Tell me: what does strong leadership look like?

I was floored (or is it flawed?) when the conversation turned to “strong leadership”. I was asked, “What does strong leadership look like to you?” Well, I know that strong leadership doesn’t look like Boris or Donald, and that leadership can be shared, and that leaders should be as strong as they can be in the circumstances.

So I blathered – without realising that this really was a question to which Jesus is the answer.

What does strong leadership look like?

    It looks like Jesus on a cross (is that cross a leadership vote?)
    It looks like Jesus unafraid of nature’s forces
    It looks like Jesus turning his back on the religious and political capital
    It looks like love for the most demonised, ostracised and marginalised
    It looks like Jesus bent refreshing the feet of weary travellers
    It looks like a touch, and feels like a breath
    It looks like a gathering treasuring wisdom
    It looks playfully relaxed with time to rest and pray
    It looks like it can endure tyranny as long as tyranny lasts
    It looks like it’s been to hell and back
    It looks out for the broken
    It looks broken
    It is scarred

What does strong leadership look like to you?

The place of maps

I have just been reading The Book of Negroes by Canadian author Lawrence Hill. It gets its controversial title from a historic document from the 18th century which is kept at the National Archives at Kew. It is a ledger of over 3,000 names of enslaved African, the “Black Loyalists” who escaped to Britain’s lines in the American Revolution. It was the first time in history that thousands of black people were formally recorded by a historical body, in this case, the British Navy.

The book describes the journeys of Aminata Diallo who was grabbed from her village in west Africa in 1750 by slave traders. She was just 11 when she had to walk “three moons”, shackled in irons in a coffle from her village of Bayo to the ship which would take her into slavery in the American colonies.

She makes the most of her very limited opportunities. She learns to read and write (in secret), and she longs to return to her homeland. Occasionally she is able to look at maps of Africa, but there were no places marked on them except for a few ports. Inland was shown with drawings of elephants – as if that was all there was.

I wonder if that is where we are sometimes. We can map thresholds and the ports. We can say so and so lives there. We can recognise faces but sometimes can’t get past face value. It is only when we care to listen, to let people speak, to allow them to show us around their lives that we begin to build up a better map of where they have come from, and where they might be journeying to. (The more diverse the maps, the better – geographical, historical, political, psychological dimensions all add to our understanding.) Then we begin to understand the hinterland. Then we can better understand each other.

This is what Aminata writes at the end of her story:

I would like to draw a map of the places where I have lived. I would put Bayo on the map, and trace in red my long path to the sea. Blue lines would show the ocean voyages. Cartouches would decorate the margins. There would be no elephants or want of towns, but rather paintings of guineas made from gold mines of Africa, a woman balancing fruit on her head, another with blue pouches for medicine, a child reading, and the green hills of Sierra Leone, land of my arrivals and embarkations.

PS. When I say that Lawrence Hill is a “Canadian author” I am guilty oversimplifying the map of his life – drawing elephants, if you like. He was born in Newmarket, Ontario – the son of a black father and a white mother who moved to Ontario from Washington DC. These are details to add to the map of Lawrence Hill’s life. Reading another of his books, Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada might add psychological and sociological dimensions to that map. I’d like to find out by reading more.

Breath – my chosen poem of the month

Breath by Adrian Rice was Carol Rumen’s Poem of the Week on Saturday and was Mark Oakley’s #APoemADay on Tuesday. It is stunningly beautiful and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. It is my poem of the month.

What is death
but a letting go
of breath?

One of the last
things he did
was to blow up

the children’s balloons
for the birthday party,
joking and mock cursing

as he struggled
to tie all
those fluttery teats.

Then he flicked them
into the air
for the children

to fight over.
Some of them
survived the party,

and were still there
after the funeral,
in every room of the house,

bobbing around
mockingly
in the last draft.

She thought about
murdering them
with her sharpest knife,

each loud pop
an angry bullet
from her heart.

Instead, in the quietness
that followed her
children’s sleep,

she patiently gathered
them all up,
slowly undoing

each raggedy nipple,
and, one by one, she took his
last breath into her mouth.

What is life
but a drawing in
of breath?

