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. 

08 August 2020

What Kerry Packer could teach the Post-Covid Pastor

Back in the late 1970s world cricket was in a crisis. Kerry Packer and John Cornell launched a rebel competition bypassing the conservative “old boys” at the Australian Cricket Board. The Cricketing establishment around the world saw this as an abandonment of orthodoxy and a corruption of the grand old game. But many of the players welcomed being finally treated and remunerated as professional athletes by Kerry and his deep pockets. This was to be more than cricket on TV, it was a whole new vision of the old game. It was to be played in limited overs over one day and under lights at night. The red ball was white and the white clothes were coloured. And the whole show would be screened on Prime-time TV, with multi camera technology, microphones in the pitch, catchy jingles and lots of advertising dollars to pay for it all.

More than a crisis, it was a revolution which, by the turn of the decade, had proven to be a huge success for the whole game. Many feared it would be the end of Test Cricket but in the end Test Cricket benefited from the game’s newfound popularity. And 30 years later a similar evolution in the game took place with the advent of T20 cricket. Again, the game was reimagined for a new generation of fans and players. And again, its success enhanced all formats of the game. Packer and Cornell recognised that if cricket was to have a future, it would need to retain its players and reach a new generation. The establishment had to be challenged and the game itself had to adapt.

The same applies to the Church emerging into what will eventually be a post-Covid age. For many churchgoers, the pandemic feels like an intrusion in the regular programming of their church life. A disruption that we all must endure, then return to the way things were. But I think it’s much more than a disruption, it is reset.

For the church as an entity, many of its symbols have suddenly lost their relevance. How so? Typically, ‘church’ is synonymous with going to a building on a Sunday, to hear a sermon, sing some songs and socialise with your friends. Of course, it’s more than that, but many unspoken measures of success relate to just this image. How big is the crowd on a Sunday? How modern is the facility? Is the preaching good, is the music uplifting and afterward, is the coffee half decent? And yet those metrics don’t really apply now.

Pre-Covid, churches for the most part shared 5 attributes:
· Site centric – Church was a location on a map. Now our physical location has become almost inconsequential.
· Sunday centric – Church was a Sunday event you attended. Our major gatherings are now “non-essential” activities replaced with home gatherings and screens throughout the week.
· Sermon centric - The focal point of a gathering was the pastor/priest’s sermon to those in attendance. Now our primary method of communication and teaching is digital, people can mute you or just turn you off altogether. Or, watch any preacher they like, anytime they like.
· Song centric – The ministry of worship was dominated by musicians leading people in song. We cannot sing, our worship teams have no live audience and it is not nearly the same watching worship on YouTube.
· Social centric - The foyer was the place of face to face connection, caring and sharing a sense of community. Now we’ve embraced social distancing over social gathering. The foyer is no place to linger and any attempts at gathering involve complex Covid rules.

These ingrained norms have been deconstructed in the space of just a few months. But gradually, we are realising that we are more than sites, services, songs and sermons. We may even be discovering that these 5 ‘centrics’ have dominated our vision of church at the expense of our greatest commission.

What I mean is that we church leaders have always invested a disproportionately high level of staff and volunteer time into the internal workings of a Sunday because we love Sundays and they've been 'core business' in church world for a very long time. We’d gladly grow our carpark teams, greeter teams, cleaning teams, set up teams, kids ministry teams, catering teams, worship teams, tech teams, preachers and service coordinators – and be fine with them all investing hundreds of volunteer hours every Sunday, 52 times a year. Why? Because Sundays matter for a whole host of reasons (including making pastors feel like they are successfully doing their jobs). But every hour invested in one area is an hour not invested in another. If a church has hypothetically 100 hours per week of human effort available to spend any way they like, how they deploy those hours reveals their priorities and values.

