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He’s not a “homeless man”

My heart sank when I read the news story which a friend emailed me. ‘Could this be Matty?” he asked. I skimmed the story and tried to work out when the last time was that I had seen him. I was pretty sure that I had seen him since the tragedy that I was reading about had happened, so I felt a bit of relief.

The story that was in the papers this week was about a garbage truck driver that had accidentally run over a homeless man who was sleeping on a dirty mattress on Bourke Lane in Redfern. The accident happened last year but the trial was this week and the truck driver was acquitted of negligent driving. The driver had thought it was simply a pile of blankets in the laneway and was devastated to find there was a human being lying there. The man who was run over was Mathew Hayne and the accident happened just down the road from where I live. I had thought that it could have been another Matthew I know, “Matty”, who you can also often find sleeping in the laneways of my neighbourhood. So I was glad to hear it wasn’t him. However, the story left me feeling affected and deeply sad and I had to think about exactly why.

Of course it’s a horrible story from all angles. It’s a horrific tragedy for the person who was run over, the family, the truck driver and the council. Fingers can be pointed at anyone. Why was Mathew on the streets? Why could not the truck driver have been more careful? Why are people leaving mattresses in laneways? Is this a sign of the “affluence of Sydney” as the magistrate said? Could the council have stopped this by putting up more parking restrictions in those tight inner-city laneways? The blame can spin around like a whirlwind which we can get caught up in as we choose the victims and culprits in this fatal story.

However, what stood out for me was something that Mathew’s mother said when she was interviewed by reporters eager to get to the sad story through the woman who gave life to Mathew. She shared about how she had been looking for him, she told them about what a happy young boy he had been and then she said “He’s not a homeless man. He has a family and he is well loved.”

He’s not a “homeless man”.

There are so many people who live and sleep on the streets in my neighbourhood. How many times have I used that expression, “homeless person” about them, without knowing the name of the one I am referring to even though I see them almost everyday? A friend corrected me once by telling me that I should be using the expression “the person who is experiencing homelessness”. However, I can still retreat into old habits and label a human being “homeless” without even bothering to look them in the eye, get to know them and find out their name.

It made me think about the invisibility of some people in our society. Even though this terrible story was an accident, it’s a sad reminder to me and makes me reflect on how a city like Sydney bypasses, marginalises and stigmatises the homeless community. Are we taking care of our most vulnerable? Do we see them or are they invisible to us?

According to the recent statistics homelessness in Sydney is up by 13 percent. This is the case even though this week we have been delivered a federal budget that is in surplus. The direct reason for the rise in homelessness is that there is a lack of affordable and low cost housing in the city. Sydney is pushing out those who cannot afford to live here. Will Sydney be a playground for only the well-off? We all lose living in a monochrome city curated for the rich, that is more homogenous and less diverse. Even though there has been more money going into affordable housing according to the government, the money is being put into maintaining current low-cost housing properties rather than creating new spaces and dwellings. This makes it look like we are helping those who cannot afford to live in Sydney and who need help with housing, when we are actually not.

What kind of society are we if we do not take care of “the least of these”?

In my book Urban Spirituality: Embodying God’s Mission in the Neighborhood I write:

As we pay special attention to those who are weaker, more vulnerable and marginalised neighbours in our community, we counter our society’s indifference towards these people. More than that, we might come across as “holy fools”. Sometimes when we take care of the things and people that others want to marginalise, we receive backlash because we are disturbing the norms in our society.

This quote from Untamed Hospitality by Elizabeth Newman is something I have reflected on to help me in this practice of paying attention to the “least of these”.

The faithful practice of hospitality must begin and also end with what our society will tend to reject as of little consequence. Waiting for the earthshaking event or the cultural or even ecclesial revolution can paralyse us. We are rather, as the gospel reminds us, called to be faithful in the small things. Hospitality is a practice and discipline that asks us to do what in the world’s eyes might seem inconsequential but from the perspective of the gospel is a manifestation of God’s kingdom.

I wonder if it would help in some small way to remember the words of Mathew’s mum, “He’s not a homeless man”. Would it help if we knew the names of those who we walk past everyday who are living on the streets or struggling to get housing in our sparkling city of Sydney? The city belongs to all of us. Can we see the invisible? Do they matter to us?

 

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Being female, a feminist and a follower of Jesus in a polarised world

2018 was characterised by many as the year when women fought back. It was the year when #metoofight gained ground and we had more and more women speaking out about their experiences of sexual harassment, mansplaining, assaults and intimidation by men. There was an increasing anger around the behaviour of men and the message was and is that women will not tolerate this further.

