07 May 2023

More than a Coronation

My parents are old enough to remember the coronation of Queen Elizabeth 2, but for the vast majority of the global population, we were all first timers of such a ceremony. Mercifully, the commentary helped decipher what on earth was going on in this 1000 year old ceremony reframed for a very different world than the one of Charles’s parents, and mine.

What surprised me in this broadcast (which at first I had little interest in watching), was the depth of meaning woven through it all and, what this said about faith, work and vocation. We were not simply witnessing the coronation of a King but an ordination and commissioning to a life of vocation.

'Vocation' is much more than the job or profession you do. It's all the activities, roles, people and contexts to which we are called, inspired and enabled for the service of others, and a common good. What distinguishes vocation over merely a job is the sense of calling to doing good work for a greater outcome than self. Religious or not, desiring a life that feels purposeful and significant is, I think, hard wired into all of us.

Breaking convention, Charles prayed aloud with deep vocational intent. He prayed “God of compassion and mercy whose Son was sent not to be served but to serve, give grace that I may find in thy service perfect freedom and in that freedom knowledge of thy truth. Grant that I may be a blessing to all thy children, of every faith and belief, that together we may discover the ways of gentleness and be led into the paths of peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen”

This was a royal and priestly prayer to a vocational life of service to ALL people, in the manner of Jesus. And note, it was from that Christ-like posture of serving, that perfect freedom comes, and a revelation of what is truly true, tender and peaceable.

It’s quite a beautiful prayer. But neither such a prayer, nor such a commissioning is limited to kings and priests - this is the common prayer to which every person is invited to pray.

Past the pomp and ceremony, I think we just witnessed something profoundly common to us all - an invitation to humbly step into a whole life ordained with deep purpose and significance, oriented toward the flourishing of all people. A life of vocation.

Charles waited a very long time to be crowned and commissioned into this new vocational season. But when it comes to thinking and living vocationally, its never too early to start.... and it's never too late either.

Every day counts.

Hey thanks for reading this article. Could you help me out with a national research project I am running on attitudes to work life and the place, if any, of faith and faith communities. The survey will take about 10 minutes to complete. Instructions in the link below. Thanks!

25 December 2022

Joy. What even is it? And how do you get it?

Ah, Christmas, a season that teases us with good times, pleasures and happiness - to have a holly jolly Christmas, to have yourself a merry little Christmas, tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la. Apparently, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. You might be getting a few days off work, off your diet, maybe reunited with friends and family, the emails slow down, or you just ignore them, you sleep in, take a trip to the beach or the boxing day test match. Ham, more ham. Perhaps you really love today and this week. 

Or perhaps it’s NOT the most wonderful time of the year because it’s the time when you most feel the absence of family. You skipped putting up the tree because no one would see it, or you did but there are no presents under it and no feast to enjoy with others. Perhaps you are cleaning up from floods, or longing for rain in east Africa, or longing for peace in Ukraine. Whether you experience all those Christmas feel good vibes this year, or feel like its escaped you once again this year, I wonder if you would notice two things:

1. All those hopes for the comfort of connection and intimacy, and inclusion with other, to come and sit around a table, eat good food, laugh to sing, to delight others with a gift, to feel loved with a gift or a card or kind word, to feel like you can truly relax in safety - are all universal desires woven into our humanity. We all desire this.
2. And those common desires point to an even deeper, often unspoken belief that IF the world could be put right, IF communities and families and IF our lives could be put right, these are the kind of delights we would know. Let me say that another way – our desire in Christmas for happiness, pleasure, connection and love are signposts pointing to a world we were all made for and hope for. And when we catch a glimpse of that world and that life, and feel it’s impact in some small way – we have a word for that. Do you know what we call it? It's one of the most elusive, slippery, misunderstood words in our Christmas vocabulary. Do you know what it is? 

The funny thing about joy is that we use the world but when pressed, don't really know what it means. Joy is quite hard to define, it seems to resist definition like trying to define a colour. So, we often just think joy = really happy - like those crazy Argentinians after winning the world cup last week. We reduce it to feeling of happiness or delight. But is that it? I don't think so.

When Christians sing “joy to the world”, when we think about joy, yes it is a kind of happy emotion but this joy is not tied to happiness. This joy’s existence is not limited to being on the winning team, or life going to plan, or having your desires satisfied.

Reading through many instances of the word joy in the New Testament, a definition of this joy starts to form:
  • An angel announcing to the shepherd’s good news of a great JOY – about the in breaking of God, a saviour, the birth of a messiah, the Lord.
  • Wise men we read are OVERJOYED at seeing a star that would lead them to a great king – the king that the heavens above would even be moving for.
  • Simeon, an old devout man of God, joyfully praising God at the sight of the baby Jesus saying I can now die in peace because I have seen the one who will be the light to all nations.
  • The parables Jesus told of discovering God’s kingdom like a treasure found in a field or a fine peal – and in the JOY of discovery, selling everything to have it. Or the joy finding of a lost coin, or sheep or son.
  • The 72 disciples returning from a day of ministry with great JOY at seeing how the work of the devil was overpowered by the name of Jesus
  • The JOY Jesus spoke of in heaven when one sinner repents and Jesus himself, for the JOY set before him, the joy of saving a broken world.. endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. What I notice in all these instances is that 
These instances reveal to me that joy is what people encounter when they behold, or better still, get involved in something of real substance, beauty or eternal significance in God’s vision for life...because as they do, they catch a glimpse of the world as it is in heaven, a glimpse of the world made right and the life they were made for and long for. 

Unconvinced? Well, when do people experience misery and despair? Usually when the world is not as it ought to be – when their lives collide with tragedy or suffering. And so by contrast, when do they experience a kind of joy? When the world is as it ought to be and they collide with a flourishing life, with love, beauty, selflessness or compassion.

This I think is why joy is so hard to have in a broken world. This is why you may feel like you never feel joy. Unlike “happy” or “pleasure” which we can somewhat orchestrate, joy is, as CS Lewis put it, "never in our power." Joy finds you more than you find it. You can’t buy it or manufacture it. It sneaks up on you when you least expect it and touches down like lightening for a flash then seems to go just as quickly. Again, as CS Lewis wrote many years ago in his autobiography, “All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be'”.

If you have ever known or encountered true joy, even for a moment, you want it again. But how? Here are 2 ways to invite Joy to touch down into your life this Christmas and beyond it:

1.Behold – God’s world come and coming. “Behold” means, to fix your eyes, to focus with attention and care; don’t miss it! Paul encouraged the church in Philippi to rejoyce always, and as a way of living that he encourages them to think about "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." Behold them, fix your thoughts and vision on them!

Those magi, shepherds and Simeon –they searched, and saw and they beheld– fixed their eyes on not just a baby in a manger – but who this baby would be and do, and in doing so caught a glimpse of on earth as in heaven. A revelation of the glory of another world coming in Christ – a king, a messiah a lord. 

Behold Jesus! Every one of those witnesses to the birth of Jesus had something to get over or see beyond when they beheld that baby in a peasant stable, and all through history that’s still the same. Joy needs a different kind of vision. Whatever historical or cultural clutter you have today, whatever reluctance or disappointment or misapprehensions – the invitation is to come and see, to behold the wonder of Jesus for yourself  for this is the greatest intervention of love and miracle the world has known. As Dorothy Sayers famously wrote of Jesus:

The most high is coming low, God is coming down, becoming one of us. God is greater than we thought and we are more sinful. For whatever reason God chose us to allow us to be limited, suffer, sorrows and death, he has nonetheless the honesty and integrity to take his own medicine and step into it himself. He can ask nothing of us he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience. From the trivial limitations of family life and the cramping limitation of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation and defeat and despair and death. He was Born in poverty, died in disgrace, suffered infinite pain and he thought it all well worth his while. 

