Advent invitation 1

I invite you to walk with me through the Christchurch inner city, noticing and wondering as Christmas comes closer.  The Church has used  the 4 weeks of Advent as a reflection time as we wait for the Christmas Day events.  Whether you are “religious” or not, this can be a time to deliberately slow down amid the invitations to get ultra busy.  I will offer 4 reflections over this Advent time.

 

ADVENT IN THE CITY  2017

 

Places to CROSS.

Christchurch is a city of bridges.  By my count our inner city has 22 bridges over the Avon River between Harper Ave and Fitzgerald Ave.

Some are pedestrian, some are traffic.  Some are in quiet places like the Botanical Gardens, others are on our main routes through the city like Durham St.  The river winds along its way, and we must cross it, again and again.  Often we do that without thinking.  The river becomes invisible to us.  The crossing place is simply a hardly noticed feature on our way to someplace else.

Pedestrian crossings allow us to pass to the other side of the street safely.  Again we tend to ignore them.  White lines on a road, or little green figures on a beeping light.  We are going somewhere else.  Over there.

On any day, how many crossings do you make?  How many do you not really notice.  Try counting them one day.  Take notice of the mundane in your day. 

Not all our daily crossings are outdoors.  Some are across rooms, or offices.  No crossing we make is accidental.  We have a purpose, however unconscious.  Sometimes we cross in our minds too.  A new thought, a new insight, can give rise to a new direction in our thinking and in our lives.  The crossing of a street or a river can be a symbolic beginning of a new way.  It is good to sometimes pause on a bridge and look into the river.  There are trout, eels, feeding ducks, swallows, plant life and flowering weeds.  (I don’t recommend stopping half way across a street though!)  Sometimes we are so busy getting somewhere else that we notice very little of the journey.

Advent is a time to ponder, and to notice some ways we are in the world.  Crossing from one place to another – take time to ponder the details of the journey.  Why are we making any particular crossing journey?

“Mary set out at that time and went as quickly as she could to a town in the hill country of Judah.”

Luke 1:39

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Another day in the life …

It’s Tuesday, but the city feels like Monday – quiet, recovering from Labour Weekend.  Sunny, warm, somewhat nonchalant as a day. Not much doing.

My first conversation is with a bookseller.  I had heard her talking with a previous customer about spending the weekend in her garden, getting it ready to plant.  I suggested she could come and do ours too, but she wasn’t biting that.  We chatted then about the best time to plant tomatoes.  I am a fan of putting them in pots I said.  Then I can control pretty much everything about how they grow.  In fact I have one on my deck in flower already, I said.  She thought she might need permission from her spouse to do that, but thought it was worth a try next year.  Conversation 1 – tomato growing techniques.

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Further along the road I’m surprised to see my old mate Tom, a streetie whose company I enjoy.  I sat on the pavement beside him; we got chatting.  Haven’t seen you for a while, I said.  I’ve missed you.  Tom smiles.  No I’ve been away at a tangi.  We talk about that for a moment – where was it – local.  How come it was two weeks long?  Then the story becomes different.  It was my son, he says.  He committed suicide.  And then the often-said words – Your kids aren’t supposed to die before their parents.  We talked about his philosophy of life and death, the second such conversation I’ve had with a streetie lately.  There’s a fatalism present in the way Tom accepts an inevitable outcome from a life of drugs, and alcohol.  Acceptance that with the best will in the world you can’t live someone else’s life for them, even your son’s.  We share a time of sacred silence on the street while people walk past us averting their eyes.  Then we conclude the sacrament with coffee and a lasagne roll from the convenience store.

And I leave him as I head further inland, to the Square.  Where there’s no conversation to be had today.  Everyone is immersed in their cell phones as cameras, pointing at the ruined cathedral.  Without knowing the recent decisions.  I wonder if they care, or whether the ruins are actually more poignantly useful to the city as an attraction.

I move on again.  West this time to the Art Gallery where I have come to talk with an American artist Kiel Johnson (http://kieljohnson.com/) who is creating a room full of art that people made in the Gallery during the weekend.  I talked with him briefly amid the chaos on Sunday, but today is a time with no one else there. We talk about the creative meditative state that art brings as it is being created.  And the way art and spirituality are so interlinked.  His workshop, he tells me, feels like a church.  We chat for as long as I can without intruding on Kiel, and I move on.

