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Repentance for the kingdom (Matt 4)

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 4:13). The first public utterance of Jesus, in the book of origins which we know as the Gospel according to Matthew, is a word-for-word repetition of the signal proclamation by John the baptiser: In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 3:1-2).

This passage is set as part of the Gospel for this coming Sunday. It is an important passage in the book of origins, for it sets out two key elements in the declaration made by Jesus, which are central to understanding the purpose of of Jesus, as Matthew understands it.

The first element, repentance, is proclaimed by John and repeated by Jesus. The Greek word metanoia, which translated as “repentance”, is a powerful word; it refers to a complete and wholesale “change of mind”, a deeply permeating and thoroughgoing change of how one lives. It is no mere trifle; it is a serious, and challenging, concept.

John first asserts the need for such a thoroughgoing transformation, when he instructs the Pharisees and the Sadducees to bear fruit worthy of repentance (3:8). This theme is repeated by Jesus in various teachings: you will know them by their fruits (7:15-20), the tree is known by its fruit (12:33-37), and the warnings given to the towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum (11:20-24).

In the teachings of Jesus included in this Gospel, Jesus provides clear and detailed instructions as to what “fruit” is entailed in this way of living, such as: go beyond what the Law says, to seek perfection (5:21-48); do not place stumbling blocks in another’s way (18:6-9); and give your possessions to the poor if you wish to be perfect (19:21-30). Repentance is serious and demanding.

The second element is the kingdom of heaven—also proclaimed by John (3:8) and then regularly included in the teachings and parables of Jesus. In Matthew’s understanding, the kingdom is closely linked with righteousness 5:10, 20; 6:33; 21:31-32; 25:46).

Such righteousness requires deep and abiding repentance—that change of mind, heart, and the whole being, that comes from entering into covenant relationship with God, and following the way of Jesus. (And dikaiosune, the Greek word usually translated as righteousness, can equally be translated as justice, which, of course, gives a different flavour to our understanding when we read that English rendering.)

The kingdom is both God’s gift to those who are righteous, or just, and the realm where God’s righteousness, or justice, will be the norm. There is a marvellous treasury of parables about the kingdom found in Matt 13, some additional parables in Matt 20 and 22, and then three final and powerful parables in Matt 25. They signify that the kingdom includes both a gift (it the place where God’s justice, or righteousness, is freely evident), and a demand (it is the way that God requires righteous lives, or just lifestyles, from human beings).

Often the parable is told with a single focus point: the kingdom of heaven is like … (hidden treasure, or fine pearls, or a mustard seed). Some parables are more developed, involving a series of characters, recounting a developing storyline. Each parable, nevertheless, drives towards a clear central point, explaining the nature of the kingdom that is proclaimed by Jesus, as gift and demand.

Jesus teaches that entry into the kingdom is premised on faithful service (7:21-23); it is those who produce the fruits of the kingdom who will share in this realm (21:43). Alongside Jews who are faithful followers of Jesus, the kingdom will include those from beyond Israel—a Gentile centurion (8:10,13) and a Canaanite woman (15:28) are specifically commended. They are welcomed because of their faith, which has been made evident in the way they respond to Jesus—they place their complete trust in him. (We are not told that they become followers of Jesus; they simply trust him in that moment of encounter.)

The passage set for this Sunday thus serves as an introduction to key themes that are expounded by Jesus throughout his teaching ministry, as well as an overview of key elements that will recur throughout the year, as excerpts from this Gospel appear in the lectionary week by week.

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The icon shown is a 19th century representation of “the kingdom of heaven”, from Petersburg.

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

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See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/27/reading-matthews-gospel-alongside-the-hebrew-scriptures-exploring-matthew-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/21/a-young-woman-a-virgin-pregnant-about-to-give-birth-isa-714-in-matt-123/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

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John (the baptizer) and Jesus (the anointed) in the book of signs (the Gospel of John)

The fourth Gospel in our New Testament describes itself quite explicitly as the book of signs which is intended to foster trust in Jesus the anointed one (see John 20:30). Like the other three Gospels in the New Testament, it begins by placing Jesus (the anointed) in relationship with John (the baptizer). This relationship is declared in the selection from the opening chapter which is found in the lectionary for this coming Sunday.

So scholars wonder if there was originally a link between the Jesus movement and the movement led by John the baptiser. Evidence for this link is also drawn from places such as Acts 19:1–7, and the Q passage in Luke 7 (par Matt 11).

Nevertheless, it is John’s Gospel which provides the clearest evidence, when it recounts that the earliest followers of Jesus were drawn from the followers of John (1:35–42).

John (the baptizer), in this gospel, does not call for repentance; rather, he bears witness to Jesus (1:6–8, 15; 1:29–36; 3:25–30; 10:41), testifying that Jesus is the light (1:7), of greater rank than John himself (1:15, 30), the Lamb of God (1:29, 36), the Son of God (1:34), the bridegroom (3:29), and, by implication, the Messiah (1:20; 3:28).

This emphatic depiction of John as deflecting attention from himself, to Jesus, indicates that there was, at an early stage, some competition between the two figures—or, at least, between their respective followers.

The account we have in the book of signs dates from many decades after the lifetime of John and Jesus. This section seems to have been written as a defence against any idea that John, who came first, might have been regarded as superior to Jesus. The words and actions of John deflect attention from himself, and place Jesus in the spotlight. And some of his followers leave him, and take up following Jesus!

This link is confirmed, for some scholars, by the nexus of ideas that flow from Johannine Christianity into the Mandean literature of the third and fourth centuries CE—including, amongst other things, the prominence accorded to John the baptiser.

My friend James McGrath is an expert in this relationship; he has blogged about this at https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2020/01/preview-the-mandaean-book-of-john.html and he has written a blog which has links to all manner of interesting discussions about the relationship between John and Jesus, at https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2019/11/the-symbolism-and-meaning-of-johns-baptism.html

Thus, the reform movement within Second Temple Judaism headed by John is seen to have had some influence on the gospel, in its early stages, at least. John stands outside the Pharisaic–rabbinic stream of Judaism which would become dominant after 70 CE. This is the first indication of the influence of a different form of Judaism on this Gospel.

The early prominence accorded to John the baptizer joins other indications in the book of signs—the fact that the first large–scale success enjoyed by Jesus was in Samaria (John 4), and the appearance of Greeks in Jerusalem, seeking Jesus (John 12), for instance—in pointing to this wider canvas. Sometimes this is described as “heterodox Judaism”, in contrast to the dominant Pharisaic stream within formative Judaism.

This Gospel thus includes indications of the development of a faith community which looked beyond the parameters of Judaism as it was being shaped by the Pharisees, towards other forms of Jewish faith and life—and perhaps beyond. The Gospel is being painted on a wider canvas. It is already a sign to what would eventuate after the first century, as the Gospel spread and took hold amongst Gentiles beyond the Jewish homeland.

The image is sourced from peacesojourner.blogspot.com

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Reflecting on faith amidst the firestorms

We have been surrounded by images of fire, for some weeks now. The last few weeks have been challenging, confronting us with terrible images of devastated landscapes, burnt native animals and birds, destroyed homes, and the bodies of farm stock unable to escape the fire, alongside of pictures and videos of the still-raging flames of fire, leaping high into air, travelling rapidly across the landscape.

We have watched aghast as our screens take us right into the heart of the firestorm, standing with firefighters in the face of unbeatable odds. And we have breathed the air that is saturated with smoke from the fires, smoke that causes us to gasp, cough, and wheeze. It has been a challenging time. And fire has been the constant theme.

In this context, there is one short verse in the Psalm caught my attention, this week, as I read the lectionary passages and pondered what I would take as a focus for today. I wonder if you noticed the verse that jumped out to me, when we said the psalm together, earlier? “The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire” (Ps 29:7).

These fires that rage, these flames that burn … are they really a message from God, to us, a message of punishment? That is how such events have been seen by some—the bushfires now raging, the floods that swamped North Queensland last year, the five severe cyclones that hit Pacific Islands a few years back, the massive tsunami that ravaged Asian countries over a decade ago—each of these have been explained by some zealous preacher or another, as a sign of God’s punishment.

It was not too long ago that a prominent sports star gained publicity by suggesting that the fires early in the season were sent by God to punish us—punishing us for the many sins committed by people in Australia. Others have made claims that God is punishing us for the decisions made by our church in recent times.

And just a few days ago, a breakaway Baptist pastor in Arizona made the audacious claim that the fires are actually punishment from God because he was denied a visa to visit Australia. He said on Facebook that “maybe if Australia wasn’t banning and deporting preachers of the Gospel, they wouldn’t be under the judgement of God”. And, as you can see, he clearly linked this with the bushfires, using the map of blazes and a picture of one of the fires.

We must, of course, distance ourselves from this kind of simplistic and arrogant claim. Simplistic, because this preacher has been banned from over 20 other countries—and they are not ringed with fire at this time. So a simple cause and effect connection is far too simplistic.

And simplistic, also, because making an interpretation of a naturally-occurring event, and attributing that to the intentions of the deity, is far too easy to do. Our scientific knowledge helps us to have insights as to how events in nature—like fires, storms, cyclones, droughts, and so on—how these actually form and manifest within the natural order of things. Our scientific knowledge also helps us to appreciate how the way that human beings live makes a contribution—however small or significant you believe it may be—to these events of nature.

And such a claim is breathtakingly arrogant in its nature. How can any one of us human beings dare to claim that we know, absolutely and definitively, the intentions of God at any one point in time? And that we can unambiguously declare those intentions?—usually, it must be said, in the voice of an angry prophet, making a negative judgement on the morality of the people.

So I don’t want to go down this track. “The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire” (Ps 29:7) can’t be taken at face value, as a literal, simple explanation of the fires as expressions of divine punishment. Whilst ancient understandings may have made this kind of immediate connection between an event in nature and the intentions of God, we cannot make such a simple link. We need to reflect more deeply.

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How do we make sense of these fires, when we gather, today, as people of faith? We have seen so many images of the fires. Some of us have been close to the fire front. We have all breathed the smoke generated by those fires. What do they mean?

Some of us have seen this kind of destruction at close quarters. Some have memories of the 2003 Canberra fires brought back to prominent attention. Some have been recently in areas that are now devastated, or have been caught in the early stages of the recent forefront activity.

Some have family members or good friends who have had to evacuate in the face of the fire. Some of us know people whose properties, animals, and houses have been impacted by the intensity of the blazes. We are all caught into a sense of anxiety and grief as the fires continue.

In the evacuation centres, chaplains from a number of different denominations have been present, offering comfort and support to people who have been forced to leave their homes in the face of the fires. A number of my colleagues have been there, for days on end, over recent times, in the midst of people in turmoil, helping them to go gently in the midst of the upheaval and anxiety.

(See https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/09/pastoral-letter-from-canberra-region-presbytery/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/06/what-are-the-churches-doing-during-the-bushfire-crisis/)

For us, at some distance from the fires, we too need to be gentle with each other. We need to hold each other in the comfort of friendship, offer supportive words, provide practical assistance, and sit with each other in the uncomfortable spaces of waiting, wondering, worrying. We need to make sure that we don’t expose ourselves, unnecessarily, to risks to our own health. These fires call us to care, deeply, lovingly.

And yet, there is a question that recurs in situations like I have just described—situations of need, of loss, of intense grief and despair. That is this simple question: where is God? The simple answer—God sent this to you, God is punishing you—does not satisfy. We need another take.

The Adelaide theologian, Dr Norman Habel, wrote a hymn reflecting on just this question, in the context of bushfires that occurred on Black Saturday in 2009. (It goes to the familiar tune of Amazing Grace.) It begins like this:

Amazing flames that scorch the sky, like hurricanes of fire,

Alive with eucalyptus oil are roaring higher and higher.

These swirling balls of oil ablaze that leap o’er trees at will,

Descend on fields and flock and homes, explode and burn and kill.

And then, he asks the question:

Where’s God in all this swirling ash? Where’s God in all this pain?

Awaiting somewhere in the sky to one day send some rain?

The answer comes in striking imagery, in confronting declaration:

The face of God is burnt and black; the hands of God are red!

The God we know in Jesus Christ is bleeding with the dead.

The answer which Norman Habel offers is this: God is here. God is right in the middle of all this mess. God is not remote. God is not the one pulling the strings, away up in heaven, ready to send rain when enough prayers have been sent up to him.

No: God is here, in our midst, incarnate, one with us, suffering alongside us. God is crying as the house burns, weeping as the birds and animals flee, sobbing as the stock die, grieving as the firefighters are overwhelmed and their truck is overturned. God is here, with us. Jesus Christ is bleeding with the dead, grieving with us, mourning with creation.

The last verse of the hymn, then, is this:

Christ, show us now your hands and feet, the burns across your side,

and how you suffer with the Earth, by fires crucified!

And this reminds me of the poem that I shared with you some months back, about how we encounter God, and where we encounter God. The poem by Lisa Jacobson expresses the clear notion that God is not up there in the heavens, as the priest might claim, but down here in the land, as the black fella would say. To find God, we need to look for God; but not look up, to the heavens; rather, look down, look at your feet, look past your feet, to the stones—hear them singing? and the rivers—feel them vibrating? And sense how the earth is yearning, groaning.

Stones singing and rivers vibrating; that twofold expression of the inner life of the earth is also the key that unlocks a different understanding of God—as a being not remote and removed from humans on earth, but as a being beside us, around us, underneath us, in the earth, in the stones, in the rivers, in our very being.

And this, of course, is rightly acknowledged in this poem, as the insight of black fellas—the centre of spirituality for the First Peoples of this ancient continent, the heart of life and spirit for the Ngunnawal people, the people who have cared for the land in this general region from time beyond what we can measure, and for the Ngambri and Ngarigo people more locally, and for the Wiradjuri to our west, and for the first peoples of every city and region across this continent. God is in the land, God is in amongst us.

This understanding of where we find God, how we enter the depths of spirituality, is set forth very clearly in a clause of the Revised Preamble to the Constitution of the Uniting Church, which clearly affirms:

So we have adopted an affirmation that when we hear the stones sing, when we feel the rivers vibrating, we are connecting in a new way, with God, who is here, and has long been here, in this land, the land which God created at the first.

This claim arises from a different way of thinking about God, pondering the claims of scripture and engaging us on a journey of reflection and prayer, exploration and discovery, at the edges of our faith. Both the Australian poem and indigenous Australian spirituality have taken hold of this insight, that God is in our midst, amongst us, within us.

That is the same claim that the Gospel writer makes, when he writes that the angel told Joseph that he was to name his child Emanuel—God with us (Matt 1). That is what that child, grown to be an adult, taught about the reign of God—that it was here, in our midst—the kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17).

That is what the ancient Hebrew psalmist affirmed, about the whole of creation—humans, animals, insects, birds, mountains and valleys, trees and forests—that when God created this whole creation, it was the spirit of God that was breathed into every living creature (Ps 104:30).

And the psalm we have read today affirms that God is active and at work in the creation. He is not an absentee, uninterested, disconnected God. God is active, over the oceans, in the desert, through the forests, in thunder and flames. God is here, with us.

And this, after all, is the story that we tell, and retell, each year, each Sunday: the story of God, come to us in the human being Jesus, friend of sinners and advocate for the outcast, Jesus arrested and condemned as a criminal, Jesus, despised, crucified, hanging on the cross. That is where God was to be found, most profoundly, most assuredly—in the very midst of our life.

And as Jesus suffers and dies, so God suffers, and feels the sharpness of the moment we call death. For that is where God is. Here, in our midst, amongst us.

Just as God is with us, in the midst of our lives, in the midst of this creation, present in the animals and humans, the ecosystems and great forests, so also God suffers with the earth, as part of the earth. So, for me, the psalm does, indeed, speak a truth—a confronting, challenging, disturbing truth.

For the fires we are experiencing now are the result of the way that human beings, collectively, have been living, not just this year, or for a few years, but for many years—for centuries. The clear observations of science are, that as we have industrialised our societies and pumped more CO2 into the atmosphere, we have developed an environment that is drier, and hotter; more vulnerable to firestorms and more liable to flooding; for the creation is groaning, it is out of order.

And in the processes of nature that are at work, that we have intensified and exacerbated, we see tragic results in the multiple fire fronts that have surged in recent weeks—just as the same instability in the earth’s system has generated more intense and more frequent cyclones, warmed the oceans and melted the edges of the polar caps, and other observable events around the world.

And in the midst of those cyclones, and meltings, and bleachings of coral, and eruptions of fire storms, God is communicating with us: the world cannot go on like this, the planet can not sustain our incessant disregard for its natural ways. So, yes, I think that the psalmist does speak truth. The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.

God has not singled out a nation, or a people, or particular individuals for punishment. God, indeed, is not manipulating what occurs, intervening whenever and however God wills. God is in the systems, in the processes of our natural environment, and as the fires rage, God is indeed speaking to us through those flames of fire. The challenge, for us, is to pause … to listen … to understand … and to act in response.

Thanks to Dr Byron Smith for this prayer in response: https://www.commongrace.org.au/prayer_for_bushfires, to Dr Sarah Agnew for this lament: http://sarahtellsstories.blogspot.com/2020/01/choking.html, and to the Rev. Jennie Gordon for this blessing: https://greaterfarthantongueorpen.wordpress.com/about/

For my other blogs on the environment, see

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/25/873/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/05/to-care-for-honour-and-respect-the-creation-we-need-to-stopadani-k/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-4/

My wife Elizabeth Raine has written some helpful reflections on environmental theology at

And God saw it was good…

and

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2012/06/musing-on-ecological-economy-why.html

and a series of blogs on living a life with low environmental impact, at

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2013/10/setting-sail-on-ss-low-impact.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2013/10/rubbish-to-left-of-me-and-rubbish-to.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2014/07/planet-at-risk-sorry-for-inconvenience.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2014/10/hygenically-sealed-in-plastic-for-your.html

and a lot more at https://elementcityblog.com (follow the links on the right of the page)

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Pastoral Letter from Canberra Region Presbytery

The following letter has been prepared for the people of the Congregations across the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia. I am sharing it here for the interest of those beyond that network, with the intention that that it might inform and encourage people about the work taking place on-the-ground amongst the communities where the fires have hit hard in recent weeks.

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Dear friends, the last few weeks have been challenging, confronting us with images of devastated landscapes, burnt native animals and birds, destroyed homes, and the bodies of farm stock unable to escape the fire, alongside of pictures and videos of the still-raging flames of fire, leaping high into air, travelling rapidly across the landscape. 

We have watched aghast as our screens take us right into the heart of the firestorm, standing with firefighters in the face of unbeatable odds. And we have breathed the air that is saturated with smoke from the fires, smoke that causes us to gasp, cough, and wheeze. It has been a challenging time.

Some of us have seen this kind of destruction at close quarters. Some have memories of the 2003 Canberra fires brought back to prominent attention. Some have been recently in areas that are now devastated, or have been caught in the early stages of the recent forefront activity. 

Some have family members or good friends who have had to evacuate in the face of the fire. Some of us know people whose properties, animals, and houses have been impacted by the intensity of the blazes. We are all caught into a sense of anxiety and grief as the fires continue.

We need to be gentle with each other. We need to hold each other in the comfort of friendship, offer supportive words, provide practical assistance, and sit with each other in the uncomfortable spaces of waiting, wondering, worrying. We need to make sure that we don’t expose ourselves, unnecessarily, to risks to our own health.

We need to be mindful of those in the midst of all the affected areas, whose homes are gone, whose friends are scattered, whose memories are burnt and whose hopes are scarred. We can pray for them. We can give to the bushfire disaster funds that have been set up to support people on the ground. The Uniting Church has one, as do Red Cross, the Rural Fire Service, and many other charities and agencies. (https://nswact.uca.org.au/about-us/giving/moderators-appeal/)

Above: Bushfire, by Gabrielle Jones: an invitation to pause and reflect, in the midst of the fires.

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We can pray, especially, for the Disaster Response Chaplains who are on the ground amongst these people—listening, comforting, praying; holding people in their time of grief, offering consolation and providing practical support. These chaplains are trained to work closely on the ground with the emergency services and the local councils in each location. 

These chaplains work with the volunteers from local churches and service clubs, who are providing meals, water, and a comforting presence to people in great need. Along with the volunteers they work with, they exemplify the ministry of hospitality, expressed through compassion and practical assistance, that is fundamental to the faith we share. 

To assist us with our prayerful support of these people, here is an overview of the ministers, pastors, chaplains, and key lay leaders who have been contributing so effectively to the local disaster responses in each location. Please uphold them as they go about their ministries in each place.


Julie Fletcher has been ministering in Braidwood and working closely with churches and organisations in the town, since the fires broke out there in November. Julie and husband Neil have formed an ecumenical co-operative with other churches and the Moderator’s Bushfire Appeal has already provided funds to assist as they meet the practical needs of people from the areas surrounding the town where the fires have struck. Roads are still closed between Braidwood and the coast.

David Russell and Susan Cann have been active, first in Bega and then in Merimbula, where David has been in placement for some years. David estimates he has had contact with a thousand people since the Sapphire Club was opened as an evacuation centre. This is the kind of ministry that we can support from distance through our prayers. 

Karyl Davison came to the area after the initial damaging impact of the fires had swept through. She has been based at the Merimbula RSL Club, where she has ministered with about 400 people. Ian Diamond travelled to the coast with her and is based at the Tathra Beach Country Club, where almost 400 people sheltered—along with about 70 pets! Most evacuation centres do not accept pets, so Ian set about ensuring that people with pets had a safe and secure place to shelter.

