Friday, March 20, 2015

Paul Klee, Sinbad the Sailor

Coffee Spoons

Is there a biological predisposition, a genetic marker, for loving coffee houses? I remember walking down Columbus Avenue with my father in the middle nineteen-fifties when North Beach was the centre of San Francisco’s beatnik culture. We walked past the Co-Existence Bagel Shop and I caught a scent of espresso and saw people with beards sipping from small cups, reading big books, gesticulating with closely held opinions, and a voice deep in my soul spoke up in my nine year old self and said, “I’ll have what they're having!”

It was the start of a downward spiral, though it stayed quiet for years,  only resurfacing when I was a student in Eugene, Oregon in 1969, with an evening visit a coffee house which had all of the above plus live folk music. I returned the next day with a slim volume of James Joyce plus my journal and it was the beginning of the end.

For most of the decades since then I have measured out my life in coffee spoons. In most of those years I knew exactly where to go to sit, drink and read and write: to fill numerous journals with innumerable outlines, epiphanies, confessions,  poetry, prose, plans for the future, laments for years past.

I will admit I spent too much time as a student. As one of Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury characters said of his life as a sophomore, “They were three of the happiest years of my life,” and I understand that completely.  But a large part of that was the proximity to Coffee Houses. In the nineteen seventies at the University of California at Davis the Student Union had both a dining commons and a co-operative coffee house. I had a the habit of a regular table. After extensive peer pressure, to say nothing of strident urgings from the teaching faculty and University administration, I graduated in the late seventies but soon reemerged in a Master’s program at the Graduate Theological Union, a consortium one block north of the UC Berkeley campus. It was there my using escalated. It was just too easy with a cafe on every street, even on the sidewalk, walking one block in almost any direction brought easy access to latte’s, mocha, short cups of espresso. You could get an omelette, Italian pastries, even gelato. And it wasn’t just the drink and food. They had books and magazines piled in the corners, rotating art exhibits, windows to look out and the world going by. it was a glorious time, and at the Olde Egg Shop and Apple Press, a name that evoke some moisture in the eyes of old Berkeley alums, they gave free refills! I felt like I had arrived in my final spiritual home.

Monday, March 16, 2015

A Melbourne Lane

Old Man Me: starting to explain why I am now “Post-Chaplinesque.”

On Thursday evening, May 22, I will begin a talk on Thomas Merton at St Peter’s Eastern Hill, Melbourne called “Old Man Merton” with the story of an ambitious musician who always felt depressed whenever he remembered that, “When Mozart was my age, he had been dead for ten years!” And when Thomas Merton got to be my age he had been dead for almost fifteen years! We don't know who he would have been or what he would have done, so when it comes using him as a model of ageing well, we have only our own projections to deal with and those projects are known to have pitfalls.

But in one of my favourite poems, Merton writes,“The pathway dies, the journey has begun.” So if Thomas Merton is no longer on the living map his spirit can still  enliven the unknown territory we must come to inhabit. For the life of Thomas Merton in the 21st Century is a story we must write within our own lives: the unfinished story of Old Man Merton must turn into the life of Old Man Me.

This is apt.  As of today I have thirteen months and one day until I turn seventy. I am now a retired gentle-person, senior citizen, a man of a certain age. How do I dance with disease, diminution, and death, and with days that are also  open, if I really look, to almost anything? There can be time for visions and revisions, time to write, take naps, serve my neighbour, love God and respond to love as if I had all the time in the world.

It’s still a rich and wide choice. Tennis may be off the list but from here I can take on a daily practice of writing, meditation and all sorts of ministry, while generally sharing the burdens and glories of the journey with others. I can stretch every morning, do centering prayer twice a day, tai chi at noon, tea at three and weekly mass at seven in the evening: visit the poor, sick and lonely, comfort my people — but then the question is both with what and how? Where is the particular Good News to share at this point in time in this specific cultural and geographical place, and what does a whole life look like here and now?  What would Thomas Merton say or do?

