Healing gardens

For a while now, I’ve been interested in gardens as spaces for meditation and prayer, and in how we can intentionally design gardens for those purposes (especially church gardens, which we can then keep open to the general public, and provide them with a gentle invitation to these disciplines).

As I was meandering around the web this afternoon, I came across the slides for a lecture on “Healing Gardens in Hospitals” as part of a course in hospital architecture.  This was not exactly the same thing as I’d been thinking about, but nor was it unrelated, so I was interested enough to go through the slides and see these principles put forward (the headings are my own way of organising the material):

Spiritual considerations:

  • A connection to nature has been shown to have positive influence on health outcomes (physiological and psychological).
  • Plants with distinct seasonal changes can invite a range of responses and reflections.  Trees can provide metaphors of solidity, strength and permanence.  Annuals can provide metaphors of growth, budding, blooming, seeding, decay, death and transformation.  Perennials can provide metaphors of persistence and renewal.
  • If there is potential for a good view beyond the premises, seek to construct the garden to incorporate it.  People often find a wider view helps them focus less on their troubles, and find a wider perspective.

Practical considerations:

  • Well-designed gardens can become not just an adjunct to the hospital, but a place which is used for various types of therapy (an integral part of the treatment model).
  • The garden could also become a “needed retreat” for staff, helping them to manage the stress of their work.

Physical considerations:

  • Accessibility is key!  People of all ages and abilities need to be able to enter and move around the garden.  Paths should be solid, smooth and wide enough for two wheelchairs to pass.
  • The garden space could be used in ways that ranged from relatively passive to quite active.  The well-designed garden needs to cater for viewing from inside, sitting outside, rest/meditation/prayer (I guess they mean sitting quietly here!), gentle exercise, walking, eating, reading and paperwork, playing (referring particularly to children), sport, and.. even gardening.
  • Quiet is important.  Thought should be given to noise levels and screening of intruding noise, and the creation of natural sounds (water, birdsong, rustling leaves etc).
  • Levels of greenery are also important.  More vegetation helps to awaken the senses, calm the mind and reduce stress.  Planting design should be intricate, detailed, and appeal to all the senses.
  • Furniture should be comfortable and not cause strain, including when shared.
  • Our connection with nature can also be cognitive.  Plant labels can engage our attention and stimulate conversation.
  • Water can be helpful.  Views of still, reflective water and the sounds and views of moving water are engaging and soothing.  Water also attracts wildlife, adding to the diversity of the garden and providing a sense of the breadth and continuity of life.
  • Give thought to shelter appropriate to the climate, to make it possible to use the garden for as much of the year as possible.

Emotional considerations:

  • The psychological process by which a person is helped by being in a garden includes the journey itself, sensory awakening, personal centreing, and spiritual attunement.
  • The positive outcomes of a garden were strengthened if they were accompanied by social support and a sense of autonomy in one’s situation.  A well-designed garden can enhance the sense of autonomy of visitors to it by giving them a choice of spaces, seating and activities (this can be as simple as making sure that furniture can be easily moved, and providing spaces which are more open and more enclosed, more secluded/private and more social, more sunny and more shaded, etc).  Providing a range of options in the garden can also ensure that it invites exploration and does not become boring.  Opportunities to personalise or contribute to the garden in some way (eg decorating a tile for a wall) can help to build a sense of ownership as well.
  • The garden should match the culture of the people who use it (garden design, plants, detailing, furnishing etc).
  • Ambiguous or abstract features may be perceived as fearful or threatening (even if the designer had no such intent) and should be avoided.  What might be appropriate in other contexts may not be so appropriate here.  Art should be unambiguously positive.  The inclusion of inspiring statements etc can be beneficial (but should be carefully selected for the context).

There seems to me that there is a great deal here that we could carry over into thinking about our church gardens.  What if we intentionally designed our garden spaces to help people connect with God through nature?  What if we invited people to use those spaces in ways which complement and extend what we do inside our church buildings?  What if we took seriously issues of accessibility, providing for a range of activities, and the sensory experience of people in our gardens?  What if we found ways to build social support into how people engaged with our gardens?

And there are other questions, not touched on in this lecture but to which we might also want to give thought.  How can gardens become teaching resources?  (I remember a quiet afternoon when I was in college, in which we were given a series of meditative exercises as we walked through the Fitzroy gardens and reflected on what we encountered there.  It would not be difficult to do similar things on a smaller scale).  What other needs in our community can a garden meet?  Can our garden become part of wider conservation efforts?  And so on.

