“Wisdom of Our Elders” at Open Table

Friday 10 May 2019 | Open Table
WISDOM OF OUR ELDERS

Bring some mains to share, and come with a story to tell in response to the stimulus on the topic of Wisdom of Our Elders” (slides here). 

Who has impacted you the most as an older mentor?
What tale best captures your connection?
What aspects of her life and character stand out?
What lessons have you learned from him?
What mistakes were most salient for your own journey?
What pithy wisdom have these elders proffered?

We’ll explore stories of ageing, what we’ve learned from those who’ve lived well and also would rather forget from our grumpy forebears. Generally, we’ll trade hard earned wisdom that gave many their grey hairs!

At Nathan and Melissa McConaghy’s place (69 Sunset Rd., Kenmore, 4069). Welcome from 7pm, official kick off at 7:30pm. Any questions before the night? Call/txt Dave on 0491138487.

Art     | Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits video. Also “Emily Kame Kngwarreye with Lily,” by Australian artist, Jenny Sages (1993), in the National Portrait Gallery. Chosen by our resident artist, Deb Mostert, she reflects, “I almost wept at this when viewing it in real life at the Tweed gallery … it is visceral and powerful … and I like that Jenny and Emily were the same age when this was painted and that they yarned like ‘two 83 years do’.”

Emily_JennySages1993Here’s a bit more on the subject:

Emily Kame Kngwarreye (Kngwarrey) (c.1910–1996), Anmatyerre artist, was born at Alhalkere, Utopia Station in the Northern Territory. After her ancestral land was appropriated for cattle grazing, she worked as a stockhand. As she grew older she became a leader in women’s ceremonial business, experienced in ceremonial body painting. From 1977 she collaborated in the production of batik, an important industry for the Anmatyerre after they regained land title. She first painted on canvas in 1988. In the course of her brief career she produced thousands of canvases depicting the flowers, roots, dust and summer rains of her country, the translucent colours built up with layered touches of paint to create an illusion of depth and movement. In 1998 a retrospective exhibition of Kngwarreye’s work, Alhalkere – Paintings from Utopia, travelled to three state galleries and the National Gallery of Australia. Ten years later Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarrey, an exhibition of 120 of the artist’s works, showed in Osaka and Tokyo. With that exhibition, Kngwarreye was recognised as one of the very greatest abstract artists of the twentieth century.

Text & Reflection   |  Proverbs 1:1-9 (NLT/MSG), composed by Solomon as arguably the world’s wisest person. He set out the first of thirty chapters for his son, like cairns marking the way to life, for children to come.

These are the proverbs of Solomon, David’s son, king of Israel.
Their purpose is to teach people wisdom and discipline,
    to help them understand the insights of the wise.
Their purpose is to teach people to live disciplined and successful lives,
    to help them do what is right, just, and fair.
These proverbs will give insight to the simple,
    knowledge and discernment to the young.
Let the wise listen to these proverbs and become even wiser.
    Let those with understanding receive guidance
by exploring the meaning in these proverbs and parables,
    the words of the wise and their riddles.
Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true knowledge,
    but fools despise wisdom and discipline.
My child, listen when your father corrects you.
    Don’t neglect your mother’s instruction.
What you learn from them will crown you with grace
    and be a chain of honor around your neck.

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world-elder-abuse-awareness-day-stop-elder-abuse-print-405767-adeeveeProverbs are short, well-known pithy sayings, stating a general truth or piece of adviceAs a forty-something adult, showing clear signs of ageing, I take comfort in the many proverbs and generic advice offered across the Bible, referencing my changing complexion and ‘crown’, and guarding against today’s rampant “elder abuse” (also here).

It sounds best in the Old King Jimmy. Here’s a sample:

Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man, and fear thy God: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:32)

The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness. (Proverbs 16:31)

The glory of young men is their strength: and the beauty of old men is the grey head. (Proverbs 20:29)

Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; The elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity. (1 Timothy 5:1-2)

Now also when I am old and greyheaded, O God, forsake me not; until I have shewed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to every one that is to come. (Psalm 71:18)

And even to your old age I am he; and even to hoar hairs will I carry you: I have made, and I will bear; even I will carry, and will deliver you. (Isaiah 46:4)

gray-hair-quotes-crown-of-splendorIf a “hoary head” isn’t your thing, then perhaps this modern rendering says it best: “Silver hair is a beautiful crown found in a righteous life” (Proverbs 16:31).

Note that there is nothing automatic about ageing producing this kind of life. Rather, as the grey hairs grow, the rough and tumble of hard experiences tests our mettle, refining and revealing what was only nascent as a youngin. No wonder the globally recognised wise-man, Nelson Mandela, took great pains in 2007 to set up “The Elders” as an independent group, consulting with governments to guide us out of intractable conflict and human rights abuses, instead toward peace and justice. They have the historical distance to see turbulent events as located in the wider stream of human experience. Ignore their insight at your own peril. As G. K. Chesterton quipped, “The disadvantage of [people] not knowing the past is that they do not know the present.” Or, as polymath and sage historian George Santayana said,

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it
(The Life of Reason, 1905-1906)

eldersIn our narcissistic culture addicted to adolescence, rushing from achievement to achievement, it takes self-control to slow down and learn at the feet of our elders. And yet, their many years–more often than not–are a tribute to hard won wisdom. It’s worth hearing, and may well add years to our lives, saving us from stupid mistakes that need not be made. For this reason, among many more, our elders are worth celebrating!

