Catching God’s Breath

You know it when you hear it.

It’s something often indefinable – the quality of a speech, or sermon, that catches the heart, the imagination, the hopes of you.

I’ve seen clips and heard recordings of Rev. Dr Martin Luther King and been overwhelmed by his passion and imagery, but also by the integrity of his topic: the lives of people all around him.

When I heard the Pakistani teenager, Malala Yousafzai, speak about forgiving the man who shot her, I didn’t notice her accent or her age, I was captured by her hope and the truth of her.

There are those, who by the sheer gifts of their oratory, catch you and move you to a new place, whether, or not, you are willing; Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” at the Berlin Wall; Noel Pearson’s eulogy at Gough Whitlam’s funeral; the closing words of Hillary Clinton’s concession in November, as she challenged young girls not give up hope.

There are others, not orators, whose passion pressgangs you into their story. As I write this, I am thinking especially of Anthony Foster, who died in the last week, whose passionate, gracious, just anger enabled him to speak on behalf of so many victims of the church’s sexual abuse.

You know it when you hear it.

The stories of the scriptures are filled with people who didn’t believe they “had it”. Their age, or speech impediments, or (lack of) qualifications, or character flaws, or employment history disqualified them from proclaiming the purposes of the living God.

God will have none of it – then and now. Everyone is able for the purposes of God.

Pentecost is a time when fisher folk and zealots, reformed tax collectors and apprentice disciples, women and men, are enabled to proclaim, so that everyone can hear the intentions of God.

It’s not only oratory, or crafting language. It’s where the words lead us. Malala’s  forgiveness, Kennedy’s solidarity, Pearson’s “this old man”, Clinton’s resilience and Dr King’s vision are all crafted from hope that the story before them and placed in their hands is not the only tale to tell. There is more.

The cross cultural gathering at the first Pentecost discovered that the death and resurrection of Jesus was an act of re-creation; God’s Spirit was reshaping the whole world, its history and its future. The iron fist of Rome would no longer beat their lives into subservience and their future into dust.

You know it when you hear it.

We can endure struggles, even injustice, when we know the larger story. We can find courage to confront what is wrong in our families, community and world with the hope of being both loved and forgiven. We can speak, when others are silenced, because the living God has been whispering in our hearts since they first began to beat.

We can sing of our hope, because it is found in Jesus, crucified and risen, and not first in us.

Not for most of us the fancy speeches, the crafted sermons. For most us, the tale of forgiveness, the wonder-filled story of being loved, and the hope of a God who is with us, who awaits us, and whose love can never be extinguished.

Happy Birthday, Church!



Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used To Be

My friend and I were sharing coffee and enjoyable conversation, as we do, quite regularly. And, as so often happens, the topic turned to music. I am a babe in the woods compared to my friend, who not only knows an extraordinary range of music, but can play.

Our conversation was around music which lasts, and the bands – or the music –which glimmer for a moment, and then are gone, like Flock of Seagulls (note insightful eighties music reference).

In a sesgt-pepper_1ason of anniversaries, it’s fifty years since The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I was too young to appreciate it at the time, but have discovered it in the intervening years.

Most rock and pop aficionados agree that it’s an album that has lasted; you can play it for the first time this week and it has musical value and beauty now. Classical music lovers will, or course, direct our attention to Mozart, Bach and Sibelius for their particular emphasis. This week, however, is about Sgt. Peppers.

It’s also fifty years this week since the National Referendum was passed (90.77% in favour) to remove discrimination against Aboriginal people in the Constitution. The fact that this only happened in my lifetime is a cause of great sadness for me; I remember telling my children that this act of history was so recent, and they were astonished and dismayed.

Sometimes anniversaries can be about nostalgia, remembering that concert, that date, that moment. Other anniversaries are about the event and the journey which follows, with more to learn and achieve. Sgt. Peppers is good music fifty years later. I celebrate our wedding anniversary only slightly because of the day, but essentially because of how Fiona and I have grown together since that day.

The Referendum only makes real sense if it set in train other changes and achievements – justice and reconciliation – in our community for Aboriginal people. People march and act this week, partially to remember that act of hope, but mostly to keep that hope before our community.

