A tribute to my dad, for the occassion of his 60th birthday

I love my dad.

I don’t just love him, I’m proud of him and proud to be like him in many ways.

I might not say this enough, and there’s years of hurtful stuff (including punches) flung at him while we were both figuring out who I was in my teenage years that I probably should work harder to undo with my words now… but I’m really, really thankful that my dad is my dad.

I’ve been struck, as I get to know my own son, he’s almost 4, at just how much it’s going to hurt me when history inevitably repeats and he first tells me he hates me. Or that I’m stupid, or fat, or apelike… sorry dad. I really am proud of you, you’re not stupid, or ape like, and I’m always told I look like you, so hopefully you’re not ugly.

I’ve also been struck by what I want to, and don’t want to, pass on to and teach my son. And I’m struck by how good a job dad did with shaping me in a way that means, on the whole, I’ve made reasonably good decisions.

I don’t know if I’d be me, or dad would be the dad he is now if it weren’t for those stormy adolescent years either. But I certainly wish I’d been able to see some of this stuff more clearly then, and that while we had slightly different visions for what my life could be, or should be, his was a voice I should have listened to more… this isn’t to say he got everything right, or that he gets everything right, I don’t want to lionise him in de-aping him… but let me tell you, for this auspicious occasion (his birthday was yesterday), some things about my dad. Perhaps you know him, and perhaps these will be some things that you know about him, or perhaps you’ll be surprised by some of this, perhaps you’ve never met him (or me), in whoch case… indulge me.

I’ve come to understand that dad does things excellently because he’s driven by passion — not for himself and his own name — but for the inherent value of things themselves, for the benefit of others, and to the glory of the God who makes excellent things too… whether it’s a song on the guitar, a well crafted table tennis point, a video game or gadget review in a national publication (sometimes when it was too socially awkward to admit dad was a minister I had the fallback option of telling people he was a freelance games reviewer for the Sydney Morning Herald (which was true), sometimes I’d mumble the ‘minister’ bit and rush into the cool job so the conversation I was in would go there), a font (like Foxjump, the font Tourism Tasmania once used to brand the state, or the in house fonts for Mitchelton Presbyterian Church), odd bits of furniture, Bible talks, books (one on the Vic 20 computer and one on preaching)… dad is driven and disciplined and sets out to be a master, an artisan, because small stuff matters, because it says things about big stuff. And, I suspect, cause there’s joy in detail as much as there might be the devil. I realised recently when talking to someone about the experience of eating breakfast at a cafe with dad that he is basically a Platonist… there’s an ‘ideal’ form of everything (including eggs) out there, and all the ‘things’ of this world are opportunities to get close to that ideal (but sometimes they can also be judged against that ideal, so dad’s eyes will be drawn to the smallest inconsistencies)… I think this idealism is part of the drive, it’s not so much perfectionism (perhaps I’m recognising some of this in myself), but a wanting to get as close as humanly possible to these ideals (the difference, I think is one involves a striving for improvement, while the other involves always measuring yourself against unrealistic standards, I suspect it’s a mistake to see these as exactly the same thing). Not everyone sees the world this way, and seeing the world this way would be crippling if it weren’t matched with curiosity, imagination, intelligence, discipline, courage, and ability. What makes dad truly special is his God-given combination of these. What is, I think, the challenge of his ‘genius’ is realising that most of us aren’t wired this way, and it’s not just that we can’t see the world the same way, but that even if we could, we couldn’t do much about it… this difference can be hard, especially if people misunderstand the motives and expectations (even for those of us whose biology and environmental upbringing disposes us to being just like it). I don’t care as much about kerning or alignment as dad (but I care more about fonts than most people, statistically speaking). I, like many of his students, trainees, and staff, have endured robust critiques (according to his standards) of work I’ve produced. I’ve given up trying to write a non-run on sentence and adopted all manner of punctuation quirks like semi-colons, em dashes, parentheses, and ellipses in order to avoid comma pedantry… but mostly these bits of who dad is come together for my good, and the good of others. I’m a better writer (and preacher) because of him and this drive for excellence, and this is the testimony of many, many, others. It’d take me a long time to list out the ways these qualities manifest themselves on the ground in dad’s life, but I suspect this would be the testimony of many witnesses… One of the harder things, I suspect, for dad, is that he’s known as a practitioner of ministry when almost all his practice and preaching is driven by a coherent theological framework that is misunderstood (even by me), and I suspect he’d rather have passed on that, than a love for fonts, design, and 22 minute sermons (ask him about Deuteronomy 30, pronouns in Ephesians, and the destruction of the Temple sometime). I love that I’ve always been encouraged to dig deeply and imaginitively into God’s word, and to look for connections that make Jesus richer and more compelling and interesting. Two people I really, deeply, respect have commented to me recently about just how rare this capacity is, and I guess I’ve always taken it for granted as the way things are done.

I suspect it was not just misunderstanding each other, but also my taking dad for granted (and mum too, but it’s not her birthday) that was actually at the heart of our conflicts in my adolescence… but perhaps this is at the heart of the problems in most relationships everywhere, so that’s not all that profound…

This year at church we’ve been looking at Matthew’s Gospel, and at how Jesus is the archetypal epic hero. There’s this literary convention, or observation of how stories work, called ‘The Hero’s Journey’… the hero’s journey starts with a sort of willingness, a call to adventure, a willingness to take on the status quo and to bring change that is necessary and good. There’s a sort of contrarian streak at the heart of the hero, and dad and a bunch of his mates owned and embodied that streak for some time (within the context of our denomination), and they marked it by wearing red socks to the business meetings of the church. It’s interesting now that dad is no longer apart from the system… he ‘is’ the system… to be someone coming into the same system with the same contrarian instincts, but I do love and admire the way that dad has largely managed to be a gracious and generous contrarian with a modelled commitment to the greater good and even the ‘system’ (even when it is frustrating). The status quo of our denomination, as I’ve entered it, is very different now to what it was then, and this is doubtless a result of the work of the red sock brigade, and I want to honour them, even if they’re now the establishment… dad and his mates didn’t just say what the problems were, they created alternatives, they didn’t just throw stones, they created a Christian journal (before the world of the Internet) that went a little bit global, it seems to me that they did this to love and serve others (and to challenge the establishment.

Dad also married up. A great example to me and one I’m thankful I learned from. It shouldn’t be all that special to not be insecure about your wife’s brilliance, and, positively, to make space for that brilliance to shine. In fact, I don’t think it’s that special. I take it for granted. It seems normal. It blows my mind that it isn’t. And that’s another good thing I got from dad (still trying to figure out how that works with small children though).

There’s a line dad used in his induction speech last year, when he became ‘the system,’ or rather ‘the moderator,’ here in Queensland; where he said he hoped that his ministry to date, his life, had been marked and defined by ‘zeal for the Gospel’… it reminded me of the phrase from Psalms that people quote about Jesus in John 2,’zeal for your house will consume me’…that is dad. Consumed (maybe sometimes too comsumed, as I’m discovering as I try to figure out where the ministry role ends and I begin) by the work of the Gospel. There’s not, I don’t think, many idle moments in dad’s brain, many moments where he’s satisfied with what is, rather than driven towards what could be, and particularly when he’s not thinking about how to help more people follow Jesus. I’m thankful for this zeal, perhaps mostly because it is a thing he did pass on. By example and perhaps even deliberately. This Jesus stuff really matters. If it is true (and I believe it is), it’s the best and most important, most precious thing that you can give your children… or to anyone. I’m not sure exactly what worked for me here… but something did, and I’m not sure that there was any great parenting strategy on mum and dad’s behalf, other than perhaps to help us see the cost and to explain why the cost was paid gladly (most of the time).

Something remarkable has been happening in my relationship with dad over the last few years, as I’ve entered the family business, there’s a new sense of respect or recognition, that goes both ways. Maybe I’ve become a real person (I haven’t called dad any names for a few years). Maybe parenting has changed me. Maybe grandparenting has changed dad… but some of my favourite memories don’t come from childhood (though I have lots of good ones), but from the sense of serving in the trenches with the old fella. I remember playing soccer with a bloke in his late 30s or early 40s, back when I was a precocious teen, and I chipped away at him once about when he was going to retire. He said his goal was to play a few games with his son. Dad isn’t really a sports guy, but I think I’m enjoying the sort of thing this other dad was hoping for… one of the things that does blow my mind a bit is that the way dad makes space for mum to be mum is also there in how he now lets me be me… I say some relatively outrageous and provocative stuff when I channel the red sock thing, but I never doubt for a second that dad will be there supporting me, championing some things, listening to others, being proud right back at me. I suspect the older-younger dynamic in systems like the Presbyterian Church that have structured themselves to avoid violent inertia always advantages the ‘older’… you could, if you were ‘the system’ never listen to a younger voice, you could have the sense that your time to be influential has finally come, but dad hasn’t done that with me, and he hasn’t done it with others. He’s spent his time this year encouraging others… especially young blokes planting new churches. Though perhaps again this is the fruit of his labours… if you invest your time in changing the system, and training and equipping  young blokes to love the Gospel (and a 22 minute sermon where the Gospel is clearly communicated), maybe when you listen to them they end up saying stuff you’re happy to listen to… even if they don’t get the significance of Paul’s pronoun use.

What happens when you put all this stuff together in real life, under the sovereignty of God, are some pretty great things, for our family, for the church families dad has been part of, and for the denomination (and beyond)… that again, I’ve taken for granted, or appeared to, but, hey dad! I noticed (I’m sure others have too). Thanks for all of this. I’m proud of you, I love you, and I’m more and more ok with it when people say I’m a bit like you.

Happy 60th birthday dad!*

 

*Oh yeah, dad isn’t 60 for another couple of birthdays, but I thought I’d get in nice and early.

 

 

14 (not easy) ‘new years resolutions’ for Christians who want to live more radically in 2017

I’ve been reading lots about how our habits are a sort of liturgy (repetitive practice/ritual) that shapes us as people as they shape what we desire. I’m terrible at habits but the times ‘habit starting’ has worked for me have involved ‘new financial year resolutions’ like giving up soft drink for a year and diets like the Michelle Bridges 12 Week Body Transformation and more recently the Commando’s equivalent. Changing at the level of the ‘habitual’ is important for any ‘big’ change in who you are or how you live; and while we’re inclined to think we ‘educate’ ourselves towards change starting with the head; it’s quite possible that we actually ‘worship’ our way to change; and that this involves our desires, our imaginations, and the sort of ‘ritual’ or habitual actions we adopt as we pursue the desired and imagined image of the ideal us. As Christians our starting point should be the image of us that God desires; and for many of us that ‘image’ might feel ‘radically’ different to the images of the ‘good life’ we see in advertising, ‘fitness program’ material, and on the screens of our TVs and phones.

We have this particular sort of ‘image’ our worship shapes us into…

Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. — Colossians 3:9-10

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. — 2 Corinthians 3:18

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2

Getting there, making the shift from old creation to new; taking off vice and putting on virtue, is fundamentally a work of God recreating us; but inasmuch as we’re involved it’s a process that might start small, at the level of new habits kicking in so that we’re taking part in our new story, rather than being a thing where we flick a switch having learned some new idea and have that change overnight.

Habits matter. It’s a good thing to make resolutions to change small things.

Because change starts with the relationship between our desires and our actions (and in our ‘sacrifice’ of our selves as an act of ‘worship’ where we bear the image of the object of those desires) each and every unit of time we divvy up; whether its the ‘year’, the month, the week, the day, the hour, the minute, or the second, is an opportunity to worship, and thus to be transformed. Whether we’re being formed, or malformed; transformed or conformed…

Radical revolutions can start small if they’re applied for a lifetime — it can be a bit like a pilot at the start of a long haul flight, where one degree of difference in the direction you fly in makes a huge amount of difference on where you end up… but changing your habits can also involve big structural change; so here are some resolutions I’d love to see more Christians taking up (that I’d like to take up for myself too). A radical revolution might involve small changes, but it might also have a very different end point that you’re shooting for, and I fear some of our resolve, as Christians, as expressed in our resolutions and the ‘steps’ we’re prepared to take, is too small.

These are the things I’m aiming to do in 2017.  Some of these suggestions are ‘small’ habits; some are abstract; some are ‘measurable and concrete’; but they’re all attempts to think about what ‘offering your bodies as a living sacrifice’ might look like in the year 2017, and it’s worth noting that the ‘your’ in Romans 12:1 is plural; this worshipping is something we’re called to do together. Some of them are drawing together stuff I’ve been pondering, preaching, or writing about in 2016. Some of them are ‘heady’; like ‘read’, some are aimed at shaping the way we love, and some are more concrete ‘repeated actions’… but these are my ‘resolutions’; coupled with some that you might do to join me in this ‘worship’…

Work at seeing the world differently through ‘media’, especially stories, and find ways to discuss what you’re reading and watching with others

Real virtue starts with seeing the world as it really is, and people as they really are; which requires getting out of the confines of your own head and its imaginings and desires, and our tendency to see other people as objects for us to do things to, or with, rather than subjects. For the Christian, real virtue comes from seeing the world the way God sees it.

1. Find ways for the Bible’s story, centred on Jesus, to ‘seep into your bones,not just be a technical book of rules and propositions about God you break into arbitrary chunks. I’ve found that I read the Bible lots for work, and for writing stuff, and that this dampens my enthusiasm for the ‘story’ the Bible tells. I’ve found reading the kids their Jesus Storybook Bible is helpful, but this year I’m planning to try something a bit different. We’re actually doing this in our first series at church this year. I’m going to get a good audio Bible and practice listening to God’s word as a ‘story’ rather than trying to pull it apart via a chapter and verse approach, or doing word studies and stuff.

2. Read good Christian books; including one that is more than 200 years old for every two or three modern ones. You can find some ideas for new stuff to read here. I’ve flogged the ‘read old books’ from C.S Lewis’ intro to Athanasius’ On The Incarnation.

3. Read a book (or essays, or subscribe to some podcasts) from outside your tradition (even non-Christian ones) that’ll challenge you, maybe as often as you read an old Christian book; this will  also help you to understand, be sympathetic to, and challenge the ‘worship’ of those around you). Read some old ones of these too so you know where good and bad ideas come from… This is how we start being dangerous to the world, rather than having the world be dangerous to us. I gave a talk along these lines to a bunch of first year uni students at the University of Queensland this year.

