Author Archive

I’m back (in the U.S.)! A final post on the Australia blog …

Friday, October 12th, 2012

Greetings, friends!  I arrived back in the U.S. Monday evening around dinner time and have been heavily in jet-lag mode ever since.  That 17 hour time difference that I was so confident I could rise above (both going and coming) really packs a punch!. That’s why this final update to the Australia blog has been so long in coming.

My last speaking engagements in Australia were in Adelaide in the south.  Adelaide is about the same size as Omaha, with a similar sense of community, which made it feel like home almost immediately.  That warm feeling only deepened when meeting the people of Adelaide over the course of 6 speaking engagements and a couple of dinners. Here’s greetings from Adelaide participants at one of the seminars.

My time in Adelaide was organized by three groups: The Effective Living Centre, the Progressive Network of South Australia (PCNet SA) and Pilgrim Uniting Church.  Over the course of three days, I screened and led a discussion on The Asphalt Gospel film, led seminars on “The World’s Most Dangerous Bible Study,” a few seminars based on material from my new book (“Lightning in a Dark Wood,” “In Praise of the Crooked Path” and “Is It God Talking or Just the Pizza: Listening for the Holy Spirit in a Skeptical Age.”) I also preached the 9:30 service at Pilgrim Uniting.

John Pfitzner, an acclaimed poet and minister who shepherded me around and introduced me on the first evening.

In an unexpected turn of events, the “Is It God Talking …” seminar ended up being a two-hour seminar on Convergence Christianity due to numerous requests from participants to hear more about Convergence.  I didn’t shift away from the stated topic so much as reframe it though the narrative of Convergence.  The talk stimulated a lot of great discussion and interest.  I walked away thinking the whole thing turned out far better than the presentation I had originally planned – a bit like the Spirit was “talking” through those participants who had asked for more on Convergence!

Jana Norman, Senior Minster of Pilgrim Uniting Church (on left) before an after-worship presentation. One of the truly inspirational leaders in Adelaide - who happens to be one of two UCC ministers I met!

On a more whimsical note, I had some very fun gastronomic experiences while in Adelaide.  One was eating kangaroo (yes, kangaroo) with some newfound friends (one of whom is the second UCC minister I met in Adelaide).

No, kangaroo doesn’t taste like chicken.  It’s more like a cross between beef and venison.  The Australian government is actually encouraging people to eat more kangaroo because it’s extremely lean, is native to Australia, and in some places the kangaroo population needs thinning.

Christine (a United Church of Christ minister) and Sean (a Uniting Church of Australia minister)

I also had a chance to try three new kinds of fish with some more new friends: King George Whiting, Gar Fish, and Baramundi (which I’d tried in Darwin, along with Crocodile!).  All three were good, but Baramundi stole my heart.  It’s a great, moist, flavorful whitefish.

I had one other memorable experience at a restaurant called Sushi Train.  I’d never seen anything like it – sushi on a continuous track running around the restaurant.  When you want more, you simply grab a plate off the track.  You’re billed by the number and color of your plates at the end.  As someone who could probably eat sushi three meals a day, all I wanted to do was get my mouth up to the track and let ‘em all fall down the hatch!  Great fun.  Check it out here: sushi train

Now lest you think that all I did in Adelaide was lead seminars and eat … I did have one of the two authentic days off on the tour where I wasn’t either presenting something or flying to a new location.  On that day a very nice couple, Bruce and Ann, picked me up in the morning and we toured the area.

We visited the ocean, drove to an old German arts community called Handorf and, although Bruce and Ann are teetotalers, we visited three of the famous wineries in McLarenvale (Chapel Hill, Samuel’s Gorge, and D’Arenburg).  My favorite was D’Arenburg, whose wines I was already familiar with in the U.S.   Every wine I tried there was a winner.  When I asked about the main variety I see in the U.S. – a variety they call Stump Jump  – I received an unexpected response.  I’d told them that I liked all of D’Arenburg’s wines except Stump Jump.  My server said, “Oh, we don’t like that one either.  That’s why we export it!”

“So … after 3 weeks in Australia, what are your impressions?”

I was often asked this question (just change the number of weeks depending on location).  I was never quite sure if people really wanted to know or if they simply wanted to hear how wonderful Australia is – and justifiably so!  In terms of giving an answer, I always assumed the former, prefacing my remarks with an acknowledgment  of how little qualified I was to make any authoritative remarks.  I have seen only a thin slice of Australian life, never staying in one area long enough to get a deep feel for anyone’s particular culture, thus I have only limited impressions.  Nevertheless, as those asking the question often reminded me, sometimes an outsider’s view can reveal something of the forest when residents are immersed in the trees.

So on the premise that what I’m about to say are only limited views and experience, here are a few thoughts:

I. Australia truly is a wonderful country and I’d readily return (though preferably at a less hectic time of year in the U.S.!).

This should be as obvious to anyone who as not been there as it is to those who have.  The people are friendly, the terrain is gorgeous, the beaches are incredibly inviting (though the waters are sometimes shark, crocodile, or jelly fish infested!), the food is good, and there seems to be a bit of an adventurous spirit of some sort in almost everyone.  How could there not be in a country nearly the size of the U.S. but with less than 10% of the population and with 200 different kinds of animals that can kill you?  If I were to return again, I would love to spend some time in the Outback, and among some of the Aboriginal peoples.  While I had little opportunity to meet people of Aboriginal origin, their presence, history, ancestry, and custodianship of the land is always just under the surface of the whole country’s awareness.  In many of the church-related locations I visited, public gatherings are always prefaced by a formal recognition of these very things, as well as an acknowledgement that the meeting is being held on land that continues to be their domain.

Duncan Macleod, another of the truly inspirational Christian leaders I met, overlooking the capitol city of Canberra.

Regarding Christianity in Australia …

II.  The progressive Christian movement in Australia has helped stem the growing tide of secularism in Australia.

For many Australians, progressive Christianity has meant the difference between finding a spiritual home within Christianity and leaving it altogether.  Some of these folks grew up in a much more conservative tradition than they find themselves in now.  At some point in their journey they got the “hint” that if they wanted to participate fully within Christianity they would have to reject modern science, condemn homosexuals and people of other faiths, treat women as subservient to men, and read the Bible literally as the inerrant word of God.  Others simply grew up in a more “moderate” congregation that may not have held such beliefs but neither did they actively do anything to counter them, often for fear of raising the ire of a more conservative minority within the congregation (The “lukewarm” kind of congregation that is spoken about in Rev 3:15-16).  For these folks, Progressive Christianity has been an outlet for years of pent up frustration over their church’s silence in these matters.

Lay leaders in Perth who are helping start a new progressive Christian network as a robust alternative to both fundamentalist and more liberal but lukewarm Christianity.

Yet, while there are still plenty of people who are leaving behind their “lukewarm” moderate or fiery fundamentalist churches in Australia, younger generations are not finding refuge in the progressive movement like their parents have.  In fact, the progressive movement as a whole in Australia itself is aging and losing steam.  Why?

III.  As a whole, the progressive movement in Australia (as in the U.S.) is not attracting younger members because it seeking to answer different questions than younger generations are asking.

