The following is my wife’s response to the recent birth of our grandson.
I saw you before you saw me.
I had a chance to study your little round face, framed by a snugly cap.
I tried to place those familiar features, tried to find a possible source for the rest.
You look like your daddy; With his nose and his forehead.
You have your Mama’s red hair, and her chin.
You are quite beautiful, and quite unique.
I watched while you squirmed, grimaced, did the gentlest shudder. Your eyes moved under their lids, you retreated into your blanket. But all the while your eyes stayed shut. Could you hear our voices, your parents’ and mine? Did we sound clearer now that you are on the outside?
I ran my finger along your downy cheek. So soft, that newly dry baby skin, like no other softness on earth. And warm still, a residual warmth from deep within your mother.
We then smelled you, bringing our faces close to yours. A scent only found on the skin of the newly born.
Finally, we kissed you, each of us in turn.
When I came close I could hear the barely perceptible sighs and snuffles made by breaths brand new; breaths still in practice.
The camera captures the moment, but my heart will hold these first senses of your life more closely, more carefully, more completely, for as long as my heart continues to beat.
I am still surprised by my own thoughts, feelings and behaviours at times. So the other day when our first grandchild was born I was surprised by the overwhelming surge of emotion that swept over me. When my wife contacted me with the news there was that mixture of tears, choking and adrenalin – all the more embarrassing because I was trying to teach at the time! I knew this was exciting but Teddy’s arrival was more than that. For a moment I was taken back 40 years when our first child was born. The red hair, once again, took my breath away. The miracle of new life enthralled me all over again. I remembered that mixture of anticipation and fear. Then I was a new dad now I am a new granddad.
I have had to wait a long time for this moment so for just that reason alone Teddy’s birth was very special. Untangling all the emotions is a bit like trying to roll up a ball of wool after the cat has got at it. There is just so much going through my heart and head. On one side you know the
Teddy and Opa
sleepless nights that the new parents will go through; the tiredness but that is outweighed by the enlargement of the family – a new person, a new personality that shares some of the parent’s but then makes it his own. There will be diamonds and coal – the good days and bad. There will be the accidents and illnesses but also the achievements. Life is dangerous but also exciting.
As a parent the greatest joy is being able to share with your child the story of faith; the story of God who not only created you but loves you with this amazing love. For me, that part of my daughter and son in law’s journey will be the most important and exciting one. There will be all the amazing “firsts” – tooth, step, mum, dad … opa, supergran. But ultimately these pale when a young heart comes to know their God personally.
I love you Rosey, Paul and Theodore – may God bless this new stage of your life with His amazing grace!
We like to categorise. Put things in baskets. Label. It makes life so much easier. In Christian circles we have this advanced grid at work. Catholic – Protestant. Once we have chosen that basic category, then in the Protestant section we then select the denomination. And then what end of the spectrum: Liberal – conservative. We fine tune: Adult baptism – paedobaptism. Creationist – evolutionist. And if a creationist – what sort? A clever person could make a flow chart of all these distinctions and many many more. It is a trick we use to enable us to place everyone on the faith map somewhere and have likeminded people around ourselves.
I sometimes wonder what it was like a few years after the last apostle had died. John was gone, now what? We have to think for ourselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. No more letters to or from Paul. No flying visits from those who had personally known Christ. Now the early church had to live the gospel by themselves (and I am not forgetting the Holy Spirit). The Word still needed to be applied, lived, meditated upon in this volatile Roman world but without some of the human reassurances.
Not much different to today really. But now after 2000 years we have these categories – measuring sticks and safety alarms (like my trusty Calvinometre – which measures how far someone is from a Calvinist position on any topic). My question is: How helpful are our categories in enabling and empowering us to understand how the gospel needs to be radically (from the root) lived in 2020? Does it blind us to what the Word may be saying to us today. My nagging suspicion is that it does.
Does that mean we accept all views? Of course not! Paul and John warned of false teachers. But then again, in 2000 years we have built some human fences that may no longer be helpful.
