Latest Entries »

Mountain of God

It’s probably one of the best things about the long-ish drive up to the mountains, the headspace and uninterrupted time with which to listen through an entire album. This morning I revisited an old favourite that I haven’t listened to for years: Third Day’s ‘Wherever You Are’.

It was released in 2005, which also happened to be the year that I got sick. Listening to the album on my drive up to Springwood this morning, I began to recall the season of life to which this album was a bit of a soundtrack.

I found myself returning to the way I first responded to the realisation that this wasn’t going to be a quick fix sickness, but a long-term disability…

And I am astounded by God’s kindness. About a month into the diagnosis process (which was leaning towards Juvenile Parkinsons), I took up 2 Corinthians 12:9 as my mantra: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’. As a fifteen-year-old, I realised that my identity had been anchored in my abilities – sport, music, art, drama – and that this disability was actually a grace from God to ‘keep me from basing who I was in what I could do’ (verbatim from my journal). In hindsight, it’s absurd that I was at peace with God about this. What kind of fifteen-year-old thinks that? I am so sure that God was abundantly generous in giving me wisdom and insight into His character and purposes, such that I was very calm during what could have been a hugely tumultuous time emotionally. Don’t mistake me, it sucked, and I was upset – I had a huge pillar of my identity being ripped up from under me! But I was no where near as distressed as I could have, and should have, been.

This song is sown into my memory in a way that is associated with that time. It’s now eight years down the track that began in 2005, and looking back, whilst this song meant a huge amount to me, I couldn’t have known just how true it would be of the journey ahead.

The thing with disability, is that it gets harder the longer you have it. It might seem obvious, but it needs to be said that although humans are resilient and you adjust to a new way of life, some things do get harder. The pain is more chronic, the fight against self-doubt is tougher as your capacity slowly shrinks, and the hope of healing fades. Things that you’d always thought would be a part of your future become uncertain and insecurities have a stronger pull in your heart: maybe employers won’t want to hire you because of the risk, maybe you won’t be able to take that vocational path because you’re not confident shaking people’s hands anymore, maybe you won’t get married because no one will want the associated financial and physical and emotional baggage, and, even if you do, maybe you won’t be able to be a good mother because you’re physically incapacitated. I really am not being melodramatic; these are genuinely held fears, and I’m sure they’re felt by many of those with disabilities or chronic illness.

But, in returning to this song, I was encouraged by the faith of my fifteen-year-old self, and I was moved with thankfulness to the God who gave her the faith to trust that He was doing something good through an otherwise awful situation.

And so, today, I decided to actively trust again that His purposes in this trial are for good, and not for evil. And as you listen to this song, I invite you to do the same – wherever you are.

Mountain of God

Thought that I was all alone
Broken and afraid
But You were there with me
Yes, You were there with me
And I didn’t even know
That I had lost my way
But You were there with me
Yes, You were there with me

‘Til You opened up my eyes
I never knew
That I couldn’t ever make it
Without You

Even though the journey’s long
And I know the road is hard
You’re the One who’s gone before me
You will help me carry on
After all that I’ve been through
Now I realize the truth
That I must go through the valley
To stand upon the mountain of God

As I travel on the road
That You have lead me down
You are here with me
Yes, You are here with me
I have need for nothing more
Oh, now that I have found
That You are here with me
Yes, You are here with me

I confess from time to time
I lose my way
But You are always there
To bring me back again

Sometimes I think of where it is I’ve come from
And the things I’ve left behind
But of all I’ve had, what I possessed
Nothing can quite compare
With what’s in front of me
With what’s in front of me

Advertisements

‘Even with slower population growth the total population is projected to be 35.9 million people by 2050.’[1]

These are the words, contained in the Treasury’s 2010 Intergenerational Report, which sparked a frenzied debate in the lead-up to the Federal Election over the trajectory of Australia’s population growth. As the Productivity Commission’s Chairman Gary Banks said in March 2011 at its Sustainable Population Roundtable, ‘[c]onfusion and contention have reigned supreme.’[2] The Australian public were suddenly bombarded with ‘claim and counter claim about the merits or otherwise of immigration,’[3] forced to choose whether to trust the likes of then Prime Minister Rudd, advocating the desirability of a “Big Australia,”[4] or the likes of Former New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, who is persuasive and vocal in his arguments against a 36 million person Australia.[5]

In amongst the fray, and arguably responsible for popularizing the debate, is Dick Smith. This former Australian of the Year considers his forays into the population debate as ‘the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life,’[6] and his documentary Population Puzzle exudes precisely that kind of zeal.

