I woke up that early February evening after major surgery flat on my back in the recovery ward. Drugged out. Deep pain. Unable to move. I tilted my head as far forward as I could to look at my bare, shaved stomach. The small incision I had naively anticipated before surgery was in fact a filthy great jagged scar from sternum to below belly button. It was held together by thirty two staples, the randomness and angles of which suggested the theatre nurse was running late to her show at the Casino when she took out the gun.
It felt like I had been stripped of everything. Actually stripped of everything, as I was lying there with a loin cloth over my, er, loins, and that’s about it. And soon to be stripped of dignity. It took me no time to realise I wasn’t going to be able to move at all. How was I going to get to the toilet? Something made me look under the loin cloth.
Nooo! My muffled yelp flocked birds, set off car alarms, disturbed sleeping babies in neighbouring suburbs. Blokes and catheters are a terrible combination.
So what had happened? I’d just had major abdominal surgery following a severe bout of pancreatitis that had originally been misdiagnosed as pancreatic cancer (I was given one year to live initially), and it would take me the best part of the the coming year before I did anything much more than recover, lie around the house and wonder how things had gone so awry.
The stripping away process had begun long before the surgery – in ways that were, if I am honest, way more painful and in need of deeper surgery than a mere operation on my pancreas. Our church plant had ended. Our relationship with the church planting group in the UK had ended. More importantly, any trust we had left with anyone in that group, given all that had gone on before, had vanished like the mirage it had proven to be in the heat of that early summer in 2009-2010. And, most painfully of all, my ideas of missional community church planting had ended too.
By the time I was able to stand up and shower unaided several weeks after surgery I felt my emotional, spiritual and psychological skinniness mirrored the skinniness of my 59 kilogram frame. I would look at myself in the mirror and almost laugh.
At least I came home from hospital with a killer scar to scare the kids. It was a steaming hot day. I sat sweltering as I waited for Dad to pick me up from the front waiting room. The mid-summer Perth sunlight is blinding at the best of times, but this was like torture. My tears – a blend of grief and too much light -, were as hot as the day. Jill led me inside and I slumped down onto the kitchen bench, instinctively reaching under to remove the sharp pointy object that had been left on the bench and was now sticking into my butt. It was my butt – or the bones inside it digging into the hard timber. Sophie said I looked like a skeleton. I’d seen meatier skeletons.
Skinny. And tired out. And trying to figure out where things had gone wrong over the past two years.
I unpacked the reasons, packed them up again, before unpacking once more over the coming months. I lay there many a day in a hazy fog of painkillers and regrets, mulling it over, and wondering what I would do differently, apart from not nearly die from pancreatitis.
How did it get to this? The story takes us back to the early 2008, just after our son Declan was born and just around the time something else was born our, first church plant – The Local.
As I have said already, my primary mistake was to launch too soon, and to launch with a pre-determined idea of what a missional church plant should look like. In short, it should look like what we had just left in the UK. For despite our misgivings we were sold on the household model, especially as the means to evangelistic fruit that seemed painfully lacking in other models.
But for all of that, The Local began with good bones. We had several couples interested in joining even before we’d returned home. And in next to no time there were several other couples who joined. I had pitched the idea of being on local mission together, doing life together as a window for the local suburb to look at Christian community, and of finding ways to serve locally. Hence the name – The Local. Genius right?
If only I had taken that ingenuity to the level of asking whether this was the right context for the model. And despite the fact that as a group we all loved each other, all had a heart for the lost, all had a deep spirituality about us, we were like chalk and cheese compared to our Sheffield group.
How so? Nothing to do with commitment or godliness or love or anything like that. In fact the level of loving, enjoyable deep Christian community rivalled that of Sheffield. It excelled it even, in this crucial way – there was a breathy freedom to our conversations, a level of open honesty about where life was at for us, borne out of an organic desire for transparency rather than a metered requirement of accountability written down in a vision statement. That made a huge difference. It felt safe.
But logistically things were very different as well. Simply put we were in a completely different context, at a completely different stage of life, with more kids in our one group than the movement had had in Sheffield when we left. And, importantly, most families had at least one full time breadwinner, who worked in a demanding job in the city.
Oh, and did I mention the commute? Perth is no crammed urban sinkhole. It’s a vast, sprawling flat metropolis that snakes north and south along the white sand and cobalt ocean beaches the city is rightly famous for. One tributary heads east, drier, hotter, hillier and less inclined towards middle class sensibilities. And that eastern tributary is where we were, right on the brittle edge of it in fact.
So there we were with another young child, Jill back at work, me working part time, a household church of busy working families living across a wide stretch of our shire in one of the most expensive cities in which to live on the planet. The challenge was to do household missional church in Perth like it was English city full of students and refugees. To do mission with a group of older, consolidated families rather than twenty three year olds with no kids and lighter responsibilities. Where could it possibly go wrong?
Where to begin! Firstly, my inability to cut the umbilical cord to the UK resulted in me constantly looking over my shoulder for direction, and to do so from a group that I had had an increasingly fraught relationship with when living there. I felt torn. I felt increasingly unsure of myself as things stubbornly failed to take root. Or, as is more likely the case, they did take root, but not in the manner in which I recognised, or perhaps wanted to recognise. So there was a definite leadership failing on my part. I failed to lead this group from the place they were, and that cost us.
It’s only since our second involvement in missional church planting among middle class families in Perth that I have fully appreciated the huge level of commitment the members of The Local gave to us, each other and the gospel. They served each other, loved each other, pastored each other, and sought opportunities to share the gospel and life with other people, even as their own lives were increasingly pulled in different directions. One family even bought a house locally, a sign that they were fully in with it.
