Ash Wednesday in the oncology ward

My friend and fellow-member of the community at Collins Street was unable to be with us last week for an Ash Wednesday service. Instead he encountered the God of ashes in an unexpected place. I share this with his permission.

ImageIt is Ash Wednesday and although I am surrounded by aspects of passion I shall not get to church.

I push the button and the chair goes up.  Push another and the foot support rises as the seat tilts back.  Push again and the back rests down.  I am comfortable and in control.  I have told them that if one of their chairs goes missing to look in front of my TV.  The arm rest folds out to give a flat surface and my left arm rests on a pillow.  The tube running into my arm gives me no bother and I hope that it will continue to be so for the next twelve hours.

As I sit there the thirty or so other chairs in the room become occupied.   For some it is a social occasion.  Chatting to the people they saw yesterday or last week.  There is chatter as those important trivia of social interaction are exchanged.  For some it is privacy they seek, their faces revealing the pain, the tiredness, and the debilitation of the cancer journey.   For this is a Day Oncology Ward and I am here on a clinical trial of a new drug.

I am not on a heavy sledgehammer cytotoxic drug.   I am on one of the new smart drugs,    one that has come out of an understanding of creation.  It targets the production of an enzyme critical to the survival of my cancer cells.  Its effect should be huge and its side effects minimal, or that it the hope.  This is the stuff of practical miracles and it raises the question, why do we seek to contain God in the supernatural?  But this mercurial God who encounters me cannot be contained by our conceptions of action.

There is quiet laughter from across the room.  Clearly a day spent in a chemotherapy ward can be a social occasion.  The room is designed for this, but it is also designed to allow privacy for those who want it.    There are some who seek that privacy; some who just want to be by themselves, or whose faces are creased with pain, eyes shut tight against the gentle diffuse light and the view of the tree through the glass wall.  The staff are especially gentle with these people.  Opposite me is one such person.   She has got the chair into a comfortable position and the staff do not risk disturbing it.   So they squat or kneel beside her, gently lifting her arm to put on a blood pressure cuff.  They take their observations and ever so gently insert a cannula into her arm and connect her to more solutions of drugs.  They whisper gently to her as they do things but she seems oblivious.   A pillow appears and is placed at the side of her head.  The mercurial God is gentle with such people.

Oncologists do their rounds, asking questions, seeking symptoms, adjusting doses and drugs.    Nurses follow setting up tubes that disappear into bodies, connecting them to bags of fluid.  They appear to have their regulars for they ask questions about each individual and their interests.  They seem to know what is important  – grandchildren, hobbies, gardens, what movies they have seen.  This is the Mercurial God who knows when a feather falls from a sparrow and for whom it is important.

A voice from beside my right arm.  Would you like a cup of tea?   How do you have it?  Two minutes later a large mug of tea is on my folded-out arm rest with two biscuits.   I am not allowed the biscuits at this stage but I save them, for later.  It is a volunteer who traverses the detritus of cancer each day to bring that little bit of extra care to each patient.  I do not get the chance to talk with her – she is busy.

Trolleys appear at regular intervals and blood samples are taken.   Each carefully labelled, bagged and sorted to ensure no mistakes are made.  For the Priestly God of Genesis is at work here, ensuring that order, not chaos, is retained.

It is midday.  Another volunteer brings round brightly coloured boxes, each a riot and swirl of colour to make them interesting.   They contain carefully displayed ribbons of sandwiches.  Each attractive in its own right, but collectively stunning in their impact.  Next to them is cradled a piece of fruit, ripe, attractive, luscious.  Someone in the kitchen has taken care to tempt a person on chemotherapy to eat something.  This is “Lord, deliberately tempt us – to eat something!”

The day wears on and gradually the day ward empties.  Lights are dimmed as staff clean each chair meticulously.   Nurses sit down at computers and enter up the day’s notes.