Brother Roger, who founded the community at Taizé, is reputed to have said that when the church becomes a house of prayer, the people will come running.  He has been shown to be right in the experience at Taizé, to which thousands of young people now flock every year.  What if we asked how our gardens could further our mission, and designed them for that?  The resources to help us do this better are out there; surely we should take them seriously!

Easter Baptism

This is a sermon for Easter day, given in the “church next door.”  There was a baptism at this service, and the sermon is really an extended reflection on the baptismal liturgy.

It’s a very big thing to bring a child for baptism.  In a moment Zalen’s parents and godparents are going to be asked some serious questions, and we are all going to together reaffirm our common belief in the Christian faith.

You might be forgiven for wondering why we do that; after all, Zalen is just a baby, he doesn’t understand yet what we are doing, and he won’t remember it when he’s older.  Is it worth doing this in a way which makes it seem exclusive or difficult?  I’ve heard people make that kind of comment about baptism services before.  Perhaps similar thoughts have occurred to some of you.

But I think that kind of questioning comes from a place of not fully appreciating what’s at stake.  If all this were about was making Zalen a member of the Christian “club,” allowing him to be one of “us” instead of one of “them” – however you define us and them – then the only generous and hospitable thing to do would be to make baptism as easy as possible.  No promises, no affirmations, just a quick dunk and you’re in.  Let’s all go eat.

But on this day, perhaps more than any other day in the Christian year, we remember that there is so much more than that at stake.

Zalen is coming this morning to be made a member of the church, a part of the body of Christ.  Baptism is all about belonging, not just to a social club, but to a spiritual reality which has the power and the potential to totally transform each of us.  Christ rose from the dead, and his resurrection redefines the horizons of human potential forever.

When we say that we “turn to Christ,” there is so much wrapped up in that phrase.  We are saying that we want to live a life in which evil and hatred have no permanent hold on us; a life free of crippling guilt and shame; a life in which we can walk in joy and hope and peace; a life, in short, in which we can experience something of heaven on this earth, and we know the companionship of the creator of the universe.

We are saying that we acknowledge that there is more than one way to be, in this life; that good and evil, light and darkness, are real; and that we want to, as best we can, align ourselves with what is good.  And that we want to incorporate ourselves into a community which has made the same commitment; a community which can offer us support, encouragement, teaching and enrichment, and in which we can also make a contribution and play a part in supporting, encouraging, and enriching others in turn.

That’s what Zalen’s parents and godparents are seeking for him in bringing him to be baptised today.  They are seeking the active involvement of the Holy Spirit in Zalen’s life; that God might be at work in his heart from today, helping him to grow in love and generosity and kindness, and looking outward to how he might be of service to others.

These are not small things in the development of a child.  They don’t happen by default.  They need to be approached intentionally, carefully.  Of course, good parents of all faith positions and none will seek to raise good, moral children, but this is about more than that.  It’s about seeking for Zalen a life which will be profoundly shaped by the One who created everything that exists, and who so desires intimate, loving relationship with those He created that he was willing to become human, to suffer and die, to make that relationship a living reality.

And part of that relationship with God means knowing and being a part of God’s people, because the Holy Spirit isn’t given to us each individually just for our own benefit, but so that we can be integrated together into a community; a community which looks outward with passion and purpose towards the world which God loves.  In baptism, each of us brings something uniquely valuable to that community; each person is irreplaceable, and when one of us is not here, we are all diminished.

(And I don’t mean that just in the sense of “not attending services” as if the sum and point of being a Christian were being in a pew on Sunday morning, but a broader sense of active participation).

This is what it means to fight the good fight; to seek after truth and accept no imitations or substitutes; to have the courage to grasp the vision of what God’s reign can mean for human life, and to work towards that at every opportunity; to learn to embrace the value of human flourishing above self-gratification.  To come to the end of life knowing that you’ve lived it with integrity and kindness and finished the race well, open to the glory of God wherever it may be found.

These are big things.  Sometimes they are hard things.  Sometimes they are costly.  But this is the vision and the set of values to which the church is committed and constantly recommits itself, even though we understand that we can never live up to it perfectly.

And that’s why the serious questions and the affirmation of faith.  Because they spell out and help us all to understand what it is that we are seeking to be part of.  They help us to integrate God’s vision for us more firmly into our own identity.  And they help us all to know what is at stake when we come to the font; not just some empty words.  Not just a feel good moment of celebrating a new life (although there is something of that).  But our own inheritance in the kingdom of heaven; an inheritance which comes with both blessings and responsibilities, to God and to one another.

