I worried

Mary Oliver

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally, I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

House & Home

I walked with a friend last week — a lockdown lap of the local park. In conversation we covered the well-worn territory of our work, its ups and downs. “If you could start over,” he asked, ‘what would you do?” “Architecture,” I said without pause, “I would be an architect.”

It’s true. As a kid I lay in bed at night sketching floor plans on little white cards. They were humble places — three bedrooms and one bath — reflecting my childhood. Our eleven squares of cream-brick veneer was all I knew. I discovered grander possibilities only when I was older.

I have just finished reading Dominic Bradbury’s beautiful book The Secret Life of the Modern House. Through nineteen chapters, Bradbury traces the last 150 years of evolution in house design. With extraordinary insight he charts the way our homes have been reinvented, reflecting changing tastes and ways of living. It’s a fascinating tale.

At the outset Bradbury reminded me of the words of the great modernist architect Le Corbusier, referring to the spirituality of the home. “To build one’s house is very much like making one’s will,” he said, “when the time does arrive, it is not the mason’s nor the craftsman’s moment, but the moment in which every man makes one poem in his life.”

I like that. We are all homemakers; we are all writers of our own residential poems. The homes we ‘build’ and within which we make our lives are among our most precious possessions. Whether we rent or own, our homes reflect us. They embody our aspirations and, in time, they house our deepest values. Poems indeed.

Of course, what irks me about Bradbury’s tale is what so commonly gets up my nose about domestic architecture more generally: it serves the rich. Of all the homes that Bradbury writes about — those that set trends and challenged traditional ways of thinking — there is barely one I could live in. At architecture’s cutting edge, it is as though only those who can afford it are gathered up in the sublime beauty of its poetry. The inference is that the rest of us are left with simple ditties that never quite make the grade.

Yes, I know. It is the breakthroughs in grand architecture that supposedly ‘trickle down’ into the design of more ordinary homes. Yet the absence of the ordinary in these great tellings of residential history risk missing the essence of our story. The truth is, my parents’ three bedrooms and one bath — the home in which I dreamed of my own future — was a poem as sublime and real as any other.

God … are you there?

God … are you there?
I’ve been taught and told
I ought to pray.
But the doubt wont go away;
yet neither will my longing to be heard.
My soul sighs
too deep for words.
Do you hear me?
God … are you there?

Are you where love is?
I don’t love well,
or often, anything, or anyone.
But when I do,
when I take the risk,
there’s a sudden awareness
of all I’ve missed;
and it’s good,
it’s singing good.
For a moment
life seems as it should.
But, I forget, so busy soon,
that it was, or what or whom.
Help me!
God … are you there?

Ted Loder, Guerrillas of Grace, 1981.

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]