The Absence of Grace

Recently I was running out of stuff to watch on Netflix (serious first world problem…) so I decided to give Sons of Anarchy a go. I’d tried before but never got past the first episode. This time I did.

It began with curiosity and after a few episodes it started to lure me in as I got to know the characters and their relationships. After a couple of seasons I was intrigued to see where it would go, but not long after I found myself in ‘car wreck mode’. I knew I shouldn’t look any more but I couldn’t help myself. I had one season to go and I watched it to the bitter end – one of the longest, most drawn out and dissatisfying seasons of any show I have watched… and the final episode left me shaking my head in despair.

Only read on if you never plan to watch it – because I will spoil it for you.

Sons of Anarchy is at surface level about a fictional biker gang in a small town in the USA and how they live, interact with other gangs and do their thing – mostly gun running, prostitution and porn studios. Its a brutal world and the body count mounts with every episode.

But its also an intriguing depiction of the complexity and contradictions in the outlaw scene – a commitment to family and brotherhood, but an adherence to a ‘biker law’ that sees them even kill ‘family’ members who do the wrong thing. We see men frequently tell one another that they love each other, they kiss one another as acts of affection, but in a heartbeat they can turn and shoot that same person in the head.

One thing ‘Sons’ lacks is any portrayal of grace – forgiveness or redemption. Its a hard culture where ‘law’ rules, but eventually crushes those who seek to live by it. Sound familiar?

Thru all this the lead character Jax Teller is portrayed at times as some kind of Christ figure / saviour – leading the club out of gun running and crime and into legit business (porn… and prostitution).

The final episode sees Jax ‘give his life’ for the club as he drives in front of a truck after killing the last of his enemies and being tailed by 20 police cars. Before setting off on his ‘passion’ Jax is met by a curious homeless woman who pops up at various moments in the show. We don’t know exactly who she is, but she seems to be some sort of spiritual guide to him. When he leaves her the camera spends a long time paused on an image of what she was eating, stale bread and cheap red wine, arranged to look as much like a communion meal as possible – a last supper?

When Jax rides headlong into a truck the final image of the show is one of bread stained with wine on the road, as if to suggest he was the sacrifice and the saviour. Unfortunately it was a completely unbelievable scenario as the Jax of the previous 6 seasons was a brutal, vengeful tyrant – even if he did occasionally seem to wrestle with his demons. If he was intended to be a Christ figure then it was by someone who had little grasp of the real Jesus.

I don’t get affected much by brutality in TV, but you need a strong stomach for this show. I was more affected by the absence of hope and grace in a community that so desperately was trying to make things work. If nothing else Sons of Anarchy is a graphic depiction of where revenge takes you and its a very dark place…


Why You Should Listen to Your Mother in Law

It was around 15 years ago that we set out as a family to be missionaries in the new Perth suburb of Butler – known better by the estate name ‘Brighton’. You might remember the TV ads… ‘Brighton – Its what a community should be!’ We remember them well as we were the family in them – mum, dad, two blonde kids and a labrador…

I set off on that adventure ready to change the world, ready to break new missional ground and to chart a course for those who would follow. This blog was to be a journal of our learning. I read everything I could about mission and went to every seminar. I was the full bottle and if knowledge was the key then I couldn’t fail.

As we began living there I connected with everyone I could, went to places I wouldn’t normally go, hung out with people who I wouldn’t normally connect with and did anything and everything to make this thing work. It was hard work at times but we seemed to be making some progress albeit slow.

At the start of that time I remember well a conversation with my mother in law where I asked her ‘Hey Val – if you were moving into this suburb as a missionary what would you do?’ I was hoping for some ‘ancient wisdom’ – some gem of insight that just wasn’t available to a 38 year old. Her response was underwhelming to say the least.

‘I’d just live my ordinary life’ she said.

Really‘ I thought? ‘Really?…‘ That’s so lame! So boring… so unimaginative! Surely you could be more creative and innovative than that?!

I didn’t say that of course… I just ignored her and carried on with the stuff I had read in books and been inspired by at conferences. The books I was reading called for innovation and entrepreneurship – creativity and new initiatives. So I turned myself inside out trying to dream up new ways of connecting with people and doing things I wouldn’t normally do in the name of mission.

If I were to sum up the time in Butler it would be to say, I tried so hard to be effective in mission, but I just couldn’t seem to find my niche. There were some great moments and some good times, but no matter how hard I tried – and no matter how creatively I sought to implement all I was learning and thinking I never felt we got close to what we hoped for. I always felt out of step and for me it was a time of failure. (Danelle would see this very differently – but that’s another story and related to expectations)

In the last 8 or 9 years since leading Quinns and being less involved with the so called ‘missional scene’, I have found myself with fewer and fewer answers for how to ‘reach Australians with the gospel’ (or whatever language you choose to place around that idea).

I have also become increasingly skeptical of anyone who claims to have found ‘the key’. I think mission and more specifically evangelism is tough going in this context and there are no easy answers or ‘strategies’. Most days I feel a bit like someone who has run out of ideas – hope even at times – but the sense of calling to be a missionary is still as strong and as deep as ever.

That’s a bit weird I admit – feeling called to a task but then feeling completely at sea when it comes to pulling it off.

