A response to ‘Heaven All Around Us’

It’s a wonderful encouragement to read these words of affirmation from Brian Harris, Principal of Vose Seminary over in Western Australia:

“I often get sent complimentary copies of books from publishers who hope I will put in a good word for their publication. Sometimes that is possible, at other times I read a few pages of the book, push it to the one side and diplomatically say no more. Happily, Simon Carey Holt’s book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life (Cascade, 2018) is definitely in the first category. Actually, it’s sensationally in the first category – an absolute delight to read, deeply thoughtful, often profound and very well written.”

You can read more of his response, especially to the chapter on God at the Supermarket, here.

Violence and ‘biblical manhood’

The horrific tragedy of Eurydice Dixon’s rape and murder in Princes Park in June was close to home. I live in Parkville just across the road from where Eurydice died. The park is where my partner and I walk every morning. Even more, my daughter Ali lives in a share house in Carlton just blocks away. The route Eurydice took that night is one she walks. Though shaken by the tragedy of this woman’s death, I was more deeply impacted by Ali’s response. She is 23. Standing with thousands of others at a candle lit vigil in the park, Ali’s tears were more than momentary. Her feelings of vulnerability, fear and rage were sustained, confronting, and mirrored in the countless young women who surrounded her. As I stood in this crowd myself, the intensity of these feelings was overwhelming.

In Ali’s case, her despair is heightened by her studies in social work. In her recent placement at a women’s prison, she confronted the fact that every woman she connected with was the victim of domestic violence or childhood sexual abuse, most commonly at the hands of husbands, fathers, brothers, and uncles. As they are elsewhere, the statistics around domestic and sexual violence in this city are shocking, the overwhelming majority of cases in which men are the perpetrators. As today’s paper reminds us, though Eurydice’s story may have gripped our community in a particular way, there are countless other stories, equally appalling, we do not hear.

I have felt many things since that night. Most deeply I have felt inadequate. I have struggled to know what to do or how to respond. While I may be able to say ‘I am not violent’ or ‘I am not an abuser,’ I cannot say ‘this is not my problem.’ Standing with my daughter, I understand afresh that this is my dilemma as much as it is hers. This is so because I am her father, of course, but there is more to it than that. It is mine because I am a citizen, a neighbour, a church leader and, most significantly, a male. The stark realities of male violence and their underlying causes are mine as much as they are anyone else’s. But what to do with that reality, that’s where I stumble. And I am not alone.

There is much talk today of a “crisis of confidence” among men. The goal posts have shifted, we are told, as traditional roles have been up-ended; the image of the male as provider, protector, leader and defender is no longer assumed. Apart from the fact that we have proved ourselves atrociously poor stewards of such roles, the underlying assumption that they are ours for the claiming is now vigorously questioned. And rightly so.

As a member of the church, I am part of a community that struggles with this “crisis” in a particular way.  It is often argued by Christian men that the answer to our predicament is to reassert our authority, to retake our God-given roles as leaders and protectors. According to this view, the “radical feminisation” of society has led to the emasculation of men and the disorder that has followed. Conversely, it is only by reclaiming what’s called our “biblical manhood” that Divine order will be restored and society healed. What this order includes, of course, is the “complimentary” role of women to comply, to submit and to go back to their kitchens. Such is the passion behind this view of things that the call to re-embrace manhood becomes a call to arms. We are urged, in the words of Brad Stein’s anthem of Christian manhood, to “grab a sword, don’t be scared; be a man, grow a pair.”

To be honest, any talk of “biblical manhood” makes me nervous. I have a sense that, in truth, this coupling of leadership with testicles has little to do with Christian virtue and more to do with a base need for men to reassert their dominance.  Type the word “masculinity” into Google and countless images come up of shirtless men flexing their biceps. Traditional views of manhood are equated with power. Thus when we men feel powerless, vulnerable, emotional, afraid or uncertain, we have learned to identify such feelings with weakness and emasculation. Consequently, we lash out at the shifting of traditional roles and want desperately to reinstate them. But to whose benefit? Rather than finding a way to hold our vulnerability, to name our emotions, or to own our fears and responsibilities as human beings, we grasp again for power.

The fact is, this idea of “biblical manhood” is challenging. While images of masculinity abound in the bible, they are so tenuous and various as to be, at best, illustrative but rarely prescriptive. Think of David and Jonathan: David the warrior and slayer of giants, a philanderer who can’t keep his pants zipped; his dearest friend Jonathan, a man of letters and poetry, moderate, wise and politically manipulative. Take brothers Jacob and Esau: one a hairy outdoorsman and the other a mother’s boy, hairless and soft of skin; one given to underhanded deception and the other to bouts of uncontrollable anger. Think of disciples Peter and John: gregarious Peter, fickle and full of bravado, a risk taker who wears his heart on his sleeve, and Jonathan, quiet, unassuming, leaning against the breast of Jesus with deep affection. The truth is, while the bible is full of ‘manly’ stories, none provide stellar models of manhood. From beginning to end, these men are as broken and fragile as they are heroic.

Personally, as I think of those young women, my daughter included, gathered at the memorial for Eurydice Dixon, I struggle to see how the benevolent re-application of male authority could be an answer to their despair. Indeed, I cannot imagine how the call to reclaim the balls of a “biblical manhood” has anything to say to this tragedy that is not deeply offensive.

