Regrets … I Have A Few …

I have a new regret. I wish I had started our Curly Questions small groups two years ago. We’ve had four groups so far and we have wrestled with a handful of relevant and perplexing issues.

When we worked through some of our thinking on same sex marriage and the church, our primary concern appeared to be how we bear witness, show compassion and hospitality, and work out what we think in a world which has (or appears to have) changed phenomenally in the few generations.

We acknowledged the vast gulf between how our parents and grandparents spoke (or didn’t speak!) about these issues and how our children and grandchildren understand them. As law and culture shift – as they always have – we need to be able to live out our faith with grace and justice.

Our varied backgrounds and our current context affect how we think, speak and act.

How do we articulate the gospel in such a multi-lingual space?

One of our conversations this week was how we address Old Testament stories which are confronting, or even which we find appalling. There are stories in scripture which encourage violence, or appear to be unjust; laws which seem to make no sense, or to have less relevance, are all part of the biblical witness.

What do we do with these texts? Is it reasonable, or theological, to lay these aside? Where do we place our emphasis, and how do we decide?

It’s the challenge of finding our way, as disciples. One of our conversations was about denominations and how, when the Uniting Church was formed only four decades ago, most of the boundaries were firmly aligned and people’s faith traditions were inherited from their parents and bequeathed to their children.

Now, thankfully, many of the walls have crumbled; some of the more traditional denominations are unnerved and are resisting the need to adapt to a community where the role – and identity – of the church is changing.

So many of our conversations so far have been about how we live out our faith in our community, which is precisely what Jesus taught his disciples, and Paul  emphasised to churches he pastored in vastly different communities.

Loving your neighbour makes sense everywhere, but loving your enemy when they are the occupying empire seems a little extreme. Forgiving once seems manageable, but 490 times might be regarded as excessive.

When Paul wrestled with issues like circumcision, or the role of women in the church, he tried to understand how to live the gospel in a foreign community coming to terms with a radical new faith discovered in Jesus Christ.

As we negotiate our way on the journey of faith, our first resource is always Jesus. We have the gift of the Spirit as we stumble and dance our way; what we once knew about denominations, or sexuality, or reading Scripture, or salvation, appears to be under question, or simply changing.

We will only find our way by trusting Jesus. Some things are certainly changing, some by culture, some by the impetus of God’s mercy. Sometimes we will need to stand firm and bear witness to a God who is with us, and who calls us to a rigorous discipleship in the face of challenge in the world around us.

We are in this path under the grace and mercy  of God, in the company of saints and sinners, past and present and to come. We are called to be faithful: to live and serve as Jesus lived and served. And we have the gift of the Spirit, so that we may not lose our way.

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When Discipleship Comes Knocking

The continuing story of Sarah, Abraham, Hagar, Ishmael and now, Isaac, is commonly a strugglesome one for me. The astonishment and hope of God’s covenant with Abraham is offset by the punitive behaviour of Abraham and Sarah towards Hagar and her child, and then the story of Abraham and his child.

I know this story is thousands of years old and told in a context well beyond my own. This only drives me deeper into the story and its tribulations. I was relatively okay with it until College, when the Old Testament lecturer asked us “Do you like the kind of God who would ask a father to execute his child?” and suddenly my applecart was empty.

Now, before you start defending God (as if God requires our defence), or attacking the lecturer, take a breath. I know God resolves the dilemma, and that the resolution is not only Isaac’s life, but blessings multiplied (unless you’re the jumbuck). I note, additionally, that the dilemma only existed because God created it in the first place.

Sarah is disconcertingly absent from the story; I wonder why? Would she have cried out this time, rather than laugh?

Isaac is old enough to carry the means of his execution, so there’s an established relationship between parents and child – a child marked as God’s covenant and the hope of God’s people.

And then this. Sacrifice is inherent to so many stories, within our faith tradition and without. Jesus’ sacrifice lies at the heart of how we understand ourselves.

But what of this?

Is this what discipleship means when God takes us to extremes, when God invites us to move and act beyond any boundary we have set for ourselves?

Last week’s Gospel reading saw Jesus reveal to us that his presence causes division, so much so that even those closest to us can become our enemies. We water it down, and ameliorate the implications of Jesus’ language: “It’s hyperbole and rhetoric – the art of every compelling public speaker”, or, “It’s the language of comparison, so that we know where our priorities really lie.” Every preacher (with an eye to long-term job prospects) has done it, to soothe the congregation.

We can be horrified at the prospect of God’s call to Abraham (and Isaac) and breathe sighs of relief when a replacement is found.

Then we tell ourselves that God wouldn’t do something extreme like that nowadays, and the water drips on the stone, beginning to shape it to our particular need.

