Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Hope, and faint, magic, light

A few weeks ago, my sister was visiting. She wanted to take the opportunity to try to see the Aurora Borealis – Northern Lights. So we went off on an adventure.

Sunset over Thurso Bay

Others will have done it differently, but we packed up our work and boarded a train through the highlands. As we marvelled at the wilds of Scotland we wished our dad was with us, for how he loves this countryside. A second train further north for the real adventure – chasing the northern lights. Would the weather be kind? Would the geomagnetic magic arrive at the right time?

We walked by the beach and across the river. We found gifts for friends far away but always in our thoughts, memories packaged, tangible connections to another part of the world.

We ventured out into wind and dark, and bitter cold us South Aussies are unaccustomed to facing. Truly our faces felt pulled from freezers, and our fingers – we couldn't feel them at all (gloves notwithstanding).

Finally on our fourth and final night there it was, behind the clouds that refused to part, and later into the morning of our final day, a hint, a glimmer, Aurora Borealis – nothing like the touched up photos on calendars, not as bold as it's been for our host at the lodge (Pentland Lodge House – I highly recommend!). But a shimmer in the sky hinting purple and green. And we got some shots of sunsets and stars and seascapes while we waited.

When I think back on these days at the tip of this small island home away from Australia for three years, I'll think of the retreat from the real world it was, the time out of time with my sister. The beach and the wild gorgeous landscape and those elusive lights of the north a backdrop to a moment, a shared adventure taking a risk on nature and hoping together. Worth it ? You bet. Nothing at all to regret.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Midweek Musing: Guest post. But still on storytelling.

This week's musing comes to you from Phil Ruge-Jones, storyteller and keynote speaker for this year's Network of Biblical Storytellers' Festival Gathering. Enjoy.

Thoughts About Living the Story

Storytellers nurture hearts of compassion. The unhardened heart is a host with arms wide open, inviting in friends and foes. Within its chambers are many acquaintances of forgotten names, and adversaries as well. They may be forgotten by the mind but they are kept in the body. The sacred story often summons this multitude and invites them to dine with us. Sometimes we dine laughing with friends remembered again ... or weeping with them. Sometimes we hear the story and find ourselves sitting at a banquet table in the presence of our enemies. And sometimes we discover among those adversaries our own former selves, the people we were at our worst, what we'd rather forget. In all these invocations, we are welcomed to reencounter our past in the presence of the sacred, and in sacred words picked up again, to reencounter the fullness of ourselves, and to drink with the saints from a cup that runneth over.
Phil tells the Gospel of Mark:

Register for the Festival Gathering here.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Midweek Musing: What might the Bible become?

I've just come home from worship with the community at Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh. Richard Frazer led worship and preached, and I heard in his reflections on the Sacred Story resonances with my own ideas, ideas that weave through my thesis. Here are some rambling attempts to bottle the good stuff I heard (Sunday 22 January).

What is most interesting about the Bible is what it is yet to become. Richard cited these words of another, and my heart said, yes! That is how a storyteller approaches the Sacred Story – seeking to discover what it may become in her as she embodies it, amongst the community as she tells it aloud, and in the listeners as they take it to heart. What will the Story become?

Those in power are right to be afraid, for the Bible has potential to become liberation when its stories are enfleshed in those who receive it. In so many places in the world, Richard told us, the Bible came with Empire. But within it, the Bible held a story of liberation from Empire (or many stories of liberation from many different empires, actually), so that when those who the Empire would oppress and suppress listen to the Story of God, inhabit it, and embody it, the story becomes empowerment, becomes resistance, becomes liberation.

I am mindful of those in positions of power (most of which would be enacted more effectively when remembering they are positions of service, but I digress) today who wield the Bible like a weapon to oppress. Look out! That Book holds stories that will be your undoing. We will take the Sacred Story and we will give it flesh, and you will see empowered people, resisting people, liberated people. Yes. Be afraid.

