Of Before & After

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‘Every now and then we have these experiences that slice our lives into before and after’.

Recently I read this statement on Elaine Fraser’s Instagram feed where she was posting quotes from Shauna Niequist’s book Present over Perfect. She shared enough gems from Niequist that I ended up buying the book for Danelle for Christmas – and I hope she reads it quickly because I want to get into it too.

While Elaine shared a new thought every day or so, this one struck a chord. I’ve had a few ‘before and after moments’, but my mind turned to one immediately as a standout. It was like I knew intuitively that THIS was the ‘before and after’ moment that had given new shape to both us and our family.

You would probably expect me to say that my ‘big’ moments were the day I decided to follow Christ, or the day I got married, or the birth of our kids… and I guess they were, but instantly my heart and mind flashed back to an altogether different experience.

Maybe its because (nearly) everyone gets married, has kids, buys a house etc… Don’t get me wrong – these are significant, but perhaps the before and after moments need to be thought of as unique and specific to our own lives and our family’s life… (or maybe I’m just trying to alleviate my own guilt at not seeing these as the biggies…)

The one I keep returning to was our 6 month trip around Australia way back in 2009. I still think of our (family) life as ‘pre-trip’ and ‘post-trip’ and while that might initially sound somewhat odd, I have come to see it as a pivotal, shaping experience for us.

So much so that any time someone indicates they might be interested in some extended travel with kids in tow I can’t affirm them enough.

Before

For us life ‘before’ the trip was neither remarkable nor unremarkable. We had made some very conventional, predictable choices and to some degree fallen into line with the rest of middle class suburbia. We had bought houses, had kids, kept steady jobs and followed a fairly standard trajectory for people in our life situation. Our kids went to the local school and we had slotted into the local community.

We had also made some less conventional choices by leaving a secure pastoral role in a good church to plant a new missional community and by engaging with some of the fresh missional thinking that was just taking form in the early ‘noughties’. It was largely untested R&D type work we were in and it didn’t all go to plan. (We learnt many things that ‘didn’t work’…) As part of that period I found myself raising personal financial support as we kicked off ‘Upstream’, and then Forge. I had a role coaching Baptist youth pastors for a while and when that ended I stumbled on the idea of starting a ‘hobby-business’ in reticulation.

It was 2007-8 when the financial boom hit Perth and property prices went nuts. We heard of the idea of building a house and selling it on completion. Banks were lending money to literally anyone – even missionaries whose ‘on paper’ salary was around $15K – so we borrowed an insane amount of money to fund house, land and all finishings and then we borrowed extra to fund the interest payments while the house was being completed. It was utter foolishness in hindsight – except for the fact that the property market was about to explode. In that one year we made over $200K and wiped out our mortgage. It was a shock to the system for us low income pastor types who had resigned ourselves to paying a mortgage off over the rest of our working lives.

I remember being on a train to Kalgoorlie on the day I heard that our investment project had sold and that we were now no longer $150K in debt but we were $50K in front… It was a disturbingly liberating feeling – disorienting even, but with it came a sense of freedom and dare I say it, power. That’s a word I dislike – and I dislike that I felt it – because it speaks of where I find security, but it was the truth nevertheless.

Around that time I also found myself surfing eBay regularly and ‘watching’ big ole converted bus style motorhomes. It wasn’t a result of being debt free. It was just something I would do as I dreamt (quietly) of what it would be like to own one and to travel around the country. I eventually suggested to Danelle we look at buying one and travelling around Oz for a year. She laughed, baulked… but didn’t shut things down completely.

The kids were 6 & 8 and slotted into school and friendships. We were well connected and embedded in the community. There were friends to think of… family… our small missional community… But I was also tired after 8 years of pioneering work and really felt the need for some space – for some ‘R & R’ away from the ‘R & D’. Our missional community was struggling to survive and it seemed that maybe this was a way of bringing closure to that time of life.