Michael Palmer is an Anglican minister serving the Uniting Church in Eden, and with the UCA people led Peter and Pam Skelton has been working long days and well into the nights to make properties safe, after most of the people in the town were evacuated. The hinterland of Eden is particularly at risk at this time. Instead of worship on Sunday, 

Michael opened his own home to the people still in town and met with people for conversation and prayer, with a cup of tea as well. He also spent some time visiting people who had stayed, praying with them. Some people have been unable to leave the town because they had no fuel and no funds.

Uniting Church ministers Yvonne Stephenson and Kath Merrifield, along with Ray Lemon, from the Assemblies of God, have served at the Batemans Bay evacuation centre. Yvonne, who lives in the area, has been active as a chaplain from the very start of the emergency and has done stirling work in difficult circumstances.

Up to 5,000 people have been fed, sheltered, and comforted in that town. Members of the Batemans Bay congregation cleared the pews so that people could sleep in the church. Some hardy souls were sleeping on the pews, which had been pushed together to form beds! Sunday worship was an informal gathering for prayer and singing over a cup of tea. Power has been cut to Batemans Bay on and off for some days.

Terence Corkin, who lives just out of Moruya, has spent a number of days at the local evacuation centre, helping people to adjust to their frightening situation. Terence and Julie have had to leave their own property for a time during the past week. He reports that the immediate threat of fire has diminished, but there are many people in the town from scattered communities that have been burnt, with little prospect of returning soon. After a period without power, the electricity is running. A fine layer of ash covers everything.

At both Bateman’s Bay and Narooma, a number of homeless men have been sleeping in swags and old vans in Church carparks. They have become the hands, heart and feet that clean the toilets, wash dishes, clear the gutters and are the protectors of church property and drop in centres.

Di White and Kath Crapp, in the town of Narooma, have marshalled and organised a great team that has provided food and water, shelter and support, for the many people evacuated into that town. Monty’s Place operates from the Uniting Church building, so there was already a team and the know-how on hand for the emergency. Kath has expressed their gratitude in the knowledge that people are praying for them each day.

Daniel Mossfield has been at the evacuation centre in Goulburn, where people from Bundanoon and other small towns in the Southern Highlands have gathered after being evacuated over the weekend. The evacuation centre is in the Showground, which is filled to capacity with people. There are many pets at this centre, and this creates various challenges to those organising the evacuations.

At the tail end of the most recent critical period, the township of Jindabyne became a focus point, as fires in the Snowy Mountains intensified and people were evacuated from right across the Monaro and Snowy Mountains region. The Uniting Church there has a small but very fine group off leaders, including Judy McKinlay, recently elected as Co-Chair of the Presbytery, and Peter Beer. Peter is the Mayor of the region, and thus is involved in the centre of all the planning for the region. It would be very good to pray especially for him, as he serves in that position. 

Cooma has also been busy with an official evacuation centre in operation which is now in receipt of DRCN chaplaincy from ADF reserve chaplains. UCA minister in Cooma, Noel Williams, has been at his farm near Adaminaby undertaking the difficult task of fire protecting his farm as it is subjected to ever changing threat levels from two separate fire fronts, whilst also trying to truck in semi-trailer loads of hay to battle the impact from the drought to feed his 1,500 merinos and 50 pigs. Noel’s story will be similar to many within our Presbytery and that of other Presbytery farmers across the NSW and ACT Synod.

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People who have been most impacted have expressed gratitude for the prayer and practical support from others not in the immediate danger zones. We do well to keep praying, and giving, and hoping. 

And as we pray, and watch, and wait with hope, be encouraged that there are people of Christian faith, people of other faiths, and people of no faith, all working together to ensure the safety of people, animals, and property, and to support one another in this time of need. And know that people are praying around the world for those in crisis. 

There is a collection of resources, for prayer and reflection, at https://www.unitingearth.org.au/bushfire-prayers/

The Moderators of each Synod, and the national President of the Uniting Church, have all expressed prayerful concern for the people who are being hardest hit, and for those seeking to serve them. The President’s message is on video at https://vimeo.com/382251990

Personal friends in countries all over the world are, through the wonders of our internet age, receiving up to date information and offering prayers for those affected. The General Secretary of the World Council of Church has assured Australians of the prayers of people from churches across the globe (https://www.oikoumene.org/en/press-centre/news/in-letter-to-australian-churches-wcc-prays-for-respite-from-the-heat-and-the-flames). 

The UCA Assembly webpage contains messages of support that have been sent by our partner churches around the world (https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/disaster/item/424-messages-of-support-from-overseas).

May you go in peace and hope in the days ahead.

Judy McKinlay, John Williams, Delia Quigley, Co-Chairs

John Squires, Presbytery Minister–Wellbeing

The letter is online at https://canberra.uca.org.au/presbytery-news/a-pastoral-message-for-the-bushfire-crisis/

There is a helpful list of resources relating to climate change and the bushfires at https://www.unitingearth.org.au/bushfire-crisis-info/ and some prayers and liturgies for use at this time at https://www.unitingearth.org.au/bushfire-prayers/

The image shows the Batemans Bay Uniting Church, transformed from a place of worship to a safe place for evacuated people to sleep. Photo by Pam Nuessler.

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What are the churches doing during the bushfire crisis?

I have been seeing posts asking about how the churches are helping in the current bushfire emergency. Here are some thoughts.

First, I am very aware that there is a lot of energy and time being contributed on the ground by people of local congregations who have provided people affected by the fires with a place to sleep, a place to eat and drink water, and a place to talk with compassionate folk who are willing to listen. This is the ministry of hospitality, which is fundamental to being people of faith.

In my own denomination, the Uniting Church in Australia, the Canberra Region Presbytery covers much (but not all) of the areas in the south-east of Australia that are being affected by these savage fires. You can see from the images below just how many fires there are, and how many roads have been closed (as of 6 January 2020).

There are daily updates from situations on the ground, indicating what Uniting Church congregations and chaplains are doing, on the Facebook page of the Canberra Region Presbytery, which is public for anyone to read.

The major denominations each have a fund that receives donations and provides those funds to places where the need is great. Those funds are all being put to good use now, as the bushfires rage. The Uniting Church fund in NSW.ACT is at https://nswact.uca.org.au/about-us/giving/moderators-appeal/

These are excellent, immediate responses. It is great to learn of these actions by people of faith. However, perhaps the most enduring contribution comes through the provision of trained chaplains at the various evacuation centres that are set up. These people make themselves available to listen to affected people with compassion and to assist in the many practicalities that need to be attended to, when large numbers of people are displaced.

My colleague Stephen Robinson (pictured below, at right) is supported fulltime by the Uniting Church, to co-ordinate the Disaster Chaplaincy Response Network across NSW and the ACT. He has been doing a fine job! There is an article about this ministry at https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/2973-disaster-ready-chaplains

The DCRN is an ecumenical network with ministers and pastors from a number of denominations participating. You can read about it at http://www.nswdrcn.org.au/about_us

(The news page is not up to date—I suspect this reflects the limited personnel and the increased rate of disasters requiring attention in recent years . But the main information is clear and accurate.)

I have many excellent colleagues within the Uniting Church who are, right at this moment, sitting with people in evacuation centres, listening to their accounts of fire, loss, and grief, soothing their aggravated fears, and seeking to provide practical assistance.

The DCRN works closely with a network of church agencies, co-ordinated by a state government agency, as the image attached shows.

There’s a good overview of the ways that churches are responding to the bushfires at http://religionsforpeaceaustralia.org.au/?p=9473

From afar, one thing that people can certainly do, is pray—pray for the disaster chaplains, that their energies will be replenished, their words will exude compassion, their actions will assist those in need. I am certain that they would appreciate this.

The Moderator of the United Church of Christ in Canada, the Right Rev. Richard Bott, has offered this wonderful prayer in response to the Australia wildfires 

https://www.united-church.ca/prayers/prayer-people-animals-and-land-australia

See also https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3111-a-comforting-presence-in-a-time-of-crisis and https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/09/pastoral-letter-from-canberra-region-presbytery/

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Herod was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children (Matt 2)

In the orderly account in which Luke tells the story of the first Christmas, we become engrossed in a story that is always presented in gentle, romanticised ways. It is a story about a pregnant woman and her partner, an angel appearing at the time of conception to the mother-to-be, announcing good news of great joy.

It is a story that reports how, nine months later, the angel appeared again, to some shepherds in the fields. It is a bucolic pastoral scene, or so we think. (Luke 1–2).

There is also a census and a journey, a choir of angels singing songs, announcing peace, declaring good news, celebrating joyfully. And there is an overfull stable, necessitating the birth of the child in a temporary location, and finally a child who is laid in a manger with his mother and father by his side. But all is calm, all is serene, all is gentle. So we believe. So we sing. So we think.

By contrast, in the book of origins, as Matthew tells that same story, we are invited into a different saga, with a different tone. Whilst there is a baby, with mother and father, in this version, there is no manger, no shepherds, and certainly no choir of angels.

In fact, there is just one angel, and this solitary angel speaks only with the father, not with the mother, not once, but three times in all. And each time, the message is ominous: she is pregnant! you must leave, now! and, hurry back home!

There is no announcement of good news of great joy. There is no census and no journey, at least, at the point of birth. But there is a tyrannical king, a set of visitors from foreign places, a prophecy that enrages the king, and a response which terrifies the visitors, who rapidly leave to return to their homeland.

And the story as Matthew tells it continues with a violent pogrom, the slaughter of innocent babies. “Herod was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men” (Matt 2:16).

It continue with a rushed journey by the father and mother and their infant child, travelling as refugees seeking safety in a foreign place. They return home some time later, only after the tyrannical despot has died. This later part of the story is featured rarely, if at all, in the classic depictions of the Christmas story.

The festival of Epiphany, celebrated after the Twelfth Day of Christmas on 6 January, invites us to think about the journey made by these wise men. The journey is romanticised by the fact that they bring gifts to the infant and his family—gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The gifts, it is claimed, are symbolic of what is to come. The gold is considered to symbolise the royal status of the child, as he is of the line of David. The frankincense is connected with the Temple cult, and thus considered a symbol of the priestly role eventually to be played by the child.

Then, there is myrrh, which Christian tradition links with the death that will be experienced by the infant when he has grown to maturity—death at the hands of a Romans, who offered him wine mixed with myrrh as he hung dying on a cross. The story of origins already prefigured the story of ending.

That part of the story—the gifts that the wise men brought—feeds into the romance and wonder that Luke’s version offers (at least, in the way it is usually understood). But the horror, the terror, the violence, the grief, of the events perpetrated under Herod, are not in view. Because Epiphany is about revelation, about light shining forth, about God being known and experienced in the midst of ordinary life.

This year, perhaps we might pause, and wonder: how does the story of Herod’s murderous rampage reveal the presence of God in the story?

I have no answer … just a question. How is God present, evident, shining forth, at such a time?

It is a question that is pressing, given the context in which I, and many Australians, have experienced Advent, Christmas and Epiphany this year.

As the bushfires rage, inflaming and destroying, purpling plumes of smoke into the air and ravaging forests, ecosystems, native animals and stock, as well as human property and human lives—the question seems ever more pertinent: where is God in this catastrophe?

As the early followers of Jesus found hope in the midst of the story of terror and violent destruction, so may we search, explore, and yearn for hope in this current situation.

On hymns that include the story of Herod’s rampage, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/03/herod-waiting-herod-watching-herod-grasping-holding-power-matt-2/

For prayers that are appropriate for a time in the midst of bushfires, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/22/we-wait-and-hope-and-grieve-anticipating/

and

https://greaterfarthantongueorpen.wordpress.com/2020/01/01/415/

For a reflective prayer on the wise men, see http://praythestory.blogspot.com/2019/12/make-it-now.html

For an overall comparison of Matthew with Luke, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

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Herod waiting, Herod watching, Herod grasping, holding power (Matt 2)

The book of origins is unique, within the New Testament (and, indeed, within the whole literature of antiquity) in reporting a savage, indiscriminate pogrom, ordered by King Herod, and carried out under his watch—the murder of all infant males under two years of age within Bethlehem (Matt 2:16-18).

The story hardly ever features in any Christmas or Epiphany services or sermons. However, a number of contemporary hymn writers have turned their attention to this story. Shirley Erena Murray, a Presbyterian from Aotearoa New Zealand, is right on the money when she highlights the violence and fear at the heart of the story, claims that the infant in the story has “come to plead war’s counter-case”, and articulates the hope that “goodness will outclass the gun, evil has no tooth that can kill the truth.”

Summer sun or winter skies, Christmas comes —

shepherds, angels, lullabies, words recorded by the wise:

read it in the book — take another look . . . .

Shadows track the hawk in flight, Christmas now —

children born in fire and fight, silent night a violent night,

hawks are in control of a nation’s soul

There where terror plies its trade, Christmas now —

children learn to be afraid, minefields of distrust are laid,

evil is in force on a winning course

Child of peace, God’s human face, Christmas now —

come to plead war’s counter-case, bring the dove a nesting place,

though her wings are torn, though her blood is drawn

Winter skies or summer sun, Christmas comes —

still the threads of hope are spun, goodness will outclass the gun,

evil has no tooth that can kill the truth.

That is why the ancient story resonates so strongly with our situation today. Not because “it really happened, exactly like this”, but because it takes us to the centre of our humanity and reveals the depth of God’s presence in our midst. We ought to sing more about it!

http://www.hopepublishing.com/html/main.isx?sitesec=40.2.1.0&hymnID=430

Another contemporary hymn writer who has turned his attention to the story of Herod’s tyrannical rampage against the male children in Bethlehem, is the British Methodist, the Rev. Dr Andrew Pratt. Here is a powerful hymn which he has written about this story.

Herod waiting, Herod watching,

Herod grasping, holding power,

Herod fearful for the future,

Herod counting every hour.

 

Now the thing that he was fearing:

love and justice, peace and health,

here embodied in a person,

God incarnate, heaven’s wealth.

 

This was more than he could stomach,

human wine skins tear and rend.

Herod’s dream had been confounded,

human power had met its end.

 

Many children now were crying,

temper triumphed, babies dead.

Mary, Joseph made an exit,

every step was filled with dread.

 

Into exile they were driven,

fear would ripple through each life:

Jesus challenged vested interests.

Gracious love fuelled hate and strife.

 

And the children still are crying,

forced to war and harmed by hate.

Still our world is deaf to hear them,

still our loving comes too late.

© Andrew Pratt 18/11/2010

First after Christmas, Matthew 2: 13 – 23,

Herod, Holy Innocents, the flight into Egypt.

https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/herod-waiting-herod-watching

What a pity that this potent story, full of pathos, and so resonant with events in the world in which we live today, has all but faded from view in the story that is recounted each Christmas. There are clear words in these carols which show how the story challenges political values and policies and how it connects with the deepest feelings of human existence.

For more on Epiphany, see next post

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Acting for Peace—through the Christmas Bowl

My Christmas Morning Reflection in worship on 25 December 2019 at Queanbeyan Uniting Church.

 

Each week during Advent, as a congregation, we have been preparing for the celebration of this day. On each of the four Sundays in the season of Advent, we have affirmed our faith, and rejoiced in what Christmas means to people of faith. We have been oriented steadfastly towards this day; this day on which we recall and celebrate the birth of Jesus.

So, today, Christmas Day, we pause and ponder:

what does it mean, that Christ has come?

what does Christmas mean, for us, today?

 

1       At Christmas, we give presents to those we love.

You have no doubt experienced the delightful look of sheer joy on the face of the young child, receiving first one, then another, and then many, presents, one after another. If it is more blessed to give than to receive, it is surely deeply rewarding to look at the sheer joy on the face of the young child, receiving.

And at Christmas, we give in abundance, with generosity, to those we love. 

However, at Christmas we should not forget those who have received nothing, who have nothing, who exist on very little, who survive each day with little or no means of support.

Each year, during Advent, we recall the story of John the Baptist, who came as the messenger, to prepare the way, to announce the coming of the one chosen by God. In announcing the coming of Jesus, John the Baptist told us what God was asking of us. “If you have two coats”, he said, “give one to the person who asks you for it.”

This message, of giving to those in need from the abundance which we enjoy, has been a standard part of Christmas for churches like ours, over the past 70 years. It was that long ago that the idea of the Christmas Bowl originated, in the family celebrations in the Melbourne home of the Rev. Frank Byatt.

Over time, the simple bowl on the middle of the Christmas dinner table has become an organisation that is supported by all the major Christian denominations, as listed on the screen. This is the organisation that provides presents to people living in poverty, in temporary shelter, in areas ravaged by natural disasters, because of the giving of people like us, who have the capacity to give.

This Christmas, we are challenged to think about what we might be able to give away, and who it is that might benefit from our gift. The Christmas Bowl provides a simple and easy way for us to share the abundance that we are enjoying this day, with someone who has not been so blessed.

 

2       At Christmas, we enjoy feasting with those we love.

The table will no doubt be laden high, this day: overflowing with seafood, with turkey and ham, with vegetables; with Christmas cake, with mince pies, and Christmas pudding; with lollies and sweets in abundance.

When Elizabeth and I lived in England, we came to appreciate the way that the Christmas Dinner, in full northern hemisphere tradition, had developed. On the shortest day of the year, amidst cold, rain, perhaps even snow, with dusk falling at 3.00pm, then it just made perfect sense, after a late morning church service, to enjoy a big roast, with hearty servings, washed down with more-than-adequate glasses of liquid refreshment.

Australian Christmas dinners are different, in the heat and humidity of summer; glasses of wine are more often than not replaced with stubbies of beer—although we often continue some of the other inherited traditions. But whatever hemisphere we are in, we eat, and drink, and enjoy.

Christmas should mean that we do not forget those who have no food to eat. One of the things that the Christmas Bowl does, is provide food rations. It is doing this, right now, for Syrian refugees who have fled to Jordan, and Iraqis who have been displaced and are homeless; for refugees from Myanmar on the border with Thailand, and for the Rohinga families who have fled from violence and persecution into the camps of Bangladesh.

But the Christmas Bowl also provides the means for people to grow and harvest their own food locally. Act for Peace’s partner in Zimbabwe, Christian Care, works with farmers in drought-prone areas in southern Zimbabwe, where about 1,200 farmers are now directly benefiting from the conservation farming program that has been introduced. They have increased crop yields, which has dramatically improved the ability of these 1,200 men and women to meet their households’ food needs, as well as to unite farming communities around a productive development program, while at the same time improving the sustainability of the land.

But we do not need to go to Zimbabwe, or Bangladesh, or Iraq, or Jordan, to find hungry people. Every week, in this town, people from this church and other churches provide food for the hungry, friendship for the lonely, and a place of safety for those whose lives are fraught, just across the road, at St Benedict’s. And this important ministry to the local community ensures that people do not need to go without food, any day, any week.

 

3       At Christmas, we tell the story of the baby born in a manger, because there was no room in the inn; and then, the story reports that this family hurriedly fled to another country, seeking safety until the threat was over.

Christmas cards, and Christmas carols, have tended to encourage us to romanticise and sentimentalise this part of the story. We sing so easily about the scene that Luke recounts in his Gospel: the baby lying peacefully asleep in the manger, the adoring mother and doting father, the shepherds who come from the fields to worship. It all sounds so peaceful, so relaxed, so comfortable, so ideal.

As we sing all of this, I suspect that we forget that the newborn infant was born in the area that was shared with the animals; there were no homely comforts, but there would have been the sights and sounds and smells of the barnyard, all around. This was not the plan; this was a temporary, unforeseen situation, basic and crude.

The account that we find in the Gospel of Matthew, of the rapid flight that the family took, heading away from Herod, fleeing into the safety of Egypt, sets out very clearly that this was not a plan, worked out methodically in advance. Rather, this was a rapid response to an emergency situation, a hurried seeking of refuge.

Christmas, for us, challenges us to think about those who have no shelter; and especially, to think about those who have nowhere safe to shelter because their homes are beset by warfare, their lives are constrained by oppression, their families have been decimated by murders, their houses have been bombed or shelled.

This is going on in so many places around the globe. There are 70.8 million people around the world who have been forcibly displaced from their homes—that is almost three times the population of Australia.

There are currently 25.9 million people officially classified as refugees, meaning that they have a well-placed fear of persecution if they return to their homes. That is the category that Mary, Joseph and Jesus would have been in, had there been a United Nations High Commissioner for refugees in the first century.

The Christmas Bowl is working with the 100,000 Tamils who have fled Sri Lanka, precisely because of this fear of persecution. There are people today who still experience trials and persecution in far too many countries around the globe. The Christmas Bowl is one practical way that we can show we care, that we want to help such people.

4 Finally, at Christmas, let us remember the most unsavoury part of the story; the part we rarely hear on this day, this morning celebration: the part of the story that tells of a king who used his power to squash out what he saw as a threat to his power.

Herod was a tyrant, fearful of any pretender to his throne. Matthew tells that he decreed that all infant males should be killed, to ensure that the baby Jesus would not vie for his throne, or contest his power. That is the fundamental reason why the family of Jesus fled to another country.

Deep at the heart of the Christmas story, then, is the message that we should not repeat the errors of using violence to enforce power. As followers of Jesus, we seek the way of the one born to bring peace to the world. How can we sing “peace on earth, and mercy mild”, unless we work for peace in our world today?

