God’s Hope – In Us

In the midst of it all, a baby.

Tiny and defenceless, the promise and presence of God.

In this wondrous moment, in the simple vulnerability of God in the world, hope is asserted. This assertion is not only about Jesus’ birth offering hope for humanity; God’s hope reaches even more profoundly.

The birth of Jesus is how God asserts hope in humanity. In us.

This single grain of sand in the whirlwind of Caesar’s empire is what transforms everything. This assertion of God that we are worthy of hope and life; God’s hope, God’s gift of life.

Sit with this, for a moment.

Too easily and too often we have been convinced it is our failure which motivates God’s act, as if God is harnessed and haltered by us. Too simply and too loudly we are told that God was so angry at our sinfulness that God’s son is only born to die, making our lives and prayers engagements of fear over love.

We are too quickly inclined to believe the worst of ourselves and the worst of God.

As God breaks into the world as Jesus, we hear and see – and proclaim – God’s absolute engagement, God’s entire commitment to our lives and to our world.

At the heart of the Christmas event is God’s statement of faith in us. The gift of Jesus for the sake of the world.

What does that mean right now, that God has hope in us?

As I write this piece, the travesty of Russia’s invasion and war continues in Ukraine; while war scars other nations not deemed as newsworthy. What does hope mean as Ukraine fights for its very existence?

As empires which we have trusted, or feared, for these last few centuries topple and seem likely to fall – into disrepair, or despotism – there are echoes of Herod’s violent jealousy as a tiny baby destabilised everything he believed about power.

What sense does the birth of Jesus make as we consider formalising a voice to Parliament for our First Peoples?

The still, small voice of Jesus spoken into a corner of the Roman Empire rose to become a song which questioned the meaning of Empire and reordered the world. What might the disciples of this Jesus say about advocating to those in power, offering a voice when so many have been unjustly silenced?

What sense does the advent of God make for communities addressing the immediate challenge of floods, or striving for recovery after a season of extraordinary rainfall?

When we are overwhelmed with loss, or chaos, or with grief, the presence of God in the world is found in the starkness of a stable, or even less. Our loss is not airbrushed, or ignored, but God is present in the chaos of our lives. Emmanuel, “God with Us” means precisely that, and never more than when all seems to crumble.

God, exercising extraordinary hope in the birth of Jesus, invites a response from us: to act in hope, in life, as God has acted, and continues to act.

God elects to offer life, because God is completely convinced of our value. The truth that God has chosen to become precisely like us is not just a wonder, but the profound assertion of the inherent worth we have to the God of all creation.

Can we believe that at Christmas – and in the astounding wonder which awaits the world at Easter – that we see the best of the living God, because God believes in what is possible for us?

As Mary and Elizabeth sing with prophecy and power,
as the angels’ song fills the sky,
as shepherds stumble to the light and magi find their way,
as Herod’s depredations appal us still,
and as we wait for the family’s return from Egypt;

We name a God who is with humanity in all our wonder and all our frailty, and yet declares in the child born where all God’s hope resides – in Jesus and thus, in us.

May the hope of God find you this Christmas.


Image: Our Lady of Kyiv, on the wall of the Kyiv metro by an unknown artist.

This Christmas we encourage those of you that can lend a helping hand and those that are in need, to visit our website at www.findafeed.uca.org.au where you will find a range of support services and help.

Any Other Day

More than two and half thousand years ago, an Old Testament prophet wrote

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

A child was assaulted on an Australian street in this last fortnight. As a result of the brutal beating he received, by an older man with an iron bar we are told, this child died.

The language we might use for this unjustified act of appalling violence, if we were so inclined, is that a child was lynched on the streets of Perth.

Where is the outcry? Where are the nation’s leaders – social, political and religious – crying out for justice? Are we so accustomed to violence like this that it slides from our screens and our memories as we swipe to a less confronting story?

Suddenly we remember the discomfort we feel when that Melbourne footy club remains accused of deep-rooted racism. We turn the channel to avoid listening (certainly talking) about offering a voice to our First People in a referendum.

Some will say that these are not associated, that one has no relevance to the other. Ask the ones whose voice is silenced. Ask the ones who received the violence of language, of social exclusion, of stereotype, or worse.

And a child lies dead; another family is paralysed in grief and despair.

Some will claim this child had caused harm to property. So, let me ask you, what crime can a child commit that justifies him being beaten with an iron bar? What community, what society, can use slippery language, or bastardised ethics, to justify the violent death of a child?

