Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Love despite fear, fear despite love

What sort of crazy person would buy this building?
I have staggered to the end of another semester, a semester in which I overcommitted to study, kept working, kept raising children, kept combing out nits and cooking meals and sweeping floors; and somewhere in the midst of everything, a whole new surprising project took root. Now I am emerging from the fog of study and the chaos of family life and the demands of work to discover that I am moving to a regional city in a few weeks’ time to start a new church. I should be thrilled and excited—and there are many times when I am—but I am also just as likely to feel overwhelmed. I think often of Leunig’s observation that there are only two emotions, love and fear, for the new project certainly arose out of love, and yet it fills me with fear.

How did it come about? In January, we went for a family holiday to Warrnambool. There we bumped into various people we knew very slightly from this circle or that. Over cups of tea, each person told a story of leaving church, and I came away feeling with the odd feeling I had seen a flock without a shepherd. ‘Poor them,’ I thought, and returned safe and sound to Melbourne. But then a friend took me out to lunch. He knew some of these people; he’d spoken with them; he said I was the shepherd; and he told me to contact them. I brushed him off, and then a friend from Adelaide called and we had the same conversation.

So much for safe and sound. I grit my teeth, made contact, and had a few conversations. My phone number was passed on and the circle of people gathered into the conversation grew. I went down to Warrnambool each month to watch and listen, and see what would emerge; and what emerged was a call to start something new. We found a crazy rambling old house with a hall at the front, bought it, and are moving in July. There I will help birth a new congregation shaped by liturgy, hospitality, and prayer; and the new gathering will meet in the hall.

Every step has been marked by love. Love of the people; their hospitality towards us; and their longing to become a congregation known for its hospitality. Love of other churches: local churches, whose pastors have been graciously welcoming; our denominational body, which is supporting the venture; and my home church, which has backed my explorations. The love of my family: children prepared to move; a husband willing to prioritise my work despite the personal cost to him. And there have been many, many other signs of love. I know this; I feel the love; even so, I am terrified.

Leunig describes love and fear as the only two emotions; the author of 1 John writes, ‘Perfect love casts out all fear.’ I wish it was that easy; or maybe the problem is that my love is never perfect. For we were in Warrnambool over the weekend, picking up the keys to the new place and working out what needs to be done before we move. After going through the long list of maintenance jobs, I went back to the home where we were staying. We first met our hosts in March, but they are people I have quickly come to love. When my host asked how things were, my fear and anxiety rose up and I started to weep. She gave me a bear hug, and any pretence that I might be a perfectly detached professional pastor evaporated. There I was, surrounded by love with nothing to fear, weeping with anxiety, a snotty mess.

Yet I want to be someone who lives not out of fear, but out of love and abundance. Serendipitously, perhaps, this week a friend sent me a quote from Doubts and Loves by Richard Holloway: “There is something in the universe that calls us to recklessness and extravagance. We see it in the work of great artists, composers, explorers … A burning passion kindles them into life, into heroic achievement, into love, into laughter and daring. We could let ourselves be ignited by the same recklessness that lies at the heart of the universe, challenging us to live recklessly and not be held back by our fears … to burn with joy that we are rather than we are not.”

The problem is that someone like me is often crippled by the idea that I will never be good enough, and so I find it hard even to try: better not to try than to risk failure and censure. Moreover, I live an ordinary life crammed with small tasks, children’s ailments, sore backs, and the need to cook dinner; I have the ordinary complement of gifts; I am so easily afraid. By definition, ordinary people are not extraordinary, at least in the world’s eyes; and so it is hard to believe we really can live recklessly and extravagantly.

But perhaps, in God’s eyes, even our fumbling fear-studded attempts at living into love are enough. For on Sunday, this wobbly weepy pastor went back to the new building. There I held a short rite to bless the public spaces and enjoy afternoon tea. Like some liturgical Pied Piper, I shepherded thirty-odd kids and adults around the building to pray for the various rooms and all that will take place in them; and I saw a host of faces relaxing into wide serious grins as people tested then savoured then rested in the prayers, engaging in the good work of liturgy. Together, adults and children paraded and prayed; and then we all feasted on cake.

I was struck again by how little we need: one draughty old hall; one wobbly anxious pastor; a clutch of other people; a handful of sturdy prayers; kettles, mugs, and tea; a few homemade cakes—this is enough, much more than enough, to experience the presence of love. For surely it is a sign of the love that is life that, in both the cake and the prayer, we enjoyed not only rich, full quiet but also belly laughter.

And maybe living extravagantly, aiming for love, looks as simple as this. While I might not be a polar explorer, I do have that element of recklessness that led us to buy such a crazy building; I do feel a whiff of daring every time I speak into a congregation and ask them to pray; I do experience a surge of joy curating a space in which even children speak, praying aloud not only scripted prayers but also the matters on their hearts into the gathering. Yet I do all these things with more than a tinge of fear. It makes me wonder whether love and fear must always be placed in opposition, as if the presence of one must mean the other is absent. Instead, maybe in this ordinary life they co-exist in an awkward interlocking embrace, as we love even despite our fear, and fear despite our love.

Doubts and Loves: What is Left of Christianity


  1. "I was struck again by how little we need: one draughty old hall; one wobbly anxious pastor; a clutch of other people; a handful of sturdy prayers; kettles, mugs, and tea; a few homemade cakes"
    Lovely! I was sorry I couldn't be there but the family came back full of cake, admiration of cupboards, and warm reports. Wishing you all Godspeed through the packing (because packing up a house always requires a few miracles) and feeling very thankful for your families work in making this happen ....Thankyou!

    1. I found more than one of your children - ie both - hiding by lying flat on a shelf in a big old cupboard - very impressive! At one time I think there were five kids on shelves all up. As for packing ... we'll get there, I suppose :-|

  2. Thank you Ali for sharing some of the inner journey associated with the adventure of your new outward journey. We look forward to hearing more reflective stories as the next season unfolds. Love and respect to you both.

  3. I find your open stories so encouraging and helpful - thank you for sharing them. I wish you all well as you follow God to this new place!

  4. I will miss the chance of a Gypsy Hideout rendezvous. But I can't help feeling very excited to hear you are headed for Warrnambool where my mother grew up. It's a place that has always been so welcoming. Perhaps it helps being Margaret Adams Bell/Dyer's daughter, and having cousins around, but I think the western district hospitality is something you'll enjoy. I'm sure they'll take you all to their hearts. Every blessing!


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