There was one infamous occasion when our desire to see a lot of places (and consequently not doing them justice) in one day, proved winding rather than unwinding.
The day started well. We had camped in Millau, France not far from the Millau Viaduct over the Tarn River valley that we wanted to see. We rose early, hopped onto the E11
La Meridienne motorway and traveled south towards the bridge. Before we got onto the bridge itself there was a viewing platform from which we could take some photos. The bridge is both beautiful and spectacular. I had always wanted to see it “in the flesh” after having watched a documentary on its construction. It was well worth the trip.
From here we wanted to travel to the lavender region in Provence. Our first stop was Arles. We flew past signposts to many other famous places such as Avignon which we would have loved to visit. But a coffee in a van Goghesque cafe seemed the way to go. We visited the Roman amphitheatre and then headed to Sault in the middle of the lavender district. By the time we got here it was well into the afternoon. We were starving but at least there were quiches in a local shop. How French! Except we weren’t in Lorraine.
But there was still one long leg to go on today’s’ journey. We needed to get our daughter to a train station in Geneva via Grenoble – a mere final sprint of 324 Kms. The route was beautiful but becoming increasingly mountainous. With the mountains came dark ominous clouds. At one very high point we were encased in cloud when it got worse. A blizzard started unexpectedly. We saw a number of accidents occur around us with cars sliding on the suddenly icy roads. We could see only a few metres ahead but there was nowhere to pull off the road and stop. Stopping wasn’t an option because there was traffic, somewhere, behind me. My daughter said comfortingly that Grenoble, if she remembered right, was in a valley, and as we were going
The lavender fields near Sault
down in altitude we might get out of the clouds. After, what seemed like an interminably long time, thankfully she was right. By this stage my whole body was taut with the tension of the drive. However we needed to press on.
Geneva was still a couple of hours away. When we got to the outskirts of Geneva, being a tightwad, I didn’t want to use the motorway because of the very expensive vignette (tax/toll) so we took the backroads. We dropped off our daughter at the station and started looking for our camping place – which we couldn’t find. We had remembered a hotel in a large shopping centre on the French side of the border – so drove back in that direction. By this stage I was exhausted. When we got to the hotel they said a room was 150 Euros per night but there was a minimum stay of three nights. 450 Euros = $A650.
The incoming clouds
So we went to the Scottish restaurant, ate their food, used their ablution facilities and slept, once again, in the car, in the carpark at the front of the hotel. Exhausted! Tomorrow would be another day.
Driving through clogged city traffic is not my idea of fun, but driving on country roads for hours is a delight. There is nothing better than to have a full tank of fuel, nibbles, music and good companion (in my case, wife) and to head out.
A drive to Wilpena Pound in South Australia, 1800 kilometres to Queensland, a trip to the wineries in northern Victoria – are all ways to relax and unwind . And it is even better if one can get a few nights in a tent along the way – especially on the bank of a river or lake. That is living! But let me start overseas.
Over the next few weeks I will reflect on some of our the best road-trips:
1. Driving to the Arctic Circle.
A Stave Church
It had always been a dream of mine to travel to the Arctic Circle. I can’t even tell you why. A few years ago I got my chance. My wife and I picked up a car in Gothenburg in Sweden – a Volvo of course, and headed north. We crossed the Oslofjord by ferry, the first of many delightful crossings, and headed to Drammen. Misjudging our accommodation we spent the night “sleeping” in our car at a truck stop. Our original intention had been to travel south to Kristiansand but the weather turned nasty so we headed directly north instead, visiting any and every stave church that we encountered. I would have to forgo my intended visit to Pulpit Rock or Preikestolen near Stavanger.
Our first night in a tent was at Roldal. From Roldal we headed to Laerdal via the Hardanger Folk Museum which gives visitors a great picture of the Norway of old. My wife loved this place because of the beautiful traditional craftwork(including Hardanger) on display. The fjords in this part of Norway are amazing. From our camping spot in Laerdal we drove to Orsta, but on this evening the snow was too mushy to pitch a tent so we had to hire a cabin. The valley was cloud bound but the next morning it was bathed in brilliant sunshine – a different place!
