new eden

On new beginnings (kinda)

This Friday everything starts again for our family. I’m not one of those ‘new year, new you’ people mostly. I have no great hopes that 2021 will solve the problems of 2020… things are actually substantially changing for us this year on a bunch of fronts…our youngest starts primary school, so all three kids will be at school with one pick up, and one drop off time, so there’s that, and the reconfiguration of our home life that’ll come with this new era, but January 1 marks the beginning of a new chapter for our church family as well.

For the last seven years I’ve been the campus pastor of a campus in a multisite church (Living Church, formerly (and formally) known as Creek Road Presbyterian Church). For a variety of reasons, from the 1st of January 2021, I’ll be the pastor of a new church plant — our campus is becoming its own church — City South Presbyterian Church.

The process of going independent from our mother church, and the multisite model, has been rewarding and challenging, and there are lots of things that are exciting about this move, but it’s also daunting.

I’ve written stacks about church over the last seven years — and when I go back and read things I wrote 7 years ago, I can see the ongoing development of my thinking, produced both by reading and engaging with a variety of voices, and by my experience, both in a ‘church plant’ (starting a new campus) and a large, well resourced church (as part of the ‘multisite organisation’). There’s lots that me-seven-years-ago thought that me-today does not think about the task of being the church in the world, and yet, quite a few convictions that have deepened.

During 2020, a terrible year to try to do anything but hold life together for church communities, our crew was working through the process of articulating our mission, vision, and values. I’m convinced that processes are as important as outcomes, and this has been a really humbling experience, but also a really rich one. If you’ve been reading for a while you might remember that at a crunch point, towards the end of last year, I wrote a ‘manifesto’ — which, I’d do again, because everyone has to once, but which is also a pretty wanky thing to do. I’m pretty convinced that the best form of ‘leadership’ in church is not ‘top down’ vision casting authoritative shot calling, but consultative and collaborative, and this process of coming up with our shared mission, vision, and values has been a process of seeing other people from our community articulate who we are as a church in their own words. The words ‘new eden’ don’t even appear once in the document, but, at the same time, we’re richer for having worked through the process together and it is a document that embodies the sort of values that I’d love to see our church mature in through the next period of our life together.

We’ve chucked our mission, vision, and values up on our website, but it’s not really a ‘public’ document. It’s not a sales pitch. It’s a document that our elders and leaders will be holding us to as a community (and holding me to as an employee).

This next year won’t be without challenges — we’re still a church that draws people from all points of the compass in greater Brisbane; people in our community live up to 40 minutes apart. We still have a desire to be an ‘urban’ church tackling issues in our city in a way that is grounded in, and communicates, the Gospel, and we still don’t have our ‘own’ home. It feels counter-intuitive to try to grow a community that perpetuates this geographic spread, and yet, everything I read about ‘urban’ churches suggests this dynamic is quite normal.

What we do have is a great relationship with a bunch of (mostly) older (elderly) Christians from the Annerley Church of Christ; through a few strange events we found ourselves meeting in their building from about this time last year, and the disruption of 2020 brought us together (it was easier to be Covid safe compliant with one gathering in the building than two). These mostly older Christians have made our ‘value’ of being a multi-generational church a reality, and have been a really tangible picture of the beauty of people who’ve embedded themselves in a church community together for the long haul (but also of the need to keep looking for renewal and intergenerational connections).

We’re working on a kinda ‘classic Christianity with a real world/contemporary twist’ vibe; we’ll be doing the same ‘opening up a bit of the Bible and figuring out how it lands with Jesus’ caper we’ve been doing for years, with the same desire to understand and connect with the world we live in, but rather than being a sort of self-help hype-based thing (with songs) in a multipurpose space (which is not a dig at anybody in particular, just another end of a spectrum of modern church practices), we’re deliberately ‘churchy’ — dipping into old and established historic practices of the church (especially communion every week, and saying the Creed together, and doing things like contemplation and silence where appropriate). Hopefully within a few weeks from now we’ll be doing this with coffee before church, and lunch at the pub across the road afterwards.