Jesus was committed to the way of peace; the story of his adult life bears this out, and the end of the story is an account of submission to violence, of turning the other cheek and allowing his own life to be taken, rather than to respond with force, violence, and power.

The organisation which administers the Christmas Bowl is called Act for Peace. It is committed to actions which ensure that, as justice is enacted, so peace might become a reality, for countless thousands of people around the world. One of the projects that the Christmas Bowl supports is a peace-building initiative in the Philippines, where workers are educating Indigenous people on their rights, training local leaders and engaging grassroots organisations to monitor and report on human rights violations.

So, today, as we sing “Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!”, let us work for peace in the world.  As we carol, “All glory be to God on high, and to the world be peace; goodwill henceforth from heaven to earth begin and never cease,” let us support organizations which advocate peace with justice and strive to bring that reality from heaven, here, on to earth. And as we join with those herald angels, who “sing glory to the new-born King, peace on earth, and mercy mild”, may we always act for peace in the world. And as we sing, may the Christ child come.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/24/on-the-move-a-reflection-on-christmas/

 

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Putting the Homoousion back into Christmas

Last year I created my own contribution to the festive cheer, in the words below. I am offering it up this year with my tongue still firmly in my cheek.

…..

As I listened to the mesmerising schloppp of the muzakked carols during my occasional forays into the shopping malls, and pondered the calls to put Christ back into Xmas, I thought that it was about time to finish the job that some of the traditional carols have only just started.

References to “Word of the Father now in flesh appearing”, and “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see”, are just the start. Explanations about the one who “abhors not the Virgin’s womb” really need to be expanded and developed. “Hail the incarnate Deity” needs to ring through all of our carolling. Surely, the carols we sing should joyously and vigorously affirm the fullness of our faith!!

With this in mind, in the spirit of the Wesleys (who took popular tunes and put Christian hymn lyrics to them), I have grabbed Jingle Bells by the short and danglies, and consulted with my resident critic and editor-in-chief, who has made sure that the verses, at least, conform to the scheme of rhyming pairs.

I therefore present the following offering, inspired by all that the Nicene-Chalcedonian tradition provides. And, in the spirit of this tradition, there is a special verse dedicated to the oft-overlooked Appendix to the Creed, which calls down a curse (an anathema, in Greek) on the heretics and their views.

Let the Homoousions rise to the heavens!

Enjoy!

1

Dashing through the mall

With a Christmas list to go,

Shoppers all around

Buzzing to and fro.

Carols sound on high

Repetitiously;

Santa, Rudolph, bells and snow,

But where can Jesus be?

Refrain A

Calchedon, Nicaea,

This is what we need:

Three in one and one in three,

Blessed Trinity, Hey!

God is now Incarnate,

God Emmanuel,

Human being, he became:

Homoousion!

2

Back in three two five,

The Emperor Constantine

Faced a mess of views,

which he needed to redeem.

“Sort this dogma mess,

Sort it once for all!”

And so the bishops did their job,

made a snappy Creed catch-all.

Refrain B

Jesus Christ, Son of God,

Essence of the Father,

Light from Light, and Very God,

Be-gotten not made. Hey!

Jesus Christ, Son of God,

Through whom all was made,

He came down, was incarnate,

Homoousion!

3

Though the bishops came,

met, and made a Creed,

Heretics were there,

Sowing their fake seeds.

So the Creed was stretched

To include some words

That ensured the views they held

Would damn them all with verbs:

Refrain C

Those who say, “he was not”,

Let them be accursed!

If they say “from naught he came”,

Let them be condemned! Hey!

If they claim “he’s changeable,

of quite another substance”,

Let them be condemned, we say,

Cast them out of church!

Refrain B

Jesus Christ, Son of God,

Essence of the Father,

Light from Light, and Very God,

Be-gotten not made. Hey!

Jesus Christ, Son of God,

Through whom all was made,

He came down, was incarnate,

Homoousion!

…..

The sections of the Nicene Creed which have informed this offering are:

We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,

      the only Son of God,

      begotten from the Father before all ages,

           God from God,

           Light from Light,

           true God from true God,

      begotten, not made;

      of the same essence as the Father.

      Through him all things were made.

      For us and for our salvation

           he came down from heaven;

           he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,

           and was made human.

‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’— they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

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We wait, and hope, and grieve, anticipating …

A Prayer for the Fourth Sunday in Advent

as we sit and watch the flames and smoke

Hear our prayers, O God,

in this moment of waiting, anticipating,

waiting, and hoping,

as we prepare for the end of Advent

and the coming Christmas season.

We have seen the photos, Lord.

We have watched from afar,

horrified, terrified.

We have heard the accounts,

listened to the tales of loss and destruction,

and learnt the names of those who have died.

We have felt the heat,

searing heat, scorching heat;

we have watched the smoke,

insidious, permeating everything,

snaking its way into our region;

and we have become weary,

We have inhaled the smoke,

coughed and wheezed,

closed the windows and the doors,

waited for the change in wind direction.

Now it is inside … inside our homes,

inside our lives, inside our beings.

And still the photos, the images, come;

the searing flames, the plumes of smoke,

the walls of fire, the crowning fires;

the valiant citizens, hoses in hand,

the sobbing homeless, utterly devastated;

we have watched them, from afar,

thankfully, from afar.

And we wait, and ponder,

and hope, and grieve,

in this moment of waiting, anticipating,

waiting, and hoping,

as we prepare for the end of Advent

and the coming Christmas season.

For those with the skills and knowledge,

the energy and the capacity,

to stand and fight the fires,

we are grateful, immensely grateful.

Strengthen them, O God,

strengthen them through the food willingly provided,

the leave willingly offered,

through the places of rest and recovery

and the comfort of the chaplains on hand.

For those who have lost property and homes,

whose neighbours and animals have been evacuated,

whose memories and possessions are gone,

we are sorrowing.

Comfort them, O God,

comfort them through the presence of listening ears

as well as through the offers of tangible support.

For those who are mourning the deaths

of fathers, husbands, sons, friends,

we stand silent, in solidarity, in grief;

comfort them, we know not how,

comfort them through the skill of counsellors and chaplains,

comfort them through the support of friends and family.

For them, we grieve,

just as we grieve for the creatures of the bush lands

where fires have spread,

wreaking havoc, causing chaos,

destroying everything in their midst.

And the native animals die in the inferno

and the ashes spread over the sand of beaches

and the dams are emptied, the dust bowls grow larger,

the birds have no trees as their habitat is destroyed,

and we watch as the climate changes, the damage grows,

the omens line up, the signs become clearer.

And we wait, and ponder,

and hope, and grieve,

in this moment of waiting, anticipating,

waiting, and hoping,

as we prepare for the end of Advent

and the coming Christmas season.

We wonder about what will come next,

we worry about how close it will come to us,

we worry about what future we are leaving for others.

Give us a firm resolve, O God,

a resolve to live our lives in ways

that respect and value all of your creation.

Give to our leaders, O God, a clear understanding

of the critical moment of choice that is here:

a crisis point in our life as community,

a crisis where leadership is needed;

clear-headed, engaged and informed,

committed to charting a course

that will turn us away from having heads in the sand,

a course that will enable us

to reduce our carbon outputs,

foster renewable sources of energy,

and live as a country that reduces our impact year by year.

These are our prayers, O God,

in this moment of waiting,

anticipating,

waiting,

and hoping.

Hear our prayers, O God.

Amen.

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A young woman? A virgin? Pregnant? About to give birth? (Isa 7:14 in Matt 1:23)

The passages set in the lectionary for this coming Sunday place alongside each other a prophetic oracle spoken by Isaiah, and an angelic announcement delivered to Joseph. The two passages seem to sit side-by-side very comfortably. The Gospel selection from the book of origins recounts how the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. The prophetic selection from Isaiah declares that the Lord himself will give you a sign and looks to the conception, birth, and naming of a child.

The oracle of the prophet speaks about a child to be born to a young woman. The message of the angel announces a child to be born to a young woman who was a virgin. The author of the book of origins (whom I refer to, following tradition, as Matthew) quotes the prophetic oracle about the birth of a child and claims that it has been fulfilled in the angelic announcement about the birth of a child to Mary and Joseph. The angel follows the prophet in affirming that child to be born would be a sign to the people, that God was still with them, in the midst of their difficulties. But the status of the young mother is a question that has long vexed interpreters.

The Hebrew word found in the original oracle of the prophet, almah, refers simply to a young woman of childbearing age; it had no connotation at all relating to virginity. It occurs in eight other places in Hebrew scripture—with reference to Rebekah and Miriam, in three references to female musicians, and in wisdom texts relating simply to young women. In none of those places does it have any reference to the virginity of the young woman.

There is also, in Hebrew, the word bethulah, which refers specifically to a young woman who was a virgin; but it is important to note that this word was not employed by the prophet Isaiah. He clearly was referring to a young woman aged around puberty, who was now able to bear a child. He was not referring to a young woman who had never had sexual intercourse, who was still a virgin.

The Greek translation of these Hebrew texts was made some centuries before Jesus. The translation is known as the Septuagint, attributed to seventy wise scholars. In this translation, the Hebrew word bethulah is usually rendered in Greek as parthenos. This Greek word can refer quite generally to a young woman, but it can have a more specific reference to the virginity of the young woman.

Now, on two occasions in the Septuagint, the word almah is rendered as parthenos: Gen 34:3 and Isa 7:14. The first refers to Dinah. It occurs in the story at the point where the powerful prince Schechem rapes the young woman. The point is being made that her state of virginity has at that point been lost, so the Greek word is appropriate.

But the oracle of Isaiah 7 refers simply to a woman who, at an early stage in her capacity to bear a child, is indeed pregnant. So there appears to be no reference at all to her lack of sexual activity prior to this pregnancy. This much is clear in the Hebrew. But the Septuagint translators chose the Greek word parthenos.

We must wonder: is the choice of parthenos when translating Isa 7:14 from Hebrew a strategic move by the seventy wise scholars? Is it an inspired insight into the meaning of the Hebrew text? Or is it an unguarded moment, a slip of concentration, amongst the translators?

I incline to the latter view. I don’t think the intention of the Septuagint translators was to insist that we know more than what the original prophet knew—that is, the precise sexual status of the young woman in question, not just young, but still a virgin.

Nevertheless, Matthew uses the version of the prophet’s oracle that includes this Greek word. He quotes the Greek version of the Septuagint, since he is writing in Greek. Mind you, Matthew regularly and consistently quotes the Septuagint translation, rather than other options that would have been available to him. So this is not really a surprise.

Whatever identity we accord the author of this book of origins, it is quite clear that he was an educated Jewish male. As such, he would have known and used the scriptures of the people of Israel, in Hebrew. And yet, he is writing his account of Jesus in Greek—so he makes use, on a regular basis, of this version.

And this version places a focus on the virginal status of the young woman, who was to give birth to Jesus of Nazareth. So Matthew has deliberately chosen to include this in his story.

Why? That is a good question! Why?

Rather than seeing Matthew as trying to prove the historical veracity of the virginal status of Mary, however, I incline to the view that the primary purpose, as Matthew tells the origins of Jesus, is for him to prove Jesus’ legal status as the stepson of Joseph, as a legal heir of David. Whilst the infancy narrative in Luke places Mary at the centre of the story—and the angel makes his announcement directly to her—in Matthew’s version it is Joseph who is centre-stage—and the angel speaks to him, and only him, in this version.

This passage in Matthew 1 is the one and only time in the book of origins when the virginal status of the mother of Jesus is noted. By contrast, the Davidic lineage of Jesus, through Joseph, is a concern which is both in view here at the start of the whole story, and which returns at various points through the ensuing story. (See https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/)

And as if to reinforce this lineage through Joseph, the book of origins takes pains to establish that Joseph, a descendant of David, was “a righteous man”, as befits a Davidic descendant (1:19; David is declared as righteous at 1 Sam 24:17).

Although, it is worth noting one way by which Joseph exemplifies the questionable moral character of his ancestor—initially he was “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace” and wanted to dismiss Mary (1:19). Nevertheless, after hearing the announcement of the angel, he remained faithful and “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him” (1:24).

And whilst he took Mary as his wife, Matthew maintains that, as a righteous man, Joseph “had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son” (1:25). At which point, we may presume, Joseph functions as the de facto father of the newborn child. So this is part of the pro-Davidic apologetic of this book, not the basis for the doctrine of the Virgin Birth.

Joseph, descendant of David, takes on the legal role of father of the child. (Indeed, we are never told that he refrained from relations when they were engaged, before Mary conceived; rather, might we infer that the shame that Joseph expresses incriminates him?)

Certainly, in Christian tradition the fathering of the child is attributed to the Holy Spirit, who overshadows the virgin to produce the child (see Luke 1:35). That developing tradition was presumably already known in early Christian communities of the first century. But how early, we do not know.

In the earliest decades of the movement that Jesus initiated, Paul makes no reference to this claim in any of his letters. He knows the Jewish origins of Jesus, but says nothing even hinting at Mary’s virginal status (see https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/)

The letter of James, if it was authored by the brother of Jesus, is an early witness that shows no concern for this doctrine. Mark, the earliest extant Gospel, makes no reference at all to the virginal status of Mary. Early witnesses make no reference to the doctrine which emerged much later, they provide no hints or clues upon which this dogma can be founded.

What we do know is that this claim was articulated in the later part of the first century in the orderly account attributed to Luke, as well as in this book of origins, attributed to Matthew, who includes the prophetic oracle as a foundation for the angelic announcement and to refer directly to this claim (1:18, 20).

And so the tradition of the virginal conception of Mary arose, eventually leading to the (less accurate) claim about the birth of Jesus having been a Virgin Birth, now strongly cemented in traditional Christian dogma. But I don’t think that this particular book of origins was really concerned, either to establish this claim, or to utilise it as a foundation for a whole developed dogma about Jesus, as would subsequently occur in Christian tradition.

And thus, I don’t think we need to hold to a notion that the mother of Jesus was still a virgin when he was born. She was, quite simply, young, at the beginning of her childbearing years, around 14 or 15 years of age. What sexual activity she engaged in at that time can never be known. But she was, in due course, married to a descendant of David; and that is what mattered for Matthew.

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/19/what-can-we-know-about-the-birth-of-jesus/

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Carols for the season

Last Sunday, Advent Three, in my congregation, we met to hear lessons, or readings, and to sing carols. Our eyes were firmly fixed on the joy of the child who is coming, who comes to us, each year, in the story of Christmas.

This Sunday, Advent Four, in that same congregation, we will hear more readings, telling the story that we recall, each Christmas, and sing more carols, focussed on the significance of those events long ago and their relevance for our lives today.

This is how I introduced the service:

Christmas Carols evoke a wonderful sense of tradition and memory. It is good to be doing that, at this time of the year. Yet it’s also important that we listen for the ways God is singing new songs, with new themes of hope and promise, with new melodies of inclusion, equality and welcome into our communities.

As you sing, you may notice that some of the carols may appear a little different from what you may be use to. The tunes will be familiar. And the words, in many ways, will also be familiar. But not all of them, not always familiar, not exactly as you know them. Some of the words will be different.

Now, this follows a long tradition, in writing words for hymns and carols, of varying the words, reshaping and reworking them. If you look up the Wikipedia article on Away in a manger, for instance, you will find that almost every line in the carol has recorded variants. The most significant are noted; for instance, “no crib for his bed”, or “No crib for a bed”; “the poor baby wakes”, or “The baby awakes“, and so on.

The last line of verse two appears in multiple published variants:

“And stay by my crib watching my lullaby” (Christian Cynosure, 1882)

“And stay by my crib to watch lullaby” (Seamen’s Magazine, 1883)

“And stay by my cradle to watch lullaby” (Murray, 1887)

“And watch by me always, and ever be nigh” (1890)

“And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh” (Herbert, 1891)

“And watch o’er my bed while in slumber I lie” (1893)

“And stay by my side until morning is nigh (1895)

So the carols that we sing today will follow a long tradition in hymnody, by which words are fluid, lyrics are flexible, and changes are allowable—the words of the carols are being reworked, rewritten, by people who are alive in our own time, today, making the message of the carol applicable to today and expressed in current language.

Our carols will follow the well-loved tunes, and will start out with words that are comfortably familiar. But as they proceed, the words will take some turns; so I invite you to pay attention, listen to the changes, reflect on the reshaping, and be prepared to encounter the familiar story in ways that refresh and renew your faith.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

(adapted by Sue Wickham)

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

and fill our lives, all dark and fear dispel,

as once an exiled Israel you found,

redeemed, restored and set on holy ground.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

shall come to us and in our hearts will dwell.

O come, O light of Christ, so bright and clear

and lift our spirits by your advent here.

In all who gather, show us your face,

that we may know the warmth of your embrace.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

shall come to us and in our hearts will dwell.

O come, O Wisdom, mind and heart divine,

help us restore a world we’ve let decline.

Enlighten us; your way we would know
and show us where new seeds of hope to sow.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

shall come to us and in our hearts will dwell.

O Advent God of hope, joy, love and peace,

in you we pray our sad divisions cease.

Bind us as one, a people of grace,

for at your table each one has a place.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

shall come to us and in our hearts will dwell.

 

Words © Sue Wickham 2010

https://pilgrimwr.unitingchurch.org.au/?p=925

The Angel Gabriel

(Words reworked by Sarah Agnew)

The angel Gabriel from heaven came,

surprising her by calling out her name:

‘Fear not,’ he said, ‘for God has seen and favours you,

You’re chosen for a blessing, Maria.

‘You will become a mother, Mary,

by Holy Spirit, with a child holy;

he is the one earth’s waiting for – the child of God,

O chosen for a blessing, Maria.’

‘But Gabriel how can this be, my friend?’

‘With God no thing’s impossible,’ he said.

‘Then let it be as you have said, I sing God’s praise.’

O, chosen for a blessing: Maria.

And so in Bethlehem she bore her boy

beneath a star as angels sang for joy:

Immanuel, our God with us, through Mary.

O chosen for a blessing, Maria.

words (c) Sarah Agnew 2019

music ‘Gabriel’s song’ Basque tune

http://praythestory.blogspot.com/2019/12/gabriel-and-maria.html

How ancient and lovely

Away in a manger with additional verses

by British writer Rebecca Dudley

(Shine on Star of Bethlehem, Christian Aid)

Away in a manger, no crib for his bed,

the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head;

the stars in the bright sky look down where he lay,

the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

How ancient and lovely, this news of a star,

a baby, a mother, the kings from afar.

Come close now, Lord Jesus, we ask you to stay

and show us your face in your people today.

What star shall we follow but one that leads here

to a baby born homeless and a family in fear?

What heaven shall we long for but one that starts there

for all the world’s children in your tender care?

We thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth;

for the light in the darkness that shone at your birth,

for life in its fullness that you promise today,

and the hope of a baby asleep in the hay.

This version is published in Hunger for Justice (Christian Aid UK)

https://www.musicroom.com/product/kmp1400356/hunger-for-justice-organ.aspx

For some other versions of this carol, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/18/no-crying-he-makes-get-real-puhhh-leeeease/

Hark! the herald angels, combined with

More than a Dream (David MacGregor)

(Arranged by John Squires)

Hark! the herald angels sing,

glory to the new born king.

Peace on earth and mercy mild,

God and sinners reconciled.

Humankind called: “come together,

live in peace with one another.”

Glory, glory from the heights,

Peace on earth, goodwill has come.

Glory, glory from the heights,

Peace on earth has come to us.

Christ, by highest heaven adored:

Christ, the everlasting Lord;

called to bring your peaceful kingdom,

lion rests besides the lamb.

Justice for the poor and needy

come to us, a child will lead us:

Glory, glory from the heights,

Peace on earth, goodwill has come.

Glory, glory from the heights,

Peace on earth has come to us.

Hail! the heaven-born prince of peace!

Hail! the Son of Righteousness!

Jesus, Saviour, born among us,

bring your peace anew to us.

Hearts of love reach out to all,

for the world, in your great love.

Glory, glory from the heights,

Peace on earth, goodwill has come.

Glory, glory from the heights,

Peace on earth has come to us.

Adapted from a song, More Than Dream (peace be our living), by David MacGregor © 2015 Willow Publishing

https://dmacgreg1.wordpress.com/2015/12/05/peace-on-earth-mercy-mild/

Combined with words from Hark! the herald angels sing, with the permission of David MacGregor (but not Charles Wesley!)

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Descended from David according to the flesh (Rom 1)

In the selection from Paul’s letter to the Romans that is offered by this Sunday’s lectionary, Paul refers explicitly to the gospel concerning [God’s] Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh (Rom 1:3). In the midst of the Christmas carols and Christmas cake, the Christmas cards and the Christmas parties, there stands this stark affirmation: Jesus was a Jew. And, more specifically, that Jesus was a descendant of David.

It is noteworthy that Paul makes very little reference in his letters to the earthly life of Jesus; he is much more focussed on the death and the resurrection of Jesus, rather than his life of teaching, preaching, story-telling and miracle-working. In his letter to the Galatians, however, he makes a similar affirmation about the humanity, and the Jewishness, of Jesus: when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law (Gal 4:4).

Descended from David, born under the law: Jesus was clearly a Jew. That needs to sit at the heart of the story that we recall each year at this time. The Jewishness of Jesus is an essential element of the Christmas story.

