A New Economy

At the conclusion of an insightful and thought-provoking review, Jon Piccini writes:
“If contemporary debates in Britain on the place of the empire in national memory are anything to go by, the accumulation of evidence for colonialism’s dark past – from mass violence in Kenya to concocted constitutional crises in Australia – only cements entrenched views, driving partisans and apologists to new heights of fantasy and self-soothing. Critics, then, cannot rely on history itself to change well-established patterns of thought, prejudice, and privilege. Only the hard slog of politics can do that.”[1]

Piccini’s review is of two new books about the correspondence between Sir John Kerr and Martin Charteris, the private secretary of Queen Elizabeth II, at the time of the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor Government in 1975.

This piece is not about these books, apart from in passing. Piccini notes that the two works he is reviewing approach the event from starkly contrasting perspectives and argues, convincingly, that almost everyone who reads the books will do so in order to have their points of view reinforced, rather than challenged, or subverted.

My questions arise from this ultimate paragraph and, in particular, the final two sentences.

Do these sentences have any bearing as we consider the great issues of our time: the effects of human activity upon our climate, both in punishment and remediation; the place of privacy and the individual in a world connected, through technology, beyond the control of most citizens; the nature of identity when gender and sexuality are suddenly not what we have been historically and erroneously told they are; our changing world – individual, communal and political – in the face of pandemics?

We know that, amongst other things, when we read literature, history and theology, where we stand determines what we see and what we do not see.[2] The illusion of objectivity has proved to be precisely that; we know that the dominant cultural group in any community usually has pre-eminence over the telling of history and the interpretation of events which occur. We are also aware that when less dominant groups seek to identify – and proclaim – their own stories, the dominant grouping often feels significant discomfort.

As an ordained Minister in the Protestant Christian tradition, and as an educated, middle-aged, Anglo-Celtic male, I am conscious that I am a member of what has traditionally been a dominant group in the life of the Church and, indeed, the community in the Global North.

My initial reading of any text (or, indeed, any event) will, almost reflexively, be courtesy of the lens through which I have been trained to look. How will I pay proper attention to those who were not educated in the way I have been? How will I attend, respectfully, to women, people of colour, people of other language, culture, sexuality and identity than my own?

How will my opinions be subverted, change and grow?

When we were taught at school that something is “historical”, it usually implied that there was consensus about an event, its causes and consequences. The intellectual and historical paucity of this argument is revealed in debates as diverse as the causes of the First World War, the arrival of Europeans in Australia, the Shoah, and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Many of my culture and background, as inheritors of the Enlightenment, believe that reason will, finally, win out. Is this still true? There is clear evidence that, for a significant part of our community, anecdote and personal experience are at least as valid as historical events.

Moreover, if, just for a moment, we substitute “science” for “history” in the review’s penultimate sentence, we wade into even deeper difficulty. Those who argue for the objective nature of peer-reviewed results and evidence, for statistical precision, have experienced a difficult decade or two, as the decline of trust in institutions has leeched into the faculties of the sciences. Many leading scientists have said they were poorly equipped to respond to such a transformation.

Even worse, the debates have become polarised, with polemic in many forms taking the place of reasoned, passionate debate. This is not about education, although that does play a role. This is about demonising those who think differently, believing that a difference of opinion is worthy of – even demands – condemnation. Watching the political and social chaos in the United Kingdom and the United States in the response to the COVID 19 pandemic is evidence enough that even a crisis common to humanity does not guarantee an appropriate response.

Piccini argues that intent, political intent, is necessary. We must decide to engage, then to create and to drive change.   

Critics, then, cannot rely on history itself to change well-established patterns of thought, prejudice, and privilege. Only the hard slog of politics can do that.

So, what does this mean for the witness of those who follow Christ? We know, despite our pious protestations, that the Church is always influenced – for good and, for ill – by the community in which it worships, witnesses and serves.

