Monday, 22 June 2009

My Friends.

Jesus told a story about a man who while travelling was attacked and seriously injured. As he was lying by the side of road a religious leader – someone who had spent many years studying the Bible – came along, but seeing the man he crossed to the other side of the road and left him there.

A little later a another person passed by, someone who might well be described as being “pillar of their church community” who came from a family with a long and impressive history of religious involvement. But he also left the man laying there to die.

Finally a member of an obscenely heretical cult came along. Having no respect for the plain meaning of Scripture, he was part of a group directly responsible for the nation’s downfall, it’s moral decline, and growing decline in respect for all that God had revealed in His holy Word. Yet this blasphemer went to the help of the injured man; treating his wounds he took him to somewhere he might recuperate, and then personally guaranteed the man’s medical bills while ensuring the man would be fully cared for until completely recovered.

At the end of the story Jesus asked his undoubtedly disconcerted audience “Who do you think was a neighbour to the man who was attacked?”. Which, at least in the vernacular of the community in which I live, could well be rephrased as “Who was a friend to him?”.

The people in my blogroll, as well as many of those who regularly comment both here and elsewhere around the traps, are people whom I proud to consider friends. Some of them I know personally, others live on the other side of the world and I’ve only every communicated with them via blog comments and email. Some of them I only know through regularly lurking at their sites – but all of them have in some way inspired me, given me courage to keep seeking God at times when it all seems too hard, and all I'd really like to do is toss away this whole crazy notion of wrestling with what it means to takes one’s eyes off the gutter and instead reach for the stars.

Not all of them are Anglican; at least one’s an active atheist, and one is actually a whole bunch of people who run a dog shelter. Some are gay, some are straight, and all of them need to love and be loved. More than a few have also struggled with the darkness of mental illness, and one wears his madness as a badge of pride in a way not dissimilar (although I suspect he’ll be appalled by the comparison ;-) to the way St. Paul boasted of his own weakness as proof of God’s redemptive mercy.

Sometimes they make what I think are mistakes – a few much more often than others - and when I disagree with them strongly enough I always make a point of contacting them personally to see if I can help bring them back into line. Sometimes they agree with me, more often than not they explain their side of the issue and we meet somewhere in the middle, and sometimes they show me why I’m the one who’s got things wrong. Whatever happens, they are my friends, and I know that when I fall down – albeit as a result of being attacked, or (more likely) my own folly – they’ll help me to shelter and safety. As I’ll do for them – irrespective of how much we resemble each other theologically.

Occasionally one or the other of them is truly obnoxious, just as sometimes my dogs are capable of releasing the most utterly foul flatulence imaginable. Yet even then I still love them: sometimes we all react unpredictably to the things we’ve digested. When I’ve finally managed to deal with the log in my own eye I’ll be able to get around to doing something about the speck in theirs.

What I’ll never do apologise for them. They’re my friends – even if they are Samaritans.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

A Response to David Ould.

This began as a response to a comment in the previous post, but I'm laying here in bed with the 'flu (don't worry - it's not Swine Flu!) and what began as a brief reply ended up becoming War & Peace. So rather than just delete it I decided to make it into an open letter, and give it a post of its own.)

David - Calm Down!
Your interaction here and elsewhere is greatly appreciated, and believe me you are respected for taking the time to do so. I realise it's not easy: sometimes it seems to me as if both sides of the divide are talking in different languages, and please understand that what can sound quite quite innocuous on one side of the church is actually very offensive on the other. That you've taken the time both here and on your own site to try bridging the gap is something for which we are all grateful, and stands as a testimony to you own faith and passion for all to know Christ.

Still - I can't see anyone here, especially any locals part of "the Sydney Opposition", crying "fundamentalist". To the contrary, I see a prominent Sydney blogger describing you and your approach as reasonable. Yes, he also calls for "conservative hypocrites" to be brought to account - as they well should be; so should liberal hypocrites and very other shade of hypocrite in between. If his use of this phrase seems harsh to you (or anyone else concerned) I've no doubt he'd be only too happy to explain why he chose to use it, and knowing him I can say with certainty he didn't make that decision lightly.

