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.

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.

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

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

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

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/

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.

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/