Heaven All Around Us

PrintThe book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life has been a work in progress for a few years now. To see it finally in print is heartening. The book arises out of my own struggle to discern and respond to God’s presence in the most immediate aspects of life. In that sense, it’s a very personal book, but one I hope will be an encouragement to others.

Here’s a short extract from the opening of the second chapter.

“Moments of epiphany are rare for me. Mostly I notice the profound only in retrospect. That said, there have been encounters with truth stark enough to feel like a thump in the chest. One of those thumps came twenty years ago. I sat alone in a café in Pasadena, California, having recently enrolled in a doctoral program in theology. I had just come off a decade of pastoral ministry. It was not an easy ride and I was bone weary. By way of introduction, my supervisor recommended I read Dale Allison’s book ‘The Silence of Angels.’ I approached it with only mild enthusiasm, glad for the refuge of words but more committed to my coffee. Just pages in, the thump took my breath away.

Truth be told, this thud to my spirit was not the consequence of a direct hit from author to reader. It came in from the side. Allison’s book is a fine read and his central thesis a good one. But his book managed to prod at an intuitive sense of something already festering within—a truth I had struggled to find words for. In fact, it was that unnamed intuition that led me across the Pacific.

I came to California to study spirituality, to better understand the experience of God and the ways that experience is impacted by culture and environment. As a pastor, I felt as though I had been a witness to and participant in a church in spiritual retreat. Perhaps we were overwhelmed by the relentless progress of scientific discovery and science’s propensity to explain everything in non-religious terms. Our territory of confidence was diminished. At the same time we were increasingly enamored by mystical, out-of-body, and private expressions of spirituality. It seemed to me we Christians had so narrowed our concerns, we had released a large part of life to the secular realm while retreating into our sacred spaces and experiences. In so doing we narrowed our horizon and averted our eyes from the chaotic and compromised world under our noses. In my view, talk of spirituality had become insipid and self-obsessed.

Though I felt all of these things, and often deeply, I was unable to name them coherently. Allison helped push them to the surface. In words better than my own, he grieved our loss of wonder in a world shot through with a holiness so confronting and demanding there was nothing outside of its impact. The long-standing chasm between the sacred and the secular was deepening by the hour, or so it seemed, and had a lot to answer for. The need to address this divide was urgent.

Today the dysfunction of this sacred/secular chasm is old news. Indeed, it was probably old news twenty years ago; it just took me a while to catch on. Today we are certainly onto it and the church has done much to address it. Though we still value our sacred sites and rituals, we’ve long buried the notion that the presence of God is contained by them. No matter what our tradition, we affirm today a more porous boundary between heaven and earth and celebrate the presence of God in all of life. Our theology has shifted. It’s our spiritual practice that has struggled to keep up.”

With a focus on spiritual practices that are embedded in the routines of daily life, I go in search of God’s presence in homes and neighborhoods, supermarkets and sporting arenas, workplaces and weekends. Along the way I look for practices that can lead us more deeply into the way of God: activities like cooking and laundry, walking and sleeping, shopping and conversation with friends. Throughout, I want to better understand how to hear Jesus’ call to “follow me” more readily in the world around us.

Depending on where you are, you can purchase the book in a number for places.

If you are in Australia, the best place to go is the local distributor Morning Star Publishing. You can also order it through Book Depository.

If you are in the US, you can order directly through Wipf & Stock, Amazon or ChristianBooks.

And if you are in Melbourne, there’s a launch on Thursday April 19, 6.30pm at Collins Street Baptist Church, 174 Collins Street, Melbourne. I would love to see you there.

A prayer for today

O Lord,
in the turbulence
and the loneliness
of my living from day to day
and night to night,
keep me in touch with my roots,
so I will remember where I came from
and with whom;
keep me in touch with my feelings,
so I will be more aware of who I really am
and what it costs;
keep me in touch with my mind
so I will know who I am not
and what that means;
and keep me in touch with my dreams,
so I will grow toward where I want to go
and with whom.

O Lord,
deliver me
from the arrogance of assuming
I know enough to judge others;
deliver me
from the timidity of presuming
I don’t know enough to help others;
deliver me
from the illusion of claiming I have changed enough
when I have only risked little,
that, so liberated,
I will make some of the days to come different.

O Lord,
I ask not to be delivered
from the tensions that wind me tight,
but I do ask for a sense of direction in which to move once wound,
a sense of humour about my disappointments,
a sense of respect for the elegant puzzlement of being human,
and a sense of gladness for your kingdom
which comes in spite of my fretful pulling and tugging.

