Contrary to expectations, the beginning of this year has seen me travelling extensively, engaging in lots of different contexts, meeting many people; community folks, church leaders, students and those working in the charity and public sector.
I feel at times like these that I have the opportunity to ‘feel the pulse’ of what is happening in wider society and the task of a contemplative is to pray, reflect and try to glean what is happening beneath the surface of people’s lives and society and to think about what this might mean for the future.
It was Jesus who challenged the religious leaders of his day who were able to tell what was happening with the weather by observing what’s happening in the sky but who failed to recognise what was happening in the world and what God was doing. The challenge remains for us today, to pray and listen to the heartbeat of God for his world, to cultivate that deeper awareness, to see beyond the soundbites, the instant messaging and superficiality of so much contemporary life.
One very clear impression that I have been left with, not just recently but over a number of years, is the levels of pressure and stress that so many people carry. Tensions, stress and pressure are inevitable components in any life and organisation but where there is no abating of such things, it damages people, contributes to dysfunctional behaviours and poor working practices.
I know good people who are overwhelmed with stress behaving in uncharacteristic ways, damaging themselves and others. The pressure under which some people have to work, might drive them to attempt to meet the latest unattainable target but it certainly doesn’t bring out the best in them, nor does it produce much quality work or any meaningful contribution to things.
It’s a very sad state of affairs, when many of the people I meet would get out of or change what they were doing if they could. Operating in ‘survival mode’ does not bode well for life and society generally.
I have recently been involved in a consultation that I hosted looking at the future of ministry in the North over the next 10 years, which came on the back of some heavy discussions on similar issues facing a denomination in transition and leading a workshop for public sector managers, troubled and in crisis, stressed out and overwhelmed in their attempts to run an essential public care service with ever increasing cutbacks and decreasing resources. I have had conversations with friends and those who have come to our home or at Nether Springs and most of them have confirmed my impression that we continue to live in an incredibly ‘driven’ society, a consumer culture that devours, damages and distorts our relationship with God, ourselves, others and the world in which we live.
I don’t think anybody who knows me could accuse me of being workshy. Quite the contrary, although I recognise that I am very fortunate to be in a place where I am more easily able to live out the values that shape my life and the vocation that I have embraced as a Companion of the Northumbria Community. Rabbi Lionel Blue, who some of us had the privilege of meeting when he visited Nether Springs a couple of years ago said, You can have security or freedom but you can’t have both. You choose.
For most of the time I would always choose freedom but that does present certain challenges and heightens an awareness of our Rule of Life, Availability and Vulnerability!
However, by seeking to embrace such a rule of life, that is not driven by dogma, a project, programme or some key performance indicator, I find myself living at times so counter to the culture, embracing something of an alternative way of life. And it’s not in protest or despair of others with whom I happily and readily engage with but I do hope that in some small measure my own life and that of others within the Northumbria Community, makes a contribution for good, brings life and hope, or as Jesus desired for his disciples, to be light bearers and as salt that not only preserves but brings out the best in people and situations. By living out a rule of life we can become little signposts, waymarks to a different way of living, a way of life that seeks to live and reflect the heart and values of the God whom we seek, love and serve. Inevitably that will call us at times to be counter to the culture. For example, by embracing the heretical imperative, part of our commitment to intentional vulnerability, there has to be a questioning and challenging of the status quo which inevitably leads to some elements of nonconformity.
A number of years ago, whilst staying at De Spil, the retreat centre in the Netherlands run at that time by our good friends Victor and Tony, I came across the Dutch proverb: Only dead fish go with the flow.
It continues to serve as reminder to not simply or blindly follow what is deemed the acceptable norm. This is one the reasons why I have an innate aversion to advertising. I find it a real intrusion of privacy when watching the television to be bombarded every 15 minutes or so with adverts that are trying to persuade, manipulate, pressurise and entice me. I know that consumerism depends on people purchasing but I find so much advertising akin to cyber bullying and the products offered do not in reality add very much to life except debt and the fuelling of the appetite to want more.
An aspect of contemporary life that does cause me concern relates to some of those people that I’ve met in recent weeks. Many of them are exhausted, weary and worn down by pressures and stress, tired from working longer and longer hours, overwhelmed by all those things that were supposed to be time-saving; emails, text messaging, Twitter and Facebook etc. Also, not since the 1980s on Teesside, have I met so many people who are living with the shadow of redundancy and the fear of financial uncertainty hanging over them.
Whilst discussions are held on the impact of flu viruses on the health service and the workplace, a far greater and arguably more serious sickness is that of the phenomenal increase in people suffering from mental health issues. It’s as though we have an outbreak of national depression. Antidepressants rose from 12 million in the early 90s to over 20 million in 2001 and now top 30 million! It’s also not surprising to see coffee shops booming as we need the high caffeine drinks to keep exhausted bodies and tired minds awake and obstensibly alert. It’s shocking but it should come as no surprise to us that many of the people working with extreme levels of stress and pressure, those gambling, sorry trading on the financial markets, as well as medics and those in business work what feels like 24/7 have to resort to illegal substances to keep them going or assuage their disordered and disturbed psyches.