As in the U.S., the progressive movement in Australia has largely been identified by what they are not – i.e., not fundamentalist.  In those classic areas of faith where they perceive the fundamentalists are doing a bad job – like with Jesus, Bible, prayer, Holy Spirit, evangelism – the progressive community has responded by de-emphasizing these very areas.  In other words, instead of asking, “How does a progressive Christian embrace Jesus, Bible, prayer, etc.” many have chosen to simply deconstruct the fundamentalist versions of faith without necessarily constructing any positive, distinctively progressive alternative.

This stance is not attractive to younger generations, especially those who have grown up outside the church.  Their view of progressive Christianity is that its energy is mainly centered on reacting to a form of faith (fundamentalism) that younger folks already consider irrelevant.  By analogy, progressive Christianity feels to these folks a bit like Cold War veterans who are still orienting their time and energy around fighting Marxism.  The whole premise seems incomprehensible to them.

20- and 30-something Christian leaders (and Rod Dungan - who's slightly older ...) in the Melbourne area who are quite ready for progressive Christianity to be known for something far more compelling than simply being "not fundamentalist."

But the lack of interest isn’t limited only to progressive Christianity’s failure to move beyond the “not fundamentalist” label.  There is a more aesthetical and (dare I suggest) spiritual piece missing in the equation.  And here again, this is not a phenomenon unique to Australia.

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s book, The Brothers Karamazov, Father Zosima makes the following observation about the relationship between love and understanding:

“Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.”

According to Father Zosima, love leads to understanding, not the other way around.  On the other hand, many progressive Christians reverse the equation.  They cannot bring themselves to fall in love with what they do not understand.

This dynamic is true when it comes to God.  Many progressives quite readily acknowledge the concept of a loving God, but they have a hard time engaging with or speaking about the reality of such a God, much less our love for God.  Let’s face it: the universe is a pretty big place.  It’s so big that, to many thinking people, it seems incomprehensible that God could be aware of us, much less interact with us on an everyday level.  It seems even more incomprehensible when one considers all the evil in the world – holocausts, child abuse, etc.

Yet if there is no awareness or interactivity, how can we really speak of a God who loves us to begin with (or loving God ourselves)?  If I were to claim that I love my family, but never visited them, listened to them, or responded to their needs in any way, you could quite rightly accuse me of being naive.  The same goes for God.  How can we be anything but naïve in asserting that God loves us in any but the most vague, abstract, and ineffectual of ways if there is no conscious awareness or relationship?

Frankly, we will never fall in love with God, or accept or acknowledge God’s love for us, if we must first explain holocausts, child abuse, and why bad things happen to good people as a prerequisite.  Nor will we fall in love, or accept love, if we’re waiting to explain how God could be aware of us when the universe contains billions of galaxies is billions of light years across.  Acknowledging this reality does not mean that one must belittle the reality of evil any more than it means one must deny the vastness of the universe.  Rather, it simply means that we’ve either got to admit that the whole notion of God is a pious mistake, or we’ve got to admit that we don’t really know that much as we’d like to think we know about how God works and what the big picture of life is all about.  My bets are on the latter option.

Bottom line, the only way any of us ever become convinced of the reality of a loving God is through an experience of such a God.  We’ll never be able to explain how it happens, but we can say that it happens.  The God who we keep meeting in our silence and solitude, in our emptiness and failure, in our awe and wonder, is not the classical God who sits with a white robe and beard enthroned in the clouds, who breaks Natural Law every time “he” wishes to interact with us.  Or experience of God is far more organic and non-dualistic than that.

From the William Ricketts outdoor sanctuary in the Dandenong Hills near Melbourne. Ricketts experienced a deep connection with the Divine in nature, and in the Aboriginal peoples. He spent much of his life proclaiming his "gospel" through creating dozens sculptures like this throughout the woods that make up the sanctuary.

I don’t mean to launch a lengthy theological treatise here, but the short of it is that a good number of us would have readily written God off as a possibility long ago in light of the presence of evil and the largeness of the universe if it wasn’t for the fact that God keeps showing up – and showing up in ways that have nothing to do with wishful thinking or easy superstition.

At some point, many of us simply have to say, “I can’t explain how God is here, or why God acts (and does not act) the way God does.  The only thing I can say in light of my lived experience is that God is here.  And I love this Great Love apart from my ability to understand how God works.”  This isn’t an anti-intellectual stance.  It is only through loving, and accepting love, that any of us come to understand anything of the mystery of God.  In fact, when it comes down to it, this principle doesn’t apply only to God.  I’ve been married 24 years.  If I were waiting until I understood Melanie in order to love Melanie, I’d still be waiting.  And I can’t understand why she loves me, either.   Any understanding I can claim to have of Melanie, or she for me, has only been gained in, and through, our mutual love.

All this is to say that I really doubt that younger generations will want anything to do with progressive Christianity if (a) we’re reacting against something they’ve already determined to be irrelevant (i.e., fundamentalism), (b) we’re proclaiming a “God who loves everybody” yet has no ability to be in relationship with anybody, and (c) we’re holding up a model of Christian faith and discipleship that is based on the premise that you cannot fall in love with any of this until you first understand what it’s all about.  Any logical 20-something will naturally conclude that if a progressive Christian must first understand in order to love, then there’s not much prospect of a progressive loving the 20-something either.  For they are well aware that their generation is an enigma to older folks.

IV.  The progressive movement needs to understand itself as a bridge, not an endpoint, on the Christian journey.  We need to “progress” beyond progressivism.

I met a gentleman named Don in Adelaide whose intuition about the future encapsulates much of what I think will bring the progressive Christian movement forward – and not just forward, but to a new place entirely.  Don is in his mid-seventies.  Despite his advanced age, Don is starting a Ph.D. program this fall.  He’s starting this rigorous course of study because he passionately believes that a new theology needs to be written – one whose center-point revolves not around logic and rationality but around beauty.

For many people, beauty is merely an aesthetical quality having to do with superficial qualities of adornment or pleasure.  Cultivating beauty is assumed to be less “important” than cultivating reason, science, and intellect.  But Don knows otherwise, and it is folks like Don who may become ground-breakers for the future.

Don’s intuition that a theology of beauty may help move us forward reminds me of a story that Phyllis Tickle tells of an argument that broke out during the Q&A session following one of her Great Emergence presentations.  I may not get every detail of the story right, but essentially someone asked what Tickle thought of the Virgin Birth.  Before she could answer, another from the audience shouted, “You’re just going after [Bishop John Shelby] Spong!”  This outburst prompted a major debate within the audience that Tickle could do little more than watch in amazement.

After things simmered down and she had finished signing books, she spoke with a youth she’d noticed silently but intensively observing the debate as he cleaned dishes in the kitchen.  When Tickle asked what the youth thought of the whole thing, he responded, “I just don’t get why people get so worked up over the Virgin Birth.  I have no idea if it ever happened that way or not.  But to me it’s such a beautiful story it must be true.”

If one wonders why large numbers of 20- and 30-somethings are not beating down the doors of progressive churches and demanding entrance, it’s not because they have rejected science or the rational skepticism embraced by progressives.  It’s because they have moved beyond it.  Frankly, so has science.

Science moved earlier generations from a state of pre-critical naiveté into the Age of Reason where they discovered that not everything written in the Bible, or believed by faith, is necessarily what it appears.  Thus, for instance, many of us now understand that the Red Sea may never have parted like the Book of Exodus describes it.  Yet younger generations did not grow up in a pre-critical era.  They grew up in a fully critical era, informed by reason, logic, and scientific ways of knowing.  So they never had to “get over” a pre-critical mindset.

