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Enlightenment

‘Where shall I look for Enlightenment?’ the disciple asked.
‘Here,’ the elder said.
‘When will it happen?’ the disciple asked.
‘It is happening right now,’ the elder answered.
‘Then why don’t I experience it?’ the disciple persisted.
‘Because you do not look,’ the elder said.
‘But what should I look for?’ the disciple continued.
‘Nothing. Just look,’ the elder said.
‘But at what?’ the disciple asked again.
‘At anything your eyes alight upon,’ the elder answered.
‘But must I look in a special kind of way?’ the disciple went on.
‘No. The ordinary way will do,’ the elder said.
‘But don’t I always look the ordinary way?’ the disciple said.
‘No, you don’t,’ the elder said.
‘But why ever not?’ the disciple asked.
‘Because to look you must be here. You’re mostly somewhere else,’ the elder said.

61AXC0291ZL._SX359_BO1,204,203,200_Joan Chittister, There is a Season, Orbis Books, 1995.

Image: 5 o’clock rush by Dave Carswell, Melbourne Street Photography

December_Rose

Heavy

Last week I sat with a friend whose sadness was deep, overwhelming. It was grief so tangible, impossible to avoid. And yet I came away with hope. Why? There was something in my friend’s capacity to bear such grief, honestly yet resolutely, that was itself a light. It reminded me of these words from the poet Mary Oliver.

Heavy

That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer
and I did not die.
Surely God
had His hand in this,

as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,

was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it —
books, bricks, grief —
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?

Have you heard
the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?

How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe

also troubled —
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
a love
to which there is no reply?

UnknownMary Oliver, Thirst, Boston: Beacon Press, 2006, 53-54.

grace

A call to grace

Grace: it’s never far away.
Hold out your hands now.
Open your heart
and receive its gift.
For the undeserving and the spent,
for the wounded and the weary,
the discarded and the grieving —
grace is here.
Grace is ours.

Grace is not over there and out of reach.
There is no striving
that will claw it closer than it is.
Grace is not later or yesterday;
it’s not ‘if’ and ‘when’.
Grace is now.
Grace is ours.

Grace is not reward for the righteous.
It’s no gold star for the best and brightest.
Grace is gift freely given.
It’s lavish and deep,
today and always.
Grace is yours.
Grace is ours.

So come now.
Lay aside your reservations
and your tiredness.
Turn away from voices
that condemn and ostracise.
Let it go, all of it,
and know again this boundless gift of God.
Feel again the balm of God’s forgiving love.
Hear again God’s persistent call upon your life.

Come now,
for grace is here.
Grace is now.

PICKWICK_Template

‘Restorative Christ’ by Geoff Broughton

There’s an awkward divide in the Church between the thinkers and the doers. Thinkers theorise while doers act. Trouble is, too many doers act with scant regard for thinking of any depth. In ministry, the art of genuine theological reflection is an endangered one and, frankly, it shows. The thinkers, on the other hand, can be so removed from sustained practice and talk so cryptically among themselves they have little clue as to what life is like at the coal face. They can even speak condescendingly of those who try. Consequently, their theories may be beautifully typeset but their words flat.

In light of this, a book like Geoff Broughton’s Restorative Christ: Jesus, Justice and Discipleship is a breath of fresh air. Geoff is a thinker of depth, but he’s also a doer with an extraordinary track record in boots-an’-all ministry, and often in challenging places. He currently balances two roles: Lecturer in Practical Theology at St Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra and Rector of St George’s Anglican Church in Paddington (Sydney). To use old fashioned terminology, he’s a scholar-pastor — a rare breed. It’s this that makes his book a challenging read.

Restorative Christ articulate’s Geoff’s conviction that the story of Jesus has a decisive bearing on the church’s vision for justice. Ours is the work of reconciliation embodied in the restorative Christ: the one full of compassion, practicing non-violence, living for others, and embracing the enemy. But this Christ-centred vision goes so much further than the romantic lyrics of the latest worship song. It’s evidenced in the hands-on work of ministry essential to the church’s identity and mission. Its application is to be lived on the streets, in broken homes and families, and in the fraught world of Australia’s relationship with its Indigenous peoples. For those of us who claim to follow Jesus, it’s an incredibly demanding task.

To unpack this ministry, Geoff draws on some of the significant thinkers in restorative justice — Christopher Marshall, John Howard Yoder, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Miroslav Volf. What’s more, he engages with specific texts in Luke / Acts and with a keen exegetical eye. Be clear though: this is not theology and bible dumbed down. It’s a demanding read complete with copious treatments of the Greek in the New Testament. However, the writer brings both bible and theology home by engaging them in conversation with the practicalities of ministry on the inner city streets of Kings Cross and Glebe, the writer’s prior neighbourhoods. Geoff’s stories are disarmingly honest, self implicating and often moving. It’s clear these stories are not just interesting illustrations but essential to the author’s work of theology. They certainly push the reader to keep reading. Clearly, this work of reconciliation is more than a theory of sound theology.

