on meals, community, love and jesus

A message shared with Toowong Uniting Church in July 2017. Read John 13:31-35 first.

Last week, June 29 was Eat Together day in Canada.  A day when Canadians were invited to eat with neighbours, friends and colleagues, to see what happened. Watch this:

The official website introduces the idea like this: “When we eat together, good things happen. Whether its poutine, pad thai, paella, or pemmican. Nothing brings us together like eating together. We’re on a mission to make the world a better place by sharing a meal. It is time to stop watching and start acting! Join in on June 29th for Eat Together Day. Whether you eat with your neighbours, friends or family, make a time to eat together.”

It’s an invitation that is extended as part of Canada’s celebration of its 150th year as a nation. Other elements of the celebration include National Aboriginal Day, St Jean Baptiste day, Canadian Multiculturalism Day and Canada Day.  The film we just watched introduces the concept of eat together, and tells its own story. It’s a beautiful film, filled with funny, poignant moments. And it reflects many of those other elements of Canada 150.

I’m sure you that you, like me if you cast your mind back, can think of some memorable meals. Times and places where the table was the centre of a wonderful community time. Where conversation flowed as food was shared. Where the bonds of friendship were formed or strengthened.

There is something wonderful about sitting around a table and sharing together.

Continue reading

on birthdays with a zero…

My youngest is just days away from a very special birthday. The one in which she reaches the magical double-figure mark. She’s bounding around the house with barely contained excitement, the anticipation of the big day breaking forth in unexpected moments as she thinks about a party with her friends, a day with her family, and her first electronic gadget (the iPod has become a de-facto rite of passage at age 10 in our house…please go gentle on the judgement of our parenting choices!).

Lots of birthdays hold significant meaning when you’re young. Double figures. Teenager-hood. Sixteen. The 18 year old adult. The 21st. Time honoured significance in each of those birthdays.

It seems that once you reach a certain age though, birthdays lose something of that magic. Sure it’s nice to have a special dinner with the family, and to receive some best wishes from friends, but it’s not quite as enchanted as when you’re a kid.

Except if the birthday in question has a zero in it.

Maybe its just not possible to keep up the enthusiasm year-in and year-out for birthdays, so we ration it to once every ten years instead. Turning 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 and the grand old century mark, these are special days.  Often we think of them as marking a transition point too, onward to the next stage of life.

Zero birthdays give us pause to reflect not just on the last year, but on the last stage of life, the last decade or more. And to think far more than 12 months ahead, pondering what is to come, what choices we’ll make, what the next stage of life holds in store for us.

Anniversaries are a bit the same. Oh Sheri and I will definitely mark the passing of our 22nd anniversary later this year, but we’re already planning toward the 30th in a much bigger way.

A zero is just one number among ten, but somehow the zero makes it special

All of which comes into sharp focus this week.

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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

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

leadership 7: jesus as “the ultimate leader”?

In a course on religious leadership, run in a christian theological college, it’s inevitable that we would eventually confront this question:

Is Jesus the ultimate leader? One through whose life we can discover all we need to know about leadership?

Now before I starting wondering about that question, let me say that if you’re reading this and not christian…well stick with me, I’m not going to go all theological on you (well, not much).

The story of Jesus life as recorded in the gospels, and as at least partially corroborated by external historical sources is the story of an itinerant preacher in the ancient middle east.  He gathered followers, taught his “way”, and wandered the countryside preaching, teaching, healing.

And then he was killed, leaving behind a small group who at first fled, but later continued to teach the same message, founded the christian church, and the rest is history.

But was Jesus actually a great leader? And what can we learn today about the art of leadership from this life and story?

One thing we do know is that he did not live up to expectations. There was a whole mythology and prophecy around what the Jewish ‘messiah’ would be like – including the expectation for many of a mighty leader who would overthrow the Roman empire who at that time ruled over much of the mid-east world (and to be fair, a whole chunk of the western world as well).  The messiah would be a warrior, a powerful king.

And Jesus?  None of that.

One of his finest public moments came riding a donkey. Another attacking the temple itself, the heart of Judaism. His confrontations with representatives of the Roman empire were limited, and he definitely didn’t set the Jewish people free from Roman rule. Eventually of course, the Romans had a hand in his death. If his leadership was oriented around a national uprising, it was a miserable failure.

Jesus, as much in his leadership as in many other aspects of his life, was counter-expectations, counter-cultural.  He made no effort to live up to the expectations of others – instead charting his own course, living according to his own clear sense of purpose.

That in itself is an interesting lesson for a leader to learn.  Be clear about your purpose, and live accordingly.

