Sunday, April 19, 2015

thin places

A delightful weekend away in what for me is a bit of thin place. I love the quiet solitude and rich abundance of the Clare Valley. Back in 2008, as my 10 week time as Visiting Scholar at what was then Parkin-Wesley College ended, I took three days of spiritual retreat. I headed for the Clare Valley and walked parts of the Riesling Trail. I contemplated ten life questions, over ten hours between ten different wineries.

Movement and outdoors help me connect with God and the time was a rich time of renewal and reflection. The images of wine-making – of seasons of growing, of the celebration in harvesting, the press-ing complexity of wine-making, the hospitality of wine-tasting – provided a rich set of metaphors by which I considered my unfolding sense of call. (For more, see The Spirituality of Wine). I realised more clearly what gave me joy.

I wondered if I would have the courage to keep saying yes to the journey of leadership that God was calling me into. At the time, this has no precise shape. But within a year, I would be called to be the inaugural Director of Missiology, at Uniting College. Then, two years later, to be Principal.

It was fascinating to return this weekend, some seven years later. Amid the autumn leaves, I considered the seasonal changes I am now experiencing.


I am in the last months of a summer of rich harvest as Principal, Uniting College for Leadership and Theology. I am six months away from another season, as Principal of Knox College for Ministry and Leadership, (yes with a much colder Winter clime!).

It was a joy to be back in the place that was so rich seven years ago. It was rich to re-engage the metaphors. As one season ends and another begins, will I say yes to areas of growth that I’ve been keen to skip over? Such are the joys, yet challenges, of growth. Such are the blessings of thin places, as we encounter and re-encounter the God who speaks.

Posted by steve at 08:11 PM

Friday, May 09, 2014

Solvitur Ambulando “It is solved by walking”

It’s been a difficult week for me in my role as Principal of Uniting College. A whole range of responsibilities and requests have tended to leave me feeling a bit bleak.

What has been immensely helpful is to return to the discernment processes important to my call. I tend to journal as a spiritual practice. Twice. Privately and publicly, through the blog.

One advantage of journalling is in moments like this week. I tend to value written words over spoken words, and so a journal means you can return and read again what you felt in the past, what you discerned in the past.

College has a labyrinth and it was while I was walking the labyrinth that an important piece in my call process occurred. Here is what happened (written here publicly :)

On the morning of Monday 28 October I was interviewed for the role of Principal of Uniting College. After lunch, I went for a walk. Uniting College is located on the grounds of the Adelaide College of Divinity, which has a labyrinth. So rather than walk the block, I walked the labyrinth, praying the Lords prayer.

The phrase “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done” was particularly meaningful, as I prayed for myself, for the Joint Nominating Committee, for the other applicants.

The labyrinth at Adelaide College of Divinity campus was specifically designed by an Adelaide stained glass artist Cedar Prest. The opening is in the shape of a large communion cup, laid in beautiful mosaics, while the centre is in the shape of a central wafer. As I paused at the centre, I had a strong impression, the realisation that there is plenty of space in the centre to be truly me.

I began to walk out, reflecting on how the pattern of the labyrinth take you from edge to centre, and out to the edge again. It struck me that there were parallels with my own life at that moment, that my interest in mission and fresh expressions might be seen as on the edge, while being a Principal of a theological college is getting pretty close to the centre. It is a role that comes with plenty of expectations of what a Principal should do and be.

And the impression returned: that there is plenty of space in the centre to be truly me.

At that moment, my cell phone rang. It was an ironic moment, interrupted by a cell phone in the midst of the peaceful contemplation of a labyrinth. It was a delightful moment for the call was about the matter I was praying about, a request to attend a further interview in the Principal process.

Standing there holding the phone, it all felt profound, that in praying Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, might I actually be able to experience plenty of space in the Principal role to be truly me.

Twice, this week I’ve returned to that labyrinth and walked it again. I’ve relived the experience, relived my anxiety as I first entered, paused at the centre to recall the freedom, grinned at that moment when the phone rang.

There’s a further thread that didn’t make it into my journal, but which has been helpful to experience again this week. That is the value of walking. All you can do in a labyrinth is walk. Take one step after another. In so doing, you move from centre to edge, and edge to centre.

Back in 2012, what I realised was the importance of “flow,” the need not only for a centre and an edge, but for the movement between the two. They only connect by flow. I wondered if my season as Principal would be about “flow”, attending both to centre and edge in a way that brought flow.

In other words, take one step after another.

That is all I have to do.

Take the next step.

