Tuesday, 31 December 2013

In this new year...

In this new year
I will
not check Twitter
while the kids are splashing
in the bath
and put away
the phone and iPad and laptop
by 10pm
and go to bed
the things
I have been thankful for
and try to remember
to do the laundry
and give up
and walk more
and try again
to grow vegetables
and embrace
and spend a day
each month
with some nuns
and hand-write
plenty of thank-you notes
and pray
for those
I've said
I'll pray for
and go swimming
in the odd gap
in my working week
and grab
more chances
to go on hot dates
with my wife
and think twice
in the middle
of arguments
and turn anger
into action
and not just retweets
on Twitter
and work on
quality not quantity
with friends
and strangers
and knock
on more doors
to find out
my neighbours
care about
and take
the time
to read
and poems
and spend
more time
eating and drinking
and pick up
some new
and celebrate
of the small things
and breathe
more consciously
and write
a PhD
and less
'To do' lists

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Waiting for dawn to break (Midnight Mass sermon 2013)

[a bit of a rough and ready draft, with deep gratitude to Julian Dobson, whose brilliant blogpost ‘A truce and a common: a Christmas story’ (http://livingwithrats.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/a-truce-and-common-christmas-story.html) helped both shape and 'earth' my more disparate thoughts]

The rabbi asked his students: “How can we determine the hour of the dawn, when the night ends and the day begins?” One of the students suggested: “When from a distance you can see the difference between a dog and a sheep?” “No,” answered the rabbi. “Is it when you can tell the difference between a fig tree and a grapevine?” asked a second student. “No,” the rabbi said. “Please tell us the answer then,” said the students. “It is dawn,” said the wise teacher, “when you look into the face of another human being and you have enough light in you to recognize your brother or sister. Until then it is night, and darkness is still with us.”

Two years ago, in the middle of this church, a tent appeared, just before Advent, with a sign over its opening, ‘Welcome to the Kingdom of God’. It was a sign of revolutionary hope, at a time when tents were springing up all over the place, from Egypt’s Tahrir Square, to Wall Street and the City of London – canvas occupations of places the powerful thought they had under control; places where, all of a sudden, the hungry were being fed, all who were sick were being treated, the voiceless were being heard, impossible dreams were being dreamed.

But then, what? What has changed? A question echoing down the years not just from 2011, but from two millennia before. “Beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong.” What has changed?

In the House of Commons last week, government ministers and their colleagues laughed and jeered, or just didn’t bother turning up, for a debate on the causes of the spiralling increase in foodbank use, and then within days launched vicious attacks on the Trussell Trust, Church Action on Poverty, and others for daring to ask why people are going hungry in one of the richest nations in the world.

Less reported, for the first time this Christmas, people in prison have been banned from receiving parcels from their loved ones, including stationery, books, and clothes – under new rules introduced by the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling.

And then are stories which won’t reach the newspapers at all, of men and women, young and old, stripped of even their pittance of jobseeker’s allowance over Christmas, for reasons as arbitrary and as unjust as not being able to attend the JobCentre because of a hospitalising illness.[i]

It is still night, and darkness is still with us. There is not enough light, it seems, to look into the faces of our fellow human beings and recognise them as our sisters and brothers. We are still too immersed in our own ideologies, our own self-interests, our own agendas, to hear the love-song the angels bring.

And yet...

In a Mexican slum there is a destitute old woman who each year puts up an extensive nativity set. The Christ Child is in the centre, of course, and around him she places dozens and dozens of figures of people and animals. This is no matched set! None of the figurines match; and they are not in scale with each other, some only an inch high, some several feet tall. She just clutters the set with whatever figurines she can find. But there is a great truth hidden in this mish-mash of nativity characters. Although the senora cannot read or write, she has seen something that is all too easily missed. In the Bethlehem stable, there is room for all. From the highest to the lowest, from king to shepherd, from old woman to new born baby.

On one level, it is merely a chaotic, mismatching nativity set. An eccentric tradition. A futile gesture. But on another level, it ‘prefigures’ a different world, a place where ‘what-is-not-yet’ breaks in to ‘what-is’. Just like the alternative spaces that Occupy Wall Street, Occupy London Stock Exchange, and many more, created. However fragile, however temporary, however imperfect. Places in which to practice living differently. Places where we can learn to recognise each other as sisters and brothers.[ii]

The pictures of Rembrandt are striking in many ways, but perhaps most so for the way he uses light and shade. Have a look at his picture of the Nativity. There is a man with a lamp, but the stable is not lit by the lamp. The light comes from the manger, the light from the newborn Jesus lights up the faces of those around him, enabling us to see them, and enabling them to see each other.[iii] This is where night ends, and dawn begins. In the stable. In the manger.

On the day of Nelson Mandela’s funeral, I led a small, quiet Requiem Mass in this church. I was accompanied by five men, as they remembered the uncle of one of them, who had recently died. They came from five different African countries, countries which have, at times, been at war with each other. Congo, Burundi, South Sudan, and others. And as we remembered those who had died, and shared bread and wine together, we recalled the words Archbishop Rowan Williams had used recently to describe Nelson Mandela:

“Most politicians,” he said, “represent an interest group, a community of people who vote for them and whose interests they serve. Nelson Mandela was different; he represented a community that did not yet exist, a community he hoped would come into being.”

‘Prefiguring’ a different world, a place where ‘what-is-not-yet’ breaks in to ‘what-is’. A place not fully a reality in today’s South Africa, by any means. But a place glimpsed, touched, tasted.

And I was reminded too of the words of another Archbishop, Christoph Munizihirwa, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bukavu, Zaire, who was killed by Rwandan soldiers in the process of surrendering himself, in the hope that two companions might be able to escape in his car:

“One cannot wait for conditions to be easy in order to act,” said Archbishop Munzihirwa, not long before his death. “People of good will must never be disheartened... There are things that can be seen only with eyes that have cried... In the midst of it all, the seed sown in the soil of our heart slowly germinates. God knows that there is no better way for him to express himself than through the weakness of a child. This is love telling us that it comes unarmed.”

The seed in the soil. The light in the stable. The tent in the city square. The nativity scene in the slum. The prisoner who forgives his enemies. The martyred Archbishop. The child in the manger. These are the small, fragile beginnings of revolution. And those in power do not like them one bit. And so they send armed police in to clear the tents. They attack churches and faith organisations for ‘scaremongering’, and, bizarrely, for creating the demand for food banks in the first place. And a threatened king in Jerusalem orders the massacre of all Bethlehem’s babies.

And what do we do? We keep on beginning the revolution. Returning to the stable. Planting new seeds. Putting up new tents. Forgiving new enemies. Hearing to speech as-yet-unheard voices.

There is a place not far from Reading in Berkshire called ‘Christmas Common’. It is the site, according to the history books, of a Christmas truce in 1643 during the English Civil War. A dangerous, if fleeting, moment of daring to recognise enemies as brothers or sisters, even in the darkness of the battlefield. But Commons like Christmas Common – and perhaps even a Common much closer to home – are also enduring places of shared resource, open to and cared for a whole community, places where ‘commoners’ of all backgrounds and circumstances can meet each other as equals, as neighbours, as sisters and brothers, and work, and play, and eat, and celebrate together.[iv] We have a dream for just such a common in the wasteland we’ve renamed ‘Bromford Meadow’. A seed sown in the soil, slowly germinating.

Our twice-weekly 'Open Door' is another such space where 'what-is-not-yet' breaks in to 'what-is'. It is what it says: an open door. And a warm welcome, a hot cup of tea, some friendly faces, and listening ears. A place where people might come in with 'I need', but discover among friends an 'I can', perhaps for the first time.