Much of traditional apologetics in the Church argues from the historical event of Jesus’ existence, and thus his birth, death and the wonderful improbability of his resurrection.

If Piccini is correct, an argument on its own is insufficient. To present from the scriptural text, and to argue from history will not be enough.

What, then, are the politics of God’s economy?

We must tell the stories of what faith means – to me, to us. We need to engage in the consequences of our discipleship and talk about them; not the great worship team of which we are a part, but the simple faith-in-action which has changed lives, or discovered hopes, or salved wounds.

We need to be able to seek forgiveness from people when they have been told that because of who they are, they have no welcome in the hope of God for the world. People throughout history have been condemned because of wounds they carry, or the lives they lead, or because of their gender, culture, race, sexuality or position in the world to which they have been assigned, to believe that they have no place in the promise of God.

We also need to be able to offer forgiveness, and to mean it. Some will come, so broken by their circumstance, or their choice, that they believe themselves beyond the reach of mercy, even God’s mercy. We must embody the hospitality of God.

How willing am I to be transformed by each encounter and not to believe myself the sole dispenser of mercy and hope?

The witness we bear is not solely historical, it is for the present and for the future. We must take account of the world in which we live. Our faith is never anonymous; it bears our likeness, but first it bears the image of Jesus.

We must be able to welcome people into a community, even a small one, in which the integrity of this faith is borne out.

Let us not forget the Spirit of the risen, crucified One. The winsome, whimsical presence of the Holy Spirit is present in the world, before us, opening ears and hearts (inescapably my own) to the wonder of Jesus Christ.

Am I willing to live like this?

Am I willing to be a citizen, active in the politics of the economy of the living God?

[1] Jon Piccini; ‘An Endless Struggle with the Past’ Australian Book Review #428, pp.9-10

[2] Steve de Shazer; “Where you stand determines what you see and what you do not see; it determines also the angle you see it from; a change in where you stand changes everything.”

Loving God. & Neighbour.

It’s a long way from Dubbo to Sydney, especially when you’re in need of medical help.

I have worked for almost thirty years in rural and regional communities across New South Wales, and the resources we expect at our fingertips in Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong are beyond the reach of many people in other places.

If the medical help you need is linked to drug dependency, then rural people are consistently told that the nearest support is more than four hundred kilometres and a long waiting list away. I have heard countless stories from parents and families, about their despair at our current approach to drugs and the lack of services for the people they love, who are asking for help – now.

It is why the Uniting Church (NSW and ACT) is such a strong advocate for changing our drug laws. It’s why so many groups across our community are echoing our call.

Drug dependence is often misunderstood as a predominately urban issue. The reality is regional and rural areas of our country suffer a double blow on this issue.

Families, wherever they are, suffer the same loss and devastation if their loved ones develop drug dependence. However, country areas frequently lack the necessary services for drug treatment that are predominately situated in our cities.

This was the case with Dubbo and the story of Shantell – a Dubbo resident who wanted to receive treatment for her drug use, but the closest, suitable treatment was four hundred kilometres away in Sydney.

It’s not just the distance. Relocating for treatment can be really difficult, especially if you have children. There is also the chronic lack of places to access treatment – the wait can be over eighteen months.

It is a long way away from Dubbo to Sydney. In 2018 I walked part of the way, alongside many others, joining our Long Walk to Treatment as we sought to draw attention to the issue of fairer treatment for those people in regional areas who live with drug dependency.

Last month, the NSW Government announced it would allocate $7.5m to set up a new treatment centre in Dubbo. It was a very welcome move. But we need to do more.

I welcome news that the NSW Government is considering changing the law regarding small quantities of drugs and instead introduce a three-strike warning system.

These sensible measures are the sign of a Government that is listening to the medical and legal experts and making laws based on the evidence.

Too many people who use drugs are made to live in the shadows, looked down upon with shame and stigma and therefore don’t seek help because of our current drug laws.

