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A poem for threadbare hearts

September 20, 2018

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it goes way back

this tight wound thread

constricting the heart

and tangling the head

spooled round every nerve,

and  bone

winds round each touch

that’s ever been known

binds up body and soul

shapes how they’ve grown

each memory that’s joined

by puncturing stitch

with the merest tug

no wonder we twitch

 

the urge to cut

to slice through flesh

attempt to sever

ties that enmesh

or to take a point

that’s sharp and prick

and pierce the layers

with needle stick

 

but neither skin deep

nor in muscle is found

the end of the thread

to be unwound

 

so so far back

in the kernel of soul

lies the start and the end

that connects to the whole

 

yet also there – within –

an ancient  spool

waiting long

since cosmos was cool

with unmade waters

and destiny dark

and sun and spirit

were barely a spark

the shape of one

on which would wind

all the threads

of humankind

the spindle of God

centripetal core

all ends all threads

love’s gravity draws

 

we fray and twist

twine and knot

caught within

our own  damn plot

 

we try a little love

to weave

but warp threads break

and warped hearts leave

and neither better

is the weft

where truth is thrust

when trust  has left

Yet we are worked by spinner God

whose fingers tiny swift and deft –

 

gently hold and wind and reel

and gracious yet our fibres feel.

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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And on the seventh day

August 27, 2018

africa woman

Let there be rest

Be overwhelmed by so much blest

 Reminisce humming tunes old and dearest

 Lazy grazing over yesterday’s fest

Go not too many steps away

Carry no load at all today

Delight in creation’s beauty

for beauty’s sake alone

Seeing what has past,

its very goodness known

Time for holding all love has meant

Let go task and measure and judgement.

Your sabbath I would be

A gift that comes around regularly

one

in six

and year of jubilee

when all regrets are set aside free.

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Sub-plot specialists

June 11, 2018

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There are times when you lose the plot
The plot of your own story.
And the best you think you can hope for is
to find yourself a secondary character
in the subplot
of someone else’s story.
Some of us have so much
difficulty developing our own plot line
with any consistency or conviction,
that we make an art form
out of weaving in and out of other plots.
Sub plot specialists.

Perhaps this is in fact a vocation.
Maybe some of us aren’t called to be main characters.
But to appear in cameos,
delivering an essential line here and there,
that shift the action in some different direction,
or explain something that was unclear,
or to mirror the grand narrative in a smaller, more accessible form
– and bring its claims and hubris back down to human proportions.

The subversion of the subplot.
The subliminal meaning-making of the subplot.
The substitution of earthy commoner for elevated elite in the subplot action.

Secondary characters who carry subplots are typically more colourful, not the fine lady, but the crone or the gypsy, not the nobleman but the valet or the sergeant.
The servant, the thespian, the cook, the lover, the fool, the cripple, the musician, the shoe maker, the traveller.
The child.

The child is always a subplot.

These are the characters
that move
that come and go.
They are revealers of other people’s truths.
They are lightning rods and catalysts for tension and resolution.

They are time sensitive – timely and timed out.

The child. The child is always a subplot.

Poking open hearts
to uncover the deepest of human vulnerabilities, fears and loves.
Posing questions of motive and meaning from the side.
Creating problems for the cunning and contriving strategists.
Carrying innocently inconvenient scandals for the virtuous.

So in stories upon the stage and the page, so in our very lives.
Sub-plots specialists.

there is a whisper though,
that we are all subplot specialists
in a vast story of immense complexity and proportion
and sovereignly separate cosmic character
Reading ourselves as children
is the wisest way of knowing our character
and finding our cues for the drama of life.

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soundbytes and stunting sensitivity to the experience of children.

