when numbers hurt

Some days, numbers are wonderful things.

When your favourite band hits #1. When your favourite athlete gets a high score. When you run or ride or walk a personal best. When your newborn has their longest non-stop sleep. When the number signifies an important anniversary or birthday.

Some days, numbers are wonderful.

And some days, numbers hurt.  Today it seems to me is one of those days.

The number killed and injured in a highrise building fire in London climbs inexorably higher, and itself is outweighed by the number killed in a Bangladesh mudslide.

The number attached to the Australian government’s legal settlement with Manus Island detainees is a reminder of the horrors of the conditions those asylum seekers are treated to, at the hands of the country we call home.

Some days numbers hurt.

This morning I had the privilege of sharing a breakfast table with World Vision‘s Tim Costello, in Brisbane to speak at an annual Churches of Christ gathering today.  The conversation ranged far and wide, but again it was a couple of numbers quoted in different parts of the conversation that left me startled.

At one stage we talked about gambling in Australia, and poker machines in general. Costello is a passionate advocate for managing this insidious, addictive blight on our society.  The number in question was 20%.  Australia, home to just 0.3% of the worlds population, hosts more than 20% of the worlds poker machines. 20%. Machines that are specifically designed to take money away from those who use them. And that are most often located in communities that can least afford that loss. 20%. If you want to see some more numbers about poker machines that hurt, go here. Oh, and I was also reminded that one of the biggest profit-makers from pokies in Australia is Woolworths….that’s right…the fresh food people.

And then we talked about South Sudan and Uganda.  Australia, one of the richest nations on earth has since 1947 accepted something like 800 000 refugees. It’s a big number. And if it wasn’t for our recent record it could make us feel all warm and gooey inside. Uganda, at the other end of the global rich list has willingly accepted 1 000 000 refugees from South Sudan in the last 7 months. 1 000 000 in 7 months. And provided land to build a home and grow crops, and access to education and hospitals (such as those things are in Uganda).  Together with NGO’s like World Vision (supported, it has to be said by the generosity of ordinary Australians) they’re tackling what seems like (and may well yet prove to be) an insurmountable problem.  It’s an extraordinary effort, but for all that the effort is amazing, the numbers still tell of a world of pain and brokenness.

I don’t post this today to start a political debate. Simply to say that some days, numbers hurt….and today those numbers remind me that in our country, and in our world, we have a long way to go, many challenges to overcome.

Hopefully those same numbers can motivate us to act.

on leadership…again

If you’ve hung around here for a while you might recall that this is far from the first time I’ve posted about leadership. This time though, I’m not writing, but talking. And sadly for you all, it’s on video! 😉

Recently I sat down with Ben Rogers, editor of Journey magazine to record a chat about leadership – and specifically about Christian leadership.  Below is the video of our chat, and here’s the article that precipitated the conversation.  And, if you’re a glutton for punishment, here’s some more of my potentially baseless musings on leadership.

Your comments are welcome.

life is made of moments

NB: Before you read, it might help to know that this is the text of a message I shared at Toowong Uniting Church, August 9th 2015. It refers to a story from Acts 4:26-40. The context at Toowong is that they are preparing to plant a new congregation.  If you’d rather listen than read…skip to the end of this story for the mp3 file.


 

It seems to me that this life that we live is made up of moments.

If you think back over your life, I’m sure you can identify a few of them.

I think of the moment I saw Sheridan walk into a friend’s 21st birthday party and I instantly knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her.

I think of the moment I made a bad decision and tore up my knee, ending up in surgery just weeks before our first child was due.

I think of the moment I learned a huge lesson about leadership, as I sat quietly to one side during an outdoor education program I was helping to run.

I think of the moment when I woke up one morning and realised that for the first time in 6 years all the kids had slept all night.

Some moments are wonderful, some not so much.

Some are extraordinary, while others are just the moments of everyday life.

Some moments, like my encounter with Sheri at that 21st birthday party, change our lives instantly. And we know it in the moment (or at least, I knew it…you’ll have to ask Sheri about her experience of that moment).

Others take a while to reveal themselves – and sometimes it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we can see the power of that moment.  Such is the story for my learning about leadership on that outdoor education program. The moment actually passed unremarkably that night…but the more time passes, the more I reflect on that moment…the more it means to me.

