Thomas Merton – Master Of Attention

“Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer,” wrote Thomas Merton, one of the most often quoted commentators on contemporary spirituality of the 20th century.  Merton wrote over 40 books on the importance of reflection and prayer in our lives.  I recently read Robert Waldron’s book, Thomas Merton – Master Of Attention, in which he explains that Merton’s own ‘way of prayer’ came increasingly to be about ‘seeing’.

Meister Eckhart said; “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which he sees me.”  For Merton – Cistercian monk, mystic, poet, artist, photographer – learning to pay attention, to really ‘see’, became life’s central focus.  Merton came to faith while looking at mosaics of Jesus in Rome, and paintings by the masters.  I can relate to this as I loved gazing at the pictures of Jesus in our Catholic picture missals at mass as a boy (to distract me from the boredome of the Latin ritual).  As well as art, Merton was inspired by writers such as William Blake and Gerard Manly Hopkins, who gave focus to his spiritual formation.

Merton once wrote; “Access to God is by attention.  This should be our main work.  A literal monastic cell is unnecessary, for we all have within us a heart’s cell.”  Waldron, In his book, quotes extensively from Merton, and from many of the writers who shaped him, giving Merton’s ‘journey into God’ a real sense of pilgrimage.  I found reading it a kind of meditation, as well as a good page-turner – I really wanted to know what happens next.

My only dissatisfaction with Thomas Merton – Master Of Attention, is that it ends rather abruptly (as did Thomas Merton’s life), leaving me with a sense that I’d glimpsed many insights, but that there should be more.  Perhaps that’s the point?

To see a world in a grain of sand

And a heaven in a wild flower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour.

                        William Blake.

 

(Adapted from a review I wrote for NZ Catholic)

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When I Am Weak, Then I Am Strong

“When I am weak, then I am strong” wrote St Paul to the Corinthians.  He was struggling to come to terms with a sense of broken-ness – his “thorn in the flesh”.  Each of us has a “thorn” (at least one); it may be physical, but it’s just as likely to be emotional, intellectual, or spiritual.  It may manifest as a difficulty in keeping up in the physical world, a degree of awkwardness or dysfunction in community or relationships, feelings of inadequacy, depression etc.

Israel had a limp, Moses stuttered, Saul had anger issues, David had a problem with women.  Christians call this “the human condition”, “the wages of sin”, or “wounded creation”.  But what if our wounding was a gift from God?

It seems that Paul had poor eyesight (c.f. Gal4;13-5).  I’m also partially blind, and when I was a teenager I went into denial about it – largely for social reasons.  I pretended that I had no disability and actually got quite good at fooling people!  I never knew that I was in denial, I just thought that I was learning to cope and being ‘cool’.  I didn’t want to wear glasses in public (particularly in front of girls) because I felt they made me look like a nerd!  But it went a lot deeper than that – I was trying not to be that person who had a wounding.  I was denying part of the reality of who I am.

My poor eyesight has meant I cannot do some things that others take for granted, like driving a car.  It also means that I’m not capable of doing many other things as well or as quickly as most of you can, like drawing a picture, cutting straight with scissors, playing team games, reading the overhead projector in church.  This physical limitation affects my life choices at every turn – the kinds of work and leisure activities I do, the places I choose to visit and the location where I live, the ways I spend my time and order my priorities.

Disability also creates stigma, other-ness, difference.  When we’re young, particularly, it’s really important to fit in.  Children can sometimes be cruel, and tease one another for being different.  And adults are sometimes condescending.  The media foists on us images of what we ‘should’ be, creating an artificial ‘peer pressure’ and instilling feelings of inferiority in many people.  Do you ever remember thinking that you were an outsider and that no-one understood you?

The deepest wound of all is fear.  At primary school I was the victim of the school bully.  He threatened that if I ever told anyone what he was doing he would know because he could read my mind, so I better shut up!  Now even at eight years old I was pretty sure that people couldn’t really read minds, but fear over-rode rationality.  I was so desperate to please him that I started asking his permission before I did anything.  Ever since that time I’ve had trouble trusting the validity of my own decisions.

Now, in fact, I make lots of good decisions (like agreeing to write this article…!?)  My rational mind knows this and I can assemble evidence to back it up.  But there’s a darker, subtle, negative influence that kicks in without warning.  A voice that says “You’re going to get it wrong”, or “They won’t like you if you do/say that”, and this voice can make me freeze, make me timid, make me procrastinate and stew in confusion. Fear, too, you see, is a great disability.  Fear probably lurks somewhere in all of us, and must be recognised, named, brought out into the light, and strategies found to deal with it.

