The hospitality of stories

“Stories enact a form of mutual hospitality. What is story if not an enticement to stay? You’re invited in, but right away you must reciprocate and host the story back, through concentration: whether you read or hear a narrative — from a book or a person — you need to listen to really understand. Granting complete attention is like giving a silent ovation. Story and listener open, unfold into and harbour each other.” 

Priya Basil, Be My Guest, Canongate, 2019, 12.

Ministry in isolation

Ministry is what I do. According to my title, it’s what I am. Church ministry is what I’ve done most of my working life. While I’ve not always kicked goals and there have been seasons of injury, I’ve stuck at it believing somehow that what I do matters. In the last two months, though, my confidence has wobbled.

Since late March, we Australians have been in isolation. Along with all places of public gathering, my church is closed, my neighbourhood and city shut down.  For seven weeks there have been no services, no visiting, no meetings with staff or pastoral encounters of any physical kind. Day after day it’s just me, my home office and this wretched computer screen. 

I’ve done all right, and I’ve nothing to complain about. Australia has been spared the tragedy of numbers — infections and deaths — that other countries have staggered under. What’s more, I have a roof over my head, a job that pays the rent and keeps the pantry full, and a loving family around me. That said, my sense of what it is I am meant to do and to be as a minister is challenged. 

The word ‘ministry’ is amorphous at the best of times. My Oxford Australian dictionary offers the generic “to render aid or service; the actions of a kind-hearted person.” In the context of the church, we normally aim for something more specific, more theological. I have long imagined the ministry of a pastor as accompanying a community of people in the life of faith: encouraging, teaching, supporting and believing with and in them as the people of God.  Whatever its particularities, it’s a very hands-on business. There’s nothing remote about it. It depends entirely on encounter and presence. If I am the hands of Christ among a community, then those hands need to get dirty. Christian ministry is a very physical and fleshy thing. So what do we do when all the physicality is gone? 

I don’t know really. I wish I could say I’ve had a revelation. I haven’t. I’ve struggled from the beginning and as we emerge out the other side, in some ways I feel none the wiser. That said, I do feel more sure about some things that, for me, are important to ministry and to the core of what I do.

Ministry is community

There are some who have claimed this time of social lockdown as purifying for ministry — an ideal opportunity for the distractions to be stripped away and for all that interrupts the bold proclamation of the gospel to be let go.  But gospel without the blemished flesh of community is not good news. It’s empty. Indeed, it’s impossible. By community, I mean that messy, funny, aggravating, awkward, ridiculous business of being the church — not some vague notion of church that floats in the middle of nowhere and demands nothing of us, but a real, local flesh-and-blood body of people that manifests Jesus while occasionally smelling bad and singing off-key. I reckon what I’ve discovered afresh is that the messy distractions and interruptions that come with people — people of all stripes and colours pressed up against one another — lie at the heart of ministry. They are not marginal to it. 

The virtual sucks!

There are many who champion the rise of the ‘virtual’ as a new signpost for ministry today. While they’re all much more hip than me, I’m still not convinced. Sure, the whole virtual thing has been good for a bit. I’ve learned a lot during this season about the role of social media, the potential of digital formats and online networking platforms. I’ve gone from Zoom novice to master in a matter of weeks. I’ve become the producer of video content that has honed my ability as a communicator and stretched by pastoral instincts. Regardless, ministry and the virtual remain the most awkward companions. While virtual mediums might be a handy addition to the ministry toolkit, the word’s definition points to their limitations: “almost or nearly as described, but not completely …”  I reckon I’ve discovered for myself that while the virtual can aid ministry, on its own it’s a crock!  

I confess, I hate emails. I always have. I loath phone conversations and Zoom just leaves me exhausted. But as a classic introvert, I really thought I’d do better at all this. I even thought I might secretly enjoy it. But, honestly, all it’s done is mess with my head, because ministry and isolation just don’t go together. Not for me.

I want coffee. I want to sit across from you in a cafe or perch at your kitchen bench; to hug when we meet; to smile at your stories and cry with you when life hurts. I want to pray with you and hear about your grandkids. I want to sit in church with you and sing together and meet your eye when I stand in that old pulpit; to break bread with you and remind you of God’s endless grace. I want to intercede with you for the world and advocate with you for justice, to work at welcoming strangers and loving our neighbours together. I want to bake you a cake and share a slice of pizza at Stellini Bar and imagine with you the life that God calls us to live. 

Because apart from all of that, I’m not sure I know what ministry is. 

Spirituality in the City

The wonderful people over at Zadok Perspectives published a recent issue on Urban Spirituality. It includes some helpful reflections from all sorts of people. It’s certainly worth a read.

