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.
Being in nature, we are provided with persistent reminders of God’s word and its significance to our lives. Working on the land, there are seasons where the thistles and weeds dominate the landscape if left unattended. Once the weed has flowered and gone to seed, it is said that another 100 years of weeds will be sown on the wind – spreading across the surrounding landscape. To engage in the exhausting work of pulling out weeds by the roots year after year leads to the establishment of a pleasant and productive landscape for all to enjoy. In the bible, weeds are indicative of a problem in a persons’ heart – what lies in the heart often comes out in their speech and behavior and grows to become evident in the person’s character, their public and private life.
Listening deeply to another person’s heart takes some effort, patience and resilience when caring for others. Importantly, it is not acceptable to weigh and judge the words of others but to examine our own hearts by listening to God’s voice. You see, the unresolvable questions and burden of unpleasant experiences, if left unchecked can cause a contagious illness to spread among the hearers. This illness is described as ‘bitterness’ in the bible and is like a weed in the good soil, with the potential to destroy the crop or harvest.
Take a look at the verse in Hebrews, how the context of this verse shows that bitterness may prevent us from living in God’s grace due to unforgiveness, it destroys peace, is a barrier to living a holy life and can corrupt those around us.
Hebrews 12:14, 15 – ‘Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.’
For an excellent article on bitterness, I’ve chosen two articles, one from a woman’s perspective and one from a man’s perspective. I like Erin’s concluding sentence, indicating that we cannot dig up the weed of bitterness ourselves. For, it is only God who can cleanse our hearts and revive our communities.
Erin Davis – ‘4 Ways to Spot a Bitter Root’ on the Revive our Hearts: True Woman blog.
We see the fruit of bitterness in people’s lives; anger, malice, slander, gossip, grumbling – it steals our joy, stunts the growth of the fruit of the Spirit and can even change us physically over time.
Recently, reading ‘Crime and Punishment’ by Dostoevsky, spending over 400 pages in the mind of a bitter and tormented man who longs to know God and the love of another; I found this interesting summary of what it is like to live in anguish… (emphasis mine)
“He kept tormenting himself with these questions, even taking a certain delight in it. None of the questions was new or sudden, however; they were all old, sore, long-standing. They had begun torturing him long ago and had worn out his heart. Long, long ago this present anguish had been born in him, had grown, accumulated, and ripened recently and become concentrated, taking the form of a horrible, wild, and fantastic question that tormented his heart and mind, irresistibly demanding resolution… Clearly, he now had not to be anguished, not to suffer passively, by mere reasoning about unresolvable questions, but to do something without fail, at once, quickly. Decide at all costs to do at least something, or… ‘or renounce life altogether!’ he suddenly cried out in frenzy. ‘Accept fate obediently as it is, once and for all, and stifle everything in myself, renouncing any right to act, to live, to love!’ (43)
‘He was pale, his eyes were burning, all his limbs felt exhausted, but he suddenly seemed to breathe more easily. He felt he had just thrown off the horrible burden that had been weighing him down for so long, and his soul suddenly became light and peaceful.‘Lord! He pleaded, ‘show me my way; I renounce this cursed…. dream of mine!’
In spite of his weakness, he was not even aware of any fatigue in himself. It was as if an abscess in his heart, which had been forming all that month, had suddenly burst. Freedom! Freedom!” (57)
We are all subject to torment and anguish, we are all exposed to unpleasant experiences – though some more than others. It is a consolation that ‘no temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.’ 1 Corinthians 10:13.
When we consider the character of those who have been a voice for the oppressed and led the way for change throughout history, we are strengthened in our own difficulties, no matter how small they may seem in comparison. For example, the words of Nelson Mandela speak of triumph over evil and sin, his relentless self-examination to root out any bitterness towards his oppressors is the true source of inner freedom. His selfless act to speak out for the justice of many, regardless of the consequences, leads to growth in character and opportunities for a nation’s people to be given the right to act, to live, to love – in freedom.
‘It is in the character of growth that we should learn from both pleasant and unpleasant experiences.’ – Nelson Mandela
‘For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.’ – Nelson Mandela
What can be done to save the harvest as it is so susceptible to weeds, besides guarding our own hearts and bringing our burdens to God each day for his grace, mercy and forgiveness? We can be a gracious and merciful listening presence among others who experience this present anguish and the torment regarding the difficulties of the past. We can speak out as Christ’s love compels us, to challenge evil and oppression, the abuse of power and be a voice for the vulnerable. God’s love is revealed to others when His people come alongside another person in their life’s journey, as we pray for one another, asking God to show us the way.
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.’
2048érēmos – properly, an uncultivated, unpopulated 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…]
God’s word is powerful, it spoke the universes into existence and all that is seen and unseen is held together by His powerful will and word.
