‘Education consists of two things: example and love.’ (Friedrich Fröbel)
I can’t remember last time a book gripped me as much as, Mahatma Gandhi Autobiography: The Story of my Experiments with Truth. (I’m trying very hard to read it slowly and thoughtfully so that I don’t get to the end too quickly). Perhaps it was Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, or Mother Teresa: An Authorized Biography. The next two books on my reading list are: The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. and St. Francis and His Brothers.
There’s something about reading the lives of these ordinary-extraordinary people of faith that always humbles, challenges and inspires me. I want to be more like them. They help keep my own life and work focused and in perspective. I have to remind myself: these were ordinary people, just like me, who became extraordinary through the life decisions they made. They proved in practice that faith is acting on what we believe as if it were true. They lived out: ‘put your body where your mouth is.’
At times, it can feel like standing vulnerable and naked in front of a mirror and seeing my own life, decisions and actions in sharp comparison and stark contrast to theirs. Yet I don’t want to be a carbon copy. I’m not in their situations and I’m not who they were in those situations. I’m me – and I’m here and now. This is my time, my place and my opportunity. I want to follow God’s distinctive call on my own life with authenticity and integrity, to be the very best version of me that I can be in His eyes.
Who are your role models? What impact do they have in your life?
‘Coincidence doesn't happen a third time.’ (Osamu Tezuka)
I arrived in the Netherlands on Saturday, aiming to orientate myself briefly to this new country before working with an INGO team there on Monday. When I stepped into my hotel room, however, it smelt damp and sweaty. Trying not to breathe, I opened the windows to an icy blast and decided to go for a walk while the fresh air did its work. Not far away, I noticed a church building so walked over to have a glance at its meeting times. As I did so, I looked up and saw a cross in the sky, a misty symbol painted momentarily on blue canvas by vapour trails. It felt significant, but I didn’t know why.
The next day, the church was full when I arrived and I sat quietly in the midst, happily surprised by how much Dutch I could understand. (I can speak German, but this was my first time to read this new language). At the end, a woman kindly introduced herself to me. On learning that I am English, she explained that the church is recovering from an intensely painful internal conflict. The pastor had spoken on a need to look to God. I showed her the photo I had taken the day before – a symbol of suffering and hope – and she started to weep. ‘God brought you here to us this morning, Nick.’
Another woman now introduced herself, explained briefly that she had worked internationally in medical mission, and invited me to a special meeting that afternoon for asylum seekers and refugees. ‘How could she possibly have known anything about my life and work?’ I asked myself, a total stranger. The guest speaker that day was a visitor from Algeria and, serendipitously, works for the same organisation I was about to work with the following day... as does a man who randomly found himself sitting beside me in a hall full of people. Was this all coincidence? I don’t believe so. You decide.
‘We don’t have a plane crash scheduled for today, but I thought I’d take you through the emergency procedures just in case.’ (KLM Air Hostess)
I love the difference that a sense of humour can make. The air hostess (above) made everyone laugh during the passenger safety briefing on a return flight from the Netherlands today. The airline’s own plane had experienced maintenance problems so it had had to borrow one from another airline. One hostess complained, with a glint in her eye, that the green décor didn't match the blue colour of her uniform. The passengers all laughed when another hostess made an announcement too, aiming to draw our attention to an apparent information light on the plane…only to correct herself moments later with, ‘Oh – this plane doesn’t have one!’ Brilliant. It took the terror out of the turbulence.
On a more serious note, I had been in the Netherlands to work with a diverse NGO leadership team, to support its desire to enhance its international teamwork. I referenced briefly a couple of places in the Bible where the writer comments on the amazing potential of human diversity – where the Divine whole is seen, known and experienced to be more than the sum of its parts – yet also hints at the corresponding dark risks of undervaluing, fragmentation and conflict if not. Strikingly, the writer moves on in both places to emphasise a deep need for authentic love as the critical success factor. This insight set a spiritual-existential tone for the day, as we reflected on team-as-relationships.
Returning to the plane – but this time as a metaphor, a participant from South Africa asked, ‘How many separate parts is a Boeing 747 aircraft made up of?’ Apparently, the answer is about 6,000,000. ‘And what do these diverse components all have in common?’ Puzzled faces all round now. ‘None of them can fly.’ I thought this was genius. What a great way to dispel the myth of the all-sufficient self in the face of the dynamic complexities of teams, organisations and wider world. We worked through an Appreciative Inquiry next, drawing on positives of the past and aspirations of the present to co-create shared trust and vision for the future. Set the trajectory. Fasten seatbelts. Enjoy the flight.
‘Just like seasons change in nature, they change in our lives as well. And, as they change, they ask different questions of us. What questions is your life asking of you now?’ (Funmi Johnson)
I had a great conversation with Funmi, a fascinating and inspiring fellow coach, this afternoon and found her question (above) very thought-provoking. I’m at an age where legacy is a persistent question that calls out to me with growing insistence…and demands a response.