2. Become - join in on God’s kingdom coming. In John 15 Jesus explicitly says that he desires that His JOY to be in them and explains that the secret to living in joy is in keeping his commandments. He says “If you keep My commandments, you will remain in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and remain in His love. These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full. “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you." (John15:10-12)

So, inviting joy into my life can take place as we see differently and it can take place when I join in. Join in what?

Letting Jesus love you - Love one another Jesus said, just as I have loved you. Let this be your foundation in life - that God delights in you with a steadfast love. That your worth, meaning and purpose flow from realising just how much God loves you. And in the overflow of His love...

To love others with that same sacrifice and generosity. As we do Jesus says, we join in on the kingdom coming on earth as in heaven….and that’s when we experience Jesus’ Joy. I have found that the closest I get to joy in life is when I see others touched by compassion, grace, generosity, and love. When I see people seeing a glimpse of the world as it ought to be in the faces, hands and feet of those who are bringing it. Jesus next words in John 15 unpack that further, he says.. "greater love has no one than this, that a person will lay down his life for his friends."

And this is what I hope you see for yourself – the greatest love and life we can behold is Jesus. He was born into poverty, died in disgrace, suffered infinite pain and he thought it all well worth his while. He thought it all JOY to enter into our humanity, to let heaven and earth collide, and lay down his life to give us a way into His joy. So that, no matter what happens, whether it’s a holly jolly Christmas or its not the best time of the year - joy is a gift available to us all, as we each behold God who became one of us, as we receive Jesus as our king who loves us, and join in with Jesus in loving others with the same love we’ve received.

Ahh we so easily settle for self-made happiness when we can invite joy into our life. Like those first witnesses, come let us adore HIM– and as you rightly behold Jesus – you glimpse the true joy of Christmas. If you want to encounter true joy, invite Jesus into your life this Christmas! Jesus doesn’t offer happiness or pleasure, but joy to the world. May his Joy be in you this Christmas and in the year ahead.

09 October 2022

Can’t I bring my faith to work anymore?

On Monday, Andrew Thorburn was appointed as the new CEO of the Essendon Football Club, the team the former head of NAB had followed since he was a boy. But on Tuesday, after a sustained wave of media, club and political pressure, Thorburn was forced to resign - not because of a scandal or unethical behaviour or that he lacked the skillset, but because he is an active member and leader of a local Melbourne church. And his church (City on a Hill), which he volunteers his time and governance skills to, is a regular Anglican church with orthodox views on the gospel, the biblical vision of human sexuality, marriage and the inherent worth of all life, even unborn life. The church, whom my good mate Andy was the former Executive Pastor, was portrayed as “outrageous”, “extreme”, “radical”, “absolutely appalling” and intolerable to the values of modern Australia. 

Anyhow, this raises a much broader question for people of any faith today as they explore future careers, apply for jobs, or head off to their workplaces. Can they bring their faith, their spiritual self, their personal beliefs and values to work?

As I ponder this, I am looking at the ever-growing pile of photocopied journal articles on my desk, written over the past 20 years by organisational behaviour researchers, psychologists, human resource and management gurus. They are all studying one field, Spirituality at Work – yes that’s a field!

Interest in spirituality at work in all its forms and definitions, is not simply the domain of pastors, priests and clerics. It is now widely accepted and backed by validated data, that the healthiest, most productive workplaces are the ones where employees are encouraged to be whole people. Not simply human resources, or labour hire, but integrated whole, and often messy, human beings. We are physical, social, emotional, spiritual beings who function best when all those parts of our lives are integrated.[1] When people live dis-integrated lives - being someone with a particular set of beliefs and values in one context and someone entirely different in another - they tend to become disillusioned and frustrated. Moreover, human beings inherently seek meaning and purpose to their lives, of which work undoubtedly contributes to that pursuit.[2] After all, work (paid or unpaid) can easily consume well over 50% of our waking hours, year in year out across the span of life. So, it is not surprising that we increasingly want to spend this largest chunk of our life in an environment where we feel authentically ourselves and personally energised by what we are doing, and who we are doing it with.

As Ashmos and Duchon explain, the spirituality at work paradigm essentially recognises that people “work not only with their hands, but also their hearts or spirit.”[3] They conclude, “it is when people work with a committed spirit they can find a kind of meaning and purpose, a kind of fulfilment which means the workplace can be a place where people can express their whole selves.”[4]

And, go figure, the research repeatedly confirms they are happier, less conflicted, more creative, engaged, ethical, committed and productive people… and employees! As researchers, Regio and Cunha conclude “When people find meaning in their activities and in general feel involved in richly spiritual organisational climate, they become more healthy and happy, act in a more engaged and collaborative manner, apply their full potential to work and bring their entire selves to the organisation. They thus become more productive over the long run compared with employees in organisations where spirituality is ignored or disrespected.”[5]

Did you catch that? People who are allowed to bring their spirituality to work are better workers.

Ok, so what do we mean by ‘spirituality?’ Spirituality is, unsurprisingly, a very broad term that the experts like to disagree on. After reviewing 140 publications, Karakas identified 70 working definitions.[6] Mitroff and Denton’s definition has been popular in the literature. They defined workplace spirituality as “the effort to find one’s ultimate purpose in life, to develop a strong connection to co-workers and other people associated with work, and to have consistency (integration) between one’s core belief and the values of their organisation.”[7]While Cavanagh defined spirituality as “the desire to find ultimate purpose in life, and to live (work) accordingly.”[8]

Some definitions are primarily focused on the spiritual values and beliefs of the organisation as a whole, while others focus on the individual’s personal values and beliefs. When spirituality lives at the organisational level, it by necessity must be so generalised, nebulous and safe that it risks meaninglessness. This is exemplified in Giacalone and Jurkiewicz who define it as “a framework of organisational values that promotes employees’ experience of transcendence through work process, facilitating their sense of being connected to others in a way that provides feelings of completeness and joy.”[9] I don’t really know what that means other than good vibes at work.

Modern workplaces are increasingly realising that employees flourish (and they get the most out of them) when their quest for spirituality is acknowledged and valued as essential to their overall wellbeing. But organisations have to consider either a bottom up or top down approach to their spiritual culture (or a combination of the two). A top down approach would involve some form of corporate prescription of spirituality, as in, “here are our organisational values, manifestos and alignments with culture which we want you to champion”– e.g. "you will wear this pride Jersey in the next round of the football season."

Alternatively, a bottom up approach, would allow the individual to take the lead in their spiritual quest. But, as we have seen with the Andrew Thorburn case, it gets messy when you do. If you are going to encourage a bottom up, individual pursuit of spirituality in an organisation - what happens if a person’s spiritual quest leads them to embodied core beliefs, values and practices that are religious in nature and potentially at odds with others?

