…A Place You’ve Never Been

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All my life, my heart has yearned for a thing I cannot name – Andre Breton

I might start a series of posts on beautiful and moving foreign words that have no exact equivalent in the English language. There are times when you hear a word in a foreign language and it captures some sense, some feeling that no English word can quite touch. Something beautiful about that. So I might do that.

At any rate, today I write a post, at least, about a foreign word that has no exact equivalent in the English language. A German word. Fernweh.

Fernweh. To be homesick for a place you’ve never been.

That aching longing to find yourself, to find your place, somewhere else, somewhere far from wherever you are. The deep seated sense that you truly belong somewhere far away.  The corresponding English terms ‘travel bug’ and ‘itchy feet’ don’t capture it. To be homesick for a place you’ve never been. To be farsick.

It’s a feeling I’ve known well. The reason I wanted to write about fernweh is that it taps into something that moves deep in my soul. I was never one to feel homesick but to feel farsick, to feel my place lies somewhere on the other side of the horizon, to yearn to find it there. Captivated by the breadth and wonder of the world and need to be in it. For a long time, on days off, I’d drive into the countryside, wanting to keep driving through the wild green hills and never stop. But I always felt like there was a rope tied around my waist that’d always pull me back. Whenever I went to the airport to drop off or pick someone up I’d feel this deep sadness because I wanted to hop on a plane and fly somewhere far away.

It was over a decade ago that I walked over the border from Egypt to Israel, caught a taxi to Eilat then hopped on a bus for a 4-5 hr trip to Jerusalem. 10 days in Israel but I didn’t know where I’d sleep that night, where the bus was meant to stop, or even that I hadn’t yet considered these things. My only plan was to spend the night in the Old City, which, finding my way down a dark and quiet Souq Khan el Zeit Street to a hostel tucked away within some medieval building, I did. The next 10 days were about delightfully getting lost within the winding lanes of the Old City, hopping between backpacker hostels, and further afield in Israel and Palestine. So much of the history of the world lives and breathes in that place. The possibilities for exploration and discovery were near endless within this little patch of the world alone, not to mention roads beyond. I saw in my heart’s eye Turkey and Europe and beyond. One morning I rose while still dark, made my instant espresso and climbed to the top of the 700 year old building where I was staying, one of the tallest in the old city, to see the sunrise and hear the muezzin calls competing with the church bells. It was the morning I nearly didn’t come home.


What is it, this feeling? It’s the like-oppositeness of homesickness. The person suffering homesickness and the one suffering from farsickness both yearn for the same thing: belonging. Their place. The homesick person, however, wants to find it in security, in what’s safe, familiar, known whereas the farsick person feels their place, their belonging, is always somewhere they’ve never yet been, in something they cannot name. Opened to the mystery, wonder and possibilities that the wider world holds, the heart is captivated. There’s something in our heart that loves security. But there’s also something that stirs us to abandon ourselves to mystery, adventure, and boundless horizons. That knows we’re made for that.

And yet I did come home. There were obvious reasons – limited funds, obligations, of course… but more. The knowledge that the thing I cannot name, the place I’ve never been… I wouldn’t find it out there. I mean I would… but then it’d slip from my grasp. Hold onto the horizon for (not very) long and it turns into the familiar and secure. The very nature of longing for the far off means I can never have it. Moby Dick’s Ishmael pontificates on this better than me. Hence, I quote:

Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those we left behind secure, were all the time before us.
Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then were there promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.


For Ishmael the world is an empty ocean that can’t hold the wonder we chase after. I know my heart is made for mystery, wonder and boundless horizons and yet I can’t find enough of those things in all this world. The wonders of nature, cultures and histories tantalise and awaken a deep stirring within me; they excite and lead me on in the pursuit. But I’m still yearning afterwards. Led ever on in endless chase or left behind. For Ishmael it’s ‘coz the mystery we seek is just a ‘demon phantom’ that’s in our hearts but that doesn’t exist in the real world and here I disagree. The tantalising magic of the far off is real. Anyone who’s experienced it knows that. Thing is it’s just a taste. It’s tantalising of my soulish tongue reveals but isn’t finally the thing I seek. What I really long for is heralded by, even I think is the source of but not finally in any of that.
I long for the infinite.

