Some words for today

Benedicere*

May your home always be too
small to hold all your friends.

May your heart remain ever supple,
fearless in the face of threat,
jubilant in the grip of grace.

May your hands remain open,
caressing, never clenched,
save to pound the doors of all who
barter justice to the highest bidder.

May your heroes be earthy,
dusty-shoed and rumpled,
hallowed but unhaloed,
guiding you through seasons
of tremor and travail,
apprenticed to the godly art of giggling
amidst haggard news
and portentous circumstances.

May your hankering be
in rhythm with heaven’s,
whose covenant vows a dusty
intersection with our own:
when creation’s hope and history rhyme.

May hosannas lilt from your lungs:
God is not done;
God is not yet done.

All flesh, I am told, will behold;
will surely behold.

Kenneth L. Sehested, In the Land of the Living: Prayers Personal and Public, 2009, 82.
*Benedicere: (Latin) second-person singular present passive imperative of benedīcō “be thou spoken well of, be thou commended” (Late Latin, Ecclesiastical Latin ) “be thou blessed, be thou praised”

Finding meaning in chaos

I saw it on Buzzfeed: 27 ways to get your sh*t together. Who knew there were so many. Or that my sh*t was so deep. According to the Urban Dictionary, when our lives are ‘together’, our thoughts are straight and our futures under control. We’re living life with purpose and conviction. It sounds good to me.

I don’t like mess. I don’t like things out of control. Chaos drives me mad. I prefer life that’s ordered. I like to know where I’m going and to move there with purpose. The trouble is, sh*t happens. I’ve learned the hard way that chaos is as much part of life as order is. No matter how careful the plans, things go awry—aspirations fizzle, relationships break, and schedules overheat. Regardless of how together we are, our daily lives are ordered and random, fortuitous and unfortunate, and often all in the same hour.

When it comes to the language of spirituality, chaos gets a bad rap. It’s assumed that a centred life is one that moves progressively away from chaos: the journey to meaning is a journey to serenity. While it sounds great, it’s rarely true. In fact, I suspect more and more, a good dose of chaos is par for the course in a meaningful life. Even more, the disordered sh*t is as spiritually formative as the together kind.

In my experience, the demonisation of chaos has at least three side effects worth naming. First, it can leave us feeling like failures. If we constantly assume chaos to be a sign of dysfunction, we become blind to moments of beauty that are part of our daily, disordered lives. The fact is, it’s often in chaos that we laugh most heartily, feel most deeply, and reach out most readily for the help of others. Second, it can deny us genuine opportunities for growth. The hard truth for me is this: things flourish in the midst of chaos that die on the ordered vine. Chaos begets life and wisdom; chaos begets patience, humility, forbearance, and dependence. As much as I hate to admit it, I grow as much in chaos as I do by quiet streams. Third, it can stultify creativity. It’s a fact of nature that in the midst of chaos the dynamism of growth flourishes. Some of the most astounding beauty in the world flows naturally from bedlam.

Certainly, for a religious bloke like me, there is one more affirmation of chaos that is the most startling of all. The sacred text of my faith makes an unavoidable point: chaos can be the power, the wisdom and the freedom of God in our midst. An element of chaos, it seems, is the stuff of life with God. Apparently, I can’t live without it.

The need to be relevant

I sit routinely with Harry, a good and gracious man who has lived his faith and served his church for more than eighty years. Now, with failing eye sight and a body that creaks, he is not able to be at church as often as he would like, nor volunteer time in the way he once did. There were days when his church could count on him to do things, to run things, to make things happen. But those days are gone. Though Harry understands why, the disappointment is real. As we sit together over a pot of tea, he speaks regretfully of his body’s limitations and the losses that have followed. With equal parts grief and hope, he leans in: “I still need to be feel relevant, Simon,” he says.

It’s a common cry among older adults. Though rarely communicated with such precision, I hear this need repeated often, alongside fears for its absence—irrelevance: those feelings of being ‘put out to pasture’; of being marginal to a community and inconsequential to its future. These fears are tangible for the aged and can manifest in particular ways: bemoaning change; holding tenaciously to traditions; responding like ‘sticks in the mud’ when it comes to innovation. Sadly, the deeper cries that sit beneath these responses go unnamed.