See the dilemma? You need to foster spirituality for the sake of your people and the organisation. But, there is a risk if you mandate the beliefs, values and spiritual norms, and risk if you give people freedom to work it out themselves. As water always flows toward the lowest point, I’d argue that spirituality also flows toward some form of embodied core beliefs, values and practices that are religious in nature. And should we be surprised when they do? What is spirituality after all if it never lands in real beliefs, practices and associations, which we may generally call religious in nature?

As Lynn, Norton and VanderVeen point out, “spirituality is a quest or search for meaning and religion is the specific beliefs, practices and historical and institutional scaffolding which complement that quest.”[10] Their point is that as much as people want to divorce religion and spirituality they are inevitably joined. In fact, they need each other and are both better together.

Robert Orsi explains, much of what is labelled spirituality “severs religious idioms from their precise location in the past, then posits an essential identity among those deracinated (uprooted…yeah I didn’t know what that word meant either) “spiritual” forms, on the one hand, and between the present and the past, on the other, obliterating difference. “Spirituality” does so without giving an account of the reasons for its selections, moreover masking the fact that it is making any selections at all, authorising a new canon while pretending to be surveying an established tradition.”[11] In other words, we can think “spirituality” is neutral, generic and free of dogma, but it never is. Spirituality is never context free and it is never without emerging dogmas and practices that look for all intents, religious.

In The Mystical Element of Religion (1923), Baron Friedrich von Hugel proposed that spirituality ultimately cannot flourish without the historical, institutional and intellectual dimensions associated with religion.[12] He asserts that the institutionalised and intellectual dimensions of spirituality are necessary to lift spirituality beyond its otherwise highly emotive, individualistic, therapeutic and relativistic baseline.

Von Hugel's words may be 100 years old but he could easily have been commentating on the present. Our post-modern secular culture is still deeply interested in spirituality so long as it is unhinged from historic institutional and intellectual religion. While we still crave the spiritual journey, our roadmap is largely individualistic self-authored and stripped of all vestiges of mainstream religious instruction or commitment. This feels liberating, but in the end, I think all we get are those nebulous, individualistic good vibes, that are self-serving and apparently self-saving.

So Thorburn lost his job, not because he is spiritual, but because his spirituality has intersected with a (religious) world view of human flourishing derived from the bible – a document that has fundamentally shaped the very society in which we can freely ask such questions, or as Stephen McAlpine puts it, everyone wants the fruit of Christian thinking but not the root.[13] The irony is, that those who pushed him out have equally dogmatic world views on human flourishing grounded in some other authority that they don’t care to reveal – perhaps its Michel Foucault or Friedrich Nietzsche, Darwin, Oprah or Lady Gaga or just the relentless messaging of a consumer driven, epicurean culture where if it feels good it must be good. Everyone is being spiritually formed by their favourite prophets and dogmas and I do wish we would be honest about that as a society.

I do not for one moment deny there is a lot that Christianity has needed to answer for across the world. Our words and actions have consistently betrayed the teaching of Christ and have at times been the source of great harm for already vulnerable people. There are no excuses, and at that macro level, I am not surprised that people assume the worst. But as one who repeatedly sees how their local church can be a remarkably beautiful gift for the vulnerable, hurting and isolated, day in day out for decades. I have to admit I find it hard to reconcile the reality I see (in the grace ordinary, imperfect Christians consistently show others), with the stereotypes and headlines people read. 

When Thorburn had to choose between his church and his career people were shocked – he chose his church! Go figure, his faith is worth more than the prestige of the position. 

I wonder if anyone wonders 
why that is?

Andrew, I suspect, would have been a damn fine leader of a football club that has struggled for several years. And if power brokers, premiers and members who threatened to tear up their club membership had taken the time to understand the man, his deep spirituality, grounded in the gospel and the local church, they would have also realised he would have had the character, wisdom and sensitivity to bring the best of his spirituality to the best of his exemplary leadership in the club he so loves. Their loss.

So, can you bring your faith to work? I don't know. But for everyone’s sake, I hope you do.

[1] Jurkiewicz, C.L and Giacalone R.A, eds., Handbook of Workplace Spirituality and Organisational Performance (New York: Armonk, n.d.).
[2] Viktor E. Frankl and Harold S. Kushner, Man’s Search for Meaning: The Classic Tribute to Hope from the Holocaust, trans. Ilse Lasch (London: Rider, 2008).
[3] Ashmos, D.P and Duchon, D, “Spirituality at Work: A Conceptualisation and Measure,” Journal of Management Inquiry 9, no. (2) (2000): 134–144.
[4] Petchsawanga, P and Duchon D, “Workplace Spirituality, Meditation and Work Performance,” Management Department Faculty Publications University of Nebraska, 92 (2012).
[5] Rego,A and Cunha, M, “Workplace Spirituality and Organisational Commitment: An Empirical Study,” Journal of Organisational Change Management 22, no. 1 (2008): 53–75.
[6] Kotze, M., Neil,P., & Smit, P., “Psychometric Properties of a Workplace Spirituality Measure,” Journal of Industrial Psychology 48 (2022), https://doi.org/10.4102/sajip.v48i0.1923.
[7] Mitroff, I.I., & Denton, E.A, “A Study of Spirituality in the Workplace,” MIT Sloan Management Review 40, no. 4 (n.d.): 83.
[8] Cavanagh, G.F, “Spirituality for Managers: Context and Critique,” Journal of Organisational Change Management 12, no. 3 (1999): 186–199.
[9] Jurkiewicz, C.L and Giacalone R.A, eds., Handbook of Workplace Spirituality and Organisational Performance.
[10] Lynn,M.L, Naughton, M.J, VanderVeen, S, “Faith at Work Scale: Justification, Development and Validaation of a MEasure of Judaeo-Christian Religion in the Workplace,” Journal of Business Ethics 85 (2009): 227–243.
[11] Orsi,Robert A., “2 + 2 = Five, Or the Quest for an Abundant Empiricism.",” Spiritus 6, no. 1 (2006): 113,121,146,.
[12] Lynn , Naughton, VanderVeen, 229
[13] Stephen McAlpine, Being the Bad Guys: How to Live for Jesus in a World That Says You Shouldn’t (Epsom: The Good Book Company, 2021) 00:16:20.

Image source:unknown

01 April 2022

Superheroes, Senior Pastors and the dark side of power

I’m an unashamed superhero fanboy. Sure, I’m never expecting academy award winning performances from these films, but Marvel and DC franchises are welcome reminders that even in alternate universes, Lycra is still hands down, the fabric of choice. But beneath the Lycra and CGI, the superhero story is, I think, a long conversation about  power. As Uncle Ben would say to Peter Parker “with great power comes great responsibility.” And this ancient maxim does convey much of the metanarrative in this genre - the gift of power, the use, the abuse and the fear of power.

And to that end, power is also the subtext beneath much of our lives. To be crafted in the image of God is to be inherently and distinctively powerful. And with that power does come great responsibility – to steward, to subdue, to rule, to reproduce, to name, to cultivate, to co-create. The first chapter of the bible reveals power, at least in principle, is a gift bestowed on all, for the common good. Power rightly conceived, enables all people and all creation to flourish.

And yet like the increasingly conflicted superheroes of Marvel and DC, power has a very dark side. Friedrich Nietzsche, (possibly the original proponent for our first modern superhero Superman), believed that all life is ‘the will to power.’ That to seize and exploit power by whatever means, is to seize life itself. 