To the Art Gallery shop where I run into Andrew, another friend I have made this year.  We chat about the Gallery, and the buzz of the weekend activity, and how much he loves working in that environment.  He tells me he left his dream job to do it.  Turns out the dream job came with snags for him, and he felt he wanted something else.  It’s one of those bittersweet conversations.  I recognise something of myself in his words, the mark of a good conversation for me.  We have become easy with each other in the shop over time.

Like the woman in the wee coffee place I often go to.  She knows what I drink, and last week as she brings it to me says she’d like to talk about her father, and his difficulties with beginning retirement. And I recognise myself again!

And so it goes …

Deeper questions than where shall I park?

The inner city is beginning to feel as if there is life again.  Slowly but surely.  I hear stories about how developers struggle sometimes to understand the antipathy they sense from the general citizen.  After all they are providing the wherewithal for the city to become whatever it will become.  They provide a fabric of retail and the seemingly inevitable trade off of places to put the cars.  Yet sometimes it must feel as if all you have provided is a platform for criticism and anger.  It gets to the heart of the philosophy of what a city is.  There are other deep questions too – What is a city for?  Who is it for?  Why is Christchurch? (Or any other city?)

When in 2008 human beings became more urban that rural world-wide, it was a change that sent few ripples into the ether.  Yet it irrevocably changed the nature of being human.  By 2050 the estimate is that the world population will be 75% urbanised.  That’s not very far off.  And it has implications for the kind of questions we might ask of our cities.  Particularly when alongside the increased pace of urbanisation goes the current discoveries that will make the nature of “work” very different from what we have ever known.  Again it will challenge the basis question of what it means to be human.

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These are deep and long-term questions that I don’t see or hear being asked by either developers or planners.  So much of the conversation has been about post-quake restoration of shopping and recreation.  There has been an understandable sense of haste to try to get the discomfort banished.  Some of this haste has been at the cost of long-term solutions, like an aspirin into the centre of the city.  Most of the decisions have been made by those with the money and the will and the power to get things going.  Just as well we have these people.  But it’s also time to begin to look at the deeper questions about what Christchurch is in the long term, past the 21st century (always assuming the world stays intact that long!)

To ask these questions will require us to look hard at how we can be human in an environment of mostly strangers, which is the normal city environment.  How to be fully participatory, how to look after the well-being of residents, how to be alongside those who are different, and those who can make little financial contribution to the greater good (even supposing we still believe in that).  Crucial for me as I think about these things (typically sitting in the inner city watching what’s going on) is the deepest question of all – how to be fully human in an urban environment that will grow larger in population terms faster than we can sometimes cope with.  This will mean understanding that when more than 50% of the population of strangers among whom we each live will eventually have no work (as we currently understand it) what will that mean for how we use our time?  When we have shopped and dropped, what next?  When the person alongside me in the street can’t find an affordable place to live, what is my response?

Cities are places of possible vibrancy, entertainment, and public spaces where we can gather.  And they are private, walled spaces that shout “keep out”.  Some of us have overt power to make a city happen in a way that works for us.  Some of us have no power to influence, and struggle to stay alive in this urban harsh environment.  When I walk down the street and pass other strangers I have not much insight into knowing which end of the power spectrum anyone is.  Clothes can be worn to hide poverty – I know a lonely poverty-laden bloke who always wears a tie for example, as a covering, and to give himself a sense of dignity.

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Being human is all we have.  Urban living is what we are becoming.  Faster than we know it.  There will be little time to begin the conversation – what does it mean to be human in this place in 50 years, 100 years time.  Time to consider the strangers around us.  Time to realise that we too are strangers to each other.  How to live alongside strangers is not an easy question to creatively answer.  But it is one of the deep questions.  The trouble is, it’s only one of the deep questions!  Where then will be ask them?  And together begin to ask “Why is Christchurch?”

307

  1. Not the most memorable number. It’s a Library Dewey Decimal number.  The 300’s are Social Sciences: Sociology and Anthropology. 307 is Communities.  Then there is 307.76.  That’s the place where I find books on the city.  If you like, the theory of how cities are made up, and conversation books about how to live in a city.  I have three titles currently on my table that illustrate the importance of reading some of these books.

Mindfulness & the Art of Urban Living by Adam Ford

The Vanishing Neighbour  by Marc J. Dunkelman

Walkable City by Jeff Speck

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I chose them at random from the library shelf last week.  Two are from the USA, the third from Britain.  All deal with ways in which cities work for and against us.  Jeff Speck has some TED talks too.  He is a city planner who specialises in creating walkable neighbourhoods.  I live in one of those.  I walk a kilometre to the bus I want to catch, along a small river, past spring daffodils and trees budding at this time of year.  Blossoms abound, but are almost finished for another year.  It’s walkable because it’s safe, well pathed, and leads me somewhere I want to go – in this case a bus stop.