Many of us are afraid of the unknown; of picking up the ringing phone, or – even worse – picking it up to make a call.  I know somebody who sits in his car for 20 minutes psych-ing himself up before he can go and knock on a stranger’s door – and his job is in sales!  Often in face-to-face situations the fear of rejection causes us to leave much important stuff unsaid.

God’s love is the only real antidote to fear (c.f. 1Jn 4;18).

Many of us are dis-empowered by the stories we believe.  We have all created mythologies about ourselves; some parts of the story are true, some are not.  We have built up these myths over a lifetime of listening to and looking at the lives of others, both real and fictional.  All the books and movies we’ve taken in, the teaching we’ve received, the role-models who’ve lived with and around us, the stories that others have spoken to and about us (true and not true), have shaped our personal landscape.  We’ve developed a narrative of the person we’d like to be, and the person we think we are.  We’ve tried to be ‘like this one’, and ‘not like that one’.  We’ve fantasized thousands of “what if?” scenarios; dreamed dreams in which we are always the star or the victim.  Most of these fantasies are unrealistic, and so we carry a secret burden of failure, never having been able to live up to our ideals.

When I was a kid I used to go to the movies most Saturday afternoons with my friends from the neighbourhood – it didn’t really matter much what was on.  Afterwards we’d all go to the empty section at the bottom of our street to play, and almost invariably we’d ‘act out’ the story we’d just seen, each taking roles, and sometimes arguing about who was going to be the hero and who the ‘baddie’.  This habit stayed with me and I’ve spent much of my life trying to be somebody else.

As a young believer/musician I found myself trying to sing or share my testimony in the same style I heard ‘famous’ people like Larry Norman and Barry McGuire do it.  How often have you heard a local preacher, who normally has a kiwi twang, suddenly slip into an American drawl in the pulpit, mimicking the speaking style and gestures of some influential pastor or evangelist?  We’re all such sheep!

But there is, in reality, only one person we’re ideally suited to role-play – ourselves.  No-body else can be you as well as you can.  In fact, being you is the one thing you can truly excel at.  You are unique and have a contribution to the human race (and to the building of God’s kingdom) that no-one else can offer.  God made you that way.  Unfortunately, most of us have not been well groomed for being ourselves.

“You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free” said Jesus.  The truth is not always what we expected, and it’s sometimes even unpleasant, but it is liberating, and it can strengthen and even heal us.  So, where is your wounding?

Do you remember when you were a child and you fell over and skinned your knees?  You ran inside to mum, but you pulled away when she tried to bathe the cuts with antiseptic.  You didn’t want anybody to touch the pain, and yet how you wanted it to go away!  Wounding makes us hypersensitive, makes us hold back, even from the thing which can heal us.

When we are able to be comfortable with the person we are – unashamedly ourselves, and not embarrassed about having weakness, being human – then we possess one of the greatest of attributes, integrity.  The Oxford Dictionary defines integrity as; “wholeness; soundness; uprightness; honesty”.  Integrity is an attitude, a way of being in the world, a choice to live as our true selves, “warts and all”, without fear.

A couple of years ago, my spiritual director asked me whether I’d ever considered my poor eyesight as a gift.  I hadn’t.  In fact, although there’s no rational explanation for this, at first I found the idea a bit uncomfortable (such is the depth of our pre-conditioning).  However, I ‘sat with’ the idea for a while, talked to God about it, and eventually the penny dropped.  I am an expert on human weakness – it’s something I have a lifetime’s experience at!  So, how do you turn a curse into a blessing?  How can I make this wealth of knowledge work to my advantage?  And, hopefully, the advantage of others, too.

This article may be one way of doing that.

Human beings have a remarkable capacity for adaptation.  Part of the way that we learn to cope with weakness is to strengthen other faculties to compensate.  For instance, a person crippled from the waist down is likely to develop unusually strong muscles in their arms and torso.  In my case, because I’m a musician, but I’m unable to physically ‘read’ music, I’ve developed a particularly good ‘ear’ (the ability to play spontaneously what I hear), something which classically trained players can be weak on.  Their ‘weakness’ is that they tend to depend on their eyes at the expense of their ears and intuition.  One skill isn’t better than the other, they’re just different, and they both arise from a juxtaposition of weakness and strength.

Some people have told me that I seem to have an empathetic nature, am a good listener, that they feel comfortable talking to me about ‘sensitive, personal stuff’.  Perhaps these are some of the positive fruits of being a damaged, fragile creature.  Perhaps one wounded spirit can recognise another…

God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you … (my) power is made perfect through weakness”.  Paul came to accept this mystery.  God wants us to live a fulfilled and fruitful life.  But the paradox is, it all begins when we acknowledge – and, in fact, embrace – our weakness.  Jesus chose to become weak, so that he could heal us.  His wounded hands, touched by Thomas, were proof of his power over death.

