Unaccustomed to fish and their ways,
we realise quickly that the goldfish bowls
of our childhood are no longer the way,
and so, acceding to a preschooler's wish,
my wife spends hours learning
the ways of fish tanks
and the fish that dwell in them,
then imparts this learning to me as we
gather together accoutrements
and seek to keep a fish alive.
Like new parents, powerless
to draw the line between marketing and
the edicts that utter death to the fish
that do not receive them, we take
all advice, and pour
hours the night before, like
into the tank's assembly, then
the next day slowly let
this fish like a newborn
take in its water, its new surrounds,
while two wondering eyes swallow all
in a dazzled gulp, and I
am back on the ground watching
his newborn pupils discover
this gobsmacking, stunning, sense-exploding whole
for the very first time, and wonder too:
that we should have made it through
four years largely unscathed,
save the loss of sleep; that he
- this life-absorbing, world-imagining
force before me
should be here at all,
staring in awe
at a fish bubbling water.
This morning when I woke to my children climbing on each other and me and complaining of each other’s intrusion into their personal space, I found myself very quickly feeling resentful and grumpy. It was my first day back at school – in person, not on a computer – for eight weeks and I was frustrated to find all the work that I had done over the holidays to help my children sleep better landing me back here, with them clambering over me and each other as though we had never bought them their own beds. Very quickly I found myself thinking, “Here we go again.”
It’s a common enough feeling at the moment: the sense that we continually return to these places that we do not want to be in; the sense that our lives keep repeating themselves in never-ending cycles.
But I want to challenge that thinking in myself. I want to remind myself that even with each return to old, unwanted places – the things I would gladly leave behind – I am not the same. At least, I am not if I am responsive to the work that God is doing in me and in the world. God is not stuck on repeat, nor is my life “Groundhog Day”, much as it may feel like it. Each day, each season builds on those before it. Each day, if we are listening to God, is a step further in His direction, even if we cannot see what that direction is.
I recently read a beautiful poem by Robert Browning entitled “Now” in which two lovers seek to overthrow the tyranny of time by “mak[ing] perfect the present”, finding the eternal in the momentary. It’s a wonderful image but I want to do better than that. I can seize a moment of time in a photograph or a poem and try to capture it with timeless qualities. But better than that is when each moment builds on the last, when even loss is growth when it carries us more in God’s direction.
How, then, should I live if once again my children destroy my sleep? I write these words while holding one of the twins who has woken up coughing; it does not bode well for the rest of the night. Well, one thing I can try to do – emphasis on try – is to “make perfect the present” by finding God in the present. Whether I am revisiting old ground that I want to escape or in a moment that I want to preserve for ever, I can try saying simply, “Here I am, God, where You have placed me now. Show me how I can use this moment to move closer to You.”
Right now, we are bound by time. It frustrates us constantly by moving slowly when we want it to race and disappearing when we want it to stay. But God is not bound by time, and He orchestrates all our present moments to bring about His perfection, moment on moment on moment. Let’s listen to Him.
And what if, in the end, you lost it all?
In the poorly timed decision,
the negligent hurry,
in missing the moment for the undoing click?
What if, in a swift dazzle of technology, all
your acts and monuments fell down a drain
never to be found or known again?
Would you, then, wake up at sunrise
to find that, in spite of it all, the wattle-birds still
have their insistent call, and there still
are the honeyeaters in the bottlebrush hedge?
Would you find a familiar coffee pot on the stove,
pattering feet wandering the hallway in their sleeping bags,
and thoughts – new day thoughts – to replace the old?
Perhaps, in a moment of quiet, you might find yourself
turning to the persistence of ink on paper and scrape
some hesitant symbols, soon words, soon poems,
and see new combinations, hear new
assemblages sound, and find
in the rhythms of your pen, in
the undulations of thought, something which
perhaps could owe its very iambs,
its steady pulsations across page
to the loss that yesterday crippled you.
Family reunion brings us here,
where gum trees open onto two eternal flames
smoking up suburban Sunday sky.
