Remembering Forward

There has been wonderful rain sweeping across our paddocks this afternoon, with an expectation – and a confident forecast – of a goodly amount to come over the next few days. If the expectation is realised, there will be a collective sigh of relief as rain tanks fill, and paddocks begin (it’s only a beginning) to recover.

Then, while stock prices rise as quickly as our spirits, people will begin to forget. Politicians and media prognosticators will turn their attention to newer news, and the travails of the last five months – bushfires which have ravaged our country from the Richmond Valley to Eden and the Blue Mountains, through East Gippsland, Kangaroo Island, the Adelaide Hills and the Stirling Ranges – will be moved down the page.

If the fires are extinguished today, and they will not be, there are lives and properties to restore, there are all manners of recovery to consider. There is grief. People are grappling with chaos, which will not cease when the fires do. And the drought has not relinquished its taloned grasp.

Our discipleship has the responsibility of remembering.

When we break bread and lift the cup, we remember. When disciples doubt their faith, or their hope, or Jesus, they are told to remember what they heard, what they saw, what brought them to faith in that first moment of mercy and obedience.

The Old Testament prophets reminded the community leaders of people they too easily forgot. They advocated for the poor, and the lost, and those deemed unworthy of a name, a place, or a future. They also reminded God’s people who we are called to be; to remember the widowed and the orphan, to remember the stranger.

People regularly ask me what the Church’s role is around the bushfires, and the drought. I speak of chaplains in evacuation centres, of church members in fire crews, of congregations offering food and shelter and a shoulder when it’s needed. But when the flames have lessened, when our vision isn’t shrouded by smoke, we have more to offer.

As our communities begin to begin in their recovery, we have to help remember.

So we remind each other – and the world around us – about those who aren’t able to return to their homes, or towns, or jobs, and ask what justice, or hope we might offer. We will advocate to leaders, and Centrelink, and even insurance companies, for those whose voices are hoarse from asking, or weeping.

We remember why we are disciples, and articulate our hope in Christ, through our worship and our witness and our service. We share hospitality, remembering community. Do you remember why you moved here, why you love this community?

More than that, we remember forward, to what God will do. The One who died and was raised to life will bring life to this place, healing to these lives. Our hope rests in what God has achieved through Jesus Christ; which is where we always begin.

We remember forward to a world restored.

A Pastoral Letter from the Moderator in the Midst of the Bushfires

Dear Friends across our Synod,

We are watching, compelled by the apocalyptic images of these fires which fill our screens, fires we had once believed were impossible. After the horrors of the last few weeks, we had hoped that Christmas brought a change, but the reality is otherwise.

The fires we had seen in the north and west of our state and in South Australia, are now rampaging south into the Illawarra and Shoalhaven, and throughout the Mallee in Victoria.

I have been talking with Rev. Dr Stephen Robinson, who coordinates Disaster Response for the whole Uniting Church. We have Chaplains at each Evacuation Centre, the numbers of which are growing, as people flee their holidays and their homes to comparative safety.

At this moment, I am calling all of us, particularly those who are safe, to pray for everyone in the path of these fires, and whose lives and property are at risk of harm:

  • people from all walks of life, who fear for themselves, their homes, and those they love
  • communities facing harm, unsure of how to act, but trusting in each other despite their fear
  • those who fight the fires, with expertise, or desperation, or both  
  • animals of all description, caught in the paths of this blaze, uncomprehending in their fear and flight
  • the creation, bearing the costs of drought and a changing climate
  • those who staff evacuation centres, and who are offering food and shelter, clothing and reassurance, games for children and conversation for those who need it – a presence of gentleness despite the trauma
  • communities of faith, bearing witness in word and action to a God who loves and saves, and knows each person by name

I know that many people and congregations are already praying. Many have acted to support those for whom we pray in a range of ways. Please keep praying – for hope, for shelter, for safety, for rain.

These are difficult days, and there are more difficult days to come.

Christmas asserts that we shall know Jesus’ name as Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus is our hope that God is with us in every circumstance, and never more than when all else appears at risk.

I commend you all to prayer, in the promise of Jesus Christ,
Simon.

With Us. God.

The most engaging stories draw us in.

In the telling, we find ourselves no longer listening on the sidelines, or holding the book in our hands, but standing within the tale itself. The fear, the excitement, the confusion, entice us so that, without notice, the story becomes our own.