Those of us on the trial still have six hours so we are taken to a different section and handed into the care of another nurse.   She ensures that we are fed; that the tubes into our veins are kept clear and do not block.  She ensures are arms are kept warm until the final blood draw and cannulas removed.  She makes sure we have food to eat and caffeine to drink.  But, she does more than that.  She engages with us.  We swap stories of locations and people, of events long past and yesterday.  We are important to her, not as patients to be professional with, but as people who have lives that are interesting.

Ten o’clock and we exit the building into our waiting cars and home.

It is Ash Wednesday.   I did not get to church, but I encountered that Mercurial God who comes out at you when you least expect, who appears out of the cracks of everyday life.  A gentle caring God.   A social God.  A God of order and routine.  A God who intervenes between hope and despair. 

Nine years and counting

ImageThings have been quiet here. Eerily quiet. Nothing but tumbleweeds rolling across the page since Advent.  Mostly it’s been a much-needed vacation, time to shut down the virtual self and give energy to other things. As usual, I don’t know how much I need this kind of space until I have it. Even better, in January I got to hang out with my brother in Indonesia. While I may have seen more of his toilet bowl than planned (an unpleasant relationship), time with Mark and his family is always a gift.

Sadly that’s all a while back now, and since returning to Oz life has been full. After a brief intermission edging another inch forward on the book, the church year began with gusto. Here we are in Lent, the ashes of Wednesday behind us and a bumpy six weeks ahead.

What’s more, tonight I’m catching my breath at the halfway point through a two-week intensive with Whitley College. A small group of the academically adventurous has joined me on an idiosyncratic wander through the spirituality of everyday life.  Thus far we’ve loitered together in the living room, the dining room and the bedroom. We’ve even wandered out into the front yard to check on the neighbours. Along the way we’ve had some great conversations about the spiritual disciplines of family life, eating, sexuality, friendship and community making.  It’s a subject area close to my heart, but exhausting!

Come the end of next week, once the books and reading notes are packed away, we gear up for the CSBC art prize and exhibition Feast, Pray, Love: Food & Spirituality. Coinciding with the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, we’ve invited artists to reflect on the relationship between food and the spirit. The exhibition will be an extension of our Verandah Café. We’re in a terrific location in Melbourne’s heart and I reckon it’s a great way to add value to the conversations already happening in our neighbourhood.

So, life is back in full swing. And perhaps, as time allows, this blog page will swing too, though it may creak a bit at first.  I reckon it’s been about eight years now since I began blogging. It’s always been something I have done as much for myself as for an audience. I know myself enough to know that if I’m not writing, I’m probably not doing so well. So here begins year #9. An if you are still reading, thank you!

A poem for resurrection … and refuse

My friend Gordon reminded me of one of Wendell Berry’s poems. I remember, vaguely, first reading it not long after my 23rd birthday — as green to pastoral ministry as I was fragile in my dogged pursuit of holiness. It remains a gentle but profound reminder of the ‘organic’ connections between death and life, creation and re-creation, old and new, refuse and resurrection.  Thanks Gordon.

A Purification

At the start of spring
I open a trench in the ground.
I put into it
the winter’s accumulation of paper,
pages I do not want to read again,
useless words, fragments, errors.
And I put into it
the contents of the outhouse:
light of the sun,
growth of the ground,
finished with one of their journeys.

To the sky, to the wind, then,
and to the faithful trees,
I confess my sins:
that I have not been happy enough,
considering my good luck;
have listened to too much noise;
have been inattentive to wonders;
have lusted after praise.

And then upon the gathered refuse
of mind and body,
I close the trench,
folding shut again the dark,
the deathless earth.
Beneath that seal
the old escapes into the new.

(From Wendell Berry, Collected Poems: 1957-1982)

A prayer for Easter Sunday

Awaken Me!

Risen One,
come, meet me
in the garden of my life.

Lure me into elation.
Revive my silent hope.
Coax my dormant dreams.
Raise up my neglected gratitude.
Entice my tired enthusiasm.
Give life to my faltering relationships.
Roll back the stone of my indifference.
Unwrap the deadness in my spiritual life.
Impart heartiness in my work.