This life that we live is made up of moments.  I’m sure you can identify a few of them.

In this passage today, this story of Philip and the Ethiopian (read it here Acts 8:26-40), there’s a lot going on, and we’ll work our way through some of those things over the rest of our time.

But at the heart of it is a moment. A chance encounter. The intersection of two people’s lives that changed both of them forever.

Such is the importance of a moment. And this life that we live is made of them.

Continue reading

workshop description: the art gallery

I’ve had the pleasure of hanging out with ministers and leaders of Uniting Churches in a Queensland city in recent months as they work together to try and figure out what the future looks like.

It’s been enjoyable to be a small part of what is a gentle process of sharing stories, getting to know one another, and slowly activating an imagination about a shared future.

Last night was the next step in the process, and a fun way of encouraging imagination, creativity and building something together.  We had about 35 present for an evening event we dubbed “The Art Gallery”. Read on for a description of what was a fun, creative and imaginative night of resourcing leadership. Continue reading

a little peace of christmas

christmas treeI found myself in the Brisbane city centre this week, taking my kids to see the parade, pantomine and (honestly, amazing) city hall light spectacular.

It’s Christmas, it’s school holidays, it’s a fun outing for the kids.  Those were the kind of thoughts in mind as we headed off into town.

Unexpectedly to find myself in the middle of my own baffling analysis of what Christmas means today.

The parade was an impressive but kind of confused mix of the Nutcracker story with Christmas themes. Marching bands, ballerinas, stunt-mice, toy soldiers, choirs, dancing Christmas trees, kids dressed as gifts, Santa in his two-reindeer-drawn-sleigh (the rest presumably resting up for the big flight on 25/12) were all in the mix.

And right in the middle, somewhere after the christmas trees, gift-wrapped children and marching drummers, came Mary on a donkey (baby Jesus already born, hung in a sling from Mary’s shoulders) with Joseph alongside, and a few shepherds (real sheep!) and wise men (real camels!) following along behind.

They passed by follow by Santa, then a giant inflatable toy train and the aforementioned stunt-mice (no, I have no idea why either).

I found myself thinking “well, it’s nice that in a commercial Christmas parade there is a little room for Jesus, good on them.”  It’s almost incarnational, Jesus in the parade, passing by 10-15-20000 people, reminding them there is more to Christmas that gift-wrapped commercialism and tinsel-draped pine trees.

And then later, as I pondered some more I started to wonder if it was so good after all?

Perhaps its not so good that Jesus fits neatly into the parade between the presents, the santa, the dancing tree and the stunt-mice. Just another costumed actor in a mixed-message presentation of all that Christmas means in Australia.

For Christians of course, Jesus is the reason for the season. The main thing.  Santa, gifts, family etc, they come as secondary considerations (important, celebrated, fun, valued, but still secondary).

For our nation, as we move from being a kind-of-christian society to a mixed, multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, kind-of-secular state, it seemed to me that this Christmas parade was a bit of a metaphor for what’s going on.

A bit of everything, maybe no real connected, articulated meta-story being told?

And I wonder if the presence of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the animals, sheep and wise-men in this whole big mess raises some questions for the Christian church.

Does it (do we) just want to be one more dressed-up set of actors in the midst of a whole parade? A bit part in the whole confusing story of what it means to be Australian, human, created, community in the 21st century?  Any particular message we might have to share…does it just get lost in the mumbling?

Or is it more important in this time and place to stand out, to be distinctively different, sure and certain of what we claim to believe, who we claim to follow? Should we refuse to participate in the parade at all?

And if we do, does this sanitised, commercialised, feel-good image of the beautiful baby, silent-night, well-dressed shepherd thing kind of inoculate the world against any real power of the Jesus story?

For it is a scandal, this story. Here is the creator of the universe, this God who is all knowing, all powerful, come to life as a helpless, crying, poo-ing baby, spending his first night in an animal’s feed-trough to a teenaged mother and recently-contemplating-divorce father.

This child who would spend his life counter to every human expectation of the son of God, eschewing wealth, power, privilege, refusing to live into the expectations of those around him.

Who would claim time and again that true humanity stands with the powerless, heals the sick, hugs the unhuggable, loves the unlovable, frees the unfree-able, knows the unknowable.

