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The motley, inter-generational crew that make up church

In a big city, you can spend your whole life with a cohort who fit precisely into your demographic. Churches, like country towns, come with the gift of exposing you to people with whom you have very little in common.

This is one of the things I treasure about belonging to a church community. Far from the stereotype of a cosy club of like-minded and self-satisfied folk, the churches I know are a motley mix of sinners and saints; a rich range of races, abilities, socio-economic levels and ages.

Where else in a modern city do your kids get to interact with old people, week after week, festival after festival, through baptisms and funerals, through trauma and conflict, in lament and in celebration?

When we moved to Melbourne, we attended a church in the inner north, which was populated largely by university students, many of whom were living in the city for the first time. We dug in with these interesting individuals whose ages ranged from 18 to 23, catching up each Sunday, occasionally having them around to our place, accepting their offers of babysitting our mob, to whom they were the epitome of cool. When our kids didn’t want to talk to us about something, it was sometimes this group – half way between their generation and ours – that they turned to.

We have remained close to a number of these good people – now approaching middle age – attending several weddings over the years and one funeral. Many of them have produced a family who are giving them the joys and challenges they observed us navigating years ago. (Our kids, as they grew up, babysat theirs.) They are running businesses, completing PhDs, working at jobs, paying off mortgages. Some are involved in church, others aren’t.

It moves me deeply, the opportunity to watch generations being born, growing up and making their way in the world and, at the other end of the spectrum, caring for people who we first knew in vibrant middle-age and who are becoming frail, walking with them as they enter the valley of the shadow of death.

The health practitioner I attend most regularly is an impressive woman I first met as a shy 18-year-old, freshly up from the country for tertiary education. She now has babies of her own, a thriving business and still does the hands-on work she loves. Once or twice a month she works her magic on my warped and ageing back and neck, keeping me comparatively supple and mobile, skilfully, firmly and tenderly caring for me. As she works on me, we chat endlessly about our common community, the new babies and the grim diagnoses, the struggles and the joys. I remember her so clearly, not long out of childhood, and now, I am literally in her hands.

With all its frailties and frustrations, being part of a church community has given me this - the privilege of being part of lives different from my own.

Pubished in the September issue of The Melbourne Anglican


Gaffa tape guy

I’m feeling mighty sorry for myself. It’s a bitter Melbourne morning, and I’m huddled in a big cardigan and ugg boots, trying to catch the only sliver of sun available this time of day. I’m on the pavement outside my osteopath, waiting miserably for them to open, having woken with a painful spasm in my back.

It’s the worst possible time at work for me to be incapacitated, and I have family coming from all over for the weekend. We are just emerging from a spell of horrible health issues and this feels like the last straw.

As I wait, I see an ancient man on the other side of the road. He is hunched over his walking frame, inching – literally – along the road. I watch him, to take my mind off the pain. He’s quite a sight. His clothes are old and shabby. With his layers of shapeless jumpers and jackets, I can’t see the top of his pants, but I wouldn’t mind betting they are held up by a piece of twine. There are a succession of messy bags and bundles dangling from his walker, lurching and swinging as he stumbles along.

Most striking of all, he is wearing a bike helmet (is he expecting to fall over, does he trip readily, is he an epileptic?) which is covered entirely by silver gaffa tape. His shoes are big and bulbous, and they too are gaffa taped to within an inch of their lives.

I’m intrigued. He is so bent over that I doubt he is aware of my steady regard. He walks maybe ten metres, and then he stops for a rest, perching slowly and painfully on the little seat on his zimmer frame. After a minute or two, on he goes before stopping for another breather. I watch him till he is out of sight; it takes a while.

I feel as though I am waiting for ever, but really it’s only 30 minutes, because I misread the osteo opening time. They open up, I stagger in, I am seen to, I head gingerly to work, and over the next couple of days, my pain eases and life returns to normal. Everything that has to, gets done.

I am humbled by the gaffa tape man. His doggedness inspires me. It puts me in mind of the saying ascribed to Samuel Beckett: ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’. I watch him and suddenly, I don’t feel quite so sorry for myself.

Published in The Melbourne Age Tuesday 22 August


Better than a mountaintop experience

I’m trying to remember the last time I had what you might call a ‘mountaintop experience’. Maybe they are phenomena more associated with youth and its enthusiasms. Which sounds a bit sad, but it’s not; mountain top times were too often ephemeral, followed by troughs, disappointment and despair.

I’m not long back from the foretaste of heaven that is a five day silent retreat. Each day we had free time during which I walked a great deal. We ate and rested well. We had a daily talk from Fr Laurence Freeman, director of the World Christian Community for Meditation, we had short liturgies, and we had times of contemplative prayer, or Christian meditation. Five a day, each 25 minutes long, sitting in complete silence, all 160 or so of us, quietly breathing and saying our prayer word in our hearts.

The experience of sitting in a room with so many people silently communing with the divine is powerful. You are carried along in the stream of prayer flowing from so many faithful hearts to their Maker, Redeemer and Sustainer. Christian mystics have long maintained that when we pray, we open ourselves to being caught up in the current of love flowing between the members of the Trinity, and it certainly feels a bit like that.

It’s not all beer and skittles, not all floaty feelings of peace and harmony. As happens when I’m meditating on my own at home, most of the time my thoughts fly from one inane thing to another, as thoughts do, and I bring them gently back to God. In fact I try not to think, but to focus on my prayer word which somehow helps to by-pass rational thought and takes me to a deeper place of communion with the great loving power we call God.

