A Lidy bit of action

IMG_3967

Today we met Lidy. Around the back of the church he is part of sit large water carriers branded with the name of the international charity that provided them. That charity has now left.

I say this not to make another charity look bad, because we were told they’d help train villages up in fish rearing, pig rearing, insect rearing. Yes, they rear insects here, they’re quite a delicacy (I ate a few myself yesterday). I say this because no charity can stay for ever, and if they did that would be a bad thing.

Lidy is only twenty and is the umoja facilitator for his church. Over the past year a group from the church have come together to ask what their community needs.

What a previous aid organisation had begun to do was encourage the local community to be a part of the development they were delivering and have an investment in the animals they were rearing. Umoja takes this a step further, it is for communities to take responsibility for the needs they identify.

For Lidy and his church the needs of their community were:

    1. Education
    2. Health
    3. Financial problems
    4. Spiritual need

On the inside wall of the church is written their vision statement. They want to increase the size of the congregation, they want to raise up leaders, they want to improve life for the community around them and along the bottom written in English it says: ‘Love Jesus Forever’.

This is a church taking responsibility for the place that God has placed them, they have recognised the needs around them and they want to do something about it.

Many members of the church are part of a savings group, where they invest regularly and from which they are able to borrow if they need to. It costs money to travel into town to use the bank, and the interest rates make borrowing money an expensive activity. I was reminded of churches in the UK setting up credit unions to offer an alternative to pay day lenders – maybe things aren’t so different here.

Lidy’s church is looking to set up a crop growing project and perhaps restart some pig rearing. These will both happen on the church’s land.

Before we left the church we got into a bit of impromptu volleyball over an electrical wire with a couple of the kids that had gathered round to watch. Whether it was projects to serve the community, or a place for kids to play, this church was looking to be somewhere for the whole community in years to come.

After one year they’ve barely started and the work Tearfund are involved with is delivering change through investing in people, like Lidy, who will not leave after their programme is finished. If you want to support Tearfund train more people like Lidy find out how you can at www.tearfund.org/bloggers.

IMG_3986

Writing and wronging: learning lessons as I go along

Jan Feb 2012 002Recently I have rather gone off blogging.

There’s a lot I could say, I’m fascinated by the current resurgent feminism that is highly active in many Christian circles. I want Christians to have a grounded, reasoned, theological and compassionate understanding of equality. And I want it to make a difference.

I want Christians to have confidence in their beliefs and not fear their doubts. I could write a lot more about that.

I want the church to be a place where we stand close enough to each other to see the pain in the eyes before words need to be said. When tears are greeted with arms wide open and not a shrug of the shoulder.

I want the church to be a home for the fatherless. A refuge for the widows. A community for the lonely. A sanctuary for the forgotten.

I want the church to be united.

But that doesn’t mean I want dissenters to be silenced. I’m sure I’ve been guilty at times of playing the unity card. You know the one, a bit like the race card, the good intentions, honourable goals, but brought out to end a conversation

Unity is not unity if we stop those who we disagree with from speaking. That’s uniformity.

* * *

I was asked what my blog was about, and a friend kindly explained it was about how we should ask more questions. But I also remember that the question is not the end.

I think doubt is a good thing. I think it is what provokes us to think again. It reminds us of the seriousness of what we are doing. The act of doubting and looking for reassurance is the act of remembering that we are not alone.

Once I was in the depth of my most serious doubts about God’s existence. I was on a train, I was lost in my maudlin thoughts. And I was arguing with a God I was ready to consign to the heap of non-existence. And then I realised. I was arguing with God over whether he was really there. I granted him enough status to engage with, but I only wanted Him on my terms. I wanted a god I could define, a god I could control. A god that was not a god at all.

Because God is not at our whim. But nor is he distant. For a long time I had an image of God as standing behind me, with his arms wrapped across my chest. And I didn’t like it. I wanted to get in the face of God, I thought that was the pinnacle of worship. I thought that’s what a good encounter with God meant.

But if I am looking in God’s face then I am facing a different direction to him.

* * *

Writing is not a status game. And living a life of worship is not about status. Or perhaps more precisely it is. It is about being downwardly mobile, constantly seeking to get closer to those who are in the greatest need.

