Showing posts with label musings. Show all posts
Showing posts with label musings. Show all posts

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Notes to my college self

Today I visited the university campus I attended for a performance by a sibling's band at an open day for prospective students. As I navigated my way through crowds of wide-eyed prospective students, I couldn’t help picture being in these spaces in the past. I pictured high-school me, sitting in a courtyard while waiting for school band competitions at the campus to start. I would watch the students, so mature and sophisticated looking as they juggled their books and coffee. I could picture me at an open day much like the one I was attending. In other parts of the campus, I could picture first year me, learning my way around the complex and illogically arranged collection of campus facilities and experiencing various aspects of campus life for the first time.

I pondered what I would tell these past versions of myself if time and space was to bend in a way that made that possible. Certainly I would tell me practical tips about effective library use, how to negotiate university bureaucracy and the dangers of over-caffeination. But more importantly, I’d tell me some of what I wish I’d known or that I discovered by accident about what it means to not waste those years. Unfortunately I can’t send these notes back in time, but I can put them out there for those who have university/college study ahead of them. So here goes...

Dear student self,

I know it seems like you have a lot of years of study ahead of you. As cliche as it sounds, the time really does fly and before you know it you’ll be graduating. Yes, student life is busy, but it is worth investing time and effort into a few things that will make you more likely to feel like you made the most of these years when you graduate.

Learn more than you have to. You’ll see lots of your fellow students doing their best to spend as little time studying as possible, learning exactly what they need for their exams (and absolutely nothing more). It’s tempting, but don’t be like them. You’re spending all this time and money to learn, so you may as well learn as much as you can. Read some of the non-required readings or go find some library books on a topics your classes don’t fully cover. If you’re busy, find some educational podcasts or audiobooks to listen to on your way to campus or while exercising. In addition to the intrinsic benefits of learning interesting things, the extra effort will probably help your marks and make you sound more intelligent in class discussions too. 

Expand your interests. You’ll have access to a huge range of sporting, arts and cultural activities happening a few minutes walk from where your classes are held. Make the most of this, since once you graduate being involved in such things is often more expensive, difficult to fit around a work schedule and might require travel time. So go to talks on interesting topics unrelated to your degree or go to recitals featuring a style of music your favourite radio station would never play. Join the quidditch team or the choir and maybe go watch the debating club in action sometimes. It’s a great time to be finding new passions and creating memories that will enrich your life now and in the future.

Invest in relationships. Your university campus is a big place with lots of people. You won’t have many people who are in more than one of the same classes as you. This means that you will have to put effort and planning into making and maintaining friendships.That looks a bit different for everyone depending on their interests and personality, but do whatever it takes to have regular, meaningful interaction with friends.

Invest in your career.Unfortunately your degree will count for a lot less than you hope it will in the job market, even though you are going to a very good university and will get good marks. A lot of what they teach you at university won’t be that job focused and most of the people you’ll be competing with for your future job will also have a degree. One day at a future job you’ll get the task of reading applicants' resumes and get sick of hearing how their group projects taught them teamwork and communication skills! Put time into volunteering, part time work and other experiences that will give you something to show to prospective employers. As boring as they are, take the job hunting and career skills workshops your university offers. Don’t leave it to your last semester, the earlier you can be getting ready for post-study life the better.

So, student self, time to get busy making the most of all those opportunities.

Your future self.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Finding real grace in a virtual choir

A few nights ago, I was in the kitchen with my laptop open on the counter, blasting the new Virtual Choir video on youtube.

While I was kind of dancing, kind of cleaning as the video played a housemate walked in to dump dishes in the sink. They stopped at my laptop and tried to make sense of what they were seeing and anime angel.....a classical colorful buildings....and an electro backing track. I tried to explain what it was they were seeing and I think they eventually kind of understood the idea of how a virtual choir works- that singers from all around the world submit the videos of themselves singing and the videos get joined together into a choir.

But what I now wish I’d explained was that to me, what they were watching was grace wrapped up in sound and video.

I love composer Eric Whitacre’s music and thought his concept of the virtual choir was brilliant. I had watched previous versions online in awe. And so when a new choir project opened up I downloaded the sheet music, loaded the demo tracks onto my iPod and started getting my head around the beautiful harmonies. But as the submission deadline drew closer, I despaired about my chances of joining the choir. I was already musically out of shape from too long away from singing. I was exhausted from working multiple jobs to make ends meet and the illness I had hoped would get better in time to record a video had not gotten better, both of which were messing with my voice. I sang the best I could but every recording was disappointing. But strangers from around the world on the choir forum spurred me on to join in and in a moment of crazy, I pushed upload.

I would not have faulted the Virtual Choir team for throwing my video out. The performance wasn’t very good and neither was the technical quality of the video. Anyone would have been justified to reject the video but they would all the more given how talented and respected some of the people involved in creating the choir are. Artists who win Grammy awards normally work with people who have a level of talent I could never attain. There was also more than enough great singers among the choir to create an impressive video.