Instead of investing their energies in denying pre-critical understandings of scripture, they have turned to new, and frankly more interesting questions.   For instance, we may acknowledge that the Red Sea never parted like it does in Exodus 15, but rather than stopping there, we might ask, “Then why was the story written in the first place?  What the author just lying, or was the author trying to tell us something important, constructing something of beauty and majesty to convey truth that exceeds the limits of science or strict historical narrative to describe?”  Modern scholarship has led many into reading the scriptures with “post-critical naiveté.”  That is, they accept that the story “never may have happened that way,” but are aware that there’s more to a story than science or reason can describe.  Rather than trying to ferret out “what (really) happened long ago,” they turn their attention instead to how the story reveals “what keeps happening” on up to our day.

Looking at the Red Sea account from the standpoint of its mythological imagination, one senses deep truths contained in it: such as that, in our lived experience of faith, God seems to “make a way where there appears to be no way,” and that God’s activity may be seen in places where people are being liberated from bondage – in everything from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to social justice marches to a child sitting on his mother’s lap seeking solace after an experience of bullying at school.

V.  There is great and authentic reason for hope – in Australia and beyond.

All in all, my time spent in Australia was inspirational and uplifting.  In every location I found people who are facing significant challenges, but who are facing them with courage, humility, generosity of spirit, and even joy.  There are many who do, in fact, sense that there is more to progressive Christianity than simply serving as a way of “not being fundamentalist.”  These folks are eager not simply to deconstruct the past, but to construct a new future.  They are aware that there is more to life than can be explained or understood and are captivated by truths that may be accessed through such things as beauty and lived experience.  They are also aware that many Christians on the other side of the “theological swimming pool” have been in motion like they have been themselves.  While there is not as much evidence in Australia to show that post-evangelicals and post-liberal progressives are starting to find and enjoy community with one another as there is in the United States (viz., Wild Goose Festival, Darkwood Brew, and the experience of many churches like Countryside Community Church who are gaining members from both sides of old theological divide), a great many sense the possibilities – and long for such a Convergence.  In fact, a great many folks I met throughout Australia not only resonated with, but embodied, the very characteristics of Convergence Christianity that people like myself and Brian McLaren have been writing about lately.

Perhaps the biggest “take home” I received from my journey, in fact, is that Convergence is not simply a U.S. phenomenon.  It has not only started to happen in Australia among various individuals who are living their faith already in Convergence mode, but it exists as a strong, latent possibility across a large spectrum of progressive Christians who see their progressivism not as an end of itself but a bridge to a new tomorrow – a tomorrow where faith and science hold hands, where old and young hold hands, and where Christians who have formerly been at odds with one another both move to a new place and begin holding hands as well.

VI.  Thanks.

Thanks to all of you at Countryside who have been so gracious as to let me share a piece of our vision and ministry with the Christian leaders of Australia during our busy fall season.  You were ever in my heart, and my mind, as I made my way around the country.  In every place, I was quite cognizant of the fact that I was not simply representing myself, but also a part of you and your spirit.  You continue to be a source of rich inspiration to me and I am delighted to be back home with you.

Thanks, too, to those of you in Australia who helped make this trip possible, especially Adrian Pyle of the Uniting Church of Australia, who was the tour’s initiator and primary organizer, and Elyse Le Cerf who assisted him.  To all of you with whom I shared time, please know that you have a friend here in Omaha.  You were gracious hosts, engaging conversation partners, and a generous audience.  You are the reason I would be happy to return to Australia again some day.  And please know that if you are ever in the Omaha area, I would love to see you and show you some Nebraskan hospitality!

Adrian Pyle, who invited me to Australia and organized the tour.

Finally, thanks to my wife, Melanie, for graciously agreeing to be “left behind” for three weeks with no one at home but our pets.  You know how much you were missed, and how much I am glad to be home with you again!

Greetings from Canberra … No, Adelaide!

Friday, October 5th, 2012

Once again, I’ve been working and/or flying around Australia so fast and furiously that posts I start writing in one city (in this case, Melbourne) get continued after I’ve already come and gone from the next!

Before leaving for Adelaide, I preached in Melbourne at Toorak Uniting Church (where I shot the shout-out from for CCC’s morning services and Darkwood Brew).  Sunday evening I met with a group of 20- and 30-something church leaders who are all very much in Convergence Christianity mode (I would add, so is Toorak’s minister, Rev. Dr. Chris Page).  These are people who have taken a step beyond classical Christian liberalism and evangelicalism into new terrain that embraces justice work, arts, and spiritual development, and freely draws upon both modern scientific imagination as well as ancient mythological imagination.  It was great fun to spend time with such sharp, energetic folks.  They are interested in putting their energy into action to help bring the church in Australia into the 21st C, possibly by creating a Darkwood Brew-like program in Australia.

On Monday I gave an all-day series of presentations on worship, theology, and Convergence Christianity at the Uniting Church Centre for Theology and Ministry.  This was a fun crowd made up mostly of clergy and serious lay leaders mostly from Melbourne, although one or two had driven from several hours and the delightful couple below had come up from Tasmania where they are involved in a engaging faith with the arts.

Before moving on, I should mention that Rod Dungan took me to a very interesting place last Saturday.  It’s called the William Ricketts Sanctuary.  The whole sanctuary is outdoors and was created by a man who made his money in cinema before dedicating his life to the preservation of the land its Aboriginal peoples.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it.  I took a bunch of photographs mine don’t beat the mind-blowing collection you can find by doing a Google image search for Ricketts Sanctuary.  Check them out!  You won’t be sorry.  By the way, the Dungan family says hello to you all.  Many of you have met, and some have met his wife, Lynn, but you haven’t met Hannah – one of their two daughters.  Hannah will be moving to Canberra after the first of the year to serve the Kippax Uniting Church (more about that church below).

On Tuesday I left for the capital of Australia, Canberra.  There, I led a “Darkwood Brew Unplugged” at St. James Uniting Church and gave presentations/workshops on Lightning in a Dark Wood and Convergence Christianity at Kippax Uniting Church.  As some of you have seen on Facebook, I also had a chance to sneak away to Canberra’s wine country before my evening flight to Adelaide with a couple of new clergy friends, Duncan Macleod (who’s like a Conference Minister in the UCC, only for the Uniting Church of Australia – on left below) and Gordon Ramsay (on right, the minister at Kappax Uniting Church) …

On our way to the airport, Gordon took me to the top of Mt. Ainslie to look out over Canberra below.  Canberra is an interesting city in that it was designed from the ground up in 1908 as a compromise between Australia’s two largest cities, Melbourne and Sydney, who had fought to have the capital located in their city.  Canberra is located midway between the two!

On our way back down the mountain, a wild kangaroo jumped out in front of our car, then started hopping down the road as we followed it for about 100 yards.  Now there’s something you don’t see everyday in Nebraska!  It’s actually not an uncommon sight in Australia.  In some places you have to watch out for kangaroos as carefully as many of us in the U.S. have to be careful to avoid deer on the road.

I’m now in Adelaide – the final speaking stop on my journey.  It’s 1:30 am here, so I’ll have to put this post (and my body) to rest for the time being.  I’ll simply mention before signing off that it has been a tremendous day, which started with a morning screening of The Asphalt Gospel film chronicling CrossWalk America’s 2006 walk across the U.S., followed in the  afternoon by a presentation/workshop on The World’s Most Dangerous Bible Study, followed this evening by a presentation called Lightning in a Dark Wood, based on my forthcoming book.

