TFT is six years old…


WordPress kindly informed me this morning that I have now been hammering away on this blog for six years.

Many times I have thought it was time to stop blogging and turn my energies to something else, but each time I have found myself returning. I no longer write each day, but I still find that the process of collecting my thoughts into some kind of external offering is a useful one for me- a way of shaping my experience to something deeper, something more deliberately spiritual. I strive to be as honest as I can be, and mostly I think I achieve this, albeit with the inevitably bias of human perspective.

I had a bit of a row with a manager in work a while or so ago over a piece that I wrote reflecting on a work issue. It highlighted the blurred lines between the person/public that blogs venture into. How much of myself is it OK to share in such a public way? How much of other people’s lives is it OK to mention? It is so easy to forget that people actually occasionally READ things that I write. The manager I mentioned was an intensely private person and it was clear that s/he had no comprehension as so why I would ever spill my soul on to the internet. The whole episode was quite upsetting at the time and it caused me to step back and review again my own motivations.

Back in 2011, I borrowed and revised a list of reasons for blogging from Tall Skinny Kiwi (Andrew Jones) who has been blogging since the stone age- most of us became imitators of his style really, unwittingly or not. He suggested this list, with Bible references and everything;

1. Praise (public acknowledgement) – “publish glad tidings daily”
2. Accountability. (Eph. 5: 21 “Submit yourselves to one another”, quote from Athanasias)
3. Vulnerability (Daniel’s window)
4, Given-ness (Freely you have received, gift economy, Prov 11:24)
5. Creative Naming (Adam, Neighbors in Ruth)
6. Repentance (editing/deleting/changing our mind in new media)
7. Fellowship (hypertext linking, Koinonia)
8. Evangelism (storytelling, blogging from our lives)
9. Integrity (writing matches our speaking, design reflects reality)
10. Posterity. (store/guard what has been entrusted, writing history)
There was also another one: Watchfulness (“watch and pray”).

I think I would add a couple more-

11. Creativity- most writers would say that words shape us as we shape them.

12. Discipline and long term commitment- blogging output varies, but it demands mostly daily commitment over a long time to develop a voice.

But I think blogging should come with a little warning for introspective folk like me- it can be addictive, and it is not the only spiritual discipline- and should never become dominant in our lives above other things that carry us towards ‘the other.’

There is also physical community. Having said that, I recently had the pleasure of sharing a tiny island with several friends, all of whom I would never have the pleasure of knowing but for blogging… It is a strange new world we find ourselves in, with connections sparked by cyberspace as much (if not more than) locality, but in the end, it is still all about seeking the depth in ourselves, and the seeing the beauty in the other.

Viewing beauty through a screen…

I love this little film- a few friends shared it on FB.

It manages to ask all those questions about excarnation, and the subtle changes in our connection to people brought about by smart phones.

I believe that the lived experience is more important than the digitised one.

(That was quite profound- must tweet it. Where did I put my phone?…)

Reflecting on the life of small ‘missional’ groups…

The Christian group that I am part of, Aoradh, is now about 7 years old.

We are due to speak at Greenbelt Festival this year about our experience in a session entitled ‘Don’t do it like us; making community in uncool places’. Despite the faux-humble tone of our title, it still feels very bombastic to be speaking about Aoradh in such declarative fashion.

Planning what we will say does start to focus the mind on what we hold precious however, and also brings to light those rather tender areas of our small group where there are wounds and vulnerabilities. We have had a little reminder of this recently- issues that flare and fester for a while, which can be very painful. They can also be the end of small groups based essentially on friendship and shared passion; there have been several points over the years at which Aoradh could have ended.

Despite the pain of this, I have come to see these tensions as above all- normal, inevitable.

The deep friendships that we value so highly within our community will always mean a suspension of defences, and perhaps a tendency to reveal some of our less attractive personality traits which pop out under pressure.

Then there are all the group processes that you have to work out; leadership, facilitation, communication, agreeing principles, organising your business, looking after those who are on the edge. I confess to avoiding some of the theory of how all of this works- there is of course a whole industry looking at group dynamics. The idiosyncrat in me wants to flee from the regimented check list nature of this kind of thing.

But we can always learn from the experience of others- that is why we are doing the Greenbelt talk/discussion session after all.

