At a gathering recently I heard a rendition of Paul Kelly’s song ‘Meet Me in the Middle of the Air’. It brought back the moment, more than ten years ago, when I first heard Kelly sing it in a pub in Torquay, on the coast southwest of Melbourne.
It was the height of the summer holidays when I was struck down by a sadness I could not name. A rental holiday shack in Anglesea was not a convenient place for a dark night of the soul; it was crowded with the sleeping bodies of our teenagers and various friends bunking in on the lounge room floor. One night I ended up curled up in the car, weeping in the wee hours. In the morning, my bewildered husband suggested a drive along the Great Ocean Road.
Stopping at Airey’s Inlet, we discovered that the Eagles Nest Gallery housed a cheerful exhibition of artworks depicting lighthouses. At first, I was uneasy – lighthouses were under a kind of suspicion in my mind, associated in my childhood with a religious outlook full of certainty. Shaking off my resistance I entered the gallery.
The works were in wood, glass, oil, pastels, embroidery, charcoal and ceramics. Most were by local artists, with a connection to Airey’s Inlet. There were so many ways of seeing a lighthouse; some were straight and sure with the white tower of strength topped by the red cap of a lifesaver. Others were delicately drawn with architectural accuracy.
Playful lighthouses were surrounded by motifs of fish and flowers, some bending and scooping upwards in trajectories of joy, some standing firm above a flurry of waves. A single black and white photograph, magnetic to the eye, showed the small white pillar of a lighthouse, stark against the huge dark sky; one small vertical amid parallel lines of gathering cloud and billowing seas.
Unassumingly in a corner hung exhibit number one. A painting by Juri Tibor Novak. His picture suggested the lighthouse aloft. There in the small rectangular frame, the lighthouse was suspended in mid-air. It sat on a round foundation, a rock in the middle of the sky above the sea. It did not hover with uncertainty, it simply claimed the space and waited there, whimsical and solid, softly coloured above the flat horizon. Something expanded in me. The lighthouse aloft began to inhabit a space in my chest.
That same night we were booked to hear Paul Kelly back along the coast. The beer garden of the Torquay Hotel was packed with young people. The band and Kelly unfurled onto the stage. His darting head and silver shaved hair gave off a shimmer; with beetle black eyebrows he conducted the band and the audience.
We knew his songs, singing the words of ‘Deeper Water’ from start to finish. Kelly grinned to the band and immediately taught us a new song, complete with parts. We were in a pub with a bunch of 20-somethings and we were all singing the same song. Kelly’s pace was intense, no wasted moments. The songs themselves were spacious and resonant. I watched a couple in their 30s, entranced in the evening light, their faces utterly still with a peculiar expectant beauty.
At the end, the musicians re-grouped. Instruments aside they stepped forward, heads close around one microphone for the last song. Kelly sang the first line then sang it again as the audience settled into the surprise of a capella from a rollicking band of blokes.
All the more surprising to recognise the words of the 23rd Psalm. The words were familiar and re-cast all at once; the Shepherd, the pastures green, the valley of shadow, the cup running over. There was a new refrain running through: ‘I will meet you in the middle of the air.’ The old invitation was here offered with a new cosmology.
The songs met us in hope and in despair in ‘the middle of the air’. There was a space of yearning there. That space is where the artists, songwriters, and psalmists send us. That is the place we can be met.
At the end of the night, I returned to the tiny holiday shack. In my mind’s eye, the lighthouse hovered on its boulder over the flat horizon. I no longer felt alone in my sorrow. I felt I had been heard and met.
Reposted from Eureka Street.
All are warmly invited to join the Reconciliation Action Plan Committee at St Kilda Baptist Church to celebrate the annual Aboriginal art exhibition from Galiamble and Winja Ulupna.
The artists are currently participants at the local Aboriginal drug and alcohol recovery centres based in St Kilda – Galiamble and Winja Ulupna. This annual event offers the participants in these programs the opportunity to exhibit and sell their paintings. Artworks will be available for sale on the night at affordable prices (under $150) – cash sales only with all proceeds going to the artists. Sold paintings can be collected at the end of the night.
Your support is greatly appreciated.
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies, a South African-based open-access journal, has just published a little piece that I wrote:
‘“A Pretty Decent Sort of Bloke”: Towards the Quest for an Australian Jesus’. HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 75, no. 4 (2019), e1–e10. (HTML| EPUB | PDF)
From many Aboriginal elders, such as Tjangika Napaltjani, Bob Williams and Djiniyini Gondarra, to painters, such as Arthur Boyd, Pro Hart and John Forrester-Clack, from historians, such as Manning Clark, and poets, such as Maureen Watson, Francis Webb and Henry Lawson, to celebrated novelists, such as Joseph Furphy, Patrick White and Tim Winton, the figure of Jesus has occupied an endearing and idiosyncratic place in the Australian imagination. It is evidence enough that ‘Australians have been anticlerical and antichurch, but rarely antiJesus’ (Stuart Piggin). But which Jesus? In what follows, I seek to listen to what some Australians make of Jesus, and to consider some theological implications of their contributions for the enduring quest for an Australian Jesus.
The article can be accessed here.
I had thought the tangible empty
the tingling hint the yearning
for palm to palm – an absence
but I begin feel a whisper
Your whisper across my palm
where no other hand will fit,
no other can remain,
in intimate embrace
others feel Your grasp in
the clasping hands with an other, but I –
am I destined for a different
kind of intimate?
not sex not tawdry not ‘in love
with God My Saviour’
this taking hand in hand
I have known much longer
without name without voice
for what was clouded before
the forced withdrawal this fogged
fatigue demanded cleared
the way and now as once before
in darkness here we are
here with me You are here
the only one I never
turn away and is that not
the intimate, are You not
the one to hold my hand, the one
who will bear witness, and it has taken
me till now to truly shed
the story I’ve been told
that in that place can only
stand a human?
