The Presence of God

After community breakfast yesterday I visited the home of a friend, clambered over belongings 60cm deep and took in his joy at his painting on the wall.

The Presence of GodEarlier he had arrived late for breakfast but we unpacked again so we could chat while he munched on a large bowl of cereal.

We prayed for his parents and he told me that Mary backwards stands for both

You’re Really A Mess
You Really Are Magical

because life isn’t static but we are always coming out of tough times, recovering; or doing better, enjoying life.

I said it reminded me that we are made in the image of God (magical) but fallen and broken and frail (mess) and that Jesus gave his life to forgive and heal our mess and to restore and discover our magical.

My friend thought this was a reasonable interpretation of Mary backwards.

And I still count it a privilege after all these years to be asked for the simple act of brotherhood of a shared meal and to be given the honour of a private artistic viewing and to discuss the profound meaning of words backward.

I know we in the church (and more broadly) argue a lot about the presence/reality/felt existence of God and some say we only need our faith in the Scriptures and others that we find him as we sing or pray and maybe others think that a pilgrimage is required and perhaps all are correct together.

But I remember Jesus said what you do for the least of these you do for me as if he would be intentionally present to renew and reassure us and that’s what I felt after just a few hours sleep, an hour of setup, serving 40 breakfasts including one home delivery, two after we closed, praying with troubled souls and discussing backward anagrams.

Not tired. Renewed, reassured.

And I know whose presence I was experiencing, right where He said He would be all along.

Likewise the day before nursing a baby in the cool of the night waiting for him to settle into sleep. Likewise the next evening being alongside a daughter and her aged  mother as they negotiated the challenges of daily life and shared grief with nobility and tears and laughter.

The presence of God is everywhere when we forget to look at ourself. Life is not one long selfie.

And just as well… I take a terrible selfie…

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Elusive Archbishop of the slums

It is easy to categorise and be categorised. In many places in society the only way to get ahead is to sublimate yourself in the colours of the tribe.

But a true mark of faith and healthy personality is that you are ‘elusive’ to the box-carrying, label-making mechanisms of our world.

Jesus told a man, who was feeling an elusive breeze rustling through his straight-jacket religion, that:

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
John 3:8

There is something of this about Pope Francis and, as he prepares to visit the US, it has the American box cutters in a frenzy.

There is cause for hope in this archbishop of the slums.

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Watch Andrew Chan funeral: self-authored eulogy plus transcript

More than 1500 people attended the funeral service for Andrew Chan at Hillsong today.

Not long before he was executed, Andrew told a friend: ‘I love being a pastor in the prison, no-one can leave’.

The same sense of faith and humour is obvious in Andrew’s self-written eulogy.

‘Each day is a diamond. For each day is valuable, as you can never buy it back.’ Watch and/or read below:

‘Thank you all for gathering here on this day to witness something great. It’s a day that I will arise from my own coffin, rigandrew-chan-order-of-serviceht now as the words are spoken, in Jesus’ name, arise. Or I am just enjoying it too much in heaven, and I will wait for you all up there. Now I know it is a sad day, we would have all wished it didn’t come to this. However it is funny that even in death there’s still a lesson to be learnt.

‘We learned that we do not need to be old to die, nor do we need to have something wrong with us. But we learned that when it’s time to go home, God has the kitchen table and sink ready. Every person that is sitting here now has impacted my life in one way or another. The truth is, you have all taught me just as much as I have taught you. If I had to thank everyone individually, I don’t think I can place them on one sheet of paper.

‘And one of the biggest influences in my life is my brother. Stand up Mick, and look at the crowd, knowing that you’d hate to do that, because you don’t like the spotlight. People were touched by his love, time, effort, persistence, and many other things through him. And I’ve learnt a lot through Jesus too. I promised Mick I would not steal your birth certificate in heaven to make a fake ID.

‘Another person I learned so much from is my wife Feby. She has taught me the meaning of love and endurance, peace and much more. As I said, to all of you gathered here today, taught me something valuable in life which I have learned to cherish. Treat each day as a diamond, for each day is valuable, as you can never buy it back. Learn to use it doing the things you love, spend it with the people you care for most, because we just never know when we will say goodbye.

