The World Service #3

As the Covid 19 pandemic seems to have reached its peak in Australia, I think we are at the most challenging time. We’re all dying to get out and businesses are dying to restart to stop the personal, social, emotional and economic bleeding. The stress in the home, the financial stresses, the inequalities and the livelihood of our children, who may not understand why they have to be cooped up at home all day long with parents – parents who’d probably give an arm and a leg to have a good night’s sleep.

But we are being asked for just a bit more patience. To resist the tantalising temptation.

The brutally honest Alanis Morissette has just released a couple of new songs. We begin the program with one of them, ‘Smiling’. Taken together, her three new songs are a stunning personal revelation.

I have chosen ‘Smiling’ because it’s what I do, even though, like the illusory smooth gliding of the duck on the lake surface, underneath, the feet are going flat out.

To develop our own personal resilience, I suggest we have to get down below the smile to what our ‘duck’s feet’ are doing. That’s really the point of The World Service. Inspiration – YES! But resilience to maintain it, as well.

I have asked a good friend of mine to share three steps she takes to grow her inner resilience.  Then I have included a ‘Let Go’, chant to continue this mood of inner contemplation. I hope you find this helpful.

Finally, I have dug up a song by some dear friends of mine, who had a band called Eat the Menu in the 1990’s. But with a new recording contract, they changed their name to The Mercy Bell in 1996. This song, ‘Always’ was their first new single under the new label.

I’m sure they would all be horrified if they knew I had dug this up from a recording of one of those Saturday morning TV shows – that one hosted by the crazy Dylan – if you go back that far! But even though we don’t get the benefit of the beautiful lush strings on the CD and the official video, I think those who remember Mercy Bell’s stunning live performances will appreciate this live version. I think the message comes through. “It’s all going to be OK”. 

But first, as is our custom in Australia, I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which I live. I pay my respect to elders of the Kaurna people, past, present and emerging. 
May we walk together in harmony.


The World Service#2, 24 April 2020

In this program: 

A wonderful song from Jimmy Nail supported by master guitarist Mark Knopfler…introducing thoughts and feelings that come from any social change. In this case the demise of the ship building industry in the UK.

As the Covid 19 curve begins to flatten, the queston is being asked: What comes next? What will be the new normal?

Jimmy Nail offers these thoughts:

This was a big river
But that was long ago
That’s not now, that’s not now…
But what do they do all day
And what are they supposed to say
What does a father tell his son?
If you believe that there’s a bond between our future and our past
Try to hold on to what we have
We build them strong, we built to last

‘Cause this is a mighty town
Build upon solid ground
And everything they’ve tried so hard to kill
We will rebuild

This is a big river
I want you all to know I’m so very proud
This is a big river
But that was long ago
That’s not now
This is a big, big river
And in my heart I know it will rise again
The river will rise again

But the Covid 19 pandemic offers wider and deeper challenges – but also an opportunity to ‘reset’ our world.

Australian Singer-songwriter Shane Howard, who appears during the Anzac Day Concert, ‘Music From The Home Front’, has written a poignant lament about the pre-Covid 19 world. In association with Shane, I have produced this music video.

The pandemic presents a wonderful opportunity to ‘spiral up’, as Sam Neil suggested in our first program. To reimagine our world to address some of these issues Shane Howard points toward. 

Then I offer an insight given to me by a psychologist when I was seeking help for depression. I offer it as a quietness reflection to empower us as we get in touch with our own personal thoughts and feelings in our own situations.

And finally, an inspirational song we can all sing along with, to open our hearts and minds to others at risk in our world.


A World Service

I was ringing a friend who was recently ‘let go’ from her job at a university.

I love the irony of that phrase, ‘let go’; as if previously tethered and now presented with freedom! ‘Let go’, I thought to myself, might inadvertently say a lot about the attitude of an organisation toward its employees. But anyway…

It was Monday and her last day was the previous Friday. I was mindful that change, whatever it is, brings with it its own grief. Most of us know about Elizabeth Kubler Ross and her ‘Five Stages of Grief’. She would know them. But there’s a big difference about knowing about them and experiencing them.

