Wednesday, 21 December 2011

from The Hill - The Word is worth a thousand
With just
over seven billion people on this planet – and counting – the least we can say
is that makes for a lot of flesh.
In our raw or
clothed states, we bodies communicate with each other, largely with words. In
itself, this is no big deal but the challenge is for us to consider the number
of words that get spoken or written by us on any day.
One statistic
I saw claimed that, on one blog site alone on a certain day, over 50 million
words were recorded. That’s the equivalent of 100 copies of Les Miserables or War and Peace, written in one day on one
blog site.
Multiply that
by the total number of blog sites, add to this number the words spoken on radio,
TV and two-ways and those written in newspapers, magazines, letters, books,
novels and emails and all those words of which there is no record (like
conversations here, there and everywhere), and the figure becomes
We humans do
this all the time, quite naturally and mostly badly. I call it the
“flesh-into-words” phenomenon, a useful and sometimes lucrative business. You
might call it communication.
Think for a
moment, though, about the opposite process, the “word-into-flesh” and,
straightaway, we’re into another
We know how
the former comes about, but what about the latter? How does that happen? If
we’re serious about Christmas, this would have to be the key question of the
Leaving aside
the Shepherds and Wise Men, we are dealing with a deeply significant issue here
and we’d do well to get our mind around
If it’s true
that the word became flesh (personally, I don’t dispute that), my question is
this: how does one such en-flesh-ment change anything among so many inhabitants
of this blue planet?
Being a little creative can help.
In fact, beginning with words that can create something in us is, in fact, the
best place to start.
At lots of levels, “I love you”
are words that have the potential to unlock all that is good and true in us as
we pursue life. They have a creative energy in
These words lie at the heart of
what “word-into-flesh” – and therefore Christmas – is all about. It’s a
staggering idea.
So profound is this notion that
John, the writer of The Christmas Gospel, in an attempt to help our minds grasp
the enormity of it, describes this process of the word-becoming-flesh as ‘God
pitching His tent among us’.

That ought to
grab the holiday-makers gearing up for their week on Straddie or wherever they
go. The story, however, began with Mary hearing from the Big Angel but she was
also blown away by what he said.
Raised in a shame-blame culture
that is, even today, particularly hard on women, Mary would never have hoped to
have found favour with anyone, let alone God.
This simple moment in a young
girl’s life should be enough for us to understand what the theologians try so
hard to explain. (Sometimes, in our attempts at cleverness, we complicate simple
ideas. I suspect this is one such example.)
What God
wants each of us to know is that we have found favour with Him;
that we are blessed and that He
wants to be fruitful through us, not because we are better than anyone else but
because we have stumbled onto a surprise: that the Word of God’s love is here
for everyone.
Each of us long to hear the “Hail
….” (put your own name on the dots); to hear it in our own ears because that’s
what we long for most of all. God’s “Hail” brings us to life and is at the heart
of the Christmas process.
Incarnation (another name for en-flesh-ment) is not only a moment in
history, it’s the start of an ongoing journey, beginning with Jesus and fruiting
in every believer in every age.
Jesus gets incarnated in every
Christ follower every time s/he comes to faith. His word of love, compassion,
forgiveness, healing and peace comes and takes flesh in our
The Incarnation of the Word of God
into human flesh happened first in Jesus and that’s what we celebrate this and
every Christmas.
It doesn’t end there though. The
Incarnation is the ongoing fruit of the transformation of our life, by the
fruiting Word-being-made-flesh in us.
Here we have
an endless array of pictures of life, thousands upon thousands of them, all
springing from the One Word, as they should.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Reflections from The Hill – Favoured or Flavoured?

It is no small thing to be regarded, highly or otherwise, or to be favoured, especially when you are acutely aware that you shouldn’t be.

I had a mate who was in line for “The Headmaster’s Special Prize” at his school’s Graduation Ceremony. He thought that he would get one of the many shining statuettes on view but instead scored an illuminated scroll.