Risen One,
send me forth as a disciple of your unwavering love,
a messenger
of your unlimited joy.

Resurrected One,
may I become
ever more convinced
that your presence lives on,
and on, and on,
and on.

Awaken me!
Awaken me!

Joyce Rupp, Out of the Ordinary, Ave Maria Press, 2010.

Poems and Prayers for Lent 15

beautiful words for this Good Friday from my friend Beth Barnett

a man who doubts
a man who cries
a man who shouts
in desperation to the skies
a man
who dies
this is our God

a world at war
a world that groans
a world in pain
a world alone
a world
without a home
this is God’s world

see him naked
sore abused
despised rejected
justice refused
look at him now
is this God’s face?
this is our God
this is God’s grace

my heart so black
my heart that’s worn
my heart so bleak
my heart forlorn
and yet
a soul reborn
this is God’s grace

Poems and Prayers for Lent 14

In the Christian year this week is called Holy Week. Beginning with Palm Sunday, it leads us through the final days of Jesus’ life (and death) including the shadows of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and the sheer darkness of Holy Saturday.

Frankly, to claim anything as ‘holy’ is an audacious move. But if there’s a week that warrants it, this one is it. For the ‘religious professional’, the designation of a particular week as somehow holier than others certainly raises the stakes. I can’t help but feel the weight of responsibility to make every holy moment count; for every service I offer to be nothing short of profound for everyone present.

Trouble is, I get so caught up in ‘making it happen’ for others that I have little energy left to live in that holiness myself. Early this morning I lay awake waiting for the alarm to go off, feeling both the anxiety of my responsibility and the marked absence of feeling.

As usual, someone else is able to name what I do feel better than I can name it myself.  Michel Quoist’s prayer, Before you Lord, captures part of what I would really want to say to God if I could:

To shut the eyes of my body,
To shut the eyes of my soul,
And be still and silent,
To expose myself to you who are there, exposed to me.
To be there before you, the Eternal Presence.

I am willing to feel nothing, Lord,
to see nothing,
to hear nothing.

Empty of all ideas,
of all images,
In the darkness.
Here I am simply,
To meet you without obstacles,
In the silence of faith,
Before you, Lord.

But, Lord, I am not alone
I can no longer be alone.
I am a crowd, Lord,
For men live within me.
I have met them.
They have come in,
They have settled down,
They have worried me,
They have tormented me,
They have devoured me.
And I have allowed it, Lord, that they might be nourished and refreshed.
I bring them to you, too, as I come before you.
I exposed them to you in exposing myself to you.
Here I am,
Here they are,
Before you, Lord.

Michel Quoist, Prayers of Life (Dublin: Gill & Son), English translation 1963, 113.

Poems and Prayers for Lent 13

This Sunday at CSBC we’ll read the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus.  It’s an odd choice for the ticker tape parade of Palm Sunday.  Then again, both events say something about the erratic nature of human faith: bravado and acclamation one day; trembling absence the next.

In Mark’s gospel Peter’s failure ends with the words, ‘and he broke down and wept’ (Mark 14.72). As I re-read this story this morning, it occurred to me just what a long time there was between this descending of grief and Jesus’ beach-side reinstatement of Peter post-resurrection.  How dark those intervening days must have been for him.  Perhaps, in some tentative way, Peter felt something of the Divine-absence Jesus expressed on the cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

Just today I sat with the a friend for whom the darkness of depression is a constant and exhausting companion. We read together Michel Quoist’s prayer ‘It is dark’ which says something of this. Perhaps Peter could relate.

Lord, it is dark.
Lord, are you here in my darkness?

Your light has gone out,
and so has its reflection on men and all things around me.
Everything seems grey and sombre
as when a fog blots out the sun and enshrouds the earth.
Everything is an effort,
everything is difficult,
and I am heavy-footed and slow.
Every morning I am overwhelmed at the thought of another day.
I long for the end,
and I yearn for the oblivion of death.
I should like to leave,
run away,
flee,
anywhere, escape.
Escape what?
You, Lord, others, myself, I don’t know.
But leave,
Flee.

