“The living world moves in pulses. Gusts of wind are punctuated by relative stillness. Musical notes resonate within the padding of silence. Rest and motion require one another for balance, beauty and life. Yet somehow we’ve built a culture that demands the impossible: leaving the tap on and emitting our own energy in constant deluge.”Lauren L. Hill, “Minding My Mothers” in Dumbo Feather, 2020, 8-9.
‘Gentleness is everywhere in daily life, a sign that faith rules through ordinary things: through cooking and small talk, through storytelling, making love, fishing, tending animals and sweet corn and flowers, through sports, music and books, raising kids — all the places where the gravy soaks in and grace shines through.’
Garrison Keillor, We are Still Married: Stories and Letters, Viking Books, 1989.
“That’s one good thing about being actually old in my opinion: it finally dawns on you that there’s no longer any point at all in faking youth. You look like shit and will soon be dead. You can relax.”Robert Dessaix, The Time of Our Lives: Growing Older Well, Brio, 2020.
We are a fickle lot. Whatever language we give it — whether religious or otherwise — most of us know that we are a bundle of contradictions. At one moment we shine; we aspire to virtue and change and beauty. At another we fall back into self-interest and ‘whatever’.
As a person of Christian faith, it’s this internal back-and-forth that I struggle to name. This little prayer said it for me this morning. There’s something here about naming what is while reaching for the courage and grace to be different.
Most loving God,
we admit to you and to each other
that we are beings in whom shame and glory
are strangely mixed.
We are creatures of wisdom and folly,
trust and anxiety, success and failure,
truth and deceit, love and apathy.
We need you, yet we evade you —
to believe, yet we doubt,
to praise, yet we dishonour,
to love, yet we resent.
God of the new creation and our God,
we long to be made whole
in thought, word, and deed.
We seek of you today the gifts of Jesus:
and the courage to be
the sisters and brothers of Christ.
Bruce Prewer, Australian Prayers, Lutheran Publishing House, 1983, 84.
As a person of Christian faith, I welcome the bill prohibiting so-called ‘gay conversion’ practices currently before our state parliament. As a pastoral leader within the church, I believe the legislation’s intent is good and worthy of our support.
In my view, this bill’s determination is important to all people of faith, not just those it is designed to protect. It speaks to one of the central values of the Christian tradition: the worth of all humankind. Each one of us, regardless of age, colour, nationality, gender, ability or sexuality, is uniquely and wonderfully made in the image of God. The invitation of the gospel — so beautifully embodied in the Christmas story — is God’s call to live into the fullness of the life we’ve been given in Christ, whatever shape it takes.
Of course, within the church we hold a diversity of views on this, many of which have been shared publically in recent weeks. While I disagree with some of those views, I am more grieved by our approach to the debate and the level of self-interest too much of it betrays.
I grieve the fact that we appear to be more energised by a perceived threat to our own rights and freedoms to do and say whatever we choose, and seem to have comparatively slight regard for the rights and flourishing of one of the most vulnerable segments of our community. Surely standing on the side of the wounded is where we must begin the conversation.
I grieve the speed with which we move to the alarmist ‘consequences’ of legislation like this rather than deal with the legislation’s central intent. We did it with the marriage equality debate and we are doing it again now. It is so much easier to point away from the issue than to deal with it honestly. Surely we owe more respect to the integrity and wellbeing of the LGBTQI community than this.
I grieve our apparent failure to comprehend the damage we have done that has led to legislation like this; indeed, the damage we have done to members of our own congregations whose sexual identity is different to that of the majority. This damage is perpetrated not only by extreme conversion therapies — therapies we now conveniently distance ourselves from — but by our longstanding proclamation that those of different sexual identities are damaged goods and will never know the fullness of life unless they suppress their most natural and God-given selves and ‘convert’ to something entirely different.
I grieve our inability to listen to the stories of countless men and women — those broken not by their discovery of who they really are, but by the relentless messaging of the church that who they are is dysfunctional and must be denied. We claim to listen, but too often we do so only to correct. We listen to set others straight but rarely to understand. To understand is to know that we are complicit in the brokenness they experience. We in the church can quickly demonise a bill like this one only because we have so little understanding of where it comes from and the tragic reality it seeks to address.
Finally, I grieve the absence of a more considered conversation on the nature of prayer itself. The fear that this legislation will intrude upon our freedom to pray for the burdened and the broken in a particular way assumes that, in regard to the unique story and pain of the one we pray for, we already know the mind of God. The outcome we seek is pre-determined. Surely there is more to the sacred ministry of prayer than that.
I support this bill and I encourage other people of faith to do the same. But more than that, I hope those of us within the Christian church will engage in this debate with a good deal more humility and with more concern for the interests of those most vulnerable than for any rights of our own.