His disappointment was only temporary because the applause that went with the announcement was rapturous and, in talking with him later, was far better than a gleaming statue.

Like I say, it’s no small thing to be favoured.

I often wonder what it would be like to experience, you know, God’s favour. And I wonder how many people in parish-land need to hear those words now – not later, not at Christmas, not in the months ahead.

So much of our time, pre-Christmas, is spent or spending; thinking of others and what on earth we can get for someone who has everything.

To hear that God favours us brings the Incarnation to our hearth. We see this when the Big Angelic Kahuna appears to Mary in today’s Gospel and it shifts our spirits from being flavoured to being favoured, all in the middle of the Christmas shopping.

But there’s more, because Mary now finds herself in a maelstrom of impossibilities. It’s not just that her elderly, barren, relative is pregnant but that she, a youthful teenage nobody from nowhere special is now highly favoured.

Our set ideas and imaginations of Christmas get turned on their ear. Without so much as a by-your-leave, we now find ourselves in the presence of a God who specialises in turning the impossible into the possible.

Let’s not kid ourselves; unless our brain does a back-flip, the sort of scenario that’s being played out here offends our sensibilities because these things simply don’t happen in reality.

Mary herself, in the Gospel reading, almost innately, recognises this impossible possibility in her initial response. Gabriel has only said a Biblical “G’day” and straightaway, Mary is into the pondering.

Why? Why the bewilderment? Simply because Mary herself can’t yet believe that there is a God anywhere who would want to have anything to do with her.

“Me? Why me? Who am I that I should be favoured?” she asks. (As an aside, Mary sounds just like my mother: never looking for favours and always surprised when some should come her way. Mum knew her place.)

“This shouldn’t be happening to me. I’m only a kid, barely into puberty and from the wrong side of the tracks. God doesn’t talk to, or highly favour, people like me.”

Of course, Gabriel hasn’t yet given her the full heads-up for his visit yet, but it comes. Mary’s beside herself. “A baby son? Of the Most High? Line of David? Never-ending Kingdom? Whaaa… “

First there’s the “Why me?” then the “How?” This, in turn, becomes “Here I am.” But be careful.

Do we get the level of disbelief in this or are we stuck on the last part, the obedience bit? Are we relegating Mary’s astonishment to some kind of obligatory and prophetic answer? It’s a shame if we do.

There is a whole journey in this for those with eyes to see, from the absence of God (v34) to recognising His presence (v35) and then to fulfilling His promise (v36).

To collapse the "Here I am" too quickly into our notions of answering God's call simply reduces Mary to being a bit-player in a religious play. She has feelings, too, you know.

Mary's story moves us from being who we think we are to being what God has called us to be; from being an observant believer to being a confessing one.

More than that, and quite impossibly, Mary's story demands that we acknowledge the transforming power of God. That’s what His business is about, after all.

It is no small journey to go from our comfortable perceptions of God to God in the manger; vulnerable, helpless, and dependent. Yet this is the promise, and the journey, of Christmas.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Reflections from The Hill –John the Baptist, Dreams and Paris Hilton

Of all the dreams that rise in this land of mystery, this place where droughts, floods and stormy weather lay their head, none even come close to what The Lady and I dreamed for the progeny that sprung from our loins.

These dreams were never going to work if only because, as my Mum often remarked, we’re not that sort of people, by which she meant we were supposed to grow up without pretentions. Maybe dollars in the bank and our address had something to do with it, too.

Research scientists or astronauts or beauty queens or sky-pilots these sprogs might have been but only to keep their parents in the style to which they would like to have been kept, but that’s not any reason.

This yarn will be told over and over in households all over the world and there’ll be lots of gossips who’ll be crying into their washers because a spalpeen has not followed his parents as he should.

Which is all very nice but is not addressing Old-Camel-Hair and what were the dreams for his wrinklies? Continue in the family business, maybe? Take it to a new level? Franchise the lot and buy a unit in the south of France?

