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Everywhere you look – by Tim Soerens

Culture changes when a small group of people, often on the margins of society, find a better way to live and other people begin to copy them. (David Brooks, quoted in Everywhere You Look)

Sometimes you read a book that is written for the times we live in. It is prophetic in that it speaks what many already have a sense of, but the words written on the pages bring reality to the surface for all to see in broad daylight. This is what Tim Soerens’ newly released book Everywhere You Look does. It speaks the future that is already present. The question for us is: “Do we have ears to hear and eyes to see what God is doing?”

Soerens, who also co-wrote The New Parish: How Neighborhood churches are transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community with Paul Sparks, agrees that the church in the West might be dying, but does not see this a hopeless situation. Instead, he suggests that in the midst of death there is life as God does a new thing. As followers of this God we are not to hold fearfully to the past covered by a nostalgic mist that clouds our ability to discern the present. Instead, we must look to the moment now where God is already at work reshaping his church as he always has done in different seasons.

As Christ-followers embody the love of God in the neighbourhood, which Soerens sees as the primary unit for change, not only are disciples formed, but a new culture is created that reflects the values of the kingdom of God. Soerens says:

We are called to live out this good-news story not as isolated well meaning individuals, but as a team that is publicly encountered in the ordinary context of particular places. If the only place our neighbours can experience the body of Christ is during our worship services, we have failed. The only viable way we can invite people to experience the good news of the gospel is by displaying a real community of people in a real place-this is the ancient practice that God is calling forth in our new day.

The question that Soerens wants the church to ask is: “What is the purpose of the church?” In other words, why are we doing what we are doing? Once we absorb that we are here to participate with God’s work of reconciling and renewing the universe, we can practice being the church in the local space of the neighbourhood. Soerens believes that God is very concerned about the particular – he does work universally but the kingdom of God is revealed in a myriad of creative ways that are unique to every neighbourhood in our world. So more than ever we need to be paying attention to the Spirit and asking, “What is God up to in my neighbourhood?” As we do this, God-inspired projects and relationships will emerge. As we champion the strengths in our neighbourhood we can work together with the community to create a place that truly flourishes.

Soerens encourages us to engage in formational practices that will shape us for the task ahead, and to work in teams as well as to seek out others who are active in a neighbourhood in order to hear stories of the strengths and challenges in that particular place. Once we hear and learn from each other about what God is up to, it will inspire and encourage us about the new thing that God is doing and this will help others to also have hope about the way God is reshaping the church today. In all this Soerens maintains his focus on teams and working together despite our differences.

This book is an encouragement for all of us who have been plodding away quietly, experimenting on the margins of the church, attempting new things, failing, wondering if what we are doing is anything at all. Yet the whole time we have a sneaking suspicion that everywhere you look God is up to something new, that we are not alone and that the local space of the neighbourhood is where God is now slowly fermenting a new thing that is beautiful, just, kind and a reflection of his perfect love. The future is indeed already in the present. Can you see it?

You can order the book here.

 

 

 

 

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Tell us what you love about your neighbourhood

Roofs of townhouses

 

At Neighbourhood Matters we love hearing about what people are up to in their neighbourhoods. So we like to interview people with a few questions to get to know them and what they are doing in their local community.

Today we hear from our friend June Sparks who lives in the northwest of Sydney. We love the way June has a sense of fun and wonder about the place where she lives.

 

1. Tell us about your local community. What do you enjoy about it?

I have fallen in love with my suburb as I’ve walked it, taking in its seasons and rhythms. I’ve seen the same birds return to nest in the same trees and swoop the same people each year. I’ve watched the perseverance of local spiders casting their webs between bushes and trees, only to have them torn by the wind or by people and having to start all over again.

I love the rhythm of the pram brigade in the morning; the senior women out walking early.

I appreciate knowing and recognising faces, regulars, the postman, neighbours out walking their dogs, the queues at all the various “favourite” coffee haunts.

I like peeking into the prams and telling people how lovely their children are.

I like the flocks of birds circling and cackling as they come in to roost at sunset.

I like the quiet and the activity of the library.

2. What are the struggles in your community?

Our community is divided in a few ways.

Our houses wrap around the Parklea Prison. We all know it’s there, but very few know what place it actually serves in our community; we don’t own it as ours or part of us.

One section of our suburb is a closed over-fifties living centre. Because it is separated, in a way it is isolated even while sharing all the local amenities – the shops, aquatic centre, gym, library, churches and community spaces. It’s like having a no-go zone in the middle of the suburb, not by design, but just by habit – “they live there, the rest of us don’t”.

3. How have you created connections in your community? I.e. what are your practices and how did you arrive at those practices?

My connections have come through immediate neighbours, and then through daily walks around my neighbourhood and spending time in the local shops.