Our park - the edge of our travel limits, sits
beside quiet street and under
the refinery's steady shadow.
Two swings, two slides, ancient eucalypts,
and where houses fence the park's perimeter, a hidden gate
opens while we picnic and out
pops a man's head, then a man,
up for a chat or to survey the scene.
Here for 45 years, he tells us, he's seen
the refinery grow and housing prices fall,
smelt and breathed it all,
would never leave, not even for Queensland.
I doubt we will come here again,
yet the man in the fence shuts the gate,
returns to his 45-year-old-home for home can grow wherever
we stop, open our bags and rest.
Home has been here before; has been contested; will be
Eucalypt skin carries its scars,
carries its stories and its hopes.
Our stories, our homes, are refined in the scarring,
will one day erupt in air purer than this.
One day, our homes will open their hands
and fold you into their scars.
There’s a book I love which has a title almost as good as the book itself: A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson. I’ve been thinking a lot about this phrase recently, because I’ve been struck by how much of life is simply about perseverance, and Christian life in particular. Whether facing the long haul of fighting a global pandemic or the daily repeated struggles of parenting, I’m reminded that following God often means simply identifying the right things to be doing and to keep doing them, in God’s strength. Often even the act of living in His strength is a daily act of obedience: that moment of rising and saying, “I can’t do this today, but You can.” Even saying those words is hard and takes daily persistence.
Two circumstances in my life have particularly made me think more about this. The first is that I’m coming to the end of a very long period of theological study. I began studying theology in 2009, when I was a relatively new teacher and was just about to embark on a short term mission trip to South East Asia. The mission trip felt largely a failure and I only managed two subjects before deferring for several years, resuming in 2017, the year my eldest son was born. I felt fairly sure I wanted to be an ordained minister then. Now that doesn’t seem so likely, and I’ll be graduating at the end of this semester with a Graduate Diploma instead of the Masters I enrolled in. There’s disappointment and relief in equal parts in this turn of events. But mostly I don’t know what all the years of study have been for or where they are taking me. But I press on.
The second factor is a much more earthy one. My wife and I are toilet training our 2-year-old twins, and anyone who has ever toilet trained a child will be able to imagine how tiring and challenging this is. Yet I was strangely comforted when, in the midst of all of this, I found myself writing an essay on Martin Luther’s theology of vocation and found him speaking both of his son sharing his faeces around the house and also of the spiritual value in faithfully changing a dirty nappy. Luther, I learnt, challenged the mediaeval perception that obedience to God entailed grand acts: penance and pilgrimage in particular. No, he said, keep doing what you are doing (in loose paraphrase!) and be obedient wherever God has placed you.
And so I seek to be obedient. I wash dishes and clean dirty underpants. I write essays and try to go to bed early so I can rise to my sons in the night. And sometimes, like these irises that I found my wife had placed in the sink in between my interrupted attempts at doing the dishes, beauty appears in the dirt and grime of our everyday obedience. Undoubtedly God appears, but we have to look faithfully at the tasks set before us if we are to expect to find Him there.
One of my favourite moments in the Bible is the little, anticlimactic story after one of the big show-stopping stories. It comes in 1 Kings 19, immediately after Elijah has triumphed over all the false prophets of Baal and the land-grabbing wicked King Ahab. God has shown up in an undeniable way to give Elijah the victory that day. It should be anyone’s career highlight. Yet Elijah, hearing that the king’s wife is still out to get him, sets out on an endurance sprint to escape and at the end of it all collapses in despair in the desert.
What do I love about this story? First, I love its humanity. It’s why I love the book of Jonah too. I recognise myself so easily in these pages. I, like Elijah, am a massive idealist. Like Elijah, I push myself to my limit. And a two-decade battle with depression has also meant that, like Elijah, I am easily defeated, prone to despair.
