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On any given day…

January 25, 2017

mccrae-water

On any given day

you just don’t know

which demons from history’s distant land

will walk in through the door

and say “I’ve come to shake your hand”

 

On any given day

you just don’t know

what strange log will fall

right in your way

diverting your steps a little

on that given day

and bending around

so as not to have faltered

you well may be saved

but your path ever altered

 

On any given day

you just don’t know

what new story you will hear

and so make lies of a truth

you had once held dear

or what your eyes

will yet perceive

making true what you dared not

before believe.

 

On any given day

you just don’t know

with what labour

the hour shall be tasked

that  yesterday you could not

have imagined being asked

On any given day.

 

Any given day is but

a gift  unknown unseen

any given day

these fraught and fragile futures

that have – as yet – never been

which on any given day

can unwrapped and opened be

for those who any given day would dare

and are given gifted free.

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Prayers to a Living God

December 16, 2016

neighbour-fireDear God,

help us to stop thinking about you

and start thinking like you.

Please give us the mind of Christ.

Dear God,

help us to stop trying to learn about you

and to start loving you.

Please give us a heart after your own.

Let us not reduce you to

words and thoughts,

ideas and notions,

concepts and abstractions only.

Dear God,

please help us to use

every sense and skill,

fire-2intuition and instinct,

every art and articulation,

reason and reflex

in discovery of you.

Lead us in the humility

and forgive us in the inadequacy

of them all.

Dear God,

help us not to pile up

our individual religious knowledge

into our heads,

but to build up

each other

into the body of Christ.

Let us Hold fast to you,

and yet so give ourselves away to others.

Let our faith-giving be so generous,fire-3

and our faith-sharing so fearless.

Spirit of the Living God,

help us to remember that you are more alive than we are.

Beside you we are but dead ones walking,

decaying flesh, and fragmenting souls.

You, defeater of death,

are infinitely more alive than we.

Let us respond to you as one so alive.

Let us never speak of you as if you were

static or stuck,

limp or lifeless,

inert or inanimate.

Let us speak only of you truly:fire-sunset

with the passion of a lover,

or the sheer enthusiasm of a child

and let us live only with you

in the intimate immanence of both.

Amen.

*Images: McCrae. Neighbour contemplating the burning debris from his day’s work renovating; Foreshore sunset

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Story that won’t stand still and the open hand.

December 9, 2016

Once upon a time, there was a very little girl who lived in a tiny little house on the corner of two streets in the country, Clark street and Otway street. And she lived there with her mother and her father and her brother, but not her sister, because she hadn’t been born yet.

But this little girl it seemed had been born with a few things wrong. Some things wrong with her eyes and her ears.

When this little girl used her eyes to see the world, all of the things and shapes and colours and movements formed themselves into stories.

Stories, as you know, never stand still. Stories are always moving. Clever people sometimes talk of ‘advancing the plot’ of a story, or ‘driving the narrative’.

This little girl’s dad was a mechanic, a fixer of cars, and she had seen him strip a gearbox, replace headgaskets and safely push a cracked windscreen out using the gentle pressure of his feet, all well before she went to school. She knew intuitively that moving and driving were not simple and surface affairs – but that there was a great deal of intricate systemic reaction and interaction that went on. Somehow, she also knew this of stories and plots.

As her eyes beheld the world-as-story it became for her a way of things reacting and interacting (under the bonnet, as it were) as well as going forward and having purpose and direction.

As she grew older she realized this was the thing that was wrong with her eyes. That some other people didn’t see everything in stories, moving and turning constantly. She heard people speak of seeing and understanding things called ‘propositions’ and she came to recognize that they were talking about ideas that stood still.

How did they do that? What magic did they have that they could make an idea stand still? How did they bolt it down?

But what was wrong with the little girl’s ears? Her ears were filled with music –all of the time. Every sound was a song or a symphony or a shanty. Every sound: the hum of the heater, the ping of spoon on the cup, the fizz of the tap, the pulse of engines on the road, the rumble of the chair across the floor, the punctuations of a door that closes, and of course, the everyday operatic ensembles of birds. There was always the company and conversation and colour and content of sound. Every act of speech she encountered entered this symphonic world like a soloist over the tutti. Like the entrance of a new character in the second act of the opera. Like the fruiterer who calls out above the competing buskers and business of crowds in the teeming marketplace.

As she grew older she realized that this was the thing that was wrong with her ears. That some other people had quietness in their ears. That a sentence spoken could be like a herald in an empty street. She heard people speaking as if they were starting a speech alone on a stage. She heard people speaking as if there were no other voices.