First aired on ABC1 in August 2010, Population Puzzle presented to the Australian public an exposé (in the vein of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 or Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me) on the dangers associated with Australia’s ‘unplanned social experiment’ into what Smith considers to be unmitigated population growth. Smith’s intention is clear: motivated by a nostalgic view of Australia as it was when he grew up, and a fear of the devastation of Australia’s social and environmental health, he seeks to mobilise public opinion against the current projected rates of population growth.

As such, the tone of Population Puzzle is far from neutral, and its content is carefully selected, arranged and presented to manipulate the emotions of its viewers. This manipulation is not ill-intentioned; far from it. Smith is clearly arrested by his conviction that the trajectory Australia’s population growth is apocalyptic. However, the thrust of the documentary lacks the kind of nuance necessary when dealing with an issue wrought with such obvious complexity.

This is not to say that Smith does not address the opinions that run counter to his own. The documentary features clips of Tony Burke MP disagreeing with Smith’s assessment that the ‘Government was hell bent on higher population in a very aggressive way’; Lindsay Tanner MP deeming Smith’s claims as ‘grossly irresponsible and completely absurd’; and Bernard Salt advocating why high net overseas migration (NOM) is instrumental to ameliorating the problems associated with an ageing population. However, the lack of nuance comes through his simplistic treatment of these opinions.

For example, the dismissiveness and shallowness with which he handles Salt’s opinion regarding immigration damages the currency of Smith’s case. Rather than taking the discussion to a more substantive level, he defers to Ross Gittins, who whilst is indeed a ‘respected economic commentator’[7], is not an expert on the economic ramifications of demographic trends. Gittins dismisses Salt with a somewhat flippant one-liner, that ‘[i]ncreased immigration is actually not a very satisfactory way to cope with the ageing of the population.’ Instead of unpacking why that is the case, Gittins skirts by, instead digressing into his opinion regarding why population ageing ‘is an exaggerated problem’.

The question of immigration is the most contested of all the issues Smith raises. At its core, Smith’s argument is targeting the failure of Australia’s leadership to acknowledge ‘the impossibility of endlessly expanding our economy and population in a finite world.’[8] He begins Population Puzzle by citing that Australia’s population grew by 480 000 in 2009, and that two-thirds of that number were migrants. Whilst the number is accurate, Smith frames this as the projected norm for population growth, rather than as it probably was: an aberration. This aberration, Pearse argues, was caused by ‘Australia’s economic strength during a global recession, and the surge in foreign students using vocational education as a path to permanent residency before the Gillard government clamped down.’[9]

Smith is attempting a corrective to the government’s evasiveness regarding immigration and its impact on population policy. Rightly so. In seeking to avoid the political sensitivities associated with migration issues, the government has failed to properly engage in an open discussion regarding what is normative for immigration rates. However, the manner in which Smith executes this corrective is questionable.

The Intergeneration Report released by the Treasury in 2010 states that NOM ‘is expected to continue at a rate equivalent to 0.6 per cent of the total population per annum on average, as per the average of the past 40 years.’[10] Contrary to the way Smith portrays it, a high immigration rate is not the government’s silver bullet to redress the fiscal pressures associated with population ageing. It is true that the report does present immigration as playing a role in ‘ameliorating the ageing of the population because migrants tend to be younger on average than the resident population’. And indeed, there are valid arguments against treating immigration as the solution to an ageing population.[11]

However, what Smith neglects to canvass in his presentation is that immigration is but one of three responses the government makes to the issue of population ageing. The report acknowledges that ‘[e]conomic growth is a function of productivity, participation and population’. These ‘3 Ps’ demonstrate that, whilst Smith portrayed a deep malaise in the government’s attention to the indispensability of increased investment in infrastructure, the government is indeed prioritizing investment in infrastructure: $4.6 bn to improve metropolitan rail networks in six major cities; $3.4 bn to improve the quality and efficiency of Australia’s road network; the implementation of the National Broadband Network; and measures to accelerate COAG’s reform under the National Water Initiative.[12] 