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand… Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place..? Job 38

In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. Psalm 102

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. Psalm 73

In the Bible I read that the infinite my heart longs for, far from being a demon phantom leading nowhere, is real. My heart has this habit of wanting to reduce God to something less than the world; smaller, narrower, restrictive. But God is revealed as the Infinite Majestic, rich in mystery, wonder, grandeur – untamed, wild, boundless. Far from being a narrow concept within the world, the Infinite One has formed the world and set up its horizons, its height and depths; the one from whom the universe’s magic derives and to whom it points. It’s we, it’s me, who has insisted on the idea of God as tame, domesticated and mean-spirited and then been disappointed in him.

The Christian life is the call to find your place in abandoning yourself to the mystery, adventure and boundlessness of God. And here’s the paradox, and the difficulty of believing; I don’t leave aside all I know and search and journey to the ends of the earth to grasp the ungraspable. Instead it’s the Infinite God who has traversed the greatest distances to draw close to me, to us, in our ordinary ‘here and now’. And not only the ordinary but the downright low and humiliating. ‘Don’t you know me after all this time?’ Jesus says to his bewildered students in John 14. ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’. The next morning he was publicly tortured and executed on a cross to bring us to God. The cross reveals the Infinite One as inherently self giving, self emptying. The Infinite drawn close in the grubbiest that the ‘here and now’ has to offer.

With faltering, paltry steps I more and more come to understand that the mystery and wonder of the infinite is found in the ordinary here and now when I abandon myself to God in trust – learning to share in his self giving, self emptying. The thought of travel still stirs my heart – to wander and wonder in Paris, Italy, Germany; Iran, Turkey, India and on and on. And one day I might. I still enjoy tasting the richness of many cultures wherever I am. But the more I learn, step by step, to actually abandon myself to trust God in ways I’d kept myself from by my habit of escaping elsewhere – I find myself stepping into something not always thrilling, new or comfortable but something somehow joyful and inexplicably grand.


A Christmas Miracle

Remember when Christmas seemed magical? Maybe for you it still does. I recently saw photos from some friends of their holiday in a German winter and I thought that if I was there Christmas’d feel more magical. Instead, in Australia we watch imagery of Christmas magic on our TV screens and in shop windows – quiet snow covered pine forests; Dickensian ladies and gentlemen strolling down snow covered streets to the sound of church bells, past doors adorned with holly and windows beaming warm, familial light into the cold; Snow men coming to life and talking with reindeer – while we peel our sweaty backs off the couch, or watch the grass around us wilt and turn brown, and feel slightly anxious about bushfires or tropical storms.

Every year I fight for a bit of Christmas magic. Have a tree, get some nice(ish) decorations. This year we went out and got some actually nice decorations without the ish, some from a shop selling hand made German goods (a theme developing?) and adorned our home with more decorations, and they’re putting up a fight against the withering heat. But I have learnt that those things on their own don’t do it. They’re material things that function like signposts, or wrapping paper. They adorn. Those things we identify with what’s special about Christmas were never meant to bear the weight of those expectations alone. Even our main imagery of Christmas magic, the jolly saint and his magical elves and flying reindeer, once pointing to a larger story of gift giving beyond himself, has now become nothing more than a representation of the same hollow materialism we live and breathe all year. The magic of spending money we don’t have and getting more stuff we don’t need. Part of the problem is that we want something we don’t believe in anymore.

