It’s been a while

It’s been a while since I wrote. November 12 2015 to be precise. It was a great story, and I had nothing further to add…so I stopped.

No, that’s not entirely true…and I can’t be sure exactly why I stopped writing, other than that it’s been a very busy start to the year this year, and sometimes in the busyness my words kind of dry up.  In the torrent of organising, thinking, speaking, preparing, dadding, husbanding, riding, I somehow lose track of the time to write, to let my mind’s eye wander, to let random thoughts bubble up into out-loud kinds of pondering.  That’s not to say that all my out-loud kinds of pondering are always worth hearing (for assuredly they are not), but that if I never let writing happen, then (a) I’ll shut off something that I personally have come to value; and (b) the law of averages suggests that if I never write at all, then I’ll definitely never write anything interesting or useful.

I am feeling the tug of the keyboard again, so I’m hoping to resume some semi-occasional posts here.  For today though, I thought I’d share a couple of new media experiments I’m involved in.

Firstly, my colleagues Mardi and Lyndelle and I have dreamed up a little adventure into podcasting. If you’re new to the medium (as I am/was), a podcast is essentially an on-demand radio show. There are thousands out there. Some very professional, some very amateur, and exploring an enormous range of subject matter. Our podcast is called “Church Unchained” and in it we’re aiming to explore innovation and dangerous ideas for the church through a series of casual conversations. If you’re not a church person, I think you might still find some of the conversations interesting. Church Unchained pops out a new episode every second Tuesday (each ep runs about 20 minutes), and you can find (and listen) them over here. The first two episodes are out already and explore virtual reality (and Pokemon Go), and then homelessness. If you use a podcasting app, here’s the URL so you can subscribe.

Secondly, I’ve started writing a regular column for the Uniting Church in Queensland’s multimedia platform Journey Online. The column has a working title of “What if every church…” and explores a few ideas that are a little unusual in church circles, and wonders what might happen if we had a crack at them.  The first column came out this week and asked “What if every church…had a playground?“.  Once again, this column is supposed to be a fortnightly affair, and will continue for a while (or until I run out of ideas).

If you think there’s something we should explore in the Church Unchained podcast, or or I should write about in the column, I’d be delighted to hear from you!

To quote Peter Garrett from his new album….”I’m back!” (oh yes…he totally smashed the live show at the Tivoli a couple of weeks back….can’t wait for Midnight Oil to tour in 2017!)!

 

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.

leadership #3: following the leader

Over the last couple of weeks in our leadership class, we’ve been mainly focused on two questions of leadership:

  • What is leadership?
  • Who leads?

Those conversations took us in some interesting directions, but today we found an entirely different tangent to pursue.

Today we talked about followers.

Today we wondered if leadership is actually something that is offered by erstwhile leaders at all, or rather whether it’s something that is sought, recognised, and even bestowed by a group of followers.

We talked about the little known notion of ‘followership’.

When all the attention in our talk about the future is on seeking a higher quality of leadership, finding new leadership theories, developing the leaders within our community, or bringing in wildly brilliant leaders from outside….the theory of followership suggests that we perhaps ought to be focusing our attention elsewhere.

The success of any enterprise, or organisation is largely attributable to the quality of the followers, the community of people who identify as “we” and who collectively seek after common goals. The leader might help to organise and equip, and even to recognise the vision and purpose that is hidden within the group of followers….but it’s the followers that matter most.

Or so my understanding of the theory goes.

And to be truthful, it kind of rings true. It’s hard to be a great leader on your own. In fact there’s no leadership in action at all if its not recognised as such by a group of followers.

Somehow in our world, we’ve managed to bestow negative connotations on the word follower. Say it out loud. Let it roll off your tongue. Follower. It’s hard to say without thinking of sheep, of uncritical, unthinking flock. Followers bad. Leaders good.

The truth could hardly be more different. And as a Christian, I should know that. Jesus didn’t ask us to be unthinking, uncritical, automatons. Sheep-like followers.

Jesus did call us to follow, but in a sense to follow with the best of who we are. To bring all our giftedness, all our talent, all our capacity to reason, to think, to analyse, to critique and to act. To join with God’s purposes for the world with all that we are.

In that light the famous question “what would Jesus do?” is the wrong question. It could be construed as the question of a sheep-like follower. Perhaps the better question (though a little less sexy and not quite as neat) is to say “as one called to bring all I have to follow Jesus, what should I do?”

I’m patenting that and having bracelets made up. “AOCTBAIHTFJWSID”. They’re going to be big sellers.

