Paul the travelling philosopher (1 Thessalonians)

Thessalonika, the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, was a port city strategically situated on the Egnatian Way, the main transport link between Rome and the eastern part of the empire. It was an important trading post in Greece, second only to Corinth.

Evidence of its cosmopolitan nature includes an Egyptian settlement, a strong Jewish presence, and a Samaritan community in the city. Religion was a part of everyday life, and so worship of all manner of gods and goddesses thrived. There were also schools to learn philosophy, travelling preachers, and synagogues for worshipping Yahweh.

Paul, Silas and Timothy arrived in Thessalonika in the year 50 CE. The account in Acts 17 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).

See the source image

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).

In the opening thanksgiving of this letter (1:1-8), Paul characterizes the Thessalonians as undertaking a “work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 1:8). These terms summarise the key issues to be addressed later in that letter; all three return at 1 Thess 5:8.

Paul writes more about the faith of the Thessalonians at 3:1–10; he commends them for their love at 3:6 and 4:9–10, and prays for it to increase at 3:12. He strengthens them in their hope at 2:19 and 4:13–18. Also in the thanksgiving, he affirmed them for being “imitators of us and of the Lord” (1:6)—a central motif in Paul’s theology.

At the point in the letter where we would expect the body of the letter to begin (2:1), Paul turns his attention to his way of operating whilst he had been with the Thessalonians (2:1–12). He feels the need to defend himself, pointing out that his motivation was not based on “deceit or impure motives or trickery” (2:3), nor did he speak “with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed” (2:5).

Rather, Paul undertook his task with deep-seated care (2:8) and purity of motive (2:10). He invokes the divine no less than nine times in twelve verses, proclaiming that his methods were “approved by God” and that he spoke “to please God” (2:4).

See the source image
A statue depicting a Cynic, one of the popular
wandering philosophers of the time.

The language which Paul uses in this part of the letter is reminiscent of discussions of rhetoricians and philosophers of the time, a number of whom were accused of having base motives, an interest in self-promotion and a desire for immediate financial rewards! His itinerant way of life could easily leave him open to such a criticism. How Paul defends himself is similar to the way that the better class of philosophers and rhetoricians of the day tried to defend themselves.

See a good summary of Abraham Malherbe’s analysis of 1 Thess 2 in this vein, at http://www.religion.emory.edu/faculty/robbins/SRI/Examples/textures/inter/echo2.cfm

Reimagining—the spirit of our times

The city where I live, Canberra, has a regular annual festival. Each year, a large section of a central park is planted out with bulbs, around this time of the year. Lots of tourists come in September, joining with many of the residents of Canberra, to enjoy the festival known as Floriade.

The bulbs that have been planted grow, silently and stealthily, throughout winter, so that when spring arrives, they are fully grown plants, ready to burst into a display of spectacular colours—in time for hundreds of thousands of people to walk through, enjoying the display.

507,550 people saw the display in 2019 (see https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6456817/floriade-breaks-attendance-record/)

That’s not going to happen this year. The ACT Government wisely decided that it would not be sensible to plan for a large, crowded event in September—with the uncertainty that crowds of people would be able to gather, even in the outdoors.

So they have implemented Floriade Reimagined. Bulbs have been offered to community groups, to be planted at dispersed locations right around Canberra. Those bulbs are to be planted in locations that are visible from the road. Now, in September, people are able to drive around Canberra and enjoy the displays of flowers in many community locations. (See https://floriadeaustralia.com)

Alongside this, in the southern part of Canberra, there has been an annual festival in Tuggeranong, called, quite appropriately, SouthFest. This has been based around the Tuggeranong Town Centre in past years, with many stall lining the streets, and a festive atmosphere pervading the day.

But this year, again because of COVID-19, it has not been possible to plan for and hold the usual festivities. (See https://the-riotact.com/southfest-organisers-make-early-call-to-cancel-2020-festival/379080)

But SouthFest, alongside Floriade, has also been reimagined. And that’s where the Tuggeranong Uniting Church comes into the picture. They took their annual Spring Fair, and in 2019, gave it a strong sustainability focus. This year, they once again reimagined that that spring fair would look like. And so, SpringFest was born.

Tuggeranong, where Elizabeth is serving as Minister, submitted an expression of interest for Floriade Reimagined, and was awarded a set of bulbs. A crew of volunteers has worked hard to dig garden beds, build up the soil, and plant the bulbs. (See the picture, and https://www.insights.uca.org.au/tuggeranong-to-provide-a-symbol-of-hope-during-floriade/)

Now, in September, the Tuggeranong Uniting Church is surrounded with colour, as the bulbs burst into flower.

And this church, along with the Yarralumla Uniting Church (pictured below), is on the visiting list for Floriade Reimagined.

And Tuggeranong Uniting Church, under the enthusiastic and energetic leadership of Elizabeth, along with a fine team of dedicated volunteers, has partnered with SEE-Change to have a modified, downscale (but still very much appreciated) SouthFest happening, in the grounds at Erindale. The sustainability focus of 2019 was kept and expanded in SpringFest 2020.

SEE-Change, a local sustainability group, ran a series of workshops, in the community garden and the community hall, on topics relating to sustainability: composting, worm farms, bee keeping, and reducing plastic.

Meanwhile, in and around the church auditorium, the Red Dove Pre-Loved Op Shop was selling second hand clothes, the church was offering Devonshire teas and BBQ sandwiches, the Girls Brigade were selling delicious cakes, reuseable bags to replace single use plastic bags were on sale, as was a wide range of potted plants, and there was a Beeswax stall and assorted other goods for sale.

Why, the COVID Fairy was even in attendance (ensuring that all COVID Safe precautions were being adhered to). And she brought Senator Katy Gallagher along, to open the proceedings!

Floriade has reimagined itself. SouthFest has reimagined itself. COVID-19 has been the impetus. Tuggeranong Church has reimagined how it can partner with community groups to provide an enjoyable and inviting community event.

Can the church as a whole, similarly, reinvent itself? Can we take the stimulus of the present time to move out into the future with renewed creativity, imagination, and community engagement? Can we demonstrate that we are capable of the spirit of the times—reimagination?

A deeper understanding of God, through dialogue with “the other” (Romans 10)

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. (Romans 10:12)

These words are found in the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans that is offered by the Revised Common Lectionary, for reading in worship this coming Sunday. They were written long ago, in a different language, to people of a different culture, in a location quite different from where you and I are currently located. How do they speak to us today?

Readers and listeners in the contemporary world have often assumed that in writing chapters 9-11 of Romans, Paul is addressing the issue of Israel and the Church. Jews and Christians. Those of the circumcision, raised on the Law;  and those of the uncircumcision, unaware of the Law.

We assume that this dynamic, familiar to us from the times in which we live, was precisely the dynamic that motivated Paul as he wrote to the Romans, as he instructed them in his beliefs, as he interpreted to them the scriptural proofs, and as he exhorted them in the way to live in response to these beliefs.

But was it? Paul writes in the early days of the church; when charisma, not institution, predominates. He writes when tensions and struggles within the early missionary movement still mitigate against a commonly-held, universally-accepted, consensus of opinion.

