Stirring the Possum

The second half of my term as moderator has begun and I have just returned from chairing a two-day meeting of the newly elected Synod Standing Committee empowered to ‘act’ on behalf of the Synod over the next 18 months.

Thus far, many of the words I’ve had to say have been about prayer. Now I believe it’s time to start ‘stirring the possum’.

The Macquarie Dictionary offers the following definition for stirring the possum, “to instigate a debate on a controversial topic, especially in the public arena”.

I think that the origins of this distinctly Australian phrase are about disturbing a possum during the day.

Possums are, of course, nocturnal and if you disturb a brush-tail during the day it may well growl at you. Not so in my experience with ring-tails who are more likely to squeak. But generally speaking, we know that if we do stir a possum you can expect to get a reaction.

In my devotions for the Synod Standing Committee, I related yet another story of the Desert Fathers. This one was about Abba Moses who had set out on a journey to Petra, but on the way he grew tired and began to wonder whether he would find water there. And a voice said to him, “Go and do not be anxious about anything”. So he continued and when he arrived, he cooked some beans for some of the brothers with the small amount of water he had left. Only then did a cloud of rain come to fill their water containers.

Another story that I didn’t relay was the one where Abba Bessarion asked Abba Doulos why he insisted on carrying water with him everywhere he went.
Doulos replied, somewhat sheepishly but with a certain amount of common sense: “Forgive me, it is for fear of being thirsty later on.” And Bessarion said: “God is here, God is everywhere.”

While I didn’t say this to the Standing Committee, I told the story in the context of constantly hearing of plans for the Uniting Church to develop perpetual ‘streams’ of income in order that we may continue to ‘be church’ into the future. And as I listen to those plans, I listen too to the Pope of the Catholic Church who is very outspoken about the scandal of poverty. He has said: “To love God and neighbour is not something abstract, but profoundly concrete.”

Wherever I look, the Western Church continues to maintain substantial assets and reserves. And in doing so, there can be little doubt that it is in danger of undercutting the message it proclaims if it does not embody that message. Our desire as church should surely be to demonstrate the inter-dependence of the human family.

There are many influences in my spiritual life – not least of which are the writings of Michael Casey who has been a monk at Tarrawarra Abbey in the Yarra Valley since I was two years old. He has said that desire is what makes us human. It is the most dynamic part of our being. It is desire that propels us towards God.

Unfortunately this fundamental desire can be diverted when anxiety creeps in. Our desire can then be attached to lesser pursuits or motivations.

Casey has said we should ask ourselves again and again: “What is it we seek?” This means assessing situations with the eye of faith. If our faith is weak, we will quickly buckle under the assault of contrary winds.

Only a vigorous spiritual life will keep us afloat in difficult times.

The possum that I’m stirring is our attachment to the status quo and is best explained by one more story from the Desert Fathers: Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and, as far as I can, I purify my thoughts.

What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched out his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you want to, you can become all flame.”

Dan Wootton

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