Saturday I get to sleep in a little (!) and enjoy one of the two authentic, full days off on this journey (i.e., where I’m neither speaking nor flying anywhere),  I’ll be away most of the day with an Adelaide couple who is going to show me some sights and bring me by the McLaren Vale which is one of the top wine producing areas of Australia outside of the Barossa Valley (People here have caught on that I enjoy that sort of thing …).

Much love to all.  As wonderful a time as I’m having with the people of Australia, I’m looking forward to being home and settling into fall with family, friends, and church.

My time in Darwin

Saturday, September 29th, 2012

Greetings again from Australia!  Today is “Grand Final” day in Australia.   When that notation originally appeared on my tour itinerary I thought, “I wonder why they’re calling this the ‘Grand Final’ day when I’ve still got one more week of the tour?”  Now I know better.  The Grand Final is the Australian equivalent of the Super Bowl where the top teams in Australian Rules Football face off.  I’m watching the game right now, actually, on television at Rod Dungan’s home here in Melbourne where the game is being played downtown.

Australian Rules Football is quite different than American football.  Kind of like rugby on steroids.  The players wear no body protection while hitting, kicking, and throwing the ball (and each other!) around a field 240 yards long and 200 yards wide.  I still can’t quite wrap my head around the game but the sheer athleticism is breathtaking.

My time in Darwin

I arrived in Darwin on Wednesday, being met at the airport by Rev. Jeremy Greaves, an Anglican priest serving the beautiful Christ Church Cathedral.

The Very Revd Jeremy Greaves

Jeremy had guessed that my whirlwind tour would probably leave me needing a bit of rest, so he had graciously scheduled my time to allow for a bit of that.  So after giving me a quick tour of the town and Cathedral, I had the afternoon and evening to myself.  The first thing I did was collapse on the bed and nap until nearly dinner time.  When I awoke, I was so rested that I felt fully myself for the first time on the trip.  Feeling my oats, I went out for a long walk along the bluffs overlooking the ocean.

Has had quite a remarkable history in that it has endured two huge destructions in less than a century, which Jeremy tells me are not far below the surface of Darwin’s community psyche to this day.  The first occurred on February 19, 1941 when 242 Japanese bombers attacked, dropping more bombs on Darwin than they had on Pearl Harbor just three months before.  The event was downplayed (even censored) by the Australian government, fearing that the public would be terrorized.

The second destruction of Darwin occurred on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, 1974, when Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin – twice – causing the greatest environmental catastrophe in recorded history in Australia.  The cyclone hit in the midst of Christmas Eve celebrations, then things grew calm.  The destruction was massive, but survivable, and people felt relieved to have weathered the storm.  Little did they know, but the reason the weather calmed down was because they were in the eye of the storm!  So it hit again, this time twice as hard. The winds blew so strongly that even the equipment designed to measure wind speeds was destroyed.  By some estimates, metal debris was flying through the air at up to 200 mph!  The Cathedral itself was destroyed, along with most anything near the coastline.  The stone front you can see in the picture of the present cathedral is what remains of the original. Needless to say, the expression “Merry Christmas” was a bit of a difficult one after that.

As I walked from my hotel toward Darwin’s bluffs, what grabbed my attention were the bird songs punctuating the quiet hum of the city.  The songs, like the birds themselves, were completely foreign.  There was one that sounded like, hooleechumhow hooleechumhow.  Another went teedlyweedlydeedly teedlyweedlydeedly.  Still another went mmmrrroon mmmrrroon.  Each song, and others besides, had distinctive pitches, tempos, frequencies, and number of birds singing at once.  The effect reminded me of why I love a form of music called Free Jazz.  To most people, Free Jazz sounds like just a bunch of chaotic cacophony, with every musician seemingly doing their own thing.  And there is, in fact, a chaotic element to it.  But what intrigues me when I listen to Free Jazz is that the particular combination of sounds being produced at any given point have never been heard since the beginning of the world.  When I listen to Free Jazz, I sometimes feel a certain “sonic sacredness” of the creative moment – a birthing of sorts, of something truly original.  That’s the feeling I had when hearing the birds of Darwin.

As I walked toward the bluffs, I was quite aware of another presence: cars heading in the exact opposite direction I’m used to.  Every time I crossed the street, I would wag my head back and forth several times to before daring to step out from the sidewalk.  At the same time, I was bobbing my head right and left, and up and down, observing all the new sights around me.  At one point I realized that my fairly chaotic body movements were paralleling the birdsongs around me in such a way that it almost felt like my body movements and the birds’ songs had joined in such a way as to produce another unique form of Free Jazz.  Together we were producing a set of sounds and movement that had never before existed in some sort of sacred dis-harmony.  I laughed out loud at the absurdity.  Then laughed again as I realized how frequently the sacred and absurdity tend to come together as a matched pair in my experience!

The following day I gave presentations on “Incarnational Worship in a Post-Christian World” and “Jesus at the Movies” (full brochure here) for a group of Anglican priests, chaplains, laypeople, the bishop, and a retired bishop.  The group was a little smaller for the Incarnational Worship seminar which happened during the working day, but the people who came were truly extraordinary and our smaller size allowed for some great interactivity.  I am regularly amazed by how many incredible church leaders there are (lay and ordained) who act to heal the hurts of the world and bear witness to the Great Love that inspires them without ever being celebrated or recognized by society.  We always see the negative examples of church leaders on television.  But the real action takes place off screen, in very quiet ways, by people who don’t expect notoriety or reward or their actions – who nevertheless are lumped together with the rest in the conception of popular culture.  I wish more people could see examples of those who work so tirelessly, and in many cases courageously, for the greater good.  I’m glad that we at Countryside can at least showcase some of these kinds of folks though our Darkwood Brew ministry.  We need a hundred more such ministries around the world!  (Incidentally, I’ll be meeting with church leaders here in Australia who are interested in doing just such a thing.)

The high point of the Incarnational Worship seminar was, for me, at the very end when a gentleman who is in the process of being ordained as a Deacon in the Anglican Church asked a follow-up question in response to my assertion that Incarnwaion worship makes use of experiential ways of knowing to engage more deeply with everyday life.  He asked what implications there might be for worship music, suggesting Taize music as a possible example.  That triggered an exploration of Chuck Marohnic’s Jazz Taize music, which I had not planned to do.  Chuck developed Jazz Taize a few years ago when a few of us from Countryside helped lead worship seminar at the Heartland Center new Kansas City.  It is different from traditional Taize in that it uses jazz (of course!), and creates a highly interactive environment between the musicians and the congregation.  For instance, in traditional Taize, the musicians simply serve as an accompaniment to the congregation.  With Jazz Taize, the roles move back and forth, with the congregation often providing the basic melody and harmonic lines to accompany the musicians who freely improvise on the congregation’s singing.  At other times, the congregation steps back, allowing the musicians to take the piece into uncharted territory.  Then the congregation steps back in and together we all become part of a great work of art, contemplation, invocation and praise.

I asked folks if they wanted to experience Jazz Taize for themselves and received an enthusiastic response.  So I played an audio file of Chuck’s “Come, Holy Spirit” with three-part harmony and some amazing jazz musicians and we sang our hearts out.  Not to sound too Pentecostal or anything, but after the afternoon talking about Incarnational worship, experiencing Incarnational Worship in this way felt like anointing oil being poured on our heads.  It felt like we asked the Spirit to come in song … and the Spirit responded!