I had a difficult entry into blogging. The stats for my first month took a while to top. And even then only by a month of dedicated writing on relationships last summer. I’m told my honesty and vulnerability are what makes my writing worth reading.

But being vulnerable is hard work. There are mornings when I head into work exhausted from pouring everything onto the keys. From saying words I know others are saying in the quiet huddles and furtive asides. Words that they think shouldn’t be spoken because they’re not spoken out loud. But when they are said under the breath of so many people they need to be given oxygen.

That’s why I write about relationships, it’s why I try and get to grips with things I struggle to live out myself.

It’s why I’m looking for the words to explain the challenges so many face in living a life of faith.

Sometimes there’s also a place for a bit of controversy. Sometimes I don’t agree with something. I may be on my own, my views might be wrong, they might be unfair, they might be misinterpreted, they might be used in a way that I would prefer they were not. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t speak.

Because unity requires honesty. If the body of Christ is to be more than a nominal label we apply when we want to, then disagreement has to be engaged with and not sidelined.

Last week I wrote a post and lost a night’s sleep. I disagreed with someone, and they disagreed with me back. I think that is okay. I don’t mind someone disagreeing with me. But something in me wanted to keep the peace, I didn’t want to cause a ruction, I wanted people to like me and I was afraid that publicly disagreeing might mean that some people didn’t.

I’ve mentioned being close to packing in placing words I scribe in this place. And I’ve been told not to do so. I like the affirmation I get, I like the kindness of friends and the support of strangers. It’s a nice ego trip but it’s not enough.

I will carry on writing hard things and I ask you to be my editors. To tell me when I cross the line, to share wisdom that I do not have. To encourage me and to call me out. The words may be my own but I want to learn more, and I need you for that. In the work we do we have supervisors and managers, in church we have leaders and support, in our family we have each other.

When we write we are also part of a community and we need each other. I certainly need you.

Community is like swimming fully clothed

Black and white breakfast clubCommunity is one of those words that floats around. It fades in and out, it is always something that we seem to want more of and always something we perhaps take a little for granted. It is there when we don’t need it and not enough when we do.

It is not the fluffy comfortable stuff made up of laughs and inconsequential conversation, but nor is it just those chats that fall into the accountability category when we talk about our sin and where we’ve got it all wrong, and where we pledge to do better next time. I’ve been turning this one over for a while, several years kind of a while.

Last week I sent out an email, I invited some friends around for dinner. And the problematic word in that sentence is some. On Saturday we ate food, we threw popcorn at each other and we played Jungle Speed. But I was wrestling with an awkwardness and was ill at ease. I’m not very good at curating social space, it doesn’t come naturally it causes me to fret and fear, it encourages the anxieties of social isolation and the vulnerable liminality between the invite and the acceptance.

I’d not invited all of my friends, and there was some ad hoc rationality constructed. Mostly I’d set a number in my head and stuck to that. There was no exclusion intended, but I think it was felt. And the irony was that this vague idea of community was what prompted my rare foray into social organisation.

I have a hunch that we’re not always very good at finding that line between the organised spiritual and the casual friendship, the space where the hard questions get asked. I want to be known by people who do not shy away from saying the difficult things. I want to be known by people who can ask why I didn’t invite certain people, who can kindly, carefully, question my actions.

Church makes a grand play for providing community, where else are the young and the elderly, the rich and the poor, the South American, South African and South Korean stood side by side? It makes the play but doesn’t always follow through, it has the potential, but not always the result. Sometimes I am at my most lonely when I am in the biggest crowds. And it concerns me how frequently those large crowds are in church.

Community is something I long after. Maybe it is the absence of more permanent relationships that prompt the searching, maybe if I had what I thought would fulfil me I would not be frustrated that nothing else quite made do.

And then are the times when I need a smack round the head, when I need grabbing by my ankles and some sense shaken into me and my maudlin mood shaken off. Tonight Lauren Dubinsky did that for me:

Community is not accountability to sinless-ness. Jesus has already given us that.

Community is the people who surround you that ease your burdens.

Community is the people who fight the same battles that you do; laugh when you laugh, cry when you cry.

Community is the people who are in the exact same predicament you are in. All the same struggles, all the same questions.

Community is the group of people where, when you enter the room, you can collapse on the sofa and not care if the way you’re sitting makes you look like you have a double chin.