I’m glad for the #metoo movement and the fact that many silenced women are gaining the courage to speak out and say that toxic masculinity is not acceptable. The movement, anger and fight back has had positive outcomes, and has contributed to women better attaining the equal status with men that we must without doubt, eventually have.

So at the start of a new year and after a year of fighting back, where are we with this “gender war”? Is it even helpful to portray this as a battle and use terminology like “fighting back”? Has this recent more public debate between the sexes helped us or is it increasingly hindering the reconciliation between the genders? And finally is the debate as it is currently expressed, exacerbating the various polarisations that are rising up in our world meaning that we ignore a more nuanced and peaceful approach to thinking and behaving?

“Fighting back” of course is inevitable sometimes. When the entrenched powers that be are challenged, it is hardly ever peaceful! When patriarchy is confronted for example, we cannot imagine that it will be pretty. But I have been left puzzled by the fact that the tensions in this debate are becoming very pronounced, ugly and violent, as the recent reactions by both sides to the Gillette advertisement around toxic masculinity show. It has made me think about and try to personally reconcile the tensions around being female, a feminist and most importantly for me, a follower of Jesus.

How does the way of Jesus speak into this debate?

Women are born into a system where they are told either explicitly or in implicit ways, to be submissive, subservient and quiet. This makes us question ourselves when we speak out or use our voices to say that we disagree with something or even to give a confident opinion. So today, women are encouraged to “amplify”, “use” their voices, and “speak out”. Of course this is good and a counter reaction to our system which pushes women down. But sometimes sadly, these otherwise good and needed messages get mixed with the militant atmosphere of our times and add to the polarisations and tensions that exist.

My question is; what does it look like to embody the values of Jesus in the midst of this patriarchal system and also the counter reactions? If I live and breathe in a system that is designed to silence me, what does it mean to follow the values of Jesus which seem to weigh towards invisibility, service, emptying oneself and submission? Importantly, these values are for both genders to flesh out. However, the way of Jesus has particular application for women in that our world has very clearly sent women the message that all we are is servants and second class. So applying the practice of servanthood in the Jesus way for women, can sound and even become oppressive. Yet counter to the world, servanthood, submission and gentleness are values that are cherished when it comes to following Jesus. Of course, the Jesus way also entails working for justice, standing up for the weak and being passionate, not passive, about practicing mercy.

As a female, a feminist and Jesus follower how should I behave when I am in a culture that on the one hand oppresses me but on the other can sometimes encourage a response to that oppression with a militancy that does not follow the way of Jesus? For example, terms like “my rights” are foreign in the kingdom of God. Instead, I am encouraged by Jesus to give up my rights and focus on others. As I female I want to do this in a way that means I am still treated justly, but also in a way that does not respond with a self-orientation and militancy that is not Christ-like. We are instead called to practice cruciformity, giving up our rights, mutuality and servanthood even in the midst of an unjust system while at the same time working towards change. For instance, a focus on women’s struggles without recognising that they are intimately tied to men’s struggles, will be unhelpful in bringing the change we need in our  world.

It seems to me that this is one way we can bring reconciliation in an atmosphere of polarisation especially around the issue of gender. As followers of Jesus we are called to reconciliation and peace-making above championing our rights and “winning” battles. Instead, cruciformity often looks like losing rather than winning.  Expressions like “fight back”, “my rights”, “gender wars” and even not carefully defining what we mean by increasingly popular and sometimes misused terms like “toxic masculinity”, might increase polarisation instead of healing the ancient and stubbornly embedded rift between the genders. We will need to hear more words like healing, peace, mutuality, service, cruciformity and submission in this season to bring reconciliation and change in these times. So this is a time in our world when Christ-followers especially, can speak powerfully into this debate and act not through militancy but by sacrifice.

 

 

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Connecting with the “sound of the genuine” in 2019

How do we better connect with what is genuine, authentic and meaningful within us and also in our world?  Most of us want to live an authentic life and especially at the beginning of a new year we tend to ask in one way or another, “What will bring meaning to my life this year?” I think that this is what new year’s resolutions are in the end, a quest or at least an attempt to live a true life.

In a world filled with fake news, political correctness, self-projection, polarisations and easily available platforms that give anyone an amplified voice on which to project their ideas no matter how good or terrible they are, I’m longing for truth and authenticity. I know I’m not alone in that desire.

I long for that within me and also in my world.

How do we penetrate the deceptions of the self and our world in order to find what really matters without having to retract from life altogether? Howard Thurman called this discerning the “sound of the genuine” in us and in our world.

What does it look like to discern the sounds of the genuine? In Parker Palmer’s new book On the Brink of Everything, he gives someone advice and says that we should stop marketing our lives and start living.

That resonated with me.

