Ouches That Help

Thomas Paine; a painting by Auguste Millière (...

Thomas Paine; a painting by Auguste Millière (1880), after an engraving by William Sharp after a portrait by George Romney (1792) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Not everyone wants to avoid, or cease, pain.  I think Father Peter Damian understood, (and I would know); but The Buddha not so much.  Some people crave pain because pain is safety.  If you have no feeling then you can have no reactions.  If you have no sense then you have no sense, and common sense is not common to all.  How dangerous is this stove-top?  What does “ooh careful sweetie, that’s hot” mean if you’ve never experienced a burn?  What if the only indication that something is wrong is not the blazing agony of nerves screaming blue bloody murder at three degrees of tissue damage but the strange yet not always unpleasant smell of meat frying?  “Hmm…Smells like pork.”

The American Crisis

I remember reading about a professor of medicine from a prestigious college in New England who visited a mission leprosarium in India to discuss methods of analgesia with local doctors.  The Indian men listened patiently and respectfully until the professor had finished; then one reminded him that the problem with Leprosy is the very absence of pain.  As compassionate men of science they were working on ways of increasing the sensation of pain in the extremities of their clients, patients, and brothers and sisters in Christ.

I remember reading about a woman, a mother, from the Pacific North West who told the story of her son to a reporter from the local newspaper.  The boy was not a leper, but he had a very low sensitivity to sensory stimuli.  His nerves could fire motion, the boy was a true rascal in how he could run and hide and jump and yell, but he could not feel.  He had once spent most of an afternoon running around on a sprained ankle, which, apart from a decided lop-sidedness to his balance, he had not noticed.  Traction was later required to heal the dangerous amount of ligament damage in his still-developing foot.  The mother was asked by the reporter how she managed to control her son and she responded, “with a smack”.  What was the point of that, asked the reporter, since the boy could not feel pain.  The mother agreed, but said that the boy had learned from the action and the look of distress on her face that a smack meant “stop” even if it didn’t mean “ouch”.

These are the times that try men’s souls.

Rights of Man

I have been working in Special Class for four years.  I began as a visiting consultant to classrooms, a job I enjoyed as it allowed me to move about this school and others in the local area.  In July last year I was appointed to this particular school as coordinator for a specific cohort: all of the students in this “area of concern” were to be transferred to this one school and placed in the care of two teachers, two Learning Support Assistants, drop-in visits from the DfES (Quadrant) Social Worker, and me.

What rights do we have if what we do is not hurting anyone else? Is there a free-go so long as no-one else gets hurt?  Or does someone else always get hurt.

Sometimes that is actually the point: and it took all of five minutes for my new group to discover how to use that to good effect.  Sadly, whilst I caught on to how the boys were using the system almost as soon as they discovered the loop-hole I missed the different activity of the girls.

Brian and Toby were the first.  In fact it was Brian who came up with the new name for our room.  We are no longer “Special Class” but “The Cell Farmers”.  He thought it made us sound like a form of cutting-edge (ha-ha) microbiologists working on DNA or stem cells.  Anyway, apart from his considerable skill in semiotics Brian was also skilled in psychological navigation and he quickly cracked the system

In short, the boys, and girls, were in my care because they were considered to be at high risk of self harm and suicide.

All had long histories of cutting their skin or punching walls, jagged scars and misshapen hands were not unusual even if they weren’t quite common.  Our job, the five adults, was to keep the farmers away from their cells and help them to find less invasive ways of letting the black-dog out.

I don’t think there is any doubt that they felt pain.  There were no lepers here, or toddlers on twisted tootsies.  The thing was; they liked the pain.  They wanted the pain.  They needed the pain.  And it was going to kill them one day if they weren’t careful.

It very nearly killed me.