So, if a church has a mission focused on some aspect of making disciples (which most do) and they invest 80% of their staff and volunteer energies into some aspect of delivering Sunday services (which most do) – that church is making a clear statement about what they believe to be the best approach to making disciples. My point is not to say that Sundays don’t matter, they absolutely do. But thanks to Covid, Sunday is not king anymore and we need to ask whether our old investment strategy pre-Covid should return post-Covid. And while we are at it, to reassess whether our mission statement is supported or undermined by our choices around how we mobilise our people and resources.

All this to say, maybe this Covid period has offered the post-Covid church a World Series Cricket moment in which to challenge old paradigms and imagine new ones that better enable us to be disciples, make disciples and be known in the world for something more than Sundays. Perhaps now a more honest form of discipleship will then emerge as we shift from:

· an organised event to an integrated life
· clergy centric to relationship centric
· Sunday centric to daily centric
· celebrating attendance to celebrating engagement
· learning by theory to learning with practice
· ‘come and feed me’ to ‘go and serve them’
· a single sermon to whole of life resourcing
· consumer driven to personal ownership

The first few matches of world series cricket in the summer of 1977 attracted tiny crowds and Packer was bleeding money at a rate that would have sunk him within months. The old guard said “Why fix what isn’t broken?” And no doubt many even in my own church will think I’ve gone mad trying to fix something they don’t think is broken. Eventually Packer was vindicated and the winner was Cricket. I hope the same is true for the Church and Christianity.

And just for the record, I am looking forward to gathering as a whole church again, to shake a hand, to worship in song and be aligned around the word of God.... and to drink some reasonably good coffee. But before we rush back to what was, we’ve gotta seriously consider what might be, and not assume that everything familiar looks the same in our post-Covid future.

15 June 2020

Leaders Need Lindas

Photo: Ian Campbell.
Last week saw the passing of a woman who was a member of the leadership of my church for over a decade. She went home to Jesus after a battle with cancer; it was far too soon.

Linda moved away from my church several years back to start a new life on the far south coast of NSW. So, to be honest, we lost touch and though I knew of her cancer, I regret I could not walk with her through it. I have no doubt that Linda went on to make a great contribution in what would be the last chapter of her life. But her passing has given me pause to reflect on the contribution she made long before her sea-change. 

Linda, a librarian by vocation, was a lover of ancient and modern thought. It was commonplace to see a freshly folded photocopy of some article or chapter from a new book materialise from the depths of her handbag with a wry smile and an air of optimism that I would be hooked by an unfamiliar idea. It was Linda who introduced me to writers like Brueggemann and Willard and McLaren, who have since shaped me profoundly. She also exuded a passion for the arts and how the imagination could awaken one’s spiritual senses. She was a gifted and creative person who stepped forward into places of leadership because she cared deeply for Jesus, the church and the future.

But truth is, we didn’t always see eye to eye. In fact, Linda left me frustrated at times and I’m pretty sure I left her the same. You see, Linda had a way of seeing life and spirituality from left field. At times that alternative perspective was painful to hear for a young, male, know-it-all like myself. But thankfully she persisted with me and did so with grace and honour. She was a strong woman yet never arrogant. Passionate but never overpowering. She would usually say what she thought, but with a gentleness couched in terms like “I wonder if….”

Leaders like me need people like her somewhere in the ecosystem of our leaderships. And I suspect that in every church across the world God has planted Lindas – people who are strong minded, wise and deep-hearted – wanting the best for their leaders and their churches. Sadly, they are often side-lined or silenced because clergy (usually male) forget that their congregation have so much more to offer than filling rosters and funding the ministry.

I read a recent article by the Washington based Brookings Institution, analysing the staff turnover within the Trump administration. In summary, the report shows that 57 of the 65 (88%) “A Team” positions in Trump's administration have turned over in his first term - some as many as 6 times. There have been 6 Deputy Directors of the NSA, 5 Communications Directors, 4 Chief of Staffs, 3 Press Secretaries …and a President in a pear tree.