Our Uniting Church 40th Anniversary is rolling around in less than a month. For most of us it’s probably not even highlighted (highlit?) in the diary.

I’ll say more about it when we draw nearer, but if the mark of our celebrations – large or less so – is about nostalgia, then I will be disappointed. We don’t want to sing the same hymns, or look the same as we did forty years ago. A stage filled with middle-aged and older white men has been replaced by women and men, old and young, of cultures in Australia ancient and new.

The symbol which we hold before ourselves, which identifies us as Jesus’ disciples, is the cross. The cross is not just a reminder, but our hope. We are bookended by the cross, a story and a promise which has never been more relevant than now.

The cross declares that an act from two thousand years ago changed – and continues to change – people’s lives, life and death, forgiveness, the trajectory of the whole creation.

In this season of anniversaries, we can celebrate a truncated story: what was then. Or we can choose to grasp our hope of what can be, and as Jesus’ disciples, our hope of what is continually found in Jesus Christ.

On The Train …

I had a rare, delightful experience this week, on a Sydney train. Usually people sit with their heads down, on their phones, or reading, not making eye contact.

I was in the “dog box” during peak hour and a young mum arrived with her pram, carefully shoehorning her way in. In a blustered moment, a wonderfully assertive lady had made a path for the pram, levered a young man out of his seat for the young mum and was standing, while rocking the pram gently, making conversation.

The dog box slowly lifted their various heads. We discovered that the young mum is French, her seat neighbours from variously Indian, Vietnamese and Anglo backgrounds.

The baby had been rocked to sleep.

Our MC was Anglo and a foster mother of eighteen different children over the years; on the other side of the carriage was a Chinese woman, watching cautiously at the beginning, a Pakistani lady, and a man who revealed that he was Persian, telling us he had been in the country less than twelve months. He chuckled at the liveliness of our conversation.

There was a man singing – sort of – further down the train. No one minded.

We talked about babies, travel (“people overseas like us Aussies”, said the Indian grandma, in her splendidly accented pronunciation) and, briefly, about our background.

Then the train stopped at the necessary station, and most of my new friends alighted.

Another mum with a pram arrived. Another baby, at whom I smiled, held her hand momentarily, and then it was my station.

I smiled again at the baby and towards her doting, Asian mum (who smiled back) and left.

A wonderful day in Australia.


On The Defence

Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. [I Peter 3.15-16]

The Easter hope is not only one which announces the wonder of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it is a hope which proclaims an entirely new creation. Death is no longer the last word; we have value measured in God’s act to save all of us.

This is the hope which empowered the community to which Peter writes; as slaves and persecuted people, justice was often far from them. Who will harm them, asks Peter rhetorically, if they do what is good? He knows the answer, as we do. Unjust masters. A crippled system of governance.

Only a hope which transcends their lives sustained their lives, as it does at this moment for persecuted people in China, the Middle East and South America, as it has for Jesus’ disciples throughout history.

How do we bear witness to this hope, in our own community, with gentleness and reverence? It’s easy to have scripted answers, or formulae. However, to give an account of why we hope, of what sustains us, is neither learnt by rote nor borrowed entirely from another.

We build relationships which create time to talk and listen, to care and to give a full account of why Jesus’ death and rising give us hope for this life and for the one which awaits us. We are gentle because we care for those with whom we speak; their worth is declared in the same breath as ours.

Our story is bound entirely – and wonderfully – in the action of God in Jesus; Jesus’ resurrection declares that injustice, vengeance, illness and death are not the final words, whatever our life is like now.

Our hope is life, and healing and justice, because of Jesus Christ.

And how shall we tell that story, but with the hope and joy with which it is given to us?




Church Housing

As always, in the wake, or backwash, of a federal government budget, media pundits ask the question, ‘Who are the winners and losers?’

The measure of this is almost entirely monetary, as the budget also purports to be. The recipients – our community – are carved up into segments, called “stakeholders” or “interest groups”, and we contrast our relative fortunes. It has long been the process to present stakeholders as competitors for the budget bounty – pensioners, or self-funded retirees; big, or smaller business; middle, lower, or higher income families – often preventing our community from speaking with a comprehensive voice.

