Welcome Stranger

Many of my friends have moved around the country of Australia for work, especially those in Defence jobs. We often share observations of local culture, especially how hard or easy it is to acclimatize socially in our new context. These interesting comparisons mature with age and are strengthened by a chorus of witnesses who have shared the same experiences.

Notably, in many places, you find friendships and success in your endeavours because of ‘who you know.’ This puts a lot of pressure on making friends fast, often the most ‘popular’ or influential people in your context can help with networking – to begin to feel ‘at home’ in a community of like-minded people. However, this pressure has some problems:

Firstly, when opportunities come because of ‘who you know’, many experienced and talented people miss out on opportunities, whether for a job or a part in a local play, because they are not well-known.

Secondly, when the most influential or popular person is the one who gives newcomers a leg-up, introducing them to the people ‘in the know’ – it gives those people a lot of relational power. We get a situation where certain families become ‘local royalty’ based upon nothing other than ‘who you know.’

Thirdly, the pressure to get ahead can cause individuals who are perhaps feeling insecure about this whole arrangement, to feel like it’s some competition to know the most people and know the ‘right’ people better than anyone else. It’s a kind of game like in politics where there is smoozing and doing favours for people, and perhaps shouting others down, whether to their face or behind it. This leads to some very unbecoming human behaviours, all for the sake of moving up in the world, or at least ‘fitting in’.

If you’re thinking this is sounding like schoolyard politics, then you would be right. It is only through a healthy autonomous relationship with others where accountability and character development are encouraged can societies thrive. If people are afraid to achieve because they will be ridiculed, like a pecking order in a hen house, this leads to a community that is in drudgery, the doldrums, with limited opportunities and unhealthy relationship dynamics.

For all human history, people have been suspicious of outsiders and competitive with one another for attention or success. This is never more apparent than in communities where there is a long generational line of inhabitants. This can happen on a grand scale with the way that we treat outsiders from other countries. Just like the small communities who recognize a familiar face because they are perhaps related, and this is their basis for trust; we can also be suspicious of an unfamiliar face and guarded about allowing opportunities to come their way.

If we can recognize our biases and prejudices, we are a big step closer to overcoming them. This happens in our workplaces, our social groups, universities, schools, churches and social action groups. We can be amicable and embrace one another’s differences, overcoming the challenges begins with our attitudes and behaviours. If you are an influential person in your context, you can be the force for change by modelling these behaviours, rather than feeling challenged and threatened. Healthy communities have a balance of looking inward and outward, to learn and grow by welcoming the stranger.


Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

‘to lead to excel’

This was the motto of the Academy where I trained and studied from the age of 19 to 22. After graduation, I spent three years at sea in the Navy and served in ministry in my local church while ashore. Those six years were foundational for my sense of leadership in the church and in the world.

Studying alongside others is a great leveler, those who I served with at the Academy will forever be my classmates, no matter what rank or heights of achievement they attain. At Bible college, where I have been studying for 10 years now, the students and lecturers place themselves at Jesus’ feet, in submission to God’s word and will. When a student surpasses their master, it is often considered an honour and expression of the master’s teaching skill. However, we cannot forget Darth Vaders’ words to Obi Wan Kenobi: ‘When I left you, I was but the learner, now I am the master.’

Both the students and lecturers at bible college are ministry leaders in their own church. When students consider me to be one of their peers, or when lecturers speak to me as a fellow learner and a brother or sister in Christ, it is dignifying and yet commands great respect. We all experience similar trials and temptations in ministry and life and are accountable to the same God. We search the scriptures and pray fervently for God’s guidance and direction. This also is a great leveler.

My experience of church leadership has at times been reminiscent of the military, reliant on rank, with the domination and control of subordinates; and yet many Christian military leaders I’ve observed would excel as ministers of the gospel, because they are humble and show respect for the professionalism of others. They also have a strong sense of identity, calling and wariness of the ‘sins’ of the institution.

