Elements

Since awe sometimes is out of reach
and mind strains in its own finitude,

I will take the elements, the staples of the day’s end
and breathe in their meaning:

grace like the sourdough I stir through the bowl,
holiness like the wine I savour

though kids tip their food and yell,
a table ripe with God
even now.

Ordinary Wednesday: The slow work of God

Today my city came out of its fifth COVID-19 lockdown in two years. Time functions differently when you’re in lockdown, partly because you cannot do many of the things you’d normally do, and because weekdays and weekends bleed into each other, but also because we slow down and notice what we wouldn’t normally. I spend much time in lockdown looking at our trees and observing their leaves or their lack, and the smallest signs of new growth or flowers.

When we emerge out of lockdown, it can feel disorienting at first, partly as though nothing has changed, partly as though we do not know what is normal any more. Time functions differently at these moments too. Was it only yesterday we were here last? Or was it yesterday that we were in the midst of our five months of lockdown? What feels recent and what feels long ago gets rearranged.

Time can also feel discouraging. We might ask: Why do we keep returning here? We t feel disconnected from the times in the past when none of this was real. We might fear that those times will not return.

Last week I was reminded in my devotional reading of a wonderful quote from the 20th-century Jesuit writer Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

True for beating a pandemic. True for the daily slog of growing in Christ.

And when we slow down, as in lockdown, we might ironically see growth happening in stasis. Little snowdrops are peeking through the grass. Iris stalks are pushing up from the ground ready to split open and bud. And the almond tree, Jeremiah’s symbol of watching and waiting, is budding in perfect white blossoms. My wife and I bought that almond tree when we lost our first pregnancy. Now we have three children. The almond tree has yet to bear fruit that we can eat but each year it blossoms in promise. Each year we watch and wait. And each year God promises: “I am watching over my word to perform it.” (Jeremiah 1:12) Comforted by small signs of promise fulfilled, we slowly learn to trust the slow work of God.

Ordinary Wednesday: Do you see what I see?

My home city of Melbourne is now in the unenviable position of experiencing its fifth lockdown, and many of us are finding ourselves making comparisons with “previous lockdowns” we have known. This particular lockdown has the misfortune of falling at the same time as the beginning of our long, long winter lockdown last year. And so the comparisons are easy to make, different though the circumstances are this time around. I find myself looking at photographs that show how small my children were this time last year. As I trudge through the mud of our backyard I remember the twins learning to crawl through that mud and dragging it everywhere they went. And I remember their hesitant then eager first steps and the ways I had to keep pulling them out of the not-yet-established vegetable patch that my wife was working on.

Not all memories are fond. Trauma has its own ways of influencing memories. I find personally that I revisit the experiences of trying to carry VCE students through their final year of school with all the uncertainty of the world we found ourselves in and an internet connection that enjoyed dying at key educational moments. I dread repeating the feelings of inadequacy I faced as a teacher in 2020. I am easily drawn into the fear of repeating it all.

But memories, psychologists will tell us, are not video recordings of the past. They can be skewed, rearranged, biased. Today I attempted to capture two moments of beauty that I saw through the window of my home office: droplets of water on a bare peach tree’s branches, and a shaft of afternoon sunlight through the window so dazzling that it overexposed the whole image. As with photographs, so with memories: the image we end up with is not necessarily all that we saw and experienced at the time.

There are many beautiful moments in the Bible – in the Old Testament in particular – when God is spoken of as reversing the story that His people have experienced. In Joel 2:25 God says, “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten.” The Psalms are full of God turning mourning into dancing. Psalm 126 has this particularly wonderful description:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the Negeb!
5 Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
6 He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.

Though in the second half of the psalm we see that the restoration is not quite finished – they are still praying that God will restore their fortunes like a dry river bed replenishing itself with streams – we have this wonderful image of seeds being sown in tears and becoming a joyful harvest.

I cannot really see the joyful harvest that is being sown now. But I know that God’s view of my story and my circumstances are not the same as mine. I need to turn my eyes to how He views this day I am in, not the blurred or washed out version that I too often see instead.

