Cameron Semmens on gifts

This Sunday at Collins Street, we’re exploring the business of ethics at work. I’ve been thinking about how broad that term is – work – and how unique its challenges are to each of us. Still, from homemakers to teachers, stockbrokers to bricklayers, students to grandparents, the challenge of discerning God’s presence and call in our work is the same.

One of my favourite everyday poets, Cameron Semmens, provides this take on the gifts of the Spirit. I like it. It reminds me that no matter how ‘religious’ or otherwise our work seems, the calling and gifting of God is what we have in common.

The Gift of Everyday Spirituality

[Based on 1 Corinthians 12.1-11]

Our God is the giver of gifts
and all of God’s children are gifted:

to one is given the word of wisdom,
to another the word of knowledge,
to another the ability to give a word-for-word account
of what was said last Saturday;

to one is given faith,
to another faithful adherence to instruction manuals;

to one is given the gift of healing,
to another the gift of making a good chicken soup
for when I get the flu;

to one is given the ability to work miracles,
to another the ability to work 9 to 5, Monday to Friday;

to one is given the gift of prophesy,
to another the gift of profits;

to one is given the gift of discerning spirits,
to another the gift of selecting wines;

to one is given different kinds of tongues,
to another the interpretation of tongues,
to another the ability to curl their tongue,
and to yet another
the ability to stick their tongue out at meanies.

To one and all gifts are given:
to some, otherworldly gifts,
to others, more earthy gifts,
but each is sourced from the same Spirit
and each is sent for the service of all.

Cameron Semmens, Love is the New Black, Crooked NoseWisdom, 2010.

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.

A blessing for today

Benedicere*

May your home always be too
small to hold all your friends.

May your heart remain ever supple,
fearless in the face of threat,
jubilant in the grip of grace.

May your hands remain open,
caressing, never clenched,
save to pound the doors of all who
barter justice to the highest bidder.

May your heroes be earthy,
dusty-shoed and rumpled,
hallowed but unhaloed,
guiding you through seasons
of tremor and travail,
apprenticed to the godly art of giggling
amidst haggard news
and portentous circumstances.

May your hankering be
in rhythm with heaven’s,
whose covenant vows a dusty
intersection with our own:
when creation’s hope and history rhyme.

May hosannas lilt from your lungs:
God is not done;
God is not yet done.

All flesh, I am told, will behold;
will surely behold.

 

Kenneth L. Sehested, In the Land of the Living: Prayers Personal and Public, 2009, 82.

*Benedicere: (Latin) second-person singular present passive imperative of benedīcō “be thou spoken well of, be thou commended” (Late Latin, Ecclesiastical Latin ) “be thou blessed, be thou praised”

My thanks to Bruce Stewart for the image. Used without permission!

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.