Play 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 entitled God on the Sports Field, I offer this brief reflection on play as a spiritually formative practice.

It’s worth a thought!

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According to the prophet Zechariah, the great city of God is one where “old men and old women” sit together on the sidewalks watching “boys and girls playing in its streets” (Zech 8:4–5). There is something about the free play of children that conveys life at its most harmonious. Images of children playing amidst the rubble of cities torn apart by war are images of hope; life goes on. Certainly, one of the great delights of my life is to watch a child play. 

I recall watching my son play alone in the backyard sandpit when he was a child. His rich imaginary world and his dedication to careful construction came together in his tunnels and towers of sand. I remember, too, watching my daughter play games with friends at the local playground, her lifelong preference for people management to the fore. At the same time she learned the painful art of compromise in favor of a shared world of imaginary scenarios. Though with different personalities, both children were completely consumed by their world of play. Observing such children, educator Micheline Wyn Moriarty concludes that the worlds they inhabit are those of “wonder and delight for their own sake” and in which they develop “inner spiritual resources” and “forge connections” with the earth and each other.

There is something in this that sounds like the beginnings of a spiritual practice, no matter what our age or stage of life. It is in play that various truths are affirmed, values cemented, and discoveries made. It is in playfulness that we discern afresh God’s creativity, beauty, laughter, and delight. In what ways, then, can we embrace play as an intentional spiritual practice, one that leads us deeper into the way of Jesus? There are many possibilities, but I begin with those that follow. 

1. Play as an Act of Pleasure

Jesuit theologian Hugo Rahner describes play as our participation in the divine, “a way in which our spirits return home to God.” In play, he says, we take the inviting hands of God and together we dance. It is a dance of pure pleasure, one entirely without purpose other than the dance itself: “In play, earthly realities become, of a sudden, things of the transient moment, presently left behind, then disposed of and buried in the past.” In play “the mind is prepared to accept the unimagined and incredible.” 

There is something of this pleasure with God that is embodied uniquely in play. It is a pleasure captured in the Douay translation of Psalm 8, an English version of the Vulgate dating back to the 1500s: 

“The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways, before he made anything from the beginning. I was set up from eternity, and of old before the earth was made . . . I was with him forming all things: and was delighted every day, playing before him at all times; playing in the world. And my delights were to be with the children of men.”

This idea of playing in the presence and pleasure of God was very much in the mind of the Scottish athlete Eric Liddell, whose run in the 1924 Summer Olympics was celebrated in the 1981 Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire. Molded by a dour Presbyterian faith, his sister was concerned that the trivial pursuits of running would lead him away from the mission of the church. “God made me fast, Jenny,” Liddell responded reassuringly, “and when I run I feel God’s pleasure.” It is this sense of pleasure in play that I hear people name routinely. First, of course, it is their own pleasure but, when prodded to take it further, it becomes a window into the pleasure of God. It is there on the hockey field and in the quilting circle; on the running track or the tennis court; in the spectator stands at the football stadium and the walking track through bushlands; in the children’s sandpit and the dance hall. In all of this is the opportunity to play before God, to rediscover the exuberance of what is unnecessary yet truly life-giving.

Isabell swims. With a squad, she trains three mornings each week at the Melbourne Aquatic Centre. On Saturdays she swims alone and for much longer. I serve as a supervisor in her training for hospital chaplaincy and we meet routinely. Recently, we sat together on the banks of the river that winds its way through the city center, and Isabelle described the role swimming plays in her life. She called it a meditative act. Lap after lap, she said, her body and mind move in sync with each other: “There has always been something about it that calms me. When I swim I feel my body as so much a part of me, like an extension of my spirit.” Isabell told me of the prayer that has become part of her Saturday morning ritual in the pool. As she touches the wall and turns at one end of her lane she says, “This body is your gift to me, O Lord” and touching the wall at the opposite end, “I receive it with thanks.” As we watched a solitary rower pass by on the river below, Isabelle reflected on ways swimming blends with her spirituality. “The pleasure of it goes far deeper than the outcomes,” she said. “It’s not so much about speed or fitness or anything like that. It’s more to do with a deeper well-being that I feel in the pool, a peace of mind that envelopes me. It’s a beautiful thing. I can’t imagine life without it.” 

