Gratitude

Last Sunday my family and I celebrated Thanksgiving. Though a few days early and on the wrong side of the world, we did our day in style. We feasted on fried chicken, jalapeño grits, cornbread, green bean casserole, and macaroni & cheese. And we finished with sweet pies: pecan and buttermilk.

I like Thanksgiving. Of all the weird and wonderful things American, it’s my favourite. It’s a day set aside to say ‘thank you!’ Though a bit awkward at first, we did the American thing. Each guest was invited to reflect back on the year and name something or someone for which they were grateful. It’s a simple practice, yet potent. With a few words, each person made visible what otherwise might have gone unnoticed.

Thankfulness is a thought before it’s a feeling. It’s an attitude we choose. Essayist Margaret Visser calls gratitude our “thinking heart.” We can feel all sorts of things without much thought, she says: anxiety, resentment, fear, anger, or sadness. Feelings like these come from nowhere. Gratitude takes thought. It takes practice. It’s an attitude cultivated by paying attention — beholding and naming what’s under our noses all of the time.

The English philosopher G.K. Chesterton once said, “the greatest poem is an inventory.” When we take time to notice all that is good, beautiful and grace-filled in our lives, gratitude follows. It’s not about what is mine by right or entitlement but what is gift and grace. As Chesterton says, “there is no way in which man can earn a star or deserve a sunset.”

Since our Sunday feast I have been reflecting on what a life of gratitude looks like. In my own thinking I’ve often identified the character traits of gentleness, generosity and contentment as those I most aspire to. It occurs to me that each one flows most naturally from a mind shaped by thankfulness.

I read recently of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman confined to a transit camp in Holland awaiting transportation and death in Auschwitz. She worked tirelessly to comfort her fellow prisoners and to embody hope and light in the midst of such abhorrent darkness. In 1943, Etty wrote to a friend, enclosing a prayer she had just written in her diary:

“You have made me so rich, O God, please let me share your beauty with open hands. My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with you, O God, one great dialogue. Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on your earth, my eyes raised toward your heaven, tears sometimes run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude. At night, too, when I lie in my bed and rest in you, O God, tears of gratitude run down my face, and this is my prayer.”

I cannot imagine Etty’s life, but I am deeply challenged by her thinking heart — a heart shaped by gratitude and sustained by a profound sense of grace.  She was able to live generously with others, even in the most awful circumstances, because her own soul was steeped in thankfulness.

Moltmann on risk and possibility

“Many people can do more than they think they can. Why? We are all afraid of opposition and defeat, but people who withdraw into their own shells out of fear of setbacks never get to know their own potentialities. And if we never get to know our potentialities, we never learn the limitations of our own powers either. It is only when we get out of ourselves that we arrive at ourselves. It is only when we get beyond our limitations that we discover what they are, and accept them. People who do not want what seems to them impossible never fully exploit their possibilities.”

Jürgen Moltmann

 

There’s a prayer for that?

After chopping cabbage with Sam, I stopped by one of the cabins for a quick shower, my first in three days, and put on clean clothes. Then, after a tasty lunch in the dining hall — fresh mesculin mix, eggplant parmesan, and challah — I ducked in the men’s room for a quick pee, where I found myself side by side with Danny the Rabbinical Rapper. We made small talk as men do who are trying to pretend they aren’t inches apart while performing an intimate bodily function, and then I remembered something a teacher in seminary once told me.

“Isn’t there a blessing for going to the bathroom?” I asked in mid-stream.

“Yeah,” Danny said. “It’s called the asher yatzar. It’s attributed to Abayei, a fourth-century Babylonian rabbi.”

“Do you say it?”

“Sure, all observant Jews say it. It’s sort of like thanking God that everything is working properly down there. In English It could be translated like this: ‘Blessed is the One who has formed man in wisdom and created in him many orifeces and many cavities. It is obvious and known before Your throne of glory that if one of them was to be ruptured or one of them blocked, it would be impossible for a man to survive and stand before You. Blessed are You that heals all flesh and does wonders.'”

“That’s beautiful,” I said. A few simple words, and the act of taking a piss could suddenly become elevated into a song of praise.

Fred Bahnson, Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

Rees on bed sheets and sewerage pipes

“A person makes a bed every day, as a service to themselves and perhaps their family member. A parent makes sandwiches for the children’s lunches. Someone else digs a trench in which to place sewerage pipes. Everyone of these things can be seen as ‘merely’ doing the job. It may seem a stretch to speak of them as having a ‘spiritual’ significance, but this is because we have so reified the ‘spiritual’ as to separate it from the practical, the physical and indeed from life as it is lived. My contention is that we need to re-think the idea of the Spirit’s presence precisely to embrace the ordinary, the practical and physical, including the beautiful and those things we might consider merely functional.” 

