It’s all got a bit serious in NSW lately and while we sit chilling up here in Cairns, we are officially ‘locked out’ of WA. While we are in Queensland we can’t simply ‘hop across’ to WA and trundle home.
We were planning on heading further north, Port Douglas, Cooktown and up that way, but we are concerned that it may be just a matter of time before Covid raises it’s head more in Qld and we get stuck here. Things change so quickly that we could easily get wrong-footed, as thousands of other travellers are now.
Right now the NT still take people from Qld so we will aim to get in there by Thursday or Friday this week – or if things get ugly we will be there in one very long drive. We then have to spend 14 days in the NT before we can drive across to Kununnurra – although by the sounds of it, there is ‘no room at the inn’ right there. It’s busy up north so free camping will be our go to except when we need to do some washing etc.
So it’s around 3 weeks before we will be able to say ‘we will be home as planned’. In the scheme of things that is hardly a massive deal. When people are doing it as tough as they are in other parts of Oz we feel fortunate just to have made it this far with minimal disruptions to the schedule.
Our original plan was to turn left at Whyalla and head up to Alice Springs/Uluru and then across to Qld, before coming down the coast and going to Tassie in August. We are very glad we reshuffled Tassie to May, as right now we would have been heading back the way we came – and that wouldn’t have been heaps of fun. We have been dodging the virus each step of the way, with just 3 days of lockdown in Kirra – where it rained for that time anyway.
Right now we should get into WA mid August, giving us 6 weeks to trundle down the coast and make our way home. Depending on what day you ask me I could either come home tomorrow or travel indefinitely… But lately it’s been more of a yearning for home, mostly brought on by pain and a knowledge that at home I can begin to sort the problems more carefully.
So… unless things go nuts up here in Queensland, we expect to take that trajectory back home.
Unfortunately the one constant in my life over the last 5 years has been pain. Not ‘killer’ pain – just nagging pain – sometimes bad – but mostly low level pain. Quite literally a pain in the butt – ‘levator ani’ syndrome seems to be the name people use for it. I wrote about it in this post – ‘like driving with the handbrake on.’ It’s a form of chronic pain with no known solution. You just manage it.
My normal way of ‘managing’ is to consider how fortunate I am that it isn’t worse. That I’m not gonna die from it, that I can still enjoy life. I don’t live in Somalia, Afghanistan or America. My life is not under threat. In virtually every other way my life is actually pretty damn good.
But… every friken day I wake up and it’s there.
And I have had prayer, more prayer and more again, as well as all types of treatments – physio, chiro, drugs – more drugs (not those drugs – although I did consider it…) and it’s still there. It really sux. I don’t use the ‘F’ word in my daily language. I think I was raised too conservative to ever consider it acceptable, but some days it takes you here.
F*&% THIS! Probably fits better than ‘oh well – this is my lot in life…’
I know I’m not alone – and this isn’t a ‘poor me’ post. I know some of you struggle with far worse issues than what I have. I don’t have much time for self pity and wallowing in woe. Sometimes you get a bad hand and in this part of my life it’s just that way.
What’s going on?
I’m not sure I have any half decent answer for that either medically or theologically. Other than to say we live in a broken world and this is just part of it. Stuff breaks. Stuff sux. It’s how it will be in this time.
Lately while on holidays I’ve been trying to memorise a Psalm every couple of weeks so that I can embrace them in prayer. And the most recent addition was Psalm 13. Aside from my regular pain which has been fairly manageable while travelling, I have developed sciatica – a deep pain in my right glute that goes all the way down my thigh. So now I have a pain in the butt and a pain in bum… And I’m pretty sick of it.
Psalm 13 is David venting at God. And it gets brutally honest.
He starts off, ‘How long Oh God? Will you forget me forever?’ He’s feeling like God has ditched him, lost sight of him, lost interest.
‘How long will you hide your face from me?’ God playing games? What’s the deal when we feel like that? We are told so often to seek after God (or if you are charismatic to ‘press in’) but what if you seek and press and you find nothing? You’ve been there right?