2. Play as an Act of Surrender 

At its best, a spiritual practice is a routine means by which we offer our lives to God and open ourselves to the transforming work of God’s Spirit. We do so in our regular reading of the Bible, Sunday worship, habits of prayer and meditation, and even in periodic commitments to fasting or silence. Of course, the concurrent danger of practices like these is that they become works of righteousness, means through which we seek to prove our spiritual mettle or justify ourselves as worthy of God’s acceptance: if only I pray longer, confess more tearfully, or fast more stringently, then I might graduate to a higher level of perfection. How easy it is to fall into what John Coe calls “the temptation of moral formation,” seeking growth in our own power, purity, or achievement.  

There is a particular danger of this in embracing physical exercise or training as a spiritual discipline. As you watch a young man in a gymnasium lift weights in front of a full-length mirror, interrogating his every move and muscle in the reflection he sees, the dangers become clear. If all we can see in the reflection is ourselves—our successes and our failings in bold relief—then our spirituality becomes an obsession of self-interest. Worse still, we miss the true gift of being gathered up in the beauty, goodness, and grace of God. 

It is here that play as a spiritual practice shows its worth, for play is an act of freedom not obligation, one of delight not seriousness. The French sociologist Roger Caillois calls it “an occasion of pure waste.” As such, play allows pleasure to come to the fore. As in the pursuit of music and art, so through the playfulness of life we give expression to freedom and allow laughter and pleasure their place. “Unmitigated seriousness betokens a lack of virtue,” Thomas Aquinas once said, “because it wholly despises play, which is as necessary for the good human life as rest is.” A regular commitment to play has the potential to heal and release us from what Rahner identifies as our “idiotic earnestness” and “senseless preoccupation with the things of this world.” 

To embrace play as a spiritual practice is to be reminded of just how ridiculous our own self-justifying efforts are, as serious as they may be. The truth is, spiritual practices were never intended as means to salvation, but, as Michael Austin has said, as a way of “opening ourselves up to God and his transformative power.” In acts of play we surrender ourselves to the foolishness of grace.

3. Play as an Act of Reclamation

If we were to stand in a field together and you threw a ball or a Frisbee for me to catch, I would be an awkward recipient. Though I am now a man in my fifties, the prospect of shame associated with the childhood business of throwing and catching lingers. I may be able to name that fear for what it is and the toothless beast it always was, but my awkwardness at the sight of a ball has not budged. 

Like many children, my memories of games in the schoolyard are filled with associations of inadequacy. I always preferred the library. The only physical activity I did not loathe was in the swimming pool, and then with only moderate levels of success. I learned early to mistrust my body, to wish that I was built differently, to judge it as weak and deficient. I learned, too, that games are rarely separate from competition and the drive to win among those who naturally excel. If my body is in possession of a competitive bone, I have not discovered it yet. What’s more, the competiveness of others leaves me mystified and intimidated. 

I was well into my twenties when I first tasted play untouched by competition or the ascendancy of winners. I was a young pastor-in-training and posted to a small congregation in rural Queensland. The church building was a small wooden chapel that stood alone in a field far from the nearest town. There was not a street light to be seen. After an evening service one Sunday, the congregation dispersed into the night. The last to leave, I turned out the lights and locked the main door of the chapel behind me. As I walked out in the surrounding field that served as the church parking lot, the only light came from the moon above. Standing by my car was a small group of young people, just five of them. As I came closer I could see one was holding what looked like a basketball, though it was difficult to make out. “Ever played dark ball?” one of them asked. “Um, no!” I said. That familiar sense of dread was immediate. “C’mon then!” With that one of the young women grabbed my arm and pulled me out into the center of the field. I could not see the others but I could hear their voices. “What do we do?” I called out. “You don’t want to get hit by the ball,” one said excitedly. “Just try and catch it so you can hit someone else with it.” “But I can’t see anything. It’s too dark!” “That’s the point!” the young woman exclaimed as the ball suddenly appeared between us. For the next thirty minutes, we ran and threw and dodged and tripped over ourselves and each other. All we could hear were our shrieks of laughter, and the constant cry, “I can’t find it!” 

The most liberating thing of that night’s play was that no one could see me. No one could see my lack of coordination or my clumsiness. There was just uproarious laughter as we tripped and fell into tangled heaps on the ground. I had not laughed so hard or moved so fast in all of my life. And it was glorious! No competition, no judgement, no fear, no glaring inadequacy for all to see. It was just fun, the most wonderful and uninhibited fun. I drove home that night exhilarated, feeling alive in a way I had rarely experienced before. 

