Thursday, April 30, 2015

Divine tracker: a reflection on Psalm 23

On Sunday I attended church at Port Augusta Congress. It was the conclusion of Walking on Country and it was good to end in worship with indigenous sisters and borthers. At the start of the service, the congregation was informed that I would be preaching. This was news to me, but I had been part of a discussion of the Lectionary text on the 4 hour drive from the Gammon Ranges (Adnyamathanha country) to Port Augusta, so I had been doing some processing.

What I wanted to do was
- expose the cultural lens we bring to Scripture (New Zealand sheep stories)
- name what we had heard as part of Walking on Country (the pastoralists)
- make sure that indigenous cultures had the “last word” (the story of Great Uncle Alf and the link to God the tracker)

Here is (my recollection) of what I said.

Today our Bible reading is Psalm 23:1 – “The Lord is my shepherd”.

At the start of the week, I heard these words from Scripture as a New Zealander. I come from a country with 40 million sheep and 4 million people. The shepherd stands behind the sheep. The shepherd has dogs, that bark and chase the sheep. So “The Lord is my shepherd” has a certain meaning. A God who chases me, with dogs.

On Friday and Saturday, I heard these words differently. As I visited the Northern Flinders, I heard of the arrival from overseas of pastoralists. They were shepherds. They fenced off the land. They stopped indigenous people from walking across their land. They hoarded the water holes. At times they poisoned them, to ensure water went to their sheep, not the indigenous inhabitants of the land that had been taken. On Friday and Saturday, I became ashamed to consider how these acts of shepherding might be linked to the Lord as shepherd.

On Sunday, as I was driving with Aunty Denise down to be with you here this morning, she told a story. It was about her Great Uncle Alf. He left his country here in the Flinders Ranges and settled down at Penola. He was a very skilled tracker. So skilled, he was employed by the Police to find lost people. When children got lost, it was Great Uncle Alf who time and again found them. Great Uncle Alf was so skilled, so valued, that after he died, the Police honoured him with a ceremony.

Great Uncle Alf, the tracker of lost children, gives me another way to understand “The Lord is my shepherd.” At times I am lost. I am cut off from God and far from my community. So I need God to track me. To do what seems difficult, near impossible, and find me.

So as we now move to communion, I invite us to consider together what it means to be found by God. “The Lord is my shepherd”; God is my tracker.

Posted by steve at 07:01 PM

Thursday, January 29, 2015

colouring my leadership

Over my recent summer holidays, I appreciated the New Zealand landscape. Four colours in particular grabbed me. They were the grey of alpine stone, the blue of glacial water, the green of Westcoast forest and the yellow of the alpine daisy, each an important memory in a road trip that Team Taylor took to the Westcoast.


I pondered some way to take these holiday experiences into my working year. The process began by reflecting on the emotion that each colour generated in me, those feelings of concrete stability (alpine grey), of awe at nature (glacier blue), at the outrageous growth possible due to West coast rain (forest green), at the joy of exploration that meant an encounter with the very rare alpine daisies that grow around Castle Hill.

I then sought to reduce each colour to a word. One word. This was difficult, but the work paid off.

  • grey=clarity
  • blue=wonder
  • yellow=explore
  • green=create

As I pondered these words, I realised that each word, each colour, could actually be applied to my vocation as Principal.

  • grey=clarity, as I communicate, chair meetings, conduct performance appraisals, ask questions
  • blue=wonder, as I ask “what is God up to?” in the candidates I am part of forming, in the classes I teach, in the team I lead
  • yellow=explore, as I seek in my research and reading to keep addressing the questions of mission and ministry
  • green=create, as I have some specific writing projects that I want to deliver on

In turn, I then began to imagine how my weekly diary might look.  Grey (clarity) and blue (wonder) are the colours of my day to day work. Yellow (explore) is the research time that I programme into my Fridays.  Green (create) is what happens in study leave and with my “hour a day” of writing habit that while I struggle to maintain, has a been a great help in enhancing my writing output in recent years.