1_CJM06TSMMXD3A0zNCXUAIQI’m looking forward to hearing your stories as we gather for this open table. In the spirit of vulnerability and priming the pump, here is a foretaste of what I hope to share, about my favourite ‘wise elder’, who was ‘promoted to glory’ more than a few years ago. It’s a reflection I first wrote as the preface to my Nanna’s poetry collection, later published as a blog on Wonderingfair.com, capturing what I learned from watching her suffer with incredible grace. nanna

Nanna’s Rainbows in the Tears

There is no guarantee how suffering will shape a soul.  As C.S. Lewis, the imaginative author of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, once noted,

I am not convinced that suffering has any natural tendency to produce such evils [as] anger and cynicism.  … I have seen great beauty of spirit in some who were great sufferers.

One such “great sufferer” must certainly be Nell Hodgson.  Across a lifetime of adventures, she had faced loss of loved ones, a near-death experience while giving birth, and three bouts of cancer, not to mention numerous rounds of chemotherapy.  Yet as a child, I knew none of this.  Nell—or ‘Nanna’ as I knew her—was to me an imaginative storyteller … a living, breathing “Wardrobe” offering a gateway to my own Narnia.

paperbarkRecently I was jogging through Noosa National Park with a Canadian friend, pointing out the great diversity and character in the surrounding trees.  In place of uniform stands of pines were paperbarks and gnarled gumtrees.  Nanna quickly came to mind.  Trees like these were features in many of her paintings, and her poems.  Nanna loved nature.  She used to tell tales of fairies in the garden, replete with intricate details of what each would wear and how they would move.  The banksia bush had a larger-than-life personality in her imagination.  At the least opportune time—like when picking me up from a friend’s place—Nanna would quietly slip out of the conversation, leaving us all wondering where she’d gone.  After looking around, we would find Nanna on her knees, crawling through the garden bed.  She was scraping off bits of bark from the base of a gumtree—“It’s for my bark paintings,” she explained.  For Nanna, this was normal.

Yet as an adult, I wonder how to integrate the playful person I knew with this scarred woman who suffered so much.  Many others would become bitter given her lot.  Yet Nell had an insatiable appetite for life.  Her life resembled the gnarled yet glorious gumtrees she immortalised.

elder1-640x416Perhaps in the title to her final collection of poems we can find the answer: Rainbows in the Tears.  For when love looks through tears of pain, a vision of hope will emerge.

Of all the books that Nell had read, it’s no secret that her favourite was the Bible.  In this “book of books” we find a recurring theme growing to a climax in the person of Christ, like the lapping of waves on a beach as they reach toward full tide.  It is the pattern of grace, fall, and new grace.

This book begins with God’s grace as He paints a paradise and plants humanity in the midst.  Yet our forebears overreached and fell, weeping as Eden became a wasteland.  Yet God extended new grace, covering our shame in love and pointing to the day when all our sad stories will come untrue.

Or take Noah.  Noah was the only righteous man among peers as people took pride in enacting every evil desire.  So God judged the world in a flood, preserving Noah, his family, and a good deal of biodiversity in that floating safe haven.  Grace had given way to fall.  What would new grace look like?  In Genesis 8-9 we read of the ark settling on Mount Ararat, this strange parade evacuating the vessel to see a land decimated by (super-) natural disaster.  As they recalled what was, I’m sure that tears must have flooded their eyes.  Yet precisely at this moment of despair, in the wake of immense suffering brought about by broken humanity, God gives us a sign.  Whenever storm clouds gather, look up, for there you will see the rainbow—that even if life falls apart and flood waters rise, yet my new grace will preserve this beautiful creation in loving covenant.  The rainbow is what love looks like when it refracts through this planet’s collective tears.

rainbowNell was known as a woman of faith.  But this was not “faith in faith” or some subjective impulse to trust beyond reason.  Not at all.  Instead, my Nanna trusted in the one true God, who was able to take the worst suffering, and the greatest injustice, and turn it into new grace and hope for all humanity.  At the Bible’s climax we see God Himself in the person of Jesus, left high and dry as He opened His arms to embrace a world gone awry.  Love is cruciform.  And love is passionate, where passion literally means to “suffer with.”  So Nanna had faith in the God with scars.  When Nanna looked through tear stained eyes at the resurrected Christ, she knew all her sad stories would one day come untrue.  And the result was art fuelled by hope.

This is how ‘imaginative Nanna’ and ‘suffering Nell’ fit together as one.  Suffering can be redemptive: there are rainbows in the tears.  In my playful grandmother I’ve seen the vitality of a passionate God.  God has suffered much.  And yet He is ever young, always crawling through the garden beds of this world alive with wonder.  May we meet Him there?

29895-Respect-Your-Elders

“Superheroes” at Open Table

Friday 1 March 2019 | Open Table
SUPERHEROES

marvel_superheroes

Bring some mains to share, and come with a story to tell in response to the stimulus on the topic of SUPERHEROES

Who did you always want to be?
What’s your superpower? Or your kryptonite?
How do these strengths and weaknesses travel together
in a purpose-full life lived to “save the world”?

At Andrew & Liz Nichols’ house (155 Burbong St. Chapel Hill; call Liz on 0415624982 if lost!). Welcome from 7pm, official kick off at 7:30pm. Any questions before the night? Call/txt Dave on 0491138487.

Art     | “Bound,” a photographic contrast between Superman’s classic pose, and Christopher Reeve’s existence post-spinal accident, as captured in his books Still Me and Nothing Is Impossible. What-I-Learned-from-Christopher-Reeve

samson

Text & Reflection   |  Judges 16:1-31 on Samson’s strength and Delilah’s kryptonite, climaxing with his hairy demise and one last flex to bring the enemy down, saving the day.