We grieve today, but only as a dim echo of this family’s grief. We pray, and act in support, because no-one can survive this trauma alone.

We speak because someone needs to do so. More than one – person, church, community – needs to cry out for justice, because a child lies dead at a man’s hand.

This child’s death cannot fade from our sight because we are afraid to discover what hides in the shadows of our lives and communities.

My faith in Jesus Christ talks of mercy, which is always hand in hand with justice. Our church speaks of the need to forgive each other and to be reconciled, but they come with the cost of humility and seeking forgiveness from the person we have harmed.

This is more urgent than any other story in our lives.

It is not enough to be sad, to offer thoughts and prayers.

What shall we ask, what shall we do, to find justice? What shall we require of our leaders?

What shall we require of ourselves?

A New Climate

I remember preaching for a Combined Churches’ Pentecost service a few years ago. Amongst other things, I spoke of the Spirit’s presence, stirring and brooding over the creation as it found shape and purpose under the articulation of God.

I then asserted the charge of the gospel to care for God’s good earth and, at that point, a couple of my ecumenical colleagues laughed out loud.

This, in a rural community shaped by weather and climate, by the availability and scarcity of water, by many farmers’ willing engagement in environmental options and the angry intransigence of a minority.

Is it possible we can believe that our discipleship has nothing to do with the care of the world in which we live? Have we made “salvation” so much about the heavenly rescue of an individual that we have missed the biblical imperative that we are part of God’s creation and God’s history – a creation and history which it is God’s intention to restore?

All too easily we apply weight to one aspect and neglect the other. We can (we must!) proclaim a God who desires to restore every human being – and the creation in which all of us are held.

It is when we attempt to hold both of these faithfully together that we comprehend the challenge of what it means to bear witness in a world where the creation is under extraordinary stress. Scripture is bookended with the wonder of creation and the new creation; these images are not decorative, they are proclamation about our God, our world and our place within it.   

As the drought began to break, there was a call from some in our community that we should no longer be farming cattle because of the impact of methane in the atmosphere. There are graziers who battled to keep their breeding stock alive during five years of drought, and to hear that must have been almost unbearable.

People in rural communities have been addressing the changes in the climate for years, even decades; the incoherent and ill-informed utterances from a few invested politicians are a false measure of the significant transformation in farming practices which have been undertaken.

When we speak of caring for God’s good earth, we are mindful of the land of which we are stewards, and the people whose stewardship is in their blood and bones. We must address the climate crisis before us; we cannot ignore those whose lives are woven within it.

It is not only our rural communities, of course. We have heard and seen the immediate destruction facing our neighbours in the Pacific; what does it mean to love God and to love these neighbours, as we love ourselves? Rescue from drowning islands may well be the necessary functional response to this crisis, but how does it address the deeper issues of justice and honouring those whose voices we have so long ignored, or patronised?

And what of those first voices, whose stories of creation and stewardship are millennia older than the ones we hold in scripture? How shall we honour them, and pay attention as the earth and all its creatures cry out for justice?

The escapism of some aspects of Christianity is understandable but leads us up a dry gully. There is no hope there which speaks to discipleship here, but only avoidance of responsibility.

Diminishing our role for this place, this life, dismisses the worth of each person as they work and live and serve and save and worship. We are called here. We are disciples here. Our lives bear witness to the reign of God, proclaimed in Jesus Christ – on this earth.

Our Basis of Union affirms that Jesus Christ became flesh; in Christ’s life, death and resurrection, God has reasserted a claim over the whole creation. This is not only about a God who says yes to life for each human being, but a God who acts in hope and love for all creation.

The new heaven and new earth celebrated in the penultimate words of scripture are a charge for every disciple of Jesus about the inherent value of each of us – and the creation of which we are an intrinsic, eternal part.

As we wrestle with the vital transition to justice for our earth and all its creatures, our discipleship reminds us of the promise of life which is held for us in Jesus Christ. This hope is for each of us and for the whole creation, formed under the Word of God, in whom we find our life.

Death & Dominion

When Mark mentioned the theme for this edition of Ruminations, my first thoughts turned to scripture, then to poetry. Verses about death, and the wondering which surrounds it; the beauty and the sorrow and the ruminating, as poets and theologians seek both to express their feelings and to plumb the depths of something which comes to each and all.