If I find anything in my faith relevant to this issue, it is not a call to Christian manhood, but the persistent call of Jesus to be human, fully human. Foundational to the Christian faith is the belief that we are made in the image of God. In this is our common call to personhood, and it is ours no matter what our gender, race, religion, sexuality or the colour of our skin. This shared identity, affirmed and reclaimed in Christ, is what binds and obligates us to each other.  If the God-given roles of leadership, providence and protection are ours — and I believe they are — they are not the exclusive rights of office or gender. Rather, they are responsibilities that we share as those made in God’s image.

 

 

 

Play as a Spiritual Practice

The following is an extract from the book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life. At the conclusion of a chapter entitled God on the Sports Field, I offer this brief reflection on play as a spiritually formative practice.

It’s worth a thought!

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According to the prophet Zechariah, the great city of God is one where “old men and old women” sit together on the sidewalks watching “boys and girls playing in its streets” (Zech 8:4–5). There is something about the free play of children that conveys life at its most harmonious. Images of children playing amidst the rubble of cities torn apart by war are images of hope; life goes on. Certainly, one of the great delights of my life is to watch a child play. 

I recall watching my son play alone in the backyard sandpit when he was a child. His rich imaginary world and his dedication to careful construction came together in his tunnels and towers of sand. I remember, too, watching my daughter play games with friends at the local playground, her lifelong preference for people management to the fore. At the same time she learned the painful art of compromise in favor of a shared world of imaginary scenarios. Though with different personalities, both children were completely consumed by their world of play. Observing such children, educator Micheline Wyn Moriarty concludes that the worlds they inhabit are those of “wonder and delight for their own sake” and in which they develop “inner spiritual resources” and “forge connections” with the earth and each other.

There is something in this that sounds like the beginnings of a spiritual practice, no matter what our age or stage of life. It is in play that various truths are affirmed, values cemented, and discoveries made. It is in playfulness that we discern afresh God’s creativity, beauty, laughter, and delight. In what ways, then, can we embrace play as an intentional spiritual practice, one that leads us deeper into the way of Jesus? There are many possibilities, but I begin with those that follow. 

1. Play as an Act of Pleasure

Jesuit theologian Hugo Rahner describes play as our participation in the divine, “a way in which our spirits return home to God.” In play, he says, we take the inviting hands of God and together we dance. It is a dance of pure pleasure, one entirely without purpose other than the dance itself: “In play, earthly realities become, of a sudden, things of the transient moment, presently left behind, then disposed of and buried in the past.” In play “the mind is prepared to accept the unimagined and incredible.” 

There is something of this pleasure with God that is embodied uniquely in play. It is a pleasure captured in the Douay translation of Psalm 8, an English version of the Vulgate dating back to the 1500s: 

“The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways, before he made anything from the beginning. I was set up from eternity, and of old before the earth was made . . . I was with him forming all things: and was delighted every day, playing before him at all times; playing in the world. And my delights were to be with the children of men.”

This idea of playing in the presence and pleasure of God was very much in the mind of the Scottish athlete Eric Liddell, whose run in the 1924 Summer Olympics was celebrated in the 1981 Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire. Molded by a dour Presbyterian faith, his sister was concerned that the trivial pursuits of running would lead him away from the mission of the church. “God made me fast, Jenny,” Liddell responded reassuringly, “and when I run I feel God’s pleasure.” It is this sense of pleasure in play that I hear people name routinely. First, of course, it is their own pleasure but, when prodded to take it further, it becomes a window into the pleasure of God. It is there on the hockey field and in the quilting circle; on the running track or the tennis court; in the spectator stands at the football stadium and the walking track through bushlands; in the children’s sandpit and the dance hall. In all of this is the opportunity to play before God, to rediscover the exuberance of what is unnecessary yet truly life-giving.

Isabell swims. With a squad, she trains three mornings each week at the Melbourne Aquatic Centre. On Saturdays she swims alone and for much longer. I serve as a supervisor in her training for hospital chaplaincy and we meet routinely. Recently, we sat together on the banks of the river that winds its way through the city center, and Isabelle described the role swimming plays in her life. She called it a meditative act. Lap after lap, she said, her body and mind move in sync with each other: “There has always been something about it that calms me. When I swim I feel my body as so much a part of me, like an extension of my spirit.” Isabell told me of the prayer that has become part of her Saturday morning ritual in the pool. As she touches the wall and turns at one end of her lane she says, “This body is your gift to me, O Lord” and touching the wall at the opposite end, “I receive it with thanks.” As we watched a solitary rower pass by on the river below, Isabelle reflected on ways swimming blends with her spirituality. “The pleasure of it goes far deeper than the outcomes,” she said. “It’s not so much about speed or fitness or anything like that. It’s more to do with a deeper well-being that I feel in the pool, a peace of mind that envelopes me. It’s a beautiful thing. I can’t imagine life without it.” 

2. Play as an Act of Surrender 

At its best, a spiritual practice is a routine means by which we offer our lives to God and open ourselves to the transforming work of God’s Spirit. We do so in our regular reading of the Bible, Sunday worship, habits of prayer and meditation, and even in periodic commitments to fasting or silence. Of course, the concurrent danger of practices like these is that they become works of righteousness, means through which we seek to prove our spiritual mettle or justify ourselves as worthy of God’s acceptance: if only I pray longer, confess more tearfully, or fast more stringently, then I might graduate to a higher level of perfection. How easy it is to fall into what John Coe calls “the temptation of moral formation,” seeking growth in our own power, purity, or achievement.  