A few years ago I read a couple of M Scott Peck’s books, including the surprisingly wonderful ‘A different Drum; community making and peace’.  Surprisingly because I read it reluctantly- I had pegged it as new-age-psychobabble-pop psychology-nonsense. What Peck does though is to give a passionate analysis of the group as the highest form of what we humans are. He describes community building like this;

  • Pseudocommunity: In the first stage, well-intentioned people try to demonstrate their ability to be friendly and sociable, but they do not really delve beneath the surface of each other’s ideas or emotions. They use obvious generalities and mutually-established stereotypes in speech. Instead of conflict resolution, pseudocommunity involves conflict avoidance, which maintains the appearance or facade of true community. It also serves only to maintain positive emotions, instead of creating safe space for honesty and love through bad emotions as well. While they still remain in this phase, members will never really obtain evolution or change, as individuals or as a bunch.
  • Chaos: The first step towards real positivity is, paradoxically, a period of negativity. Once the mutually-sustained facade is shed, negative emotions flood through: Members start to vent their mutual frustrations, annoyances, and differences. It is a chaotic stage but Peck describes it as a “beautiful chaos” because it is a sign of healthy growth. I would add that many groups do not survive this stage, and at least, many people will leave.
  • Emptiness: In order to transcend the stage of “Chaos”, people are forced to communicate. Things that get in the way of communication are forced aside, or at least forced out into the open-  need for power and control, self-superiority, and other similar motives which are only mechanisms of self-validation and/or ego-protection, must yield to empathy, openness to vulnerability, attention, and trust. Hence this stage does not mean people should be “empty” of thoughts, desires, ideas or opinions. Rather, it refers to emptiness of all mental and emotional distortions which reduce one’s ability to really share, listen to, and build on those thoughts, ideas, etc. It is often the hardest step in the four-level process, as it necessitates the release of patterns which people develop over time in a subconscious attempt to maintain self-worth and positive emotion. For Peck, it should be viewed not merely as a “death” but as a rebirth — of one’s true self at the individual level, and at the social level of the genuine and true Community.
  • True community: Having worked through emptiness, the people in the community enter a place of complete empathy with one another. There is a great level of tacit understanding. People are able to relate to each other’s feelings. Discussions, even when heated, never get sour, and motives are not questioned. A deeper and more sustainable level of happiness obtains between the members, which does not have to be forced. Even and perhaps especially when conflicts arise, it is understood that they are part of positive change.

Any of you who are frustrated in organised church (as I have been) will recognise immediately the fact that most churches are pseudocommunities. All that politeness and veneer of respectability. Any conflict is immediately suppressed by the paid leaders, and it is possible to be entirely anonymous and disengaged in these places. To be fair there are many that like it this way, but to me it was a kind of death.

Has Aoradh achieved Pecks kind of true community? Sometimes I would say yes, other times emphatically no. Because I am not sure that the formation of community is actually a LINEAR process like this. Circumstances change, different people join the group then leave. Rather community is something that ebbs and flows, sometimes becoming constrictive and even boring, at other times full of creative energy and passion.

Peck also wrote of list of what he saw as characteristics of true community. These I like more, as they are less mechanistic and more inspirational;

  • Inclusivity, commitment and consensus: Members accept and embrace each other, celebrating their individuality and transcending their differences. They commit themselves to the effort and the people involved. They make decisions and reconcile their differences through consensus.
  • Realism: Members bring together multiple perspectives to better understand the whole context of the situation. Decisions are more well-rounded and humble, rather than one-sided and arrogant.
  • Contemplation: Members examine themselves. They are individually and collectively self-aware of the world outside themselves, the world inside themselves, and the relationship between the two.
  • A safe place: Members allow others to share their vulnerability, heal themselves, and express who they truly are.
  • A laboratory for personal disarmament: Members experientially discover the rules for peacemaking and embrace its virtues. They feel and express compassion and respect for each other as fellow human beings.
  • A group that can fight gracefully: Members resolve conflicts with wisdom and grace. They listen and understand, respect each others’ gifts, accept each others’ limitations, celebrate their differences, bind each others’ wounds, and commit to a struggle together rather than against each other.
  • A group of all leaders: Members harness the “flow of leadership” to make decisions and set a course of action. It is the spirit of community itself that leads and not any single individual.
  • A spirit: The true spirit of community is the spirit of peace, love, wisdom and power. Members may view the source of this spirit as an outgrowth of the collective self or as the manifestation of a Higher Will.

