Feathered angels

In the early morning, as my beloved and I circle the local gardens in our walking shoes, we routinely hear one of the most beautiful sounds I can imagine: the song of the magpie. In my years away from Australian shores, it’s the one sound I missed. And yet to evoke the magpie’s song in words … I can only take heart from the English ornithologist John Gould: “To describe the note of this bird is beyond the power of my pen.”

I am not a bird man. I can barely spot the difference between a raven and a common koel. That said, I have a friend who photographs birds. Through his images — drip fed over the years into my email in-box — I’ve begun to appreciate just a little of what he sees routinely. It’s another world up there! A mostly hidden world of colour and song. At least now I look.

Clearly, the Australian poet Michael Leunig has been looking much longer than I have. On this beautiful autumn day, his prayer of thanks for these ‘feathered angels’ is one worth praying.

Dear God,
We give thanks for birds.
All types of birds.
Small birds and large birds.
Domestic fowls, migratory birds
and birds of prey,
hooting birds,
whistling birds,
shrikes,
coloured parrots
and dark darting wrens.
Birds too numerous to mention.
We praise them all.

We mourn the loss of certain species
and pray for deliverance
of endangered ones.
We pray, too, for farm birds,
that they may be released
from cruelty and suffering.

We give thanks for eggs and feathers,
for brave, cheerful songs in the morning
and the wonderful, haunting,
night prayers of owls,
mopes, frogmouths
and all nocturnal fowls.

We praise the character of birds,
their constancy,
their desire for freedom,
their flair for music
and talent for flying.
May we always marvel
at their ability to fly.
Especially we praise their
disregard for the human hierarchy
and the ease with which they leave
their droppings on the heads
of commoners or kings regardless.
Grant them fair weather,
fresh food and abundant materials
for building their nests in spring.
Provide them too with perches
and roosts with pleasant aspects.

Dear God, guide our thoughts
to the joy and beauty of birds.
Feathered angels.
May they always be above us.
Amen.

x293Michael Leunig, A Common Prayer, Collins Dove, 1990.
The image above is one of those captured by my friend and fellow Baptist pastor Bruce Stewart: “a wonderful visitor to our backyard this past week – the White Plumed Honeyeater.”

A prayer for Easter Sunday

THE SON ALSO RISES
A prayer by Frederick Ohler

Lord, no Easter ever celebrated life without death
and this day is no exception.
In the world
in our community
in our souls—
while we live we are always surrendering to death …
Never the less
closer to finally
Christ’s resurrection prevails
and therefore we cry out
“L’chayim!”—To life!—
that in-credible,
in-soluble,
un-stoppable mystery,
which is Yours to give
and ours to live.

Lord, we are grateful
that
seedtime and harvest
cold and heat
summer and winter
day and night will not cease
that
every rainbow is a covenant
and every sunrise a promise.

Lord, we are grateful
that
floods clap their hands
and hills sing for joy
and what the birds do by nature we may do by choice—
to sing
to sing
to sing!

Lord we are grateful
for
despair that is in vain and labor that is not
work that is worship and worship that is play
for a world that includes April,
a species that produced Bach
and a century that birthed our sister Teresa.

Lord, we are grateful for the ubiquity of life
and democracy of death
which none may evade (like taxes)
nor any buy off (like justice)
nor slaughter (like the innocents)
but which all must face
for life to come and belief to be real
for choice to count and love to matter.

Thank you, God
that
in a world where “little men cast long shadows
because the sun is setting”
the Son also rises
and all the naked emperors
and massive egos
and fakes
dry up
and the gentle Christ rises lovingly from the grave
worthy of praise
for
His grace — full entry
his limitless love
his absolute conquest of death
and His unremitting affirmation of life.
He is mighty because of His honour,
great because of His goodness,
and alive because He loves.
Therefore we praise Him and call Him Lord

amen.

5142O-VL-zL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Frederick Ohler, Better Than Nice and Other Unconventional Prayers, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989, 89-90.

A prayer for Maundy Thursday

Catch me in my scurrying

Catch me in my anxious scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my feet to the fire of your grace
and make me attentive to my mortality
that I may begin to die now
to those things that keep me
from living with you
and with my neighbours on this earth;
to grudges and indifference,
to certainties that smother possibilities,
to my fascination with false securities,
to my addiction to sweatless dreams,
to my arrogant insistence on how it has to be;
to my corrosive fear of dying someday
which eats away the wonder of living this day
and the adventure of losing my life
in order to find it in you.

