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Back in The Age with a faith piece

All you have to do, your sole responsibility, it to ensure that the person in front remains a couple of metres, give or take, away from you. That’s it.

We’re doing a ‘walking meditation’ at the silent retreat I attend twice a year, held at a Catholic conference centre up in the damp and lovely hills of the Yarra Valley. The retreats are run by the Australian Christian Meditation Community. We do a lot of meditating – most of it sitting, and once a day we do this walking thing.

I love it. We walk slowly, in a giant circle, experiencing the soft placement of each foot- heel then toe - observing the blades of grass we flatten as we go, the kookaburra flapping away on the periphery of our vision, the play of light and shadow as the clouds flit across the wide sky. We say our mantra, and as our minds wander, as they inevitably do, we bring them gently back: to our mantra, to the rhythm of our limbs and lungs, to the knowledge that God know us intimately and loves us completely.

To maintain the circle of walking prayer for the group, each one needs to make sure the person in front is about 6 feet away. It’s not your job to be checking the people up in front where there seems to be a bit of an obstruction, to be irritated at the person over the other side of the oval who obviously just doesn’t get it and is walking too fast, your job is not even to worry about the person behind you, who may be miles behind, or almost stepping on your heels. All you do, is say your mantra, watch the quiet grass and keep your place in the dance.

Later that day, our speaker for the weekend tells us of the recent time when, overcome by helpless grief in the face of the tragedy that is Syria, he called out in anguish to God: ‘It is so terrible and there is so much suffering, and I can do nothing and I don’t even know how to pray about this situation’.

What came to him clearly, he said, was a sense of God saying, ‘Be peace. All you have to do, is to be peace in your own life’. For him, he explained, this involved mending relationships and some costly reconciliation with a person from whom he had been estranged.

Sometimes we may be called to heroic and dramatic actions. More often, most of us are simply called to be peace in our own families, work places, social situations, wherever we find ourselves. At a time when we sing carols about ‘Peace on Earth’, knowing how elusive and rare this peace is, all we can do, and it’s by no means nothing is to start and to keep practising peace. To cease worrying about how well others keeping their place in the dance. To quietly keep our own.


This was published in The Age on Sunday 8 January 2017



Advent and Psalms and the Lake District

I’ve never had a bucket list, but if I had, the Lake District would have been on it. I spent a week there last month, and to say it didn’t disappoint would be the understatement of the decade.  It was the kind of place in which I feel most at ease: quiet (summer with its tourists was well past), abundantly damp and green, dominated by lakes and mountains, rustic, bucolic, ancient. Even the human habitations were old and somehow melded into the landscape.

It was utterly my kind of place. On our last day there, I went for a walk by myself to a grassy knoll I’d discovered near the farm where we were staying. Right on the shores of the lake, it was all soft grass and big trees whose roots, like the occasional rock, were covered with luxuriant moss. I lay flat on my back in the middle of the hollow at the top of this small rise, and felt as though I could just sink into the bosom of the earth and rest there forever.

The Lake District was a constant illustration of two of the best-loved Psalms. The 23rd is everybody’s favourite, but that makes it no less powerful. Everywhere I looked, there were green pastures beside still waters and sheep safely grazing.  We were staying in a corner of the 17th century farmhouse belonging to two good shepherds.

Psalm 121 was the one my parents read to us on the eve of any departure, so it is associated for me with sadness but despite this, I find it deeply reassuring. It starts with the well-known lines ‘I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.’

For years, I thought this meant that the Lord was coming down from them thar hills, all guns blazing, to get me out of whatever pickle I might find myself in. Eventually I realised the opposite: that the God I follow doesn’t get us out of pickles but rather stands beside us in the middle of all the chaos and pain that life dishes out.

The Lake District is a veritable banquet of soothing Biblical metaphors and it fed my soul. But the 23rd Psalm doesn’t stop at peaceful pastures. It goes deep into what we celebrate at Christmas, our belief that by becoming a human, God showed a willingness to walk beside us, both in the pleasant pastures and in the valley of the shadow of death.

Psalm 121 hints at what we anticipate at Advent: looking forward in hope to the completion of God’s work and a time of healing and justice. The eschatological hope that in the end, God who is love, will bring it all in.

Psalm 121 was read at my mum’s funeral; its last verse captures the faith of believers through centuries: The Lord will keep your going out and coming in, from this time on and forever more.

This was published in the December 2016 edition of The Melbourne Anglican


The Donald

An unexpected and unwelcome side effect of Donald Trump’s ascent to possibly the most powerful position on the planet is that the fine name of Donald has been profoundly sullied.

Until recently, the most world-famous Donald was a sweet, wholesome, goofy cartoon character. I’ve always had a soft spot for this name of ancient Scottish kings, which apparently (yes, really) means ‘ruler of the world’.

For Australians, the name is most commonly associated with one of our most venerable sporting heroes – Bradman – who was reputedly not just a genius at cricket but also a decent and humble man, a ‘ruler’ in the gentlemen’s game. Aussies also associate one of the diminutives of Donald with that catchy ad ‘Is Don, is good’.

