Untitled

Sometimes life is rather plain, ordinary, characterised by keeping the status quo.

We wish it were exciting, full of adventure, high-energy, high-octane, a brilliant grand endeavour lived in full colour, Ultra HD, with cinema sound and Lucasfilm FX.

It’s not.

Even the most awesome lives lived can’t seem to measure up to what we wish for ourselves.

  • We wish for beauty, but find our cheekbones are too high, our nose too long, or our hair fast thinning.
  • We wish for adventure but, instead, find our lives an endless replay of sleeping, working, taking the kids to sports, dance or parties.
  • We wish for meaning, but end up spending 30 years in an average, repetitious job, stuck without promotion or further prospects beyond our cubicle in an office of 100 such spaces on the 13th floor.

In a library containing books of all genres, nations and ages, the story of our life seems to have fallen off the shelf, perhaps into the recycle bin, or (worse) still in the temperamental circuits of computer memory in a file called ‘Untitled.’

SarahPPatricia MacLachlan penned a story in 1985 called Sarah Plain and Tall about a woman who finds her way from East Coast Maine to the hard life of frontier America. She had answered a newspaper ad to be the wife of a farmer who wants nothing more from her than someone to do the cooking, cleaning and chores and be a mother to his two children. While not initially interested in love, having loved and lost once already, the farmer slides (inevitably–a classic novelist’s plot) into a romance that exceeds Sarah’s wildest imaginings.

While there is nothing unique about this story, it struck a chord with its audience so strongly that it developed into a five-book series (‘Saga’ is the bookseller’s term). Winning many awards, and achieving the ultimate reward of a movie deal, this story aims straight at the heart of all those who see themselves as, also, ‘plain and tall’–ordinary, unadorned and simple individuals whose own dreams were most often those of a handsome stranger finding in them that spark of delight and inner beauty.

But this is just a story. Or is this just a story?

It was written with a classic plot line that is known to sell books. Why? Because we all have a deep longing to be loved, valued and hear someone say, “You are mine.”

There is no elixir of love, no life-changing mantra, no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

But, as taught by minimalists for centuries, there is more to be found in less.

This is our story.

It’s untitled. It’s raw. It’s evolving, growing, developing all the time.

Sometimes–no, make that much of the time–we need to disconnect from the world of celebrity headlines, news broadcasts, and the mindless stimulation of ads to become aware of the beauty that is found in a simple story, an unadorned life, in detachment from the need to have a label, or a title, on our Self.

We must learn, again, how to embrace the ordinary and be exactly who we are knowing that, despite how we look, feel or how our own story is playing out today, we are loved, valued and welcomed by a God who promises to be with us–us plain, ordinary, average people–always.

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Stories

Oldthings

I just bought myself a typewriter.

“Seriously? Aren’t you the gadget guy?” you might ask. “Is this replacing your iPad?” (Ha ha. Very funny.)

When I recently visited my parents, I got into a conversation with my mum about her computer. She seems to have never-ending struggles with technology and it so happens I am her resident IT guy.

“I wish I had kept my old typewriter,” she told me, after another troubleshooting session on her seemingly-invalid PC.

I asked her why, with all the features of her new computer, she would want to go back to an old, cumbersome, temperamental beast like a typewriter.

So begun the litany of reasons.

In the end, it wasn’t so much about the computer, nor about its tech-unfriendly operator. It was about what the typewriter represented: a simpler, more straightforward time when no new operating system needed to be learned, no ‘shortcuts’ had to be memorised, and to ‘save’ something you typed it with carbon paper and filed the copy away in the beat-up steel filing cabinet next to your desk.

And the stories!

SctypeHer Smith Corona (similar to the one pictured) had years of history. She had bought it in the States in 1971 and it had travelled with us to Australia. On it she had recorded years of conversations to and from grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and extended family. No doubt every milestone in the life of our growing family had found its way through the keys to be clunk-clunked on to ‘onionskin’ paper (This translucent paper was apparently lighter in weight than standard bond paper and so she could include many more pages in the letter and still pay standard postage.)