A beautiful story follows, if you didn’t before, pause now to read it all, but it draws to an end with this: Community is just… life. Willing to give, willing to receive. Willing to believe that we are all equal, and no one moves forward without the other.

It threw me over the edge and forced some perspective into my myopic vision. I’d been fretting over social gatherings and awkward subsets and limited invites, all of my own creation. I’d been frustrated that the community I wanted to be a part of was not forming in the ways that I would like. I got a little angry when things didn’t go my way.

I was worrying about whether I stood a chance at building the relationships I wanted, relationships I imagine I need.

All I was doing was trying to turn the community that I have into the community that I want.

Last year I wrote that: “Community is the gradual unravelling of the layers that we shroud our innermost being with. It’s the place where we find the courage to bare our souls. It’s the people with whom we can share the things that hurt more than the words we muster can convey.”

And yes, I suppose it is, but I think it is also where the layers of clothes stick together like swimming in the river fully clothed. Community is not only where the good stuff happens, where the spiritual impartation, the rebuking and correcting, the admonishing and training in righteousness, community is where we sometimes don’t manage to do so much of that.

We are in community, we are swimming together, but frequently we are swimming fully clothed.

Quarter life crisis – a community called love

One of the things that I’ve highlighted as a defining feature for the lives of plenty of people in their twenties is a lack of commitments. This can take the form of getting married and having families later, changing jobs frequently, and being unable, or unwilling, to buy a house. The composite effect of these trends is a generation that is transient and is always open to change. But moreover, change is championed as a good in and of itself, decisions that could tie you down are delayed in order to be able to change at a moment’s notice.

I don’t think this is all bad, I think there are in fact very good things to be said for an attitude that is willing to experiment, and a flexibility to change when that is necessary. But it can also have a corrosive effect. It can shun stability as boring or constricting, it can limit the depth of relationships, and it stands in the way of developing community.

We’re so open to change that we no longer know what holds us together.

In the absence of married and family life, not only is permanence a luxury, but community is harder to form. I may have plenty of friends, I may have a diary full of social activities, and facebook notifications inviting me to more, but am I part of a community that invests in each other and cares and grows.

There is something about being part of a family unit that makes the development of community easier. And as you grow older and more people shift into that camp the remaining options become sparser. This is on top of the life in a city such as London where people frequently work long hours, commute considerable distances, live far apart and have hectic social lives. Where in this space does the energy and capacity for community?

A contradiction is at work here, I want to be a part of something, I want to know people and I want to be known. But I don’t always make the sacrifices necessary to make that happen. I tick the box to say that I want it but my priorities tell a different tale. We turn creating community into a purpose that we can reduce to defined functions and complete. We will spend time with people, we will eat together, we will be accountable to one another. We will do so much while still failing to build a community of love.

There are two things that mimic community but in my experience tend to fall short. The first is friendship groups and social activity and the second are church small groups. I think they come at the need from two different directions, friendships are built on time and communal activity, small groups based on defined purpose and structured meeting.

And we avoid intentionality, whether it’s in friendships or in church small groups. We like things to go with the flow, intentionality in friendship seems forced, and our church groups are too often simply a secondary reprise of the Sunday before. We can do a lot of stuff, whether it’s social or spiritual activity, but that doesn’t by itself translate to community.

I’m beginning to think that the starting point for developing an authentic community is a willingness to prioritise, so that while other things will make their calls on our life, the community to which we commit does not suffer. The social dimension of the gospel means that we cannot live out our faith alone, or in narrow silos unconcerned with each other. It needs an integrated space where we may live different lives, and work out our own stories but we can come together, and in doing that the stories of our life will always be changed.

Love is a verb: relationships are hard

I have this idea of how I want things to be. How everything works out so that I am kept happy and other people don’t complain.

That’s really what I want most of the time. Peace and tranquillity. Harmony over hostility. A community of people defined by honesty, integrity and challenge. Not easy, but good.

But that’s not how things work. Not in my life, and not in yours. I don’t have to be a prophet to tell you that.

Yesterday ChristChurch London began a new series on relationships and eased into things with a broad overview of the vitality of relationships for us all. Yet also about how hard that can be.

Bonhoeffer makes this point well, if you parse through the complex language he makes a simple point.

