there’s a drawer in my study

There’s a drawer in my study.

From the outside it looks like any ordinary drawer. It has a wood facia, and a simple aluminium handle. It’s like any other drawer in the cabinet.

But inside this one hides something that fascinates me every time I open it.

It’s full of superseded electronic equipment. Maybe you have one too.

There are about four different old model iPhones and an old-school iPod. There’s a very early Samsung phone or two and a stand-alone digital camera. A fairly original iPad whose battery died and rendered it dysfunctional. There’s a couple of cheap mp3 players and a small stack of USB memory sticks with enormous capacities (one holds all of 64mb!). There’s even a genuine 1980’s Sony Walkman, and it’s cousin – the ’90s era Discman (if you don’t know what those do don’t be ashamed, just ask your parents).

Just opening the drawer is a walk down memory lane. I remember when each of those devices arrived, heralding new possibilities, new technology, new connectivity, mult-functionality. Each seemed to promise a whole new world…and for a time each delivered.

Portability, storage, connection, communication. Even coolness (let’s be honest, I’m not now nor ever have been cool, and even an iPhone wouldn’t have changed that, but dreams are dreams). Each device tells a story to me, and I often find myself spending a few minutes reminiscing about an earlier stage of life in which that device played some part, or about an earlier, simpler time (that Walkman…and a 1982 mix-tape!).

They remind me of just how much more capable 2019 era devices are. My phone can perform every function that I find in my drawer, but faster, more effectively and more intuitively.

But they tell other stories too, stories that I’m finding myself much less comfortable sitting with.

Stories of waste.

Stories of consumption.

Stories of chasing fashion for its own sake.

Stories of designed obsolescence and rabid consumerism (my own, just to be clear).

Stories of the relentless pace of change.

The drawer is a reminder to me that I (and lets be honest, we) have been writing cheques that our planet just cannot continue to cash. We continue to pursue more and more and more, faster and faster, fancier and fancier. And the cost to our planet, our environment, and maybe even our selves seems to be getting higher and higher and higher.

What cost to produce this drawer full of now useless, superseded electronic items that are mostly less than 20 years old? Or the companion pile of outdated laptops that sit on a nearby bookshelf (maybe I’m a low-level hoarder)? What cost for all of this designed obsolescence and now superseded technology?

I don’t know the answers, I just now I sit less comfortably with the story of this drawer every time I open it.

in the beginning…

Over the last couple of years I’ve been entering into that most terrifying realm for all parents: teaching a child to drive.

My #1 child is all the things you’d hope for in a learner driver. She’s cautious, obedient, patient (mostly), understands road rules, knows enough about how the car works to understand what’s happening when she pushes that pedal or pulls that lever.

We’ve taken our time, working up from what we came to know as “industrial estate Sunday” (you know…where the industrial estates are all filled with learner drivers on Sunday afternoons) to quiet back roads, to suburban streets before finally graduating to freeways and busy arterial roads.

We’ve used professional instructors at a few critical times (I’d far rather pay someone to teach freeway merging than sit in the passenger seat myself for a couple hours of white-knuckle on and off-ramp experiences), built in some road trips to get bulk hours, and had her drive all the local kid-taxi shuttles for her siblings.

We’re now past the critical 100 hour mark which under the Queensland system enables #1 child to go and take the driving test. Our time as teacher/learner is coming to an end.

It’s been largely pain and tear free, and despite a few near misses (which I assume all learners suffer) and a few stalling-in-the-middle-of-an-intersection moments (ditto), everything has gone pretty well.

I’ve worked hard to be outwardly the least anxious person in the car, to not raise my voice, to not provoke nerves or (unhealthy) fear in my learner.

And yet…

Every time I’m in the passenger seat, I’m all eyes on stalks, and hand hovering over the handbrake lever kind of nervous. I’m sure I’ve left dents in the passenger footwell from the number of times I’ve tried hard to apply the brake pedal from my side of the car. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve repeated my mantras (“the secrets of good driving are smooth, deliberate use of the controls”, “remember to look ahead and anticipate” and so on) desperately hoping she’ll finally listen. As we approach the finish line (at least for this first one, #2 is lining up in in just a few weeks for his learner’s permit), it frustrates me that I can’t fully relax despite the evidence that she’ll (probably, maybe, possibly) be fine.