4. Read, watch, or play some fiction that will help you understand other people more empathetically and to pay attention to why people live the way they do; but that might also help you understand the formative power of story (as you experience it). I was struck this year by how powerful video games can be for cultivating empathy; as I played games as varied as Fallout 4 and That Dragon, Cancer, The Last Of Us, and more recently a game called This War Of Mine; but novels will do this for you, so will TV shows, any good ‘story’ really…

5. Because people are ‘image bearers’ of whatever they worship; people are media, find some ways to hear the stories of people in your life; in your workplace, in your street, in your family… especially people who are different to you. I’m aiming to spend more time hearing the stories of the asylum seekers in our church community (stories like my friend Masoud’s), the stories of people I connect with through volunteering with the Micah Project, and hopefully the story of more indigenous Australians through hanging out with a local indigenous missionary. I’ve spent time doing all sorts of things with these groups already, I just haven’t been great at having my perspective pushed beyond my own reasons for wanting to love and help these local communities.

6. I also want to make good stories for my kids. While I’ve been thinking about how powerful stories are for cultivating virtue by helping us see the world, I’ve been thinking about how terrible Christian kids books are. Whether they’re little character studies of Old Testament characters, or just moral fables, they are bad; until you hit Narnia age. I love reading to my kids because it’s an important way to be present for them, but also to shape their imaginations, and I’m quite happy to read them great stories that aren’t ‘Christian’… but it’d be nice if there were more good stories out there that helped us shape our kids, stories that ‘catechise’. I’ve been thinking about what it would look like to write good stories that teach some of the concepts at the heart of the old catechisms to go alongside our Bible stories that teach Biblical Theology (I’ve enjoyed Kevin DeYoung’s The Biggest Story: How The Snake Crusher Brings Us Back To The Garden). So one of my resolutions is to try to make and tell good stories for my kiddoes, that may or may not be beneficial to other people’s kiddoes. I turned the photos from a recent holiday to Rainbow Beach into a picture book for my kids that aimed to show how rest, fun, ‘holy days’ and the beauty of God’s world tell us something about God, it’s not well written, but it is on high rotation, so I aim to do a couple more of these this year. If you’re the creative type maybe you could find ways to solve the problem of the world’s lack of good stories being told that shape our desires and imaginations in good ways (there could always be more of these), whether it’s for kids or adults.

Be mindful that your media practices (including the tools and platforms you use) are shaping you, whether you know it or not; so take control.

There’s a video that has gone viral this week featuring technologist Simon Sinek explaining why it’s not the fault of the poor ‘millenial’ that we’re so entitled and relationally bereft; it’s parenting and social media that are to blame. It’s an annoying video, but that doesn’t mean what he says isn’t true or worth heeding; there are three disciplines a sort of theology of worship/idolatry/who we are as people from Christian thinking, neuroplasticity, and a thing called ‘media ecology’ that all operate on the premise that you ‘become what you behold’… it’s true. And it’s not just the stories that shape us; Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’; which is actually the theory that our tools and platforms are just as likely to form us as the information they relay; only we’re less likely to notice. This means I’m re-thinking some of my ‘media practices’.

One of McLuhan’s major things is that our tools aren’t neutral; they’re forming us; but this doesn’t mean we should not use them, simply that we should be aware of this power and try to make sure we’re being transformed for good, not deformed. You can read plenty of stuff I’ve written on this stuff in the past, including a long series on how Facebook messes with your brain, but also some stuff on how we might harness this truth for good, including how to think about social media as Christians drawing on the insights of theology, neuroscience, and media ecology, some practical tips that apply this ‘approach’, and if you’re super keen you can check out the slides from a couple of talks I’ve given on this stuff (that mostly have good quotes from books and research).

7. Make space for silence. I was challenged by a New York Mag article ‘Technology Almost Killed Me‘ by Andrew Sullivan, one of the world’s biggest and most famous bloggers, who in many ways sounds a bit like me; his piece is worth reading, it has me convinced that silence and non-stimulation needs to be part of my regular rhythms. I like to convince myself that I wouldn’t go crazy if I was left in a room by myself with no wifi and no phone for two hours (I’d probably just fall asleep); but I’m not so sure, though I’d like to find out, so I’m aiming to not use my phone to pass time.

To ‘kickstart’ my new approach to my phone, I’ve deleted most of the apps that aren’t useful for particular tasks, or things I use for my job (so Facebook made the cut). My phone is for communication (including social media), for creativity (photos and making things like the picture book I made for my kids, and documenting events like Christmas carols and chicken wing cook offs), and for ‘utility’ stuff like managing my finances (and automating my house just a little bit). It’s not for gaming, for reading, or for killing time. I am one of those cliched types who look at my phone just before I go to sleep, and first thing in the morning… I’d like to change that, and part of what I’m resolving to do here is to start charging my phone outside our bedroom, and to not check it until I’ve ticked off a few important ‘to do’ items in the morning.

8. Make space for presence. This is a second ‘phone’ related resolution; and again, it’s pretty cliched. One of the things I did like about the Sinek video was what he said about phone use in meetings, at the table, and just generally when there’s another person in front of you. I find parenting quite difficult, but a lot of the time that’s because my kids are distracting me from my ‘distractions’… If you see me pull out my phone when I’m around you (unless it’s to find something online specifically related to improving the experience for both of us), call me out on it (don’t call me on it).

9. Move from ‘black glass’ to tactile ‘old media’ (or technology that has the ‘feel’ of old media) where that’s feasible. I was pretty convinced by Enchanted Objects, a book where the writer, David Rose, makes the case that our technology promises to do something about our lack of enchantment, but argues that glass screens are terrible substitutes for other types of ‘magic’… I think real re-enchantment lies elsewhere (and that technology over promises) but his critique of screens is powerful. I also want my kids to love books and reading; not being screen dependent, so I want them to see daddy reading books, not daddy staring at the iPad. I think this means I’m going to buy a kindle with e-ink, and use paper books as much as I can.

10. Use technology more intentionally to ‘offer myself as a living sacrifice’ — not some curated more appealing version of me, but perhaps the version of me that is inclined to love others not just serve myself. Technology can be harmful. Porn drives innovation in the tech space, and is also incredibly destructive, perhaps your resolution could be tackling that habit (which is a defective and damaging form of false worship). Social media does do odd stuff to our brains that leaves people more anxious and less deeply connected than previous generations. But technology isn’t all bad; making it, innovating, and creating with it is part of us fulfilling God’s design for us; where we are ‘creators’ who spread order throughout the world using the stuff he put in it. I love what technology can do for us; I’ve been blogging for more than 10 years, and that’s an integral part of how I process my thinking (and it turns out it has been good for other people too, or so they say). I love that I can skype my missionary friends in Tanzania, and we can keep tabs with our missionary family in Asia (though I’m slack at both of these). I love that my phone can be an asset for forming habits — via reminders (so long as I don’t just ignore them). I love that social media confronts me with the faces and stories of my friends and acquaintances from around the globe (and connects me with more people) and that this provides opportunities for me to communicate with more people, and to share in their stories, and to pray for and encourage others. For most of this year I’ve had a reminder in my phone to pray for and text encouragement to my Growth Group. Every day. At 7:30am. I’ve dropped the ball a bit on that, but need to pick it up, and perhaps cast it wider.

Technology isn’t neutral; but that doesn’t mean it can’t be good. It is powerful. In my series on the impact of social media on the brain my conclusion was that an ‘incarnate’ model of mission involves deliberate change, cost, and sacrifice in order to be with other people, suggesting this also works virtually. I still think this is true. So I’m resolving to pray more for things I read on social media, to be more deliberately encouraging (and to build that into how I spend my time online), to continue being #thankful and sharing stories via Instagram, and to move thankfulness beyond just what is going on in my life to celebrating what is going on in the life of others. There’s also tools I’m hoping to use to ‘give’ more effectively; I’m going to more deliberately track my spending using this app called PocketBook, and this one called Tithe.ly to track my giving to church, and give small amounts as I make small sacrifices (like not getting a second coffee at a cafe). I’m hoping this makes giving (and saying no) a habit.

Pick some sort of change you’d like to see in the world and work towards it (with small or big steps).

Sometimes we’re pretty small when it comes to our sense of what can be achieved through making these seemingly small habitual changes. Sometimes our focus is just on what we can change about ourselves. And that’s boring and inward looking; and perhaps it’s also ineffective if, perhaps, the best way to change ourselves is actually to look outwards and ‘offer ourselves as a living sacrifice’… What was on your list? Eating healthy (yeah, that’s on mine too). Exercising more. Sleeping more. Doing bits and pieces from the lists above when it comes to how you fill your head… that’s all good stuff. But it’s a bit lame, and probably much the same as everyone else. What should our list look like if we’re becoming a ‘new self’? What does it look like not to focus on ‘self-improvement’ but ‘self sacrifice’ that’s both ‘in view of God’s mercy’ and in some sense a ‘view of God’s mercy’; a demonstration of what it looks like to be transformed into the image of Christ. The new you, as a Christian, is a pretty big deal…  but it’s not a thing you build by yourself, it’s an act of God that happens in us as our ‘worship’ changes. The way we see and live in the world changes…

 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. — 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

What would it look like for us to take these words from Paul, and these ones from C.S Lewis in ‘The Weight of Glory‘, and apply them to our resolutions.

“…If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

In this most excellent sermon, Lewis wanted us to wrap our heads around who we are, and where we’re going, and to have that shape the way we live here and now. Where better to have that shaping take place than in our resolutions. Maybe read it before coming up with your ‘ambitions’ for the year. It’s bracing.

“A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside. The following Him is, of course, the essential point. That being so, it may be asked what practical use there is in the speculations which I have been indulging. I can think of at least one such use. It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.”

I’d love to be more adventurous in both my resolutions and what I think Christians can achieve (hey, maybe I’m a typical millennial with far too great a desire to make an impact). I’m convinced by James Davison Hunter’s stuff on how Christians are too bought into the idea that social change comes via politics in a way that might prevent us creating a presence in our community that brings real change; I’m also convinced that this sort of change is primarily driven by having an imagination for what things might look like if there was a little bit more of the kingdom of God in the world, and pursuing it. This shaped the way I wrote about voting last year, and about how to write to a politician about an issue.

I’ve spent the last few years volunteering with this group in my area called The Micah Project, who started as a social justice ministry of our local Catholic Church, and employ hundreds of people, who do stuff like getting a $40 million housing development off the ground to provide permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless people, or, more recently kicking off a social enterprise cafe in two locations in our part of Brisbane to provide training and a workplace for their clients. This all started pretty small; now it is big. Micah Project’s CEO Karyn Walsh gave a pretty cool TEDx Talk on this this year.

Taking big steps can seem daunting, but when I think back to the last few years, we’ve made some pretty big ones as a family (from double income no kids, to both being students, to having kids, to ministry) and none of these seemed all that big in the moment.

These are some bigger steps I think it would be cool for people to take in order to be ‘radical’… I don’t know why resolutions always seem so small…

11. Consider how you’re investing your time, energy, talents and money into the mission of Jesus; and the growth of God’s eternal kingdom. Ask if you’re investing more into the lives of those you love via Gospel ministry or into other counterfeit ‘gospels’. Consider what you are an ‘ambassador’ for… Audit your bank statement, your calendar, and the stuff you’ve posted about on social media and ask not just what you’re seen to be living for in these bits of data, but what each purchase, appointment, and post, reveals you’re doing with these things you are able to ‘offer’ in sacrifice as your worship.

Your time, energy, talents, and money are the bits of you that get ‘offered in sacrifice’ to something, potentially to your ‘object of worship.’ The giving of these bits of yourself, and what you receive in return — whether it’s time at the gym exchanged for health and fitness, the luxurious holiday exchanged for experience, or the decadent meal exchanged for pleasure (and calories) — will form you into some ‘image’ of yourself and allow you to present that image. Being a Christian isn’t about not having nice things; it’s about not sacrificing yourself for them in a way that stops you sacrificing for God and loving others. Imagine ways you could give those things that would deliver satisfaction and joy to you (and others), and try doing that.

12. Pick a ‘social’ issue to own; some people to love, the sort of issue where you might previously have thought about writing to a politician asking for a law change, or maybe just a way you can love the people around you, your church, your family, your community) better… and dream big about how the world might be made better in this area.

13. Find some people who are already pursuing that dream and join them as a volunteer, or, start something new. Start talking to your friends who care about the same stuff. I’ve been inspired in the last few years by the people who care about asylum seekers, like those behind First Home Project, or Enough Room, or the geniuses behind the Thankyou range of products, or, locally, the people who decided the best way to do something about abortion was to start the Priceless Life Centre, which cares for women with unexpected pregnancies. All these endeavours, like Micah Projects, started with a few people with an idea.

It’s not just boring to limit your activism to writing letters or changing your Facebook profile picture or signing a petition, it’s ineffective and props up the assumption that politicians can and should solve all our problems; they may well be part of the solution, but why not resolve to transform something a bit beyond yourself.

14. Quit your job, or drop a day or two a week, and pursue that thing, or just do it to free up time to love the people around you. This sort of big change cascades down to all sorts of habits; it totally, by definition, changes the rhythm of your day, week, month, or year. I guess this is a thing we already did when we enrolled to go to Bible college; though I’m still far too ‘busy’… The first two sets of resolutions were geared around how to use ‘spare time’ and energy, and what to do to free some more spare time and energy, but perhaps big structural change is actually what’s needed to shift your habits in ways that’ll get you somewhere more helpful in the long run (or eternally).

Some of our society’s biggest idols are caught up with career success; money, identity, all that stuff… and this often goes hand in hand with ‘busyness’… worship of anything requires sacrifice. If you’re too ‘busy’ to pursue the stuff that excites you, and especially to pursue the kingdom of God via both the proclamation and living of the Gospel, then maybe you’re doing life wrong, and maybe the best way to get rid of those ‘idols’ is to kick them to the kerb by working at loving and serving Jesus instead, not just conforming to the default patterns of the world.

Just how much are you prepared to resolve to change this year? And where are you hoping your resolutions will get you? Stuck in the mud, or to the seaside?