We know that the story of a child at risk catches our eyes and hinders our heartbeat, because it is one of the deepest fears we have as a human being. A child at risk of harm.

The Christmas story holds incredible risk, but we can miss it amidst the wonder and celebration.

In Luke’s Gospel, a young, unmarried, perplexed woman becomes pregnant; an angel comforts Mary, but in Matthew’s gospel, we hear the uncertainty, even fear, of her fiancé. An angel reassures Joseph in a dream, but the shadow of social risk, accusation and blame have already fallen across the story of God.

The gospels are clear: God has chosen this path. Our reaction is equally clear: God is at risk in the world. Consider the possible cost to Mary and Joseph and her parents, while understanding what people will think (and say) about her, all of them, as the story unfolds.

A long journey, an unstable birthing room, and all the hazard of giving birth with only each other in the vicinity. Angels announce Jesus’ birth to a mob of stock workers, and the sign of God breaking to the world is proclaimed – a baby, wrapped, and lying in a feed trough.

The shadow and danger in Matthew’s story are cast into sharp relief by an effulgent star, disconcerting the local monarch and enticing foreign astronomers. But the shadows do not entirely depart, as the infant Jesus’ family flees into the night, and the refuge of Egypt. When dictators are threatened, people die. Even children.

Let me remind you: God has chosen this path; this is no accident.

The shadows and risk seek to impede Jesus throughout the gospels; they find their completion, then defeat, decades later with a cross and empty tomb.

We find ourselves caught up in this message, because it hints at something of our own. God, deciding to be born, just like us. God deciding that the most common event in human history, childbirth, would be the mark of God’s engaging in our world.

And like the best of stories, whether told by Milne, or Dostoevsky, or Rowling, we ask ourselves what we would have done, what we might do. The gospel never simply allows us to be spectators, but having invited us in, asks us the question.

What risks, what challenges might we take as a reflection of God’s risk for all creation?

In a world constrained by compliance, control and calculations of risk, we consider what it means to love our neighbour, to love our enemy, and even to love ourselves.

We place ourselves squarely in the midst of our community, seeking to serve them at our own cost, because that is discipleship.

We will be offering Christmas meals to those who are hungry for food and friendship in towns and suburbs across Australia. We will have compiled hampers and gathered gifts, so that people’s celebrations have an added dimension of hope.

We risk ourselves in debates about human worth, about addiction and marriage, about refugees and human life, seeking to live out the message of a God who gives life, offers forgiveness and embodies hope.

We place ourselves at the forefront of disasters, offering support where hope seems fragile, or even lost.

When human beings are measured as political pawns in offshore camps, or as collateral in war, or as throwaway lines in the speeches of political leaders, we assert that even those who hate us have value in the eyes of God.

We speak – and act – for our earth, even as it cries out in suffering.

It is not always popular; we are always imperfect; we learn from God and each other as we go, as disciples on the way.

We do all this because God has risked life with – and for – us.

A baby, born.
God, for us, for creation.
Wonder, beyond wonder.
Peril.
And life.

And this is the God of history, of creation, revealed in Jesus Christ.

Emmanuel, God with Us.

Water in a Dry Place

In the northern hemisphere, it is growing darker, as winter gains its hold. In the traditional church, people are lighting candles against the growing darkness, one each week until Christmas comes, and the shortest day of the year turns towards the coming light.

And so, we have Advent, a season to mark the coming Christ, a light that darkness cannot comprehend, or extinguish.

It’s beautiful.

Here we are, parked in the other side of the world, barricading ourselves against the heat, as dust and ash fill the skies. There’s a total fire ban, and we are lighting candles? Our season is growing brighter, not darker. How shall we mark the Advent journey in our rigorous brown land?

Our European sisters and brothers light candles against the dark; we will pour water against the dust and fire.

A nameless woman found her way through the crowd to Jesus and discovered healing by the touch of his robe.

A woman, similarly unnamed, drops her last two copper coins in the offering bowl, despite the reality that she was worthy to receive an offering, in her poverty. A woman, equally anonymous, defies the deprecations of some disciples to anoint Jesus with costly perfume in the days before his death.

And Mary accepts God’s challenge, to bear and birth the Christ Child, despite risk and circumstance.

These women we remember; they acted prophetically, to proclaim hope against despair, light against darkness.

Thus, we pour water in a drought, to mark our hope in the One who comes. One of the oldest affirmations we make is, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” We assert our hope because of what God has done.