Innumerable times a whole community has been broken down because it has sprung from a wish dream, an illusion a fantasy. The serious person is likely to bring with him or her a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realise it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams

Just as God desires to bring us to a place of genuine friendship, so surely we must be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment, with others, with Christians in general and if we are fortunate, with ourselves. God will not permit us, even for a moment to live in a dream world. Only the friendship which faces such disillusionment with all its unhappy and ugly aspects begins to be what it could be in God’s eyes. As soon as the shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.

Basically, life with other people is hard.

And that shouldn’t surprise us. God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Our dreams of autonomy, our dreams and ideas of how our life should be. Our vision of happiness and contented lives. Lives that are defined by our standards and not by commitment to others.

When we commit to others that we acknowledge that we do not come first. We give more than we take, we love more than we expect to be loved.

Because that is how God first loved us. He loves us more than we can ever love him. When Jesus asked Peter to tend his sheep and whether he loved him thrice over, Peter did not feel capable to match his love. But in the words of Kierkegaard, when we turn to God we find that He has already turned.

And that’s enough.

It’s a sign of what a committed relationship looks like. It’s the model that we should look to before we start designing the friendships of our halcyon desires.   

My love/hate relationship with social media

At the end of church, after meetings, when I surface from the tube, the first thing I do is check my phone. Sometimes I’ve felt it buzzing away while I’ve sat politely ignoring it’s vibrating clarion call, but even if I haven’t, I might have missed it so I check anyway. And those times I exile myself from communication for minutes or even hours, I fervently check as soon as I can. I don’t want to be out of the loop.

Plenty of the communicative stimuli are not even directed at me. I graze through twitter browsing the frequently inane or irrelevant things others have to say. And those I do care about only occasionally have any true connection to the rest of my life.

I am at the same time connected to everyone but connecting with no one.

There’s a growing commentariat on the affect of new media on our lives: how we spend our time together huddled over our individual phones, ignoring the people we are supposedly with.

There are the critics, highlighted this week through a column in the New York Times, and then followed up in the Guardian, who make the case that the advent and avalanche of communication is making us more lonely and less able to converse.

And then there are the passionate defenders of the cause, who emphasise the social of social media. Just because it is different does not mean it is bad. It is just a new form of communicating, the telephone was not the death knell of social interaction and neither will twitter. In fact, they would argue, because of it’s scale it enables community that is not restricted by physical location.

For me, I’m stuck in the middle. I love the information that social media, particularly twitter, feed to me through a personally audited set of sources. And the fact I connect with people I otherwise wouldn’t is a bonus. But it’s not community.

The ideas behind this post would never have surfaced without social media, I first saw Simon Jenkin’s Guardian piece on twitter, then the New York Times one on facebook, and then a tweet sent my mind into overdrive. Vicky Beeching, worship leader and twitter supremo, had thrown out a couple of questions to her legion of followers (20,000 or so), and then summed it up with “Thanks for all the advice on cameras & on your favourite WordPress themes…I love the way this community works! #HoorayForSocialMedia”. (Caveat: I think Vicky Beeching is great, her tweet just got me thinking, and I guess having a big following poses many challenges of its own.)

First reaction: if I had 20,000 followers I’d get pretty good feedback to questions I asked. It’s not social media winning here, it’s celebrity.

Second reaction: this isn’t community, it’s a bunch of people who for short moments of time alight on topics of shared interest.

Third reaction: if I had 20,000 followers I’d have to put in a tonne of effort to maintain engagement with them.

If I assess my use of social media as a source of media then I judge it with one set of criteria, and if I see it as a social forum I use another. They come out with two quite different results.

And that got me thinking even deeper. Maybe I do social media wrong, maybe if I’m to really get the social part of it I need to engage more with it, talk to people more, respond more, build connections, give and not just take. But really, as much as I enjoy the eclectic range of conversations that I can become absorbed in, the question I am reaching to bring to some sort of conclusion, is: to what end am I working? Am I deepening relationships or avoiding them?

I hear stories of people striking up conversation with someone, asking about some aspect of their life they recall from prior interaction only to realise they have never spoken before and the information has only been gleaned through loitering on their facebook page.

