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.

Extraordinary Time

Deprived of the ordinary markings of days -
drives to work, birthdays, people to celebrate -
we cling
more fervently to organic signs,
the constant shifts in the garden,
which trees have blossomed,
which ones have leaves,
how tall the pea plant has grown,
how white its petals.

These and the aphids signal time:
those and the snails migrating,
the worms beneath the compost,
the dead bird by the granny flat,
rising and falling daily tallies,
who died youngest, who's all clear
and how long until - we cannot say -
only greet other pilgrims on the way, and pray.

Improvisation: Rain

In these days of lockdown (my city, Melbourne, is experiencing the toughest restrictions of anywhere in Australia so far), I have been finding myself drawing increasing inspiration from the small things that I notice in my local environment, looking ever closer and closer to the consolations of the everyday. This video poem came from a moment of stillness while walking my children along the Werribee River, persevering through intermittently heavy rain. May we all keep noticing the small fingerprints of God in the easily missed details of our lockdown lives. Stay safe.

And who is my neighbour? Part 3

Being a neighbour is fraught at any time, but in a time when suburbs, states and families are being isolated from one another, it is even harder. As an Australian, being part of an island nation has much impact on how we view our own place in the world, and in this time of reminding myself continually that “no man is an island”, I have turned to this theme for the third and final installment in my video poem series, “And who is my neighbour?”

It’s been a delight to collaborate with Asher Graieg-Morrison who has supplied music for each of these films. Check out his rich and textured work here.

In Our Father’s House

I wrote this poem yesterday for the third installment in a series of videos about being a neighbour. As I wrote, I was contemplating the prospect of my Melbourne suburb being the next to go into lockdown. Little did I know that today the whole city would be put back into lockdown. So I’m posting the poem today, as my city prepares for six more weeks inside. I look forward to sharing the film with you when it’s finished. Stay safe.

Curtains are borders between me and the street.
Next door is an unseen checkpoint away;
Other postcodes have police blockades
And I count the days until my home is the same.

By the bay we watch
Numbers, statistics, localities named.
Quiet suburb whispers its fears.
No scapegoat to name, only

The innate mistrust of the island state
That says, "I choose who comes here."
How did this come here?
What conspiracy brings us cheek to cheek

With the airborne griefs that plague all humankind, 
save us? This happens
Only on TVs, never in 3d
Where it reaches out with power to grab.

And does it console to know that, 
Somewhere, over oceans, others suffer 
Far worse than us? Hardly.
I must view you up close to take comfort in your distance.

When I open curtains, my neighbour crosses street,
Crosses seas, to land at my doorstep, breathing,
"It's coming; you're next. The only place left
Is our father's house, and we must share."