Ordinary Wednesday: In due season

My eldest is a budding geographer. At nearly four years of age he loves reading books about the earth and its continents, its flora and fauna. We often find ourselves having quite technical discussions about the reasons why some plant or animal species are dying out, or why we have seasons. The seasons have been of particular interest ever since 2020 when every change in the seasons was of immense interest, being all we had to look at. He also knows that, while his mother and brothers’ birthdays are in autumn and mine is in winter, his is in spring, and so he can’t wait for the spring.

I for one am fond of winter. Perhaps it comes from the snow of fabled memory from the week I was born. Perhaps, being of more melancholy and introverted disposition, I like the feeling that Christina Rossetti expressed in her poem “Winter: My Secret” of being safely bundled up away from prying eyes and summery excess. Perhaps I just love winter because it’s when my birthday falls. But as I have taught my son about the seasons I have been struck by the way that winter is a gift. Human life – in fact, all life – exists on earth because of the so-called “Goldilocks zone” that our planet occupies in relation to the Sun, being neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to be found. Winter lets plants rest. It lets our half of the planet cool. It lets animals conserve energy and hibernate. Winter teaches us to pause and trust.

A perfect place in scripture to turn to in Ordinary Time is Psalm 145, one of the tenderest descriptions of a creator God providing for the planet that He chose to teem with life. In verses 15 to 16we read these wonderful words:

The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food at the proper time.
You open your hand
and satisfy the desires of every living thing.

In other translations “at the proper time” is rendered “in due season”. Sir Humphrey would say, “When the time is right”. God, fortunately, knows just when that is for each of us. He keeps Emperor penguins huddled together to survive the long Antarctic dark. He opens up snowdrops and early cheer to point to the arrival of spring. He makes some fruit to arrive in summer, some autumn, some winter. He carried the Kaputar pink slug through horrific bushfires (look it up!) and gives each of us the right things for the right season.

Not everyone is comforted by winter as I am, I know. But for my fellow inhabitants of Earth’s southern half, let me encourage us to remember the God of the “proper time”, the one who “upholds all who fall
and lifts up all who are bowed down” (Psalm 145:14). We could also say all who freeze or hibernate. God who positioned our orbit for life knows our seasons, knows the days that give us life and the days that grieve us, and we can look to Him to feed us through it all.

Ordinary Wednesday: I am not a calm blue ocean

Something I have been thinking about a lot this year is how to be what rabbi and psychologist Edwin Friedman called a “non-anxious presence”. Friedman observed that tight-knit communities like families and churches often had such complex networks of relationships and emotional histories that addressing one relational issue was often difficult because of all the other issues that came attached to it. In such situations, according to Friedman, what is needed is a “non-anxious presence”, someone who can support others in their anxiety without becoming anxious themselves. While I often see the need to be that person myself, the practical question of how to do it remains hard to answer. Simply pretending to be a calm blue ocean when in fact I’m an underwater volcano hardly seems the answer. And while I might manage to be a non-anxious presence at work or in pastoral relationships, my own family then do not exactly receive my best non-anxious self when I come home. Tonight while putting my boys to sleep, holding two of them by the hand and the third cuddled in the crook of my arm, I found myself expressing in my own body the tension of being pulled and stretched in more directions than easily seems possible. At such a time, what do we do?

Tonight I was drawn in my mind to an image from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians when he describes how Jesus’ own body created transformative peace. Speaking specifically of how Jesus brought together opposing ethnic groups, the picture Paul gives is nonetheless a wonderful image of Jesus stretching out on the Cross to bring together oppositions and tensions, resolving them in the perfect peace he was accomplishing:

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:14-16)

The truth is, I can only be a “non-anxious presence” when I bring my anxieties and all the tensions of my being to the Cross where perfect peace is made. I cannot be a calm blue ocean but I can cast my anxieties into the sea of grace. And I cannot reconcile tensions or bring perfect peace to others in my body, but I can pray that I might have the grace to embody Jesus’ peace in the life I live towards others.

