Archive | February 2014

Thrilling news

What really gives me a thrill?  It is when a university student from our congregation queries her professor talking about God as being all powerful and says “Shouldn’t  we first define our terms and look at what we mean by the word God?”  It thrills me because it appears all my sermonising over the years hasn’t all been in vain.

            We are in the midst of “a massive rethink” of what we mean when we use the word “God”. The obvious answer to the much polled question “Do you believe in God? is “It depends what you mean by the word God”. If you mean by God an all powerful and all knowing person living in the heavens, then I do not believe in God. That kind of God represents a world view that existed long ago. If you mean by God something like the dynamic energy inviting us to fullness of life then I very much believe in God.

            The words “a massive rethink” are those of Rob Bell who goes on to say “We’re at the end of one era and the start of another, an entire mode of understanding and talking about God dying as something else is being birthed.” Rob Bell tells of owning an Oldsmobile when he was twenty years old and how they don’t make Oldsmobiles anymore. My first car was an Austin A40 and they don’t make then anymore. The world and motor engineering have moved on. I would no more think of driving an A40 today than of flying to the moon. Ooops! It is an inappropriate metaphor because we have indeed flown to the moon and a Russian astronaut has informed us that God is not in the space above the earth. All of which brings up an interesting question. Why in the name of God do we continue to speak about Jesus descending into hell and rising into heaven?  It doesn’t make sense. It is a world view that has ceased to exist – a bit like my Austin A40! A theological friend of mine maintains it is a question of metaphors and the contemporary world has forgotten how to use metaphors. Not a bit of it! It is a matter of a different world view. In the fourth century they had a world view of a flat earth with heaven above and hell below. To talk in such terms today is simply non-sense. What then do we do with the so called Nicean Creed?  We leave it in the fourth century where it belongs. People simply aren’t interested in driving Austin A40s – but they are interested in driving! Well some of them are. Others have given up the car altogether so much so that when preparing a funeral service recently one of the adult sons of the deceased asked “What’s a hymn?” Times really have changed.

            Incidentally I had a great deal of time for my Austin A40. It not only got me from here to there (or if you prefer, from there to here) but I drove it in car rallies and had a great time with it. Eventually I traded it in for a better piece of engineering but I still have a great deal of affection for the Austin A40 – notwithstanding the fact that I have not the slightest desire to drive one today.

            The aforementioned Rob Bell has a real gift of being able to put things clearly. How about this comment on the articulate and intelligent scientists whose faith is that there is no God

“This particular faith insists that human beings are nothing more than highly complex interactions of atoms and molecules and neurons, hardwired over time to respond to stimuli in particular ways, feverishly constructing meaning to protect us from the unwelcome truth that there is no ultimate meaning because in the end we are simply the sum of our parts – no more, no less”.

            I hear what the proponents of this faith are saying (you would have to be deaf not to!) but I also hear Peggy Lee, and an increasing number of young people, singing “Is that all there is?” Her suggestion of “breaking out the booze and having a ball” is becoming increasingly common, as is her comment “about ending it all”.

            These really are thrilling times in which we live.



Bruce Springsteen is Alive and Well

bruce In keeping with my previous post of seeing the divine in the everyday, I write this …..

Finally Bruce Springsteen came to Perth.  And what a concert, one myself and many others will never forget.  He played for 3 hours, a joyful musical extravaganza.  I have never seen a performer who embraces their audience so much and gives so much of themselves. It was truly unforgettable.

But Bruce Springsteen is more than a performer, he is a poet and maybe even a theologian.  A book called “The Gospel of Bruce Springsteen” by Jeffrey Symynkywicz, clearly sees insight and wisdom in his lyrics that may help us find who we are and who God is.  And more importantly what our role is in bringing God’s kingdom alive on earth, here and now.

At the end of the concert Springsteen came out without the band, just with an acoustic guitar, and played “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, an achingly beautiful but socially subversive song. Springsteen uses as his inspiration for the lyrics, Tom Joad, a character in John Steinbach’ classic 1939s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath”, but there is also some reference to “The Ballad of Tom Joad” by Woody Guthrie, and even George W Bush’s New world order. The song makes a profound statement, reflecting on what little has changed for the marginalised and poor in America, and particularly those seeking to come from other places. It could apply equally to Australia, a rich affluent country but who behaves as if it doesn’t have a nickel to rub together, with policies that neither welcome or support refugees or help those who are poor and marginalised here. Near the end of the novel, Tom Joad makes his famous “I’ll be there” speech, which is also noted in the lyrics. Springsteen uses these words as a calling to all of us to join together in community and in solidarity with those suffering, for it is together that change can happen….

Men walkin’ ‘long the railroad tracks
Goin’ someplace there’s no goin’ back
Highway patrol choppers comin’ up over the ridge

Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretchin’ ’round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin’ in their cars in the Southwest
No home no job no peace no rest

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
Searchin’ for the ghost of Tom Joad

He pulls a prayer book out of his sleeping bag
Preacher lights up a butt and takes a drag
Waitin’ for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box ‘neath the underpass
Got a one-way ticket to the promised land
You got a hole in your belly and gun in your hand
Sleeping on a pillow of solid rock
Bathin’ in the city aqueduct

The highway is alive tonight
Where it’s headed everybody knows
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
Waitin’ on the ghost of Tom Joad

Now Tom said “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight ‘gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I’ll be there
Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin’ hand
Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me.”