Human weakness is one gift we all have in common.  Our infirmity is a reminder to ourselves, and a sign to the world, that God’s salvation is necessary for everyone.  So learn to value your wounds highly, and use them well.

Bringing It All Back Home

(Notes from a house church in Auckland – 1990s)

Whenever you go to visit somebody else’s church one of the first questions you almost invariably get asked is “And where do you fellowship?”  When we tell people we’re in a house church the first reaction is often a little cautious, and even, occasionally, suspicious (“Uh-oh, these people are into some kind of deception!’).  But after we’ve chatted for a while the reaction is almost always “Well, that sounds really great!” or “I wish we had something like that in our church”.  The fact is that a rather large percentage of believers are more than a bit dissatisfied with the status quo.  Our spirit and our reading of scripture tell us that there’s more to Christianity than most of us are experiencing, but we’re just not quite sure how to get to it.

For the last eight years a group of us’ve been involved in what could be considered an experiment in alternative churchlife.  I have been a believer since the early ’70s but – although I am profoundly grateful to my former denomination for the love and instruction I received – the conventional `church service’ setting became less and less relevant to me – what happened there didn’t seem anything like what I read about in the Gospels.  And, because I knew a significant number of others who felt the same (the silent migration of non-fellowshipping believers is no secret), some of us decided to stop ‘going to church’ and start having it at home instead.

It wasn’t our intention to thumb our noses at traditional church structures – to say `We are right and you are wrong’ – but instead to offer an alternative to them, one which I’ve come to believe is necessary in meeting the needs of at least some of the many who, for one reason or another, feel estranged from the Christian mainstream and end up falling through the cracks.

Acts 2;42-7 shows us that any healthy Christian community needs a balanced – and quite simple -diet.  We need to study Jesus’ words and those of his apostles take communion together and pray for one another;            share our possessions (a hard one for most of us first-worlders), and generally build one another up practically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually so that we all reach our potential as His children and are empowered to share His Good News with others.  We use this as our blueprint. 

Now I know that most congregations are trying to do this exact same thing, but the dynamics and priorities of large organisations tend to militate against true community, and – for all their good intentions – most struggle to achieve quality discipleship.  It’s interesting that Jesus chose twelve disciples, he didn’t choose twelve hundred.  Small size is a big issue.  Somebody came to me a while ago and said “I went to my pastor to ask him how I could better serve God, but all he could suggest was that perhaps I’d like to join the team of ushers or operate the overhead projector”.  Over time the church has become a lot of things other than the simple community of friends that Jesus started out with, and much of what we do ‘in church’ is unnecessary, inefficient and sometimes even counterproductive.  I don’t think Jesus died for offertory hymns or to protect the copyright on overhead projector transparencies.  It’s possible to get so caught up with organising programs and running meetings that there’s no energy left over to reach out (I do some counselling and one of the most common comments I get from Christian clients is “my pastor is too busy”).

Church buildings have dynamics of their own, too.  The architecture of most ‘churches’ – closely emulating the design of concert halls, movie theatres or conference centres – preaches a powerful sermon.  “Listen, don’t do.”  “Leave the work to the pastor, the ministry team and musicians”.  “You can only take part in this church if you’re not afraid of microphones.”  Truth is, many ‘services’ appear remarkably like performances.  It’s very hard to have meaningful fellowship when you’re all facing the front and all you can see of the person nearest you is the back of their head (it’s well nigh impossible, on the other hand, to be uninvolved, and far less likely that you’ll go away feeling like a stranger when everyone’s sitting around in a circle).

Another disadvantage of ‘church’ buildings is that – like RSA halls, Masonic lodges and basketball courts – they represent ‘interest group’ premises, somewhat removed from the rest of the community – places you don’t go unless you’re a member.  We expect non-believers to screw up their courage and come to these mysterious places, but actually Jesus instructed us to go to them.  Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to invite your unsaved friends around for supper than it is to coerce them into coming to your outreach service?

Of course the fact that we refer to a building (or a denomination) as ‘church’ at all is wrong, as we all know, and as someone is always quick to point out in any discussion about house church vs institutional church, but still we keep calling buildings with pointed roofs ‘church’, and so, I suppose, at least to some extent we must still believe it.

