Discipleship

As we come into the season of Advent, we don’t often come in preparation for revolution; for the overthrow of tyranny and oppression, the pursuit of justice for the hungry and the have-nots. As we celebrate Christmas, we generally don’t come seeking the overthrow of unjust leaders and rulers and the establishment of a new order in the world!

We don’t come to surrender ourselves to the revolutionary mandate to fulfil God’s plan and purposes in the world by establishing an upside down, countercultural community.

But this is context of the first Christmas as told by Luke, through the story of a teenage girl at threat of being stoned to death for being unwed and pregnant.

In Mary’s story in Luke 1:39-56 we see a young woman surrender herself to the greatness and mercy of God’s plan to transform the world through the most unexpected of ways. Despite what is happening to her and around her, Mary places her trust and submits her life to a God who has consistently created change and brought blessing and hope into the world through the poor, excluded, broken, and deeply flawed. The God of Abraham who blesses those who step into the unknown to be a blessing to the world.

But Mary not only sees herself in this radical plan, she prophetically sees and outlines what God is about to do in the world—that the God of radical justice will usher in a hope-filled new, upside down Kingdom where the humble will be raised up and the proud scattered, the hungry will be fed while the rich are sent away empty handed and unjust rulers are brought down from their thrones.

What Mary speaks of here foreshadows Jesus’ proclamation later in Luke 4 of the coming of the Kingdom where good news is preached to the poor, captives are released, the blind have their sight and the oppressed are freed.

This sits at the heart of Luke’s Christmas story. An understanding that through an unwed pregnant teen the highly political and dangerously revolutionary new presence of God will begin in the world.

As we move into this time of celebration of the birth of Christ, I believe that we are invited back into this story. To consider our own humility and surrender before God. To reflect on what it means for us to trust God amid our struggles and challenges and to believe that there is hope in the midst of suffering. But it is also an invitation to a commitment to the revolutionary way of Jesus. To be those who strive for justice and to give voice to the humble, the hungry and the have-nots. To be those who continue to trust and follow God into the unknown, that we may be a blessing to the world and make real the dangerously hope-filled revolutionary presence of God in the world.

I hope that you and your family have a revolutionmerry Christmas.

Paul Wetzig

Paul Wetzig is the Queensland Synod’s Project Officer – Discipleship.

There’s a lot of shouting in the streets; plenty of noise. Noise isn’t the same as wisdom.

Wisdom is often a whisper, requiring we listen like Elijah. Loud voices disguise wisdom as popular opinion, culture of the day, approval and/or comfort and convenience.

None of that is necessarily Godly wisdom, and it is not, what we call “common sense”.

Godly wisdom is so uncommon, it’s like a personality of God. In Proverbs, Wisdom describes herself,

 “The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,
before his deeds of old;
 I was formed long ages ago,
at the very beginning, when the world came to be.

I was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in his presence,
 rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in mankind.”

Wisdom is ancient; established by God since the beginning. It is both temporal and eternal. Essentially a relationship with God, wisdom is a source of joy.

God’s Wisdom is often the opposite of culture, comfort, common sense and popular opinion. Consider God’s purpose to redeem creation by becoming a helpless baby who will live and die to renew our humanity.

Think about what started in Mary’s womb. Then, compare our infrastructure obsession.

Mary’s experience of “wisdom” in God’s purposes is not a neat example of “fit for purpose”.

Most congregations are rich in physical resources: property and buildings. Are they, fit for purpose? Are we?

We’ve focused on maximising hall rentals to local clubs, better audio-visuals for streaming, air-conditioning the (building we call) “the church”. God gave away the accommodations of heaven to be born of a nobody girl in the dirt of the stable.

What’s God’s purpose?

That Jesus will be revealed, and “be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign and of His kingdom there will be no end.”

Is this wise, and is Mary fit for God’s purpose?

Wisdom in Mary’s culture said she could be stoned. Common sense says virgins can’t get pregnant. Popular opinion was that God had left them to work life out for themselves. Power belonged to clever, influential people.

Mary trusted the wisdom of God, in a stable/shed/cave in no way “fit for purpose”.

Paul shrugs his shoulders at any attempt to apply human wisdom to this: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness.”

We are not called to be crafty, comfortable or culturally relevant. Our purpose is not profitability or popularity. We are asked to be wise. We would be wise to refit all we have for God’s purpose; which is to reveal Jesus, the son of God and His kingdom.

Phil Smith

Phil Smith is the Community Pastor at BELLS Faith Community on the Sunshine Coast.

I have found that wisdom is generally not easy to come by without hard-earned vulnerability and dogged hope! I say this because I have learnt throughout my life that despite what many of us are taught from an early age, wisdom is not the accumulation of knowledge and title. Rather, wisdom is the result of courage, tenacity, brutal honesty, and rugged hope that dares to believe the richness of life is found not in easy answers but in truth and responsibility.

It’s not that knowledge isn’t important and necessary for making good decisions—it’s just that when it comes to making decisions that involve people and communities, we need a deeper understanding of the complexities of who we are and what other “stories” are going on for each of us, before we can make a decision that is “good” and not only “fit for purpose”.

As part of the Plenty team, I’ve had the privilege (and sometimes burden!) of helping to facilitate conversations with a diverse range of people from across the Synod around each of the Shared life, flourishing communities mission priorities. What I have found is that the overwhelming theme present across all conversations is the need for wisdom in understanding who we are, as the Uniting Church called by God to participate together in God’s mission of reconciliation for the world.

There is no example of compliance, organisational structure, risk, business model, governance, resourcing, innovation, process or policy, that doesn’t require honest reflection; naming out loud our self-interest, our misconceptions, our mistrust, our misunderstandings, our assumptions, our fears, our personal agendas and our competitive human nature. Wisdom means choosing to step into a level of vulnerability with one another that is at the heart of what called us into being as the Uniting Church in the first place.

