivanting about, I decided to take a Thames river ferry to Greenwick, where time actually begins. After I had taken a photo of people taking a photo of themselves on Time Zone Ground Zero (I couldn’t be bothered lining up), I had a quiet lunch in some nearby tea rooms. They were again in the middle of a vast park with very long grass. I ordered the soup with bread and cheese, and when it all came out I saw that the cheese was a giant mound of cheddar, of a size I had never before witnessed. Remembering that I was slightly dairy intolerant, I called out to a couple of people sitting near me – two freckly red-heads, like me – “Do you like cheese?” In fact they liked cheese very much, and there began a fleeting friendship. One of them was a session musician and was often hired by Hillsong to play for their worship. The other one had also had a musical relationship with Christianity, having once sung at Fergie’s wedding when he was the Head Singing Boy in the Queen’s Choir, many years ago. This all made for a very interesting conversation.

 

Well, David has long gone to bed and  so I must also join him. So you will have to STAY TUNED for the second instalment of my top 10 European adventures…

Jesus the racist

Tonight we held a service at Collins Street Baptist Church on racism. Matt Bell facilitated some discussion about the racism that is inside all of us, Christop ran some prayerful reflections, and I spoke on the following passage:

Matthew 15:21-28 (NIV)

21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

 

These are my reflections:

This is a jarring story because it seems Jesus is being racist.

He just called a woman a ‘dog’ – because she is not Jewish.

It is hard to reconcile this

with the Jesus we know of as perfect.

“Did Jesus really mean to say that?”

 

But while we understand Jesus as being fully God

we also know that Jesus was fully human.

 

It turns out that Jesus didn’t land

in middle of first century Palestine

as a fully grown

generic humanoid,

with the sounds of angels still ringing in ears.

 

Rather, Jesus was born and grew up with other humans,

who taught him the language he spoke,

who his ancestors were,

what land they dwelled on,

which God they belonged to.

From an early age he learnt

who his friends were,

who his enemies were,

who was in,

and who was out.

He learnt the stories of his people:

         About how they wandered the desert for 40 years,

         About how God led them to the Promised Land,

         About the Canaanites who were living in that land,

And about how God told his people

to exterminate them,

         to make room for the people of God.

He also learnt about all the Canaanites

who were not exterminated,

the people still living in the land and referred to as Gentiles.

He learnt that they weren’t clean and pure

like the lambs of Israel

but were impure and dirty,

like dogs.

 

The story of Jesus calling the Canaanite a ‘dog’,

you see,

has a back-story.

 

It reminds me of another more recent story,

of a footballer,

a 13-year-old girl,

and this city.

The footballer is a star,

and today he’s playing like a star.

He’s about to celebrate victory,

when he hears a word:

a word he’s heard too often before.

It emerges loud and clear from the thunderous crowd,

from the mouth of a young girl, a Collingwood supporter.

That word is “Ape!”

The star footballer is heartbroken, and angry.

He points the girl out to security,

and he leaves the field,

too gutted to finish the game.

 

The footballer, of course, is Adam Goodes:

an Aboriginal man,

a champion Sydney Swans player,

and a dual Brownlow medallist with the AFL.

Eddie McGuire, President of the Collingwood Football Club,

apologised on behalf of the girl.

Also pointed out girl didn’t know that ‘ape’ was a racist slur.

 

The problem, however,

is that this story has a back-story.

This ‘back-story’ goes something like this:

 

For thousands of years Indigenous Australians occupied and were custodians of this land, Australia.

A great upheaval occurred in 1788,

with the arrival of Europeans.

The original inhabitants were in the way of the land,

and so the new arrivals did their best to exterminate them,

to make room for the people of Europe.

 

At the same time,

Europeans were colonising much of the world,

encountering many different people.

New scientific theories were invented

that said that non-white people,

including Africans and Australian Aborigines,

were not progressive and intelligent

like the people of Europe,

but were animal-like and primative,

like apes.

 

Of course original people of this land

were too resilient for the European colonisers to wipe out,

but a deep hatred and racism set in.

 

In 1838, seven European men massacred

28 Aboriginal men, women and children

at Henry Myall Creek Station in NSW.

One of the jurors at the trial said this:

I look on the blacks as a set of monkeys, and the earlier they are exterminated from the face of the earth the better. I would never consent to hang a white man for a black one.