The Atlantic Road
We made our way to Alesund famous for being one end of the “Shetland Bus” route during WW2 which transported agents and others between Nazi occuppied Norway, and alllied ports in Shetland and Scotland. We continued northward to another place I had always wanted to see – the Atlantic Road – a stunning, even artistic, 8 kilometre section of road that island hops towards Kristiansund (not Kristiansand) where we camped.
Orsta after the sun came out
All the while you can hear your wallet emptying because the Norwegians know how to do toll roads. They also know how to do tunnels. One near Laerdal, which we had travelled through earlier is about 25 kms in length. Emerging from a tunnel is nearly always spectacular. It is like being a mole for moment and popping out into another beautiful part of Norway. Then we made our way towards Trondheim, the old Viking capital, with its 800 year old Nidaros Cathedral and the C18th wooden palace.
But there was still further to go. Before we camped about 160 kms south of the Arctic Circle we had an unexpected treat – we encountered a large herd of reindeer. The camping ground at Mosjoen had its own 6 lane bowling alley and mini golf course. What more could you want? We used neither. That night we camped on a light sprinkling of snow. The following morning we travelled to the Arctic Circle via Mo I Rana – with my wife doing her “feet in the water” ritual in the harbour. The further north you go the less mountainous it becomes and this is accentuated by the reduced height of the trees. For Norway it seems very falt. We arrived at the Polar Circle Centre on its first opening day for the season. Two metres of snow had been carved out of the carpark but we were the only visitors at the time. Two young men were setting things up but I think they were pleased to have some company. Inside there was a great display of the flora and fauna of the area. I had achieved my driving ambition!
We made it! The Arctic Circle
At this point we turned around and headed back the way we had come. At Mo I Rana we turned east and made our way into Sweden – the land of pine trees and lakes. If ever I visit Norway again I would still try to get to Pulpit Rock, Narvik and the Lofoten Islands. Even if I don’t, which is more likely, I have great memories of the coolest road trip!
If you are really, really bored and want to pretend to sit in a car for 15 minutes from Kristiansund to the Arctic Circle, the following clip is for you:
A number of books have been written in recent years that suggest that the direction the Christian Church has been going is profoundly warped and dysfunctional. Just take for example:
Radical by David Platt, which explores how we have shaped the gospel to suit ourselves and suggests, as the title implies, some uncomfortable remedies – uncomfortable for the materialistic, middle class, self-centred Western Christian.
Exiles by Michael Frost looks at how the church has been marginalised in Western cultures and offers new alternatives at being church.
There have been a host of books by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis looking at more effective ways of being the body of Christ.
Vishal Mangalwadi in The Book That made Your World shows how Western cultures influenced by the Bible have made huge strides but also reveals how we in the West have dropped the ball as we allow this heritage to dissipate.
You could probably add to the list. But my point is this: the sheer scale of people writing and thinking about the church at present indicates that all is not well in Western churches. If we add to this a host of other issues such as young people leaving the church, Christians leaving the church but maintaining the faith outside its influence and the ongoing influence of theologies that marginalise Scripture, we can get a sense of the enormity of the problem. And we haven’t time to discuss all the areas of abuse the church has been involved in from paedophilia to scandals surrounding celebrity pastors, which have deeply wounded the voice of the church.
One of the stumbling blocks I see is that although some church leaders clearly recognise this problem their ability to act is limited. There are leaders in most churches who are alarmed by the figures both financial and human but in most cases they are seeking solutions from within the structure of their denomination. The structure is the environment their thinking takes place in. It is the structure, that for a whole host of reasons, from personal vested interests to tradition, that blinkers any genuinely radical Biblical vision. Property, jobs, “empires” and status are all involved in this unholy mix. This is not dissimilar to the conditions in the Roman Church before the C16th Reformation.