As the writer of Proverbs tells us, “Wisdom shouts in the streets. She cries out in the public square.” This should describe the church’s presence in our communities, that we cry out on behalf of those in need in our streets. And we do, in so many ways.

Yet I can’t help but feel that maybe the world around us is crying out for wisdom to be expressed and heard within the church.

Where are we being honest with one another as we go about our business, as we go about our decision-making? Where are we refusing to resist one another as we interact with each other’s plans? Where are we choosing the benefit of the doubt, when a mistake is made or an issue arises without an obvious answer?  Where are we more focused on “picking the log out of our own eye first”? Where are we reaching out seeking to understand and “know” one another as image-bearers of the divine, rather than as roles and titles and past experiences? Where are we choosing to love, to be humble, to be generous, to be gracious, to be hopeful, to be curious, to listen and not speak, to set aside, to take up?

This is the kind of wisdom Jesus loves!

As we continue on this plentiful journey, how will each of us seek the wisdom that we as God’s church need, to shout in the streets and cry out in the public squareand be heard and welcomed, for the sake of those in need?

Rev Kath Behan

Rev Kath Behan is the Director of Mission Implementation in the Synod Office.

We all dream, what we subject our brains to will determine the dreams we have. If we overstimulate the reptilian parts of the brain through media saturation, we will develop a lot of anxiety, suspicion, cynicism and confusion. In other words, bad dreams.

In a recent conversation with a young man he shared with me why he is so anxious about the COVID-19 vaccination. He said, there were too many competing arguments, too much stimulation, and he didn’t know what to believe.

According to a recent research paper I read, the neurosis of our time is existential, we don’t know what to believe, who to trust or what our meaning and purpose for life is. The result is an increase in nihilism, lack of meaning and hope, and hedonism—old fashioned self-indulgence.

We have been here before, many times. In the first century Palestine, industrial and 19th century Europe, the violence of the 20th century and now again in the 21st century, to name a few. In each of these ages the church was birthed and re-birthed as a beacon of hope through an experiential intimacy with God.

The church is well positioned to be a leading light in the existential age. We have a transformational message and we’ve had 2000 years of trial and error on how to communicate it. Sadly, the church has its own kind of existential crisis: what is our meaning and purpose? The result is a withdrawal into language, liturgy and self-talk generated to bring personal and institutional comfort. There is a simple way through this dilemma. Just talk with folk.

Over a seven-week period this year I prayed with 24 people to enter into this intimate relationship with God. I talk often with people about meaning, purpose and spirituality and I know there is a deep-seated need for and interest in these things, but there is very little interest in doing institutional church. Some have said that we should take the church to these people, I don’t really agree. I’m more inclined to recognise that God is already intimately invested into all people; so we don’t need to take anything to them, rather we join with what is there.

If the church has a future, it’s about joining God in an intimate relationship with the folk who are out there. I believe that we should be releasing resources and skilled people into our society to join with the folk out there through intimate engagement and experiential spirituality.

It has been said, if we can dream a world, we can make it happen. I believe that if we can dream that kind of church then we can create it.

Dreaming is an important facet of our discipleship journey, both corporately and individually.  Dreaming encourages us to “look ahead”, to “vision cast”, to “imagine a brighter, better future”. Dreaming also enables us to trust, to hope, and to walk by faith.

The Bible contains many examples of “dreamers”. People who either experienced dreams which led them onto their life path, or people who grew a dream within them which changed the course of history. The Christian faith provides us with a plethora of examples of “dreaming” and “dreams”, more than enough to encourage us to join the brigade of “the dreamers”.

In more modern times we also have many examples of “dreamers”:

  • Martin Luther King Jr famously declared at the 1963 march for civil and economic rights and the end of racism: “I have a dream …”—he pursued his dream vigorously and passionately, and although he paid the ultimate price for his dream, his dream came to fruition.
  • Mahatma Gandhi dreamt of an India which was independent from colonial rule, and he devoted his life to peacefully pursuing it.
  • Mother Teresa dreamt of a world in which poverty was overcome and love shared freely and equally, and devoted her life to bringing this dream to pass.

The Bible also makes an important point regarding “dreaming” in Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no vision (no dream) the people perish.”

“Vision” and “dreaming” is an important part of us and of our discipleship journey. Without “vision”, without a dream, we perish.

When I consider “dreaming” personally, and when I link it to discipleship, I apply the following:  Jesus stated that discipleship has a price. Is dreaming … visioning … part of that price? Should our commitment to our personal and church community discipleship journey include being committed to being a people who dream; a people who are open to God growing visions and dreams within us; and people who are prepared to weather the tough days to see the dream to fruition?

Are we prepared to be people of dreams?

Are we prepared to take risks?

Are we prepared to find ways to action our dreams in the present so they may lead us forward in discipleship?

“Where there is no vision/dream the people perish”—my hope is that each of us recognise the significance and importance of being God’s dreamers in today’s world.

Many blessings.

You will not be surprised to learn that I dream big dreams; so much so that sometimes people even shudder when I start the sentence with “I’ve been thinking …”.

However, last night I attended an event where I felt reborn into a church that has huge dreams for itself and the community in which it formed—amazing and inspiring dreams of a creative and creating God that put even my biggest dreams into perspective.

At that event, as people recounted their dreams around how they could exercise their call by God to be disciples of Christ in their community, we were all reminded of the powerful Statement to the Nation made by the Uniting Church in Australia in 1977.

This statement, (which is often referred to in part, but often not studied as a whole) casts a dream of ecclesial (church-based or corporate) discipleship that is intended for centuries of life. A church called to be in the world in substance, a continuing witness to the world about whose we are and who we are.