‘My last moments here on earth I sing out “Hallelujah!” I ran the good race. I fought the good fight and came out a winner in God’s eyes and men. I do have a story to tell, that story’s determined by you all on how you witness me. Ask yourself: “What did I leave with you?” That will determine my legacy. I leave now in peace and love. I pray that you will all know how I valued and treasured you. Treasure your love and friendship. As you all leave here today, who will you witness too, today?

Love Andrew Chan.”

What is love?

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In the shadow of a Sydney public housing tower, light and love break out in a post-modern expression of ancient truth.

The purely secular event, addressed at times by politicians of the left, fulfilled quite superbly the principle of the good Samaritan.

Christians came, not with authority or position, but with that greatest of all influences – genuine friendship.

Amazing Grace was sung over the event with more power and pathos than might be found in many church services – not arranged by any human plan but because the request for ‘one more song’ drew it from the heart of the Aboriginal singer who stunned us with her voice and her spirit.

A once-was-a-pastor wandered around, sharing conversation, bridging gaps and encouraging residents and the young workers who gave up their Sunday to serve the community.

He promised his chocolate wheel ticket, if it won, to a woman who has little but loyalty and dignity. It did win and she promptly tried to give the prize back even though it would likely be the only thing of beauty she would receive for a long time.

Old friendships were renewed and far from confessional or altar, stories were shared freely of recovery and new hope amidst old battles.

Then, as if to show that God was pleased and would not be left out, was not afraid to be included, the microphone was handed to a young mother who was there with a small child, there because of her heart that is soft towards those who have had the hardest of lives.

She too had a winning ticket but, before she could receive her prize, was required to answer a question in front of the entire gathering.

‘What is love?’ asked the MC. And what a surprising question this was.

The young woman, her daughter playing at her feet, searched for an answer that was both true and respectful of the moment. All eyes were on her.

‘Love is many things’ she said, tentatively. But then, finding courage.

‘For me, I think about what the Bible says that love is. “Love is patient, love is kind… it does not envy, does not boast, does no evil, keeps no record of wrong, always hopes, always trusts”.’

And in that moment we all knew it was true, and quietly, without preaching, many were encouraged to remember the Source of love.

Joel Edwards of Micah Challenge speaks of the church no longer holding institutional or official power but needing to find grassroots legitimacy through its acts of justice, mercy and humility. I see evidence of this often. I saw it in action in the shadows of a public housing tower.

 

 

A community breakfast in this neighbourhood will continue at the Booler Centre on the first Sunday of each month, 8.30am to 9.45am. 

 

 

 

More than a label

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I was walking in the sunshine at University of Sydney with my little grand daughter who needed a short break from church in the old Geology building.

We came across a tree (pictured) with beautiful patterned bark, soft and flakey, and gentle spindly branches that were almost silhouetted against the blue sky.

I laid my hand against the trunk and felt its warmth and encouraged Maddison to do likewise. She reached across and rested the palm of her hand on the tree.

I stepped back to photograph the tree which had won my heart and as we began to move on I noticed a tag or label nailed to it.

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sunrise, sky, colours, beauty

Walking forwards backwards or being really alive

Working on a project last week, I read a quote from an amazing Australian social reformer who should be better known to us than he is. Hopefully I can have a part in changing that shortly.

Anyway, he wrote that “most people move forward backwards”. The reason is that the future is “dark” in the sense that we cannot see one minute into the future (although we can imagine or project our ideas of what the future might be). On the other hand, the past is like a “blazing light” – we can see its details clearly and so although we may well feel we are moving forward, we do so with our eyes towards the “light” of the past.

But, he says, there are some people who move forward looking forward, watching carefully to see and embrace what emerges from the “dark” of the future. Something like watching the world take shape as night gives way to dawn.

These people, moving forward and looking forward, are those that are “truly alive”, he concludes.

I think we can convince and comfort ourselves we are moving forward when really in life there’s not much choice, as time and our beings go relentlessy where they haven’t been before, whether we like it or not. But are we looking forward.

It’s easy to step into the next thing life offers but have a good measure of our heart and at least one eye on something of the past that shines particularly brightly, even if it is the glistening of tears, or the rich glimmer of a golden time, or the sparkle of youthful innocence.

