I was at a retreat over the weekend, focussing on spirituality or if you like, spiritual formation. It’s a religious term for trying to find and somehow commune with God, however you understand that term, and to learn how to help other people do the same. It can lead to becoming a spiritual director, but that seems a long and slightly weird path for me, but who knows!
The retreats, there are 4 a year, over 4 years ( I know, a long commitment) involves looking at those who have gone before, mystics, and sages, priests and ordinary people, who have found the something extra, something more in life. It also entails looking in the arts, or in ourselves for this presence. On this weekend just gone we examined the desert fathers and mothers, who instead of joining the crazy society of their day, around the 4thcentury CE, went out into the desert to find and hear the word of God.
The desert for them was a place they could drop their egos, their selfish ways, and their ambitions and find the source of life and love, and to recognise they were human beings, made in the image of the divine. They were often hermits, or were hermits in a community, and for long periods of time found silence the main way of achieving this connection.
The problem for many of us today is that we have little time or inclination to go off into the desert.
I don’t think we really have to, although finding a place where the worries and distractions of the day can drop away and we are left with just the spirit and the essence of ourselves seems a pretty good idea. Sometimes our world is just too noisy.
But, as well, going off into the desert to find God is not necessary because God is right here. Unless your God is planted in a place away from you, separated from you, then you carry the spirt of God with you wherever you go. You cannot be separated from the ground of all being because it is within you.
As many, including the wonderful Frederick Buechner would say, “God is found in the muck and misery and marvel of the world”. In the ordinary and every day. Or another quote from him, “listen to your life”, because that is where the spirt of life can be found, nibbling at your toes, nudging us forward towards the light of love, and compassion and forgiveness. To see and commune with the spirit, is to see this act as an essential part of being human, much like breathing. And we can do that anywhere!
So instead of going off to the desert, we have to listen for the divine voice in the everyday world we live in. God is not found external to us, in some far away place, intervening now and again when we beseech him/her by prayer. No, God is closer to us than our breath, deep in our hearts, a presence unseen but oh so real for those who have the willingness to listen.
So with that in mind I was totally taken by the people doing the course. They were people who were in the world, as chaplains, ministers, switch board operators, managers, teachers, and researchers. They were in the world, but with a sense that they also belonged to the eternal spirit that brings life. And in their day to day encounters with others, they try to bring this capacity for caring and compassion to the fore.
I laughed when one person, described her management style. She is in charge of a large number of people in a big government agency, and she has in big letters on the board a summary of how she wants to work with everyone.
Kindness, fairness and humility.
What she is saying, is that she wants to be kind, fair and humble in the way she interact with each of her staff, and she wants them all to do the same.
That’s her management style.
When she first introduced this statement many in the office went away wondering where it had come from. Was it a new method, was it an old one they hadn’t heard about?
Of course they were shocked to hear that it comes from the bible – from the prophet Micah in the Old Testament –
Micah 6:8 “And what does the Lord require, to love kindness, to do justice and to walk humbly with your God”.
I laughed and laughed when I heard that. She was totally unapologetic that she operates out of a faith position, that the mystery she calls God influences how she works, how she treats people and how she treats herself.
I loved the weekend, the other people attending, but I already know that when I listen for the divine presence I am not waiting for a voice calling me to attention, or yelling in my ear. I feel the presence when I perform little acts of love, when I am kind, or help seek a little more justice for someone. In my quiet moments I sense the mystery that lies beneath what we can touch and measure, that we all contain this great life giving force, and when we connect with one another in life giving ways, that force feels real.
Could I explain that to someone else, maybe, although the many people I have talked to have thought either that I was crazy and deluded, or a wacko. Yet for those who are seeking, there is a light that shines forth, that can be seen in the world and in each one of us.
But we have to look, with our eyes firmly open, to the wonders of our existence and the beauty of the earth and the incredible sacrifices so many make for complete strangers.
For it is here that I think that Spirit can so readily be seen.
I don’t know where to start with this blog. So much has been happening to me lately. I have just finished presenting a 6 week course on basic anatomy and human biology to engineers and technicians working in the health sector. A course I loved to teach as I never get sick of showing people how amazing we are, how amazing our bodies are, and that amazingly we can live a long time quite healthily, even though this body of ours is so complex and interrelated.
Then I went on a yoga retreat, over the weekend, surrounded by beautiful, engaging women, a great teacher, a magnificent setting amongst the forest and with time to reflect and re-energise. So good for the mind and soul, and so good for my body.
I got back ready to recommence work, both in my church setting and in the research setting, where I am finishing a PhD . The 3 year anniversary of the start of it came up yesterday, crikes, and how far have I got!!!