The colours have changed my attitudes to work. As I journal at the end of each day, I focus now not only on what happened, but on the colour. How have I been part of bringing clarity? Where have I seen wonder? As I turn to write for an hour a day, often tiredly, I am refreshed by thinking of green, the invitation to create.

To give one specific example, the day I arrived back from holiday, my PA regretfully told me that she needed to resign, due to personal reasons relating to an unexpected and critical health concern in the family. The colours shaped my response. How could I bring grey/clarity in my communication with team and wider? What, I wonder, might God be doing in this totally unexpected news?

The colours helped me look at life in new ways. It enabled me to pray in new ways. Equally importantly, I have a deep sense that the joy of recreation that is part of summer is continuing with me into my working week.

Each of us will have different colours. Each of us have different ways to recreate. Each of us have different working weeks. But I wonder what your colours would be? And how they might shape how you engage with your working place?

Posted by steve at 06:41 PM

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Urban Gardening

At 4 pm I shut myself in my office, with the challenge of writing at least one, if not two academic papers for the Urban life together mission conference in Melbourne this weekend. It looks a fantastic event, encouraging mission reflection among grassroots practitioners.

I wanted to explore the potential of urban gardens for the mission of the church. A few hours work and I have some 2,800 words ready to go. I’ve woven together two film reviews, some of my research into local stories of inner-city urban churches doing garden mission, spiritual practices of composting, a consideration of the shady side of spirituality, some Maori proverbs, interaction with a range of Bible texts in God’s garden, gratitude for the wisdom from Julian of Norwich and Fred Bahnson’s Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith.

Here’s my introduction:

Some gardens are planted in straight lines. They are orderly and linear. Other gardens are planted higgelty pickelty, random and inter-connected. Some academic presentations are planted in straight lines. They are orderly and linear. This presentation is neither straight nor linear. Rather it is random and in the higgelty pickelty you are invited to make the inter-connections with your urban context ….

Which leaves the powerpoint, but there is always the early morning flight over.

Posted by steve at 10:20 PM

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

colours of creation

I believe in the Kingdom Come,
Then all the colours will bleed into one

It’s a line from U2, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking. It’s in stark contrast to some of what I observed today, and have been experiencing over recent months.

Today, the Spice Market in Istanbul. Such richness of colour in the world of spice, so linked to taste, in the food we eat.


In June, in Sydney, an art installation in the main foyer. It included a fan, gently blowing, that allowed the colours to move, touched by the wind. So soon after Pentecost, it seemed a wonderful expression of Pentecost, the wind of God’s Spirit that does not bring uniformity. Instead, as each heard in their own language, it brings individuality, affirms culture, encourages diversity, insists on contextualisation.


Over Christmas, a bead shop in Christchurch. Again, such richness of colour. This time, so linked to play, the creative act that is bead making. So close to Christmas, an expression of the act of creation, in which God lavishes not mono-cultures, but the enormous diversity of creation.


Me things, U2 that you’ve got you’re theology wrong. The colours of the Kingdom are not bleeding into one, but into the rainbow of God’s purposes.

We live in such a rich world. Bring on the colours of creation in all the tables of humanity

Posted by steve at 04:59 AM

Monday, July 14, 2014

Wood school: imagine if this was church

At Wood School church we see curiosity as the foundation of learning. We aim to inspire curiosity with stories and activities that explore the woodland world and extend out into the world beyond.

We aim to foster confidence, creativity and problem solving skills in our children. We do this through a learning environment that is primarily outdoors.

We have an emphasis on play, child-led learning and fostering relationships.

Through these we aim to develop in our children all of us a strong sense of self, combined with an empathy and compassion for other people and the natural world.

We aim to develop life skills for sustainable living – helping develop in our children all of us the attitudes and skills we need in order to live in harmony with the environment and other people.

We have a focus on: responsibility; making a difference; conserving resources; growing food; crafts; cooking; making and laughing!

From Woods school in Manchester, England.