Remember that Jesus also used some pretty harsh expressions to criticise those using religion as an excuse to treat others as inferior. Elsewhere I've seen allegations of incompetence (with which I'm inclined to agree), duplicity (with which I don't) and a cover-up (jury's still out: I'll try to be more patient and wait until Synod). But fundamentalist? No, I don't believe I have.

Ok; the obvious exceptions are Father Christian and Father David Heron, but given that they're (a) satirists, and (b)quite often down-right weird, I'm not sure many people take them literally. At least I hope they don't: don't forget Father Christian recently called me an "outrageous, wicked apostate Vegemite-encrusted son-of-perdition", and any Sydney leaders taking him too seriously probably don't have the requisite social skills to be in ministry in the first place. In any case: throw those two at me & I'll match you with David Virtue and the Midwest Conservative Journal. Then I'll raise it by asking if you've ever tried disagreeing with anything at Craig's Place? That's the internet: robust, often rude, and frequently downright cranky. But in between the thorns I've had the privilege of finding great truths, and making friendships of a type once inconceivable. The world of the pamphleteers that thrived in the wake of the invention of the printing press wasn't much different, and it's largely due to them that the era of mass literacy came to be.

Given the things I see you saying here, along with suggestions I've heard you make at your place, I'm not sure you realise just how excluded from the processes of power those those in the Sydney "opposition" are. Clergy whose careers are blocked, or whose license is only renewed on an annual basis (and then frequently only after it's expired for a month or two). Requests for support that don't even receive a reply. Programs attracting hundreds of unchurched young people (yes, I said hundreds) that never rate a mention in Southern Cross, despite being run at virtually no cost by an army of volunteers - when the neighbouring "orthodox" parish receives a grant for a full-time youth worker to minister to its two dozen Christian kids. Churches massively exceeding their "Vision for Growth" targets that could for all the encouragement they receive be on another planet. Do I need to continue?

The "more productive" ways of being heard simply aren't open to many of us on a different side of the church to your own. As someone who hasn't been a "Reformed Evangelical" for more than a decade I can't join the ACL without lying. Nor can those not prepared to lie about their sexuality. Parish synod reps from our churches all too often return deeply frustrated; not because their motions were defeated (they didn't expect otherwise) but because they felt they weren't even heard. So what other forums do we have? We can't preach because we're women, or didn't go to Moore, or are divorced, or married to people who have been, or are perhaps just plain suspect. Our letters don't get published in Southern Cross, and more than a few of us were kicked off the old SydAng bulletin boards. Letters to bishops are ignored, and phone calls don't get past personal assistants who say "I'll notify him of your call". So what avenues remain?

The media and the web. And sometimes what you call "a thoroughly unproductive way of going about things" is the only option we've got. Many of us, myself included, have tried being polite and quietly spoken - and we were ignored. So all that remains is to become squeaky wheels in the face of the big machine, and even then it's only those of us with nothing left to lose who can afford do that.

Fighting for the right of those excluded by the church to discover Christ's love, forgiveness, and compassion is never a waste of time. I also wish there was no need to resort to some of the more abrasive tactics: I dare say Jesus wished he didn't have to use a whip to evict the temple's money-lenders. But the temple needed cleansing, and nothing else worked...

Friday, 19 June 2009

Wanna bet?

The discussion about Sydney diocese’s $100 million loss continues with David Ould posting on both his own site and Stand Firm - you can follow my discussion with David in the comments here. After taking exception to the suggestion that the Diocese was “gambling” (which like most working-class vices is generally considered by Evangelicals to be A Very Bad Thing, as opposed to middle class vices, which are rarely regarded with the same scorn), he concludes by asking
“Was the Diocesan decision to borrow and gear up their investments a wise decision? Was it shrewd? Were other people doing the same thing? Were they advising further gearing up, not for individual assets but the extension of already diversified portfolios?

Hindsight is always a wonderful thing, but to my way of thinking any exposure of that magnitude can’t help but suggest a lack of wisdom in an organisation’s investment strategy. Plenty of people have been stung in the past year, but not that badly: the diocese didn't just gear up, they geared up bigtime. Granted, since the diocese hasn’t made their asset/loss ratio public it’s hard to accurately put the loss into perspective, but let’s not lose sight of the reality that from any perspective $100 million is a bloody huge amount of money. So big that I refuse to believe the people to whom it ultimately belonged – the Anglican parishioners of Sydney – have a right to know more details than they’ve so far been told.