There is a particular danger of this in embracing physical exercise or training as a spiritual discipline. As you watch a young man in a gymnasium lift weights in front of a full-length mirror, interrogating his every move and muscle in the reflection he sees, the dangers become clear. If all we can see in the reflection is ourselves—our successes and our failings in bold relief—then our spirituality becomes an obsession of self-interest. Worse still, we miss the true gift of being gathered up in the beauty, goodness, and grace of God. 

It is here that play as a spiritual practice shows its worth, for play is an act of freedom not obligation, one of delight not seriousness. The French sociologist Roger Caillois calls it “an occasion of pure waste.” As such, play allows pleasure to come to the fore. As in the pursuit of music and art, so through the playfulness of life we give expression to freedom and allow laughter and pleasure their place. “Unmitigated seriousness betokens a lack of virtue,” Thomas Aquinas once said, “because it wholly despises play, which is as necessary for the good human life as rest is.” A regular commitment to play has the potential to heal and release us from what Rahner identifies as our “idiotic earnestness” and “senseless preoccupation with the things of this world.” 

To embrace play as a spiritual practice is to be reminded of just how ridiculous our own self-justifying efforts are, as serious as they may be. The truth is, spiritual practices were never intended as means to salvation, but, as Michael Austin has said, as a way of “opening ourselves up to God and his transformative power.” In acts of play we surrender ourselves to the foolishness of grace.

3. Play as an Act of Reclamation

If we were to stand in a field together and you threw a ball or a Frisbee for me to catch, I would be an awkward recipient. Though I am now a man in my fifties, the prospect of shame associated with the childhood business of throwing and catching lingers. I may be able to name that fear for what it is and the toothless beast it always was, but my awkwardness at the sight of a ball has not budged. 

Like many children, my memories of games in the schoolyard are filled with associations of inadequacy. I always preferred the library. The only physical activity I did not loathe was in the swimming pool, and then with only moderate levels of success. I learned early to mistrust my body, to wish that I was built differently, to judge it as weak and deficient. I learned, too, that games are rarely separate from competition and the drive to win among those who naturally excel. If my body is in possession of a competitive bone, I have not discovered it yet. What’s more, the competiveness of others leaves me mystified and intimidated. 

I was well into my twenties when I first tasted play untouched by competition or the ascendancy of winners. I was a young pastor-in-training and posted to a small congregation in rural Queensland. The church building was a small wooden chapel that stood alone in a field far from the nearest town. There was not a street light to be seen. After an evening service one Sunday, the congregation dispersed into the night. The last to leave, I turned out the lights and locked the main door of the chapel behind me. As I walked out in the surrounding field that served as the church parking lot, the only light came from the moon above. Standing by my car was a small group of young people, just five of them. As I came closer I could see one was holding what looked like a basketball, though it was difficult to make out. “Ever played dark ball?” one of them asked. “Um, no!” I said. That familiar sense of dread was immediate. “C’mon then!” With that one of the young women grabbed my arm and pulled me out into the center of the field. I could not see the others but I could hear their voices. “What do we do?” I called out. “You don’t want to get hit by the ball,” one said excitedly. “Just try and catch it so you can hit someone else with it.” “But I can’t see anything. It’s too dark!” “That’s the point!” the young woman exclaimed as the ball suddenly appeared between us. For the next thirty minutes, we ran and threw and dodged and tripped over ourselves and each other. All we could hear were our shrieks of laughter, and the constant cry, “I can’t find it!” 

The most liberating thing of that night’s play was that no one could see me. No one could see my lack of coordination or my clumsiness. There was just uproarious laughter as we tripped and fell into tangled heaps on the ground. I had not laughed so hard or moved so fast in all of my life. And it was glorious! No competition, no judgement, no fear, no glaring inadequacy for all to see. It was just fun, the most wonderful and uninhibited fun. I drove home that night exhilarated, feeling alive in a way I had rarely experienced before. 

The very word play implies something free and liberating. Whether it’s on a sports field or a stage, on a basketball court or sitting at a board game, the designation play reminds us that we are embodied people. The reclamation of our bodies and the playfulness inherent to them is a practice as freeing as it is routine. 

Theologian Stephanie Paulsell writes of her own adult rediscovery of running. Like me, she recalls with ease the humiliations of the school yard and the taunts of other children mocking her flailing arms on the running track. For years she avoided running and its shame and assumed her body to be a thing best hidden. Even in the early days of relationship with her husband-to-be, himself a seasoned runner, she managed to send him off on his own. It was only when he insisted that she join him that Paulsell was faced with a choice. Committed to her new relationship, she ventured tentatively onto the pavement. Gradually, emboldened by his belief in her, Paulsell decided to leave her past narrative behind and to feel her body again. It was her spiritual awakening. 

“I sprinted down the last half of the track, Kevin matching me stride for stride, and felt in every muscle the pleasure of exertion, of pushing my body beyond its boundaries. It was a physical pleasure, the pleasure of feeling myself wholly embodied, of feeling blood and breath moving through me. It was a spiritual pleasure, the relief of feeling old fears and inhibitions drained of their power, a feeling of freedom and possibility. And it was a sexual pleasure, the pleasure of feeling someone I love drawing out my strength, urging me on, matching his body rhythm to mine. It is one of my husband’s enduring gifts to me that he reintroduced me to the joy of bodily exertion. Through honoring my body and its strength, he helped me begin to do the same.”

There is something about play embraced as a spiritual practice that enables us to reclaim our bodies as temples of the Spirit and of God’s abundant creativity; to reclaim God’s gifts of pleasure through the sun on our backs, the air in our lungs, or the consuming focus of games into which we disappear for intervals of time. Like birdsong that has no purpose other than the simple pleasure of sound, or flowers that fill a garden with nothing but color, play is a reclamation of all that is spare and surplus to life. It is the reclamation of grace. 