4. Can you share a story or two about your encounters in the community?

My community is multi-ethnic and is growing so there are always new people moving in. That makes it easy to have the 10-minute conversation to find out where they live, how many children they have, what country they’re from, how long they’ve been in Australia. You can get the main story of most people quickly and easily without it being an interrogation. The language gap goes both ways, so I’ve found it helps to learn a greeting from the major nationalities in your area especially, as many grandparents are caring for children and speak little English. Just a short ‘Namaste’, ‘Salaam aliakum’ or ‘Ni ho’ can make their day and gift you a smile in return.

I greet everyone I pass. Over the years even the regular commuters have smiled back at me as I greeted them on my way past the bus stop.

Basically, if you want to know your neighbours, get to know your neighbours, don’t wait for them to reach out to you.

If you want a good neighbour, be a good neighbour. For us that means learning to regularly trim the front bushes because our next door neighbour takes great pride in keeping his bushes perfectly trimmed.

5. What tips would you give for people who want to connect with their local community?

Just start noticing the people around you. Pay attention to who is regularly crossing your path. Get to know those people and then branch out from there.

Share your love for your community rather than your complaints about its problems. Neighbourliness is giving. I love sharing my veggie patch harvest and my lime fruit with my neighbours. We share gardening tips, and we share flower cuttings and seeds.

Notice changes so that you can watch out for others, notice if they haven’t been around, notice weight loss and gain. Complement new hairstyles, eyeglasses, how their children have grown. Doing this shows them that they matter and they aren’t invisible.

One thing I like to do is to read the newspaper up at the shops and then just walk over to someone who is sitting by themselves and offer them my paper rather than throwing it in the bin. They are always surprised and anything that brings a smile to someone’s face is worth doing.

 

Did you find this interesting? We’d love to interview you about your neighbourhood too. Just send us an email and we can feature you on our blog!

 

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Is this pandemic a “kairos” time to look at our inner world?

 

Over the last couple of months my husband and I have been reading Ecclesiastes together. It’s been a comfort to read the sobering words of “The Teacher” in this book, especially during this season that our world is going through. There is a lot that has stood out for us but the classic words from chapter 3:1-8 resonate the most. The first verse says: “For everything there is a season. A time for every activity under heaven”. I like the Message version that says: “There’s an opportune time to do things, a right time for everything on the earth”.

There is an “opportune time” to do things.

It’s made me think again that we are going through a very unique time in history and that we need ears to hear what God is saying to us. We need discernment and we need wisdom. The planet has been on pause and now as we slowly begin to open up again, we find that we are not the same as we once were before the pandemic. Things have changed. It’s most certainly not a time to solider on in the same ways that we have previously. It’s an opportune time maybe even a “kairos” moment, but for what? What are we meant to be becoming and doing at this time?

At Neighbourhood Matters, the little organisation that we run, we are consistently challenging the church to look outwards. We often say that “When we switch from asking ‘God what are you doing in my church?’ to ‘God what are you doing in my neighbourhood?’ radical things begin to happen”. A reorientation and a reframing occur when we start looking outside of ourselves. I believe this is also happening in the church today. There is a reframing happening in this season. We see that many churches are beginning to wake up and understand that the church is one important part of the ecology of the neighbourhood where we are placed to steward the community. So people are beginning to embody Jesus’ command to love their neighbour. For us at Neighbourhood Matters this is very exciting to see!

However I also think that this is not only a time to turn outwards but also to turn inwards in a deeper way. This is a moment where “deep calls to deep” like never before. As the world touches the pause button it can be time for the body of Christ to do some serious internal work that can only happen when we go through these liminal times. The liminal, in-between space that we inhabit now, where we don’t know what the new normal looks like, can be disorienting. However it is also a time that the Spirit can do the deepest work in us.

If you are a minister in a church it may be a time when the Spirit is asking you to look at your work habits, patterns and self-care.

When I was pastoring a church, there were unrealistic expectations placed on me. Clearly, there were some things I could not do and I should have simply said “no” to. But my pride and thinking that a “pastor should be able to meet all needs” got in the way. I was exhausted and often anxious. So I feel for ministers in churches today who feel more like producers than pastors as they navigate this new online space. Be kind to yourself – you’re probably not an expert on this. Know your limitations and that you can’t meet all needs. Learn to say no even when you feel the pressure and anxiety of having to provide and be all things for your flock. When I was the minister in a church my robust ego did damage to my body, mind and spirit. But this is not what God wants. God cares more about us than our productivity.

But this time is not just for pastors and ministers. As the body of Christ we should be thinking about what the “new normal” might look like when this season passes. Two things I’m asking people today is:

What will you keep from this season and take into the new?

 What is this season telling you to leave behind?

When we are forced to stop relying on all the props in our lives, often the Spirit can show us our own insecurities, “idols”, bad habits and internal struggles. This is not to shame us of course, but to move us towards becoming Christ-like, the ultimate Human. Maybe it’s a time to listen to these inner rumblings in our hearts, minds and bodies and attend to them in this time of solitude.