Frank Rees, “New Directions in Australian Spirituality: Sabbath beyond the Church” in Colloquium: The Australian and New Zealand Theological Review 47 (2015: 1):75-88.

What am I to do?

I am a father to two very fine people. In their early 20s, they’re each at a pivotal point in their lives. The uncertainties of work and questions of life-direction are pressing. It feels to them like a high-stakes time. To a degree it is, for amidst the pragmatics of career choice and job hunting — challenging in themselves — are some big questions, questions that are as ancient as they are urgent: Who am I meant to be? What am I meant to do? 

I have just finished reading David Brooks’s The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, and he says some things early on that I have been wondering about since. 

Many young people are graduating into limbo. Floating and plagued by uncertainty, they want to know what specifically they should do with their lives. So we hand them the great empty box of freedom. The purpose of life is to be free, we say. Freedom leads to happiness! We’re not going to impose anything on you or tell you what to do. Instead, we give you your liberated self to explore. Enjoy your freedom! But the students in the audience put down their empty box because they are drowning in freedom. What they’re looking for is direction. What is freedom for? they ask. How do I know which path is my path?

So we hand them another big box of nothing — the box of possibility. Your future is limitless! You can do anything you set your mind to! The journey is the destination! Take risks! Be audacious! Dream big! But this mantra doesn’t help them either. If you don’t know what your life is for, how does it help to be told that your future is limitless? That just ups the pressure. So they put down that empty box. What they are looking for is a source of wisdom. Where can I find the answers to my big questions?

So we hand them the empty box of authenticity. Look inside yourself and find your true inner passion, we say.  You are amazing! Awaken the giant within! Live according to your own true way! You do you! But that is useless, too. The ‘you’ we tell them to consult for life’s answers is the very thing that hasn’t yet formed. So they put down that empty box and ask, What can I devote myself to? What cause will inspire me and give meaning and direction to my life?

At this point, we hand them the emptiest box of all — the box of autonomy. You are on your own, we tell them. It’s up to you to define your own values. No one else can tell you what’s right or wrong for you. Your truth is to be found in your own way through your own story that you tell about yourself. Do what you love!

Brooks concludes with this:  

You will notice that our answers take all the difficulties of living in your twenties and make them worse. The graduates are in limbo, and we give them uncertainty. They want to know why they should do this as opposed to that. And we have nothing to say except, Figure it out yourself based on no criteria outside yourself. They are floundering in a formless desert. Not only do we not give them a compass, we take a bucket of sand and throw it over their heads!

Though I’m not sure about all of this, there are elements of Brooks’s critique that resonate. At one point, he quotes the 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard:  “What I really need to be clear about is what I am to do, not about what I must know … It is a question of finding what is truth, of finding the idea for which I am willing to live and die … It is for this my soul thirsts, as the deserts of Africa thirst for water.” I doubt we all feel it with the intensity Kierkegaard infers, but the thirst is real. It has certainly been so for me, and I sense it in those I love and others I care for. The questions persist: What am I to do? What is it I’ll give my life for? 

As a person of faith I have found in the Christian story an “idea” that has directed my life, a relationship that gives purpose to my living. Honestly, this story has been for me so compelling I can’t imagine life without it. It has shaped every decision I’ve taken and every commitment I have made.  The truth is, though, my faith is not my children’s faith. The story which is life-defining for me is not something that I can simply download to them. Though always respectful, my 20-somethings have come to be skeptical of my God-centred view of the world. I understand why and I honour their conclusions as they honour mine. So how then do I help? What can I offer beyond Brooks’s “empty boxes” of freedom, possibility, authenticity and autonomy? 

I have a suspicion that those boxes are not entirely empty, but the gift of each thrives when earthed in something beyond them — a larger story, a purpose into which our small lives are gathered.  Perhaps my role as a dad is to continue to ask those deeper questions, amidst all the uncertainties to gently return them to what they hold to be most true and important for themselves and their world. It may not diffuse the anxieties of the present moment, but it might bring a sense of perspective into which those anxieties can rest. Perhaps.

Shopping 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 at the Supermarket, I offer this brief reflection on shopping as a spiritually formative practice.

Ok, so it might be a long shot, but given how much of our lives (and money) we spend doing it, it’s worth a thought!

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The idea that shopping could be a spiritual practice—one that disciples us more deeply into the way of Jesus—may be as challenging to get our heads around as any other I suggest in this book. By shopping, of course, I refer to far more than what we do in a supermarket. We shop at department stores, on high streets, in shopping malls, craft markets, big-box retailers, and corner stores. We are lured to spend our money at the online mega-marts of Amazon and Costco and in the open digital marketplaces of ebay and Gumtree. The question is, in what ways can we embrace our shopping as a routine and intentional expression of our Christian faith? As a spur to your own thinking, let me suggest three. 