Now -just so you don’t think I’m totally biased (which I must be to be writing this article..?!) – house groups aren’t perfect either.  Some of them are a bit precious about their ‘rightness’, and there can be an undercurrent of criticism of ‘the established church’.  Some run the risk of becoming isolated and unbalanced, or being dominated by the charismatic personality of one individual (mind you, I don’t think small groups have any monopoly on this score).  But we’re not all like that, and I’ve seen over the years a depth of spirituality and personal and community growth far greater than I ever saw in a comparable period in more conventional settings.  It will be argued that many denominations have ‘home groups’ as a part of their program, but it’s my experience that these tend to operate like mini Sunday services (thirty minutes praise and worship, forty minute sermon…) and they’re usually an optional extra, not the main focus, so it’s hard to develop the same level of commitment.

House church is a step on the way to more real Christian community.  It’s also a step back towards the way the church originally was, before Constantine, ecclesiastical power-politics and gold encrusted basilicas (or ginormous, half-empty auditoriums with huge mortgages).  When Jesus and his friends could sit round in each others houses and talk about life, the universe and everything (and how the day’s fishing had been); where somebody bursting in with a truckload of problems wasn’t ‘disrupting the service’.  If Jesus had chosen to manifest in 1999 instead of 30AD, you’d be far more likely to find him in a cafe or somebody’s lounge than in a ‘seeker service’.

I suspect that most of us know somewhere in the back of our hearts that living in community is an ideal to aspire to – one of the signs of the Church at her best (we’ve all read the book of Acts), and we can think of lots of reasons why this ‘just won’t work these days’.  But the real reason we’re not doing it may be that we’re still too selfish, individualist and materialistic to listen to our heart.  Until that day comes again, house churching is giving some of us a chance to get a little teeny foretaste of what Christian community just might be like.  Big groups and small groups are all important; we can learn a lot from each other.  Small groups need to learn how to grow quantity, big ones need to learn about quality.  House group leaders need better networks of accountability, big group leaders need to relax the reins of control.

So what do we do here in Grafton?  Well, we normally meet on Tuesday nights and at first we just sit and chat over tea and cookies.  After a while we get into some scripture reading and discuss whatever the readings bring up for us.  This leads naturally into prayer time.  The whole thing is totally informal and highly interactive – everybody has unique gifts and insights and we try to make as much room as possible for each other to grow – and for the Holy Spirit to do His thing.  Some nights we share communion.  Occasionally we have guests (teachers, missionaries etc.) talk to us, and we’re seriously into pot-luck dinners.  We have a loose association with a couple of other `house’ groups and a local community church.  Because we meet on Tuesdays and not Sundays we’re free to – and some of us do – visit other churches, or else have a good Sunday morning lie-in (When I was in a ‘regular’ church we often used to joke about how Sunday was the most exhausting day of the week for Christians – but in these days of high stress and burn-out that joke’s not so funny any more).  This low key spirituality is very sustaining, a natural and enjoyable way to ‘do church’.

If you’re looking to find a house church it may not be easy.  They don’t advertise (although there are a few sites on the internet) and they don’t have recognisable buildings – mind you, neither did the first century church.  But if you feel you ought to check it out, and you talk to God about it, you just might find yourself sitting one day in the kitchen of some ‘slightly left-of-centre’ Christian acquaintances, sipping a cup of tea, and suddenly realise you’re in the middle of one (“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them”).

When people ask, we say we’re a house church, though we’ve never actually given ourselves a name.  Some probably see us as too loose, but then I guess Jesus had the same problem.

Several years ago I had a mind-picture (was it a vision?) in which I was standing on the grass outside a brick, 1960s style church building.  As I watched, a man, who I took to be the pastor, came out of a side door, walked around to the front entrance, and proceeded to take down a large sign attached to the wall which stated the church’s denomination etc.  The impression that I had was that he was doing this because he no longer felt comfortable with the concept of labels, and the impression of dividedness which they tend to portray to the world.  From now on he wanted his congregation to be known simply as Christians, that’s all.

Tongues

“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.”  (Romans 8;26-7)

Speaking in tongues is a way of bypassing the mind, its inadequacies, doubts and distractions, and talking with God directly – spirit to spirit.  Because it doesn’t depend on words we can understand, it’s very useful when we can’t think of anything to say or are overwhelmed with inexpressible emotion.  It is also very handy when we’re just bored or uninspired (in fact, tongues has a remarkable antidote effect on both of these).  My mind may not always understand, but my spirit is always strengthened.

Often it happens that praying passionately in tongues expresses the desire of the heart much more eloquently than words could ever do, because so often we only half know what it is we really want or need.  But our spirit knows.  Tongues express the feelings that are happening in our spirit by using sounds that are appropriate to those feelings – be they shouts, whines, giggles or groans.  It also provides a wonderful release of the tensions that build up through unrealised yearning.

