I rest in the grace of the world, and am free

I first read this poem sometime after the events of 9/11. Partnered with a US citizen, I had two young children born in Los Angeles. Watching the horrific events play out in New York and Washington, it felt to me like the world was coming apart.

These words from poet Wendell Berry came to me from somewhere. I don’t recall how, but they embodied fragility and beauty in a way I needed at the time. I remember laying on the grass of neighbouring Royal Park with my son, looking up at the stars and feeling despair and grace in equal measure. One did not discount the other, but grace held.

The Peace of Wild Things

Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Gravy. It’s all gravy.

At just 39 years of age and an alcoholic, the American poet Raymond Carver was given six months to live. In and out of rehab, he was destitute, his marriage over and his career stalled. Somehow Carver found the courage to change. He stopped drinking and began a slow journey back to himself. Ten years later Carver faced a new challenge: lung cancer. At age 50, without bitterness, Carver spent his final days with a deep sense of gratitude for every moment beyond his expectation.

Gravy

Raymond Carver

No other word will do. For that’s what it was. Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. ‘Don’t weep for me,’
he said to his friends. ‘I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure gravy. And don’t forget it.’

In Praise of Walking

Long before the pandemic, walking the city and its neighborhoods was, for me, a practice as life-giving as it was routine. Amidst Melbourne’s multiple lockdowns, it’s been a gift to my sanity.

For a long time, the Scottish poet Thomas A Clark has paid attention to the practice of walking. He finds in it the life I’ve so often experienced. In this particular poem, Clark provides a series of propositions or ‘truths’ about walking. Many of them resonate.

In Praise of Walking

Thomas A Clark

Early one morning, any moment, we can set out, with the least possible baggage, and discover the world.

It is quite possible to refuse all the coercion, violence, property, triviality, to simply walk away.

That something exists outside ourselves and our preoccupations, so near, so readily available, is our greatest blessing.

Walking is the human way of getting about.

Always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths, visible and invisible, symmetrical and meandering.

There are walks on which we tread in the footsteps of others, walks on which we strike out entirely for ourselves.

A journey implies a destination, so many miles to be consumed, while a walk has its own measure, complete at every point along the way.

There are things we will never see, unless we walk to them.

Walking is a mobile form of waiting.

What I take with me, what I leave behind, are of less importance than what I discover along the way.

To be completely lost is a good thing on a walk.

The most distant places seem most accessible once one is on the road.

Convictions, directions, opinions, are of less importance than sensible shoes.

In the course of a walk, we usually find out something about our companion, and this is true even when we travel alone.

When I spend the day talking I feel exhausted, when I spend it walking I am pleasantly tired.

The pace of a walk will determine the number and variety of things to be encountered, from the broad outlines of a mountain range to a tit’s nest among the lichen, and the quality of attention that will be brought to bear upon them.

A rock outcrop, a hedge, a fallen tree, anything that turns us out of our way, is an excellent thing on a walk.

Wrong turnings, doubling back, pauses and digression, all contribute to the dislocation of a persistent self-interest.

Everything we meet is equally important or unimportant.

The most lonely places are the most lovely.

Walking is egalitarian and democratic; we do not become experts at walking and one side of the road is as good as another.

Walking is not so much romantic as reasonable.

The line of a walk is articulate in itself, a kind of statement.

Pools, walls, solitary trees, are natural halting places.

We lose the flavour of walking if it becomes too rare or too extraordinary, if it turns into an expedition; rather it should be quite ordinary, unexceptional, just what we do.

Daily walking, in all weathers, in every season, becomes a sort of ground or continuum upon which the least emphatic occurrences are registered clearly.

A stick of ash or blackthorn, through long use, will adjust itself to the palm.

Of the many ways through a landscape, we can choose, on each occasion, only one, and the project of the walk will be to remain responsive, adequate, to the consequences of the choice we have made, to confirm the chosen way rather than refuse the others.

One continues on a long walk not by effort of will but through fidelity.

Storm clouds, rain, hail, when we have survived days we seem to have taken on some of the solidity of rocks and trees.

A day, from dawn to dusk, is the natural span of a walk.

A dull walk is not without value.

To walk for hours on a clear night is the largest experience we can have.

For the right understanding of a landscape, information must come to the intelligence from all the senses.

Looking, singing, resting, breathing, are all complementary to walking.

Climbing uphill, the horizon grows wider; descending, the hills gather round.

We can take a walk which is a sampling of different airs: the invigorating air of the heights; the filtered air of a pine forest; the rich air over ploughed earth.

