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

Mother Theresa.001

“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.


The Social Entrepreneur 2

Amy and Bear



I think it’s important to be grounded in the foundations underlying any paradigm. For me, Frederic Laloux’s work on paradigms of organisation, for example, provide greater clarity to understand and articulate the new paradigm of organisation that is emerging today. In my life as a chaplain, the foundational life of the ‘father’ of chaplaincy, St Martin-of-Tours, informs my adaptions to my context to hopefully create a chaplaincy that is relevant to today’s world. It also helps me see the negative aberrations of chaplaincy over time. ‘We walk into the future looking backwards’ seems to be an appropriate Indigenous proverb.

The tectonic plates of the western world are grinding against each other. We must adapt without losing the spirit of that which has contributed to human flourishing in the past. In the social arena, the challenges and opportunities for this adaption inspires the social entrepreneur.

We have always had entrepreneurs. Those who see opportunities and have the inner drive to take the risks to bring them to fruition. Watch ‘The Shark Tank’ to witness aspirants for innovation in the business sector.

Andrew Mawson and others in the UK, driven by the failure of systems intended to create real change among the disadvantaged, and motivated by their own passion for social justice, directed their entrepreneurial attention to the social sector in the mid-1980’s. The category descriptor ‘social entrepreneur’ was born some years later, after a journalist coined the term, inspired by Mawson’s work, to describe this movement.

Mawson’s book was published in 2008, giving insight into what his entrepreneurship had achieved over 20 years. Ten years later we are still struggling to appreciate the dynamic of his leap forward. Our government sectors continue to be paralysed in systems that cannot seem to deliver real change. The Church sector continues to shoot itself in the foot with factional in-fighting and abuse. And our welfare sectors continue to be influenced by that same spirit of control and domestication, strangled by dependency on grants, with all the constrictions of stop-start programming and conditional agendas.

I see a confluence of adaption since Mawson’s book.

There is movement by two groups of people disenchanted with modern organisation, typified by government and corporates, or, if you like, ‘institutions’. I think education, including travel and the availability of knowledge on the Internet, are contributing to this disenchantment.

The younger group of Gen X and Y seem to be saying, ‘I have a dream, and I can’t bring it to fruition while I am a cog in your (institutional) machine.’ They often hang in for the pay packet, because that’s all part of the institutionalised system of survival. But many are breaking out into ‘start-ups’ to follow their dream. Places like ‘WeWork’ and other ‘Hubs’ are providing the infrastructure for new ways of organisation and achievement.

The older group I call the ‘mid-life crisis’ group. They are people who have attained a certain stability and sense of financial security. They have a roof over their heads and their kids are relatively independent. Retirees, like me, are part of this group. They are saying, ‘There’s got to be more to life than just working to earn money to have a comfortable life.’ ‘I want to make a difference in the world – I can see it needs it!’ 

I hear both groups saying, almost to a person, wherever I have come across them, in Australia or through my travels, ‘I want to make a difference in the world’.

But then my father would have said this. He was a woodworker – carpenter and cabinet maker – in the Railways. He got great satisfaction, contributing to the world, through his work. But what frustrated him more than anything else, was the disconnect with the ‘people in the office upstairs’ who came up with their plans and imposed them without understanding their consequences. They  saw themselves above the workers (and hence the glass offices were upstairs!) Apparently they were the educated ones who were entitled to create their dreams, but the workers were considered incapable of contributing, save following their plans.

Social entrepreneurship happens when people break out of the credentialed entitlement system.

I see a movement today, occurring beyond Mawson’s 2008 book.

Mawson focussed his attention on creating a (tangible) neighbourhood hub. It was a centre where the spirit of his vision for social justice could be enacted beyond the dead hand of government. It was also a centre that reached out into the local community, and a model others might be inspired to adopt. 

WeWork centres are fulfilling a similar role for the new breed of innovative workers. Mawson’s model and the WeWork model influenced me in the adaptions we made at Flinders University to transform a Religious Centre into Oasis, while fulfilling its original mandate to be a ‘place for all, to support the religious and spiritual life of the university.’

But the Internet is beginning to also enable social initiatives that are not dependent on a tangible space. The Good Karma Networks springing up around Australia are a good example. The leap forward Amy Churchouse is making is the provision of an easily accessible Internet-based framework as a channel for people in a local neighbourhood to help each other – ‘ to connect and solve problems together to have better lives’. Intuitively, Amy has called this generic movement the Good Karma Effect. That is, the goal is actually the effect on neighbourhoods whose individuals sign on to helping each other through the framework she has set up, initiated intuitively from her own experience of neighbourhood help to find her lost cat.