Spirituality in the City

The wonderful people over at Zadok Perspectives published a recent issue on Urban Spirituality. It includes some helpful reflections from all sorts of people. It’s certainly worth a read.

Zadok145_Carey Holt_Simon1024_1They kindly sent me a PDF of my own contribution, which you can read here. It occurs to me that in our current predicament, the experiences of chaos, dissonance and intensity are daily for all of us. Nurturing a sense of God and the fulness of life in the midst of it is our common challenge.

Violence and ‘biblical manhood’

The horrific tragedy of Eurydice Dixon’s rape and murder in Princes Park in June was close to home. I live in Parkville just across the road from where Eurydice died. The park is where my partner and I walk every morning. Even more, my daughter Ali lives in a share house in Carlton just blocks away. The route Eurydice took that night is one she walks. Though shaken by the tragedy of this woman’s death, I was more deeply impacted by Ali’s response. She is 23. Standing with thousands of others at a candle lit vigil in the park, Ali’s tears were more than momentary. Her feelings of vulnerability, fear and rage were sustained, confronting, and mirrored in the countless young women who surrounded her. As I stood in this crowd myself, the intensity of these feelings was overwhelming.

In Ali’s case, her despair is heightened by her studies in social work. In her recent placement at a women’s prison, she confronted the fact that every woman she connected with was the victim of domestic violence or childhood sexual abuse, most commonly at the hands of husbands, fathers, brothers, and uncles. As they are elsewhere, the statistics around domestic and sexual violence in this city are shocking, the overwhelming majority of cases in which men are the perpetrators. As today’s paper reminds us, though Eurydice’s story may have gripped our community in a particular way, there are countless other stories, equally appalling, we do not hear.

I have felt many things since that night. Most deeply I have felt inadequate. I have struggled to know what to do or how to respond. While I may be able to say ‘I am not violent’ or ‘I am not an abuser,’ I cannot say ‘this is not my problem.’ Standing with my daughter, I understand afresh that this is my dilemma as much as it is hers. This is so because I am her father, of course, but there is more to it than that. It is mine because I am a citizen, a neighbour, a church leader and, most significantly, a male. The stark realities of male violence and their underlying causes are mine as much as they are anyone else’s. But what to do with that reality, that’s where I stumble. And I am not alone.

There is much talk today of a “crisis of confidence” among men. The goal posts have shifted, we are told, as traditional roles have been up-ended; the image of the male as provider, protector, leader and defender is no longer assumed. Apart from the fact that we have proved ourselves atrociously poor stewards of such roles, the underlying assumption that they are ours for the claiming is now vigorously questioned. And rightly so.

As a member of the church, I am part of a community that struggles with this “crisis” in a particular way.  It is often argued by Christian men that the answer to our predicament is to reassert our authority, to retake our God-given roles as leaders and protectors. According to this view, the “radical feminisation” of society has led to the emasculation of men and the disorder that has followed. Conversely, it is only by reclaiming what’s called our “biblical manhood” that Divine order will be restored and society healed. What this order includes, of course, is the “complimentary” role of women to comply, to submit and to go back to their kitchens. Such is the passion behind this view of things that the call to re-embrace manhood becomes a call to arms. We are urged, in the words of Brad Stein’s anthem of Christian manhood, to “grab a sword, don’t be scared; be a man, grow a pair.”

To be honest, any talk of “biblical manhood” makes me nervous. I have a sense that, in truth, this coupling of leadership with testicles has little to do with Christian virtue and more to do with a base need for men to reassert their dominance.  Type the word “masculinity” into Google and countless images come up of shirtless men flexing their biceps. Traditional views of manhood are equated with power. Thus when we men feel powerless, vulnerable, emotional, afraid or uncertain, we have learned to identify such feelings with weakness and emasculation. Consequently, we lash out at the shifting of traditional roles and want desperately to reinstate them. But to whose benefit? Rather than finding a way to hold our vulnerability, to name our emotions, or to own our fears and responsibilities as human beings, we grasp again for power.