In the evening, most participants from the afternoon returned for “Jesus at the Movies” and more came from the community who had been working during the day.  I ran this seminar more like a spiritual retreat, inviting people to identify a difficult question for which they would like to find insight, then to journal about that question as they experienced different film clips representing various voices within us that tend to weigh in on the questions we face (voices like the Free Child, Parent, Pessimist, Pragmatist, Hero, Peer Group, Accuser, Spirit).  I’m always amazed at what unexpected insights this simple exercise tends to provoke.  And while I do not know what insights were elicited among the group (their questions were kept private so it wouldn’t have been appropriate to ask about what they learned), I do know that unexpected insight came to at least one person through the experience – me!

Yesterday afternoon before leaving Darwin, Jeremy brought me to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.  The museum is an extraordinary space showcasing Aboriginal art, natural history, and the 1974 cyclone.  The most moving part of the exhibits for me was the Aboriginal art, especially the exhibit showcasing the winners of a Aboriginal Art contest in the region.  Some of the paintings were quite traditional, representing various subjects like waterholes and animals pictographically in ways that connect deeply with the ancient past.  Other pieces were contemporary interpretations of these same ancient icons.  Most moving of all were pieces in a number of modern mediums that gave voice to various aspects of the plight of Aboriginal peoples across Australia, particularly the struggle with intense racism (that still very much exists), poverty and alcoholism.  The parallels between the struggles of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia and Native Americans in the U.S. are so strong that they are almost unbearable to look at or acknowledge.  The effects of colonialism and its racist assumptions (and self-righteous actions), and the introduction of alcohol to a culture which had developed no tolerance for it, really give one pause and wonder about the state of humanity.

Having just dealt with The Flood account in Genesis 6-9 at Countryside morning services and Darkwood Brew before leaving, it is hard not to tap into the sadness attributed to God in the story, over finding that humans had become fundamentally unjust and violent.  In this regard, I am reminded of Dr. Terence Fretheim’s Darkwood Brew interview where he observed that, according to the mythological imagination of the story, God’s activity in the Flood was to save humanity from itself rather than destroy it, but that after the Flood God had found humanity to be just as prone to injustice and violence as before.  Fretheim reminded us that to listen deeply to the story is to be reminded that God choose self-limitation from that point on.  God determined that we were worth loving and being in relationship despite all the evil we inflict on ourselves and others – that there is ultimately more good than evil in humanity.  This is a helpful reminder – that there is more good than evil in the world – especially when the evils are confronting us so starkly.  It reminds me of the saying that “Anyone can slay a dragon … but try waking up every morning and loving the world all over again.  That’s what makes a real hero.”

The people I met in Darwin, who work quietly and passionately each day to heal the injustices around their community and bear witness to the Great Love who loves and preserves us, are just these sorts of heroes.

From Brian Andreas,

Greetings from Perth … No, Darwin … No, Melbourne!

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Greetings, friends!  I was going to send a greeting from Perth, on the West Coast of Australia, but before I could hardly take a breath I was already 2,500 miles away in Darwin, on the North Coast!  Now I’m already on my way back to Melbourne … My route thus far looks like this:

The tour so far (note fancy hand-drawn lines) ...

So we have a lot to get caught up on … In this entry, I’m just going to give a few details on what transpired in Perth and reflect on broader themes.  I’ll update you on Darwin later.

But first, let me say that as much fun as I’m having getting around Australia and meeting people and giving talks about subjects I’m passionate about, I have rarely felt such a powerful sensation of missing my church family back home.  I can feel the ache physically even. I think it’s because of the timing of this journey, coming as it does at the beginning of fall when things get cranked up at church.  Some voice way down in the subconscious keeps saying, “Hey, what are you doing?  This is when we’re all returning to church, not jetting off!”  Partly, too, the recent deaths of my mother-in-law and a good friend in the congregation make me especially mindful of relationships and how terribly good it is to be walking together through this world.  But just when I start feeling a little blue about being away, my heart wells up with immense gratitude to be part of a congregation who believes in the spread of a generous-spirited Christian faith so strongly, and has such outstanding lay leaders and staff to carry out ministry on the “home front,” that I can be here while you are there.  The kind of fellowship we share at Countryside, which keeps deepening year by year, makes me all the more determined to bear witness to the Spirit to which we are all responding and which is doing so many wonderful things among us. So thank you.  Thank you for being YOU!

Events in Perth

I arrived in Perth on Monday and attended a dinner gathering that evening of  14 Christian leaders who are just starting to form a local network progressive Christians.  The presentations I made on Tuesday afternoon and evening were meant to serve as a kind of “soft launch” of their group – a chance to draw in folks who might be interested in becoming part of the network and help the group explore future direction.  I had a great time with the people of Perth, and very much enjoyed the city itself which sits on the edge of some beautiful coastline along the Indian Ocean.

My first presentation was a lunchtime forum at Wesley Church in the City.  (Brochure of all presentations here.)  The evening before, I had learned that the topic was slightly different than I had thought. (I had communicated with a number of folks in Perth and wasn’t able to figure out who was making the final decision about the topic so I went with my best guess.)  I thought I would be presenting a model for how Christians and those of other faiths can get along better in today’s world, along the lines of our Countryside and Darkwood Brew series (DWB series 11), “The Faith of Jesus in a Pluralistic World.”  Instead, I was to be presenting on “Where Jesus is in our multi-faith world.”  This small difference in wording implies a shift from systematic theology (or, setting up an interpretive framework in which to understand Christianity and other faiths) to more practical, lived experience (i.e. where do we find Jesus in today’s world – “whatsoever you do to the least of these …” etc.).  I realized that I could probably be forgiven for presenting the topic I had already prepared, but since I had the morning free and this was obviously not the first time I’d thought about where Jesus can be found, I completely re-created my presentation – and had a great deal of fun doing it.

The afternoon and evening topics were about central themes of progressive Christian faith, and implications for contemporary practice.  I think I kind of pulled the rug out from under a few folks when, after covering progressive Christian faith and practice, I expressed my view that progressive Christianity is probably a movement that has seen its day in the sun and is now in the process of morphing into something new (i.e., Convergence Christianity).  After the final presentation, one of the leaders observed with a touch of humor, “It looks like we need to change our name before we’ve even started the network!” to which her colleague responded, “It’s just twenty dollars to register a name change …”  I have no idea if they’ll actually do it, especially since not everyone in attendance unanimously agreed with my prediction, but I’m glad to have taken the risk to state my frank assessment.  There are some great minds and spirits in Perth and, if nothing else, I think the conversations that already started to happen after the presentations will help give the new network some clarity and definition whether they change their name or not.

Incidentally, for the many of you who are familiar with the Living the Questions DVDs, one of the co-creators, David Felton, spent a year studying theology in Perth.  He is remembered fondly by many, and I hear that they’re asking him to be a speaker here next year as part of the Common Dreams conference.  I’ve also seen several copies of the recent book David co-wrote with LtQ co-founder Jeff Proctor-Murphy, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity.  It seems to be selling as well here as in the U.S..

