do something human

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

As often seems to be the case (at least with me), it caught me unawares, this idea.  It kind of came from nowhere, but once it arrived, wouldn’t let go.

I was sitting in a meeting last week, thinking about strategic planning (I know, everybody’s favourite subject) for the organisation I work within. In the midst of the meeting a story was being told – a personal story, only peripherally related to the subject at hand – by one of the participants. In the middle of describing a difficult situation he’d found himself in, full of stress and anxiety, and surrounded by people who were (legitimately, reasonably) having a hard time, he described how he’d done something very simple to help someone, and described it as “you know, doing something human”.

It was a throw-away line, and the story continued, but for some reason the idea grabbed hold of me. For the rest of the meeting, and since, I had this phrase running through my mind, and the question that goes with it: do something human.

What does it mean to do something human, and why would be such a big deal?

I’ll tackle those questions in the reverse order.

I think perhaps it’s a big deal (to my mind at least) because so much of our modern life is dehumanising. We’ve built for ourselves a society that puts human-ness a distant second place. We’ve turned human beings into economic units – an entity only worth considering because of the economic value or economic cost it brings to a system. We’ve built a society where our identity is shaped not by the relationships we have with other people, and the place (both physically and in terms of community) we live in, but by what we consume and what we contribute. A society where the every present marker of success is “busy-ness”. Where change and complexity are daily realities. Where isolation is keenly felt by so many even in the midst of a crowd. Where anxiety, dissatisfaction and conflict are the stock-in-trade tools of an advertising industry designed to part us with our money. Where fear is a weapon wielded by politicians the world over. Where human-ness is being codified and fed into ever-more-complex computers and robots destined to replace us. And so on.

I’m not blaming someone else mind, we all are willing participants in the system that we’ve created. I’m as likely as anybody else to be consumed with consuming, wrenched with anxiety, caught up in numbers and busyness and so on.  Even one of the most human activities of all – being and raising a family (whatever shape that family takes) – seems destined to be of interest to our society more because of the economic cost and contribution of such an activity than because of any intrinsic good or worth.

IF that’s all vaguely true (and I’ll grant it’s a big ‘if’) then it’s no wonder the notion of doing something human caught my ear on the way through.

So what is it to do something human?

I think perhaps it starts with noticing the other human. Noticing them for long enough to realise they’re in need (and then doing something about it), noticing them long enough to realise they might have an interesting story to tell (and then listening). Noticing them for long enough to see, or hear, or feel pain, anxiety, fear or isolation (and then stick around long enough to be part of a solution). Maybe it’s just noticing they exist (and acknowledging it).

Then there’s doing something human that’s entirely personal.  Slowing down. Switching off. Resting in the beauty of this world we inhabit. Doing the things that feed your own human-ness rather than drain it away. As simple as the choice about what you eat, and as complex as the choices about career and calling.

Coincidentally I just yesterday started reading Simon Cary Holt’s new book “Heaven All Around Us“.  He writes about the spirituality of the everyday, how there is so much goodness or fullness or richness right in front of us at any given moment if only we would notice (at least that’s what I’ve heard so far!). The book is written from a Christian perspective – but even if you’re not able to go with that belief system, I think there’s truth in what he writes – and I think it’s something to do with this notion of ‘doing something human’.  In any case, I think Christianity is fundamentally about our humanity, rather than some far-off spiritual realm inaccessible to normal people, and removed from the ordinary stuff of life – and that’s something like what I hear Simon describing.

Then of course there’s the harder stuff – the systems things that need to be addressed in order to enable us collectively to do something human. The things that are political, and economic, and that raise questions of justice and goodness and “right-ness”.  To do something human is at times to call out unjust or harsh or downright dehumanising systems and practices in our world. They’re maybe harder to agree on – like for example if I was to say that as a nation we dehumanise those who seek asylum on our shores, some would write that off as “left-wing politics” and by labelling it such, avoid the need to do something about it.  Any number of social issues that either result in or emerge from dehumanising another (gender based violence, sexism, racism, the treatment of indigenous Australians, bullying to name a few) might fit that description.

In any case, this is sounding more like a sermon, and less like a personal reflection, so let’s park that thought.

For me, the challenge that emerged from my meeting was threefold.  First, to wonder how in our organisation (and via our strategic planning) we can incorporate practices that help us all (collectively and individually) to do something human.

Second is to revisit the ways in which I understand and define my identity – and consequently revisit the ways I understand, interact with and acknowledge those with whom I share my life, not matter how tangential that sharing might be.