This morning, as we celebrate the resurrection, and as we celebrate a baptism, we know that the kingdom of heaven has come near.  It opens us up to new horizons of possibility and makes available to us profound reserves of love and hope.  And it is to this that we come, open and trusting, and ready for new beginnings with God.

Two truths

This is a sermon for Good Friday, given in the “church next door.”  The Scriptures it references is John 18:1 – 19:42.

What is truth?

Pilate’s question, as he interrogated Jesus.  What to make of the man in front of him?  What to make of the infuriating rabble outside?  What to make of being the Roman official in this sun-crazed backwater of the empire?  I’m sure he wished all of those questions would go away and leave him in peace, without having to try to grasp the truth.

We have our own wrestling matches with truth, too, don’t we?  We live in a society which tells us that truth is relative, that there is nothing which is objectively true, only subjective constructions which belong each to the individual mind.  That when we seek after something greater than ourselves as arbiter of truth, we are deluded.

Perhaps that’s the sort of thinking that allowed Pilate to wash his hands of the whole affair.

But when we look at the cross, with Jesus hanging on it bloody and beaten, we are confronted with two truths which, if we let them, can shape us profoundly.

The first is the truth of human sin.

We don’t like to talk about sin very much; it’s gone out of fashion, even in the pulpit.  But the fact of the matter is that we are each of us born into a world of broken relationships, of marred human dignity, of bound potential.  We each of us grow into that world, shaped by it, and by our own efforts we cannot entirely overcome it, although stories of human courage and strength abound.  In our struggle for survival we propagate that brokenness, that fallenness; and our best efforts fall short.

If we look that truth squarely in the face at no other time, surely we can look at it on this day.  See our potential for inhumanity summed up for us in this act of brutality in defence of power.  Ask ourselves the hard questions about where our own sin plays out.

But there’s another truth on display for us; the truth of divine love.

This is the length God will go to for us.  This is how much we are not alone; how much we are not abandoned; how much God has not given up on us.  God is able to absorb every bit of our capacity for evil and still have reserves left over to offer us a new beginning.

God is able not just to look our sin squarely in the face, but to bear it in the flesh; in the very human stuff of bones and muscles and nerve endings, and to still hold out the possibility that there might be more to us than this.  That we might be worth enduring all of this for.

Two truths; human sin, yes, but also divine love, demonstrated by the God who didn’t hold back from the extremity of death for our sake.

The God who created us, will go to absolutely any lengths to untangle us from the mess we’ve made of it all and create, with us, a new beginning.

John’s gospel uses the word “glory” for the crucifixion.  It wasn’t glorious at the time.  But in what it accomplished, in what it holds out for us today and until the end of time, there is great glory.

Two truths.  Human sin and divine love, both shown in the glory of the cross.

Come, let us worship him.

Vulnerable discipleship

This is a sermon for Maundy Thursday, given in the “church next door.”  The Scriptures it references are Psalm 116 and  John 13:1-35.  

Recently I was chatting to a friend who was unsure what to expect at a Maundy Thursday service.  She wanted to know, what was this about foot washing?  I explained it to her and encouraged her to keep an open mind about having her foot washed; to which she responded that she was inclined to keep an open mind and a closed shoe.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if we find that people still squirm at this.  After all, in our reading this evening Simon Peter took some convincing.  It’s fair to say that he was probably coming from a different place; after all, foot washing was an everyday occurrence in his culture.  His context made him embarrassed, I imagine, and very uncomfortable to have someone so respected doing something so menial for him.  As if, perhaps, the archbishop dropped by my place unexpectedly and did the dishes while he was there.

But while Jesus, in doing this, set us a high example and one we do well to imitate, I wonder if sometimes loving others isn’t what we most need to be reminded of.  What about our need to allow others to love and serve us?  This can start to seem threatening.  Allowing others to genuinely make a difference often means making ourselves vulnerable to them; allowing them to see and touch parts of our lives that are painful or difficult, or of which we are ashamed.  Far easier, often, to keep one another at arm’s length; to allow the boundaries of our relationships to be set by our fear and distrust.

It seems to me also that we can fall into this same mistake with God.  That in our awareness of failings and shortcomings, we fear that God will reject or deal with us harshly, or that the change God might call us to will be impossibly difficult for an imperfect person.