Finally, Samson shared his secret with her. “My hair has never been cut,” he confessed, “for I was dedicated to God as a Nazirite from birth. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as anyone else.” … Then she cried out, “Samson! The Philistines have come to capture you!” When he woke up, he thought, “I will do as before and shake myself free.” But he didn’t realize the Lord had left him. (Jdg 16:17, 20)

Superdads-e1528783832164+++

When you were a kid, which super hero did you idolise?

Like many other little boys, for me it was Superman. He had the iconic poses, even as Batman won on the swagger stakes. Even today, as we’ve moved from idolising the good guy to empathising with the anti-hero, kids still hope for a hidden superpower, and role-play their mission to save the world.

Like this 5 year old I once saw in a shopping centre, decked out in a cape. As he walked over the in-floor ducted heating, this dead fabric animated, and for a minute he truly believed he was flying. Far from mocking, the adults paused and recaptured the wonder of when they too believed in a higher calling that lifted their mundane existence into the extraordinary.Slide11
As I shared at the Theologicon conference back in 2017 (video; manuscript & slides; 2017 & 2018 videos), children and adults alike are “story-telling animals” who make sense of their lives in light of a larger tale, archetypes, heroes and villains. As annoying as the cancer-like proliferation of Marvel and DC Superhero stories is, it fills a gap in a biblically illiterate age where neo-pagans have returned to terra firma for role models.

And yet, as Paul Armishaw demonstrated, characters like Superman are merely containers for our projections. They can illustrate humanity at its best on a good day, worthy of emulation.

superheroes in everyday situations

But on a bad day, they’re just like us: only more so. They, too, have clay feet and are prone–like Hawkeye–to unflattering comparison. They stumble and give into temptation when their kryptonite comes near. They disappoint and fall short of expectations when judged–like Superman–at the bar of popular opinion.

davebenson_emoticonWhen we build our lives around imperfect idols–emulating fallen gods, however noble and powerful–we become a caricature of ourselves. Old Man Logan is but a shadow of Wolverine. Superman can reduce to a helpless quadriplegic in the blink of an eye, for all our powers are derivative and contingent. We are all bounded: limited, biased, finite and fallen.

True knowledge of one’s self as simultaneously hero and villain, powerful and powerless, must precede flexing our muscle and taking on any mission.

With which superhero, then, do you most identify? What are your superpowers, and how has kryptonite taken you out? What mission do you see yourself on? Where do you turn for help when your back is against the wall? And who makes up your justice league, such that–when combined–what seemed to be disability transforms into strength?

justice-league-ht-mt-170822_4x3_992

As cliché as this segueway may sound, for all the poseurs and wannabe superheroes, there is only one Saviour of the world. And he looks positively unlike Superman in all his incarnations, or antihero Samson in his foibles. He veils his spectacular power, squeezes the power out of evil by his open-armed embrace, and destroys enemies by making them his friends. While Hollywood reversals are aplenty–the underdog unexpectedly rising to fight again–none has dealt with our deepest injustice and captivity, healing the darkest heart, and resurrecting from death to life to illustrate the new humanity.

No comparisons are needed. From a Christian perspective, Jesus sits unchallenged at the centre of the (post)modern pantheon. He offers to infuse his life into plebs weaker than Steve Rogers, empowering sacrificial heroes who never draw attention but love like their idol, captaining the human team toward flourishing without collateral damage caused by mindless violence.Slide34

So, what is this topic all about?

SUPERHEROES is an invitation to share a grace-filled meal and real tales as we plumb the depths of your alter-ego. Superpowers. Kyptonite. Heroes. Villains. Saving the world. It’s all fair game. So, what’s your story?

Looking forward to hosting you in our house, as strangers become friends.

heroes

 

Migration & Stability at Open Table

Friday 11 May 2018 | Open Table
MIGRATION & STABILITY

Australien Future 2017 oil on canvas 120 x 70 cm

Bring some soup, drinks or finger food to share, and come with a story to tell in response to the stimulus on the topic of Migration & Stability. This time we’re gathering at Noel & Deb Mostert’s (66 Fiona St., Bellbird Park [Ipswich]), so you can see Deb’s art studio and works. Call Noel Payne on 0412156772 if lost! Welcome from 7pm, official kick off at 7:30pm. Any questions before the night? Call/txt Dave on 0491138487.

Art     | ‘The flight begins’ (2018 oil on canvas 100 x 70 cm) … by Deb Mostert (fb here), to be exhibited in December 2018 as part of a larger series, “Australien Future: Tales of Migration” (Redland Art Gallery). Various other paintings by Deb are displayed on this page, to get a taste of her amazing body of work that persistently returns to themes of identity, place, baggage (!), and flight.

The flight begins 2018 oil on canvas 100 x 70 cm

Text   | Hebrews 11:8-16 on Abraham and Sarah, the Bible’s ultimate pilgrims setting out for God knows where as sojourners stumbling toward to the country God prepared for them. You might also want to check out the literally dozens of verses where God commands us not to “oppress the aliens [foreigners] among us”. Like Leviticus 19:33-34: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God“; or Exodus 23:9: “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.”
Video | Exile by The Bible Project. As the authors contend, “The exile was the watershed moment of the Israelites history on which the entire Bible gains its significance.”

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pilgrimWanderlust” [won-der-luhst]:
na strong, innate desire to rove or travel about. 1902, from German, literally “desire for wandering” (see wander + lust ).

Writing out of my privileged western context, I *love* to travel. To move about. To cast off the constraints of parochial existence and see the world. If anything, and as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove explores, I need to embrace The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting [My] Faith in a Mobile World.

Humans, after all, come from humus–Adam from adamah. We are earthy beings, groundlings even, who form our first language and primal identity in a particular place. There are no truly “global citizens”. We all come from somewhere, with its culture, food, likes and dislikes, indelibly imprinted on our soul, irrespective of wherever we may go.