I was asked recently how I felt about the “success” of another Christian faith tradition, and whether that was a cause for concern for the Uniting Church. I felt concerned to think that this person implied I believe that the Uniting Church – any church – is in a competitive market place.

There is always the temptation to structure our faith communities in the way our wider culture understands itself. We live and work in the world around us, where language like profit and loss, market share and key performance indicators abound. We know that computer algorithms infest our internet usage, and that advertisers troll every click of our mouse.heaven & jerk

The temptation, however, needs to be resisted. We are not in competition with other disciples. The desire to market the gospel will lead to a sickly, astringent imitation of the hope we have. It will lead to failure and despair. We are in community with other faith traditions, who are seeking to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and our discipleship is under his hand.

The desire to be parochial is a consistent temptation; I rejoice in being a member of the Uniting Church, but not exclusively. “I am the way, the truth and the life” are words that lie at the crux of following Jesus, and so many of us have designated ourselves as the crossing guards, or the highway patrol on this journey. What if we leave much of that to Jesus?

What if Jesus declared that to his disciples as an offer of graciousness, and not one of rigid control? What if the accommodation of God which awaits us has room enough for all? Imagine if the Father’s house to which Jesus refers is like C.S Lewis’ completed Narnia, which becomes larger the further you go!

It seems that the original recipients of Peter’s first letter to the early church might well have believed themselves to be in a church with boundaries, or internal fencing. Many of them seem to know what it means to be excluded, because of race, or background, or social status. Once again, the New Testament reminds us that we are one household, one community. The strength, or frailty, or sin of other disciples are our strengths and frailties – and sin.

The risen, crucified Jesus calls and confirms us; Jesus is our measure and in Jesus we find our identity. We are chosen because of Jesus, not because of us:

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.

Listening The Talk

Hermeneutic; (Anc. Gk) noun, def. “that explains, interprets, illustrates or elucidates

There’s a new beer advertisement on YouTube.

It’s not like the clunky one featuring two slightly awkward politicians, which was sponsored by another brewer in association with the Bible Society, and which went south at a rate of knots.

It’s one of those ads which is about a great deal more than the product; it’s clever, smooth and addresses one of the great challenges – even crises – in our community at the moment. Oh, and there’s beer. At the end.

First hint: move past your beer and/or your advertising prejudice and check it out at:

Next hint: watch the video until the end; don’t let the apparent topics become a roadblock.

When you’ve watched the video, have a think about the context in which you talk about your faith, or in which you might talk about your faith, if you felt able to do so. Ring any bells?

I wonder how easily we converse with those who think differently from us, or if we even have regular relationships with those people? Modern jargon talks about “tribes”, which is where people find social identity. The difficulty is when we can only relate to those who look, vote and think the same as we do (and cordially agree, as Wesley sardonically reminds us).

blank pamphlet

This is not about politics; it’s about everything. It’s about being human and living in the world. The Brexit vote, the Trump election, even the Australian electoral swings towards minor parties, are not so much about political sympathies, as with how people are feeling about the world – cultural change, social change, (lack of) hope for the future and loss of identity.

If the church is only speaking to the church, if Jesus’ disciples are only speaking – and occasionally arguing – with other disciples, how will we know how to listen to those who are not?

When I was learning to share my faith, there was no preparation in how to listen, only how to present, to talk. The training I had was only about “proclamation”, using the tool kit (simplistic tract) I was given, and nothing about attending to the person next to me. It was hit and run.

People are frightened, or negative, or agnostic, or joyous, for good reason. Do we care enough to ask? When we share tasks, or a meal, with someone, we commence from common ground. If I only see you as a potential disciple, or as an opponent, rather than as a human being loved and valued by God – and me – then I’m wasting my time and yours.

Watch the ad. Take some time to think. Chat with a friend after worship. Then chat with your barber, or the person on the other side of the counter – not about Jesus, but about them.

And where do you reckon the Spirit of God will be?