Of course, this need for relevance is not unique to those who are older. We all feel it. It’s human—the need to be needed; the longing to be acknowledged at life’s centre rather than linger unnoticed at its edges. It’s equally true for institutions as it is for individuals. There is much talk in today’s church about the need for relevance: a ‘fading institution’ that once had a central place at the tables of culture and politics, desperate to be a player still. Trouble is, the sort of relevance the church reaches for has more to do with appearance than substance: music, cutting edge multi-media, a youthful congregation, and a pastor in jeans.

I wonder, though, if the real essence of relevance is misunderstood, its worth misplaced by surface estimates of fashionability: we’re up-to-date; we’re cutting-edge and popular. Perhaps the real worth of our presence is found in the signs of our irrelevance. In a society that judges age as the movement to marginality, we esteem it as the gift that enriches our communities. In an age enamoured with veneers of material success and physical beauty, we prioritise character and integrity. In a culture where speed, efficiency and profit win the day, we invest in values of slowness, depth and generosity. In a milieu that prioritises self-interest and tightly drawn borders, we strive for communities of inclusion and hospitality.

No doubt, Harry’s longing for relevance is real. We do people a great disservice when we fail to take their felt needs seriously, no matter what their age. That said, the great gift that Harry gives at this stage of his life, often unconsciously, is his presence. His relevance is not in what value-adding activity he contributes, but in who he is. As Harry sits in his pew each Sunday morning waiting for the service to begin, he holds the bulletin in his hands, reading of the church’s pastoral concerns and praying. As he moves about the congregation after the service, he lingers in conversation with numerous people, listening and encouraging, especially the students from overseas who struggle with English. Harry is no respecter of skin colour, language, sexuality or age. He cares indiscriminately with care that’s neither hurried nor forced. He prays consistent and believing prayers that hold us all. And he embodies grace, demonstrable and practical grace without reserve.

To be honest, it is hard for me to imagine a more relevant presence in the church than Harry’s. Or, to put it differently, perhaps it is Harry’s glorious irrelevance that renders his presence an enduring gift to the church.

‘Gone to the fields to be lovely’

Over the summer break we travelled to New Zealand. Amidst the extraordinary beauty of the place, the roadside fields of Russell Lupins were so lovely. Often backdropped by a vista of snowcapped mountains, they had a way of bringing majesty into more intimate reach.

Just yesterday, a dear friend sent me some poetry, words by the American poet Lynn Ungar. As I understand, the camas lilies Ungar describes are a wild flower native to her part of the world. No matter, the bidding of the fields is the same.

Camas Lilies

Consider the lilies of the field,
the blue banks of camas opening
into acres of sky along the road.
Would the longing to lie down
and be washed by that beauty
abate if you knew their usefulness,
how the native ground their bulbs
for flour, how the settlers’ hogs
uprooted them, grunting in gleeful
oblivion as the flowers fell?

And you—what of your rushed
and useful life? Imagine setting it all down—
papers, plans, appointments, everything—
leaving only a note: “Gone
to the fields to be lovely. Be back
when I’m through blooming.”

Even now, unneeded and uneaten,
the camas lilies gaze out above the grass
from their tender blue eyes.
Even in sleep your life will shine.
Make no mistake. Of course
your work will always matter.
Yet Solomon in all his glory
was not arrayed like one of these.

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The gift of a day

A manuscript complete and sent. It’s the first ‘day off’ in a while without a pending deadline. I’m back to the comfort of routines.

Friday is market day. In the mellow morning air, I push a trolley through the maze of traders couped under tin rooves: veggies, fruit, cheese, fish, poultry and bread. I watch and talk. I touch the avocados and hold the peaches in my hand. I look wistfully at a brie de meaux and banter with the fishmonger as he prepares my snapper fillets.  I imagine recipes in my head, and anticipate the idiosyncrasies of those I cook for. Finally, I linger with the sweep of flowers, and choose my colour of gorgeous for the week.

A gift for Christmas was a collection of poetry by Michael O’Siadhail. What an extraordinary ability this Irishman has to give words to things I can only feel. This one provides a benediction to my morning.