The Age of Reason

Thomas was the step-father of one of the girls in my class.  She was a pretty one who took some care with her appearance.  No visible bruises, indeed no visible cuts on her arms even on the days when she wore the short sleeved summer dress that was a uniform option for girls.  She even wore her hem at knee length, rather than top thigh like many of her mainstream classmates.  (Most of the girls took the “smart black/grey trouser” option, not always with the “smart”.)  Thomas loved his step-daughter, whom he called “Brady”, (as in “Bunch”), but he was struggling with his relationship with Brady’s mother.

One night, in a fit of “who gives a feck for me, I feckin well don’t!” Thomas jumped in his car blind drunk and out on speed, and went out looking for the nearest B-Double to bury himself under.  Unfortunately, as he lived too far from a decent A-Road this took longer than he had hoped so he settled for the first large vehicle he saw.  That is when he cleaned up me and my ten year old Nissan Patrol.

If you don’t care what happens to you, why would you care what happens to me?

Brady didn’t blame me; in fact she was ever so apologetic.  I lost a car, some blood, a tooth, and ten days of term.  She lost her step-father, her mother (to despair), and her mind.

The cleverness of the boys meant that instead of punching walls they would punch each other.  At recess time they would go off to the back corner of the paddock and kick the living snot out of one of the boys.  Next opportunity it was another boy’s turn.  The school soon caught on to this and after a series of short-term exclusions the boys were sent out at different times and to different parts of the grounds: some to the paddock, some to the caf, and some to the asphalt.

It took Brian and Toby, both thirteen years of age, all of two recesses before each had been beaten to a pulp by separate groups of sixth formers.  Small boy picks a fight with a group of big boys and it’s call the rural land agent because it’s time to sell farm by proxy.

Some kids drink themselves to harm.  Others smoke it.  Some drive fast, or drunk, or stoned, or all three.  Some will surf cars, others will surf monster rips.  Some punch walls, some punch bullies, some punch cops.  I was ready for that.  I thought like a kid, even though I had never been that kid.

Trouble was; I had never been a girl.  Boys do those things.  Girls do some of them: but there are things girls do that boys don’t.

I really had no idea.

Letters to a Fellow: Two

And these are the names. That’s not the way to start a sentence, let alone a paragraph, let alone a chapter. In fact they are the first words of one of my favourite books.

I have been told to keep the vision clear before the artists who I lead, myself first amongst them I suppose. Some artists need no more leading than to be continually pointed in the right direction, that is to say the same direction. What direction is that? From the top to the bottom of the common page. For some that is enough, and they must be left alone after that. I like that idea; I shall try it with my team.

A leader of artists must be an advocate: a go-between who goes between the artist and her art, but also between the artist and her commissioning buyer. The needs of artists are not a great mystery, neither are the economics of the council, but if each is not known to the other, or if it is not expressed in a lingua franca, then discord shall arise. Discord sets off a whole other set of artists, and suddenly you have a very colourful mutiny on your hands.

Deadlines are deadly to creativity, and kill creative minds. Pressure is good and a little stress is a wonder of motivation, but unless you are J.S. Bach or of such prodigious talent the demand for something unique and mind-blowing every Sunday for 52 Sundays is not going to end well for anyone.

Artistic and creative integrity are not all that matters. Character issues must be confronted immediately on team: we work in creative tension and harmony requires the use of a set of several chords in the one bar, but there is only one harmonious chord and many more discordant ones.

Artists want to be lead in love.

Letters to a Fellow: One

I wonder whether even artists understand each other. Perhaps that in itself is a rather woolly statement, and particularly self-indulgent, but I have been reading about artists and it has set me to thinking. I once heard a speaker describe leading leaders as being like herding cats, but for the first time I have been shown the difficulties of leading artists.

I am an artist. Not as creative as you are in your chosen field, in fact I am pathetic in your chosen field: but you in your field excels me in mine. And I have two fields that I am aware of, or perhaps it is the one with a peculiarly large annex.

I think artists do understand each other in that we understand that we are artists and that we have “needs” that less creative people do not have. Nevertheless our common needs are not identical, so perhaps there is a unique confusion amongst artists too. Especially so among practitioners of different forms of The Arts.