Death, and birth, are the most common things among us, we humans. Thus, we write and theologise, we compose and wonder, we rage against the dying of the light,[i], while some of us spend some portion of our lives always glancing behind.[ii]

There are those of us try to airbrush death from our language altogether, by using phrases which attempt to hold it at arm’s length; people no longer die, they simply “pass” as if they have mystically moved into the next room or graduated in some ghastly (ghostly?) exam.

These euphemisms are an attempt to lessen our fear, or our loss. They do neither. Our grief reflects our joy and love and lives shared; it not a problem, but rather, a gift. Our fears reflect a measure of what we don’t know, and of what we do; we need each other for this journey.

Much of our writing and praying reflects us trying to make sense of the lives we lead, as we face suffering on a personal level, and a global one. As we struggle to know what – and how – to pray for our friend who is facing their own death, we are confronted by the immensity of Ukraine’s invasion and the deaths which accompany it. At that moment, words can seem almost irrelevant, perhaps we fall to weeping.

Across our communities and our world, we have been immersed in conversations, even protest, about voluntary assisted dying and in these last few weeks, about abortion. How we engage – in all ways – reflects our fear, our anger, our experience and our hope.

As we speak of birth, life and death, we speak inherently of our faith. As disciples of Jesus, we approach dying and death with caution; our fear and our concern are seasoned with hope. Our hope neither makes death a minor problem, nor an easy path, but it addresses the depth of our life with more than poetry.

I have often pondered whether we are less fearful of death than we are of resurrection. How might our hope, in Christ, be realised? When we affirm our Easter faith, what do we imagine we are, in fact, affirming?

Our hope lies in Jesus Christ. Our affirmation begins, and is complete, in Christ, crucified and risen. We begin, in faith, to make sense of our lives and our suffering, our fear and our weeping, because we name Jesus as the hope in which we locate ourselves.

This story is neither easy, nor untroubled. We need our poets and our scriptures to speak when we cannot; we need our siblings with us, to remind us of the God who has expended everything to seek us out and find us.

Death is not the last word. Life is, in Christ.

To each and all of us, “I wish you God.”[iii]

[i] Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night”
[ii] John Foulcher, “Death”
[iii] Les Murray, “The Last Hellos”

Our Uniting Church @ 45

“Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”               [I Kings 19.11-13]

How easily we define our task, our identity, our selves, by where we have come from. When Elijah is asked, he reflects upon the journey which brought him face to face with God; he did not imagine that God might be asking him about the future into which God might lead him, in hope and wonder.

We are the Uniting Church because of where God is leading us and calling us, not simply because of the vision and courage of our parents and grandparents. Our mission lies before us, and not behind. We have served God’s world in worship, witness and service, but there is yet more for us. 

The faithfulness and hope which responded to God’s call forty-five years ago and more is not our identity. Our past is not our call. It is the future into which Christ has already spoken, and in which we are called to bear witness to what Christ has done, and to what Christ is doing – and yet to do.

What are we doing here?

The Spirit of Christ urges us to proclaim in new and radical ways; to serve in communities of faith our founders could not imagine; to offer hope and justice to people who the world would discard, punish or deny.

We are the Uniting Church, because of the risen, crucified Lord, who calls us to serve today and into tomorrow.

To this end they declare their readiness to go forward together in sole loyalty to Christ the living Head of the Church; they remain open to constant reform under his Word; and they seek a wider unity in the power of the Holy Spirit.                              [Basis of Union, Para. 1]

Knowing My Place

I was born and lived the first stanza of my life on Cammeraigal country;
I moved to Dharawal country, as a Youth Worker,
while studying as a candidate on Burramattagal country;
my first placement was on Wiradjuri country in the west;
I then moved to Ngunnawal country in the south;
I have lived for the last sixteen years on Gamilaraay country in the north-west,
and the Synod Office where I base my work stands on Gadigal country,
part of the Eora nation.

At the 2019 Synod in Session, I learned a formal way of introducing myself and acknowledging country, which is to step out each of the chapters of where I have lived. It helps all those to whom I am paying respect to know my history, and all those by whom I am welcomed to see where my feet have walked.

It places me in context; not just my name, but my pilgrimage. It has been an invaluable lesson; about country, about respect. I am learning more about myself.

These weeks are full of acknowledgement and celebration and, might remain only that, if we fail to recall how we arrived where we are.

Sorry Day and National Reconciliation Week call our attention to our First Nations community and the fraught, costly path we have walked and continue to walk.

