“Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” [I Kings 19.11-13]
How easily we define our task, our identity, our selves, by where we have come from. When Elijah is asked, he reflects upon the journey which brought him face to face with God; he did not imagine that God might be asking him about the future into which God might lead him, in hope and wonder.
We are the Uniting Church because of where God is leading us and calling us, not simply because of the vision and courage of our parents and grandparents. Our mission lies before us, and not behind. We have served God’s world in worship, witness and service, but there is yet more for us.
The faithfulness and hope which responded to God’s call forty-five years ago and more is not our identity. Our past is not our call. It is the future into which Christ has already spoken, and in which we are called to bear witness to what Christ has done, and to what Christ is doing – and yet to do.
What are we doing here?
The Spirit of Christ urges us to proclaim in new and radical ways; to serve in communities of faith our founders could not imagine; to offer hope and justice to people who the world would discard, punish or deny.
We are the Uniting Church, because of the risen, crucified Lord, who calls us to serve today and into tomorrow.
To this end they declare their readiness to go forward together in sole loyalty to Christ the living Head of the Church; they remain open to constant reform under his Word; and they seek a wider unity in the power of the Holy Spirit. [Basis of Union, Para. 1]
I was born and lived the first stanza of my life on Guringai country; I moved to Dharawal country, as a Youth Worker, while studying as a candidate on Burramattagal country; my first placement was on Wiradjuri country in the west; I then moved to Ngunnawal country in the south; I have lived for the last sixteen years on Gamilaraay country in the north-west, and the Synod Office where I base my work stands on Gadigal country, part of the Eora nation.
At the 2019 Synod in Session, I learned a formal way of introducing myself and acknowledging country, which is to step out each of the chapters of where I have lived. It helps all those to whom I am paying respect to know my history, and all those by whom I am welcomed to see where my feet have walked.
It places me in context; not just my name, but my pilgrimage. It has been an invaluable lesson; about country, about respect. I am learning more about myself.
These weeks are full of acknowledgement and celebration and, might remain only that, if we fail to recall how we arrived where we are.
Sorry Day and National Reconciliation Week call our attention to our First Nations community and the fraught, costly path we have walked and continue to walk.
As we mark the Week, in worship and school and our community, we risk only looking at this week, this moment. Neglecting the past is a grave mistake. The wounds people bear cannot be discounted, nor the way we have begun to listen to the stories. Once we have learnt to pay attention, we move to reconcile with each other – seeking forgiveness, which is one of the first signs of justice, hallmarked by hope.
Reconciliation Week always dovetails into Pentecost, followed by our Uniting Church anniversary.
We live in some tensioned space, our Church. The worry of where we are and the fear of where we might be headed; the challenge of the Church’s place in our world, and our role within it.
There is a strong inclination to manage our way through this. We are tempted by business models and the language of leadership and review which are caught up in profit and success. We reframe the story which shapes us to suit these fraught times and neglect the steps which have brought us here; it is an illusion.
We need to remember the origin of our hope, and call each other to remember.
The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church is able to live and endure through the changes of history only because its Lord comes, addresses, and deals with people in and through the news of his completed work. [Basis of Union, Para. 4]
I was asked, recently, if I am optimistic; I said no. I told the consultant that I am a person of hope, found solely in Christ. I have no time to waste on optimism.
I do not believe we can manage our way out of the mess in which we find ourselves, whether it is the political playground brawl being decided as I write, or the plethora of other challenges before us – as large as history, and as personal as people’s battles with mental illness, domestic abuse, or addiction.
At the recent Assembly, I spoke from the floor for the first time. Part of what I said was, “In this Easter season, the risen, crucified Jesus charges the disciples – no ifs, buts, or maybes – to make disciples. The power of proclamation, the integrity of witness, the wonder of forgiveness are deliberately and directly commanded in the Gospel resurrection stories.
How able are we to disciple people?
Where is the call to articulate the gospel in such a way, that people are invited in hospitality, into community, into faith, into discipleship – in Jesus Christ?”
We must remember who we are, and in whom we belong.
We are not called to save the church, the world, or anyone; we are called to bear witness to the One who has saved history and creation, and to invite people to follow, with us, in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.
May the Spirit at Pentecost, and every day, breathe new life into you, and your community of faith.
A prayer, written by Maren Tirabassi, during the United States war with Iraq in 1991.
Lent comes. We draw a holy comma in rushed and busy lives. We follow down old scripture words the journey to Jerusalem. We stumble into prayer again and whisper soft the dearest, fearest of our thoughts.
