Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Community (Page 3 of 4)

Playing for Change – Stand by Me

Fuzz Kitto preached at church this morning and played this magnificent clip of people playing John Lennon’s classic Stand by Me as part of the ‘Playing for Change’ initiative. I think some of the lyrics were changed to highlight the importance of standing by each other. As Roger Ridley in this moving performance says, no matter our situation in life, we need somebody to stand by us. We are made for relationship, and without healthy relationship in our lives, we are less human than we could be. We are created for God and for each other. Check out this inspirational clip:

God of the outback

Childhood memories can be a great thing. My wife and I have just returned from Broken Hill in NSW. During our stay there (which was only a couple of days), a number of events triggered nostalgic emotions for me. Driving through one of the most famous towns in Australia reminds me that there is so much history in this place. That and the fact that it was about 40 degrees every day we were there makes you realise that this is the outback. More than that though was the typical country hospitality of the family members we stayed with. These are people of whom city folks like me live off the backs of, and yet they will do anything for you.

Being in a place like Broken Hill, in the Australian outback, does something to you, especially if you have not been there for a very long time. I was last in these parts 35 years ago on a trip to the Flinders Ranges with my Mum, Dad and brother. We never actually made it to Broken Hill on that trip due to the fact that we rolled our car just near Lake Frome, but that’s a story for another time. But despite that, the fond memories of being ‘beyond the black stump’ came flooding back on this trip. One event that it brought back for me was the brilliant sunsets that you only get in places like this. The sky turns a brilliant orange as the sun goes down over the vast empty land, giving the lizards and kangaroos some respite for another day. Occasionally you will also hear the cackling of galahs and cockatoos in the distance as they feed their young after a hard day’s scavenging over carcasses of dead reptiles or other animals. Their greatest competition of course is the mighty wedge-tailed eagle, soaring over the cloudless sky, as they do, with the authority of that other king of their own terrain, the lion.

The simply beautiful flora and fauna evoke even more wonderful memories. The Sturt Desert Pea is the flower everyone talks about out here, and you can see why. I still remember my mother exclaiming in delight in her thick German accent, “The Pea! The Pea!” the first time she saw this uniquely Australian flower with its rich red vertical petals marked with the blackest of black spots.

This is truly a sunburnt country, of droughts and flooding rains, as the famous poem puts it. And in just the last few years, haven’t we seen the disastrous extremities of both? It is a vast land; a land of endless horizons where there is yet more of the same nothingness over the next hill. Or if you look at it a different way, there is something spiritual in the vastness. I reckon I now understand a bit more of why Jesus was led into the wilderness to prepare for his ministry. Rowland Croucher has said that one of the characteristics of the prophets is that they each went through a time in the wilderness. There is something about the ruggedness, the wildness, and what you might call the ‘untouchedness’ of this land that speaks of the character of God. This is a place where in years gone by, the toughest of men and the most robust of women were faced with their own mortality. You simply had to survive in this place. There were none of the accoutrements that we cannot seem to get by with today in the big city. Out there you were faced with the flies, the heat and the dust, and you simply had to deal with it.

As I reflected some more on the beauty of this part of the country, I was reminded of a song that Steve Grace sings in which he tells of his love of Australian country towns. There is something Christlike about the giving nature and generosity of people out here. As Grace puts it, “I thank God for Australian country towns and the special kind of people that I like to be around.” These are people who are generous to a fault; people with faces worn by harsh years of living on the land, people who know what it is to face hard times and have their dignity not only retained but enhanced. As I have said elsewhere, there is something about suffering that is redemptive, or at least can be. It can give you a depth of understanding and empathy for the plight of others that people who haven’t suffered deeply simply cannot possess, however sympathetic they might be.

Without wanting to romanticise the outback and its people – of course not everyone is like what I have described above, just like anywhere else – every city person should spend a decent amount of time in a town like Broken Hill. And I don’t mean in a comfortable motel while you spend the day visiting the local tourist attractions. I mean living with a family who can tell you stories of what it is like to live in this part of the country. If you are able to do this, you will learn something about life and coping with it that will touch something deep in your soul. There is a good chance you will know more of what real community is. In our Facebook generation we learn to determine our worth by the number of people who have ‘friended’ us and we are thereby robbed of living in real community. Dave Andrews made the point once that real community is where there is always someone you don’t want to be around. That’s why it is so good for us. Because we can’t just ignore them or ‘unfriend’ them. We are forced to relate, and we grow in the process. It is real life.

It is the harshness of the land that also shapes the irreverent and hard-nosed humour of the people who live out here. Many Christians would find the humour crude, yet this is the culture in these parts. There is nothing offensive about it. It’s just the way they express their experience of life in this harsh part of the world.

