How can you build community if you’re not a Master Builder?

emmett

This is Emmett. He’s the funny little guy from the Lego Movie. My kids love him. He’s not a special. He’s not a master builder. He’s beyond ordinary. He’s kind of a nobody.

Emmett knows many people but is actually known by very few.

I wonder how much this idea resonates with us. Perhaps we have dipped our toes in some form of community before and got burnt. Maybe we are tired of never quite fitting in. Then again, maybe we have found ‘our people’ and the word community genuinely excites us.

I’ve been around churches and youth groups and local towns long enough to get involved in a smorgasbord of community efforts. And no doubt this community thing is to be experienced in many ways.

Small groups. Homegroups.
Parents groups.
Prayer partners. Prayer triplets.
Alpha.
Coffee mornings.
Book clubs, gyms and running clubs.
‘New mum’ clubs.
Breakfast, lunch and supper clubs.

I found a lot of these experiences to be very positive and yet in many incidences, I remained a little like Emmet. Known by a lot of people, but not ever really known or even valued and understood. I’m not sure how much I actually experienced true change and growth.

It was no-ones fault. I probably approached it all wrong.  Looking for people to fix me and fill a void. And I’ll admit I have a tendency to resist vulnerability. Who doesn’t?

Sometimes I gave up too quickly. Someone ruffled my feathers and I left out the back door. Someone looked at me weird and it was game over.

Parenthood impacted how I viewed community. As in, it made me feel like I couldn’t be part of one. It didn’t seem right to invite people over for turkey dinosaurs and alphabetties. I couldn’t seem to make any of the gatherings.  I struggled to fit in when all I could think about was if my baby was sleeping for the babysitter. So I opted out. I just hung around the sidelines and the fringes. Known by many and yet known by very few.

For a while I was scared by the buzz words that seem to surround building community  – words like authentic, leadership, growth, innovation, strategy, vision – they all put me off. I thought, I don’t know enough about this stuff. I’m not a master builder. I’m an introvert. I like books. I don’t have what it takes to build community. The skills required. The knowledge. The background. The training. The time. The experience.

But.

Despite all that I lack I do genuinely love people. I do carry a deep desire to connect, to listen, to share life in whatever means possible. I do believe God is on me and in me and with me and it is quite possible for the Kingdom to invade my galley kitchen.

And I wonder if community is actually this great big buzz word we have made it. Is bigger just generally perceived as better? Does significant have to mean noticeable? Probably.

Culture has taught me to chase these things and manipulate any sense of community I might discover into something more, something ‘major’ with a brand or a title, something with a start time of 7.30pm and a decent programme, a strategy and a cool venue.

Is this why I end up believing a large group of people with new members is indicative of success, but somehow the change in my sweet neighbour’s life is not even noteworthy? Perhaps.

Over time I seem to have accepted the idea that community is a few big gatherings to miss rather than a few ordinary lives to share.

*

A soul can be saved but it will take softness and depth and space. The world will not help much. John Ortberg.

It seems all along my soul is just longing for some depth. But the culture I live in says this;

Don’t stop to think, just buy more and do more, the faster the better.
Slot community in when you can – share the links, but not your life.
Don’t overthink how little you belong anywhere. Parenthood has taken that away from you. But you fit in just fine on Instagram.
Heck, you don’t have time for any of this community lark. You barely have time to put the bin out. Your life is about Calpol and Cbeebies, not community.
No one wants to see or hear what you have to say. You are no good to anyone. You are too much.
Post another photo of your cute tablecloth and continue to survive.

And I believe it all. I believe community is out of reach for me. I believe I can’t build anything of worth or significance. I believe small is for the underachiever. I believe I’m not like those others leaders – the ones who get it done.

And I am wrong.

*

Ordinary faithfulness is the stuff of miracles.
Lisa-Jo Baker.

Could ordinary faithfulness be at the centre of building true community?

Because if so, then I need to remain faithful to the deep desire in me to get to know others better in the most simple, small and ordinary ways I can imagine.

I need to learn how to make room for a few and begin to share a life together. I need to learn how starting with what is tangible (our homes, our food, our belongings) often leads to sharing that which is kept hidden (our frustrations, our hurts, our beliefs and our weaknesses).

I think it’s quite possible to just ditch the step by step plan, the name, the twitter handle and the 7.30pm start and just make a sincere promise to show up. In countless ways we could learn to make ourselves available, a presence that reliably shows up in each other’s lives.