Around 7 years ago we moved to Yanchep – this time with no intent at all for any ‘SAS style’ missionary work. We just moved into a suburb we loved and began to live there because it felt like a beautiful place. And we have fallen in love with this part of the world – in fact we can’t imagine ever leaving.

And part of living here for me, has meant working – running a business locally and spending a lot of time at the beach, surfing and swimming. Its what I do.

And I found that after a while I was getting to know people – lots of people. This year I began taking daily photos of the beach – which obviously means being there every day – and this has catalysed more connections. Its hard now to walk the dog without stopping for a chat with someone. I’m better connected in my own community than I have ever been.

It wasn’t intentional or planned… it wasn’t a ‘missionary strategy’.

I just got on with living my ordinary life...

Ha… It only dawned on me a few weeks ago what has been happening. My mother in law had actually given me a gem of wisdom but it wasted on my 38 year old A type personality!

I find myself now immersed in a community I love, where I feel a deep sense of connection and where I have made some good friends. But the most significant bit is that I’m ‘not trying‘ any more. (That’s not to say you sometimes in mission don’t have to ‘try’.)

But I’m now just living my ordinary life and paying attention to what God is doing in the midst of that. From business to beach I find myself loving my life and the people I find myself around.

I’m actually convinced the real hope for mission is not a well thought out missiology or cleverer strategies, but a community of people whose hearts are centred on Jesus and who are willing to be his people in their everyday lives. It means coming back to helping people in their discipleship and devotion to Jesus, rather than starting with funky initiatives.

Over the last year as we been praying and chatting with our church crew we have been asking God about the idea of planting a church community up here and we are at the point now where it feels like its going to happen. Not quickly and immediately, but it does feel like we are planting seeds and watering them, waiting to see what will develop.

So after 15 years I find myself at this point again – excited and hopeful – wanting to see people know Jesus – but with a totally different approach to the exact same task. Fifteen years ago I felt confident, focused and sure of what I was going to do. Now I feel a different sense of confidence, a different understanding of focus and a much less certain agenda for what I think we will do.

But I’m loving life, loving how its shaping up and the possibilities I see in the future. So Hamo’s tip for today is ‘listen to your mother in law’…

Random information – did you know mother in law is an anagram of woman Hitler?

9 Days in Medewi

​It was a great time in Medewi over the last 9 days so for those who may be interested in what it was like here is both the short version and the longer spiel.

The short version

  • Medewi is awesome – if you like to surf or relax. If not you will get bored.
  • Bring booties or get your feet hacked on the rocks. Antiseptic cream is also a good idea.
  • You will pay surfing tax 200k ($20) to the locals – you get a T shirt for your $$ and (apparently) money goes to local surfing sponsorship
  • The Bombora Medewi Hotel is fantastic – can’t speak highly enough of accommodation, staff and location.
  • Local food is really cheap and decent – big night out for 4 of us was $30.00
  • BYO legrope – the hire ones are pretty worn and I snapped mine on a big wave – $25 to replace as well as a long swim in
  • The surf is crowded. Around 30-50 in the water most days. In busy season it’s 100…

The long version…

As a kid a pretty special surf trip was when I could harass the old man into taking us for a morning in Denmark at Ocean Beach when we were on holidays in Albany. If I got half a dozen waves it was a win and I savoured it for months to come. We never went to Exmouth, Margaret River or Bali, but then my old man didn’t surf. Sambo got lucky.

The 9 days in Medewi had me asking the question ‘why didn’t I do this sooner?’ I could have had a blast at 23, but at 53 the body was working hard to get me where I wanted to go. Medewi is a little surf/fishing village on the west coast of Bali, around 3 hrs from the airport and reputed to be Bali’s longest left hander.

To be frank, I’ve never been overly taken with Bali. Humidity, shopping, busyness and general harassment at every turn has always left me uninspired. The cry of ‘but its so cheap’ doesn’t even really hold any longer. If you stay in the tourist areas the costs can mount up quickly as food is no longer cheap in the better cafes.

But Medewi won me over. It kicked butt on every count and I’ll be going back for sure – especially to the Bombora Medewi Hotel which was every bit as good as it claimed to be and actually was very well priced for the luxury accommodation and absolute beach front location. At high tide you could jump out of the pool into the ocean – not that you would…

So on this trip Danelle and the kids took off on Thursday as part of a school trip to the orphanages. I’ve kinda ‘been there done that’ and wanted to search out some waves on my own while they did their thing. I knew Uluwatu and the likes probably weren’t gonna be my kinda wave, but I’d heard that Medewi was a long, loping, easy wave that suited geriatric mal riders like I am now. So we went our separate ways for 4 days. She told me that if I got bored I could join them… ‘if I got bored…’ unlikely…

Bombora Medewi – great hotel

I went online, scanned the local accommodation and decided to stay at the top of the range Bombora Medewi for my 4 nights alone. Very new, literally right on the point break with a cafe overlooking the waves. For $100/night including breakfast it was about $60 more than the rooms 100m up the road, but… I decided to go in style… and there were no regrets.

