Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Review and Revision of my life on a Sunday morning!

I spent a few hours this morning, abed with coffee, looking at my life over some 10 year intervals. Here it is:


Almost 4 years old and two of earliest memories I can date. First, a late summer day with my parents and brother meeting my grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousin next to the Golden Bears at the California State Fair on the 100th anniversary of the Gold Rush. Then preparations for the New Years Eve party that year at the Sutter Lawn Tennis Club. My parents were on the committee, and some people were dressing up a mannequin from Rich’s store dressed as the old year with white robe and flowing beard), when Heiney Catrow emerged from the men’s locker room dressed as the new year, 1950, with a large white diaper over his racing trunks.


Just into my terrible teens. I was not attending school, had dropped out of seventh grade the year before. My parents marriage was breaking up, we were living in a rented house on 41st street, after my parents had sold their house and his partnership in a printing business to pay back taxes, and my father was working for the State of California. My mother and I both saw therapists for a short while and then we were going to my uncles ranch some Saturdays and wondering about moving. This was the same year my 20 year old brother had an accident when an iron chip from a hammer went into his eyeball. I remember waiting with Woody Adams, my parent’s friend, in a car parked outside a market on 43rd and H streets while my father went in to buy some liquor, and looking at a hair growing on the my left big toe, knowing that puberty was coming and I wasn’t sure what that would mean. The next year my brother married his high school sweetheart and my mother and I moved to a house on my uncle's ranch, with my father coming down occasionally to visit.


I was 23 and had dropped out of the University of Oregon the previous year after a total immersion in sex, drugs and rock and roll. I spent the winter and spring working with my uncle on the ranch followed by summer school at Stanford, That autumn I took 2 classes at the local junior college and started making plans to get into the University of California at Davis. I helped my parents move from the ranch to a house in Fairfield where my grandmother would join us. In the next few years I would take some classes at Davis, then drop out again, after my grandmothers death, to join my parents in starting our own printing business.


I had been accepted for an MA in History and Phenomenology of Religion at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley; but couldn’t graduate from UCD because of what felt like a phobia in learning a required foreign language. I was still working part-time in the dysfunctional family business and finally got into therapy with a wonderful Jungian who did some very good and deep work with dreams (Thank you Beth Kennedy!). This might have been the start of seeing the possibility of making some substantial changes in my life and taking on the responsibility of working for further changes.


I had left an unfinished MA degree in 1985 and, after a mixed year as a youth minister and intern in a northern California parish (as well as finally leaving the family business), had finally graduated with an M.Div degree from CDSP (Church Divinity School of the Pacific). I had been turned down by the Diocese of California for ordination, where the Bishop said, “I am not going to ordain you, but I am going to use you.” I was smoking too much grass (and starting to see how that was toxic for me), working in customer service in a retail headquarters in San Francisco, and doing some teaching and preaching at Grace Cathedral where the Canon Pastor, Lauren Artress, advised me to look into University Chaplaincy as a vocation. I told her that it would be too easy. After a fairly bleak year, I made a serious commitment to therapy with a psychologist-priest, finally stopped smoking marijuana and, in 1991, started work at Campus Ministry at the University of San Francisco.


I was teaching part-time (Thomas Merton, Enneagram and Social Ethics) at USF, College of Professional Studies, had moved off campus and left campus ministry the year before to move around the corner from All Saints’ Parish in the Haight Ashbury, San Francisco. In the previous two years my father, mother and brother had all died after what seemed an endless series of crises taken from a bad soap opera. I was also mentoring one or two Spiritual Formation Groups for the Episcopal School for Deacons, and working at Henry Ohloff House, a drug and alcohol treatment centre run by the Diocese. In April that year I moved into a 4 month residency at the San Francisco zen Center and, in August returned to CDSP as the Visiting Chaplain for the student body. Within my first month there I met John Davis, a priest from Melbourne, who was to be (to put it very simply) the best friend I have ever known and (an Aussie term here) a mate for life. I starting thinking about a long visit to Australia.