From Abraham to … us.

“I think God has called me here; the family is happy/the location is right/I feel at peace / we have good friends here / there are good schools …”

We consider the cost of following and, like the stallholders in middle eastern markets, we haggle over the price.

This is not Abraham and Sarah, despite their flaws. They left their original home and followed God’s call to a foreign country; they attended to an improbable, impossible promise and discovered its truth, with their occasional detour. So when Abraham is told to sacrifice his son, he trusts God despite the appalling implications of extinguishing the only tangible sign of hope in God’s promise.

Dare we trust God enough to risk it all?

What if God’s call to us requires more than attention, but requires obedience? The hallmark of call in Scripture – and our Church – is not peace, but discipleship; not convenience, but obedience.

As we find our way with the living God, let us not be too hasty to dismiss our call because of improbability or inconvenience, but look to the one who shapes and completes our faith, Jesus Christ.

 

Appropriating Mr Fraser

It’s really quite easy.

These are the words which raise trepidation for me, especially when I am in a conversation about computer stuff. I am purchasing a new programme, or hardware, or struggling when a problem has arisen which is beyond my capability, and I ask the obvious question “How does this work?”

It’s really quite easy.

At this point, my concern traditionally gives way to assertiveness and I am inclined to make comments which cause harm to the salesperson-customer relationship. If it was so easy, do you think I’d be here?

I have similar conflicts and response with people proclaiming the ease of their discipleship. When people talk about their faith in Jesus as if it’s a walk in the park, and all their “struggles” are cosmetic; when discipleship is dissipated to such a degree that it fits snugly into the culture around us; when people quote bible verses about suffering as they deal with traffic, or a head cold, or a computer programme.

The readings this weekend, about Hagar and Ishmael [Genesis 21] and persecuted disciples [Matthew 10] are not easy, because the lives of those to whom they are originally addressed are not easy.

The story of Hagar and Ishmael is always hard to bear, but particularly so in our current world context, as people are forced from their homes as refugees all across the Middle East. To think that Sarah and Abraham had a deliberate hand in their suffering is equally hard to understand.

We can see from their story that God resolved their struggles, towards life and hope, but only at their uttermost point of need, after a despairing mother is unable to watch the impending death of her only child.

When we teach memory verses to children saying that “all the hairs on your head have been counted”, do we do acknowledge that those heads may well be in the noose, or on the chopping block, because of what Jesus is saying?

When we talk about discipleship, it is not easy to preach on following Jesus when it leads to divisions – especially in our families. Following Jesus can lead us to places and people we would not choose to see.

In this week of Uniting Church celebrations, we acknowledge our discipleship of Jesus. If we are honest – and that is one of the hallmarks of our Uniting Church – then we also acknowledge that as we rejoice in our life in Christ, much of this journey is rigorous and costly. One of our claims as Uniting Church, is that we are “a pilgrim people, always on the way towards the promised goal”.

It is not easy to live out this life of faith in our world, especially if we take Jesus seriously and live in the world, not hiding in our ecclesial bubble, or singing songs of praise so loudly we cannot hear the cries of those in need.

The assurance we have – even in the appalling story of Hagar and Ishmael – is that God has not abandoned us, and will not. Knowing that I will not fall without my God’s hands beneath me is nice when I’m struggling to prepare a sermon, but everything when my life and the lives of those around me are under threat.

Forty years of the Uniting Church is a robust, biblical number; memories of exile and exodus, wanderings in the wilderness, and rising above flood waters. Where may our travels with God lead us next?

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

 

 

Life In The Cloud

I have been thinking about the Uniting Church, our fortieth anniversary this week and what it means for me to be part of this cloud (crowd?) of witnesses.

I love the Uniting Church, although there have been times when I was unsure that we would make it this far. I love our attempts to understand ourselves in this place – in the context of twenty-first century Australia – and the faithful, fallible, foolhardy, sometimes false and occasionally fabulous, choices we make as a result.

I love the Uniting Church like that refractory child remaining steadfastly unconvinced (‘Why can’t you just do what I ask you?’), knowing that the energy for obstinacy and mistakes is the vitality which makes for creativity and wonder.

I love the Uniting Church like the grandmother who is always telling me how good it used to be, but who says in the next breath that ‘You don’t know how lucky you are to be living in this day and age’.

It’s the Uniting Church like the eccentric uncle who is always finding something wrong: with his health, with his house, with his neighbour, with his neighbour’s cat, with the fact that no one else can see how wrong things are and that no one ever listens. And he’s the first one to slip you some cash when you need it.