Medewi is pretty much a surf break and little else. If you didn’t surf I don’t know why you’d go there unless it’s to chill and do nothing… I arrived in Denpasar the day after Danelle and the kids, got picked up at 6pm and we headed off for Medewi – hoping to get there by 10. It should have been easily doable, but a stop to change money (you can’t do it up there), another stop for a feed and then a 30 minute 4wd detour to get around a traffic accident saw us roll in with 5 minutes to spare at 9.55pm.

It had been a long day so I was ready to crash. While the room was really nice and the bed super comfy, the air con felt like it wasn’t working properly. I seem to be ‘that guy’ who scores the dodgy AC everywhere he goes! My last 4 trips to Asia have had us in rooms where the air con has been lame – not totally useless, but not enough to really keep you cool. It’s a pet peeve… but anyway…

I slept well and woke at 7.00am to what sounded like a wild storm, but was just the waves breaking on the shore 40m away. Bleary eyed I stepped out of my room to check it out. 3-4ft glassy peeling lefts… awesome! And about 40 people in the water… Not so awesome.. I can’t stomach big crowds at a break but I guess this didn’t give me a choice…

(Combined age on this wave = 113! BTW – I kicked out)

For some bizarre reason my inner grommie kicked in and I decided to have breakfast later and just hit the surf. That’s why I was here after all… I wandered next door to hire a board ($8/day) and left with a none too inspiring mini mal. It was right at high tide – the best time to surf Medewi because the rides are longer and the waves bigger. I wasn’t sure of the jump off spot so I just took a best guess. I pulled on the booties I’d picked up for $20 before leaving home, clambered across the big black rocks and began to paddle out. (Having seen the cuts many people have left the water with I can’t overstate how valuable the booties were.)

I sat in the inside section with the Euro tourists and learners for a bit trying to get my bearings, but it was slim pickings as the best waves were getting ridden from the outside and the others were smaller and hard to catch. I paddled another 100m out to the take off zone feeling the weariness all thru my body and splashed around for a bit, pinging a dodgy groin muscle and getting one or two crappy waves before calling it a day and paddling in, wondering if I would get bored after all… Thankfully I had brought a good stash of anti-inflammatories…

I wasn’t inspired at all by the first surf – while there were 40 people in the water it was a mix of absolute beginners, (yeah… very dangerous!) Balinese locals who caught and shredded anything that looked remotely like it might break, a few other old blokes and then the regular crew of international surfers chasing waves. It was the United nations every day in the surf with Swiss, Norwegian and Canadians even putting in an appearance along side the more expected Aussies, Japanese and Brazilians.

Having grown up in a world where surf etiquette matters I quickly realised I wasn’t going to get any waves if I held to that etiquette. On those first few days especially, 3 German girls dropped in on everyone and tried to catch anything that moved. It could have been carnage out there but somehow most people got thru unscathed and while I doubt drop ins were appreciated they were par for the course so you just sucked it up – and sometimes gave it back… I might have ‘gone blind in my right eye’ a few times…

I changed boards to a 9ft mal for the second surf later that day and began to feel a little more settled. By the middle of second day I was catching my share and enjoying the never ending wave with rides around the 200-300m mark if all the sections linked up. I felt like a fat kid at an all you can eat buffet – I couldn’t get enough and kept going back for more even when my body told me to stop.

It took me two days to pay my ‘surfing tax’. When I hired the board I was immediately accosted by local surfers who insisted I buy one of their T shirts for ($20) as a way of supporting the local boardriders. It didn’t feel like the purchase was optional, and I really didn’t want a shirt so I palmed him off. By the end of the second day I had bought one… along with virtually every other non-indo in the area. I’m told the Japanese pay $40 and some folks don’t even get a T shirt – they just get charged the $20! So I’m still not sure whether they are the ‘Medewi Mafia’ or the honourable custodians of a charity, but be warned, if you go you will be strongly encouraged to ‘help the kids’.

Apart from the surf there isn’t much to do in Medewi. You can get a massage $10/hr, hire a driver and go trek around (we paid $30 for 3 hrs) or you can do what I did and just chill. The coffee at Bombora Medewi is great as is the food so it was very easy to wile away a couple of hours just watching the waves.

The local cafes are all very well priced with a main meal around $4-7. Gede’s Warung (right next to Bombora) is cheap and serves good food, but be prepared to wait 45-60 minutes for your food if you aren’t the only ones there. Keep in mind too that indos don’t eat as much as we usually do so you might need a little extra.

Markets mmmm….

We slipped up to the night markets in Melaya one evening and had some very good local food – I might have overeaten a little… But then I love an Asian food market and I’m always up for trying some local specialities. I believe there are some near Medewi so I’ll keep that in mind for next time.

The crew at Bombora tried to fix our air con but to no avail. It was kinda tolerable but just a bit annoying. With two days to go I mentioned it to the manager so the next crew wouldn’t get saddled with a dodgy air con and we were promptly upgraded to a bigger, nicer room with a fully functioning air con. Nice… Spent the last two days in a fridge with a bed!

Most days we surfed twice – once in ‘peak hour’ and the second later in the day when the wind had come in and the crowd had eased. 8 or 9 good waves was what you’d expect in a couple of hours, along with another 8 or 9 where some clown dropped in on you, paddled in front of you or just got in the way. After paddling back 300m 8 or 9 times I was pretty knackered, so on every wave after that it was harder to find motivation to paddle back out.

