Sunlight and the Word

From time to time a favourite niece provides words that speak gently, deeply. I am always grateful. These are from the poet Tony Hoagland.

The Word

Down near the bottom
of the crossed-out list
of things you have to do today,

between ‘green thread’
and ‘broccoli,’ you find
that you have penciled ‘sunlight.’

Resting on the page, the word
is beautiful. It touches you
as if you had a friend

and sunlight were a present
he had sent from someplace distant
as this morning—to cheer you up,

and to remind you that,
among your duties, pleasure
is a thing

that also needs accomplishing.
Do you remember?
that time and light are kinds

of love, and love
is no less practical
than a coffee grinder

or a safe spare tire?
Tomorrow you may be utterly
without a clue,

but today you get a telegram
from the heart in exile,
proclaiming that the kingdom

still exists,
the king and queen alive,
still speaking to their children,

—to any one among them
who can find the time
to sit out in the sun and listen.

I can’t help myself

After twenty-eight glorious days of writing leave, I’ve returned to work this week. Though it’s been a bumpy landing — all about me, no one else — I’m glad to come back to a good job, good colleagues and a terrific community, and all in Melbourne’s best neighbourhood. And I’m grateful, too, for an employer who still believes writing is worth my time.

Just today I dropped by the regular Friday morning café for my weekly liturgical meal of eggs and mushrooms. Away for a month, it was nice to be missed.
‘Where did you go?’ my waiter asked as I took my seat.
‘Castlemaine,’ I said.
‘What did you do there?’ He’s a pushy bloke; a Frenchman with not a skerrick of reserve.
‘Write,’ I answered, looking up from the menu.
‘Write?’ he asked, his eyebrows raised. ‘Really? Why would you do that?’
I laughed. ‘Because I can’t help myself.’

I can’t really. In fact, the older I get the more I need to write. I don’t know why. It’s not because I’m especially good at it. ‘Ok’ has to be good enough most of the time. There is nothing like the exceptional writing of others to keep aspirations modest. And it’s not the need to be read either. Truth be told, ninety-percent of what I write will never see the light of day. It has something to do with the way I’m built. If I’m not writing, I’m not doing well.

Laurie-Penny-007Before I went away, I read a piece by the English journalist Laurie Penny titled, ‘Why I Write.’ It was timely, a good dose of encouragement to take with me. In the midst of her writerly wisdom, there were two things I packed away.

First, the normalcy of this obsession. As with with all compulsions, I suppose, those who are struck with it are those who understand it. Like singers who sing or runners who run, those who write know the urge from the inside. ‘Most of today’s best never expected to be widely read but wrote anyway,’ Penny says. ‘They write not because they think that a writer is something somebody like them really ought to be, but because they can do nothing else without betraying their own spirit. They write because if they don’t get the words out, they would be eaten away from the inside. They write because they have no choice.’

So, I’m not completely odd.

Second, the permission to keep at it. Honestly, sometimes I feel guilty about writing. Surely, I think to myself, it’s only the precociously gifted who can justify the time it demands. Not so, Penny says. In this, the ‘golden age of writing’, never before have so many written so much and published so easily — from the inane to the sublime and everything in between. No longer do we inhabit the age of the Alexandrian library, a ‘finite and fragile’ collection all shelved within easy reach. ‘We are in a vaster, stranger place altogether,’ Penny writes, ‘and the number of stories yet to tell sends recalcitrants into a delicious panic.’ And then this: ‘The shelves are stacked with the sacred and the profane, the tragic and the obscene, slush and trash and death notes and love letters, and somewhere in the dark of the farthest stacks are volumes yet to be written. One of them is yours. Make it count.’

Thank you. I’m certainly trying.

The Dressing Prayer

A Celtic prayer for daily life

This day I bind around me
The power of the sacred Three:
The hand to hold,
The heart to love,
The eye to see,
The Presence of the Trinity.

I wrap around my mortal frame
The power of the Creator’s name:
The Father’s might.
His holy arm,
To shield this day
and keep from Harm.

I cover myself from above
With the Redeemer’s love
The Son’s bright light
to shine on me,
To protect this day,
to eternity.

I pull around me with morning light
The knowledge of
the Spirit’s sight.
The Strengthener’s eye
to keep guard,
Covering my path
when it is hard.

This day I bind around me
The powers of the sacred Three.

UnknownDavid Adam, Tides and Seasons: Modern Prayers in the Celtic Tradition, SPCK, 1989, 11.

Tim Foster and the ‘burbs

FosterCover_Catalogue_Screen_WithBorder-180x273When there’s ‘bugger all’ on the bookshelf that addresses the unique challenges of Australia’s urban and suburban neighbourhoods for the mission of the church, the arrival of a book like Tim Foster’s The Suburban Captivity of the Church is worth cheering for.

