The last time I went for a haircut was back in 1994. A quarter of a century ago.
I remember it well, even if at the time I didn’t know it would be the final one for 25 years. Italian Catholic bloke in his late fifties called Tony in Wesley Arcade Perth. Slicked back balding dark hair, slim and tense. It was during my first paid job in ministry, youth pastor of Wesley Uniting Church in the CBD.
To be honest I didn’t tax Tony’s skills too much. It was basically a shave of what little I had left (even then) and that was it. No fanfare. No “see ya later” and that was the last time I ever went into a barber’s shop in the ensuing years. I figured I could take it from here. Which I did.
Until a few weeks ago. Not ostensibly for a haircut I might add, though a delicious buzz cut and cut throat tidy up around the edges ensued. It was mostly for my beard.
I started growing my beard in earnest late last year and soon discovered that it wasn’t as simple as “just don’t shave and save money on blades.”
There are plenty of benefits to having a beard other than saving money. Beards give! Beards give credibility. Beards give gravitas. Unfortunately they also give you ten years, but hey, swings and roundabouts right?
But beards take too. Beards take time! Energy! Beard oil. I think my beard took a comb at one stage too, but I could have dropped that down the side of the sink. Which ever it was I’ve never seen it since.
But give and take, I soon realised that if my beard were gonna to, er, hang around me, it needed some attention.
So when at a farewell picnic before Christmas one couple said they couldn’t recognise anyone from church, but then they saw my “Santa” beard, I took a deep breath a few days later, circled the block where the barber was a few times, and went in expecting to be laughed at for being a bald man going into a barber (there’s a joke in there, right?).
Completely as an aside, you know which part of town you are in as you settle into a barber’s chair and the bloke in the chair next to you says to his barber:
“Shave it short all over and leave it long with a tail at the back.”
That’s office at the front and party at the back right? Though it has to be said he didn’t look the office type.
The shop wall was festooned with pictures of blokes with funky hair cuts, and follicles to die – or dye – for, all with numbers on them. It felt a bit like a Indian takeaway restaurant. “I’ll have the number five thanks, but go easy on the chilli. And throw in some of those pappadum things.”
Now a few things have changed in the past quarter century. First, it wasn’t a Tony, or any other First World migrant who made the trip from Europe in the 60s for a better life cutting my hair. Such entry level businesses were the bread and butter of those early migrants. Bread and butter before the hipster barbershop replete with retro Ned Kelly beards, sleeve tattoos, and a-whiskey-while-you-wait became the latest cool thing.
Not this barber. It’s cheap and cheerful so it’s still the bread and butter for entry level migrants. And my new barber, a lovely gentle soul called Ahmed, was himself a new migrant from Iraq, just on the verge of getting his citizenship here.
Two other barbers work there as well – a young Palestinian man on a bridging visa who picked my accent as originally Northern Irish from the get go, (“Someone else from a troubled place”, he said with a grin), and a lovely Iranian lady who moved to Perth from Tehran with her engineer husband about seven years ago. There’s a little taste of the world’s turmoil – and opportunity – right there.
And boy did Ahmed do a great job on my beard that first time. In fact my beard took on a new life! Ahmed liberated it from beard hell and ensured nothing – including my wife’s hopes and dreams – would ever get lost in it again.
Of course it’s the chat too. Asking about homelands and trouble spots, and what members of family live where, and, of course, religion. More than happy to talk about that. In fact never met a new migrant from the Middle East who doesn’t want to chat about religion. Ever.
Just last week I went in for my by-now-fortnightly beardological experience. No Ahmed.
Ahmed was on holidays because it was quiet season, school having just gone back and kids being about a week away from a re-trim, so the young Iranian lady cut my beard this time, trimming around the edges with a cut-throat razor with the ease and dexterity of someone for whom this is a muscle memory thing.
We chatted. And then she asked: “What did you say you did for a job again?”
How many times do I get asked that?! And when a westerner in Australia asks me that I take an invisible step back, take a deep breath and try to say it in as careful a way as possible. We’ve all come to realise that the minute you say “pastor” or “church” you are not exactly opening up dialogue. There’s a whole iceberg of suspicion or even downright hostility behind that question so often.