Now I don’t know the circumstances of all of these resignations and sackings but I suspect that if you have double the next highest turnover rate in a Presidential administration in history, it may have something to do with the man at the top. Trump seems to remove the voice of dissent from his life, and from my limited experience, that makes you a weaker leader, not a stronger one.

Strong people need to allow other strong people to have a voice in our lives so we don’t live in the echo chamber of our own thoughts. We need people to challenge us when we think we can’t lose and encourage us when we think we can’t win. We need people to bring alternative viewpoints when we can’t see, and people to bring God's voice when we can’t hear.

King David needed a Nathan to call out his moral failure. The Apostle Peter needed a Paul to call out his hypocrisy. Moses needed a Jethro to counsel him concerning his workaholism. And Nebuchadnezzar needed a Daniel to interpret his dreams.

So, three cheers for the Lindas of our leaderships and our personal lives. And if you are the person with the most power in your organisation - build a culture of feedback around you and make sure you invite people into your life who can speak their mind and tell you what they really think. You may not always like it, but it just might be what you most need.

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, But a wise man is he who listens to counsel.
Proverbs 12:15

Where there is no guidance the people fall, but in abundance of counsellors there is victory.
Proverbs 11:14

Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.
Proverbs 27:6

Photo Credit with thanks to Ian Campbell.

04 June 2020

Restrictions are lifting, what now?

Restrictions are steadily lifting in Australia as the pandemic, for the most part wanes. The past 3 months have been unique in our lifetime - where the whole world has faced one common enemy. I visited many housebound seniors who’ve lived through depressions, wars and other upheavals and they all found this to be like nothing else they’ve known. Even in the war they still had a strong sense of community and connection. There was rationing but not social isolation, not an impending sense of uncertainty as to if or when they would take ill just by being with others. I also get the sense more generally that people are ok but feel fatigued for reasons they can’t fully express but are nonetheless very real. This fatigue will likely continue, as will the social and economic fallout, for many years to come.

And as restrictions ease, churches across the country, and indeed the world, are now having to wrestle with the question - 'what now'?

Firstly, let’s be clear that resuming church gatherings is not going to be that simple. Even if restrictions lift on the number of people gathering to say 100, if they retain social distancing rules indefinitely then many organisations face a long list of complex compliance issues. Do you run 5 gatherings for a church of 500? What happens if too many people come to one gathering? Do you allow people to mingle in the foyer? Do you axe the worship team because singing will not be allowed? What about catering? What about children at the end of church? How do you ensure you have everyone’s contact details every time they enter the building? How do you screen everyone before they enter the building and record all their contact details? And if someone is found to have Covid19 later on, what then? How do you maintain a thorough cleaning regime before and after every gathering in every place people may have been? Who does that cleaning? Perhaps many of these questions will disappear if social distancing is lifted but I’m sure I’ve made my point that the way out of Covid is neither simple nor predictable. It also goes without saying that churches should be the most responsible organisations in a community around the protection of people – especially given the evidence that religious gatherings are ‘super spreaders’.

So, I suspect most are asking these kinds of questions as a subset of the bigger, very normal question of 'How do we get back to doing what we used to do?' In other words, the questions many are asking is when and how we get back to normal. I totally understand that question but I suspect that while they are necessary questions, they are not necessarily the most important.

I think the more important question is not when and how but what and why. What do we want to be and do next and why? The underlying thought here is that this is a defining moment in the 21st century and potentially a redefining moment for the church. This moment is an invitation to pause, pray and reflect on what it all means, what we have discovered individually and together, and how we might be the church going forward, as opposed to going back. More broadly I also suspect that many of the secular narratives that people cherished pre-Covid (health, wealth, status etc) have been shaken to the core; their temples - the shopping centres, the airports, the caf├ęs and gyms - were lying vacant as people just focused on basic needs like food on the table and paper on the toilet roll. All this reveals how delicate our carefully constructed worlds really are and inspire fresh consideration of the deeper questions of life. 

We must not miss this moment nor can we fail to offer 
a compelling alternative narrative to our communities.

