Moving Your Feet

In recent months, as I visit congregations and communities, I’m asked questions about the drought and what we can do to help.

We can pray and lament, as we should, for the rural families, individuals and communities in crisis across the country.

Lake Keepit, 2019

I have mentioned before that there is an African saying, When you pray, move your feet.

So, what else can we do? People in rural communities often feel ignored, or forgotten, by governments and metropolitan communities, especially in long term crises like this drought.

If you really want to help, hop in a car with some friends and drive to a (preferably small, or medium sized) rural town for a couple of days. Stay in a motel or caravan park; buy your meals in the bakery, and the café, and the pub.

Fill up your tank there, or in a town nearby. Go to the films; buy some Christmas presents.

If you’re there on a weekend, go to the local church – it doesn’t matter what brand – and put some cash in the plate.

In the bakery, and the church, and the shop, have a chat with the locals and ask them how the week has been. If you’re inclined, tell them you pray for them every day, and that you’re here because your prayers are both spoken and enacted.

One congregation recently said that this doesn’t sound too difficult. It’s not. It’s mission. It’s service.

It tells people they are not forgotten.

It’s a hint of the hand of God.   

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Our discipleship to Jesus Christ calls us to engage with the climate crisis, because we begin where we have always begun – with the God of all creation and all of history.

God’s Word and breath and love shaped the universe, our earth and everything within it, placing humanity at its heart. From that first moment, we have been inextricably bound with the world around us. Our care and responsibility for the creation, the dominion which reflects the gracious likeness of God, remind all of us that from the beginning we have been woven together in the loving act of tending the handiwork of God.

When the woman and man disobey God’s intention and are removed from the garden, their relationship with God is wounded and so is the creation,
“cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life…”
[Genesis 3.17-19]

Our relationship with all that God has made remains, but struggle is now inherent to all we do. Our responsibility to care for the earth has never been removed, and in our fallible, faithful lives, we seek to do what we can.

It is our relationship with God’s creation which is vital to this whole conversation. There is the naïve argument that we should care first for our sisters and brothers – loving God, and our neighbour as ourselves – which misses the reality that caring for the world around us is doing precisely that.

Our neighbours in the Pacific are watching their islands sink beneath the ocean, and their crops being inundated with seawater. Many of us are living in the catastrophe of the latest drought, crippling farmers and rural communities, who are trying to adapt to this new “climate normal”, where rainfall is erratic and drastically different, while the ground is warmer, diminishing any rainfall’s effect.

We know that a rising overall temperature in our climate condemns us, our children and grandchildren to an even more damaged world, with all the implications of climate refugees and changed communities, with more demanded from an earth that will find it harder and harder to produce.

What of the developing world, where climate change already wreaks havoc, and where subsistence farming is integral to existence?

So, what does loving our God, and our neighbour, look like? What do the voices of Micah and Amos, of Jeremiah and Isaiah call us to do and say? When there was injustice for the weakest in their communities, the prophets called the monarchs and the leaders of the community to attention. Look at the first chapter of Isaiah, where God rejects their worship, because those in need are not being cared for.

We cannot claim to care for the widowed and the orphan, to seek justice for those in need, and then ignore the world in which they live. When we speak of our God who saves, can we be silent about the homes and lives of those to whom we offer the gospel?

Jesus always attended to the lives of those around him. People who were healed were often restored to life in their families and communities; they proclaimed their new sight, new ability, new life to any who would listen.

When Jeremiah is called to be God’s prophet, he responds, “…Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” [Jeremiah 1.4-10]

As so often in our discipleship, God has greater imagination (and greater faith in us!) than we have.

We are Jesus’ disciples, and have responded to the call of our neighbours, to the prophetic call of our children, as we amplify their voice to the governments and leaders of the world in which we live.

As our children call us to attention, to the challenge before us of climate change, can we believe that God has chosen the young to challenge us? Can we believe that the God who used a young woman to be the mother of Christ can use school children? Can we accept that the God who used a carpenter’s son to save the world, can also use young people to remind us of our responsibility for the earth and all within it?

