What’s It Feel Like?

As I read CS Lewis reflection on grief, he described it as feeling very much like ‘fear’.

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

A Grief Observed p 1

I paused a moment there because I wasn’t feeling fear or anything similar (and I tend to agree with Lewis on a lot of stuff). That said, I found it difficult to articulate exactly what I was feeling. Intense grief is like?… I dunno – it’s like nothing I have experienced before…

Three months on and after immersing myself in both the experience of grief and the subject (via many books) I feel like I have a sense of how I would describe it – at this stage anyway…

Back in 2021 Danelle and I did our second ‘lap’ of Australia and this time managed to include Tasmania. While in Hobart we took a drive up the infamously, icy Mt Wellington and it lived up to expectations. It was insanely cold at the top.

My weather app said the temperature at the summit was 3 degrees but because of the ferocity of the wind it felt more like -17. I have no prior experience of -17 degree days, but I remember this day as ferocious – frightening even.

As we left the car, fully rugged up and walked to the lookout we were stunned at how crippling the wind was. It seemed to cut thru every part of our being and even with snow jackets on we could only bear its brunt for a few minutes.

Had we been unable to retreat to the visitor’s centre we would have been frozen within minutes. As I was describing my personal experience of grief to a friend recently this was the image that came to mind – being exposed to a force so terrifying it could tear you apart – but also having a space to retreat to, where you could get your bearings and recover while being present to the experience itself.

The sheer force of grief in the early days of Sam’s death was like the assault we felt on the top of the mountain – raging and destructive, an assault we simply had to experience and endure. I feel like I have moved unconsciously between the ‘outside’ and the ‘visitor’s centre’ – between the full force of grief and from a place of being sheltered from its power. I don’t think I’ve tried to hide or run from it – rather to simply acknowledge that it is there – but also realise I can’t endure its attack indefinitely.

The ‘shelter’ or ‘visitor’s centre’ in my experience have been friends, both from church and community who have come around and genuinely offered support. I have not felt alone in this at all – in fact at times I have felt somewhat overwhelmed with love and kindness. I could probably count 15-20 men who I have varying degrees of contact with who all have made the effort to connect and care. That has been a source of much strength and balm. No toxic masculinity here. And there have been wonderfully good women too – but less in my sphere than Danelle’s.

There are days when I have intentionally chosen to ‘step outside’ into the torment and to reflect purposefully and deeply on what has been lost in Sam’s death. There is so much – father/son friendship, future marriage and grandkids, his thinking and reflections of the world that challenged my own and so much more. In those times the emotion is fierce and while my capacity to stand in that space is limited, it feels important to step into that space from time to time and simply let it ‘assault’ me.

This weekend we are speaking at the Margaret River Baptist Church, a community we had hoped to be working amongst as pastors at this time – but Sam’s death meant we changed plans. We have postponed any pastoral work until such time as we are feeling more up to it. But as we went to book a campsite for the weekend, we spoke briefly of staying at the one we were at on our last visit – where we got the news – and the feeling in the pit of our stomach was definitely not yet. A whole flood of memories and emotions were unleashed just with that one thought. For a moment we were outside in the blasting wind.

As I have lived in this space there have been days at a time where I have felt quite ok – normal even. Plenty of work and exercise has kept me occupied so I haven’t been in ‘mope mode’, but I have also wanted to purposefully sit in the space and allow the experience to form and shape me in some way. I’m sure it will do that whether I like it or not – but I’m hopeful of it having some good outcomes rather than simply being destructive.

So if you don’t like the great man, CS Lewis’ description of immense grief then try mine on for size and see if it fits you better.

Because You Just Don’t Know

You just never know 

If this is


The last embrace 

The final moment of shared joy

A simple hug in the kitchen

Before you hit the road

‘Love you dad’

‘Love you mate.’

Chests bump, hands slap


But then

The news

That something has gone wrong 

That he won’t be coming home


The utterly unimaginable has happened 

So this evening you hold her a little longer

A treasured moment of deep gratitude 

For the life you share 

Revelling in the simple pleasure of fatherhood 

For a little longer

Because you just don’t know 

10 Weeks…

It’s been around 10 weeks now since Sam died – which I feel is long enough for the shock to wear off most people and equally long enough for the terrible reality of his absence to settle with us.

I feel like I have moved away from shock (‘can’t believe this happened to us’) to ‘what now?… How do we live in this new reality?’

I find it hard to describe the kind of pain I experience when I contemplate that I will never see him again – in this life. It’s very very ‘black’ – very dark and I get the sense I haven’t ever felt this kinda stuff before so I don’t even know quite how to articulate it.