Before we jam the keys back into the ignition and hit the accelerator of our old life (or old church), we have a window of time in which to listen – to the leanings of God and the learnings of each other. At my church (Georges River Life Church), we have dedicated ourselves to listening to God and one another for the next few months, anticipating that in the listening we will be changed. It’s a time to reassess (personally and as a community of disciples) what matters most, to ask: what does it mean to be the church? Why do we do what we do? What do we want to be known for in our communities? What is the invitation available to us all?

We would all be wise to slow the instinctive reflex of ‘going back’, to relax our anxious thoughts about what we think we are supposed to be urgently doing as leaders, and to consider that we are not in truth, ever ‘going back’, but going forward – with Jesus, in community, for the sake of the world.

13 March 2020

5 Better Responses to World War C

I watched that classic Zombie Film World War Z on Netflix last week. Like all Zombie films the human race is over run by a virus that instantly turns people into rabid homicidal flesh eating maniacs – it’s a romantic comedy! There is a happy ending thanks to the heroism of the film’s messiah figure (Brad Pitt) - but not before most of the world is infected. Its Hollywood fiction but in the past few weeks a vague parallel has emerged with the Corona virus. The Zombie contagion has arrived and it is World War C!

Suddenly all those crazy episodes of Doomsday Preppers have become true fiction as usually mild mannered people lose all sense of civility stockpiling dunny paper, sanitiser and tinned food awaiting some biological Armageddon. Last time this happened was to the Y2K bug if you can remember back that far.

But seriously, this is quickly becoming one of the greatest public health crisis in a generation, especially for the most vulnerable in our community. It has already become an economic crisis rivalling the 1987 crash. And  while the more recent GFC crash of 2008 was sparked by a fiscal virus in the finance sector, this virus will affect every single sector in the economy because businesses don’t function without employees and customers. Sure, globalisation brings the world together, but clearly it also makes us so incredibly vulnerable.

So, 2020 is set to be a historic year. Here are 5 thoughts on how to face a global health crisis.

1. Don’t stockpile – Hysteria fuelled doomsday prepping is not only irrational but downright selfish. To stockpile leaves some with too much and many with too little. Stockpiling says my needs are more important than yours. So, keep calm and shop normally.

2. Speak hope – What kind of voice will we have in this time? Do we echo the panic and feed the fear, or can we be people that bring consolation, hope and reassurance? People with a Jesus-perspective have every reason to see life, suffering and even death in an entirely different way. Lean into that hope and liberally share it around.

3. Love thy neighbour –Jesus habitually disregarded the social consequences of contact with infected and unwell people. And over the last 2000 years of plagues and epidemics it has typically been His Church that has stayed and selflessly served their communities when everyone else fled. We should be wise in terms of hygiene but equally be selfless and courageous like our forebears.

So regularly check in on your neighbours. Look to serve those especially vulnerable like the frail and aged in your community who may need to avoid public exposure. Shop for them, take out their bins, phone them and just make sure that they are ok. If you are a part of a church community, work with your leadership to formulate a broader response by the church for its community. Our communities need churches to lead the way in loving and serving.

4.Embrace the global Sabbath – As the world goes into quarantine mode with cancellations, suspensions and self-isolation - this unique time in history does offer us the gift of the ancient spiritual practice of silence and solitude. This doesn't mean binging Netflix Zombie films and endlessly surfing Facebook for more misinformation. Rather, it is an opportunity to take stock, to simplify, rediscover rest, read and pray.

5. Talk about it – Lastly, this is fuel for great spiritual conversations about life and faith. What are we really afraid of? Why is life so fragile? What really is important in life? How do I order my priorities? So instead of obsessing over what is happening, the why behind the what is a brilliant alternative to explore with people.

World War C brings a strong dose of reality to our carefully constructed worlds. It awakens some primal emotions in us all and exposes the truth that we are not in control after all. We will all be affected by this. May we do it well.