We pour water because, despite the changing seasons, Jesus is Lord. We pour water because the struggle of the drought and the violence of the fires do not describe our faith.

We fill the font, asserting that Christmas is the hallmark of God’s promise – that Christ will return and restore our beleaguered creation.

Advent is a season of waiting. For many, it is grief which wounds us, or illness, or broken relationships, or injustice. Tinsellated trees and reindeer have few words to say about these. But God in the world, hope despite everything? God entrusting us with God’s Son? God, for us, for creation, in love and forgiveness and hope?

This is why we pour the water. This.

Prayer for Those Involved in the Bushfires

God of life and death,
our prayers today are where our hearts and minds
have been during these last days
and where they have been drawn so early in this season;
with those communities and individuals
whose lives have been damaged
in differing ways by the bushfires.

We pray for all those who have been affected;
for the families and friends of those who have been killed.
We pray for those who are missing,
for their safety, for the fears of those who love them;
bring each one safely home, we pray.  

We pray for those who have been injured and survived:
for physical and emotional trauma;
for the fear and helplessness experienced;
for the anger and frustration at the injustice
of unavoidable disaster.

We pray for those who have lost their home and property
or are facing such loss:
for those who have been forced to leave
their memories and belongings;
for the fear & disorientation of all involved;
Heal them from their nightmare memories.

We are aware of those who have lost stock,
or are watching their stock suffer
sometimes with inevitable consequences;
we are conscious of those
who are struggling to find feed and water
for the stock under their care.

We pray for all involved in fighting the fire:
for our Rural Fire Service and their leadership
and all those we know and those we do not know;
we pray for courage in a place of fear;
for new strength in the face of exhaustion;
for people who have travelled distances
in order to resource those who experience fatigue.

We pray for all who offer support and care at this time:
for the various agencies, churches and community groups;
for disaster response chaplains;
for government services as they are activated;
for friends and neighbours, known and unknown;
for providing a shoulder upon which to lean, or weep;
we give thanks, too,
for the generosity of many, in small and large ways,
towards those who are struggling.

We are mindful of the days, weeks and months ahead,
for many dangerous days yet to come,
for seasons of recovery and rebuilding,
of homes, farms, lives and communities;
we pray for strength, courage, patience and hope
as grieving continues,
as frustrations rise
and inevitable changes occur.

We pray, too, knowing that we are entering a harsher climate,
less predictable and more volatile;
as we care for each other, help us to care for your creation,
to be worthy stewards and advocates
of all which you have made.

Keep us faithful and alert
in our praying and our action;
in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Moving Your Feet

In recent months, as I visit congregations and communities, I’m asked questions about the drought and what we can do to help.

We can pray and lament, as we should, for the rural families, individuals and communities in crisis across the country.

Lake Keepit, 2019

I have mentioned before that there is an African saying, When you pray, move your feet.

So, what else can we do? People in rural communities often feel ignored, or forgotten, by governments and metropolitan communities, especially in long term crises like this drought.

If you really want to help, hop in a car with some friends and drive to a (preferably small, or medium sized) rural town for a couple of days. Stay in a motel or caravan park; buy your meals in the bakery, and the café, and the pub.

Fill up your tank there, or in a town nearby. Go to the films; buy some Christmas presents.

If you’re there on a weekend, go to the local church – it doesn’t matter what brand – and put some cash in the plate.

In the bakery, and the church, and the shop, have a chat with the locals and ask them how the week has been. If you’re inclined, tell them you pray for them every day, and that you’re here because your prayers are both spoken and enacted.

One congregation recently said that this doesn’t sound too difficult. It’s not. It’s mission. It’s service.

It tells people they are not forgotten.

It’s a hint of the hand of God.   

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Our discipleship to Jesus Christ calls us to engage with the climate crisis, because we begin where we have always begun – with the God of all creation and all of history.

God’s Word and breath and love shaped the universe, our earth and everything within it, placing humanity at its heart. From that first moment, we have been inextricably bound with the world around us. Our care and responsibility for the creation, the dominion which reflects the gracious likeness of God, remind all of us that from the beginning we have been woven together in the loving act of tending the handiwork of God.

When the woman and man disobey God’s intention and are removed from the garden, their relationship with God is wounded and so is the creation,
“cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life…”
[Genesis 3.17-19]

Our relationship with all that God has made remains, but struggle is now inherent to all we do. Our responsibility to care for the earth has never been removed, and in our fallible, faithful lives, we seek to do what we can.