Geoff Broughton is a friend, but I am glad to say I could endorse his work even if he wasn’t. I would go so far as to say this is an important book, for doers and thinkers both. Indeed, it’s an example of why doing and thinking are so very much enriched when they are held together. If only there were more like it.

PICKWICK_TemplateGeoff Broughton, Restorative Christ: Jesus, Justice and Discipleship, Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2014.

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Winter

The cold wind cuts like a scythe
through the folds.
Alone at the tram stop I brace.
My coat pulled tight around my chest
I turn my head to the side
as though the blade slices in just one direction.
It doesn’t.

My ribs are cold,
my feet are cold.
My nose is wet and my ears numb.
It’s not the cold of ice and snow.
It’s damp and drippy cold,
the cold without reward:
no white Christmas,
no toboggans and twinkly lights.
It’s the cold of a Melbourne July.
June was long and
August snickers around the corner.
Damn, it’s cold.

But it’s warm too —
a warm that only winter tells.
It’s the warm of home once I arrive;
discarded coat and scarf and shoes.
It’s the enveloping warm as the door shuts behind.
Home is embraces, throws and quilts.
It’s fires burning and big pots of soup that simmer.
It’s stews that stew with the saucepan lid slightly ajar.
It’s red bean chilis with cornbread,
and warm winter puddings
with custard and cream.
And cheese.
And bread.
And earthy red wines.

The cold is still there,
just beyond the doorframe.
It laps at the porch steps
like an encroaching tide.
But now I eye its menace
through the window and smile.
Cocooned inside,
I am reassured.
I have no cause to venture out again.
Not tonight, because it’s cold.

[image from Melbourne Street Photography]

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A prayer for today

God … are you there?
I’ve been taught,
and told I ought
to pray.
But the doubt won’t 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?

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

MAP_CBD

City church

Not long ago, I agreed to meet a church leader with a vision. Her passion was a new church plant here in the city centre. As an established pastor in the neighbourhood, and with a community that’s been around since 1843, I was clearly a person of interest.

I have to confess, I’ve come to approach conversations like this with a dose of skepticism. Though a naturally trusting soul, I’ve learned caution these past few years. The fact is, calls from large church franchises are reasonably common — those who want to use our sanctuary as their newest place to meet. It’s understandable: venues in the city centre are rare and the challenge for newcomers daunting. What troubles me, though, is that these enterprising leaders never want to talk.

Whether on the phone or in person, the standard approach of prospective ‘tenants’ is to sell me on their ‘kingdom vision’ and the numerical growth of their movement. But so rarely do they want to know about us: who we are, what we do or what we’ve learned. It’s as though they have the formula for church success, and all that’s required is an empty space to make it happen. The underlying message is barely veiled — If only you old, irrelevant city churches with property would get out of the way and let us at it, we’ll show you how it’s done.

Honestly, it feels like terra nullius all over again. There is scant regard for what’s already here and for the rich story of faith and struggle that fills this place. Even worse, it’s as though our neighbourhood is nothing more than a cool new venue for the latest brand of hipster church. Cue pictures of graffitied laneways, apartment towers and sidewalk cafes. The slick invitation is to come into the city and do church like you do a shopping mall or a Saturday night bar. Then afterwards you can head back to your suburbs, until next time.

Frankly, the city doesn’t need any more big-box franchises that drag people in for worship and fair-trade coffee only to see them leave again. If there’s no real investment in this city as a flesh-and-blood neighbourhood, then what’s the point? The challenges of the CBD are complex and layered. Inner-city clichés abound, but the reality is so much more demanding.

No doubt, old city churches like mine come with baggage galore. Believe me, we know that. Our history and property are tremendous gifts. And at the same time they are weights that hang around our necks. But take time to look beyond our organs and stained glass windows, and you’ll see faith communities with a longstanding commitment to this city and its people. And with some rungs on the board too. If you judge us only by what you see in a Sunday service, you’ll likely miss the bulk of what we do and who we are and how we struggle. But press in and you could be surprised.

This plea is not about protecting territory. I am delighted when new churches flourish in our patch. I really am. Our neighbourhood is growing and changing like you wouldn’t believe and the possibilities for new initiatives are extraordinary. As it happens, the pastor I met with this time around was really interested in us and in what’s already happening in the city centre. Her vision is for a model of church that is genuinely organic in form and focus. I left the conversation deeply encouraged, affirmed in my own ministry, and ready to cheer this pastor on as a potential colleague in the gospel. My concern here is only that we all do a better job — those who are here already and those who want to join us — at real engagement with the neighbourhood God has called us to.

Anything less is ecclesial froth without substance.

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Not at home

Why aren’t you at home?
Why aren’t you there when I come by?
You don’t answer when I call
or play your scrabble move once I’ve played mine.
You’re not there to smile when I walk in the door
— as though just by being me I made your day.
‘Simon Carey’, you would always say.
But not now.
Now the chair is empty
and you’re not there.