And that’s understandable. I remember why Christmas felt magical as a kid. I loved reading fantasy stories and myths and folklore because of the desire for there to be more than just this ordinary material world. But Christmas was the time when the something more broke into the ordinary. Apparently one Christmas morning as a kid (I have no memory of this) I told my family I’d heard sleigh bells the night before. But as you grow up you realise that that doesn’t happen. What was the first crack in my young belief in Santa? Well, same as every kid, that he’s in all the shopping centres at once and looks different in each one. Easily explained away for the believer. But the second crack, the killer for me, was seeing a World Vision ad on TV one Christmas time and realising that Santa didn’t visit kids like that. Christmastime in a delightful German winter sounds magical until some sick person drives a truck through a crowd. Eventually everyone is touched by life’s darkness, and even before that just the disappointing emptiness and dashed hopes of our materialist dream. And lie awake as long as you like, there’s never any sound of sleigh bells overhead. ‘It’s a Christmas miracle!’ has become a sarcastic joke because we don’t believe in them anymore.

Despite this, I believe in the magic of Christmas.

Hanging on our plastic tree is a wooden decoration depicting a Christmas miracle. It has the world over been given the same saccharine treatment as most Christmas magic – a cute little barn housing a serene little family; here carved within a snowflake, often seen emanating the same soft glow that shines out of Dickensian windows. Hell, I couldn’t even resist adding something of that warm Christmas glow with a filter.


The birth of Jesus carried no such sentimental treacle. Born in some sort of room reserved for animals, probably attached to an overcrowded public shelter for travelers, the birth place of Jesus would’ve been noisy, smelly, busy and cold and dark. There were probably vermin. There was screaming and pain and bodily fluids. It was a birth of the neglected lower class, visited by rough and crass shepherds who were strangers. It would lead, a couple of years later, to a government ordered infanticide and refugee flight across the border.

In other words it looked no different from the grit and ash and smoke of life for most of the people of the world for most of history.

But it’s the contention of the gospels that in this gritty event the miraculous broke into the everyday at Christmas. It’s just that the miraculous really entered into the everyday. Lived in the everyday, every day. God became a kid like that. But in doing so he transformed the everyday forever.

If I’m honest I would like some magic that swoops down and chases the darkness away. One day. But the miracle of Christmas is of God destroying the world’s darkness by entering into it and passing through it. Christmas magic is the power of God to take the evil things of the world that oppose him and would destroy us, and bring good out of them.  And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him… (Romans 8:28). The reason Paul says we know this is because God has already done this in his own life.


Another decoration hanging on my plastic tree is a little bag containing plastic holly. And holly is another charming, delightful wintery Christmas image that points to the gritty, messy and painful magic of Christmas. Holly: thorns and red berries like red drops of blood. Like the thorns and drops of blood that circled the forehead of that baby when he grew up – the end point of his entering into the everyday. The shameful death to pay the penalty for our trying to kick God out of our lives – the thing which has brought all this darkness in the first place. God breaking into our everyday and taking it on himself.

It’s the Christmas miracle of entering a world full of grief and walking through that grief, bearing it on himself to the point of death, only to overcome it through resurrection – winning the expectation of a time when the grief is done away with for those who’ve found their shelter in him. It’s the Christmas miracle of something that doesn’t get much traction in these cynical times.

It’s the Christmas miracle of hope.

Life goes on. But for the person whose trust is in Jesus, not as it did before. Everything is invested with a miracle. Even the adornments of Christmas – the lights, the decorations, the carols, the jolly fat man, above all the gifts – don’t contain but (once did and can again) point to the real Christmas magic that has broken into our world once for all, has dealt with the heart of the problem, and contains the unshakeable promise that one day things will be right again.

It’s a Christmas miracle!





The Heart of Darkness

There comes a time in everyone’s life when you realise that the world really is as dark as you feared.

If you’re new with us, this post will make more sense if you read my previous post first. See you soon.

The world really is a dark and scary place. We all know this of course. You know that many countries around the world know only war or oppression or famine. You know that horrible things happen to people away from the public eye. But when it touches you it’s like you never realised it before. My previous post was my reflections of what it feels like to be touched by it.

But today I want to expand a little on something I said in my previous post:

Jesus stepping into the meaninglessness destroying the world  to make something meaningful out of it.

Because I also want to reflect on what it’s felt like to have faith in a loving God whilst living in a world that’s intent on blowing itself to hell.