O Lord,
nurture in me
the song of a lover,
the vision of a poet,
the questions of a child,
the boldness of a prophet,
the courage of a disciple.

O Lord,
it is said you created people
because you love stories.
Be with me as I live out my story.

51h4cyW5xxL._SX491_BO1,204,203,200_Ted Loder, Guerrillas of Grace, Augsburg Books, 1981.

Yes

I am a Christian, a person deeply formed by the Church and its gospel. Even more, I am a Baptist minister. For the past thirty-five years I have given my life to understanding, living and proclaiming the message of Jesus. It is because of this, not in spite of it, that I’ll be voting ‘yes’ in the upcoming plebiscite on same-sex marriage.

There is nothing that goes to the heart of human identity as much as our sexuality. It is that God-given reminder, persistent and powerful, that we are made for relationship—intimate, covenant relationship. When our need for intimate communion with another human being is violated through the horrors of sexual abuse, cheapened through sexual infidelity, or invalidated through sacraments of love that exclude, it is not only our rights that are threatened, but our identity as those created in God’s image.

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Saint Paul speaks of sexual failings as far more impacting than all others. “Don’t be immoral in matters of sex,” he writes, “that is a sin against your own body in a way that no other sin is.” Why? Because our sexuality takes us beyond a particular sexual act to our embodied nature, our personhood. It is certainly true that for the majority of people, sexual identity is most naturally expressed in heterosexual unions. For a small number, however, it is in same-sex relationships that they find who they are as relational beings. The truth is, those of us who are gay or lesbian are wired differently from those of us who are not. Homosexual longing is as natural to some as heterosexual longing is to others.

Of course, this is not the view of all Christians. Indeed, the majority of those within my own tradition disagree with me. Their perspective is that homosexuality is a dysfunction of identity—a failing of personhood that needs to be confessed and overcome. It follows, then, that allowing same-sex couples to marry will only legitimise a dysfunction God never intended. My experience says otherwise.

Through more than three decades of pastoral ministry, I have sat with countless men and women for whom their sexuality is most naturally expressed with persons of the same sex. Indeed, this expression of sexuality is as instinctive to them as left- or right-handedness, as given as the colour of their skin. Asking them to be other than who they are as sexual beings would be asking them to deny their very selves. Sadly, I have witnessed the denial of sexual identity lead people to dark places of despair, isolation, self-loathing and, sometimes, even death.

In much church commentary of recent days, church leaders are at pains to underline their love and respect for LGBTI people, claiming that their aversion to same-sex marriage does not equate with their denial of the integrity of same-sex persons or the worth of their families. The availability of civil unions, they will say, is an expression of this; never have the rights of the LGBTI community been more protected, they argue, and rightly so, but marriage is surely a step too far. The uncomfortable fact is, however, the churches these people represent have historically fought developments in LGBTI rights at every turn, and, despite the current tenor of conversation, the underlying belief has not changed: homosexuality is a dysfunction of personhood. Indeed, the entire argument against same-sex marriage rests on it. To claim otherwise is not only misleading; it is dishonest.

If homosexuality is not a dysfunction of personhood, but an expression of one’s being and identity in God, then withholding from the LGBTI community the most commonly accepted expression of loving, covenant relationship is wrong. We Christians fight for the sanctity of marriage precisely because we believe it is more than a legal contract between two people. It is a sacred and public bond through which two people promise fidelity to each other, to the family they form, and in the presence of the community that surrounds them. To quote advocate for same-sex marriage Rodney Croome, “The kind of choices, commitments and sacrifices marriage entails run to the core of what makes us human.” In my view, the argument to withhold these choices, commitments and sacrifices from same-sex couples in the context of marriage is not only a profound act of exclusion; it rests on dubious ground.

So, it’s a ‘yes’ from me.

Simon Carey Holt
Pastor, Collins Street Baptist Church
Melbourne

Feathered angels

In the early morning, as my beloved and I circle the local gardens in our walking shoes, we routinely hear one of the most beautiful sounds I can imagine: the song of the magpie. In my years away from Australian shores, it’s the one sound I missed. And yet to evoke the magpie’s song in words … I can only take heart from the English ornithologist John Gould: “To describe the note of this bird is beyond the power of my pen.”

I am not a bird man. I can barely spot the difference between a raven and a common koel. That said, I have a friend who photographs birds. Through his images — drip fed over the years into my email in-box — I’ve begun to appreciate just a little of what he sees routinely. It’s another world up there! A mostly hidden world of colour and song. At least now I look.

