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Worship in a foreign tongue

Two congregations share the worship space at the Uniting Church I attend: one is Cantonese, the other, which is very multi-cultural, is held in English. Mostly we worship at different times, but every so often we come together in a joint service that is held in both languages. Prayers are offered in both, the sermon is translated, one reading is delivered in English while the Cantonese version is up on the screen, and vice versa.

It can make for a long service, although the leaders do try to be concise. I’ve noticed, too, that regulars tend not to show up for these, as they do require a bit of effort. Oddly enough, I love these duo-lingual occasions.

It’s really good for me to be lifted out of my comfort zone. My Chinese fellow-pilgrims outnumber the English-speaking congregation by about four to one and it is a salutary reminder of what life is like for countless immigrants around the globe, surrounded by signs and sounds that make no sense to them. I grew up in this situation, but have been part of the dominant cultural group for a long time, and it’s easy to take for granted our automatic understanding of instructions and systems.

When I worship entirely in my mother tongue, there’s a feeling or urgency – of having to attend to every single word in case I miss something. When half is in another language of which I know nothing, not one word, I switch off and float into a peaceful space where I pay more attention to non-verbal things  – the beauty of the stained-glass windows, the deep pulsing chords of the organ, the mad variety of human beings around me. I connect with the Divine in a different way.

It takes me back to a happy childhood spent in a country where I was the foreigner and it didn’t matter and I felt entirely at home. It transports me to many hours spent sitting in Gujarati church services (and they were inevitably long, and hot) where the language was familiar but I couldn’t really understand much, so that it washed over me like a soothing wave, like a lullaby familiar from babyhood, making me feel like a pre-verbal infant who doesn’t understand the words but feels secure and surrounded by community.

The clergy select hymns that can be sung to the same tune in the two languages, and there is something profoundly moving about singing my heart out alongside others singing the same meaning with different sounds. Ditto when we all say the Lord’s Prayer ‘in our heart language’. I am reminded of the communion of Saints around the world, that I have fellow-believers throughout space and not simply time, that there is this great chorus of Christians in every corner of the globe, praising and longing and wanting to grow in grace and yearning to be closer to our Creator and to be channels of God’s love.

This was published in The Melbourne Anglican, May edition


Melbourne - winter city

‘Sleeping with the fan on, on 7 April. This is ridiculous. Roll on winter!’

I posted this on facebook last week, and I got what I wished for. I wouldn’t have it any other way, except, of course, for the homeless who inhabit our streets in ever increasing numbers and for whom the advent of winter starts an even more harrowing season of deprivation. Lindisfarne’s hauntingly evocative 1970 hit Winter Song, with its plaintive refrain ‘When winter comes howling in,’ captured the contrast between those who have a place to call home and those who don’t.  It rings in my head at this time of year, especially when winter comes this abruptly.

I spend a lot of my time in parts of Melbourne that make me think of sunnier climes: Greek cake shops in Lonsdale St, Italian restaurants in Carlton, the plethora of kebab joints in Sydney Road as you head north from Brunswick into Coburg, the Vietnamese market in Footscray.

Despite this, Melbourne feels like a winter place, particularly the CBD which feels so much like London that when I am in London I feel completely at home, whereas even Sydney feels like a foreign country, Darwin like another planet.

The stately and dignified Victorian era buildings in the CBD (especially if they haven’t been recently cleaned, and still sport a fine layer of Dickensian grime) suit gloomy weather, umbrellas, brief cases and formal attire, just as the gorgeous bays and beaches that abound in Sydney suit sunshine and roller blades and guys with their T-shirts off and tucked into the back of their shorts.

Cold weather suits the black that Melbournians are notorious for wearing, whether they’re a city corporate type or a tattooed hipster on a fixed-gear bike. Rain and chill winds are perfect for all the indoorsy things you can do in Melbourne: drinks in a nameless bar up an obscure graffiti-bedecked laneway, endless permutations of coffee, music gigs in crowded pubs, restaurants and art galleries, the comedy festival and the theatre. Such activities lend themselves to frigid winter evenings where the dark draws in early and we long to huddle inside, out of the cold.

On the domestic front, winters in Melbourne mean mulled wine and hot cocoa, slow cooked meals, bracing walks followed by fireside chats and snuggling under the doona.  Winters in Melbourne mean boots and jackets and scarves and beanies and, most importantly, the footy.

Melbourne has many moods, but in winter, she feels most herself. Bring it on!

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 13 April 2017



Wonder as you age

‘The older you get, the less often you feel astonished.’ So writes Sian Prior, in a recent piece in this paper about wonder. Travel, she posits, puts adults back in a state of receptiveness to the marvels all around, something that maybe doesn’t happen so much in our normal existences, or not after childhood anyway.

No one who writes as beautifully as Prior could be immune to wonder, even in her home town, but she has a point. Travel is a wonderful way (no pun intended) for waking a person up to the miracles all around us, because we see things with fresh eyes, noticing colours, landscapes, smells and sounds we’ve never been exposed to before.

My experience over 58 years of living, however, is the opposite of hers. The older I get, the more often I am astonished, over the most mundane-seeming things.

When I was younger, I was often too busy to notice the marvels abounding day to day. It felt as though life would go on forever, so there was no urgency about stopping to watch the sun going down, or closing my eyes the better to savour a favourite dish. And there was so much happening – establishing jobs, bringing up children, working out what life was all about.