Smith’s vague reporting of the government’s measures to redress the pressures of population ageing stem from a severe under-assessment of the significance of the issue of population ageing. ‘Everyone’s always worrying that Australia’s an ageing society. It’s as if we oldies give nothing back to the community.’ This is, to say the least, an incomplete dealing of the issue of population ageing. Australia is projected to experience an ‘increase in the proportion of the population aged 65 and over’ from ‘13.5% in 2010 to 20.3% in 2031 and 23.8% by 2051.’[13] This is a substantial structural shift in Australia’s demography that will induce significant fiscal pressures, requiring increased total government spending from 22.4% of GDP in 2016 to 27.1% by 2050, and consequently, ‘spending is projected to exceed revenue by 2.75% of GDP in 40 years’ time’[14]. These pressures will be compounded by ‘slower economic growth associated with ageing, increased demand for age-related payments and services, expected technological advancements in health and demand for higher quality health services.’ [15] Population ageing needs to be engaged with seriously.

The Intergenerational Report also states that if Australia were to decrease its NOM from 180 000 per annum, in order to slow population growth from 1.2% p.a. to 0.8% p.a., that real GDP per capita would be around 2% lower in 2050. Smith handles this by imploring Australians to be prepared to have a lower increase in GDP in order to maintain their quality of life. This does not engage with the data which shows the strongest variable correlated with improved wellbeing is higher GDP. As Chris Berg states, ‘Growing richer means getting healthier. People in wealthy countries live longer.’[16]

Smith’s perspective is characteristic of the polarization evident in the contemporary discourse in Australia: ‘a push for rapid population growth in response to the [need for growth in the workforce due to the ageing of Australia’s population]’, pitted against ‘a demand for stopping growth’ due to ‘substantial environmental constraints on population growth which will be exacerbated by climate change’[1]. Smith is clearly representative of the latter, and many of his arguments have some validity. However, as the Demographic Change and Liveability Panel argues in its report, the ‘complexity of population impacts needs to be acknowledged.’ Smith’s simplistic rendition of the issues, whilst making his case accessible to the broader Australian public, lacks the kind of nuance and substance needed to make helpful progress in this discussion. As Guy Pearse commented in The Monthly, whilst Smith ‘has pushed population higher up the agenda’, and ‘highlighted the lack of planning to sustainably meet Australia’s infrastructure needs whilst maintaining our quality of life’, these positive contributions are so diminished by his ‘cherrypicking alarmism’[2] that he ends up undermining the case he so passionately seeks to make.

 Image


[1] Demographic Change and Liveability Panel,  2010, ‘Demographic Change and Liveability Panel Report’, available online at http://www.environment.gov.au/sustainability/population/publications/pubs/demographic-panel-report.pdf.

[2] Pearse, G., 2011, ‘Comment: Dick Smith’s Population Crisis’, The Monthly, June 2011.


[1] The 2010 Intergenerational Report, p. 2.

[2] Productivity Commission, Sustainable Population Roundtable, p. 1.

[3] Productivity Commission, Sustainable Population Roundtable, p. 1.

[4] Rudd, K., 2009, The 7:30 Report, ABC, 22 October 2009.

[5] Carr, B., ‘Why our cities really will choke with population growth’, Crikey, 1 April 2010, available online: http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/04/01/bob-carr-why-our-cities-will-really-choke-with-population-growth/

[6] Smith, D., 2010, ‘Population Puzzle’, Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

[7] Smith, D., 2010, ‘Population Puzzle’, Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

[8] Smith, D., 2011, ‘The idiocy of endless growth’, Sydney Morning Herald, 29th May, available online at http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/the-idiocy-of-endless-growth-20110529-1fata.html#ixzz1pzFA0lYZ.

[9] Pearse, G., 2011, ‘Comment: Dick Smith’s Population Crisis’, The Monthly, June 2011.