This child-to-become-man whose unremarkable beginning and completely localised life, unknown more than 100 miles from his birth-place would spark generations of debate, discussion, passion, compassion, grace and controversy the world over.

Maybe after all, his place is here, easily-lost in the midst of this Christmas parade of options, one helpless baby in a sea of hundreds of singers, actors and dancers, unable to convey any message beyond love and total dependence.

Maybe it’s a reminder, that even if we forget sometimes, God is in all things, all times, all places. Sometimes easily missed, for sure, but there nonetheless.

In the midst of your Christmas, as you tip-toe between wrapping paper, torn-apart bon-bons, plates of half-eaten prawns, sleeping uncles, half-built Lego and squabbling children, may you notice the anonymous baby in the midst of the parade.

May you ponder his place in the drama of Christmas.

And his place in your life.

Merry Christmas.

on anticipation, christmas and an unexpected jesus

On Sunday I had the opportunity to speak during the morning service at Toowong Uniting Church (our family hangs out with the TUC community regularly). It’s a rare thing for me, and aside from the anxiety it induces, it was an enjoyable experience.  The message is based on a reading from Matthew 11:1-11 – read it here. Here’s the words I used on Sunday:

Recently I had the opportunity to head over to New Zealand for a few days to help my brother celebrate what we like to call a “zero” birthday. He was turning 40.

We had been planning the trip most of the year since first deciding to go, and had a pretty fair idea of what it would involve.  5 blokes, a lake house, a big bike ride, golf, great food and drink, spectacular scenery, spur of the moment adventures. What’s not to like about that plan?

I have to tell you that for the last couple of months, thoughts of that NZ trip were never far away for me.  I was excited to go, and would spend completely inappropriate amounts of time looking forward to the trip, imagining what the experience would be like, living out the various adventures we had planned while we were there.

The anticipation was delicious. And unbearable.  I was so excited I could hardly wait. Continue reading

new world….new tricks

Photo 18-10-13 3 43 09 PMThere I sat in the main lounge at Canberra airport, tired after a long week and ready to head for Brisbane and home.

And in wandered four snappily dressed people, a heap of music and sound gear on their trolley, and started unloading just behind us.

The Griffyn Ensemble – Canberra’s Best Chamber Music Foursome” read the banner as they erected it, and started setting up keyboard, microphones, speaker and music stands in what must be just about the most unlikely setting for such a group.

They slowly set themselves, tuning instruments, and completing little sounds checks as they set and reset volume and listened carefully for the acoustics in this relatively new airport lounge.

It seemed they hadn’t played there before as they experimented with different settings, looking for the perfect combination of sound in an unfamiliar, and unusual setting.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard chamber music live on a Friday afternoon in a busy airport terminal.

What I appreciated about the experience was watching this group bring their skills, gifts, instruments and equipment to a completely new setting.

It seemed experimental, unfamiliar and a challenge for the group (though it looked to be an challenge they were enjoying).

I couldn’t help thinking about other aspects of my life where those same experiences are under-way.

In the church I work with we are constantly wrestling with how to bring ancient rhythms and patterns, treasured gifts and approaches and apply them in a whole new world that is opening up around all of us.

The challenges of this new time and place are profound and unique – just as I imagine playing chamber music in an airport hall must be.

Sometimes we find it all a bit too hard, all but giving in to the temptation to pack up our instruments and head for more familiar territory.

But you know what? The gentle sounds of that soft and somewhat unusual music filled the room, and suddenly it seemed right and natural.

I don’t know whose idea it was, but I was glad for the Griffyn Ensemble that afternoon, just as I am glad every time I see someone experimenting, trying old things in new places, or even new things in old places.

My prayer for the church is the spirit of creativity, of boldness, of risk taking as it seeks to relate to a new and different world.

It might take us a while as we tune instruments, check the volume and get used to a new and unknown acoustic.

But the sweet music of grace, compassion and gospel can just as readily fill the room, wherever we find ourselves – if only we can find the courage and willingness to trust our giftedness…and try.

the gift of cobbold

IMG_0912Cobbold Gorge is a narrow crack in the sandstone plains of Robin Hood Station, around 6-7 hours drive north west from Townsville.