Sticks and Stones - Migrant Bee Eater 2015 watercolour 46 x 61 cmThe desire to move about thus takes on a different hue when we consider mass migration in this era of the refugee. Unprecedented numbers of people are streaming across Europe, and occasionally reaching our shores, out of foreign cultures such as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Syria. While debates rage at “home” about what makes for a refugee as distinct from an “economic migrant”, this is hardly a case of wanderlust. The price paid is immense, to uproot from the known (however decimated it may now be), and set out to a new land without the money and language and networks to make any plans that guarantee safety, let alone a better life. Unsurprisingly, many of these children dream of returning to their homeland, and rebuilding what was to recapture their sense of identity and stability. (Take for instance, these Syrian children, interviewed by the International Catholic Migration Commission.)

museum

As Melbourne’s stunning “Immigration Museum” explores, our identity as “Australians” is an amalgam of colliding cultures across time. Various waves of Chinese, Greeks, Africans and now Middle-Easterners have challenged our sense of self, and in turn brought their gifts from foreign soil to grace our land. Indeed, with declining birth rates in Australia, we rely on something like the 190,000 annual migrants per annum to replenish our workforce and keep the country moving.

roots

I was reminded of this while enjoying the hospitality of Teddy and his team at Indooroopilly’s Gojo Ethiopian Restaurant. As beautifully depicted by Indigenous artist, Amarina (a member of arguably the only people who can truly call Australia “home”), Teddy’s identity is as blended as his Aterkek Alecha (vegetable stew).

cafe4

His powerful book’s title says it all: No One’s Son: The Remarkable True Story of a Defiant African Boy and His Bold Quest for Freedom.

No One's Son_Tewodros FekaduBorn in the midst of the Ethiopian–Eritrean Civil War, Tewodros “Teddy” Fekadu survives abandonment and famine as his family flings him unwanted across borders and regions, into orphanages, and finally onto the streets of Addis Ababa. Spanning five countries and three continents, the Catholic Church, and Japanese detention centers, this is a tale of defiance and triumph, and also of family love—unacknowledged by his wealthy father, abandoned by his desperately poor mother, Teddy is nurtured along the way by staunch individuals despite his ambiguous place in rigid family tradition: his father’s mother, a maternal aunt, a Catholic priest, and even his father’s wife.

Only after a lengthy legal battle was Teddy finally admitted to his promised land of Australia. And now he uses his considerable gifts to make amazing food, and produce movies telling stories of battlers like him, pressing on for a peace-full place in which to reside.

Ethiopian Abrahams Guests

This is not, however, simply a worldly tale of travel. Shaped by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Teddy understands his travails within the larger narrative of Abraham the pilgrim, welcoming our Triune God to dine at our table after the long and arduous journey from the perfection of Heaven to the dirty paths below (Genesis 18:1-15). As I explored in the Bible Society series “The Journey: Entering God’s Epic Story” (pp. 6-7 here), Abraham and Sarah were trained by a mobile God to set up and pack down at a moment’s notice, travelling light as sojourners who modelled the journey we must all make.

As with his Israelite spiritual ancestors, Teddy’s life is a tale of exile. Of uprooting one’s sense of self. Of grafting in, not so much to a new culture and context in another country, as to God and his gift from above that lies ahead, of the New Jeru-Salem: the city where we all walk in the way of peace, of shalom. No wonder God measures our love of Him by how we treat the least of these, especially the foreigner and the alien among us. All of this is less human accomplishment than a sacrificial gift given by the God-man, Jesus, who entered exile for us, and through whose death on a tree flowered life and re-entry to Eden, a place of paradise. For as Augustine averred, out of his own sense of lostness, longing, and even wanderlust,

Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest [its home] in thee.

first steps on Australian soil 2018 oil on canvas 100x 70 cm

To prime the pump, and get personal, consider the dimensions of your own migration and stability:

  • What was your first home, grounding your sense of self?
  • Where are your roots, and how have they formed your identity today?
  • Have you ever uprooted, and moved country and culture? What was disorienting, or life-changing about this experience?
  • What stories have you heard from migrants and refugees that make you reflect differently on our place?
  • Have you received hospitality when displaced?
  • Are you more prone to wander, or seek stability? Why?
  • What desires draw you on to new horizons, and how–if at all–does this tie into a larger, transcendent story of identity and place?

Let the conversation begin! … Bring food and a story to share,
and join us as together we explore MIGRATION & STABILITY as all our wanderings converge.

Posthumus family departure 1956 2018 oil on canvas 100 x 70 cm

Migration and Stability Opwn Book

Open Table on “Risk”

Friday 15 December 2017 | Open Table
RISK … celebrating incarnation

Video | I Can’t Believe He Jumped
Poem | The Nativity” (G. K. Chesterton)
Text | John 1:14 on Incarnation, and Philippians 2:5-11 on God’s self-limitation in Jesus

+++Feel free to skip below this meandering exploration of risk to the night’s details, or read on for some random thoughts that may spark a story you can share on the night+++

Christmas is a time of injury. Think free-time + new toys + instant crowd. Forget the kids. Picture that Aunty impressing the nieces on a Pogo-stick, or that dad showing his son how skateboarding was done back in his day. *Gulp*

hqdefaultAs one who loves rock-climbing, snapped his neck in a gymnastics accident, and still commutes on a motorbike most every day, I get this extreme sports high risk fixation. We want to feel alive … to free fall, and hopefully find a soft, immersive landing. Ta da! Sadly it only sometimes plays out this way. Understandably, we all have our limits. I’m comfortable weaving through traffic on two-wheels in the rain. But watching my 15 year old nephew pull a wheelie at 70km/hr on his dirtbike gives me the willies. And as for performing a ‘superman’ while launching off a ramp—I’ll leave that to motocross professionals.

