Simple Christianity for a sunburnt country
“It’s official. Religious people are happier and more engaged in their community.” So begins an article by John Sandeman in the ‘Eternity’ newspaper.
John continues: “People who are active in religious congregations tend to be happier and more civically engaged than either religiously unaffiliated adults or inactive members of religious groups,” according to a new Pew Research Center report of “analysis of survey data from Australia, the United States and more than two dozen other countries."1 Generally speaking, Aussies – church attenders and those who don’t - are among the happiest people in the world. We’re a blessed nation!
There is conjecture, however, as to why religious people are happier. Is it something to do with God? LiveScience argued, ‘not really’.2
According to a 2010 study published in the journal American Sociological Review, "religious people gain life satisfaction thanks to social networks they build by attending religious services.” The article continues, “But the satisfaction couldn't be attributed to factors like individual prayer, strength of belief, or subjective feelings of God's love or presence. Instead, satisfaction was tied to the number of close friends people said they had in their religious congregation. People with more than 10 friends in their congregation were almost twice as satisfied with life as people with no friends in their congregation.”
So, asks LiveScience, are church friends special? Study researcher Chaeyoon Lim - a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison – answers, “While a higher number of secular close friendships were also associated with life satisfaction, church friendships seem to involve something that lifts satisfaction even more”. what might explain the greater satisfaction? Additional research by Lim and Putnam - reported in the 2010 book 'American Grace: How Religion Divides Us and Unites Us' - found the religious propensity towards charity and volunteerism to be connected with close church friendship.
To my mind, it’s the love of Christ that motivates our charity, volunteerism and love for others. LiveScience hasn’t connected those dots. At our best, Christ-followers channel the love of God and this strengthens our bonds and, obviously, increases our happiness.
The Church as an institution is under fire in our country. There are sins that the Church must humbly repent of. It’s an unhappy time for the organised Church and it’s hierarchy.
But in our pews and around our tables, something special continues to happen. Happily, the lives of many people are being enriched by genuine Christian community. That’s official! So when, as Unofficial Chaplains, we invite people to join with our faith community they will – normally – be immersed in a circle of very positive friendships.
Ali and George have hit the road again. Meeting people, sharing life and faith, and generally having a blast! They use social media to help create community with those they meet on the red dirt road.
Red Dirt Church - Simple churches for a sunburnt country.
Red Dirt Church is a growing network of 'Simple Churches'. Each Simple Church develops its own distinctive ways following Jesus. Simple Church requires minimal infrastructure with no major capital projects, has a collaborative governance culture and is led by a voluntary or bi-vocational leader.
The first substantial building in Alice Springs was the Stuart Town Gaol (reflecting the town's original name). At the time, the European population was fewer than 20 people. The first inmates were an Aboriginal man and (presumably) his wife from the Arltunga goldfields who were charged with “larceny of a dwelling” as well as an Aboriginal man from Alice Springs charged with common assault. Many of the gaol's initial prisoners were first-contact aboriginal men incarcerated for killing cattle. We can only imagine the horror that imprisonment caused these desert-dwellers. And the repercussions for race relations have reverberated ever since.
European prison numbers increased significantly following the construction of the railway to central Australia. People risked “jumping the rattler” to Australia’s heart a without paying for a ticket. Getting caught incurred a sentence of two weeks hard labour in this gaol. The sentence included three meals a day and a ration of tobacco. European prisoners worked on other government building projects during the day.*
It was wretched circumstances that usually compelled people to commit crimes that led to incarceration. Gaol records reveal a direct correlation between drought and spikes in Aboriginal poaching of cattle. And the fare evasion committed by European train-jumpers would, we imagine, be motivated by desperation.
The Stuart Town Gaol’s history wasn’t, however, as bleak as it could have been. A year after the gaol was built it was empty. And indeed for the first 19 years of the gaol’s history it is a gaol remarkable for being under rather than over occupied. For that small mercy we can be thankful.*
Constructed during 1907-08, the stone for the walls was mined from the ranges east of Heavitree Gap and the timber is local desert oak.
When in use as a gaol you could find yourself in here for horse stealing, passing dud cheques, or even misuse of cattle brands.
The police continued to use the building primarily for storage for many years.