But somehow I could not let go of a book I started when down on the retreat. A book that in some ways summarises all of the above, the teaching, the space, nature and the sense of peace being around it gives us, life, the universe, God and everything in between.
So instead of working, I did some reading!
It’s called “Everything is Spiritual” by Rob Bell. It’s a rollicking ride, with no chapters, and with his usual style of short clipped sentences. And I absolutely loved it. It’s like he is talking to you, to me, the reader, sharing his journey, his ideas, but more importantly his heart. He realises everything he has experienced and lived through has contributed to who he is today and there is a joy in understanding that. We are to embrace all that has gone before to move forward. And so he shares with us.
For someone who is a complex mish mash of things, part average scientist, part explorer of the divine, part lover of people and relationships, part pastor, Bells take on it was refreshing!
The book also speaks to me because his journey is also my journey, from a different starting point. His was from the conservative church, mine was from science and no church. Yet we have both come to see that it is not them and us, or you and me, or faith or not, or belief and unbelief, it’s this amazing, incredible mind blowing universe and life we all participate in. And it’s the impulse in this life to create, to grow, and to bond together in relationship, even in the midst of loss and sadness and grief and death that we both sense. There is something moving beyond our sight, just below the surface, that enlivens the world and pushes us to new insights, new ways of being with one another and new ways of loving one another. All of us.
We belong to something greater, because the something greater is the reason we are here.
Bell takes us on a journey, of the universe and us, as humans. He takes us on a journey of his own awakening to a larger picture of God, not as a person but rather an indivisible part of the process of life, and a larger picture of Jesus, as the face of this presence, to those he lived with and to us here and now, in this place. A face that turns things upside down, that stresses love and connection over empire and violence and inequality.
Bell takes us on a journey in quantum mechanics, a weird journey but one that shows that we limit our vision by keeping our faith in a box. Tied up with doctrines and dogmas about who is in or out. Instead he suggests our faith needs to rise up and out of the box and into the crazy world we live and breathe and have our being in. And Bell takes us on a journey of how we can see in our everyday lives we can be the face of this God, this spirit, because spirit needs a body. It had Jesus and it has us. We are to be the bodies the spirit uses to make change.
Yet Rob Bell continually reminds us that this spirit is greater than us, that it was there in the beginning, the beginning of the universe, it was there in the beginning of the planets, it was there in the beginning of the earth story, the story of life on this planet , and it was there in the story of us. And it will always be there. A mystery, yes, but one in which we are soaked and meshed in and enlivened by. As the book title suggests, everything is spiritual, everything is connected, everything is related. We are body, yes, an incredible thing we often abuse, but we are also mind, and soul, and heart and spirit, which is everywhere and in all things. All interconnected, all part of what it is to be human.
And with this insight Bell shows us how we can, by our actions, be the bridge across the gaps people have made, by how we live and work and play and embrace each other. By listening, and being present, by creating and working for others as though they are our brothers and sisters, which they are! And by living with the idea that life is a gift, an amazing, incredible, awe inspiring gift, even with all the frustrations, pain and suffering that comes along with it.
Thew, I highly recommend the book to you, as a way of being refreshed for the journey.
Because I certainly have been refreshed! In my quiet moments, I sometimes I have worried that I should choose one path to follow, one road to tread, and one discipline to hang my hat on. That because I have spent most of my life oscillating between this and that, one love and another, in my mind never fully committing to only one, I have devalued all of them.
Yet now I realise that while I am a curious mixture of a God searcher, church worker and a person who loves science and teaching it, and showing how it reveals the something more in the universe, it’s actually okay! Will I finish my PhD, not if I get diverted to books like this, but maybe it doesn’t matter anyway, it’s a fun ride and gives me so much in the process. I don’t need a PhD to be a scientist and many don’t need a church to be a person of faith. But we do need each other. As Marcus Borg once said, we are connected at the core, a deep, deep connection.
And anyway, all that has gone before makes up who I am today! A slightly crazy, almost 60 year old!!!
Thanks Rob, now back to my research paper!!!
I have had cause to think about friendship lately. I have been using a book, called “The Friendship of Women” by Joan Chittister as the basis for a series of sermons on women. You can find them at http://www.wduc.squarespace.com if you are interested.
She writes so beautifully about friendship, that mysterious quality of our lives that enriches us. As she says, “only friendship can really save us from our own smallness”. Yet how to define it, how to write about it, how to talk about it. Below is a blog from sometime ago, which I thought I would republish, as often literature is the best way to answer those questions.
I have been wanting to write a blog about friendship for some time. In fact since I read the book, “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara. What a book, what a story!
So here goes…..
We travel through life, if we are lucky, with a group of people who journey with us. If we are really lucky some of these people start the journey when we are young, and hang around until the end, whenever that is, 70, 80 or earlier if circumstances dictate that.
