‘The table comes first, before the meal and even before the kitchen where it’s made. It precedes everything in remaining the one plausible hearth of family life, the raft to ride down the river of our exitence, even in the hardest times. The table also comes first in the sense that its drama–the people who gather at it, the conversation that flows across it, and the pain and romance that happen around it–is more essential to our real lives, and also to the real life of food in the world, than any number of arguments about where the zucchini came from, and how far it had to travel before it got here.’
A wonderful book!
Adam Gopnik, The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food, London, Quercus, 2011.
After yesterday’s post, and just to confirm for my good Anglican friend Geoff my definite ‘anglo-catholic’ tendencies …
“…the breaking of bread at holy communion can break you right open. It’s like the gates to your heart have opened and everything you have ever loved comes tumbling out to be missed and praised and mourned and loved some more. It’s like being known all the way down. It’s like being in the presence of God. One moment you see him the next you do not. One moment your eyes are opened and you recognize the risen Christ, and the next he vanishes from your sight. Take heart. This is no ghost. Do not fear, You cannot lose him for good. This is the place he has promised to be, and this is the place he returns to meet us again and again. Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of bread.”
From Gospel Medicine by Barbara Brown Taylor
At Collins Street the first Sunday of the month is communion Sunday, the day we break bread together and swallow shots of unfermented grape juice from the tiniest glasses. The older I get, the more this odd and simple ritual means to me. There is something about the feel of the bread in my hands, the sacred space in which it’s broken, the repetitive words of remembering, the quiet mysteries of togetherness and grace that we eat and drink in unison. Not only do I value it more than I once did … I need it.
These words from Joy Mead say it well:
Touch tenderly: earth, water, air,
salt, time and broken grain-
this one life in all.
Touch with loving hands;
hands to make
to shape and mould,
warm, moisty dough,
hands to bake,
well crusted bread
set by the sun,
transformed by fire,
warm with wonder;
hands to break
and break again
for pilgrim people.
In the kitchens,
from the tables,
priests of the moment
we dare to serve
this quiet mystery
this risen life,
gift of the earth,
gift of our hands,
for all to share.
Joy Mead, The One Loaf: An Everyday Celebration, Wild Goose, 2000.
We Baptists don’t talk easily about sex. It’s not taboo; it’s just complicated. With no creed and no pope, each congregation embraces faith with a high degree of freedom. That freedom comes with responsibility. Each church—autonomous in government, holding tenaciously to the Lordship of Jesus, and respecting the authority of the scriptures—has no choice but to discern the mind of God within its own context as faithfully as it can. There’s no handballing that discernment to someone further up the ecclesial chain. When it comes to our discussions about sex, the local conversation is loaded.
Given the current debate about same-sex unions and the good possibility that our definition of marriage will be broadened accordingly, we Baptists join all Christian traditions in having to discern a response. One pressing issue is, should such a change be made, will Baptist pastors like me be free to celebrate same-sex marriages? It’s a difficult question but one we can’t avoid.
The Baptist Union of Victoria, an association of some 250 churches in the state and one to which I’m proud to belong, is constantly asked to articulate an agreed ‘Baptist position’ on this issue. But how do we do such a thing? Wisely, our denominational leadership has initiated a statewide process of discernment, but one that honours our Baptist identity and form of government—a process that begins and is centered in the local church. Personally, I am very grateful for this. It has felt to me like there have been movements on the national level to bypass such a process, to make rulings and statements on behalf of all Baptists without conversation.
The fact is, Victorian Baptists—individuals and churches—hold a range of views on issues of sexuality and the prospect of coming to an agreed position is fraught. It’s hard enough in one community, let alone within the broader association. What I’ve always loved about Victorian Baptists is our diversity. It is our strength and our challenge. Read a good history of our community and you discover it’s always been so. We’ve had some good arguments over the years, heated disagreements over theology and practice. But we’ve done so as a family, holding together through thick and thin. With this in mind, the invitation from our denominational leaders to talk about these things comes with some good reminders.