 

18 things you might not know about being born on Christmas Day

Today is my birthday; yes I share a birthday with Jesus and no, that doesn’t make me the messiah; I’m just a very naughty boy.

You may have wondered what it is like being a Christmas baby; you may not have. If you haven’t, then you’re part of the problem. If you have, then here’s some insight, totally from my own experience…

1. The more you know about the history of Christmas the more you might want to point out that Jesus almost certainly wasn’t born on Christmas Day but you really were.
2. Everyone remembers your birthday… except maybe on the day.
3. You’ll get ‘combined’ presents sometimes; sometimes worth 150% of the value of a birthday or Christmas present… but if you organise it ahead of time you can put the purchasing power to good use. Just don’t get a tent when you’re 12ish and never use it.
4. You wonder whether it might be nice to have a whole day devoted to your birthday on the actual day.
5. When you have kids and one is born on the 22nd of December you’ll be thankful for small mercies.
6. People will often make jokes about you sharing a birthday with Jesus; suggesting you must be just like him, there’s a payoff if you get a job telling people how great Jesus is.
7. As a kid you’ll think it sucks that you don’t get school birthday parties and everyone is on holidays for your actual birthday. The 25th of November is a reasonable idea.
8. You’ll believe the ideal birthday is somewhere around June-July, and after your eldest, that’s when you’ll aim to have your kids. You’ll notice that your siblings are born between May and August.
9. You’ll think it’s an advantage that when someone says happy birthday to you, you have the ready made reply ‘merry Christmas’.
10. You’ll appreciate that every Christmas after your birth you can claim to be ‘the best Christmas present’ your parents ever received; and you’ll know it’s true; even if your dad gets a great gadget (or Sonos speaker).
11. You’ll realise there’s some mileage to be had in everyone feeling sorry for you.
12. When you meet another Christmas baby you’ll bond instantly. You’ll also be thankful you’re not born on February 29.
13. Whenever you give your date of birth anywhere public, a penny will drop about 3 seconds later, and you’ll have to have ‘that’ conversation. It’s worth making bingo cards.
14. You will, at some point, realise that pity parties are no fun and Christmas is less self-interested (and less given to disappointment and anti-climax) than a birthday, with a much more powerful story, and so, of much more value to the people in your life. Birthdays eventually become a scary reminder that you’re getting closer to death; Christmas is a reminder you no longer need to fear death.
15. It is kinda fun that everyone gets presents on your birthday, but that your haul is twice as big. So long as you forget that everyone gets a birthday; but only you have to wait exactly 12 months for one installment of presents (other December babies get it just as bad… aim for July).
16. You’ll always have Boxing Day the day after your birthday; and it is the best day of the year.

17. Everyone will ask you what it is like to have your birthday on Christmas Day; that question will puzzle you because you have not experienced the alternative and you can’t really tell how much your unique birthday has made you the person you are.

18. You’ll wonder of getting a job that makes Christmas one of the more important dates on the calendar was a great idea; but then you’ll remember point 14.

How a weight loss diet has taught me about worship, idolatry, and the Gospel

I’m fat.

I’m not saying this so you’ll say ‘no you’re not’ or whatever. It’s a statement of fact; backed up when I step on the scales.

I’m fat; I don’t really have a body image problem that is driving me to this pronouncement, it’s more a body problem.

I almost always have been. I’ve certainly always felt fat; even when I was a kid and involved in swimming training almost daily and swimming club on Friday nights, I was pudgy. Big. Overweight. Being overweight isn’t much fun; eating is though. I love food. Bad food. KFC. Chocolate. Ice cream. If there was one sin I’d scratch it’d be gluttony. I’d have all of the foods. I comfort eat and I holiday eat. I just like to eat.

The scales tell me I’ve almost always been overweight; I hit the 100kg mark in grade 12 and have only dipped back under it once since. I’m tall so I’m always going to be heavy; but there’s a difference between heavy and fat. I get that. I’m not just heavy though.

I’ve had some sense that fatness is a problem internally for almost the whole time I’ve been fat; I resented it when my weight became an issue in my family, which probably drove me to rebellious comfort eating. Who knows? I’ve also had some sense that my being fat is caused by a lack of self-control; which the Bible says is a ‘fruit of the Spirit’ and the result of gluttony and greed. I also know that being fat stops me doing some of the things I would like to do; it makes sport hard, it makes parenting and chasing small children more taxing than it could be, and it does, despite my best efforts to live in denial about this, make me self-conscious about what I wear and do.

The good thing about being fat is that unlike other problems, I can do something about it. At least that’s what I said to a bloke who sledged me on the soccer field once. I’m in total control of my destiny.

The first time I seriously ‘did something about it’ was a couple of years ago. I was tipping the scales at 113kg. I signed up for the Michelle Bridges 12 Week Body Transformation Challenge, and 12 weeks later I’d hit 97kg. I felt more confident, skinnier, healthier, but still fat. I also felt the urge to enjoy some of the food I’d had to give up to get under the 1,800 calorie a day mark. Those 12 weeks were interesting though. I had more energy; more pep, and I had a more disciplined approach to all the other aspects of my life, it seemed. Saying no to McDonalds drive-thru on the way home, where once that’d been a detour I’d take on auto-pilot, made it easier to say no to a bunch of other auto-pilot decisions I was making that didn’t fit with who I wanted to be.

One other thing I noticed while in the midst of this 12 weeks of becoming ‘the new me’ was that I became very judgmental of people who were like ‘the old me’… unenlightened me. Unlightened me. People making terrible decisions about what they were eating. I’d walk through the grocery store judging people by what they put in their baskets, their size, or their stop at Donut King on the way to the carpark; when I’d been doing the same thing just weeks before.

I felt proud of the discipline I’d adopted of only buying fresh food, cooking healthy meals with small portions, and religiously counting and recording every calorie. I’d attend to my mass every week at weigh in. And I was thrilled to see steady signs of progress; of me becoming my more ideal self. When I could stomach it, I’d watch Michelle’s videos and read her emails and hear her lay out the core tenets of my new regime. I was irregular in doing that though (perhaps a bit like the Christian who is happy to miss a few weeks of church when they get the gist of what gets said).

One thing the 12WBT did well, that I ignored, was it built an online community of fellow travellers who’d encourage each other in the pursuit of ‘body transformation’ — fashioning ourselves into some ideal image, but doing it together.

I didn’t really let the habits sink in though; I got what I wanted from the program. And moved on. If my ideal self really is the 90kg non-fat self then I didn’t get there and the 12WBT liturgy failed because it did not establish new habits in me, or ultimately transform me.

But it was powerful. The training. The narrative. The new habits. The equipping. Michelle sends you encouragement and gives you the meal plans and recipes you need to succeed. If I’d kept it up; who knows, I probably wouldn’t be fat now.

2 years (and one slightly less-successful return to Michelle Bridges) later, I was tipping the scales at 108kg, and I decided to arrest my return to the old me. But this time I needed a new image of success; a new personal trainer, a new ‘priest’, who’d lead me to a better image of myself.

When you sign up, he sends you this picture to share on social media. This is the image I’m cultivating by my new habits. This is the picture of the ‘flourishing human life’…

nathan-gets-commando-fit
What I’m realising is that it’s very hard to separate the pursuit of this image from idolatry; and that really getting there and keeping there doesn’t simply require discipline but liturgy, or worship. I need to replace my desire to eat delicious comfort food; my love for that food; with the expulsive power of a new affection; I need to not only learn that those foods are toxic and bad for me, but adopt habits that are good for me. I need to take control of my life. I need to change the script I’m living, and adopt a new vision of what my life could be.

One of the reasons idolatry is so powerful is that it has the capacity to deliver results (or we wouldn’t bother), it just can’t deliver real meaning or satisfaction. This is because idolatry doesn’t just work at the heart and our desires and the ‘story’ or vision of life that tugs us through the world and guides our decisions, or in the mind our knowledge and imagination, but in our habits; our actions; and the repetition of actions shapes us. That’s why piano players practice the piano, athletes train, why Gladwell’s 10,000 rule largely holds true, and why diets work when they change your habits. Idolatry isn’t always as destructive as pornography, in the temporal sense, but even good and wise habits; morality, study, budgeting, self-discipline, and dieting can pull you away from Jesus while they shape you into a better version of you. Idolatry of this kind doesn’t just pull you from Jesus though, it also distances you from people who don’t have the same vision of the good life; both as you are transformed, and as they are not. It has the potential to make you as judgmental and insular as any traditionally religious person. It brings a whole new vocabulary and culture, puts you in a new ‘in group’ community… it’s powerful stuff. I went to the mechanic last week, and my mechanic is clearly a man who takes cars very seriously, one might say he lives for them; I felt judged because I don’t look after my car right, he spoke to me in a language and terms I didn’t understand, about new things I would need to do if I wanted my car to give me pleasure rather than pain; and I gained some small insight into my judginess of the other shoppers at the supermarket, and perhaps also how people feel when they join us in Christian community…

I don’t have to go far to find an example of this from the program. I hadn’t read today’s email until I started typing this paragraph and thought I’d check what Commando Steve says… and here are some highlights. He starts with a pitch to encourage us to push beyond the temporary gains; to avoid fad diets and myths; to really buy in to his story of the flourishing human life… not just the “superficial, fast, measurable results” but the fruit that comes from adopting “this new routine, way of life as part of your everyday for the long term.” What he really wants for us; and he repeats this at the end of the email, so it’s important, is for us “to start living a flourishing, meaningful life.”

Sounds like the sort of thing you might hear in church, right? That’s cause it is. He says some of the key ‘dot points’ we need to sort out to make this lasting change include:

  • Identity – Who do I want to be? Where am I going? What do I want to do? These are all questions you must answer. But to do this you must live your answers in the quest to shape your identity and the person you want to become.
  • Education (Knowledge) – Is the means by which we have greater understanding and the ability to make more informed, conscious choices. Are you willing to learn?
  • Our actions are what define and shape the person we want to become (identity). By taking what we learn and experience along our journey, we then implement it into our actions. Through repeated consistency, we begin to forge and reinforce the identity and person we want to become.
  • By taking time to reflect on where it is we have come from, and where it is we are headed, do we then begin to gain insight and understanding about how we have shaped the person we are becoming

And then he says if I’m going to embed the right sort of change, and avoid the fads, I need to ask: “What is my real purpose in life? Why am I doing this? Am I willing to fundamentally change how I think, move and eat for the long term or am I just looking for a quick fix?” And then says: “When you begin to answers to these questions that’s when you will begin to live a meaningful, flourishing life.”

What he could say is I need to ask: “Who do I want to worship my way into being? So what do I need to worship?” These are ultimately questions and observations about the way we’re wired as people; about the way real change happens. We’re mostly profoundly changed by what we worship.

If I really want to buy in to the Commando’s vision of fitness, I need to buy in heart, mind, and body. And I’m sure he’ll deliver. I mean look at him.

And for a fat guy who has pretty much always been fat, that’s tempting. Whether it’s as tempting as a Zinger Stacker Ultimate Burger meal from KFC is an interesting question; but I’m three weeks in and no drive-thru… Temptation doesn’t always come in neon lights and cheap hits to your senses; sometimes it is in the perversion of wisdom where something other than God is organising your life and setting your vision for what humanity should look like.

But dieting works; training works; we become what we behold, and that happens via our habits. This shaping isn’t a good thing if it pulls us from loving God and from loving others. So this time around I’ve been more conscious of not buying into this alternative vision of flourishing; of keeping my eyes fixed on where real purpose is found and why I’m doing this. I don’t want a quick fix; sure, but nor do I want to be so transformed that I lose sight of Jesus and stop seeing God’s image in the people walking next to me in the Supermarket simply because their ‘god,’ or the image their god fashions them into, doesn’t look like the Commando or Michelle. This means I’m working hard not to be judgmental of others; but also cutting myself some slack. I hate dieting, and my approach has been to channel the Commando and be hyper-disciplined and a bit unpleasant. I need to let that go, or I’m cultivating the wrong habits; and I’d be better off fat for my family’s sake.

The Bible doesn’t say heaps about fitness; though greed and gluttony are problems… Paul uses racing and fighting analogies in his letters, and it seems he has some familiarity with the training regimes required for both; then, in his first letter to Timothy, he says:

“For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” — 1 Timothy 4:4-8

This should be what shapes my diet and my training regime. Knowing the goodness of God from creation (including food, and wisdom regarding how our bodies process it); thanking him for it and seeing him and his goodness through his creation of good food and intricately woven bodies that need work. Like the Commando, Paul suggests avoiding myths and focusing on training; but his main concern is not healthy habits but godliness. It’s godliness that will flow through to how we approach food and dieting.

Fitness isn’t a bad thing; it’s a natural product of discipline and self control, and probably an inevitable outcome of making decisions to wisely steward what God has given us; and a thing that enables us to love others better (it’s also part of that ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’ thing). But it’s not an ultimate thing, and there are much more important measures of true meaning and flourishing than your weight or waistline.

Fitness isn’t a bad thing, but it can be, like other good created things, or other fruits of wise living, if it becomes an ultimate thing, or caught up with an ultimate version of myself that does not look like Jesus. If I look at Commando and I look at Jesus I know whose arms I think are more admirable; those hands that were nailed to a cross are more worthy of my admiration and pursuit than any CrossFit trainer, and his image is a more worthwhile template for my transformation than some bloke with big guns and a diet plan who is helping me shed some weight. As Paul puts it in Colossians:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” — Colossians 1:15-20

The Commando is kinda right in his approach and the questions he asks; his vision of flourishing is a knock-off though; while Jesus offers the Rolex; an alternative vision of flourishing. His image; his habits; his life and death and resurrection as an invitation to flourish. This is where a real and satisfying body image should come from — the ‘physical body’ and life of Jesus an image that might then flow through to how you treat your body and pursue your health. In whatever weight loss program I get caught up in, I need to remember that it’s more important to practice looking like, and being like, Jesus because I want to find my identity in him; not my biceps or waistline. This image is enough for Paul to adopt some new habits. Physical habits, ‘filling up his flesh,’ embodying the Gospel… I do like how this passage emphasises the bodily reality of Paul’s ministry. This; the Gospel; is where the real flourishing life is found. Resurrected and eternal life; we start cultivating that lifestyle and the habits of eternity now.