Posted by steve at 06:38 PM

Sunday, April 06, 2014

learning leadership from my garden

Last night we ate ratatouille. The onions were sweated over a low heat for 45 minutes. The herbs were added, including basil, garlic and Italian parsley all fresh from the garden. Over time, the vegetables, pepper, eggplant, courgette, tomato were added. Finally, cheese and bread crumbs mixed together.

The eggplant was grown from seed (heirloom from Diggers Club) in the garden and in the growing, I’ve been challenged about leadership. I planted the seeds back in October and to be honest, they struggled. Only a few germinated. Those that did grew very, very slowly. It was a constant battle to protect them from snails. They were rapidly overtaken by broccoli. When we left for holiday in mid-December, only two plants remained, about 2 cm high.

When I returned to work, two plants remained, but still only 2 cm high. To be honest, I was pretty disappointed. One month and no sign of progress. However, at least they were alive. Much else in the garden, ravaged by a run of 42 degree days, had wilted.

I removed what was large and competing (the broccoli) and began to water. Slowly the two eggplants grew. First flowers appeared.

Now, the fruit hangs heavy and black, a gorgeous sheen amid the green. The first fruits were delicious last night and we face the prospect of more ratatouille, along with eggplant dips, in the weeks ahead.

I’ve reflected on leadership as I’ve tended to these eggplants over the summer. It would’ve been easy to buy seedlings, but there is something deeply satisfying about planting from seed. It would’ve been easy to give up in the face of little growth, but I’ve realised the value of patience and persistence. As I’ve watered, I’ve pondered those with whom I’m relationally connected. I’ve wondered what it will mean for them to keep growing, and how I might participate in that. This has begun prayer and introspection.

I’ve needed to remove the broccoli. That was really difficult. It was large and impressive. But it was actually harming the growth of another. I’ve begun to inspect my own life, wondering what habits and attitudes are in fact choking the life of something else. I’ve begun to realise that the loss of a key person, a key leader, as essential part of the team, might in fact be an opportunity for another person to begin to fruit – differently, uniquely. Which has provided a different perspective on the current movement within the team at Uniting College.

Last week I spoke on theological education in leadership formation. It was an academic paper, that drew forth a range of academic challenges.

Perhaps I should have just told them about my eggplant. That theological education in leadership formation means planting, watering, removing, enjoying. That it also means

  • tending to God’s 3 gardens – through Creation in Eden, by Resurrection at the empty tomb, by Eschatology in Revelation 21
  • the spirituality of composting (here)
  • the spirituality of gardening (here and here)
  • the ecclesiology of garden church -  (here and practically here)
  • about an outdoor faith indoors (here)
  • a funny story that emerged because we as a church gave out vege plants at our annual Spring Clean community contact day
  • the ethics of gardening leadership ie about why I’m a vegetarian (here) and how  little actually land you need to feed a family of 3 (here)

And as I spoke, I could have passed around some home made eggplant dip.

Posted by steve at 12:40 PM

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Dispersed Lent Journal Project 2014 at distance

One of the dispersed Lent Journals 2014 returned today. It has been travelling by post, moving around rural South Australia, among our distance students. It was a great joy to see it return, complete with post paid bag as students decided to pay themselves rather than let College pay.

The story behind the Dispersed Lent Journal Project 2014 is that we at 34 Brooklyn Park are a dispersed community – students, staff, teachers; post-graduates, under-graduates; studying for audit and for credit; face to face and distance.

At the start of Lent, four journals were released into the community – in lectures, in library, in student common room. Folk are invited to journal what Lent means to them, and pass it onto another in the community. (Full description here). We wanted a way to connect our dispersed, mobile community.

Distance students were keen to participate and here is one now returning after being posted around South Australia. Which means it is now able to be handed onto another student. Connections are being created among the dispersed, spirituality nurtured and nourished among those who gather and scatter.

Posted by steve at 08:44 PM

Sunday, December 01, 2013

a haunted culture

The presence of Christianity continues to haunt our culture. Like above, in this 2013 poster advertising an Adelaide film festival. Or the lingering presence of “ritual” in very small type (Rewarding the ritual) in this October 2013 advertisement, fused with some fascinating reflection on male identity. Playful, irreverent, but still present.

