A response to ‘Heaven All Around Us’

It’s a wonderful encouragement to read these words of affirmation from Brian Harris, Principal of Vose Seminary over in Western Australia:

“I often get sent complimentary copies of books from publishers who hope I will put in a good word for their publication. Sometimes that is possible, at other times I read a few pages of the book, push it to the one side and diplomatically say no more. Happily, Simon Carey Holt’s book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life (Cascade, 2018) is definitely in the first category. Actually, it’s sensationally in the first category – an absolute delight to read, deeply thoughtful, often profound and very well written.”

You can read more of his response, especially to the chapter on God at the Supermarket, here.

Laundry as a spiritual practice

The following is an extract from the book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life. At the conclusion of a chapter on home, I offer this reflection on doing the laundry as a spiritually formative practice. OK, so it might be a stretch for most of us, but it’s worth a thought!

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The laundry is never done. A laundry basket never empties completely. No matter how many loads we do, done is not a laundry word. There are some things in life that are done. Mostly they are big, momentous things: my work here is done; my schooling is done; our relationship is done. While there are things less momentous—a book can be done; so can a jig­saw—when it comes to life at home, done is only ever a provisional word. Done things at home are never really done: taking out the trash, mopping the floor, doing the dishes, mowing the lawn, cleaning the toilet, watering the plants, feeding the fish, or shopping for groceries. Things like these are only ever done for now, until they need doing again.

There is something about a good spiritual practice that defies done with the same persistence. I pray today and I will pray tomorrow. To­day I confess my sin; tomorrow I will need to confess again. Like the disciplines of frugality and chastity, there is no end to the obligations of laundry. The average household generates eight to ten loads every week. Laundry is not something we get to do once and then move on, as though graduating to a laundry-less existence. Clothes get dirty, socks get smelly, sheets need changing. Laundry is one of the certainties of life. As with all spiritual practices worth their salt, laundry is our work today as it will be tomorrow.

That said, embracing laundry as a practice of spirituality takes some work. Getting beyond the novelty of the idea can be the biggest hurdle. The laundry is simply not where the mind naturally goes in pursuit of God. After all, holy places gleam, like the front rooms of our homes made ready for guests. The laundry is kept behind closed doors. It’s the place we hope they don’t see. The most profitable spiritual practices, however, are those that throw open the closed doors of our lives and allow light to shine where it’s most needed.

The laundry door is one that deserves to be opened, and the practice of washing taken more seriously. There are significant things going on in the laundry; it’s a place charged with spiritual possibility. The opportu­nity to name those things, to bring them to the surface, and to embrace them with intention is ours for the taking. Here are some places to begin.

Laundry as a Formative Act

It is the routine of laundry that is likely its greatest gift. According to Kathleen Norris, worship and laundry are the work given for us to do by God. Both are repetitive, she says, mundane, even menial. Lest you think worship is nothing of the sort, take note the next time you are in church. Think first of the great and eternal God to whom this worship is offered, and then of the stilting, off-key and sometimes humorous forms in which it comes. You would think after centuries of rehearsal we would finally have it right. Not so, for it is a work never done. Yet through our regular investment in it, we are nurtured in God’s image. Week by week, year after year, we are formed by it. So, too, with laundry.

As a truly menial task—a word derived from the Latin “manor” meaning “to dwell in a household”—laundry is a task of connections and household ties. It’s an act of stability, a mark of loyalty, the most basic pro­vision of kindness and service. I wash your feet; I wash your underwear. I serve you and honor you. I will do it today and again tomorrow, load after load. In the process I am formed. My servant spirit, however reluctantly and at times resentfully, is gradually deepened by the doing. I have often noticed that in meetings where refreshments are served, it is the same people over and over who instinctively move to the kitchen sink once the meeting is done. Equally, it is the same people who don’t. Domestic acts of service shape our instincts. We are formed in the doing.

It is because we are human, Norris says, that we must find our way to God through the mundane and the daily acts of our lives. “In our life of faith as well as in our most intimate relationships with other people,” she writes, “our task is to transform the high romance of conversion, the fervor of religious call, into daily commitment.” In this, laundry and worship are one of a kind.