June 1, 2018
Facebook. I shouldn’t look.
A friend posted a quote from a book. A Christian book, a big selling influential Christian book,  by a contemporary theologian of great reputation. It’s a good book. I’ve read it. It was helpful in lots of ways. Definitely read it if you haven’t and buy it and pass it around to others.
I’m not dismissing the book because of this one quote, but this was the quote that was shared, given profile, and so then discussed and reinforced on facebook.
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It appears that a good church upbringing will do many marvelous things for you, but one of the unfortunate things it also does is convince you that Jesus is to be worshipped but not followed.
– Alan Hirsch,  ReJesus. 
Ah, man. I can’t tell you how infuriating this kind of generalisation is.
It’s a good sound-byte.
But I am about to object (some of you won’t be surprised) because its an example of the way the faith experiences of children are dismissed, scapegoated and marginalised in theological discourse in ways that don’t help us understand our own cultural practices well.
Again, I have to ask how we manage to malign the young with language we would not dare use for other minorities or marginalised group. Is there a context christians feel more disinhibited in deprecating that the experiences of childhood?
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So my questions, I admit are running on frustration and fury. Forgive me. I know you would if I were prophetically calling out for reconsideration of the way we spoke about gender, or race or ability.
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It’s a small soundbyte from a wonderful book – but it is the kind of comment, and the discussion that it spawns, the stunts our sensitivity to the actual experience of children in our midst – even as we use them for theological mileage.
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‘Good church upbringing…’ what is that, I wonder?
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Who is Hirsch talking about?
Who does he diagnoses as worshipping Jesus and not following him, and on what basis does he judge this?
What kind of spiritual elitism judges the human who follows the script on Sunday, as expected, and whose discipleship through the week is most likely hidden, like a pearl of great price or salt or yeast in dough. The faithful lives of disciples are not easily assessed by a church that gathers once a week for a one-way communication process.
The rubric for evaluating people as worshippers or disciples is not easily drawn.
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I had a childhood in the church – a very good church upbringing.
The message ‘I shall not offer unto the Lord that which costeth me nothing” was so often repeated it rings in my ears still.
What was faith formation growing up in the church?
It was daily dying to self. It was giving all you had – in real and practical terms – to follow the crucified Christ. It was holding up all of your daily life-style decisions to the light of scripture for revision and re-evaluation.
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I’m sure others had different experiences of church-upbringing; and I can’t see what informs Hirch’s claim about the experience of children in faith communities, but I am sure there is a far greater diversity of formative practices and outcomes than this
off- hand quote suggests.
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So – just as anecdotally – from the perspective of decades out the back in the hall with the young disciples I offer an alternative view. A view not from the platform, but from the pew and from the short legged tables and the carpet square and the craft cupboard and the pages of the Bible with icing sugar smears.
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The orientation of ‘upbringing’ – by which I mean the experience of children in churches has been – to a fault- centred on discipleship. Following Jesus, prayer and engagement with the bible and the way it shapes our everyday actions is the common stock in how we ‘process’ children in faith communities. If there’s a critique to be brought more commonly it is that children are excluded from the worshipping life of the church, denied the sacraments and the contemplative moments of life together. And routinely the discipleship formation experience of children hits difficult waters in the conversion experience orientation of youth ministry. Suddenly children who thought they were following Jesus for a decade – whose prayers were sincere, who were endeavouring to shape their lives on the sermon on the mount at our behest, are told they are rotten rebellious sinners far from God. What is the impact of discrediting their discipleship?
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So I offer this alternative diagnosis. It is not the upbringing/child-raising practices that misdirect faith posture towards “worship-against-discipleship”, but the transition from discipleship-oriented faith formation of the young, to the worship orientation of the adult community.
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I write thinking of children and young people.  But also I write thinking of the adults I know who had church upbringings. Adults who no longer identify with a church. Who don’t ‘worship Jesus’ – but the legacy of their childhood is  faith in following the teachings, the ethics, the kingdom of God that they learned as young disciples of  Jesus.
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Some of them are yet our best prophetic voices, calling the church to return to faithfulness to the architecture Jesus revealed.
What of them? Their church upbringing has precisely left them following Jesus without worshipping him.
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What do we make of that?
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The Royal Wedding, the Royal Commission and other travelling unravellings.

May 30, 2018

High above the Tasman Sea between Christchurch and Melbourne, the man next to me in 12B was in conversational full flight. I’d heard about his wife’s illness and artistry and his kids interests and academic strength, his business partners, the staff he’d let go, his parents, his interest in singing and photography and electronics and farming.

When the inevitable question of my profession came up, he was not deterred at all when I self-identified as a theologian.