Eventually release day rolled around. After much battling a bad internet connection I got the video playing and got lost in the video and the music. Several minutes in, I noticed a familiar face among all the singers I did not really expect to see. There I was, part of the choir. I had not been rejected but graciously made part of the choir. That was a feeling of belonging that I could not fully describe. We sounded beautiful. The flaws that were in my performance (and no doubt in other people’s) blended into an extraordinary sound.

I was originally going to make this post about what happens when people from different backgrounds are willing to cooperate or the possibilities of using technology for good or the power of collaborative creativity. All these things were inspiring about the Virtual Choir. But I realised that it is the grace I was shown that I want to dwell on and remember the most. Too often life is survival (or at least advancement) of the fittest, of the most talented, of the best. Never quite measuring up in all sorts of ways feels like the story of my life over the past few years. It’s something you experience hundreds of times over when job hunting! People’s flaws too often get mocked, whether that be on the playground or on the internet. People feeling like they don’t belong anywhere they try fit to fit in is endemic. Grace is rare.

It is worth celebrating and remembering when people who could justifiably do otherwise show grace and extend belonging to those who don’t deserve it and in doing so create something wonderful. It is worth watching for, because sometimes it is to be found in unexpected places, even in anime animated, elecro-classical youtube choirs.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Summaries, short-cuts and spiritual growth

Seth Godin posted a great piece recently on the dangers of thinking that the convenient, summarized version of information is enough. Here is an extract:
"You're probably smart enough to 'get it' merely by reading the 140 character summary of just about anything. But of course, that doesn't mean you understand it, or that it changed you. All it means is that you were quickly able to sort it into an appropriate category, to make a decision about where it belongs in your mental filing cabinet. The best experiences and the biggest ideas don't fit into a category. They change it. They don't get filed away, they transform us." (emphasis mine)
I think this is worth pondering when it comes to spiritual growth, particularly learning the Bible. There is no shortage of biblical ideas being tweeted, short bible overview guides or devotionals that can be done in a few minutes. Some devotionals I've seen lately advertise that they can be read in as little as a minute! These are not inherently bad things. Twitter is a very useful tool, overview guides can be very helpful when used alongside Bible reading and shorter devotionals might be a really useful for new Christians taking baby steps into good spiritual growth habits or people who genuinely have no spare time due to unusually demanding responsibilities.

But, I think these summaries can be dangerous if we let them become a short-cut. It is easy to feel like we're getting somewhere because we've managed to learn more facts we can slot into our mental bank of knowledge. Not only that, but we can do it so quickly when everything is neatly summarised for our quick processing!

One problem is, these summarised forms can become a substitute for actually reading the Bible. The summaries may be useful, but they ain't the inspired word of God. Additionally, learning the bible is not a game of he or she who takes in the most facts wins. It's about learning to love God and being transformed towards becoming more like him. That kind of change and growth takes reflection, prayerful engagement and sticking with the process over a long period of time. Just quickly absorbing summaries or snippets before moving on to the next thing won't get you there.

My challenge for you (and myself!) this week is to not fall into the trap of prioritising how quickly we can take in bulk biblical information, but to slowly, prayerfully engage with extended portions of the life changing word of God itself.

Image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman/

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Christianity is often hard (and that's okay)

Driving round town this week I heard a short devotional segment on Christian radio. I don’t remember who the speaker was but their point was this: The fact that Christianity is often hard doesn’t mean it isn’t true or worth doing.

This is something I think it would do us well to remember often. We live in a society that strives for greater convenience, simple to use products and things that can be done in the least number of easy steps as possible. Easy has become a virtue and difficulty has become something to eliminate.

Christianity does not fit into this assumption. Certainly there are blessings, joys and pleasant times, but frankly it is often hard. Persecution happens. Faithful people get mentally or physically ill. Fighting the desire to sin can be challenging. God can be confusing. Applying Christian ethics can make some decisions and situations substantially more complicated than they otherwise would be. These are realities in a fallen world.

I think a lot of angst as Christians happens when we swallow cultural messages about ease and therefore assume if things are persistently hard that we are doing something wrong. People would generally not say it this bluntly, but I think that is what is often behind things like prosperity gospel and the all too common exhortations along the lines of “If you just pray/read your bible/repent/give/be content/submit more then __________ will work out.” Good things to do but by no means quick fixes to anything. We often don’t know what to do with people who just don’t find it easy.

If you are finding being a Christian hard, that doesn’t necessarily mean there is anything wrong with you or your faith or Christianity itself. You are probably quite in touch with reality. Despite all the cultural messages about the virtues of easiness, things worth doing in any area of life are often in reality hard. Hang in there and keep pushing on because Christianity is often hard but most definitely something worth doing.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Mars, modernism and mission

I can say from experience that the job market is tough these days. But even after many frustrating experiences of over-competitive recruitment processes, one I saw lately still managed to astound me. The recruiters were looking for people willing to take on very long, unbreakable contracts to do dangerous work in very tight confines in a geographically isolated place. Sounds unappealing but 78,000 people and counting have applied. Maybe because the job in question is going to mars to do scientific research and start a human settlement which admittedly is cooler than the average job.