Paul writes as the matter of what to do about Gentile believers is still largely unresolved. Some said accept them; others wanted to circumcise them, to judaise them. He writes this letter into that unresolved debate. He writes when some—his opponents, we call them—became vigorous—perhaps violent?—in asserting their viewpoint.

Paul writes well before Gentiles have outnumbered Jews within the growing movement of Jesus’ followers; before the Temple is destroyed; before the city of Jerusalem is declared a Gentile preserve only; before John Chrysostom explodes with vituperative venom against Christians in synagogues; before the Emperor Constantine endorses a thoroughly hellenised, philosophically mature version of faith in God through Jesus Christ. So many changes; so many new layers of meaning from church developments, laid over the earlier texted Paul.

Is this text, then, beyond our reach? Is it impossible to grasp it, to seize it as our own? Is it too alien, too far removed from us? Can it ever be for us the word of God to guide and instruct us? Or despite these difficulties, can we not enter into the dynamic, attempt to reconstruct the reality, and thus appreciate the dynamic of Paul’s ancient words, as they speak to us today?

*******

The issue, I believe, which vexed Paul in these chapters, was that different people made claim that they could access God in strikingly different ways. The Jews had Torah; the commandments of the Law, handed down by Yahweh to Moses on Sinai. The Gentiles had the natural world; the revelation of the deity in creation. The followers of Jesus had a new model of faith; the faithfulness of the Messiah, no less, as the crucial instance of how all human beings might relate to God.

Paul agonises with what this might mean for his understanding of faith. He grew up on the Jewish understanding that access to God was through adherence to Torah, the living of a life in complete harmony with requirements of God’s Law.

Then came a dramatic, unexpected experience. He entered into a new way of relating to God. His “Damascus road experience”, as Luke vividly portrays it, opened up this new vista. To tradition, is added experience. The experience helps Paul to reinterpret his tradition; to shape a new understanding of faith.

But then, a third factor intrudes; Paul is called, and sent, to Gentiles. He preaches the Gospel, and people respond. He establishes new communities of faith—some, provocatively, right next door to synagogues; others, comprising Gentiles who meet in homes. These people, he nurtures. They have access to God; the same God Paul has known as faithful Jew, and as convinced Christian convert. The Gentiles can come to God, without the Law, in a different way from Jews.

Does this mean that the old way is now obsolete? Paul cannot stomach the thought. Indeed, he knows, from the events of his own life, that personal experience can reshape, reconfigure the traditional, “old” way, so that it is not rendered irrelevant, but is infused with new vigour and vitality.

That’s how I understand the controversial statement that Paul makes, in the verse just before our lectionary passage—when he declares to the Romans that Christ is “the end of the Law” (Rom 10:4). The word he chose, translated as “end”, has the sense of “end” as completion, perfection, bringing to fruition, reaching to maturity, arriving at the point of complete fulfilment. That, in Paul’s understanding, is how Christ stands in relation to the Law—not in opposition, but as the pinnacle of fulfilment.

So he cannot give up on the challenge that his success amongst the Gentiles has laid before him: God is working in this way!! But nor does he want to give up on the Jews; for they are chosen of God, and God does not abandon his promise, nor does God jettison his beloved people. So, Paul concludes, both “old” and “new” must cohere together. They each have a part in the overall scheme.

*******

The issue that Paul grapples with, is so very close to the issue that confronts us in our place and time. Australia of the 21st century is a multicutural country. In the last 75 years, 10 million people have migrated to Australia from over 150 different countries. Almost half of the Australian population has at least one parent who was born overseas, and almost one quarter of Australian residents were themselves born overseas.

We are undoubtedly multi-cultural, even if we do not yet realise the full implications of this new reality. As well as this, however, we are also multi-faith. Each country and culture represented in Australia now brings with it its own distinctive expression of its faith. So many people, making so many claims about how they know God, how contact God, how they commune with God.

How do we deal with this new reality? When “the heathens” lived in far distant countries, across deep, raging seas, then the way of stereotype and caricature went unchallenged. But now that they are here, the others in our midst, we cannot dismiss them so easily.

Other people have other ideas about God, other connections with the divine, other ways of relating to the deity. Do we dismiss them all, in a blanket fashion, as ignorant, wrongheaded, blighted by evil? Do we attempt to convince them that what they know is but a shadow of what we know? Do we shrug our shoulders, and say “whatever will be, that’s cool”?

My preferred option is one which I find emerging from texts such as Romans 9-11. Instead of staking out the ground to be defended, another option is to acknowledge that there is a greater reality, beyond our present knowing, transcending human capacity to articulate and systematise. Paul grapples with the issue, and concludes that the answer is, simply, “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”

The unifying factor of God extends beyond the precise doctrines and dogmas of each partisan point of view; the greater reality of God holds in creative tension each of the variant ways of seeking God’s presence. Jew and Greek are united, not by common beliefs, but by the God who shows mercy to each of them alike.

*******

Paul has argued this theme from early in Romans: “all have sinned, yet all are justified by God’s grace as a gift” (3:23-24), “is not God the God of Jews, and the God of Gentiles also?” (3:29), the promise is “not only to the aherents of the law, but also to those who share the faith of Abraham” (4:16), “God has called us, not only from the Jews, but also from the Gentiles” (9:24).

He will go on to push the point in subsequent chapters: “salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make Israel jealous” (11:11), and so, “all Israel will be saved” (11:26); “just as you [Gentiles] have received mercy, so they [the Jews] might receive mercy” (11:30-31); “God has mercy on all” (11:32). Paul’s “God-talk” sounds this consistent theme throughout Romans: God is for all, God has mercy on all, both Jew and Gentile may participate in the full knowledge of God.

Out of the struggle about the particularities of different ways of relating to God, comes the unequivocal assertion that all might be intimately bound with God. The preferred option which Paul adopts is not the rigorous exclusivism of a sectarian antagonist, not the woolly-headed universalism of an unreconstructed liberal, but the engaged and intense dialogue of one who believes both that his won way is right, but that it does not exclude other ways.

Paul offers the pattern of faith in which tradition, experience, and an openness to the insights of the other might come together and shape a new, vibrant understanding of God’s availability to all, of God’s open-armed yearning for each and everyone, of God’s willingness to encompass people of different upbringings, experiences, and creeds, into the one warm embrace.

The Uniting Church has issued a clear statement about relating across religious faiths, under the title of friendship in the presence of difference. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/about/theology and https://assembly.uca.org.au/fipd

*******

To conclude, I offer a reflective meditation. You may wish to use this meditation as a prayer; to join your spirit with the words of the prayer, and lift them to God. Or you may wish to use the meditation as a point of reflection, for yourself, so that you might ponder, without affirming or denying, the sentiments it contains. I invite you, then, you join in meditation; perhaps, in prayer, or perhaps, in reflection.

A Reflection

God has created us all,

and called us together from all the nations of the world,

to be one people—the people of God’s earth.

