One more thing

Dear lovely subscribers and RSS feed followers,

Thank you for following along with The Good Stuff.  Sadly your subscription/RSS feed won’t automatically change to my new blog, http://www.jennyfromtheblock.co.uk so if you’d like to keep reading my stories and reflections you’ll have to visit the new site and enter your email address again, or update your RSS feed.

Sorry for the hassle, but hope you stay on board…

Jenny

PS there are already new posts up on the new blog…

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New year, new me

Happy New Year from snowy Michigan!

Happy New Year from snowy Michigan!

It’s 2013, people!  Woohoo!  I love a new year, a new creative canvas.  All this American snow makes me feel like everything can be made new.  And this year I am especially excited because this blog is going to be growing and changing in big ways.

First, it has a new home (and a new name):

www.jennyfromtheblock.co.uk

(Thanks J-Lo).

I have loved writing here at “The Good Stuff” and sharing stories from my travels and my neighbourhood.  But I’ve been feeling for a while like I wanted to write about some other things too.  The reason I search out stories that give me hope is for more than just a sense of well-being and optimism.  It’s because they shape how I live.  They give me ideas and inspiration and encouragement to live a different way.  And I’d like to share some of those more practical stories too – not just the successful ones, but also my failures…

I hope to be travelling less this year than I did in my crazy 2012, so sourcing stories from all over the place will be less easy.  The blog will be a place to wrestle with how to live in the middle of the inner city (in our home, affectionately known as “the block”) and be a good neighbour whilst trying not to destroy the planet.  Or:

Attempts to live green and simple in the city.

(That’s the tagline).

So please stay tuned to the new blog (everything from this blog has been transferred handily to the archives), and watch out for some new features on green habits and simple living alongside the stories of hope.

Thank you all for reading and following.  See you at the new site.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

Christmas: The American Dream

2012 has been a year of many travels (you may have noticed).  So what more fitting way could there be to end the year, than with my first overseas Christmas? I am in the USA.  Where my brother now lives.

It has been a peaceful, calm, introverted Christmas (in my family we celebrate by eating and reading).  We were all enthralled by my new baby niece who is utterly adorable and completely wonderful.  There was snow on Christmas day, for the first time in 85 years in Arkansas (it even made the UK news, apparently).  My sister-in-law’s dad is a professional chef and so we ate some seriously good food.

With my beautiful niece

With my beautiful niece

But here’s the surprise.  I am used to being in different cultures really regularly, and places where the food, language and customs are completely foreign, and where there are few creature comforts.  And mostly it’s fine. Now here I am in a country which shares so much of our own culture and where every desire for convenience and luxury is fulfilled, and I have found it to be unexpectedly uncomfortable (and I’m not talking about the inflatable mattress we slept on).

I have struggled to work out why.  But I think it’s because the part of US culture I dislike most, is merely a reflection of something I am only too aware lurks in my own heart.  And it’s ugly.

It’s consumerism. The drive to always be buying stuff and to make that activity the means by which we define ourselves/cope/relax/attribute value is something that I battle against on home soil, and in my own soul.  It’s hard not to feel like the struggle is ratcheted up a few notches in suburban USA where civilisation seems almost exclusively to take the form of endless fast-food outlets, super-sized stores and shopping malls.  In the absence of any ‘third spaces’ for people to interact meaningfully, there is only the mall and your home – the place where you buy and the place where you use/display/consume what you buy.

Here, I revolt against this way of living; but at home I know and am ashamed of how easily I embrace it.

I picked up a book from my brother’s shelves over Christmas, called “The Trouble with Paris” and it spelt out the same truth.  The title refers to a girl struggling with depression who moves to Paris because she decides that she just needs a change of scene.   It turns out that “the trouble with Paris” is that hopping on a plane to a new city is just another way of chasing new experiences and avoiding reality.  We have become addicted, the book claims, to the hyped-up version of reality constantly sold to us by the media and the marketeers, and so we devote our time and attention to chasing (buying) a better reality than the one we live.

Well, quite.