But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”

Pray for our children, for the witness of every disciple of Jesus, as we live our lives with and for him.

Market is the Church Place

One of my favourite film series is Band of Brothers, which chronicles the experiences of a particular US paratrooper company in the Second World War. One episode ends with our heroes having survived a massive failed Allied offensive; they are then sent into what will become the Battle of the Bulge, unsure of what they will face.

As they march, in darkness, into the battle, a young officer remarks on the danger into which they are moving, “Looks like you’ll be surrounded.” Their commander responds, “We’re paratroopers, Lieutenant, we’re supposed to be surrounded.”

The question I am asked most about my role is, “What’s a Moderator?” and it is asked by both members of the community and of our Church.

The essential answer is that I stand in the middle of things, moderating the relationships within Synod, congregations and presbyteries; within our relationships with other faith traditions and our own; and between the church and the world within which we worship, witness and serve.

In recent times, we have been engaging in serious conversations within all these relationships. Many of these conversations are difficult because they have painful connexions with people we love, or because considering change is unnerving, or because they ask questions of a lot we take for granted. These conversations can also be tough because our lives and culture are tied to our faith, both helpfully and unhelpfully.

When we read Scripture, we encounter the people of God engaging with God in the midst of their lives. God is central to their struggles, to their failure, to their renewal and to the hope they hold, because God acts in justice and hope. The prophets are in the marketplace, disputing bad trading practices, speaking for the alien, the widow and the orphan, and challenging politicians and the temple.  

Jesus exercised his ministry in the middle of the community – Jewish, Samaritan and gentile – offering healing and forgiveness, proclaiming a new reign of God for whoever was thirsty.

The inspired apostles speak with priests and councillors, with slaves and textile merchants and gaolers, offering life, facing punishment and death. Paul argues in the temple and the marketplace, with anyone who was there, and he proclaimed the life and faith he had discovered when Christ discovered him on the Damascus road.

The marketplace (the Greek word is agora) is where we are supposed to be, engaging with our God and the world around us. The other day I was invited, with an Anglican Bishop and a Uniting Church Minister, to speak at the Parliamentary Inquiry on Reproductive Health Care. My colleagues and I were asked why we were there, and part of our answer was that this is where we are supposed to be, in conversations about human life and suffering and seeking to discover how God addresses our lives in all their wonder and their messiness.

We are seeking to discern God’s voice in scripture and our worship, and also when we bear witness about those human concerns – our worth, our purpose, our place, our wounds, our relationships, our hope, our healing, our justice – which are also God’s concerns.

We are called to live out our hope, and also justice; we are to call the world to repentance, conscious always of the mercy which has brought us here. Too easily the Church talks only within itself, refining its theology like fine wine that sits valuable and forever untasted. Agoraphobia must never be a mark of our discipleship. 

Our theology is founded on the One who was born, executed and raised; Jesus was involved to the full extent of our human lives. It is shaped and forged when we engage our community the way our great cloud of witnesses engaged – in faith and hope. And courage. It is refined by the fire and breath of God’s Spirit.

We’re disciples of Jesus Christ; we’re supposed to be here.

An open letter to Members of the NSW Parliament, 2nd August 2019

The decision of the Parliament of NSW to table and debate the decriminalisation of abortion is a critical one, affecting people across our community. The Uniting Church notes the support from a wide diversity of members of Parliament, including the Premier, Gladys Berejiklian. The statement below draws from a series of decisions made over the last thirty years in the Uniting Church in Australia.

The Uniting Church affirms that human life is God-given from the beginning. We believe that all human beings are made in the image of God and that we are called to respect the sacredness of life.

We also believe Christians are called to respond to life with compassion and generosity.

When abortion is practised indiscriminately it damages respect for human life. However, we live in a broken world where people face difficult decisions. Respect for the sacredness of life means advocating for the needs of women as well as every unborn child.