The question of course, for those thinking about what leadership means, is what to do with this notion of followership. I think there are a few clues, a few places to start:

1. Recognise that within the group or community there is an astonishing capacity, a broad range of gifts and skills, and the potential to transform the world (or at least that part of it to which we have access).

2. Recognise that within the group or community there is (either overtly or tucked away) a vision – a sense of who we want to be, what we want to achieve, how we want our (collective) life to feel and look.

3. The task of the leader is to recognise what’s there and help give expression to it, to sharpen it, to identify as one with the community, to want and work for the community at its very, very best – and to find ways of organising, resourcing and encouraging to release that best within it.

4. The task of the leader is to love followers. Love them.

Maybe it’s time to reclaim the word followers. Followers rock. Followers are the future. Followers (and I’m not even joking a little bit) will save the world.

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

growing older

IMG_0019So the evidence is mounting….I’m getting older.

Recently I was in the market for a car, and thought long and hard about what kind of car I could fit into my budget, what the family needs where, and what I “really” wanted. For a while at the top of my list was a Subaru WRX.  It’s been a car I’ve hankered after for years really, and though I couldn’t afford anything too recent, I could just about have worked my way into a ten year old model. As a firmly committed motoring enthusiast (to use a polite phrase!) the temptation was real. I could imagine myself dropping the kids to school, then heading for the mountains to unleash.  Serious fun lay ahead.

The choice in the end? A three year old Hyundai i30 hatch. Practical, nice, good condition, reliable, comfortable. Hyundai have come a long way and the i30 is a genuinely good small car……and I’m just about over the shame of driving a car I swore I’d never drive….but what happened to my WRX?

The thing is, much as I still love speed, and the idea of a truly capable car appeals, I’ve also started to figure out that just maybe there is more to life than going flat out everywhere.

Now in my early 40’s I find myself cruising in traffic, and laughing as a 19 year old races past, weaving in and out and gaining a few metres here and there. And as I laugh I think…sure, you’ll beat me to the destination by a few minutes, but does it really matter?

I’m definitely getting old……or maybe it’s five years in Tasmania that has relaxed me.

There are other signs too, reflexes that aren’t what they once were, a few wrinkles and a lot less hair (and disturbingly hair starting to grow in strange places…what’s with hairy ears?). Of course there are also some positives , I’ve started coping a little better with early morning starts after years of being sure and certain there was no such thing as 6.00 AM, and maybe (just maybe) there’s a little wisdom that comes from mounting levels of life experience – from all that has gone before, both good and bad.

Older, I tell you. Continue reading

birth and death

Last week I shared some time with my colleagues here who work for the Uniting Church in the Presbytery of Tasmania.

It was partly a retreat day, partly a planning day, and partly a day of building our sense of team.

It was a day in which all sorts of interesting possibilities came alive for us, as we thought, wondered and planned how to challenge, support and nurture the church here.

As we closed the day, Carol read to us, from Romans 8:18-25, and some commentary from Macrina Wiederkehr (Seasons of Your Heart) that contained a poem.  In the poem, Wiederkehr describes what must have been her own difficult birth – a birth story in which she apparently nearly didn’t make it, being momentarily pronounced dead.

I’m sure the scripture, the commentary and most of the poem were very interesting, but I confess I stopped listening. I was captured then and since by one line in the middle of the poem.

The doctor placed me aside and announced the sad news of my death, right in the middle of my birth.

Let’s just re-read that again.

The doctor placed me aside and announced the sad news of my death, right in the middle of my birth.

That’s got to be about as difficult as it gets. Right in the moment of new birth, new hope, new beginnings, is death.  Just as things where about to get interesting….it was all over.

I kind of wonder if that’s about where those of us who belong to the Christian church find ourselves right now.  And for the Uniting Church in Tassie it rings true.

There are well documented challenges facing the church. Buildings. Money. Age. Numbers. Ministers.  Well documented.

It would be easy to pronounce death. Many have (me included).

But increasingly, I get the feeling that we’re not actually in the middle of our death….but strangely, bizarrely, in the middle of our birth.

Not because we’re about to have some explosion of numbers and reclaim the glory days of the past, but because it seems to me that we’re on the edge of discovering anew what it really means to be communities of faith, what it really means to follow Jesus in this time and place.

Somehow, we find ourselves on the edge of a time of new hope.

All over Tasmania, wherever I go, I am encountering stories in the Uniting Church of people trying new things, re-thinking what it means to live together in faith community, worship together, engage in community, participate in God’s mission.