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

Happiness at the corner café

“No sir,” the 18th century poet Samuel Johnson once said, “there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness has been produced, as by a good tavern or inn.”

I am not a man of pubs, and I am not sure Mr Johnson would recognise the ‘taverns’ of today. Still, there is something in what he says that I feel about the café. A good café can produce a certain kind of happiness. I do not mean the overly stylised or pretentious ones that make the lists of ‘Melbourne’s best’. I mean the local café, the one where you go to be familiar, to drink coffee, to sit and think, to write or read, or talk with friends. I feel a happiness in such places that stands apart. Indeed, there are few places I would rather be.

A good café is a communal space, yet offering respite and solitude of a particular kind. It is public yet secure, familiar yet a place of strangers. The coffee is served by people who care. There is simple fare — breakfast and brunches and little cakes. You can sit for as long as you like with a jug of water to ease the time. It is not loud or overly busy, but a place of life. There might be music, but none you notice until you listen for it. There are gentle conversations going on in different corners while in others there is silence. You can watch and listen, or not. You can lose yourself for a bit while life treads by outside the window. You’ll re-join it soon, but for now you sit and sip, and breathe.

Some might say the idea of a café as a maker of happiness is an over-reach. True, happiness is a slippery, subjective thing. What one considers a state of happiness may be boredom to another. Happiness is commonly understood as a feeling, fleeting or seasonal, or for others an aspiration. Whatever it is, it is certainly not a right. Rather, it’s a gift that may, or may not, sit beneath things or tasks or conversations. For me, happiness is a certain peace, a connection, a sense of time and space, contentment and ease. It’s a place I need.

While such ease is challenged amidst chaotic lives, it is very much a choice we make within them. A café is a venue of such choice, a holder of a particular happiness into which we can slip from time to time.

So, I’ll skip your taverns, Mr Johnston, but I’ll take my seat at the café table anytime.

Written at The Social Foundry, Kyneton, a social enterprise café that ticks all the boxes. The image above is of Ricardo Balaca’s El café (1844-1880)

Walking as a Spiritual Practice

The following is an extract from the book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life. At the conclusion of a chapter on neighbourhood, I offer this brief reflection on walking as a spiritually formative practice. What I have particularly in mind is walking where you live, but it applies more generally too.

You might give it a try!

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I like to walk. I walk to work. I walk around our local park for exercise, and to local cafés and bookshops. Wherever I can, I walk to meetings and pastoral appointments. Not long ago my beloved downloaded an app to my phone that tells me how many steps I’ve taken each day, how far I’ve walked in total, even how many flights of stairs I’ve climbed. The daily tally of numbers is extraordinary. That said, apart from adding to my sense of virtue in the late evening before I slice off another piece of cheese, I am hard pressed to find a connection between this and the wellbeing of my spirit. If walking is a spiritual practice, there has to be more to it than this. 

In reality, walking is about the slowest form of movement we can imagine. For the philosopher Frédéric Gros, “walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.” It is certainly not preferred by the driven or the busy; walking stands resolutely apart from things that propel. Commonly it’s the priorities of productivity and efficiency that overrule walking as dead or wasted time. Even the term pedestrian reeks of the dull and unmotivated. Regardless, the act of walking remains a very human one. It is an act of the spirit. For as long as human beings have inhabited this earth walking has been an act of longing and aspiration: we have walked to find home; we have walked in spiritual pilgrimage; we have walked to celebrate, to protest, and to commemorate; we have walked as a form of rest and recreation, and in pursuit of better health; we have walked to discover new worlds, to conquer new heights, and even to pray. 

Sadly, the commitment to walking is in decline. The head of Australia’s Pedestrian Council has said, “While it took human beings a million years to learn how to walk, it’s taken only fifty to forget.” Cars and boats and planes and trains have all promised, even delivered, a much more speedy arrival, as if arrival is the only good. The worth of walking is found in others things. It is not a practice of productivity, not even of transition, but one of presence. 

Jesus walked. He walked his way into people’s lives. He walked into deserts and through towns, between villages and around lakes. He walked up hillsides, down laneways, and across fields. He walked into graveyards and by wells, in neighborhoods, and through temples. He walked alone and with others. He walked to his own death and away from his own grave. He even walked on water. And for what purpose? The writer Barbara Brown Taylor believes it was critical to his impact. Walking gave Jesus time to see things, she writes, “like the milky eyes of a beggar sitting by the side of the road, or the round black eyes of sparrows sitting in their cages at the market.” Indeed, if he had moved at a faster pace—on horseback, camel, car or bus—it might all have been a blur. Instead, he walked. 

For me, it’s walking in my neighborhood that comes closest to a spiritual practice. It’s something I choose to do at night once dinner is sorted and other commitments have been met. It’s a routine that brings my day to a quiet end, like a plodding benediction. It’s a kind of walking that has no sense of destination and no purpose other than the walking itself; yet there is a sense of place and belonging that comes with it. As a spiritual act, neighborhood walking is many things: it’s a routine act of intention; it’s a choice to be present; it’s an acknowledgement of community and place; and it’s a daily stride of contemplation. In all of this, walking is a prime candidate for a spiritual discipline. 

To embrace walking as a spiritual practice, most especially where we live, is to engage with the practice routinely and intentionally as one of faith. 