Lent comes. Last year’s palms crumble into ashes. Last year’s peace weeps into war. We sing of Gethsemane amid new tears, new bleeding. The screaming bombs burn crosses in our hearts – this too is God’s story.
Lent comes, but also Ramadan’s fast, Passover’s freedom memory, Easter’s crazy contradiction. Faith is born of prayer and sings with courage, while all the children of the earth shelter in the wings of God awaiting our embrace.
– Maren C. Tirabassi Gifts of Many Cultures (PIlgrim Press 1995)
O God, our God, where shall we find the words, the hope, to speak in these days?
Hear us in our silence, in our cries and confusion, in our groaning.
In our need.
Our lives have been washed away, jobs and lounge rooms, treasures and forgettables, the roads and paths we know.
We begin, our God, with you, your promises, your love.
We choose to trust you, even when everything we know has shifted, including the ground on which we stand.
Even in this paddock, shadowed by death and brokenness, we choose to believe your promises: that you love us, that you are with us, that you will never leave us.
In this most fragile of moments, you are with us for every step and stumble.
We see the face of Christ in each and every neighbour; in the couple who rescued us, in that woman offering us food in the evac centre, in that bloke sitting, unsure, outside the home he has lost.
Each time we turn, your presence is clear.
We will be angry later, and impatient. We will need you then.
But now, O God, our God, bring us healing, bring us comfort, bring us courage, bring us strength, and, we implore you, bring us the occasional moment of joy, the snort, or shout, of laughter, the stuff of life.
As these days move on, as we clean up, and rebuild and wait, help us to measure out these days in mercy, in forgiveness, in community.
O God, our God, for our friends and congregations of hope, we thank you.
Through Christ, the Crucified and Risen One. Amen.
As Australia finally opens up completely, both to itself and to the rest of the world, we can reflect on two years of lines drawn on a map, of disease-driven demarcation, and consider what has happened, and what uncertainty remains in residue.
I have walked the emptied offices and shops in Sydney’s CBD, sponsored by sound health policy and amplified by fear. As people trickle back into the city, we wonder what is next. Confidence is yet to return alongside the workers; small businesses wait, hesitant and unsure.
We gather in worship and concerts (unmasked and excited) and test the distances between, not quite sure whether to shake hands, to nod and smile, or to embrace. My wife and I danced and clapped and sang with all our might at an outdoor performance recently. Part of our exhilaration was simply to be amongst full-faced people elated around us, even with the uncertainty of everything.
We know the wonder of being together, of contact, of connection. Introverts and extraverts alike have missed being in the room, around the table, gathered in relationship. The famished embraces of families at the airport echo in every one of us.
In our next breath we watch as people strive to find difference, to define and divide our communities. Election campaigns always bring this on, we are told, once more.
So our faith, or our identity, or our gender, or our fear become focal points for political exploitation and the connection for which we long becomes slightly more arbitrary. Someone finds a hairline crack and stamps their boot.
The ash of Wednesday’s cross has barely been wiped from our foreheads and we watch our friends trapped in a flooding disaster on our state’s north coast and Russia trampling war into Ukraine. So much invested in blaming others, in finding enemies; people to accuse, or punish, or ignore.
This story is not new; it is as old as sin itself. A colleague of mine speaks of “powers and principalities” which are invested solely in themselves and whisper temptations to power, to the distractions of bread and circuses. They are woven in our culture and use voices that we know, sometimes even our own.
In this season, of all seasons, we must be able to proclaim mercy and justice, the essential hope so many find, and have found, in Jesus Christ.
What song of life have we to sing to which people may want to dance, even with exhilaration?
Of what hope might we speak that offers an embrace and not the pointed finger of accusation and blame?
In a world which seeks to accuse others and create enemies, in order to distract from responsibility, our discipleship calls us to seek out our enemies in order to forgive them. The credibility of our proclamation is found in the integrity of our ministry, not in the beauty of our sanctuaries, or in the reputations of the past.
In a recent commercial radio interview about the floods, the journalist was astonished at the work of our Disaster Chaplains, sitting with people in their worst moments. They know that there is no easy solution to be offered, but the integrity of their presence, weeping with those who weep.
The crucified Christ stands at the heart of our faith. Jesus, on the cross, is the marker of difference who embraces all those who are wounded. His embrace is indeed even wider, offered for those who create the wounds. In his final hours, the actions of Christ are to welcome a criminal and to seek forgiveness for those who nailed him there.