The point of the whole exercise is not to feel good, it is simply to set aside time to be with God, thus increasing our openness to God’s grace and healing, widening the part of ourselves that is a channel of God’s love into the small bit of the world immediately around us.

It’s certainly not a mountaintop experience, or has never been for me. It’s just something I do each day that I trust will open my heart more effectively to the loving God who is always seeking to be closer to each one of us.

I come home at the end of the five days, simultaneously weary and profoundly rested. My own faltering prayer practices have had a shot in the arm. I have a deeper reservoir of compassion for others and even for myself; I believe a tiny bit more that God delights in me. I am conscious of a welling up of joy. I’m reminded that the love that I plug into every time I pray will see my through every season of my life.

Maybe it’s the middle-aged equivalent of a mountain top experience. It’s certainly steadier and more lasting. It’s good enough for me.

This was published in the August 2017 edition of The Melbourne Anglican.


The joys of snuggling with my hottie

In a world where technology continues to develop beyond our wildest dreams and nightmares, one archaic piece of domestic equipment continues to provide warmth and comfort, both literal and metaphorical.

I’m talking about the humble hot water bottle, what we used to call a ‘hottie’ for short, until that term was commandeered to mean something else.

Despite decades of electric blankets and all manner of trendy wheat packs and the like, nothing seems to have replaced the HWB, if the shelves in chemists and supermarkets are any indication.

Tummy ache, backache, neckache, headache, period pain – just about anything feels better with a hottie clutched close. These bitter winter nights, there are few things more delightful than extending your feet between your sheets and discovering – oh joy – that your partner has done the HWB duty.

Once I’m in bed, the hottie goes on heavy rotation. It starts by warming my popsicle toes, to quote an old Michael Franks song from the 70s, then makes its way north to lodge cosily between my knees. From there it is hoisted to my abdomen, and once that is thoroughly warmed, it nestles against the small of my back.

There are tricks to maximising the heat retention of a hot water bottle, as any devotee knows. Warm it well first, with just-off-the-boil water. Once it feels toasty, fill will freshly heated water, not so full that you risk bursting it, but full enough that it keeps its heat into the wee small hours.

Then of course, there is the cover, without which HWBs can be dangerous. If you’re really stuck, you can improvise with a pillowcase or an old T-shirt, but it’s much nicer to have a custom designed cover, of which there are all manner of soft, colourful and quirky versions on sale. I decided my boyfriend was a keeper when he knitted me a hottie cover with my name knitted into it; when said keeper and I started reproducing, I did the same for our kids.

Hotties, like decent cups of tea, take time to prepare. Made for yourself, they are a sign that you are about to relax, just as the slow steep of tea in a pot is. Made by someone else, they are a sign of the kind of love that shows itself in practical care. No matter if your need for comfort is physical or emotional, a hot water bottle helps. I defy technology to invent anything half as effective.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 31 July 2017


Mr Bruce meets the ocean

At the end of a week where my husband spent six days in hospital – half of these expected, the other half not - we escaped to the beach for three nights, grabbing some normality before the next hospital admission. With us came Mr Bruce, the three-year-old rescue dog we adopted from the Lort Smith Animal Hospital a month ago. He’s an American Staff (AmStaff to the initiated); 30kg of pure muscle and boisterous affection. We are besotted with him, and the feeling appears to be mutual.

Because he hasn’t spent time with other dogs, however, when we are in town, we cannot let him off the lead, even in our local dog park. So, one of the main reasons for our beach mini-break was to liberate Mr Bruce from leads and collars and let him run wild and free on generous expanses of sand. We wanted to introduce Mr Bruce to the ocean.

The experience more than lived up to expectations. At first he was bemused - looking cautiously around – what is this – this wide expanse of gleaming dampness, this crashing water on one side, this high cliff on the other? He quickly got the hang of it, however, as we ran around, encouraging him to race from one of us to the other, picking up speed, exercising his mighty muscles, tearing happily after seagulls, plunging into the waves, leaping and cavorting, coming out and shaking the sea from his sleek coat.

Mr Bruce is an animal, mostly a content one, so he dwells in the moment in a way that even the most enlightened humans find difficult. I’ve recently read the spiritual best-seller ‘The Power of Now’ – a strange, esoteric, dense but compelling book.

I need to read it again to even begin to grasp it, but I think the essential point the author, Eckhart Tolle, is making is that we human beings spend so much energy fretting over past and future, when in reality, all we have is the present moment. He weaves quotes from all the major spiritual giants, most from Jesus of Nazareth, into his thesis.

Mindfulness is the flavour of the month (literally in May) with people of all religions and none touting its healing properties. Right now in my own life, the future is scary, as my husband is in the middle of heavy duty cancer treatment. My anxiety levels can sky rocket with very little effort and I am having a crash course in savouring moments whenever I can – moments of togetherness, beauty and contentment that are perfect in themselves.

Watching non-human creatures helps me do this. I am inspired by the birds fossicking in our garden beds and singing their little hearts out in the trees, the possums merrily scampering along the electricity lines in my street. Most of all, watching Mr Bruce meet the ocean was a lesson in utterly focussed and uncomplicated delight.

Published in The Melbourne Age on 23 July 2017