Those who recount the story of Jesus, in the documents we know as the Gospels of the New Testament, are clear about this fact. Mark locates Jesus in Galilee, the northern part of the land of Israel, and identifies his home town as Nazareth (Mark 1:9; 10:47; 14:67; 16:6). Matthew and Luke follow the pattern established by Mark, in locating the vast majority of the activity of the adult Jesus in the northern regions of Israel.

Matthew intensifies this picture, however. At the start of his book of origins, he traces the lineage of Jesus back to David, and further back to Abraham (Matt 1:1-17). He traces this lineage of Jesus, not through his mother, Mary, but through Joseph—because it was Joseph who was of the lineage of David. This Davidic heritage of Jesus is central and important for Matthew, for he, most of all the evangelists, has characters in the story address Jesus as “Son of David” (1:1, 20; 9:27; 12:24; 15:22; 20:30–31; 21:9, 15, 42). He wants to advocate, as he tells his story, that it is through Jesus that the ancient promises to David will come to fruition.

At the start of his story, and at various places further on, Matthew notes that the actions and words of Jesus occur as fulfilment of prophetic words (Matt 1:22; 2:5, 15, 17, 23; 3:3; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 26:56; 27:9).

Twice in his account of Jesus, Matthew is insistent that his active ministry and that of his first followers took place only amongst “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:6; 15:24). For Matthew, Jesus was resolutely, scrupulously, Jewish.

The Gospel of John also reinforces the Jewish identity of Jesus. The Samaritan woman describes Jesus as “a Jew” (John 4:9), Jesus regularly travels to Jerusalem for Jewish festivals (John 2:13, 6:4, 7:1-10, 10:22, 12:12, 13:1), in conformity with Jewish piety. When Pilate questions Jesus, he recognises him as King of the Jews (18:33-35) and refers Jesus to Jewish leaders for their decision (18:31, 19:6-7, 19:14). Pilate then has him crucified under a sign identifying him as “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (as, indeed, the other three Gospels also report).

In the Gospel of Luke, the Jewish identity of Jesus is recounted, repeated, and intensified. Although often touted as the evangelist who most strongly orients the story of Jesus towards Gentiles throughout the hellenistic world of the Roman Empire, Luke actually sets his orderly account in the heart of Jewish piety, from the very opening scene of the Gospel which reveals a pair of righteous Jews who faithfully keep the commandments of God (Luke 1:5–6).

The man, Zechariah, is devoted to the service of God in the Temple (1:8–9). His wife, Elizabeth, expresses an attitude of deep faith in God, accepting her surprise pregnancy as “what the Lord has done for me” (1:25). Her relative, Mary, demonstrates a similar faith as she submits to a similar fate with the words, “here am I, the servant of the Lord” (1:38).

In turn, the traditional hopes and expectations of the people are articulated in spirit-inspired hymns sung by Mary (1:46–55), Zechariah (1:67–79) and Simeon the righteous (2:29–32). These are, by rights, the first Christmas carols—songs which sing of the one to come, which tell of the birth of one promised, which look with hope to the change he will effect. And they are resolutely Jewish.

The children whose births are recounted in these early chapters of Luke—Jesus and his cousin John—bear the weight of traditional Jewish hopes and expectations as they come into being. They are born as faithful Jews. They both lived in fidelity to the Jewish law. The mission of Jesus to fulfil the hopes articulated by Jewish prophets (Luke 4:18-21) and to point to the promise of the kingdom ruled by God (Mark 1:15; Matt 4:17) which, he proclaimed, was already becoming a reality in his own time (Luke 17:20).

The sense of deeply devoted and strongly conventional Jewish piety continues in the reports of the early years of Jesus. Luke’s Gospel reports that Jesus was circumcised (2:21) and dedicated in the Temple (2:22–24) in accordance with Jewish custom, and that he showed an early interest in the Law (2:41–51).

So we would do well not to skirt away from this very particular and specific aspect of the Christmas story.

As we come to the celebration of the child in the manger, let us remember that he spoke with a voice that called people—his people in Israel, and people beyond his people—to the enticing vision (sourced from the Hebrew prophets) of a world renewed and reconciled, where righteousness and justice were realities, where the hopes of Israel could flourish and come to fruition. That is the thoroughly Jewish vision that the story of Jesus offers.

…….

The featured picture portrays a Judean man from Jesus’s time, based on archaeological findings, and is often used as an image for what the historical Jesus may have looked like.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/19/what-can-we-know-about-the-birth-of-jesus/

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No crying he makes? Get real, puhhh-leeeease!

The traditional words of the much-sung carol, Away in a Manger, offer a heavily romanticised, sickly-sweet, unrealistic take on the infant Jesus.

Yes, to be sure, newborn babies do look sweet and innocent. But not quite as clean, not quite as picture-perfect, as the many cards and carols present the newborn Jesus. And no crying? Not ever? That does not ring true, surely!

Indeed, one could argue that the way that Jesus is depicted in this carol flies in the face of the very claim that the carol, and the story to which it refers, seeks to make: that, in Jesus, God entered human life, became one of us, was incarnate, enfleshed, fully and completely human. After all, an infant who never cries must surely not be human, we would think?

And yet, still the carol features in Christian worship services as well as shopping mall Muzak and perpetual Christmas movie reruns on tv.

In response to these beloved words, a number of contemporary lyricists have offered rewrites of this classic carol (it is only around 130 years old, if the truth be known).

Each of these versions reworks the carol so that the realism of the day is evident — especially highlighting the plight of the family as refugees, seeking safety in another country. That part of the story resonates so strongly with our contemporary world: the number of refugees across the globe is the largest it has ever been, and it continues to grow as warfare afflicts country after country.

How ancient and lovely. Words by British writer Rebecca Dudley (Shine on Star of Bethlehem, Christian Aid)

How ancient and lovely, this news of a star,

a baby, a mother, the kings from afar.

Come close now, Lord Jesus, we ask you to stay

and show us your face in your people today.

What star shall we follow but one that leads here

to a baby born homeless and a family in fear?

What heaven shall we long for but one that starts there

for all the world’s children in your tender care?

We thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth;

for the light in the darkness that shone at your birth,

for life in its fullness that you promise today,

and the hope of a baby asleep in the hay.

Away and in danger. Words by Shirley Erena Murray from Aeotearoa New Zealand

Away and in danger, no hope of a bed,

the refugee children, no tears left to shed

look up at the night sky for someone to know

that refugee children have no place to go.

The babies are crying, their hunger awakes,

the boat is too loaded, it shudders and breaks;

humanity’s wreckage is thrown out to die,

the refugee children will never know why.

Come close, little children, we hold out our hand

in rescue and welcome to shores of our land –

in *aroha, touching your fear and your pain,

with dreams for your future when peace comes again.

*aroha is Maori for ‘warm embracing love’

alternative line “in touching, in healing’

http://www.hopepublishing.com/html/main.isx?sitesec=40.2.1.0&hymnID=5787

If I saw my toddler. Words by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette of the USA

If I saw my toddler with hands in the air

In fearful surrender to someone, somewhere,

I’d search for a people in some other place

Who practiced their preaching and showed love and grace.

If I had to flee from the madness of war—

From terror and violence and things I abhor,

I’d search for a nation with arms open wide,

With safety and beauty and friendships inside.

Be with me, Lord Jesus, as I seek to be

A friend to the stranger and poor refugee,

And as I remember you once had no bed,

May I give up fear and give welcome instead.

This hymn was inspired by a photo of a small Syrian child,

hands in the air, fearing that a camera lens was a gun:

www.snopes.com/syria-refugee-child-surrender/

Biblical References: Leviticus 19:34; Matthew 25:35; Luke 2:7; Hebrews 13:1; 1 John 4:18

Tune: James Ramsey Murray, 1887 (“Away in a Manger”)  

Text: Copyright © 2015 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.

http://www.carolynshymns.com/if_i_saw_my_toddler.html

Millennium Carol. Words by Jan Chamberlin of Aeotearoa New Zealand

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,

A long ago baby was born in a shed.

What possible meaning could this have for me,

A child of computers and technology.

The stars in the bright sky look down on me now,

But Christmas in these days lacks something, somehow,

There’s tinsel and turkey and gifts by the score,

Yet I am left feeling that there should be more.

Wise men with research grants can do awesome deeds,

But we are neglectful of our neighbors needs

For love and for caring, a Christ-child reborn:

God’s hand touching our hand on each Christmas morning.

The old manger story, with shepherds and kings:

Amazing how simple the message it brings.

Regardless of science or surfing the net:

God still sends us Jesus, and he loves us yet.

Words by Jan Chamberlin, from With Heart and Voice

http://www.methodist.org.nz/files/docs/alec/with%20heart%20and%20voice/1%20millennium%20carol.pdf

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Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way (Matthew 1)

The passages set in the lectionary for this coming Sunday place alongside each other a prophetic oracle spoken by Isaiah, and an angelic announcement delivered to Joseph. The Gospel selection from the book of origins recounts how the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. The prophetic selection looks to the predicted conception, birth, and naming of a child.

The prophet (Isaiah) was speaking some seven centuries before the time of Jesus, when Judah was ruled by a king. But it was a time when the kingdom was under pressure from stronger forces—the kingdom of Israel to the north, in league with the much stronger empire of Syria.

The angel (unnamed) was speaking to Josephus at a time when the Hebrew people were under Roman rule, after many centuries of foreign domination and oppression. The Assyrians had conquered Israel, in the north, and then the Babylonians had conquered Judah, in the south. In time, the Persians, then the Seleucids, and then the Romans, took control throughout the region.

The centuries of foreign rule took their toll on the national psyche. Hope for a leader from within the people, identified by the prophet, continued on in various forms throughout the period. Some who claimed such leadership met unhappy ends, and led the people into disastrous situations. Hatred of the foreigners grew and remained strong, alongside of persistent hope for the people of Israel.

The oracle of the prophet speaks about a child to be born. The message of the angel announces a child to be born. The context of this latter message, under Roman occupation, resonates strongly with the context of threat when the prophet was speaking. By this means, the overlapping of the child predicted by the prophet and the child announced by the angel is secured.

Thus the author of the book of origins (whom I refer to, following tradition, as Matthew) quotes the prophetic oracle and claims that it has been fulfilled in the angelic announcement. In subsequent verses, he clearly shapes the story of Jesus so that it fulfils scripture at each point along the way. “This took place to fulfil the scriptures” is a common refrain in the chapters that follow (see 1:22, 2:5, 2:17, 3:3, and so on).

Both angel and prophet affirm that child to be born would be a sign to the people, that God was still with them, in the midst of their difficulties. In traditional Hebrew fashion, the name given to the child signals the prophetic understanding of the role of the child. Thus, Emmanuel, meaning “God is with us”, is the name decreed for the child (Isa 7:14).

This prophetic pronouncement is quoted, with intent, in the book of origins (Matt 1:23). The child should be known as Emmanuel. And yet—the name actually given to the child whose birth was announced by the angel is “he saves”. Not, “God is with us”; but, “he saves”. And we know this child by this given name—in Hebrew, Yehoshua, or modified into English, Jesus. Saviour. The one who “will save his people from their sins” (1:21).

As Saviour, then, the child will serve as a signal of God’s enduring presence with the people. Salvation is effected by God and mediated through the child, it would seem.

The announcement reported in Matt 1 is made to Joseph. Not to Mary, as is the case in the orderly account that we know as the Gospel of Luke. In Matthew’s version, the angel speaks directly to Joseph, addressed as “son of David” (1:20). The story comes immediately after recounting a genealogy for the child, made through Joseph, “the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born” (1:16).

And the irony of this is that, if we take the literal explanation provided regarding the parentage of Jesus, then Mary is the mother (1:18), but she has had no marital relations with Joseph (1:25). Joseph is not presented as the “natural father”. And the citation of the prophetic oracle is intended to align Mary, the mother, with the virgin who shall conceive (1:23).

Of course, many commentators have noted that there is a translation issue at stake here. (See my post on this at https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/21/a-young-woman-a-virgin-pregnant-about-to-give-birth-isa-714-in-matt-123/)

In Christian tradition, the fathering of the child is attributed to the Holy Spirit, who overshadows the virgin to produce the child (Luke 1:35; Matt 1:18,23). When did that tradition develop? Perhaps it was already known outside of the community of which the author of this book of origins was a part? Certainly, it was later articulated in the orderly account attributed to Luke. Awareness of this claim most likely influenced Matthew to include the prophetic oracle as a foundation for the angelic announcement—he turns to scripture to provide a foundation for his story at many points.

And so the tradition of the virginal conception of Mary arose—leading to the (less accurate) claim about the birth of Jesus having been a Virgin Birth, now strongly cemented in traditional Christian dogma.

But back to the book of origins. Here, we have a child named incorrectly and a lineage traced back to key figures through the apparent non-father. A strange way to start a story!!

And yet, the book of origins is insistent on the Davidic lineage of Jesus—through the line of Joseph. And that is clearly because the covenant with David was an important motif to many groups in Jewish history. God promised that there would always be a descendant of David upon the throne of Israel; by the time that a member of Matthew’s community started to write the book of origins, this had developed into a messianic expectation in certain groups.

Members of the Jewish community in which the book of origins itself originated firmly believed Jesus to be the Messiah. Accordingly, the stress upon the “correct” ‘Davidic’ genealogy of Jesus would have been of particular importance to this predominantly Jewish group, especially one challenging the authority of the Pharisaic Jews of the time. It is probable that this is why Matthew uses the term “son of David” for Jesus much more than the other Gospel writers (1:1, 20; 9:27; 12:24; 15:22; 20:30–31; 21:9, 15, 42).

Matthew’s use of “formula quotations” also provide indications that the life, work and death of Jesus, in its totality, is the fulfilment of prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures, and therefore the expected Messiah.

“This took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the prophet” (or a close variant of this formula) can be found five times within the infancy narrative (1:22; 2:5, 15, 17, 23), and then a further nine times throughout the remainder of the gospel (3:3; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 26:56; 27:9).

There are other scripture quotations which are introduced by simpler formulae; for example:

“it is written” (4:4, 6, 7, 10; 21:13; 26:31)

“Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said…” (15:7)

“have you not read that…?” (19:4; 21:16)

“have you never read in the scriptures…?” (21:42)

“David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying” (22:43).

Some passages are clearly quoted, but without any introductory formula (for instance, 24:29 and 26:64). Indeed, Hebrew Scripture influences many other parts of the gospel, through allusion and inference as well as through use of selected terminology.

More than half of these fulfilment quotations come from the book of Isaiah, indicating the importance of its themes and theology for Matthew. Matthew uses the fulfilment quotations to emphasise that what Jesus said and did was to fulfil the plan of God, as set out by the prophets and writers of old.

By adding so many of these quotations, Matthew emphasises something about Jesus and what it means to believe in him. Matthew wishes to stress beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus is the chosen one of God and that the community’s belief in him as Messiah is completely justified; this justification can be found in the fulfilment of Hebrew scripture.

Therefore, in keeping with this notion, Matthew’s report of the baptism of Jesus highlights that Jesus is the fulfilment of righteousness. Only Matthew (3:14–15) reports the conversation between Jesus and John the Baptist, in which Jesus states that for John to baptise him “is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness”.

Thus, Jesus begins his public ministry by demonstrating a central theme of this Gospel—that of obedience to the will of God. Not surprisingly, Jesus’ baptism is accompanied by a sign commonly found in scriptural theophanies, that of God’s voice. Jesus is announced as a “beloved son”, pleasing to God (3:17). He is, in this Gospel, not only the son of David, but the son of God.

As the book itself begins: the book of origins of Jesus the chosen one, descendant of David, descendant of Abraham.

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/19/what-can-we-know-about-the-birth-of-jesus/

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Preparing prayerfully for Christmas celebrations

It is the custom, in the Congregation where I am serving this year, for a member of the Congregation to lead the prayers of the people each Sunday. Yesterday, Robyn Robinson led us in prayers which, with her permission, I post here: assisting us to prepare prayerfully for Christmas celebrations.

Loving God, we bring to you the prayers of the people: your people, greatly loved and willingly sought.

As Christmas approaches, we are reminded of the amazing gift you have given us, for as a God who knew no boundaries, you were willing to limit yourself to the constraints and boundaries of being human.

You came to your people as one of us: Emmanuel, God with us.

The angels sang of peace and goodwill on earth; and yet, here, so many years later, we are still struggling with terrible tragedies and inexplicable events.

We think of the continuing battle against the bushfires, and pray for rain.

We think of the civil unrest in countries overseas, and pray for calm.

We think of the natural disaster in New Zealand, and pray for comfort.

We think of the continuing violence in our homes, work places, and cities, and pray for peace.

Compassionate God, we pray for all those who are suffering, and ask for your comfort and peace to surround them.

There was no room at the inn for the child of Mary and Joseph, a king born in lowly surroundings; we pray for all of royal birth, for all of humble origins, for all who find no room or acceptance in society today.

We pray for those who have no room in their life for you; for those who publicly mock or ridicule you, and for all who suffer in your name.

May your love grow more and more in us, as we become more and more like Jesus, living out our faith in ways that will change the world.

We pray that we might see beyond the decorations and the holidays, the food and the presents, to the coming of the Christ child and the love, joy, hope and peace that comes with your presence.

May we all see beyond the snap of a cracker, filled with a few trinkets and a party hat, to see a richly fulfilling life as a child of God.

Help us to let go of our personal kingdoms of selfishness and greed, and, like Mary, bring Jesus to the world through everything we say and do. Amen.

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The origins of Jesus in the book of origins: Matthew 1

The book of origins of Jesus the chosen one, descendant of David, descendant of Abraham. So begins the first book in the New Testament (in my own translation from the Greek). We know this book as The Gospel according to Matthew.

This book has long been regarded as a keystone of Christian doctrine and has enjoyed a pre-eminent place within the church. Because early believers considered it to be the earliest gospel, it was placed at the very beginning of the New Testament canon and came to be known as “the first gospel”. It thereby sets out some key aspects of the origins and significance of Jesus.

This book starts with an account of the ancestry of Jesus. (In the days before DNA testing, this information was retained and passed on by word of mouth from one generation to the next.) It mimics the Old Testament passages that are sometimes called “the begats” … so-and-so begat such-and-such, such-and-such begat another one … and so on.

You can find extensive lists of “begats” in Genesis, Numbers, and 1 Chronicles, and more briefly in Ruth and Nehemiah. These multiple “begat” passages indicate that a person’s heritage was an important part of Jewish tradition.

The author of Matthew, being himself a faithful Jew, is anxious to establish the credentials of Jesus’ ancestry, so he begins his work with a genealogy (1:1–17) in which he lays out some important signs as to the true nature of Jesus, following the age-old pattern of the Hebrew people.

First, he indicates that Jesus fulfils the promises of scripture by establishing that Jesus was descended from the Davidic kings (1 Chron 28; Ps 18:50), whose house was to rule over Israel forever, as God’s chosen.

Matthew structures the genealogy in three groups of 14 generations; this is quite different from the structure of the genealogy in Luke. In Hebrew numerology, each letter stands for a number; thus, DVD, the three consonants of David, add up to 14. So, the structure of the genealogy in Matthew underlines the claim that Jesus is a descendant of David (1:1).

Matthew also notes that Jesus is descended from Abraham, the first man to receive the covenant (1:2). Abraham was the one whose descendants would fulfil the blessings that God had promised for all the earth (1:2): David, the founder of the royal line and ancestor of the promised Messiah (1:6); and Zerubbabel, leader of the post-exilic community (1:12).

Even more interestingly, Matthew includes five women in the list: Tamar, who posed as a temple prostitute (1:3; Gen 38); Rahab, a prostitute from Jericho (1:5; Josh 2, 6); Ruth, a Moabite who married Boaz after a dubious meeting with him at night on the threshing floor (1:5; Ruth 1–4); the wife of Uriah (Bathsheba), who married David after an adulterous encounter (1:6; 2 Sam 11–12); and Mary, who became pregnant before her marriage to Joseph (1:16).

While the inclusion of the male ancestors is not surprising, the addition of these women is most unexpected. Different reasons have been put forward as to why they are there. Some scholars see them as foreshadowing the redemption of Gentiles, others as a more general symbol of the redemption of sinners. Others have felt they vindicate the pre-marital pregnancy of Mary.

One thing does stand out about all five, and that is they were independent of the traditional patriarchal system of Israel. Each one flouted convention in some startling way to ensure the fulfilment of God’s divine plan. All had humble beginnings. All were obedient to their faith and willing to submit to what they felt was the will of God. They are striking figures, each one of them!

Thus, Matthew’s genealogy is not just a list of names, but a theological statement about Jesus as the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel through Abraham and David from its inception and throughout its history of prosperity and exile. Through Jesus, this plan for the salvation of Israel will indeed be fulfilled, and fulfilled in a most unexpected way. We should be reading the opening of this Gospel, not as a historical treatise or a family tree per se, but as a theological exposition signalling key motifs of the work that follows.

Matthew also includes many special events around the birth of Jesus (1:18– 2:23), events which we would expect to find attending the birth of a great prophet or the Messiah. The announcement of the name of Jesus follows a standard pattern as found in the Hebrew Scriptures for prominent figures: “bear a child … name him … what it means” (see 1 Sam 1:19; Gen 16:11; 17:19; Judg 13:3, 5).