I love the outback. Maybe it’s those wonderful childhood memories it brings back. Or maybe it’s the yearning for something wild in the spirit of a male that it evokes. After all, if you believe that we have been around for many a million years, then the wild vastness of this place is where we have our roots. This is God’s own country: unspoilt, untouched, and untamed. We have a lot to learn from this part of the world and its people. They also have a lot to learn from us, but when the vast majority of the country lives in an urban sprawl, it is the spirit of the outback that can bring us closer to the wild, rugged God who made it all.

Minutes to Memories

“Days turn to minutes, and minutes to memories. Life sweeps away the dreams that we have planned” – John Mellencamp, Minutes to Memories

There is a scene in the movie Up in the Air where George Clooney’s character is trying to convince his brother-in-law-to-be to not jilt his bride on their wedding day. The groom has cold feet and isn’t sure he wants to go through with such a huge commitment. And Clooney, who is starting to realize the loneliness of his own 24/7 casual jetsetting lifestyle, asks the groom to remember all of the happiest times of his life. As the groom starts to think, he realizes that they were all spent with other people; the happiest times of his life were when he was not by himself.

I was being shown some photos of the family of a friend the other day. This person has 8 siblings and the family gets together often to celebrate birthdays and other special occasions. As I was driving home that day I felt a sadness come over me. I am one of 3 brothers who all live in different cities. Soon we will all be living in different countries. I don’t have a large family to see here. I was then reminded of some family friends whose extended family now spans four generations. The first and second generations of this family have spent every summer holiday for the last forty years at the same place. Some would say “how boring!” but I think it’s wonderful. This family can associate that place with the best moments of their lives. I have sometimes joined them on their holidays and I have always felt just as much a part of their family as the blood relations themselves.

We have been sold a lemon in our busy 24/7 lives. We have been taught to believe that our happiness actually lies in having more stuff and not having people bother us all the time. Many of us would rather live on our own than go through the hassle of sharing a house with someone else. And many of us would rather the all-fun-and-no-responsibility of casual sex than the hard work and struggle of a committed relationship.

We live a lonely existence in the western world. I heard someone say recently that we know more of what is happening on the other side of the world than we do about our next-door neighbours. We build our fences higher and spend more time online than we do getting to know people face-to-face. I remember growing up in suburban Melbourne and knowing every person or family in our street. I still have memories of our next-door neighbour passing some of our kitchen chairs that he had just fixed back over the fence to us. I wonder how many of our children today will have those memories when they look back in 30 years’ time.

I was talking to a colleague on the bus during the week about this. This lady is African and has been living in Australia for about a year now. As we were discussing what life is like for her compared to back home, she remarked that one of the things she has noticed is the number of people who either live alone or who spend time alone. She said that in her country it was a duty to introduce yourself to your neighbours when you moved into a new area. It is just part of what you do. And sure enough, people quickly get to know each other and there is a lot less fear in their neighbourhoods than there is in much of suburban Australia. We are poorer for the fact that we generally don’t do that as well in this country.

Our deepest and most cherished memories are indeed of those times spent in relationship. It is often difficult but it far outweighs the pain of the lonely crowd, of not feeling connected to the people closest to us. Dave Andrews has said that community is somewhere where there is always someone you don’t want to be around, and some friends of mine once said that anything worth doing is never going to be easy. Our lives in this world are short and we never know when our time is up. The writer of Ecclesiastes was right – our lives are vanished in an instant; we come from the dust and to the dust we will return (Ecc 3:20). And it can all seem like a chasing after the wind. Life does indeed sweep away the dreams we have planned.

The hard work of bringing in community, of getting to know our neighbours, can be so simple. A friend of mine said during the week that just having a kick of the footy in the street can bring other children out. Then all of a sudden conversations start, people get to know each other and walls of fear and mistrust break down. Jesus did this when he broke all the social conventions of 1st century culture by associating with tax collectors and ‘sinners’. Jesus knew how to have a good time, and he told his disciples of the joy he had within him. His life was about relationship and the early church followed in his footsteps. They endured the daily struggle of living in community, they shared all they had; they passed their kitchen chairs over the fence to each other, if they even had fences. And their lives were so attractive that they added to their number daily those who were being saved from their own loneliness and self-absorption to life in the community of Jesus.

Does all this stir up a longing within you, a longing for things that once were? Do you have similar childhood memories to the ones I have related and wish they could be the reality once again? One day when the new heavens and the new earth come together and all things are made new, we will enjoy that community again. But this time it will be complete and we will create new memories, memories which will live forever. And the wonderful news of the Gospel is that Jesus calls us to that new life now. He calls us to deny ourselves, to do the hard work of relationship and to put our lonely, selfish ways behind us. He came that we would have life in all its fullness. And that life is only found in community. It is found in community with those who are also living for justice and peace, those who struggle with each other in the now but who also live in the hope of the not-yet, that time when all barriers will be broken down and all things reconciled in the glorious world to come.

