Random Reflections on Acts

This week at QBC we get stuck into the book of Acts so lately I’ve been reading it again and reflecting on it to get my head & heart in the right space to approach it.

I reckon its a grenade just waiting to explode the life of any church that reads it and I’m both genuinely excited and apprehensive about what it could bring.

Of course we could just teach thru it systematically and (re) learn all the same stuff we have done for the last umpteen years or we could lob that grenade in and see what new inspiration come from it… Perhaps ‘grenade’ is the wrong image as its one of destruction and read freshly Acts can be incredibly constructive, but perhaps some deconstruction is required first.

For example as I began reading Acts I found I was placing myself in the disciples shoes and asking ‘so what do we do now?’ Jesus dies, comes back, spends 40 days hanging with us, then ascends and we are left with the commission to ‘go and make disciples of all people groups, baptising and teaching them to obey eveything they had been commanded from Christ.’

‘So how shall we do that?…’ must have been a prime question.

And hopefully they would look back to the time spent with Jesus to see how he went about his mission and how they were involved with that. Hopefully they would immediately be asking questions of establishing the kingdom on earth. Hopefully they would be asking ‘so what really matters?’

What I can’t imagine them doing is immediately figuring out who was responsible for running the weekend gig. What I can’t see them doing is drawing up a roster for music and preaching… Forgive me if I sound cynical, but I am constantly disturbed that the priorities of the church in the 21st C seem so different from those of the first Christians. And I don’t want to stop being disturbed until I see us really grappling with the questions. I understand that we live at a different time in history and I don’t think our goal is to be a first century church. But in the process of reading the book of Acts it seems almost impossible not to read it thru the lens of our 21st C experience.

When we read the classic Acts descriptions of church being both from home to home and in the temple courts its easy to read that as ‘small groups’ and ‘Sunday worship’ because that is our frame of reference. But that wasn’t where they were starting. Jesus didn’t leave them with the church planting manual that explained how to move people from ‘community to core’, in 5 steps.

So when we look at the highly predictable format that the vast majority of 21stC churches take I can’t help but imagine that if Jesus lobbed in, he might say ‘really?… that’s what you thought I wanted you to focus on?…’ I am sure he would be glad that we hold some core DNA, but I think he’d be somewhat mystified that our core DNA had become our denominational / cultural preferences rather than the foundational elements of a church.

I sense that our familiarity with ecclesial processes and procedures of all kinds may have a tendency to stunt our ability to read this book afresh. We may struggle to ‘clear our heads’ and think afresh about what the mission of church is.

As I observe it in the western world the biggest priority for the church is to run the Sunday service and to do that as best we can. Can someone please find that priority for me in the book of Acts?…

Seriously, I’m not for dissing the importance of meeting together, but I can’t help but wonder if our enemy may have created a perfect distraction for us – a seemingly positive distraction – that consumes so much of our time, energy and resources that we find it hard to get on with the other things that matter to the establishment of the kingdom.

Anyway that’s probably incendiary enough to provoke some thinking and to give you a taste of what I see as I start to read this book. I see the danger of both rigid thinking – that reads Acts thru the lens of our own expeirience and lazy thinking that says its all too hard to re-imagine, but I hope to lead us in some creative thinking that will ask questions of ‘what if?’ and see where they lead.

Hope in Pain

In my last post I mentioned Ben Witheringon’s series of posts reflecting on the death of his daughter and the accompanying grief process.

The series of 4 posts (so far) is very ‘gut’ honest and admirable for that. But I’d suggest its greatest value is in the theological framing it gives to the issue of pain, suffering and grief. Its a bold move for a theologian, to theologise in the midst of pain, but I found it all inspiring and hope giving.

I’d encourage you to read it.

Start here.

In the Valley of the Shadow

We are due to start a series in the book of Acts at QBC, but I’ve had a message pressing on me which I feel is from God (as distinct from all the others where I just fluff along and hope for the best…) and it concerns the issue of how we see God in the midst of serious pain and suffering.

I’m not talking about how we deal with ‘first world problems’ ie. unexpected bills, a faulty air con or not enough holidays. I’m thinking of how we deal with life’s major disasters. When a child dies, a marriage busts up, a family member is diagnosed with a terminal illness… BIG stuff… ‘valley of the shadow’ type stuff.

If you read Psalm 23, a Psalm that typically gets read in tough times, you would notice that almost every statement in it is positive and encouraging, (ever noticed that?) but there is an allowance for ‘walking through the valley of the shadow of death’.

