I had the privilege of speaking in the graveyard of my Great Great Great Grandparents to the Back to Burton Society who were launching my fathers new book, “Pioneering the Para Plains”. Lots of people have asked for a copy of my rant and so my rough notes are posted here below.
I would also acknowledge the Karuna as the Traditional Owners of this place upon which we stand, the spirit of their ancestors and their present day elders. I pray these words may be work for reconciliation between people, the earth and its creator.
It’s good to be here in the burial place of my own ancestors. I have never lived here but I feel a strong connection to this place.
As the son of a Methodist minister with its peculiar circuit system I have lived a transient lifestyle in many places across South Australia and Victoria.
With my work these days I often move around the Basalt Plains of Western Victoria and as I do my thoughts are often drawn to this plain.
In my house we have a cross that was constructed out of some of the original timber of the church that once stood upon this site. My children call it the “family cross” and we often take it with us when we attend public functions or protests as a reminder of why we are here, where it is that we come from and the land on which my people first stood in this country .
In a world of great social and economic mobility it is hard to know where we belong anymore; to know where our roots truly are.
I am conscious of this each day as I work in Melbourne with people who are homeless, who are often the most disconnected and transient in our society. This is most evident as I sit and listen to urban indigenous people whose sense of displacement and pain seems so much greater than my own.
One of my work colleagues travelled to England for the first time recently and spoke about it as a spiritual awakening; of the power of physically being on the land that has shaped his culture, of the palpable sense of living history and becoming conscious of ones roots.
This was a mixed blessing as upon return he realised how little we know of any sense of ancient or sacred history of this place and how foreign and even at odds with the land our Australian culture remains and indeed much of our iconic battler identity is based . he was haunted by the question “Can we ever truly feel at home in this place without some form of cultural reconciliation?”
Upon return he was sharing this tension with a local indigenous leader. In a powerful moment of gracious invitation the indigenous elder looked him in the eye and said…
”You belong here! This is your place!”
It was a reconciliation experience that gave him the focus and sense of call and connection to continue his work to build community in one of the poorest suburbs of Geelong.
As I have grown I have watched as my fathers interest has been sparked and then grown through similar travels to Cornwall and the inevitable processing that occurs on the journey home. Much of this traveling; the book that we are launching today; and I would suggest gatherings like today, involve personal, spiritual, identity work, with which many people here would identify.
I want to share briefly the importance that land and Place have had in shaping some of my own journey.
My fathers love of the stories of this place has led me to reflect upon the idea of songlines.
Myers says a truly contextual spirituality “must pay attention not only to history and social location, but to the songlines of the land,” By songlines, he refers to the Aboriginal cultural ways of seeing, describing and navigating their way through landscapes.
These are powerful stories of creation from which, and for which, Australian indigenous people believe themselves to be created. They are also often quite practical stories about how to survive, where to find water, negotiate tribal boundaries, and find shelter at different times in the land.
Another colleague of mine has just returned from a tour in Northern South Australia structured by such songlines where ancient rituals and sacred stories were told as part of the journey. She noted that the particular stories of one people group often overlapped with that of another between tribes, giving a sense of interconnection and allowing people to navigate large distances. (John Magor’s hand drawn map in the back of my father’s book is a highlight for me as it has many pictures from stories that occur through the book…a kind of songline may i suggest!)
Unfortunately I believe that in ‘settling’ or seeking to make this place their spiritual home our pioneering parents often transplanted songs from another place (the hymns of Charles Wesley spring to mind) at the expense of listening and knowing the stories or songlines already here.
One view of our pioneering forebears is of religiously zealous, pioneer farmers armed with the protestant work ethic and a vision of political and religious freedom who built the city of churches which has formed the basis for today’s prosperity.
An alternative view that I am struck with as I stand in what is now a car park where our pioneers church once stood, and as I look at the many decaying chapels, dotted over the denuded and drought stricken landscape is one of our forebears as, economic and religious refugees. A profoundly dislocated and desperate people who sought to recreate an ideal of home that belonged to another place. So desperate in fact that we imposed our songs on the landscape and its people with an often unconscious violence.
Whether we ascribe to a black or white arm band view of Australia’s history. (Personally I think mine is grey!) The question that each of us must ask of our ourselves, our spirituality, our church traditions and structures, our land and economics is. What is that can truly take root in this country? What is it that is truly sustainable?
The Australian spirituality writer David Tacey suggests that Western and European spirituality is associated with ‘ideas’ and is accessed through the ‘head’. Such ways of seeing imply that Aussie culture a secular rejection of such ways. Tacey suggests we are spiritual but that the unique Southern landscape calls us to experience spirituality from the ‘feet’ up, arising in stillness and silence from the land itself.