Many are using the word apocalypse in this time. We know that the word does not literally mean “the end”; it means something more like “unveiling” or “revelation”. So what is this season revealing about you? What is being unveiled about our world and humanity? What is being shown up about our environment? These are good questions to ask today in this space we have been given.

The people of God are bearers of hope even in the midst of – perhaps especially in the midst of – difficult times. We long for a better world. We long for the reign of God to invade our universe. Maybe this time of disruption and upheaval is a time for this new world to emerge. But we need to do the hard work of turning inwards for this new place to manifest.

After all, if we the people of God are seeking and praying for transformation, if we are hoping for a better new normal or world, it starts one person at a time with each of us facing our inner chaos, praying that God makes something beautiful out of us.

 

Photo by Geoff Maddock

Instagram: gmphoto

Fb: Geoff Maddock Photography

 

 

 

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Is the Coronavirus God’s grace to humanity?

 

I recently read an article that described COVID-19 as a grace for the world.

At first I baulked at the thought. However as I kept reading I felt that it connected with what I had already been intuitively thinking.

To imagine the Coronavirus as a grace to the world is indeed a very ‘dangerous’ idea. How could we possibly see it this way? So far we have seen thousands of deaths, governments seemingly unable to respond in time, the economy slowing down and probably heading towards recession, people panic buying, an increase in anxiety and loneliness, the command to stay home and socially isolate and finally a growing sense that things will never again return to what we considered normal.

There is grief in this. My husband and I have aging parents as so many people do, and of course our concern is for them as they are in the most vulnerable group for infection. And what about those who are weak, homeless or living with chronic health issues? What will happen to those marginalised in our community? When we frame it this way it’s hard to see the Coronavirus as a grace to the world.

However at times like this we are called to see the future in the present’ – a definition of the word ‘pioneer’ that I came across recently. When I look at the current season that humanity is going through, I can certainly see the chaos and devastation but I can also see hope, light and God reaching out to a broken world.

Neighbourly love

All over the world we have seen examples of people connecting locally with their place and with their neighbours in this difficult season. We have seen people engage in small acts of kindness such as giving each other much sought-after goods like toilet paper, hand sanitiser and other necessary items. There have also been more organised attempts at caring for those who are shut in or isolated by offering to do shopping for them. People are coming up with creative solutions to brighten up the day such as posting encouraging notes in people’s letter boxes, connecting neighbours through organised walks, writing on pavements with chalk to encourage people, and organising local Facebook groups to support local businesses and neighbours. The list is endless and everyday I seem to be reading about more and more neighbourhoods that are doing acts of kindness and care that bring a smile to my face.

While the dark side of humanity has reared its ugly head during this pandemic, overall the goodness of humanity is shining through. Moreover, people are discovering their neighbourhoods and local spaces. They are practicing the ‘spiritual discipline’ of neighbouring. Perhaps this will even help more churches to think outside of themselves and get involved in their local communities. Local acts of hospitality can forge ties across race, gender and social status in order to make a local community even stronger. Christine Pohl in her book Making Room: Rediscovering hospitality as a Christian tradition writes:

A community which embodies hospitality to strangers is a sign of contradiction, a place where joy and pain, crises and peace are closely interwoven. Friendships forged in hospitality contradict contemporary messages about who is valuable and good to be with, who can give life to others. Such communities are also signs of hope that love is possible, that the world is not condemned to a struggle between oppressors and oppressed, that class and racial warfare is not inevitable.

Getting to know the ‘other’ in our community can bring healing.

Limiting our excessive consumption

In their book The Abundant Community: Awakening the power of Families and Neighbourhoods, John McKnight and Peter Block write that local communities and having a strong neighbourhood are not just a ‘nice idea’, but rather are essential to awakening the power of the citizen who has been turned into a consumer. As we realise the limitations of institutions, we see that power for change and the building of a flourishing community lies in the engaged citizen rather than the complacent consumer. These times are making us realise that we have all become wedded to the narrative of consumerism. As our incessant global travel plans are cancelled, non-essential retail shops are shut down, trendy food outlets close and our drive for bigger and better is curbed, perhaps this will lead to a more humble yet productive economy. Maybe slowing down our economy will help us care for the environment and take climate change more seriously. Perhaps it will lead to stronger local economies less reliant on the global market. This season could actually usher in a new kind of society that is less materialistic, more measured and more focused on the things that really do matter in life.

A refocus on what really matters in life

I have heard many of my friends lament that, as their plans and jobs are put on hold, they have been overwhelmed by a sense of purposelessness and existential angst. This is completely understandable. We all need purpose in life and many of us find that purpose in our jobs, health, travel plans and study. However as our plans are altered and many of the things we took pleasure in are cancelled, this forces us to ask: ‘Where do I find my identity?’ ‘What is my purpose in life?’