The leadership style that uses rank for authority tends to resort to domination and control and does not consider self-reflection or care of others a necessary part of their role. This leadership may be captured in the phrase ‘He will punish you with a warrior’s sharp arrows’ (Psalm 120:4) This phrase is speaking about God’s justice exercised on those who deceive and accuse God’s people. Yet, for those who equate a leadership rank with ‘being God’, submitting to their authority may lead to some arrows being fired. This is spiritual warfare.

It is not the vocation of ministry or military leadership that commands respect, but their submission to God’s will and their treatment of others. The vocation of the church is to live out the gospel, but what does this look like? In the eyes of society, its status is a non-profit and charitable organization; that is to provide support to people, to encourage, to help, to seek justice and serve. Our leaders must model this vocation and be willing to hand on the baton to the next generation through this same encouragement, help, and service to others.

I joined the military and the ministry to be a peacekeeper, yet even in peacetime, people feel threatened and attack others, in these situations submission to authority can lead to distress.

Listen to this: God is the one who answers those in distress, we know this because of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. He is also the role model, empowerer and enabler of leaders in the church and has dominion over all worldly authorities. Rather than seeking to be God, as leaders we must come alongside God’s people and sit at Jesus’ feet. The way toward growth in leadership points toward the task of discipleship and the encouragement of one another, we grow by lifting up others. Our spiritual direction is to be a follower and a leader, that is, to point to Christ.

Reference: reflection on Psalm 120 by Michael Jenson, St Mark’s Darling Point Sydney.

Photo by Raul Petri on Unsplash

 

Dreaming of Raskolnikov

If you would allow me to speak frankly, in the way my thoughts are naturally carried, I feel as if these past 10 years have been like a dream, an out of body experience even to reflect back on them. My sleep is an escape from it, when I wake I recall the insanity of this waking dream and lament.

Let me tell you that some time ago, when I was in my prime, in my element in life, several friends laid upon me their own waywardness. I became their scapegoat. It is a curious motif in Scripture that I’ve dwelt upon heavily in this dream-state of daily living.

I would not (at all) call myself spotless, but most definitely innocent of the crimes and vices projected upon me. I felt exiled, though truly the burden of it caused me to exile myself from certain social circles. I went to the fringe of society and felt comforted by those around me – extraordinary people.

A question arises about the ancient times, what would have happened if there was no scapegoat? The leaders would bow before the holy of holies and die. (Leviticus 16:7-10)

The questions still remains, then, what happens when the scapegoat returns from the wilderness and seeks to dwell again among the people? Those who cast her out feel shame, disgusted, their holiness questioned, they are more than put out.

They may well unleash their fury upon the creature and sacrifice it – lest it open its mouth to proclaim the horrid truths. You see, the biblical advice tells us there are dark things lurking within humankind, things that ought not be spoken.

However, that is what I did, I spilled it all to the highest on high in the spire. It was such a wild and lurid story I told – it was simply unbelievable, both to myself and to the keeper of the crook.

Again, we return to the question of what happens when the goat returns to the town. I was sacrificed, yet again I must say I sacrificed myself so to have the ordeal come to an end. I’d left the extraordinary people in the wilderness to return to the town, to be met with an inhospitable welcome and sarcastic frown. So, I continued to the city where all types and manners of humankind meet. The whispers in the backrooms drowned out by the heavy music, the chatter of the crowd, the beat.

A stayed, buoyed kind of happiness returns to me. As we consider that God makes a much better Master than men. So, I have no choice but to continue to offer myself as a living sacrifice – so to speak. For God gave all burdens to Christ, even mine, even the ones I carry that do not belong to me. So I can only say to Christ, I love thee.

‘Even in the wilderness, nature is not so stern as man.’

William Hepworth Dixon in ‘The Holy Land’

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Image credit: Photo by Alex Forestier on Unsplash

Isaiah 40:3-4; John 1:22-24

 

Wilderness: 

2048 érēmos – properly, an uncultivatedunpopulated place; a desolate (deserted) area; (figuratively) a barren, solitary place that also provides needed quiet (freedom from disturbance).

In Scripture, a “desert” (2048 /érēmos) is ironically also where God richly grants His presence and provision for those seeking Him. The limitless Lord shows Himself strong in the “limiting” (difficult) scenes of life.