Is this Aoradh? My heart says YES.

My experience says it is the best of what we are, but it is not all that we are.

However, this too is normal. If we are moving towards the light through many dappled shades of darkness, then why would we not expect the same from ourselves in the collective? What Peck remind me of however, is that our groups have the capacity not to be just the sum of the parts within them– they are far more than just a gathering of individuals in one place. Rather they are the place of becoming.

They are not places where conflict is tolerated and excused as somehow ‘developmental’, rather places where conflict is understood and wounds are healed. It is a major distinction.

The writer of the Psalm 133 understood this.

How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore.

Blogging and spirituality…

I enjoyed an old piece of writing by TSK here recently- concerning how he felt that blogging worked as a spiritual discipline.

TSK felt that it worked something like this-

1. Praise (public acknowledgement) – “publish glad tidings daily”
2. Accountability. (Eph. 5: 21 “Submit yourselves to one another”, quote fromAthanasias)
3. Vulnerability (Daniel’s window)
4, Given-ness (Freely you have received, gift economyProv 11:24)
5. Creative Naming (Adam, Neighbors in Ruth)
6. Repentance (editing/deleting/changing our mind in new media)
7. Fellowship (hypertext linking, Koinonia)
8. Evangelism (storytelling, blogging from our lives)
9. Integrity (writing matches our speaking, design reflects reality)
10. Posterity. (store/guard what has been entrusted, writing history)
There was also another one: Watchfulness (“watch and pray”).

I think I would add a couple more-

11. Creativity- most writers would say that words shape us as we shape them.

12. Discipline and long term commitment- blogging output varies, but it demands mostly daily commitment over a long time to develop a voice.

But I think blogging should come with a little warning to introspective folk like me- it can be addictive, and it is not the only spiritual discipline- and should never become so in our lives.

There is also physical community…

Helping, ‘fixing’ or serving…

I read this today- to which I add a rueful ‘Amen’-

Fundamentally, helping, fixing, and service are ways of seeing life. When you help you see life as weak, when you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Helping incurs debt. When you help someone they owe you one. But serving, like healing is mutual. There is no debt. Fixing and helping are the basis of curing, but not of healing. In 40 years of chronic illness I have been helped by many people and fixed by a great many others who did not recognize my wholeness. All that fixing and helping left me wounded in some important and fundamental ways. Only service heals.


Rachel Naomi Remen

Excerpts from the article “In the service of life”



Changing the world by relationship…

I read this today via the Emergent Village ‘Minimergent’ bulletin…

Despite current ads and slogans, the world doesn’t change one person at a time. It changes as networks of relationships form among people who discover they share a common cause and vision of what’s possible. This is good news for those of us intent on changing the world and creating a positive future. Rather than worry about critical mass, our work is to foster critical connections. We don’t need to convince large numbers of people to change; instead, we need to connect with kindred spirits. Through these relationships, we will develop the new knowledge, practices, courage, and commitment that lead to broad-based change.

Read entire article at Faith Collaboratory by clicking the names below.

Margaret Wheatley & Deborah Frieze

The article make interesting reading as it was written a few years ago (2006) when the language of ’emergence’ was still fresh and exciting. We are part of a different time now. The article suggested an emerging process that goes something like this-

Berkana has developed a four stage model that catalyzes connections as the means to achieve global level change: Name, Connect, Nourish, Illuminate (see Appendix). We focus on discovering pioneering efforts and naming them as such. We then connect these efforts to other similar work globally. We nourish this network in many ways, but most essentially through creating opportunities for learning and sharing experiences and shifting into communities of practice. We also illuminate these pioneering efforts so that many more people will learn from them.

The article then suggested that the next stage would for communities of practice to develop an proliferate.

Is this what is happening?

Well- I think so…


Humanity reshapes itself, so another little think about church…

I do not usually repost anything from Jonny Bakers blog- despite being a very frequent visitor- simply because I always assume that most of you have also already read it! However, I will make an exception today as he pointed (via Steve Collins) to an article about ‘Curated Membership Communities.’

