Happiness at the corner café

“No sir,” the 18th century poet Samuel Johnson once said, “there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness has been produced, as by a good tavern or inn.”

I am not a man of pubs, and I am not sure Mr Johnson would recognise the ‘taverns’ of today. Still, there is something in what he says that I feel about the café. A good café can produce a certain kind of happiness. I do not mean the overly stylised or pretentious ones that make the lists of ‘Melbourne’s best’. I mean the local café, the one where you go to be familiar, to drink coffee, to sit and think, to write or read, or talk with friends. I feel a happiness in such places that stands apart. Indeed, there are few places I would rather be.

A good café is a communal space, yet offering respite and solitude of a particular kind. It is public yet secure, familiar yet a place of strangers. The coffee is served by people who care. There is simple fare — breakfast and brunches and little cakes. You can sit for as long as you like with a jug of water to ease the time. It is not loud or overly busy, but a place of life. There might be music, but none you notice until you listen for it. There are gentle conversations going on in different corners while in others there is silence. You can watch and listen, or not. You can lose yourself for a bit while life treads by outside the window. You’ll re-join it soon, but for now you sit and sip, and breathe.

Some might say the idea of a café as a maker of happiness is an over-reach. True, happiness is a slippery, subjective thing. What one considers a state of happiness may be boredom to another. Happiness is commonly understood as a feeling, fleeting or seasonal, or for others an aspiration. Whatever it is, it is certainly not a right. Rather, it’s a gift that may, or may not, sit beneath things or tasks or conversations. For me, happiness is a certain peace, a connection, a sense of time and space, contentment and ease. It’s a place I need.

While such ease is challenged amidst chaotic lives, it is very much a choice we make within them. A café is a venue of such choice, a holder of a particular happiness into which we can slip from time to time.

So, I’ll skip your taverns, Mr Johnston, but I’ll take my seat at the café table anytime.

Written at The Social Foundry, Kyneton, a social enterprise café that ticks all the boxes. The image above is of Ricardo Balaca’s El café (1844-1880)

Walking as a Spiritual Practice

The following is an extract from the book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life. At the conclusion of a chapter on neighbourhood, I offer this brief reflection on walking as a spiritually formative practice. What I have particularly in mind is walking where you live, but it applies more generally too.

You might give it a try!

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I like to walk. I walk to work. I walk around our local park for exercise, and to local cafés and bookshops. Wherever I can, I walk to meetings and pastoral appointments. Not long ago my beloved downloaded an app to my phone that tells me how many steps I’ve taken each day, how far I’ve walked in total, even how many flights of stairs I’ve climbed. The daily tally of numbers is extraordinary. That said, apart from adding to my sense of virtue in the late evening before I slice off another piece of cheese, I am hard pressed to find a connection between this and the wellbeing of my spirit. If walking is a spiritual practice, there has to be more to it than this. 

In reality, walking is about the slowest form of movement we can imagine. For the philosopher Frédéric Gros, “walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.” It is certainly not preferred by the driven or the busy; walking stands resolutely apart from things that propel. Commonly it’s the priorities of productivity and efficiency that overrule walking as dead or wasted time. Even the term pedestrian reeks of the dull and unmotivated. Regardless, the act of walking remains a very human one. It is an act of the spirit. For as long as human beings have inhabited this earth walking has been an act of longing and aspiration: we have walked to find home; we have walked in spiritual pilgrimage; we have walked to celebrate, to protest, and to commemorate; we have walked as a form of rest and recreation, and in pursuit of better health; we have walked to discover new worlds, to conquer new heights, and even to pray. 

Sadly, the commitment to walking is in decline. The head of Australia’s Pedestrian Council has said, “While it took human beings a million years to learn how to walk, it’s taken only fifty to forget.” Cars and boats and planes and trains have all promised, even delivered, a much more speedy arrival, as if arrival is the only good. The worth of walking is found in others things. It is not a practice of productivity, not even of transition, but one of presence. 