These short lines breathe love, speaking of life (teats, nipples and birthdays) and death, love and grief. I worry that the balloons took his last breath, and took a father away from his children and their mother. Did he die in that moment when there should have been celebration and fun? I’m pleased that the balloons remained for the funeral, and that they were there to be murdered with her sharpest knife (who might have been murdered otherwise?) and thankfully reprieved to become new life and consolation.

This is a drama well chosen for Easter. The rooms seem many, as in “my Father’s house” and there is a breath of Johannine Pentecost (and being born again) from the balloons’ nipples.  There is comedy in the tragedy. “One of the last things he did was to blow up.” And how simple the answers to the questions that open and close the poem. “What is life?” What is life but a letting go of breath? What is life but a drawing in of breath?

Kintsugi, the art of scars and the value of repair

kintsugi2Things break. We break things. We break. But what do we do with the pieces?

When I have broken things I have sometimes pretended it’s never happened (playing the innocent) or I have hidden the evidence. When I’ve broken I have pretended it’s never happened, or I have hidden the shame. This is shocking dishonesty.

The prophet Jeremiah knew a thing or two about brokenness and shame. The broken thing he had his eye on was the nation itself. He came to see hope in brokenness – not shame – by studying the work of a potter. The potter was making a vessel of clay and it was spoiled in the making. Instead the potter reworked it into another vessel “as seemed good to him”. He heard God say, “can I not do as this potter has done?”

There is another school of pottery which makes something of broken pieces. This is Kintsugi. Kintsugi is known as “golden joinery” because of the method of using gold dust to mend the broken pieces. The repairs themselves become the work of art. While we might be tempted to use superglue to mend a broken ornament and then turn the damage to the wall, Kintsugi works in a different way. The repair is brazen and flaunted. The breakage gives the object a story and the object becomes more valuable than it ever was before.

The Japanese art of Kintsugi has given rise to a philosophy and metaphor for life. Also known as the “art of scars” it signals a way for us to value what is broken in our lives and to celebrate what has re-paired us.

We can look at the broken pieces of our society. Those broken pieces all have labels to identify one piece from another, and we continue to break into new pieces. We’ve got new labels, more broken pieces with Leavers/Remainers. They go along with more worn labels such as Workers/Shirkers, Gay/Straight, Black/White, North/South, Red/Blue etc etc. I like the suggestion that prayer is like the gold dust of Kintsugi – when we pray we seek to make a-mends and pray for repair and reconciliation. The putting together of the pieces is the answer to that prayer.

Kintsugi is one art of scars. Writing this as we come into Holy Week I am conscious that Christianity too is the art of scars – though crimson rather than gold. Brokenness is taken with utmost seriousness. All the repair work and the reconciliations stand proud as witnesses. Repaired brokenness makes us more precious and valuable than ever.

PS. Here’s more about the spirituality of mending by Laura Everett

PPS. #Visiblemending is trending on Twitter

PPPS. Mending is seen as practice for “tikkun olam” – for the “mending of the world”

A Pearl from Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s statue is one of ten to modern martyrs, unveiled in July 1998, which stand above the west entrance to Westminster Abbey. The sculptor was Tim Crawley.

On this day, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was martyred – aged 39. His life, teaching and death are constant reminders of the cost of discipleship and the need for political engagement. Here is one of his pearls:

God travels wonderful ways with human beings, but he does not comply with the views and opinions of people. God does not go the way that people want to prescribe for him; rather, his way is beyond all comprehension, free and self-determined beyond all proof.

Where reason is indignant, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. There he confounds the reason of the reasonable; there he aggravates our nature, our piety—that is where he wants to be, and no one can keep him from it.

Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…. God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in.

He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas

Brexit – made in England, led by donkeys

Brexit shambles and uncertainty continues as the government suffers another humiliating defeat. Parliament struggles to find a way through an impasse which bears the stamp “made in England” – not made in Britain.

What was dreamed up by some in England (and set alight by papers) has drawn other nations in. Not only Scotland and Northern Ireland and, of course, Wales, but the other 27 nations of the EU. We seem to have forgotten the trouble we are putting these other nations in. What time and money this all must have cost! How distracting from other challenges facing us!