We all want a society in which all people are valued, and their dignity as human beings recognised.

Parents want to know that their kids will come home safe from a night out. They also want to know that if their children develop drug dependency, our community will help keep them safe until they can get treatment. This move by the NSW government is to be applauded.

This long-awaited change is, currently, a flicker of hope. It has yet to be passed by Cabinet. No doubt there will be those critics in our community who will argue against doing anything which is not punitive.

But if you listen to the experts, as I have during my years in ministry and as Moderator, you will hear former police commissioners like Mick Palmer, you will hear doctors and other health experts, policy wonks, lawyers and community workers all speak about the importance of treating drug dependency as a health and social issue.

It may surprise many people to find a church on the frontline of such a campaign. It should be expected – Jesus’s essential command is “Love God and Love Your Neighbour”. We are here in this debate, because our faith places us here; caring for people and their families especially when we know the harm drug dependency is causing in our community.

The impact of drug dependency is being exacerbated by our approach to policing drug laws and punishing those who use even small amounts of drugs. It means those who might otherwise seek help for drug dependency, hide in the shadows of society, shamed.

When we treat drug use as a health and social issue – and this government proposal is an initial step in that direction – police will have greater resources to be tough on large-scale drug trafficking and violent crime.

In this we have the support of over sixty organisations as part of the Fair Treatment Coalition that we established and now counts amongst its members organisations representing legal, medical, health, community and church groups.

And of course, the Uniting Church, through its service arm Uniting, runs the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre at King Cross which has also taught us much about how to respond with compassion to those people who use drugs.

This proposal by the NSW Government is a step in the right direction. It should be encouraged and applauded; I hope people in NSW will give it their support and let their local MP know they are behind such a change.

Put simply, it will bring people nearer to help and hope. It will save lives.

This piece appeared in Guardian Australia on 7th December 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/dec/07/we-will-save-lives-in-regional-australia-by-treating-drug-use-as-a-health-issue-not-a-criminal-one

God Says Yes.

As our year is bundled into the splendour of Christmas celebration, take some time to consider the artistry of God’s imagination.

As we discover ourselves slowly emerging from the rigours of the last few years – not only the strictures of the coronavirus, but the fear of the bushfires and the exhaustion of the drought for so many – look at the wonder not only of God’s promise, but the way in which God proclaims it.

All too easily our diaries keep moving us forward, allowing us barely a moment to ponder what God has done in Jesus’ birth. In Jesus, God has transformed everything, and everyone.

It begins, as always, with God.

In the beginning, God.

This God, who has always intended life, knowing our brokenness and our beauty, declares life and hope in the birth of Jesus.

God breaks into the world on the margins, where none expects anything. Under the dead, dreadful hand of empire, God speaks life through a couple of little consequence, to nameless stock workers and a handful of foreign mages.

Imagine this God who, from the stuff of the stars and the dust of the earth, has shaped us. Imagine this God who called us from the very beginning, by our name, and with love.

Is this not wonderfully amplified in the birth of Jesus?

This is not some comfortable story of a benevolent nonna, ignoring our misdeeds and airbrushing our failures. This is a God who, because of our need, and because of God’s own intent, has acted in Jesus to save those crushed under the boot of empire, and also those who wear the boots.

This is where I invite you to contemplate how God has acted. Imagine a God who has chosen to look exactly like us, in the same circumstance as each of us, born. Is there any greater affirmation of our humanity than God embracing it?

Immediately the trials and celebrations of our life are not distant to our God; the embrace of friends and family, the grief of loss, the injustices many experience, are known by the one whose breath is inherent to each of us. In Jesus, the fullness of our lives is embraced by the fullness of God.

And of all years, this Christmas, when isolation has been the story for young and old, for families and communities and nations. Our faith declares that God has drawn near to us in Jesus Christ, in a year when proximity has been prohibited. In a season when shaking hands and passing peace have been forbidden, at Christmas God embraces each of us.

