Category Archives: First Published Elsewhere

Life on the Edge of an Unjust System

This post was first published as an article on the Australian on-line journal Eureka Street on April 26, 2019 under the title ‘My Newstart Conundrum‘. If you are able and think it worthwhile, please support Eureka Street with a donation.

Recently I was placed on the Federal Government’s Mutual Obligation program, otherwise known as ‘Work for the Dole’. This happened as a result of being on a partial Newstart payment for twelve months. I have been underemployed for around three years now and Newstart provided a welcome top-up as I continued to look for more work.

Each Newstart recipient is given a Job Access Provider (JAP) to help them look for work. My JAP informed me that I was required to do 21 hours per week of Mutual Obligation activity. This was in addition to looking for work, made up of applying for at least 20 jobs every four weeks.

My JAP worker assured me that the 21 hours per week would help me to remain motivated and focused on the task at hand: finding work. I replied that I would now have to stop doing the things that were keeping me motivated to satisfy my Mutual Obligation requirements.

I live in Western Sydney. My JAP had me volunteering with a Christian outreach program doing good things in the area for people living with significant financial and personal disadvantage, largely via housing and food initiatives. It is safe to say that many of these people are unemployed.

After four weeks on ‘Work for the Dole’ I decided that it was best for my own well-being to go back to the things I had been doing to remain motivated. This meant coming off Newstart. Fortunately, I have good support. Others are not so fortunate.

The others with me doing their own Mutual Obligation hours were diverse: people living with various forms of mental and emotional disorder deemed by their JAP and the Federal Government as employable. There were also people with differing physical conditions similarly assessed as employable. Add to this underemployed people and itinerate workers between jobs. One person I spoke to, who was an underemployed casual teacher, said that her Newstart benefit was paying her rent.

A common experience of those I spoke with during this time was that their long-term experience had been one of a slow decent into hopelessness and powerlessness. The combination of an inadequate Newstart while searching for 20 jobs a month plus compulsory Mutual Obligation, (as well as, for some, underemployment), had become overwhelming.

A recent federal budget news report contained an estimation that 28,000 people in Australia have been receiving Newstart for more than ten years and that 60 per cent of all Newstart recipients have been on this benefit for more than 2 years. That’s a lot of job searching and Mutual Obligation required from people struggling to find enough work, or any work at all. In my view, this expectation is quite unreasonable.

Another issue relevant here is the idea of full employment. What exactly is it? The Reserve Bank had been, until recently, operating with the idea that full employment is 5 per cent, though it might now be lower – perhaps somewhere between 4 and 5 per cent. This means that there is little or no work currently available for 4 to 5 per cent of the population that are assumed to be work ready, let alone those who, realistically, are not.

What we now have in this country is a cohort of our fellow Australians who will never find work, or enough work. This fact is due to a combination of personal and systemic factors. Either they will be deemed unemployable by potential employers, or adequate employment options are just not there for them.

It is unjust to provide a sub-standard Newstart allowance and compulsory Mutual Obligation to those genuinely struggling to find adequate employment in a system that does not provide enough opportunity for employment. Is there an alternative?

Currently the tax-free threshold is $18,200 per year. What if we were to give all Australians of working age currently unemployed $18,200 a year. Those of us who are underemployed would be given enough money to also have us on $18,200 per year.

For example, if someone is earning $12,000 a year working, they would be given $6,200. Any income after $18,200 would be taxed at the normal rate, regardless of whether that income be from Newstart or employment. For the unemployed single, this would guarantee around $674 per fortnight in addition to a Newstart benefit of $555 per fortnight. This would mean that the single unemployed person would be on $32,396 per year after tax, much better than the current $14,985 per year (tax free). This is, of course, before any increase in Newstart.

As for the Mutual Obligation hours, let’s not make Newstart dependent on doing these hours, and let’s tailor the activities more towards each person and their circumstance. Yes, we might need practical encouragement to remain motivated, however, we may already be doing this for ourselves. Let the system recognise this.

 

 


David’s Place Retreat

This was first published in a David’s Place newsletter and in the December 2018 edition of ‘Via Vitae’, a newsletter for the oblates of The World Community for Christian Meditation (which can be viewed and downloaded here). The retreat was run in October 2018.

For the last seven years, members of Sydney’s David’s Place community have made their way to St. Benedict’s Monastery, near Arcadia (in Sydney’s north west), for their annual retreat. Oblates from The World Community for Christian Meditation have been invited, each year, to support them.