Posted by steve at 06:49 PM

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

leadership: giftedness or weakness

I hear a lot of talk about leadership giftedness. We have strengths, we have talents, we have “sweet spots” and we are called to find ways to express those. The body of Christ is diverse and we need to offer our uniqueness.

As Lent begins, I’m pondering leadership weakness.

As this first image from Si Smith’s wonderful 40, Jesus packs away what he is has spent a life being good at, packs away the tools of his trade, what gives him security, income and purpose.

And heads off into the wilderness, to places of insecurity and discomfort, where he will meet his inner self, face his temptations.

My strengths give me security. I know I can write and speak and improvise on my feet. I know I can listen well, find a clear phrase, think through a situation.

My strengths can be habitual. I turn to what I know, to what is well worn and familiar. Yet in times of immense transition, the future might actually be found in new habits, new people, new postures.

I wonder what it means if I were to pack away the tools of my trade – turn off the computer, the cell phone – and head into the wilderness. I wonder what temptations would find me.

And whether they are best met by my strength? Or by my weakness?

Posted by steve at 06:24 PM

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

praying our goodbyes: a book soaked in memories

Some books are soaked in memories. I pulled Joyce Rupp’s Praying Our Goodbyes off the book shelf yesterday. It offers a range of ways to grieve. This includes a selection of rituals for different situations that life deals us – terminating a relationship, feeling betrayed, farewell, living with constant pain. And for each, some Scripture, some prayer, some action.

The book has been so well used that as I opened it the pages fell out. I held them, remembering the times I’d used it – our struggles with infertility, twice in 9 months being turned down for a job I thought would be ideal, the pastoral transition away from a loved church family, some difficult work situations. And how different those situations seem now, 5 and 10 years later. Felt the pain, still. Yet realised, almost laughed in delight, at the different trajectories now in play.

And reflecting on the truthfulness of these words from Joyce

for the Christian, hello always follows goodbye in some form if we allow it. There is, or can be, new life, although it will be different from the life we knew before. The resurrection of Jesus and the promises of God are too strong to have it any other way. (Joyce Rupp Praying Our Goodbyes, 15)

Posted by steve at 09:02 AM

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Dad’s death as a wheel-chair shaped hole

(A warning to regular readers, since this is my blog, I’m going to continue to process some of my Dad’s recent death on the blog. I guess it runs the risk of being too personal, but as a practical theologian, I’m committed to taking that risk, and finding my life a sifting ground for reflection on the fingerprints of God.)

I’m continuing to reflect on the physicality of Dad’s absence. His death leaves a very interestingly shaped hole, one that is wheel-chair shaped. 

Dad had multiple sclerosis and thus spent his last ten years wheelchair bound. This reality, the shape of his disability, had a physical impact upon our family life.  The reality of that wheelchair meant a physical altering of how our family gathered and related.

The lack of mobility mean that Dad was a physical central point which we moved toward, around which we as a family gathered, around which our social life defined itself.  It is strange, bewildering, to realise we’ve lost a wheel-chair shaped central point.

There are of course, other spatial ways for groups to gather. The Christian tradition often uses notions of pilgrimage, of always moving together toward a distant horizon.Walking a beach offers tidal images, the slow back and forth rhythm of waves. Maori culture gives us the image of Koru, of growth unfolding outwards from a centre. All of these offer quite different ways to visualize gathering. Each result in quite different patterns of living.

Thus the death of Dad is not only of a person, but of a pattern of gathering as a family.

What was intriguing about us as a family making Dad’s coffin was that it was actually giving us a different pattern of gathering – the garage rather than the lounge, working side by side rather than talking face to face, small groups playing different roles at different times.

Being a missiologist, I can’t help linking this with the church in mission. Much of church life in Western Christianity has  a central gathering pattern – we go to church rather than move on pilgrimage or unfold outward as church in the world. So my grief is perhaps at some level what the church in the West is living with on a daily basis.

And what might it mean for the church to embrace different patterns of gathering – around projects, in shared tasks, seeking participation and new charisms.

Spatially, Dad’s hole is not just central, it is also wheelchair shaped. His disability is central to his parting. To help me process this, I’m back reading Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader by Brian Brock and John Swinton.

It looks at how various thinkers through Christian history have responded to disability. I suspect that somewhere in there will be important insights for me, about how God’s redemption embraces the physicality of the human body, about how the disability of Jesus (beaten beyond recognition, wounded side, nail-scarred hands) are part of God’s gracious pattern in the world.

