Books that show the way

Knowing that I read … a lot, a friend asked me a few days back, ‘So what’s a book that’s changed your life?’  I was stumped.  Perhaps, being a good Baptist boy I should say the bible.  It’s certainly up there, but it’s not what comes immediately to mind.  In fact, there’s not one particular book that does.  There are memorable ones etched on the brain and others nestled deep in the heart, but in my life the formative influence of books is not in particular encounters.  It’s accumulative.

When I sit back and look at my bookcases, there’s a sense in which I see myself in all the fat and skinny volumes pressed up against each other–light and heavy, funny and perplexing, sad and irritating, poetic and didactic.  These books, together, have shaped my thinking and feeling and speaking and being in ways I can’t even understand.   At times they’ve been places of escape, friends amidst loneliness, discipline to counter laziness; some have been sheer hard work and others pleasure–good, patient and pleasant company.  Books do many things–they prod, they irritate, they inspire, they inform, they educate, but they never rush you.  Perhaps that’s what I like about them most of all.

Late Saturday night my son and I walked over to Federation Square.  We went to see the Light in Winter exhibition, an outdoor collection of light-filled installations inspired by the National Year of Reading.  One of them is called Literature versus Traffic by the Spanish collective Luzinterruptus.  It’s an intriguing and constantly changing installation of old, pre-loved, discarded books collected by the Salvation Army and illuminated by light.  I found it quite moving, to see books laid out like this, like a pathway, a road, and each one leading onto the next.  It reminded me of an ancient prayer labyrinth, though much less prescribed–more fluid, chaotic.  It’s beautiful.

When I grow up

Just last week I sat for an hour completely mesmerised by a theologian.  With a small room full of listeners and the rain falling outside, this retired sage of the church wove together seamlessly Barth, Augustine, feeling, poetry, art and experience into one of the most moving and healing presentations I’ve heard.  After leaving I sat on a tram and texted a colleague, ‘That’s the sort of theologian I want to be when I grow up!’   And then it dawned.  I am grown up.

In a few weeks I’ll celebrate a significant birthday.  It’s one of those decade-marking ones.  In my more reflective moments–of which I have far too many than is good for me–I am struck by the fact that as I anticipate half a century of life,  I am what I am.  With significantly fewer years behind me than ahead, it’s now more about consolidating what is than imagining what could be.  It’s a sobering thought.  Like many others I suspect, I’ve spent a great deal of energy through the years imaging what might be next and far less inclined to living deeply in what is.

Some years back I read Debra Ginsberg’s book, Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress. What someone in my profession is doing reading such a book is anyone’s guess, but it left a mark.  Ginsberg provides a reflective and thoughtful memoir of 20 years waiting tables. In luncheonettes, pizza parlours and diners to Italian bistros and fine dining rooms, so much of Ginsberg’ life is lived–as is typical of those who wait–aspiring to be someone or somewhere else.  In time, though, Ginsberg discovers she cannot live her life waiting for the real thing to begin. She looks back over her shoulder at two decades of waiting–this is her life, and one she is finally able to embrace.

‘ … perhaps the most valuable lesson I’d learned was that the act of waiting itself is an active one. That period of time between the anticipation and the beginning of life’s events is when everything really happens–the time when actual living occurs. I’d spent so much time worrying about the outcome of my life that I’d forgotten how to live it. I’d also come to know that not everything was fraught with a vast and complicated meaning. Sometimes it was only about timing the order just right, recommending a particularly good dessert, or making a friend out of a stranger at my table. I began to see not only the simplicity of these acts but their beauty.’

Ginsberg is right.  It’s the beauty of what is that I choose to embrace–of who I am, what I do today, what I have now.  It may not be all that I imagine in my more grandiose moments, but it is good.  And for that I’m grateful.