First, how we engage in this conversation is as important as the convictions we bring to it:
‘Instead of rushing to the conventional adversarial positions, how can we model God’s abundant hospitality, and show Christ-like love, in the context of robust debate? Can we show the world how we engage in loving disagreement?’
And secondly, before these are issues of doctrine or dogma, they are missional and pastoral issues that we are debating:
‘Given the history of the church’s failings on matters of sexuality, we need to be as clear and wise as possible when communicating a public position. These issues have a missional dimension that we cannot avoid. If we exist to advance the Kingdom of God, we have to work out how we do that in our own context.’
I am certainly thankful for good state leadership in this issue, and I pray that as the conversation proceeds we will be known by our commitments to love and hope.
Kevin Rudd has caused a stink. His defection to the pro marriage-equality camp has the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) up in arms. In their media release today the warnings are dire.
According to the ACL, the consequences of marriage equality in Australia will include (i) the creation of a new ‘stolen generation’, (ii) the inclusion of gay sex ‘mechanics’ in our school curriculum, (iii) the destruction of Christian businesses, and (iv) the prospect of public servants and pastors being ‘hauled into court’ and prosecuted for their convictions. They end with the declaration that ‘no government has the right to create these vulnerabilities for the church-going 20% of the population in order to allow the 0.2% of the population who will take advantage of this to redefine marriage.’
It’s a frightening read and, I suspect, is intended to be so. Members of this lobby group are clearly troubled by the prospect of change to our definition of marriage and genuinely believe their fears are well grounded. Whatever I make of these assertions, the ACL has the right to voice them and to do so as passionately and directly as they can. They speak for their constituency. What troubles me is not so much what they assert but who they infer that constituency to be.
In today’s press interviews and media release, the ACL speaks broadly of ‘the Christian constituency.’ It infers, first, that there is such a thing, a uniform Christian community—perhaps that church-going 20% of the national population or the 64% of Australians who ‘declare themselves to be Christians’— that stands united against marriage equality and, second, that the ACL is their preferred public voice. This is not the case.
According to its own website, the ACL does not profess or presume to be ‘a peak body’ for the church. It is governed by a board of eight men—three conservative Anglicans, one Catholic, two Baptists, one Pentecostal, and one from an independent fundamentalist church in Toowoomba. None of them are appointed by their denominations. In deciding on policy positions, the ACL bases its decisions on ‘orthodox historical understandings of Biblical Christian teaching.’ It does so in consultation with unnamed ‘senior church leaders’ and ‘Christian subject matter experts’ but is clear that its board of eight men is its ‘final arbiter’ in all policy matters.
I do not know how many Christians the ACL represents. Their own publicity does not make those numbers available and they have no mechanism for membership. The only hint is that should I choose to ‘register my support’ with their organization I can add my voice to the ‘thousands across Australia’ who have already done so. What I do know is that no matter how many there are, on this matter I am not one of them.
Despite the posturing of the ACL, I want people to know that there are many sincere ‘church-going’ Christians around this country for whom the ACL does not speak. Not at all. We find their assertions and fear mongering as offensive and alienating as do many others. We may not be members of the Kevin Rudd fan club, but as fellow Christians we welcome Rudd’s support on this important issue.
I am not often moved by a book, not one of this genre. I am intrigued, challenged, educated, infuriated or bored, but rarely moved. Pitting the perspectives of atheism and religious faith against each other can be occasionally stimulating, often frustrating, but moving? Hardly. This book is different.
Graeme and Jonathan Rutherford’s Beloved Father Beloved Son is a very personal book–a series of letters between Graeme, a bishop in the Anglican church, and his son Jonathan, an atheist. By personal, I don’t mean it’s one that wades in the intimate biography of their relationship. Not at all. What they write about is what they believe, drawing rationally on very different world views, multiple disciplines, and articulating their disparate perspectives on life and how they understand it. With rigour they debate the origins of human life, the place of suffering, the veracity of religious texts, the incredulity of divine interventions, and the human search for meaning. In this sense there is nothing new here. Such debates have a long and often tiresome history. What sets this book apart is the nature of the interaction.