Laundry as a Sacramental Act

A sacrament is most broadly defined as an outward sign of an inward grace, like the elements of bread and wine on the church’s communion table. Through the ordinariness of wheat and grape, we encounter love in its most extraordinary form. While the officially sanctioned sacraments of the church are a gift to the people of God, the possibility of the sacra­mental does not end at the church doors. The world is shot through with grace. In acts large and small, we have opportunity to sign that grace for others. Laundry can be one of those: a demonstration of unearned favor. We don’t deserve to have our laundry done. There is no universal right to clean laundry enshrined in a code of what it means to be human. It is either done for us as an act of grace, or it’s an act of grace we gift to others. Either way, Ernest Boyer calls it “a sacrament of care.”

When I stand behind the communion table in our sanctuary, I han­dle things that are, in and of themselves, unremarkable: a loaf of bread; a goblet of grape juice. When we gather as the people of God around that table, we name these elements together as the signs of God’s redeeming presence with us. It is in the naming that the unremarkable becomes the ineffable and grace is enfleshed. As you stand over the washing—whether it’s in a state-of-the-art machine with multiple cycle options or a plastic tub filled with hot water and soap—you stand before ordinary, soiled ele­ments. Each one has its own story to tell, though perhaps most should be left untold. Each sock, each blouse or shirt is known and submerged. Sometimes there may be words you say:

Lord God,
I offer to you the work of my hands,
and the soiled garments of our lives.
May those who receive them washed clean
know the cleansing of your grace.
Amen.

Your congregation is made up of those who will take and wear them. Occasionally they do so with gratitude, an awareness of the gift that is theirs. Mostly they don’t. It’s a routine they take for granted as much as you do. It is mystery and it is laundry; not all that different to the com­munion table really.

Laundry as a Prayerful Act

“Sometimes when people ask me about my prayer life,” says the writer Barbara Brown Taylor, “I describe hanging laundry on the line.” For Tay­lor, each item of clothing she hangs in the sun is like a prayer flag pegged in the open breeze.

“Since I am a compulsive person, I go to some trouble to impose order on the lines of laundry: handkerchiefs first, then jockey shorts, then T-shirts, then jeans. If I sang these clothes, the musical notes they made would lead me in a staccato, down­ward scale. The socks go all in a row at the end like exclamation points. All day long, as I watch the breeze toss these clothes in the wind, I imagine my prayers spinning away over the tops of the trees. This is good work, this prayer. This is good prayer, this work.”

Taylor’s practice has in mind the pictures we see from Nepal: small pieces of colored cloth strung in their hundreds along mountain ridges high in the Himalayas. Though the practice has its origins elsewhere, Ti­betan Buddhists have made it their own in a particular way. The tradition is that these flags come in sets of five colors arranged from left to right: the blue of sky and space; the white of air and wind; the red of fire; the green of water; and the yellow of earth. Together they call for peace, com­passion, strength, and wisdom through all creation. For those who hang them, there is not a strong sense that these prayers are carried to God but are blown by the wind, filling the air with all they hope for.

As Christians, our faith centers more deeply in a particular encoun­ter with God through Jesus Christ, but the longings embodied by these flags resonate. It is an ancient practice of prayer that we name our long­ings before God, that in time those longings are shaped by God, and in turn, those longings shape our lives and relationships. If a practice like hanging laundry can give form and structure to such prayers, and our prayers be gathered up in our daily work, both are enriched.

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Depending on where you are, you can purchase the book in a number for places.

If you are in Australia, the best place to go is the local distributor Morning Star Publishing. You can also order it through Book Depository.

If you are in the US, you can order directly through Wipf & Stock, Amazon or ChristianBooks.

Conversation as a Spiritual Practice

IMG_3915The following is an extract from the book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life. At the conclusion of a chapter on friendship, I offer a brief reflection on conversation between friends as a spiritually formative practice.

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Talk is cheap: so the saying goes, and it’s mostly true. Our world is full of talk; loud, persistent talk that never ends. Too much of it self-serving, self-aggrandizing, self-justifying. We attend talkfests where “expert” voices are privileged over others. We visit political chambers and church sanctuaries where pulpits and lecterns give voice to those in power while the majority is silent. And we sit before our televisions watching panels where the cleverest and loudest voices win. Too often they sound like a gathering of egos shouting, “Look at me!” 

