PreachFest 2021

Welcome to the inaugural PreachFest, an offering on behalf of our Uniting Church, to the whole of the Church, as we celebrate, and seek to elevate, the art and call of preaching.

I welcome you from Gadigal Land, country of the Eora nation. On behalf of our Church, I pay my respects to the elders past and present, for the way they have stewarded the creator’s good creation, the lands and waters under their care.

I extend that respect to other indigenous people past and present, and to those lands on which you all gather. I pray that this care will continue into the years ahead, hoping that our creator will continue reconciling all things to himself in Jesus Christ.

James McAuley invites each poet and thus, each preacher,

Take salt upon your tongue.
And do not feed the heart
with sorrow, darkness or lies:
these are the death of art.

We are nourished by Scripture, by the Holy Spirit, then music and poetry and words and wonder and our lives.

The extraordinary technological improvements which enable us to broadcast this festival live and online, to record it and offer it to Congregations and communities, do not always serve us well.

We have begun to trust the marvel of the medium and not the wonder of the message.

We live in a world where the image is vital, the screenshot, which flicks across our retinas and, almost immediately, is gone. Shazaam helps us to capture the snippet of music we like for the moment; TikTok testifies to the trimming of our attention spans – and our memories – to the equivalent of a goldfish.

We have fallen into the trap of believing that preaching is an archaic, or even obsolete, gift in our Church’s life. Thus, we have reflections, or testimonies, or “talks”, with none of the discipling, or risk, of a sermon crafted to remind the disciples of Christ who we are called to be. Our liturgical response of “anyone can do this”, neglects the vital diversity of gifts endowed by the Holy Spirit for all the aspects of the Church’s life and mission.

These are not the only challenges before us. We have taken Barth’s supposed dictum, updated, about a bible in one hand and a tablet in the other, and have become so immersed in the media cycle, that preaching is at risk of becoming a political polemic and not the gift the Church – and our community – so desperately need.

Scripture is not one option among many, it is the first option, each and every time. We hold it carefully, with respect and joy.

Some of us have stayed securely in the past, nestled in the brilliance of Calvin, the rigour of Wesley, the challenge of Spurgeon. However, there are preachers now, like the mob we have gathered for this festival, like Rutledge and Lischer and Curry and Brueggemann and Lose and Taylor (have a listen to Raffel the new Anglican Archbishop!), all of whom will remind you of the call of Jesus Christ to bear faithful human witness in our world.  

Les Murray reminds us, tongue firmly planted in his cheek

Prose is Protestant-agnostic,
story, discussion, significance,
but poetry is Catholic,
poetry is presence.

Preaching is not just reading out something written by another, it is living out the proclamation of the living God, whose kiss of life has created us, and whose breath now breathes through us.  

We are, each and all of us, called to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those of us, called to preach, do so in a public way, as a prophetic offering to the community of faith.

We are not called to convert, or to save. These tasks are entirely – and thankfully – the movement of the Spirit of the one about whose life and death and resurrection we preach. We are called to bear witness – in our proclamation and in our lives. The significance of our words must be echoed by the integrity of our character, in humility and mercy.

R.S Thomas goes to efforts to keep us suitably humble

I see them working in old rectories
by the sun’s light, by candlelight,
venerable men [and women], their black cloth
a little dusty, a little green
with holy mildew. And yet their skulls,
ripening over so many prayers,
toppled in to the same grave
with oafs and yokels. They left no books,
memorial to their lonely thought
in grey parishes; rather they wrote
on people’s hearts and in the minds
of young children sublime words
too soon forgotten. God, in [God’s] time
or out of time will correct this.

Our proclamation must always point to Christ, crucified and risen. That is our calling.

I note that there are experienced preachers, ordained and lay, gathered here and in Canberra and online, as individuals and in regional hubs; there are preachers in waiting, those apprenticed to a community of faith, and preachers who are discovering their call.

I welcome those preachers from other traditions, including those who will be teaching and leading us.

All preaching begins in prayer, so let us pray.

One of Those Days

It was not just one of those days, but one that helps define who we are as church, and how our discipleship is shaped for the task before us.

That particular Thursday began as many Thursdays do, but middled – and ended – not with a whimper, but a bang. Sometimes in the Synod offices, we are “just getting the job done”, as we seek to serve the Church, as the Church serves the community, but fanfares are not always the order of the day.

First stop was St. Stephen’s, in the heart of the city, opposite Parliament House. I sat in the front row of one of our most beautiful, “churchiest” churches, between a doctor and a past NSW Premier and federal Foreign Minister on one side, and three recovering drug users and the Executive Director of Uniting on the other.

We celebrated two decades of hard core, high quality, care and justice, as the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre was recognised as a lifesaving, life-changing institution at the heart of Kings Cross. The testimonies – of the three men on my right giving thanks for their lives, of a Liberal and Labor politician in furious agreement, of doctors Marianne Jauncey and Ingrid Van Beek in passionate service – all bore witness to a hope in action driven by Rev. Harry Herbert and our Synod, which has changed thousands of lives, politics and a community.

