Keeping It Reel: Thoughts on authenticity and social media

I was filming my sons engaging in a science experiment they had learnt about on Play School – mixing bicarb soda and hair conditioner to make snow – when I realised very quickly that this was not something I would be sharing on social media. The twins shovelling handfuls of bicarb-conditioner-mess into their mouths while my eldest complained about the mess it made on his hands and tried to remember if the recipe also needed four cups of water…it all ended with me hurriedly cleaning up the mess and diverting them into other outdoor activities while I hung up the washing. I then caught a glimpse of some recently opened peach blossoms and paused to try capturing it on my phone, while one of the twins clung to my legs, demanding cuddles, and the eldest started rummaging in the garden bed. I could share the peach blossoms online, but what picture would this give of my life, compared with the reality?

I am torn sometimes by the question of what to share and what not to share. At any given moment most of my country is in some form of lockdown, with its two biggest cities, including my own, being stuck in strict, extended lockdowns that seem not to be ending any time soon. Sharing moments of beauty and reprieve seems to be often important to do, both for ourselves and for others. Yet there are also those who need to hear the real life stories – the kids screaming, the flatness, the struggle to be motivated, to parent well, to work. These also need sharing. And sometimes we also just need to let off steam, and that can be okay too.

But does the world need to hear me let off steam? Not really. I have friends and a wife who will graciously listen, and a God I can always turn to in prayer. I do not need to make others hear my frustrations, not for my sake alone. Nor are my meltdowns more real than my rejoicing. I was genuinely in awe of the peach blossoms this afternoon, and genuinely exploding in my eyes and nose for the rest of the evening with allergies from all the pollens and the dust mites that we unsettled with cleaning. As Taylor Swift would say, “Both of these things can be true.” It is difficult to know which side of reality most needs sharing at the time.

Here’s a question I am trying to ask myself, not always successfully: which is the most loving thing to share right now? Sometimes sharing a cute picture of the kids is loving, sometimes it is loving to share a struggle, sometimes to share both. Sometimes it helps others feel more normal to know that I struggle. Sometimes people just want to see something beautiful, and that’s okay too. Sometimes people need their eyes lifted beyond their struggles, sometimes they need to see where God is working in the midst of it. Sometimes they need distraction, sometimes a cry. But the key is that I should seek to be loving. If I am sharing something beyond my close friends or family, it needs to be about more than just me. The world doesn’t need more of me, but it certainly needs more of God, and it certainly needs more beauty and love.

So here is how I am trying to keep it real. Here is a photo of a peach blossom in my garden that would look so much more beautiful if you could come to visit my garden and see for yourself. It was beautiful, and the sun in the afternoon was glorious, and I sneezed and struggled to keep my children occupied and God is good, all the time.

Ordinary Wednesday: Natural Theology for Pre-Schoolers

This is a conversation I had with E, my nearly four-year-old, at breakfast yesterday, about why the porridge was not ready yet, even though he was yelling at it and telling it that he wanted it to be ready.

Me: It’s like in Basil and the Branch [a kids’ book that he loves about a branch on a grapevine]. Even though Basil squeezes and puffs, he can’t make his grapes grow yet.

E: Why can’t he make his grapes grow yet?

Me: Because it isn’t the season for grapes to grow.

E: Because grapes grow in summer!

Me: That’s right, grapes don’t grow until summer.

E: And we eat them in autumn! And winter, and spring!

Me: Yes, we can eat them in autumn, can’t we? Or it’s like our quince tree. That takes a long, long time to grow quinces, doesn’t it? Do you think the quince tree could make quinces now by squeezing and yelling?

E: No…

Me: And then the quinces start to grow in summer but they take a long, loooong time to ripen. They’re not ripe until autumn, are they?

E: [growing interested] What things can we make with quinces next autumn?

Me: What would you like to make with quinces next autumn?

E: Could we make quince paste?!

Me: Yes, we could make quince paste again. That takes a long time to make too, doesn’t it? Just like sourdough.

E: Or we could make quince jam!

Me: Yes, we could make quince jam too. That also takes a long time.

E: Is the porridge ready yet?

Me: Almost. I just need the berries to thaw.

E: I want water.

And slowly, slowly, the oats absorb the water, and the berries start to thaw. Slowly, slowly, buds lose their outer winter coating and tiny flowers peak through. Slowly my son is learning to be patient, even though the next morning he is sad once again that the porridge takes too long to be ready. Slowly I learn to be patient too, even though tonight my children climb in and out of my legs while I make pasta, and I knead sourdough while E is sad because his mother has not yet come inside from work. Slowly God teaches me that I too am as easily saddened, as little inclined to trust Him, as much in need of grace. Slowly, slowly, God works in winter-hardened hearts.

Ordinary Wednesday: The New Ordinary?

It’s a curious thing, keeping ordinary time these last two years. In some respects everything is very ordinary. We don’t leave our homes very much; each day feels much like the previous one; we see the same people, the same walls, the same garden beds. Yet in other ways nothing is ordinary. We long for a return to “normal”, and find ourselves frequently disoriented when life resumes normality for a time and then changes again. We book holidays only to cancel them, make birthday party plans only to send out the message to friends and family that the party cannot go ahead. I’ve coined the phrase “lockdown whiplash” (I’m sure others have used it too) to describe the startling, yanking dislocation that occurs when we keep snapping in and out of lockdown restrictions. Everything is ordinary; nothing is.