When I first came to know Jesus (about the age of 18), I knew nothing of the baptism in the Holy Spirit (nor scarcely any other doctrine, for that matter, except that Jesus had died for my sins) and my experience of Pentecostalism was that it was a bit weird and over-the-top.  So one day when I was reading an article in a conservative magazine which suggested speaking in tongues was wrong, I had no particular opinion.  However I did wonder, being naive and open to anything that might be going, why it was that things that happened to the first Christians weren’t still happening now.

This article quoted Paul’s words “I would rather speak five words that others can understand than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue” from Romans 14, so I grabbed my Bible to have a look for myself.  Well, when I read Romans 14 I found that it presented a rather different picture from the one the magazine article had been giving me, and that in fact Paul was really in favour of tongues and used them himself.  The verse had been misquoted.  So I decided to ask God Himself right then and there what the truth of the matter was.

I was sitting in my room, just talking to Him about it, when this great wave of excitement and joy came over me and, not knowing quite how to express it, I started making sounds with my mouth.  Then I realised that this must be tongues, for they sounded like words in some foreign language, and it felt really good and right and not freaky at all.

From then on I’ve been able to speak like this to God wherever and whenever I like.  It’s totally under my control (there’s absolutely no sense of being ‘taken over’ by something) and is a marvellous tool for centring on God, expressing my passions and praying deeply for things when my mind just doesn’t know how.

Thriving On The Outside

You only have to go to the music trades fair for a couple of hours to realise that there are thousands and thousands of musicians in this country, interested in everything from bluegrass to trip-hop.  Some of these players are very good, some are even brilliant, but who’s ever going to know?  For the most part, commercial radio tends to “play it safe” with top 40, market-oriented programming, pubs are getting smaller and usually want covers bands, and the cafés don’t want you because you only take up table space.

Of course these days it’s possible to set up a studio in your spare bedroom, manufacture your own CDs and spread your music on the net, and that’s all wonderful!  But what do you do if you really enjoy playing to live audiences?  How can you get to play enough to keep growing as a performer and make some kind of a living from doing what you love?

Well, this is where good old Kiwi ingenuity needs to kick in!  What we need is enough pioneering spirit to start thinking outside the commercial square!  Many of us have punished ourselves with years of rejection by mass media whose priorities are not our own.  But it’s not necessary.  If there are people who genuinely like what you do, then you have a market.  Find more of those people, encourage them to gather, and you have an audience.

There’s a whole alternative economy out there (many of them, in fact) that has nothing to do with the corporate music industry, the fickle dictates of fashion, big advertising budgets or mass appeal.  It has much more to do with cottage (or back room) industry, being yourself, living simply, and nurturing your friendships and acquaintances.

We (the artists formerly – and soon again to be – known as MILLENNIUM HIPPIES) have been musicians for many years, but for the last few we’ve been having a go at being just musicians – and it seems to be working.  While I had a comfortable 8.30 to 5 job it seemed scary to me to step out on this uncertain adventure.  But once my comfort zone was taken from me (for reasons I won’t bore you with now), and I had no other choice but to “follow the call”, the fear left and has been replaced by a strange exhilaration.

Being a working musician (especially if you do all originals) means that you need to be on the road quite a bit, seeking out those “niche audiences”.  In one recent year MILLENNIUM HIPPIES gigged 126 times throughout NZ, and a number in OZ.  We slept in 58 beds (not counting our own) and played to somewhere around 10,000 people.  Now that’s a pretty infinitesimal number of punters by Michael Jackson standards, but we were able to travel the country twice (autumn and spring), taking in heaps of wonderful scenery and spontaneous adventures on the way, plus a couple of weeks with the koalas and kookaburras.  We met lots of great people on the way (we’re able to touch base with just about everybody at our concerts – I bet Michael would find that tough!)  And – what with CD sales and (at home) a bit of desk-top publishing and a few guitar students – we can make a living doing it!

Part of the reason we’re able to make this low-profile thing work is that we don’t just have one “niche market”.  In Aotearoa, because we’re such a small population, it’s often a challenge to find enough other people who are interested in what you’re interested in to make a go of it.  We’re Christians, and so we can draw on at least some of the church community for contacts and venues (although our sound and content doesn’t fit the ‘normal’ church music format).  We’re also aging hippies and “greenies”, and there’re quite a lot of other Woodstock baby-boomers, hanging out on the fringes of society, who really seem to like what we do.  Because we don’t plug our guitars in unless we really have to, the folkies think we’re OK, too.  So, between those trying to save our souls, the planet, and our heritage, we’ve got quite a few friends.

