There, but for the grace of God

In memory of my late grandmother, Nita Pearl
who loved poetry & the colour purple.

“There, but for the grace of God go I”, it once was said,
For another’s path of darkness
Could be mine or yours instead.
No soapbox to be stood on;
No high ground to be claimed;

I daren’t think too highly of myself
Lest I be shamed.

“There, but for the grace of God go I”, it once was thought,
For I know not of his story,
Or the battles he has fought.

Was birth or creed or race or greed
At fault most in her past?

Did she choose the leading role,
The script in which she’s cast?

“There, but for the grace of God go I”, we used to say;
My heart may not seem quite as black,
But it’s at least a shade of grey.

Perhaps his script was golden,
But he improvised for worse;

Does he deserve redemption,
Or forever to be cursed?

“There, but for the grace of God go I”, we rarely think;
“Perfect? No, but good at heart,”
We say without a blink.

Pride and greed and lust and rage
Ignored at least in part,

When visit unexpected,
Betray the blackness of our heart.

“There, but for the grace of God go I”, we’d think once more;
That before we speak our hearts are scanned
For blackness, to be sure.

For if we wish to throw a stone;
Point out another’s sin;

We might first see the roles reversed,
And find grace for love to win.

For the Love of Sport & My Muslim Neighbour

Sport. I’ve always loved it: both the watching and the playing, of all kinds. Aside from the fact that my competitive nature finds an appropriate outlet, I’m not quite sure which element of sport has most captured my affections: the emotions held within the millimetrical nature of a win or a loss, the exhilaration of a perfectly executed play, the camaraderie of working towards a common goal alongside equally-passionate people, or the creativity you discover within yourself & others. Perhaps it’s just the magical moments in which we unexpectedly find ourselves; moments that stand alone in time, forever ours to hold, untouchable.

Some moments, however, not only stake their claim over an hour or two of our lives but in fact plant themselves so deep in our spirit, that we find ourselves profoundly changed. Serendipitous moments. Such a moment found me one year ago under a glorious Autumn morning sky, on the sidelines of an Under 7s soccer match.

With my husband working this particular weekend, I had taken our three other children to watch our youngest son play his first ever soccer match. Unrestrained excitement for the start of a new season was evidenced by the clashes of small, shiny soccer boots, followed by flurries of feet peppering the next fields with hopeful but misguided strikes. Despite his broken English, inevitable conversation with the unfamiliar father beside me centred around how cute the kids were: all heart & limited skills. Naturally, we were both still proud of how our sons were playing, with shared laughter and high-fives and encouragement liberally offered from the sideline. At some point in the game, it occurred to me that I hadn’t ever shared this much conversation with someone who appeared Middle Eastern, yet as the whistle blew I had no idea of the moment of serendipity in which I was standing.

Our two boys ran from the field, ecstatic that their team had won & that they had each scored at least one goal. After some congratulations & small talk, the father turned to me & apologetically said, “Could I ask you a big favour? I work every Saturday & my wife is unable to take my son to soccer – would you mind taking him to the matches?” Little did he know that this request wasn’t just a favour – it was a moment sent from God. An opportunity to love thy neighbour. I didn’t for a moment hesitate to agree, and made arrangements for the following week. I wondered if his wife would also like to meet me, knowing I would want to do so if I was sending my young son with a complete stranger, and we arranged a coffee date for the week ahead.

As I knocked on their door that week, I was greeted by a smiling face, graced by a hijab. My hunch was confirmed – they were Muslim. For this Christian, middle-class, white-skinned, grey-collar tradie’s wife surrounded by Christian, middle-class, white-skinned, grey-collar friends, I was stepping into territory in which I had never before found myself. And to be honest, I was thrilled for the opportunity. For the past couple of years set against the backdrop of the hot-button issue of “boat people”, the Holy Spirit had been taking me on a journey from what might be considered right-wing socio-political beliefs to a more compassionate view of people. All people – human beings, many caught in situations that they hadn’t chosen. And no matter how they had come to find themselves there, He had been gently reminding me that I was called to simply love people with the same compassion that Christ modeled – the same love which I had graciously received – despite my views on finding a practical solution to the humanitarian crisis engulfing the world. So although they weren’t a refugee family, I knew that this was the Holy Spirit’s next step: planting in my life souls with a story – putting faces to what had become the greatest symbol of fear in our country: Islam.

