Happiness at the corner café

“No sir,” the 18th century poet Samuel Johnson once said, “there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness has been produced, as by a good tavern or inn.”

I am not a man of pubs, and I am not sure Mr Johnson would recognise the ‘taverns’ of today. Still, there is something in what he says that I feel about the café. A good café can produce a certain kind of happiness. I do not mean the overly stylised or pretentious ones that make the lists of ‘Melbourne’s best’. I mean the local café, the one where you go to be familiar, to drink coffee, to sit and think, to write or read, or talk with friends. I feel a happiness in such places that stands apart. Indeed, there are few places I would rather be.

A good café is a communal space, yet offering respite and solitude of a particular kind. It is public yet secure, familiar yet a place of strangers. The coffee is served by people who care. There is simple fare — breakfast and brunches and little cakes. You can sit for as long as you like with a jug of water to ease the time. It is not loud or overly busy, but a place of life. There might be music, but none you notice until you listen for it. There are gentle conversations going on in different corners while in others there is silence. You can watch and listen, or not. You can lose yourself for a bit while life treads by outside the window. You’ll re-join it soon, but for now you sit and sip, and breathe.

Some might say the idea of a café as a maker of happiness is an over-reach. True, happiness is a slippery, subjective thing. What one considers a state of happiness may be boredom to another. Happiness is commonly understood as a feeling, fleeting or seasonal, or for others an aspiration. Whatever it is, it is certainly not a right. Rather, it’s a gift that may, or may not, sit beneath things or tasks or conversations. For me, happiness is a certain peace, a connection, a sense of time and space, contentment and ease. It’s a place I need.

While such ease is challenged amidst chaotic lives, it is very much a choice we make within them. A café is a venue of such choice, a holder of a particular happiness into which we can slip from time to time.

So, I’ll skip your taverns, Mr Johnston, but I’ll take my seat at the café table anytime.

Written at The Social Foundry, Kyneton, a social enterprise café that ticks all the boxes. The image above is of Ricardo Balaca’s El café (1844-1880)

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.

 

 

On being right … or wrong

“The need to be right carries with it the fear of being wrong. In the lives of many Christian adults these factors prevent learning. To be ready to learn is to be ready to admit that there is much one does not know, that one may not be entirely right. There is even the risk that one may be proved wrong.”

Professor John Hull (1935-2015)

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.

Conversation as a Spiritual Practice

IMG_3915The following is an extract from the book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life. At the conclusion of a chapter on friendship, I offer a brief reflection on conversation between friends as a spiritually formative practice.

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Talk is cheap: so the saying goes, and it’s mostly true. Our world is full of talk; loud, persistent talk that never ends. Too much of it self-serving, self-aggrandizing, self-justifying. We attend talkfests where “expert” voices are privileged over others. We visit political chambers and church sanctuaries where pulpits and lecterns give voice to those in power while the majority is silent. And we sit before our televisions watching panels where the cleverest and loudest voices win. Too often they sound like a gathering of egos shouting, “Look at me!” 

No doubt, this sort of talk can be cheap. What’s more, talk like this rarely changes things. Rather than transforming the minds of those who participate, it simply confirms the views they already hold and the choices they have already made. It is not altogether different in the talk of our everyday lives. How many times have you left an exchange with an acquaintance or colleague wondering if your presence was really necessary to it? We can be talked at, talked over, talked down to, or talked around, but rarely are we talked with. Rarely are we genuinely listened to, and seldom do we listen to others. 

At its best, conversation is different. Conversation is a meeting of minds, memories, and stories. It is a mutual meeting of spirits distinguished by its openness to the possibility of change. There is always the chance in conversation that we will be shifted, prodded, challenged, or moved to think and act differently. It is this, I suggest, that sets conversation apart from talk. In fact, if we do not come to conversation open to its transforming potential then all we have is talk. Open conversation is the oxygen of true friendship. It is the oxygen by which we breathe together, and it is good. 

The proposal that conversation between friends can be a spiritual discipline—a routine practice embraced with intention that leads us to the likeness of Christ—is, at first blush, as difficult as the others we have proposed so far; but its potential is rich. If conversation is allowed to be a tool in the deepening and transforming of our spirits, it may well impact our spirituality in significant ways. 

