Aftermath | Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) wrote at the time of the War in 1914-18, in which he served and was decorated. As we continue to promise, a century later, never to forget, Sassoon invites us to remember more truly what the story of service and sacrifice entails.

Have you forgotten yet? …
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same – and War’s a bloody game …
Have you forgotten yet? …
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz –
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench –
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”

Do you remember the hour of din before the attack –
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet? …
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget

In A Field | Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney and several other poets were asked to compose pieces in response to some of the older poetry arising from the First World War.

And there I was in the middle of a field,
The furrows once called “scores’ still with their gloss,
The tractor with its hoisted plough just gone
Snarling at an unexpected speed
Out on the road. Last of the jobs,
The windings had been ploughed, furrows turned
Three ply or four round each of the four sides
Of the breathing land, to mark it off
And out. Within that boundary now
Step the fleshy earth and follow
The long healed footprints of one who arrived
From nowhere, unfamiliar and de-mobbed,
In buttoned khaki and buffed army boots,
Bruising the turned-up acres of our back field
To stumble from the windings’ magic ring
And take me by a hand to lead me back
Through the same old gate into the yard
Where everyone has suddenly appeared,
All standing waiting.

The Wound in Time | Carol Ann Duffy

As we move towards Remembrance Day, I was thinking about how we remember, as we now hold only others’ stories, with no personal memory of that first global carnage.

There has been some searching poetry composed in recent years, in reflection on the centenary of the First World War. This is a recent, wrenching piece by Carol Ann Duffy, the British Poet Laureate.

It is the wound in Time. The century’s tides,
chanting their bitter psalms, cannot heal it.

Not the war to end all wars; death’s birthing place;
the earth nursing its ticking metal eggs, hatching
new carnage. But how could you know, brave
as belief as you boarded the boats, singing?
The end of God in the poisonous, shrapnelled air.
Poetry gargling its own blood. We sense it was love
you gave your world for; the town squares silent,
awaiting their cenotaphs. What happened next?
War. And after that? War. And now? War. War.
History might as well be water, chastising this shore;
for we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice.
Your faces drowning in the pages of the sea.

Life from Dust

The Lord said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”
Then the Lord said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them:
O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.
Thus says the Lord God to these bones:
I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.

In a language which seemed to arise from the red dust of this ancient continent, a man stood and prophesied in the company of Ezekiel. In a tongue which spoke forty millennia before Ezekiel heard God’s call, before Sarai and Abram left their country under God’s command, the Uniting Church Assembly attended to the voice of God.

The language was Djambarrpuyngu, and its voice was Djawut Gondarra who, with his wife Yurranydjil, have brought a translation of the Old Testament text into their language.

How do we attend to the voice of God in our world? How do we, under God’s compelling word, speak life to those consigned to dust?

Our convocation wrestled with God, scripture, our tradition and each other, as we sought to understand what these questions mean, and where they lead. We worshipped and sang; in our bible studies, we were challenged about how we “extend the mat” of hospitality to the community and the creation. We installed Dr Deidre Palmer, our new President, and elected Rev. Sharon Hollis to follow her in 2020.

When we affirm our creation in the image of God, we open ourselves to an ever deepening understanding of our relationships with each other.

This informed our engagement with the critical issue of domestic violence; even with our strong statement about what we believe and how we chose to act, we begin with God’s image – both for survivors and for those who commit harm. There is much more to be done and we have committed our Church to that action.

The breadth of our church, and our depth, were revealed as we considered how to increase our hospitality to those who live with disabilities. This is not simply about wheelchair access and hearing loops, but about how we serve people who live with a range of challenges like autism spectrum disorder, or mental illness. This is about safety and hospitality, about providing a space – and a community – where each person experiences true welcome.

The most marked conversation in the Assembly was about marriage. This also begins with our understanding of who we are, both in our creation and, in Christ. This was not easy for our gathered church, nor has it been in our congregations.

The decision was to make two statements of belief about marriage, one of which affirms traditional marriage, and one of which affirms marriage as being between two people. These two statements can be held together, or in tension, and people are free to agree with both, or simply one. For many this is a difficult challenge, and some deem it almost beyond them. For others, it is a realisation that God might be speaking a new word for our church.

Our unity is in Christ alone, it is Christ to whom we turn, and it is Christ who will lead us in this journey.

We considered how we can best serve our First Peoples, our history and our future, when we acted to affirm their sovereignty. The conversation, as with every major proposal at the Assembly, is conducted in the context of the world around us – the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the response – and our church felt it necessary to make this statement.

We struggled to speak effectively and to move forward on legalised assisted dying, which is another pressing issue in our community.

We affirmed – again – our commitment to care for God’s creation, made pertinent as drought pervades our land.

The Working Groups reflected discipleship in action; engaging with God’s word and each other to discern a resolution. The stories of prayerful faithfulness and integrity were heard consistently throughout the week.

How do we attend to the voice of God in our world? How do we, under God’s compelling word, speak life to those consigned to dust?