We hung our banner of hearts across the facade of Parliament House and danced down Macquarie Street, returning to our other work.

As I landed in the Synod Office, we welcomed student leaders from our schools. More than twenty senior students, chosen by their peers, had come to discuss the issues which they had elected as important – consent, climate change and the environment, and mental health registered as their top three.

This was an opportunity for me and some other members of our Synod to engage with the considerable capacity of these students, as they wrestled with confronting problems which beset them and everyone else in our community.

They were not hindered by their surrounds but, rather, energised by the opportunity to have their views expressed and challenged. When they were asked what it means to be part of a Uniting Church school, even those students from other faiths were able to name their sense of being welcomed, of engaging in education, faith and issues which are important to them. Almost everyone talked of the diversity – of faith, of opinion, of experience – and they attributed that to being part of the Uniting Church.

We have children in schools of all styles across our Synod; they are not the church of the future. They are the church now, and we should celebrate them as such. The gifts offered by all teachers, by chaplains, by parents, by our children need to be treasured.

As our schools’ event drew to a close, I hustled down Pitt Street to an Iftar meal hosted by the Affinity Intercultural Foundation, convened by a man who calls every friend “cousin”.

This was a meal within our community, for Muslims and as many friends as they could fit in the room. My table had a judge, a politician, and two members of the armed services. We sat near politicians and broadcasters, journalists and sportspeople, as we considered what it means to be a diverse, creative community. We wrestled with justice for refugees and Australians trying to come home, from India and other countries. We voiced concern about labelling, even blaming, specific groups of people because of their belief and background.

Iftar is not only a meal as part of the season of Ramadan, it is often hospitality at its best, where difference and shared hopes are held together.

This story of my Thursday is a story of our Uniting Church; engaged in conversation with our community, often over a coffee, or dolmades. It is meeting with politicians and priests, or those ensnared by the challenges of life, or emerging from its injustices. We know that Jesus met with people living in all aspects of his community and, at our best, we seek to do the same.

We are called to be in the midst of things. It is here that we bear witness to our hope in Jesus, and offer that hope to others with whom we share our lives. As disciples of Jesus, we are in conversation with our community, articulating hope, embodying justice.

Every day.  

Moderator Report to Synod

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. Christ who is present when he is preached among people is the Word of God who acquits the guilty, who gives life to the dead and who brings into being what otherwise could not exist. 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.  [Basis of Union, Para. 4]

We are an Australian Church.

We assert this with passion from the very marrow of our bones. A Church formed in, and for, the Australian community. In our next breath, and in our more candid moments, we ask ourselves what on earth this might mean, given the dramatically altered contexts from conception, to birth, to our fifth decade.

The certainty our grandparents and their parents apparently felt, about what it means to be Australian, has changed remarkably – and wonderfully – since three protestant churches first considered Union almost a century ago.

It is not only the cornucopia of culture and language which infuses and enhances our community and our Church, or the technologies which transfix us with their imagery and sound, or the diversity of voices we are hearing – with many more to attend to – of age and gender and education and background.

We live in a community where some of our friends are five generations absent from a worshipping congregation; a community which bears the scars of abuse and arrogance and pious judgment from many who name themselves as followers of Jesus. Our community is suspicious of our integrity, and we dare not be surprised.  

I have been ordained for thirty years and so often we reflexively turn to the programme, plan, or guru, to guide us to a better place. We manage ourselves into models of mission and wonder why they wither after a rigorous season, especially when we have worked so hard and frequently paid so much? We look to our own fear, our own survival and misremember the witness, invitation and grace which welcomed us in the first place.

We have only to look at the current federal political disarray when the disregard and abuse of women, coupled with diseased male entitlement are seen as “issues to be managed” and not as illnesses to be confessed, diagnosed, and cured.

We cannot manage our way through this, or out of it. We cannot perfect our mission plans, or so distil our theology to a pristine purity that our problems will be resolved. We may well have sufficient property and financial resources, and the administrative skills to organise them, to fund creative ministry placements.

However, do we have the intrinsic hope – the wherewithal – to invite people to discover their life in Christ? Are we faithfully deliberate to challenge them as we walk together? How do we identify each other for the tasks of ministry across the life of our Church?

At our last Synod in Session, we declared our need to grow in faith and depth and numbers; we agreed that we need to be better formed for ministry – lay and ordained, congregation and individual – in order to better exercise our discipleship; we re-affirmed our focus on people in the first third of life, to welcome and engage them in the mission of the Church; we asserted that Makarrata is critical to our integrity as Australians, to listen and listen again to our First Peoples; we again identified the crisis of climate change as inimical to all our world and thus, the need for all our world – and our Church – to act.    