No doubt, this sort of talk can be cheap. What’s more, talk like this rarely changes things. Rather than transforming the minds of those who participate, it simply confirms the views they already hold and the choices they have already made. It is not altogether different in the talk of our everyday lives. How many times have you left an exchange with an acquaintance or colleague wondering if your presence was really necessary to it? We can be talked at, talked over, talked down to, or talked around, but rarely are we talked with. Rarely are we genuinely listened to, and seldom do we listen to others. 

At its best, conversation is different. Conversation is a meeting of minds, memories, and stories. It is a mutual meeting of spirits distinguished by its openness to the possibility of change. There is always the chance in conversation that we will be shifted, prodded, challenged, or moved to think and act differently. It is this, I suggest, that sets conversation apart from talk. In fact, if we do not come to conversation open to its transforming potential then all we have is talk. Open conversation is the oxygen of true friendship. It is the oxygen by which we breathe together, and it is good. 

The proposal that conversation between friends can be a spiritual discipline—a routine practice embraced with intention that leads us to the likeness of Christ—is, at first blush, as difficult as the others we have proposed so far; but its potential is rich. If conversation is allowed to be a tool in the deepening and transforming of our spirits, it may well impact our spirituality in significant ways. 

1. A Practice of Attending

“I don’t know exactly what prayer is,” the poet Mary Oliver confesses, but “I do know how to pay attention.” This is surely where all spiritual practices begin: they are disciplines through which we pay attention to our own lives, to the lives of those around us, to the world we inhabit, and, in all of this, to God. The more ancient spiritual term for this practice is attending. It is what I do when I engage in intentional conversation with a friend: I attend; I listen in the most deliberate way I can. 

To understand the impact of attending in friendships, philosopher Graham Little asks us to recall those moments when we have been “recognized, attended to and listened to well.” It is in those moments, he says, “those magnificently human moments” in which we feel “exhilaratingly alive” that we touch on the transformative power of attending. To be attended to is to experience the depth of what we give to others when we listen attentively to them. 

The practice of attending is built on a cardinal respect for the humanity, integrity, and worth of our friend. She embodies the truth of God in her story in a way I’ll not encounter in any other place. In my attending I honor that truth and I listen for it. I do not come with judgment or the need to convince or cajole. I only come with a sense of inquiry, a desire to hear, understand, and care. I want my friend to know again that I am here and that my support is genuine and ongoing. I want to see what she sees, to feel what he feels, and to know what she knows. And if he is lost, I want him to know that he has company. 

In recent years, I have experienced events that were isolating in ways I had not previously encountered. It had to do with public issues about which there is strong disagreement in the Christian church and in which I have a pastoral investment. I felt pressed to take a role that was more public than I was naturally comfortable with. The toll was considerable. I struggled to know what to do with that toll and how to carry it as I needed to. In the course of things, a friend invited me into conversation. He went out of his way to make generous time and to convey his concern for me. As I settled in to that conversation—what felt like a wide and open space—I realized its gift. The hours we spent together were some of the most healing I have experienced. He gave no advice, had no agenda other than to care, and no particular wisdom to share; but he attended to me with such generosity, I came away feeling both comforted and challenged. It was a small but significant turning point in my own well-being. 

Attending is not a complicated thing to do. There are only two rules that apply. Rule #1: shut up. Rule #2: listen. Really, it is not complex; but it’s not easy either. Good attending is a practice that takes some learning. If we think listening is easy, it is often because we’ve never done it. Good attending is a pastoral act that takes discipline and practice; the more we give ourselves to it, the more instinctive it becomes. That said, it is a practice we are all capable of. As a practice of our faith, it includes no secret pathway but is open to all. 

In exploring this practice for myself, I came across a book that had in its title the enticing phrase “conversation as ministry.” In the early chapters, the author defines the sort of conversation he has in mind, including its twelve essential components. As I waded my way through them, including such things as a grounded ecclesiology, a biblically informed character, a reflective self-awareness, I began to have a sense of something more complex than I had imagined, more the business of secret church squirrels than of regular people. None of the author’s twelve points are wrong. In fact, each is spot on and worth exploring. That said, conversation between friends is surely the most accessible and immediate business we are in. Perhaps all we really need to begin is the author’s final point: conversation gives body to the realm of God on earth. There is something about attending in friendship that makes the presence of God tangible. 

2. A Practice of Investing 

The real beauty of conversation between friends is that it’s ongoing. There is nothing momentary about it. Friends have history. They have shaped a story together. No matter how long-standing or recent a friendship might be, it builds one encounter at a time, one conversation after another. These conversations, building incrementally, sit within the context of our story and add to it. In time they develop a grammar all their own. The more we converse, the less there is to explain or divulge and the more we make room for challenge and depth. 