Dad used it to type out his sermons and the occasional letter to his brother. I never asked him why he used a typewriter because it was obvious: nobody–not even himself, I think–could read his handwritten scrawl!

The familiar ‘rat-a-tat-tat’ of the typewriter, the ‘ding’ from the little bell that signified the end of a line and the ‘z-i-i-i-p’ sound the carriage made as you flicked the carriage return lever to start a new line echoed through our house every day, providing a semi-rhythmical soundtrack to our family’s life.

When the Smith Corona’s keys had become so misaligned and its carriage started being cantankerous in its desire to let go of the paper at inopportune times, mum invested in an electric typewriter. Later, that was replaced with a Brother ‘Word Processor,’ and, finally, with a computer and printer.

The old things were thrown out, sold, or given to Goodwill to make way for the new, high-tech machines and the accompanying angst in learning new ways of doing stuff.

I reckon it’s amusing to see how we don’t seem to attach the same value to the new things as we did the old things.

They don’t seem to invoke in us the same feelings of nostalgia, the yearning for the days when life was simpler and when things were manufactured to do one job and to last for years. They don’t seem to tell the same stories we hear recited from the memory of things like manual typewriters, inky ribbons and rows of life stamped out on see-through paper.

Typewriters, books, LP records, mum’s ‘special’ china, keepsakes and even fragrances bring back to us a myriad of tales–myths and legends, epics and anecdotes alike–cascading through our minds about who we were and, ultimately, who we became who we are now.

I think about this as I type on my eBay trophy short, thought-provoking sayings–the kind of which can be found on the Instagram pages of most hipsters these days. I recall with fondness a life that was less complicated (I say this as I figure out–ironically using a YouTube video–how to insert a new $10 ribbon, which I had to source from the UK and get ink all over everything.)

And I think I’ve found the answer why older folks tend to hang on to the stuff from their life a lot longer than the next generation believes to be practical: It’s the stories they hold. And I’m finding, as I get older, my memory needs all the help it can get.

 

2017 Advent Reflection

My friend, Stephen Spence, posted this on his blog today. May his words and the imagery he uses bless you and bring you a sense of the place and purpose of the Advent season as a time to reflect, wait and hope.

Rev Dr Stephen Spence's Blog

Advent, the season before Christmas, is a time of waiting. We wait because that which is promised has not yet come in its fullness. It draws its theological strength from, among other things, Luke 1 and the song/prayer of Mary. Advent joins today’s Church with Mary’s longing for the coming Messiah and the early’s Church’s prayer (in the language of Jesus) maranatha – our Lord come!

Waiting in darkness. Troubled by evil – both the Great Horrors and the petty personal pains. Hopeful that this is not all there is; that this is not the way it ought to be. Uncertain whether this hope is built upon a divine promise or upon personal dreams.

Waiting in darkness. Awed by star-lights burning holes of divine promise into a despairing sky: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Daily evidence of a divine presence active within our stories. These…

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What Your Church (Probably) Doesn’t Want You to Know about Giving

It’s the giving season.giving

If you haven’t noticed, you soon will. As Christmas approaches, we will soon be bombarded from all sides by messages urging us to buy expensive gifts for our family and friends. Charities will use this time to raise money for their programs. If you live in the northern hemisphere, Autumn is upon you and many churches and organisations use this season to run pledge drives to underwrite their budgets for the following year (This works so well with back-to-school ‘Homecoming’ or seasonal ‘Thanksgiving’ themes).

Churches rely on gifts from their membership to sustain the many programs they run and to employ staff. Today it seems we must have some sort of structure and this requires finances to maintain.

I am in no way against supporting my local church. If I align myself to a congregation in my community and receive nurturing in that context, it’s only right for me to give to keep the church doors open and support-providing programs running.

