Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sermoning on the Steps: Standing on Sacred Ground

The 'Sermon on the Steps' did not, actually, take place on the Steps of St Paul's Cathedral. Nor was it just one 'sermon'. The people giving the Sermons - pastors, reverends, bishops, priests, nuns, ministers, rabbis, agnostics, and quite a few Quakers - stood at the bottom of the steps, near a statue of Her Majesty. They faced those gathered - perhaps about 200. It was the people who were on the Steps, facing out. Facing, in fact, the direction of The City where some of the '1%' played their particular part in creating, trading, re-creatin, loosing, gaining and in other ways moving the trillions of digital money around the global financial system that even now teeters on the edge of yet another collapse. Those gathered were part of the dynamic Occupiers, who claimed to speak for the 99% of humanity whose voices and vitalities are being lost, squandered and splintered from one another. And so those gathered gathered in what is left of the public commons, on a piece of property where it is unclear who, exactly, owns it.

It was a cold and blustery day in London; I was sick, irritable and behind on a pressing deadline, but I knew from the moment I found out about it that I had to go. I had, afterall, spent a great deal of time writing and thinking about global finance and climate change. As soon as I got there, I knew I had to speak, though the list was long. I do, afterall, continue to hear a call to be a minister, especially around these issues. Eventually, en-sh'allah, the lady orchestrating us put me on the list.

I would say that afternoon was one of hte most extraordinary ones I've had in months. There was something about having person after person from different faiths say, again and again and again, how much they stood with the occupiers that was far more powerful if it had been just one or two particularly 'powerful' voices. Every Christian who spoke said with conviction that if Jesus were here he'd be right there on the Steps (not inside the Church, but with those sleeping in tents outside). There were at least 5 quakers out of possibly 20 or 25 speakers - fitting, given that it was members of our faith who founded Lloyds, Barclays, and some of the others. And fitting because it is partly due to a strong Quaker influence that this movement has been operating on consensus - which might well be one of its greatest contributions (or so I've been told).

A Unitarian Minister my parent's age said she often lost hope for the future. Then she took out her camera, pointed it at those of us gathered, and said, I shall take this picture and put it in my office at my church. and every time I look at it I will have hope. You are so beautiful.

A rabbi sang the first line of the blessing of shabbat. He said, many of my fellow Rabbis wanted to be here tonight. But it is Shabbat so they are lighting candles with their congregations. I said I would come here for them, and in being with you I know I am fulfilling the covenant we made with Abraham.

A member of the humanitarian society said, look, its about our common human values. we are in this together. It is too one another we must turn.

An agnostic said, I am proud to be a critical and questioning agnostic. And I am proud to be part of a movement of such faith.

An older Anglican priest, now retired, said, I am ashamed of my Church. I want to apologise for the way we have treated you. We should have welcomed you. We should have opened our Church to you. We should have given you pastoral care. We should be giving you blankets, for you are doing the work of God.

A Quaker read from Faith and Practice, Kenneth Boulding - something about getting to the heart of the economic, financial and monetary system that is causing so much of injustice in the world - and the environmental destruction.

A minister read from Martin Luther King.

Someone from India led us in a simple breathing meditation.

A Baptist-Quaker-vegetarian-queer-man read from the Sermon on the Mount. He made a few other brilliant comments, but

An older nun led us in singing Amazing Grace.

A priest sang the english version of He had missed his calling as an opera singer.

A veteran said, with more conviction and power than I have heard from anyone in a long time: I am calling you, fellow Veterans, to fulfill your sworn duty to protect your queen and country by joining the 99%, who are gathered here, at the base of this Church. Do not follow the orders of the 1%, who will not feed you, will not care for your families and will not care for their own people when you return from war. You are needed here, by the 99.

I knew, then, that this movement is not about finance. It's not really about the money. Of course, anyone who knows much about money knows it is really, never, actually, about the money. It's about a much deeper issue. It's about identity. Part of the brilliance is the very simple notion: 99 against 1. That notion breaks through the siloization and isolation of past identity-based-movements. But it is not as overwhelming as 'we are all 1'. It maintains the diversity even as it speaks of unity. It allows people to enter the 'movement' without knowing too much about finance - which, for most of the people I met, is probably necessary. It taps into the deep-seated fears, anger and angst that has grown in populations who are more or less 'comfortable' for decades. It lumps the poor in finance with the poor in spirit and the poor in relationships with, well, pretty much everyone. In doing so, it invites people back into the commons.