For we must attend to discernment, intuition and integrity, in our embodying of the Bible, our seeking for what it will become in us and through us. It is not a story of oppression, of division, of persecution (though, yes, there are stories of the ancient nation of God's people who do overcome their neighbours). It does not become a weapon and maintain its integrity as the story of God. When you use it like that, you have turned it into something else, something that it actually is not.

The hallmarks of the Bible in its various becomings are signs of grace and love; are citizens of the realm of God; are joy, forgiveness, elegance.

Fear. Greed. Arrogance. Not signs of the the Bible. Not hallmarks of the Story of God.

The Bible is a lens through which we begin to make sense of our lives. When it remains as fleshless, artless word it will bring us down. The Bible must be enfleshed in our living if it is to live itself; enfleshed with the secret life of the Spirit moving through it and through us so that we are participants in the story, and God's story becomes part of ours.

This was the enfleshed word this morning in the community of faith at Greyfriars, as our minister mediated God's call: What might the Bible yet become in you, and in me?

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Midweek Musing: preparing endings and beginnings

As you near the end of a PhD, not only are you writing and revising and editing and polishing to a deadline a rather large piece of work, but you have an eye to the future, and possibilities for employment.

And as I look at the possibilities, I begin to wonder if I might not be better off getting myself a husband or wife, who would be less interested in being a husband or wife and more a friend and sometime co-habiter, but primarily supporter of a wandering bard ...

Just a thought

In more serious moments, I scour the internet searching for academic postings in Australia, New Zealand, the UK & Ireland, Canada, (sorry, can't face the prospect of the USA right now), even French speaking Europe. New Testament, Old Testament, Biblical Studies, Homiletics. Teaching, research, post-docs, short term, permanent, casual, part time, full time. I found an interesting post-doc in Belgium, but the timing wasn't right. A couple of times a job has looked promising, but the theology of the institution wasn't a good fit. I haven't found much. Yet.

I also keep an eye on church placements, in the Church of Scotland and the Uniting Church in Australia mostly. I had thought I wouldn't go back to a congregation, but if the right one became vacant at the right time, perhaps I might. I don't see any placements that look like me or my particular call and vocation, so how do I adapt within something close enough? Do I need to find somewhere I can create something new?

I am a storyteller, poet, minister. The call is strengthening with each passing year into some form of bard-like resource minister for the church and the community through the church. In my more serious moments, and there are precious few of those as the late-PhD delirium sets in, I remain committed to searching for a post-PhD step in that general direction. I am grateful for the support and encouragement of friends, family and the sarah tells stories community in this time of discerning and waiting.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Midweek Musing. Joy.

My sister is here. Musing on that – no words.

but this is how I feel. full of joy. 

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Midweek Musing: What if Paul wrote to Jerusalem?

In December, I took part in a fun evening of presentations of supposed lost letters from St Paul. The five letters were subjected to voting from the audience to determine which among them was the real deal. Mine received the fewest votes, but don't let that put you off: plenty of people did express appreciation for its creativity and innovation. Perhaps it was a bit too clever. I had a lot of fun composing it, so as I commence a semester tutoring in a course on Paul and his letters, I share it with you now. First, the introductory story as to the letter's discovery, and then the short letter from Paul to Jerusalem. It will, I hope, provoke your own pondering on what Paul might have written to the church in Jerusalem before that fateful visit.

The manuscript I have been analysing is in pristine condition. However, it is not a first century manuscript. And the language, though somewhat foreign to an audience today, is not Greek – not to me, at least.

What we have here is a letter from 16th century Warwickshire, England, from a Catholic in hiding to his sister, containing his translation of a first century manuscript which he claims to have found with relics from an ancestor’s haul during a trip to the Holy Land. What this priest claims to have translated is a letter from the apostle Paul.