Progressive Christianity and Convergence

Given my involvement with the progressive Christian movement, and the fact that a book like David and Jeff’s Wisdom of Christianity are still striking a chord with folks, you may wonder why I have made the turn I have, seeing progressive Christianity as more of a bridge movement to a next stage.  I’ve made this turn even while agreeing entirely those who believe there is much wisdom and value in progressive Christianity.  I simply believe that progressive Christianity has both succeeded and failed simultaneously.  Where it has succeeded, progressive Christianity has served as a crucial bridge to Convergence.  Incidentally, I don’t foresee people calling themselves “Convergent Christians” in the future.  Rather, I think Convergence is a meeting ground between post-liberal progressives and post-evangelical Christians.  Who knows what we’ll call ourselves in the future!

The basic problem with progressive Christianity, and why we need to move beyond it, is that it means very different things to different people.  For some, the term “progressive” signals that their faith is NEITHER liberal NOR conservative but something that has moved beyond easy definitions.   These folks have helped fundamentally in bringing us to Convergence.   Yet for others, being “progressive” is really no different than being “liberal” except in name.  The problem with Christian liberalism, and why it is fading, is that it continues to embrace highly dated, modernist assumptions. This is no smack at liberalism, by the way.  We needed liberalism, with its valuing of reason and scientific ways of knowing, to draw us out of our pre-critical foundations.  It’s simply way past time to move on.  It’s time to recognize that even the science that gave rise to modernism has changed fundamentally, especially in the wake of Einstein, quantum physics, and chaos theory.

If quantum physics isn’t your cup of tea, consider the issue from the standpoint of concrete Christian practice.  In general, liberals tend to have a very hard time loving anything they do not first understand.  Yet love doesn’t really work this way.  For instance, I’ve been madly in love with my wife, Melanie, for over 24 years, yet I’m still trying to understand her. (Melanie would say she’s similarly challenged!)  You may not need love to understand, say, a rock (though geologists probably disagree, observing that they first fell in love with rocks, then started studying them).  But when it comes to anything that’s relational in nature, you do need love to truly understand.

So, what if God is more like a relationship than a rock?  If we’re waiting to understand how God could even be a relational Being or consciousness before falling in love with this Great Love, it will never happen.  We’ll keep sensing the quiet, gentle nudges that enliven our imagination and suggest that there is a lot more to life than meets the eye, and never really trust that those nudges could be anything more than electro-chemical reactions in the brain.  We get so wrapped up in the intellectual conundrum of how the God of the (vast) Universe could possibly have awareness of us that we don’t consider our lived experience.

The element of progressive Christianity that has moved beyond liberalism and dares to at least make the attempt to love that which it does not understand is the element that has brought us to the new meeting ground with post-evangelical Christians which people like myself are calling Convergence.  These post-liberal Christians and post-evangelicals are not anti-intellectual.  On the contrary, they tend to be more in touch with intellectual developments of the last 50 or so years than the liberals – even if they’ve only made the connection intuitively (or perhaps especially if …!).

I may offer some more thoughts on progressive and convergent Christianity later, but for now I think that if you have found my thoughts provocative (or evocative), you would really enjoy reading the following excerpt from an NPR “Fresh Air” interview with neuroscientist named David Eagleman.  (See the whole transcript or listen to the interview here:  This section of the interview is about neuroscience and God.  Eagleman grew up as a Jewish agnostic, then became an atheist, and now calls himself a “possibilian.” What he says points to the heart of what it means to be a post-liberal progressive or a post-evangelical on convergence mode .   I’d love to hear your feedback.

GROSS: Our listeners might know, you call yourself a possibilian.


GROSS: In other words, you were raised as a secular Jew, then you became an atheist and now you consider yourself a possibilian, meaning?

EAGLEMAN: Here’s what it means. It’s – I’ve spent my life in science, that’s what I’ve devoted my life to and it’s the single most useful pursuit that we have in terms of trying to understand the blueprints around us and trying to figure out what in the world is going on here, what’re doing here? But at some point the pier of science comes to an end and we’re standing at the end of that pier and looking out onto unchartered waters that go for as far as the eye can see. Most of what we’re surrounded with is mystery. And what one comes to understand in a life of science is the vastness of our ignorance.

Look, we know way too much to commit to a particular religious position. And we don’t know nearly enough to commit to strict atheism so why don’t we try to figure out the structure of the possibility space? Why do we use the scientific temperament, which is one of creativity and tolerance for multiple hypotheses and try to at least understand the shape of the possibility space? And we can import the tools of science to carve off parts of that and say okay, that does not seem to be the case. But where the toolbox of science runs out we, you know, our table is wide -science’s table is wide and we can hold lots of hypotheses until we have sufficient evidence to weigh for or against various ones.

GROSS: So you’re just keeping an open and investigative mind?

EAGLEMAN: Beyond an open mind, it’s an active exploration about what we think is going on. And somehow in the polarization that happened over this last decade in the debates between the religious and the atheists, somehow that got left out. It’s either God or no God. And both of those positions are, you know, I’m just surprised that we haven’t gotten past those two diametrically opposed and probably too – you know, neither of those positions I think is sort of large-thinking enough, given what we know about the cosmos.

GROSS: And so you’re saying it’s not just God or no God. It’s maybe something other than God.

EAGLEMAN: Oh, I mean we could make up a million possibilities.

GROSS: Yeah.

EAGLEMAN: I mean just as a – I don’t obviously mean these as real possibilities but, you know, you know, physics tells us there are somewhere between nine and 13 spatial dimensions. So what if there were whole civilizations living between dimensions five and eight? Well, that would be really interesting, right? And we’d want to know that. But somehow if you’re just talking about God or no God, that somehow gets left out.

And one of my mentors, Francis Crick, he and another biologist named Leslie Orgel, at one point when they were, you know, trying to figure out the origin of life on earth from RNA and DNA and so on, they said well, what if it were the case that life was planted here on earth. Let’s say rode in on an asteroid or put here by aliens. And they really got, a bunch of people in the scientific community really jumped on these two giants of biology for even suggesting that maybe we were planted here by aliens. But you know what? It’s a perfectly good hypothesis. I mean we don’t know enough to rule that out. It belongs on the table along with all of the rest of them.

And so, possibilianism is really about the scientific spirit of throwing everything onto the table and then sorting it out from there.

GROSS: So some people listening to you will be thinking that what you said about, oh, maybe there were aliens who, you know, who created people on earth or, you know, there are different universes maybe and stuff like that. Some people might think that’s science fiction, that’s not science. This guy said he’s a neuroscientist, not a science fiction writer.

EAGLEMAN: Essentially, this is the heart of science. We always come up with hypotheses and we bring evidence in to weigh for or against those hypotheses. And in science, of course, we never even talk about truth or proofs. We talk about where the weight of evidence suggests at the moment, you know, what we think is the best narrative at the moment.

And so, you know, there’s this illusion that all of us learn in high school where we look in textbooks and science seems to proceed in a linear lockstep manner where so-and-so discovers this and then the next person and so on. But science never proceeds that way.

Every major advance in science has been a creative leap where someone says, well, gosh, what if this really strange story were true? And then what you do is you make a lot of these leaps and you look back to see if you can build a bridge back to what we already know in science. And when you can that’s progress. And when you can’t that’s an interesting hypothesis that you just file away and you keep.

Greetings from Melbourne

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

Greetings from Melbourne!