The Gorge grew over a long period of time, water slowly seeping through the cracks, washing away sediment and eventually gouging a way through the sandstone as the  young (in relative terms) gorge grew.

And then in only the early 1990’s was it “discovered”, fully formed.

It is a remarkable sight, well worth the time to travel into its depths by silent electric boat, the Savannah Guides revealing many of it secrets (even if not the resident freshwater crocodiles on the day we visited).

Cobbold Gorge is home to another secret too, another that grew little by little before popping into existence in recent times.

Camp Cobbold is the brainchild of dynamic mother/daughter duo Katerina Keogh and Min Jones, and takes place at the Cobbold Gorge campgroup/resort (neither label seems quite enough on its own) each September/October.  Backed by SU Qld and with the support of a diverse range of volunteers, it is an amazing gift of generosity to isolated northern Queensland cattle farming families who daily do battle with the trials of distance, drought and disadvantage.

Camp Cobbold can’t possibly fix all of those immense challenges, but it offers the families that come a few days of respite, the social interaction so limited by isolation, and access to a range of experiences and services brought by the camp team that are normally not readily accessible.

In 2013 around 40 families came, with about 120 kids and their (mostly) mums living at Cobbold Gorge for 5 days.

My family were privileged to be among them, joining a team of 30 from Toowong Uniting Church to convoy north and offer our support and assistance for the week.

Our camp-week seems to have disappeared into a heat haze of over-powered memories.  Dirt and dust. Flies and wallabies. Heat and harshness.  Smiles and tears. Fun and games.

Resilient, fighting, fun-loving people.

Gorgeous kids who at one moment seem just like any other (city) kid, but in the next reveal their different context by declaring their favourite activity to be “shooting pigs with dad”.

Many will leave home at age 11 or 12 to go to boarding school, likely not to return.

And with one failed wet season after another, the earth is parched, the cattle withering, sale price of cattle not even covering the cost of transport to market.

It’s heart-break upon heart-break.

And yet, despite those realities that lie beneath daily life, Camp Cobbold is a place of celebration, of laughter, of joy.

A place of renewed and restored relationships, of learning and discovery, of new experiences.

And that’s exactly the point of it all….at least as I understand it.

The team that traveled north to help with Camp Cobbold was diverse, professional services like speech therapy, physiotherapy and counselling, joining practitioners such as beauty therapists, swimming coaches, poets and youth workers.

The team offered a lot, gifted a great deal to the families of the north; and their work and generosity is to be celebrated.

But to be honest, every one of us gained so much more in return that it hardly seems like a fair deal.

We learned so much about ourselves, so much about the nation we live in, and so much about the people we share it with, I’m pretty sure I know who gets the best of the arrangement.

Thanks SU Qld, Cobbold Gorge and Toowong Uniting Church for making space for us to join you for the week. But thanks most of all to the families of North Queensland cattle stations who welcomed us, forgave our uneducated city ways and extended friendship and welcome.

Any time you can visit Cobbold Gorge would be pretty special, but in Camp week it’s something else entirely.

thinking about planning: values

Yesterday I went off on a (fairly pointless it must be said!) flight of fancy about the comparison between GPS units and a good strategic plan.

But it did get me thinking a little more about planning.

One of the constant frustrations I have with the kind of corporate/strategic plans that we tend to produce is that often they are a lovely document, espousing all kinds of wonderful things, and published beautifully and placed on the bookshelf.

And that’s it…..there they stay.  Beside the corporate history collection and just above the pile of annual financial returns.  Sometimes, the plans we produce don’t amount to anything in terms of outcomes.

Sure the exercise of producing a plan can be helpful, can build a team, can help us think about who we are and why we are, but all that feel-good can fade into the background fairly quickly.

So what’s missing? How do we make the jump from planning as an exercise to planning that delivers outcomes?

One of the clues, I think, lies in that section of a plan we call “values”.

There’s no question its one of the critical components of any plan – the point at which we declare and describe the values of our community/organisation/company/people – those enduring tenets that define who we are.

I can’t help wondering if it’s also one of the most overlooked components. And potentially mis-used.

We tend to think, in this part of our planning, of aspirational values – those values that we hope to hold, those values that describe us at our best (and if we’re honest…we’re not at our best all the time!).