There were days where the crowds were frustrating and the drop ins infuriating, but once you accepted it as how things were you could relax and enjoy it a lot more.

On our final day I was pretty weary and had to drag myself in for an early surf.

Got a nice one to go home on

After 2 waves and a few more drop ins I decided that I would take the next good wave in – whether it was 5 minutes away or an hour away. I didn’t have to wait long. A set came and an Aussie guy deliberately paddled in front of me on the first wave – nice pal… But the second wave was bigger and no one else was left out there so I got it. It was my longest wave of the trip – probably 300m or so. All the sections linked up and I finished up 50m from the beach and paddled in.

Always better to leave on a high!

As we were about to leave Allam caught my attention again. He had been taking pics of me all week and trying to get me to buy them. I told them I didn’t want them as I look like an old fat guy who can’t surf! But with rupiah to burn at the end of the trip and feeling generous I bought his collection and hopefully helped him pay some bills.

We left at midday and I had to call Sam out of the water at 11.30! It was that kinda trip!

So – Medewi rocked. If you’re a good surfer and enjoy intense, challenging waves then you will probably get bored, but if you like to cruise, relax and surf very long waves then you will love it.

Did The Catholics Get it Right?

I’ve often cited one of the benefits of ‘being Baptist’, (or any kind of free church) as the idea of freedom of conscience – the ability to think for ourselves and hold different / dissenting opinions on various issues. There is no central ‘rule’ in Baptist churches and no one person who calls the shots. The ‘church’ doesn’t tell us what to think or do and if they try to we usually get gnarly about it. For example, our church (QBC) has no official stance on same sex marriage. The upside of this is a decrease in the level of control exerted over people – a lessened call to conformity. No one gets shoved around or forced to comply with a theological position they don’t hold.

I have always felt for Catholics whose church makes decisions and decrees and then expects it’s members to toe the line.

But this week I was reflecting on the weaknesses in our own system. When no one gets to call the shots then everyone gets to frame truth their own way. When there is no recognised authority then in an increasingly individualised world we often find that authority in ourselves. We become our own reference point – our own best guide. You have to admit that is a bit scary…

While I am attracted to the freedom of this perspective I’ve also become disturbed by the conclusions it allows people to reach and it has prompted me to consider the value of the ‘Catholic’ model – placing authority in the church – being willing to submit to the church’s authority. That’s a big call I know…

Our approach assumes people read scripture, listen to God and discern his mind on issues, and when we come together we practice communal discernment. It’s a great idea…

The truth is we are more often driven primarily by the winds of culture and sometimes – not that often – by what we see the Bible saying – if we can read it diligently enough and coherently enough to make sense of it. Honestly – I don’t think more than 20% of people do this – and I’m being generous.

The Catholic way assumes that some people are able to read the Bible much more capably than others and that they are then able to discern a) what God is saying b) what is best for the church. It assumes that on our own we will likely veer into a ditch of misinterpretation and misapplication. It then expects it’s members to accept the statements the church makes. In our current climate the Catholic Church is clear on its stance on same sex marriage – but if you’re a catholic I’m guessing no one sought your opinion or input!

The problem with the Catholic way is that when the bloke/s at the top (because it’s not gonna be the women) gets it wrong then everyone gets it wrong for a very loooong time! There is minimal opportunity for grass roots questioning and dissent. And history has shown that we do get doctrine wrong sometimes.

Ok so there is no perfect method but lately I’ve found myself veering somewhat back towards a church that is willing to take a stand and call it’s constituents to fall in line. Why? Not because I want to retard individual thought but rather because I sense we have lost the ability to submit – to think communally and to allow someone we disagree with to speak for us.

In an increasingly individualised world I sense we are going to splinter theologically into thousands of pieces unless we are willing to allow ‘the church’ to speak for us in some way. I’m not sure how that plays out – and I honestly I don’t like the thought of having my own freedom impinged upon – but I can’t help but wondering if we are going to end up tripping over our own autonomy and finish up in a place of mass confusion.









I opened the envelope and sat down at my desk to cast my opinion (because it isn’t a vote – its an ‘opinion poll’), but as I was about to tick a box I hesitated. Because ‘Yes’ doesn’t say all of what I want it to say… and then ‘No’ doesn’t tell the full story either. I came back 4 days later and ticked a box but it wasn’t without some frustration.

The problem for me was that I only get to choose ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and unfortunately then I get to be defined by my choice (It seems to have become a defining issue) but I can see both sides of this argument and depending on the day and the conversation I am in, I can lean either way.

Its not that I don’t have strong convictions – I do – but rather that it is a complex issue and ‘yes’ or ‘no’ just doesn’t do it justice.

If I go with my Christian convictions based on how I read the teachings of the Bible in regards to human relationships then I will vote ‘no’. (I believe its God’ original intent for men and women to be together.) The fallout from this is that some will see me as bound to the teachings of a book that carries no authority for them and that has no relevance to a 21st C secular society. At best I may be perceived as lacking in my ability to think – perhaps a product of a religious system that prevents me from free thought. Or at worst I may just be cast as a homophobe and a bigot – and no one wants to be that… a modern day leper.

