What if honesty were compulsory?

November 17, 2019

IMG_0577What if

every time we spoke to someone who was an asylum speaker

….a red scar appeared on our hand

every time we spoke to someone who is queer

…a rainbow smudge appeared on our arm

every time we met a person who is violently abused by their partner

…a dark circle appeared beneath our eye

every time we shook hands with a paedophile

…a green stain appeared on our fingertips

every time we looked into the eyes of someone who was homeless

…blue lines appeared over the veins of our face and neck

every time we spoke with an adulterer

…our lips turned purple

every time we sat beside someone whose yearly income was below $22, 516

…our feet developed a corn as from an ill-fitting shoe

every time we were served in a cafe or as a cleaner  by a person with a postgraduate degree from another country

… we lost out power of speech for 30 seconds

every time we met a billionaire

…we broke out in a sweat

every time we met a sinner

…our heart sighed with compassion

every time we looked in the mirror

…our body heaved with mercy

How might we re-organise our lives?

Imagine if the truths of who we are were borne by one another

What if we could see and feel who we are, and who we sit with, walk with, work with each day

Imagine if we all left physical marks on one another, the way our lives leave marks upon each other’s souls.



Listening again to the voices of the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse

September 9, 2019
Back in 2015 I listened to and watched many of the live stream public hearings at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse, and read as many of the transcripts as I could.
I prioritise this over reading media reports on the celebrity cases – which pay more attention to the scandal of the perpetrator than the pain and restoration of the survivors, or the demise of some victims for whom abuse was murderous – a long slow, excruciating suffering murder taking years.
I believe that until we have listened to the first hand accounts from survivors, perpetrators and colluders, we cannot respond responsibly. Media summaries, opinion pieces and commentaries are no help if we have not faced the human experience squarely, and really listened.
Listening – deep listening and extensive listening – is what is most needed.
I’ve just spent the weekend reading the private hearing narratives from the Royal Commission for a piece of research.
A number of institutions are named, including one that is so familiar that it is almost invisible, yet, named so clearly in this survivor’s testimony, calls us to some really careful thinking:
“I have a resentment of the middle classes – I think you understand why – because I think they’re enablers, and they used children like me from homes. They exploited us you know, on their farms and in their houses. They exploited us sexually, physically and emotionally. I hate all religions equally.”
The co-opting of the church by the middle-class, and then the middle-class by the church is woven through the texture of many of these narratives.
The direct link the speaker makes from their indictment of the middle class with the hatred of religion is not to be dismissed
There are many ways in which churches and civic leaders have forged a theologically artificial enmeshment of  christian ethics with middle-class aspirations.
– Using  religion as a tool for moral correction
– Attributing criminal problem-solving responses in poverty to purely individual moral deficits (‘thou shalt not steal’), rather than systematic societal moral deficits (2 Peter 2:14 ‘they [the indulgent rich] have hearts trained in greed’)
– Theological misappropriation of the notion of ‘blessing’ and ‘provision of God’ with cumulative material wealth
– Misidentification of social cohesion through manners and similar welfare as ‘christian unity’
– Idealisations of the nuclear family unit as the exclusive expression of God’s ‘best’ design for human relationships
Whether for the wards of the state reaching out from the margins of poverty or the aspirational families entrusting their sons to elite church schools, the cyclical interconnection of the cogs of class and church and sexual abuse are a powerful engine, still running open throttle.
We have much work to do, when our approach to children and faith is still mostly structured as ‘instruction for character formation’.  Common practice with children in faith communities is still forged by framing scripture snippets with moral hermeneutics and life-lesson scaffolding, aimed to form, not radical followers of a homeless peasant prophet martyr Jesus,  nor whole-humans who love God and Cosmos and neighbour and enemy with whole being, but a strong moral-citizen  industry leader, or a compliant obedient worker.  There is more to say – but it must wait until we have heard, really heard, the primary evidence.
Whether you resonate with compassion,  or disagree, or don’t understand this – I recommend finding time to listen to the voices of those who know; who know in the scars of their souls, and bear witness in their embattled bodies.
The content warning on the Royal Commission site is correct.
It is not easy reading.
If this is too traumatic for you, because of your own lived experience, then of course, your own telling and listening with safe help is more important.
At some point you may find validation and company in the truth of other’s experience.
Pursue your own healing first, and return when you can.
May peace meet you soon.