We get a taste of ‘what-is-not-yet’, too, every time we share communion together, whether it’s shared in a circle, where we can see the faces of our sisters and brothers; or shared in a moment together, each waiting to eat until all present have food in their hands – our own small ‘prefiguring’ of the time when no one goes hungry.

In 1990, the year that Nelson Mandela made his ‘long walk to freedom’, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (who also died this year) was translating a Greek epic telling the story of the Trojan War. It gave him some of his most well-quoted words. They are words for a night like this, as we celebrate once again the Word-made-flesh, and as we wait for dawn to break:

“History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme” 

[i] I’m deeply grateful to Julian Dobson for highlighting these 3 examples in his brilliant blog post, ‘A truce and a common: a Christmas story’ (http://livingwithrats.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/a-truce-and-common-christmas-story.html)
[iv] Julian Dobson, ‘A truce and a common: a Christmas story’

Monday, 16 December 2013

Open doors, inevitable disappointments, and the stable in the world

We've found a great re-telling of the Christmas story for this year's Christmas Eve All-age Nativity Service. Called 'Knock Knock - Who's There?', it revolves around a door, through which enters each character from the story, finding their way into the stable. It ends with a reflection on Holman Hunt's famous painting, 'The Light of the World'...

Jesus is knocking at our door, the reflection suggests - the door of our home, our life, our heart - and he is waiting for us to open up, invite him in, to be our friend. It's a simple - and, to many of us, familiar - message. The trouble is, I'm not sure I know what it means any more - if I ever did. Maybe the childlike simplicity of a 'Yes' is enough, at least as a beginning, or even as a repeated practice over the years.

But 'what happens next?' is my 'wondering' question. What is it that then makes a difference to our lives, to make it 'good news' worth sharing, in neighbourhoods like mine, among friends and neighbours who are struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table; who are out of work or in insecure, zero-hours, low-paid work; on whose doormats the latest ATOS work capability assessment has landed; whose sense of pride or self-esteem is constantly battered by media labelling, stereotyping and demonising; or who rarely encounter the friendly face of another human being, other than the occasional professional, dealing with their 'problems' (or dealing with them as a 'problem')?

In Hodge Hill, we (Hodge Hill Church) have been running 'Open Door' for almost a year and a half now. A drop-in, now twice a week, for a couple of hours on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. A place where you will always find a warm welcome, the offer of a cuppa and some toast, some friendly people to talk with, and some practical support using computers and accessing the internet, putting together a CV and searching for jobs, finding advice on benefits entitlements, and more. It's run by volunteers, on a shoestring, and one of the most important things about it is that we're interested in the people who come through the door not as 'clients', but as people who come with gifts, passions, knowledge, and skills (even if they might not be the kind that would instantly find their way onto a CV or job application), and that Open Door is a place where such strangers can become friends, where such gifted people can find ways of saying 'I can', among their neighbours, and within the wider community.

Open Door has been an early example of the Birmingham-wide network of 'Places of Welcome' which has begun to emerge from the Social Inclusion process in the city, and at times has been hailed, even in the upper echelons of Birmingham City Council, as a great example of an innovative, sustainable approach to supporting local people - at a time when Neighbourhood Offices and advice centres run by paid staff are being stripped to the bone by wave upon wave of funding cuts rolled down from central government. We're certainly quite proud of it - never more so than when someone who began as a 'visitor' ends up not only with a satisfying (enough) paid job, but also as an Open Door volunteer, welcoming and supporting fresh visitors through the door; or when another Open Door 'visitor' finds herself gradually more and more embedded in all kinds of other neighbourhood activities, from Women's Group to community lunches. At its best, it encapsulates so much of our proclaimed vision as a church here, of 'Growing Loving Community - in the love of God, with all our neighbours, across Hodge Hill'.


There is, inevitably, a 'but...'

There are times when the open door has to close. There have been times where we've had to say, politely but firmly, 'I'm afraid that's not what we're here for', and had to ask people to leave. There have been times when the door, then locked, has been hammered and kicked repeatedly, out of anger and frustration.

And there have been plenty more times when people have gone away disappointed. Because they have been seeking something, and not found it. Because they have needed a particular kind of help, but we've not been able to give it. Or because life has simply been shit, and actually, short of a cup of tea and a listening ear, there has been nothing any of us have been able to do, in two hours one morning, to make it any less shit.

We will probably disappoint - if we haven't already - those senior Council officers who hailed our boldness and innovation. Apart from anything else, the numbers through our Open Door are pretty small. The numbers 'into work' (one of those ever-present, all-demanding statistics of 21st Century Britain) are even smaller. Our 'volunteer base' is committed, but fragile, and although we have pretty much managed to open the door every week of the year, with a week off each for Christmas and Easter, our rota is always vulnerable to one or two people being struck down with flu, or having to attend to a family crisis.

One of the dangers, when you call something 'Open Door', or when you stick up a strapline about 'Growing Loving Community', is that you will inevitably disappoint. Not everybody, all of the time. But probably most people, sometimes. Because such phrases describe our highest aspirations, our best intentions. And as limited, fragile, complex and entangled human beings, we are rarely able to reach our highest aspirations, or consistently carry out our best intentions. We certainly can't - and don't pretend to - meet the 'targets', solve the 'problems', or provide the 'models' that the world of spreadsheets would like to demand of us. But even by our own measures, our door cannot always be open, and we are not always as loving (or as growing) as we would like to be.

Instead, we offer something more modest. While it is rarely possible to be clear at the outset what we can do and what we can't, we try to do what we can. We try to prop the door open as wide as we can. We try to let 'growing loving community' shape as much of who we are and what we do, as we can. And when we fail, or find our limits, or just get it wrong, we try to be as honest as we can, and seek out ways of mending and reconciling, rather than attempting to cover up or run away.

The liberation, in it all, is that we are not, ultimately, the Innkeepers of the stable, 'keeping the door', issuing the invitations in, and deciding when there is 'no room'. We too are invited guests, having to bend our heads low, just like everyone else, to get through the door, and finding our places amidst the hay bales and stench of animal faeces. The door, in fact, has been flung open, never to be shut. We are all, already in the stable. Our job is to let our eyes adjust to its shadows and, by the strange light that seems to come from the newborn child in the manger, to recognise around us all those strangers who are in fact our neighbours.

On our 'Journey to the Stable' this year, we have welcomed more than 200 local school children into this awe-filled place, and moved a few of them to tears in the process. On Christmas Eve, that stable, of cardboard and straw, will occupy the centre of the worship space at church, and we will all, defying the laws of physics (but perhaps just within the laws of Doctor Who), be invited into it. And as we hear, and join in, the words of the beautiful song of John Bell's that I've copied just below, I hope we will discover afresh that the doorway into the stable is, in fact, the doorway into our neighbourhoods, and into our world.

1.         The love of God comes close
            Where stands an open door
            To let the stranger in,
            To mingle rich and poor:
            The love of God is here to stay
            Embracing those who walk his way.

2.         The peace of God comes close
            To those caught in a storm,
            Forgoing lives of ease
            To ease the lives forlorn:
            The peace of God is here to stay
            Embracing those who walk his way.

3.         The joy of God comes close
            Where faith encounters fears,
            Where heights and depths of life
            Are found through smiles and tears:
            The joy of God is here to stay
            Embracing those who walk his way.

4.         The grace of God comes close
            To those whose grace is spent,
            When hearts are tired and sore
            And hope is bruised and bent:
            The grace of God is here to stay
            Embracing those who walk his way.

