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Wednesday
May222019

The last garden

This time of year, the ornamental vines on our west-facing verandah are a glorious riot of scarlet and every possible shade of deep pink. Our entire living area is bathed in glowing red light, especially late afternoon, when it feels as though there is a bonfire in the back garden.  

Since we put the clocks back, I am barely at home in daylight hours during the week. On Saturday and Sunday, however, I have been trying to stop my chores, make myself a mug of tea and just sit and take it in, this wild extravagance of colour, which only lasts a week or two before the branches become bare.

My enjoyment of our creeper is particularly heartfelt this year, as it may be our last autumn in this house where the family has lived for the last two decades. It might be our last autumn with a garden at all.

Like so many other baby boomers heading for retirement, we are downsizing. This time next year, we will be, if not actually in a small apartment, then in the throes of moving there.

The building site is two kilometres away, and I wander up each week to keep an eye on proceedings. The first sod has well and truly been turned and the corner block is a cacophony of cranes and trucks, earth movers and pile drivers.

It’s exciting and terrifying in equal measure. This next 12 months, my main task, when all the urgent things have been attended to, is to work through every object and item of clothing and piece of paper in the house and decide whether it is a keeper, or something to give to the offspring, the op shop or the tip. It will take a year; I want to do it thoughtfully and we need to get rid of a lot of stuff.

But no matter how organised I am, I know it will be hellish towards the end, as all moves are – an emotional and physical ordeal. I know I will get to the new place and unpack the boxes and wonder why on earth we kept this possession or that. I know we still have too many things, that we won’t fit into the comparatively tiny spaces.

And the garden. Last time we were without one was 35 years ago. It’s hard to imagine not having the pressure and the delight that comes with a little patch of dirt to call our own. It’s hard to imagine no longer being curtained with a fiery waterfall every autumn.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on Monday 20 May

Monday
May062019

Spiritual decluttering

As I turn 60, decluttering seems to be the theme of my life. Marie Kondo, bless her painstakingly folded cotton socks, is my patron saint. Several important parts of my life are in the process of a radical cull: the church where I worship, my workplace and the family beach shack.  And, in preparation for a move to an apartment, my husband and I are packing up the family home of 20 years.

It's hard to ignore the suspicion that the universe is trying to tell me something! As I list all the avenues for my inner Kondo to my spiritual director, she gently suggests that God might be revealing something profound to me as well – the need to strip back spiritually, till only the essentials remain.

I ponder what this might mean in my situation. I’ve long been attracted by the Hindu notion of stages of life. The first is the youth/student, where a person sets themselves up, learns, experiments and explores. The second is that of householder – jobs, maybe a family, possessions and complications with all the joy and work they entail. The third stage is where one sheds the trappings (interesting word that) of a complicated life and simplifies, focusing on the inner journey, the spiritual quest.

This calls to me powerfully. I am still loving my job and will always be joyfully committed to my clan. But I yearn for less drivenness, for an end to my endless striving for perfection. Maybe God is gently telling me to calm down, slow down, simplify, get rid of the accretions and ambitions of a life time and, and what? And just see what happens. See what bubbles up. See what new phase of life this might usher in. Maybe even see that the best way to live right now is to keep doing what I do, just with less possessions and less pressure on myself to produce and succeed and be perfect.

John Main, founder of the World Community for Christian Meditation, talked about the simplicity of the mantra – the one small prayer word that the Community teaches as a radical and effective way to connect with the divine. Sit still for 20 minutes, quiet yourself, breathe, and come back from the myriad distractions in your ‘monkey mind’ by returning to the simplicity of the mantra. It’s a metaphor for what Jesus called ‘the one thing needful’ – to spend time with God. Elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus is quoted as saying, ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you.’ Take time to do the God-stuff and the other stuff will work out.

On Good Friday, Jesus was stripped of everything, even life itself, resulting ultimately in life abundant. I think on this as I slowly sort through my life and my stuff, reminding myself that the only essential thing is to endeavour to seek to see God more clearly, love God more dearly and follow God more nearly, day by day.

This was published in the May edition of The Melbourne Anglican

 

Monday
Apr222019

God is love and love is stronger than death

Four Easters ago, my husband was diagnosed with cancer. This time of year, I am often unaccountably weepy and a bit fragile. Once I recall that it’s an anniversary, of course, I get it. Bodies bring anniversaries to mind, even when minds try to forget them.

The appointment with the haematologist was on Maundy Thursday - the day before Good Friday. For Christians it’s a solemn kind of day and in the evening, we go to a sombre church service of deepening shadows, where we remember the night before Jesus’ execution, when he was betrayed and endured all manner of anguish and humiliation.