I was reborn as a beautiful recitation of the statement sang to me again—reminded me that my discipleship to Christ finds itself through the witness of the Uniting Church in Australia—reminded me that we all carry our own understandings of the task of the church, the nature of discipleship, the nature of the community into which we are called. It reminded me again of my promise to you when I became General Secretary, that I don’t do things on my own, and that I am constantly called into community. The Statement to the Nation sang to me as it told of the deep and thick witnesses we have as disciples of Christ, those that reach over centuries, and millennia and over the whole of creation.

I was left with a wonderful sense of restoration, peace and delight, from the recognition that the biggest dreams of ecclesial discipleship are our heritage and witness today.

Thanks be to God.

Can there be a shadow side—a risk—in developing a sharper focus on discipleship as core business for the church?” asks Presbytery Minister for the South Moreton Presbytery Rev David Busch.

Absolutely. Two immediately come to mind.

One is an exaggerated sense of effort. How easily does discipleship become all about us, what we should do, how we should live, what we need to change! We take upon ourselves the task of transformation of self and society, and feel burdened with expectations, guilt and inadequacy.

Yes, Jesus does counsel us to weigh up the cost, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer did famously write about the “cost of discipleship”. But that cost is not our striving effort, but our relinquishment. It is the cost of surrendering to the yoke of obedience to Christ, in whom we find true freedom and wholeness.

Discipleship is not so much a journey of demand and denial (although it is that!) as it is of changed desires: learning to desire rightly. It is not a journey of our own self-improvement, but of God taking hold of us ever more deeply, that we might live in the fullness of life—not ours, but Christ’s.

The second risk is an exaggerated sense of individualism—that we target our proclamation of the gospel solely towards personal encounters, personal decisions, personal outworking of faith. We can easily forget that, as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes more than a private spirituality to grow a disciple.

This is not to deny that God seeks each of us personally. But the communal dimension of discipleship—being drawn into the messiness of Christian communities, where the chasm between abstract ideals and our broken lives is spanned only by grace and love, given and received—reminds us of two fundamental truths of discipleship.

One—that everyone and everything is being reconciled to God through Christ. We are called not just to Christ but also to each other, and all together as members of the one body of Christ. The commitment that we belong to each other, despite everything that otherwise would keep us apart, is our witness to God’s reconciling purposes.

Two—that Christ is revealed in those around us. The God of the incarnation may meet us in our detachment and introversion, but will also be revealed in the stories of others who, in their own way, sing the Lord’s song, dance to the spirit’s beat and bear the light of Christ. 

Perhaps we might reframe discipleship—not being a journey we take (our discipleship to grow in God) but being a work God does in and for us (God’s discipling of us). Grammatically, making God the subject and us the object enables us to see that the action is God’s, not ours.

Then we might hold these risks in tension as we let God do the discipling, opening us to dream God’s dreams and to live in the future-now reign of God.

The power to dream has driven the great minds throughout the ages to create and innovate but in the context of the church what can dreaming dreams provide for the next chapter in the Uniting Church and its place in the community? UnitingCare Queensland’s Connect 100 Coordinator Scott Guyatt considers dreaming past, present and future for the church.

“I have a dream.” 

From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial the words echoed out in the moment, and on down through the generations. This refrain from Martin Luther King Jr’s landmark speech strikes a chord in all of us. There is power in those words. Inspiration. Challenge. Possibility.

When Albert Einstein was asked whether he trusted more to his imagination or his knowledge, he responded: “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination encircles the world.”

Imagination, the capacity to dream, to wonder, to visualise, to create or concoct is, I am convinced, a God-given gift. The outcome of dreams or imagination reveal to us new possibilities. Dreaming and imagining begins the unfolding of a new world which can then be lived into being. That is the power of a dream.

The invitation, I think, is to dream dreams that are consistent with the heart of God for the world, with God’s purposes and mission. The writer of Philippians, at the end of a passage encouraging prayer, rejoicing, gentleness and thanksgiving as hallmarks of the Christian community invites us to dream in this way: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

That’s a wide net to cast for our dreaming and imagination. The good, the pure, the just, the pleasing, the excellent, the worthy of praise. Can you imagine a Christian community characterised by these kinds of dreams, these kinds of thoughts? And then with the courage to pursue such things? Can you imagine it?

Coincidentally as I was contemplating this notion of dreaming dreams consistent with God’s purpose for us, I happened to re-read the Statement to the Nation made at the time of our church’s inauguration in 1977. What a powerful statement it continues to be, and a statement that can easily be read through the lens of dreaming dreams consistent with Philippians 4:8. This is a church that dreamed of justice, integrity, love, compassion, the gospel proclaimed in Australia and beyond. A church that dreamed of challenging poverty, racism, systemic abuses, environmental degradation and more. A church that dreamed of holding its first allegiance to God no matter the implications of that allegiance. A church that dreamed of being guided not by self-interest, but by the welfare of all who are made in the image of God.

Those were, and remain, powerful dreams. Dreams to build a church upon. Dreams to challenge a society to be better. Dreams that ring true with God’s purpose for us. Dreams that are true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing and commendable. Dreams that are excellent and worthy of praise.

Let’s keep dreaming that dream, a dream that, in Einstein’s words, can encircle the world. And more than that, let us speak out those dreams, name them, share them, and like Luther King Jr, declare them. 

And then, let us be so bold as to pursue those dreams. Now, and always.

Transforming communities

Morningside Uniting Church Minister Rev David Kim reflects on the theme of “Uniting in Diversity”, coinciding with Queensland Multicultural Month.

The word “unity” is generally translated into a Korean word 연합 (yearn harp, in Chinese 联合). Its literal meaning is to achieve a common goal together.

Partnership through MoU would be a good example. So, depending on what the common goal is and how long the goal lasts, unity may continue or discontinue. In other words, “unity” as 연합 can be temporary or permanent, also inclusive or exclusive as decided by members’ choice. Because it is different from uniformity, there may be multiple “unity”-ies based on members’ preferences and tendencies.

In this manner, unity” as 연합 itself produces its own diversity with different directions.