Because of the lack of a proper school building the gaol was occasionally used as a school room in the 1920's.
The building is listed on the National Trust's Register of Significant Places.
As I read through the Chronological One Year Bible, I find myself in Alice Springs and in the desert- or wilderness-promise chapters of the Book of Isaiah (40-43 today). Reading prophetic sentences like “I (God) will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs” (41:18). Life-giving images.
Over the coming days I’m going to be meeting people who have been bringing life to central Australians for a long time. Legends all! God has plans and promises for the desert-dwellers of this nation. As churches like Desert Life Church well know.
Pray with me for the people of central Australia (and especially for First Nation peoples).
On this day in 1873, William Gosse sighted Uluru and named it after the Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers. Not long after, Ernest Giles was the first European to climb the rock in the company of an Afghan camel driver. Of course, Aboriginal people had known of the marvellous rock for many thousands of years. In 1993, what was known to many as ‘Ayers Rock’ became the first Aussie icon to be given back its indigenous name – ‘Uluru’.
Uluru National Park notes explain the Aboriginal understanding of Uluru in the following story: “In the beginning the world was unformed and featureless. Ancestral beings emerged from this void and journeyed widely, creating all the living species and the characteristic features of the desert landscape you see today.” That recounting, remarkably echoes the creation account in the Bible.
I’ll be there in around ten day’s time. And, I won’t be climbing it out of respect for the wishes of many local, indigenous people.
Here are some more facts about Australia's iconic rock formation in the Northern Territory.*
Uluru stands 348 metres above sea level at its tallest point (24m higher than the Eiffel Tower), yet it resembles a “land iceberg” as the vast majority of its mass is actually underground - almost 2.5km worth!
The greater Uluru area is considered a sacred site by native Aborigines, particularly the local Anangu tribe who are considered its traditional landowners.
While climbing the rock is not illegal, it is still considered disrespectful to the Aboriginal culture and has resulted in 37 deaths since the 1950's.
Uluru was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site back in 1987.
The closest and largest town to Uluru is Alice Springs, which is around 450km away.
Uluru has one of the best sunsets in the country - in fact, it was voted in the Australia's Top 10 Sunsets - due to the amazing red that comes from a combination of the angle of the sun, minerals in the rock and the reflection of the surrounding soil.
We all know that religious practice is declining in the West. Religious disinclination accelerates sharply for those under 24 years of age. A recent UK YouGov survey reported that while young people are optimistic about their prospects in terms of physical health, educational opportunities and overall prospects, in the 'meaning-of-life' department things weren't so positive.*
The survey didn't mention religion, yet probed a number of aspects of life where religion has traditionally provided content and meaning. For example, only 14% of British young people feel better off than their parents in terms of 'having a sense of purpose' (50% think they are worse off). A low 13% feel they are better off than their parents when it comes to 'having a sense of belonging in your community' (59% think they are worse off - see last week's post on loneliness). Only 11% feel better off in terms of 'overall happiness/good mental health' (69% think they are worse off).*
Freddie Sayers (who identifies as "not a religious person") commented: "Now I'm not saying that the decline in religious faith causes these bleak numbers in any simple way, but it seems fair enough to bring them into the same conversation."*
This is an ideal conversation starter. We must be careful not to assert that one caused the other, but there is a definite correlation that could generate interesting discussions.
We'll explore this further in the coming weeks.
*Search: Unherd; 'Why Polly Toynbee is wrong about God'
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
As NAIDOC week wraps up for 2019, we move forward a little more hopeful. While it is not everyone's experience, there is a rising groundswell of goodwill towards officially recognising the original custodianship of Australia by indigenous peoples and towards closing the gap. Goodwill isn't everything, but it's an important prerequisite to positive changes.
I found this photograph in an op shop earlier this year. I've no idea how old it is, where it was taken or who the children are. For me, it portrays indigenous children who are 'young and free'. Lord, may it be!
NAIDOC Week celebrations are held across Australia each July to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. NAIDOC is celebrated not only in Indigenous communities, but by Australians from all walks of life.
ABC news recently reported a crisis of loneliness in Australian workplaces that is leading to mistakes and poor productivity. “The survey of just over 1,000 employees – conducted by HR think tank Reventure – also found 38 per percent of lonely workers reported making more mistakes and 40 percent felt less productive.”* Loneliness is reaching epidemic levels in this country.