These friends, the old friends, seem to hang around regardless of the ups and downs of life, the joys and sorrows that befall us, and remind us of our younger selves, and the dreams we may have had, some fulfilled others not. As someone said to me recently, friendship is not just about the good times, but just the times, some good some not so good. But hopefully all shared.
I have been very fortunate to have had these types of friends, developed during my University days when I was known as KD, and had lots of ideas about what I was going to do, save the world, become a famous scientistic, run a marathon, or just organise a party. I had so many good ideas, of which some remained just that, an idea, that I was christened “Gunna Dutton”. Funnily enough that doesn’t seem so bad now, and when some of my close friends call me KD, it brings a smile to my face. KD, who was that, oh yes, I remember now…
I am lucky to have one friend I have known from school, when we used to eat our lunch outside and dream about going to the beach. When we get together it is like we are 20 again! And others I inherited when my husband’s good friends became mine.
Commitment and loyalty are words bandied around but require an inner strength, for when the going gets rough and it does for most people, it is the people who remain who end up being the greatest friends, regardless of when they appear in our lives. I recently caught up with my cousin, well sort of cousin in Broome, and spent a day enjoying his company. I haven’t seen much of him these past years, but we have known each other since we were kids, as his mum and my mum were best friends. Shirley, my mum, and Gwen knew each other from the age of 10 when they lived across the road from one another. Now theirs was a friendship which had its ups and downs, but when the downs got more than the ups, my cousin was clear in letting me know my mum showed loyalty and courage. When Gwen got dementia, and was very difficult to deal with, mum was the constant in her life. Even though Gwen rang mum at all hours of the day and night, and often was so confused that she though mum had suddenly got a fella, as the answering machine voice was male, mum was there for her.
So friendship is such a vital part of who we are as humans, we need friends to love us, and for us to love. To share with, cry with, laugh with, be honest with and sometimes to forgive, for forgiveness is part of the journey. And hopefully we are better, more complete people with it.
So let me return to the book for in the book we see a most beautiful friendship and how that friendship along with others can be enough for someone to form” a little life” with it, after the most horrendous of childhoods.
The story is about four young men from the same college, their relationship to one another and ultimately to one of them in particular, Jude. Jude has suffered terribly, but how and why is not known by the reader or by the other characters till quite a long way into the book. Initially the young men move to NYC, and we follow them as they work their way through life, full of career ups and downs, relationships and marriage. But the story at its heart is about the nature of friendship and how it can transmit love and forgiveness, compassion and tolerance. How it can find the very best of us if we let it, becoming a platform that allows us, all of us, to participate in the world. Even with someone like Jude, who was so damaged he was unable to conceive that he is worthy of such friendship.
But this minimises the book, which has so much depth to it. For Jude is not just racked by mental demons, cutting himself literally to survive the memories and flashbacks, but physical ones as well. He suffers, but so does his friends, who for most of the book do not understand the depth of his grief and his anguish, but love him anyway. Along the way there are standouts, people who leave their mark on him in ways that seem incredible. Willem, his best friend, Andy, his doctor, although that seems too small a title and Harold and Julia, who ultimately adopt him. Who accept the unknowns of Jude, are with him as he deals with his demons but also share with him his hard won joys.
There are so many sections of the book which are so beautifully written, which speak to us about our lives together. In the end Jude can be seen as both a tortured soul but also the light by which the others are better people by having known and loved him. We are the better for those we travel with. As Willem discovered “The person he loved was sick, and would always be sick, and his responsibility was not to make him better, but to make him less sick.”
Or when Willem realised his was not a rescue mission, but an extension of their friendship, in which he had saved Jude and just as often Jude had saved him.
I remember one passage that will always stick in my mind.
All the boys were visiting Harold and Julia’s place in the country for the first time. They were to have the first of many Thanksgiving dinners with one another. The evening had begun and there were drinks and talking and laughing. Jude was quietly sitting in the corner. Not feeling isolated and alone, but instead peaceful and happy. He can see all the people he loved in one room getting to know one another. Starting a relationship with each other that would strengthen them all in the coming years. Friendship was not a competition to Jude, he was unable to complete on so many levels. Rather it was the love shared between them that counted the most. “He experienced the singular pleasure of watching people he loved fall in love with other people he loved.”
The book is not for the faint hearted. Jude is a very damaged, although brilliant person, and the hidden secrets when revealed are confronting. Yet when he does reveal them it is to the person who in the end loved him the most. But that’s the other thing about friendship, it should not require both parties to somehow to be on equal terms. I know that seems strange, but love can also be accepting that the other person cannot give all of themselves to the relationship, and what is offered is offered in love. Jude would know everything about his friends, but they knew very little about him. And that seemed okay. Maybe we ask too much of the people we travel with, that we should behave the same way, share our stories in the same way, look the same way, think the same way, and even deal with our friendships in the same way. I often complain that one of my friends doesn’t ring me enough, or ask me enough questions!!!
