Remember ‘Making Friends’

Should churches still run small groups?

Obviously the answer is ‘yes’, because everyone does – and everyone can’t be wrong… Right?…

Or maybe its time to give ‘small groups’ away?

Seriously…

Maybe its time to rethink what we are trying to achieve and try some different mechanisms. I want to suggest one. Its called ‘making friends’.

For most churches the purpose of small groups is connection and discipleship. People form stronger connections in these smaller groups than they do on Sunday and in engagement with one another, the Bible and prayer there is some element of spiritual formation taking place. Sometimes they do those things well and other times they limp along.

And for the most part I think that is true. For some their small group is their lifeline, while others do not attend a group of any kind and live with that nagging sense of ‘ought’ gnawing at them – even though they don’t want to.

I am wondering if small groups operate on the basis of people being somewhat relationally incompetent. Maybe that’s overstating it, but I do wonder if we develop groups structures because people are not good at simply making friends.

Remember ‘making friends’?

And I realise we want to go beyond just ‘making friends’ to having ‘soul/spiritual friends’, but I wonder if its time to put the onus back on individuals to make the significant connections. How often have I heard people moan about their small group not being ‘deep enough’, ‘biblical enough’, ‘friendly enough’, whatever enough! And the small group simply becomes another aspect of our religious consumption.

What if we said ‘we don’t do small groups here – we do spiritual friendship (and yes we would need to unpack that) – so the onus is on you to make friends – to invite people around for a meal, open your life up (as appropriate) and form a friendship that doesn’t rely on a leader, a curriculum or an overseeing body. And its on you to sustain and nurture that relationship because that’s just what people do…

I wonder what would happen if said ‘hey you’re all adults – just do what adults do! Get on the phone to someone you’d like to know better and invite them over. Maybe invite a couple of people…’ Then see how it goes and if you connect well, then do it again.

I am 100% convinced that in an age of individualism, a strong commitment to community is essential if we are to really ‘be’ the church, but I wonder how much of that initiative needs to come from a structured approach and how much needs to be pushed back to the people who genuinely want spiritual friendships.

Those who don’t will never attend a small group anyway and often for those who do, a small group doesn’t come close to the depth of conversation needed to really be called spiritual formation or discipleship.

So I’m wondering – what would it look like if we said ‘no small groups for 12 months, but just connect with people as you feel the need.’ It may be your need or their need.

The idealist in me sees this as a way of reforming imagination around this issue. The pragmatist in me says people will find it too hard and if they aren’t ‘forced’ into being part of a group they will lack any sense of greater connection.

The ‘pastor’ in me says what can it hurt to begin encouraging people back into intentional, meaty relationships that go beyond the trivial and inane and genuinely nurture faith for both parties

Psycho Season

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For farmers it’s harvest season and for retic blokes it’s late spring or early summer where life ramps up and you just run hard. It’s partly about ‘making hay’ and partly about trying to help the people you’ve come to know over a long period time.

Here’s what my Wednesday looked like:

6.00 hazy prayer and I think I read a Psalm

6.30 on the road to the first job

7.00 bang on the door and a sleepy owner answers looking like he may have forgotten our appointment. I begin to swap his retic controller out and at 7.05 the first phone call comes in. ‘Am I coming today?…’ Its from someone who called last week but never did get back to me, so unlikely… I tell him to text the address and if the day goes well maybe I will squeeze it in. I change a couple of nozzles and keep moving.

7.40 arrive Mindarie to fix a seized solenoid. The owner is running late but when he arrives it seems the solenoid has unseized… nice… for me… he looks puzzled… I do a couple of small repairs and hit the road. An hour job becomes 10 minutes. I’m glad because my hands have been sore and the less work I have to do today the better.