Enjoying broad conversation over Arabic coffee & Middle Eastern baking at her dining table, I could feel my spirit enlarging with each story. Strangers – brought together by a sport that neither played – were becoming friends. Two people who couldn’t be more different in so many ways, were finding out just how much they shared in life. Perhaps she already knew, but I certainly didn’t before that point; and the year of friendship that our families have savored since, has been one of the most enriching experiences of our lives. We have laughed over our children’s antics & despaired of their rivalry, lamented their mosque’s arson attack & our church’s break-in, celebrated family birthdays & enjoyed a halal BBQ together, mourned the Paris bombings & the instability of their home country, shared gifts, & sought to understand some of the differences in our faiths. Underscoring all of our interactions has been a sense of generosity – hearts inclined toward each other, as fellow human beings, the outcome of which has been an expanded mind – speaking for myself, at least.

For most of the soccer season, I picked up their son, took him to games, and then returned him home.

This Easter, I reflect on what I have learned throughout this journey of my sense of humanity being enlarged, dwarfing the miniscule inconvenience it was to serve their family each Saturday.

I have a greater understanding of the Holy Spirit’s patience, gentleness, & kindness toward me.

I recognize how ignorant I have been & now try to live with a greater awareness & expectation of God-opportunities that may present in my life.

I realize the world isn’t as black & white as I had believed; it fades greyer with each year that I age, and not just on top of my head.

I am firmer in the belief that my mum always encouraged: assuming the best of people is the greatest lens through which to look.

I have an acute awareness that when Jesus said, “Whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all”,He wasn’t saying it just for the benefit of the “all”. In a beautiful mystery, as we live from an open heart to serve all, our lives are enlarged & enriched in a way that we wouldn’t have experienced without first choosing to serve. It truly is more blessed to give than to receive, and we may just find that the blessings hidden within serving others are actually greater than the sacrifice required.

I am so grateful for God-ordained moments of serendipity.

Our boys start soccer training again this week. With clarity, I do in fact have a favourite element of sport, summed up by a text I sent to a friend at about this time last year: “I’m living the soccer dream… bringing people together!”

May God bless you as you live in the pursuit of open-hearted service to others, sharing the love of Christ whether you are captivated by the world game or not.

As published by Common Grace, Easter 2016

A word from Isaiah Berlin…

“If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used—if necessary, terror, slaughter. Lenin believed this after reading Das Kapital, and consistently taught that if a just, peaceful, happy, free, virtuous society could be created by the means he advocated, then the end justified any methods that needed to be used, literally any.

“The root conviction which underlies this is that the central questions of human life, individual or social, have one true answer which can be discovered. It can and must be implemented, and those who have found it are the leaders whose word is law. The idea that to all genuine questions there can be only one true answer is a very old philosophical notion. The great Athenian philosophers, Jews and Christians, the thinkers of the Renaissance and the Paris of Louis XIV, the French radical reformers of the eighteenth century, the revolutionaries of the nineteenth—however much they differed about what the answer was or how to discover it (and bloody wars were fought over this)—were all convinced that they knew the answer, and that only human vice and stupidity could obstruct its realization.

“This is the idea of which I spoke, and what I wish to tell you is that it is false. Not only because the solutions given by different schools of social thought differ, and none can be demonstrated by rational methods—but for an even deeper reason. The central values by which most men have lived, in a great many lands at a great many times—these values, almost if not entirely universal, are not always harmonious with each other. Some are, some are not. Men have always craved for liberty, security, equality, happiness, justice, knowledge, and so on. But complete liberty is not compatible with complete equality—if men were wholly free, the wolves would be free to eat the sheep. Perfect equality means that human liberties must be restrained so that the ablest and the most gifted are not permitted to advance beyond those who would inevitably lose if there were competition. Security, and indeed freedoms, cannot be preserved if freedom to subvert them is permitted. Indeed, not everyone seeks security or peace, otherwise some would not have sought glory in battle or in dangerous sports.

“Justice has always been a human ideal, but it is not fully compatible with mercy. Creative imagination and spontaneity, splendid in themselves, cannot be fully reconciled with the need for planning, organization, careful and responsible calculation. Knowledge, the pursuit of truth—the noblest of aims—cannot be fully reconciled with the happiness or the freedom that men desire, for even if I know that I have some incurable disease this will not make me happier or freer. I must always choose: between peace and excitement, or knowledge and blissful ignorance. And so on.