The idea of a spiritual practice as an investment is a helpful one. In all spiritual disciplines there is something about slow, persistent practice that is key. The practices of prayer, meditation, confession, worship, or Bible reading build over time. Not every deposit we make feels significant in its own right, but in time the worth of those investments grows into something substantive. To be honest, there are moments in my prayer life where I feel nothing of substance, where the rote and ritual act feels nothing more than that; and there are others when my heart soars. Yet I look back and know that the practice of prayer—the mundane and the exhilarating—has shaped my relationship with God like nothing else.

Conversations with friends can build slowly into a transformative practice, each one an investment into something larger. There will be conversations that sing and others that are monotone; encounters that thrill the spirit and some that are dreary. There will be intentional conversations that burrow away at particular challenges; and others that meander with no sense of purpose or destination. To use Augustine’s words, such conversations can “pass from lightest jesting to talk of deepest things and back again.” But, in all of this, we are investing, one conversation at a time, in something of greater worth. 

What investments need is time, time to mature so as to reward the investor with the greatest returns; so, too, with conversation. For relationships to flourish and for conversations to have their impact, there is no substitute for time. “Relationships are not best founded on efficiency,” Hugh Mackay observes, “nor are they best nurtured through the exchange (no matter how frequent) of inherently impersonal digital data.” When you surrender the art and discipline of face-to-face conversation, he says, believing that text messages and emojis can fill the void, “you’ve begun to lose your grip on what it means to be a social creature.” When it comes to spiritual practices, there are no shortcuts. In the practice of conversation between friends, the incremental investments require intention and time. There is no other path. 

3. A Practice of Confronting

In the opening paragraphs, I proposed conversation as a meeting of minds, memories and stories. In that meeting the possibility of change flourishes. The English writer and philosopher Theordore Zeldin argues that such change is not only possible within each participant, but can flow between and out of the conversation they share. “When minds meet,” he writes, “they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought.” “Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards,” he continues, “it creates new cards.” In this form, conversation is more than attending to each other’s stories. It is more than an incremental investment over time. It is found in the willingness of those who converse to tread territory that is risky, even confronting. It takes trust to flourish. “What matters most,” Zeldin concludes, “is courage.” 

Geoff and I have been friends for over twenty years. We met as students in the States, initially bound by our common status as “aliens” in a foreign land. Quickly, though, the relationship moved to firmer ground. We come from different traditions and different states. Our personalities are a study in contrasts, yet over two decades our friendship has remained. This has much to do with Geoff’s persistence and grace; he does friendship better than most men I know, and I have reaped the benefits. That said, we remain different, shaped by disparate contexts and communities. Apart from our years in California, we have rarely lived any closer than a day’s travel apart. Even more, there are issues about which we disagree and hold very different views. While I am accustomed to standing in the minority on some things, there are few people in my life, those with whom I disagree, with whom I can have conversation on these issues that is not marked to some degree by mistrust. With Geoff it is different. 

Friends have time on their side. When friends disagree, there is always more to the relationship and its conversations than the issue of difference. I cannot dismiss Geoff as merely “the opposing view.” There is more to him than that. There is more to our relationship than the disagreement at hand. What’s more, I cannot marginalize his viewpoint as I can with an acquaintance on Facebook. The respect we share more broadly touches everything about which we converse. Zeldin proposes that it is in these moments of difference we are faced with a choice. The direction the conversation takes from this point will shape us as much as it shapes the relationship. As friends we can choose to focus on our past—the memories and experiences that have made it—and keep on saying, “this is the way we are,” or we can set out to explore new and risky territory. That territory will necessarily include confrontation as we wrestle intentionally with what sets us apart. It is not an easy path to take.

Of course, the practice of confrontation is more than negotiating differences of opinion. It also means allowing conversations to name things that are difficult to name and to put our finger on things that are painful, even shameful, in our lives. When friends find the courage to traverse this territory, openly and sensitively, they touch on a spiritual practice that has as much capacity for transformation as any other practice we can name. 

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Depending on where you are, you can purchase the book in a number for places.

If you are in Australia, the best place to go is the local distributor Morning Star Publishing. You can also order it through Book Depository.

