“War and Peace” at Open Table

Friday 6 April 2018 | Open Table


Bring a main dish to share, and come with a story to tell in response to the stimulus below, this time held at Andrew & Liz Nichols’ house (155 Burbong St. Chapel Hill; call Liz on 0415624982 if lost!) and facilitated by Noel Payne.
Welcome from 7pm, official kick off at 7:30pm. Any questions before the night? Call/txt Dave on 0491138487.

Art     | “Will You?”‘ … “Will take my hand? Will you help me find truth? Will you help me seek justice? Will you please, please, please take my hand? by Indigenous artist, Jasmin Roberts (for Reconciliation Week; see Common Grace’s write-up here)Will You_Jasmin Roberts
Text   | 2 Timothy 3:1-4 on “the last days”: “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” … and if you’re more of a story person, perhaps bounce off Jesus’ mixed advice on carrying swords for self-defence into the Garden of Gethsemane, in Luke 22:35-38, 47-53 (cf. Matthew 26:47-56: “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” v52)
Poem | “Jesus of the Scars” by Edward Shillito (1872-1948), a Free Church minister in England during “The Great War” (WWI), himself discharged from the army with injuries from the battlefield:

Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 1.28.48 pm

If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars. 

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.

If, when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear,
Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.



Inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s 1867 book title oft’ quoted but rarely read, War and Peace as an Open Table theme invites you to share a personal story of violence and/or reconciliation as a gateway to global conflict and God’s shalom. 

War And Peace Quotes War And Peace | Book Quotes Hub | Page 3

To prime the pump, consider the dynamics fuelling and resolving the conflict:

  • Would all parties agree on who was the oppressor and the oppressed, or do these categories blur with who is telling the story?
  • What was the battle over–whether interpersonal, communal/tribal, or national/ethnic?
  • For each party, what did they hope to gain? Was there an ideal outcome, a win-win even?
  • What casualties and injuries were incurred? Have these wounds changed over time, whether deepening or healing–the scars becoming counter-signs of character?
  • What allies or medics came to your attention, helping heal the outcome of violence?
  • What held each party back from seeking a peaceful resolution, at least at first?
  • Describe the process of reconciliation, whether actual or potential, i.e., what it would take to re-unite the divided people. That is, what makes for peace?
  • How does this encounter, and telling this story, impact you in the present? Is it a redeemed memory, or an ongoing source of pain?
  • In what ways does your experience of violence offer a window into global conflict that grips our countries, and from which we turn to the heavens for relief?

Let the conversation begin! … Bring food and a story to share,
and join us as together we explore WAR & PEACE as the pendulum of human history.






Open Book on “Faithful Presence”

In our first cycle for 2018 (starting Thursday 8th March), we tackle the church! What is the church, and what’s it for? In the economy of God’s mission and peace-full reign, how is Christ’s body to engage, even change, the world? In other words:

How might the church’s life of worship when gathered together serve its work in the world when scattered and sent into a post-Christian culture?

9941Our conversation partner is Professor David E. Fitch, missiologist and founding pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community and Peace of Christ Church, both in Chicago. The book? Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission (2016)

The title borrows from James Davison Hunter’s landmark 2010 book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. As summarised here, Hunter dismantles prevailing political theologies and popular wisdom concerning how the church is to engage and change the world. Most strategies founder on triumphalism (evangelicalism & radical orthodoxy) that tries to take over the culture one individual at a time, or pietistic escapism as a counter-culture on the margins (anabaptists) that largely leaves the culture to rot. Instead, Hunter calls for a different paradigm of Christian engagement with the world, that being “faithful presence”—an ideal of Christian practice that is not only individual but institutional; a model that plays out not only in all relationships but in our work and all spheres of social life.


Unfortunately, as critiques here and here demonstrate, Hunter at times caricatured these communities, ignoring what they look like at their best. And more importantly, for our purposes at least, his proposal was largely abstract and theoretical, hinting at a strategy but never mapping out the path. Does this call for cultural persistence constitute a program, a project, or a reworking of the church itself geared up for mission? Hunter leaves us wondering.

14DavidFitch-420Thank God, then, for Fitch. He steps in with a more embracing theological vision of God’s faithful presence across biblical history. He presses back on Hunter, revealing that the church itself, in its very inner life and rhythms when rightly constituted, is a counter-politic embodying God’s peace-full reign. And that’s all by Chapter 2. (For a 3 minute grab of why Fitch thinks we must move “from gospel presentation to kingdom presence” see here. This emphasis on “faithful presence” as seen in Luke 10, the sending of the 72, gives us a poignant image of “eucharist on the move, extending the presence of Christ into the world.”)


The rest of the book is dedicated to outlining seven disciplines/practices through which we are formed to host God’s faithful presence, and recognise/call-out this presence in the wider culture in a non-coercive way, through which our Triune God changes the world. (For a slick graphical summary of the book, see Vintage Church’s slide-show here.)


The practices?

  • The Lord’s Table (hospitality)
  • 41Cv1F8+gJLReconciliation (peace-making)
  • Proclaiming the Gospel (preaching the Word)
  • Being with the “Least of These” (care/compassion)
  • Being with Children (nurture/education/discipleship)
  • Fivefold Gifting (shared non-hierarchical leadership)
  • Kingdom Prayer (intercession)

(You may notice close parallels with Mike Frost’s B.E.L.L.S. (Bless, Eat, Listen, Learn, Sent) in his excellent little 2015 book, Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People. Simple summaries and resources herehere, and here.)

