That Sunday feeling

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So many things have come to mind this weekend. Inspired by lunch with friends, talks on iPods, training courses and pints from barmen. This being a blog, and therefore a place for dumping, all I want to say at the moment is that life is exciting, but its execution a little more messy.

Suffice it to say (and what a great opportunity to use that phrase) I am still tired but find myself motivated. I will look to my state of mind tomorrow with interest. Is it possible to take a Monday morning by the proverbial horns, or will its very being subsume the excitement I feel right now?

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Needing some down time

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In hind sight it was naive of me to imagine that I’d be able to remain vigilant and studious for any great length of time. I have been tired for a while and it’s becoming more acute by the day…. since days off aren’t currently a choice and my work isn’t flexible about office hours, I have taken my down time on the train. Escaping into one Terry Pratchett after another. I could defend myself by saying that he is arguably a more insightful theologian than many others with publishing contracts, but I’m too tired.

Instead I find myself wondering what a preaching vicar might think about down time in Christian life. Is there space for it and how would it look?

The kindness of strangers

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This morning we were a little early to the platform and my flatmate spotted a Puccino’s across the tracks. We threw each other a cheeky grin and tripped gaily to the coffee booth. However, when we got there I opened my wallet and realised I had no more than 50p on me, at the same time as my flatmate realised she had only just enough for her cup of tea. We’d already both put an order in so I cancelled my coffee as she said “We’ll share the tea…” taking time out for a few jokes about sucking at the tea bag and stealing extra milk.

A few seconds later the couple that had just left with their own drinks popped a hand back through the door holding a fiver, saying “Give the guys the change; everyone needs a coffee in the morning.”

I was stunned. My flatmate was stunned. The hand disappeared and we both sang out a thank you, amazed by such a random act of generosity.

Well, I bought the coffee and ran after the lovely couple to say thank you again, proffering my card with the words: “If you ever need anything recycled…” They both laughed and continued down the platform. The guys working at Puccino’s were delighted with the large tip, and all six of us involved in the experience had smiles on our faces.

My flatmate and I discussed the whole event at length making reference to Karma, Marcel Mauss, human capacity for kindness and ultimately what a lovely thing to have happened on an unseasonably cold Friday morning.

Writing here now though, I am made aware of the possibilities for community on a commute, or at stations along your commute. A coffee for a stranger and a tip for the baristas led to more goodwill than the same amount of money would have done in the cup of a beggar at Old Street station. I know this because I have often given my change to the various guys who sit at Exit 2, and apart from one occasion where a charming man called Antony introduced me to his dog, there is rarely a shared moment; if anything it emphasises the differences between us.

On the station this morning there was a shared understanding. The generous stranger’s words, “everyone needs a coffee in the morning” I guess made some kind of reference to our similar situation (both clearly earning, both making the trudge to work). It wasn’t charity, so much as a gesture of goodwill…

I don’t know. Maybe I should have said “oh no, give this money to charity” and not had my coffee. Or even say thank you, not had a coffee and then tried to choose between the 100,000 worthy charities in this country for a recipient of the cash. Except that this woman had chosen to use her money in this way. Would it have been rude of me to pass judgement on this and reject her kindness?

It is so easy as a “good Christian” to feel guilty about this, but I don’t believe that I need to. In relationships and in communities and in the wider society there needs to be a balance of give and take, there needs to be a dynamic. This morning my kind stranger recognised a fellow commuter in need of a coffee. I feel there’s a lot to learn from that.

A time to wait (part 2)

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One of the reasons I originally mentioned waiting during my commute, as the public transport system was inefficient around me, is the experience I have had of Africa time.

If you have ever spent time in an African country – real time, not some 3 week ‘experience’ offered by an ethical agency with access to plumbing and the internet – then you will know the politics and social discourse become more complicated as time goes on. After 1 month in South Africa, I was an expert. After 6 I had a bare-knuckle grasp. My Dad went to Rwanda this year and he came back with more questions than answers. One answer, however, he did discover: the meaning behind ‘Africa time’.

Very good friends of my parents (and mine, I suppose, although the age difference always makes use of the ‘f’ word more difficult) are doctors in my home town and Nigerian by descent. Professional and excellent at their jobs, they are physically incapable of arriving at a home group barbeque or prayer meeting on time. We compensate by telling them it starts 2 hours ahead, but even then they will barely scrape a fashionable entrance. They have always referred to ‘Africa time’ as their excuse, which we adopt with that love of the ethnic that white people embrace so readily, but it had not represented anything more than their cultural difference in the face of our need for punctuality.

However, in African countries, and many others, there is an ethos of travel that makes time for passing friendship and acquaintance. On one occasion in Kigali, my Dad was walking with a new friend to a church meeting, and as they proceeded through the town this man would stop and talk with friends of his on their way. Rather than wave a feeble hand and make some generic gesture of impatience, as one might do in London, this man took time to ask of their welfare and exchange pleasantries: a simple hello here or an extended conversation there.