Jesus walked. He walked his way into people’s lives. He walked into deserts and through towns, between villages and around lakes. He walked up hillsides, down laneways, and across fields. He walked into graveyards and by wells, in neighborhoods, and through temples. He walked alone and with others. He walked to his own death and away from his own grave. He even walked on water. And for what purpose? The writer Barbara Brown Taylor believes it was critical to his impact. Walking gave Jesus time to see things, she writes, “like the milky eyes of a beggar sitting by the side of the road, or the round black eyes of sparrows sitting in their cages at the market.” Indeed, if he had moved at a faster pace—on horseback, camel, car or bus—it might all have been a blur. Instead, he walked. 

For me, it’s walking in my neighborhood that comes closest to a spiritual practice. It’s something I choose to do at night once dinner is sorted and other commitments have been met. It’s a routine that brings my day to a quiet end, like a plodding benediction. It’s a kind of walking that has no sense of destination and no purpose other than the walking itself; yet there is a sense of place and belonging that comes with it. As a spiritual act, neighborhood walking is many things: it’s a routine act of intention; it’s a choice to be present; it’s an acknowledgement of community and place; and it’s a daily stride of contemplation. In all of this, walking is a prime candidate for a spiritual discipline. 

To embrace walking as a spiritual practice, most especially where we live, is to engage with the practice routinely and intentionally as one of faith. 

1. Walking for Awareness

If we want to see our neighborhoods, to truly inhabit them in the way that Annie Dillard inhabited her precious Tinker Creek, there’s nothing like walking them. Walking is an act of awareness, a way of seeing, noticing, and being present to where we live. It’s an immediate thing, very here and now. I can’t walk my neighborhood and not be present to it. When I walk its streets I feel it and smell it. As I put one foot in front of the other, the neighborhood’s contours become my own. 

When I drive through my neighborhood, my destination is elsewhere. I am focused on the most efficient way in or out. I don’t see it. When I walk my neighborhood I am aware of it. I notice the individual homes, the front doors and windows. I notice the little signs of life and those of struggle. I see the unkempt lawns beside those that are neat. I see the graffiti and the trash cans alongside the mail boxes and garden beds. At night, I can see the flickering glow of televisions through curtained windows and the momentary glimpses of life within. When I walk it, I can no longer ignore this place of mine. I see it as a human place, a place of God.

Writing in the 1930s, the Jewish philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin described his youthful wanderings in the center of Paris. He suggested that to get lost in a city as a failure of navigation is nothing more than ignorance; but to lose oneself in a city “as one gets lost in a forest” is an entirely different matter. 

“Then signboards and street names, passers-by, kiosks, or bars must speak to the wanderer like a crackling twig under his feet, like the startling call of a bittern in the distance, like the sudden stillness of a clearing with a lily standing erect at its centre. Paris taught me this art of straying. It fulfilled a dream that had shown its first traces in the labyrinths on the blotting pages of my school exercise books.”

There is something about this “art of straying” that is key to walking in the neighborhood. It’s about listening to its sounds, learning to interpret its sights and smells, and better understanding its pulse as a living organism. Such a practice takes time and the routine discipline of walking. It can be done alone or in company. Either way, it is a pathway to awareness. 

2. Walking for Belonging 

“When you give yourself to places,” Rebecca Solnit writes, “they give you yourself back.” It is in walking that we give ourselves to our neighborhood. We walk ourselves into its story. By walking its streets and laneways we physically insert ourselves into it over and over again. In return, the neighborhood opens itself up to us and we become more consciously a part of it. 

Neighborhoods are not large. In fact, by definition neighborhoods are defined by their proximity. In leading groups of people to think about their neighborhoods, I invite them into a simple exercise. I begin by giving each one a large blank sheet of paper. I then ask them to draw a thumb-sized picture of their own home in the center. It may be a stand-alone house, an apartment block, or something different. Whatever shape it takes, I ask them to represent it on the paper. Next I ask them to map out around it the streets and laneways of the neighborhood. “Imagine you take a walk around the streets that surround your home, just five minutes in each direction,” I say, “what streets would you walk? What landmarks, shops, public buildings, or parks would you pass?” Once they have the neighborhood mapped out, I then ask them to identify all of the points of human connection they have on the map. It may be with the neighbor across the street or on the floor below. It might be the person at the corner store from whom you buy milk, the man who walks his dog in the same park, a café proprietor or a teacher at the local school. The only proviso is that the contact is within walking distance and on your map. For each of these connections I ask participants to add a smiley face to the page. Some pages are filled with smiley faces, and others have just a few. Regardless, they are always there. 

