A Pastoral Letter

Greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ!

As the Advent season draws us closer to Christmas, we listen for the familiar stories of Jesus, where God’s love becomes flesh and enters our world and our lives. We open ourselves to what God may be saying to us at this time.

We know the temptation to take possession of this gift from God, as if it were ours alone. Yet when we make the gift a possession, it is lost. John the Baptist speaks with authority, echoing God’s voice in Isaiah,

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’

Our decision to enlarge the definition of marriage at the Assembly Meeting was made after months and years of prayer, biblical and theological reflection, and discussion. It was made with integrity and hope. For many, it was painful; some due to the long waiting, and some in the decision itself. Our church laboured hard, together, to hear God’s voice and act on God’s will.

The Assembly’s decision has been deeply troubling to some within our church community. Over this season, the Presbytery of South Australia will meet, and consider a proposal which may suspend the Assembly Marriage Resolution and ask the church to work through this once more.

The immediate need is pastoral care for those affected. In truth, that is almost all of us. However, this is an especially upsetting time for the members of our church and community who are lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and intersex.

The well-being of many of our friends is being deeply impacted. Some are finding this almost too much to bear.

This decision is about our families, our friends, people we love. At this time, as always, we are called to bear witness to the love of God in Christ; to embody that love in our church and our communities.

The dignity and sanctity of all humanity was spoken into being at creation and is proclaimed anew to us at Christmas in the child of Bethlehem. Christ’s death and resurrection ensure our salvation, not because of who or how we are human, but because of who and how God became human. A truly precious, and gracious gift, in which we all share.

Please pray for our church, especially for the South Australian Presbytery. Consider the words you choose and how you participate in conversation (both formally and informally) around the Assembly Marriage Resolution. Please care for all within our LGBTI community, pray, and listen, remembering we are all formed, loved and valued in the image of the one God, in whom all life is found.

Grace, hope and peace for this Advent and Christmas journey,

Simon

In Human Hands

One of the pleasant, even hopeful, illusions about Christmas is that everything else takes a back seat.

My childhood memories, fuelled by nostalgia, are my mother reading a mixture of Gospel stories and Christmas fantasy to us on Christmas Eve, as everything else was set aside. We had critical rituals for the season, marking it as separate from every other day. Christmas itself was early morning worship, followed by presents and family meals; nothing else intruded.

I imagine that this is an accurate reflection of Christmas for many other people; however, it has had many incarnations since I was a child. People we love have died, others we love have become part of our Christmas community, and we have moved – almost all of us – around the state, even around the world. As have most families. Like many others, I work over Christmas.

Our Christmas illusion is simply that, and our celebrations need to happen in the midst of everything else.

Our imagined Christmas, hermetically sealed from reality, is precisely not what Matthew and Luke are describing, as Mary conceives and Joseph begins to comprehend. The tinsellated version some of us like to tell is nice and neat and tidy, where even the mob of sheep is well behaved.

That’s not the story, though.

From the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, the shadow of what could happen hovers over Mary’s pregnancy and we witness the reaction of Joseph, then the community, followed by strangers from the East, and then Herod.

The wonder of Luke’s account is far too astonishing to fit neatly anywhere, as a tiny baby is born while the whole Roman empire is counted and angel armies appear in the sky.

Jesus appears in the midst of everything – empires and despots and foreign sages, a census of the known world and a family drawn into social chaos and divine intention. The angels rejoice and stock workers are wondrously overwhelmed as God turns up.

And the sign of this God, our God, the God of all the ages and all creation, is a baby. Jesus Christ, at risk, among us.

This is why Christmas, told as Matthew and Luke tell us, makes sense. This is why Emmanuel, God with us, is absolutely vital. Jesus is in the midst of it all.

The humanity of Jesus – that he can be held in human hands – embraces and implicates everyone.

This embrace is for communities where drought is crippling, for those struggling with addiction, and for those who will be fearful of violence in their own homes this Christmas. This embrace is for those who are imprisoned, or punished for seeking refuge, and the implication is for our voices to speak and our hands to act.

Jesus’ complete humanity is about all of us. As our church has affirmed a larger understanding of marriage, we declare that our own humanity – gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, transgender or intersex – is valued in the eyes of God. This is our discipleship to Jesus Christ, compelling us to follow, as an extraordinary community in service to an extraordinary God.

And God turns up. Certainly in the joy of a shared meal, as friends are made welcome and strangers become friends.

Even more certainly when someone who believes they are not worth God’s attention is reminded, by our invitation and embrace, that God invites shepherds to bear witness, before anyone else, to the birth of Christ.