In the simplicity of a baby’s birth, we hear the imagination of God’s yes. This story is welcomed with astonishment by the least, yet missed by monarchs, perhaps because the powerful always assume God has guaranteed their place and the powerless are surprised that God will scarcely bother with them at all.

Can we imagine Christmas worship with the hope of God’s promise in Jesus, despite our changed circumstances? We must insist upon the promise of God most especially this year, and every year.

How shall we celebrate this Christmas, when we need to mute our singing and gather at arms’ length? We cannot let fear of infection dilute the wonder of what God has done, we cannot let the lack of our singing restrain our celebrations. When we have been told that the only way to be safe is by being distant from each other, we proclaim that by coming close to all of us, God has indeed brought life.

In Jesus, God says yes to forgiveness, to justice, to healing. In Jesus’ birth, God embraces those on the edges, those unnamed, those our community brushes aside. When we believe that we are beyond the reach of God’s mercy, outside the hope of God’s love, Christmas asserts that none of us is beyond God finding each of us, welcoming us, and bringing us home.

Christmas assures us that God is never distant. In Jesus, God says yes.

Living to Remember

25th Annual Remembrance Ceremony:
for those who lose their lives to illicit drugs
Weston Park, Yarralumla; Monday, 26th October 2020

I am struck by the concept of remembering, which is the central reason we are here.

Someone we love has died because of drug dependence, and we are here to remember them, to say their name again.

In my job, there are celebrations, like yesterday when a ninety-seven year old colleague was acknowledged for his history of service in the church and for his country. I attend Anzac Day ceremonies, where remembering is both about honouring those who serve, and about our grief.

I lead funerals, where grief and loss are integral as people try to make sense of what is happening in their lives.

Remembering can sound passive, as if that is all we can do. As if it is nothing.

But remembering is vital. We have read their names, but we are already offering more.

We recall the lives we have shared with someone who has died, we talk about their face, and their voice and when we held their hands. We remember the parties, and the wonderful things we did, and the stupid things we did. When we tell the stories, we laugh and weep together, and our hearts and lives become slightly stronger.

Remembering and grief sit together, as we are now.

But remembering is more.

There’s a hymn, written in the last twenty-five years, about the horrific cost of war, and those left behind. The last line invites us to “remember forward to a world restored”; remembering is an act of courage and hope and change.

We remember today all those we have named, those we love. And in our remembering we assert the value of those we have loved and those we know around us who are struggling with drug use and a system which is not serving them – or us – well on this.

Our presence here today, our remembering, asserts the inherent value of those who have died. We refuse to see them as collateral in some politically, or culturally-styled “war on drugs”, but as members of our families, our friends, as people wrestling with addiction and often other compelling issues in their lives.

There is also anger, as we recall what might have happened if things had been different, if we had had better resources for treatment, a more hopeful focus on those things which sought to bring people back to life, to community and family. 

We are here, once again, to name this as a health and social issue, and not a criminal one. We are here to declare, once again, that the huge amount of money and other resources poured into criminalising and punishing drug users could be better invested in treatment and health care. We know, from medical experts, from legal and judicial experts, and from experienced police, that justice, hope and economic common sense make this a compelling argument.

This is the reason the Uniting Church, our justice arm, Uniting, and so many other legal, medical and community groups support Fair Treatment.       

Our remembering affirms the courage and work of so many family and friends, people like Marion McConnell and Bill Bush, and all those who advocate for change, to drive law reform on drug use, so that we address the deeper causes, not just the symptoms, and look at treatment and restoration as opposed to punishment.  

As we know, there are debates happening right now on drug use, and drug decriminalisation, and even legalisation of some drugs. This is an important and difficult and necessary conversation, and we are engaged, as we need to be. The conversation will move when the facts are established, but will move more powerfully when our experiences are.

The stories we carry are valuable and need to be heard, if we are able to tell them. It is by the telling of our stories that statistics become people, that news items become human beings, that arms’ length becomes hand in hand. 