Walking the neighborhood is a discipline of both noticing and belonging. The more we notice the more we belong. We give ourselves to our neighborhoods when we walk them. We do it again and again, and in time, we find a sense of place and belonging takes root. In Solnit’s words:

“Walking is only the beginning of citizenship, but through it the citizen knows his or her city and fellow citizens and truly inhabits the city rather than a small privatized part thereof. Walking the streets is what links up reading the map with living one’s life, the personal microcosm with the public macrocosm, it makes sense of the maze all around.”

3. Walking for Contemplation

The Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a walker. “Never did I think so much, exist so vividly, and experience so much,” he wrote in the eighteenth century, “never have I been so much myself . . . as in the journeys I have taken . . . on foot.” Sadly, we often think of contemplation as an act of zoning out, of freeing our minds from the constraints of where we are to inhabit a higher plane of zen-like meditation. This was not the case for Rousseau. What’s more, it’s a misunderstanding of contemplation’s gift. 

As I have said in a previous chapter, to contemplate is to look deeply into life in order to discern its truth. The life into which we look is the life around us, its objects, contexts, routines, and encounters. We do so assuming that life’s sacredness is immediate, not far off. When we walk, we open our minds to this possibility. We are consciously on the lookout for the life and truth of God. 

Granted, the neighborhood is not the first place we think of when it comes to “the beauty of holiness” and all things God. Perhaps walking amongst mountains, along rugged coastlines, or down country lanes has more an air of the Spirit. Writers like the nineteenth-century Henry David Thoreau influenced a generation to see the act of walking in the natural world as one of great virtue. Walks in the neighborhood are a harder sell. There are not many neighborhoods in our cities and suburbs that allow the natural world to preside. Neighborhoods are constructed places, more full of concrete and asphalt than of grasslands and creek beds. Yet the fact remains, they are the place of our lives. In Mackay’s words, our neighborhoods and suburbs are the places “where most poems are written, most cups of sugar borrowed, most flowers grown, most dreams fulfilled, most passions stirred . . .” As with our homes, neighborhoods are filled with the life we bring to them. Over time we fill them with this life and they become immeasurably more than a random collection of sleeping pods. They play host to the evolving truth of our stories. In walking, we open our ears to hear them.

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Depending on where you are, you can purchase the book in a number for places.

If you are in Australia, the best place to go is the local distributor Morning Star Publishing. You can also order it through Book Depository.

If you are in the US, you can order directly through Wipf & Stock, Amazon or ChristianBooks.

 

 

Tim Foster and the ‘burbs

FosterCover_Catalogue_Screen_WithBorder-180x273When there’s ‘bugger all’ on the bookshelf that addresses the unique challenges of Australia’s urban and suburban neighbourhoods for the mission of the church, the arrival of a book like Tim Foster’s The Suburban Captivity of the Church is worth cheering for.

Books like this one flow in a steady torrent from North America, but the cultural differences are vast. Given that we are among the most urbanised societies on earth and take first place in the propagation of suburbia, it’s always frustrating to me that we’re content to let the thoughtful missiology of other places set the agenda for us to the extent it does.

Tim is an Anglican minister who currently shares in the leadership of Melbourne’s Ridley College. His book arises out of his own transitions in ministry, from the leafy surrounds of Sydney’s middle suburbs to the cultural and social diversity of the inner city. With this move comes the challenge of understanding the nature of ‘the good news’ in a community whose values and perspectives on the world contrast so starkly with those of the near but distant ‘burbs. Given how much the values of suburbia have shaped the church’s understanding of the gospel, Tim makes the case that we are pressed ever more urgently to the work of contextualization.