“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation — if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant. Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” — Colossians 1:21-24

Love thy neighbour

Love your neighbour as yourself — Jesus

We live on the greatest street in Brisbane. At least I believe we do. Here’s how you can challenge us for the title, and why you should.

streetscape
Life on our street is great. Geography is part of this, of course, our quiet suburban street has handy access to the one of Brisbane’s main arterial roads, is close to a major shopping centre, and is a dead end backing onto a large sporting field. But the thing that makes this street great is community.

It’s our neighbours.

We didn’t build this community, we joined it, we were welcomed into it, and we know we belong in it. We’re not the newest people in the street anymore, and we’ve been able to be part of inviting others into this community, but it’s been a valuable time for us to think about what it means to be good neighbours. And this is important. It’s important because community is good for people; and isolation is bad.

Neighbouring is fundamental to who we are; in our national psyche “everybody needs good neighbours,” and in our family’s Christian framework, we believe we’re called above just about everything else to love our neighbours — and that’s, of course, a call to love any fellow human, our ‘global neighbours’ but it most definitely includes the people we live in closest proximity to; those in our streets, apartment blocks, or whatever other form of geographic proximity to people you experience.

We’ve lived in quite a few houses as a couple now, and both lived in plenty of houses before that, and our experience of neighbours has been mixed. We’ve lived in a townhouse complex where we barely said hi to the other residents, we’ve lived next to friends we loved dearly before moving in, we’ve lived next to people who became friends who we shared meals with, and in a cul-de-sac where people, including us, would appear and disappear through remotely opened garage doors and never even make eye contact. I think for various reasons, including a growing individualism, and a materialism where ‘every man’s home is his castle,’ where toys and man caves, and their female and family equivalents, exist to keep people satisfied behind the threshold of the front door. We’ve, at least in my observations of city life, lost the art of hospitality. But that’s not true on our street.

We have regular get-togethers: spontaneous weekend barbeques, afternoon beers, street parties for Australia Day, October Fest, and Christmas (especially for the turning on of the street’s Christmas light displays), cooking competitions — like our recent chicken wing off. We have an Easter Egg hunt. We held a street garage sale. We help out with odd jobs — renovations, furniture moving, concrete slab pouring, chasing runaway dogs, and electrical work (well, that’s the friendly neighbourhood sparky, great guy, I’m more than happy to recommend his services to you). Beer and coffee seem to be pretty much on tap. Our kids play together, we babysit for each other, some people holiday together, there’s a street Facebook group which people treat like our own Uber service, and notice board. We bake for each other. We create pot-luck banquets from our combined leftovers. We pet-sit. People exercise together. We philosophise. We share our stories. We listen. We laugh. The dads plot and scheme together and cook up amazing ideas like a trailer mounted cool room that holds 12 kegs, with three of them on tap… That’s not all of it, and I’m not responsible for any of this (except the coffee).

I love being out on the street with my neighbours. I often peer out the windows hoping to see someone else outside. We’re friends. Genuinely. People are choosing to renovate rather than sell up and move somewhere nicer. This stuff amazes me. We talk often about how amazing this community is, and how organic it seems. We’ve talked about amping things up with more incidental stuff (and some dreams of a street brewery), some of us have spoken about trying to develop a culture of shifting life to the front yard — a concept described in this book Playborhood — that I think is fascinating. We make space for the introverts too. People come and go, dipping in and out as required, others stay and stay, a couple of Saturday nights ago I found myself dragging my laptop out onto the street at 11pm to work on a talk for church (not for the next day), because I’d planned to do that from 6pm, and didn’t want to leave the fun.

Not everyone in our street is part of this ‘community’. We invite everyone to major events — like Australia Day and Octoberfest. We try to talk to anyone whose passage up the street is obstructed by our afternoon beers. Some people choose not to take part, some are more involved than others. Most of the long term people on the street, especially the families, are part of what goes on. It’s welcoming, it’s open, it took us a while to realise this, and we don’t have the same history as others do with each other — but genuine, deep, friendships take time to build, but that process can be accelerated with social lubricants like beer, coffee, and generosity. Which my neighbours offer by the bucket.

I’m not saying this stuff to brag about what we’ve done, or how good we’ve got it. Though I’m constantly excited. I didn’t build this. I’m saying this because I think our Aussie culture sorely needs this. Your street needs this. You need it. It’s good for you, and for your neighbours.

I’m learning what it means to be a good neighbour from some of the best. And it seems easy. It seems to be something you could do too. But I suspect it seems easy because a culture has been built here for a long time, from some pretty strong convictions that everybody does need good neighbours. It’s actually not easy, until it is. It’s a bit counter-cultural. It takes intentional breaking down of barriers.

But here’s what I believe. Not just because I’m a Christian, and it fits, but because I think good neighbours — good communities — are absolutely essential for human flourishing. And we’re losing this part of our shared life — and you can do something about it.

Everybody needs good neighbours

Community is a fundamental human need. It’s not really optional, as much as some of us might think we can get by without it. Neighbours, the TV show, is right. Everybody needs good neighbours. There’s plenty of good academic data out there connecting wellbeing to belonging and community. And there’s plenty of social science and science stuff out there to suggest that community or tribal instincts are historically important for adaptation and survival, and this isn’t just about breeding.

If we’re to take the Christian account of our humanity seriously — we also see that we’re social animals. We’re made to be part of a community. This will feel different for different people — introversion and extroversion mean community has different costs and benefits, but no man or woman is made to be an island, even if sometimes we wish our ‘castles’ had a moat to cut us off from the rest of the world. The first two chapters of the Bible are, in part, about establishing this truth — that we are relational beings, that we’re made in the image of the God who is a community — Father, Son, and Spirit, and that our bearing of this image is a function of our community, or relationships, so that we need more than just ourselves — we need ‘male and female,’ and in the Genesis 2 version of the creation of humanity, we’re told community — relationships — are necessary for human flourishing, for things to be the ‘good’ that has been God’s aim in creating the world.

“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…” — Genesis 1:26

“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” — Genesis 1:31

“The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” — Genesis 2:18

The Bible’s picture of paradise, of ‘the good life’ is people living in community with one another, and with God. The flipside in the Bible’s story, essentially the story of paradise lost (and ultimately found again) is that we’re told our experience of relationships, or community, won’t always be great. We’re still made in God’s image, but our decision not to align our lives with his plans for the world comes at the cost of our relationships. We’re self-interested before we’re other-interested, and often our interest in others is framed in terms of what we can get more than what we can give. Which is interesting when it comes to Jesus’ description of the greatest commandments, these are a recipe for re-finding ‘paradise’ — for life being ‘good’ again.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”  — Matthew 22:37-39

This command, along with Jesus’ version of the ‘golden rule’, which tells us to do good to others, not just avoid doing bad (like other versions of the golden rule from other wise people), has been pretty influential in the cultures — western culture — built around Christian thinking. But it’s not just a “Christian” thing, nor is good neighbouring. It’s fundamentally part of our wiring, and happens wherever humanity happens; just with our inherent selfishness also part of the mix.

For Christians, good neighbouring isn’t a means to some other end — its not a sales strategy for Christianity (though if you’re a good neighbour, people might listen to you or ask you questions from genuine interest), it is what we’re told to do. We have a particular motivation to be good neighbours because it’s what Jesus told us to do.

When good neighbouring happens, for any of us, it’s a taste of paradise. When community happens, when it really happens, when it is built on neighbouring, on others-centred love, it produces really great stuff. It’s a picture of humanity as it was made to be. A taste of paradise. One of the best fruits of Christianity’s undeniable influence in western society is these words of Jesus do occupy a space somewhere close to the heart of our western identity; even if we want to reject all the mysterious spiritual stuff.

How to love your neighbours (like ours love us)

I’ve done my best to ask around about how this happened. The history, or story, of our street. I largely put it down to one guy, at least so the story goes. A natural born community builder who bought into the street a long time ago; when his house was ‘the party house’ — and it was a party house which drew some other people who moved into, or lived on, the street into its orbit. The geography stuff is a factor, the dead end makes it easier to congregate on the street, or in the park, but really it was one guy who was intentional about being open to new relationships, because as I talk to him, he is utterly committed to community, and the way he builds it is through profound generosity. This generosity is infectious, and it may well be that there’s a statistical anomaly that means I live around some of the most generous people I’ve ever met, but I think its also just this expectation that gets built over time that generosity to those you live in community with produces benefit, not cost.

People seem to think our street sounds good and desirable. When I tell them what’s going on, or post photos online, people say things like ‘you’re lucky to have that’ — I don’t think it’s luck. I think we’re lucky to have landed here, sure, but it’s the product of a few people taking the time and expending the effort to deliberately build a thing that expresses something deeply true and good about our humanity. It’s not dumb luck. It’s the result of love, and a desire for real community.

So here’s some tips I’ve gleaned from learning this story and watching our little community operate.

  1. Be intentional 
    This doesn’t happen by accident. You don’t accidentally love your neighbours, you do it by deciding that’s a thing you want to do, and prioritise. You do it by meeting people, learning names, going out of your way to contribute to the lives of those around you at every opportunity. You do it by creating opportunities. By doing things on your street, in your home, and inviting your neighbours to be part of it.
  2. Communicate
    Community requires communication. Part of this is just smiling, waving, and speaking to each other in passing. It requires trying to get to know your neighbours. Knowing people’s names is only half the battle. If you’re going to do a chicken wing cook off it’s not just a matter of cooking some wings and hoping the smell will draw a crowd. A Facebook group might be a little intense — but its probably worthwhile grabbing phone numbers for people on your street, or in your complex, for neighbourhood watch or runaway dog purposes, maybe you could put together a directory, with people’s names — and that’ll help you remember who’s who, and give you a good reason to meet new people on the street as they arrive. Don’t spam these lists or try to sell stuff to your neighbours in some crass way. Love is not a means to some other agenda, it’s an end in itself. But these sorts of contact lists might be a great tool for creating the sort of events that will build your community. Like a chicken wing cook off.
  3. Be welcoming
    There’ll always be people on your street who you get on with more naturally than others. But if you just pick a few friends and shut everyone else out, you’re not building a community, you’re building a commune. One of the nicest things about our community is how inclusive it is. We’re a pretty diverse bunch when it comes to age, stage, politics, religion, and vocation — sure, we also have much in common in terms of ethnicity and a few other things — but everybody gets invited to things, and everybody is welcome. There seems to be a commitment to putting up with one another through some things that in another street could lead to a blood feud. We’ve had a few pet related mishaps, and I’m constantly amazed that people put up with our barking dog and my bad jokes.
  4. Be generous
    I tell lots of people that I don’t think I’ve had to buy a beer since we moved in. I think that’s probably true. And it’s not just beer — I mentioned some stuff above, but we’ve been given clothes, toys, a spit roast thing (that I’m going to convert into a coffee roaster), a home-welded chicken coop far beyond my capabilities, plenty of time in the form of dog-sitting… and some other incredibly generous acts of service from different people. We’ve found various ways to give back, but we still feel like our neighbours have been more generous to us than we have to them, and so, we’re always keen to be generous to the street whenever, and however, we can. I get the sense this is true for most of us. Someone has to start this cycle though, in order to create a culture, and that might simply look like doing some baking, or cooking some meals, or pitching in with some odd jobs as you notice them when you’re hanging out in your front yard.Generosity includes hospitality. You can’t expect all neighbouring to happen on the street. That can get uncomfortable after a while (though most of us have readily accessible picnic chairs). We’ve got to the point on our street where our kids will, upon invitation, quite confidently wander around our neighbours houses and yards. And we’re pretty happy for our neighbours to drop in or come round too — like for Family Feud viewing parties. For us to do this sort of thing requires us to be comfortable with the fact that the stage of life we’re in means our house will never actually feel tidy, and we’ve just got to roll with that.
  5. Shift to the front yard
    This is a big one from Playborhood. And it’s counter-cultural. All our fun stuff is still in our backyard. Our trampoline (built at night with the help of our neighbours), our veggie patch, our swingset and sand pit. And my beloved hammock. In this we’re not alone, Aussies have become back yard types. Secluded. Fenced in. Enjoying the serenity and privacy of our own little kingdoms. The back yard is important for our family’s sanity, but most of our incidental ‘street time’ comes from keeping an ear out for activity while we’re inside, or from deliberate loitering, and playing with our dog, in the front yard. The park and the quiet street make this easier. Most of our neighbours kids are older than ours, and are often out riding, or playing, or making home movies; and ours are always keen to join their big friends.
  6. Create traditions
    This one is the most fun. We’re gradually building an events calendar that features regular signature events, with incidentals like birthdays and spontaneity padding things out. These things get a life of their own the more fun people have with them. One of the guys bought a bunch of steins for Octoberfest that he gave to each of us. There’s a perpetual Golden Drumstick at stake in the wing off. The Christmas Lights get bigger and brighter each year. Our kids almost drowned under the sea of Easter Chocolate. These things add a richness, and we’re often talking about the next one and planning how we might improve it (which gives us plenty to talk about — and relationships start out with those awkward conversations about the weather, then move through talking about shared interests, before you get to the deeper level of trust and understanding). These traditions shape the life of the community, and help us figure out what we value, and they’re fun.
  7. Have low expectations
    This stuff doesn’t happen overnight. What we enjoy on our street is the fruit of relationships that extend back many years before we arrived. But I don’t just mean have low expectations about how quickly this will happen so that you seek to make incremental steps towards community, I mean have low expectations of each other. This is counter-cultural stuff. People are busy. People are suspicious of strangers, and about people who are over-enthusiastic about things that look intense… but community is good for us. That’s my belief, and experience. Not every street has someone like our pioneering neighbour who build community naturally, or other people moving in with the same values. You might have to be that person. Don’t expect people to sign up, expect that you’ll have to model stuff, take the first step, and carry the cost (at least initially) of growing a community.

Do you have good neighbours? What are your tips? Chances are my actual neighbours will see this, because we’re Facebook friends. They’ve probably got some ideas too (and I trust that I haven’t given away any trade secrets)…

10

I haven’t been writing much here lately so it hardly feels like I can say I’m ‘still blogging’ but two days ago this little corner of the internet turned ten years old. And that’s something.