So there I was, lying head back, my Iranian barber cut-throat in hand, and I uttered the immortal words, “I work in a Christian church as a pastor, telling people about Jesus.”
At which point I watched in the mirror as a smile broke across her face.
“You’re a pastor? That’s so good! Well done! I never picked you as a pastor.”
She seemed genuinely pleased, then went on:
“I thought you might have been a writer or an artist, just the way you dress.”
We talked about a lot of other things too, especially her observation that “Australians have so much, but they grumble about everything.” Ouch, that stung!
But it struck me again – as I’ve had this experience in any number of Uber rides this past 12 months – just how open our new migrant populations from the Middle East are to talking about religion, to discussing Jesus, and how they value people whose paid role it is to do such tasks.
And it struck me how such an on-the-spot response in the funky hipster barber that’s just opened up in the shopping centre across the road may not go down as well as it did here in the entry level shop.
It struck me how I would instinctively feel less free to say that with the ironic Western post-everythings who are trying to recreate inner city hipness here in the outer eastern suburbs of Perth. And it especially struck me that my response to their question would not be an open smile and a “Well done!”
You see it’s been a long time between hair cuts. A long time. A lot more than 25 years has passed. A lot of cultural and sociological water has passed under the bridge since that day Tony shaved the last despairing hairs from my head.
I don’t think 25 years ago we could have imagined the often sullen, occasionally, hostile response that being a Christian can have in the public square, never mind the role of being a worker in the church.
I don’t think 25 years ago we could have imagined a world in which so many of the things that were considered “good” by the secular culture, insofar as the role of the church was concerned, are now considered “bad” or “unhelpful” or “unsafe”.
I don’t think 25 years ago many of us in jobs in the city could have imagined that we’d be required to sign off on ethical statements that we disagree with at the risk of being sidelined in a job, or viewed with a certain level of distrust. The opportunities for good gospel conversations in the workplace for many people seem to have dried up.
I don’t think 25 years ago I could have imagined the completely 180 degrees that churches have taken on issues of sexual ethics that many have taken. I don’t think I could have imagined that my futhre role would be less about espousing the relevance of the gospel to a disinterested culture, to helping shape the resilience of the church in the face of a hostile culture.
But conversely, I don’t think I imagined 25 years ago the number of Middle Eastern refugees and migrants turning up on our shores, hungry to have conversations about Jesus and the church. And who find that what they simply presumed to be a “Christian” country either doesn’t care about the faith, or views it with increasing suspicion and hostility. And it’s that cohort – including my barbers – who seem more open to hearing about Jesus than many a fifth generation Aussie.
I hear disconcerting comments – as recently as last week – from conservatives who feel their backs are against the wall, and that “we Westerners must stick together” and somehow carve out new forms of ethnic enclaves to ensure the survival of the Western tradition, and oh, that includes Western Christianity.
Well I’m all for the survival of the Western tradition if central to that tradition is the Lord Jesus Christ who transcends all ethnic boundaries and calls all nations to him, and whose wonder, beauty, truth and goodness sparked a tradition that is more than happy to receive the gifts and junk the giver. Without the caveat of Jesus at the centre of any Western tradition, any such a call is an extremely dangerous position to take, and will end in new forms of apartheid.
I fear that many Christians, worried as they are about the trend of the last 25 years, would settle for Christendom without Christ, a tribal ghetto based on a false assumption that what made Western culture so powerful was the Enlightenment, rather than the Enlightening One. It’s a blind alley and one that will inevitably lead to trouble. Plus it ignores the rather chequered history of Western culture down the past few centuries that often co-opted the gospel for its own ends.
I don’t know where I will be having my beard trimmed in 25 years time, or even if I will be alive to have it trimmed. And I am sure a lot more will have changed between the haircut I just had last week and that one. But one thing I do know is this: There will always be people on this planet who arrive in this country willing and hungry to hear about Jesus and to beam with pleasure when you tell them that that is your job.