It is confronting to be faced with life’s ultimate questions. However, those important questions can be masked by the daily hum of life that can shield us from thinking more deeply about who we are and who we are becoming. Often we don’t think about the props we have created in life that we lean on for support until those things come crashing down. Times of crisis like the one we are facing now can help us think about what kind of human we want to be, what we want to lean on for our existence and also where God is in relation to the things we see as crucial in our lives.

Rethinking church

For the Christian, this season can offer us a new way of being the church. As we face lockdowns we must ask about our dependency on the Sunday church service and pastoral leadership. We must think about the scattered church as primary rather than putting in so much production effort into church services, for instance. Could the Coronavirus be an opportunity to free up people’s time so that they are able to engage in their neighbourhoods and embody God’s love?

This does not mean that we cast off the church service. Many churches are now livestreaming their Sunday services, though we can ask if this too is creating consumers rather than disciples. It is an interesting liminal time for the church and it will take wisdom from Christian leaders to navigate the way. However, now is an opportunity for the church to truly be the salt and light of the world that God wants it to be. Stanley Hauerwas, in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, says: ‘To be a Christian does not mean that we are to change the world, but rather that we must live as witnesses to the world that God has changed. We should not be surprised, therefore, if the way we live makes the change visible’. How do we live faithfully as a preview of the embodiment of the kingdom of God in these times?

Opportunities to ask ‘Where is God in all of this?’

Some of my friends in the neighbourhood have asked me in words more or less to the effect of: ‘Why is this happening?’ The general consensus is that our world – ‘nature’ or ‘the earth’ – is damaged and it is telling us that something is wrong. It is a time to listen. I agree with this. Of course what we believe as Christians is that there is a personal Creator who is grieved at the devastation of this world. The Creator sees greed, injustice and lack of mercy and groans. This epidemic is a sign that God wants us to pay attention to how we are living.

Will we change? Will we care for a broken planet? Will we focus on the things that matter? My hope is that we will. Walter Brueggemann tells us in The Prophetic Imagination that:

Hope, on one hand, is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion; and one does that only at great political and existential risk. On the other hand, hope is subversive, for it limits the grandiose pretension of the present, daring to announce that the present to which we have all made commitments is now called into question.

We must ‘call into question’ the present and see the potential of a new normal that will eventuate after this awful season is over. And we must hope for and act to make this new society a place that is for the flourishing of humanity.

 

This blog was first published by Ethos. Republished with permission.

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Workshop at MosaiX Church on the practice of Neighbouring

Neighbourhood Matters was delighted to run a workshop at MosaiX church in Chatswood recently on the very important practice of “neighbouring”.

Pastor Faye Lo who leads the congregation has been shaping the church to think missionally for years. It’s not easy to help Christians today understand that the church exists for the world not for itself. Once we understand that it’s not that the church has a mission but that God’s mission has a church, this can turn everything in Christian culture upside down. This is our hope at Neighbourhood Matters.

Karina spoke on the importance of thinking missionally and referred to a biblical understanding of mission. The Bible does not so much talk about mission, rather the Bible is the story of a God who is on mission! Once we start with a good biblical understanding of mission, the church realises that it no longer exists for itself – self preservation – but rather for the sake of the world.

Armen spoke about missional practices from Karina’s book Urban Spirituality: Embodying the mission of God. When we start asking “God what are you up to in the neighbourhood? rather than “God what are you up to in the church?” radical things begin to happen. Simple practices like checking in on your neighbour when the lift is not working or buying products for them during a time of crisis can embody the love of God in very deep ways.

We also ran a project time at the end where we asked groups to think about their strengths, talents and gifts. We then began thinking about how those talents could connect with community needs. Afterwards we asked groups to come up with a project that they might engage in with the community to meet the needs of the neighbourhood.

The groups had some great ideas and people asked thought-provoking questions around what it really means to love your neighbour. Questions like “But what if I don’t have the time?”, “When do we ‘evangelise’ to people?” and “How can I connect with my neighbours if I don’t really spend time in my neighbourhood?” were really helpful. We all struggle with what it looks like to live out the mission of God and work with God so it’s good to talk about these issues together and see what creative solutions we can come up with.

.We look forward to catching up with MosaiX in a few months to see how they are doing with their project work.

If you would like Neighbourhood Matters to run a workshop at your church please contact us. We would love to hear from you!

 

 

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How to do nothing: Resisting the attention economy

How to do Nothing: Resisting the attention economy

By Jenny Odell

(Brooklyn, New York: Melville House, 2019)


When I saw the title of the book How to do Nothing: Resisting the attention economy, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand I felt a sense of joy and freedom at the thought of living a life where one does little and is unencumbered by responsibilities. We live in such a congested, fast-paced and distracted world that the thought of doing nothing seemed countercultural and attractive to me. On the other hand my conscience spoke to me loud and clear saying that in this day and age, where the world seems to be in perpetual crisis, more than anything, we need to be doing something. Certainly not nothing.

