On Barack Obama's Pyjamas


If I could have seen at 13 who I am now I would think I was a legend. I remember earlier this year sitting with a first-year youth work student over dinner who was asking me to share experiences, war stories and insights on the past nine years as a youth worker at Zeal. This young guy was a hero and had encountered many things with young people that I haven't in my tenure. It was a real moment of realising that this person I'd set out of become some 12-13 years ago was now a reality, yet all I could think about was how tired I was and how much I wanted to be at home eating dinner. I used to think guys like me were legends, but now I realise that they were really all just passionate people who spend most of their time tired and over-worked, trying to balance the various demands of relationships and tasks as best they can, and trying to understand the ideas of faith in a postmodern world. I've been wondering what Barack Obama thinks about as he puts on his Pyjamas each night? Probably about the hasty unkind word he said to a member of his administration, maybe how he hasn't spent quality time with his daughters in a couple of days, perhaps how half of the US government doesn't believe in him and assumes his motive is to take their country into a socialist dark age.  I wonder if he ever thinks about how he waited most of his life for this opportunity and it has absolutely failed to live up to his grandest ideals? I wonder if he wishes he could just go back to Chicago, be a relatively unknown community organiser, and play basketball with struggling young people at an outdoor court?

I would bet my student loan (and it's sizeable!) that when The President of the United States goes to bed, he is faced with the same insecurities as us all, but with potentially bigger consequences.

As a young person celebrity culture built within me the idea that I needed to become 'somebody'. It fueled in my ego the idea that there would be a big culminating moment where all the potential I had would suddenly be recognised for it's value by the entire world. I see an entire generation around me who believes in this idea: that their 'big moment' will come if they just wait long enough. The problem is that that moment is now and it is fleeting. That moment is getting up in the morning, brushing your teeth, catching the number 18 bus, writing that report for your manager, paying your taxes, having conflict with a work-mate, going home, and then doing it all again. When (or should I say 'if') we do arrive at a supreme point of acknowledgment and recognition, all of the above tasks will look exactly the same. All of the fears you have now won't be left in your old job or your early-twenties, they'll be waiting for you right where you left them at the beginning.

Andy Warhol said that "...in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes". He's not wrong really. Many of us will have had a Facebook post that went viral for one evening or some solid recognition for our achievements. But if we live in pursuit of these moments we will find on their arrival that they never satisfied us as much as we thought they would, and that the public recognition never served to heal the personal struggles we all carry as humans. Worst of all, we will realise we were never really present at some of the most significant small moments that transformed our lives and the lives of others. What would Mother Teresa of Kolkata say about this (a stark contrast to Warhol): "Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love." That's a good word for us I think.

On Unwanted Gifts

Holy Man Jam, Boulder, CO  Aug. 1970 Families function on the unexpressed expectations we have of one another and the roles we count on each member to play. These are never more pronounced than at Christmas. The spoilt brat, the drunk uncle, the family member who is always late, the one whose own perception of their culinary skills is far below the quality of the collapsed pavlova they placed proudly in the centre of the table. One such role in our family is a Grandma who uses this time of year as the vehicle to pass on all her unwanted 'as seen on TV' purchases from the year past. Last year we spent hours guessing what the bizarre plastic cone was she sent my sister-in-law only to discover it was a microwave chicken roaster. I can't imagine an occasion on which you'd want to roast in a microwave! I'm sure we all have a few things we're wondering what to do with. It always feels a little too harsh to move things straight to the bin and I wouldn't inflict the aforementioned chicken cone on the salvation army to redistribute.

This year I was lucky to receive a few gifts that I love. A copy of Jack Kerouac's On the Road which I've been meaning to read for some time now, a new computer to replace the one that isn't handling all the video and image editing I do these days, and a calendar Anna put together featuring photos of the many dogs we saw while walking the Camino de Santiago in 2013 aptly named Dogs of the Camino.