 

The story of the Aboriginal footballer

and the 13-year-old girl,

you see,

has a back-story.

 

And I would like to suggest that this is a story

that ALL of us are a part of.

 

I want to return to the first story,

of Jesus and the Canaanite woman.

What is actually remarkable in this story

is not that Jesus calls a Gentile woman a dog.

That was a common enough sentiment.

It’s what happens next that is amazing.

 

Jesus comments that it’s not right to take bread

for the ‘children’ of Israel

and toss it to the presumably Gentile ‘dogs’.

This is a slap down comment,

to which the woman looks straight back at him and replies:

“Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs

that fall from their masters’ table.”

 

What she is saying

in her clever, quick witted way

is that contrary to Jesus’ assumption,

she and her people will NOT be excluded

from the community of God.

It may just be crumbs,

but she will be there, nonetheless.

And as Christop points out,

in her culture, unlike Jesus’ culture

dogs are NOT impure,

but welcome family members.

“Maybe I am a dog,”

she seems to be saying,

“but in my world, we have a place at the table.”

 

Jesus responds in a way that says to me

that his world has just been seriously rocked.

“Woman, you have great faith!” he says.

He seems to be agreeing with her, and affirming her!

 

Then he says, “You request is granted”.

And the woman’s daughter is healed.

Essentially, Jesus does a back-flip.

Previous he had ignored her,

made it clear that he wouldn’t help because she wasn’t Jewish,

and then insulted her with a racist slur.

And now, after the woman has confronted Jesus

and spoken truth to him,

he gives her what she asked for in the first place.

 

Some scholars say that this story

marks a turning point in the ministry of Jesus.

Whereas before he was indeed only ministering

to the ‘lost sheep’ of Israel,

now after this encounter with the Canaanite woman

he opens his ministry to Gentiles as well.

The encounter causes his story to go

in a whole new direction,

to the point where we now have a church

that is made up of all the nations of the world.

We can thank a gutsy Canaanite woman,

and a Christ who was willing

to be challenged and transformed,

for that.

 

The story of Adam Goodes and the 13-year old girls

has a not-so-great postscript.

Eddie McGuire, who was so supportive of Goodes after the incident,

himself racially vilified Goodes on radio,

by suggesting that Goodes should promote the new King Kong movie.

Realising what he’s said,

he immediately backpedalled,

and when the media storm broke out later

he denied any racist intent.

 

Part of me feels of Eddie,

because I could imagine doing the same kind of thing.

We all have racial prejudices

– identified at the start of this service.

They are the product of the ‘back-stories’

that form the background of our lives.

We are part of the story whether we like it or not

and when we are not challenged,

we take on the roles that are handed to us.

We absorb the attitudes and the dialogue and the behaviour

because they are in the very air that we breathe.

Like Eddie on radio,

or Jesus in the region of Sidon,

our racial prejudices

can just slip out of our mouths

when we are tired or off-guard, or just telling a joke.

 

The most important thing

is what happens AFTER the racist slip.

 

Jesus took on the challenge,

and it transformed his whole life and ministry.

 

I wander what might have happened if,

instead of denying it,

Eddie had said,

“Yes, what I said was racist.

I don’t like that there is racism inside of me,

But thank you for pointing it out.

Now – how can this story be transformed?”

 

Since this is a ‘Conversation’ style service,

you all have a right of reply!

My main point was:

It is a given that we absorb racial prejudice,

but the most important thing

is how we respond to challenge

to be transformed.

 

What do you reckon about that?

"It's your turn now!"

A few years ago, I went to an art exhibition at the Ian Potter centre. The artist made all this art out of bits and pieces of stuff – pieces of corrugated iron that were on her farm, old road signs she had cut up and rearranged. 

The best thing about the exhibition was the feeling it elicited in me: a wave of inspiration that said, “Wow – I could do that!” Not in the sense of replicating what she had done, or a cynical, “Well that looked easy enough.” It was simultaneous admiration, coupled with a kind of creative nudge. The artwork said to me, “Go on – it’s your turn now!”

Lately I’ve had the same experience. I’ve felt a kind of creative inspiration – and not from going to an art gallery, or even seeing a musical performance. This ‘creative nudge’ has come from the life of Peter – my incredible brother who died from cancer a month ago today.