It is our relationship with God’s creation which is vital to this whole conversation. There is the naïve argument that we should care first for our sisters and brothers – loving God, and our neighbour as ourselves – which misses the reality that caring for the world around us is doing precisely that.

Our neighbours in the Pacific are watching their islands sink beneath the ocean, and their crops being inundated with seawater. Many of us are living in the catastrophe of the latest drought, crippling farmers and rural communities, who are trying to adapt to this new “climate normal”, where rainfall is erratic and drastically different, while the ground is warmer, diminishing any rainfall’s effect.

We know that a rising overall temperature in our climate condemns us, our children and grandchildren to an even more damaged world, with all the implications of climate refugees and changed communities, with more demanded from an earth that will find it harder and harder to produce.

What of the developing world, where climate change already wreaks havoc, and where subsistence farming is integral to existence?

So, what does loving our God, and our neighbour, look like? What do the voices of Micah and Amos, of Jeremiah and Isaiah call us to do and say? When there was injustice for the weakest in their communities, the prophets called the monarchs and the leaders of the community to attention. Look at the first chapter of Isaiah, where God rejects their worship, because those in need are not being cared for.

We cannot claim to care for the widowed and the orphan, to seek justice for those in need, and then ignore the world in which they live. When we speak of our God who saves, can we be silent about the homes and lives of those to whom we offer the gospel?

Jesus always attended to the lives of those around him. People who were healed were often restored to life in their families and communities; they proclaimed their new sight, new ability, new life to any who would listen.

When Jeremiah is called to be God’s prophet, he responds, “…Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” [Jeremiah 1.4-10]

As so often in our discipleship, God has greater imagination (and greater faith in us!) than we have.

We are Jesus’ disciples, and have responded to the call of our neighbours, to the prophetic call of our children, as we amplify their voice to the governments and leaders of the world in which we live.

As our children call us to attention, to the challenge before us of climate change, can we believe that God has chosen the young to challenge us? Can we believe that the God who used a young woman to be the mother of Christ can use school children? Can we accept that the God who used a carpenter’s son to save the world, can also use young people to remind us of our responsibility for the earth and all within it?

But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”

Pray for our children, for the witness of every disciple of Jesus, as we live our lives with and for him.

Market is the Church Place

One of my favourite film series is Band of Brothers, which chronicles the experiences of a particular US paratrooper company in the Second World War. One episode ends with our heroes having survived a massive failed Allied offensive; they are then sent into what will become the Battle of the Bulge, unsure of what they will face.

As they march, in darkness, into the battle, a young officer remarks on the danger into which they are moving, “Looks like you’ll be surrounded.” Their commander responds, “We’re paratroopers, Lieutenant, we’re supposed to be surrounded.”

The question I am asked most about my role is, “What’s a Moderator?” and it is asked by both members of the community and of our Church.

The essential answer is that I stand in the middle of things, moderating the relationships within Synod, congregations and presbyteries; within our relationships with other faith traditions and our own; and between the church and the world within which we worship, witness and serve.

In recent times, we have been engaging in serious conversations within all these relationships. Many of these conversations are difficult because they have painful connexions with people we love, or because considering change is unnerving, or because they ask questions of a lot we take for granted. These conversations can also be tough because our lives and culture are tied to our faith, both helpfully and unhelpfully.

When we read Scripture, we encounter the people of God engaging with God in the midst of their lives. God is central to their struggles, to their failure, to their renewal and to the hope they hold, because God acts in justice and hope. The prophets are in the marketplace, disputing bad trading practices, speaking for the alien, the widow and the orphan, and challenging politicians and the temple.  

Jesus exercised his ministry in the middle of the community – Jewish, Samaritan and gentile – offering healing and forgiveness, proclaiming a new reign of God for whoever was thirsty.

The inspired apostles speak with priests and councillors, with slaves and textile merchants and gaolers, offering life, facing punishment and death. Paul argues in the temple and the marketplace, with anyone who was there, and he proclaimed the life and faith he had discovered when Christ discovered him on the Damascus road.

The marketplace (the Greek word is agora) is where we are supposed to be, engaging with our God and the world around us. The other day I was invited, with an Anglican Bishop and a Uniting Church Minister, to speak at the Parliamentary Inquiry on Reproductive Health Care. My colleagues and I were asked why we were there, and part of our answer was that this is where we are supposed to be, in conversations about human life and suffering and seeking to discover how God addresses our lives in all their wonder and their messiness.

