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June 28, 2005

Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski was not a beautiful man. Neither was the world in which he was raised, nor lived as an adult. There is a raw crudity which stands out. I had never heard of Bukowski, but was drawn to a film about his life: Bukowski: Born to this, by intriguing reviews. Bukowski was a poet, raw and confronting, yet insightful and disdainful of modern life. Living as he did through perhaps the most turbulent years of the twentieth century, amidst the most rapid of change, Bukowski reflected on life from the underside... a man who was harshly treated as a child, who bucked against the organising and sanitising trends of life.

The movie sets Bukowski and his works in a gentle light, giving power to the words he wrote. Although it does not ignore the seedier aspects of his journey, it utilises them to give context and power to his words. Although the movie seeks to cast him as the great American poet - and in that sense the movie is more hagiography than documentary - it sets the Bukowski image of life over against the Disney image... much more real and grounded in the struggles, seeing hope in their midst, not through denial of them.

The movie is raw, but there are the occasional apothegms amidst citings of his poetry, equally powerful. Towards the end of the movie, reference is made to the battle for a return to more formally structured poetry, over against Bukowski's own style. Together with his publisher they released a small book entitled "Art", with a single word appearing on each page: "As the Spirit wanes, the form appears".

It is a thought worth pondering.

Posted by gary at 10:21 PM | Comments (0)

June 24, 2005

Treating Extremely Premature Infants

My wife and I were interviewed at length for a forthcoming 7:30 Report insight into the controversy surrounding recent comments by the Victorian Health Minister putting into the public arena debate about treatment of babies born at less than 25 weeks' gestation. Given that our third child was born earlier than this cut off (which has been suggested by an English ethicist and is being actively pursued in Britain, as well as already applicable in the Netherlands), and that our child had "less than the ideal outcome" (he has eyesight difficulties amongst others), we were asked to share our perspective on the debate and share some of our experience of the NICU journey.

The interview covered nearly two hours of conversation with the reporter in front of the camera, following on from conversations over the phone previously. We visited places we had never explored publicly, and some we hadn't visited in our memories for some time. It was a draining experience.

The experience of extreme prematurity is a traumatic one for all concerned. Our son spent 176 days in hospital following his birth, facing over 20 major health challenges - having stared death in the face on many occasions. To be faced with life and death decisions concerning anyone is not something easily prepared for, nor faced. It is not an experience I would wish on anyone. We cannot imagine life without S, although we wonder at what he endured to get through hospital.

Debate on issues such as this are important to have. When medical care takes place at the boundaries of life and death we need to ensure that decision-making processes empower patients and their loved ones, and humanise what is extremely traumatic. Arbitrary cut-off dates for treatment seem absurd at any level. When withdrawal of treatment - death - is the better choice, then it needs to be a choice made with due respect for all concerned.

I anticipate - with some trepidation - the program. When such a long interview needs to be edited into a wider conversation, it is hard to know what my wife and I am going to be heard saying...

Posted by gary at 03:21 PM | Comments (0)

June 22, 2005

Verdi's Messa de Requiem

I was privileged to enjoy a performance of Verdi's Messa de Requiem at the Melbourne Town Hall last night, performed by the Stanford Symphony Orchestra in conjunction with the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir. Not being a regular afficionado of opera or orchestra, I drunk in the occasion. The Requiem is performed entirely in Latin, which was only one language unfamiliar to me throughout the evening.

I spent a deal of the night seeking to interpret the machinations of the conductor. Some of his movements made sense to me, but the vast majority meant no more than an indication of rhythm. Yet orchestra and choir were attuned to this language. It intrigued me how often the first movements of the conductor brought no sounds, the musicians chiming in on the second or third beat of the baton. Clearly indications of preparation were evident.

The conductor remained the only participant active throughout the whole performance, with each member of choir and orchestra having lengthy rests, allowing them to leave the stage, take a drink, or even change the reed on their instrument. They followed still another language: the score before them, its notes and rests indicating their part, a language insufficient to the performance inasmuch as the conductor imprinted his own interpretations.

I was struck by the "god" image this conveyed: God as the master conductor, eliciting the best from each participant in the performance, not for their own sake, but for the sake of all, whose movements did not apply to all at all times, but which were nuanced to different members of the performing cast, and different aspects of the performance. By inviting individuals and groups into the performance and steering them through it, he created a melodious and harmonious expression of beauty.