Zadok145_Carey Holt_Simon1024_1They kindly sent me a PDF of my own contribution, which you can read here. It occurs to me that in our current predicament, the experiences of chaos, dissonance and intensity are daily for all of us. Nurturing a sense of God and the fulness of life in the midst of it is our common challenge.

The work of a pastor

I am a pastor, though I don’t always know why. 

I did once. I began in this business with deep conviction. To be a pastor was my calling — a vocation that I imagined chose me as much I chose it. To be a pastor was a profound responsibility invested by God upon those chosen for the task. To be honest, the odds were stacked against me. I was young and shy, introverted, tentative and emotional. Still, I was possessed of a knowing, and one not easily dissuaded. It was a knowing that others affirmed and, some would say, has proven itself true over time. 

Now, though, I’m not so sure. I still have a knowing, but a more pragmatic one. I know I am good at what I do. I know what’s required of a pastor and, as far as I am able, I give it my best. I know the texts and rituals of the faith, the rites of passage that I’m responsible to lead. I know congregations and how they work. I know people and I care easily for them. I certainly know the Church — the institution I represent. I know its history and theology, its strengths and its failings, its potential and its wretchedness. What’s more, I know first-hand the experiences of belief and doubt — the essentials of a durable faith. 

But as to why I am a pastor? To be honest, sometimes it feels more like a consequence than a vocation, the result of family background, circumstance and personality. Don’t get me wrong: I maintain a deep sense of calling, but it’s that calling shared by all people of faith not something all my own. Certainly, I have a strong awareness of God in what I do and of its worth, but as to why I have this role and do this work, I’m not always sure.  That said, I’m glad. 

I’m glad to be a pastor. I sense the privilege of what I do every day. Yes, I get tired, discouraged and cheesed off. Sometimes I despair. But in the midst of it all, there is an underlying sense of gladness. As Eugene Peterson says so beautifully, we pastors are called by a particular community to “pay attention” to what’s going on between and around us; to discern what is of God. Essentially, he says, we are witnesses: “A witness is never the centre but only the person who points to or names what is going on at the centre — in this case, the action and revelation of God …” 

While I can no longer claim too boldly the unique imprimatur of God upon my life as though I stand out from the crowd, what I can embrace is this extraordinary privilege I’m given by the people of God at Collins Street  —  the privilege to witness as best as I am able to the purposes and presence of God within and around us. I may not do it alone nor always do it well, but I get to do it no less. And for that I am glad. 

Joy to the World

A brief reflection on Luke 2.8-20

Early last week I went to see my physiotherapist. I hobbled into the waiting room and found a seat. Not far behind me was a woman of similar age whose hobble was much the same as mine. As she lowered herself gingerly into her seat, I winced knowingly. “It’s been a long weekend,” I said. “Oh yes,” she replied, “in more ways than one.” As we chatted, we talked first of our backs and commiserated together. But then we spoke of more important things.

She told me about her son. He had received his VCE results and they were not good. “He’s devastated,” she said, “and I just don’t know what to do.” She described her son’s dream to study engineering and of the limited options now open to him. She spoke of his tears, and of the closed door to his bedroom. “I don’t care what he does,” she said almost pleadingly, “He could be a garbage collector for all I care. I just want him to be happy.”

I so get that. As I father, I understand. I have often wondered, when all is stripped away, what do I most long for in the lives of those I love? What do I want for them more than anything else? That they would be happy? Yes. But the deeper question follows: what does it mean to be happy? And does the word ‘happy’ really cover my deepest desire for them?

In the season of Advent, today is the Sunday of joy. “Joy to the world,” we sing as we light that fourth candle. Immediately following the birth of Jesus, an angel appears to shepherds in a field and declares to them, “I am bringing you good news of great joy!” Before long a choir, a multitude of angels fills the night sky. “Glory to God in the highest,” they sing, “and on earth peace.” Is this just a very theatrical way of saying, “Happy Christmas!” or is it more than that? What is this joy the angel trumpets?

It’s evident that whatever this joy is, it has very little to do with the shepherd’s personal happiness. As hired labourers — those who watch other people’s sheep for money — shepherds who work the night shift are near the bottom of the social ladder. It’s not as though pre the birth of Jesus they are poor and sad and post birth they are prosperous and happy. The fact is, after their visit to the stable to see the child, they return to the very same circumstances. Nothing immediate has changed. It’s the same for Mary and Joseph. The shame, fear and uncertainty that coloured their story leading up the birth do not suddenly evaporate. Indeed, following the birth of Jesus they must flee to Egypt for a fear of a king who wants their child dead. They have no choice but to ride off into the night, alone and scared. So much for happy Christmas.