As I age, I’m aware that I am in the demographic that drops dead suddenly, or has a stroke, or, like my dad, develops macular degeneration and can’t see much. Even if I live to a ripe old age, my years on this beautiful planet are at least two-thirds over. The recent incursion of a particularly virulent version of the Big C into my immediate family has underlined for all of us how precious ordinary moments are, of how fragile life is, even in this most cosseted of societies.

But even before I got to the big 5-0, even before cancer became part of our lives, I had started a practice that helped to open my eyes to wonder in the daily round. Contemplative prayer, or Christian Meditation is a sure way to stopping the frenzy and start realising what a sensuous smorgasbord of delight surrounds us. Poking my nose out the door to see what the weather (different, every single day!) is doing. The incomparable pleasure of simple food when you are hungry, the walk to work past lemon scented gums that spread their tart sweetness so generously after rain, the cacophony of bird song even in the city, the mouth-watering anticipation of returning to a good book, sitting down over coffee with one of my kids for a leisurely catch-up, sluicing the grime of the day away in a hot shower, the crisp smell of clean sheets.

It’s nuts, how much there is to wonder at, every day. And what most helps me to be open to this is the practice of sitting still, being silent, saying a mantra, connecting with the God who made and delights in the beauty all around.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 9 April 2017



Years ago, Richard Foster wrote an influential book called Money, sex and power. Reading the account of Jesus’ temptations in Matthew’s Gospel, as we did in Lent this year, I think a contemporary version could have the title, Power, celebrity and stuff.

I love this strange and powerful story.

The first thing that strikes me about Jesus temptations in the wilderness is that he goes away for a serious chunk of time. After the high of his public baptism, the clear sense of call and affirmation of who he is and what he needs to do, he disappears from the public eye for 40 whole days. No weekend retreat in a cushy spa for him. It takes solitude, time, commitment and sometimes pain to work out who we are and what we should be doing.

Then there are the three famous temptations themselves, which I find startlingly contemporary. Jesus is alone in a hard place, working out what he is going to be about, and along come these three glittering paths that he has to wrestle with and turn away from.

First – bread. A contemporary take on this could be consumerism. Jesus has to decide if he is going to be about the acquisition and pedalling of stuff. And he isn’t interested.

Then there’s the lure of celebrity. In Jesus’ mind, ‘the devil’ takes him to the pinnacle of the temple and suggests that if he throws himself off, he will survive, as God will surely save him. After which, of course, people will be dazzled and will flock to him. But Jesus is not sucked in by this short-cut to attracting disciples. 

Third, there’s the appeal to power. The evil one suggests that Jesus imagine himself high on a mountaintop, and offers him power over all that he sees. Once again, Jesus is not conned. He knows that genuine love is the only way to persuade people in a way that lasts.

And at the end of Matthew’s account of the tale, there is this exquisite coda: ‘Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him’, or, in my preferred version ‘ministered to him’.

There are tough times in all our lives when we have to wrestle with identity, grief, depression, change. At the most extreme of these periods, I have not been sure that I would make it through. And then, always, it feels as though angels minister to me. Almost inevitably, after great emotional, psychological or spiritual struggle, I emerge, blinking, incredulous, marvelling, into a serene and spacious place where I am reminded that I will not always be in pain, that I have learned and grown, that the discomfort is worth it, that there is life abundant and joy in my future, that God has been with me all along.

This was published in the April 2017 edition of The Melbourne Anglican


The graphics are better out the window

Did anyone else notice the weird, sulphurous light that flooded Melbourne on Thursday morning as the sun shone through blessed rain pouring down after a relentlessly hot night? I nearly missed it, as I had my nose in the newspaper, reading a salutary article by Carolyn Cage about the destructive effects addiction to social media can have on a vulnerable person’s psyche.

I suspect that my contemporaries - people in their 50s and 60s - don’t suffer as much as Cage’s generation do from the potentially devastating effects of social media on self-esteem. Anecdotal evidence, and my own use of Facebook, would suggest that we are less likely to make others feel inadequate by portraying perfect lives on social media. My FB friends tend to be surprisingly open about their struggles.

There is another fallout, however, from habitually burying our noses in smart phones and iPads: the loss of the ability to notice and marvel at ordinary life.  This was captured years ago in a Michael Leunig cartoon showing one of his little men sitting with a child on his lap, watching transfixed as a sunset lit up his TV screen. Outside, the real sunset was blazing in all its glory, but he didn’t notice it. As one of our kids said to a sibling when they were absorbed in a Gameboy as we drove through the country, ‘the graphics are better out the window’.

How do we hone our powers of observation and of wonder? There are three practices that I have found invaluable in becoming increasingly aware of the quirky, the humorous, the shocking, the beautiful and the miraculous in real life, not what is being pedalled to me on the tiny screen.

The first is some sort of mindfulness practice. For me this takes the form of Christian meditation, but meditators of all faiths and none will attest to the fact that when they are regular in this discipline, their powers of observation increase.

A second is always choosing to walk rather than drive if it is at all possible. Walking provides the perfect pace to notice the little things – a rainbow lorikeet in the trees in Royal Park, the smell of lemon scented gums after rain, the never-the-same-twice cloud patterns in the sky.

The third is minimising my use of devices. Getting my eyes and ears away from the fancy food pics and the puppy videos, enticing as they are, and becoming attuned to the more subtle but infinitely more satisfying wonder all around.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 17 March 2017