Praying for the day that this is so.

Ordinary Wednesday: Nature’s Hat-stand

Today would have been the 100th birthday of one of the most important people in my life: my maternal grandfather James Savage, known to his friends as Jim and to me and my cousins as Pep. Born in 1921 to an Irish Australian father and Scottish Australian mother, he grew up in working-class Sydney during the Depression, and the death of his father when he was nine due to the after-affects of mustard gas in the trenches of WWI saw his mother raise him and his two sisters alone with very little to live on. When she remarried and he clashed with his step-father he ran away to fight in WWII, flying in Number 10 Squadron with the RAAF. Returning to Sydney after the war, he eventually started working for a photographic company and as a result also became a respected photographer, especially for his architectural work for the National Trust. Forced to leave school young, he never realised his desire to be a History teacher but he inspired me with four of his great loves: history, great books, good tea (always Twinings) and photography.

My grandfather, inside the old copy of Ulysses that I inherited from him.

Pep piled photographic equipment on me like he showered me with books. He introduced me to Dickens, Orwell, Camus, Brave New World, Joyce and Hemingway. And he taught me something that never made sense to me at the time: a picture needs something to hang its hat on. An enthusiastic reader of early Richard Dawkins and angry at the Catholic Church of his childhood, Pep subscribed to the “blind watchmaker” view of the cosmos, but believed up to his death that God was love and saw order and beauty in nature that was not easily explained by his scientific determinism. The way I look at the world has my grandfather’s stamp on it. When I see a dazzling array of light and grab my phone to capture it, Pep has prompted that sense in me. When I photograph an interesting doorway or the curious shape of a tree, Pep again. He taught me to see all the places where God hangs His hat in the world’s form and wonder, though he would never have put it that way.

Bible scholar John Walton speaks of the seven days of creation as a process of God building a home for Himself. The first six days He spends ordering His home. On the seventh day, He comes inside, hangs up His hat, switches on the lights and puts His feet up. In every arm-like tree bough I see God carving a dwelling for Himself with us. I do not know where my grandfather stood before His creator when he died – in his last days he took great comfort in remembering the Lord’s Prayer – but I know that he taught me how to see God’s world with an eye attentive to beauty and order. And my faith is the richer for it.

Ordinary Wednesday: Everlasting Dust

While I try to go through each day with my eyes open to the little signs of glory and truth that lie around me in the everyday, some days nothing much catches my eye or sinks in. Today was one of those days, my attention too divided for anything in particular to arrest me. So I found myself tonight looking back over photos from the long weekend just passed to see if anything could be a worthy subject for a reflection. This one caught my eye, an image of tall native grass that grows in the wetlands by the Werribee River just a few kilometres downstream from my house.

It reminded me of the many places in scripture when humanity is compared to grass: beautiful in its day but impermanent. Trying to locate one of these verses I found myself turning to Psalm 103, which contains these words:

The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more. (v.15-16

Taken by themselves these words could sound heartless, devaluing of human life. But in the psalm itself they are wedged between declarations of God’s fatherly and everlasting love:

As a father has compassion on his children,
    so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
    he remembers that we are dust. (v13-14)

And then:

But from everlasting to everlasting
the Lord’s love is with those who fear him. (v.17)

We might fade from the Earth’s memory as quickly as grass, but not from God’s. He holds us in His covenant of love from generation to generation, from everlasting to everlasting, even though we are dust.

The beauty God gives to temperary things is an instructive lesson in this. God values even the briefest flower, the shortest glance of a sunset. And, what’s more, He takes our momentary days and bestows eternal significance upon them.

It was fitting that, while my brain was drawn to verse 15, the verse of the day that appeared on Bible Gateway as I went in search of Psalm 103 was in fact verse 13: As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him…I may not have had eyes open much to see God in the small details of my day, but He had eyes open to see me, and He loves what He sees. May I see through the eyes of His love tomorrow.

Ordinary Wednesday: In the Wednesday of my life…

In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there.