What is David’s Place?

David’s place is an inner-city space where Sydney’s homeless and marginalised can come to find friendship, peace, spiritual nourishment and connect with the wider community.

It was created to be a place where Jesus would have liked to hang out, where it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, or where life has led you.

David’s Place brings together both rich and poor, breaking down barriers in our city. Division in our communities is where many of our societal problems arise. To experience David’s Place for yourself is to know that such separation is avoidable. (from davidsplace.com.au)

Jesus was not about class. Jesus was about the Kingdom, or Kin-dom of God: places and ways of life that are about kindness, compassion, and just relations. Attempting Kin-dom living can be a challenging way to operate. It can involve being with people very different to ourselves. This can reveal to us our tendencies toward fear in the face of difference. Division can be a product of this fear.

It is familiarity that breaks down uncertainty and fear. Community is the place where the stranger becomes familiar, where the stranger can then become a friend. David’s Place is such a place.

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (2Cor 4:7)

The clay jar of St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a great metaphor for the human condition. We are all jars of clay. In our psychology and physicality, we are the stuff of the earth. Some jars have been mostly looked after, cared for; others have been neglected. Some jars have been shaped with weaknesses, fault lines in the clay that are just there. Some jars are stronger in their shape and can bear a load that other jars cannot.

This year’s David’s Place retreat was a time for us, as clay jars, to come away and rest. For many, the load of living in the inner-city was set aside; fault lines were eased.

The wonderful thing about being jars of clay is that the ‘weaker’ ones can remind the ‘stronger’ ones what we all carry: the treasure that is Christ. This is what happened at this year’s retreat. Human acts of love and kindness revealed this treasure within: wheelchairs pushed through the mud and the rain; words of encouragement and love given amid challenging circumstance; concern voiced for those upset; inclusion valued above everything else; prayers of thanks and intercession offered; gratitude abounding; silence shared.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. (2Cor 4:8-10)

Many at David’s Place live with fragile clay. It bends, it cracks, it can break. And so it can be with all of us. This year’s retreat showed that fragile acts of love are the strongest acts; in their vulnerability they reveal the invincibility of divine love in human experience. Love is an extraordinary power that lives in us, waiting to move and act as us. Fragile clay is love’s sacrament.

During the retreat our breaks and cracks were on display – we could not help it. And not being able to help it is the gift. In all this is a treasure shines through, transfiguring weakness into ways of love. This is what happens when fragile human beings dare to love each other. This is what happened at this year’s David’s Place Retreat.

For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2Cor 4:11-12)

What can happen for us who accept something of the clay that they are, the jar we have become, and still together attempt love? We experience that this Jesus, this treasure of Christ within us, is mysteriously one with who we most deeply are. The humanity of Jesus is his solidarity with us. Being human is enough – whatever jar we are.

Each year, at St. Benedict’s Monastery, the David’s Place Community are their own human face of divine love for each other. This is what all community can be, both for each other and for the world.


Hospitality, Community, and the Centrality of Prayer

The below was preached as a sermon to the community Benedictus Contemplative Church on July 18, 2015.

Mark chapter 6, verses 30 to 34, 53 to 57.

The Greek word used in verse 34 by Mark, translated as compassion is splagchnizomai (splangkh-nid’-zom-ahee). It means something like to be moved deeply in the guts. Here is a deep visceral reaction in Jesus, one without thought, a reaction of human and divine solidarity with the sick, the powerless, the suffering. In this reaction is the revelation that the divine life is completely, fully committed to the human experience – with us, healing, saving, and empowering us to live a life in the simple freedom of the loving present moment.

In this Gospel story struggling humanity experiences, in Jesus, the God life. And this is how it is with us today. In our contemplative practice we too experience God in Jesus. We experience Christ consciousness.

In this experience, in ways mysterious, the struggles of our inward human lives are healed, saved, transformed.

We experience in Christ an ontological union, or a union of being between human and divine life, the same union of being that Mark has Jesus acting from in tonight’s Gospel.

In the risen Jesus human and divine life are fully present to, and alive in each other. Christian prayer is about learning to be more and more present, more and more attentive, to this union of being within us.