With the pandemic distancing rules, there had been no Friday afternoon farewell drinks. So I was wondering how she was getting on, such rituals denied her.

She told me that on Sunday morning she was looking around for some encouragement and inspiration. She had nearly clicked on to a church service online, but it didn’t feel right.

This got me thinking. How many non-church goers might be looking for something deeper than Facebook for inspiration? The chaplain in me couldn’t resist. The result is ‘The World Service’ – a ‘service’ to bring inspiration, encouragement and hope from the on-line world back to the on-line world.

Here’s my first attempt. I hope you enjoy it.


Two Encouraging Signs

There are so many incidental things going on triggered by the threat of the Corona Virus pandemic. Here are two little snippets.

  1. A Demonstration of the Downside of Competition

Fran Kelly’s Introduction to a segment on ABC Radio National ‘Breakfast’ on Tuesday morning:

In clinical trials and laboratories worldwide, the hunt is on to find a vaccine to protect us against COVID-19. Hundreds of trials are currently underway. In 1964, Stanley Plotkin invented the vaccine to beat the infectious disease rubella and now he’s working with six companies to combat coronavirus.

The interview begins with Stanley Plotkin:

‘Let me say that I have never seen the vaccine community so united in the effort to develop a vaccine. You say that I’m working with six companies. In fact I’m working with many more than that…there are currently about 40 different efforts to develop a vaccine…

In 2015 I proposed that there be the creation of an organisation that would produce vaccines that would not have a commercial benefit; that is, it wouldn’t be a vaccine that would make money, but be a vaccine that would be directed against an emerging infection. That organisation now exists.

The forward thinking to create that organisation has created the platform for virologists to work collaboratively as a knowledge-sharing community, a network of self-determining research teams. This collaborate, sharing approach means less time lost in chasing down dead ends giving much quicker responses to producing effective vaccines for the world community.

Fran Kelly (later in the interview):

What are the lessons learned, or that need to be learned, from that fight to find a vaccine for rubella (In the ’60’s measles pandemic) and what the world needs now in its fight against Covid-19?

Stanley Plotkin:

Well I think two lessons. One is, in the development of a rubella vaccine there was a lot of competition…In other words, people not working together. Well that has changed! …So at least in this case, people are working together.

The second point is…we are moving much faster than was possible in the ’60’s because we have many more ways of developing vaccines than we had in the 1960’s.

My delight in this interview has little to do with viruses and vaccines. Rather, my delight is in yet another living proof of the validity of Laloux’s projection of a new paradigm shift in the way we organise – away from the Industrial, with its fixation on profit-making and competition to the ‘soulful’ with hearts and minds set on wholeness – away from ‘industry’ through hierarchical and meritocratic structures, to distributed decision-making among cooperative teams of contributors, each of equal status – away from bureaucratic boxes to the free flow and weaving of evolutionary creation. The anti-rubella vaccine could have been available worldwide so much more quickly, saving misery among millions of women and children, had it not been for the industrial mindset of the time. Stanley Plotkin is to be celebrated for initiating a new kind of organisation, one with a higher vision than profit-making through competition.

2. Steven Sondheim – a hospitable musical genius

Later on Radio National, ‘The Stage Show’ with Michael Caffcart:
Stephen Sondheim — taking a razor to conventions (Part I)

I am not a big fan of Musicals. But I am intrigued by Stephen Sondheim. He seems to me to completely embody Nouwen’s conception of radical hospitality in his approach to creating and producing music.

For example, he was asked to explain what he thought was the difference between opera and musicals. In opera, he said, the composer creates the music, and performance necessitates finding the singer/actor who can reproduce what the composer has created. In musicals, for Sondheim, it is a matter of writing for the singer/actor.

Sondheim seems to have upended the motive for the creative process, just as Nouwen’s conception of radical hospitality upends our understanding of creating and maintaining human relationships. In terms of Nouwen’s conception, Sondheim creates space for the performer to be free to be who they uniquely are; the composition has been tailored to the unique personhood of the performer. This frees the actor to engage fully. It precludes any process of mechanical replication of what the composer may have written.