In part, I would think, the test of a good book it that it spurs a reaction. Tim’s book does this for me. Though we have never met, I have a suspicion that Tim and I might have some theological differences. Perhaps Tim has a clearer sense of the gospel as ‘a message’ — a clearly defined and methodically presented outline of truths —than I do. The book is written in two parts. As helpful as Part 1 might be, I came to the end of it feeling as though Tim’s priority on a right ‘understanding’ of the gospel message and a better ‘presentation’ of its truths was not one I could embrace with enthusiasm. To be honest (and probably unfair), his alternative readings of ‘the gospel’ left me feeling as though those ‘four spiritual laws’ were hovering ominously in the background.

That said, Part 2 was more engaging read. Tim’s attempts at exegeting the cultures of the inner city ‘yuppies,’ ‘hipsters’ and ‘battlers’ (among others), points the reader to the importance of taking our contexts and communities as seriously as we do our sacred texts. What’s more, it’s here that Tim looks for ‘gospel themes’ that emerge from this engagement. There is much here that is challenging for an urban pastor like me. I would only long for a more sustained engagement that Tim can provide here.

As someone who attempts to write about similar issues, I commend Tim for the book. If it helps practitioners like me to engage more intentionally and intelligently with our own neighbourhoods, and from a distinctly local perspective, then it has served us well.

Tim-Website_370x370Tim Foster, The Suburban Captivity of the Church: Contextualising the Gospel for Post-Christian Australia, Moreland: Acorn Press, 2014.

No Home Like Place

NHLP-coverJust two months ago the book No Home Like Place:  A Christian Theology of Place was launched. The work of Canadian scholar of Christian mission and formation Leonard Hjalmarson, it’s a book worth commending.

Though I have never met the author in person, I have long admired Len’s voice in  significant conversations on the nature of Christian mission and the role of the local church.  His early books — including Missional Spirituality and An Emerging Dictionary of Gospel and Culture — have been thoughtful  contributions to my own thinking, so when asked to add some words of endorsement to this one, it was an easy ‘yes’.

Here’s what I said:

‘There are many of us in places far and wide, practitioners seeking to live God’s call to the neighbourhood. We are committed to the most local expressions of discipleship because we have a gut sense that place matters to God and to the nature of Christian mission. What Len provides in this book a wonderful resource to those of us committed to the neighbourhood, a cogent, carefully researched and sensitively written theology of place that will sustain and strengthen our commitments.’

There are many more notable responses to the book,  some of which you can find here. I can only assure you that for those committed to deepening the church’s most local commitments to mission, this is a book worth reading.

‘The New Parish’: a book worth reading

Some time back I was asked to endorse the book The New Parish: How Neighbourhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Dwight J. Friesen. It was one of those times when a ‘yes’ was easy.

book-image12I’ve followed the ministry of these three from afar for some time. The growing influence of their Parish Collective in calling the North American church to rediscover its local identity has been significant. Back when my own God Next Door came out, I was heartened to hear stories from people far and wide who were similarly passionate about the neighbourhood identity of the church and the renewal of rootedness in local place and community at the heart of  Christian mission.  Sparks, Soerens and Friesen were three of those.

My own words of endorsement were these:

‘The New Parish is a gift to church leaders like me. Though the authors challenge the most fundamental understandings of the church’s mission and its presence in the neighborhood, they do so as practitioners deeply invested in its flourishing. This book sets out a challenging agenda for the local church, but with such encouragement and hope that one is left in no doubt that the challenge is within reach. In fact, it’s right outside our front doors.’

But you don’t need to take my word for it. Others of far greater insight have said much more. I certainly recommend it to anyone seeking to better understand the mission of the church in our day and the distinctive impact that genuinely local communities of faith can have on the wider city and, indeed, the world.

There’s an introductory PDF here, including excerpts from the first chapter.  And you can purchase the book here.

 

A Neighbourhood Tapestry

I love this tapestry.

It hangs just outside the La Trobe Reading Room in Melbourne’s State Library and each time I walk down the stairs I admire it. Not only are the colours striking, but it’s this beautiful representation of my own neghbourhood. It says so much more eloquently than I can manage in words what I feel about where I live.