Notwithstanding the importance of these decisions, and our need to adapt to the needs of our transforming community, we cannot begin with a more acute strategic plan. We begin with Christ.

We proclaim Christ, crucified and risen. We exist and we grow because of what God has completed in Jesus Christ.

We proclaim, bear witness, and through the mercy of God in Christ, we join as disciples, not for the survival of our Church, but for the sake of the world.   

Which is why ministry formation is so critical in the life of our Synod – indeed, our whole Church. The Period of Discernment has misled us to think that being formed for ministry is an individual endeavour, focused frequently on ordination, or that discipleship occurs in isolation. This has led, in some places, to a selective sense of call, identified by what an individual believes she, or he, hears. Call is affirmed by community as well as an individual.

Comfort and peace are rarely the biblical measure of a disciple’s call. The Spirit moves across the Church; the call to ministry is about being discipled to the one who has nowhere to lay his head.

Discipleship is about the community of faith, as we are formed for ministry of all shapes and sizes, together. This discipleship is ongoing, as Paul consistently reminds us; ordination, or eldership, or becoming a pastor does not complete it, rather these are simply a mark of the journey on which we have been called – as one body.

Ministry Formation has continued to develop for those who are candidating for ordination, including formation panels and developing facets of regional formation in areas outside metropolitan Sydney. There are indications of the benefits for candidates, for their placements and for the presbyteries.

We intend to grow the formation of discipleship across our communities of faith – congregations, universities and colleges, schools, aged care communities – wherever disciples may be found. This has been hindered by our “COVID season” but we are stepping back into that conversation once more, engaging Ministers in placement to explore how we might best form disciples across our Synod.

This, of course, is integral with how we proclaim and worship, how we carry our witness to Christ and how we invite – and offer hospitality – to any who seek it.

The task of Ministry Formation is to keep our focus on the main thing: making disciples of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world+. Immediately this cannot be solely about ordination, but incorporates each of us, called, welcomed, and witnessing to the risen, crucified Christ.

The dilemma we often name is the changing community around us. The temptation is that this distraction becomes the pole to which the compass needle points us, rather than the one to whom we are discipled. We assert our faith that in each circumstance Christ is not only present, but that it is Christ’s work of which we are a part, and not our own.

There are significant challenges before us. Our Uniting Church structure was designed for another season, and for a human capacity which currently exceeds us. Our presbyteries and several of our congregations are not as the Constitution – or we – imagined and we need to understand how we are being formed by the Spirit of God for the context in which we worship, witness and serve. Self-preservation is neither a hallmark of the gospel, nor is it practical.

Essential to being Moderator is the responsibility to remind the Church who we are called to be. We are holding this first stanza of our Synod in Session in the light of Easter. Where might we imagine, even believe, that the risen Christ is calling us? This is not about mechanics, but about how we discern the song of the Holy Spirit in a Synod which is so often pragmatic, rather than hopeful.

This cannot be decided by demographics, or by the financial generosity of wealthy congregations and presbyteries. How will we have the necessary conversations about trying new models of ministry which need seed money, or realising stranded property assets into more fruitful ones to resource new imperatives for mission?

The challenge of serving the rural communities, which is close to my heart, is almost overmatched by that of caring for Sydney and Canberra’s growing edges. We dare not measure our effective ministry life by the security of our congregation, whatever its size.

I have seen parables of resurrection in our church. When our Auburn Congregation proclaimed for me the wonder of Easter in worship which resounded in my soul and when a woman, ten years clean after a decade in hell, talked about those who were kind to her and walked beside her to new life at our Medically Supervised Injecting Centre.

Several of our Parish Missions are bywords in our community for hope and salvation at their most profound. Our school leaders are talking articulately with the Synod about the safety of each other, and climate change and mental health and want to talk more.

We are accomplished at talking ourselves into irrelevancy, when we are responsible to proclaim the gospel. We are here because of Christ, alone.

Recently, an established journalist wrote to me, identifying the Uniting Church as a compassionate church which wanted to have a conversation with our community, rather than lecture, and one which did not always fit the stereotype of what people expected from the church – if they expect anything at all.

As the COVID season began, I stated that I believe that we are supposed to be here, as challenging as it is. It is our task to trust and follow Christ and to invite others to do likewise. Our hope is found in the completed work of Jesus Christ; we worship, witness and serve only because of that. We are ideally suited for this season in our world, by God’s grace.

Carlo Carretto once wrote “how baffling you are, O Church, and how much I love you!” This might well be a meme for many, if not most, of us. I look each day, in prayer, in wonder and in frustration, for the signs of Jesus Christ “constituting, ruling and renewing us as his Church.” As this second stanza of my placement as Moderator has begun, I give thanks for our Church and for the Synod in which I serve.

May the risen, crucified Christ bless you for the season ahead.