The centre of the city I live in is dangerous in places – continual building is taking over footpaths, directing walkers across traffic to the other side.  It’s unpleasant.  But I’m convinced the only way to experience a city is on foot, so I walk slowly, looking around me, stopping to talk with people – another feature of a good city – people are accessible along with things to do, whether it’s shop, bank or engage in recreation. I try to be mindful, and to enjoy most of what I encounter whether it’s a new courtyard, a sculpture, pounamu, or the varied facades of the post-quake buildings. Sometimes enjoyment is easier than others.  My conversations always surprise me, and teach me a great deal about the way we live and who we are in this cluttered space called a city.  The spiritual dimension to life is apparent in the way we respond to the river, and to each other.  Do we say good morning, do we avoid those who feel so different they threaten us, do we scurry past each other.  Yesterday when I was with a group of people having coffee together a fire alarm went off – we needed to evacuate the building – up some stairs.  I ended up helping an elderly woman who struggled to be quick up the stairs.  Her daughter was with her, and we bantered our way outside.  A lovely moment in mild chaos.  Strangers.

Then I met a bloke sitting on his own in a foodcourt.  I’ve written about him before.  We shared some food, but for him that was the least of our interaction.  Conversation was his craving.  He lives alone struggling on a benefit to make ends meet.  Today we talked philosophy and religion.  Who knows what we’ll talk about next time.  It’s the fabric of humanity that we touch lives.  The city offers multiple opportunities to do that.  But seldom do we take it – governed as we are by fear.  Fear, I’m beginning to see, is the root of all alienation, aggression, and mental unhealth.  Yet as I talked with a mental health expert recently, fear is hardly ever addressed.  First discover our own fears.  Then walk slowly into the anonymous humanity around us that is the essence of a city.  There’s a reason why the most used words of Jesus in the Gospels are “Don’t be afraid.”

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Another day in the life …

There’s a rhythm to the city day depending on who you are and where you are.

I’m sitting in one of my favourite places in the city.  It’s quiet, and out of the cold spring wind.  The barista tells me about the times to avoid:  the busy times before work, then 10.00 to 10.30, then there’s a slow hour.  That’s where I come in.  But then it picks up about 11.30 till after lunch when it’s frantic.  The busy, then the quiet.  Time to talk.  But busy and quiet are opposites depending on which side of the counter you are standing!  In this place there’s always time to stop and talk to people like me.

The boss is expecting me for a meeting – offers 2 glasses of cold sparkling water, but today it’s only me.  One glass then.  Me with a book, looking for a place to be for a while.

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Time to listen to what’s going on around me without really paying close attention to what’s going on.  Over there a table is set up for a booking for 6.  They never showed. The name of the game.  Do we have to live in such a casual and disrespectful society?

A young couple walk in.  She discovers she knows one of the wait staff – greets him with a big hug.  How’s it going?  Good.  Her bloke stands close by looking on, suddenly feeling like a spare wheel.  There are no introductions, but lucky for him the waiter has work to do.  They get a coffee after all.

In the bottom of the cup is a message.  An offer perhaps, or an order or an invitation.  “Same again?”  I’ve never noticed that before.  Why not?

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There are barista red and white socks for sale over there, and all sorts of coffee paraphernalia.  This is a seriously good place.  T J the boss has become a good friend.  I later discover he has befriended the artists down the street in the old welder’s place.  Could have got some of his coffee for free there too.  I talk with them about Gordon the welder.  They have respected his craft by calling the gallery the Welder.  I like that.  Respect is restored.  I like that too.  Respect and dignity change lives.  And good company.  And good coffee.

The city. Another day in the life …  the web grows.

Companions in Loneliness

How do you know someone is lonely?

We pass each other in the street.  We might even stop and say hello, or do the NZ blokes nod as we pass.  But if the city by definition is where the stranger lives, what notice can we take of each other as we move along past each other?  Unless we note particular behaviour we probably have little chance of knowing how lonely we are.  Sometimes it gets confused for its first cousin, depression.