What I cannot support, however, is the growing number of pastors, evangelists, and Christian churches and ministries who keep the subject of giving in front of their congregation, constantly reminding and reprimanding them with commands from the Old Testament in order to keep giving to the church/ministry, and promising them God’s blessing if they do so.

Following are four observations I have made about this from my own experience.

Giving to your Church is not the same as giving to your community.

In most cases, over 95% of your community does not have anything to do with your church. While the argument is often made that the church facilitates ‘the work of God’ in the community, statistics fail to support this.

Then there’s the question of what actually is ‘the work of God’? Is it running programs on Sunday to benefit the children of those who attend the church? Is it facilitating a seniors’ ministry on a weekday morning for the elderly church members and their friends? Is it putting on special events to draw in the community in an effort to ‘share the gospel’ with them in exchange for entertainment, food and/or fireworks?

Or is ‘the work of God’ that which Jesus time and time again exemplified in stories such as the Good Samaritan and the Lost Sheep and in such sayings such as found in Matthew 25:35-36–

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

It has been my experience that, whenever churches in the Evangelical tradition speak about ‘Giving,’ they are referring to giving your money to The Church to enable it to run its programs and pay its staff, or giving your time to be on any number of church ministry rosters—from music to making coffee; from cleaning the church to teaching Sunday School.

And, while this is often called ‘giving to the community,’ is more likely has absolutely  nothing to do with the wider community and everything to do with meeting budget and providing programs for the initiated ones.

Giving to your church is not a Biblical requirement.

I had a friend who visited a growing evangelical church in our area a few years ago and I asked him what he thought of it (he is Catholic). He said the service was uplifting, the people were friendly and the sermon was very helpful and practical. Then he shared how, as he entered the door, he saw tables set up and people sitting at either side of them filling in forms and exchanging money. When he asked about this, he was told it was for the purpose of tithing. On one side of the table sat the church elders who were questioning the church’s members about their income the previous week and then taking 10% as a tithe for the work of the church.

Like me, he found that very strange a practice.

But it is common—maybe not so blatantly, but still a popular notion in Christian circles that members are asked (required?) to give at least 10% (the ‘tithe’ is stated as 10% and ‘offerings’ are anything above that).

Others have written extensively about this practice on both sides of the debate. One of the most thorough treatments I have seen has been this one by L. Ray Smith.

In summary, the tithe is an Old Testament ‘tax’ on God’s people to pay for the upkeep of the temple and its priesthood. There are other tithes in Scripture as well—of produce, of stock, and a ‘poor tax.’ Some have estimated that, if we are to be ‘Biblical’ about tithing, we would be giving around 20% of our income, not just one-tenth.

That said, St Paul writes about those who ‘labour in the gospel’ (which we would understand to be those whose only job is full-time service in the Church) to be deserving of payment for their labour (1 Corinthians 9:14), yet he himself didn’t do this just in case people thought he was profiting from his preaching. How unlike many of today’s money-grabbing televangelists.

Giving to your Church is not a measure of faithfulness to Christ.

I am convinced that, many times, church ministries become the conscience-salve we use when we want to stay in a safe, protected environment. It’s the love of the familiar, for those who were raised within its doors. It’s easy because all you need to do is sign up and show up. We won’t be subject to constant swearing, the mentally ill, addicts and we won’t have to give our time to those who we may deem to be ‘unworthy.’ Apart from one morning a week and the occasional evening, we’re not really put out that much at all. And the added benefit is that we will been seen by all our fellow churchgoers to be faithful to Christ. (Should we choose not to be involved, we can still give our money and that will be enough to keep the pastor from calling us, maybe…)

I remember a funeral I attended once where a rather ordinary man in his 60s was being farewelled after a brief battle with cancer.* He wasn’t actively involved in his church, though he was respected by all who knew him. The funeral was simple—a few hymns, a eulogy from his eldest child, and a slide show. Then . . . then the testimonies started. “He regularly volunteered with Habitat for Humanity to build homes for those in need.” “He showed up every Thursday at the homeless shelter to serve lunch.” “He visited the local school and helped kids with their reading.” “His neighbours could depend on him any time to help them out.” “His work colleagues were amazed by his positive attitude and caring words.” “He was a blood donor.” “He sponsored three children in Kenya.” “He volunteered with the State Emergency Service.”

