Monday, January 30, 2006

Affluenza re-visited

My blog, Affluenza, prompted quite a response! Books were purchased, emails sent, comments made, conversations had - and hopefully lives changed. The SMH keeps talking about Affluenza too (they seem to have an obsession with Sydney's greed and debt), and on their blog today, I found a very interesting site about Affluenza the TV Show, put together by America's non-commercial PBS Television Network. Worth a look to see what this disease looks like in the US of A ...

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Why is this meal different from other meals?

One Sunday when I was 13, I happened to be in church when communion was being served. I had never seen an evangelical communion before and was given no preparation for it, apart from the pastor in the front reading a passage from Corinthians. It was a story I had heard many times before but never seen, smelt or tasted. When he finished reading the praise team played some insipid music while the elders of the church passed around silver trays with broken matzoh crackers and shot-glasses full of grape juice. Everyone took their shard and shot of Jesus as the tray was passed. We stood and sang a final song. Then we left as we always did. This was the first time I ever took communion.

Of course, it is misleading to say that this was the first time I had experienced communion. As I reflected on the anticlimax of the event, my “first communion”, I remembered attending mass as a young child with neighbours. Communion at Our Lady of Perpetual Help was not a particularly “high” event and it wasn’t called communion. The Eucharist was the centrepiece of the service though, that toward which everything else pointed. As the church prepared, the priest would re-enact the story, holding the bread high above his head and breaking it with a resounding crack at just the right moment. Bells were rung and many people crossed themselves as the bread became the Body. Likewise, the priest would take the cup, a gold shining goblet that looked like something from a movie and hold it high above his head, declaring that Jesus blood was shed for the forgiveness of our sins. Again the bells rang as the wine became Blood. Wisps of incense wrapped around the alter and clung to the dark beams in the ceiling. People went forward, knelt, and held out their hands, waiting in the traditional posture of begging, for Christ. I didn’t understand the theological nuances of transubstantiation but I knew that the people were doing something that had to do with Jesus and his death, and I wanted to be a part of that. Years later, when I finally was, it was disappointing.

Passover is one of the most important of Jewish holidays, and the centre of that feast is the Seder dinner. On the table are three matzohs, recalling the hurried flight from Egypt to freedom, one of which is taken and broken in half before the meal beings. During the meal 4 glasses of wine are poured, symbolising freedom, deliverance, redemption, and release. Prayers are said throughout the meal and a liturgy of questions and answers recalls, for all present, the meaning of each aspect of the meal. The purpose of the Seder is to remember God’s salvation from the slavery of Egypt and the freedom he secured for his people. The Seder is a divine drama that is re-enacted every year to teach the children the story of their people and to remind God’s people of their story with him. It was while celebrating this ceremonial meal that Christ took two of these ancient symbols and invested them with new meaning.

“On the night he was betrayed, he took the bread. When he had given thanks he broke it and said, “Take, eat. This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” The matzoh was broken, as it is at the beginning of the meal, but now it is more than our flight from slavery; it is the Passover sacrifice for us, the body of Jesus broken on the cross for us. Later the symbolism of the cup, which already signified freedom, deliverance, redemption and release, is fulfilled with the amazing and hard words, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” The freedom, deliverance, redemption, and release prefigured in the Seder cup are completed in the communion cup.

This is a sacred meal, a Divine drama being enacted to remind us, to allow us to participate in his death. It is a way in which we teach our children the mystery of faith and sustain our own. We know nothing apart from our senses and this is a sensual meal. We taste and smell the bread and wine, feel the texture of the bread and the sweet burning of the wine in our mouth; we hear the words repeated over the centuries, and we hear our own voices joining the chorus in response; we see the bread held high and torn in two, just as our Lord was raised high upon the cross and his body was torn for us, his blood running down his side; we see the gleaming cup and know the light and love it contains. This is a meal we are meant to “dress up” in, to live in regularly so that the death of Christ becomes a tangible part of our lives.