1. A Practice of Attending

“I don’t know exactly what prayer is,” the poet Mary Oliver confesses, but “I do know how to pay attention.” This is surely where all spiritual practices begin: they are disciplines through which we pay attention to our own lives, to the lives of those around us, to the world we inhabit, and, in all of this, to God. The more ancient spiritual term for this practice is attending. It is what I do when I engage in intentional conversation with a friend: I attend; I listen in the most deliberate way I can. 

To understand the impact of attending in friendships, philosopher Graham Little asks us to recall those moments when we have been “recognized, attended to and listened to well.” It is in those moments, he says, “those magnificently human moments” in which we feel “exhilaratingly alive” that we touch on the transformative power of attending. To be attended to is to experience the depth of what we give to others when we listen attentively to them. 

The practice of attending is built on a cardinal respect for the humanity, integrity, and worth of our friend. She embodies the truth of God in her story in a way I’ll not encounter in any other place. In my attending I honor that truth and I listen for it. I do not come with judgment or the need to convince or cajole. I only come with a sense of inquiry, a desire to hear, understand, and care. I want my friend to know again that I am here and that my support is genuine and ongoing. I want to see what she sees, to feel what he feels, and to know what she knows. And if he is lost, I want him to know that he has company. 

In recent years, I have experienced events that were isolating in ways I had not previously encountered. It had to do with public issues about which there is strong disagreement in the Christian church and in which I have a pastoral investment. I felt pressed to take a role that was more public than I was naturally comfortable with. The toll was considerable. I struggled to know what to do with that toll and how to carry it as I needed to. In the course of things, a friend invited me into conversation. He went out of his way to make generous time and to convey his concern for me. As I settled in to that conversation—what felt like a wide and open space—I realized its gift. The hours we spent together were some of the most healing I have experienced. He gave no advice, had no agenda other than to care, and no particular wisdom to share; but he attended to me with such generosity, I came away feeling both comforted and challenged. It was a small but significant turning point in my own well-being. 

Attending is not a complicated thing to do. There are only two rules that apply. Rule #1: shut up. Rule #2: listen. Really, it is not complex; but it’s not easy either. Good attending is a practice that takes some learning. If we think listening is easy, it is often because we’ve never done it. Good attending is a pastoral act that takes discipline and practice; the more we give ourselves to it, the more instinctive it becomes. That said, it is a practice we are all capable of. As a practice of our faith, it includes no secret pathway but is open to all. 

In exploring this practice for myself, I came across a book that had in its title the enticing phrase “conversation as ministry.” In the early chapters, the author defines the sort of conversation he has in mind, including its twelve essential components. As I waded my way through them, including such things as a grounded ecclesiology, a biblically informed character, a reflective self-awareness, I began to have a sense of something more complex than I had imagined, more the business of secret church squirrels than of regular people. None of the author’s twelve points are wrong. In fact, each is spot on and worth exploring. That said, conversation between friends is surely the most accessible and immediate business we are in. Perhaps all we really need to begin is the author’s final point: conversation gives body to the realm of God on earth. There is something about attending in friendship that makes the presence of God tangible. 

2. A Practice of Investing 

The real beauty of conversation between friends is that it’s ongoing. There is nothing momentary about it. Friends have history. They have shaped a story together. No matter how long-standing or recent a friendship might be, it builds one encounter at a time, one conversation after another. These conversations, building incrementally, sit within the context of our story and add to it. In time they develop a grammar all their own. The more we converse, the less there is to explain or divulge and the more we make room for challenge and depth. 

The idea of a spiritual practice as an investment is a helpful one. In all spiritual disciplines there is something about slow, persistent practice that is key. The practices of prayer, meditation, confession, worship, or Bible reading build over time. Not every deposit we make feels significant in its own right, but in time the worth of those investments grows into something substantive. To be honest, there are moments in my prayer life where I feel nothing of substance, where the rote and ritual act feels nothing more than that; and there are others when my heart soars. Yet I look back and know that the practice of prayer—the mundane and the exhilarating—has shaped my relationship with God like nothing else.

Conversations with friends can build slowly into a transformative practice, each one an investment into something larger. There will be conversations that sing and others that are monotone; encounters that thrill the spirit and some that are dreary. There will be intentional conversations that burrow away at particular challenges; and others that meander with no sense of purpose or destination. To use Augustine’s words, such conversations can “pass from lightest jesting to talk of deepest things and back again.” But, in all of this, we are investing, one conversation at a time, in something of greater worth. 

