Ursula K. Le Guin | A Small Tribute

Just before dawn we climbed to the Sun Gate near the completion of our camino on the  Inca Trail, and the words which first sprang to my mind, as we were astonished by the wonder of Machu Picchu displayed before us, were those of Ursula Le Guin

“And though I came to forget or regret all I have ever done, yet I would remember that once I saw the dragons aloft on the wind at sunset above the western isles; and I would be content.”                                                                 [The Farthest Shore]

I was entranced by an historical wonder and from my heart, unbidden, rose words crafted entirely in fantasy.

This says more about the lyrical imagery of Le Guin than anything else. An author, offering a treasury of fantasy and prophecy, of mysticism and tragedy, daring to show us a reflection, through imagined beings and their world, the truth of our beauty and our terror, and our capacity for wonder.

Earthsea captured me and has held me for more than four decades, while lesser imitations found their place. Just twelve months past, I entrusted my original Puffin series to a young friend, convincing myself into the deluded belief that “they are only books”. They returned, safe, last week.

I was caught, horribly, by The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, Le Guin’s prophetic short story on our world which could not speak more clearly to then, whenever “then” was, and to our nation’s failings – and our very own – at this very moment. Read it at your peril.

A poet’s voice lost, not silenced. A prophet’s call magnified in death, we hope, with tributes near and far, even ones as sparse as this.

“Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.”                                                     [The Left Hand of Darkness]

A Living Witness?

A month before Christmas, I bought a suit. It was the first suit I have purchased, apart from the five dollar Vinnie’s edition dinner suit in the 1980s for formals and other flash occasions.

Several people had told me that there are occasions when I need to look, well, moderatorial, and so I bit the sartorial bullet.

The reason I mention this is neither to garner sympathy, of which there has been none, nor to discourage mockery, of which there has been a small avalanche, but to talk about how we – all of us – appear in the world around us.

There is a sideshow amongst some church enthusiasts, in social media backwaters and in a few communities of faith, about “what the minister should wear” for worship. Albs and stoles and scarves and cinctures and clerical collars and ties and suits and shorts and “Jesus sandals” are all part of the vocabulary which can, surprisingly, lead to pretty heated engagements.

My experience in ministry has been that people in the wider community often expect “the minister”to wear some indication of authority, much like a firefighter. The congregation often argues the opposite view. And if you’re buying into this topic with an opinion bordering on passion, then the merry-go-round has begun.

If an alb and stole prevent me from bearing witness to the crucified, risen Christ, then the alb is not the problem. If a fitted men’s shirt and shorts – with appropriate footwear – meanthat I am better enabled to proclaim the Gospel, then we need to ask some serious questions.

We visit the sideshows because they avoid the real event. We talk incessantly about finance because it’s a simpler analysis than discerning – and then acting upon – God’s mission. The Synod conversation about our finances is not unimportant, but if we solve the financial issues before us and fail to comprehend how best to live as a community of faith, then we have only become better managers, not better disciples.

Another distraction is that of the “formula” where if we just perfect the church worship/small group/five-point sermon, everything will fall into place. I have preached recently in Mascot and Moree, Bankstown, Beecroft and Kurrajong and to think that one size fits all misses the subjective ministry of Jesus to centurions and fisher folk, women, children and gentiles. It also reduces the Gospel (and our experience of it) to a marketing exercise and fails to understand it as a reflection of the imagination of God.

How are we able to speak of Jesus to those around us? This is rarely a single, spontaneous moment, or the crafted technique to which I was first exposed during my uni years. This is the conversation which has ranged for hours, or years, around what is important for us: our relationships, our home, our politics, our safety, our world, our jobs, our fear, our hope.

This happens in the community in which people are made welcome, like the carols at Bendemeer, where the gathering of people singing and barbecuing is almost twice the village’s population.

This happens in the book club, or the refugee support group, or the young parents’ recovery time. The conversation reflects the value of those before us and their inherent value to our God.

We “bear our witness” in our lives – not only in the words we speak, but in the life we offer to others in hospitality, in community, in worship and God’s word.

By the way, I still have the Vinnie’s suit, if anyone needs one.

Making Room

I remember Christmas worship as a child, squeezing in beside my grandpa in pews designed for slightly fewer people. I recall comprehensive Christmas meals over the years with family and friends, as tasks were delegated so that the meal could be celebrated in all its glory, with even lounge chairs conscripted around the table and every fan on full.