The title given to Jesus in 1:23, “Emmanuel” (from Isaiah 7:14–16), is intended to show that in the coming of Jesus, God’s spirit became present among people through the messiahship of Jesus. In its original context, the text foretold the imminent birth of a child from the Davidic line, who would demonstrate that God continued to care for his people and was thus still “with us”. For Matthew, the verse emphasises further the Davidic origin of Jesus, and declares that the purpose of God was to save Israel at the coming of this child, Jesus.

In these ways, then, Matthew sets out the key elements of the origins and significance of Jesus: descendant of David, descendant of Abraham, chosen one of God. We will be following the story that Matthew offers us, throughout the coming year. It is a book of origins rich with resources for us as we seek to follow the way of Jesus today.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/19/what-can-we-know-about-the-birth-of-jesus/

****

The image is of an early version of the genealogy of Jesus provided in Matthew 1:1-9,12 found on the recto side (the front side) of Papyrus 1, dated to about 250 CE

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For our instruction … that we might have hope (Rom 15, Isa 11, Matt 3)

As Paul comes to the end of his letter to the Romans—a letter in which he quotes, time and time again, from the scriptures of his people, the Hebrew people, the books we know as the Old Testament—he makes a passing comment which, in my mind, is a penetrating insight into how he operates.

Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction,

so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures

we might have hope, he writes (Rom 15:4).

We have that section of the letter included in our readings this coming Sunday, the second Sunday in Advent. I suspect that the reason that this section is included is because Paul here goes on to quote from a collection of scriptures, each of which, in his mind, justifies what he is doing as he writes to the Romans.

My understanding of this letter is that Paul writes to persuade the Jewish Christians that they are to be welcoming, hospitable, and inclusive of the Gentile Christians who are part of the various house churches in Rome; as he says,

by grace, through faith, all are saved; there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. (Rom 3)

And so, the letter moves towards its close with this quotation:

I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.

As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”;

and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;

and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”;

and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” (Rom 15)

This passage grounds the reality of the church in the gathering of disparates, Jews and Gentiles; it also grounds our faith in the advent of Jesus, the one who draws Jews and Gentiles together; and it provides us with this seasonal word, during the season of Advent, as it points us to hope.

In the prophetic oracle set in the lectionary alongside the apostolic letter, Isaiah offers a wonderful vision of cosmic peace and universal co-operation:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,

the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,

their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD

as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11)

However, this vision of peace appears in our lectionary alongside some harsh striking words, about the judgement that is associated with this vision. As the evangelist writes about the coming of the promised one—the one who will,presumably bring about this era of peace—he reports words spoken by John the Baptiser, which offer this sense of judgement:

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Matt 3)

And again, in the Gospel for today, this message of judgement and punishment is vividly conveyed:

Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matt 3)

This is a stern word. It seems strange for us, during Advent, as we prepare for Christmas, to be hearing such clanging, jarring sounds. Although, as one of my colleagues said to me earlier this week, as we talked about the offerings on hand in the lectionary during this season:

The soundtrack of Advent is not jingle bells;

It is the sound of a hammer on an anvil.

For the incessant message of the prophets is one which calls us to account. The hammer strikes the anvil, once, twice, repeatedly, marking the surface, forging the shape, creating the essence of the person. And the message of the prophets places before us an insistence that we need to act ethically, live responsibly, with justice and equity, as we wait with hope for the coming of the one who will bring in the promised time of peace.

Indeed the prophet, as he envisages the presence of this one, so long hoped for, as he considers how “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots”, describes him in this way:

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,

and faithfulness the belt around his loins. (Isaiah 11)

The one to come will exemplify righteousness, and will assess the fruit produced by those he encounters. He will execute judgement by swinging the axe, cutting down the tree, and burning the branches in the fire; and, as the prophet declares,

He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,

and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

The soundtrack of Advent is not jingle bells;

It is the sound of a hammer on an anvil.

As we reflect on these words during this season, we do so with prayerful anticipation, with resolute hopefulness, with persistence and openness to God’s way in our midst, for we yearn to encounter afresh this chosen one:

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,

the spirit of wisdom and understanding,

the spirit of counsel and might,

the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.

His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,

or decide by what his ears hear;

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,

and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,

and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,

and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

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Celebrating Transitions: into a strange and graceful ease … (part two)

Into a strange and graceful ease is a phrase from a prayer by Ted Loder, from Guerillas of Grace (1984)

The theme of the November meeting of my Presbytery (Canberra Region) is Celebrating Transitions. As people of faith, we know that at the heart of our faith sits a dynamic of transition that was lived out to the fullest by Jesus of Nazareth. The life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus—the story which we remember every Easter, which undergirds every Sunday gathering—this is a story of transition. We are called, as people of faith, to celebrate transitions.

This year, Elizabeth and I have spent time with various cohorts of ministers who are undertaking training in the Foundations of Transitional Ministry, with a view to being accredited as an Intentional Interim Ministry (IIM). We took part as co-teachers in the course, along with Rob McFarlane, a colleague who has taught this course now for almost two decades. It was a rich experience of learning in community.

One of the prayers included in the IIM resources offered these words: eternal God, lead me now out of the familiar setting of my doubts and fears, beyond my pride and my need to be secure, into a strange and graceful ease with my true proportions and yours …

The prayer is by Ted Loder, from his book Guerillas of Grace (1984). It is a fine prayer for all ministry practitioners to pray, on a regular basis, throughout their ministry. The prayer invites us to find our true selves in the midst of change and traction. It calls us to sit, at ease with ourselves, in new ways of being, working, and living.

Alongside the prayer, the course offered many resources, designed to help Ministers think about their ministry and work in ways that embrace transition. A number of these resources are also applicable to anyone who takes responsibility for pastoral care, proclamation of the Gospel, missional engagement, or loving and compassionate service, within their local community of faith. Each of these resources will help to equip all of us in faithful ministry within that context of transition.

In a time of transition, people will find themselves in a liminal space, that in-between space, the place of not yet being where we hope to arrive at, still in a place where the last holds sway, but in a place of transition, of being not settled.

First, I note the importance of story for ministry, and especially for people engaged in transitional ministry. Story is what grounds our experiences in our lives. Story is the way that we make sense of the experiences we have in life. Story is how we share our deeper selves with others. And story is foundational to the whole dynamic of the Gospel calling and forming the Church, and the Church living out the Gospel as it takes part in the Mission of God.

Second, when we consider leadership styles, we need to be aware of the range of styles exist, and discern what is most suited to a certain situation, what another style of leadership might offer in that situation. In the course, we used the story of Moses and Aaron, and the people of Israel, to connect leadership styles with scriptural reflections at various points. Participants focussed on leadership for transition, leadership in the midst of turmoil, and the application of spiritual gifts to leadership positions. The figures of Moses and Aaron have some things to offer about each of these areas.

Within the church, it is important for us to grasp the way that our core beliefs shape our primary values. Our values manifest themselves in specific attitudes we foster, which then can be observed and experienced in tangible behaviours we undertake. Drilling down through the levels, from the behaviours at the surface to the deepest level of primary values, is critical to the way that we interact with other people in the exercise of our ministries.

Stories of conflict are endemic throughout the church. Everyone in ministry has experienced conflict. Everyone in ministry will experience conflict in the foreseeable future, on into the distant future, as long as we are in ministry. The way that human beings interact will guarantee this. And transition provides a hotbed or potential conflicts, which need to be identified, and dealt with, appropriately.

It is vital for Ministers and Pastors, Officers of Congregations and Church Council members, to know how we operate in situations of conflict—both in situations of relative calm, and then on those occasions when a storm shift happens and we are thrust into the the middle of a conflict, with raging turbulence all around us. Knowing how we operate, and what options there are for operating differently, in such situations, is an important learning to have.

Taking responsibility for the dynamics that are at work in conflict requires us to be determined not to ignore the conflict but to address the issues head on. We need to deal with the conflict in ways that are respectful, not demonising or stereotyping the other party in the conflict. We ought to seek to invite engagement with others in the conflict, rather than scaring people off from a way to address it.

Conflict resolution should be both constructive (ensuring that more damage is not done through the process employed), and productive (moving to an outcome that is mutually acceptable for the parties involved). And we need to know ourselves, to know how we operate, in the midst of these situations. Transitions inevitably occur with associated conflicts. Knowing ourselves, and managing others, is critical to being able to navigate successfully through those conflicts.

Much of the course was premised upon the analysis of systems, and how churches work as systems. This is the final, and most challenging, dimension of working constructively in the situation of transition. Strategic interventions into the system are central to providing effective leadership in ministry when transition is clearly at work.

To this effect, there are some wonderful stories contained in Friedman’s Fables, one of the creations of American rabbi, therapist, and ultimately management consultant, Edwin Friedman. “No living part of the system was unaffected by this action”, one story recounts. That is always the case in a situation of transition.

A time of transition provides a wonderful opportunity for leaders to effect constructive change—if they are able to identify, plan, and implement a strategic intervention, encouraging people to let go of the past, and then committing together follow on through the process, making sure that it sticks.

I hope you, like me, are seized with joy at the abundance of possibilities that lie before us in this time of transition. I hope you will be able to enter into the theme of our Presbytery, that you will rejoice in Celebrating Transitions, as you pray, eternal God, lead me now out of the familiar setting of my doubts and fears, beyond my pride and my need to be secure, into a strange and graceful ease with my true proportions and yours …

You can read about the Interim Ministry Network at https://imnedu.org

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/15/celebrating-transitions-into-a-strange-and-graceful-ease-part-one/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/14/ministry-and-mission-in-the-midst-of-change-and-transition-luke-2113/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/09/29/gracious-openness-and-active-discipleship-as-key-characteristics-of-church-membership/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/09/advocacy-and-climate-change-growth-and-formation-treaty-with-first-peoples-synod-2019/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/17/discovering-new-futures-letting-go-of-the-old/

http://discoversacredspace.blogspot.com/2011/03/lead-me-out-of-my-doubts-and-fears.html

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Celebrating Transitions: into a strange and graceful ease … (part one)

Into a strange and graceful ease is a phrase that comes from a prayer by Ted Loder, from Guerillas of Grace (1984)

Look around you, when you gather this coming Sunday for worship. What looks familiar? The people beside you? The person (or persons) out the front, leading worship? The pictures or plaques on the wall? And what sounds familiar? The music from organ, or piano,,or guitar, or voice? The voices reading, the voices praying, the voices responding? What tastes familiar? Perhaps the plates of food and cups of drink available after worship?

And what looks different? New people, new images? What sounds different? New music, new voices?

Now, step outside into your local community. Recall what you see as you move around your community. What changes do you notice as you move around the shops, the streets, the parks? What things remain relentlessly the same?

Now, reflect on how much is still the same, and how much is quite different, in your church—and in your community.

How we, as church, respond to the changes that are taking place around us, and within us, is a critical issue. How we respond to the inevitable changes and transitions that are taking place, is a key factor in our being faithful, as church, in the present time.

This year, much of my focus on ministry has been on transitions. Elizabeth and I have moved interstate. We have changed our place of residence (we are in a house that Presbytery has recently purchased) and we are both in new Ministry positions—Elizabeth, at Tuggeranong, and myself, at Queanbeyan.

Indeed, the Presbytery where we are now serving is at a significant moment of transition, as leadership changes, ministers move on to new placements, congregations consider new futures, and we look to a full complement in Presbytery staff in 2020, as I move into a fulltime role with Presbytery, alongside of a new colleague, Andrew Smith.

Life is always comprised of transitions. And how we deal with those transitions, is critical. Do we resent transition and change? Or do we celebrate transitions when they come?

All ministry, these does, is taking place in contexts where changes are afoot (or need to be afoot!), where transitions are taking place, where the ground seems to be shifting under our feet as we walk the pathway ahead of us. Every ministry context these days reflects our post-Christendom context, with a growing multifaith mix in society. We live in a world which has an increasingly vocal secularised or anti-faith element, where the church is both smaller than in its heyday, and also occupying a very different place in (or on the edges of) society. We are all in a context of transition.

The theme of the November meeting of my Presbytery (Canberra Region) is Celebrating Transitions. As people of faith, we know that at the heart of our faith sits a dynamic of transition that was lived out to the fullest by Jesus of Nazareth. The life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus—the story which we remember every Easter, which undergirds every Sunday gathering—this is a story of transition. We are called, as people of faith, to celebrate transitions.

This year, Elizabeth and I have spent time with various cohorts of ministers who are undertaking training in the Foundations of Transitional Ministry, with a view to being accredited as an Intentional Interim Ministry (IIM). We took part as co-teachers in the course, along with Rob McFarlane, a colleague who has taught this course now for almost two decades. It was a rich experience of learning in community.

One of the prayers included in the IIM resources offered these words: eternal God, lead me now out of the familiar setting of my doubts and fears, beyond my pride and my need to be secure, into a strange and graceful ease with my true proportions and yours …

The prayer is by Ted Loder, from his book Guerillas of Grace (1984). It is a fine prayer for all ministry practitioners to pray, on a regular basis, throughout their ministry. The prayer invites us to find our true selves in the midst of change and traction. It calls us to sit, at ease with ourselves, in new ways of being, working, and living.

It is also a prayer that is most applicable for all in leadership within churches, whether they be ordained, commissioned, or appointed, to pray and meditate upon. Lead us out of the familiar and known. Lead us into a strange and graceful ease with ourselves. May it be so!

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/14/ministry-and-mission-in-the-midst-of-change-and-transition-luke-2113/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/09/29/gracious-openness-and-active-discipleship-as-key-characteristics-of-church-membership/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/09/advocacy-and-climate-change-growth-and-formation-treaty-with-first-peoples-synod-2019/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/17/discovering-new-futures-letting-go-of-the-old/

http://discoversacredspace.blogspot.com/2011/03/lead-me-out-of-my-doubts-and-fears.html

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Faith in Action: a religious response to the Climate Emergency (Part Three)

Continuing my reflections on the first national conference in Canberra of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC) …

Dr James Whelan, lecturer, researcher and longterm environmental activist, spoke about creating a faith network to tackle the climate emergency, advocating that we need to play to our strengths, ask the clarifying questions, “What are our strengths?”, “What are we lacking?”—and advocate that we need to be strategic!

He argued that we can learn from social movements that have come before—in areas as diverse as anti-apartheid, land rights, whaling, smoking, AIDS/HIV, breast cancer, anti-uranium, public transport, urban sanitation, workers’ rights, or domestic violence.

He then invited the participants to identify the strengths of ARRCC and its people; participants identified creativity, courage, a moral voice, the use of positional authority to persuade, energy from young people, shared values across a wide diversity, existing networks that can be engaged, a clarity of commitment to change, a commitment to respectful conversations as the basis for enabling change, a thoughtful, broad-based progressive religious voice in the public arena, and the fact that ARRCC is an intergenerational and transcontinental movement.

The afternoon was spent in small group workshops ranging across a range of issues exploring how people of faith might respond to the climate emergency. One group heard strategies used to convince religious groups to divest from companies that support fossil fuels; another explored a case study in “switching to sunshine” by installing solar panels.

In one group there was a focus on strategies for developing a climate-conserving lifestyle, noting both the opportunities and the challenges involved. A fourth group heard stories of nonviolent resistance “from the frontline”, whilst another group heard stories of developing local networks across religious faiths (and beyond), sharing the triumphs and the struggles of such work.

The afternoon continued with feedback of learnings and a consideration of how these learnings might best inform the ongoing work of ARRCC, as they focus on four areas: preventing the extraction of fossil fuels (no new coal mines)—transitioning to sustainable regional economies (retraining the labour force)—increasing clean energy uptake by local faith communities—and encouraging responsible lifestyle changes (through programs such as Living the Change, Switch to Sunshine, Eat Less Meat, and Climate Action Kits).

ARRCC President, Thea Ormerod, reminded us of the practical steps that people of faith (and others, too) can take: flying less and driving more; cycling more and taking public transport; eating less meat, shopping locally, and growing your vegetables; all of these (and more) contribute to a more sustainable lifestyle.

The scourge of our society is that we think that increased comfort and convenience, and abundant choice as consumers, makes us appreciate life more and feel happier and more contented. Not so, the research shows; more is not better, comfort does not always generate happiness, convenience does not help us flourish as human beings.

Quoting Prof. Mark Howden of the ANU, Thea noted that “each choice matters, each year matters, each half a degree matters”. Living the Change is a project that ARRCC now offers to educate and encourage such transitions in people’s lives. This project upholds two deep theological convictions: the Earth is a sacred gift, and each person has the responsibility to live in a way that supports and sustains our common home. You can read about this project at https://www.arrcc.org.au/living_the_change and download a climate action kit with practical strategies at https://www.arrcc.org.au/climate-action-kits

The conference continues on Sunday with further workshops on moving to a pant-based diet, making the most of one-on-one conversations, and building the climate movement in a local faith community—but I won’t be there as I will be leading worship in my local faith community and speaking about the importance of caring for creation and living sustainability.

It’s certainly been a most intense but very useful experience to have been involved in this conference.

(The photo montage shows key ARRCC people, Dr Miriam Pepper at top left, Thea Ormerod and Tejopala Rawls at bottom right, along with the large cross and the meeting place of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture in Barton.)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/09/faith-in-action-a-religious-response-to-the-climate-emergency-part-two/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/09/faith-in-action-a-religious-response-to-the-climate-emergency-part-one/

and related blogs at

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/08/look-up-to-the-sky-look-down-to-your-feet-luke-20/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/09/18/supporting-the-climate-strike/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/25/873/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/05/to-care-for-honour-and-respect-the-creation-we-need-to-stopadani-k/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-4/

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Faith in Action: a religious response to the Climate Emergency (Part Two)

Today I am with people from a wide range of faith traditions from across the Australian continent and Aotearoa New Zealand, at the first national conference in Canberra of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC).

During the morning, a series of keynote speakers addressed the Conference: a scientist, followed by a Muslim scholar and a Christian researcher and activist.

Prof. Lesley Hughes of the Climate Council and Macquarie University (top right in the photo montage) gave an overview of the impacts that are being felt right around the world in this climate emergency. Significant changes in the climate are clearly documented; the rate of change is alarming and disturbing in so many areas: temperatures are rising, heatwaves are growing, snow coverage is declining, water levels are rising.

Emissions in 18 countries have been declining in recent years; Australia is not one of those countries. Globally, there is less use of coal and more dependence on renewable sources of energy. However, Australia remains the largest exporter of coal in the world, and we have the 12th highest emissions per capita. Figures demonstrate that the introduction of a Carbon Price under Gillard had a clear impact, but there has been a strong reversal since the time of Abbott.

A number of articles by Prof. Hughes setting out the details of these factors can be read on The Conversation at https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823/articles, whilst the Climate Council has recently published a landmark report, This is what climate change looks like. It offers sobering reading. You can download and read the report from https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/This-is-What-Climate-Change-Looks-Like.pdf

Prof. Hughes concluded by quoting the inspiring slogan, We are the ones we have been waiting for!

Prof. Mehmet Ozalp, of Charles Sturt University (bottom right in the photo montage) spoke about an Islamic response to the climate emergency, arguing that within Islamic theology there is a clear ethical obligation to respond in practical ways. On the scale of assessment regarding ethical matters (allowed, recommended, neutral, not recommended, prohibited), this clearly sits within the realm of allowed (halal). He bases this on the premise that, where harm and benefit co-exist, alleviation of harm is the priority.

In 2015, the Islamic Declaration on Climate Change was issued. It sets out the theological and ethical imperatives, but is not strong on offering practical strategies. See https://unfccc.int/news/islamic-declaration-on-climate-change

What motivates change? Prof. Ozalp outlined four factors: awareness through education, activism and media reports; relationships with friends, acquaintances and organisations; religious teachings in worship; and individual consciences which generate a concern for the earth and its creatures.

Prof. Ozalp referred to a range of initiatives: questions relating to the hajj and the use of plastic bottles for water; green makeovers of 600 mosques in Morocco and 2000 mosques in Jordan; the Greening the Desert project in Jordan is one of many projects in the Middle East; and the partnership of Greenpeace and the Indonesian Government to avoid plastic during Ramadan.

Trees for Change in Tanzania is one of a number of African tree planting projects; a proposed gold mine in the Kaz Mountains near Gallipoli in Turkey has been stopped by mass protest; an Eco Mosque is being built in Cambridge, UK; and a strong Green Muslim movement has emerged in the USA.

In Australia, Monash University held a Greener Iftar whilst a recently-opened Eco Mosque in Punchbowl has won an architectural award. Australian Muslim leaders have supported the Stop Adani campaign and signed the letter prepared by ARRCC. ISRA has been active in holding public education events in the Muslim community, including the 2019 Living the Change Workshop.

Dr Miriam Pepper, from the Uniting Church (bottom left in the photo montage), then spoke about Engagement and mobilisation on climate change in Christian churches, both to outline the responses and help participants to discern opportunities for future mobilisation.

In Australia, 1.6 million people attend Christian worship on any given Sunday, providing a significant opportunity for networking, influencing, and acting. However, church participants are generally socially and politically conservative, and takeup of climate activism, despite the clear evidence about the climate emergency, has been low and slow across all Christian denominations. (Some have been more active than others.)

Attitudes towards the climate emergency and activities taken in response to it can be schematised as citizen, reformer, rebel, or change agent. Each has a place in the overall movement. Dr Pepper spoke of a range of actions undertaken in Australian Christian churches. Community gardens, solar panels and climate signs outside churches are increasingly found associated with churches. Christian participation in marches, rallies and strikes remains consistent—especially from Uniting Church members, but spread across many denominations.