‘How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?’ These are dark times for David. I don’t think it has come to this for me – yet… But I have wrestled with my thoughts. If this ‘is it’ for me then is life really worth living? Another 30 or 40 years of this? For those of you who have real deep dark pain or suffer from depression, I’m guessing you’d relate.
In essence David is saying ‘F$%k this God!’
He is dark. Very dark.
‘How long will my enemy triumph over me?’ We ‘have the victory’ right?… We pastors tell you that… Except when we don’t have any victory. Except when we feel like we are just losing, losing losing and someone is standing over us laughing.
It makes you wonder if there is any point to prayer. It makes you wonder if maybe you got this whole deal wrong – if you have been living an illusion – because surely a loving God would have come thru by now… wouldn’t he?…
‘How long will my enemy triumph over me?’
‘Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,’
Is it ok to make demands of God? David does… Imagine the tone is taking to God here. Seriously – pause and imagine his tone in your head. Now you’ve got the idea… The beauty of memorising a psalm for prayer is that when no one is around you can ‘pray it like you mean it’, so a couple of days ago when I was attempting to surf out at Kirra, I found myself alone and frustrated so I decided to ‘pray it as if I meant it.’
‘LOOK ON ME!’
‘AND ANSWER ME!’
A bit demanding? How hard can this be God? David goes from there to asking for ‘light in his eyes or he will sleep in death.’ I’ve heard it said that David is a bit of a drama queen – overdoes it a bit – but sometimes this is legitimately how you feel. Am I right? ‘If I don’t see some light at the end of the tunnel, then I’m done.’ This is actually how we feel, so it’s actually ok to pray this. More than OK – it’s important, otherwise we are just playing a stupid religious game.
‘F%^K THIS GOD!’ is actually a far better prayer than dodging the issue or dancing around it so you don’t either hurt his feelings or get on his bad side… (Don’t make me bring out Old Testament God…)
FWIW I believe wholeheartedly that God heals people and he can heal me. For some reason he hasn’t. And I think he’s ok with me raising that with him as a real bone of contention.
And I guess that’s the kind of heart that leads David to finish the Psalm like this:
But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.
So how does that hang together with ‘How long will you hide your face from me?’ Glad you asked…
One of my core convictions – deepest, deepest, deepest beliefs is that God is good. If God is not good then we really are screwed. But everything I read in the Bible and see of Jesus and my own experience leads me to believe that God is good. If anything could knock that foundation stone out of my faith then I think the structure would wobble. It wouldn’t be game over, because there are other elements that hold it together – but it would be a serious blow.
I think what David is doing is coming back to what he knows to be true – he is affirming what he knows even if it looks contrary at this time.
How do you speak those words in prayer if you are really dark? How do you even find the emotional space to think those thoughts?
Perhaps they come from some previous experience of God, some knowledge of who he is and how he has been with you in the past. Perhaps they are an objective truth you affirm because of how you read the Bible.
Maybe you have to dig really deep to find that voice.
Maybe you just can’t find that voice.
But David is able to do this and it isn’t in any way a half hearted, ‘pre-heated’ response to God. It’s an affirmation of who God is and it’s what he chooses to do even in the darkest times.
Honestly… I don’t have a ‘tip’ for how to do this. I can only sense that David knew God in such a way that this was as true from the bottom of is heart, as his cry for God’s attention was at the start of the Psalm. If we know God – know him like this bloke did – then maybe we can pray like he did.
After I had yelled the first half of the Psalm into the Kirra surf, I spoke these words too. Perhaps with a tone of ‘I know this is true – but still – why?’ However, I know God is good – that my life is richer for his presence – and that he has been very good to me.
But this world is broken. That is a reality that sits along side God’s goodness. And so I live with this great expectation of the new creation – that one day all will be made new and there will be no pain and no suffering for anyone. In the meantime we wrestle, we struggle and we grapple to live in the tension. If you know what I’m talking about – if you’ve made it to the end of this post – then go memorise Psalm 13 and use it in your own prayers.
You may not get answers – but you may just discover a God you didn’t know.