So, when did you last task a RISK?

profit-loss-riskDefinitions vary, but pay attention to the valence. Risk has a negative aspect. It’s the possibility of loss or injury: peril; someone or something that creates or suggests a hazard. In other words, risk is the exposure to the likelihood of injury or loss; put simply, it’s a dangerous and chancy choice.

But, it also has a positive valence. From wiki’s fount of wisdom, risk is equally the potential of gaining something of value, whether that be physical health, social status, emotional well-being, financial wealth, or even friendship.

Think of how these elements map onto the biggest risk you’ve taken.

  • The Risk Taker: how did the risk taking impact you, mentally (fear?) and physically (fast, shallow breathing?), and how did you manage the stress?
  • Motivation and Reward: what drove you to take this risk, and what were you hoping to achieve on the other side? That is, what might you gain, and how valuable is it to you?
  • Who Is the Risk For? Is this an X-Games kinda’ risk, for personal thrill and glory? Or was this a noble Fire-Fighting kinda’ risk, for protection of the vulnerable and freedom for the oppressed?
  • Actual vs. Perceived Risk: What do you stand to lose if it goes wrong? And how probable is ‘success’? What is your knowledge of the odds? And must you trust only yourself, or others, in this faith-filled jump?

247264-Soren-Kierkegaard-Quote-Leap-of-faith-yes-but-only-afterIt’s no artificial segueway to see that this is now about that. This worldly risk is also about that greater good. As Søren Kierkegaard, the great Danish Father of modern existentialism, averred, we are all limited and biased, finite and fallen fleshly creatures. Life is fraught with risk. Beyond self-interested dares in our Red Bull age, we need courage for wings to fly. We are all faced with the choice to pull back from the edge, or take a whole-hearted “leap of faith”. Perhaps this jump is into the dark, or into the light? Reflect, to be sure, but then you must launch to truly live. (Or, in other parlance, run the numbers before undertaking risky business.) It’s trust, risk, fear and hope all rolled into one, a self-involving decision to go beyond the known and often put ourselves at the mercy of the elements and an uncertain onlooking crowd.

trinity-iconTurning to the biblical story, then, we might rightly wonder if the Triune God—Father-Son-Spirit—is prone to risk-taking? Can God even take a risk, given the above definition? If you hold to the medieval philosophical framing of God being, by definition, omniscient (all knowing), omnipotent (all powerful), omnipresent (everywhere), and ultimately impassible (unchanging, and therefore unaffected by what happens in our world), then you would have to answer no. God knows the outcome of every divine and human action, has the power to ensure all gain and no loss, is spiritual/disembodied posing no risk of suffering even if things went pear shaped, and thus experiences no pain or pleasure due to the actions of others.

If you’ve actually read the biblical story, you’ll rightly wonder about whom these descriptives apply. As Blaise Pascal penned in the inside of his jacket, discovered only on his death (see here), our fiery Creator is the “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars.” God is passionate, invested; God suffers with, ultimately for his glory but in a way that wraps us into the action as agents with a genuine role to play where all win or lose together. Still, is risk possible?

BradiBarth_TrinityCreationEveTest case: Creation. The all-sufficient Risk-Taker whose essence is communion, overflowed in the perichoretic dance to creatively birth the cosmos. The motivation was love, and the reward was shalom, weaving us together through right relationship with God, neighbour, self and creation, all pointing back to its transcendent source. The risk is for everyone, not simply God in a zero-sum game; holistic flourishing, like African Ubuntu, means “I am, because we are”—one interconnected fabric. There is genuine risk, for the outcome is open. Preservation of love requires the extension of freedom; the Creator gifts agency to creation, where humans can accept or reject the overture and subsequently screw up God’s good world. ‘Sin’ results in suffering and requires intervention to fix the mess.

So far, so good. And yet, apart from some process theology overlay where the Creator is within time and unfolding with creation, it would seem that God knows the actual risk. He is both sovereign and all-seeing. Short of coercing the outcome, God still stands apart from Creation, and can perceive where it will all go. Adam and Eve’s rebellion didn’t take God by surprise. Granted, it “grieved” God that we rebelled (Genesis 6). And yet, like a parent disciplining a child saying “this will hurt me more than it hurts you”, the watery punishment of Noah’s flood physically inflicted only flesh-and-blood creatures. For God had no skin in the game.

Mariama McCarthy_Beautiful JesusLike I said, though, Christmas is a time of injury.
It’s the time we remember the ultimate risk of incarnation.

As Eugene Peterson renders John 1:14,

The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.

dbeb4-img_9546The unlimited, all knowing, all powerful Creator, tied himself to matter and was confined to a crib in a baby’s body. God hurt. And forget those romanticised Christmas carols: “meek and mild, no crying he makes”. No, this was first century Palestine, no more peaceful than today (cf. here). If I was God, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t choose this time and place to be born. Forget the bright star and warm stable; this was a vulnerable adolescent mother out of wedlock bearing a child, heading to an outback census under threat of angry authorities wanting to keep their power. This was more like the war-torn grab in the stunning movie, Children of Men—a world ripped apart by violence over scarcity of resources and infertility, but gripped by the hope found in a new-born babe. Cease Fire! Would you risk incarnation if modern day Syria was the landing point?

As we read in Philippians 2:5-11, the uncontainable God “gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being [w]hen he appeared in human form ….” That’s kenosis. Theological minds boggle: in what sense and what way can God be limited and still, in identity, remain ‘God’? And yet, the point is clear. God, while sovereign, gave up his right to control the game. He was at the mercy of the onlooking crowd. This was the ultimate risk. No soft landing and immersive embrace on planet Earth.