But more than this I love what comes next. God shows up, first as an angel that tells Elijah to eat, drink and sleep. He does this twice. Then He sends a series of dramatic natural events: a violent wind, an earthquake, a fire, and yet in all of these events we are told that God, though sending them, was not “in them”. They were not Him speaking. When He does speak, it’s in “the sound of a low whisper”. Some translations call it the “still small voice”. And then, in that low whisper, God gets Elijah’s attention and shows him the way forward.
I am drawn back to that story today for a few reasons. The obvious one most Australians will recognise. This morning my city experienced the shock of an earthquake registering 6 points on the Richter scale, with its epicentre in the mountains north-east of me. It was dramatic but relatively minor, nothing of the scale that many places around the world have to deal with often, simply unusual for Australia which lies safely within its own continental plate. But yes, an earthquake got me thinking. Specifically it made me think, How does God get my attention? It struck me quite quickly how many in my city, stuck in the morass of our sixth lockdown and the growing reality of what this delta strain of Covid means for us, welcomed the earthquake as a diversion. I certainly did. But others, understandably, were frightened. Others wondered, what next?
Which brings me to my second reason why I’m telling this story today. Because, while the earthquake itself did not make me feel like this, I know well that feeling of “what next?” and am often there when I feel that I’ve had one too many things go wrong. Today it wasn’t the earthquake that made me feel like this but some complaints about work I had given much effort to that tipped me quickly into a place of feeling that I couldn’t do any more. It was so easy to slip into that place, so easy to feel that I had no choice but despair.
And yet there was a moment in the day when I felt that God spoke quietly yet clearly and I want to return to that moment. I was walking my boys to the park at the end of the afternoon and, as often happens, they grew tired and distracted, occupied with digging in the dirt and finding treasures of sticks and leaves. So I gave in and decided that some nature play was more important than getting to the park. I pulled the pram off to the side of the path and I let the boys crawl and discover instead. And as I stood there, I looked around me, listened to leaves and wattle-birds, briefly lowered my mask so I could breathe in wattle and eucalypt, and God was so clearly present, the author and perfecter of this scene, the one who carved each groove in the trees’ skin, the one who taught wattle-birds to dance and sing, that I heard my spirit say, “How much more will He care for you?”
It was simple. The ground did not shake. I still grew deflated by evening. My mind played suddenly and unexpectedly in the darkness. But then I sat with Elijah, and told you his story, and I can now repeat what my spirit heard this afternoon. I ask it to myself. I ask it to you. If He so clothes the wattle-birds and the eucalypts, how much more will He care for you?
During the first Melbourne lockdown around Easter 2020 I began baking bread. One of the first items to start disappearing from supermarket shelves was bread (after toilet paper…) and with shops overwhelmed by panic-buyers rushing in to get everything they needed for the apocalypse it was generally easier to make do with what we had at home instead daring the crowds. So I started baking.
Soon it became a regular part of my week. My boys devoured bread and it saved us money to make it ourselves instead of buying it. I also enjoyed the challenge, and for me bread-making became a kind of lockdown therapy. This year, I expanded my repertoire to include sourdough – something of a COVID-era cliché, but I’m okay with that. The whole process of making sourdough is a delight and a fascination, and the bread I can make now is far better than any that I ever made with regular yeast. It also gives scope for so much spiritual reflection: the slow process that we simply need to trust; it happens, with remarkably little interference from us. Even the making of the starter culture is simply a matter of patience and perseverance: knowing what to do, keeping on doing it each day, and trusting that one day it will work.
But recently it prompted a new reflection. I joined a Facebook community of amateur sourdough bakers called “Daily Bread” and this made me think, of course, of the line from the Lord’s Prayer, “give us today our daily bread”. This is particularly pertinent for me at the moment, because my three boys are growing in body and appetite and so I really am baking a loaf of bread every night for the day ahead. What, I found myself wondering, does this mean for the prayer for my “daily bread”? I am making it myself, after all. So what does it mean to pray for it nonetheless?