I’ve been blogging for longer than I worked in the ‘real world’, for longer than I’ve been married, for longer than I’ve been a father, for longer than I’ve studied at uni, and for longer than I’ve been in vocational ministry. That’s a whole lot of significant parts of my life that have been around for less time than I’ve been systematically trying to incarnate (or excarnate) my brain online, encoded in bits and bytes by writing my thoughts down and hitting post to send them into cyberspace.

If you’re still here, thanks for reading.

Why I now side with Paul, not Eutychus

On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting. Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “He’s alive!” Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left. The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted. — Acts 20:7-12

St. Eutychus: Where being boring kills.

When I changed the name of this site from nathanintownsville to st-eutychus, I did it because I thought the story of Eutychus falling out the window in Acts — to his death — was hilarious. Eutychus will eternally be known as the guy bored to death by Paul’s preaching. Paul. Potentially the most effective teacher ever to have lived. In my reading of the story, for the sake of the title, he fell into the trap of preaching too long. As a PR hack, who wrote pithy 500 word press releases for a living,  I genuinely believed this trap was deadly.

So what’s happened?

Somehow in recent times the tagline of this site should almost be read as an indicative — this is the place where you might come to be drowned in words, lulled to sleep, and might fall from a window to your death. Where being boring kills. Yes.

This is deliberate. I’m raging agains the TL:DR; machine. If you want short, punchy, simplistic and inane reactive viral fodder, then, well, pith off.

I’m raging against this machine because I think Eutychus was wrong. I think being bored kills. I think Eutychus should have worked harder to pay attention to Paul, and to the world — he should have known the dangers of sitting on a window sill, in a dimly lit room, listening to someone speak for hours.

We’ve lost the ability to pay attention, and the only way we’ll gain it is to start paying attention. Copious attention. To the world, to the Gospel, to the people around us. TL:DR; (too long didn’t read) is at least as much an indictment of our collective failure to pay attention as it is on poor content that is too long and convoluted.

Sure, a thing might not be worth your attention — that’s on you to figure out, and your attention is yours to give. I’m writing as an attempt to pay attention to things myself. To notice. To seek understanding. To avoid knee-jerk outrage in response to whatever is going on in the world, and to try to understand the world as people see it, and the world as I believe people should see it. Attention is what is required to live well, and love well. It’s what prevents outrage, and what causes someone to bother with fact checking before sharing something designed to create outrage. Any pithy thing I ever do write — anything under 2,000 words, the posts I typically see shared the most — is always, always, the product of thinking I’ve extensively outlined, out loud, here already, at much greater length.

At the end of the day, I write about things that interest me, that I hope, over time, might prove of interest or value to others. You don’t need to pay attention to me or what I write. That’s fine — I don’t check stats, this stopped being about my ego or my ‘brand’ a long time ago. But I do feel like I need to keep explaining the shift of gears in this corner of the interwebs.

You don’t need to read everything I write — not even my wife or mother do that (I think dad might, hi dad) — but if I could leave you with one plea. One desperate, heartfelt, plea:

Please pay attention.

To the world.

To others.

Give it generously.

Lavish it in droves.

Use your brain, and your eyes, but think about what you’re filling them with. Ask yourself why we fill a 24-hour news cycle with 10 second grabs from spokespeople forced to reduce complex issues into a memorable zinger. Ask what that’s doing to our media, our politics, and our ability to be civil. Ask yourself why we’ve got a 24 hour news cycle that we then pad out with input from multiple devices, feeding us those same 10 second lines from those same glib speakers. Read Nicholas Carr’s famous piece Is Google Making Us Stupid. In his book, The Shallows, Carr says:

“Media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

The internet has the capacity to stop us concentrating, and contemplating — other words for paying attention.

And then he says, according to neuroscientists and because our brains are ‘plastic’ — they change as we use them…

“We become, neurologically, what we think”

The Psalmist behind Psalm 115 says:

But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see…

Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.

We become what we behold. And what we behold isn’t just the messages we pay attention to, but the mediums that deliver them too.

Paul, in Romans, says:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Things in this world shape us. Things external to us. You might believe you’re in control of this shaping, but the only way to be in control is to pay attention — Christian or not — testing and approving of how you live and the decisions you make is what keeps you in the driver’s seat for your brain, and what keeps us able to live well in this world.

Ask yourself if you really believe that we become what we behold — then ponder why media theorists, theologians, and neuroscientists all agree that the information we consume, and the way we consume it, has the power to shape the way we think and physically re-shape our brains and communication.

Maybe a ten second sound bite or a seven hundred word opinion piece isn’t enough to do justice on any real issues in this world. And maybe consuming these things and thinking they do our thinking for us is starting to cost us our ability to see the world well, and thus live in it well. Maybe you’ve got to read ten seven hundred word opinion pieces, or one seven thousand word opinion piece to really know what’s going on, and to react appropriately.

That’s what I think. That’s why I’ve switched camps from Eutychus to Paul. Paul was also a nice guy. He didn’t punish Eutychus for not paying attention, he saw what happened and picked him up.

And then he talked some more. From midnight to dawn. That’s a lot of words. Because sometimes its words that give life.

St. Eutychus: Where being bored kills.

 

 

A matter of life and breath

“Ok. Let’s start CPR”

Breath.

We take it for granted right up until the moment that it is gone.

I’m in hospital this week, celebrating the incredible miracle of new life. New breath. For the third time I was there. Physically. Emotionally. Present. There. In the room. Waiting. Watching. Listening.  There, as a mouth opened, and filled a set of lungs with oxygen for the first time.

breath

Breathe little girl.

Thankfully, our little one, has not required CPR. But in a hospital there are many who do. In hospital, life and death exist as the start or end point of different journeys. Hospitals beat airports when it comes to the scale of human emotions. When I walk the corridors I remember the training I was given for news reading — bizarrely — whether its bad news or good, people like the comforting empathy of a warm smile. The smile conveys a subliminal wink and a nod, from a third party, to the idea that life will go on, that everything will pan out. Even if its patently obvious that it won’t. Even if it’s clear that everything has, or will, change. I walk around the hospital with my empathetic newsreader smile plastered on my face, trying not to make eye contact. Just in case. But I listen as I walk. Because the hospital experience, tied up as it is with life and death, is something that feels almost sacred.

“OK, let’s start CPR.”

Life is incredible, and, linked as it is to breathing, breath is incredible. The capacity for the very atmosphere that surrounds us to sustain life is remarkable. Yet like good typography, breath often goes unnoticed. We take it for granted.

I notice it when I’m short of it — in the throes of exercise, or on a cold winter’s night as my mild asthma starts constricting my chest — but other than that its simply automatic. I find myself thinking about breathing if I’m trying to exercise some control over something that I feel like I ought to be more invested in, when I feel the need to still my heart and my thoughts, or when I want to sneak out of a sleeping child’s room unnoticed.

But breath is a miracle.

Breathe little girl.

Nothing reminds you of that faster than a hospital. Where breath is there one moment, and gone the next. Or, more happily, where a breath is taken for the first time.

My newest progeny, Elise, is three days old now. She is alive. She is healthy. She breaths. She is a wonder to me. A beautiful marvel (just like Sophia and Xavier before her).  I’ve spent three days reflecting on that moment where her mouth and lungs opened to receive breath, autonomously, for the first time. It’s true, of course, that Elise has been living on vicariously delivered oxygen for many months now. But this was life without breath. Another miracle.

Breathe little girl. 

It’s interesting how much you pay attention to the breath of another. One that you love. Whether its the breathing of a loved one, a spouse or significant other, when you’re in close proximity, or the breath of a child whose life you suddenly feel (and are) responsible for. There’s some sort of nerve-jangling response hardwired into a parent that comes as an automatic response to every cough, whimper, or choking sound. Nothing gets you breathing faster than hearing something abnormal in the breathing of your child. And yet I have no idea how many times I’ve inhaled or exhaled while writing this sentence. Have you counted your breaths while reading this? Of course not. Though maybe you will. And every breath counts.

Our breaths are numbered — whether by an all knowing divine being, or simply by the period of time we’re alive, and the number of times we inhale and exhale before expiring — we only breath a certain, finite, number of times in this world.

As I write these words I’m sitting next to my wife, Robyn, watching Elise sleep and listening to her breath. Listening for abnormalities. Sure. But listening and celebrating the marvel that is human life.

Breathe little girl. Keep breathing.

Breathing is so fundamental to our human experience.

“OK. Let’s start CPR.” 

These words are a terrifying reminder that one day breathing will cease. For me. For you. That breath will leave your body for one last time, leaving it, if you can believe what you see in the movies, 21 grams lighter. But dead. Lifeless. 21 grams might not be the weight of the soul, that’s a weird sort of dualism that leaves body and soul more separate than I believe they are. But, if that movie (21 Grams) is right, it is the material difference between a dead person and a live person.

Whatever you believe the soul is, that which vivifies a bunch of cells, it departs with your last breath.

Death sucks. It’s like a black hole that sucks the life and oxygen out of what would otherwise be a pretty spectacular universe.

“Ok, Let’s start CPR”

I heard these words as I walked the corridors of the hospital, on my way from my living, breathing, miracle to the cafeteria which serves up a bunch of salty deep-fried rubbish, and sugar — delicious though it all is — that will inevitably lead to a few fewer breaths for me if I keep indulging in them.

As I left the maternity ward I was aware of a piercing, repeating, alarm, and a bit of motion around the doors of a room at the end of the corridor in the ward I walk through to get to the cafeteria. I heard those words.

“OK. Let’s start CPR.” 

They’re stuck in my head. A twin memory, juxtaposed to that precious moment from the birth suite. Clanging. Jangling. Butting up against the reality of new life. Intruding on a celebration.

I purchased my wedges and waited as the hot oil turned them golden brown. I walked back past the room. It was still. Empty. Without breath. I don’t know what happened to the resident, whether they were rushed away for treatment, or how that story ends. But I do know it’s a stark reminder that all is not right in this world.

Those breaths my daughter took as she entered the world, the breaths she takes now as I sit beside her, will one day cease. As will mine. My wife’s. My other children. Breath is fleeting. Life is fleeting.

Breathe little girl. 

The writer of Ecclesiastes, let’s, for the sake of argument, call him Solomon, reflected on the existential dilemma that this dependence on breath places us in, against the backdrop of just how temporary our breathing is in the grand scheme of things.

Breath. Over and over again he repeats the word ‘hebel’ — a word our translations render as “meaningless,” but a word that means breath. Fleeting. Inhale/exhale. You breathe in. You breathe out. And it’s all over.

“Breath! Breath!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly breath!
    Everything is breath.”

What do people gain from all their labors
    at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
    and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
    and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
    ever returning on its course. — Ecclesiastes 1:2-6

This leads to a pretty depressing place.

“So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is breath, a chasing after the wind.” — Ecclesiastes 2:17

Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is breath. —Ecclesiastes 3:19

Here one minute. Gone the next.

Breathe little girl. 

Why?

Why is it that breath does not last? That life does not last?

This miracle of new life, and new breath, that I witnessed for the third time this week, why isn’t it an eternal miracle?

Why does life end?

If Solomon had been able to answer these questions adequately, then perhaps Ecclesiastes would be a little less morose. He does turn, in the face of futility, to the only one it makes sense to turn to. The one who gives life.

Remember your Creator
    in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
    and the years approach when you will say,
    “I find no pleasure in them”…

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
    and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
    and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
    and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

“Breath! Breath!” says the Teacher.
    “Everything is breath!”…

Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind. — Ecclesiastes 12:1,6-8, 13

Solomon’s dad, David, was also confronted by this same existential crisis, the question of what life means in the face of the stark reality of death.

“Show me, Lord, my life’s end
    and the number of my days;
   let me know how fleeting my life is.

You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
    the span of my years is as nothing before you.

Everyone is but a breath,
    even those who seem secure.

 “Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom;
    in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth
    without knowing whose it will finally be.

 “But now, Lord, what do I look for?
    My hope is in you.
 Save me from all my transgressions;
    do not make me the scorn of fools.” — Psalm 39:4-8

Breathe in. Breathe out. Expire. And yet, David speaks of hope and salvation… The Psalms, not all of them are written by David, end up a little more hopeful, relying on God’s life-giving character as part of the answer to death.

All creatures look to you
    to give them their food at the proper time.
 When you give it to them,
    they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
    they are satisfied with good things.
 When you hide your face,
    they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
    they die and return to the dust.
When you send your Spirit,
    they are created,
    and you renew the face of the ground.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
    may the Lord rejoice in his works.” — Psalm 104:27-31

God gives life. God takes it away.

We humans can prolong life by artificially breathing into someone’s lungs.

“Ok, let’s start CPR”

Sometimes by moments, sometimes by years. But never eternally. We just don’t have enough breath, or life, to give. CPR, at its most basic, is the giving of some of the oxygen allocated to yourself, in terms of the finite number of times you’ll breathe in your lifetime, to someone else. It’s incredible. The transfer of life giving breath from one person to another.

But CPR is a temporary fix. It’ll always be followed by death. This, in part, is because we’ve all only got a finite amount of oxygen to spare. CPR is a dying person giving another dying person a bit of their life. Real life needs living breath, the sort that Psalm speaks of, the sort that creates and renews, when God sends his Spirit — breath that comes from the infinite life giver. It’s God and his glory, and his breath-created works that will endure forever. This sort of breath seems the only answer in the face of death, which only entered the world because we rejected God.

This is not how it was supposed to be. The link between life and breath is no accident. For those who take what the Bible says about life and breath and death seriously, our breathing was not meant to cease. We were made to live. We were made to live in such a way that our very life — the essence of our existence — reflected the greatness and glory and existence of the one who breathed life into us. Whatever points Genesis is making about the origins and function of human life, one thing is clear — breath is what separates us from dust. From dead matter. Breath is why we matter, it’s what gives life in this world — first to the animals (Genesis 1:30), then to humanity.

“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” — Genesis 2:7

This breath is what gives us the capacity to live out our function as living images of the living God. Not simply images fashioned from clay, or precious metals. And, Christians believe the living God continues to fashion every human life.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! — Psalm 139:13-17

The other gods of the Ancient Near East had their dead statues. Idol statues that were formed and fashioned by craftsmen, then ceremonially “quickened” in a mouth opening ceremony so they could act for the god they represented— despite this ceremony they remained still, mute, and dead. Breathless.