Its a powerful metaphor for the type of suffering that I am alluding to. And my theory is that sooner or later every single one of us will walk thru the valley. In one way or another our lives will involve significant pain and we need a theological framework for dealing with that.

If we don’t (and sometimes even if we do) we will end up ‘blaming God’ and berating him for his failure to be an adequate father. This can lead to ditching faith altogether and being disappointed with God because he didn’t meet our expectations

At another extreme is the whole idea of ‘thanking God’ for the suffering, as if it were a good thing. I have seen and heard people thanking God for the most bizarre stuff based on the idea of ‘giving thanks in all circumstances’. Now I’d want to say there is always something to give thanks for, but chances are it won’t be the death of a spouse, or the loss of a child…

I won’t give the game away in terms of what I want to say, (although its not rocket surgery) but I will point you to two posts that I have found helpful in this process and both know suffering firsthand.

The first is by a friend and an ex school student of mine who died on Jan 2nd this year of bowel cancer and it is his final words written a short time before his passing. Kristian suddenly became ‘famous’ after making a video for his wife’s birthday, putting it on Youtube and then discovered it had gone viral.

What I admired about Kristian’s journey was the way he honestly expressed his pain and struggle, and how he didn’t end up pinning it all on God. To the end he called a spade a spade but he also acknowledged God as good, in control and to be trusted. You can read his final words here. I watched the memorial service online and it was a real tribute to a both the way he and his wife dealt with ‘the valley of the shadow’.

And then there is this post by New Testament Theologian Ben Witherington, that is the start of him reflecting on the unexpected death of his 32 year old daughter from a pulmonary embolism. It takes a different tack and shows a biblical scholar coming to grips with the valley of the shadow. Here’s an excerpt:

So, for me, the beginning of good grief starts with the premise of a good God. Otherwise, all bets are off. If God is almighty and malevolent, then there is no solace to be found in God. If God is the author of sin, evil, suffering, the fall, and death, then the Bible makes no sense when it tells us that (1) God tempts no one, that (2) God’s will is that none should perish but have everlasting life, and that (3) death is the very enemy of God and humankind that Jesus, who is life, came to abolish and destroy.

So my theory – as dark as it may be is this: One day you will enter the valley of the shadow – if you haven’t already – and how you see God will be critical to how you walk that journey.

One of my deep convictions is that a healthy grasp of the true character of God can help us both grieve, express pain and not lose our way all at the same time.

So the question comes back to who is God and what is he like?

Faith Stuff With Kids


I dunno how you do faith stuff with your kids. We do it both in the ebb and flow of life but also more intentionally around the dinner table.

Last year Danelle found a book of kid’s devotions with one for each day of the year so we used that maybe 4 or 5 times a week.

This year I picked up the Scripture Union E100 Bible Challenge. I have had the guide sitting in my study for a couple of years now and always thought it could be useful. I found the last devotion book a bit lame so wondered how the kids would go with just straight Bible content. And in the E100 there is a fair bit of it…

Here’s an excerpt from their website to give you an idea of what it is:

The Essential 100 Challenge (The E100) is an effective Bible reading program built around 100 carefully selected short Bible passages — 50 from the Old Testament and 50 from the New Testament. It enables people in your church to get the big picture of God’s Word and in the process develop a daily Bible reading habit.

The E100 Bible passages are usually one to two chapters in length and can easily be read in 10 minutes or less. The E100 Challenge takes a reader through all of the major types of biblical writing including Historical books, Poetry and Wisdom Literature, the Prophets, the Gospels, Acts, the Epistles and Revelation.

It seems some churches have used it as a preaching guide and integrated it into their whole teaching program, so it can be a churchwide thing as well as a very locally based activity.

What I’ve noticed is that our kids have responded well to it. Each night we read around 2 chapters of the Bible (currently Genesis) and as we are reading I ask them to consider a) one thing that strikes them and b) one thing that they would want to ask a question about.

And crikey… there is no shortage of questions…

Genesis is just chock full of stuff that needs questioning and mums and dads don’t always have the answers. But it is really good to have the conversations with the kids and to see how their minds enquire and explore. Just the last few days have led us into some pretty murky theological water.

I am conscious that they at a very early stage of faith and need concrete answers as much as possible to their questions, but I am also conscious that I don’t just want to feed them a party line that won’t hold water as they get older and think things thru more carefully.

Either way I’m not too worried. I think it matters less that we get the answers right and it matters more that we raise the issues.

Anyway if you’re looking for something really simple and surprisingly productive to do with your kids (probably 6 & above) then you could check it out.