There is another Korean word for “unity”; that is 합일 (harp ill, 合一). It is not about forming a group but about inviting people to join in a movement, regardless of who they are and where they are from, those in the movement do things together because they believe that they are one in doing such things. Watching the Olympic games is a good example because everyone cheers for their fellow countrymen and women. They do not need to know each other, but in the movement of cheering for the nation, they proudly join each other to become one. The second line of the Australian National Anthem has reflected the nations new face: We are one and free”.

In this manner, “unity” as 합일 itself invites and embraces diversity to become one towards one direction.

The Uniting Church in Australia is another good example of “unity” 합일 as a movement because all work for the kingdom and the people of God towards the promised end. We do not need to be the same nor do the same things because we are more likely being riveted or welded rather than molded.

Luke’s Gospel 13:29 reflects upon the church in this movement, People will come from east and west and north and south and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.” The verse clearly shows the dynamic movements of people gathering at a place where God calls them. The gathering place is described as “at the feast in the kingdom of God,” which means it is a place where people worship, praise, pray and enjoy fellowship with God and with each other.

It is not referring to one designated particular place, but a place where the dynamics between God’s divine invitation and believers’ faithful movements witness to each other. So as long as we renew and revive ourselves into movements towards the heavenly feast, we experience the kingdom of God through worship, witness and service.

The late Rev Don Whebell said in his short study book, co-authored with Duncan Harrison, titled A Hitchhiker’s Trip through The Basis of UnionThe renewal of the Church will not be achieved by our human efforts, but by God as Trinity living in and through the Church,” and quoted Paragraph 4, Through human witness in word and action, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ reaches out to command people’s attention and awaken faith; he calls people into the fellowship of his sufferings, to be the disciples of a crucified Lord; in his own strange way Christ constitutes, rules and renews them as his Church.”

Paragraph 1 also highlights, “They acknowledge that none of them has responded to God’s love with a full obedience; they look for a continuing renewal in which God will use their common worship, witness and service to set forth the word of salvation for all people.”

Indeed, we are reforming and renewing ourselves as being reformed and renewed at the same time. So I should introduce one last word for “unity”: the word is 일치 (ill-chee, 一体), which means all become one living body/being intertwining and intertwined with/to each other.

Apostle Paul defines this kind of “unity” as 일치 as the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:27. In Genesis 2:24, there is a Hebrew word אֶחָד (ecḥāḏ) as an adjective portraying “one-ness” between two people through marriage. Also in John 17:22b, “ἵνα ὦσιν ἓν καθὼς ἡμεῖς ἕν, that they may be one as we are one,” the Greek word ἓν is used in an adjective form, not a noun, stating that they/we become one living body that cannot be separated from each other. Henceforth, they/we cannot survive without each other.

In conclusion, I would like to invite you to revisit Ephesians 4:1-6. It preaches, “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called ; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

Maybe this is how we, together as one living body of Christ, continue to reform, renew and revive ourselves for the church of God until Jesus Christ comes again.

Why is there theological diversity in the church? Wouldn’t it be simpler if we all agreed to hold the same beliefs—about everything? Well yes, it would be simpler. But that doesn’t mean it would be better, writes Dr Paul Jones, Principal of Trinity College Queensland.
The primary reason for theological diversity in the church is that the Bible itself, as the foundation for Christian beliefs, contains theological diversity.
Different perspectives exist within Scripture on a range of issues, and part of the fun is working out how to hold that diversity together—with a degree of unity. You could even say that’s what Christians are doing when we “do theology”: we’re learning to hold together disparate voices in a way that makes sense of life.
I’ll admit, I find it frustrating when I hear someone mention THE biblical view of sexuality, or THE biblical view of finances. Christians hold different views on such issues, not because some are using the Bible to discern and support their perspectives while others are using secular theories. No, Christians hold different views because the Bible is a collection of voices, and—as we should expect!—they don’t all say the same thing about everything.
So, for example, when we read the Bible, some of us might give preference to Psalm 1’s simple delineation of the righteous and the wicked, while others identify more closely with Job’s protest: that dualistic frameworks like these don’t appear to hold up in real life. The reasons we choose one voice over another are complex and varied, and best left to a longer reflection—or a classroom discussion. But developing your theology isn’t about choosing one theological voice so that you can ignore others with which you don’t agree. Doing theology well as Christians means giving a (genuine) hearing to all readings and perspectives, and seeking to hold them in tension—in unity.
Sometimes you will land in one theological camp in preference to another (same-sex marriage is an obvious example), but what it doesn’t mean is setting up that camp as a kind of war zone. We are the church, the body of Christ in today’s world, and we are being watched by our neighbours and co-workers. Not just that, but we are part of a movement called “The Uniting Church in Australia”! What kind of witness do we have when we split off into mono-cultural pockets, and stop trying to understand each other? I won’t answer that …
Diversity is wonderful. Unity is essential. Let’s strive for both.

Since its formation the Uniting Church has given voice to a desire to be open to and learn from others, writes Uniting Church in Australia President Rev Sharon Hollis.

The Basis of Union committed the church to seek special relationship with churches in Asia and the Pacific and reminded the church that its life is lived within a worldwide fellowship of churches.

In 1985 we declared we were a multicultural church, a statement as much grounded in ambition as practice. In 2012 we committed to live more faithfully in our diversity as One Body Many Members. Reflecting on how it is that we have such a wonderful statement of commitment and practice, but in so many ways fail to live into who we want to be, I was reminded of some helpful wisdom.

I was also reading a book about disability with the subtitle Living into the diversity of Christ’s body in which the author Brian Brock says, “Welcome. Gentleness. Presence. Attentiveness. Commitment. This is all Christians need to know about disability. Simple words that sometimes ask more of us than we want to give.”

As I read these words it struck me that these spiritual practices can also help us live into the diversity of Christ’s body that being a multicultural church promises usif only we are willing to give ourselves to the journey.