The truth is that despite the everyday nature of driving, every time we get in a car we put our life on the line – trusting in our own abilities and attention span, and that of every other driver around us. It’s almost the very definition of a dangerous activity, even though we rarely think of it in those terms. And those dangers, the immediacy of them, never become quite so stark as when you put your precious 17 year old behind the wheel, conscious of their limited skills, non-existent experience, and the multi-tasking nature of driving a car as a beginner.

Life is like that isn’t it? The things we take for granted everyday were once new, and fresh and risky. The things we can do without thinking once took every ounce of concentration we could muster. Maybe teaching #1 to drive has just reminded me that we were all beginners somewhere along the line, and that learning (particularly a skill where there is danger) is a difficult and challenging road (pun 100% intended).

And maybe it’s a reminder to me that it’s been a while since I was genuinely a beginner at some new skill.

A few years back I started riding mountain bikes with mates. We would head out into the bush, desperate to recover our lost youth, struggle up hills and bomb down the other side over roots and rock and (in my case very small) jumps. I now ride a few times a week and these days rarely think about the dangers or difficulties of this pastime. But I do recall that it wasn’t always like that. It used to be that near misses, and actual crashes were part of every single ride. I recall the months I went with gravel-rashed knees and elbows that for some reason take much longer to heal now than they did when I was 13. I recall every descent was a cause for nervousness and anxiety. Most of that is gone…unless I take a wrong turn and head down a trail that’s beyond my capability.

Deep down of course, I know that when riding my mountain bike I’m always just one mistake away from a busted collarbone, or a battered, bruised 48 year old body. A bit like driving a car. And just like driving the car, I rarely think about that reality.

Maybe teaching Miss 17 to drive is reminding me of all these things: being a beginner, the challenges of learning new skills, my own fragilities, the ease with which I dismiss danger, the task of trusting my child to grow into her adult self.

Maybe it’s me who’s learning after all.

it’s just a trail

Recently I had the extraordinary opportunity to travel to Tasmania with a bunch of guys to ride mountain bikes for a week or so. Yes, indeed, I do realise how privileged I am to be able to do so. It was an amazing week.

We rode in two places, Blue Derby (which I’ve ridden before and know and love) and Maydena Bike Park. If you like riding bicycles on dirt trails among rocks and trees, you should put both these incredible places on your list.

Now before the rest of this will make sense (if indeed it has any chance of that) you should know that when it comes to mountain biking, I’m relatively average. I ride regularly at local trails around my city and suburb, I have a nice bike, and I enjoy it – but I’m not particularly special. I’m not the kind of guy you’ll see on those YouTube videos hurtling down some vertical descent, or starring in World Cup or Enduro World Championship races all over the globe. I also don’t really do jumps…I like it when my tyres are in contact with the ground. Really I’m just a guy who goes riding with his mates and has a good time. If I don’t crash, I’m generally happy. I even made my own hashtag to describe my level of competence: #veryaveragetrailrider

So when preparing for Tasmania, it was with a certain degree of trepidation. This is “proper” mountain biking country.

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overland with the fam

Tasmania is without doubt one of the best places in Australia for family adventures. And on an island full of great places to explore, and great adventures to experience, the Overland Track stands out.

The six day walk from Mt Barney in the central highlands south to Lake St Clair is justly one of Australia’s best known and most walked routes.  From the heights of Mt Barney to deep temperate rainforest, from spectacular waterfall views to glorious highland tarns, the Overland Track has something for everyone.

We set out with a bunch of friends to walk the Overland Track. In our group were kids aged from 10 years old and up, with a wide variety of walking experience together with their respective parents with a similar variety of outdoors experience. Our own kids are 13 and 15 and proved the ideal age for the walk.  The 9 year old in our family opted for a solo holiday at Grandma’s…she didn’t feel quite ready for the walk and we didn’t want to push her into something like this too soon.