This week in the life of the church ends with All Saints Day, which is where Hallowe’en found its beginning. Saints are those not those astringent, “nice” people, who never cause trouble. They are people who are passionate, prophetic and engaged, with dirt under their fingernails, who are often found badgering those in power for change, or hope, or justice.

My ministry is established in the hope of a God who always remembers us; whose first and last act is to love and bring life; who, in the worst moments of our lives, is with us.

As we remember those we love who have died, we remember those
who have helped us find our way,
who have helped speak the name of those we have lost, 
who have helped us learn to sing and stamp our feet,
who have continued to cry out for justice,
who have helped us to remember.

Being Served … & Serving

The Uniting Church will seek ways in which the baptized may have confirmed to them the promises of God, and be led to deeper commitment to the faith and service into which they have been baptized. [Basis of Union, par. 12]

It seems the pandemic has bookended and pervaded every conversation since March. I noted with some friends that other, important things have slipped past, unremarked. If nothing else, being sequestered at home for lengths of time has given me the chance to reflect.

In the last couple of months, three older friends of mine have died. Three men, two and three decades my senior, all of whom were members of Dubbo Congregation, my first placement. I have seen all three of them less in these last years than I would have wished, but time and distance – and everything else – intervened.

Dick was a retired Minister (we had been warned at College about retired Minsters…) who, from our first meeting, was a support to me. In ways both implicit and explicit, Dick taught me about ministry, about paying attention and waiting and listening, about struggles and speaking up and leading when the time was right.

Dick had retired early due to an illness which hindered his ability to preach and lead worship, significant in his ministry. Something he had learnt out of his wisdom and pain, was how to receive the elements of the eucharist, once again, after four decades of presiding over the bread and wine, then offering them as sacrament. Dick offered his wisdom to me instead.

My original prayer partner was Denis and we met weekly in my study for years. I learnt to wait, to listen, to pray. Denis taught me to pay attention to the living God and the lives of people around me, so that prayer – and all aspects of my ministry – might be better informed.

My struggle with stillness surprises no-one who knows me and yet it was Denis’ leadership which kept me seated and still for an hour each week. Denis’ patience with me exemplified what I have always needed to understand, and enact, so that I am able to pray more fully into the presence of God for the concerns and wonders of the world around me.

My third friend, Brian, informed my faith and life in a different way. Brian took me out west, to the desert country, teaching all my family about “the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended, and at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars”.

My first strong memory is Brian taking me to a riverbed outside Dubbo in his 80 series Land Cruiser, bogging it deliberately, putting me in the driving seat and saying, “Get us out of here. Don’t worry, you can’t break it”.

We bought an old Cruiser (80 series, naturally) soon afterwards, and for several holidays journeyed with Brian and his family up and down western Queensland and New South Wales, off road and on, talking about faith in Christ, what tyres run best, raising a family, why it’s dangerous to camp in riverbeds, forgiveness, and the majesty of camp oven cuisine.

Three godly men, who gave out of their faithfulness and in full awareness of their own frailty. Three disciples of Jesus, who discipled me – and many others – in their turn.

In this season of our Church’s life, we can grieve the loss of worship and community as we have known it for so long. We can look for ways to sing our faith when we cannot sing as we always have. Preaching has moved online, so that we can hear a sermon as easily from overseas, or from other times, as we can from our local preachers.

Discipleship remains, vital and indispensable. We pay attention to the lives of others, offering fractions of our experience and stories of our life in Christ, to guide them as we have, in our turn, been led. Graciousness and frailty, strength and good humour. Faith earthed in Jesus Christ and elevated by the Spirit of that same Christ.

It takes time and decision. It takes others; for me there have been many women and men who have challenged, blessed and chastised. It requires the hope we have in Christ.

We have chosen to follow Jesus, we are called to invite others to share our road.