First, a multicultural church requires us to exercise a ministry of welcome. We need an openness to meet each other, to welcome difference, to welcome our shared humanity and faith. The practice of welcome invites us to be curious about why people practise their faith differently to me to wonder about the diversity of ways people understand themselves, their faith their life. 

Often in the church those of us from the dominant culture have understood welcome as a form of hospitality where the dominant culture retains the role of host and those from other cultures are guests. This means the dominant culture is able to determine what resources the guest have access to, how they participate, on what terms they join the church. This has so often meant that welcome has come to be expressed narrowly, that resources are withheld and practices remain unchanged, favouring the dominant culture and its ways of doing things. To create a genuine community of welcome we will need to change, to welcome the image of God in each other, to welcome each other as beloved of God and so my sibling in Christ. The burden of change must rest on the dominant culture and the structures of the church.

Secondly it requires gentleness with each other, with our differences, with our mistakes not to excuse our mistakes but to enable us to stay in the relationships and conversations that will change us.

Presence means seeking to be truly present to the other. In order to be present to another person I have be willing to first engage in self-examination, to reflect on what underlies the way I feel about certain people, behaviours, practices, languages, races or countries. It means being willing to feel my own resistance and discomfort that some people evoke in me. I need to be willing to work through why I feel like this, so that I can be present to another without projecting my own presence onto them. This is the work not just of individuals but also of communities and councils of the church.

Then I can be attentive to the many voices and perspectives, to the languages and cadences to the different ways of living as humans and as followers of Christ. When we pay attention to the diversity of voices in our beloved community, we experience different ways to celebrate and grieve, understand a range of ways to parent and raise children, see diverse ways to understand family and community.

Finally for this journey, we need to be committed to staying engaged, to be open to keep learning and growing, to never tiring in our hospitality, to being an advocate and ally for the rich wisdom that can be ours if we are willing to give more than we want and be open to the gifts of the Holy Spirit present in promise of a truly multicultural church and we will find our own lives enriched.

Labels are a funny thing. During my time in ministry I have seen us go from “multicultural” ministry to “cross-cultural” ministry—calling them “multicultural” communities, and then moving to Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) communities—and now we find the latest label, “Intercultural”.

But what does this mean? For me, this is the closest expression of what we see in the New Testament, speaking of inclusive community where a person’s culture was recognised but not judged.

“Jew and Gentile are the same in this respect. They have the same Lord, who gives generously to all who call on him. For ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved.’” (Romans 10:12-13)

This is evidence of Paul’s understanding of Christ’s role as the saviour of the world, and this is where we need to re-read our commitments as a church in the 1985 “We are a Multicultural Church” statement, and now in Assembly’s listening around being an Intercultural church. In missionary history, the work of the Gospel was largely done in a single direction—from the West to the Other. Then as colonialism diminished and nations and ethnicities enjoyed their new sovereignties, those cultures whose identities has been influenced by missionary movements became a part of the Christian church as multicultural groups.

Today the conversation is more intermingled (hence the “Inter”), where ethnic Christian communities are reading each other’s writings on contextualised theology and contributing together in a shared voice to western denominations. We see this in a 2013 article from Christianity Today where Brazil is the second most missionary sending country, and in terms of per-capita, nations like Palestine and South Korea send more missionaries and contribute financially more to mission than the USA and UK.

What this tells me, is that there is a heart for sharing the Gospel and creating Christian community among CALD groups that we are experiencing globally. Where we engage with this as a Uniting Church, we have an opportunity to learn and hear the voice of the Other in what can be new and exciting ways.

That is not say that this won’t be a challenge, as all listening sometimes yields things we would rather not hear about ourselves or the world we live in. But I believe if we are able to embrace this challenge then we can be a church that is one step closer to the inclusion and celebration of God’s global family.

Bendiciones

Queensland Synod Mission Engagement Manager Steve Drinkall reflects on the theme of covenanting and what it means for today’s Uniting Church.

These days we seem to have contracts for everything. We have a contract if we want to build a house, we have an employment contract at work, and we have contracts with the gym, the school, the bank and even Netflix.

A contract basically lays out the conditions under which we will do business with others. We haggle together and agree to terms around what each of us will do, or not do in order to get the things we desire.  

“I will build that house by this time, if you will pay me this much money in this way”, we say. It’s a common and unavoidable part of modern life which helps us work together to get things done fairly and efficiently.

Recently though, I’ve been wondering what all this contract making means when it comes to God.  Are we able to make a deal with God, or agree to terms, or get him to enter into a contract with us? 

Certainly, we have all tried to bargain with God at some time, in our own ways, but alas it never seems to quite work out.

It seems to me that Yahweh is essentially a relational God, who has always gone beyond mere contracts, inviting people into a richer covenant with himself. Noah, Abraham, Moses and the Jewish people come to mind.  

A covenant was a deeper connection, where what was being offered was a relationship that sprang from the very nature of God and his vast resources, and people were given the opportunity to either accept or reject this offer.

The people that entered into covenants with God certainly weren’t in a position to bargain, or haggle over terms, or perhaps try to seek a better deal. What would anyone have, that they might give to God in exchange for his presence? It would seem that God is just not interested in making contracts with us. Instead, he has engaged us in something much deeper. Something based in relationship, loyalty, trust and family. A covenant!

The Uniting Church in Australia was created out of a deep desire to see unity among the churches that bore the name Christ. We understood that God had indeed entered into a new covenant with people, and that many of these people who had accepted his advances were to be found in any number of Christian groups. 

As a starting point we agreed that there were people of the new covenant at least among the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches. So we sought to unite these people, not to gain efficiencies or economies of scale, but because we realised that in fact we belonged together, we were actually family who should commit to the ongoing journey of uniting the other tribes. In this we learned our lesson from the Jews, who were always a series of different tribes, but they struggled to stay together because they fundamentally believed that they belonged together under God. They didn’t have a contract with each other, they were joined by a deep covenant with Yahweh.