The fact is, this idea of “biblical manhood” is challenging. While images of masculinity abound in the bible, they are so tenuous and various as to be, at best, illustrative but rarely prescriptive. Think of David and Jonathan: David the warrior and slayer of giants, a philanderer who can’t keep his pants zipped; his dearest friend Jonathan, a man of letters and poetry, moderate, wise and politically manipulative. Take brothers Jacob and Esau: one a hairy outdoorsman and the other a mother’s boy, hairless and soft of skin; one given to underhanded deception and the other to bouts of uncontrollable anger. Think of disciples Peter and John: gregarious Peter, fickle and full of bravado, a risk taker who wears his heart on his sleeve, and John, quiet, unassuming, leaning against the breast of Jesus with deep affection. The truth is, while the bible is full of ‘manly’ stories, none provide stellar models of manhood. From beginning to end, these men are as broken and fragile as they are heroic.

Personally, as I think of those young women, my daughter included, gathered at the memorial for Eurydice Dixon, I struggle to see how the benevolent re-application of male authority could be an answer to their despair. Indeed, I cannot imagine how the call to reclaim the balls of a “biblical manhood” has anything to say to this tragedy that is not deeply offensive.

If I find anything in my faith relevant to this issue, it is not a call to Christian manhood, but the persistent call of Jesus to be human, fully human. Foundational to the Christian faith is the belief that we are made in the image of God. In this is our common call to personhood, and it is ours no matter what our gender, race, religion, sexuality or the colour of our skin. This shared identity, affirmed and reclaimed in Christ, is what binds and obligates us to each other.  If the God-given roles of leadership, providence and protection are ours — and I believe they are — they are not the exclusive rights of office or gender. Rather, they are responsibilities that we share as those made in God’s image.





‘Where shall I look for Enlightenment?’ the disciple asked.
‘Here,’ the elder said.
‘When will it happen?’ the disciple asked.
‘It is happening right now,’ the elder answered.
‘Then why don’t I experience it?’ the disciple persisted.
‘Because you do not look,’ the elder said.
‘But what should I look for?’ the disciple continued.
‘Nothing. Just look,’ the elder said.
‘But at what?’ the disciple asked again.
‘At anything your eyes alight upon,’ the elder answered.
‘But must I look in a special kind of way?’ the disciple went on.
‘No. The ordinary way will do,’ the elder said.
‘But don’t I always look the ordinary way?’ the disciple said.
‘No, you don’t,’ the elder said.
‘But why ever not?’ the disciple asked.
‘Because to look you must be here. You’re mostly somewhere else,’ the elder said.

61AXC0291ZL._SX359_BO1,204,203,200_Joan Chittister, There is a Season, Orbis Books, 1995.

Image: 5 o’clock rush by Dave Carswell, Melbourne Street Photography

City church

Not long ago, I agreed to meet a church leader with a vision. Her passion was a new church plant here in the city centre. As an established pastor in the neighbourhood, and with a community that’s been around since 1843, I was clearly a person of interest.

I have to confess, I’ve come to approach conversations like this with a dose of skepticism. Though a naturally trusting soul, I’ve learned caution these past few years. The fact is, calls from large church franchises are reasonably common — those who want to use our sanctuary as their newest place to meet. It’s understandable: venues in the city centre are rare and the challenge for newcomers daunting. What troubles me, though, is that these enterprising leaders never want to talk.

Whether on the phone or in person, the standard approach of prospective ‘tenants’ is to sell me on their ‘kingdom vision’ and the numerical growth of their movement. But so rarely do they want to know about us: who we are, what we do or what we’ve learned. It’s as though they have the formula for church success, and all that’s required is an empty space to make it happen. The underlying message is barely veiled — If only you old, irrelevant city churches with property would get out of the way and let us at it, we’ll show you how it’s done.

Honestly, it feels like terra nullius all over again. There is scant regard for what’s already here and for the rich story of faith and struggle that fills this place. Even worse, it’s as though our neighbourhood is nothing more than a cool new venue for the latest brand of hipster church. Cue pictures of graffitied laneways, apartment towers and sidewalk cafes. The slick invitation is to come into the city and do church like you do a shopping mall or a Saturday night bar. Then afterwards you can head back to your suburbs, until next time.

Frankly, the city doesn’t need any more big-box franchises that drag people in for worship and fair-trade coffee only to see them leave again. If there’s no real investment in this city as a flesh-and-blood neighbourhood, then what’s the point? The challenges of the CBD are complex and layered. Inner-city clichés abound, but the reality is so much more demanding.

