Mary Oliver, my beautiful companion, who opened my eyes to poetry, and wonder, and creation has died. My heart feels sad that I have to say goodbye to this wonderful woman, yet, I will in some ways never say goodbye. For the poetry she wrote, beautiful, glorious poetry, with a depth and perception that spoke to anyone who found it, lives on. In all the books that hold her poems, and in all the people who will continue to read and be inspired by them. I for one will never let the simple pleasure of a Mary Oliver poem be lost.
Here are just a couple of my favourites, but this is just the start!
“In Blackwater Woods”.
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
We are letting go of Mary Oliver the person, but never Mary Oliver, the poet.
And this one, called “In the Storm”, speaks to me about what in the end life is about. I have used it before, but maybe we need to read it again and again to let it sink in. Kindness, a little bit of kindness, isn’t that what we all want for each other.
Some black ducks
were shrugged up
on the shore.
It was snowing
hard, from the east,
and the sea
was in disorder.
Then some sanderlings,
five inches long
with beaks like wire,
snowflakes on their backs,
in a row
behind the ducks—
whose backs were also
covered with snow—
they were all but touching,
they were all but under
the roof of the ducks’ tails,
so the wind, pretty much,
blew over them.
They stayed that way, motionless,
for maybe an hour,
then the sanderlings,
each a handful of feathers,
shifted, and were blown away
out over the water,
which was still raging.
they came back
and again the ducks,
like a feathered hedge,
stoop there, and live.
If someone you didn’t know
told you this,
as I am telling you this,
would you believe it?
Belief isn’t always easy.
But this much I have learned,
if not enough else—
to live with my eyes open.
I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn’t a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness—
as now and again
some rare person has suggested—
is a miracle.
As surely it is
And finally, this one, which is long, but I love it because it talks about a God in all things, in creation, in the river, in the stones, in each one of us. Its called “At the River Clarion”.
I don’t know who God is exactly.
But I’ll tell you this.
I was sitting in the river named Clarion, on a water splashed stone
and all afternoon I listened to the voices of the river talking.
Whenever the water struck a stone it had something to say,
and the water itself, and even the mosses trailing under the water.
And slowly, very slowly, it became clear to me what they were saying.
Said the river I am part of holiness.
And I too, said the stone. And I too, whispered the moss beneath the water.
I’d been to the river before, a few times.
Don’t blame the river that nothing happened quickly.
You don’t hear such voices in an hour or a day.
You don’t hear them at all if selfhood has stuffed your ears.
And it’s difficult to hear anything anyway, through all the traffic, the ambition.
If God exists he isn’t just butter and good luck.
He’s also the tick that killed my wonderful dog Luke.
Said the river: imagine everything you can imagine, then keep on going.
Imagine how the lily (who may also be a part of God) would sing to you if it could sing,
if you would pause to hear it.
And how are you so certain anyway that it doesn’t sing?
If God exists he isn’t just churches and mathematics.
He’s the forest, He’s the desert.
He’s the ice caps, that are dying.
He’s the ghetto and the Museum of Fine Arts.
He’s van Gogh and Allen Ginsberg and Robert Motherwell.
He’s the many desperate hands, cleaning and preparing their weapons.
He’s every one of us, potentially.
The leaf of grass, the genius, the politician, the poet.
And if this is true, isn’t it something very important?
Yes, it could be that I am a tiny piece of God, and each of you too, or at least
of his intention and his hope.
Which is a delight beyond measure.
I don’t know how you get to suspect such an idea.
I only know that the river kept singing.
It wasn’t a persuasion, it was all the river’s own constant joy
which was better by far than a lecture, which was comfortable, exciting, unforgettable.
(there is more..)
I went to see a musical the other night, and having bought the whole family tickets I was pretty excited. It was called Madiba and it was based on the life of Nelson Mandela, so I thought it would be educational, and inspirational as well as entertaining.