As Christian people, we regularly offer our prayers

            for one another, as we seek to serve God

            in obedience to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In this time of reflection, we remember now

            people who call on God

            in ways which are different from the ways we know:

those who call on God through self-enlightenment;

those who seek to be raised to a higher plane of consciousness;

those who study the Torah or adhere to the Koran;

those who seek to walk a way revealed to them

by teachers and leaders of faiths other than Christianity.

What would it mean for us

            to cultivate tolerance and acceptance of such people?

If we were to gain a deeper understanding

            of the ways they call on God,

might it not enrich our own way of relating to God?

What would it mean for us

            to enter into dialogue with people of other faiths?

We could not relate to them as proponents of a narrow doctrine;

            we would need to meet as servants of one another,

            together seeking the truth of deep faith.

As we speak with one another, and work side by side,

            may it not be in arrogance or pride,

but in such a way

            that God might break through to us in new ways,

so that we may better know

the greater reality of God in our lives.

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/27/praying-to-be-cursed-paul-the-passionate-partisan-for-the-cause-rom-93/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/11/the-best-theology-is-contextual-learning-from-pauls-letter-to-the-romans/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/11/the-righteous-justice-of-god-a-gift-to-all-humanity-romans/

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

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

When you come together (3) … wait for one another (1 Cor 11)

So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. 1 Cor 11:33-24

In these words, Paul instructs the Corinthians—that raggle taggle group of disordered participants in an unruly worship gathering—to wait for one another, to ensure that they are all on the same page, to be committed to constructive group gatherings. Every member is important. Every voice is valued. Every need must be understood and responded to.

In the Uniting Church, we have adopted a process known as the consensus model. In that model, according to the Manual for Meetings, we value

listening skills: help us understand what another person is saying and develop new ways of responding.

conflict-resolution skills: enable us to deal with the emotional turbulence that typically accompanies conflict … these skills are likely to foster closer relationships.

collaborative problem-solving skills: help to resolve conflicting needs in such a way that all parties are satisfied.

(Manual for Meetings 1.6)

In the overview guidelines provided to people who chair meetings of the councils of our church (Appendix B), the guidance is clear:

“Treat everyone’s contribution as valuable, and be expectant that the Spirit is guiding the Church”.

I have heard many complaints about the consensus model, which although we have used it for some decades now, is still seen in a negative light by some people. Elizabeth and I have spent much time talking about such complaints over the years, exploring why that may be so.

One of the factors that plays a role in feeding these complaints, we believe, is gender. Have we paused to reflect on the role that our gender plays in our meetings process? What unspoken, unexplored assumptions might we have, about the place we have, as a female, or as a male, in the dynamics of a meeting? What expectations do we have about how we contribute to those meetings in which we participate?

A recent study that Elizabeth found online has some potent messages for us.

https://magazine.byu.edu/article/when-women-dont-speak/

The study analysed “the female experience in a top-10, predominately male collegiate accounting program—a program where the women, overall, matriculated with higher Grade Point Averages and more leadership experience than their male peers. The students move through the program on teams, and administrators wanted to know how best to build them.”

The students were put into mixed gender groups. Some had equal numbers of men and women. Some had only one woman. Some had only one man. The researchers observed the dynamics in each of the groups. They found clear problems:

1. Unequal talking time. At best, outnumbered women in the study spoke three-quarters of the time a man spoke; on average, women spoke just two-thirds as much as a man.

2. Routine interruptions. Put a woman alone with four men, and 70 percent of the interruptions she receives from men are negative. Compare that with having four women in the room: here, just 20 percent of the interruptions women receive from men are negative.

3. Limited influence. The same conditions that create disproportionate silence by women also create disproportionate authority by men.

They then explored what took place when groups employed a consensus model that worked to build unanimous support of all participants for any decision made. They determined that this meant:

Female talking time increased for women in the minority—a lone woman participated nearly as much as a man.

Positive interruptions—interjections that affirm and validate, like “Yeah” and “I agree”—were significantly increased. Such positive interruptions tripled for women in the minority. If the group sends signals that build confidence, women tend to participate more.

The influence gap narrowed for a lone woman—she had almost as much of a shot as a man at being voted the most influential member by her group.

How do we hear these results? How do they inform our practices? What must we commit to doing as a result of exploring this research?

What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 1 Cor 14:26

Building up the body is the bottom line in what Paul instructs those raggle taggle Corinthians. Valuing what each individual contributes to the whole is important. Ensuring that we function as a cohesive groupis the clear focus—whether that be as Church Council, as Elders, as Pastoral Relations Committee, as Standing Committee, as Presbytery-in-Council, or as a Congregational meeting.

The bottom line that the study proposes, is that men need to listen more, women need to speak more, men need to practice positive support for women’s voices, groups need to work hard to operate by consensus, participants need to avoid stereotyping (“you’re a woman, what do you know about this?”), and group leaders need to focus on positive participation processes.

This is what it takes to develop a constructive, cohesive, respectful environment for decision-making.

May we work to ensure processes that honours the voice of every participant, that respects female contribution and participation, and that develops consensus outcomes.

*****

[Of course, the irony is that as I have juxtaposed this study on the importance of women’s voices with words from the latter part of 1 Corinthians, which is precisely where the text informs us that women are to “keep silent in church” (1 Cor 14:34-35). We always need to bring a critical perspective into that we approach texts in scripture. We always need to deconstruct the ideology and discover the fundamental values at work. As in scripture interpretation, so also in meeting dynamics.]

******

A prayer

As we meet

Help us to listen with care and patience

Help me to remain quiet and attentive

Help us to speak in appropriate and helpful ways

Help me not to interrupt, but to wait

Help us not to feel intimidated, but rather valued

Help me to focus on discerning a common mind

Help us to participate in positive ways

Help us to be your people, O God.

Amen.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

Paul’s vision of “One in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28) and the Uniting Church

A sermon on the anniversary of the Uniting Church (for the Project Reconnect resource)

Galatians 3:23–27

On 22 June every year, across this continent, people gather to celebrate the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia. Today, rather than address the passages set in the lectionary, I want to turn to a section of one of Paul’s letters, from our New Testament. It’s from the latter part of chapter 3 of his letter to the church in Galatia.

It is good to have this passage as our focus. It speaks to who we want to be, together, as the church. It is a word for our times. In fact, I think that this passage could well express the fundamental calling of the Uniting Church.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written in the midst of an intense and ferocious debate within the early movement that had been started by Jesus. It was a time of great transition. Things were changing. Old practices were being challenged. New practices were being proposed.

In Galatians, those who advocated Circumcision came under criticism. In that place, as in many other places where the good news of the Jesus movement had been proclaimed, baptism was being proposed as a new ritual, to mark the new faith of the growing numbers of the followers of Jesus.

The argument about circumcision has behind it the issue as to how much, or how little, of the Jewish Law should apply to believers within that movement – those whom we now call the early Christians. This was an incredibly contentious issue at the time, which caused much dispute. Galatians is a letter that was created in the heat of this intense debate; so, at many points, it bears more evidence of rash fury than it does of considered reflection.

Paul’s language in Galatians is ferocious. He accuses the Galatian believers of being fools who have been bewitched by deceivers; he accuses them of biting and devouring one another; he criticises them for urging Gentile converts to be circumcised and to adopt full adherence to the Torah. This is no gentle, reflective spiritual meditation; this is full-on partisan polemics!

