Friday, May 18, 2018

My spiritual journey ...

So I've been a Christian for almost twenty-five years, and thought it timely to write about the journey my faith has taken since I decided to follow Jesus.  Faith has always been part of my life. My parents are both Christians so I always was around Christians and churches. It was probably while I was in high school that I made my faith my own.

It's fair to say my faith has been through a number of different stages. I loosely group these as the school stage, the University stage, and the post-university stage, which is where I am now.
In school, the church group, was my group of friends, and I probably didn't think much of how Christianity would shape my life. Yep, I told people I was a Christian and that I went to church, but not much more than that. I met people in the youth group who I looked up to, those who taught us about Jesus and hung out with us.  While I was at school, I followed the example of those around me, and spent time teaching in the Sunday School program. I am so thankful for the Godly example of the Sharmans, Jen, Erin (and Andrew), Daniel, the Johnstons, the Webbs, the Lees, and the minsters - Rob Colacino, Peter de Salis, Richard Harvey, Ron Johnson.

The first big change in my faith came after I started attending University. I started going to the Evangelical Christian Union (ECU) meetings and began to grow in my understanding of my faith, and saw how other people lived it out.  Through the ECU, I encountered Beach Mission for the first time, I learnt how to lead bible studies (I still think I've got a lot to learn here) and I learnt about interacting with this world as a Christian.  I made great friends. Though I don't see them nearly as frequently I am thankful for Karen and Ben, Beth, Kailee and Rob, Greg and Jess. It's hard to believe that this is just over twenty years ago.

I am so thankful for Mid Year Conference.  The teaching was great, as were the bible studies and other small group meetings. But my lasting memory from the conference is neither of those; but rather the mealtime conversations, the late night discussions about theology. What I miss most now, is having the time to go to a week-long conference and sit under God's word, being encouraged by brothers and sisters singing, and seeing people wrestling with what God's word means to them, seeing people becoming Christians and growing in understanding of what that means.

In 2000, I finished University and began working as a classroom teacher. I didn't work as a teacher for long; as it didn't take me long to realise that while I love the idea of teaching, high school teaching was not something I had either the personality or skill-set for. It did take me some time to process that completely. Realising I wasn't really suited for something I am passionate about was a hard lesson to learn. I started working at the University of New South Wales, in Administration, an area I have grown to realise that I both enjoy, and have more skills in. The bonus of working at a University was that I was again involved in the Campus ministry groups.  I found friends (and flatmates) through the Staff and Post-graduate bible study group. I then moved to Sydney and become part of a new church family for the first time in almost thirteen years. It certainly was a shock to the system moving to a larger church mostly made up of students based either at the residential colleges or in the local area.
I met some great people while at Unichurch, and made some awesome life-long friends through the church. I was thankful to flat with Gary and Greg for a few years, both have become so much more than flatmates. I'm blessed to know Melina and Alyce (their wonderfully tolerant wives) and their children. Alex and Ben - and Guan and Mary with their kids have been wonderful friends. Guan has certainly refined my taste in music (and books) a little.

I'm certainly thankful to God that during my time there I was introduced to my now wife (thank you Greg and/or Alex). I think during this period I really appreciated the intellectual rigour with which the bible was approached. We all sought to understand what each passage, or verse meant, and how it should alter all our life.

I'm so thankful to God that I have sat under the faithful teaching of Richard Chin, Phillip Jensen and Paul Grimmond at Wolllongong University and UNSW. I am thankful for the gifts they gave me in seeking to understand what the bible says, and going through passages and books systematically. I have recollections of each man publicly acknowledging when they thought on reflection they got something wrong.

I would also say that what I loved about the time, was also one of my frustrations. I think the danger in taking an intellectual approach to the bible is that we can become confident in our conclusions, perhaps over confident, and then use it as means to exclude others. I don't know that we have always dealt with doubt or questioning well. Doubt and questioning doesn't equate with a lack of faith. We will all go through seasons of doubt, and need to learn to handle it well.

Another thing I had been pondering is the effect the environment has on a teaching misheard from the pulpit and then amplified by the congregation. Though as I write this I wonder if it is not a problem of any church.

During my time at UniChurch, it certainly wasn't preached that secular work is inferior to paid ministry, but I certainly was left with feeling that 'good Christians go into paid ministry'. Looking back I feel that paid ministry wasn't where my skills and gifts are. I think we need to talk more about 'secular work' and especially taking the time to talk with people who 'felt called to paid ministry' but weren't deemed suitable or decided it wasn't for them.

In 2006, I again changed church families, and moved to my current home - St Barnabas Broadway (Barneys). I've been at Barneys for almost 12 years, and about half of those were in the evening congregation and the other half in the morning. I spent six months in the old building, then we met at Moore College before moving to our new building in 2012. The morning congregation has become family to me. I am so very thankful for the pastoral staff at Barneys - Ian Powell, Mike Paget; not to mention the countless others that serve there and have walked with Fiona and I. I'm thankful beyond words for Malcolm Gill, Peter Stone, Lulu Mitchell, Nancy He, the Tows, the Hoys, the Carricks, Christina & Justen, Bec, the wonderful women in the Friday Morning Group, James, Imogen, Louisa, Rohan and the countless others who have been in growth groups with us over the past 12 years, and especially the wonderful young adults who have taught our children about Jesus faithfully every Sunday morning.