I recall a conversation with my friend Rod Boucher when he had finished touring as a support act for AC-DC: to be on the road performing your hits exactly the way they sound on the records, night after night, is one of the most deadening of human experiences.

And in like manner, Sonheim’s approach as composer/producer/director rubs off on the performers, performing to each audience as valued, respected and unique, not merely to stroke one’s own ego, but to deeply connect, conveying the composer’s intention.

This is Nouwen’s radical hospitality in action.

Put another way, the composer is not composing for his own satisfaction, but serving a higher and broader purpose. That requires taking the means of fulfilling that purpose into a hospitable relationship of mutual engagement. For Sondheim, his art cannot be commodified.


Human Foolishness – a Lament

After Boris Johnson was elected new Prime Minister of the UK, a friend simply commented, probably on behalf of a large proportion of Brits, ‘God help us!’.

How did they get into this mess? And how is his fellow charlatan in the US able to continue to get away with ripping the heart out of his country?

I thought of a song, a similar lament, written by Australian singer-song-writer, Shane Howard. I put it into a video, which will be played at Pilgrim this Sunday with the 9.30 congregation.

I hope you like it!


Music Making

About twenty years ago I heard of a project to bring together Paris subway buskers for performances at a festival.

I thought- what a great idea- to invite unrecognised musos to play together. There is so much talent there, looking for an outlet.

Over the last month or so I’ve noticed some incredibly talented musos in the Mall and I began to wonder whether there might an opportunity, for those who choose, to jam together and generate ideas for performing together, with Pilgrim Church in the City, as a venue, in mind.

Some years ago I accepted an invitation by the Order of Australia Committee in SA to create a framework for a truly multifaith Australia Day celebration. An important part of fulfilling that invitation was constructing a multifaith music group, each playing a piece in their own tradition, as well as a combined piece as a metaphor for unity in diversity.

This was highly successful.

I hoped that the musicians would also form relationships among themselves for their own projects. I noticed later that the Jewish folk guitar player had befriended the Muslim u’d player, who I had arranged to fly over from Melbourne and who stayed on for a Fringe performance. It was lovely to have a coffee with them both after his performance. So much respect there.

Music can be one of the most significant elements in promoting spiritual health. It is one of the languages of the soul. If Jesus was the friend of outsiders, Is it time to provide opportunities for music-making ‘outsiders’ within the worship life of the Church?

Invitation and creating friendly space, the first steps in ‘radical hospitality’, might be a way to take a first step in that direction.

Over the next few months I hope to start keeping a lookout for buskers of goodwill who might be open to the idea.


A Sonar Paradigm

I am part of a small group who are exploring ways of making a difference for the wellbeing of others, and for society in general, each in our own domains. We meet once a month in a little Moroccan restaurant in the city. Increasingly over the last nine months, we have also been meeting each other in twos or threes to support each other in each other’s projects.

I think it would be fair to say that in the past, each of us have hit brick walls with institutional bureaucracy – inflexible ways of working and self-interested values. So each of us are just going ahead anyway with opportunities that present themselves for good.

As we have met for wonderful conversations over fabulous food, and in the self-giving spirit of our delightful host, Ali, I think we are becoming a little action-research incubator discovering principles for doing things differently in a world that, on the one hand, does not understand the simplicity or vulnerability of these new ways of working (but ways as old as time), but on the other, are crying out for a breath of fresh air.

In many ways, what we are experiencing is beyond words. We are drawn together by an engagement with and for goodness.

One member of the group, concerned with social isolation in her suburb, has been setting up a volunteer group to engage with lonely people. She has four trained and police-checked volunteers ready to go and a memorandum of understanding for collaboration with a large aged care institution in her area. But one month in, she has received no requests from them.

Last night at our gathering she told how the advice she is getting from well-meaning people is to set up an incorporated body so that she can get charity status and so on. But she sees that this will take her into the very organisational setup she wants to avoid.

All of us have faced this dilemma of having to fit in to these pre-existing structures; we are choosing to put them aside as secondary, to try new ways of getting things done.