Surely these ways are not the pathways to life? A free market driven, consumer society might provide us with choice, considered a great virtue, but it is not all it’s cracked out to be.
My frustration and disappointment with some churches is that, we who are called to be bearers of light, should reflect something of the values of God’s kingdom and point, like a sign, to a culture that is different. A way of living and working that reflects the nature of God and his ways but sadly so often we simply mirror society or worse, endorse it. Church leaders are often as stressed out as their secular counterparts. Christians tend to be as frenetically busy is anyone else. Many of the leaders I know are workaholics, conforming to the ridiculous interpretation of the Protestant work ethic that decrees that if you’re not busy then something is wrong. I was speaking at a conference other week, a good conference in many ways. An energising and uplifting start for many people to a new year but it was all go. The carefully crafted prayer space zones for quiet contemplation, for reflection, listening, waiting were bypassed and barely used. They were not there to replace the programme but to provide punctuation in the midst of all the busy activity but no, the default position for us in western consumer culture is to feel that if were not doing something, if we are not busy then there must be something wrong. The spirituality of so many of my evangelical and charismatic friends could be summed up in the funny but poignant cartoon:
The apostle Paul, writing to Christians in Rome, believers who were trying to live out the new life that they had received in Christ, urges them, Do not be conformed to the standards of this world, or as other translations have put it; Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will, which is good and pleasing and perfect. JB Phillips in his wonderful translation of this text from Romans 12:2 wrote, Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its mould.
Surely it’s time for us to live differently, to rediscover the spirit of nonconformity that reflects the ways of God.
I often think it’s one of the reasons why God raised up the Northumbria Community. To be a new monastic community; carrying our raison d’être to seek God, cultivating contemplative awareness, appreciating the gift of companionship and community in a fragmented world, rekindling prophetic insight and apostolic imagination. Living out the good news of the Christian faith, that carries wisdom and hope to the world.
God created the world as a context in which human beings could flourish. The air we breathe, the food we eat, our ability to grow and develop are all bequeathed to us. The environment was meant for human flourishing. Yet I am left wondering whether the way in which we are living our lives is really contributing significantly to human flourishing?
Surely it’s time for a change, but then that’s one of the problems, we fight for time to do anything. One of the reasons why we continue to do what we do, individually and collectively as a society is that we are not afforded time to think, observe, critique how we live and what we might need to do to change to enable life to become more flourishing for everyone.
It appears to me that some systems that we operate and some of the values that undergird society are actually consuming, devouring us. They are killing relationships, breaking marriages, alienating children, creating tensions, sucking the joy and fulfilment out of even the good jobs.
It seems to me that in a work crazed, financially driven, accumulative, anxious, stressed out culture that a positive antidote would be expressed by believers and communities who know how to rest and be refreshed, by a community that has time for relationships, by a movement of people that saw that the purpose of living, whilst influenced by economics, is founded on other things such as godly and ethical values. A way of life that speaks of contentment and simplicity more than accumulation and consumerism.
I was asked recently what would be the good news message for contemporary culture. I think what I shared then remains with me that the messages of hope and peace, justice and community, wisdom and the rediscovery of the gift of sabbath would all be good news. On the subject of the sabbath, not an oppressive legalistic obligation but a principle that when practised is life-giving. My friend Ian Stackhouse, (a devout follower of Jesus and Burnley football club!) wrote an excellent book a few years ago now which I commend everywhere I go, ‘The Day Is Yours ~ Slow Spirituality In A Fast-Moving World’. As it says on the book’s cover it is; a protest against the culture of speed both in the culture at large, but also, more ominously, in the church itself. Rooted in the monastic liturgy of the hours, the Day is Yours argues that in order for Christians to act as a truly prophetic witness, in a time of cultural decadence, they must recover more biblical rhythm in which work, rest, relationships, worship and prayer are held together in creative tension……. Living one day at a time with gratitude and contentedness is vital, lest the church capitulates to the destructiveness of modern life.
As we move into that season of Lent I have just picked up two books from the Community’s Resources, Simplify the Soul ~Lenten Practices to Renew your Spirit by Paula Huston. and Timeless Simplicity by John Lane.
Paula Huston invites us to de-clutter our lives and draws on daily Lenten practices woven from the Gospels, the Desert Fathers and Mothers and the author’s own wealth of experience. I commend it to you and hope that whatever we find ourselves doing that we might not be driven but are people who are led by the Spirit of God, as Jesus intended for us and demonstrated in his own life. John Lane’s book addresses the advantages of living a less cluttered, stressful life than that which many of us are now living in the overcrowded and manic-paced consuming nations. He also raises concerns about the future of our home, the Earth and goes on to say that sooner or later a simpler lifestyle will not only be desirable – it will become an imperative.
Is it not time for a little non-conformity in a world of subtle yet powerful in conformity?