Emmanuel becomes tangible when people spend money in rural communities to support them, and to let them know that are remembered and valued.

God is with those who suffer the injustice of violence, in their homes, from government, or from the church. We will not be silent: we will speak and act and pray and proclaim for those who are bound in silence.

The hope and wonder of Christmas, as Jesus breaks into the world, is that God gets in our way. Whether Jesus interferes with our “neat and tidy”, or sits with us in our silence, Emmanuel declares that we are worth all of God’s passionate involvement.

God with all of us.

If The War Goes On | Iona Community

This has been written, and rewritten several times by the Iona Community. I first encountered it when the United States led coalition entered Iraq in 2003. At the time, the composers wrote

“it has since been revised and also, sadly, become relevant yet again, due to the current sabre-rattling by the Bush & Blair cliques, in the face of opposition to their stance from majorities in both their countries.

Please feel free to reproduce this in worship and other non-commercial situations, on condition that the copyright acknowledgement is also shown.”

If the war goes on
and the children die of hunger,
and the old men weep
for the young men are no more,
and the women learn
how to dance without a partner
who will keep the score?

If the war goes on
and the truth is taken hostage;
and new horrors lead
to the need to euphemise,
when the calls for peace
are declared unpatriotic,
who’ll expose the lies?

If the war goes on
and the daily bread is terror,
and the voiceless poor
take the road as refugees;
when a nation’s pride
destines millions to be homeless,
who will heed their pleas?

If the war goes on
and the rich increase their fortunes,
as the arms sales soar
as new weapons are displayed,
when a fertile field
turns to no-man’s-land tomorrow,
who’ll approve such trade?

If the war goes on
will we close the doors to heaven,
if the war goes on,
will we breach the gates of hell;
if the war goes on
will we ever be forgiven
if the war goes on… and on… and on…

Armistice | Andrew Motion

Now one thousand five hundred and sixty-four days end
every hour hand of every watch on the face of the earth
snaps to attention a fraction shy of the number eleven.
Their minute hands are still quivering with the effort
to complete the circle and therefore give the signal.
Whenever has machinery fine-tuned or otherwise
been able to refute with such a passionate precision
the idea that the body of time might flow like a river
and reveal it instead as a wide continuous landscape
a block universe where the sudden spotlight moon
introducing her face between cloud-curtains alight
now on one man dead already and now on one dying
while the scattered hinterland suffers its consequences
or delivers its warnings all connected but unavailable.

*

Then the minute hand in a spasm seals its promise
while penny whistles shriek and church bells clamour
while whizzbangs and 59s complete their trajectories
while long-faced telegram boys prop their bicycles
on lampposts and front gates and for the last time
press forward to deliver their dreadful condolences
and lark music like a distillation of daylight itself
which a moment before was neither here nor there
sweetens as it escapes the pulsing throat of the bird
and rain also accustomed to no discernable voice
patters and pounds and performs on barren ground
and a very simple breath of wind entirely fills the air
and everyday clouds performing manifold contortions
saunter off and dissolve in the horizon of their origin.

*

Soon rolling out plans from their corridors and offices
highly efficient angels of the resurrection will descend
to align with names they went by in their earthly lives
nine million or thereabouts bodies and body-fragments.
What is the duration of individual grieving they allow
beyond an agreed upper limit of sixty-six characters.
Think of Private Roy Douglas Harvey who was killed
a reserved and thoughtful schoolboy from Hillhead
leaving behind among other valuable relics a diary
completed up to the evening before his dawn attack
along with a much-thumbed Collins Gem dictionary
from the pages of which rose and will continue rising
these words as time and space maintain their relation
my task accomplished and the long day done.

Aftermath | Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) wrote at the time of the War in 1914-18, in which he served and was decorated. As we continue to promise, a century later, never to forget, Sassoon invites us to remember more truly what the story of service and sacrifice entails.

Have you forgotten yet? …
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same – and War’s a bloody game …
Have you forgotten yet? …
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz –
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench –
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”

Do you remember the hour of din before the attack –
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet? …
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget

In A Field | Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney and several other poets were asked to compose pieces in response to some of the older poetry arising from the First World War.

And there I was in the middle of a field,
The furrows once called “scores’ still with their gloss,
The tractor with its hoisted plough just gone
Snarling at an unexpected speed
Out on the road. Last of the jobs,
The windings had been ploughed, furrows turned
Three ply or four round each of the four sides
Of the breathing land, to mark it off
And out. Within that boundary now
Step the fleshy earth and follow
The long healed footprints of one who arrived
From nowhere, unfamiliar and de-mobbed,
In buttoned khaki and buffed army boots,
Bruising the turned-up acres of our back field
To stumble from the windings’ magic ring
And take me by a hand to lead me back
Through the same old gate into the yard
Where everyone has suddenly appeared,
All standing waiting.