Well, I found it to be all 3 but the boys were less enthusiastic, and I wondered about that. Yes it was slow in the first half, the dancing and acting and singing was not as good as other musicals we have seen (although the women’s voices were strong) but the second half lived up to everything I was expecting. This half was very moving, focussing on when Mandela was in jail, how he survived and influenced others around him, and his release in 1990. It also focussed on his election as President, and the forgiveness that both he and many people had to find for South Africa to move forward. I thought the actor who played Mandela was very good, and had a beautiful voice which we heard more in the second half.
After reflecting on the boy’s response I realised Nelson Mandela and the fight for justice in South Africa was part of my story, not theirs. Of course the boys know and learnt about him, and about the history of South Africa but that doesn’t really totally cut it.
Rather, for me, Nelson Mandela is someone who has greatly influenced me on my life journey. I was in the UK when he was in jail, and participated in protests calling for his release. I listened to endless talks and presentations about the history of apartheid and the world’s response against it. As a cricket lover, I watched international cricket and rugby without the South African stars, always wondering whether it would ever change. And then, suddenly, it did!
I sat spell bound when Mandela walked free, calling for peace and reconciliation and a new life for all citizens. And felt the hope that abound when he became President.
So the story was more visceral for me, it is part of who I am and how I see the world. The musical came alive for me in a way that was different from Nathan and Pat, and I could overlook its shortcomings.
I was a bit disappointed in their response, but they are an observant twosome. “What has happened since Mandela, look at the country now, it’s a mess”, they commented. Of course South Africa is not the utopia we hoped for, it has so many problems related to corruption, inequality and violence. Its problems are huge, as are the problems for many independent African countries.
What could I say but yes, unfortunately! But the problem we face is that there are not many Nelson Mandelas, just as there are not many Martin Luther Kings or Gandhis, Oscar Romeros or even a Jesus or two, floating around, ready to sacrifice everything for justice. To shine a light in the darkness to what can be as opposed to accepting what is, and then fight for it, not with more guns and violence but with love and fortitude.
But movements like this are more than just one person. While at that time and place in South Africa the light shone through Nelson Mandela, it also shone through everyone who wanted a change, wanted a better world. And in many ways while Mandela was in jail there were ordinary people, sacrificing much to make this change. People like you and me, with jobs and homes and families. .
And it has changed, because of them! Even if there is still a lot of work to be done.
Funnily enough, I was listening to Life Matters on Radio National today and heard a wonderful women being interviewed over a book she has written, called “Always Another Country. She is the story of South Africa as well.
Sisonke Msimang is a black South African who grew up in the country during the time Nelson Mandela was active and then in jail. Her parents were freedom fighters, working hard for justice in South Africa in their own way. Her memories of people staying over, of planning and protesting seemed so vivid. Unfortunately the family moved around the world unable to stay in their homeland for fear of death or imprisonment and so she lived in many countries, hence the name of the book. But when Mandela was freed she came home.
Yet the book is also about belonging as much as anything, because the story doesn’t end there. She now lives in Perth with her husband and children, for while she loves South Africa it has not become a place she can stay. She belongs to the people who love her and who she loves, which can be anywhere. As it turns out it’s here in Australia.
While I haven’t read the book yet, but I will as she was a beautiful, insightful speaker, her final comments on the radio about the post Mandela era were really interesting. And a follow-up to the problems found in modern South Africa.
Yes South Africa is not a utopia. As the boys pointed out. Yes, people who are incredible agents for change and for justice rise at a particular time and place, when they are needed the most. Yet when things return to normal, or sort of normal, sometimes the transition is difficult. People who were outstanding leaders during the 20th century have led corrupt governments in South Africa and made terrible, terrible mistakes for the country and its people in the 21st century.
And the population have allowed them to because maybe they expected so much from them. They allowed them too much power without monitoring what they were doing because of their history and reputation.
