the telling of stories

Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

Recently I was in a team building day.  It happens that the (work) team I’m part of has undergone some significant changes recently, so we decided to spend a day together as the ‘new’ team to mark this new beginning.

Part of the day involved the invitation to take 7 minutes to tell a little of our life story in answering the question “how did you get to be here?”.

Even as I write, it sounds like a simple task, that would have been no big deal; just tell the stories and move on to the important parts of they day. Right?

That (of course) isn’t how it worked out. It turns out that the opportunity to listen carefully to a bunch of colleagues tell something of their life story (even if only for 7 minutes each) is a rich and rewarding one, revealing all sorts of connections with one another, finding out what really matters, or why the other is a certain way.  The opportunity to tell your own story too, to an intently listening group is a rare privilege – providing the opportunity to think about the core of who you are, and to organise your thoughts around your own life’s adventures.

We discovered all sorts of things about each other over those 63 minutes (do the maths and you’ll work out how many are in my team).  We laughed so hard the actual laughter was funny in itself. And we were on the very edge of tears at other time as genuinely moving or profound stories were shared. It was, for me, the highlight of our day together.

I walked away so much the richer for the time shared, and so glad for the opportunity to listen, and to speak.

And also a little nonplussed.

Maybe it’s just in my world (genuinely I mean that), but it seems opportunities like this – to listen to another speak of their deep story – are a bit too rare in our modern world. Social media is not the place where deep stories are shared.  Increasingly busy schedules means the time to stop and listen (really listen…when was the last time I did that? you?) seems harder to find. Minds filled with a thousand and one things are less able to slow down, focus, pay attention to the other.

It seems we (by which I mean I) might be missing out on something important here.

Later that week I dropped into the mechanic to pick up my car – usually a 2 minute interaction involving me transferring horrendous sums of money to his account, and a few inane pleasantries.  This day, for reasons I couldn’t articulate at the time, I went a little beyond the usual and asked a couple of more open questions – and we got into quite a valuable conversation.  It only lasted maybe 5 minutes, and for all I know he might have been thinking “c’mon mate, take your car and leave, I have work to do” – but it didn’t seem like that.  He seemed to be enjoying the conversation, and the storytelling as much as I was.  This encounter reminded me that it doesn’t need to be team building meetings, or campfires or counselling sessions where we share our stories…it’s possible even in the moments of our every day…provided we’re willing not to be rushed.

Now it’s quite possible that this is not news to you, and I’m just late to the realisation (or to be charitable, the reminder) about the value of listening to the story of another – but it felt like quite a big couple of moments for me in that week as I encountered the importance of telling and listening to stories from one another’s lives.

Of course we can hear the story of another through their actions too, as the famous quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us: “Who you are thunders so loudly I can’t hear a single word you say.”  But while that is without question true and valuable, it seems to me there’s also something precious about inviting someone to tell their own story using words – and listening carefully and interestedly (a new word I just invented) while they do so.

It’s a personal challenge for me, a life-long introvert fairly well down one end of the I-E scale of your average Myers-Briggs personality test – but it is a challenge I find myself interested in taking up.

So…hit me up for a chocolate milkshake…I’m ready to listen to your story. 😉

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it’s just a trail

Recently I had the extraordinary opportunity to travel to Tasmania with a bunch of guys to ride mountain bikes for a week or so. Yes, indeed, I do realise how privileged I am to be able to do so. It was an amazing week.

We rode in two places, Blue Derby (which I’ve ridden before and know and love) and Maydena Bike Park. If you like riding bicycles on dirt trails among rocks and trees, you should put both these incredible places on your list.

Now before the rest of this will make sense (if indeed it has any chance of that) you should know that when it comes to mountain biking, I’m relatively average. I ride regularly at local trails around my city and suburb, I have a nice bike, and I enjoy it – but I’m not particularly special. I’m not the kind of guy you’ll see on those YouTube videos hurtling down some vertical descent, or starring in World Cup or Enduro World Championship races all over the globe. I also don’t really do jumps…I like it when my tyres are in contact with the ground. Really I’m just a guy who goes riding with his mates and has a good time. If I don’t crash, I’m generally happy. I even made my own hashtag to describe my level of competence: #veryaveragetrailrider

So when preparing for Tasmania, it was with a certain degree of trepidation. This is “proper” mountain biking country.