Move forward looking forward and save your best for what is and is to be. The past will take care of itself – which could be what Jesus meant when he gave the call to follow and said, ‘Let the dead bury the dead.’

I’m not saying it’s easy, or that I’m any good at it. But it makes sense, I reckon.

The complexity of command, conscience and covenant: new year reflection

The Christian life is a complex interplay of command, conscience and covenant – and none of these words are particularly popular or well understood in our culture or, perhaps, by many in the church.

traffic, conscience, right, wrong, covenant, maturity, choice, freedomFrom time to time debates rage in one corner of Christendom or another as to what Christians should or shouldn’t do and rarely is a mature understanding of these coexistent realities displayed.

Simplistically we could draw understanding from the humble traffic light. Red and green are commands and amber is more or less a matter of personal decision or conscience. Red does not ask you if you feel you should stop, it tells you that you must. Amber however allows you some measure of consideration. And green, like red, is a command to go and if you are in doubt about that you have not experienced missing a green light in Sydney traffic.

The context for the command and conscience of the traffic light is the covenant we all have with each other that we will obey the traffic rules, including traffic lights, and likewise drive safely and responsibly. When we as a community balance command, conscience and covenant well, there is relative safety and amenity on our roads. When these three are out of shape – frustration, damage and even death can result.

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Oh little town of Bideford… where prayer has been over-ruled

Debates over prayers in Parliament or council meetings periodically emerge as another place where institutional secularism seeks to usurp institutional religion.

The latest has been the English town of Bideford where a former councillor took Bideford Council to court over official prayers during meetings.

The High Court ruled in his favour on what it described as a narrow point of law that it was not legal for councils to make prayer part of official business.

Some are seeing the ruling as having wider ramifications as secularism continues to reframe the nature of our societies.

Bideford may yet become a byword for a nation and nations loss of spiritual identity.

Read The Guardian’s report

Not so sacred fight over school enrolment

A far-flung Catholic School became the centre of inner city ire this week when news broke that a child had been denied enrolment because her parents are a same-sex couple.

Within minutes of the story being aired by the ABC, Greens schools spokesman John Kaye was on the airwaves lambasting non-government schools in general because they weren’t subject to anti-discrimination laws. He demanded that they be made to abide by these regulations if they wanted to continue receiving 85 per cent government funding.

Leaving aside the right or wrongs of the actions of the Sacred Heart School, Broken Hill, and indeed the veracity of the claims being made against it, let’s consider for a moment who is righteous enough to cast stones in this situation.

If the well-being of the child is the real issue, as the various detractors most self-righteously proclaim, then the action of the parents in taking the matter directly to the media is highly questionable. There would have been several other options, if their concerns were in fact sincere, such as appealing to the appropriate Bishop who would have quickly offered the child a place, judging by his reaction since the story broke.

Anyone who knows small towns realises that everyone in Broken Hill now knows exactly which family is at the centre of this row, surely not an ideal situation.

Then there is the hypocrisy of John Kaye who immediately politicised the case and uses it as an excuse to push the Green agenda which is to force faith-based schools to relinquish their deeply held, ancient beliefs that are at the centre of their life and community. What he would really like is to see private schools removed altogether, or at very least, all funding for them removed.Read More »

Kate enters MasterChef final with plenty of prayerful support

Several thousand past and present students of Greenacre Baptist Christian Community School will be glued to the MasterChef finale with former teacher Kate Bracks one of the final two contestants.

And quite a few might be saying the occasional prayer to see her win the final challenge next week. They’ll be joined by the members of Orange Evangelical Church where Kate, husband Luke and three children are members. Throw in additional prayerful support from Orange Christian School and it could be suggested that Kate has an unfair advantage.

But it will come down to taste and so far, Kate has proved time and again that her food has plenty of that. The township of Orange is, no doubt, in raptures about her success and will be hopeful her cool and calm approach will continue into the grand final.

Back in the early years of this century when Kate was teaching at Greenacre, she was a much-loved and respected teacher at a beautiful little school located in an area often referred to, somewhat ominously, as south-west Sydney.

And while fires and shootings at nearby car wrecking yards were routine, there was an atmosphere of love and peace that enveloped the school and embraced two of my children for several years.

Kate taught my youngest son in his pivotal Year 6 and, while there was no hint of her cooking prowess in those days, she was an excellent teacher.

