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.

Gospel Precedent

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

[Acts 2.42-47]

This is how we understand ourselves, at our best. The gospel proclaimed, the needs of our community addressed, meals shared, people coming to faith in Christ – worship, witness and service.

All of us, together.

However, here we are, in our homes, on our screens and phones, venturing tentatively into the world around us. Wary of any kind of physical contact, washing our hands at every turn.

There is great pleasure in sharing a meal with friends, and worshipping together, in silence and in song. I love incidental meetings, bumping into someone in the shops, or the street, and that almost never happens now. Now, every meeting is planned; we sit, scheduled and sequestered, behind the screen.

Some of us are inclined to see this time solely as imposition; the strictures of governments and Synod add to this feeling. We can’t do things the way we want to, the way we always have. It is easy to feel disgruntled, especially when a lot of what we knew seems uncertain in these times.

It’s easy to think that the patterns of our church life are the best (the only?) way to be the church. If we can’t gather to worship, are we church? If we can’t have bible studies, or visit friends, are we failing as disciples? Our heads know this isn’t true, but perhaps a bit deeper, inside ourselves, we wonder.

And there are certainly deeper concerns. People are at risk in their homes, which should be the safest place to be. Some face violence, some find being continually alone almost intolerable, some are physically ill or disabled, and need the care, the tangible presence of others.

How are we caring for those who are most in need of hope, and help? How are we offering the gospel, with our hands and voices? How are we making contact, sharing a meal, or inviting them into our new community?

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.

[Basis of Union, Para.4]

What an opportunity we are offered!

We offer the gospel, and worship and gather, and serve in different ways, not despite our circumstances, but because of them. We gather, and pray and worship across the internet – across the world – and people are sharing in that for the first time.

People who would never walk through a church door are signing in through YouTube and zoom. People from small congregations are gathering with new friends each week. People for whom the journey to worship, or small groups is too onerous – emotionally, or physically – are able to share with others about their faith, and even their fears.

We are becoming more aware of how to meet and serve our neighbours – not the theoretical ones, but the people who live next door.

The gospel inherent in Jesus Christ is not static. It doesn’t tolerate isolation. The Spirit of the risen Christ is not constrained; it finds its way, to acquit, give life and create anew.

What are the gifts from this time, that we will carry with us, into the next season of our faith? What have we learnt about hospitality, about silence and community which we will need to remember as we emerge from this sheltered time?

What is the Spirit saying – has this time better taught us to listen?

Standing At Our Gates

We sense it was love you gave your world for;
the town squares silent,  awaiting their cenotaphs.

– Carol Ann Duffy, “The Wound In Time”

Many of us will stand, silent, waiting, at our own gates.

Waiting for sunrise, or for the bugle sounding The Last Post, then bare heartbeats later, Reveille.

It will not be like last year, at dawn, or in the morning, as we remember them.

Less, perhaps, of almost everything.

There will be less mystery, than when we were sentinels with each other in the darkness, just before the dawn.

Less theatre, than the almost-cavalcade, as those who served, and their children, marching with their children’s children, accompanied our community along the main street of Eumungerie, and Griffith, and Sydney’s CBD.

For most of us, Reveille will not sound except, perhaps, in memory.

However, what matters will be present. The remembering, the acknowledgement, the loss, the thankfulness, will all be extant.

Those who served – and still serve – at risk to themselves for others’ sake will still be held in our memories and our prayers.

We will still grieve a death from yesterday, or know the inherited grief of more than a century past.

We are still responsible for those who have returned broken and unsure, believing themselves less than they were, or burdened by far more. And for those who care for them, and for whom they care, what shall we offer? Surely more than memory, or our thankfulness, or our tears?

As disciples of the risen, crucified Jesus, we stand at our gates to remember, but also to look forward. We assert that the violent injustice of war has rarely been an answer, and never a hopeful one.

We proclaim a faith in which our God, our selves, our neighbour and even our enemy are loved. So what does remembering look like, in hope, as we follow Jesus?