Divestment from companies supporting fossil fuels is a strategy employed by a growing number of religious organisations. Some Christians have participated in nonviolent direct actions—following the example of Jesus himself! Organisationally, churches work through Congregations and Parishes, denominational agencies focussed on environmental issues, influential positional leaders (most notably, Pope Francis), national and regional church bodies, church schools, university student groups, theological and bible colleges, religious orders, as well as in partnership with parachurch organisations and ecumenical networks.

Drawing on data from the NCLS, Dr Pepper reported that the majority of church people do accept that climate change is happening, but taking action on environmental issues does not rate high on the list of social and religious issues that churchgoers believe should be prioritised by their churches. That places a challenge before all ministers and leaders in the churches to press the point concerning this vital set of issues. See a series of NCLS papers on the environment at http://www.ncls.org.au/topic/environment

In summary, she noted that congregational engagement remains low; however, a sign of hope is provided through an increasing Roman Catholic commitment to caring for the earth, which has grown since the release of the encyclical Laudato si’.

The three presentations we followed by a lively panel discussion, responding to a range of questions and comments form conference participants. A clear role was seen for church communities to press for changes in lifestyle as well as the policy framework of society—through individual and communal actions, through public education and activism, and through political lobbying.

The importance of naming environmental issues in worship, inviting lament and grieving in prayers, offering practical strategies in sermons and study groups, and pointing to a hope for the future through specific actions, was also noted. The scientist on the panel, Prof. Hughes, made a strong statement about the importance of hope amongst everyone involved in responding to the climate emergency—both people of faith and people of no faith working together to a shared and hoped-for outcome.

Prof. Hughes also spoke about the interrelationship between environment, society, lifestyle and civilisation itself. We need to stop talking about “the environment” as an isolated entity, and frame it, rather, in terms of what impact the changes in climate will have on our way of living and our very existence as the human race. That is the extent of the challenge we face!

See related blogs at

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/09/faith-in-action-a-religious-response-to-the-climate-emergency-part-one/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/08/look-up-to-the-sky-look-down-to-your-feet-luke-20/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/09/18/supporting-the-climate-strike/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/25/873/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/05/to-care-for-honour-and-respect-the-creation-we-need-to-stopadani-k/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-4/

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Faith in Action: a religious response to the Climate Emergency (Part One)

A good number of Uniting Church people from the ACT and NSW, and beyond, joined with people from a wide range of faith traditions from across the continent and Aotearoa New Zealand, at the first national conference in Canberra of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC).

The Friday evening began with the Kiddush, a welcome to the Sabbath, with blessings and sharing of wine and bread, as is the Jewish custom for the Friday evening start of Sabbath. This was led, and explained, by Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black from the Leo Baeck Centre in Melbourne.

A Welcome to Country was offered by Uncle Wally Bell, of the Buru Ngunawal Aboriginal Corporation, who sang and spoke in language as he explained the spiritual importance of land for the First Peoples of the country. This was followed by an introduction to the Conference by the President of ARRCC, Thea Ormerod, and a welcome to participants from Bishop Stephen Pickard, Director of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, which was the location for the conference.

Spirituality is at the centre of the ethos of ARRCC, so prayers were led by people of faith from the Hindu, Muslim, Brahma Kumaris, and Buddhist faith traditions.

This was followed by a powerful reflection on how Indigenous spirituality informs the work of caring for and protecting the environment. The reflection was offered by Murrawah Johnson, a young Wirdi woman from Wangan and Jagalingou country, the land of the Galilee Basin where it is proposed to build the monstrous Adani coal mine. She is an activist, inspired by Eddie Mabo and others of his era, who has worked hard towards the goal of stopping the Adani mine. “When you love your people, amazing things can happen”, she observed, bringing a strong sense of optimism into the conference deliberations,

The Muslim speaker quoted a verse of the Quran which appears to provide a direct commentary on the climate emergency that we are currently experiencing, not shying away from the contribution that human beings have made to that emergency: Corruption has appeared in the land and the sea on account of what the hands of men have wrought, that He may make them taste a part of that which they have done, so that they may return. (Quran, 30:41)

That seems, to me, to be a powerful statement in our current context. It does not seek to excuse human beings for the scenario we are facing; in fact, it centres the ecological crisis deep in the heart of the spiritual dis-ease of human beings. It also signals some hope: is it possible that we might return (repent, change, transform) as a result of what we are currently experiencing. That means it is as much a spiritual, or religious, matter, as it is a political, legal, economic, and social matter.

For links to people and organisations noted above, see

http://www.buru-ngunawal.com/426483484

https://grist.org/grist-50/profile/murrawah-johnson/

https://www.arrcc.org.au/about

https://www.arrcc.org.au/arrcc_national_conference

https://about.csu.edu.au/community/accc/about

For some of my other blogs on the environment, see

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/08/look-up-to-the-sky-look-down-to-your-feet-luke-20/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/09/18/supporting-the-climate-strike/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/25/873/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/05/to-care-for-honour-and-respect-the-creation-we-need-to-stopadani-k/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-4/

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Stones singing and rivers vibrating … a liturgy for Holy Communion

A LITURGY FOR HOLY COMMUNION, AT THE CLOSE
OF A MINISTRY RETREAT FOR ‘MARKING THE TIME’

Gathering music

Psalm 19:1-6, 7-10, 14 is read

The community is gathered in these words:

There are stones that sing and rivers vibrating
under our feet and in our hearts,
one and the same, not distinct—
sacred blurring into secular,
secular fusing into sacred;
no binary bifurcation, no simplistic division,
but wholeness—shalom
infinite liminality, unlimited unfinality  …

As we have been marking the time, we remember …

it is over food that everything happens;
it is over food that hearts are opened,
fears are revealed, and love is expressed;

it is over food that everything happens;
the sharing of hopes, the comforting of anxieties,
the telling of stories, the healing of hurts …

it is over food that we meet: food, bread and wine,
the basic stuff of life, here, now, for us, from eternity.

 

We offer our prayers:

In time beyond our dreaming, beyond our marking …
in Daramoolen … in Tjukurrpa … in Alcheringa
you brought forth light out of darkness:
swirling waters, dazzling colours, singing stones,
and you set woman and man in the midst of your creation.

In the covenant with Israel
you mandated holiness and steadfast love,
through the voices of the prophets
you called for justice and righteousness,
in the songs of the psalmists and the wisdom of the sages
you spoke truth and wisdom, hope at the gates.

And then, in the fullness of time
—in that particular wrinkle in time—
you sent forth Jesus, your Son:
gift of grace, gatekeeper of hope;
perfect grace, embodying you,
dangerous grace, confronting, challenging;
the grace of perfect danger
sent to the place of resistance and defiance
in the face of Empire: Roman—human—Empire.

 

We remember:

And so, as we have been marking the time,
we remember that time around the table, at the meal—
for everything happens over food.

And at this particular wrinkle in time, we remember:
how he took – blessed – broke – and gave them bread,
how he took – blessed – poured – and gave the cup;
blood shed from perfect danger,
blood shed as perfect grace,
sign of hope at the gates of hope,
promise and foretaste—stimulus and challenge—
the place of truth telling about our souls …
our ground … our struggle … our hope.

We mark that time in this time, now.

 

We pray for others:

And as we mark the time and remember that moment,
we celebrate this moment above the rivers vibrating,
amidst the stones singing, we celebrate and pray …

[specific names and issues may be named after each pause]

for each other …

for the people with whom we minister
and the urgencies that will undoubtedly claim us on our return …

for those who have been with us,
but have returned to responsibilities …

for colleagues unable to be with us here …

for those, here and beyond, who are pondering,
discerning, conversing, deciding about new possibilities …

for those who are moving on
into new pathways, new ventures …

for those towns and cities beyond us,
across this wide brown land …

for people and nations beyond our shores …

for creatures and ecosystems across the planet …

and we join in the Lord’s Prayer …

then we share the Peace …

then our Prayers continue:

Bless us, bless those for whom we pray, bless us all.

Bless this land,
with rivers vibrating, stones singing, land yearning.

Bless these gifts of bread and wine.

Send your Spirit to meet with our spirits, our very being.

Send your Spirit into these gifts of bread and wine,
that they may be for us body of Christ, blood of Christ,
to nourish us and change us
to be people of God, body of Christ, communion with Spirit,
here, now, on earth as in heaven.

The elements are shared amongst the people in silence

We mark the time of our moving on
and take the time to bless our going forth:

May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground,
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.

May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
As you have lived] your time [here] to its fullest;
Return home more enriched and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.

 

The Blessing of the Angels (sung)

 

John T. Squires
30 October 2019

 

Many thanks to the Rev. Dr Sarah Bachelard for the gentle leading, rich resourcing, and inspiring modelling of deep spirituality, which she offered throughout the Retreat.

 

Notes

The featured image is of the symbol that sat at the centre of the group throughout the Retreat, which was variously adapted at points throughout.

The term Dreamtime is an English attempt to render various Indigenous words that describe Aboriginal culture and spirituality. Included here are Daramoolen (Ngunnawal), Tjukurrpa (Walpiri and Pitjantjatjara) and Alcheringa (Arrernte)

“Marking the times” was offered by Sarah as the overarching theme for the Retreat, inspired by a phrase in the Book of Common Prayer (‘read, mark and inwardly digest‘)

“A wrinkle in time” is the title of a book by Madeleine L’Engle

“It is over food that hearts are opened, fears are revealed, and love is expressed” is taken from a sign in the Op Shop at Jindabyne Uniting Church

Jindabyne Op SHop

“Stones that sing and rivers vibrating” is taken from There are stones that sing by Mary Oliver

“The grace of perfect danger” is taken from For the Artist at the Start of the Day by John O’Donohue

“The place of resistance and defiance” and “the gates of hope” is taken from The Gates of Hope by Victoria Safford

“The urgencies that claim you” and the closing blessing, “may you travel …”, are both slightly adapted from For the Traveller by John O’Donohue

Other poems used on the Retreat include A Morning Offering by John O’Donohue, A Sleep of Prisoners by Christopher Fry, Still Point by Max Reif, Sonnets to Orpheus Part Two, XIII by Rainer Maria Rilke, and No Sooner by Michael Leunig

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The sincerest form of flattery? Or a later, imperfect imitation? (2 Thessalonians)

Paul, Silas and Timothy arrived in Thessalonika in the year 50 CE. Acts indicates that they went to the synagogue, where Paul declared that the Jewish scriptures pointed to Jesus as Messiah (Acts 17:2–3). This stirred up antagonism amongst the Jews of the city (Acts 17:5).

Those who accepted Paul’s message, realising that he was just recovering from the experience of prison in Philippi (Acts 16:19–24), sent him and Silas on to their next stop in Beroea after only three weeks in Thessalonica (Acts 17:2). Paul then travelled to Athens (Acts 17:15) and Corinth (Acts 18:1).

Little of this is reflected in Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, apart from a direct comment about his difficulties in Philippi (1 Thess 2:2) and some generalised references to the persecution he was suffering (1 Thess 3:4, 7). Although it is likely that Paul wrote letters before he had visited Thessalonica, none of them are known to us.

1 Thessalonians, dating from the same year (50 CE) as his visit to Thessalonica, is the earliest example of Paul’s letter writing that we have. The letter itself contains no explicit indication of the time or place of its writing; tradition has it that Paul wrote from Athens, although it is more likely that he penned it in Corinth just months after his departure from Thessalonica. His visit was still fresh in Paul’s mind, and he writes with love and concern for the community of believers that he left behind in Thessalonica.

It is obvious that Paul had developed a strong bond with this community, and he is anxious to keep in touch with them (3:5). The letter was in reply to what he had learned from Timothy about their recent progress (3:6).

The letter known as 2 Thessalonians appears in the lectionary this Sunday and in the two following weeks. It seems to run in parallel to 1 Thessalonians in a number of ways. Some of the themes from the first letter are replicated, and varied, in the second letter to the Thessalonians:

• the matter of idleness in the community (1 Thess 5:14; 2 Thess 3:6–12)

• the general eschatological orientation (1 Thess 4:13–5:11; 2 Thess 1:5–2:16)

• an exhortation to imitate Paul (1 Thess 1:6; 2 Thess 3:7).

Also, both letters contain reminders about Paul’s teachings (1 Thess 2:5–7, 12; 4:1–2; 5:1–2; 2 Thess 2:15).

However, the commonality of both general themes and specific words and phrases leads to a question about the relationship between these two letters: is this stylistic variation on common themes written by the same author, or a deliberate attempt to copy the first letter by another scribe at a later date?

Scholars answer the question differently; there are different views on the authorship of 2 Thessalonians. The opening and closing sections of 2 Thessalonians are revealing.

The letter concludes with an insistence that it was written by Paul: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand” (3:17). At first glance, this looks similar to the reference to Paul’s “large letters” in his “own hand” at Gal 6:11; but this is a brief passing comment, whereas the claim is laboured in 2 Thessalonians by the addition of extra phrases, so that we start to have a sense of “methinks he doth protest too much”.

The first twenty words of the opening address of 1 Thess 1:1 are repeated exactly in 2 Thess 1:1–2a; this is unusual amongst the seven authentic letters of Paul, for in every other case there are variations of both minor and major significance in this opening section. (See Rom 1:2–6; 1 Cor 1:2b; 2 Cor 1:b; Gal 1:1 and 1:4; Phil 1:1b; Phlmn 2.)

In the thanksgiving (2 Thess 1:3–4), a string of key words evokes themes from 1 Thessalonians. There is virtually nothing in the thanksgiving of 2 Thessalonians which is not present, in some way, in 1 Thessalonians. This is unparalleled amongst the authentic letters of Paul; his usual practice was to contextualise this section of the letter by indicating key issues which will be dealt with in the body of the letter.

There are differences in content in the bodies of the two letters. The friendly relationship evident throughout the first letter differs from the highly critical attitude towards the community in 2 Thessalonians. The eschatological orientation of 1 Thessalonians is present in general terms in 2 Thessalonians, but the difference is that the second letter is marked by a much stronger apocalyptic character. And twice in 2 Thessalonians (2:15 and 3:6), claims are made that Paul taught the Thessalonians material which is not found in 1 Thessalonians.

In my assessment, then, these differences mark 2 Thessalonians as coming from a different hand, in a situation where different issues were at stake. It appears to be a later imitation of 1 Thessalonians.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/17/harness-the-passion-but-restrain-the-rhetoric-musing-on-the-role-model-which-paul-offers-in-galatians/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/17/let-your-gentleness-be-known-to-everyone/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/01/in-the-name-of-the-apostle/

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This is the proper way: no climbing

34 years ago today, on 26 October 1985, Uluru was handed back to the Anangu peoples, the Traditional Custodians. On that day, the Governor-General, Sir Ninian Stephen, ceremonially handed over title for the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park to the Anangu peoples.

Now, 34 years later, as from today, 26 October 2019, Uluru will no longer be able to be climbed. The Anangu peoples have for a long time, decades even, asked visitors not to climb this sacred place. Now, that has come to be.

It is believed the first European explorer to climb Uluru was an Englishman, William Christie Gosse, in 1873. However, as there are no specific records for this, the first climb actually recorded climb was in 1936, with the introduction of tourism to the region.

Since the 1950s when records were first kept, there have been a total of 37 fatalities on the treacherous climb. The most recent fatality was on 4 July 2018, when a 76 year old Japanese tourist collapsed when he was attempting to ascend one of the steepest parts of the climb. There hadn’t been a death on the Uluru climb before this since 2010, when a 54-year old Victorian man collapsed while attempting to reach the top.

In 1966, after two fatalities occurred in 1964, a chain was installed along a portion of the climb, without consultation or consent from the Traditional Owners. The chain was upgraded and ultimately completed in 1976. What will happen with the chain, posts and landmark cairn installed on top of Uluru after the closure of the climb is yet to be determined.

(I obtained this information from https://www.ayersrockresort.com.au/uluru-and-kata-tjuta/uluru-and-kata-tjuta-national-park/can-i-climb-uluru)

The First People of the area are the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people, the traditional landowners of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. In their language, they call themselves Anangu. The landscape of the region is closely related to a series of stories from their heritage. What can be told in public about these stories can be found at https://parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru/discover/culture/stories/.

On the website of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, the Anangu people have said this about climbing Uluru:

We Anangu have a responsibility to teach and safeguard visitors to our land. The climb can be dangerous. Too many people have died while attempting to climb Uluru. Many others have been injured while climbing. We feel great sadness when a person dies or is hurt on our land. We worry about you and we worry about your family. Our traditional law teaches us the proper way to behave.

See https://parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru/discover/culture/uluru-climb/

And they offer these words, from Kunmanara, a traditional owner:

“That’s a really important sacred thing that you are climbing… You shouldn’t climb. It’s not the real thing about this place. And maybe that makes you a bit sad. But anyway that’s what we have to say. We are obliged by Tjukurpa to say. And all the tourists will brighten up and say, ‘Oh I see. This is the right way. This is the thing that’s right. This is the proper way: no climbing’.”

(Tjukurpa is the traditional law, stories and spirituality of the Anangu)

See https://parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru/discover/culture/uluru-climb/

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Please Leave ?? No — Please Stay !!

There has been a lot of media interest in the recent declaration by the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, concerning the way that some dioceses, a number of ministers, and many, many people of faith are grappling with our changed understandings of gender and sexuality, and how that relates to Christian faith.

It is a complex matter, with many nuances, that deserve careful consideration, and compassionate reflection.

The words of the Sydney Diocese leader, however, cast the situation in a clear black-and-white manner, with the stinger of a sharp command to those with whom he (and many in his Diocese) disagree: “please leave”.

The full set of words from this part of his speech is instructive: “My own view is that if people wish to change the doctrine of our Church, they should start a new church or join a church more aligned to their views – but do not ruin the Anglican Church by abandoning the plain teaching of Scripture. Please leave us.”

So sayeth the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, the Rev. Dr Glenn Davies.

(A full account of his speech to the Anglican Synod is reported on the Sydney Diocese webpage at https://sydneyanglicans.net/news/guarding-the-faith-in-a-changing-world and in Eternity News at https://www.eternitynews.com.au/australia/please-leave-us-sydneys-anglican-archbishop-tells-progressive-christians/)

But there are a number of problems with what Dr Davies said.

The Archbishop distanced himself from “people who] wish to change the doctrine of our Church”. The first problem is, that doctrine is always changing. It was changing in the early decades of the church. It changed significantly in the various Reformations of the 16th century, under the leadership of Jan Huss, Martin Luther, Jean Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, John Knox, and then the response of the Council of Trent in the Roman Catholic Church.

It changed in 1540, when Henry VIII of England sanctioned the complete destruction of shrines to saints, and further in 1542, when Henry dissolved monasteries across the country—actions which changed doctrines and led to the formation of the very church in which Glenn Davies was ordained and then consecrated!

It changed when, during the Enlightenment, theologians and scholars applied principles of rational thinking to scriptural texts and faith concerns. It continues to change in the postmodern world, as new discoveries and insights lead Christian leaders to bring new questions to faith issues, and to formulate beliefs in ways that connect with and make sense within the changing world.

In my own denomination, the Uniting Church in Australia, we recognise this when we recall the paragraph in our Basis of Union that affirms “the continuing witness and service”, not only of evangelists, prophets, and martyrs, but also of scholars; and which notes that as we engage with “literary, historical and scientific enquiry … [of] recent centuries”, we are able to develop “an informed faith” of relevance to the current times.

Doctrine is dynamic; it is always in a state of flux. Theology is transient; it is always developing. Church teaching is constantly evolving; it is never static.

(On my take on interpreting the classic creeds of the church, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/02/interpreting-the-creeds-in-a-later-age/; on how the Uniting Church envisages the factors involved in this process, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/30/seeking-an-informed-faith/)

Second, the Archbishop referred to “the plain teaching of Scripture”. The second problem, then is that scripture does not actually have a plain teaching. There are words, written in the Bible, which need to be interpreted, if they are to be understood and applied to contemporary life. There is no plain and simple teaching in these words; they are words which always need interpretation.

This interpretation starts with the choice of text. We do not have an “original version”; we have copies of copies, some complete, many fragmented. There are always options to consider–and we all rely on experts in this matter. Then comes the matter of language. Biblical texts were written in languages other than English. We English-speakers are reliant on the careful work of translators and scholars, seeking to render the phrases of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, into contemporary English. There are already multiple interpretive decisions that have been made for us, in our English Bibles.

Then, interpretation needs to take into account the differences in culture that exist, between the patriarchal, honour-shame cultures of antiquity, and the current state of play within (in our case) contemporary Australian society. We can’t just assume that something from an ancient culture “makes sense” in our contemporary culture, let alone that it can be “directly applied” into our context. There are interpretive decisions to be made.

(I have written about this dimension at https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/07/to-articulate-faith-contextually/)

The process of interpretation also needs to bear in mind how the usage of particular words and ideas has changed over time. Awful, for instance, once had a very positive sense, “full full of awe or admiration”, whilst nice had an earlier sense of “silly, foolish”. Guy (from the historical British figure Guy Fawkes) had an earlier sense of a frightening figure, not the generalised reference to men that it has today, whilst meat in earlier centuries was a catch-all term referring to food in general. (And, most pertinent to the particular issue at hand, “gay” once had a very different point of reference in English!)