7.55 also in Mindarie, apparently a solenoid that has stuck open this time, but when I get there it is working fine. I call the owner – a regular – who says he didn’t really check it out that closely so maybe I’m right. Another few nozzles changed and I’m on the road by 8.20 and driving past the school to pick up some pipe I had left at home and that Sam was going to bring down… except he forgot… bugger…

8.30 Ridgewood – a ‘fuse’ message – a typical issue for Irritrol controllers, but in keeping with the day it won’t misbehave with me present. I advise the owner we can either do nothing and I will just charge a call out or we can change the controller over because it will recur… so he does. I mount a new controller while discussing with him his marriage, history of mental illness, bad experience with church and Christians and then discover the controller is DOA. So I start again… that’s annoying. (The controller not the conversation)

9.15 Heading south to Kinross to do some work for a real estate agent. I know what the problem is so should be an easy fix. Another controller swap over, a few sprinklers and I’m on my way to Currambine to hunt for solenoids.

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10.10 Currambine now… Five jobs knocked over and it’s only 10am – it’s a good feeling to be running ahead as it’s heating up. I arrive to finish a job I started the week before. It’s for a new real estate agency who have signed me up. It’s a pain in the butt job but it’s a foot in the door with a new crew. There are logical places to locate solenoids and then there are real dumbarse places – like right next to the kerb where they can get driven over. After 20 minutes of tracing and wondering I finally realise what has happened. My solenoid detector does its thing and I find them and fix them. There are a few little glitches that get wearying in the pre-seabreeze heat but I’m done by 11.30 and ready to have some lunch.

11.30 Maccas in Currambine – Classic Angus meal (small) while I catch my breath, send some invoices, clear emails and read the paper. The coke goes down well…

12.00 Padbury – another controller swap out that takes all of 15 minutes in the shade of a patio. A nice bloke and an easy job. I keep waiting for the day to turn to excrement… inevitably the next job will be a broken wire that I have to dig up the entire yard to find, or a solenoid deep in tree roots… That’s usually how it rolls.

12.45 Carine – I remember the morning phone call, so figure I can squeeze this bloke in. Its a bit out of my normal area, but an older man is having trouble with his controller so I figure it could be another easy job. I arrive and he begins to point out where every solenoid and sprinkler is in his entire system… I just want to know what’s wrong! Anyway I listen patiently – and then I eventually tell him I don’t need to know this stuff and we look at his controller. It’s fine – he just didn’t know how to set it. I set it then try to escape.

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1.15 I’m running out of control boxes so I drop in at Total Eden in Joondalup to see the guys and pick up some supplies. I’d like to hang around and chat, but I have a couple more jobs to squeeze in. The manager gives me an early Christmas present – a Milwaukee impact driver – not something I have a lot of use for but I’m sure Gumtree will help out!

1.45 Kinross – a call came in while I was on the road – a riser stuck in a fitting – please help. I can spare 5 minutes for a regular. And a backyard retic quote please?… established yard with lots of paving to lift… this isn’t going to be a pretty quote. And yet I win the job anyway…

2.00 Iluka – an elderly man is concerned about this lawn not looking good. I laid it 5 years ago and he wants me to drop in and check it out. I want to keep moving both but I promised him I would check it out, so I do. Black beetle – just like I told him on the phone. I don’t stop to talk to him because I will be there for half an hour easily. Its funny how as some people get older their world gets smaller and the tiniest things become major issues for discussion.

2.30 Mindarie again – a controller swap out – yet again. It’s an easy day and this one is a quick job.

3.00 Off to Ocean Drive Quinns Rocks – to see a lady with another dodgy controller. As I drive along the beach front I recognise the car in front. Its Chucky my larrikin, carpenter mate from just around the corner. He pulls over and pull up alongside. We chat for a while until I need to get off the road. A 15 minute interlude ends with me off to do more work and him going for a swim.

I’m glad I restocked on controllers because another one gets swapped out. While I’m there Susan calls and tells me her retic I fixed last week isn’t fixed after all… (and I’m an idiot) ok.. I will be back. I’d been back once and she was wrong about the issue. I think she is wrong again, but her tone tells me she isn’t convinced. Sometimes people are right – I do get stuff wrong – and sometimes it’s another issue entirely. But those who default to ‘blame the retic bloke’ in the first instance go to the bottom of the queue.