God Comes Close

In a dream, wrapped in the swaddling bands of confusion caused by Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph hears God’s comfort and direction as to what to name their child. And Matthew, with customary editorial license, reminds us of Jesus’ pseudonym and purpose, “Emmanuel … God is with us”.

In the shadowed mystery and wonder of the Christmas story, we find ourselves relieved and thankful that God is such a God as this. The delight of a newborn baby, even in these fearful circumstances, is joy incarnate. We sing Emmanuel.

Yet Emmanuel seems to slip from our vocabulary as we read further into the gospels. We bias one side of the scales, to speak only of Jesus’ earthed humanity, or elevate him beyond our laughter and fears and grumpiness to a hologram. Neither is sufficient.

The sacrilege of God’s behaviour is in breaking all the rules, to defy and surpass the expectations of what a God – our God, any god – is supposed to be and do. To assert that God is born, as we are all born, that God lives and stumbles and serves and loves and laughs and grieves, moves us into the depths of the promise cracked open in Joseph’s dream and Mary’s faithful acceptance.

In this season, of all our recent seasons, this promise of God is vital. We have been meeting and worshipping on screen or, perhaps, at double-arms’ length and wonder if we will ever shake a new friend’s hand again. Our singing is constrained (unless we’re barracking), and we are wary of holding those who have lived (and we have loved) longest for fear of infection. We have seen the suffering across our world, acknowledging the danger of being close.

In these difficult days, we proclaim Emmanuel.

It is not simply COVID 19. The viruses take many forms and are equally infectious: social distance caused by mistrust; endemic violence blamed on race and gender and sexual orientation; callous disregard for the world which God created in love and joy.

Because of these, and in their midst, we assert Emmanuel.

In our churches, disciples can lose hope, as we struggle to discover the rhythm of this new journey. If worship is not how we have known it, then what might it be? If we cannot break and share the bread in the manner known and loved, then how? Can we stand shoulder to shoulder in prayer for our world, and if not, who are we?

Precisely here, we preach Emmanuel.

Easter is history’s darkest moment, before the startling light of resurrection. The resurrection will always bear the signature of the cross. We need it to be so.

God not only knows the struggles through which we live, but has also suffered. More than that, we assert with hope and profound thanks that God is with us in each moment. Easter is not a theological maths problem, solved by God’s clever calculation.

Easter is God’s engagement, beyond expectation, even beyond hope, entirely in prodigious love.

The brokenness of Friday is Emmanuel at its most necessary, most wonderful and most awful. The Word is framed in wood.

Friday is God in solidarity with us, in injustice, or suffering, even when caused by our own hand. Solidarity even with those whose hands hold the nails.

Saturday’s silence is the waiting that people experience all the time; waiting for COVID – or other – test results; waiting for justice, or for hope; waiting for the struggle, or grief, to end.

Sunday is always more than we expect: death defeated, life proclaimed. Forgiveness for all who seek it. Mercy to quench all those who thirst. Christ’s resurrection transforms history and creation, and each of us.

Hold this promise carefully, offer this hope gently, because many live in Friday’s grasp, or Saturday’s hiatus.

Jesus’ first words in Mark’s Gospel “the reign of God has come near” are most completely true at Easter. On Friday’s cross, in the silence of Saturday and when the triumph of Easter is revealed, God, in Christ Jesus, has come close.

Here, wonderfully, from Jesus’ birth, and life, and death, and life, we sing Emmanuel.

A Prayer from Mark 1.29-34

We pray, God of life,
aware of our world around us:
struggles, grief, vast injustice;
hope, hospitality and small signs of your presence.

Your hand and love have shaped everything, and everyone,
teach us your patience and your mercy,
both with ourselves and with those around us;
help our anger at wrongdoing to be shaped into acts of justice
and words of challenge;
reform our grief that we might live more fully into your promise.

Lord Jesus,
You brought healing to those who could not imagine renewal,
and opportunity to those who had been denied.

We think of countless women disciples who have shaped opportunity into service;
who have borne witness over millennia,
with acts of justice, mercy, courage and hope;
who have used hospitality to echo your welcome
and have entertained angels unawares. 

Holy Spirit,
Breath and wind and wonder,
remind us of your call to serve and to proclaim,
to offer life to those who are demonised
and hope to those possessed by hopelessness.  

As our community begins to fragment,
make us ambassadors of reconciliation;
as we fear to be too close to each other,
remind us that you gather us with the kiss of wind and flame;
as we are confronted by struggles beyond our strength,
give us the capacity and courage to serve where we are,
and those people within our reach.

Raise up leaders to speak of you and your promise,
challenge our current leaders now to act justly
and not from self-interest;
lift up those who are poor,
whose names are unknown,
who are discarded by systems, or politicians,
or us.

Bless our congregation here,
bless our Uniting Church,
bless your Church in every appearance and every place,
that we may serve you well,
and the world for which Christ died.