What if my only agenda was to bring the Kingdom a little closer? What if it looked like a phonecall, a text to say I’m holding space for your kid today, an offer to walk to the park, an invite to pray in my kitchen? What if in order to make community a reality I have to do the same small ordinary things again and again and again? Can I do this?

I recognise the urge to rush it, define it, organise it and manipulate it into something I feel would be bigger and more significant. I resist that. I’m honest about a hope for future commitment and sacrifice but really, I just begin with love and invitation, genuine care and welcome.

Sharing lives with a few has taught me that hospitality is not so much fluffing up the cushions and baking a cake as it is opening the front door and saying ‘How are you? Come on in.’ I have discovered the gift is not actually found in my tidy house but in paying attention and providing a space to belong to each other, for however long it’s needed.

Because the truth is- it’s not about having answers but rather walking together as we ask the questions. It’s about softness and space and depth.

And let’s agree that usually something powerful takes place when we genuinely ask, ‘What’s your story?’  Because it’s rarely the one on Instagram or Facebook. When we begin to sift the perfectly uploaded images from reality it feels really good.

Perhaps it is only then that we can pull each other into hope and redemption.

Ordinary faithfulness is the stuff of miracles.

What if a beautifully changed heart was the indicator of growth we chased?

What if we swam upstream and let go of the big and the noticeable?

What if we were okay with remaining under the radar? What if small and slow and unknown became marvellous? What if it gave way to a sense of belonging that allowed true change and growth to become a reality in our lives?

And I wonder then, as we faithfully shared in something very ordinary with a few, would we crazily begin to feel part of something bigger with many?

Would building community and finding a sense of belonging be something you and I and everyone showed up for and became excited about?

*

I’ve been reading a lot of Brene Brown recently. In fact, I am a little bit in love with her. She says it’s not so much what we know but who we are that counts. And that being rather than knowing requires that we show up and let ourselves be seen. I think then, that building community might be something all of us can be a part of, not because of what we know or what we do but just because of who we are – not master builders or specials, not even experts or innovatives, just ordinary people who need other ordinary people to faithfully show up for them in the most ordinary ways.

Perhaps that is the stuff of miracles.

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Courage to savour the small

Today, we woke to the sound of slaps and screeches as my kids started to beat each other at 7am.

Noah ‘washed his windows’ with teeny tiny stringy bits of sopping wet toilet roll.

I straightned my hair and found clumps of raspberry jam in it.

I spent a wee while scraping bits of yellow playdoh in or out (I’m still not sure which) of the light brown carpet in the kid’s bedroom.

I answered this. ‘Mummy, what’s a b*tch?’

And this. ‘What’s puberty anyway?’

I felt the madness that is two kids kicking off at the same time in my face.

I lit four nice smelly candles all around our house. And it still smells gross.

I brushed the floor on three separate occasions. And I’m still finding bits of flaky pastry from our sausage roll extravaganza.

Only once did I go to the loo, by myself.

I changed my top three times because Poppy has a cold which means my shoulder has a contant stream of snot all over it.

I reached for my toothbrush and found it completely covered in bright blue, bubblegum flavoured ‘Thomas the Tank’ toothpaste.

At bedtime my husband glanced at me and said – ‘What’s up? ‘

And I wanted to give him the worst Chinese burn imaginable.

All that to say I’ve been thinking about a holiday. I’ve been thinking how to make it a really good one- and by good  I actually mean big and expensive. My kids have never asked for this – they think Barry’s in Portrush is ‘so cool’. But there’s a part of me slightly concerned about the memories and the things they’ll talk about in ten years time.

Surely it’s got to be big if it’s going to stick at all, right?

Like, it’s got to be epic?

It doesn’t help that everywhere I look consumer culture is telling me that in order to make those great memories I must spend an obscene amount of money. The best holiday is the biggest. The best is the furthest, the wildest, the hottest!

And then I hear the kids next door are going to Boston for three weeks and I feel a little bit deflated. Because they’re off to make themselves some cracker memories, while we stay at home listening to Barra Best telling us there’s more rain on the way…

In contrast to all of this, in the evenings I am sloooowly making my way through this book called Organized Simplicity. The author Tsh Oxenreider talks a lot about the small stuff. She says we tend to miss the value of the small in all of the craziness. In fact, the craziness is so all-consuming that we book two weeks off in the summer and cram in all the best big stuff we can. We overspend, we squeeze in the quality time, we get away from the madness in a bid to slow down for a fortnight in the south of France.

And she suggests the actual things our kids will cherish and take to their hearts are the everyday little things –

What we all want and need – children and adults alike – is a full life, one dripping with meaning and richness. That richness comes from savouring the everyday, from having enough time and sanity to notice the meaningful moments when they appear and enjoy them as they linger.