But here is the question; kneeling at Peter’s feet, do you imagine that Jesus was rough?  That he was careless of the pain of blisters, from the miles walked following him?  That in removing sandals, he was heedless of tired and aching muscles?  Do you think that in washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus showed us a harsh God of tough love?

Or do you see in your mind’s eye, hands working with gentleness and consideration, which eased discomfort?

Because I’m convinced that the character of God is to be gentle and encouraging with us, as much with our hearts as with the disciples’ feet so long ago.  Isaiah describes God’s servant as one who will not break a bruised reed.  If we feel bruised in heart, he will not break us; it is instead by the bruises he chose to bear, that we are healed.

I’m reminded of an acquaintance of mine, a psychologist who happens to see a lot of Christians in her practice, who told me once that she sees more new clients in the week or two after Easter than at any other time of the year.  That surprised me, but it shouldn’t have; in commemorating the events of Easter, we can allow the gospel story to interact with our own story; to touch our vulnerabilities and our tender spots; even to open places which need healing.  What the psychologist told me is an enormous testimony to the fact that the gospel matters, and that what we do in our life together matters.  It’s worth taking seriously and engaging with at depth.

The Psalm this evening asked “How shall I repay the Lord for all his benefits to me?” and answered the question with images of Jewish temple worship.  For us, for whom there is no temple other than the community of believers, Jesus’ actions offer a different set of images to fire our imaginations.

In this now unusual ritual action of foot washing, we have an opportunity to prod the limits of our comfort zones; to try out, in a safe space, what it might be for us to be open to the service that both God, and our brothers and sisters, offer us in love and gentleness.  We are built not to be alone but to be in community with one another, members of the one body, with Christ at the head.  Discipleship, in the way that Jesus demonstrates for us, is not individualistic, with each person in his or her private relationship with God through Christ.  Rather, discipleship is lived to the full in the life of the community.  In this community and its dynamics of love, disciples are drawn into the life of heaven; into that realm of truth, love, and beauty which is the dwelling-place of Father, Son and Spirit (themselves a community with an inner dynamic of love).  If we choose not to engage in that relationship, not to allow ourselves to be sometimes vulnerable, I suspect that we choose to keep at least part of ourselves in the darkness of the grave, rather than letting the light of Easter shine into all parts of our lives.

Now, this isn’t something that comes to us instinctively.  It needs to be learned (indeed, to be a disciple is to be one who learns).  Discipleship is always a process of learning, a gradual process of conversion, of being lead from one vision of reality to another.  When God offers to teach us, to allow us to learn from him, we are invited into a relationship; and even when we struggle and misunderstand, that is met with kindness and openness.  It’s only when we assume we have no need to learn that we have abandoned the path of discipleship.

So let us, this Easter, remember to love and serve one another.  But let us also be open enough, trusting enough, to let others reach the tender places in our lives.  Let us learn to be vulnerable with God.  Let the experiences of Easter sink in past the surface layers of our lives and speak into the core of our beings.

Lord, are you going to wash my feet?

At the gates

This is a sermon for Palm Sunday, given in both the “church up the road” and the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Luke 19:28-40.  The traditional service for Palm Sunday begins out of doors, with the people coming into the church with palm branches and crosses in triumphal procession, and this custom is referred to in the sermon.

Each year I find myself thinking that Palm Sunday is the one occasion in the year that the church really “does” irony.  This morning’s tradition, of carrying palms in procession, goes back to the very early church in Jerusalem, who would walk into and through the city gates at the beginning of Holy Week, strengthening their sense of personal connection with the events they were about to remember in worship.

Half a world away, and centuries later, at the beginning of Holy Week, we also come to strengthen our sense of personal connection in worship.  We place ourselves with Jesus before the gates of a city. We place ourselves among the adoring crowds at the triumphal entry, but we don’t share their innocence.  We know, with a sick feeling in the pits of our stomachs, that all too soon it will go wrong, and end so utterly badly.

We know that once we have entered we shall be swept up in events that we cannot control and that will bring us to the very edge of what we can bear, as we walk with him to Calvary and the tomb. This week tells us that God is able to change everything about us – our fear, our sin, our guilt, our untruthfulness. But to receive that change in the actual circumstances of our lives asks of all of us such a revolution in our hearts that we are stunned and frightened at the thought.