And third, most importantly, to hold this question before me in whatever situation and circumstance I find myself in: “What will it mean right now to do something human?”

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overused or undervalued?

Outrage:  (noun) an extremely strong reaction of shock or indignation.

I’m starting to wonder if outrage is the most over-used word of our day, and simultaneously the most undervalued.

A quick search over at news.com.au (everybody’s favourite fair and balanced news source) takes just 0.5 seconds to turn up 44400 stories that feature the word outrage. Everything is an outrage! Everything!

  • Triple J moving the hottest 100 countdown away from Jan 26…because Australia Day
  • Triple M playing a hottest 100 countdown on Jan 26…because Australia Day
  • Cyclists for riding too slow, or to fast, or existing at all
  • Donald Trump insulting African nations
  • People defending Donald Trump from African nations
  • Just about anything else you can think of…the list is long and entertaining

The play seems fairly straightforward – generate clicks (and therefore advertising revenue) by generating a response of outrage.  Generate comments and therefore more return visits by inviting that manufactured outrage to be vented. Essentially, outrage makes money (for someone).

To be fair, news.com.au is just one example – pick your favourite news source, social media channel, politician and the word “outrage” (or the idea, cloaked in another word or phrase (like “war on X”… favoured by tv ‘current affairs’ shows) won’t be far away.  And it has become infectious: read the comments section under just about any “news” article and you’ll find a stream of outrage…usually from both ends of the spectrum…defending their view (to the death if necessary) and insulting the intelligence, appearance, beliefs (and so on) of those with an alternate view.

We’ve become a society that wears outrage like a bad tattoo (somewhere, someone who loves tattoos just got a little outraged that I used that metaphor, while somewhere else a writer is outraged because it’s a stupid metaphor anyway…but I digress).

Social media enables us to vent this outrage (which has often been manufactured or encouraged by someone else) from the safety of our keyboards (hey…like I’m doing now!) and the capacity for civil discourse suffers as a result. I’d almost go so far as to say that the phenomenon of outrage is what enables people like Donald Trump or Pauline Hanson or Peter Dutton to do their thing (cue more outrage). The modern political system thrives on generating and harnessing outrage. It’s a lazy way to lead, but sadly it seems to work when it comes to the task of getting elected.

Outrage: so over-used its not funny.

And it isn’t funny…because genuine outrage matters. Outrage at the treatment of women by powerful men. Outrage at the hoarding of wealth by some at the expense of others. Outrage at the destruction being wrought on our environment in the name of profit. Outrage at church ministers that have abused children, and church organisations that have covered it up. Outrage that Microsoft still include Comic Sans in the standard fonts for their software. Outrage matters.

Genuine outrage changes the world.  Genuine outrage challenges slavery, abusive economic systems, blatantly discriminatory practice, violence and more. Outrage matters a great deal, and in some ways, in the world we’ve created for ourselves, there should be more of it.

But the outrage that matters is being drowned out by this manufactured, confected outrage that fills our screens and our minds, sells advertising and generates views, and in the process alienates us from one another.

For most of us, with respect to most issues, we just need to calm down a little.  I don’t know where it came from, but the phrase “calm your farm” has been on high rotation in our house over the last few months. Many of us could do well to apply this mantra to our lives.

And for most of us, we then need to think carefully about the issues that need genuine outrage…and then put that to good use. Outrage isn’t just for selling advertising…its for changing the world.

That’s what I’m wondering about today.

Postcards from England: More from the ILC

It’s taking too long, and there are too many of these postcards racking up and at the current rate I’ll be sending postcards long after I return home…so today I’ll send three in one go, all from the Fresh Expressions International Learning Community (ILC)

Shaping a menu:

One of the things I’ve heard said more than once when we’ve been encouraging people to try ‘fresh expressions of church’ (remember…a new kind of church designed for people who don’t ‘get’ church) is “I don’t know what to do”. In other words, “We’re ready to try something new, but don’t know where to start”.

Around the world, there are a few simple models or approaches that are well understood, and well documented.

Messy Church is one example, and there are at last count something over 200 examples of Messy Church (a kind of creative, hands-on, fun, messy approach to church designed for families with young kids) operating in Australia, and hundreds more in other countries around the world.  Messy Church is a well understood approach, with great books, training and coaching available. It’s a relatively easy place to start.