I hear the hope in a Friday night praise and worship gathering in the rural village of Wilmot. I hear it in a lounge-room gathering in Evandale. I hear it in a wild and powerful vision of residential community in Kingston. I hear it in the quiet contemplation of a new garden at Scots Memorial. I hear it in the burgeoning community meals at Wesley. I hear it in the dreams of a first-ever website for the congregations in Hobart’s north. I hear it in the endless stories of community service that are emerging from Uniting Care Tasmania. I hear it in the stories of a cape york visit by students from Scotch Oakburn.

I hear hope everywhere.

Not fanciful, unrealistic hope.

Not hope that ignores the realities of 2011.

But simple hope.  Hope that right in the middle of what we thought was our death, we might just find the possibility (and yes, pain) of birth.

That’s kind of exciting.

just around the corner

I parked yesterday in a suburban street in West Launceston.

It could have been anywhere. Houses, footpaths, cars. Kids playing. People walking. A school at the top of the hill, a shop down the road.

It was so very normal. Suburbia.

And then I walked.

After two minutes I was in ‘First Basin’ where the South Esk River comes spilling out of the upper sections of Cataract Gorge, into a large open pool, before continuing down the Gorge to the waiting arms of the Tamar estuary. The water is surrounded by cliffs and hills, parkland and bushland, a 300m chairlift carrying excited school kids overhead. Peacocks fussing and preening.

It’s anything but suburbia.

And I walked again, following a trail upstream toward the delightfully named Duck Reach.

Not 10 minutes from setting out on foot from my car parked in the heartland of the suburbs I was a world away.  The remnant of last week’s floodwaters tumbled down the rocky riverbed. The steep sides of the gorge deep with forest, the atmosphere still and heavy – the river and an occasional bird’s call the only sounds beyond my own footsteps.

It is a beautiful place, and all the more remarkable for being so close to the heart of the city.

At one moment I was in the normalcy of suburbia, and minutes later deep in tbe beauty of the gorge.  It never ceases to amaze me that such a remarkable spot can be so close to ordinary life, literally just around the corner.

As I walked I thought a lot about that fact. I wondered how often we who are caught up in the ordinariness of daily life miss the spectacular, the remarkable, the astonishing that is just around the corner.

And I wondered about the church that I work among, so obsessed with worrying about our daily bread that we miss all the opportunities that lie just out of sight.

It seems an obvious connection. Lift our eyes from suburbia to find the remarkable that is literally on our doorstep.

But as I trod the riverside path on my way back home, something started to stir for me.  I had parked my car in the middle of everything that I know, and gone off to find something better.

And how often, I wondered, is that the case?  How often do we give up on all that is normal and around us to go searching for the something remarkable?  How often do we leave suburbia to go hunting for Cataract Gorge?

The closer I got to my car the more I realised that suburbia is anything but ordinary.  This is where I live. There are friends and family, there are stresses and tension, there is laughter of kids playing in the front yard, heartache as an amublance races to the scene of a domestic tragedy.

This, suburbia, is life. It’s not ordinary, it’s incredible.  When I go looking for the amazing that I’m convinced is just around the corner I think perhaps I miss the remarkable that surrounds me right where I am.

The grass is always greener, or so we say.  The salvation of my church, the restoration of my soul, the reclaiming of my world as a better place….these things are perpetually just around the corner.

Except they are not. They are right before my very eyes. They are my neighbours, my family, the shop at the end of my street.  The best stuff isn’t around the corner, its right here.

Perhaps I’d best start just here.

Leadership….is not a dirty word

There are two leadership quotes that I particularly love.

Lao Tzu: A leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worse when they despise him….But of a good leader who talks little when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, “We did it ourselves.

Napoleon Bonaparte: A leader is a dealer in hope.

Leadership is not demanding, commanding, directing, or driving.  It is not managing or administration.

We have an oversupply of ‘leaders’ (whether political or otherwise) who lead by being negative, by pointing out the problems in our world, the dangers we face, what we should “not” be doing.

The kind of leadership that is most effective, and that is most lacking in our world today (and if we’re honest, in our church as well) is the kind of leadership that deals in hope, that inspires initiative and energy.  A truly effective leader is one who paints a picture of an alternate reality, who reveals to us what we ‘could’ be, and motivates us to go where we might not go if left to our own devices.

That’s the kind of leadership I would love to see us nurture in the Uniting Church in Tasmania.

What does it mean for you to deal in hope?  Who can you encourage or inspire? What new possibilities can you imagine….and call into existence?

(this story first published in Uniting Tas – the monthly newsletter of the Uniting Church in Tasmania)