Monday, September 29, 2014

Amazing Rain

Especially after a dry spell,
I sometimes think that rain 
is a form of grace.

The hazy horizon hosed off.

Raindrops graciously bearing 
dust from air to ground

I love the sound.
The clatter of heavy rain
on car, canvas or roof. 

A heavenly, peaceful sound to me.

So pour out sky-water. 
Fall down life drops.
Nourish, cheer, wash.

Amazing, graceful, gracious rain.

Friday, September 26, 2014

What makes us human?

Hi everyone, now that summer is officially turning to autumn it's time for regular service to be resumed here at Potting Shed HQ.

It's been great to post some different things over the summer, and in case you missed them, there were fascinating interviews with Chris Whyley and Chris Eaton as well as a write ups of the spectacular Just So Festival and my moving time working alongside the charity Ten Thousand Homes in South Africa. I've got some more treats lined up for you in the next few months too, so watch this space!

This week's topic set by my fellow blog buddies is the gigantic question 'what makes us human?' - just a small subject to tackle then! 

Over the summer I've read some interesting books on how our brain works, so I'm going to start to approach our humanity from this angle. The first book is Focus by Daniel Goleman, all about how we use out attention (and the challenges of an information-overloaded society). The second is The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, all about how we acquire and retain skill. I'd well recommend both.

Top-down thinking comes from our neocortex
As I was planning this post, I jotted down various things that came to mind that potentially make us different to other living things. But then I thought of other species that could also do these things! For instance, perhaps we're different because we use tools?We certainly use tools in a much more sophisticated way than other creatures on the planet. But apes also use tools, along with some species of crow (in fact, I watched a fascinating documentary with Chris Packham the other month about how the crows in New Caledonia not only passed on tool-making skills within their social groups, but how subsequent generations actually improved and refined the design, something previously only observed in humans - I'd recommend the book Corvus about how clever the crow-family of birds are).

Perhaps what makes us human is that we feel things deeply and have a rich emotional life? But then, so do Orcas (if you haven't seen the documentary Blackfish, about Orcas in captivity it's well worth a watch, so long as you realise that it's been produced with a specific agenda in mind). Is it because we form social groups? Well this also seems to be common among many intelligent animals, like elephants, dolphins and certain birds (the corvid family again!).

So what makes us different? What makes us human? In all the examples I mentioned above we are able to do those things with much greater clarity and sophistication than other living things. There are clearly numerous things our brains can do which other creatures' brains can't do. Our human brains seem uniquely configured in a manner that sets us apart from animals. We are able to picture ourselves in situations outside of the situation we find ourselves in. As Daniel Goleman notes in Focus "The capacity to think in ways that are independent of an immediate stimulus - about what's happened and what might happen in all it's possibilities - sets the human mind apart..".

"Perhaps what makes us human is that we feel things deeply.."

Something that Goleman elaborates on in his book is our ability as humans to override our instinctive, perhaps animal, responses to situations through deliberate choice. This is something he refers to as "top-down" thinking overriding "bottom-up" thinking. When we choose to focus our attention on something, this is an example of the left hand "top-down" part of our brain overriding the right-hand "bottom-up" part of the brain. Our brains are complex, and clearly I am not covering this in great detail, but the point is that we have the ability to make conscious choices, taking into account what may or may not happen, that other species aren't able to do.

A musing chimp?
Why have we been able to use tools, communicate and think to a far greater degree than other species? Another process in our brains may hold the answer to this, and it's something that Daniel Coyle chooses to focus on in his excellent Talent Code book.

Our brains reinforce patterns of learning through a remarkable substance called myelin. Crudely, this wraps around the neural connections we fire the most, making them quicker and more efficient. Coyle explores the way in which our brains reinforce learning, and points out that myelin is not present in anywhere near the same degree in our closest ape relatives. So while other species have been able to use tools, feel emotions, communicate.. they simply don't have the bandwidth we humans do to be able to do those things with with the same level of sophistication. Coyle compares this to the difference between sending data through an old copper cable compared to a fibre-optic cable. Maybe it's as big as the difference between communicating through the telegraph system and the satellite system.