This week I heard some more about another well documented approach that is fast gaining traction in the US: Dinner Church.  Now at one level gathering around a dinner table and engaging in practices of worship and disciple-building is nothing new (in fact arguably its where the Christian church started…so it’s a very ancient practice indeed) but the very fact of documenting an approach, and putting out lots of hints and tips not only helps people find a way to start, but in some way legitimises the approach. Dinner Churches (such as Be3 that I met this week, or St Lydias that seemed to start the pattern) are popping up everywhere, and understandably so. It’s a relatively simple approach to starting a fresh expressions, that’s relatively light on resource requirements. Tables, food, people, a commitment to gather are all that’s required.

It all got me wondering what other relatively simple approaches to starting fresh expressions could be fairly simply documented – with the result being that a community who want to start could find something of a menu to choose from if their own ideas are slow in coming.  Community gardens? Men’s Sheds? Café Church? Park Church? Pop-up Church?

Now I have to say the obvious – one of the core philosophies being Fresh Expressions is that it’s effectively a contextual church planting movement – so the idea of putting up a menu of choices that would be parachuted in without paying attention to context seems to go against the grain. That’s a fair critique if all we do is put up three of four options and say “choose one and implement it”.  If we offer three of four starting points, however, and encourage them to be shaped and moulded to fit the context, or used as imagination starters, that’s potentially a better way to go.

For some people at least, my feeling is that a few well described options might just kick-start the imagination process that can sometimes take a little while to get going.

 

Going so far to meeting the neighbours:

The ILC, as I mentioned in the last postcard, featured teams from around the world and one of the ironies was that for the Australian team, we had to travel across the world to meet each other.

Fresh Expressions in Australia (at least using that name), has an up-and-down kind of history that spans back around 10 years.  A lot of energy was put into the movement from South Australia, and from NSW/ACT (from a number of denominations), and Mission Shaped Ministry courses consequently popped up in a number of states. It’s kind of bobbed along for the last few years with some real hot-spots (the Uniting Church Presbytery of Port Philip West in Victoria being an obvious one), but without a cohesive approach.

This week we heard stories of well-structured national organisations in places like Southern Africa, Germany, Sweden and the USA. And we wondered…is that what we need to do in Australia? A central organisation, staff, structure, funding?  It didn’t seem (to the Australian team present) to fit how things are ‘down under’.  Instead we came away committed to animating a national network, and a national conversation – but leaving the specifics of action (such as coaching, training advocacy) to local (state-based teams). We came away committed to one another, to intentional communication and resource sharing (and with some concrete strategies to put in place for those things), but sure that (at last for now) a structured organisational approach isn’t the thing.

We arrived as a group within which for each of us there were some friends, some acquaintances, some colleagues and some strangers, but left as the beginnings of a strong network, committed to one another, excited about the potential of an animated network, working (alongside others) to ignite in the church a call to be missional in nature, character and practice.

It was a long way to go to meet the neighbours, but I’m every so glad that’s what happened.  If you want to get in on the Australian conversation, hit this facebook group.

 

A personal journey:

The week also offered something of a reminder to me personally. Sheri and I have bounced around on the edges of the organised church for a long time now, involved in what we might have called “Fresh Expressions” (if we had had the language/label) from our young adult years right up until recent times.

Early in this week’s gathering I felt like I was, once more, connecting with my tribe, with people who see the world in some of the same ways I do.  I felt at home in the conversations, and found myself in the stories being shared. I came away convinced of two things.

Firstly, that over the past year or two, I’ve stopped being a ‘practitioner’ myself, eased back from personally leading faith communities that are innovative in nature. I still contribute to my local church, for sure, but only within the patterns of regular church cycles and in regular worship gatherings.  I realised that I’ve lost something of myself in this change in practice. I come home wanting to reconnect with the practitioner (or maybe even pioneer) in me.

Secondly, that my involvement with the Queensland group wanting to encourage Fresh Expressions has moved in the wrong direction.  In wanting to encourage Presbytery involvement, and in being a little cautious about the Synod being too deeply involved in things that aren’t its direct purview, I think maybe I’ve withdrawn too far.  I think maybe I owe an apology to the team, and I might be asking them to let me back in (only if they’ll have me of course!).

There’s a bunch of other stuff too, but for what was intended to be a short postcard, that’ll do for now.

In the time since the ILC wrapped up last Friday, I’ve embarked on a series of meetings with interesting people in the UK leading activities such as church planting, pioneer minister training and more. The next series of postcards will reflect on those conversations.

Thanks for hanging in!

Postcards from England: ILC1 – FX around the world

We’ve just wrapped up four incredibly stimulating days at the Fresh Expressions International Learning Community that took place at the beautiful Ashburnam Place (Battle, England).