Dick. Denis. Brian. May they rest in peace. May they rise again in glory.

Crisis? Opportunity.

There’s a café on the mezzanine floor of our Synod offices where you don’t meet if you want to discuss anything confidential. People and their friends from across the Synod meet there; no gathering remains secret when you order a long black from George’s.

Except for this season.

Like cafés and restaurants in every CBD across the world, it has sat, almost empty, since March. I was there with friends a week ago and we talked with the owner about the financial crisis for him and his staff, echoed in small businesses in Sydney and Melbourne, and London and Paris.

It focuses the mind. Does it focus our mission?

Like many, I have been in zoom and other online events ad infinitum since the pandemic began – meetings and birthdays and morning teas and worship – and the technology thrill has faded somewhat. When I meet with people online, we have thoughtful conversations about hospitality and discipleship, about including those without internet access or ability, about how we will face this challenge.

Why are we only asking these vital questions now?

What might the Spirit be saying to the church as the pandemic labyrinth unveils itself? All too hastily some of us have refused the risk, holding our collective breath, or cutting and pasting our worship onto various media, waiting for the virus to extinguish itself.

Many of us, however, have asked critical questions about our worship, witness and service; realising, perhaps, that we needed to be asking them each week for the last four decades. Still others have embraced this time as opportunity, because that is how we understand our life in Christ.

How shall we bear witness to the risen, crucified One? What will flavour our hospitality, as we invite people into our community of faith?

Neither our faith in Jesus Christ, nor our identity as disciples in the Uniting Church invites us simply to survive. If our first consideration is ourselves, we are neglecting the primary call of discpleship, to love our God and love our neighbour as ourselves.

The rigorous challenges of our faith have not arisen due to COVID-19, they are present always. It is only now, when our patterns of church and neighbourhood are comprehensively unsettled, that many of us dare to test the assertion that God will provide.

There are wonderful stories of creative, generous worship, thoughtful discipleship and gracious hospitality as we meet the opportunity of this coronavirus season. I give thanks to God for faithful disciples and congregations, attending to the whisper and song of the Spirit.

Christ who is present when he is preached among people is the Word of God who acquits the guilty, who gives life to the dead and who brings into being what otherwise could not exist.                                                                          [Basis of Union, para.4]

This is who we are called to be.

How will I care for my friend in his café?

How will we trust ourselves to the Holy Spirit, so that our words will articulate the hope which gives us life – and offer that hope to others?

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.                      [Basis of Union, para.4]

Into the midst of it.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. [Matthew 10.37-39]

The celebration of forty-three years is neither a noteworthy birthday, nor an anniversary of particular moment. The importance of our Uniting Church anniversary is not the number, but the reminder of why God called us to unite, and the purpose for which God has called us.  

As our community and our world try to navigate the new paths bulldozed by COVID 19, we are also caught up in the vital and ongoing crisis of racism. People are trying to distance themselves socially, while seeking to register their voice and presence about how we must give value to the majority of the world’s population – those who are not fair-skinned.

As Jesus’ disciples, we are in the midst of this. We must be.

It is not simply about missing each other in our congregations. It is far more than debates about whether or not we can sing when we gather. It is about the witness that we bear.

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. [Basis of Union, Para. 3]

The one we follow, Jesus Christ, leads us into the midst of the community in which we live. So we are called to stand with all who experience the obscenity of racism, and stand before all those who would seek to decry its potent weight. When someone asserts that #BlackLivesMatter, we challenge those who would parse the language to avoid responsibility, and seek to raise the voices of those whose lives are accustomed to being silenced.

When Jesus Christ died and was raised for each and every person in history, the last became the first.

While we learn what our renovated social life looks like, avoiding handshakes and hugs with our serially-washed hands, we must address deeper concerns – caring for the frail and elderly in our community, learning again how to live and celebrate and grieve and worship – because fear and anger bear fruit faster than reason or science.