The very word play implies something free and liberating. Whether it’s on a sports field or a stage, on a basketball court or sitting at a board game, the designation play reminds us that we are embodied people. The reclamation of our bodies and the playfulness inherent to them is a practice as freeing as it is routine. 

Theologian Stephanie Paulsell writes of her own adult rediscovery of running. Like me, she recalls with ease the humiliations of the school yard and the taunts of other children mocking her flailing arms on the running track. For years she avoided running and its shame and assumed her body to be a thing best hidden. Even in the early days of relationship with her husband-to-be, himself a seasoned runner, she managed to send him off on his own. It was only when he insisted that she join him that Paulsell was faced with a choice. Committed to her new relationship, she ventured tentatively onto the pavement. Gradually, emboldened by his belief in her, Paulsell decided to leave her past narrative behind and to feel her body again. It was her spiritual awakening. 

“I sprinted down the last half of the track, Kevin matching me stride for stride, and felt in every muscle the pleasure of exertion, of pushing my body beyond its boundaries. It was a physical pleasure, the pleasure of feeling myself wholly embodied, of feeling blood and breath moving through me. It was a spiritual pleasure, the relief of feeling old fears and inhibitions drained of their power, a feeling of freedom and possibility. And it was a sexual pleasure, the pleasure of feeling someone I love drawing out my strength, urging me on, matching his body rhythm to mine. It is one of my husband’s enduring gifts to me that he reintroduced me to the joy of bodily exertion. Through honoring my body and its strength, he helped me begin to do the same.”

There is something about play embraced as a spiritual practice that enables us to reclaim our bodies as temples of the Spirit and of God’s abundant creativity; to reclaim God’s gifts of pleasure through the sun on our backs, the air in our lungs, or the consuming focus of games into which we disappear for intervals of time. Like birdsong that has no purpose other than the simple pleasure of sound, or flowers that fill a garden with nothing but color, play is a reclamation of all that is spare and surplus to life. It is the reclamation of grace. 

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

Walking 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 neighbourhood, I offer this brief reflection on walking as a spiritually formative practice. What I have particularly in mind is walking where you live, but it applies more generally too.

You might give it a try!

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I like to walk. I walk to work. I walk around our local park for exercise, and to local cafés and bookshops. Wherever I can, I walk to meetings and pastoral appointments. Not long ago my beloved downloaded an app to my phone that tells me how many steps I’ve taken each day, how far I’ve walked in total, even how many flights of stairs I’ve climbed. The daily tally of numbers is extraordinary. That said, apart from adding to my sense of virtue in the late evening before I slice off another piece of cheese, I am hard pressed to find a connection between this and the wellbeing of my spirit. If walking is a spiritual practice, there has to be more to it than this. 

In reality, walking is about the slowest form of movement we can imagine. For the philosopher Frédéric Gros, “walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.” It is certainly not preferred by the driven or the busy; walking stands resolutely apart from things that propel. Commonly it’s the priorities of productivity and efficiency that overrule walking as dead or wasted time. Even the term pedestrian reeks of the dull and unmotivated. Regardless, the act of walking remains a very human one. It is an act of the spirit. For as long as human beings have inhabited this earth walking has been an act of longing and aspiration: we have walked to find home; we have walked in spiritual pilgrimage; we have walked to celebrate, to protest, and to commemorate; we have walked as a form of rest and recreation, and in pursuit of better health; we have walked to discover new worlds, to conquer new heights, and even to pray. 

Sadly, the commitment to walking is in decline. The head of Australia’s Pedestrian Council has said, “While it took human beings a million years to learn how to walk, it’s taken only fifty to forget.” Cars and boats and planes and trains have all promised, even delivered, a much more speedy arrival, as if arrival is the only good. The worth of walking is found in others things. It is not a practice of productivity, not even of transition, but one of presence. 

Jesus walked. He walked his way into people’s lives. He walked into deserts and through towns, between villages and around lakes. He walked up hillsides, down laneways, and across fields. He walked into graveyards and by wells, in neighborhoods, and through temples. He walked alone and with others. He walked to his own death and away from his own grave. He even walked on water. And for what purpose? The writer Barbara Brown Taylor believes it was critical to his impact. Walking gave Jesus time to see things, she writes, “like the milky eyes of a beggar sitting by the side of the road, or the round black eyes of sparrows sitting in their cages at the market.” Indeed, if he had moved at a faster pace—on horseback, camel, car or bus—it might all have been a blur. Instead, he walked. 

