We are in the Season of Newness. A new year means new calendars and diaries as well as new year resolutions. This is also a good time for spiritual newness. The sacred texts of most faith traditions offer insights for newness be it through birth, rebirth, resurrection or reincarnation: the Hindu Samsara, the Buddhist Gati, the Islah and Tahjid of Islam as well as the Judeo-Christian Old and New Testaments.
Sufi philospher Wasif Ali Wasif speaks 'of a world that is ancient, but that has not lost its newness'. The prophet Isaiah reveals a God who proclaims: "See, I will create new heavens and a new earth". In the New Testament, Jesus makes a powerful statement: "A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you".
Monk and mystic, Thomas Merton, wrote: 'There is in us an instinct for newness, for renewal, for a liberation of creative power. We seek to awaken in ourselves a force which really changes our lives from within. And yet the same instinct tells us that this change is a recovery of that which is deepest, most original, most personal in ourselves....to be born again is not to become somebody else, but to become ourselves.'
In his poem 'After the Fire', Australian poet Steven Sass concludes with these words:
'Then suddenly the greenness shows and the buds come into view where what had been thought devastated life is now renewed'.
Contemporary writers Brian McLaren and Dianna Butler Bass offer the following insights on newness:
''The Christian story, from Genesis until now, is fundamentally about people on the move - outgrowing old, broken religious systems and embracing new, more redemptive ways of life'. (BMcL)
'Christianity did not begin with a confession. It began with an invitation into friendship, into creating a new community, into forming relationships on love and service'.(DB-B)
'Anamnesis' - Re-Membering
The Greek word 'Anamnesis' is often found in theological and spiritual literature. It means 'to remember'. Furthermore, it means to 're-member'. This means to recollect and to re-gather, both appropriate actions as we come back from our various Christmas and New Year travels, holiday breaks and the like, and start a new year.
Over the years the congregation at Paddington Uniting Church has placed much thought into its raison d'etre - the reason and purpose of its existence. The result of this discernment was the identification of four core values (or pillars) built on a foundation of hospitality. These values are FAITH, INCLUSIVENESS, JUSTICE and CREATIVITY. As individuals and a congregation, we aspire to nurture and experience these (and other) values within the context of a Christ-inspired community through our worship, meditations, discussions, outreach endeavours and social interactions. An extension of each of these can be found in our congregational pamphlet and each one will be expanded on in our newsletters in the weeks ahead. We also adopted four Mission areas and are addressing these in various ways. Our Mission Areas are: building community, exploring emergence church, engaging in social action, and supporting mental health.
At the start of a new year and as we welcome new people to our congregation, it is appropriate to REMEMBER those things to which we aspire, such as our Core Values and our Mission Areas.
'Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.' Hebrews 13:2
One of the four Mission areas adopted by the Paddington Uniting Church congregation a few years ago is that of building community. In the opening lines of the poem ‘No man is an Island’, English poet and cleric John Donne (1572-1631) captures the essence of community with the words ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’. The language and writing style of that era provided a male gender selection of words. Today we would say ‘No person is an island….’. Centuries later (1955) the monk and mystic Thomas Merton composed a text sharing the same title. Again, we would read it using gender-inclusive language. Through a spiritual lens, Merton writes about the most effective way of experiencing being human is through community. Our PUC congregation places emphasis on nurturing Christian community, especially by welcoming newcomers and guests. We are also committed to engaging with the local community, one example being our weekly Paddington Markets which have operated for over 40 years and known to be Australia’s longest operating continuous weekly markets (féte). The income from these markets support the administrative and maintenance costs of PUC as well as supporting our mental health support programs such as the weekly Open Table program. Further afield, our Social Action programs involve the support of various Indigenous and refugee programs both within Australia and beyond. Wherever we are, we find ourselves within a community, be it within our apartment complexes, streets, work places, local shopping precincts and the like. Being part of any community can offer challenges and so it is comforting to know that being part of a Christian community, also with its challenges, can offer a source of strength and sustenance as we move and live and have our being in our various communities.
26 January is currently Australia’s designated national day. It is associated with the arrival of the First Fleet of British ships at Port Jackson in 1788 followed by waves of European settlers thereafter. This day elicits a range of thoughts and emotions amongst various sections of the Australian population, and while it is acknowledged nationally as a public holiday, the manner in which it is commemorated varies significantly amongst the people of the nation. For some, the arrival of the settlers represents the birth of a ‘new’ nation, new beginnings and a new life. For others it signifies the invasion of an already established nation of First Peoples and a disruption of their culture. There are, no doubt, those who are indifferent to either position and simply enjoy the opportunity of a public holiday. There will be the usual gatherings at barbecues, picnics and beaches, citizenship ceremonies countrywide, perhaps the occasional church service, and various protest rallies. At its 15th Assembly held in mid 2018, the Uniting Church endorsed the observance of a Day of Mourning to be held on the Sunday preceding 26 January. In addition to the usual practices undertaken on 26 January, or perhaps as an alternative, we could consider spending a time of quiet contemplation to consider how we might all work together for reconciliation and justice for our First Nations’ people and all people who call Australia home.