26 January 2020

Australia Day Prayer

Yesterday was Chinese New Year and today is Australia Day! We can give thanks for our nation and I would like to lead us in a prayer of thanksgiving. But as the church, as disciples who come under the authority of Christ’s mandate to love- we also should pause to reflect on the cost of our national success. That our history bears witness to great injustices against the Indigenous peoples of this land. And to acknowledge that we are all in some way beneficiaries of the suffering of others.

The current Australia day campaign has the slogan – “we are all part of the story” – and that is a good and unifying message - but I’m not so pleased with my part of the story. Over the past month, really since the fires began, I’ve taken to digesting as much information as I could about Indigenous culture, spirituality, land management and what happened in the years after 26th January 1788.

I discovered I have a blind spot not only in how rich is their culture but how dark is our history since 1788.  (Check out my last to blogs for those reflections and a resource list here and here). 

Within a few years of Arthur Phillip landing on the shores of Botany Bay the majority of the Aboriginals in our part of Sydney were gone. After thousands of years, gone. Firstly, through disease, then deprivation as food resources were gobbled up, and eventually government sanctioned murder. And over the next 100 years the custodians of our continent were pushed to the point of extinction –Tasmania Aborigines for example, were, barring a few survivors, systematically exterminated. Our history is a record of great cruelty and inhumanity on a genocidal scale – I was not taught this at school in the 80s.

So today I would like to lead you in a prayer in three parts – a thanksgiving for Australia, an acknowledgement of country, but also prayer of repentance.

Jesus we thank you for this great nation. For the freedom we enjoy through a stable democratic system of government, a healthy economy, to clean drinking water, access to excellent health care, to excellent education for our children, to freedom to speak and to practice our faith, to the tapestry of cultures that make us who we are, to the way that community comes together in times of crisis like the bushfires and the way , to our RFS volunteers who have magnificently given of themselves and to those who have served our country in our armed services to protect all these freedoms. We thank you.

But Jesus, we acknowledge that the colonisation and development of Australia brought with it terrible pain and destruction to the original custodians of our nation – to their culture, their way of life and to their connection to Country – and also as a result, to the health of the environment in which we now live. We recognise that your Church in Australia has at times played a role in their suffering – through ungodly actions or in many cases inaction.

But we also recognise that this is not only the sin of past generations. We repent of our own indifference, ignorance and neglect concerning their past suffering and their marginalisation in Australian society today. We are grieved that they are still fighting for the same basic rights that we celebrate, and recognise that human dignity is not restored simply with increased government funding or good policy. That we each have a part to play in restoring dignity.

So, we your church by the Georges River…

"We would like to acknowledge, the traditional custodians of the land on which we gather today - the Dharug people this side of the Georges River and the Dharawal people to the south. We would also like to pay our respects to the elders past, present and emerging. They are the people who for thousands of years fulfilled the creation mandate of our creator God, and we honour them for their stewardship of this great land.

Jesus, your ministry was to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. We pray, your ministry be our vision too - you may open our hearts with compassion and see our Indigenous peoples with dignity and honour, to co-labour with them in the care for our natural environment, to be an advocating voice for justice, to lift up the oppressed, proclaim your favour. And we ask this in the name and power of our lord and saviour Jesus Christ.


“We are all part of the story." Ok, well what part of the story are we writing today and into the future as the dominant culture? Are we choosing ignorance over truth? What are we teaching our children? Are we giving them an appreciation for Indigenous culture and for the Australian environment they worked so faithfully to tend? Are we turning toward Indigenous people or away? What would Jesus do if He were you?

24 January 2020

Gardening Terra Nullius

In the late 90s my parents left Sydney for a large patch of rocky brown dirt atop a hill in the Southern Highlands of NSW. A paddock really, this was to be the site of their new home and the canvas for a garden of grand proportions. Twenty something years later grows a majestic garden full of mature trees, manicured hedges and lawns, an orchard and seasonal flowering plants. It has been a labour of love for my mum in particular who has likely devoted many days a week for two decades to transforming the land.

