For someone you’ve lost.

1 11 2009

531444_daisy_in_the_sunLucky heather sir?

How do you normally respond? If you’re anything like me, I’m sure you normally refuse. There’s no such thing as a free lunch (or heather). We all know how it goes. It’s not a gift. The heather lady wants you to cross her palm with silver. None of us wants to be taken for a mug. So we politely refuse. We all have our guard up. And what’s more, we don’t like being approached by a stranger. Stranger=danger. Even for adults. So why on earth would I plan an event that involved stopping people in the main shopping street in the centre of Portsmouth and offering them a flower?

Well precisely because I wanted to break through that defensive barrier to connect with people — to connect with their spirit.

If there was one thing that came up again and again in my conversations with people late on a Friday night at the Friday Fridge, it was that sense of suppressed grief that we all carry. It was that, I think, that boiled over when Diana, Princess of Wales died. People weren’t really grieving for Diana. She was a proxy through whom they could connect with their own sense of grief. It comes up so often when you’re taking funerals. Not just in the obvious way that you’re talking to relatives about a loved one that’s just died, but also there’s invariably a personal tragedy that the deceased person carried, unspoken, for years. There’s a time after a bereavement when people accommodate our desolation; there’s a sort of permission to be demonstrably emotional. But there comes a time when grief becomes impolite, embarrassing. Especially in our culture. Because we don’t do death like we once did. I suspect that we want grief out of the way as quickly as possible as it’s a memento mori. So we push it down deep. But it’s there. Gnawing away. Inside we’re desperate for someone to just acknowledge what, no who, we’ve lost.

That’s what I think anyway. If you think differently, please share your experience or thoughts via the comments on this page.

Because I think that, I think that it is an act of compassion to acknowledge the grief of another. It connects with the deepest level of our identity and embraces our whole being, not just the ‘I’m fine’ persona we like to present.

So yesterday (because close to All Souls seemed as good a time as any), eighteen of us from around the Diocese gathered at the fountain in Commercial Road in Portsmouth. I described the event as a guerrilla happening. I called it ‘Commemoratio’ from the latin for All Souls’ Day: Commemoratio omnium Fidelium Defunctorum (Commemoration of the faithful departed). As for the previous guerrilla happening I pulled together, I sent invitations by email, text, facebook and twitter and just waited to see who would come.

We gave away 300 single stem white gerberas. It was a simple act. As we offered them to people, we said: ‘this is for someone you’ve lost.’

Lots of people — perhaps even a majority — politely declined. But a substantial number also received the gift in the spirit in which it was given. They seemed genuinely moved. And let’s not overplay the refusals. Within a quarter of an hour all the flowers were gone.

There was no agenda. We weren’t trying to get people along to something else or preach or sell them anything. The gift was free. It was a genuine gift.

We had attached small cards. They looked like this:

tag mock-up

And I think (from what they said to me) that those who took part experienced it as a moment of privilege. We all had powerful moments of human connection.

What right did I have to interrupt people’s Saturday lunchtime? None. What right did I have to attempt to make people reconnect with their grief?None. Who am I to decide that people’s carefully constructed protection around their grief should be penetrated? No-one. I hope you can tell, dear reader, that I have thought carefully about whether it was truly kind or fair to do this. In the end I thought it was kinder to acknowledge people and communicate a recognition of their loss and its validity. And I think the experience bears that out. I don’t think it threatened the defences of those who declined the gift. And the expression and frequently the words of those who did accept the gift communicated that they were grateful to have their grief and the one for whom they grieve recognised.

I hope to post some pictures here in the next few days.

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8 responses

2 11 2009
Tom Kennar

In the cold light of Monday morning, I’m genuinely sorry I didn’t make it on Saturday to your event.

We had visitors, and it felt rude to leave them…although if I’m honest, I would probably have been willing to leave them for half an hour if I had not been so pathetically terrified at the prospect of being refused by those to whom flowers were given.

I recently stood in North End, giving out leaflets which invited people to our community cafe – see http://www.northendteamchurches.org.uk/stmarksprogrammes.htm The cafe is something for the community. There’s no hidden ‘conversion’ agenda. I was wearing my collar, and being very friendly and non-invasive…just kept saying “Would you like to know about our community cafe?”. But despite wearing my collar, I was routinely ignored, and even told to F… off by one unwilling recipient. It left scars. And the prospect of being similarly treated at the Commerical Road Fountain somewhat coloured my decision as to whether to turn up on Saturday to your event.

