Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Fro-ing and To-ing.

"Go to your cell and your cell will teach you everything you need to know."

I love this famous instruction from a desert father to a young monk. It seems more true for me with every passing year.

Retreat and solitude. On the one hand, these bolster us against the lies of the world. On the other, they teach us how strong and self-sufficient we are.

When we went to Canada, contrary to expectation, I found being removed from all the trappings of 'normal' life very helpful. Because I simply couldn't meet obligations to see friends or family, communicate with them, allow them to help, etc, the extent to which I should do so never bothered me. I didn't need to decide how and when to get 'back into' my usual run of activities after giving birth. Even the decision about a return to work was removed. I could focus 100% on learning to be a mum, largely (thanks, snow!) within four walls. It was very affirming to have that freedom. And see that I could handle the relative quiet, solitude and intensity.

And leaping from the ridiculous to the sublime ..... Jesus famously went into the wilderness for a long period before he entered society as a rabbi. And there, in solitude and desert, he saw that he did indeed have the strength to fight the demons that would assail him throughout his life. (The temptation to take the easy path, to seek his own glory, to exploit God's goodness.)

Usually, our escape is only meaningful because of its impact on our return. I didn't want to stay in Canada and I want to re-establish myself as an actor in the world. Jesus did not stay in the desert (though it is interesting to compare the number of years he spent incognito with the fruitful number spent in the public eye.)

I have heard friends say - perhaps shockingly - that it is hard to let go of a period of difficulty or illness. Within its grip, you have good reason to turn your back on the demands of the world. You are able to be victim rather than agent. If you become 'whole' again, all those expectations and demands bombard you once again. Surely this is why Jesus always has to ask 'Do you want to be healed?' Do you want to be forgiven? Because if that happens, life will get more complicated. It's easier to cling to the notion that we are weak than accept the responsibility of being strong.

So, please go to your cell and learn who you are. And then come out and show the rest of us.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Ready, steady - argue!!!

One of the things I very much enjoy about visiting other cultures are opportunities to watch people have a good old row with style and grace. Nations I've visited in mainland Europe, Latin America and Africa all demonstrate an ability to disagree and debate without it causing offence in a way we Brits are incapable of.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently for three reasons.

1) I applied for a job with an organisation that aims to build up communities' resilience to intolerance - principally, as far as I can tell, intolerance of immigrants and muslims - the sort whipped up by the Daily Mail or far-right political groups. They work to create 'safe spaces' where people can come together and discuss their real and possibly 'unacceptable' feelings about these issues without judgement.

The organisation struggles to communicate about its work (it has no website, for example) because, as soon as you begin to put what they do into written or recorded words, you lose the essence of its conversational nature and push it onto inflammatory territory. 

2) I was sent the report from a major international Anglican event I worked on in 2008 and was reminded of the Indaba at its heart. This Zulu word refers to a type of communal discernment achieved by open and respectful small group conversation. Indaba was used to provide delegates with an alternative to taking sides on controversial issues (such as gay bishops.)

The conference was criticised for not publishing formal resolutions on matters such as homosexuality in the Anglican Communion. For me, this was a wise move. Any written expression would inevitably have polarised rather than united.

3) In my own church, I learn that all people who serve there in a teaching capacity must sign up to a list of faith statements with which many Christians, including myself, are uncomfortable.

It seems to me that here a written law is being expected to do the job of genuine relationship, conversation and grace. It is looked to for the creation of unity and clarity when, in fact, all it can do is divide people from one another.

It's always hard to figure out how best to disagree with people. I get it wrong all the time! But if we are to build strong relationships and communities in the face of polarising media, rampant individualism, consumerism and fear of Others, we must learn to remain together through conversations that involve disagreement.

Come on team GB - get arguing!!

Monday, May 09, 2016

I'm so BUSY my head is spinning .......

I've never really understood the 'self-denial = moral superiority' thing. In any of its forms. And I particularly dislike the Western obsession with the 'oh, so busy' form of self-denial.

"I simply don't have time to watch TV" ; "I was at work until 10pm last night and in again at 3am. It's just what I have to do" ; "It is everso draining - but I don't want them to miss out on swimming, dancing, football, piano, tuition, scouts, cycing proficiency, parties or Sunday school, so I spend 32 days a month driving them to and fro in the car" ; "I make myself so busy I have to vomit on the hour, every hour, just to unwind. It's so worth it."

How often does someone say: "I'm not at all busy. I avoid busyness like the plague. I try to sleep and relax as much as possible. I work as little as I can afford to."  Never! We'd probably lynch them if they dared. Lazy! Irresponsible! Leeches!

I'm being flippant. Of course, I am a victim of this 'busy, busy' mentality myself. Our culture and many of its workplaces drive us hard to overwork, overspend, feel dissatisfied and resent anyone who doesn't.

The question is, in truth, which other people are you helping by being too busy? In most cases, none. Certainly not your spouse or family, if you have them. They need your attention and wellbeing much more than they do your earnings, success or productivity.

It's a myth that your busyness is good for the world. If it's making you happy, great. But it doesn't make you one jot better than the person who does a little bit less than you do. And if it's not making you happy, as James once wisely said, "Oh, sit down!"

Monday, May 02, 2016

Keeping your ship afloat.

How to strike a balance between idealism and pragmatism? It's tricky. Maybe it's one of those life things where you must figure out which way you lean, then ensure you have plenty of shipmates who lean differently. Who will prevent you, the idealist, from capsizing into "fantasism" and you, the pragmatist, into cynicism.

I forever veer towards idealism.

When the Labour leader vote came around, I went for Corbyn. I can see he will probably never unite the party or be prime minister or do half the stuff he'd like to. But it felt too compromising and tactical to do anything other than stand with his lovely lefty rhetoric and ideals. I'm pretty glad lots of people are more worldy wise than me on this ... but I'm also pretty glad we've got him as leader for a bit.

Closer to home, I've been reading about 'affair-proof'ing marriage. (No, no trouble in Camp Potts!) It is pragmatic in the extreme. Cursory summation: never mind rights or wrongs; behave in the way that makes your spouse love and stay with you.

A lot of it rankles. But I have more patience with pragmatism here than in politics. I think that, in marriage, idealism easily slips into fantasy. You think your husband should adore the ground you walk on? That guy is more fantasy than ideal. You want a wife who excites and admires you every day? No real woman can sustain that. You believe your spouse will stick to his / her vows because it's the right thing to do? Few people can do that without a LOT of help and hard work. Let's work with the reality and not our ideals.

Why is it easier for me to accept pragmatic advice about marriage? No doubt partly because I have dedicated more time to thinking about how to make a marriage work and am better equipped to hold realities and ideals in tension.

And yet, I'm kind of happy with my different stances. As I see it, there's way too much cynicism in politics and way too much "fantasism" in marriage. If I can veer away from those extremes, I'll be happy. And there are worse things to shoot for, on these turbulent waters, than my own happiness.