That’s why Sisonke loves Australia and Australians. She feels we have a healthy disrespect for our politicians, and so our expectations are a lot lower. A bit sad really, but that means we question them, we analyse what they are doing in our name and we keep them honest, well as honest as possible. I think this is a positive take on our lack of love for our members of parliament and our role in the wider society! We are to be gate keepers for a more just, compassionate and inclusive community. To keep the ideals alive of those who have sacrificed much for them.
Such a challenge for us all!
So, returning where we started, at the musical Madiba, with the family. The musical speaks to me of a time I remember vividly and of a person who was a giant of the 20th century. It’s part of my story, even as a young Australian.
But the book and Sisonke speaks also of what we can do and what people have done, as ordinary citizens, to change things for the better. When there is a light to follow. In a world which seems darker by the day we need both! People to be the light and people who are prepared to help spread that light.
For a better, more just world.
I love Mary Oliver, as most of you here would know. Even at Christmas I have a poem to open my sermon. It’s called “The world I live in”.
The world I live in.
I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs.
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that. And anyway,
what’s wrong with Maybe?
You wouldn’t believe what once or
twice I have seen. I’ll just
tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will
you ever, possibly, see one.
I read in the paper the other day about why it’s okay for children to believe in Father Christmas. Some would say, no, Christmas is about Jesus, not Father Christmas, but that denies the fact that Christmas is not something the early Christians celebrated. It wasn’t until Emperor Constantine in the 4thcentury took a pagan festival called Sol Invictus, or the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun as the date for Jesus’s birth because it wasn’t really known, to get things going, and even then it wasn’t called Christmas, but the Festival of the Nativity of our Lord. Christmas wasn’t really celebrated as a huge event until the 18thcentury. Anyway the people interviewed for the article suggested that the myth of Father Christmas is a form of storytelling and it really is okay. It’s using a story to transmit some deep and meaningful messages to the kids. Things about kindness, sharing, and the spirit of love and life. Now I can hear you saying that it gets commercialised and trivialised, and yes I agree. But the spirit of Christmas is there if you look.
So while I don’t want to compare Father Christmas with Jesus, I do want to suggest that our Christmas stories are also so much more than a set of facts, which we regurgitate every year and then forget. Or worse still discount as being unbelievable.
Rather if we see the Christmas stories as myths, beautiful and powerful, it brings them alive. As Keith Rowe says, myths are the mirrors in which we see what we might become. They represent a way of human knowing that can be placed alongside scientific knowledge as two complementary pathways into life’s truth. They don’t have to be literally true to be true!
And they can come up with some unexpected insights. Things we don’t see until we really see!
I have spent many a Christmas day sermon talking about the stories, how they only appear in 2 of the 4 gospels, how they reflect in miniature the world Jesus lived in, how they were written a long time after the death of Jesus. How they have different accounts, and how they represent the time they were written. So today I am going to go wider and more universal.
While both accounts are full of earthly things, and some mystical things who is the child at the centre? The Gospel of Matthew describes him as Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus is at the centre of the story, the character extraordinaire. A revelation to us about where God is to be found and what God needs from us.
This is the essence of the stories.
Even in our cynical, secular world, it seems to echo a strange and beautiful and evocative call. Where is God? Tell us about your God. As Keith Rowe suggests, “There are no facts upon which we can say for certain that God is with us or even that God even is, but over the centuries those who have taken the stories of the birth of Jesus and the life of Jesus into their hearts and imaginations have been changed. And maybe they have glimpsed this God”. Not a God in the sky, not a God who intervenes in human affairs every now and again, but a God found in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world as Frederick Buechner would say. The reading today from the Gospel of John speaks of this. We hear what the early Christians heard. Jesus has come into the world to bring life and light. God’s light and life.
So the birth stories we hear in December each year are not really about a baby at all but about a man, called Jesus and about his life in God and in the world.