By the time they reached the meeting, they were nearly an hour late. My Dad, in his Western sophistication, felt guilty and embarrassed by this, but there were no reprisals. They took their place and were greeted with smiles of welcome as the speaker continued. Had they been cornered later, no doubt the Rwandans in the room would have simply asked after the people they’d met.

‘Africa time’ is not a disrespect for agenda but rather a recognition that some things are more important.

Recently at the ticket barriers at London Bridge I bumped into an old colleague, coincidentally a Nigerian as well. We had a quick hello and once the initial pleasantries were over, I bustled down the escalator to the underground.

It should perhaps have come as no surprise when he phoned me at work later that day to continue the conversation from pleasantries to real connection. I had been unable to wait, to take time out of my supposedly frantic commute, and reconnect with my former colleague; my friend.

Since then I have found myself hoping to bump into people I know, desperate to see whether I can throw my schedule to the wind in the face of human interaction…

A time to talk

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I took the train with my flatmate on Tuesday morning. We chatted, as only two women can, oblivious to the quiet carriage around us. Or perhaps talking that tiny bit louder to fill the echoing space.

I wonder what other people in the carriage make of it. When I’m on my own and there are people chatting away, I can’t help but listen in . And judge them – their topic of conversation, the quality of their jokes, the situations they’re in (oh how tempting it is to wade in with an opinion). So of course I expect people to be judging me and my friend as we talk.

I’m sure the Heisenberg principle must apply to commuter conversations. In the same way we talk louder to fill the strange silence that a collective of people not speaking creates, perhaps our topic of conversations are a little more controversial, our laughs that little more brittle.

Hang on, a quick moment of web-based research has turned my casual reference to Heisenberg on its head: it is not that a thing observed is somehow changed through being observed, but rather that the observer becomes part of the observed reality through the act of measurement and observation.

That has given me pause for thought… but then I think this is what I was expecting: a nascent understanding of myself as commuter, and my own conversion to something (who knows what) through observing my fellow commuters.

Commuter SM (Second Monday)

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Another Monday and another talk. This time Brian McLaren who was Praying Naked and assured me at Track 1 that I was missing nothing by merely listening later. His confidence might suggest otherwise…

What, I can’t stray towards smut because he’s a respected Christian speaker?

At the beginning of his talk he invited listeners to join him in the Lord’s Prayer. This variation being that he would sing a line on one note and the audience sing it back, ascend another four notes per line, then process back down. He invited people to sing in thirds (or ninths, which confused me somewhat) and around North Dulwich I found my eyes welling with tears hearing several hundred people singing in simple harmony: “Our Father, above us and all around us.”

Whether it was the challenge to this ex-choir girl to find a harmony, or the abiding sense of communal spirit that still lingered in this mp3, I tried to sing along under my breath, but was stopped short by the full carriage of people around me.

I was reminded again of the man who had so loudly chattered away on his phone last week, like a seagull intent on making its presence known, but without offering a song or some natural beauty.

Would my singing along to the Lord’s Prayer be so wrong, when a girl to the left of me was singing softly to the strains of the latest pop song?

A little later in his talk, Brian alluded to the hypocrites who pray long and eloquently in public… could that also apply to someone singing a poetic version of the Lord’s Prayer in a crowded train carriage? The man had me coming and going!

This evening James Alison waxed lyrical on the joys of undergoing atonement, of sin as something that is recognised through the process of its being forgiven. He has a fascinating theory of God as our victim propitiating our sins because we have demanded it, thus demonstrating our own (or the Second Temple’s) bloodthirsty and destructive nature, which has now been overturned.

I feel for a Monday this is heavy existentialist and liturgical going for even the most hardened of commuter theologians, but I have just finished celebratory work drinks so most things seem a little too much effort. And I am, I would hope, not just any commuter theologian…

The distance between work and home

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The most significant characteristic of the commute is the way it creates a physical distance between the personal and the professional, between home and work.

These are set periods of time where you have physically moved out of the personal and which do not invite the professional – unless you own a Blackberry or are of a work-proud masochistic mindset. For twenty minutes to eighty-five – depending on your fortune, fate or choice of transport – you have a space for thought and reflection that could look back upon home or forward toward work, and vice versa. Or it could be a space for something else.

Obliged to exist within the commute, every commuter has a choice as to how to use their time.

Interlude: according to Sartre the phrase “I have/had no choice” is not entirely accurate. We more often try to avoid the consciousness of our own freedom by not making choices, or rather choosing the path of least consequence: collaboration, resistance, or quiet self-preservation. But there is always the ultimate choice.

Unlike Sunday morning services (oh dear God, have I genuinely chosen to get up early for church?) or Sunday evening services (I could be watching trashy tv on the sofa) or weekday home group/cell meetings (another evening spent with people I try hard to like and try harder to respect), this is a no man’s land of space and time that could very easily be given to God.

This is the essence of commuter theology. This is what I should be looking for in the faces, expressions and habits of my neighbours. How many people are beseiged by their doubts, worries and fears? How many take time to reflect on good memories, meetings set and achievements reached? Who in my vicinity wants a glittering career, who would prefer a happy family life, and who is taking stock of their faith?

I ask more questions than I can answer. At any given moment I’m not sure I can answer my own.