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.

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the pothole

The pothole (the geological kind, not the road traffic kind) is, I think, an interesting phenomenon.

A little pebble gets caught in a crack or depression, swirls around and gradually, bit-by-bit, grinds away the underlying rock. It digs deeper and deeper, over hundreds, thousands, even millions of years.

I quite like potholes because they remind me that with persistence and time, even a little gravel can make big changes.

But the metaphor works the other way too…that over such a long period, a little pebble can do a lot of damage.

I’m starting to wonder more and more if there’s a sad, disturbing kind of pothole forming in in our (western, mainstream, Australian) culture. Here’s a couple of symptoms:

The vast majority of climate scientists are very clear about anthropogenic climate change. We are heating up our planet with our insatiable desire for burning fossil fuels, and we will pay a heavy price. More frequent, more intense weather events, rising sea levels, loss of habitat and flora/fauna, people dying. Those that are best placed to know, appear relatively certain that this is all true.  Almost every counter-argument has been demonstrated to be false.  And yet we stand on our right to hold our own opinion, be held hostage by big business and declare “climate change is crap” because “I know a guy who said….”

Immunisation rates are falling, with the result that herd immunity against long-ago contained diseases is now at risk in parts of Australia.  Medical experts (those that are best placed to know) are clear about the value of immunisation, and the tiny risks involved in it. And yet we stand on our right to hold our own opinion, to deny our own children (and other children) this safety net.

Politicians are almost universally disliked and regarded as untrustworthy.  For non-believers the same is true for religious leaders. And probably a long list of others.  We who sit at home and google conspiracy theories feel quite justified in declaring that we know better than those best placed to know…about nearly any topic we care to name.

I personally am the “World’s Expert” (TM) on medicine, climate science, national leadership, international relations, economics, search and rescue for lost aircraft,  Formula 1 Team Management, Australian Cricket team selection, NRL refereeing standards…and plenty more.

And so I make  up my own mind, irrespective of the views of those who are best placed to know.

I’m not (really) interested in debating the pros and cons of climate science, religion or immunisation, but I am wondering whether these things are symptoms (rather than causes) of a bigger issue:

The erosion of trust.

As a society I can’t help but wonder if we are becoming a place in which trust is an ever decreasing commodity.  With the rise of the individual and of self-determination, comes a first subtle, but now accelerating erosion of trust.

I don’t trust politicians, I don’t trust the media, I don’t trust scientists, I don’t trust religious leaders…on and on it goes. I don’t trust my neighbours enough to let my kids walk to school alone.

And sure, let’s be fair and honest, some of those whom we no longer trust bring it on themselves (I’m looking at you Australian politics), but just as often it’s because I get an idea in my head that I know better.

I know better than the climate scientist, the immunologist, the referee, the footy selector.

And so the next time we disagree, I’ll trust them a little less.  And a little less. And a little less.

Until there’s just not a whole lot of trust left.

Mis-trust might just be the pebble that is digging away at the bedrock, forming a deeper and deeper pothole.

And trust, it seems to me, is one of those things that is self-fulfilling.  If I exhibit trust, then those I trust are more likely to act in a a trustworthy way, and so I’ll trust them more (and so on).  Could the reverse, I wonder, also be true?

If my pondering has any merit (and lets be frank, as I’ve already announced, I’m the World’s Expert (TM), so it must) the question must be, what to do about it? How to remove the pebble of mistrust and start to repair the damage?

Is the answer to try harder to trust the people around me? The people who are best placed to know? To explicitly put my trust in them and demand trustworthy action?

Perhaps.

But just as important, it seems to me, the answer is for me to act in a trustworthy manner myself – to build the pool of communal trust that is going around, by ensuring that my family, my friends, my colleagues, those I support in my daily work, my neighbours (those I encounter as I live my life)…they can trust me.

To trust, and be trusted.

Sounds like community.

(p.s. just so we’re really clear…the “World’s Expert” (TM) claim is an attempt at humour…)

 

on yellow cars and casual, cultural sexism

We play a game, our family.

It’s a driving game, it keeps the kids occupied on long trips, gives us something fun to rib each other about along the way.

We call it “Spotto”.  Maybe you play a similar game, but in our version it’s a point for each time you see a yellow car and call out “SPOTTO!” before anybody else does.  As with any family game there are a few quirky rules, some inside understandings of what is and isn’t yellow (Brisbane City Council buses for example, don’t qualify) and for some unknown reason lost in the sands of time spotting a purple car and calling “SPURPLE!” accrues double points.

Hey, it’s fun, and its in the privacy of our own car…

There’s a problem however, and it’s a big one.

Once you start spotting yellow cars (SPOTTO!) it’s just not that easy to stop.

And so now I find myself even when on my own (that’s right…no kids to use an excuse) making a mental note of every yellow car I pass.  I swear to you I haven’t said “SPOTTO!” out loud on my own….yet….but that’s the problem. To borrow a well known advertising catch phrase…once you pop, you just can’t stop.