Fitch corrects the maintenance mode of a church turned inward on itself (where the world serves the church and thus the church is irrelevant to the world), and equally addresses the exhaustion that comes from a missional church pressing every act as in service of outreach (thus making the church merely an instrument, undermining worship for the end of God’s glory, and tiring out members as they leave the church to serve the world). Instead, he offers a seamless missional ecclesiology … a way of being the church that is itself a witness in the world. (For a meaty dialogue between David Fitch and Scot McKnight, highlighting some points of difference in theology and practice, listen to this mp3 podcast from Northern Seminary here.)


It puts flesh on much of what we do in Christ’s Pieces. God hosts us in the “close circle” of Christian fellowship (much like Quarry, practicing the disciplines every Sunday, and Open Book, going deeper in formation). We then make space to host God’s faithful presence around the tables of our homes (like Open Table). In turn, this mixed community is formed to recognise and carry/bear God’s transforming presence as our wider post-Christian culture hosts us, whether in their homes, at work, study or play (our mission as church scattered). God’s transcendence and immanence unite in this Spirit-filled community. Mission and incarnation work in synergy, rather than dividing a fellowship down the middle to either serve home base or go it alone on the margins.


So, this book is timely for us. Whilst it’s American in origin, the illustrations map easily onto our Aussie context and especially our intentional Christian Community. Studying Faithful Presence and putting these disciplines into practice is a brilliant opportunity to grow together, and see our communal life opened for the peace and transformation of our local community.

Details below, and all welcome, whatever your faith commitment, tradition, or none.

Over 5 Thursday sessions (March 8 – April 26) at Nik & Dave’s house (152 Tanderra Way, Karana Downs; directions here) we will dialogue with David Fitch and each other, learning how to host God’s faithful presence for the sake of the world.

OPEN BOOK, THURSDAYS 7PM | David Fitch’s Faithful Presence (FP)
(Click session # hyperlink for liturgy/ppnt slides)

March 8 |FP 1, pp. 9-43: Intro + Ch. 1 “God’s Faithful Presence” + Ch. 2 “To Change the World” [n.b. FP 2 is only one week later, not fortnightly]

IVPPraxis-mobileMarch 15 |FP 2, pp. 47-92, 189-195: Ch. 3 “The Discipline of the Lord’s Table” + Ch. 4 “The Discipline of Reconciliation” + Appendix 1 “What Formation Looks Like Around the Table” + Appendix 2 “The Indispensable Role of the Dotted Circle in the Disciplines”

March 29 |FP 3, pp. 93-129, 197-205: Ch. 5 “The Discipline of Proclaiming the Gospel” + Ch. 6 “The Discipline of Being with the ‘Least of These'” + Appendix 3 “Extending the Presence: An Alternative Basis for Ecclesiology and Mission”

April 12 |FP 4, pp. 131-165, 207-209: Ch. 7 “The Discipline of Being with Children” + Ch. 8 “The Discipline of Fivefold Gifting” + Appendix 4 “Where Is the Church? A Closer Look at Matthew 25”

April 26 |FP 5, pp. 167-185, 211: Ch. 9 “The Discipline of Kingdom Prayer” + “Epilogue: How God Changes the World” + Appendix 5 “A Simple History of the Disciplines from New Testament Church to Christendom”


PS – originally we had planned to study Sam & Sara Hargreaves, Whole Life Worship: Empowering Disciples for the Frontline (buy here; accompanying website here with extra resources here) … promo video hereThough we’ve opted instead for Fitch’s Faithful Presence, this book is still excellent for a focus on the nature of worshipping God as arguably the central purpose of humanity (theologically understood). But what is worship? Is it just singing songs? And how does what we do on Sunday as the Church Gathered, relate to our worldly work Monday to Saturday as the Church Scattered? Similar to the focus for this series, our core question was to be: What does it mean to worship God with our whole lives, where Sunday’s liturgy is a springboard to every day’s worshipful service?

(If you’re after some meaty stimulus, check out my compiled interactions and a couple of blog posts from others on the ‘worship wars’ in evangelical circles … this heated argument raises the questions well, even as it reduces ‘worship’ to simply singing of songs and what we do on Sunday together … which is part of why we opted for a practices driven exploration of the church as a whole via Fitch.)


Open Table on “Risk”

Friday 15 December 2017 | Open Table
RISK … celebrating incarnation

Video | I Can’t Believe He Jumped
Poem | The Nativity” (G. K. Chesterton)
Text | John 1:14 on Incarnation, and Philippians 2:5-11 on God’s self-limitation in Jesus

+++Feel free to skip below this meandering exploration of risk to the night’s details, or read on for some random thoughts that may spark a story you can share on the night+++

Christmas is a time of injury. Think free-time + new toys + instant crowd. Forget the kids. Picture that Aunty impressing the nieces on a Pogo-stick, or that dad showing his son how skateboarding was done back in his day. *Gulp*

hqdefaultAs one who loves rock-climbing, snapped his neck in a gymnastics accident, and still commutes on a motorbike most every day, I get this extreme sports high risk fixation. We want to feel alive … to free fall, and hopefully find a soft, immersive landing. Ta da! Sadly it only sometimes plays out this way. Understandably, we all have our limits. I’m comfortable weaving through traffic on two-wheels in the rain. But watching my 15 year old nephew pull a wheelie at 70km/hr on his dirtbike gives me the willies. And as for performing a ‘superman’ while launching off a ramp—I’ll leave that to motocross professionals.

So, when did you last task a RISK?

profit-loss-riskDefinitions vary, but pay attention to the valence. Risk has a negative aspect. It’s the possibility of loss or injury: peril; someone or something that creates or suggests a hazard. In other words, risk is the exposure to the likelihood of injury or loss; put simply, it’s a dangerous and chancy choice.