Jonny’s interest in curation as applied to worship was the subject of his recent book, that takes a journey through communities whose experiments with worship have interesting parallels with how art might be shaped, curated and displayed.

But I am more interested in what implications these apparent changes in dominant social entrepreneurial groupings might have for church. That is, church in the broadest sense.

I liked this from the article-

even in a world of immensely powerful social technology, shared experience is what drives us to care about and contribute to others. As the social graph has come online, we’ve been able to keep better track not only of our friends, but all the amazing people we haven’t met yet. The explosion of curated membership communities is an attempt to create the shared experiences which bring us into contact with those people, giving us access to the amazing world which we can see, if not fully yet grasp.

We have become used to discussions about post modern society, shaken loose from the ordered structure of modernity by the coming of a new communication revolution, and perhaps characterised above all be individualism. It has been a regular theme on this blog too- as have my own grapplings with the feeling that I have that we post moderns still crave connection. And this has to be collectivised in some way beyond what might be possible on a computer screen because this is simply not enough- it is not human enough.

It has not been clear up till now what might replace our empty social clubs, community centres and (of course) churches. What might come to facilitate our shared journeys of faith? What channels might the Spirit of God find in which to travel through and in our society?

We have tried so hard to force some kind of solution- both to try to preserve the old, and also to convince ourselves that there is a methodological answer to evangelism in this new context. It is almost as if we forgot that we are followers of Jesus into culture, not his advance guard.

Meanwhile, it seems that the humanity shaped petri dish may indeed be producing some new organic shapes and formations.

Which brings us back to this idea of the ‘Curated Membership Community’. Here are a few thoughts that occur to me in relation to church-

  • Leadership- curation implies facilitation, encouragement, hospitality, nurturing and a celebration of creativity. It is far less interested in management, or hierarchical structure, or hard measurable outcomes. This sounds remarkably similar to the church-I-would-love-to-be-part-of.
  • Membership- this is an interesting concept.’ Belonging’ in this new context seems to come through friendship, aspiration, inspiration from those who have pioneered new ideas, and to be more driven by ethos than specific tasks. Membership is fluid, flexible, and might also be fairly shortlived, as streams of connection merge and cross-fertilise.
  • These new groupings are perhaps a re-invention of the idea that our collectives are more than just the sum of individual one to one relationships- rather that there is also an aspect of human character that emerges when we are part of something larger- when we share our hopes, passions and values, and when these things allow us to flow together- not as our primary purpose, but rather as a natural consequence of our togetherness.
  • The emphasis then is in the creation of ‘social capital’- “The benefits of participation tend to come in the form of the members sharing their extended network of skills, connections, and other resources with one another. In other words, it is other members more than the organizer or curator who provide value to each other.” So rather than becoming passive consumers of religious product, we might be learning to become co-conspirators with one another to discover and celebrate for ourselves, and in the process of doing this, carry each other forward.

None of this is really new thinking- it has been the very substance of the ’emerging conversation’ as we have called it- but what is more interested is how these ideas are playing out in the wider world- perhaps in particular in the commercial world, sick to death of megalithic faceless conglomerates, and looking for something on the human scale that they can once again believe in, and share with their friends.

What was on the edge, is becoming part of the mainstream.


Campaign to end loneliness…

Came across this today, and thought it worth mentioning-

The Campaign to End Loneliness.

Here are one or two highlights from the site-

  • 12% of older people feel trapped in their own home2
  • 6% of older people leave their house once a week or less3
  • Nearly 200,000 older people in the UK don’t get help to get out of their house or flat4
  • 17% of older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week and 11% are in contact less than once a month5
  • Over half (51%) of all people aged 75 and over live alone6
  • 36% of people aged 65 and over in the UK feel out of touch with the pace of modern life and 9% say they feel cut off from society7
  • Half of all older people (about 5 million) say the television is their main company8

Loneliness can be crippling. Some of the health implications are mentioned here.

Researchers tend to talk about different kinds of loneliness- chronic or situational loneliness and social or emotional loneliness. Emotional loneliness is due to the lack of a significant other, while social loneliness is about lacking connections in a wider circle of friends.

Interestingly, men tend to define loneliness more by the lack of a close personal relationship/life partner, whereas women are more likely to talk about not being part of a network of friends.