No doubt, old city churches like mine come with baggage galore. Believe me, we know that. Our history and property are tremendous gifts. And at the same time they are weights that hang around our necks. But take time to look beyond our organs and stained glass windows, and you’ll see faith communities with a longstanding commitment to this city and its people. And with some rungs on the board too. If you judge us only by what you see in a Sunday service, you’ll likely miss the bulk of what we do and who we are and how we struggle. But press in and you could be surprised.

This plea is not about protecting territory. I am delighted when new churches flourish in our patch. I really am. Our neighbourhood is growing and changing like you wouldn’t believe and the possibilities for new initiatives are extraordinary. As it happens, the pastor I met with this time around was really interested in us and in what’s already happening in the city centre. Her vision is for a model of church that is genuinely organic in form and focus. I left the conversation deeply encouraged, affirmed in my own ministry, and ready to cheer this pastor on as a potential colleague in the gospel. My concern here is only that we all do a better job — those who are here already and those who want to join us — at real engagement with the neighbourhood God has called us to.

Anything less is ecclesial froth without substance.

I didn’t mean to stare

I didn’t mean to stare.
I don’t normally intrude.
I’ve learned that in a sardine can
discretion ensures dignity.
In the city, aloof is survival.

I didn’t mean to stare.
I don’t normally intrude.
But your tears are like a magnet,
your whispered sobs a lure to the heart.
Look. Look away. Look back.
Pause. Lean in. Hesitate.
Such palpable, audible sadness
makes looking away feel harsh.
Yet looking in
on a crowded morning tram …
it violates instincts deeply ingrained.

I didn’t mean to stare.
I don’t normally intrude.
As the tram lurches forward
the passengers adjust
to more sardines.
No one looks.
No one notices.
Those seated with you and those standing with me:
smartphones, earplugs and newspapers all ’round.

I didn’t mean to stare.
I don’t normally intrude.
But I can’t help myself:
I lean in as close as discretion allows.
Are you ok?
Is there anything I can do?
Your response is predictable—
like a fish cornered with nowhere to go.
Moist eyes, quivering chin,
mortified and vulnerable.
You nod and smile faintly through your tears.

I didn’t mean to stare.
I don’t normally intrude.
And now, quite frankly, I wish I never had.
‘I’m sorry,’ I mumble,
faintly touching your shoulder
before resuming my space,
looking up and away.
‘Pastoral fail,’ I think to myself.
Intruding, touching.
Will you never learn?
Best left alone.

I didn’t mean to stare.
I don’t normally intrude.
The tram stops yet again and you stand,
ready to file out and follow the morning crowd.
Stepping back, I’m careful not to lift my gaze.
But then I feel a hand on my forearm.
It’s you.
I look up to see you smiling:
‘Thank you,’ you mouth, your eyes still moist.
‘Thank you.’
It’s just a moment, yet it feels sincere;
just a moment and then you’re gone.

I didn’t mean to stare.
I don’t normally intrude.
Discretion ensures dignity.
I know it’s true.
Except, perhaps, when it isn’t.

Prayers for the city 2

To be blunt, I’m not sure I’d want to take Jesus shopping with me. I don’t do shopping in company. Whether it’s underwear or groceries, I’ve always thought there are some things best done in solitude. And the thought of having Jesus along on such a domestic and self-serving venture … well, perhaps not.  Yet as I wander the isles of the Queen Vic market each Friday morning, the gospel reading for the day sometimes follows me. Not always, of course.  Honestly, my mystical moments are rare. But it happened this past week.

And this prayer (slightly adapted) from Martin Wallace says it well enough.

We wander through the market, you and I, Lord.
You seem at home in the movement and the colour.

We pass the cheap blouses and shirts
and you remind me of the children in other places
used as slave labour to machine these pretty things.

We pass the cheap groceries, the tea and coffee,
and you remind me of those who go hungry
for want of a fair price for their crops.

We pass the exotic fruit
and you remind me of those places and cultures
where you are as equally present as you are here.

We pass the cheap framed pictures
and I see you smile at the variety of abilities and gifts
you freely give to all your creatures.

We pass the cheap watches and bracelets and medallions
and your presence reminds me
of ‘the lilies of the field who neither toil nor spin’
yet are adorned beautifully by you.

Among all of this
your presence and your thoughts
come loud and clear,
Lord of the marketplace.

Prayers for the city

This past Sunday at Collins Street we began a three-week series called City of Dreams, exploring the role of the church in urban life. There’s a paucity of prayers for the city, prayers that honour the distinctive presence of God at the heart of it and the struggle of those who inhabit it.  Here’s one we used on Sunday.  It’s simple but says something we often feel.