Because I deeply despair of the church in its present shape in the Australian bush, and I’m still surprised by what I find here. It is neither the church not the culture that formed me and my ministry. Because for most of my past parish life in Northern California and central Melbourne I was part of somewhat post-modern gathered congregations where people showed up because they really wanted to. These were enclaves located in a larger cultural and intellectual environment where being a Christian was seen as socially suspect, if not only dated and dowdy, and people often outed themselves with a shy smile, “I know it’s surprising, but I get quite a lot out of church.”

That was the world where I lived and prayed, learned and taught, worked and grew, where the old and established cultural cachet and accretions of being a Christian had fallen out of the nest. The congregations I knew had turned another corner; where the old attendees had died or dispersed and most of the new people came from somewhere else than the established pattern; from marriages that failed, careers that weren’t as expected, vocations re-visioned and visions renewed. They were like returnees from long trips overseas when the itinerary took then further than the expected destination. People at Grace Cathedral on San Francisco’s Nob Hill and at St Peter’s Eastern Hill in Melbourne showed up on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights because they had deep and personal experiences of God or love or loss; an encounter that set them on a search with their time in church a necessary part of a particular and crucial pilgrimage.

It made for different type of congregations; people on their own way, not there because a great grandmother had given a window or an uncle baptised before the war, not there because of a lingering expectation that the family would always attend in due season and on important occasions. In these post-Christendom communities the traditional expectations have echoed like old background music then faded away to leave a new silence open to be filled with other voices and choices by a newly re-focussed community of prayer, celebration and discernment.

But now I have retired in country Victoria, Australia, where the remnant of the institutional church still carries much traditional cultural weight, albeit with an ever smaller circle attending services. It is still a place where a number of parishioners come with inherited convictions of family tradition and lengthy associations, known and acknowledged in the larger existing communities for good or ill. This tradition can offer a rich web of associations, to be sure, but it is one that is quickly running out of steam and what worries me is that I can see no shared vision of community, no newly packaged kerygma, to take its place. And that leaves me wondering where to go and what to do.

For the life I live, the faith and ministry I practice as a Christian, as well as a priest of the Anglican Church, will happen here. And at this point I am not sure what direction this self-offering will take, who and how I should serve as I worship God. So I am in a time of personal and professional discernment, but this is nothing new: my whole life and ministry has followed wandering ways into pilgrimage; often with a destination in sight, sometimes intuitively going after a slight hunch or the hint of a vision, occasionally turning around when dumb or graceful luck opened a door or excluded an option. With that history I am not ultimately uncomfortable with ambiguous beginnings or endings either. I actually have more trouble with the middle.

In any case, after my post-retirement summer vacation, I want to take time to consider and share the current questions and answers, initial ideas and tentative explorations on my  own future work (as well as those of others), on some possible new missions and revised ministries that might make a difference for the church that waits to happen. This also means looking at the ministry I’ve done in the past, as a chaplain and occasional teacher in higher education, with a short stint in aged care, as well as several years as the chaplain to a diocesan Bishop. This has been work I loved and I give thanks for as I lay it down, but that pathway has died and a new journey begun. So that is also what it means to be “Post-Chaplinesque.”  I hope you’ll be with me on the journey.

Walking over the Ovens River

Old signposts that can signal future actions

In my retirement reality I am looking around for guideposts and guardrails, principles that can guide as  I look at where I am going from here. I wrote this for our diocesan synod several years ago and it still serves me as a template of where the institution might go, what it can look like, although I am not sure how and where it might fit in my own future ministry. I note it here as a reminder.

In 1977 I went to visit a monastery in Santa Barbara California because my life was at a crisis: as a student, as a worker, as a man trying to figure out what my place was in the world; what I had to get and what I had to give.  I had no answers and I wasn’t even sure how to ask the questions. And something happened to me. If you’re interested, I can talk to you about it another time, but the end result was, I found the God I believed in believed in me more. And that made all the difference. 

After that it was time to return to my life, my work, my studies, my wildly open future. As I was preparing to leave the monastery that morning I  saw the oldest monk  walking outside the chapel: a monk for 70+ years, Bishop Campbell had retired as a bishop from Africa,  was around 92  at that time and still going strong.  I went up to him and I thanked him for his presence during my time there, then said, "and now I’m going back to my life.” He looked at me steadily for a moment, then he said, “Yes, another beginning!” And I’ve always remembered that. A great one liner.