3.30 heading home and one job left in Eglinton. That’ll be my 13th job for the day. ‘My sprinklers won’t pop up’. so I get there and discover one broken sprinkler affecting the rest. I fix it and I’m now really ready to head home, but I notice the other sprinklers are all dodgy… What to do… I want to bale, but I let the owner know as I can’t look away, so I’m there a bit longer changing them out. By this point I am over it…

4.00 Now I’m driving home… and trying to clear voicemail that has accumulated as I drive. it’s been a good day and a pretty easy one all things considered. The ugly job didn’t turn up and I managed to get everything done.

4.15 home for a couple of frosty fruits, a coffee, and an hour of invoicing, returning calls and writing quotes.

On days like these I remember why I love autumn, when work start at 8.00am and the cool breeze makes being outside a pleasure.

The phone rarely rings and it’s just a few jobs for the day before trundling home about 2 to go for a surf or walk the dog. I get to stop and linger with people, have that cup of tea, look them in the eye.

But for now it’s psycho season and I will run hard… and sleep well.

 

When The Cupboard is Bare

empty-cupboardI haven’t preached at church for nearly 4 weeks now and I haven’t blogged on here for over 3 weeks.

Its lucky I haven’t had to preach because the cupboard feels pretty bare. I am lacking inspiration and spark – maybe if I was more spiritual I would say the Spirit’s voice is quiet, but the more honest reality is that I have been ‘blue arsed fly’ busy – and my thoughts have been consumed with my business and its demands.

As a seasonal worker whose ‘season’ started late after a long cold winter, I have now been deluged with phone calls and service requests. People have turned their sprinklers back on and discovered they don’t work… and the rush is on to get them fixed before the real heat begins.

After 10 years in business I have enough regular clients to never run short of work so my phone rings constantly and no matter what I am doing, I am almost always interrupted. Texts come in from 6.00am to midnight and sometimes in the middle of the night…

Its not a pace of life I enjoy, but I surrender to it for the three months each year that it requires. It means the rest of life suffers during that time as I work 10 hour days from Tuesday to Thursday and try to get thru as much work as possible.

Its difficult to be a good dad and husband when you are preoccupied and weary. Its hard to get motivated to see people, or go out. I eat dinner, watch some braindead TV and then chug off to bed around 9pm and generally I’m asleep in minutes. I was going to go to swimming training with the kids on Friday mornings but I just can’t bring myself to physical exertion on a day when I don’t have to go hard.

That’s one way in which busyness takes its toll, but the other way I see it impacting is on my creativity.  In this time creativity shrivels up and lives in a dark corner of my world and the tasks which it fuels (preaching, blogging, future dreaming) get dropped or done sub-standard because there is little fuel in the tank.

I sometimes open this blog, click on ‘new post’ with a vague idea percolating and discover that there just isn’t the clarity of thought or turn of phrase that comes so easily when my head is in a different, slower space.

My observation is that (at least for me) busyness is absolutely incompatible with creativity – that for the mind to be in a generative mode there needs to be peace and space and quiet. Even in the still moments I do set aside at the start and end of each day I am conscious of the need to ‘get going’ or of other important business pressing in on me. Prayer becomes a task – often a futile one – and I sometimes just give it up and go and ‘do something useful’.

Some of my most creative moments are actually on holidays – when there is nothing to do and nothing to think about. But even then it can take a while to get into that zone.

So for now this blog will show signs of neglect. I will do my best to pull together ideas for teaching at church, but chances are I won’t be ‘in the zone’ for a little while to come.

That said, I know there will come a day – I’m guessing in January once people have overspent on credit cards – when I will get a breath and I will be able to sit at peace with little pressing and listen to the ‘other voice’.

I know that will happen… but what about those for whom ‘January’ never comes – those for whom all of life is lived in the frantic zone? I’d suggest one of the reasons imagination and creativity is seen as the domain of children is because they have wide open mental spaces in which to play and they are not caught up in a life of activity – yet…

I would suggest we all have a creative side to us, but unless it is tended it gets squeezed out of us by a world that insists we get busy. I know there are times we need to be run hard, but I sense the world would be a richer place if the creative spark were fanned into flame more often albeit at the expense of productivity.