[10] Intergenerational Report, p.2

[11] Carr, B., ‘Why our cities really will choke with population growth’, Crikey, 1 April 2010, http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/04/01/bob-carr-why-our-cities-will-really-choke-with-population-growth/

[12] Intergenerational Report, p. 9 and 10

[13] Bell, M., Wilson, T., and Charles-Edwards, E., 2011, ‘Australia’s Population Future: Probabilistic Forecasts Incorporating Expert Judgment’, Geographic Research, 49(3): 267.

[14] Intergenerational Report, p. 3.

[15] Intergenerational Report, p. 3.

[16] Berg, C. 2010, ‘The pursuit of economic growth,’ The Drum, 22 June, available online at http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/35118.html.

An intolerably costly war

Three thousand, six hundred and fifty-two days. 6051 dead uniformed US soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. 2300 dead US contract workers. 19 870 dead non-US allied soldiers and contract workers. 150 096 wounded US soldiers and contractors. 68 366 wounded allied uniformed personnel. 1 033 000 Iraqi casualties. $872 billion in military, local security, and State Department expenditure in Iraq. $468 billion in Afghanistan. $26 billion in disability pensions and Medicare payments for US veterans. $360 billion in home land security expenditure. $110 billion in national intelligence expenditure. An estimated $3.3 trillion in fighting the “War on Terror”. All in the name of “freedom” (whatever that means). The question is, was all of this worth it?

There are two elements involved in justifying a war.

Firstly, a war will be justifiable (but not necessarily justified) if it was entered into on morally defensible grounds. Secondly, and more significantly in the case of a war which has spanned a decade, a war will be justifiable if the character and consequences of the war was warranted by the objectives it sought to achieve.

With regard to the former, the general consensus is that the response of the US in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks was entirely appropriate. Employing military forces in Afghanistan in order to remove the Taliban regime who had sheltered and abetted al Qaeda plotters was morally defensible: it was a proportionate response to the events which precipitated the war.

However, things get much messier when considering the latter. The integrity of the character of the war on terrorism suffered a severe blow when the US invaded and occupied Iraq in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that conveniently never turned up. The human rights abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay further undermined the integrity of the mission, invoking accusations of complicity in the very conduct the war claimed to oppose.

Not only does a questionable shadow loom over the character of the war, but it is very difficult to make a plausible case for a justified war on the basis of its consequences. In part, this is due to the poorly-defined scope of the war; what constitutes the war on terrorism is practically impossible to determine when the frontier of the war is everywhere where the values of ‘the Free World’ are threatened. This unlimited commitment to the abstract values of freedom, tolerance, and the rule of law creates an obligation to defend them in an ever-expanding series of arenas. Furthermore, because the premise of war is steeped in heavily ideological terms, it makes success very difficult to verify in any quantifiable way.

It is disconcerting, to say the least, when most of the successes of a very costly war exist in the unverifiable realm of the ideological.

Measuring the morality of war

The colossal costs of the war on terrorism would be worthwhile if they were necessary for securing successes of equal or greater weight. Now, some successes are quantifiable; for example, achieving the objective of killing bin Laden. The issue is that this decade-long war has had very few quantifiable successes.

The purported successes appear to lie mostly in the realm of unrealised possibilities; namely, what would have happened if ‘we’ did not leverage our resources to fight terrorism in the way we did. Think of all the civilian lives which have been saved because of thwarted attacks, or undermined capabilities thanks to Allied military presence in Afghanistan.

Don’t mistake me: I think there is certainly some validity in this argument. The problem is that such hypotheticals have little or no quantifiable weight with which to measure against the very real, hard costs. It takes a lot to displace the cost of $3.3 trillion and 28,221 dead servicemen and women. And, when the trajectory of the war does not appear to be on any discernible path to victory, I am not sure that the unverifiable hypothetical and ideological successes are sufficient to do so.

Measuring the costs

The other problem with such hypotheticals (“what would have happened”) is that they also work the other way.

Let me explain.

