Wednesday, 29 March 2017

On Writing and Witchcraft

Last week I had two friends independently tell me I should be writing more. I've had the impression this just might be a Divine hint.

In reality, I write all the time! Emails, Facebook, messages, reports, articles... so I thought I might start recording some of my incidental writing in this severely neglected blog.

My most interesting email today expressed concern about this resource on baptism, because it refers to Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. It claimed this reference was evidence of witchcraft infiltrating Churches of Christ.

How would you respond to such a claim?

This was my reply:

Dear Worried About Witchcraft,

Thanks for expressing your concerns and the respectful tone of your email.

I formerly taught at a Christian school. Once staff there intervened to rescue C.S. Lewis' classic allegory "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" from group of parents' bonfire purge of all "witchcraft" references from the library.

My personal opinion is that these well-meaning parents falsely confused fantasy (where the struggle between good and evil is personified) with the demonic.

As a teacher, I suggest personification of good and evil through story is a helpful tool for teaching children about morality. Stories shape values in powerful ways.

JRR Tolkein and JK Rowling are both Christians, and their faith influences their fiction.

The majority of people who seek baptism in Churches of Christ are young people, who are familiar with the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series.

If reading or watching fantasty is unhelpful to your faith or against your conscience, please avoid it. I have no desire to be a stumbling block to anyone's faith and obedience.

Churches of Christ are encouraged to have theological discussions within local churches. This email is my opinion not an official position of Churches of Christ.

Many blessings on you as you seek to follow Jesus faithfully,

Janet Woodlock

What else should I have said? What would you have written?

Monday, 27 March 2017

Easter Reflection

In any one year, over 2 million Australians will have an anxiety disorder. Among young people in Australia, one in six is currently experiencing an anxiety disorder. Even these horrifying statistics do not factor in the distressing, but non-clinical levels of anxiety experienced by many.

We can readily blame externals like job insecurity, house prices, family breakdown, international conflict and terrorism for this malaise. I suggest swirling beneath this is an unnamed spiritual anxiety. We have unresolved and often unnamed questions deep within our souls. Does my life have any meaning, how do I deal with a vague sense of guilt or unworthiness, how do I respond to all that seems wrong in the world, how can I find inner peace, how can I find lasting love, and if we simply live and die, what is the point of it all?

At Easter time we proclaim anew the ancient message: “Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said.”

Do not be afraid; because Jesus has absorbed guilt and shame through his death.
Do not be afraid; because through his resurrection Jesus promises eternal life
Do not be afraid; because Jesus has established a community of love.
Do not be afraid; because in joining with Christ your life has a staggeringly important purpose: redemption of the whole world as a place of peace and justice.

The Risen Christ met his disciples with the simple words “Peace to you”. My hope and prayer is that you will encounter the Risen Christ in a fresh and personal way this Easter, and experience deep inner peace through him.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Shake it Off

I was involved in an online forum today discussing how women called to ministry feel about Complementarian theology. Surprise!!! They don't feel thrilled about it. Nor do they feel all warm and fuzzy about its proponents.

I responded with a cautionary reflection:

When Jesus first sent out the 12 disciples (Mark 6, Luke 9), he gave them an interesting instruction: shake the dust off your feet when you leave a town that won’t receive you or listen to you.

It’s an odd kind of saying. I like to think of it in these terms… if you’re rejected, don’t let that stick to you. Move on to the place where you WILL be received… with hope and an open heart.

It’s possible to take the views of Complementarians personally…. VERY personally. I think that’s usually unhelpful; I think it’s better to move on to a context where you ARE accepted, than to become angry and miserable over attitudes you’re unlikely to be able to change.

Am I saying not to advocate for equality? Not at all! Attitudes that minimize the contribution and worth of women are linked to a host of global ills; these hinder development in poor communities, fuel traffiking, contribute to domestic violence and the gender pay gap, and impoverish churches when women are left out of decision-making and ministry opportunities. Should we be angry over these things? Sure. Should we take them personally? There’s a subtle difference that has potential to rob our joy in Christ, and to drain our energy.