I came for a Christmas visit to Melbourne 9 years ago (minus 2 weeks) and (with John’s good help) moved over the following year. I did some online teaching for USF and started the Merton Centre @ St. Peter’s Eastern Hill as a platform for teaching, preaching and spiritual direction around Melbourne; then went back to tertiary chaplaincy with encouragement and a ministry grant from a good and friendly Bishop (thank you + Philip Huggins!). After a few years I returned to teaching online and in-person at a local Anglican seminary. And then in the last year, with a hiatus in mental heath chaplaincy, have been moved (in vivid dreams, with helpful friends, and by a benevolent bishop who put my gifts to use in the Diocese of Wangaratta) to a new town, new ministry, new horizon.

So, 60 years in 7 paragraphs. I’ve left significant things off, either by choice or oversight, but that’s a fair summary of my life so far. Perhaps it wasn’t as busy as it sounds, there are a lot of hours spent when I sat in cafes with my journal and “measured out my life with coffee spoons.” There was far too much equivocation over the years. I should have stopped smoking grass, taken my studies more seriously and started therapy much sooner; and I haven’t talked much about sex, drugs and musical comedy as much as I might, but this is not that kind of blog.

What I really wish I could do is have a parade of pictures alongside these words; pictures of friends, mentors, benevolent pilgrims on their own journeys who shared and changed my life. The summary makes it sound like a solitary exploration and, by God’s grace, it wasn’t. Friends and from Davis, CDSP, and USF, Grace, S4D, All Saints’, St. Peter’s, Trinity Theological School, all were a part of it, Friends who all helped me accept who I was and what I could and couldn’t change, helped me to make changes where I could, helped me to move on. I mention a few folk, but there are so many more.

Perhaps that’s why I enjoy Facebook, because so many of them are occasionally online there, and I get the snaps and snippets of their comings and going, people and places that mattered in the past and that matter to them now. I’ve always liked the fact that the early Christians were called the "People of The Way.” Probably most of the people on my way are not “professional” Christians, but that doesn’t matter much. I have learned hope and acceptance and ministry and love from them over the years, and they (even you, my reader) have helped me find my way along with them.

Let’s bring it up to the present. In 5 days and 2 hours I will be made a Deacon. Eliot writes this in Little Gidding:

Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,

Every poem an epitaph. And any action

Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat

Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

Quite honestly I don’t know what to expect at the time of my ordaining, or the one to priesthood now set for 13 February. It is both the end (meaning both termination and goal) of something and a beginning as well. I am trying to be open to both these facts, as well as to a grace I cannot get my cantankerous head around, a likely and blessed surprise.

But I know that I am not alone: again Eliot,

History may be servitude,

History may be freedom.
See, now they vanish,

The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,

To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

You will all be with me this coming Friday, both in prayer and presence, with all your history and hope, all these communities and callings, all one at the deepest level, and for this I am very grateful.

Thank you!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Poem for Monday

We don’t have to have a past today
Could simply follow the sun like certain plants
Face the light, turn to what is bright and warming; or, conversely,
Like a more delicate potted plant, move into the softer shade for the filtered light
Humankind cannot bear very much reality, nor should many other growing things.

Find the place that suits for this morning,
the ecology that supports enough growth,
(the life of significant soil), between reseeding (receding) and bloom.
But not being caught, rooted too deeply, in either of those beds.

Instead, stretch into the present like cats do, relaxing and
Letting the spine of the moment open like a shy smile,
An intake of breath, an increased delight, a touch of dancing
While you silently stay exactly where you are.

And all that carried history and expectation,
Heavy potential and the weight of undone deeds
Unfinished stories and long-dead parents and people
We never liked all that much; make it compost, treat it like dung.

To be left behind, discarded in a pile to decay, mulch,
To ripen into something that can feed new
Unthinkable, unspeakable growth that may
Bloom into possibilities in another spring

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Saturday evening reflection

Two poems keep going through my mind.

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making where executives 

Would never want to tamper, flows on south 
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, 

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, 

A way of happening, a mouth.

And this:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

I’m living in a place that’s much like where I grew up, where my family came from. And they were places I wanted, and felt I needed, to escape from when I was young; Auden’s raw towns: Sacramento, then the ranch during my teens when I felt terminally isolated and anomalous, Fairfield, Eugene, Davis. Then Berkeley, where I started to hit my stride; away from the family template, finally in a place where people looked and thought like I did, where I could become myself, not feel pressure to conform to ways of thinking and being that didn’t fit me.