Failure, Success & Perspective

How we started the conference from Epic Fail Pastors Conference on Vimeo.

This is a longish post provoked by the clip above – a starter for the ‘Epic Fail Conference’ last year.

I was reflecting this morning that after 47 years of life I have had a fair old mix of failures, successes, failures that some would consider successes and successes that some would consider failures.

So much depends on perspective and the ability to learn.

One of the most pivotal experiences of my life (as young as I was) was ‘failing’ the 11+ exam when we lived in Belfast. Essentially this was a test to see if you were a smart kid or a dumb one and as a result you would either go to ‘grammar school’ and then uni or a ‘tech college’ where you would learn a trade. I have a lousy memory, but I do remember that when the numbers were counted I finished on the wrong side of the ledger and was bound for life as a tradie rather than someone with a university qualification.

I hadn’t realised before that exam that I wasn’t smart. I honestly hadn’t thought much about it, but at that point it was made clear to me. Then shortly after that exam we moved to Australia. After 3 months living in Nollamara which was a small slice of hell for a fat, freckled Irish kid we moved to Innaloo (yep – its a real suburb name and I’ve heard all the jokes…) and I went to North Innaloo Primary School.

I remember immediately getting slotted into the ‘lower academic stream’ class, which based on my immediate history was probably where I belonged. I was in that class for all of about 2 hours. What became apparent very quickly was that I was far more advanced in my education than my Aussie mates. The simple and very uninspiring reason for this was that we started school in Ireland 2 years younger than in Oz so I had done a lot of the work that Aussie kids were just starting on. I managed to knock off an hour of long division work in just 10 minutes and then 30 minutes later I found myself being relocated to the ‘smart class’.

Me?… Smart?…

You’re kiddin me right?

But I discovered that compared to those around me I was now above average academically. What happened over that year was that I began to believe I was actually a smart kid… and I finished up as runner up dux of the school.

Had I been back in Ireland chances are I would have been believing a different story about myself and living out of that. The interesting thing is that I wasn’t stupid – but I likely would have believed that about myself because ‘men in white coats’ told me so.

That was a formative experience and one that gave me courage for the future. In early high school I probably wagged as much school as I attended and consequently got caught up to academically. I was still pretty capable and had grown in confidence, but wasn’t quite the ‘superboy’ I once felt I was. Now I was just the ratbag kid who was constantly in trouble. I could still get decent grades with minimal effort so my energies went into other more important activities like basketball and surfing.

At the end of year 12 I bombed on the TEE and scraped into Phsy Ed at UWA with the lowest entrance score of all 120 of us. I know because we compared results on the Phys Eder’s orientation camp (now there’s another story…) and I was bottom of the pile. This time it was sheer determination that got me thru. After 1 year there were 60 of us left and at the end of the course 30 and I was a mid level performer. I had made it and even scored a job as a teacher down in the little country town of Wagin.

Since then life has its fair share of successes and failures. To be fair the next 15 years were fairly full of successes. I did well at teaching, did well at ministry, got offered some pretty cool jobs, managed to get chosen for some roles I would never have imagined myself in and generally felt fairly invincible and able to take on anything. I see that same indomitable self belief in 30 somethings now and smile. I remember that feeling – or should I say that illusion?…

If its true that we learn more from our failures than our successes then the last 10 years have been my education – and I’m sure I’m not done yet. Living with an illusion of invincibility is wonderful until someone sticks a pin in the bubble and you realise that reality is quite different.

I left my team leader role at Lesmurdie Baptist to begin Upstream with a sense of being someone who would ‘show the world’ what decent church planting looked like. My reasoning was that if I could succeed there (Lesmurdie), then I could succeed somewhere else and who could possibly stuff up a church plant in a new suburb?

Yeah, well if you’ve been a long time reader then you’d know that things didn’t go to plan at all. It was a really hard road and it didn’t turn out anything like I imagined or hoped it would. It was humbling and at times even humiliating not to achieve what I thought I could. My vision of success wasn’t in blessing and serving a community and seeing God’s kingdom come. It was in growing and expanding a church (albeit of a different kind to the norm) that would do some good things but that would ultimately make me look pretty good.

I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of that journey as there is plenty in the archives to do that… but fair to say that in my personal failure there was some amazing learning.

I need to add that what we did with Upstream wasn’t a failure in the sense of it not being valuable. (Danelle always reminds me of this.) It was a brilliant time and there was much good to come from it. But in terms of what I personally set out to achieve – it was a big ‘F’.