Dante, Inferno, Canto I (trans. A.S. Kline)

I found myself thinking of this eerie beginning to Dante’s poetic journey to hell this morning, not because life felt especially hellish but because I was thinking of Wednesdays as a mid-point in the week, a slump, and how Ordinary Time can often feel like the Wednesday of the year, or the Wednesday of life. It was in this kind of slump in his life that Dante had his vision, and it was ugly before it was beautiful. Yet Dante tells us that he had to see the ugly – and tell us of it – before he could get to the beauty.

One of my main wishes in life is to see the beauty in the midst of ugliness, as anyone who has read my writing will probably know. But there are times in life which challenge this quest, times when, like Dante, we feel ourselves stuck somewhere impenetrable, unable to see the right path, or indeed any path. This fourth lockdown that my city has been in has felt a little like this – not for being especially intense (in fact, it has been mercifully short compared to last year’s) but for being discouraging. We think we know the journey life is taking us – onward and upward – and then we find ourselves slumping backwards, with little sense of why.

In times like these we may struggle to see beauty. It may not appear readily or easily, though it is still often there if our eyes are attuned. But what is constant is God’s eternal fountain of goodness. When I found myself staring, at the end of the day, at the fountain in my school courtyard, I suspected it might have resonances with Dante, and when I came home and looked it up, I found it did. This, you see, is where Dante finishes his journey. Finally finding the woman he loves in Paradise, he finds that she turns his eyes from her to God’s eternal fountain, and teaches him to speak out of the fountain of faith within him.

It was fitting that I found myself, then, having a moment of quiet beside the fountain; even more fitting, perhaps, that while I was watching it the stormy winds blew the fountain waters wildly into the air. All the same, the water kept flowing. All the same, God reigns in all our Wednesdays.

Ordinary Wednesday: Windows

“Which window will it be today?” Many parents of small children will quickly recognise those words which precede the moment in Play School when we “look through the window” to discover something new and exciting. I have spent much of today sitting by a windowsill with very limited ability to see. Our outside office sits at the back of our garden, with a window looking out over the fruit trees. In winter the leafless trees let in rafts of light which by afternoon mean that I am facing directly into the glare. And I am working in our outside office again, in this first week of the southern winter, because my city is once again in hard lockdown, for the time being at least. As Ordinary Time begins, it feels a curious way to be living this ordinary season, back in a situation that is far from ordinary yet which places us so immovably amongst the very ordinary things of our own homes and backyards. The familiar and the unfamiliar are in curious lockstep. We are forced to look more at our immediate surroundings and have fewer means of escape from the ordinary.

What is the spiritual fruit of this? Well, it will be different for each person, and different especially if you are not currently in lockdown and can perhaps relegate that to your recent past. But one thing I am working towards with God is to not avoid the ordinary but to look into it, to make it a window through which I can see God at work. That’s where I will see Him. He does extraordinary things, for sure, but most of the time He works in the slow, the frustrating, the “I-thought-we’d-finished-this-already” of ordinary life. So that’s where I want to look – not past the ordinary, as though His answers are magical, but in the ordinary, because His answers are trustworthy, sturdy and real.

Devotional Seeing: Thoughts for Ordinary Time

Through the ninety-something days of Lent and Easter this year I set myself the discipline of taking a photo each day and posting it with a spiritual reflection. It was an enormous task and one that I often regretted setting for myself. But it began to do something in me that has continued now that Easter season is over: it introduced me to a practice that I’m calling “devotional seeing”. It taught my eyes to look each day for the signs of God in the small and ordinary things of my day. And, as the church year moves into the long ordinary of Ordinary Time I’m feeling that it’s something I need to continue. In fact, as my city puts its masks back on and returns, after months of zero cases, to watch the case numbers rise again, I want all the more to remind myself of God’s graces in the small and ordinary. So I’m going to keep up my devotional seeing, by sharing a weekly thought – each Wednesday – accompanied by an image from the day. Feel free to join me if it’s something you’re after too. Let’s go hunting for the open heart of God wherever it can be found.