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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

 

Monday
Mar252019

Ode to autumn

There’s a time, around now, when we stop shutting the warmth out, and start letting it in.

All summer I am fanatical about shutting up the house. Our house is weatherboard, and the inside temperature only stays bearable if you shut it religiously every morning and open it at night. So one of the most important chores is to close windows and pull blinds down early, and then the reverse at the end of the day.

There is a day, though, around the end of March, when I am shutting and pulling as I’ve been doing for months and stop, mid-action. I leave the blind where it was. I re-open the window. I let the sunshine come flooding back in. It’s that time. Autumn is here.

People have different theories about when the season turns. Firm theories, passionately held. Like those who swear by anything you care to name that your tomatoes must be planted on Melbourne Cup Day, or they will do no good in the summer to come.

Others reckon that Anzac Day marks the turning of the seasons. After April 25th, you start to batten down the hatches and prepare for winter to come howling in. My birthday comes when we’re putting our watches back, and it’s often hot, so I know that there are still little tail ends of summer well into March. But by mid April, most years, there’s a perceptible shift in the air, and our mood shifts with it.

Maybe it’s the end of daylight saving that heralds the cooler weather, and makes our thoughts turn to fires and jackets, thick soups and warm drinks. I’ve always been confused about time changes. The only way I can remember which way to alter my watch is by thinking that the compensation we get for the coming of winter is an extra hour of sleep.

But I don’t really feel that compensation is necessary, because I love winter. I love summer too, but one of the best things about living in Melbourne is the changeable weather. I couldn’t bear to live somewhere that was warm all the time. I like hot Christmases, cold Julys, autumn and spring that are in between.

I love the unpredictability of Melbourne’s weather, the four seasons in one day, the dramatic cool changes. I love the way you never know what the day will bring, you never know if what you put on in the morning will be completely inappropriate by afternoon.

People say ‘talking about the weather’ disparagingly, but I like to talk about it. I grew up in a country where the climate was exactly the same for four months in a row, so Melbourne’s weather is endlessly fascinating.

If I had to choose a favourite season, though, it would be autumn. I’ve lived in the north-east and the south-west of this state, and it was my favourite season in those places too. In alpine Mount Beauty the autumn air was so crisp and pure it practically seared your lungs, you could take great gulps of it and feel it doing you good. The skies were clean and the mountains stood up against them with unbearable clarity and beauty. In coastal Portland, autumn was the least windy season. There was a lovely lull, a serene time of windless sunshine, while we drank in the last of the warmth and prepared for the wild gales of winter.

I think part of the attraction of autumn is that it’s a season of melancholy. The poets celebrated this: the feeling that inevitably seems to come with this time of year of things passing, of death and decline and decay and the fact that we are all, inexorably, growing older. I get weepy in autumn, for no apparent reason.

I suspect this melancholy is particularly poignant in Australia, where summer memories, especially of the beach and the long ago Christmas holidays of childhood are positively drenched in nostalgia. We recall the hot days by the sea, the crowds, the ice creams, the children’s voices, and then we walk along by the water in early autumn, and the beach is empty and the crowds and the laughter are gone, and we feel strongly the passing of all things: youth, beauty, life itself.

And autumn can be so achingly beautiful: cold moonshiny nights when at last you can put away the fan and snuggle under a doona. Followed by clear cool mornings blossoming into sun drenched days with just the tiniest hint of chill. I sit in my garden at the beginning of autumn and wonder if it’ll be the last time that I can sit out there without a jacket. I drink it in, stocking up the light and warmth against the short winter days ahead.

This was published in The Melbourne Age 18 years ago.

 

 

 

Sunday
Mar172019

Noli Timere

‘Don’t you worry about any little thing, every little thing’s gonna be alright.’

The singer in the Bob Marley tribute band sang the familiar words and the small crowd in the tiny Northcote venue danced with sheer joy. Marley’s music is deeply political. He was no stranger to struggle, pain and illness and died at the age of 36. Nonetheless, he produced this body of work that is protest music that is deeply feel-good with a convincing sense that, despite appearances to the contrary, in the words of my favourite Redgum song, ‘It’ll be all right in the long run’.

‘How can I keep from singing?’, is a song popularised by Eva Cassidy who, like Marley, died of cancer in her thirties. These lines have a key to the attitude espoused by the host of artists who were no strangers to suffering and yet were convinced that evil and hate and pain and violence would not prevail:

While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness 'round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I'm clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

Legendary mystic, nun and theologian Mother Julian of Norwich, was born in the 14th century, just before the plague known as the Black Death swept across Europe, killing 60% of the population. Despite this, she preached a deeply loving divinity, maintained that God’s love was like that of a mother and her most oft-quoted line is ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’.

Nobel Prize winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s last words to his wife Marie came in the form of a text message that read, ‘Noli Timere’, Latin for ‘don’t be afraid’.  This is a phrase that occurs no less than 70 times in the Bible, a book filled to the brim with catastrophic events and human agony. As a Christian, I have clung to those words in times of personal anguish or when I have felt utterly overwhelmed by the state of our world and by the griefs of others.

Maybe this is why so many people dance for joy when Bob Marley’s music is played. Because it epitomises the courage and faith that doesn’t take the evils and grief of the world lying down, but at the same time believes that there is love at the heart of the universe and that this love will have the last word.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 17 March 2019