But, it also has a positive valence. From wiki’s fount of wisdom, risk is equally the potential of gaining something of value, whether that be physical health, social status, emotional well-being, financial wealth, or even friendship.

Think of how these elements map onto the biggest risk you’ve taken.

  • The Risk Taker: how did the risk taking impact you, mentally (fear?) and physically (fast, shallow breathing?), and how did you manage the stress?
  • Motivation and Reward: what drove you to take this risk, and what were you hoping to achieve on the other side? That is, what might you gain, and how valuable is it to you?
  • Who Is the Risk For? Is this an X-Games kinda’ risk, for personal thrill and glory? Or was this a noble Fire-Fighting kinda’ risk, for protection of the vulnerable and freedom for the oppressed?
  • Actual vs. Perceived Risk: What do you stand to lose if it goes wrong? And how probable is ‘success’? What is your knowledge of the odds? And must you trust only yourself, or others, in this faith-filled jump?

247264-Soren-Kierkegaard-Quote-Leap-of-faith-yes-but-only-afterIt’s no artificial segueway to see that this is now about that. This worldly risk is also about that greater good. As Søren Kierkegaard, the great Danish Father of modern existentialism, averred, we are all limited and biased, finite and fallen fleshly creatures. Life is fraught with risk. Beyond self-interested dares in our Red Bull age, we need courage for wings to fly. We are all faced with the choice to pull back from the edge, or take a whole-hearted “leap of faith”. Perhaps this jump is into the dark, or into the light? Reflect, to be sure, but then you must launch to truly live. (Or, in other parlance, run the numbers before undertaking risky business.) It’s trust, risk, fear and hope all rolled into one, a self-involving decision to go beyond the known and often put ourselves at the mercy of the elements and an uncertain onlooking crowd.

trinity-iconTurning to the biblical story, then, we might rightly wonder if the Triune God—Father-Son-Spirit—is prone to risk-taking? Can God even take a risk, given the above definition? If you hold to the medieval philosophical framing of God being, by definition, omniscient (all knowing), omnipotent (all powerful), omnipresent (everywhere), and ultimately impassible (unchanging, and therefore unaffected by what happens in our world), then you would have to answer no. God knows the outcome of every divine and human action, has the power to ensure all gain and no loss, is spiritual/disembodied posing no risk of suffering even if things went pear shaped, and thus experiences no pain or pleasure due to the actions of others.

If you’ve actually read the biblical story, you’ll rightly wonder about whom these descriptives apply. As Blaise Pascal penned in the inside of his jacket, discovered only on his death (see here), our fiery Creator is the “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars.” God is passionate, invested; God suffers with, ultimately for his glory but in a way that wraps us into the action as agents with a genuine role to play where all win or lose together. Still, is risk possible?

BradiBarth_TrinityCreationEveTest case: Creation. The all-sufficient Risk-Taker whose essence is communion, overflowed in the perichoretic dance to creatively birth the cosmos. The motivation was love, and the reward was shalom, weaving us together through right relationship with God, neighbour, self and creation, all pointing back to its transcendent source. The risk is for everyone, not simply God in a zero-sum game; holistic flourishing, like African Ubuntu, means “I am, because we are”—one interconnected fabric. There is genuine risk, for the outcome is open. Preservation of love requires the extension of freedom; the Creator gifts agency to creation, where humans can accept or reject the overture and subsequently screw up God’s good world. ‘Sin’ results in suffering and requires intervention to fix the mess.

So far, so good. And yet, apart from some process theology overlay where the Creator is within time and unfolding with creation, it would seem that God knows the actual risk. He is both sovereign and all-seeing. Short of coercing the outcome, God still stands apart from Creation, and can perceive where it will all go. Adam and Eve’s rebellion didn’t take God by surprise. Granted, it “grieved” God that we rebelled (Genesis 6). And yet, like a parent disciplining a child saying “this will hurt me more than it hurts you”, the watery punishment of Noah’s flood physically inflicted only flesh-and-blood creatures. For God had no skin in the game.

Mariama McCarthy_Beautiful JesusLike I said, though, Christmas is a time of injury.
It’s the time we remember the ultimate risk of incarnation.

As Eugene Peterson renders John 1:14,

The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.

dbeb4-img_9546The unlimited, all knowing, all powerful Creator, tied himself to matter and was confined to a crib in a baby’s body. God hurt. And forget those romanticised Christmas carols: “meek and mild, no crying he makes”. No, this was first century Palestine, no more peaceful than today (cf. here). If I was God, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t choose this time and place to be born. Forget the bright star and warm stable; this was a vulnerable adolescent mother out of wedlock bearing a child, heading to an outback census under threat of angry authorities wanting to keep their power. This was more like the war-torn grab in the stunning movie, Children of Men—a world ripped apart by violence over scarcity of resources and infertility, but gripped by the hope found in a new-born babe. Cease Fire! Would you risk incarnation if modern day Syria was the landing point?

As we read in Philippians 2:5-11, the uncontainable God “gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being [w]hen he appeared in human form ….” That’s kenosis. Theological minds boggle: in what sense and what way can God be limited and still, in identity, remain ‘God’? And yet, the point is clear. God, while sovereign, gave up his right to control the game. He was at the mercy of the onlooking crowd. This was the ultimate risk. No soft landing and immersive embrace on planet Earth.