We are linked by time spent, shared experiences, both good and bad, a life lived with one another. This should be enough. Is enough.
So as I enter my 57th year (how is that possible!), I am grateful for those that have hung around, who still laugh at my pathetic jokes, and who I know will be there through the continuing joys and sorrows of life. As Willem reflects in the book, “Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely?”
In a world in which anxiety rules, when the dreams of riches, and prestige and an adventure filled life is reduced to the normalcy of day to day living, and where our social media gives us thousands of online friends, but no connections, true friendship, lasting friendship is the light of love which saves us.
While I don’t want to give the ending away, it is clear that Jude’s life has been a struggle, and the struggle to continue to live with the pain is incredibly challenging. Yet in this struggle, with friends, he discovers his own meaning in life, even if he can’t really believe he deserves it.
Lets’ hear him…..
“And although he hadn’t fretted over whether his life was worthwhile he had always wondered why he, why so many others went on living at all. …
He had known ever since the hospital that it was impossible to convince someone to live for his own sake. But he often thought it would be more effective treatment to make people feel more urgently the necessity of living for others. That rare selflessness had been something he could be proud of after all. He hadn’t understood why they wanted him to stay alive, only that they had, and so he had done it. Eventually he had learned how to rediscover contentment, joy even.”
“I know my life’s meaningful because” – and here he stopped, and looked shy, and was silent for a moment before he continued – ” because I’m a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.”
The ending is just as beautiful as the beginning. A life of friendship, a life of love, that could overcome the most terrible of starts. A little life. Maybe that’s what we all will be blessed to have, a little life, travelling with those who love and know us. If we are lucky.
Let me end with a passage that has Willem talking to Jude late at night. Theirs was a relationship for the ages.
“Sometimes he wakes so far from himself that he can’t even remember who he is. “Where am I?” he asks, desperate, and then, “Who am I? Who am I?
And then he hears, so close to his ear that it is as if the voice is originating inside his own head, Willem’s whispered incantation. “You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs.”
“You’re a New Yorker. You live in SoHo. You volunteer for an arts organization; you volunteer for a food kitchen.”
“You’re a swimmer. You’re a baker. You’re a cook. You’re a reader. You have a beautiful voice, though you never sing anymore.” “You’re an excellent pianist. You’re an art collector. You write me lovely messages when I’m away. You’re patient. You’re generous. You’re the best listener I know. You’re the smartest person I know, in every way. You’re the bravest person I know, in every way.”
“You’re a lawyer. You’re the chair of the litigation department at Rosen Pritchard and Klein. You love your job; you work hard at it.”
“You’re a mathematician. You’re a logician. You’ve tried to teach me, again and again.”
“You were treated horribly. You came out on the other end. You were always you.”
A love between friends, in some ways the greatest love, according to CS Lewis.
I leave you with a song by Simon and Garfunkel, called “old Friends”.
I have been reading a book lately, called “Phosphorescence”, by Julia Baird. I have loved it and she writes quite beautifully about the things that give us light, particularly awe and wonder, but also our internal light, and particularly when things go a little pear shaped!
But she is speaking to a contemporary audience that may not of heard of people who have been writing in this area over many years. People like Carl Sagan, a famous cosmologist and thinker, who quotes Albert Einstein and Thomas Carlyle in his book “The Varieties of Scientific Experience”
“By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night. I believe that it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and literature. Thomas Carlyle said that wonder is the basis of worship. And Albert Einstein said, `I maintain that the cosmic religion feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.` So if both Carlyle and Einstein could agree on something, it has a modest possibility of even being right.”.
What about Rabi Abraham Heschel, who coined the term Radical Amazement. Who said that wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of a religious life and the proper response to our experience of the divine. Much like Carl Sagan.
As Herschel says, the insights that connect us to the holy one come not on the level of discursive thinking, but on the level of wonder and radical amazement, in the depth of awe, in our sensitivity to the mystery, in our awareness of the ineffable.
Living in radical amazement brings us into a space in which great things happen to the soul. I love that.
Without radical amazement we cannot grasp what a marvel of creation we are, in a sea of marvels. Even with all the death and destruction that goes with it.
I personally have always had this sensibility, teaching anatomy has left me with awe at how complex and intricate our bodies are, how incredible is the process by which we live and move and have our being. But not just us, creation in general, both big, ,and really, really small, amazes me.
Recently I have become fascinated with the brain, the mind, consciousness and the philosophers guide to all of this. Some of it seems totally crazy but so incredible.