Then if I take a step back and look at what it means to live in a secular society where everyone has a right to their say and where we cannot assume any priority based on Christian heritage I can see a case for the ‘yes’ vote and a number of Christians have argued this case quite articulately and convincingly. It means equal rights for all and people get to choose their path – wherever that leads. If I take this tack then some of my Christian tribe will see me as a sellout – as having a ‘low’ view of the Bible – of caving in to cultural trends. At best I will be seen as out of step with the rest of the church community, or at worst I will be a false teacher and a heretic – one to be disregarded in future conversations around issues of this nature – the guy who lost the plot on the gay marriage issue…

You see ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ just doesn’t allow for any nuance whatsoever. When I say ‘yes’ I do so meaning ‘XYZ’, but I am concerned about ‘ABC’, or when I say ‘no’ I do with similar caveats and concerns, and if you are a Christian and can’t say that I’d suggest then maybe you haven’t grappled with the issue sufficiently.

I don’t expect my friends who aren’t Christians to share my wrestle – there is no need to consider faith issues when you don’t hold the Bible in high regard. That said, I do expect respect and to be taken seriously. I’m happy to offer my thoughts and reflections on the subject and to explain the challenge that this subject is for many people of faith. I’m even happy to have a good spirited argument about the issue – but I’m not happy to either use propaganda to demonise others or be defined myself by propaganda. The plebiscite was always going to be problematic, because campaigns call for propaganda and propaganda requires an enemy to fight against. So far the propaganda machine is doing its job well and managing to create ‘us’ and ‘them’ (whichever side you are on)

Likewise I would hope that my Christian friends would see the bigger picture of what it means if one group (the Christians) get to dictate the tone for society. Our own God allows us to choose our path – whether that is in line with him or not. Christians are as entitled to their say on this issue as much as any other group in society, but not more than any other group.

Increasingly I have felt the pressure increase to ‘get with the program’, ‘wake up’ or ‘see the light’ – and that’s from both sides. When you treat me like a moron and try to win me over with crass arguments, fear or manipulation then you insult me and I find your campaign weak. Unfortunately this is what it has come down to so often.

I expect most of my friends who aren’t God botherers will vote ‘yes’. (I’m not sure why you wouldn’t as it is the way our society is heading). But for my Christian friends who may vote either way, my great hope is not that you will ‘get it right’, but rather that whatever you do it will be done in a spirit of love and respect. Whether you are perceived as ‘progressive’ or ‘regressive’ the call from Jesus to love those who disagree with us and seek to live at peace with everyone is stronger and more powerful than the call to get the right answer to a vexed question.

I’m not going to tell you which box I ticked in the end but you’re welcome to have a guess…










Back in October 1974 I arrived in Australia as a chubby, freckle faced 10 year old Irish kid with an almost unintelligible Belfast accent. To make matters worse I thought football was a game played with a round ball which in those days cast serious dispersions about my sexual orientation… We rented a house in one of Perth’s cheapest, but roughest suburbs and in those first 3 months I struggled to fit in at my new school and I became the obvious target for ridicule and bullying.

Pasty white skin, a thick Belfast brogue and no clue how to kick a real football meant that I spent lunchtimes in the library away from people, or with my only friend – Charlie – one of the ‘special’ kids as we called them then. Charlie didn’t know I was a loser so he was happy to be my friend.

It wasn’t a great start to life in this new country.

When the new year came we moved house and school. I was relieved as I wanted out and I wanted friends. In this school I knew one person, another kid my age called Mark. On that first morning I went to school I prayed. I don’t think I could even call myself a Christian at this point, but I was desperate and I hoped God might take pity on me and cut me a break. The prayer went something like this, ‘God I know one kid at this school. Could I please sit next to him and be friends? Please?…’

It was simple and direct – the way prayer ought to be I reckon. If I’m honest it was said more in hope than confidence, but I was desperate and prayer always seems to be the place we go to in times of desperation.

When we got allocated to classes I found myself in the lower academic group and Mark was nowhere in sight. I wasn’t convinced prayer worked so that was no great surprise. The morning went slowly, but about an hour before recess the teacher introduced some new maths to us – long division. She gave us a bunch of problems to solve and told us it would take us through to the break. I finished the lot in 10 minutes and got all of it correct. She was clearly a little puzzled at my academic capacity. Starting school a couple of years earlier than everyone else back in Belfast had definitely given me a headstart on the Aussie kids who hadn’t heard of long division until that day.

At that point the teacher decided I really didn’t belong in her class after all and brought in the principal to re-locate me. They had a brief conversation and then told me they were going to move me into the class next door – the smart class – woohoo! As I got to my new class I discovered there was only one seat vacant in the whole room – right next to a kid called Mark…

Now I was the one puzzled. Crikey… this prayer stuff really did work!

Mark became my friend and introduced me to all the other kids at his table, who oddly enough shared my love for football played with a round ball… I instantly had friends and the sense of belonging I wanted.

Although it was over 40 years ago now, I remember that morning vividly – the first time I recall God ever answering a prayer of mine – and what an important one it was to a kid who really needed a friend. Since then I’ve prayed plenty of times and some seem to get answered how I’d want, while others obviously matter more to me than to God.