We celebrate spring’s returning
and the rejuvenation of the natural world.
Let us be moved by this vast and gentle insistence
that goodness shall return,
that warmth and life shall succeed,
and help us to understand our place within this miracle.
Let us see that as a bird now builds its nest,
bravely, with bits and pieces,
so we must build human faith.
It is our simple duty;
it is our highest art;
it is our natural and vital role
within the miracle of spring:
the creation of faith.
Amen.Michael Leunig, The Common Prayer, Collins Dove, 1990.
I conducted a funeral last week. It was for a man I cherished as a friend and wise elder. I may have been his pastor this last decade, but he enlarged my spirit far more than I ever nurtured his. Under the current restrictions, the gathering was small: just ten members of his family and me. Truth be told, those who mourned his death could have filled an auditorium. Instead, we were just a few.
My friend was a man of the church. He had given 60+ years of devoted service to Collins Street. But he was more than the church. He was a man of family, of work in local and state government and of civic duty. He provided leadership to community and sporting organisations throughout his life. While he possessed a faith — a very genuine faith — he was not a pious man. In the words of his wife, there was no “pie in the sky” for which he hungered. For him the way of Christ was a way to live, and this he did with genuine delight and an integrity hard to match.
One of the privileges of leading funerals is the routine recognition it provides that death is part of life’s story. I cannot look away. Life and death go hand in hand. Benedict of Nursia (AD 480-547), the founder of a spiritual community that survives to the present day, instructed his monks to “keep death daily before your eyes.” This was not a morbid exhortation, rather an encouragement to cherish life from beginning to end as the extraordinary and eternal gift that it is.
The contemporary Benedictine David Steindl-Rast underlines this truth:
“The finality of death is meant to challenge us to decision, the decision to be fully present here now, and so begin eternal life. For eternity rightly understood is not the perpetuation of time, on and on, but rather the overcoming of time by the now that does not pass away.”
Today my friend is gone from us and we grieve. But the ‘now’ of his life lives on in a world that is richer for his presence. For me the language of eternity is a language of mystery: what lies beyond is beyond my knowing. What I do know, however, is that eternity begins each and every day and its beauty is ours to grasp in the smallest details of our lives. This my friend did with a style all his own and I’ll never forget him for it.
“If your notion of heaven is based on exclusion of anybody else, then it is by definition not heaven. The more you exclude, the more hellish and lonely your existence always is.”Richard Rohr, Falling Upward. London: SPCK, 2012.
“Looking back, I see why I needed the tedium and the inspiration, the anger and the love, the anguish and the joy. I see how it all belongs, even those days of despair when the darkness overwhelmed me. Calamities I once lamented now appear as strong threads of a larger weave, without which the fabric of my life would be less resilient.”Parker J Palmer, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old. Oakland CA: Berret-Koehler, 2018.
Today’s numbers are high. Those wretched numbers. In this season it feels like our lives are oppressed by numbers. Amidst this virus, we’ve come to live and breathe by a daily tally of dread: when the numbers are up we’re stuffed and when they’re down we’re good. It’s all a bit crazy-making. It’s like riding a roller coaster but without the rush. Just the fear.
Some say these numbers don’t matter, religious people who prod us to look beyond them to ‘higher’ truths. “Nothing more than digits on a screen!” one declared today on social media. Yet the arrangement of these digits represents things grave and important. Like it or not, these numbers are us. We hang onto them because we need to know and understand. We are desperate for measurable indicators of how we are and how worried we should be together.
Of course, I hate these numbers. I hate what they are doing to us, what they’re doing to my city. I hate their impact on those who are vulnerable and those exhausted by care and responsibility. I hate what they’re doing to those I love. But I can’t ignore them; nor can I relativize them.
I might tell myself, hey, our numbers are not as bad as such-and-such. But it’s no help. Anxiety is not relative. My friend who is out of work, without a visa and any form of support, can’t pay the rent or feed his family. My neighbour’s dear husband is hospitalized and she cannot visit him — she fears a funeral with her son far away. My barista sheds tears of weariness and despair. I would never tell these people about such-and-such as though that addresses their pain. So why do I expect it to ease mine?
The truth is, as a person of faith I can say with certainty that these numbers matter. They do. Because they speak of deeper things. They speak of lives cherished, neighbourhoods and communities that are precious, a city that is alive and beautiful and struggling. Why on earth, according to our holy texts, would God be concerned with the number of hairs upon your head? The number of days that you might live? The number of stars that fill the night sky or grains of sand that line the oceans? Because God is invested in this world and in you. Because whatever brings pain into your life and the lives of those around you is held in the tenderness of God’s hands.
Believe me, if these numbers matter to us, we can be sure they matter to God.