By: Stephen McAlpine
We had a staycation this year for our summer holiday.
In recent years we’ve meandered south of Perth a couple of hundred kilometres to the more temperate part of the state, and done the beaches, restaurants and wineries in a milder summer than Perth will receive.
This year though, fed up with years of lockdowns that saw locals holiday in their home state, and drive up the price of Airbnbs, we decided to go local. We rented a posh Airbnb about forty minutes away on the coast, on Mindarie Marina.
Mindarie Marina is a human-made shelter comprising huge limestone boulders that have shaped a safe haven from the hard westerly winds and strong currents of that part of the coast. It incorporates, naturally, a marina harbour for boats, and with all that reclaimed land, any number of super expensive houses, a fantastic boardwalk, a local brewery, eateries, and enough local shopping to keep everyone interested. The older parts of the marina have that Mediterranean terracotta look that you could mistake for the Italian coastline, while the part we stayed was all tilt-panelled concrete, super-slick open plan modern. And super big. Massive houses and apartments dominating the skyline.
We walked in, and the place looked a million dollars, which would have been a wild under-estimate. It was perfect. One of the large bedrooms looked out over the view you see above. It was amazing, especially on the calmer days when the sky was deep azure all day, turning burnt orange by sundown. We spent the week on nearby beaches, doing a 1000 piece Beatles jigsaw puzzle, sampling the wares at the local restaurants, playing golf, going to the movies, and dealing with the stupidity of me still getting sunburnt in Australia after 50 years of mishaps in that department. A perfect place for a staycation.
When a Holiday is Too Perfect
Too perfect. In fact the marina, being a marina, is at odds with the natural landscape. The ocean is treacherous along that coast, in fact the signs on the Mindarie Beach advised against swimming due to the currents and the rocks. We were duly warned and went to the shark-netted safety of Quinns Beach further up the coast.
But if you can carefully construct a big enough rock wall that shields you from the winds and waves, you can live easily in the becalmed eastern side of that wall, paying only occasional attention to the gale on the other side. And it was a gale. The view in the picture above was often offset by the view out the front window. Sometimes we could barely close the salt-encrusted front door so strong was the wind. Out there, rough, treacherous, and risky. In here, becalmed, safe and pleasurable. Our holiday was great. Exactly what we wanted. And the marina made it so.
So we enjoyed our holiday. But here’s the thing: as followers of Jesus, we’re always conscious that you don’t take a holiday from Jesus, aren’t we? We’re always aware that there is a heavenly Father who is with us and to whom we are accountable even during the downtimes. Accountable and thankful. So we took time to thank God for the places we went, grateful for His good creation. Now I’m not saying that to be super pious. I probably missed a few days Bible reading in there in my routine, as holidays can sometimes become becalming periods for me, being the activist that I am. But always conscious of God.
But here’s what struck me. We sat there one night having an amazing spicy seafood jambalaya on the Creole Festival at the Brewery, live music was blaring, young women in roller-skates dressed in costume replete with angels’ wings zipped around, the raucous shouts and laughter of good times bounced off the walls. And I realised it: you can live here in Mindarie-Marina-Land without ever giving God, or Jesus, a second thought. Why? Life is just so darned good! No one needs the gospel. It’s not as if this place is so hostile towards Jesus or the church. Not in any considered way at least. It’s just that it’s irrelevant. It can’t add anything to people’s lives that they seemingly don’t already have. People are constructing meaning and purpose and experiencing pleasure in Mindarie-Marina-Land, and it’s working quite nicely thank you very much.
Why Evangelism is a Struggle in the West
I often think about how evangelism is such a struggle in the West, and especially in wealthy, warm coastal climates like here in Perth. And it’s because it’s super easy to be happy without God. On the surface, at least, there’s no lack. I looked around the clientele in so many of the places that we went, and there’s that sense of self-sufficiency, almost self-actualisation, especially among the “retired early” set who inhabit these places. After all, if your work has done you well, and you have all the toys, then why not settle in for a bunch of easy decades?