I also recall the moment of uncertainty as new faces joined the table, invited because they were new in town, or to our family, or simply were in need of a welcome. The moment was only that, ameliorated by hospitality and Christmas pudding.

It’s not always easy to find space for new traditions. “We’ve always done it this way” is the catch cry for present openings, or whether the pudding has coins in it. As families grow, and shrink, and change, we discover that seafood actually can be as enjoyable as turkey, or that there have been decent carols written since the composer of ‘Away in a Manger’ stopped Jesus crying.

It’s not easy, but it is necessary.

We are invited into the astonishing Christmas story of God breaking into our world, but as the story grows in the gospel accounts, it almost appears that there might not be enough room. Whether the risk of Mary’s pregnancy, the No Vacancy sign at the Bethlehem local, or the rush into Egypt, the presence of Jesus in the world does not have an easy beginning.

There are echoes of this throughout the gospels, as Jesus is welcomed conditionally, or refused, by a number of people. The echoes grow louder as the shadow of the cross looms larger.

The last gospel reading before Advent reminds us that Jesus is present in the least likely – stranger, prisoner, hungry, destitute – so much so, that “Emmanuel, God With Us” becomes comprehensively profound, and not simply a Christmas hashtag.

Taking Jesus at his word, what does it mean to make room for him, when it is uncomfortable, even unpleasant? This question is asked of us in scripture, it is asked of us in the community of which are a part, and it is asked of us each time we hear the declaration of forgiveness, share Christ’s peace and break bread together.

This question begs larger ones of our discipleship. What does it mean for us to make room when we consider those whose lives, as I write this, are circumscribed by detention on Manus Island and Nauru, because they sought life for themselves and their family? What room can we offer those indigenous leaders and communities who sought to have their voices heard – when asked – and were refused? What is asked of us in the light of our nation’s comprehensive ‘Yes’ vote in the Same Sex Marriage postal survey?

In the humanity of Jesus, all humanity – all flesh – finds its worth.

We are the Uniting Church, formed for hospitality, by the embrace of God. We joined others at our creation, and have sought a more complete union ever since. We embrace different cultures, different worship and wrestle with the implications of looking and listening beyond ourselves.

How might we speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, or who are brushed aside? How can we welcome those whose value is dismissed, or demeaned?

When I consider our Church, and look at how we worship, witness and serve, I experience great hope. And when I consider what is possible if we open ourselves even more to the Spirit of God, then I am unnerved – wonderfully – at where God might lead us.

Shall we make room, commencing this Advent and Christmas, for the newness of God?

The traditional evangelistic question is whether we have invited Jesus into our hearts. Christmas declares something entirely more wonderful. The birth of Jesus is the declaration that God has indeed invited each and all of us into God’s own heart.

God has declared us welcome.

Marriage & Our Church

Greetings in the name of Emmanuel, our Lord Jesus Christ!

We have entered a new era in the life of our community and our church, with the new law passed by the Parliament this week legalising same sex marriage.  Many will find this time disconcerting, others will remain unconcerned and many will wish to celebrate. This is as true for our church as it is for our wider community.

The Uniting Church remains committed to further discernment, through prayer, biblical study, openness to the Holy Spirit, and conversation with other disciples and our community. This process will continue until the Assembly Meeting in July 2018.

At the heart of our discipleship is the question: how best can we bear witness to the crucified, risen Christ in the world around us?

When people want to polarise, blame, or use the language of violence, we will speak of God’s justice and reconciliation. When people condemn, or demean people’s humanity, we will be advocates declaring the wholeness we have in Jesus Christ. When people call for division, we will pray for the unity we discover in the Spirit of the living God.

This will be a challenging, even difficult time for many, as the world we know shifts around us. This will equally be a time when our LGBTIQ sisters and brothers hear themselves welcomed and affirmed. How we act now is a reflection of the way we follow Jesus Christ.

Pray for each other, for our community and for our leaders in the Church.

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

[Ephesians 4.1-5]

When the new law regarding Same Sex Marriage is finalised, there is no immediate change to the role of Uniting Church Ministers as Marriage Celebrants.

Uniting Church Ministers are given legal permission to marry under the Rites of the Uniting Church in Australia, and these rites cannot be changed until the National Assembly Meeting in July 2018 at the earliest.