2f53a-s0444002It’s captured well in the iconic Greek Orthodox painting “Slaughter of the Innocents”. Granted, the statistics suffer symbolic inflation over this feast honouring the “14,000 slaughtered children”. In reality, King Herod’s blood-lust cost around 40 baby boys their lives (cf. Matthew 2). The Christ was spared, thrust like a modern day political refugee to the relative “safety” of Egypt. And yet, the number represents the countless lives torn apart and destroyed by despots hell-bent on asserting their preeminence, especially standing against the Lord’s anointed (Psalm 2).

256035.pThe risk of incarnation led inexorably to the crucifixion, the final relinquishment of divine power, not for personal gain, but that all may be set free from the ultimate demonic despot, finding life in renewed relationship with God, neighbour, planet and self. Literally, this risk offered a sign, a fore-taste, of “peace on earth”. Kings in palaces were oblivious. But shepherds, simpletons, and wise magi prepared to travel got front row on the spectacle and angelic Hallelujah chorus (beautifully depicted in St. Paul’s Arts and Media’s 2010 “Christmas Story”).

This paradoxical risk and revelation is poignantly captured in G. K. Chesterton’s poem, The Nativity. He riffs off Isaiah 9:6-7, juxtaposing a helpless child with just and powerful rule.

1a2d94f9ba1e689ef24bf3e64fe225e8Transposed into the modern world, where facing today’s Herods requires the combined courage of Mary and the Messiah, Chesterton composed this poem:

The thatch on the roof was as golden,
Though dusty the straw was and old,
The wind had a peal as of trumpets,
Though blowing and barren and cold,
The mother’s hair was a glory
Though loosened and torn,
For under the eaves in the gloaming
A child was born.

Have a myriad children been quickened,
Have a myriad children grown old,
Grown gross and unloved and embittered,
Grown cunning and savage and cold?
God abides in a terrible patience,
Unangered, unworn,
And again for the child that was squandered
A child is born.

What know we of aeons behind us,
Dim dynasties lost long ago,
Huge empires, like dreams unremembered,
Huge cities for ages laid low?
This at least—that with blight and with blessing,
With flower and with thorn,
Love was there, and his cry was among them,
“A child is born.”

Though the darkness be noisy with systems,
Dark fancies that fret and disprove,
Still the plumes stir around us, above us
The wings of the shadow of love:
Oh! Princes and priests, have ye seen it
Grow pale through your scorn;
Huge dawns sleep before us, deep changes,
A child is born.

And the rafters of toil still are gilded
With the dawn of the stars of the heart,
And the wise men draw near in the twilight,
Who are weary of learning and art,
And the face of the tyrant is darkened,
His spirit is torn,
For a new king is enthroned; yea, the sternest,
A child is born.

r1303218_17851361And the mother still joys for the whispered
First stir of unspeakable things,
Still feels that high moment unfurling
Red glory of Gabriel’s wings.
Still the babe of an hour is a master
Whom angels adorn,
Emmanuel, prophet, anointed,
A child is born.

And thou, that art still in thy cradle,
The sun being crown for thy brow,
Make answer, our flesh, make an answer,
Say, whence art thou come—who art thou?
Art thou come back on earth for our teaching
To train or to warn—?
Hush—how may we know? —knowing only
A child is born.

manger-incarnation-nativityReturning, then, to our key theme, and inspired by Parker Palmer’s reflection below (cf. here): What dynamics underlay your greatest risk? How did it impact you, and who was it for? What values stood to be gained, or goods did you risk to lose? What motivated your leap of faith, and how well could you predict the outcome? … Taking it even deeper in this Christmas season, let’s put skin on it. What are you are willing to risk to embody your deepest values? Where do you find the courage to take on the risk of incarnation, embodiment, and sacrifice for the life of the world?

Let the conversation begin! … Bring food and a story to share, and join us as together we explore RISK taking as one of life’s great phenomenon.


Open Book on “Laudato Si’: Care for Our Common Home”

In our final Open Book cycle for 2017 (starting Thursday 19th October), we go green! How does Christian faith relate to ecology? Does the Christ care about climate change? If we love the Creator, how should this affect the practices of his church? In short:

How would the Creator have us see and steward the gift of Creation?

Our conversation partner is the Argentinian, Jorge Mario Bergoglio. You likely know him better as the 266th Sovereign of Vatican City, Pope Francis (or Papa Francesco as Italians fondly call him), who took his name from the nature loving Saint Francis of Assisi.

Pope Francis’s 2015 Encyclical, Laudato Si’ (“Praise be to You”) establishes an expansive theological frame of a creational “common good” and “ecological citizenship”, within which our lives and work can be situated. As the subtitle suggests, it’s on “care for our common home”–where humans are entrusted with a unique care-taking role from within nature, rather than dominating fellow creatures for our anthropocentric ends.

(This human-centred assumption is both amusingly and disturbingly exposed by animators Steve Cutts in “Man” and Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax in the song “How Bad Can I Be?”;  Prince Ea’s spoken word pieces “Dear Future Generations: Sorry” and “Man vs. Earth” are a tad more melancholic.)

That is, our Genesis 1:28 authority to “rule” and have “dominion” (kabash and radar in the Hebrew), as God’s image bearers, empowers the Genesis 2:15 purpose of this call to “care for” and “keep” creation (abad and shamar), in the same way God tends and cares for us, expressed in the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6:24-26:

Tillers_MakoHoranaiThe Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
    and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
    and give you peace.

There has been a world-wide growing sense that unconstrained human activity and over-consumption has damaged God’s very good gift of Earth, becoming in Bill McKibben’s words Eaarth–an irreversibly changed and tough new planet on which we must make our way forward, humbled for having spoiled our home.