The pull of the book is in the very intimate nature of the conversation. One is never far from the fact that these two are family. Both are well read, articulate in their beliefs, and can disagree vigorously, calling a spade a spade when necessary. However, their very honest conversation is soaked in mutual respect. That respect results in a genuine listening between them, one that has been learned through years of intimate and, I suspect, challenging relationship.
I am moved by two things. First, to be honest, I identify. I know firsthand the pain of parenting a child who will not have a bar of my religious beliefs. Though I have suffered my own long nights of fatherly ‘guilt’ and ‘failure’, in my better moments, and especially when listening to a conversation like this, I am encouraged. There has never been a moment in my own family life where we have not been able to talk, debate and wrestle with our understandings, disparate though they be. What’s more, I have watched the deeper values of my faith blossom in the life of the one I love regardless of creed. It is interesting to me that it’s in the last two chapters of this book, ‘the human search for meaning’ and ‘spirituality’, that the common longings of father and son dovetail most closely. Though they disagree vigorously about so much, what they aspire to in the deeper recesses of their lives is not so far apart.
Second, I am challenged. The nature of public debate in this country has deteriorated. The same is true within the church. The stones thrown between the new atheists and people of faith and large and bruising, the language dismissive and sneering. So, too, the trenches of the religiously ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ are dug ever deeper. Try for a respectful conversation on something like marriage equality and things get ugly. We stop listening. Our language deteriorates. Relationships are marred, sometimes destroyed.
For me, this book demonstrates another way. When we disagree within the church, we do so as family. Just as Graeme and Jonathan will never cease to be father and son, so even when our perspectives and experiences vary, we people of faith never cease to be family. We talk. We listen. We argue. We listen. We disagree with passion and vigour, but then we regather at the table and break bread. As Graeme says to his son in the closing paragraphs of the book, ‘Wherever our journey leads us from here, we must both continue to resist the temptation to turn knowledge into ammunition.’
Graeme Rutherford & Jonathan Rutherford, Beloved Father Beloved Son: A conversation about faith between a bishop and his atheist son, Preston: Mosaic Press, 2013.
A reflection on Psalm 63.1-8
As a young pastor, I befriended a young man whose life had become a tragic series of disappointments. His name was Stuart. Stuart’s drug addiction had alienated his already dysfunctional family. His move to Victoria from northern Queensland had separated him from his fragile support networks. Since his arrival in Melbourne, his repellant behaviour had soured the few friendships he had made. He was alone and reduced to living in a back room of a sex shop in St Kilda where he worked during the day and slept at night.
In order to see Stuart, I had to go to the shop at night and sit with him on his sleeping bag laid out on the floor. I remember on my first visit, sitting nervously in my car just outside the shop door. It was a busy road and there was no back entrance. I was convinced that as soon as I got out of the car to enter, a deacon from my church would drive by. Thankfully that didn’t happen.
I had never before nor have I since sat with someone for whom the absence of love was so tragically evident, nor for whom the longing for love was so palpable. Stuart would sit so close to me on the floor I was often uncomfortable yet his need for human warmth was painfully clear. When I led his funeral six months later, the consequence of an overdose, I was the only one there.
For the last five Sundays, we have been reflecting together on the desires that drive us, the longings that compel us forward in life. Guided by Hugh Mackay’s book What Makes Us Tick?, we’ve explored the desire for something to believe in, the desire for ‘my place,’ the desire to be useful, the desire to belong, and the desire for more. Today we conclude with the desire for love.