As a Sociology nerd, so many questions come to mind about an endeavor like this. Things like how you frame your nationality and ethnicity would change when living on another planet, how social hierarchies would develop in such an unusually intense environment, how art and creativity would develop on Mars with limited resources for such things and what raising emotionally well adjusted kids in a martian colony would take.

A few things questions about the theological and ministry implications of the movement to get people to Mars also struck me.

If you believe those who say that we moved past a modernist approach to the world and into a more postmodernist view a couple of decades ago, our culture is largely cynical of metanarratives (big over-arching stories that explain everything) and of the idea that humanity is advancing, becoming better and more refined. While I think postmodernism does put forward some ideas worth pondering Watching some of the application videos made me wonder whether we weren’t quite as postmodern as some think. I was struck by the emphasis some of them had on the possibility this mission held out for moving humanity forward and solving some of our problems by bringing us together. As technology continues to advance in impressive ways through efforts like this, the Christian community will need to be especially mindful about how such hopeful attitudes about the potential of human endeavour to solve problems shape how people view their need for the gospel (or perceived lack thereof) at an individual and societal level.

While it is entirely possible that this scheme to get to Mars won’t be successful, I think it is reasonable to assume that sometime in the next century or so, people will make it to Mars.  When that happens, we’ll have lots of questions to work through to about applying theology and Christian tradition to the new environment of life on another planet. How would being one of a few or maybe the only Christian on your entire planet change how you went about practicing faith? How would a Christian ethic of caring for creation impact how you used and modified the previously untouched martian environment? How might the fact that God’s previous dealings with humanity had played out in another part of the solar system impact how you were inclined to think about them? These sound like somewhat absurd questions now, but it might not be that many decades until they are live issues.

What questions about society or faith does the Mars mission prompt for you?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Lessons on shame from Brene Brown

Today I wastched Brene Brown's recent TED talk on shame (a sequel to her previous hit talk on vulnerability.) Brene is always interesting to listen to/read, but listening to this talk made me ponder how some of her ideas can help us create more healthy Christian communities. I've posted some thoughts below the embedded video. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments if you watch the video or have read her book on the topic.

  • "Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is "I am bad." Guilt is "I did something bad.""
    We often seem to use the ideas of shame and guilt interchangeably. In the talk Brene points out that they are different- shame is about who we are at the core being bad and is related to all sorts of destructive patterns. Guilt on the other hand is about what we did being bad and can be a positive motivator for change.  Given the importance of repentance and change towards right behaviour in Christian discipleship, I think this is a crucial point to keep in mind when we or others mess up. We don't want to fall into destructive shaming, but nether do we want to insulate people from guilt which is uncomfortable but often serves a productive purpose.
  • "Shame, for women, is this web of unobtainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we're supposed to be. And it's a straight-jacket. For men, shame is not a bunch of competing, conflicting expectations. Shame is one, do not be perceived as what? Weak" I think there is a few things we can take away from it. One is that other people (especially of the opposite gender) may experience shame for different reasons than we do. Because of this, caring for them may be learning and being mindful about their triggers. I think the other take-away from this is to be careful that we aren't overloading people with cultural (rather than biblical) expectations of everything they should do and be as a Christian man or a Christian woman that drive them into destructive shame when the inevitable failure to live up to it happens.
  • If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgement. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can't survive. The two most powerful words when we're in struggle: me too."
    I've seen this be true so many times. Admitting your own struggles to some else who is or might be struggling sometimes doesn't seem very significant or much like a ministry, but it can make such a huge difference. Jon Acuff calls it "the gift of going second", meaning that when we take the hard step of being brave enough to share our shame and struggles first, we make it easier for those who go second.  Imagine how much healthier our communities would be if people knew it was safe to bring their sins, shame and struggle out into the light to deal with and get help for because they were so used to seeing others do the same?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Some thoughts on Bread & Wine by Shauna Niequist (part 2)

Last week I shared some thoughts about what I’m learning through Shauna Niequist’s new book Bread & Wine and some of my own journey in learning about hospitality and cooking. Today I want to share another bit of the book that has been challenging me.
“I tend to think that when everything is going well I have the margin to do hard things, to make good choices- to read instead of watch TV, to eat well instead of eat poorly to engage in deep conversation instead of chatter about other people. It’s the making of those harder, better choices right while everything’s a mess that makes the mess a little more manageable. I wanted nachos upon nachos last night, like a wheelbarrow full. But this morning I would have had to add a sense of failure to my already bruised spirits. I’m not saying I woke up feeling all better. But I do know I could have made it so much worse, that I could have added self-loathing to my tiredness, and that wouldn’t have made it easier to bear. I’m realising this after what seems like a lifetime of saying to myself, “Well, you can’t be expected to do something hard on a day like this, can you?” I did expect more from myself, and I did do something hard, and I’m thankful.”
I’ve kept thinking this passage over since I first read the book a week or two ago. It is the kind of idea which in some ways I wish I could find a reason to disagree with because that would be easier. But I think she is indeed onto something that while hard, is true and helpful. I often try to convince myself that after making it through a hard situation/day/week that I deserve to be and do less than I would in my better moments. It seems to be a common problem.