We are seeking to discern God’s voice in scripture and our worship, and also when we bear witness about those human concerns – our worth, our purpose, our place, our wounds, our relationships, our hope, our healing, our justice – which are also God’s concerns.

We are called to live out our hope, and also justice; we are to call the world to repentance, conscious always of the mercy which has brought us here. Too easily the Church talks only within itself, refining its theology like fine wine that sits valuable and forever untasted. Agoraphobia must never be a mark of our discipleship. 

Our theology is founded on the One who was born, executed and raised; Jesus was involved to the full extent of our human lives. It is shaped and forged when we engage our community the way our great cloud of witnesses engaged – in faith and hope. And courage. It is refined by the fire and breath of God’s Spirit.

We’re disciples of Jesus Christ; we’re supposed to be here.

An open letter to Members of the NSW Parliament, 2nd August 2019

The decision of the Parliament of NSW to table and debate the decriminalisation of abortion is a critical one, affecting people across our community. The Uniting Church notes the support from a wide diversity of members of Parliament, including the Premier, Gladys Berejiklian. The statement below draws from a series of decisions made over the last thirty years in the Uniting Church in Australia.

The Uniting Church affirms that human life is God-given from the beginning. We believe that all human beings are made in the image of God and that we are called to respect the sacredness of life.

We also believe Christians are called to respond to life with compassion and generosity.

When abortion is practised indiscriminately it damages respect for human life. However, we live in a broken world where people face difficult decisions. Respect for the sacredness of life means advocating for the needs of women as well as every unborn child.

We reject two extreme positions: that abortion should never be available; and that abortion should be regarded as simply another medical procedure. It is not possible to hold one position that can be applied in every case because people’s circumstances will always be unique.

It is important that women have the space they need to make this difficult decision after careful consideration and that they should have access to high quality counselling, pastoral care and medical services.

Women must be free to discuss their situation before they make a decision. The Church needs to be a place where such discussion can happen. We can offer spiritual, moral and pastoral support, without judgement, to a woman at this time.

Whilst we encourage our Ministers to remind people of the sacredness of life, the Church’s role should be to offer care and support leading up to and following a decision, not stand in judgement.

Our Church is also committed to support women who continue their pregnancy, and help them within the community.

The Uniting Church is disturbed that recent comments could imply that women make the decision to have an abortion without proper consideration. Most women who have abortions do so only after a great deal of searching and anguish. There are a range of well-informed spiritual, medical and emotional support services available to women and it is offensive to imply that these decisions are made lightly or without access to suitable consultation.

The decision to have an abortion is not just a moral issue but a social one. While some aspects of the current debate attempt to pass moral judgement on the act itself, it ignores the many emotional, physical, financial and social issues that often create a situation where a woman is forced to consider an abortion.

The Uniting Church asserts that abortion is a health and social issue and should not be a criminal issue.

The Uniting Church hopes that those engaged in this debate do not lose sight of the complexity of the issues.

Rev. Simon Hansford
Moderator | Synod of NSW & ACT
Uniting Church in Australia

A Prayer for Fair Treatment

I was asked to craft a prayer for the presentation at our Synod Meeting in July, about the film premiere of Half A Million Steps and the Fair Treatment Campaign.

God of life,
We are amazed that you place humanity at the heart of creation,
shaping us in your image,
with breath and love,
and name us as very good.

Help us to see each and every one
as an image of you,
to know and name their worth,
and to offer them life and justice.

God of healing,
we pray for those with wounded lives,
who experience brokenness,
through their own addiction,
or the illness of those they love.

Help us to serve them,
to challenge and care for them,
to help them discover their value
as human beings, reflections of your image
and to find life again.

We pray for those who grieve,
may they find the peace they need,
and a heart for those who have similar struggles. 

God of justice,
Your prophets cried out for those
whose lives are crippled by injustice,
by a community prejudiced to those in power.

Help us to be advocates
for those who cannot speak, or act, for themselves,
for those who need hope more than judgment.

Let us offer treatment
for those who are suffering, not punishment;
let us create avenues of hope,
not structures which deny life.

Give us strength for this journey,
and companions on the way,
and may the hope of Jesus, the crucified and risen one,
light our path at every step.
Amen.