As pressure seems to mount on the church, on families and on society in general, I can’t help but wonder if we would be wise to loosen up a little on the contracts we use to try and control and manipulate each other, and to focus instead on living together under this new covenant we have with God—a covenant which binds us together despite our many differences and through which all of the resources of heaven can be unleashed. Not because we cut a great deal, but simply because God decided in his grace to make us an offer we couldn’t refuse.

As part of National Reconciliation Week, Kym Korbe, reflects on her childhood and faith journey while highlighting what we can all do in order to help the reconciliation process.

Ngari (hello).

This year’s Reconciliation Week theme is, “More than a word. Reconciliation takes action!”

As a young Aboriginal girl growing up in urbanised Meeanjin (Brisbane), I longed for the holidays when my family and extended family would travel to Cherbourg to spend time together. When in community, my many cousins and I would spend time fishing, hunting porky (porcupine), riding horses, playing football and climbing trees. And at night, the kids would all sit around listening to the elders yarning about history or teaching us about country.

These traditions continue on today with my cousins who still call Cherbourg home and family still come to visit and learn during the holiday times.

This is not a dissimilar story to many non-Indigenous people who have relatives who live on properties. It is such a reinvigorating experience to visit where you can run and pass time immersed in nature and family—except perhaps the porky hunting. We as people share the basic human desires to connect with family, learn about our culture, find our place in community and have our voices heard.

Growing up in a large, strong, supportive family meant I didn’t realise until I was 12-years-old that being Aboriginal meant there would be obstacles I might have to overcome. In year seven, some friends within my class who had been my friends since year one, began to use discriminatory language to insult and humiliate me. It was then that I learned my first painful lesson in racism.

Having your heritage used as a weapon against you is a confusing, confronting and shameful experience.

Luckily I called on faith and the significant might of a proud black woman, “my mother” who took time out of her day to come and speak to the class about how hurtful this type of language is—not just to the person hearing the insult, but to those speaking it. 

She talked to them about how in choosing to be hurtful to those who are different, you choose to hurt yourself and you close the world around you to the great things that can be learned from people from other countries and nations. As you can imagine this type of teaching was met with the bewildered, disengaged expressions of kids from a tough housing commission area, but eventually with the help of my wonderful year seven teacher, the message started to seep through. My classmates also started sharing things about their heritage that seemed strange to others and these conversations became transformative and healing teachings at a particular point in time and a place that was notoriously racist.

Did it stop the year seven racial taunts? Well yes it did, I am happy to report. Though more importantly, the change came from a shift in attitude, not through the fear of punitive measures. Although being a school in the 1970s that threat hovered in the background.

I suppose the point behind this reflection is, that if it had not been for the courage and conviction of my mother, the openness of my teacher to allow mum to talk to the class, and the willingness of my classmates to listen, my year seven experience could have been one of cruelty and harm instead of growth and friendship. 

I benefitted directly from a reconciliatory process, but so do those who choose to participate in it.

Thirty-five-plus years have now passed and we are in a different time and place in our reconciliation walk. We are a nation who has traversed unsteady ground together and I ask, is the current year seven cohort’s experience of being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander much different to mine? I think in many cases yes, but in others it is not significantly different or improved or without shame?

There are various wonderful organisations and supported opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now, but the walk does not and should not end, because we are human, we make mistakes and we do not always make enough space for the quieter voices to be heard.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up less than three per cent of Australia’s population, so we need the voices of others to help amplify the messages of reconciliation.

The book of James 1:22 calls us into action: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”

During the next week, could you make some time in your schedule to help amplify the reconciliation message?

Could you inform yourself, by reading some Indigenous text or get up to date on some great work the Uniting Church is doing?

Could you make a statement and add your name to the Uluru Statement Canvas?

Could you make a connection? Come and join myself and Danielle Sullivan from Wesley Mission Queensland for a morning tea and yarn at Fuel and Co in Nundah on 2 June. Just let me know if you are interested.

Happy Reconciliation Week Everyone!

Fit for purpose

I was a teenager in the 1980s. While I know that this dates me, it was a time when the greatest anxiety in the world was the threat of nuclear war.

We went to workshops to resolve how to deal with the existential anxiety arising from a time when we believed we would be annihilated by the press of a button. It was the first time I heard of the doomsday clock https://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/.

It was also the first time I truly understood how my Christian faith could be shouted from the streets. It could be confrontational and call us to account. It could be public, not private. It could be remonstration even as God calls us to be reconciled.

These days the same global existential dread is experienced in terms of environmental issues, the threat of pandemic (this one and the ones to come) and the continued threat of global catastrophe precipitated by weapons of mass destruction (to name but a few).

Thankfully the Christian church continues to shout from the streets around these and many other issues. To do so follows in the footsteps of the prophetic tradition of the church. Indeed, in the Uniting Church, we have a provision in our Code of Ethics that allows for the exercise of political resistance or civil disobedience.

“Wisdom shouts from the streets” is the title of the exhortation in Proverbs 1:20-33—it is a cry of desperation and frustration. Surely cries the woman, surely you do not reject the knowledge that stares you full in the face? Then in the tradition of the ancient wisdom literature, comes the sting, those who do not understand will suffer, whereas those that follow the paths of wisdom will be safe.

The reading gives us the clues about how to navigate every time and this place in the ambiguity of the Christian faith. How to live in the now of injustice and distress while holding the hope as disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. The ancient proverb gives us permission to do this in an active way in Christ. It shows that such ambiguity continues, and we always have permission to speak up, stand up, turn up. The clues? To find your groundedness in the Creator God. To know that in God there is capacity and depth that will never be understood. To know that you are not alone. To live in a community that understands the interconnectedness of the whole of creation through God. To know that we are the active hands, feet, and voice of God. To know that our safety comes from the understanding of where we belong in God’s economy. Loved, redeemed, forgiven, charged with mission.