It might have been in Latin, I may not have been able to interpret the beats of the conductor's arms, nor understand the role of every individual member in the overall expression, nor determine at what place in the musical score we had reached, yet I was able to be part of its beauty, savour its delight. Just as the drummer would enter the rhythm with three or four beats of the air before striking the instrument, so would I beat in tune to the rhythm, moving in and out as I was engaged. Is this like a relationship with God?

But there was a language I discerned by its absence: the language of the heart, of passion. I'm not sure whether it was due to my disengagement with the Latin wording. The vocalists were technically superb. But I missed the engagement at an emotional level with the text of the requiem.

I also missed the story. When it was ended, I turned to my wife and asked "Who died?" Why did Verdi write this requiem? Did it lose power (for me) by its disconnection from its intended purpose? I was to later learn that its genesis was in response to the death of Rossini, and a long story in its formation. This language of story is important for us all in our journey.

I recognise that I am a strange and demanding being in this regard. Some can enjoy the music for its own sake and beauty. My enjoyment of the performance stretched into other aspects.

Posted by gary at 12:47 PM | Comments (0)

June 21, 2005

The Problem with Church Growth

Seems like the people over at Lark News have cottoned onto some curious aspects of Church Growth conferences. The response of many pastors to a conference entitled "Bigger Church, Bigger Impact" might surprise you. It is a pressure on which I have commented earlier.

So... when you hear that there is a "huge conference of small churches" or of emerging churches, what are we really saying?

Posted by gary at 04:15 PM | Comments (0)

June 20, 2005

Alan Cumming

Number one shooting star at the moment on Yahoo! search engine - indicator of what people are most looking for - is Alan Cumming. When told this, my initial response was "Who?" Well a quick search discovered that this young Scot has been a very busy lad, with seven movies either in pre- production, filming or post-production as I write. A busy boy.

But it begs the question: what is it that sets people off on different searches? Is there a search for "The Meaning of Life"? The search item "Mauritius" is the second biggest mover for the day. With the temperatures in Melbourne hovering around 12 C I think I might join that one.

The questions people ask, the information that we seek, is much more important than the answers. The things which move us to action, lead us to a quest, or prompt us to reflect: these are the things which shape us.

Some people treat religious texts somewhat akin to a search engine: type in our question and hope to get a simple answer. In reality the real stuff of life does not emerge in that way, but requires a willingness to search, to dialogue, to probe...

Unless of course you are a fan of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, where the meaning of life is...

Posted by gary at 02:01 PM | Comments (0)

June 15, 2005

Parent-Teacher Nights

How Parent-teacher nights have changed through the years. Our three chaired "three-way conferences" as we met with the teacher tonight to discuss their portfolios of work and the progress they had made since the beginning of the year. This level of involvement in monitoring their own progress in education is, I believe, a healthy one. To sit and listen to your 8-9-12 year old children being asked to evaluate their year and to set goals for the second half is to be part of an important life-long skill. It certainly wasn't formally included in my own education.

How valuable - for all of us - to take time out to reflect on where we have come from, where we are presently at, and consider where we might take aim in the next phase. I suspect that this ought to be a regular part of one's spiritual disciplines, and included as part of one's prayer conversations.

Posted by gary at 11:17 PM | Comments (0)

June 12, 2005

A Churchless Faith

Alan Jamieson has written a PhD thesis based on the stories of people who have left the church, but not the faith. An interesting aspect of this research is that pastors and church leaders are typically ignorant of why people leave the church. Jamieson has interviewed over 100 people for this thesis, all who made a conscious decision to leave the church, and the vast majority indicating growth in faith since making the decision. The project raises interesting questions of ecclesiology as it relates to expression of the christian faith.

Check out some of the stories and a summary of his thesis here. Jamieson has also published insights in a book entitled "A Churchless Faith".

Posted by gary at 06:28 PM | Comments (0)

June 06, 2005

Images of Jesus

Interesting gallery of images of Jesus over at ReJesus, which raise some interesting and challenging questions about the ways in which we tend to portray Jesus in our own image. In one sense this is quite appropriate, as we talk of Christ incarnate. In another it is not unknown for people to rail against particular images of Jesus because they depict something alien or foreign to them.