Without doubt, this feeling of wonder, has lead me to believe there is a greater mystery to life that can be measured or examined with a microscope. That a divine layer lies beneath, a creative energy seeping into every living thing that holds the whole thing together. That leads us out of our self-absorbed world into the wider one, embracing life for all. As Heschel says, “living in radical amazement brings us into a space in which great things happen to the soul”.
One of the great things about working for a church, is I get time to ponder some of this stuff, and in that pondering many years ago I discovered Mary Oliver. She writes her poetry with eyes wide open to the natural world, but in her later years to the something more stirring within it and us.
Most of my congregation hear from Mary regularly, and I even use her poems when conducting funerals and weddings, when sometimes only a poem can truly express our emotions.
Julia Baird ends her book with a famous Mary Oliver poem, “The Summer Day”, where the last line says,
“Tell me, what it is you plan to do,
With you one wild and precious life”?
I do love that one.
But this is another one of my favourites –
“When Death Comes.”
She ends it with these lines…
“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world in my arms.
When its over, I don’t want to wonder
If I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself signing and frightened,
Or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world”.
I recommend both the book, and of course Mary Oliver. Or perhaps, if you aren’t feeling like reading, just go out and take a walk.
And look around you a bit more intentionally. It does help!
Book, books, I love books. They give us comfort, insight, enjoyment, sorrow, laughter.
They take us out of ourselves, see the other, the neighbour, the friend, the enemy, in a new light.
People who write are giving us a gift, and people who recommend books to us are giving us gifts as well.
I was recommended a book by someone who I met while working very briefly in a chaplaincy role, yet she has given me a gift.
The book is called “Phosphorescence” by Julia Baird. It is gentle and insightful about the human condition, about awe and wonder and about being a woman, here and now. How to find the light in the dark of life.
But Julia Baird has also given me a gift. A poet who I was unaware of, and who has written these beautiful words in a poem, called “Birthing the sky, Birthing the sea”. They are found in the book….
Hands on her belly of stone
Pebbles in her blood stream
She’s fervently dreaming of birthing the sky
birthing the sea.
She doesn’t want to live forever
Just long enough to be able to love a little harder
To become a little smarter
To heal the world just enough that
evolving hearts have a platform from which to start.”
To hear the whole poem, go onto YouTube, and as she speaks it, rather than has it written down. The poet is Candy Royalle and she sadly died a few years ago aged 37.
I discovered poetry, really discovered it through Mary Oliver. And now I love the way it can also speak to us at a deep, mysterious level, below what we can see on the surface of things.
Thankyou Julia for giving me these beautiful words by Candy.
Sometimes I wonder, can I be a writer like that, make words that sit us up and shake us out of our stupor?
I have just finished a series of 3 services and sermons for Wembley Downs Uniting Church, and I am feeling absolutely cooked, as my son’s would say.
Why you may ask, as I do lots of services since I am employed by the Church on a part time basis. Yet we had decided that I would do the services for a whole month based on a theme, to enable more continuity in our worship.
I think I feel so exhausted because they were very personal sermons, about my own journey, my doubts and exploring, and about what I trust and believe in, which actually has very little to do with the traditional doctrine and dogmas of the Church. This was the theme I chose for August, so it’s my own fault that I’m feeling this way.
I didn’t just use my ideas but lots of current and progressive theologians and scientists just in case you thought I may have been too egocentric! Yet they have helped me shape my ideas. So I wanted to be honest about my faith with those who were listening, my lovely congregation and anyone who reads them.
What I realised is that –
Honesty in faith can be quite costly, because it leaves you vulnerable for people to accept or reject something that is very close to you. You are sharing something very intimate about yourself and that takes courage if it doesn’t match the standard view. I am lucky that those I presented to are open and exploring too.
Honesty in faith can be difficult because we have to own up to who we are and what we really do believe in our hearts, in our very souls. What we trust in. And this may require us letting go of some long held images that were given to us in our early lives. Maybe there are some advantages of not growing up in the church!
Honesty in faith can be troubling because if we really look at ourselves, we may see we are not that perfect after all (I have never thought that, by the way), but it’s also about accepting things about ourselves that we may not like. Or that the things we hold dear sometimes are not seen in our day to day living. Sometimes what we believe and how we live and act in the world are poles apart. Even if we are trying!
Honesty in faith can be confronting when we see we may be miles away from those we hold dear, who have different understanding and truths that speak to them but don’t speak to us. Its about accepting diversity, real diversity, even within our own traditions.
Phew, a long list.
Yet to work out what really drives us, what we ultimately think about any of the really big issues, is good medicine. It clears the fog of pretence, of perfection and I think allows us to move forward, accepting both the good and bad about our faith and about ourselves. After all, part of being a follower of Jesus, is being open to transformation and renewal. Being able to start again.
