Homo – Sapiens: the “Wise Humans”


“It is in small talk that you will find the stirrings of hope” Tim Smit

Christmas Message – 2008

Christmas Message

Christmas Eve 2008

This is a message – a sermon if your prefer – in support of small talk.

It is an appeal to you not to “forget or overlook the day of small things” as one of the Old Testament prophets put it. (Zechariah 4:10).

I am inviting you to slow down in 2009. Engage in lingering conversation. Don’t worry if it feels like meaningless chatter. Value small talk.

Not tittle – tattle or gossip, but that respectful, interested, engaged conversation, even though it may not have an immediate purpose or obvious outcome.

Why am I saying this?

It is because I have a concern that we are running out of time. Running out of time to be with others, to engage with our children, to converse without an agenda and to hear people properly.

And this may be at the root of some of our problems.

There are so many pressing duties and so little time to get them done.

We mistakenly think that conversation must have a point, otherwise it is idle, time wasting chatter.

This is not so.

I think of my old, late friend Fraser Penny.

When he retired from his Perthshire farm, he established a vegetable patch very close to the crossroads near to his house. He could see all the comings and goings and more to the point he could hail you as you passed by. It felt churlish not to stop and many a mindless hour was spent, chatting about not very much.

But when Fraser died at the age of 80 a few years ago, I don’t think I have ever seen such a well attended funeral. He made so many friends.

He was also an organic farmer – though he never knew it.

He was in the vanguard of the Slow Food Movement – but he would never have heard of it.

He never made much money, but he had a genius for making friends and had a wealth of them, as well as a wealth of stories to tell.

Small talk.

Remember Mary, the mother of Jesus?

She made a journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth whilst they were both pregnant. Over their cup of tea, or whatever it was that they shared, I bet there would have been a good deal of small talk interspersed with all the magnificent poetry. Then, when the child in Elizabeth’s womb gave a kick, some current of shared destiny passed between these two women.

Don’t underestimate the value of taking time to visit with a family member.

Remember the shepherds out in the fields?

They were no doubt deep in conversation, passing the night watch together, with a campfire lit for warmth perhaps. And in their talk, prompted by what they had shared in the mystery of the night, they headed off in search of this thing that had “come to pass”.

Don’t underestimate the value of that kind of encounter in your life.

Remember the wise men?

They were thinkers, discerning sages, people who engaged in speculation and no doubt they conferred and discussed their insights and reading. They were led to a strange revelation, some unexpected truth, of a birth in a barn that they discerned would change them and the world forever, and so it turned out.

Don’t underestimate the possibilities of speculation.

I’ve been reading recently a fascinating book by an American academic called Richard Sennett. (Richard Sennet – The Craftsman. Allen Lane 2008). He argues that people who work in the NHS are suffering from “reform fatigue”. In an organisation where reform seems continuous and endless, people who work for the organisation cannot keep pace. It takes years for people to get used to new methods. Sennett suggests that people are still getting used to reforms introduced 10 years ago that have been superseded by fresh innovations and new reforms.

The problem with the reform is not that things are getting worse. Probably the treatments are getting better. But what is missing is something important that has got left behind. The reforms are driven by the need for “measurable outcomes”, targets and figures that demonstrate better service and efficiency. The aim is reduced waiting lists, better clinical results.

That is great. But people, argues Sennett, are feeling nostalgic. It is not that people want those improvements to be lost and for the clocks to be wound back. If they went back 20 years most NHS staff would be horrified by what they saw.

What they are nostalgic for are those things that cannot so readily be measured, but actually make all the difference in the world. What the reforms don’t take account of so readily is the need, for example, to take time to listen to a patient’s story.

So many clues about a person can be found in conversation, not just clinical diagnosis. So much healing can take place when people are treated as a person, not just a bundle of symptoms, “a sick patient cannot be repaired like an automobile” says Sennett. He goes on to suggest that in order to do good and useful work in life, “we must be curious, we must investigate and we must learn from ambiguity”.

In other words, we must not underestimate the value of small talk.

Tim Smit is the founder of the Eden Project in Cornwall. He recently advocated the value of small talk, too. He made an impassioned appeal for the recovery of conversation held, “without hurry, without the appearance of being an obligation or a nuisance” These conversations are, he suggests, the “glue” of human community, for they are what make up the fabric of neighbourliness. Conversation is a bit like the shuttle that passes from side to side through the loom that weaves cloth. It is the agent that binds.

Smit urges us to reassert the value of conversation, of small talk. He writes, “it is in small talk that you will find the stirrings of hope that Homo – Sapiens might live up to the name it gave itself – the wise human”.

Do not underestimate the value of seemingly trivial conversation and unscheduled encounters. Mary and Elizabeth, the Shepherds and the wise men did not have an agenda for their various conversations, their outcomes were not planned in advance or anticipated, I would suggest that they were utterly surprised by the outcome of their conversations. Their willingness to engage in open conversation changed their worlds and ours.

The world needs change today and it may just come about when we reassert the value of conversation for its own sake.

Christmas Eve 2008

Greyfriars Herb Garden, Edinburgh

We at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh have a long history of working with people who have experienced disadvantage and homlessness and the Kirkyard Herb Garden Project is one amongst many that we are piloting to give people an opportunity to get outdoors, do something creative and give people ownership and a sense of responsibility for public spaces. The Kirkyard was a herb garden in the middle ages when the Grey Friars cultivated medicinal herbs here.

In the course of 2009, we hope to establish a herb garden in the Kirkyard once more. With the support of Edinburgh City Council and many others we have put together a small team of enthusiastic people who have already begun some of the groundwork.

The ambition is to improve the lives of those who work on the project, to improve the security, amenity and biodiversity of the kikryard and to create meditative and cheering spaces for visitors. In addition, we hope to harvest some of the herbs for herbal remedies.

Watch this site for more updates