We reject two extreme positions: that abortion should never be available; and that abortion should be regarded as simply another medical procedure. It is not possible to hold one position that can be applied in every case because people’s circumstances will always be unique.

It is important that women have the space they need to make this difficult decision after careful consideration and that they should have access to high quality counselling, pastoral care and medical services.

Women must be free to discuss their situation before they make a decision. The Church needs to be a place where such discussion can happen. We can offer spiritual, moral and pastoral support, without judgement, to a woman at this time.

Whilst we encourage our Ministers to remind people of the sacredness of life, the Church’s role should be to offer care and support leading up to and following a decision, not stand in judgement.

Our Church is also committed to support women who continue their pregnancy, and help them within the community.

The Uniting Church is disturbed that recent comments could imply that women make the decision to have an abortion without proper consideration. Most women who have abortions do so only after a great deal of searching and anguish. There are a range of well-informed spiritual, medical and emotional support services available to women and it is offensive to imply that these decisions are made lightly or without access to suitable consultation.

The decision to have an abortion is not just a moral issue but a social one. While some aspects of the current debate attempt to pass moral judgement on the act itself, it ignores the many emotional, physical, financial and social issues that often create a situation where a woman is forced to consider an abortion.

The Uniting Church asserts that abortion is a health and social issue and should not be a criminal issue.

The Uniting Church hopes that those engaged in this debate do not lose sight of the complexity of the issues.

Rev. Simon Hansford
Moderator | Synod of NSW & ACT
Uniting Church in Australia

A Prayer for Fair Treatment

I was asked to craft a prayer for the presentation at our Synod Meeting in July, about the film premiere of Half A Million Steps and the Fair Treatment Campaign.

God of life,
We are amazed that you place humanity at the heart of creation,
shaping us in your image,
with breath and love,
and name us as very good.

Help us to see each and every one
as an image of you,
to know and name their worth,
and to offer them life and justice.

God of healing,
we pray for those with wounded lives,
who experience brokenness,
through their own addiction,
or the illness of those they love.

Help us to serve them,
to challenge and care for them,
to help them discover their value
as human beings, reflections of your image
and to find life again.

We pray for those who grieve,
may they find the peace they need,
and a heart for those who have similar struggles. 

God of justice,
Your prophets cried out for those
whose lives are crippled by injustice,
by a community prejudiced to those in power.

Help us to be advocates
for those who cannot speak, or act, for themselves,
for those who need hope more than judgment.

Let us offer treatment
for those who are suffering, not punishment;
let us create avenues of hope,
not structures which deny life.

Give us strength for this journey,
and companions on the way,
and may the hope of Jesus, the crucified and risen one,
light our path at every step.

Synod Prayer

This is the prayer for our upcoming Synod meeting, in July.

Creating God,
with breath and dust and a word you brought us to life,
to care, to serve, to nurture,
to build community and to flourish.

Even in our frailty and failure you love us,
call us back to yourself,
and offer us forgiveness and life again.

Incarnate One,
your presence offered life to those from whom it was withheld:
those bent with illness and injustice,
those broken by exclusion or empire,
those silenced by their suffering, their sin, or their circumstance.

In your crucifixion and rising,
you put the lie to death’s strongest word
and to sin’s manacle on our humanness;
in your new life, you offer us life anew.

Breath of Life,
stir us with hope,
lift our hearts in wonder,
sing to us of the life offered us in Jesus Christ.

You are the flame to refine your church,
to lead us into the life which proclaims your Gospel.

Constitute, rule and renew us
in this Synod meeting
that we might hear your voice,
answer your call,
and witness to your presence in your world.

In, with and through Christ we pray. Amen.

Starting From Here

There’s an old Irish story, about a tourist in Kilkenny asking directions from a local about how to get to Tralee, and the sage replies, “Well, I wouldn’t be starting from here.”

One of the most common questions asked of me since I first heard a call to ordained ministry is “How did you get here?” Each time I am asked I have moved further from where I began, with a journey resembling a dance – steps forward and back, to each side, often partnered – far more than anything else.