In a time of Putin’s atrocity in Ukraine, in political blame-casting, in our world where people’s lives are valued in votes, or financial balance sheets, this is the word our world most needs to hear, and to hold.
Not revenge, but mercy.
When a preacher, or a politician, speaks of sin and forgiveness too quickly and too easily, check your wallet.
The forgiveness which is found on the cross is neither an exchange of contract, nor a bargain struck. It is never “a form of words”. It is the deliberate, compassionate act of God to restore the creation and all within it, and requires everything of God, even life. It is the entire solidarity of God with us, in uttermost suffering and injustice.
The silence of the tomb echoes the impact of God’s engagement with us. Forgiveness is costly and borne in love.
The wonder of Christ’s resurrection is the assurance that the story of death which haunts our world is not the most powerful word spoken. Life is stronger than death’s demarcation. It is God, in Christ, making us entirely whole, and entirely welcome.
It is from this hope that I write. It is from this hope, found in one we name as crucified and risen, that we discover life.
Receive this cross of ash upon your brow, Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s cross. The forests of the world are burning now And you make late repentance for the loss. But all the trees of God would clap their hands The very stones themselves would shout and sing If you could covenant to love these lands And recognise in Christ their Lord and king.
He sees the slow destruction of those trees, He weeps to see the ancient places burn, And still you make what purchases you please, And still to dust and ashes you return. But Hope could rise from ashes even now Beginning with this sign upon your brow.
In any engaging story, there are heroes and villains, wrapped in a tale of risk and wonder. Quite often, there are other – lesser – characters who hover at the fringes of all that happens.
In the original Christmas story, when Jesus Christ is born, a presumed innkeeper is relegated to the margins by Mary and Joseph, angels and stock workers, wizards from the East and a corrupted, fearful monarch.
It’s because of this one shadowed character that Jesus is born in the open or, at best, in a stable. “And [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
On this Christmas, the innkeeper moves to central stage, because the ongoing pandemic and the ensuing constraints have made innkeepers of us all, guarding the doors of our homes, our shops and restaurants and our places of worship. Where, in the past, our doors have been open, we have had to check and double check and, often, to deny.
I know the agony of families and faith communities, wondering how and when to ask “disqualifying questions”, particularly when they have been required of each of us. It has made many of us weep to have a mere handful attending the funeral of one well-loved, or a scattered few witnessing a longed-for marriage.
Once again, people have wanted simplistic answers. Do we deny, or do we welcome? What about responsibility, and caring for our neighbour? How can people of faith ever refuse someone? Isn’t hospitality at the heart of every faith community? What is our responsibility to the weakest of us, those most in need of hope?
In every church, there are those who hold their views firmly, even robustly and sometimes, loudly. In many churches, there are people frightened that, if they open their doors completely, the disease will spread and people will suffer.
So, if my calling as a disciple is to provide shelter and hope, how do I challenge, even require others in my community to offer that same protection to those at risk?
COVID threatens some people’s lives as surely as violence, or injustice, or addiction, or poverty. Vaccination and associated wise behaviours cannot be seen as optional extras, but the acts of responsible citizens – and faithful disciples. There has been selective misuse by a few fringe members of the Christian faith to argue against vaccination, with bastardised theology and deliberate misreadings of our texts to increase fear, mistrust and anger.
How do we shape our own lives, and those of our community, to realise that these challenges require more of us than simplistic slogans and self-righteous anger?
In the same breath, it is the very heart of the Christmas story that God risks Jesus’ life with us. A tiny child, born, at risk in the world. Jesus and his family become refugees almost immediately, and there is the appalling story of children slaughtered at the hands of a despot.
Jesus was born in a time of corruption, empire and the suffering of many people. This story is equally true for our world now.
As one who follows Jesus, his birth two millennia ago proclaims a God who invests in our humanity, and does not refuse it. Jesus was born as an act of God’s love for us; God’s intention to serve and to save.
If this is the core of the Christmas story, then the response of all people of faith is to serve and offer life to all those in need. We are responsible, as human beings, to – and for – each other.
At Christmas, my faith asserts a God who says yes to us, to our humanity, to our lives, and to hope.
Blessings for Christmas, in this challenging time.
When faith engages with politics, there is almost always friction and, frequently, collision. Add into the mix a social issue reaching across lives, across social and cultural boundaries and it may almost seem like a blood sport.