When Mum got sick it was like I’d been looking at the world through a filter. A rose-coloured filter that was suddenly and violently ripped off. I remember driving to the hospital, stopped at traffic lights. Across the intersection I was looking at the entrance to Brisbane’s South Bank Parklands. A very attractive set of parks and gardens along the Brisbane River. The sun was bright and the day was just the perfect temperature. Healthy attractive people were jogging, people strolled along, sipping coffee with family and friends. The perfect day to be out enjoying the beauty.


That was the filter. But now it was ripped off to expose what I had always known but now felt in my heart and intestines in a visceral way. I saw clearly what had always been there.

Death. Everywhere.

It’s not that I realised there was and never had been anything good or beautiful in the world. There is and always has been, and they are precious to me. It’s that all of it, every single one, is being poisoned  and brought to nothing by death. Hiding behind every blossoming plant and the glorious sunlight, working quietly and unceasingly within every life. Corrupting every good thing and bringing it to nothing, to dust. To air. And in my own life too.

Looking back over my journal I found an entry early on where I described a potential artwork I kept imagining – an installation sculpture. I’ll never be able to make it and I’m sure I subconsciously ripped it off stuff that’s been done before anyway. But you’d set up a room, or even several rooms like a house, lived in, with furniture, family photos etc. But you can’t enter the rooms because it’s filled with a bulbous black mass, overwhelming everything. Swallowing every space of the place up. Nothing left untouched. Evil. Death. It didn’t occur to me at the time how much like cancer itself my image of death and evil was. Because cancer certainly is a form of evil, but evil is also, actually, a type of cancer. It’s the world just doing what the world does but doing it in rebellion to its original purpose and design; and in the process destroying itself. That is the Bible’s depiction of evil and it’s true to experience.

Near the end, when God felt absent, I reflected that for the first time I really understood why some people are atheists. I’ve never really grasped why someone might think an acceptance of science must preclude an acceptance of anything else. But there is a reason someone might not believe in God: in the face of a cruel, unjust and painful world for so many people, the world simply feels meaningless. Certainly at that moment, at the bottom of the pit it does.

But I didn’t go the way of atheism. Wasn’t tempted to. Because atheism is only engaging with half the data. It’s true that often this world feels meaningless… but at the same time it also feels meaningful. Deeply, vibrantly, vitally meaningful. More accurately – the world and life feels like it has a deep meaning and purpose which is being consumed and destroyed by meaninglessness one day at a time. The horror of our lives and the lives of our loved ones being cut short isn’t that we know our lives are just pointless. In that case who would care? It’s that we know our lives have a point. We have a deep, deep sense that they’re meant for something. They’re meant to be good. It wasn’t that my mum’s life was meaningless that made me want to kick and yell and throw chairs and scream helplessly into the night. It was that her life had real meaning and beauty and purpose; her love, her strength and courage, her selflessness towards those in her life, her thoughtfulness of others… and cancer came and ripped all of it – all of it – out of her hands for no other purpose than to throw it all in the river and watch it wash away to nothing. It’s a nightmare.

And so, does the meaningless win? Everywhere you look is beauty and life and purpose…and all of it infected with the corruption and decay of death. Everywhere is darkness. Where’s God? I was forced to stare into the darkness and it’s in the darkest spot, the very stroke of midnight, that you see him.

The very heart of the Christian story, it’s climax and centre is God revealing himself to humanity. And the heart of the Christian story is dark. Very dark. Because it’s the story of God entering the world as one of us – Jesus – to overcome the darkness, to destroy it. But not, like some hero in a fable, by swooping in on horseback and slaying the dragon. God destroyed the darkness by entering into it. He overcame suffering and death by submitting to them, suffering and dying. By reaching out in love to suffering people and being arrested, humiliated and tortured to death by the people he came to save.