There’s a bit of logistical work to do on a walk like the Overland Track – with gear to be organised and transport at either end to be sorted. We won’t bore you with those details – head over to the official website to find lots of great information on preparing for the walk.  You’ll also need to think about time of year. The peak season is the late summer – January and February – with less rain and snow falling at that time of year (less, but not none!). In winter it’s a truly difficult walk and you’d want a lot of winter (snow) walking experience before tackling it. We hit the trail early January in the summer school holidays.

There are a couple of ways to do the walk: self-organised or with a guided group. If you’re not an experienced walker, the guided groups offer a fantastic way to complete the walk – with all the challenges of gear, logistics, cooking and navigation taken care of for you, and experienced guides to show you all the highlights along the way. Even with guides it’s still a long walk though, so don’t be too complacent if you take this option.

Long distance walks in Tasmania are based around the choice of using simple bush huts, or camping in tents – and the Overland Track is no different. There are huts and camping areas at each night’s camp, and you can use either (but you must carry camping gear in case the huts are full). Staying in huts can be crowded and noisy, but it can also be a great way to meet people who have come from all over the world to walk the Overland Track. They also enable respite from weather that can turn pretty nasty at short notice!

In our group there were enough people with bushwalking experience (and having walked the Overland Track before) that we could safely opt to be self-organised rather than take the guided option.  Both Sheri and I had walked the track together a few years ago and were excited to share it with our kids before they get too much older.

Our kids were pretty committed to preparing for the Overland Track – and it’s not a preparation to take lightly. We did lots of day walks around south-east Queensland, an overnight test walk into Mt Barney Creek, and the kids made their own decision in the weeks leading up to the trip to walk to and from school regularly rather than the bus or bike options they’d usually choose (a distance of around 5km each way).  By the time our walk rolled around, they were fit and ready to go…and excited!

I won’t go into too much gear detail except to say we carried two small tents, cooked using a Trangia fuel stove, and that the kids definitely carried their fair share of gear. The 15 year old daughter carried all her own gear, plus a share of family equipment, while the 13 year old carried his own equipment plus our family’s daily lunch supplies. Sheri and I carried a little more gear than the kids, but they definitely kicked in their share.

We kept a good lookout for value-for-money equipment in preparing to go, and apart from borrowing from generous friends chose to pick up some bits and pieces from Aldi, and an on-line discount supplier. I wouldn’t recommend Aldi gear if you’re going to be doing regular long distance walks, but for a one-off summer walk we found their down sleeping bags, boots, hiking socks and two-main tent fit for their purpose.  A 55l pack for the 13 year old, gaiters (a definite for the Overland track!) and waterproof pants all came from on-line discounters. We didn’t skimp on rain jackets though, conscious they’d probably get a workout (and they did!) so opting for good quality rain gear.

We planned our menu together, and put together a tasty selection of recipes including home-made Bircher muesli we mixed up each night for the following morning, wraps and crackers with a variety of fillings for lunch, and a mix of stir fry meals for dinner. Other friends in our group used commercially available dehydrated meals for dinner and definitely had a quicker and easier meal prep time than we did, but there’s generally no rush.  We let the kids go crazy on making up some trail mix (nuts, chocolate, lollies, dried fruit etc) to their own specification – you’re going to burn lots of calories on a walk like this so regular snacking is important, and we also carried as much fresh fruit as we thought we could.

The Overland Track is an incredible walk. It starts at the base of the majestic Cradle Mountain, and within a matter of minutes the steep, tough climb to Marion’s Lookout begins. This first couple of hours is the hardest of the week, but our kids bounced up the climb like they were out for an afternoon neighbourhood jaunt. The view from the top on a fine day (which we had) is incredible. From there, day one continued around behind Cradle Mountain and an optional side trip to the summit. Sheri took the 13 year old to the top in what turned out to be a quite difficult and at times exposed climb to an incredible summit, while the 15 year old and I stayed on the main track toward the night’s first campsite at Waterfall Valley. We were off to a great start.

What followed was another five days of fantastic walking, lovely campsites, glorious views, and the kind of family experience you’d dream about.  Hours of walking with the kids, chatting about life, the universe and everything, were interspersed with periods where they were walking with other kids from our group so Sheri and I had plenty of time to walk and chat too.