I believe there’s something very wrong about the wall of silence that followed the loss. Rumours have been circulating for over six months, and yet it took a journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald to start investigating the matter before most parishioners new anything. Late last year clergy were advised of a reduction in available funding for the coming year, but other than this there was nothing.

Were the Diocese a publically listed company Australian law would have required the leadership to make a public announcement immediately upon learning about this loss. But it’s not, and they didn’t. One might hope that as Christians they’d have had a natural inclination towards transparency and disclosure, but that’s certainly not how it appears from the way things they’ve been handled to date. Rumour (and the size of the loss) suggests investments were being made in products like Macquarie Bank’ Fortress Notes, or even the spectacularly “Queensland” (sorry to my Brisbane friends – but it’s hard not to notice the stereotype ;-) Storm Financial. The truth is even seasoned Sydney watchers like myself simply don’t know what was going on.

Maybe all will be revealed in Synod, and maybe I’m just a hopeless cynic, but past observation has taught me not to hold my breath. I’ll be happy to wager a bottle of wine against anyone who thinks I’ll be proven wrong – but that would be gambling, wouldn’t it? Even though it’s a bet I’ll be praying I lose.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Don't get all tied up in knots...

... just get a fish and a cardboard box!!!

As you can see, our little fellow's grown a bit since the last photo of him here! He's also proof that if you can't smile at the end of a great day on St. Kilda Pier you probably can't smile at all... which case you'd probably better get up and join us on the floor:

Currently on high rotation in the Casa del Caliban; play it and you'll understand the opening stuff about fishes and cardboard boxes - we're all having fun!

Sunday, 14 June 2009

It's not called 'Gambling' if you win.

It’s been fascinating to watch people’s responses to the news of Sydney diocese’s financial blunder. The letters published by the Sydney Morning Herald the day after the story broke mirrored the responses I’ve personally encountered: the true believers couldn’t see what the fuss was about, while those less effectively indoctrinated were disgusted.

Of the nine letters in the Herald that day, only one was openly supportive Archbishop Jensen, describing the loss as “unfortunate” – an understatement if ever there was one! The writer then continued by criticising Rev. Cornish, who had previously called the Diocesan Secretariat to take responsibility for the loss, as well as for the excessive enthusiasm with which an extremely high-risk investment strategy had been embraced. “Working together to serve Jesus” the letter decries with an unctious piety worthy of Trollope’s Obadiah Slope, “might be better than embedding division”.

Which becomes hilarious when you realise that the author is a Vice-president of the Anglican Church League - one of the most divisive groups in Anglicanism, and whose web site routinely sings the praises of every schism, division, and split in the Communion – irrespective of the pain that event causes the people who actually live and worship in the country/diocese/parish where it’s occurring. “Do as I say and not as I do” just reached a whole new benchmark.

Another writer correctly points out that virtually everyone with money in sharemarket has taken a beating. What they fail to grasp is that the diocese wasn’t just investing in blue-chip stocks which will almost certainly eventually return to their pre-recession levels; the diocese was borrowing money, using their significant property assets as collateral, and then investing that borrowed money in high-risk, theoretically high-return shares. Hence they haven’t lost a few million on paper because the value of their portfolio has declined, they’ve lost $100 million because they’ve had to repay loans for shares that are now worthless. There’s a difference; the same difference as there is between gambling and investing, and it’s a difference the Sydney Diocesan Secretariat still doesn’t seem capable of understanding. Or perhaps just don’t want to admit.

Someone else asks the very valid question as to why any organisation which can accumulate sufficient assets to be able to cover this kind of loss should be exempt from paying tax. While at Moore College I was often amused at the fervor with which my fellow ordinands attacked the great Australian blue-collar passion for tax evasion, while never stopping to consider their own church’s failure to pay tax. Only once did I dare suggest if this was such a grievous sin the Church might set a better example by choosing to voluntarily pay the same rates as required of non-religious corporate citizens; the resulting fury made me think better of opening my mouth a second time. These days I’m no longer such a coward: if Churches – any church, from traditional denominations to outright cults like Scientology – engage in commercial enterprises (including property investment and stock-market speculation) they should be subject to the same rules and obligations as anyone else. Anything less is unjust.