And then there is us, we who in the West have succumbed to the attractions of materialism. Our very view of life is shaped from the comfort of our easy chair. We too are part of the problem. Our thinking is shaped and anchored in our immediate self-interest. We too have vested self interests.
So, is it time for a new Reformation? I would genuinely love to hear the views of readers. And if it is, how will we hear God’s voice in the noise of our world? How can our hearts be open to the leading of the Spirit? What steps can we take in faith?
Currently I am reading“The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert”by Rosaria Butterfield. This book traces Butterfield’s journey from a lesbian professor of “Queer Studies” in the English Department of Syracuse University to a conservative evangelical wife and mother. She is certainly not the poster girl for LGBTI movement nor of the growing voice of the Gay and Lesbian community in evangelical circles. One can agree or disagree with Butterfield, but the book is eminently worth reading for a variety of disparate reasons:
1. It reveals how conversations between disagreeing parties can be held with honour and integrity:
One of the aspects of the book that I was most impressed with was the description of the respectful conversations she had with the Rev. Ken Smith over a long period as they explored each other’s beliefs and worldviews. After Butterfield had written an article in a local newspaper a lot of mail came in her direction which was easily divided between hate mail and fan mail, except for one from a local pastor who wanted to have a respectful conversation. It is the genuine consideration of the pastor and the willingness by Butterfield to engage in that discussion where I see a model of how conversations can be held in our pluralistic society. Christians in particular need to take note as often our voices are perceived as judgmental and harsh. It struck me as a model as to how Christians need to deal with those with whom they disagree. It is light-years away from much of the judgemental stridency we hear too often.
2. The book reveals how Christian conversion can be a gut wrenching process in contrast to some of the glib techniques sometimes espoused.
Butterfield calls her conversion a “train wreck”. This is such a contrast to the simplistic “believer’s prayers” which often pass for “Christian conversion”. She describes the amazing struggle to move from one way of life and worldview to another and the incredible personal cost. The process involved the reorientation of every aspect of her life. She says she lost everything except her dog. I see it as a very modern expression of what Bonhoffer calls the cost of discipleship – a cost that those of us who have been Christians for a long time may have lost sight of.
3. The book includes some astute theological observations. I find these particulalrly helpful as they come with fresh eyes untainted by years of tradition. An unpacking of Ezekiel 16 is one example that I would like to explore in a later blog.
4. The book also gives us an outsider’s view of how we often behave in churches – the good and the bad. Her observations are useful for us to assess our own behaviours and words and their impact on people who are unfamiliar with the ways of churches. Butterfield also gives an entertaining and sometimes humiliating view of what we look like from the outside.
Finally, it is a book about a personal journey that can teach us all something, whether it is about our attitudes, beliefs or simply the way we go about expressing those beliefs. I haven’t even finished the book yet and it has challenged me in so many areas.
When I was regularly writing for a church newsletter I had a “friend” whom I used to illustrate points – usually negative ones. “Johan vander Bakslijder” was my fictional creation who was involved in things that one hoped that the congregation wasn’t – even though I knew that some were. It was a way of raising issues without accusing people directly and without making the climate too uncomfortable.
But if the truth be known, often Johan’s struggles mirrored mine. In fact there is a bit of Johan or his wife Johanna in each one of us.
We Christians are a fragile lot. I am fragile. How often I am disappointed with a sharp undisciplined word that comes from my mouth, or a sudden rise in temperature when my toes are trodden on … or an improper thought inveigles itself into my mind. Daily through my foolishness I am reminded that God’s grace needs to be my constant companion. He needs to look at me through His “Christ coloured glasses” or else I would be in deep trouble.
But not only do I need that grace but also the people around me – people whom too often I am tempted to judge. People who have not encountered Jesus. People who also need to know that their brokenness can be forgiven and dealt with. Who is going to tell them or show them unless it is “Johan” or “Johanna” who can attest to the joy of having been forgiven and who continue to be forgiven daily despite their failings.