Tending to land is no small feat, it requires vision, insight, intuition and love.

Imagine then that a space ship lands in the back yard and after examining the surrounds, the aliens conclude that the land is unoccupied and empty other than a well-aged primitive and her husband. So, they claim all the land as their own and proceed to flatten the garden, demolish the house and set up their own martian civilisation. Surely they can see the evidence of people living their lives together in community and tending to the land? Surely they see culture and the work of these people? Clearly the land is not unoccupied.

It sounds fanciful but that is basically what took place in in 1770 when Lt. James Cook in his journey around the great southern continent declared the land to be terra nullius – empty, unoccupied and ripe for the taking. And that mind set returned with devastating consequences in 1788 when Arthur Phillip established the first colony in Sydney cove. Sure, they found people but not civilisation as they understood it – the British kind. And because these people lacked so many of the cultural and technological markings of modern life, they were simply treated as unsophisticated primitives, lesser humans with no claim to the land. The church, echoing this imperialistic mindset, thought the best thing it could do was teach them how to wash regularly and dress appropriately, and do away with their own spirituality!

What they failed to understand, let alone appreciate was that Indigenous Australian culture was not only socially complex but perhaps the most ecologically sophisticated culture to ever exist – the product of thousands of years of refinement.

Caring for Country was the vocation of every inhabitant of the Australian continent before 1788. Land management was no indulgence, no ancient version of Better Homes and Gardens. Life was land care, it was a spiritual mandate of the Dreaming and a social necessity for communities. Too much fuel on the ground not only might unleash a hot, angry fire that could not be controlled, but it may unnecessarily kill precious flora and fauna so vital for the balance of the local ecosystem. Fire was the daily tool of trade for Indigenous people (under strict guidance from elders) and they could wield it with the sharpness and accuracy of my mother’s secateurs. Patches of bush were carefully burnt each year across a tribe’s land, determined by a multitude of carefully considered factors. Land was often burnt in a mosaic pattern which preserved cover for vulnerable fauna whilst killing or clearing other vegetation or fuel in others. Indigenous peoples had such a vast and intimate understanding of how every plant and animal beneficially interacted with fire. Tens of thousands of species were catalogued in their collective memory. It showed as Bill Gammage wrote, “the breath taking complexity of land management at a continental and scale.” Particular animal and plant communities needed and got very precise fire timings and intensity. Gammage illustrates,

“Northern grassland was burnt annually, Kangaroo grass every 2-3 years, Mulga at most once decade, dry ridges every 15-25 years, Tuart every 2-4 years, Jarrah every 3-4 in early summer, Karri about every 5 years in late summer. Mountain Ash needs fire every 400 year or so.” 

“Gliders and possums like frequent fire, but rat kangaroos need casuarinas burnt about every 7 years, a native mouse needs heath burt every 8-10, mainland tammar wallabies need dense melaleuca burnt very hot every 25-30. In the centre, ‘when little emus are on the ground you do not burn.’ 

All plants and animals thrived in 1788 and people timed a great variety of local and specific fires over years, decades and even centuries. Many parts of the continent was burnt about every 1-5 years and one of the most frequent observations of new arrivals from 1788 onward was the continual and systematic burning of the land, accompanied by smoke. Aboriginal elders from one tribe would be concerned if neighbouring land was not marked with rising smoke - it suggested something was wrong for the tribe to not be burning land, and people should go and visit!

A byproduct of this continental curation was that many early settlers could not help but think that the Australian outdoors had been landscaped by gardeners. Gammage details dozens of early accounts, summarising their observations, he says - “trees planted as if for ornament, alternating wood and grass, a gentleman’s park, an inhabited and improved country, a civilised land.” Much of Australia was like this in 1788 and the most common word newcomers used about Australia was not ‘bush’ but ‘park.’ At Bong Bong for example, Lachlan Macquarie named Throsby Park for its very ‘park like appearance’. Hardly terra nullius!