 

Teams gathered for the event from all corners of the globe – the host team from the UK joined by Southern Africa, United States, Mountain Sky (also United States), Canada, Sweden, Germany   and of course Australia.

It was both fascinating and encouraging to hear the stories of fresh approaches to church and faith community that emerged from each of the national teams.  There’s something special that happens when a “tribe” of like-minded people gather together.

It was interesting too to discover that the shape of Fresh Expressions (from an organisational perspective) differs greatly in each place.

In Southern Africa for example, they’re a well organised team and have formal partnerships with nine different denominations.  Meanwhile in Mountain Sky USA, it’s predominantly an initiative of the United Methodist Church through that area (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana) and involves approaches to planting new churches and new faith communities in an area that seems to bear many of the same cultural hallmarks as Australia.

In the UK, naturally (as the originators of the Fresh Expressions movement) they’re very well organised, and with a partnership involving several denominations. Each denomination shares in resourcing the wider movement, together with undertaking their own work of developing new expressions within the denomination.  The movement began in 2004 in the UK under the auspices of then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams – who saw it as an ideal vehicle to begin a contextual church planting movement within the churches involved.  That commitment continues, and while there are more traditional church planting movements underway in the UK, Fresh Expressions (and the associated training and support offered under that banner) continues to be a vehicle that helps local churches and local leadership groups establish new church communities.

Each of these stories (and more) provided great food for thought for the Australian team. We gathered at the conference not ever having actually met as a team before (indeed several of us didn’t know each other until we arrived!) and through the week were able to dream together about how we can (collectively) energise Australian activity in the area of fresh expressions.

I valued the opportunity to meet so many leaders from around the world. Session times were predominantly spent in our country teams (and this worked brilliantly), which meant meal times were a noisy buzz of excited conversation and story sharing.

In the next three posts I’ll share (a) a couple of particular stories I encountered and which I think have something to offer in an Australian context; (b) a couple of things I learned about myself (I’ll try not to overshare!), and (c) what the Australian team see as the future of our network down under.

Your questions or comments, of course, are welcome.

Postcards from England: Fresh Expressions in Leicester Diocese

Over the next two weeks I have the very good fortune to be spending some time with key leaders in Methodist and Anglican Churches in parts of the United Kingdom, along with joining the Australian team at the 2017 Fresh Expressions International Learning Community alongside delegates from around the world.

Along the way I’ll fire back a postcard every couple of days to share some of what I’m learning and reflecting on as it relates to our own work within the Uniting Church in Queensland. In my conversations here I’m focusing particularly on topics such as leadership development, discipleship, fresh expressions and church planting. Your questions and comments are welcome below. If you’re not that interested in church and faith, you might want to skip these next few postcards.

Today’s first day included a briefing with Jonathan Dowman from the Leicester Anglican Diocese. Jonathan, along with Madds Morgan and Matt Pitt are the Diocese’s resourcing team for the developing fresh expressions of church in and around the communities of the diocese.

For those for whom fresh expressions might be a new concept, the standard definition used is that a fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church.  In Queensland we’ve been exploring and encouraging the notion of Fresh Expressions through the conduct of the Mission Shaped Ministry Course which has been offered by Moreton Rivers, South Moreton and Bremer Brisbane Presbyteries in partnership with the synod over the past 3 years.

In a rich conversation, two things stuck out for me in this conversation with Leicester Diocese.

The first is that the Diocese have big, ambitious goals with respect to fresh expressions of church. They plan to have one fresh expression of church for every parish church within the diocese by 2030. That’s a total of around 300 fresh expressions. At this moment there are around 60 in existence, together with another approximately 100 mission initiatives that are exciting, but don’t quite bear all the hallmarks necessary to meet the diocese’s definition of a fresh expression. That’s a big goal. An unashamedly big goal. And to achieve it is going to take a huge investment of time, energy and resources, together with a willingness to dismantle anything in the diocesan system that might prevent them from progressing.

Are we quite so ready to discern and name such an ambitious goal? Are we willing to measure it? Monitor progress toward it? Put the necessary resources in place to help us achieve it?  Discerning and then naming ambitious targets can be a confronting task, and one that doesn’t always come easily for us. In the case of this diocese, it’s providing a sharp focus for the work the diocese is doing.

The second thing I found particularly interesting was a decision by the diocese that its mission resourcing staff would spend 75% of their time resourcing and supporting fresh expressions of church across the diocese, but be set aside for 25% of their time to lead a particular local fresh expression. That means their resource team are not only consultants and coaches, but practitioners who are on the ground trying to discern, plan and lead new expressions of church.