It’s far too simplistic to draw a straight line from a faithful family of origin, Sunday School (to which I remember having a distinct aversion), and later youth group and thence into ministry. It both misunderstands and misrepresents how God’s presence has been active throughout, and the particular roles of certain people and communities during that time. There were saints for a season, and those who have remained with me for longer; there were episodes of considerable significance, like College, and each of my five placements; there were the events – some glorious, some mundane and some destructive.

In many of those moments, there have been people who have taught and challenged and rebuked and nurtured me. At every step, in every story, God’s Spirit was breathing life and hope.

For the last several months, a team I have been leading has been looking at how we shape people for ministry, both lay and ordained. It is clear that a (quite appropriate) emphasis is placed upon the education process, usually through our United Theological College. But what about the shaping of the person, becoming ready for the wonders and challenges and risks of ministry? For far too long, much of the Church has expected those years of formal education to be the time when someone becomes “ready for ministry.”

What on earth does that say about the role of the congregation and the minister? What does it say about the role of those who lead bible studies and worship teams, or school chaplains, or ISCF leaders, or colleagues at work, or uni?

When I completed my first placement, one of the older members of the congregation, a retired railway worker with faith in the marrow of his bones, commented at the farewell dinner, “He wasn’t too flash when he came here, but he isn’t too bad now.” This was an honest reflection of a congregation which knew that its role was to work alongside me, to shape me, and to send me on.

What are we hoping for in our congregations? What are we expecting? Do we look to call people in our congregation to lead in worship, witness and service, or do we wait for someone else to come and look after us?

There are communities of faith in our Synod which are shaping people for all kinds of ministry: within their gathered life, in the wider community and in the wider church. There are people who are looking to encourage people into ministry, lay and ordained, and we need to expand this wonderful culture across our Synod.

Education is vital for ministry, but just as vital are the communities which shape us for our task, and the individuals who invite us to step up and then guide us as we grow.

One of the most vital mentors I have is a lady in her eighties, who has covenanted to pray for me every day; she reminds me when she sees me, to hold herself accountable and to hold me equally so. When someone approaches you about their sense of call, don’t let cynicism speak; encourage, bless, and support that one and see where God takes both of you.

When you are asked to be a mentor for a person seeking confirmation, don’t just support them for the weeks of preparation, offer time afterwards, for prayer and coffee.

Expect the Holy Spirit to move in your congregation; hope for people to find new gifts and to exercise them; believe that you will be surprised about how Jesus might use (even you!) in the service of God’s reign in the world.

How did I get here? God moved in many ways, so people asked and encouraged me, people challenged me, people taught me, people disciplined me, people rebuked me, people prayed for me and loved me – and people still do.

Shall we get started from here?

Les Murray | The Quality of Sprawl

Sprawl is the quality
of the man who cut down his Rolls-Royce
into a farm utility truck, and sprawl
is what the company lacked when it made repeated efforts
to buy the vehicle back and repair its image.

Sprawl is doing your farming by aeroplane, roughly,
or driving a hitchhiker that extra hundred miles home.
It is the rococo of being your own still centre.
It is never lighting cigars with ten-dollar notes:
that’s idiot ostentation and murder of starving people.
Nor can it be bought with the ash of million-dollar deeds.

Sprawl lengthens the legs; it trains greyhounds on liver and beer.
Sprawl almost never says Why not? With palms comically raised
nor can it be dressed for, not even in running shoes worn
with mink and a nose ring. That is Society. That’s Style.
Sprawl is more like the thirteenth banana in a dozen
or anyway the fourteenth.

Sprawl is Hank Stamper in Never Give an Inch
bisecting an obstructive official’s desk with a chainsaw.
Not harming the official. Sprawl is never brutal
though it’s often intransigent. Sprawl is never Simon de Montfort
at a town-storming: Kill them all! God will know his own.
Knowing the man’s name this was said to might be sprawl.