Clearly, the Australian poet Michael Leunig has been looking much longer than I have. On this beautiful autumn day, his prayer of thanks for these ‘feathered angels’ is one worth praying.

Dear God,
We give thanks for birds.
All types of birds.
Small birds and large birds.
Domestic fowls, migratory birds
and birds of prey,
hooting birds,
whistling birds,
shrikes,
coloured parrots
and dark darting wrens.
Birds too numerous to mention.
We praise them all.

We mourn the loss of certain species
and pray for deliverance
of endangered ones.
We pray, too, for farm birds,
that they may be released
from cruelty and suffering.

We give thanks for eggs and feathers,
for brave, cheerful songs in the morning
and the wonderful, haunting,
night prayers of owls,
mopes, frogmouths
and all nocturnal fowls.

We praise the character of birds,
their constancy,
their desire for freedom,
their flair for music
and talent for flying.
May we always marvel
at their ability to fly.
Especially we praise their
disregard for the human hierarchy
and the ease with which they leave
their droppings on the heads
of commoners or kings regardless.
Grant them fair weather,
fresh food and abundant materials
for building their nests in spring.
Provide them too with perches
and roosts with pleasant aspects.

Dear God, guide our thoughts
to the joy and beauty of birds.
Feathered angels.
May they always be above us.
Amen.

x293Michael Leunig, A Common Prayer, Collins Dove, 1990.
The image above is one of those captured by my friend and fellow Baptist pastor Bruce Stewart: “a wonderful visitor to our backyard this past week – the White Plumed Honeyeater.”

A prayer for Easter Sunday

THE SON ALSO RISES
A prayer by Frederick Ohler

Lord, no Easter ever celebrated life without death
and this day is no exception.
In the world
in our community
in our souls—
while we live we are always surrendering to death …
Never the less
closer to finally
Christ’s resurrection prevails
and therefore we cry out
“L’chayim!”—To life!—
that in-credible,
in-soluble,
un-stoppable mystery,
which is Yours to give
and ours to live.

Lord, we are grateful
that
seedtime and harvest
cold and heat
summer and winter
day and night will not cease
that
every rainbow is a covenant
and every sunrise a promise.

Lord, we are grateful
that
floods clap their hands
and hills sing for joy
and what the birds do by nature we may do by choice—
to sing
to sing
to sing!

Lord we are grateful
for
despair that is in vain and labor that is not
work that is worship and worship that is play
for a world that includes April,
a species that produced Bach
and a century that birthed our sister Teresa.

Lord, we are grateful for the ubiquity of life
and democracy of death
which none may evade (like taxes)
nor any buy off (like justice)
nor slaughter (like the innocents)
but which all must face
for life to come and belief to be real
for choice to count and love to matter.

Thank you, God
that
in a world where “little men cast long shadows
because the sun is setting”
the Son also rises
and all the naked emperors
and massive egos
and fakes
dry up
and the gentle Christ rises lovingly from the grave
worthy of praise
for
His grace — full entry
his limitless love
his absolute conquest of death
and His unremitting affirmation of life.
He is mighty because of His honour,
great because of His goodness,
and alive because He loves.
Therefore we praise Him and call Him Lord

amen.

5142O-VL-zL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Frederick Ohler, Better Than Nice and Other Unconventional Prayers, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989, 89-90.

A prayer for Maundy Thursday

Catch me in my scurrying

Catch me in my anxious scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my feet to the fire of your grace
and make me attentive to my mortality
that I may begin to die now
to those things that keep me
from living with you
and with my neighbours on this earth;
to grudges and indifference,
to certainties that smother possibilities,
to my fascination with false securities,
to my addiction to sweatless dreams,
to my arrogant insistence on how it has to be;
to my corrosive fear of dying someday
which eats away the wonder of living this day
and the adventure of losing my life
in order to find it in you.

Catch me in my aimless scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my heart to the beat of your grace
and create in me a resting place,
a kneeling place,
a tip-toe place
where I can recover from the dis-ease of my grandiosities
which fill my mind and calendar with busy self-importance,
that I may become vulnerable enough
to dare intimacy with the familiar,
to listen cup-eared to your summons,
and to watch squint-eyed for your crooked finger
in the crying of a child,
in the hunger of the street people,
in the fear of the contagion of terrorism in all people,
in the rage of those oppressed because of sex or race,
in the smouldering resentments of exploited third-world nations,
in the sullen apathy of the poor and ghetto-strangled people,
in my lonely doubt and limping ambivalence;
and somehow
during this season of sacrifice,
enable me to sacrifice time
and possessions
and securities,
to do something …
something about what I see,
something to turn the water of my words
into the wine of will and risk,
into the bread of blood and blisters,
into the blessedness of deed,
of a cross picked up,
a saviour followed.