I hear another story
Hildegard, Julian, Thérèse
tell me another story of being one
whose hand is held by
Holy hand – and by no other
tell me now my story so that I
can feel the whisper
on my palm as Presence.
This formidable object was designed to be worn around the head. Called a branks or scold’s bridle, the manufacture of such headpieces arose in Britain from the 1500s and their use spread across Europe, until they were last deployed in the workhouses of the 1800s.
This object was designed as a form of social control through public shaming for those with wayward tongues, such as those thought to be gossips, those speaking insults or malice, or those who simply nagged or complained too often. The headpiece was worn as part of a public procession ordered by a magistrate. Many of these objects included a small length of metal that could be inserted into the mouth to firmly press the tongue down, so no speech could be uttered. In this state the wearer could neither drink nor swallow properly for the duration of this public parade of shaming.
In practice these scold’s bridles were used mainly on women. In this cultural period women were less able to speak in public or even to speak for themselves. This object was clearly designed to silence those women who had used their tongue to speak, and in speaking to assert any independence, wit, or wisdom that questioned the order of things.
Employing the tongue is a natural human response to dismantling pomposity and power. For subjugated people there is a tendency to speak otherwise, to find through scoffing, irony, or coded speech a means of asserting freedom from those who seek to enforce their silence.
This object is rather terrifying evidence of a form of control based on gender. One can only imagine the circumstances of the many women who would have been forced to wear this particular headpiece and their resulting public humiliation. In contrast to the forced silence this object threatens to achieve, there is a time for swearing, cursing, and cantankerous speech, especially if it is in the face of oppression and inhumane control. There is a time for tongues to be let loose. As the novelist Arundhati Roy (2004) states: ‘There’s really no such thing as the “voiceless”. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard’.
Reposted from The Visual Commentary on Scripture.
I am standing on the river flats of the Hunter River at Warkworth (-32.490620,151.028671: paddock reference). It’s a narrow flat valley slashed through with a slow meandering river resting in a deep sinuous trench. The soil under the drought-browned pasture is black. It crumbles easily in my hand. In the distance, there’s a mob of kangaroos grazing on the remaining plant roots. Across the river, there’s an old farmhouse that in times past belonged to a breeder of stock horses. I stayed there once as a guest but the family has long since moved out. Now it belongs to a mine with an overburden wall that rises up like a frozen tidal wave, forever threatening the house and the surrounding river flats.
Here, soil is a commodity. Soil is not as valuable as the coal that lies underneath it if we think in short term economics. But thinking intergenerationally, these black-soiled river flats should be preserved. One day, once again, humans may need them to grow food.
How shall I talk about the absolute importance of soil to human civilisation? Soil, along with air and water, is one of our most fundamental natural resources. Soil grows food for us and earth-others. It grows trees and grasses and fungi and a host of micro-lifeforms that we never see but are dependent upon to survive. A teaspoon of a well-cared-for soil can contain up to one billion bacteria, several meters of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes. Soil contains vast quantities of carbon and is a holder of surface water.
In the transitional zone between open-cut mining and rehabilitated post-mining landscape, soils are a carpet of hope rolled out to pacify the requirements of legislation. Mines managers assume soils will be resilient and cover up the mountains of Permian stone piled high. The small lives contained in soil often don’t transition well from pasture to the manufactured lands via heavy machinery, trucks, piles, bulldozers, and ploughs. It is asking a lot of one of our most valuable resources to cover up the sins of avarice.
Michael Northcott (theologian and ethicist) puts the problem this way:
… the earth and we are in co-creaturely relationship and … when we neglect the beneficence of God’s good earth and the prudential use of what God has granted to us, and subject nature … to our devices and desires, we not only frustrate the capacity of our fellow creatures to give God praise; we also put at risk the very services that the earth renders us.
Making earth bowls is a way of thinking about my ethical responses to soil use in a post-mining landscape. It is a way of thinking with my heart and not just my head. As I work with each Hunter Valley topsoil, I come to understand each as an individual, a special part of God’s creation. Each soil behaves according to its own chemical nature and historical past when I fashion it into a bowl shape. Some hold their shape, and some don’t; or perhaps, is it that some won’t? The agency (or will) of the soil is expressed by the way the bowl keeps form. Soils with good health often crack or crumble. Sad soils, those mistreated and overworked, stay where they are put.
Each bowl is made from a Hunter Valley topsoil, except for one. The grey bowl is mudstone doing its best to impersonate soil. It’s having trouble as it hasn’t been to the surface of the earth for 250 million years. Of all the soils, this one is the most sterile. This is the soil that will be found on the surface when we run out of topsoils rescued from mining. It is a legacy that our grandchildren will not thank us for.
So here is a question: What were those earth bowls doing on the altar? And on a white linen cloth? This is where you, the reader, come in. Art should make you question the world. Are those bowls made of dirt (plus all those beasties) that we should sweep out of the door and into the bin? Or are they made of soil that we should at least put on the garden, but really, they have no place in church? Or are they made of earth to be examined, to be questioned, to be listened to as earth-others?
These soils, full of tiny lives, are responsible for growing our food, making our air and storing atmospheric carbon. Our very lives as humans on the earth depend on them. By fashioning these soils into bowls and placing them in sacred places, I hope to remind us to honour the earth that we stand upon, that earth that speaks to us by pushing back at our feet. Soils deserve care and nurture, as they reciprocate to care and nurture us. Tangled in the web of earth understandings is a call to think about an intergenerational issue such as postmining land rehabilitation and building housing estates on prime agricultural soils. When we care for soils, we are in fact caring for ourselves and our descendants.