At the heart of evil in the world is humanity doing what it does… but doing it in rebellion to its original purpose and design, to honour God; and in the process destroying itself and the world. That found fullest expression the day humanity gleefully executed God and stood around gloating as they watched him slowly die. But it’s in that act that Jesus overcame the darkness. Because in that act he was stepping in for us all in our rebellion against God and taking the punishment for it. It was all being punished and destroyed in his body and buried with him. And then he rose to life and left it there. And that is the way to a new life without the corruption of death and evil in it.

Every good and beautiful thing in this world is infected with the rot of death. Every single one ripped from our hands to be thrown away and leaving us empty. All except one. The one you see when you look at the heart of the darkness, the mob killing of Jesus:


God repaying our hatred with costly, sacrificial love God giving himself for us, laying himself down at the greatest cost to bring us new life.  God overcoming darkness not from a safe distance but by willingly stepping into in and taking it onto himself for our good.

I don’t have answers for why the world went dark and in the pit I have to admit I don’t like it. But I saw God’s beautiful grace in darkness, the one beautiful thing worth living for. In destroying evil and death ‘from the inside out’ as it were, Jesus has overcome the meaninglessness destroying everything and he has made it meaningful again. Nothing else good in this world can carry the weight of our hopes but grace carries the hopes of all the good and beautiful things in this world. Shortly before she died I gave mum a photo I’d taken over a decade earlier when travelling in Jerusalem. I gave it to her as a reminder that because Jesus died things won’t be like this forever for those who put their trust in his grace. It was a photo of an empty tomb. Almost certainly not, as it turns out, THE empty tomb. But a reminder none the less. She had me blow it up to poster size and put it on her wall.


As it stands, the world is dark. The aesthetically pleasing culture and society and life we surround ourselves with is just a thin veneer over what’s really going on. And I hate it and want to kick and yell and get angry and sad. And I do. But when I look at the grace God showed in Jesus dying on the cross I see the one most beautiful and meaningful thing that will bring meaning and beauty to everything being swallowed by meaninglessness and death for those who trust in him. I see the one thing worth holding onto and living for and trusting in.

And I trust him.


And then, the Bomb

The bomb. In modern times it’s become something of a symbol. Of terror. Of despair. It’s becoming an increasingly frequent horror to hear of another terror related bomb detonating somewhere, causing irreversible grief and loss to the innocent. The word ‘symbol’ though doesn’t quite fit, as symbols are by definition images, pictures of something; whereas bombs – real bombs in the real world, rather than in James Bond movies – are invisible. The real horror of the bomb is that you don’t know it’s there. Not until, in an instant, it isn’t there anymore. And then it’s too late.  The Boston Marathon bomb of 2013 is the one that I personally always recall to mind. An innocent community event turned into chaos instantly.


Cancer is a bomb.

3 months ago everything was fine. Then, out of nowhere, my mum was diagnosed with cancer of the duodenum which was quickly upgraded to terminal. This form of cancer is rare and also unusually aggressive. It moved fast.

A bomb is, in its essence, a mess. It’s the instantaneous turning of any order, beauty and structure within its radius into random chaos, the very process of which wreaks destruction and death. Assassins don’t tend to use bombs (I presume) because assassins have specific targets. They are trying to do something particular. They are trying to be precise. Bombs are not precise. They don’t have specific targets. They aren’t trying to do anything to anyone in particular. Who is caught within the bomb’s radius is random. And who in that radius is killed and who is maimed and how they are killed or maimed is random. The mess itself is the point. Recently a bomb detonated in a marketplace in the Philippines. For some reason some ordinary men, women and children were walking through the blast radius at the moment of detonation and others weren’t. Had the bomb detonated even minutes earlier or later the people whose lives were ripped apart forever would’ve been different. The bomber doesn’t care. Chaos for chaos’ sake. Death for death’s sake.

And cancer is, in its essence, simply a mess. Cancer is nothing more than the turning of the order, beauty and structure of a person’s body into random chaos. Chaos that wreaks destruction and death. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for where this bomb will go off. My mum was incredibly healthy. No reason why her life was swiftly cut short by a very rare and unusually aggressive form of the disease. No reason why it devastates a body the way it does. Shrapnel could’ve just as easily not hit the liver as hit it. And the anarchy explodes outward beyond the person and shrapnel maims everyone nearby, but not necessarily all in the same way. Cancer is a mess that starts as a tiny point and spreads outward with unstoppable force like an explosion. It might explode a lot more slowly than a bomb, but that doesn’t mean you can outrun it. It’s still inescapable.

