I had an interesting day yesterday, or a day when I had to examine some things about myself, sometimes not a good thing!
As many would know, apart from all the other things I do I am a part time pastor at a local Uniting Church. Part time is a bit of a euphemism as church work never seems to end.
Anyway I was taking the service and I was planning to look at how we as people can transform our lives, to better be in touch with God’s spirit and the life of Jesus, using the path set out by Alexander Shaia’s work called Quadratus (more of that later). It is a path that acknowledges us as humans and that life will have its ups and downs.
Anyway I decided to hold that idea until the end of lent, when I am also taking the service.
Crap, I then had to organise a different service in about 3 days! So I looked at things I had done before, which can be a useful guide and direction to take. The reading was about taking up our cross and following Jesus into the world. A pretty substantial reading!
While I do think that the cross and Easter message is essentially about nonviolence, and love, a message that the world and ourselves need to hear, the sermon I was basing yesterdays on was quite old, and in some ways not how I would write now. It was too long for a start (I know you find that hard to believe, based on my blogs) and the message was delivered too harshly, without fanfare.
I was left feeling as though I had betrayed myself. I have changed from when I wrote it, to someone who wants to encourage people to see God working in their own lives, in the lives of those who wouldn’t step one foot in the church, in the world and even the universe, rather than badgering them. Therefore, my sermons are more about our life together, and about the world’s life together. Yes, I use the scripture passage, but I also use other writings, some from other traditions, poetry, music and silence. And my aim in a service now is to provide a space where we can sense this spiritual presence, and transform ourselves and our community for the better. More kindness, more compassion and more justice. That may mean people heading out from the church and participating with others from all walks of life, to speak up for refugees, the environment, the poor, and the marginalised, particularly indigenous Australia. To do something, no matter how small, to make change.
I totally get that the church and its voice has also to be a prophetic voice, calling the world to account for the things it is doing to its citizens in so many places. But I also realise that’s not me! It has been Nev Watson, who was a peace activist for many years, a huge supporter of aboriginal Australia, and a clear and inspiring preacher. And who has been a huge mentor for me in the role of the church and people of faith in social justice. We both preach at church and it is a good double act, with me as the junior partner I might add! Sadly, Nev does not preach as much now, but his words are readily available.
It makes me ponder the age old question, that particularly affects church goings, but everyone. What are our strengths, what are our skills, what gives us life and makes us happy and whole? What is our passion! Then when we have worked all that out, not easy, we are to take them and make a difference where we can.
We cannot be all things to all people, and generally we cannot be the sole driver of change. It takes a lot of people to make change, to encourage people to see the way differently, and to transform the norms of society into something new, something more inclusive.
There have been many leaders who have started movements that have led to great change for the better in our world. I mentioned them yesterday, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Oscar Romero. But also Gandhi. And there are many more, in places we would never know.
Amazing, incredible voices for change.
But when you look at what really invokes change it is the millions and millions of people who in their daily lives, choose love over hate, peace over violence, and community over individualism, sharing much both in terms of time and money.
Or those who in their workplaces and in their homes, in schools, and hospitals, and shops and offices, hold close the ideas of Jesus, and work every single day, bringing light where they are. Who through acts of compassion, and caring bring the kingdom of God a little closer.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it takes sacrifices of a far greater magnitude to make the changes that are seismic, the civil rights movement is a perfect example. Things have to be given up for others to have the freedom we do. I feel this is the case for refugees, and I will continue to protest and add my voice to the calls for a change of heart. And I will continue to work for the Boab Network, who walks with the Mowanjum aboriginal community and its kids to help give them a future in a country that for so long ignored them.
But on the whole we live and work and raise our children most of the time, and we who have gifts in so many fields and so many places, are to exercise our call there, in these places, every single day.
So for me, I have changed in the past years, growing in my faith in depth and understanding, but also seeing where best I can effect change and be faithful.
And I see now it is sharing my life with others, the often rocky but at other times amazing life, offer as much care and compassion, love and kindness as I can, encourage those around me to look deeper and see that there is something hidden underneath what we can measure and hold. That connects us to our fellow human beings and with all of creation, and with the universe. And I will continue to speak about it in ways people can draw strength from, that maybe inspires them to journey out into the world to make a difference wherever they are. And I will continue to write (sorry!).