We had built a second spec home and finished it off just as the market stablilised. We lost $5k or thereabouts on this one and it was here that I developed some retic skills, as I needed to finish the landscaping work to save some $$. It was a bummer not to make more $$, but we were still in front financially so we just called it a learning experience and moved on.

We began planning the trip in 2008 – it gave us a year to anticipate and think it thru. I’ve discovered anticipation is half of the fun, so now I plan the following year’s holidays well in advance. We bought a 1996 GQ Patrol – a sensational car that was going to be our tow vehicle around Oz. The bus idea had gone out the window and we were trying to work out the ‘best compromise’ for travel. Space, ease of operation, ease to tow and comfortable to live in. We finished up with a Jayco Eagle bought from the nice people in the next street.

Given our last few holidays have been in a full Jayco expander van, I chuckle when I think we travelled for 6 months in an Eagle…  It seems so small and flimsy now! After a couple of test runs with the camper we felt pretty confident when we hit the road in April 2009 that we could make this work.

We were still in investment mode and after the last failed project we went for something safer. We borrowed $250k and put it into a property syndicate that was returning 40% PA and had been very reliable. We figured we would travel and make $100K while we were away… It was a nice theory and if we had been a year or two earlier it would have succeeded. Around the time we left, the syndicate director became hard to contact and while occasional emails and texts assured us all was well, but we had become a little worried that all was not going to plan. The GFC was starting to ripple out and while we wanted to believe the best, it was clear we stood to lose a bit of that money.

Before leaving we had also been thru a ‘trial’ at Quinns Baptist from December to April. It was a trial in more ways than one and it hadn’t gone very well.  The church was quite polarised when we arrived, and our presence and leadership accentuated that. While we were gone the church would vote on our future ministry and hopefully we would come back to lead them. While the trial had been difficult we felt sure it would all smooth out and we’d come home to leading a church and running a hobby retic business in the background. We’d make some more savvy investments and live a fun life.

Of course we didn’t realise the impact 6 months on the road would have on us…

After

So what happened while on the road for me to give it ‘before & after’ status?…

We had fun – lots and lots of fun, as we explored, adventured, learnt and discovered. Fun matters in family life and – fun is serious business. Many of our friends in the neighbourhood were busy people, struggling to even take half of their allocated annual leave. We were regular holiday takers, but this cemented in us the value of enjoying being together and of making space for family holidays.

I remember someone told me about the value of camping for family life, but me and tents don’t get on that well… The camper however became our Taj Mahal and we loved it.

I don’t have much sympathy for those who tell me they are too busy to get away and then complain about their life. We make our choices… I think our kids have been shaped by this choice into people who find fun easily and who will make ‘time-out’ a priority for their own families.

We discovered we could live really (really) simply – There isn’t a lot of space in a Jayco Eagle so both big and little people’s toys were kept to a minimum. No one struggled. We had the bare essentials and we were forced to focus on other things – the environment around us – the people we were with.

We read a lot – we read to the kids each night – Enid Blyton’s famous five… I still remember the suppressed laughter as we read about Dick & Fanny… a joke our kids now ‘get’, but were oblivious to back then. ‘Dad – what’s so funny!’ Sam would ask. ‘Mum! Tell me!’

We travelled light with clothing and we never ran short. I recently did another clothing audit in my own bedroom and wondered why I have all this stuff!

What is it about being at home that sees us continually acquiring more stuff?…

We realised we could live well on a very small budget – Different from ‘living simply’ – in travelling around the country we lived significantly cheaper than we did while at home. We didn’t try to travel particularly frugally, but even when we stayed at upmarket caravan parks we still lived much leaner than an average week at home. I would say that when all was spent (food, fuel, accomodation, fun) we lived on half of our back home budget.

Half… that’s crazy hey?

It was far cheaper to live on the road than to live in a suburb. I think this discovery actually gave us an ‘ace up our sleeve’, whereby if life ever got financially ugly we knew there was a way to live cheap if we need to – just pack up and travel…

Danelle discovered home schooling – If not for the time away our kids may have spent another 5 or 6 years in primary school doing what every other kid does. But 6 months of travel convinced her (and inspired her) to make home schooling her role when we got back. As we got home there was no thought of re-entry to regular school life and I know our kids have loved and benefited from it. They have been one year back in regular school and are doing well academically and socially. Sam can even spell his own name now.