What an inspiration! He followed the example of Jesus in giving over and over again and, in his giving, influenced more people than those who sacrificed every cent and every moment of their life to church ministries. His faithfulness to the calling of God in his life was evident inside and outside of the confines of his church circles.

Giving is a lifestyle choice.

Generosity is a choice we make every day when we plan our time, our spending and our priorities. We decide to be generous when we decide to smile and give our co-workers encouragement. We follow the example of Christ when we give to those in need without being asked, begged, or solicited by a door-knocker. We contribute to our community in meaningful ways—not simply as an armchair activist or opinionist. We know the truth of the saying attributed to Jesus, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive,’ and so we cheerfully dig deep, bring a plate, buy the next round, open our home, give our time and talents to our larger community, not just to those who think the same way we do.

In doing this, we truly show ourselves not only to be people of integrity and purpose, but people who love, following in the generous path of the One who loved humanity and showed it in the generous grace of giving.

_______

*Details have been altered so as not to identify the man or his family.

What did Jesus do?

wwjdThe Christian™ marketplace is flooded with a huge range of memorabilia, gadgets, gizmos, plaques with cute sayings, and symbolic creations meant to entice the Christian’s hard-earned cash away from them and into the pockets of Christian™ entrepreneurs.

And nothing has been such a smashing success as the WWJD brand.

Based on the poignant question ‘What would Jesus do?’ asked in the classic Christian™ novel (before the Christian™ novel became a sanitised Harlequin Romance), In His Steps, this question has been a consistent top-seller in Christian™ book stores, church shops, Christian™ cafes and Christian™ online sellers and market stalls.

Yet, I don’t think the average person who calls themselves by the name of the Christ ever actually stops to think about what Jesus actually did.

Here’s just one of the many things he did–toted as Jesus’s ‘first miracle’–in a little town called Cana and a wedding the details of which have been lost to anonymity.

So what did Jesus do?

John Shore, in his excellent little book I’m OK and You’re Not tells it this way:

What Jesus did that afternoon at that wedding was, to my mind, as powerful a testament to how much he loves people as was his very sacrifice on the cross*. I believe that his choosing to make his first miracle turning all that good water into all that good wine says everything any of us will ever need to know about what Jesus wants our attitude to be toward not just fellow believers, but toward virtually everyone.

It’s a pretty safe bet that Jesus fully understands the power of first impressions, don’t you think? He knew blessing that wedding with more wine than any of its guests could drink would be recorded as his opening miracle. He knew that for as long as people told his story, they’d remember that that was how he first chose to conclusively prove his divinity.

Pretty clearly, he was meaning to tell us something with that choice. And I believe that something was love people just us you find them.

He didn’t lecture the people at that wedding. He didn’t frighten them. He didn’t try to convince them of the error of their ways. He didn’t start dividing them into groups of good and bad. He didn’t in any way interfere with what they were doing. He quietly and without fanfare enhanced what they were doing and that was all.

And what were they doing? Dancing, singing, hugging, whooping it up, crying, and in every way acting like people usually do at wedding receptions: Like they’re celebrating all the tilings about being human that deserve to be celebrated. In a real way that we all understand, there’s nothing more gloriously human than a wedding reception.

And that’s where Jesus decided to launch his ministry.

And that’s how: By doing nothing more dramatic than making sure the lovely couple and all their lovely guests didn’t run out of wine.

And not that cheap, comes-in-a-gallon-jug wine, either. He gave them good wine. He gave them great wine.

Because he wanted them to just keep doing what they were doing

when

he

got

there.

I don’t see how Jesus could have made any clearer what he intended to be his first Big Message to anyone who would ever follow him: Accept and love people exactly as they are when you first meet them.

Go and do likewise.