2f53a-s0444002It’s captured well in the iconic Greek Orthodox painting “Slaughter of the Innocents”. Granted, the statistics suffer symbolic inflation over this feast honouring the “14,000 slaughtered children”. In reality, King Herod’s blood-lust cost around 40 baby boys their lives (cf. Matthew 2). The Christ was spared, thrust like a modern day political refugee to the relative “safety” of Egypt. And yet, the number represents the countless lives torn apart and destroyed by despots hell-bent on asserting their preeminence, especially standing against the Lord’s anointed (Psalm 2).

256035.pThe risk of incarnation led inexorably to the crucifixion, the final relinquishment of divine power, not for personal gain, but that all may be set free from the ultimate demonic despot, finding life in renewed relationship with God, neighbour, planet and self. Literally, this risk offered a sign, a fore-taste, of “peace on earth”. Kings in palaces were oblivious. But shepherds, simpletons, and wise magi prepared to travel got front row on the spectacle and angelic Hallelujah chorus (beautifully depicted in St. Paul’s Arts and Media’s 2010 “Christmas Story”).

This paradoxical risk and revelation is poignantly captured in G. K. Chesterton’s poem, The Nativity. He riffs off Isaiah 9:6-7, juxtaposing a helpless child with just and powerful rule.

1a2d94f9ba1e689ef24bf3e64fe225e8Transposed into the modern world, where facing today’s Herods requires the combined courage of Mary and the Messiah, Chesterton composed this poem:

The thatch on the roof was as golden,
Though dusty the straw was and old,
The wind had a peal as of trumpets,
Though blowing and barren and cold,
The mother’s hair was a glory
Though loosened and torn,
For under the eaves in the gloaming
A child was born.

Have a myriad children been quickened,
Have a myriad children grown old,
Grown gross and unloved and embittered,
Grown cunning and savage and cold?
God abides in a terrible patience,
Unangered, unworn,
And again for the child that was squandered
A child is born.

What know we of aeons behind us,
Dim dynasties lost long ago,
Huge empires, like dreams unremembered,
Huge cities for ages laid low?
This at least—that with blight and with blessing,
With flower and with thorn,
Love was there, and his cry was among them,
“A child is born.”

Though the darkness be noisy with systems,
Dark fancies that fret and disprove,
Still the plumes stir around us, above us
The wings of the shadow of love:
Oh! Princes and priests, have ye seen it
Grow pale through your scorn;
Huge dawns sleep before us, deep changes,
A child is born.

And the rafters of toil still are gilded
With the dawn of the stars of the heart,
And the wise men draw near in the twilight,
Who are weary of learning and art,
And the face of the tyrant is darkened,
His spirit is torn,
For a new king is enthroned; yea, the sternest,
A child is born.

r1303218_17851361And the mother still joys for the whispered
First stir of unspeakable things,
Still feels that high moment unfurling
Red glory of Gabriel’s wings.
Still the babe of an hour is a master
Whom angels adorn,
Emmanuel, prophet, anointed,
A child is born.

And thou, that art still in thy cradle,
The sun being crown for thy brow,
Make answer, our flesh, make an answer,
Say, whence art thou come—who art thou?
Art thou come back on earth for our teaching
To train or to warn—?
Hush—how may we know? —knowing only
A child is born.

manger-incarnation-nativityReturning, then, to our key theme, and inspired by Parker Palmer’s reflection below (cf. here): What dynamics underlay your greatest risk? How did it impact you, and who was it for? What values stood to be gained, or goods did you risk to lose? What motivated your leap of faith, and how well could you predict the outcome? … Taking it even deeper in this Christmas season, let’s put skin on it. What are you are willing to risk to embody your deepest values? Where do you find the courage to take on the risk of incarnation, embodiment, and sacrifice for the life of the world?

Let the conversation begin! … Bring food and a story to share, and join us as together we explore RISK taking as one of life’s great phenomenon.

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Open Table on “The Beautiful”

Friday 6 October 2017 | Open Table
on the theme of the third transcendental, THE BEAUTIFUL

Bring a main dish to share, and come with a story to tell in response to the stimulus below, at Nik and Dave Benson’s place, 152 Tanderra Way, Karana Downs, at 7:30pm. Any questions? Call/txt Dave on 0491138487.

Leunig_CellBeautyUniverse.jpeg

Art | Michael Leunig, Glorious Gravel [My title! Image above]
Text | Exodus 28: 1-5, 31-41 “Clothing for the Priests”
Extra | Plotinus (3rd Century BCE, Greek Philosopher) Enneads I.6 “On Beauty” (4 minute video grab or full text here, especially §3-4,6) OR Hans Urs von Balthasar excerpt on Beauty here.

What does beauty mean to you? And when’s the last time you used the word “beautiful”? As an adjective, it seems capable of qualifying almost anything. A beautiful … sunset, dress, speech, meal, painting, putt, mind, person. The list goes on.

Related imageIn delving into this theme, I discovered a Spotify playlist with 1.5 million followers entitled “The Most Beautiful Songs in the World.” And I stumbled upon “Euler’s Identity”, voted by physicists as “the most beautiful equation”. If you failed senior maths, this will strike you as bizarre. And yet, this formula is arguably beautiful as it travels together with truth—spirituality and science strangely coinhering—and it takes an exceptionally trained mind to see and appreciate a dance of complexity and elegance representing “some of the most profound rules that govern the Universe and everything in it.” This appreciation often travels together with cultivating a poetic or musical ear to discern acoustic order. For those lacking ears to hear or eyes to see, however, it’s almost impossible to define what makes it a thing of beauty, and ultimately—philosophically and theologically—what beauty means.