The Gift of Reassurance

I’ve been going to see the same Physio for over four years now and almost every time I see him I walk out feeling better – hopeful and with a lighter step – not necessarily because he has ‘fixed’ me.

Ever since the ‘running debacle’ back in July I have struggled with painful knees and more recently with them making a mild crunching sound as I bend. Scary… they sound like a twig being bent almost to snapping but then released.

And then over the last two months as retic work has fired up my hands and fingers have begun to ache, my forearms are telling me a story and my back is chipping in with his own complaints. Its that time of year, but 10 years into this form of work and I know my body is being worked harder than it should be.

So last Friday I went to see Damian. I’d been to the Doc who was quite nice, but whose advice was simply to take some anti-inflammatories and slow down (next patient please). I wasn’t satisfied. I still felt concerned and anxious about the state of my body and the potential damage I was doing.

So I chat to Damian about my knees and explain the problem.

‘Any pain?’

‘No – not really – none really…’

‘Nothing to worry about!’

‘Really?… It sounds bad. Will the noise go away?’ I am concerned at his lack of concern.

‘No – it will get louder – but if there is no pain then you don’t need to worry. It’s just like creaky suspension’ he says.

‘Ok..’ I say, digesting this info. And my hands?’

‘They’re just adjusting to the new pace of life. Nothing to worry about there either. Keep working and they will get used to it.’ (Read – ‘toughen up princess…’)

‘And what about my back?’

I explain that it’s been spasming for a few months and even though I’ve stretched it every day it hasn’t stopped.

‘Ok – let’s stick some needles in you and free that up. If it isn’t better in 48 hrs come back and we will repeat the procedure.’ And so my acupuncture loving physio gets to crack open his needle box and turn me into a human pin cushion.

I write this seven days later after 3 x 11 hour retic days with over 30 different service jobs and my back definitely feels better, my hands are also better (not perfect), and I’m no longer worried about my knees.

I have realised that I don’t go to see Damian just for physical healing. I go for reassurance – to hear someone tell me that despite what I feel about myself I’m going to be ok. Or – if I’m not going to be ok to hear the truth and how I can be fixed.

And as I ponder that I am conscious of the power of reassurance and the truth that I bring to bear on the lives of those I connect with.

Some really need someone to remind them that God loves them… no matter what… no really… no matter what… that he never gives up and despite their failure he will stay with them. More than that he will love them.

That simple but profound truth sits so often beyond our comprehension and we live in constant dread of ‘what may happen’.

Some need to know ‘despite what you feel it’s all going to be ok.’ Our feelings are notoriously deceptive. As Damian told me not to worry about my knees my anxiety lifted. ‘Really?…’ I asked in disbelief.

‘Really.’ he said. There was no ambiguity in his tone.

He has also told me when I’m doing something stupid or that is going to make pain worse. And I have listened and obeyed.

In the same way some people need to hear the truth – to be told their life is headed for disaster if they keep on the track they are on. Its not ‘judgement’ to do that. Its love and wisdom being given.

My hope is to get at least another 8 years of physical labour out of this body. That’ll make me 60 and almost of an age when I should slow down.

As I left the consulting room the other day I was conscious of my spirits lifting, of my load lightening and my hope that I could keep working being restored. Most of us are ‘bad Christians’ at best and barely Christian at our worst and constantly in desperate need of the knowledge that God doesn’t just tolerate us because he has to – but he loves us more than we can ever know.

Maybe you need to know that now – its true.

Or maybe you know it – and you just need to remind someone else whose heart is heavy and spirit depleted.

Reassurance… its powerful… but its something we can’t do for ourselves.

The Squeeze

squeezeIts been a year of transition.

The kids went back to school at QBC, Danelle has picked up some work there and by virtue of having to fit into school schedules we have started to live a somewhat ‘normal’ life.

We now have children to get to school every morning, and home every afternoon… there is homework… and lots of it… Our lives have become governed by school hours and school terms.

I realise this is how most people live, but I’m not enjoying ‘the squeeze’. I’m not enjoying the sense of conforming to the rules of suburbia and there is a part of me that is wondering how long we can sustain this kind of life, or if we even want to.