1. Walking for Awareness

If we want to see our neighborhoods, to truly inhabit them in the way that Annie Dillard inhabited her precious Tinker Creek, there’s nothing like walking them. Walking is an act of awareness, a way of seeing, noticing, and being present to where we live. It’s an immediate thing, very here and now. I can’t walk my neighborhood and not be present to it. When I walk its streets I feel it and smell it. As I put one foot in front of the other, the neighborhood’s contours become my own. 

When I drive through my neighborhood, my destination is elsewhere. I am focused on the most efficient way in or out. I don’t see it. When I walk my neighborhood I am aware of it. I notice the individual homes, the front doors and windows. I notice the little signs of life and those of struggle. I see the unkempt lawns beside those that are neat. I see the graffiti and the trash cans alongside the mail boxes and garden beds. At night, I can see the flickering glow of televisions through curtained windows and the momentary glimpses of life within. When I walk it, I can no longer ignore this place of mine. I see it as a human place, a place of God.

Writing in the 1930s, the Jewish philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin described his youthful wanderings in the center of Paris. He suggested that to get lost in a city as a failure of navigation is nothing more than ignorance; but to lose oneself in a city “as one gets lost in a forest” is an entirely different matter. 

“Then signboards and street names, passers-by, kiosks, or bars must speak to the wanderer like a crackling twig under his feet, like the startling call of a bittern in the distance, like the sudden stillness of a clearing with a lily standing erect at its centre. Paris taught me this art of straying. It fulfilled a dream that had shown its first traces in the labyrinths on the blotting pages of my school exercise books.”

There is something about this “art of straying” that is key to walking in the neighborhood. It’s about listening to its sounds, learning to interpret its sights and smells, and better understanding its pulse as a living organism. Such a practice takes time and the routine discipline of walking. It can be done alone or in company. Either way, it is a pathway to awareness. 

2. Walking for Belonging 

“When you give yourself to places,” Rebecca Solnit writes, “they give you yourself back.” It is in walking that we give ourselves to our neighborhood. We walk ourselves into its story. By walking its streets and laneways we physically insert ourselves into it over and over again. In return, the neighborhood opens itself up to us and we become more consciously a part of it. 

Neighborhoods are not large. In fact, by definition neighborhoods are defined by their proximity. In leading groups of people to think about their neighborhoods, I invite them into a simple exercise. I begin by giving each one a large blank sheet of paper. I then ask them to draw a thumb-sized picture of their own home in the center. It may be a stand-alone house, an apartment block, or something different. Whatever shape it takes, I ask them to represent it on the paper. Next I ask them to map out around it the streets and laneways of the neighborhood. “Imagine you take a walk around the streets that surround your home, just five minutes in each direction,” I say, “what streets would you walk? What landmarks, shops, public buildings, or parks would you pass?” Once they have the neighborhood mapped out, I then ask them to identify all of the points of human connection they have on the map. It may be with the neighbor across the street or on the floor below. It might be the person at the corner store from whom you buy milk, the man who walks his dog in the same park, a café proprietor or a teacher at the local school. The only proviso is that the contact is within walking distance and on your map. For each of these connections I ask participants to add a smiley face to the page. Some pages are filled with smiley faces, and others have just a few. Regardless, they are always there. 

Walking the neighborhood is a discipline of both noticing and belonging. The more we notice the more we belong. We give ourselves to our neighborhoods when we walk them. We do it again and again, and in time, we find a sense of place and belonging takes root. In Solnit’s words:

“Walking is only the beginning of citizenship, but through it the citizen knows his or her city and fellow citizens and truly inhabits the city rather than a small privatized part thereof. Walking the streets is what links up reading the map with living one’s life, the personal microcosm with the public macrocosm, it makes sense of the maze all around.”

3. Walking for Contemplation

The Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a walker. “Never did I think so much, exist so vividly, and experience so much,” he wrote in the eighteenth century, “never have I been so much myself . . . as in the journeys I have taken . . . on foot.” Sadly, we often think of contemplation as an act of zoning out, of freeing our minds from the constraints of where we are to inhabit a higher plane of zen-like meditation. This was not the case for Rousseau. What’s more, it’s a misunderstanding of contemplation’s gift. 

As I have said in a previous chapter, to contemplate is to look deeply into life in order to discern its truth. The life into which we look is the life around us, its objects, contexts, routines, and encounters. We do so assuming that life’s sacredness is immediate, not far off. When we walk, we open our minds to this possibility. We are consciously on the lookout for the life and truth of God. 

Granted, the neighborhood is not the first place we think of when it comes to “the beauty of holiness” and all things God. Perhaps walking amongst mountains, along rugged coastlines, or down country lanes has more an air of the Spirit. Writers like the nineteenth-century Henry David Thoreau influenced a generation to see the act of walking in the natural world as one of great virtue. Walks in the neighborhood are a harder sell. There are not many neighborhoods in our cities and suburbs that allow the natural world to preside. Neighborhoods are constructed places, more full of concrete and asphalt than of grasslands and creek beds. Yet the fact remains, they are the place of our lives. In Mackay’s words, our neighborhoods and suburbs are the places “where most poems are written, most cups of sugar borrowed, most flowers grown, most dreams fulfilled, most passions stirred . . .” As with our homes, neighborhoods are filled with the life we bring to them. Over time we fill them with this life and they become immeasurably more than a random collection of sleeping pods. They play host to the evolving truth of our stories. In walking, we open our ears to hear them.

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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.

 

 

On being right … or wrong

“The need to be right carries with it the fear of being wrong. In the lives of many Christian adults these factors prevent learning. To be ready to learn is to be ready to admit that there is much one does not know, that one may not be entirely right. There is even the risk that one may be proved wrong.”