On his Year 6 progress report, she wrote: “He is cooperative, modest and encouraging in his dealings with others.” Sounds very much like Kate’s own approach to her time on MasterChef.

Kate spoke about taking on the challenge of MasterChef to show her children that it’s possible to chase one’s dreams and be stretched beyond our normal existence. It might also be a shout-out to all parents to be living examples of faith in action to their children, shrugging of conformity and consumerism and doing something generous with their lives.

As for taking on the MasterChef challenge, Kate credits family and friends for their support. The Central Western Daily newspaper (worked there myself back in the day…) reports:

“Despite her love of cooking Mrs Bracks said she wouldn’t be competing in MasterChef if she didn’t have the support of her family and friends, including those from the Orange Evangelical Church. ‘I’ve got such a supportive network,’ she said.
Even after a successful audition for the show it took an extra push from her husband Luke, a teacher at Orange Christian School, to remind her that she was up to the challenge ahead. ‘He just told me not to let other things get in the way [of me doing this],’ she said.”

Kate and the Dalai Lama

Speaking in tongues comes to ABC news

Speaking in tongues has finally come to ABC News as journalist Amy Simmons investigates why Pentecostalism is “attracting the Sunday masses” and examines the rise of Pentecostalism in a separate story.

The article covers some familiar territory – it seems each new generation of journalist keeps “discovering” the non-traditional traits that have made the Pentecostals the fastest growing Christian movement across the globe in the past century. 

There’s plenty in the article to allow people to make up their own minds about Pentecostal churches and some areas of belief such as healing and speaking in tongues.

Of course, most Pentecostals would rightly point to Jesus as being at the centre of their beliefs and that without a clear understanding of and vital relationship with the Son of God, then the other elements of faith are worthless.

Academic Associate Professor Rick Strelan of the University of Queensland is called on to deliver the “objective expert” view and is reasonable in most of his comments, which is noteworthy in that Pentecostals are not overly accustomed to having their faith and practice discussed in a reasonable way.Read More »

Father Bob neighbour of next year’s The Block

The producers of The Block may have a thing for living near celebrities but they certainly no how to make Father Bob angry.

“While this year’s houses in Richmond back on to Molly Meldrum’s lavish Egyptian-themed property, the four houses believed to have been bought for next year’s show are opposite the home of renegade priest, Father Bob Maguire,” the Herald Sun reported yesterday.

Father Bob tweeted that he was “Not happy me”. Well known for his media appearances and run-ins with Catholic authorities over his retirement, he clearly resented the renegade title.

The four side-by-side terraces in South Melbourne are located on Dorcas St, overlooking the parish of St Peter and Paul’s.

The properties were recently sold and came with planning permission for a third storey, to maximise city views.

See the Herald Sun story.

Hang on, that’s a balanced Hillsong article!

July 7, 2011 was a big day for Hillsong. Not only was it the penultimate day of its 25th anniversary Hillsong conference at Darling Harbour, but also the day the Sydney Morning Herald printed a reasonably intelligent, mainly positive article about the mega-church.

Having taken to task the SMH several times for its mindless bias against Hillsong, which has seen the paper link the church with negative stories to which it has no actual connection, I thought it only fair to highlight the opposite.

Writer Ross Cameron describes how some friends visiting from England explain “they want to see Hillsong” and concludes with:

“Hillsong avoids many of the excesses of American TV spirituality. It’s delivered in the Australian vernacular and it respects the audience enough to make sure speakers know how to communicate. There are elements that don’t suit me, but Hillsong is changing people’s lives for the better. Some theological custodians argue Hillsong is just the power of positive thinking with a patina of Jesus. But even if that were true, would it be a bad thing? I would prefer being uplifted than depressed and it’s clearly better than my default position – lying on the couch with a coffee, The Insiders and three newspapers.

“Sydneysiders have taken a certain pleasure in finding fault with this church, and most have no idea of its impact. Hillsong is throwing modern Christianity a lifeline, while reaching out to others in a life beyond self.”
At last glance, there were 163 comments on the article with many agreeing that it is good to see a “positive Hillsong article from SMH for a change”. As usual, wherever there is a positive potrayal of Christianity, the evangelistic atheists are in a commenting frenzy with their usual taunts of “imaginary friends” and “sky fairy”.
Read more at the Sydney Morning Herald.
Previous Hillsong posts:

 

Space provides hope for street sex workers

My only encounters with brothels and sex workers have been organising to have flowers distributed outside one of Sydney’s largest brothels in Camperdown during random acts of kindness events and trawling the area around Hollywood Boulevard, LA, in the early hours of the morning with a Dream Centre team.