As we mark the Week, in worship and school and our community, we risk only looking at this week, this moment. Neglecting the past is a grave mistake. The wounds people bear cannot be discounted, nor the way we have begun to listen to the stories. Once we have learnt to pay attention, we move to reconcile with each other – seeking forgiveness, which is one of the first signs of justice, hallmarked by hope.

Reconciliation Week always dovetails into Pentecost, followed by our Uniting Church anniversary.

We live in some tensioned space, our Church. The worry of where we are and the fear of where we might be headed; the challenge of the Church’s place in our world, and our role within it.

There is a strong inclination to manage our way through this. We are tempted by business models and the language of leadership and review which are caught up in profit and success. We reframe the story which shapes us to suit these fraught times and neglect the steps which have brought us here; it is an illusion.

We need to remember the origin of our hope, and call each other to remember.

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.  [Basis of Union, Para. 4]

I was asked, recently, if I am optimistic; I said no. I told the consultant that I am a person of hope, found solely in Christ. I have no time to waste on optimism.

I do not believe we can manage our way out of the mess in which we find ourselves, whether it is the political playground brawl being decided as I write, or the plethora of other challenges before us – as large as history, and as personal as people’s battles with mental illness, domestic abuse, or addiction.

At the recent Assembly, I spoke from the floor for the first time. Part of what I said was,
“In this Easter season, the risen, crucified Jesus charges the disciples – no ifs, buts, or maybes – to make disciples. The power of proclamation, the integrity of witness, the wonder of forgiveness are deliberately and directly commanded in the Gospel resurrection stories.

How able are we to disciple people?

Where is the call to articulate the gospel in such a way, that people are invited in hospitality, into community, into faith, into discipleship – in Jesus Christ?”

We must remember who we are, and in whom we belong.

We are not called to save the church, the world, or anyone; we are called to bear witness to the One who has saved history and creation, and to invite people to follow, with us, in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

May the Spirit at Pentecost, and every day, breathe new life into you, and your community of faith.  

Feast: After Tiepolo | Peter Steele

Dead man walking as he goes to dine –
The handing over broached and squared away –
He settles to the gossip and the wine,
The casual banter and the heart at play.

The host, benignant, gazes from his chair,
The pointer smartens as the dishes rise:
Part of the company is debonair,
Part of it weathered-out beyond surprise.

And to the lot, a creature of excess,
Her love unstinting as the lavished nard
That perfumes all the house to thank and bless
The man who’d keep his promise, dying hard,

She comes, intrusive, wiser than almost all.
The traitor’s turning white as any pall.

– Peter Steele, The Gossip & The Wine

A Prayer, Nearing Easter

A prayer, written by Maren Tirabassi, during the United States war with Iraq in 1991.

Lent comes.
We draw a holy comma
in rushed and busy lives.
We follow down
old scripture words
the journey to Jerusalem.
We stumble into prayer again
and whisper soft
the dearest, fearest
of our thoughts.

Lent comes.
Last year’s palms
crumble into ashes.
Last year’s peace
weeps into war.
We sing of Gethsemane
amid new tears, new bleeding.
The screaming bombs
burn crosses in our hearts –
this too is God’s story.

Lent comes,
but also Ramadan’s fast,
Passover’s freedom memory,
Easter’s crazy contradiction.
Faith is born of prayer
and sings with courage,
while all the children
of the earth
shelter in the wings of God
awaiting our embrace.

– Maren C. Tirabassi Gifts of Many Cultures (PIlgrim Press 1995)

A Prayer in these Floods

O God, our God,
where shall we find the words,
the hope,
to speak in these days?

Hear us in our silence,
in our cries and confusion,
in our groaning.

In our need.

Our lives have been washed away,
jobs and lounge rooms,
treasures and forgettables,
the roads and paths we know.

We begin, our God, with you,
your promises,
your love.

We choose to trust you,
even when everything we know has shifted,
including the ground on which we stand.

Even in this paddock,
shadowed by death and brokenness,   
we choose to believe your promises:
that you love us,
that you are with us,
that you will never leave us.

In this most fragile of moments,
you are with us for every step and stumble.

We see the face of Christ
in each and every neighbour;
in the couple who rescued us,
in that woman offering us food in the evac centre,
in that bloke sitting, unsure,
outside the home he has lost.

Each time we turn,
your presence is clear.

We will be angry later,
and impatient.
We will need you then.

