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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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Tips for neighbouring: Adopt-a-Business

In this time of social isolation, physical distancing and people out of work, one good way to help out a neighbour is to support local businesses.

Locally-owned cafés, restaurants, grocery stores and other retailers are a crucial part of the ecology of the neighbourhood. Not only do they provide us with the things we need, but for some people they are the only point of social contact. Neighbours mingle in shops as they decide what to buy. In cafés and restaurants relationships are nurtured, business partnerships are formed and families and friends relax after a hard day’s work. And businesses shape the character of a community with their shopfronts and displays and colours and odours.

It’s made us sad to see so many local businesses now struggling, or even closing down, in our community.

There’s a café close to where we live, where we would sometimes meet friends for a cup of tea. Or have meetings. Or just sit with a tea for quiet reflection. Or have an omelette. Like many other cafés in our area, they are now offering takeaway.

So we had an idea: adopt-a-business.

We live in a large block of apartments. What if we were all intentional about buying just one takeaway coffee or lunch each week or even fortnight? This would help keep the café in business.

We approached the café manager and he was keen. We then dropped a simple flyer in the letterboxes of all the residents in our building to gauge interest in the idea before going ahead.

We heard back from one neighbour, who said she’s already trying to support the café by buying muffins. And when we went back to see the manager, he told us how a few of his customers from our building said they had seen the flyer. So we decided to go ahead.

The next step is that the manager will print copies of their menu and membership cards and place them in the letterboxes. They will be offering a 10% discount on drinks and 15% on food for residents of our building. 

We learnt a few things from this:

  • There was an opportunity at our doorstep.
  • We started small.
  • We kept it simple.
  • This was a great way to build relationship with the manager and owner.

There are others doing this, too – individuals, community organisations and churches. The ‘Love Your Neighbours’ initiative of St John’s Anglican Church at Diamond Creek in Victoria encourages members of the church to ‘adopt’ a local business for a year. And individuals and families of a United Church in Seattle, USA, are being encouraged to ‘Adopt a Restaurant’ in their neighbourhood.

Could this work in your neighbourhood? How would you implement something like ‘adopt-a-business’ in your community?

Let us know how you go!

Update: The café manager has done a letter box drop in our building. Here’s the flyer.


He messaged me today to say he’s already had a positive response, which is great news!

 

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Ten tips for neighbouring in a time of Coronavirus

Even though this season is a really tough and disturbing time for all of us, we can certainly see so many opportunities for practicing neighbouring. This is something we have been passionate about at Neighbourhood Matters. Here are ten tips from us and what we have been trying to practice. What would you add?

1. Schedule zoom or virtual meetings with neighbours over dinner or drinks. “Virtual drinks” can humanise a meeting and make it a bit more social.

2. Start small and see where it leads. For example, we will talk to the cafe across the road about an “adopt a business” idea between the units in our building and the cafe.

3. Check in on neighbours through letterbox drops or phone calls, messenger and regularly ask how they are doing. Offer help.

4. Offer to go for walks with neighbours. We need to do this one on one now that we can only be in public places in pairs (except for family and households).

5. Being cautious about what we post on social media. We want to be realistic but also hopeful. We try to take into account people from all walks of life and what they might be experiencing during this time.

6. Smiling when we walk past people on the street. Social distancing can make us feel awkward but it’s important to make the effort to reach out and help people feel a sense of ease during these anxious times.

7. Engaging in small acts of kindness on the spot, e.g. giving someone a grocery item if they can’t find it and you have it.

8. Doing a prayer walk and asking God to show you how you might reach out in creative ways.

9. Finding out what local community organisations like neighbourhood centres or Meals on Wheels are doing and offering help or support, e.g. working the phones or organising any activities that are needed. What are some groups that already exist in your community that you can join?

10. Keep your primary emphasis local so that when this season is over you will have built strong connections and fostered a resilient neighbourhood for the future. It’s a great time to do this.

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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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Flipping the script on ‘helping the poor’

Throughout my adult life, I’ve been involved in a variety of welfare and community development organisations. Whether it’s helping at a lunchtime ‘drop-in’, setting up an overseas charity, coming alongside people at the margins of society or raising funds for people in need, it’s been rewarding to see needs met, relationships built and lives changed.

But I’ve also had niggling questions that continue to bother me: Are we building dignity or encouraging dependency? Are we helping or are we hurting?

Perhaps the underlying question in all of this is: How do we exercise power? Philosophers, social scientists and theologians have wrestled with this question for millennia. It’s an important question that challenges our practices in everything from politics to the workplace, from community organisations to families, and from religious institutions to relations between genders, races and different age groups.

Last September, World Vision, one of the world’s largest international non-government organisations, announced a switch in how it would run its child sponsorship programs:

Almost 1,000 children in rural Guatemala gained sponsors this month from a megachurch in southern Indiana.

But in this case, it was the indigenous children in need who pondered photos of smiling faces and chose one they felt a connection with. And it was the adult donors in the United States who nervously waited, wondering who would pick them.

World Vision explained that the goal of this switch ‘is to empower children, letting them make the first of many choices during their sponsorship’. It’s the latest in decades of adjustments to child sponsorship – an approach to development that has been praised for transforming lives but also criticised for exploiting children or simplifying complex issues of development. This new model, aptly named ‘Chosen’, is a positive step for two reasons.

Firstly and most obviously, it’s a reversal of the usual power relationship. Guatemalan children experiencing poverty and disadvantage are being given a choice of who will support them. They are no longer passive recipients but active decision-makers. At the other end, the potential sponsors in the US are experiencing some of the sense of anticipation and vulnerability that the children would normally experience.

Secondly, it’s a subversion of the individualistic model of sponsorship. The children in the community gather for a ‘choosing party’ – ‘a celebration where the kids choose their sponsors’. You can just imagine the fun these kids have when looking at photos of American churchgoers together, commenting on their smiles or the colour of their hair, wondering what kinds of houses they live in, and then celebrating their new relationships.

There’s a lot we can learn from World Vision’s model. What would it look like to reverse the power relationship in our own communities, organisations and relationships? How can we make sure that those who receive our help have a greater say?

I think ‘Chosen’ is a great first step. But I’m still not comfortable with the word ‘empowerment’. Craig Greenfeld writes that:

built into the word “empowerment”, is the sense that someone is giving power to someone else. To empower someone, you need the powerful to give power to the weak. And if you can give power to someone, you can also take it away.

‘Chosen’ still leaves the children in Guatemala vulnerable. While they are now able to choose who sponsors them, they are not involved in shaping what the sponsorship program looks like. They are still not equal partners with the sponsors, but recipients of their help.

Of course kids will always be dependent to some extent, but what would it look like for these sponsor children to move from ‘empowerment’ to ‘ownership’? And how would this look in our own communities, organisations and relationships?

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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.