So after years in Berkeley, San Francisco, back to Berkeley, and now over 8 years in Australia. I pace myself differently. Maybe now - to paraphrase Thoreau - the distant drummer I heard so many years has moved into my heartbeat, and what I needed to get to, to guard, has become the background music that I hear when I see this good world. Perhaps, in all my meandering, I met and made peace with who I was, so can return to where I started, the dry valleys, small towns with people who look much like the people I grew up with, places that formed me, and know them for the first time.

Two more quotes: first, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” then Merton writes something to the effect that an enlightened person is just an ordinary person who has nowhere else they have to go. I am not claiming satori, just saying that there’s a sweet and full freedom when the noisier heroics have quieted and there is simply the sound of cicada at the end of a warm spring day with good work and good people.

This week I joined the Beechworth Chorus and, walking home after the first rehearsal, I remember joining my first choir, Grace Church Fairfield, when I was 21, 42 years ago. I had such a hard time following the music then, leaning to sing in community: with all the voices in my head singing in disharmony and telling me I was both better and worse than anyone in the room. Now I am just another voice in the chorus. I have weaknesses and strengths, abilities and disabilities; and singing in community is the venue where all that can be both set free and redeemed in simply joining in the ongoing music we make in all our living and dying.

21 years ago when I did CPE, I came up with a four-sided picture of where and how I needed to balance with life; competence, passion, prayer and personality. Maybe in the last two decades these four have become one focus, one method of meeting life on life’s terms, in life’s good time.

In any case, I have much to be thankful for.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sermon, Christ Church, Beechworth

I want to look at the scribe and the widow in our Gospel reading, but first I’d like to talk about Religion and Spirituality a bit and then kind of work my way back. They are both big words, and the idea of spirituality is very popular though it might not be easy to easy to define; for me it is what happens when the air gets fresh and you feel connected again. There are lots of definitions for it, and in any case, lots of people who say, “Well, I am not religious but I am spiritual!” Some spiritualities - Benedictine, Ignatian, Franciscan, Celtic - might come under the label of Christian, some are New Age and some are very Old Age, but they speak deeply to people who are looking for rituals and routines to help them connect with meaning, hope, life.

Celtic spirituality is a tradition that has become quite popular in the last 20 or 30 years. As I understand it, much of what comes under that label streams from early Greek, Orthodox and and Coptic monks meeting the poetic and love of nature already deep in the Celtic soul in much of Great Britain and Ireland in the sixth or seventh century. This connection led to a theological, prayerful and mystical community bound together by a love for the Trinity, for Mary and the Incarnation of Christ; as well as in a simple and eloquent tradition and practice of music, art, poetry and liturgy pointing to a sense of the Holy, of God and the company of saints as a continuing, helpful, personal presence; with very thin boundaries between nature, the most sacred and everyday life. So in the last few years this body of word and music has given life to many people, helped them connect with hope and happiness, need and neighbor, call and community. So it can be a spirituality that breathes with meaning and promise in daily life.

And we need that for the traditional religions have fallen on bad times. With an increasingly strident fundamentalism on one side of the religious spectrum and dwindling attendance and energy on the other, we don’t look too good lately, and for many, the scribe that Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel looks like the worst of what is feared in religion; a deadly formalism: an empty love for dress-up and ritual, too much emphasis on looking good in public, long prayers, private rituals, hypocrisy.

Now we all know people like that in the church, and some (maybe most) of us are people like that, or have been, at least a little, at least some of the time. Because sometimes we need to be formal, to dress up, to take on roles and rules that don’t quite fit us yet, as a support so that we can stand up and become ourselves again, become who we ought to be, who God wants us to be.

In a world noisy with the common gods of the marketplace, such as money, power, pride and public opinion, good religion practice offers places, rituals, stories and support to take ourselves more seriously in light of the love of God: and sometimes people overdo it, get it wrong as they’re learning to get it right. But that can also happen in any spirituality.

So maybe religion can be defined as the way we organize, prioritize, tie up our world; the rules and roles we follow, to (quoting an Irish poet) “keep our pity fresh and our eyes heavenward, let we grow hard.” But maybe spirituality fits there too, for many spiritualities turn into religions over a few years. So whether you practice spirituality or religion, yoga or morning prayers, go to church religiously, write poetry at dawn, or serve God in your tennis game; it is a good thing if it gives you heart, encourages you, lifts you up and connects you with your deepest goals and God and your neighbor. If it helps you to keep it together, it’s a good thing. But it is very important to note that it is only half the whole story of living life.