I haven’t  been too much into posting updates the last couple days because I’ve been out speaking and, I’m sorry to report, I’ve been sick!  Since my arrival in Australia I’d been feeling great, but Friday evening I started heading downhill fast.  I was up half the night feeling miserable and running a fever, and then had to leave early Saturday morning to lead an ALL DAY seminar on progressive Christianity and emerging developments (which I’ve been calling Convergence Christianity).   I started the seminar at about 25% of my usual energy and ended at about 10%, so I feel particularly sorry for those who had to endure me!  I was so focussed on putting whatever energy I had into the seminar that I didn’t take any photos except of the pre-seminar exercise where participants drew various objects with their dominant and non-dominant hands (something the organizer, Adrian Pyle of the Uniting Church of Australia, used to get people working off of both sides of their brains).  The man standing in the center with the pink shirt is Rev. Greg Crowe, who serves the Ewing Memorial Uniting Church – a classic progressive Christian church where I preached this morning.

Nevertheless, the people who came were delightful and that helped get me through the day.  I was pleased to meet several folks who had read my book on the Phoenix Affirmations, as well as a handful of Darkwood Brew viewers.  I was also pleased to see that, among the books they offered for sale at the seminar, was the latest book by a couple of friends of mine (Jeff Proctor-Murphy and David Felton, who produce the Living the Questions DVDs), called Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity.  After the seminar, I went back to Rod and Lynn Dungan’s home, ate what little I could, and collapsed in bed.

Today I’ve felt much better.  I preached at Ewing Memorial  and spent the rest of the day exploring Melbourne with Rod and his daughter, Hannah.  Our exploration included a visit to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image – a museum chronicling the history of film, television … and video games!  I ended the day sipping a 1998 Voyager Estate Cabernet/Merlot from the Margaret Valley of Australia, which Rod Dungan felt was a good way of doing some “advance research” into where I’m headed on Monday … (This wine, combined with the 1992 Penfold’s Granger Hermitage Cabernet, which Rod shared with me earlier, made the 20 hrs of flights to get here  - and the 20 hrs I’ll take to return – worth it in and of themselves.  So despite my bout with 24 hr flu, don’t feel too sorry for me. I’m doing fine!)

Monday, I take a morning flight across the continent to Perth, where I’ll present programs on Tuesday afternoon and evening, and a program the next day on Christianity in a pluralistic world.   Then, off to Darwin.  Lots to come!

I miss you all, even as I’m very much enjoying connecting with folks Down Under.  :-)

Day 1: Jet Lag Day – But don’t feel too sorry for me!

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

So yesterday and today are dedicated to the fine art of recovery from jet lag.  Over the years, I’ve pretty much got this down to a science: Do whatever is necessary to sleep a FULL 8 yrs on the plane, then no matter what time you arrive, go to bed whenever the locals do and sleep the full night.  On the plane I watched The Hunger Games, then slept for about 12 hours, which proved to be quite helpful because after touching down in Australia at 5:00 am, I definitely had a full day ahead of me before sleeping again.  And what a day it was!  Not exactly the kind you’d expect for jet-lag recovery, but definitely the kind I wish I could ALWAYS have.

My time in Australia started by boarding a plane in Brisbane for Melbourne, where I am now.  These are my seatmates, Nik and Cassie.  Cassie was headed to Melbourne for work and Nik was on holiday.  When asked what I’m doing in Australia and I explained the nature of my speaking tour, Nik politely but firmly announced himself to be a “staunch atheist.”  Nik is far from alone in Australia.  Since 1986, Christianity as a whole has lost one in every ten adherents.  Most don’t move to another religion.  They say they’re done with God entirely.  My friend Rod Dungan has always said that Australia is about a decade ahead of the U.S. in terms of religious decline.  If nothing were to change in the U.S. and churches were to keep doing what “has always been done” while expecting different results, this graph pretty much sums up what we can expect to see.  The results change, alright, but not in the way people wish them to.

Listening to someone like Nik talk about religion is often a sobering experience, not because they express anger or outrage (Nik was extremely pleasant), but because the god they no longer believe in is rarely the god that I or the Christians I’m in contact with every day believe in either.  Many believe that moving away from a belief in God who sits up in the heavens with nothing better to do than make up rules in order to reward those who follow them and punish those who don’t is a movement away from God.  Similarly, a move away from rigid doctrinal beliefs that no longer seem to have any basis in a person’s lived experience, or a move away from communities of faith who no longer seem to have any sense of purpose other than to maintain their buildings is seen as a move away from God.  In the coure of our conversation, Nik told me of one theologian whom he liked very much.  He wondered if I’d ever heard of someone named Bishop Spong.  He was surprised to hear that Jack is a friend of mine and helped support a walk a few of us took across the country in the name of a more open, intellectually honest and inclusive faith.  I mentioned that one thing I’ve always appreciated about Jack is his insistance that Jesus came not to save our souls from hell, but to make us more human.  Hell is what we all experience when are not living as human beings but as shadows of who we were created to be.  The purpose of religion should be to serve God by helping others (and ourselves) embrace our fullest humanity as creations of God.  By the time our plane landed Nik asked for a card with the web address for Darkwood Brew.  He said he’d like to check it out.

What I find interesting about most – not all, but most – conversations I have with those who say they no longer believe in God is that most of them are deeply spiritual people who have become convinced that movement away from the god they used to believe in is the same as moving away from God.  Yet often it is movement away from a narrow definition of God –  and the rigid doctrinal structures that go with that god – which often means that if they stay humble in their quest, they are actually moving toward God, not away.  I often wonder how many “atheists” would be happy to be in churches if they felt that people were listening to the issues they are wrestling with and encouraging them to think of the god they are rejecting not as God, but a certain conception of God that is in the process of transformation.  Then, maybe instead of being threatened by atheists, the community would become more like traveling companions and midwives of new creation.

Okay, enough theology.  When I arrived in Melbourne, I was picked up by Rod Dungan and taken his lovely home to say hello to wife Lynn and daughter Hannah (not pictured).

After a delicious lunch at an artsy cafe and a brief walk along the Yarra River, Rod felt that the perfect solution for jet lag would be to travel into Melbourne’s surrounding wine country and taste some incredibly good Shiraz, Pinot Noir, Cabernet, and Merlot.  Naturally, I thought that was a genius idea!   We visited six or seven wineries in the Yarra Valley, like Mandala, Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander, Oakville, St. Hubert’s, and Red Box (below).   I tasted so many fantastic wines that even I had to start “swirling and spitting” into the barrel just to keep my head about me (Rod had been doing that from the start since he was driving).

After returning from the wineries and sitting on the Dungan’s back porch to watch the wild parrots come and go, Lynn asked if I’d like to go looking for kangaroos before dinner.  We didn’t have to go far!  After a five  minute drive, we past a field that must have had a hundred or more.  Thankfully, I’d purchased a camera with a telephoto lens before leaving, as the kangaroos were about a hundred yards off.

So didn’t I tell you upfront that you wouldn’t be feeling sorry for me on my first day of jet-lag recovery?  Well, today, the serious work begins.  I lead an all-day retreat tomorrow and even though I emphasized the fun I was having above, Rod and I got into some pretty darn good theological conversation regarding the dynamics of Christianity in Australia as we made our way from winery to winery.  It’s this kind of conversation that, to me, makes the whole trip worth it (Yes, more worth it even than the wine!).  Today, I’m taking the stuff I’d planned to present tomorrow and in the next several days and adjusting it in light of what I’ve heard.  I’m sure those adjustments will continue at each leg of my journey as I get a tighter bead on what’s happening here and how I might fruitfully enter the conversation.  One thing that will be of high interest in terms of my own learnings will be if Convergence is starting to happen in Australia like I see it happening in the U.S.  While Australia may be a decade ahead of the U.S. in terms of decline, Convergence may very well be the most powerful bearer of the energy of renewal that we’ve seen in several decades, and my (admittedly limited) sense is that Convergence is starting to happen in various around the world simultaneously.  Kind of like we’re all in this whole thing together …

More to come!