Evidently this Catholic in hiding had trained as a priest, but when slinking into the older, darker crannies of the family manor, came across relics and papers long forgotten. The circumstances of the ancestor’s journey into the Holy Land are unclear, but it seems there may have been a pair of brothers who participated in the crusades, only one of whom returned. Examination of several homes in Warwickshire, close to Stratford-Upon-Avon, has uncovered one particular family – who choose to remain anonymous at this stage – with stories and evidence of adventurous ancient ancestors and persecuted priestly predecessors during the first Elizabeth’s reign.

The letter in which the translation appears describes this priest’s delight at putting his Cambridge training to good use, and the assistance in rendering a polished translation that he received from a friend, a schoolmate from his Stratford days, staying with the family for a while.

But we are here to examine the Pauline letter, so I will not bore you with those superfluous details. Instead, I commend it to you as a faithful translation of the words of an apostle to first century Gentiles: the letter from Paul to Jerusalem.

Very small fragments remain of an epistle from Paul to the church in Jerusalem. The fragments have been preserved with a fuller manuscript of a translation that, by language and carbon dating, appears to have been made in the late 16th century in England; whether by scholars later in involved in the King James Version of the Bible, or some other writer is yet to be determined.

The Second Letter of Paul to Jerusalem

Paul, servant of our Lord, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, separated unto the Gospel of God,

unto the church of Christ which is at Jerusalem, to them that are sanctified in the Holy Spirit, called to be saints;
Grace and peace to you, from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

I thank my God for you, who art faithful unto our Lord Jesus, which is known throughout the whole world.

As you will, I trust, have heard by this time in my previous epistle, I have long yearned to be in your company once more, to be filled with the fellowship of brethren in Christ.

Circumstance demands a further brief epistle, for I have been delayed and will not be with you when I did anticipate. Our ship has run itself aground in a most impatient sea, that did roar and stir us from our sleep before putting us down upon some rocks. With fortune, we were not, ourselves, met with damage irreparable – not one among our number bore the mark of drowning and all are well enough. The upshot of our accident is that we are delayed for I know not how long. While I am in this port, however, I encounter daily the simple folk of this small, forgotten island, and find myself intrigued by their veneration of angels and other heavenly beings.

We have listened in wonder to their garbled insistence that it was spirits that hath caused the storm. It is their firm-held opinion that two angels forge a war of jealousy, and never meet on hill, in dale, forest or mead, or on the beached margent of the sea to dance their ringlets to the whistling wind, but with brawls disturb the others’ sport; the winds, as in revenge, then suck up from the sea contagious fogs; and even seasons, yeah the spring, the summer, chiding autumn, angry winter, change their wonted liveries so none can tell them from each other; such progeny of evils come, so say these island dwellers, from this foul dissension betwixt the heavenly beings!

If it were not for the contribution to the saints that I do hold in my protection, and the urgency I now feel, being at last upon my way, to deliver said offering unto its destination, I might feel myself compelled to stay a while among these folk, and proclaim the gospel among them, for surely they have heard it not.

However, it hath pleased them verily, the churches of Christ in Macedonia and Achaia to share with the poor among the saints residing in Jerusalem.

I appeal to you, my brethren, to humbly receive this gift when I at last deliver it unto you; with joy and thanksgiving for the love which hath inspired such generosity.

I will admit some sensation of anxiety as I prepared to make my journey unto Jerusalem, which abateth not, but rather grows, with this delay. The shadows here, the imagined dreamings of these unlearned folk, seem to offend; my slumber is weak and my hands are idle, though some assistance I could surely render to the repairing of the boat.

Great have been our differences, a seeming chasm betwixt your understanding of the gospel and mine own as pertains to its revelation unto the Gentiles. I have prayed with much fervour for the healing of the breach in our relationship, and am impatient to meet with you again, that we might give to each other our hands so we may be friends, to make amends unto each other. God will have mercy upon us all, for we are kindred, one in the self same Spirit of God.

