A few months ago, I was given quite a remarkable gift – by far the most generous gift I have ever been given by someone I’m not related to, and even then, it may well still be at the top of the list. A friend of mine is an extremely talented artist, and after five happy months of working in the same location, she gave me a matching set of two paintings as a farewell gift. They are stunningly beautiful – like I said, she’s very clever. But the reason I love them so much is not because they are so excellent (they really are), it’s because the content is so significant. They overflow with good memories of important moments, with painstaking care and attention, with steadily devoted attention to imagining for the sake of someone else. They are not the result of overnight effort, but days and weeks. They are incredibly impressive to look at, but perhaps more importantly, deeply moving to feel. I’m pretty lucky to know this girl. Those paintings are hanging on my wall – I see them everyday – and everyday they make me smile. And sometimes I really need that.

In fact, I am only now beginning how much I actually depend on moments like those. I used to think that watching and listening and experiencing the artistic expression of others was an optional extra in life – a luxury to be indulged in when one wished to get cultured and all. It isn’t. It’s life-saving. Sometimes, when all the practical, necessary business of living gets too much, it’s urgent. Breathing in city smog everyday will kill you fairly quickly – every now and then, you need a bit of wide open landscape and some fresh air, or you’ll choke to death. Too much working and being responsible is much the same – suffocating. I forget that sometimes, and find myself needing to correct it, desperately. Late last year, when the candle had been burning too long at both ends, I found myself needing to see something beautiful, like sick people need medicine. So I found myself at the local markets – good food, good coffee, the precious work of gifted artists, set up around the buildings of a school. I remember lying on the oval in the sun, and realising it was the first time I had truly relaxed in about a year. But I know that the gift of that space came at a cost. As I wandered, and chatted with stallholders, I noticed a tension… Their eyes and their words would animate as they explained the story behind their work, and the quirks and particularities that made it theirs. But there was also hesitation in that careful explanation – a modest self-deprecation, in case that labour and love wasn’t recognised or appreciated. Because what if this, the product of my hard work, all I can show on the outside of who I am on the inside, isn’t significant to anyone else? It never occurred to me how costly it must be make good art.

I was reminded of this overwhelmingly again last night, when I saw Missy Higgins in concert at the Enmore. She is a national treasure, in my opinion, and I have made a point of seeing her perform live whenever I can, because she is breathtaking to watch in person. Those few concerts have also uncannily intersected with curious junctions in my own life. These days, mine intersects with all sorts of people in all sorts of places, and mostly we are left with more questions, and less answers. Those things that are bubbling away beneath the surface of my world at the moment – how costly love can be, how physically painful remorse can be, how disorienting and dark uncertainty can be – I don’t have words for them. But you, Missy, you do. And you didn’t find those words living an easy, unreflected life – don’t I know that. Your willingness to share that in the borderlands of private and public life is incredibly generous. Thank you for giving me someone my own age to be in awe of, for being so wise, so cheeky, so honest. You are a master poet, who speaks with words like molten silver that fall from you with such power and such truth. It helped me to hear them. In the middle of those ‘more questions, less answers’ is perhaps the simpler question of ‘What can I not live without?’ Right now, I cannot live without the things that make the world more beautiful.

This time last year, I posted on what had stood out in that year… Good friends, food and wine featured prominently! While there have certainly been plenty of those savouring sorts of things in 2013, it has well and truly been a year more about learning than anything else. I’ve been thinking in the last few days about the lessons that most stand out, in the hope of not having to relearn them too uncomfortably next year! A few stand out.

1. Fail graciously.

There are very few things that I can be absolutely certain about in any given day, but making mistakes is one of them. I have a particular gift for getting things wrong, usually in the most ridiculous way, and like most people, the more I am concerned with someone’s good opinion, the more likely I am to make a spectacular fool of myself in front of them. If I had more sense, I would tread more carefully through life, but in my clumsy, headlong way, I seem to stumble right into the centre of strife before I have even begun to register signs of danger. Fortunately for me, I am generally surrounded by very good people on such occasions. So I am learning, bit by bit, to respond in good humour when I am deservedly (if not mercilessly) teased, the place of a decent apology, and to reflect with a considerable dose of personal honesty, in the hope of avoiding further disasters.