At the cowboy superstore

At the cowboy superstore

But then I stumbled across this quotation which made it all hit home:

“We can buy fairtrade and organic, yet still live under the framework of consumerism, running from commitment and community, living for self, chasing experience at the expense of intimacy and connection, and treating others like objects.”

(Yes I buy fairtrade and organic).

Southern US suburban culture might be an easy target for me with its obvious excesses, but a few different shopping habits don’t make me immune from the infection of consumerism or the compulsive quest for a hyper-real life.  I am as addicted as the next person to constant social media news-feeds; new and exciting experiences; allegedly self-improving purchases; pretty, sparkly things…and just look at how much I travel.  Somehow I am reminded of a proverb involving specks of dust and planks of wood.

It’s not that I think I have no right to critique, but it’s always easier to judge something you’re not a part of.  A community you don’t live in.  A culture you don’t shape.  The more painful, more demanding work lies in the neighbourhood where I do live, amidst the consumer options that face me every day.   How can I share with my community, rather than consume as an individual?  How do I become a creator rather than a consumer?

So in the end it all comes back to me not them.  And it comes back to London not Little Rock.   It’s crazy how far you travel sometimes just to discover what’s in your own heart.

In 2013 I’ll be sharing some of my journey to live more simply in the city.  In the new year I’ll tell you all how the blog will be growing and changing… 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Post: Let’s get naked

Today I am excited to share a guest post from the husband, originally written as a Christmas reflection for a Christian blog called Threads.

I am very good at being ‘almost radical’. I am good at challenging people just enough to make me sound edgy or creative, but not enough to allow any allegations of taking things too far. It cleverly avoids criticism from those who may disagree, which might hurt my still-too-tied-to-my-identity, people-pleasing, wanting-everyone-to-love-me ego.

Sometimes that tactic comes from a good place of wanting to ‘start where people are at’ or be relational, but I have to confess that most of the time it just comes from a fear of being exposed to ridicule and challenge.

We have just celebrated the birth of Jesus. This was not the arrival of a control freak, carefully managing their surroundings for least disruption to their ministry. He arrived helpless to this beautiful, yet broken planet, trusting himself into the hands of imperfect humanity. Thirty-three years after that meek entrance, he would be stripped and naked again. This thought is teaching me something quite profound:

You have to be naked to start a revolution.

“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her first-born, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” (Luke 2:6-7)

You have to be prepared to be vulnerable, exposed and misunderstood.

You have to be prepared to be mocked, caricatured and offensive.

Jesus’ unpredictable ministry was not the work of someone who had one eye on Jerusalem and one eye on Twitter to see how he was being perceived. They say I’m too obtuse? Let’s tweak that for future public engagements – give them a bit more solid theology. A little too angry? Let’s visit a nursery tomorrow – the tables will be too low to turn over anyway. Not nationalistic enough? Let’s wear some military garb for the next photo opp.

Those who have kicked off radical movements have always run the risk of being written off as lunatics or being ignored because of their lack of a media strategy. They have been prepared to be naked and resource-light in human terms. They have been prepared to look stupid, to be criticised, to be plastered across the press as hopeless dreamers, do-gooders, bigots, or irrelevant.

Don’t get me wrong. I spend a good chunk of my time training believers to engage intelligently in the public square – in the media and in politics. It is hugely important. But in 2012 have we become so media-fixated, hypersensitive to criticism, and less rooted in God that we are paralysed from saying or doing what we are called to?

For Facebook friends, read ‘audience’ and for status update, read ‘press release’. We are becoming our own press officers, managing our public profile and perception. Our brains are becoming increasingly wired to insecurely gauge and seek responses to what we say or do. We edit our status updates and lives to present only the most appealing or acceptable part of ourselves, or what we think we can get away with. And that takes us right back to my disease of almost saying what I actually think. My calculation these days is too often: “How will this affect that person’s or the public’s perception of Christians?”(handily connected to their perception of me) rather than “God, what would you have me do or say?”

We are called to follow Christ, not employed by him to be spin doctors for the kingdom. Jesus didn’t want to be ‘Like’d. He wanted to be obeyed and worshipped.