One of the group described her process. You get intuitions about ‘maybe I should…talk to so-and-so, put an idea of Facebook… , you follow the energy that these hunches create and then act on them – putting things ‘out there’. Then you see what the response is, and again, go with the energy of the respondent to see what happens next.

One of the group passed on to me a message she received this morning, (at the top of this post) knowing the dilemma I expressed last night about jumping back into the multifaith arena, spurred by outcomes of the New Zealand massacre. After all, inter-religious harmony had been my prime concern during my twenty years as chaplain at Flinders. But I suspect this would throw me back into the all consuming domain I had retired from.

In keeping with the discoveries we have been making together, I decided to make my contributions by following my inner promptings, putting things ‘out there’ as I am prompted.

It occurred to me that this fluid, open way of engagement for good might be compared to a ship’s sonar. Contrary to the quote at the head of this post, it is not a matter of waiting but of being active – continually sendiing the ‘ping’ out from the ship; seeing what bounces back and making sense of the picture that emerges; then, in the light of that external reality, respond creatively, all the time ‘pinging’ to update the external picture.

This is an altogether different approach from having a ‘good idea’ and making it happen.


The Religion Dilemma

I was delighted to have a coffee with my theological mentor Norm Habel yesterday and to chat about things that came to mind of common concern.

Norm has written yet another book, which will be out soon. It draws together a lifetime of biblical research related to one of his great passions of justice for indigenous peoples. But more fundamentally, to argue the case for an interpretation of the Bible that stands against its cooption and distortion by patriarchal, white, male, western, cultures of self-interest.

One might think of the outright rejection of the recent ‘Statement from the Heart’ of Australian Aboriginal peoples by the Federal Government.

What I think is critical at this time is to connect the fundamental work of theologians like Norm with ordinary people who have rejected ‘religion’ out of hand on the basis of its now so obvious privileged abuse. By choosing religious illiteracy we throw the baby out with the bathwater. We have to have fundamental religious debates in the public arena to expose ignorance and abuse. And particularly to call out abuses by the churches.

Otherwise the Royal Commissions will roll on without exposing underlying aberrations of beliefs at the heart of systemic disfunction and without calling on those whose role it is in our community to contribute scholarship in the religious domain.

One only has to think about the cooption of religion by American politicians to gain power ad then to justify all kinds of violence.

One immediate issue is how does one get a book like Norm’s into the hands of ordinary people, when most have rejected religion for good reason? For without Norm’s kind of exposure, we fail to understand the deepest motivations that have brought us to where we are.


The Age of Telling is Spent

“The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply.”             
― Roy T. Bennett

(Quoted from Sidewalk Talk Monthly Newsletter, Nov. 2018)

I am wondering where this ‘listen to reply’ comes from, to understand its roots, since it seems so widespread and such a roadblock to really understanding another person, or even oneself.

Ours is an Age of Transition
I think it is likely the root cause lies in our history. I buy the idea that the context for life in the western world is in transition from an industrial, colonial, white, Anglo-Saxon, patriarchal, ‘christian’ age, characterised by hierarchy, entitlement and a mechanistic mindset (what I am calling the Telling paradigm), to an emerging post-industrial, pluralist, more egalitarian period that requires understanding each other to make sense of it, and ultimately to survive (a Listening paradigm).

The Telling mindset seems to relegate listening to understanding information that the Teller is empowered and entitled to tell, often rewarding or punishing for obeisance in order to maintain power. Husbands telling wives, churches telling congregations, bosses telling employees. But higher education is beginning to call hierarchical power into question; and with it, the Telling paradigm.

As a former school teacher, the word ‘control’ was used unapologetically in my teacher training during the 1960’s as the key objective for classroom management. ‘Keep control in the classroom!’ I can vouch for the counter-productivity of this fear-based, coercive approach, having tried it out in my first years of teaching. It took a huge emotional toll on me. I came to the conclusion that what looks like an ordered classroom created by Telling is often one that turns violent when the external pressure comes off. Any wonder, given it is likely students mirror the same autocratic Telling behaviour of their teacher, and quite often their parents. Discipline has been applied externally, stunting the growth of students to acquire the self-discipline needed for social responsibility.