2. ‘This too shall pass’.

Recently I came across two thoughts that have particularly kept my attention. The first was in listening to Barbara Brown Taylor’s ‘An Altar in the World’:

‘It is not the life I planned, nor the life I recommend to others, but it is the life that has turned out to be mine.’

I would not want that quote to indicate that I do not like what I do, and so would not wish it on anyone else, because that is certainly not the case. Still, 2013 has been a very interesting year for me, a very different one to any of the ones before that, and I am beginning to understand what Dr Taylor meant by those words. I am learning to appreciate the tough bits of where I find myself, because I can’t very well be anywhere else!

Before leaving parish ministry and beginning in chaplaincy, one of my colleagues wisely asked me what I found most enriching in that context, and whether I was prepared to give those things up. Caught up as I was in the excitement of a new chapter, I remember responding that I was, because it would be worth it for other reasons. I was right, but I also underestimated the price. I have never been much of a preacher, and it makes me very nervous anyway, but I do miss reflecting on where the ancient stories of faith intersect with what God is doing in our midst now. My hands miss celebrating Mass, in something like the same way that our arms miss the people we love when we are too far away to hold them. That in itself is teaching me something, and it never does a priest any harm to remember what it is like to sit in a pew week in and week out. So, I think it is both tough, and immeasurably worth it, to be sitting in a different place.

It is also a risky thing to be paid to do the thing that is also the wellspring of one’s own life. The cost when things go wrong can’t be left at the office. Every now and then, I get extremely frustrated with the manifold errors of the institutional church, the extreme lack of graciousness of my fellow Christians towards others, and the sense of actual shame I often feel when I consider the damage we have done. Do we deserve most of the bad press we’ve had in recent months/years? Yes. Are we often a self-serving, pretentious, judgmental bunch who get in the way of the goodness of God? Yes. Is it fair that, as a result, I should feel a little uncomfortable in my own skin, given how often the church has made others feel uncomfortable in theirs? Yes.

I don’t want to be unfairly harsh on the church, because I think we also do lots of wonderful things and I love who we can be. It still bears saying that I have found, especially this year, as much grace outside the church as in it. That does not make me anxious about being in the church anymore (it used to), because it is a reminder to me that God is in all places, before and ahead of us… The church does wondrous stuff when it is able to point to that reality. It only goes wrong when it starts trying to contain God, instead of loving God.

This leads me to the second quote that struck me, when I heard Rowan Williams speaking about the task of ‘maturing in steady fidelity‘. There’s a lot to be said for being hopeful – no bad day lasts forever. It’s also worth remembering not to get carried away when things are going well – difficult times have their place, in the midst of celebrations, if only to teach valuable lessons like humility and patience and perseverance! I am learning, again ever so slowly, not to dwell too long on the good or the bad, but to keep moving forward…

3. Invest in wonderful friends – they are also excellent teachers.

I am constantly amazed at the extraordinary people I work alongside. Honestly, most of them don’t have the slightest clue how impressive they are. I sometimes find myself watching from the sidelines, being generally thrilled that I get paid to spend my days with such outstanding people.

To my old friends, thank you for hanging around for another year of adventures and helping me to be me when I am struggling to conceal my anxiety and/or incompetence! I am well aware that I receive far more than I give from you, so thank you especially for your graciousness.

To the new friends of 2013, thank you for adding all manner of adventure, frivolity, expertise and encouragement to the past year. I am thoroughly and sincerely looking forward to the good times yet to be dreamt up over the next 12 months.