The challenge is that politics works most simply when there are two sides, the wrong and the right, and we are invited, indeed compelled, to choose.
The consequences of faith are rarely so simple.
I follow Jesus, who commands me to love God, to love my neighbours, and to love my enemies. This leads to a challenge more profound than politics and deeply searches what makes us human and how we care for each other.
The politics of drug legislation are frequently conducted in loud voices, with stereotypes of addicts and crime readily available. The truth of those who are trapped in drug use – legal and illegal, dependent and recreational – is far more complex, far more human and far closer to each of us than we dare admit.
At some point, our society decided that harmful drugs like alcohol and tobacco could be legal, despite the damage they cause. Other dangerous drugs, like cannabis, heroin and ice are illegal, because we want to send a message about their risk.
The act of jailing someone for possessing a small quantity of these substances for personal use misunderstands the consequences of that decision. It also adds exponential harm to someone’s life, destroying options for some and offering little prospect of recovery for others.
Let me be clear: these drugs should be illegal and anyone profiting from their supply or sale should be punished appropriately under the law.
What if we understood people using drugs to be trapped in addiction, or using because of their pain? Can we understand drug use of all kinds as an example, among many, of human imperfection?
Addiction is a devilish brain disease. It is a health and social problem which is shared by people each one of us knows and loves. We know it applies not just to illegal drugs but to alcohol, gambling and prescription drugs.
The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection. Yes, we need more treatment for addiction, but we also need more connected communities.
Johan Hari, Chasing the Scream
The first commandment of Jesus I mentioned earlier actually says “love your neighbour as you love yourself”, which reflects an astonishing depth of human understanding. If we attend to our neighbour, understanding their frailties (and capacities) because we understand our own weaknesses and strengths, how might our approach change?
The voice of faith is not the only one crying out for change. The Uniting Church (NSW & ACT) has spearheaded a campaign for over three years to make drug legislation fairer and to increase funding for treatment.
The Fair Treatment campaign now has more than sixty partners across law, medicine, the labour movement, community groups and treatment providers. These include the NSW Bar Association, Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT, Australian Salaried Medical Officers’ Federation of NSW, Catholics in Coalition for Justice and Peace, National Zakat Foundation, NSW Council for Civil Liberties, Public Interest Advocacy Centre and the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association.
Commissioner Dan Howard conducted the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug Ice and handed his Report to government in January 2020. For twenty months it has been gathering dust.
The campaign, like the Uniting Church, lives very much in the real world. The world of human frailty. The world of compassion and forgiveness. The world where we walk – as congregations and individuals – the extraordinary path of loving our neighbours as we love ourselves.
We are calling for the money which is expended on punishing those caught in addiction to be used in treating addiction as a health and social problem.
Our current system clearly discriminates. It is extremely rare to find a privileged white person who has a criminal record for personal drug use. It is more common to find those who are poor and those who are on the margins of society to be incarcerated under this system, not least Aboriginal people and those who are homeless.
People will use drugs. More than 40% of adults have at some point in their lives. Many of them will be people close to us. We need a system – social and political – which offers people the possibility of restoration and life, and not punishment. We know our current system is not serving us well, least of all those who need it most.
This is not an easy path. Faith and justice rarely offer us convenience.
We are calling our community, and our political leaders, to consider how we might offer healing to people caught in drug addiction.
Hope lifts our heads, not fear.
This was written as an opinion piece during the drug decriminalisation debate.
I have been reflecting on who we are as a people of God as we prepare for the resumption of public worship and service activities, and the reopening of church buildings. Along with the practical guidance you will receive from the Synod Office, I hope the following reflections might also be helpful in your planning for what lies ahead.
Firstly, as government restrictions gradually ease and we look forward to the prospect of being together again for conversations, meals, prayer, and worship, we are filled with hope. Yet alongside that joyful anticipation, we remember at the same time the immense sadness brought upon so many people and families by this pandemic. The loss of life around us and across the world has been heartbreaking. There is also the loss of work, livelihoods, opportunities, and dreams. The toll on the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of countless millions of people cannot be calculated. Very few have been untouched by some form of anguish.
The Hebrew word shalom is often translated as peace, yet the meaning of shalom embraces wholeness, health, and wellbeing. Shalom is also a covenantal word, linking us both to God and to each other. The deeper meaning here is found in relationship, and in actions we take to embody God’s shalom. I ask you to pray with me each day, and especially when you gather again for public worship, that God will comfort and strengthen all who grieve. We lament the profound loss around us, among us, and within us. We long for, so let us also act for, the restoration of God’s shalom within and among all people.