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I was talking with someone involved in mental health recently.  We were talking about loneliness, depression, and mental unhealth in the city.  We hear every day on the radio or TV, that there is a “problem”.  By using that word we are already looking to “treat” loneliness (and all the other symptoms of modern isolated life).  If something is a “problem” we look for an alleviating solution.  Which is not always to be found.  Much of societal approach has been medical.  Offering chemicals might work, but I haven’t seen too much evidence of long term helpfulness in using this approach for almost everyone.  I once knew a doctor whose boast to me was that at least half of the town went to sleep using pills.  “I know,” he said.  I prescribed them.”  I’m not suggesting that’s rife now!

Loneliness is being alone when we don’t want to be alone.  Sometimes we do want to be alone, and enjoy the quiet away from what our current stress is.  But loneliness is a cage for many.  And it’s found, not just in physical isolation, but sometimes in the crowds of a mall or a street.  I found it the other day in a shop assistant in a place where few customers come.  She spends the greater portion of every day alone, surrounded by beautiful things for sale, but without company.  Day after day, it’s a lonely place for her.  Others hide it by going to where there is a crowd, sitting on the edge, watching people.  Others withdraw; stay at home.  From time to time we have all done all of those things perhaps.

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Loneliness gnaws at our spirit.  It sucks the energy out of us.  It’s a challenge for all of us.  In my mind I often come back to that word much used – “companion”.  It came to us from Middle English from Old French who got it from Latin.  It’s an oldie but a goodie.  It means to share bread with another.  The Latin term is sometimes translated as ‘bread mates.’  It’s a reminder that to be with someone else is to share more than words.  It’s sharing sustenance. The bread of life is not literally crumbs.  It’s what happens as we are with each other.  A good laugh.  A story.  A sharing of ourselves as we begin to trust another person with more than surface stuff.  Like the guy I have been getting to know slowly who sleeps rough.  I visit him a couple of times a week. We have learned to ask about each other’s welfare.  He asks how my weekend went, then begins to tell me how he wondered if he should commit suicide.  His story was full of tragi-comedy.  As he told me he started to laugh – at himself.  His ‘method’ would have been impossible!  Sometimes we have a coffee together too.  But it’s become a two-way with-ness, for a moment or two, and then we move off into the rest of our day.  Less lonely, he tells me.

There is no ‘solution’ on a shelf somewhere for loneliness.  It’s a feeling we all have from time to time.  When we get an inkling that someone is lonely, it’s good to stop, to speak and listen.  Who knows, being a companion for even a short time can change someone’s day, or week, or life.  It means though, that we have to get past our reticence to say hello.

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Dignity is the First step to Change

One of the cornerstone philosophies (theology perhaps) behind the Durham St Methodist ‘streets’ job description was an insistence on a “Community Development” approach.  This is our baseline understanding of the way we will work.  This also makes streets different in approach to many of the organisations working in Christchurch.  What is it that marks this approach out?

“The United Nations defines community development as “a process where community members come together to take collective action and generate solutions to common problems.” It is a broad term given to the practices of civic leaders, activists, involved citizens and professionals to improve various aspects of communities, typically aiming to build stronger and more resilient local communities…. Community development seeks to empower individuals and groups of people with the skills they need to effect change within their communities. These skills are often created through the formation of social groups working for a common agenda. Community developers must understand both how to work with individuals and how to affect communities’ positions within the context of larger social institutions.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community_development

Put simply, we believe that when there are issues, the ways forward are found as we pool our strengths and wisdom.  I assume therefore, that everyone I meet and talk with and listen to has something important to offer.  There are organisations, (some of them church groups) who still act as if they have the answers for everyone else.  They tend to run programmes.  They do much that is good, but the danger is that they also become part of the problem in the long term by creating dependency.  They often do things “for” others.  Don’t get me wrong, if there are immediate things that can be done, they need to be done.  We need food, and warmth, and company to survive.  But these have sometimes become ends in themselves for some groups, and have not changed anything significant.  And that’s an issue for ‘streets’ way of working.  How to effect community change is an extremely vexed question.  There is no shelf with a bottled solution.  No matter how close I might get to the rough sleepers for example, I am not one of them, and therefore lack major insight into their life on many issues.

 

The baseline for how ‘streets’ works though is clear.  Dignity and honouring humanity in each other. It’s a listening approach.  When a guy sitting on the pavement tells me that he doesn’t trust ‘helpers’ because they say one thing and never deliver, I keep turning up.  Until we trust each other enough for the real stories to be told, not the ones the guy thinks I want to hear.  I don’t have answers always.  I have my shared humanity and the conviction that our shared dignity can begin to create change that is meaningful.