We will attend to those for whom home was unsafe; we will support those for whom isolation resulted in brokenness, or despair; we will live out justice and compassion for those who felt discarded, or lost when a virus changed everything.

We bear witness as a community which offers hospitality and mercy, which is precisely how we found life in Jesus Christ.

Our Church was formed during the Cold War, just after the war in Vietnam had ended. The world was changing rapidly, and the worldwide church was facing headwinds for which it was not prepared. The Australian political landscape was scarred from the dismissal of the Whitlam Government, and we were facing waves of refugees, born of our catastrophic misadventure in South East Asia.

The last, first. Voices for those silenced. Valuing those who appear different. Hospitality. Mercy.

A community in which Christ may work and bear witness to himself.

A risky, costly, wonderful calling.

Some of us might dream that we could return to what church and life were like before the virus. More of us might want to seek refuge within our church and close our eyes and hearts to those whose lives are beyond our doors. A few of us might even wish to travel back four decades and start again (or not start at all!)

We find our life neither in shelter, nor in nostalgia. We find our life in one place – Jesus Christ.

Our Uniting Church finds its life when it “preaches Christ the risen crucified One and confesses him as Lord to the glory of God the Father”. We have been called, never for our own, but for Christ’s sake.  

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

May you discover the new life to which Christ calls you, each and every day.

Virtual Hospitality

I conducted a marriage interview on the weekend, for a delightful young couple I have known for some time. They came round to the house, as they have many times in the past. On the morning of their visit we realised that there had been almost no visitors to our home in nearly three months.

We started tidying, Fiona cooked a slice and, for a short moment, we felt slightly discombobulated. When they arrived, we nodded with affection and appreciation (handshakes, kisses and hugs sadly absent!) and welcomed them, once more, into our home.

We have tried to ensure that our home has always been an open one for friends and guests alike. Yet, due to this season of pandemic and response, almost no one has passed, physically, over the front step since the beginning of March.

We have, however, had loads of guests – pastoral and worshipful, meetingful and familial – in the last trimester. We have gathered the church from across the Synod and beyond, heard fine sermons and shared in Saltbush (and several other) Cafés. Our family has blown out virtual birthday candles, and good friends living in English isolation have shared their breakfast with us while we had dinner.

The challenge of physical isolation has been met and, occasionally, overcome by the blessing of meeting more people in a day than I might normally meet in a week. I have shared worship in Ballina in the morning, popped into Bathurst morning tea, slipped past Bowral’s Facebook Sunday worship and completed my day in Saltbush Café that afternoon.

Always welcome, and certainly blessed.

We have asked, again and again in the last few months, what does discipleship look like in this different time? What does mission look and sound like?

We can begin, as we have always needed to, with hospitality. Not words made tepid by repetition like tolerance and inclusion, but the deliberate act of making people welcome and safe.

Whenever we are able to worship together again with each other, physically, we need to remember what we have learned from this time. Those who could not and would not come to church, came to online worship. Those who did not feel safe in small groups could watch and share in a zoom café. Those who felt disconnected found a new way to connect.

How shall we show hospitality – in the new ways, in the old ways, in the ways in which our God has always made us welcome?

Originally written for Ruminations,
the rural journal for the Synod of NSW & ACT,
Uniting Church in Australia

A Pastoral Letter

Greetings in this Pentecost season.

We are finding our way into this new stage, of living differently as a church and community with the challenges of COVID 19. Many of us have learned afresh how to be the church in physical isolation, worshipping and gathering, serving and singing – wonderfully – in new ways.

Some of us have struggled, with loneliness or uncertainty; resources have been hard to access, or technology out of our reach.   

My mind has turned a lot recently to the extraordinary book of Exodus, when Moses has led the people of Israel out of Egypt and the gloss of triumphant escape has started to wear off. Suddenly, captivity under Pharaoh doesn’t look too bad, as they wander in the wilderness, waiting for a future.