What I've love about Barneys is that it has taken me back to my first church in Australia, with a broad range of ages and the added bonus of a broad range of cultural backgrounds too. It enables and encourages women in ministry, and there are regularly women preaching (Something which I don't remember happening often at my other churches). Women preaching had always been something which I wrestled with, as one of my Aunts, whom I see as a godly women, was an ordained minister in the Uniting Church, and the church I attended didn't support women addressing the main service. I'm so very thankful for the faithful teaching (and example) of Di Morgan, Caro Evenden, Andy Abey, Erica Hamence, and Steph Judd.

It's perhaps over the past five or so years , where I have seen my faith change again. Part of this is having children, part of this has been reading widely and I suspect the largest part of it is being more comfortable with shades of grey and questions than I had been before.

I don't know how I found Rachel Held Evans, but her writing really resonates with me. Through her, I was introduced to Sarah Bessey, Addie Zierman, Jen Hatmaker and Jonathan Martin.  I found that each offered a different expression of faith to what I was used too, but equally their experiences of faith and doubt resonated with me.  Their writing has sharpened my faith. I'm still working through where I sit theologically on some issues that they raise, and they have certainly helped me work through my views in other areas.

But the most saddening thing is watching how particularly Jen Hatmaker and Rachel Held Evans have been treated on the internet. I think we still need to learn how to disagree well. Especially in the age of Twitter, Facebook and the like. Which is another thing I love about Barneys - how the church is tolerant of different views.

I think at least part of how I've changed is political, before I started attending Barneys, I saw the church speak out about sex and abortion, but not about our indigenous peoples, refugees, the poor or the environment. I guess I've reacted to this by looking for Christian voices supporting refugees, talking about the environment or the poor.  More recently I felt uncomfortable with how the Evangelical Church in the United States have almost without question embraced President Donald Trump, both in the lead-up to, and following the US elections. The uncritical support for Trump from most evangelicals bothered and continues to bother me.

Barneys in some ways is the first church I've felt at home in politically, or perhaps I mean I am more comfortable in being able to express my politics. Even though I know everyone doesn't share my politics I feel that difference of opinion is valued. Barneys seems to talk about both the issues of personal and public morality. As an aside, I'm not really sure where I belong politically, I don't feel comfortable subscribing to all the platform of the Labour Party or Greens, because of my faith. My faith equally makes me uncomfortable with the Liberal or Conservative parties, and sadly definitely not comfortable with the Christian political parties - but this is the topic for another post.

I know being a parent has changed me. I am now a father raising two children, and what I feel, think, say and do matters; and is likely to shape how my children think.  I don't want them to be clones of me.  I want to teach them to think for themselves. I want them to decide what they want to do - whatever that is, irrespective of what society or anyone else says to them.

As an example, how I talk about (and to) women matters.  I do want my son to be a feminist in so far as he treats women with respect, he believes in equal rights and pay, and will call out sexist jokes and comments for what they are. I want my daughter to be what she wants to be. I want her to be assertive, and follow her dreams, whatever they are.

More than that I want her to feel safe in our society. I was completely shaken by the #metoo and #churchtoo campaigns. Mainly because I know it represents the tip of the iceberg, for every women who shared their story, there are countless others who didn't feel comfortable doing so. I doubt it is a stretch to say most woman have one of these stories.

Beyond that, I want my children to hear me talk about female sports stars, singers, actors, authors and directors; not to mention female  politicians, lawyers and other professionals, as much as I do their male equivalents.  They need me to speak about the women I admire as much as the men. Diversity of representation matters. It really is that simple.

I've tried to reflect on where my faith is now.  I know I'm not the same as when I was in youth group or university. I think I'm far more comfortable with grey areas than I was at University, I'm far more comfortable with doubt and questioning in the Christian journey, I'm far more open to letting people talk about what and why they believe. That feeling has certainly come and gone over the past year, where I've wrestled with God about cancer. Sometimes he's the only thing holding me together, other times I am like the Psalmist who wrote Psalm 88 - 'Where are you God in the Silence, why are you so far from me'.

I really love music, so the two songs which resonate with me, when I think about my journey are: I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For (U2) and Restless (by Switchfoot). The common thread here is restlessness and the search for meaning. In some ways that's where my spirit is now. Trying to make the most of the life I have, and honour God in all I say and do. My prayer is that my faith continues to grow, and it certainly helps being at a church that values the voice of all of its congregation, a church that is not afraid to tackle all of the big social issues of our time in a biblical manner and a church that allows space for differing viewpoints.

The other lesson is about church family. I've written about this elsewhere, but there is absolutely nothing compared to the feeling that people are praying for you; including people you don't even know. I know that I am being carried along the road I'm travelling, by the prayer and practical support of friends and family. Something I will never ever forget.  

1 comment:

  1. Hi Duncan, I have had this open in a tab for what must be months now to remind me to comment. I wanted to say how much I admire you for your faith and your openness about it, even while you have been through so many challenges. I also wanted to thank you for bringing to my attention all of the (mostly female) voices you mentioned in the post - and for challenging me to bring that compassion for all people into the way I think and act...