House Concerts and other ‘venues that are not venues’ work really well for us.  Because the music we do is lyrical, listening stuff, pubs are not so great, as most of them are too noisy and unfocussed.  Arts Councils, Schools, Community/Arts Festivals, House Parties and Cafes are a rich source of committed audiences for the lateral thinker.  By being willing to do a little research, and through the generosity of interested people with whom we’ve come in contact, we’ve managed to arrange gigs in art galleries, a picture theatre, hospitals, and even the occasional swanky hotel.

Music business promoters will tell you that it’s all about networking and data bases, self-promotion, media kits, order forms, business cards etc, and of course it’d be naïve to say that these are irrelevant (we use all these tools).  But primarily our network or “circuit” is relationship based (we’re our own agent).  It’s not what you know, but who you know, and how you know them – we’re much more interested in building friendships than fans.

The nature of the work we do is that we have to tour regularly.  We can do it because our children have grown up, we got rid of our mortgage, and to some extent we’re happy to be gypsies (live out of a suitcase quite a bit of the time).  We know other musicians who have children, and home-school them while travelling the country in house-buses.  Keeping costs down – charging modestly and living simply – makes us accessible and affordable, even to very small communities, who are often the most appreciative, and generous.  We nearly always stay with people, which not only cuts costs for us and our employers, but builds relationships, some of which have grown into really deep bonds over the years.

Creating your own posters and brochures, organising tours, working on new material – all of these are excellent ways to use your time when you’re not gigging.  Brenda learnt how to construct and run a good website (people treat you more professionally when they learn you’ve got a site), and we put a few tracks up as MP3s, so we can refer interested punters and would-be hosts to it.  This saves us quite a bit of money on promo CDs and fliers.  Newsletters can be much more than just advertising.  We try to write about stuff which might actually be interesting to people, like inspirational quotes, bits of poetry, jokes, useful information – not necessarily just about music, and not necessarily just about us.

CDs are your calling cards, advertising and income (about 50% in our case).  It’s really easy these days to produce your own albums, and everybody and his dog is doing it.  But there’s a lot of forgettable stuff out there, and people will judge you by the quality of your album.  You don’t want your disc to be one of those ones that never gets played.  So it’s really important to do it professionally if you want to be taken seriously.  This means putting up the initial outlay, and this can seem a bit daunting, but remember, you get all the profit.  Our experience is that when we play, we sell, and we always play at least some of the stuff off our current album(s), as people tend to want what they’ve just heard.

Our friend Robbie Duncan has a saying, “Follow your bliss”.  We found ourselves in a position where we had a chance to “take the road less traveled by”, and we’re very glad we took it.  It is possible – perhaps now more than at any time in the past – to make a living doing what you love.  Sometimes you have to follow unlikely leads, and take a chance and go through open doors, even though it might not be clear where they’re taking you.  If you’re absolutely sure that you’re meant to be a performing musician, and you have the talent to attest to it, then there will be a way.

Think Global, Act Local – the world is not that far away.

Is God Green?

“The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Ps 24;1).  There are two dominant threads in Christian thought about nature.  One is that creation is basically there to provide the raw materials for human endeavour, and a pleasant (but expendable) backdrop for the drama of salvation.  This idea has its origins in Greek philosophy, and was brought into the church by Augustine and others.  The other affirms that creation has value in and of itself – not because of its usefulness to us, but simply because it was made by – and belongs to – God.  Perhaps we can see this attitude most clearly in Francis of Asisi.

St Paul said; “God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being manifest through the things He has made” (Rom 1;20).  All of creation, not just man, reflects God’s nature.  When we fail to recognise creation as His, and worthy of all due respect, we fail (at least in part) to recognise Him.

When God created the world he said (several times) that it was very good.  He put a lot of time into it – man was only the last stage of the process.  You may like to read again the first couple of chapters of Genesis to see what I mean.  When Adam and Eve sinned, creation (specifically the earth) was cursed by that sin and the ‘goodness’ of God’s handiwork was marred.  All creation suffers because of our sin.

“The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden as it’s gardener, to tend and care for it” (Gen 2;15).  We don’t have to look far to see that we haven’t handled this commission too well.  The lifestyle that many of us in the west take for granted (our reliance on cars, addiction to junk food, obsession with having more and more consumer goodies), and the things we do every day on auto-pilot (filling our rubbish bins with plastics and packaging, filling the atmosphere with tobacco smoke and fly spray, throwing soft drink cans and ice-cream wrappers out the car window) are collectively having a huge impact on both our own health and also the wellbeing of spaceship earth.