At some stage in the future my mum has admitted she won’t be able to maintain such a big garden. I imagine when the time comes, the disconnection will be a source of grief and concern. Grief because any true gardener will tell you, they have a deep connection to their gardens. And concern because of the uncertainty of whether the future owners will have the same devotion. How much more must our indigenous peoples experience the trauma and dislocation at being separated from Country (which is inseparable from culture), and anguish that the grand estate they, and a hundred generations before them had so carefully stewarded, is a shadow of its former glory.

As a Christian I am challenged by all of this because there are some ageless parallels between Indigenous spirituality and my own. The Bible begins with a creator’s vision, insight, intuition and love. And the final act of creation is God breathing into a creature that will bear God’s likeness and creativity. In Genesis 1 we read The Lord God, took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

The very first command given to humanity was to work it (the land) and take care of it. Here are two fundamental roles built into a biblical vision of life. We have a dual role to work the land in productive ways, but equally to take care of it, love it, enable it to display its glory. These have become opposing rather than complementary forces today. And the result is a planet increasingly diminished in glory and capacity to sustain life.

It seems to me that our Indigenous peoples understood this transcendent mandate in a way that all of us, the church in particular, should urgently recapture. Christians, the gospel begins in creation and ends in the renewal of all things – How did we forget this? How did we think the gospel was only about saving souls and exiting the planet? How do we recapture this creation mandate? How might we partner with the one culture that just might have the answers we need?

If you would like to dig deeper on any of these issues I can recommend the following books:
The Biggest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines Made Australia - Bill Gammage
Deep Time Dreaming – Uncovering Ancient Australia – Billy Griffiths
Dark Emu – Aboriginal Culture and the birth of Agriculture – Bruce Pascoe =
Blood on the Wattle – Bruce Elder

20 January 2020

Bushfires - Is climate change to blame?

Climate change continues to dominate the commentary surrounding the fires that have ravaged eastern Australia in recent months as if all of a sudden we have found the culprit for the Aussie bushfire. The Australian climate is clearly warmer than it was 50 or even 20 years ago and the last decade was officially the hottest on record. It’s very hard to deny this continuing global trend and I’m not debating the data nor its seriousness – nor should I, as I have no expertise in any of this.

A string of hot summers and a long drought has certainly contributed to our current crisis, but it seems our collective memory is very short and it was a little strange to hear the Science Minister Karen Andrews in parliament recently call the latest fires “surprising” as if this is somehow a unique occurrence.
This summer, tragically, 29 people have died, and 17 million hectares of land has burned – bringing with it massive impacts on livelihoods, communities and native flora and fauna. This is awful, but it is not unprecedented.

In the summer of 1974-5, 117 million hectares burned (15% of the entire continent) but this event lacked publicity because of its minimal impact on communities. In the Northern Territory, in 1968, 40 million hectares burned, and again, in the summer of 2002, 38 million hectares of the Territory burned. We have recorded fires as far back as the Black Thursday fires of 1851 when 5 million hectares burned. More recently the Black Saturday fires in February 2009 only burned half a million hectares but killed 173 people and destroyed over 2000 homes.

The latest fires were massive, but I reckon an exclusive link with climate change is a myopic and convenient answer to a much broader problem.

Firstly, it’s myopic because we forget what I just described, our recorded history of massive fires. But also, because we ignore how perfectly our landscape has adapted to bush fire. Localised and large scale fires have been, and will remain, common to, and vital for, the Australian landscape. This is Australia, not Alaska – we already were the hottest continent on earth and it wants to and even needs to burn. Fire is one of the most important forces at work in Australian ecosystems. Fire is, as Bill Gammage described, “drought with legs and the majority of plants deal with both in the same way.” 70% of Australia’s flora either need or tolerate fire. Thousands of species would cease to exist without the regular, direct intervention of fire. Most of the approximately 700 species of eucalyptus trees across the continent need some aspect of fire to germinate, grow or fend off competition. The oil within their leaves is highly resistant to drought yet also highly flammable in fire – they actually promote fire. And when the fire has passed a miracle of regeneration takes place renewing and nourishing the tree and its surrounding landscape.