The Wound in Time | Carol Ann Duffy

As we move towards Remembrance Day, I was thinking about how we remember, as we now hold only others’ stories, with no personal memory of that first global carnage.

There has been some searching poetry composed in recent years, in reflection on the centenary of the First World War. This is a recent, wrenching piece by Carol Ann Duffy, the British Poet Laureate.

It is the wound in Time. The century’s tides,
chanting their bitter psalms, cannot heal it.

Not the war to end all wars; death’s birthing place;
the earth nursing its ticking metal eggs, hatching
new carnage. But how could you know, brave
as belief as you boarded the boats, singing?
The end of God in the poisonous, shrapnelled air.
Poetry gargling its own blood. We sense it was love
you gave your world for; the town squares silent,
awaiting their cenotaphs. What happened next?
War. And after that? War. And now? War. War.
History might as well be water, chastising this shore;
for we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice.
Your faces drowning in the pages of the sea.

Life from Dust

The Lord said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”
Then the Lord said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them:
O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.
Thus says the Lord God to these bones:
I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.

In a language which seemed to arise from the red dust of this ancient continent, a man stood and prophesied in the company of Ezekiel. In a tongue which spoke forty millennia before Ezekiel heard God’s call, before Sarai and Abram left their country under God’s command, the Uniting Church Assembly attended to the voice of God.

The language was Djambarrpuyngu, and its voice was Djawut Gondarra who, with his wife Yurranydjil, have brought a translation of the Old Testament text into their language.

How do we attend to the voice of God in our world? How do we, under God’s compelling word, speak life to those consigned to dust?

Our convocation wrestled with God, scripture, our tradition and each other, as we sought to understand what these questions mean, and where they lead. We worshipped and sang; in our bible studies, we were challenged about how we “extend the mat” of hospitality to the community and the creation. We installed Dr Deidre Palmer, our new President, and elected Rev. Sharon Hollis to follow her in 2020.

When we affirm our creation in the image of God, we open ourselves to an ever deepening understanding of our relationships with each other.

This informed our engagement with the critical issue of domestic violence; even with our strong statement about what we believe and how we chose to act, we begin with God’s image – both for survivors and for those who commit harm. There is much more to be done and we have committed our Church to that action.

The breadth of our church, and our depth, were revealed as we considered how to increase our hospitality to those who live with disabilities. This is not simply about wheelchair access and hearing loops, but about how we serve people who live with a range of challenges like autism spectrum disorder, or mental illness. This is about safety and hospitality, about providing a space – and a community – where each person experiences true welcome.

The most marked conversation in the Assembly was about marriage. This also begins with our understanding of who we are, both in our creation and, in Christ. This was not easy for our gathered church, nor has it been in our congregations.

The decision was to make two statements of belief about marriage, one of which affirms traditional marriage, and one of which affirms marriage as being between two people. These two statements can be held together, or in tension, and people are free to agree with both, or simply one. For many this is a difficult challenge, and some deem it almost beyond them. For others, it is a realisation that God might be speaking a new word for our church.

Our unity is in Christ alone, it is Christ to whom we turn, and it is Christ who will lead us in this journey.

We considered how we can best serve our First Peoples, our history and our future, when we acted to affirm their sovereignty. The conversation, as with every major proposal at the Assembly, is conducted in the context of the world around us – the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the response – and our church felt it necessary to make this statement.

We struggled to speak effectively and to move forward on legalised assisted dying, which is another pressing issue in our community.

We affirmed – again – our commitment to care for God’s creation, made pertinent as drought pervades our land.

The Working Groups reflected discipleship in action; engaging with God’s word and each other to discern a resolution. The stories of prayerful faithfulness and integrity were heard consistently throughout the week.

How do we attend to the voice of God in our world? How do we, under God’s compelling word, speak life to those consigned to dust?

This has always been our calling, and our struggle, as we discern how best to speak and act in the community in which we live and bear witness. As we consider the Church’s decisions, we begin and end with Jesus Christ, our hope and our salvation. None of these decisions was taken lightly, or selfishly, but seeking to be responsible for our Church and its witness in our world.

Pray for each other, and for those who struggle. Worship together, seek God’s blessing for each other. I ask you also to pray for me in the days ahead, and I commit to continue praying for all of you.