Or this piece of theology, in a local coffee shop in June 2013, in which God is entwined with a creation narrative and mission. Once again, playful, irreverent, but still present.

Mieke Bal, the Dutch cultural theorist suggests three ways to understand these ongoing traces within western society.

  • Christianity is present, making it impossible to think about cultural analysis without acknowledging the theological underpinning of the western world (and so the visual rifting of red-robed religious beings).
  • Christianity is a cultural structure, informing the cultural imaginary whether people believe or not (and so words like ritual and worship remain)
  • Christianity is just one of the structures, it is not the only cultural structure, nor the only religious structure that underpins who we are or have come to be (and so the work that people do with “God” will vary).

I’m reading and thinking about this in a more focused way, given I’m part of teaching a topic, Bible and culture, on the Flinders University campus this summer. The course is inviting us to explain the ongoing appropriation of Christian imagery in contemporary culture, the religious presence on film posters, the Bible references in movies as bizarre as Pulp Fiction, the fascination with church in the David Bowie Next day video.

A course for which we will need some accessories – prizes for the person who finds the most pop cultural references to Psalm 137 or O come, O come Emmanuel – prizes like Pulp Fiction Ezekiel reference Tshirts, buddy Jesus fridge magnets and God is a DJ henna tattoos.

Posted by steve at 10:46 PM

Friday, August 09, 2013

Plant ahead: a spirituality of pea seeds

Today, a first sign of life. A check of the vegetable garden and the peas are up. I love growing peas. They emerge so strong and vigorous.

As I stood by the garden, it seemed deeply spiritual. I’d almost forgotten these fragile green signs of life. The last few weeks have been intensely demanding.

But that’s the way with seeds. There’s a spirituality that allows you to be other absorbed, be distracted, concentrate elsewhere. And all the time, things are germinating, softening, beginning to sprout.

A few months ago I did this at work. I planted some seeds. A lunch meeting, an email, a request for a conversation, a letter suggesting a possibility.

This week they sprouted. Still not strong enough to say more. But visible. A spirituality of planting. Plant ahead and wait, trustingly, hopefully, gratefully.

Posted by steve at 07:02 PM

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Faith as snorkelling

I went snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef this week. (As you do when you live in Australia!) It struck me that snorkelling does have some interesting connections to faith.

It takes a degree of trust, that a thin tube will provide oxygen, that a rogue wave won’t drown you. Related, it assumes immersion, that the only way to snorkel is to snorkel. You can theorise all you want, but at some point you have to immerse yourself in trust. Same with faith, it is a whole bodied immersion in trust.

It can make all sorts of logical sense. The guidebook explains, the guides have gone before, it is reasonable to rely on air through a tube. But despite Scripture, tradition, reason, experience is essential.

That trust is a process. Their is the first brief head plunge with your whole world consumed by survival. Am I breathing? After a while you realise you have energy to look, see, explore. Same with faith, a process by which more and more is opened up.

The result is this realisation you live at the same time in two worlds. Head up, in the pitch and roll and slap of ocean waves. Or immersed in the quiet underwater of a world of exquisite beauty and wonder.

Snorkelling and faith.

Posted by steve at 12:38 PM

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Pocket lamp worship: creationary

This week I led worship with Jonny Baker’s Pioneers at CMS on Tuesday, then at the mission shaped ministry board meeting on Wednesday. Both involved pocket lamp worship.

I wanted to use what was around me, and the pocket lamp was a Christmas gift and being in the Northern Hemisphere winter, connected with all the dark/light experiences I was processing. The pocket lamp opens and shuts. So it allowed a range of tactile, participative interaction. Here is what I did.

Call to worship – the making of Ovo, at the Amsterdam Light Festival (I’ve blogged about that here).

Praise – Light from God is a gift. So the invitation to take a light, turn it on, and give it to another person. So we can only be given light. Be thankful for gift.

Confession – We all at times turn off the light we’ve been given. So as an act of confession, close your light and recall, silently, the times you’ve turned off the light.