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to be happy…and yet…

It’s time I started writing again after quite a long break. I’ll probably be rusty. Bear with me (or just let this and the next couple pass by). Cheers!


Photo by Diogo Nunes on Unsplash

It was an excellent moment. Delightful even. And it made me happy.

I’d spent a few months filling in some parts of a senior role within the organisation I work for. One of those tasks was to join the senior execs for their weekly meeting. It was the kind of meeting that deals with HR and risk and budgets and complaints and legal issues and strategy questions and staffing concerns and and and and. All the kinds of things that I’m neither good at, nor all that interested in.

And this moment marked the end of that period of filling in. The moment my last meeting as part of the group wrapped up.

I was so happy to have finished, to get those few hours each week back into my diary. I’d been counting down the weeks, and the blessed moment had finally arrived. I could (and maybe did) have done a little dance.

And yet…I also walked away a little sad.

I’d come to really value the people I was meeting with. To understand that in exercising their own gifts and skills they want the best for the organisation at least as much as I do.

I’d come to realise that I was learning a huge amount from each of them individually, and from participating in the meetings with them collectively.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to re-invent myself as an accountant or HR manager or risk specialist on the basis of this series of meetings…but nonetheless I’d learned a huge amount and valued the opportunity. As much as I was happy…I felt sad too.

It was a thoroughly confusing moment, to realise that as much as I was happy (and I most definitely was), there was also a little gloominess in the mix (and it was real).

It is, I guess, a strange, but very human thing that we can have these seemingly contradictory feelings in the same moment.

Maybe it’s similar to those contradictory feelings of grief and relief when an elderly relative passes after long and painful health battle.

Or the mix of disappointment and joy when a much-anticipated event is cancelled, but frees up enough time for some long overdue family time (or an afternoon nap 😉 ).

Maybe living with contradiction, with seemingly contrary emotions is entirely human. Is holding in tension two things that seem impossible to have happily co-exist a vital daily reality?

For me at least, realising my capacity to be both happy and sad in the same moment was a helpful reminder. A reminder that the world I inhabit is rarely either/or. Rarely black or white. It’s more often both/and. More often shades of grey.

In so many ways we’re inhabiting a complex world, building for ourselves a a complex and confusing culture. I wonder if, for me at least, learning this capacity to hold opposites in tension, to notice the contrasts in myself, and in the world around me, might just help me make sense of it.

Being happy and sad at the same moment might just be a pointer to a bigger reality.

Still, the next time the appointed hour for that meeting rolls around and I notice a big yawning space in my diary so I can pursue other work? I think happiness might just win out. 🙂

of place and community

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at Toowong Uniting Church (my family’s local church). I don’t do it all that often, but enjoy the opportunity when it arises. This week I spoke from the bible passage of Jeremiah 29:1-14 as part of the congregation’s series on Jeremiah. Take a read of the passage, and then continue on for the thoughts I shared. It’s a fascinating story (Jeremiah’s) and I found it a really interesting one to dig into. One cautionary note as you read – this text is written to be spoken – so it might lose something as a pure piece of text….sorry!

Let’s start his morning by setting a little of the context for this passage.  We find ourselves reading the story of the Israelites in a period of exile – royalty, senior figures, priests, prophets, artists – have been removed from their land and carried off to Babylon in the north.

Jeremiah had been prophesying about this event for a couple of decades or more – Matt pointed that out for us in his introduction to Jeremiah last week.  This message from God via Jeremiah hasn’t been popular, and it hasn’t been well received, but Jeremiah has been consistent and steadfast in his word to the people.  Geo-politically over this period the Babylonian empire has been on the ascendance, and they’re taking power, spreading their wings. Theologically, these events are foretold as God’s judgement on the people of Israel for their behaviour.

And so they’re gone. Captive. Hauled off to the Babylonian city. Removed from home, land, temple. Prisoners. Broken. Frightened. Huddled together wondering what next. Probably feeling abandoned by God, and maybe, just maybe, starting to wonder whether they should have been listening to Jeremiah all along.

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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?”

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!