This means that, if requested, a Minister cannot agree to marry a same sex couple, if and until the Marriage Rites are altered. This is probably accurate for the ministers and priests of most other faith traditions across Australia.

It is also important to note that no Uniting Church Minister is compelled to marry anyone, so is therefore free to refuse the request to perform any marriage ceremony. This status has been in place since the inception of the Uniting Church, and is true for all religious celebrants.

If you would like to discuss any of these issues, please contact your Minister, Pastor, or your Presbytery leadership. I am also very happy to speak with you, if you wish.

 

A Pastoral Statement

Greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus.

The week ahead will be challenging for our community and our church, as the results of the Government’s voluntary postal survey on same gender marriage will be released.

We are in challenging times facing a range of disturbing issues all of which go to our common humanity – our inherent worth to God and to each other. This affects how we speak and act and, as disciples of Jesus, we are called to reflect upon what the gospel asks of us.

This week we have been meeting together in Sydney and sharing our heart for the Church, the whole people of God.

Every human being is of equal value to God. From the creation story, to the birth of Jesus and our own baptism, we assert that every person is created in God’s image, and our worth is without question. Our humanity is made whole in Jesus Christ.

Whatever the result of the postal survey, many people in our community will feel hurt, some deeply. Our families and friends who are LGBTIQ have found the whole survey incredibly difficult, and indeed unsafe. Many of our families and friends in the broader community have also found this time disconcerting.

There has been a great deal of anger, fear and hurt, for which we grieve.

The question for us is how we will act as the church now, and in the weeks and months ahead. We must care for each other, acknowledging that most of our congregations will host a diversity of opinions, as does our community. We cannot use our roles in the church to tell people what to think, to criticise, or to abuse, others.

Ministers and those in specified ministry have particular responsibilities to demonstrate leadership that all with whom they engage, whether directly or through various social or other media platforms, hear and experience the witness of the gospel to the God given dignity of all people.

We are the Uniting Church, a wonderfully diverse community of faith, which is founded in the grace of God’s act in Jesus Christ.

We are responsible to, and for, each other. We need to pray for wisdom, courage and discernment. In this difficult season, we will look towards Christ and encourage others to do the same.

“God has given to all people in the Church the Holy Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Church’s call is to serve that end: to be a fellowship of reconciliation.”(Paragraph 3 Basis of Union).

Friends, when we allow the Spirit to shape us then our witness and love counters the hostility of the world and testifies to the reality of the risen crucified One.

If you need support please make contact with your Presbytery or Synod.

Be assured that we are praying for our whole church, and for the community in which we live.

Grace and peace,

Stuart McMillan, President

Rev. Sharon Hollis, Moderator, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania
Rev. Simon Hansford, Moderator, Synod of NSW and the ACT
Rev. David Baker, Moderator, Synod of Queensland
Rev. Sue Ellis, Moderator, Synod of South Australia
Rev. Thresi Mauboy, Moderator, Northern Synod
Rev. Steve Francis, Moderator, Synod of Western Australia

Echoes of God’s Voice

Close friends of mine have recently become engaged, and they have graciously asked me to celebrate for them on their wedding day. Their announcement and invitation have required me to consider, again, what lies at the heart of the marriage event.

Competing voices in our community – more strident and condemnatory with each media thread – claim marriage as being about children, or tradition, or love, and demand our consent, even our obeisance.

Always beware those who are certain beyond doubt and then mandate our compliance.

Whenever I celebrate a marriage, I talk about covenant – a choice to act in hope, founded on love. Covenant reflects God’s hopeful choice in loving us, a hope that welcomes, restores, heals, chastises, forgives (and seeks forgiveness), and loves.

The vows at the heart of the covenant are two people choosing, in hope, to love each other, when they are at their best, and when they are not.

“All that I am I give to you,
all that I have I share with you;
whatever the future holds,
I will love you and stand by you …”

When the vows are spoken, we hear an echo of the voice of God.

When the community surrounding the couple affirms those vows, we hear God’s voice again. The marriage covenant is surrounded by witnesses, whose role it is to encourage the couple with love and care, champagne and casseroles.

We act in hope because we know that some marriages will not endure and some will break. We know that there is injustice, even violence, in some marriages, which is intolerable.

We hope, because God embraces us in hope. Where might this hope lead us, as we live in our communities and bear witness to our God?