‘Oh don’t be silly – of course you can sustain it – just look around you – everybody does it!’ I hear someone say.

And I’d say ‘so what?! Who said it has to be this way? And what impact does it have on those people?… Is it all good?’

Obviously we made these choices for a reason. One of my life’s mottos is that ‘life is a series of compromises’. You just can’t have everything you want all the time and sometimes you simply have to be willing to trade ‘x’ for ‘y’. We have made a choice to trade some of our freedom (and Danelle’s sanity) by outsourcing education to a third party.

But I didn’t actually realise how much of a family life change it was going to be having the kids back in the system. We originally made the decision because Danelle was struggling to cope with the demands of two kids in more advanced schooling and by sending them back it took that load off her plate. And it has done that… she has not struggled with anxiety anywhere near as much and the sheer weight of planning their education is no longer hers.

For the most part we are really happy with their school situation, but lately I’ve been noticing the squeeze – the forces being exerted on us that are shaping us into the predictable patterns of suburban life (and I get that they aren’t all bad – people need to know how to ‘fit in’ as well as how to think for themselves.)

That said, for the last 6 years I have always liked that at any time I could say ‘hey let’s down tools and take off for a few days down south!’ And we could… Or ‘Hey the surf looks good today Sam. Forget maths this morning and lets hit the beach’ And he could…

Earlier in the year I offered Sam a day off to come surfing with me and he told me wasn’t allowed. ‘What?!… I’m your dad boy! If I can’t give you permission then who can?!’

‘Yeah… we aren’t allowed to wag school dad,’ came the autobot reply. My butt cheeks clenched tight.

The squeeze… literally…

It started right back then. Sam is a natural law abider anyway, but what kid wouldn’t take their dad’s offer of a day off school?!

As part of our arrangement with the church we choose to take a lower salary in exchange for an extra two weeks holiday each year. It was partly to help the church with the $$, but it was always my intention to make sure we spent plenty of time on the road travelling.

That was great when we could shoot off up north for a month over July and then slot another couple of weeks in at other times, but now the mid year break is just two weeks. Exams come at the end of term and apparently it isn’t cool to skip them… And then it’d be tough on the kids for them to miss all the start up stuff in the first week of term.

So we fit in.

Part of the challenge is running a seasonal business, and yes – that’s my choice. So we can take 4 weeks over Christmas, but apart from the crowds and the premium prices its also the prime time to make some good $$.

Perhaps this is just how it is and we need to suck it up and slot in. For the next 4 years our life revolves around our kids’ education and their adolescent years. I do think there is an element of inevitability about that. But I also hope that when we (and they) come out the other end we haven’t become so entrenched that we have lost the ability to think for ourselves and choose our own path.

Or in the immortal words of the not so well known philosopher Forrest Griffin, I really hope the juice is worth the squeeze…

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Bright Lights and Bullshit

txf_logoI don’t know Ezereve, the woman who wrote this post, but I enjoyed reading her down to earth, open handed assessment of her experience with X Factor.

If you wonder what happens on these ‘talent’ shows then this report gives a good insight. Goodonya Ezereve for writing your real experience.

 

So You Want to ‘Convert’?

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Yesterday I was reflecting on the life and death of Eric Cooke and whether he genuinely found faith in Christ or not. I’m glad I’m not the one having to make that call.

But it does raise the question of what constitutes a genuine and substantial conversion. Is it even still ok to speak of ‘conversion’ or is that too un-PC these days?… Its a topic that interests me because it really is the pointy end of mission. Ultimately the end game of mission is to see people follow Jesus and live in the kingdom of God, but how do you get there and how would you know if you are ‘there’ anyway?

I had thought this would make an interesting post-grad research area, but instead it was an 8hr sermon prep and some wide and varied speed reading that led me to the conclusions I offered this morning in our teaching at QBC. So its hardly an in-depth analysis, but even a scan of the scriptures offers some intriguing insights.

Scot McKnight has a helpful book entitled Turning to Jesus – The Sociology of Conversion in the Gospels where he looks at how people come to faith when Jesus is around. It is often as simple as ‘follow me’, and it ends up with life changing encounters eg Zacchaeus where the person’s world is upended. He also looks at the ‘healing conversions’ (if they are that) and the response evoked from the person being healed who is unable to stop speaking of Jesus.

