Lost Art of Community

We live in a time and place where nothing bad really happens. People can go months, years even decades without experiencing anything closely related to trauma. In fact, I’d wager that there’s no shortage of people out there, in their 20’s and 30’s who’ve never experienced abuse, loss or even death. Sure, bad things happen to everyone, but in our western bubble we’ve manged to insulate our daily lives from suffering.

And at first glance, this might look like a great thing, and at one level it is. Safety, security and a dramatic reduction of danger are all a result of affluence. Today we are far more easily able to collect and accumulate personal possessions and wealth then previous generations. In turn, we are far more individualistic then previous generations.

If our society has perfected the art of buffering individuals and groups from harm, why then is this generation one of the worst affected by mental illness? Why is this generation one of the worst affected with behavioural disorders?  We are witnessing a generation rise up who, despite having every comfort, are for the most part the unhappiest generation ever. It is affected with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety and chronic illness in human history. Why, in all our technological advancements in health, security and communication, are we one of the most disconnected and lonely generations of all time? How can we live surrounded in urban environments, some of the densest residential dwellings known to the human race, and yet feel deeply, even dangerously alone?

Maybe, we’ve pursued all these great things and neglected ‘community’ along the way. What if accumulating affluence comes at a cost… What if it decreases our dependence on other people… What if it decreases our motivation to contribute to other people or groups within our society… What if…

What if… humans are built for hardship? What if humans were designed to thrive on it. We live in a time and place where nothing really bad happens. But it comes at the cost of experiencing something of what it means to be human. How do you become a mature adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a mature adult in a culture that doesn’t demand courage?

We are in the midst of a  generation of ‘adults’ who, for the most part have never been required to sacrifice. A generation that doesn’t know what loss or daily hardships are. So when tragedy strikes, (and it strikes everyone), it’s no wonder that a growing number within our society don’t know how to deal with it. It rapidly escalates and becomes overwhelming, pushing people beyond their limits. It would seem that rather than acting as a buffer, the modernisation of our societies has fostered mental health concerns.

One observation I’d made during my time as a medic in the Army, is that very few soldiers suffered mental health concerns ‘during’ their operational deployment. The soldiers I knew, young men and women, had been thrown into hideous circumstances, exposed to all kinds of traumatic situations, and in the moment, they cope exceptionally well. These young adults, to mention a few things, were dealing with life changing injuries, death, killing, murder, racism, religious extremism, prolonged separation from family and the uncertainty of hidden and indiscriminate enemy explosives. Yet, their health and well-being in the midst of this tribulation was almost always good.

Again, from my observation, there were two primary things that held these soldiers together. The first was a deep sense of comradery amongst the ranks. It was a bond that brought men and women together as brothers and sisters. It was a community that was as close as family. When one person struggled, everyone struggled with them. The second was in that environment everyone had a purpose. There was a obligation to contribute to the collective, and permission to lean on the collective when needed. There was a great honour in being strong, but at the same time there was no shame in moments of weakness. Everyone had a role to play and that role, in the community was meaningful.

But skip forward a few years, and the picture is far more grim. We lost 6 soldiers in combat on our operational deployment, and since then, at last count, we’ve lost 6 more to suicide. There are countless more suffering with ongoing mental health problems such as moral injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and so on. And since returning home, the two things that soldiers relied upon are almost entirely neglected by our affluent society.

Our western culture is highly individualistic. When we get home after work we close the doors and windows and tend to ourselves and our family. The system honours those who work hard and succeed on an individualistic level.

And, as a consequence of heightened individualism, our culture has perfected the art of making people feel unnecessary. People are almost always regarded as indispensable. People aren’t required to contribute to a larger group, and people don’t therefore, have permission to lean upon someone else without feeling a sense of shame.

When a soldier is removed from their tribe-like community, they find themselves overwhelmed by the burden of their experiences because they no longer share it with their peers.

I’m not a mental health professional, and I’m certain that many victims of trauma suffer very real and prolific mental illnesses, but what if sometimes it was less about the trauma itself, and more about the way we as a society prepare, and deal with trauma as a community?

From my own experience, as a Christian, my worldview expects suffering to happen. It gives permission for bad things to take place. The way I look at the world legitimises suffering. I have permission to have good days and bad days, permission to feel lonely and sad. But I also have a hope, that being human isn’t limited to my physical experiences. This way, in the bigger picture, traumatic events don’t undo my entire universe. Sure, for a time they suck, but the fabric that my world is constructed on remains in tact. As a Christian, my suffering has a purpose, even if I can’t see it at the time.

I also found that having deep spiritual and familial connections enabled me to better process the trauma that I’ve experienced. There were nights where I couldn’t sleep as I wrestled with deep injustices that had been committed against innocent people. There were moments were overwhelming sadness came upon me as I wrestled with the concepts of life and death. There’s been times I’ve been was torn to shreds over relationship troubles, but I’ve always found comfort in meeting with like-minded people, allowing them to comfort me and knowing that I was a comfort in return. I found comfort and value in community.

Maybe as a result of all this, we need to be less concerned about immunising ourselves from any risk of suffering, and more concerned about learning how to experience it in a healthy way. Maybe we need to give ourselves permission to struggle and do more to accept others as they struggle.

Testimony: Where is your faith?

It’s not often I’m moved to tears during a Church service… maybe it’s because I was going through a pretty tumultuous time of life, or because this is a particularly moving testimony, or more likely both. This is a bloke from our church sharing about his tough, but rewarding journey in life. This testimony penetrates a generation gap and shows that our faith is best placed in the Lord Jesus.

Where Is Your Faith? ::: And Now For Some Questions Jesus Asks from Creek Road on Vimeo.