And I think she is onto something.

Because I don’t really remember anything particularly extravagant growing up, do you?  When I think about my childhood what comes to mind is my mum and dad and well, just us being together! Watching videos and having dinner, playing board games, enjoying trips to Portrush, baking and learning to knit!

So, nothing remotely wild, adventurous or expensive! But I had a perfectly lovely childhood with plenty of great memories to cherish.

Perhaps I just need to chill out about the epic proportions of our holiday. I mean, I salute the big, of course I do. Big can be great and if we ever make it to Disney some decent memories will definitely be made!

But it seems the real value is not really held in the cost or size of what we do. The real value is actually just found in the togetherness, the time spent being present wherever we are and cherishing that as a gift.

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Because my kids really love the garden, they love to play games, read stories, go for ice cream, get the paddling pool out, hunt for bugs, make hot chocolates and pink milk. They enjoy blowing bubbles and making dens and putting up tents inside the house! They go nuts for hide and seek or duck duck goose. They love the swimmers. They love the snow. They love to dance and bake and paint.

None of it is hugely exciting or money guzzling. Most of it is pretty small and simple. All of it is glorious and beautiful.

But my tendency is to frantically rush through these glorious days with a two week window set aside for the ‘memory making’. There’s a very real possibility, that in a bid to do more, I may actually miss the very essence of life that is a gift to me and those I share it with.

I want to listen and notice. I long to relish the small and pursue a different rhythm to that of the culture I am part of. But time is a big issue and life is often lived with such exhausting urgency that this stuff feels out of reach.

And it’s probably easier to be passive and just pretend I am helpless, stuck in a culture that speeds right on past the small. Stuck in a culture that says do more, buy more and figure it all out some other time. A culture that doesn’t allow any time to honour or savour the small.

It’s probably easier to just do nothing. Because looking closer and addressing boundaries and my priorities is likely to bring change. And change can be hard work. Thinking can be hard work!

But I’m made for much more than busyness and stuff. God has called me to a life of wholeness, meaning and love with Him and with others. Figuring out how to replace the lies of my culture with the truth of my Father is worth all the time I’ve got. Pursuing a lifestyle that cultivates room to breathe, to be still and to savour takes hard work and courage. But I think it is a wise investment.

And as I continually learn how to navigate this life of faith I choose to set my heart on Him, ask for His help, rely on His grace and pray…

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. (Serenity Prayer)

3 ways I found love right under my nose

What we do with our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.  Annie Dillard.

So we sat down on the floor in her living room, surrounded by change bags, babygyms and rattles and we talked. The playdate was long overdue and there was much easy chat about parenting, coping with tiredness, accepting the mess and being late. We chatted about plans for the summer and returning to work issues, good coffee machines, the trials of sibling rivalry and how on earth we make time for ourselves.

And it was so enjoyable. I think the joy was simply, but really significantly, in the conversation. Because a lot of the time we tend to catch up with a text message or a few lines in an email or on Facebook. And there is value and good in that connection. At times I am so grateful for it. But being face to face  with these women meant I couldn’t multitask,  I couldn’t click ‘like’ and move on, I couldn’t save the link for later. We were there to engage with each other, choosing to look each other in the eye, ask questions and stop long enough to wait for the response. And I literally felt life being breathed into my soul – something I rarely feel with social media. In that living room, I felt welcome and known and loved, with friends who were showing me what grace looks like in their world and inspiring me to show it in mine.

And so it’s a playdate at a mate’s house.

But it’s actually so much more than that.

*

It was nothing major. No plates had been thrown or words spat out in a rage. But we had sort of just……drifted. Lost in our own thoughts and busyness my husband and I had stopped communicating. It’s easy to do that with three little kids, friends and family, schedules, acquaintances, work and to-do lists all making crazy demands of us and consuming every fibre of our being. There isn’t a whole lot of time left for each other.

But there is some.

And we weren’t choosing to talk. We were choosing the other thing – a bath, Masterchef, Twitter, sleep, folding laundry, Modern Family, browsing Gumtree, Amazon, sleep!  And so for us, that particular Saturday night, love just looked like having a real conversation together. It was taking half an hour, sitting down and asking the questions that required an intentional, considered response. A little bit more than, ‘Can you buy some more nappies?’ and ‘Where is the key for the garage?’.

For a while, a period of time, my husband and I can definitely go without much conversation. We both have a dominant introverted side to our personalities, veering towards reflective. Which is fine, except sometimes we forget that real life is happening just a few feet away. I often get sucked into being really productive and independent with a tendency to think -who the heck needs to be known anyway?