To give attention to this union requires solitude. The Gospel for today has Jesus going with his disciples to a deserted place to rest, a place of solitude. The more we practice prayer the more we discover that this solitude, this deserted place of rest, is within us, within our own hearts. On the way into this deserted place we experience our inner struggles, those things within that, like the crowd in the Gospel, can demand our attention on this journey into solitude. And just like in the Gospel, these struggles – be they struggles with distractions or struggles with deeper psychological wounds (wounds that can sometimes be at the root of our distraction) – when these struggles come into contact with the divine life they are (over time) healed.

It is very difficult to go on this journey into solitude alone. The disciples, in the Gospel, did it together, with Jesus.  Thankfully, it is possible to experience our own unique solitude in God together. In this experience we also experience our struggles and healing together.

This together into solitude and struggle, so that healing happens and Christ may be lived and experienced, is just one part of the dynamic of Christian community.

In the decision to be together and to embrace our solitude together, in the experience of a practical giving and receiving of love for each other, and in the commitment to a common prayer life which transcends egocentricity so that we may be more in love together – it is in the practice of these things together where Christian community is born and lived.

I experienced this threefold dynamic at Mediatio House.

This dynamic can be, at times, an uncomfortable, even painful experience. And it’s also an experience that has within it great purpose, meaning, and fulfilment.

A couple of examples of this dynamic in action from my experience at Meditatio House:

Hospitality

The commitment to hospitality at Mediatio House is a very practical way in which we, at the house, grow in other centred loving. People come to the house all the time: to pray with the community, for day activities, for lunch, meetings, accommodation. Our challenge is to be and become people of welcome, to be present to the people who come to the house, to give them our attention.

The Community

People from all over the globe come to the house to live. This can be for a few weeks, to 6 months, to 12 months and beyond. In this experience there are cultural challenges as well as challenges of personality and temperament.

Parker J. Palmer writes

…community always means the collision of egos. It is less like utopia than like a crucible or a refiner’s fire. In this process God wants us to learn something about ourselves, our limits, our need for others. In this process is the pain of not getting our way, but the promise of finding the Way.

There have been times in the last 12 months where I have experienced this collision of my ego and other egos. I have been involved in heated discussions around how I and others have been living with each other. I have witnessed the struggle of fellow members as they discover through experience the deep seated ways in which the human reaction of self-preservation via isolation can flare.

I have discovered myself sitting in judgement of another’s controlling and anxious ways only to discover that under my judgement is a denial of the ways I tend towards the control of others so that I may not experience anxiety.

I have experienced the ebb and flow, the back and forth, of humility and pride.

My pride says ‘I can do this myself’, it says ‘I don’t require relationship’. It develops in isolation, both physical and psychological. It often grows subtly, quietly. Or it can spring up in reaction to someone’s critique about the way I am living, or not living. Unchecked it grows into arrogance. When I am in the midst of it I am caught in the illusion that God is absent.

There comes a point in all of this when the experience of isolation becomes prominent enough for me to be honest about it – with myself, with God, with others. In the eventual turn back to community and relationship is the turn back to grace and the realisation that I need God and that community (where ever I am experiencing it) is a vital part of the way to God. In this realisation humility grows its roots a little deeper. My time at Meditatio House has been a humbling experience. Humility is pride’s antidote. Only a life growing in humility can truly grow in God.

The Centrality of Prayer  

At the centre of all of this was (and is) the three times a day of prayer and meditation. At these times we gathered together as a community with whatever was going on within and between us.

At these times we practiced attention off any struggles that were going on and attention on the divine life within. We were like the crowd in Mark’s Gospel – focusing on the presence Christ. Looking back, during these times I experienced the forgetting of struggle and the silent emergence of healing and integration. This emergence would not have happened in the same way if I was living by myself and meditating by myself. We all need crucibles, a refiner’s fire. Community is mine.

And as this emerging happened I discovered in myself a slow growing acceptance of fellow community members. I discovered myself living in a love for them that I did not have to make happen. I could let go. We grew in simply being with each other.

So what about Benedictus and this threefold dynamic of solitude together, practical giving in love, and communal prayer?

Solitude and together: Our service each week in an example of being both together (at the service) and in solitude together (as we spend time in silence within the service). We come and experience God alone and together.

Our times of commitment to contemplative prayer outside of this service are also done together and alone.

Practical giving in love: Acts of service for the Benedictus community, as well as for those who form a part of our communal experience  generally (partners, family, work, friends) – these acts can reveal us to ourselves. Attention to our inner lives can help us to see our motivations for giving and living as they happen within our commitments.