When I was younger I found conspiracy theories kind of interesting. But when I read up on some I was struck more by the conspiracy theorists themselves than their theories. For the conspiracy theorist, the conspiracy isn’t just something they think happened in the world. It expands into an over-arching narrative to explain the world in its entirety. The conspiracy theory becomes a meta-narrative of the force of evil in this world, a force that has a sinister plan and purpose for the world as a whole and is working secretly and non-stop to fulfill it. But what the conspiracy theorist has failed to understand about evil and which I have now experienced is this: evil has no plan or purpose for the world other than to rip it open. Evil doesn’t seek to make the world into anything. It simply wants to demolish. Why? Well, why not?  ‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy…’ (John 10:10) Chaos for chaos’ sake. Or is Bashar al-Assad and ISIS and whoever else bombing Syria into a crater because they have some goal and desire for the country? Evil is evil for evil’s sake.

In the end, what’s scary about a bomb isn’t that it’s loud and explosive. It’s that it’s pointless and indiscriminate and yet completely irreversible. And what struck me as mum’s life drew to a close was the horror of how pointless but irreversible this tragedy seemed to be.

And God?

I’ve spoken a number of times from the Bible on suffering, but nothing prepares you for when you experience it personally. People always depict the life of having faith in God as a walk through the countryside, with some ups and downs in the path, or being gently carried along a beach. They never depict it as finding yourself in the crater of a bomb blast. Trusting God is hard. So hard. Hard when the Bible asks hard questions about why there’s suffering in the world but gives no ultimate answer. Hard when suffering is unfair. Hard when all the evidence the world gives you seems to point in the opposite direction to that of a loving God who’s in control of things.  Hard when prayers are met with silence or even what feels like mockery.

Early on I would confront God in the hospital chapel. Was just a quiet space for it really. I was grappling with what exactly I was trusting in. No circumstances indicating God’s love. No explanations for how this all fit into something good. No reassuring feeling of divine presence. What I had in my mind however was a picture of the cross, Jesus dying on a cross. God choosing to step out of safety and into the darkness and chaos of this world, to suffer in it in order to overcome it. Jesus stepping into the meaninglessness destroying the world  to make something meaningful out of it. It isn’t any explanation of why evil is here but when I considered Jesus doing that I asked myself, ‘Can I trust him?’ I answered ‘Yes’.

Not that trusting Jesus removed any grief. From that point on we were all still living in the bomb blast. Awful fear and anxiety. Guilt. Loss. Helplessness. Feeling nauseous. Seething anger with no one to aim it at. The fraying of relationships. People saying ‘helpful’ things. The anguish of seeing the toll on someone you love steadily increasing. The world feeling cold and empty. Every consolation you hoped and prayed for – a decent amount of time with Mum at least, the chance to say a proper goodbye, the end to at least come quickly – ripped away one by one, feeling like a cruel joke. Nothing left not maimed by shrapnel. More angry questions at God left unanswered. More silence after prayer. And now moving ahead with a massive hole left in everything.

I want to write much more about faith in darkness and Jesus in the darkness soon. This post has been much more about the darkness itself, I know. And I know that cancer isn’t the only darkness in people’s lives. I’m just sick of a Christian culture that thinks it can down play the reality of evil and suffering in faith, bring about nice answers or a sense of uplift. One day I walked into a Christian bookstore looking for just a little thing I could buy to help me remember as I looked at it the truth of God in the message of Jesus. But all I found filling the whole place was treacle like this:







Bible verses certainly. But verses ripped out of their contexts of chaos and pain and disorder and draped in an anesthetising image able to give only a general feeling of uplift when times are generally good. When life turns dark it evaporates like a fog. Never a mention of Jesus dying on the cross, which is the heart of the matter.