As believers and as human beings, we live at the gates of a city; what Augustine would have called the “earthly city;” a city where so many sufferers are silenced and where so many innocent on all sides of terrible conflict are killed and their deaths hidden under a cloak of angry, selfish, posturing words, whatever language they are spoken in. We know that in this earthly city, trying to live by faith, hope and love leaves us looking pretty helpless. And we also know in our hearts that so much of what fuels the violence is in ourselves too: the passionate longing never to be a victim, the hunger for security expressed in the ownership of the land, the impotent near-mindless fury that bursts out and brings destruction to so many. We know the urge to defend what can’t be defended because we can’t lose face. We are, by our human nature, citizens of this earthly city.

Yet, that earthly city – that city which puts refugees in concentration camps, which allows systems of slavery to flourish to produce its consumer goods, which spends its wealth on weapons of war rather than investing in human flourishing – that city of which we are citizens is also the place where, if we are willing, God works transformation. Jesus does not steer us away from the gates and send us back into the holy silence of the desert or the peace of the countryside. He keeps us close to him as we stand at the gates, and he tells us that these are also the gates of heaven. If you recognise your involvement and prepare to walk with Jesus into the city, to the cross and the tomb, there is a joy and a mystery at the end of the path, because it is inexhaustible divine love that walks with us. We stand not just at the gates of the earthly city, the great city where the Lord was crucified, but also at the entrance to the heavenly city, the city of God.   At the end of this week’s story is the garden of resurrection, where our wounds are healed but not hidden away.

Are we willing to move towards that garden, learning the mind of Christ? It probably means an infinity of small gestures that won’t be noticed (much less praised by others); tiny personal admissions that we cannot live forever in isolation, pride or unforgiveness.  It is those actions – everything we do, no matter how small, which acknowledges the worth and dignity of another human being – which will finally bridge the gap between vision and reality, creating the heavenly city in the midst of the earthly one.  That insistence on refusing to compromise the regard in which we hold one another, because we have come to see the depth of the regard in which God holds each of us, is what will finally bring reconciliation and healing.

Standing here this morning, we can see the possibilities. By faith we know that we can enter with Jesus and walk with him to his garden of new life. But that sick feeling in our stomachs at the fickle acclaim of the crowds reminds us of another set of possibilities; our own potential for cowardice, for self-interest, for weakness.  We know that we could find ourselves caught up in the murderous crowds, and, at the end of it all, find ourselves with empty and even blood stained hands.

This week, if we enter into it fully, will take us on a guided tour of all of this.  We will see and hear things we don’t want to, and at the end be surprised that apparently, despite it all, God hasn’t given up on us.  The challenge to us is to not let the irony of Palm Sunday turn into cynicism, but to let it help us develop a kind of double vision; one which always sees God’s possibilities overlaid on human realities.

Or we can stay at the gates, unwilling to commit ourselves because we know that as soon as we enter there will be trial and suffering; but if we stay there, we shall never reach the heavenly city. How much do we want to be there, where God walks with us again?

As we enter Holy Week, we reaffirm our desire to walk with God, whatever the cost. We pray that God will raise up communities whose vision of this is clear, who look to One who has cleared the way for us not just back to Eden but forward to the heavenly city in which the nations are healed and strangers live gratefully together. The gates are before us, and they stand open. Let us with Jesus prepare to go through, to walk with him to his cross and his resurrection.

On the radio

I’ve been on leave for the last two weeks, so not preaching and my blog has been quiet.  But one thing that did happen during that time was International Women’s Day.  And in honour of that, I was asked to be the guest on a radio programme discussing “Feminism and the Bible.”

The podcast can be found here:  http://joy.org.au/spiritlounge/2016/03/international-womens-day-special-bible-women/

To give a bit of context, this was broadcast on a community radio station which is intentionally GLBTIQ friendly.  I realise that many Christians are uncomfortable with such a stance, but my point of view is that I will talk about the Bible with anyone, anywhere; and with a potential audience of over 300,000 listeners, a radio station such as this lets me be heard by far more people than would typically be in church to hear me preach on Sunday!

A format such as this is difficult, because time is limited and none of our discussion points had as much depth or breadth as I would have liked; but if nothing else I hope that listening to this discussion encourages people to explore further, and not to write off Christianity (and ultimately God) based on a stereotypical view of Christians.

One disappointment was that originally, I was not to be the only guest, but there was going to be a Rabbi (a woman) as well.  But sadly she was not available and we missed out on what she could have contributed to discussion of the Hebrew Scriptures.