And that, sadly, is where we land most of the time in the power conversation – people seizing life from others. Sometimes its blatant and premeditated, like Russian cruise missiles or the Taliban barring Afghan girls from an education. But mostly it’s anonymous, unassuming and quietly coercive. It lives behind closed doors in family homes and at the office, in the social media feeds we scroll and in the tension between races, cultures and gender. Overt or covert, power when abused seizes life, and births great trauma and shame in it's victims. As you read this, I recognise that you, reader, may know and feel this with a clarity and depth that I can not begin to imagine.

Power wears many costumes today. It shape-shifts between charisma, knowledge, gender, celebrity, morality, rank and religiosity. Spotting it is often hard because on first appearance it looks heroic and we are attracted to those who possess it. The legendary Stan Lee says “a superhero is a person who does heroic deeds and has the ability to do them in a way that a normal person couldn’t. To be a superhero, you need at least one exceptional power and you need to use that power to accomplish good deeds.

According to that definition, we are well accustomed to elevating people to superhero status. We seek out giftedness, and heroism and surrender to their exceptional confidence, eloquence, their abilities and sometimes, their narcissism. It might be a musician, a celebrity, a sportsperson, a spiritual leader or just someone we find particularly successful. We love these superheroes because we love powerful, gifted, beautiful people who use their abilities in messianic ways. If we can’t be them, we can at least follow them and try to emulate them. The influencer trend sweeping our digital landscape is simply another iteration of the superhero phenomena. We actually want to be influenced. We want someone to lead us, to save us. We are simultaneously charmed and harmed by the superheroes of our own making.

Leadership in any form is a massive privilege and burden. The more people look AT you, the more they look TO you. This is especially prevalent in church leaderships. The church leader (be it pastor, priest, or any official leadership role) leads not only from their charisma and capabilities, but through character. A leader must not only do their job well but do their life well. The stakes are so incredibly high. You may wow everyone with your superpowers, but if your life doesn’t essentially match your message, all that power eventually turns to poison and people get terribly hurt.

In recent years, we’ve witnessed a steady procession of superhero leaders/pastors (I think all male) failing in their personal lives.  Most recently its been Pastor Brian Houston from Hillsong, though he is one of many well known leaders who have been dismissed due to some form of misconduct. Personally, I’ve also witnessed gross misconduct in the church up close and felt its devastating effects. And when this happens there are heartbreaking and dehumanising consequences for their victims. Many never recover from this kind of betrayal. They leave the church, they leave the faith. In truth, everyone loses - the  families, the friends, the church, the reputation of the gospel and of course, the perpetrator.  

I am struck by how many ‘heroic’ leaders finish poorly in ministry and I take every new case as a sobering reminder of my own fragility and need to tread so very carefully. That old Phil Keaggy song plays in my head each time...

 “But It could have been me, I could be the one to lose my grip and fall, it could be me the one who’s always standing tall…for unless you hold me tightly Lord and I can hold on too, then tomorrow in the news it could be me(link here for full lyrics).

I kinda understand why the next generation of young Christian leaders say they are reluctant to become senior leaders/pastors. Who would want either the complexity, the burden or the risk? But perhaps the type of men and women we need are the ones that don’t want to be alpha leaders? A leadership based not in the right-handed sense of power as Nietzsche described but in that left-handed kind of power we see in Jesus. A power borne in selflessness, humility and sacrifice. That a true seizing of life, is to surrender power, not attain it. 

We love our screen heroes in all their farfetched glory. And back in the real world, I doubt we will ever stop exalting certain gifted individuals, for that is just human nature. Nor do I think individuals will ever stop blowing up their lives and hurting others, for that too is human nature. But I do hope we can wise up to power and its potentialities. For starters...

Stop thinking you don’t have power –  My natural bias is to downplay the significance of power in my leadership, but I've learnt thats a perilous mindset. Your positional or personal power is real and it’s either naivety or false humility thinking you don’t possess it. Know which 'superpowers' you possess as a leader and how they affect and influence those around you in positive and negative ways. Your strengths and abilities taken to their limit often become your weaknesses and blindspots. 

Handle power responsibly – now that you know you have power, be careful how you steward it, especially with those who are vulnerable or who will want to please you or get close to you. How do you lead those around you in non-manipulative or non-exploitative ways? What are the  conflicts of interest you need to manage? What guardrails and accountabilities do you have in place for yourself and those you lead? Identify structures in your organisation that elevate some and disempower others? What is in your organisations culture that could make people vulnerable to the abuse of power? 
Are you listening to people who don't have the same power? How do you empower people in your setting to give feedback or commentary on your leadership?  If you don't regularly get push back or 'constructive' feedback as a leader, then maybe it's because those you lead don't really think they have permission to give it, or they are afraid of how you will receive it? If so, you have a power issue.

Give power away –the best thing you can do with your power is progressively give it away, especially to those who are systemically disempowered by gender, culture or circumstance. Include people not like you in your decision making. If you are male, ensure you have a large representation of women in your team and decision making processes. Share your knowledge, share your contacts, delegate authority, not just tasks. Learn to get out of the way more often. Your job is to do yourself out of a job by giving others more of it.

Cool that charisma – we don’t really need mythical superhero leaders through whom we vicariously live. We need leaders who are confident yet humble, authentic, accountable and consultative. Organisations built on a charismatic individual often flounder after that leader is gone.

Build the right brand - there is a place for social media and great communication to a wider audience. But be careful that the brand or platform you are building doesn’t have you as the ultimate destination. It’s really not all about what you can do for Jesus. It’s simply all about Jesus. His glory not yours.

And finally, don’t be too enamoured with anyone, including yourself. Partly because people are never as good as they look - I'm not, you're not. But mostly because in the end, there is only one real superhero worth our adoration – Jesus.

20 February 2022

Stories that Rewrite Us

Dylan Alcott's Australian of the Year acceptance speech was brilliant and moving and I was so delighted to see him be honoured that way amongst a cohort of equally deserving candidates. In subsequent interviews I heard Dylan speak about his self hatred growing up, the power of family and a journey to the man he is today. Dylan helps me catch a better glimpse into the world of those living with a disability. Dylan's story also reminds me of one of the most profoundly moving stories in the bible. Its the story of a man with a name thats hard to pronounce - Mephibosheth. You can read his story here in 2 Samuel 9

So this week I attempted an ancient practice called Midrash. This is the Jewish practice of reading between the lines of the Torah. Between the lines of what is said to imagine what is unsaid. In this process you place yourself into the story, become the character and allow your imagination to lead as you just write. As Alecia Ostriker writes,  "Midrash is a kind of diving deep and surfacing. You move from your ordinary analytical, rational mind into a more meditative state, then into the flow of creativity, and finally back to your ordinary consciousness."

The pastor in me gets nervous at this point. What biases am I adding? How am I corrupting the passage with this paraphrase? Crikey I need to loosen up. I think you can keep to the text and still have an imagination. So here is my inhabitation of Mephibosheth. Turn off your analytical brain for a moment. Get comfortable and let the story preach to you as you read slowly and imaginatively. 

Be blessed.

The Lame one. 
That’s how I’m known. 
That’s all I've ever known. 
My feet twisted, gnarled, 
crusted like sun baked bricks. 
I was just a child, only 5 years old. 
Broken they were, my feet, shattered in that fall. Dropped by my nurse in the mad scramble on that day, when my life changed, when the wonder and joy of my childhood just vanished like a morning dew.