In the very last paragraph of his book, Mackay describes the desire for love as the deepest and most profound of all our desires, the one that sits beneath and within every longing we know. Indeed, the longing for love is a defining element of what it means to be human. From a Christian perspective, this desire flows directly from the fact that we are created in the image of a loving God. As God loves, so we love. As God craves our love in return, so we crave love in response to our own. It’s because of this that the thought of saying anything helpful about love is overwhelming. Love is such an all-encompassing thing, such a deeply complex and emotionally loaded business that speaking of it in any meaningful way is fraught with difficulty.
It’s a bit like Mothers Day. When all is well and life is ideal, celebrating a day like this one comes easily. But life is hardly ever entirely well or ideal. The airbrushed images of motherly love, of maternal dreams and longings realized, of tender embraces and perfect smiles, don’t often match the reality of our lives. For days like today can be unwelcome reminders of what we have lost or never known, of what has be taken from us or failed us, of our own unmet longings or disappointments. While some of us can rejoice on days like today, and we should, others cannot.
As Mackay says so well, when it comes to the love of family there is the ideal and there is reality. In the ideal, love begins in our mother’s arms and continues in a family of perfect security. It is here we learn the nature of unconditional love; we learn of love unearned but given freely and without reserve. It is here we experience the appropriate intimacy of love and the healing power of touch and refuge. And it is here that we experience the life-giving connection between faith and love, embraced by those who believe in us unreservedly and who stand beside us no matter what. All of this, however, describes an ideal, a picture of love at its best. The reality is often quite different. Tragically for some, the ideal is almost entirely absent and days like today are nothing but a cruel reminder of this fact.
So it is, too, with romantic love–love with that special someone. We long for it, we aspire to it, we idealize it, we thrill to it and hold it tenaciously when we find it, feeling things in its grip we have never felt before. And yet when this same love fails us, eludes us, crumbles beneath us or is defined by society as out of bounds, we feel a pain that cuts so deeply we can barely function. It can leave us bruised, scarred, exhausted. Still, no matter how bruised, our desire for it never lessens. The truth is, no matter how many years pass, no matter how wrinkled the skin or sparse the hair, our need for love–our desire to express it and feel it in return–remains as strong as it has ever been. As Mackay says:
‘There is no evidence to suggest that as we age and mature, the desire for love diminishes. We still need the affirmation of love, the comfort of love, the reassurance of love, the rich reward of having our offer of love accepted, the particular form of emotional security that only comes from being loved.’
Despite the dominant images in our media–the ones that define love as overwhelmingly youthful–the longing for love is universal. No matter our age, our gender, our sexuality, our life experience, education or personality, what we all have in common is a desire for love. It is with us for life. In the words of Mother Teresa, the need for love is ‘a hunger much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.’ The desire for love runs deep. It was so for my friend Stuart, and it is so for us.
Psalm 63 is a psalm of David. It was written long ago from the wilderness of Judah, a place of exile and isolation for its author. Bereft of friends and family, suffering under the weight of his own moral failure and surrounded by enemies ready to gloat over his defeat, David expresses his need for love. He thirsts for it. His flesh faints for it. To quench this thirst, he calls upon the love of God, the only love he knows to be secure and dependable: ‘your steadfast love is better than life,’ he declares, though in the thick of his own tears I imagine. David nestles down into the shadow of God’s wings as he clings to this love. And it is here that he finds the resources to return to the challenges of his life and relationships, restored and empowered.
There are three things about the desire for love that I want to simply underline this morning.
Firstly, our desire for love is both gift and burden. It is gift because through it we discover the beauty and richness of life. Through it we are healed and enabled as David was. Through it we find our reason for being in the world and we can face whatever life holds. But the desire for love is also our burden. For living in love is the most demanding and costly calling. Many of you know that first hand. Our love can be refused, abused, taken for granted, misunderstood or thrown in our face. Our thirst for it can cause such anguish of heart that we sometimes wish we could be done with it. Our endless yearning for it can send us into addictive behaviours that cast shadows over our lives and relationships. At its best, love can give the deepest joy; at its worst, the deepest pain. It is both gift and burden.