It’s hard to pick highlights from a walk in which every day was unique and special, but there are a few that stand out:

  • A sunny afternoon enjoying the lovely grass campsites of Waterfall Valley and watching the sun set behind Barn Bluff
  • An optional side trip to the summit of Mt Ossa (Tasmania’s tallest) was rewarded with an astonishing summit area after a hard scrambling climb. I couldn’t make the walk (a little dodgy knee action), but Sheri and the kids joined some friends for the trip – and they haven’t stopped raving about it since.
  • We camped some nights, and stayed in the huts on others and enjoyed meeting walkers from around Australian and beyond – including a dad with his 7 and 9 year old kids who charged through the walk in remarkable style.
  • On our fifth day, from Kia Ora to Windy Ridge, the rain set in. We’d had great weather up until this point, but this day was bleak, cold and wet (even in summer time the weather on the Overland Track can turn nasty, with snow possible any time of year). Rather than bemoan the weather, we celebrated with the kids, telling them “embrace it, this is the real Tassie!” We buttoned up the waterproof gear, splashed our way along tracks that were more like creek beds than dry walking trails and explored a number of side trails to spectacular waterfalls along the Mersey River. It rained all day, the kids loved it, we coped well physically, and were rewarded with the big, modern, well equipped hut at Windy Ridge as a fine place to warm up, dry out and spend our last night on the track. While on other days we’d walked intermingled with our larger group of friends, on this day we spent most of the time just walking as a family unit…and that made it all the more special.
  • While it’s possible to walk right along the shoreline of Lake St Clair to the finishing point at its southern end, that day’s walk is rough, slow and not particularly scenic, so most people (us included) finish the walk at the northern end of the lake and organised a ferry across the lake to the official finishing position. That last day’s walk down to the lake edge is fast, flat, scenic and includes a spectacular swing bridge over the Narcissus River, before a (nearly compulsory) celebratory swim in the icy-cold waters of Lake St Clair….we were done!

The kids smashed this walk. We had zero complaining, zero whinging about no mobile phone or internet access. We had some blisters, sore shoulders, hips, feet as you would imagine, but the kids truly loved being immersed in this spectacular wilderness environment. We had one gear failure – my trusty boots gave up the ghost on day two and only survived by being taped together each morning with Elastoplast – but an otherwise trouble free walk. Our only regret was that the 9 year old wasn’t quite up to joining us (yours might be, but ours wasn’t)…the bonus to that being that we might have to make a repeat visit in a couple of years when she’s ready.

A walk like the Overland Track (either alone or with the family) isn’t easy. It takes preparation, training and a certain degree of skill and capability in the outdoors (particularly if the weather turns bad). That said, there are the guided options I mentioned earlier, or the option to walk with friends who do have the skills and experience necessary.

When all is said and done though, the memories of a trip like this will last a lifetime for kids, and set them on a path to pursue adventure, with the confidence that comes from having completed (and enjoyed) such a trip.

This story was originally written for a family adventures website, so it’s a little different to my normal writing. Its now published here to make sure I don’t lose it. Hope you enjoyed!

on assembly and marriage

This week I’ve been a member of the 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia.  For those of you for whom that sentence is somewhat meaningless, it means joining with over 250 others from various parts of the Uniting Church to explore a range of questions of national interest to the church (and on rare occasions to the wider community).  Within the Uniting Church there are a series of “councils” each having different responsibilities – the Assembly being one of them.

There were a number of important (to us inside the church) issues to discuss and proposals to determine.

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overused or undervalued?

Outrage:  (noun) an extremely strong reaction of shock or indignation.

I’m starting to wonder if outrage is the most over-used word of our day, and simultaneously the most undervalued.

A quick search over at news.com.au (everybody’s favourite fair and balanced news source) takes just 0.5 seconds to turn up 44400 stories that feature the word outrage. Everything is an outrage! Everything!