What investments need is time, time to mature so as to reward the investor with the greatest returns; so, too, with conversation. For relationships to flourish and for conversations to have their impact, there is no substitute for time. “Relationships are not best founded on efficiency,” Hugh Mackay observes, “nor are they best nurtured through the exchange (no matter how frequent) of inherently impersonal digital data.” When you surrender the art and discipline of face-to-face conversation, he says, believing that text messages and emojis can fill the void, “you’ve begun to lose your grip on what it means to be a social creature.” When it comes to spiritual practices, there are no shortcuts. In the practice of conversation between friends, the incremental investments require intention and time. There is no other path. 

3. A Practice of Confronting

In the opening paragraphs, I proposed conversation as a meeting of minds, memories and stories. In that meeting the possibility of change flourishes. The English writer and philosopher Theordore Zeldin argues that such change is not only possible within each participant, but can flow between and out of the conversation they share. “When minds meet,” he writes, “they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought.” “Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards,” he continues, “it creates new cards.” In this form, conversation is more than attending to each other’s stories. It is more than an incremental investment over time. It is found in the willingness of those who converse to tread territory that is risky, even confronting. It takes trust to flourish. “What matters most,” Zeldin concludes, “is courage.” 

Geoff and I have been friends for over twenty years. We met as students in the States, initially bound by our common status as “aliens” in a foreign land. Quickly, though, the relationship moved to firmer ground. We come from different traditions and different states. Our personalities are a study in contrasts, yet over two decades our friendship has remained. This has much to do with Geoff’s persistence and grace; he does friendship better than most men I know, and I have reaped the benefits. That said, we remain different, shaped by disparate contexts and communities. Apart from our years in California, we have rarely lived any closer than a day’s travel apart. Even more, there are issues about which we disagree and hold very different views. While I am accustomed to standing in the minority on some things, there are few people in my life, those with whom I disagree, with whom I can have conversation on these issues that is not marked to some degree by mistrust. With Geoff it is different. 

Friends have time on their side. When friends disagree, there is always more to the relationship and its conversations than the issue of difference. I cannot dismiss Geoff as merely “the opposing view.” There is more to him than that. There is more to our relationship than the disagreement at hand. What’s more, I cannot marginalize his viewpoint as I can with an acquaintance on Facebook. The respect we share more broadly touches everything about which we converse. Zeldin proposes that it is in these moments of difference we are faced with a choice. The direction the conversation takes from this point will shape us as much as it shapes the relationship. As friends we can choose to focus on our past—the memories and experiences that have made it—and keep on saying, “this is the way we are,” or we can set out to explore new and risky territory. That territory will necessarily include confrontation as we wrestle intentionally with what sets us apart. It is not an easy path to take.

Of course, the practice of confrontation is more than negotiating differences of opinion. It also means allowing conversations to name things that are difficult to name and to put our finger on things that are painful, even shameful, in our lives. When friends find the courage to traverse this territory, openly and sensitively, they touch on a spiritual practice that has as much capacity for transformation as any other practice we can name. 

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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.

 

On books

” … for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth.  What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you.  Books help us to understand who we are and how we are to behave.  They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.  They are full of all the things you don’t get in real life — wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat.  And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention.  An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift.”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1994, 15.

The farmer and the pastor

1484163717072I’ve just finished reading a collection of letters written to young farmers. Surprisingly, they are captivating, even to me. The contributors are mostly seasoned agriculturalists, though commonly they have other roles as well. Writing is one of them. Their shared concern is to encourage those who are new to the profession, calling them to a deeper and more considered commitment to their work.

Granted, it’s an odd book for the pastor of a city church to read. My daily work is about as far removed from the land as one could imagine. My interest in food, however, is strong. Connections of dependence upon those who work to provide food for my table and others are genuine and daily. I could claim other connections: my father was a farmer; I was born onto a dairy farm in the Gippsland; I own a small part in a some acres in central Victoria. But none of that makes me any more a farmer than I am an astronaut. The farm is not my world.

That said, I can see in the exhortations of these mentor-farmers applications to the work I do as a pastor. It makes me wonder if the distance between our worlds is really as wide as I imagine. Some of the observations that struck me are these:

The farmer is a professional

There’s an affirming spirit to these letters, a reminder from seasoned to budding farmers that their work is important, no matter how it is regarded, or disregarded, more broadly. The words “I am just a farmer” have no place here. “However calloused your hands,” Barbara Kingsolver writes, “however grimy the uniform, however your back may sometimes ache, you are a professional. Your vocation is creative, necessary, and intellectually demanding.”