Through human witness in word and action, and in the power of the Holy Spirit,
Christ reaches out to command attention and awaken faith;
he calls people into the fellowship of his sufferings, to be the disciples of a crucified Lord;
in his own strange way Christ constitutes, rules and renews them as his Church.   

We Need To Talk …

You know that feeling when your partner, or employer, or doctor, says “We need to talk”? There is that sense of trepidation, even if they declare that there is nothing to worry about. The relationship moves, suddenly, to a new level.

Some folk avoid these conversations at all costs. Sometimes it seems too hard, or we would rather be left in the dark. Sometimes the news is not easy to hear.

And sometimes our conversation heralds a new beginning.

I’ve been trundling around worship and other gatherings since October last year, talking about our life together, as disciples in the Uniting Church. I have heard and seen how we are serving God and our communities across our Synod. I am challenged and thankful by how much God is doing – and inviting us to experience – in the ministry we offer.

In these last few months our sense of urgency, about needing to talk, has grown.

The question, resolved by the majority of our community, and legally by our parliament, is before us as a community of faith. The Uniting Church has elected to engage deliberately, while our friends in other faith traditions watch us and wonder, knowing that people in every congregation across every church and beyond, are seeking to understand what same gender marriage means for our community.

So, I have invited people across our Synod to talk, from congregations and presbyteries, ordained and lay, of every age and background.

Two questions guide the conversations:

How will we bear witness to Jesus Christ, within our community, as we have this conversation?

How will we find a way forward, together, with Christ?

Some people arrive with their minds made up, some come with the certainty of what God intends, while many come ready to hear – and discuss – how we can be the church, while we seek to understand and resolve an issue which appears difficult and costly. Some people will not come through fear, or cynicism, or woundedness. All of these return us to our guiding questions.

As I have mentioned in our Conversations so far, have you talked with your hairdresser, or your barista, or your mechanic, about marriage? Or have you simply kept your own counsel and talked with the folk with whom you agree?

How might the Spirit whisper a new word to us about our witness in the world?

Are we brave enough to pray honestly that God will bring us to resurrection on this (and other) challenges? Resurrection is not what we expect, nor does it always appear as we hoped. We are in the hands of the risen, crucified Lord.

Let us commit ourselves to finding our way, together.

Please, pray for our church and for each other; please, pray for our leadership; please, pray for me.

The Church’s call is to serve that end: to be a fellowship of reconciliation, a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself.

#moderatorinsession since Easter: Pitt Street, Tamworth Southside, West Epping, North Ryde, St. David’s Haberfield, Mangrove Mountain, Bathurst and Adamstown congregations. Looking ahead: Windsor, Ebenezer, Broken Bay, National Assembly (Victoria) and Broken Hill

#talkingmarriage: Warner’s Bay, Turramurra, Ramsgate, Wesley Canberra, Bowral, Centre for Ministry, Carcoar, St. Stephen’s Macquarie Street, Wagga and Tamworth

 

A Ridiculous, Wonderful Thing

Hope can seem a fragile thing.

I had the honour last night of babysitting the child of some dear friends. He woke once only, briefly, during the night, in a moment of unrest. For a longer moment I considered the hopes which rest upon him, from those who love him: hope for living an honourable life, for relationships and experiences to bless and strengthen him.

Hope can seem fragile, but in the life of this child, it is less so. He has two wonderful parents who love each other, and him. He has grandparents, aunts and uncles – family and honorary – gathered and holding him. He has communities of faith and nurture around him as far as the heart can hope.

This child’s story is, wonderfully, not unique. Neither, sadly, is it true for each and every child.

When we hope in our lives, it can seem like whimsy or desperation: that it rains, or that a specific event (exam, grand final, job interview) comes good. Hoping for something as elusive as the weather turning can be flimsy indeed.

As disciples of Jesus, we are inherently people of hope, born not of desperation, but from all that we have seen and heard, and experienced in Jesus Christ.

We hope because of those around us, and before us, who tell us the reason for their hope. We act and live in hope because our ground is shaped by the one whose love breathed life into the very dust.

We hope because the act designed to extinguish it was overcome by God’s own act in Jesus. We look to the future of creation, and of ourselves, because violence and empire were insufficient to quench God’s own love and forgiveness.

Remind each other.

Encourage each other.

Let others know what makes your heart beat and your head lift.

And when the days are hard, turn to others to remember that our hope is held, not in whimsy or desperation, but in a God who intends not just to love, but to restore all of history and all of creation. And all of us.

A story for each of us, as far as our hearts can hope.

“And hope is like love…a ridiculous, wonderful, powerful thing.”
– Kate DiCamillo; The Tale of Despereaux