It’s not real. At some point, for everyone, life turns into a disaster zone. At some point everyone faces death. And nothing, nothing, can prepare you for every vain hope and survival strategy you’ve developed over however many years crumbling to nothing in an instant. At that point, either Jesus died and rose, or bust.






Life as a Clay Rembrandt

There are days I don’t feel like much. I’ve never been much possessed of a sense of my own strength or ability or beauty. I have days of introspection and self doubt. But it was in such a period recently that I stumbled upon Paul’s words in his second letter to the church of Corinth, ‘But we have this treasure in jars of clay…’ (2 Corinthians 4:7) They’re words I’ve kept on returning to.

There’s a painting of Paul I love; a Rembrandt. It’s a beautiful piece. It might be my favourite painting. Paul the Apostle sits at his writing desk penning part of the New Testament. Pen arm slung over the back of his chair, he seems to be contemplating what to write down next.

De apostel Paulus aan zijn schrijftafel

Saint Paul at his Writing-Desk Wikipedia

The composition is perfect, the play of soft light and shadow is masterful as is, above all, Rembrandt’s sensitivity to capture the heart and soul of someone in their face and posture. Rembrandt’s love affair with brown doesn’t always pull off but here it’s just right. But a confession: although I always thought of it as a lovely picture itself I didn’t, until recently, really think it quite worked as a picture of Paul. Paul the intrepid traveler, crossing dangerous terrain and seas to spread the message of Jesus, shipwrecked, attacked, jailed is, in my mind,  a fiery, steely eyed bull dog of a man who fought hard. Here though he looks, to be honest, like he’s just about had it. Maybe Rembrandt foisted his own particular glumness onto him.

But as I’ve chewed over those words of his I’ve wondered if it hasn’t actually been me who’s brought my own assumptions and laid them over Paul. There would’ve been plenty of days Paul would’ve felt just like this. He doesn’t describe himself as a bull dog but as a clay jar.

Clay is wonderful stuff. I remember at uni discovering the joy of working with it. It’s a warm and intimate material. It can be shaped into whatever you want. I have a friend who makes really lovely and meaningful objects with clay. I like it.


But clay isn’t fancy. Part of the joy of working with clay is its messy tactility – for the childlike part of you that never quite got over playing in the mud. Clay isn’t that far removed from soil, really. Maybe Paul had in mind God’s creation of humanity from dirt in Genesis 2:7, ‘Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground…’ It certainly isn’t gold or diamonds. It’s easy to come by and cheap. As I pondered all this and thought of buying a little clay jar to sit on my desk as a reminder of it all it struck me that my house and garden are full of clay vessels. A shelf in a kitchen cupboard is packed with mugs. All sorts. There’s a few lovely hand made gifts but most are mass produced $2 gear. On the other side of the kitchen are a couple of shelves of multiple sets of plates. Outside, my little cactus sits in a tiny black pot and a stack of dead plants sit in bigger ones. They’re all used for ordinary, every day tasks.

And it breaks. My goodness, just last night I pulled another mug out of the dishwasher to discover a crack up the inside. Why?! What’s next, my beloved Picasso mug? Is there no hope? As I get older that brittle fragility begins to resonate more.


Beloved Picasso Mug

Mainly, what’s really important about most clay vessels isn’t they themselves but what they hold. As Paul looks at himself; pretty ordinary, not impressive by the standards of the church he’s writing to, starting to crack with age and normal mortality and just tired, he isn’t despondent. In fact he’s alarmingly confident. I’m trying to learn what Paul knew. Within a culture that finds the value of a person in what they’re able to achieve, a humanist worldview proclaiming ‘Yes you can! And you need to…’ and worst, a proud heart that wants all this to be true, what I am learning to hold onto is the truth that the clay pot isn’t the treasure itself… but there’s treasure within.