Home schooling spun off in other advantages. I saw a lot more of the kids as they were around home – and I did my share of teaching. We had some more fun times – memorable times. This way of life afforded us the option of organising school around holidays rather than the current system of having to fall in line with school holidays… something I am pretty dark about now.

Home schooling taught our kids to think differently about ‘the system’ a learning I hope doesn’t get bled out of them over the next few years.

My relationship with money changed  – The experience of paying off the mortgage had left me somewhat elated, so when the news came in half way thru the trip, that we had been taken for all of our $250K and were now in huge debt – greater than we had ever been – I had a number of reactions. The first was anxiety – a struggle I had never had before and rarely experienced since. But I remember lying in bed at night from Townsville onwards realising we were coming home to an uphill struggle to get back in front financially. I felt devastated – and I don’t use that word lightly – which was odd because pre the investment era I had hardly given money a second thought. We needed enough to live on and that was the deal.

Now I wanted to be somewhere else. I wanted to be back where we were 2 years previous – debt free and feeling ‘powerful’, but instead I felt weary and defeated and there was no quick fix or easy way out. I struggled as I considered the shape my life would take when we went home.

We contemplated ending the trip early and just trundling home asap to get started on earning $$ to pay off the debt, but we made a conscious choice to not be floored by it and to continue as we were. We would allow interest to accrue on the debt and deal with it when we got home. While the anxiety never completely lifted we were able to keep a positive frame of mind and put in the drawer marked ‘when we get home’.

This was a valuable decision and while it was difficult, I think it was our way of saying ‘we will not let this control us’, even if it was eating us up at times.

It was the beginning of my 7 year wrestle with money and its place in our lives.

I discovered financial planning – Again, making money was never really part of our lives pre trip. ‘Enough to get by’ was the mantra we had lived by, but the loss of $$ and the time on the trip gave me a window to consider what we would do when we got home.

I did some sums and realised that if we lived really tight and if business went well, we could probably clear the $250K in 5 years. So I came home with a plan – I was a man on a mission and as with most things I get into, it became a bit obsessive.  I kept a log of where our money went. I kept a record of how much we were earning and after one year we were well on the way. I was now a serious retic guy as well as a pastor. We cleared the debt ahead of schedule in 4 years and my body told the story of it with all sorts of overuse injuries flaring.

Had it not been for the loss and the experience of the trip I don’t think we would have had to grapple with the challenge of finances.It was way too easy to get in front and equally way to easy to kiss all of that money goodbye. If not for the loss I would have never contemplated the possibility of paying down debt rapidly by hard work, but in that time I learnt that you don’t have to settle for the 25 year plan.

That said, even now I struggle to be in any debt and I’m still processing my own relationship to money. There is some good – some growth – and some darkness that lurks and snarls at me. It is tenuous and fragile.

We took the road less travelled – and it did make a difference. The choice to take 6 months out is becoming more common but it was still seen as a bit odd back then. Homeschooling has grown hugely in popularity, but then it was still the domain of denim skirts and head scarves.

My physio once introduced me to his work experience girl as ‘this is Andrew – he’s semi-retired…’ and I realised that is how he perceives me, possibly because its how my life looks from the outside.

Being your own boss has much going for it and I doubt I will be working for anyone again over the rest of my working life. I work at my own pace – I am not chasing work and I take days off when I want to. Yesterday was a ‘work day’, but I took Danelle & Sam, because its my business and I can…

Pastoral work also allows the sort of autonomy that I need to feel alive in.

We flew blind into a storm

Around the same time we heard we had lost the $250K we got the message that the church had gathered and we had been ‘voted off the island’. That was a knock. We knew it was a possibility, but didn’t really expect it to happen. We knew we had stirred and made enemies, but we wanted to make sure there was no mistaking who we really were and what we were about.