Leisure

What does it mean?
Suddenly, effortlessly, to touch the core.
Mostly in the glow of friends
but today just strolling the length of a city street.
Carnival moments.
The apple back on its tree
in a garden lost, a garden longed for.

I move among the traders.
Stacks of aubergines, rows of tiger-lilies.
Rings of silver and cornelian
A feast of action.
Crosslegged, an Indian plays
music on a saw-blade glittering in the sun.

In the sweat of thy face
shalt thou eat bread. First hearing
that story, I’d bled for Adam.
I bump into an acquaintance and begin to apologise.
‘Taking a break,
Be hard at it tomorrow.’
Puritan me, so afraid of Paradise.

Anaxagoras the sage
(a century before Plato) mulled it over
on a street like this in Athens.
First question: Why are you here on earth?
Answer: To behold.
No excuses called for.
Contemplation. Seeing. Fierce and intense.

This majesty. This fullness.
Does it all foreshadow another Eden?
The air is laden with yearning.
I can’t say for what and I can’t be silent either.
Rejoice. Rejoice.
To attest the gift of a day.
To saunter and gaze. To own the world.

Michael O’Siadhail, Collected Poems, Bloodaxe, 2013, 306–307.

An Honoured Name

A month or so ago I had the privilege of reviewing Ken Manley’s most recent book, a biography of one of my predecessors here at Collins Street. The review is published in Our Yesterdays, a journal of history among Victorian Baptists.

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As the 16th pastor of the historic Collins Street Baptist Church, I work each day surrounded by portraits of those who preceded me. Though most inhabited a different age to my own and faced challenges unique to their time, I find an odd sense of comfort knowing that I minister under their gaze. Each of these predecessors brought a distinct mix of gifts and passions to the role. Some of their stories resonate more immediately than others. One of those is Samuel Pearce Carey, pastor of Collins Street from 1900 to 1908.

Though a gifted man of impeccable Baptist heritage – great-grandson to the pioneer Baptist missionary William Carey – Pearce Carey arrived at Collins Street in a period of incredible change.  The twenty-three year tenure of the great Samuel Chapman had come to an end; and so, too, the period of the church’s most sustained growth. The turn of the century saw the burgeoning of the suburbs with new churches flourishing beyond the city centre. Collins Street’s membership suffered. Regardless, Pearce Carey arrived with a strong sense of vocation and led the church with great energy. In the face of ample challenge and more than his share of opposition, Pearce Carey was a pastor and preacher of considerable impact. He is a man I’ve long admired.

2611d76c0998456b8e226c869eddbabdUp until this point, all I have known of Pearce Carey is related to his years at Collins Street. I have written about them here. Now, through Ken Manley’s biography, I have a broader appreciation of the man; and my admiration is deeper still. Manley, a significant Baptist scholar and leader in his own right, has done us a tremendous service in telling Pearce Carey’s story in full, from his Baptist roots and English childhood to his ministry as pastor, writer, social activist, missionary ambassador and denominational leader. There is so much in Manley’s telling of this story that is fascinating, but it is two challenges to the nature of pastoral ministry that I found most rewarding.

First, it is clear that Pearce Carey understood his ministry as both particular and broad. In each pastoral appointment he gave himself with energy to the wellbeing of the congregation. He was an effective pastor, a fine preacher, and a man who invested intentionally in strengthening and uniting the church’s leadership. At the same time, Pearce Carey reached beyond the church to the denomination, the city, political and cultural arenas and issues facing society as a whole. What’s more, his love of literature and his commitments to scholarship found room to flourish. Pearce Carey’s identity as a minister of the gospel was not one that narrowed his interests but broadened them.

Second, Pearce Carey managed to hold together a deeply evangelical allegiance to Christ with a progressive and open theology. It was a mark of this ministry from beginning to end. It seems there was never a tension in his mind between a spirituality shaped by his love of the Gospel and a critical evaluation of the scriptures and theological thought.  Mind you, this was not an easy path for Pearce Carey to follow and one that drew criticism from within his churches and his denomination. Regardless, he would not be swayed. There is an integrity in the man I cannot help but admire.

