Tuesday, November 10, 2009


This week I was counseling a woman who began, nervously, telling me she was an outsider in her church. They did not understand where she was coming from. After gentle listening for some time she confessed that she had a confusing sexual orientation, and was probably a lesbian.
People feel 'outsiders' for all kinds of reasons. Among them, of course, is that one is 'odd'. Have you heard of Jemmy Hirst (there's a Wikipedia article about him)? He was an English eccentric who trained a hedgehog to follow him around, a bull he named Jupiter to be ridden like a horse, and pigs to chase foxes like pointer dogs. He used a coffin in his dining-room as a sideboard, and printed his own bank-notes (to the value of fivepence-halfpenny). I first heard of Jemmy Hirst in a sermon, encouraging followers of Jesus not to be afraid of being deemed to be a little odd! 
I’ve felt I was an outsider about half my life since about 13 years of age. Right through high school    (Sydney Boys' High) I did not really feel I belonged. On sports days (Friday afternoons, as I recall) I wasn't in the school or house rugby teams, but got a run in the 'Leftovers'. (Ironic that later, at Teachers' College, I was chosen to play for the Central West of N.S.W. against the New Zealand All Blacks, but it was then the policy of the College not to allow students to participate in representative sporting fixtures).
Now Outsiders do not treat with great respect the group they’d like to be part of, if anger or rejection compounds the sense of not belonging…

On the positive side well-read Outsiders often become 'autodidacts' and may have insights into phenomena which elude others. I hope I'm in that category: I have minority opinions on lots of things, and when I think back to some of these opinions expressed 30 years ago, just about all of them are now regarded as 'orthodox'. See an article I've written titled 'The Elephant in the Room' .


Today’s lead item in several Australian TV newscasts was about an Airbus A380 flying here for the first time. Thousands lined the perimeters of airports, many standing with cameras on the roofs of cars. In The Age newspaper there’s a story about the death of Peter Drucker, guru of 20th century management theory, aged 95. And of course the latest Guinness Book of Records is in the best-seller lists (do some people – not just libraries – buy it every year?)

I grew up believing that bigger and brighter and stronger and more famous is better. It was a legacy of the books on How to Win Friends and Influence People / How to Succeed in Business etc. I devoured as a teenager. As a 15-year old I secretly wrote for the Charles Atlas ‘Dynamic Tension’ body-building program. (You needed no equipment, other than pitting your muscles against each other and/or the floor and the wall for just half an hour each day, and you too won’t have bullies kicking sand in your face).

But I never really succeeded (at least in my thinking) in being the best or the brightest. Someone always ‘pipped me at the post’. Or else (as happened in the last year of Primary School) I won the race but was disqualified ‘cos I finished in my neighbour’s lane…

Now in my 60s I’m rewriting my little bit of history, a history previously dominated more by hubris than humility. The yogic saying ‘He is a fool that cannot conceal his wisdom’ now appeals to me. So does Richard Rohr’s suggestion that holiness is only ‘attained’ with at least one humiliation each day. I’m not very holy: I recall an average of roughly one humiliation a month over the course of my life…

Back in 1949 at Mortdale Primary School, the Education Department Inspector came when I was in the sixth grade. He did an intelligence test on the class, and guess where I scored? Yep, second, after Michael Hornibrook, a very bright teacher’s kid. We both, with Malcolm Butters who was third, were chosen to go to Sydney Boys’ High School, a selective school for bright students. There I was sixth or seventh bottom of 2nd Year, and just squeaked into 3rd Year. I played sport with the Leftovers at Centennial Park, read a book a day, and was your typical teenage introvert. 
At our little church David Clines always did better academically (look him up – Emeritus Professor of Biblical Literature and Languages at Sheffield University). Second again… 

At Teachers’ College – I topped the boys in my year academically, but got beaten by four or five girls. If one lecturer had not downgraded a research project from an A to a C for being submitted late I’d have topped the College. I was chosen – second to Don Gray – to play Rugby Union for the NSW Central West team against the All Blacks. (Fortunately it was College policy not to permit its students engaging in representative sport… Phew!). But I was awarded the athletics’ ‘blue’…

The NSW Baptist College? Second again in many subjects to Dr. John Olley (who had a 

PhD in nuclear physics, then went on to earn another one in biblical studies). But the church I was privileged to pastor during those four years – Narwee Baptist – was second-to-none. They were four good years…

Blackburn Baptist Church may have been the largest non-Catholic congregation in the country for a few months (!), but then a couple of AOG churches passed us… It’s still the largest Baptist church in Australia (and has changed its name to Crossway). Seven and a half years there taught me more about ministry and life and relationships than any other similar period before or since. While there I studied for a post-graduate theology degree – a BD with the Melbourne College of Divinity. As you can imagine some of those years were busy, and when November came and I felt I hadn’t done enough work to justify sitting an exam, I didn’t show up. So in my records they put ‘fail’ four or five times, together with some High Distinctions. Typical of my life really…

Not all of my Baptist pastorates were good. I was senior pastor for a short time at First Baptist Church, Vancouver (third largest Baptist Church in Canada), but four powerful people (average age 77.5 – true!) made it clear they did not like my style, and I resigned. That story has been an encouragement to others who've 'failed', and that experience was the worst and best of my pastoral life… The only other ‘downtown/city’ church I pastored (as part-time interim) – Central Baptist Church in Sydney in 1971-2 – finished similarly. Folks attended the meeting - where I did not score the requisite 75% vote to stay - whom most didn’t know, but who were non-attending church members.

After Vancouver, a decade with World Vision Australia as their ‘Leadership Enhancement Consultant’ (or ‘Minister at Large’) – traveling the country and the world speaking to churches and pastors’ conferences. Second? Well, I was granted a fair degree of autonomy to follow my calling, but some bureaucratic types couldn’t figure why I should not report for duty in an office each morning like they had to. Being ‘second’ to institutional people is no joy for someone like me, and so on April Fools’ Day 1991 I 'burnt my bridges behind me' and a few of us set up a little ministry which survives to this day – John Mark Ministries. These years have been some of the most fulfilling of my life.

During the World Vision days I was told that I probably spoke face to face with, and was read by, more pastors and church leaders than anyone else in Australia. So what? (to use an Australian expression). Soon a few others had higher visibility – John Smith, Gordon Moyes, and later Tim Costello and Mike Frost.

Fuller Theological Seminary: a wonderful place for study and teaching. I was privileged to be ‘second’ to Eugene Peterson, teaching a Doctor of Ministry Intensive course on Spirituality and Ministry until he was available.

We have four terrific adult children. Two of them are committed Christians, and two aren’t. According to a 1998 survey only 37% of Christians’ kids follow their parents’ habit of attending church regularly, so we’re scoring better-than-average! All our children have post-graduate degrees/ qualifications, and two of us – our son Paul and I - are PhD candidates who have ‘demitted’. I have a Doctor of Ministry degree – a ‘second’ sort of doctorate (or as they say a ‘poor pastor’s doctorate')!

Oh, that’ll do for now. The Christian ethic is about ‘preferring others to oneself’, about living agreeably with the ‘bridesmaid’ / ‘second fiddle’ tag. Isn’t John the Baptist a good model for us in this regard? And Paul, in Colossians 3:13 (Eugene Peterson, The Message), encourages us to be 'even-tempered, content with second place...'

In later posts I'll talk more about some of these episodes...


Rowland Croucher

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