At the crucial meeting there were enough ‘nays’ to send us packing. The church then had an ugly fight and we got invited back again. Long story and best forgotten…

But we then had to make a decision – to accept or refuse… It didn’t feel like a healthy environment to head back into, but it felt like the right call, the one God seemed to be leading us towards, so we just swallowed hard and said yes. And into the storm we flew… because it was hard again when we got back. Conflict and tension was rife, but we had committed to being there so we fought thru the struggles and kept going despite resigning internally every second week.

I think pre the trip I might have just said ‘screw this’ and walked away, but we had a sense that this was where we were to be for a long time and that taking a few knocks was just going to be part of the experience.

Seven years on I couldn’t contemplate being anywhere else, and often we imagine this as our last stop in paid Christian leadership. But then.. occasionally when I hear of a basket case, beat up church that is in chaos and mess I think to myself ‘I’d like a crack at helping them get healthy again…’. Its not a scary proposition, nor a hopeless one. We’ve been there done that and seen what God can do.

——————

I’m sure there is more that I have missed but I have no doubt that 6 months of travel shifted something permanently in our identity as a family and we have benefited from it. So if you are contemplating a similar experience I can not say strongly enough, ‘DO IT!’

Don’t be put off by the obstacles and challenges. There will never be a perfect time to take 6 months out, but the sheer act of choosing to make the space will create new openings and learnings you will have never contemplated previously.

There was ‘before’ and there is ‘after’ and in between was a 6 month trip around this great country of ours. More than that there was an unexpected internal journey that began and continues on today both for us and our kids.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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 Other

As the Exmouth rain teems another 3 carload of travellers arrive to the site behind us. An old 80 series Cruiser pulls up on the grass, along with a couple of other old fourbies and a tribe of people tumble out.
Raucous laughter and rough Aussie accents fill the site behind us and we cringe and roll our eyes as we look at each other, just waiting for the Acca Dacca to crank up.
We are coping with the rain, but now we have the bogan neighbours to contend with. They erect their tents, squabbling, shouting, laughing and making light of the fact they are getting drenched. Their ability to keep positive is a feat in itself.
When they have finished there are so many tents it’s like a small city has appeared in our backyard. Are you really allowed that many people on a site we wonder…The cartons of Emu export get dragged into the kitchen gazebo and they have all the outward appearances of being difficult neighbours, the ones you hope you wouldn’t be stuck next to for a week.
And while we sit in our van listening to them and passing judgements I realise that they will be those people. While we stand at a distance we will make them into people to despise, to avoid and to treat differently.
And as we demonise and fear those we are unfamiliar with, I am reminded that we simply replicate what our nation does on a larger scale. Inwardly I am chastised by my own foolishness and darkness and yet for some reason I want to be right. 
Maybe if I’m ‘right’ it means I don’t have to engage with them… Maybe if I’m ‘right’ I can fob them off as losers and disregard them. I can see them as an imposition – as a disruption to my desire for peace and quiet. I can call them ‘stupid bogans’ and chuckle with superiority at them.
There is only one solution – to move sites… 
Or… to walk over and open a conversation, to get to know ‘the other’ and in so doing they will cease to be ‘other’ and become people – real people…
And so we chat, and they are folks on holiday from the city, seeking the same things we are, but just expressing themselves a little differently. They don’t seem to be much for conversation and I could take that as confirmation that they really are knobs, or I could accept that they are busy trying to dismantle a gazebo that has been damaged in the night and don’t really have time for me. I can choose offense or I can choose common sense.
I can choose to despise those who are other or I can accept that at heart they are just like us… and their difference is not a cause for treating them poorly. The fact that I ‘should know better’ is no deterrent to my prejudices kicking in. My double standards are justified (I tell myself), but perhaps small steps in the other direction will negate my natural hypocrisy and help me become the person I think we should all become. 