In those days, a teacher in a classroom, could continue to tell, demanding to be listened to. The carrot was a good report at the end of the term, the stick was the threat of  punitive consequences for lack of respect of the teacher’s authority. Telling was, and probably still is, justified by tellers to maintain ego. In those days, the Telling teacher was provided with little alternative. The Teller’s default behaviour was the way the teller had been taught. That meant trying to keep everything ‘normal’, the way it had always been – or even, the way it was ‘meant’ to be!

The end of Telling
Walter Brueggemann heralded the transition out of Telling within the realm of theology with ground-breaking books like The Prophetic Imagination, Hopeful Imagination and Then Comes the Poet. In an exploration of modernity and post-modernity, his book, The Bible and Postmodern Imagination – texts under negotiation, (SCM 1993, Augsburg Fortress), Brueggemann sums up his understanding of the transition (p.10,11):

The large, experienced reality faced daily by those with whom we minister is the collapse of the white, male, Western world of colonialism. While that world will continue to make its claim for a very long time, its unchallenged authority and credibility are over and done with. This new reality touches each of us in threatening and frightening ways. It touches the economy and reaches right down into our patterns of employment and retirement. It touches home and domestic authority in families. And as our systems of management and control break down, the collapse makes us at least anxious and perhaps greedy, and in the end it leads to a justification of many kinds of brutality. The experience of this collapse is profound, intense, and quite concrete. There is a lot of political mileage in rhetoric that pretends the old system works, but it is deception. Thus the end of modernity, I propose, is not some remote, intellectual fantasy, but reaches down into the lives of folk like us.

Resistance to finding alternatives to ‘telling’ is evident in all kinds of human abuse – widespread bullying in the corporate world and at home, all kind of sexual and emotional abuse of minors, racial conflict and the rise of hardline fascist, nationalist and religious movements – the ‘tellers’ that want to exert their authoritarian, self-interested power over others, even if clothed in respectability,  at seemingly any cost.

At the heart of a transition from ‘telling’ to ‘listening’ is the disempowerment of ‘bosses’. Tellers are obviously not happy about losing their elitist or entitled privileges! That is why Frederic Laloux‘s exposure about the brokenness of past organisational systems and the rise of organisations without ‘bosses’ is so pertinent. Like Brueggemann, Laloux is a herald – his research points to what is already happening!

But don’t expect the Colonial, Industrial, White, Anglo-Saxon, patriarchal, ‘christian’ hegemony, in which we are immersed, to fall over without a fight!  If there is Listening, it is often for the purpose of telling! That is what is behind the quotation from Bennett: ‘we listen to reply’.’

Telling’ is self-aggrandisement. It massages a sense of superiority. It gives a sense of power and feeds the ego.

The ‘Listening’ Herald
The ‘listening’ that I am talking about puts on hold ones own agenda, for the sake of understanding the world of the other. That is, to serve a wider purpose. The well-loved catholic pastoral theologian Henri Nouwen, proposed a radical approach to achieving the kind of listening for understanding that Bennett is after, one that has no place for ‘reply’. Furthermore, Nouwen’s conception disempowers any ‘telling’, creating a freedom for others to take control and be responsible for their own lives and to make their own connections. It empowers the other. That is why Nouwen’s conception of hospitality is so crucial for those like me who are jumping out of the grave of the Age of Telling to a new life in the Age of Listening.

An Age of Listening demands a new, but radical, hospitality 

* Hospitality… means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can   enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.
* Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.
* It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.
* It is not to lead our neighbour into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment.
* It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit.
* It is not a method of making our God and our way into the criteria of happiness, but the opportunity to others to find their God and their way.
* The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations.
* Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt a life style of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find their own.

Henri Nouwen. Reaching Out: The Three Movements in the Spiritual Life. (1975 Doubleday. New York) (p 68)

But it is not easy to unlearn ‘telling’ – particularly for a former Evangelical Christian who was also a teacher!