5.         The Son of God comes close
To those who wait tonight.
To those who sit in darkness,
He comes to shine his light.
The Son of God is here to stay
Embracing those who walk his way.
                      John L. Bell  © 1988, 1997 WGRG, (v.5 altd.)
Iona Community, Glasgow G2 3DH, Scotland

Saturday, 23 November 2013

On being a recovering hypocrite

I've been feeling a bit of a fraud recently.

On one side of this particularly uncomfortable coin are some real causes for celebration. (I would say 'pride', but that would be to give the game away too quickly, and probably - hopefully - to judge myself a little too harshly, which is at least sometimes a temptation I find myself falling into. So let's stick with 'celebration' for the moment...) The fact that the values, principles and practices of asset-based approaches to community-building (ABCD for short) have found their way to the agenda of the Church Urban Fund (a 'toolkit' for churches, in development) and, via a barn-storming speech from the Archbishop of York this week, the Church of England's General Synod, is something that I'm delighted about. That some of the stories of our accidental adoption of an ABCD approach here in Hodge Hill have made their way into these 'official' public domains - such as the story of our fabulous 'Unsung Heroes' event of March 2012 - is really encouraging for us here (and, yes, if I am proud of anything, then I'm certainly proud of the visionary, energetic, passionate, committed people that I live among and work alongside in these neighbourhoods, and within Hodge Hill Church's 'extended family'). And to lead a couple of workshops on ABCD at the CUF annual conference a couple of weeks ago, both fully booked, both full of energised, enthusiastic people saying 'yes, this makes sense', 'yes, we're doing this', 'yes, let's start connecting', and the like... well, that's given me real hope that we might just be onto something, and that there's energy for a real movement within church communities for this kind of approach - just as there obviously is in all kinds of other institutions, networks, and neighbourhoods, where our friends at Nurture Development, Barnwood Trust and others have already for some time been working hard and seeing all kinds of encouraging fruit.

But still I feel a bit of a fraud. And I think it's for a couple of reasons.

One reason is that (in the words of a wonderful story that I have both heard told and told myself a number of times now) when I've talked to people about the ABCD stuff, I've been really aware that "I'm not going to tell you anything you don't already know." On a very important level, it's not rocket science. Starting with what people and neighbourhoods and communities have, instead of with what they lack, is not a complex idea. It's actually very easy to explain, and to get hold of. And to many, many people, it is simply common sense.

Another reason for my fraudulent feelings is slightly more complex and subtle. And that's the reality that, at least here in Hodge Hill, our 'putting into practice' of an ABCD approach has had its ups and downs, its stumbles and falterings; we've got it wrong as much as we've got it 'right'; it has taken large amounts of time and patience; and the 'big idea' has often been evidenced in very small-scale practical 'successes'. The various exciting things that we're able to say that we're doing here and now are, without exception I think, all quite fragile. There has, as yet, been no dramatic, widespread 'revolution' here. At best, there are some people - a very slowly growing number of people - who are able to tell a different story about their neighbourhood, about their church, and at least sometimes about themselves.

There is a bigger, deeper reason underneath both of these, though...

I recently bought a book which quite grandly entitles itself as 'The Intentional Christian Community Handbook'. I tend to be rather wary of anything that proclaims to be 'The... Handbook'. The thing that redeemed this book, at least as far as its cover went, was the subtitle: 'For Idealists, Hypocrites, and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus'. That works a lot better for me. I can recognise in myself an Idealist, a Hypocrite, and a Wannabe: a Wannabe disciple of Jesus; and a Wannabe asset-based community builder.

The thing about the asset-based stuff is that, while on the one hand it is 'common sense', our 'common sense' as a society, as institutions, as neighbourhoods, as individuals, has all too often been co-opted, distorted, marginalised, in the interests of what I've begun to call (with shades of Old Testament prophet frustration) the 'idolatries' of money and of 'service-provision systems'. We have bought into the 'big lies' that money is the thing that, more than anything else, determines what is of value and what isn't, and that, more than anything else, enables us to achieve what we most desire - when, in fact, the things that are of most value, and that we desire most of all - love, friendship, community, for example - can't be achieved with money at all. We have bought into the 'big lie' that the things that we most need are best provided by comprehensive systems - and that the way we should relate to those systems is as 'clients', 'customers', or 'consumers'. We have allowed ourselves to be convinced that what we most need for our safety and security is police; that what we most need for our health and wellbeing is doctors; that what we most need for our children to learn and grow and flourish is schools; that what we most need in our ageing and dying is care homes...

Now I realise I'm treading on dangerous territory - that I risk being misunderstood as, or coopted into, advocating the 'austerity agenda' of our present coalition government: that we can't afford to sustain these creakingly ineffective public service machines and we'd be much better off just letting the market provide us with what we want, and letting the 'Big Society' get on with doing its job without the interfering State getting in the way. Please don't misunderstand me. I don't believe the current regime has the best interests of people in neighbourhoods like mine at its heart at all, but the best interests of the companies that will make vast profits from taking over what were once 'public services' and offering those services to those who can afford them, and can afford the luxury - or at least the imagined luxury - of 'choice'. I don't believe that the 'Big Society' will suddenly spring up in neighbourhoods like mine, while the ever-shrinking, asset-stripping State disinvests in them, and allows our once 'common wealth' constantly to 'trickle up' towards the '1%' of the country's super-rich and super-powerful.

But I do think we need weaning off our addictions. We need to rediscover our vast 'common wealth' as truly common, but we need weaning off our addiction to believing money on its own is 'the answer' to any question, when the answer is almost always love, care, friendship and community. And likewise, we - 'professionals' and 'clients' alike - need weaning off our addiction to the kind of 'service provision' that defines people in terms of their lacks, deficiencies, needs and pathologies; that isolates them from each other and from their networks and communities; that creates and sustains dependencies on 'experts' and 'systems' that, in turn, need a steady stream of the 'needy' to justify and sustain their own existence - that have to position themselves as 'the answer' to questions they themselves have defined, when, again, the answer is almost always love, care, friendship and community.

So my own feeling of being a fraud goes deeper, I think. I am not only a fraud and a hypocrite, but also a recovering addict. If I'm keen to be part of growing a movement around asset-based values, principles and practices, then I think what I'm discovering is that we're a movement of recovering addicts, who have got as far as acknowledging that we've got an addiction and are wanting to change.

Two recent books are helping me begin to get a handle on what I'm trying to say here. One is by Christian community worker Dave Andrews, Out And Out: Way-Out Community Work; the other is by the Franciscan priest and founder of the 'Center for Action and Contemplation', Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. Dave Andrews draws heavily on Rohr's book, and both, as you might have guessed, draw heavily on the insights from the 12 Steps movement which began in the 1930s as Alcoholics Anonymous, and now has millions of individuals across the world attending meetings every week.

I don't have much first hand experience of the 12 Steps movement, and I'm only beginning to digest the insights from Andrews and Rohr. But I have a hunch that they're on to something really important, for all of us - and particularly for those of us who are people of faith, and those of us who are committed to building community starting with what we have, and not what we lack. I'll try and share what I'm learning, as this journey continues, but I think what I'm wanting to do here is throw open the invitation to others - to you, whoever you are - to join in the conversation. I think we need, need perhaps quite urgently, to start addressing our addictions. And to do that, we need each other.

So, anyone for therapy? Shall we do it together?