The New York Times’ latest survey puts the bill for the US in waging this asymmetrical war against terrorism at $3.3 trillion. (As an aside, for every dollar spent by al Qaeda on the 9/11 attacks, the US spent $6.6 million. Bin Laden’s declared intention to “[bleed] America to the point of bankruptcy” no longer seems as farfetched as it once did.)

Now, I am not an advocate of unconditional non-violence as an approach to world affairs (not yet; the likes of Simon Moyle and Jarrod McKenna have seriously shaken my thinking, though!). I am not a pacifist. I think that the direct costs of responding to the 9/11 attacks were probably unavoidable. But those direct costs only make up a fraction of the total bill.

I want to suggest that the way in which the US went about the war against terrorism was not proportionate to the attacks that precipitated it.

You see, the $3.3 trillion dollar figure is comprised not only of direct costs (fighting the Taliban). It includes expenditures of choice (Iraq), and ‘opportunity costs’. These ‘opportunity costs’ are the inverse of the ‘what would have happened’ measurement of success. Namely, they are the cost of lost opportunities. They are the unquantifiable unrealised possibilities of where the world could have been if the remaining $2 trillion had been spent on other endeavours. They are the wistful list of ‘what ifs?’:

What if it had been spent on longer-range threats to American security? Or delivering on promises for ‘Marshall plans’ to rebuild societies that are at risk of letting the next al Qaeda flourish? $1 trillion, by some measures , would be sufficient to build 120 000 schools, feed and immunise every African child for 60 years. What if it had been spent on rebuilding a broken American education system? Reducing national debt? Investing in technological innovation to facilitate better competition with China?

The war on terrorism not only cost excessive amounts of money, and excessive amounts of human life. It cost the US the invaluable opportunities that it can never recover.

Historical assessment

Now, history isn’t science, and it certainly isn’t maths. You can’t test a hypothesis because events are unrepeatable, and you can’t calculate the impact of these unrepeatable events because they are mostly unquantifiable and hard to detach from other variables. It involves a ‘comparison between the actual consequences of some actual event and a consequence which might have followed if that event had not occurred’ (CS Lewis).

However, you can estimate.

In my mind, it is painfully clear that the vague successes achieved over ten years of warfare do very little to temper the terrible spectre that is the costs of this seemingly intractable war.

NB: This was an op-ed I wrote for a uni assessment.

one peter one: three to nine

There’s a steady hum in her cadence,

a glimmer lacing the rhythm of the air

as she speaks, she speaks

the tongue of a distant land.

 

But her kneecaps wear the scars

of a native childhood climbing native trees;

her past flush with the stories

of a girl who bled native blood.

 

There’s a change in her gait:

she now walks like a daughter.

As she sings, she sings

the songs of a strange homeland.

 

She hungers and thirsts for odd things,

and invites us all to taste them too.

She laughs with crinkled eyes at thieves

whose threats can’t take her lot.

 

She looks much the same,

it’s her air that’s the thing:

much brighter, and surer – more her than before.

A word from grandpa

I felt the company of another’s gaze, so I turned to my left, and found the owner of the gaze.

‘Hello.’

Milky blue eyes peered down from beyond spectacles, and smiled in reply.

‘Hello.’

‘What are you doing?’

‘I’m looking at you.’

I chuckled. And as I reached for the cinnamon, I inquired of this man seated next to me with a fondness in my cadence, ‘Tell me, why are you looking at me?’

I anticipated the familiar flicker in his cheek, the herald of humour and wit, but when my glance rested back with his eyes, they were met with a settled sincerity.

‘Why? I’m looking at you because I don’t see you enough.’

A moment of profundity mingled with the buttering of toast and pouring of juice, as he spoke a hundred words through the warm expression on his wrinkled face.

‘I don’t see you enough either, Pa.’

And the current of the conversation wove on across the breakfast table.

The stars have dimmed.

 

The keepers of the house,

formerly formidable in dexterity

and deft in independence,

now tremble.

Bested by silver spoons and forks.

 

The stonemasons and grinders

are troubled by spelt bread and marmalade;

The watchmen at the windows

find the familiar now foreign and indiscernible.

The maids eavesdropping at the door

are frustrated, forced to lip-read instead.

 

The stars have dimmed.

But they still twinkle.