So, if you’re the praying type — we’d love your prayers as we get things up and running. The transition from being part of a well oiled machine to running everything on a budget that feels a bit like it’s running on the fumes of an oily rag feels like a challenge up front. It’s possible there’ll be a shuddering gear change that we all experience in the next few weeks (and look, if you’ve enjoyed my writing over the years and want to help pay some bills, we won’t say no to you expressing your appreciation, especially once we’ve got our bank account sorted out).

Our family would love your prayers for a family or two with girls who might join our kids church (we’ve got quite a few boys, but we won’t say no to other families joining us).

If you haven’t been to church for a while, and 2020 has left you with a nagging sense that there’s something missing in your life — whether that’s community, or God, or a sense of meaning and purpose, come along some time.

If you’ve never been to church and want to know what this God stuff is about, and why someone who appears reasonably sane most of the time (maybe) would do this gig, come check us out.

If you’re someone who is moving to Brisbane and looking for a church, we’d love to have you around for a meal, or I’d love to catch up for a coffee or beverage of your choice.

If your church would like to send you along to partner with us in this next stage of our church life, then I’d love to talk to you too. Hit me up with an email, or find me on social media somewhere.

On technology, hope, church forests, and the gardener-king

This weekend I’m presenting a talk at the Conference on Science and Christianity (COSAC) for the Institute for the Study of Christianity in an Age of Science and Technology (ISCAST). The conference theme is “A Hopeful Future: Christians, Creation, and the AI World.” Because of Covid-19, the conference is being held virtually, and it’s not too late to register.

My presentation takes the work of Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman (media ecologists), and Charles Taylor, to suggest that technology is not neutral because it becomes part of the ecology that forms us as humans, and comes with inbuilt mythologies about the good life, and true human ends, including a sort of technological eschatology where a hope that people genuinely believe is good is the hope that we might become part of the machine. Technologist David Porush coined a term for the ‘good coding’ that would allow technology to mirror and interface and capture the human consciousness — “eudoxia” — or ‘good words’ — I’m playing that against Tolkien’s “eucatastrophe” — or ‘good catastrophe’ — the injection of hope from above when all seems hopeless that he sees as the quality of good human stories, because the satisfaction they bring is aligned with the true hope that comes from the Eucatastrophe at the heart of God’s interaction with creation; the incarnation, resurrection, and future return of Jesus. The “desire for dragons” he speaks of won’t necessarily be answered by Jurassic Park, and the use of technology to clone and resurrect dinosaurs (or by ‘augmented reality’ video games that bring the Jurassic world to life).

That’s not to give the game away too much, but as I was putting together this presentation (and you’ll find some of the building blocks in things I wrote about Telstra’s Magic of Technology advertisement, and Amazon Prime’s show Upload), I was struck again by the imagery of Ethiopia’s Church Forests. They’re such a stark picture of a non-technological response to a world where technology is used to dominate the physical landscape in order to deliver our vision for the good life. This essay from Fred Bahnson was part of drawing my attention to them (along with the video essay from National Geographic).

Screenshot from the fascinating documentary/essay project from Fred Bahnson and Jeremy Seifert, from Emergence Magazine

The documentary opens with the line:

“In Ethiopian Orthodox teaching, a church, to be a church, should be enveloped by a forest. It should resemble the garden of Eden.”

These forests have protected Ethiopian biodiversity from being eradicated by agricultural dominion, Bahnson’s essay, which touches on the research of Dr. Alemayehu Wassie, who studies the forests as his vocation notes:

“Until roughly a hundred years ago, Ethiopia’s northern highlands were one continuous forest, but over time that forest has been continually bisected, eaten up by agriculture and the pressures of a growing population. Now the entire region has become a dry hinterland taken over almost entirely by farm fields. From the air it looks similar to Haiti. Less than three percent of primary forest remains. And nearly all of that three percent, Alemayehu discovered, was only found in forests protected by the church.”

There’s something quite ‘new Edeny‘ about these forests; and while Ethiopian Orthodox Spirituality doesn’t always resonate with my theological framework; a significant part of how I approach theology is rooted in my disenchanted, western, view of the world. Part of technology’s formative effect is ‘disenchantment’ — the idea that technology isn’t just like magic, but is magic in its truest form, because other belief in magic just expresses desires we haven’t yet found technological solutions for.

Today I happened to find this piece from Simon Smart at the Centre for Public Christianity, whose imagination also seems to have been captured by the images of these church forests.

