The hospitality of stories

“Stories enact a form of mutual hospitality. What is story if not an enticement to stay? You’re invited in, but right away you must reciprocate and host the story back, through concentration: whether you read or hear a narrative — from a book or a person — you need to listen to really understand. Granting complete attention is like giving a silent ovation. Story and listener open, unfold into and harbour each other.” 

Priya Basil, Be My Guest, Canongate, 2019, 12.

Spirituality in the City

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

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

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.