We can walk between two places and in so doing establish a link between them, bring them into a warmth of contact, like introducing two friends.

There are walks on which I lose myself, walks which return me to myself again.

Is there anything that is better than to be out, walking, in the clear air?

Am I doing it right?

I do a bit of supervising. It goes with the territory for pastors with grey hair. We’ve been around for a bit and younger pastors need professional supervision. Indeed, it’s required these days and for good reason, so for the last decade I’ve stepped up to the crease. 

For the most part, pastoral supervision is a privilege. I get to hang out with people who love the church and talk honestly about the call of God in their lives. They come from various traditions —Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Churches of Christ and Uniting — and my own ministry is richer for it. No matter how long I’ve been at it, though, there’s a question that nudges at my conscience: am I doing it right?

A good friend of mine, Geoff Broughton, happens to be one of Australia’s leading thinkers in the practice of pastoral supervision. In fact, he’s just published a book on the subject. While Geoff is not about offering a ‘right’ way of doing anything (I’m not even sure he would judge my question a good one), what he does provide is a more theologically and biblically informed appreciation for what we do in this work. If you are involved in pastoral supervision — giving or receiving — I recommend it.

Regarding my awkwardness, there are a few points of encouragement that Geoff’s book has provided to my own practice. None of them do the book’s worth or central thesis justice, but I’ll take them as little prods to confidence.

  1. My work as a supervisor is essentially about paying attention to the call of God in the life and ministry of the one I supervise. That’s an extraordinary privilege.
  2. If it’s these enquiries that are vital to the work of supervision for the person I meet with — what should I do? what enables me to do it well? what do I really want to do? what is worth doing? — then, frankly, I am not as central to the process as I might imagine. My task is to facilitate a conversation between the pastor and the God who forms them. My getting it ‘right’ is really not the issue.
  3. As a supervisor, I get to walk part of the journey with another. As we walk together, we wonder and reflect and imagine together. What more could I want to do?
  4. Good supervision conversations are potentially luminous — they might just reveal life, truth, goodness and beauty. For both of us, that’s worth our time.
  5. In supervision I get to hold a space for another — space for grief, exhaustion, disappointment and failure. What could be more pastoral than that?
  6. Both of us — supervisor and supervisee — are called to follow Jesus. Both of us are called to lives of ministry and service. As a pastoral supervisor, I am not a professional coach or an advocate for self-development. For a period of time I stand alongside one called to a life of self-giving for the good of the church. That means my offering of supervision is an extension of my own pastoral vocation.

All of that sounds wonderfully worthwhile. Even if I don’t always get it right!

Geoff Broughton, A Practical Christology for Pastoral Supervision, London: Routledge, 2021. 

A prayer for winter

On this first day of winter and in the gloom of lockdown, some words to remind us of grace, even in the cold.

There is a winter in all of our lives, 
a chill and darkness that makes us yearn 
for days that have gone 
or put our hope in days yet to be. 

God, you created seasons for a purpose. 

Spring is full of expectation, 
buds breaking, 
frosts abating and an awakening 
of creation before the first days of summer. 

The summer sun gives warmth 
and comfort to our lives, 
reviving aching joints,
bringing colour, new life
and crops to fruiting. 

Autumn gives nature space 
to lean back, relax and enjoy the fruits of its labour; 
mellow colours in sky and landscape 
as the earth prepares to rest. 

Then winter, cold and bare as nature takes stock,
rests, unwinds, sleeps until the time is right. 
An endless cycle
and yet a model of grace. 

We need a winter in our lives, 
a time of rest, a time to stand still, 
a time to reacquaint ourselves 
with the faith in which we live.

It is only then that we can draw strength 
from the one in whom we are rooted,
take time to grow and rise through the darkness 
into the warm glow of your springtime, 
to blossom and flourish, 
bring colour and vitality into this world,
your garden.

Thank you, God of life, 
for the seasons that colour our lives.

[Author unknown]

Ministry Essentials: Rest

I am a keeper of lists. To-do lists. As I sit with my coffee each morning I create them, review them, add to them and tick them off. On one hand, to-do lists are my sanity, a means of organising life and keeping anxiety at bay. On another these lists are relentless and often overwhelming. To-do lists ooze from one day to the next. Their demands never end.

The work of ministry is endless. It is eternally full of things to do — things that must be done, should be done and are never done. From the urgent to the important, from the trivial to the profound, our work defies completion. The tasks of ministry are legion and frankly, it’s exhausting. For me, there have been moments, even seasons, in which the impact of this exhaustion has been destructive. In turn, those I love have suffered.