The best letter of all was from one Sean Linskon of Potts Point – I’ll quote it in full because it really is a work of genius; almost a week later it’s still got me laughing:
Ah, the House of Jensen crippled by a bad gambling habit. God works in mysterious ways, doesn’t she?

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Serving two masters...

It’s a bit of a worry when Father Christian is quicker off the mark to discuss issues in Sydney diocese than Caliban’s Dream, but since I’m on a roll (by my tragic standards, at least ;-) when it comes to blogging I thought some local perspective on the Diocesan machinery’s spectacular loss of 100 million dollars wouldn’t go astray.

Now I realise lots of people have endured spectacular losses in the past year, and obviously the larger the investor he greater the loss, but as the Rev. Cornish (one of Sydney’s few - but truly courageous - “good guys”) pointed out in the Sydney Morning Herald, were losses of this magnitude sustained by a secular organisation those responsible would be held accountable. In the Sydney Anglican diocese’s case, however… after all, it’s not as if this is a case of someone wearing a chasuble, or women becoming priests, or anything shocking like that .

What I find amusing – if it can be possible to find anything funny about this appalling waste of parishioner’s (and ultimately God’s) money – is that this has got to be the first time it can honestly be said that Mrs. Caliban and I are more conservative than the happy-go-lucky bigshots in the Sydney Diocesan Secretariat. That’s because what they were doing is exactly what some fellows at a merchant bank for whom I did some I.T. contracting a couple of years back tried to talk us into.

The strategy was this: using your existing assets you borrow money which is in turn used to buy shares. The gamble is that the capital gains and dividends paid on the shares exceeds the interest payable on the loans: if it does you make a tidy little profit; if it doesn’t you’ve got to find some way of covering the loan repayments or else lose everything. In the case of the two fellows we knew, their strategy was to invest heavily in U.S. sub-prime mortgage bonds. “Can’t fail” they insisted. “Even the Sydney Anglican church is doing this” one of them urged.

I’ve since lost contact with those two, but I know they’re no longer employed by that bank. Nor do I know if the Diocese really was sinking money into that particular scheme (which was quite possible; it was a blue-chip bank much feted by institutional investors) but if not that scheme then the Diocese was sucked in by one very much like it: they borrowed against church assets (primarily their spectacular property portfolio, I believe) to sink money into high-yield, high-risk shares. The same sort of investments that we looked at and thought were idiotically risky prospects at around the same time the Diocese was diving in head first.

Sure the guys pushing this scheme said it “couldn’t lose”. Then again, didn’t the same sort of people say that about tulips in the 17th century? But the people in Holland back then weren’t playing with money given in good faith over many years by people who expected it to be managed responsibly for the on-going work of the church.

Perhaps the most pertinent comment I’ve heard was made by a local radio talk-show host. A professed agnostic who’s never hidden his distain for the Jensens, his first comment when hearing about the Diocese’s stupid and irresponsible speculation said it all: “Isn’t there something in the Bible about doing that sort of thing?”.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Of cold water, a kayak, and church.

A few months ago Mrs. Caliban bought me a kayak as a birthday present. Spare time isn’t a commodity I have much of, but a large part of what little there is has since been spent paddling in attempt to get fit while exploring the fascinating upper reaches of Sydney Harbour.

As part of this I decided to join a large nearby kayak club. One evening a week more than a hundred paddlers meet to race over a 12km course: while aware my boat (and fitness level) is nowhere near as spectacular as many of the competitors, I’d practiced the course for a number of weeks, and was confident of my ability to achieve a respectable time. I’d spoken with a few club officials, and been assured my boat and times were more than sufficient to join: in short everyone couldn’t have been more welcoming.

So when it was time for my first race I was nervous, but confident things wouldn’t be too much of a disaster. Coming last wasn’t my concern (after all, someone’s got to, and as the least experienced competitor I was under no illusions of my own ability), just the fear of getting in the way of much faster (& less stable) boats. Let’s be blunt about it: I was a newcomer, and like newcomers everywhere I wanted to be accepted, and not upset any new friends.