At the same time as I find myself thinking about yellow cars (SPOTTO!) I’m become more and more conscious of the casual (and not so casual) sexism that still seems ingrained in so many levels of our society.  Maybe that’s a strange connection to make…but go with me here.

As a father of two girls and a boy, I’m very conscious of the opportunities Sheri and I want our girls to have, of the way we want them to be treated, and of the responsibility of our son to know just how he can and should act with regards the women in his now and future life.

And in our current world….there’s a pretty ugly reality that I’m noticing more and more often (SPOTTO!).

Not with me?

Take a look at any Saturday morning “video hits” TV show, where film clip after film clip treats women as little more than scantily clad window dressing.  Men dress in suits, jeans, shirts and women (even when they’re the star attraction) may as well be in body paint.

Take a look at my favourite sport of motor racing, where start grids filled with heroic male drivers have the decoration of a grid girl in Lycra close at hand (or maybe your favourite athletes are footballers and the grid girls come in the form of cheerleaders).  Ridiculously, sadly, even in my chosen hobby of R/C car racing (that’s right…I race toy cars) we sometimes have the stupidity of “trophy girls” at major events.  How do I introduce my daughters to this hobby when basically this is the image of women perpetuated in even this obscure hobby?

Take a look at any number of magazines aimed at women and perpetuating the stereotypes of make-up, fashion and appearance as underlying all self worth.  Even the recent “no make-up selfie” trend that whilst ostensibly has a cancer awareness message (and at best even cancer fund-raising) at heart underneath seems to be implying “no make-up = courageous”.

No man has to put up with such nonsense.

Women continue to be under-represented in leadership in nearly every corner of our society (Federal parliament?) and even where they are present are treated differently (can I say Julia Gillard as just one very visible example without getting into political point-scoring debates?).

They’re underpaid, misrepresented, rejected. Women are subject to totally degrading treatment on the basis of appearance and they are sexualised relentlessly.  Then there’s violence against women prevalent even in mainstream Australian society.

The more I think of it, the more I see it (SPOTTO!). It’s everywhere.  Even though there’s clearly been structural progress in recent decades, there’s still a lot of pretty ugly cultural sexism.

To be fair, there’s plenty of pretty rough male stereotypes as well (cue the witless, useless, clueless father figure than inhabits so many TV commercials and sitcoms), and there are some pretty serious issues around boys in education or even church models that seem more shaped in a way to which girls respond more readily…..but to my eyes (SPOTTO!) the girls have a much tougher road to walk.

And our daughters are growing up in this culture, and will be victim to it. They’ll face pressure to conform. They’ll face expectations about sex and sexuality. They’ll have to abide by different standards than the boys around them.

The more I see it (SPOTTO!) the more I am conscious of just how far we have to go, and of the fact that I’m only just starting to work this out, see what’s in front of me, and can only wonder at the times I’ve probably been complicit.

And more aware of just how much I want both our girls, and our boy to see through the surface of our culture, to find a different way, to live to a different standard.

The fact is our girls (and our boy) are awesome. They’re smart, funny, committed, compassionate, imaginative, creative and talented.  One is intense and motivated, the other non-stop joyful and social.  That’s the basis on which they should progress in life….not on gender, appearance, make-up, short skirts and photo-shop.

The thing is…while I hope I gradually stop seeing yellow cars (SPOTTO!) because to be honest, it’s an annoying game, I sincerely hope the only reason I stop spotting ingrained, cultural, casual sexism is because bit by bit we find a better way.

Bit by bit.

(spotto)

“who wants to be awesome?”

IMAG1540 smallI was reminded recently of a great story about my son.

We had a bunch of family friends over at our house one afternoon, and the kids were all playing up a storm – inside where the toys are. Mitchell was about 4 years old at the time, and desperate to get his friends to go outside to play.

The way I remember it, he tried everything:

“Who wants to go play on the trampoline?”

“Who wants to go on the swings?”

“Who wants to play cricket?”

“Who wants to play footy?”

And nothing worked. I don’t remember what game the kids were playing, but it must have been good because they weren’t budging.

Mitch went away a little sad, but determined to figure out how to get his mates to play outside. A few minutes later he burst into the room, all excited in the way only a four year old can be and called out over the din:

“Who wants to be AWESOME?”

Naturally all the four-year old hands shot up and the kids vanished outside in the blink of an eye, following Mitch into a state of awesomeness (and thankfully leaving behind blissful silence!).

It’s a priceless family story, and one I look forward to telling at his 21st (yep, I’m that kind of dad, gathering ammunition ideas already), but what it’s got me to be thinking about this week is whether in life we ask the right questions.

Try as he might, those initial questions just didn’t have the desired effect, but as soon as he stumbled on the right question, the response was instantaneous:

“Who wants to be AWESOME?”