Johnny’s cards were stacked against him from the outset. His old man is visited by Gabriel, the Big Kahuna of Angels. Gabriel thought he’d better pop in while Zek is down at the Temple, a good place for that kind of visit.

There’s not a lot of negotiation. Zek’s basically told what the go will be and, let me say, when you get told by the Big Kahuna Angel, there’s no argument.

Zechariah, to give him his full name, is left speechless, a sign of his disbelief, which is bad news because Gabe tells him that he, Zek, will stay that way until little Johnny is born.

A bit of spite in that, is there? Little scratchy, are we? Get out of bed on the wrong side? To me, it sounds a bit like making faces until the wind changes.

Gabe’s job description for Johnny is wild: “Many will delight when Johnny is born. He’ll achieve great stature with God.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“He’ll drink neither wine nor beer. He’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he leaves his mother’s womb.”


“He will turn many children of Israel back to God; he will herald God’s arrival in the style and strength of Elijah, soften the hearts of parents to children, kindle devout understanding among hardened sceptics and get the people ready for the whole she-bang. In short, he’ll become a great prophet and priest.”

“Hang on, hang on; he’s not even born yet.”

That’s all background to where we pick up the story today. By now Johnny has grown up and hovers into sight, trying to fulfil the dream and orders from Gabriel and sprouting words like “Repent” and other bon mots. He is also, as we discover, dressed in New Rustic Camel Hair with leather accessories. Noice.

It’s what he does and why he’s on a diet of bugs that really interests us, curiosity being the mainstay of journalism from cuneiform days.

As an aside, we do the same thing with all of our celebrities, always looking for dirt, hoping to reveal this or that failure. We’re so attracted to dirt that 3 out of every 5 dollars spent on magazines goes towards that, but I digress.

What’s interesting is that Johnny doesn’t treat the paparazzi as if they were fools: tell them the truth, give them your itinerary and be completely honest. He didn’t evade the question but told the plain truth: "I’m not the Messiah and I ain’t Elijah, either."

When truth matters, Paris Hilton does the same thing, apparently. Where Johnny and Paris part company is that, while sweet Paris wants the limelight, Johnny is wanting people to gaze elsewhere.

Johnny’s gaze is toward Another: “The One I’m talking about is no second place to me, he’s no runner-up. He is so great that I’m not even worthy to tie his shoes never mind hold his coat."

The paparazzi get their shots and the reporters their stories. Headlines in the Bethany Bugle might read “John identifies Jesus as God’s Passover Lamb: forgiver of world’s sins revealed”, the sub-editor being very bad at his work.

So that’s where we are, right at the start of a Journey that will take us to the End of the Age. Today’s all about an odd bloke who points us to Another One, One who is banging on about forgiving sins.

It’s a dream message in many, many ways and begs to be told over and over, again and again.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Reflections from The Hill – News or Memory

It seems ages since I sat down to pen a Reflection and, of course, it is. My hair has actually become more silvery grey, such has been the length of the wait.

So much has happened in my life in the last few weeks that it’d be crass to even recall it all. I mean, I could begin with getting caught in the Qantas grounding, announced within minutes of me completing our On-line Check-in, but I won’t.

Or I could tell you about negotiating my way through ‘Bridge City’, the pet name that Grandson #2 has given to the Brisbane Inner-City By-Pass and the Clem 7 Tunnel. I won’t do that either.

Then there was the gathering of friends and family who shared with me a special anniversary in mid-October. I could get off on that, too, but I won’t, except to say that people’s generosity was in full view on that balmy night in Mackay.

It was a great celebration and I’m overwhelmed and grateful to those who made it happen. In telling you this much, I’m only scratching the surface of a life that is still delightful in every minute. Thanks.

Where do I start today? The geeks among us will already have noticed that the first bit of St Mark’s Gospel (we’re reading it this week) is all about beginnings, so why not take their lead?

There is one pearl to catch in this plain starting point: the opening words of Mark do not have a verb. “Oo-er,” say the grammarians; “so what?” ask the rest of us.