 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)

The message of Jesus – that God is known in Jesus Christ as he hung and died on a cross – that’s treasure. The message of forgiveness and new life for everyone who trusts in Jesus’ death in their place. It’s that message which is light shining in darkness. That message which brings life to the dead and hope to the hopeless. Not my skills and ability. Not my health or strength. Not my personality.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

That, and that alone, drove Paul on when he no doubt felt like a Rembrandt painting. Not his abilities, skills or traits. But that he had a message in his heart through which God gave him life that can’t be crushed and through which God gives life to others. And so he spoke it. And so must I.

a story ancient and contemporary

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Personally I often (not always!) find that a trip to see contemporary art becomes an exercise in the banal, cranial and pretentious. In the midst of grainy repetitive videos of nothing happening and piles of junk, some of the most disheartening works come under the title ‘political art’. Combining raw visceral rage at some soulless institution of power with a soullessness that rivals or perhaps concedes defeat to said powerful, unjust institution, political art can leave me feeling empty most of all, as if there’s simply nothing more to hold onto than being ticked off.

In contrast however, the work ‘Rustam-e-Pardar’ (Rustam With Wings) by Khadim Ali at the Queensland Art Gallery is a work that shimmers and resonates, moving me at a number of levels yet (or perhaps by) always just eluding my grasp, as if constantly fluttering just out of reach like the winged figure at the centre of the work. A series of five small images of water-colour, ink and gold leaf on wasli paper, and part of a larger series of ‘Rustam’ images, it draws from the 10th century Persian epic the ‘Shahnama’, the hero of whom is apparently the demon Rustam who defends his people from, well, other demons. I haven’t read the Shahnama (or even heard of it before) but this work has created the desire in me to get a hold of a translation. Bless you, Kindle. Rustam-e-Pardar is a sensitive work dealing with the plight of the Hazara people, to whom Khadim Ali belongs.

Unfortunately copyright laws means you're stuck with my blurry iphone flashless photos.

Unfortunately copyright law means you’re stuck with my blurry, flashless iphone photos. Ugh.

The Hazara are a people group from Afghanistan and Pakistan who have been horribly persecuted. As both an ethnic and religious (Shia muslim) minority in Afghanistan the Hazara have borne the brunt of Taliban (and now other extremist Sunni groups) violence. For many Hazara who fled Afghanistan in the face of the rise of the Taliban, finding a new home in Pakistan has proven no refuge from the deadly violence against them. The stance of the Taliban and other groups is nothing less than genocidal, despite my Hazara friends being the most gentle and peaceful people you’ll ever meet. In an earlier post I link to an article spelling out the plight of Hazara seeking refuge in other neighbouring countries. Fortunately some have managed, against incredible odds, to make their way to Australia where they’ve found… no, don’t get me started.

It’s to the Taliban’s war against the Hazara that Rustam-e-Pardar refers. I’ve come to this work as a cultural outsider and so most of what I know of it has had to be explained to me: that in 1998 the Taliban began calling themselves the ‘Rustam of Islam’ to give their jihad broader Persian cultural appeal; that the shades black and white with which Rustam is depicted represent not good and evil in the Shahnama but hypocrisy and deceit; that the script overlaying the images is Arabic, perhaps indicating the overlaying of Persian/Afghan culture with that of Arabised Islam.

Nevertheless there’s so much more to this work than a blunt, angry political shout. The work communicates in a way that words on their own simply can’t, subtly and delicately drawing from the rich and ancient Persian culture to comment on the hypocrisy of those who’ve claimed to defend that culture even as they’ve systematically set out to destroy it, the hypocrisy of a demon fighting against a people they’ve demonised. There is a deeply felt pain here and yet it’s so heartfelt and soulful, resonating with Ali’s obvious love for his cultural roots and his own people. That’s obvious even to me as an outsider, with so many details hinting at ideas or emotions that lay beyond me. But even as the work slips from my grasp, leaving me wondering about this detail, or that figure, or what this scene represents, I find myself with the rare desire to just pluck them off the wall and take them home with me. More than that it creates in me a yearning I can’t quite put my finger on, a desire to connect more deeply with the stories and culture of these Peoples, ancient and contemporary.