And yet, we seldom share this meal. And when we do, it seldom recalls this ancient and mysterious drama of an ancient and mysterious God who condescended and became one of us for the sole purpose of suffering for our freedom, deliverance, redemption, and release from sin and death. Through this neglect, we not only fail to “do this in remembrance of me” but we also fail to teach our children the drama and beauty of our faith. And we ourselves, those currently entrusted with carrying God’s message of redemption to the world, fail to enjoy the depth, complexity and passion of this divine drama in which we have been lovingly cast.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


We should call it how it really is more often than we do - I was encouraged today when a mate did just this. That moment of honesty can be a beautiful thing - not because it’s good, but rather because life isn’t always ‘good times’, and that’s just part of the journey. Enjoy the honesty (and cheekiness) of Despair … “It's always darkest just before it goes pitch black.”

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Sit Back and I’ll Tell You a Story

No matter who we are or where we are from, stories have shaped our lives – our understanding of ourselves, our culture, our dreams. Stories inspire, educate, encourage, thrill, frighten, and reassure us. Stories make us who we are.

Yet, what of the Christian story? You know the one – God creates a bunch of stuff. Satan and then people try to ruin it. God jumps in and tries to fix things by only rescuing those who understand and accept his actions. Everything else goes to Hell. Literally. At least, these are the bare bones of the story, the parts that we memorise for gospel presentations, the parts of the story that can be easily distilled into precepts that can be believed. Or rejected. But often, despite our love of the propositions and conclusions extracted from the story, we are secretly ashamed of the story. This shame is only reinforced when the world we desperately wish to speak to flatly rejects our propositions or “Truth” as narrow-minded, old-fashioned, lacking compassion, and arrogant. The thought that, since they don’t like the ‘Truth’ the story must be bad, begins to for in our subconscious. And so, while we believe that it is a true story and we know it is meant to be a “Good” story, we remain embarrassed by it.

At first glance, the idea that we are ashamed of our story may seem ridiculous; this story is, after all, what we all believe to be true. The problem is not with us, but with the world that has become such an evil place in recent years.

But do you remember the last time you were asked if you really believe good people go to hell simply because they don’t believe in Jesus? While I believe this is true, a part of me always squirms as I try to explain how this apparently terrible belief is actually compassionate and gracious. Do not misunderstand, we are not to back down from what we know to be “the truth”. But, when sharing the great story of God’s grace I am not, in any way, overwhelmed with the same excitement, passion, conviction, and enthusiasm as you will hear in me when I tell you about the latest novel, poem or film I’ve enjoyed. In fact, none of these emotions even register above the fear, nervousness, and sense of inadequacy. Perhaps even more disturbing is that these euphoric emotions seldom overtake me when talking with fellow Christians, among whom there ought to be no fear but only the shared joy of recounting a great story experience.

Imagine the last time you left a really good movie with friends. What happens as you leave the theatre? At first, everyone is exuberant, repeating their favourite parts. Then comes the critical discussion of exactly why it is so good. Later, a bit more quoting and laughter, maybe a bit of swooning. Finally, the enthusiastic review to anyone who will listen, complete with the demand that they go view the film as quickly as possible. Then, even years later, you find that you and your friends still talk about this film, still quote it, still pull it out and watch it with some regularity, still recommend it to everyone who hasn’t yet seen your “classic” film.

The Gospel does not provoke this response from most Christians. The problem must be with the story. Or, more correctly, with how we have been told and how we tell the story. For centuries some artists have been convinced of the quality of this story, have known that this divine drama is strong enough to be told and retold, painted, interpreted, danced, sung, designed, filmed. We read the story clearly in Dostoevsky, Eliot, Tolkien. We hear the story in Handel, Bach, U2. We even see it in its bloody agony in a Mel Gibson movie. And, for a moment, our hearts sore, knowing that they have glimpsed eternity.

