Is there a “Right Size” for Cooperation?

Libraries, like this massive one in Copenhagen, are a sign of a healthy, collaborative society.

While I’ve been in Europe I am following what is happening nationally in the USA via Vox news, the Atlantic and New Yorker social media, and FiveThirtyEight and other podcasts. They are bearing witness to extreme democratic dysfunction. Clowns appointed as judges, bills written in secret, a President tweeting his id. Meanwhile in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries they are quietly inventing ways to turn household waste into energy without pollution and cooperating with one another to ensure everyone has enough.

I mention this to my friend UK Sarah on our walks and she says what she said in New Zealand, “Yes, but how many people are there?” Denmark has 5.5 million, New Zealand 4.5 million. It is a bit of a conversation ender. However, this morning I woke up wondering if those who predicted the USA would break into regions were in fact prescient. Perhaps democracy works best on a small scale. Not the scale of the town hall meeting alone, which frankly I’ve experienced as both a tyranny of petty-crats and a glorious thing. Maybe something on the scale of a region like the Pacific Coast states. We share a coastline and I-5.  In Denmark, they maintain their social democracy, in part, through a strong consensus on what Danishness is and is not. The Pacific Coast states share a pioneering history, plus an orientation to the Pacific and a majority of the populations are post-modern. It would be easy to also include Hawaii, and harder to include Alaska.

Public Transportation is another sign of collaboration. (Waterloo Station in London)

I remember in the 80s there were a number of intellectuals writing articles about the demise of California. One that sticks in my memory compared it to ancient Alexandria and proposed that with so many languages spoken in the schools and so much conflict over the environment and resources that surely the ship of democracy will sink. Actually, thanks to the creative and technology economies, California is thriving in many ways that many parts of the USA are not.

Another intellectual recently argued that the way forward in the USA will be led by our great cities. The Pacific Coast states have many excellent cities, but they are only sustained by the agricultural production and the watersheds of the associated rural places around them. So while there may be much innovation in cities for many things, a city cannot live behind a wall. Their survival depends on a dense network of connection to the outside world.

Do we need a federal government? Or a European Union? This is the open question that I am faced with in the U.K. and reading news from home. The righty-right leaning Republicans have been arguing the federal government is too expensive, too large, too meddlesome for many years. By electing an unqualified person to the chief executive they are perhaps forcing the question on the rest of the electorate. They may not like the answer that the collective comes up with.

Finding Inner Strength Amidst Turmoil

An artist's depiction of Ancient Hebrew Temple in Jerusalem.
An artist’s depiction of Ancient Hebrew Temple in Jerusalem.

My good friend UK Sarah shared the sermon she prepared to preach at St. Phillips Anglican Church in St Heliers, Auckland, New Zealand. I asked if I could share it here. Reading it helped me ground myself amidst the tumultuous emotions in the aftermath of the news of the Paris attacks. I am finding time away from media and spent in meditation instead is helping me get some perspective.

Sermon, Sunday 15.11.15, Reverend Sarah Clare

1 Samuel 1:4-20; Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25; Mark 13:1-8

‘Will your anchor hold in the storms of life?’

I don’t know about you, but I find these ‘apocalyptic’ passages quite difficult to read.   Mark 13 as a whole chapter talks about some frightening end-of-the-world stuff which can seem pretty off-putting to us. But then the shocking events in Paris yesterday were very much in that vein, weren’t they?

Yet I do think there’s an encouraging message for us in today’s passage.

Jesus and the disciples are leaving the Temple… Not some gigantic version of Holy Trinity cathedral, but a vast construction that covered an area somewhere between 35 and 45 acres – roughly the size of twenty football pitches – big enough to fit a quarter of a million people within it, comfortably. [I’ve read that the smallest stones weighed 2-3 tons; some weighed 50. And there’s one still in existence today in the Wailing Wall, that’s 12 metres long and 3 metres high and weighs 100s of tons…! How on earth they ever built it all is beyond my understanding. It was designed to inspire awe; it spoke of majesty and wealth – and God.]

Another artist's rendering of ancient Hebrew temple.
Another artist’s rendering of ancient Hebrew temple.

Anyway, Jesus and his disciples have spent an eventful morning in this amazing Temple. Jesus has managed to answer several theological challenges from chief priests, scribes and elders who are desperate to trip him up. It must have all felt quite scary for the disciples, given the authority these guys had over ordinary people.