That day. 
I still remember.
The anxious voices.
The servants, agitated, panicked.
People rushing, packing, crashing, scattering like hunted lambs.

I recall the snap, the crackle of bones, the cobble stones beetroot red with my blood. 
That was the moment I met fear, day one of every stinking day since. 

That was the day my father Jonathan went away. Never to see him again.
As a boy I used to draw pictures of his face in the earth till one day I realised all I had was a featureless outline, no detail, nothing really at all to hold onto. I guess, all I ever had was an outline of a father. Not someone to feel safe with, someone to trust.
And his father Saul, a mad king they say, died that day too.

"The king is dead," people cried, and I had no idea that meant I was dead too. A dead dog, waiting to die, hunted, a threat they say to the new king. "No heirs to the old throne allowed!"  King David, hunted by Saul is now the hunter – and that’s why I’m the lame one. 
I escaped but not without this permanent reminder of my fall from grace. How surprising, that’s what my name Mephibosheth means after all. 

Mephibosheth. ‘From out of the mouth of shame’…. 

Names are prophetic. No parent would call their child this name, but that’s who I became. Shame. I wonder what my first name was? I guess it doesn’t matter because now I’m cursed, lame, unclean, orphaned, fatherless, alone in this house of refuge far from the palace of my childhood. Exiled in Gilead, in a backwater of barrenness, a wasteland called Lo-de-bar. 

Loo - deee - barrr.

No one goes to lo-de-bar. Or as we call it, N
o de bar. 
It's only good for one thing, disappearing, being a nobody, laying low and that’s been my life. Laying low, literally dragging my useless feet along the ground and laying low, just in case that king David comes looking for me. Not that I can imagine why I’d be any threat to him. 
A dead dog waiting to die. 
Useless. A life worth nothing to no one….


Years pass in obscurity. 


Then one day, horses, uniformed men came over the horizon, unannounced “we are looking for the son of Jonathan, the lame man.” My cover was blown, by an old servant of Saul’s, Ziba that snitch! I bet he got well paid for his information. It’s not like I could run away, lame dogs don’t run, they just cower with their tail between their legs and awaiting their fate.

So out of no-debar they carried me, the long dusty journey back to Jerusalem, to a sight I could hardly comprehend, a city, a palace, that seemed as radiant as the very sun over my head. The larger the buildings grew the smaller I felt and by the time I was in the courtyard of the king’s palace I’ve never felt so small, so humiliated.

My thoughts raced. What a way to meet your executioner, why not just kill me back in lo debar and save the baggage? Why bring me all the way back here? If I meet the king, what do I do, what do I say, "sorry for being alive king", "sorry for being born to that king who hated you." 

 Suddenly this kingly figure came to me, his hand rested softly on my shoulder, "Mephibosheth" he said. I turned and fell prostrate before him, stuttering a few terrified words “at at your service l..lord”. I’ve lived in fear and humiliation but I’ve never felt so terrified and so unworthy in that moment, sure that my time was done, time to be put down.

Then I heard three small words that would change my life…. Don’t be afraid.
“Don’t be afraid!” I don’t know how not to be anything but afraid, I'm afraid!

“For I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan. I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table.”

Was this some sick joke, some new form of torture, "show me kindness", yeah right. “For the sake of your father”….what has my father, that man I never knew, got to do with it anyway? How can he help me from the grave, isn’t he and that madman Saul the reason why my life is such a mess? 

“What is your servant, that you should notice a dead dog like me?” Stinking, worthless, pest – everyone knows, the only good dog in Israel is a dead one.

“A seat at the king's table”, “all the land of my grandfather.”
I did not believe it, refused to believe it.
I was so blind to the backstory.
This story of two beloved friends.
This King David, who once was my father’s greatest friend!

And the promise. The pledge David made to my father Jonathan in that field so long ago. That no matter what, David would always show kindness to my father’s family. And this was no passing comment, this pledge of kindness is as powerful as a whirlwind. It’s not nice words and glad tidings, it's a promise as solid as the great stones of the temple, as sweet as honey dripping from the comb. It’s so faithful, so unwavering, so determined even if it means untold acts of compassion or mercy or grace no matter the cost.

David made that promise to my Father to show that kind of kindness to anyone in his family….. and I was finding out, that included me. Me? A dead dog somehow included in this mercy, all because of a promise made on my behalf to a man I never knew. I’ve heard words like grace and mercy before, but they were just as alien to me as the furnishings of the palace. I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. The only thing real was the nagging ache in my gut. I’d vomited in fear so many times that day there was nothing left in the pit of my stomach but disbelief….

And then I heard the clamour of a crowd echo down the halls, and arms under my shoulders carrying me toward the throng, toward a hall and a table, oh a table fit for a king. My ashen face scanned the room in anxious haste. Braided hair, flowing gowns of rich colour, jewelled adornments and a sweet fragrance of jasmine. And look, there are David’s mighty men, looking so fierce so athletic, so….whole. I was feeling pathetic in their presence.

‘Here comes the dog’, I thought, ‘here to eat the crumbs that fall from your table.’ How humiliating. I looked down, ashamed to look at them, hoping they would politely look anywhere but in my direction.

They carried me to that table, in all my shabbiness, to a place just across from the king even. Those either side made room for me to recline, they saw me, welcomed me. Servants offered me a cup of the finest wine I’ve tasted – deep crimson and rich. Another brought fresh hot bread like I’ve never tasted, as though it had come down from heaven itself. Had I ever known the delight of food before? To be truly nourished. I’ve never seen such a banquet, such abundance, let alone be invited to one. How did I get here? Don’t they know who I am?

As the minutes became hours, a tiny thought, like a gnat began to crawl in the spaces between my fear and loathing. It began to linger. It began to grow.

Wait, they see me, not my brokenness.

The king looks delighted to see me. I was reclining at the table like everyone else. No pitiful stares, or sideways glances.  Not invisible, not hiding in Lo debar I was…. 
included, wanted. 

Not once or twice but always included, a permanent seat. 
My world was unravelling. All the years, the tears, the darkness lifting off as a widow’s veil when her kinsman redeemer finally comes for her.

In time, that table, that seat, that bread and wine silently taught me 
no shame is so great that mercy cannot heal, 
no ugliness that cannot be made beautiful, 
no fear than cannot be comforted, and
no story that cannot be rewritten. 
Oh what joy may greet you
when a king calls your name.

It is still hard to believe it, 
I’m no dead dog anymore, 
that name doesn’t fit anymore.
I’m still lame in the feet, 
but it’s not who I am. 
No longer the Lame one, 
I think, somehow, could it be
I became,
the Loved one.

And the love 
that carried me to the table, 
carries me over and over, 
carries me all the days of my life 
and whispers….

you always 
belong here.

Special thanks to the amazing Lisa Shanahan, my ever wise editor and Yoda in the craft of putting pen to paper.

22 January 2022

At the Table

In a recent post (here) I talked about the power of habits and how they form us as individuals and communities. Well that got me thinking about the habits we’ve grown as a family over the past 27 years of marriage. One enduring habit has to do with food and mealtime. Both my parents are great cooks and dinners were always something to look forward to growing up. Thanks to them, I also love preparing and eating food. My friend from work Karen and I regularly text each other prideful photos of our latest culinary creations (though she always wins hands down). There is something delightful, glorious, spiritual even about the gift of good food. 