Sprawl occurs in art. The fifteenth to twenty-first
lines in a sonnet, for example. And in certain paintings;
I have sprawl enough to have forgotton which paintings.
Turner’s glorious Burning of the Houses of Parliament
comes to mind, a doubling bannered triumph of sprawl –
except, he didn’t fire them.

Sprawl gets up the nose of many kinds of people
(every kind that comes in kinds) whose futures don’t include it.
some decry it as criminal presumption, silken-robed Pope Alexander
dividing the new world between Spain and Portugal.
If he smiled in petto afterwards, perhaps the thing did have sprawl.

Sprawl is really classless, though. It’s John Christopher Frederick Murray
asleep in his neighbours‘ best bed in spurs and oilskins
but not having thrown up:
sprawl is never Calum who, drunk, along the hallways of our House,
reinvented the Festoon. Rather
it’s Beatrice Miles going twelve hundred ditto in a taxi,
No Lewd Advances, No Hitting Animals, No Speeding,
on the proceeds of her two-bob-a-sonnet Shakespeare readings.
An image of my country. And would that it were more so.

No, sprawl is full-gloss murals on a council-house wall.
Sprawl leans on things. It is loose-limbed in its mind.
Reprimanded and dismissed
it listens with a grin and one boot up on the rail
of possibility. It may have to leave the Earth.
Being roughly Christian, it scratches the other cheek
and thinks it unlikely. Though people have been shot for sprawl.

from The People’s Otherworld

The Sri Lanka Bombings

We are appalled, and confronted, by the awful acts of violence in Sri Lanka, on Easter Sunday. Most of us are not directly engaged, though many of us have friends and family who are. We grieve with them, are with them in their numbness and confusion, and share some portion of their anger.

It may well appear that, for many in our world, we measure out our lives in tragedy. People were worshipping in Sri Lanka, as they were in Christchurch, as people have been so many times before across the world. In worship, on holidays, at school, or pursuing the daily rounds of their lives.

Violence punctuates our community and those across our world, and some of these acts are too large to find any measure.

One immediate miscarriage of these atrocities is to speak of those who committed them as if they were faithful disciples of Christianity, or Islam, or any other faith. There is no sanctuary either, in the claim of some bastardised sense of human injustice.

Our first act, in this week when disciples of Jesus Christ speak of resurrection, of new life, is to weep with those who weep. We will love our neighbours, as is our calling.

When our tears have slowed, we need to articulate our faith, that we will not allow death and violence to be the dominant words in our vocabulary, in our lives. We refuse to let terror speak for us; we are people of the cross and resurrection, and to proclaim the crucified, risen Christ is to declare that we will live our lives with hope, and love, and justice.

And at some point, when we are able, we will speak of forgiveness. We may then speak of loving our enemies, as we are called to.

We declare that God’s love is stronger than death. We will worship, and take holidays, and go to school, and pursue our daily lives asserting that our hope and life is found in Jesus, living out the reign of God with every measure of our lives.

Notre Dame, Holy Week 2019

I have never been there.

I have heard stories, by family and friends, for more than four decades, of extraordinary majesty and beauty, sitting in the heart of Paris.

Seated now in ash, Notre Dame awaits the future, having survived wars great and awful, the depredations of monarchs and despots, and the seething anger of revolutionaries. It has endured too, the attention of so many devotees and others.

Already this morning, several friends who know the lady have spoken reverentially, and with sadness. Tales of soloists in the cathedral, echoing the voice of heaven; of sitting and waiting for God to speak; of marvelling at an inspired imagination, and those several artisans who could make hope real.

Perhaps they may build again, or restore, but it will never be the same. There will be photos and drawings for ever, but never enough to capture its entirety.

There will, wonderfully, be stories, like the ones my friends are telling. In that way, a building becomes alive, not because of stones, but through awe and worship and wonder.

In this week, of all weeks, this holy week, when we live and tell our experience of the crucified, and risen, Christ. In this week, of all weeks, our story is one of what God has imagined and brought to reality; and we bear that story in our lives.

Let us tell it well, because all is changed, all made new.