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.

Chameleons

Now that my parents are gone
the voice inside
has changed to something
less disturbing
but I am still the strange chameleon
caught in different lights.
In childhood
I believe I was their colour and their light
before I took on different shades
to match an outside world
where they were only shadows
of the people they had been.
I never saw their real colours
I only asked myself
why they were so washed out.
Now that they are gone
I see them differently.
I see them young.
I see them in the people who have come
with other children.
Despite the camouflage
I spot chameleons in my class
the shades of shyness
the flash of angry reds
the old confusion about
the shape of us.
Now that my parents are gone
I tell myself the stories
that I hardly listened to
in a time of growing up
when I was
only half at home.

GR61_front.websiteOlga Pavlinova Olenich
Griffith Review 61, 169-170.

Run beloved, run

You are surrounded
By great and good companions

With witnesses who ran the race before you
Now cheering you on
Inspiring you with their courageous faith

With witnesses running beside you
Churning up the dust of this well-traveled-path
Encouraging you with the steady beat of their beautiful feet

Run beloved, run
Lay aside every weight
Every worry
Every excuse
Every inner critic shouting against inspiration

Lay aside the sin that clings so closely
Every self-serving motivation
Every self-medicating choice
Every weak thing you’ve trusted
more than God
Lay them aside
and run

Run beloved, run
Run with perseverance the race
Daring
Enduring
Alive

Looking not to the dust, but to Jesus
The Pioneer and Perfecter of your faith
Look not to the right or to the left
Look to Jesus
Focus
Follow

Jesus is The Way, opening the path
The Truth, clearing the clutter
The Light, blazing the trail

He runs
He endures
For the sake of the joy
Of setting the joy before you
and in you

Run
Run remembering
Joy is your strength
Remember and endure
For this race comes with a cross
A course of blood and tears
Mocking and piercing

Take it up
Disregard its shame (that ancient enemy)
Let it fall by the wayside
Tired scraps on the breath of new life

Take it up and run
Sit down in the next life
Not this one

Run beloved, run
Following and looking and remembering him who endured
So that you may not grow weary
Or lose heart
For your strongest step is yet to come

Words inspired by Hebrews 12.1-3
© 2014 Lisa Ann Moss Degreni

Mercy now

“Every single one of us could use some mercy now”
Mary Gauthier

“Let your mercy come to me, that I may live”
Psalm 119.77

Mercy now is what I need:
mercy here, today.
Like a mirage, tomorrow’s lies on the horizon;
yesterday’s a faded picture, its corners bent and torn.
Mercy here is what I need —
some tenderness for today.

It’s true: I stride sometimes,
chin up with confidence.
Occasionally I sprint,
the one-hundred metre spiritual dash.
Mostly, though, I stumble.
I fail and falter.
Sometimes I fall.
My knees are scuffed where no one sees.
Mercy now is what I need.

I once imagined saintliness:
a state into which I might progress.
But not now.
There is no box of halos in the attic.
I’ve looked.
There are no streams of heavenly light
that flood my closet.
O, there are times of knowing —
those of beauty and laughter … and tears.
But there is more of nothing very much,
punctuated with moments of despair
and stretches of silence.
Yes, mercy now is what I need.

If mercy is only yet to come,
then what do we have today?
Striving and trying and hoping
for grace around the corner?
If mercy is only yesterday —
a sparkling jewell received once long ago —
then what is there to hold us now?

This is the truth, you see:
the heart’s undercoat is grey.
Though speckled with hints of colour,
the shadow it casts is long.
Mercy now is what I need:
tenderness enough for today.

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.

A response to ‘Heaven All Around Us’

It’s a wonderful encouragement to read these words of affirmation from Brian Harris, Principal of Vose Seminary over in Western Australia:

“I often get sent complimentary copies of books from publishers who hope I will put in a good word for their publication. Sometimes that is possible, at other times I read a few pages of the book, push it to the one side and diplomatically say no more. Happily, Simon Carey Holt’s book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life (Cascade, 2018) is definitely in the first category. Actually, it’s sensationally in the first category – an absolute delight to read, deeply thoughtful, often profound and very well written.”

You can read more of his response, especially to the chapter on God at the Supermarket, here.