Am I genuinely living my life authentically according to the mission and values that I claim to be real and true? Or am I compromising too much of what matters most, deluding myself with a clever façade that even I have found convincing? How deep will my spiritual footprint be?
I love Funmi’s question. It stirs the waters and ignites a search.
‘Coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous.’ (Albert Einstein)
If you ever read David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade, you’ll get this. Two weeks ago, a song came to mind that I had written then recorded as a duet with a Christian friend, Maggie, some 37 years ago. Life moved on and Maggie and I hadn’t spoken since. In fact, I had completely forgotten ever having written and recorded that and other songs. Wondering what this mysterious prompt might mean, I rummaged through a box of old items and, to my immense relief, found a cassette with a hand-written label, ‘Niksongs’, on the side.
Filled with excitement, I searched online to find some way of copying the cassette to USB so that I could listen to it on my laptop. I found a device designed for that purpose and tried it in eager anticipation but, unfortunately, it didn’t work. Whilst pondering today what to do next, my phone pinged. A message from…Maggie. What?!! Living in Sri Lanka now, she had just found a copy of that very same cassette and was in process of working out how to convert it too – and that was her cue to contact me now. Pure coincidence? I don’t believe so. You decide.
‘What is the human being? In our anti-metaphysical age, we regard the question as having little importance. It is, however, the most crucial of all.’ (Felipe M. De Leon)
A good friend in the Philippines – St. Paul as I affectionately call him because of his dedication to the Jesus and the poor – works with student educators, teachers of the future. Today, he supported his students to create their own art exhibition as a way of exploring the relationship between art and humanities. It’s a topic that interests me too. I’ve travelled and worked in many different countries in the world but I’ve never encountered a culture as vibrantly and spontaneously artistic and creative as the Philippines. Music, dance and colour are everywhere, and with such natural richness of talent.
I find myself wondering – why is this? By stark contrast, in terms of art, my own part of the world can appear and feel quite cerebral, introverted and restrained. (I notice that even using the word ‘feel’ in that sentence can feel edgy and a bit risky in my context.) St, Paul’s students, like so many others I’ve had the great privilege of encountering in the Philippines, inspire me by their passion, energy and uninhibited emotional expression. They danced for me on my birthday even though I’ve never met them before, rather than offering me a simple written greeting. They bring the ordinary things of life to life.
In ‘Life as Art’, Felipe M. De Leon makes similar observations and explores cultural and contextual conditions that contribute to this gift-phenomenon. In Filipino society, in which, ‘a person learns to develop an expanded sense of self – a sphere of being which includes not only his (or her) individual self but encompasses immediate family, relatives, friends…closeness to others allows (one) to be more trusting, open and freely expressive. Arts and crafts are richest, most creative and diverse in communal cultures. Food is tastier, speech more melodic and things of everyday life more colourful.’
De Leon goes on to comment on other distinctive dimensions of Filipino culture and spirituality that also play a part. Yet there’s something about the relational dimension that resonates very powerfully with me. I notice when I work with people and groups that, if they feel genuinely loved, valued and involved, they often find themselves at their most free, experimental and creative too. Conversely, if they feel isolated, undervalued or excluded, they are more likely to become defended, closed-in or shut-down. These amazing Filipino students have a lot to teach the Western world, and me…and I’m still learning.
‘If you tremble with indignation at every injustice, then you are a comrade of mine.’ (Ernesto Che Guevara)
It looked like a scene from Dante’s inferno. Students from a very poor barangay (community) in the Philippines arrived home this week… Delete, rewind: arrived at where their makeshift homes had been until this week, to see them engulfed in a blaze of fire and billowing with thick, black smoke. The poor have no land rights, no insurance and no savings to fall back on. For a moment, it felt like their lives, as well as their homes, had gone up in flames.
On hearing of this, one of their tutors, Jasmin, raced to provide them with emergency relief. She offered them a safe place to sleep in her own home, yet they refused – preferring to stay with their families in the midst of the charred and burned-out remains. On receiving her gift of food supplies, they immediately shared it with their extended families and with their neighbours who had lost all too. The next day, their fellow students rallied around in support.
Rumours spread quickly that corrupt officials were behind the disaster as a way of driving the poor off the land to sell it to rich property developers – in exchange for a substantial bribe. Being sited at a prime seaside location, and being told immediately by the local Mayor that they would not be allowed to return, added sinister credence to these fears. The barangay residents have no access to justice, yet say they have Jesus as their advocate and hope.
Life is hard-edged for the poor. We, too, can be hope.