In fact honesty in faith can ultimately be uplifting if it enables us to coalesce all that we know about the world, about ourselves and about our faith tradition into a meaningful, fulfilling whole.
I have to say, I was as honest as I could be in what drives me to stay in the church, well at least Wembley Downs, and drives me to still be connected to my faith tradition, as challenging as that is sometimes.
I am proud of those sermons, but I realise that these were as good as it gets for me, in terms of this sharing. From now on I will focus on others and how they can speak to us, and less about Karen Sloan.
The next series, starting in October, will be about women, both in the bible and in our world. Feisty, strong, inspiring women.
Less about me and more about them. As long as I haven’t been fired!
If you are interested in the sermons here is the link them.
I have just finished almost 3 months as a hospital chaplain, and I have heard lots of stories.
Stories from people who are facing a major health scare, like a heart attack, people who are dying, or have had a major accident. They have been young and old, Australian born and migrants who came here as children, from all over the world. They have been indigenous, Indian, Croatian, and white Australian, all with incredible stories to tell.
Sometimes the stories are about an escape from another country, fleeing a dangerous political and government regime, full of terror and bravery and hope, and when they arrived in Australia, the conflict and pain of adjusting to a whole new culture and set of ways, while never thinking they would see their families again. And how they had adjusted to life, raised families, lost loved ones, and find themselves in hospital.
Sometimes the stories are about our Northwest, the difficulties of being aboriginal in remote communities, but the love of the land and of the sea and the creatures found there. About their pride in children, the pain of loss, the coldness of Perth, and of the past terrible history of this land where children were taken and not returned.
Sometimes the stories are made up, delusional, and scary, for while a person is cared for medically they may also still be struggling with their mental health.
Sometimes stories are about how people cope with life when it seems so, so hard, dealing with parents with dementia, children who are drug addicts, loved ones who are dying, divorces, deaths and drugs, the big 3, but also amazing stories of resilience, love and commitment.
I listened to these stories, brought out because in a hospital bed, apart from not having much to do, our masks are removed, and we are almost at our most vulnerable. When we are laying there, our normal life with its timetable and possessions is on hold, and often we are stripped down to what makes us who we are.
We want and need someone to listen and affirm our story, to acknowledge our pain, to cheer our survival and our strength, and to share our grief and loneliness.
So it has been a privilege to share these stories. It’s been harrowing but a joy. And sometimes in those stories we can hear our own. I can hear my own.
Because I also believe when we really listen, the truth of a person’s story gives us a deep connection to ourselves. Their stories were full of light and dark, joy and sorrow, laughter and challenge, guilt and grace, mistakes and wins along the way. And so are ours.
So listening deeply to another, standing beside them, gives us gifts we would never expect.
It helps us to acknowledge our own humanity, our connectedness to each other on the journey and paradox of life. Suddenly we are not alone. It is a profound truth that it is not a binary world, not this or that, but this and that, and all our experiences contribute to who we are as people.
Yet it’s more than this, not just that we can see in other’s stories our own, but that we can see that this is life. Life is not straight forward. Each one of our lives is a mixture of depth, richness, complexity and mystery, and if we are truly present to our own life we will see it for what it is, a marvellous creation, in all its shades. By listening to others, we hear our own story, embracing all the “ands”, embracing ourselves.
But there is still another gift.
A gift given to us when we are struggling.
Maybe by hearing another’s story, we see a way forward in our own lives, when things are hard. Sometimes they help us more than we help them.
When we can’t find hope, let’s find a story of someone who lives in hope, and use it to find hope in our lives.
When we can’t find the strength to continue, let’s lean on others who are strong, or who have been strong and who show persistence even when it seems crazy to do so.
When we can’t find answers to our questions about life, maybe rest on someone whose story shows the exploring, the searching, and the acceptance of uncertainty which is part of being human.
When we can’t find the light of life, let us find a story of someone who has found their way through the darkness of despair or grief or loneliness, and rest in it for a while.
And when we can’t find love, let’s find an example of someone who lives in love, who discovers love in everyday moments, and follow that path.
I think stories are what makes us human. We live and breathe by stories. Which is why I think the story of Jesus is so powerful. And the stories Jesus tells.
What do I want to write about this morning, from the couch? The last one, as I am now officially off the couch. Our little church is reconvening next Sunday after 2 months being closed, in fact more than 2 months.
Well, it’s actual raining here, and I have been sitting reading a beautiful book, well finishing it, called “On the Brink of Everything”, watching as the raindrops fall. I think I have mentioned it in a previous entry. It is still wonderful.
It’s an apt title for this new beginning we are about to have.