In both cases the intention was to bring the kindness of God to an otherwise unkind corner of our society, hopefully surprising people with the news that God loves them.

Oh and there was one occasion on the bus from work when two young women, looking like uni students, sat behind me and begun discussing their ‘clients’. Being a consummate eaves-dropper I was soon shocked and got off feeling a little shaken about the world we live in.

So it is good news indeed to see a Christian community group featured in the Sydney Morning Herald because of complaints against sex workers – not making the complaints but being the object of them.

Baptist Church urban compassion ministry, Hope Street, has raised the ire of inner Sydney residents for running a support service for sex workers out of a Bourke Street, Darlinghurst terrace.

Established in April 1995, Women’s Space is described by Hope Street as a “safe place where we provide support for street-based sex workers and other women involved in the sex industry in inner Sydney, with a focus on encouraging those women who choose to make a change in their lives and supporting these women during and after the changes they make.”

About five street-based sex workers visit the centre each morning, according to the SMH report, and may seek counselling have a shower, get a new set of clothes or just sit in the sunny courtyard.

Coordinator Kay Syonesa said the women “can come here and have someone treat them as an individual whereas other places it’s: ‘just a sex worker’… they come here and it’s: ‘you’re human’.”

As the service only moved to the Bourke St location at the start of this year, the were asked to submit a development application to the City of Sydney and local residents have contributed 84 objections out of 88 responses.

One representative of the East Sydney Neighbourhood Association came up with this ‘impressive’ list of objections: “the street sex workers are homeless… it does not service the residents, it’s not compatible with the permissible use.”

Compelling reasoning… not. Kings Cross police have no problems with the service, street prostitution has not increased in the area and some residents are seeing the bigger picture: “It’s just pathetic, this idea of ‘not in my backyard. It will make absolutely no difference to these residents but it could do a huge amount of good for these women,” the resident told the SMH.

Let’s hope compassion wins over ‘not in my backyard’ as City of Sydney planners assess the development application.

Find out  more about Hope Street’s Women’s Space.

Check out this previous post:

Paul Moulds – into the dark places.

Faith by billboard conversation continues

If you happen to commute along the M4 and also Victoria Rd (you are to be deeply pitied for that commute) then you may feel like you’re in the middle of a friendly, billboard-sized banter between a Christian and a Muslim. And the topic? Jesus.

Check out the full story at Australian Christian News.

Original billboard post
Forget billboards, they want to ban the  Bible

Alpha course (very) distinct from Alpha Dynamics

An attempt was made to list on Wikipedia an article about Alan John Miller, the Australian man claiming to be Jesus who was featured on A Current Affair this week.

The article was deleted due to a lack of substantiation and references, however a discussion sprang up on a forum about the article, mainly among people concerned about relatives who have begun to follow Miller’s Divine Truth teaching.

Part of Miller’s technic is to reach searching people through a course called Alpha Dynamics, which ostensibly is about improving the use of your brain in relation to concentration, memory and better sleep. It also draws on New Age references to alpha and beta waves. The course is coordinated in Australia by Peter H. Heibloem.

As the course progresses, attendees are pushed towards the ‘real  answer’ to their worries, Divine Truth, as taught by, you guessed it, Alan Miller.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, one of the most popular training courses being run by Christian churches recently is called Alpha and while it has nothing to do with Alpha Dynamics, there is potential for confusion.

For example, a person who contributed to the forum (mentioned above) expressed his concerns for friends entangled with Miller and refers to Alpha training.