We get told that everyone has a ‘calling’. The idea of ‘call’ or ‘calling’ is often associated with religious or ministry life in the persons of priest, pastor, minister, monk, nun or missionary. There are numerous stories of how clerics and women and men religious received their ‘calling’ throughout history. One well-known story would be that of the young, handsome and wealthy Francis who, whilst plying his trade of expensive cloth in 13th century Assisi (Italy), met a man begging for alms. Francis gave him all he had, was ridiculed by friends and derided by family, joined the military, was captured and held prisoner for a year, contracted a serious illness, undertook a pilgrimage to Rome joining other beggars, and then claimed to have had a mystical vision of Jesus in a country chapel in San Damiano on the outskirts of Assisi. It would appear that Francis experienced gradual conversion and calling throughout these experiences. This came at a price: beatings, rejection, ridicule and disinheritance, a rather brutal manner in which to experience a calling. The biblical account of Saul’s conversion to Paul seems a lot less complicated but also resulted in a calling and all that this required. Like so many words in any language, one single word can have several synonyms – words that carry the same or similar meaning as another lexeme in the same language. We don’t often hear individuals talk about their calling. Instead we hear “profession”, “trade”, “employment”, “work”, “job”, “occupation”, “field” and “career”. Occasionally, perhaps the term ‘vocation’ is used. The idea of ‘the call’ applying to all people was strongly promoted by Protestant reformers like Luther, Calvin and others, yet it remains somewhat foreign and awkward when it comes to the vast majority of professions today. This is a pity and perhaps more thought should be put into how every profession can include a sense of calling. This can extend beyond those currently in paid employment to include the unemployed, volunteers and retirees – they too, can experience a strong sense of calling. How do you sense ‘calling’ in what you do?
To be a prophet in this day and age may not register as an attractive practice or occupation in the minds of most people. We are likely to associate the role of prophet with biblical characters such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel after which Old Testament books are named. Similarly with a number of other prophets, known as minor prophets. Prophets of this era were, of course, not all male. We encounter female prophets, known as ‘prophetesses’, such as Miriam, Deborah, Huldah to name a few. John the Baptist (also known as John the Baptiser) is presented as a prophet in the Gospels, particularly those attributed to Matthew and Mark (Matt 11:9-11 / 14:5 and Mark 11:32). It is Jesus who appears to affirm John as prophet.
As there have been various prophets throughout the ages, so have there been a range of definitions of what a prophet is and does. These range from an inspired teacher or proclaimer of the will of God, as a deliverer and interpreter of a divinely inspired message, to the more commonly held understanding that a prophet is someone who predicts the future. The term ‘prophet’ has also been extended to name and describe more contemporary figures who may not necessarily portray the inspiration and proclamation of the will of God as it was originally intended by the prophets of old. This should not reflect a redundancy of the true and authentic role of the prophet in our age. We still need prophets.
How would we recognise a true prophet in our day and age? Could it be that we have modern day prophets in our midst? How could we be true prophets within the world in which we live and the communities within which we worship?
The titles of two popular songs with lyrics about silence come to mind: Silence is Golden and The Sound of Silence. There are probably others. A study of these two songs reveal lyrics which communicate interesting understandings and interpretations of silence. Make of these what you will. Silence is meant to describe the absence of noise. Is this at all possible? Can there ever be absolute and total silence anywhere? Even if locked away from sources of noise in a sound-proof chamber, one would still experience some noise, even if this is the sound a gentle breathing. True contemplatives are understood to embrace silence through their lifestyles, spiritual practices and their vows. Hermits, ascetics and some desert ‘fathers’ and ‘mothers’ sought silence by removing themselves from the noise of the world. “Silence!!” may be yelled out by a flustered teacher standing before a class of rowdy students. The irony of yelling “silence”. What is sometimes referred to as “silence” in a spiritual sense is a metaphor for inner stillness – that which is more internal, than external. Not many have the luxury of living in secluded monastic settings which are ideal for cultivating a life of greater silence. Despite required disciplines and practices of the enclosed or cloistered lifestyle, experiencing the silence that this offers is indeed a luxury. Inner silence or inner stillness is not so much about the absence of sound, but about the ability to create an inner space and environment conducive to allow one to experience greater contact and connection with the divine and one’s true self. The importance and value of inner stillness is recognised by most religious traditions through meditation, centering prayer, wisdom writings, yoga practices and even in silent worship. Much has been written and spoken about inner stillness and silence in the spiritual sphere. The various gospels reveal how Jesus experienced silence and inner stillness often in solitude. Sometimes to pray as the stories tell us, or to rest, or to think things through. How, in our busy lives and noisy world, can we find the time and space to experience inner and meaningful stillness?