For tens of thousands of years, the Indigenous peoples of the Australian continent have learnt how to harness ‘cool’ fire for re-creative purposes – to control or promote specific kinds of plants and nurture habitats into which native animals may feed and reproduce – so that food is predictable and plentiful for consumption. In addition, Aboriginal communities would regularly burn specific areas of their tribal lands so that, unlike the present situation, fuel levels on the ground were reduced and fires were less explosive. Tim Flannery, in his 2002 work The Future Eaters, writes that “The use of fire by Aboriginal people was so widespread and constant that virtually every early explorer in Australia makes mention of it. It was Aboriginal fire that prompted James Cook to call Australia ‘This continent of smoke’.”

Adjunct Professor, Bill Gammage’s outstanding book The Greatest Estate on Earth (from which I’ve drawn extensively) has left me in awe of how the Indigenous custodians of our land insightfully tended their environment and how Australian flora is so finely and uniquely tuned to thrive in this inhospitable land. But I am also left dismayed that the Australian environment of 2020 is almost unrecognisable from the Australia of 1820 and there is little hope of slowing that trend at present.

Secondly, I’d argue that the exclusive link to climate change is also a little too convenient or easy. Hanging the debate on something as global as climate change enables us to shift the blame solely to politicians, big business and forces beyond our responsibility. I’m not letting our leaders off the hook, but they are ultimately us, and us is very conflicted in what we want.

We want a pristine environment but our high-consumption way of life is in direct competition with that desire – from our flat pack throw away furniture, to our second vehicle, our international flights, our almond milk lattes and our expectation that all kinds of food are available all year around.

We convince ourselves that putting out our yellow bin and installing solar is doing our bit for the environment. Or at a national level, we feel righteous by not building any new coal fired power plants yet happily dig up and sell as much of the black stuff as we can to power all the coal fired power plants around the world. Sure, some protest when an Adani or a Santos want to make a new hole in the ground, but for the most part, economics win almost all the time and our politicians and super funds are simply echoing the collective hunger for more. If we (I) were serious about our environment, let alone the planet – we would all have to lower our standard of living and rethink much of what typifies modern life. On a mass level, we would have to reject tokenistic environmentalism and radically change the way we live. Could I do that?

Aboriginal communities lived a low carbon, environmentally symbiotic lifestyle that Australia in 2020 can never return to. Eden is lost, the landscape is permanently changed and in many places unrecognisable from the Australia of 1788. We have trodden heavily over this ancient land, it has suffered greatly and so it is hardly surprising that from time to time we, in a kind of environmental karma, suffer along with it.

While the habitually outraged love to direct their anger on social media at the Prime Minister for taking poorly timed holidays, or governments for “not doing enough” or primary industry for environmental vandalism – I guess all I am saying is that we each need to look at our own lives before throw stones at others. We are all part of the broader problem. We are all implicated in the groaning of a continent that dispossessed its custodians, disregarded the wisdom of indigenous land management and in the classic words of Joni Mitchell, greedily “paved paradise with a parking lot.”

Gosh that’s such a depressing ending and I just can’t leave it there...

I predict the next three decades of this century will be just a revolutionary as the 60’s and 70’s were in the last. The seeds of the future have already germinated and the young global citizens of today just might have the motivation, technology, adaptability, and – in the not too distant future – the power to affect change on a global scale. My hope is that they do so with great respect for the ancient wisdom of our Indigenous Australians. I suspect it may be too late for my generation to lead the way because we are the product of a very different time. But it is not too late for Gen X and their parents to be the supportive shoulders on which they stand.

As a Dad with three children, I wonder, what passions will I nurture in them? What experiences will I give them to shape their perspective on the world and on environmental stewardship? And, personally, how will I do more than write words and have good intentions?