Lots of writers and speakers say that often when they decide to write or speak about a topic that they will inevitably get opportunities to learn about it first hand. That has held true when working on a post about this idea. I need to exercise more so recently started getting up early to exercise. The week I started ended up being a hard, disappointing week in other areas of life. Staying in bed (or going back) to hide from the world was a very tempting proposition, but when I did it I felt guilty and lazy. But instead, most days I thought about Shauna’s advice and got on with it. The days I got up and exercised didn’t feel great. I started to wonder if what I’ve been told about exercise giving you endorphins which make you happy was true. But knowing that I’d successfully done something hard already made the rest of the day a bit easier to bear. It made it a bit easier to exercise ordinary courage in other ways. It made me feel like I was making progress on something, even as other things felt like they were slipping backwards. I’m glad I did the hard thing.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Some thoughts on Bread & Wine by Shauna Niequist (part 1)

I used to be one of those people who did not cook. In my defense, I was a student living on campus who had to put up with sharing a kitchen with 15-20 people, only being able to buy what I could carry home on the bus and only having a very very tiny freezer compartment. As a result, I ate lots of diet microwave meals and canned soup. It was close enough to nutritionally sound but not very inspiring. Extra issues like campus parking permits and not knowing what state the shared kitchens would be in made showing hospitality difficult.

When I graduated that all had to change because I moved into a house with four other young adults where it was expected that we would all take turns with the cooking and where showing hospitality to the many visiting friends of various members of the household was a regular occurrence. And so I had to learn to cook and bake. It happened slowly, with a great deal of mess, quite a few under or overcooked dishes, some questionable ingredient choices and occasional use of more food dye than is likely healthy.

I would probably read almost anything by Shauna Niequist. She is the kind of author I quote in wedding cards and babble about when asked in job interviews about books that have had an impact on me. The coming together of my long standing love of Shauna’s writing and my newer interest in cooking and hospitality in her new book Bread and Wine had me very excited to get my hands on the book. Instead of posting a more traditional review, I thought it would be fitting to post some reflections over the course of several posts on some ideas in the book that have resonated with me.

“One friend promises she’ll start having people over when they finally have the money to remodel. Another says she’d be too nervous that people wouldn’t eat the food she made, so she never makes the invitation. But it isn’t about perfection, and it isn’t about performance. You’ll miss the richest moments in life -- the sacred moments when we feel God’s grace and presence through the actual faces and hands of the people we love-- if you’re too scared or too ashamed to open the door. I know it’s scary, but throw open the door anyway.”

“But entertaining isn’t a sport or competition. It’s an act of love if you let it be that. You can twist it and turn it into anything you want- a way to show off your house, a way to compete with your friends, a way to earn love and approval. Or you can decide that every time you open your door, it’s an act of love, not performance or competition or striving. You can decide that every time people gather around your table, your goal is nourishment, not neurotic proving. You can decide.”

One of the ideas running through the book is that cooking and hospitality at their most meaningful are not a performance but an unpretentious way to love other people amidst our imperfect homes and imperfect lives. This is so important but something we forget so often. Our culture is overloaded with glossy food and home magazines and here in Australia at least, cooking reality TV shows with their impossibly complicated recipes and astoundingly talented chiefs rule the airwaves. Personally I have to fight the tendency to compare my still developing cooking skills to those of friends who cook well and to banish memories of stressed tidy ups that somewhat dampened the joy of having people visit our house growing up.

Certainly there are times where it is great to show your love for someone by making the effort to cook something special, but I’m learning is that as much as possible it is better to put my heart and soul into engaging with the people I’m spending time with, not into trying to make sense of complicated recipes full of ingredients I hadn’t heard of until my treasure hunt like quest through the grocery story to find them. People don’t usually notice or care if the meal is made from a simple combination of ingredients or if there is two week old newspapers on the coffee table. Although many of my friends are good cooks, I mostly only have vague recollections of what was served at meals at their houses over the years and I have no recollection of how tidy their houses were. What I do remember is meaningful conversation and feeling like I belonged. In the end, that is what matters.

Part 2 coming soon.....

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The cost of education verses the cost of ignorance

Something I heard a guy called Dale Beaumont say at a marketing seminar a few weeks ago has stuck with me. He said “If you think the cost of education is expensive, you haven’t considered the cost of ignorance.” In the context he was talking about the costs of not getting educated about how marketing tools work and about how to design a sound marketing strategy can have negative business consequences. However, I think it is a more broadly applicable statement worth pondering.