So, it’s as they’re leaving the Temple after all this controversy that one of the disciples turns to look at it in all its glory and says, ‘Wow Jesus, just look at those huge stones and buildings!’

Maybe he was relieved that they’d all survived the morning’s encounters. Maybe he needed the reassurance of something solid and secure… like the Temple. That was rock solid – surely? Something to trust. Something that spoke of the enduring nature of God, of His power and might.

So just imagine their shock when Jesus says – ‘Yes it is huge and wonderful. But do you know what? It’s not going to survive; it’s all going to be destroyed.’   What?? It’s literally unimaginable…

Jesus continues this conversation a bit later, when he’s with his inner circle – Peter, James, John and Andrew. By now they’re up on the Mount of Olives, opposite the Temple. Not surprisingly the disciples return to the subject. ‘The Temple’s going to be destroyed? When, Jesus? And how?’

And Jesus has an interesting response, doesn’t he? Because he sees that behind their question is not so much a fear about when all this might happen, but how they are to survive it. So he warns them not to be distracted; a whole bunch of nasty stuff is going to happen – wars, earthquakes, famines, and people pretending to be their saviour- but they shouldn’t let any of this ‘lead them astray’…

Lots of people have studied this passage over the centuries. Some see it as describing the literal end of life, as we know it, some time in the future. Others give it a more contemporary context.

The fact is that at the time Mark was writing his gospel, things were already pretty difficult for the followers of Jesus. They were seeing and experiencing violence, destruction and persecution aplenty. Tacitus, the Roman historian who wrote Histories, gives a vivid description of all the traumas in the Roman empire, man-made and natural, in the middle of the first century. That tells us that Mark might well have been using the current chaotic situation to give people some perspective and remind them of their anchor in the world…

Fast forward 2000 years. Has there ever been a time when there hasn’t been something scary happening in the world? And the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris yesterday are yet another example. More bloodshed. More grief. More fear. One more appalling man-made trauma to add to the long list in my lifetime alone….

And there have also been massive earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis across the globe even in the last decade, which have destroyed the lives and livelihoods of millions…

Our world seems to exist in a state of chaos. Our reason tells us that oceans aren’t meant to flood; the earth isn’t meant to shake; the sky isn’t meant to turn nasty and attack us; and humans aren’t meant to kill each other – and yet all these things do happen, over and over again. And when they happen, they destroy our sense of certainty and security….

Our security and our peace, can also be shaken by traumas that happen closer to home, in our own lives.   The unexpected can rip from us that sense of solid ground beneath our feet. Whether it’s illness, bereavement, or some other tragedy, we can feel buffeted to the ground…. we can lose our sense of direction and perspective.

I think Jesus’ words speak very much to us here today because essentially he’s reminding us that there will be chaos in our lives, there will be trauma; but through it all we need to trust. To have faith.

I heard of a good mnemonic for faith the other day: ‘Feeling Afraid I Trust Him.’ (repeat) ….. Bad stuff will happen, but we are not to let it deter us from following the path he has laid down for us.

And he likens all this to birthpangs. Those of us who have borne children know just how incredibly painful that is! And we have usually had the benefit of modern medicine!!! Imagine just how difficult giving birth must have been in 1st century Palestine. Real pain, real suffering. Jesus isn’t trying to minimise any of this. He knows just how painful all of this can be.

AND YET, in spite of it all, ‘don’t be alarmed’, he says. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be led astray; don’t allow yourself to be paralysed into inaction. Don’t lose sight of what’s really important – who we are, and what we are called to do and be as his followers:-

We are loved by an omniscient God; we’ve been shown how to live lives of faith and grace, loving and forgiving one another, even those we don’t actually like; we’re to be peacemakers, and work for justice for the vulnerable; and we’re to tell others about how Jesus transforms and heals lives. In other words, ‘Remember’, he says, ‘in spite of the chaos, you need to draw strength and hope from these constants in your life.’

Hope, not despair. However challenging the situation we find ourselves in, Jesus reminds us of something that is immeasurably larger than us and this fragile, vulnerable, uncertain, chaotic world we inhabit. Hope in the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

I doubt there’s an adult in this room who hasn’t experienced trauma at some point in their lives. I certainly have. And when trauma hits, it can be hard to see things clearly; everything whirls around our heads, the ground shifts, and it can feel really hard to look up and find our bearings again.