Since then there have been a few other significant ‘F’s, some that have knocked us around a bit (again I won’t detail them all) but in the process of ‘effing’ I am conscious of becoming a much fuller human being. Some of the quotes in the clip above make much better sense to me now. Some of the struggles of others who find life hard make more sense to me now too.

I find myself somewhat less idealistic these days and at times barely optimistic. I understand some of the cynicism I used to see in older people who have ‘been there done that’an couldn’t get excited if their life depended on it.

And yet I do have a deep sense that some of our best adventures and our service to God are yet to come. Maybe they won’t end with my fame and glory as I once thought, but perhaps there is stuff of real consequence and significance to invest our lives in. I think so anyway…

Perhaps one of the most powerful learnings of the last phase of life has been that ‘I cannot make it happen/ I am not in control’ as I once thought I was. Its a pretty obvious one really. But in the wake of a number of successes its easy to see yourself as the common element. That learning about the limitations of my own abilities has at times caused me to be passive as I have thought ‘it doesn’t matter what I do – it isn’t going to make a difference’. That thought is a long way from the gung ho attitude of my early 30’s, and is obviously an unhealthy overreaction.

Lately I’ve been feeling like the ‘dust has been settling’ somewhat and that maybe there is a new challenge around the corner. I’m not sure what form that takes or even if I’m right about that, but I feel like I’m ready. There is so much in scripture & history about leaders who have had periods of darkness or failure which have served as some of their richest growth periods.

Then again I might just keep rolling in the same vein for many years to come, but I feel like I am doing so with a much healthier perspective and a much greater sense of hope. Paul’s words about having this treasure in jars of clay rings very true and now the ‘claylike’ nature of my being is less disturbing to me. Superman I am not. Of course everyone else knew that long ago – just took me a while to figure it out.

Purposeful Leadership

When I finished work at one of the churches where I was a pastor one of the members of the congregation who I liked and respected suggested to me that in the future it would be wise for me to consider how to lead people rather than ‘drive’ them. It was a very helpful piece of input that has made more sense with each passing year.

He had observed that when I wanted to move a bunch of people in a direction I would approach the task somewhat forcefully and with minimal room for negotiation. Many would come because they liked me and I could do the ‘visionary’ thing, (or they had no better ideas) but it had the trade off of lower buy in from others and yet another group feeling pushed around or bullied into a place they had no desire to be.

When a youth pastor does this, young people (often/usually) cheer and ‘rah-rah’ because they want someone with rabid conviction to lead them. Many want to be part of something and a strong sense of direction adds to this.

Some would call this ‘strong leadership’ and in one sense I guess it is. It requires significant strength to shove a bunch of people in a direction and keep them there. Some days though it resembles the feeling of pushing a car uphill. You exert a lot of effort to make the gains and if you take yours hands off then the whole thing rolls back the other way (and often over the top of you)

In the next phase of leadership (with Upstream), I took a much gentler more collaborative approach, but because I wasn’t very skilled at it I found it hard – and I think people found it hard. I was trying to learn a different way of leading and it wasn’t coming naturally or easily. I was naturally directive, and they knew me as such, so to invite other people into the process was not easy. I wasn’t at all sure how to genuinely engage other people’s input while still leading with strong personal conviction.

In time I found my balance again and was able to be myself in that different mode. I learnt how to invite participation and yet hold strong opinions where they mattered. (In a smaller forum directive leadership just seems completely odd anyway.)

The last couple of years at QBC have involved re-thinking leadership yet again. We are not a large church, but we are an ‘established church’ with some set protocols and procedures – for better and for worse. So it has been an interesting exercise re-discovering leadership yet again in a different context. Some folks like the strong directive leader – so long as the direction is one that they can agree with. Others like the more consultative approach and need to have their input considered. One of the challenges in leading has been simply to navigate the spectrum of expectations that exist and not to just bow to the loudest voices.

There has been a need for highly collaborative decision making at some points and at other times a need to just ‘draw a line in the sand’. I think that perhaps the last 10 years have helped me to see what things are genuinely ‘line in the sand’ issues and what are of no real consequence.

On reflection I would hope that the leadership I give now would be purposeful, but not driven and that our directions would spring from giving people the opportunities to participate in the process, yet also recognising that sometimes leaders just see stuff and know stuff and need to make decisions. And these days I feel better placed to be able to discern which decisions require which approach.

We have a church leader’s meeting tonight and part of our agenda is to look at what we feel are our priorities for the coming year and then to discuss how we begin to lead people towards these. The ‘priorities’ were agreed on in an open church day of prayer and planning towards the end of last year (an all welcome gig) and now we are looking to help people on the journey of making them more than words on a page – hence the few minutes of personal reflection…

I’d be interested to hear the observations and learnings of others who have been in a range of different leadership roles.