To that handful of you who are especially dear and generous, new and old, you have helped me map out some of undiscovered terrain in my own heart. The best of the lessons of this year have come from you. Thank you for showing me more of what I would like to be. Various of you are woven into the following summary of a fairly epic year:

1. Song I played the most: Never Let Me Go – Florence and the Machine

2. Book that made me cry the most: The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery

3. Movie that made me laugh the most: The Heat (followed closely by the Sweet Brown remix)

4. Best meal: peanut butter toast, in the middle of nowhere

5. Best drink: Espresso Martini, Heritage, Townsville

6. Best coffee – Juicy Beans, Merewether

7. Words I never want to hear again: Like this, do that.

8. Thought heading into 2014: Look alive.

NYE

For those who, like me, are still finalising their Lenten reading:

(With thanks to Andy Goodliff for compiling this list)

1983 The Truce of God by Rowan Williams

1988 Looking Before and After by Helen Oppenheimer

1992 Tested by the Cross – Wesley Carr

1993 Mary’s Story, Mary’s Song by Elaine Storkey

1997 Pilgrims by Stephen Platten

1998 The Shape of Living by David Ford

1999 Living Well by Robert Warren

2000 Following the Way by Gerald O’Collins

2001 Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles our Judgement by Rowan Williams

2002 Pearl Beyond Price: The Attractive Jesus by David Day

2003 Flame in the Mind by Michael Marshall

2004  I Thirst by Stephen Cottrell

2005 The Wounds of Jesus: A Meditation on the Crucified Saviour by Christina Baxter

2006 Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace by Miroslav Volf

2007 Power and Passion: Six Characters in Search of Resurrection by Sam Wells

2008 Life Conquers Death: Meditations on the Garden, the Cross, and the Tree of Life by John Arnold

2009 Why go to church? The Drama of the Eucharist by Timothy Radcliffe

2010 Our Sound is Our Wound: Contemplative Listening to a Noisy World by Lucy Winkett

2011 Barefoot Disciple: Walking the Way of Passionate Humility by Stephen Cherry

2012 Love Unknown by Ruth Burrows

2013 Abiding by Ben Quash:

http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/5018/launch-of-lent-book-abiding-by-ben-quash

Thanks to Andrew over at Doohan It This Way for sharing this wonderful clip…

I really do wish I could cook well. Good food is one of my favourite things, especially alongside good wine, a palate for which is a compulsory pursuit of excellence for Anglican clergy, as I understand it. I especially like taking time on holidays to eat in lovely places and attempt to work out the recipe for whatever I’ve ordered (in the ridiculous expectation that I’ll go home and be able to make it. I rarely try. But I persistently hope!). I should say at the outset that Margaret River will feature prominently. I really REALLY do like the little bit of Western Australia that I’ve seen so far. Fantastic place. So here is the second instalment of ‘favourite threes’.

 

Cafes/Restaurants

1. The Lanterne Rooms, Canberra ACT (where I had a most amazing meal with my Daddy, his lovely wife & my twin sister)
lanterne rooms

http://lanternerooms.chairmangroup.com.au

2. Bunkers Beach Cafe, Bunker Bay WA (the honey, vanilla & pomegranate cheesecake was incredible)

bunkers

http://www.bunkersbeachcafe.com.au

3. Indiana, Cottesloe Beach WA (apart from the great food, the building is just gorgeous)

indianabistro

http://indiana.com.au

 

Wines (Obviously I have a second favourite winery now…)

1. Cape Mentelle Cabernet Merlot Trinders 2011

trinders

2. Cape Mentelle Zinfandel 2010

Zinfandel

3. Cape Mentelle Botrytis Viognier 2011

cd_te_cont2

 

Recipes I’ve stumbled across that intimidate me very much but that one day I would really like to make:

1. Roast Garlic Sourdough
roasted-garlic-bread

http://www.wildyeastblog.com/2008/10/16/roasted-garlic-bread

2. Chocolate Macarons

chocmacaron

http://www.davidlebovitz.com/2005/10/french-chocolat/

3. Stuffed Zucchini Flowers

stuffed-zucchini-flowers

http://www.donnahay.com.au/recipes/snacks_and_sides/roasted/stuffed-zucchini-flowers