Idols don’t speak. In part because they don’t breath (have you ever tried breathing without speaking?). And they don’t breath because they don’t live. They don’t help us answer the existential dilemma we’re confronted with at the sound of inspiring or expiring (and just how cool is it that these words are related to breath entering and leaving the lungs?). The consistent testimony of the inspired writers of the Old Testament is that Idols do not speak, or breath, so they cannot inspire… they leave us bereft and helpless in the face of the fleeting nature of life. That’s why the writer of Ecclesiastes finally turned to his Creator.

I look but there is no one—
    no one among the gods to give counsel,
    no one to give answer when I ask them.
See, they are all false!
    Their deeds amount to nothing;
    their images are but wind and confusion.— Isaiah 41:28-29

Everyone is senseless and without knowledge;
    every goldsmith is shamed by his idols.
The images he makes are a fraud;
    they have no breath in them. — Jeremiah 10:14

The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
    nor is there breath in their mouths.
Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.— Psalm 135:15-18

Replacing the living God with other stuff is what started the long, slow, march towards death for all people. And eventually we’ll become just like the dead, dusty, stuff we replaced him with.

“OK, let’s start CPR”

Death sucks because in suffocating us of life and breath, it robs us of something that is intrinsic to our humanity and its essence. It consumes the life that was given us in order that the one who gives life might be seen.

Even if we do all in our power to be shaped by other gods, idols that we live for and reflect instead, until breath is taken away, until death happens, we still, in our living, breathing, existence point to the existence of the life-giver. The breath-giver.

The gods of the nations around Israel were represented by dead images, fashioned from dirt. But not the God of the Bible. The living God. The God who could not, and would not, be represented by dead statues. Statues with no breath in them. The living God needed living representatives.

Idols are dead. And dumb. As we follow them, or simply turn away from the life-giving God, that becomes our destiny. Dumb death. This future is all we can inflict on others on our own steam (or breath). This is why CPR is only a temporary fix. We are expirers by our nature, not inspirers.

The living God, on the other hand, speaks and gives life. Rather than death.

Where people make images of dead gods, the living God gives life to living images.

Humans.

That we die is an affront to what we were created for. God is a living, breathing, God — who gives and sustains life through breath, and ends life by taking that breath away (Numbers 16:22, 27:6, Job 12:10, 27:3, 33:4). As long as we live and breathe, by God’s design and as his gift, we still actively bear his image. Whether we like it or not…

If it were his intention
    and he withdrew his spirit and breath,
all humanity would perish together
    and mankind would return to the dust. — Job 34:14-15

God takes life, because God gives life.

This is what God the Lord says—the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,

    who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
    who gives breath to its people,
    and life to those who walk on it. — Isaiah 42:5

God gives life to all people. In this sense, all living, breathing, speaking people, whether they remain turned away from God and towards things that kill or not, continue to represent something true about God. But temporary life isn’t really a complete testimony to the eternal life of the life giver, given eternal life is. Psalm 104 delights in the idea that the glory of God will endure forever as God rejoices in his works. Adam and his descendants don’t truly carry out the role of image bearer.

Jesus does.

The humanity Jesus reveals in his perfectly obedient life, death, and resurrection, is a truer humanity than our natural, death-riddled, humanity. The humanity offered to us in Jesus, the new life, and new birth, offered to those who turn to him and receive God’s Spirit, is a fuller picture of God, and the answer to the crisis of existence that confronts us in the face of death. It solves the shortness of our life, by offering eternal life. A share in the true essence of God’s life. In the Old Testament story, turning away from God and towards idols leaves people metaphorically (or perhaps metaphysically) with stone hearts, and as dry bones. God’s promise to his people is that he will re-enter the scene to renew and recreate life (which echoes the hope of Psalm 104).

“‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’” — Ezekiel 37:4-6

This is divine CPR. CPR that works because the infinite one, with lungs of infinite capacity, who breaths life, not death, is the one administrating the life-giving intervention.

The beauty of the Christian story is that as God breathes his Spirit back into us we start reconnecting with the divine, inspiring, purpose of human life, powered by God’s breath. We become his workmanship again. Consider Ephesians 2, the whole chapter, or even the whole letter, is gold, of course… but these bits:

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved… For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do… For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit… And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. — Ephesians 2: 4-5, 10, 18, 22

We become work that will endure eternally. Inspired, rather than expiring. The effort put into knitting us together in the womb meets its divinely inspired purpose. Breath and life intertwine as we become God’s image bearers again. Presenting a living image, and pattern, we see perfected and demonstrated in Christ (see Colossians 1:15-21). The weird thing about the pattern of Jesus life, the way he demonstrates that he is God’s craftsmanship (and the way I think Paul follows his example, cf 2 Corinthians 3-4), is that it’s caught up in being prepared to stop breathing for the sake of others. It’s about being prepared to lay down life now, confident that the one who gives life will take it up again (John 10:14-18). It’s on the Cross where the pattern for life-giving humanity that reflects the life-giver is laid out for all to see. On the Cross the one who connects us with the life-giving God shows exactly what it looks like to truly trust and obey God. He demonstrates what it looks like to simultaneously and perfectly love God, and love your neighbours, and your enemies. At the Cross Jesus defeats death, and he does that by putting his breath, and life, in its place. In the hands of God. Showing us what it is to trust God in the face of the apparent meaninglessness of a short existence.

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. — Luke 23:46

Through Jesus, God’s life giving breath — his Spirit — comes to dwell in us, not us alone, but us his people — giving us life again. God’s life. Eternal life. The promise of the Old Testament prophets and the hope of the Psalms (even the hope of Solomon), meet their fulfilment.

Paul, who wrote that stuff from Ephesians, ties up all this stuff— idols, images, and God’s relationship to life and death, and breath in Jesus — as he speaks to the leading thinkers of Athens, in Acts 17. These thinkers are those who spend their time grasping and grappling with the existential question death presents to us. Like the writer of Ecclesiastes, Paul turns to the Creator of life to find a way to answer this question without being all-consumed by existential angst.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” — Acts 17:24-31

Breathe. 

Life is found in and through the one who the creator, the living, breathing, God raised from the dead. Jesus.

My prayer for my kids, for Elise, for Xavi, for Soph (and for all those I love), is that they might know that they are fearfully and wonderfully crafted by God, as his workmanship, that they might stay connected to his purpose for them through Jesus, and grow to love God, and live by his breath. Not our on their own steam. Because this is what lasts. And as a dad, it’s the only thing that gives me hope knowing that one day the lives I hold in my hands, and in my heart, will end.

Breathe little girl. Keep breathing. 

5 reasons my posts are often so very, very, long

One overwhelmingly common response to stuff I’ve been posting here in perhaps the last couple years (it hasn’t always been like this) is that there are just too many words. Here’s an attempt to explain why this happens. Just read the headings if you want the short version. I’ll use this post a bit as something to link people to when they ask about the length of my posts (or complain about them). But here’s an answer, or five, to a question you just might be asking every time you see me post anything with the words “it’s long, but…” appended to the link.

1. I write to dump my thoughts somewhere without editing. Editing would significantly, significantly, change and lengthen the time I invest here that I need to invest elsewhere.

“I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.” — Blaise Pascal (and many others)

I don’t do this for money, or attention. I think of this site as something of an external version of my brain. I do it to clarify my thinking, to offer my thoughts, unedited, to others, and to take part in wider discussions. I like to think that what people experience when they read my stuff, in bits and pieces, or as some sort of integrated whole, they’re getting a sense of how my brain works and how my thinking develops (or doesn’t). In one sense my greatest desire is to be understood. Sometimes people like what I write, and share it, but I’ve been blogging for nine years now and have never particularly cared about traffic. I very, very, rarely look at stats for my blog.

I don’t edit because I don’t have time. I have a wife. I have two young kids, with another one due in the next two weeks. I have a pet dog. I have a church family. I have a job. Writing takes me away from these things some times. To be honest, I spend too much time here for too little tangible return in the relationships that matter most (though I think the clarity and catharsis writing brings me helps me be a bit better at many of these jobs, perhaps with the exception of the dog).

2. Life and truth are sometimes more complex than 140 characters or a clickbaity list of n-things might allow

The internet is great for many things. But complexity isn’t always one of them. Our world reduces complex arguments to soundbites and slogans. The internet is not like a traditional media outlet with limited column space or airtime. Which is great, but it also means people sink to the bottom in order to compete for attention. Hence headlines that promise I don’t want to do that. Maybe I overcorrect. But I want to subvert the patterns people adopt to “succeed” online, because I don’t think traffic is success. I’m much more interested in developing some sense of what it looks like to be a virtuous writer and citizen in this new media landscape (here’s part 1 on humility, and part 2 on eloquence, from a never completed five part thing I once started on what this looks like).

3. Context takes time (and words) to establish

I don’t assume that anybody reads every post I write. And I don’t assume that people who read stuff here know me in real life. But since I want to be understood, I feel like each post has to present who I am and how the thing I’m writing about is a product of point 1, but I also want to be showing my workings a bit. I want to provide this context for people. But this isn’t the only sort of context I’m interested in. I want to show how a post relates to other posts I’ve written (because that’s how my brain works, nothing really gets developed in isolation, the integration of thoughts and ideas is what gets me excited).

Again. This isn’t the only way I think context works. I want to fairly represent others too. I quote large slabs of other sources, especially the Bible, because I don’t want to rip things or thoughts away from their own context without care. I also don’t expect people to follow a link to an external site to check that I’m representing a third party well. If I’m disagreeing with someone I want their argument to be clearly represented. I haven’t always done this well. But I want to treat others online the way I hope to be treated when someone wants to disagree with me.

Also, just for the record, I’ve posted more than 6,000 articles here, and the average length per post is just 258 words, so it may be that I’m not actually as wordy as you think, you might just be reading something that someone else has decided is worth sharing because they think it could be of value for you… According to the stats (at least a couple of years ago when I did check my stats as an experiment), my longer posts are shared more frequently than short posts, which seems to fit a broader trend. According to this article in the Huffington Post:

“We analyzed the top 10% most shared articles to see if this was the case. And according to our research, the opposite is true. On average, long-form content actually gets shared more than short-form content.

If you look at the chart below, the longer the content, the more shares it gets, with 3,000-10,000 word pieces getting the most average shares (8859 total average shares). Not surprisingly, there was a lot more short-form content being written. How much more? There were 16 times more content with less than 1000 words than there were content with 2000+ words.”

That’s enough about me. Here’s some about you.

4. Your media habits shape your brain. 

Do you want your brain to be shaped by a bunch of unnuanced, sensationalist, short garbage that moves on quicker than a newspaper becomes fish and chip wrapping? I don’t.

The way we use media profoundly rewires our brains. Here’s a (long) six part series on how social media rewires our brains, picking up some insights from neuroscience, theology, and media ecology.

Maybe you should take time to read a bit. It’s good for your brain. Take some time out, grab a coffee. There’s a little thing at the top of each post that even warns you how many minutes an average reader might take to read every word. I don’t think people consume the web like this. Eye-tracking technology shows that when people are reading something online they scan for headings, and tend to scroll quickly through a page to see if it’s worth investing in. Slate.com has a cool article on how people read things online, even long things, that explores this a bit, I try to write knowing that people will tune out when they feel like they’ve had enough. A blog post from Buffer, an online media tool, suggests 1,600 words is the ideal length for a blog post, which is longer than most people think they want, and equates to about ten minutes of reading time. This post will be just shy of that.

5. It’s possible your complaint about something being too long means its not actually written for you. And you should simply stop reading when you stop being interested

There’s a strong argument that has been made by people I respect that what I write as a Christian, where whatever gifts I have in this area coming from God for the benefit of others, should serve as many people as possible and that means making my writing as accessible as possible. Which means shorter. I think there’s some truth here. But I also believe the primary people I’m called to serve are those in my family, and my church family, and that takes time which I can’t devote to making this site more useful for you. Sorry. And I’m not always sure shorter is better, as the above suggests…

Look. I know you’re busy. Who’s not?

But it’s also possible that your assumption that your time is somehow more precious than mine, and those I serve with it, misses the point that reading anything on the internet is a completely opt-in activity. You can choose to close the tab any time. It’s not like a sermon where if I waffle for ten minutes, to 70 people, I’ve wasted 700 minutes for people who couldn’t easily leave. The opt-in/opt-out distinction is incredibly important, it’s a bit like permission marketing v interruption marketing (see wikipedia).

Perhaps when I post something it’s not for you. Perhaps its for me. Perhaps its for the one person googling something a year from now. One of the other media ideas that fascinates me is the idea of the long tail, that it’s not initial ‘viral’ success that counts, but a thing that has a long shelf life that is returned to by a few people here and there over a long time. Incidentally, that’s why the most ‘successful’ thing I ever wrote is the recipe I shared for Sizzler’s Cheese Toast (which is a super short post).

 

An apology for that time (in 2009) I got the “Christian” approach to the environment wrong

One of the things about blogging is you can go back and find what a past version of you thought and wrote, and be a bit horrified. I think it’s a thing I like, but often I’m prepared to let past me slide, or to excuse past me as a bit silly and immature. But sometimes I read past me, and I’m just really sorry that I was a total jerk. Future me will probably also think this about present me.

Next term our church is working through a series called “What the Church Gets Wrong about X, But Jesus Makes Right,” one of the Xs is the Environment. I know Christians get the environment wrong, because I know I did.

In fact, this is one thing that stops me arguing with straw men. I’m often, if not always, arguing with a past, or alternative, version of myself. A version of me that has been, or definitely could be, but for God’s grace, the smart people who teach me things, and a dose of experience. Writing stuff down and thinking about it is certainly helpful.

Anyway. I got the environment totally wrong back in 2009. Not once, not twice, but three times. My friend Amy called me out on the first one, she mustered up some thoughts from her pastor, I was arrogant and dismissive in my approach to his wisdom. And I was arrogant and pretty stupid in a later response. It might not have taken me six years to realise this, but it has taken until now, as I went back to find what past-me thought, for me to realise just how wrong and abrassive I was, and to think that the record probably needs to be set straight.