Again, if you haven’t already watch this video which illustrates the corporate discipleship of the Uniting Church in Australia, shouting from the streets, I encourage you to do so. 

Rev Heather den Houting

One Church. If One Church is the “what” of Project Plenty’s focus on church’s identity, what is the “why” that undergirds this priority?

Perhaps the why of one church is to enhance the relational dynamics and operational efficiencies between all key stakeholders. This could lead to innovative opportunities, financial savings and a clearer sense of identity within the branding of the Uniting Church.

Or maybe the purpose is to ensure that risk is managed effectively. Or that a clearer line of sight across all the governance and regulatory demands of the church is maintained. The benefits are that the (one) church is empowered to become the best corporate citizen it can be by adopting a “fit for purpose” approach that leads to healthy organisational change.

Let’s adopt another lens. The “why” of one church might also be applied to the church as a missional movement, where the Uniting Church’s purpose emerges from scripture, the creeds and the Basis of Union. These sources establish that the church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. The church is one because its unity is held together by the grace and love of God who reconciles people to himself through Jesus Christ. Take this away and the church becomes just another humanist organisation seeking to do good in the world.

As a missional movement, the Uniting Church in Australia holds that the congregation is at the heart of its life as one church. The Basis of Union declares that the local congregation is “the embodiment in one place of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping, witnessing and serving as a fellowship of the Spirit in Christ” (Paragraph 15). This does not exclude schools and agencies from being important contexts in which people participate in God’s mission, but it highlights that the congregation, through gathered worship, embodies the culture of God’s new creation and new humanity. It is from this gathered life that God’s people are sent to bear witness to the gospel through words and actions in their everyday living. 

In light of this, being fit for God’s missional purpose requires the church to get out of its own way so that the love, hope, joy and peace of the good news of Jesus Christ gets all the attention. Articulating the fit for this missional purpose as one church is the relatively easy part.  The “fit”, underpinned by the purpose of God’s mission, focuses the resources of the Synod on equipping the oversight responsibilities of the presbytery, which in turn strengthens the life and witness of local congregations. The hard part is having the wisdom and compulsion to live into this fit as one church to fulfil God’s missional purpose.

Rev Nigel Rogers

Rev Nigel Rogers is the Dean of Formation and Dispersed Learning at Trinity College Queensland.

Life together

With UnitingCare’s DV alert program—a program for frontline workers which focuses on how to recognise and respond appropriately to domestic and family violence—we examine the dynamics of a relationship where abuse is present.

In a relationship where there is domestic and family violence, a pattern of repeated behaviours are evident and a power imbalance exists between the two partners.

Key elements of trust and respect—which are essential foundations of a healthy relationship—do not exist; this is incredibly damaging to the relationship and means the person subjected to violence does not feel safe, accepted or secure.

This controlling behaviour occurs in different forms, including emotional and psychological, economic, sexual and physical. All tactics of the pattern interact and have profound effects on the victims. Living with domestic violence results in the person feeling fearful of their partner, and they now face a daunting number of barriers to escaping the violence. The victim’s sense of self becomes diminished and they may no longer feel confident or trust their own decision making ability. It becomes difficult to make important choices when you are feeling uncertain or indecisive.

In contrast, when we look at the dynamics of a healthy relationship, we are looking at partnerships based on equality and respect. Power and control, and the use of fear inducing tactics, are nonexistent in this relationship.

Conflict may arise but every effort is made to restore the relationship, and conflict itself isn’t seen as unhealthy as it is acknowledged as a normal and natural part of relationships. Both partners in this equal relationship will feel as though they have a voice and can speak out without fear of consequences.

Every day peacemaking may take place within this relationship to address conflict as it arises and there is motivation to restore the relationship as conflict arises. Peacemaking therefore may be viewed as deliberate action to restore peace. Actions of peacemaking may include active listening, negotiation, compassion and dialogue, and openness to one another, all undertaken with the intention to sustain the relationship and ensure a harmonious environment.

In acknowledging the terrible blight domestic violence is on our society, the actions of peacemaking are needed more than ever. Whether it be in the home, at work, or as a community member, the actions of a peacemaker provide a powerful example of how to manage and value relationships, and works towards challenging attitudes, behaviours and beliefs that normalise and tolerate domestic violence.

Gospel peace flows from the headwaters or fountain of God’s life, finally and fully revealed in Jesus.

I know a couple of songs about the flow of God’s peace: “Peace Is Flowing Like A River” … flowing out through you and me … and “It Is Well With My Soul” … when peace like a river attendeth my way.

God’s Peace flows like a river. God’s Peace flows like a river through you and me. God’s Peace attends us, unexpectedly, right in the middle of troubled waters.

Jesus is God’s peace come to earth. That is what the Angels sang at this birth?

The Gospel of Jesus has a flow … it’s always coming to us.

The Gospel of Jesus flows like a river bringing the peace of God to us, that we might live in peace together.

“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Rom 12:18)

Sinclair Ferguson points out that the Gospel has a flow and a grammar all of its own consistent with that flow. Romans has a flow and a unique Gospel grammar.

  • Eleven full chapters to set out the story of God’s saving grace from creation through the failure of Israel and every human attempt at trying harder … all the way to Jesus. Not one single command for nearly 11 pages in my Bible!
  • Not one grammatical imperative to be found (Ferguson). Just the story of God’s ever flowing mercy and goodness as human weakness and failure unravel.
  • In chapter five, right there in the middle of human weakness and failure an astounding declaration! In Jesus … justified … we have peace with God.
  • And then from chapter twelve the Gospel imperatives flow. Not conditional demands or requirements. Not KPI’s that determine status. No brownie points or special place for high achievers. But an exhortation, a call to live together in the flow of God’s full new life in Jesus.
  • Consider with me the profound flow of chapter 12. Transforming mercy, grace, humility, gifts, love, affection, honour, blessing, harmony, peace! Right in the midst of persecution, suffering, need, evil. All downstream of the astounding, unexpected, ever-flowing love of God!