So in all of that I would say find your gifts and your passion, and work from there. Be the change there, be God’s hands and feet there. This is not a cop out. For if we can’t make change there, we won’t make change anywhere.
Again I want to finish with a poem, no, not from Mary Oliver but from another beautiful poet. I was going to use this yesterday but ran out of time. Yet I think this would have the better than all the other stuff.
It’s called “Famous”.
I was talking the other day to some friends, and they were curious about how long I had been in my “new house”. Actually we moved from our old house about 3 years ago! They were shocked, how could that be, they said, it only seems like yesterday! Time goes fast.
It made been think about the role of a house in our lives, apart from the obvious, and when does a house become a home? We had lived 22 years in our old house, one we had loved from the day we saw it, even though it had purple walls (always a great colour for hearty discussions), weird exposed beams and a very low roof line at the back. What it also had was these beautiful big trees, and lots of space, not that we had any kids at that time.
But as we lived there and time went on, had our two boys and grew as a family, our shared experiences in that house also grew. We had all the ups and downs that go with raising a family and working, but also the many times we celebrated milestones, whether they be birthdays, christenings, Christmas gatherings, anniversaries or just days when we went outside to play the endless games of cricket, or football or soccer, or laid on the trampoline to watch the stars. Many people came to that house, to share life with us, dinners, meetings, afternoons with the kids. In fact I think that sometimes we would have 20 kids running around the back yard, screaming and yelling and having a great time.
The house became a home, our home, and even though it took us almost 10 years to paint the purple walls, and do anything with the exposed beams and the exposed plumbing, we loved it.
So when does that happen, when does a house become a home! When we share the experiences of life within it. When we come together as friends, family and neighbours and give one another time, and love, and food and drink (yes of course the odd class of wine). When we share the sorrow and loss and the joy and hope that comes with journeying together. When we practise hospitality.
It can be the smallest house, the ugliest house, the messiest house (that’s us) but when it is open and welcoming it becomes a place of community.
So it takes time. I think our new house has finally become a home to us!
But the whole house/ home transformation led me to think about friendships in the same way. They also need time.
I love looking at the art of friendship because it is so essential to our lives. We are not meant to be islands, alone in the world, but connected at our core to one another. And that can be just 1 or 2 people, or it can be a whole lot more, depending on our personality and circumstances.
We have friends we have known a long time and friends who have travelled with us a short distance. Friends who were part of our journey in past years but who now have gone in a different direction. And friends who we lost contact with but are now again part of our day to day existence. This reflects the diversity of our lives and the people we meet along the way who enrich it, even for a little while.
But of course we cannot be friends with every single person that we meet, we would go crazy, but those who we are connected to, are to be nurtured as a gift to our lives.
So at any time and stage, friendship takes time. And takes shared experiences. And takes love and care and commitment for them to grow and be sustained. And sometimes it takes sacrifice, for life at times can be very hard and difficult and the only comfort people have is a familiar hand reaching out and holding them. Deep friendships, the friendships that will last a life time, the friendships that will see us sharing a park bench when we are 70 are those that survive the pain and sorrow of life as well as the joys.
I have seen this recently, when an older couple, friends and life partners were at church. Both stepped up to take communion, and the man, who has dementia, lost his way. He took the bread and the wine, which is in a small glass container, and suddenly did not know where he was, or which way he should go to find his seat. He started heading in the wrong direction, when a comforting arm was placed around him, a soothing voice suggested he turn around, a voice that spoke lovingly and one he could trust.
He looked to see where the voice was coming from, and was reassured. He let himself be guided by his best friend, back to his seat.
In that moment, all the life experience they had shared, all the joy and sorrow, all the light and dark, was summed up in that care and love. I could not help but shed tears, for the sadness and the beauty of it.
But I have seen it in the love my old boss at university had for a colleague who was suffering from motor neurone disease. Every week for a long time he would take him swimming in the University pool, initially just helping him a little with balance, but by the end he was carrying him into the water and holding him up, so that for a little while he could feel free. What a gift.
