Saturday, 23 June 2012

Deeper and stronger relationships

In this sense we are strengthening the connections between the words that we use and their meaning - conscious or subconscious.

Words are important but many would argue that actions speak much louder than words. It is what we do and how we do things that show our true intentions and aspirations. The problem with the smallest of actions is that we cannot reflect on them, not on our own actions, not in terms of how they seem to others. We can review what we think we've done and how we've done that but how often does this fit with how others perceived what we've done.

It is a strong and courageous community which allows and encourages honest feedback from one person to another. Feedback born out of love rather than spite or insecurity. Why indeed would we go down this path? What benefit would it have for the community or the individual? The first might be to see whether our actions are being misinterpreted. Another may be so that we make real our commitment to support each other in personal and spiritual development. Another may be an unease with inviting new people into our community if we observe behaviour which we know to be well-intentioned but is perhaps not perceived as that on the surface.

These are the ways of a community which intends to develop deeper and stronger relationships. Not based on friendship per se but on a commitment to do church together, to make real our values and our aspirations. Most local communities will not go down this route, as most people don't go down this route with their own personal lives. It is 'the road less travelled'. 

But some of us are drawn to religious community precisely because they hold the possibility of profound and right relationship.

Friday, 25 May 2012

On or in?

We need to work in strengthening those links.

Much of our language is metaphorical whether we know it or not. The first sentence of this piece talks about working 'in' rather than working 'on' strengthening those links. In a literal sense we neither work 'in' nor 'on' anything when we are working with people. In and on signify a physical relationship. However we use them metaphorically every day to signify how we do things.

It is interesting to think about when we talk about working with our own selves - we work on ourselves not in ourselves. Is this because we have taken language from the workplace, where we work on a project? Quite often when we are working on ourselves - when we are trying to sort out a particular issue or approach or attempting to find a way through life's problems - we are working in ourselves. We immerse ourselves in us - I immerse myself in me.

Perhaps we like to think that there is a part of us which is on top of all the turmoil and confusion. That there is some objective us which is there to take control, to work it all out and then to set our lesser part on the road to better things. Those of us who experience this working as being 'in' rather than 'on' ourselves may see it differently. It seems to me that most of the personality difficulties that we experience come from the depths: often unconsciously. A surface buff and polish is not going to touch them.

Maybe it will never sound quite right, 'I am working in myself'. But maybe like the metaphors that we use for many things spiritual we just have to interpret, 'I am working on myself' in a slightly different way. Whilst many people would say that their most profound spiritual moments come with wordless experience, there can be insights gained not just from reading words but from exploring what they mean. In particular what our own words mean. Writing as daily (weekly? monthly?) spiritual practice has much to offer.

In this sense we are strengthening the connections between the words that we use and their meaning - conscious or subconscious.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Strengthening links

When our communities start to fail perhaps the first piece of advice we should give is - talk, truly and truthfully as much as you can to everyone - and listen with your ears, eyes, head, heart and soul.

It must be quite difficult in larger congregations to actually have a word with everybody. I struggle and sometimes it's only 20 of us. When I have energy I try to talk with those that I don't usually talk with but when I am tired I tend to stick with those with whom I feel an easy comfort. We do tend to gravitate towards certain people because of shared interests or complementary personalities.

It is at certain times that we are challenged to live as a community not just as a series of sub-groups. There are simple tests .... Do we know what food preferences everyone has? Who usually has tea and who has coffee? Who has milk and who has sugar? Then there are other little tests - How old are people? When is their birthday? Where do people live? Who do they live with? Do they have a car? What work do they/did they do? Or what about ... Who believes in God? Who is a humanist? Who is an agnostic? Who was born into a Catholic/Atheist/Jewish family?

When I am tired but committed to connecting then I go armed with a few questions to find things out about my fellow travellers. I want to understand them more, to put their current life in a bit of a context. I offer up information about myself as best as I can. Sometimes it can seem like a brief encounter, each Sunday in community with people who perhaps we barely know.

A community is only as strong as its weakest link. We need to work in strengthening those links.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Conversation as the building blocks

Whatever words we hear we must be alive to the life situation which lies behind.

And that really is the crux of the matter, the crux of truly listening. It can be very difficult when we are tired or stressed ourselves to be able to give our full attention to someone else. But in religious community surely this is what we are called to do.

I remember some ten years back sitting whilst a good friend of mine was talking to an elderly aunt and could tell that my friend wasn't really listening. They were doing the right thing by nodding and umming and aaahing every so often. But in the eyes I could see that this person was somewhere else. I remember thinking that this woman who was in a residential home was in the last years and perhaps months of her life. She probably didn't get many visitors, so this was a very precious moment. This was perhaps a really treat. It may have been the last time that they saw each other. This was not just a conversation, this was perhaps a goodbye. 

It is very easy to do. To forget that the person that we are talking to is not 'me'. The person is different, with a different story. As Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner Rogers wrote in their book, A Simpler Way

“… at any moment, what we see is most influenced by who we have decided to be.  Our eyes do not simply pick up information from the outside world and relay it to our brains.  Information relayed for the outside world through the eye accounts for only 20 percent of what we use to create perception.  At least 80 percent of the information that the brain works with is information already in the brain.”

Trying to understand that part of the conversation's meaning which is not shared, which is the other person's life and perceptions, is the challenge. And not just for us but for the other person too. They need to understand us just as much as we need to understand them.

Can we in religious community make a commitment to listen not just with our ears but with our intuition and our critical faculties which may help us to guess at the other person's personal understanding of our conversation? Can we commit to sharing a bit more about ourselves so that others have a fighting chance to understand what we say when we say it and what we may be hearing when words are spoken?