There is much more to say about these profound lyrics by John Mellencamp. Memories can be cherished and they can be painful. Far too many people have memories that are just too traumatic to raise again. All of us have dreams that have been shattered, expectations that did not eventuate, and hopes that were never realized. One of the best pieces of advice I have heard, from two different people, is that life is mainly about how we deal with loss, ultimately to the loss of our life.

Psychologist Larry Crabb says we can use disappointment to drive us to hope. What Crabb is referring to is the ultimate hope of the renewal of all things. When days turn to minutes, and minutes to memories, and life sweeps away the dreams that we have planned, remember that we are destined for more. This life is not all there is. Remember too that everything we do in this life matters. What Martin Luther King called the beloved community starts now. The greatest things in our lives are those done in relationship. When we live this out we will be able to look back and have memories that move us to gratitude – gratitude to God for giving us the courage to follow the One who calls us to remember, to remember what He has done in sacrificing His all and giving us the privilege of working with Him to bring in the kingdom where our dreams of love and justice, and forgiveness and grace will finally be realized.

The problem of online 'connectedness'

I plan to publish a post soon on the ‘saving power of technology’ which will show the subtle effect that technology has on us in the 21st century. But as an intro to that, I want to highlight an excellent article in today’s Age which exposes the false connection that much online interaction creates. We need to be careful to not demonise all online communications, as they have brought huge benefits to humanity. But, as I mentioned in a comment on this article, they generally create the illusion of true intimacy and can never replace true personal connection. As I write I am reminded again of the great book on this by Larry Crabb. Funnily enough, his book is called ‘Connecting’.

To what shall I compare the kingdom? Let's dream a little…

Some time ago a group of people of which I am a part were asked how we would explain the Kingdom of God to a person with no biblical background. We had to be careful to avoid any ‘Christian-ese’! I immediately thought of how Brian McLaren likes to talk of the dream of God, following on from Martin Luther King’s dream. Starting with that inspiration, and drawing on some further genius from C.S. Lewis, my thoughts developed into the following:

Let’s dream a little. Imagine living in a world where peace, justice and love are the order of the day; a world where everyone is accepted just for who they are and where there is no anxiety, fear or mistrust. Then imagine that the ruler of this world had all of these characteristics and more. Because this ruler is like this, let’s call him God.

This is a God who longs for his people to be in relationship with him, and not just that, but God longs for his whole creation to be renewed. In this world there is ultimate trust because the ruler is ultimately trustworthy. Therefore it is a world where you love the fact that God is in charge. You realise that this God is both ultimate and intimate. God is both ruler of everything and yet knows and loves each of his creatures with a dignity we cannot comprehend.

Now imagine that this world is not just a far-off hope, but that it has already begun to be put into place. That’s what Jesus of Nazareth came to do. Jesus was God coming to earth, and every part of his life here was a pointer to this new world. It is not yet fully realised, but he is the one who kicked things off. He pulled back the curtain to show us a bit of what it will be like when everything is made complete.

And this Jesus has invited you to be a part of bringing in this new world. Never mind the kind of life you may have lived. Jesus has forgiven you all of that and wants you now to enjoy his presence and be a part of helping him prepare for the full realisation of this new world. What this means is that this world is within your grasp. What’s more, you will never be alone in this new world, for you will be with others who share the same dream as you. You will know what real connection is, with others and with this God. This is God’s new community and it starts here and now. This is a world run by a God who offers not just social transformation, but personal transformation as well. But it calls for your total commitment and sacrifice. 

So if you’re tired of the way this current world is, and tired of the way your life is going, this Jesus invites you to a new way of living. It is counter-cultural and asks you to turn your back on everything our current world says is valuable. This new world is open to the lowly, the vulnerable, the poor, the outcast, and even to people like us who, let’s face it, have been rotten in a lot of ways. Because this way of living, this new world, has already begun with Jesus, every act of kindness, every act of love, however little or large, matters to this God. He sees it all, because you are preparing the way for when this new world will be fully consummated.

This is a world run by a God who offers not just social transformation, but personal, inner transformation as well. This is the dream that many people throughout history have had, people like Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa, and going further back, people like Francis of Assisi. And you can be a part of it. It calls for your total commitment and sacrifice. For many who are part of this movement, it is very very difficult. But in the end it is worth it, because in a strange way you will know that this has been what you have been looking for all your life. In some unexplainable way you will know that you are home with others in God’s new community.

'Are you going away for Easter?'

One of the pastors at my church mentioned last week that people had been asking her if she is going away for Easter. She said she felt like replying ‘no! And that’s the whole point’. When she said that I felt a little pang of conviction, for I have asked the same question alot recently. Easter is just another holiday for most Australians, including many Christians. I wonder if they sell cards at this time of year in the US which say ‘Happy Holidays’ like they do at Christmas time.