As it turns out, Jenny Odell’s recent and popular book is not about how to do nothing, so in that sense the title can be misleading. However, by choosing such a confronting title, it gives us an indication of the radical nature of her thesis. She is a strong critic of the ‘attention economy’, which, she believes, in essence wants us to continually be doing something – usually for the profit and marketing of various organisations. She writes: ‘Nothing is harder to do than nothing. In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captured, optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily’. I got a sense as I read this book that Odell has felt increasingly suffocated by the technologies that have created an atmosphere where her sense of identity and reality have been challenged.

This is something I can relate to. More and more I find that I need to be switched on to some kind of device or be engaged in online conversations or be up to date with the latest hot topics in order to be someone. I think it’s something many people are feeling today and this could be why Odell’s book has become so popular. Yet we also have a strong suspicion that something is wrong and that we were not made to live this way. Odell writes: ‘And yet a certain nervous feeling, of being overstimulated and unable to sustain a train of thought lingers. Though it can be hard to grasp before it disappears behind the screen of distraction, this feeling is in fact urgent’.

Even though Odell is not a Christian this is a relevant book for Christians who are, like everyone else, caught up in the attention economy. Odell is a prophet for these times speaking a message we all need to hear as we spend time branding ourselves, creating platforms and marketing our lives. More than ever, Christians need to be deeply suspicious of the false cultural narratives that can function as idols in our lives. I found it interesting that this kind of critique is emerging from the secular world more in a confronting way than from the Christian community. It made me wonder if we as Christians are too in love with our platforms and addicted to the ease of communication that is now possible, and have not sufficiently challenged and critiqued the zeitgeist of our times.

Odell has written this book as an act of ‘political resistance’ against the attention economy and as a statement that our lives are ‘more than an instrument and therefore something that cannot be optimized’. She offers a stinging critic of social media such as Facebook, stating that ‘Facebook and Instagram act like dams that capitalize on our natural interest in others and an ageless need for community, hijacking and frustrating our most innate desires, and profiting from them’. So the first step in ‘how to do nothing’ is to ‘drop out’ and resist the attention economy.

However this is not the only solution. What I like about Odell’s book is that it is not simply critique, protest and resistance. She offers what she sees as a way of resisting the attention economy. Odell believes we must firstly act by dropping out, then move outwardly and orient towards people around us, and finally move downward and connect to place. So it’s not as simple as shutting down our apps and avoiding social media. Odell is realistic and understands this is impossible. However her strategy is one of taking back control of our lives by avoiding what she believes is doing us damage and, alternatively, engaging in the good. It almost sounds like Christian theology in that the gospel tells us to repent of the things that are dehumanising us and to reorient towards the values of the reign of God and Shalom. I found it refreshing to read a book that was encouraging me to say ‘no’ more often as a way of resisting the pressures of the attention economy.

What does engaging in the good look like for Odell? She is an artist so her first step is to highlight the importance of paying attention. If the attention economy tries to split our focus, bring distraction and keep us busy with algorithms designed personally for our consumption, we are to stand apart from this and instead become humans again, engaging in our world by paying attention and focusing. Odell believes that as we increasingly engage in our ‘bioregions’ we become grounded and therefore our sense of identity and reality returns to us:

As I came to know my bioregion, I found myself increasingly identifying with a totemic complex of fellow inhabitants; Western fence lizards, California towhees, gray pines, Manzanita, thimble-berries, giant sequoias, poison oak. When I travel I no longer feel like I’ve arrived until I have ‘met’ the local bioregion by walking around, observing what grows there and learning something about the indigenous history of that place.

Moreover, as we connect with our place and neighbourhood, we make relationships with people who are unlike us. With social media we tend to gravitate to people who affirm our beliefs, however the neighbourhood is a place where very different people must learn to coexist. Odell’s approach is quite incarnational though I doubt she would use that word. As Christians we practice an incarnational or embodied spirituality rather than an ‘other-worldly’ spirituality. Our faith must be put into practice and fleshed out in the local spaces where we live. So I found Odell’s thinking here to be in line with the way we must flesh out the gospel in our lives.

Odell is not an isolationist but instead suggests a posture of critical distance and ‘removing oneself from the clamour and undue influence of pubic opinion’. But again, she then proposes engagement through face-to-face conversations and gatherings, for instance, instead of relying solely on social media interactions. She feels that this is somehow more ‘real’ because it is contextual, in contrast to online interaction which suffers from ‘context collapse’, a problem if we want to have intelligent, meaningful discussions with each other about improving our world.

I found this book intelligent, creative, stimulating and challenging. Odell confronts us with who we have become, a disembodied, distracted society moulded by technologies with not so altruistic agendas, and calls us to become something different – a community that is human.

One of the thoughts that will stay with me is her summary of the change that has occurred within her as a result of resisting the attention economy. There is almost the whisper of God in her reflection on this transformation. She writes:

I find that I’m looking at my phone less these days. It’s not because I went to an expensive digital detox retreat, or because I deleted any apps from my phone, or anything like that. I stopped looking at my phone because I was looking at something else, something so absorbing that I couldn’t turn away. That’s the other thing that happens when you fall in love. Friends complain that you’re not present or that you have your head in the clouds; companies dealing in the attention economy might say the same thing about me, with my head lost in the trees, the birds, even the weeds growing in the sidewalk.