How did they do that? What magic did they have that they could make everyone and everything else silent, an audience? As if the lights were dimmed over everyone else, conforming them into a faceless characterless crowd sitting passively in seats.

Sometimes the little girl would find herself in such a crowd, being spoken to as if she were not alive, and even worse, as if all the songs and stories and characters of colour in her head were white, or grey, or silent or dead.

There was always a little oddness in this. Sometimes this even happened in church, which was especially odd.

But just speaking to the world as if it is all white and grey and silent and dead does not make it so.

The stories and songs, the colours and shapes and sounds remained very much alive. They made her wriggle, they made her write, they made her draw. But they did not stop or sleep or fade or forsake her.

And it made the little girl look around and wonder – at all the other people. She knew that not everyone had a company of troubadours in their heads, but she wondered if some others did. Or maybe they had an office of journalists and editors, clacking away on keyboards, or maybe they had a team of chefs, with abundant pantries combining ingredients, mixing stirring, testing, baking, waiting, or a company of dancers always moving, stretching, balancing, leaping, spinning.

She wondered.

Meanwhile in her own ballads, terror and sadness came often.

When she heard about the ideas that stood still she was dismayed. Ideas that would sit down and stay. That would not budge. That reached out their frozen, rasped concrete hands of mischief and gripped without letting go.

Nevertheless these ideas stood in the midst of the whirling stories and shifting shapes. Like a child watching the skipping rope loop over and over and over, waiting for the space to run in and jump.

The stories went on. Some of them terrible. Some of them wonderful.

With her eyes and ears that were somehow wrong, she found that the ideas that stood still were not as strong as the stories and songs, which were always being refueled. Each morning new sounds, new colours and shapes appeared.

When she tried to remember the ideas that stood still, she found them hard. She found them hard to remember, she found them not so much hard to believe, as hard to know. Hard to make friends with. Hard to make useful.

No doubt it could possibly be done. She read stories of people who did. And she knew that the church thought it could be done too.

Churches did seem to have successfully hammered in some large, now immovable, concrete post ideas. Cold and hard and grey and lifeless and obstructive. Meanwhile, large basketfulls of stories piled up like laundry in every corner, begging to be rifled through, tipped out, tried on or at least pegged up to flap a spirited dance in the breeze.

Week after week, the little girl sat in church and wondered how much attention anyone else was paying to the big concrete post ideas. She looked around and tried to sense who, like her, might be hankering for some storying. Perhaps the lady with enormous feather hat; the man with gold chains and hairy chest; the lady with orange lipstick and the colourful kaftan; the man in the grey suit and glasses on his nose and a wicked twinkle in his eye.

Little girls are brave at wondering and imagining, but fearful of talking to grownups. So, week after week, she sat with her songs and stories in her mind and stared into the huge bright colourful window of shapes and symbols and stories.

window

A man kneeling in water among reeds and fish, other standing by, one holding keys, while a boat and a lamb and a star drifted in the sky above. She knew all these stories and the others that strung between them like netting. She felt the cold water and the gritty sand under the knees of the man. She felt his dimpled damp fingertips and palms pressing together in a prayer – and the anticipation and hope and holiness of that moment made her tremble. For long, long, long minutes she would stare into that face. That calm, knowing, open face that seemed to hold no unkindness or wickedness or exasperation or scowling or pity or mocking that she knew in other faces.

This was a face that met her gaze. He never flinched. He was made of glass, for sure. But she felt that from the stories told of this man, had the light melted the glass and the image miraculously animated, he still would not have flinched.

His stories were, it seemed like hers.

Moving, wheeling around, taking the corners a bit fast, hard to keep up with.

But in time she learned how to use her ears, like her dad did – to listen in and recognize the sounds of the different moving parts. Her dad could hear a worn bearing deep in the belly of a car and tell you exactly where it was. He knew the pitch of every whir and how long it would be before that part needed replacing. Listening – listening close – listening and imagining – listening and questioning – listening and testing – listening and investigating – listening and adjusting: these were the skills that made her dad a good mechanic; and so she learned too, were the same skills directed towards the stories of the faith that made him a good exegete, a gifted story teller, a great meaning maker, and a go-the-distance disciple.

So she took her wrong ears. And her wrong eyes and she too, looking at the colours and shapes and listening to the stories, learned:

She learned listening – listening close to the text– listening and imagining the text – listening and questioning the text – listening and testing the text – listening and investigating the text – listening and adjusting life and faith to the text.