If we allow ourselves to be distracted away from our goal, if we allow fear to get a hold, then it will suck the life out of our veins. But if instead we remember the anchor that holds us – that never-ending faithful and steadfast love that pours out from God – then we can draw on the strength and the courage of Jesus to bring us through….however painful and however difficult it seems.

‘Will your anchor hold in the storms of life? When the clouds unfold their wings of strife? When the strong tides lift, and the cables strain, will your anchor drift or firm remain?

We have an anchor that keeps the soul steadfast and sure while the billows roll, fastened to the Rock which cannot move, grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love.’

I pray that the anchor of Jesus Christ holds firm for the Christians in Paris right now, that they might bring strength, healing and hope to a grieving, angry and frightened people.

And may we hold fast to our anchor, as our anchor holds fast to us.


Leaders Recover from Failure

I have been watching a lot of sports lately. There was the Women’s Soccer World Cup and now the Tour de France. Sport gives spectators the opportunity to witness the agony of defeat and to study the many ways people choose to respond to failure.

Laura Bassett reacting to own goal in England vs Japan
Laura Bassett was “heartbroken” by inadvertently scoring a point for Japan. Photo and quote source: Daily Express

Maybe you think of failure as a mistake like Laura Bassett’s own goal. Bassett had been playing terrific football in the World Cup when she did something that unfortunately could define her career. Her own-goal in stoppage time ceded the win to Japan. “I couldn’t breathe, my heart was out my chest and I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me,” she said afterward.

I use a broader fail definition. Anytime we are unable to reach our goal then it is a kind of failure. Our saboteurs can have a field day in our head (or sometimes they are living critics sniping at us in person or in the press).  The most damaging is our own self critic, even when the “short of goal” fits into the category of “stuff happens.”

For example, Tony Martin missed the yellow jersey (first place for general classification in Tour de France) in the first stage time trial by just 5 seconds. He closed the gap to one second and continued to pursue the yellow in the next 2 stages. Finally he saw his opportunity and fulfilled one of his dreams by breaking away in the last 3 km and won the stage and the yellow jersey. He took the honor of wearing yellow seriously, so when he crashed within 1 km of an uphill finish on Stage 6 he struggled to get on his bike and finish the race.

Failure may be a gift. First, what we think we want may not be what is best for us. The phrase “be careful what you wish for” often sums this up. Often a failure gives us the space to reconsider what we really want and to reevaluate our goals. Second, we learn so much more from our failures than from our successes. Generally when we succeed we spend little time examining what went well, or what went wrong. Nothing like failure to help us be more introspective.

The critical thing about failure is how you choose to look at the event and what you choose to do next. The key is to consciously choose. Alas, it is tempting and easy to default to a perspective of victimhood or to beat ourselves up because we fell short of our goal or made mistakes. We have a choice of perspective.

Tony Martin receives support from Etixx-Quick-Step teammates.
Tony Martin receives support from Etixx-Quick-Step teammates.

What did Tony Martin do after his crash? He let his team help him across the line. He had an open fracture of collarbone (piercing the skin) yet he struggled through the duties of drug testing, awards ceremonies and interviews, all the time looking like he was going to vomit from the pain. He exhausted every possibility to return to the race the next day and then when he knew he had to go to Germany for surgery that night, he stopped to say farewell to his teammates and thank them for their support. His choices after his biggest disappointment of his career has solidified his reputation as a classy guy and a leader.

I do not know how Laura Bassett is handling her public failure after all the World Cup hoopla. I believe she started for England against Germany and won the bronze medal. Not everyone is able to recover in the moment as Tony Martin did. Nor should we expect them to, so when I say it is important to choose what you do next, I actually mean next and next and next. Then one day you move to a place where you no longer play it over and over in your head and you are no longer identified with the failure.

I have had some big failures and disappointments in my life. My most recent is selling everything I own, quitting my job and putting all of my resources toward moving to New Zealand. I was only able to stay 5.5 months and had to move back to Sacramento. I was devastated and to some degree I am still trying to figure out why and what next. Externally I am better off financially and I am closer to my family, so most people probably think I have recovered. Emotionally I am still processing the failure and I feel more stuck than I look. I am still in the dance trying to figure it out.