I hope it’s a change that happens in you and me also.

 

(This review was first published at http://www.ethos.org.au/online-resources/Blog/book-review-how-to-do-nothing, Republished with permission.)

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What the Australian bushfires teach us about place

Even before summer had started last year, Australia was struggling with drought, increased temperatures, and bushfires.

Bushfires are a way of life for us here in Australia, but towards the end of last year and the beginning of 2020 we experienced the worst bushfires on record. As of two weeks ago, in the state of New South Wales alone, 17 people had died and 137 fires were still burning, with 60 uncontained. Land the size of Belgium had been destroyed and 1356 homes had been lost. This is without counting the devastating impact on our animals and wildlife. Currently things are beginning to return to normal again, though we might question what this “new normal” looks like.

What are some theological reflections we can make around these devastating bushfires that could also be applied to other natural disasters which might now increase with climate and environmental changes? Our theology needs to speak into the “new normal” of our times.

Place matters to us

One revealing and hopeful truth that has emerged from the ashes of these devastating bushfires is that people are realising more and more the importance of place, land and neighbourhood. Churches are having worship services outdoors in nature and on the beach, neighbours from all walks of life are helping each other out, and diverse communities are grieving for lost buildings, burnt land and public spaces that have been obliterated. This not only indicates how important our environment is to us as human beings but how deeply connected we are to the physical, tangible stuff of life. These spaces and places are contexts where we make memories and where we live out life in all its fullness. If we as Christians believe that the most important thing is simply “saving souls”, we are seriously mistaken. Our task now is nothing less than nurturing our precious spaces, places and environment and then restoring them back to life. Indeed, we should see this as an obligatory spiritual discipline.

Walter Brueggemann, in his well-known book The Land: Place as gift, promise and challenge in biblical faith, writes:

“Space means an arena of freedom, without coercion or accountability, free of pressures and void of authority. Space may be imaged as a weekend., holiday, a vocation and is characterized by a kind of neutrality or emptiness waiting to be filled by our choosing…But ‘place’ is a very different matter. Place is space that has historical meanings, where some things have happened that are now remembered and that provide continuity and identity across generations. place is space in which important words have been spoken that have established identity, defined vocation and envisioned destiny. Place is space in which vows have been exchanged, promises have been made, and demands have been issued. Place is indeed a protest against the unpromising pursuit of space. It is a declaration that our humanness cannot be found in escape, detachment, absence of commitment and undefined freedom.” 

Place matters to us. Turning spaces into places is a spiritual discipline. Today, more than ever, our faith needs to be embodied, “this-worldly” and grounded, rather than “other-worldly”, disembodied and Gnostic.

Place and land matter to God

Place and land have always been important in Scripture. We see this most immediately in the Old Testament with the expression of Israel’s faith being so closely tied to the land. According to God, humans can impact the land and the land responds appropriately. In fact, the striking way in which the land is spoken about in the Old Testament is often something we don’t pay enough attention to. J. Joosten, in People and Land in the Holiness Code, writes about verses such as Leviticus 18:25, 26:35 and Numbers 13:32: “In these verses the land is clearly pictured as an entity distinct from its inhabitants. Moreover, it is represented as an independent agent. While it is stated in the same context that YHWH will cast out the nations dwelling in the land (18:24; 20:23), in the present verses the casting out is done by the land itself.”

Often we forget that the New Testament also expresses and builds on this attention to the land, even though more subtly. The authors Keesmaat and Walsh of Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice intriguingly interpret the book of Romans as pointing to care for the environment and the land, arguing that Paul’s narrative is simply an extension of his Jewish heritage. They write:

In Romans 8:20 (Paul) uses the language of futility to describe the bondage that creation is suffering. Futility is the language of idolatry throughout the Scriptures … such idolatry is overwhelmingly linked to to abuse of the land.

Further, they argue that the groaning of creation Paul refers to in Romans eight

has often been viewed as generic metaphorical language, a poetic way to describe the fact that creation also suffers as a result of human sin. However, just as such language pointed to specific economic and social practices in the scriptures of Israel, so also Paul is describing specific economic and social practices in relation to the land.

These bushfires ought to remind us that the care of place and land are important to God. What we do or don’t do on and to the land where we live has consequences. This means that as human beings we are called by God to steward our land well and this is of primary importance. If we don’t care for our land, it may react against us. We need to take this seriously and theologically since our land is currently being devastated.

The importance of “micro-practices”

During the bushfires there was a lot of talk about climate change and environmentalism. Today this is a hot topic in our world and rightly so. However, concepts like “environmentalism” can sometimes make us feel distant from a grounded reality.