Secondly, in our desire for love we cannot have the gift without the burden. We cannot know love in all its liberating, life-giving grace without the experiences of pain and struggle. To walk away from the burden is to walk away from the gift. David could only plumb the depths of God’s love because he had known the depths of despair. As painful as love can be, as demanding as it is, as consuming that our longing for it can become, the only alternative to bearing the pain is to shut ourselves down and harden our hearts. And what profit is that, to ourselves or to others? The joint commandments to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves depend entirely on our willingness to remain open to love, to have hearts that can sore the heights and navigate the depths. We cannot know the gift apart from the burden.
Thirdly, this desire for love is God given and common to us all. To desire love and intimacy is part-and-parcel of what it means to be human … for all of us. The debate in our society about the rights of the Gay and Lesbian community to the ritual of marriage is far from resolved. Even here in this church we are not uniform on this question. Thankfully what we do agree on is the basic Baptist commitment to freedom of conscience in our approach to an issue like this one, our commitment to name injustice when we see it, and our determination to stand on the side of the marginalized. The freedom you give Carolyn and I to speak out on issues like these is a great gift and soon Carolyn will take her place in a very public event on this very issue. Whatever our views on marriage equality, let me say this. For the church to actively promote the expression of fidelity and faithfulness in love between two people while at the same time denouncing all expressions of covenant love between two people with a different sexuality raises some critical questions for the church. If we are created with an inbuilt need for love and intimacy in our lives, all of us, then to cheer on the expression of that love for the majority while having nothing to say to the minority but the exhortation to ‘stop it,’ seems to run counter to our resounding affirmation of God’s love for all humanity.
My friend Stuart craved love. Through his actions and choices, he inadvertently pushed away the very thing he longed for. His unmet longing led him to an early death. I can only believe that the steadfast and enduring love of God received him into the love he so desired all his life and that there he rests today. But you and I are still here, craving love just as deeply–to experience it and to express it. That is at it should be. We are made for love. May you know its gift from God and may you never cease to bear its burdens with faith and hope.
As we draw this series of reflections to a close, I want to suggest that we reframe this idea of ‘desires that drive us’ to ‘longings that inspire us.’ We know that every human drive has as much potential for darkness as for light, but as people of faith we believe in the transforming power of God’s Spirit. Rather than being held captive to the drives of selfishness and personal gain, we aspire to the resurrection life of God. In Christ these drives are reshaped into God-given longings: the longing for something bigger than ourselves to believe in and live for; the longing for experiences of home, community and belonging that include all people; the longing to know our worth in God and not in the fickleness of our own achievements; the longing for more of all that is good, just and life-giving in the world; and the longing for love that gives and receives in equal measure.
May God lift our vision and entice us forward into the fulness of life.
I didn’t know until now, but apparently I have a John allergy. I must have. How else can I explain my aversion? By John, I mean the gospel. You know, Matthew, Mark, Luke and … that one. With four to choose from, I clearly have a preference. I wouldn’t have guessed it, but ferreting through my sermon files (yes, we pastors have them … riveting stuff) the evidence is overwhelming. Luke and Mark are looking positively rosy, Matthew less so, and John … well, let’s just say he’s a bit lonely.
I only know this because I’ve just finished reading Dorothy A Lee’s book Hallowed in Truth and Love. It’s an exploration of the spirituality of John, both in his gospels and letters. I picked it up some time back, more because I’ve met Dorothy and respect her scholarship than out of a passion for the subject. But now I’ve read it I wonder why I waited so long. It’s an inspiring read, so much so that I was propelled to my files to make my sobering discovery.
It makes no sense really, this John aversion. As the product of a robust evangelicalism, I was formed in a tradition with a clear preference for John. I remember the advice to new converts: ‘read the bible … start with John!’ After all, it’s full of the most compelling stories of encounter with Jesus along with beautifully poetic descriptions of his role in the life of faith. What’s not to like? But it’s clear I have stayed away. As for why, that’s probably best left for my therapist and me (I do need to get one of those). Regardless, Dorothy has called me back and I’m glad.