If you are in the US, you can order directly through Wipf & Stock, Amazon or ChristianBooks.

 

On books

” … for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth.  What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you.  Books help us to understand who we are and how we are to behave.  They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.  They are full of all the things you don’t get in real life — wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat.  And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention.  An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift.”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1994, 15.

The farmer and the pastor

1484163717072I’ve just finished reading a collection of letters written to young farmers. Surprisingly, they are captivating, even to me. The contributors are mostly seasoned agriculturalists, though commonly they have other roles as well. Writing is one of them. Their shared concern is to encourage those who are new to the profession, calling them to a deeper and more considered commitment to their work.

Granted, it’s an odd book for the pastor of a city church to read. My daily work is about as far removed from the land as one could imagine. My interest in food, however, is strong. Connections of dependence upon those who work to provide food for my table and others are genuine and daily. I could claim other connections: my father was a farmer; I was born onto a dairy farm in the Gippsland; I own a small part in a some acres in central Victoria. But none of that makes me any more a farmer than I am an astronaut. The farm is not my world.

That said, I can see in the exhortations of these mentor-farmers applications to the work I do as a pastor. It makes me wonder if the distance between our worlds is really as wide as I imagine. Some of the observations that struck me are these:

The farmer is a professional

There’s an affirming spirit to these letters, a reminder from seasoned to budding farmers that their work is important, no matter how it is regarded, or disregarded, more broadly. The words “I am just a farmer” have no place here. “However calloused your hands,” Barbara Kingsolver writes, “however grimy the uniform, however your back may sometimes ache, you are a professional. Your vocation is creative, necessary, and intellectually demanding.”

As with many professions, only those who know farming from the inside can appreciate its demands. Amidst the complexities of environment, climate and the global market, successful farming today requires significant levels of competence, risk and skill. The encouragement is clear: take your work, your competence and your importance seriously, even if others don’t.

There is wisdom here for pastors too. While there is no place for an inflated sense of ourselves, we do need to take ourselves seriously as professionals. Though we may not often feel the esteem of the surrounding culture, we know well what our work demands and the potential contribution it makes. As with all professions, we submit to systems of accreditation, rites of ordination, the needs for academic qualifications and professional competencies earned through time. While these are not everything, they ain’t nothin’ either. Whatever assessment others make of us, our work is important. We do well to remember it.

To farm is a vocation

This second observation follows on from the first. At the same time, it provides a counter to it. Routinely these writers speak of farming as a spiritual calling. More than a profession, a skill-set or work to be done, farming is a vocation that says as much about identity as it does about the work itself. Farming is not only the work a farmer does; it is who the farmer is. It’s this that can hold a farmer to the land when nothing else can make sense of it.

This is a point the Franciscan farmer Gary Paul Nabhan makes well. “As best I can figure, becoming a farmer is not that much different from becoming a monk,” he writes, “because it is ultimately about adhering to a spiritual path. You have to have faith that it is your calling because undertaking it does not make much economic, social, or political sense at all. Very few of you will get rich, get famous and powerful, or get laid simply because you are a farmer.”

We pastors get this. Our work is more than the work we do. It flows from our identity as men and women of faith. Pastoral leadership is more than qualifications, degrees or contracts; it is who we are. So when our work doesn’t make sense, when it’s hard beyond anyone’s knowing, and when its rewards are slim, we keep showing up. To do otherwise would be to walk away from something deeply part of us.

To farm well is to work from your strengths

This third theme I noticed is one that took me by surprise. I have commonly assumed farming as a long line of responsibilities that simply have to be met. Surely from one dairy farm to the next, from one field of grain to another, the tasks are much the same. How little I know. It’s clear from these letters that farming takes a great deal of creativity and will look different from one context to the next and from one farmer to another. It’s here the uniqueness of the individual comes into play.

In an especially energetic letter, Joel Salatin presses young farmers, “What are you good at? What do you know? What do you enjoy?” he asks. “Where those three universes intersect is the sweet spot for your success. Many times, we fritter away most of our time struggling with things we don’t like or aren’t good at and fail to capitalize on areas of passion and proficiency. Life’s too short to be squandered that way.”