A New Economy

At the conclusion of an insightful and thought-provoking review, Jon Piccini writes:
“If contemporary debates in Britain on the place of the empire in national memory are anything to go by, the accumulation of evidence for colonialism’s dark past – from mass violence in Kenya to concocted constitutional crises in Australia – only cements entrenched views, driving partisans and apologists to new heights of fantasy and self-soothing. Critics, then, cannot rely on history itself to change well-established patterns of thought, prejudice, and privilege. Only the hard slog of politics can do that.”[1]

Piccini’s review is of two new books about the correspondence between Sir John Kerr and Martin Charteris, the private secretary of Queen Elizabeth II, at the time of the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor Government in 1975.

This piece is not about these books, apart from in passing. Piccini notes that the two works he is reviewing approach the event from starkly contrasting perspectives and argues, convincingly, that almost everyone who reads the books will do so in order to have their points of view reinforced, rather than challenged, or subverted.

My questions arise from this ultimate paragraph and, in particular, the final two sentences.

Do these sentences have any bearing as we consider the great issues of our time: the effects of human activity upon our climate, both in punishment and remediation; the place of privacy and the individual in a world connected, through technology, beyond the control of most citizens; the nature of identity when gender and sexuality are suddenly not what we have been historically and erroneously told they are; our changing world – individual, communal and political – in the face of pandemics?

We know that, amongst other things, when we read literature, history and theology, where we stand determines what we see and what we do not see.[2] The illusion of objectivity has proved to be precisely that; we know that the dominant cultural group in any community usually has pre-eminence over the telling of history and the interpretation of events which occur. We are also aware that when less dominant groups seek to identify – and proclaim – their own stories, the dominant grouping often feels significant discomfort.

As an ordained Minister in the Protestant Christian tradition, and as an educated, middle-aged, Anglo-Celtic male, I am conscious that I am a member of what has traditionally been a dominant group in the life of the Church and, indeed, the community in the Global North.

My initial reading of any text (or, indeed, any event) will, almost reflexively, be courtesy of the lens through which I have been trained to look. How will I pay proper attention to those who were not educated in the way I have been? How will I attend, respectfully, to women, people of colour, people of other language, culture, sexuality and identity than my own?

How will my opinions be subverted, change and grow?

When we were taught at school that something is “historical”, it usually implied that there was consensus about an event, its causes and consequences. The intellectual and historical paucity of this argument is revealed in debates as diverse as the causes of the First World War, the arrival of Europeans in Australia, the Shoah, and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Many of my culture and background, as inheritors of the Enlightenment, believe that reason will, finally, win out. Is this still true? There is clear evidence that, for a significant part of our community, anecdote and personal experience are at least as valid as historical events.

Moreover, if, just for a moment, we substitute “science” for “history” in the review’s penultimate sentence, we wade into even deeper difficulty. Those who argue for the objective nature of peer-reviewed results and evidence, for statistical precision, have experienced a difficult decade or two, as the decline of trust in institutions has leeched into the faculties of the sciences. Many leading scientists have said they were poorly equipped to respond to such a transformation.

Even worse, the debates have become polarised, with polemic in many forms taking the place of reasoned, passionate debate. This is not about education, although that does play a role. This is about demonising those who think differently, believing that a difference of opinion is worthy of – even demands – condemnation. Watching the political and social chaos in the United Kingdom and the United States in the response to the COVID 19 pandemic is evidence enough that even a crisis common to humanity does not guarantee an appropriate response.

Piccini argues that intent, political intent, is necessary. We must decide to engage, then to create and to drive change.   

Critics, then, cannot rely on history itself to change well-established patterns of thought, prejudice, and privilege. Only the hard slog of politics can do that.

So, what does this mean for the witness of those who follow Christ? We know, despite our pious protestations, that the Church is always influenced – for good and, for ill – by the community in which it worships, witnesses and serves.

Much of traditional apologetics in the Church argues from the historical event of Jesus’ existence, and thus his birth, death and the wonderful improbability of his resurrection.

If Piccini is correct, an argument on its own is insufficient. To present from the scriptural text, and to argue from history will not be enough.

What, then, are the politics of God’s economy?

We must tell the stories of what faith means – to me, to us. We need to engage in the consequences of our discipleship and talk about them; not the great worship team of which we are a part, but the simple faith-in-action which has changed lives, or discovered hopes, or salved wounds.

We need to be able to seek forgiveness from people when they have been told that because of who they are, they have no welcome in the hope of God for the world. People throughout history have been condemned because of wounds they carry, or the lives they lead, or because of their gender, culture, race, sexuality or position in the world to which they have been assigned, to believe that they have no place in the promise of God.

We also need to be able to offer forgiveness, and to mean it. Some will come, so broken by their circumstance, or their choice, that they believe themselves beyond the reach of mercy, even God’s mercy. We must embody the hospitality of God.