It set me thinking again about what we might do about this…

I think one thing we might do is look around us, and be more deliberate about sharing lives with older generations. By this I do not mean merely ‘visiting’ or offering assistance in a patronising kind of way. It rarely works as a way of reducing loneliness- rather it might increase alienation and create dependency. This also may well not be sustainable, and we end up letting people down.

But perhaps there are other ways. I do not mean to suggest that we have got this all sorted, but here is one story of hope that might suggest an alternative-

Our kids are blessed with 4 different arrangements of Grandparents- due to the breakdown of marriages and various re formed family situations. But they are all at a distance.

So we have an adopted Scottish Granny.

Our dear Netta has just gone home after looking after William all day- he has been feeling ill, and so was off school. While she was here, she mended a chair cover, and sewed up some holes in clothing. Sometimes it feels like we are exploiting her, but I know too that it gives her such a lot of pleasure to be helpful in these ways…

We are able to help her out with some little household tasks although she hates asking, so it is always better to try to anticipate them if we can. Michaela is good at keeping in touch too, which is something I am rubbish at- being a hater of the telephone at the best of times.

Netta’s husband died around 10 ago- we never knew him, but he must have been a special man. He left a terrible void. We have become very fond of Netta’s grown up daughter too- who lives over the water, and gets over whenever she can.

What we have found is that the important thing is relationship. Lives shared. Families open and extending themselves to one another.

We humans are social animals. But we are all different, so there will need to be lots of different solutions- lots of different ways of connecting one with the other.

And loneliness is not inevitable- it is cultural. So let us change the culture.

Letting some air out of pneumatic church…

This afternoon some of the Aoradh crowd met up with Peter and Dorothy Neilson for a chat.

Peter and Dorothy are the parents of one of the Aoradh crew- Pauline B, and apart from just the pleasure of sharing a long cup of tea, it was great to talk of church- what is, what has been and what might be to come.

Peter is particularly well qualified to talk of these things as he was the convener of the Church of Scotland’s ‘Church without walls’ report. At present, he divides his time between Church consultancy work, running retreats with Dorothy, and no doubt a hundred other things.

Today we discussed the story of Aoradh and Peter was able to talk of how our development fits into a wider experience of faith inside/outside church in Scotland. Some of this we knew about, but a lot we did not. Scotland is a small place (in terms of numbers of people,) but as we have discussed before, we are not well networked.

For instance, he talked about his involvement with Coracle in Edinburgh, who are doing some interesting things.

Peter also used a phrase that made me smile- suggesting that Church in the past had tended to be Pneumatic- it sucked you in, then sucked you dry.

He was of the opinion that the development of small communities who live out faith through small ritual and celebration may well be part of the future of church.

And in so doing, we might let go some of the need to suck- and remember also to breathe out…

Dunbar’s number and Facebooking…

I was reminded today of Dunbar’s number– the theoretical numerical limit of people that we can maintain meaningful relationship with- relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person in the group.

The suggestion made is that for groups to be cohesive and integrated beyond this number, then increasingly rules and enforced norms have to be used. Dunbar proposed this number as a result of studying primate groups.

The number has been argued about in anthropological circles, but is somewhere between 100-150.

Strangely this number corresponds to the average number of Facebook friends (I have around 120 I think. Michaela has many more, but then she is a very sociable kind of monkey.) I have written before about how Facebook, useful and clever though it is, can reduce communication to a kind of cyber-autism.

The other figure that is relevant though is the number of people with whom you can sustain intimate, deeper friendship- our close community. This is a much smaller number- usually thought to be between 5 and 10.

Even if these figures are more or less accurate (and we humans form a broad bell curve on just about everything) then so what?

If these numbers are a feature of the limitations of our cerebral cortex as Dunbar suggested, then it would mean that we humans (who are above all things SOCIAL animals) are at our best in small groups.

There are clear evolutionary and anthropological implications for this- but of course, I am interested too in the theological ones. These are the things that seemed important to me-

Jesus called us to live in communities, where we might learn to practice the mysterious and challenging ways of love.

And although this love was never intended to be restricted to our small groups, we simply can not be all things to everyone. Start with were you are, and seek to live graciously and generously. Accepting that you will fail.

And there will be some who we are called towards deeper relationship with- soul friendship.

This kind of relationship requires so much more than informational exchange, status updates and Mafia wars games.

It needs flesh.