[2048 (érēmos) in the strict sense expresses a lack of population (not merely “sparse vegetation”). This root (erēmo-) does “not suggest absolute barrenness but unappropriated territory affording free range for shepherds and their flocks. Hepworth Dixon (The Holy Land) says, ‘Even in the wilderness nature is not so stern as man…]

Strong’s Greek Concordance

 

A Study in Prudence – Part 2. Loving your neighbour

A quiet little street in suburbia, surrounded by many more like it. Wandering the streets searching for a friend, a playmate, a conversation, I would stray into my neighbours’ houses from about the age of 10. It was a window into the entire world for me.

Our next door neighbours, the James’ were in my top 10 favourites. I would pick their strawberries and snapdragons, hear stories and wisdom from their 70 years while they made me a tomato, salt and pepper buttered sandwich. I surely tested their patience when I found their kangaroo shaped money box and hopped it all over the house, clanging the coins and singing out loud.

Another friend, Michelle, born on the same day as me, with strawberry hair, we played with Care Bears and My Little Ponies and she always offered me an Uncle Toby’s muesli bar when I enquired as to what was in that pantry…

There were many other houses I visited, young girls who played shop and barbies, elderly ladies with a lolly jar; families from Argentina, Russia, Korea, Greece, Malta, Lebanon, Italy and Croatia. I ate their delicacies and drank their tea and listened intently to their stories while focussed on the character in their faces. Then… Dasvidaniya, we would say.

I spread my love of neighbour around the whole suburb, you could say. Not all my neighbours were a good influence, as my family can attest – but we’ll leave that for another post. There were also a few apparent protests about my visits from parents or siblings, but spoken in a language I could not understand; mostly I was given genuine and generous hospitality. I was that kid from next door, up the street, around the corner – coming through the front/back/side door.

Seldom set foot in your neighbour’s house – too much of you and they will hate you. Proverbs 25:17


One particular friend always laid out the welcome mat. She was a gentle and kind friend, an only child, her family migrated from South America. I’d watch her dance ballet, we’d play in her tree house, dance to ABBA records and make gnocchi. Even when she moved to another suburb far away she would visit and we’d meet and play. I marvelled at the melodious ring in her parent’s accents when they called out her name. We find one another online years later to discover we have a mutual love for Jesus. We are delighted, yet somehow it is no surprise to me.

Many claim to have unfailing love, but a faithful person who can find? Proverbs 20:6


It was pertinent for me to find a conclusion to this post in the writings of a ‘neighbour’ and faithful person…

…God gave his salvation for the world. In this sense, we must not seek to limit the command to love our neighbour by asking ‘Who is my neighbour?’ (Luke 10:29), but rather should seek to be a neighbour to all without discrimination (10:36-37)… Jesus teaches… that love must not be restricted only to those who love us in return: (see Matt 5:43-47). – from ‘The Good Life in the Last Days‘ by Mikey Lynch, p.60.


Image Credit: Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

Finally…

pastizzi image

A Study in Prudence – Part 1. Friendships

“Oh, look! They’re playing Arabic music!” I pointed to the field stage in surprise and wonder. The music had only just cut through the conversation to reach my ears and awareness, so deeply entrenched in the beloved company I kept.

“Nah, really??” one answered sarcastically.

Taken aback at the tone, I am filled with dismay. I recall my brother’s wisdom and say; “‘Sarcasm is the product of an unoriginal mind.’ That’s what my brother used to say…”

I pondered on whether these words chastised but felt defensive at the seemingly unwarranted change.

I reflected inwardly and quietly, all the while the hum and drone of music surrounded me. The friends left to find some cider and reappeared with one for me. I drank it quickly and bought another. It was one way to lighten the mood. The night turned cold and frivolous, like the sparkling cider in my hand, making me giddy and nonchalant.

That moment changed everything so slightly, like a clock suddenly no longer able to keep time. I gained insight into the naivety of years of mere acquaintance. I was ready, on the brink, to pull in close to share the rest of the story, the private details of my associations with the Arabic people – how I was one of them, they were my people, yet time revealed they were not. On reflection, this was a mirror of the past – will I see it clearly now, then walk away and forget?