They are about finding God in a human Jesus, who lived and died in 1stcentury Judea, but who more than anyone since has shown a new way to live with one another. A way of love, grounded in the earthy world that he knew and in the indwelling spirit of God that guided him. A kingdom of love, compassion, forgiveness and deep joy irrespective of race religion, class, gender and age. Where everyone was to be included and no one went without. A kingdom of justice.
The stories of the shepherds, of a defenceless baby, of parents who were refugees, of a smelly stable, and animals and women and angels reflect this alternative view. One that so challenged the authorities of the day, the Roman Empire but also some of the religious leaders. Instead of power and violence and injustice and exclusion, hallmarks particularly of the Empire, we get a Jesus who was a man for others. He taught and demonstrated that to find meaning in life one must learn to live for others. It is a message that resonates with the lives of all human beings everywhere, not just those in the 1stcentury. We all want to be loved and included.
So what do we do with Christmas in 2018? I personally love Christmas time because I am a softy at heart. And I confess to telling our children about Father Christmas and leaving out carrots and mince pies for him and his reindeer.
Maybe the spirit of goodwill at Christmas time infects even the critics to believe in the possibility of something different and better, those who are Christian and those who aren’t. Peace on earth, goodwill to all people and the possibility of hope and transformation. The challenge is to take this spirit and make the moment last.
And I believe it will last when we see that the God we meet in Jesus is not some otherworldly creature confined to the outer reaches of our reality. Rather the God we meet in Jesus is the life force that surges through all living things (Dawn Hutchings), that drives us to be better than we are, more loving, more compassionate and more forgiving. Our hope lies in people touching and connecting to God’s spirit in ways that make a difference, both to themselves and to others. Who walk and live the way of Jesus.
People I have seen this week, this month, this year. Who care for the homeless and those without food and shelter, who care for the sick and dying in our hospitals and homes, who donate money and time for others, and those who try to change the status quo by advocating, protesting and generally being annoying to our politicians. Let’s continue to pester them!
As Martin Luther King has said, “hope comes in many forms, mostly not supernatural. Rather in the shape of people, people helping people. God is found in the midst of this action, not separate from it.
I titled this sermon, an unexpected Christmas, but really the unexpectedness of it is how these stories, surprisingly live on, even when you think they may disappear. Jesus message of love for others, powerfully expressed, a long time ago, lives on in our precarious and complicated world because of the truth that lies beneath and beyond them. For God is still here, working within all of creation and in you and me and in all people everywhere.
We just have to look and listen. And follow his lead.
Thanks to Rev. Dr. Keith Rowe, Rev. Dawn Hutchings and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, all great guides.
Expectations, they can kill us and those we love.
I seem to have had a difficult year this year, and as I approach my 58thbirthday, some reflection is in order.
I have always enjoyed the cut and thrust of busyness, going from one job to another, achieving a good result, pleasing people with my ability to write or present or teach.
But lately I seem to be dragged down by others expectation of me. Not, I might add that it’s their fault at all. Its internal to me. Suddenly I feel weighed down by their expectation of what I can do and my own expectation of what I should or could do.
It’s a deadly mix that screws around with our heads, well certainly mine.
Why is it that something I have always loved seems heavy and complicated and difficult when once I thrilled with the challenge and enjoyed the ride?
Maybe it’s because I suddenly have been taking myself far too seriously!
I am not the saviour of the world, I am not the answer to everyone’s questions on life, the universe or God. I am not going to solve the indigenous situation or the refugee situation or even the homeless crisis on my own. And equally I am not going to change the world by my scientific endeavours!
I am simply a human being, an older one at that, just trying to do the best I can.
I do mediation using the Headspace app, and with the wonderful voice of Andy Puddicombe. In it he guides you to sit quietly, in silence, and prompts you along the way as you develop your skills. Because sitting in silence initially is quite difficult. But at the beginning he suggests that it is very important to know why you are doing the meditation in the first place. Today that question really spoke to me!