You can tell where this is leading… despite arriving early, and having supposed to have been among the first group starting (the race is handicapped, so slow-coaches like myself are not straggling back long after the athletes have finished), the club officials couldn’t find the forms necessary for newcomers, so I didn’t actually get on the water and racing until the fastest competitors were scheduled to start.

Naturally they left me far behind in a matter of moments. Alone I set to work, finding my own rhythm as the paddle cut into the cold black water. Since racing occurs at night I’d mounted lights at both ends of my boat as instructed, but just prior to starting was told these were too bright, and could distract other competitors. Hurriedly I covered them over with duct tape until they emitted the same faint, barely visible glow as everyone else’s lights. In the dark this was useless at helping me to see the course, but – as I'd also just learned – most people were using GPS navigation devices, so they didn’t need to worry about seeing obstacles like overhanging branches, or snags. All they needed to do was follow the glowing line on their miniature screens which kept them on a safe course in the middle of the river; the barely luminous lights were more than enough to avoid collisions if boats drew close.

Without any such techno-magic I was on my own in the dark, struggling to hold my pace while avoiding a collision with the fast moving boats already on their returning leg and at the same time avoid carving into the tangled mangrove swamp on either side of the river. A sudden swerve to miss the last group lapping me saw my blade slamming into an overhanging branch, and I was over.

That part of the harbour is called a river, but really it’s an estuary in the middle of a national park. It’s dark, murky, and the kind of water bull sharks love. Since it’s winter here it was also bloody cold. After a couple of failed attempts to get back into the kayak I decided to try dragging the boat into the mangroves, where it could be bailed out and hopefully reboarded. The fleet had long passed, and on my own I eventually managed to this, grateful I’d worn both a pfd and an inflatable thermal vest, despite feeling very nerdy at the start when lined up against the pros clad in nothing more than lycra singlets.

Obviously I made it back to the carpark, or I wouldn’t be writing this. Nobody helped, and in my own middle-aged suburban way I’m kind of proud of my resilience and survival skills: by myself in the dark I scrambled far enough into the tangled swamp to stand, right my boat, and get things to the point where I could paddle back to the start. The cuts on my feet and hands from snags have now just about healed: by fastidiously applying antiseptic for the next few days only a few managed to get infected – the water at that end of the harbour isn’t the cleanest by a long shot, and since I didn’t get a dose of gastro I guess none was swallowed during my dunkings.

None of which is to be seen as a criticism of the club with whom I paddled. They obviously cater for a much more serious league of kayaker than unfit overweight beginners like me in sturdy-and-friendly-but-not-very-fast tubs like mine . Which is fine: top level racers have every right to their own association in which to train and race. Myonly complaint is that they weren’t sufficiently self-aware to realise this. If you’re going to invite hazards like me to join you please try not to leave us struggling alone in the dark after we’ve run into trouble while trying to stay out of your way.

All of which strikes me as a fabulous metaphor for what a lot of churches are like. These days “growth” is the word on everyone’s lips: not many parishes are honest enough to admit they don’t really feel comfortable with newcomers. Yet not many congregations seem capable of realising those of us who haven’t spent years training to become spiritual athletes often feel pretty clumsy when we’re lined up alongside you each Sunday. Saying outsiders are welcome is easy: actually making those whose understanding of the Christian life is not as mature – or maybe just different – to your own definition of Christian morality and experience is much harder.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been in a church that wants to reach out to it’s surrounding community but failed, and to be honest the responsibility for some of those failures is my own. Yet as I look back on my own scared efforts in the cold muddy water, the feeling I get isn’t very different to that which comes when I think about some of the times I’ve tried to fit in with congregations I never ended up becoming part of. I tipped my canoe over because of inexperience, lack of knowledge of the river, and general unfitness. There’s nobody to blame but me. Maybe the same can be said of those who aren’t able to find their place in our own communities of faith. But somehow I can’t accept that it’s ok for Churches to operate in the same way as a kayaking club.

Our call is to reach out to the weak, lost, confused, mistaken, or just plain sinful. Not just the doctrinally or liturgically adroit, but also to those prone to crash, or to fall out of their boats. Sure it’s fun to go fast, to skim along at the extreme edge of one’s hard-earned ability. Nobody enjoys scrambling in the mud and slime with some clutz who doesn’t have a clue. Except that’s exactly what Jesus did.