I can’t say I understand how prayer works – except to suggest that if we see God as a good father then it’s a bit like when my son comes to me and asks for something. I love him and always want what’s best for him so sometimes he gets what he asks for and other times not. That’s what good dad’s do.

No doubt someone will call that experience a co-incidence, a lucky break and that I have just assumed it was an answer to prayer. Honestly?… Maybe you’re right. I can’t be one hundred percent sure it was an act of God, but over the years as I’ve prayed and got to know God I’ve developed a confidence in him that causes me to believe that he actually does care and does want to get involved in the lives of ordinary people – even lonely 10 year old Irish kids who play football with round balls.

Another Day in the Backyard

‘Do you eat marmalade?’ Sally calls out after she has backed her ute into the street.

‘Um… yeah… I guess… My wife will eat it.’ I reply.

So she drops a jar on the front seat of my car. ‘I make it, but I never eat it.’ she says with a cheeky cackle.

Sally is a 70 year old ex-crayfisherwoman turned farmer who lives in a neighbouring suburb and who I’ve worked for several times in the last few years. She lives alone after caring for her sick mum for the last twenty years. She’s tough as nails, a bit rough around the edges and kind hearted all in one quirky package.

A new retaining wall she installed has created some work for me – some plain grunt work digging trenches and laying pipe and some problem solving, wondering where the old pipes run and how I can make it all function again.  It sounded like two hours work on the phone, but on arrival I ring my next job and tell them to expect me after lunch. Its often that way at Sally’s place. I think her favourite phrase is ‘while you’re at it…’

As a farmer, she knows retic and knows exactly what she wants, so everything needs to be run past her before moving on. I’ve learnt that – its done Sally’s way or its done again.

At 9.00am after just an hour of work the rain sets in so I head indoors to sit at her kitchen table and have a cup of tea. She’s a self confessed hoarder and the room is full of random boxes, papers and junk that probably meant something to her once, but now just fill space. She lives between this house and her farm in the midwest that she manages on her own – no mean feat for an older woman.

‘I lost 21 sheep last week to bloody dogs,’ she tells me. She gives me the rundown of how the farm is going and then asks how I like my tea. Without the slightest blip of conscience she uses a vile racist description to tell me she likes hers very strong. I don’t think she realises how offensive her words are and I am bemused, but beyond wanting to correct her. It isn’t an offense to her and it won’t help for me to go there.

She has no clue how to use her printer to print my invoice out, but she can find the weather radar on her ipad quick as a flash. ‘This is only a quick shower’ she says, ‘but the next will be a big one…’  (and she was spot on).

I head back outside to work while she drives down to Yanchep to book a flight to Darwin for a friend’s birthday. She still uses travel agents and doesn’t trust the internet.

As she gets back a local restauranteur arrives to check out her fridge that is for sale. ‘Oscar’ chats with her, agrees to a price and then after an extended conversation, leaves with a bunch of shallots and some helpful gardening advice.

She potters out the front and tells me a bit about her life – never married – ‘not for lack of offers’ – she assures me. But she didn’t want to spend her life ‘waiting from someone to come home from the pub.’

‘Fair enough’ I say.

‘There have been a few blokes (and one son as a result) but I always wanted someone taller than me and stronger minded than me…’ she laughs.

I laugh as well… She’s 5 ft 10, but that’s not the point. ‘Stronger minded than you?’ I say. She cackles again and makes me another cup of tea as we continue to chat. I near completion and ask if she wants me to backfill the trenches, but she tells me she will do that. (I thought she might)

‘Nothing hard about that!’ she laughs, so I will leave and she’ll get on the shovel and clean up.

When its all done its $1100.00 which is good because she had budgeted $1-1.5K. She pulls out her cheque book and assures me she only has tradies in when she can afford to pay – although I reckon she’s got a few bob in reserve. We have another laugh about what kind of crazy job she may have for me next time and then I drive off.

I leave Sally’s at 12.30 and head for Dave’s house. I debate whether to head home for lunch but instead I pick up a pie to get me thru what I’m hoping will be a quick job. Dave & Edna are kiwis and long term Yanchep locals whose retic has ‘been on the dick’ (or ‘duck’ if you’re a kiwi) for several years, but they have never got around to fixing it.

It looks simple, but turns into a complex problem. Each step of the way Dave is watching me and cursing the retic ‘F$%k me. I hate this stuff’ he says.

‘No’ f$%king idea’ he says, when I ask about what work was done previously.

‘F$%k!…’ he yells emphatically as I finally work out what the problem is and explain that its not gonna be fixed today.

What I thought was going to be 15 minutes turns into two and a half hours and another extended conversation. As I’m packing up out the front and chatting with them I realise I have been here before – but at night. They are the local ‘Christmas lights house’. Dave tells me they have two sea containers of stuff that they store each year waiting for December to come around so they can decorate and serve the local community. Light, snow machine and Santa – the whole bit – people come from miles around to see it.

‘Its just us doing our ‘but’ for the community’ says Dave.

They tell me stories of the people who come to visit each year. Those who come early and complain because the lights aren’t on at 6.30 and those who arrive at 11.00pm and expect them to get out of bed and entertain them.

‘Its must make you think about giving it away?’ I ask, imagining how I’d be feeling if that happened to me.

