One = Alone, Two = Team

Notes on the Sunday address by Rev Ric Holland, 12 February 2017.

Consider the Eleanor Rigby people; all the lonely people, where do they all come from?

I was standing in Stanley Street, Liverpool, England, looking at a wonderful statue of Eleanor Rigby, underneath are the words “Dedicated to all the lonely people”. Then a lady of about 80 shuffled up, and said, looking at the statue “That’s me”. So obviously I had to get into a conversation with her, to discover that she had been brought up in a lovely family with six siblings. She married and had three children of her own. She told me something of the wonderful life she had lived, and then how after her parents died she lost all her brothers and sisters, and since then her husband and lastly two of her children died of AIDS-related illnesses.

She had not been in touch with her last remaining child for over 20 years. She had no friends and eked out an existence in a lonely, cold council flat. She was truly one of those lonely people. I found a companion friends group for her and from then her life changed. Her flat didn’t change, her meagre income didn’t change, the family loss didn’t change, but she was no longer ALONE. She was able finally to share her life with others and to belong. And that’s what she said to me, “I now feel as though I belong”.

Being ALONE is one of the most negative and destructive situations people can experience. And it can apply to some of the most unlikely people. Remember Amy Winehouse, at the top of the pop singing world, wealth, fame, apparent success and yet screaming out to belong and later dying of a drug overdose at the height of her popularity. Being alone doesn’t necessarily mean that you are isolated. You can be very alone and lost in a crowd.

And being alone can be very, very destructive. Let me tell you about Jimmy Boyle. He was brought up in an environment well known to another famous Glaswegian, Jimmy Barnes. Jimmy Barnes starts his great book “Working Class Man” with a sentence describing the place where he was born and grew up before he escaped with his family to Australia.  He describes this community as “One of the only places in the world you can get your heart broken and your jaw broken at the same time”. Jimmy Barnes got out of it, but unfortunately, Jimmy Boyle didn’t.

Jimmy Boyle graduated, like many kids of the street, to the local street gang. He had obvious leadership skills, and he quickly became the gang leader and one of the most infamous criminals in Glasgow. When he was arrested for many, many crimes he received a concurrent sentence amounting to over 250 years imprisonment and he was shipped off to one of the country’s harshest jails. He had been described in the Scotsman newspaper as “the most dangerous criminal in Scotland”. I met him when I was a prison chaplain. Previous to this, he had been thrown out of every prison in Scotland for destroying cells and attacking prison guards. He was finally put in a locked cage with no bed, window or company, solitary confinement. He was truly ALONE.

Then wonderful prison Governor came to a tough prison in Glasgow, Barlinnie prison. He wanted to try a whole new experiment in working with the hardest and most dangerous prisoners he could find. He built a prison within a prison and offered to take the country’s worst offenders. He received ten of the worst prisoners in the country, all “lifers,” and his prison within a prison became known as the Barlinnie Special Unit.

Imagine a large square space surrounded by prison cells all with unlocked doors so that prisoners could come and go within the unit. In the square were tables and desks and a range of equipment, including artists canvas, brushes, craft material, books, coffee machines, musical instruments and record players, areas to relax and talk, etc. Did the prisoners trash it? NO. Did they fight with each other? NO. Did they attack the guards dressed casually not in uniforms and unarmed? NO.

Jimmy discovered classical music for the first time in his life, this uneducated “lifer” was reading philosophy, and most of all, and he discovered some amazing things about himself. He had the ability to lead and inspire the others, he could discuss current affairs and politics with the prison guards, and he was a fabulous artist and sculptor. He completed an Open University degree.  He began to paint and create. I remember his first exhibition in an up-market gallery in a trendy posh part of Glasgow. He was taken there handcuffed to a guard on each wrist to launch the exhibition before being returned to prison. He wrote a book “A Sense of Freedom”. An amazing story of how a destructive lonely isolated inward-looking man became part of a team. He led the team and moved from being destructive to constructive, from a man of violence to a man of peace. In his book, Jimmy writes “Out of everything that makes up this Unit, the greatest thing costs nothing it is the way in which staff and prisoners get together and talk. It is the one thing that has brought the best results, getting together, it is a bunch of isolated individuals coming together and working towards building a community.”

And this is what I want to emphasise; that it’s not too difficult to move from isolation to community.

The second thing I want to emphasise is that there is a huge difference between loneliness and solitude.

In today’s constantly connected world, finding solitude has become a lost art.  Marya Mannes in Psychology Today writes “that Western culture tends to equate a desire for solitude with people who are lonely or sad or have anti-social tendencies. But seeking solitude can be quite healthy. There are many physical and psychological benefits to spending time alone”. Our own Mingary, The Quiet Place is about providing a special sacred space for people to seek solitude in the midst of a hectic city.

Benefits of seeking solitude:

  1. It allows you to reboot your brain and unwind. Constantly being “on” doesn’t give your brain a chance to rest and replenish itself. Being intentionally by yourself with no distractions gives you the chance to clear your mind, focus and think more clearly.
  2. Solitude helps to improve concentration and ultimately will help you get more done in a shorter amount of time.
  1. Solitude provides time for you to think deeply. Hum-drum day to day tasks can be pushed aside to allow to engage in some serious thought.
  2. Solitude can enhance the quality of your relationships with others. By spending time with yourself can enable you to gain a better understanding of the people you want to be with as well as helping you to come to appreciate them better.

Do you see what I mean? Loneliness is awful/solitude is good.

Jesus regularly sought solitude. Early in his ministry, he went away into the wilderness to think things through; this has become known as the Temptations. We also know that he went up into a high mountain for the same reason; this has become known as the Transfiguration. And towards the end that he sought peace and quiet in Gethsemane.

But Jesus also sought teamwork. He, of course, called the disciples to be part of the team, and Christianity has thrived on teamwork ever since. Paul, when he is writing to the Corinthians, is addressing that church, some of whom are claiming different leadership. Some were saying I follow Paul; others said no we’re with Apollos. Paul said no we all belong to the same team and we should work together as a team. (No it wasn’t invented by Tony Abbot, Paul beat him in using that term by 2000 years!)

Paul said each one has their part to play, but together they can change the world.

And this is the message to St Michael’s today. We’re all different but TOGETHER as a team!

Enjoy quietness and solitude. Enjoy the time of reflection but go on from there to really work together to make a real impact in this city.

I was listening to Susan Alberti recently talking about the launch of women’s’ AFL, and don’t we all cheer that after years of preventing young women from playing our unique game. She said that the women’s game, even more than the blokes, is all about teamwork.

We can think about this regarding the Church as well. Take the city churches in Melbourne, every shape and size, and every type of churchmanship and theology. Then think of the footy, in the church as a whole there are the defenders; they would say the defenders of the faith, hard to get past. Then there is the midfield, fluctuating a bit, neither here nor there. Then, of course, there are the forwards, that’s us, here at St Michael’s, tackling issues head on, taking risks and totally committed to going forward.

You know the most lonely game to play is tennis; it’s down to you and nobody else. And yet when you watch the tennis there is the greatest example of teamwork you could imagine. Do you know what I mean? The ball boys and girls; working together like a well-oiled machine. A fantastic team of young people and exhibiting all the advantages of teamwork:

  1. Creating energy when the sum is greater than the individual parts
  2. Multi-disciplinary all responding to different aspects of the game
  3. Being totally prepared for any eventuality which can be handled by the team when it would throw an individual
  4. And fostering flexibility and responding to change

This is us here at St Michael’s. We will, of course, reflect and use our solitary moments effectively and we will work together responding to change and winning the church equivalent to the Premiership.

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