The house where I have been least allowed to be creative over the past ten years was the one with the most artists in it. Beside me there were three other people in the house, a graphic designer who was also a painter, a singer/dancer/actress, and a make-up and costume designer. I entered the house excited to be living among other artists, and relaxed my defences so as to be able to better breathe the air of creativity. What I found was that with my defences down I was set-up to be hurt. I did breathe the creativity in the air, and at times as able to engage in the background work to what I do, but I also breathed the tension of three artists who had lived and worked together for decades: my presence unbalanced them, and their apprehension-becomes-hostility destroyed me. It has taken more than a year to recover my craft, and some things have been lost eternally, unable to be recovered. I still feel frightened to even remember that house.

Now I live among people who have creative skills, but whose skills have been buried for the sake of propriety in having to do “work” of a different kind. One can draw and paint, and would do for relaxation, if time and supplies were forthcoming. The other was an actress in her youth, and still has ideas and passion for performance and presenting outside the box, but who has been put back in her box far too many times and now she smoulders and explodes with frequent unpredictability. From one there is a vicarious push to shine my light, from the other a veiled desire to hide that light lest it be displayed only to be extinguished

Right now I feel as though if my candle were placed under a bowl it would ignite the bowl and destroy the whole house, which begs the question, is it a safe candle to burn indoors at all?

Dark Nights of the Soul


English: Jesus Christ - detail from Deesis mos...

English: Jesus Christ – detail from Deesis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Psalm 22:1-31

There is a short story in the Bible, a story of thirty-one verses. This story begins with the words My God, my God why have you forsaken me?, goes on to say I am thirsty and ends with it is finished. Any ideas what that story might be? Of course we instantly recognise what that story is; it is the twenty second psalm. (Did you think I was going to talk about Jesus on the cross?)

Psalm 22 is a familiar story, but not just because it is the story of six hours one dark Friday. The Son of God is not alone among the daughters and sons of men in going through a time of seeming isolation from his God, his mates, and his senses. Abandonment, confusion, embarrassment and doubts assault each of us at times. A recent example of a seemingly God-forsaken people came to my mind this week because last Wednesday marked the International Day of Reflection on the genocide in Rwanda. I’m sure you are all aware that fifteen years civil war broke out and visited atrocities upon that African land. Wednesday was also World Health Day, and again a reminder to pray for all who are sick and sad, many of them alone, many without the hope that the messages of Easter bring.

Let’s look at the psalm…

Do you see the “it is finished” at the end there? The Lord has done it: it has been accomplished long ago and we will keep telling it.

This is a very private psalm, in scholarship terms it is referred to as a personal lament, more plainly it is one person’s whinge against the world. But we have all been there, even Jesus: this is a sulk with good reason.

The biggest question this psalm asks is in verse eight, which the Good News Bible translates as if the Lord likes you, why doesn’t He help you? (Aren’t you the Messiah? Come down off the cross then!) A good question: one I have asked on my own behalf many times. Just because God was silent when Jesus was on the cross doesn’t mean I have to like it when I am feeling tired and emotional. Indeed I remember asking this question in the company of my minister at a time when I was feeling like this, and he told me that it was a season of the Spirit which is sometimes called “the dark night of the soul”. How many of you have heard that term before? It comes from St John of the Cross and his book The Ascent of Mount Carmel. But in actual fact, this dark night is not about being abandoned in blackness; as we have seen in the second part of this psalm God is, and always was, there. The darkness is not about spiritualised depression; rather it is the steeping beyond the known and through the darkness of what is unknown to come to a new knowing. Teachers know about that, this is the journey we guide our students along all the time; but it’s a lot scarier when God is doing it to grown-ups. This process has more to do with Proverbs 3:5-6 and relying solely on God, andPsalm 23:4 and trusting God in the valleys of the shadows, than with our sins separating us from God. In the Contemporary English Version verse 21 says don’t let lions eat me. There’s no point saying that unless you think someone stronger than you is with you where the wild things are.