Though my few blocks of the CBD are so far from the images of suburban neighbourhood—the sort of community in which I was raised—it’s still a neighbourhood, a place full of residential memory, story and life. The longer one lives in a place like this the more one comes to know that life. This tapestry celebrates that fact. There’s a richness to it that the ‘weaving’ both represents and embodies. It’s beautiful.

Title: Spring Street End
Design: indigenous artist Ben McKeown
Weavers: Pamela Joyce, Milly Formby and Emma Sulzer (2010/11)
Description: ‘It represents a reimagining of the Spring Street end of Robert Hoddle’s grid plan for the streets of Melbourne.’

Home: An Australian Dream?

I feel like a grump.  An urban grouch.

Here I am sitting in my city apartment, listening to the happy sound of empty bottles being dumped into the industrial bins below my bedroom window and wondering why on earth people would chose to live anywhere else. I like it here.  The city centre has been my neighbourhood for a long time now.  Though I am a product of suburbia, I can no longer imagine it as a place to live.  Home is here, tucked in at the corner of Russell and Flinders.

Apparently, though, I shouldn’t be so content. As a dweller, I’m abnormal. Marginal. Out of step with real Australia.  Here in the most ‘relentlessly suburban’ nation on earth, my residential ideal should include ‘the buzz of bees, the sweet smell of mown grass and children playing in the garden with a dog yapping at their heels.’  Because it doesn’t, I am dismissed as one of those central city elites, the ‘affluent minority’ that knows nothing of the aspirations of ordinary Australians.  There is, apparently, a stark social divide, and here I am standing on the wrong side of the fence.

You think? Really?

I’ve just finished reading the beautifully produced book Home–Evolution of the Australian Dream: An Illustrated Review of Housing in Australia.  Written by three notable architects / urban planners, it’s an exploration of the ‘dwelling’ as the basic element of our cities.  As such, it presents an interesting picture of residential life in Australia and its overwhelmingly suburban forms.  Further, it highlights the challenges we face in meeting the ever-increasing demand for housing across the nation.

I am grumpy, but not because this is a bad book.  Granted, it’s not as revelatory as I had hoped when I first saw it, but I bow down to the combined expertise of these three voices, most especially for their insightful review of the history of housing types in Oz.   I am grumpy because, yet again, I feel as though my own housing choice is treated as some sort of apparition, and one that illustrates a cultural divide rather than a legitimate alternative for healthy neighbourhood living.

It’s true: the authors don’t intend to do this.  In fact, they argue for accepting a range of housing choices in Australia, but along the way the ‘normalisation’ of suburbia leaves all other choices somehow marginal or insignificant when seeking to understand Australian residential culture.  In my view, it’s the diversity that is much more telling about the health and well-being of our cities than the normalising of one housing type over all.  The truth is, while city apartment living may still be a minority choice, the staggering growth of residential life in Melbourne’s heart over the past two decades is nothing short of extraordinary.  This is opportunity, not apparition.

And as for that ‘affluent minority’ that calls the city home … I can only say the writers really should get out more!

 

There goes the neighbourhood!

A few weeks back I told the story of Samuel Pearce Carey, the 5th pastor of Collins Street. Carey arrived at the church at the turn of the 20th century, a time of extraordinary social change. As the 1900s kicked into gear, Melbourne’s suburban development was gathering speed, soon to be an unstoppable force in the city’s rapid growth. While Collins Street may have began in the 1800s as a local parish church—its members walking to worship from the surrounding neighbourhood—a serious makeover of its identity was now vital to its future.

There was no end of advice for Carey and his deacons as they stared down this challenge of demographic change. The national publication for Australian Baptists, The Southern Baptist, detailed Collins Street’s challenge: ‘How does one get in touch with the community when there is no community to touch?’ The answer, the editorial concluded, was in the drawing power of the church’s pulpit.

For decades to come, it was this strategy that Collins Street embraced and with considerable success. Though it would never again reach the heights of membership it knew in the previous century, Collins Street remained a bastion of fine preaching and traditional Baptist worship, a combination that drew people from the suburbs in significant numbers. Its metropolitan identity—a church of broad horizons—was mirrored in the ministry of the other city churches facing precisely the same challenge.