Simplistically defined, beautiful means “pleasing the senses or mind aesthetically”. Anything or anyone that can elicit this perceptual experience of satisfaction in another is labelled “beautiful”. Sounds like it’s more about the spectator, rather than a quality in the object itself, held to some higher standard. You know, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.

Image result for beautySearch “beauty” on google images, and you’re bombarded with breezy pictures of young women, often plastered with make-up and typically caucasian. No wonder singers like Christina Aguilera (“You Are Beautiful”) and Marilyn Manson (“The Beautiful People”) deconstruct the stereotypes which have shut our eyes to the diffuse beauty of a thousand flowers blooming in all shapes and sizes—rarely confined to what the market conditions us to consume.

Besides which, as we learn from stories as disparate as Shallow Hal, Beauty and the Beast, Shrek, and The Picture of Dorion Gray, physical and moral beauty in a broken world rarely travel together. The recently deceased Hugh Hefner may have surrounded himself with stunning Playboy Bunnies, but no one dedicates his eulogy to a beautiful life well lived among paragons of pulchritude. Bottom line: we must be cautious before reducing “beauty” to any one look.

Image result for beauty is not in the eye of the beholderAnd yet, these caveats fail to dismiss beauty as merely subjective. As Alain de Botton observes in his School of Life video, our language, photography and travel plans reveal amazing overlap in what images and destinations we find attractive; on the grounds of democracy alone, there seems to be something objective to beauty, which we ignore to the detriment of all. Which city needs another ugly concrete skyscraper? Beauty is intended to draw us onward and upward. In Dwayne Huebner’s words, it’s the “lure of the transcendent”.

Now, you could argue that this allure is simply explained by survival. Humans are like Bower Birds, seeking out beautiful blue objects to adorn our nests, even bodies, drawing a partner to propagate our species. And yet, the sheer excess—even superfluity—and diversity of beauty in our universe overflows such reductionism. Instead, it appears to point beyond itself to something that perhaps truly is “beautiful” in essence … an ideal, or form of sorts—even as I have some theological qualms with neo-Platonism as a Greek philosophy distorting Christianity’s affirmation of the material world as “very good” apart from disembodied ideas.

Image result for leunig starDespite our post-modern penchant for inverting age-old symbols, Michael Leunig suggests that the best “art … is not entirely of this world. … Perhaps it is a flight into beauty and eternity.” Rightly oriented, it is capable of directing our gaze heavenward, passing through and beyond our mundane material existence.

In the words of C. S. Lewis,

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Image result for leunig sun tvIn this same stunning essay, The Weight of Glory (1942), Lewis notes that beauty and “glory”, biblically framed, do travel together. (Or, in Jonathan Edwards’ theology, like flares from the Sun, we perceive beauty as an emanation from a radiant Triune source.) Far from trite conceptions of becoming “a kind of living electric light bulb”, our human longing for glory makes sense like our human fascination with watching the sunrise. Granted, it’s an imperfect sign. But it’s a faithful pointer to something more. Glory is “brightness, splendour, luminosity.” More than perceiving beauty, stimulating our senses, in a very real way we want “to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” And this process quite often passes through pain, being remade, reconstituted even by a reality beyond our control. Collateral Beauty may thus sneak up on us, shining through our darkest times of suffering.

Related imagePerhaps this is why we find truly “beautiful souls”—especially those who have emerged through struggle with battle-scars and yet a soft heart—so attractive? They graciously wear the virtues in which we long to be clothed. Thus the Bible persistently refers to putting on “the beauty of holiness” (e.g., Psalms 29:2; 96:9; cf. here), reflecting The Beautiful, being Godself. It takes a radiant character like Beatrice to draw damned Dante out of the Inferno and into Paradise. Similarly, our artwork, our creativity, even our fashion may in a real sense be drawing us to mimic and experience—albeit imperfectly like young girls smearing bright red lipstick on their face, yearning to be like their model mums—a beauty of character that is more than skin deep. We increasingly transform into the likeness of what we admire, imitating what we magnify and that upon which we meditate. In short, we become what we worship.

Maybe this is why God went to the trouble of prescribing Aaron’s outfit, as Israel’s High Priest, holy and whole in “glorious and beautiful” attire (Exodus 28)? Dressed in holiness we can see God; lacking the gracious covering of divine beauty, we risk being consumed in the encounter.

And thus we loop back to our original observation. Beauty can qualify most anything. But, like the 14th Century Italian employment of Botticelli to depict Fortitude, Beauty comes into its own when it illuminates virtue and aligns with the way God intended the world to be, “danc[ing] as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another” (von Balthasar).

Gifts Glittering and PoisonedNot all that glitters is gold, this is true. In the history of empire, circuses and spectacle have been used to deceive and poison the masses, obscuring the really real. “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting …” (Proverbs 31:30). And yet, gold does have a glitter meaningful in and of itself, pointing beyond to Beauty, perhaps even a transcendent source of unfading glory we call “God”. As the editors of the Kalos (Greek for Beautiful) book series aver,

[the beautiful] is the call of the good; that which arouses interest, desire: “I am here.” Beauty brings the appetite to rest at the same time as it wakens the mind from its daily slumber, calling us to look afresh at that which is before our very eyes. It makes virgins of us all, and of everything—there, before us, lies something that we never noticed before. Beauty consists in integritas sive perfectio [integrity and perfection] and claritas [brightness/clarity]. It is the reason why we rise and why we sleep—that great night of dependence, one that reveals the borrowed existence of all things …. Here lies the ground of all science, of philosophy, and of all theology, indeed of our each and every day.

photo-montage-1514221_1280.jpgBringing this wide-ranging provocation to a close, what story, person, experience or object from your life comes to mind when you think of beauty? When do you typically employ the qualifier, beautiful? And is there any sense in which you believe—or, better yet, have tasted—that your subjective encounter with beauty points to The Beautiful, as the third transcendental, travelling with her sisters, The True and the Good?