In our home, we always eat at the table, we wait till everyone has arrived, we hold hands around the table as one of us thanks God for meal, we eat (it’s always chaotic, noisy and messy with three kids under 17), and when everyone is done we take turns to clean up (usually with some measure of stalling or complaining). Oh, and no screens are allowed, ever.

I you are gen X or older this may not be such a foreign idea but if you are younger, that might sound like a totally weird set of habits, especially given that Australians are increasingly likely to eat on the lounge in front of the TV. Recent Australian studies by social researcher Mark McCrindle have found that over one third of all Australians eat away from a table and in front of a screen. This figure grows to about 50% with people aged 20-40. In his analysis for Freedom Foods, Mark said “an increasing number of families were eating their meals by the television because time poor parents juggling work and domestic commitments, want that time to unwind in the evening”. He continues, “I think that whole process of preparing, cooking and sitting down to a meal together has moved from being the ever day experience to being a special experience.”

The Uber eats phenomena (which I just can’t get my head around) reflects this gradual cultural shift in western nations away from food preparation and shared consumption being central to our daily practice. We order the food on a screen then watch the screen while we eat it. It also highlights how far we’ve moved to outsourcing the basic stuff of life. Sure, we still have a plethora of cooking shows and food documentaries which inspire a particular segment of the public, but I wonder if these shows are more aspirational than anything else?

I don’t think we are going to stop loving good food anytime soon but I do wonder if we need to reclaim its significance and the power in the habits of the table as a central expression of our community with one another and I think, community with God.

The lounge may be more comfortable and the TV more entertaining but what are you missing out on, and at what cost to the people you are doing life with?

(Side note here: This lounge/table contrast is a good analogy of the church too. Do we want 'be fed' as we sit shoulder to shoulder staring at the platform in a mostly anonymous setting, or do we want to eat together, face to face, interacting, sharing with each other?)

I think Jesus knew this too. Jesus seemed to have a thing about food and parties such that he was accused of being a drunkard and glutton (Luke 7.34). Throughout the gospels Jesus is either going to a party, at a party, or having just left a party. And, it was in these contexts, up close with others around a shared meal, that we see some of the most beautiful life changing moments in His ministry. The night before his death Jesus plans a meaning-laden feast to be shared with his closest friends, a meal they would later establish as a centre point of their identity and solidarity. And soon after His resurrection, Jesus shares a breakfast on the beach with Peter, again a meal that changed the course of his life.

Food and feasting is a surprisingly constant theme running through the biblical narrative, from Genesis to Revelation. The first words of God to humans are an invitation to eat and the final vision of the new world is of a massive, joyful banquet. This is no coincidence. There is something deeply spiritual and significant about the table in our humanity.

The table can be a place of the simple human rhythm of eating in shared community.
The table can be a place of learning how to communicate and navigate relationships and mess.
The table can be a place of grace and invitation and inclusion for the lonely.
The table can be a place of continuity and intentionality for scattered, time poor people.
The table can be a place of remembering, a place of restoration and redemption.

May you and those you love skip the lounge, set aside the devices, and rediscover the gift that is the table in your home. And, may that table always have a spare seat for others to join you.

18 January 2022

Habits follow the Heart


Over the summer break I reread James Clear’s best seller, Atomic Habits. A good read for anyone pondering the shape of their lives in 2022. As the title suggests, habits, like atoms are the tiny building blocks of a much larger reality or outcome. Though small they are extremely powerful and over time, shape us into the people we are becoming.

Clear explains that our lives are all deeply influenced by habits driving us in either positive or negative directions. Our habits may leave us feeling productive or stressed, growing in a sense of purpose or languishing, building relationships or becoming isolated. And, Clear argues, our habits are a window into the heart and our sense of identity. That every action you take is a vote for the person you believe you are, or wish to become. Of course, it’s a two-way street and our sense of identity ultimately should shape our behaviours.

But what happens to life when the past two years have torn up many of the habits we’d established over what might be decades? Like say, reading on your daily commute, or dining with friends, or that annual holiday with family, or physically going to church on Sunday. I confess I fell out of bunch of good habits over the past few years, like exercise, like writing.... and healthy eating.

And what about those habits you formed in a pandemic? Maybe it’s a massive daily spike in your Netflix consumption, or caffeine consumption or an obsession with the news feed (ok that’s me). Of course, you may have also established some great new habits, like zooming your extended family regularly, or walking in the mornings or rediscovering an old discipline.

In my context, I’ve seen most people to varying degrees lose the habit of regularly gathering as a faith community. Covid really disrupted the rhythm of gathering and even though we have had a form of gathering continually available, it has been far less gratifying on line or in masks and distancing and an absence of song and lingering. Our lack of physical connection has for some even morphed into a deep lack of belonging in community and an entrenched hesitancy to return. I’m the last person who wants people to gather as church simply because it’s the religious thing to do, but I do think the past few years have robbed people of many of the unspoken delights that come from the good habit of regularly meeting together – like that feeling of belonging, connection, and shared mission.

So, as we all begin to emerge (again and hopefully for the last time) from another wave of the pandemic I think it’s time to ask:

Which habits do you want to keep or recapture, and which should be relegated to the pandemic years?

Perhaps the way to answer that question is by asking 2 other questions:

Who am I, and what kind of person do I want to become?

Ok, that’s a couple of really deep questions which I'm not sure I can even fully answer, but my hunch is that if we could approximately answer these questions we could better figure out which habits, rhythms and behaviours we want to prune from life, and which we want to resurrect.

There may be a sizeable gap between who you are, and the kind of person you want to become. That’s ok, we are all in that club. But nevertheless, what kind of person do you ultimately want to become? What do you want to be known for by your kids if you have them? What are you fundamentally about? At the end of your life, a life well lived looks like?

If we can honestly answer this we can then make choices that grow habits that take us in that direction. The constant danger is that we make a bunch of good things (like fitness, prosperity, career, influence or knowledge or anything apart from God), become the ultimate treasure of our lives. And when they are, you can be sure that our habits will follow the lead of our heart. That’s why our habits are so diagnostic of the heart and identity. They reveal what we treasure, what we believe about ourselves and who we are becoming.

So what is the real treasure your habits are running after in 2022?
And deep down, are you really ok with that?

When I think about what I most treasure in life and the person I want to be, there definitely are some new habits that aren't taking me there, and some older ones that I need to relearn.

How about you?

09 April 2021

On Falling Away

14 months ago I wrote this article on what causes a person to walk away from faith or faith communities. I shelved it feeling it was just too raw and untimely. Then we had 2020 and I forgot all about it till this week. Today it still feels raw, and even more timely - all be it with some additional post-Covid reflections. There is probably never going to be a good time to say some of this without offending someone. So straight up, this is a reflection I think we will all in some way relate to, but especially myself...

Earlier this year (back in 2019) a particularly well-known Christian musician and worship leader, Marty Sampson announced that he was giving up on Christianity. My heart sank when I first heard that news and I’ve felt that familiar ache for many years whenever people in my own context or beyond appear to just up and walk away.

Christians don’t talk about it much but many people who start following Jesus stop. And stopping is not limited to the novice who dips their toe into the pool of Christianity only to realise the water is too cold. I’ve witnessed so many people like Marty swim for years then just get out and walk away cold. Jesus coined the phrase “falling away” to describe this and he seems to be far more comfortable talking about this reality than I am. Truth is, I feel it every time someone appears to have fallen away. 