Isolation has been a challenge for almost everyone. However, as we try to negotiate living and worshipping in slowly-restored numbers, with physical distancing, complying with guidelines and wondering about our safety in the new environment, isolation might begin to look pretty palatable.

You will have received new guidelines for worship and gatherings, for funerals and weddings and small groups. They may appear to be pretty onerous. This is about caring for people at risk, for people we know and love, and for the risks to our faith communities and the wider community around us.

How will we attend to God’s Spirit leading us through these times? This is new territory for us, and uncertainty can creep in. How are we the people of God, worshipping, witnessing and serving, in this new terrain?

May I suggest that perhaps we are where we are meant to be? What if God intends to use us precisely here?

We need to learn how to adapt and change so that we can welcome new people into discipleship and faith. We need to prioritise children and young people, and that requires us to think in new ways. We need to learn how to make sacrifices with our property and finances to resource new ministries and communities across our Synod.

What if the challenges of this coronavirus season are teaching us how to sing the Lord’s song in new ways?

Be assured of my continuing prayers for our Church. Be equally assured of my prayers for those who find this season too difficult. And be certain that I am praying for new opportunities, new ministries, new discernment as we navigate these times under the mercy and generosity of our God.

May the flame of the Spirit guide your every step,
may the breath of the Spirit inspire each and every word,
and may the wind of the Spirit urge you into action.

Gospel Precedent

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

[Acts 2.42-47]

This is how we understand ourselves, at our best. The gospel proclaimed, the needs of our community addressed, meals shared, people coming to faith in Christ – worship, witness and service.

All of us, together.

However, here we are, in our homes, on our screens and phones, venturing tentatively into the world around us. Wary of any kind of physical contact, washing our hands at every turn.

There is great pleasure in sharing a meal with friends, and worshipping together, in silence and in song. I love incidental meetings, bumping into someone in the shops, or the street, and that almost never happens now. Now, every meeting is planned; we sit, scheduled and sequestered, behind the screen.

Some of us are inclined to see this time solely as imposition; the strictures of governments and Synod add to this feeling. We can’t do things the way we want to, the way we always have. It is easy to feel disgruntled, especially when a lot of what we knew seems uncertain in these times.

It’s easy to think that the patterns of our church life are the best (the only?) way to be the church. If we can’t gather to worship, are we church? If we can’t have bible studies, or visit friends, are we failing as disciples? Our heads know this isn’t true, but perhaps a bit deeper, inside ourselves, we wonder.

And there are certainly deeper concerns. People are at risk in their homes, which should be the safest place to be. Some face violence, some find being continually alone almost intolerable, some are physically ill or disabled, and need the care, the tangible presence of others.

How are we caring for those who are most in need of hope, and help? How are we offering the gospel, with our hands and voices? How are we making contact, sharing a meal, or inviting them into our new community?

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. Christ who is present when he is preached among people is the Word of God who acquits the guilty, who gives life to the dead and who brings into being what otherwise could not exist.

[Basis of Union, Para.4]

What an opportunity we are offered!

We offer the gospel, and worship and gather, and serve in different ways, not despite our circumstances, but because of them. We gather, and pray and worship across the internet – across the world – and people are sharing in that for the first time.

People who would never walk through a church door are signing in through YouTube and zoom. People from small congregations are gathering with new friends each week. People for whom the journey to worship, or small groups is too onerous – emotionally, or physically – are able to share with others about their faith, and even their fears.

We are becoming more aware of how to meet and serve our neighbours – not the theoretical ones, but the people who live next door.

The gospel inherent in Jesus Christ is not static. It doesn’t tolerate isolation. The Spirit of the risen Christ is not constrained; it finds its way, to acquit, give life and create anew.

What are the gifts from this time, that we will carry with us, into the next season of our faith? What have we learnt about hospitality, about silence and community which we will need to remember as we emerge from this sheltered time?

What is the Spirit saying – has this time better taught us to listen?