The title above is a phrase coined by the guru of pioneers, Jonny Baker. I reflect on it often as it speaks of the phases of pioneering for me:
a) dreaming / imagining how life would be, living in the Shalom spoken of in the scriptures and seen embodied in Christ.
b) seeing, naming, acknowledging the injustice / discrimination/ despair / alienation in our own locale where this Shalom is not yet seen
c) creating space within ourselves, through prayer, waiting and pondering before God
d) hearing / seeing a spark of the future, as yet unseen, that will begin to address the longing with an action or series of actions,
Some phases of this take place alone and other phases are done together in community with others. Some of it feels like the early, secret weeks of pregnancy – nurturing, gestating, feeling very odd indeed, inhabited by strangeness in one’s body, mind and soul. Then flashes and snatches are added to it, Things seen in your local newspaper, prayers somebody prays for you, something said in one of the Minor Prophets, conversations at a bus stop, glimpses through the window of an art gallery; skin beginning to come on the bones.
All of this is very Advent-y work – waiting, waiting for the Messiah to emerge, to show himself in the dreams and imaginings of people who will work together to build a scaffold for the Kingdom to emerge. Doubt and strangeness characterise this phase for me – am I going mad? Is this something or is it to be discarded? When will this thing appear? Lord, speak for your servant is listening!! I always resonate with Mary so much during these phases.
The strangeness of the waiting then gives way to the doing. Many meetings take place, the work of chopping up the strange ethereal dream into do-able, deliverable chunks of work to bring it into being. This may involve grant application, trying to share the vision in ways that are understandable and sound credible, (even though in your heart you are amazed that people can’t see and accept the weird etherealness of it as part of its charm and soul!!) Gathering people with good skill sets and imagination, establishing safeguarding policies and risk assessments will all come into play. It’s possible to feel more like a CEO than a daydreamer or prophet at this stage – Nehemiah will be a good role model.
Then, it gets up and running. You have become a dreamer who did. Once the new thing is born however, like a child of any age, it requires constant feeding and love. You will likely have to change from being as much of a daydreamer to a sustainer, a parent, an activist. There will be chairs to move, fundraising to do, liturgy to write, bishops to wrangle with if you’re in the COfE, stakeholders to build partnerships with…
And at some point, you may realise you’ve become and activist who does, and who doesn’t stop and blow bubbles anymore. Maybe you don’t get time to people watch or chat to a stranger in a cafe very often, instead glued to catching up emails as you wait for your colleagues to arrive. And while you may rejoice with Christ every day for the new people you are blessed to encounter, to journey with, to see Christ within, you may not be very tuned in to the minutiae of their journey home. You may miss the clues, the snatches of light, the flash of the kingfisher over the water that you were so desperately watching and waiting for earlier in the process. You may ‘not have time’.
At a certain point in the development of a new thing, it becomes an established thing. And you may wake up one day and realise that you’ve gone from being a dreamer who does, to an activist who does. And there is no dreaming taking place, little focused noticing of the tiny things anymore. But these are the lifeflow of the Spirit, crucial for showing where she is going, breadcrumbs on the path that we are seeking to spot before the birds peck them up. There is no time at which we can stop being people who pay attention to the tiny and seemingly insignificant. Pete Ward speaks in his new book Introducing Practical Theology (Baker Academic, 2017) of practical theology as the practice of noticing, attending to the present in our context and where we might encounter God there. (p41) He speaks of practical theology as a “deep and enduring spiritual practice,” (p34) which I love. It is a practice that we must attend to. Observation is the first stage in reflection, and pioneering cannot flourish without these two together.
[added] At some point, we will perhaps need to consciously choose to become a ‘dreamer who doesn’t’ for a while – to schedule time out, retreat space, sabbatical, time to rest – before the wheels of the new thing run over our exhausted body lying on the ground. I regularly see social media posts from pioneers who are drained of creativity and exhausted, in the same way as we see these posts from ministers of every kind. It is very very hard to nurture the space within, the time for reading, pondering and wandering. I have noticed within myself that I really need this space, in order to make creative connections and sense the Holy Spirit at work around me.
Even though some of us don’t have ‘masters’ in the daily reporting sense, we can be our own worst taskmasters – and the reality is we are often working without any infrastructure of support. Someone recently took me to task for spending time doing admin and making bookings: “that’s a very expensive use of your skill set!” Well durr, who else is going to do that kind of thing for me?!! I don’t have a parish administrator or any other kind. Pioneers have usually had to learn to develop skills other than those they are known for – the “getting things done practically” skills are hugely important for our effectiveness. [end]
As an antidote to the madness, I recommend the rediscovery of Advent, diving again into the strangeness of Mary’s experience, and the waiting, watching, strange process as a time of reflection around the dreaming / watching / activism cycle. If, like me, you realise you miss the time to dream and ponder that happens once something becomes more solid, the awkwardness and intensity of the new dawning, then maybe it’s time to build some more wandering / wondering / pondering time into your schedule in the new year.
[added] If you can’t take blocks of time away on retreat due to time / money constraints, book a day a month to go and wander in art galleries, people watch, try a new cafe to work in, read a newspaper, take a colouring book and some pencils and sit in the park. Get out, get space, get refreshed and reconnect with your world around you and you own soul.It is a discipline we need to establish, a rule of life, to choose to become dreamers who don’t, to switch off so we don’t burn out. As people with vision and energy, we can be our own worst enemies, and if we are not careful we can build our identity entirely around being the people who do, the people who make things happen, the hub at the centre of everything, all the plates spinning around us.[end]
Happy Advent 🙂