The cancer my husband has is multiple myeloma, which is treatable to a degree, but not curable. The specialist didn’t sugar coat his news. Walking out of the surgery, not surprised but shocked and dazed, the only real information I retained was that we might only have him for another five years.

Dazed we might have been, but the show had to go on. My bloke is a Minister, and Maundy Thursday evening church was imminent. We called our adult kids; they descended from various parts of the state, gathering for dinner at our place without the man of the moment, who was at church doing his thing with an unsuspecting congregation and coming home, utterly spent, for hugs and a glass of red.

I made it to worship the following morning, and Good Friday has never felt so apt, so real. Our oldest and I sat holding hands and snuffling into sodden hankies. No one at church knew yet. Several parishioners commented afterwards that it was the most moving Good Friday service they had been to.

My clearest memory of that event was seeing my husband standing at the foot of the big cross in front of the sanctuary, looking very alone, and thinking, ‘This is the one journey I cannot accompany him on’. And I remember him quoting from one of my favourite passages in the Bible, from the book of Romans chapter 8, which reads, ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ I remember he stopped, recovered himself after a moment and repeated, ‘Nothing, no-thing can separate us from the love of God’.

That afternoon I experienced several hours of grief and despair so harrowing I could not get out of bed.  There was no shock, no denial, just raw pain. The words Jesus allegedly said while he hung dying, ‘My God my God, why have you forsaken me?’ played on a loop in my mind. One of the good things about being religious is that most faiths have a rich vocabulary for suffering and lament, as well as for life’s peak experiences.

But then I got up, washed my face and had a meal with a couple of the kids. Next day I helped another clean the house she was moving out of and life continued.

Four years on, we have had much waiting and anxiety and months of treatment and its medically complicated aftermath. But, while gruelling, the chemo and the stem cell transplant therapy have been effective – keeping the cancer at bay and giving us a bit more time, no idea how much. Life will never be the same, but is also strangely normal. And the time since Easter 2015 has been shot through with an abundance of wonder, delight, blessing and laughter.

Every religion has its own approach to the universal human experiences of suffering and death. I can only speak of my own experience of my own Christian faith. The story at the heart of Christianity is of the life and death of a first century Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. He revealed that the God who created the universe is the great, beating heart at its centre, the source of all beauty, wonder and love, and is also in and around us, in deep relationship with the planet and all its creatures.

The thing I treasure about the Good Friday-Easter Christian story is that it holds together the human experience of brokenness and beauty, of anguish and joy, of death and life. Good Friday and Easter are inextricably linked. You can’t have one without the other.

Good Friday, as a mate of mine once said, is where the rubber hits the road. It’s tempting to rush through the confusion and agonising wait of Maundy Thursday, the desolation of Good Friday and the fear and bewilderment of Holy Saturday to Easter morning with its proclamation of new life, its triumph of love over death. In a world that cries out for a grounded, realistic hope, however, that would be to sell the story short.

It’s hard for us, always viewing Jesus’ death through the resurrection grid, to imagine how lost, misled and terrified his followers must have felt.  Not to mention Jesus himself. I imagine Jesus had the profoundest faith in God and a sense that if he was faithful to his calling, that was all that mattered. But I doubt he went to his death thinking, ‘I just have to wait three days and it’ll all be fine’. If he was human, he would have felt confused and despairing. He wasn’t simply acting out a charade of death. He died. I find this picture of Jesus more helpful than an all-powerful, all-knowing divinity. When I read about the latest gun rampage or yet another earthquake in Indonesia, this is a God I can worship. A deity who isn’t up in the sky, benignly or indifferently looking down, but whose heart is the first to break when human beings suffer.

When people in my community are knocked sideways by early death, by the sundering of a marriage, by the mental illness or drug addiction of a teenager, I want to share with them this wounded, vulnerable God who has tasted some of the depths of human pain. When I myself have been plunged into the abyss of depression, I need to be reminded that the God I worship has descended into hell.

So, we need Good Friday. But we need Easter Sunday too. Jesus’ resurrection isn’t simply a continuation of the beautiful and miraculous cycle of life we see every time there is a bush fire – the new little pale green shoots bursting out of the charred wood of the eucalypts. Easter is a radical break with the life cycle. It is God saying not simply that life in some form will continue, but that God is stronger than death itself.

Clearly, God does not reach down and rescue one family from a flood, or shield one person from the blazing gun of a maniac. But I do believe that in the end, God will bring it all in, drying every tear, healing every hurt, making us whole, enabling us, at last, to be completely loving.

The message of Good Friday is that God is there with us in the worst that the world can dish up. The message of Easter Sunday is that God, who seems so powerless in the day to day tragedies of human life, is ultimately the end point of creation, of every life, every striving, every suffering and every human heart.