1. Shopping for Connection 

Chris and Maria have run a small corner store in a neighborhood close to my own for just on thirty years. We Australians call it a milkbar. They carry a basic selection of groceries, milk, bread, and cigarettes; there are snack-foods and newspapers, toiletries, and a modest display of stationery. They make sandwiches and have a see-through display of hot pies and pastries, a freezer full of ice-creams, and a glass-fronted refrigerator full of drinks. As it happens, Chris and Maria live behind their shop in a small three-bedroom flat in which they raised three children. For fifteen hours each day, seven days a week, you’ll find the door open and at least one of them standing behind the counter. 

Sadly, shop-owners like these are a dying breed. Stores like Chris and Maria’s milkbar struggle to survive in today’s marketplace. A twenty-four hour Seven-Eleven has opened just two doors up and two national brand supermarkets are just five minutes’ drive away. When I see them, I wonder how much longer they can last. While I suspect that a nostalgic yearning for what used to be has a limited shelf life—our lives are full, and the lure of the convenient one-stop mega-store is hard to resist—it is worth noting what we are losing in the process. Honestly, I know full well that the sixteen-year-old casual who scans my groceries at the supermarket is someone I’ll most likely never meet again. Next week there will be someone else in her place. In contrast, the Chris and Marias of this world will always be glad to see me, always ready for a chat and good for some neighborhood gossip. They will have little handwritten notices stuck to the window: a lost kitten; a neighborhood reading group; a bike for sale. In a world of constant movement and change, their shop remains a stable and enduring presence. 

There are certain values we bring to our shopping, often unarticulated but present no less. They might include priorities like value-for-money, convenience, status, or quality. What if one of the values we prioritized was connection? This might well be expressed in the choice to shop at a local business wherever possible, or to build relationships with particular retailers over the long haul.

My beloved has gone to the same hairdresser now for twelve years. No matter where we have lived, her relationship to Tony and his team remains. So, too, she takes her shoes to be repaired at the same store, no matter how inconvenient the location compared to closer options. Choosing to make the local corner store, butcher, green grocer, or boot maker a regular part of our routine will not always be the most convenient or cheapest option available. Perhaps in doing so, though, we make a small investment in the neighborhood or in other relationships in everyday life that pays important dividends in the longer term.

The Catholic writer Vincent Bilotta identifies the search for intimacy as one of the fundamentals of living. He describes it as the everyday task of seeking intimacy with ourselves, with others, and with God. The intimacy he writes about is an “ordinary intimacy,” one that is fostered most effectively in the rounds of daily life and in the encounters we have in the mundane spaces of our lives. It’s an intimacy different than that of family or close friends, but one no less important to our formation in the world. It’s the intimacy we foster in line at the grocery store or as we interact with the salesperson at the service desk in the department store. It is not about becoming best friends, nor about sharing the deepest secrets of our lives. It is more to do with honoring the person with whom we interact as a fellow human being, a person with a story, a history, hopes and fears as real and complex as our own. It is this sort of ordinary intimacy that the writer Barbara Brown Taylor calls us to. 

“The next time you go to the grocery store, try engaging the cashier. You do not have to invite her home for lunch or anything, but take a look at her face while she is trying to find “arugula” on her laminated list of produce. Here is someone who exists even when she is not ringing up your groceries, as hard as that may be for you to imagine. She is someone’s daughter, maybe someone’s mother as well. She has a home she returns to when she hangs up her apron here, a kitchen that smells of last night’s supper, a bed where she occasionally lies awake at night wrestling with her demons and angels.”

If connection was to become one of the guiding values of our shopping—honoring and nurturing the relationships that shopping provides—we may well find that its impact helps to keep in check some of the more alienating forces of consumerism in our lives. 

2. Shopping for Sustainability 

There is a language that has entered the retail environment in the past decade that points to a renewed awareness of consumerism’s impact upon our world. It’s the language of Fair Trade, organic, free range, palm oil free, FAD free, No Sweat, and more. It highlights a rising consciousness among shoppers in developed economies that our purchasing choices have impacts beyond our own tables. Indeed, through our shopping we are connected with people and communities we will never know face to face. What’s more, we are connected afresh with the earth beneath our feet and the air we breathe. These connections are played out in the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the transport we use. 

My friend Jonathan Cornford, a writer and teacher with Manna Gum—an organization that promotes practices of ethical and sustainable living—writes persuasively about the importance of ethical consumption to our spirituality. Ethical consumption, he says, is founded on two principles: (i) the need to reduce unnecessary or frivolous consumption so as to reduce the strain on the earth’s resources and all those who inhabit it; and (ii) the need to encourage production processes that take better care of the earth and its people. The challenge, of course, is in the doing. How do we translate principles likes these into the daily choices we make in our shopping? It’s a challenge Cornford wrestles with, along with many other people of faith. 