I've been reading a bit of American history recently. Many will know the 1950s as the birth of modern consumerism. The middle class rose prolifically in a post-war boom and materialism became a new religion alongside moral conservatism. The struggle of rationing and food vouchers throughout the war was done, the storm had cleared and the American people stepped outside into a glorious day in the land of the free and the home of brave. Parents who had nursed their children through The Depression of the 1930s and the subsequent war could now breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy glorious freedom and free market consumers!

So what did the children of these frugal and conscientious citizens do with this new freedom? They raised the middle finger and said they wanted nothing of it! The sexual revolution took hold and thousands of baby boomer teenagers shunned the ways of their parents and protested the evils of war and the free market. Why? because without the daily fears of starvation or death they had enough time on their hands to think about the kind of world they wanted to live in.

These fired-up teenagers had some good points no doubt, but they neglected to realise that the freedom they enjoyed to disagree was given to them by the careful stewardship of the generation before. I remember some years ago thumbing my nose at the way I was brought up in the suburban paradise of Tawa. When I think of the way I reacted towards this 'unwanted gift' of a safe neighbourhood, a loving family and a good education I feel like a bit of a dick now. For some reason our generation seems to have a baby with the bathwater mentality that means we can't embrace the new without vilifying the old. 

Please, don't let that radical spark of anger at injustice dwindle in your soul, but also, consider that who you are and the freedoms you enjoy didn't come cheap. Perhaps our parents didn't hold the attitudes towards racism, homophobia and gender discrimination that we do, but one day our kids will look at us and feel the same way. Who you are is who you are, and where you come from is where you come from. Don't throw out the thoughtful gifts when you're dropping the chicken cone at the thrift store.


On Hope and Tables

table_above-e1373921609852Foolishly I took a moment from the joy of time with family and a restful day to glance over some news sites. A baby has just drowned in a pool, a Ngaruawahia family has had their presents stolen overnight, a woman has crashed her car through the front of her ex-partner's home, another family's house caught on fire, a teenager was shot in Auckland and a 4.0 quake in Canterbury. Merry Christmas New Zealand, this is apparently the state of the nation. While all of these things are tragic and newsworthy (well, most of them), there is another narrative weaving it's way through the Christmas season which I think deserves a moment.

This year The Auckland City Mission provided over 11,000 food parcels to hungry New Zealand families. 3,000 of those are being provided in the Christmas season alongside 7,000 presents to children who would otherwise miss out. Despite the media's general negativity about 'bludging', they will also host a Christmas dinner today which will feed over 2,000 hungry people. The part of this that excites me the most isn't the food, but the fact that hundreds or thousands of lonely and isolated people may today sit down and have a rare conversation with someone over the common-ground of a dinner table. A brief reprieve from living hard on the streets or trying provide for a family on low-income, what could be better than a full stomach and some kind words?

Alongside these big scale initiatives like that of The Mission there are also many New Zealanders choosing to enlarge their dinner tables to those in need. Today Matt Grey, the Manager of Zeal Youth Centre in Henderson opened the doors of their youth centre at midday to invite young people who are living rough or don't have stable families to enjoy Christmas with - it may only be a few, but it will matter greatly to those who come.

The table is a powerful metaphor. The universal needs for sustenance and social connectedness don't discriminate across class, race, gender, creed or belief. In my case I am lucky to have come from a stable family who don't have to negotiate broken marriages or sibling disputes, I realise this is not the case for many. But for those of us who are lucky enough to gather at a table with a family (whether biological or reconstructed) we must stop, look around, and realise that what we have is unusual, special, and the longing of so many. When we are fortunate enough to share this connection with others we have the opportunity to close the table, or to open it wider to a hurting world. The stories our media tells today are a narrative of fear that makes us want to lock the front door and close down the table. Hold tight to your loved ones, guard your possessions, trust no one, time is running out!

Thanks goodness that there is counter-narrative to this fear. Despite what the media would like us to believe, many New Zealanders today are opening their hearts and their tables to their friends, their neighbours and their strangers. That's a reason to be hopeful.