We sit here in church, Lord,
aware of your presence;
glad we can draw aside
from the hustle and the bustle
of the street outside.

Yet even in here we can hear it:
the distinctive rattle of the trams;
the horns of impatient taxi drivers;
the sirens, the protests, the cranes.

Somehow in the midst of it all
we hear your voice;
we hear you reminding us
never to cut the cords
between the silence of mystery in worship
and the noise of everyday life.

For in the junction of the two
is you,
the Lord of Heaven and Earth.

Adapted (without permission!) from Martin Wallace, City Prayers, 1994.

Home: An Australian Dream?

I feel like a grump.  An urban grouch.

Here I am sitting in my city apartment, listening to the happy sound of empty bottles being dumped into the industrial bins below my bedroom window and wondering why on earth people would chose to live anywhere else. I like it here.  The city centre has been my neighbourhood for a long time now.  Though I am a product of suburbia, I can no longer imagine it as a place to live.  Home is here, tucked in at the corner of Russell and Flinders.

Apparently, though, I shouldn’t be so content. As a dweller, I’m abnormal. Marginal. Out of step with real Australia.  Here in the most ‘relentlessly suburban’ nation on earth, my residential ideal should include ‘the buzz of bees, the sweet smell of mown grass and children playing in the garden with a dog yapping at their heels.’  Because it doesn’t, I am dismissed as one of those central city elites, the ‘affluent minority’ that knows nothing of the aspirations of ordinary Australians.  There is, apparently, a stark social divide, and here I am standing on the wrong side of the fence.

You think? Really?

I’ve just finished reading the beautifully produced book Home–Evolution of the Australian Dream: An Illustrated Review of Housing in Australia.  Written by three notable architects / urban planners, it’s an exploration of the ‘dwelling’ as the basic element of our cities.  As such, it presents an interesting picture of residential life in Australia and its overwhelmingly suburban forms.  Further, it highlights the challenges we face in meeting the ever-increasing demand for housing across the nation.

I am grumpy, but not because this is a bad book.  Granted, it’s not as revelatory as I had hoped when I first saw it, but I bow down to the combined expertise of these three voices, most especially for their insightful review of the history of housing types in Oz.   I am grumpy because, yet again, I feel as though my own housing choice is treated as some sort of apparition, and one that illustrates a cultural divide rather than a legitimate alternative for healthy neighbourhood living.

It’s true: the authors don’t intend to do this.  In fact, they argue for accepting a range of housing choices in Australia, but along the way the ‘normalisation’ of suburbia leaves all other choices somehow marginal or insignificant when seeking to understand Australian residential culture.  In my view, it’s the diversity that is much more telling about the health and well-being of our cities than the normalising of one housing type over all.  The truth is, while city apartment living may still be a minority choice, the staggering growth of residential life in Melbourne’s heart over the past two decades is nothing short of extraordinary.  This is opportunity, not apparition.

And as for that ‘affluent minority’ that calls the city home … I can only say the writers really should get out more!


Roadside Religion and Placards of Faith

Routinely here in the city there is a man who stands across from the Bourke Street Mall holding high a large placard proclaiming his religious faith.  In hand-painted words, sometimes misspelt, he declares God’s wrath, the reader’s depravity and the certainty of hell.  He will stand there for hours, steadying his placard with one hand and holding his bible in the other.  Occasionally he and his companions will ‘preach’ to the passers-by, their spoken words a passionate retelling of those painted.  Every time I see him, I feel a mixture of shame, anger and disbelief.  I tried to engage him once, the only outcome being the confirmation of his convictions and the assurance of his prayers for my salvation.  Why does it bother me so?  Why do I cringe?  Because this man claims a Christian faith just like I do.  Yet his expression of that faith makes him as foreign to me as a militant atheist.

Though in a very different context to mine, Timothy Beal’s Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith explores similar expressions of faith to that of my placard-waving friend.  A decade ago, Beal–a professor of religious studies–bundled his family into a motorhome and spent the summer touring the numerous ‘religious roadside attractions’ that litter the highways of the southern United States.