As I wrote in my eulogy at Pete’s funeral, if Jenny and Forest Gump were like peas and carrots, Pete and I were like lentils and steak sandwiches. It is hard to imagine two so completely different people. Throughout childhood Pete and I fought like crazy, and the divergent paths we took as we grew up pointed further to how differently God had created us. Pete found his straps in plumbing, earthmoving and farming, while I became a sort of urban-academic-religious-writer-community type person. “Behold I give you a study in diversity,” said our creator God.

After Peter died, I just wanted to sing. Somehow, something about Peter’s life had completely inspired me. It was as though, as he shone in his final days, he had turned to me and said, “Go on – it’s your turn now!" 

I didn’t want to try my hand at plumbing, or see how it felt to be operate a large piece of machinery. This was Peter’s art – the way that he breathed life into clay, in quite a literal sense. 

But I wanted to sing.

Peter was a work to behold because he was always 100 per cent, completely Pete. Honest, down-to-earth, a classic larrikin, who knew he was going to be an earthmover from the age of 3, and did it. I don’t think Pete ever tried to be someone else. He was his own thing, his own creation, his own kind of artist. 

I have entered into Peter’s art, and my inspiration now is to go and do likewise. Pete had his own set of brushes, and I have mine. I laugh. I dance. I write. I strum my guitar, and I play my flute. I am also honest. I am also passionate. I meander. I encourage. I trust. I get excited about new things, and I appreciate worn paths.

And I sing.

That’s me, that’s my art. It’s my response to the call, my answer to his challenge, “Go on, it’s your turn now.”

After the funeral, people stood in the pouring rain around the biggest pile of logs I have ever seen. One of our big Cyprus trees had fallen to the ground, just a month before we buried Peter in the ground. Pete’s mates cut the tree up with a chainsaw and brought in an excavator to gather up the logs and make a bonfire. Under a grey, quivering sky, Pete’s mate Tom emptied a can of petrol on the enormous pile, dragging a tail of fuel through the grass. My brother John set the tail alight, and the flame travelled through the grass until it reached the pile of wood. Whoosh! Up she went. Everybody clapped and cheered.

The skies opened and everybody got soaked. But behind us, arching over the property, was a perfect rainbow, unable to hold itself back from the grey. It glistened in the paddock, lit up by the wash of rain.

 

* * *

“So what you are saying,” said my mentor, Anne, as I cradled an empty mug, “is that you have found there are colours, in amongst the grey.”

Yes, that is what I have found. While life is sometimes in muted pastels, this time of death brings grey – and a brilliance of colour I’ve not encountered before. In these puddles, we dance a new dance, inspired by the art of one’s life that we had never noticed as so brilliant before.

“Go on,” he said. “It’s your turn now.”

Abortion, the Exodus & 'freedom'

The idea of liberation through a change of masters shows how misleading it is to summarize the exodus through the popular slogan, “Let My people go.” The full form of the challenge is actually sallah ‘et’ammi weya ‘abduni, “Let My people go that they may serve Me.” The emphasis, I think, falls on that last word: that they may serve Me and no one else. The point of the exodus is not freedom in the sense of self-determination, but service, the service of the loving, redeeming, and delivering God of Israel, rather than the state and its proud king. The paradox should not be overlooked that if you rid biblical theology of slavery altogether, you will miss one important basis for the biblical efforts to mitigate slavery.

-       Jon Levenson (1993) The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament and Historical Criticism, Westminster, John Knox, p 144.

When I had lunch with my Dad today and I was explaining what I was learning in class, I told him about this idea. Freedom, in the Bible, is never ‘freedom to do whatever you like’. In fact, I’m not sure that ‘freedom’ is even the right word, because the term does seem to imply self-determination. Rather, the idea expressed in the Bible – beginning with the exodus and carrying on like a thread through to Paul’s writings in the NT – is one of deliverance from the old master (whether it be slavery, blindness, sin), into the hands of the new master, who is YHWH or Jesus. Slavery is not abolished, but rather continues under a master whose book of law is life, not death.