Clearly it’s a good point for farmers, and pastors too. Just as there is more than one way to farm a piece of land, so there are multiple ways to pastor a church. Thank God for that. We are not all cut from the same cloth or made for the same expressions of ministry. At our best, we do what we do as an expression of who we are, not who we would like to be or who others wish we were. How much energy I have squandered over the years trying desperately to compensate for my inadequacies, peddling ever faster in areas of ministry in which I’ll only ever be mediocre. My “passions and proficiencies” are the best of me. If I do not operate as much as possible out of these, I short change myself and the church.

Sustainable farming requires a sustainable farmer

Some of the most impassioned advice for young farmers relates to their sustainability. There is a consistent call to ‘balance’ in these letters, a balance of time and energy that enable the farmer to flourish over the long haul.

“Farming can be all-consuming,” writes Mary-Howell Martens, “especially at certain times of the year, and without a plan to protect an acceptable level of personal balance, you may find the farm takes all. Farming will invariably define your family, your self-esteem, your financial choices, your self-image, your priorities, and your time. It will profoundly shape how you interpret life and death, weather, money, time, food, community, exercise, and faith.”

It’s this all-consuming nature of farming, fed by a deep sense of vocation, that is the farmer’s greatest strength and potential downfall. Richard Wiswall underlines the danger: “When the financial numbers don’t line up, farmers … can be famously guilty of self-exploitation. Like many entrepreneurs, farmers believe in what they do so much that they will do what it takes to succeed: work longer and longer hours, sacrifice family and leisure time, balance the books at night so as not to waste precious daylight hours. Deep meaning derived from their work is one of the fuels that keep farmers going despite increasing hardships. But there is no limit to this.”

I can only imagine how this danger plays out for the farmer. I know first hand it’s impact in pastoral ministry. Our sense of vocation is both enabling and compelling. It’s the compelling part that can lead us into all kinds of dysfunction. The price paid by relentlessly driven pastors — not to mention their spouses, families and churches — is commonly too large a cost to bear.

Farming within communities

The final observation is the reminder to young farmers that they farm within communities … always. No successful farmer flys solo. Given the hours that farmers work, often alone and hidden from public view, it is easy to see farming as a work of solitude. According to these writers, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Farming is a work of connections and relationships. Farming is a community sustained through time, a relationship to land, place and story that only has meaning when those connections are named and nurtured. This is so at the most local level — in towns and communities where land, place and work are shared — as well as in a broader sense: the provider of food, the preparer of food and the consumer of food are all connected. It is as though the farmer has a place at my table every night.

The American conservationist of the early twentieth century Aldo Leopold once said that land is “not a commodity belonging to us” but “a community to which we belong.” There is profound truth in this for the farmer, and truth for the pastor as well. As the farmer does not own the land, so the pastor does not own the church and its mission. We belong to it, sustained by it as we work to strengthen it. The church is a reality so much larger than we are, and in the context of a world held in God’s sustaining hands. We play just a small part in a much grander work.

Here’s the book

Martha Hodgkins, ed. Letters to a Young Farmer: On Food, Farming, and Our Future. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2017.

And a great related video too

Book launch: Heaven All Around Us

I am so grateful to all of those who came along to the launch of Heaven All Around Us. With good friends, good food and champagne, two wonderful reflections from Bishop Graeme Rutherford and Dianne Brown, and the most captivating presentation from storyteller Jess Holt, the book was officially kicked off with style.

In my own comments, I included these words of introduction:

The title of this book, Heaven All Around Us, is inspired by the words of the Australian songwriter John Williamson. In his song Cootamundra Wattle, he puts to music the bidding of an elderly man to his wife. She sits alone inside their home with an old box of memories on her lap — bunny rugs and family pictures. As she holds these objects, there are tears as she recalls moments of joy and grief long ago. Perhaps she longs for reunions that only heaven can bring.

In the song, the husband prods gently, inviting his wife to put these things aside and come outside: “There’s all the colours of the rainbow in the garden,” he says to her, “and symphonies of music in the sky. Heaven’s all around us if you’re looking, but how can you see it if you cry.” While I’m not sure his response to his wife’s tears is the most appropriate one, there is a truth here about the beauty and wonder of the present moment, the capacity of what is immediately around us to speak meaning, love and healing into our lives.