Books like this one flow in a steady torrent from North America, but the cultural differences are vast. Given that we are among the most urbanised societies on earth and take first place in the propagation of suburbia, it’s always frustrating to me that we’re content to let the thoughtful missiology of other places set the agenda for us to the extent it does.

Tim is an Anglican minister who currently shares in the leadership of Melbourne’s Ridley College. His book arises out of his own transitions in ministry, from the leafy surrounds of Sydney’s middle suburbs to the cultural and social diversity of the inner city. With this move comes the challenge of understanding the nature of ‘the good news’ in a community whose values and perspectives on the world contrast so starkly with those of the near but distant ‘burbs. Given how much the values of suburbia have shaped the church’s understanding of the gospel, Tim makes the case that we are pressed ever more urgently to the work of contextualization.

In part, I would think, the test of a good book it that it spurs a reaction. Tim’s book does this for me. Though we have never met, I have a suspicion that Tim and I might have some theological differences. Perhaps Tim has a clearer sense of the gospel as ‘a message’ — a clearly defined and methodically presented outline of truths —than I do. The book is written in two parts. As helpful as Part 1 might be, I came to the end of it feeling as though Tim’s priority on a right ‘understanding’ of the gospel message and a better ‘presentation’ of its truths was not one I could embrace with enthusiasm. To be honest (and probably unfair), his alternative readings of ‘the gospel’ left me feeling as though those ‘four spiritual laws’ were hovering ominously in the background.

That said, Part 2 was more engaging read. Tim’s attempts at exegeting the cultures of the inner city ‘yuppies,’ ‘hipsters’ and ‘battlers’ (among others), points the reader to the importance of taking our contexts and communities as seriously as we do our sacred texts. What’s more, it’s here that Tim looks for ‘gospel themes’ that emerge from this engagement. There is much here that is challenging for an urban pastor like me. I would only long for a more sustained engagement that Tim can provide here.

As someone who attempts to write about similar issues, I commend Tim for the book. If it helps practitioners like me to engage more intentionally and intelligently with our own neighbourhoods, and from a distinctly local perspective, then it has served us well.

Tim-Website_370x370Tim Foster, The Suburban Captivity of the Church: Contextualising the Gospel for Post-Christian Australia, Moreland: Acorn Press, 2014.

Thomas Kelly on tenderness

“There is a tendering of the soul toward everything in creation, from the sparrow’s fall to the slave under the lash. The hard-lined face of a money-bitten financier is as deeply touching to the tendered soul as are the burned-out eyes of the miners’ children, remote and unseen victims of his so-called success. There is a sense in which, in this terrible tenderness, we become one with God and bear in our quivering souls the sins and burdens, the benightedness and the tragedy of the creatures of the whole world, and suffer in their suffering, and die in their death.”

267213Thomas R. Kelly, Testament of Devotion, New York: HarperCollins, 1992 (1941), 64.

‘Better Things’ by George MacDonald

Better to smell the violet
Than sip the glowing wine;
Better to hearken to a brook
Than watch a diamond shine.

Better to have a loving friend
Than ten admiring foes;
Better a daisy’s earthy root
Than a gorgeous, dying rose.

Better to love in loneliness
Than bask in love all day;
Better the fountain in the heart
Than the fountain by the way.

Better to be fed by mother’s hand
Than eat alone at will;
Better to trust in God, than say,
My goods my storehouse fill.

Better to be a little wise
Than in knowledge to abound;
Better to teach a child than toil
to fill perfection’s round.

Better to sit at some man’s feet
Than thrill a listening state;
Better suspect that thou art proud
Than to be sure that thou art great.

Better to walk the realm unseen
Than watch the hour’s event;
Better the Well done, faithful slave!
Than the air with shoutings rent.

Better to have a quiet grief
Than many turbulent joys;
Better to miss thy manhood’s aim
Than sacrifice the boy’s.

Better a death when work is done
Than earth’s most favoured birth;
Better a child in God’s great house
Than the king of all the earth.

Discovering_the_Character_of_GodGeorge MacDonald, Discovering the Character of God (compiled by Michael Phillips), Mineeapolis, Bethany House, 1989, 192.

Believe in Beginnings

There are times when I feel my blemishes more than others. I have no more than most, I’m sure, but sometimes those I have stare me down with force. Just this morning, struggling for sustenance, I read aloud a prayer from the Methodist Ted Loder. His repetitive cadence can sometimes irritate, but today these words were good for me, repetition included.

Help me to believe in beginnings

God of history and of my heart,
so much has happened to me during these whirlwind days:
I’ve known death and birth;
I’ve been brave and scared;
I’ve hurt, I’ve helped;
I’ve been honest, I’ve lied;
I’ve destroyed, I’ve created;
I’ve been with people, I’ve been lonely;
I’ve been loyal, I’ve betrayed;
I’ve decided, I’ve waffled;
I’ve laughed and I’ve cried.
You know my frail heart and my frayed history –
and now another day begins.

O God, help me to believe in beginnings
and in my beginning again,
no matter how often I have failed before.

