Listen Carefully

The air is thick and heavy. Rain threatens. Our neighbourhood is almost silent, except for one loud out-in-the-street voice: irritating, as usual. Boom! I know what a heavy calibre rifle sounds like and that was one. The street voice has stopped.

It begins to rain and we—at home in our lounge room—all look at each other, unsure what to do, what to pray. Even the weather seems to be on pause. We decide to wait, given that there was no preceding, audible fight and that ours is that kind of street.

The best answer to our question about the boom! might be that someone was trying to say, Enough is enough! of that constant, loud talking out on the verge. White noise is what our world is good at. Sometimes we try to silence it with another kind of noise and sometimes we listen carefully to see where God is in it.


Back In Time—Just In Time

Mum, Granddad, Grandma, Uncle John and Aunty Jill

A birthday invitation to my aunt’s 80th has been lying around on my desk for a while now. I’m sure it’s here somewhere. I push a hand underneath the pile and tip it all upside down. There it is! A lovely sheet of pale, silken paper in a stylish font.

I look at the calendar. I can make it if I pull the pin on these other guys—but then I did that last time over a wedding. I probably shouldn’t stretch the friendship.

I send a text to my cousin explaining that I won’t be able to make it. Perhaps I could ‘visit’ via Skype, I suggest. I can already hear her laughing (with her mother’s laughter and a twinkle in her eye) and saying something about this being a rather cheap way of ‘assuaging my guilt’ at not coming.

I add (in the text) that I’ve always enjoyed her mum’s warmth and grace and her beautiful imagination with its storehouse of knowledge, music, art, jokes and memories—and her quiet prayers and joy in Jesus. I want my cousin to know that I thank God for this lovely lady.

In an afterthought I tell her I would have loved to have been able to go back in time—just once—and to have been close by (incognito) when her mother and my own mother were two young women having a picnic in a park. The laughter, conversation and joy in life would have been at once silly, deeply reflective and so human.

While I’m thinking about that I recall something one of my other aunties once told me. She was with my grandmother—on my mum’s side—at a time when it was clear that her daughter was going to lose her struggle with Motor Neurone disease. The news had been a crushing blow to my grandmother.

‘So,’ she said to my aunty, whilst looking up at the heavens. ‘Is there anyone up there?’

I don’t say anything about that in this message. It just sits there in a melancholy space in the back of my mind while I type. I finish the text and touch ‘send’.

Putting the phone down, I look up, and there, scrolling into view on my laptop screen is a photograph of my mother (looking a little gaunt) and the aunty who’s about to have her 80th. Between the two of them are my mother’s parents and her brother. I can’t take my eyes off my grandmother. She’s smiling. She looks so happy!

Once again, heaven has been reading my mind—has told me it’s thinking of me—and I’m losing it. It overheard my deepest longing and took me back in time. It’s so lovely and so terrible. Something deep inside is breaking open, again.

The Gambler

Watched The Gambler1 the other day. It’s an act of treason beyond all reason. He’s not a gambler he’s a suicide looking for a way. So he rolls the dice, ‘All on black’ he says. ‘All.’ He’s a funeral, a burial waiting to happen. He’s on the run; he finds the one he wants. But she’s not; she’s a distraction from reality. She’s what the Director wants, cause it’s what we want, cause it sells—supposedly.

Yes, disappointment’s settling in amongst us film watchers of this film in this lounge room. Mister Main Character rolls the dice, it all comes down and he’s on his own. Nothing left. He’s running hard and running.

The Maker of the film comes to a place and I’m on edge. This could be a great ending. Will the Maker have the balls to go there? He runs and stops. Will he lose the nerve: flip out and go back to default, to one-dimensional material dollar/job//sex?

Yep, exactly what happens. Director caves when he could have made. A real ending that swayed you, and made you. Could have had it right there. Could have taken us by the neck and ran us headlong into real! A baptism2 of fire, busting a thousand years of baptismal lies, of pretty fonts and white frills telling us baptisms are lovely. They are not!

That water down there is about death! That fierce determination to have done with whatever this thing is that whispers in my ear all day every day telling me it’s #*%! The only cure for the pretty boy at eighteen with his girl in every town telling me twenty years ago that he’d come good one day and now here we are twenty years later—those girls are angry and so are the kids. He’s a loser they all say.

O my God! How did that happen! Seems like it was only yesterday and his eyes were young and bright, so young and bright, and full of fight. Baptism is what he needs, real and ruthless—funeral style. But he worded his way around me, around us all, wormed his way towards whatever it was that whispered.