I suppose the path was made easier by the focus of this work. As a pastor and preacher, I struggle a bit with commentaries. In my experience they often treat the text more as a problem to be solved than a source of truth to be discerned. As a bit of a spirituality nut, it is wonderfully refreshing for me to find a New Testament teacher of Dorothy’s ability listening intelligently for the experience of God in the text and allowing that experience an authoritative voice in understanding its truth . Too often, the spirituality of the text, its author and audience, are important to the scholar only in a derivative way if at all. But that’s not the case here.
I do not mean this is an easy read, heavy on the devotional and light on scholarship. Certainly not. But what I valued most as I read was the sense of the writer as more than a scholar. I wrote in the margins of the first chapter ‘preacher, scholar, pilgrim.’ And it was this sense that carried through the entire book. One cannot help but sense the author knows something of this spirituality herself. Not in an overt way. It’s simply there in the text. What’s more, her affirmation of the gospel’s imagery, its acknowledgement of both light and darkness in the way of discipleship, and its appeal to and affirmation of the senses … all of this reminds me of John’s worth.
There is so much in this book that inspire me back to the gospel, and, even more, back to the pulpit. For one who does not often relish preaching, that’s quite a feat.
I’m not long back from a few days in Christchurch, New Zealand, with the wonderful communities that make up the church formally known as Spreydon, now Southwest. More of that later. On the way home I passed the transit hours (always too many) reading Nick Richardson’s Kitchen Table Memoirs: Shared Stories from Australian Writers.
It’s a gathering of very personal reflections centred around life at the table, most commonly kitchen tables but including a few in restaurants and professional kitchens, even a community table shared deep in the Antarctic. It’s a gentle collection, undemanding and easy to read, sometimes funny, occasionally odd, and often moving. Each chapter provides a small insight into the highly personal worlds of domestic memory, family intimacy, regret, longing or the simple comfort that a table can provide. Contributors include comedians Denise Scott and Jean Kittson, writer Helen Garner, food historian Barbara Santich, chef Stefano de Piere and restaurant critic Gemima Cody.
A collection like this could easily slip into shallow sentimentality. The truth of table memories on public view can be lost in a romantic mist more to do with wishful longing than reality. For the most part, this collection avoids the trap. There’s enough reality here to make this a worthwhile read for anyone wanting to appreciate again just how central the kitchen table is to life, no matter how scarred and fragile it might have turned out to be.
Some words worth repeating:
‘The table was the centre of the family, touched hundreds of thousands of times. Touched and thumped and leant on and slumped on and very occasionally stood on at moments of joy and grief and relief and revelation. Whoopee has been made around it, and war. A normal bag of life’s emotions, and a family’s. … Everything happened at the table. The table was the tablet on which the stories were written in DNA and scuffs and stains. … the table wasn’t just an open book with footnotes and handwritten jottings and the impress and imprint of everyone whose lives had intersected at the table. It was a whole library. A leatherbound, handsewn, copperplate record, with mug rings and ink stains and spit on the corners and all.’ (Jean Kittson)
‘In the glorious clusterfuck of our existence, the table was our sanctuary from the greater insanity of the real world. Two square metres of civilisation. … That scored and battered stretch of wood was classroom, courtroom, parliament and temple. It was theatre and restaurant and sometimes zoo. A place where peace was found in the meditative cutting of carrots. Where we learnt the rewards of trusting the unknown by taking a chance on the liver. And where, over a thousand chicken pies, and many more teas, we’d argue the world down to a size and shape that made some sense.’ (Gemima Cody)
Nick Richardson ed., Kitchen Table Memoirs: Shared Stories from Australian Writers, ABC Books (HarperCollins): Sydney, 2013