As it stands, “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ …” sounds like a bit like a title of a book and carries with it an expectation of a beginning, middle and end. Whatever way you look at it, that’s not news.

What makes something news, as a journo friend of mine once remarked, is that it’s new and, in so saying, has given me a different perspective on the meaning and value of tertiary education.

The idea that it’s also the beginning suggests to me that there is much more good stuff to come from this Jesus Christ the Son of God.

I know I’ve used the word news instead of the more commonly used gospel. Actually it makes little difference because the word gospel was the ancient world’s word for announcing a victory that the king (or somesuch) had just won.

This was good news. Something big had happened that had changed their immediate world and the announcement was aimed at getting a response, a bit like a kid selling papers or a publican shouting the bar.

So here it is. Mark greets us with a gusto that is unbecoming in Anglicanism. There’s an excitement in what he writes that would not be out of place in an afro-American or Pentecostal church, and the more so as we settle into the second week of Waiting for God.

We might expect the announcement (the news) to be full of power and machismo as yet another nation falls. But no; enter John the Baptist in his camel-hair-and-leather ensemble, more like an out-of-work actor or nutter.

We might almost expect him to be holding a cardboard notice with “Will Preach for Milk and Honey” scratched on it in felt pen, just to complete the picture.

John’s presence alone would be enough to grab my attention but what follows is mind-blowing. John is announcing a victory alright and it’s a victory of a king and kingdom and everything is about to change.

However, unlike those standing around listening to old Camel Hair for some news from the imperial front, we – a couple of thousand years on – find ourselves not expecting much at all, I suspect. Not much, that is, except tinsel and Christmas fare. That’s a shame.

We’ve heard it all before … angels … wise men … Mary and Joseph … baby in manger … little drummer boy … blah, blah, blah and it’s all too familiar.

I ask: when does news stop being news and become memory? That’s what’s happened to us, you know. We can mouth the words of John the Baptist all we like, and even sing the Godspell song, until inertia and nausea take over, which it does, and then what?

The sadness is that, in these days at least, John’s announcement isn’t the beginning of any news, let alone good news. It’s more like a history lesson being given in a museum.

My struggle is this: can I hear the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as news because it is new or do I continue to put up with the memories?

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Reflections from The Hill – Parties and Clothes

It’s like something out of “Ripping Yarns”, the TV series of mayhem and murder by Terry Jones and Michael Palin. The one difference between those scripts and the Gospel Reading this week is that Jesus isn’t trying to be funny.

This story is scary and violent while the king is petty, murderous and cruel. It’s a story that shouldn’t be read by people under 18 and would cop at least an MA(v) tag from the Censors if anyone tried to make a video and then release it.

Then again, it is about a party, and each of us loves good parties, eh. Ask Prince Will and his stunning Princess and I’ll wager London to a brick that everyone who was at theirs, including those grey-clad CSC nuns, would say “Oh, yes”.

The king in this story, however, is a biblical version of The Godfather, Don Corleone. That character knew a lot about eliminations and it didn’t have anything to do with diets. To say “No” to an offer you can’t refuse could make life a little unstable.

Make no bones about it, the king here is a bully and gets really antsy with those who are not only brave enough to refuse the initial invitation, but who, successfully, stage a counter-attack against the king’s own men.

Straight away we are in Underbelly country. Retaliation is what it’s about now: the troops get sent in, the opposition get obliterated and the city gets razed. It’s not a fun time.

Just as we are relishing the thought of yet another fight we remember that there’s still the matter of the party. (You’ve got to hand it to the king. His persistence in the face of rejection, murder and destruction is beyond belief.)

Imagine being one of those rounded up to attend the party on the second list of invitees. Maybe it’s an understatement but I can’t imagine them being delighted by the menu or kicking their heels up on the dance floor.

More than likely, if they were eating at all, they’d be choking down their Wagu Beef Medallions and Tempura Barramundi with lime zest and barely touching their lips on the ‘52 Grange Shiraz as they waited to see what was going to happen next.