Well the highway is alive tonight
But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
With the ghost of old Tom Joad.

 When Springsteen finished this song, he urged the audience, to donate what it could to the many representatives of FOODBANK*, who were present in the aisles and foyers.  “For they were doing God’s work in this place.”  It was a fantastic final act by a musical master, who had us eating out of his hand.

As Symynkywicz says “Springsteen isn’t much of a romantic in his music,” “He presents life as it is — life in all its grit and all its pain.” But Springsteen is also hopeful, about what is possible, if we all join together.  Well, we were all joined together that night!

There is life and there is God, and the two are totally intertwined.  For the sake of the world let us find the path that leads us into the light.  That path can be opened by the most unlikely people.


*FOODBANK is a non-denominational, non-profit organisation which acts as a pantry to the charities and community groups who feed the hungry.

The 1988 March Across Australia

Some months before the Bicentenary Celebrations of Australia, Charles Harris, a Uniting Church aboriginal minister had an idea. Why not organise  a march along the lines of the famous Martin Luther King march and have a great gathering in Sydney on the same day as the celebrations?  The banners would bear the slogan “We Have Survived”. He shared his vision with some of us. We thought it a great idea and set about organising a group to go from West Australia. My old van was painted up and bore prominently a black and a white hand grasping each other and underneath the words “The event we want to celebrate hasn’t yet occurred”. Marching to Sydney wasn’t feasible so we settled on a compromise: on the way we would march through every town in Western Australia.

Although it was twenty six years ago, I remember clearly the day we set off in that two of our number, in true aboriginal style, said it was too hot to go and “couldn’t we go tomorrow?” The power of persuasion was exercised and after a gathering at Yagan’s statue on Herrison Island we set off with the trial run of “marching” being conducted at Mundaring.  Trevor, an aboriginal minister, led the procession carrying a  large cross, the rest followed,  and I came at the end in the van with PA system wound up to full volume. This was re-enacted through every town to the West Australian border. Most of the towns received us in shocked silence with a few vociferously engaging in gratuitous advice. We stayed in Church halls with our staple diet being muesli and meals arranged by various Church organisations

“And the rest,” as they say “is history!”  The TV documentary gave a fair and accurate presentation of the events in Sydney, even to the extent of giving promo prominence to the yellow van which resulted in many friends ringing me up to make sure that I saw it.

One event, however, was not portrayed.  Fourteen thousand was the estimate of those of us who gathered in Hyde Park. We were seated on grass that sloped down to a stage from which the gathering was addressed. When I entered the park, I noticed that there were a number of buses lined up outside. I walked over to them and was somewhat shocked to find that they were filled with uniformed police. I reflected to myself “Fair enough! Emotions are high today and there may be a few hotheads”. The number of police, however, continued to concern me. The speeches were half way through when some of the aforesaid police, complete with truncheons and side arms, started walking through the closely packed crowd seated on the ground. All it needed was for one of them to step on the hand of one of those seated on the ground and we would have a riot on our hands! I got up and asked one of the policemen with as much politeness as I could muster what they were doing. The answer was “We have some outstanding warrants and thought this might be a suitable occasion to enforce them”. To say that I was shocked would be the understatement of the year. It was a recipe for disaster! And it was then that I remembered the busloads of police just outside the gate. I went down to one of the organisers on the stage and informed him of the position. His brow furrowed, he uttered a few well chosen expletives, thanked me for acquainting him with the situation, and said “leave it to me.” He then got up on the stage and with microphone in hand informed the crowd along the following lines. “We have some special visitors with us this morning. Could you please make them welcome to our celebration.” The crowd picked up the cue magnificently and jumped up and shook the hands of the police with words along the lines. “Great to see you here, officer. Welcome to our gathering”. The police were completely non-plussed. They looked to their CO standing at the back and with a wave of the hand received orders to withdraw.

It was the greatest example of the effectiveness of non-violence I have ever seen and tears filled my eyes with admiration.

I returned home a week later still conscious of the event and shuddering at the different outcome that could have occurred. I decided that I really had a responsibility to follow it up. I knew I would get nowhere with the police so decided to lodge an official complaint with the Commonwealth Ombudsman.

On paper replete with my legal qualifications, I lodged a formal complaint and was informed that an enquiry would be instituted. Six weeks later I received official notification from the Ombudsman that enquiries had ascertained that “there was no record of any police being at the gathering”.  My first reaction was “What do they need? Fourteen thousand witnesses?” This soon devolved into a “Such is life!” sigh and renewed thankfulness for the astuteness of that organiser with the microphone.

If he hadn’t got up there, it is likely there would never have been a documentary like the on we saw last night about “Australia’s Selma” with its banner “We have survived!” There would have been only the record of an ugly riot resulting from ……………..

Interesting point that! To what would they have attributed the riot? I do not know but I could make a pretty good guess!



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