Of course, there is much more to Manley’s biography than this, but if such stories of the past can play a role in critiquing and shaping our ministry today, then we are well served by books of this calibre. I commend to it to you.

Ken Manley, ‘An Honoured Name’: Samuel Peace Carey (1862-1953), Oxford: Regent’s Park College, 2016.

To soar or to plod

I am often troubled at the disparity between aspiration and reality. In heart and mind I aspire to noble things. I close my eyes and soar on unseen currents of possibility, the plains of mediocrity a distant speck. But in body I tread those plains every day, and often at a snail’s pace. “The mind wants to live forever,” Annie Dillard writes. “The mind wants to know the world, and all eternity, even God. The mind’s sidekick, however, will settle for two eggs over easy. The dear stupid body is as easily satisfied as a spaniel.”

That’s harsh judgement of the body, and one Dillard doesn’t own. But I feel it. The trivial concerns of now distract while higher things float by. Perhaps a more generous confession is the struggle to hold in tension two inclinations: to lift my vision to what can be and to embrace what is with gratitude. Resolve verses presence, aspiration verses contentment. Who will win today?

My better inclination rejects such competition: aspiration does not discount the gift of now. No doubt, the distractions in life are numerous. I can Facebook my way to nothing of consequence and barely know the loss. That said, I can also soar while plodding. Today can be imbued with a holding sense of hope, for now and eternity are one. After all, the plains are where I live and those eggs are my sustenance.

“I press on toward the goal,” the apostle Paul says, “for the prize of the heavenly call of God.” And then he returns to the dishes. That’s good news for me. Perhaps my spaniel-like traits are not so bad after all. I press on. I aspire. I hope. And yet I do it here, in this place, and now, in this moment.

 

 

Some thoughts on Whitley and the role of theological education

When a church faces a change of leadership, it is prodded to ask important questions about its identity and mission. To determine the pastor it needs, it needs first to know the sort of church it is and the church it wants to be into the future. In times of change the local church is reminded just how key leadership is to its mission.

Institutions of theological education are no different. When a seminary or college faces a change of leadership, it’s time again to ask the hard questions: What is the purpose of theological education within the wider community of churches? What is God calling this institution to do and be into the future? These are questions my own denominational college is facing right now. As the retirement of Whitley College’s current principal looms, the prospect of new leadership prods all those with a vested interest in its mission to voice their hopes and express their concerns. And so they should.

Addressing these questions is a complicated business. A college’s constituencies are as diverse as the expectations they bring. There’s the denominational structure in which the college sits and was founded to serve. There are the local churches that demand well-trained pastors. There are the agencies of the denomination and the wider community that require people skilled for a diversity of cross cultural and intercultural work. There is the academy of higher education to which the college belongs and is dependent for its ability to provide reputable degrees and quality research programs. And there are the lay people in churches looking for a place to discern their vocation, work out their discipleship, or wrestle with persistent questions of faith.

In all of this, theological colleges face their share of criticism. Whitley certainly has, and with a particular intensity this past year. There’s nothing new in that. I have been a student in three denominational colleges here in Australia and in one of the largest evangelical seminaries in the US. What’s more, over the past two decades I have taught in and been associated with many more. And in all of these, no matter where they sit on the theological spectrum, the criticisms are much the same: the perception that these institutions are removed from the hands-on mission of the church, of professors disengaged from the needs of practitioners in the field, allegations of theological compromise, and of a creeping disregard for the orthodox teachings of the Christian faith.

In my experience, criticisms like these often hold a kernel of truth mixed with a good dose of ignorance and hyperbole. Too often such criticisms are leveled by those who have never sat in a class, never pursued a sustained conversation with a teacher, and never read anything of substance written by those they deride. Sadly though, when mud is thrown it sticks, deserved or not. That said, theological colleges deserve critique — intelligent critique. In fact, they need it, especially from those sympathetic to their mission. As pastor of a church, I know too well that theological teachers can be their own worst enemy in communicating with churches and in addressing the needs felt most deeply by those who lead them. Though I want to be stretched in my thinking and practice, I, for one, and sick to death of having theological ‘experts’ list everything that is wrong with ‘the church’ without ever asking an intelligent question about the neighbourhood I inhabit or the particular challenges my congregation and I face.