How willing am I to be transformed by each encounter and not to believe myself the sole dispenser of mercy and hope?

The witness we bear is not solely historical, it is for the present and for the future. We must take account of the world in which we live. Our faith is never anonymous; it bears our likeness, but first it bears the image of Jesus.

We must be able to welcome people into a community, even a small one, in which the integrity of this faith is borne out.

Let us not forget the Spirit of the risen, crucified One. The winsome, whimsical presence of the Holy Spirit is present in the world, before us, opening ears and hearts (inescapably my own) to the wonder of Jesus Christ.

Am I willing to live like this?

Am I willing to be a citizen, active in the politics of the economy of the living God?

[1] Jon Piccini; ‘An Endless Struggle with the Past’ Australian Book Review #428, pp.9-10

[2] Steve de Shazer; “Where you stand determines what you see and what you do not see; it determines also the angle you see it from; a change in where you stand changes everything.”

Loving God. & Neighbour.

It’s a long way from Dubbo to Sydney, especially when you’re in need of medical help.

I have worked for almost thirty years in rural and regional communities across New South Wales, and the resources we expect at our fingertips in Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong are beyond the reach of many people in other places.

If the medical help you need is linked to drug dependency, then rural people are consistently told that the nearest support is more than four hundred kilometres and a long waiting list away. I have heard countless stories from parents and families, about their despair at our current approach to drugs and the lack of services for the people they love, who are asking for help – now.

It is why the Uniting Church (NSW and ACT) is such a strong advocate for changing our drug laws. It’s why so many groups across our community are echoing our call.

Drug dependence is often misunderstood as a predominately urban issue. The reality is regional and rural areas of our country suffer a double blow on this issue.

Families, wherever they are, suffer the same loss and devastation if their loved ones develop drug dependence. However, country areas frequently lack the necessary services for drug treatment that are predominately situated in our cities.

This was the case with Dubbo and the story of Shantell – a Dubbo resident who wanted to receive treatment for her drug use, but the closest, suitable treatment was four hundred kilometres away in Sydney.

It’s not just the distance. Relocating for treatment can be really difficult, especially if you have children. There is also the chronic lack of places to access treatment – the wait can be over eighteen months.

It is a long way away from Dubbo to Sydney. In 2018 I walked part of the way, alongside many others, joining our Long Walk to Treatment as we sought to draw attention to the issue of fairer treatment for those people in regional areas who live with drug dependency.

Last month, the NSW Government announced it would allocate $7.5m to set up a new treatment centre in Dubbo. It was a very welcome move. But we need to do more.

I welcome news that the NSW Government is considering changing the law regarding small quantities of drugs and instead introduce a three-strike warning system.

These sensible measures are the sign of a Government that is listening to the medical and legal experts and making laws based on the evidence.

Too many people who use drugs are made to live in the shadows, looked down upon with shame and stigma and therefore don’t seek help because of our current drug laws.

We all want a society in which all people are valued, and their dignity as human beings recognised.

Parents want to know that their kids will come home safe from a night out. They also want to know that if their children develop drug dependency, our community will help keep them safe until they can get treatment. This move by the NSW government is to be applauded.

This long-awaited change is, currently, a flicker of hope. It has yet to be passed by Cabinet. No doubt there will be those critics in our community who will argue against doing anything which is not punitive.

But if you listen to the experts, as I have during my years in ministry and as Moderator, you will hear former police commissioners like Mick Palmer, you will hear doctors and other health experts, policy wonks, lawyers and community workers all speak about the importance of treating drug dependency as a health and social issue.

It may surprise many people to find a church on the frontline of such a campaign. It should be expected – Jesus’s essential command is “Love God and Love Your Neighbour”. We are here in this debate, because our faith places us here; caring for people and their families especially when we know the harm drug dependency is causing in our community.

The impact of drug dependency is being exacerbated by our approach to policing drug laws and punishing those who use even small amounts of drugs. It means those who might otherwise seek help for drug dependency, hide in the shadows of society, shamed.

When we treat drug use as a health and social issue – and this government proposal is an initial step in that direction – police will have greater resources to be tough on large-scale drug trafficking and violent crime.

In this we have the support of over sixty organisations as part of the Fair Treatment Coalition that we established and now counts amongst its members organisations representing legal, medical, health, community and church groups.

And of course, the Uniting Church, through its service arm Uniting, runs the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre at King Cross which has also taught us much about how to respond with compassion to those people who use drugs.

This proposal by the NSW Government is a step in the right direction. It should be encouraged and applauded; I hope people in NSW will give it their support and let their local MP know they are behind such a change.

Put simply, it will bring people nearer to help and hope. It will save lives.

This piece appeared in Guardian Australia on 7th December 2020

God Says Yes.

As our year is bundled into the splendour of Christmas celebration, take some time to consider the artistry of God’s imagination.