Saturday, 9 November 2013

And that's why I wear a white poppy: on our failure of moral imagination

I've worn a white poppy for a few years now. I can't make any grand claim to be radical, pioneering, trend-setting - it's something I 'caught' from friends whose commitment and creativity in real, costly work for peace and justice far exceeds mine. But I am increasingly convinced of its importance as a small, symbolic act, within a 'big picture' of global scope and deep seriousness.

Red poppies & 'future soldiers'

This was the moment it got to me this year. A photo, shared by a friend on Facebook. Now, I know nothing of the story behind this picture. (That, in itself, is one of the big issues about Remembrance Sunday / poppy issue - a multitude of individual, deeply personal stories are entangled in some powerful, largely unquestioned 'big stories'.) I can make no judgements about the personal reasons behind the T shirts, and the photo. But as a symbol - and it's certainly a photo that 'says something' profoundly symbolic - it's tragic, in the most literal sense.

I'm reminded of the origins of the white poppy, in a request from war widows to the Royal British Legion to put the words 'No More War' in the centre of the red poppy - and when the Legion refused, in the determination to develop an alternative symbol that bore that same message. The white poppy began with the insistence that the future could, should, must be different: we remember, not to fall into and repeat the same tragic violent entanglements again and again, but to seek an alternative future, a future where war is not an inevitability, a necessity, a normal part of life.

The tragedy of the photo, then, is that the future it imagines is a future where today's children have become tomorrow's soldiers. A future where war remains a given - an inevitability, a necessity, a normal part of life. It's even more tragic, though, because these 'future soldiers' are smiling. War, and the armed human bodies that make war possible, are not simply inevitabilities, necessities, normality - they are, in at least some sense, something to look forward to, something to be proud of.

Of course, there's nothing about the colour of the poppies that makes all the difference to the message of the photo, just as there's nothing inherent to a red poppy that means its wearer is explicitly or implicitly promoting future warfare. But the fact that such an image can be cheerfully posed for, taken and shared is witness to a wider, national - global, even - failure of imagination. And the white poppy, in even just a small way, probes that failure, that dominant, unquestioned story, and invites, provokes, the imagination of alternative possibilities.

Fig trees & 'proximate' relationships

Something similar was highlighted in the recent trial of the 'Waddington 6', which I was privileged to witness. The six men and women broke into RAF Waddington, creating a hole in the fence inviting others to follow them. They began planting a peace garden, and splitting up, searched the base for the control centre for the armed, unmanned drones that have been attacking unsuspecting, often civilian, 'targets' in Afghanistan for the last few years. Their stated aim was to enter this 'war zone', to interrupt the drone controllers, to prevent casualties and deaths in Afghanistan.

The trial judge, 'with a heavy heart', felt he had no choice but to find the six guilty, on the basis of the lack of 'proximity' between the protestors and the potential victims of the drones. The protestors, however, were working within a different moral imagination, in fact, an imagination that in many ways more accurately reflects the interconnectedness of our globalised world: that children at school and families celebrating weddings in rural Afghanistan are as much our 'proximate' neighbours as those people who live next door to us, or share the same queue in the supermarket.

The difference, of course, is in how we feel about those different neighbours, and that is in great part shaped by how we are told to feel by those who dominate our media, our politicians, the purveyors of the 'big stories' within which we so often, unquestioningly, live. And that is another reason why I wear a white poppy. Because the 'big story' behind the red poppy is about remembering 'our' war dead, supporting 'our' troops, taking pride in 'our' nation - at the expense of 'them', the 'enemies', or even simply those countless innocent others who are not 'us'. The white poppy says that 'they' are our neighbours too, that 'their' lives are just as precious, that 'their' deaths are just as grief-worthy, that 'their' future is inextricably tied up with 'ours'.

Remembrance Sunday in Hodge Hill

Tomorrow, Remembrance Sunday, people of all ages will come to church in Hodge Hill. Many of them will come wearing red poppies. Quite a number of them will come with personal losses and wounds from at least one World War, and from other conflicts in which the UK has participated over the years since WWII. Some will come with pride in servicemen and -women who they have known. Some will come with pride in a nation which, at its best, they believe acts with restraint, decency and humanity.

And as their priest, I will invite them to lay their red poppies down, in the circular space of the worshipping community, close to the altar of communion and the font of baptism. And I will lead them in prayers of penitence, both individual and corporate, for the violence of our world, our nation, and for our part and our complicity in it. And then, after our sharing in two-minutes' silence for 'all who have given their lives, or have had them taken away, in the war and violence of our world', I will invite them to take up a white poppy, as a sign of their own personal commitment to seeking peace and justice in our own lives and relationships, in our own neighbourhoods, in our world. As their priest, I will then lead them in the celebration of the Eucharist, remembering together the one and only 'sacrifice' - we will affirm - that truly inaugurates a world of peace, the loving-even-to-death of the innocent victim of the world's violence, in whose resurrection he returns to us breathing not revenge, or resentment, but forgiveness and peace.

Many of those who come to church tomorrow will, at the end of the service, pick up their red poppies again and replace them in their button-holes. Perhaps for them the red poppy does not mean what our society's dominant stories say it does. Perhaps it does, and our shared liturgy will simply have not changed their minds and hearts on the matter. But I live in hope that, even in small, barely perceptible ways, our words, symbols and shared actions tomorrow will open at least a crack or two in our world's 'business-as-usual' for an alternative imagination, of a world where Afghans are our 'proximate' neighbours with whom we have relationships of compassion and joy, a world where 'future soldiers' are an oxymoron, because war is finally no more.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Out of balance? On the theology and practice of farting around

Something has gone a bit out of whack. In my job.

I love my job, and most of what I find myself doing from day to day I find pretty life-giving and fulfilling. In my more optimistic moments, I hang onto the hope that at least some of what I do might make a bit of positive difference to the little bits of world that I come into contact with. But I've been thinking more and more recently (the imminent approach of the annual 'ministerial development review' has helped this reflection) that the balance has gone a bit wonky.

I've been vicar in Hodge Hill for a little over 3 years now. Having learnt something from how I began previous jobs, and the wisdom of others (particularly a little but incisively insightful book by Stephen Cottrell, now Bishop of Chelmsford), I was determined to try not to 'hit the ground running' but to 'hit the ground kneeling' (as the title of Bishop Stephen's book puts it). And I certainly tried. In a really valuable transition period between jobs, I spent a good deal of time visiting key congregation members, listening to them tell their stories, and hearing them share their hopes and dreams for the future. And in the first year of the post here, we spent a lot of time as a congregation reflecting on our strengths and weaknesses, the opportunities and threats ahead of us, and on our sense of purpose, vision and values as 'church' in Hodge Hill. Out of this emerged our vision statement - 'Growing Loving Community, in the love of God, with all our neighbours, across Hodge Hill' - and our 5 core values of compassion, generosity, trust, friendship and hope. Much more than attractive words on paper, these have really shaped our life together, and have turned out to be fertile common ground for shared activity with many of our friends, neighbours and travelling companions both locally and beyond.

In that first year too, a team of us from church went on a journey called 'Know Your Church - Know Your Neighbourhood', which led us to visit many local places and institutions, and listen to people in those places share their own hopes and dreams, their challenges and frustrations, their passions and stories - in ways that were inspiring and moving, which were shot through with the compassion, generosity, trust, friendship and hope which we had identified as signs of God at work, and which offered all kinds of invitations to journey together, and work together, for the good of our neighbourhoods.