I do.

I suspect a marriage void of conversation will flounder. And I really want mine to flourish. So it’s about cultivating that space for conversation and paying attention. It’s about not becoming so familiar that we forget the hard work of moving towards each other and listening.

And so it’s a married couple chatting on the sofa at the weekend.

But it is actually so much more than that.

*

It was Friday and we were at Mcdonalds for an end of term treat (?!) and it was totally packed. So I joined the queue and waited, as Noah bashed me over the head with his free balloon. We then had that slightly embarrassing situation of a full tray of food, two hungry over excited kids, but no empty tables. Not one. We did a couple of loops and then I made a desperate executive decision – ‘Come on guys, let’s just go outside and have our lunch okay?’.

So it’s March and it’s overcast and I lift them both up onto these oddly placed stools, squeezing out ketchup and opening Fruit Shoot bottles, thinking to myself – holy smokes,  it’s baltic out here.

But these two wee legends just get stuck in, they just accept that we’re all round the table and it’s fun to be outside and let’s just have a laugh mummy. I love that! I need more of that!  We chat about our favourite Easter eggs and how long five minutes actually is. We makes plans for Noah’s imminent 3rd birthday party and consider the size of his promised ‘Thomas’ birthday cake. We debate the size and shape and colour of each and every car that passes us at the drive-thru.

It was indeed cold, we were the only people brave (aka mad) enough to eat outside and my stool was most definitely wet – but this little half hour spent eating fries with my kids, just talking and loving life, was awesome!

And so it looks like a few crazies stuffing their faces beside a drive-thru.

But it is actually so much more than that.

*

Just now, for me, there are these moments that seem really small and insignificant. But in truth, they are the stuff. They make my heart beat a little bit faster. They are golden. Because whilst an incredible piece of technology in my hand brings me the world it also distracts me from what is right under my nose, it causes me to ignore the people sat round my table, the children on my sofa, the friends in my kitchen, the husband beside me, driving our car.

I don’t choose conversations and the face to face encounters as often as I used to. In fact, I am finding my inattention to the present is becoming a problem. I’m finding it easier to disconnect, to disengage, to tune out. I’m constantly wrestling with how to pay attention in an age of incessant distractions, stealing my focus and my time when I let them.

And so sometimes, the intentional offerings of love actually feel like a gift, like they should be recognised and embraced. And like all good gifts, they should be received with so much gratitude.

When all of the words are mine

It happened on an unusually sunny afternoon as Autumn and I were walking home from school. One of her little hands held mine and the other was clasped around Magic, her beloved pink unicorn. It accompanies us wherever we go. And it needs washed.

We were chatting breezily about our trampoline and how long it would be until she could wear socks to school and how a small k and a big K are so similar. You know, all of the things.

Then she started on about something that had happened in class. She’s five so there is always an anicdote or two to be heard on the way home from school. But this one seemed to have annoyed her a little bit. She was doing her best to explain but I cut in and said this;

‘Don’t worry about it Autumn, just say something to your teacher.

Did you eat all of your lunch?’

And we carried on down the path towards home.

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But later my mind took me back to that scene, that walk home with my daughter. I think she was trying to explain a situation that wasn’t quite right. I think she was trying to let me in on a little bit of her day and the part that went wrong.

But I got impatient.

I jumped in, dismissed her worry and solved the problem, in a few words.

And I do this a lot.

Because it takes time to understand their frustration or disappointment or questions. Listening well means I can’t get my agenda done, it means I can’t move on to the next thing.  Sometimes, it is so hard to slow down, be quiet and listen.

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And in my parenting class we had been learning about reflective listening. We had talked about waiting for our children to explain themselves rather than offering our quick advice and judgements.

I think on the surface, fixing their stuff in an instant feels really efficient and caring. As I stomp through the day I impart my hard won wisdom and knowledge, quickly putting out all the fires and with enough energy left to start into their homework.

But in truth, sometimes I miss out on the explanations, I miss out on the opportunities to have those important conversations.

What if I worked out a problem with my daughter instead of for her?

So can you tell me why this is making you sad?
Why do you think this keeps happening?
Can you think of some ideas that could help?
Would you like me to ask you about this again tomorrow?

This will take up a lot more of my time. This will cause me to engage my brain and my heart. But my daughter will feel more understood and valued. We’ll feel closer and more connected. It is so worth the investment!

And I guess in some ways I relate to God in a similar fashion -always rushing, hurried and constantly interrupting with my own ideas and solutions. I’m not prepared or ready to let Him show me something new or discover the truth He wants to share.