Education can be expensive. It can be expensive in a financial sense if you are pursuing education in college or formal training sense. It is also easy to spend a lot on books. It costs time to learn things. No matter how many good study techniques you have mastered, anything that is substantial and worth learning will probably take time. Getting educated can also cost energy. If you’ve got a lot on the go, it might be hard to muster the energy to read or listen to lectures. It is easy to let continuing to learn get pushed down the priority list as a result of the stresses of life.

These costs of education are real, but so are the costs of ignorance. You don’t have to look too far to find examples in the Christian community where insufficient learning has consequences. Examples that come to mind include situations where a poor grasp on theology contributes to the giving of questionable advice to people who are struggling, a shallow understanding of sociological issues leading to ineffective attempts to fix social problems or a poor grasp on science finding its way into some apologetic arguments.

Some will argue that educational attainment can become a source of pride. This can be true but doesn’t have to be. Others will argue knowledge is not the same as wisdom nor can it serve in its place. This is true but not the whole picture. As Christians, learning can serve our discipleship and witness by helping us do a better job at dealing wisely with the dilemmas and decisions we face. Knowledge gives wisdom something to work with. Although most of us probably won’t be solving big problems like designing public policies to reduce poverty, we all have things we can learn that will help us better serve God and people. Read some books, attend some lectures, join a class or do whatever else it takes. Getting educated on the right things is worth the cost.  

Friday, March 1, 2013

Quotable: A multidimensional picture of the life of Jesus

"All four Gospel writers painted the life of Jesus Christ in different lights. In their own unique ways they emphasized different aspects of His life because they were writing to different audiences. Matthew paints Christ in the morning. He begins with a long genealogy and birth story. Mark paints Christ in the afternoon. He takes no time to sketch the early years but hits the ground running at the hot height of Christ’s ministry. Luke paints Christ in the evening. It is the longest gospel, coupled with Acts, meticulously portraying the Last Supper and the evening in the garden of Gethsemane. John paints Christ in the midnight. When all the world was dark with sin and doubt, Jesus Christ pierced the blackness and showed Himself as the light and hope of humanity. On its own, each gospel appears isolated and disconnected, but when viewed together, as the Holy Spirit delivered them to us, they represent a multidimensional picture of the life of Jesus, a three-dimensional portrait of His nature. And such a work of art demands our response of admiration and worship."

From  Sex, Sushi, and Salvation: Thoughts on Intimacy, Community, and Eternity by Christian George

Monday, February 11, 2013

On love, grace and sunglasses

I have a game I like to play when shopping where I try to find the most absurd item or advertisement I can. It is great fun in second hand stores. It is also often a disturbingly interesting exercise in Christian bookstores! This week however, I ended up spotting something so ridiculous in the window of a sunglasses store that I didn’t even have to go inside to know that I’d spotted my winner.

“Give Sunglasses, get love”....It seems so blunt and so very ridiculous to think that giving someone sunglasses is the key you need to being loved. I have to wonder though, if this is just an excessively blunt manifestation of an underlying logic of love being earnable we are sometimes seem too quick to swallow. When it comes to romantic relationships, ever heard something like to the effect of person A deserves better than person B? As I’m sure many other Christian singles can attest, being told you need to achieve contentment or some other Godly character trait before you get romantic love is so common it has become a bad cliche. Then there is all the people (probably most of us at some point) who slip for a time or permanently into thinking they need to clean up their act or be doing more for God to love them. In so many ways we somehow end up missing the truth by assuming that love is something you can deserve for your awesomeness (or not deserve for your lack thereof)

Perhaps being Valentine’s day this week it would be a good chance to remember that real love is not something we get because we are awesome or do the right things or have it all together or give the right sunglasses. If what you are getting is just a response to something you do or give, at best you are getting polite acknowledgement. Love is so much bigger than that. We are loved by God because he is gracious and by people when they imitate a bit of God’s grace (whether they know it or not) in extending love to imperfect us. That is so much more precious than just earning what we deserve. And as we remember the grace behind the love given to us, may we be mindful to extend that grace to others regardless of how deserving or otherwise they seem.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Maybe leadership is overrated

Leadership appears to have become a topic of huge interest in the Christian sub-culture and the wider culture lately. It seems there is always new leadership conferences, books, blogs, experts and techniques.Good leadership can be the difference between success and failure for an organisation so it isn’t an entirely unwarranted focus. Undoubtedly there are many people called to leadership of the formal or informal variety who are benefiting from this focus which obviously is a good thing.  