These kinds of shifts in usage are also found in terms that appear in the Bible, especially in translations from some centuries ago. We need to factor that in to our interpretation.

And then, reading and interpretation of the Bible involves application, discerning how and in what ways a biblical passage is relevant for us today. That means knowing what our situation is as well as what we hear in the biblical text, and connecting the two. It is not simple or straightforward.

In an earlier interview about his view of matters of sexuality (and other issues), Dr Davies referred disparagingly to “a virus in the national church, caused by not teaching properly the word of God” (see https://www.thepastorsheart.net/podcast/2019/9/17/archbishop-davies-on-public-christian-leadership).

That’s an unfair and unhelpfully polemical characterisation of what is a complex and nuanced matter—reading biblical passages about sexuality in contemporary society. The biblical texts about sexual relationships involving people of the same gender are not simple and self-evident prohibitions on such behaviour, and should not be read as such.

Elizabeth and I have contributed a discussion of this matter which, I believe, offers more constructive lines of understanding; see https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/30/marrying-same-gender-people-a-biblical-rationale/ as well as https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/26/human-sexuality-and-the-bible/ and https://www.unitingnetworkaustralia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/02-Human-Sexuality-in-Biblical-Perspectives.pdf.

(More generally, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/30/the-word-of-god-scripture-and-jesus-christ/)

Third, the Archbishop—quite strikingly—has urged certain people to leave the Anglican Church. I believe that advocating that people leave one church to start another church is not a helpful activity. Anglicans, like other mainstream denominations, have a commitment to unity in the church. So, the third problem is a lack of commitment to the unity of the church.

That’s quite an amazing position for a leader in a denomination which affirms that it is, indeed, an integral part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church—and which is universally recognised by other denominations as an integral part of that Church.

Each Sunday, in Anglican churches around Australia (and beyond), faithful people affirm, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” That’s a line in the Nicene Creed. And those Anglicans are joined by many Roman Catholics, members of the many Orthodox churches, and quite a number of folk in the various Protestant churches, to say these words together on regular (even weekly) occasions. Across the denominations, there is a commitment to unity.

Not in the Sydney Anglican Diocese, however. The Archbishop’s invitation to those who see things differently from him to leave the church and form their own branch is fracturing the unity of the church even more by this narrow, sectarian dogmatism.

Even his own colleagues, it seems, have recognised that Dr Davies has crossed a line with his rhetoric in recent days (see https://www.theage.com.au/national/even-conservative-rectors-shuddered-why-sydney-archbishop-s-words-hurt-20191018-p531ye.html). Such rhetoric serves only to exacerbate differences and intensify hurt. Is that really being faithful to the office into which he has been called?

The worldwide leader of the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Justin Welby, has affirmed that “reconciliation is the hallmark of Anglicanism, the heart of the gospel and a life to which we are all called” (see https://www.anglicancommunion.org/mission/reconciliation.aspx).

Archbishop Welby is promoting through the Anglican Communion a resource entitled Living Reconciliation, which “offers a vision of Church marked by honesty, truthfulness and love … [and] applies the teaching of the Gospel at precisely the point where we need it most today” (see http://living-reconciliation.org/thebook/).

Is the Archbishop of Sydney aware of just how contrary his words are, to the principles of reconciliation and the commitment to an honest, loving church that is being championed by the Archbishop of Canterbury?

Finally, the Archbishop of Sydney is quoted as imploring those with whom he disagrees: do not ruin the Anglican Church. The fourth problem I see is that exploring and developing ideas is not a process of ruination.

Rather, the exploration of ideas and the development of thought is a constructive process that offers a gift to the church at large: the gift of an ever-evolving, ever-refining articulation of beliefs in ways that resonate with life in the contemporary age. Questions, provocations, redefinitions, and developments in thinking and believing are wonderful gifts!

I wouldn’t characterise the process as one of causing ruin. Rather, I would celebrate it and affirm the importance of this process. The problem, it seems to me, is that if you really believe that you have The Truth, then you are impelled to convince others of that Truth. But if you believe you are called to Love others, then you will listen and learn.

Sadly, the Archbishop has demonstrated this stark difference: when we prioritise Truth, we inform, lecture, admonish, even berate; whereas when we prioritise Love, we enter into relationships, affirm, explore, nourish, question, rethink, and develop in community with each other. Quite a different ethos. Quite a different result.

Please Leave? No—Please Stay! To the people addressed by Dr Davies, I say: Please stay in the Christian church and help us to be faithful to the Gospel. Please stay in the Christian church and help us to change in ways that are positive and life-giving. Please stay and gift your distinctive contribution to the life of the church in your locality and beyond.

And to the Archbishop, if he really is committed to the process of leaving, I say: you please leave. Please leave behind homophobic fear and discriminatory rhetoric. Please leave behind your insistence on conformity to your particular dogmatic assertions. Please leave behind your criticisms of those who happen to be born different from you. That’s what I would like you to leave.

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What does it mean to say that the Bible is inspired? (2 Tim 3:16)

How many times have you heard it said, “the Bible is the inspired Word of God” ? Have you ever thought about what this phrase actually means ? Paul Achtemeier, in his book The Inspiration of Scripture, has indicated the problems that are inherent in using the terminology of “inspiration” loosely.  He points to issues related to the use (or abuse) of this term.  The matter is not quite as simple as it first appears.

 The traditional answer to the question of what this statement means, is to assert (quite correctly) that the Bible uses this concept of inspiration to define itself.  However, we need to be careful in simply lifting out one word (this is all it is, even in Greek!) and making it the lynchpin of a massive argument.  The claim that “God said it; I believe it; that settles it” is ultimately an inadequate answer if we are truly seeking understanding of our faith.

 What, then, is the biblical evidence for the claim of inspiration? 2 Timothy 3:16 is generally regarded as the “proof text” for this topic, with the claim being made that all scripture is inspired. This verse appears in the passage set for reading in churches this coming Sunday, as the epistle reading in the Revised Common Lectionary.

However, even this verse must be viewed in context.  It cannot readily be extracted from its context and pressed into service as an abstract definition; we cannot assume that it is the fundamental principle held by all biblical writers, as no other writers of other biblical books give any indication that it was adhered to in this way.  We should note a number of aspects of this verse which caution us against making it a fundamental universal principle which applies equally in every case.

Is this the last word on the matter? Some interpreters have argued that the whole of 2 Timothy should be seen as a last testament of Paul — an attempt to set out his final thoughts in a clear, systematic, programmatic manner, as his last will and testament for his followers. However, caution is again required at this point. 

The authenticity of 2 Timothy is debated. Some scholars claim that it was not written by Paul, others say that he dictated it to a secretary, while yet others argue that it does contain fragments of material written by Paul, which are placed within a larger framework of a whole letter by another writer.  (See https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/01/in-the-name-of-the-apostle/)

Whatever the origin of the letter, it is clear that it was written in a specific context; it is by no means an attempt to set out basic principles, but rather applies such principles to a given situation.

 Inspired. First, the Greek word translated “inspired” is theopneustos, which literally means, “breathed by God”.  This was not a common term in the first century CE; many other similar terms were available prior to the New Testament to describe the activity of inspiration.  So the use of this term is not in itself a clear-cut way of proposing a “doctrine of inspiration” in first century terms.

 Useful. Further, we should note that in 2 Timothy 3:16 the definition which is given is functional, not ontological that is to say, it identifies the effect scripture has, and does not define the essence of scripture in and of itself.  The emphasis is placed on the fact that scripture is “useful” or “profitable”.  Inspiration, so it seems, does not reside in the writings themselves, nor in the writer, but results from the process of using (or applying) scripture.

 Scripture. A further issue concerns the word graphe, usually translated as “scripture”.  This word literally means “writing”, and normally it applies to Old Testament books.  At the time of writing 2 Timothy, it could not yet apply to the New Testament in a direct manner, since the complete New Testament was not yet formed. 

In his authentic writings Paul himself shows little awareness of the Gospels or of Gospel traditions; and there is no evidence for the collection of Paul’s letters until early in the second century CE.  By contrast, Paul regularly cites scriptures from his own tradition, the Hebrew scriptures, and it is clear that he considers these works to be important guides for living by faith. Romans, Galatians, and both letters to the Corinthians contain numerous such instances.

(There are explicit citations of Hebrew scriptures at two places in the Pastoral Epistles: 1 Tim 5:17-20, quoting Deut 25:4 and alluding to Deut 19:5, and 2 Tim 2:19, citing Num 16:5 and Isa 26:13.)

Thus, this statement was originally NOT about the whole of the Bible; it is only by inference that we can refer it to the whole of the Bible.

 Useful for … Finally, let us note the diversity of functions here attributed to inspired writings: they can be used for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.  Thus, a richness of meaning is perceived within scripture, indicating the diversity of ways of applying scripture.  There is no single function which is foundational; nor does this verse set out all the functions of scripture (the Psalms, for example, function in a number of different ways — for praise, lament, celebration, petition, confession, remembrance, and so on).

 Thus, 2 Timothy 3:16 itself does not offer a full and satisfactory answer to the question, what does it mean to say that the Bible is inspired?  It offers one insight, but it needs to be balanced against others.  It is not the last word on the matter.

Certainly, it is clear that this passage can refer only to the Hebrew scriptures, for the New Testament as we know it was not yet formed, even in the early decades of the second century. And it points towards a functional understanding of scripture, providing no basis for any claims about the divinely-inspired and absolutely authoritative nature of the books of the Bible.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/01/in-the-name-of-the-apostle/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/07/rightly-explaining-the-word-of-truth-2-tim-215/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/17/harness-the-passion-but-restrain-the-rhetoric-musing-on-the-role-model-which-paul-offers-in-galatians/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/17/let-your-gentleness-be-known-to-everyone/

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Rightly explaining the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15)

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth. So writes Paul to his “beloved child”, Timothy, in the second letter that we have addressed to this co-worker.

(On the reasons why this letter may well not have been written by the apostle Paul himself, but by one of his followers after Paul’s lifetime, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/01/in-the-name-of-the-apostle/)

The letter presents a scenario that sees Paul in prison (1:8; 2:9), in contact with a group otherwise unknown from his letters—Eubulus, Pudens, Linus and Claudia (4:21). As Paul was previously in Corinth and Miletus (4:20) and is in Rome as he writes (1:17), the letter itself suggests a time near the end of his life. He writes, we are led to believe, as a mature believer, imparting wisdom to a younger co-worker.

This assumption is supported by some of the imagery used, with Paul describing his life as “poured out as a libation” (4:6) and stating that he has “fought the good fight” (4:7). We know virtually nothing of this period from Acts; the last description of Paul that we have in Acts (28:30–31) is generalized and non-specific, so we can’t cross-check with anything there.

This letter, like 1 Timothy and Titus, gives indication of disagreement and conflict within the early Christian communities, with varied understandings of faith being present in the place where the recipient of the letter is based.

 The opponents envisaged in this letter are described largely with reference to their verbal activity: they utter “profane chatter” (2:16), their “talk spreads like gangrene” (2:17), they engage in “wrangling over words” (2:14) and “stupid and senseless controversies” (2:23); they “captivate silly women” (3:6) and their “myths” are listened to by people with “itching ears” (4:3–4). The author certainly possesses a vivid vocabulary!

The author contends that these opponents are “people of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith” who oppose the truth (3:8), “wicked people and imposters” who deceive others (3:13); they have been “ensnared by the devil” (2:26). The long list of vices (3:2–5) might also be inferred as applying to these people. The rhetoric is aggressively antagonistic.

 The one specific identifying mark of these people who have “swerved from the truth” is their assertion that “the resurrection has already taken place” (2:18). Against this, the author refers to the future appearance of Jesus (4:1, using the Greek word epiphaneia, most unusually for Paul). There is also a quotation of scripture to refute the heresy (2:19, citing Num 16:5 and Isa 26:13).

Paul offers clear guidance to Timothy as to how he is to deal with such opponents. He provides Timothy with short, concise summaries of the faith that they share (2:11-13; see also 1 Tim 2:5-6 and 3:16) and advises, Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. So Paul instructs Timothy, whom he charges to be an apologist (one who contends verbally, and vigorously, for the faith).

The apologetic that Timothy is to exhibit is succinctly expressed in the excerpt from the letter set in the lectionary as this Sunday’s epistle reading; Timothy is to rightly explain the word of truth (2:15).

This letter shares an apologetic quality with the first letter to Timothy, in its concern for “godliness” (2 Tim 3:5), “the truth” (2 Tim 2:18, 25; 3:7, 8; 4:4) and “the faith” (2 Tim 1:13; 2:18; 4:7). It provides various indications of the content of this faith: an epitome in three short clauses (2:8), a more discursive exposition of “the gospel” in poetic form (1:8–10) and a five-line hymn (2:11–13), introduced as yet another “sure saying” (2:11).

Paul, the nominal author of this letter, is set forth as a model for Timothy; he is described as having been “appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher” (1:11) who provides “the standard of sound teaching” (1:13).

This “sound teaching” is entrusted to Timothy (1:12), who is exhorted to “guard the good treasure entrusted to you” (1:14). That’s the “word of truth”, direct from Paul. This word, in turn, is to be entrusted to “faithful people” (2:2) who in turn become teachers. So the letter clearly explains the way in which “the faith” is to be passed on from teacher to associate to local leaders. Paul’s authentic letters do not emphasise this line of authority in the same fashion.

 In his calling as a teacher, Paul has encountered suffering (1:12; 3:11), but he has placed his trust in Christ (1:12) and Christ has strengthened him (4:17). According to this pattern, Timothy ought then expect to suffer (2:3; 3:12) and should stand “strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2:1).

The imagery used to explain the leadership role entrusted to him refers to the soldier (2:3–4), the athlete (2:5) and the farmer (2:6); these images are consistent with the rhetoric of self-defence which Paul employs (1 Cor 3:8–9; 9:7, 10, 24–25). By contrast, the reference to household utensils (2:20–21) runs counter to the way Paul used similar imagery (“we have this treasure in clay jars”, 2 Cor 4:7).

 The author of this letter expresses a firm confidence that he has gained “the crown of righteousness” (4:8) in his eternal destiny. For Paul to write this would be unusual, as he elsewhere uses this imagery to describe other people (not his own destiny) as his crown (the Philippians, Phil 4:1; the Thessalonians, 1 Thess 2:19–20).

As the letter draws to a close, the author asserts that “the Lord will rescue me…and save me” (4:18). This heavenly rescue, assured for Paul, is promised also to those who faithfully exercise their ministry; Timothy, and other leaders, will find themselves in the company of Paul, in the heavenly kingdom (4:8). It is noteworthy that Paul regularly expresses hope in his future fate, without claiming clear certainty about it (Rom 5:1–2; 8:24–25; 1 Cor 9:10; 2 Cor 1:9–10; Gal 5:5).

It is doubtful, to me, that this element of the letter reflects Paul’s regular way of thinking. My reading of Paul’s letters is that he has much more of a concern for the present realities of life, and how the Gospel is at work in the present, than with the promise of a future off in the distance. He does not dismiss the future; but his energy and passion is oriented towards living by faith in the present.

The letter provokes us to ponder what it is that we regard as essential to the word of truth, how we go about rightly explaining that word of truth, so that others will be grasped by the good news and feel welcomed and affirmed within the community of faith.

 

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/01/in-the-name-of-the-apostle/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/17/harness-the-passion-but-restrain-the-rhetoric-musing-on-the-role-model-which-paul-offers-in-galatians/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/17/let-your-gentleness-be-known-to-everyone/

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In the name of the apostle …

In this latter part of the season after Pentecost, in Year C, the Revised Common Lectionary is taking us through a tour of a number of letters attributed to Paul—which most likely, for various reasons, were not actually written by Paul himself. We’ve read a couple of excerpts from 1 Timothy and launch into 2 Timothy this coming Sunday, after which we move on to 2 Thessalonians.

Many scholars consider that the apostle Paul did not actually wrote any of these letters (along with some others also attributed to Paul—Titus, Ephesians, and perhaps even Colossians). They have been able to come to this view because of what is known about the widespread practice, in the ancient world, of circulating letters and other documents in the name of an eminent person from an earlier age—a great scholar, or philosopher, or religious leader, or teacher. This was done by a writer who wished to “borrow” the authority of the older figure, believing that this would give greater weight to the views and teachings included in their work.

The suggestion is that members of the church in the later decades of the first century did this, using the name of Paul, because they regarded him as a teacher of note and an apostle of the church. There were already many works like this in Jewish circles, and a number amongst the gentiles also; so this was a well-known practice. And the ancient world did not have the strict laws of copyright and intellectual property which characterise the twenty-first century!

1 and 2 Timothy are two of the three letters written in the name of Paul which are addressed to two individuals whom Paul valued as co-workers and employed as ambassadors to his churches—Timothy and Titus. The letters are commonly referred to as the Pastoral Epistles because, it is felt, they are concerned almost entirely with matters internal to the structure and governance of the churches.

Whilst Paul’s authentic letters reflect the dynamic nature of the community of faith, these letters reflect a move towards a more developed organisational structure. They point towards the institutionalised church of the second century and beyond, in which the way of Jesus would become determined by the authority of the apostle and his local representative, the bishop.

Each of these letters is addressed to a fellow-worker of Paul who is known from other references in Paul’s authentic letters. Titus accompanied Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem (Gal 2:1, 3) and was a fellow-worker with Paul in ministry to the Corinthians (2 Cor 2:13; 7:6, 13–15; 8:6, 16, 23; 12:18).

Timothy also accompanied Paul as “co-worker” (Rom 16:21) and fellow- preacher (2 Cor 1:19) and was a regular intermediary between Paul and believers in Thessalonica (1 Thess 3:1–6), Corinth (1 Cor 4:17; 16:10) and Philippi (Phil 2:19–24). Timothy is described as the co-writer, with Paul, of three authentic letters (2 Cor 1:1; Phil 1:1; 1 Thess 1:1) as well as two debated letters (Col 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1). In Acts, he appears regularly as an associate of Paul (Acts 16:1–2, 14–15; 17:5; 19:22; 20:5).

Each letter begins with a familiar assertion that it was written by Paul, but modern scholars have identified various doubts about this claim. Indeed, strong arguments can be advanced for dating these three letters after the lifetime of Paul. Clearly, these letters were written by someone with good knowledge of Paul and his teachings.

Yet the format of the letters and the distinctive vocabulary used throws doubt on the claim that Paul was the author. Whilst they each have a traditional framework for a letter, the body of the letter often reads more like a sermon or a moral treatise.

Over one third of the words found in these three letters are not found in the authentic letters of Paul. Many words found frequently in the authentic letters do not appear anywhere in these three letters.

In addition, the situations addressed, the theology of the letters and the ecclesial structures envisaged reflect many differences between each of these three letters and the seven authentic letters of Paul.

Together, all of these elements point to the conclusion that the author wrote these letters after the lifetime of Paul. He reaches back in time to the figure of Paul in order to validate the teachings given to the community of faith in his own time. The figures of Timothy and Titus represent the leaders in the communities of faith in this later period.

As we hear excerpts from the Pastoral Epistles in worship, and reflect on what they are saying to us today, we might ask:

How important is it, for you, to affirm that Paul himself wrote each of these letters?

Can you be comfortable with the idea that a follower of Paul wrote them in his name?

What message about the life of the church comes through these letters?

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Gracious openness and active discipleship as key characteristics of church membership

Today, in the Congregation where I am serving in ministry, as a group we refreshed our membership and reaffirmed our commitment to active discipleship within the Congregation and the community where it is based.

The classic way that we deal with membership in the church has been in terms of status. This is how membership is defined, both in the Constitution of the Uniting Church as well as in the Regulations which govern the ways that we operate. The status of a person can be identified in that we are baptised members, or confirmed members, for instance.

So, the questions asked to determine membership are along the lines of: Is the person baptised? Has the person, if they were baptised as an infant, confirmed their baptism by a public declaration of faith? Or has the person been received into this Congregation from another denomination?

That is how we have usually compiled membership roles. Identify the date of your baptism, or the time when you confirmed your faith, or show a letter of transfer from another denomination. All of that is in terms of status. It is about setting good boundaries, defining clear limits. It is a closing off of the membership list at a clearly demarcated point.

Another way to approach membership is in terms of function. In this approach, the questions become: How does the person express the commitment of membership? What tasks and responsibilities might reasonably be expected from the person? How is a person’s faith commitment evident in their daily lives? These are matters of how the person functions as a member. This is about being active within the group, and about seeing the boundaries of the group as fluid, transparent, open.

There is a section of the UCA Regulations which provide a guide for membership that is more dynamic than the status categorisations, that sets out what is expected of members in a UCA Congregation in active, dynamic terms. The section is a description of Confirmation, in terms of the key markers that will be expressed by a member.

CONDITIONS AND MODE OF CONFIRMATION

1.3.3 Confirmation shall be according to an order which meets the requirements of the Assembly and which makes provision for the candidate to declare: acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, determination to follow him in daily life, intention to participate actively in the fellowship of the Church and to support its work, and resolution to seek the extension of the reign of God in human society.

There are four key features in this paragraph:

* acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord

* determination to follow him in daily life

* intention to participate actively in the fellowship of the Church and to support its work

and

* resolution to seek the extension of the reign of God in human society.