And yet, right within the midst of this turbulent flow of argument and disputation, we come across comments that provide cause for reflection; ideas that do invite deeper consideration; insights that do offer the opportunity for spiritual growth to those who would read, ponder, and reflect.

One of these passages is just two well-known verses from the third chapter of this letter: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28).

Here, Paul sets out a vision for people of faith; a vision for believers within community; we would say, a vision for the church. It could well be our central mission statement, as the Uniting Church in Australia, for we so much value grace-filled inclusiveness, we so strongly reject divisive and judgemental stances, we so yearn to live in accord with this grand vision, where all belong to a welcoming and loving community.

The vision of the church for Paul is one of harmony, concord, unity. Paul envisages great changes within the community of faith, because of Jesus. If the reality failed to achieve this change, nevertheless the vision stood firm; Paul envisaged a community that would bring together strikingly disparate opposites.

In this community, the religious differences of Jew and Gentile would matter no more; the different levels of social status, of people living in freedom and those serving as slaves, would become irrelevant; and the societal roles and expectations associated with the gender of a person —  male or female – would no longer function as dominant. These three conditions of difference would melt away, within the community of faith, into a cohesive unity of co-operation and interconnection. This was a huge change to took place all those centuries ago.

Indeed, as we ponder these three key instances of the way in which difference would disappear, we might even push it further: is this vision not simply one for the church, but even one for society as a whole? Might it be that the vision, the hope, which Paul set out in his letter to the Galatians, could be brought about within the patterns of living and relating right across his society? Was Paul passionate, not only about partisan points of religious practice, but also – and more significantly – about visionary ideals for human society as a whole?

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” – this unity within the church might well become a model for harmony within society. Certainly, that is the way that the church has interpreted this statement in the centuries since Paul wrote it.

The church of the late first century continued the battle begun in the time of Paul; over time, Jews and gentiles were equally welcomed within most of the faith communities of the ancient world.

The church of the Enlightenment was at the forefront of the movement to end the slave trade, to enable black Africans to live unhindered by white masters seeking to profit from selling them as slaves.

And the western church from the later part of the 20th century has been active alongside many other community organisations to ensure that the opportunities available to women were not less than those available to men.

In each of these battles, the church at large has understood Paul’s words to the Galatians to be words for both the church, and for the society as a whole. It is a grand vision. May it be a reality for you, in your community of faith, and amongst the people of the place where you live, sleep, eat, work, and rest.

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28).

+++++++

Some questions to consider:

What did you find to be the most significant idea in this message?

Can you describe a time when you experienced the “unity in Christ” that Paul wrote about?

In what way does your congregation today model the vision of inclusive acceptance for all that Paul wrote about?

In what way might you be able to show that vision to the people where you live, sleep, eat, work, and rest?

To read more on the distinctive contributions of the Uniting Church to Australian society, you may wish to read my blogs at https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/18/the-dna-of-the-uca-part-i/ and https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/18/the-dna-of-the-uca-part-ii/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/15/what-i-really-like-about-the-basis-of-union/ and https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/20/alongside-the-basis-of-union-there-was-the-statement-to-the-nation/

Going “back” to church—what will our future look like? (4)

We got an email from the church office last week. It said that “worship services are resuming” in our church building. There was much excitement! It has been so many months since we have been able to be in our lovely church building, with all our wonderful friends, for times of worship.

It would be great to see our friends again in person—and to share in the prayers and the singing when we all gather together—and to hear our minister in the flesh once again. It seems like it has been such a long time since we have been able to do this.

Don’t get me wrong, it has been great to hear her speak each week online; but there is nothing quite like being there, in person, with all the others in the building, to soak up the atmosphere. It’s like a weekly “hit” that keeps me going for the next week. It’s not the same, online. Not quite the same vibe, the same buzz. Ah well …

Anyway, after cheering was heard throughout the household about this great news, we read on through the rest of the email. “Back to normal”, we had thought. “Back to what we used to do.” Hmmm. Maybe—maybe not.

It seems that worship will not be quite like it used to be. No single service, for a start. There are going to be three services each Sunday morning, staggered by 45 minutes. So we need to book in advance for the one we want. 8:30 for the early birds. 9:15 for those who want the regular time slot. And 10:00am for those willing to have a slow start. OK, not a bad idea. But we won’t all be together. That’s a bit sad.

And each service will be just 30 minutes long. That feels like a rip-off. What, not a full hour? This will take some adjusting to get used to, I reckon. Anyway, we registered for the 9:15 slot. Trying to get back, as much as possible, to “normal”. It will be great to be there, back in church!

Except then another email came back, saying that the 9:15 service was already full. How could that be? Our church easily seats over 200 people (well, if you make sure you fill up each pew and set out some extra seats down the aisles.)

Seems that we can’t have more than 30 people in the building at any one time. There’s talk about 4 square metres and 1.5 metres apart and social distancing and so on. You know, the stuff that the PM and his chief honcho medical advisor guy have been talking about. In church. In our church. Who would have thought it?

So we are now going to the 8:30am service. Harumph. But better than waiting until 10am, I guess.

And the email also said, please arrive 10 minutes before the scheduled time, and queue outside the east door. What is that? I have been going to this church for years now, and have always used the south door, the one that opens right onto the street. Something about not confusing those arriving with those leaving, making them use separate doors. Oh well, if that’s what it takes ….

And, then, the email said, when you get the the east door, you will be allocated seat numbers, and you will need to go directly to those seats—do not stop to talk to anyone else, do not mill about in the foyer. And that we will find that the seats are arranged in a different way inside, so we will not be able to sit in our usual spot. Wow! Now that will be quite different! Sitting in a different place! That will be hard. And I can’t imagine church without all the catching up with people beforehand. That’s a bit of a downer, really.

And the email also said, “no singing”. Seriously: “no singing”! How will church be church, if we can’t all sing together? It is going to be one weird experience, I reckon, in that building, all sitting apart from one another, not singing—not even hugging our friends when we see them, no chance to say hello. It will be weird.

And then, the last straw: “when the service ends, please remain in your seats until you are asked to leave, then move straight to the south door to exit the building”. To keep people entering separate from people departing. How anti-social is that!

And there is more: “Please do not congregate on the footpath, or in the car park, after the worship service. Please leave the site as quickly as possible.” No morning cuppa. No chat with friends in our small group. No hanging around in the kitchen to scab extra goodies for the week. No socialising. None at all!

It won’t be church, will it? Not really church. I fear that we are in for a rather sterile experience. And we will have to use the hand sanitisers when we come in, and when we go out. Aargh! I hate the smell of that stuff! But no hand sanitising, no entry permitted, we are told. So there’s no question about it. That’s just the way of things everywhere, these days.

So, off we go. In to church. Then back out again. Will it be worth it? We’ll give it one go. And then, if it is not any good—back to looking at services online, I guess. Ah well. Such is life.