Preaching Portfolio Piece

For my bible college preaching portfolio, I was asked to write a short piece in common spoken form. Hopefully it reads as if I were speaking.

G’day. In 2010 I was sent to Afghanistan as an Army Medic. One of the more nerve racking experiences was waiting on the flight line for the sick and wounded to arrive by chopper. This would happen a few times a week. We’d wait as a team; ready to move a patient from the chopper and take them to the hospital. It was a 300m drive in the back of an ambulance. We never knew what to expect, usually we’d receive a couple of details about the injuries by radio. But it was never enough to give us a full picture.

Picture this: All we know is that an enemy soldier has been shot and he is inbound. And we know he’s in a bad way.  Finally, I can see the chopper coming. My adrenaline kicks in as the noise becomes deafening. I have to brace myself against the gust from the chopper’s blades. We lower our safety glasses and once the chopper is on the ground we go get the patient from the flight medics. As the side door of the chopper opens we see a medic bouncing up and down on the enemy’s chest. They’re doing CPR. He’d died during the flight. Our orders say we can’t stop treatment yet.

Patients who had died during a flight have to get 15 minutes of life support when they land. Only then can we say that the patient has died.

My heart is now pounding. My job is to help carry the stretcher from the chopper to the ambulance. After the short trip to the hospital I am working with a team of doctors, nurses and medics to help save his life. My next task is to get a cannula in his arm so the doc can pump in drugs to try and restart his heart. For those who don’t know a cannula is the little plastic valve used to put medicine straight into a patient’s blood. Yeah I reckon landing a good cannula in someone’s arm is pretty easy… unless someone is bouncing on their chest – shaking their limbs everywhere. Or they’re dead and have no blood flowing through their veins. Lucky for me I hit the flat vein and land the cannula first shot. The doc is impressed.

When the dust had settled we found a gunshot wound to his shoulder. And an artery had been split. The guy had no chance, he’d lost too much blood. You know… it was then that I realised that the guy had no hope. Nothing I could do could save his life. And to be honest I felt pretty useless as a medic. Even though he was an enemy, I felt sorry because chances were he’d never had the chance to meet Jesus.

Contradiction #2 – Is God a ‘Man of War’ or a ‘Man of Peace’?

EXO 15:3 The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name.

ROM 15:33 Now the God of peace be with you all. Amen.

1. I believe the Exodus verse is more of a translation issue: The Hebrew more literally says “the Lord is a warrior: the Lord is His name.” the word translated as ‘man of war’ is the Hebrew word milchamah which is used 319 times throughout the Old Testament. In many cases it’s used in its plural form and translated as men of war. or Warriors.

Again, the context for this text is poetry, or a song or a warriors bard if you want to call it that. Moses is rejoicing and giving thanks to the Lord that the people had victory over their adversaries.

Romans 15:33; is the closing of a letter to the church residing in Rome. A few thousand years later, and a massive event involving the recent life death and resurrection of Jesus. One would assume that ‘peace/harmony/reconciliation/unity’ (words translated from the same greek word ‘eirene’) is a good word to be used when God’s people came to the realisation of the gravity of God’s act of salvation. An act that changed the way in which God dealt with sin.

2. In today’s age we have many people in authority that have authority over military forces. Let’s take Julia Gillard as an example. (A bad one I know, but it’s late) She gives jurisdiction and authority to Australian troops to operate in Afghanistan. We must all agree that it hardly makes her a ‘woman of war’. In the same way myself, serving as an Army medic, would not say that I am a ‘man of war’ but I can see a need for it, and I am willing to serve in it, in order to serve my country.  I might be a warrior, but most definitely not a ‘man of war’. In the same way, God is not stereotyped as a MAN OF WAR, yet He does wage a war good versus evil. He does give authority (at times) for his people to participate in war both defensively and offensively.

3. So is God a man of peace or of war? In pushing back, I would ask the question, Do peace and war need to be mutually exclusive? In a fallen world with people operating outside of God’s ideal, then there needs to be some form of control measure, there needs to be some form of protection. The bible paints a picture of a pre-fallen world where war wasn’t needed. God had no intention for there to be war. In that context without hesitation, everyone must acknowledge that God is a God of peace. However, post-fall is a little more complicated, man’s greed, lust and selfishness led him into battle after battle. In a wider theology of the entire bible we can see God allowing mankind to make his own decisions and also often giving man what he wants. Their actions come hand in hand with their punishment. (cf. Num 11:31-35 eating quail unto death). When man craves war, God gives it to him. It seems to be in mans nature to create conflict. I think (and correct me if I’m wrong, as I am sure you will) that after man had chosen to make his own decisions, to create his own destiny, it was man who sought out war. The Lord will use even man’s evil behaviour to benefit his Kingdom.

Therefore I think the Lord is a warrior. He has warrior like qualities. He at times supports conflict in order to achieve His aims through men. But I find it difficult to give God the primary characteristic of WAR or WARLIKE especially when His first and most perfect creation was filled with PEACE.

What defines you? To whose family do you belong? Part 2

[Just a quick edit, if you didn’t read Part one, you can do so by clicking here ]

So, I was sitting in a chapel at the Army Recruit Training Centre in Kapooka, NSW. I was listening to the Padré retell a story of how Jesus and his disciples went from town to town sharing the good news about God’s Son. Read more What defines you? To whose family do you belong? Part 2

What Defines You? To whose family do you belong?

This is part one of my story. It’s about how I came to be a co-heir with Christ.

I was two years old when my parents decided that they could no longer be married. An event that I was oblivious to at the time, and one that would define my childhood. Read more What Defines You? To whose family do you belong?