In Acts it is the diversity of conversion experiences that is interesting, from the Pentecost ‘mass evangelism’, to group conversions (Cornelius/jailer), the Areopagus where a philosophical debate leads to conversion or even Simon the magician trying to convert for reasons of personal gain – a reminder that not all conversions are genuine (as if American politics hasn’t already taught us that…)

I didn’t have time to smash thru the letters, but what I was trying to do was form a sense of the common elements in a conversion experience – recognising that conversion is both event and process.

So I finished with 1 broad idea that captured the essence of conversion as well as  5 elements that seemed to be essential in all conversions to Christ.

The broad idea is that of ‘turning’, as per 1 Thess 1:9 where the people turn from idols and to God. ‘Epistrophe’ seems to be a word used to describe this action and it is common to all experiences. If there is no ‘turning’ there is no conversion.

Then the five elements I picked up on were:

  1. An encounter with truth – the ‘gospel’ is proclaimed – spoken and communicated to the listener in such a way that they can understand. For Jesus it was as easy as ‘follow me’ (no doubt accompanied by some experience of him), but in Acts we read many sermons or verbal messages that contained the good news of the kingdom of God. For people to make a choice to ‘turn’ they need clarity around the message – the nature of the new life they are signing up for. So while we may advocate ‘speaking the gospel at all times, if necessary using words’ we have to acknowledge that we do need to use words.
  2. Repentance – this is the specific act of ‘turning’. Unless there is recognition that the current experience is a failed venture then it is again unlikely that there will be a conversion, Why would anyone turn from a life that is ‘working’ and feels just fine? More specifically, recognising brokenness as having its roots in sin is one of the great challenges for our mission in this time. While we may acknowledge that we are flawed, maybe even messed up, we live in a time when it is more likely for us to believe that we have the power within us to fix ourselves.
  3. Change of Allegiance – if repentance is problematic then offering someone else the title deeds to our life is even more challenging, yet this issue of ‘lordship’ is at the core of what it means to follow Christ. If a conversion is to have integrity and longevity then it will be because we have come to grips with the idea that ‘we are not our own’. Yeah… another popular idea…
  4. Action – the common ‘action’ in the Acts accounts seems to be baptism, but action simply refers to living differently as a result of the change of allegiance. We no longer get to opt out of offering forgiveness, or expressing generosity. We no longer fiddle taxes or watch dodgy stuff on TV because we are living with a whole new paradigm of life. James didn’t say ‘faith without works is ill’, he said ‘faith without works is dead’, so if a conversion does not show itself in a new way of life then perhaps it is questionable.
  5. Community – if we just convert to ‘go to heaven when we die’ (a truncated and flawed gospel at best) then there may be no need for community, but if the gospel is really the good news of the kingdom of God then it is unavoidably communal. To convert is to join the community of faith – to be part of the church and to live in a community of like minded people seeking first the kingdom of God. There is no faith outside of community. Yeah that’s a big statement, but its one I hold to. I get sick of hearing people tell me they don’t need church – as if ‘church’ was a pep talk each week to give a boost to their life. It negates the fact that when you choose not to be in community the rest of the church misses out, but it also reflects a deficient understanding of discipleship which is by its very nature communal. If you want to follow Jesus, but don’t want anything to do with the Christian community then I think there is something suspect in that decision.

What’s interesting is that these are not one off events, but rather ongoing commitments that both begin our journey in faith and also sustain it over the long haul. My observation of those who ‘de-convert’ or simply drift off into secularism is that one or more of these elements is allowed to become unimportant.

  • A rejection of the message – or supplanting with an easier message…
  • No longer a need to repent – feeling like we have evolved to a new consciousness where we are growing in our own ‘perfection’…
  • Deciding that you are running your own life in ‘this area’ and that area… taking back authority? Jesus becomes an advisor rather than the lord.
  • Choose not to do some things that a disciple would do – not into forgiveness or generosity – revert to practices more akin with a non-disciple? You slowly become a religious, church going person who lacks the traits of a disciple.
  • And move away from the community – take yourself out of a place of shared values and practices and you will slowly cease to own those values because that’s what community does – it earths us.

