In the mood with joyce carol oates

True for me, mostly

“One must be pitiless about this matter of ‘mood.’ In a sense, the writing will create the mood. If art is, as I believe it to be, a genuinely transcendental function—a means by which we rise out of limited, parochial states of mind—then it should not matter very much what states of mind or emotion we are in. Generally I’ve found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes…and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.”

Joyce Carol Oates, The Art of Fiction (an interview with Robert Phillips) in The Paris Review, Issue 74, Fall-Winter 1978.


Today begins my 14th year.

For thirteen years I’ve been pastor of a city church, one of the nation’s oldest. Fronted by tall white columns, it stands temple-like on Melbourne’s most prestigious street. With neighbours like Versace and Prada, we’re surrounded by theatres, gleaming office towers and clubs full of old port and even older money.

It’s not always been that way. When the settlement’s first residents lived down by the river, they complained about the churches being out in the bush. Back then our street, Collins Street, was nothing but a dirt track. There are stories of potholes large enough to swallow a horse. But not anymore.

I often wonder how I ended up here. The church’s heritage is one of great names and influence. Its ornate pulpit attests to a grand tradition of oratory and the calibre of its ministers to leadership far beyond the church’s front doors. I’m a decent pastor, I know, but my skills in oratory are middling at best and, if I’m honest, my influence as slim as the railings on the front steps.

What I have in spades, though, is a love for this city and a continuing belief in the role of the church at its heart. Certainly the church’s place in the public square is different today than it’s been. Though still a privileged keeper of real estate and tradition, its historic ‘entitlement’ to voice and political influence is mostly spent. What a local church like Collins Street maintains is its God-given identity as an embedded community of courageous faith and generous belonging. We may not be as prominent as we once were, but we persist as a living sign of hope and of God’s all-embracing grace in this neighbourhood.

There are moments when I crave just a little of the church’s past glory. But I know much of that is driven by self-interest. The church does not function for itself and certainly not to stroke the egos of those that lead it. In whatever place it is, the church exists to glorify God and love its neighbours. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others.”

Perspective is the rare benefit of age. For 185 years this church has shared Melbourne’s journey from fledgling settlement to thriving city. We have tracked with its ups and downs — we’ve not just watched the roller coaster; we’ve ridden it. And now as our city claws its way back from the disabling impact of the last few years, we are here, as committed to the city’s flourishing as we have always been. Another year of that sounds good to me.

[My thanks to Geoff Maddock for a beautiful image]


It was Bibleman!  We saw him, first in New York at the zoo and then in Texas. He was in homewares at Wal-Mart.  Actually, his mum was trying to coax him back into the stroller.  He threw a super-tantrum and his cape ended up around his knees. 

My kids were in primary school at the time. My son dressed up as Spiderman more times than I could count. But never Bibleman. I felt like the most negligent church-going parent. 

I checked the website and, sure enough, Bibleman had been battling the “flamboyant villains of darkness” for a decade. The local Christian bookstore carried all the videos:  Six Lies of the Fibbler, The Fiendish Works of Dr Fear, A Fight for the Faith. Armed with a light-saber of truth and his ammo belt of bible verses, the fearless Bibleman appeared in blue. His mission: to rescue doubters from the darkness of arch villain Luxor Spawndroth. Wow!

Honestly, as a pastor there are times I would love to be Bibleman. I’d skip the blue spandex, but that arsenal of bible verses ready to fire in any situation of doubt or pain — it sounds perfect. If only.  

As I settle in for my 39th year of pastoral ministry, I’ve already had conversations with people in the most wretched circumstances: a life-altering diagnosis; depression that won’t lift; news of a senseless and tragic war in a beloved homeland. For each person there’s an awkward mix of faith and doubt and an almost desperate hope for things to be different. 

No matter how long I’ve been at this, I never get past that longing to make things different, to fix things for those in pain, to speak perfect words that liberate or heal. But I have no superpowers and no evil villain to blame. All I have is me, the world as it is, and deep sense of God’s grace. 

Don’t get me wrong. There are times when ancient words quoted from sacred texts can be a balm for weary souls, a reminder of truths that hold and sustain. Even more, the care I offer is grounded in more than who I am and my trifling skills.  But as much as I have confidence in the love and immediacy of God, I have no secret weapon apart from my willingness to be present. As one made in the image of God, it turns out the only cape I have is my humanity. So, on that goes for another year. 


My track record on resolutions is atrocious. A new year appears and my resolve is strong. Typically, it lasts all of five minutes. So why do I persist? Because often there’s wisdom that sits beneath a resolution, no matter how trite. I look back on resolutions past and the longings they name are still worthy.