Catch me in my aimless scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my heart to the beat of your grace
and create in me a resting place,
a kneeling place,
a tip-toe place
where I can recover from the dis-ease of my grandiosities
which fill my mind and calendar with busy self-importance,
that I may become vulnerable enough
to dare intimacy with the familiar,
to listen cup-eared to your summons,
and to watch squint-eyed for your crooked finger
in the crying of a child,
in the hunger of the street people,
in the fear of the contagion of terrorism in all people,
in the rage of those oppressed because of sex or race,
in the smouldering resentments of exploited third-world nations,
in the sullen apathy of the poor and ghetto-strangled people,
in my lonely doubt and limping ambivalence;
and somehow
during this season of sacrifice,
enable me to sacrifice time
and possessions
and securities,
to do something …
something about what I see,
something to turn the water of my words
into the wine of will and risk,
into the bread of blood and blisters,
into the blessedness of deed,
of a cross picked up,
a saviour followed.

Catch me in my mindless scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my spirit to the beacon of your grace
and grant me light enough to walk boldly,
to feel passionately,
to love aggressively;
grant me enough peace to want more,
to work for more
and to submit to nothing less,
and to fear only you …
only you!

Bequeath me not becalmed seas,
slack sails and premature benedictions,
but breathe into me torment,
storm enough to make within myself
and from myself,
something …
something new,
something saving,
something true,
a gladness of heart,
a pitch for a song in the storm,
a word of praise lived,
a gratitude shared,
a cross dared,
a joy received.

51h4cyW5xxL._SX491_BO1,204,203,200_Ted Loder, Guerrillas of Grace, Augsburg Books, 1981, 123-125.

‘Some precepts of postmodern mourning’

Amidst this sombre Holy Week, it feels appropriate to smile at death.  For a seasoned celebrant of funerals, this is a close enough to truth to be oddly comforting.

Some precepts of postmodern mourning
Alex Skovron

There must be a body, but there needn’t be.
The body must be remembered with some fondness:
there must be at least two eulogists, and a third
must have been detained by traffic or a death
and the service must proceed. Sex
must be mentioned, but preferably not, except at the wake
or the séance when most words are permissible again.
On second thought, this precept needn’t apply.
But at least one text must be read from,
preferably composed by the body and significant; it
must include expletives, but needn’t do so.
Everyone must look dignified and important, or at least
significant; move deliberately but not heavily; smile
but laugh only once. Black must be avoided,
except in socks and sunglasses, which must be worn
during the service as well as outside afterwards.
There must be at least a reference to Celtic poetry
or Jewish ancestry, and both Testaments must be drawn upon.
Someone must remark ‘I still can’t believe it’
then ‘Yes I can’, and someone must respond
with a philosophical but solicitous lift of an eyebrow.
One of the mourners must be overheard to whisper,
‘I’m surprised she didn’t come, though it doesn’t
surprise me.’ It must be noted that the body
could never suffer fools gladly, and someone
must observe how much he or she is only now learning
about the body. Someone must say at least one Italian thing
either to mourners or to the body, but a French
or German or Latin or Spanish or Sanskrit thing
will do, or a thing in any other accredited language,
provided the expression is significant. There must be
no public mysticism, though there may be, and coffee
or white wine must be served afterwards. Someone
needs to be squinting tears, preferably a large man
in a double-breasted suit with a crimson kerchief
protruding rudely, coupled with a pallid pusillanimous
niece with a weak chin and beatific smile
nodding with significance. Reincarnation must be accepted
by at least half the mourners, but not mentioned,
though strange omens and premonitions over recent weeks
must be seen as significant in retrospect.
The body must be understood to be pleased with the service,
the simple dignity and grace of the occasion,
the Baroque cantata, the words, the weather. Everything
must be just so. Everything must be significant.
Though in the end it needn’t be. Later, this in itself
must be acknowledged as most significant of all,
or at least put down to the quintessential irony of death.

skovron-alex-ip-author-300w_poet-bioAlex Skovron, published in The Puncher and Wattmann Anthology of Australian Poetry, ed. John Leonard, 2009.

Sacred bones

Bone Scan
Gwen Harwood

Thou has searched me and known me.
Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising.
Psalm 139

In the twinkling of an eye,
in a moment, all is changed:
on a small radiant screen
(honeydew melon green)
are my scintillating bones.
Still in my flesh I see
the God who goes with me
glowing with radioactive
isotopes. This is what he
at last allows a mortal
eye to behold: the grand
supporting frame complete
(but for the wisdom teeth),
the friend who lives beneath
appearance, alive
with light. Each glittering bone
assures me: you are known.

1367157941403Gwen Harwood (1920 – 1995)
Included in Beverage and Ogle (eds), Falling and Flying: Poems on Ageing, Blackheath: Brandle & Schlesinger, 2015.

On change

“There are times where change is calculated and pursued with drive and intent. At other times, it comes on like a blustery wind, sweeping you up, promising to lead you to places you might never have envisaged … if you allow it to.”

Pippa Campbell, “Apron Strings: Uncut.” In Bread, Wine & Thou, Issue 2, 2016, 9-15.

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.