My Calvinist friends may well be shaking uncontrollably that I haven’t mentioned the work of God in conversion, his choosing, calling etc, but that isn’t the focus of what I am writing here. Conversion is unquestionably the Spirit’s work, as well as being our own decision, but my concern is more with what happens at our end to authenticate our experience.

What’s the point of this?

I asked the question this morning how many people would feel confident leading another person thru a conversion experience and not many hands went up. I sensed as much. I think its because we live in a world where we are (by and large) less certain about things and less willing to call people to the life of faith Jesus speaks of.

At every level we get met with objections – the sheer idea of ‘truth’, of the need to admit failure and repent, of giving away personal autonomy, of choosing to act in ways that are not convenient or self serving and then to submit myself to another bunch of people are all counter-cultural and difficult ideas, but then the kingdom of God is always intended to look radically different to western suburban life, so maybe that’s where it all gets tricky…

The Conversion of Eric Edgar Cooke

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The years 1959-1964 were a unique time in Perth history as they marked the Eric Edgar Cooke years – the period during which the city’s first serial killer was making his mark. If you want to read an intriguing account of this time then Robert Drewe’s Shark Net is well worth the time. 

Drewe recounts living in close proximity to Cooke and observing him as he worked at his father’s Dunlop factory. He devotes a whole chapter to the 1959 Billy Graham crusade in Perth and his insights are valuable. An aspect of this story that has always left me both curious and chilled was his account of Graham’s evangelistic altar call:

He kept quietly urging and beckoning us to join him. It was hypnotic. It was contagious. The people getting up from their seats didn’t look like religious maniacs. The looked like your average movie audience on a Saturday night. I recognised neighbours and a contingent of boys from Wesley College whom I’d played sports against. I saw my friend John Sturkey. I saw the chemist’s wife and my old maths teacher. Two rows along I saw Eric, the Dunlop delivery driver, sitting by a sign saying ‘South Perth Methodists’. People stood up all along the rows or chairs and people began sliding down from the roofs of the cattle, horse and pig pavilions. The chemist’s wife stood up. Eric stood up and joined Billy Graham. People were having conversions all around me. p.174

Aside from it being a beautifully crafted piece of writing, it is an account that raises some enormous questions.

So Eric Cooke became a Christian at the 1959 Billy Graham crusade… shortly before he went on his 5 year rampage of 22 violent crimes and 8 murders?… What exactly happened there?

Eric Cooke hanged in Fremantle prison on October 26th 1964, the last man to die by capital punishment in Western Australia. Will we see Cooke in the next life?

I’ve been pondering questions of conversion and this is one that has stuck in my craw since reading Shark Net back in the mid 2000’s. Perhaps the broken, messed up person that was Eric Cooke did have an encounter with the grace of God that could never be undone, no matter his crimes. Or maybe Cooke was just another casualty of an evangelistic methodology that sought to herd ‘souls’ like cattle rather than disciple real people into the kingdom of God.

More ‘conversion’ reflections to come after I’ve done some teaching on this issue tomorrow.

And here’s a link to the trailer for the TV mini series that was made from the book.

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‘What’s the point of theology if it doesn’t help is us come to grips with real life? So asks Danelle when I explain a little of the book I have been reading. And she has a point… surely one major aim of good theology is to help us understand the intersections of the divine with the everyday. Surely theology should help us grapple with the difficult questions of life and suffering is right up there with the biggies.