So what makes us human? I think it's about choice. We are able to override our instinctive thinking and reactions (our bottom-up brain), with deliberate choices. Our top-down brain, filled with myelin, enables us to make these deliberate choices.

There was a news article this week that caught my eye, suggesting that chimps are naturally violent. Maybe we are too, given the pandemic of war around the world.  But in the midst of this pandemic there are also deliberate actions of love and peace and beauty going on every second around the world. We may be the naked ape, but what makes us different is our ability to choose - perhaps even to choose peace and love over judgement and war. To love our enemies. To choose mercy over justice.

"So what makes us human? I think it's about choice."
In this light, the Biblical assertion that we're made in the image of God makes sense to me. Made in the image, the likeness, of a sacrificially loving creator god. A God whose plan allowed "mercy to triumph over judgement" (James 2:13).

In the end, we're not just defined by what goes on in our brains, but by our choices and actions. And maybe this week, wherever we find ourselves, we can choose a top-down not bottom-up path of peace, love and mercy. 
The Dad Network

Friday, September 19, 2014

Ten Thousand Homes

I recently spent two weeks in South Africa working alongside the organisation Ten Thousand Homes, along with a group from my church. Since I've returned I've been trying to untangle the jumble of thoughts, emotions, experiences and memories I came back with, so here's my first attempt.

TTH driveway
The team at Ten Thousand Homes (TTH) describe themselves as "a movement of ordinary people building hope and creating homes for Africa's orphaned and vulnerable children". They're based in White River, South Africa, beneath the watchful eye of the distant Drakensberg mountains and surrounded by fast-growing eucalyptus plantations. Day and night coal trucks rumble past on the nearby arterial roads en route to Mozambique and Zimbabwe, adding to the soundtrack of birds, insects and other fauna which accompanies their extraordinary work in the local communities. Our trip coincided with the end of the dry season, and the land bore the charred scars of recent bushfires which had reached ominously close to the TTH base. 

The charity was deservedly included in a recent Huffington Post article with a list of 100 charities doing good around the world. It's been running for over a decade, and started in response to the orphan crisis as a result of the HIV-Aids epidemic. Initially building actual houses for child-headed households, TTH has also sought to create "home" in a variety of ways which now include numerous after school programmes and other activities. Whilst still a major issue, the orphan crisis picture has changed over time, with many of these orphans now grown up and with children of their own, something TTH have also adapted to by purchasing land in 2008 to create a "university village" providing training in vocational and other life skills. What's their model? Well, as team member Jeremy Price told me "Our model is that we have no model.. it's relational" - and for me, this is one of the things that sets the work of this group of ordinary people apart.

If you're anything like me, you may have an overwhelming desire to fix things that are broken. This may just be a man thing (men being from Mars after all), but I've observed this attitude at every level right up to Government in our modern Western democracies. The challenge I set myself as I embarked on this trip was to put aside my need to fix things and instead allow myself to learn from the experience and assist the broader work of TTH in any small way I could. If I'm honest I wasn't sure what this might look like or what my contributions might be, although I hoped that this might include some building work and anticipated that we would help with some of the after school programmes.

Spacing the roof trusses in my dungarees!
I was delighted that we were able to contribute to building a roof for a community pavilion, erecting the trusses, purlins, bracing etc in preparation for the corrugated metal roof sheets. I'd even brought out my workshop dungarees in anticipation of doing something with my hands, so when we had the opportunity to assist the building team on our first day I was straight in the back of the bakkie and up the ladder to help. Although the corrugated sheeting wasn't available until after we left due to the lingering effects of a metalworkers' strike earlier in the year, we left having completed the full roof frame - alongside the TTH team which included chaps from the local community. From the top of the roof the views are stunning of the surrounding hills and distant mountains, but one TTH team member shared with me a conversation they'd had on this topic with those living in the community, who had said "we don't see the scenery, we just see the poverty". Interesting the differences in what we see - what do we miss in the scenery of our own lives?