Twinkling with the knowledge

of that which is to come.

Of he who is to come.

 

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. Ecclesiastes 3.11

We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 1 Corinthians 15.51-52

If I can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. Love never fails. But where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 1 Corinthians 13.2

On paper it seems like an indie cliche. It ought to be, really.

Delicately picked guitar riff, banjo instrumental punctuated with a choir of clapping hands, the beautiful mingling of (her whispy & his willow-tree) voices propped up by the delightfully meek accordion…

The thing is, it is the furthest thing imaginable from a cliche. I spent seven hours with it on loop last year (the year before?) to sustain my writing of an essay. No one can tolerate seven hours with a cliche.

See, this song is like the stranger on the street whose crinkled, warm eyes dance with hope. A knowing hope that imparts a self-forgetful smile as you keep walking.

The chorus of stomping young folk imports you into the middle of a pub of friends, old and new, voicing a familiar song you’ve never heard before. Mister Willow Tree paints vivid images in the mind’s eye. He paints with words that speak with both precision and  ambiguity of longings residing deep in the common reservoir of human experience. The shape and movement over the course of three minutes and twenty-seven seconds is perfect. Its texture is captivating. Understated, but with a twinkle in its eye.

It would seem I’ve descended into sickening hyperbole. If only I were not so sincere! In short: this song is a delight. It comes from a band whose latest EP, ‘kingdom of your own’, is an impossibly beautiful heart explosion. If only there were words for those four songs! Words are so clumsy. But suffice it to say that the progression evident in this band’s sound over the past year is so exciting!

Their name is ‘Matthew and the Atlas‘.

The song is ‘I Will Remain‘.

One of my dearest friends is an officer in the army. In what we think, the ways we think, the convictions and beliefs we hold, it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that we are diametric opposites. He once said to me, “Steph, we’re never going to get anywhere talking about religion. You’re as stubborn as I am!”

I remember grinning at him, sheepishly.

The funny thing is that it’s totally true, but also totally not.

1. There is a world of difference between a person who is stubborn, and a person who holds a conviction strongly.

I think one of the many blessings of university, is that the longer you spend time in an environment where your views are constantly rubbing up against the views of other people (who are often a heck of a lot smarter than you are), the less likely you are to be overconfident about what you think.

I think it is possible to listen to a person attentively in such a way that you genuinely seek to see the logic, or at least merit, of their opinions. Even if it is an opinion that you really disagree with to start out with. Especially when it is an opinion that you really disagree with.

I think there must be a way of listening in which, instead of calculating in your mind all the ways in which you could undermine their argument with interjections of your own, you listen. Not just attentive to the argument. But attentive to the person. Because until you understand the person, you won’t really understand the argument. Because you won’t understand the worldview that underlies the argument.

But I don’t think it’s accurate to say that if, after listening to the other person sincerely, you hold the same opinion you did to begin with that you are stubborn. It might just be that the other person has not presented you with evidence convincing enough, or an argument compelling enough, to sway you from your strongly held conviction. And that’s legitimate!

2. The pride residing at the root of stubbornness is a poison that we cannot root out by trying harder

Every day for a month last year I wrote “Phil 2:3” on my hand, to try to retrain my mind to resolve to “consider others better than myself.” It was an attempt to train my mind and my mouth.

I think it was a good thing to do.

But it didn’t go deep enough.

You see, I don’t just have a stubborn mind. I have a stubborn heart. Gosh, even when I’m thinking to myself in a conversation, “Consider this person better than you,” another part of me is thinking, “And aren’t you just GREAT for trying to think of them (a person who is clearly inferior to you) better than you?”

!!

You see, I am fundamentally incapable of considering other people better than myself; it’s going to take a lot more than looking at scrawls of ink on my hand throughout the day for me to consider others better than myself!

I need to go deeper. To trace back my words to the thoughts underlying them, and the ways of thinking underlying my thoughts, and to the genesis of these ways of thinking. And, maybe you’ll agree – the spring from which these ways of thinking, from which all of my life flows, is my heart.

3. It takes a heart transplant

I do not think that holding an opinion strongly is necessarily ‘stubborn’ in a negative, ignorant, unresponsive sense.