I am not alone. I know too many pastors for whom this destruction has been devastating. Ministries have ended prematurely and relationships have crumbled. As I have argued elsewhere, unrelenting busyness is nothing short of violent. To surrender passively to its demands is to do violence to ourselves, our families, our churches and, ultimately, to the created world of which we’re a part.

In ministry, one of the most important to-dos of all is rest. By rest, I do not mean a reward for work completed, a occasional pause to busyness or a marginal reprieve from our mission. It is much more. Rest is the gift of God, an obligation at the heart of our calling. “Come to me all you who are weary,” Jesus said, “and I will give you rest.” Rest is a state of being into which we are invited. More broadly, it is fundamental to God’s work of creation, redemption, justice and holiness. Rest is not a marginal concern to ministry. It is essential to our gospel work.

In my view, we pastors must learn to press into the practices of rest as intentionally as we do our work. There is nothing passive about rest. It is not a thing we fall into exhausted once the demands of ministry ease. They never ease. Never. The truth is, rest requires a decisive and routine movement from one state to another. The Germanic root word for rest means ‘league’ or ‘mile’. It implies travelling. When it come to the practices of rest, we must run toward them.

Sometimes, of course, we pastors become addicted to our to-do lists, dependent upon them for our sense of self or perhaps as a way of avoiding ourselves. The last thing we want is to run toward the honesty that rest provides. The Nigerian writer Bayo Akomolafe describes the demand of such rest as “a cut to the body that allows the flesh to spill … A blow to the bones that gives the limp.” The choice to rest can be painful. Sometimes the stillness it requires is more than we can bear.

The biblical practice of Sabbath rest calls us to name our humility and dependence. Routinely I remind myself of who and whose I am. I bow again before God as the source of all life and situate again my tiny part in it. To put such an act on my list of things I must do is to give rest the priority God gives it. While others may prod me to its importance, no one else can make it happen. No one.

Ministry Essentials: Generosity

For years I had three words taped to the top of my computer screen: gentle, generous and content. They were aspirational, character traits I desired for myself and still do. There was a time when I imagined generosity as the easiest of the three. Not any more. As I get older, I am painfully aware of just how ungenerous my instincts can be.

In the practice of ministry, generosity is assumed. After all, we’ve committed our lives to a cause larger than ourselves; we’re invested in the care and support of others; our ordination vows are to lives of self-giving and service for the good of the church and community. Generosity is of the essence. Yet the idea of generosity is quite different to a generous instinct.

The word generous speaks of a large and plentiful spirit, one that creates a broad space in which others can flourish. Honestly, though, my heart can be as small and petty as any other. No matter how magnanimous the ideal of what I do, self-interest is a powerful force. Concern for my own image, obsession with my impact, the craving for respect and recognition — these desires have a gravitational pull that’s hard to resist. Each makes small the space I have to offer.

I have learned over the years that generosity in ministry — a spirit of leadership that is wide and plentiful — is a decision made over and over again. It is realised in daily choices for a broad and inclusive horizon. There are three of those choices I’ve come to understand as essential.

First, there is the choice to be generous in my assumptions. The people we minister to and with come in all shapes and sizes, each one unique and complex. They can be brittle, bombastic, opinionated, defensive, blind, biased and insensitive. They might even vote Liberal! Frankly, assuming the best is not easy. Yet the conviction of my faith — that we are all made in the image of God — stands. As different as we might be, we are bound together. “While we find ourselves washed up on shores so different they could be their own planets,” writes Sarah Krasnostein, “the ground beneath our feet is always the same.” If I am ministering from a small and defended place, then your difference is all I see and I am prone to suspicion and mistrust. With a large and open spirit, I assume your goodness and am more able to offer you the grace I crave for myself.

Secondly, there is the choice to be generous in my affirmation. One of the most challenging pieces of advice I received as a young pastor was this: “It is only when you are at ease with yourself, Simon, that you can celebrate others with abandon.” I have discovered over the years that the instinct to self-interest flows commonly from a basic insecurity: I am not enough. When my life is governed by this sense of lack and the craving for reassurance that follows, my horizon is small and my ability to cheer for others contracts. I am more grasping than giving. On the other hand, if I am at ease with myself, my calling and my worth in the eyes of God, then I am free to rejoice in you without reserve.