It happened alright: the king spotted someone sitting at one of the tables not wearing a wedding robe. The music stops. The silence is heavy. Heads turn in anticipation of another round of blood sport as the king sucks in his breath and eyeballs the hapless guest.

What comes out of the king’s mouth cannot be repeated here, even if we knew the words. The gist, though, is that he orders his servants to prepare that guest like a lamb for slaughter: stripped, hands and feet bound, mouth stuffed, then to be chucked into outer darkness.

How the king could expect anyone to be dressed like Pippa Middleton or Patrizio Buanne in that kind of circumstance and in the middle of all that carnage is beyond me. Properly dressed? Get a life.

However, as it is with Matthew on other occasions, so it is today. The story-teller is Jesus and the yarn is not about a king who’s having a hissy-fit because people aren’t coming to his party.

Clearly the issue is not the man's clothing, either, but there’s something about how the man presents himself at the banquet that Matthew wants us to note. As he’s done before, Matthew sees something extra when it comes to matters of discipleship.

Folding our wedding clothes of righteousness and putting them in our duffle bag maybe an option if we don’t want to get them dirty. In itself, that has been described as saying yes but doing nothing.

There is something quite challenging in the implication that our wedding robes are to be worn for the whole world to see, isn’t there?

More than that, by wearing them with integrity and by living appropriately will ensure they will be soiled but, soiled or not, it will also ensure that there will be a time when we couldn’t imagine wearing anything else.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Reflections from The Hill – The Big Ouch

“Aw, yeah? You and whose army?”

Jack Turner (not his real name) drew himself up to his full height. If his eyes were star pickets, I’d have been a barbed wire fence within seconds.

As it was, I had no army of any sort, just a couple of weedy, Grade 3, mates. We were no match for the knuckles of the Turner boys, so we turned away, defeated.

When I read about the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees in this week’s Gospel, my mind goes to that day in the schoolyard of South Carlton Public and the eerily terrifying sounds of lines being drawn in the sand.

Instead of making a statement like “Hey, get out of this here, we don’t want your type here”, the Pharisees chose to ask a question: “Who told you that you could do this?”

Jesus must have known that the way to really judge a person was by their questions, not by their answers because he countered this question with another one about John the Baptist and showed them up in the process.

Answer one way and the Pharisees get shown up as just another bunch of ignorant religionists; answer the other and they stand to lose so much popularity that even Julia Gillard would look good, poor thing.

(As an aside, the reader might be well instructed to know that the strategy of replying to a question with another question is one that my Dearly Beloved employs with great panache and effect, but I digress.)

All sorts of people asked Jesus all sorts of questions and most of them were self-serving: they wanted to trap him, to impress him, or to get something from him.

To every pointed question, though, Jesus offered an equally pointed answer that revealed some truth about the Kingdom, the King, and/or the Kingdom's subjects.

This time, though, he gets right to their hearts by asking them a question in return. Stymied for an answer, his accusers refuse on the grounds that, no matter what they said, an answer would incriminate them, seriously, badly.

This sets up Jesus to tell a story about integrity. None of us can get past this yarn without having a twinge of conscience. In my case, it’s more like having a grand-mal fit than a twinge.

Jesus tells the awkward story of the two brothers who were asked to help out: one said “No” but then did; the other said “Yes” but didn’t. The point of integrity, though, is in what they did, not what they said.

For every one of us who hears this story, the comparison forces us to ask the question, Which one am I? Am I the one who presents as obedient but isn’t, or am I the one who for, all intents and purposes, can’t be trusted but, in the end, does what is needed? Which am I? Which are you?

It’s a tough call. We may not be the chief priests and elders of Jesus' day, asking the Messiah accusing questions. Or, perhaps we are. Even so, the parable speaks volumes to us.

When I hear or read this part of Matthew, I am reminded of that convoluted section in Romans 7 when Paul is rabbiting on about not doing the good that he wants to do but actually doing the thing that he really doesn’t want to do. Whether Paul or Matthew, the point they’re making is a challenge.