And she learned to see. To look close and stand back from the text – to see and imagine the shapes and colours of the text – to look and test our visions, her visions of the text – to see and test the outlines and forms and tones of the text – to look deeper, into the cracks and interrogate and investigate the text – and seeing all this, to adjust – to adjust faith and life to the text, to the mobile, moving, many parts of the stories that carry our faith.

In these ways she found the stories of faith no easier to believe. (After all faith is not to be the click of the fingers, or the flick of a switch, or the tick of a box).

Stories were still no easier to believe, but with this listening and looking, they were easier to know, to make useful, to make friends with.

These stories with their warm hands outstretched to her, waving hello, comforting her shoulder, holding her shaking hand in times of fear, pointing out wonders to see, wiping her tears, made friends with her own stories. These stories and her stories found common ground, same-same snaps, and deep resonances. And where her ears heard the clanging of dissonance, the rumble of a rough ride, the crunch and grind of misalignment, she knew the arts of imagining, questioning, testing, investigating and adjusting to the stories of faith. Listening and looking afresh would see her running smoothly and set her again towards the go-the-distance life she longed for.

*

30 years later I sat again staring at this window, as I peered around the remnants of some of those concrete posts, still standing, but with more of the clothes tipped out of the baskets as stories animated the gath
ering.

I looked again at the hand of John the Baptists open palmed before Jesus. All my years as a child I had seen in the design of the art glass the image of a church in the palm of John’s hand. I had thought in that moment of baptism that John was prophetically showing Jesus the future of the church – clearly I could see the sloped roofline of the church rising to a steeple and several arched windows.I identified myself in that image too – that John the Baptist was showing Jesus the ministry of the church that was being launched in the ministry of Jesus, that included litwindow-jtb-handtle me.

As an adult, looking again at the art, I realised that the dark stain on John’s hand was simply to indicate his palm creases and fingers. No church. No Beth.

It was a moment in which my songs fell silent. And then they stirred again. And the Stories were moving and flexing and turning and beckoning, and I was looking again, listening closer, looking and imagining, listening and questioning, looking and testing, listening and investigating, looking and adjusting.

Of course John is showing Jesus the future church – it is not the architecture of walls and roofline and steeple and windows – this is not the future nor the past nor the present form of continuity of the  ministry of Jesus launched in water and spirit.

No. What better symbol of the ministry and mission of the church of Jesus, baptised Jesus, Spirit-filled  Jesus, than a simple open human hand.

Let it be so.

 

 

 

 

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The Silence of God

December 2, 2016

No word…

No word…

No word comes

The blank

The silence

Beat like drums

Walls of

Patience

Wearing thin

Rubble roof

Of Hope

Falls in

Room collapses

Into space

Yet in debris and dust

Lies Grace

The silent earthquake

Tremors cease

And leave us

To rebuild in peace

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Time after Time

November 8, 2016

now clockLoving God, time after time after time:
Beyond counting and measure, and beyond worthiness or reasoning

Time after time after time you seek us out, you chase us down, you call us back, you welcome us home, you invite us in.

And then with home well held in our hearts,  you send us out to adventure, again.

So your passion for us crashes over us like glorious waves of salty surf, stinging our senses with exhilarating freshness, energy and power that drenches us breathless.

You lift us up, you pull the ground from beneath us, you move us in your current. Not feeling entirely safe, and despite our nervous flailing, we are grinning- eyes wide open, heads thrown back in sheer joy.

A recalcitrant immersive baptism, that nearly drowns, and leaves us gulping in the air of life with renewed love and desperation. You make us breathe more deeply than we can stand, lungs extended to bursting.

What are we doing – splashing and surfing, when we are so tired, so pressured, so anxious, with so many demands and expectations, so vulnerable to eventualities unknown?

It seems folly, but it is you who call us in. You who dares us brave the tides, take the plunge and ride the waves.

The waves that return, time after time after time.

The Breath that is given, time and time and time.

Water and Breath : Double Signs of your abundant Spirit of Life, that assails us with wild and boundless grace, unmeasurable as the sea, and unaccountable as air.

Way out beyond worthiness or reason, yet within Grace and Truth.

Time after time after time,

Amen.

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Tell a Better Story

October 31, 2016

Judges speech given at the Omega Writers CALEB awards for Australian Christian literature.     Mulgoa, NSW. Oct 29, 2016

Good evening friends. Maybe you’re a Writer, a Reader, an Author, an Editor, a Scribe, or more of a scribbler, an Illustrator, an Appreciator, a poet, a publisher, a story teller, a story seller, maybe you’re the literati, or maybe your just like me -here for the party…

My name is Beth Barnett, I’m from Melbourne. I’m an author, I’m a children and families ministry teacher and a theologian. And I have had the privilege of contributing on the judging panel for some of tonight’s awards.