However, I have found myself wondering lately whether we are focusing on leadership excessively at the expense of other giftings.. Faithful service to the kingdom of God and helpful contribution to society can take so many shapes, some of which don’t look much at all like the leader mold. It is okay that not everyone has the skill on inclination to lead. It is okay that some people would rather follow the vision and direction of a trustworthy leader than being the one out front blazing the course. It is okay that some people people function better out of the spotlight. It is okay that some people are content to stay where they are on the hierarchy, doing a good job at whatever it is they currently do. Such people are as necessary as the leaders. If everyone is upfront trying to lead things, who will do all the supporting work to make things happen? Often such people have a myriad of less flashy but extremely valuable things to contribute that they may get less of a chance to if they are pushed towards acting as a leader. “How to quietly serve a few people really really well” doesn’t make for such an exciting conference theme as leadership but maybe it also deserves discussion and celebration.

What do you think? Do you think the focus on leadership is appropriately balanced? How can we support and affirm those whose gifts are in areas other than leadership?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Why Christmas makes mission and ministry make sense

I'm involved in a missions trip to another part of my own country that starts two days after Christmas. Planning for the mission trip and planning for Christmas at the same time have gotten me thinking about the relationship between Christmas, ministry and mission. Certainly we are used to thinking about Christmas as an opportunity for ministry. That is valid and important. However, I think we often overlook the fact that the incarnation is what makes all of those things make sense.

 If Christmas was just celebrating the birth of someone born an ordinary kid with an ordinary fallen human nature, then going on a missions trip (and most of our Christian activity) would make no sense. Even if the kid had grown up to have some great ideas or noble principles, it would still be largely dubious. There are lots of people who have managed that- a search for philosophy books alone on Amazon gets you 220,951 results. Add in the social sciences, various streams of religious thought and other fields pondering big questions and you have a lot of people with a lot of ideas. If all we had was more ideas to contribute, then why bother with most of what we do? Why would you make the sacrifices to go on a missions trip, to serve faithfully at Church or to contribute financially to mission just for the sake of an ordinary guy who who had some good ideas while living on a different continent a few thousand years ago? I'm sure everyone involved in some form of Christian service has other things they could be doing with their time and resources.

 The fact that the first Christmas not simply a birth, but God incarnate entering the world makes all the difference. That God would come to us, not as a voice echoing from the heavens, but as a man who lived among normal people, experiencing their sorrows and joys, makes our effort have meaning. If Jesus was willing to go from heaven to earth with all that it entailed for our sake, then our going for his sake makes sense in a way it wouldn't if he'd just had good ideas. That holds true whether that be going to another country, another city or just going out of our comfort zones right where we are. That something so history shaking as God coming to dwell among us has happened, with such huge implications for ourselves and for everyone is something to sustain and motivate us when ministry gets tough as they inevitably will. Christmas rightly understood puts the inconveniences and sacrifices of following God's call into their right perspective.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Discipleship in the here and now

The idea of traveling holds an elevated place in the popular imagination. It has become more than a way to get somewhere else and more than a way even just to see new things. Going somewhere exotic (or at least different) has become the way we “find ourselves”. It isn’t accidental that books like “Eat Pray Love” strike such a chord. If secular culture had a sacrament, travel might be it.

 I think the almost sacramental esteem travel is held in is particularly pronounced among young people here in Australia. It is probably that we are kind of isolated in our own little corner of the world so going elsewhere seems like more of a big deal. When I lived in Singapore it blew my mind that it was possible to go to another country (Malaysia) on a $2 bus ticket and that some people went there to grocery shop.

 When compared to the possibilities of being somewhere else, normality can seem a little bland. Fitting quiet time in around your commute is not at all the stuff of epic narrative. Stories of finding oneself among the goat herders of Tibet will tend to sell better than memoirs of learning faith amid the everyday stuff of car maintenance, bad weather and too much email spam. People will generally find what someone learned unicycling across the country more interesting than what you learned during your daily commute. But this ordinariness tends to be where discipleship happens.

Yes, God sometimes calls people to go elsewhere and sometimes travel has a genuinely positive impact. But, for many of us the more spiritual thing to be doing is focusing on growing where we are rather than hankering to be someplace else It may not be exciting but the change that happens in everyday life is often more lasting. It tends to be more durable because it is made up of lots of tiny stretches towards Godliness and doing the right thing rather than culture shock induced epiphany while somewhere strange. Learning to be patient in the grocery store doesn’t seem very earth shaking but it all adds up. Everyday kinda growing is also important because discipleship happens in the context of meaningful relationships. As cool as bravely setting of to a foreign land where you barely speak the language may seem, if we never have the input of other people were are likely to end up spiritually and emotionally unbalanced. And, where better to learn than in the places, relationships and activities you are going to put your developing maturity into practice? It doesn’t matter how things were somewhere else if however we developed doesn’t translate into everyday life.

 There is still places I’d like to go or to revisit. But I’m learning in the meantime that my best chance to flourish and grow doesn’t necessarily need a plane ticket or annual leave. Maybe following Jesus for me means staying here, both in the sense of geographical location and of focus. Maybe my best shot at growing in Godliness is buried beneath the million little tasks of right here and right now.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Finding reason for hope when your prayers go unanswered

It seems that for many Christians not having the prayers they most care about answered for long stretches of time is a painfully familiar experience. During these times the answers to prayer that other people get can be profoundly frustrating and confusing. It can seem like there is some cruel cosmic conspiracy to rub in your lack of whatever it is you think you need. Everyone else's happy Facebook status updates can start to read like a catalog of what you don't have or don't experience!