A lesson for all of life.
I think knowing why we are doing things is very important. I would like to say I do things because I love doing them, I want to help others, and it makes me a better person. My expectation of what others think, or what they think of me has been less important as to how I see myself. I seem to have lost my way a bit on this.
Yet I realise now that being true to ourselves is a large part of the answer to my own struggles. We are to find our true selves, the things that make us who we are, because if we are only doing things to satisfy others then a part of us is lost. If we do things to receive something in return we are often bound to be disappointed.
My faith in God, in a divine presence in all of creation, is still so strong, stronger now than it has ever been, but it involves so much less about traditional Christianity. But then I think Christianity has also lost its way.
Jesus calls us to love, forgive, and help, with no expectation of a return engagement.
But he also says that we are all children of God, regardless of how much we achieve, or how little. That the divine spark resides in everyone’s heart, and doesn’t disappear if somehow we stuff up.
Remembering that I think helps me, maybe it might help you.
If not, remembering we are all simply human beings, just trying to do the best we can, may .
And finally, have a laugh along the way. Lots of them. I think that helps us all.
Let me firstly say I am no expert on middle eastern politics, but just that I am a person who wants peace for all people. And I am confused about how to support those that are trying to make peace in Israel. So this is just a small reflection on what has been happening to me lately and what I have been thinking…..
Last weekend I went to a peace conference, organised by the ecumenical social justice roundtable, at St Georges Cathedral in Perth.
On the Sunday an interfaith panel was convened to talk about peace and faith. It included a young Jewish rabbi, a Muslim woman, a Buddhist monk, a Catholic nun, an aboriginal women doing a PhD on indigenous spirituality, a Uniting Church minister and a woman representing the Bahai faith.
I was particularly struck by the Rabbi who spoke not about tolerance but about love of the stranger, and how the Hebrew Scriptures mention this more than anything else.
Overall it was a hopeful message from a hopeful panel. That making peace rather than making war is the central message from all the faith traditions. Even if this vision gets distorted by those who seek to change things by violence.
Yet making peace is, well, pretty darn hard…
After the panel I went and listened to a young Australian Palestinian woman, speaking of the horrors currently happening in Israel. About the injustice and violence being perpetrated on the Palestinian people, who once belonged to the land that they are now strangers in. There is a film that I will organise to show at my church community early next year, called “The Stones Cry Out, which depicts this sorrow and grief and struggle, a struggle that has been going on for a very long time. This is not a war between nations but a war within a nation, and it is killing everyone.
I am so torn. On the one hand what this young woman spoke about with passion was so moving. How can Jewish Israel be doing this to its fellow citizens? What about loving the stranger? These are not even strangers.
Yet I have also been to Israel, seen the passion there amongst the Jewish population, the grief and sorrow they have also suffered, after so many centuries of pogroms and massacres and death and destruction, and the fear that now resides in their hearts. You cannot go to the holocaust museum and not be shocked and changed by it. They would say, they have to protect themselves and their homeland.
In the end there are two sides, two warring sides that may never come together in peace. How do we find peace in a situation where peace seems so far away? And particularly when one group has so much power and one has so little.
There is a new pre Harry Potter movie out, meaning set before the time of Harry Potter, called Fantastic Beasts, Crimes of Grindelwald. In it the main character, Newton Scamander is asked to choose a side when a battle between good and evil looms. His response…. “I don’t do sides”.
I don’t do sides.
Maybe we don’t do sides either, maybe we choose love instead.
The bible, while full of first century imagery, talks to us about how Jesus called and worked for peace. Non-violently! He gives hope not through violent means, but through love. In the end Jesus goes to his death rather than respond violently. Our tradition in Christianity is one of nonviolence and love.
His words speak to us today or at least to me. Because we know the perils of war, we see it all around us. It is not the end of suffering but the beginning. What does war bring but more and more suffering, for those that participate, for those who are civilians and for those that oppose it.