How do we find our bearings in this time? One of the comforts I have found is in watching the seasons change. Today I spied our first rose after the big winter prune, peeking like a sunset through the plum blossoms. The springstars are out sparkling softly all through the garden bed. Soon the peach, apple and quince will blossom too. Time is passing even if it feels that we are not moving.

But God’s time, I am reminded, is not our time. The slowness of ordinary time gives way to the expectation of Advent. And what happens year by year in the church calendar is happening cosmically in our hearts with ever growing truth. There were four hundred years between prophecies before Jesus came, yet creation was still preparing the way, the Roman Empire still waking up and readying itself to pave those roads that Jesus and Paul would walk.

What, I wonder, is this ordinary/extraordinary time growing in us? What is it growing in you? What is it growing in me? The signs may not be as clear as the rose I saw today, but they will be more certain, more secure, because the God doing this work never fails, and He always finishes what He starts.

From the ground

“Dada! Find wiggly-woo!” the twins cry,
exultant at the chance to dig fingers in earth
and find its inhabitants in their hands.

And so, on my lunch break, I fossick
in our newly dug garden bed,
each patch of earth yielding

a companion for these delighted fingers,
and I store the moment like compost
to ferment within, to wriggle me alive.

Ordinary Wednesday: Rising, Setting

“From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
the name of the Lord is to be praised…” (Psalm 113:3)

I have struggled to find the words for today’s reflection, because across Australia lockdowns continue and many I know are weary and broken. I am wary of what Australian writer Kathy Lette has condemned as “lockdown positivity”. Although my state’s extension of lockdown today has not really impacted me – I was going to be in quarantine for another week anyway because of a positive case at my school – I know some who are despairing because of it, and so I want to tread gently with my words today.

But this morning as I saw the sun rise in vermilion wonder over my locked down backyard I was drawn out of lockdown blues to the words of Psalm 113 which begins by turning us to praise and concludes with the comforts that an almightily tender God gives His people:

“He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes,
with the princes of his people.
He settles the childless woman in her home
as a happy mother of children.” (Psalm 113:7-9)

Life will present us with ample reasons to reject these words. The poor are rarely seated at tables with princes. Many women remain childless who would dearly love to be mothers. Lockdowns continue and spirits flag. So what comfort is Psalm 113?

Well, the message of this morning’s sunrise to me was to look beyond. The breaking in of the sun’s colours into our atmosphere and over my garden fence reminded me of glories and wonders that I only vaguely comprehend. And that’s what Psalm 113 points us to, I think: a glory and a consolation beyond what earthly lives can apprehend. Ultimately it points us to a God who not only puts the poor at the same table as princes but – wonder of locked-down wonders – breaks into our earthly isolation and sits at the table of feasting with us.

Until then, He is with us in the dust heap, with nonetheless-beauties to point us to what is yet to come.

Ordinary Wednesday: Unfinished Business

As a teacher, I have strange dreams. Often they involve classes wildly out of control, or me being absurdly late to a class. The schools in which I teach are often an amalgam of all the schools I have known: the primary and secondary schools that I attended, as they were in the 90s, and the schools I have taught in. And I am often both a teacher and a student at the same time, struggling to juggle the assignments I know I should be finishing with the classes I should be both attending and teaching.

For many years I had recurring dreams about an unfinished Specialist Maths assignment that was now profoundly overdue. More recently my dreams have shifted to focus on content I have neglected or forgotten to teach. And, for reasons that largely escape me, that often seems to involve Rosemary Dobson’s poetry. I taught Dobson to my Year 12 Literature class for two years, back in 2017 and 2018. I came late to the party with her work and it was gone from the syllabus just as I was gaining confidence in my understanding of it. Like much of what I teach in Literature, I never felt like I got to the bottom of my own understanding let alone my teaching of her poetry. Two weeks ago I spent some of a voucher I got for my birthday on her collected works and it arrived today. Looking over it filled me both with excitement at a renewed chance to read her and a sense that I had not done what I would have hoped for my students when I taught her. I doubt that many teachers ever feel that they have truly done all they could for their students. I certainly never do.

But I was speaking with a mentor of mine today about the slow ways we grow and the things we learn that we wish we had known earlier, and I was struck by the grace God shows in His patience with us. There’s a line in the Anglican prayer of confession that I love which states, “We have done what we ought not to have done and left undone what we ought to have done.” Left undone. So many things left undone. Yet God is the one who completes all the fragmented strands of our lives.

The apostle Paul, when he wrote to the Philippian church from prison, declared that he still “press[ed] on towards the goal” of his life in Christ, saying, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things.” (Philippians 3:12-15). That last bit always comforts me. Paul knows that the mature in faith will not be those who think they have arrived but those who know they haven’t.

And so on another ordinary Wednesday, with much done that should not have been done and much left undone that should have been done, I turn to the patient grace of God and press on. As Rosemary Dobson concludes one of her most beautiful poems:

Forgive, learn from the past. Press on.’ / I press on.

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.