Starting A New Story

Fiona and I arrived home from Sydney, on the Thursday evening following the Synod Meeting, to find two ewes standing, quite composed, in the middle of our lawn. They had found their way through the paddock fence and had taken advantage of the garden, which had decidedly more green growth than the paddock from which they had escaped.

At four o’clock in the morning, they escaped again, leaving their lambs behind. The lambs were not happy and made their case. Therefore, we happily rose, caringly ushered the ewes to a reconciliation with their abandoned offspring and returned to bed.

It wasn’t the gentle return for which we had hoped. It was, however, a reminder that events like our Synod Meeting occur in the reality of our lives, and that the decisions we make are in the midst of our congregations and our community.

So much of what happened in the Synod meeting reminded us that we are a church at mission in the world.

Our two guest speakers – Joel and Hannah – placed our lives squarely amongst  everything, reminding us of both God’s grace and our response in hope. We crafted poems on the spot to offer a blessing to someone we value, and watched as the foundations of our faith – relationships with God and those we love – were reshaped by the crises and circumstances of our lives, and by God’s mercy.

The gathered Synod affirmed proposals about “Pathways” and “Pulse”, but they will only make sense as we enact them in the life of our Synod. Statements about mission and young people can be motherhood statements, or they can be declarations of intent; attending to the voice of God’s Spirit to reshape the mission priorities of our presbyteries and making decisions – sacrificial, generous, deliberate, but always hopeful decisions – about how we engage and grow our mission with young people.

Once again, we asserted the vital role of the rural life of our church. However, central questions remain. How do we reflect that in our sharing of resources, in our call process, in our formation of ministers both lay and ordained, in our decisions? How is our theology of ministry reflected in a church which has more and more resources harboured in the growing metropolitan areas, which are also in need?

Our worship was bookended by the St. Stephen’s pipe organ and the Terrigal Congregation jazz band, and we were generously served by a gifted team throughout our meeting. New songs were written to amplify our faith in Christ in the world in which we live, and they are available to congregations across our Synod.

We made a hopeful, challenging decision about the ministry in this Synod of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. We worked hard to listen to each other and resolved a way forward which will take grace and work, prayer and courage – and time.

The reshaping of the Synod Standing Committee may seem to be a mundane piece of news, but we hope it becomes a way of making decisions more effectively. The challenge will be how the prophetic voices will be present alongside those with other gifts of leadership.

We had conversations in Discernment Groups about Same Sex Marriage, asking how we bear witness in our seemingly scattered and somewhat divided communities – caring for those in need, living out justice, healing wounds, speaking prophetically and always offering hospitality.

We gave thanks to God for the gracious, pastoral leadership of Rev. Myung Hwa Park. Myung Hwa presented her final report and the Synod then reflected on what a gift she has been to our church.

A moment later, it seems, we celebrated the appointment of Rev. Jane Fry as Synod General Secretary, inducting Jane in the final worship event, as our Synod creates a new leadership team.

The Uniting Church asserts God’s mission places us in our community. We worship, witness and serve in our world, not immured in our church buildings. The Synod Meeting was hopeful and engaged, and we made decisions in that light. They will only become effective as we discern – together – God’s voice, as we act upon our decisions, and as we seek courage – not safety – for the story which lies ahead.

A Prayer for Synod

God of all, speak with us.

Creating, you spoke light and life and hope.

In our worship,
let us honour your presence;

in our deliberations,
move us to serve your mission;

in our decisions,
let us reflect the image
which is shaped by your breath and love.

Living and dying and rising, you recast everything.

Help us discover your courage and your joy
to live your hope and justice in our community;

enable us to trust you,
as we discern your call,
or struggle with what may appear mundane;

keep us faithful to the task in our hand –
to be your church, in worship, in witness and in service.

You breathe, and whisper, and sing
a story which seems beyond us
and yet is placed in the palms of our hands.

When we find consensus,
let us celebrate your guidance;

when we struggle to discern your voice,
keep us patient,
reminding us of our diverse lives and call;

have us mindful, always, of the world in which we live and move:
the world for which Christ died
and in which we bear witness
in our lives and words each day.

Creator, Word, Spirit,
lead us, that we may serve you well.

Amen.

Striving – & Limping

Holy God – in this precious hour, we pause
and gather to hear your word –
to do so, we break from our work responsibilities
and from our play fantasies
we move from our fears that overwhelm
and from our ambitions that are too strong.
Free us in these moments from every distraction,
that we may focus to listen,
that we may hear, that we may change. Amen.