Incoporating both these aspects into our christian journey is necessary for balance: the Christ incarnate, and the Christ who is beyond our frameworks. But this challenges our preconceptions, our understandings of both Christ and the ways in which theology is expressed. What does it mean to see a black Jesus when we often speak of sin as being black? What does this mean, then, for people whose skin is black when we make such statements? The image of Jesus as a Hindu Guru is both confronting and yet appropriate. God is not a westerner, yet it is amazing how often we assume that he is.

A friend notes how he was confronted by honour boards in German Churches, erected to those who served "to the glory of God" in WW1 and WW2. I imagine German folk being equally disturbed at similar boards in many Western churches.

God is both known and unknown, familiar and strange.

Posted by gary at 12:14 PM | Comments (0)

June 01, 2005

Church Growth

Way back in the 1960s the School of World Mission began to explore churches that were growing, looking for reasons to explain the growth that was taking place. Their intentions were good: if we could explain why churches are growing, we might be able to apply these principles to other church communities and so fulfill the gospel commission. The birth of the Homogeneous Unit Principle caused somewhat of a stir, but also stirred the imaginations of pastoral leaders to think again about ways of reaching our communities with the message and love of Jesus. It seemed to be a new wonder drug. A quantum shift in thinking about church was born, and it did not take too long for the megachurch to appear. But has the wonder drug "Church Growth" been ultimately revealed as thalidomide for the church?

Thalidomide was a drug administered to mothers in the 1950s to overcome symptoms of morning sickness. It was considered a miracle drug, safely dealing with morning sickness. It was some time before the medical community identified its insidious side-effect: children were born without limbs, or with severely stunted limbs as a direct result. Thalidomide was consequently withdrawn from circulation.

The Church Growth movement's aim to assist churches in their ministry provided a catalyst for new thinking about mission: many churches changed their focus with renewed energy to reach the lost. The gospel commission came into renewed focus. A renewal within church mission was set in train. Pastors and church leaders across the Western World turned their focus either directly or incidentally to the challenges of the Church Growth movement.

And now we face a crisis of significant proportions in the Western church, where the emphasis is almost entirely on numerical growth as the measure of success for the church and its mission.

The pressure is on to generate growth in every church community, and the pastor's sense of success - along with the church - is wrapped up in numbers of baptisms, conversions and new members. The no longer subtle implication is that churches which are not growing numerically are somehow failing in their mission. At times this is directly spoken by leaders of larger churches.

As with thalidomide, we find that there is a greater emphasis on the larger body and less of an emphasis on its limbs at work in the world. The public image of these larger churches at least is tarnished and distorted, as the missions of evangelism and justice in and to other communities is only faintly mentioned in dispatches over against its internal growth. It eerily echoes the philosophy of the cancer cell: growth for its own sake, ultimately destroying the body and itself.

The pressure has contributed to the increasing turnover of pastoral leaders and, dare I suggest it, to the rapid churn rate of members in larger churches also. As with the whole, so with the parts - many members unable to find a wholistic and balanced growth within such a distorted larger body. All the while pastors and leaders of smaller churches in less fashionable areas, and culturally more disparate communities toil away faithfully without the same numeric results being possible.

The ultimate problem with it all is the implication that the method is much more important than God Himself. "If only we apply these strategies, the church will grow". Does God only work in one way? Where the ministry of Isaiah, who would proclaim the word of God until only a stump remained?

In recent years Thalidomide has re-entered circulation and is currently being assessed for its potential benefits for sufferers of leprosy, AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis and some cancers. In the same way that thalidomide has found a new place, less acclaimed, so I am suggesting that the church growth movement still offers useful insights into the mission of the church. But maybe in a different focus than seems to predominate today.

Posted by gary at 12:35 PM | Comments (0)

I am a ....

Cultural Creative. Cultural Creatives are probably the newest group to enter this realm. You are a modern thinker who tends to shy away from organized religion but still feels as if there is something greater than ourselves. You are very spiritual, even if you are not religious. Life has a meaning outside of the rational.

Cultural Creative
















What is Your World View? (updated)
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