After all the saying and praying and singing, this text puts the focus on what we exactly do after we leave church on Sunday. Ouch.

Jesus has no need to defend his authority to those without integrity, for they (we) have lost face, lost trust, lost moral standing with the people. Ouch.

‘Putting our money where our mouth is’ is still a challenge. Do our words match our convictions, and does what we do match our words? Ouch.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Reflections from The Hill – A God Too Nice?

In our family’s annals there is a story that centres on which child was to get the wooden spoon after some misdemeanour that’s now been lost to posterity. Each of the tin-lids was paddled in the end (or on it) because no-one owned up.

Naturally, the event that precipitated my actions has grown exponentially, both with time and the amount of red wine consumed but, dear reader, take the point: when it comes to fair being fair, I’m on the side of equity.

The Gospel today (Matthew 20.1-16) makes another point. Depending on where your head is, this story is either one about how to get your workers really cranky, ready to bring out the Union rep and to organise a strike or it’s an exercise in extraordinary generosity; some might even say stupidity.

As I read this story again and again, I get drawn into outrage again and again, particularly as I watch malingerers and lay-abouts score handsomely for doing not much while I, who has worked until his carpal tunnels are screaming, don’t get any more for putting up with the heat, the flies or whatever. It ain’t fair.

Time and time again I get drawn into this scenario and, even though I know the answer, the question won’t go away: what kind of God have we got here? Over and over again, I get all aerated because it seems that He’s on the side of lazy people, not the productive ones, like me.

This is the world that Jesus challenges. He is using our assumptions – in this case an assumption about equality – to introduce something completely radical and different. We might agree in a moment of weakness that the owner’s move is OK: yeah, He gives us all the same thing, not what we deserve or worked for … but it’s still not fair.

We have a hard time right here because the challenge goes to the very seat of our upbringing. Then comes The question: Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? (v 15)

He’s being merciful, not fair. If we want fair, don’t read this story. If we want mercy, then take a gander at it. There we’ll see love in action: The Big Fella wants everyone to be saved, regardless.

Part of our difficulty with the parable is that it challenges what we see as God’s predictability, His niceness. He’s become so domesticated that we now believe He wouldn’t do anything to upset anyone like me or you.

When something bad happens, which it does, and we start trying to give some sense of Godliness to it, we end up valiantly excusing Him from any culpability and assure people that He feels bad, too, just like we do, and He wouldn’t do anything like that, ever.

It’s been a bit like that this week as we negotiated our way through the 9/11 Memorial Services and the first salvos of the Carbon Tax debate, to name two. If we’re not careful, we can end up using our pulpits to give economic advice to the PM or foreign policy to the leaders of the US of A.

It’s important to be afraid of giving people the impression that God is wringing His hands on the sideline of life, like a maiden aunt with the vapours, and is too nice to do anything different. He ain’t, and we well know that.

It is hard to bear the thought of a God who does things differently from the way we do them, who thinks different thoughts to ours, who says things that are almost outside our vocabulary.

It’s even harder to continue believing in a God who is so bland, so innocuous and so harmless that He’s not worth the effort to even raise an ire about inequality. It’s not a matter of reviving J. B. Phillips’s Your God Is Too Small; it’s a case of delivering us from a God who is too nice.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Reflections from The Hill – Back to Church Sunday

When it comes to Back-to-Church Sunday, I must admit that I’m puzzled: why would anyone want to go away from church in the first place to allow them to come back?

People obviously leave in great numbers, so I’m not putting my head in the sand. An analysis of declining congregations (a phenomena of Western Christianity, I’m told) would reveal a huge array of reasons.

I’m also conscious that there are countless who have never taken up the option of finding out, or have never been able to do so because they live in deepest, darkest, Africa or some such inaccessible place.

The numbers of actual atheists is, I suspect, relatively small by comparison to the six billion or so (and counting) who live on this fantastic blue planet. I am not going to argue their case.