The problem with the post I’ve linked to where I was arrogant and stupid is that some of what I said is true, but it’s incredibly simplistic and I buy into a heap of false dichotomies — like the idea that you can preach the Gospel to your neighbours without loving them (and that you can claim to be loving without caring for the world that people live in). I said:

“If Jesus death is the focal point of God’s love – and indeed the focal point of God’s word – then should it not be our focal point? Rather than distractions like the environment. There are plenty of people worried about the environment and not enough worried about evangelism as far as I’m concerned. And while some claim care for the environment does not mutually exclude care for people – but nor is it the purpose of existence – and in fact it is a distraction.”

It was thinking like this that led another dear friend to say that I have an “anemic doctrine of creation,” I got a little defensive then. My problem, I think, isn’t so much that I want to argue for the supremacy of the Gospel in the Christian life, but in the idea that how we interact with the environment isn’t part of our proclamation of the Gospel. I argued for a pretty disembodied approach to evangelism. And this was wrong.

I also try to split God’s love for the people he redeems from his love for the world he redeems — while it’s true that God definitely loves his people, and his aim is to gather them, it’s to gather them to live in the world that he loves, and that he will dwell in. God shows his commitment to dwelling with his people in his world-as-temple in a way that doesn’t really set up people and creation in a weird hierarchy, but sees his creation — humanity and world — living in harmony with him.

So, if you were reading back then, or you see this now, sorry I was a jerk, sorry I was wrong, and to those who loved me enough to try to correct me — I’m sorry I didn’t listen because I was so certain I was right. I wasn’t.

St. Eutychus 5.0

Blogging about blogging is pretty meta. But. It’s what I do. It helps me chart how my approach to this little corner of the internet has changed over time.

I’ve reinvented what I do on this blog a few times now. It started out as something like a year ’round Christmas letter for my friends when I moved to Townsville. It became a rapidly rotating series of oddities and curiosities. It morphed into a space where I could think out loud about stuff during college. And now, it’s essentially a home for long form verbal processing stuff that interests me, but probably bores (almost) everyone else.

All of these things have their place.

This year I’ve posted less than in any other year since I began — I’ve started full time work, I now have two kids, and a puppy, and plenty of other stuff to distract me, but the biggest contributor to the lack of activity has been this slightly different editorial strategy. And I’m a bit bored with just writing long stuff (as much as I love writing, and reading, longer, more nuanced, pieces).

A few years back I hypothesised that there are 5 types of blogger, then, I read a post from Challies yesterday that suggests there are two.

One thing I’ve missed in the current scheme of things is linking to other people’s stuff. I found the quote below, from Challies, pretty challenging — it’s not exactly the rationale behind the switch in editorial approach. There are heaps of other factors. But I do want to love Jesus and love other people with every platform I have, and one way I can do this is point to them, and point others to good stuff. Plus. One of the functions I’ve appreciated about past versions of the blog is the way it functions as something like an electronic filing cabinet. I’m looking forward to rediscovering that feature. One of the reasons to revert to this approach is that my own browsing habits haven’t changed. My opened tabs habitually look something like this, and my bookmarks runneth over.

Screen Shot 2014-12-26 at 3.33.49 pm

 

 

When I first began blogging, I was committed almost entirely to content creation. I was interested in exploring new ideas, reading new books, and discussing current events, and I found unexpected joy in doing it out loud and in public through the Internet. At that time I was (sinfully) opposed to curating content and linking to other people’s material. Somehow Envy had shown up and convinced me that if I did that, I would diminish my own readership. The best thing, and the safest thing, he told me, was to pretend that my site was the only one out there worth reading. It was both stupid and prideful. It’s rather embarrassing in retrospect.

One day I became spiritually convinced that I was sinning. God had given me a platform and it was only fair and good that I use the platform to highlight others who were creating excellent articles. As often as not, these articles were far better than anything I was writing at the time. I understood that I could be a bigger blessing to those who read my site by pointing them elsewhere. Discovering that sin, and dealing with it, brought a certain freedom to my life and to the way I wrote. I was free to celebrate the brilliance and the success of others, and free to share it with those who visited my blog. — Challies

Handing in my Skeptic’s Card

handing in my skeptics card

I’m not the skeptic I thought I was. Forgive me for a slightly self-indulgent post musing on how I think, but this has come as quite a shock to me. It might make a change from wading through umpteen thousand words about what I think…

I’m not a skeptic.

This may not surprise you, given that my day job is to convince people of the existence of a supernatural being who sent his supernatural son (a son who shares his being) into the world he made to die and be raised from the dead. Many people think this particular sort of belief in the supernatural defies skepticism because it defies evidence and seems unbelievable (so shouldn’t be believed). I am skeptical about this sort of blanket dismissal of a particular worldview and its approach to evidence. I am skeptical about skepticism. But the fact that I’m not a skeptic surprises me.

For a long time I have described myself as a skeptic. I’ve understood my approach to truth claims as skeptical. I have understood skepticism as a core part of my epistemology (how I seek to know stuff). I’ve seen this as completely consistent with my Christianity, which I still believe is reasonable and evidence based.

I’m not really announcing a massive change in how I think I know things, just how I describe myself, particularly when it comes to discussions about Christianity. I’ll no longer play the “I’m a skeptic too” card.

There are many varieties of skepticism, many definitions, some more technical than others. What I’m talking about is skepticism as wikipedia defines it.

Skepticism is generally any questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere. Philosophical skepticism is an overall approach that requires all information to be well supported by evidence.”

The bold bits are particularly what I’ve been coming to term with, mostly it’s about the optimistic posture I’ve found myself taking to truth claims and what I consider to be evidence that supports these truth claims. Some of the tools of skepticism still form part of how I piece together my view of the world – tools like critical thinking, rational thought, logic… I still employ these in my approach to new information. But one thing I’m dissatisfied with when it comes to skepticism is that it is so negative. I’m much more inclined to take bits of information and see how they integrate into what I already understand about the world than see each bit of information as something to be rejected, or, if it passes, placed alongside other things I have evidence for as another factoid.

I have come to realise is that skepticism does not excite me. It doesn’t light my fires. It’s not the posture I want to adopt towards learning about the world. It’s not how I want to position myself when it comes to people who come forward with new information that challenges my thinking. I don’t want my default to be doubt, I want it to be seeing if the thing will fly. If it will fit with what I understand about the world, if it will add colour, depth, and life. I’ll still reject stuff that is wacky and nonsense, but the approach to that rejection won’t begin in the same place. Which is weird. Realising this has been a bit of a paradigm shift for me.

Most people – skeptics included seek to organise the facts they accept into some sort of systematic view of the world. I’m not wanting to paint skepticism as holding to a bunch of disconnected facts without seeing how they fit together, but truly skeptical people must always doubt that they’ve got the fit right. They must question both the merit of a particular fact, and, simultaneously, the merit of the frame they try to use to hold it.

I’ve decided that for me, a systematic view of the world actually helps me organise and accept facts. And I’ve decided I’m committed to many approaches to new data prior to applying the skeptical approach to the world. So I can’t call myself a skeptic. It turns out, the system by which I organise new information has been there all along – it’s been how I identify myself all along. It’s my faith. My belief that the world is best explained when the God who made it is present. This system guides my presuppositions, but not because the system tells me it should. I don’t think. I think I have good reasons to go with Christianity as the organising idea on philosophical, aesthetic, logical, and evidentiary grounds. I am skeptical about other organising ideas having the same explanatory power as Christianity.  But to be frank, even if I think I chose the system through a skeptical approach based on evidence, I can’t escape the truth that given my upbringing Christianity is something like the default for me – so I have to keep exploring the possibility that other options will do it better. The way to assess this is how well a particular view integrates all the available data, the facts about the workings of the world, that I have come across and been convinced are true.

This isn’t skepticism. It’s freeing to admit this.

New facts don’t force me to toss out the system, but they will shape how I understand the workings of this system. I like this description, again from wikipedia, of ‘Knowledge Integration‘… this strikes me as much more fun, stimulating, and worthwhile. It also describes my intuitive approach to thinking about stuff much better than boring old skepticism.

Knowledge integration has also been studied as the process of incorporating new information into a body of existing knowledge with an interdisciplinary approach. This process involves determining how the new information and the existing knowledge interact, how existing knowledge should be modified to accommodate the new information, and how the new information should be modified in light of the existing knowledge.”

I want to know stuff. I want to see how all the different streams of information, all the different facts, all the different fields of scholarship – from philosophy, to science, to the arts, to theology, can be integrated in a coherent and exciting way. One of these fields of knowledge has to provide the organising framework for the others. I think that’s just how it works. For me, this is theology – Christian theology – it helps me make sense of the world. As CS Lewis says:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” 

I’m liking this quote more and more.

I’ll stick with Christianity until I find a better look out point from which to view the world (and I’ll continue to allow my presuppositions to be challenged, though I admit to finding the intricacies and aesthetics of Christianity quite compelling). I’m probably too far gone. I just don’t know what other system accommodates and explains the Jesus event, and the emergence of Christianity post-crucifixion with the same power as Christianity. I think Christianity offers the best explanation of world history, the human condition, and our ability to do science and know anything as real. I think Christianity is the most coherent philosophical and ethical framework. I think the Bible’s story, centred on Jesus, is, aesthetically speaking, the best narrative to live by. But I’m open to other ideas.

Reality, virtually

I feel like this little corner of the internet is a neglected child. Only slightly more neglected than our pet turtle… We’re having a holiday this week, and I hope to get back on the writing/blogging horse after spending some time in the recovery position.

It’s also been a while since I wrote anything about life – which was, when I started this thing, the whole point. I know I’ve moved on a little. It’d surprise me greatly to find any people who read my original blog still reading (with the exception of my family), while now there are heaps of people I don’t know who seem to read this stuff. I’m yet to figure out the work/life/blog balance in this new chapter of life.

So here, in something of an explanation, is what has been keeping me occupied recently (outside of church).

We moved house, into a place with a yard. A yard we can dig up into a vegetable garden, use to grow a variety of produce (including chickens), and to raise a puppy. So I’ve built a chicken coop and we bought a dog. These domestic pursuits are leaving me feeling a little like Walden.

I’m not very good at building stuff, so the chicken coop took an extraordinarily long time. It hasn’t fallen over yet. I have hundreds (probably) of little cuts on my hands.

The vegetable garden is producing.

The puppy is part wolf (husky), part labrador, part border collie. Pretty much what you’d get if you added all the things Robyn (Labrador), and I (husky), wanted in a dog, along with our perfect compromise dog (border collie). Her name is Tully. She’s named after Marcus Tullius Cicero.

And, since we’re sharing and stuff… I’m about to start my eighth week of the Michelle Bridges 12 Week Body Transformation. It seems to be working. I didn’t even get KFC on the way home from church tonight (nor have I in the last seven weeks).

One more sleep

Remember that time I posted stuff about starting a church in South Bank. Well. That happens tomorrow. If you’re the praying type – could you pray for us?

If you’re not the praying type – and you live in Brisbane – you should come, find out what it means to be the praying type.

Here’s a video with some details.

Creek Road – A new church in South Bank from Creek Road on Vimeo.

Also – that post about starting a church in Brisbane’s inner city led to an interview with the Sunday Mail – you can read the interview and see the story here – turns out South Bank is the most ‘godless’ part of Brisbane.

Confessions of a “reluctant” “inner city church planter”

There’s a bit of a conversation happening in the Australian Evangelical Blogosphere (so about the smallest pool in the world) about inner city church planting. They’ve got me mulling over next year and life at Creek Road South Bank – a new church, in Brisbane’s inner city, that I’ll be serving as the Campus Pastor (note, I think just about any name/title for a ministry position can sound a bit ego driven, the emphasis here hopefully will remain on the “serving” not on the “Campus Pastor”).

Here are some of the posts I’ve read…

The answer to the question “do we need more inner city church plants?” is clearly a yes.

It’s the answer to any question about “do we need more churches?” Churches are like broadcast towers that send the message of the Gospel around Australia – we need something like the National Broadband Plan to ensure good Gospel coverage around Australia. We also need more workers to work in these churches, and we definitely need more Christians. Australia isn’t meaningfully becoming less Christian, Australia has never been particularly “Christian” – church attendance was high when we started because people were forced to go to church. Australian laws might have assumed or reflected a Judeo-Christian moral framework – but that was the default, it didn’t mean they were written by people whose hearts were owned by Jesus, even if some of our early colonists were passionate Christians, others weren’t. We need more churches in Australia because Australia is full of lost people. And so are our inner city areas.

Which is why, for want of a better understanding of the nuance of what the church I’m part of is doing (hopefully this post will clear this up a little) – next year I’ll be an “inner city church planter.”

I’m finishing college soon. I’m thinking about what life in ministry, post-college, is going to look like for me, and what I thought it would look like before college. So just indulge me a little with this poorly structured stream of consciousness response to the posts above. It’s more about me than most posts you’ll read here, but indulge me a little.

Why I do what I didn’t want to do…

I feel like this whole South Bank thing is forcing me to think through a whole heap of competing thoughts and passions of mine in a way that hopefully ends up being consistent and a healthy compromise on my youthful idealistic zeal.

Before college I was pretty outspoken and cynical about church planting (or church planters) – and what I meant was inner-city church planting. I was cynical about the guys who wanted to plant churches without working with an established church, in a hip, non-denominational way (or even in the denomination but not of the denomination) – they’re the guys who were a little bit too sure of themselves, a little bit too sure of their central place in God’s plan. Or so I thought (and still think). I was especially cynical about people who wanted to plant megachurches.

This quote I shared from a guy assessing church planters a few years ago still resonates with me… It’s still a problem.

It’s amazing how many young pastors feel that they are distinctly called to reach the upwardly-mobile, young, culture-shaping professionals and artists. Can we just be honest? Young, upper-middle-class urban professionals have become the new “Saddleback Sam”.

Seriously, this is literally the only group I see proposals for. I have yet to assess a church planter who wants to move to a declining, smaller city and reach out to blue collar factory workers, mechanics, or construction crews. Not one with an evangelistic strategy to go after the 50-something administrative assistant who’s been working at the same low-paying insurance firm for three decades now.