We are created in God’s image and can act in accordance with His will or our own. We can act like we are the master of our universe and attempt to orchestrate the people and things in our lives for our own purposes.
All the things we say and do have consequences for ourselves and others. It is a basic right to be able to speak the truth freely without fear of retribution. When we are wronged, we would like to be able to say so, to be free to admit to our own wrongdoing without being shamed or humiliated for doing so.
Our speech and actions inform others about our values, our ethos and our purposes in life, whether directed towards the Creator of the universes, or as a master of our own making.
We hear the word ‘gospel’ used for all sorts of things, just as there is a ‘bible’ available for all sorts of hobbies and pursuits. These words try to impose an image of right-thinking or right-acting on the person or work when it ain’t necessarily so.
A ‘gospel’ that is holding fast to an outdated English version of the Bible, that aims its message towards less than half of the world’s population because of the gender they were born.
It ain’t necessarily so.
A ‘gospel’ that denies the legitimacy of young people, older people, frail people or ‘those people’ to a calling or vocation in the name of the ‘gospel’ because it was not first ordained by a crooked stick.
It ain’t necessarily so.
A ‘gospel’ that decides that all people who visit a certain type of building on Sundays (or Saturdays) are not ‘covered’ by God’s grace and mercy like those in a particular ‘chosen’ flock.
It ain’t necessarily so.
Perhaps those who wear fancy robes or speak in flowery prose are too old school to be considered part of the updated, renovated plan of the ‘gospel.’
A ‘gospel’ that excludes. A ‘gospel’ of conditions and revisions.
It ain’t necessarily so.
God’s flock is much greater than the people in your midst or on your friends’ list. The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, is the servant and sacrifice for all humanity. He calls us to follow His voice, to love and serve all people – especially the lost, the weak and the poor. Who do you serve? Who or what do you pray for? Is this God’s desire for our lives, is it God’s image we reflect, or our own to which we aspire?
Loving God, you are the author and sustainer of all things, including us. Help us to truly know your grace and mercy in our own lives and to reflect your image, Your glory, to others in all we do and say. Open our eyes to the worldwide fellowship of your church who acknowledge the Gospel truth. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
In my former years, I would go outside for a durry, but now I go out to breathe fresh air. For some of us, this statement rings true also for our whole lives. The toxic habits we used to live by may have taken their toll on our health – emotional, mental, physical or spiritual. Some of these old ways become ingrained, in our speech, actions, appearance, even the lines on our face tell a story.
We can judge another person without even speaking to them, we judge by what we see, perceive or hear about them, allowing our own motives and prejudices to guide us. This kind of judgementalism is unjust and is a sign of our humanness. Though broken, humanity still bears the image of the invisible God that is his glorious creation, despite our misgivings concerning one another.
We’ve all gone the wrong way, and we’ve all suffered pain. Who should judge their friend for being a smoker; for being tattooed perhaps at a time when life, love or grief overcame them; for having been admitted to a hospital because their emotional pain was too much to bear alone? When we judge one another for outward appearances or for our experiences during times of stress, suffering and pain, we deny one another an opportunity to be loved. The love of God is the source of all comfort, help and wisdom – it is expressed through one another by His word and Spirit, in our words and deeds.
A spirit of judgementalism has crept into our churches in many forms over many centuries. Are you saved? Are you from this place or that? Are you learned? Are you friends with those people? Are you faithful enough not to despair in times of suffering? What work do you do? … (Are you better than me?) Did you pass the test?
This testing of one another reminds us of the disciples jostling for pole position next to Jesus’ side (Luke 22). It is a false gospel that is proclaimed, it is not what Jesus taught his friends. Jesus’ friends also struggled with this spirit of judgementalism time and again. They did not fully understand who Jesus was nor did they understand what the kingdom of God would bring.
Christ-culture. We, as friends of the resurrected Jesus, come to him just as we are, every day. We come to him first, knowing that ‘there is only One who is good’ (Mt 19:17) before we open his whole word and listen for his Spirit which is one of love, unity, fellowship and forgiveness. It is God who teaches us how to love and serve him and one another because he is motivated by love – he is Love.
Turn around from that treacherous road you were travelling upon and believe and understand with your heart, mind and soul that Jesus is Lord of all Creation, our communities and our lives. Live in light of that knowledge, relying on God’s wisdom and the Spirit of gentleness and discernment. Give glory and power and honour to him who is the Just Judge over all things, forever. Amen.
Less-quoted sayings of Jesus: (Recommended reading in context)
“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death…’ Mark 14:32-34
“Leave her alone… why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.” Mark 14:6
“Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” Luke 20: 46-47
“Everyone will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life.” Luke 21:17
“Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.” John 7:24
“…why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” Matt 15:3
“Get behind me Satan. You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Matt 16:23
“Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Matt 20:14
“For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials.” Luke 22:27-28
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.
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