Secondly, I think we can look back and see some other interesting leadership qualities in Jesus.  Here’s the few that particularly appeal to me:

  • practiced an action/reflection model of learning for his followers – once famously sending a group out to teach, preach and heal with limited instructions and resources. On their return, he retired to the beach with the group to reflect on and learn from their experiences
  • re-interpreted well established world views – Jesus’ story is filled with moments where he took well known and well established religious and cultural teaching and turned them upside down, creating new possibilities
  • empowered all sorts of people – Jesus didn’t just work with those whom the society classed as best of the best, but imparted a sense of hope and possibility to all sorts of people as he met them – from social outcasts such as tax collectors and lepers through to Roman soldiers, fisherman and all sorts. Jesus also had a remarkable view of and interaction with women completely at odds with the culture of the day
  • saw to the heart of the matter – Jesus had an amazing ability to see through the surface of a situation or conversation, to what was really going on.  And a willingness to confront what really were the core issues, to name what needed to be named

Interestingly, these are leadership skills that I personally prize highly, and wish were much more developed in my own life and leadership. Jesus was the kind of leader I wish I could be.

And that reminds me of the old saying “God created us in God’s image, and we have been returning the favour ever since”.  How much of what I see in the Jesus story as leadership qualities to aspire to, are actually me reading my own situation and preferences back into this ancient story?  How much am I creating Jesus in my own image?

And thinking about that question reminds me of this piece from the movie Talladega Nights (and don’t watch if you are nervous about a little “blue” humour) that constantly reminds me of how we read our own modern situation and preferences into the life story of Jesus:

I guess the question I ponder is, does it matter?  Does it matter that in thinking about leadership in a modern context we project all sorts of situations and beliefs back into the life story of a man who would never have had to think about or confront such issues?

Or is that actually the whole point?  That in the life of Jesus we see a life fully lived, humanity represented most fully within his particular time and place?  That it’s therefore ok for me to look at what underlying principles might stand the test of time, might enable my to live out my own humanity more fully in my particular time and place?

I sure can’t look to Jesus life for a model of how to lead an organisation consisting of thousands of people with a budget in the millions.

But I can encounter the story of one who inspired countless others both in his own time and in times still unfolding; who believed in the capacity of the human spirit; who confronted injustice at personal cost; who raged when rage was needed; who wept when that was the only possible answer. I can encounter the story of one who challenged and changed the world view that shaped and sustained the culture into which he was born.

And ultimately as a “believer” I personally can enter into the strange, mystical sense in which that all continues to happen.

And so even if I find myself unconvinced that Jesus was a ‘great leader’ in modern terms, I am sure and certain that in the stories of Jesus, the life of Jesus, the ‘idea’ of Jesus I am challenged and inspired in the exercise of leadership in many different aspects of my own life.

And interestingly, there’s nothing religious about any of that.

NB: This is the seventh in a serious of posts reflecting on leadership, written during a Religious Leadership course with Trinity Theological College

confession: me and full liturgies…

I like words.

I like reading other people’s words, diving deeply into books and stories that bring a whole new world to life inside my mind.  Putting just the right combination of words together can unearth amazing insights, powerful challenges that move me to agree or disagree, or just enjoy the moment.

And so I find it surprising to have realised in recent years, that despite enjoying words, I find a great deal of disconnect when it comes to words in Christian worship.

I’ve grown up as part of the Uniting Church, and now work within it.  One of the common forms of regular worship in the Uniting Church is a full written liturgy – where the leader/minister speaks, and there’s a pre-determined response to be read by the congregation. Sometimes it is confession, sometimes praise, sometimes prayer, sometimes lament.  The whole service is printed, or projected and I simply follow along. I might be wrong, but it seems that the full written liturgy is even more common now than it was in my childhood – or maybe I was too busy not paying attention back then to notice what was going on.

Even the songs are scripted parts of the service, the words lovingly crafted, music prepared, all of us singing in unison.

So why? Why don’t I like liturgies that are rich, carefully prepared and in which there are wonderful words that paint pictures and tell stories? Why don’t I like liturgies in which I identify with the whole church in every time and place by sharing in common responses, in which I respond with my neighbour in the next pew with words of solidarity and common commitment?

As best I can tell, the answer is that in the liturgy, the words are not my words. The commitments are not my commitments. The confessions are not my confessions. The prayers are not my prayers.

They are other peoples thoughts, expressions, words and I find myself parroting them. Sometimes mindlessly, I’ll read from the service sheet, no idea what the words mean to the one who wrote them or what I’m saying aloud.

It’s far more a critique of my capacity to take the words, internalise them, agree and then participate, but it’s still there, this discomfort with other people’s words.

What’s the alternative? For me, for my capacity to encounter and respond to God in the gathered community of faith (surely the purpose of worship?) I need to be invited to bring my own words, bring my own experience, my own story. And I need to hear the story, the words, the experience of my neighbour as she encounters and responds to God….so I can agree, or disagree, support or encourage.

I need to be in a community that recognises that even though the words of the service might be shaped around thankfulness and gratitude, some of us might that day be experiencing broken-ness and pain. Or on days when we’ve predetermined to lament and cry-out, there might be some among us who are in the midst of a rich praise-worthy moment, a time of celebration that could be shared.

That sounds messy even as I write it. And it would be. it sounds like it limits the size of a gathering. And it would. It sounds like some people would be uncomfortable and laid bare. And they would.

The full written liturgy….feels like it stifles and binds my community, and me. It calls for a pre-determined response to and encounter with God. It points to Jesus…but stops me from responding to him.