Secondly, Jill and I put too much pressure on ourselves. We were tired, with a young baby, demanding jobs, and a tiredness borne out of too much change. It ground us down. Thankfully a couple from the UK group – who had visited us on a holiday – had agreed to come for two years to help us out. We counted down the days until they arrived, feeling bedraggled not so much from church, but from life in general. That request was our biggest mistake. More of that anon.
My second biggest mistake was to start second guessing myself. I increasingly questioned whether this was the group we should be planting with, rather than questioning whether this was the model we should be planting with. I didn’t take time to ask whether this model was in any way relatable not simply to their lives but to the lives of the equally busy, equally pulled in different directions, families of those we were trying to reach. It’s hard to say it, but in a critical sense there was something “gospel plus” about the manner in which I was operating. And Jesus plus anything equals nothing. So not only a failure of general leadership as I look back at it, but perhaps a failure of gospel leadership, even though I could tick all the reformed evangelical boxes and mouth words like “grace”. Jesus plus anything equals nothing.
And nothing is pretty much what we soon had not long after the help from the UK arrived. It’s always good to know when you see people coming over the hill whether they’re the Cavalry or the Sioux.
From day one of our friends arrival to live with us it felt more like an assessment of me, of Jill, our marriage and our ability – or inability – to lead. Day two I could have taken. But day one? I won’t go in to all the painful details, but it felt like we were under the microscope in our own house. The result was that it began to drive a wedge between Jill and me. My Labrador sensibilities were still strong at that stage. I took all of the critique as being rock solid evidence of the fact that we, our church and our ministry life in general were in a lot of trouble, when in fact I should have listened to the Doberman in Jill and put my foot down.
Within a couple of weeks our friends had left our house, The Local was in tatters, and we were in shock. The only upside was waking up feeling lighter the Saturday morning after they’d gone, looking at each other and realising that we were fine with each other! That we loved each other, were for each other, and that the wedge wasn’t of our making. We didn’t have to repair our broken relationship. It wasn’t broken. But as for our relationship with the UK? Gone for all money. Of course it’s more complex than that and both sides tried to patch things up, but if you’ve been through any sort of broken relationship that stubbornly fails to fix, then some things are just too Humpty Dumpty to put back together again. We ruled a line under our UK crew and moved on.
Or tried to move on. Huge relief ensued. But also huge anger. There seemed to be no way of resolving the conflict and no desire really for it to be resolved. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation.
Bitterness would have consumed us – very nearly did – if we had not brought that to the Lord every day. And speaking of every day, every day for at least a year I rehearsed the events in my mind as I started the slow steps to physical and emotional recovery. I walked the local national park trails rehearsing in my mind what I would have said, how I could have sorted it out. If you’ve been through something similar you’d realise how you never lose a replay! I had to hand that thing over to the Lord each day. Then get up the next day and hand it over it again. And again. And then again, until one day it just lifted as if King David himself had been playing the harp sitting next to me.
In all of this God was with us. And God was good to us. Jill remarked one day a few years later:
“If I had known the last two years were coming I would not have wanted them, but having gone through them I can see how we couldn’t have done without them.”
That’s exactly it. God doesn’t make leaders, he breaks leaders. And he saw that I needed to be broken. Needed to disavow myself of the notions I had of both myself and what I could achieve. To reach that godly disillusionment with the idea of a photoshopped Christian community that made me a safe person to lead an actual Christian community with all of its lumps and bumps and cellulite. Without being broken we are actually brittle. We are so scared of being broken that we become harsh and angular, threatening to fall apart at any occasion. If I can take one thing away from it all, it’s this: When God deconstructs you it’s only ever to reconstruct you into what you could never have been without that first deconstruction. Don’t fear it! It’s sweet and painful and life-affirming in its call to die to yourself. I’ve walked with a limp, so to speak, ever since, and I’ve loved it. I have emotional and mental scars, but they don’t hurt, and they’re great reminders.
Oh and I have a killer physical scar too! That the final breaking was a near death experience was not what I had imagined would happen. But that event changed me beyond all recognition, and not simply in the fact that the knife ruined my once-best feature – my belly button; now a tangled indecisive innie-outie.
Through that whole experience God did a surgery deeper than a surgeon’s knife could cut. Jesus called me out of a dark emotional tomb – a skinny Lazarus who, just like the real Lazarus, discovers that the next thing Jesus wants from you is not some noble task, but your company around the meal table. That’s the true “local” that he wants his creatures to experience – feasting with the King.
And what of our people from The Local? Well, in a lovely appendix (which, incidentally they removed from my abdomen for good measure during surgery), I was preaching at our church the other week, and upon looking out on God’s people, saw every family represented, bar the one that moved over to the Eastern States, sitting there in church.
We still have strong, loving relationships with them all. Of course they too have some scars from their church plant failing; a church plant into which they invested much. And I bear some responsibility for all of that. But despite that, perhaps because of it, the brotherly and sisterly love has kicked on over the years. The gospel of grace and forgiveness and acceptance makes that possible. And it’s kicked on in so many beautiful ways, ways that I was so keen for household church to do, but which are happening as we do church differently.
We’re still minding each other kids, still visiting each others homes. A chicken broth and homemade bread was delivered to our house this week to counter the Zombie Virus that refuses to die. One of the older men from The Local is on our current congregation’s leadership team. God’s goodness abounds in his people. And we occasionally swap war stories and realise we were a band of brothers and sisters who went on a bit of an adventure together.
So, that pretty much brings us up to date. I’ll conclude next week by exploring briefly what is nearly six years of working with my current church and how God’s Spirit has taken what I learned in Sheffield, and what I learned through our first experiences back in Perth, and used them for His glory and His gospel, mostly in ways that seem well outside my control.
Oi! Wanna see me scar?