I could term my meeting with Paul Wallis an evangelical experience. But Paul talks about his faith as an experience of empowerment.The walls are filled with pictures of religious icons, [spiritual] patrons and the odd Dali painting, all placed in curator fashion. Portraits of distant places sing tranquility as a sense of delicacy opens up the home. “When you travel, it gives you a perspective on your own culture,” he says. “Once you’ve traveled you never really belong anywhere 100% ever again. As much as you might love a place, you always have an altered perspective. I quite enjoy that feeling.”
Not a stereotypical preacher
Sitting down with the Reverend Paul Wallis – writer, broadcaster, preacher, and lecturer – it is immediately clear that he is not…a stereotypical preacher. It was easy to believe that this was a person who lived in [an anchorage on] the foothills of some treacherous mountain, in a community…teaching children how to write. But in actuality Paul lives in the…Canberra suburb of Gordon with his wife Ruth…working on a Christian community group – Jesus Generation.
The group, commonly called J Gen… involves…household based churches where groups of Christians gather for a more creative and dynamic relationship with the…scriptures and Jesus Christ. Spanning many corners of the world…Paul has been involved in planting seven churches and works to build these communities into stronger and more capable communities of faith.
“Though I’ve done a lot of different things some things are consistently there – things that I’ve always loved,” he says in his earnestly fervent English accent. Certainly writing is one of those perpetual aspirations, already having [several]books under his belt…His first book Rough Ways in Prayer was written at the rare age of 23. “Basically I wrote the book I wished someone had given me when I was starting out as a Christian.”
His…recent work, My Dinner With Anton is a…dialogue between a version of himself and a fictional character based upon the Russian Orthodox monk – Saint Seraphim – in which he unpacks his teachings and messages. “It took two complete re-writes and nine years to find a publisher,” he admits. “Consequently I’d lived and breathed Seraphim for nine years, and because I tried to write two other books about him it was all in my brain just waiting to come out and I wrote that book in four days—cover to cover,” he confesses.
Paul strongly identified with this very charismatic and evangelistic monk. “The way his beliefs worked and the way he worked were completely foreign even to his own church at the time,” Paul said he was baffled. He continued “So how did he get this stuff from God?”
The book also [drew upon] Paul’s passion for film. “I saw a movie called My Dinner with Andre. An unusual film because it’s just a conversation over dinner…with one person telling this incredible story, and the other guy going ‘That’s incredible. Really? No!’” He mimicked in an impressive American accent. Finding the irony in our conversation was amusing. Our interview had turned into a sort of “dinner with Anton”. It was life imitating art right in front of us.
His next book is a look into changing patterns of the Church…all over the world. “There’s a massive shift going on. The traditional institutional forms of Christianity are, in the west, losing people at a rate of knots. Those people [exiting] aren’t necessarily losing their faith in Jesus. They just don’t want to do church that way anymore. We must meet that change”
Mark Beresford – director of Ministry at Burgmann Anglican School and a leading light in Canberra’s youth ministries [is] one of Paul’s closest friends. “Part of the rule of life (the pledge that J Gen members make) is that we all have a mentor. I’m officially that for Paul.”
Mark also described Paul’s unfathered faith. “He’s been called,” he says austerely. “He does [what he does] out of a sense of love for God, a sense of doing what’s right, a sense of making a difference.“
Revd Mark & Katie Beresford
In twenty plus years in Christian ministry… connecting with people in all denominations of Christianity, Paul learnt that accepting God is the most critical and challenging step of all. “I became a Christian when I was 17, but whether or not God existed was always an important question to me.”
In his teenage years Paul considered himself to be an atheist – [and] a very strongly opinionated one. “I saw myself as a preacher for the atheist cause,” he said. Eventually though Paul began [a] quest in creating a list of character flaws to work on in order succeed as a better person. But [he soon realised] his resolution list had failed.
Billeted with a not very conversational family in France Paul found he had time to think through what his Christian friends has told him]. His logic led to conclude that he could not test further the claims of Jesus’ teaching from the outside. That’s why he took himself to a local church on his return to the UK. Paul tells of his experience: “At the end of the service I went forward to the Vicar (Bishop David Pytches). The vicar asked me ‘And what would you like prayer for?’ I said ‘I want to become a Christian.’ And he looked me in the face and he said ‘do you believe that Jesus died on the cross, to forgive your sins so that he can give you a relationship with God?’” The answer was long awaited but in truth Paul didn’t even know himself.
Paul as a young convert, beach-preaching at 19
“I really wasn’t sure. Part of me said ‘well yes, I’m prepared to believe that, that is a reasonable assessment of Jesus Christ’…But another part of was saying, ‘Well yes, but it’s not proven.’ So I just said ‘Yes’,” he admits. “What I really was saying is that, ‘Yes that is what I am prepared to believe.’” I was about 20% convinced. That was my mustard seed of faith! [That was my tipping point.]” Paul looks back on that occasion as his defining moment. That was the starting point.
I talked with his wife, Ruth. Paul had mentioned that she fell instantly in love with his voice while listening to his late night show on Radio One Way; a Canberra based Christian radio station.
“I did. That is so true,” she said instantly. “There was just so much inspiration in the way he spoke and what he said… It was at 3am or something like that. I wasn’t quite happy it was that early”
Ruth’s being primary school teacher and a firm believer in God were among the things that attracted Paul’s attention to Ruth.
“I was brought up in a Christian family, back in Ghana and Australia,” explains Ruth. “My aunty, who was a prayer warrior, said ‘Ruth you should start praying for your future husband right now. Pray for him everyday.’” The room was full of good vibes. “So I did, not everyday, but very often. I would pray and say ‘hello, hope you’re doing well.’” At this point Paul chuckles.
Coming close to of the interview Paul speaks about the preaching of Christianity. “I think because people in the world at large often aren’t thinking about the issues that Jesus talked about, Christians start to feel apologetic about that actual real Jesus,” he explains. “There are parts of Church that would say to people ‘Whatever You want. Jesus will give you that.’ ‘You want material success? Jesus can give you that,’… and that actually is not the Jesus of the bible. We’ve got to be prepared to have a message that’s rejected…if we’re to get the actual message out there.”
From his verandah the views over Canberra’s suburbia, and of the pale hills and trees that criss-cross Canberra’s heights, were splendid. “Chris you must sign our guest book,” he shouts [on our way out]. Even the drive home – a journey made, all the while discussing Coen Brothers films – [was[ a memorable experience in itself.
The consistencies in Paul’s life…his professions both orthodox and radical, reveal an interesting and deeply considered person. All the factors in his life seem to serve a [single] focus: a faith in Jesus Christ and in Christianity. Even weeks after interviewing the Reverend Paul Wallis, his presence still resonates in my mind, the believer’s gentle yet firm aura of goodwill and kindness.