On Adventures

leaving-the-city-22427I've been thinking the last few days about Advent, the Church season leading up towards Christmas, and Adventure, stepping out to discover worlds and people unknown. I'm not a Latin or Greek expert, but I'm making the leap that these two words have the same root and a connected meaning. By simple definition, Advent is about the celebrate arrival of something or someone (in Christmas' case, Jesus). Adventure is about an unpredictable journey. Some of our greatest cultural tales and stories involve an individual's arrival who calls a comfortable person out into a life they'd never dreamed of before. Gandalf's unexpected visit to Bilbo would be one, Obi-Wan Kenobi's rescue of Luke Skywalker would be another. One of my favourite movies in recent year's was Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It's by no means a perfect movie, but I love it. In one scene Walter, played by Stiller, sees a famous photographer (Sean Penn) beckoning him with one finger out from his mundane and ordinary life to something adventurous and meaningful. The Advent of Penn's character triggers the Adventure of Walter Mitty.

One of my favourite pieces of literature is John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. The book is a 17th century  allegory of faith about a man named Christian (no points for subtlety!) who leaves the ominously-named 'City Called Destruction' in search of 'The Celestial City'. He leaves his family and everything he knows behind after having met 'Evangelist' and realising he can't go on living the way he has anymore.

The season of Advent arrives and challenges us with the story of a child born in a stable during a genocide of all boys under two, who would challenge the structures of oppression, poverty and the status quo so profoundly that the Roman Empire would have no option but the crush him on a cross. The Advent of this child brought such an incredible disruption to the existing system that thousands would lay down their wealth, occupations and relationships to join him on the Adventure.

So it may be for you, and for many of us, that this is an opportunity to stop and wonder how satisfied we are with the world we're living in, the stories we're telling ourselves, and the things that we get up to do in the morning. Is thestatus quo enough? Regardless of what we may each believe we know that we can choose, as usual, to drown the dissonance of our dissatisfaction through consumption, or instead, to look actively for the interruption that will fill us enough with courage to change the behaviours and the attitudes we've kept that hold us in a 'City called Destruction'.

Advent is upon us. An Adventure beckons. 

On Wisdom

stunning_photographs_05 Wisdom and caution are often expressed as synonymous ideas.

Some would say to be wise is to be measured, calm, soft-spoken and to be a better listener than a talker. To have carefully considered all the options and arrived at a 'balanced' and inoffensive conclusion. But what is wisdom when faced with someone who is violent right now, right in front of me? Or what about when that friend with a pattern of addiction is on the other end of the phone threatening to take actions that might be destructive to them or to others right this second? Wisdom in this case is courage to take action decisively and immediately based on the little information we have. Sometimes wisdom isn't typified by a thoughtful sigh, but by bloodied knuckles that engaged thoughtfully, but under urgency.

Far beyond some of the dramatic examples I've listed above I wonder about the number of opportunities lost by those who would, in wisdom, consider all the options until many of them have evaporated before their eyes and they're left with less than they began with. Perhaps wisdom would call them to choose something before they instead lost everything. Wisdom is often the word we use to make cowardice look like integrity and indecisiveness look like honour. I'm wondering if wisdom is the comfort of knowing that there are few actions that can't be undone, hurt feelings that can't be mended, and apologies that can't be made if we've been a little too hasty.

What about our picture of wisdom were to change? Less like a white-bearded man and more like a fiery red-headed woman of no more than 18 years old. What if her convictions led her to decide that a wise decision is to stand at the front of picket lines against the unwise decisions of policy-makers? Perhaps her carefully-considered opinion puts her at odds with her family and the predominant social norms? Perhaps she knows that having $500,000 bound up in bank debt on a mortgage is really no 'wiser' than spending the little she has on encountering people in other nations whose stories look nothing like hers. Is she youthful, naive and ignorant - or is she the recapturing of true wisdom?

I may be too young to know most things, but I know one thing: Wisdom and inaction are incompatible. Wisdom is a person, and he calls us ever onward.