‘Nah – no way – we love it.’ Edna says.

”F$%k yeah’ says Dave.

As I drive home I realise yet again how blessed I am to work as a tradie in the local community and to spend time with people like these. Beautiful, earthy, genuine people who have generous hearts and kind spirits.

In the evening I chat online with Ian Robbo, a theology lecturer in the East doing some research on the whole idea of being a ‘bivocational / tent-maker’ pastor and whether its a helpful thing or a hindrance to ministry work.

I remember I used to feel sorry for the poor blokes who had to work a ‘secular’ job because their church couldn’t afford them full time. These days I can’t imagine being sentenced to full time ministry work again. I certainly wouldn’t be encountering the likes of Dave & Sally on a daily basis, if at all, and that is worth more than you can ever imagine.

Screen Time Reflections

The last 6 months have been super slow when it comes to running a retic business and I’ve found myself with a fair bit of time on my hands. Also since January I have had an ongoing muscular issue that has seen me most days in mild pain/discomfort and looking for a distraction.

Since March I have noticed my ‘screen time’ has increased (it was already in the ‘significant user’ zone) and my use of ‘the screen’ (primarily social media) to simply kill time was growing. Alongside that my ability to hold a complex thought for an extended period seemed to be decreasing. Reading was becoming harder and study harder still. I was concerned at where this was heading and while I’d known of the idea of ‘brain re-wiring’ for a while I didn’t like the thought of investing the effort required to get things back on track. So one day two weeks ago I decided to take back some control.

Yeah – it was pretty much like that. ‘Enough of this – time to stop some stuff and recalibrate how my mind operates.’

All the research around this area indicates we are headed for 20 second concentration spans and a life dominated by screens. I’m a fan of technology, social media and the internet. I like what it has brought to our lives, but I’m also aware of its double edged nature and my own seemingly easily addictive personality.

To begin I read a couple of books, the most useful of which was ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport, a book that suggests that in the future the ability to think and concentrate for long periods will be a rare (and valuable) commodity and that we need to regain the ability to do this kind of work.  ‘Shallow work’ is low value and easily replicable, but deep work requires extended time of concentrated focus. He offers insights into how we can do this, but that’s for another post some other time.

I have noticed over the last few years that when I sit to write a sermon or to read a book I am quickly distracted by random thoughts and apparently ‘urgent needs’.  I wrote them down one day. The list looked like this

  • ‘check weather for Saturday’,
  • Invoice X’
  • ‘has Y paid invoice? – check bank acc’
  • does Bunnings sell shed door flashings?
  • when is McGregor / Mayweather fight?
  • when is high tide?

All answers are available online so I find myself feeling that ‘this is important NOW’ so I chase down the answer. And what I am doing gets fragmented – smashed actually!

So i’ve put in place some practices to try and establish new patterns and habits. Here’s a bit of what I am doing to reshape my way of interacting with the online stuff. I’ve put these in order of how valuable they have been to me.

Mornings Go Analogue – I often used my tablet for my morning prayer and Bible reflection, but on opening it there were always a million notifications to deal with – so sometimes I didn’t get to the Bible and got distracted down a Facebook dogleg. I regularly gave up on meditation and prayer and just surfed the net. Lately I have been practicing using a ‘book’- a Bible with pages – before I pick up my phone/tablet. Its a small discipline, but it sets the tone for the day.

ALL notifications off – And then it simply makes sense to turn notifications off for EVERYTHING and I have been doing this over the last week or so. It has freed me from the distraction that comes when I am reading a book. Someone liked my instagram post… better check it out… Its just phone calls and text that get thru and often the phone is on silent after 5pm so even then I may not get them. The effect has been quite dramatic on my ability to focus and interestingly I had no idea just how many apps had automatically turned themselves to ‘notifications on’.

Toolbar Bookmarks deleted – on Chrome I had all my primary bookmarks loaded on my toolbar, which meant I would often realise I hadn’t looked at ‘X’ for while and would check in. Inevitably I would get stuck in the ludic loop and emerge an hour later Since I deleted it I have noticed I rarely visit Swellnet or Coastalwatch etc…

Practicing Waiting – more about that here, but essentially not pulling out the phone to kill the 5 minutes I ‘wait’ for a doctor/kids/train etc. I want to have that headspace I used to have as I think it was valuable for allowing ideas to percolate. This is so damn hard! I often feel like I have so much to do, but by practicing not doing it I seem to be re-training my brain and my capacity to behave differently.

