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?