A Big Ask
“Love your enemy”, “do good to those who hate you”, “bless those who curse you”, “pray for those who mistreat you”, “when struck on the cheek, offer the other one”, “when your coat is taken, offer your hat as well”. What on earth is happening here? Needless to say, many today would regard these statements as absurd, with disdain or at best humorous. Not just in our time, but probably at the time when they were supposedly uttered some two thousand years ago as well. Such responses and reactions just don’t seem to comfortably fit into our instinctive and human nature. It may be over such statements, that sceptics and cynics make their decision to abandon all things Biblical, then perhaps religion or church or faith – “this doesn’t make sense”, “it’s all too hard”, “there’s no way in the world that I would do that”. It probably does not help to have other sections of scripture which suggest the exact opposite of the opening statements above. A cursory reading of Psalm 137 (v9) may leave one with the shocking image of ‘infants dashed against rocks’. The previous verse speaks of revenge. The commonly (mis) used phrase “eye-for-an-eye, and a tooth-for-a-tooth” may be a preferred approach for some.
With its origins often wrongly attributed to the Old (or Hebrew) Testament and referred to, but repudiated in the New (or Christian) Testament in Matthew 5:38-42 and in other texts, the phrase “eye-for-an-eye, and a tooth-for-a-tooth” dates back to ancient Mesopotamian culture, pre-biblical writing and prior to the prospering of the ancient Greek and Roman civilisations. It forms part of the Hammurabi Code which was a collection of over 280 laws which assisted the Mesopotamian King Hammurabi (1792-50 BCE) to keep order and control of his kingdom. Context is important.
There is no shortage of literature and film about revenge. From Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, Stephen King’s ‘Carrie’, to the 2018 released film ‘Revenge’. Even famous artworks have a go like that of Eckersberg’s ‘Ulysses Revenge’ of 1814. It cannot be denied that revenge is addressed in biblical literature – in both Testaments. Selective reading may suggest a preponderance of pro-revenge narrative. Informed reading will reveal the opposite with the scales tipped very much in favour of the opening statements above. This is a big ask! We may not have enemies, feel hated, cursed or mistreated. We may not be struck on a cheek or have our clothes ripped off us. As we approach the Season of Lent which culminates with crucifixion – the ultimate Big Ask – how do we react when we feel hard done by, however major or insignificant, by someone, whenever or wherever it occurs.
Lent and Uncomfortable Faith
Air-conditioning, upholstered seats, a good sound system and professional musicians. These are some of the marks of a comfortable church or worship space. Clearly stated and established doctrines, dogmas and rituals may represent comfortable religion. What about faith? Can there be comfortable faith?
Often described as a ‘journey’, faith can have its comfortable moments. Like any journey, the faith journey can also offer the opposite: frustrations, delays, breakdowns, detours, changes and challenges. Think of a journey you have taken which may not have gone to plan.
The Season of Lent invites us to undertake a journey – a spiritual journey. Commencing with Ash Wednesday when we are reminded of and confronted with our absolute humanness – dust and ashes – we undertake this journey expecting to have our comfort zones rattled and shaken. Fasting, penance, giving something up or going without during Lent are age-old practices which attest to this sense of discomfort along the journey. But this Lenten journey makes little sense if it does not have a destination and a purpose. The Lenten journey ends with the ecstasy of the Easter event – Christ’s resurrection. But just before we arrive there, we witness the horror of Holy Week: of changing fortunes, fear, betrayal, suffering, violence and death. Extreme as they are, they may serve as metaphors for our own lives and experiences; perhaps even of our faith.
The forty days of Lent provide something of an itinerary for the journey Jesus undertakes. The Transfiguration story launches this journey quite theatrically and serves to foreshadow what is to follow. Some of it comfortable; but a lot of it not. Journeys can bring out the best and the worst in us. As we enter into the Season of Lent, we have the opportunity to witness and observe the itinerary of Jesus, especially in the final week from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. We also have the opportunity to join in this journey. Do you have a Lenten itinerary? Will you seek only the comfortable along this journey or will you allow your faith to be disturbed, rattled and shaken by what you may encounter? Can you trust enough to know that Jesus’ resurrection can be your resurrection as well?
The Women of Lent
The Season of Lent commenced this week on Ash Wednesday. The positioning of this season in the Christian liturgical calendar is different each year and is determined by the date of Easter Sunday. It was established at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring around the time of the vernal equinox which occurs towards the end of March. Easter, this year, is at the latter end of this cycle.