Miracle Ascension, Media Attention, Kingdom Contention.

July 7, 2019
why do you stand there
looking up
at the highest office of the land
hoping to see
the kingdom of God
in the Prime Minister’s command?
that one man
– though the way of the cross
he may profess –
an impediment
Be his high rank
And the political bank
bars his kingdom access
why do you stand there
looking up
at your champion in sport
hoping to hear
the gospel of Christ
in uncensored report?
that one man
-though pious practice
he may claim
a disqualifier
be His sponsored celebrity name
his solicited soul
sold to another
for the sum of his silent fame
do you seek the kingdom of God?
plunge you hands in the dirt
feel the decaying loam
scatter the seed
on rock, path or weed
sniff the old lump of dough
left in the bread bowl foam
squint at the residue
in the bottom of the pot
squat down on the floor
by the infants cot
dive into the waves
search the sunken wrecks
tis grains and traces
and grit and flecks
Not on the surface in the sun
But in the dark depths swirl
The rare true treasure
The precious pearl
look down
close upon the earth
where in small things
of no regard
the reign of God
is given birth

the lesson we need

July 4, 2019

paper bark people


They say


That you came among humans
To teach us
How to live
By your word and ways
How to heal
How to serve
How eat another’s shared fish and bread
How to drink deep from another’s jar
How to cross the borders
And touch the unclean
How to sleep in the maelstrom
 and how to stay awake for a friend
who is struggling to survive  the night
How to speak to a  sinner
How to silence a scammer
How to confront corruption
How to be washed and oiled and kissed
I guess that this they say of you
Is all in every measure true
But surely
You came to teach us how to die
How to bleed out
How to despair of hope
How to let our godforsaken soul
crack the skies above us
How to give up all spirit
To say ‘I’m done, all out, it’s finished.’
To lie limp
Breathless pulseless mindless
Pure corpse
The rot slowly beginning
How to be buried
In a garden grave
A compost heap
of worm tempting
blood and bone
How to properly die
You show us how to die
How to give our very souls over to eternity
How to apply ourselves without reserve
to the process of death
To the deepest humbling
We who had been told that death was terrible
a cruel oppressor
an authority
a judge
a sentence
an unnegotiable end
We need you to teach us how to die
How to make friends with death
To be reconciled
With this great enemy
So we may be friends unafraid
with all our lesser foes and fears
To fall and die as a seed
To break utterly apart
With death and joy
Great teacher
bring us this lesson
how to die

Segregation vs Sensitivity: an alternative approach to recognising and acknowledging age diversity in faith formation.

June 20, 2019
Driving from Melbourne to Stanwell Tops last week to join theLeaders to Go conference, the clutch pedal on the Barina snapped of while driving on the highway just out of Gundagai. The clutch is an essential mechanism for transitions. Every learner driver understands that different gears are necessary for various conditions of speed and gradient, and the art of engaging the clutch and gears for the transitions is a sensitive art. Most of our faithing lives are journeys of adjustment and require sensitivity in finding alignment to travel forwards safely with others.
I had one presentation to make at the conference.
In a three way debate  I was tasked with advocating for ‘Age-segregated faith formation’ against Tammy Tolman proposing intergenerational faith contexts and Christina Embree defending Parents families and households as the primary discipleship contexts.
Those who have been following along at home keeping up with the waves and fashions and slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in what Phyllis Tickle calls the postchristendom “garage sale” , will realise that of these three ideas, Age-segregated or Age-specific programs have declined in favour against the rising enthusiasm for intergenerational faith formation contexts  – both focused in reengaging the family/household and  in restructuring  broader faith community.
So in the midst of this cohort of cutting edge and long-haul leaders of leaders in Children and Families ministries of many flavours and forms arguing for age-segregated programs was definitely the underdog position.
Added to this, I work for an organisation called ‘Intergen’ and am widely known not only for riding the intergenerational faith bus, but driving it, refuelling it, and spending a fair amount of time with my head under the bonnet fixing and fine tuning it.
The last conference I spoke at in the UK  I was invited to create my own topic and I ripped out a rabid theological defense of intergenerational faith communities on the most imperative terms: ‘Because God’. 
So in many ways this was a bit of a set up. Friends and colleagues were waiting to see if I would perjure myself in delivering ‘devil’s advocate’ arguments I don’t buy into in my own practice.
Within me though, this was a welcome challenge of imagination.
Studying theology brings great gifts – many precious pearls are gained in diving deep down into the waves of history, as one feels the changing pressures through the bathys, the flow and forces of cross currents, the changing creature culture, the dimming of light from above and the biofluorescence held within.*