This has always been our calling, and our struggle, as we discern how best to speak and act in the community in which we live and bear witness. As we consider the Church’s decisions, we begin and end with Jesus Christ, our hope and our salvation. None of these decisions was taken lightly, or selfishly, but seeking to be responsible for our Church and its witness in our world.

Pray for each other, and for those who struggle. Worship together, seek God’s blessing for each other. I ask you also to pray for me in the days ahead, and I commit to continue praying for all of you.

Through human witness in word and action, and in the power of the Holy Spirit,
Christ reaches out to command attention and awaken faith;
he calls people into the fellowship of his sufferings, to be the disciples of a crucified Lord;
in his own strange way Christ constitutes, rules and renews them as his Church.   

We Need To Talk …

You know that feeling when your partner, or employer, or doctor, says “We need to talk”? There is that sense of trepidation, even if they declare that there is nothing to worry about. The relationship moves, suddenly, to a new level.

Some folk avoid these conversations at all costs. Sometimes it seems too hard, or we would rather be left in the dark. Sometimes the news is not easy to hear.

And sometimes our conversation heralds a new beginning.

I’ve been trundling around worship and other gatherings since October last year, talking about our life together, as disciples in the Uniting Church. I have heard and seen how we are serving God and our communities across our Synod. I am challenged and thankful by how much God is doing – and inviting us to experience – in the ministry we offer.

In these last few months our sense of urgency, about needing to talk, has grown.

The question, resolved by the majority of our community, and legally by our parliament, is before us as a community of faith. The Uniting Church has elected to engage deliberately, while our friends in other faith traditions watch us and wonder, knowing that people in every congregation across every church and beyond, are seeking to understand what same gender marriage means for our community.

So, I have invited people across our Synod to talk, from congregations and presbyteries, ordained and lay, of every age and background.

Two questions guide the conversations:

How will we bear witness to Jesus Christ, within our community, as we have this conversation?

How will we find a way forward, together, with Christ?

Some people arrive with their minds made up, some come with the certainty of what God intends, while many come ready to hear – and discuss – how we can be the church, while we seek to understand and resolve an issue which appears difficult and costly. Some people will not come through fear, or cynicism, or woundedness. All of these return us to our guiding questions.

As I have mentioned in our Conversations so far, have you talked with your hairdresser, or your barista, or your mechanic, about marriage? Or have you simply kept your own counsel and talked with the folk with whom you agree?

How might the Spirit whisper a new word to us about our witness in the world?

Are we brave enough to pray honestly that God will bring us to resurrection on this (and other) challenges? Resurrection is not what we expect, nor does it always appear as we hoped. We are in the hands of the risen, crucified Lord.

Let us commit ourselves to finding our way, together.

Please, pray for our church and for each other; please, pray for our leadership; please, pray for me.

The Church’s call is to serve that end: to be a fellowship of reconciliation, a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself.

#moderatorinsession since Easter: Pitt Street, Tamworth Southside, West Epping, North Ryde, St. David’s Haberfield, Mangrove Mountain, Bathurst and Adamstown congregations. Looking ahead: Windsor, Ebenezer, Broken Bay, National Assembly (Victoria) and Broken Hill

#talkingmarriage: Warner’s Bay, Turramurra, Ramsgate, Wesley Canberra, Bowral, Centre for Ministry, Carcoar, St. Stephen’s Macquarie Street, Wagga and Tamworth

 

A Ridiculous, Wonderful Thing

Hope can seem a fragile thing.

I had the honour last night of babysitting the child of some dear friends. He woke once only, briefly, during the night, in a moment of unrest. For a longer moment I considered the hopes which rest upon him, from those who love him: hope for living an honourable life, for relationships and experiences to bless and strengthen him.

Hope can seem fragile, but in the life of this child, it is less so. He has two wonderful parents who love each other, and him. He has grandparents, aunts and uncles – family and honorary – gathered and holding him. He has communities of faith and nurture around him as far as the heart can hope.

This child’s story is, wonderfully, not unique. Neither, sadly, is it true for each and every child.

When we hope in our lives, it can seem like whimsy or desperation: that it rains, or that a specific event (exam, grand final, job interview) comes good. Hoping for something as elusive as the weather turning can be flimsy indeed.

As disciples of Jesus, we are inherently people of hope, born not of desperation, but from all that we have seen and heard, and experienced in Jesus Christ.

We hope because of those around us, and before us, who tell us the reason for their hope. We act and live in hope because our ground is shaped by the one whose love breathed life into the very dust.

We hope because the act designed to extinguish it was overcome by God’s own act in Jesus. We look to the future of creation, and of ourselves, because violence and empire were insufficient to quench God’s own love and forgiveness.

Remind each other.

Encourage each other.

Let others know what makes your heart beat and your head lift.

And when the days are hard, turn to others to remember that our hope is held, not in whimsy or desperation, but in a God who intends not just to love, but to restore all of history and all of creation. And all of us.

A story for each of us, as far as our hearts can hope.

“And hope is like love…a ridiculous, wonderful, powerful thing.”
– Kate DiCamillo; The Tale of Despereaux

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.