I couldn’t help but wonder might happen if we tasked presbytery and synod mission resourcing staff with using 25% of their time to discern, plan and lead a new expression of church in our own local context.

And naturally, I got to wondering what I would do if I was given permission to commit 25% of my time to a local project. Which idea that occasionally nudges to the forefront of my imagination would I throw myself into? Or which team that are already engaged in mission in my local area would I join to support and encourage?

Could we be so bold as to encourage our presbytery and synod mission resourcing staff to be practitioners as well as coaches, mentors, educators and consultants?

Big goals, big commitments. These are the factors that I found myself wondering about after a day with Leicester Diocese.

In the next postcard, I’ll reflect on a conversation with the leader of an Anglican Church Missionary Society project called Partnership for Missional Church. See you back here in a days or two!

on meals, community, love and jesus

A message shared with Toowong Uniting Church in July 2017. Read John 13:31-35 first.

Last week, June 29 was Eat Together day in Canada.  A day when Canadians were invited to eat with neighbours, friends and colleagues, to see what happened. Watch this:

The official website introduces the idea like this: “When we eat together, good things happen. Whether its poutine, pad thai, paella, or pemmican. Nothing brings us together like eating together. We’re on a mission to make the world a better place by sharing a meal. It is time to stop watching and start acting! Join in on June 29th for Eat Together Day. Whether you eat with your neighbours, friends or family, make a time to eat together.”

It’s an invitation that is extended as part of Canada’s celebration of its 150th year as a nation. Other elements of the celebration include National Aboriginal Day, St Jean Baptiste day, Canadian Multiculturalism Day and Canada Day.  The film we just watched introduces the concept of eat together, and tells its own story. It’s a beautiful film, filled with funny, poignant moments. And it reflects many of those other elements of Canada 150.

I’m sure you that you, like me if you cast your mind back, can think of some memorable meals. Times and places where the table was the centre of a wonderful community time. Where conversation flowed as food was shared. Where the bonds of friendship were formed or strengthened.

There is something wonderful about sitting around a table and sharing together.

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small change…big deal

In recent weeks I’ve become somewhat enamored with America’s Cup sailing. If you haven’t seen any of it, then I should let you know (spoiler alert) that New Zealand defeated USA in the finals (both boats skippered by Australians!) to bring the Cup back to NZ.

The boats that are sailed (and I used both terms loosely) in this year’s America’s Cup are incredible. They’re catamarans that rise out of the water on adjustable hydrofoils. Getting the boat up out of the water (called “foiling”) means a massive reduction in drag from the hulls being in the water in the style of a traditional sailing boat.  Add an enormously effective sail (that’s more like an aircraft wing tipped on its side) and the boats are amazingly fast – sailing at 3 times the speed of the wind (or more) in the right conditions.

To understand a little better how it works, watch this (it’s worth it, they’re amazing!):

The part of this video that caught my attention is about how much difference a tiny variance in wind speed makes to the performance of the boat.  At 6 knots of wind, both hulls will remain in the water and the boat will be sluggish – at best generating 6 knots of boat speed. At 6.5 knots, the catamaran will be able to lift one hull from the water, and just that 0.5 knot additional breeze suddenly enables the boat to race to 10-11-12 knots of boat speed. Go up another 0.5-1 knot of wind speed (to around 7-7.5 knots total, and the boat will fly on its foils – increasing speed dramatically up to somewhere around 20 knots.

Such a tiny difference in wind speed, such a massive difference in boat speed.

Naturally the challenge for boat designers is to generate that critical lift at ever lower wind & boat speeds to get the jump on the competition – and to then keep the boat up on the foils and sailing as fast as possible. They’ll make minuscule changes to the shape of the foils, and to the systems that control them to generate better boat performance. That’s how NZ won the Cup.  If you want to hear more about the tiny changes they’ll make, here’s another video (I told you I got hooked!):

It strikes me that maybe, just maybe, there are similarities in life. That sometimes just small change to habits, to decisions, to approaches to life’s challenges can make an enormous difference to the outcomes. A small change to diet, or sleep patterns, or the words I use as I talk with family, friends or colleagues (to name a couple of examples) might make all the difference

And, just as in the America’s Cup, maybe it takes a team to find and make those changes. They have designers, engineers, builders and sailors working together to find and make the right changes to boat designs in order to fly the boat sooner and faster.

And so I wonder, who are the team that I (or you) turn to? The colleagues, the mentors, the friends, the family? And what opportunities do I (you) look for to make the small changes to life that might enable me (you) to fly?

What’s the tiny change to help make things fly?