Help me to make new beginnings:
to begin going out of my weary mind into fresh dreams,
daring to make my own bold tracks in the land of now;
to begin forgiving
that I may experience mercy;
to begin questioning the unquestionable
that I may know truth;
to begin disciplining
that I may create beauty;
to begin sacrificing
that I may accomplish justice;
to begin risking
that I may make peace;
to being loving
that I may realize joy.

Help me to be a beginning for others.
to be a singer to the songless,
a storyteller to the aimless,
a befriender of the friendless;
to become a beginning of hope for the despairing,
of assurance for the doubting,
of reconciliation for the divided;
to become a beginning of freedom for the oppressed,
of comfort for the sorrowing,
of friendship for the forgotten;
to become a beginning of beauty for the forlorn,
of sweetness for the soured,
of gentleness for the angry,
of wholeness for the broken,
of peace for the frightened and violent of the earth.

Help me to believe in beginnings,
to make a beginning,
to be a beginning,
so that I may not just grow old,
but grow new
each day of this wild, amazing life
you call me to live
with the passion of Jesus Christ.

UnknownTed Loder, Guerrillas of Grace, Augsburg, 1981, 104-5.

Writing and cafes

Decades ago, while ferreting away at a doctoral thesis, I came across the confession of a writer whose name I cannot remember. ‘I write best,’ she said, ‘when I am in places of low level human activity.’ While the profound metre will barely twitch for most, it was for me a kindred moment.

I have always written most easily in cafes. While I love a good library — the older and grander the better — and the book-lined study is a gift, there is something about the right cafe that ratchets up my creativity, even my concentration. Of course, the wrong cafe is just wrong — the one where the music is too loud, the tables crowded and spaced too greedily together. Or those where lingerers are clearly unwelcome. But the right space is as wonderful as it is rare.

In an essay on writing, the poet and novelist Jay Parini describes his own right places, diners mainly, where for the price of a coffee he has felt the hospitality to spend hours lost in words.

‘What I liked about Lou’s was the distant clatter of dishes, the purr of conversation, and the occasional interruption of a friend. Restaurants provide a kind of white noise, but — unlike real white noise — the sound is human. Noses are blown. People cough. You’re reminded of the world of phlegm and disgestion. And you feel connected. There is also a strange but unmistakable connection between cooking and writing — writing like cooking, is a bringing together of elemental substances for transmutation over a hot flame. It seems fitting that writing and cooking should be going on simultaneously under the same roof.’

‘As people are quick to point out, writing is a desperately lonely activity; although writing in restaurants doesn’t exactly solve that problem, it somewhat softens it. Surrounded by people you don’t necessarily have to interract with, you feel free to concentrate. Once I’m involved in the tactile process of writing — the pleasurable transference of emotions and ideas into language — I find that I don’t really have to worry about concentration. If I can’t concentrate, it means I’m working on the wrong thing or I probably didn’t get enough sleep the night before. Whatever the reason for not writing, I don’t blame the restaurant.’

Another kindred moment.

jay_pariniJay Parini, ‘Writing in Restaurants’ in A Slice of Life: Contemporary Writers on Food, ed. Bonnie Marranca, New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2003, 57-61.

Go softy with yourself

When the meadows on the body turn gray

When the meadows on the body begin to turn gray, let your eyes soften toward yourself, and those who are close.

Let anyone, anything, inside who has driven you, let them retire or move at an easier pace.

And where you were once firm, and might have even said to someone, feel my muscle, or admired it yourself,

yes, now look at the way you have become, or will someday if you live as long as you want.

Many do all they can to not have to face the candle going out.

The wonder of my body aging, dying, is finding another flame within, a holy eternal

sphere, that will never go out and is more beautiful than all the form you have known—put together.

When the fields on the body begin to turn gray let your hand’s touch upon all, soften.

UnknownA Year with Hafiz: Daily Contemplations, poems by the Persian Sufi poet Hafiz, translated and introduced by Daniel Ladinsky, Penguin, 2011.

Photograph by Mark Holt

A call to stillness

Coming to God: First Days

Lord, what shall I do that I can’t quiet myself?
Here is the bread, and here is the cup,
and I can’t quiet myself.

To enter the language of transformation!
To learn the importance of stillness,
with one’s hands folded!

When will my eyes of rejoicing turn peaceful?
When will my joyful feet grow still?
When will my heart stop its prancing
as over the summer grass?

Lord, I would run for you, loving the miles for your sake.
I would climb the highest tree
to be that much closer.

Lord, I will learn also to kneel down
into the world of the invisible,
the inscrutable and the everlasting.
Then I will move no more than the leaves of a tree
on a day of no wind,
bathed in light,
like the wanderer who has come home at last
and kneels in peace, done with all unnecessary things;
every motion; even words.

UnknownMary Oliver, Thirst: Poems by Mary Oliver, Boston: Beacon Press, 2006, 23.


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