There’s the cousin, about whom everyone always rolls their eyes, who notices a wonderful flower or bird in the garden, or wears outrageous outfits, or marches in protests, but never has time for the “important” things, like getting the washing done, or tidying the house, or simply settling down. ‘And where did you get those leg warmers?’

Or when the Uniting Church acts like a great mum, saying ‘We’ll sort this out together’, and doing just that, when it seemed like there was no way of solving things. Or the great dad, providing support and encouragement, quiet and steadfast, without any fanfare.

Like any family, there are times when I am frustrated or annoyed. I am impatient that we seem to have constant meetings, reflections, or consultations, about everything. I despair that, like the most fallible of teenagers (and others of every age) we succumb to peer pressure and the facile values of the world around us.

Once or twice, I have been ashamed of our Church. I can’t believe how much some of us invest in trying to hurt, or accuse, or blame. And I am humbled by how much some of us bear when that hurt, blame and accusation strike.

Some families forgive easily, with grace and great example. Forgiveness usually comes at significant cost, but it is the only path in the life that Jesus Christ offers to us.

Like a lot of families, in the Uniting Church we don’t talk about our love much; most of us just get on with it. Sometimes, though, it would be good to name it out loud, to bear witness; we love and are loved by, our crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ. And because we are so loved, we do our best at living out that love in the lives we lead.

We are pilgrims on the way towards a promised goal; “on the way Christ feeds the Church with Word and Sacraments, and [we have] the gift of the Spirit in order that [we] may not lose the way.”

Grace, peace and love and many thanks for our shared lives.

 

How baffling you are, O Church,

and yet how I love you!

How you have made me suffer,

and yet how much I owe you!

I should like to see you destroyed,

and yet I need your presence.

You have given me so much scandal

and yet you have made me understand sanctity.

I have seen nothing in the world

more devoted to obscurity, more false

and I have touched nothing more pure,

more generous, more beautiful.

How often I have wanted

to shut the doors of my soul in your face,

and how often I have prayed

to die in the safety of your arms.

No, I cannot free myself from you,

because I am you,

although not completely.

And where should I go?

 

from The God Who Comes by Carlo Carretto

 

This is a revised article of one I wrote for Ruminations, the Rural Ministry magazine, in 2004.

Learning the Three-Step

Trinity Sunday. Eggs, oranges, kettles and ice cubes, complicated drawings of triangles with arrows in all directions; the children’s talk almost no one wants to give and certainly not for a second time.

Dr Ben Myers, Lecturer in Theology at the Uniting Church College, has released a humorous series, Tweeting the Doctrine of the Trinity. “How to combat Trinitarian heresy, #4: Have you come up with a really helpful analogy? Well done! Now please don’t tell anyone about it, ever.”

The Trinity seeks to describe God’s extraordinary relationship as three in one and one in three, yet explaining it is almost always a hindrance in us understanding it at all.

The character of God has been described as a dance, as a movement of God – Creator, Son and Spirit – as each influences the other, leading and being led. It’s an image of wonder and beauty. God as community; loving, dancing, creating, celebrating, moving … and welcoming us into the community of God. Is this just theological playtime, or is there something more?la ronde de la jeunesse

If we understand God as community, then our relationship with God is affected, at the same moment as God asks something of us. What does it mean to create and live in a community which reflects the character of our God?

Watch the news, if you have the courage. There is an investment from those we support, and from those who seek our harm, to divide our world, into “us and them”. It’s almost as simple as that, and appeals to our baser instincts. An illustration: the media reports concerning the horror of the London and Manchester attacks obscured a larger scale horror in Kabul, and dissipated the widespread condemnation by international Muslim leaders of all these atrocities.

Us and Them.

Someone’s skin colour, someone’s name, are used as markers of divergence. How do we have a conversation about recognition of our Aboriginal sisters and brothers in our Constitution without defaulting into the same lazy, hurtful stereotypes?

The character of God has inherently different characteristics, and yet are all one. How do we, as disciples of the living, dancing God accept, welcome and celebrate our differences, not only as a reflection of this God, but of God’s deliberate intent?

Community is not easy, but it is necessary. We are citizens of God’s community, and the hope of that belonging enables and inspires us for the journey ahead.

Learning God’s dance takes time, effort and our deliberate intent. We need the imagination of God, the example of Jesus and the power of the Spirit that we may not lose our step.

Catching God’s Breath

You know it when you hear it.

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

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

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

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

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

You know it when you hear it.

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

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

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

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

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

You know it when you hear it.

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

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

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

Happy Birthday, Church!

 

 

Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used To Be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On The Train …

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

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

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

The baby had been rocked to sleep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A wonderful day in Australia.

 

On The Defence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Church Housing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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