one word 2013

2013: learning about hope

derwent bridge

When I chose hope as my one word for 2013, I must have thought I knew what it meant. Writing about the choice here, I said it would be my touchstone for year, a prism through which to view whatever unfolded.

It turns out that was a bit over-ambitious. If I think about the role hope has played in my life this year, I seem to have mostly been working out what it means! It’s been worth it, though.

Partly, my new understanding of hope has come about through reading. Some truly formative books have fallen into my hands over the past twelve months, and the most important of them was Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination (thank you, Kelley Nikondeha!).

Brueggemann helped me to identify false hope, which is actually a form of hopelessness. You can recognise false hope because in the end it doesn’t change anything.

The false hope offered by our affluent Western culture is that the answer to any discomfort is to consume more. In the short term, and on an individual level, this works (hello, new shoes and chocolate cake). In the long term it makes things worse. Our pain could be a catalyst to action but over-consumption dulls our emotions and takes away the energy we need to act.

In effect, the more we eat, drink and buy, the more deeply we reinforce the very structures that imprison us.

Brueggemann introduced me to the unsettling notion that the only way to real hope is through pain. We have to begin by looking unflinchingly at the darkness that is both around us and within us.

This idea was reinforced for me during the Advent just passed, through many of the Bible readings traditionally associated with that great season of hope.

It is the people walking in darkness who see the ‘great light’ promised by the prophet (Isaiah 9:2).

Or as Richard Rohr puts it in his book Preparing for Christmas: ‘We must wait and work with hope inside of the darkness – while never doubting the light that God always is … That is the narrow birth canal of God into the world – through the darkness and into an ever greater Light.’

It sobered me to think that if we manage to dispel the darkness temporarily, with all kinds of artificial things that are ultimately themselves part of the darkness – then we could miss the true light.

Which leads me to Leah Kostamo’s Planted. This book tells the funny and grace-filled story of how Kostamo and her husband established a branch of the Christian conservation organisation A Rocha in Canada, and also weaves in some serious wrestling with issues of justice, community and how to live simply in a world in crisis.

Unsurprisingly, hope is often in short supply among those who care for the environment. As Kostamo puts it: ‘Knowing what conservationists know, it’s only logical they would be tempted to despair.’

Gently and convincingly, Kostamo explains how her Christian faith roots her in hope – ‘hope that some day, some how, some way redemption is possible for all things’.

This is not another airy-fairy, false notion of hope. It is a hope born of what Kostamo calls ‘a divine adventure of reckless love’ – namely that other great Advent theme: the incarnation. An all-powerful God could choose to engage with creation in any way at all. The decision to become a part of it by taking on human form has endless implications for the way we think about the world.

As Kostamo says: ‘The incarnation shows God’s commitment to creation. The Creator becomes the created in the ultimate act of solidarity.’

The ultimate act of solidarity. Therein lies the third thing I have learnt about hope – it is inseparable from action. Another book that influenced me profoundly was Ellen Davis’s Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture. Described as an examination of ‘the theology and ethics of land use’, it sounds dry but it is the opposite. It propelled me into the garden, determined to care for it properly, recognising for the first time that care of the land is a non-negotiable part of my Christian discipleship.

I still have so much to learn as a gardener but already I am understanding that the actions of caring for soil and seed, leaf and bud, bring about a new kind of consciousness, an opportunity to disrupt some old and hitherto unquestioned notions about how to be in the world.

It’s not a bad place from which to enter 2014. I’m glad I joined in with the ‘one word’ idea. It turns out it was, as I hoped, a much better way of starting a new year than making lots of soon-to-be-broken resolutions.

The picture is of the Derwent Reservoir, Derbyshire, on Boxing Day 2013

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hope: an update

ask not what

Recently graffitied by locals, the old health centre in Todmorden, west Yorkshire has lain empty for years while the multinational corporation that owns the site decides what to do with it

Coming face to face with the fact that tens of thousands of people in our city are going to bed hungry can be gut wrenching, as I wrote in my last post.