One of the problems Josh Dinale identified with the current crop of church planters is:

“1) pastors wanting to be the next Mark Driscoll

the more I connect with young pastors (yeah I know I am still generally young, having said that, I have been in Christian minsitry for 10 years, I have been around the block a few times) I am seeing guys who look like Driscoll, speak like Driscoll, act like him, teach like him. I am sorry to tell you, but you are NOT him. you  are fearfully and wonderfully made, God has a plan for you, and you alone. I am pretty sure it is not to be like Driscoll but to be the best pastor God has created you to be. Be content with where you are, minister out of your gifts not someone elses.”

Mike Bird also identifies a similar trend.

“I’ve come across many young men who seem to think they have some kind of destiny to become the next Mark Driscoll or the next Tim Keller. They have a church planting strategy from the movie Field of Dreams. Remember the motto of that movie: If you build it, they will come. But the reality is a bit more complex as church planters are not just battling against a secular culture, but competing with existing churches in their area and even competing with existing church plants. In addition, many church planters are abandoning their denominations to plant these new independent churches, leading to a kind of righteous remnant mentality, cultivating a very low ecclesiology without historic bonds to the past, and looking down disparagingly on pastoral leaders who decide to keep working within their existing denominations.”

The whole “thinking you’re the new Driscoll” thing is nothing new (see this post from 2009 – five years ago) – Driscoll has an incredible ability to create fanboys out of the disenfranchised. But I haven’t spoken to many Driscoll fanboys lately, most people in that sort of camp seem to be man-crushing pretty hard on Matt Chandler. And most people of the generation slightly above me seem to be keen to shave their heads, read CS Lewis, and be Tim Keller.

Part of my reluctance to embrace the inner city thing is that there’s a perception that to do this sort of ministry you have to be some sort of bleeding edge hipster. And while I score pretty well on the “Are you a Christian Hipster?” tests because I like specialty coffee and craft beer (and I have a decorative typewriter, and a beard), I don’t want to be that guy.

As soon as ministry becomes about the minister it starts being dead.

This is also my problem with Josh’s thoughtful corrective – I may have been fearfully and wonderfully made – but more importantly I’m being amazingly remade into the image of Jesus – and it’s him people should be thinking about when they go to church. Not me. Or any pastor. If we talk about something a pastor brings to the table, or the locale, and it’s something other than Jesus, we’re talking about the wrong thing. I’m not naive, I think there are good pragmatic reasons that I’m not a bad fit in the inner city, but as soon as I start thinking about myself being a good fit, or being in any way necessary, or the inner city needing me to come in and save it – the narrative is wrong.

I don’t want to be an inner city church planter.

I don’t want to target the yuppies with a trendy and edgy ministry.

I do want to play my part in God’s program of reaching people, including the yuppies, including people in the inner city, and the regions, and the small towns. Sacrificially, doing ministry that resonates with people of whatever culture is around me – a bit like Jesus did when he entered Jewish culture as a Jewish man who spoke the language of the people around him, and told stories they could understand… using imagery they were familiar with… everywhere he could.

I might be a pseudo-hipster, but I have good reasons not to want to be an inner city church planter. I love regional Australia. I grew up in country town New South Wales (after a few years in Sydney), I worked in regional Queensland after uni. And regional Australia punches above its weight on the evangelical scene. In my experience. I think, and still think, that the human resources we suck into cities would, in the providence of God, also produce great results in regional areas. Regional areas and regional people need the Gospel.

Plus. I don’t buy into the tendency to spiritualise “the City”. Cities are significant because there’s a high concentration of people there, but the whole “heaven is a city, therefore city” thing just strikes me as ridiculous. This is a quote from a Christianity Today article about Tim Keller’s philosophy/theology of City ministry from a few years back…

““Surely God’s command to exiled Israelites applied to Christians in New York: “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you” (Jer. 29:7). Long before that, God had designated cities as places of refuge when Israel entered the Promised Land. They remain so today, Keller noted—which explains why poor people, immigrants, and vulnerable minorities such as homosexuals cluster in cities. They attract people who are open to change. Paul did most of his missionary work in cities, and early Christianity flourished within them. Revelation portrays the final descent of the kingdom of God to earth as a city, although a garden city, with fruit trees and a life-giving river at its center. Keller suggests that, had Adam and Eve lived sinlessly and obeyed God’s directions, they would have made Eden into just such a city.”

I get the appeal of the vision of transforming a culture from the city out (ala Tim Keller), but having spent time in a parochial regional centre that wanted no bar of most of what came from a city, simply because it came from the city, I’m not sure how effective this nationwide campaign of transformation is going to be beyond the urban elite, and those who wish they were urban elite in regional cities – who never really gel with the culture of their town or regional city.

I do, however, think that cities are incredibly useful for producing dominant cultural narratives, that do filter out into the regions via the consumption of media and advertising. But if you’ve ever watched the ads on regional television, you’ll know that even the impact of these zeitgeisty narratives is limited, and watered down by being presented along with not so slick regionally produced media.

And I do think the Gospel is the best story there is going round, and it should be told more, and it should become part of conversations where different narratives compete – ala Peter Hitchens presence on Q&A last night. We need to get better at telling the Gospel story in the places where stories are told or presented professionally. And being crucified for it.

I like what Keller’s attempts to transform culture from the city, but I’m pessimistic about the impact of his method beyond the city. Though less pessimistic than Carl Trueman. I’m less Presbyterian than him too.

“And, to put it bluntly, Keller is the transformationists’ best shot today.   It does not matter how often we tell each other that our celebrity transformationists are making headway, such claims are only so much delusional hype.  A Broadway play and a couple of nice paintings do not help the man who cannot rent space to worship on the Lord’s Day.  Indeed, I wonder if any of these transformationists have ever asked themselves whether what we are seeing are not in fact transforming inroads into the culture but the modern equivalents of bread and circuses designed to gull the gullible — meaningless trivia, conceded by the wider culture, that make no real difference; where and when the stakes are higher and actually worth playing for, no quarter is, or will be, given.

Surely it is time to become realistic.  It is time to drop the cultural elitism that poses as significant Christian transformation of culture but only really panders to nothing more than middle class tastes and hobbies.  It is time to look again at the New Testament’s teaching on the church as a sojourning people where here we have no lasting home.”

I think the example we get from the New Testament church, especially from Paul, is that it’s incredibly unlikely that we’re going to change a city by producing cultural artefacts – the Roman Empire was eventually transformed by the sheer weight of Christian converts, but I think we produce Christian converts by borrowing or subverting cultural artefacts to tell the story of the Gospel. The early church grabbed hold of a bunch of terminology associated with the announcing and promoting of a new king, they used terminology and titles for Jesus that were identical to the terminology and titles used of Roman emperors, but they promoted a king who was crucified, which was a cultural anathema, and was never going to result in immediate wholesale change.

Paul’s Areopagus speech, probably the best strategic attempt at cultural change we see in the New Testament, ends in what many would suggest is a failure to transform… most people laugh at him, and only some are transformed… and yet his speech, which presents the Gospel in a culturally informed way, is recorded in one of the longest lasting transformative texts in the world.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

Paul goes to the heart of the city, the best place to tell the story of the Gospel, and he tells it in a culturally engaged way. But it doesn’t instantly transform the whole city (Jonah might be a better story about a city being transformed).

Which is why I’m excited that Creek Road South Bank is telling this story, hopefully excellently, at the Queensland Theatre Company’s Billie Brown Theatre, every Sunday. And it’s why I’m excited that our band is aiming for musical excellence, and Creek Road Media is aiming to produce culturally engaging video that tells this story in excellent ways. And I hope this does result in transforming the lives of enough individuals so that the fabric of our city starts to change. Person by person.

I also get that inner city ministry is incredibly hard. Because of the Inner City Pressure (cf this Flight of the Conchords song).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wqfcwgT0Ds

It’s hard because people who live in places that tell incredible narratives that provide apparent satisfaction to deep desires are often pretty convinced that they already live in heaven, while simultaneously feeling profoundly dissatisfied because they are surrounded by lots more people who both are broken, and reveal one’s own brokenness through interpersonal interactions.

But ministry is hard everywhere. Because it involves gathering a bunch of people who naturally think about what’s best for their sinful selves – even while God is uniting them behind the cause of the gospel by his Spirit. Let’s not fall into the trap of hyper-spiritualising inner city ministry.

Inner city ministry – and by extension, inner city church planting, is important because there are people in the inner city.

And, in a city like Brisbane, it’s strategic because there is public transport to the inner city from just about every corner of the city – and evangelical churches in Brisbane are not well represented in the statistical breakdown of religious belief in our city. So if people from parts of the city where there’s no evangelical presence can get to a place where there is, because they’ve been invited there by people who work in the City, then that’s a good thing. The notion of place or a patch for churches is just culturally out of touch. We don’t live, work, and play in the same suburb. Our relationships are likely to stretch not just across suburbs, but across cities, states, and countries. Building a strategy for church planting based on geographic saturation is a bit old school. People travel. We’re better of putting churches in strategic hubs – in Brisbane this might mean places where there are major shopping centres, that people are already in the habit of travelling to…

 

Image: Relationship networks visualised using Facebook friendships and flight routes, Credit: Robot Monkey

South Bank is also exciting for me because we’ve got a burgeoning ministry to refugees in Brisbane, and many of them live around where this church plant is happening. We’re reaching the world from Brisbane. I’m not sure Iranians on bridging visas are going to be all that enthused about a pastor with a fixie, and a well manicured ironic moustache.

… to do what I do want to do (or rather, what God wants us to do)

Paradoxically, part of the reason I’m excited about being an “inner city church planter” is that I didn’t ever want to be an “inner city church planter.” The bigger reason I’m excited is that I’m not going out on my own as some gung-ho, got all the answers, inner-urban hipster type who is cutting all ties with pre-existing structures. I’m part of a team, that is part of a church, that is part of a denomination, that also has a bigger agenda in terms of church planting. That’s a great way for ministry to not be about me.

While it looks like I’m an “inner city church planter” because each Sunday I’ll be at a new church in Brisbane’s inner city, that’s not what really excites me about next year. As exciting as it is. I went to college as a Presbyterian because being a Presbyterian is a great boat to fish from in Queensland to do Gospel ministry, because I’m theologically pretty Presbyterian, and because I like the attachment to a narrative that has history, that unfolds and is deliberately linked to things that have happened in the past, rather than being deliberately disconnected. I think it’s a little disingenuous to attempt to start a church with a clean slate. With no ties. With no baggage.

I’m excited about being part of the Creek Road team for a few reasons. Mostly because I’m excited about what I think is a reinvention of “team ministry.” I’m excited about team ministry at least in part because I’m an extrovert, but I’m theologically excited about team ministry in terms of what it looks like for a church to function well as the body of Christ, where each bit of the body uses different gifts in complementary and sacrificial ways, that benefit a variety of congregations who are either part of Creek Road, or part of our network. The approach we’re taking at Creek Road has the potential to be incredibly scalable – with some of the benefits of franchising a business in terms of quality control, pooling of resources, and some sort of “brand identity” (which, lets face it, is part of the appeal of denominations), but also the flexibility to do things differently in different places based on who is there – both in the pulpit, and in the congregation.

I think if people in ministry are just thinking about their immediate patch they’re thinking too small. If we’re only thinking about the city, but not the regions, if we’re only thinking about reaching Australia, but not reaching the world, then we’re omnifocused to our detriment, and the detriment of the church’s mission. It’s possible to focus on more than one thing at once. Despite what certain personality types will tell you. Jesus was pretty happy to leave this mission global (making disciples from every nation), while providing a starting place that was geographically bound (first in Judea, then Samaria, then the ends of the earth). We not think global, and act local and global, simultaneously?

Physical presence is a big part of ministry, but the God we serve is transcendent and omnipresent. And prayer works. And prayer is ministry. And communication isn’t geographically contained anymore. Physical distance has collapsed into bits and bytes that can be fired through the skies. Why are we so keen to limit our footprint to our suburb? Using the incarnation of Jesus as a paradigm for local ministry is terrific and necessary, but we’ve also got to learn from the Apostles who used mediums that could be copied and spread, and fly through communication networks (like the Roman roads), whose relationships and span of care stretched across geographic boundaries.

I don’t think of myself as an inner city church planter because I want to serve the church and its mission wherever I can, not just in South Bank.

I don’t think of myself as an inner city church planter because I’m part of a team that is intentionally trying to create resources that will serve churches anywhere.

I don’t think of myself as an inner city church planter because, as part of the team at Creek Road, I’m contributing, with the rest of the team, to what happens every week in three different locations.

Mike Bird’s suggestion, in the face of this whole inner city church planting trend thing is:

“So I’m wondering, without disparaging church planting efforts, if we need to focus more on church rejuvenation over church planting in areas already well served with churches.”

I think this question presents a classic false dichotomy (on the back of a false premise – that there are areas well served with churches). And I don’t buy it. Why not do both? Why not focus equally on both?

Denominations are in a position to do that – so are bigger churches within denominations. Just about every objection to “inner city church planting” raised in those posts linked above is addressed by a model that sees big churches using their resources to serve and help smaller churches, be it starting them from scratch, or in partnership. And this is why I’m excited about the Creek Road model (you can read a bit of an explanation of this model here), and why I’ve signed up.

Big churches have an incredible opportunity to provide resources for small churches – in their own city, or beyond, that help in the rejuvenating process, they have the opportunity to start new churches that share the economies of scale and resources of the mothership. Whether or not regional churches take up the opportunity is entirely up to them, and there’s a gap between city culture and regional culture that needs to be carefully bridged. But Australia is full of people who don’t know Jesus. I’d really like more people to know Jesus. That’s why Robyn and I quit our jobs and left Townsville to go to theological college. It’s why I’m a candidate for ordination with the Presbyterian Church. It’s why despite myself I’ll be hanging out in a new church in Brisbane’s CBD next year with Creek Road.

We need more churches in the inner city because we need more churches everywhere. Brisbane will have a population of 3 million people in 2020. That’s heaps of people who need to know Jesus. That scales up the wider you cast the net – Queensland’s population is growing, Australia’s population is growing, the global population is growing. We need more churches. We need better resourced churches.