Unfortunately, for most of us, the story has been bled for theological, practical, and historical reasons, leaving us with a pale, anaemic, impotent invalid of a tale that we hide in a darkened room like some humiliating relative. If we are going to share our great story with the world, we must first rescue it from notional distillation and find again the beauty that seizes hearts and compels the world to listen.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Historia Personal

I became an English teacher by default. After finishing my BA in three rushed and turbulent years, I decided to head to Europe to gain some life experience and, in all honesty, to travel. Coming from a family that hadn’t travelled internationally in over a generation, the romantic fantasy of exotic foreign cities and long nights in cafes was irresistible. Being a Christian and a literature student, the natural way to fund such a venture seemed to be going as a “tent-making missionary” / high school English teacher. I would love to claim that my intentions were more noble and that I had a burning desire to remind the people of Europe of their historical faith, but that would be a lie. Despite my less than perfect intentions, living in Budapest turned out to be a wonderful year. Working with people consciously committed to ministry and others who were trained and experienced teachers challenged my ideas of what it is to be a missionary, what it is to bear witness to Christ in the world, and what it is to live a life that is authentic as a Christian, a thinker, and a woman. Like most people at 21, it was a year of false starts, mistakes, and fleeting moments of success. The end of the year took me home and to more teaching, as that was what my resume said I could do. One thing had become clear to me through the long, dark, cold Hungarian winter; the quiet nudging that had been irresistibly inching my heart toward an openly religious vocation since childhood became a strong pushing that would not abate.

I took the most obvious step, which was enrolling in seminary as this allowed for further study and, possibly some form of “religious” work. After realising that it wasn’t possible to work one full-time job with two part-time tutoring gigs on the side and attend Fuller Theological Seminary on even a part-time basis, I quite the three jobs and study to contemplate becoming a nun, at least, after a few break-ups, it was on my mind. Rather than rushing off to the nearest convent, however, I went to the Cedars to do a bit of volunteer work for the summer and to live in community with other young women. It was a much needed break from teaching and, more importantly, from Los Angeles, which I hated. While there, I spent a great deal of time dusting, vacuuming, ironing napkins, cooking 5 course meals, and praying. It was during that time that I met a blue-eyed Aussie whose irresistible accent and playful smile swept me off my feet. It was then that I realised the convent was not for me.

Not wanting to risk everything for someone I hardly knew, I applied to full-time graduate programs with funding (no more three-job attempts, one or two are enough when studying). I also travelled to Australia to work for four months and explore the options ahead of me. While offered a full scholarship and TA position at UCSB, I chose love. This brought me back to finding work and, according to my resume, I could, at this point teach and wait tables. As teaching is more secure, I found a teaching job at a school in Sydney.

Having taught for four years, I can honestly say, some aspects of teaching are great. I love getting to hang out with people and talk about books. I love explaining ideas, others and my own, and seeing people “get it”. I love doing something that is useful to society. The biggest problem is, I don’t like children. Since high school covers years 7 – 12 in Australia, I end up finding about forty percent of my year 12 class a joy to teach. The younger classes have a few exceptions and some days it even appears my students are learning a bit, but the niggling feeling that I this isn’t where my vocation stops won’t leave. Even when teaching in Hungary as a guise for travel, I knew that my position there as a “missionary” was, somehow, close to right.

My husband and I had no plans to attend Regent a year ago. While he had considered it a great deal while single and I knew that God wanted something of me, it wasn’t something we had discussed as a couple. One night, when praying with some friends about our lives, they asked us when we were going to study at Regent. As we had not discussed this, the suggestion seemed a bit odd. So, we shelved the idea. But it kept coming back. Still more friends, without knowing others had suggested it, asked the same question, so we began praying about the possibility. After talking with our families and a wide group of friends and asking them to pray about this possibility for us, the idea not only met with support, but it was affirmed over and over again.

While coming to the point of applying to Regent was a long process of questioning, doubting, and praying, when we dream together now, the reasons seem so very clear. Study at Regent is where our passions for nature, education, social action, service, and rest weave together. While we don’t know what the future holds or where God will take us, at this point, we know we need to be trained for what we see as our possible future ministry. We dream of maybe being involved in some sort of para-church or retreat ministry – a place that challenges people’s perceptions of what it is to follow Christ, where the Church is not seen as something that shapes our spirituality, but where being part of the Body shapes what we eat, how we make money, how we spend our money, how we dress, how we think, where we live, and how we interact with the rest of the world. We hope that studying at Regent will equip us for this possible future, but if not, we trust that God will continue to lead us along his way.

Personal Statement

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” I have known these words most of my life, drilled into me from an early age as a simple Sunday School song. A simple phrase really, which is why it is perfect for Sunday-schoolers to sing, but perhaps a little too simplistic for the adults sitting on the hard wooden pews?