For me, it’s walking in my neighborhood that comes closest to a spiritual practice. It’s something I choose to do at night once dinner is sorted and other commitments have been met. It’s a routine that brings my day to a quiet end, like a plodding benediction. It’s a kind of walking that has no sense of destination and no purpose other than the walking itself; yet there is a sense of place and belonging that comes with it. As a spiritual act, neighborhood walking is many things: it’s a routine act of intention; it’s a choice to be present; it’s an acknowledgement of community and place; and it’s a daily stride of contemplation. In all of this, walking is a prime candidate for a spiritual discipline. 

To embrace walking as a spiritual practice, most especially where we live, is to engage with the practice routinely and intentionally as one of faith. 

1. Walking for Awareness

If we want to see our neighborhoods, to truly inhabit them in the way that Annie Dillard inhabited her precious Tinker Creek, there’s nothing like walking them. Walking is an act of awareness, a way of seeing, noticing, and being present to where we live. It’s an immediate thing, very here and now. I can’t walk my neighborhood and not be present to it. When I walk its streets I feel it and smell it. As I put one foot in front of the other, the neighborhood’s contours become my own. 

When I drive through my neighborhood, my destination is elsewhere. I am focused on the most efficient way in or out. I don’t see it. When I walk my neighborhood I am aware of it. I notice the individual homes, the front doors and windows. I notice the little signs of life and those of struggle. I see the unkempt lawns beside those that are neat. I see the graffiti and the trash cans alongside the mail boxes and garden beds. At night, I can see the flickering glow of televisions through curtained windows and the momentary glimpses of life within. When I walk it, I can no longer ignore this place of mine. I see it as a human place, a place of God.

Writing in the 1930s, the Jewish philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin described his youthful wanderings in the center of Paris. He suggested that to get lost in a city as a failure of navigation is nothing more than ignorance; but to lose oneself in a city “as one gets lost in a forest” is an entirely different matter. 

“Then signboards and street names, passers-by, kiosks, or bars must speak to the wanderer like a crackling twig under his feet, like the startling call of a bittern in the distance, like the sudden stillness of a clearing with a lily standing erect at its centre. Paris taught me this art of straying. It fulfilled a dream that had shown its first traces in the labyrinths on the blotting pages of my school exercise books.”

There is something about this “art of straying” that is key to walking in the neighborhood. It’s about listening to its sounds, learning to interpret its sights and smells, and better understanding its pulse as a living organism. Such a practice takes time and the routine discipline of walking. It can be done alone or in company. Either way, it is a pathway to awareness. 

2. Walking for Belonging 

“When you give yourself to places,” Rebecca Solnit writes, “they give you yourself back.” It is in walking that we give ourselves to our neighborhood. We walk ourselves into its story. By walking its streets and laneways we physically insert ourselves into it over and over again. In return, the neighborhood opens itself up to us and we become more consciously a part of it. 

Neighborhoods are not large. In fact, by definition neighborhoods are defined by their proximity. In leading groups of people to think about their neighborhoods, I invite them into a simple exercise. I begin by giving each one a large blank sheet of paper. I then ask them to draw a thumb-sized picture of their own home in the center. It may be a stand-alone house, an apartment block, or something different. Whatever shape it takes, I ask them to represent it on the paper. Next I ask them to map out around it the streets and laneways of the neighborhood. “Imagine you take a walk around the streets that surround your home, just five minutes in each direction,” I say, “what streets would you walk? What landmarks, shops, public buildings, or parks would you pass?” Once they have the neighborhood mapped out, I then ask them to identify all of the points of human connection they have on the map. It may be with the neighbor across the street or on the floor below. It might be the person at the corner store from whom you buy milk, the man who walks his dog in the same park, a café proprietor or a teacher at the local school. The only proviso is that the contact is within walking distance and on your map. For each of these connections I ask participants to add a smiley face to the page. Some pages are filled with smiley faces, and others have just a few. Regardless, they are always there. 

Walking the neighborhood is a discipline of both noticing and belonging. The more we notice the more we belong. We give ourselves to our neighborhoods when we walk them. We do it again and again, and in time, we find a sense of place and belonging takes root. In Solnit’s words:

“Walking is only the beginning of citizenship, but through it the citizen knows his or her city and fellow citizens and truly inhabits the city rather than a small privatized part thereof. Walking the streets is what links up reading the map with living one’s life, the personal microcosm with the public macrocosm, it makes sense of the maze all around.”