Husbands Should Not Break by Shane & Elly Clifton was loaned to me by a friend who told me it was about a theology lecturer’s reflections on coming to grips with spinal injury and that it explored the issues of theodicy and suffering. Kerryn had heard Shane present at a recent conference and as a result bought his book. She shared a little of it as we took communion yesterday – enough for me to say ‘I’d like to borrow that…’ and having been laid up with the flu since yesterday afternoon I have had time to read and finish it.
As it’s written in journal style, some of the content are blog entries and Facebook posts. When I was half way thru I started to think ‘This is good, but it’s not theological reflection…’ however the further along I went the more I felt like it was some of the best theological reflection – honest, gritty, expletive laden, at times hopeful and at times totally despairing and certainly unafraid to express stark emotions.In this book you won’t read a systematic theology of human suffering complete with Harvard referencing, but you will hear an earthy, articulate, theologically educated 40 year old man grapple with the life that was foisted on him. It doesn’t hit much on theodicy per se (big subject…) but it certainly does grapple with personal issues of suffering and pain.
That said, it doesn’t offer any clear theological paradigm for making sense of suffering, but nor does it advocate hopelessness. If ‘mystery’ is a paradigm then it probably best fits here. The author is from a pentecostal background and was prayed over/for/under/around by all and sundry but to no avail. If anyone was going to be successful at healing then you would think it would have been his ‘mob’, but he simply has to accept the reality of unanswered prayers (as well as the bizarre oddity of then praying for bedsores to heal while he is still unable to walk…) Clifton hovers between gratitude that he is alive and anger at the way his life has been turned on its head. I liked the absence of trite answers or the call to ‘just trust’. He makes an excellent point in that while God is able to bring good out of suffering we are mistaken to suggest God inflicts suffering as part of his purposes.
The value of the book is in its detailed (some may say explicit) descriptions of living with a spinal injury. Unexpected poo and wee feature prominently in the narrative and are one of the challenges for people in this situation. I found this extremely helpful – the difficulty – the shame – the helplessness… the reminder to look out for folks who are disabled because even as they regain autonomy there simply are times they can’t do what others can. Reading the account of Shane trying to find someone to assist him because his catheter was about to explode and being rejected at the first few attempts was pretty gut wrenching.
I found the chapter on sex really well written and commendable for its boldness and candour. So many Christian authors would shy away from the more intimate issues because they are somehow deemed inappropriate for public consumption, but Shane Clifton and his wife Elly took the risk, opened their world to us and said ‘here’s how it is…’
Shane has a blog here for those who want to read more of his journey.

The ‘Tamala’

screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-6-17-41-pmSam’s been asking for a ‘billy cart’ for a while now and last weekend he decided it was time to make it happen.

He downloaded a plan off the net and priced up the parts at Bunnings. It came to about $165.00, a bit more than I wanted to cough up for a cart, so we began to talk about other options.

As is often the case it was Tamala Park (the local tip) to the rescue!

We went there Sunday afternoon and picked up two old fridge trolleys – one for the wheels, axel and frame and the other just for the wheels and axel. The two trolleys cost $15.00 total.

If you really needed to buy wheels on their own then they are about $25.00 each in Bunnings (which is really bizarre because you can buy a whole trolley in Bunnings for $24.95…)

We hunted the furniture section of the tip for a plastic chair to use as a seat and picked a cool red seat for another $5.00.

Then we hit Bunnings for a piece of timber, some saddle clamps and fixings. We spent another $10.00, but truth be told I had most of the stuff in the shed and when you live in an area where there is lots of building going on you can pick up scraps of wood pretty easily.

From there it was all trial and error to get a finished product. Its a project that needs a little bit of adult input to angle grind and drill holes into steel, but the kids can also do parts of it and feel like they have achieved something.

This is the ‘instructables’ version using plywood as a frame – a fair bit more expensive than the ‘Tamala’ version

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Some basic instructions:

  1. Use an angle grinder to cut the top and sides off the trolley you will use as a frame
  2. Get your piece of timber for the front wheels and screw the axel to it using 18ml saddles. The width of the timber is worked out by putting the wheels on the axels and then measuring in between.
  3. Drill a hole in the front middle bar of the trolley to fix the front axel / wheels to. Make sure this is perpendicular to the frame or the wheels will sit wonky. (We messed it up the first time.)
  4. Drill holes in the timber for the rope and thread thru with knots on the underside.
  5. Use duct tape to attach the seat to the frame squarely and then drill some holes thru the seat into the frame and back. The use some self tapping screws with washers to hold the seat in place and you can remove the duct tape.

It took us an hour or so to make it – and probably as long again to gather the parts!