When the rubber hit the road for our family, when I lay weeping after my husband’s diagnosis, I needed a Good Friday God. But ultimately, we need an Easter God as well. It’s not as though we progress through Good Friday to some sort of permanent and triumphant Easter. Our lives are shot through with both Good Friday and Easter, over and over. The good news in that God in Jesus has been to both places. The good news is that the whole of our lives: the Good Fridays and the Easters, are encompassed by God’s love.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on Easter Sunday

Tuesday
Apr162019

Taking it to the streets

You can tell it’s election time: Melbourne streets are alive with the sound of demonstrations. Looking down from my office window last Wednesday on the river of yellow vests wending their way to join their companions, I almost felt as though I were in Paris.

We are fortunate in that we can take our protests to the streets with less fear of injury, incarceration or ‘disappearance’ than in certain other countries. I have exercised the right to march on too many occasions to remember over my life time. I wish that all the issues I cared about were sorted; I suspect that will never happen.

This week two marches have claimed my allegiance.

On Sunday it was the Walk for Justice for Refugees. Having just read Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains and having a personal relationship with two refugees, it’s a cause close to my heart. Neither side of the political divide has exactly covered themselves in glory with this issue. And, humanitarian concerns aside, the various ‘solutions’ they provide make little economic sense.

Then on Thursday, the Stop Adani Convoy has its moment in Melbourne en route from Hobart to the Galilee Basin. Another cause that seems like a no brainer to anyone concerned with climate change, not to mention the survival of the tourism industry around the Great Barrier Reef.  While much of the rest of the world is getting on board with jettisoning coal-fired power, Australia lags incomprehensibly behind.

Both the main speakers at the Refugee Rally, author Richard Flanagan and Executive Director of Refugee Legal, David Manne, ended their speeches on a note of optimism. Most days, I’m afraid I don’t share it. I hope the tide is turning regarding public opinion about climate change, but I suspect most of my compatriots don’t give a toss about compassion towards asylum seekers.

And so I keep turning up to street demonstrations, despite the fact that I don’t enjoy this privileged activity. I don’t like crowds, or slogans, or shouting people or the motley collection of leaflets thrust under my nose when I’m trying to listen to the speeches.

Despite my reluctance, I do it. Because we can. Because it is one of the few things we can do to try and shift the short-sightedness and self-interest of our politicians on both sides of politics, especially as a Federal election looms.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 17 April 2019

 

Thursday
Apr112019

Good Friday, Easter

Easter is all very well, but it’s not much without Good Friday. In the Christian story, Good Friday comes first. And it must have been devastating and utterly bleak. It’s hard for us, with hindsight, always viewing Jesus’ death through the grid of his resurrection, to imagine how lost, misled and terrified the disciples must have felt.

Not to mention Jesus himself. If he was genuinely human, he wouldn’t have known that it was all going to come out right in the end. I imagine Jesus had the profoundest faith in God and a sense that if he was faithful to his calling, that was all that mattered. But I doubt he went to his agonizing death and brutal betrayal thinking, ‘I just have to wait three days and it’ll all be fine’. If he was human, he would have felt confused and despairing. He wasn’t simply acting out a charade of death. He died. I find this picture of Jesus more helpful than a glorious godhead, golden and raised up and self-assured. When I read about the massacre in Christchurch, or yet another earthquake in Indonesia, this is the God I need. A deity who isn’t up in the sky, benignly or indifferently looking down, but rather one whose heart is the first to break when human beings are wounded, bewildered or afraid.

When people in my community are knocked sideways by early death, by the sundering of a marriage, by the mental illness or drug addiction of a teenage child – I want to share with them this wounded, vulnerable God who has tasted some of the depths of human pain. When I myself have been plunged into the abyss of depression, I need to be reminded that the God I worship has descended into hell.

So, we need Good Friday. But we need Easter Sunday too. Jesus’ resurrection isn’t simply a continuation of the beautiful and miraculous cycle of life we see every time there is a bush fire –the new little pale green shoots bursting out of the charred wood of eucalypts. Easter is a radical break with the life cycle. It is God saying not simply that life in some form will continue, but that God is stronger than death itself. That even if we destroy this planet for good and all, God will still be there, somehow, bringing it all together in God’s love.

Clearly, God does not reach down and stop a toppling building or pluck one person out of the path of a tsunami. But I do believe that in the end, God will bring it all in, drying every tear, healing every hurt, making us whole, enabling us, at last, to be completely loving.

For me, the message of Good Friday is that God is there with us in the worst that the world can dish up. The message of Easter is that God, who seems so powerless in the day to day tragedy that is human life, is ultimately the end point of creation, of every life, every striving, every suffering and every human heart.

This was published in the April issue of The Melbourne Anglican