This practical giving is an act of self-giving: things here such as the centrepiece, wine and cheese, staying just a little longer after the service to say hello to people we may not know yet.

We also know about the practicality, the effort, and self offering of loving and being loved by a partner, family, and friends.

Communal prayer: This service is our communal prayer. The silence at its heart is the place in which we are growing in the giving of our whole selves to the divine energy at the heart of Creation which sustains us for loving and integrates ego with Self. After this silence our inner lives are freed just that little bit more to be in love with ourselves and each other.

At Meditatio House, as a residential community encouraging others to grow in love and Self, the volume is turned up on this three fold dynamic. It’s a bit like living in a hot house. The volume is turned up on a dynamic which is already a part of any life committed to growing in love and prayer together.

On this loving, contemplative, and communal journey we are all on, where ever we are on it, what is happening is that our whole humanity is growing into a union with the divine life. Jesus shows us that this growing in union is possible. His risen life with and in us is the way divinity comes alive in us and the way we come alive in the divine life.

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The Reconciling Power of our Common Experience of ‘Mother’ Land

This post was first published as an article on the Australian Eureka Street emag Religious Blog on July 9, 2015. If you are able and think it worthwhile, please support Eureka Street with a donation.

This week’s meeting at Kirribilli House between Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander leaders and politicians was one more step in the journey towards the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples in Australia’s constitution.

The meeting decided on the establishment of a Referendum Council, a series of community conferences, and that the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition produce a discussion paper. The meeting also endorsed the work that the Recognise movement has been doing and will continue to do as it raises awareness and fosters support for constitutional change via referendum.

There have been some dissenting voices in response to this Kirribilli meeting. Noel Pearson, who was at the meeting, called it “largely redundant“, asserting that the outcomes had already been pre-determined by Tony Abbot and Bill Shorten. New Matilda published an opinion piece in which the meeting was described as just one more step on the way towards “fluffy words in a preamble”.

We are being reminded that referendums are not about pleasing all the people. Referendums are about satisfying enough of the people so that these people can vote yes.

While it is important to address the shortcomings in the constitution with regard to Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people, there are questions around just how much recognition of indigenous peoples in the constitution (basically a ‘whitefellas’ document) can contribute towards the overall reconciliation of indigenous peoples and culture with post 1788 peoples and culture.

Perhaps in our constitutional enthusiasm we have forgotten about the power of the continent itself. Perhaps it is our common experience of this continent we now call Australia, more so than any constitution, that can reconcile us.

Spirituality is about human experience and our response to the transcendent in this experience. Australian indigenous culture has, for over 40,000 years, experienced this land and the transcendent in it. People who have settled in Australia during the last two centuries have experienced this same land and its transcendent qualities.

Eugene Stockton, along with artist Terence O’Donnell, has just produced a timely booklet called This Land, Our Mother. Stockton (theologian, archaeologist, and biblical scholar) has been a long-time advocate for the power of the Australian continent to reconcile pre and post 1788 Australia. In the booklet Stockton writes

If I was born in this land [Australia], by Aboriginal understanding, I have pre-existed here like them from the timeless Dreaming. So, on their own reckoning, I have a common bond with Aborigines and common spiritual roots in this continent, despite my racial roots elsewhere from my parents. (22).

We are in the experience of this land together. This experience is bigger than race and culture. It is the land, with its deep sense of awe, mystery, and otherness which is the “common bond” between all, a bond pre-dating the constitution and not reliant on it. It is a bond of birth, not a bond of legality. Stockton goes on to say

This land can become a unifying focus for our multicultural society, not only for those who came to these shores many millennia ago, but also for those who have come from different countries in the last two centuries. We can become a single nation, not only by cohabitating a single continent and sharing the economic, social and political opportunities if offers, but more deeply by sharing a spiritual link with the land, our mother, to whom we have at last come home. (22).

There is a deep link, a gift of divinity and land, one that is offered to all the inhabitants of this continent, regardless of how long we have been here, how we got here, and what has been done here. This spiritual view does not attempt to deny the gross injustices committed since 1788. Rather, the sincere embracing of our common “spiritual link with the land” invites us all to honesty and the ongoing journey of forgiveness. This is what can unite us if we are prepared to do the work.

Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander recognition in the constitution, whatever form it takes, can be another step towards this unity and reconciliation. We must not, however, forget the land, this continental island that is home to us all.

 

 


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