“So what is to be done to restrain the champions, sometimes very fanatical, of one or other of these values, each of whom tends to trample upon the rest, as the great tyrants of the twentieth century have trampled on the life, liberty, and human rights of millions because their eyes were fixed upon some ultimate golden future?

“I am afraid I have no dramatic answer to offer: only that if these ultimate human values by which we live are to be pursued, then compromises, trade-offs, arrangements have to be made if the worst is not to happen. So much liberty for so much equality, so much individual self-expression for so much security, so much justice for so much compassion. My point is that some values clash: the ends pursued by human beings are all generated by our common nature, but their pursuit has to be to some degree controlled—liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I repeat, may not be fully compatible with each other, nor are liberty, equality, and fraternity.

“So we must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals. I know only too well that this is not a flag under which idealistic and enthusiastic young men and women may wish to march—it seems too tame, too reasonable, too bourgeois, it does not engage the generous emotions. But you must believe me, one cannot have everything one wants—not only in practice, but even in theory. The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion. And then to destruction, blood—eggs are broken, but the omelette is not in sight, there is only an infinite number of eggs, human lives, ready for the breaking. And in the end the passionate idealists forget the omelette, and just go on breaking eggs.”

You make a good point, but…

As intelligent humans, we like to think we’re right. Confidently interacting within the world around us is most certainly more helpful than constantly second-guessing ourselves, preserving an environment of insecurity. For many of our thoughts & decisions, we can generally navigate life without dislodging others from their chosen tack.

This may be true for the vapid elements of life, but should some audacious soul trespass on our more considered judgments, heaven help us all! If you’ve spent any time on social media or watching politico-cultural television programs, you’ll have experienced more than your share of both passionate and vacuous commentary from the self-declared morally superior side of the fence. The side on which you’re not standing (or sitting, should you find yourself atop the fence). All sides have their zealots in the fray; some of us may have even found ourselves holding the loud-speaker at one time or another.

Whether the topic be politics, society, religion, schooling, or the fashionable mother-lode: diet (more specifically, sugar) we humans have an uncanny ability to sacrifice principle in favour of a side. Entrenched opinions & emotionally-charged rhetoric too easily capture our sensibilities so that our capacity for intellectual purity is impaired.

But of course, the way we see the world makes absolute sense. And if we are completely honest, at least with ourselves, many of the beliefs we hold really are superior to others’; if this weren’t the case, no one would argue for anything, whether expressed or thought.

Joseph Joubert quipped, “The aim of an argument or discussion should not be victory, but progress.” Does there exist an approach, then, by which we can positively engage those less-enlightened than ourselves?  One that progresses society, whilst avoiding the use of verbal or virtual bombs laced with insult & self-righteousness?  I believe there is. It requires us to draw on the core human characteristics of humility, empathy, & compassion, all summed up in one word: love.

When I wish to engage in changing another’s viewpoint, instead of lobbing over a grenade laden with sanctimony, love requires me to climb the fence with an open heart & open arms; I may even come to understand why they are so seemingly erroneous. From my new vantage point, I am sure to discover previously concealed weeds within my own garden bed of thought; but should I fail to see why the other person persists with such perceived delusion, love requires me to whisper quietly… even when they should know better. Love calls me to move first, to place myself squarely in the comfort zone of others, regardless of the disquiet within my own soul. It implores that I would first understand before seeking to be understood.

Whether we are arguing an important point or championing a good cause, it is quite possible to be right, yet wrong, all at the same time. Whilst we may have loosened the grip on our opinions or escaped the lure of emotive rhetoric, it’s all too easy to unconsciously side-step into zealous moral superiority. Love requires humility, sometimes appropriately displayed by a silent mouth & an untouched keyboard… a lesson hard-learned & all too familiar to some of us.

But conviction sometimes asks us to have a voice, either for ourselves or for those who cannot be heard. When it does, may we always wrap our words in love so that those who receive them are enlarged & that the only victory won is mutual progress.

Enduring in love is the principle that when abandoned, causes untold misery, yet when pursued, brings immeasurable prosperity to all within its reach. Paul wrote it well to the Corinthians: “So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.”