And yet, living out of a Greek/neo-Platonic legacy, many Christians have ignored the memo. Perhaps worse, in ecologist Lynn White’s classic 1967 essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” here, our western reading of the Bible may itself be uniquely to blame for the mess we’re in. We have a tendency to spiritualise the nature and purpose of humanity. You know, where God will burn up all physical things bright and beautiful in the end, taking the “real me”, my disembodied essence, to heaven for eternity … so cut the greeny talk and just get on with preaching and saving sinking souls off our Titanic planet. But is this who we truly are and what we truly believe? This precarious ecological moment may be reawakening an at once more ancient and future-looking reading of the Bible and framing of faith.

Many churches have missed the missional logic of resurrection, and struggled to see that “creation care is a gospel priority.” As the Lausanne Cape-Town Commitment II.2.6 says here, “We are also commanded to care for the earth and all its creatures, because the earth belongs to God, not to us. We do this for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ who is the creator, owner, sustainer, redeemer and heir of all creation.”

(For more, see their Creation Care Issue Network, their Occasional Paper on “An Evangelical Commitment to Simple Lifestyle“, the Jamaica Call to Action, and the excellent essays in Colin Bell and Robert White’s (eds) volume, Creation Care and the Gospel: Reconsidering the Mission of the Church [2016]. The leading light in combining best theology and ecological practice is A’Rocha [international here; Australia site here; fb here; led by Roger Jaensch]. See also “Green Christian”, “Common Grace”, Mike Pope’s 2013 Tinsley Annual Lecture “Preaching to the Birds?”, and Byron Smith’s facebook posts on environmental activism. For some solid theological underpinning, see Richard Bauckham’s The Bible and Ecology, and Living with Other Creatures.)

The National Church Life Survey in Australia’s numerous reports on faith and the environment (here; podcast here) reveal that only 28 percent of Christians believe that “caring for the earth is an essential part of mission”, despite nearly 7 in 10 believing that “nature is sacred”. Only 22 percent disagree with the belief that “plants and animals exist primarily for human use”. (This is a radically different attitude to our Indigenous forebears, in “The Uluru Statement” asserting our integral connection to the land.) Not surprisingly, then, only a quarter of Jesus’ followers in Australia are very active in caring for the environment as part of their responsibility as disciples–roughly the same proportion of Christians who are even aware of Papa Francesco’s illuminating ecological encyclical Laudato Si’. Which is why it’s high time we delve into this gem.

(For commentary on Laudato Si’, see here for a Catholic introduction, here and here for A’Rocha’s Protestant take, here and here for secular commentary, and here for a taste of how the National Council of Churches in Australia have responded with an “Eco-Mission” project, drawing on the work of its member Clive Ayre. I’ve written about “Shalom and Sustainability” from an educational/curriculum perspective, in Clive’s ecological edition of the Australian Journal of Mission Studies here, December 2016, pp. 60-67.)

Thankfully, changing our habits isn’t rocket science, whether at the civic/political, local community and church, or consumer level! Churches have recycled, planted trees, hosted community gardens, celebrated environmental days or seasons, run children’s activities, worshipped outside in nature, worked on a project in their community and participated in advocacy campaigns for the environment in the last two years, according to NCLS Research.

Well, there’s always more to say. You can read my worldview notes on Creation here, or watch a stirring talk by celebrated Brazilian politician and environmental activist Marina Silva, for her work in saving the Amazonian forest here.


You could also explore global climate change responses after the Paris accord here, and what this looks like in Oceania here. And for an artistic angle, see Robin Wood’s powerful images for the “Destroying Nature Is Destroying Life” campaign here.

Of the posting of links, there is no end, and too much reading just makes one tired! So, as the pointy end of this blog, can I simply invite you to join us in conversation as we consider a new way of being creaturely, stumbling imperfectly forward as we work in love for the care of our common home?

OPEN BOOK, THURSDAYS 7PM | Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ (LS; website here)
(Click session # hyperlink for liturgy/ppnt slides)


October 19 | LS 1, pp. 1-44: Intro + Ch. 1 “What Is Happening to Our Common Home?” (§1-61)

November 2 | LS 2, pp. 45-101: Ch. 2 “The Gospel of Creation” pp. 45-74 (§62-100) + Ch. 3 “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis” pp75-101 (§101-136)

November 16 | LS 3, pp. 103-148: Ch. 4 “Integral Ecology” pp. 103-120 (§137-162) + Ch. 5 “Lines of Approach and Action” pp.121-148 (§163-201)

November 30 | LS 4, pp. 149-180: Ch. 6 “Ecological Education and Spirituality” (§202-246).


Open Table on “The Beautiful”

Friday 6 October 2017 | Open Table
on the theme of the third transcendental, THE BEAUTIFUL

Bring a main dish to share, and come with a story to tell in response to the stimulus below, at Nik and Dave Benson’s place, 152 Tanderra Way, Karana Downs, at 7:30pm. Any questions? Call/txt Dave on 0491138487.


Art | Michael Leunig, Glorious Gravel [My title! Image above]
Text | Exodus 28: 1-5, 31-41 “Clothing for the Priests”
Extra | Plotinus (3rd Century BCE, Greek Philosopher) Enneads I.6 “On Beauty” (4 minute video grab or full text here, especially §3-4,6) OR Hans Urs von Balthasar excerpt on Beauty here.

What does beauty mean to you? And when’s the last time you used the word “beautiful”? As an adjective, it seems capable of qualifying almost anything. A beautiful … sunset, dress, speech, meal, painting, putt, mind, person. The list goes on.