“Jesus loves me”, when you understand who this Jesus guy is – sent from God. The Lord of all creation; our ‘Abba’ Father. But not only sent by God, but also from the very beginning of time “He was with God, and He was God.” When you understand who this Jesus guy is and that he loves you – you out of all of the 6 billion people roaming this planet – He loves you - the words “Jesus loves me” become very profound!

“This I know, for the Bible tells me so” – such riches are to be found in this great book! It is the epic love story of a Creator with his creation, a God and his people, a Father and his children, a Groom with his bride. It is tale stretching thousands of years, winding its way through deserts, battles, foreign invaders, miracles, sacrifice, triumphs, heartache, wayward hearts, forgetful minds, faithful souls, and many kept promises – a tale reaching its pinnacle with the arrival of the Hero, who came to point the people back to the Father, and invite them to open their eyes, ears and minds to see, hear and understand that His Kingdom was here and that you are loved.

Simple words, but very profound. These were the words that I chose to leave as my ‘famous last words’ to 250 teenagers and 20 leaders after a six-year journey that saw 12 young men start high-school as boys and finish as a band of brothers following Christ, helping each other along the joyful, but often treacherous road Jesus asks us to follow. After 6 long years of sharing our lives and coming to Christ together, opening the Word and seeing what the Lord had to say about His world and our lives – these simple words seemed to be the appropriate message to leave them with. A platform to stand on, to step forward to the next stage of life and come back too, if necessary.

Of course I got the idea from Karl Barth. After a lecture he was once asked “Of all the theological insights you have ever had, which do you consider to be the greatest of them all?” After establishing himself as one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, you could have expected his response could have been published as his next written work. Instead after thoughtfully considering the question, Barth responded, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so”.

In a nutshell these simple but profound words bring me to this point on my journey: typing my personal statement to be considered for admission into Regent College. To understand that Jesus loves me and that I can know this love through God’s word are radically life-impacting ideas!

This personal statement forms part of my application to study at Regent College. Applying is one of a few hurdles that stand in the way of potentially three years of further study. Part of the application hurdle is my past mediocre academic performance. Ten years ago when I started my first degree straight out of high-school, I didn’t really know why I was studying; it is just what most people I grew up with went on to do. In my first year I struggled and failed a few subjects (not great for my GPA). I soon learnt what I had to do to get through and got my degree without failing another subject. There were moments of academic brilliance and times when I really enjoyed what I was doing, but Youth Ministry, sporting, and work commitments seemed more important than getting great marks for a university degree I wasn’t very interested in. I feel as though my academic prowess is still to be realised.

I followed the crowd into my last degree and lived up to my family’s business expectations in doing so. In the world’s eyes, Regent as my next step in tertiary study is not the obvious course to follow. However, when you know that Jesus loves you and you and your wife have opened your lives up to His call, then three years of learning about what God is doing in this world and in His church is the next step. It is a necessary step toward being equipped to lead, teach, organise, counsel, write, or do whatever and go wherever the Lord may lead. This is a degree I am far more interested in than Commerce.

Regent College seems to be a good place for this equipping to take place. The interdenominational and truly international faculty and student population are a great starting point for seeing the bigger picture of what the Lord is doing with his entire church. The various reasons for which students come to Regent and the variety of places and occupations graduates go afterwards allows flexibility for people to explore and to find where the Lord would have them and what He would have them do. This path also offers a chance to gain a deeper understanding of the scriptures, learn from the triumphs and downfalls of the church, and study God himself - seeking to gain a richer and deeper understanding and love for Him.

One “pipe-dream” of what our (my wife and I) future holds beyond our Regent studies is to run a retreat centre – a place where all of God’s children could come and retreat for a while, quiet spot to still one’s self and seek to listen to the Lord. A place that is emersed in God’s creation, where His goodness is seen, explored and appreciated, an environment where seekers could together question and discuss what it means to be God’s children. A refuge where denominations, cultures and nationalities wouldn’t divide, but instead where followers of Christ could come together in unity. A time-out, to re-focus and be ready to check back-in, refreshed, clear sighted and ready to continue following Jesus down this long and winding road. God willing, Regent will be an important stepping-stone to what God has planned for us.