Peace flows like a river …

Maybe living in the Gospel of Jesus is an invitation to jump right in and swim in the surging, flowing river of life? Have you noticed the river of life pictured in the new-creation at the end of the biblical narrative?

Baptised into Christ …

I know that baptism is usually associated with drowning, washing or cleansing, and rising … union with Christ. I have baptised a few. I remember drenched glowing faces. Young and old, wet with life-giving water and the word. New! Infants included!

Baptism into Christ surely also pictures a renewed humanity, carried along in a new flow of life? Sometimes the old drowned humanity still tries to swim (Luther and Barth) but the water of new life keeps on surging!

Drenched in peace and love and goodness, a fresh Gospel experience of living as a people of peace begins to flow, “… as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone”. 

And when shared peace is not possible? When the old rascal in us all pops his or her head up for air? When crisis, unavoidable conflict, uncertainty, disease or fear unsettle and divide, will the peace of God not find us in its endless flow?

God’s peace is always flowing like a river and attends our way!

God’s peace flows like a river, not a creek!

May the peace of God be with you!

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a peacemaker as “one who makes peace especially by reconciling parties at variance”. Personally, I have rarely seen proper peacemaking. Most of what I have experienced could be classified as peacekeeping, which is “the preserving of peace especially international enforcement and supervision of a truce between hostile states or communities”. This means that a show of force will deter conflict between two or more parties.

We see this all the time.

Through peacekeeping, the actual reason for the conflict is rarely resolved. International forces come in to protect the innocent and keep the peace. After a very short time weaknesses appear in the international forces and the local militia fighters take advantage creating yet another war, which they call a just war because in their view it is against a foreign occupying force. Once the foreign forces leave the conflict continues.

This example is on a large scale, but it happens on a small scale too. Anyone who has a sister or brother has experienced it.  Two siblings start to fight until one of the parents enter the room. The fighting stops so the peace is kept. However, the main issue that started the fight is not resolved.

Peacemaking, on the other hand attempts to resolve the issue that is creating the conflict.

Jesus said “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34).

It seems to me that the understanding of peace “shalom” was of peacekeeping. The Jews were expecting a Messiah to come with a show of force and get rid of all the enemies and they could live in peace.

But Jesus came as a peacemaker –  to address the underlying injustices, the underlying fear, hate and prejudices, to create the things that truly make for peace. Jesus was an agitator. He was not a pacifier. He was not showing God’s might to make people knuckle under and live in peace otherwise God would throw rocks at them, or they would go to hell. Jesus knew that no one could bring real peace without bringing justice.

For justice to prevail, those who have power will need to share that power with those who do not and share it equally. Few people give up power willingly. Demanding justice brings the risks of challenging those who hold power. Power is not only political power. There are those who hold power in our communities. There are those who hold power in our churches. Should I set aside the call for justice and try to live in peace because I should not upset those in power?

Gandhi is credited for starting civil disobedience. I believe Jesus was the first to do it. The church in many parts of the world continues to practice this act of bringing justice to the marginalised. Jesus could not bear the suffering of human beings and no doubt that was motivation for Jesus to disobey the constituted power of his time.

Once we address the underlying injustices, the underlying fear, the underlying hate and the underlying prejudices, then we could have peace. There will be no need for those peacekeepers who, by show of force, bring more injustice than justice to our communities and to the world. Then life together will be something everyone can enjoy.

Peacemaking … Peace … Shalom … Breathe in … Breath out … Be still and know that I am God.

I’m sitting quietly in my sister’s beautiful garden listening to the sound of the birds melting into my daily devotion being read to me from the app on my iPhone. 

Life is good—nature, beauty, family, prayer—I am at peace. Well, except for those nagging reminders of what’s on my ever growing “to do” list and the state of the world; except for those annoying voices of self-loathing guilt at not doing enough about the state of the world; except for those justified judgemental thoughts about the state of the world, some people should know better and I am right and they are wrong.

What does it really mean to be at peace, to be a peacemaker as disciples of Jesus? Where does our peace come from?

Our story teaches us that Jesus is peace—the prophets foretold Jesus as the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) and Jesus would be our peace (Micah 5:2-5) and Paul tells the church in Ephesus that Jesus is our peace who breaks down every wall and the hostility between us (Ephesus 2:14-15). 

Central to Jesus’ teaching, as recorded in the gospels, is a clear message of reconciliation, forgiveness and self-examination—what logs we have in our own eyes. Jesus’ living example of healing the sick, loving the marginalised, forgiving the sinners and feeding the hungry shows us that a disciple of Jesus is a peacemaker. 

Now before your mind heads off to an image of that hippie type of peace, flowers in your hair, Kumbaya singing, dancing naked in the daisy field … Jesus’ example peace is radical—it disturbs the comfortable, attacks religious corruption, challenges the status quo and it comes from a pure heart. It may even disturb and disrupt us!

In Luke 23, Jesus, in his deepest suffering on the cross, asks, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” Do we always know what we are doing? Jesus told his disciples that he promised to bring peace but the peace he gives is not of this world. (John 14:27)

There have been so many examples of misunderstood prophetic voices throughout history that have led the way for a non-violent, peaceful approach to changing the world and in hindsight we rejoice in their bold stands and courage. So as a community of Christ, people who claim to live as disciples of Jesus, we are promised peace, not that the world gives, a gift of peace so that in our lives we would give witness to God, in the way we live as a community together. 

This does call us to self-examine the source of our intention for peace, personally and as congregations, schools and agencies. Where does our desire for peace come from? When we receive this free gift of peace, not of this world, how then shall we live? So take a moment, sit and ponder, breathe in and out, be still and know that I am God. 

Shalom be with you.