Arrived tired but happy

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Wow, it’s SO different down here in Brisbane!  At home, I fill a cup with Starbucks or Trader Joe’s to wake me up.  This morning they put ZOOM in my cup and it had the same effect!  So I guess that’s example of finding commonality within difference …. If only it could be that easy.  I do wonder about what it will be like to speak of a faith that I know primarily from a North American context as if anything I’ve learned or experience in North America could translate or be found helpful.   I don’t expect that everything I say will be like me saying “Starbucks” and my audience saying, “Oh ya, that’s ZOOM!”  Not everything is a one-to-one equivalent.  My object therefore is to do as much listening as possible.  I’ve come with plenty of presentations – on theology, spiritual path, worship, faith-and-culture, and faith and new media – but I plan to hold all these very lightly in my hand, being willing to reconfigure entirely based on LISTENING to their context and concerns.  So part of me feels like an unprepared slacker who doesn’t have the subject and timing of every minute of every presentation down to the second.  My wife, Melanie, wasn’t buying it for a minute: “When have you EVER been unprepared or a slacker?!” she said.  I had to admit that the other part of me – the part that isn’t so directly affected by fear – feels deeply excited.  I fee like I have got a bunch of tools in my toolbox but wont’ know which ones to bring out or even how to use them until I’m faced with an issue distinctive to the Australian context.  And they may hand me a few tools I’ve never used before!  Perhaps if I can stay open to my audiences, open to Spirit, and open to moving forward on  whatever intuition produces the peace and joy I associate with Spirit, something better than any of us had envisioned will happen.  ZOOM with two extra espresso shots, a dollop of foamed cream, and a dash of powdered cocoa.  Hmmmmm, maybe I’ll go back and order one of those …

On my way to the Land Down Under!

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

Welcome to the Australia Tour blog!  I’m just waiting in Omaha’s Eppley Airfield for my flight to Dallas, then on to Brisbane and finally to my first destination, Melbourne, Australia.  The flight between Dallas and Brisbane is 16 hours, then another couple to Melbourne, but I’m ready.  My friend, Rod Dungan, who served Countryside as Interim Associate Minister for a few months before Rev. Alexander came, gave me his recipe for the perfect international flight: Drink two glasses of water and one glass of red wine every hour.   Sounds fun, but I think not!  I didn’t get to sleep last night until around 4:30 am, so I think I’ll do just fine sleeping …

So here I am, in case you’ve already forgotten what I look like …

In case you’re wondering where I’ll be, here’s the basic itinerary (I’ve listed the exact times and locations where I have them, for those of you who may be in the area. Sorry I don’t have all the specifics.):

Saturday, Sept 22: Melbourne. Learning Festival: What Progressive Faith Communities Can Look Like In Practice 9:30am to 4pm at Kingswood College Senior School Centre, 355 Station Street, Box Hill

Sunday, Sept 23: Melbourne. Preaching at Ewing Memorial Church 10.00am. 59 Burke Road, East Malvern

Tuesday, Sept 25: Perth.  2 workshops: Faith and Popular Culture, Post Modern Spirituality, Technology & Worship

Thursday, Sept 27: Darwin. 3 workshops:  From the Areopagus to Aerospace: Incarnational Worship in a Post-Christian World (Daytime), Jesus Goes to the Movies (evening)

Sunday, Sept 30: Melbourne area.  Preaching at Toorak and Glen Waverley Uniting Church; “Darkwood Brew Unfiltered” event (evening). 603 Toorak Road, Toorak. 4.30pm. Cnr. Bogong Ave & Kingsway, Glen Waverley

Monday, Oct 1: Melbourne: The Incarnational Church: An Emerging, Mainline Worship and Ministry Paradigm for the 21st Century Event starts at 9.00am. CTM, 29 College Crescent, Parkville

Tuesday, Oct 2: Canberra. “Faith, Technology, and Darkwood Brew” Evening workshop.

Wednesday, Oct 3 – Thursday, Oct 4: Canberra: “From Inward Illumination to Outward Service” (over 1 and half days).

Friday, Oct 5: Adelaide.  “The World’s Most Dangerous Bible Study” (daytime) and PCNet Forum: “Lightning in a Dark Wood” (evening)

Sunday, Oct 7: Adelaide. 3 events: Creative Worship at Pilgrim Church; “Pilgrim Pathways” Forum; “Listening for the Spirit in a Skeptical Age: Was it God Talking or Just the Pizza?”

I’m out of breath just looking at the list!  But I’m looking forward to it.  My writings (especially The Phoenix Affirmations) and work on experiential worship has connected me with a lot of folks from Australia over the years.  I’ve never had a chance to meet more than the few who have come to the U.S. for a visit.  So I’m looking forward to seeing some old friends, and meeting new friends who are really old friends whom I never knew I had!

I’ll return to the U.S. on October 8th, recover for a day, then be back at Countryside on Wednesday, October 10th.  I miss you all already!

Countryside Sermon Videos Now Posted!

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

At long last, it appears we may have the bugs worked out that have prevented us from posting sermon videos on a regular basis.  We don’t have the bandwidth to support posting videos from both services, or whole services, but if you’re interested in viewing the sermon from one of the services each week, you should be able to do this from here on out (unless our tech folks are misinformed!).  Simply find the “Sermons” badge 2/3s of the way down the Countryside’s home page and click where it says “video” (Note: currently accessing video  through the “About” tab at the top of the home page is not working).  For THIS week, you may also simply click here!

In response to our new capabilities, Dr. Elnes is heard to have said, “Wouldn’t you know it?  The week I look like Yasser Arafat is the week my sermons get posted on video!”  But he seemed truly happy anyway …

Group Leader/Worship Team Party at Elnes Home

Monday, March 29th, 2010

To all Joy Luke Club Small Group Leaders:

I trust you are all finding some way to celebrate the conclusion of the Luke series with your respective groups.  Now, it’s time to celebrate YOU!

To this end, Melanie and I would like to invite all small group leaders and worship team members to our home on THURSDAY, APRIL 8, 6:30 pm for a potluck dinner-party! We hope you can come.

Bring your “spouse or your spice,” and bring a dish to share with others.  We’ll trust that we’ll have enough main dish, salad/veggie, and dessert dishes without having to assign anything.  Just bring what you’re passionate about making – something from the “fun” end of your cookbook – and let me know what it is when you RSVP (RSVP by emailing me at  That way I’ll know what to provide myself if there’s an imbalance.  We’ll provide non-alcoholic beverages, and if you would like to bring something else, please feel free (Just know you’ll probably be expected to share THAT, too!).

One more thing:  Not that you have Luke memorized by now or anything, but it would be wonderful if everyone brought with them a favorite line or two from Luke to share with us, or a special insight or story about your encounter with Luke’s gospel.

Hope to see you on April 8th!  If you need directions to our home, just call the church office at 402-391-1720.
Grace and peace, and thanks for all your great work,