But I do have a stubborn heart.

When I jotted down this thought a few weeks back, I had just had a week of many refreshing conversations in which I had been reminded of my spiritual amnesia, of my inability to root out these stubborn and poisonous weeds in my heart.

When I say stubborn, I mean this: like a smoker, my heart returns time and time again to the same unsatisfying addictions; like a disobedient dog, I stray back into bad habits; like a distrustful two-year-old, I deliberately forge on towards decisions that I know will upset the ones who love me, and I can’t change it.

I genuinely can’t change it.

Sure, I can change the behaviours: I can stop speaking badly of a person, I can try to think differently about them and rebuke myself every time I slip in the hope that, like Pavlov’s Dog, my behaviour will change. But changing behaviours doesn’t change a heart, and if the heart doesn’t change, then the root which bore the fruit of the behaviour will simply crop up in a different part of my life, in a different way.

4. Persistent grace

The reason these conversations were refreshing and not depressing?

I was reminded of the astounding work that God has done in me by regenerating my heart and giving me new cravings and affections to replace my old ones. I was reminded of the relentless pursuit of God in His endeavour to reclaim ALL of my heart for Himself. I was reminded of His faithfulness in saving me from myself, from my stubborn heart, and from the unkind masters I am prone to devoting myself to.

He hasn’t withheld any of His infinite resources in His redemption of this death-bound creature. It does not make sense to think that He would save me on a cosmic, eternal scale, only to leave me to change myself, alone.

No. His grace is persistent. He persists in wooing me to return to me from the rebellion of sin, and He persists in the gradual work of regenerating all the cravings and desires of my heart.

I am fundamentally incapable of changing my own heart. But He is not. He is the only one with hands that are strong enough, delicate enough, and loving enough to change my stubborn heart. But the incredible thing is that unlike my manufactured self-resolve, His purposes cannot be thwarted. He will overcome my stubborn heart.

Heck. Yes. !

Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)

Loose change

It had actually happened.

I’m sure you can relate, but I often will say, off-handedly, that I ‘have no money’, or ‘have run out of cash’, but in truth, I usually have about $15 or $20 in my bank account, at very least.

Not this time.

Let me set the scene for you: it was a cold Friday’s morn. I had returned to Sydney from Byron on Wednesday night to an empty house. Well, it had stuff in it, but no people. It was weird; the house felt remarkably different. In any case, there were 3 eggs, 100mLs of milk, and tins of food. No probs.

As I headed off to uni the next day, I bought some food for a lady, got the Big Issue from Bill, and paid for a Law Revue ticket in $20’s worth of shrapnel, leaving me with about 50 cents. It was good to get rid off that loose change. I went to buy some lunch, queued up at the ATM, only to be greeted with that horrible, horrible message: ‘Your account has insufficient funds to make this transaction.’ Tried again for a lesser amount. Same message.

First world problems, hey.

In any case, wasn’t fussed, just went to class, then skittaddled off home. My brother asked me to pick up a suit for him from the tailor, so I trundled up the stairs to his shop, only to find that I needed $48 in cash to get the jacket. In hope, I dashed over the road to the local grocer, hoping that I could get some cash out by overdrawing my account. No such joy. Went home, cooked something up with an array of canned goods, then Em came over with a lemon and coconut cake. We had tea, using the last of the milk, and all was merry.

.. This is becoming an unnecessarily long story.

Come Friday morning, I realised that there was nothing for breakfast. Well, I’m exaggerating. There was rice, pasta, lentils, and – wait for it – KIPPERS. To be honest, it was luxurious relative to what billions around the world nourish themselves with daily. And my kippers were totally tasty. The issue came when I realised that I didn’t have money for a train ticket to get to work.

I genuinely had access to 50 cents, in 5 and 10 cent pieces.

I assessed my options with calm calculation. Thoughts of God’s provision at just the right time to those who needed something crossed my mind; maybe God would move a kind stranger at the station to help me out? Immediately my mind dismissed the notion that God would provide for me in this way. After all, I’d spent the last of my money unwisely, on a Law Revue ticket! I didn’t deserve that kind of timely providence. I went to leave to the station anyway, but then remembered to feed the dog.