Here lies Andy Flannagan – he was almost radical. Not an epitaph I want.

Is it time for us to shed the clothes of popularity, respectability and compromise? Is it time to get naked?

Christmas in a strange land

It’s only a few days till Christmas, and I am far away from home in the state of Arkansas, where everything is super-sized.  Happily I am not alone, and I’m enjoying some family time (being in the same continent as the husband has become a novelty this month) and meeting my new niece.  Who is completely beautiful.

But should you be lacking in inspiration this week, here are a couple of things I prepared earlier.

Last year I wrote a blog about how I try to hold onto the story of Christmas in the midst of family chaos, and I shared some liturgy we use.

Last week in Guatemala we filmed a reflection on the story from Mary’s perspective – you might recognise some of the thoughts from my earlier blog.

The Hope Of The World from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

Have a great Christmas. I’ll be back in the new year, with some changes!

Needing a witness

The mountains of Guatemala

The mountains of Guatemala

Our five days in Guatemala are over, and we have arrived, exhausted and a little dazed in Nicaragua. As I write, I am sitting in a converted cinema, now a church, waiting for leaders to assemble for the gathering of La Red del Camino, the brilliant network who have hosted us for the whole trip. Literally, their name means the network of ‘the way’ or ‘the path’ because the first Christians were known as followers of ‘the way’. They gather leaders across Latin America as friends, journeying with them in understanding faith and mission as a holistic, whole-life adventure (rather than a purely spiritual project) that leads them to engage with the poverty and injustice surrounding them. They are good, crazy, grounded people.

Our final day in Guatemala was spent in the indigenous, mountainous region around Patzun. It was breathtakingly beautiful and surprisingly cold. I was wearing flip-flops, but thankfully had packed a sensible cardigan, purchased for me by my mother.

We left at 5.30am to drive in some kind of hardy landcruiser to have breakfast with a group of indigenous pastors. I was picturing a rustic shelter in the hills (not dissimilar to the communities where we had been in the mestizo region the day before) and a breakfast of beans and rice.  But we pulled it at a lodge with pancakes and waffles in the menu. There are times when I bless the USA.

Breakfast with the pastors

Breakfast with the pastors

This group of tiny (shorter than me), wizened (for the most part) indigenous leaders told their stories quietly and gently.  Their people have been violated, abused, disempowered repeatedly over many years.  And these men lead churches and encourage their people to participate in political and civic life, a milieu from which they have been effectively banished by the authorities. Countless laws and policies are passed that continue to diminish their rights, desecrate their land and way of life, and drive them to violence. Poverty and despair characterise these communities, and they are armed to the teeth. The pastors have been threatened and targeted many times, both by militants in their own communities, and the powers of government.

I can’t remember all the details of the stories but what I remember very clearly is walking away from breakfast feeling like I had been given a long cool drink of water, and fed something nourishing (and I’m not talking about the pancakes).  And it was because of what they had witnessed and shared with us. In the church there is always talk about being witnesses in the world to who Jesus is, amongst people who don’t believe in him. But hearing the stories of these pastors, I felt witnessed to, and I realised how much I needed it. What they have experienced of God’s presence and faithfulness and justice in the midst of such oppression and violence and lack, told me again that this isn’t just my imagination or wishful thinking, but something real and beautiful.  It is the backbone of what these pastors live, to their peril, each day.

We drove across the most extravagantly beautiful terrain, we ate bowls of rice and local vegetables with pastors who used to be competitors but now lived like family, we sat and prayed with a resettled community who could now live without fear of their homes being washed away (again) in landslides, we visited an enormous greenhouse full of tomato plants, 2500m above sea level.

We were wrecked by the end, but also made new.

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Go (coco)nuts!

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Coconut milk for your curry. Shredded coconut for your Bounty or Lemingtons. A fancy-dress bikini. Something to make the sound effect of horses hooves. A cool cocktail glass. And there I run out of uses for coconuts.