A large part of the issue appears to be screen-focussed jobs which diminish the opportunity for personal interaction. This trend will continue to rise. And, it’s only part of a broader societal problem.
The 2018 Australian Loneliness Report found one in four Australians reported feeling lonely each week, while world leaders at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January 2018 were told 40 per cent of those under 25 globally are lonely.*
As Christians, we have great opportunity to be part of the solution. The article’s advice: ‘Befriend an alien’. Social entrepreneur Tania de Jong says, “If there’s someone looking lonely in a space or who’s just sitting there on their own all the time…then go and say ‘hello’.”*
Sure, some people don’t want to make friends. Kevin commented, “I am not at work to build my friendship group or socialise…I go there to work.” The Kevins are, nevertheless, in the minority. You can have a significant positive impact just by reaching out. Most people are craving connection. Kristin admitted, “I just recently moved to a new job in a new state. It has been incredibly lonely trying to fit into the team.”*
As the Bible says, “When an alien resides with you…love the alien as yourself” (Leviticus 19:33-34; NRSV). Loving ‘aliens’ is an important part of our role as Christians!
A couple of years ago, I began praying for Australia town by town. I make small circles on a map of Australia and pray for everything and everyone inside it.
About a year back, I added another layer of praying, this time for indigenous people. Part of the map of 'Aboriginal Australia' can be seen above. While the exact country of each people-group can be a matter of conjecture, and some of these nations don't exists recognisably any more, the concept remains: I pray for those families that make up 2.4% of our population.
I was born on Mandandanji land (present day Roma). That country is part of my story. But first, it was theirs...
There were over 500 different clan groups or 'nations' around the continent, many with distinctive cultures, beliefs and languages. Today, Indigenous people make up 2.4 per cent of the total Australian population.
I first met Aunty Jean (pictured in the photo) in the 1990s when the church I was serving (Ipswich Baptist Church) hosted a reconciliation event in the church hall. The senior minister at the time, Rev. Steve Cooper, was instrumental in orchestrating this gathering. It was heart-felt, and sometimes heated, but a significant occasion for all involved. I didn’t know then how rare this sort of thing was in the 90s..
Since then, Aunty Jean has kept in touch and continued to encourage me to play a small, positive part in this nation’s journey to make things better. She works across all the churches and is known for being both gracious and forthright (not an easy posture to maintain). In it all, I’ve had the privilege of collaborating with this godly, indigenous woman who truly believes that the Christian faith holds a key to reconciliation in this country.
A couple of years ago, she presented me with the cross picture here. It hangs on the wall above my desk.
People are amazing. Someone stacks some stones in an expression of spontaneous creativity > and then others say "let's do that too!" > and before you know it...
Movements begin this way. First someone > then others > and before you know it, it becomes a thing.
[Photo taken on the Captain Cook Highway between Cairns and Port Douglas.]
RED DIRT ROADS
From Red Hill in the Pilbra,
you traverse the scarlet dunes of the Great Sandy Desert
before resting up in the carmine oasis of Mount Isa.
Then it’s on and down to Byron Bay,
to some rustic, red-track hideaway.
From the ruby plains of outback Queensland,
you amble sou-west down the Birdsville Track
before skirting the blushing Flinders Ranges.
Then it’s all-aboard across the Backstairs Passage,
to hike the ruddy trails on Kangaroo Island.
From the incarnadine escarpments of Arnhem Land,
you beat a path through Australia’s Red Heart
before surveying the Red Cliffs of Sunraysia in rural Victoria.
Then it’s southward atop the swells of Bass Strait,
to the red-apple loam of Bernie.
From the blood-stained sands of west Shark Bay,
you fly over the Nullabor’s red runway
before basking in the rust-coloured hues of Broken Hill.
Then it’s east and north to hale and harbor,
toward the sunburnt soils of Port Macquarie.
Red Dirt Churches are simple, non-denominational Australian churches. We use the word ‘church’ the way it was originally intended by Jesus; that is, to describe a community of people who follow him devotedly, although not perfectly. Red Dirt Churches are personal, biblical, transformational and missional.