Why? Maybe I’m a self-absorbed Gen X, wanting to tear down traditions and remake them in my own image. Maybe I’m not getting the point of sharing words with those sitting around me. Maybe I misunderstand worship entirely. All of these are possible, even probable.

Whatever the cause…the outcome remains. I don’t like full liturgy.

And that makes worship difficult when that’s what is on offer.

leadership #1: dealing in hope

“A leader is a dealer in hope.” (Napoleon Bonaparte)

I’ve just kicked off an 8 week block as a student again, joining in a course on religious leadership with Trinity Theological College.  Each monday afternoon 16 of us will gather to reflect on leadership and the church.  I’m planning on a short weekly reflection to capture some of my thoughts as we amble through the topic.

“Why are we offering this course? Why are we in the church so interested in the topic of leadership at the moment?

Those were a couple of what seemed like simple questions posed by Aaron, our lecturer, to kick off some conversation.  A long while later and with no sign of the energy in the room abating as we batted various ideas about, he had to reign things in so we could move on.

It’s a good question. Why are we so interested in this topic?

I can’t help but wonder if it’s got to do with the state in which the church finds itself (the church in general, in Australia in particular).  I don’t think it’s going too far to say that the church is in a period of lostness, a period in which it is experiencing irrelevance in terms of its relationship with the wider world.

For an institution, and a community who have for generations been at the heart of their communities, held positions of significance and influence, and mostly had to just be there and keep ticking the boxes of regular worship and social opportunity…this current experience is somehow bewildering.

Over the last 40 years we’ve seen a constant stream of correctives in the life of the church, new ways to be who we are, to go about what we do – new ways to organise, to proclaim, to connect and engage – all at least partly driven by this sense of disconnect and irrelevance.

And so I wonder if leadership has become the newest ‘fix-it’ idea.

If everything is broken, we need somebody to tell us how to fix it.

If Napolean Bonaparte is right, and a leader is a dealer in hope, that’s what we’re desperately searching for in the church today.

Somebody to tell us it’s all going to be ok, to lay out a grand narrative that we’ll all immediately recognise and pursue together. We don’t so much want someone to tell us what to do and how to do it, as we want someone to restore hope.

The second interesting reflection from yesterday’s conversation was to think about the concept of leadership and its development over the years. We tracked briefly through a study charting changing understandings of leadership in line with broader cultural changes.

And so in times when industrialisation was the big focus for our society, our understanding of leadership was more akin to what we might today describe as management – good systems, focus on efficiency and production or task orientation.

Later came the move to decentralised power, to an emphasis on teams and flat structures, orientation for leadership was around establishing and achieving group goals.

And now? How is the information revolution changing our concepts of what makes leadership special? How is the messy move in our society from modernity to post-modernity, and in our churches from Christendom to post-Christendom changing how we define leadership?

I think we come right back to the very questions we asked at the start – why a focus on leadership? In 2013 I think we’re looking for leaders who deal in hope, to paint a grand vision (and preferably one that fits with our own preciously held world view) and inspire us to action.

And so alongside Bonaparte, I place my other favourite leadership quote:

“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.”  Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Hope, courage, imagination….the new currency of leadership.

Either that or I’m totally wrong and what we really want is for someone to tell us everything will be ok….and help us feel safe.

And finally for today, just because, here’s a few of my previous ponderings on leadership and related topics. And a fun video not so much about leadership as it is about followership:

lessons from temptation

This message shared with the South Moreton Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia, Feb 2013. Relevant scripture reading is Luke 4:1-13.

I’ve just recently returned to Queensland having spent a wonderful five years living in Tasmania.  I have to say that as a place it’s everything it’s cracked up to be. It’s of course beautiful, but also a great place to live, and our season there was a fantastic time for our family. We were there at the invitation of the Presbytery of Tasmania to help the presbytery resource its congregations and communities around mission development.  The church in Tasmania is poised in a delicate place, but the work and opportunities to share with congregations around the state encouraging imagination and creative missional engagement was very rewarding. The future there, I think, is hopeful. Some other time I’d be happy to share some of the stories of Tassie with you.

I’m sure that it’s not only in Tasmania that there has been a heavy emphasis on the question of mission in recent times.  I suspect it’s the same here, and the appointment of a project officer for mission for the Presbytery will no doubt help in your continued explorations.

The key questions we grappled with in Tasmania really emerged from the two-pronged enquiry: what is the missio dei, the mission of God? And how do we participate in it?

What does it mean to shape a congregation, faith community or agency by our understanding and answers to these kinds of question?  How can we be missional?  What is God up to in my neighbourhood and how do I be part of it?  In my view we are right to place such emphasis on these questions of mission, and particularly in the approach to mission that observes that it’s the mission of God that has a church, not the other way around.

As we gather today at the beginning of Lent, and as questions of mission continue to be front and centre for us, I’m interested in what this scripture reading from Luke 4 has to say to us about mission.  It’s a traditional reading for the beginning of Lent, and of course there are lots of ways to meet this passage.

As Jesus is tested, tempted, right at the very beginning of his ministry, of his earthly participation in God’s mission, I can’t help wondering what we can learn from this astonishing encounter about our own ministry. Continue reading