My task today is to try to come to grips with the reasons why people actually come to church and stay.

Make no mistake; for anyone who understands church and what it’s really all about, going to church can be the most fulfilling, inspiring thing they do in a long day’s march.

The source for Reflections this week is the Acts of the Apostles, particularly chapter 2. It’s called ‘Acts’ because it’s a story of what the early Christians did. There we find a six sentence snapshot of what early church life was like.

Looking at this picture, we can see five reasons why the church started in the first place. This may give us some clues about why we are, or want to be, part of it.

If the first question in life concerns one’s identity (“Who am I?”), the next one has to do with place, or community (“Who am I connected to?”).

Jesus built on a fantastic tradition of familial connections to give his followers a sense of community, belonging and togetherness at a level that they, hitherto, could not find anywhere else in the world.

This is so at odds to the world of TV soaps and the like that it’s puerile to even compare them with what Jesus was on about. The fact that many hang off every word in ‘Packed to the Rafters’ or ‘Cheers’ is simply indicative of the long and deep-felt hunger people have for fellowship, community and family.

I read somewhere that beer commercials don’t sell beer; they sell fellowship, even the one where the guy wets his duds in the men’s room. People long to be connected. The church gives us such a place.

That’s not all, for belonging to a church gives us, next, a chance to express that connectedness: we are connected to the One who made us and that creates an opportunity for us to express that relationship every hour of every day of our life.

This is called ‘worship’, a phenomena that is much more than the few reedy hymns and the sermon delivered through an inadequate sound system will do any Sunday morning, except perhaps in your church.

Worship is a way of life; and, if we let ourselves get immersed in worship, no matter what style we might prefer, we will feel God’s presence there, and it will stay with us.

The third element about church is finding out about The Man/God Himself, Jesus. Honestly, the level of ignorance on this subject – even among Christians, let alone those outside – is appalling. The Church ought to be the place where the right information can be found.

When we come to church and hear the Word of God being preached, it teaches us what it really means to be like Jesus; it challenges us to follow in his steps; and equips us grow to spiritual maturity.

While some of those early followers were out healing the sick, blind and crippled, other were helping the poor and looking out for one another. This points us to fourth great reason why the church exists and why we should be a part of it.

Despite the huge pressure to consume the world’s goods and its materials, it’s important to know that God designed us to make a difference with our life. He put us on earth to make a contribution, not just to consume resources and take up space.

There are many books that offer advice on how to get the most out of life, but that’s not why God made us. We weren’t made to get but to give. We’ve been created to add to life on earth. God wants us to give something back.

If we’re already in a church and we’re not involved in a work of service, what excuses are we using? Here’s a few that have been tried before: Abraham was old, Jacob was insecure, Leah was unattractive, Gideon was poor, David had an affair and all kinds of family trouble, Elijah was suicidal, Jeremiah was a depressive, Naomi was a widow, the Samaritan woman had five failed marriages, Thomas had doubts, and Timothy was timid. Need I go on?

There is one more pearl to come and that’s the pearl of “What next?” If we are in a place and doing worship and maturing as a Christian and exercising some ministry, then the last reason for coming to church is to do what we’ve been talking about this week: inviting others to come to church.

Being invited by someone else is still the biggest reason for people being in church today. In Acts, the church grew from 120 to 3000 in one day. By Acts 4, that number had risen to 5000 and, by Acts 6 there were too many to count because they knew they had a mission and they set out to get it done.
How do we ‘get it done?’ The easiest thing to do is to invite someone to church and to let them hear the message themselves That’s as good a reason for Back To Church Sunday as I can find.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Reflections from The Hill – Use or Ab-use?

From time to time, TV journalists do stories on domestic violence. It’s an horrendous topic, both visually and aurally, even if the re-enactments are staged for the report.

Such behaviour is so far outside my level of desire that it’s almost dreamland stuff and, frankly, I am confronted and offended by the reports, despite being able to see myself in many of them.