Life by Default

I came across a study recently, conducted by Cornerstone OnDemand (a software company that sells recruitment and training packages) that discovered a direct correlation between employees who stayed with a company longer and which web browser they used to apply for the job.

The research also proved beyond a doubt that employees who applied for the job using Firefox or Chrome browser excelled in numerous other areas–such as creativity, initiative, and meeting sales targets–above those who used Internet Explorer (the browser that comes preinstalled on all Windows computers) or Safari (the browser that comes on all Mac computers).

Why?

Chief Analytics Officer, Michael Housman explains:

“I think that the fact that you took the time to install Firefox on your computer shows us something about you. It shows that you’re someone who is an informed consumer. . . . You’ve made an active choice to do something that wasn’t default.” (quoted here)

‘Default’ is easy. It doesn’t take any initiative. It doesn’t demand furthering your knowledge or improving your skillset. Those who opt for the ‘default’ option tend to be more likely to settle for whatever life throws at them rather than stepping out and making the decision to take ‘the road less travelled.’

How many times are we tempted to settle for the default option in our lives?

It’s easier, to be sure.

But how much of lasting value has ever been accomplished by those who navigate their lives by choosing only what’s easy?Icecream

It’s kind of like choosing Vanilla ice cream at Baskin-Robbins. Yes, it’s available. But seriously? Give me a classic Peanut Butter & Chocolate, Pistachio Almond or, better still, how about that intriguingly-named Love Potion #31?

Vanilla is not an option. At least not for me, when I’m at Baskin-Robbins.

So what about life? Am I settling for the ‘default’ or am I saying, “I can do things differently”? Am I rationalising the status quo, or am I asking how I can make a difference? Do I mindlessly cooperate with whatever is offered me or do I dare to question what is often sold as ‘part of the package’?

If you haven’t caught on yet, this post isn’t about web browsers. It’s about living. And life’s too short–and too previous–to placidly accept whatever comes your way.

In the words of Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Now who’s up for some ice cream?

This is Making Me Stronger

IMG_4426.JPGI enjoy a good massage. Not the light, fairy-fingers muscle teasers, but the heavy-handed, elbow-in-the-small-of-your-back Chinese massage. The harder the better. And chuck in some of that back-scorching mentholated oil for good measure.

When I first started going to visit a Chinese massage therapist, I felt nothing but pain. He said the pain would go away the more my muscles because accustomed to being manipulated.

And so, from then on, every time I would lie down on he massage table, I would remind myself: ‘This is making me stronger.’

He was right. It wasn’t that I developed a superpower that didn’t feel pain, but a strong sense grew in me—an awareness, if you will—that this was good for me, that this was building strength, resilience, courage.

I think of this as I sit at my desk, drowning in reports, deadlines, and everyday issues of a job dominated by IT and all the troubles dealing with It and people-who-use-IT-but-can’t all day. My neck muscles tense as I stare for hours at the screen. Back muscles burn from repeated turns to one side of my desk to retrieve the next job sheet, invoice, or roster.
‘This is making me stronger.’

A few years ago I would never have believed you if you told me I would be doing what I do today, ever day. The sheer volume of work and the details involved would have blown my mind. I would have foreseen my imminent committal to a mental institution, or at the least some sort of prescription drug dependency.

But, like a good massage therapist, those muscles I needed to do my work became stronger with us. My neurons started firing in different ways that led my brain to adjust to the growing pressure and multiplicity of tasks.

Life has a way of throwing difficulties our way constantly. As an older—and wiser—man once god me, ‘It doesn’t get any easier.’ (That same wise man told me that the sausage on pizza was cat intestines. It goes to show how wise someone may be one day and totally incredulous the next.)

In spite of this, I believe we get better at handling the stuff life throws at us. Problems that are solved, troubles that are navigated, adrenaline-inducing risks that are embraced all build into us some sort of immunity that makes the next obstacle seem a little less daunting and the next mountain a little smaller than we once would have imagined.

‘This is making me stronger.’

Bring it on!