Far from a trendy new age concept such ideas can be found in the best parts of the Christian heritage. Land is also sacred in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Land forms the core part of the covenant promises to the ancestors as a connection point through the generations. The religious laws of Torah provides that place, opportunity and freedom that comes from land may be extended to all not co-opted by a few. Adelaide based Theologian Norman Habel has written on the ways in which the earth itself is seen as a character, an active participant which has its own voice thoughout the biblical story.
Highlighting similar biblical songlines (eg. Isaiah 42), Ched Myers sees the task of contextualisation as “to reclaim symbols of redemption that are indigenous to the bioregion in which the church dwells. To remember the stories of the people of the land and to sing anew its old songs. These can be woven together with the symbols, stories and songs of our own traditions.” He suggests that this will necessarily be a local and personal exercise.
I personally believe that the roots of Methodist Revival in Cornwall which have so shaped the spirituality of the place on which we stand can be traced back to an earlier Celtic spiritual tradition. Andy Philips, the founder of the recently establish Celtic Christian community of St Piran suggests that for Celtic monks, a rooted-ness in the land was essential for spiritual wholeness. There was deep reverence for certain places which were considered holy or sacred, even if, (perhaps especially if) seen as such by pagan traditions before the coming of Christianity. The Celts described Thin Places; where heaven and earth seemed closer.
I’m not sure if any of us experience Burton as a thin place? The Celtic monks often worshiped outdoors in the extremes of nature and I can sense some of that same spirit is here today. (100 people sitting in a car park /cemetery, 35 degree day, hot northerly wind!)
The contemporary resurgence of interest in Celtic spirituality is in part because it is a non institutional spiritual tradition, which has a sensitivity to environment and other cultures not found in much modern Christianity.
My late uncle in law from Yorkshire was a dear friend of mine and wrote in the cover of a book about Celtic saints which I treasure…… “From one dreamtime to another”.
Another idea that has helped my journey is that of the spirits of the ancestors of a place which I acknowledged at the outset. Jung suggests that as we deepen our connection with place, the place slowly conquers us. “Man can be assimilated by a country.”
Some indigenous traditions also assert that one cannot conquer foreign soil, because in it there dwells strange ancestor-spirits who reincarnate themselves in the new-born.
Whilst the Methodism of our forebears has no doctrine of reincarnation or ancestral spirits, David Tacey suggests it is the power of this ‘spirit of place’, however described, that has caused many sensitive Australians to feel at ‘home’ in Aboriginal Australia. Ched Myers makes connections between local Aboriginal ‘spirits of place’ and the great ‘cloud of witnesses’ spoken of in Hebrews 12:1.
The best way for Aboriginal Australians to bring about a social revolution is not to shout “Europeans, go home”, but to cry “We are your soul”, then observe the changes says Tacey.
Myers observes these changes in his own life using the metaphor of the parable about the ways of God being like the germination of a seed that is sown in the earth. A seed which has a life of its own.
“The love in the land has summoned a love in me for it. This love was buried in my soul like the smallest of seeds, placed there by ancestors I never knew. The nights and days of my life have passed and the seed has grown, ‘I know not how’ (Mark 4:27; 1994 p.368, emphasis his).
My father writes in the book we are launching today….
“While we will never pioneer the land again. Our culture and way of life will not survive on memorabilia of the past.” That is not what this gathering is about…”When it comes to making and shaping our identity… every generation is called to make its choices and set its priorities.”
I believe this place, the land itself, needs to be our guide in creating this identity. I am not naïve about the difficulty of this process. The authors I have quoted are contested in the culture wars of our day. One must avoid the temptation of superficially synthesizing or consuming romantic ideas.
Whilst not easy, this process calls for the same pioneering courage and determination exhibited by those that have gone before us. This is why we are drawn here today. This is the spiritual work for our generation.
The land has a power that transcends our denominational, religious, cultural or political differences.
When this weeks round of tax cuts have come and gone, long after the latest homes that now surround us, or the contemporary religious buildings, be they supermarkets or mega-churches are rubble, long after our own bodies have gone, the land will remain.
The love that created it and that remains in it will call its inhabitants to make a place, to listen and learn its stories, its songs of love and of lament and to live wisely.
As we gather today we are not alone but we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; the spirits of our pioneering mothers and fathers, and those of the ancient dreaming.
They bear witness to this moment and our choices. Amen.