Today highlighted the poverty of my imagination as I was introduced to the coconut-themed socio-economics of Mario Morales. And as a permanent reminder to think a bit bigger, I now own a pair of shoes made from discarded coconuts.

Mario is a practical, gentle man. He has worked for many years helping to make communities in Guatemala more resilient to the natural disasters that plague them. He works with churches, helping them to see what they can do improve conditions in their communities.

In the last few decades life has changed massively in Guatemala, and in the communities where Mario works. This is mainly because of the huge sugar cane plantations, and all the associated industry. Indigenous crops have been cleared, pastoral land has been converted, and gallons of dangerous chemical fertilisers are sprayed from helicopters and by locals on foot, causing massive health problems, taking most of the water and polluting what’s left.

Mario’s work over the last few years has led him to encourage communities to plant gardens again and reinstate indigenous crops. The people are farmers and they know how to work the land. What they need is encouragement and a little innovation in the face of the deteriorated conditions and the new scarcity of water.

But a year or two, Mario became fixated by coconuts. Suddenly, all he could see were the piles of discarded coconuts around (his home town), and he began dreaming about what he could do with them.

This is where he has got to: He has created a machine, based on something he saw on the Internet, which takes discarded coconuts and shreds them until nothing is left except dried coconut, like hay in consistency (as modelled below by Travis) and dirt, which is rich in nutrients and can be used as compost. Then he packs this shredded, dried coconut into frames which he coats with a naturally occurring latex. There’s another machine he has invented which presses layers of this coconut matting together, and then he cuts out shoe soles. Locally produced fabrics are sewed together to the soles to produce beautiful Eco-flip-flops.

Every stage of the process is carried out by local people in the communities where he works. We drove around all corners of Escuintla to witness each stage of the manufacturing. Half of it takes place in Mario’s own home; other parts in other families’ back gardens. It’s not an industrialised process by any stretch of the imagination. We had coconut chips sprayed in our faces, we had the life frightened out of us by the sound of all the machinery, we modelled the new shoes, we wound the coconut ropes and Travis (crazy American film-maker who is sharing the adventure) constructed a coconut toupe.

Mario also has groups who wind the shredded coconut into ropes and then weave them into giant nets, which can be used to minimise soil erosion during earthquakes, landslides and the like.

It’s a bit nuts, but totally brilliant. I love the ingenuity and creativity of being able to take something that is discarded in huge quantities daily by so many people, and working out how to turn it into something beautiful, and doing it with integrity, in a way at empowers and involves others.

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Fighting against the violent tide

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(excuse the tiny, dodgy photo, I’m limited by technology in a far flung place).

Today I woke up in the most violent country in Latin America, and not long after breakfast there was a blast of gunfire nearby (or maybe it was just an early morning fireworks display, mum).

But I spent the day in a place known as ‘the refuge’ where flocks of bright green parrots whizzed (and shrieked) overhead, and children of all ages played together in a beautiful garden. Where another kind of life felt possible.

We spent the day with Pamela Leon, a relaxed Guatemalan lawyer in a turquoise polo shirt, who set up the refuge after encountering the horrific injustices and abuses suffered by the victims of domestic violence in her country. Very few of these cases even make it into the country’s legal processes, but the few she saw were enough.

Domestic violence has somehow, heartbreakingly, become an accepted part of Guatemalan culture, as much within the church as outside of it. (And Guatemala boasts the highest numbers of Christians in Central America, outside of the traditional Catholic church. It’s a sidenote to where I’m going, but this just hits me in the guts, how can we offer so hope little to the world?).

I met women today who arrived at the refuge barely recognisable, bruised and swolen from all the blows they had so recently received. There are plenty theories as to why this violence persists, some tracing its normalisation back to the long civil war from 1960 to 1996, and others (including Pamela) believing instead that it began with the violent colonisation of the country in the 16th century. The question that matters, however, is how ‘normal’ gets rewritten in a country’s psyche (or even just a family’s).