But of course the listening and reflecting inevitably, necessarily, turns into action. We have started doing stuff. All kinds of interesting, exciting, hopefully good and worthwhile stuff. A brilliant 'unsung heroes' celebration. A 'play cafe' for under 5s and their carers. A twice-weekly drop-in which offers a warm welcome and a cuppa, and also the chance to help people connect to the Internet, search for jobs, and connect with their neighbours through TimeBanking and volunteering. A weekly, bring and share community lunch. A community choir. Outdoor 'cuppa' sessions at school gates and bus stops to strike up conversations, turn strangers into friends, and connect people, activities and groups together. A women's group bringing together a dozen different nationalities. A bike-focused social enterprise. A community passion play. And much more through our involvement, in all kinds of different ways, with other local groups and partnerships...

When people have asked me more recently how it's going, my reply has been something along the lines of "it's all really exciting, but there's just a bit too much of it". That's a reflection on my involvement and entanglements, rather than on the neighbourhood as a whole - of course it's fabulous that things are taking off and flourishing locally, and as more and more people get involved, the energy just grows. There's a real energy and vitality amongst the church congregation too, and while we don't, thankfully, seem to be a church where just a small group of people do everything, I do find myself keeping a careful eye that people aren't overcommitting and risking burnout. But looking in the mirror, as one individual human being within church and neighbourhood, somewhere along the line I find my own diary has become full to overflowing with stuff: activities, events, and... yes, lots of meetings.

It's the meetings that are particularly challenging. Not that any of them are unimportant. Few of them are even particularly tedious. Many are vital places where strategic planning and decision-making happen. They're also, at the risk of stating the obvious, places where people meet, where relationships can develop, connections can be made, visions deepened and enlarged. But it is sometimes in the meetings, particularly, that I find myself wondering, "should I really be here?".

I'm reminded of a conversation some time ago with the Australian Christian community activist Dave Andrews, who drew our attention to the Yiddish distinction between 'maching' and 'schmoozing' - the former being the time we spend together in task-focused, strategic mode, that most 'meetings' are made of; the latter that more relaxed, unfocused time where friendships are mostly made and deepened, and where new possibilities and ideas and connections have the time and space to emerge, unforced and unexpected. I have an increasingly concerning sense that I'm spending much more of my time 'maching' than 'schmoozing' - a sure indicator is a sense of hurriedness between meetings, turning up at the last minute and leaving the moment it has finished, so that even the time that 'meetings' offer for 'schmoozing' is missed.

We decided, recently, in Hodge Hill that we would not, at least at this point in time, become a member of Citizens UK in Birmingham, part of the worldwide broad-based community organizing movement. Some of that was about our capacity, some of it was a deeper unease about something that felt like it was being just a little bit too rushed. But there is much in the methods of Community Organizing that is nevertheless valuable, not least in its emphasis on regular 'one-to-one' conversations that seek to listen carefully, and reach into the depths of people's passions and energies.

One of our guiding principles in Hodge Hill has been what I've called 'overacceptance': the willingness to say 'Yes' to other people's invitations and offers and to seek creatively to join in making something more of those invitations and offers. In many ways it's the opposite of the 'initiatives' that are the constant temptation of churches and community organisations - it's not about 'taking the initiative' ourselves, but about responding receptively to others. It demands much more humility and patience. But it can still, I'm reflecting here, end up in a busyness and a superabundance of 'meetings' that looks very similar to the cumulative effect of endless 'initiatives'.

I'm reminded, again, of some hard-won wisdom from radical democrat, Romand Coles. Although Coles describes himself as 'not a member of any church', he is fascinated with what resources the Christian tradition potentially offers to the venture of developing grassroots, community-based, radical democracy. He engages with in particular with Mennonite theologians John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, and Sam Wells, an Anglican priest influenced strongly by Hauerwas. Wells in particular develops the themes of improvisation and 'overacceptance' that I've drawn on heavily. While Coles finds much to value in the 'creative receptivity' of 'overacceptance', he also identifies the temptation to a certain hurriedness, in what he calls ‘the theatrical / dramatic imperative to “keep the story going”’. Alongside such creative receptivity, he argues, we need to hold onto that vital ‘ethical capacity’ of ‘[n]ot knowing what to say and knowing one does not know – perhaps for a very long time’. Beyond the choice of either ‘blocking' (saying No) or 'overaccepting’ (the creative 'Yes, and...'), Coles suggests there lies ‘a host of other crucial capacities’ including ‘radical patience, stillness, “acting out of the deepest silence,” sitting around on front porches with no plan of action and resisting imperatives for quick improvisations,’ ‘asking the other(s) questions,’ and ‘allow[ing] ourselves to be called into question in ways that perturb our energies’ and temptations to remain in control. We discover, says Coles, ‘long pausing as frequently the most profound ethical art in difficult situations. We cultivate arts of pregnant waiting.’

I find Coles' suggestive insights - from his own deeply lived experience of community organising - profoundly helpful and challenging. They form the beginning, for me, of a theology and practice of the value of 'farting around'. Or, to use slightly more theological language, of the value of 'being present' as much as, if not more than, 'being active' in community. There's a pragmatic argument for it - that it's necessary, that it works - which I suspect is why community organising places so much value on its 'one-to-ones'. But there's also a 'spiritual' argument for it, which perhaps comes closer to my current sense of unease and imbalance.

I struggle to say No to 'meetings', or to pull out of roles which demand a lot of them. A lot of my struggle comes out of an anxiety about not wanting to let people down, or not wanting to be seen as 'retreating' from or devaluing things that are important. I suspect there's a bit of a dose of imagined indispensability too, which is particularly dangerous, and often not half as true as I - or my co-workers - imagine it to be. I struggle too because, as I said earlier, the 'meetings' are also often a great opportunity for the 'schmoozing' as well as the 'maching' - and can, at their best, be places of great creativity and deep insight.

One of the core questions for me has become, "what is my distinctive contribution to this piece of work / group / meeting?" If the answer to that question comes anywhere near 'nothing', or indeed 'everything', then that is the time for me to be deeply concerned, and to do something serious about it. I'm sure it's not just vicars who fall into the trap of imagining we are omnicompetent, or have to be everywhere, but I know we are particularly bad at it. 

I spend much more of my time in and around my neighbourhood than I do in church and doing 'churchy' stuff. Rarely do I regret that aspect of my 'life balance'. But I am increasingly aware that part of my vocation as a priest, as well as community builder / connector / development worker (although I am something of that as well), is to cultivate Coles' 'art of pregnant waiting', that 'radical patience, stillness' that allows those deeper connections, harder questions, less obvious possibilities, to surface. There is something deeply spiritual about this role, if not remotely exclusively Christian or priestly. I think I am able to write and talk about it with more ease and naturalness than I am, as yet, able to practise it. But I know it's important, vital even - and it might just be the one thing that I really need to do...

Monday, 28 October 2013

Living abundantly within limits: resilience, ABCD & intentional community

There's an exciting feeling of 'things coming together' at the moment. I'm someone who gets excited easily, but this feels particularly significant. It's a convergence of different trains of thought, but also of different trajectories of action - and when the thinking and the doing start joining up, then I reckon it's worth taking quite seriously.