I shouldn’t need you.
‘Need’ is a gratuitous word.
I’ve had my share.
I have enough —
a home of my own and a family too.
With hair that’s thin and joints that ache,
I’m long past needs
under warranty.
Your job is done.
My cup is full.
But I still look for you.

I want you to call, you see.
I need you to answer.
I need to drop in and have you hold my hand,
to ask about my beloved ones
and take me on the family tour.
And those questions I always tried to avoid —
I want you to ask them again
so I can deftly weave around them
as I always did.
But you can’t,
so neither can I.

You’re not at home anymore.

sermon

Preaching from the heart

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

That said, doing so is fraught. There are at least two dangers for the regular preacher – dangers that sit at either end of a spectrum. At one end, there’s the preacher who chooses ‘professional distance’ from the subjects she speaks on, ensuring nothing of herself is ever a part of what she says. From this perspective, the preacher’s task is to get out of the way and let the Word speak for itself. At the other end, there’s the preacher who makes his own experience central to every sermon he preaches. At worst, his sermon becomes a weekly act of self-indulgence: ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ I have long understood these two dangers as equally hazardous.

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

First, we have to be honest enough to say that while personal engagement and self-indulgence are two different things, they lie perilously close to each other. Tread carefully! Second, it’s a rare preacher whose own life and experience is so interesting as to be an riviting source of weekly inspiration. A broader canvas please! Third, the practice of constantly giving oneself away in the sermon can take an emotional toll on the most resourceful preacher. Go gently!

One of the most important things I have learned in preaching is that bringing oneself to the task, fully and honestly, does not equate with every sermon being confessional. Sometimes it is more about the vulnerability of one’s spirit than it is about what one reveals in detail. In recent weeks I have lost my mother. She died just short of her 82nd birthday. The sadness I have felt since her death has been like a grey cloud hovering overhead, or a heavy rock in the heart that simply wont budge. The feelings of loss and disorientation are constant and disarming. Honestly, I would rather do anything than stand in a pulpit. What’s more, to name those feelings in the context of preaching is more than I can do.

This morning I sat alone in a café contemplating the day of sermon writing that lay ahead. In between the feelings of ‘overwhelmed’, it was as though God said, gently and graciously, ‘Be present to the task, Simon. That’s all of you that I require today.’

period

Fullstop theology

Dear Jeff,

Thanks for your letter. I’m glad you’ve taken time to write. Clearly you’ve read the things I have written on homosexuality and, more recently, in support of same-sex marriage. I am sorry you’re not happy with me. The truth is you join a good number of people who are disappointed by my views. Apparently I’ve been dropped off a few prayer lists and added on to others!

Among other things you’ve exhorted me to read my bible more. That’s good advice. I love the bible and have read it through, cover to cover, a few times now. In fact, the more I read it the more my regard for it grows. The fact is, the bible remains the most formative text of my life. Certainly as a Baptist I happily acknowledge its authority and am committed to taking it seriously. More particularly you’ve challenged me to read what the bible says about homosexuality. ‘Don’t try to interpret it to fit into your own thinking,’ you say; ‘God says it is wrong, fullstop.’ It’s here, Jeff, that you lose me.

You are right of course; there are texts in the bible that appear to make God’s view of homosexuality crystal clear. Words like ‘abomination’ and the command that perpetrators be ‘put to death’ make it a chilling read. It’s not your encouragement to read these texts that bothers me. It’s your final statement: ‘God says it is wrong, fullstop.’

The truth is, Jeff, I have some trouble with this ‘fullstop’ approach to the bible. It infers that I have no choice but to take the literal statements and commands of the bible just as they are, and that any effort at interpretation will lead me down the dark alley of compromise. If that’s the case, there is a long list of biblical exhortations that I simply don’t know what to do with.

  • ‘For I hate divorce, says the Lord’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling‘ FULLSTOP
  • ‘Women should be silent in the churches for they are not permitted to speak’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘If a man commits adultery both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘On the seventh day you shall have a holy sabbath of solemn rest to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘You shall not make any tattoo or any marks upon you for I am the Lord’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘All who curse father or mother shall be put to death’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘For no one who has a blemish shall draw near (to the presence of God), no one who is blind or lame, no one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles’ FULLSTOP

Good heavens, we’re all in serious trouble aren’t we?!

Yes, I know. For me to list these exhortations in this way is to take them completely out of context and thus to abuse any real truth they might point to. The fact is, every one of these statements has a textual, cultural and historical context absolutely essential to understanding how it applies to us today. You are right, Jeff; the art of biblical interpretation is a dangerous and risky business, but do we really have any choice?

I don’t mind at all that you disagree with my view on homosexuality. Join the queue! And I reckon having a respectful conversation about it is essential. But if we begin with a fullstop approach to the bible, then the conversation is over before it begins.

Regards,

Simon

[‘Jeff’ wrote anonymously to me some time ago, providing no surname or return address. My original posting of this response was provided in this form for want of no other way of replying to him]