But as I was reading the book from Parker Palmer, my phone pinged, telling me I had a notification from facebook. Often I would think to myself, “too tied to that *** phone”, and would ignore the ping, but this time I looked, and I was so glad I did.
Carrie Newcomer, one of my favourite singer/songwriters was doing a live concert, and because I follow her (all those who are on facebook know what that means) I clicked the link.
There she was singing away from the Sisters of Mercy Retreat Centre in St Louis, in the US, just her and a few guitars, for free. To all those who wanted to hear songs of hope, of challenge, of support and of community. Songs that are so needed there, at a time of protest, upheaval, and violence, and lack of compassionate leadership, all the time while the pandemic still rages.
But also songs that are needed here, with our own history of violence and racism. Black lives matter everywhere, and Australians also needs to wake up from the slumber we have been in about our own culpability and actions towards our indigenous brothers and sisters. That have led them to die early, be over represented in prisons, and have poorer outcomes in health, education and employment.
Sometimes things that happen overseas, strike a match in our own home…
I loved the songs, I love Carrie’s big heart, and her honesty. I loved that so many people connected to the concert online, sending messages of support and gratitude. That they connected strongly to her message of love for everyone.
But the most amazing serendipity about this morning, is that she is very good friends with Parker Palmer, and has written a few songs to go with the book I was reading when the ping came in!
Life is funny and sometimes very surprising.
I am not going to put a link to those songs but to one she played during the online concert.
It’s called, “There is room at the table”. Says it all really.
So be encouraged by the fact there are many, many people in the USA who are horrified and ashamed about what has been occurring and still is occurring, every single day. But also know there are many people here who are ashamed and horrified by what has occurred and continues to occur here.
If you too want to support the idea that racism and bigotry and injustice, is not how we should live together, if you want to support the idea that “Black lives matter”, join the march next Saturday that is being held in Perth. A peaceful march to focus the light on our own society and its inequality.
Of course, that may not be you, or you may be feeling cautious about doing that if you are older.
There are many other ways to get connected and be in solidarity with those protesting and with their message. As Parker Palmer says when he talks about it in his chapter “Keep Reaching Out”…..
“Our youth orientated culture sends a message to elders that can discourage and defeat us: It’s time to withdraw from serious engagement with a world that’s changing so rapidly you cant possibly keep up. So take up harmless hobbies and hang out at home.
There are only 3 problems with this message: 1. It robs older folks of sources of vitality, meaning and purpose. 2. It robs the world of the gifts elders have to offer. 3. Its ridiculous.
Other than that, it’s a great idea.
When I am with elders who have a mind heart connection with the world beyond their walls, I find find their vitality contagious, even if they are confined to their homes.”
So Parker Palmer suggests –
“if you can’t march, stay engaged with public life by using your voices and speaking your minds. You can write letters to the editor, speak up at local forums, or talk with family and friends about the things that matter to you and to them.
“Keep reaching out” means saying to the world, “I’m still a member of this community. I have a voice and things I need to say, and I want to be part of the conversation. Even more important it means saying all of that to yourself until it’s engraved on your heart.
It’s time to get off the couch! I think this is what Jesus was after, all those years ago.
Here’s the link to the song.
So many people are writing about change. The change we will face after the pandemic is over, particularly in the church/worship space. While I totally agree that change is coming, it’s in all spaces. How do we do medicine, shopping, sport and even concerts and music? It may never be the same again.
Of course, as I said, we are interested particularly in the church space. Sometimes people think it’s one massive entity, where everyone is doing or aiming for the same thing. This could be further from the truth. I know at Wembley Downs Uniting we have never seen the worship on a Sunday as the be all and end of our faith. It has always been the beginning, giving us insight and energy to take our faith, and our love and compassion out into the wider world.
We do always seem to meet on a Sunday, in the morning, although for many years we had a service once a month in the evening and with a shared meal. Perhaps we do need to become more flexible on what day we get together, since Sunday is now not seen as a rest day for many. Yet I still like the idea of a sabbath, when time is taken to reflect and gather oneself for the start of another week. So it’s open for discussion!
It does seem funny that I have just finished writing a sermon for Pentecost, about the Spirit of God, the divine presence that goes where it will, and urges us all, church goer or not, to do the best we can in the communities we are in. I totally agree with this.
So then why do I have a commitment to a church gathering together? Particularly since after the period of isolation, we have much more online material, and ways of communicating that is not in person. Clearly it doesn’t need a building!
What are we doing or being when we meet that I deem necessary to my life?
Well, I do think finding meaning and purpose in our lives, and developing a spiritual framework to guide us, can include a church gathering and a faith journey. Because our spiritual framework affects how we live and work in the world and how we deal with challenges, both sorrows and joys. It doesn’t require a belief in something we call God, of course, but for many of us this sacred element is part of the story. And our commitment to it leads us to seek and explore together, in person!