The danger is that it can also be overwhelming, and it is only a short step from feeling overwhelmed to sinking into despair.

Back in January I chose HOPE as my one word for 2013. I thought  then that I knew what it meant but here we are at the end of November and I have realised that it is a lot more difficult to pin down than it seems.

When I taught English to speakers of other languages I found that sometimes the easiest way to explain the meaning of a word was to give its opposite. So far, my understanding of real hope is mostly around the fact that it is ‘not-despair’.

Despair rarely achieves anything. It paralyses us at exactly the time when we most need to be doing.

But where despair results in paralysis, real hope not only leads to action, it is often birthed there.

I used to think that hope came first and then you acted because you were hopeful. It sounds logical but this year I realised that I had it the wrong way round. The more you act, the more you grow in hope.

When Incredible Edible Todmorden co-founder Mary Clear ripped out the roses in her front garden and replaced them with vegetables and a sign saying ‘Food to Share’, I am sure she did not think of herself as a prophet.

But her action demonstrated another key aspect of hope, which is imagination.

Despair is like a fog. It clouds our vision and numbs us into thinking that things can never be different. We need prophets, poets and seers to pierce that numbness, stimulate our imagination and remind us that there is always another way of doing things.

We also need to recognise that these visionaries are walking among us, living life beside us. They do not (necessarily) have long beards and sandals.

 

plaques

Incredible Edible plaques made by Linda Reith

Mary’s action gave people a new way of seeing things, a way to re-imagine the world. It was one of the jumping-off points for the whole Incredible Edible movement.

I have taken several friends to Todmorden and they all come away seeing land differently. They send me texts saying things like: ‘I’m noticing bits of wasted space all over my town. I keep telling people we should plant some food there.’

Runner beans in a Todmorden cemetery

Runner bean plants in a Todmorden cemetery

The point is not that we are going to solve world hunger, or even UK hunger, by handing out free vegetables. Of course we’re not. The point is to shift people’s perceptions so they can imagine a different way of doing things.

It’s about helping people realise that there is more than one story to live by, and then it’s about demonstrating a way to take the first few steps into that new way of being in the world.

One woman I interviewed for our book about Incredible Edible told me she used to think growing food was ‘a whole other world of strangeness that could never have anything to do with me’.

Then she took on one of several raised beds that Incredible Edible has built at her son’s school and now the two of them eat home-grown, fresh vegetables for nine months of the year. Not only that but they have saved money, made new friends and grown in self-confidence.

What I see in Todmorden is that actions like growing food lead to more actions like, say, signing up for a class to learn how to cook that food and then, for some people, actually teaching other people how to grow and cook things.

You can’t predict exactly where these actions will end up. Someone who spent an entire winter helping another Incredible Edible co-founder, Nick Green, build a rabbit proof fence is now learning about advanced permaculture and training apprentices to become market gardeners.

The point is to start.

And once people start, they grow in imagination and they develop real hope – and who knows where that might lead?

They like to say that Todmorden is the town of the example. They’ve been living the Incredible Edible story for the past six years and literally thousands of people have visited the town to see what they are doing.

One of the reasons I am so determined to get our book about Incredible Edible out into the world is that I think it has the potential to inspire people who can’t make the trip to Todmorden to get started on a different way of doing things in the place where they live.

A way that will build community, increase skills and even benefit the local economy. A snowballing of hope, if you like.

People have been massively supportive of the campaign we’re running with Kickstarter to raise enough money for the first print run of the book. I am truly grateful for the people who have already pledged money and overwhelmed (in a good way!) by the messages of encouragement.

However, we need more of that support to translate into cash if we are to reach our target.

I’d be so thankful if you could spread the word as widely as you can and – if you are able and you haven’t done so already – pledge a bit of money towards it. 

You can pledge as little as £1 and it’s all perfectly safe. If we don’t hit our funding target, nobody pays a penny. Also, I won’t be making any money personally out of the campaign.

Thank you!

The Kickstarter page is here.