  • Triple J moving the hottest 100 countdown away from Jan 26…because Australia Day
  • Triple M playing a hottest 100 countdown on Jan 26…because Australia Day
  • Cyclists for riding too slow, or to fast, or existing at all
  • Donald Trump insulting African nations
  • People defending Donald Trump from African nations
  • Just about anything else you can think of…the list is long and entertaining

The play seems fairly straightforward – generate clicks (and therefore advertising revenue) by generating a response of outrage.  Generate comments and therefore more return visits by inviting that manufactured outrage to be vented. Essentially, outrage makes money (for someone).

To be fair, news.com.au is just one example – pick your favourite news source, social media channel, politician and the word “outrage” (or the idea, cloaked in another word or phrase (like “war on X”… favoured by tv ‘current affairs’ shows) won’t be far away.  And it has become infectious: read the comments section under just about any “news” article and you’ll find a stream of outrage…usually from both ends of the spectrum…defending their view (to the death if necessary) and insulting the intelligence, appearance, beliefs (and so on) of those with an alternate view.

We’ve become a society that wears outrage like a bad tattoo (somewhere, someone who loves tattoos just got a little outraged that I used that metaphor, while somewhere else a writer is outraged because it’s a stupid metaphor anyway…but I digress).

Social media enables us to vent this outrage (which has often been manufactured or encouraged by someone else) from the safety of our keyboards (hey…like I’m doing now!) and the capacity for civil discourse suffers as a result. I’d almost go so far as to say that the phenomenon of outrage is what enables people like Donald Trump or Pauline Hanson or Peter Dutton to do their thing (cue more outrage). The modern political system thrives on generating and harnessing outrage. It’s a lazy way to lead, but sadly it seems to work when it comes to the task of getting elected.

Outrage: so over-used its not funny.

And it isn’t funny…because genuine outrage matters. Outrage at the treatment of women by powerful men. Outrage at the hoarding of wealth by some at the expense of others. Outrage at the destruction being wrought on our environment in the name of profit. Outrage at church ministers that have abused children, and church organisations that have covered it up. Outrage that Microsoft still include Comic Sans in the standard fonts for their software. Outrage matters.

Genuine outrage changes the world.  Genuine outrage challenges slavery, abusive economic systems, blatantly discriminatory practice, violence and more. Outrage matters a great deal, and in some ways, in the world we’ve created for ourselves, there should be more of it.

But the outrage that matters is being drowned out by this manufactured, confected outrage that fills our screens and our minds, sells advertising and generates views, and in the process alienates us from one another.

For most of us, with respect to most issues, we just need to calm down a little.  I don’t know where it came from, but the phrase “calm your farm” has been on high rotation in our house over the last few months. Many of us could do well to apply this mantra to our lives.

And for most of us, we then need to think carefully about the issues that need genuine outrage…and then put that to good use. Outrage isn’t just for selling advertising…its for changing the world.

That’s what I’m wondering about today.

Postcards from England: More from the ILC

It’s taking too long, and there are too many of these postcards racking up and at the current rate I’ll be sending postcards long after I return home…so today I’ll send three in one go, all from the Fresh Expressions International Learning Community (ILC)

Shaping a menu:

One of the things I’ve heard said more than once when we’ve been encouraging people to try ‘fresh expressions of church’ (remember…a new kind of church designed for people who don’t ‘get’ church) is “I don’t know what to do”. In other words, “We’re ready to try something new, but don’t know where to start”.

Around the world, there are a few simple models or approaches that are well understood, and well documented.

Messy Church is one example, and there are at last count something over 200 examples of Messy Church (a kind of creative, hands-on, fun, messy approach to church designed for families with young kids) operating in Australia, and hundreds more in other countries around the world.  Messy Church is a well understood approach, with great books, training and coaching available. It’s a relatively easy place to start.

This week I heard some more about another well documented approach that is fast gaining traction in the US: Dinner Church.  Now at one level gathering around a dinner table and engaging in practices of worship and disciple-building is nothing new (in fact arguably its where the Christian church started…so it’s a very ancient practice indeed) but the very fact of documenting an approach, and putting out lots of hints and tips not only helps people find a way to start, but in some way legitimises the approach. Dinner Churches (such as Be3 that I met this week, or St Lydias that seemed to start the pattern) are popping up everywhere, and understandably so. It’s a relatively simple approach to starting a fresh expressions, that’s relatively light on resource requirements. Tables, food, people, a commitment to gather are all that’s required.