3. Walking for Contemplation

The Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a walker. “Never did I think so much, exist so vividly, and experience so much,” he wrote in the eighteenth century, “never have I been so much myself . . . as in the journeys I have taken . . . on foot.” Sadly, we often think of contemplation as an act of zoning out, of freeing our minds from the constraints of where we are to inhabit a higher plane of zen-like meditation. This was not the case for Rousseau. What’s more, it’s a misunderstanding of contemplation’s gift. 

As I have said in a previous chapter, to contemplate is to look deeply into life in order to discern its truth. The life into which we look is the life around us, its objects, contexts, routines, and encounters. We do so assuming that life’s sacredness is immediate, not far off. When we walk, we open our minds to this possibility. We are consciously on the lookout for the life and truth of God. 

Granted, the neighborhood is not the first place we think of when it comes to “the beauty of holiness” and all things God. Perhaps walking amongst mountains, along rugged coastlines, or down country lanes has more an air of the Spirit. Writers like the nineteenth-century Henry David Thoreau influenced a generation to see the act of walking in the natural world as one of great virtue. Walks in the neighborhood are a harder sell. There are not many neighborhoods in our cities and suburbs that allow the natural world to preside. Neighborhoods are constructed places, more full of concrete and asphalt than of grasslands and creek beds. Yet the fact remains, they are the place of our lives. In Mackay’s words, our neighborhoods and suburbs are the places “where most poems are written, most cups of sugar borrowed, most flowers grown, most dreams fulfilled, most passions stirred . . .” As with our homes, neighborhoods are filled with the life we bring to them. Over time we fill them with this life and they become immeasurably more than a random collection of sleeping pods. They play host to the evolving truth of our stories. In walking, we open our ears to hear them.

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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.

 

 

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.

Living in the moment

It’s more than twenty years since I last saw him, but I remember him as if it was yesterday. Covered head to toe in fuzzy blue fur, he hung from a plastic perch, swinging back and forth like a daring, pudgy trapeze. His little red shorts, his ear-to-ear grin and trademark googly eyes never changed. What holds my memory of him, though, has less to do with his fury self and more with my infant daughter’s delight in his company.

At three and four months old, Ali would lay on her back with an A-frame plastic ‘play gym’ propped over her. Dangling from the bar above was a collection of colourful objects. I don’t recall what the others were, only that for Ali, it was Cookie Monster who stole the show. My daughter had eyes for no one else. Her little legs and arms would thrust back and forth as she thrilled to his antics, gasped at his daring, and giggled in delight at his perpetual smile.

All these years later the joy of those moments stays with me. At the time of Ali’s birth, I was a PhD candidate living in far-away California. I remember spending so much of my time either longing for home or anxious about our future. It was as I lay on the living room floor alongside my new-born daughter, watching her unbridled delight in a little blue monster, that I was reminded of a truth as simple as it is profound: the present moment is a gift.

I know little about child psychology, but it seems to me that an infant has limited conscious memory of yesterday and no developed capacity to anticipate tomorrow. A child of this age lives in the moment, and lives it fully. Whatever is felt in the present — be it joy, hunger, pain or delight — is all consuming. What’s more, a devoted parent is pulled into that moment with equal force. It is what counts. Right now is what matters most.

As an adult, I am glad for the ability to remember — to hold, cherish and learn from the memories of yesterday. Even more, I am glad for the gift of anticipation — the ability to envision and plan for tomorrow. Indeed, today is not the full story; the past and future are gifts of their own. But what I am conscious of is my natural propensity to be so consumed with yesterday and tomorrow that I forget the gift of now. When I look at my daughter today, anticipating her 23rd birthday, I am reminded of how quickly time passes. She will never be three months old again. That said, she will never be twenty two again either. Today will not return. It is the gift I have now, mine to brush past as if it is nothing or to embrace as if it counts.

The same is true in our spiritual journeys. The God of yesterday and tomorrow is also the God of today, one whose truth and presence is as much within reach in the ordinariness of this moment and this place as in times past or in places yet to come. The 18th century French Jesuit Jean Pierre de Caussade once wrote, “To discover God in the smallest and most ordinary things, as well as in the greatest, is to possess a rare and sublime faith.” It is rare indeed that we would look for what is sacred in the unremarkable moments of today, yet these moments may turn out to be as sublime as any other.

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.