Much of the work we were able to contribute to was in various after school programmes in three nearby communities. These generally involved a meal for the children (usually something like offal with pap - the local maize staple - and some orange), playing with them and giving them a safe environment just to be children. We sang fun action songs with them, told stories with simple visual effects - even throwing in some handkerchief and rope sleight of hand which left the interpreters momentarily speechless! A highlight was putting on a "Day of Royalty" in which some 450 local kids were bussed onto the TTH campus for a day of being treated like princes and princesses - cue epic craft stations, dressing up, singing songs in an empty swimming pool (good acoustics), bouncy castles (bounce houses in the local lingo), treasure hunts, and a giant picnic. Truly a day to remember all round, and whilst exhausting, a lavish expression of God's love for each and every child that came.
Being puppet-man on the Day of Royalty..

Probably what I found hardest of all were the two trips I took to the children's ward at the local hospital - not because of the standard of care or quality of facilities, as these turned out to be very good - but instead due to the feelings of powelessness it evoked in me. On the day I visited there were around 30 children in the ward, with very little to play with and all missing their parents - visiting hours being very restricted. Many of the injuries, burns and missing digits were as a result of car accidents, symptomatic of a broader traffic safety issue and and indication that things are rarely as simple as we think.

In these moments of helplessness I was reminded of a quote by Mother Theresa: "Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love". For me, the small things included playing rock, paper, scissors, or double-double this-this, or simply keeping them company - not life-changing actions in themselves, but things which brought smiles to little faces and which at least hopefully brightened up or changed their day. Clearly our presence wasn't the same as having their parents or loved ones there, but as a parent myself, I'd be grateful to anyone who tried to brighten up my child's day in hospital, in however small a way.

A house in a day
Towards the end of our time we had the opportunity to assist in what turned out to be a profound and remarkable act of love. A couple who had been the recipients of a new home built by TTH had identified a lady in dire need of a safe place to live, with a simply heartbreaking backstory, whose baby had died suddenly. The wonderful thing was that in gratitude for the blessing of a home they'd received, they wanted to build a temporary home for this lady on their own plot - a place of refuge and safety. Kacy tells this story eloquently on her blog. So while the craziness of the Day of Royalty was going on, the TTH team set the wheels in motion so that a few days later, alongside the local community, we had the privilege of building a simple house. Simple for us, life changing for her, and her son. All brought about through the relationship this movement of ordinary people have built with the communities around them. 

As I've reflected on our brief time with Ten Thousand Homes, one of the things I've most appreciated about their attitude is the desire to help the communities to develop from within. Calling out the best in them - and don't we all need people around us to call us and challenge us to be the best expression of who God's made us to be? TTH are into organic growth, not imposed models. Like the story of the temporary home, this is change from within - initiated by the communities that TTH are serving.

On our short visit we were only able to do small things. But if you can repeatedly change a person's day enough times you can end up changing their life. TTH have a motto plastered on their office building "To Change a Nation, Love the Children".. they continue to invest in the children and young people of the area, day in day out. An investment in the future of South Africa. And like any good investment, slow and steady accumulation is the most effective means.

We left the communities on the Friday to travel home. By the Monday they'd erupted into violent protests and rioting over problems with the Government-supplied water deliveries. Testament to the fragility of these community ecosystems and the need for holistic systems-thinking as a means to change rather than lurching from crisis fix  to crisis fix. Jen Price, another TTH member wrote a moving piece on this situation earlier this week. 

The TTH office building on their campus
It's too easy to impose "western" eyes on to world situations, but I think we serve ourselves better when we instead allow ourselves to be challenged about what authentic Christian expression looks like where we are. In this respect it's helpful to be out of our own context for a while to give us fresh eyes to see our own scenery again, and recognise  our own cultural quirks and idiosyncrasies."To change a nation love the children". We couldn't change such a rich and complex situation in two weeks, nor did we intend to. However, I'm proud of the numerous and wonderful small things we contributed to and carried out with great love. Big enough things to change someone's day. 

Change enough days and you impact the course of a life. 
Change enough lives and you change a community. 
Change enough communities and you change a nation. 

This is the extraordinary work being done by the ordinary people at TTH, and I'm proud to have played a small part in this. But they are a formidable force for good - the change may not be occurring as quickly or as visibly as in the surrounding eucalyptus plantations, but it's growing strongly and steadily, just watch and see.

Sunset on the base