A number of years back I went fishing with my friend Stuart and his son in the usually calm waters of Geographe Bay. This day was windy and choppy, but we anchored around 100m from the Busso jetty (the left side of this image) and began casting for fish, not realising that the sand anchor was slipping and the wind was shunting our boat closer and closer to the jetty. When I realised what was happening I immediately tried to start the motor and move us away from danger. But my normally reliable Johnson outboard flooded and refused to fire. We continued to drift, so I turned to the auxiliary motor. By this time we were literally within metres of the large wooden piers. In the panic to get it started I didn’t realise I had left it in gear, so it also failed to start. Both motors were out of action, the anchor wouldn’t hold and we were quite literally at the mercies of the ocean as we headed for the massive jetty piers. It was a frightening moment and I envisaged the boat being smashed to pieces and us swimming for shore. We sent 10 year old Jordan under cover of the deck while Stuart and I tried to guide this large fiberglass boat between the piers. Miraculously we made it with only minimal damage, but it was a reminder of how quickly apparently favourable conditions can change and combine to create a perfect storm.
In a similar vein the church has long been anchored in the calm safe harbour of Christendom, the 1700 year era where Christianity was central to society. In this time pastors have evolved to become trained and qualified professionals, whose job it is to ensure the church performs its core business correctly. While different denominations might debate what that ‘business’ is there is no question that a lot of it revolved around ‘getting Sunday right’. Whether it was ensuring orthodox, expository teaching was the norm, or making sure hymns were sung rather than ‘that modern stuff’. Up until the early 80’s there was little thought beyond Sundays, Wednesday evenings and pastoral care. Christendom really only needs a pastor / teacher to keep the system ticking along.
While the Christendom culture held firm, the role of the professional pastor was to give oversight and often personal leadership to the core activities of the church. Pastors led all the worship, preached all the sermons, visited all the people and dealt with all of the pastoral needs of the flock. That’s an exaggeration I realise, but not far from the truth. We expected these men (no women – sorry!) – who were usually solo pastors – to be able to manage all of this because they has been trained for it. Over the 1700 years of Christendom we came to see this as normal.
But then our tried and true measures for running a church began to fail. People began leaving the church first in dribbles and then in droves. It started with the ‘nominals’ who were only there for appearances anyway, but before long it impacted us ‘evangelicals’ (a word I fear we have lost…). Now our people were leaving and that really didn’t equate. The culture was changing and they felt they had permission to skip Sundays or stop attending altogether.
People also stopped coming to church when they were seeking spiritual insight and began trying other eastern spiritualities. It was the 70’s and 80’s – the early days of secularism. Church started to become ‘irrelevant’ so we figured that one of the keys to regaining ground was ensuring what we did was ‘relevant’ to the people we were hoping would come (back). It was also the era of trying to work out what people’s felt needs were and then meeting these with various programs.
In short it was the beginning of our wrestle with consumerism. Oh I’m sure this was happening long before in subtle forms, but the hard reality for anyone wanting to join the church in the 70’s and before was that they needed to conform to our standards if they wanted in. Today we speak of ‘belonging, believing and then behaving’ in that order – you are welcome as you are (and that is GOOD!), but back then you stubbed your cigarette by the car door, popped a breath freshener and then joined the gathering. You behaved right, then you believed our stuff and finally you belonged. Not very Jesus like at all, but that’s what happens in a Christendom based world. We called the shots.
However as Christendom dwindled and churches began to decline further, we began to adjust our posture, some of it for the better and some of it not so good. Now we sought to attract people in with attempts at relevance and by attending to felt needs. We preached topical sermons on family issues, we spruced up the building, created visitors carparks and so it went on. I don’t know if we were ever aware that the anchor was slipping and this ‘perfect storm’ of secularism, professionalised ministry and a consumer culture were shunting us slowly towards the jetty.
It was like something shifted in the DNA of the church as we tried everything we could to avoid disaster. Now instead of being pastors and teachers our professionals needed to be visionaries, marketers and strategists with a five year plan for the future of the church. We didn’t just learn from the corporate world – we swallowed their stuff in one gulp – or maybe that was just me?