Posted by steve at 11:37 AM

Saturday, July 20, 2013

defining church, community, theology, formation and College

Just an advertisement for a car company. And yet –
if a picture says a 1,000 words, then this is a powerful visual question –
what type of church, community, theology, formation and College do we want to be part of?

And if so, how then should we act, what should we practice, what should we affirm?

Posted by steve at 08:27 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

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

transition zones

I spent part of yesterday walking the Auckland Art Gallery. After an academic conference, art is exactly what I need.

I spend quite a bit of time contemplating Ralph Hotere’s Godwit/Kuaka. It was commissioned in 1977 for the Auckland airport. At over 20 metres, it is a stunning piece of work. The godwit is known for its migration patterns, flying thousands of miles, to land, exhausted, in New Zealand.

Contemplating the art gave me time to reflect on my flight patterns. First, just about to fly to Cairns for 10 days holiday with the rest of Team Taylor. Yeehaa. So a transition zone personally and as a family.

Second, having just finished being part of a conference, hosted at Laidlaw College, where I used to teach, catching up with old friends, so talking about journeys, hearing about journeys. And then spending the Tuesday and Wednesday with great friends from our Graceway-Auckland-church planting days.

Third, it was just over a year ago that I began as Principal at Uniting College. I drove to work with heart pounding, and settled into a whole new role. A year on, there is much to reflect upon, regarding the changes this role is making in me and requiring of me.

Here is the poem that sits beside the Hotere art work.

Death/exhaustion rises up
It is the rope, koakoa (the cry of the bird)
Binding you to here to me
The cry/chattering of the flock

Come closer together
From inside its throat – a marauding party
A godwit
A godwit that hovers

One bird
Has settled on the sand bank
It has settled over there
It has settled over there
They have settled there

There is such fascinating interplay in this poem between distance and closeness, between here and there. It is exhausting. Yet in the exhaustion, companions are found, the here and there is blurred. Such a deep sense of community and discovery is evoked. I left the gallery glad of godwits, of art, of journeys, of migrants, of settlers, of friends, both here and there, of communities old and new, new and old.

Posted by steve at 12:45 PM

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

bush theology

I’ve been on study leave the last few days. I booked out the time back in June to be in Tasmania with Cheryl Lawrie feeling art and space. That fell over.

So I’ve gone walking instead. About 25 minutes from home is the Onkaparinga National Park, which includes 17 km of gorge.

The plan has been simple. Walk and read. I’ve immersed myself in 2 Corinthians. The first day I read the entire book just for flow. Today I read it for images of mission. Walk for 20-30 minutes then read a few chapters. Walk again – Pondering what it means for mission, for leadership, for spirituality.

It’s been exactly what I needed. No internet access. Hard physical work. That sense of nurture being held deep by earth. Engagement with Scripture.

And along the way, some bush theology.

  • Spirituality needs rapids and calm pools, shelter and sun. Both are to be enjoyed and appreciated.
  • If you keep casting about there’s usually a path.
  • Feeling lost generates anxiety. It can be lifegiving to ponder what generates anxiety and where is God in those moments of anxiety.
  • Essential to renewal is giving space for earth to heal itself.
Posted by steve at 08:44 PM

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

the unforced rhythms of pace

Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. Matthew 11:28-30

It’s been a busy wee period. Then suddenly, late last week, a half day meeting for today (Wednesday) was cancelled. Immediately I dashed into my diary the words “Booked” and headed for some balcony time. It’s a phrase from Ron Heifitz, who argues that if life is a dance, we need time to get far enough above the fray to see the key patterns, to gain perspective on conflict, to nurture relationships, to find sanctuary and recover a sense of purpose.

My first balcony task was to buy a new journal, as my current one was pretty close to full. In the process, I saw a playful pen, which I decided was just what my office needs. Plus, being in the shape of a flower, it felt symbolic. There are some lovely signs of fresh life springing up at Uniting College – new initiatives in regional delivery taking shape, the possibility of one year courses in chaplaincy and leadership and some new team practices and culture.

By early afternoon I was back at my desk, needing to work on mission shaped ministry teaching (hence the background image on my laptop – the Sony Bravia ad! – an illustration for a session on Engaging the community). But the “Booked” morning had been so beneficial – cafe time to reflect on what God is doing and beginning to isolate the next set of questions that might need to be asked.

A wise older minister once commented that part of sustainability in ministry is working the rhythms of grace. Yes, there will always be busy times. So when the slow times come, don’t fill them. Instead “book” them for balcony time.