But now, O God, our God,
bring us healing, bring us comfort,
bring us courage, bring us strength,
and, we implore you,
bring us the occasional moment of joy,
the snort, or shout, of laughter,
the stuff of life.

As these days move on,
as we clean up,
and rebuild
and wait,
help us to measure out these days in mercy,
in forgiveness,
in community.

O God, our God,
for our friends
and congregations of hope,
we thank you.

Through Christ, the Crucified
and Risen One.

S.R. Hansford
Lent, 2022

Living Our Hope

As Australia finally opens up completely, both to itself and to the rest of the world, we can reflect on two years of lines drawn on a map, of disease-driven demarcation, and consider what has happened, and what uncertainty remains in residue.

I have walked the emptied offices and shops in Sydney’s CBD, sponsored by sound health policy and amplified by fear. As people trickle back into the city, we wonder what is next. Confidence is yet to return alongside the workers; small businesses wait, hesitant and unsure.

We gather in worship and concerts (unmasked and excited) and test the distances between, not quite sure whether to shake hands, to nod and smile, or to embrace. My wife and I danced and clapped and sang with all our might at an outdoor performance recently. Part of our exhilaration was simply to be amongst full-faced people elated around us, even with the uncertainty of everything.

We know the wonder of being together, of contact, of connection. Introverts and extraverts alike have missed being in the room, around the table, gathered in relationship. The famished embraces of families at the airport echo in every one of us.

In our next breath we watch as people strive to find difference, to define and divide our communities. Election campaigns always bring this on, we are told, once more.

So our faith, or our identity, or our gender, or our fear become focal points for political exploitation and the connection for which we long becomes slightly more arbitrary. Someone finds a hairline crack and stamps their boot.

The ash of Wednesday’s cross has barely been wiped from our foreheads and we watch our friends trapped in a flooding disaster on our state’s north coast and Russia trampling war into Ukraine. So much invested in blaming others, in finding enemies; people to accuse, or punish, or ignore.

This story is not new; it is as old as sin itself. A colleague of mine speaks of “powers and principalities” which are invested solely in themselves and whisper temptations to power, to the distractions of bread and circuses. They are woven in our culture and use voices that we know, sometimes even our own.

In this season, of all seasons, we must be able to proclaim mercy and justice, the essential hope so many find, and have found, in Jesus Christ.

What song of life have we to sing to which people may want to dance, even with exhilaration?

Of what hope might we speak that offers an embrace and not the pointed finger of accusation and blame?

The ultimate reason for our hope is not to be found at all in what we want, wish for and wait for; the ultimate reason is that we are wanted and wished for and waited for.

– Jürgen Moltmann

In a world which seeks to accuse others and create enemies, in order to distract from responsibility, our discipleship calls us to seek out our enemies in order to forgive them. The credibility of our proclamation is found in the integrity of our ministry, not in the beauty of our sanctuaries, or in the reputations of the past.

In a recent commercial radio interview about the floods, the journalist was astonished at the work of our Disaster Chaplains, sitting with people in their worst moments. They know that there is no easy solution to be offered, but the integrity of their presence, weeping with those who weep.

The crucified Christ stands at the heart of our faith. Jesus, on the cross, is the marker of difference who embraces all those who are wounded. His embrace is indeed even wider, offered for those who create the wounds. In his final hours, the actions of Christ are to welcome a criminal and to seek forgiveness for those who nailed him there.

In a time of Putin’s atrocity in Ukraine, in political blame-casting, in our world where people’s lives are valued in votes, or financial balance sheets, this is the word our world most needs to hear, and to hold.

Not revenge, but mercy.

When a preacher, or a politician, speaks of sin and forgiveness too quickly and too easily, check your wallet.

The forgiveness which is found on the cross is neither an exchange of contract, nor a bargain struck. It is never “a form of words”. It is the deliberate, compassionate act of God to restore the creation and all within it, and requires everything of God, even life. It is the entire solidarity of God with us, in uttermost suffering and injustice.

The silence of the tomb echoes the impact of God’s engagement with us. Forgiveness is costly and borne in love.

The wonder of Christ’s resurrection is the assurance that the story of death which haunts our world is not the most powerful word spoken. Life is stronger than death’s demarcation. It is God, in Christ, making us entirely whole, and entirely welcome.

It is from this hope that I write. It is from this hope, found in one we name as crucified and risen, that we discover life.