And here we are watching The Gambler! The Drunken Cowboy/Jackeroo! So beloved of those girls wanting beautiful boys to save. Mister Main Character is all out of options. Just two left now: the girl or the baptism. What a perfect place for a funeral for the Shadow Self: real crucifixion on Skull Hill—Easter style. Perfect time, lay it on the line, embrace this traitor, this act of treason we call baptism. Torn up and thrown about and letting the Someone Else make it, Maker of Suns and Stars and Seas. Go down into waters and surrenders.

But no! No funeral for that Dark and Broken Self, just a new girl to live with, make angry in old age and rage.

1 Recent Mark Wahlberg film
2 baptism: word origin relates to shipwrecks and violence e.g, a mob ransacking a city

Christmas Secrets

Christmas Secrets

Last night my wife called us all to the back door in her ‘look what I’ve found’ tone of voice. We always put down whatever we’re doing when we hear her calling like that. And sure enough there was a treasure awaiting us. This one was just above the shed in the sky: a glowing ball of moon.

With Christmas not too far away I can’t help asking the question, ‘What if Santa Claus is real?’ What if there is actually a secret giver of gifts who leaves treasures lying around for us when we are not looking?

Yes, it’s true that in one way this kind of gift is for everyone. But just because it is ‘for everyone’, does that also mean it could not actually be just for you at this moment? What if it’s possible for a gift to be of the kind that everyone receives a blessing from it but at the same time some of us—in one overwhelming moment—might secretly know that we have been personally thought of? And with it comes a sense of fear, wonder, joy and even dread?

The timing of the gift might be so precious and touch you so deeply that you daren’t breathe a word about it—ever. But it shows doesn’t it? And when you see it and feel it in another, it’s unmistakeable. In the eyes of a newborn baby for example. It’s why the psalm writer says that we were ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’.


The Power of Presence and Silence

‘No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid: the same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing … At other time it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.’1

‘When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle touch and tender hand.

The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares.’2

  1. Lewis CS 1968, A Grief Observed, Faber, p.7
  2. Nouwen H.

Dark Nights and Wonders: Part II

It’s been a wet night and I walk out onto our front porch to enjoy the dripping-freshness of early- morning. Between the bottlebrush and the other trees in our yard, flimsy little showers of rain float down at random and I wait and think and pray about the various gatherings of fragile human beings called ‘my family, my communities, and my neighbours’. Especially those neighbours whose fragility seems right out there lately.

One of them having just had a near-fatal incident (and still doing it hard) and others who seem to want to punch each other out every day, and then there’s the others with whom a neighbourly affection is growing. And all of them brimming with that dreadful and captivating mystery, which GM Hopkins described as, ‘Christ play-ing in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his, To the Father through the features of men’s faces.’ Those limbs and eyes often seeming to to be tortured (which we all know) and saying something to me that I don’t yet understand or even hear.

Then there’s the growing crowd of little boys who run up and down the street and tell me that our dog is a great-looking dog and want to know if she has pups and can they have one and have I ever had a car accident and do I live on my own and am I strong? Those boys looking so happy, and laughing and yelling and loving the sun and the rain and the trees, and I wonder what will become of them. And then there’s the girls, older, not so apparent, and heading out into the world.

I can’t help thinking of The Niebelungenliad: one of my favourite (and saddest) epic poems, which begins with the following words, ‘In the land of the Burgundians there grew up a maiden of high lineage, so fair that none in any land could be fairer. Her name was Kriemhild. She came to be a beautiful woman, causing many knights to lose their lives. This charming girl was as if made for love’s caresses: she was desired by brave fighting men and none was her enemy, for her noble person was beyond all measure lovely. Such graces did the young lady possess that she was the adornment of her sex…’2

And then, almost three hundred pages later, we come to this. ‘… There lay the bodies of all who were doomed to die. The noble lady (Kriemhild) was hewn in pieces. Dietrich and Etzel began to weep, and deeply they lamented both kinsmen and vassals. Their great pride lay dead there. The people, one and all, were given up to grief and mourning. The King’s high festival had ended in sorrow, as joy must ever turn to sorrow in the end.’3

And then I think of myself, hoping to be an influence of light and grace in those ‘eyes and limbs’ and trying to write about this stuff and wondering what I’m getting myself into. As another poet once said, ‘he who would … write well in laudable things ought himself to be a true poem, that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honourable things; not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men or famous cities unless he have in himself the experience and the practice of all that is praiseworthy.’4 And, knowing what you know of your own battles with pride and frailty, you want to just walk away.