(… the views expressed in this piece come from a fictional character, solely the product of my imagination …)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/03/greet-one-another-2-cor-13-but-no-holy-kissing-and-no-joyful-singing/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/29/worship-like-the-first-christians-what-will-our-future-look-like-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/24/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/22/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

“Greet one another” (2 Cor 13). But no holy kissing. And no joyful singing.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.” So the second (extant) letter to the Corinthians ends (2 Cor 13:11-12).

“Greet one another with a holy kiss” is also how Paul instructs the Corinthians in his first letter (1 Cor 6:20), as well as the Thessalonians (1 Thess 5:26) and the Romans (Rom 16:16). (The same instruction appears at 1 Peter 5:14). These five verses all indicate that first century worship was not just sitting formally and watching what went on at the front; it was interactive, engaging, personal.

What do we make of this instruction to kiss one another? Many people in churches that I know have interpreted “holy kiss” to mean “warm handshake”—so the “passing of the peace” has been shaking hands with as many people as possible in the Congregation. In some smaller gatherings, even, making sure that you shake hands with everybody present!

Well, not any longer. No more handshakes—not in church, not at the door after the service, not anywhere in society. COVID-19 has put paid to shaking hands for quite some time yet.

Other people have take a more literalist line of interpretation. A kiss means, well, a kiss! If not a lip-to-lip kiss, then, at least, a lip-to-cheek kiss. Yes, I have been in church gatherings where my hairy unshaven cheeks have been kissed. And even, when my hairy-encircled lips have planted a kiss on the cheek of another worshipper. I confess.

But not any longer. No more person-to-person contact; especially not any contact that involves the lips! COVID-19 has put paid to the socially-approved form of public kiss, for quite some time yet—if not forever.

One of my colleagues, Sarah Agnew, suggests that the best way to translate the reference to a “holy kiss” in these five verses, is by referring to a “holy embrace”. That understanding is premised on the fact that the Greek word which is translated as “greet” in these texts, contains elements of making personal contact which are both interpersonal (greetings) and also physical (the word can be used to signify hugging or embracing). See https://www.academia.edu/28243257/A_call_to_enact_relationships_of_mutual_embrace_Romans_16_in_performance

Given that, then, on each of the sixteen times that Paul instructs for greetings to be given to named individuals in Romans 16, he may well be saying something like, “give them a hug from me”. Such relationships were personal and intimate.

This rendering takes us to the heart of community—and to the centre of our practices during the current situation with COVID-19. The ancient practice clearly envisaged that physical contact was involved. The current situation proscribes any form of physical contact. It is just too risky.

Physical contact, in the intimacy of either a kiss (on the cheek) or an embrace (with the upper body), is now, we are told, not advisable, given the way that infectious diseases such as COVID-19 (or, indeed, the common cold—which is itself a form of a coronavirus) are spread.

How do we reconcile these current guidelines with the scriptural injunctions? Do we ignore current guidelines (and keep on meeting together) because “the Bible says…” ? Or, do we turn away from strict biblical teaching (and stop our gatherings), because of contemporary concerns about the pandemic?

Of course, we do not put our heads in the sand. We acknowledge the sense in the guidelines being proclaimed across society. We listen to those with expertise in infectious diseases and medicine. We refrain from physical contact. No kissing. No hugging. No handshakes. We look for alternatives to signify that we are greeting one another.

We aren’t yet meeting in person for worship. It will be some time before most Congregations are able to do this. But when we eventually do begin to worship in person, and it comes time to pass the peace, we might face the other person, place our right hand over our own heart, and say, “peace be with you”. That avoids direct physical contact, but incorporates a direct visual interaction.

Another option would be to clasp our hands together and place them in front of our chest, in the “praying position”, and then, as we face each other, bow in greeting.

A third option—one perhaps only utilised in a very distinctive liturgical setting—could be to “bump elbows”, using the recommended social alternative to “shaking hands”. But that option would need to be employed with care! And it may not be to everybody’s liking, to be sure.

Which brings me to singing. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord!”, the psalmist instructs us (Psalms 66:1, 95:1-2, 98:4, 6, 100:1). Sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”, an early Christian writer exhorts (Col 3:16). “Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”, another letter writer directs (Eph 5:18-20).

So how do we interpret these passages? Do we adopt the same literalist approach—the Bible says we must worship, the Bible says we must song, so that’s what we must do! (Yes, I have heard this said, even in current times.) That is not really a satisfactory approach.

Of course, the same dilemma confronts us here. Just as direct physical contact is not advised in the current pandemic situation, so singing in a group of people is also deemed to be out of order, in the understanding of health professional and medical advisors.

Research clearly indicates that singing contributes to the spread of infectious diseases. Singing spreads droplets in aerosols which are expelled from a person’s mouth as they sing. They can carry the virus a significant distance and remain suspended in the air for some time after they have been expelled from a person’s mouth. A cloth mask is unlikely to be enough to provide protection as people sing together. This article canvasses the issues:

https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/does-singing-spread-coronavirus-choir-outbreaks-raise-concerns-1.4943265

So in the case of singing, as with physical touch, we need reinterpret our scripture in keeping with what we know about the spread of infectious diseases. We might have to be content with listening to a recording or watching a video of a favourite hymn or song being sung. One suggestion I have seen is to invite people to listen, then to share with a couple of other people what you have heard, what has connected with you, as you listen.

Another suggestion is to invite people to tap into their own wells of creativity, and after listening to the song, write or draw their own response. That could be in the form of a prayer, a modern psalm, an impressionistic artwork, a poem, a sketch drawing. The possibilities are endless.

Some other ideas are canvassed in this post:

https://godspacelight.com/2020/05/23/five-ways-to-worship-with-music-beyond-singing/?fbclid=IwAR07U327jYyIu8PKq3xmBnDSE3wDD56ySbiRlRxpT1Foc42o4ucgZOnHhJg

There’s another central aspect of worship that will need significant attention and careful consideration in the time ahead. Before we actually start meeting in person for worship, a decision will need to be made, in each local community of faith, with regard to holy communion.

We know that any action that involves direct physical contact is risky. We know that multiple touching of the same object is highly risky—it provides many more opportunities for a virus (any virus, not just COVID-19) to be passed from person to person. When we regather for worship, we will not be “passing the offering plate around”; it is too risky.

In the same way, we need to,consider carefully what we do when it comes to offering the bread, passing a plate of bread, drinking from the cup, or passing the small cups.

That’s a matter for future consideration. If anyone has any clear ideas or knows of useful guidelines in this regard, I would love to hear from you!

A prayer from Sarah Agnew https://praythestory.blogspot.com/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/29/worship-like-the-first-christians-what-will-our-future-look-like-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/24/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/22/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

Worship like the first Christians. What will our future look like? (3)

I have been reflecting on the “where” of how we want to be, as the church, in post-COVID times, as well as the “when” of how we want to be. Do we want to be simply back in the church building on a Sunday morning? Do we want simply to be doing things in the old, familiar ways of past years?

You can read those posts at https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/24/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-2/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/22/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-1/

In this post, I pick up the theme of “who” we are imagining ourselves to be in this future time. What might worship look like for us? Who do we reveal ourselves to be, when we gather for worship?