I’m hard wired to always have the answer, convey what I know and hear my own voice. I like having the control of my own story. Perhaps I don’t fully trust He has all the answers. Perhaps I am just so proud of all my accomplishments that I don’t think He is worth the investment of my time. Because listening is not about me, it’s about Him. And that’s tough. I much prefer the focus and the attention to be on me.

But I once read that humility is recognising what is real and living in light of that.

And for people like me, there’s a glimmer of hope in these words.

Because what is real is my need for God, my pride and my performance.

But what’s also real is his relentless love and pursuit of my heart.

And so I keep coming back to Him with my mess. And He keeps coming after me with His love. And this, I believe, is amazing grace.

Be so still inside that you can listen at every moment to what life is offering you. Brother David Steindl-Rast

I love to multi-task, but perhaps I need to put down my phone or my dishcloth or my armful of toys, look my daughter in the eye and say, ‘I’m listening’. I need to cultivate this in our family, it won’t come naturally. And similarly, I think God might be saying to me: Tory, put down all of your stuff and cultivate a heart that listens.

I love to speak and use all of the words. I love to be right. But I think God might be saying to me: Tory, hearing your own voice is not as important as listening for mine. 

‘Always, we begin again’

I haven’t slept all night in six months.

I know this because my baby daughter Poppy was six months old at the weekend. She’s perfectly lovely, in every way. Except, she’s not a sleeper.

I love this stage, this half a year old time. She’s just started solids, which my other two kids find hilarious and fascinating. I mean, who wouldn’t be amused by a face covered in peach goop and broccoli mush? And then there’s the Bumbo- a small rubber seat to keep Poppy upright as she surveys the world of our living room. Though, again, it actually provides more enjoyment for her siblings who take turns jamming themselves into it when watching TV.image

But still, despite the thrills and spills, I wait for the night when little Poppy will sleep longer than a few hours in one stretch. I know, I know, it’s probably teeth or she’s likely hungry or perhaps it’s a growth spurt or maybe she is cold! But actually, I think this wee one might just be a bit of a light sleeper. If I’m honest I don’t really care about the reason. I just want more kip. I wonder how that would make me feel? Simply glorious, I suspect.

There’s a pink Post-it note I stuck up above our kitchen sink. It reads, ‘ Always, we begin again.’ I recently read it in Micha Boyett’s Foundbut it’s taken from the Rule of St Benedict. Sometimes, standing at the sink I think -how can I be here again? Because I clean the dishes, I put them away. I set the table, I clear it away. I strap the kids into car seats and I unbuckle them out. I fill the bath, I empty it. I go get the bags of food, I put it all away, I make up the bottles, I rinse them again. I take off the dirty nappies, I put on fresh ones. I take off the dirty clothes, I put on clean ones. Many times. Everyday.image

But when I glance up at this note it reminds me there is something deeper to be found in the returning and the repeating. The Benedictine monks, they built their life around returning to work, to rest and to prayer. They wanted to find God in all of it.  And clearly, whilst I’m no monk, everyday I get to begin again. Reluctantly, I pull back the covers, I say a groggy hello to my children and I stumble, rush and often eeek my way through another day.

But I get another shot at doing the stuff and finding Him in the work, the rest and prayer.

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And miraculously, He comes again to me and says, ‘There is more for you today Tory- I’m going to stay with you, I’m going to be enough for you, in all of your mess and effort and bleary eyed busyness I’ve got stuff to show you, people I want you to love,  voices I want you to hear,  lessons I want you to learn. Begin again. Walk with me.’

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:22-23

A few weeks ago I started the simple discipline of trying to pray with the kids in the morning. Let me be clear, we do not sit in a circle, bow our heads and quietly say The Lord’s Prayer. In fact, this morning we were running late and prayed on the walk to school. As Noah stamped in the frozen puddles he declared, ‘Fank you God for cars and raisins’. Autumn, she’s a daddy’s girl and so she prayed ‘Look after Daddy riding his bike to the fire station’. And me, well the Arctic wind was blowing like razor blades on my hands as I gripped the buggy, so I prayed, ‘Thank you that Spring time is on its way and soon we won’t need boots or coats, Amen.’

And so, technique is not really that relevant to my kids. Or to me, actually.  I just want us to invite God into our day. To cultivate an awareness of His presence. Cherish it, invest in it.  And being intentional with prayer is a way we can begin to do that. Some days it’s in desperation for help, others it’s a discipline I know I need to practice. And sometimes I just clean forget to do it.

But, always, we begin again.