Posted by steve at 10:05 PM

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

finding my Baptist story in the Uniting story

The front of my Masters thesis has the following inscription:

The Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth from [God's] holy Word.

It was 1996 and I was training to be a Baptist minister in New Zealand. Exploring mission (in this case analysing contextual images of the atonement as part of post-graduate research) it was liberating to discover these words in an old Baptist hymn book and their origin in a sermon, preached by an early Pilgrim father, John Robinson, in July 1620.

Growing in my Baptist identity, I felt a connection. This was a history I found inspiring. Here were people who prized religious freedom and radical discipleship, who had a way of seeing God that looked forward, that expected growth and innovation.

Imagine my surprise last week, some 16 years later, in another country, in another denomination, to hear these very same words quoted. Not only quoted, but then to be invited to sing the very hymn, from which the words come (We limit on the truth of God).

No, not in a Baptist church, but in a recent worship service here at Uniting College. The service, part of our monthly Leadership Formation Day, was shaped by an invitation for us in the Uniting Church to remember the Great Ejection, a moment in history this month some 350 years ago, when non-conformists where forced out the Church of England.

During the service, four candles were lit.

As each was lit, a part of this story was named, various leaders celebrated, the importance of religious freedom and radical discipleship named. It was explained to us that the Uniting Church was formed from three denominations. Now, in the three years that I’ve been around the Uniting Church, I’ve heard a lot about the Methodist and the Presbyterian roots. But there is a third partner, the Congregationalist church. And here in chapel, this previously silent member of the family, the Congregatationalist part, was being given voice.

“the Congregational mind: in taste, catholic; in feeling, evangelical; in expression, scholarly; in doctrine, orthodox.’” (Bernard Lord Manning)

I sat open mouthed, amazed, that what was a very important part of my Baptist story, was also part of the Uniting Church story, also named, repeated, honoured. My (Baptist) long lost traveling companions are also Uniting Church long lost traveling companions. We share similar forebears.

(For those who think that what happened 350 years ago is dry and dusty, it’s worth noting that earlier this year, a Service of Reconciliation was held at Westminster Abbey. Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, preached at the service, in which the Anglican church sought forgiveness for the Great Ejection. Here is some of what Rowan preached –

‘Until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.’ [Ephesians 4.13]

Our Christian faith is something constantly growing, constantly moving towards greater maturity, a greater approximation toward the stature of Christ. And as we grow we need for our maturing, challenges that push us away from infantile faith.)

Posted by steve at 09:45 PM

Monday, August 13, 2012

nature’s blessing

After a full day at work, in which in spite of my best efforts, the unrelenting email increased and the jammed calendar got a few more appointments stuffed in it, it was a gift to encounter this

blossom, gently laid during the day over my car windscreen.

I drove home aware of being given a gift, being offered a totally different way of looking at work – not as offices in which I work long and hard, but as a place open to grace, to the gentle gift of natures nurture.

(For another blossom experience, see B=Blossom in my ever expanding Dictionary of everyday spirituality).

Posted by steve at 07:13 PM

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I had a dream

I awake early last week, aware that I had a dream.

I had been given a guitar, well-worn, well-loved, well-strummed. Not mine, but a gift to tend and care.

As you do, I began to tune it, tightening the strings. Satisfied with the results, I laid it aside and went to make a cup of tea.

Returning to play the newly tuned guitar, I was saddened to see that half the strings were broken. They had not survived the tightening.

Which left me pondering. Should I have tightened the strings more slowly? Might they then not have broken?

But then again, might it be better for the guitar to have new strings anyway? The sound will be cleaner, truer.

Although, then again, new strings are also tricky. They are known for their ability to easily slip out of tune and thus require constant ongoing care and attention.

“I had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Genesis 41.15

Posted by steve at 11:13 PM

Monday, June 25, 2012

nature’s baptism

Overnight it had rained. Truth be told, overweek it has rained here in Adelaide, making the ground sodden and the trees laden with rain.

As I left the house, I noticed a flash of red and green. Our front yard is currently host to a pair of parrots, outrageous in their bright red crest, raucous in their squawks of delight as they place chase with each other from tree to tree.

As they landed, their weight caused branches, laden with rain, to shake vigorously. Water cascaded, sheets of white, unleashed from a branch of green, by these playful red crested visitors. A full immersion indeed.

In the Scriptures, so often birds are linked with the Spirit’s visit. Have I just participated in nature’s baptism – appreciated again her noise, colour and water? Heard afresh “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased”? Been invited anew to creation’s plays?

Posted by steve at 12:19 PM