Which takes us back to where we were—in England three hundred years ago—and the great stuff- up: the restoration happened, Charles II was installed, and it looked as if everything Jon Cooke had done was in vain. But history shows that all was not lost. The people had gotten a taste of what the rule of law could do when it was softened and mediated by a parliament, and they never forgot it.

But in the meantime there were other forces at work. Wars were happening on all sides and England was well on the way to becoming a broken backwater. Then a small group of thinking men came up with the idea of a thing called the Bank of England. The idea being that the wealthy could invest their money in a place of safe-keeping and and get a return on it. Consequently millions of pounds were harnessed for the English war-effort.

‘The century came to a close and England moved on into the eighteenth century as a wealthy and powerful nation, and by the treaty of Utrecht in 1713, England had wrung from France and Spain the monopoly of the slave-trade. But the slave-trade bred financial greed. It brutalised masters and slave’s lives, making labour undignified, which became a curse on the economic and political life of the eighteenth century.’5

The industrial revolution was spreading and the attitudes of the slave owners influenced many owners of mines, factories and mills in their treatment of their workers. … It is estimated that during that century the number of Africans carried into slavery, largely in British ships and largely from West Africa to America, ran into the millions … Because of the enormous sums of money involved in the slave trade, there were repeated financial scandals, leading to loss and ruin, the chief of which was the South Sea Bubble of 1720, which virtually wrecked the national economy.’6

‘Britain at this time was nation divided between the rich and the poor … Thus to steal a sheep, to snare a rabbit, to break a young tree, to pick a pocket for more than a shilling, and to grab goods from someone’s hand and run away with them were hanging offences. Executions at Tyburn in London were known as ‘hanging shows.’ … the transportation to Australia of men, women and children; the flogging of women, the pillory and the branding on the hand continued unabated.’

This unrestrained pursuit of greed, along with the strangulation of biblical Christianity, had further inhumane consequences ‘in the treatment and mortality of children. Their death rates tell a terrible tale, though statistics are only available for London. These show that between 1730 and 1750, three out of every four children born to all classes died before their fifth birthday. James Hanway, the Christian friend of ‘parish and pauper children,’ produced scores of statistics and pamphlets— preserved in the British museum library—revealing his investigations into the treatment and death rate of the parish infants. Death occurred time after time because of murder and the practice of exposing newly born babies to perish on the streets, as well as placing unhappy foundlings with heartless nurses, who let them starve or turned them into the street to beg or steal.’

‘Having abandoned biblical Christianity in favour of a soul-less ‘Religious Christianity’ that married itself to politics, the eighteenth century ‘became known as the “Gin Age” of England. Horrible child abuse was often the result of drinking strong, fiery, poisonous gin, which out-rivalled beer as the national beverage. Irish historian William Lecky defined the national gin-drinkers drunken-ness as the ‘master-curse of English life between 1720 – 1750.’7

[For the next episode of this reflection see Dark Nights and Choices part III]

1 Robertson G. The Tyrannicide Brief: The Story of the Man Who Sent Charles I to the Scaffold. Chatto & Windus 2005

2 Hatto A.T. The Niebelungenliad – Penguin Classics 1965 p.17 Ibid 291

3 ibid

4 (An Apology for Smectymnuus, 1642) Ricks C. Worcester College Oxford (in his Introduction to Paradise Lost) p.xi – Signet Classic. Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained – New American Library 1968

5 Managalwadi V. The Book That Made Your World pp: 261-262 – Thomas Nelson 2011

6 Ibid
7 Ibid


Dark Nights and Wonders: Part I


Surprising wonders are often preceded by the darkest of nights. Yesterday I heard children’s voices in our front yard and my heart started to beat a little faster as I hurried toward the front door, wondering whether it was a good friend of ours (and her children) who had finally arrived for a much-anticipated stay. But I didn’t even make it to the door, they were already inside, greeting and hugging my wife and the rest of my family, and warmth and joy were flowing freely.

This was not the script that was being written for her when she was eight years old. Back then the nightmare of childhood trauma had invaded her innocence and she was being rewired for despair. She was supposed to lose her nerve and many would have cliched-her-away into the box of psychological possibilities without any thought that there might be such things as spiritual possibilities and even the ‘moving of mountains’.