Catch me in my mindless scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my spirit to the beacon of your grace
and grant me light enough to walk boldly,
to feel passionately,
to love aggressively;
grant me enough peace to want more,
to work for more
and to submit to nothing less,
and to fear only you …
only you!

Bequeath me not becalmed seas,
slack sails and premature benedictions,
but breathe into me torment,
storm enough to make within myself
and from myself,
something …
something new,
something saving,
something true,
a gladness of heart,
a pitch for a song in the storm,
a word of praise lived,
a gratitude shared,
a cross dared,
a joy received.

51h4cyW5xxL._SX491_BO1,204,203,200_Ted Loder, Guerrillas of Grace, Augsburg Books, 1981, 123-125.

‘Some precepts of postmodern mourning’

Amidst this sombre Holy Week, it feels appropriate to smile at death.  For a seasoned celebrant of funerals, this is a close enough to truth to be oddly comforting.

Some precepts of postmodern mourning
Alex Skovron

There must be a body, but there needn’t be.
The body must be remembered with some fondness:
there must be at least two eulogists, and a third
must have been detained by traffic or a death
and the service must proceed. Sex
must be mentioned, but preferably not, except at the wake
or the séance when most words are permissible again.
On second thought, this precept needn’t apply.
But at least one text must be read from,
preferably composed by the body and significant; it
must include expletives, but needn’t do so.
Everyone must look dignified and important, or at least
significant; move deliberately but not heavily; smile
but laugh only once. Black must be avoided,
except in socks and sunglasses, which must be worn
during the service as well as outside afterwards.
There must be at least a reference to Celtic poetry
or Jewish ancestry, and both Testaments must be drawn upon.
Someone must remark ‘I still can’t believe it’
then ‘Yes I can’, and someone must respond
with a philosophical but solicitous lift of an eyebrow.
One of the mourners must be overheard to whisper,
‘I’m surprised she didn’t come, though it doesn’t
surprise me.’ It must be noted that the body
could never suffer fools gladly, and someone
must observe how much he or she is only now learning
about the body. Someone must say at least one Italian thing
either to mourners or to the body, but a French
or German or Latin or Spanish or Sanskrit thing
will do, or a thing in any other accredited language,
provided the expression is significant. There must be
no public mysticism, though there may be, and coffee
or white wine must be served afterwards. Someone
needs to be squinting tears, preferably a large man
in a double-breasted suit with a crimson kerchief
protruding rudely, coupled with a pallid pusillanimous
niece with a weak chin and beatific smile
nodding with significance. Reincarnation must be accepted
by at least half the mourners, but not mentioned,
though strange omens and premonitions over recent weeks
must be seen as significant in retrospect.
The body must be understood to be pleased with the service,
the simple dignity and grace of the occasion,
the Baroque cantata, the words, the weather. Everything
must be just so. Everything must be significant.
Though in the end it needn’t be. Later, this in itself
must be acknowledged as most significant of all,
or at least put down to the quintessential irony of death.

skovron-alex-ip-author-300w_poet-bioAlex Skovron, published in The Puncher and Wattmann Anthology of Australian Poetry, ed. John Leonard, 2009.

Sacred bones

Bone Scan
Gwen Harwood

Thou has searched me and known me.
Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising.
Psalm 139

In the twinkling of an eye,
in a moment, all is changed:
on a small radiant screen
(honeydew melon green)
are my scintillating bones.
Still in my flesh I see
the God who goes with me
glowing with radioactive
isotopes. This is what he
at last allows a mortal
eye to behold: the grand
supporting frame complete
(but for the wisdom teeth),
the friend who lives beneath
appearance, alive
with light. Each glittering bone
assures me: you are known.

1367157941403Gwen Harwood (1920 – 1995)
Included in Beverage and Ogle (eds), Falling and Flying: Poems on Ageing, Blackheath: Brandle & Schlesinger, 2015.

On change

“There are times where change is calculated and pursued with drive and intent. At other times, it comes on like a blustery wind, sweeping you up, promising to lead you to places you might never have envisaged … if you allow it to.”

Pippa Campbell, “Apron Strings: Uncut.” In Bread, Wine & Thou, Issue 2, 2016, 9-15.