War was a symptom of the dominant system of Jesus’s day and he showed how non-violent resistance attacked the system at it roots. This was true transformation. A Kairos moment. Jesus presented a choice to his followers, the kingdom or war. Hope lies in the kingdom, the kingdom of love and non violence and peace.
This is such a radical message, a confronting message.
So how are we to respond to so much pain and anguish and desperation and evil in the world?
Jesus presents this same choice to us. He calls us to respond with love. For all sides! And to find ways to peace that are non-violent.
But this is not just a Christian message, or for those that are Jesus followers.
So let me finish with a beautiful piece from Thich Nhat Hanh, a famous Buddhist writer and poet. This is from his address to Congress entitled, Leading with Courage and Compassion, Sept. 10th 2003.
Peace is possible
My right hand has written all the poems that I have composed.
My left hand has not written a single poem.
But my right hand does not think, “Left Hand, you are good for nothing.”
My right hand does not have a superiority complex.
That is why it is very happy.
My left hand does not have any complex at all.
In my two hands there is the kind of wisdom
called the wisdom of nondiscrimination.
One day I was hammering a nail and my right hand was not very accurate
and instead of pounding on the nail it pounded on my finger.
It put the hammer down and took care of the left hand
in a very tender way, as if it were taking care of itself.
It did not say, “Left Hand, you have to remember that
I have taken good care of you and you have to pay me back in the future.”
There was no such thinking. And my left hand did not say,
“Right Hand, you have done me a lot of harm—
give me that hammer, I want justice.”
My two hands know that they are members of one body;
they are in each other.
Maybe there is hope after all. The panel thought so.
I was moving my bookshelves the other day, and trying to reduce the number of books I have. Which is difficult because books seem to accumulate near me, like mess! Just when I get a book out of the house another one comes in.
As I was moving them, of course I took time to look at the ones I was keeping, and fondly remembered many. Some I can’t of course as I have got older and my memory is poorer about the details!
Anyway I found one, battered and dishevelled, that has been a constant companion for all of my life.
The book is, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, by Harper Lee, first published in 1960, the year I was born. I read it many years ago and have reread it a number of times since, in fact it is the only book I have ever read twice. I am sure many if not all of you have read it too. But just in case, the book is set in the 1930s, and is about Atticus, a widowed southern lawyer who represents a black man, Tom Robinson, falsely accused of rape in a small Alabama town filled with prejudice and hate. The book is written through the eyes of Scout his daughter who is 6, and through her eyes you see Atticus representing all that is good in the world, even against incredible odds, while still having time for her and her older brother Jem. The book is and has been pivotal for many people, Atticus was the perfect man — the ideal father and a principled idealist, an enlightened, kind, wise, honorable, an almost saintly believer in justice and fairness. In real life, people named their children after Atticus. People went to law school and became lawyers because of Atticus. The book was made into a movie which cemented its influence, and is one of my favourites, shot in 1962 in black and white with gorgeous Gregory Peck as Atticus. The movie is also famous because Boo Radley, the reclusive neighbour from next door who firstly frightens and then rescues Scout on Halloween, after the kids are attacked, is the first time you see Robert De Nero on screen.
Here is a story which combines the innocence of childhood, with the reality of the world as it was. The trial and subsequent events expose the children to the evils of racism and stereotyping, which in turn expose the readers.
I remember clearly some of the scenes written so powerfully in the book and acted out by our man Peck, particularly this one, when the verdict is read –
Finch is at the front of the courtroom with Robinson. The jury files in. In the balcony, the book’s narrator—Finch’s daughter, Jean Louise, or Scout, as she’s known—shuts her eyes. “Guilty,” the first of the jurors says. “Guilty,” the second says, and down the line: “guilty, guilty, guilty.” Finch gathers his papers into his briefcase. He says a quiet word to his client, gathers his coat off the back of his chair, and walks, head bowed, out of the courtroom.
“Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’s lonely walk down the aisle,” Scout relates,
“Miss Jean Louise?”
I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes’s voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s:
“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”
Ah it brings back such sweet memories! All my life Atticus has been my hero. A man going about his business, not as a civil rights activist, but a good and decent man. As he said to Scout, ““If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks, You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Then something happened a few years ago!. I read what was touted as being a sequel to “To Kill a Mocking Bird” called “Go Set a Watchman” written also by Harper Lee and also in my library. I remember feeling very excited until I found out it’s not really a sequel, as it seems to have been an earlier draft of the first book.
Apparently “Go Set a Watchman” was the original title “To Kill a Mockingbird”. The phrase comes from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, in the King James Bible:
“For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” – Isaiah 21:6
“Isaiah was a prophet. God had set him as a watchman over Israel. To set them straight, to keep them on the right path.
In the case of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch served as the watchman.
While written in the third person, “Go Set a Watchman” reflects Scout’s point of view as an adult: The novel is the story of how she returns home to Maycomb, Alabama., for a visit — from New York City, where she has been living — and tries to grapple with her dismaying realization that Atticus and her longtime boyfriend, Henry Clinton, both seem to have become bigots and racists. In this book set in the 1950s, Jem is dead, and it is a time of one of the most monumental changes in American society. We see increasing civil rights tensions and an end to segregation, exposing the prejudices between races, North versus South and the different generations. In “Mockingbird,” Atticus was a role model for his children, Scout and Jem — their North Star, their hero, the most potent moral force in their lives. In “Watchman,” he becomes the source of grievous pain and disillusionment for the 26-year-old Scout (or Jean Louise, as she’s now known).
Suddenly Atticus is not the paragon of virtue but a man influence by his surroundings and the turmoil and politics of the time. He is wanting to protect his town and his people from the changes that are coming. He wants to protect the Southern way of life. So he seems to accept that he has to deal with people with incredibly racist and outrageous views while at the same time still believing that the rule of law and justice is for all, regardless of race. A contradiction for Scout. Yet Atticus’s attitude seemed entirely authentic to me. His heroism and his prejudices are part of the same package, as it is with most humans. As Jennifer Burn said, when reviewing this book some time ago, “Racism is not reserved for “white trash” such as the Ewells and the Cunninghams, smelling of pig pen and booze. It taints the clever too, and the well-meaning. Even the great Atticus Finch, even though that’s hard to say”.
So, how did I feel about this so called sequel? Well, if I must own up, I felt slightly hurt and slightly cheated when I read it, what happened to gorgeous wonderful Atticus. Yet Scout is brave and independent in the book. She realises she has to let go of the idolised person her father was and find her own voice. She has to basically grow up. And growing up means seeing all sides, having empathy for all those involved, without losing her own compass. In the end Scout sees Atticus for who he is, a human being, influenced by his time and place. And realises that to change things in her town and in her state she has to start the change herself. While Atticus was the watchman in Mockingbird, I think Scout becomes the watchman in this second book.
A great example of the young, and a woman making a difference to us all.
Even though I have only read the Watchman once and “To Kill a Mockingbird” numerous times I pine for Atticus the hero? I do! Yet while Atticus the hero is rather tarnished to me maybe that’s what a good story does. It leads us to find our own voices in a struggle or situation, rather than leaving it for someone else. Even though it has been hard, perhaps I grew up just a little bit myself, when Atticus was exposed as being human. For we all are!
Stories like “To Kill a Mocking Bird”, and even its sequel can reveal deep truths about who we are and where we have come from and even where we might be heading. How we use stories is important, for they can reveal something to us about life, about our life with each other. Those clever enough to write them can quite often lead us to new places. Transform us in ways we would never have dreamed of.
Maybe I should read a few other books twice!