We embody that hope of forgiveness and life, present in Jesus, in every relationship we share.

We will stand in thankfulness for service rendered;
we kneel in grief for lives lost, or broken;
we oppose those who call war peace, and violence justice;
and we love our neighbour, and our enemy, at cost to ourselves.

We are an Easter people, believing in hope beyond death. It is this which forms us for our remembering – for the past and for our future.

Locating Hope

We know how this season works, whether we are people of faith, or not.

Notwithstanding the clumsy marketing of some supermarkets immediately after Christmas, hot cross buns and chocolate eggs usually appear in late February, so we know that Easter is near.

Despite the irony of buns and chocolate, the Christian church has traditionally marked the weeks before Easter with the challenges of discipline and occasionally abstinence, preparing for the event which is the coherent crux of belief in Jesus Christ.

Many of us – people of faith, some faith and none – have danced this dance before, with worship attendance significantly larger than usual over the Easter weekend. For those of us who honour faithfulness and sacrifice, Anzac Day follows on, sometimes within days.

Easter is about community, acknowledging with thankfulness a priceless sacrifice, the solidarity of Jesus with the brokenness of every human being, and the affirmation that love is stronger than death.

But this year, the dance is entirely different, and many may feel that we will dance alone.

We know, despite their depredations, how to manage natural disasters when they come. The chaos of the fire season, ravaging the drought-scorched landscape, drew us even closer as community. We carried people in our arms and our prayers, gathered on beaches, in surf clubs, and lounge rooms – together. Our fear was lessened because our shoulders bumped old and new friends as we faced the crisis.

This season we wait, in our individual spaces, zooming and texting and tweeting, quarantined from a virus and each other, wondering how to share communion, or play two-up, with no one standing, or laughing, or weeping, or singing, next to us.

This year, sanctuaries across the planet which are usually replete with music and colour and celebration will sit silent over the Easter weekend. In this season of disorder, our community will try to find its steps.

Churches and families have already begun to adapt, with a plethora of choice in worship and theology sweeping across the net, matched only by the marketing of businesses as chaos confronts the world they know. As in everything, some are acts of creativity and faithfulness; some, of course, are not.

However, a zoomed event is not the same as shaking the hand of a friend, or leaning on their shoulder. Sharing a meal, blessing a marriage, weeping at a graveside, blowing out birthday candles are inherent to the weave of all our lives.

People in our community are wary of their quarantine, as mental health concerns become more tangible. For some, home is not the sanctuary everyone deserves; violence and abuse can be appalling visitors when uncertainty and fear meet loneliness and isolation.

How will we care? How will our compassion be realised for those around us? Incidental conversations need now to be more deliberate, as we attend to those who might not call our attention to their need – small, or not so small.

Easter is more than what happened in Jerusalem two millennia ago. It is more than a story of empire and sacrifice, betrayal and suffering. It declares far more than a promise of life wrested from the silent injustice of death.

Easter is hope. This is not the trivialised “hope” for a parking space, or that it rains tomorrow. This is the hope which looks at what Jesus proclaimed in his life, in his death, and when he was raised again to life.

How Jesus invites (calls!) us to live – loving our neighbour, our enemies, even ourselves – is made tangible in his suffering and death at the hands of his neighbours and those who feared and hated him.

Jesus is the one who understands the fear of suffering, the grief of isolation, the pain of unjust violence. Jesus is the one who seeks forgiveness for those who harm him.  

Hope resides here.

Those who follow Jesus Christ place their hope in all our suffering being met on the cross with Jesus; when Jesus was raised to life, death was no longer the most powerful word.

Love is.

So, this Easter, we will care for each other, sing our songs, eat our chocolate eggs and call the spinner in by zoom.

We will declare our hope that this story of separation is not our complete story, and will end. We will assert our need for community and justice and life.

We will dance, now and in the days to come.