Pannenberg on spirituality

“… the return to God in our age is not in the first place a matter of individual morality. Before it is that, it is a matter of caring for God, a matter of concern for the transcendent in the understanding of the realities of life, not only for oneself as an individual but also in society. As long as the idea of God has little to do with the way we think about our everyday activities, about the responsibilities and recreations implicit in the institutional texture of our society, moral conversion remains an unnatural imposition on our lives, relevant mainly to our emotional economy and that often in a neurotic way. If the point in conversion is to be wholly and perfectly with God, then most of us must begin differently … by reforming our thought in order to overcome the secularist emancipation of everyday life from God. And we must keep in mind that such conversion cannot be achieved by the isolated individual but involves a transformation of society.”

William (Wolfhart) Pannenberg, Christian Spirituality and Sacramental Community. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1983, 25-26.


A poem for resurrection … and refuse

My friend Gordon reminded me of one of Wendell Berry’s poems. I remember, vaguely, first reading it not long after my 23rd birthday — as green to pastoral ministry as I was fragile in my dogged pursuit of holiness. It remains a gentle but profound reminder of the ‘organic’ connections between death and life, creation and re-creation, old and new, refuse and resurrection.  Thanks Gordon.

A Purification

At the start of spring
I open a trench in the ground.
I put into it
the winter’s accumulation of paper,
pages I do not want to read again,
useless words, fragments, errors.
And I put into it
the contents of the outhouse:
light of the sun,
growth of the ground,
finished with one of their journeys.

To the sky, to the wind, then,
and to the faithful trees,
I confess my sins:
that I have not been happy enough,
considering my good luck;
have listened to too much noise;
have been inattentive to wonders;
have lusted after praise.

And then upon the gathered refuse
of mind and body,
I close the trench,
folding shut again the dark,
the deathless earth.
Beneath that seal
the old escapes into the new.

(From Wendell Berry, Collected Poems: 1957-1982)

A prayer for Easter Sunday

Awaken Me!

Risen One,
come, meet me
in the garden of my life.

Lure me into elation.
Revive my silent hope.
Coax my dormant dreams.
Raise up my neglected gratitude.
Entice my tired enthusiasm.
Give life to my faltering relationships.
Roll back the stone of my indifference.
Unwrap the deadness in my spiritual life.
Impart heartiness in my work.

Risen One,
send me forth as a disciple of your unwavering love,
a messenger
of your unlimited joy.

Resurrected One,
may I become
ever more convinced
that your presence lives on,
and on, and on,
and on.

Awaken me!
Awaken me!

Joyce Rupp, Out of the Ordinary, Ave Maria Press, 2010.

Poems and Prayers for Lent 15

beautiful words for this Good Friday from my friend Beth Barnett

a man who doubts
a man who cries
a man who shouts
in desperation to the skies
a man
who dies
this is our God

a world at war
a world that groans
a world in pain
a world alone
a world
without a home
this is God’s world

see him naked
sore abused
despised rejected
justice refused
look at him now
is this God’s face?
this is our God
this is God’s grace

my heart so black
my heart that’s worn
my heart so bleak
my heart forlorn
and yet
a soul reborn
this is God’s grace

Poems and Prayers for Lent 14

In the Christian year this week is called Holy Week. Beginning with Palm Sunday, it leads us through the final days of Jesus’ life (and death) including the shadows of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and the sheer darkness of Holy Saturday.

Frankly, to claim anything as ‘holy’ is an audacious move. But if there’s a week that warrants it, this one is it. For the ‘religious professional’, the designation of a particular week as somehow holier than others certainly raises the stakes. I can’t help but feel the weight of responsibility to make every holy moment count; for every service I offer to be nothing short of profound for everyone present.

Trouble is, I get so caught up in ‘making it happen’ for others that I have little energy left to live in that holiness myself. Early this morning I lay awake waiting for the alarm to go off, feeling both the anxiety of my responsibility and the marked absence of feeling.

As usual, someone else is able to name what I do feel better than I can name it myself.  Michel Quoist’s prayer, Before you Lord, captures part of what I would really want to say to God if I could:

To shut the eyes of my body,
To shut the eyes of my soul,
And be still and silent,
To expose myself to you who are there, exposed to me.
To be there before you, the Eternal Presence.

I am willing to feel nothing, Lord,
to see nothing,
to hear nothing.

Empty of all ideas,
of all images,
In the darkness.
Here I am simply,
To meet you without obstacles,
In the silence of faith,
Before you, Lord.