Yesterday I posted this on ‘streets’ Facebook page.  It illustrates our approach to life:

 “Sometimes I come across some truly amazing things. This morning I was talking with a guy who is sleeping rough and who is usually found in a particular place, near a cafe. I am slowly getting to know him and with his help find the best way of him moving into a new way of life. I like him. We have lots of laughs.
I got him his coffee this morning from the cafe nearby. As we walked into the cafe, it became apparent that he is well known there. (I already had an inkling of this). The cafe staff keep a close eye on him, and often give him food. In return he looks out for parking wardens and alerts the staff. The cafe owner takes a special interest in him. He has his own coffee card. Every time he gets a free coffee they stamp his card. He will get a “free” one in due course.
These little things offer a sense of dignity and ‘normality’. It’s a privilege that my job lets me enter a hemwidth of that world. The inner city has some wonderful caring and alert people. But you’d never know that unless you were spending time doing as little as possible except listening eh.
He shared with me this morning that he had told another streetie about me. “He works for the Methodist Mission,” he’d said. The other guy said, “I know him. He’s got a white beard eh. I think his name’s Jim.”

Another part of this little story is that as we sat at the cafe table waiting for our coffee, the cafe followed the usual practice of giving us a number.  It stood on the table as we waited, chatting.  Then he said, “you know this is the first time I’ve had a number.”  Usually he drinks on the pavement.  As I said, dignity is the first step to change.

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Plus ca change …

There’s an area of town that’s slowly transforming itself into places for people to live, apartments, a Quest Hotel;  with that transformation goes places to eat.  Lots of them.  It used to be a part of town that most people rarely went into.  The hills end of Manchester St, and a small street called Welles St, between Colombo and Manchester streets.  Today I went down the street again to see how it’s changing this part of the city.  Once Welles St was workshops, small warehouses.  Like Hop Yick’s Chinese Warehouse.  Now his old warehouse is a bustling coffee house, one of my hang outs.

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Welles St is changing into bars, cafes and burger joints, with an apartment block mid way.  Food – places to gather and socialise.  A vital necessity in a city.  A welder used to be there too.  I took a photo once of the model planes hanging from the rafters, and the acrid smell of burnt metal.  Gordon was the last man standing.  A specialist in his field, he could, and did, make anything from metal.  A craftsman expert with metal.  And the ability to stand and talk for ages as I found out once.  A great guy.  Today he’s gone.  All his paraphernalia has disappeared.  But the workshop isn’t empty.  Clint is in there with paint pots and a cheery welcoming grin.  Impossible for me to resisit.  I ask where Gordon went.  Clint has no idea what used to happen in this space.  All he knows is that he is helping it become an artist’s hangout and gallery.  He has a short deadline to get the painting done.  And like Gordon, he is willing to talk.  I’ve heard about you, he tells me.  Good I said.

Clint is a stencil artist.  We talk about the dreams for the space as a gallery with several artists having access, and the way Welles St is becoming a place to hang out.  A small and lively destination.  I tell him about Gordon and the planes.  He said yesterday someone turned up with a metal mesh that he needed Gordon to sort.  Gordon had no slick business card.  He wrote his name and number on a piece of paper for me.  I still have it.  The visitor was devastated that he had gone.  There’s no one now who can do this, he said.  Clint has no ideas about any of that, but he respects the craft as an artist.  We’ll leave the roof like it is, he says.  Industrial heritage.  There are still metal horseshoes nailed up there in the rafters crossed with spider webs.

So  it goes.  Nothing stays.  But the new always builds on the old.  As P D Smith writes in his book called City, “Cities bear the traces of countless past lives.  Cities are rich storehouses of human history.  Amidst constant change and flux, there is profound continuity.”

Thanks for not painting the rafters Clint.

A plaque on both your houses!

As I walk through the inner city I find names everywhere.  I don’t mean the names of shops.  People’s names.  On plaques – inscribed in concrete, attached to buildings, bridges, monuments, pavements.  Some of the names are deliberately inscrutable – graffiti for instance.  Someone’s signature but not so I can actually find them unless I know the code.

We all have names, but we don’t all end up with our name stuck in public for all time.  Inevitably these public names are for people who have become prominent (I almost said famous, but that’s not what I mean).  The interesting thing to me as I ponder this name sticking culture is that prominence is contextual.  It doesn’t last.  It’s a snapshot of public importance or notoriety at the time, and because so many of the names also have dates attached to them, it would be possible, although with a lot of work, to discover who these named people are.