It is easy to feel confused and overwhelmed, I am sure that Jesus did. But what we go through in these times of darkness is like driving at night along an unknown road, (or even a known road in a rainstorm), rather than choosing to sit the darkness out. We can act in faith, and with conviction sourced from the deep roots of God’s record in our history. Darkness is mysterious, but that is the reality of our mysterious God. Faith is hope without sight: blessed are those who have believed without seeing, as Jesus told Thomas.

We come to understand, when this psalm turns in verse 22 from a lament to a song of deliverance, that the night is darkness in which a person may appear lost, but which actually leads them to the place in which they will find themselves. This darkness is a way of progress, the tunnel at the end of the light that leads to even greater light. It is sad that so often we try to find a refuge from the darkness, and way of avoiding it, rather than learning lessons of faith by walking with God through the valleys of the shadows.

In this week following Easter, and the first week of the season between the rising of the Son and the descending of the Spirit we remember that our nights of faith are not a phase or a season, they are a metaphor for Christian life. Now we see dimly, then we shall see clearly. We live all our lives in the time between times; but we also know that these dark patches come in bouts, and the more we are growing and wanting to learn the more often the bouts will come. It is scary, but like the wildest of rollercoasters it can also be fun when we remember that in God’s hands we may be spinning and ducking, but we are not crashing and burning. When we are out of control, God is fully in control: and that is a good thing. That is the confidence that lead Jesus to stand up in Gethsemane and greet Judas rather than scramble away to hide at Mary and Martha’s place until the soldiers had gone.

The light of God is the only true light. Sometimes God uses the darkness we have taken ourselves into rather than leading us into a dark place Himself. We learn that where He is there is light; false lights will lead us astray. I have heard it said it is better to be in God’s silence, than in the world’s violence; even if the world at least has neon and noise.

Life with God is thrilling: Easter and Pentecost show that, and as Christians we know it ourselves. The God of the gentle whisper that Elijah heard is also the God of the cloud of fire and smoke that Moses saw; so why can’t He also be the God of absence that Jesus experienced on the cross? Easter Sunday reminds us that God always comes through when all hope seems lost and only He can do it. That’s the testimony of my life: regardless of the tuneful talents of fat ladies I have learned that nothing is over until God proclaims it finished. It is finished when God has accomplished all, and that goes as much for His plans for our life and our church as for His plans for universal salvation through Jesus Christ.

What is achieved in darkness will be proclaimed in the light, forever.


An Act of God

Bushfire australia

Bushfire australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Aftermath of the Gregadoo bushfire so...

English: Aftermath of the Gregadoo bushfire south of Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Brisbane City Floods. Brisbane Lord M...

English: Brisbane City Floods. Brisbane Lord Mayor, Campbell Newman, being interviewed by media in flooded intersection of Charlotte and Albert Streets. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a liturgy I wrote in January 2011 for use in a prayer vigil for Australia when our land was beset by floods and fires.

God of the sunburnt country,
Lord of flooding rains,
Sketcher of raging creeks,
Filler of swollen dams;
Sustenance of country communities,
Father of coastal cities,
Architect of mountain ranges
Painter of native wildflowers,
Australia cries out to you for relief.

Our land is drowned Lord,
The ground is flooded and saturated.
Our energies are spent Lord,
The people are exhausted; wet and disheartened.

Father, the “Acts of God” are what The Church does
In the aftermath of a natural disaster.
You were still God after “the tsunami” and “the cyclone”,
“the storm”, “the earthquake” and “the fires”.
You reign when it hails, and you rule when it bakes.

Remind us, God who is known in the world by the compassion of your family,
That the Act of God is our responsibility.
By your Holy Spirit lead your Church in Prayer;
Guide your Church in service with shovels and excavators;
Sustain your Church in encouragement with tea-cups and fresh blankets;
Protect your Church in all places that remain treacherous and unstable.