He was on the trail of my philosophical leanings and wanted to know if I knew who Noam Chomsky was, because his son had recently exchanged emails with Chomsky. I was suitably impressed.

He knew  to ask if I had a specific faith myself – and what that might be, not taking western christendom’s legacy as a given. He talked about the female vicars he knew, in fact, the lesbian vicar he was friends with. By this time he was two white wines worth of relaxed.

He wanted to know what I did when I was writing or talking ‘theology’.

He asked about the conference I’d been speaking at, sorting out if I’d been preaching (no) or speaking (yes); if I called the assembly a congregation (no) or an audience (yes); and he wanted to know how many ‘hallelujahs’ I’d used (none) as a test of whether I was indeed preaching (no) or speaking (yes).

He asked what I thought of the preacher (Bishop Michael Curry) at the Royal Wedding last week, and we talked about different flavours of religion, and genres and of

Bishop-Michael-Curry-Royal-Weddingcommunication, and how these could align or get out of tilt. He felt that Curry might  have used a few more “Hallelujahs” himself -though conceded that there were enough British Propriety Feathers ruffled as it was.

 

 

All of this was jovial and shared at 36,000 feet in easy relaxed smiles and banter and anecdotes and laughter.

Then as we talked more about the specific areas of my own theological interests – the way our theology works itself out in the way we treat the vulnerable, and particularly the young and the aged  and those not afforded the luxury of physical or mental prime and the religious self sufficient hubris that often characterises it. I spoke about the days of reckoning that have come upon the Australian church, as the history of child abuse has been unmasked publicly, at length in the proceedings of the Royal Commission. I spoke about the responses of institutions. We need more than simply greater protective legislations and procedures – though of course these are not to be neglected.

At the heart of our history of child sexual abuse are the flawed beliefs we have about who children are. That they are only becoming human. That they are not yet formed. That they are – to be blunt – less. So we do things to them that we think matter less, than what happens to adults.

Our terrible theologies have born poisonous fruit. We have espoused that either that children are innocent and unblemished, so are immune from perpetrating abuse upon one another – thus we neglect their supervision and accountability.

Or it’s been held that children are, along with all humanity, utterly depraved, but being yet too young to be able to respond with conscious will to accept the saving  grace of Christ,  must be given over to bear the brunt of sin – in the hope of forgiveness and redemption later.

And flowing on from this, our practices that closet children away, because we consider them no asset, or even worse, a distraction in the pursuit of holiness and the right worship God, has left them vulnerable to inadequate leadership and resourcing for safety and flourishing and honouring.

None of this is controversial or surprising to anyone. There church is coming unravelled in the eyes of the public – and rightly so. Some significant unstitching and re-making is in order.

My fellow traveller knew exactly what I was saying on a practical level. Though like many people he had never thought about the way our beliefs, our theology, might help or hinder good practice. He was taken by the importance of this.

A pause – this extraverted electronic engineer, excited to be flying to Australia on a business junket had bubbled away for a couple of hours of conversation with barely a breath till this point.

Then he unravelled a further story.

He spoke of how the issues of child sexual abuse had come close to him personally. His 11 year old daughter had recently revealed to him that she had been sexually abused over a period of several years – since she was about 8 –  by an older cousin, taking place in the midst of family gatherings, holidays and celebrations.

snap. #metoo.

I listened as he spoke of the pain of the disclosure, his wife’s denial, his courage to face up to his brother (whose son was involved) and speak of such difficult things. The role wise and steady Grandma, his mother, had giving him strength for this task. He spoke of the school processes, of counselling, and how he has a commitment with his daughter to check in once a week and have a conversation about this with her, not to let it drift into the distance as irrelevant. He acknowledges that there is still work ahead for every one.

For his daughter, for him and his brother to reconcile fully, for the young lad who enacted the abuse. What brought about such actions in this young person’s being?

What was motivating and informing him?

As we travelled across the deepest part of the sea, I listened. I heard a story I knew part of  so thoroughly already myself. I hear a story that might have been straight out of any social worker’s files, out of any text book on abuse. Classic. Text book. Predictable. Common.