Donald is a common name in my husband’s clan. The family tree, from generations back until the present day, is peppered with Ians, Finlays, Johns and Alistairs, Hamishs, Angus’ and Farquhars. And Donalds. They didn’t have many daughters; the few there were tended to be Marys, Catrionas, Alisons and Fionas. Both my family and my husband’s have Celtic roots, and the names associated with the Celts tend to be strong and uncomplicated and go nicely with surnames that start with Mac.

These names, including till recently Donald, bring to mind bracing winds and soft mists, the ancient forbidding bulk of Edinburgh Castle high on its hill, the wild mountain and seascapes of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, noble warriors and hopeless causes, the haunting tragedy of Culloden, single malt whiskey, brawny men in kilts and what is arguably the most attractive accent in the world.

We have two children of each gender; each bears the name of one grandparent. My father-in-law Donald, (nicknamed ‘The Don’) was a large, big-hearted man who wore his baldness unashamedly and whose impulse was always to be welcoming and compassionate to anyone who crossed his path. One of our sons (understated, thoughtful, smart) has Donald as his second name and now I feel I need to apologise for saddling him with this moniker.

Because Donald, which has up until now had only happy associations for me, is tainted. Now it’s a by-word for misogyny, racism, greed, stupidity, bad taste, bad hair and an even worse fake suntan.

It is a heavy burden to place on those bearing the name, but I hope that the legacy of great Donalds of the past, and the present and future Donalds, can redeem this fine name by associating strength and ruling with humility and kindness.


A new take on a thin place

The phrase ‘a thin place’ comes from the Celtic spiritual tradition and is used to describe somewhere where it is particularly easy to sense the sacred. Most often used in reference to the holy island of Iona, the expression comes from awareness that the veil between heaven and earth is so thin, in such places, it is barely there.

Recently I have discovered a new dimension for this phrase that superficially seems to have the opposite meaning.

My thin place is where you find yourself when you have received the kind of news we all dread. Most people have experienced some form of this: the first time someone you know commits suicide, when a friend’s child dies, when a young man in your circle is killed on the road just as his life is beginning. I felt this disconnect with the rest of the world most acutely when our first baby was in hospital for ten days with an undiagnosed and serious illness. On the rare occasions I poked my head out of the ward, I was incredulous that the rest of the world was going about its business, oblivious to the fact that death is only ever a heartbeat away.

Much of the time, we live as though death were a distant rumour that will never affect us. In these experiences, the membrane between life and death is so thin as to be almost non-existent.

No one is immune from death, but of course we can’t dwell on this obsessively or we would be immobilized by fear and grief. And even after receiving a horrible diagnosis in the family, you dip in and out of hyper-awareness of mortality.

Because that is ultimately what this is all about – being faced with our own mortality which is the most confronting thing there is.

Being a person of faith, however, I believe there is something even bigger and more sure than death, and that is a loving God whose hands hold both the living and the dead. In the months since my husband’s diagnosis of incurable cancer, after each plunge into the despair of sensing the gaping maw of death just through the thinnest of gauzy veils, I have been convinced, over and over, that beneath death, bigger and stronger and surer than all our suffering, are what the writer of Deuteronomy calls the refuge of God’s everlasting arms.

In Romans 8, in one of his most sublime passages, Saint Paul writes from the same conviction: ‘I am convinced that neither death nor life…nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’.

So, in the end, my thin place and the Iona thin place are not opposites after all. A thin place is where you are blessed with sensing that there is more to reality than the obvious. Where you sense death, and also, deeper even than death, the everlasting arms of a loving God.

This was published in the November 2016 edition of The Melbourne Anglican




Those who lift infants to their cheeks

Perhaps the reason most of us find it so very hard to pray is because we go to prayer with a feeling of obligation and guilt.

In Luke chapter 11, we have a very concise version of what has been known as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ for centuries. Long-term worshippers are deeply familiar with the words.

What interests me in Luke’s account is the parable that Jesus is recorded as telling straight after he has given his disciples these words in response to the request to teach them how to pray. He tells the tale of a person caught short at midnight and hammering on her friend’s door asking for a loaf of bread with which to feed an unexpected guest. Eventually, Jesus reckons, even the laziest friend will let her in and give her the bread. My favourite part is the end of the parable, where Jesus says, ‘Is there anyone among you who, if you child asks for a fish, will give your child a snake? Or, if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

This passage says one thing to me: you know how much you love your children? You know how you wish only good for them? That’s how God feels, only more so. God’s love is so immense that it makes your love for your children look ‘evil’ by comparison.

This is mind boggling stuff. Having my own kids helped me start to get an inkling about how God feels about me, about every human. Jesus describes God as being better than the best parent, always wanting good for God’s human children, always responding with patient, faithful love.

A lesser known passage from the Hebrew Scriptures says it beautifully. Hosea 11, verses 1 and 3 say, ‘When Israel was a child I loved him…it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.’ And then, with breath-taking tenderness: ‘I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.’ Anyone who has smelt the back of a baby’s neck with delight, will get this powerful metaphor of a God who longs to be with us and takes delight in us.

The fact that Jesus paints a picture of God as an endlessly loving parent immediately after the prayer he gave his disciples makes me think that this is the God we would do best to ponder when we come to prayer. And maybe if we did – anticipating that God awaits our attention like a parent or our dearest friend - prayer would become less arduous, less of a grim duty, more of a joy.

This was published in the October 2016 edition of The Melbourne Anglican