There will be times where we’ll need to debrief because it really is personal (“You won’t BELIEVE what that elder said to right to my face!”) We will need to have our theological views on women straightened out so we are confident in what we believe and in our call. We will need to find our voice at times… but also guard our hearts. Too much time spent wallowing in the dust is exhausting.

I’ve learned to dust myself off, sooner than later. Energy is a precious resource: I try to save it for the battles I’m called to fight, and excuse myself quickly from the ones I’m not called to fight. (Sometimes I lack the wisdom to know the difference!)

So someone doesn’t accept my ministry? Oh well… dust off, move on, save my strength. Their loss.

Thanks be to God, there are increasing numbers of churches… “towns”, in my “sending of the 12” analogy… where you WILL be accepted. And increasing numbers of supporters.

So, colleagues in ministry… somehow we need to work on the difficult dance of both speaking for justice and for our theological convictions… and on loving our enemies. Indeed, Complementarians aren’t really our enemies… they’re brothers and sisters in Christ who are interpreting scripture according to their conscience. When we’re called to dialogue, let’s do so in grace.

If you think it’s unhelpful… maybe shake the dust off your feet and move on!

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Fun, Fun, Fun...

"Ways of having fun are infinite in number, limited only by our imaginations. But how many of us spend weekends and summers resenting that we lack the money to REALLY have fun, or that all the money we spent failed to buy enough of the "happiness product"? We have limited the supply of fun by putting the power to produce it in the hands of sports promoters, casino operators and travel agents. We have put ourselves in the position of anxious and impoverished consumers wanting to buy from the approved sources, but with never enough cash or satisfaction to come out ahead. We have made what is obviously abundant into something that is scarce."

Parker J Palmer “The Promise of Paradox” pp 98 - 99

Who remembers playing games as a child? I remember playing cubby houses with a blanket, making assorted structures with blocks, running around at school playing endless make-believe games with my friends. I remember playing cards and board games with my siblings, exploring the local creek, catching tadpoles and watching them grow into frogs. I remember lying on my bed reading children's novels and being swept away into another imaginary world.

Give a small child some household items... boxes, blankets, saucepans, bottles... And watch in wonder at the infinite number of ways a child can create fun.

As adults there are a more options available to us for fun - autonomy, transport, financial resources - yet often we live with a restricted imagination. We may be so preoccupied with responsibilities, concerns, or distractions, that we fail to live fully in the present, neglecting the inner child that knows how to create and laugh and be spontaneous.

21st century life involves pressure to be endlessly more productive at work, and then provides addictive (and passive) digital entertainment options 24/7. We are bombarded with advertising designed to make us discontent (so that will buy to feel better). A kind of ennui can creep in to our lives; an inability to self-soothe, rest deeply, contemplate, imagine, or create.

So how can we reawaken our inner child in a world such as this? Nurture the distinctly human capacity of imagination? Nurture a capacity to play? Re-awaken our creative birthright?

I offer some thoughts... You may have your own.

* Manage screen time. Oh the irony... You are no doubt reading this off a screen! I confess to a significant Facebook addiction. But I know my imagination gets active while I go for a walk, take a drive, pick up a pen, or just sit down and think, more so than when I'm involved in the online world.

* Read novels. There's something about having to create your own mental images and anticipate how a story might unfold that gives the creative side of the brain a workout.

* Rediscover group games - in our families, churches, small groups.

* Find ways to be creative at work. Can I generate new ideas that might make things better, or more interesting?

* Tell jokes, look for the absurd, find something to laugh about... often!

* Do something with your hands... Draw pictures, write stories, cook, sew, hammer, garden.

* Dance like no one is watching. Preferably when no one is watching.

* Remember the things that gave you joy as a child; maybe it's time to do them again.

* Let yourself feel; name your feelings, respect your feelings, listen to what they are telling you, look out for the wisdom that can be sourced through intuition.

Perhaps today you could pick one thing from this list and seek to add this into your life?

Or what would you add that would help you rediscover the child-like capacity for creativity and sheer fun?