Most sexual abuse happens in this way. Not in churches or scout groups or swimming clubs or dance schools – though plenty of it happens there. Most abuse happens in families. Most perpetrators of sexual abuse offend for the first time in their early teenage years.

My fellow traveller had come to know this – to know the devastating ordinary of his daughter’s damage and his family’s experience. His family is not a terrible family, a troubled family in the cliched sent we might think. They are happy and healthy and honest, supportive and functional, generous and loving, with a good seasoning of old time Anglican love thy neighbour and community service. They are normal. Their experience is normal.

My work in theology endeavours to reveal the places where our decent and respectable beliefs cover up practices of evil and harm.

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The way we read the story of family in the Bible is a large area for revision.

We must not pedestal Abraham – whose own anxieties about power placed his wife at risk and his son almost under the knife.

We must not sugar-coat Jacob, deceptive, manipulative, raising a family of violent, vindictive brothers.

We must stop considering the rapist David a godly example to follow.

 

 

The Biblical narrative of family is far from ideal.

The Biblical narrative of family is full of real.

My fellow traveller carried a great gift in his story – he knew his family was a good rich resource of love and life, but this didn’t blind him to the possibility and impact of wrongdoing within it. As we tell the biblical stories of family, and as we speak of family in our communities, we need this wisdom. This real. This possibility that all is not well – even in ‘good’ families. We need this to combat the culture of shame that inhibits timely disclosure by victims, and appropriate support and help for perpetrators. We need this to    shut down judgement that divides communities and labels some families as ‘dysfunctional’ and others as ‘exemplary’.

#metoo tells us simply that abuse happens anywhere and everywhere. That those who act wrongly are not monsters in the first instance, but terribly terribly ordinary, thought their unrestrained actions and access to power will in time tragically disfigure them.

As we landed and finished our conversation, the man in 12B – still we hadn’t exchanged names – returned to the thread of conversation about my work speaking at conferences about theologically informed practices with children and families.

He left me with a charge:

“Next time you speak, I want there to be at least one big Hallelujah.”

Although I don’t know his name, he had used the name of his daughter, Hazel, throughout the journey.

So I will.

I will raise a Hallelujah for Hazel. For  hope in the honesty of hurting and healing families.

 

 

 

 

 

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Hope sounding sad

May 29, 2018
WOM17-HERO-Uncle-Kutcha-in-Concert_Kutcha-Edwards.-Image-by-Mardi-Thorpe_WEB-890x500
Kutcha Edwards is singing at Fed Square in Melbourne today at lunchtime, as part of  Reconciliation Week.
His song Hope   is possibly the most beautiful and saddest song about resilience I know. A song, not about politics in the classic sense, but about domestic abuse, a different context of power, but one we need to understand with greater honesty and responsibility for how we think about human-ing together full stop.
But Hope.
Hope doesn’t always look strident or peppy or brazen or inspirational.
Hope often doesn’t  feel great.
Sometimes hope comes from a place so deep and sacred,
it holds gentle quiet and respect for the griefs it needs to mourn on the way forward.
Hope contends with the past in the light of the future.
Despair contends with the future in the light of the past.
In the present, they can feel so alike – both contending, both struggling.
We stand in this present moment with all who despair and hope.
As we stand in Hope, this present moment may be a bridge to things put-to-right.
Hope humbles us. It holds a future put right, so large that we know we cannot quick fix it to save our faces.
Hope holds us humble in its own immensity.
For the followers of Jesus – we stand in hope that defines the work of God in the world as reconciliation – things put-to-right.
And so we must contend with the past.
with all our sorry;
with all out not ok;
with all our owning up;
with all our listening;
with all our tell it straight like it was;
with all our what do we need to change now
with all hope and humility.
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The topographical tribulations of transient hearts

May 28, 2018
Map-heart-054

1514 Map by Oronce Fine

drowning in the sea of sorrow
shipwrecked on the reefs of regret
stranded on the island of frustration
falling from the cliffs of expectation
crushed in the landslides of miscommunication
flailing in the quicksand of desperation
fevered in the jungles of fear
roasting in the desert of anger
frozen on the slopes of anxiety
wandering on the snow drifts of hopelessness
trapped in the ravines of grudge-holding
hanging from the precipice of judgement
starving on the tundra of silence