As with many professions, only those who know farming from the inside can appreciate its demands. Amidst the complexities of environment, climate and the global market, successful farming today requires significant levels of competence, risk and skill. The encouragement is clear: take your work, your competence and your importance seriously, even if others don’t.

There is wisdom here for pastors too. While there is no place for an inflated sense of ourselves, we do need to take ourselves seriously as professionals. Though we may not often feel the esteem of the surrounding culture, we know well what our work demands and the potential contribution it makes. As with all professions, we submit to systems of accreditation, rites of ordination, the needs for academic qualifications and professional competencies earned through time. While these are not everything, they ain’t nothin’ either. Whatever assessment others make of us, our work is important. We do well to remember it.

To farm is a vocation

This second observation follows on from the first. At the same time, it provides a counter to it. Routinely these writers speak of farming as a spiritual calling. More than a profession, a skill-set or work to be done, farming is a vocation that says as much about identity as it does about the work itself. Farming is not only the work a farmer does; it is who the farmer is. It’s this that can hold a farmer to the land when nothing else can make sense of it.

This is a point the Franciscan farmer Gary Paul Nabhan makes well. “As best I can figure, becoming a farmer is not that much different from becoming a monk,” he writes, “because it is ultimately about adhering to a spiritual path. You have to have faith that it is your calling because undertaking it does not make much economic, social, or political sense at all. Very few of you will get rich, get famous and powerful, or get laid simply because you are a farmer.”

We pastors get this. Our work is more than the work we do. It flows from our identity as men and women of faith. Pastoral leadership is more than qualifications, degrees or contracts; it is who we are. So when our work doesn’t make sense, when it’s hard beyond anyone’s knowing, and when its rewards are slim, we keep showing up. To do otherwise would be to walk away from something deeply part of us.

To farm well is to work from your strengths

This third theme I noticed is one that took me by surprise. I have commonly assumed farming as a long line of responsibilities that simply have to be met. Surely from one dairy farm to the next, from one field of grain to another, the tasks are much the same. How little I know. It’s clear from these letters that farming takes a great deal of creativity and will look different from one context to the next and from one farmer to another. It’s here the uniqueness of the individual comes into play.

In an especially energetic letter, Joel Salatin presses young farmers, “What are you good at? What do you know? What do you enjoy?” he asks. “Where those three universes intersect is the sweet spot for your success. Many times, we fritter away most of our time struggling with things we don’t like or aren’t good at and fail to capitalize on areas of passion and proficiency. Life’s too short to be squandered that way.”

Clearly it’s a good point for farmers, and pastors too. Just as there is more than one way to farm a piece of land, so there are multiple ways to pastor a church. Thank God for that. We are not all cut from the same cloth or made for the same expressions of ministry. At our best, we do what we do as an expression of who we are, not who we would like to be or who others wish we were. How much energy I have squandered over the years trying desperately to compensate for my inadequacies, peddling ever faster in areas of ministry in which I’ll only ever be mediocre. My “passions and proficiencies” are the best of me. If I do not operate as much as possible out of these, I short change myself and the church.

Sustainable farming requires a sustainable farmer

Some of the most impassioned advice for young farmers relates to their sustainability. There is a consistent call to ‘balance’ in these letters, a balance of time and energy that enable the farmer to flourish over the long haul.

“Farming can be all-consuming,” writes Mary-Howell Martens, “especially at certain times of the year, and without a plan to protect an acceptable level of personal balance, you may find the farm takes all. Farming will invariably define your family, your self-esteem, your financial choices, your self-image, your priorities, and your time. It will profoundly shape how you interpret life and death, weather, money, time, food, community, exercise, and faith.”

It’s this all-consuming nature of farming, fed by a deep sense of vocation, that is the farmer’s greatest strength and potential downfall. Richard Wiswall underlines the danger: “When the financial numbers don’t line up, farmers … can be famously guilty of self-exploitation. Like many entrepreneurs, farmers believe in what they do so much that they will do what it takes to succeed: work longer and longer hours, sacrifice family and leisure time, balance the books at night so as not to waste precious daylight hours. Deep meaning derived from their work is one of the fuels that keep farmers going despite increasing hardships. But there is no limit to this.”