But Because You Say So…

I woke this morning to a new year and began reading in Luke 5 where Jesus calls the first of his disciples and as I read I couldn’t help but notice his audacity in telling seasoned fishermen, who knew their stuff, but had caught nothing all night, to push their boats back out and give it another try.

Yeah right…

Simon frames their response well, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

What Jesus asks seems like foolishness to them. It flies in the face of their many years of experience and does not make any sense. Better to just go home and call it day, maybe wait for the tide to change and come back tomorrow.

Simon kinda makes that point, but then goes on to say ‘but because you say so we’ll give it another crack’. I’m not sure of Simon’s tone in that conversation – was he humouring Jesus? Deferring to him but inwardly believing he was wasting his time?

Clearly they weren’t.

But I’m less interested in the outcome of ‘so many fish that their boats nearly sank’, than I am in Simon’s recognition that Jesus is the one who calls the shots and our role is to listen – to be in a place where we can hear him – and then respond in line with what he asks. The reality is that sometimes Jesus asks us to put the boats back in the water and the result is not a huge haul. But what does matter is that we trust his voice – whether it makes good sense or not.

Its the question I find myself asking men all the time now, ‘What is God saying to you? What is he asking you to do?’ Because if you know that then your opinion, no matter how informed, is not an issue.

Sometimes he will ask you to fall in line with good sense, sometimes he will take you down a back road for no apparent reason. But if we genuinely believe that there is a God who interacts with us – who seeks to guide – then we do well to ask him what he wants of us.

Too much of our thinking is shaped by contemporary wisdom – by what is smart, expedient, financially prudent and so on, but these things aren’t always Jesus concerns.

I’ve been challenged numerous times lately to do things ‘because he says so’ rather than because they are in the best interests of what my culture tells me is important and I imagine its an idea we need to keep continually returning to if we are to live a life of faith rather than a life simply reliant on our own smarts.

 

 

 

 

 

Besides Everything Else

As our plane landed a couple of weeks ago I felt a tangible weight descend on me, a heaviness that wasn’t there while we were tripping around Bali. I couldn’t articulate it at first. I just attributed it to ‘going back to work’, to re-entering normality, but its been sitting there for a while now and I think I know what it is.

in 2 Corinthians 11 Paul is defending his apostleship and listing the various challenges he has endured as part of his calling. Then in verse 28 he changes tack from the outward afflictions to write:

28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

I think that’s a bit of what I have been feeling. I guess its what every church leader feels – a deep, daily responsibility for the people we are called to lead, shepherd and equip.

As I woke yesterday morning and headed off to church I went dutifully as I just didn’t feel like it. I was weary, feeling like avoiding people and yet my ‘job’ meant I couldn’t skip it and have a quiet mope at home. And then I was scheduled to preach too… I was thinking ‘I really don’t want to do this today… or any more… for that matter…’

Then as we sat in church and sang some songs, gathered with the crew and re-entered the community I felt myself shedding some tears. Because it was good to be there. Really good. It was coming home. Being with the family. With the people I love, sharing in worship.

But therein is the struggle.

The ‘heaviness’ I felt descend when our plane hit the ground was the weight of responsibility. Paul calls it his ‘daily concern for all the churches’ and while we only lead one community I sense his emotion. When someone is weak we feel it. When someone screws up we feel it. Of course when someone has a win we feel it too and that is wonderful.

But… there’s no avoiding the weight of responsibility and concern that goes with leading a community. Its a completely intangible thing, but I believe its the most important thing Danelle and I do as part of our role. We care. We think about the community. We notice stuff. We attend to things.

And I know everyone does that to some degree. But for those of us who are called to the roles of leaders and shepherds the bar gets raised – and I don’t mean by the expectations of others, or because we are paid – but simply because this is where our heart is aligned.

Its a good thing.

Its a good thing to feel that weight of concern, but lately its felt heavier than usual. There isn’t much going on that is particularly draining, so I wonder if its a cumulative thing? If 5 years of leading has worn us down a bit?