It’s hard to think about how to engage with these big issues. We can feel helpless. Social media activism is helpful in some ways for creating awareness and for self-expression, however we need more than that. We need micro-practices that connect with these “macro-narratives” in our world today.

Placemaking, for instance, is an example of a micro-practice that can help us to care for our environment. When we work with the community in small, context-based ways to make the public spaces, nature and social infrastructure in our neighbourhoods places that are sustainable, beautiful and inclusive, we become environmentalists and we embody “environmentalism”.

These micro-practices can’t be imposed on us. Rather, fuelled by hope, they emerge from our deep desire to see change. As we engage in these small practices daily, it might not seem like we are doing anything extraordinary, but actually we are changing our world. When it comes to care for our environment in order to prevent natural disasters as much as we can, and also to care for our environment following disasters, we should view these micro-practices as spiritual disciplines to be practiced regularly, similar to prayer or church attendance or reading Scripture.

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In the wake of Australia’s bushfires, there is a lot to reflect on theologically that relates to what the Spirit is saying to us today. Our faith must become more grounded, we must make place and land a priority and our actions must match our words as we practice spiritual disciplines that go beyond prayer, church attendance and Scripture reading. As crucial as these habits are, we need to complement these ancient practices with spiritual practices for the times we are living in that give expression to and form our faith for the care of our world.

 

 

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Making this world our home again

Recently a Facebook friend posted this photo on his wall that caught my attention. It was a photo of a long table set out beautifully. The plates are laid out perfectly, the glasses are delicate, the table is decorated with some Christmas baubles and native plants. What caught my attention, however, is that this long table is set up on a footpath on a street in a neighbourhood.

I felt a slight sense of hope rise up in me as I saw that picture.

This Christmas season I have been feeling grim about the state of our world. We are constantly bombarded with bad news that things are getting worse regarding the environment and that our lifestyle is unsustainable. Human beings are contributing to the devastation of our world, species are going extinct, and our greed, exploitation and lack of good stewardship of this world are causing our planet to heave with pain and exhaustion.

Christmas is normally a time of joy and a season where Christians believe that the hope come through God made flesh can ultimately override any sense of despair.

However, even that hope can seem very dim in our dark times today.

So when I saw that photo of the table laid out in the neighbourhood street so beautifully I felt a sliver of longing emerge through the gloom for a moment.

I love the sense of expectation that the open table creates. There is a sense that something good is coming. It is a gesture of welcome. Rather than huddling indoors where only certain people can join the feast of food that is to come, it is boldly proclaiming that anyone from the street is welcome to come and sit at this table. It reminds me of the parable of the great banquet that we read about in Matthew 22:1-14, where many were invited to a feast but did not come, so the host invited all who were on the street corners and laneways, anyone they could find out on the streets, to take their seats at the party.

I love that these kinds of small acts of hospitality are practices that can change our world and bring transformation. In a time when we are experiencing the negative impacts of polarisation, exclusivity and echo chambers, this act sings of inclusion. In a season when there is prevailing despair, this brings a sense of the expectation of good. And in a time when most of us feel helpless to cause real change, this small offering has the potential to build peace in our neighbourhood which ultimately brings about a better world.

In Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire demanding Justice, authors Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh say:

It is our small acts of carelessness or of care and restraint, that will bring either hurt or healing to our economy. While we need to be involved in the big movements of radical structural change, that activism needs to be grounded (literally) in “small fidelities, skills and desires,” small but significant shifts in our daily habits that will help us to embrace and nourish a healing habitus for habitation, an ecology and economics for homemaking.

If this world is increasingly no longer feeling like our home, we need to engage in small, faithful yet deeply radical practices such as preparing open neighbourhood tables on our streets to practice homemaking once again.

And we must lament over a world that is losing its sense of home, but that lament must never topple over into depression. Walsh and Keesmaat say:

Lament must be an act of hope, an act of passionate expectation. While depression leaves us stuck in the brokenness of the present, lament entails a vision of life that calls us forward. …You see, lament is always asking “How long?” because lament is voiced in defiant hope of a restored world. 

That is my hope this Christmastime when the light of God can seem very dim.

I hope in a restored world. And today, that “defiant hope” propels me to work with God daily in small ways, never giving up until this world is our home again.

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Finding sacred spaces in Advent

Advent is a time of waiting and longing.

This season before Christmas we prepare our hearts, we make room for the Sacred in our lives in the midst of a world that can be frustrating, disappointing, broken and painful. We long for a better place to call home.

At Advent I turn to Mary the mother of Jesus who carried this man-God in her womb for a season. Mary had to learn to wait and long for the birth of this child into our world.

I think about the sacred space of Mary’s womb. Something so human, a uterus, carried something so special- God. I love this intertwining of the sacred and secular, the ordinary with the extraordinary. Flesh and blood mixes with holiness, the mundane mingles with the spectacular. How did Mary practice the discipline of discernment in this season I wonder? Initially she feared the Sacred. Did this ultimately turn to joy? We see from the Magnificat (Luke 1:46ff) that it did!