Well, obviously I know that Jesus was not only talking about bread. “Daily bread” means the things we need to sustain us through the day, and it must also make us think of the verse in Deuteronomy 8:3 that Jesus quotes back to the devil in Matthew 4:4 – “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” But there is also a very real sense in which He was talking about bread. Bread, after all, was a staple food in the ancient middle eastern world, much as it is today in many cultures, and to pray for your daily bread meant a recognition both that your bread came from the hand of God and that you were to rely on Him for the day’s provisions and not fret about the days beyond.
So, when I pray for my daily bread, I am not denying that I have a responsibility to procure that bread. If I can work, then I should do so, and then I must either buy or make the bread. The process of making it myself does not place me in a position of lesser reliance on God; it simply makes me a co-worker with Him. He gives me what I need to make the bread, and He could take it away any time He chose. I am dependent on Him each day for the very basics of my survival.
Yet it struck me, as I thought about my own bread-making, that Jesus originally spoke these words to a people who would always have made their own bread. There would have been no Baker’s Delight in the ancient world – no news-flash in itself, but not something I had ever given careful thought to. If you lived in their day, your daily bread would always have come from your own oven, your own fire, your own hands doing the kneading and cultivating the yeast. Every step, perhaps even the growing and grinding of the grain, would have been your own work. And yet Jesus taught: ask God for the day’s bread.
In modern Western culture we are undoubtedly cut off from the processes of food production. We go to the grocery store and buy bread that someone else has baked, from flour that someone else has milled, from wheat that someone else has grown. In baking my own bread, making my own sourdough culture, I am more aware of that process. Yet I am no more in control of it. The time that I accidentally left the culture fermenting in the oven after I turned it on to bake bread, turning it into a burnt-out jar and a strangely shaped crust at the bottom of the oven, reminded me of how easily the work of my own hands can be destroyed. When my children throw their bread on the ground outside, I am reminded again. I make the bread, but I am not in control.
So when I mix up the flour, salt, water and culture each night, I can remember: God has given me everything that my hands are mixing. When I place it in the oven in the morning, I can remember: God has given me this new day, and the opportunities that it presents; He has given me the family to feed; He has given water to the crops that have given me the flour. All things are from His hands to mine.
But I can also remember: God has called me to use my hands to participate in His work. When I ask for my daily bread, God provides, and then He calls. He gives me the opportunity to be part of the process, to feel His creation at work, and to participate in this symbol of the kingdom of God slowly at work, like a tiny bit of leaven working its way imperceptibly through the dough…
God, Calvin said, speaks like a nursing mother lisping to her child, making room for "our feebleness", as though cuddling us with words. And so I turn to the comfort of Psalms where the wounded Christ opens His arms to make room for my wounds, to the God who calms a lamb sleeping by a stream, or exhausted Elijah: God's angel enfolding him in the comfort of sleep.
Heaven’s chimes are slow, but sure to strike at last;
Earth’s sands are slow, but surely dropping thro’:
And much we have to suffer, much to do,
Before the time be past.Christina Rossetti, “Heaven’s chimes are slow”
One of my favourite stories is a little-known work by J.R.R. Tolkien called “Leaf By Niggle”. It is the story of an artist called Niggle who is brilliant at painting leaves. One “leaf by Niggle”, they say, is worth many other artists’ trees. But Niggle wants to one day paint a whole tree, and aims to do so, but is continually interrupted by his neighbour whose petty complaints Niggle still feels obliged to help with. Niggle also knows that he has a big journey that he must undertake one day soon, and he keeps putting off preparing for it. Niggle’s story is so familiar to me: the story of someone whose head is full of creative goals yet they are never realised because life keeps interrupting.
But that – spoiler alert – is not the end of Niggle’s story. If you read to the end, what you find is that all of life’s interruptions have become part of Niggle’s artwork. In the end, instead of having painted a tree, he finds that he has created a garden, and he and his pesky neighbour are now co-workers in the one beautiful garden. Everything that seemed to interrupt Niggle from his artwork was in fact the art in the making.
For me, it’s a beautiful picture of heaven – and I suspect Tolkien meant it that way. It’s also one of the best reflections of creativity and its eternal significance that I have encountered. I have been comforted by it many times when I feel that I am not accomplishing all that I hope to accomplish. I like to think – and I shared a poem of mine here yesterday to that effect – that even all the poems I have never managed to write have become a kind of humus making the nutritious soil for everything else that I have written or done.