The 1st Sunday of Lent this year occurs shortly after International Women’s Day which has the fixed date of 8 March each year. The proximity of dates this year offers the opportunity to focus on women in the Lenten context, something not always given rightful attention.
Similar to Jesus who entered a 40 day period of desert or wilderness experience, women over time have also experienced and often been subjected to their own desert or wilderness experiences. Whilst different is some respects, we think of the desert or wilderness experience of gender inequality and other forms of gender-based exclusion and discrimination and how this impacts on the lives of many women throughout the world. This occurs in most societies and these, in turn, need to take ownership of this and address the problem. More specifically, our Australian political landscape – better than it was – continues to provide poor female representation. About one third of our national tertiary institutions have the leadership of women. This ratio is much lower in the corporate world. Institutional church is guilty of the same and while some change has occurred, much still needs to be done.
Women featured prominently in Jesus’ life, particularly during his public ministry. The most obvious being Mary, his mother. Two other women, Martha and Mary, were his good friends and their home was where Jesus felt welcomed. Gospel narratives reveal women at the foot of the cross and the first to experience the resurrection. They offer consolation along the way to Calvary. It is a woman who anoints Jesus’ feet. There are many other women with whom Jesus interacts, some more prominent as disciples and others less noticeable. Women appear in all four gospels. Of the three synoptic gospels, the one attributed to Luke makes significant reference to women: the widows of Nain and Zarephath; the ‘persistent’ widow; the woman ‘bent double’; the poor, but generous widow; to name a few. The Joannine gospel mentions others including the Samaritan woman at the well. Of all women in New Testament narratives, Mary Magdalene appears to have been given the roughest deal by western Christianity which for centuries has referred to her in less than flattering terms. And yet gospel narratives depict a faithful and generous woman who accompanied Jesus and his disciples, supported them materially, was present at the crucifixion, witnessed Jesus laid in the tomb and the first to experience the resurrected Christ.
We need not restrict our focus to the women in the life of Jesus or other biblical women. Whilst we may choose to join with the women of Lent in the 40 day journey ahead, we may also wish to think about the presence, the roles and the influence of women elsewhere – in our families, our relationships, our neighbourhoods, associations and work places.
Palm Sunday - Contrasts and Changing Fortunes
On the Sunday before Easter, Christians worldwide celebrate Palm Sunday. A practice in many countries is to hold large-scale peace rallies on the same day. Peace is the common theme to both those who celebrate Palm Sunday in a religious and liturgical manner as well as to those who do not, but who understand the significance of proclaiming the need for world peace.
Church services on Palm Sunday will follow similar rituals of people gathering, holding and waving palm fronds or other plant stems or branches. The biblical narrative accounts in the four gospels each tell it slightly differently. From their reading and understanding of the narrative, most people would be familiar with the plotline of Jesus entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to hails of positive acclaim with cloaks and branches (palms) strewn on the path before him and the donkey who carries him. His entry is described as ‘triumphant’. He is referred to as ‘King’, ‘Son of David’ and ‘the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee’.
These terms are inconsistent with his mode of transport – a donkey. Why would someone regarded so highly, as Jesus is regarded and described at this point, make his entrance on a small animal of low regard – a beast of burden? Some might think ironic, others comedic. Why could Jesus simply not walk into Jerusalem? Could this have been a fulfilment of the words of the prophet Zechariah: “See where thy king comes to greet thee, a trusty deliverer; see how lowly he rides, mounted on an ass…”, or did Jesus intentionally wish to contrast his entry to that of the brutal Roman authorities who would enter Jerusalem with orchestrated and choreographed pomp and ceremony? Jesus on a donkey – an animal of peace; the Romans on horses used in battle and war. Jesus approaches Jerusalem from the east, from the Mount of Olives. The Romans would approach from the west, the same direction from which they would attack Jerusalem in a siege around 70 CE and possibly in several previous attacks as well.
Through the Palm Sunday event, Jesus continues to offer a contrast and challenge to those around him, as he does to us today: to review our beliefs, our values, our attitudes and our practices. These echo his words of the Beatitudes, his interactions with lepers and prostitutes, the unclean, the ostracised and everything that he said and did which unsettled the authorities and lawmakers of the day. After the accounts of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the gospels relay the story of an angry Jesus entering the temple and overturning the tables of the money-changers and vendors. He literally and metaphorically ‘turned-the-tables’, and within a week he was dead. A Jesus who is hailed ‘King’, ‘Son of David’ and ‘Prophet’ one day, is betrayed, arrested, put on trial, tortured and killed a few days later. What changing fortunes!