Related imageIn delving into this theme, I discovered a Spotify playlist with 1.5 million followers entitled “The Most Beautiful Songs in the World.” And I stumbled upon “Euler’s Identity”, voted by physicists as “the most beautiful equation”. If you failed senior maths, this will strike you as bizarre. And yet, this formula is arguably beautiful as it travels together with truth—spirituality and science strangely coinhering—and it takes an exceptionally trained mind to see and appreciate a dance of complexity and elegance representing “some of the most profound rules that govern the Universe and everything in it.” This appreciation often travels together with cultivating a poetic or musical ear to discern acoustic order. For those lacking ears to hear or eyes to see, however, it’s almost impossible to define what makes it a thing of beauty, and ultimately—philosophically and theologically—what beauty means.

Simplistically defined, beautiful means “pleasing the senses or mind aesthetically”. Anything or anyone that can elicit this perceptual experience of satisfaction in another is labelled “beautiful”. Sounds like it’s more about the spectator, rather than a quality in the object itself, held to some higher standard. You know, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.

Image result for beautySearch “beauty” on google images, and you’re bombarded with breezy pictures of young women, often plastered with make-up and typically caucasian. No wonder singers like Christina Aguilera (“You Are Beautiful”) and Marilyn Manson (“The Beautiful People”) deconstruct the stereotypes which have shut our eyes to the diffuse beauty of a thousand flowers blooming in all shapes and sizes—rarely confined to what the market conditions us to consume.

Besides which, as we learn from stories as disparate as Shallow Hal, Beauty and the Beast, Shrek, and The Picture of Dorion Gray, physical and moral beauty in a broken world rarely travel together. The recently deceased Hugh Hefner may have surrounded himself with stunning Playboy Bunnies, but no one dedicates his eulogy to a beautiful life well lived among paragons of pulchritude. Bottom line: we must be cautious before reducing “beauty” to any one look.

Image result for beauty is not in the eye of the beholderAnd yet, these caveats fail to dismiss beauty as merely subjective. As Alain de Botton observes in his School of Life video, our language, photography and travel plans reveal amazing overlap in what images and destinations we find attractive; on the grounds of democracy alone, there seems to be something objective to beauty, which we ignore to the detriment of all. Which city needs another ugly concrete skyscraper? Beauty is intended to draw us onward and upward. In Dwayne Huebner’s words, it’s the “lure of the transcendent”.

Now, you could argue that this allure is simply explained by survival. Humans are like Bower Birds, seeking out beautiful blue objects to adorn our nests, even bodies, drawing a partner to propagate our species. And yet, the sheer excess—even superfluity—and diversity of beauty in our universe overflows such reductionism. Instead, it appears to point beyond itself to something that perhaps truly is “beautiful” in essence … an ideal, or form of sorts—even as I have some theological qualms with neo-Platonism as a Greek philosophy distorting Christianity’s affirmation of the material world as “very good” apart from disembodied ideas.

Image result for leunig starDespite our post-modern penchant for inverting age-old symbols, Michael Leunig suggests that the best “art … is not entirely of this world. … Perhaps it is a flight into beauty and eternity.” Rightly oriented, it is capable of directing our gaze heavenward, passing through and beyond our mundane material existence.

In the words of C. S. Lewis,

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Image result for leunig sun tvIn this same stunning essay, The Weight of Glory (1942), Lewis notes that beauty and “glory”, biblically framed, do travel together. (Or, in Jonathan Edwards’ theology, like flares from the Sun, we perceive beauty as an emanation from a radiant Triune source.) Far from trite conceptions of becoming “a kind of living electric light bulb”, our human longing for glory makes sense like our human fascination with watching the sunrise. Granted, it’s an imperfect sign. But it’s a faithful pointer to something more. Glory is “brightness, splendour, luminosity.” More than perceiving beauty, stimulating our senses, in a very real way we want “to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” And this process quite often passes through pain, being remade, reconstituted even by a reality beyond our control. Collateral Beauty may thus sneak up on us, shining through our darkest times of suffering.

Related imagePerhaps this is why we find truly “beautiful souls”—especially those who have emerged through struggle with battle-scars and yet a soft heart—so attractive? They graciously wear the virtues in which we long to be clothed. Thus the Bible persistently refers to putting on “the beauty of holiness” (e.g., Psalms 29:2; 96:9; cf. here), reflecting The Beautiful, being Godself. It takes a radiant character like Beatrice to draw damned Dante out of the Inferno and into Paradise. Similarly, our artwork, our creativity, even our fashion may in a real sense be drawing us to mimic and experience—albeit imperfectly like young girls smearing bright red lipstick on their face, yearning to be like their model mums—a beauty of character that is more than skin deep. We increasingly transform into the likeness of what we admire, imitating what we magnify and that upon which we meditate. In short, we become what we worship.

Maybe this is why God went to the trouble of prescribing Aaron’s outfit, as Israel’s High Priest, holy and whole in “glorious and beautiful” attire (Exodus 28)? Dressed in holiness we can see God; lacking the gracious covering of divine beauty, we risk being consumed in the encounter.

And thus we loop back to our original observation. Beauty can qualify most anything. But, like the 14th Century Italian employment of Botticelli to depict Fortitude, Beauty comes into its own when it illuminates virtue and aligns with the way God intended the world to be, “danc[ing] as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another” (von Balthasar).