Professor John Hull (1935-2015)

Laundry as a spiritual practice

The following is an extract from the book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life. At the conclusion of a chapter on home, I offer this reflection on doing the laundry as a spiritually formative practice. OK, so it might be a stretch for most of us, but it’s worth a thought!

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The laundry is never done. A laundry basket never empties completely. No matter how many loads we do, done is not a laundry word. There are some things in life that are done. Mostly they are big, momentous things: my work here is done; my schooling is done; our relationship is done. While there are things less momentous—a book can be done; so can a jig­saw—when it comes to life at home, done is only ever a provisional word. Done things at home are never really done: taking out the trash, mopping the floor, doing the dishes, mowing the lawn, cleaning the toilet, watering the plants, feeding the fish, or shopping for groceries. Things like these are only ever done for now, until they need doing again.

There is something about a good spiritual practice that defies done with the same persistence. I pray today and I will pray tomorrow. To­day I confess my sin; tomorrow I will need to confess again. Like the disciplines of frugality and chastity, there is no end to the obligations of laundry. The average household generates eight to ten loads every week. Laundry is not something we get to do once and then move on, as though graduating to a laundry-less existence. Clothes get dirty, socks get smelly, sheets need changing. Laundry is one of the certainties of life. As with all spiritual practices worth their salt, laundry is our work today as it will be tomorrow.

That said, embracing laundry as a practice of spirituality takes some work. Getting beyond the novelty of the idea can be the biggest hurdle. The laundry is simply not where the mind naturally goes in pursuit of God. After all, holy places gleam, like the front rooms of our homes made ready for guests. The laundry is kept behind closed doors. It’s the place we hope they don’t see. The most profitable spiritual practices, however, are those that throw open the closed doors of our lives and allow light to shine where it’s most needed.

The laundry door is one that deserves to be opened, and the practice of washing taken more seriously. There are significant things going on in the laundry; it’s a place charged with spiritual possibility. The opportu­nity to name those things, to bring them to the surface, and to embrace them with intention is ours for the taking. Here are some places to begin.

Laundry as a Formative Act

It is the routine of laundry that is likely its greatest gift. According to Kathleen Norris, worship and laundry are the work given for us to do by God. Both are repetitive, she says, mundane, even menial. Lest you think worship is nothing of the sort, take note the next time you are in church. Think first of the great and eternal God to whom this worship is offered, and then of the stilting, off-key and sometimes humorous forms in which it comes. You would think after centuries of rehearsal we would finally have it right. Not so, for it is a work never done. Yet through our regular investment in it, we are nurtured in God’s image. Week by week, year after year, we are formed by it. So, too, with laundry.

As a truly menial task—a word derived from the Latin “manor” meaning “to dwell in a household”—laundry is a task of connections and household ties. It’s an act of stability, a mark of loyalty, the most basic pro­vision of kindness and service. I wash your feet; I wash your underwear. I serve you and honor you. I will do it today and again tomorrow, load after load. In the process I am formed. My servant spirit, however reluctantly and at times resentfully, is gradually deepened by the doing. I have often noticed that in meetings where refreshments are served, it is the same people over and over who instinctively move to the kitchen sink once the meeting is done. Equally, it is the same people who don’t. Domestic acts of service shape our instincts. We are formed in the doing.

It is because we are human, Norris says, that we must find our way to God through the mundane and the daily acts of our lives. “In our life of faith as well as in our most intimate relationships with other people,” she writes, “our task is to transform the high romance of conversion, the fervor of religious call, into daily commitment.” In this, laundry and worship are one of a kind.

Laundry as a Sacramental Act

A sacrament is most broadly defined as an outward sign of an inward grace, like the elements of bread and wine on the church’s communion table. Through the ordinariness of wheat and grape, we encounter love in its most extraordinary form. While the officially sanctioned sacraments of the church are a gift to the people of God, the possibility of the sacra­mental does not end at the church doors. The world is shot through with grace. In acts large and small, we have opportunity to sign that grace for others. Laundry can be one of those: a demonstration of unearned favor. We don’t deserve to have our laundry done. There is no universal right to clean laundry enshrined in a code of what it means to be human. It is either done for us as an act of grace, or it’s an act of grace we gift to others. Either way, Ernest Boyer calls it “a sacrament of care.”

When I stand behind the communion table in our sanctuary, I han­dle things that are, in and of themselves, unremarkable: a loaf of bread; a goblet of grape juice. When we gather as the people of God around that table, we name these elements together as the signs of God’s redeeming presence with us. It is in the naming that the unremarkable becomes the ineffable and grace is enfleshed. As you stand over the washing—whether it’s in a state-of-the-art machine with multiple cycle options or a plastic tub filled with hot water and soap—you stand before ordinary, soiled ele­ments. Each one has its own story to tell, though perhaps most should be left untold. Each sock, each blouse or shirt is known and submerged. Sometimes there may be words you say:

Lord God,
I offer to you the work of my hands,
and the soiled garments of our lives.
May those who receive them washed clean
know the cleansing of your grace.
Amen.

Your congregation is made up of those who will take and wear them. Occasionally they do so with gratitude, an awareness of the gift that is theirs. Mostly they don’t. It’s a routine they take for granted as much as you do. It is mystery and it is laundry; not all that different to the com­munion table really.

Laundry as a Prayerful Act

“Sometimes when people ask me about my prayer life,” says the writer Barbara Brown Taylor, “I describe hanging laundry on the line.” For Tay­lor, each item of clothing she hangs in the sun is like a prayer flag pegged in the open breeze.