As difficult as these challenges are, the fact is we have never been so well served in the provision of information and resources to address them. Today I can open an app on my smart phone as I stand in the aisle of the supermarket and have a wealth of information at my fingertips. In seconds I can determine which of the tinned tuna on the shelf best meets the concerns of sustainable and ethical harvesting of tuna across the world. I can stand before the canned tomatoes and choose those harvested and processed locally and by a company that operates according to acceptable commercial standards. What’s more, I can do the same with footwear, electronics, clothing, and more. Granted, it takes some effort to begin with, but no matter where we are in the world there are organizations and resources, often just a click away, that help us to make purchasing choices that reflect our values. 

Amidst his reflections on these issues, Cornford provides a simple list of principles to guide our shopping more generally. These include: (i) buy less stuff; (ii) choose longer lasting and better quality; (iii) where possible, buy pre-used items; (iv) choose products with certification systems that provide protection for people and environment; (v) preference products made locally; (vi) get informed about the origins of products and the ethical commitments of the companies who produce and distribute them; (vii) use your role as a consumer to agitate for change in the work practices and environmental impacts of corporations. The fact is, our daily shopping lives are full to the brim with choices, many of them minor and apparently insignificant on their own, but as they accumulate they not only make a difference to the world, they shape our faith and character in the most important ways. 

3. Shopping for Attachment

The word detachment features prominently in historical writings on spirituality, and for good reason. Inspired by the Psalmist’s spiritual obsession with “one thing” (Ps 27) and by Paul’s testimony of pressing on toward the goal of full union with Christ, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3:13–14), we have understood the need to detach ourselves from priorities, obsessions, and preoccupations that distract us from the most important spiritual aspirations. Symeon sitting on his pole in the Syrian desert had a strong sense that this included detachment from material possessions and the ties they represent.

While there is a profound dose of truth in this assumption, it fails to acknowledge the full story. The truth is, when it comes to the nature of the spiritual life lived out in the world, a good deal of attachment is presumed; attachment of the right kind to the materiality of God’s world, one that leads us to embrace life in its fullness. Reflecting on this form of attachment, theologian William Cavanaugh writes: 

“In this spiritual universe there is no such thing as an isolated commodity confronting an isolated individual. All created things sing and dance and shout of the glory of God. People and things are united in one great web of being, flowing from and returning to their Creator. Our dissatisfaction with things does not lead us endlessly on to the next thing but to our true end in God. The Christian view elevates the dignity of things by seeing them as participating in the being of God, but simultaneously causes us to look through and beyond things to their Creator.” 

At its darkest end, the ill of consumerism is in its preoccupation with the wrong sort of attachment. In fact, as a values system consumerism is built on a profound sense of detachment. It proceeds on the belief that we will find our salvation and fulfillment in the pursuit of things we do not yet have and apart from relationship with the Creator of those things. Like the woman standing at a counter in a department store depicted in a New Yorker cartoon: she looks at the salesperson and asks, “What would you suggest to fill the dark, empty spaces in my soul?” Consumerism’s drive is in the wanting, not the having. It is the outworking of a restless and dissatisfied spirit, powered by a profound discontent with what we have and a belief that what we do not yet have will bring us the contentment we crave. 

In light of this, there is something to be said for engaging in the practice of shopping as a proactive nurturing of genuine attachments: nurturing deeper and more sustained connections to the material possessions we purchase, cherishing their worth, craftsmanship, history, beauty, or practicality as the gift of God. Sometimes we face a genuine need to purchase a product or service, or to replace a possession that is past its use-by date or simply worn out. There are many other instances, however, where the need is more a whim or the outworking of a deeper discontent within our lives. 

Recently the company product manager for a major furniture and homewares retailer in Australia reflected openly on the attitude of today’s consumers: “Young shoppers aren’t buying for life anymore,” she said. “Fifteen years ago people were likely to change their curtains every ten to twelve years, but now it’s every five to six years. It’s the same with furniture, they can afford to do it and, more importantly, what looked good six years ago is just so … six years ago.” 

If we are to embrace shopping as a spiritual practice, we need to bring to it a good dose of self-awareness and a willingness to critique our own engagement in practices that run counter to the values of our faith and discipleship. I once heard it said that the statement, “I am content; I have what I need” is one of the most countercultural affirmations a disciple of Jesus can make in daily life. The challenge to bring into sync the deep contentment that characterizes a life in God and our God-given identity as consumers is a life’s work. 

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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.

Kaminsky on life

“I’m at a stage of life where I either get to look at the glass half empty, having quickly gulped down the years to quench my thirst for living, or I can see how much I still have left and treasure every drop. What this journey has taught me is not to dwell so much on how much water there is left to drink, but to marvel at the beauty of the intricate patterns embellished on the glass itself.”

x293Leah Kaminsky, We’re All Going to Die, Harper Collins, 2106, 264-265.

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.