I served on the panel for the Children’s Illustrated Literature section. The children’s picture books. What a medium that is!

It’s a medium of communication, of such influence, of such transformative capacity and subversive potential. So called children’s literature is read by children of course. But it’s also read by parents, By professionals, by politicians, by pastors, by publicans, even by Prime Ministers. It’s a high-impact medium. Really, by rights it should be the most highly censored and regulated media of our society. Such is its power.

I read and reviewed these books in the midst of plenty of thundery noise – energy, heat, and flash points of light – being exchanged in discussions in our public arena on the value of faith, the place of principles in policymaking, the role of religion in regulations on relationships.

And yet for all the economic and educative energy various parties on all sides are exerting, listening in on public discourse, it is hard to see much traction gained or movement in any direction. In fact we’re not sure in Australia whether we can even talk about some things in the public anymore, safely.

And yet here we are: still writing, illustrating publishing – words, images, books, stories, characters, plots, alternate universes and also representations of this our cosmos, gifted to us, in brilliant, bright, clear lines for children, for young people.

Our stories celebrate subversively what might be missed in all of that nose, and our stories challenge what might be amiss.

The books that I reviewed in judging the children’s illustrated section embraced topics of the dignity in disability, negotiating our fears, the power of words to would and heal, our sources of conflict and belonging. These are mighty themes.

I have a little motto – for myself, and for those I mentor and teach and write for. It is this: tell a better story.

Perhaps calling this a motto is a misrepresentation. Let me rephrase: I have a vocation. Tell a better story.

It is a vocation I think many many in this gathering share: Tell a better story. We celebrate the telling of better stories tonight.

So let this continue to be a vocation for us:

I was inspired as I reviewed the books to Tell a better story than the formulaic, predictable good guys/bad guys comic book plot of winners and losers.

Tell a better story than the patronizing prince charming rescue and facile happily ever after ending.

Tell a better story than the endlessly dysfunctional family.

Tell a better story than the purposeless pursuit of point scoring.

Tell a better story than the too easy polarizing black and white judgments so common in the thunder and lightning show of public discourse.

And let’s keep working, true to our vocation, and tell a better story than the one we told before

– to keep working at our craft,

at our courage to create;

at our unconventional characterisations that make room for the non-typical our society fails to celebrate as they should;

to keep working at our content – our theology. Let’s keep asking what God inhabits the world of our story? Is it a God able to be loved with whole heart, soul mind and strength? – is it a God a who gives himself – and all his rights and righteousness up to do what only God can bear to do?

And let’s keep working at our audience, our mission. Let’s tell a better story where other messages don’t reach. To tell our better stories which can extend beyond our own churches and Christian cloisters and confessions – these stories reach way into the cracks and corners of our culture and find their way into the corridors of power. This is our great vocation: it is well worth our effort to tell a better story.

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The Short-Legged Liturgy

October 30, 2016

There is stretch of parkland that runs along a freeway for many kilometers, that over the years has become a sacred space for me. It is where I’ve regularly run my ’10ks of sanity’ but  also where I’ve also strolled with friends, picnicked, taught my lads to ride, and been the site of my adventures into interactive community art installations that open bible text and prompt prayers in the open public unaffiliated green space of the park.

Over the years it has become to me a favourite corridor in the larger Cathedral of Cosmos. The idea of viewing life in the ‘Cathedral of the Cosmos’ is a way I have of locating myself constantly in the reality of sacredness of all space – opening myself to encounter God and others in the framework of grace, and to resist the privileging of some structures (architectural, intellectual and cultural) over others as more likely hosts of Spirit and Word.

Running through this especially beautiful space, of nature and community, has grown in me attention to what I think of as a ‘Short-legged Liturgy’. As I pound along in praise and prayer, I empty out all the pride and pity, loves and longings, sabotage and shame,  hopes to hasten the holy, weary darkness, wrought tensions, cries for cracking open of justice across creation, lurking lies, unbearable burdens and broken bits from my my heart.

By the end of my run all of my sins have sweated their way to the surface; there they sit stinking, my stench, out exposed confessed to the world, and waiting for washing in daily baptism.