Faith in a Time of Covid19

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

A friend and colleague reminded me today of this wonderful Easter verse,

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” [John 20.19]

As we talk in our families, congregations and communities about isolation and quarantine, as we consider the fear and uncertainty which infiltrates so much of our world, the risen Christ steps in amongst us.

Leaders of all our presbyteries and our Synod met this morning, to consider how we can best serve our Church and our God, at this perplexing time. Pragmatic issues of safety and finance were undergirded and challenged by the need to care for people across our Church and community, and to continue our worship, witness and service to the living God.

In this season leading to Easter, I remind you that we are disciples of the risen, crucified Lord, who speaks to our lives now. The Basis of Union states “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.”

We face challenging, difficult times. Our community is uncertain, afraid. We will need to learn how to worship and gather in new ways in the weeks and months ahead. We will discover new ways of being in community, like Zoom and Skype; we may rediscover ways of contact that we may have laid aside, like phone calls and snail mail.

Jesus is with us, allaying our fear and leading us in hope.

Jesus’ presence brings peace when everything is in turmoil, and we are unsure of what is next. Jesus’ death and resurrection assert the promise of God is greater than our circumstances, and offers hope for today and tomorrow.

In the days ahead the greetings of peace we will share affirm our faith in our God, and is the witness we bear in the world around us.

I am praying for you, our congregations and our presbyteries as we navigate these days under the song of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Grace and peace for these days.

The Fear of Being Forgotten

Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.

In late January, when the South Coast bushfires were still threatening communities and lives, Rev. Stephen Robinson and I visited people and congregations from Bateman’s Bay through to Eden. Apart from the trauma, and the ongoing fear of what might happen, there was the shared concern that at some point, quite soon, the media would place their interest somewhere else, and the South Coast disaster be relegated to “other news”.

That was already the case for the north coast, as the horrific fires in the Richmond Valley, and those surrounding Port Macquarie and Taree were superseded by the south coast’s crisis. Those still crippled by drought west of the mountains could only watch as their ongoing disaster rated barely a mention. Remember us …

Where the media turns its lens, the eye of the nation follows, and those responsible for our government. For a few, with the recent – wonderful – rainfall, the drought and the fires are almost a memory. The courage and the fear and the loss and the need to act for the future will become yesterday’s story. We will be crowded out by contagion, or impeachment, or the bumbling machinations of politics, or recent royal antics. Remember us…

One of the tasks of those who follow Jesus is to remember those whom we are encouraged to forget, and those we are discouraged to remember. The prophets called the community and its leaders to justice in the temple and the marketplace; justice for those too easily ignored or forgotten.

The ministry of Jesus was constantly welcoming and restoring those who were misremembered by culture, or illness, or class, or age. People who had to find their way to Jesus – through crowds, through roofs, through hypocrisy or prejudice, or politics, or religion – had been relegated to those not worth worrying about.

Being found by Jesus, they found life.

The central place of Easter is the core of our faith in Jesus Christ. The cross was for those cast aside, abstracted to the rubbish tip. The confrontation of Jesus’ death is not only that he died, but the manner of his death: outcast with criminals, those deemed by empire as best forgotten.

In the same breath, it is here that we realise none of us is forgotten by God. If Jesus is placed with the outcast, with those society seeks to punish and ignore, then is anywhere beyond the embrace of God?

Crucified between two criminals, whose names are forgotten to all but the living God, Jesus is with us. When we believe ourselves to be of no value, the cross proclaims otherwise, because Jesus Christ is most truly God precisely where all seems lost.

A young mother, Hannah, and her three children, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey, were murdered in the days before I wrote this. My faith in the crucified Christ asserts that God not only weeps at their deaths, but was with them at that worst of all moments.

My faith in the risen Christ asserts that the mercy of God holds them now. They are never forgotten to God – none of us is.

As friends, family, and those entirely unknown to us are isolating themselves from this pandemic and each other, every one’s life is treasured by the one who holds us all.

Easter proclaims a mystery in which we place our hope and our lives – that the God of all creation and all of history remembers us, and is with us, most especially in those moments which are darkest of all.