As a student of spirituality these last thirty years, I have a long-held fascination with the ways people, through history, have sought meaning and a sense of the transcendent in their lives. As a minister of religion, I have given much of my professional life to nurturing in others a deeper sense of God and of the sacredness of life itself.  In all of this, what I have found constantly frustrating is that the dominant language and most commonly accepted rituals of spirituality, most especially in the church, call us to leave behind the ordinariness of our daily lives in order to commune with God in some other place. It’s a spirituality of monasteries and mountaintops, of churches, deserts, solitude and retreat.  These are important, of course. They can each play an important role in our spiritual journey as they have done in my own. But what about the rest of life? Where is God when we return from the desert, when we come down from the mountain top, or leave the church behind for another week? Where is our sense of meaning in our homes and neighbourhoods, our shopping malls and sporting arenas? What sense of the sacred can we find in the daily obligations of family and work, in our friendships, our study and our chores? 

The reality is, it is these things that take up so much of our lives and where we most need a sense of meaning and purpose, a sense of God. What’s more, it is my view that models of spirituality which do nothing but lead us away from the pressing realities of our world as it is run the risk of reducing spirituality to a purely self-indulgent exercise. For those of us concerned for nurturing a deeper sense of the Spirit in our world, this should be of concern. In all of that, I do hope that this book can make a small contribution to a more far-reaching expression of our faith.

Depending on where you are, you can purchase the book in a number for places. If you are in Australia, the best place to go is the local distributor Morning Star Publishing. You can also order it through Book Depository. If you are in the US, you can order directly through Wipf & Stock, Amazon or ChristianBooks.

And my thanks to photographer Geoff Maddock for his beautiful images from the night.

 

Heaven All Around Us

PrintThe book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life has been a work in progress for a few years now. To see it finally in print is heartening. The book arises out of my own struggle to discern and respond to God’s presence in the most immediate aspects of life. In that sense, it’s a very personal book, but one I hope will be an encouragement to others.

Here’s a short extract from the opening of the second chapter.

“Moments of epiphany are rare for me. Mostly I notice the profound only in retrospect. That said, there have been encounters with truth stark enough to feel like a thump in the chest. One of those thumps came twenty years ago. I sat alone in a café in Pasadena, California, having recently enrolled in a doctoral program in theology. I had just come off a decade of pastoral ministry. It was not an easy ride and I was bone weary. By way of introduction, my supervisor recommended I read Dale Allison’s book ‘The Silence of Angels.’ I approached it with only mild enthusiasm, glad for the refuge of words but more committed to my coffee. Just pages in, the thump took my breath away.

Truth be told, this thud to my spirit was not the consequence of a direct hit from author to reader. It came in from the side. Allison’s book is a fine read and his central thesis a good one. But his book managed to prod at an intuitive sense of something already festering within—a truth I had struggled to find words for. In fact, it was that unnamed intuition that led me across the Pacific.

I came to California to study spirituality, to better understand the experience of God and the ways that experience is impacted by culture and environment. As a pastor, I felt as though I had been a witness to and participant in a church in spiritual retreat. Perhaps we were overwhelmed by the relentless progress of scientific discovery and science’s propensity to explain everything in non-religious terms. Our territory of confidence was diminished. At the same time we were increasingly enamored by mystical, out-of-body, and private expressions of spirituality. It seemed to me we Christians had so narrowed our concerns, we had released a large part of life to the secular realm while retreating into our sacred spaces and experiences. In so doing we narrowed our horizon and averted our eyes from the chaotic and compromised world under our noses. In my view, talk of spirituality had become insipid and self-obsessed.

Though I felt all of these things, and often deeply, I was unable to name them coherently. Allison helped push them to the surface. In words better than my own, he grieved our loss of wonder in a world shot through with a holiness so confronting and demanding there was nothing outside of its impact. The long-standing chasm between the sacred and the secular was deepening by the hour, or so it seemed, and had a lot to answer for. The need to address this divide was urgent.

Today the dysfunction of this sacred/secular chasm is old news. Indeed, it was probably old news twenty years ago; it just took me a while to catch on. Today we are certainly onto it and the church has done much to address it. Though we still value our sacred sites and rituals, we’ve long buried the notion that the presence of God is contained by them. No matter what our tradition, we affirm today a more porous boundary between heaven and earth and celebrate the presence of God in all of life. Our theology has shifted. It’s our spiritual practice that has struggled to keep up.”