So I believe a church gathering is a time to become aware of the divine voice found in all of life, including our own, to sense community with those who might have a similar passion and faith, and to support one another as we do the work of Jesus and be his disciples in the world. It is has very little to do with a sacrificial sacrifice of Jesus. We don’t gather to worship Jesus, like an idol, but follow him, and we don’t gather to worship God, as though God is a person who needs worshipping, but to sense the presence of the spirit in our lives. And in the lives of those who have come before us.
It also has to do with our common humanity and the rights of every person to feel safe, have enough to eat, be educated, be included in societies decisions, be recognised as of value and share in the resources available. And the rights of the rest of the non-human creation, for without them we will not survive. Jesus spoke so much about inclusion and unity of purpose that it’s hard to believe this is not the main message. I believe it’s about how we see the world, how we see each other, and what we can contribute.
So how do we come together to worship post Covid-19? Well for a start I think it will be a long time for it to be post. We have to live with these changes for some time if not forever. And maybe singing and hugging will not come back for a while!
That’s the practicalities of getting together, and they are worth doing. I must admit I am wanting to reconvene, as I miss seeing my community gather in friendship, fellowship, and in hearing their visions and ideas.
Many of us find a church community helpful in getting this big picture. So I don’t encourage people to come to church to keep me in a job, but so that we can journey together in love and make a difference in the world, or in our little patch anyway.
Seems like a good reason to meet. Even if society thinks it’s kind of strange.
So, as I come to “Reflections on the Couch 9”, I seem to have had too much time on the couch!. Because I have reached a bit of a crossroad in my life, which I get at various times. I often wonder whether it’s because I am an explorer by nature (thanks Dennis), and love everything from science to faith questions, to music and literature, to philosophy and psychology. Phew, too many to become an expert in. And I also love just being with people and sharing their story or stories.
Yet eventually all the things I love to do collide, and I have to choose!
So what’s my dilemma. Ah, that I can’t tell in a public space, but it has to do with meaning and purpose, ours and others, how do we find it, how to we hang onto it when we age, and does working for a church, a rather anachronistic job in our fast paced science driven world help people to clarify it in some way.
Parker Palmer, a wonderful writer, has written a book called “On the Brink of Everything”. In one of the chapters he addresses this idea, since he is over 80, asking “does my life have meaning?”.
He writes, “at the moment I rest easy with the notion that I don’t need to ask or answer that question, does my life have meaning. All I need to do is to keep living as one among many as well as I can, hoping to help myself and others grow ripe with life and love as we stand under the sun.”
Beautifully written, from someone who has been a fine writer, activist, but also suffered severe bouts of depression all his life.
How do we get to that wise point in our lives? Because, like Parker Palmer, our journey has many ups and downs.
Can I, as a part time minister of the Uniting Church, help people on this journey?
I spoke to a friend recently about this, also a minister, who gave me some direction . He thought his role in being a minister was about finding meaning, for him and for others, and not only from ancient texts but also from the world we live in. I would like to repeat his words to me here –
“Sure, religion is messy. But imagine there’s no religion. Imagine a community of folks approach you and say hey, we’re into trying to figure out life. We’d like you to be our philosopher in residence. Like an artist in residence, with words and ideas and feelings. You’ll live in a little house we built for you. You’ll counsel us, and help us think through stuff. You’ll be there for us when we go through changes, go through bad times, feel lost, feel inspired to help others, and when we die. You’ll basically just be supported by us, to be you, for us.
I really do think this is the greatest gig in the world.”
Mm, I love that, that we, as ministers, are to help people find meaning and purpose, not just through our faith tradition, but also by exploring how the world works, how we work, and then to help work out how we are all to live in this world. By just being, us, who we are!
That’s a pretty good thought, since quite often I feel I am a real mixture of interests and ideas, and I bring them all to the table in my role at Wembley Downs, including a half finished PhD in science. I now realise that’s what I have also wanted to do, and what I have to offer.
So as a note to self, more than anything else, let’s widen the role of a church minister, maybe even drop the title, (I am actually called a Pastor, which is also slightly cringeworthy) and open the doors of the building to let in the light of stories, and experiences, and knowledge, some from our tradition, some from our world, including science, and lots from each other. Let’s embrace the opportunity we have to help people find meaning in a society which can so easily swallow them up and spit them out. Let’s make an inclusive, exploring community.
Maybe if we do we will all grow in our understanding of what life is and how we are to live it together.
Or as Parker Palmer said, “help us and others grow ripe with life and love as we stand under the sun.”
Not a bad thought really!