What’s fascinating is that the turn of the 21st century has witnessed an equally radical change in the city’s demographic, but this time in reverse. While in the late 1980s there were just 700 people living in the CBD, today there are more than 20,000. Add to this the burgeoning populations of Southbank and Docklands and we once again have a city with a thriving residential life. What’s more, this growth shows no sign of slowing. Just last week The Age reported that while new home approvals across the state have plunged 25% in the last year, approvals in inner Melbourne have almost doubled, that’s more than 5000 new homes in the CBD, Docklands and Southbank in the last 12 months. The city now claims 10% of Victoria’s new homes approvals. The most recent projections estimate a CBD population of some 50,000 people in the next 20 years.

It seems to me that the challenge for a church like Collins Street is one of identity. Who are we and what do we aspire to be into the future? No doubt, a central city church like ours will always retain a metropolitan aspect to its ministry. But increasingly we must rediscover our parish identity—that most local sense of connection to our neighbourhood as it is today. For us, it’s a process that’s already begun, but an evolving sense of self is always challenging for a community. What do we hold onto and what do we let go? It was a challenge Carey faced a century ago. Now the challenge is ours.

Gardens & Suburbia

I don’t have a backyard. Nor do I want one. Not for me the blokey back shed and the weekly round with the lawn mower. No, my sixth floor city balcony suits me just fine. But from the reaction of friends and acquaintances, I’m routinely reminded that my housing choice, while fascinating to some, is viewed with narrow-eyed suspicion by others. Inner-city vertical neighbourhoods like mine may well have sprouted left, right and centre, but they’re still marginal. As cultural commentator Bernard Salt says, the backyard barbecue is still ‘the main game’ when it comes to understanding mainstream Australia.

It’s true. Suburbia’s mythological ‘quarter acre block’ continues to host some of our deepest and most ingrained social longings. Though recent versions may well have shrunk, the suburban backyard is still gathered up in our cultural expectations of the good and decent life.

A great read on all of this is Peter Timm’s Australia’s Quarter Acre: The Story of the Ordinary Suburban Garden.  It’s been out for a few years now, but it remains a fascinating defense of the suburban backyard at a time when suburbia and its sprawl is under considerable attack. Timms wants to say that while there is much to be critiqued about contemporary suburban forms, there is much about the suburban garden that is worth maintaining.

Timms begins by tracing the origins of our infatuation with the suburban block and the numerous ways we’ve invested meaning in it. Through both backyard and front, Timms traces the subsequent changes to the Australian way of life and the ways we function privately and communally. He argues that despite the changes, our suburban gardens are still embedded with values important to what’s good about our way of life. Along the way he calls into question ‘the homogenising, rationalist approach to urban consolidation’ that, he says, ‘fails to take into account the subtleties and varieties of human experience’ embodied in the backyard.

It’s evident Timms does not have much respect for apartment dwellers like me. Nor much hope. He is critical of the move to consolidation and bemoans the local development of ‘the sort of housing estates that blight the outskirts of Seoul and Beijing, where thousands of identical high-rise apartment blocks line up in military formation … and where one’s only contact with the natural world is a half-dead ficus in a plastic tub on the balcony.’

While my ficus is doing quite nicely thank you, I am happy to concede that Timms main argument is not really to do with me or my balcony. In the end, Timms is a great believer in what the suburban garden represents. He grieves the gradual internalizing of suburban life as residents retreat within, primping their gardens only as displays of status or expressions of urban lifestyle.

Timms calls politicians, architects and urban planners to take suburbia more seriously as an environment to be nurtured for the best that it can be rather than simply a ‘plague’ that has to be stopped. Given that it now covers some 70,000 square kilometres Australia wide and shows no sign of abating, ‘perhaps it is time we started to treat suburbia as something more than the vast accumulation of little private Edens spreading like a plague, and to realize [its] environmental and productive potential.’

All in all, this is a fine book. If you have any interest at all in gardens, suburbia, or even a potted ficus, this one’s worth a read.