The budding friendship denied warmth, light and feeding turns grey and dried up like Autumnal blooms displayed in a dark room.

Who can tell why I trust and devote myself to this man, who spoke Aramaic, whose image and touch are unknown to me – yet occupies all my waking thoughts. He is an endless ocean with unfathomable depths, yet he is my Brother in life and death.

Proverbs 18:24 – One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

 

Image Credit: Anastasia Benko: Moody Autumnal dried flower arrangement with chrysanthemums and dried leaves.

Fields of Poppies

Living in rural Tasmania for the last eight years has been a wonderful experience – character building, invigorating, inspirational, isolating and also communal. It is fascinating to be an insider in this rural culture that is so rich with generations of family life, and so diverse with a multitude of migrants and mainlanders. One aspect of rural life that has been quite pronounced is the desire for an egalitarian ethos in all that is said and done. To hold a position of influence in these communities is extremely difficult, being held to the highest account by a wide variety of people whom you live closely alongside.

 

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[Artwork of the Poppy Fields of Deloraine by Evelyn Antonysen @ WordPress EvAntArt]

One of my favourite Australian bands from my youth, The Simpletons, had put this observation of rural life in Lismore, into a song called ‘Tall Poppies’.

‘Please help me cut the tall poppies down… they’ve grown too high… let’s cut ‘em down and watch ’em die!’ – Cheyne Gelagin.

It was their most popular song, perhaps because it struck a chord with the Australian ethos and our lived experience, it is possible that this is derived from our past as a penal settlement. Aside from this cultural analysis of rural Australia, this is not meant to be a judgement on our rural neighbours – who are, in fact, wonderfully hospitable, generous and hard-working.

Instead, I have been examining this Tall Poppies syndrome in light of Scripture and wanted to set out some suggestions as to how Christians, both as members and leaders of their community, can be inclusive of all people and encourage one another to prosper in the life of the church and the local community.

Many local churches have a strong shared oral history among the congregation and their long list of leaders are painted in gold on an honour board and remembered by long-serving members. This signifies that endurance in the faith is demonstrated and honoured through long tenure, stability, commitment and endurance in a particular place, position or role. It has been noted by cultural commentators that rural churches (arguably the majority of churches in Tasmania due to our small population size) operate in a similar way to a ‘Country Club’. The longest-serving and most dedicated members are given positions of influence and newcomers are given ‘L’ plates for a considerable time or prevented from serving at all, unless they have a strong connection with the leadership through social circles, family or work relationships.

This experience is a stark contrast to serving in a church elsewhere, where all members, whether new or long-serving, feel an ownership to welcome and encourage all new people to serve in the capacity that God is calling them toward. Once, upon walking into a church service for the first time in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, my husband and I had arrived early and were the only ones sitting in the pews. The youth leader stood up the front and called out to us, ‘does anyone know how to play drums?’ I raised my hand and was inducted into the music team immediately upon first meeting; this church became our beloved spiritual home for the next three years and nourished our faith and desire to serve God both as leaders and members of our church. Such fond memories of being openly welcomed into a church family upon first meeting have remained with me the past 18 years, as I have since served in eight churches in three states, and attended dozens more as a visitor, with mixed experiences.

We are in an age where people live transitory lives moving from place to place to find work, affordable real estate, a new start, education, a place to raise a family. The church must seek to become a spiritual haven for newcomers and strangers, or as one Chaplain put it:

Jesus came for ‘the last, the lost and the least’. – Luke Campton

All people who claim Christ as their personal saviour are part of God’s plan and purpose to build up His church.

Inclusive church practices. From my positive experiences – there will usually be a conversation between the newcomers (as individuals, couples, or families) and the leadership, usually at the Minister’s home or a home visit is made, or for larger churches a welcoming session is held where each person is encouraged and the particular values and goals of that church are shared. This welcoming ritual is not just a tool for ensuring greater numbers attending a church; or for sussing out their theology and making an assessment of their suitability to become a serving member.  It is not an appropriate time to assert the leaders’ authority or try to find out the state of their marriage, mental health, financial status, or employment prospects.