15 seconds later, my brother walks in the door.

He had come back home unexpectedly, to pick up his jacket from the tailor. I asked if he could lend me $4 for a ticket, after explaining my predicament; he laughed, and gave me $10.

The thought that sat in my mind for the next hour or so was that how foolish I was to think that God’s providence was proportionate to my deserving it. If God provides what I need on a cosmic, soul-rescuing level, and He did not withhold even His own Son to rescue someone who was His enemy; why on EARTH do I keep slipping back into the thinking that He will only bless me if I have earned it?

I don’t deserve it.

And that’s the point.

You don’t earn grace. You receive it, in thankfulness, and you receive it to bless others. This little provision of loose change was a reminder to a spiritual amnesiac that I can also afford to spend to love others, even if I feel uncomfortable because I don’t have the security of having enough cash, because God will provide what I need. I believe this is true even if He hadn’t orchestrated by brother to come home and given me $10. His provision isn’t always in the ways we want or expect. But I believe this: His grace is an abundant sufficiency. His grace to me may have been in refining away something in my heart by causing me to lean more heavily on Him, not food, just as equally as His grace to me happened to be the provision of some loose change.

His grace is sufficient for me, for His power is made perfect in weakness. Amen.

Return of the Hippy

I used to have something of a reputation as a hippy in high school. Fisherman’s pants, exotic beads, barefeet and colorful headbands were my constant attire. I’m smiling as I remember the days; it must’ve stopped when I came to uni for some reason..

But regardless, much of that was the legacy of a childhood brimming with holiday memories and experiences at Byron Bay.

Part of what I love most about Byron is its pace of life. Granted, it’s changed over the sixteen years I’ve been coming here, but there are some enduring commonalities.

The pace is one which values the savouring of experiences rather than efficiently experiencing them and adding the completed task to the things to relay to others to obtain their approval.

It’s so much more simple.

The day’s routine starts with walking to the lighthouse. I think starting the day being reminded of your physicality is actually really significant. It grounds you. It humbles you. It reiterates to your puffed up mind that you have limits, and needs. That you are the created, and whilst you may exercise your creative capacity throughout the day, you are not the creator.

The vastness of the ocean is the thing that grabs your heart at Cape Byron. It’s the most easterly point in Australia. The ocean just keeps on going. For the same reason, it’s also much nearer to the migration path of the whales. Every morning you will see them; this morning there were a good half dozen, fishing and playing.

There’s something remarkably good for the soul about just gazing out to the blue, with nothing but whale blowholes filling your mind.

Then there’s the incredible path that the sun’s light makes across the water. For me this is one of the potent metaphors of the human condition. Each human is but a drop in the ocean, a ripple on it’s surface. If water merely reflects itself, it offers nothing but a dull blue. But – oh, and what a caveat it is! – when the water reflects the brilliance of the sun’s light, I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that it participates in the majesty of the sun’s radiance.

The pace slows me down, and beckons me to notice and appreciate the finer details of everything. This morning when I was sketching a tree, I found myself not actually seeing the tree that was before me; I was rushing through and drawing a tree approximately like the one before me. I smiled at myself. I didn’t have to rush. I could soak in every line, every knot and every leaf of that tree. I could taste each moment for what it was.

Then there’s the beach. I sometimes think that feet were made for grass and dirt and sand. They are so much more in their element there than on concrete or other man made surfaces, shoved away into shoes.

There’s the faithfulness of the tide.

The beauty of deliciously creative flavours, like cuttlefish crumbed in chickpea and served with a side of raspberry yoghurt.

Of being so physically tired from walking into the endlessness of Belongil as the afternoon turns to dusk and the colours migrate from vibrant to metallic blue, the sand from brilliant whites and yellows to pinks and oranges.

This is what I said to a friend who asked me to explain what I meant by Byron being a ‘restoring’ place…

‘It has a pace of life which settles you into a rhythm of attention to detail and appreciation of the immediate.’

Reminders to live in the present are very much a necessity when you are disposed to zooming through everything for the sake of efficiency.

And I’m so thankful for the timeliness of this expression of God’s kindness to me.