Slowly options are being narrowed down. There are very few people who want us to leave without a deal, and hopefully Parliament will take that option off the table today. And then there become two. There’s either the Withdrawal Agreement, which has been so decisively voted down in Parliament. The EU are insistent that there can be no other. But it does seem that would risk so much and there is no way of knowing what future trade deals there would be, or what manufacturing base would vote “remain” and remain, or what the effect of unravelling institutions for peace and research development. Or there is the deal which we already have as members of the EU.

Sadly Parliament has been unable to find a way through the impasse. It isn’t helped by the fact that truth is “spun” and so often not told. Parliament should be a safe container for our differences. Ideally those we elect represent our differences in that space and work to resolve them so that we can remain committed to one another. I fear what will happen if this safe space no longer works, what will happen if there is a further vote, whether that be a General Election or a second referendum. But I am beginning to see that that is what is going to happen. The people are going to be the ones with the casting vote. I dread the strife on our streets and in families. But it might have to come to this. It seems we have a choice between two:

  1. The Withdrawal agreement
  2. The deal we already have.

There is the third option of the deal which we can never have – that dreamt up by those in Never Never Land. It seems to boil down to a choice of two. The first is a vote to leave. The second is a vote to remain.

Oh no, not that again.

And where will our political parties lead us? The Conservatives are surely cornered as the Brexit party. But what about Labour? Now all options are looking exhausted, (and Parliament has been right to exhaust them), they surely now have to campaign at last on the deal we already have, which is in those two political and economic unions in which there is always room for improvement and reform – that is, the UK and the EU.

Credit to Teresa May. She voted remain but has worked tirelessly to deliver the vote of the referendum. And credit all those involved in both sides of the negotiations. They have tried to find a way – but perhaps there never was a way that would leave our nation any better off.

March 13th 2019

PS thanks to the billboard campaign @bydonkeys, as, for example, shown in the photo above.

Mushrooms

Mushrooms, by Sylvia Plath, is my poem of the month. Do you want to know what it’s about? One person says it’s about mushrooms. The beauty of poetry is its surplus of meaning. Poems mean a lot – a lot more than the sum of their words and usually a lot more than the poet intends.

Context matters. Friend Helen Scarisbrick, who always wants to explore chaos and complexity, introduced this poem as part of opening worship for a leadership day in the Diocese of Chester alongside the parable of the mustard seed.

Jesus said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we sue to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.

Instantly the poem becomes much more than about mushrooms. It was then a poem about everything that ever lives – for me, anyway, who carries at the back of my mind these words from Dee Hock, (founder of Visa), railing against failed command and control methods and thinking his way to a better understanding of life from the earth beneath his feet. In Birth of the Chaordic Age he wrote the words which forever challenge my understanding of organisation and leadership:

Soil is building as thousands of gophers, mice and moles work assiduously carrying grass underground and dirt to the surface. Beneath us, billions of worms, ants, beetles and other creatures till the soil around the clock. Trillions of microscopic creatures live, excrete, die beneath my feet, fulfilling their destiny and mine as well, just as surely as fulfil theirs.

In that context it becomes a poem about the power of perseverance, the power in weakness, the place of the seed. It becomes a reminder of the organisms that are part of our organisation which we ignore or oversimplify to our peril, and a reminder that there is “room” in “mushroom” to think again about life, organisation and leadership. It becomes a reminder of what and who we don’t notice, a voice for the voiceless. That makes it my Poem of the Month.

Mushrooms

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.

PS. Mushrooms is from Sylvia Plath’s first collection of poems, The Colossus and Other Poems (1960).

#cLectio – David’s counter culture

52029310_10218201991904229_4334449603207233536_nWho counts counts? Counts count numbers,‬
‪overpower them, reducing them, demeaning them‬
‪making them number, dumber, cannon fodder,‬
‪forced labour, numbers & counters who don’t count,
won’t count.‬ Beware those who count
counter to those God counts dear.

#1Chronicles21 #cLectio #morningprayer

A reflection for Twitter on 1 Chronicles 21 – the set reading for Morning Prayer today.