Interdependence – a ramble and a tribute to two of the most interdependent people I know

Last night an old friend asked me why I don’t leave the church. The question came after the primates meeting and the suspension of the Episcopal Church in the USA. In response I waffled about my calling to the diaconate but reflecting in the car as I drove home I realised that I haven’t left the church not because it needs me but because I need it.

I need the connections it gives me with people across the world, throughout the ages, of different generations and backgrounds to keep my perspective broad and generous. I need the structure of the Eucharist and the words of the liturgy to reassure that death and failure never have the final word. I need prayer to sustain hope and I need words which shape my imagination and I need to have a place in which I expect to encounter God.

It is unusual to admit that we need things – especially for those of us that find ourselves in the richest 10% of the global population. We are trained to be independent and we pretend that we don’t need other people. We find it incredibly difficult to ask for help and we never want to be seen not coping.

But some of the people I most admire are those who can ask for help without cajoling, manipulating or demanding. The grace of their asking unlocks more grace.

Lots of people of faith want to help others. It is a great asset that people are willing to help at night shelters, food banks and soup runs. This kind of help is vital and keeps people alive.  This kind of help puts drowning people in a dinghy but it does not necessarily pull them out of the water.

I think the ways we truly help one another demand that we acknowlege our interdependence and the mutuality of the relationships. They mean that we are changed and we are prepared to be shaped and formed by the people we meet, opening our lives to one another so we become friends. L’Arche is a great example of this kind of help. Birch is another. Places of Welcome perhaps another.

Encounters like these make us more fully human and thus more like Jesus, who was  fully human as well as being fully divine. Christianity cannot be a solitary self-improvement programme. It  can’t be bought or acquired. It can only grow in community and relationship.

The more money you have the less you think you need a community.You don’t need a mate to jump start your car because you belong to the AA. You don’t need to use the local library – your books arrive in your home from Amazon. You don’t need to go to the park – you have swings and slides in your garden.  The longer your drive, the bigger your gates the more estranged you become from your neighbour.

But Jesus famously said it was as hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven as for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. This is not because there will be an angel checking our bank balances at the pearly gates. This is because the Kingdom of Heaven is found when people admit their need of one another, where people recognise that their wellbeing is tied up with the wellbeing of all their neighbours, when love for friend and neighbour goes hand in hand with the love of God.

Church is not a place where we go for a weekly dose of religion to get us through the week. Church is not something we endure to get to heaven. Church is not a badge of honour or a club we belong to. Church is a place to practice this kind of Ubuntu. Church is the place where we get used to being friends with people who are not just like us. Church is the place where we begin to carry pain together and Church is the place where we can be forgiven when we get it wrong. Church is a place where we can learn how to ask for help and how to receive help. Church is a place which prepares us for the Kingdom of Heaven and that is why I cannot leave it  however imperfect it is.




Who is your ‘ethnos’?

I have just returned from observing a funeral where we remembered, mourned and celebrated the life of remarkably steadfast, loyal and committed person. But while waiting for the hearse to arrive at the cemetery just outside Birmingham we were chatting to one of the staff members there who was telling us about the plans for its development.

He pointed out to us the area for Muslim graves, the areas for Coptic Christians, Greek Orthodox, people who want ‘traditional’ gravestones and those who want some kind of woodland burial. I somehow felt I was in some kind of cemetery supermarket and I was saddened by the fact that even in death we felt the need to separate out our tribe, ethnicity or our ethnos.

At a recent morning of theological discussion I was struck by a phrase of Ivan Illich quoted by one of the participants – it went something like this. For many people their ethos (standards of behaviour) apply mainly to their ethnos (ethnic group, tribe etc) but Jesus turned that around by declaring the whole human family to be our ethnos. As followers of Jesus Christ we cannot be untouched by the suffering of any part or member of the human race.

I know this is not a new idea nor it is exclusively Christian. I have just arrived home to find a friend has posted this today on her Facebook page – it is apparently the poem that is displayed the entrance of the Hall of Nations of the United Nations building in New York City.

“Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you have no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain.

— A poem by the Persian poet Sa’adi (1210 – 1290)”

This understanding of the link between ethos and ethnos has also helped me articulate what we are trying to do through the work of Near Neighbours. What we are hoping for is that through our practical action together, our dialogue meetings and our neighbourhood conversations people will begin to discover they are part of a new ethnos that is not based on religious identity, ethnicity or culture but is based on neighbourhood or geography. The place we live becomes a focus for where we feel we belong and where we might contribute.

People will of course have many different focuses and identities and we are not expecting people to abandon the friends they have at their place of worship or ignore the needs of family members who may be living nearby or in other continents but we do hope that by building local relationships and friendships that cross perceived barriers we can flourish together and form welcoming communities of peace and wellbeing.

I have long wondered why Jesus appeared to dismiss his mother and his brothers in a story told in several Gospels. They seemed to have travelled some distance to see him but Jesus is not bothered even to go and have a word with them.

Here is the story from Matthew 12:46-50

46 While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’[a] 48 But to the one who had told him this, Jesus[b] replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ 49 And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother

It’s clear Jesus knew who his ethnos was and it included all those who did the will of God. But nevertheless I can’t help hoping that he did break the meeting up fairly quickly and pop outside to say hello to his mother and brothers, who I am sure he loved deeply.

Many of the most wonderful  and inspiring people I know here, who are doing the will of God by building community and enabling people to connect with each other also find time to care deeply for their families. Its almost as if the love of family, household or close friends spills out into a love of community and neighbourhood and then spill out further to embrace the needs of the whole human race.  When I see glimpses of this kind of thriving and flourishing  it seems immeasurably rich and valuable and I am grateful to know such people as sisters and brothers. I hope one day I will be buried alongside some of them even if we do not share a faith or culture!