The point my pastor was trying to make was that Easter is ideally spent with other believers in community, for that is what Jesus did on his last night on Earth. He spent it with his friends over a meal. But we see this time of year as a chance to get away and have a break. And in so doing we lose what Easter is really about: God coming to earth as a human, relating with us, teaching us, and above all, saving us. Reconciling the world to himself, and in so doing, reconciling people to each other, God is his own community – Father/Mother, Son and Holy Spirit.

Lord, help me to remember the reason for this season. You coming to die and then being raised to life, to give us the life that is truly life.

Taking the initiative to serve

Check out this post from Tim Chester. This has challenged me as I’ve taken up theological studies this year. What hit me was that gifts are for the good of the community, not for personal fulfillment. That may be obvious to most, but I needed to hear it. Thanks Tim.

Labels, labels, and more labels

I remember a story told to me once by some old friends. They had brought up their children in Indonesia, and when their children played with children from other nationalities, their parents decided to ask them one day what colour the other children’s skin was. My friends’ children said they didn’t know. They just saw them as playmates. The colour of their skin wasn’t an issue.


The community of the forgiven

I love the idea of the church being a community of the forgiven. The truth which is bandied about – and which I used to see on bumper stickers – of Christians being ‘not perfect, just forgiven’ makes me cringe because it is so often seen as an excuse for our own hypocrisy. At the same time however, there is a freedom and attractiveness about the fact that we can be part of a community that genuinely cares. Larry Crabb calls it the safest place on earth and that’s exactly what the church is called to be.

This is the ideal vision of people of faith – a place where you can be yourself, warts and all, and you are still accepted for who you are because if you have done some bad stuff in your life, then we have too, and chances are it is worse.

A community of care is a place of forgiveness, and forgiveness is healing. I am reminded of U2’s White as Snow in which Bono sings,

‘Once I knew there was a love divine. Then came a time I thought it knew me not. Who can forgive forgiveness when forgiveness is not? Only the lamb, as white as snow’

As individuals, purity is our ultimate destiny, and we will never be satisfied until we’re there. I don’t mean purity just in the sense of sexual behaviour, although that is a crucial part of purity. By purity, I mean a Christlikeness, having the mind of Christ within us day by day. While we’ll never reach that state this side of death, He still came that we might have life and have it to the full. That life has already begun. When we surrender our lives to Christ, asking that His will be done and not our own, it is then that we become a part of, as distinct from ‘apart from’, and we can hopefully experience, in a loving community, a little bit more of what it is to be part of the community of the forgiven.

The Advent Conspiracy

There’s some great stuff out there on the web if you’re tired of the consumerist madness that characterises this time of the year we call the ‘silly season’. I recently came across the website of a group called Advent Conspiracy. They are a group of concerned pastors in the US who want to take us back to what Christmas is really about – the birth of the Prince of Peace, the One who gave himself for all. I love their logo on the left. Such a prophetic message, showing a shopper with a trolly full of goods coming face to face with one of the 3 wise men, come to worship the King. The Advent Conspiracy movement is catching on, as you can see from a map on their website showing others who are doing what they can to celebrate Jesus at Christmas. Here’s what they say about themselves:

The story of Christ’s birth is a story of promise, hope, and a revolutionary love.

So, what happened? What was once a time to celebrate the birth of a savior has somehow turned into a season of stress, traffic jams, and shopping lists.

And when it’s all over, many of us are left with presents to return, looming debt that will take months to pay off, and this empty feeling of missed purpose. Is this what we really want out of Christmas?

What if Christmas became a world-changing event again?

Welcome to Advent Conspiracy.

They want to take us back to giving in the real sense, back to relationship and love. The slogan at the bottom of their website is quite brilliant. It says ‘give presence’. This clip will give you more of an idea of what they’re about:

Get the Flash Player to see this content.

I feel inspired when I hear about groups like this, people who want to steal Christmas back from the ‘Grinches’ who would have us believe that it’s all about how much you can buy. A Galaxy survey in 2008 showed that

“Gen Y[ers]…would spend an average of $245 on their partners, $264 on a child, $65 on a friend and $220 on themselves [and] other Australians said they would spend $189 on their partner, $196 on a child, $35 on a friend and $107 on themselves.”

The same would be true this year, and maybe even more so as business confidence is on the rise again.

I love Christmas. I love it because, despite our addiction to stuff, it gives me hope that there is a better way, a more excellent way, as the apostle Paul put it. The way of love inspires me to subvert what Christmas has become and try to live in a way that honours the babe in a manger who grew up to walk and talk the way of the cross, and then the way of resurrection, the life that is truly life.

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