We must lovingly welcome others into the wider church family to love and serve God and one another.

Offer newcomers an opportunity to be known and loved by God and His people in your place. Validate and encourage that person’s journey of faith, their gifting, stage of life, opportunities and willingness to grow and learn in the Body of Christ.

Pray with them. Christians should pray with and for all members of their church community to shine the light of Christ in all aspects of their life. If Christians do not pray together regularly, the Body is not communicating with the ‘brain’ who holds us together.

Ask them what God is doing in their life. God is the author of our salvation and is also the director for all our lives. Avoid imposing pre-conceived ideas upon a person about how they should or should not serve based upon their ‘newness’, age, stage of life, or denominational background.

Church leaders spend a considerable amount of time inspiring passion in others to serve God in their community. Yet those who are passionate to serve can sometimes be viewed as over-zealous or disrespectful of church authority for seeking to do a work that was not authorised at the last Synod, Parish Council or elders meeting. Passion to serve God is like a fire that cannot be quenched, if you try to control or suppress someone’s desire to serve in a capacity, it will likely consume them – they will seek to serve elsewhere to follow God’s leading. Consider the ways that each person can serve based on mutual prayer, discussion, and openness to the many ways that God’s word can be proclaimed.

The people are not pegs, and the ministries are not ‘holes’. The Body of Christ is a living being that has many parts and must be joined in unity to the head, which is Christ.

Discipleship involves journeying with a person in prayer and searching the Scriptures so that we might model ourselves on the champions of the faith. Self-sacrifice in the church is giving up our own selfish desires to serve God and others and proclaim God’s word in our area of influence. Self-sacrifice is not about giving up a ‘calling’ or work because it does not ‘fit in’ with the plans or programs of the institution. The limiting nature of Tall Poppies syndrome chokes the opportunities for new ministries, the raising up of new leaders, missionaries, influencers, teachers, encouragers, evangelists.

Jesus himself was seen to be a Tall Poppy threatening the long-standing values and cultural practices of the Pharisees and paid the ultimate price for it, for our sake and for our salvation. We must keep our eyes open to the mercies of God in His provision of people, gifts, resources, and opportunities in our community – without choking out new ideas because we ourselves did not conceive them, or they were not considered a priority by the ‘board’. For surely, God is able to do much more than we can ask or imagine, and He graciously gives His people the desire and capability to serve Him in ways and means that we would not consider possible.

Tertullian famously said, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of church’. The martyrs of the early church gave their lives for the proclamation of God’s word, they were cut down in their life and ministry by those who would persecute and oppress Christians, because they did not obey the governing authorities. Let us not cut one another down, like a house divided against itself, but let’s water and nourish the seed of faith, growing a ripe harvest for God.

As we venture into another year of our lives, consider what direction God is calling you toward. We need to make time to reflect and pray each day to consider His word and His work around us, and ask for His grace, mercy and forgiveness to allow us to be open to His divine work within us and in our midst.

‘to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.’ – Jude 1:25

Glory

I’m keenly aware that last time I stuck my neck out, it was chopped off. Such an inglorious fall from grace must surely not be repeated? Yet, I’m also assured that my body does not belong to me but to the true head, who is Christ. So, as painful as it is to be humbled by others and brought low in circumstances, none can compare to the sacrifice made by Christ on the cross at Calvary.

The joy that surpasses all understanding is mine despite the shape of my body, the soundness of mind or emotion, the clarity of speech, the winsomeness of my writing; God has revealed to me time and again in His Word and whispers, ‘You are mine.’

I, forsaking all others, have pinned my hopes and fears upon the cross. As Christ’s bride, we all acknowledge that there is no person on earth that deserves the glory that is bestowed upon the Son of God by the Spirit at work within us.

We need not be ashamed of our words and deeds, nor the possibility of wrong motives, for we present ourselves as a living sacrifice and God accepts our humble deeds in the midst of our messy lives as acceptable to Him. God’s love is boundless and eternal, it covers over all our sins and washes us -sanctifies us – so that we may remain in His presence for eternity.

To God Be the Glory, Amen.

 

Image Source: Getty Images