I've also been very fond of another one liner from a Rhodes scholar who went in a different direction. Kris Kristofferson, in the song, “Me and Bobby McGee”, said, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” and there’s a real wisdom there. 

Now we’re in a funny place as a church. We were a cultural necessity for so long, part of the official definition of the good life, had some real glory years, and now they seem to be gone. There may be some sadness that so many things that seemed to be eternal have come to an end; but as a 92-year-old monk said to me some 36 years ago, it is another beginning.

I am no longer a young man, Bishop Campbell is long gone, even the monastery burned to the ground a few years ago and a smaller number of monks have renewed the ministry in an disused convent closer to the center of Santa Barbara. And we are no longer part of the official definition of the good life, we're hardly fashionable anymore. But we have good memories as we look for another beginning where the old answers might not fit, and the new questions are just coming into focus.

And there is a tremendous freedom in the beginning again, in looking around and wondering what the gospel will look like in the 21st century, as long as we keep fast to the graceful hope that God believes in us more than we believe in ourselves; that God holds our church in love; then by God’s grace we have nothing left to lose and a new beginning to gain.

So where do we go from here? My personal hunch is that we have lost the battle of Sunday morning. 40 or 50 years ago, the market was closed, the playing field silent,  and sleeping in or taking brunch was not such a popular option. That world has changed and there are new and noisy gods on the horizon; with the mall or the web, the media and big business, sex and popularity and money are so often the new meaningful icons. 

And while most people have left religion behind, some others stick to a strident fundamentalism, a conservative evangelical fervour that often strikes me as a defense mechanism against the possibility that God is calling us to something new, something larger than vision of the church we found such comfort in so many years ago. That gives me hope too. I think it must’ve been like that when the Christian community left its Jewish parentage and went among the nations; it must’ve been like that when Christians started to speak out for pacifism, against slavery, for women’s rights, even now against multinationals and ecological outrage. Perhaps another beginning for God’s people is growing in the heart of the church. And where do we go from here?

I think the best thing is to start small. A few years ago we started a four-year program with the bishop's certificate and over 40 people have now enrolled. But I think that most people are not ready or able to make that kind of time commitment. So in my ministry for the diocese I’m building 4 week templates, weekend templates, one day templates, even online classes that can happen any time for anyone, anywhere. 

We’re meeting people where they are and when they can join us  by offering options for Tuesday nights or Thursday nights, Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon: short sequences that can awaken curiosity and hope, seed community and commitment, so that we can  remind people that we stand offering a tradition that carries the greatest hope of justice, mercy, community, that the world has ever seen. 

But this is not easy and there is a danger that we are so caught by our history that we could almost lose hope, we’ve already lost so much, but “We are the body of Christ” and God believes in us so much more than we believe in ourselves, so carrying this hope can be such good news, this freedom of nothing left to lose gives us everything to gain as a gift from God.

So we’re starting small from here. If you are a small congregation, 3 to 12 people meeting every week or once or twice a month, I ask you to consider  having a one-day program once or twice a year. We can do it as part of the Sunday service and try to nurture your existing membership and maybe bring in a few new people. If you’re a medium sized congregation, think about having a few four-week series on Bible study, on meditation, on faith and films,  on making your own rule of life: come talk to me about who you are and what you like and we can try to make a program that fits for you; and if I can’t do it, I can help you find somebody who can.  

if you’re a larger congregation this offer stands too, but I would also ask you to look at your own membership, clergy and laity, and think about, what talents or community you might share from within your congregations, amongst your sisters and brothers in the diocese, what gifts you might have to give. 

This can be a very rich moment to be in the church, a lovely time to think on these things, and while there is much that may be ending, it may well be that we are privileged to witness a new beginning, an opportunity that comes to us with a great freedom and an equal responsibility. But I am convinced that we are under an obligation, under the gift of grace, to recall who we are, what we carry, why that matters, for God believes in us, and that shall always be our heritage, our heart, and our hope.

Rob Whalley + 

Saturday, March 14, 2015