On change

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

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

Finding meaning in chaos

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

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

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

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

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

To soar or to plod

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

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

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

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

 

 

Faith & God

Faith is a fickle thing. There are moments in our dealings with God that the conversation is fertile and believing instinctive; and others when the seed of faith shrivels in the hand. There are moments when intimate language flows and seasons when it feels like heaven’s doors are bolted — ‘the Great Wizard’ is out.

Experience tells me that such fickleness is standard. It’s par for the course in believing. Yet reading through the psalms this past month, I come away with this sense: while faith may be capricious, God is not.

I cannot claim to understand this God. But in both the acclamations and accusations of the psalmists, there is something consistent about God’s being that holds when life, and even faith, fails.

In preparing prayers yesterday for another occasion, I came across these familiar words from Frederick Ohler. Aspirational perhaps. Regardless, there is something about them that resonates today.

AWE – FUL

Great and holy God
awe and reverence
fear and trembling
do not come easily to us
for we are not
Old Testament Jews
or Moses
or mystics
or sensitive enough.

Forgive us
for slouching in Your presence
with little expectation
and less awe
than we would eagerly give a visiting dignitary.

We need
neither Jehovah nor a buddy—
neither “the Great and Powerful Oz”
nor “the man upstairs.”
Help us
to want what we need …
You God
and may the altar of our hearts tremble with delight at
Your visitation

amen.

Frederick Ohler, Better Than Nice and Other Unconventional Prayers, Louisville, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989.

I’m certain … sort of

I like certainty. When it comes to life’s detail, I don’t care for the open-ended. I prefer decisions made and plans settled. What’s more, I’m a sucker for those who speak with clarity and conviction. Why, then, do I react so strongly to a particular certainty in belief? Why do I resist those who claim a singular authority in religious faith or political ideology?

Late last year I sat with a small group of Christian leaders. Our task was to share the ‘values’ that undergird our ministry and the nature of our ‘authority’ in leadership. When my turn came, I said something about my values including room for conversation, difference and doubt. As for my authority, I thought it came from my ability to listen for the questions that life presents and to discern the truth amidst them. As I spoke, the man next to me shifted in his seat. Clearly he was agitated. Before I could finish, he blurted, “What a load of tosh!” The group flinched. Tosh? It was so long since I’d heard the word, I was more baffled by it than I was by the force of his voice. “What your people need from you, brother, is a man who knows what he believes.” He leaned forward. “All this talk about doubt and difference and discerning truth …. we have the truth. For God’s sake, preach it!”

All tosh aside, he had a point. The truth of God in Christ is not up for grabs, not for me anyway. There is a certainty in the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” that sits beneath me in ministry. But this certainty is never one that precludes the possibility of questions left hanging or of truth discerned in unexpected places.

There is a brand of certainty alive today that renders everything black or white. It’s a certainty that repels doubt and, most tragically, refuses to listen. It’s as though all questions have simple answers and, once answered, cease to be questions. In my experience, though, there are questions of faith that never get answered, not completely. Besides, I’ve always thought questions worth having are worth keeping.

An unflinching certainty can be harsh, even ugly. At its worst it’s demonising, excluding, superior and humourless. I remember when living in the States reading the words of a retiring Baptist journalist who said this: “One of the most frightening things about the so-called new right and, for that matter, the new left is … the absolute humorlessness of their crusade. There is something scary about the crusader who is never for a moment aware of his shortcomings, the partiality of his insights, the finitudes of his being, the actual narrowness of his angle of vision.”

I feel the same. When there’s no place for the possibility of error, negotiation or compromise, what’s left is scary: I know and you don’t; I’m right and you’re wrong.

I must be what Patrick Henry labels an ironic Christian; one who has an “abiding suspicion of no-loose-ends answers.” I do have this instinctive sense, and a lifetime’s experience to back it up, that life is always more complex than straightforward, more nuanced than obvious, more fraught than simple. What’s more, there is something compelling about the virtues of gentleness and humility that speak with a certainty all their own.

“To be both ironic and Christian,” Henry says, “is to know, with a knowing deeper than doctrine, the simple, unnerving truth that the visage of faith is not the happy face but the masks of comedy and tragedy, alternating, unpredictably, between laughter and tears, sometimes crying and laughing at the same time, or even, on occasion, crying because it’s so funny and laughing because it hurts so much.”

 

51OJ6Ye4YkL._SX341_BO1,204,203,200_Patrick Henry, The Ironic Christian’s Companion: Finding the Marks of God’s Grace in the World, Riverhead Books, 1999.