But Jesus never mentioned the ‘ecological crisis’, so is it just a side issue?  A distraction from the ‘real’ work of preaching the Gospel?  This is a good and necessary question – one that, as an evangelist, I had to tackle head-on.

It’s true that Jesus never used the words pollution, ozone depletion or genetic engineering, because those things weren’t happening then.  But he did talk about sin, and the ‘environmental crisis’ is just one of the more recent manifestation of sin (living self-centeredly outside God’s wisdom and love) – sin on a massive, global scale.  Jesus (and his followers) had plenty to say about sin.

“The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1Tim 6;10).  Money, and the power that it affords, is at the core of wars, exploitation of natural resources, wasteful consumerism, industrial overkill and plundering of third world countries.  We’ve translated ‘dominion’ as “Let’s make a quick profit now and to hell with the consequences!”

It’s no coincidence that the poor usually live in the most environmentally degraded situations; deserts, slums, pollution zones, deforested wastelands.  If we are to help the poor break the poverty cycle (and no-one would deny that this is a part of the Gospel challenge), we must help them to transform their environment, “cause flowers to bloom in the desert” (cf Isa 35;1-2: 41;17-20).  Christ expects no less of us;  “Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me” (Mt 25;34-40).

There is a saying, “We don’t inherit the world from our parents – we borrow it from our children”.  Our children are our future and our hope.  The world they inherit is the one we leave them.  If Jesus delays His coming another generation or two, what kind of world will our grandchildren face?  Our Lord showed a special tenderness for children and issued dire warnings to anyone who should harm or offend them (cf Mk 9;42).  To put their survival in jeopardy by our short-sighted greed is offensive to them and to Him.

Jesus showed His appreciation of creation by continually drawing on nature for His parables, by His withdrawals into the wilderness to find spiritual refreshing, and by His assurances of God’s continuing interest in the things He has made; “Not one sparrow falls to the ground without your Father noticing it … Even the hairs on your head are numbered” (Lu 12;6-7).

He also showed us what true ‘dominion’ over creation is when he healed the sick, fed the five thousand, spoke “Peace, be still” to the storm, and when He rose from the dead.  None of His ‘dominion’ involved exploitation or waste.  Jesus lived a simple, unmaterialistic lifestyle.  He could be said to have had a “low impact” on his environment.  One side-effect of a truly Christian lifestyle is that, while the world may be “turned upside-down” by the radical love God expresses through us, the rest of the creation won’t be stressed out by our presence.

“Occupy till I come…” said the king in Jesus’ parable of the talents (Lu 19;13).  When you rent a property from a landlord you become the occupier.  If the landlord comes around and finds that you’ve trashed his place, he’ll be justifiably angry and quite possibly evict you on the spot.  There is a sobering verse in Revelation; “The time has come for judging the dead … and for destroying those who destroy the earth” (Rev 11;18).  Let’s not be bad tenants; let’s not be destroyers.

God sent His son into the world to save us, but His salvation was meant not only for humans.  When John 3;16 declares that “God so loved the world”, the word “world” is the Greek “cosmos”.  The salvation that Jesus talks about is for everything in the universe, not just for people.  John 3;16 more accurately reads, “For God so loved all of creation that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  And verse 17 continues, “For God did not send His son into the world to condemn creation, but that, through Him, creation might be saved.”

Is God green?  What do you think?

Watching The Moon Rise

When I was about 12 years old my scout troop went on a camping weekend on the Miranda Coast.  That first night we pitched our pup-tents in a paddock right by the beach, made a campfire and settled down to heat baked beans and toast marshmallows.  It was nearing sunset and I must have noticed the roseate shift in the light because I glanced up and there, across the millpond ocean, hung the huge full moon, blood red and marvellous, just clearing the horizon.  I can still picture that moon, re-inhabit that evening, though I’ve watched so many sunsets and moonrises since.  I sat transfixed, gazing in wonder as it turned through orange to pearl, rising ever so slowly into the darkening sky.

Childhood seems, in memory, to have been full of epiphanies; mum taking me out into the garden on a frosty morning to see the Morning Gory, with their bright blue petals and yellow hearts opening to the sun; the thrill of standing on the rim of the Mt Eden crater, bouncing stones into the abyss.  As children, most of us are deeply engaged with creation; splashing puddles in bare feet; pushing through long grass on humid, sunny afternoons; burying our hands in sand.