Thirdly, there is the choice to be generous in my blessing. Whatever our tradition, we pastors have a privileged voice. We are the ones who stand in pulpits. What we say matters and what we bless has influence. Week after week, we model an understanding of God’s priorities and the breadth of God’s concern. To be generous in blessing is to honour the lives of those in our congregations, to recognise that their callings are larger than the church and its programs. I have long believed that my primary task is not to grow the ministry of the church as institution, but to support the mission of the people of God wherever they are — to encourage, resource and cheer them on. As much as I believe it, however, the practice is challenging. I well understand the pressures to build the church’s brand, influence and reach. I am rewarded for the growth of those things which have the church’s name on them. To bless equally what lies beyond requires a more open and generous posture.

In my experience, the value of generosity in ministry is easy to name yet so difficult to live. A generous instinct has to be nurtured. It’s like working a muscle: let the workout subside and the muscle contracts; allow those daily choices for generosity to diminish and my reach shrinks. Clearly, maintaining a large and plentiful spirit is a stretch. So I’ll keep stretching.

Ministry Essentials: Presence

As a young seminary student, I was assigned to a congregation in the suburbs of Brisbane. I arrived to a community in mourning. They had just lost their pastor, one in whom they had invested a good deal of hope. Though he arrived with great flourish, he left just two years later professing God’s call elsewhere.

A few weeks into my placement, I met with an older member of the congregation. We sat at her kitchen table in a housing commission flat directly opposite the church. A stalwart of the community, she was kind but weary. We spoke of her disappointment in the pastor’s departure. “He never really moved in,” she said as she poured tea into my cup. “They often don’t.”

In most cases, we pastors are an itinerant bunch. We come and go. Given the average tenure of four years in a congregation, it’s a reasonable assumption that a call to pastoral leadership is a call to transience. There are many reasons for this, and not just flightiness of spirit. The systems and cultures in which we minister do little to encourage stability. Regardless, there is something to be said for the pastoral practice of ‘moving in’ — the choice to be fully present in our communities for however long we are there. In fact, it’s essential to what we do.

Being present is about more than showing up to preside, preach and lead. It’s about settling in — this is now my home and these are now my people. It’s about living into a particular community as an expression of our theology, our humanity and our calling.

Theology: At the commencement of every deacons meeting at Collins Street — a central city church — we pray a prayer that begins, “God of this city, your home and ours …” If Eugene Peterson’s rendering of John 1 is an accurate indicator of God’s movement in Christ, “the Word became flesh and moved into the neighbourhood”, then this prayer is more than a pleasantry. It names a theological commitment that shapes our mission. For God, this ‘moving in’ was more than a pragmatic or momentary relocation for a higher purpose. Indeed, there is no higher purpose disconnected from the ‘flesh’ of our lives and neighbourhoods. Without roots in a particular place and among a particular people, the gospel is not good news. It is simply a good idea that never lands.

Humanity: The philosopher Martin Heidegger has said that to be human is to dwell. By dwelling, Heidegger means more than just residing. To be human is to truly inhabit a place, to experience it from the inside and to allow that place to inhabit us. There is something about this that speaks profoundly into the nature of pastoral work. The real impact of our ministry arises out of the dwelling we share with a community of faith. We are placed people, confined physically and geographically in ways that both narrow and deepen our reach. Embracing those limits by pressing into the suburbs, towns and neighbourhoods in which we serve is an expression of our humanity, our God-given humanity.

Calling: For me, being present in a local parish flows most easily from the liberating discovery that this neighbourhood is as infused with the presence, grace and calling of God as any other on earth. As I walk the streets and laneways that surround my church, I may see nothing but ordinariness. Regardless, it is sacred space — every ordinary inch of it. Argentinian novelist Roberto Arlt once said, “I have come to the conclusion that he who does not encounter the whole universe in the streets of his city will not encounter an original street in any other of the cities of the whole world.” Similarly, when it comes to the presence and purposes of God, there are no greener pastures. I am called to make this one home. As surely as I am called to embody and proclaim the good news of Jesus, I am called to be present where I am.

Presence lies at the heart of ministry. In his most recent book, Everywhere You Look, the neighbourhood activist Tim Soerens names a challenge we pastors need to hear. “Don’t listen to the anxious noise,” he writes, “Don’t believe the lie that the future of the church depends on more hype, more professionals, and more stagecraft. I’ve been to enough neighbourhoods to tell you that presence trumps performance every single time.”

Ministry Essentials: Attention

All pastors have their ‘first funeral’ stories. Mine was for an infant. I remember the little casket carried into the church and placed in front of me, a small Pooh Bear sitting on top. I remember the parents’ grief, raw and without edges. I remember the looks of those gathered, each one desperate for something to contain their sorrow. And I remember me, in my early 20s, so glaringly inadequate to the task. That was years ago now and the services I’ve led since are more than I can count, but there is not one I’ll forget.