It all got me wondering what other relatively simple approaches to starting fresh expressions could be fairly simply documented – with the result being that a community who want to start could find something of a menu to choose from if their own ideas are slow in coming.  Community gardens? Men’s Sheds? Café Church? Park Church? Pop-up Church?

Now I have to say the obvious – one of the core philosophies being Fresh Expressions is that it’s effectively a contextual church planting movement – so the idea of putting up a menu of choices that would be parachuted in without paying attention to context seems to go against the grain. That’s a fair critique if all we do is put up three of four options and say “choose one and implement it”.  If we offer three of four starting points, however, and encourage them to be shaped and moulded to fit the context, or used as imagination starters, that’s potentially a better way to go.

For some people at least, my feeling is that a few well described options might just kick-start the imagination process that can sometimes take a little while to get going.

 

Going so far to meeting the neighbours:

The ILC, as I mentioned in the last postcard, featured teams from around the world and one of the ironies was that for the Australian team, we had to travel across the world to meet each other.

Fresh Expressions in Australia (at least using that name), has an up-and-down kind of history that spans back around 10 years.  A lot of energy was put into the movement from South Australia, and from NSW/ACT (from a number of denominations), and Mission Shaped Ministry courses consequently popped up in a number of states. It’s kind of bobbed along for the last few years with some real hot-spots (the Uniting Church Presbytery of Port Philip West in Victoria being an obvious one), but without a cohesive approach.

This week we heard stories of well-structured national organisations in places like Southern Africa, Germany, Sweden and the USA. And we wondered…is that what we need to do in Australia? A central organisation, staff, structure, funding?  It didn’t seem (to the Australian team present) to fit how things are ‘down under’.  Instead we came away committed to animating a national network, and a national conversation – but leaving the specifics of action (such as coaching, training advocacy) to local (state-based teams). We came away committed to one another, to intentional communication and resource sharing (and with some concrete strategies to put in place for those things), but sure that (at last for now) a structured organisational approach isn’t the thing.

We arrived as a group within which for each of us there were some friends, some acquaintances, some colleagues and some strangers, but left as the beginnings of a strong network, committed to one another, excited about the potential of an animated network, working (alongside others) to ignite in the church a call to be missional in nature, character and practice.

It was a long way to go to meet the neighbours, but I’m every so glad that’s what happened.  If you want to get in on the Australian conversation, hit this facebook group.

 

A personal journey:

The week also offered something of a reminder to me personally. Sheri and I have bounced around on the edges of the organised church for a long time now, involved in what we might have called “Fresh Expressions” (if we had had the language/label) from our young adult years right up until recent times.

Early in this week’s gathering I felt like I was, once more, connecting with my tribe, with people who see the world in some of the same ways I do.  I felt at home in the conversations, and found myself in the stories being shared. I came away convinced of two things.

Firstly, that over the past year or two, I’ve stopped being a ‘practitioner’ myself, eased back from personally leading faith communities that are innovative in nature. I still contribute to my local church, for sure, but only within the patterns of regular church cycles and in regular worship gatherings.  I realised that I’ve lost something of myself in this change in practice. I come home wanting to reconnect with the practitioner (or maybe even pioneer) in me.

Secondly, that my involvement with the Queensland group wanting to encourage Fresh Expressions has moved in the wrong direction.  In wanting to encourage Presbytery involvement, and in being a little cautious about the Synod being too deeply involved in things that aren’t its direct purview, I think maybe I’ve withdrawn too far.  I think maybe I owe an apology to the team, and I might be asking them to let me back in (only if they’ll have me of course!).

There’s a bunch of other stuff too, but for what was intended to be a short postcard, that’ll do for now.

In the time since the ILC wrapped up last Friday, I’ve embarked on a series of meetings with interesting people in the UK leading activities such as church planting, pioneer minister training and more. The next series of postcards will reflect on those conversations.

Thanks for hanging in!