In my view, theological colleges are at their best when they embrace their ministry as two fold: priestly and prophetic. As a priestly community, the theological college is one that nurtures and enables the local church. It is concerned for the church’s wellbeing and for the enrichment of its people. As a priestly community, the college speaks directly into the deepest needs of the churches and their leaders – those felt and those unnamed. By listening to and engaging with the churches, it determines the best forms of training: training that nurtures leaders who understand the faith of the church; who rightly handle the scriptures as the revelation of the truth of God; who administer the church’s rites and rituals with excellence; who lead with competence and preach with conviction; who draw deeply on the spiritual resources of the faith; and who are able to provide the best possible expressions of pastoral care. If the theological college is failing in its priestly role, the churches have every right to call it to account.

That said, the best theological college is more than a priestly community; it is a prophetic community. In my view, it is here that the more poorly understood responsibility of theological education lies. Theological educators must be prepared to stand on the sidelines of the church and call it to account. Like those pesky prophets of old, courageous theologians call the church to be different than what it is, a challenge to a radical transformation and a critique of the status quo. If the theological college is simply made in the image of the churches it is called to serve, it has failed to embrace its vocation. Even more, it has failed its churches. Prophets smell bad. They say things we do not want to hear and they press us to see things we struggle to see. If the theological college is not drawing criticism from denominational leaders and the churches of its tradition, chances are it stands on shallow ground.

As we Baptists of Victoria launch into this period of discernment about our college’s future, I want to say publicly how very grateful I am for Whitley College. Though my beginning with Whitley as a reluctant undergraduate in theology was six shades of awkward, my thirty years of study, teaching and association with the college have been one of the most formative influences of my life. It is through Whitley that I discovered that Jesus’ call to discipleship is more far-reaching and all-embracing than I could ever have imagined. It is through Whitley that I learned to read the Bible as the life changing Word of God and to wrestle with its truth. It is through Whitley that I was invited to breathe again as a person of faith, open to a theology that’s alive, obligating, and wonderfully relevant to the world I inhabit. And it is largely because of Whitley that I remain a Baptist, actively engaged with and committed to our particular way of being the church and embodying the good news of Jesus.

Whatever lies ahead for us, I pray that Whitley will remain a life-giving, life-interpreting and life-challenging community within our Baptist family.

 

A year on

The anniversary of mum’s death has come and gone. Oddly, there were no feelings on the day, no profound moments or tears. Perhaps my life is too full of other things. It certainly moves on.

I did visit the graveside the month before. I took flowers. It was a visit of choice, not need. Truth be told, I didn’t want to go. All that dirt and grass and quiet. I walked. I stood. I knelt. I even prayed. But it was just a grave. A simple plaque was laid to mark her spot and I was glad of it. Dad’s choice and just enough. But the day itself was grey, the ground damp, and all around the plots filled by strangers.

I do miss her. A year on and I miss her smile and the soft, loose skin of her cheeks. I miss her hands, her touch, those clandestine whisperings of pride and devotion. For mum there was never a thought or a feeling hidden for long. I do miss her. But for me there are no particular days that contain her, no sites that hold who she was. Somehow I find her most clearly inside of me. She inhabits my life. I look in the mirror and I see her. I look at my daughter and I see her. I look at my dad and I know her presence so tangibly … and her absence too.

Theologian David Ford suggests that the question ‘Who am I?’ leads us straight to the people who are part of us: ‘We find ourselves partly by remembering those who are most deeply woven into us.’ It’s true. My mother is woven into the stuff of who I am. To remember her is to know myself better. The Irish poet Michael O’Siadhail writes of someone similarly woven into his life. With a small change of pronoun, the words say something about mum that resonates.

I probe the essence of this energy;
no blandishments or blind approval,
her unblinking trust enticed me,
fingered some awareness of worth;
in her praise all is possible.

Though at first a copy-cat tremor,
after many storms I’ll still
strum the chord of her assurance,
that music I’ll make my own,
an old resonance I’ll summon up.

 

David Ford, The Shape of Living, Baker, 1997, 31.

Michael O’Siadhail, Hail! Madam Jazz, Bloodaxe, 1992, 84.