To study theology leaves us soaked and breathless at the immensity of our scriptures, our traditions, our heresies, our controversies, our corruptions and crusades,  our symbols and sacraments, our spiritual discipline and practices, our cultural appropriations through the years.

This invitation to argue for a faith practice that has come into being in the past two centuries and fallen out of vogue in the past two decades was set to the roar of the whole theological ocean in my ears, the taste of historical salt on my tongue and the smash of the waves of culture on the cliffs at my feet.
Superficial dismissals of the recent issues of age-segregation were easy to review:
Family life has changed and middle class  children already spend  too much of the week in age-ability structured activities and not enough time with their own families, let alone with broader companies of diverse humans.
The ‘learning’ agenda of age-specific religious education programs reduces the humanness of children and adults to educational role players.
Evicting children from the weekly gathering for worship disconnects then from the practices of faith of the whole community, and trains them to leave.
‘Segregation’ itself is a pejorative term in the late-modernity western democratic philosophical lexicon, associated with recidivist leadership and morally bankrupt culture.
These arguments and many more have been well rehearsed in popular ministry blogs and conferences, drawing from anecdotal material. Further, the depth and longitudinal research of religious sociologists such as the giant of the field, John Roberto and the steady, prolific Holly Catterton Allen map the robust life-long faith of those who stay connected to other generations. The stories and the statistics stack up well.
Nevertheless, most of this material is phenomenological. And I wondered if there was something we were missing theologically in all of the attention given to intergenerational and household faith formation?
I wondered too, if we were neglecting something missiological. I’m thinking of those who live in households where faith is not celebrated or connected to a larger community. What of them?
My charge was to argue positively for age-segregated discipleship.
There were a few things in my favour: while Tammy Tolman presented a sweeping cache of biblical examples of the people of God  in the Hebrew Bible celebrating festivals and coming together to renew their covenant with the Lord as a whole intergenerational community, these were the ‘highlights’ of the year – large seasonal events and celebrations.
Discipleship though, is to  ‘walk in the footsteps of faith’ (Romans 4:12) and in the working subsistence agricultural communities of the ancient near east, children were gathered in cohorts to learn and contribute tasks along side an older family member as mentor. Ages were managed.
This wasn’t strictly age-segregation, but then neither is the practice most churches have with their 5 year olds. Looking with fresh eyes into an early years room on a sunday we see a group of 4 and 5 year olds, a few adults; maybe one (the leader) is 50 and another few are in their late 30s (parent supporters) and a young teenager also helps set up, and assist the children with activities and builds a warm rapport with the children.
This then, under the heading of ‘age segregated’ or ‘age appropriate’ group is in fact a little cosmos of intergenerationality – potentially, and many who are part of these groups will witness to this, a garden of faith reciprocity as everyone in the room is strengthened in faith and delight in the life of God.
Considering this constellation of relationships, I found myself articulating a new way of describing this: in place of Age specific, or Age Segregated – I called this Age-sensitivity.
As I delivered my argument to my peers and colleagues in the midst of the debate, I introduced this new term: ‘Age-Sensitive’ discipleship. 
In the  debating melodrama of the moment it drew a collective ‘Oooohhhh!!’
At least in my own practice, I think this term is a game-changer, and I hope it takes off and sparks more thinking and  creative re-evaluations.
In the week following the conference Christina Embree re-blogged an old piece from 2016, altering only one term; replacing ‘Age-Appropriate’ with ‘Age-Sensitive’.
Hat tip to Christina for being an early adopter!
Words matter. And this was more than just a point scoring semantic twist. In riding  the currents of historical theology, revisiting scripture  and exploring the way age has been co-opted, or precluded, or  subjugated, or elevated, or ignored in the theological tides this  idea, this phrase gained buoyancy.
Age-sensitivity bids us pay close attention to one another’s diverse humanity. Not for the sake of segregation and judgement, but to listen to the multiple voices of the Spirit of our ages.
Age-sensitive discipleship is a necessary counterbalance to our predilections towards asymmetrical power. Intergenerational communities need to regularly exercise age-sensitive rubrics and practices in order to avoid degenerating into a conforming pragmatism of  ‘one size fits all’.  Households and families are wrought with their own hierarchies of power, and so spaces in which there is sensitivity and attention paid to specific ages, the particularity of experience of being a 7 year old, or a 13 year old, or a 2 year old, or an 86 year old, is an important guard against power injustices and presumptions. Age-attentiveness or age-sensitivity is for all of us.
In the wake of almost a century of constructivist developmentalism arising from the seminal work of Piaget, our age-sensitivity must avoid the traps of being commandeered as an instrument of normativity, of judgement and division, of expectations and limitation for behaviour or progress or ability or cognition. Our worst mistakes arise form assuming we know. Especially assuming we know about another human being’s experience of the cosmos.
Age-sensitivity must lead us to paying radical attention to one another, to one another as aged and ageing beings, as part of our whole humanness. 
To avoid acknowledging our age-diversity, is to risk allowing the dominant groups to set the standards. We have learned this at great cost in elisions of cultural-diversity (“We’re all Aussies”) and gender-diversity (“man up”; “you run like a girl”) ability-diversity, neuro-diversity, economic diversity. Where we fail to pay attention to difference we obscure reality. The truth calls to us.
In the great panic of the church against post-modern philosophy, it has become a commonplace to warn against the danger that postmodernism affirms a relativism among individual claims of perception, replacing a monolithic and stable ‘Truth’.
I think there is a greater danger in resisting naming and affirming the differences and distinctives of all the lives in our midst. This must be done not through clumsy batch labelling. But through genuine sensitive attention to the micro-stories each person shares of themselves,  as they identify themselves as an age, a person.
In the best intergenerational faith communities – and I know a good fair few that are wonderful  – and robust and real households of faith – and I know a good fair few of these too – strong attention is paid to difference and commonality, divergence and sharing, distinctives and connection. Age sensitivity is an essential communal skill worthy of practice and cultivation, not disregard and disdain.
The truth of one another calls to us.
Let those with ears listen sensitively.
*This metaphor of the ‘ocean of theology’ is thoroughly investigated in the work of Nathan Hunter. See the Allegory p 111-112 developed as a tool for interviewing participants in his study of spirituality and depth.
Read more of Phyllis Tickle here:

Black Dog

May 27, 2019


I met a young boy
at church
eight years old

he carried around
a stuffed animal
a comfort toy
it was a black dog

and I asked him
if it had a name
and he said
‘Black Dog’

He brings
his Black Dog
to church
just like me
just like you
and he takes it
home again too

this young prophet
holds our truth
under his arm:
the black dog
goes to church

imagine us all
sitting there
listening to the gospel
standing to sing
black dogs by our sides
monkeys on our backs
gremlins in our heads

When we shake hands
and share The Peace
should we also bend down
and pat the Black Dog?


The hidden labours

April 13, 2019

the hidden labours

Letting go

Holding tenaciously to sanity
Telling hard truths to self
Resisting easy evils
Pursuing and puzzling the way through to justice

Rewiring the circuits of care and compassion in the cold cold dark when the fuse has blown

Restringing the heart’s guitar when the nickel is worn and untuneable and so silence holds out against songs for a long bitter hour

Stripping back and sanding the gathering table in the basement –  it takes weeks before a meal can be hosted again

Slow small point by point stitching of scraps of warmth and hope into a new blanket – perhaps ready by winter?

These are the invisible tasks
unseen exhaustions
subterranean toils
worthy labours
for which there are no awards
or grades or applause
or polls or honourable mentions

The soul is a sweat shop
dingy dusty
pittance pay
no job security
or yet living

moment to moment
hand to mouth
earth to breath
rib to flesh

Oh grubby hands of God
knuckle gnarled
stubby thumbed
making ever-loved
forms of life
apprentice me
to your
covert craft