One of the unavoidable consequences of ‘marketing’ the church and appealing to felt needs was the emergence of competition. You simply can’t adopt business methodologies and marketing strategies without hoping to beat the guy down the road. I know we nodded, winked and spoke the BS of it being ‘all for the kingdom’, but reality was everyone was seeking to carve out their market share to ensure the enterprise remained viable. People were spoken of in some church circles as ‘giving units’ and budgets were forecast based on the projected giving from those ‘units’. (By now you should be dry retching.)
Mike Tyson once said ‘everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.’ Reality is that right now the church is getting punched in the face and the plan is looking shaky. No doubt those who have hired competent marketing staff will continue to expand their enterprise and eliminate the competition, but increasingly the church landscape will look a bit like that of the hardware store. We all know that sooner or later ‘Bunnings’ is going to land in our community and beat us on the bottom line every time.
This is some of what the future holds. The ‘Bunnings’ franchise churches will continue to eliminate the competition, the Home hardwares will do their best to compete and the local hardware store, where the owner runs the store and sources any product for you even if it’s not in stock now will either quickly fold, or find alternative ways to survive. The same part of me that wants to start a family owned local hardware store in my own community is the part that wants church to be local, personal and connected to the people. It doesn’t want to compete. It wants to acknowledge the diversity of churches needed for people to encounter God, but it wants to unravel the mess that we have currently become.
I’m not convinced we can do that while we are part of the ‘church industry’, either as a pastor, a consultant or a conference speaker. I’m not convinced that while we depend on the system for an income we have the ability, let alone the credibility to call for the kind of change that is needed. It has been said that it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. Perhaps this may explain part of our predicament. The ‘system’ works for those who are paid by it and who also have the most power to change it. Why would you intentionally subvert a system that is working to your advantage? Why would you risk your own livelihood? Reality is that we all have bills to pay and families to support, so the chances of us rocking the very boat in which we are sailing is slim.
But the boat is still headed for the jetty and our answers are not compelling.
Is it possible we could develop churches that are not dependent on ‘professionals’, who in turn are reliant on meeting their KPI’s for ongoing salary? This morning I sat down to edit some of the book I have been writing on the importance of bivocational mission and ministry in the coming decades – having pastoral leaders who are not bound to the church for their income, who can lead with integrity and engage in the world around them with credibility. I got distracted and ended up writing this post – which is essentially the ‘why’ of the book.
Secularism, professionalism and consumerism have combined to create the perfect storm, but we aren’t ready with any kind of perfect answer. Chances are if you are a pastor – or someone paid by the church industry – then reading this post will have touched a nerve in you and you will either be bewildered by the complexity of the situation in which we find ourselves, or you may just be ready to list all the reasons I am wrong, and why my perception is off key. Well… knock yourself out. Comment away! I would love to be wrong. I would love to have a much simpler, richer expression of church as the norm.
Interestingly in our travels around Australia for the last 3 months we have sought to join a church gathering on every Sunday. Had we done this 50 years ago we would dressed up nice and attended a ‘church-like’ building where a man in a suit would have handed us a hymn book from his stack and we would then have been careful to choose a pew that wasn’t the domain of a regular. If you’re my age or older the you know the scenario. This was the norm. Dull, bland, predictable and dreadfully un-engaging. (Part of the reason I am a pastor today is because of my experience as a teen – I don’t want that for my own children.) The ‘norm’ today however is to enter a darkened room, where loud music pulses and the spotlights focus us on the stage. As visitors we usually get a ‘free coffee ticket’ for some actual real coffee after the service in the ‘guest lounge’.
While I would never advocate a return to the dull dark days of the 70’s, I am even less a fan of the ‘new normal’, where I am treated as a consumer to be wooed, impressed and hopefully ‘converted’ into regular attendance – and of course giving…
Maybe I’m just a 57 year old cynic… or maybe I’m someone in the system who isn’t dependent on it for his livelihood and as a result it’s easier to call BS. My deep and great hope is that we can create local communities of faith that are truly engaged with the neighbourhoods in which they live, where the people are trained and equipped to be disciples of Jesus in every day life and where no one is worried about your capacity to contribute financially to the bottom line. If we can dismantle the current competition based model then we may be able to do something that genuinely feels like it is ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.
Until then dim the lights, crank the music and reach for your wallets.