Over the past few months I've kept coming back to something Chris Wiles wrote at their blog Thorns Compose that has been changing how I process unanswered prayer. The post was about surviving the frustrations of unwanted singleness but don't stop reading if that isn't your situation. I think the point they raise is profound and more broadly applicable to any area of unanswered prayer:
"Pray for love. All of it. Yes, pray for a spouse. But don’t just pray for a spouse for yourself. Doing so will only cause the years of unanswered prayers to weigh you down. Instead, pray for love – all of it. Be thankful when others find love ahead of you, because every love story reveals a God who brings people together against what is very often some very impossible odds."
I think the idea that Chris puts forward is much more redemptive and healthy. Rather than framing other people getting what they want when we aren't as reason for pessimism, frustration with God or assorted other types of angst, we can choose to be thankful and hopeful. We can do this even in our own lack because what we witness in the lives of others is proof that God is not silent or disinterested. Other people's blessings shows us a God who is still actively engaged in bringing about good things. They show us a God whose ability to answer is not constrained by difficult looking circumstances. Rather than focusing on despairing prayers for ourselves, it frees us to channel our energies into hopeful prayers for others to experience good things. It is not at all an easy shift in perspective but I am finding it is one that makes a difference.

Photo by kelby93. Used under Creative Commons licence

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Celebrating four years of musings!

Today is the fourth birthday of!

Rather than trying to share what I've learned about blogging (as I'm still not sure I know what I'm doing) or getting excessively emotional, I decided I'd trawl back through the archives and dig up some favorite posts from the last four years.

Thanks for reading! Hopefully there will be many more years of musing to come!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Two ideas that have improved my bible study

Ever finished your bible readings for the day and realized later (or sometimes straight away) that you have little recollection of what you've just read and you don't feel like you've learned much? I've had that happen way too many times. From what I've heard other Christians say it seems to be a fairly common experience.  Lately I've been trying two ideas that seem to be helping me overcome that problem.

The first is to hand-write out the passage in full. I tend not to hand-write much in other settings as usually typing ends up being a better option. However, for this hand-writing has been beneficial. Hand-writing what you are reading slows you down so you can't race through the text as easily. Also, when writing down every word in the text I'm finding that I notice finer details like curious and possibly significant word choices that I might not notice when just reading.

The second thing I'm finding helpful is to not just think about the text, but to write down my thoughts, questions and observations about the text. As with writing out the passage, something about taking the time to write things down seems to make them stick in my mind. I suggest that you don't just write down the big points of the text. Write down the questions you think you think are stupid or ones think you might already know the answer to. Write down observations that seem obvious and ones that seem too be quite minor points. In addition to making it easier to remember what you've learned, writing down your thinking on a passage can be great way to work out what questions it might be helpful to research from other resources.

What methods have you found helpful in your bible study?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Assorted thoughts on surviving unemployment

I had hoped that this point in the year I’d be able to be writing articles with titles like “How to make the most of great opportunities at work” or  “The ten things I love most about my job.” Alas, not to be. Well, not yet at least. I’ve found myself unemployed longer than I expected. It has definitely been a more challenging journey than I anticipated. Given that unemployment is an unfortunately common experience, I figured it would be worth sharing some of what I’ve learned to hopefully make it a little less challenging for others.
  • Keep learning- Parts of the job hunting process are a bit monotonous. That is easier to handle if you are keeping your brain active some other way. Read, take an online course or learn a challenging new hobby. Your mental health will be better as a result and you might find the inspiration rubs off on your job hunting efforts.
  • Don’t let good habits go- Not having the structure that employment provides can make it easier to become lax on things like spiritual disciplines or exercise. You need to be really deliberate about things that matter to you.
  • Spreadsheets are your friend- If you have multiple job applications on the go, it is easy for them to start to blur a bit in your mind. Keeping organised spreadsheets about your progress on each application can make it much easier to keep track of everything.
  • Ask people to pray for you- Yes, it can feel a bit lame asking your friends to pray for your job hunting efforts week after week. But, it is surprisingly encouraging when they do and who knows how God might choose to answer those prayers.
  • Be careful of the comparisons game- It is easy to slip into pondering why other people have found work or have made career advances and you haven’t. While there is legitimate things to be learned from career moves others have made, it can easily slip into negativity or envy. Be careful to keep it positive.
  • Try to find something positive in failed attempts- This one is hard because it can be so very disappointing to interview for a great job and not be the one chosen. But even though you didn’t get the job, an unsuccessful interview has still been a good chance to learn more about the company/industry, get better at interviewing and maybe meet some interesting people.