“Since I am a compulsive person, I go to some trouble to impose order on the lines of laundry: handkerchiefs first, then jockey shorts, then T-shirts, then jeans. If I sang these clothes, the musical notes they made would lead me in a staccato, down­ward scale. The socks go all in a row at the end like exclamation points. All day long, as I watch the breeze toss these clothes in the wind, I imagine my prayers spinning away over the tops of the trees. This is good work, this prayer. This is good prayer, this work.”

Taylor’s practice has in mind the pictures we see from Nepal: small pieces of colored cloth strung in their hundreds along mountain ridges high in the Himalayas. Though the practice has its origins elsewhere, Ti­betan Buddhists have made it their own in a particular way. The tradition is that these flags come in sets of five colors arranged from left to right: the blue of sky and space; the white of air and wind; the red of fire; the green of water; and the yellow of earth. Together they call for peace, com­passion, strength, and wisdom through all creation. For those who hang them, there is not a strong sense that these prayers are carried to God but are blown by the wind, filling the air with all they hope for.

As Christians, our faith centers more deeply in a particular encoun­ter with God through Jesus Christ, but the longings embodied by these flags resonate. It is an ancient practice of prayer that we name our long­ings before God, that in time those longings are shaped by God, and in turn, those longings shape our lives and relationships. If a practice like hanging laundry can give form and structure to such prayers, and our prayers be gathered up in our daily work, both are enriched.

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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.

Conversation as a Spiritual Practice

IMG_3915The following is an extract from the book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life. At the conclusion of a chapter on friendship, I offer a brief reflection on conversation between friends as a spiritually formative practice.

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Talk is cheap: so the saying goes, and it’s mostly true. Our world is full of talk; loud, persistent talk that never ends. Too much of it self-serving, self-aggrandizing, self-justifying. We attend talkfests where “expert” voices are privileged over others. We visit political chambers and church sanctuaries where pulpits and lecterns give voice to those in power while the majority is silent. And we sit before our televisions watching panels where the cleverest and loudest voices win. Too often they sound like a gathering of egos shouting, “Look at me!” 

No doubt, this sort of talk can be cheap. What’s more, talk like this rarely changes things. Rather than transforming the minds of those who participate, it simply confirms the views they already hold and the choices they have already made. It is not altogether different in the talk of our everyday lives. How many times have you left an exchange with an acquaintance or colleague wondering if your presence was really necessary to it? We can be talked at, talked over, talked down to, or talked around, but rarely are we talked with. Rarely are we genuinely listened to, and seldom do we listen to others. 

At its best, conversation is different. Conversation is a meeting of minds, memories, and stories. It is a mutual meeting of spirits distinguished by its openness to the possibility of change. There is always the chance in conversation that we will be shifted, prodded, challenged, or moved to think and act differently. It is this, I suggest, that sets conversation apart from talk. In fact, if we do not come to conversation open to its transforming potential then all we have is talk. Open conversation is the oxygen of true friendship. It is the oxygen by which we breathe together, and it is good. 

The proposal that conversation between friends can be a spiritual discipline—a routine practice embraced with intention that leads us to the likeness of Christ—is, at first blush, as difficult as the others we have proposed so far; but its potential is rich. If conversation is allowed to be a tool in the deepening and transforming of our spirits, it may well impact our spirituality in significant ways. 

1. A Practice of Attending

“I don’t know exactly what prayer is,” the poet Mary Oliver confesses, but “I do know how to pay attention.” This is surely where all spiritual practices begin: they are disciplines through which we pay attention to our own lives, to the lives of those around us, to the world we inhabit, and, in all of this, to God. The more ancient spiritual term for this practice is attending. It is what I do when I engage in intentional conversation with a friend: I attend; I listen in the most deliberate way I can. 

To understand the impact of attending in friendships, philosopher Graham Little asks us to recall those moments when we have been “recognized, attended to and listened to well.” It is in those moments, he says, “those magnificently human moments” in which we feel “exhilaratingly alive” that we touch on the transformative power of attending. To be attended to is to experience the depth of what we give to others when we listen attentively to them. 

The practice of attending is built on a cardinal respect for the humanity, integrity, and worth of our friend. She embodies the truth of God in her story in a way I’ll not encounter in any other place. In my attending I honor that truth and I listen for it. I do not come with judgment or the need to convince or cajole. I only come with a sense of inquiry, a desire to hear, understand, and care. I want my friend to know again that I am here and that my support is genuine and ongoing. I want to see what she sees, to feel what he feels, and to know what she knows. And if he is lost, I want him to know that he has company. 

In recent years, I have experienced events that were isolating in ways I had not previously encountered. It had to do with public issues about which there is strong disagreement in the Christian church and in which I have a pastoral investment. I felt pressed to take a role that was more public than I was naturally comfortable with. The toll was considerable. I struggled to know what to do with that toll and how to carry it as I needed to. In the course of things, a friend invited me into conversation. He went out of his way to make generous time and to convey his concern for me. As I settled in to that conversation—what felt like a wide and open space—I realized its gift. The hours we spent together were some of the most healing I have experienced. He gave no advice, had no agenda other than to care, and no particular wisdom to share; but he attended to me with such generosity, I came away feeling both comforted and challenged. It was a small but significant turning point in my own well-being. 