We have been discussing the option of taking 6-12 months off next year and re-energising. A sabbatical of sorts, but we’re not sure what form it will take. For now we carry on and we do what we do knowing that some months are ‘heavier’ than others and that these things come and go.

So this isn’t a whinge or a cry for attention. I’m not seeking sympathy or answers. Its just an observation that leadership in Christian community at times carries an intangible weight. We are blessed and privileged to do what we do, and I can’t imagine a life where I don’t lead a church community, but we may be moving towards taking a deep breath and a long drink.

 

 

 

 

 

A Novel History

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Having just returned from a trip to Ireland my interest in Irish history was kindled yet again. Here in Oz its hard to grasp just how sectarian the whole scenario is, but when you step back into it, you can’t help but be confronted with the ever present reality.

Admittedly we did go back in July just before what they call ‘marching season’, the time of year when the Protestants take a day to stomp the streets in uniforms and regalia, while playing flutes and beating the daylights out of monster lambeg drums. Its a remembrance of a battle way back in 1690 when William of Orange defeated the Catholics and took control of Ireland. To some its just a festive event, but there is no denying its place in perpetuating the priority of the protestant way in that country.

Having attended the 12th day marches early in our stay I began to fossick through Amazon for some novels depicting Irish history and finished up with 3 novels and one autobiography all centred on the divisions within this country. While novels may not be actual history, I find them an enjoyable way to enter the story of a country, moreso than just reading a text book.

I began with Return to Killybegs, a novel based on the true story of an IRA informant who returns to his home town late in life after confessing his activities as a spy. He goes back to his childhood home, long since abandoned and sits morbidly in squalor waiting for the inevitable to happen. He didn’t set out to become a spy. It wasn’t in his nature, but an unfortunate event in his teen years was used against him and left him with no choice.

Written by a French author, its a good story depicting the complexity of a person’s life once they get involved in paramilitary organisations. It is based on the actual story of Denis Donaldson, a senior IRA turned spy who was murdered in the small town of Glenties in 2006 after revealing his activities.

Belfast Peacelines

From there I moved on to Burning Your Own, a novel about primary school aged boys set in 1969 around bonfire time, and just as the troubles were kicking off. I really enjoyed this one as it recaptured very well the world that I grew up in. The language and the culture was as I remember it and very believable. The story depicts the early days of the ‘troubles’, the fertilisation of fear and the way communities so easily believe the worst of those they don’t know. Based in a working class protestant neighbourhood, it explores the development of sectarian violence in nearby areas and the gradual expulsion of the catholics from that community despite many years of being a peaceful neighbourhood. It focuses on one young boy in particular, (Mal) who is a protestant and his relationship with the red headed Catholic, Francy, who marches to the beat of his own drum, but can’t stop the tide of prejudice and fear.

I went from there to Into the Dark – 30 Years in the RUC, a pretty dark autobiographical account of the police career of Johnson Brown who discovered very early in the day that police work didn’t just involve locking up baddies. Sometimes the police were the ‘baddies’ and collaborated with other ‘baddies’. Its an interesting but somewhat arduous recollection of his time as a detective and the constant undermining he suffered from the untouchable Special Branch. He portrays himself as a model policeman doing the right thing at all times, but the depiction of the thuggery and ‘looking away’ that he suggested happened in the name of the ‘greater good’ is disturbing if only some of it is true. He particularly highlights the colllusion between senior police officers and various paramilitary groups in Ulster and makes it clear that for some it was war on Catholics and it didn’t matter who got the result.

The final novel is entitled The Boys of Derry (Sunday Bloody Sunday) and while I haven’t yet finished this one I can see where its headed. It tells the story of oppression and mistreatment from a catholic/bogside perspective and is interesting because it follows the lives of the central characters from boyhood to manhood,  as the Irish civil rights movement kicks off and the violence begins in the volatile city of Derry before escalating into all out war.