What have you learnt? And what are the bigger priorities that need to be considered?

As It Was

Last week we were in Sydney and went to Bondi where the stretch of sand from steps to beach is huge – maybe 100m and I was saying to Danelle that Scarborough used to look like that way back in the 70’s and 80’s. On hot days the dash to the water in a pair of thongs inevitably resulted in scorched feet – or having to stop half way and stand on your towel!

I came across this pic on the SSHS facebook site today (courtesy of Kyle O’Callaghan) and it brought back memories of the place as it used to be before development moved in. I actually remember wagging school on numerous occasions and playing pinball in Tom’s. One day in 1981 stands out because I had taken dad’s car to school and used to it to get down to the beach. The escape from class and school had been something of an adrenalin rush and I obviously hadn’t regained my equilibrium because I parked it out the front of Tom’s and locked it, only to discover I had left the keys inside… with the engine still running… It took a little while, but I managed to lever open a quarter panel window in the old XT Fairmont and retrieve the keys.

Then there was the classic old art deco Scarborough Beach Hotel and the carpark there which was a great place for checking the surf. I was too young to be bothered with ever going to the pub, but the beach did have a great vibe about it back in those days.

I Get It

You know I get the gist of this video and think it says some useful things.

I also get the vibe of this post and think it pushes back fairly well.

Sometimes I just want to say ‘folks can we agree that we are roughly on the same page and dispense with semantics?’

Yeah I know – words matter – and all that, but I’m a bit over debates and fights about stuff that just isn’t that big a deal…

If we just get on with loving God and loving those around us then maybe we won’t have time to get upset about these things…

Keeping Your Virginity is Way Overrated

In the circles I move in it is traditionally held that a young guy and girl should keep their virginity until marriage and then the wedding night should be the time of ‘giving that gift’ to the other person.

I have long believed that virginity has been way overrated by Christian people.

No – seriously…

I would want to suggest that the Bible more clearly teaches that we are to we keep ourselves pure (and that applies to every area of life) and that is actually a much higher standard than virginity. It’s also a standard that applies after ‘marriage’ as well.

Telling a young person they can’t have intercourse is like telling a P Plate driver not to speed – and by that I mean do not exceed 110 km/hr…

The point is you can get up a lot of speed and not hit 110.

I reckon we set the bar way too low.

I haven’t preached a sex sermon to teenagers for a long time now but if I ever did I’d be saying ‘screw virginity’ (yes a pun…) and shoot for purity. Set the bar high and ask the question what does purity look like rather than ‘how can I drive at 109km/hr and not accidentally tip over the limit?’ (Or just not get caught)

I’m about to go to a wedding this afternoon hence the sudden interest in all things sexual…

I realize many folks who read this wont share my antiquated convictions but I reckon the biblical writers were onto something.

As you were…


Its one of my favourite movies, but today it was me…

I haven’t had a car accident for a long time, but today I made up for that. I was behind a bloke who looked like he was going to drive thru an amber light and then changed his mind. I was going to follow him and didn’t give myself enough space to brake.


When the back end of a small car gets wacked by a Patrol it gets ugly. My bull bar was pushed under and there was some minor damage to the lights, but not so you’d notice. His looked like it had been in a demolition derby… He was about 80 and not very impressed.

What pisses me off about these situations is that you aren’t supposed to admit liability. So how can you apologize for screwing up?… I decided to forgo insurance company formalities and just said ‘sorry… very sorry’. What else can you say?.. ‘I saw you there and lined you up because I thought it would be fun?…’

I was driving the Patrol because my other car was in for repairs. Yesterday it began to do some weird stuff and I knew it wasn’t good. Understatement. The head is well and truly cactus so we’re talking $3k to get that sorted. Bit of a shitty day in terms of the bottom line really…

I always wonder do you spend $3K on a $5K car, or do you call it quits and get a new beast?…

My preference has been to run the gauntlet of cheaper cars and accept that along the way there will be repairs, but occasionally I like the thought of a new car with a 5 yr warranty… I bought an auto trader on the way home, but I think the very ‘unsexy’ fix it up will be the decision. Just to pay the transfer and insurance would cost me $2K on a decent car, so the numbers don’t really add up.

So – no one has died. No one will die (because of this) and life is still very very good. It helps to keep stuff in perspective when the $ factor grabs you by the short and curlies.