Opportunity For Rome Talk

SAPOL invited me to provide a keynote presentation at their Police Chaplains Conference last week. They had found my work on Oasis at Flinders University on the Internet and thought the story might be of interest.

When I sat down with the Acting Superintendent of the Health, Safety and Welfare Branch and the Manager of the Volunteer Coordination Unit to get an idea of what they thought of what I was thinking for my presentation, I sensed that SAPOL was beginning to make a transition to ‘own’ chaplaincy more, and discovered that all of the police chaplains were Christian.

I wondered whether the transition SAPOL was beginning to make might be similar to what we made at Flinders, from Christian to multi faith and from Religious Centre to Oasis. But this invitation also gave me an opportunity to have an ‘inside’ conversation with my Christian colleagues in Christian language. As Boyce’s Third Law says, ‘When in Rome, speak like the Romans do!’

So I apologise in advance to my non-Christian friends who may want to follow what I had to say at the conference in this blog. Below is a link to the write-up of the presentation.

I tell the Oasis story within the framework of challenges, insights and responses. The overwhelming challenge was the practice of exclusion by Christians. Then I reminded my chaplaincy colleagues of the values and attitudes of the prototype inspirer of the vocation of chaplaincy, which happened to be consistent with the responses I had made to the challenges of exclusion. Finally, but I did not have time to present it, a brief theological rationale for chaplaincy in the pluralist public domain.

Since writing the ‘Theology’ it occurred to me that I ought to spell out in Christian language, what I mean by ‘human flourishing’. It is a phrase I picked up from the Yale Centre for Faith and Culture, where Miroslav Volf is the Director.

In my view, ‘Human Flourishing’ is the goal of chaplaincy. It is a universal aspiration, and therefore is an expression in language appreciated in the public domain. It can refer to both individuals and to society. For me it also refers to the global common good.

For a Christian, ‘human flourishing’ is equivalent to the Abrahamic concept of ‘shalom’ or ‘salaam’, usually translated into English as ‘peace’. It is a concept that refers both to the individual and to societies.

We often think of ‘peace’ as the absence of war. But actually, in its original context, it refers to right relationships, everything in its appropriate place. It is supported by ‘law’.

In Australian Aboriginal culture, ‘The Law’ about who may marry whom, when followed, results in right relationships, right genetics, right ‘peaceful’ societies. ‘The Law’ was given at creation and encompasses a whole system of how to live.

This passage from ‘Why Warriors Lie Down and Die’ by Richard Trudgen, referring to the Yolnju people of the far Northern Territory, expresses the concept eloquently:

The Madayin (the way to live) established the boundaries for each clan estate and empowered the clan and nation, for the teaching and maintenance of a rule of law for all Yolnju citizens. The Madayin taught Yolnju warriors the raypirri’ dhukarr – the
discipline of mind, body and soul, along with respect for all life and the greater
good of the community and cosmos over individual need or greed.

Since the beginning of time, the clans have assented to this law through a
ceremonial process called Wana-Lupthun. In this process the djunjgaya, the
person responsible for looking after the law objects for that particular clan,
stands on the water’s edge holding these law objects, which encode the law,
above his head. While he is doing this all members of the clan go into the water
and immerse themselves. Wana-Lupthun signifies that all Yolnju are under the
rule of the Madayin — no-one is above it.

This complex Madayin system is seen as holy, demanding great respect. It was given at creation to establish and maintain a state of mägaya. One of the images
the people use to describe mägaya is a flat smooth sea, or the surface of a lake
without a ripple, wave or swell – a glass-smooth surface. It is this tranquil state,
where every clan member can live in freedom from hostility or threat of
oppression, that the Madayin produces.

This is the same concept as the Jewish shalom, the Muslim salaam and the Christian peace.

For me, human flourishing embraces this concept of living free from hostility or threat of
oppression, and suggests a further element, human creativity.

Call it the ‘Kingdom of God’, the ‘Reign of God’ or living in the ‘promised land‘ of shalom-salaam-peace. ‘Human Flourishing’ might be the goal and the underlying vocational aspiration of every chaplain, particularly those chaplaining in the public domain.