I’m not just alert, I’m alarmed!

I know she lives in my community. I also know that she has children, and that her eyes are quite pretty. But that’s all I know about the mysterious lady from whose company I quickly departed with my daughters while attending a children’s music festival last Thursday. Hosted by our local university, there was a large cross-section of our multi-cultural community enjoying the gorgeous Spring weather & the celebratory atmosphere of the festival.

A week earlier, our country’s “terror alert” had been raised from medium to high: a terrorist attack is now likely. Add to this the fact that just the day before, anti-terror raids had been executed across several states in our country, taking a handful of people into custody, accused of plotting an awful random crime against an unsuspecting public.

Consequently, almost involuntarily I was operating on higher alert toward those in my community who might pose a random threat to me and to my family. I found myself surveying my fellow caffeinators, imagining what it might be like for one of them to randomly launch a knife at my neck & shout a loud declaration in honour of their fearsome god.

Distracted from my bleak imaginations by the long black suddenly bearing my name, I thanked the barista & moved to join my daughters in front of a nearby makeshift stage. A group of parents, students, and children milled around, being entertained by a group of enthusiastic, young singers. I quickly noticed one lady: covered head to toe in free-flowing clothing, her face veil betrayed only her bright brown eyes; she was difficult to overlook. Unsure of what to do with my own awkwardness about how to possibly interact with someone so closed off from the world around her, I made random glances in her direction without any intention of personal engagement.

My curiosity about her carefully hidden life was soon curtailed when she walked towards our location, placed a large black folder on the seat next to us, and then walked away with her family to another place altogether, completely out of sight. It seemed a little odd to me and before I knew it, my bleak imagination had returned & adrenaline saw me promptly moving my daughters to another location far away from the abandoned item before it could blow us to smithereens. I was quite suitably “alert, but not alarmed”, entirely unaware that the increased police presence on campus was indeed related to a bomb threat. As I later processed the bomb hoax by an imbecilic 19 year old, I couldn’t help but realize that I’m not alert; I am in fact alarmed. I am alarmed by a number of things, and I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m not alone in some of them.

I am alarmed by extremists who lack any regard for life.

I am alarmed that I have allowed myself to see potential terrorists behind every Middle Eastern face, while conveniently ignoring the potential drunken terrorist behind the wheel of every vehicle.

I am alarmed by an ideology that believes a woman should be concealed under billowing swathes of unpractical clothing.

I am alarmed that I have allowed myself the right to disengage from her because I do not understand why she is wearing clothing that is so offensive to me.

I am alarmed by so many new Australians’ inability to speak English.

I am alarmed that I have allowed myself to sanctimoniously silently correct others’ misuse of the English language without reaching out to anyone around me to offer support from my position of educated privilege.

I am alarmed by the seeming increase of tribalism in Australia.

I am alarmed that I have not chosen to actively share my culture, having very few friends with ethnicity of difference to mine, ignorantly & subconsciously preferring to live securely in my middle-class white tribe.

There are a myriad of things in this world that alarm me; many of them are so atrocious, they are unspeakable. But what alarms me most is that I too quickly allow fear of others to move me, rather than reaching out beyond my safe, well-established tribe. I don’t know the woman from whose folder I ran at the music festival, but I have already made many judgments about her. Based on confronting world events, I fled from a fellow mother because I didn’t trust her, holding her instead under immediate suspicion. This is not how I want to live; as an active participant, this is not the world I envision. I want my life to be lived in such a way that both of our lives are enriched & improved. Yes I want my government to be strong & to protect its citizens, but the government will never know what life is like, for either that woman or me. And neither should it. Much of the responsibility for creating a stable, cohesive society does lie with our governments; but when it comes to co-existing together, advancing humanity together, really living life alongside one another, in community… that’s our individual responsibility, my responsibility, completely independent of our governments’ activities.

So in the future, I hope I choose to be alert.

Alert to hope.

Alert to diversity.

Alert to personhood.

Alert to shared struggle.

Alert to common delight.

Alert to love of my fellow man.

I want to be alert to living a life that reaches out to others, instead of simply conserving the little bit of awesomeness that I’ve been given to enjoy.

And if in living a life of generous spirit I meet my physical demise, I pray that those with whom I have engaged might know that, ultimately, it is only in losing the life we have that we find the life after which we desire.