What are the sacred spaces that you could make way for at this season in your life and in the neighbourhood? Where do you find the ordinary and extraordinary mingling? How can you practice discernment of the Holy Spirit this season? The Spirit sends us out on mission just as (S)He did with Mary, can we cooperate and join with God in the redemption of our neighbourhoods? Is this what we long for?

I love this quote by Henri Nouwen:

Jesus is deeply connected to the earth on which he walks. He observes the forces of nature, learns from them, teaches about them, and reveals that the God of Creation is the same God who sent him to give good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and freedom to the prisoners. He walks from village to village, sometimes alone and sometimes with others; as he walks, he meets the poor, the beggars, the blind, the sick, the mourners, and those who have lost hope. He listens attentively to those with whom he walks, and he speaks to them with the authority of a true companion on the road. He remains very close to the ground.

Jesus’ spirituality was grounded. He practiced constant discernment of the presence of God wherever he went.

If we believe in and practice an incarnational Christianity, which grounds us in our neighbourhoods, we will see our neighbourhood as a sacred space filled with God’s activity. If we believe that our neighbours bear the image of God and that “God is with us”, then we will frequently be trying to connect with what God is doing
in our local community. A “God is with us” spirituality will take seriously the presence of God in our lived environment, leading us to discern the Spirit working through the intricate ecosystem of the stories in our community.

This means we must eliminate hurry from our lives. It means slowing down enough this season to take notice of the sacred in and around us.

Andrew Sullivan in his essay “I used to be a human being” makes this interesting observation:

The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn…. If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation.

To find sacred space this Advent we need to slow down and begin again to notice the quiet whispers of the Spirit. How is God speaking to you? What is God saying? What are the spaces in your community where you can see God at work? What are the “sacred spaces” where there is a sense of the spiritual mixing with the ordinary? Are there parks, memorials, artworks, other spaces where people can get away from the buzz of everyday life to contemplate the spiritual? Perhaps this is a season that we can invite our non-Christian friends to participate in as they long for a better world with us.

How can you slow down to discern the sacred in this season of Advent?

 

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Human extinction and being prophets of hope

Image result for extinction rebellion

Recently I read an article that a friend sent me about human extinction.

This long, well-written and intelligent article starts like this:

For much of my life, I thought our species would soon go extinct. I assumed we might last another hundred years if we were lucky.  Now I suspect we are facing extinction in the near future. Can I speculate as to exactly when that might happen?  Of course not.  My sense of this is based only on probability.  It might be similar to hearing about a diagnosis of late stage pancreatic cancer.  Is it definite that the person is going to die soon?  No, not definite.  Is it highly probable?  Yes, one would be wise to face the likelihood and put one’s affairs in order.

So while human extinction may not be definite, claims Ingram, it is highly probable and we should prepare ourselves. The article then gives evidence for this diagnosis by sharing well-researched data about climate change.

So what do we do in the face of probable extinction? According to Ingram, we join movements that have woken up to the crisis like Extinction Rebellion or other groups which are similar,  find calm in activities like nature-walking and meditation, avoid watching too much news on climate change, serve others, be grateful and realise that evolution will take its course. In other words, enjoy life and love others because soon humanity will cease to exist.

I found this article deeply disturbing for many reasons. A journalist from the Triple J Hack program also took a personal journey into the rabbit holes of these extinction movements. I was left wondering about people’s mental health as they join these groups which believe in the end of all things. With shows like Years and Years coming to our screens, we are continually presented with images and visions of death, despair and pessimism.

Whether or not you believe that humanity will cease to exist in around 100 years or less is a secondary issue for me. What is crucial however is deciding what posture we are going to take in the midst of doomsday prophetic movements, the effects of climate change impacting the earth more and more, and insufficient action by governments and citizens.

Will we be prophets of doom or prophets of hope?

Without a doubt, Christianity sits on the side of hope.

This posture provides an alternative for all people of course, not just Christians – that even though many things will end, God’s Spirit is at work today in the renewal of all things. Yes things are dying, but yes things are also being renewed and being brought to life daily. What we need to do is to courageously participate with God at this time in the renewal of all things even when our culture woos us to bask in melancholy, pessimism and doomsday messages.

What do we do?

I agree with Ingram in many ways, we love, we serve, we become grateful. But we also work for change, we hope not only in an emotional sense, but with the assurance that things can transform because there is a God whose grace and love sustains this world. Our hope leads us to turn to God and also work with God’s Spirit for the transformation of our world, even in the midst of the immense suffering that could result from climate change. And how do we do this? We get involved in local ways in the neighbourhood such as building community, finding ways to recycle waste and reducing our consumption. We point to the truth that things do need to change if we want to restore our world.

Instead of joining doomsday movements, we become a movement of hope in our communities and do works for the good of this world. This is our call in this age of extinction despair.