With a focus on spiritual practices that are embedded in the routines of daily life, I go in search of God’s presence in homes and neighborhoods, supermarkets and sporting arenas, workplaces and weekends. Along the way I look for practices that can lead us more deeply into the way of God: activities like cooking and laundry, walking and sleeping, shopping and conversation with friends. Throughout, I want to better understand how to hear Jesus’ call to “follow me” more readily in the world around us.

Depending on where you are, you can purchase the book in a number for places.

If you are in Australia, the best place to go is the local distributor Morning Star Publishing. You can also order it through Book Depository.

If you are in the US, you can order directly through Wipf & Stock, Amazon or ChristianBooks.

And if you are in Melbourne, there’s a launch on Thursday April 19, 6.30pm at Collins Street Baptist Church, 174 Collins Street, Melbourne. I would love to see you there.

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.

Tim Foster and the ‘burbs

FosterCover_Catalogue_Screen_WithBorder-180x273When there’s ‘bugger all’ on the bookshelf that addresses the unique challenges of Australia’s urban and suburban neighbourhoods for the mission of the church, the arrival of a book like Tim Foster’s The Suburban Captivity of the Church is worth cheering for.

Books like this one flow in a steady torrent from North America, but the cultural differences are vast. Given that we are among the most urbanised societies on earth and take first place in the propagation of suburbia, it’s always frustrating to me that we’re content to let the thoughtful missiology of other places set the agenda for us to the extent it does.

Tim is an Anglican minister who currently shares in the leadership of Melbourne’s Ridley College. His book arises out of his own transitions in ministry, from the leafy surrounds of Sydney’s middle suburbs to the cultural and social diversity of the inner city. With this move comes the challenge of understanding the nature of ‘the good news’ in a community whose values and perspectives on the world contrast so starkly with those of the near but distant ‘burbs. Given how much the values of suburbia have shaped the church’s understanding of the gospel, Tim makes the case that we are pressed ever more urgently to the work of contextualization.

In part, I would think, the test of a good book it that it spurs a reaction. Tim’s book does this for me. Though we have never met, I have a suspicion that Tim and I might have some theological differences. Perhaps Tim has a clearer sense of the gospel as ‘a message’ — a clearly defined and methodically presented outline of truths —than I do. The book is written in two parts. As helpful as Part 1 might be, I came to the end of it feeling as though Tim’s priority on a right ‘understanding’ of the gospel message and a better ‘presentation’ of its truths was not one I could embrace with enthusiasm. To be honest (and probably unfair), his alternative readings of ‘the gospel’ left me feeling as though those ‘four spiritual laws’ were hovering ominously in the background.

That said, Part 2 was more engaging read. Tim’s attempts at exegeting the cultures of the inner city ‘yuppies,’ ‘hipsters’ and ‘battlers’ (among others), points the reader to the importance of taking our contexts and communities as seriously as we do our sacred texts. What’s more, it’s here that Tim looks for ‘gospel themes’ that emerge from this engagement. There is much here that is challenging for an urban pastor like me. I would only long for a more sustained engagement that Tim can provide here.

As someone who attempts to write about similar issues, I commend Tim for the book. If it helps practitioners like me to engage more intentionally and intelligently with our own neighbourhoods, and from a distinctly local perspective, then it has served us well.

Tim-Website_370x370Tim Foster, The Suburban Captivity of the Church: Contextualising the Gospel for Post-Christian Australia, Moreland: Acorn Press, 2014.

No Home Like Place

NHLP-coverJust two months ago the book No Home Like Place:  A Christian Theology of Place was launched. The work of Canadian scholar of Christian mission and formation Leonard Hjalmarson, it’s a book worth commending.

Though I have never met the author in person, I have long admired Len’s voice in  significant conversations on the nature of Christian mission and the role of the local church.  His early books — including Missional Spirituality and An Emerging Dictionary of Gospel and Culture — have been thoughtful  contributions to my own thinking, so when asked to add some words of endorsement to this one, it was an easy ‘yes’.

Here’s what I said:

‘There are many of us in places far and wide, practitioners seeking to live God’s call to the neighbourhood. We are committed to the most local expressions of discipleship because we have a gut sense that place matters to God and to the nature of Christian mission. What Len provides in this book a wonderful resource to those of us committed to the neighbourhood, a cogent, carefully researched and sensitively written theology of place that will sustain and strengthen our commitments.’

There are many more notable responses to the book,  some of which you can find here. I can only assure you that for those committed to deepening the church’s most local commitments to mission, this is a book worth reading.