One of the bits of 'joined up doing' is around food. I've blogged several times here about the rise and rise of FoodBanks, and on some of the many dangers of embracing them with enthusiasm. Locally, one of the things we're trying to work out is how to link up the desperate - and politically disgraceful - need for emergency food provision with opportunities for those 'in need' to maintain (or rediscover) some dignity, pride, a sense of giftedness, and the possibility of being a valuable contribution within their community. Inspired in part by stories from 'The Stop' in Toronto and other initiatives closer to home, but perhaps even more so by some of the passionate and gifted local people who are wanting to work together to may our neighbourhood a better place, we're exploring on our estate how we can develop 'community gardening teams' to help people with their gardens, pass on gardening skills and wisdom, and start transforming patches of wasteland into attractive, wild and fruitful green spaces. We're exploring how we can connect up neighbours with gardens they can't care for, with neighbours who want to grow stuff but don't have the space. We're exploring how we can get Firs & Bromford growing fruit and veg in every available plot of land, to supply a regular 'farmers' market / cooperative shop / community cafe' with fresh produce, alongside home-made jams and freshly-baked bread, alongside healthy cooking and eating sessions, and bring-and-share community lunches featuring speciality dishes from our many different cultures. The plan is that those who temporarily find themselves in need of emergency food supplies can also find themselves much more permanently immersed in a thriving ecology of growing together and eating together, giving and receiving, learning and sharing.

This movement towards local food links up with some 'big thinking' being done in the interrelated and overlapping fields called 'transition', 'permaculture' and 'community resilience'. An incredibly important report was published a few weeks ago entitled 'Climate after growth: why environmentalists must embrace post-growth economics and community resilience'. It was co-written by Rob Hopkins, the inspirational founder of the Transition Network, which began not too many years ago in the Devon town of Totnes, and is now a global phenomenon. At the heart of the report is the (deeply political) argument that 'the nearly ubiquitous belief of our elected officials ... that addressing the climate crisis must come second to ensuring economic growth' is utterly 'wrongheaded', and for two reasons: firstly 'because it underestimates the severity of the climate crisis', and secondly 'because it presupposes the old economic "normal" of robust growth can be revived'. Instead, the authors argue, we have entered into an era of "new normals" - in terms of our energy supply and consumption (because 'the era of cheap and easy fossil fuels is over'), our climate (with dramatic changes and severe shocks becoming a rapidly-intensifying reality) and economics (because consistent growth is no longer possible, after the end of cheap oil, and with debt mountains growing ever-larger).

Adjusting to these 'new normals' requires 'one common strategy', they argue: building community resilience. In practice, this includes developing 'community-owned, distributed, renewable energy production', 'sustainable local food systems', 'new cooperative business models, sharing economies, re-skilling, and more'. All of these initiatives are 'inherently local', and start small, but are already 'spreading rapidly and creating tangible impacts'. 'Done right', say the authors, they can 'serve as the foundation of a whole new economy - an economy comprised of people and communities that thrive within the real limits of our beautiful but finite planet'.

It's hopeful language, and the initiatives described in the report and the many more found within the Transition Network are real embodiments of hope-in-action. Across the world, at a neighbourhood level, people are beginning to do what is necessary to live within the limits of 'what is possible' for the future of our planet, and for our generations to come. Although the initiatives are almost entirely happening 'from the grassroots', it is, in many ways, a movement 'from the outside-in': it begins with the urgent, global limits on what is possible for our planetary sustainability (energy, climate and economy), which shapes action at a local level. Thinking global, acting local.

A lot of this resonates with an approach I've explored here a lot, that of asset-based community development (ABCD). But there is, I think, a difference of direction. If the direction of 'transition' and 'resilience' is from the 'outside-in', from what is possible global to what is necessary locally, then the direction of ABCD is, in many ways, from the 'inside-out', from what is necessary (locally) to what is possible (locally) - thinking local, acting local. Our basic human needs for health and wellbeing, safety and security, raising flourishing children, and ageing and dying well - among others - are best met by, and within, our local communities, through neighbourly relationships and communal activity. ABCD points us to the abundant possibilities we discover within community, when we decide to do 'what is necessary' ourselves. This is not - emphatically not! - to say there is not a place for institutions, and for the state as the 'institution par excellence'. But it is to put those institutions in their place, to be clear about their limits. We cannot know what we need (in the way of support or 'expertise' from such institutions, professionals, systems), until we know what we already have. We need to start with the question, 'what can we as a community do for ourselves?' before we can ask the question 'what do we need other people to do with us, or for us?'.

Into this swirling mix of connections I need to drop another one. This may be the point where some readers have a knee-jerk reaction towards the door (or the 'close' button), but I'd plead with you to stay with me, if you possibly can. The 'third dimension' for me in this big 'join the dots' exercise is 'intentional, Christian community'. 'Intentional' in the sense that hopefully is reasonably obvious: not just 'doing church on Sundays', but a deep, reflective commitment to 'living in community', 24/7, and drawing on the depths of our faith tradition to shape and resource that 'living'. Here in Hodge Hill, we're exploring this 'intentionality' in a number of different ways.

As a church, we've just launched an 'offer' - to congregation members, and to those who count us as their friends and travelling-companions - of a twice-yearly conversation with a 'spiritual companion', to explore our own personal sense of 'life balance', to be thankful for where it feels 'good', and to identify areas where we'd appreciate some help, or where we'd like to try something new. The 7 'dimensions of spiritual well-being' that we've decided to structure these conversations around are:

  1. CONNECTING, welcoming and listening - finding ways to connect with other people, to offer hospitality and welcome others, and to be people who listen with care and attention, to friends, neighbours and strangers
  2. DOING (with and for others) - finding ways to share our God-given gifts and skills, alongside and for the benefit of others, as well as ways to encounter God's presence in the work of our daily lives - nurturing humility in service, and action-in-solidarity
  3. Presence, healing and PEACE-MAKING - seeking God's 'shalom' (wholeness, peace, justice, and the integrity of the natural world) for our lives, our communities, and in our world, through our relationships, our actions, our choices and our lifestyle
  4. GIVING & RECEIVING - finding opportunities to generously share our gifts, time and money with others, and to receive in gratitude from others
  5. LEARNING - broadening our minds and our horizons, and learning new skills, and in particular, going deeper into the Bible and 'inhabiting' the Christian story, firing our imaginations in new ways
  6. PRAYING - finding ways (which work for us, now) of holding ourselves, our lives, our neighbours and our world to God, and opening ourselves to be sustained, energised, inspired and challenged by God - a 'mindfulness' that renews and sustains our compassion
  7. RESTING & PLAYING - finding spaces to have fun, recharge our batteries, be ourselves, and enjoy the company of others - including celebration and feasting - renewing and sustaining all that we are and all that we do!
Five of these are remarkably similar to, or certainly deeply resonant with, the '5 Ways to Wellbeing' promoted by the (non-faith-affiliated) new economics foundation: 'connect', 'be active', 'take notice', 'keep learning' and 'give'. They're things that are good for us - for all of us - and we think they happen to be good for our communities and our world too. Alongside this 'offer' of companionship, we've been exploring, for some time, the possibility of a 'community house', where people can come and live and 'do community together', while actively seeking to build relationships of trust and friendship with their neighbours, and nurture a place of hospitality and prayer. A place of both 'engagement' and 'retreat' - an experiment in 'living a balanced and connected life' in the midst of a busy, urban neighbourhood. As I've blogged recently, we've had our ups and downs with this dream, but we're beginning to see some real, concrete (well, brick and grass, at least) possibilities emerging - but also the possibility of deepening and broadening the 'dispersed' (rather than 'residential') community of those of us who already live and/or work locally, by exploring and developing a shared 'rule of life' which might connect our local (and sometimes more explicitly political) 'activism' with some spiritual, relational, earthed 'foundations', in a way that might just possibly prove attractive to other friends and travelling companions in other places.