*****

If we want to rethink how we worship in the post-COVID era, and reimagine what we might do in a gathering of people as “church”, perhaps we could get some inspiration from what our scripture tells us about the early followers of Jesus? Could we being to rethink and reimagine so that church looked more like what these people did? After all, we have scriptures which we use as guidelines for various doctrinal and moral matters; why not also with worship?

The earliest followers of Jesus, we know, did not worship in English. They used their own languages—Aramaic, for Jewish People, and probably Greek, in many of the early Christian communities. And, no doubt, the native language of the particular region where new faith communities were established. Syriac. Coptic. Phrygian. Arabic. Latin. Each spoke to the other in their own language.

Unsurprisingly, that sounds just like Pentecost, the festival that we celebrate this coming Sunday, when those gathered in the Temple heard the early followers Jesus, and declared in amazement, “how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2:8, 11).

Of course, I am not advocating that we take up speaking in Aramaic, or Koine Greek, or Syriac, or Phrygian, or Latin. In the Reformed churches, we have long adopted the custom of worshipping in our native language. But are there other practices from the early church that we could consider taking up? For instance, the early church did not have organs or pianos to accompany singing. Is that something that we could adopt? How many other places in society still have group singing accompanied by organ or piano?

*****

The earliest believers being Jewish, they most likely followed the pattern of worship that is attested in the Temple: “Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament! Praise him with trumpet sound … with lute and harp … with tambourine and dance … with strings and pipe … with clanging cymbals, with loud clashing cymbals!” (Psalm 150).

I know stories from Congregations where drum sets, complete with cymbals, were introduced into worship—leading to even louder noises, as church conflicts broke out! But such musical accompaniment is actually biblical. Can we head in that direction in our worship today?

We know also that those early believers sang “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16). That sounds familiar. Not too much different from today. Except: singing. All the evidence points to the fact that singing, indoors, in a group with other people, standing close to one another, is one of the most risky behaviours in this current time of the pandemic.

So, there is very little room to move: if and when we gather together in person to worship, we will not be singing. We will, necessarily, be quite different in our worship practices, from the early believers.

*****

The early followers of Jesus did not have paid ministers leading worship. This was the case from the very earliest days, and this practice lasted for a long time. (They did, however, have provisions to provide for their leaders—hospitality, places to stay, the provision of resources to enable their living—as Paul makes clear.)

Not having a Minister in placement is a reality for a growing number of our Uniting Church Congregations, now, as the decrease in numbers has brought with it a decline in offerings and therefore a reduced capacity to support a stipended minister.

Is this something that might be considered by more congregations, in an intentional way, into the future? Do we need to move away from dependence on “the paid person” as the local leader (and often, the person expected to “do all the ministry”), and strengthen the resilience of the whole people of God who make up the Congregation in each of these places? Could we reshape local ministry so that it equipped and resources the gifted people of God to lead worship and other church activities, rather than sitting back and being consumers of whatever the paid person delivers?

And perhaps alongside that: should we be encouraging our stipended ministers to focus elsewhere than on the Sunday worship? To be resourcing and equipping people for their own ministries, to be developing missional plans and fostering community engagement? To be enabling the whole people of God to be confident in sharing their faith, serving people in need, and living as active disciples in all of their life? This would be more in line with the way that leaders functioned in the early church.

That’s a challenge that is worth considering. After all, our Basis of Union (picking up on 1 Cor 12) actually affirms that “every member of the Church is engaged to confess the faith of Christ crucified and to be his faithful servant … the one Spirit has endowed the members of Christ’s Church with a diversity of gifts … all ministries have a part in the ministry of Christ.” (Basis of Union paragraph 12).

We are all ministers. We are all gifted by the Spirit. We are all equipped to serve. We are all part of the ministry of Christ—not just the paid person! How might that best translate into a reshaped form of worship?

*****

Another insight into the nature of worship in the early church communities is that it was spontaneous. That is very clearly the case in Corinth, a community that caused Paul quite some angst. Indeed, the critical issues he addresses in the later part of the letter (1 Cor 12–14) arise out of the highly spontaneous, seemingly chaotic situation that characterised worship in Corinth.

Such worship had more the nature of a dialogue between conversation partners, rather than a monologue delivered by one person to a group of silent listeners. We can see this in a simple way, with the references to “interpreters” in what Paul writes to the Corinthians. Whilst there are people who contribute words of prophecy, pray in tongues, or speak in tongues (1 Cor 14), in each case there is the need for someone to interpret these phenomena.

What would it take to move towards a style of worship that more closely reflected this central ethos of gathering? That’s a challenging way ahead for us to consider. Could our worship be different, in this regard? As we explore the different possibilities for worship, once we start to gather together again in person, we ought to be stimulated by this kind of exploration of different options, of fresh expressions, of evolving ideas.

*****

Another question: where did the early followers of Jesus gather? Luke’s account of the early church in Jerusalem indicates that they met in homes on a daily basis (Acts 2:46; 5:42). Commentators on the letters in the New Testament have made it clear that the earliest churches met in the homes of wealthy patrons—there are pointers towards this in letters to Corinth, to Rome, and in the letters of John. (See Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Philemon 2; 2 John 10, and perhaps also 2 John 1.)

When we start planning to regather as Congregations, how should we do this? Perhaps we should consider, not gathering en masse in a large building, but meeting others in smaller groups, in homes, sharing together on a regular basis (and not necessarily on a Sunday morning!)—with appropriate social distancing, of course. Let’s plan for some different ways of gathering, not all together in one large body, but in focused smaller groups.

*****

It is also worth pondering the fact that, for so many of the early followers of Jesus, coming together for worship was not the primary purpose for gathering. The indications from New Testament texts are that the earliest followers of Jesus came together to share in meals, to pray together, to share their lives with one another, to receive teaching on the life of faith, and to strengthen practices that are integral to discipleship.

Worship was part of that, but not ever the primary purpose (and certainly not the sole purpose) of gathering together. Worship was but one stream amongst a number of elements essential to these gatherings. What would it mean for us to work to this set of priorities into our planning for the future?

This central feature of the life of the early followers of Jesus is worth pondering and exploring: how might we follow this, and foster it, in our own times?

For Jews in the first century, the synagogue was more akin to a community centre, and much less like a sanctuary set aside for worship. Archaeology has shown that first-century synagogues did not have “Jewish” features; they were simply public buildings with benches lining the walls. The architecture of the buildings reflected the primary role of synagogues as Jewish community centres. People gathered for all manner of social and community activities. Worship was a secondary use of the space.

This carried over into the ways that early followers of Jesus lived out their faith in their daily lives. There was no separation between “church” and the rest of life. Faith was to be lived out in the actions and behaviours of life. Faith informed everything. Faith was a way of living, a way of doing, rather than a set of beliefs, a doctrinal creed. To be a follower of Jesus meant to be engaged with other people, assisting them, caring for them, serving them, attending to their needs.

Indeed, there is a strong view amongst scholars that the main reason for the growth of the church over the first two centuries was much less to do with doctrinal beliefs and verbal evangelism, much more to do with acts of charity, deeds of care and compassion towards others. Christians, simply, loved one another (just as Jesus commanded them to do!)