‘Our reality is narrow, confined, and fleeting. Whatever we think is important right now, in our mundane lives, will no longer be important against a grander sense of time and place.’ (Liu Cixin)
I think you could say we’re a family with an international outlook. My parents travelled extensively around the world and have touched most continents. My older brother lived in Brunei, married a Malaysian woman and has visited almost every country in Asia. My sister lived in Germany, mixes with friends from different countries and travels frequently to Spain to do salsa dancing. My younger brother ran a charity for and in Romania, did a medical mission in remote areas of the Amazon jungle and works in Dubai. I’ve been interested in different languages and cultures from childhood, have worked in 15 countries and have visited, have friends in and have worked with people from a lot more.
I watch almost exclusively international news, pay special attention to South-East Asia and my home is adorned with globes and colourful maps. Much of my life has been preoccupied with the Nazis and how to use my own life to help avoid anything like such horrific atrocities ever happening again. Against this backdrop, my own coach, Sue, posed two interesting challenges recently: ‘What’s it like to spend so much of your life – mentally, emotionally and spiritually – overseas with the poor and vulnerable in far-flung places yet to be, physically, here in the UK?’ and, ‘What’s it like to spend so much of your life – mentally, emotionally and spiritually – in World War 2 yet to be, physically, here and now?’
What great questions. They resonate profoundly, for me, with what it is to be a follower of Jesus – a deep dissonance that arises from being in this world, yet in some mysterious way being not of this world. Existentially, it’s a kind of dislocation that, a bit like for Third Culture Kids (TCK), creates a sense of being a child of everywhere yet, somehow, not a child of anywhere – at least in this lifetime. I often feel more at home when I’m away from home, a paradoxical dynamic that both draws and propels me into different times and places and to seek out God, diversity and change. It means being a traveller, not a settler, and has influenced every facet of my entire life, work and relationships.
‘Carpe diem: seize the day. Make your life extraordinary.’ (Dead Poets Society)
I was once invited by Lilin, my inspiring Malaysian sister-in-law, to speak at a University of the 3rd Age (U3A) event, for people who are retired from formal employment and interested to explore new ideas, experiences and themes. She invited me, simply, to share something of my own life story. I wasn’t sure where to start or to end or what to include in-between. How to distil a lifetime of experiences into a 45-minutes window? And, more importantly, what would people in this particular group find interesting, stimulating or worthwhile?
So I prayed, jotted down notes of what came to mind, and then shared what I found most meaningful. I hoped it wouldn’t sound too alien and that they would feel at least some sense of connection. At the end, I was astonished to see a queue of people forming to speak with me. Apart from polite thank-yous, person after person looked at me, some with tears in their eyes, and said something along the lines of, ‘I too felt that prompt, that calling, that you described here today. But I was too scared to follow it so I didn’t. And now I so wish I had.’
Some expanded their accounts of how they had chosen to live too safely, too comfortably, and how this had, over time, stifled their sense of curiosity, courage and faith. I tried to reassure them with Richard Bach's words: ‘A test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: if you’re alive, it isn’t.’ For many, however, I could still see that haunting look of spiritual and existential angst on their faces: ‘I was too scared then, and I’m still too scared. And now it’s all too late.’ The greatest risk is never to take a risk. The time to act is now.
‘The international arms trade is in direct opposition to efforts to protect and pursue the health of our world and its inhabitants.’ (MedAct)
When Jesus Christ was born, if he had been given the projected world armaments spend for this year alone – I have to sit down as I write this: he could have spent US$ 2,708,578 every… single… day... from then until now. And, whilst on the topic of Jesus, a good friend has a satirical sticker across the rear windscreen of her campervan that reads, ‘Who would Jesus bomb?’ The simple answer is, ‘Nobody’. He was far too concerned with bringing good news to the poor, vulnerable and oppressed. Bottom line: weapons didn’t feature on his bottom line.
Yet here today we see world leaders striding confidently onto stages, adorned with flags and symbols, making elegant speeches and pointing accusing fingers at one another across starkly-divided world maps. Everyone is firmly committed to the, ‘I’m OK, You’re Not OK’ creed and absolutely convinced by the rightness of their own cause. The platform rhetoric is powerful, existential, and ramps up the ante. It’s a dangerous zero-sum, do-or-die game in which we could all – quite literally – obliterate the world in a quest to, allegedly, save the world.
Meanwhile, I see children in the Philippines this week who live in dire poverty, sleeping in rags on hard ground. There are countless millions across the world living like this, with barely enough to survive let alone thrive. Scraps of food and no access to safe water, sanitation, healthcare or education. US$ 2,708,578. So, Jesus again – ‘Reach out to your enemies.’ We could try this: ‘We’ve all made a real mess of this. We’re partly to blame and we’re sorry for the part we played in how we got here. We want to work with you to co-create a very different future.'
Everything is at stake.
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
Like what you read? Simply enter your email address below to receive regular blog updates!