 Mono-tasking This was one of my biggest struggles – watching TV without surfing the net or firing off a few emails and invoices seemed like wasted time… Why not kill two birds? Well… Because I can’t do it very well and I end up not remembering what I have watched. It also fuels an addiction and seems innocuous at first, but when I found myself reaching for my tablet every time the TV was on I realised I was settling into a new pattern that wasn’t going to be healthy.
Going Phoneless – when I walk the dog I used to take the phone and listen to a podcast / take photos / maybe even just skim social media. The same when I’d go to the shops, or drop into see a mate. Now I try to leave it at home when I can unless I know that I’ll need it for a call. I do feel a bit naked without it, but maybe that’s just an adjustment that needs to be made.
Not in the toilet – yeah… I am one of those people… I guess its like reading a magazine, but lately I found myself grabbing my phone each time I went to the toilet – again its just a simple practice, but one that needn’t have crept in in the first place. I can stop doing that very easily and it is another small step back to sanity.
Car Ban – I am one of those people who will read texts when stopped at lights and enter GPS stuff on the go. I am guessing that is only a hop and a skip away from engaging in other stuff. I find it hard to ‘not touch’ when I’m driving, but the last two weeks have shown it can be done if I am conscious of it.
Not in company – This was a hard & fast rule for me that I stuck to pretty rigidly for a while, but then I noticed others doing it – checking in and ‘checking out’ of the conversation, so I began to do it too when I was getting bored, even though I didn’t like it. Its pretty rude really, but it seems to have become the norm. Now I’m the self righteous one tut-tutting while others do it… ha…
Logging Activity – I began by doing this manually in my notes, but have now downloaded a couple of apps for my devices that track my time in them. I imagine that feedback will be valuable as I like to see stats and that often helps me know if I am ‘winning’.
I’m a long way from completely giving up screens and internet activity as I think its a part of our world and we just need to figure out how to do it wisely. When I’m not digging holes and laying turf, I spend most of day on screens, some of it work and some of it play, but it is unavoidable. I watch Netflix on a screen, I edit pics on a screen, I read the newspaper on a screen. I rarely buy real books now so even ‘reading a book’ involves a screen.
How has it been?
Trying to re-train myself has been quite challenging – certainly not as simple as flicking a switch. I have had days when I have done it easily and then other days when I have been weary and turned to a screen to zone out. I’m interested to see what develops in terms of increased concentration span and renewed ability to focus, because I believe Newport is correct that these are key skills that we need to cultivate.
One immediately observable change was in how I prepared my teaching for Sundays. For the last few years I have been doing a couple of hours of reading and thinking on Monday and then doing other things Tue-Thur. I always found that when I picked up the computer on Friday morning I could jump right in and write a sermon quickly and easily – because over the week there had been ‘background processing’ happening. The raw ideas from Monday were ticking over in there even if I was unaware.
This year as my screen time has increased I have found preaching hard every week. I have rarely hit a Friday where I have been able to sit down and smash it out like I used to.
Last Friday after just two weeks of trying new things I woke on Friday at 4.30am – not my usual practice – but felt awake enough to jump up and get started on work. I turned wifi off and managed to get a 25 minute sermon – 9 pages of text – written and edited in 3 hours. I didn’t have any fantastic ideas to work with when I sat down but as I began, the ideas flowed and it all took shape. Maybe it was just the difference of having mental processing space?
Either way – I’m on a mission to re-capture a less screen dominated life and a less zombie-like existence. I’ll let you know how I go.


Practicing Waiting

I’ve been in the process of reviewing how I use screens and tech stuff and one of the things I have been doing as a result is ‘practicing waiting’.

That might sound a little weird so I’ll explain.

You go to meet a friend for coffee and get there first – 5 minutes early – so my normal procedure has been to crack open the phone and check email/ FB/ Instagram/News etc until my friend arrives. I’ll do the same when stuck in a long queue or when waiting in the school carpark to pick up my kids, or in the Doc’s waiting room – in fact any time I am in danger of being bored or mentally unoccupied.

Now I’m that weird guy who is just sitting there… without a phone, or at least without using it. And I dunno how you go with this, but I find it hard… It feels like wasted time – when I could be catching up on the inevitable info-barrage that awaits.

But I’ve been reading and learning about the importance of being ‘bored’, about the need for ‘brain down time’, to allow fresh thoughts to percolate and generate. I used to have lots of fresh and fun ideas, but in recent years they seem to have diminished and I am fairly sure its at least partially because my brain never gets a rest. I am always grazing on some form of information so the possibility of my brain firing a new spark is limited.

Its both very difficult to wait and yet also very easy.

You just sit there… and keep on sitting… until your friend arrives, the doc calls you in, or your kids turn up. Its not fun, but I get the sense that it is good for the mental health and may be another piece of the puzzle when it comes to changing up my mental habits.

The End of Semi-Tasking

No – I haven’t got it wrong – that’s what it is.

For a while I thought I was onto something with so called ‘multi-tasking’, watching a movie while clearing emails, or sending invoices only to discover that I couldn’t follow the storyline or even remember the movie when it was over. I gave up on a number of movies because they didn’t make sense, but in hindsight I wasn’t actually paying attention.

‘Semi-tasking’ crept into my life fairly innocuously – it seemed silly to watch TV and not do something ‘productive’ at the same time, but as time went on I realised I was losing my grip on either or both of the things I was doing. Then it went from doing something productive, to just doing something else, so I’d surf Facebook or Instagram, or eBay while ‘watching’ a movie.

I discovered it became a habit to surf and watch, but a dissatisfying habit and I’d guess even a destructive one.

Maybe its just me, but I get the sense we can either do one thing well or multiple things at a fraction of our capacity. I’ve decided to return to old fashioned mono-tasking and see how that goes.

I’m doing some personal reflection on the place of screens in my own life and this is the first shift. One thing at a time… seems so ‘last century’… but I think I’d like to go back there.