But, Lord, I am not alone
I can no longer be alone.
I am a crowd, Lord,
For men live within me.
I have met them.
They have come in,
They have settled down,
They have worried me,
They have tormented me,
They have devoured me.
And I have allowed it, Lord, that they might be nourished and refreshed.
I bring them to you, too, as I come before you.
I exposed them to you in exposing myself to you.
Here I am,
Here they are,
Before you, Lord.

Michel Quoist, Prayers of Life (Dublin: Gill & Son), English translation 1963, 113.

Poems and Prayers for Lent 13

This Sunday at CSBC we’ll read the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus.  It’s an odd choice for the ticker tape parade of Palm Sunday.  Then again, both events say something about the erratic nature of human faith: bravado and acclamation one day; trembling absence the next.

In Mark’s gospel Peter’s failure ends with the words, ‘and he broke down and wept’ (Mark 14.72). As I re-read this story this morning, it occurred to me just what a long time there was between this descending of grief and Jesus’ beach-side reinstatement of Peter post-resurrection.  How dark those intervening days must have been for him.  Perhaps, in some tentative way, Peter felt something of the Divine-absence Jesus expressed on the cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

Just today I sat with the a friend for whom the darkness of depression is a constant and exhausting companion. We read together Michel Quoist’s prayer ‘It is dark’ which says something of this. Perhaps Peter could relate.

Lord, it is dark.
Lord, are you here in my darkness?

Your light has gone out,
and so has its reflection on men and all things around me.
Everything seems grey and sombre
as when a fog blots out the sun and enshrouds the earth.
Everything is an effort,
everything is difficult,
and I am heavy-footed and slow.
Every morning I am overwhelmed at the thought of another day.
I long for the end,
and I yearn for the oblivion of death.
I should like to leave,
run away,
flee,
anywhere, escape.
Escape what?
You, Lord, others, myself, I don’t know.
But leave,
Flee.

I progress haltingly,
like a drunkard
from force of habit, unconsciously.
I go through the same motions each day,
but I know that they are meaningless.
I walk,
but I know that I get nowhere.
I speak,
and my words seem dreadfully empty,
for they can reach only human ears
and not the living souls who are far above.
Ideas themselves escape me,
and I find it hard to think.
I stammer, confused, blushing,
and I feel ridiculous and abashed, for people will notice me.
Lord, am I losing my mind?
Or is all this what you want?

It wouldn’t matter, except that I am alone.
I am alone.
You have taken me far, Lord;
trusting, I followed you,
and you walked at my side,
and now, at night,
in the middle of the desert,
suddenly you have disappeared.
I call, and you do not answer.
I search, and I do not find you.
I have left everything, and now I am left alone.
Your absence is my suffering.

Lord, it is dark.
Lord, are you here in my darkness?
Where are you, Lord?
Do you love me still?
Or have I wearied you?
Lord, answer,
Answer!

It is dark.

(Michel Quoist, Prayers of Life, 1963)

Merton: ‘If I were looking for God …’

‘If I were looking for God, every event and every moment would sow, in my will, grains of God’s life, that would spring up one day in a tremendous harvest. For it is God’s love that warms me in the sun and God’s love that sends the cold rain. It is God’s love that feeds me in the bread I eat and God that feeds me also by hunger and fasting. It is the love of God that sends the winter days when I am cold and sick, and the hot summer when I labor and my clothes are full of sweat: but it is God who breathes on me with light winds off the river and in the breezes out of the wood.’

‘God’s love spreads the shade by the sycamore over my head and sends the water-boy along the edge of the wheat field with a bucket from the spring, while the laborers are resting and the mules stand under the tree. It is God’s love that speaks to me in the birds and streams but also behind the clamor of the city God speaks to me in God’s judgments, and all these things are seeds sent to me from God’s will. If they would take root in my liberty, and if God’s will would grow from my freedom, I would become the love that God is, and my harvest would be God’s glory and my own joy. And I would grow together with thousands and millions of other freedoms into the gold of one huge field praising God, loaded with increase, loaded with increase, loaded with corn.’