If you are (or have been) unemployed, what did you learn from it?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

I wish I'd known to...take a long range view of life change

Since I’ve been a Christian for almost 10 years I’ve been thinking back on what I wish I could tell my younger Christian self and therefore what might be useful for people who are younger Christians now to know. There is so much that I could say and I suspect given another 10 years I’d find a whole bunch of things to tell my current self!

One of the things that jumped out thinking this through was being really quick to assume that my life had changed due to a conference/event/service/book ect. I hear similar sentiments a lot from others in testimonies immediately after Christian events. I don’t want to ridicule the belief that God can change people, sometimes in quick or dramatic ways. He indeed can and sometimes does. Nor would I want to unnecessarily squelch enthusiasm for becoming more Godly. I would however suggest that sometimes it is very wise to wait awhile before making a pronouncement about what God has done.

 Discernment can be hard at close range 
Sometimes we’re not in a good position to evaluate potentially spiritually significant happenings really close to when they happened. Being emotionally moved or enthusiastic about something can impact how we think about it. If you’ve been at a conference or event tiredness, running on adrenaline to keep up with everything, intellectual overload and being out of normal routine can cloud your thinking. Waiting until these factors have subsided to evaluate the spiritual significance of what you just experienced is a valuable discipline. This is because it can be disappointing and spiritually unhealthy to realise that your life didn’t change as much as you thought it did or that you can’t keep up with the spiritual commitments you made while on a conference excitement induced high. I found that very frustrating as a young Christian.

Sometimes fruit can take a while to emerge 
Sometimes the opposite of the previous point is true. If we make our evaluations too quickly we may miss fruit that will emerge more subtly or a bit later. Some of the books I’ve read that have been quite spiritually significant didn’t rock my world when I originally read them. However, over time I found the ideas seeping through my thinking and changing for the better the way I lived and made decisions. Sometimes what I’ve learned from conference messages has become really relevant months or years later as I’ve faced situations I wasn’t dealing with when I originally heard the message.

Change often takes effort 
Perhaps most significant, being quick to declare that our lives have changed can distract our focus from the steps we need to take long term to walk in holiness. We can get to thinking that whatever change happened is more final and complete than it actually is. More often than not, God slowly changes our hearts, minds and actions alongside in tandem with our efforts towards Godliness. I think Eugene Peterson’s description of discipleship and sanctification being “a long obedience in the same direction” is apt. Even in situations where God does dramatically free people from addictions, bad habits or problems, there is still often steps that need to be taken to adopt new, right ways of living in the place of the rotten old ones.

Have you sometimes been a bit too quick to assess the spiritual impact of something? 
What do you wish you could tell your younger Christian self?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A surprise blessing

Normal content (including the rest of the “why be holy?” series) will be back on the blog soon. In the meantime, here’s some musings on how I’ve been seeing God’s provision and blessing in a way I did not expect over the last month.

At the end of last year I had moved away from the city I consider home. It was meant to be a short stay with family while I went on a mission trip, finished off a few projects, hunted for a job and found somewhere to live. However, my rental contract back home had expired and appropriate places to live that were affordable while still unemployed were rarely coming up. This left me stuck in a city where I had hardly any friends for several months. It looked like I was going to be there for a lot longer than planned which was a frustrating and lonely prospect.

Every few weekends I would make the long drive back to where I had been living to visit friends and attend social events. On one such weekend I found myself getting frustrated and upset as I drove between events in different parts of the city. I knew that I was meant to be back in that city but that the next day I would have to leave it all behind yet again. I was not happy with God at all and let him know it. Later that day I found myself at a ministry event where a song with the line “You make all things work together for my good” was played. I didn’t feel like singing that. It didn’t feel like there was much working anything together for my good going in in my life. I didn’t understand why God appeared to be ignoring me. But sing the song I did, even if it was a bit mumbled.

Just a few days after returning from that frustrating trip, I checked my Facebook notifications and among all the mostly trivial updates something caught my eye. It was a message from a friend of a friend letting me know that one room had become available in their sharehouse. The place was pretty much everything I’d wanted in somewhere to live- among other specifics that I’d have Christian housemates, it was affordable on my tight budget, was in a particular side of the city and was near public transport. It seemed very much like my prayers were being answered and so I leapt at the opportunity. After a flurry of making arrangements I paid the bond for it just seven days after I had the meltdown while driving. If there was any doubt that this was indeed God’s provision, it evaporated when I noticed on Google maps it was only a few blocks from the street where I had gotten frustrated with God a week earlier! God certainly has a sense of humour! I never could have guessed that while I was having my pity party that walking distance away people I’d never met were making arrangements that would end up being the answer to my prayers.

And so in the last month I’ve been caught up in the surprise beginnings of this new stage. There is always a lot to do when moving house! It has also been a time of learning and growing. Previously I’d been living in an environment where there was people around but I lived largely independently for most things. Living in a share-house community is a fun but somewhat new and stretching experience. Perhaps those are ponderings for another post sometime! I’m excited to see what God will do while I’m here.