I learnt some things yesterday at Church. I learnt that a simple service, taken by someone in their 80’s can be a very profound experience. Not for them power point, new words to old hymns, or even a progressive view of God. But they spoke powerfully, from the heart, in such a way that the truth of it supersedes all the words used.
Abandonment, the preacher spoke about abandonment. Are there times when we feel abandoned by God? What about when life seems lonely and there is no support from others. Or when we lose people we love. Deep, deep questions about what it is to be human.
The God question is the easiest for me to ponder as a progressive Christian. I do not hold to the idea that we have to do things to please God, believe things or somehow pray hard enough for God to be present . I believe God is present everywhere, at all times and in all places, part of the creative order, which includes us. It’s not like the spirit comes and goes on a whim depending on how good we have been or how bad.
But I know it may feel otherwise.
When things get rough, the light of God seems to dim amongst the darkness of sorrow or grief or pain. And the darkness takes over. A bit like Job on the ash heap when he had lost everything. Yet my overwhelming response to this is that the divine presence is always present, regardless of whether we acknowledge it or not. Working in us and the world, never abandoning creation, even if it may seem otherwise. My hope is that we will always find our way back even if it takes a life time.
People, on the other hand, are another matter.
We abandon people all the time, particularly in our society, those that don’t fit, those that are different, those that are difficult, and those going through great pain and sorrow, so much that we freeze and don’t know what to say or do. So we leave them, alone and isolated. A terrible indictment about our world and about us as individuals, and I am guilty as much as anyone. God does not abandon us, so why should we abandon others?
And then there are our own experiences of abandonment. We are sometimes the one no one comes to support at a time of crisis, or to comfort at a time of sorrow or grief.
What about when someone dies, does this feel like an abandonment? Maybe.
Particularly if that loved ones dies suddenly. Yet as God does not abandon us, and we should not abandon others, neither does the person we loved, who has now gone, really leave us.
I have watched how someone I care about has coped with the loss of his beloved wife. And it is a lesson in grief and love and in the power of the spirit to comfort and renew.
Nev writes frequently about life after the death of his loving Marg, a fellow traveller and confidant. About the reality of what it means to him. He ponders it deeply.
He has discovered that Marg has not gone, because the Marg, who loved unconditionally is present in those who now support and love him, the Marg who loved her family is found in the love of the family to each other, and the Marg who loved life and who worked for those who suffered hardship and heart ache is found in those who continue this work. Marg is found in all those she touched, including Nev himself, whom she shared an ongoing loving relationship with for many, many years. A gift that once given is never taken away, even after death.
Grief is hard and can be a long, lonely road, and it may seem that even God cannot be found. Yet the spirit is everywhere, in love given and received. Marg is alive in each one of these moments, a reality I think Nev has discovered and found great comfort in.
The final type of abandonment referred to yesterday was about things, what things can we let go in order to find who we really are. What we own and what we earn becomes linked to our worth, such that we feel we cannot abandon them or the quest for them without losing ourselves in the process.
Freedom comes when we realise we are gifts to life itself, just as we are, without money or houses or cars or bank accounts. Life does not require a mortgage for us to be worthy of it. Life is life, and God is God and neither presence is determined by the amount of stuff we have.
When Jesus asks the rich young man to give up his riches and come follow him (one of the readings), he is saying something very profound. We are a gift to others as we are, and we can make a difference by being just that. We cannot gain anything from God more than we already have, but we have much to give others. Money and power can blind us to this.
It can blind us to what we can be to others.
What does a grieving person or a person suffering and alone require, but presence, and love. Nothing more and nothing less. We can make a difference by being ourselves, guided by the ongoing universal presence of the spirit. Sharing time and acknowledging everyone is of value can be the greatest gift we can give. Rather than abandoning people, seeking to protect ourselves, perhaps we can love them instead.
I think this is a truth which is easily forgotten in our high pressure, high possession, consumer driven world.
Thanks Geoff, a great sermon.