Every story tells a sad tale of a country that has lost its way and is stuck in such a rut it may never get out. On my final day in Belfast I took some time on my own to wander the city, to ‘sniff’ and get a sense of what it is like there now. I happened upon an exhibition in a small shop by a group called Healing Through Remembering, an organisation trying to help people move on from the troubles by various peaceful, reflective means. Their exhibition was focused on displaying ordinary household items that got transformed in the troubles (eg a dustbin lid).

In conversation with the curator we discussed the future for Ireland and he mentioned a stat that suggests for every one year of conflict there needs to be thirty of healing. That means that assuming no more major violence breaks out, Ireland is just a milennia away from erasing this tragic period from its collective memory…

That said, things are much much better than they were 40 years ago and there is a peace process in place. You can’t help but feel it wouldn’t take much to reignite old hatreds in all of their fury, but even a fragile peace is better than none at all.

 

 

 

11 Blokes You Meet In the Line Up

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Most days when you paddle out you get a mix of crew in the water, but there are a few that always seem to be there… at least in a place like Yanchep…

The Grom – paddles out in everything, stays out in everything, catches anything… always believes he ‘just got barrelled’ and comes in stoked even if its 1ft onshore and crowded.

The Angry Bloke – paddles around like a rabid dog on a short leash… Thinks he owns the place and snarls at anyone who looks like catching ‘his’ wave. He probably lives a million miles away, but this is who he is… wherever he is…

The Local – he’s like the angry bloke but not so angry. He treats you like you are are a stranger in his lounge room and calls you off waves like you are drinking his beer. More dangerous than the angry bloke though…

The old fat bloke who sits out the back on a 10ft mal and doesn’t catch anything – ever – he’s been surfing for a long time now so just to get in the water is an achievement in itself. He sits there for a while, paddles and wheezes while trying to catch a few waves then gets rolled and comes in. He’s back out again in 3 months time for more of the same…

The other bloke on the mal who catches everything – just when you think you’re onto that wave you hear a voice and sense the presence of someone who has already been riding it for the last 5 minutes because he caught it further out than everyone else. These blokes are not popular, but they seem to deal with being disliked pretty well…

The bloke who drops in on everyone – its bad manners whether you are a local, a superstar, or just a fool. You can only get away for this with so long before someone will have had enough.

The guy who has just been to Indo – and announces his adventures to the line up as if he had just won the ASP tour. He might have only been once but he can make it sound like he lives there.

The chick – no longer wannabes or eye candy for blokes between sets, a heap of girls can really make their mark in the water. There still aren’t a heap of girls out there, but times are changing.

The Euro bloke – who things ‘oy’ and ‘hey’ mean ‘nice wave – why don’t we share’… They don’t. These guys generally understand expletives pretty well though.

The beginner – amusing – sometimes hilarious – but usually dangerous. You can spot them on the soft-mals bobbing around on the inside or sitting wide. So long as they stay there they are harmless, but you don’t want to get caught inside with one.

The SUP – also a rare breed, but a step up from the bloke on the mal who catches everything. Now he only catches everything if these guys don’t get it first.

I’m sure there are more, but that’s just my reflection after a few weeks of some great waves here in Yanchep. (And yes – that’s a shot of ‘locals’ beach from last week on Thursday just before sunset when it was icy cold.)

 

 

 

To Consciously Quit…

greyA couple of weeks back I stood on a hill about a km north of our house and watched the surf roll in on a cold, grey Sunday afternoon. The picture here is from that day.

I had driven there to go for a surf, but every bone in my body was baulking at the idea. It was cold. I was out of shape. I hadn’t surfed properly in months. There was a small crowd. I knew I’d probably get rolled more than I’d enjoy it. It felt much easier to just head home and stay warm.

As I reflected on it later I realised I was actually pondering giving up surfing… I was wondering whether I was still up for the various elements of what makes a surf. The thought rocked me. I would never have thought I’d get to here.

So, while it was cold and grey and the crowd didn’t appeal, I pulled on the wetsuit and stubbornly paddled out, just because I don’t want to quit. Truth be told I didn’t really want to paddle out on that particular day, and I did get smashed around more than I got up and riding, but entering the water was ‘drawing a line in the sand’.