(See the work of Rodney Stark, summarised in https://thejesusquestion.org/2013/01/20/the-rise-of-christianity-by-rodney-stark/; for a discussion of the contemporary relevance of this view, see https://time.com/5824128/early-christian-caritas-coronavirus/ )

So, when Paul writes about “spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1), he makes it clear that this means living a life wholly committed to discipleship in every way—reaching out to others, serving people in need, giving up self-interest, and not totally focussed on the worship gathering alone. That is most surely a way of being that we could well emulate in our own lives, today.

So Paul encourages the Romans to “contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (12:13) and reminds them that “each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour” (15:2). He advises the Corinthians to maintain positive relationships with those who do not share faith in Jesus (1 Cor 10:27) and to follow the principle, “do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (1 Cor 10:24).

To the Philippians, he writes “let each of you look … to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4), and he urges the Thessalonians to “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them” (1 Thess 5:14). All of this is outward-oriented, community-focussed, and following the direction of the injunction to “love your neighbour” (Lev 19:18, quoted by Jesus at Mark 12:31).

And that, more than any particular style or form of worship, is what should best characterise the followers of Jesus today. Are we up for the challenge??

It’s been two months under restrictions—what will our future look like? (2)

It’s now been two months since we moved into a period when restrictions on social gatherings came into force because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. As restrictions are gradually eased, people are starting to grapple with what that will look like. How will hope be found, in what lies ahead?

I took the opportunity after one month, to step back and assess: what have we learnt, during this intense and most unusual period of time? (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/)

Now my mind is thinking about what the future might look like. People are struggling with number of matters. These matters have been the subject of conversations in my household over recent weeks, as Elizabeth and I think about what the future might hold, and how we need to prepare for it, both personally, and as a church.

As we consider these struggles, I want to look beyond, to what a hope-filled, missionally-engaged future might await us. So this is the second in a series of posts in which I muse about a series of issues that emerge as we think about this. The first was focussed on “where” people are wanting to be in that future time.

This post reflects on the “when” of our hopes for the future. How often have you heard someone refer, longingly, to “the way things used to be”? How often have you heard people lament that they would really like things to be “just like they used to be”?

This is a refrain in society—let’s get back to when life was simpler, people were friendlier, choices were easier. It is also a refrain in the church—let’s get back to when buildings were filled on Sundays, Friday night youth groups were thriving, Sunday Schools were overflowing. Ah, the good old days …

It is still a struggle for some people to try to move beyond this yearning for the past. When they try to imagine what it will be like when we get back to meeting in person, such people simply have in mind that things will be “just like they used to be”. The natural human urge is for us to move out of a time of upheaval, right back into the comfort zone of what is familiar, what is predictable, what has been the comforting routine of “life as usual”.

That is no less the case in the present period of COVID-19 restrictions. Back to church worship on a Sunday morning, seeking the much-loved group of friends once again, sitting in the usual spot, singing the favourite hymns, sharing the chit-chat over morning tea—church as usual, just if nothing had happened!

We can’t, of course, go back to the old familiar patterns. COVID-19 has ensured that this will be the case. We will need to clean and disinfect buildings regularly, maintain contact lists of all people attending any event, ensure that all physical touch elements in worship are modified, and, for the moment, ensure that there is adherence to social distancing and the limits on numbers in the building. And we would be well-advised not to sing when we gather for worship, for that is a high risk activity. Things will be different.

“Behold, I am about to do a new thing”, the prophet of old long ago declared to the people of Israel (Isa 43:19). To the people of Israel who had been decades in exile in Babylon, the word of the Lord spoke of hope and promise, of a new initiative, stepping out in a new way. The people journey back across the wilderness, heading back to the land where their ancestors had lived for centuries.

Without the “new thing” of the Lord, the people of Israel would have remained in exile and, presumably, have diminished in their distinctiveness, threatening the existence of the people of God as a nation called to be “a holy priesthood”. Finding the “new thing” that is happening in our own time is important.

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

So the question for us could well be: what is the “new thing” that God is doing, that the Spirit is calling to us to take part in, as public society begins to reactivate, as church begins to regather, in the weeks ahead?

I have read a number of pointers about how about society will need to be structured differently after the current restrictions have been eased and then lifted. In what I have read, there are a number of things that point directly at how things will need to change when we gather as a church.

One commentator, Tomas Pueyo, has noted that “Social gatherings should be avoided if a lot of people are close to each other, sing, talk a lot, or commingle. Indoor, confined areas are much worse than outdoors activities.” (See Tomas Pueyo, “Coronavirus: Prevent Seeding and Spreading”, https://medium.com/@tomaspueyo/coronavirus-prevent-seeding-and-spreading-e84ed405e37d)

Both of those factors place church gatherings, worship services, morning teas, and other group gatherings, into the high risk category. They are usually indoors, inviting people into close personal contact with others. And singing—we always sing when we gather, for grace, for praise, for communion, for benedictions. All high risk.

The same commentator, Tomas Pueyo, has noted that “Time matters. A short time is probably ok. Hours probably not.” That might please some people, if we apply it to church—short is better, no more long droning sermons!

But short worship services will be hard to monitor—even a short time for worship sees many people on site for quite some time, first while setting up, then in social mingling afterwards (and even the occasional “car park conversations” that prolong the time together even more!).

How we gather, what we do when we gather, cannot simply be stepping back into what we used to do. We are entering a time when things must be different. How will we engage with that challenge? How will we ensure that we don’t just step back into the past and settle into the well-worn routines? What will church look like, for us, in the future? That is the challenging question that sits before us, now, as we consider our future as the church in post-COVID times.

Thanks again to Elizabeth for the conversations that have shaped these ideas as we talk about future hopes for the church.

See also https://millennialpastor.ca/2020/05/24/there-is-no-going-back-to-normal-or-the-glory-days-this-is-the-beginning/

and my series of blogs on life during COVID-19:

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/22/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/01/pastoral-letter-to-the-canberra-region-presbytery-of-the-uniting-church-in-australia-31-march-2020/

When we come together (2) … values and principles in the midst of a pandemic

In this blog post, I am reflecting on our values and principles, as we consider the possibility of Gathering-Together, after a time of Gathering-Apart during the COVID-19 restrictions. These thoughts follow on from my earlier biblical and theological considerations in https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

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Last week, the Prime Minister indicated that, because of the good response across society to observe the restrictions on social gatherings and the limitations on moving around, there is now a plan for a three-stage move away from the current restrictions, towards a society where more mobility and more interaction in person will be possible.

This has, unsurprisingly, raised expectations amongst Congregations, that various activities might recommence. These activities include small groups, business meetings, hall rentals by local business or community groups, and, of course, Sunday worship.

In response to the statement by the Prime Minister, leaders of the 14 Presbyteries in my Synod met on Monday with the Synod leadership team. As a result, this leadership group has issued a clear statement, strongly recommending that we should not be meeting in person for services of worship or face to face meeting in our churches. You can read this at https://nswact.uca.org.au/media/8680/covid19-information-guide-gathering-12-may-2020v2.pdf

In the weeks to come, as the stages of easing restrictions come into play, there will undoubtedly be conversations about “can we meet together again, now?”. We will need to be prepared for such conversations.

