Monday, October 31, 2016


There was a great tweet doing the rounds recently: 'We no longer listen in order to understand; we listen in order to reply'.

I think it arose from the writer's consideration of polarised debates (on Brexit, gay rights in church, Corbyn, etc etc). And the more I reflect on it, the truer I think it is.

I've been volunteering for a small organisation that creates safe spaces for facilitated conversation in neighbourhoods where people feel threatened, typically by immigration. There is no agenda other than to enable and listen to hear honest, personal storytelling. It's incredibly powerful because, when people are carefully listened to without fearful reaction, they have space to hear their own voice more clearly.

I've become more and more interested in silent prayer and the idea of spiritual accompaniment, where the subject is faced with (uncomfortable) space and silence and can therefore undergo quite radical inner change. To really listen, or be listened to, is demanding and challenging.

I've noticed how many churches and Christian organisations organise themselves around an agenda. (It might be called a mission statement. It's usually an agenda.) In practice, this often means only voices that fit the plan are tolerated. Dissidents are suspect, marginalised and excluded. Gifts are turned down.

It's easy to decide we have a personal contact 'figured out' when, really, all we know is our belittling fantasy of them: "Oh, of course, Sue is an only child so she's bound to find it hard to compromise."

To a certain extent, this is inevitable and harmless. But I think warning signs should go off if:
  • you haven't actually spoken to Sue about this opinion you hold
  • you mainly encounter Sue online
  • you haven't had an update from Sue on this issue for a while
  • you have a vested interest in explaining Sue's life in this way.
Actually, this example sums up the problem quite neatly. Listening means engaging with people and the world as it actually is. Too often we hear and reply according to our particular brand of fantasy about the world and other people. Liberals are elitists. Brexiteers are stupid. Tom is selfish. Muslims are dangerous. Catholics are superstitious. Etc.

The world is pretty great, if you stop to listen to it.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Born Free?

Freedom is something human beings have to fight for every day. Sometimes, the threatened enslavement is blatant. Other times, it's subtle. I've been thinking about some particular types of ownership I, and my 'empowered' generation and culture, need to resist.

Social media aims to possess. I was very struck by a comment made to me by a digital communications professional: "For Twitter, any moment you're not using Twitter is a failure."

It's true, of course. Even if yours are healthy, controlled, sociable tweets, you are engaged in a constant battle to ensure you use the platform on your own terms, not Twitter's, not Tesco's and not that aiming-for-1000-followers 'friend'. Depending on your personality type, this might be a fun and energising negotiation. For others, it's exhausting.

Advertising and consumerism batter us. Perhaps our generation is the first to have to filter the PR from the reality quite so assiduously. We opt out of the marketing clause in EVERYTHING and still cannot escape its tentacles.

(Of course, even more important than resisting victimhood is resisting becoming perpetrators. I hope I am learning to pay better attention to acquaintances new and old, lest I see them primarily as resources, using texts and facebook to win them over, filling my empty diary spaces and projects with them, quite carelessly and egotistically.)

Even the things we want to be a part of must be watched for attempts to colonise. I am a committed Labour party member and donor to various charities - and I unsubscribe from all their email communications.

I see how difficult it is for the charities I support and the churches I attend to avoid treating me as a resource to be fully tapped. Competitor mode seems the only option, these days. And, in the fight to survive, more dedication from more people is the route to power and wealth.

For me, the Twitter observation above is helpful. Twitter has no right to decide whether I have failed in some way. I cannot think of any person or organisation that has such a right (unless we speak of the Divine).

So, in our age of mass-communication, who can be trusted to respect your freedom? Nobody whose invitation to attend more, give more, do more or change yourself carries with it a hint you will be less, you will fail, if you do not comply. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

Give and take

A friend told me everyone must work out whether they're a giver or a taker, and confidently own that identity. Or something to that effect. (Spoiler: this is not a post about sex.)

In Acts, the apostle Paul (mis)quotes Jesus: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive'.

Paul's words may be an oft-needed challenge to selfish living. But we have no record of Jesus saying them and they invite the misinterpretation that the person with something to give is superior.

My response to my friend might be: who do you think confidently owns the identity 'Taker'? Isn't the answer: "nobody"? In which case, who do we self-declared givers label as the unaware Needy among us?

We do tend to flatten other people by categorising them in this way. As either victim or potential hero / villain.

A single friend recounted how she was approached at a wedding, where she was having a good time but happened to be a bit older than the bride, and pityingly told: "This must be SO hard for you.". Bam. Victimised and disempowered by a statement.

In some marriages, there is a tendency for one spouse (more often, the man) to see themselves as the carrier of the relationship, the sponge, tasked with looking after the more vulnerable partner, absorbing their weaknesses, keeping the show on the road.

In choosing friends, some will shun those who present themselves as weak. Who choose to use statements like: "I find that too hard"; "My life isn't fair"; "I've had such a bad experience". Others actively seek this out, threatened by the 'boasting' of those who choose to present themselves as strong. (And isn't the difference is as much presentation as fact?)

On the one hand, I think we all need to be both giver and receiver. At different times and in different roles. We need to know our ability to determine the future and influence the world with our offerings. And we need to accept that others affect those things, too.

On the other, it's clear some people just do have more to contribute than others. Are 'favoured', perhaps, in biblical terms. This often breeds pride and resentment, which reveals how much we let ourselves believe that those who contribute more are worth more. Or, conversely, are less deserving of care.

Thus far, in my life, I've mainly been perceived as a Giver and I think I present that way. Which I know puts some people off and attracts others. In my marriage, I find it essential to be both.  And at certain times (eg, as a new mum in Canada) I have been able to offer very little, while taking much.

But isn't the whole thing a false dichotomy? A giver cannot exist without a receiver. So, the more I have to give, the more I need others to take it. It is no indication of my greater or lesser value. If someone decides to deny me the opportunity to be a friend, an influencer, a helper, I am stuck. Forced to bury my talents in the ground.

The giver needs the taker, arguably more than the other way around. And neither can exist without the other because it is in relationship that they come to be.

Not long before my conversation with my friend, I'd heard that the essence of church is the meeting of needs. Christ is not in the need itself, the needy person nor the giver. But he is incarnate in the moment they come together, in their acceptance of and gratitude for one another.