It’s not that it’s legal. Guatemala actually has an impressive legal system and a series of laws which protect women. On paper they’re great. If only it led to action. Corruption and machismo combine to mean that women and children are left undefended and unheard, and that men are shown preferential treatment. Pamela shared how when the police are called out by women who have been beaten by their husbands, it isn’t unusual for the police to suggest that they just need to learn to cook better, or make more effort with their appearance.

Pamela’s project is, for a privileged few, making possible the life that the law is supposed to enshrine. She and her tiny staff team are helping these women create a different future. The women come and live at the refuge for a year or so, with their children. In contrast to where they have come from, it is safe and peaceful. The children are able to go to school. The women are given psychological support, a calm environment, friendship, prayer and love. There are small businesses through which they can earn money. They are encouraged to study and to find work. (Today one of them was taking her entrance tests to train as a nurse). If they are prosecuting their aggressors then Pamela takes up their defence and advises them legally. Sadly there are few other lawyers who will defend these women because of how hard it is, and the lack of financial reward.

El Refugio is the only project of its kind in the country. If, miraculously, your situation is taken seriously, then if you’re lucky you’ll end up in a government-run service which offers respite for 48 hours up to a maximum of 3 months. They don’t offer any lasting way out, so your situation probably won’t change in the long-run. Pamela’s project can take 7 women and their children at a time.

It’s a drop in the ocean.

And I know the ocean is made up of many (squillion) drops but it must feel like blowing against the wind.

Pamela is less defeatist, and it’s because she has genuine faith that there is a bigger story than these depressing statistics suggest. She feels called (you’d need to, to undertake such a courageous and dangerous task, especially as a single woman), and says that her part is obedience to that calling. She is not single-handedly responsible for turning the tide, but she will play her part.

And maybe that’s the only way to fight violence: to refuse its tactics, to resolutely live out an alternative, to be patient and compassionate and do what you can, to defend others and create space for their healing and rebirth. It’s not fast (unlike the alternative), but perhaps it grows something that will endure?

Waiting for God-knows-what

It is the season of waiting.

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Or, parties. Calendars are awash with office socials, family reunions, carol concerts, school nativities, mulled wine on chilly nights, shopping-trips, ice-skating and tree-decorating.  Not mine, this year, because instead I am travelling to far-flung continents to hear new stories and meet new family.  And so for once I am a little removed from the hullaballoo and I am pondering the meaning of it again.

I read recently about a Catholic community who mark the season with simple, frugal living and prayerful reflection and my heart sank at the thought of opting out of all the fun.

And it brought me back to the question of waiting, what it means to wait, and how I strain to avoid it.

My friend Kelley just wrote a beautiful blog about her Advent ache as she confronts the trauma of today in Goma and Gaza, and in relationships closer to home.

“This Advent I stand in the ancient tradition of lament and longing,” she writes, “as my insides churn at the not-yetness of it all.”

Why would we choose to enter purposefully into a season of waiting? It is usually a chore rather than a choice. Ten seconds in and we (I) reach for our phones, for distraction.

But at the heart of this season, for those of us who seek it, is an unfinished story, and an invitation to wait not just four weeks, but as long as it takes.

I see it most clearly through Mary.

At so young an age she is chosen – and her soul sings. She is asked to imagine that something otherworldly could be possible.  She is asked to believe and she does.  (And this at a time when childbirth was perilous).

At the moments when our souls sing and we hear and see God alive in everything, extraordinary things feel possible. (Perhaps because they are).

It is afterwards, in the banality and prose of everyday living that it is harder to believe in miracles.

But that is where waiting takes us. For Mary, first it was nine months. Nine months of pregnancy, of feeling something real grow inside of her, the promise becoming tangible.

But it was also nine months of everybody else interpreting events in their own way. Who could possibly know or understand or believe the truth? There were nine long, painful months of watching her parents’ shame, feeling desperately alone (except for that time with her cousin), doubting herself. How much of that could Joseph share, how much was he prepared to?

And then there is the beautiful story of how her son was born, miles away from everybody who misunderstood, attended by the strangest assortment of guests.  And I imagine Mary’s tears when she sees her baby, and when, for the first time, she is able to share the miracle with a host of others – all of whom know that whatever this is, it is from God.