I said that the telephone has not killed social interaction. But I don’t really like the telephone. I use it, and I think it is hugely useful, but if I never had to have another telephone call I wouldn’t be upset. And having proper conversations on the phone in public just seems odd to me, I’ll sit down with a cup of tea on the sofa if I’ve got to maintain contact with those I otherwise would not see.

Before I go searching out more relationships I want to prioritise those that I am already engaged in. I will always opt for time spent with people, because time matters. It gives the room for silence, the space for posture to convey meaning, the scope for openness and vulnerability. When you spend time with people it’s not just the things that you say that matter, it is your presence. It is the fact that you cared enough to trail through the rain to see them. It’s not just the bottle of wine you share but the words that flow from stoic compassion. In the immediacy of twitter a moment is all you have. The movement of interactions that form a relationship are lost among myriad competing claims.

For me at least, social media is about me. I’m in it for the information it will give me. I’m in it for the followers and the retweets. The flattening of access that benefits those of us on the ground floor. And that means I’ve got to be very cautious about how I use it. I have to censor myself to prevent the nefarious elements coming to the fore.

But hey, as we so often fall back to, we’re all different: what’s a challenge for me does not mean it is a challenge for you.

And maybe that is true. Yet too often it is a convenient excuse to avoid having to address hard truths. I think it’s the contemporary introvert/extrovert debate. If you’re an introvert that doesn’t give you an excuse from avoiding making new friends. And if you’re an extrovert that’s not a reason to avoid finding depth with a few people. We’re all different, but the challenges we face are frequently the same.

How do we balance the growth of community, in any form – online or in person, with ensuring that we’re going deeper?

Community for introverts

I like to have time on my own. And sometimes that means I find church awkward, because it is built around community. The building of relationships, the time spent sharing experiences, the aura of accountability and the torturous after-church process of mingling. I’m an introvert.

I want to be part of an honest, open and growing community. It’s going to be tough.

But introversion isn’t an excuse, it’s not enough to say that I find forming relationships difficult, or that I express my emotions more easily to anyone on these pages than to a friend sat across the table from me.

Credit: Jill Donnelly

I am done pretending that I need to be someone else. I am done trying to be the centre of attention, the hub of social groups, the person who is always the last to leave. Because when I try to do these things I find that I am not the centre of attention, I don’t have the glue that brings groups together and it’s just a paranoid fear of missing out that causes me to stick around until the pub closes.

Trying to be someone who I am not has shown up my weakness rather than my strength.

Recently quite a bit has been written about the role of introverts in the church, how they are sidelined by the nature and activities of church, how they are relegated as second class pew fodder, while the extroverts run the show. There is a sort of begrudging acknowledgement of the worth of an introvert’s preferences, a nod to the value of times of silence and solitude. But they are the optional extras of church life, by their very nature they do not come to the fore in the collective life of the congregation.

So I find myself in a tight spot. I want to be a part of a community. I want to know and I want to be known. I want people to look into my life and tell me what they see, I want the heartache of difficulties embraced together and I want the joy of celebrating when we overcome. But I don’t want to do it on the terms that I’m told it needs to be done.

Here’s a peculiar little thing: we value people who are popular and surrounded by others, but we also value travelling light – living with the freedom and the flexibility to move on whenever the next thing comes along. We have made peering over the fence to check if the grass is any greener into an art form. We have embraced superficiality with considerable sophistry.

And often I find that crowds are just another place to hide from people. So maybe our tendency to have lots of people around us is a way to limit how well any one person will know us. When we make to leave our send off will be packed to the rafters but our life will be empty very soon after.

I know that everyone relates differently, for some they can handles having hundreds of friends, for others even a few is a taxing endeavour. So maybe I shouldn’t judge, perhaps I should keep out of this, instead sort out my own life out and leave everyone else to worry about theirs. But that’s just the problem, we hide behind propriety and make great play of our difference as an excuse for our deficiencies; we let each person go about their life in their own way.

And we miss the chance to do it together. Because community means compromise. The giving of the self to serve others, the joining together with people who are not the same. The learning together, the loving each other, the living that brings each of us to life.

I wish I had a ten point plan: community building for introverts. I could market it to the disenfranchised half of the church. But I don’t have that. All I’ve got is a bunch of friends I want to know better, and who I want to know me better.

And maybe, just maybe, one day at a time the layers that disguise us all will give way to a ragged, radical, community.