As we discover ourselves slowly emerging from the rigours of the last few years – not only the strictures of the coronavirus, but the fear of the bushfires and the exhaustion of the drought for so many – look at the wonder not only of God’s promise, but the way in which God proclaims it.

All too easily our diaries keep moving us forward, allowing us barely a moment to ponder what God has done in Jesus’ birth. In Jesus, God has transformed everything, and everyone.

It begins, as always, with God.

In the beginning, God.

This God, who has always intended life, knowing our brokenness and our beauty, declares life and hope in the birth of Jesus.

God breaks into the world on the margins, where none expects anything. Under the dead, dreadful hand of empire, God speaks life through a couple of little consequence, to nameless stock workers and a handful of foreign mages.

Imagine this God who, from the stuff of the stars and the dust of the earth, has shaped us. Imagine this God who called us from the very beginning, by our name, and with love.

Is this not wonderfully amplified in the birth of Jesus?

This is not some comfortable story of a benevolent nonna, ignoring our misdeeds and airbrushing our failures. This is a God who, because of our need, and because of God’s own intent, has acted in Jesus to save those crushed under the boot of empire, and also those who wear the boots.

This is where I invite you to contemplate how God has acted. Imagine a God who has chosen to look exactly like us, in the same circumstance as each of us, born. Is there any greater affirmation of our humanity than God embracing it?

Immediately the trials and celebrations of our life are not distant to our God; the embrace of friends and family, the grief of loss, the injustices many experience, are known by the one whose breath is inherent to each of us. In Jesus, the fullness of our lives is embraced by the fullness of God.

And of all years, this Christmas, when isolation has been the story for young and old, for families and communities and nations. Our faith declares that God has drawn near to us in Jesus Christ, in a year when proximity has been prohibited. In a season when shaking hands and passing peace have been forbidden, at Christmas God embraces each of us.

In the simplicity of a baby’s birth, we hear the imagination of God’s yes. This story is welcomed with astonishment by the least, yet missed by monarchs, perhaps because the powerful always assume God has guaranteed their place and the powerless are surprised that God will scarcely bother with them at all.

Can we imagine Christmas worship with the hope of God’s promise in Jesus, despite our changed circumstances? We must insist upon the promise of God most especially this year, and every year.

How shall we celebrate this Christmas, when we need to mute our singing and gather at arms’ length? We cannot let fear of infection dilute the wonder of what God has done, we cannot let the lack of our singing restrain our celebrations. When we have been told that the only way to be safe is by being distant from each other, we proclaim that by coming close to all of us, God has indeed brought life.

In Jesus, God says yes to forgiveness, to justice, to healing. In Jesus’ birth, God embraces those on the edges, those unnamed, those our community brushes aside. When we believe that we are beyond the reach of God’s mercy, outside the hope of God’s love, Christmas asserts that none of us is beyond God finding each of us, welcoming us, and bringing us home.

Christmas assures us that God is never distant. In Jesus, God says yes.

Living to Remember

25th Annual Remembrance Ceremony:
for those who lose their lives to illicit drugs
Weston Park, Yarralumla; Monday, 26th October 2020

I am struck by the concept of remembering, which is the central reason we are here.

Someone we love has died because of drug dependence, and we are here to remember them, to say their name again.

In my job, there are celebrations, like yesterday when a ninety-seven year old colleague was acknowledged for his history of service in the church and for his country. I attend Anzac Day ceremonies, where remembering is both about honouring those who serve, and about our grief.

I lead funerals, where grief and loss are integral as people try to make sense of what is happening in their lives.

Remembering can sound passive, as if that is all we can do. As if it is nothing.

But remembering is vital. We have read their names, but we are already offering more.

We recall the lives we have shared with someone who has died, we talk about their face, and their voice and when we held their hands. We remember the parties, and the wonderful things we did, and the stupid things we did. When we tell the stories, we laugh and weep together, and our hearts and lives become slightly stronger.

Remembering and grief sit together, as we are now.

But remembering is more.

There’s a hymn, written in the last twenty-five years, about the horrific cost of war, and those left behind. The last line invites us to “remember forward to a world restored”; remembering is an act of courage and hope and change.

We remember today all those we have named, those we love. And in our remembering we assert the value of those we have loved and those we know around us who are struggling with drug use and a system which is not serving them – or us – well on this.

Our presence here today, our remembering, asserts the inherent value of those who have died. We refuse to see them as collateral in some politically, or culturally-styled “war on drugs”, but as members of our families, our friends, as people wrestling with addiction and often other compelling issues in their lives.

There is also anger, as we recall what might have happened if things had been different, if we had had better resources for treatment, a more hopeful focus on those things which sought to bring people back to life, to community and family. 

