Into the midst of it.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. [Matthew 10.37-39]

The celebration of forty-three years is neither a noteworthy birthday, nor an anniversary of particular moment. The importance of our Uniting Church anniversary is not the number, but the reminder of why God called us to unite, and the purpose for which God has called us.  

As our community and our world try to navigate the new paths bulldozed by COVID 19, we are also caught up in the vital and ongoing crisis of racism. People are trying to distance themselves socially, while seeking to register their voice and presence about how we must give value to the majority of the world’s population – those who are not fair-skinned.

As Jesus’ disciples, we are in the midst of this. We must be.

It is not simply about missing each other in our congregations. It is far more than debates about whether or not we can sing when we gather. It is about the witness that we bear.

The Church’s call is to serve that end: to be a fellowship of reconciliation, a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself. [Basis of Union, Para. 3]

The one we follow, Jesus Christ, leads us into the midst of the community in which we live. So we are called to stand with all who experience the obscenity of racism, and stand before all those who would seek to decry its potent weight. When someone asserts that #BlackLivesMatter, we challenge those who would parse the language to avoid responsibility, and seek to raise the voices of those whose lives are accustomed to being silenced.

When Jesus Christ died and was raised for each and every person in history, the last became the first.

While we learn what our renovated social life looks like, avoiding handshakes and hugs with our serially-washed hands, we must address deeper concerns – caring for the frail and elderly in our community, learning again how to live and celebrate and grieve and worship – because fear and anger bear fruit faster than reason or science.

We will attend to those for whom home was unsafe; we will support those for whom isolation resulted in brokenness, or despair; we will live out justice and compassion for those who felt discarded, or lost when a virus changed everything.

We bear witness as a community which offers hospitality and mercy, which is precisely how we found life in Jesus Christ.

Our Church was formed during the Cold War, just after the war in Vietnam had ended. The world was changing rapidly, and the worldwide church was facing headwinds for which it was not prepared. The Australian political landscape was scarred from the dismissal of the Whitlam Government, and we were facing waves of refugees, born of our catastrophic misadventure in South East Asia.

The last, first. Voices for those silenced. Valuing those who appear different. Hospitality. Mercy.

A community in which Christ may work and bear witness to himself.

A risky, costly, wonderful calling.

Some of us might dream that we could return to what church and life were like before the virus. More of us might want to seek refuge within our church and close our eyes and hearts to those whose lives are beyond our doors. A few of us might even wish to travel back four decades and start again (or not start at all!)

We find our life neither in shelter, nor in nostalgia. We find our life in one place – Jesus Christ.

Our Uniting Church finds its life when it “preaches Christ the risen crucified One and confesses him as Lord to the glory of God the Father”. We have been called, never for our own, but for Christ’s sake.  

Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

May you discover the new life to which Christ calls you, each and every day.

Virtual Hospitality

I conducted a marriage interview on the weekend, for a delightful young couple I have known for some time. They came round to the house, as they have many times in the past. On the morning of their visit we realised that there had been almost no visitors to our home in nearly three months.

We started tidying, Fiona cooked a slice and, for a short moment, we felt slightly discombobulated. When they arrived, we nodded with affection and appreciation (handshakes, kisses and hugs sadly absent!) and welcomed them, once more, into our home.

We have tried to ensure that our home has always been an open one for friends and guests alike. Yet, due to this season of pandemic and response, almost no one has passed, physically, over the front step since the beginning of March.

We have, however, had loads of guests – pastoral and worshipful, meetingful and familial – in the last trimester. We have gathered the church from across the Synod and beyond, heard fine sermons and shared in Saltbush (and several other) Cafés. Our family has blown out virtual birthday candles, and good friends living in English isolation have shared their breakfast with us while we had dinner.

The challenge of physical isolation has been met and, occasionally, overcome by the blessing of meeting more people in a day than I might normally meet in a week. I have shared worship in Ballina in the morning, popped into Bathurst morning tea, slipped past Bowral’s Facebook Sunday worship and completed my day in Saltbush Café that afternoon.

Always welcome, and certainly blessed.

We have asked, again and again in the last few months, what does discipleship look like in this different time? What does mission look and sound like?

We can begin, as we have always needed to, with hospitality. Not words made tepid by repetition like tolerance and inclusion, but the deliberate act of making people welcome and safe.

Whenever we are able to worship together again with each other, physically, we need to remember what we have learned from this time. Those who could not and would not come to church, came to online worship. Those who did not feel safe in small groups could watch and share in a zoom café. Those who felt disconnected found a new way to connect.

How shall we show hospitality – in the new ways, in the old ways, in the ways in which our God has always made us welcome?

Originally written for Ruminations,
the rural journal for the Synod of NSW & ACT,
Uniting Church in Australia

A Pastoral Letter

Greetings in this Pentecost season.

We are finding our way into this new stage, of living differently as a church and community with the challenges of COVID 19. Many of us have learned afresh how to be the church in physical isolation, worshipping and gathering, serving and singing – wonderfully – in new ways.

Some of us have struggled, with loneliness or uncertainty; resources have been hard to access, or technology out of our reach.   

My mind has turned a lot recently to the extraordinary book of Exodus, when Moses has led the people of Israel out of Egypt and the gloss of triumphant escape has started to wear off. Suddenly, captivity under Pharaoh doesn’t look too bad, as they wander in the wilderness, waiting for a future.

Isolation has been a challenge for almost everyone. However, as we try to negotiate living and worshipping in slowly-restored numbers, with physical distancing, complying with guidelines and wondering about our safety in the new environment, isolation might begin to look pretty palatable.

You will have received new guidelines for worship and gatherings, for funerals and weddings and small groups. They may appear to be pretty onerous. This is about caring for people at risk, for people we know and love, and for the risks to our faith communities and the wider community around us.

How will we attend to God’s Spirit leading us through these times? This is new territory for us, and uncertainty can creep in. How are we the people of God, worshipping, witnessing and serving, in this new terrain?

May I suggest that perhaps we are where we are meant to be? What if God intends to use us precisely here?

We need to learn how to adapt and change so that we can welcome new people into discipleship and faith. We need to prioritise children and young people, and that requires us to think in new ways. We need to learn how to make sacrifices with our property and finances to resource new ministries and communities across our Synod.

What if the challenges of this coronavirus season are teaching us how to sing the Lord’s song in new ways?

Be assured of my continuing prayers for our Church. Be equally assured of my prayers for those who find this season too difficult. And be certain that I am praying for new opportunities, new ministries, new discernment as we navigate these times under the mercy and generosity of our God.

May the flame of the Spirit guide your every step,
may the breath of the Spirit inspire each and every word,
and may the wind of the Spirit urge you into action.