I wrote a blog about Ettie Rout once. A name on a plaque.  But when I asked folk about her, no-one that day knew.  https://wordpress.com/post/streetsdurhamstmethodistparish.wordpress.com/194          Yet some know her story and tell it in schools.

Mayors have their names on almost every bridge across the Avon.  A different mayor for each bridge.  And the date the bridge was opened of course.  Some of them go way back, but few would be remembered these days.  Some of the rebuild has new plaques.  With Prime Ministerial, or Cabinet Minister’s names.  We know who they are of course because it’s within our current context. They too will end up passing into obscurity.  My grandchildren, if they read the plaques, might ask who is John Key (BNZ Building), or Jerry Brownlie? (Bus Transfer Station)

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Public importance is an ephemeral thing.  Politicians come and go.  Local body dignitaries do the same.  I remember being taught Shelley’s poem Ozymandius when I was in Form 2 many years ago.  I still remember it – a brilliant comment on the passing of time and the efforts of individuals to surpass time:

I met a traveller from an antique land, 

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone 

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, 

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, 

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, 

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read 

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, 

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; 

And on the pedestal, these words appear: 

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; 

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! 

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay 

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare 

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

 

I sat in the BNZ courtyard with these words running through my head.  I photographed the opening plaque.  Why do we have to put who opened these things, be they buildings, bridges, streets or … ?  Is it not enough to simply say for posterity that the building was opened for use on such and such a day?  History is made up of prominent people’s names, and the rest of the inhabitants disappear into either a gravestone of more likely these days, a remembrance stone in a cemetery.  Like grass, we disappear, says the Psalmist on a plaintive note.  Yet we are all significant people of history.  To our family and friends we are the generational link of memory.  The hinge between ancestor and descendant.  Because we do not lead public lives is not a statement of our insignificance.

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The aggrandisement of certain people is something to ponder.  Why do we do it?  Why do we look up to some and down on others.  In the inner city it’s very clear that we do it.  Maybe everyone needs to learn Shelley’s sonnet!

What’s a table for?

What’s a table for if not sharing food, space, and stories?  Yet often we hog all three.  I remember being surprised as a westerner in Hong Kong when the table we were shown to in a local restaurant already had several people eating there.  It was a shock for a while, until we began interacting with the incumbents who didn’t speak English, but showed with their gestures and smiles that we were welcome.  I cherish that space inclusion experience.  Culturally I am from a me place not a we space I think, and it takes a huge effort sometimes to move over.  But what a difference it makes when I do.

A few days ago I was in a Foodcourt having lunch, solitary at my table surrounded by other solitary people.   A small distance away at another table I noticed a man sitting with a glass of water in front of him.  Alongside was a small backpack and a bike helmet.  His head was down, and he sipped his water very slowly.  Every now and then his head would jerk up as he dropped in and out of sleep.  Well dressed, even wearing a neatly knotted tie.

I watched as I ate my meal.  The water was taking a long time!  When I had finished eating, I went across to his table and sat down.  (Space invasion alert!)   He looked up, surprised to see someone opposite him.  Do you have some food coming, I asked.  He hesitated, then as if knowing his game was up, he said quietly, no.   Would you like some food, I asked.  No, it’s fine, he replied.  I don’t want you to buy me any food.  I don’t want charity.  I’m not offering you charity, I said.  Only some food.  He shook his head.

Then he took a deep breath and let loose an angry volley aimed at the Welfare system that paid him a pittance when he had 3 degrees from Canterbury Uni but couldn’t get a job no matter what he did.  (He was at least in his 50’s).  I listened.  He wasn’t angry with me.  When he stopped his wee rant, I said, listen, I’m paid by the Methodist Church to be in the city as a minister at large.  Would you like some food.  That would be good, he said.  What? I asked.  You can have anything you want.

It seemed to matter to him that I wasn’t personally paying for the food.  OK, perhaps a sandwich, he said.  Come on then, I replied.  We went to the stall where he pointed out the sandwich he wanted.  I was aware he was trying to go small, and not appear too needy.

We shook hands.  My name’s “John”, he told me as he clutched his sandwich.  I hang out here regularly.  I’m Rob I said.  Thank you friend, he replied.  We parted company – for the time being.  I think we’ll meet again.  He has more story to tell, and next time maybe we’ll even share a table as we eat.

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