Secondly, as you make decisions in your settings about when and how to gather, please hold the following thoughts in mind. Discuss them, pray about them with each other, and then step out with faith that God will lead and guide you:
We are called to be a people who embrace rather than exclude. Jesus reached out to and included among his disciples the rejected and the forgotten. He called those whom others had marginalized. Christ’s example to his first followers was embraced by the earliest Christian communities, who were identified by their openness (Galatians 3:28). Who is my neighbour? (Luke 10:29). The church is called to answer that question anew every day, doing so in ways that seek to demonstrate the teaching of the Lord that ‘the kingdom of God is among you’ (Luke 17:20-21). Our neighbour is the one others walk past. Even during a pandemic, the Church is called to be a people who embrace rather than exclude.
We are called to be a people who create community around the risen Christ. This call includes the need to provide a safe place for people to gather. All are welcome in the church that bears Christ’s name. However, there may be times when it is not safe for us all to be in one place, or when the imperative of shielding the vulnerable will mean we gather with measures of protection.
All are welcome, yes, yet all should be safe. And so, we are called to offer forms of worship, hospitality, and pastoral care, within our walls and beyond them, that recognise this reality. New forms of Christian community have often developed from necessity, in times of upheaval, and those new forms have often become a way of being the people of God for the future. As we look ahead now, may we embrace the opportunity to be creative in how we form community, worship, and offer hospitality. It has been inspiring to see this creativity in action in so many places over the last two years.
We are called to be a people of hope within a world of fear. We do this, among other ways, through personal and corporate discipleship that embodies the two points I have highlighted above. When we are a people identified by the desire to embrace all who wish to be included, a people who seek to make a place for everyone even if that means communities formed differently to ensure everyone is safe, we become a witness to the love of God in a world of fear (1 John 4:18). We become a sign of the hope that is in us, namely, that Christ is risen and the fullness of life he has promised is the reality in which we live, move, and have our being (John 10:10).
When people are confronted by so much division, as well as fearmongering, let’s commit ourselves again to be a people among whom the light of God’s love, and the hope we have in Jesus Christ, shine brightly through the darkness (John 1:5). This will be critical in the days ahead, as the consequences of opening up will not all be promising, as more people become infected and those who are not vaccinated, many through lack of proper access, will continue to have constraints on their lives.
Finally, please remember and be strengthened by the knowledge that we are not alone. This is not the first period of history during which Christians have been called to find ways to witness to the love of God in a time of widespread disease. The Antonine Plague caused the death of around 10% of the population of the Roman Empire during the 2nd century. As the wealthy retreated to their estates, Christians were known to have stayed in towns and cities to care for the sick because they believed all people were made in the image of God. The Black Death pandemic tested the Christian communities of Europe in the mid-15th century. During the 16th century, there were times when Martin Luther and John Calvin were known to have fostered worship and Bible study at home because smaller gatherings mitigated against the spread of plague; Calvin lived and ministered through five such outbreaks. And so we have a cloud of witnesses who know this road. We are joined to that communion of saints, and we have their example to inspire us.
Above all of course, we are not alone for God is with us. May I make that statement of faith very particular here: you are not alone, and your church community is not alone, for God is with you. We are a people to whom God in Jesus Christ has promised ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:16).
Please continue to pray, most especially for those who are working across our community at particular risk and for those who feel marginalised, for whatever reason, during this pandemic.
Draw on the resources you are receiving from the wider church, and please call on the Synod Office whenever we can be of help. And remember to pray, for God will not fail or forsake you (Deuteronomy 31:6). May I offer you this brief prayer and invite you to share in it with me during the coming days.
Yours in Christ, Shalom, Simon
Holy God, we are never alone because once there was One who truly was alone, Jesus Christ, through whom you endured isolation and lost hopes, and in whom you overcame an even greater darkness, so that we may be assured that you are with us, always, in the never-failing presence of your Holy Spirit, through whom we name Jesus, alone and from the rooftops, as our Lord and Saviour.
I note the many helpful contributions to this conversation from our Church and other churches, particularly the papers from Rev. Dr Rob McFarlane and Rev. Dr John Squires. I am thankful for the significant contributions for this Pastoral Letter, Rev. Dr Peter Walker, Rev. Dr Ockert Meyer, Rev. Myung Hwa Park, Rev. Graham Perry and Rev. Dr Matagi Vilitama.