It feels like death-by-a-thousand-cuts.

I have to keep reminding myself that Jesus frequently spoke to the fragility of faith and anticipated the probability of some falling away, even his closest friends. “This very night you will fall away on account of me,” Jesus says to Peter. And Peter, offended, declares, “even if all fall away, I never will.” (Matthew 26.31). 

Famous last words from the man who gloriously falls away soon after.

In John 6, Jesus has what looks like a spectacular fail in his Sunday sermon. His preaching was so offensive that people up and left en masse. John records, “from that time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” (John 6.66) Yet Jesus seems remarkably unfazed about this and even offers his closest disciples an opt-out option. If Jesus shows me anything here, it is that falling away can be quite normal and perhaps even necessary for a time. 

But before I go any further, let me clarify what I mean by falling away because I think there are two primary ways to interpret that phrase. 

First, there is a falling away from belief in the biblical person and work of Jesus. Some may shift from a biblically orthodox belief to a self-curated spirituality, to universalism, agnosticism or even atheism (I’ll write about this trend another time).

Second, there is a falling away from Christian community. These people would say they still believe but they are done with or have grown past organised religion and want to just privately believe without connection to a church. 

We should not confuse the two, but neither should we think that one has no bearing or relationship to the other. If you fall away from a biblically orthodox vision of Jesus, you also tend to distance yourself from the community that nurtured it. Likewise, if you fall away from the nurturing community, people commonly become nominal in their faith—though they may not admit it.

Attending a local church is not the same as a personal faith and you certainly aren’t saved by going to church, but let’s be clear, the church is not a later invention. Being an identifiable community of God's people spans the whole narrative of the Old and New Testament. Jesus grew up in a cultural context where faith and community were largely inseparable. And Jesus true to this, was forming a community of faith from the start of his ministry. Jesus declares to Peter in Matthew 16, “I will build my church and the gates of hades will not overcome it.”

So as much as there is a growing trend in prosperous western cultures to make faith increasingly personal, individualistic and divested from an established local faith community – I would argue this is more an unfortunate reflection of the broader post-Christian culture than anything else. 

Might we need to reimagine aspects of what it means to be the church? Absolutely, and Covid has been a welcome catalyst for that work to commence. But regardless of our deconstruction and revisioning of being faith communities, many of the fundamental biblical principles of faith and community will endure (we will also cover this in detail at another time). 

So can you have faith without connection to the local church? Yes but it is extremely hard to maintain this for more than a short season (but hey, I’m a pastor so you’d expect me to say that).

There are hundreds of reasons why people fall away from either faith in God or the church. In a story Jesus liked to tell about a farmer sowing seeds, he proposes three categories in which someone who has heard the gospel is vulnerable to falling away:
  • a lack of understanding or revelation of the message of the kingdom, 
  • a lack of resilience under pressure or pain, and 
  • a lack of resolve under temptation. 
And each still apply today but it's often much more personal. All people (including pastors) hit all sorts of complications along the way.
  • Sometimes it is your adult self no longer meshing with the beliefs you inherited from your family.
  • Sometimes it is your fragile foundation cracking under the weight of all your unanswered questions about how the world works or where God was or is in the mess of life.
  • Perhaps it is a deep disappointment at the institution of the church in an age of Royal Commissions into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
  • Perhaps it’s a deep disappointment with people like me – the local pastor or other significant leader you’ve been under. Gross moral failure is everywhere in the church.To experience this kind of betrayal at close range can be soul destroying.
  • Perhaps is it fatigue from the rigidity of conservatism, or weariness at your church putting style over substance and authentic social concern.
  • Maybe it is as simple as not feeling like you were appreciated or not getting along with someone at church—and it was easier to walk away than fix it.
  • Or maybe there are just other things in life that now look more interesting than the narrow often rocky road of following Jesus in community. Certainly this is a byproduct of covid with many people struggling to return to their ‘old habits’ after a year of forming new ones.
Whatever the reasons, perhaps a type of falling is necessary for every disciple at some stage. Several writers like Richard Rohr in Falling Upward, Brian McLaren in Naked Spirituality and Hagberg and Guelich’s classic, The Critical Journey, all use similar analogies to express the idea of a necessary upheaval or crisis somewhere along the timeline of discipleship – a dark night of the soul. Rohr talks about the transition from first half of life thinking to second half of life. McLaren speaks of moving from simplicity and complexity into a stage of perplexity, and Hageberg and Guelich just talk about hitting the wall.

Whatever the language, each are describing a deep state of doubt or disappointment or confusion or disillusionment or even boredom in life. These are uncomfortable feelings for the person and often for those around them. Perfectly good friendships can suddenly feel weird—sometimes people try and “fix” their friend’s existential crisis, sometimes they ignore the spiritual elephant in the room, or distance themselves all together. I guess it all depends on the nature of the relationship.

The thing is, I know that the “wall” is painful, but it is not wrong or shameful. These crisis moments of falling away can be essential to our growth and the necessary catalyst from which old thinking can be rejected, refined or redirected. This is the place of the refining and deepening of our spirit and soul. This may even be the place of reborn dreams, innovation and creativity. The wall is that place where we come to the end of ourselves and are invited to decide again whether to let Jesus direct the course of our life or not.

Jesus sat with his mate Peter on a beach post resurrection cooking fish (John 21.) His return to fishing suggests that he could only look back to his old life rather than see a future. In this tender moment, Jesus confronts and releases him from any shame borne by his failure. But he also asks him to move through to a new season deeper and richer than he could have ever known. Peter would not have been the same man if it weren’t for that moment. Little did Peter know that three decades later, he will have his run his race and in the fury of Nero’s persecution, hold fast to the Jesus who restored him on the beach that day.

I suspect we all feel like falling away sometimes for one reason or another. I know I do. But maybe those moments really are necessary to move us forward and strengthen us for the next leg of our race.

If you feel like you’ve landed in a season of falling away, feel confused or unhinged, or for some reason you just haven't made it back to church since Covid—it's ok, it’s normal and perhaps even necessary. 

I know it can often feel like a source of immense shame and embarrassment. I know you may fear causing others to stumble or fall away too. I know that simply disappearing gradually or quickly can look like a far easier pathway than the vulnerability of exposing your thoughts and feelings. But paradoxically, I just wonder if the way through is in the very thing you are battling – community and/or faith. I wonder if it is amid the messiness of community,  that we find people with the maturity of faith, and the context we need, to authentically walk with us, being Jesus with us and for us, helping us to discern the movement of the Spirit in our lives once again. If so, my hope is that you will allow your questions, frustrations and pain to lead you toward rather than away from faith and community.

For me, seeing people falling away in whatever form remains one of the most disheartening aspects of pastoral ministry. But you don’t need to be a pastor to feel this. If you are the one experiencing the sorrow of a spouse, a child a friend falling away, here are a few things I try and remember.
  • Don’t panic. Your anxiety over a loved one will not help you help them. Keep calm and pray - for wisdom and grace to keep loving them. 
  • Don’t take it personally. Honestly, I often do, but I have to keep reminding myself that it is probably not personal, nor will being offended make anything better.
  • Don’t try and fix them. Remember, they are not a problem to be solved and you aren't the expert who can solve it. Just focus on staying present, listening, asking curious questions and offering wisdom or alternative perspectives when invited. Assume they may have some rich insights that you can learn from too.
  • Don’t neglect yourself. To walk alongside of a hurting or perplexed person can sometimes feel heavy or disorienting. Consequently, you need others in your life who can intentionally and prayerfully support you as you support others.
  • Don’t give up. Keep channels of communication open, and anticipate that God is already working in ways you have no clue about.