Clearly, this joy the angel speaks of is something very different to the personal pursuit of happiness. It is found in something larger than self-interest or personal wellbeing. For the shepherds in the field and for Mary and Joseph on the run from persecution, this proclamation of joy goes far beyond their own stories. If it is theirs to claim personally, then it’s found in being gathered up in a story much larger than their own. The angel declares to the shepherds, “to you is born this day in the city of David a saviour who is the Messiah.” In the birth of Jesus is an invitation to the fullness of life for all humankind. It is in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus — the story of a life lived from beginning to end for the good of the world — that the source of real joy is found.

This joy that we celebrate today is no momentary experience of happiness. It has little to do with brightly wrapped gifts under a tree or the contentment that follows Christmas lunch. It is more than that. Through the birth of a child, this joy marks the beginning of a reorientation of our world toward hope. This reorientation is made possible through the birth of Jesus. For in Christ God steps into our world. It is no longer God over us or out there in some heavenly or cosmic realm. No, in the birth of a child, God is with us. God is birthed in us. Through Christ, the way is now open for all humankind to experience the fullness of life.

What do I most want for those I love? Yes, I want them to be happy. To be honest, I would prefer their lives were free of pain, failure and struggle of any sort, but I am wise enough to know that this is foolishness. For they live in the real world, not some fanciful land of daffodils and smiley faces. So in this real world, I want more than anything that they would discover for their own lives a purpose that is larger than their own self-interest, the possibility of a larger story which gives their own stories meaning and direction. I long that they love well and sacrificially, that they live their lives in a way that leaves the world a better, more compassionate and just place. I long that they would know a joy that infuses and inspires their living and impacts the lives of others.

On this 4th Sunday of Advent, I believe that God our father longs for this in all of us. Whatever our story, whatever our personal circumstances, the good news of great joy is a story into which we are invited. It is a story born in us this Christmas time, a story into which we are born. The joy of this season is a way of being in the world that embodies the love, the peace and the hope of God.

I do wish for you the joy of Christmas. More than that, I pray that you will be gathered up in that joy and that you’ll find the courage to live it in all the days to come.

Amen.

Image: ‘The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds’ by Thomas Cole (1834)

Gratitude

Last Sunday my family and I celebrated Thanksgiving. Though a few days early and on the wrong side of the world, we did our day in style. We feasted on fried chicken, jalapeño grits, cornbread, green bean casserole, and macaroni & cheese. And we finished with sweet pies: pecan and buttermilk.

I like Thanksgiving. Of all the weird and wonderful things American, it’s my favourite. It’s a day set aside to say ‘thank you!’ Though a bit awkward at first, we did the American thing. Each guest was invited to reflect back on the year and name something or someone for which they were grateful. It’s a simple practice, yet potent. With a few words, each person made visible what otherwise might have gone unnoticed.

Thankfulness is a thought before it’s a feeling. It’s an attitude we choose. Essayist Margaret Visser calls gratitude our “thinking heart.” We can feel all sorts of things without much thought, she says: anxiety, resentment, fear, anger, or sadness. Feelings like these come from nowhere. Gratitude takes thought. It takes practice. It’s an attitude cultivated by paying attention — beholding and naming what’s under our noses all of the time.

The English philosopher G.K. Chesterton once said, “the greatest poem is an inventory.” When we take time to notice all that is good, beautiful and grace-filled in our lives, gratitude follows. It’s not about what is mine by right or entitlement but what is gift and grace. As Chesterton says, “there is no way in which man can earn a star or deserve a sunset.”

Since our Sunday feast I have been reflecting on what a life of gratitude looks like. In my own thinking I’ve often identified the character traits of gentleness, generosity and contentment as those I most aspire to. It occurs to me that each one flows most naturally from a mind shaped by thankfulness.

I read recently of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman confined to a transit camp in Holland awaiting transportation and death in Auschwitz. She worked tirelessly to comfort her fellow prisoners and to embody hope and light in the midst of such abhorrent darkness. In 1943, Etty wrote to a friend, enclosing a prayer she had just written in her diary:

“You have made me so rich, O God, please let me share your beauty with open hands. My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with you, O God, one great dialogue. Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on your earth, my eyes raised toward your heaven, tears sometimes run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude. At night, too, when I lie in my bed and rest in you, O God, tears of gratitude run down my face, and this is my prayer.”