 

Chocolate (sans pictures – buy some and see for yourself!):

1. Chuao (Venezuela) from Gabriel Chocolate, Margaret River

2. Organic Handmade Dark Chocolate With Rose and Black Pepper from Coco Chocolate, Kirribilli

3. Chilli chocolate macaron from Coco Monde, Darby St, Newcastle NSW

 

Foodie Shops:

1. Providore, Margaret River WA (I bought the spicy Shiraz sauce and the dark chocolate Sambarino dark chocolate liqueur. Ah-may-zing)

Providore

http://www.providore.com.au/home

2. The Larder, Margaret River (I wanted to buy EVERYTHING)

larder

http://www.larder.biz/pages/margaret_river_gourmet/

3. Sourdough Bakery, Newcastle NSW

sourdough_bread_supply

http://www.sourdoughbaker.com.au

 

And last, but not least, a list of one, because I only tried one new whisky this year, but it was well worth it:

1. Nikka ‘From the Barrel’ (though one could not possibly drink more than a wee dram of it at a time – ’tis potent stuff)
nikka-from-the-barrel

 

Actually, one more list of one… The best cookbook I’ve read this year:

1. ‘Supper of the Lamb’ by Robert Farrar Capon

lambcapon

This is a marvellous book, beautifully written, inviting the reader to sit at the seasoned table of Fr Robert and receive of his generosity. A must for anyone who cares about hospitality as a mark of faith, savours the variety of creation and believes that we should be diligent and loving in our preparation for great feasts. You will never look at an onion the same way again.

More from the incredibly talented team at St Paul’s Anglican Church, Auckland….

‘Peace. This is the important thing that God told Jesus to tell the people.’

Understandably, there is a lot of commentary at the moment on the very sad news of  the death of Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse at King Edward VII Hospital who answered the prank call made by two DJs from 2DayFM radio station this week. On most levels, I really don’t want to add to the commentary, because I don’t much about what happened, except from what I’ve read and heard from the media. And since the responsible conduct of the media is a key issue here, writing blog posts does seem to touch on hypocrisy, at least to me. But I’m bothered by what I’m hearing, so I’m putting my two cents in.

I have to say that when I first heard about this prank call, I was furious – as a member of the community, but particularly as someone who used to be a nurse. The relationship between a nurse and their patient is very particular. It requires an extremely high degree of trust to care well for people at the most susceptible times in their lives. And yes, there are times when your patient is someone high-profile and you know a bit about them, even if it is only by public reputation (however reliable). They are just as vulnerable, maybe more so, than any other patient, because their privacy is so limited. In my brief experience, that dynamic elicits a certain protectiveness for one’s patient and a genuine effort to give them a safe space which is confidential and discreet. The ideal is to provide an environment that frees the patient to be vulnerable at a basic human level, while at the same time maintaining their dignity. It can be very difficult to do, largely because too many reporters seem to be of the view that public figures are never entitled to be left alone, even when they are in hospital. I would say that the Duchess of Cambridge is absolutely entitled to her privacy, not because of her title, but because she is a human being whose medical treatment is, frankly, none of anyone else’s business. Jacintha Saldanha was also entitled to respect. Interfering with that nurse-patient relationship (which I can only imagine was a little daunting) for the sake of cheap laughs was an incredibly poor move, in my opinion.

That said, I don’t think the two DJs involved are solely to blame, either. Plenty of other people have pointed out that no-one can know what exactly lead to Jacintha Saldanha’s death. But they made that prank call and they will live with that. Partly, I feel incredibly sorry for them. But as has also been pointed out, they don’t run the whole show, as it were – there are lawyers and producers and managers that apparently all thought this was a great idea. As the radio station have said, they could never have predicted such an outcome. But honestly, when will we learn to be more careful? Have we really not figured out that entertaining ourselves at the expense of others does have consequences? I guess disrespecting the Queen, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cambridge wasn’t seen as an issue. A bit of a giggle. Aussie humour at its larrikin best. Whether that’s the case or not, it was someone else they professionally humiliated – not a member of the Royal Family, who (sadly) are more than accustomed to such behaviour, just a regular member of the public doing her job. And for what?