Now I realise the content of these last few paragraphs may well feel, in the words of one of my closest friends, 'a bit of a left turn'. But for some of us, at least, this is where all the dots begin to join up: the global and the local, the human and the non-human worlds, the necessary and the possible, living within limits and living abundantly, the 'outside-in' and the 'inside-out'... 'Spirituality' is a notoriously woolly, slippery word, but if it describes something that is about the whole of our being and our living and our relating, that allows us to embrace tensions and contradictions and 'otherness' and new discoveries, that gives us a deep grounding that allows some kind of 'centre to hold' while 'things fall apart', then what I am talking about here is the beginning of a spirituality of resilience and community building. Just the beginning. There is plenty of work to be done to 'flesh it out', articulate it, and live it out thoroughly and painstakingly and fully. But a beginning is the only place we can start, and this is my beginning, and potentially a beginning for many of us in Hodge Hill, and perhaps even beyond.

There is, inevitably, at least one more thing to be said. And that is to reiterate the point that 'doing what is possible and what is necessary' at the local level is no kind of excuse to let governments and those invested in the world's money-systems off the hook. We need not just for local experiments to become infectious, but for a growing movement for the just redistribution of money, resources, power and value so that 'what is possible and what is necessary' can be done on national and global scales too.

I'm currently reading two books about 'revolution' (among many others!). One is by a Christian, Ray Simpson, the founder of the Community of Saint Aidan & Saint Hilda. Ray's book describes The Cowshed Revolution: a new society created by downwardly mobile Christians. Features of this 'new society' include:

  1. a relational economy (rather than a selfish one)
  2. a sense of continuity (between, in Edmund Burke's words, 'those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born')
  3. a 'freedom that is accountable to natural justice' (where 'the market' is 'harnessed to social responsibility')
  4. subsidiarity (the principle 'that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organisation which can be done just as well by a smaller and simpler organisation')
  5. restorative justice 
  6. land cannot be bought without taking into account the natural and human life it supports
  7. the media celebrate the common good, not what degrades
  8. social wrongdoers are named and shamed through public information procedures
  9. those who model goodness are honoured
While Ray has gathered plenty of evidence of small-scale, largely Christian-rooted, experiments with this 'downwardly mobile' trajectory, there aren't many pointers to it 'taking root' more widely. My other book, on the other hand, is by social theorist Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age, and it describes some recent, large-scale revolutions - however partial and faltering - and how real change has swept across nations, continents, and the planet itself. From Egypt to Occupy Wall Street, Castells analyses the dynamics of these revolutions, and identifies some common features:
  • they are networked in multiple forms (not just electronically)
  • they become a movement by occupying the urban space - 'challenging the disciplinary institutional order by reclaiming the space of the city for its citizens'
  • movements are local and global at the same time
  • movements are viral (because 'seeing and listening to protests somewhere else ... inspires mobilization because it triggers hope of the possibility of change')
  • they are usually leaderless movements, horizontal and cooperative, where the transition from outrage to hope is accomplished by creating highly reflective 'spaces for deliberation'
  • they are, at least in principle, non-violent movements
  • they are rarely programmatic, but are aimed at changing the values of society, and so are political in a fundamental sense
  • they generate their own form of 'timeless' time - on the one hand living day by day, 'not knowing when the eviction will come, organizing their living as if this could be the alternative society of their dreams'; on the other hand, 'in their debates and in their projects they refer to an unlimited horizon of possibilities of new forms of life and community emerging from the practice of the movement' - 'they live in the moment in terms of their experience, and they project their time in the future of history-making in terms of their anticipation'

As a Christian theologian and (at least would-be) community activist, Castells analysis excites me. It raises the possibility of thinking globally, acting locally, with the possibility of infectious, global consequences. It challenges me to sustain those reflective 'spaces for deliberation' among my friends, co-workers and neighbours, and to venture together into those urban spaces that need reclaiming for us citizens. And it highlights what we Christians call an 'eschatological' perspective, of seeking to 'live the future in the now' such that no experiment in 'doing things differently' is irrelevant.

The dots are joining up for me. I wonder how they join up for you...?

Thursday, 24 October 2013

On not crashing the asterisk: the value of pausing

Last Monday a small group of us from Hodge Hill Church - in different ways either 'activists' or in positions of leadership, or both - paid a visit to our friends and travelling companions, the sisters of the Community of St John the Divine, just down the road from us in Alum Rock. Our reason for going was to explore where we go with our vision for a 'community house' after our recent unsuccessful auction bid (for some reflections on that moment of disappointment and 'bereavement', see here).

My experience of conversations with the sisters of CSJD has frequently been one of surprise: their attentive listening, to me and my companions, and to the 'deep currents of the Spirit', has often resulted in a response, a suggestion, a 'wondering' or a challenge that has seemingly come from nowhere, utterly unexpected or imagined, but has resonated deeply, 'rung true', stopped me in my tracks with its 'rightness'. On this occasion we witnessed another of those unexpected responses - an interruption of our forward momentum with a challenge to go deeper, a pressing of the 'pause' button to allow new possibilities to come to birth.

We went into the convent having lost the possibility of a community house. We came out with the invitation to consider deepening our commitment to community (house or no house), through exploring a shared 'rule of life' among those of us who live and/or work in our neighbourhoods here, which might just possibly prove attractive to other friends and travelling companions in other places. A 'rule of life' which is life-giving rather than life-constricting, inclusive and flexible, which yet enables us to shape together a sense of 'life balance', and deepens the spiritual, relational, earthed, foundations of our local (and sometimes more explicitly political) 'activism'. Emerging from that possibility, even more strangely, came the possibility of not one 'community house' but two... one as a place of hospitality to neighbours, at the heart of our busy, demanding, bustling, exciting estate; and one as a place more explicitly for 'retreat', with an emphasis on space, beauty, reflection and prayer - and hospitality to a much wider and more dispersed network of fellow travellers and explorers. There is much more to be reflected on, considered, explored, and decided, before any of this becomes much more 'concrete', but it was, as I say, a most unexpected turn in our conversation.

We finished the evening in the convent's chapel, saying Compline (Night Prayer) with the sisters. It was one of those moments where it becomes painfullly obvious who is practised at praying several times daily (the sisters), and who is awkwardly not (the rest of us, including the Vicar!). We were invited to say the psalms 'antiphonally' (that means one side of the chapel take a verse, and then the other, in turn), pausing in the middle of each verse, where the text has an asterisk. For some of us it's a familiar concept, even if we might have been rather out of practice. But there are few things more obvious, in a convent chapel in the quiet of a late evening, than half the congregation crashing unthinkingly through the asterisk, while the other half are pausing, reflectively, prayerfully, mid-verse.

Taking a breath, pausing with intent, listening for (and in, and to) the silence, waiting with our companions. It's an art that takes practice. But the interruptions it creates, make space for something new, unexpected, sometimes even unimaginable, to emerge...

Monday, 7 October 2013

War isn't a video game: witnessing (against) drone warfare

Today a couple of us from Hodge Hill went on a day trip to Lincoln. Not a pilgrimage to its majestic cathedral, towering over the city, but to a less imposing building somewhere below it, the Magistrates Court on Lincoln High Street. We were there to support one of my close friends, and five of his companions, who were appearing in court charged with criminal damage having, back in June, made a hole in the fence of RAF Waddington and, once they were inside, sought to find the control centre for the 'Unmanned Airborne Vehicles' (UAVs), otherwise known as 'armed drones', which are currently flying daily over Afghanistan. On their way through the air base, they placed news articles, photos, and posters around the place, seeking to highlight to those who work there the deadly effects of the weapons operated from computer screens in the Lincolnshire countryside.

