This was how a conversation began between Sam and myself this week. He has been working with me for a couple of weeks and sometimes we get into conversations about the bigger things of life. This was one of those days. It began like this:
‘Hey dad – no offense… but your life looks so boring and tedious. I really wouldn’t want to finish up with a life like yours.’
I’ve learnt not to get immediately defensive (even) when someone – your own son – says that the things you are currently giving your life to appear droll and uninteresting.
‘Ok – what do you mean by that?’ I ask. I’m genuinely curious as to what he sees even if I do immediately want to smack him around the head at the same time.
I won’t try to put exact words in his mouth but the essence was that the predictability and routine nature of my simple suburban life was fairly abhorrent to him. He doesn’t ever want to find himself settled in a similar kind of existence where the adventure has been leeched out of life and replaced with a kind of lemming like conformity. (He has written his own take on this conversation on his own blog. He’s a fantastic writer so head over and get disturbed by him – but finish this first.)
‘Ok – so what are you hoping for?’ I asked, looking to dig deeper into what shape he was hoping his life would take.
He began to speak of freedom, adventure, spontaneity and the kind of unrestrained life that can be more easily envisioned when you have no ongoing responsibilities like kids… a job… a mortgage… friends… even a sense of calling
I heard where he was coming from because I remember offering a similar critique of my own father’s life at around the same age. I don’t remember the conversation going all that well. I was convinced he had ‘sold out’ to middle class conformity and if he truly believed the words of Jesus he would sell it all, give it to the poor and live a more Christlike kind of life.
Perhaps I was a tad idealistic. I was 18, I had just read the whole New Testament focussing on the ‘justice’ passages and I was convinced that all wealth was destructive and that we needed to rid ourselves of our allegiance to (and ownership) of wealth if we actually wanted to follow Jesus. I wanted dad to sell everything and give it away. The fact that I had nothing in my own bank account at the time may have helped me be bold.
As we chatted I asked him if he wanted to have kids. ‘Not any more – they tie you down’
‘No kidding…’ I said.
‘Nope – a caravan would be fine’
One of the statements I have used consistently around my kids is that ‘life is a series of trade offs.‘ If you want ‘x’ you may not be able to have ‘y’, because that’s just how things work. You want complete autonomy and freedom? Then a stable job is tricky. You want a family? Then suddenly you lose the right to make all decisions based on your own desires – you now have at least 2 people in the mix if not more. Life is always going to be a series of trade offs.
It’s not hard to ‘unpick’ some of the things he was speaking of as hopes and ambitions – but I actually didn’t want to do that. In the conversation I found myself torn between wanting to justify my own way of life and wanting to critique his critique. Perhaps better just to reflect again on the life I now find myself living… Is it to any degree inspiring or is it just another typical suburban existence?
More the point am I living the life I am called to and created for?
There was a period in life when I used to have an email footer that was a quote from Helen Keller – ‘Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.’ I don’t think it was an accurate description of my life, but it was a statement I held up as an ideal – to live courageously and adventurously rather than just ‘existing’. It was how I wanted to live and to some degree it was a rudder for inspiring me to make some courageous and unconventional decisions. (That said, I doubt many would rate my life as highly adventurous.)
I remember at 26 my dream was to head off to the Philippines and serve as a sports missionary over there. The fires of adventure were burning so I quit my teaching job after just 4 years of work and then went to Bible college to get ready for this new venture. Along the way I met Danelle, an important and pivotal meeting with the Philippine mission leader fell thru, and then our church needed a youth pastor. Strangely I felt like I should apply for the job. Even more strangely they took me on… And so my life as a pastor began.
I think it was around 10 years of ‘pretending’ to be a pastor when I finally cottoned onto the fact that the ‘missionary’ calling was still deep and strong in my life. I never really gelled with the whole pastoring thing and my attention fell far more outside the church than in. It was during one of our weekly pastor’s meetings at Lesmurdie Baptist that I had a rather weird God encounter that served as a ‘reset’ for my vocation.
One of our pastors had invited a ‘prophetic’ dude (think ‘crazeeee’) to come and join us and to speak a prophetic word over each of us. He did the other two guys first and offered what I thought were fairly ‘horoscope’ like insights. So when he came to me I was just ready to get the whole thing over and done with. I believed in the prophetic, but I was also somewhat skeptical – especially of people who called themselves prophets. Then he prayed for me and as he spoke articulated an image that he had in his mind. ‘You’re standing on a beach and you’re looking out at the ocean where there is a mass of people and your focus is on the ones who are drowning – you don’t see the swimmers – they aren’t in your field of vision – but you do see the ones going under and that is where your heart is. This is who God made you to be.’
Well … he kinda floored me. I hadn’t expected anything helpful, let alone an insight that was both pointed and directive. I had been struggling with the whole ‘pastor’ role and what he had in effect done was reaffirm my sense of calling as a missionary. I resonated deeply with that image. From that day I have never looked back and while I have been leading a local suburban church for the last 11 years I always remind people that I am not primarily a pastor.
I tell that story because it was significant in re-orienting my life and as I prayed and reflected more I sensed that for some reason God was calling me to be a ‘missionary’ in middle class Australia.
‘Middle class Australia? Really?’ I sighed.
Can you think of a ‘people group’ less inspiring and un-sexy than middle class suburbanites? I couldn’t. I still can’t.
When I joined up with Forge back in 2003 it seemed everyone had a sub-culture of some sort they were seeking to connect with – think surfers, goths, gamers, gays etc, but the more I prayed and the longer I spent trying to sense who God was calling me to, the more I felt he was definitely sending us into the burbs to try and be the presence of Jesus there.
So we have been in the midst of suburban mission for the last 17 years, initially in Butler and then since June 2011 in Yanchep.
When we established ‘Upstream’ back in the Butler days it was with a vision of leading a community of people who would live in the culture but who would also live differently – prophetically – as followers of Jesus and representatives of the kingdom of God. We did our best at this, but I’m sure to some our lives simply looked like any other suburban life.
And right now – my life may also look very conformist. Yesterday as I spoke in church about how we manage wealth I said again that our lives ought to be distinctive, inspiring and maybe even confronting to those around us. To quote Mike Frost, we ought to live ‘questionable lives’, where people are puzzled at the way our lives are configured and arranged.
I’m not sure how good a job of that I am doing these days, and I am not about to try and spruik my self justifications on here. But my son’s comments have given me cause to reflect over the last few days – to consider again to what extent I am living in my vocation and calling and to what extent I have ‘gone native’. Am I no longer distinctive and just one of the crowd?
There is of course no easy answer to the question. But the challenge of constant reflection is a good one. It forces you back to asking why do we do what we do. Is it necessary to live n the house we do – to own the cars we do – to have a caravan sitting in our driveway unused for much of the year? How does our life speak of the inspiring and transformative goodness of God rather than the results of living a decent upwardly mobile life?
I’m still pondering the answers to those questions and I’m deeply conscious that my life has all the trimmings of a middle class existence that has gone to plan. I certainly don’t feel guilt for that, but the questions of ‘what next?’ are strong in my mind.
I don’t think I can write about my own life situation on here comfortably so if you want to know what I think then buy me a coffee 🙂