Apparently, for ratings among people who actually think such things are riotously funny. If the Australian public didn’t love those socially awkward and embarrassing prank calls, no one would make them. As Clementine Ford suggested in the comment that got me writing this, let’s look at our own complicity. The media are only a reflection of the values (or lack thereof) of the community at large. So, a final question: Why is it that we find someone else’s embarrassment funny? Honestly, I don’t get it.

Martin Niemoller:

‘First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
for I was not a Jew.
And then they came for me –
and there was no one left to speak for me.’

Archbishop Rowan Williams’ excellent reflections on this quote and speaking for the stranger on Holocaust Memorial Day:

For all the Dr Who fans out there who are accustomed to being on the alert for excellent theological analogies… The TARDIS is a portable bit of heaven. Here’s why.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle

“Fair Sir,” said Tirian to the High King, “this is a great marvel.”

“It is the door you came through with the Calormene five minutes ago,” said Peter smiling.

“But did I not come in out of the wood into the stable? Whereas this seems to be a door leading from nowhere to nowhere.”

“It looks like that if you walk round it,” said Peter. “But put your eye to that place where there is a crack between two of the planks and look through.”

Tirian put his eye to the hole. At first he could see nothing but blackness. Then, as his eyes grew used to it, he saw the dull red glow of a bonfire that was nearly going out, and above that, in the black sky, stars. Then he could see dark figures moving about or standing between him and the fire: he could hear them talking and their voices were like those of Calormenes. So he knew that he was looking out through the stable door into the darkness of Lantern Waste where he had found his last battle…

He looked around again and could hardly believe his eyes. There was the blue sky overhead, and grassy country spreading as far as he could see in every direction, and his new friends all round him laughing.

“It seems, then,” said Tirian, smiling himself, “that the stable seen from within and the stable seen from without are two different places.”

“Yes,” said the Lord Digory. “Its inside is bigger than its outside.”

If you keep reading, you’ll find that the boundaries between worlds starts to disappear when Father Time wakes up; it is his sleep that kept time going in its ordinary way of being. But then he wakes up. And there is only one sensible explanation for what happens next:

“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but *actually* from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly…  time-y wimey… stuff.” (The Doctor)

Yet another reason why Russell T Davies and Stephen Moffat are excellent theologians.

Sermon preparation is an unpredictable business… You never know where you might end up. Today I came across Terry Eagleton’s review in the LRB of ‘The God Delusion’ (about five and a half years late, but better that than never).

When ‘The God Delusion’ was published, there was quite a bit of criticism that seemed to boil down to ‘you think I’m a silly hypocrite, Dawkins, but actually, YOU’RE the silly hypocrite’, but this is not one of them. The fault with certain strands of atheism as I see it, and as Dr Eagleton puts much more eloquently than I could, is this:

‘Apart from the occasional perfunctory gesture to ‘sophisticated’ religious believers, Dawkins tends to see religion and fundamentalist religion as one and the same. This is not only grotesquely false; it is also a device to outflank any more reflective kind of faith by implying that it belongs to the coterie and not to the mass. The huge numbers of believers who hold something like the theology I outlined above can thus be conveniently lumped with rednecks who murder abortionists and malign homosexuals… Dawkins considers that no religious belief, anytime or anywhere, is worthy of any respect whatsoever. This, one might note, is the opinion of a man deeply averse to dogmatism. Even moderate religious views, he insists, are to be ferociously contested, since they can always lead to fanaticism.’