But what of the years that follow? In all the years of poverty and political oppression, in the mundane detail of family life, of finding enough food and earning enough money, what does Mary do with all those prophecies? Do they feel real? Does she know what any of them mean? Does she know who her son really is?

Waiting, in this sense, is never one thing.  It is a heady cocktail of joy and agony, of confusion and doubt, of excitement and fear. And sometimes it is just long and hard.

It is always easier to give up. It is less tiring and it hurts a lot less.

But Mary does not give up, she is there even the moment when her son is killed.  How could she begin to make sense of that day?

It is hardest to wait when it least makes sense, but at the heart of Advent is the invitation to do just that.  Because in all its brilliant beauty, the Christmas story is not an ending or a resolution and it does not answer every question.  It is a dazzling glimmer of hope and the promise of proximity and involvement.  It is a beginning but not an end.

To me, Advent is an invitation to wait as Mary waited.  Always pondering, treasuring these things in my heart, but also participating in the story without understanding fully where it is going and what that will look like.  It is looking for where I can step in, moving towards the brokenness rather than hiding from it.  It is not running away from the ache, the deep, long ache for the good ending I believe in.

When small things are big things

I’m fresh back from spending most of the last week in beautiful Burkina Faso (not Uganda, as my mother believed).  I say ‘fresh’ which is an unusual state to return from any trip in (especially one which involved 5.30am starts every day, temperatures in the high 30s and not a lot of food), but it’s how I feel.  Grateful, inspired, humbled.

Beautiful Burkina

I was making a film about how churches are doing small, beautiful, counter-cultural things in their communities to improve their lives and those of their neighbours.  (You might remember part one of the same project in Sierra Leone last year).  This time I was out with Prospect Arts‘ Ben Sherlock, a whizz with a camera and a failsafe vitamin supplier.

One day we drove off down a dirt track, and then turned off that onto a footpath (still in the 4×4) and continued on for about an hour across sandy, uneven scrubland, dodging bushes, trees and huge gaping pits.  We arrived in a remote village in the far east of Burkina and were greeted by some of the community who took us out the other end of the village on foot to see their school.

In contrast to the other simple, sandy homes scattered through the village, here was a large, clean, modern-looking structure with three big classrooms housing about 100 children from 4-16.  The youngest ones had never seen a white person (I went and said hello and shook all their hands to dispel their fears…).

Fascinated by white people…

We interviewed the pastor of the community who told me the beautiful story of how the school came about.  It began with a letter he received one day, there in the middle of nowhere.

He set off to the next town, the one we’d driven from, to find someone who could read it to him.

Was there no-one in his village who could read? the inhabitants of the next town asked. (Nobody). Did they not have a school? How many children were there?  Did he know that if he could prove there were 60 children with no access to schooling, the government had to provide a school and a teacher?

And that started the journey of the small, illiterate church community advocating to the government on behalf of their village.  The government sent a teacher and the church members built the teacher a house.  And then, a few years on, the government built a school.  And now how the horizons of those young people have changed.  Different futures have become possible.

That same day we spoke to a church elder in another community with a similar story, and he said something that has stayed with me.  “These things probably seem small to you, but to us they are huge.”

Heading off into unknown territory in faraway countries with a nice camera to make a film makes me anxious to find impressive sounding stories that will captivate people.  Some of this week’s stories were about church communities building themselves a church building, which can seem underwhelming, but the journey behind those projects is a deep and significant one.  It’s the story of people who struggle to meet their most basic needs starting to believe that they have the ability to do something for themselves, and for their wider community.  It’s the start of a longer journey towards a better life.

So I don’t count any of the stories as small.  To believe things can be different when you have never known what ‘different’ looks or feels like is an amazing act of faith and courage, especially when you live so close to the edge of survival.

These are big stories. And just think where they might lead.

Our impromptu crew (minus camera man Ben who was behind the camera)

(The work I was filming was part of Tearfund’s Church Mobilisation work, carried out in partnership with local NGO, ODE.  You can find out more about it here.)