Not that psychology is unimportant, in fact, the help of a well-trained counsellor has been a crucial part of her healing journey. But the idea that this was to be all about her getting to a point of reasonable health and usefulness and then getting a job and going from there to being a well- adjusted member of a dysfunctional society, was not enough as far as she was concerned. Consequently, by the time she was a young adult she was thoroughly caught up in the love of God and of neighbour, thanks to the influence of Jesus of Nazareth: the ‘Son of Man’* as he called himself.

Since then she has given herself to building communities where this Son of Man is worshipped and where his practical, thinking-of-others love is a normal way of life and is understood to be what life is really about. As a result she has led, supported and trained small communities of young adults for many years in a country town where jaded locals who were over having anything to do with organised religion, came to respect and even to love her, her team members, and even this saviour of theirs from Bethlehem. Just one example of such love and appreciation is the great respect she earned as a chaplain at a local school, to the extent that she was asked to consider fostering the two children she is now a mother to: both of whom have a background of serious childhood trauma.

One outcome of those years is that many of her former community members have taken the things they learned about growing a community of grace and begun to do the same in places as far away as China, Zimbabwe and the US; and as close to home as Newcastle University, Melbourne and Dubbo. You don’t have to look far in the gospels to see where this is coming from.

If such a revolution of grace can happen in the life of one of us, what’s stopping it from happening in all of us? It’s actually happened many times before in history where that same-old-same-old dark poison was crushing one individual and then somehow this sweet life of grace got going in them and spread to their family, their neighbourhood, their town, then their city and then their nation.

For example, one such dark night was unfolding in Britain in the seventeenth century. Charles 1st was making a dog’s breakfast of his reign and dragging his country into endless little wars and and all the brutalisation, loss of life and ruin of family, culture and hope that goes with that. But having embraced the idea that the king was not above the rule of law, the parliament put together a brief for the prosecution of the king and went looking for a lawyer who would prosecute him for acting as if he were above the law.

By the time the brief was prepared most of the lawyers and barristers who lived in that part of London—where you would be easily available to the parliament for the taking of briefs—had fled to the country, terrified at the prospect of being handed a brief that at best could mean being reviled and hated, or at worst, assassination. But John Cooke, a courageous Puritan lawyer, deliberately stayed back and made himself available in case the brief came his way. It did and he accepted it as an opportunity to serve God and love his neighbours.

Then, in 1649, the great day came in a court-room that had been reconstructed so that the public would be able to see all the proceedings, with John Cooke and Charles actually seated next to one another—separated by a low barrier. Early in the proceedings, while Cooke was reading the indictment, Charles tapped him on the shoulder several times, telling him to ‘Hold!’ Then the king hit him on the shoulder with his cane and an ornate silver tip broke off and fell onto the wooden floor. Accustomed as he was to being waited upon, he clearly expected Cooke to bend down and pick it up for him, but the lawyer stood his ground and—before the eyes of thousands of people— the King bent down and picked it up himself.

You can read the rest of the story in a well-researched and magnificently written account by Geoffrey Robertson 1, which includes a detailed account of the prosecution and execution of Charles I and then a recounting of the ensuing period of democracy and—after the restoration of the monarchy—the hanging, drawing and quartering of John Cooke in 1660. Having had their dark night followed by the surprise of a truly democratic court case during which a king was prosecuted according to the due process of law, the miracle of sanity evaporated, the monarchy was restored to the king’s son—Charles II—who had been living a playboy life in Europe, and another, even darker night proceeded to envelope Britain. A great loss of nerve followed and the people abandoned all hope of redemption, but another, much deeper wonder was on its way.

[see Dark Nights and Wonders: Part II]

1 Robertson G. The Tyrannicide Brief: The Story of the Man Who Sent Charles I to the Scaffold. Chatto & Windus 2005

* Mark’s Gospel Ch10: 45 ‘For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.’

The Sound of Music


It’s quiet in our street, and wet and still with that dripping-after-rain stillness. Birds chirp softly, the falsetto call of a pee-wee rings out across the neighbourhood, a dog barks—and much further out— the mechanical-ocean noises of the highway groan and moan in a cacophony of soft murmurings, honkings and roarings that somehow fit like the background soundtrack to a Jason Bourne film. And we are told that our universe is an elegant dance of such vibrations: particles or waves of light, of sounds and of smells, of touchings and tastings: everything connecting with everything else.