For those who lead them, funerals demand a level of attention unequaled in pastoral work. They are not everything and only occasional, but funerals require a depth of preparation and care that’s unavoidable. The truth is, I come away from a funeral exhausted, such is the emotional energy required. Yet it’s here I am more conscious of the value of what I do than at any other moment.

In my view, our leadership of funerals proves the mettle of our ministry more broadly. This has everything to do with attention. We don’t wing funerals. We don’t show up unprepared. We bring our best selves and our best preparation, every time. We are pastors and, as such, we take the stories and experiences of those we care for seriously. Indeed, in these moments there is nothing else as important.

It is this business of paying attention that is essential to the nature of Christian ministry as a whole — essential in moments significant and ordinary. In pastoral work, the commitment to paying attention is vocational. We are called to attend: to God’s presence in the world; to the sacred texts of our faith and their truth for our lives; to the experiences and challenges of those we minister to and with. What’s more, we pay attention to the unique stories and struggles of the neighbourhoods we inhabit.

This is why the notion of ‘best practice’ in ministry is nonsense. As though some universal approach to the expression of ministry is possible or even desirable. If our primary task is to pay attention to the community of which we are a part and to God’s presence within and around it, then it’s the particularities that count. Paying attention to the unique history, culture and language of our context is the bread and butter of our work — we invest deeply in the detail of where we are and who we are with. We have only to look back at our experience of the pandemic and what it has required of us from suburb to suburb, state to state and from one country to the next. The idea that there is a ‘gold standard’ for the ministry we exercise or the resumption of church gatherings is almost laughable.

Eugene Peterson says it well. “I am a pastor,” he writes, “My work has to do with God and souls — immense mysteries that no one has ever seen at any time. But I carry out this work in conditions — place and time — that I see and measure wherever I find myself, whatever time it is. There is no avoiding the conditions. I want to be mindful of the conditions. I want to be as mindful of the conditions as I am of the holy mysteries.”

Being as mindful of the conditions as we are of the holy mysteries, right where we are — that requires a level of attention as demanding as it is life-giving. Frankly, it’s a big ask, yet it gets to the core of what we pastors are called to do and be.

Ministry Essentials: Courage

Among my predecessors at Collins Street, Samuel Chapman stands tall, literally. He arrived from England in 1877 with his wife and eight children. He was 46, an imposing bloke from all reports.

Chapman’s physical stature could fill a room. The Melbourne press described him as “rugged”, “manly”, “decisive” and “courageous”. The Southern Baptist newspaper could barely contain itself: “He looks like a strong warehouseman, a master of a hundred forges, or a keen-eyed shipowner. Imagination is taxed to realise this man is a clergyman.”

No doubt, Samuel was a good minister. His tenure of twenty-two years is unmatched in the church’s history. For me, though, following in Chapman’s footsteps is next to impossible. The words ‘rugged’, ‘manly’ and ‘decisive’ are just not me. Ask even my most affirming friends. The truth is, by every instinct I know, I am timid and risk-averse. I naturally shrink back from conflict and would prefer to be led than to lead. As for “the master of a hundred forges”, more likely I’m known as the maker of one pavlova and a good cup of tea.

Despite all of this, through decades of experience I’ve learned that Christian ministry necessitates a good dose of courage. From all of us. Not all the time, but often enough. There is no getting around it — whatever our personality, style or stature, whatever our preferences or theological leanings, effective leadership routinely requires that we step up, not back.

Frankly, stepping up is hard, especially in the current political and religious climate. As many have, I have experienced the pile-ons of social media. The bruising can be painful. Even more, feeling the displeasure of those in our own circle can be devastating. Stepping back is all we want to do.

That said, the more I sit with the gospel of Jesus and its implications — the good news of grace that I am called to proclaim — the more I understand how awkward and destabilising that gospel can be and how essential courage is to our living of it. The story of Jesus challenges narratives and assumptions deeply ingrained in us, our churches and our world. And if the experience of Jesus is anything to go by, the consequences of this are most keenly felt by the religious, those within the faith communities and traditions we lead.

Honestly, it is the religious who are most easily threatened by the demanding and far-reaching nature of God’s love. It is this radical and destabilising grace we pastors are called to embody and defend for the sake of the world.

I no more want to be manly and rugged than I want to eat Brussels sprouts for dinner. And I am happy to leave the keen-eyed seafaring to the Samuels of this world. But I do pray for the courage to be a leader of conviction and one who is always willing to declare the love of God, and to defend all those enfolded by it no matter what the cost.