I can only imagine how this danger plays out for the farmer. I know first hand it’s impact in pastoral ministry. Our sense of vocation is both enabling and compelling. It’s the compelling part that can lead us into all kinds of dysfunction. The price paid by relentlessly driven pastors — not to mention their spouses, families and churches — is commonly too large a cost to bear.

Farming within communities

The final observation is the reminder to young farmers that they farm within communities … always. No successful farmer flys solo. Given the hours that farmers work, often alone and hidden from public view, it is easy to see farming as a work of solitude. According to these writers, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Farming is a work of connections and relationships. Farming is a community sustained through time, a relationship to land, place and story that only has meaning when those connections are named and nurtured. This is so at the most local level — in towns and communities where land, place and work are shared — as well as in a broader sense: the provider of food, the preparer of food and the consumer of food are all connected. It is as though the farmer has a place at my table every night.

The American conservationist of the early twentieth century Aldo Leopold once said that land is “not a commodity belonging to us” but “a community to which we belong.” There is profound truth in this for the farmer, and truth for the pastor as well. As the farmer does not own the land, so the pastor does not own the church and its mission. We belong to it, sustained by it as we work to strengthen it. The church is a reality so much larger than we are, and in the context of a world held in God’s sustaining hands. We play just a small part in a much grander work.

Here’s the book

Martha Hodgkins, ed. Letters to a Young Farmer: On Food, Farming, and Our Future. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2017.

And a great related video too

Book launch: Heaven All Around Us

I am so grateful to all of those who came along to the launch of Heaven All Around Us. With good friends, good food and champagne, two wonderful reflections from Bishop Graeme Rutherford and Dianne Brown, and the most captivating presentation from storyteller Jess Holt, the book was officially kicked off with style.

In my own comments, I included these words of introduction:

The title of this book, Heaven All Around Us, is inspired by the words of the Australian songwriter John Williamson. In his song Cootamundra Wattle, he puts to music the bidding of an elderly man to his wife. She sits alone inside their home with an old box of memories on her lap — bunny rugs and family pictures. As she holds these objects, there are tears as she recalls moments of joy and grief long ago. Perhaps she longs for reunions that only heaven can bring.

In the song, the husband prods gently, inviting his wife to put these things aside and come outside: “There’s all the colours of the rainbow in the garden,” he says to her, “and symphonies of music in the sky. Heaven’s all around us if you’re looking, but how can you see it if you cry.” While I’m not sure his response to his wife’s tears is the most appropriate one, there is a truth here about the beauty and wonder of the present moment, the capacity of what is immediately around us to speak meaning, love and healing into our lives.

As a student of spirituality these last thirty years, I have a long-held fascination with the ways people, through history, have sought meaning and a sense of the transcendent in their lives. As a minister of religion, I have given much of my professional life to nurturing in others a deeper sense of God and of the sacredness of life itself.  In all of this, what I have found constantly frustrating is that the dominant language and most commonly accepted rituals of spirituality, most especially in the church, call us to leave behind the ordinariness of our daily lives in order to commune with God in some other place. It’s a spirituality of monasteries and mountaintops, of churches, deserts, solitude and retreat.  These are important, of course. They can each play an important role in our spiritual journey as they have done in my own. But what about the rest of life? Where is God when we return from the desert, when we come down from the mountain top, or leave the church behind for another week? Where is our sense of meaning in our homes and neighbourhoods, our shopping malls and sporting arenas? What sense of the sacred can we find in the daily obligations of family and work, in our friendships, our study and our chores? 

The reality is, it is these things that take up so much of our lives and where we most need a sense of meaning and purpose, a sense of God. What’s more, it is my view that models of spirituality which do nothing but lead us away from the pressing realities of our world as it is run the risk of reducing spirituality to a purely self-indulgent exercise. For those of us concerned for nurturing a deeper sense of the Spirit in our world, this should be of concern. In all of that, I do hope that this book can make a small contribution to a more far-reaching expression of our faith.

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 my thanks to photographer Geoff Maddock for his beautiful images from the night.

 

On writers

“Most of today’s best never expected to be widely read but wrote anyway. They write not because they think that a writer is something somebody like them really ought to be, but because they can do nothing else without betraying their own spirit. They write because if they don’t get the words out, they would be eaten away from the inside. They write because they have no choice.”

Penny Laurie, “Why I Write” in Overland, no 216 (2014), 3-9.

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.