Here’s the other side. Thomas Merton writes that we have to know we have a heart before we can give it away. It’s a two part process, there are two parts to life: we take it all in and we give it all away.

There’s a joke I love that never gets a laugh: two people are attending the funeral of a woman, afterwards they start talking details of the estate. One asks: “Did she leave much?” The other replies, “She left everything” We leave everything! By hook or crook, whether we’re a tennis players, poets, third order Franciscans or fiddlers, Celt or Anglo-Catholic, in the end we give it all away.

“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” That’s the other side of the story. The large and little ways we give ourselves away. The greek word is kenosis, to pour ourselves out as a sacrifice to God. We don’t know why the scribe needed to look so good to so many, any more than we know why the woman gave so much of herself away, that’s their story, but how do we balance these two ways of being in our story?

Dag Hammarskjold, the secretary-general of the United Nations in the 1960s wrote in his personal journal, “I don't know Who -- or what -- put the question, I don't know when it was put. I don't even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone --or Something --and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.” He was killed not long afterwards in a plane crash, on the way to make peace in an African civil war.

He gave what he could, the woman gave what she had, Jesus will give all he has, Peter and Paul and so many saints and martyrs in the Christian tradition over the last two thousand years up to people we might know, people who might be with us today, will give all they have; not only in dramatic sacrifice, but in simple daily disciplined acts of mercy and justice, ongoing calls to community and commitment in following the way of Jesus, in his self-giving, as best we can in all our days and ways. Maybe that pompous scribe even gave what he could. 

Religion and Spirituality, knowing what you need to have and knowing when you need to let go; sometimes religion might be taking it in, giving it shape, and spirituality might a way of pouring it out with passion, letting it go freely. Maybe, in the end, life, our daily living and dying, is just like breathing, we take it in, we give it out; two sides of the same coins; like the life that Jesus lifts up and gives away, freely, and somehow shares with us on the cross and beyond, a mystery to which we need to say Yes, a living sacrifice, a contained and considered self-surrender that leads us to a union with God in Christ in all things, so that we may serve God, know God’s love, in all ways.

In the name of Christ.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Bringing it up to date...

My life has changed a lot in the last year, and even more in the last month: new job, new car, new house, new location with new weather, geography, altitude and attitude. Moving from inner Melbourne to a small town (‘though not far from some regional cities). After years of University and Health chaplaincy in in the midst of a major urban area and on the edge of the urban archdiocese (even though near some sort of creative edge), I am now working in a country diocese and, as the Bishop’s Chaplain, close to the centre (yes, and a creative one) of the workings of the institution.

My office is is next to the Bishop in the Diocesan Registry next to the Cathedral, and I am busy on a variety of fronts: looking at plans, protocols and procedures for the diocesan institutions and culture; formulating some ideas for clergy and lay education and formation in the coming year; stretching my IT expertise by trying to bring Google apps and cloud technology into the way we calendar, document and share our work. It’s all a great stretch, but it has to do with things I love and people I am enjoying a lot.

The town and country are a surprise. I keep telling people that my great great great grandparents moved to California in the Gold Rush, building and living in towns much like the places where I am now living. So there’s a feeling of deja vu (all over again), of a return to the place where I started and knowing it, if not for the first time, at least in a different way. Now with the freedom of age, past the urgency of youth, past the tyranny of the years when I needed to name everything and get somewhere, anywhere else than where I was. There’s not much else to do or to go from here, so I can enjoy where I am. I am enjoying the expanse of the land, the sky, enjoying the fresh air and the smell of the fields, and the loud birdsong with Australian Magpies, Cockies and the occasional pair of blessed Kookaburras. Last night we were walking down the street at dusk when two of them started a series of shrieks so like a Hollywood special effect machine that it was hard to believe two birds could make so much noise, but they do! I am loving the fact that people speak to you on the street, wish you good morning and good evening, meet you eyes and smile.

And in 28 days I will be a Deacon. And I feel that accounts for a kind of deep and rich silence and resonance under all the business, that there’s a real reason for me being here, that the work have to do with an assent that comes deep in me, deeper than I ever knew, to doing what I do and giving what I can in a way that is both very specific and somehow universal at the same time. The universe seems pointed and broad lately, and it’s a very rich time.