Monday, 19 December 2016

Mentoring Women in Leadership

I had an interesting conversation recently with a couple of staff members of a theological college. They said they often had to work hard at convincing women studying "just for interest" or to "help me care for others better", that they could see a gifted vocational minister developing. This was outside of the imagination of many of their female students.

Conversely, some of their male students needed help to see that they were not, in fact, the Messiah. Or that at the very least, before they saved the world, God would need to do a deep work in the areas of character, servanthood, and humility.+

I also coached a woman recently who was applying for a senior ministry position. I asked her to role-play speaking to the leadership team about the role she wanted, and what she had to offer.

That was interesting. This was my feedback to her:

"Don't tell them you're a woman and this could be a problem... they already know that. Don't tell them what you're not good at... tell them what you are good at. Don't just ask them what they'd like... be clear what you want."

This feedback sparked a deeper conversation about how self-deprecation had become a long-standing habit; a defence mechanism against external criticism. While this had indeed helped her receive less criticism from others, and had been useful in building rapport with many people, this behaviour was not serving her well in some leadership contexts.

Inspiring trust requires a level of self-confidence and the capacity to convince others of one's competence. We are less likely to follow leaders who appear to be riddled with self-doubt. We are less likely to promote people who highlight their flaws and minimize their achievements.

So why is it that many women under-estimate and under-sell their capabilities?

In an article exploring why women are promoted less often than men, Sheryl Sandberg noted:

"We expect men to be assertive, look out for themselves, and lobby for more—so there’s little downside when they do it. But women must be communal and collaborative, nurturing and giving, focused on the team and not themselves, lest they be viewed as self-absorbed. So when a woman advocates for herself, people often see her unfavorably."

While the world is (slowly) changing, those of us involved in mentoring women need to be aware that women are socialised to be passive. Helping women recognise situations where they need to find their voice, speak out, and be strong will often arise in mentoring relationships. We need to help women push through their internal resistance and fear of standing up and standing out. This will often trigger a deeper journey around self-esteem and the experiences of youth and childhood that shaped beliefs about what women can do or can not do. It will also involve analysing the complex social dynamics and power structures they are attempting to navigate. Sometimes we will need to be there to help debrief when speaking out clearly hasn't gone well. Sometimes men will push back against assertive women. Sometimes, other women do this too.

So how do we mentor women navigating leadership challenges? Here are a few suggestions for your consideration:

* Ask good questions and listen... mentoring 101.

* Be aware internal scripts from society and family of origin can lead women to self-limit, and shrink back from all God is calling them to do and to be.

* Ask questions about self-talk. ("What are you telling yourself?")

* Allow women to talk through their fears around confrontation. (Many women excel at leading collaboratively; but can procrastinate or avoid being assertive when this is needed.)

* Role-play anticipated difficult conversations, and offer feedback. ("So, imagine I'm the board and you're presenting your proposal.")

* Ask women to draw (or use objects) to represent the relationships and power dynamics in a group they lead. This can help them think about this and their place in the group objectively.

* Ask questions to help them plan out how to achieve a controversial leadership initiative. (Who are potential allies, key decision makers, what needs to be communicated to who, and when?)

* Offer emotional support; risking rejection is hard!

* Ask questions that help them see the power they have even in difficult contexts; a victim mentality is a dead-end. You can change a system by changing yourself and responding differently.

* Ask about allies, advocates and ongoing mentoring needs. (They may need a different, or additional mentor to yourself.)

* Help them reframe difficulties as opportunities for growth.

* Explore whether they believe there are roles women cannot do, and how they feel about women in leadership.

* Ask what further training or equipping they might need to keep growing as a leader and a person in ministry.

What else would you add to this list? What other issues have you encountered?

+ I may have indulged in some poetic licence to make a point!

Monday, 5 September 2016

The Parable of the Christmas Dinner

Have you ever had a moment where things go horribly wrong? Where words produce strong emotions and cause a fight, which then spirals out of control?

Kate Smith had one of those moments in 1996, when she rang her sister Jess about Christmas dinner.