We pray for all state governors, state premiers, and state parliaments.
We pray for our Queen, our Governor General, our Prime Minister and our federal parliament.
We pray for all local councils, especially for mayors and shire presidents.
We pray for local churches, for priests, pastors and ministers, elders, deacons, and the individuals who make up congregations. We pray also for bishops, presidents, and those who have care for the wider Church.
We pray for the emergency services, for managers, officers and cadets. For Police, Fire, Ambulance, and the SES, both metropolitan and rural.
We pray for hospitals and medical staff; morgues, coroners, and mortuary staff.
We pray for schools, service clubs, sporting clubs, and all of those places where people find community.

We pray for all people who have lost.
Those who have lost loved members of their family or friendship groups;
Those who have lost treasured possessions, entire houses, complete histories, heirlooms and mementos;
Those who have lost hope, peace, confidence, heart;
Those who have lost faith.

Our land is drowned Lord,
The ground is flooded and saturated.
Our energies are spent Lord,
The people are exhausted; wet and disheartened.

But we know you are the God of Noah,
and we believe your promise never to destroy the Earth with a flood.
We are not destroyed, but we are distraught.

And we know you are the God of Lazarus,
and we believe that you weep with us even as you know the restoration that is to come.
We are distraught, but we are not destroyed.



Twentysixt a’tha Oneth


Australian Coat of Arms (adopted 1912)

Australian Coat of Arms (adopted 1912) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


A 19th century engraving showing Australian

A 19th century engraving showing Australian “natives” opposing the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1770 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On Saturday 26th January 1788 an advance force of Royal Marines and other naval personnel from the United Kingdom of Great Britain invaded the country of the Eora (Cadigal) People. A prison was established at Cadi and within eighty years much of the continent to which “Sydney Cove” belongs had been stolen and settled by further waves of British people and their invited guests.

Is this what “Australia Day” celebrates?

As an Australian of English and convict descent I hope for more from my national day. I feel shame for the treatment of our land’s first people: appalled by the near genocide of the Palawah people of Trowenna, disgusted by the mass murder by the gun/fire/rope/knife/club/sneeze and the poisoned blanket/grain/waterhole, and dismayed by the conditions endured by some of the Koori, Palawah, Lia Pootah, Yolngu, Anagu, and Nunga people with whom I have lived and worked. Reconciliation is necessary; indeed conciliation might be a better word (since there never was a right relationship to break in many places). Let us indeed finish what we started, but not just because Marcia Hines told us to on the tele.

Yet still I hope for more, because I see “Australia Day” akin to “Christmas Day”.

Jesus was not born on December 25th, yet on that day the miracle of Emmanuel is celebrated by billions of people across the world. Many in Australia worship the child, even if only for a dew-eyed moment amongst the tinsel and the paper, when “the true meaning” is referenced. A man who is named otherwise by those who stub a toe or hammer a thumb is remembered on that one day. Jesus was not born so that the Eora would decorate fir trees on Saturnalia, and no-one considers it so.

Australia was not founded on Australia Day, Sydney was. It is a fact of history than on one January evening a foreign flag was planted and a foreign king was toasted as a gaol was established while the indigenous population watched from close by. Australia Day does not celebrate the dispossession of the Eora and the “manly” Dhuwal Peoples, although that particular anniversary is used.

Australia Day is more about 01/01/1901 and 25/04/1915 than about 26/01/1788. Australia Day celebrates the mud armies of Brisbane, and the waist-deep people of Victoria who say “yeah it’s tough mate but Kwoinslan has it worse.” It celebrates the brave people of Christmas Island who risked their lives to save “illegal immigrants” and then wept at their partial lack of success. It celebrates brave diggers who charge Taliban machine-gunners in defence of their mates because “greater love has no man”. It celebrates lonely teenagers facing huge white waves in tiny pink boats. It celebrates people who leave lucrative private sector jobs so as to devote their time and talents to compassionate acts of charity.