I cannot imagine Etty’s life, but I am deeply challenged by her thinking heart — a heart shaped by gratitude and sustained by a profound sense of grace.  She was able to live generously with others, even in the most awful circumstances, because her own soul was steeped in thankfulness.

Some thoughts on blogging

It’s been fourteen years.

I began this blog back in 2005. I was on research leave at a university in Texas and started blogging to keep track of my reading. It has stumbled along from there, reinvented a few times over but still going.

Blogging is a particular form of writing.  Though I still do it primarily for myself, it’s not journaling. It’s more public than that. By its form, a blog looks for an audience and seeks approval. At its most ordinary, it can be just another ‘Look at me!’  When I first began blogging, I did so self-consciously and almost hoped no one would notice.  Though the self-consciousness is gone, the virtual stutter lingers. Perhaps that’s why I am more prone to quote the words of others than form my own.

Recently I re-read an essay by the great English novelist George Orwell, one that I last read thirty years ago. Titled Why I Write, the essay begins with Orwell’s unnerving admission:

“I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued.  I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.” 

To some degree, I begin in the same place. My personal “facility with words” is paltry by comparison. Regardless, writing is a way to speak — carefully, deliberately, sensitively — without being interrupted by more brash or charismatic voices.  It’s a way to be heard.  Perhaps I would replace Orwell’s “failures in everyday life” with inadequacies.  I have my share of those.  Writing has always been a way to communicate when my ability in other mediums comes up short.

Orwell goes on to outline what he calls the four great motives for writing:

  1. Sheer egoism: the desire to appear clever, to be talked about and remembered. “It is a humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one.”
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm: the pleasure one takes “in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.” 
  3. Historical impulse: the desire to find, gather, report and store up for posterity.
  4. Political purpose: the desire to “push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s ideas of the kind of society that they should strive after.”

Honesty means acknowledging that the act of writing envelopes all of the above, each one rising to the surface at different times.  I keep at it, hoping that over time the more virtuous of these motives bubble to the surface.

I hope so.

 

Preaching

Most Sundays I stand in a pulpit. It’s an imposing old thing, central to the internal architecture of its 19th century home. Though I can’t say I relish the sermon, it is a valued part of my tradition. In fact, for Baptists like me, preaching is central to the worship event. Really, I have no choice but to give it my best.

That said, doing so is fraught. There are at least two dangers for the regular preacher – dangers that sit at either end of a spectrum.

At one end, there’s the preacher who chooses ‘professional distance’ from the subjects she speaks on, ensuring nothing of herself is ever a part of what she says. From this perspective, the preacher’s task is to get out of the way and let the Word speak for itself.

At the other end, there’s the preacher who makes his own experience central to every sermon he preaches. At worst, his sermon becomes a weekly act of self-indulgence: ‘Look at me!’ I have long understood these two dangers as equally hazardous.

Frankly, I’m in danger of the second more than the first. Professional distance has never been my thing. At my best, I like to imagine it as a choice for vulnerability. I have always believed that if the preacher is not prepared to be fully present in his preaching, then he has no right to stand in a pulpit. Where there is no honesty, the possibility of truth that transforms is minimal. What’s more, my experience tells me that when a preacher leaves her own experience out of the sermon, it is almost guaranteed that her listeners will do the same. Still, the hazards of this approach are real.

First, we have to be honest enough to say that while personal engagement and self-indulgence are two different things, they lie perilously close to each other. Tread carefully!

Second, it’s a rare preacher whose own life and experience is so interesting as to be a riveting source of weekly inspiration. Think more broadly!

Third, the practice of constantly giving oneself away in the sermon can take an emotional toll on the most resourceful preacher. Go gently!

One of the most important things I have learned in preaching is that bringing oneself to the task, fully and honestly, does not equate with every sermon being confessional. Sometimes it is more about the vulnerability of one’s spirit than it is about what one reveals.

Like so many others in my profession, I face personal experiences of struggle: those of loss, grief and failure. In those moments, honestly, I would rather do anything than stand in a pulpit. What’s more, naming those feelings publically is more than I can do. What I have learned to lean upon at those times is the gentle and gracious invitation of God: ‘Be present to the task, Simon. That’s all of you that I require today.’

Moltmann on risk and possibility

“Many people can do more than they think they can. Why? We are all afraid of opposition and defeat, but people who withdraw into their own shells out of fear of setbacks never get to know their own potentialities. And if we never get to know our potentialities, we never learn the limitations of our own powers either. It is only when we get out of ourselves that we arrive at ourselves. It is only when we get beyond our limitations that we discover what they are, and accept them. People who do not want what seems to them impossible never fully exploit their possibilities.”

Jürgen Moltmann