Death & Dominion

When Mark mentioned the theme for this edition of Ruminations, my first thoughts turned to scripture, then to poetry. Verses about death, and the wondering which surrounds it; the beauty and the sorrow and the ruminating, as poets and theologians seek both to express their feelings and to plumb the depths of something which comes to each and all.

Death, and birth, are the most common things among us, we humans. Thus, we write and theologise, we compose and wonder, we rage against the dying of the light,[i], while some of us spend some portion of our lives always glancing behind.[ii]

There are those of us try to airbrush death from our language altogether, by using phrases which attempt to hold it at arm’s length; people no longer die, they simply “pass” as if they have mystically moved into the next room or graduated in some ghastly (ghostly?) exam.

These euphemisms are an attempt to lessen our fear, or our loss. They do neither. Our grief reflects our joy and love and lives shared; it not a problem, but rather, a gift. Our fears reflect a measure of what we don’t know, and of what we do; we need each other for this journey.

Much of our writing and praying reflects us trying to make sense of the lives we lead, as we face suffering on a personal level, and a global one. As we struggle to know what – and how – to pray for our friend who is facing their own death, we are confronted by the immensity of Ukraine’s invasion and the deaths which accompany it. At that moment, words can seem almost irrelevant, perhaps we fall to weeping.

Across our communities and our world, we have been immersed in conversations, even protest, about voluntary assisted dying and in these last few weeks, about abortion. How we engage – in all ways – reflects our fear, our anger, our experience and our hope.

As we speak of birth, life and death, we speak inherently of our faith. As disciples of Jesus, we approach dying and death with caution; our fear and our concern are seasoned with hope. Our hope neither makes death a minor problem, nor an easy path, but it addresses the depth of our life with more than poetry.

I have often pondered whether we are less fearful of death than we are of resurrection. How might our hope, in Christ, be realised? When we affirm our Easter faith, what do we imagine we are, in fact, affirming?

Our hope lies in Jesus Christ. Our affirmation begins, and is complete, in Christ, crucified and risen. We begin, in faith, to make sense of our lives and our suffering, our fear and our weeping, because we name Jesus as the hope in which we locate ourselves.

This story is neither easy, nor untroubled. We need our poets and our scriptures to speak when we cannot; we need our siblings with us, to remind us of the God who has expended everything to seek us out and find us.

Death is not the last word. Life is, in Christ.

To each and all of us, “I wish you God.”[iii]


[i] Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night”
[ii] John Foulcher, “Death”
[iii] Les Murray, “The Last Hellos”

Our Uniting Church @ 45

“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]

Knowing My Place

I was born and lived the first stanza of my life on Cammeraigal 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.  

Feast: After Tiepolo | Peter Steele

Dead man walking as he goes to dine –
The handing over broached and squared away –
He settles to the gossip and the wine,
The casual banter and the heart at play.

The host, benignant, gazes from his chair,
The pointer smartens as the dishes rise:
Part of the company is debonair,
Part of it weathered-out beyond surprise.

And to the lot, a creature of excess,
Her love unstinting as the lavished nard
That perfumes all the house to thank and bless
The man who’d keep his promise, dying hard,

She comes, intrusive, wiser than almost all.
The traitor’s turning white as any pall.

– Peter Steele, The Gossip & The Wine

A Prayer, Nearing Easter

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)

A Prayer in these Floods

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.

S.R. Hansford
Lent, 2022

Living Our Hope

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?

The ultimate reason for our hope is not to be found at all in what we want, wish for and wait for; the ultimate reason is that we are wanted and wished for and waited for.

– Jürgen Moltmann

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.

#HeartofEaster

A Sonnet for Ash Wednesday | Malcolm Guite

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.

  • Malcolm Guite

We’re All Innkeepers, Now

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.

If someone in need comes to my door, my first question is always how I can help to feed, or clothe, or protect. This is as true of my home, as it is for my church. Their vaccination status has nothing to do with their need. I will always act to serve them and make them welcome.

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.

And a little Christmas video something, if you’d like … https://www.insights.uca.org.au/stories-of-hope-the-moderators-christmas-message-for-2021/

Drug Use – A Health & Social Crisis

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.