This is not confession…I know you will understand. But it does raise all sorts of interesting questions. How willing are we (or, rather, am I) to stand up for the Gospel? I really take my hat off to you for continuing to push the boundaries, and of engaging people with their spiritual lives. Guerrila is a great concept…it catches people unawares, and provokes unexpected responses. I tend to try to introduce the unexpected into rituals and liturgies that people have already elected to attend…which is safer (for me).

Keep on Pioneering! You are already acting prophetically for the whole Diocese. Keep on making us think about the boundaries we have erected around ourselves and our ministries!

Tom

2 11 2009
pompeypioneer

Thanks Tom.

Timidity is not a trait I would have ascribed to you! But I recognise exactly the apprehension you describe. It isn’t safe or cosy in ‘public space’ for the Church nor (or perhaps especially) its appointed representatives. But if we confine ourselves to the territory where we can have things on our terms, we will find ourselves drawing an ever tighter circle, I fear. Christ sent his twelve and his seventy to be guests – at the mercy of others – not hosts – where others are at ours.

Sorry, this sounds a bit preachy. I don’t mean it to.

What I most want to say in response to your comment is I absolutely recognise the fear you describe. I guess what I’m saying is that there’s nothing special in me that allows me to go where angels fear to tread! I’m just like you: bricking it!

I just think authentic mission requires us to step out and breathe the free air where we’ll find people who are just the same as us and yet in lots of ways very different to what is familiar in the safety of the pews. I have found it an exciting and stimulating place to be – to some degree because it’s scary!

2 11 2009
Sharon

Awesome!

I love your reflection, Mark, and I love your courage in being honest Tom.

Well done to you both!

I’ve a feeling you’ve just scratched the surface.

So, what next? How does God see the city, and what does He want to say to people next, do you suppose?

Waiting in anticipation and willing to join in…

S 🙂

2 11 2009
gloriousthings

It reminds me a bit Tom of the reaction I got from my congregtion when I asked them last Valentines Day to come with me to the chip van (village Friday night gathering place) to give out Valentines cards from God with a chocolate in. The brave souls who humoured me that night, loved having something that they could give people with no strings attached. Those that engaged with us were touched to receive a valentine card especially those who hadn’t had one that day. Great Stuff Mark, I’m sure you are right about people needing a place to have their loss acknowledged in some way. Am storing up some ideas for next All Souls day.
Sarah

2 11 2009
Damon

It has been over 10 years since I was last involved in any form of Street mission. In the past I have been involved in activities that I felt worked well and I was proud to be a part of, but many made me cringe!!

I must admit that when I read that flowers paid a big part, my heart sank and felt exactly how Tom did. I was almost praying for heavy traffic so I would be late (but I wasn’t).

Grabbing a hand of flowers, I found it hard not to start shouting, “Flowers are lovely….. only £2 a bunch” but I resisted and started offering them out explaining the reason:-
(The general response I got I have put in brackets)

“A flower to mark All Souls Day.” (Blank Faces)
“From the Church of England.” (Look of Horror)
“For someone you have lost contact with or who has passed on.” (Stopped/thought/remembered someone/ Seemed very grateful/Some wanted to chat)

I was amazed at how well the whole thing went and was received. I’m not saying that everyone was blessed by what we were doing and as far as I am aware none asked what they should do to be saved, but I do feel that the Church made a small but perfectly formed impact/impression on a number of lives on Saturday.

The flowers obviously would not have worked without the words and the words definitely would not have worked without the flowers. I was a very simply, yet brilliant idea. It all goes to prove that if we want to make a difference as a Christian Community, then we need to ‘think outside the box’. The way forward must be in trying new, simple, yet well thought out events/projects.

Gone are the days of ‘institutionalised evangelism’ & ‘salvation by numbers’, and in its place should be coming the realisation that we have a creative God that wants us to be creative and relevant to the 21st Century.

Well done Mark, an excellent event. Come on church, let’s support and get behind him with his next project.

4 11 2009
Karen

I think what you’ve just done is amazing, brilliant and simple. The best ideas often are and I’m certainly going to spend some time reflecting on how to engage with people in Reading in a similar vein. Thanks Mark.

5 11 2009
David H

I am not sure if it is all stranger = danger, though I do think much of what we see and hear on the news and read in the papers encourages this. I myself do not associate any particular group with danger, strangers or not. I do, however, have a particular view when it comes to allowing people inside my space – and that includes Saturday afternoons in town. At best I would describe myself as a polite refuser.

That being said, the simplicity of it is genuine enough I may still have taken a flower. It is nice to think that some will give a gift as just that. The gift with no follow-up and no pithc would have caught me by surprise – and in a good way.

Nice one mark.

7 11 2009
alison

Mark, thought you might be interested to know:
In the Language of Flowers, white gerberas mean ‘innocence’

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