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Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good conspiracy theory…

The Sydney Morning Herald has taken a cheap shot at Hillsong and the Seventh Day Adventist church by linking them to federal budget legislation that ‘will put a lid on the practice of so-called charities using their tax-free status to  generate business income for no charitable purpose whatsoever.’ (SMH, May 11, pg 4)
The story reports on changes to legislation expected in Tuesday’s budget which will require not-for profit organisations to pay tax on profits kept for commercial purposes.
The article then lumped Hillsong and the Seventh Day Adventist Church into that category: ‘The Hillsong church has links with the Gloria Jean’s coffee shop franchise,  while the cereal company Sanitarium is owned by the Seventh Day Adventist  Church.’
The SMH has been like a rabid conspiracy theorist in relation to Gloria Jeans and Hillsong for some time and failed again to acknowledge or understand that the fact that the owner of Gloria Jeans attends Hillsong does not equate to the church owning the business. Hence the nebulous ‘has links’ in the article. If every charity or church is to have its tax status changed because it has ‘links’ with a business, then most would be impacted.Read More »

Popular TV shows discuss faith and church

Two prime time television shows and classic re-run featured characters discussing the merits of church attendance and Christian faith in the past week.

Channel 7’s Packed to the Rafters this week had character Nick ‘Carbo’ Karandonis telling his girlfriend Loretta ‘Retta’ Schembri that she would have to convert to the Greek Orthodox faith for them to be married. She replied she would not convert as she didn’t believe and it would be hypocritical. She also questioned the sincerity of Carbo’s faith, given that he claimed to be Greek Orthodox and never attended. So they attend church together and afterwards Retta says she felt the spirituality of the service and wants to attend every Sunday. Carbo is horrified that she might take faith seriously and the theme is set to continue in the show – next season.

Channel 10’s The Good Wife saw Grace Florrick challenging her mother Alicia about belief in Jesus. Mrs Florrick, the good wife, replies she believes Jesus was a person who lived 2000 years ago and she couldn’t see what impact he had on her life. grace replies that you either ‘love Jesus or hate him’, there’s no middle ground. She further argues that she is an intelligent person who believes in Jesus, and that the two things aren’t mutually exclusive. The episode finished with Mrs Florrick agreeing to take her daughter to church.

And a classic episode of Everyone Loves Raymond screened on one of the digital channels. Titled The Prodigal Son, it features Raymond arguing with his parents about going to church. Also, his wife and children go to church every week but Raymond refuses to go. After some hilarious interactions, the episode concludes with a serious discussion of church going and faith between Raymond and wife ?

‘Why don’t you go to church Raymond?’ she asks. And after complaining that all the kneeling is hard on his knees, the focus moves to ideas such as parents wanting to pass on their values, feelings of guilt and the need to believe in and be part of something bigger than ourselves.

When Raymond turns the questioning back on his wife, ‘Why do you go to church?’ she replies, ‘To say thanks for you and the children… and to pray for strength to get through another week with you and the children…’

Hopefully Australian households are discussing faith in a similarly open and revealing way and perhaps these episodes are a case of art imitating reality.

While the conclusions drawn, arguments used and theology displayed are not always satisfying, it is encouraging that writers and producers are willing to include spiritual, faith and religious issues (very occasionally) as themes for their shows.

Check out a small part of the final ‘church’ conversation in Everybody Loves Raymond…

http://www.tbs.com/video/index.jsp?oid=84388&eref=sharethisUrl

Where to with Utterance?

So, I’ve had a very long case of writer’s block. More writer’s coma than block. More writer’s near-death experience than coma. More…

Anyway, I’m just searching for that sweet-spot of an idea for what to do next. Don’t tell me, I’ll get it eventually.

In the meantime, it did spark my interest that the 7pm Project discussed falling church attendances tonight. Tellingly, they quoted no hard statistics, quoted a minister from a denomination with famously declining membership due to its abandonment of faith, and quoted an atheist who is too young to have any idea if there is a God or not because he hasn’t lived long enough to have a single conviction tested. Or so it seemed to me.

Host Carrie Bickmore admitted her mother had dragged her along to Hillsong, Steve Price had the usual hackneyed response about churches and money and Hughesy said that if it makes people happy and gives them good values then what’s the problem. The too-young-to-know atheist pondered what would happen without the community  that religion provides, but failed to give an alternative.

Oh, and by the way, on a different note, I’m reading my first Ernest Hemingway book, Death in the Afternoon, which is non-fiction and about bullfighting… well, it was the only Hemingway available at Leichhardt Library – but already I’ve gained a few insights into his approach to writing, which may or may not be a good thing.