The risen Christ declares that the one who was deemed forgotten, murdered on a Calvary cross, was remembered by the love of God and raised to life.

So, in our hope we will call attention to those who suffer, we will sing for justice in the marketplace, we will act for those deemed unworthy. We will remind our leaders and our communities of those whose names and circumstances are too easily forgotten, and we will bear witness to the God who is with us, who loves us, and remembers us – for ever.  

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” [Luke 23-42-43]

Remembering Forward

There has been wonderful rain sweeping across our paddocks this afternoon, with an expectation – and a confident forecast – of a goodly amount to come over the next few days. If the expectation is realised, there will be a collective sigh of relief as rain tanks fill, and paddocks begin (it’s only a beginning) to recover.

Then, while stock prices rise as quickly as our spirits, people will begin to forget. Politicians and media prognosticators will turn their attention to newer news, and the travails of the last five months – bushfires which have ravaged our country from the Richmond Valley to Eden and the Blue Mountains, through East Gippsland, Kangaroo Island, the Adelaide Hills and the Stirling Ranges – will be moved down the page.

If the fires are extinguished today, and they will not be, there are lives and properties to restore, there are all manners of recovery to consider. There is grief. People are grappling with chaos, which will not cease when the fires do. And the drought has not relinquished its taloned grasp.

Our discipleship has the responsibility of remembering.

When we break bread and lift the cup, we remember. When disciples doubt their faith, or their hope, or Jesus, they are told to remember what they heard, what they saw, what brought them to faith in that first moment of mercy and obedience.

The Old Testament prophets reminded the community leaders of people they too easily forgot. They advocated for the poor, and the lost, and those deemed unworthy of a name, a place, or a future. They also reminded God’s people who we are called to be; to remember the widowed and the orphan, to remember the stranger.

People regularly ask me what the Church’s role is around the bushfires, and the drought. I speak of chaplains in evacuation centres, of church members in fire crews, of congregations offering food and shelter and a shoulder when it’s needed. But when the flames have lessened, when our vision isn’t shrouded by smoke, we have more to offer.

As our communities begin to begin in their recovery, we have to help remember.

So we remind each other – and the world around us – about those who aren’t able to return to their homes, or towns, or jobs, and ask what justice, or hope we might offer. We will advocate to leaders, and Centrelink, and even insurance companies, for those whose voices are hoarse from asking, or weeping.

We remember why we are disciples, and articulate our hope in Christ, through our worship and our witness and our service. We share hospitality, remembering community. Do you remember why you moved here, why you love this community?

More than that, we remember forward, to what God will do. The One who died and was raised to life will bring life to this place, healing to these lives. Our hope rests in what God has achieved through Jesus Christ; which is where we always begin.

We remember forward to a world restored.

A Pastoral Letter from the Moderator in the Midst of the Bushfires

Dear Friends across our Synod,

We are watching, compelled by the apocalyptic images of these fires which fill our screens, fires we had once believed were impossible. After the horrors of the last few weeks, we had hoped that Christmas brought a change, but the reality is otherwise.

The fires we had seen in the north and west of our state and in South Australia, are now rampaging south into the Illawarra and Shoalhaven, and throughout the Mallee in Victoria.

I have been talking with Rev. Dr Stephen Robinson, who coordinates Disaster Response for the whole Uniting Church. We have Chaplains at each Evacuation Centre, the numbers of which are growing, as people flee their holidays and their homes to comparative safety.

At this moment, I am calling all of us, particularly those who are safe, to pray for everyone in the path of these fires, and whose lives and property are at risk of harm:

  • people from all walks of life, who fear for themselves, their homes, and those they love
  • communities facing harm, unsure of how to act, but trusting in each other despite their fear
  • those who fight the fires, with expertise, or desperation, or both  
  • animals of all description, caught in the paths of this blaze, uncomprehending in their fear and flight
  • the creation, bearing the costs of drought and a changing climate
  • those who staff evacuation centres, and who are offering food and shelter, clothing and reassurance, games for children and conversation for those who need it – a presence of gentleness despite the trauma
  • communities of faith, bearing witness in word and action to a God who loves and saves, and knows each person by name

I know that many people and congregations are already praying. Many have acted to support those for whom we pray in a range of ways. Please keep praying – for hope, for shelter, for safety, for rain.