I can’t help meeting generalized statements like ‘Christians believe/think/do such-and-such’, or ‘religious people are all such-and-such’ with scepticism (and often, frustration), because a statement of that type necessarily brings together such a very diverse group as to render the label almost useless – almost always there are going to be notable and numerous exceptions. I also think it distracts accountability to say that ‘religion’ causes certain troubles in the world; religion is not a concrete, physical being capable of its own actions. Religion might be a motivating force, but it is people who act, people who are responsible agents.

Dr Eagleton also doesn’t avoid that tension that so often plagues debates like this, by resorting to a conclusion like ‘A secular rationalist view is the most correct option but that doesn’t mean that its adherents should ignore the positive contributions made to society be religious people or ideas’. Actually all human enterprise, ‘religious’ or not, should be critiqued by a community that wants to live ethically in response to its changing context. He goes on:

In some obscure way, Dawkins manages to imply that the Bishop of Oxford is responsible for Osama bin Laden. His polemic would come rather more convincingly from a man who was a little less arrogantly triumphalistic about science (there are a mere one or two gestures in the book to its fallibility), and who could refrain from writing sentences like ‘this objection [to a particular scientific view] can be answered by the suggestion . . . that there are many universes,’ as though a suggestion constituted a scientific rebuttal. On the horrors that science and technology have wreaked on humanity, he is predictably silent. Yet the Apocalypse is far more likely to be the product of them than the work of religion. Swap you the Inquisition for chemical warfare.’

The validity of a worldview, theistic or atheistic, shouldn’t be judged primarily on how it is expressed, by its followers. While we are making that distinction, by the way, let’s do away with distinguishing between ‘religious’ and ‘scientific’ as though they are opposites. They simply aren’t.

Dawkins rejects the surely reasonable case that science and religion are not in competition on the grounds that this insulates religion from rational inquiry. But this is a mistake: to claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole queue as fast as possible. It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it. For my claim to love you to be coherent, I must be able to explain what it is about you that justifies it; but my bank manager might agree with my dewy-eyed description of you without being in love with you himself.’

But going on and to take up Dr Eagleton’s example, my explanation of my love for you, indeed, the evidence of my love for you as displayed in my actions, does not define who you are. It is a terrible mistake to point to the behaviour of people of faith (religious people, if you like) and draw conclusions about the nature or will of God on the basis of what you see. It would, for example, be ridiculous to suggest that the Christian church in any way adequately displays the fidelity to or proclamation of the nature of God to which she is called. That’s probably one of the reasons why we are so often compelled to pray ‘Lord, have mercy.’

Dr Eagleton’s observation (that religion and science are not in competition, but do ask different questions of the world) reminds me of Dr Rowan Williams’ statements on the nature of faith (‘good’ faith, as opposed to ‘bad’ religion) in his lecture for the Cambridge Consultations on Faith, Humanity and the Future, ‘What Difference Does it Make?’ – The Gospel in Contemporary Culture’:

‘I want to begin by thinking about that aspect of our human being in the world which is puzzled, frustrated, haunted by the idea that maybe what we see isn’t the whole story, and maybe our individual perception is not the measure of all truth… What if the world is not as tame as I think it is? One of the tests of actual faith, as opposed to bad religion, is whether it stops you ignoring things. Faith is most fully itself and most fully life-giving when it stops you ignoring things, when it opens your eyes and uncovers for you a world larger than you thought – and of course therefore a bit more alarming than you ever thought. One difference that faith makes is what more it lets you see, and how successfully it stops you denying, resisting, ignoring aspects of what’s real.’

It seems to me that the cause of most of the grief and division between us as human beings, whether we are religious or not, is a failure to acknowledge with a critical degree of humility that ‘our individual perceptions are not the measure of all truth.’ But that probably won’t change until we’d rather talk together and risk changing our minds, than shouting alone to justify ourselves and put down others. But that is another subject for another day…

Quote of the Week

“I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.”

Khaled Hosseini - The Kite Runner

Goodreads

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