We are here, once again, to name this as a health and social issue, and not a criminal one. We are here to declare, once again, that the huge amount of money and other resources poured into criminalising and punishing drug users could be better invested in treatment and health care. We know, from medical experts, from legal and judicial experts, and from experienced police, that justice, hope and economic common sense make this a compelling argument.

This is the reason the Uniting Church, our justice arm, Uniting, and so many other legal, medical and community groups support Fair Treatment.       

Our remembering affirms the courage and work of so many family and friends, people like Marion McConnell and Bill Bush, and all those who advocate for change, to drive law reform on drug use, so that we address the deeper causes, not just the symptoms, and look at treatment and restoration as opposed to punishment.  

As we know, there are debates happening right now on drug use, and drug decriminalisation, and even legalisation of some drugs. This is an important and difficult and necessary conversation, and we are engaged, as we need to be. The conversation will move when the facts are established, but will move more powerfully when our experiences are.

The stories we carry are valuable and need to be heard, if we are able to tell them. It is by the telling of our stories that statistics become people, that news items become human beings, that arms’ length becomes hand in hand. 

This week in the life of the church ends with All Saints Day, which is where Hallowe’en found its beginning. Saints are those not those astringent, “nice” people, who never cause trouble. They are people who are passionate, prophetic and engaged, with dirt under their fingernails, who are often found badgering those in power for change, or hope, or justice.

My ministry is established in the hope of a God who always remembers us; whose first and last act is to love and bring life; who, in the worst moments of our lives, is with us.

As we remember those we love who have died, we remember those
who have helped us find our way,
who have helped speak the name of those we have lost, 
who have helped us learn to sing and stamp our feet,
who have continued to cry out for justice,
who have helped us to remember.

Being Served … & Serving

The Uniting Church will seek ways in which the baptized may have confirmed to them the promises of God, and be led to deeper commitment to the faith and service into which they have been baptized. [Basis of Union, par. 12]

It seems the pandemic has bookended and pervaded every conversation since March. I noted with some friends that other, important things have slipped past, unremarked. If nothing else, being sequestered at home for lengths of time has given me the chance to reflect.

In the last couple of months, three older friends of mine have died. Three men, two and three decades my senior, all of whom were members of Dubbo Congregation, my first placement. I have seen all three of them less in these last years than I would have wished, but time and distance – and everything else – intervened.

Dick was a retired Minister (we had been warned at College about retired Minsters…) who, from our first meeting, was a support to me. In ways both implicit and explicit, Dick taught me about ministry, about paying attention and waiting and listening, about struggles and speaking up and leading when the time was right.

Dick had retired early due to an illness which hindered his ability to preach and lead worship, significant in his ministry. Something he had learnt out of his wisdom and pain, was how to receive the elements of the eucharist, once again, after four decades of presiding over the bread and wine, then offering them as sacrament. Dick offered his wisdom to me instead.

My original prayer partner was Denis and we met weekly in my study for years. I learnt to wait, to listen, to pray. Denis taught me to pay attention to the living God and the lives of people around me, so that prayer – and all aspects of my ministry – might be better informed.

My struggle with stillness surprises no-one who knows me and yet it was Denis’ leadership which kept me seated and still for an hour each week. Denis’ patience with me exemplified what I have always needed to understand, and enact, so that I am able to pray more fully into the presence of God for the concerns and wonders of the world around me.

My third friend, Brian, informed my faith and life in a different way. Brian took me out west, to the desert country, teaching all my family about “the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended, and at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars”.

My first strong memory is Brian taking me to a riverbed outside Dubbo in his 80 series Land Cruiser, bogging it deliberately, putting me in the driving seat and saying, “Get us out of here. Don’t worry, you can’t break it”.

We bought an old Cruiser (80 series, naturally) soon afterwards, and for several holidays journeyed with Brian and his family up and down western Queensland and New South Wales, off road and on, talking about faith in Christ, what tyres run best, raising a family, why it’s dangerous to camp in riverbeds, forgiveness, and the majesty of camp oven cuisine.

Three godly men, who gave out of their faithfulness and in full awareness of their own frailty. Three disciples of Jesus, who discipled me – and many others – in their turn.

In this season of our Church’s life, we can grieve the loss of worship and community as we have known it for so long. We can look for ways to sing our faith when we cannot sing as we always have. Preaching has moved online, so that we can hear a sermon as easily from overseas, or from other times, as we can from our local preachers.

Discipleship remains, vital and indispensable. We pay attention to the lives of others, offering fractions of our experience and stories of our life in Christ, to guide them as we have, in our turn, been led. Graciousness and frailty, strength and good humour. Faith earthed in Jesus Christ and elevated by the Spirit of that same Christ.

It takes time and decision. It takes others; for me there have been many women and men who have challenged, blessed and chastised. It requires the hope we have in Christ.

We have chosen to follow Jesus, we are called to invite others to share our road.

Dick. Denis. Brian. May they rest in peace. May they rise again in glory.