Word – The lectionary text was Isaiah 6:1-8. It of course, has words of absolution. And words of mission.

Petition – So before we are sent, if you’re anything like me, you feel inadequate. So, exchange the light with the person beside you. Hold, and be held, in silent prayer for each other.

Intercession – I had placed newspaper around the roome. People were invited to place their light on an area of the world they wanted to pray for. But before that, a reminder of being sent, as the kiss of God into dark places.

It seemed to work well both places. Didn’t take long to put together, which suited my sabbatical writing commitments fine. It took about 15 to 20 minutes, and with more time it would have been helpful for folk to unpack the connections they made between text, actions and pocket lamp. I like it when worship emerges from the ordinary and everyday.

(This is another entry in dictionary of everyday spirituality, under the heading L is for Lamps – pocket lamps).

Posted by steve at 06:05 AM

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

the place of balaams asses (ie Christian kitsch) in theology

In relation to my previous post, Kinda commented “I recognized this immediately, as will every other 10 yr old girl in America, as Lisa Frank with a little Jesus photoshopping.”

That’s exactly why I put it up!

I’ve been reading Betty Spackman, A Profound Weakness: Christians & Kitsch. As an artist, she set out to critique these poor relations of ecclesiastical art, only to find herself torn between being deeply moved and outraged by their sentimental appeal.

It is 440 pages, of souvenirs, fakes, crafts, tracts, relics. Her conclusion is that if God can speak through Balaam’s ass, he can “certainly communicate through even the humblest art.” Yes – even a photoshop of a child’s book.

She goes on, “which rather nullifies the arguments of taste and craftsmanship when it comes to Christian outreach. However, this doesn’t mean we should be content with making mediocre art. Also, we should always keep in mind that in truth it is people, not plastic nightclubs, Christians, not kitsch, that are called be lights to the world.” (A Profound Weakness: Christians & Kitsch, page 21)

This has important mission implications, for these are dialogue points for conversation.

It’s why I, as a theologian, research on popular music (like U2) and TV animated cartoons (like Bro’town). Because I might just get to be challenged by Balaam’s ass and the insights via 10 year old girls.

Posted by steve at 12:03 PM

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

An Australian migrant theology?

In Robe (where I spent the weekend) when you enter West Beach, you are invited to beware of migrants. Specifically, migrant birds.

What sort of migrant theology might emerge from this type of posture?

It would expect migrants to arrive exhausted, recognising they have travelled far, they have seen much, they need lots of space to “conserve their energy.”

It would expect migrants to “rest and feed”, to find resources to renew them, to prepare them for the next stage of their journey.

It would offer them space, be willing to change direction and “walk and drive below the high tide mark.”

A pattern that has been happening for thousands of years before any white fella arrived, a pattern in which the land of Australia has sought to serve, renew and restore migrants.

(This is another entry in dictionary of everyday spirituality, under the heading M is for migrants).

Posted by steve at 09:47 PM

Monday, February 06, 2012

transition pack: an everyday spiritual resource

Moving house isn’t easy. There’s the hard work of moving, the disruption of routines and patterns, the things that are misplaced. But it’s also fun, a chance to change a room, to explore new places, to find new things.

We’re in the process of moving, which involves not just a move, but a lot of work to get the new location liveable.

To help our kids in the move, on Saturday we gave them both a “transition pack.” It was a brown paper bag, with the name on the outside. And inside was some things that might make the move more fun.

  • their very own paint brush, to be part of painting their own room,
  • their very own paint roller, brand new for their room
  • colour charts for the choosing of colours
  • flowers seeds for their patch of flower garden
  • vegetable seeds for their patch of vegetable garden
  • a creative project idea.

It was a fun moment, which helped them to thing about some of the enjoyable parts of moving. And it was interesting to note how the “transition packs” got immediately packed in the car, and taken over to be put into use.

A simple idea, but one that seemed helpful.

(For more examples of “transition packs” and their use in church ministry, see here.)

Posted by steve at 07:29 AM