Gifts Glittering and PoisonedNot all that glitters is gold, this is true. In the history of empire, circuses and spectacle have been used to deceive and poison the masses, obscuring the really real. “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting …” (Proverbs 31:30). And yet, gold does have a glitter meaningful in and of itself, pointing beyond to Beauty, perhaps even a transcendent source of unfading glory we call “God”. As the editors of the Kalos (Greek for Beautiful) book series aver,

[the beautiful] is the call of the good; that which arouses interest, desire: “I am here.” Beauty brings the appetite to rest at the same time as it wakens the mind from its daily slumber, calling us to look afresh at that which is before our very eyes. It makes virgins of us all, and of everything—there, before us, lies something that we never noticed before. Beauty consists in integritas sive perfectio [integrity and perfection] and claritas [brightness/clarity]. It is the reason why we rise and why we sleep—that great night of dependence, one that reveals the borrowed existence of all things …. Here lies the ground of all science, of philosophy, and of all theology, indeed of our each and every day.

photo-montage-1514221_1280.jpgBringing this wide-ranging provocation to a close, what story, person, experience or object from your life comes to mind when you think of beauty? When do you typically employ the qualifier, beautiful? And is there any sense in which you believe—or, better yet, have tasted—that your subjective encounter with beauty points to The Beautiful, as the third transcendental, travelling with her sisters, The True and the Good?

Let the conversation begin!

Open Table on “The Good”

Friday 1 September 2017 | Open Table
on the theme of the second transcendental, GOODNESS

Leunig Venerable Blessed Saintly CreaturesVincent_Willem_van_Gogh_022Art | Michael Leunig, “Venerable, Blessed & Saintly Creatures“; Vincent Van Gogh, “Good Samaritan
Text | Luke 10:25-37, “The Good Samaritan”

Good job! Good luck. Good night. All good. 

Looking good! Good pizza. Good wife. A good life. 

good thumbs upWhen a word can mean everything, it ceases to mean anything. So, what do we mean by “good”? In modern parlance, it’s highly malleable. For ancients, however, it was the second transcendental, alongside truth and beauty. It was the perennial quest for quality.

aristotleAnd yet, how do we measure excellence? Surely good implies its counterpart bad, and draws on some objective standard by which we judge? Good thus draws us deeper into questions of identity, essence, purpose, destiny/telos … some larger story heading either here or there, in which the part–whether a pizza or a person–rightly relates to the whole.


Perhaps some quotes will sharpen the focus.

Let’s start with Robert Pirsig in his classic philosophical travelogue,  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Valuesexploring the nature of quality (goodness), of both machine/motorcycle, and person:

You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy.
Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally.

How about Uncle Jack (C. S. Lewis) … what wisdom can he offer? Especially given that he thinks good and bad, right and wrong, are a “clue to the meaning of the Universe” (watch his Doodle video here).

Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled. …
No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. …
There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him.

Finally, let’s get mystical with the unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing:

Genuine goodness is a matter of habitually acting
and responding appropriately in each situation, as it arises,
moved always by the desire to please God.

Image result for quotes goodness

So, this Open Table is dedicated to sharing stories sparked by this theme of “the good” … call it goodnesscharacterquality, the fullest expression of our essence and identity, a realisation of our telos … whatever you call it, come with food to share and a story to tell.

Who or what embodies this quality we call “good”, in a way that fixes your focus and calls you onward and upward? Join us and explore together one of life’s greatest themes.


Open Book: The Benedict Option

cover_150417_landscapeIn our second cycle for 2017 (starting Thursday 27th July), we turn to explore the challenge of a community sustaining its faith in a secular culture toxic to deep commitment:

What practices preserve our witness [& identity] in a post-Christian context?

Dreher920x537Our conversation partner is American conservative and Eastern Orthodox devotee, Rod Dreher. His book, The Benedict Option (BenOp for short), has drawn a lot of attention, especially on the Catholic forum, First Things. It has been identified by New York Times bestseller and cultural critic, David Brooks, as “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” Facing an increasingly hostile culture, Dreher offers “a strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation”. As for how wise this strategy is—though at risk of spoiling the surprise and poisoning the well—you might want to check out some of the following reviews:

izunoOkay, the tone of these reviews not-so-subtly communicates that I’ve stopped short of the monastic gates to Mr. Dreher’s Benedictine retreat. I’m not particularly conservative, I detest self-concerned protectionism, and this book is far more right-leaning than most of Open Book’s offerings here-to-fore. So, why bother with this diatribe?

Well, two reasons come to mind, one short and sweet, and the other as complex as statistical analysis.

For one, it records the seismic shifts shaking the western world, and represents what many people (especially conservatives) find to be a compelling vision for a re-imagined church that has fragmented and lost its way. It challenges our individualistic, consumerist and thin spirituality at its core, and turns our attention to corporate and classic practices that enrich our identity. Given that Christ’s Pieces seeks to grapple with what it means to follow Jesus at this post-Christendom juncture, BenOp is sure to provoke rich discussion, wherever we land on Rod’s particular strategy. It will help us form our own “rule of life” that keeps us in Christ, come-what cultural changes may. So, we’ll drop the protectionism, but redouble our efforts to form a communal spirituality for the sake of the world … one that resonates with Jamie Smith’s embodied and imaginative worship project in You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, and Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. Think less Christian conservatism worried about its own survival in a secular state, and more of an outward looking shalom seeking community captured by Mike Frost’s B.E.L.L.S. in his Surprise the World: Five Habits of Highly Missional People (sample here; we’re called to Bless, Eat, Listen, Learn, and be Sent) and David Fitch’s Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission. Our selfie-society needs kingdom citizens who have the virtue and vision necessary to serve the holistic flourishing of all in today’s pluralistic democracy, most especially when hostility is directed to followers of the world’s only saviour.

absAnd for two, it asks questions Aussie Christians must answer. How can we sustain faith in an increasingly secular context—one which corrodes contemporary Christianity faster than an iron ark on a salty sea? Since the Australian Bureau of Statistics released its 2016 Census results, many Christian leaders have been in a spin. While 52% of Aussies still loosely identify as Christian, this is a massive slide from the 88% in 1996 and 74% in 1991. This loss neatly parallels the increase in those shunning any religious identification, up from 0.8% in 1996, 12.9% in 1991, and 19% in 2006, to nearly 1/3 of the population (30%) in 2016. If we compare this demographic to Christian denominations (termed ‘religions’ in the census), then NRI (“No Religious Identification”) is the largest “religious” group, overtaking both Catholicism (22.6%) and Anglicanism (13.3%).