A few years back Jason Zweig, a columnist with the Wall Street Journal, provided a list of resolutions worth considering. Here are some of them: 

  • Listen to what someone else is saying without hearing what you already think. It’s one of the hardest challenges for the human mind.
  • Say “I don’t know” at least 10 times a day. That will disqualify you for a career in politics but make you a better person.
  • Learn something interesting every day; learn something surprising every week; learn something shocking every month.
  • Be more judgmental about ideas and less judgmental about people.
  • Get outside more — a lot more.
  • Don’t laugh at things you don’t understand. Take the time and trouble to understand them first. Most likely, you will find that once you understand them, they either become even funnier than you thought in the first place, or not funny in the least.
  • Own your mistakes; lend your successes. They will come back, with interest.
  • Get home 15 minutes earlier. It will make you 15 minutes more efficient the next day.
  • Call your mum.
  • Forget about getting better at what’s easy for you. Get better at what’s hard for you.
  • If you think you’re the smartest person in the room, you must not have talked to everybody in the room yet.
  • Stop walking with your phone in your hand all the time. Look up and see how strange and beautiful the world is.
  • Never try to get other people to change their minds without first trying to understand why they think the way they do. Never do that without being open to the possibility that the mind that might need to change the most could be your own.
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Teach, don’t preach.
  • Befriend someone at least 20 years younger than you, and someone at least 20 years older than you. Each of you will make the other smarter and better.
  • Get better at accepting compliments; despite all you know (and all they don’t know) about how the sausage was made, people still have a right to like what you did. And you have an obligation to thank them.
  • Tweet less; read more.
  • Talk less; listen more.
  • Say more: Use fewer words.

The brightness of dawn

I woke this morning anxious, the day ahead full and my concern for others heavy. Then I pulled the blinds. Wow. The sky was a wild layering of purples, blues and reds — the dark and light of a Melbourne dawn stretched out, audacious and bold. I can’t say the anxiety vanished, but something stepped in.

In these few days before Christmas, it occurs to me that this morning show of light points to something more than momentary. Perhaps it’s a precursor to the ballsy hope that’s about to be unleashed. I like to think so.

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Isaiah 60.1-3


Lord God,
in the deepest night
there rises the star of morning,
of birth,
the herald of a new day you are making,
a day of great joy dawning
in yet faint shafts
of light and love.

I hear whispers of peace in the stillness,
fresh breezes
of promise stirring,
morning sparrows
chirping of life,
a baby’s cry
of need and hope — 

In the darkness I see the light
and find in it comfort,
cause for celebration.
For the darkness cannot overcome it.
And I rejoice to nourish it in myself,
in other people,
in the world,
for the sake of him
in whom it was born
and shines forever,
even Jesus the Christ.

Ted Loder, Guerrillas of Grace

A Spiritual Quest

I’m a keeper of journals. For as long as I can recall I have written my way through life. In copious notebooks I’ve documented and reflected on what’s been a mostly unremarkable story. Regardless, the earliest of these are drenched with angst. As I scan them now, I cringe. They read like an endless and urgent ‘quest’ for improvement or for reality different to the one I knew.

My religious upbringing did not help. The journey to Christian devotion — a quest of the most noble kind — was fueled by a dim view of the human heart and of the world in which we’re ‘entrapped’. The narrow road out and toward God was paved with words of obligation: repent, give up, let go, deny, quench, resist. It was an urgent business. Honestly, I felt more failure than progress as I trudged along, but the drive to ‘press on’ remained.

With the benefit of age, I wish now I could go back to that ernest young man and others like him. While he sits hunched over his journal I would stand behind him, my hands on his shoulders, and speak words of peace. “Go easy,” I would say, “this world is good and precious, and so are you.”

It is the psalmist who affirms all creation as filled with the beauty and majesty of God and St Paul who marvels at that all-encompassing love that leaves no peak or crevice of this life untouched. The Franciscan Richard Rohr describes true religion as “always a deep intuition that we are already participating in something very good, in spite of our best efforts to deny it or avoid it.” Indeed, this world declared ‘good’ and ‘very good’ in the creation story continues to be so. The great privilege of the Christian faith is not that we are on a journey toward God, but that we are in God and the life of God is in us.

Yes, I am still journaling and still questing. I still seek meaning in what I do. I still aspire to goodness in who I am and justice for those around me. But the urgency of it and the self-criticism, they are less. Rather than being driven by a rejection of the world’s darkness and a desire for improvement in myself, I find myself inspired by the beauty of all that’s around and even within me. Today there is less drive for personal progress and more longing for the grandeur, kindness and grace that fills this world of ours.

The gift of Winter trees

Winter has begun.

This morning, pulling in the folds of my coat as I walked to work, I was braced not only by the chill of the air but by the beauty of the bare trees that line the paths. There’s something elegant, mesmerising, about the naked branches of a tree that reach up against the blue of the morning sky.

There’s much about this season that’s challenging. We instinctively retreat. We might assume beauty goes dormant until brighter times. Yet the trees remind us otherwise.

The English farmer-poet Philip Britts knew this. Back in 1936, in a place much colder than mine, he said it beautifully.

Upon a Hill in the Morning

The timid kiss of the winter sun,
The waiting faith of the naked trees,
The breath of the day so well begun,
Take what you will and leave me these.

Leave me my love and leave me these,
Leave me a soul to feel them still,
Better to be a tramp, who sees,
Than a monarch blind upon a hill.

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,

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.