And I have seen it in the love and care shown to my beautiful friends whose gorgeous boys have died.
So when does a house become a home, when does an acquaintance become a friend, and when does a friend become a lifelong friend.
I think it is pretty simple. It is when what we see on the outside doesn’t matter, when what is in the heart, in the centre, that connects us to the house or to the person, is the only thing that matters!
And I think that takes time, takes commitment, and perhaps takes a few glasses of wine shared along the way!
A song to meditate on!
Lean on me – Seal
I have just finished rereading Val Webb’s new book, “Testing Tradition, Liberating Theology”, as part of a book club I organise. A great journey through the history of the church and our doctrines, and how people at every stage have questioned, explored, and developed new ways of seeing God through the lens of their time and place. But it’s not just a history book, it also focusses on doubt as a catalyst for this change, and spirituality, and even what we mean by God in the 21st century, a challenge in itself.
I have returned to teaching after the summer break, back in the lab with students and cadavers, and realise again what a privilege it is to be able to see the human body in all its complexity laid out in front of us. Thanks to the generosity of those who have donated their bodies to science, and those family who have let them go.
I was thinking of giving up the teaching, as it is hard to combine that with church work as a pastor, and family life etc. etc. But as I went through a general overview of the human body with some first year students, blood vessels, muscles, nerves and various organs , I realised that the teaching reenforces the essence of my faith. And I need both.
Over the years, we have seen Christianity expressed in many forms, much of it focussed on some other life, some other existence, without acknowledging that the existence here on earth is amazing, breathtaking, and a gift to be cherished, with all its flaws and challenges. I have never ceased to be astounded by who we are and how we got here, even after all these years of teaching!
It is within this gift of life that I find God.
God, a difficult word to analyse, express, or even relate to. Sometime I don’t even want to use the term.
Yet for all my doubts, and over the years I have had many, I have always had the sense of a something more that drives life itself. Not a presence that disappears then reappears because of a sacrificial death, but a presence that is found throughout the life of the universe and creation, including the lives of every human being. Which is closer to us than our own breath but urges us to connect with one another with love and care and compassion.
Recently I have asked a number of people to define what they mean by God, people who have been faithful ministers, and people who have just been faithful followers of Jesus and his way.
All of them steer away from a set definition, because it is pointless. In some ways God is to be felt and experienced, rather than defined. But they have had a go.
I have, over the years, also had a go, using this blog to variously describe what I mean by God. But there is always new ways of seeing. I came across one attempt that really spoke to me which I would like to share. It is by Barbara Brown Taylor.…
Firstly, a picture….
“Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light—not captured in them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them—but revealed in that singular, vast net of relationship that animates everything that is. At this point in my thinking, it is not enough for me to proclaim that God is responsible for all this unity. Instead, I want to proclaim that God is the unity—the very energy, the very intelligence, the very elegance and passion that makes it all go. “
Rather a beautiful description!
Of course I always get a bit reflective like this at Easter time.
Easter, a time to place Jesus within my faith framework. Within this God framework. A human, living breathing, talking, acting, praying, suffering Jesus. A Jesus who confronted the powerful and paid the price. Yet somehow his story lives on in those that follow. A story that resounds in our own lives and the lives of everything that lives and breathes on this earth. Even in the 21st century.
For the resurrection story is not about Jesus and a divine resuscitation! It is so much more than that, so much more universal!
It is how God works in the world, within each of us. Giving light where there is darkness, renewal where there is decay, hope where there is despair, and new life where there seems only death. Even if it takes a long time!
To fit Jesus into my God story means seeing Jesus as one of us. A gift of life. A gift of God. With a message and love that couldn’t be beaten.
I often ask myself. How do I do Easter, when I don’t believe the whole “sacrificial payment for sin” line. Or the “original sin” line, or the line about the “perfect Jesus who now sits at the right hand of God somewhere else”?
I do Easter because it reflects life in miniature.
And Jesus for me, is the ultimate guide.
Ps if you want to read just a little more about what I think, read the entry for Feb 21st, 2016, called “What I believe, really”.