McCrindle2017_Faith-and-Belief-in-Australia-Infographic-page-001The situation is markedly more dire if you delve below the superficial ABS data, and dive into the 2016 NCLS “Australian Communities Study” and especially the 2017 McCrindle “Faith and Belief in Australia” study (faithandbelief.org.au; 4 page infographic + 60 page report). Claiming that roughly half of Aussies are Christian is massively overstated, better reflecting low-commitment “moralistic therapeutic deism” (a distant God just wants me to generally be good and feel good) than a community living under the Lordship of Jesus, which based on regular church connection is closer to 15%. As Stephen McAlpine argues, “sexing up the statistics“only makes us slower to accept our minority status, wherein we do better to become a well-formed counter-culture that can prophetically speak truth to power from society’s margins, without claiming historical privilege.

2in5noreligionThe media has seized on these stats, highlighting that this slide away from religion will only accelerate as more-religious older generations shuffle off this mortal coil, and younger less-religious generations take their place, such as Gen Y (those presently 18-34 years old) with 39% distanced from traditional religion. Secularists have renewed calls for the government to “End Australia’s Religious Bias“, damning any public funding and governmental support even for churches contributing to the common good, garnering support through op-eds in leading national newspapers.

Whatever your take on these stats, Aussies Christians have some tough questions to answer, for—as the 2017 Morling College Symposium theme suggests—we are “Not In Kansas Anymore“.

dorothyWhat is the role of God’s people in an increasingly post-christian West? Are we activist exiles or quaint keepers of an ancient flame? Are we to lean in to culture and insist on our right to act as chaplains to a fading Christendom, or should we withdraw and exercise the ‘Benedict option’? What is a creative and biblical strategy for how the church is to be in a context where God’s people feel increasingly marginalised and overlooked.

So, for at least these two reasons, it’s timely for Christ’s Pieces to grapple with The Benedict Option. As Ryan Messmore of the The Millis Institute observes, we are simultaneously called to be both “salt and light“. And this raises two pressing questions:

Question #1. For those promoting engagement with the world, the question is: how can Christians expect to offer their neighbours a different way of thinking and loving if they fully immerse themselves in their neighbours’ ways of speaking and acting? … [and] Question #2. For those promoting a distinct countercultural community, the question is: how will those who live according to a different worldview be able to see the Church’s distinct witness as intelligible and attractive?

Which brings us back to the core question driving this series: “What practices preserve our witness [& identity] in a post-Christian context?” Interested? Then come along, whatever your religious conviction or none.


Over 5 fortnightly Thursday sessions (July 27 – September 21) at Nik & Dave’s house (152 Tanderra Way, Karana Downs; directions here) we will dialogue with Dreher and each other, learning how to sustain our faith in a secular culture toxic to deep commitment.

Check out the calendar below for key dates, and pdf links to carry you through until you get your own copy of the book (purchase asap on Amazon.com).

We have a soft-start from 6:30pm—feel free to rock up early and eat your dinner or share a cup of tea. (Park up top, on the left-hand side of our circular driveway.) At 7pm sharp we get into the night, finishing each night by 9pm with supper together and an unrushed chat over coffee. OPEN BOOK includes some basic spiritual practices and prayer, before unpacking the pre-reading scheduled for that night.


For each week, it helps to think through how the reading provokes you in 4 ways:

1) Questions: what didn’t make sense?

2) Challenges: what did you think was wrong?

3) Implications: if this is true, what does it mean for being the church today?

4) Applications: what does it look like for you to live out of this vision as part of the community of God?

OPEN BOOK, THURSDAYS 7PM | Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (BenOp)
(Click session # hyperlink for liturgy/ppnt slides)

July 27 | BenOp 1, pp. 1-47: Introduction—The Awakening (1-6), Ch. 1 The Great Flood (7-20), & Ch. 2 The Roots of the Crisis (21-47).

August 10 | BenOp 2, pp. 48-99: Ch. 3 A Rule for Living (48-77) & Ch. 4 A New Kind of Christian Politics (78-99).

August 24 | BenOp 3, pp. 100-143: Ch. 5 A Church for All Seasons (100-121) & Ch. 6 The Idea of a Christian Village (122-143).

September 7 | BenOp 4, pp. 144-194: Ch. 7 Education as Christian Formation (144-175) & Ch. 8 Preparing for Hard Labor (176-194).

September 21 | BenOp 5, pp. 195-246: Ch. 9 Eros and the New Christian Counterculture, Ch. 10 Man and the Machine (218-236), & Conclusion—The Benedict Decision (237-244).

October 19 | Restart for the final series of 2017, exploring Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ for what it means to care for our common creational home (also drawing on “The Uluru Statement” for an Indigenous perspective of our connection to the land).

Hope to see you there!

salt light