Surely it is of God and through God, and to God, that all things hath being: to God be glory for ever. Amen.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Midweek Musing: storytelling is for us all

'Storytelling is for primary school children not university students' (from this article). MP David Davies' ignorance of storytelling as a fundamental element of human (well)being is precisely why we need positions like the advertised professor of storytelling at the University of South Wales.

Here is my response, from a storyteller who is both practitioner and scholar in the art of storytelling.

David Davies' view of storytelling as 'sitting around reading John and Janet books' is woefully ignorant of storytelling as both fundamental feature of human identity and communication, and of the craft of oral storytelling as a distinct performance art.

I see across the UK a rich culture of storytelling: it is disappointing that a servant of the country is unaware, and unappreciative, of that culture. Indeed, that richness is part of the reason I moved from Australia to the UK for my postgraduate research into the practice of biblical storytelling, with centres for and festivals of storytelling in many parts of the country.

The University of South Wales has a research centre devoted to storytelling. The George Ewart Evans Centre's storytelling researchers, teachers and practitioners are exploring the role of storytelling and story in healing, for example, in conjunction with medical practitioners and researchers. It is from the medical world that the Centre defends the centrality of story in human interaction, as both doctor and patient have a story to tell, may even be understood to be engaged together in working through the conflict or challenge element of a story to help the hero or heroine of the story (the patient) move towards their goal of health and wellbeing. (A story or narrative may be understood through analysis of its key elements: character, plot, setting, and conflict). (I attended a conference on story / narrative several years ago, at which practitioners from many disciplines told their stories of the gift story and storytelling was in their fields – read some of those stories here.)

Davies' suggestion that storytelling be left to the likes of Dickens and Rowling not only misunderstands storytelling, but undermines the value of Dickens and Rowling and their stories. What joy, community, healing and education have been brought about through the Harry Potter stories? Immeasurable. What understanding of a certain era of English life has been painted in the mirror Dickens holds up in his stories? Immeasurable.

To suggest that storytelling is for primary school children rather than university students first establishes a hierarchy in which younger children are somehow less than university students (an assertion I reject, but which would take another blog post to discuss), and second assumes that storytelling is something one grows out of as one matures. I think we might find, however, that it is story that helps us mature; story that helps the individual to know themselves, and the community to understand, observe, and shape their identity together as it evolves. What are our rituals of war and peace commemoration if not the telling of the story of courage, of loss, of hope for a better future? What are museums but installations telling the stories of migration, innovation, evolution, creation? What is the recounting of one's day with friends or family members but the telling of our own story and stories, seeking to find meaning within and through them, to connect, and in being heard, to be affirmed and nurtured towards wellbeing?

Therein lies the most profound gift of storytelling: its mutual encouragement of wellbeing. The teller gives a gift with their story, sharing wisdom and experience through which to make meaning, and the hearer receives this gift of story and encouragement. The hearer gives a gift with their listening, creating a welcoming space in which to hold the teller safe and affirm them as of immense value; what a gift the teller thus receives, nurture for their very being. (I say more about this in my TEDxAdelaide talk of 2013)

Something special happens in the live, embodied sharing of stories with each other. Books are wonderful portals for the imagination; movies and television too. But live, embodied, presence with each other, the voice, the emotion, the moment: this - this - is the connecting of humans with each other, the bringing of stories together to create another story, the story of this moment, here, when we were together, laughing, crying, afraid, amazed, inspired.

I tell the stories of Jesus fairly often: he was a teller of stories, too, with people gathered together, welcoming each other, sharing space and breath and moment. Why? Because in the stories they find themselves. In the stories, they encounter the Sacred Source of Life. In the stories is space to co-create the story and to thus discover meaning that will transform and lead to healing.

Storytelling is not 'just' anything. Not 'just' for one section of humanity. Not 'just' entertainment. Not 'just' airy-fairy nonsense from cuckoo land.

Storytelling is the very fibre of our human being. May the work of centres such as the George Ewart Evans centre at the University of South Wales continue to tell that story, so that we may know more fully, and may become, the best of who we are.