I know plenty of people who unconsciously have given surfing away because they are ‘too old’, ‘too fat’, ‘too …………… whatever’ and I felt myself sliding into that zone. What’s bizarre is that I never have as much energy or zest for life as when I am surfing.

The last time I had an experience like this in the surf was at Indijup carpark when I was about 35. I was out on a big day and I got hammered, held down and smashed around pretty severely. It scared me and I floated into shore to get my bearings and catch my breath. I felt pretty beaten up and began to pack up my things and head for the carpark. Then something in me clicked and I put down the gear and paddled back out. It was that moment of realising that I was about to cross a line I didn’t want to cross.

I doubt I would paddle out in those waves today, partly because my skill and fitness levels would make me a danger to myself and others, but I needed to paddle back out on that particular day, because I was in danger of unconsciously doing something I really didn’t want to do. It was that same feeling two weeks ago.

raftsI imagine sometime in the future I will have to stop surfing. I imagine there will come a day when I simply won’t have what it takes either in skill or fitness, but I hope that day is a long way off in the future and I hope that when it comes I am able to choose to do so consciously and with a sense of knowing that I have found enormous joy in the ocean for the years I was able to surf.

What’s interesting is that since that Sunday I have been in the water 10 times, enjoying the challenge, hanging with the local groms, catching lots of waves, finding my confidence and my fitness again and feeling alive – very alive.

Having turned 50 I am aware that I am no longer ‘on the up’ when it comes to fitness, energy and strength and part of me finds that quite depressing. At the moment I genuinely resent this part of growing older and I do not look forward to 60, 70 and 80. I don’t like feeling my body ache and my muscles weaken. Maybe I will develop an acceptance of this, but for now it just pisses me off.

After 40 years of being in the water I really don’t ever want to leave. I don’t want to be a person who ‘used to surf’. It would be the closing of a chapter – the end of one of my greatest sources of joy and I imagine something inside will die if and when that happens.

For now I will continue to find joy and give thanks for what I can do. And I don’t intend to make any changes any time soon.

 

 

 

The Wrong Question

There is a question I’ve been asking people for many years now as a way of helping them define their sense of vocation and identity. Its not a new one – I’m sure you’ve heard it… But this morning I started considering that maybe it wasn’t the right question – or even a helpful question.

It is: ‘What would you do if money were no object?’

I was watching this cool vid on Vimeo (yeah – another busy Monday…) and as the narrator used the question, something jarred in me. As I pondered it some more I realised that there were two things that I was feeling uneasy about.

The first was the implication that ‘money is an object’ and the second was that it actually has the potential to lend itself to a quite indulgent, maybe even selfish response.

Perhaps my dreams are too simple these days, but for the most part it isn’t money that holds me back. I would love to take off around Australia again in a caravan and do some travelling combined with some itinerant ministry in the various backwater towns we might end up in. I know its hard for some of those towns to get anybody to come for a short time let alone a long time so some folks offering a hand might be helpful. I imagine the experience would be valuable for all of us.

But the factor holding me back isn’t $$, although we would need to scrape together enough to make it happen. Its a wife who really wouldn’t enjoy that life. Its two kids who would lose their connections while their old man gets to indulge some of his wanderlust. Its a community of people both in our church and locally who we would stop connecting with for a period while I go do my thing. Its my business clients who I like to look after and stay connected with.

So in reality its not money that holds me back. Its the complexity of life. Its the sense of responsibility to others – and I think that is a good thing – as well as the knowledge that my personal dreams are not necessarily shared by the rest of my family.

I think the question has the potential to imply that we are sole entities who function as individuals and it doesn’t pay attention to the wider communal impact of our actions. If we genuinely value one another then we don’t simply ‘follow our dreams’ wherever that leads because we consider how it impacts others.

True?

So I am pondering a better question. It needs to be one that doesn’t restrict dreaming and one that helps a person’s imagination fire up, but I wonder if the $$ question is the wrong way to hit it?…