I progress haltingly,
like a drunkard
from force of habit, unconsciously.
I go through the same motions each day,
but I know that they are meaningless.
I walk,
but I know that I get nowhere.
I speak,
and my words seem dreadfully empty,
for they can reach only human ears
and not the living souls who are far above.
Ideas themselves escape me,
and I find it hard to think.
I stammer, confused, blushing,
and I feel ridiculous and abashed, for people will notice me.
Lord, am I losing my mind?
Or is all this what you want?

It wouldn’t matter, except that I am alone.
I am alone.
You have taken me far, Lord;
trusting, I followed you,
and you walked at my side,
and now, at night,
in the middle of the desert,
suddenly you have disappeared.
I call, and you do not answer.
I search, and I do not find you.
I have left everything, and now I am left alone.
Your absence is my suffering.

Lord, it is dark.
Lord, are you here in my darkness?
Where are you, Lord?
Do you love me still?
Or have I wearied you?
Lord, answer,
Answer!

It is dark.

(Michel Quoist, Prayers of Life, 1963)

Poems and Prayers for Lent 12

The story we’re reading this Sunday at Collins Street–the fifth Sunday of Lent–is the story of the High Priest who condemns Jesus (Mark 14.53-65). I struggle to find words in prayer that mean anything of substance in the midst of a story like this. And as I drove home this afternoon, listening to the radio news, I have to say I felt just as lost.

Perhaps this adaptation of Psalm 55 says something of what I feel:

At times, Lord,
I’m weary before I even begin.

I have no great enemies
like the ones who wrote your psalms,
or at least I lack their heroic sense of drama:
terror, betrayal, cataclysms at every turn.

But I do live in a most bewildering world
where the need for dominance tramples every other,
in the marketplace,
the board rooms,
the halls of justice and law,
more unyielding than cries of the poor,
the children,
the lost.

I beg You for light to see
and air to breathe
in a world suffused by shadows,
shiftiness,
and guile,
where innocence is naiveté
and trust is for fools.

Fasten my grasp on truth,
and stiffen my resolve.
If You haven’t given up on us,
then neither shall I.

Poems and Prayers for Lent 11

Words from the poet Mary Oliver:

Lord God, mercy is in your hands.
Pour me a little,
and tenderness too.
My need is great.
Beauty walks so freely
and with such gentleness.
Impatience puts a halter on my face
and I run over the green fields
wanting your voice,
your tenderness,
but having to do only with the sweet grasses
of the fields against my body.
When I first found you
I was filled with light.
Now the darkness grows,
and it is filled with crooked things,
bitter and weak, each one bearing my name.

A prayer for today:

God of light,
shine your light today
into the darkest corners of my heart.
God of grace,
clear away the bitter and shadowy things.
God of love,
fill me with the presence of your spirit.
God of hope,
lead me into this day
as your servant in the world.
Amen.

Poems and Prayers for Lent 10

The Italian painter of the late Middle Ages, Giotto di Bondone (c 1266-1337), created this picture entitled Kiss of Judas.  It hangs today in Cappella Scrovegni in Padova.

This Sunday at Collins Street we’re reflecting on the story of Judas the betrayer.  In preparation we’ve been sitting with Giotti’s image in our daily readings.  I don’t know what you make of it.  For me it’s quite confronting.  I’ve tried to imagine where I might be standing in a scene like this.  Given my love of conflict, probably behind a tree somewhere!

We’ve also used Ted Loder’s prayer:

Lord, grant me your peace,
for I have made peace
with what does not give peace,
and I am afraid.

Drive me deep, now, to face myself
so I may see what I truly need to fear:
my capacity to deceive
and willingness to be deceived;
my loving of things
and using of people;
my struggle for power
and shrinking of soul;
my addiction to comfort
and sedation of conscience;
my readiness to criticize
and reluctance to create;
my clamour for privilege
and silence at injustice;
my seeking for security

and forsaking of the kingdom.

Lord, grant me your peace.
Amen.