“Fred Bahnson, who wrote the essay that became the documentary on the Ethiopian church forests, thinks of them as arks, or “tiny green vessels sailing over a barren sea of brown”. Deploying the metaphor globally to image our contested and fragile future, he writes, “We will need many more arks like them … tens of thousands of arks: cultural, biological, spiritual.” … These kinds of initiatives take work. They require nurture. And a strong foundation. The church forests emanate from a belief in the sacred — sacred space worth protecting, and sacred life and the value of every person. The centre enables the whole. The solid protective walls are permeable, in that an open gate welcomes all who want to enter to find refuge and abundant life. They offer a bright sign of hope in northern Ethiopia, and perhaps a symbol of what is possible in our own search for sanctuary and refreshment.”

I draw on both the Church Forest and J.R.R Tolkien in my presentation, struck, again, by not just the ‘Eucastrophe’ bit of On Fairy Stories, but the way it unpacks Tolkien’s whole project — in a world increasingly shaped by dominion through technology, with imaginations fuelled by science fiction, he turned to the purity of the fairy story as a critique of that sort of vision of man; calling for us, instead, to be ‘co-creators’ — who participate in generative imitation of God both in our stories, and in the lives promoted by stories that echo the truths of the Gospel. In a letter unpacking his approach in Lord Of The Rings, Tolkien lays his motivations bare (brazen for a guy who accused his friend C.S Lewis of too much allegory).

I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of the development of inherent inner powers or talents – or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised.

The Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference. Their “magic” is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation.”

I’d not noticed how much this is true; the good wizards in Middle Earth have a deep affinity with nature, while Saruman and Sauron both employ magic to enslave and destroy — both the natural environment, and the lives of those around them. The Lord of the Rings, then, functions as a critique of finding hope in magic or technology, rather than the eucatastrophe, and the animating belief that all sad things will one day come untrue.

The story that animates us — whether the pursuit of the ‘good words’ that will unite us with our technology, or the good intervention that will save us from the jaws of our machines and the destruction of beastly dominion — sin, and death, and Satan — will shape the way we live now. If the Gospel is true, and the world is a sacred place made to reveal the divine nature and character of God in concert with the Gospel message, coordinated under the rule of the resurrected and resurrecting King Jesus who will return to “make all things new” — in a new Eden — then planting forests that protect biodiversity, and position the church community within the natural world in a way that is more like the elves and less like the orcs, might be ways that we live in anticipation and hope.

I also came across, in the last few weeks, this article, ‘When the Gardener Returns: An ecological perspective on Adam’s Dominion,’ by Old Testament scholar Doug Green (who’s also part of our church family, and whose work I drew on quite a bit in articulating a ‘political theology’ that plays off two threads at work in the world, those taking up the call to bear God’s image as it is revealed in Jesus, and those falling into beastliness, this isn’t to say that I’ve understood him, or represented him in such a way that he is responsible for my representation of this thinking…).

Taking up the resurrection appearance of Jesus in the garden in John’s Gospel, and Mary’s meeting ‘The Gardener’ — the new Adam, the man “destined to bring all of creation into order, harmony, and abundance,” Doug says:

“While the day of the final curse-lifting renewal still lies out in our future (Rom 8:19-22), in Christ’s resurrection the age to come has broken into this present age, and the Gardener has already taken up his royal vocation of subduing the earth on God’s behalf. Accordingly, the reborn Gardener of Genesis 2 calls his subjects — the renewed humanity of Genesis 1 — to live as true humans, by living from the first definition, found in Genesis 1-2, of what it means to be human, but especially by living toward the gospel’s vision of what humanity will be in the age to come. With our “ethical eyes” looking back to our origin and forward to our destiny, we are called to live as ambassadors of the New Creation, who give the watching world a foretaste of what life in that kingdom will be like. Surely this should be good news for creation as Christians seek to live the royal, second-Adam life, as God’s gardeners. Yes, Christians may work the earth for human benefit, but we must do so in a protective and caring way that previews and anticipates the great day of renewal when Jesus, the Gardner-King, will finally deliver the natural realm from its bondage to decay and at last transform the whole world into a new and better Eden.”

Ethiopian church forests are a little picture of the possibility of this sort of approach to church; they’re the products of generations of faithful cultivation, and we should probably start now.

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