The sites Beal visited range from humorous to plain bizarre; places like Golgotha Fun Park, Paradise Gardens, The World’s Largest Ten Commandments, Ave Maria Grotto and Holy Land USA. From a fully fledged Florida theme park complete with roller coasters, stage shows and costumed bible characters, to a ramshackle and rambling ‘garden’ of wooden crosses and rusted household appliances all painted with warnings like YOU WILL DIE … HELL IS HOT HOT HOT, this is a collection that leaves you bemused one moment and gasping the next.

As a scholar, Beal approaches these sites as a form of ‘outsider religion’, expressions that sit at the very margins of mainstream religious experience yet speak powerfully of it by way of caricature. By visiting these sites and listening to those who envision, create, maintain and visit them, Beal’s hope was to identify a lens through which to better understand the broader religious landscape of North America.

While Beal brings an appropriately critical eye to his journey, what impresses me most is his refusal to be cynical or condescending. In fact, even more, Beal allows his own religious guard to drop. The result is a very different journey to the one he had intended and, consequently, a very different book to the one he planned to write. And it’s because of this that the book was a more challenging read for me that I’d anticipated.

Separating out the Disney-style theme parks from the more organic, home grown attractions—places like the full-scale reconstruction of Noah’s Ark that has been underway for the last thirty years on a rural roadside in the Midwest—Beal sees in the latter the creation of sacred sites: places in which the visitor is invited into an encounter with God—much like the role the cathedral plays in ‘insider’ religious experience. Beal observes that their creation is uniformly driven by an intense desire to make communicable what has been personally transformative in the creator’s own experience, and often at considerable personal cost.

While Beal finds much on his journey that is, to him, repulsive and grating, in the end he is able to see through the kitsch and garish representations of belief to those who envision and create them. What he finds, here and there, is an expression of faith that is oddly compelling, sometimes courageous and always deeply sincere.

While I’ll always find those placards in the mall repulsive, and I will never understand how this view of ‘truth’ tallies with the good news of Jesus, Beal reminds me that the man holding them aloft is doing so out of a genuinely felt experience and a deeply held set of convictions.  Beal also reminds me that the established church I represent, though in less garish ways, holds aloft its own placards every day.  What do they say, I wonder.

There goes the neighbourhood!

A few weeks back I told the story of Samuel Pearce Carey, the 5th pastor of Collins Street. Carey arrived at the church at the turn of the 20th century, a time of extraordinary social change. As the 1900s kicked into gear, Melbourne’s suburban development was gathering speed, soon to be an unstoppable force in the city’s rapid growth. While Collins Street may have began in the 1800s as a local parish church—its members walking to worship from the surrounding neighbourhood—a serious makeover of its identity was now vital to its future.

There was no end of advice for Carey and his deacons as they stared down this challenge of demographic change. The national publication for Australian Baptists, The Southern Baptist, detailed Collins Street’s challenge: ‘How does one get in touch with the community when there is no community to touch?’ The answer, the editorial concluded, was in the drawing power of the church’s pulpit.

For decades to come, it was this strategy that Collins Street embraced and with considerable success. Though it would never again reach the heights of membership it knew in the previous century, Collins Street remained a bastion of fine preaching and traditional Baptist worship, a combination that drew people from the suburbs in significant numbers. Its metropolitan identity—a church of broad horizons—was mirrored in the ministry of the other city churches facing precisely the same challenge.

What’s fascinating is that the turn of the 21st century has witnessed an equally radical change in the city’s demographic, but this time in reverse. While in the late 1980s there were just 700 people living in the CBD, today there are more than 20,000. Add to this the burgeoning populations of Southbank and Docklands and we once again have a city with a thriving residential life. What’s more, this growth shows no sign of slowing. Just last week The Age reported that while new home approvals across the state have plunged 25% in the last year, approvals in inner Melbourne have almost doubled, that’s more than 5000 new homes in the CBD, Docklands and Southbank in the last 12 months. The city now claims 10% of Victoria’s new homes approvals. The most recent projections estimate a CBD population of some 50,000 people in the next 20 years.

It seems to me that the challenge for a church like Collins Street is one of identity. Who are we and what do we aspire to be into the future? No doubt, a central city church like ours will always retain a metropolitan aspect to its ministry. But increasingly we must rediscover our parish identity—that most local sense of connection to our neighbourhood as it is today. For us, it’s a process that’s already begun, but an evolving sense of self is always challenging for a community. What do we hold onto and what do we let go? It was a challenge Carey faced a century ago. Now the challenge is ours.