The couple who owned our place lived next door in the larger apartment next to the already large one we were renting. They had the boat, a couple of cars, a couple of motorbikes, and were retired early. Life seemed good on the marina. Life was good on the marina! And all up and down the marina it seemed like that. Of course not everyone’s in retirement mode, there were plenty of evenings out where there were young families and kids having a good time too. And it was fun of course. Godlessness doesn’t always look like the ghetto, in fact that’s the point of Jesus’ parable in Luke 12:
“Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.””
You see, here’s the thing. Whoever we are, we are all trying to craft our version of Mindarie-Marina-Land. That seems to be the goal of life in the West, to shape a life of comfort and ease that shelters us from the harsh winds of reality. RR Reno, editor of Catholic public theology journal First Things talks about the Western hearth gods of comfort and ease. And we’ve done a good job of crafting such gods.
Only Prayer can Change Hearts
To be rich towards everything and not towards God at all is actually sustainable in the West. And that’s kinda what Mindarie Marina felt like. When you’ve got heaven on a stick, here on earth, why would you hanker for the reality of which the good life in this age is simply a shadow? As someone involved in church planting, those thoughts are constantly on my mind. And of course, my own propensity as I get older, to settle for ease and comfort in this age also.
What’s the solution? Well clearly prayer is required. We won’t see people hunger and thirst for God without the intervention of God’s power in their lives. But what might that intervention look like? It seems that in the West at least the windows of opportunity that make people sit up and take note long before their soul is actually required of them, are few and far between. Even in church planting, where the accepted narrative is that more people become Christians through new churches than older ones, it seems there is very little fruit. When life is good, why would you need God? When your own perfectly crafted Mindarie Marina has sheltered you from the storms of life, then where is your lack?
Yet perhaps that’s the point. What happens when a rogue wave comes over the top of those rocks, so to speak? What happens when a cyclonic wind blows through that the buffered quay is unable to break? When we’re protected from the realities of the deep currents that can sweep us away physically, relationally, emotionally, then life seems fine. But if something painful kicks in? What then? What happens when the retired-early life gets cut short by a dreaded diagnosis? Or when a relationship goes pear-shaped? These are the storms of life that come crashing into our well constructed philosophical and existential marinas, threatening to swamp us. It’s at that point, that questions come in.
CS Lewis makes the famous observation that God whispers to us in our pleasures, but shouts in our pain. Pain, he says, is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. But perhaps it’s also true that, when – as GK Chesterton observes:
“Pessimism is not in being tired of evil but in being tired of good. Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy. It is when for some reason or other the good things in a society no longer work that the society begins to decline; when its food does not feed, when its cures do not cure, when its blessings refuse to bless.”
Inarticulate low grade anxiety has driven the “worried well” into the counselling practices by the score. No amount of Mindarie Marinas seem to block the bitter wind of anxiety in our modern West, and to be honest, Perth is no exception. In fact this city is pretty much a prime example.
Change is Brewing
Yet the West has surely reached peak “Mindarie Marina”. It is beginning to feel like the storms are brewing and that the rocks we have carefully placed will not keep whatever is coming at bay. It’s just a hunch, just a feeling. But it certainly does feel like the Western marinas are less secure than they once were. Perhaps we shall see the pessimism and despair that Chesterton talks about that runs counter to the happiness quotient that should be on offer in our buffered existence. Or perhaps we shall see the painful megaphoning of reality shouting at us above the whistling of the onshore winds and waves thrown up by tectonic cultural shifts and unexpected dreadfulness.
Perhaps it’s time as God’s people to be ready to offer the only true safe haven in a time of storm, the rock that is higher than we are, than we could construct. To ensure that our true pleasure is in Jesus. To prepare our own hearts for the coming storms. To ensure that we are ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us when people eventually get around to asking And sure, to enjoy the good things of this age, but to doubly ensure that we are so rich towards God that should our own marina get swept away, our joy and safety has a secure anchor in Jesus.