It is a rich territory, the land of conversation. But in many senses it is the land where we live. Our religious communities are the conversations and the relationships that emerge from those conversations. When our communities start to fail perhaps the first piece of advice we should give is - talk, truly and truthfully as much as you can to everyone - and listen with your ears, eyes, head, heart and soul.

Thursday, 22 March 2012


That the divine becomes challenging rather than comforting.  

Of course there are times in our lives when we are utterly and completely fed up with challenge - our life is like an obstacle course or perhaps an army assault course. In these circumstances we would wish for more comfort and less challenge. 

When I was a social worker many moons ago I was in supervision one day with my boss. I was telling her how I didn't know how I was going to cope - I did a regular stint on the duty desk, had a caseload of clients', had oversight of a day service for people with mental health needs and was training to be an approved social worker. I described this issue as a problem for me. She, fresh from a management course, told me that this wasn't a problem but was a challenge. I can't remember if I said it or thought it but my immediate reaction was that challenges were things you wanted and problems were things that you didn't. And I didn't want this one.

It is interesting how we play around with words to make us feel better or worse about life in general and specific people or issues. Sometimes it works very well perhaps removing emotional content and judgement. I talking once with a man with schizophrenia about how people responded to him. One example stuck in my mind - he was talking about being sad and because he had a psychiatric label people wanted to say he was depressed. The words appear similar but they create a very different picture. Sadness is a normal human emotion, depression is a mental illness. He was denied the human experience of sadness.

It can take quite an effort to speak carefully, to consider the words that we are using so that we show that we appreciate how the other person is feeling. When my boss spoke about challenges rather than problems I felt that she had not heard what I had said, did not appreciate my daily struggle with too much work and was not going to do anything to help. All that from one sentence. My next boss when I said something similar talked me through my work to see what I could stop doing. Perhaps he hadn't been on the course!

Reframing our perceptions by using different words can be helpful but it usually takes more than this. Whatever words we hear we must be alive to the life situation which lies behind.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

A level of discomfort

Our faith community should help us to boldly go where perhaps we have not gone before. 

These bold journeys may be to places within or places without. Some of us are more comfortable with inner journeys and some of us more comfortable with those in the outside world.  We do well if we attempt the uncomfortable ones. Mike Scott Peck in one of his books, cannot remember which one, suggests that we should do at least one thing that we are not good at. If we are constantly engaging in activities that we can do then we are not challenging ourselves - we learn much more if we struggle.

It was with this in mind that about ten years ago I took a cartooning class. I have always struggled with art. Having some very good friends who are very talented I have been convinced over the years that I have no artistic talent. Reflecting on doing something that I was bad at I decided to try the easiest form - the cartoon. No need for realism or for subtle shadings - just an ability to draw and to colour. 

I actually found myself enjoying the process - sitting with a pen or pencil, either copying or creating, focused on the page. Then being faced with an array of colours and shades - pencils and pens - to bring my drawing to life. I discovered that I could draw - a bit. That I did enjoy it. That I loved to colour. And that it was very restful and therapeutic.  I have long since put my pencils down - perhaps I should pick them up again. Or perhaps I should focus on something else that I cannot do.

In our spiritual lives do we always go for the easy option - doing those things which come easily, which will bring few surprises and which demand little of us? Is this spiritual living for wimps? What do we need to do to bring a level of discomfort into our spiritual lives? What do we say to ourselves ... I don't like that ... I can't do that .... this has no meaning for me ... I am not drawn to this? I need to think about this but my immediate thought for me is around ritual. Apart from lighting a candle or two I don't really do ritual - perhaps I should.

What might we risk? A broken bone or a bruised ego? Probably not. Our biggest risk may be that the divine speaks to us in a language unfamiliar. That the divine (our divine?) which we have configured in our heads is transformed. That the divine becomes challenging rather than comforting. 

Monday, 5 March 2012

Emboldened by community

 It is the belief that this relationship will be the one that makes us come alive. 

Although sometimes feeling fully alive can be difficult.  We can be faced not only with the pain of our own lives but also the pain of others.  This is not to say that we should dwell on pain and disappointment but to be fully alive we live with it all, not just the happiness.

The survival mechanism of denial - I experience this in my own life and in the lives of others. From a simple denial of our own mortality to denying that our loved ones are hurting us, perhaps even physically injuring us, to a denial that what holds us back is a fear of success rather than fear of failure. We often deny our own power and seek to protect others as if they themselves had less power than us. We think that denial helps us to survive but in reality it means that all we do is survive rather than thrive.

As we get older we imagine that we will become more fearless as we have less to lose - fewer years of life - firmer friendships which can take harder blows - less attachment to our looks and our appearance.  And yet it seems to me that we get into pension-mentality - possibly somewhere in our fifties. We don't want to take risks because we are saving ourselves, saving our resources, saving our nerves - not for a bright new morn but for a comfortable sunset.

Should our faith community encourage us to bed-down early? Should our faith community sort people by age - youngsters to the left and oldies to the right? Should we older ones become models of conservatism valuing comfort over adventure? Clearly we should answer, 'No', to all of these. But somewhere in our collective psyche are firmly fixed stereotypes that we would do well to challenge.

What we should not deny is that each day is a new opportunity which does not discriminate between old and young, man and woman, tall and short, happy or sad. Today may bring sorrow or it may bring ecstasy. 

Our faith community should help us to boldly go where perhaps we have not gone before.