We swim in an environment today where each of us more than ever has the opportunity to project our best self in the public forum. We have become so clever at it that not only do we project our best self but alternatively, we can also project a version of our broken self, a kind of “curated imperfection” in order to “market” ourselves as Palmer facetiously suggests. I believe that living in a way where we are continually “marketing” ourselves, stops us from connecting with the sound of the genuine around and in us.

What does it look like to start living our lives rather than marketing ourselves like products? What does “the genuine” sound, taste, feel and look like in a world that is all about self-projection, self-promotion and an exhausting drivenness? Here’s what I’ve been thinking.

A posture of Rest 

Angst can be a great driving force. If we are continually restless for more in our lives and driven by a sense of torment that things are not the way they should be, it means we are more likely to be activistic and influencers to change our damaged world. But I’m wondering what it looks like to make peace with the angst within us and instead bring change to our world from a place of rest. Rest in the fact that it’s not all up to us, rest in the fact that all things have their season and that a benevolent Power greater than us is driving our universe. This isn’t about apathy or resignation but rather about trust.

Basking in the Ordinary 

In the platforms and forums where we engage, the most charismatic, loud and bold voices dominate and we begin to think that this is where we ought to find authenticity and meaning. Authenticity and meaning can be found in those platforms but the deception is that we think that is where it is primarily found. We want to follow, and so the louder more persuasive voices woo us. But this can cause our heads to turn increasingly and permanently towards those places rather than paying attention to the more ordinary and mundane things where the sounds of the authentic can also be found.

Practicing the discipline of secrecy 

There is something very special about doing good in secret rather than in public. We all know this and remember that Jesus taught us to pray and give to the needy in secret. it doesn’t mean we don’t do these things publicly but there is something disciplined and sacred about quiet faithfulness compared to public shows of our good works. I think this is a spiritual discipline for today’s world which is all about amplifying our voices so that all hear the messages we have to share. In a world where we constantly hear “your voice matters”, a call to project, we can say yes but sometimes it’s ok to remain quiet and unnoticed as we faithfully do good in our world.

Revelling in Innocence  

Curating our self is something we all do. This means we intentionally present a version of ourselves to our world. I’m wondering however what it looks like to live an “unintentional” life. Again this does not mean a resignation or apathy but replacing a self-conscious striving for transformation of ourselves and our world, with living in an atmosphere of grace where we are surprised by the things that emerge before our eyes. When I was a child my mother and I would make bread. We would mix all the ingredients together including the yeast. This required a bit of work. Then we would cover the mixture in a bowl with a tea towel and I would run off to play. When I returned a while later, to my surprise, I found the mixture had grown and there was something resembling bread sitting right before my eyes. This reminds me of doing the ordinary work of God today in our world quietly and humbly, then hopefully, being delighted and surprised when we see the good that rises before us in its own time because of our work. This is different to intentionally curating or “marketing” ourselves where we expect certain results or impact and instead it means living in a state of continual wonder, delight and surprise as those grace moments pepper our lives.

What does it look like for you to discern and connect with the “sound of the genuine” in 2019?

 

 

 

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The damage that religion does

I often talk with people in my neighbourhood who are very critical and sceptical about religion and especially Christianity. Recently yet again, I sat around a table talking with some friends and the topic of Christianity came up. Each person shared a story about how they had either personally experienced a time or heard about infamous cases where Christianity had done more damage than good. They gave honest, heartfelt expression to the guilt, shame and sheer perversion that Christianity had caused in the situations they spoke about. Usually when I hear these kinds of stories, I find it hard to verbalise any excuses or give good reasons as to why the religion that I practise has frequently grieved our society so. I just sit there nodding “Yes, I know” or alternatively, shaking my head “No, I don’t know why”. Sometimes it’s just an apologetic “I’m sorry”.

When I use the term religion, of course I mean false religion, in other words, religion that has become the opposite of what it is supposed to be. The word religion is not a bad word, however it has been practiced so terribly frequently, that it normally has a negative connotation when we use it today.

Religion can ground our spirituality and give purpose and meaning to our lives. I also recognise that religion has done a lot of good in our world. You’d be silly not to recognise that.

But it has also done damage to people who are my friends.

Sometimes I talk with those who are open to hearing me even though I represent a religion that has done them and our society damage, and simply tell them about Jesus. And when I do that, there is a clear shift in the atmosphere from tension to trust and I am left wondering yet again why there is often massive dissonance between Jesus and the community that is meant to represent him.

When I think about Jesus I think of pure, unconditional love. He loved people with such a sense of abandon that it killed him. To love with perfection, to give of oneself not from a “martyr complex”, not out of a posture of defeat or resignation but simply because of humanity’s sheer and utter worth regardless of our failings, that is love.