Let the conversation begin!

Open Table on “The Good”

Friday 1 September 2017 | Open Table
on the theme of the second transcendental, GOODNESS

Leunig Venerable Blessed Saintly CreaturesVincent_Willem_van_Gogh_022Art | Michael Leunig, “Venerable, Blessed & Saintly Creatures“; Vincent Van Gogh, “Good Samaritan
Text | Luke 10:25-37, “The Good Samaritan”

Good job! Good luck. Good night. All good. 

Looking good! Good pizza. Good wife. A good life. 

good thumbs upWhen a word can mean everything, it ceases to mean anything. So, what do we mean by “good”? In modern parlance, it’s highly malleable. For ancients, however, it was the second transcendental, alongside truth and beauty. It was the perennial quest for quality.

aristotleAnd yet, how do we measure excellence? Surely good implies its counterpart bad, and draws on some objective standard by which we judge? Good thus draws us deeper into questions of identity, essence, purpose, destiny/telos … some larger story heading either here or there, in which the part–whether a pizza or a person–rightly relates to the whole.

zen

Perhaps some quotes will sharpen the focus.

Let’s start with Robert Pirsig in his classic philosophical travelogue,  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Valuesexploring the nature of quality (goodness), of both machine/motorcycle, and person:

You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy.
Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally.

How about Uncle Jack (C. S. Lewis) … what wisdom can he offer? Especially given that he thinks good and bad, right and wrong, are a “clue to the meaning of the Universe” (watch his Doodle video here).

Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled. …
No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. …
There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him.

Finally, let’s get mystical with the unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing:

Genuine goodness is a matter of habitually acting
and responding appropriately in each situation, as it arises,
moved always by the desire to please God.

Image result for quotes goodness

So, this Open Table is dedicated to sharing stories sparked by this theme of “the good” … call it goodnesscharacterquality, the fullest expression of our essence and identity, a realisation of our telos … whatever you call it, come with food to share and a story to tell.

Who or what embodies this quality we call “good”, in a way that fixes your focus and calls you onward and upward? Join us and explore together one of life’s greatest themes.

 

(Post) Truth @ Open Table

manifesto for post truth artFriday 9 June 2017 | Open Table
on the theme of the first transcendental, TRUTH

 

In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries named “Post-Truth” (video here and here) their Word of the Year. Post-Truth:
adj. “
relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief.” In short, emotion beats truth.
posttruthSure, it’s associated with politics in this Trump-esque age of “truthful hyperbole” and rule by Tweet. And yet, it seems to be a “general characteristic of our age”. Art becomes propaganda, and we’re trapped in an infinite echo-chamber.

colbert truthinessStephen Colbert calls it “truthiness“: a claim grounded on nothing more than a feeling deep in our gut of its actual “truth”. (For Colbert, “post-truth” and “Trumpiness” is simply a contemporary rip-off of “truthiness” [5 mins on]), defined as “The belief in what you feel to be true rather than what the facts will support”. Social media opinions have swallowed verifiable propositions (see here, here and here), leaving us simultaneously sceptical of any truth claims and–without any recognised authorities nor clear criteria and character to search out what’s right–defenseless against unchecked spin. Who, then, to trust?

honestyOf course, this isn’t a new issue. Back in 1978, Billy Joel was already lamenting the loss of “Honesty” (lyrics here): “If you look for truthfulness, you might just as well be blind; it always seems to be so hard to give. … Honesty is such a lonely word. Everyone is so untrue. Honesty is hardly ever heard. And mostly what I need from you.”

At the philosophical level, then, we wonder: what is truth? Can it be discerned, and what are the criteria? Does intuition and gut instinct (a la Michael Polanyi’s “tacit and personal knowledge”) have a role to play? Is there even such a thing as “truth”, and “facts”, or is all we say simply subjective and language-bound? But in this Open Table night of sharing, we’re getting personal. With Billy Joel, we’re coming clean that “All I want is someone to believe.”

Ecce_homo_by_Antonio_Ciseri_(1)Who, if anyone, can you trust? What does it mean for a person to be “true”, even “The Truth” (cf. Jn 14:6)? Why extend this faith? On what basis can we have confidence that our deepest beliefs, or what another tells us, is actually “true” and worth believing, beyond the spin? And if we fail to trust anyone in our post-truth society, what is the personal and cultural fall out?

PostTruthPortrait_DoronNoyman2017Check out the stimulus below, and come with a personal story to share that embodies this quest for “truth” and someone to believe.

Art: Doron Noyman’s “Post-Truth Portrait” (2017) + Antonio Ciseri’s “Ecce Homo” (1871; the title means “Behold, The Man,” from the Latin Vulgate John 19:5, Pilate to Jesus]). You might also find stimulating Leunig’s cartoon “The Big Picture” (from his DVD, Melancholy)

Poetry/Song: Billy Joel’s “Honesty” (1978; video clip + lyrics)

Scripture: John 18:28-19:16 (esp. 18:33-38), as Pilate questions Jesus: “What Is Truth?” (Jn 18:38)

(And if you’re really wanting to delve deep into this topic, check out John Stackhouse’s 2014 book, Need to Know: Vocation As the Heart of Christian Epistemology, and Esther Lightcap Meek’s 2011, Loving to Know: Covenant Epistemology)