I’ve occasionally wondered whether, if I hadn’t met Jesus, I might have ended up a nature worshiper.  But I did meet him, and one of the ways I knew he was with me was that the world took on fresh dimensions.  I hadn’t yet, in that honeymoon flush of first love, read St Paul’s words in Romans 1:20 about how creation shows us God’s invisible qualities, but I knew this in my heart. Rocks and trees seemed numinous, colours and flavours were richer, every leaf and petal trembled with spirit.  Do you remember those days?

Of course epiphanies are fleeting things, and the requirements of being part of  ‘reasonable’ society – a family, a career – all these things tend to narrow our vision to specifics, often drawing our attention from the ‘big story’ going on around and within us.  But not long after I became a Christian I started writing my first songs and poetry, and there the joy of creation crept back into my life by way of imagery, analogy, and outbursts of gratitude for God’s goodness.  I also started to notice how much Jesus drew on nature for his teaching.

My first awareness of the ecological crisis actually came through Christian apocalyptic writers like Hal Lindsay.  ‘We’re living in the last days’ was a hugely popular theme in the 1970s.  Of course, the overwhelming conclusion – in evangelical circles at least – was that this was inevitable and there was no point in trying to do anything about it.  For a long time I pretty much succumbed to this view.  But in 1988 I met my future wife Brenda, and she had been for a number of years a green activist in Australia, and held very different views about how we should respond to the natural world and its problems.  She also had a rather scathing opinion of the Judeo-Christian culture and the church for our irresponsible attitudes and our doctrine of ‘dominion’, which basically seemed to make excuses for ‘business as usual’.  The theology I’d been brought up in had no adequate answers to this passionate challenge.  I had to ask God about it, and to start searching for myself.

In time I discovered that there were a few ‘green’ Christians out there, although in the early days most the writing was too theological for the general public.  But the idea that God really did want us to be good stewards of creation, and that he intends to redeem nature as well as us, galvanised both Brenda and I, and gave us the germ of a message, which we felt we wanted to take to the church, and to the community in general.

I had already been working as an itinerant musician/Christian communicator for well over a decade, and more recently Brenda had joined me, so we gently started introducing a few green themes to our presentations at services, outreach concerts etc.  At first, I think some churches found this a bit radical, perhaps worrying that ‘green’ was the same as ‘new age’.  But also something of the intuitive knowing we all carry – that much of God’s love comes to us through the gift of life and the world around us – began to be rekindled in people’s hearts and the responses we got were often warm, interested, excited even.  People would say things like, “I always felt that way, but nobody ever talks about it at church and I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to.”

In the early days our approach tended to be along the lines of, “Look what a mess the world is in!  For too long the church has been silent.  We are children of the creator, so why don’t we honour his creation?  We need to change our ways.”  These are true sayings, and people would nod their heads.  But not a lot seemed to change in the practice of most Christian communities, except that perhaps they’d include a mention of creation in their liturgies.  I could sense that something else was needed – that the real connection has to happen for each of us in the heart, in our experience, and not just because something sounds like ‘a good idea’.

It’s a bit like being ‘born again’.  I had heard of Jesus at mass as a child, but it took a deep personal encounter in an empty church to make me ‘know’ Jesus in my soul (and decide to follow him in my lifestyle).  I have seen many sunsets and moonrises, but one particular moonrise entered my being.  This is the sort of knowing that makes us respond – to God, to a loved one, to creation.  These days, when Brenda and I do ‘green’ events, this is the sort of knowing we try to encourage others to find – or rediscover – within themselves.  Poetry and music seem to be quite good tools for evoking this awareness.

The media is full of ‘sustainability’, ‘resource management’, ‘greenhouse emissions’ etc, and you can feel a bit like a broken record banging away about ‘saving the planet’ nowadays.  Over time we’ve felt less need to be eco-evangelists, and our green values have become woven into the fabric of what we hope is a more whole-of-life approach in our work.  The essential thing is to live what you believe, and believe what you live.  Then it can’t help but surface in the things you say, and seep out of your pores.  After a decade or more Brenda and I were feeling a bit weary of carrying the ‘Christian Greenie’ flag, and thankfully others have taken over, and in fact are doing a far better job than we did of growing a community of Christian stewards.  It’s great to see it.

One day the sun will grow pale and the moon will stop rising.  One day creation will be rolled up like a blanket, and God will change it for a brand new creation.  One day our bodies will reach the end of their usefulness and Jesus will call each of us into our new, non-degradable bodies.  But until these things happen, it’s part of our job here on earth to use and look after ourselves, each other, and this world he’s blessed us with, as well as we can.  I’m looking forward to hearing him say “Well done, son – thanks for keeping an eye on things for me”.