It’s a little like the oft-quoted phrase of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who is said to have written:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

In so much of our world today, I think we make the mistake of organising wood gathering, ship building plans, work orders, inviting people to jump on the trampoline or play soccer.  It’s there in our political environment, our media, and even our churches when we go all missional and try to invite people to contemplate the place of God in their lives.  I think maybe we ask the wrong questions.

Leadership has to be about asking the right question, building the right yearning, the right atmosphere and vision.

It has to be about teaching people to yearn for the sea.

In the language of a four year old, it has to be about asking “who wants to be awesome?”

side by side

Part of the relocation process for our family has been finding a new faith community to connect with. We’re pretty committed to the idea of living “locally” as much as we can within a city the size of Brisbane, so we have landed at Toowong Uniting Church – a good bunch of people to hang out with, and very close to home.

Yesterday the normal 9am service went by the wayside, the congregation joining with the Brisbane Korean Uniting Church for a shared service – the first for quite a few years apparently.

It’s an interesting experience, sharing in multilingual worship, with prayers, bible readings, sermon all translated and shared twice (in English and Korean).  The team putting the service together had done a good job to ensure everybody could participate in their own language, and with a service that while perhaps slightly different to the regular pattern for both congregations, was familiar enough to satisfy most.

As a participant, it didn’t seem that hard or require much in the way of compromise for me.

We sang, encountered scripture, shared in prayer and then communion – all pretty standard stuff for those used to participating in Christian worship.

All it took was a little patience while the words were repeated in another language (and though I had no capacity to understand, I really enjoyed listening), and some small adjustments to “my” usual patterns and preferences. To be honest, I even enjoyed the points of difference.

Best of all, we kicked back with a shared lunch afterwards….and while I like the odd egg and lettuce sandwich or piece of quiche that are the hallmarks of a church lunch….the Korean community brought some truly delicious food to the table!

As we joined in (the kids enjoyed it I think as much as I did), I couldn’t help but contrast this happy community with the disgraceful public discourse around asylum seekers in Australia.

Why is it so hard for our nation to make some small accommodations to welcome those who have no place to call home?

Why do we continue to allow our political leaders to vilify and use those who are on the run for political ends?

Why do we lower ourselves with our inability to offer welcome and hospitality – maybe making a few small changes to our own patterns and preferences to accommodate our neighbour?

I’m not seriously comparing a short suburban multi-cultural church service with the complexities of international refugees, or even domestic politics.

I’m just saying….it can’t possibly be as hard as we make it (or allow it to be made).

Can it?

betting the grocery money

Tasmania has a population of around 500 000 people.  It’s a relatively small place.

Staggeringly, so far in 2010, we have collectively lost over $100 million on poker machines.  $100 million.  That’s $200 for every single man, woman and child.   Something like 120000 of the population are children, so that bumps the per adult loss up to the vicinity of $260 each.  There are obviously a lot of families who don’t gamble at all…..so the picture for those who do, and those who are ‘problem’ gamblers with serious addictions just keeps getting worse and worse.

Those stats are the tip of a horror story. It’s nothing less than frightening that as a state we’ve lost $100 million from family budgets to poker machines in just six months. That’s not including losses at gaming tables, betting on horse racing or other sporting or community events.

How many families are on the edge because of gambling addiction? How much crime is gambling related? How many relationships are damaged or destroyed?

I’m declaring myself not to be a wowser. I don’t mind the odd raffle ticket to support a community initiative, or maybe an office Melbourne Cup sweep, but how far do we let our collective addiction to gambling go?

Right now you can bet on anything you like.  Julia Gillard for PM? You’ll currently win $1.52 for every $1 you bet.  Meanwhile David Wirrpanda is at $26 for a $1 bet to win Dancing with the Stars.  Daily news and sports reports will let you know the odds for your football, basketball, cricket or european handball team.  Every day. Time after time.  Encouraging you to lose your money, your family, your groceries. I can only imagine how much the internet gambling companies pay our commercial news providers to include that information in impartial news bulletins.

We’ve invited gambling into our lounge rooms – not just via the internet, but on the evening news.

If I’m frank, I’m appalled by it.

But the pokies still seem to be the big issue, at least here in Tasmania.  Everywhere poker machines are installed, gambling revenue goes up.  In lower socio-economic areas the pokie losses are higher that other places.

And the state government? They earn almost $90 000 000 each year from gambling taxes. Think they’ll do much about it? Wanna bet?

What does it say about us as a community? A society?

I don’t know about you, but I’ll be letting my community leaders know that I’m very concerned about the costs of gaming machines and gambling for our families, our communities, our state.

the australia i want to believe in

An open letter to Australia’s political leaders….

I want to take this opportunity, on the eve of an election, to tell you – the political leaders of this nation – about the country that I want to be a part of.  And I want to tell you about the kinds of political leaders that I want leading us into our future. Continue reading