My youngest brother John hosted my fiftieth birthday at his farm about an hour’s drive from the city back in September. His farm is near a little town called York, one of Western Australia’s oldest settlements replete with limestone buildings, old mills and a lot of farms. John has recently bought one such farm as a deceased estate, and is busy turning it into a productive venture once more. It’s great.
My fiftieth – our fiftieths, as my twin brother coincidentally turned fifty the same day – was to be a family affair only, with about thirty or so of us all up. So you can imagine my surprise when I turned into the farm’s long driveway only to be blocked by about twenty cars, all lined up with people milling around.
I started to get worried. Who had invited so many people to our birthday? Certainly not I. Certainly not my twin brother who rarely visits Perth. And who exactly were these people? A quick glance at a few of them and I didn’t know who they were. I hate surprise birthdays at the best of times (well on my birth date in particular), but on my fiftieth? Please!
And then, as we sat there idling, waiting for cars and people to get out of the way, I realised something else. All of the forty or so people hanging around were young Chinese people. Young Chinese people taking photographs. Young Chinese people taking photographs of something. Young Chinese people taking photographs of this:
Each year in spring the whole road to York each spring is lined with fields of bright yellow canola crop. My brother doesn’t farm it, but all of his neighbours do, and each year the place is covered in gold.
And covered in young Chinese people who are overseas university students at Perth’s tertiary institutions. And each year thousands of them make this pilgrimage to ooh and ahh and wade their way through the fields to take hundreds of thousands of selfies among the yellow.
They’ve never seen anything like it. When you’ve grown up in Singapore or Hong Kong, with nary a bare field bigger than a soccer pitch in sight, it must be astonishing see thousands of acres of open, rolling hills covered in canola’s bright flower. So astonishing you make it a pilgrimage. They love it.
And the farmers hate it.
“They’re trampling down people’s livelihoods,” growled my brother, when we eventually made it to the farm house and I asked him about it, “One or two’s okay, but thousands every weekend for the whole month walking through to the middle of each field.”
The more amorous among the students drive up with their expensive cameras – and their love interests – and take, how shall I put it, “tasteful” photos of each other for posterity and future blackmail.
My brother’s neighbour, a particularly grumpy old cocky, ran swearing at one such couple in his field, brandishing his shot gun and yelling at them to get off his land. The young man duly did, at an astonishing pace as a matter of fact, clearing the fence easily like a six foot Western Grey, leaving his slightly exposed girlfriend in the canola facing an angry farmer and a loaded gun. I’m betting the conversation on the drive home to their university digs that afternoon was somewhat frosty.
But here’s the point: It’s easy to get used to something so astonishing as those canola fields, when you see them all the time. That was me! I hardly saw the fields on the drive to the farm. They were there, I just looked past them.
Familiarity doesn’t only breed contempt, it breeds a slight ennui, a boredom brought about by the sheer ubiquity of something. We West Aussies laugh at Chinese students gawking at canola. Yet put us – born and raised in Perth’s dry, hot climate – in Canada with one day of light snow and behold! We’re all squeals and childhood wonder, taking selfies and posting on Facebook and falling in love with life and each other all over again. Meanwhile the average Canadian is standing in the warm kitchen looking out the window thinking we’re mad.
When you’ve been a Christian for some time, it’s easy to do a similar thing with the church. We are part of the church for so long; we’ve seen its utility so often; we complain about its shortcomings for so many years; we watch it being scorned in social media, and we become somewhat ho-hum about it. We allow familiarity to breed, if not contempt for the church of God, then boredom at least.
And then we read books (or write blogs), which point out the church’s shortcomings and need to change.
Well no one sees the church’s shortcomings or need to change more than God. And no one has more excoriating words to say about the church itself than Jesus, its king. Have a read of Revelation 2-3 if you want to see that. Yet two things helpfully remind us of how amazing the church is.
Firstly, God’s Word. The church is variously described in astonishing ways that should have us lining up to take selfies with it – with each other. Bride of Christ, Body of Christ, God’s household, The pillar and foundation of the truth, Where God resides, The elect, The Faithful brothers and sisters, God’s Garden, and – among many others – God’s field – a field more astonishing to our sight than thousands of acres of canola.
You can’t read God’s Word without being astonished by the richness with which God’s people are described. And then there are all of the Old Testament nuances and templates such as “holy nation, royal priesthood” such as in 1Peter, which remind us of God’s continuing work through salvation history that finds expression in the church, both local and universal.
But secondly God’s people, especially God’s new people, remind us of how amazing the church is. I never tire of meeting new Christians who are exactly like those Chinese students taking photos of each other among the canola. They’re astonished at the church. They’re amazed at the level of community and love and forgiveness and sheer joy they experience. And right now many of you are going ‘Yeah, right, give it time.”
Well maybe. Maybe they will be a little less idealistic of it when they’ve been part of it for longer. That’s only natural about anything. But when I ask a young Christian a few years after their conversion if they’d go back to the old way of life, the old way of doing relationships, they look at me as if I am mad. Maybe our jaded tones about church are partly attributable to the lack of conversions we see in our own churches, the lack of joy and newborn zeal that comes from someone seeing, as it were, the golden crop of canola for the first time. Perhaps we need to repent of that, and go back to God’s Word, and spend time with new Christians, to see it afresh.
For know this, there’s a wedding day coming when the Bride of Christ is presented to the Bridegroom. And I think it will be so spectactular, so astonishing, that an innumerable crowd will be lining the driveway to take a selfie with her.