And there it is, the dappled green and yellow waves of morning sun on the trees in our front yard, somehow joining with the music of the birds and the machines that’s reaching me where I sit in our lounge room. And—as if following the musical score to some kind of crescendo—a flood of colour comes towards me from a window-sized star-lantern that radiates ‘stained-glass shapes’ of colour: lolly green, navy blue, and deep red, with a white Edelweiss flower as the centrepiece.

But this star is not just ‘out there’ for me to look at, it’s ‘in here’ in my memory and imagination because for weeks I watched my wife working with the cane struts, cutting out all the different coloured bits of paper, then playing with the design and finally putting it all together. Then, a few weeks ago, it hung from a high ceiling above my daughter while she sang, danced and played in a stage production of The Sound of Music.

And these are just the tip of the iceberg. Deeper and further back in this lantern are astonishing mythical vibes that came out of my wife’s soul. She didn’t have to make it. She has good reasons for being the kind of woman who would never do anything like that and who would go with the grey of despair in order to make the world remember the betrayals and disappointments it has inflicted on her: especially the religious world. Yes, she’s the first to tell you that she hasn’t had anything really terrible happen to her. But I don’t agree: sometimes the deadliest wounds are those that come from the most unexpected places.

Thankfully, a long time ago, she chose to go with the music of colour—and to follow the Voice of Easter, which said ‘I am the resurrection and the life’1—and since then she has made thousands of little choices in the direction of forgiveness, reconciliation, light and grace. This star being one of them. You could say it is a ‘prayer made visible’. As a Russian priest once said: ‘All the food of this world is divine love made edible.’2 And if souls needs food then this prayer-star is divine love made edible in another way.

Then there’s the remarkable journeys of the other members of the cast, one of whom—the lead man in the play—is the son of a good friend whose family has been on a deep journey of pain, and who have become a fountain of grace and hope to countless others. Then there’s the woman who directed and trained the cast and her story which you could write a book about. And then there’s the story of the school that decided to include it in it’s curriculum, and all the other helpers, and the orchestra, and so on. Not to mention the original story of the Von Trapp family in a Nazi dominated Austria, which inspired the production.

All these journeyings and interlocking stories—some in contest and others in harmony—being made into songs, dances and films that revolve around themes of love and hate; joy and despair, start to look a bit like that ‘elegant dance of vibrations’ coming through my window. Not that this should surprise us.

CS Lewis, in talking of the point of view of Medieval thinkers, tells us that the Medieval man would walk out under the night sky and feel that he was looking in on the mysterious and beautiful goings-on of heaven. He explains that a Medieval mind would think, ‘We watch “the spectacle of the celestial dance”3 from its outskirts. Our highest privilege is to imitate it in such measure as we can. The Medieval model is, if we can use the word, anthropo-peripheral. We are creatures of the Margin.’4

In speaking of how the Medieval mind understood God—the Prime Mover—moving things, Lewis says, ‘How then does he move things? Aristotle answers … “He moves as beloved.”5 He moves other things, that is, as an object of desire moves those who desire it. The Primum Mobile is moved by its love for God, and, being moved, communicates motion to the rest of the universe.’6 The sound of such music is what moves even the most cynical among us to talk and—’god forbid’—even start behaving like, worshippers lost in endless adoration.

  1.  John’s Gospel 11:25
  2. Bloom A. School for Prayer
  3. Chalcidius, LXV, p.132
  4. Lewis CS. The Discarded Image (an introduction to medieval and renaissance literature) p.58 Cambridge University Press 1964

5 Aristotle, Metaphysics 1072b

6 Lewis CS. The Discarded Image (an introduction to medieval and renaissance literature) p.113 Cambridge University Press 1964

Forgiving the Dead Man Walking

I found an old and cherished book by Debbie Morris1 today that was recently returned to me. In it she tells how she was the actual girl from real life who was abducted and sexually assaulted in the Dead Man Walking movie. In the relating of her journey she makes some telling observations about processing trauma. Here are a few of them …

  • ‘It was easier to forgive him than to forgive God.’2
  • ‘If we say monsters are beyond forgiving we give them a power they should never have.’3
  • ‘Justice didn’t do a thing to heal me, forgiveness did.’4

1 Debbie Morris. Forgiving The Dead Man Walking. p.251 – Zondervan 1998

2Ibid p.188

3Ibid p.248

4Ibid p.251