Although there is  much solitary inner world work, the path is peopled to greet with  peace.

koonung-trailYesterday morning, the sun bright in an unobstructed pure blue sky illuminated the entire landscape; the brilliant sparkle of black bitumen before me on the path, the gleaming greens grass beneath and gum leaves overhead. Deep in my own heart discussions, ahead on the path I saw a woman, slight framed, middle-eastern complexion in jumper and jeans,  stop under a Lemon Gum that shaded the path. She paused and then extended her arms into the air, her palms unfolded before the sky,  fingers elegantly extended in a posture of peace and freedom. Surely this is a prayer I am watching.

She remained like this for a few moments, then moved to set her bag down on a nearby bench, by which time I was not 2 meters from her.

I could not help myself. I stopped and approached her.

“I saw your arms reach up and open under the tree; it looked like a prayer. Were you praying?”

“Yes!” her look of surprise at being addressed by this red faced runner dissolved into a sparkling smile.

“It was so beautiful, I thought it must have been a prayer. I run here and all my steps are prayers too. It is such a sacred place.”

Affirmations and agreements poured between us – two strangers – on the beauty of the world around us, the openness of God we encounter within this beauty and the instinctive response of prayer it calls forth in us both.

“Do you have a particular faith or religion you identify with – or is this kind of prayer  here in the parkland your spirituality?” I enquired.

“I am Muslim, and I know Jesus. Because Jesus has spoken to me in dreams.”

I smile back at her. “I know Jesus, too. I follow Jesus. But this place is also my place of knowing and loving God, a place of prayer in a way, that is larger than a christian church, larger than my tradition.”

“Are you a Christian?”

“Yes I am.”

And then a long beautiful peace-filled conversation unfurled in which we affirmed the complexities of faith, which, when lived in the world spills over the boundaries of our religions. We find ourselves drawn by a God who will be known and loved, however it is that we might be found by that knowing and loving.

“Do you know of our prophet Mohammed?’ she asks.

“Yes, I do. I have read a small amount of islamic writings, only a bit…” I confess.

“Our scriptures say that a person can only have faith if God wants it, if it is God’s will.”

Again, I find connection: “The Christian scriptures also say this. That faith is a gift that is given by God. Faith doesn’t come by our own efforts, by trying, by learning. If we have faith, it is because God has given it to us.”

And so we continue to open the scriptures that each of carries in our minds to one another – we talk of Sarah and Abraham, Paul and Moses. We speak of their lives interrupted by God’s voice and truth and love.

She says to me “I am glad to meet you – a Christian. I do know other Christians, but you are different.” (if I had a dollar for every time someone had called me different…) “My neighbour is a Christian but she’s so strict and always worrying and crying. And she is not sure how I can be a Muslim and love Jesus too.”

She continues “I think I want to go to church, but when I talk to Christians they want to teach me things: to give me a Fasi Bible to study.  I want to love Jesus. That isn’t just to be learnt.”

Here, this Muslim Christian who prays in joyful expressive freedom beneath the open blue sky,  puts her so gentle and gracious finger on one of the sorest points of the contemporary church. Our compulsive behaviour of learning beliefs. Our one narrow epistemology – which has distorted the beauty of our faith – a faith of gift and a faith of grace; a faith of loving and knowing as one reconciling action.

She asks if I go to church. That’s a complicated question, for one who serves across many denominations, has found much grace expressed in the strength and weakness in them all, but only temporary nesting places, before the wind stirs again, topples me from my branch and moves me on. And I have just recently moved on, and belonging is still feeling fragile. But there are also long long long term steady communities and practices that sustain and connect me to others of faith, which I give my whole heart and much time to.

Is it important to have a ‘church’ identity at all?  Just this week I had settled on a slightly cheeky ecumenical identity, drawing on the legacy of the late twentieth century Baptist fringe expression ‘The House of the Gentle Bunyip’ associated with the great scholar Athol Gill. I had found a resonance in the identity of Gypsy Bunyip. But I didn’t think I could really make a convincing acquittal of this messy life to my  new Irani parkland companion.

I simply say – ‘Yes, I meet with others who follow Jesus, in lots of ways, and running here on the trail is also a way meeting with God even more strongly and beautifully than I might in a church – and today I have met with you, too – a person of great faith.

Our conversation begins to daw to a close, and we speak of the faith we hope and trust for our children, well, young men.

In the end, I say to her ‘You spoke before of Moses. Moses was called a friend of God – he was with God face to face as a friend. That is the faith I see in you, and the faith I seek myself. We are here. face to face as friends. We are Friends of God and Friends of one another.

We shared peace with each other, shaking hands, smiling deeply into each others face, then this Muslim Christian, and this Gypsy Bunyip embraced long, as if friends of many years, and went each on their path onward through the Cathedral of the Cosmos.