And I? What did I say? As always, my memory of my 'sermon' is fuzzy. I'm sure it is somewhere on the internet. I am grateful that my Baptist-Quaker friend, Symon Hill, said it was truly Spirit-Led. I was certainly Quaking enough. I know I started by letting myself ground in silence. I doesn't read as well as it was said. But I think it went something like this:

I came to this country to study about climate change and international development. And then the financial crisis happened. And I discovered that you cannot try to understand and work for climate justice and human rights without understanding not just economics but the financial system and the monetary system upon which it is based. I am so grateful that I am no longer alone in trying to understand what is often passed off as complicated: standing here today, I know that you are with me. But when I first heard that Occupy London had occupied St Paul's, I was, as I often am in this little island, confused. Why not just occupy the stock exchange? This isn't about the Church! But then I thought, once, a long time ago, we all gathered here, in common areas where we could work out how to govern the common good. We gathered in places where we shared a common faith in a power greater than ourselves that could lift us out of the despair we feel when we are isolated from one another. But then some of those who had more started making hefty profits out of those who had too little. And they, protected by their numbers and their computer programmes and their common identity of 'too smart to fail' in a world where we all hate to be idiots and a veneration for supposed rationalisation moved across the street, to rule the 'private space' of the 'free and open market'.

Ever since then I feel we have been searching. We have looked to fill that god-shaped hole in drink and drugs, consumption and special foods from exotic parts of the world, new shoes and far-off-holidays, poor relationships and broken families. We have put our faith in financiers to have omniscent knowledge power and control - though any financier will tell you the market has her own pulse, her own rhythms and her own invisible hands which they keep reaching out for; they know they too are powerless over her. But they still walk with certainty down the halls of power and take actions that ignore the complexity of our interwoven eco-nomics.

Well, you can read from your Bible, and you can read from your King, and you can read from the words written at another time by another man. But this is what I can say: that today, here, we are a people who have been found. Here, at the base of these steps, on this most holy of grounds, we have re-found our faith. I don't mean faith in a building. I mean faith in one another. We have been found in the 99: in finding one another. And wherever we find one another, we are standing on holy ground. All around the world, as we rise up to occupy, what we occupy becomes sacred, because this whole earth is sacred. Every day, every loaf of bread, every human being - every one of us 99 - and even the 1 - we with our bones and our flesh and our imperfect and incomplete knowledge - we are sacred. And these are holy times.

And then I sang that song - This is holy ground.

As it is.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

clarity - and avoidance

Us Quakers like to talk about the miraculous power of the 'light' - as in, the Light will set you free.

Buddhists say something along the lines of, if you shine enough light onto a problem, the solution will present itself.

And in my experience, real clarity quickly translates into 'action' (or, on ocasion, non-action as a form of action), which would imply that freedom is a combination of the two.

There's some great experiences out there about how groups, when they collectively achieve clarity, have no need for 'leadership' - they simply move. Indeed, that seems to be one of the things we look for in a 'movement' - enough shared clarity that action is taken.

Of course, we can take a lot of action without clarity. Often, that action leads nowhere - fast.

Clarity - real clarity - is something I find precious. There was the clarity when I chose my first job. There was the clarity when I said 'yes' to going to Africa without knowing where the finances would come from.There was the clarity when I ended my 6 year relationship: a clarity so sharp and profound that it shook me to my core. In each of those cases, I took immediate, swift action leaving no room for doubt. All those who have known me in those times saw me as decisive - and with that came strength, power and abundance.

Recently, clarity has been harder to reach. This evening, I had an honest discussion about this, and distinguished for myself two things around clarity. One, that clarity enables responsibility. Not being clear means you don't have to be responsible. And two, because clarity leads to action, and action leads to commitment and fully being in the world, it can be terrifying.

Of course, there is a more difficult, in between space - the space between people. How do we find clarity in inherently muddy and messy situations? Most of social science literature, especially around climate change adaptation, encourages us to embrace the 'messy' solutions that are not black and white but instead shades of grey. Politics is filled with a lack of clear-cut, easy solutions - its a hodgepodge of different ideas and personalities, histories, ideas, and values coming together. Does it even make sense to attempt clarity? Or is that just avoiding responsibility - and action?

For now, today, I'm going to say yes. First we can be clear about what we are unclear about, and discern if it is 'ok' to be unclear. And then - and then often the really important things we really can reach collective clarity around. It might take time - and a lot of trust and honesty. But even though the world is filled with wicked, complex problems, and humans are seething creatures of complications, contradictions and paradoxes, today, I'm going to say, we are also continually striving for simplicity. Not the simplicity of blue print designs or of winner-takes-all answers that leave too many people poor and disenfranchised and too few becoming too fat on too much. Yes, it is possible to find collective responses. It is possible to find collective clarity - and with it, responsibility and action. And do we, collectively, avoid it? All the time. As if by avoiding it, we are going to get anywhere.

Avoiding clarity may lead to survival. Maybe. In a changing climate, I'm not sure. It won't lead to human development - much less human flourishing.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Safety and possibilities

There is such talk of collaboration at the moment it seems to be infiltrating the zeitgeist: business leaders, climate change specialists, artists, scientists - everyone is talking about it.