A number of years before, Kate and her husband Geoff moved into the old family home to care for her mother, who suffered a protracted battle with cancer. Kate inherited the family home after her mother died. For several years she maintained the tradition of having Christmas lunch with the extended family in the old family home. Kate and her two sisters cooked and cleaned and gossiped; the brothers in law played backyard cricket with all the youngsters after lunch. A fairly standard Australian Christmas.

But in 1996, Kate Smith had a bad year. Very bad. She had been bullied at work, leading to severe anxiety. Geoff suggested this year the family should have Christmas lunch as a picnic at a park, as the thought of getting everything ready for Christmas was contributing to Kate feeling overwhelmed.

Kate rang her sister Jess to discuss the idea of a Christmas picnic. Jess exploded. Seeing his wife’s tears and trembling, Geoff grabbed the phone and exchanged a few choice words with Jess.

Jess was shattered. For her, family Christmas involved a profound connection with her childhood memories, with her beloved father who died in his 40’s from a heart attack, and with her mother, who had died in her early 50’s from breast cancer. The thought of not going to the family home for Christmas was like a knife in her soul.

She promptly rang her other sister Beck. By now Jess’s fury had turned to sobs. She poured out how much family Christmas meant to her, and how horrible Geoff had been. Beck was outraged! She was close to Jess, and truth be told, she had always been hot-headed.

Beck immediately rang Kate and went berserk. What would their mother think of this? Their father? After inheriting the family home, how dare she dishonour them? How could she be so selfish? Didn’t she respect family traditions? Geoff once more grabbed the phone off his wife, and a predictable shouting match followed between him and Beck.

Beck and Jess organised Christmas for their two families that year. Kate’s family weren’t invited. Nor for the Christmas after that, nor for the one after that. In fact, the whole Smith family were completely shut off from the other two families. They still aren’t speaking to one another. The cousins grew up without seeing one another. The Cold War rolls on today.

The story of the Smith family is entirely fictitious. And it is preposterous. What family in their right mind would think something as trivial as whether to eat in place X or place Y was more important than their family relationships? Who would stop talking to their sister for 20 years after one argument?

Or is it so preposterous? Perhaps people aren’t always in their right mind; they are sometimes driven by deep feelings. Perhaps relationships are torn apart not by whether families should eat in place X or in place Y, but on what such decisions mean to them.

If this story is a parable, how do we interpret it?

I think about this parable in relation to church life. What is going on when people over-react, putting an issue ahead of good relationships?

It is an urban legend (perhaps a joke?) to hear of church wars over moving the communion table from one part of a chapel to another. Why would anyone behave completely irrationally over whether a table is in Position A or Position B? How can a table position mean more than the meal it is supposed to enable, a meal that expresses unity with Christ and his Body?

Is it not about interpretation? That someone believes that table position B is less reverent than position A? Perhaps they have assigned a meaning to table position A which is connected to a whole raft of their memories, emotions, values and beliefs.

So they over-react, like Jess and Beck in the parable. They might need time to process those feelings. They might also need a clear reminder of the things that REALLY matter. That being family, and living in love, might be more important than the position of the communion table. Or whatever issue happens to be… music, doctrine, a social issue, a management decision, where to hold a funeral, and so on.

How do we help others understand their own feelings, put them in perspective, and get in touch with their higher values? How do we do this ourselves? How do we keep our highest values front and centre as communities... values of love, acceptance, unity, and grace? How do we live out of our highest values when we don't get our own way?

I'm wondering if this parable makes sense, or if it evokes further thoughts for you? If so, can you share:

1) a story of irrational conflict… in the church, the family, or elsewhere? (the more absurd, the better!)

2) an issue that has been (or is likely to be) a flash point for conflict.

3) a time when two people interpreted the same thing/event/idea completely differently. What did you learn from this?

4) your insights on getting in touch with higher values when strong feelings and differences of opinion are present. (For individuals or communities)

I'd love to hear your insights!

Saturday, 23 July 2016

More on Creation Science

Earlier this month, a 100 million dollar Noah’s ark replica opened in Kentucky sponsored by the Creation Science group “Answers in Genesis”. That’s a lot of money in anyone’s language. And it reflects a lot of interest in Young Earth Creation Science.