The sheer weight of this issue hit home for me today, standing outside the court building, looking at a patchwork cloth, sewn with much love and no doubt many tears, with each square bearing the names of just a few of the countless victims of armed drone attacks, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Gaza and other places across the world: many of them children, from the age of just 1, upwards. We heard too, today, of children living in constant fear of the 'buzz' overhead, knowing that this could signal, at any moment, death and destruction, maiming and bereavement.

In the court hearing, and just as moving, the 'Waddington 6', defending themselves, bore witness with gentle humility, yet also boldness and sometimes forensic incisiveness, to the evil of drone warfare, this 'new phase' of warfare conducted by some of the world's most powerful countries against some of the world's poorest and most vulnerable. The hole in the fence of RAF Waddington was, among other things, an attempt to blow a hole in the veil of secrecy with which governments such as our own have sought to conceal the effects, the intentions, and the legal and moral questions of drone warfare. These six witnesses brought into the light not just its immorality, but also its illegality under international law.

They highlighted the huge human risks of these so-called 'risk free' attacks: that unmanned drones, 'piloted' by people at computer screens thousands of miles away, all too easily allow a 'video game' mentality to slip in, that real human beings become simply pixels on a computer screen, that an explosion in the wrong place becomes simply a 'bad shot', and that the illusion of 'pinpoint accuracy' masks the annihilation of ordinary non-combatants, gathered for wedding parties, playing in the streets, or sleeping in their homes.

They highlighted too that drone warfare dispenses with the usual 'political cost' of war, the very visible return to the UK of dead soldiers in coffins, and the tangible grief of bereaved British families. Such 'political cost', while always to be grieved, is one of the decisive factors which force governments to account for their decisions to engage in warfare, to engage in public moral debate about the 'justifications' for war, and to back down (as we've seen recently with regard to Syria) when the public view is sufficiently resistant. With drone warfare, no such visible 'political cost' is there - drone deployment, drone strikes, and drone casualties go unreported (and often even undisclosed) - governments imagine themselves free to deploy in secret, strike in secret, and kill - often with entirely unintended fatalities - in secret.

Finally, the witnesses today highlighted the principles of international humanitarian law which UK- and US-sponsored drone warfare violates. Firstly, the principle of 'humanity' - that attacks in war must not kill if they can injure, and must not injure if they can capture. Drone warfare allows no space for anything other than death. Imagine trying to surrender to a drone that you don't even know is targeting you. Secondly, then, the principle of 'distinction', requires attacks to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, and expects non-combatants to be able to escape from war zones. Clearly drone warfare extends the 'war zone' to wherever the drones are flown over. And however good the technology, distinguishing a farmer digging a field from a combatant digging a mine is beyond the capacity of a remote-controlled, high-flying aircraft. Third and finally, a case should usually be made for the 'necessity' of a particular attack, or form of attack. With drones, the evidence suggests that if anything they are counter-productive, with some of the world's leading anti-terrorist experts highlighting drone attacks as 'recruitment fairs' for a new generation of anti-Western insurgents.

As well as the courage of the 'Waddington 6', we were blessed today with a magistrate who listened attentively, thoughtfully and compassionately. It was with a "heavy heart", he said, that he regretfully had to find the defendants guilty, and sentence them to pay a whopping £10 each costs to RAF Waddington for the damage they had done to the perimeter fence there. He also strongly urged the defendants, remarkably, to take today's decision to appeal - an acknowledgment, I would guess, that much bigger legal and moral questions are at stake.

The witness of my friend and his companions today hit my heart and guts, as well as my head. The challenge from here is how I let it affect my hands and my feet. But that's also the challenge for each and every one of us.

[See a report of today's trial at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/07/anti-drones-protesters-raf-judge.
Visit http://dronecampaignnetwork.wordpress.com/ for more info, and to get involved with the campaign.]

Friday, 4 October 2013

Don't run across the rug: FoodBanks, Alpha and other franchises

On one of those rare evenings when both Janey (my wife) and I were at home together, with a bit of time to spare, we were chatting over dinner, reflecting on our respective days. Janey had taken Adia, our 2-year-old, to a well-known franchised music session for toddlers. It had been alright, Janey commented, but over-structured, with little space for the children's own ideas, creativity and spontaneity. At the end of the session, a parent of one of the many lively children in the class went across to the 'teacher' and nervously apologised: "I'm really sorry she ran across the rug". The material in the middle of the circle, apparently, was only for the designated dolls of the franchise, not for children to run across.

We reflected together on the contrast between that, and our own 'Play Cafe' which we've been running locally for the last two years. We've been blessed with a professional musician for a significant amount of that time, and one who is particularly gifted in encouraging, building children's (and adults'!) confidence, and 'taking on' all kinds of spontaneous and crazy suggestions, interruptions and contributions, and enabling them to turn into something unexpectedly, unimaginably wonderful, in which everyone feels included, and to which even the most non-conformist children (and adults!) feel like they have made a significant contribution. There was something about that franchised music session and its hapless (if permanently smiley), slavishly rule-enforcing (and, we guess, slavishly rule-following) 'teacher', that was the polar opposite of our experience at Play Cafe. For children who will otherwise get no experience of making music together, it was 'alright' - but it was far from enabling the potential of children, adults, and even the 'teacher' herself, to flourish. It relied not on drawing out the best gifts and skills of those present (including the 'teacher'), but on one person following a given set of procedures as consistently as possible, and effectively 'passing on' these procedures to her students.

It struck me, as we talked, that this is how most franchises seem to work. Another contrast might be between the rigidly-prescriptive Alpha course (based on a set of videos, and some structured questions for the conversation which follows), and something we've started doing here in Hodge Hill that we call 'Doubting Aloud' - taking an issue, a question, a 'wondering', and/or a 'struggle' (already a contribution from the group, rather than a programme decided in advance), and teasing it out together over a couple of hours, sharing our own experiences, resonances, questions, wonderings and struggles, bringing insights, where they seem appropriate, from Christian tradition and other sources of wisdom - not to find an 'answer', or a consensus, but at the very least to find some language to articulate our 'wrestlings' with a little more clarity. And clarity we have often found, in the most richly diverse sense, often with dissonances and contradictions remaining (or newly discovered), but horizons broadened, commitments deepened, explorations re-energised.

I've written before here and here about food banks, and some of the problems I have with them - and particularly with the Christian churches' enthusiasm to grasp them as an 'opportunity', or 'necessary response' to our present dire political and social climate. I find myself wondering how much the 'franchise' model (and there's a particularly hefty franchise that has almost a monopoly on the 'foodbank business') is part of the problem. I don't doubt the goodness and commitment and compassion of those who have set up, and volunteered in, the many and growing food banks around the country - but I do wonder how much 'the rules' of the franchise create a rigidity that necessarily squeezes out the possibility of those who come to use the food bank coming with something to contribute, with questions and challenges for 'the system', with gifts - however apparently 'awkward' - which might result in unexpected, reciprocal, transformative relationships that 'go somewhere', rather than the grim transactions of unquestioning, desperate dependency which 'the system' currently seems to be perpetuating and multiplying.

The alternative? I've tried to describe it, or at least gesture towards it, repeatedly in this blog - it is perhaps what this blog is all about. I've repeatedly used the improvisational language of 'over-accepting', and have tried to flesh out what that looks like in practice in Hodge Hill. It also goes under the name of 'asset-based community development' (or ABCD), and I've talked about that a lot here too. But I'm increasingly realising that to truly understand what this might be, we need to sharpen our understanding of what it isn't. And it's not a franchise, and can never be. It's not a model to replicate, it's a call to conversion.