23 September 2020

A Problem with Christianity

Christianity in Australia has been trending down for several decades with fewer and fewer people identifying as Christian, let alone actively participating in a church community. Perhaps most concerning are the statistics on the millennials’ exodus from the church. 
This begs the question - If Jesus was such a compelling figure, his vision for humanity so beautiful and his death and resurrection so cosmically significant, then what’s the problem?  
Volumes have been written on the cultural, sociological and ideological reasons for this, but let me offer a simpler explanation – churches tend to gather fans of Jesus, not grow followers. They focus on attracting people to activities about Jesus (ie church) and inoffensive beliefs about Jesus - but not disciple them into a life being renewed with Jesus. 
Covid, has introduced every Christian to a world of faith without the weekly habit of much that constituted or defined ‘church’ for the past millennia. As a result, it has revealed the quality of our conviction and connection to Jesus without 'church', and our willingness to take greater responsibility for our own spiritual health. In times like this, do people rely more heavily on the daily practice of being with Jesus, or slide into a kind of spiritual hibernation mode until it’s all over? I’d love to think it’s the former but my observations tend to land more on the latter. 
And if this is indeed the case then it says as much about the church as an organisation as it does about the individual believer. What it says to church leaders everywhere is that whatever it is we are doing, we may not be doing one of the most important things Jesus commanded us to do – make disciples. 
Apprenticeship is the modern equivalent of what Jesus meant when he said “make disciples”. A disciple is a person who, like an apprentice, is learning to be like their master and do what their master does. So, if for example you are a plumber’s apprentice, you are learning to take on the profession and practice of plumbing.  If, at the end of that apprenticeship, you don’t know how to join two pipes together then something has gone wrong in your apprenticeship.  I suspect that something is systemically broken in the apprenticeship of people who would profess Christianity. And perhaps the problem begins with not having a clear picture of what a Christian is. 
So what is a Christian? 

For some it’s going to a church, or being christened. For some it’s that they have Christian values, or they went to Sunday school as a child, or they give to charity or they just believe in “god” or that they are not one of the other religious brands. Is this being Christian? Truth is, to be a Christian is none of the above.  Being a Christian is being a disciple. 

So, what is a disciple? 
As a starting point, discipleship, like apprenticeship is about being with and becoming like your master and friend – Jesus. That in itself is enough to take in, especially in our cultural moment which is fuelled by rampant individualism and the belief that we are the masters of our own destiny.  
Discipleship uniquely works itself out in every individual believer over the span of their lives. And while that last sentence is basically true, this is exactly the kind of ambiguity that is so problematic in Christianity today. 

Discipleship does look like something much more concrete than some kind of ‘choose your own adventure’ lifestyle.  When I reflect on how Jesus disciples people and the historical accounts of the early church, I notice 5 discipleship principles that describe what Christianity ought to look like in those who would call themselves Christian.
Discipleship looks like an: 
1.Intentional Life. Jesus said to Peter, “come follow me and I will make you…(Mark 1.16-18).” Discipleship is a life on purpose. It’s a deliberate, active, daily choice to drop your agenda, surrender your independence and to allow Jesus to shape life’s purpose and direction. The intentional life owns the responsibility for following and growing up into the character and likeness of Jesus. An intentional life owns the rhythms and practices that nurture union with Jesus such as prayer and meditation on scripture. Moreover, this life is intentional about all relationships around us – and the way our thoughts, words and actions impact others either toward or away from union with God. Following is always the choice of the disciple because God is non-coercive, seeking a free response of love and delight. 
See: Matthew 6.6, Mark 1.35, Luke 5.16, Mark 11.22-25, John 15.5-8, Acts 2.42, Philippians 3.12 
Without Intentionality… there is no momentum in the relationship with Jesus. It becomes silent, shallow to non-existent. It lacks purpose and resilience. And, the wider community will witness nominalism. 
2.Holistic Life. Jesus’ vision of discipleship sees everything as spiritual – our bodies, minds, relationships, neighbourhoods. Our work, our economy, our politics and our environment. There is no sacred secular divide nor is relationship with Jesus merely an aspect of life. Jesus’ vision of life influences and informs every part of a disciple’s internal and external life, for all of life. I like to visualise this dimension with a bicycle wheel where Jesus represents the hub of the wheel, not merely a spoke. As all of the spokes connect to the hub so all of life connects to Jesus.
See: Matthew 5.16, 6.33-34, 22.37-39, Romans 12.1-2, Ephesians 5:15-17 
Without holistic… people create secular and sacred responses to life which makes them inauthentic, double minded and lacking a compelling reason why the Gospel makes a difference everywhere. And, the wider community will witness irrelevance. 
3.Selfless Life. Jesus’ vision of discipleship is not “about me”, rather it’s a life of serving others and dying to self. The God of all creation embodies this as He dons a towel and washes his disciple’s feet (John 13.4-5). The New Testament teaches that looking to the needs of others and laying down one’s life for the sake of others is the prime expression of love (1 John 3.16). 
See: Luke 9.25, Luke 14.26-33, Mark 10.43-45, 1 Corinthians 13, Ephesians 4.32 

Without selflessness…  a disciple cannot walk the way of Jesus nor reflect the self-giving character of God in our world. And the wider community will witness hypocrisy, injustice and corruption. 
4.Communal Life. Christ’s vision of life is personal but not individual, we are disciples together in a shared life. The New Testament knows no discipleship that exists in isolation to intentional spiritual community. We grow in the soil of community for community is both where we find support and encouragement, and where we confront our own self-centeredness and the tension of our differences. A communal life is a life that seeks to include people. As such, a communal life is not limited to those “inside” the church community. As a disciple, we realise that we share a communal life which extends to our neighbourhoods and workplaces. 
See: John 17.11, John 13.34-35, Acts 4:32-35, Hebrews 10.24-25, Romans 12.4-5, Romans 15.14 

Without communal… disciples become vulnerable, isolated, distracted and don’t mature emotionally nor spiritually. And the wider community will witness discrimination, alienation and an air of superiority. 
5.Missional Life. Jesus’ vision is for all things – people, families, communities, creation,  to be restored and aligned with Him.  This alignment would see justice, mercy and compassion expressed alongside spiritual renewal. The missional life is the natural extension of a life that is intentional, holistic, communal and selfless.  

See: Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 6.34, John 3.16-17, Acts 1.8, Colossians 4.5-6, 1 Corinthians 9.16 

Without mission, discipleship is sterile and inconsequential to a broken, confused world. But with mission the wider community will witness a foretaste of heaven. 

So, Christianity is a life of discipleship. And discipleship looks like a life being renewed with Jesus that is increasingly intentional, holistic, selfless, communal and missional.  This kind of clarity I think is urgently needed in an age where there is such ambiguity and confusion around what is truth and what it means to believe anything. When Christianity is reduced to a church service and a vague set of ideas about Jesus,  disciples lack resilience, they have little chance of experiencing what Jesus intended for them nor capacity to authentically bring a compelling vision of life to the their world.

And that’s a problem with Christianity.