And Australia Day is Survival Day. You came, you stole, you conquered. You did not wipe us out.

Australia Day is a date chosen from our pagan past to celebrate our national, holistic future.

It is a day for black arm bands, but also those in green and gold. It is a day for flags bearing the emblems of an empire past, a pugilistic marsupial, and a golden sun above a dark skinned people proud upon a red soil.

In courage, let us all combine to pray and work towards the advance of our fair Australia. (May she and we never be unfair again.)

I Am A Language Learner


English: “A Venerable Orang-outang”, a caricature of Charles Darwin as an ape published in The Hornet, a satirical magazine Deutsch: Man sieht Darwin als Affen dargestellt, was eine Anspielung auf seine Evolutionstheorie sein soll. Seiner Meinung nach entwickelten sich die Menschen aus den Affen, was damals eine völlig neue Vorstellung war. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What science people might describe as a law or process I see in terms of grammar: syntax and punctuation.  My world-view has a spiritualist intelligence as well, (I have been Christian since birth), but apart from religion I find points of divergence with the purely mathematical or logical description of the fundamentals of existence.

The Creation of Adam

The Creation of Adam (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Words carry baggage.  The signifier does not always point to the sign, and indeed the signified may be found from many signifiers.  All roads lead to Rome, and many ways lead to Christ who is the only way to the Father.
Take “Evolution”.  Evolution as a word carries a particular denotation, but many connotations.  Does the universe display characteristics of evolution?  This is a loaded question: what does “evolution” mean to us as a word, and as a concept?  Is evolution another word for “development”, or “progression” or even “growth”?  Then yes, there is notable development of the natural world over time: we have evolved.  Or does evolution mean “development from one species to another without the need for God?”  Is evolution another word for “Darwinism”, which, like all –isms, has connotations of its own?
Do I believe “in Evolution”?  I believe that there has been development in the natural world, but I do not believe that this has occurred from amoeba to man in the absence of God.
Do I believe that God created “by Evolution”?  Adam and Eve were not Australopithecus, so perhaps not.  But did God establish a process of development that has continued for millennia and that there are now organisms in existence that were not present in Eden?  Yes.
I am a language learner.  What my friends the science teachers describe as laws, and the mathematicians describe as logic, I describe as grammar.  Newton’s apparently rigid system describes the syntax of the known.  Just as 5-3 does not equal 3-5, (but 5+3=3+5), “dog bites man” is not the same as “man bites dog”.  There is an order to what we have experienced, but there is also a freedom to experience more.  In this way I think evolution to be a good word, but I think emergence is a better one.  I like words, words are what I do.  Emergence describes two things for me:
1. The good is becoming better, development is a movement forward.
2. What we once knew in part we now know in greater part and will one day know in full.
The world is emerging, but so is our understanding of it.  The more the world emerges the more we have to understand, but the more we work on emergent thinking the greater our capacity to understand.  Science has evolved along with the natural world: wisdom and process have developed and so has the universe.
I like a “multiple intelligences” view of the universe.
Some see the universe as a system, with logic and laws
Some see the universe as a conversation, with grammar and dialogue.
Some see the universe as a song, with harmonies.
So, was “the big bang”?
A) An explosion of matter?
B) A voice which said “let there be…”?
C) A resonance like the note that shatters glass, leaving behind a hum which hums at different frequencies (or notes) depending upon the size of the shards?
If the universe is a song, like in option C, then for me as a linguist, (a holder to option B), it is the lyrics that matter more than the melody: but does that make one of us “wrong”?
And what set the vibration that caused the resonance (or the explosion)?  Whose was the voice?
If Option B demands a God, then does God-B demand that option?  Can a God-B speak God’s Creation into existence but then not continue the conversation?  When did God-B stop speaking if we can see evidence of “evolution” (and a new creation) taking place even today?