In making decisions about these matters, we need to be sure that we are not simply rushed along with the excitement and anticipation that life will soon be “back to normal”. Life will return, step-by-step, to a situation that will be more like “normal” than the last few weeks have been. However, it is abundantly clear that life will not, indeed, be “back to normal”, as many are anticipating.

Life will change. Life will be different. Gathering-together, after a period of gathering-apart, will necessarily be different. Familiar customs and practices will not be able to be followed unthinkingly. Beloved institutions that have long been part of the Sunday worship rituals will need to be radically altered, or, indeed, put aside entirely.

There are a number of practical matters to be considered in relation to each activity that could re-commence with in-person gatherings. In my mind, these practical matters include:

* room size and spatial distancing (how do we ensure good monitoring of numbers of people in the building, and behaviours of people whilst in the building?)

* maintaining an accurate list of contacts (this is required, now, no matter what size of gathering, to facilitate tracing in the case of an infection, so—someone will need to take responsibility for this; people will need to be asked if they agree to having their contact details recorded; and will refusal to give permission mean access to the activity on the property will be refused?)

* ensuring non-contact in every activity (greetings at the door as people arrive for worship, shaking hands or hugging during the passing of the peace, the handshaking-line at the end of worship, the passing of the offering plate, the passing of the trays with individual communion glasses, and other elements—these will all need to be dropped)

* ensuring scrupulous adherence to thorough disinfecting procedures (the building must be thoroughly disinfected to be prepared before every use, and thoroughly disinfected at the end of every use—an activity that will take some time, each time the building is used)

* ensuring scrupulous adherence to strict food handling procedures (we need to adhere to commercial-standard protocols, and ensure that every volunteer understands exactly what they can and can’t do—and perhaps we should consider whether serving tea/coffee/nibbles after worship is to be banned?)

* the question of singing (latest research shows this is a high risk activity, especially inside, so singing the old favourite hymns or the new choruses will equally be out of bounds for some time—some experts suggest 18 months to 2 years, until a vaccine is available)

* and—pardon the gritty reality here—toilets (everyone will need to be committed to flushing with the lid closed and washing hands thoroughly after each use; we know that flushing toilets spreads aerosols which contain faecal matter—so the question to consider might well be, should toilets not be available for use? or should someone be rostered to thoroughly disinfect the toilet area after each and every individual use?)

Alongside that, there is a set of questions that we perhaps could explore in a fruitful way—questions which consider how we make decisions, how we undertake discussions, and who we are considering in the process of these discussions and decisions. And, from my perspective, reflecting on relevant biblical passages that can inform the way that we operate, can be helpful and fruitful.

Ministry leaders will be catapulted into such discussions (if we have not, already, found ourselves there). So here are some key principles, along with some associated biblical passages that, in my thinking, shape our ethos and inform how we make responsible ethical decisions about regathering as church.

1. Gathering for worship is important, but safety of people is more important

We know that, across society, there are many people who are vulnerable, who needs our particular care, support, and attention. Whilst gathering-together for worship, prayer, discussion, fellowship, and conversation, is highly valued, our highest priority must be to act in a manner that ensures the lowest risk for people in society, that offers a safe place and safe manner for people to gather-together.

We have committed to being a Safe Place some years ago, and whilst we have applied that to matters such as the safety of children and young people, the physical arrangement in our buildings, and acceptance of diversity. Can we now apply that to the matter of community health and wellbeing?

The psalmist reflects, “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the LORD; “I will place them in the safety for which they long” Psalm 12:5). In another psalm, we hear the prayer, “O Lord, let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever” (Psalm 40:11). We need to echo that sentiment and follow that commitment to safety as we gather together.

2. The weakest or most vulnerable is the test for any decision we make

The people who have high risk of infection are those who have the following vulnerabilities: an impaired immune system, one of a number of chronic medical conditions, age, and people with Aboriginal and Islander descent.

Paul writes to the believers in a number of his communities, exhorting those who are “stronger” to attend to “the weak”, with the fundamental principle that “orientation to the needs of the other” undergirds everything. That orientation should govern how we think about, and how we act in, the days ahead. Those who are most vulnerable in terms of age or health should be the litmus test for anything that we consider doing when we gather-together.

Our own personal needs (or desires), the hopes and wants (or desires) of a community of faith, need to have this first consideration governing all that they decide. As Paul writes:

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Phil 2:3-4)

“Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.” (Rom 14:13)

You can read more about this way of operating in Romans 14:1-15:13. This would form an excellent focus for a Bible Study to go alongside a Church Council discussion of what steps can be taken as we consider gathering-together once more.

3. Relationships with others are our first priority. Loving our neighbour takes priority over programs and activities

“Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)

Relationships with other people are given priority in this passage, and in the teachings of Jesus throughout the Gospels. That’s a fairly simple observation, but it is incredibly potent in the current situation. How do we ensure that we are “loving our neighbour” in what we decide and what we do together?

Jesus places this as the second “greatest commandment”, alongside the first, of loving God. We need to hold these two aspects in tension, and ensure that we do not focus solely on “loving God” (and doing that in the old, familiar ways, unthinkingly), but we hold together “loving our neighbour” with “loving God”, and that we prioritise these over “returning to business as usual”. If business as usual is just about ourselves as a group, then our higher priority needs to be about how we operate in relation to all those around us.

4. We have a commitment to the common good—the good of all people in society

Almost a decade ago, the Uniting Church adopted a snappy slogan which expressed our commitment to “the common good”. This has been a rallying cry at many gatherings where matters of social justice are being addressed and advocated for—refugees and asylum seekers, affordable housing, care for the creation and environmental policies, sheltering the homeless and feeding the hungry, for instance.

Now, in this challenging time, we need to apply that same commitment “to the common good” to the question of what the implications are when we gather-together, after a time of gathering-apart. We need to ensure that whatever steps we take do contribute to that common good, not simply to the benefit of the group gathering together—be that Congregation, Church Council, Fellowship Group, Bible Study Group, our informal lunch gathering at the church.

And let us remember that “the common good” is itself an important biblical marker:

“So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (Gal 6:10)

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor 12:7)

5. We need to ensure the safety of vulnerable people in leadership (ministry leaders, both ordained and lay)

“So the LORD said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.” (Num 11:16-17)

This story from the Hebrew Scriptures demonstrates that God was concerned to take care of the leadership of the people of Israel. The seventy Elders were he people. appointed to assist Moses in his growing role as a leader of the people in a stressful and challenging time (as they journey through the wilderness, seeking a way to the promised land). The story from of old has strong resonances with our current situation!

If we accept that God demonstrated concerns for the pressures on Moses, can we see that this provides an analogy for the way that we offer care for our leaders, especially those who are vulnerable themselves, or living in a household with another vulnerable person?

Pressures on ministry leaders (both those ordained, and those lay people who are providing local leadership) to lead their people in gatherings should not be countenanced, until such time as it is clear that all the required protocols can be, and are being, adhered to, and they are not in any position of extra vulnerability because of this. That requires careful discernment and wise leadership at the local level.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/