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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

‘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.

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[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.

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.

bubblewrap

We made this in first year uni. We made it for our beautiful girl friends. As bubblewrap to protect them from the world. And themselves.

 

Yesterday, in those delicious moments just after the sun has tucked itself beneath the horizon and before the light has gone, when the clouds are streaked with pinks and purples and greys, I was in the car with my parents and one of my brothers. We were driving towards our favourite Japanese restaurant to have dinner together – a relatively rare occurrence. At dinner we would enjoy comfortable conversation and inappropriate jokes and unnecessarily large mugs of beer and loud laughter and beautiful food. And it would be good.

But before we got there, we all exclaimed at the sight of something we witnessed on the road there – a cockatoo doing somersaults on the telephone wire across the highway!

Something about the mischievous delight of this bird made my heart explode. This will sound like a totally arbitrary connection, but it made me think about Jesus’ first miracle, when He turned water into wine. Because it made me reflect on how much of the joy I have in life is about the little moments of sensory delight.

And it made me reflect about how He is the Lord of the feast, who has come to reconcile us to Himself – but it’s surely not irrelevant that the language used so often is of Him making the earth run with aged wine, the hills to flow with milk and honey.

It made me think about how at this wedding in Cana, in Galilee, Jesus is thinking forward to His own wedding day – the day of celebration and feasting with His bride. And about the intolerable trauma that is before Him in order to enable His bride to be there for that day of celebration and feasting. He would have to drink the cup of God’s eternal justice against all of mankind. So that He could secure a place for us at the table of God’s banquet. So that we could drink to and celebrate and rejoice in the marriage to the glorious bridgegroom: Jesus Himself. (I know, right? All from a cockatoo? Welcome to my head.)

Maybe you don’t think of eternity like that. Maybe to you it’s a series of vague abstractions related to disembodied white figures and clouds and an inordinate amount of singing.

But the picture God paints is nothing of the sort. The language He gives us in the scriptures is unavoidably SENSORY. He says that the Kingdom of God IS a feast; not that there will be a feast when we’re there. Feasting is a time of sensory overload; it engages the whole person. Similarly, God isn’t an idea for your head; when He’s just a concept to fit into your pre-existing ideological framework, that isn’t God you know. That’s something you’ve constructed yourself. Because there is a WEIGHT to God; when He enters a heart and a life, He displaces the way we thought about things before. If your views, opinions, thoughts, way of life – if none of these things are being displaced by the presence of God, then it isn’t God. This was a bit of a tangent, but this is to say that God isn’t a concept! ‘TASTE and SEE that the Lord is good!’ (Psalm 34.8). It’s one thing to KNOW and believe in your theological framework that He is there and He is good; but God wants us to TASTE and SEE that as true. He wants us to experience Him in a way which equates to sensory experience.  I don’t even know a fraction of what this really means, but I certainly am convinced that the Kingdom of God is not about abstractions.

It will be a time of feasting, of celebration, of intimate friendship, of laughter and joy and overwhelming peace. A time of physical and emotional and spiritual restoration, when nothing is out of place anymore – and so nothing decays anymore.

This afternoon I was sitting outside sifting through my law readings, when the same joy the acrobatic cockatoo had brought me filtered into my heart.

The sun was resting lightly on the deck, and a light breeze was playing with my hair and the pages of my book, and it carried the sounds of a party over the back fence. The steady, deep thrum of adult’s conversation, punctuated with the delighted squeals of little girls being chased by little boys. The cheeky banter of teenage boys as they played what sounded like some backyard cricket. The occasional eruption of women’s laughter at some outrageous comment or joke. The splash of water, and the yelling to-and-fro, back and forth, of the name of a long dead Venetian merchant.

That kind of joyful celebration is not lasting on this earth. Relationships fracture, inadvertently and deliberately. Sickness preys on us and pain keeps us from enjoying things as we once did. But, oh! There is a Day when no longer will the earth shake and waves sweep our lives away; we will eat and drink and dance and sing and kayak the fjords and read in the meadows and hike the mountains and laugh with full hearts while cockatoos do somersaults – because the Lord of the Feast has returned. And He will be with us. And we will be with Him.

Bride and bridgegroom.

Oh, happy day indeed!

A migration

I have joined in on the natural phenomenon that is migration.

I will gradually move some stuff from my old blog here; but this will mainly be for new things. A departure into a new season, as it were!

Man, blogs are weird.