This is what some of the religious people in Jesus’ day simply could not do and it’s the same today. They were and we can be wedded to pragmatism, control and so religion can become a shell that insulates us from being truly human.

Jesus was truly Human.

How do we choose this kind of humane love everyday rather than practicing a false religion? Seems to me this is the point of Christianity-to abandon ourselves to love everyday. But we fall short.

Recently, a friend hugged me. My friend smelt like he had not washed for a long time due to being homeless and I also knew that he had an infectious disease. I hugged him back but shamefully, I felt a tinge of resistance in me as I returned the hug. The thought ran through my head, “Would I catch his disease?” There was a thread of self-protection and discomfort in me and I held back slightly.

I don’t think Jesus would think like that. He would have hugged my friend with sheer abandon and not have cared if he caught a disease or whether my friend smelt bad. This is love. It’s not caring about the consequences because you see such worth in people. You can look past the dirt, bad smells, failings, weaknesses and sickness.

Jesus sided with the marginalised and the outcasts and he became poor. He did this not as a strategy to convince us of his love but because he preferred the company of the humble and weak. He avoided what the world calls extraordinary and preferred to walk alongside the ordinary, seeing them as spectacular. His presence sanctifies the unlovable. Jesus does not exemplify control, pragmatism and inhumanity instead, Jesus is the embodiment of good religion.

This is what we will need to emulate if we are going to help people see that religion is not in fact a dirty word. This is the kind of practice we will need to model if we are going to redeem ourselves today.

 

 

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How do we get focus and stillness in an age of social media distraction?

(photo by Antoine Greiger)

Almost every week on the social media feeds there is some issue that makes a claim on our attention and demands our focus. Almost every week on social media I feel compelled to engage in whatever the issue is at that particular time. I feel like I am missing out, being lazy or just not keeping up with current debates, controversies and intricate changes in ideologies if I don’t engage. People have always been interested in keeping up with the latest topics of the day so there is nothing unusual about this. However, what has changed is the rapid rate at which all the information is coming to us and the possibility for anyone and everyone to make continual public responses about the information we are receiving. Many of us feel that we have to keep up, but of course the frustration is that we can’t. Continue reading How do we get focus and stillness in an age of social media distraction?

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The invisible older woman

My work has led me to interact and become friends with an 81 year old woman in my community.

For a project our team is working on, we had to take a photo of my new friend. The photograph was professional, well-shot and stylistically near perfect, but I knew she would hate it.

In the photo my friend is sitting on a patterned sofa, not smiling or looking at the camera. The background shows the hundreds of paintings and trinkets she has on her walls which add to the comfortable congestion, clutter and quirkiness of her home. However, in the photo she seems to blend into those walls and become inanimate, even a non-person perhaps. She doesn’t stand out but rather grafts onto the detail of the wallpaper. Ironically, she is invisible in that photo. Continue reading The invisible older woman

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When Christianity turns you into a worse person

I had a conversation with a friend recently that left me feeling embarrassed and devastated.

She lives in public housing, is a sharp as a whip straight talker, can discern a fake from a mile away and in our conversation she was cautioning me to have a realistic understanding of the neighbours in her building. “Lumping people who live in public housing into one category is a mistake,” she told me. “To think that we are all the same is ridiculous.” So I listened to learn from my friend who usually displays a sunnier disposition. Continue reading When Christianity turns you into a worse person

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There’s room for everyone at the feminist table

I have a friend who is in her mid twenties and she is strong, independent, intelligent, well-read and sassy.

She also hates feminism.

So it fascinated me when she told me that she loved the new Wonder Woman movie. What she liked was the way that Wonder woman was portrayed; beautiful, kind, smart, only using violence in order to protect herself and she is independent.

It has made me wonder about how we define feminism. Why is it that my friend who by all accounts thinks and acts like a feminist, hates the label and won’t use it for herself? Continue reading There’s room for everyone at the feminist table

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Six questions to ask yourself for living a meaningful life

When I ask people the question, “What is the most important thing in life to you?” or “What makes you happy?” most talk about their relationships, family and health.

However, many will at some stage of the conversation tell me that what matters is living a meaningful life. When I ask them what that means, they will talk about how getting involved in the bigger picture by contributing to the common good is crucial for a meaningful or well-lived life.  Continue reading Six questions to ask yourself for living a meaningful life

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A Prayer for Pentecost Sunday

 

When I listen to jazz I often feel like the notes being played are the notes between the notes.

Jazz seems to be about the in-between spaces rather than what already exists.

There’s a playfulness, an exploration happening and from that new melodies are created in a way that defies logic, well-trusted structure and predictability.

Continue reading A Prayer for Pentecost Sunday