Attending is not a complicated thing to do. There are only two rules that apply. Rule #1: shut up. Rule #2: listen. Really, it is not complex; but it’s not easy either. Good attending is a practice that takes some learning. If we think listening is easy, it is often because we’ve never done it. Good attending is a pastoral act that takes discipline and practice; the more we give ourselves to it, the more instinctive it becomes. That said, it is a practice we are all capable of. As a practice of our faith, it includes no secret pathway but is open to all. 

In exploring this practice for myself, I came across a book that had in its title the enticing phrase “conversation as ministry.” In the early chapters, the author defines the sort of conversation he has in mind, including its twelve essential components. As I waded my way through them, including such things as a grounded ecclesiology, a biblically informed character, a reflective self-awareness, I began to have a sense of something more complex than I had imagined, more the business of secret church squirrels than of regular people. None of the author’s twelve points are wrong. In fact, each is spot on and worth exploring. That said, conversation between friends is surely the most accessible and immediate business we are in. Perhaps all we really need to begin is the author’s final point: conversation gives body to the realm of God on earth. There is something about attending in friendship that makes the presence of God tangible. 

2. A Practice of Investing 

The real beauty of conversation between friends is that it’s ongoing. There is nothing momentary about it. Friends have history. They have shaped a story together. No matter how long-standing or recent a friendship might be, it builds one encounter at a time, one conversation after another. These conversations, building incrementally, sit within the context of our story and add to it. In time they develop a grammar all their own. The more we converse, the less there is to explain or divulge and the more we make room for challenge and depth. 

The idea of a spiritual practice as an investment is a helpful one. In all spiritual disciplines there is something about slow, persistent practice that is key. The practices of prayer, meditation, confession, worship, or Bible reading build over time. Not every deposit we make feels significant in its own right, but in time the worth of those investments grows into something substantive. To be honest, there are moments in my prayer life where I feel nothing of substance, where the rote and ritual act feels nothing more than that; and there are others when my heart soars. Yet I look back and know that the practice of prayer—the mundane and the exhilarating—has shaped my relationship with God like nothing else.

Conversations with friends can build slowly into a transformative practice, each one an investment into something larger. There will be conversations that sing and others that are monotone; encounters that thrill the spirit and some that are dreary. There will be intentional conversations that burrow away at particular challenges; and others that meander with no sense of purpose or destination. To use Augustine’s words, such conversations can “pass from lightest jesting to talk of deepest things and back again.” But, in all of this, we are investing, one conversation at a time, in something of greater worth. 

What investments need is time, time to mature so as to reward the investor with the greatest returns; so, too, with conversation. For relationships to flourish and for conversations to have their impact, there is no substitute for time. “Relationships are not best founded on efficiency,” Hugh Mackay observes, “nor are they best nurtured through the exchange (no matter how frequent) of inherently impersonal digital data.” When you surrender the art and discipline of face-to-face conversation, he says, believing that text messages and emojis can fill the void, “you’ve begun to lose your grip on what it means to be a social creature.” When it comes to spiritual practices, there are no shortcuts. In the practice of conversation between friends, the incremental investments require intention and time. There is no other path. 

3. A Practice of Confronting

In the opening paragraphs, I proposed conversation as a meeting of minds, memories and stories. In that meeting the possibility of change flourishes. The English writer and philosopher Theordore Zeldin argues that such change is not only possible within each participant, but can flow between and out of the conversation they share. “When minds meet,” he writes, “they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought.” “Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards,” he continues, “it creates new cards.” In this form, conversation is more than attending to each other’s stories. It is more than an incremental investment over time. It is found in the willingness of those who converse to tread territory that is risky, even confronting. It takes trust to flourish. “What matters most,” Zeldin concludes, “is courage.” 

Geoff and I have been friends for over twenty years. We met as students in the States, initially bound by our common status as “aliens” in a foreign land. Quickly, though, the relationship moved to firmer ground. We come from different traditions and different states. Our personalities are a study in contrasts, yet over two decades our friendship has remained. This has much to do with Geoff’s persistence and grace; he does friendship better than most men I know, and I have reaped the benefits. That said, we remain different, shaped by disparate contexts and communities. Apart from our years in California, we have rarely lived any closer than a day’s travel apart. Even more, there are issues about which we disagree and hold very different views. While I am accustomed to standing in the minority on some things, there are few people in my life, those with whom I disagree, with whom I can have conversation on these issues that is not marked to some degree by mistrust. With Geoff it is different. 

Friends have time on their side. When friends disagree, there is always more to the relationship and its conversations than the issue of difference. I cannot dismiss Geoff as merely “the opposing view.” There is more to him than that. There is more to our relationship than the disagreement at hand. What’s more, I cannot marginalize his viewpoint as I can with an acquaintance on Facebook. The respect we share more broadly touches everything about which we converse. Zeldin proposes that it is in these moments of difference we are faced with a choice. The direction the conversation takes from this point will shape us as much as it shapes the relationship. As friends we can choose to focus on our past—the memories and experiences that have made it—and keep on saying, “this is the way we are,” or we can set out to explore new and risky territory. That territory will necessarily include confrontation as we wrestle intentionally with what sets us apart. It is not an easy path to take.

Of course, the practice of confrontation is more than negotiating differences of opinion. It also means allowing conversations to name things that are difficult to name and to put our finger on things that are painful, even shameful, in our lives. When friends find the courage to traverse this territory, openly and sensitively, they touch on a spiritual practice that has as much capacity for transformation as any other practice we can name. 

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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.

 

On books

” … for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth.  What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you.  Books help us to understand who we are and how we are to behave.  They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.  They are full of all the things you don’t get in real life — wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat.  And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention.  An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift.”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1994, 15.