As our conversation continued on and we talked about this and that, Dad began to tell me about how he had got up in church the other Sunday, and encouraged individuals in the congregation to sign an open letter to the Victorian Premier. The letter urged the State government to overturn legislation that compels doctors to refer clients seeking an abortion to another doctor who can undertake the procedure, if the first doctor will not do it. Dad was virulently opposed to this legislation, because he believed it breached the principle of freedom of conscience. It is wrong to compel anyone to facilitate an abortion, he argued. People should have the right to refuse, if their conscience so dictates.

After lunch, it occurred to me that there was a connection between the conversation about the exodus story and the idea of ‘freedom’, and the question of ‘freedom of conscience’ in regards to abortion. I realised that neither the ‘pro-choice’ not the ‘pro-life’ camps really advocated ‘freedom’, though they both criticised the other for not doing so.

The pro-choice camp advocates freedom for women to choose to have an abortion, but an obligation on doctors to make sure women have access.

The pro-life camp urges freedom for doctors to choose not to facilitate an abortion, but an obligation on women to carry a child to full term.

Both positions advocate freedom – the first for the woman to be able to choose, the second for the doctor to be able to choose. But inherent in both is a pronounced lack of freedom, which both sides condemn the other for. In the first scenario, the doctor is obliged to refer a woman. In the second, the woman is obliged to have the baby.

And so it strikes me that to condemn either position because it lacks the element of ‘freedom’ is perhaps to miss the point. None of us live in a society of ultimate freedom. Classic liberal theory taught us that: there are obligations, as well as rights. In the language of the Bible, we could say that none of us have freedom; the most we have is the ability to choose our own master.

So who will be our master? The one who compels doctors to make sure women have access to abortions? Or the master that compels women to carry children to full term? We may find ‘liberation’ or ‘deliverance’ in one of these answers, but we will not find ‘freedom’, in any ultimate sense. For the biblical writers, that wasn’t the quest they were on.  

Special

When I was a child I was told that I was special.

Not special in a general sense – as in, unique in my own humanity – although that is also true. But special in the sense of particularly special. Of unique significance. More special, perhaps, than others.

Pity the child who grew up believing that. She is likely to grow up not with a healthy dose of self-esteem, but rather a tentatively perched sense of her own superiority. She does not feel whole and loved because of her humanness; but rather comes to find her wholeness and love-ability only to the extent that she is set apart from other humans. Ironically, the result of believing that one is particularly special is actually a deep insecurity – a fear of not being found to be all that special, after all. Maybe Mum and Dad got it wrong, and I’m just plain old ordinary. And of what worth would I be then?

It’s all a bit embarrassing really. And a bit pathetic – girl-told-she-was-special-now-battles-with-low-self-esteem. Wow, bring out the violins, and the Red Shield Appeal. Who knew that naval-gazing could end this tragically.

But seriously, this narrative about myself – which I have taken on and internalised as my own – has really shaped the person that I’ve become. The need to succeed, to prove myself – the fierce competitiveness with others and the super-sensitive-easily-threatened thing. The protectiveness of an image, and the pain when it is shattered. The roller-coaster ride of success and failure. The entitlement that I feel to ‘success’, and the pummelling to my self-worth that I experience in ‘failure’. And that constant feeling of expectation, bearing down always on my shoulders. 

Like it or not, though, this is my story, and I need to own it. My mentor asked me today how I can ‘grow out from’ this story. Not as in moving on from it, but rather moving out from it. ‘Specialness’ is a part of my identity: how do I think about this in a way that is helpful?

I pondered the question as I rode back home on my bike. And I thought about Jesus, who really was ‘special’, in the sense that he impacted powerfully on this world. Ok, so that’s a massive understatement, but you get the gist. But Jesus’ ‘specialness’ was not a result of him trying to be special, or trying to ‘succeed’ in any earthly sense of the notion of success. Rather, Jesus’ ‘specialness’ was a result of him living out his God-given vocation. It came from him being true to who he was…and that’s how he impacted the world.

So maybe the way I can ‘grow out from’ my narrative of ‘specialness’ is to realise that…you guessed it, I already am special! Special not because of what I have achieved, but because of who I am. Not because of what I may become, but because of how I was born. I have fulfilled the expectations – simply by being here. All I need to do is become more fully the person that I was created to be. 

And so there is no need to show the world that I am special. Because I already am. I already am.