These are difficult days, and there are more difficult days to come.

Christmas asserts that we shall know Jesus’ name as Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus is our hope that God is with us in every circumstance, and never more than when all else appears at risk.

I commend you all to prayer, in the promise of Jesus Christ,

With Us. God.

The most engaging stories draw us in.

In the telling, we find ourselves no longer listening on the sidelines, or holding the book in our hands, but standing within the tale itself. The fear, the excitement, the confusion, entice us so that, without notice, the story becomes our own.

We know that the story of a child at risk catches our eyes and hinders our heartbeat, because it is one of the deepest fears we have as a human being. A child at risk of harm.

The Christmas story holds incredible risk, but we can miss it amidst the wonder and celebration.

In Luke’s Gospel, a young, unmarried, perplexed woman becomes pregnant; an angel comforts Mary, but in Matthew’s gospel, we hear the uncertainty, even fear, of her fiancé. An angel reassures Joseph in a dream, but the shadow of social risk, accusation and blame have already fallen across the story of God.

The gospels are clear: God has chosen this path. Our reaction is equally clear: God is at risk in the world. Consider the possible cost to Mary and Joseph and her parents, while understanding what people will think (and say) about her, all of them, as the story unfolds.

A long journey, an unstable birthing room, and all the hazard of giving birth with only each other in the vicinity. Angels announce Jesus’ birth to a mob of stock workers, and the sign of God breaking to the world is proclaimed – a baby, wrapped, and lying in a feed trough.

The shadow and danger in Matthew’s story are cast into sharp relief by an effulgent star, disconcerting the local monarch and enticing foreign astronomers. But the shadows do not entirely depart, as the infant Jesus’ family flees into the night, and the refuge of Egypt. When dictators are threatened, people die. Even children.

Let me remind you: God has chosen this path; this is no accident.

The shadows and risk seek to impede Jesus throughout the gospels; they find their completion, then defeat, decades later with a cross and empty tomb.

We find ourselves caught up in this message, because it hints at something of our own. God, deciding to be born, just like us. God deciding that the most common event in human history, childbirth, would be the mark of God’s engaging in our world.

And like the best of stories, whether told by Milne, or Dostoevsky, or Rowling, we ask ourselves what we would have done, what we might do. The gospel never simply allows us to be spectators, but having invited us in, asks us the question.

What risks, what challenges might we take as a reflection of God’s risk for all creation?

In a world constrained by compliance, control and calculations of risk, we consider what it means to love our neighbour, to love our enemy, and even to love ourselves.

We place ourselves squarely in the midst of our community, seeking to serve them at our own cost, because that is discipleship.

We will be offering Christmas meals to those who are hungry for food and friendship in towns and suburbs across Australia. We will have compiled hampers and gathered gifts, so that people’s celebrations have an added dimension of hope.

We risk ourselves in debates about human worth, about addiction and marriage, about refugees and human life, seeking to live out the message of a God who gives life, offers forgiveness and embodies hope.

We place ourselves at the forefront of disasters, offering support where hope seems fragile, or even lost.

When human beings are measured as political pawns in offshore camps, or as collateral in war, or as throwaway lines in the speeches of political leaders, we assert that even those who hate us have value in the eyes of God.

We speak – and act – for our earth, even as it cries out in suffering.

It is not always popular; we are always imperfect; we learn from God and each other as we go, as disciples on the way.

We do all this because God has risked life with – and for – us.

A baby, born.
God, for us, for creation.
Wonder, beyond wonder.
And life.

And this is the God of history, of creation, revealed in Jesus Christ.

Emmanuel, God with Us.