Is it a deep wound that never fully heals and is hyper-sensitive any time it is touched? Is it an expanding inner darkness that I haven’t begun to comprehend yet? I know these last few days I felt the ‘never-ness’ stronger than before, like it has settled deeper in my being.

I’m grateful Sam wasn’t murdered like the two Aussie surfers in Mexico – I’m grateful he didn’t die a violent death, and I’m grateful that we were able to see him and his body wasn’t lost. In light of what we have seen on the news recently I guess those are things are positives. But he’s still dead.

I now observe how people interact around news of Sam’s death, how it impacts some profoundly and others seem to be unaware or maybe disinterested. I know I have never been amazing at staying in that space of grief with people. I just don’t seem to have that kind of empathy. I can focus and work at it, but I have noticed some people are just very naturally empathetic. I’m not one of those as a general rule, so I have a fair bit of grace for people who seem to not register where we are at in life.

In one sense I feel like the reality has taken hold and we have accepted (what else can you do) our situation, but in the acceptance it’s like we stepped up another level in intensity of grief. It’s a little like the chronic back pain I had a few years back – sometimes you forget it’s there, sometimes you have days when you function fairly normally, but other days it’s a searing pain that you simply can’t get around. It never goes away.

And then come the doubts – what if the whole Christian story is a myth? What if we have been the ones barking up the wrong tree all these years?… Yeah I do have those thoughts from time to time. I feel like I also know how to process them so they don’t spiral me into utter hopelessness. In those moments I reflect on what I already know of God, of Jesus and on my experiences of faith over so many years and it pulls things back into shape fairly quickly. I’m glad for those markers and moments that I can refer back to after around 50 years of following Jesus. I imagine this would be a tougher journey without the track history of God’s faithfulness and goodness to reflect back on.

This Sunday we head to Pingelly to speak to the crew down there. We had literally said ‘goodbye’ to them after a weekend on their church camp, when the call came that Sam was in trouble. So they went home with that knowledge – a fairly awful end to a good weekend. I want to go back and share with them some of how we have been dealing with this stuff – how our faith interacts with an event like this and how I have processed it all. I shared a message like this with the QBC crew a couple of weeks after Sam died, and I don’t intend to use it often. but for this context it will probably be helpful for them. I believe they have been doing some stuff with basic doctrine – so this will be a very stretching exercise in practical theology. How do these doctrines stand up and how do we navigate crises with them. I shared some of my deepest core convictions here a few months back so I will be reflecting on how they interact with this current situation.

Thanks to those who have blessed us with such care and kindness these last few months. The initial ‘assault’ is over and now we are contending with the next stages – an unknown quantity in many ways, but I’ll be reflecting on here as I’m able for those who are keeping in touch.

Taking the Leap into The Bivocational Space

If we are going to change tack and genuinely invest in a bivocational approach to mission and ministry then a first step would be coming to come to grips with just how stiff and unmalleable our imagination of the pastoral role can be.

It’s an imagination perpetuated by both pastor and church community. When pastors take up a ‘GP’ type role they end up feeling responsible for oversight of the whole church community. This isn’t bad. You can carry oversight responsibility without having to invest time in each activity or area. But wisdom and courage is required to discern where your limited time is best spent.

Note I used the phrase ‘limited time’. Seriously – we sometimes lead like time was an infinite resource, but reality is that even a full time pastor has limited time. You need to decide how many hours you are allocating to your pastoral role and then decide which activities you will need to invest most of your time in. You can’t be all things to all people all of the time.. Sorry – you just can’t… Or you can but you can expect to burn out, and feel angry, beaten up and misunderstood. But you are the one in control of your time, so you really can’t get all gnarly if you overcommit and end up with an overly full calendar.

If a good transition to a bivocational arrangement is going to happen then a conversation needs to be had with the church leaders and church community where there is agreement around the scope of the role. There is no point in a pastor drawing hard boundaries if no-one else is also subscribing to those boundaries. That is just a recipe for conflict. When we started at Quinns Baptist I somehow knew that I had 3 areas I could contribute to effectively – leadership & oversight, teaching and meeting with men. In 2 days of ministry these were going to be my priorities and foci.