I wonder what we will one day make of all the spaces in between things in our lives – those times of waiting or interruption or stasis, those times when we felt we weren’t where we should be, doing what we wanted to be doing. Neurological research even indicates that times of seeming stasis are actually often times when our brains do the work most necessary for being creative. I love the life and poetry of Christina Rossetti for this reason, because in her work I see so much of that fruit of in-between times. One of her most beautiful and powerful works is the three-part poem “Three Stages”. Two of the three stages were originally published as stand-alone poems, and one was reimagined as another poem “Heaven’s chimes are slow”, and there are many years in between each stage. We can see, as Rossetti keeps returning to the theme – seemingly the story of giving up a love that went against the persona’s conscience – the way that time works away at our wounds and struggles. We see the vacillations in a soul that is seeking to do what it knows to be right yet feels the tensions of this decision. And we see some wonderful reflections on the passing of time itself, something that only time can teach us, as in this passage from the final part:
I thought to deal the death-stroke at a blow,
To give all, once for all, but nevermore; –
Then sit to hear the low waves fret the shore,
Or watch the silent snow.
“Oh rest,” I thought, “in silence and the dark;
Oh rest, if nothing else, from head to feet:
Thought I may see no more poppied wheat,
Or sunny soaring lark.
“These chimes are slow, but surely strike at last;
This sand is slow, but surely droppeth thro’;
And much there is to suffer, much to do,
Before the time be past.“
That last stanza always arrests me. They speak of a soul that has struggled, known that struggles do not end easily, and yet has chosen to persevere all the same. “These chimes are slow, but surely strike at last”: there’s something of Biblical power in these words, in the way that they recall moments in scripture like Habakkuk, in the version that Rossetti would have read it: “For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry” (Habakkuk 2:3 KJV). Rossetti goes on also to use images from Ecclesiastes, with its deeply realistic sense of the labours of the soul longing for eternity. It is a poem filled with the aching of our in-betweens.
“These chimes are slow, but surely strike at last.” “Though it tarry, wait for it.” There’s always been a tension for me in the statement that God’s promises “will surely come” and “will not tarry”, even “though it tarry”. How is this true? There’s an ambiguity in how the KJV renders it. The ESV makes the distinction clearer, though no less of a paradox: “If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.” How can it seem slow yet not delay? Because God is not failing to act, any more than Jesus neglected to stop Lazarus from dying. God is acting, even in the in-betweens. He is working in the stillness and the silence as much as in the earthquake and the body rising from the dead. Nothing is truly an in-between moment in God’s timeframe.
And so we wait, and seek, with Rossetti, to “rest in silence and the dark”. God, thank heavens, is with us, sustaining us in both, and we may even produce some beautiful poems or gardens in the wait.
This one has a stone wall that you saw driving north at sunrise on your last day at work. You thought, “I’ll write a poem about that”, but by sunset it was lockdown again and you went home to stay home. No poem. This one has a glimpse you caught of your face reflected in a sunlit window and your freckles surprised even you, as though the last time you’d seen yourself you were pale and now time and slowness had put their pigment on you. You began – a sonnet, if I recall correct – but never finished, the iambs too regular, life in too much quiet disarray. This one has ivy winding around it, and this one got lost taking out the compost. These ones were bundled together in your bed when you fell asleep, and this one lies tangled in your youngest son’s cot. Over there’s an epic that was never thought and under the garden path is a song. “Remember us?” they cry, as you hang laundry to dry and somewhere, yes somewhere, you’re sure that you do. When it works, when the sounds and pictures and words combine to take shape on a page, on a screen, on a tongue, you will look up, and find the stone wall has become a city, the compost heap an orchard, vast, your children resting beneath the boughs. You will stand on the bedrock of your unwritten thoughts, teeming with miles of living humus beneath you, everything being written, all the while.