– Walter Brueggemann

In these last few weeks, I have been inclined towards reflection. I have pondered change and its consequences; I have thought about what call means, in terms of our discipleship. I have considered some of its costs.

Slivers of beloved poetry and prose have found their way from my memory, about journey, new paths and change. I am hopeful that this new call in ministry will offer me opportunities to serve God in new ways and to bring my particular gifts to bear in the life of God’s church.

There is also cause for sadness, as with almost every ending.

I have loved serving in ministry at Southside.

I have loved sharing in worship and care and small groups and thinking things through and watching people grow and welcoming new folk and sharing meals and coffee and art and shovelling mulch and curly questions and decorating the sanctuary and planning for the future (even when it kept stalling and changing direction) and breaking bread and sharing wine and praying with and for people and working out our faith in Jesus Christ as a cluster of disciples.

Thank you for our time together.

Jacob’s story has held some fascination for me since college; it is the story about his wrestle in the dark (with God) which holds me most firmly. The agile trickster plays his last cards in this event and remains marked forever. The story ends with Jacob, freshly named and no longer agile, as he limps into his new future of reconciliation with his brother, Esau.

Discipleship marks us, sometimes even wounds us. This is not a palatable idea, as we live in a world where we have striven for comfort and security, where our lives are more comfortable than ever before.

In one breath we proclaim our ancestors in faith who served and died as witnesses to Jesus; in our next breath, we eschew any call to discipleship which may discomfort us.

We translate ‘cost’ into dollars and cents, while whittling our sense of call so it fits into the appropriately shaped hole. I’m confident it has ever been thus, which is why Jesus keeps talking about it.

I am confident that Jacob’s limp is inherent to his blessing by God, even though it is not the one which Jacob expected when he asked. Once Jacob was blessed in this way, his sidestep was not so prominent and he needed to face things properly.

He also needed to trust God more and his craftiness (dodgy dealing?) less.

Leaving Southside is costly for me, but the grief of leaving is a blessing for the ministry I have ahead of me – shared service, shared hope, shared lives.

I also believe it is an opportunity for Southside in new areas of ministry. This is a time of possibility for Southside, exploring new lay ministries, like Suzanne’s, as well as calling a new minister to placement. There is the creation of a new team, with Rev. Chris Wright at City, and – hopefully – a Young Families Worker alongside the placements at City & Southside and St. Andrew’s Village.

Grace and peace for the wrestling ahead, my sisters and brothers!

Simon

 

The Whole Story

I had a goodly number of reasons to be frustrated in the last week, and (almost) none of them was my fault. Some of them are insignificant and some less so. There were also several occasions of graciousness and blessing offered to me, and in this season of my life I am holding them close.

I have tried to not let those kinds of events – helpful and otherwise – define my sense of myself, or my understanding of the world. Hard moments are precisely that, and there are some which make us gasp, lost for words. But they are not the whole story.

There are moments, perhaps even tiny in the scale of human history, which give our hearts cause to beat joyfully. I saw a photograph of a friend holding a newborn baby which he had helped deliver in a Mosul refugee camp this week, life’s new wonder on his face. This is not the whole story.

We are caught in creation’s heartbeat, and have been since God first said yes to light and life. We are creatures of dust and breath and love, inherent to the world around us, in its wonder and its frailty. We are tempted to believe that we are entirely responsible, that our efforts alone address the brokenness and celebrate the wonders. This way leads to frustration and despair.

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them – they are more than the sand;
I come to the end – I am still with you.

We are not the whole story, and it is not in our hands. This is, and has forever been, in the hands of God.

How else do we face the trials, trivial and otherwise, which confront us? How else are we able to receive the blessings bestowed?

Listen for Paul’s Roman symphony; in the midst of the appalling exigencies confronting the Roman church, Paul tells us there is more – more glory, more justice, more hope. The struggles we face, with war and environmental disaster and diverse human cruelty, are not the whole story.

Paul is not naïve, writing in some sheltered theological workshop; he is writing to a church confronted by the empire’s fist. God has more for us, and the entire creation, in the hope of Jesus Christ.

As the world groans in what seems an interminable labour, the promise of new birth is grounded in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s not up to us, we are only invited to live the story out in every way we can.

We forgive and serve and hope, because of Jesus. We act and proclaim because of Jesus. And we hope, entirely, because of Jesus Christ, who is the whole story, forever.