For many years I attempted to hold a relaxed attitude around Creation Science. Though I had long believed a six thousand year old earth is both poor theology and poor science, I had decided it was impolite to pick a fight about it.

However, 2011 research coming out from the Barna Institute about why young people leave the church caused me to rethink my “live and let live” approach . This reported that: “Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that ‘churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in’ (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that ‘Christianity is anti-science’ (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have ‘been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.’ Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs”#

Those kinds of figures should concern those of us who care about the future of the Christian faith. In order to help young people hold on to faith, (and to engage in constructive dialogue with those outside the Christian faith), I think it is time to attempt constructive dialogue around so-called “Creation Science”.

Why Creation Science is Not Science:

Please read and reflect on these 37 scientific reasons to reject a “young earth”… and get back to me if you'd like to discuss these further. It's not simply light from distant galaxies and radioactive dating of rocks that point to an ancient universe: there are multiple lines of evidence.

Here are a few more reasons why young earth Creation Science claims are nonsense, care of yours truly:

* If there was a true global flood with enough water to cover the top of Mt Everest, where did all that water go when the flood went down?

* If virtually all sedimentary rocks were formed in Noah's flood, why don't these layers contain a whole jumble of fossils: contemporary animal bones mixed up with ancient ones? They don't. Anywhere.

* If all land animals ended up on Mt Ararat in Turkey at the end of the flood, how did all marsupials make it to Australia? And pretty much, to nowhere else?

* There wasn't nearly enough room on Noah's ark for all land animals, and the solution "Answers in Genesis" offers (extremely rapid evolution at the end of the flood) seems nonsensical.

* Answers in Genesis claim all animals were vegetarian before the fall, and that the ONLY reason animals eat other animals is because Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. But if we look at the adaptations of innumerable animals this seems preposterous. Baleen whales like humpbacks do not have teeth, but plates that sieve through water. This allows them to capture huge quantities of shrimp-like animals called krill (a bit like a colander catching pasta and letting water flow through). Anteaters are likewise toothless, with elongated snouts and sticky tongues perfectly adapted for licking ants out of their nests. Most sharks have many sharp teeth adapted to trap fish. Indeed, as we consider the adaptations of almost any predatory animal, we see they would be unable to survive eating plants alone.

Why Creation Science is theologically naïve

When we are interpreting any book or part of the bible, Christians ask questions about who was writing this, to whom, why, what the words meant in the culture in which it was written, and what is the genre of a passage. This is why we read bible commentaries, and expect church pastors to study theology. Some people do this happily for the gospels or Paul’s letters, but when it comes to the first chapters of Genesis they talk as if the bible fell “plop” out of the sky.

We need to do better than this if we are to serve young people well: indeed, to serve anyone with serious questions about science and the Christian faith.

Back in the murky depths of the last millenium (pre-internet!) when I first studied at (a conservative evangelical) bible college, I went on a library hunt for Old Testament scholars who support a 6000 year old earth. I couldn't find any.

Why does the creation order in Genesis 1 (plants, animals, humans male and female) contradict the creation order in Genesis 2 (a man v 7, then plants v 5, then animals v 19, then a woman v 22) if they were BOTH meant to be taken literally? There is a long heritage of Christian theologians rejecting a literal approach to the Genesis accounts.

For a really accessible look at how biblical scholars reflect on Genesis see here:

If anyone wants to really dig deep, there are a zillion books and articles here on Jesus Creed:

This article may upset some people; imagining I am trying to undermine their faith. From my perspective, I am trying to do exactly the opposite: to help them develop a faith that is informed by good hermeneutics, is robust, and can withstand scrutiny in the marketplace of ideas.

Do you think this issue is important for the future of the church? Should Creation Science be taught in Christian schools? Why, or why not?

PS Note that this article, like all articles on this blog, do not reflect the official position of Churches of Christ in Australia, which allows theological decisions to be made at the local church level. This is my opinion alone. I have also reflected on Creation Science in the past here and here

# This may be a less significant issue in Australia where Creation Science has a lower profile: this has not been researched to my knowledge.