What that looked like practically was:

a) allocating time for meeting with leaders both 1:1 and in groups, giving thought to future directions and ideas and addressing any challenges or conflicts that were happening. Mostly big picture & important people stuff.

b) teaching approx 50% of the time. I found I could generate a decent quality sermon if I stuck to this expectation. I would allocate 2-3 hours on a Monday morning for reading and exploration of the ideas, allow it all to percolate over the week and then on Friday morning I would switch off phones, wifi and any potential interruptions and crank out a word for word draft. Sometimes it would be dot pointed, but only if I knew my material well enough. That would take 2-3 hours. Then somewhere over the weekend I’d give it a ‘polish’ and make sure it all flowed. Teaching at blokes groups took very little prep as it was more about forming good questions to get men talking than imparting knowledge and information.

c) meeting with men happened ‘as needed’ and where I saw an opportunity. There was an intentional focus in my mind to spend time with men who were keen to move forward in their discipleship and faith. If you just want to attend church and tick the box then I won’t be chasing you.

Of course there was other stuff to do. I maintained the church website for many years, fielded emails from all the people who were seeking an opportunity to showcase their mission projects, did some marriage prep stuff, crisis meetings with families and other odds and ends – but I very rarely felt guilty or disappointed if the non-core stuff didn’t get done.

And I chose those 3 core activities based on my own gifts, the needs of the church and where I saw that I could make the greatest contribution. I

That’s how I hit it practically and it sounds pretty easy as I write it there. The challenge is that everything takes a long time to do because the time you can invest is more than halved. So if you’re a fast paced ‘go get em’ type then you may well find yourself frustrated that your ideas and plans aren’t being implemented quickly enough.

But then you have to step back and ask how important is it that the mens 4 x 4 club gets up and running asap? Or how critical is it that we establish a playgroup. Most stuff can wait and be done when you have the time – or – even better – it can be (and should be) delegated to people in the church

If you are already bivocational and frustrated then it may be

a) time for a serious conversation with leader and church to define the parameters of your role. That is for those who are feeling overwhelmed

b) for those who are feeling like everything is moving too slow it may be time to meet with a coach / spiritual director to reflect on why you are bothered by this and what is driving a need to ‘get there yesterday’.

I began this post suggesting that our imagination of church is too rigid and unmalleable – that the challenge for people going bivo is to come to a share understanding of what it means so that both pastor and church agree on steps forward. Perhaps a step in the right direction would be to get agreement around what constitutes a valid church community (theologically) and then to ask how many ways that can legitimately be expressed. If other alternatives can be imagined then they may also be worthy of consideration. Not all churches meet on Sundays in dedicated buildings led by theologically trained experts…

Of course there are different approaches to change processes. Some groups need a sharp, full frontal re-direction of their focus. Others need a more gentle approach. While I feel like I’d generally prefer to go softly, reality is that in most changes something needs to be broken, so it may even be better to just rip off the band-aid and get moving on a new direction.

Inverting Perceptions

This week it’s my job to speak in church from John 8, a story that opens with what we commonly call ‘the woman caught in adultery’ and is then followed by an almost Monty Python like routine between Jesus and the Pharisees where they argue about his identity.

I’ve spoken numerous times before from this opening story, and have always referred to it by that familiar title ‘woman caught in adultery’, until today as I was preparing and I found myself asking ‘why this title?’ Why not ‘religious leaders caught in self righteousness’? Or as one of my FB friends suggested ‘Patriarchal hypocrisy’?

I think we use the familiar title because this is where the various Bible editors have led us to. It’s the chapter heading in most Bibles and we have just learnt to accept it. Is it possible that there are more men than women on Bible editing teams and this is a male perception of the story? I wonder how a female team may have described this story?

Perhaps we need to change the title of the story, because the focus of John’s narrative is definitely not on the woman’s sin – but on the tactics the Pharisees employed to try and ‘check-mate’ Jesus.

The second question I found myself mulling over as I read the dialogue was ‘why does Jesus engage with these people like he does?‘ Is he not better to just walk away and let them be? Doesn’t he know that this is sheer futility? That you never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it)

The only sensible conclusion I can come to for Jesus’ persistent, unfiltered critique of the Pharisees is that sometimes you just have to go after evil systems and call out those who are perpetuating them. Sometimes gentle, kind persuasion doesn’t work. You have to speak directly to the issue in a way that evokes a response. I remember in the early days of running with the Forge tribe that our critique of the church was at times brutal and abrasive. It was intentionally confronting, because I suspect gentle nudges would not have made a difference. While the systems weren’t ‘evil’ the challenge of changing them required more than a ‘have you considered?…’

I seriously think we would have counselled Jesus to ‘let it go’, but he clearly didn’t think that was the best way of dismantling the broken religious systems of his time. Perhaps there is a time for abandoning tact and simply speaking truth in a confronting way. Of course the challenge is that we are not Jesus and our motives are rarely as pure as his…