This offers an understanding of membership in terms of a gracious openness, which is not bound by legalistic requirements, but which celebrates the active participation of people in the life of the church. This more accurately reflects the nature of the church as a inviting community of grace and inclusion, rather than as a closed book matter.

When we raise the issue of membership within the church community, I propose that we do it NOT in terms of “are you baptised and confirmed?”, NOT in terms of “do you attend Sunday morning worship?”, NOT in terms of “are you on the rosters?”, or “do you contribute financially?”, BUT rather in the terms set out in Regulation 1.3.3, to foster this sense of gracious openness.

Thus, we would be looking for people to make commitments in various ways: first, a faith commitment, traditionally expressed in terms of commitment to Jesus as “Saviour and Lord”; and second, to the local community of faith in Queanbeyan, in four specific ways.

One element is that people would express their commitment through active discipleship in their daily life. That is, discipleship is not measured primarily by what people do on Sunday, but by their deeds and words on each and every day of the week. It seems to me that, after expressing faith in Jesus, this aspect is the primary measure of membership.

Good members are active disciples. How that is expressed is worked out differently by each person, in accord with the gifts that the Spirit has given them, for their specific ministries.

Alongside this, there is a commitment to active participation in the fellowship of the Church, which can encompass the various ways that people gather together under the umbrella of the UCA: in Sunday morning worship, in weekly coffee groups, in fortnightly discipleship groups, in the regular bible study groups of the congregation, in the prayer group, in Messy Church gatherings, in friendship group gatherings, and in other ways that people gather together.

Good members participate regularly in fellowship. Participation in any one, or more, of these gatherings contributes to the overall sense of fellowship that we share as a community of faith. No one gathering is of more weight or more significance than any other.

Membership also involves active support for the work of the church. This can be in physical ways, through providing morning tea or mowing the grass or counting the offerings or reading scripture in worship or leading worship in the aged care facility or praying regularly for the people of the church and the mission of the church … and in many more ways.

It can also be in financial ways, through contributing a regular offering to support the work of the church (and such offerings may be given electronically or directly during worship). Good members are supportive of the ministry and mission of the church.

It is also clear that membership involves a commitment to work for the reign of God in human society. This can take many and varied forms: assisting in preparation of meals for the needy, participation in rallies relating to climate justice or justice for refugees, serving with Meals on Wheels or visiting people in a hospital or an aged care facility, taking people shopping when their mobility is limited or providing meals for people whose domestic situation is difficult, and in so many more ways.

Good members are working for the health and flourishing of others in society.

In association with supporting the mission and ministry of the church, and seeking the reign of God in our society, we might reasonably expect that good members are also willing to bear witness to their faith commitment, to offer words alongside of deeds, to speak about their faith as they participate in fellowship and serve others in need, to testify to their faith as they stand for justice and work to encourage one another.

And although it is not specified in the formal documentation of the church, it would make sense for us to be wanting to talk about what we value, to testify to the one who loves us, to share faith in appropriate ways with others. That might provide a fifth mark of the church: good members are committed to discipling others.

Of course, this looks like a long and daunting list. And it is! Probably there is no one of us who could affirm that we do all of these things each and every week of our lives. Yet, the list is aspirational (we aspire to be like this) and visionary (this is what we imagine we could be like). It is a good list for us to commit to.

I hope that all congregations are able to demonstrate this gracious openness as they encourage members to be active disciples.

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Supporting the Climate Strike

It is clear to me that many people across the Uniting Church are concerned about the impacts of climate change, and have been supportive of the various efforts to raise this attention in the public arena. The Climate Strike this week is the latest such enterprise, and we should be supporting it. In addition, we need to ensure that we do everything we can to change our way of living to reduce our impact on the environment.

When the Synod of NSW.ACT met in July, it agreed by consensus to support the School Student Climate Strike on 20 September, and others like it. Synod comprises people from towns and cities right across NSW and the ACT, from every Congregation and Presbytery of the UCA. I was very proud, as a member of the Synod, to see the clear message given by the younger members of Synod, and the strong support across all members.

The precise resolution is:

SYNOD CLIMATE CHANGE ACTION STRATEGY

Resolved 106/19S

That the Synod

(i) Develops a Synod-wide Climate Action Strategy to reduce carbon emissions across all levels councils and agencies of the Church and to advocate to the Federal, State Governments and Local

Councils to take decisive steps to reduce our emissions nationally.

(ii) Supports initiatives taken by young people in advocating for action on climate change, including the global climate strikes.

You can find this on page 5 of the Minutes at https://nswact.uca.org.au/media/7536/synod-2019-minutes-final.pdf

I blogged about it at the time at https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/09/advocacy-and-climate-change-growth-and-formation-treaty-with-first-peoples-synod-2019/

and my colleague Amy Junor provided a fine reflection on the set of issues involved in confronting climate change, at https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/19/climate-change-a-central-concern-in-contemporary-ministry/

The widespread support for this decision, both at Synod and in discussions subsequent to this meeting, is quite striking. In my experience, this crosses generations, political leanings, and theological commitments.

The Moderator has written an article, published by Eternity News, which articulates the theological underpinnings for supporting this strike, which you can read at https://www.eternitynews.com.au/current/why-the-uniting-church-supports-students-striking-for-climate-change/

A Synod media release was issued on 26 August, at https://nswact.uca.org.au/communications/newsroom/media-release-uniting-church-the-first-to-endorse-the-climatestrike-movement/

A strong statement has been issued in support of the strike from the Head of Newington College, a UCA school in Sydney, at https://massmail.fi.net.au/t/ViewEmail/j/CE89880F76CEFA0D2540EF23F30FEDED/F4747CB15B40540BF99AA49ED5AF8B9E

Common Grace has provided a clear explanation of the issues involved at https://www.commongrace.org.au/im_rallying_for

Vivian Harris provides clear testimony about the impact of persistent protest at https://climateactionbega.blogspot.com/2019/09/persistent-presence.html

and The Conversation explains how participation in such an event can motivate stronger action for change at https://theconversation.com/why-attending-a-climate-strike-can-change-minds-most-importantly-your-own-122862

These links provide us with a clear understanding as to why the Uniting Church has been such a strong advocate for participation in this strike and why we are joining with school children and concerned citizens around the world to participate in this strike.

My wife Elizabeth Raine has written some helpful reflections on environmental theology at

https://revivemagazine.org.au/2018/07/20/and-god-saw-it-was-good/

and

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2012/06/musing-on-ecological-economy-why.html

and a series of blogs on living a life with low environmental impact, at

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2013/10/setting-sail-on-ss-low-impact.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2013/10/rubbish-to-left-of-me-and-rubbish-to.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2014/07/planet-at-risk-sorry-for-inconvenience.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2014/10/hygenically-sealed-in-plastic-for-your.html

and a lot more at https://elementcityblog.com (follow the links on the right of the page)

For my other blogs on the environment, see

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/25/873/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/05/to-care-for-honour-and-respect-the-creation-we-need-to-stopadani-k/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-4/

Featured

Where will we find hope? When will we see justice?

There are people in some of the Congregations of the Presbytery where I am currently serving in ministry, who will be finding the events of the next three weeks a challenge. They will be looking for hope, and seeking for justice. People from my Congregation at Queanbeyan, and people in the Goulburn Parish, will especially be impacted.

Today at Queanbeyan, the Prayers of the People were led by Marg Cotton, who invited members of the Congregation to pray for these people.

i invite you to join with her and the people today who prayed:

Lord God, we come before you today

seeking to make sense of a world

where there are many contradictions.

Bad things happen to the young and the innocent.

Wrongdoers prosper and seem to have

no remorse for the havoc they cause.

Sometimes it seems that there is no justice,

and that inequality and incivility are increasing at an exponential rate.

We make the effort to build a respectful

and hopeful community,

but the work of a lifetime can seem fragile

and doesn’t seem to be able to survive

without our continuing vigilance.

Misunderstood and misunderstanding,

we ponder our next steps.

Like the people in Jeremiah,

we feel cut off from your fountains of living water

and all we can see the is the cracked cistern

that can hold no water at all.

Where will we find hope?

When will we see justice?

Teach us, Lord, how we should be acting

in the current circumstances.

Let us first turn to you in humility

and recognise our need to be remade

and refreshed by you.

Come Lord and show us the path to take.

On this first day of spring

give us hope for the future

and a sense of purpose and optimism.

With the coming of spring

there is the hope of new life.

Help us to be ready to grow

and work together in this new season,

to hear your plans for us

and act to bring them into being.

In the name of Christ, we pray: Amen.

Featured

In the wake of the verdict (and appeal decision) relating to Pell …

With some slight modification, this post from earlier this year seems appropriate for revisiting today, the day when the appeal by Cardinal George Pell has been dismissed.

……..

There has been a lot of media discussion in recent times about the convictions handed down against Cardinal George Pell. Articles that I have read have ranged across the validity of the sentence, the quality of the evidence provided, the rhetoric of the defendant barrister, and the perception that Pell was targeted in a “tall poppy syndrome” or as part of a wider vendetta against the Church.

I have been thinking, not just about this particular case, but about the various elements of our culture that are involved in these discussions. There are many elements that deserve attention and careful consideration.

Fundamental to these discussions, should be the basic principle of respect for another human being. If an alleged victim raises an accusation, that person deserves to be heard with respect and integrity. It is not fair to label or accuse such a person, especially if the claim has not yet received measured and fair consideration in the courts. Disrespectful descriptions and negative labelling of victims should never be published by any media outlet.

Second, I sense, is a concern about the way that we demonstrate trust in institutions — whether those institutions are the justice system, religious bodies, or leadership in society. It is clear that, in modern Australian society, any institution is “fair game” for suspicion and distrust. That might well be justified in some instances—the banking and finance industry, for instance; or political parties, when it comes to “jobs for the boys” and (as we have seen lately) “goodbye to the girls”. But should it be the default setting when considering any institution in society?

A factor that I see running through all considerations relating to sexual abuse, is the pernicious influence of secrecy—whether that is secrecy by church leaders, concerned to maintain the good name of their church; or secrecy by perpetrators, seeking to quieten the noises made about their alleged activity. Perpetrators are particularly good at impressing the need for secrecy on their victims. That’s one of the main warning flags in a sexual abuse scenario. It is not a healthy trait.

Of course, there is a different between when something needs to be held as confidential, and when it has become a secret. Knowing the difference between secrecy and confidentiality, is an important process of discernment. Some matters do need to be held in confidence, while further investigations are undertaken, for instance. And knowing when it is inappropriate to hold on to a secret, is also important to discern.

The discussion raises questions, for me, about styles of leadership within our society. Cardinal Pell exercised a particular style of leadership. It may well have contributed to the surge of opposition to him, both in his role as a leader of the Roman Catholic Church, and as a person in the spotlight. Certainly, while his style of charge-through-and-win-at-all-costs, might have garnered him support from those who agreed with his ideological stances, it also generated a mountain of opposition to him. Is this really the best way to exercise leadership in society?

Of course, the recently-concluded Royal Commission has shone a spotlight in the culture and ethos which has been dominant in a number of institutions in our society, including the Roman Catholic Church, other church denominations, and other institutions dealing with children. The Roman Catholic Church has been carefully scrutinised and a number of the commission’s recommendations do deal with changes that need to be made, to create a more healthy culture with an ethos that values integrity and transparency above arcane processes and secrecy.

I found myself, again and again, coming back to the priority that should be shown (but which often has not been shown), to demonstrate authentic care and compassion for victims. There are too many examples, that I am aware of, where people who have been victims are saying that the way the issues are discussed in the public arena provides a trigger to their hurts and fears, to their anxieties and depressive feelings. We owe them more than this; we need to prioritise a way of discussing matters that does not replicate past abuses and reinforce negative emotions.

That leads to another matter; the importance of language. Nothing demonstrated this more, than the unfortunate and ill-chosen rhetoric of the defence lawyer representing Cardinal Pell. It carried an inference that the kind of sexual assault experienced by the victims in this particular instance, was a lesser grade of assault. The swift apology and withdrawal of the terrible phrase that Robert Richter used, is a clear indication of the power that is carried in the words we use. I know this from my experience in leading worship and interpreting texts, within my church roles. It is something that needs to be recognised in people right across society, in the public discourse.

In terms of my faith, the message that I hear pressing on me, again and again, is that the Gospel call to faithful discipleship is far more important than the matter of preserving the institutional reputation. The deeply sad fact at the heart of so many instances of sexual abuse by priests, ministers, and pastors, is that the Gospel call has been subordinated (and ignored) in favour of protecting the institution. That is completely wrong.

I guess that the culture of “let’s stick together”, “this is not who we are”, “don’t criticise us, we do lots of good things”, must have been strong within the Catholic Church. That explains why there was such a concerted effort by many, to protect their fellow priests. The same went on in the Anglican Church, and there are indications of it in other denominations and organisations.

There is something positive in looking out for your fellow priest, or minister, or believer. (Although I really dislike it when someone says to me—as they do, from time to time—“ah, but you Ministers always stick together”.) But, sadly, this sense of a priestly brotherhood, all looking out for one another, has contributed to this distorted culture. It is clear that the culture of the Catholic Church has actually fostered misogyny and secrecy in relation to abuse. The sense of belonging to “a brotherhood” has contributed to that culture.

I have noted a tendency, in some faith-based commentary, to look for conspiracy theories about the criticism of churches that is abroad in society. I don’t think it is helpful to become defensive in this way, and I certainly don’t think it is at all useful to label those who criticise the churches as demonic or guided by the devil. Such negative, condemnatory language is completely unhelpful. The church needs to be able to defend itself through reasoned argument, and not resort to judgemental stereotypes.

A final point needs to be made. There is a need to distinguish “The (Roman) Catholic Church” from other church denominations. There are things about the Catholic Church which are distinctive, and which set it apart from other denominations, such as the Uniting Church: the all-male priesthood, the lack of females in leadership, the power of episcopacy in setting the culture, the requirement of celibacy amongst the priesthood, the centralised bureaucracy in Rome, and the strongly bonded nature of “the brotherhood” amongst religious (men). These factors have contributed to create the kind of culture that has protected, and also fostered, abusers. The Catholic Church needs to work hard to dismantle that culture. And all denominations need to be on the alert for signs that secrecy and protection of abusers is continuing.

There is a fine prayer for the current situation, written by my colleague Avril Hannah-Jones, at https://revdocgeek.com/2019/02/27/prayer-for-the-survivors-and-victims-of-child-abuse/

This is a well-argued piece which focuses on the damage done by a Pell, to an individual as well as to the church:

https://www.smh.com.au/national/history-will-judge-george-pell-the-cardinal-who-sought-to-crush-me-20190227-p510ma.html

Frank Brennan offered this analysis immediately after the verdict:

https://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article/truth-and-justice-after-the-pell-verdict

However, Daniel Reeders has provided this careful critique of Brennan, and of others seeking to vindicate Pell:

https://badblood.blog/candle-lighting-the-catholic-response-to-the-pell-conviction/

Featured

Dark deeds in a sunny land: the exposé offered by John B. Gribble

I am currently reading an excellent work by Richard Broome, Professor of History at LaTrobe University in Melbourne. He is a much-published researcher in the area of Aboriginal history. The book, entitled Aboriginal Australians: a history since 1788, is comprehensive, providing many insights into the history of this country over the past 230 years, with many challenges in the narrative. I will be pondering much of what Broome writes as I work my way through the 400 pages of this book.

Today I read about a minister-missionary, of whom I was previously unaware. He was the Rev. John B. Gribble, who came originally from Cornwall in Britain, travelling as a one year old with his parents as they set out for a new life down under.

In October 1876, Gribble was admitted to the ministry of the United Free Methodist Church, but subsequently he joined the Congregational Union of Victoria and served as a home missionary. Apparently he had an encounter with the Kelly Gang during their heyday.

Over the years, Gribble worked with the Indigenous people, and in 1879 Gribble and his wife Mary opened the Warangesdah Aboriginal Mission at Darlington Point. The Bishop of the Church of England from Goulburn took on sponsorship of the mission, and then made Gribble a stipendiary reader in 1880, deacon in 1881 and priest in 1883.

In 1884, Gribble was invited by Bishop Henry Parry of Perth to work in Western Australia. He went to England, where he raised funds and published Black but Comely, a description of Aboriginal life in Australia. In 1885 he opened a mission on the Gascoyne River but was strongly opposed by settlers who exploited native labour.

In 1886, Gribble published Dark Deeds in a Sunny Land. This was a fierce castigation of his opponents; it created a furore and the welfare of the Aborigines was obscured by the fierce debate that ensued, which impacted the reputation of Gribble for some decades.

The booklet included an allegation that ‘quite sixty natives, men, women and children’ had been shot dead in one day in the Pilbara region. This exposé appears to have been one of the earliest, if not the earliest, public descriptions of what later became known as the Flying Foam massacre. The witness cited by Gribble, one David Carly, claimed to have seen ‘the skulls of fifteen who were shot’.

More information about the Flying Foam Massacre can be read at http://nationalunitygovernment.org/content/flying-foam-massacre-killing-fields-murujuga

I have read all of this information also in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gribble-john-brown-3668). What this official biography does not mention—but Broome duly reports—is that Gribble’s license to preach was removed by his Bishop, and the Church later closed down the mission which he had started.

Gribble worked for a time as a labourer, sued the West Australian newspaper (but lost the case), then returned to the east and established another mission for Indigenous people in Queensland. Sadly, he died soon after this.

So much for the Church siding with the oppressed and standing for the Gospel!

The pictures show Gribble, the settlement at Warangesdah Aboriginal Mission, and relevant book covers.

See also

https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/on-covenant-reconciliation-and-sovereignty/

https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/on-covenant-reconciliation-and-sovereignty/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/16/the-profound-effect-of-invasion-and-colonisations/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

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International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

Today, 9 August, has been designated since 1982 by the United Nations as International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. This year’s observance is dedicated to Indigenous Peoples’ Languages, since 2019 is being marked as the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

A person’s right to use his or her chosen language is a prerequisite for freedom of thought, opinion and expression, access to education and information, employment, building inclusive societies, and other values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Many of us take it for granted that we can conduct our lives in our home languages without any constraints or prejudice. But this is not the case for everyone. Of the almost 7,000 existing languages, the majority have been created and are spoken by indigenous peoples who represent the greater part of the world’s cultural diversity. 

Yet many of these languages are disappearing at an alarming rate, as the communities speaking them are confronted with assimilation, enforced relocation, educational disadvantage, poverty, illiteracy, migration and other forms of discrimination and human rights.

It is estimated that, every 2 weeks, an indigenous language disappears, placing at risk the respective indigenous cultures and knowledge systems. That is why, on this International Day, the goal is to draw attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote them at both national and international levels.

It is believed that there were more than 250 Indigenous Australian languages, as well as 800 local dialectal varieties, which were spoken on the continent of Australia at the time of European settlement in 1788. Today, only 13 of those traditional Indigenous languages are still acquired by children. Approximately another hundred or so are spoken to various degrees by older generations, with many of these languages at risk as Elders pass away.

A map indicative of the language groups across the continent (in the image above) was created in 1994 to illustrate the diversity of Indigenous cultures across the continent. It includes many language groups but is not definitive in this regard; it provides a visual representation of that cultural diversity. The map was developed along with the Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia as part of a national research project. The Encyclopedia is available in libraries and contains more detailed information about the groups represented on the map.

Today Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia are speaking out about the need to maintain, preserve and strengthen Indigenous Australian languages. There is currently a wave of activity, with people in many communities working to learn more about their languages, and to ensure they are passed on to the next generation.

An important resource for the preservation and revival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages is the Australian Indigenous Languages Collection maintained by AIATSIS. The collection brings together over 4500 items such as children’s’ readers, bible translations, dictionaries, grammars, vocabularies, works of imagination and learning kits in 200 languages. The collection’s significance was recognised in 2009 when it was added to the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register.

Approximately 20 dictionaries of Australian Indigenous languages are being supported through the end of production cycle. This includes what will become an iconic Warlpiri encyclopedic dictionary, based on 60 years of research by teams of speakers and linguists, to support language maintenance in that community, and a facsimile edition of The Sydney Language (1993), to support language awareness and revival of the language which the First Fleet first encountered in 1788.

In 2016, then Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull made history by being the first Prime Minister to speak an Australian Indigenous language in a parliamentary speech. He gave an acknowledgment of country in Ngunawal for the annual Closing the Gap speech. The acknowledgment was written by Ngunawal men Tyronne Bell and Glen Freeman, with assistance from AIATSIS linguist Doug Marmion. This is particularly significant as the Ngunawal language has not been spoken fluently for almost a century, but AIATSIS has been working with the Ngunawal community for several years to revitalise it.

****

I have taken the above information from these websites:

https://www.un.org/en/events/indigenousday/

https://en.iyil2019.org/international-day-of-the-worlds-indigenous-peoples-9-august-2019/

https://en.iyil2019.org/role-of-language/

https://en.iyil2019.org

https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/indigenous-australian-languages

https://aiatsis.gov.au/collections/about-collection/languages

https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/aiatsis-map-indigenous-australia

https://aiatsis.gov.au/news-and-events/blog/indigenous-languages-australian-parliaments

https://aiatsis.gov.au

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330293198_The_Encyclopaedia_of_Aboriginal_Australia

https://australianarchaeologicalassociation.com.au/journal/review-of-encyclopaedia-of-aboriginal-australia-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-history-society-and-culture-edited-by-d-horton/