Things like hospitality, compassion, life-long learning, integrity, innovation, effective communication and so on.

Such a list of values can function as something of a collective wish-list.

And, I think, it can be a bit removed from reality, and a bit hard to grapple with these kinds of aspirational value statements.

I’m starting to think that rather than a disassociated list of aspirational values, we need to think much more in our planning exercises about embodied values, or the practices that demonstrate the kinds of values we hold/want to hold.

After all, what is a practice if not an embodied value?

What? What kind of gobbledegook is this?

If an aspirational value is hospitality, then an embodied value might be “eat a meal every week with a non-family member”.

If an aspirational value is innovation, then an embodied value might be to set aside 10% of organisation budget, and 10% of every staff member’s time for creative/innovative pursuits.

If an aspirational value is good communication, then an embodied value might be to have the CEO write a blog on the staff intranet every week outlining how the organisation is progressing, and inviting responses, comments and questions.

Those are just a couple of (admittedly incomplete) examples.

I can’t help wondering if our planning documents were to describe our aspirational values alongside a set of sample/example (but real) actions whether we might make some progress in taking that strategic plan off the bookshelf and putting it into practice.

The key would be making the plan invitational – so we (the people) are inspired to embody those values in our own work, life and participation.

And that might very well be the kind of planning that transforms an organisation or community.

Just wondering.

the importance of noticing

https://i2.wp.com/i.imgur.com/FpReR.jpgI had a learning moment on the weekend, right in the middle of a presentation I was making. Gotta be happy about that timing.

Over the last couple of years I’ve come to thinking of the critical questions when it comes to Christian Mission (and don’t stop reading if you’re not interested in Christianity…there’s more here than religion) are “what is God up to in our community?” and “how do we join in?”

I’ve suggested (ad nauseam it must be said) that there implication of these questions is that the first task of the Christian (or Christian community) is the task of discernment (or “figuring out”).

Last weekend I was visiting the UCA Presbytery of Central Queensland and right in the middle of telling a couple of stories from my time in Tassie that demonstrated this very point, I realised I was missing something.

Before there is opportunity to exercise discernment, to figure out what exactly is happening, what exactly are the potential responses or actions; before these things comes something more fundamental, more vital.

Noticing.

Noticing that something is happening (who knows what…that comes later…the task of discernment).

Noticing that our neighbour is in pain.

Noticing that our community is in need.

Noticing that we have some skills or resources or something to offer.

Noticing.

Maybe its obvious, but somehow it had slipped through to the keeper.  When I thought about it though, I realised that all the stories I was telling fit perfectly. And I heard another that illustrates the point:

A local UC congregation is right across the road from the school.  Someone from the church noticed that every afternoon kids were hanging out in front of the school at the bus stop waiting to be picked up – including some who had to wait quite a while before their bus arrived.  They noticed there was no shelter, and they noticed kids coming across the road to fill water bottles from a tap in the church yard when it was hot.

These things they saw and took notice of.

And then demonstrated the discernment part of the equation – the figuring out: Is there an issue here? What can we do to help? What skills/gifts/resources do we have? What is God showing us? (that question is for the Christians!)

Some might have gone the anti-community route of closing the gate and trying to keep kids from entering the church yard (you know…in case they trampled the garden). But this congregation took a different approach, and threw open the doors of the hall, inviting the waiting-for-the-bus kids to come in, find shelter and share afternoon tea.

It started with a curious few, but now there are anything up to 25 or 30 coming in for afternoon tea, building community, sharing life.

It’s a simple (but great) story.

And it started with noticing.

Now I (confession time) generally get around with the blinkers on, not noticing much that’s going on around me (ask Sheri….she’ll confirm!) but this realisation has woken me up to wonder how I can be more mindful, how I can see more clearly, how I can notice.

My first clue came in a book I’m reading called “Fierce Conversations”. I’ll talk some more about this book some other time, but the first reminder from it is to be “fully present” in every conversation. Give myself fully to the person with whom I’m talking, and not in the kind of “plan what story I’m going to share when he/she draws breathe kind of way.  Being fully present, fully engaged in what is going on around me might just help me to notice a little more.

And noticing is the first step.

I think.