NEED A TIP?
In his Melbourne office on a `bad' day, Tim Costello receives a phone call every three minutes. He has found himself in the position of spiritual and political leader in modern Australian society, but prefers to describe his role as that of fellow `soul-searcher'. As a lawyer, minister of the church, former city mayor and well-known social justice activist on issues including gambling and indigenous rights, he bravely blends religion and politics. Despite the phone calls, he makes it a priority to listen to people's stories...
`Stories should be treasured, because in the telling of them and in the listening to them we open our souls to wisdom which may help us discern where we are in our world, and how to take the next step'.
In his most recent book, Tim offers Tips from a Travelling Soul-Searcher. And he's not afraid to speak of his own mistakes ... including a desperate attempt to describe a restaurant he'd never been to, for the food section of a national newspaper--but you'll have to read the book for that one!
Interview by Nicci Long, Australia
After graduating as a lawyer, why did you decide to train for the ministry?
I studied law initially as a way of going to university and `growing up'. My family all thought I wouldn't stay in it long-term and I must admit my boyhood passion was to be a travelling evangelist (not a television one!). I guess Billy Graham was a bit of a role model. I wanted to study theology and after three years working in the Law I knew I could not stay doing a desk job. In fact, I knew that after 3 weeks! So my wife and I talked it through and decided to follow our dreams. She always wanted to live in Europe and also to study theology. So going to a Baptist Seminary in Rueschlikon at the end of 1980 was a culmination of a lot of impulses, and also a deeper sense of being called to ministry.
Working in both religion and politics, you have been called a `mould-breaker'. Do you agree?
Yes, I do and I enjoy it all. Actually I have been called a `boundary-rider' more often, and I do see myself as able to understand and to address both church and secular cultures. I have always admired people who have taken courageous stands and in so far as the moulds need breaking I am happy to wear that label. However, I am not anti-institutional; where institutions can work for good I am quite glad to work within them.
Why are politicians generally held in such low regard today?
Politicians have to bear most of the angst people have about their financial situation, social conditions, family problems! It is not an easy role to play being out there in the public domain. My own experience of being Mayor of a Melbourne suburb taught me that you cannot please everyone and tough decisions have to be made. Some politicians deserve to be held in low regard (those who have rorted the fringe-benefits system or taken advantage of their privileges, for example). But there are also some very fine people in politics and they do not deserve the flak they get.
Is it possible to agree on certain principles to be held `sacred', on a national--or even international--scale?
I would hope so. I think other nations have done this successfully, such as America with its Bill of Rights. I think we as Australians have done it to some extent in our own Constitution of 1901. Sure, it is hard to get agreement--especially in these post-modern times with such plurality of views--but sometimes the majority has to be carried by creative thinkers giving a lead and articulating deeper truths. I think of Martin Luther King's speeches and how they shaped a whole cause. Internationally, well ... I think that has been the vision, challenge and the limited success of the UN convention.
Do you think that pride in one's country is a good thing? Are you proud of Australia?
I love Australia. I can still recite Dorothea MacKellar's `I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains'--a poem we all learnt in primary school back in the `60's. The landscape is magnificent and inspires awe. I also love our stories, our characters, our home-grown sports and our relaxed lifestyle.
But national pride can become obsessive and I find nationalism a worry. We always have to be astutely aware of what we make into idols. We also need to acknowledge the shadow side of our history and present reality. That is what the whole reconciliation movement with our indigenous people is about.
You say that, wherever you go, people are eager to discuss `the dimensions of soulful living'. What is it? And why do you think these dimensions are such a point of discussion?
I think of `soulful living' as that which happens behind our personas and the surface living of our lives. It is usually triggered by something unconsciously pressing our `buttons' and then we want to talk ... maybe about our anxieties with our marriages, children, society, or spiritual issues such as loss of meaning, feeling lost, the need for faith or grief. After I have given a public address people are often stirred to think and to feel, and most treasure a place where they can talk further. Of course, I cannot always provide that space but when I can I treat it with care and integrity. For some people it is very difficult to be self-revealing. I have been told that in my addresses I am self-deprecating. So perhaps that puts people at ease, helps them to feel I haven't got it all together and to identify with things I have revealed.
You like a church `with a holistic feel to it'. What does this mean?
I look for a church to have a healthy balance between the `inward' and the `outward' journey. So the worship, prayer and pastoral dimension is matched by active, hands-on care for the community and involvement in issues that impact on society. It is not easy to maintain the balance and leaders will always have their own bias. I am an activist but I really need to work with others who bring a more reflective, introverted spirituality to bear.
You recognise that it is difficult for young people to find their identity in a globalised world based on market values. Do you have any tips for how we could go about searching?
I realise finding one's identity is a long process and even in mid-life it is not complete. I think it is linked to finding what one believes is ultimately worthwhile and then investing oneself in it even if it is not materially beneficial ... `following one's dream', I guess. Even in a globalized world--perhaps even more so the opportunities are there. I advise young people to go for it, to find mentors who have gone for it and who understand the notion of freedom, discovery and life being on the edge. Sometimes one's wisest counsel is from one's own family and long-term friends as well. Identity explores one's roots and takes the best of it. My Christian background has supplied me with resources, self-esteem and a positive view of involvement in the world. I relish that. It has nothing to do with market values; it's too precious to even have a value put on it.
In your book, you offer a tip on the meaning that rituals can bring to life. What is your favourite ritual?
Something simple and everyday like holding hands and saying grace before a meal. I also love making an early morning pot of tea and reading the newspaper first thing. My children say that watching the 7pm News is my most predictable behaviour.
Are you ever lonely?
I don't remember ever feeling consciously lonely and if I was I probably dealt with it by jumping on the phone. But I notice, now that I am travelling quite a bit, that I do feel a bit alone in a strange city, so I phone my wife or go for a jog. It's that feeling of anonymity. I am sure it can be very destructive if you let it.
`I don't recommend a lot of personal introspection', you comment in your book. Why?
I guess I have met too many people who were so introspective that they could never risk doing anything, or so fear-prone they were emotional cripples. I think it is better to live life fully and to accept that sometimes you might make a mistake but it is never the end of the story. There's always a lot to learn through giving things a go. I do recommend personal journalling and have done it myself weekly if not daily since 1973. It is a very helpful process and I am amazed now to read my thoughts of twenty years ago!
`Let go sometimes' is another of your tips. How do you do this--surrender everything--at difficult times, when personal control of the situation can seem vital?
I think I have been blessed with a keen sense of humour, so I let myself enjoy a good laugh about things. I love kicking back at home playing basketball with my sons, jogging with my daughter or just blobbing in front of the television. I am lucky that I don't take anything too seriously so I can generally sleep, no matter what, and switch off when I want and need to. In very difficult times I talk it over, go for a walk at night and pray on the way or maybe go and see a movie just to switch off. My wife tells me I sleep-talk when I'm stressed so she could probably tell you more on this score! I have literally `let go' by doing two tandem sky-dives in the last few years but I just can't come at a bungy jump!