If everyone was doing it - and doing it well - then I would not have had the priviledge of facilitating a workshop on collaboration the other day. But I did - 18 stellar collaborators from around the UK, and because London tends towards the cosmopolitan, that included accents from South Africa, India and America. For me, the highlight was in providing an enabling container for people to go broad and deep into both complexity and their own personal experiences. What do we collaborators do, how can we understand it and how can we do it better?

But beyond my personal professional satisfaction of space-holding, I was struck by the relationship between trust, emergence and spaces of possibility. We were grounding the discussion in complexity science, holding that complexity science provides a useful scientific framework for illuminating what most anthropologists have known for decades: relationships matter. A lot.

Complexity reminds us that complex systems (any human system is complex) emerge and co-evolve. There is this delightful notion of the 'space of possibility' - where something - anything - can occur. Preferably something new and different. At the workshop, we talked about the 'sense' of collaboration. indeed, to survive and thrive an entity needs to explore its space of possibility. to survive and thrive, an organism needs to explore its space of possibility. this includes generating variety.

This requires safety. For an organisation, it might look like a team being given the permission to fail.

For a group of collaborative practitioners at a workshop - it looked like people taking small risks of making themselves vulnerable, discovering that they were still accepted, and then being able to move into the next phase of their work.

For one woman, that 'small risk' was making a verbal but non-language expression of how she was feeling. For another woman, it was putting the word 'spirituality' on the collection of 'elements of collaboration'. For another person, it was sharing what a bad state their organisation's finances actually were in.

"Risk" was different for everyone. But safety was paramount. Safety, here, was an emergent property: it could only come through people taking risks, discovering that yes, it was safe, and then moving into an exploration of the 'space' that they were in.

Sometimes, we act as if we can create possibilities and visions without first taking care of ourselves. But I walked away from the workshop remembering that visions are only possible once your feet are planted on the ground. And that in order to create safety and security, we have to let ourselves be at least a little bit unsafe - to step away from our own personal 'normal behavior' just enough so that we can find who we are with one another.

Because this takes time and effort, and each person needs to do it their own way, its not necessarily a fast process. But the slow co-evolution provides the network for collaboration - regardless of the goal.

Indeed, for a group of people whose work requires a fair amount of goal-focus, not having a precise goal and instead meandering towards one another was, for many, a real delight.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

monkey work

I returned from a wonderful kayaking adventure around a small island off the coast of France to, well, work.

Great work, mind you. A collaboration workshop, a review on aid effectiveness, a conference on new ways of working in development, complexity, 'how change happens', preparing a talk on sustainability for some local Quakers.

My response: damn. After sending out a flurry of emails, I sank into bed last night and watched Downton Abbey - my current favorite TV series. For three hours. Which is excessive.

In other words, I didn't really want to deal with it. The whole 'work' thing.

But what if work is play? Certainly all of my work is an incredible blessing - I get paid to think and to write while living in a foreign country - without having a phd. Not too bad. (Even if I occasionally feel like an intellectual slut.)

My work is inherently about communication and knowledge-brokering. Which I think of as rather playful - what is this whole language business if not something we can play with, creating new meanings (if not new words) with the ease with which a babe creates a new relationship with everyone she meets - simply because she herself is participating in that relationship?

Apparently, monkeys play peek-a-boo. And we really aren't much more than monkeys - just a wee bit more sophisticated and quite a bit taller.

So what if this whole transition stuff is just play? what if this whole new world thing isn't more than playing peek-a-boo - now you see me and now you dont? My favorite leaders in the field certainly approach it that way - a creative try try and try again approach.

I look at my diary. Blank pages I know are not really blank. the future is yet to be written yet it is already there, somehow, i've put things in place long before I ever wake up that day. And yet, it is always moveable, always changeable. There's that boat in the harbor we can board and just leave. If we've got money for fuel, that is. If there is fuel. Or at least a working sail. And then there's that neighbor whom we never talk to but who has got secrets we can barely imagine and all it takes is a little game - baking them cookies, inviting them to the local farmers market - and a whole new dimension of this thing called reality suddenly exists where it did not exist before.

I increasingly think that play and creativity are fundamental aspects of our being. Not just stage II developmentally - but intertwined with our capacity to survive. If children under the age of 6 months can play peek a boo, a rather sophisticated game, then there must be something about us primates that means that we are inherently creatures of play. If we are social creatures, and if we learn our social interactions largely through our play - as we do - then we are, indeed, creatures of play and delight. If development is about wellbeing, then maybe wellbeing is also about play.

So then why is all this 'work' on development and wellbeing so, well, unplayful? What is it about becoming adults that we forget that the world is ours to play with - with others? and that we need the other - the monkey, the child - in order to play that most basic of games that says, we are here, you are there, yes, I see you, I recognise you, we can have fun together.