September 16, 2022

Where I Write From

I was 55 yesterday. For a change I did not feel slightly depressed or super reflective on my birthday. I think that since my brush with serious illness at 42 years of age I have watched and metered every year out carefully. Birthdays are houses of parties, and I am often aware of the house of mourning, whether it be around the corner, the next suburb, or in a far flung part of the city that I have not yet visited. I will find myself there one day.

I also think that I wasn’t reflective because I was busy. And after four interstate trips in quick succession, I now find myself with a month at home before the next foray to the Eastern States. And that leaves me with what replenishes me most – (no, not running!) – , writing.

For me, most of the time, writing is about order. It orders my thoughts (though apparently it often disorders, or at least discombobulates) yours. And I need to write in an ordered room. I can’t do chaos. Everything else in life feels chaotic enough without my house and especially my study being chaotic.

And it is a study. It’s not an office. I have worked as a church pastor for enough years to know the difference between the pastor’s study and the church office. It’s interesting that all of my long term preaching-pastor friends from across a variety of denominations and traditions, have their version of the study, whether it be at home, or the nook of a cafe that serves a steady stream of good brew. They know that’s where the reflective work around the text of Scripture is done. The office is for leaning in. The study is for leaning back.

People ask me how I write so quickly. I don’t know. It just happens. Part of it is because I have so many thoughts going on at once that I see one flying past, and I grab at one that seems particularly significant, and then having caught it, I have to immediately wrestle it into submission. A bit like landing a stubborn bass on the river bank. Be careful or it will get away from you and it’s gone. So too with my writing thoughts. I have to get it written now. Which also explains why I am often a poor editor of my own work.

I don’t always get to write in my study. Last week, when I wrote this piece about the death of the Queen, I was sitting in my room at a pastor friend’s house in Melbourne, waiting to go to speak to a room full of church planters. The room – and indeed the whole suburb – was conducive to reflection, so I was about to write, and write quickly. It took about twenty minutes, and then we were off in the car to the event, with the Queen in the background of the day. Until the 96 bells tolled from Melbourne’s cathedral to remind us of the inevitable silent toll for us. Not sure I will get 96.

But to be honest, I’ve been thinking about the death of the Queen for a long time, waiting for that signal that “London Bridge is Down”, and ruminating on what it would all mean. In fact, events caught up with me. The impending death of the Queen, and now her death itself – has been a central narrative in my new book that I’m writing.

The most significant blog post I ever wrote was written in this room, and written at a whim. And no, it’s not the one you think, it’s not that one. It’s this one. Not the one about “exile” and where we are at culturally. But the one about salvation and grace and forgiveness in the midst of a very broken family – my family, and where we are spiritually.

Sure I got a lot of public engagement with the former. But the latter? Lots of precious and private messages, handwritten letters and emails about the work of God’s grace in other people’s lives. I cherish those the most. And that’s just a gentle reminder to me – a cultural and political animal – that it is the gospel – and only the gospel – that will truly bring about deep lasting change in society. The public square is a fantastic place to be a Christian – and a hostile one too – but telling people about Jesus leaves it for dead.

Incidentally, when we moved house the most traumatic shift was from the beautiful office in our garden that my friend Damon and I built. I’ve never had a space like it, and it exemplified everything that is good about a study. It was six metres from the back door, and those six metres became the commute that shifted my mind to study mode.

When we moved and built our current house, I had wished that we had been able to take my study with me, packed up by the Levites and carried in the direction of the fire and the cloud. But this is a culture of temple not tabernacle, so I had to recreate the sense of it somewhere else.

I’ve put two pictures up of my study on this blogpost, just so you get the vibe. Clearly I’m an aesthete who hates mess. Apart from those pesky cables which will be packed away in a new credenza I am getting for the non-book tech junk that modern life demands I keep, the room is tidy.

It’s tidy because my mind is not. My natural mind is distracted. Part of the brokenness of that in me is that I get too easily dragged over to other things. I’ve taken to writing notes on a Remarkable (a tablet without browser access) because, well because of the internet of all things.

The brokenness also allows in the sinfulness. The laziness. In the photo at the top you can see a blue chair, but not the Bible (and Anglican Prayer Book) on the footstool next to it. I recognise that without attending to Scripture I am no good for me, no good for God’s people, and generally no good. No big hairy sin takes me away from Scripture and prayer everyday. Good things do. Or at least things that I have declared to be good enough to keep me from Scripture and prayer that day. Yet, clearly, none of those things is good enough.

Although I like to claim responsibility for the look of my room, its actual execution was all Jill. When it comes to constructing a vision from the ground up, she is a superstar. Most, if not all, of the furniture in my room was her idea. There are, as I said, some things to be added to this room, but not simply the credenza. There’s a wall that will soon be a picture wall, that was previously covered by a bookcase. Oh, and the dark bookcase is IKEA because that works in that space. But my birthday present yesterday included some delicious brass handles sourced from somewhere else.

The newly uncovered wall where the credenza will go only contains one frame on it at the moment, so it looks a little blank (no photo of that!). That frame contains my award certificate for Australian Christian Book of the Year 2021. To be honest I’d forgotten that the exceptional people at Sparklit had sent me the certificate and it was tucked away in an envelope somewhere.

Until it wasn’t, and I came home one day and it was beautifully framed and on the wall. There’s something about thoughtful kindness that we cannot fathom, even when, especially when, it comes from our spouse of 26 years. She knows all my foibles, sins and faults, and has been the recipient of many of them, and yet, such kindness! She’s a tour-de-force herself, but even after all this time I don’t feel I have even reached halfway through the tour! Today it is 29 years since we first went on a date. 29 years later it is the little things such as that framed award on my wall which show me how much of a gift of God she is in my life.

You’ll notice Oscar Wilde in the first photo. Why Oscar Wilde? Why not some great theologian with a beard, or at least sideburns, all tobacco and patriarchy? Well, perhaps because at one level I think Wilde was theologically shaped. Yes he was frivolous, yes he was a dandy, yes he did some really silly things, and was sexually immoral, but there’s a pathos to him – even in the midst of his bathos – that as a fellow Irishman, I love. It marks out the Irish – that sense of despair followed by Guinness. Wilde was an aesthete also. My daughter brought me back the print from Ireland, and you guessed it, Jill found a frame for it.

Yet for all my love of the aesthetic, I constantly remind myself not to drive my ethics by aesthetics. Not to be Wilde. And not to be wild. I still know that the fruit of the tree was good to eat, desirous to the eyes, and capable of bringing a certain level, and type, of wisdom. And yet. And yet.

My prayer at 55 and one day, is that God grant me that the eyes of my heart be enlightened to know the hope God has called me to (Ephesians 1:15-23). It’s interesting as we read that passage from St Paul, we realise that God is the Author of aestheticism, and His goodness, desirability and wisdom are to be cherished and chased above all others. And yet. And yet.

And that Renoir print? Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette? I like it because it’s a great reflection of us as people. Not one figure in that painting is looking at the person they are supposedly engaged with. Everyone is looking somewhere else. It truly is the dance of humanity, constantly in the midst of aesthetic pleasure, but searching for more. A reminder too of my own wayward heart.

As my running coach Simon often says to me, in quoting the old hymn “prone to wander, Lord I feel it.” Perhaps my study – the place I write – tempers that and ensures that on a more regular basis I will be prone to wonder. For it’s the wonder of God and the Lord Jesus Christ that orders my life and not just my room.

So this is not just where I write from. It’s where I form from. It’s where I find the spiritual formation and emotional oxygen that will get me on a plane in a few weeks time to do the next round of public engagements.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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