This delicate subject of physical, emotional and verbal abuse gets a fair bit of attention – and rightly so – those in authority are doing their level best to lower the high physical and monetary costs associated with the problem.

In the context of today’s Gospel Reading from Matthew, we get a glimpse of another type of abuse, a most insidious example called spiritual abuse.

Wikipedia says that spiritual abuse ‘occurs when a person in religious authority or a person with a unique spiritual practice misleads and maltreats another person in the name of God or church …’

Sad to say but this passage from Matthew has been used by clergy and church officials the world over to harm people, to exercise power over them and, if two or three of them agree on something, to ignore everyone else’s opinion and do what they want.

Of course, I’m not thinking of your Parish or ministry area as I write this. Such things don’t happen there, I’m sure. But if this form of abuse did occur where you are, and if you used Matthew to justify your actions, we can be pretty sure that it happened because someone put a spin on the words of Jesus that just ain’t there.

When we get to read it, it’s important to stand back a bit and look at chapter 18 as a whole, like I had to do when I visited Canberra and saw Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles” in the National Gallery. I had to consciously avoid getting up close and personal.

Standing back ensured that I was able to take in the painting in one go, to see it as it was. Its impact on me is still profound to this day.

The trouble is that, when we get to Scripture, we tend to do the same thing: get up close and personal first, rather than stepping back and getting the bigger picture.

When we get too close, we become picky and selective about what’s there. Some bits are agreeable to us and some aren’t. For example, we don’t drown people for being a stumbling block anymore and I’m not sure that plucking out an eye has ever had the desired result.

Mind you, not too many farmers would leave ninety-nine sheep in a paddock to go look for one which went missing, either. Leave them alone and they will come home is far more cost effective but I could be wrong.

So what was Jesus trying to get us to understand in these few verses this week? Retribution is good? Hardly. Excessive use of power is a thing to be grasped? Not likely. Drown your opposition? Excuse me …

No. Jesus is continuing his teaching on the Kingdom by helping us understand that He sees things from a very different and opposite perspective from the one we have.

Jesus is saying that it’s not the greatest, or the most powerful, or best dressed who are top of the pile in God’s Kingdom but those who are vulnerable, without power and without status.

He uses hyperbole (overstatement) to help us hear the gospel of God’s love in different ways, through different experiences, with different language and images.

Jesus could have used his power to tell the disciples exactly what he thought of their question about who was the greatest, but he chose to listen, to open up conversation and to teach.

There’s a good lesson here. If Scripture is a closed word and simply an answer book, then we’re all in trouble. We’ll continue to use scripture to attack others and thus perpetuate violence against one another and to justify harm in God’s name. In this, we will limit God – and that’s no exaggeration.

Jesus’ own exaggeration goes beyond what the disciples and we can comprehend: it goes way beyond the tokenism of inclusiveness to a radical inclusivity where we take each other seriously, listen to the other, and dare to trust that this other person belongs in God’s love as much as we do.

In the wash-up, that’d have to be a whole lot better than a head full of power, a mouth full of control and a fist full of abuse, now, wouldn’t it?

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Reflections from The Hill – Lost Things

I can’t say that I’m excited by this week’s Gospel, especially the bit where it talks about losing stuff. It really doesn’t matter what the stuff is, it’s losing it that I find irksome.

Temporarily misplaced? Put it somewhere where it won’t get broken? Mislaid? Nowhere to be found? Nah. Time to call on St Anthony.

The “stuff” this week is “our life” which, when we stack it up against our diamond ring or gold brooch – things for which Anthony works overtime – we discover that Anthony isn’t all that interested in finding for us.

As the words of the Reading roll off the lips of the Gospeller this Sunday, we realise that Jesus isn’t talking about “stuff” like we think and that we’re facing that awful chasm that gets stretched between Jesus’ call on our lives and our part-time, mostly volunteer, discipleship.

As an aside, years ago I figured the best way to overcome the guilt I felt in not being able to ‘give it all to Jesus’ was to sign up for Ordination. I contemplated missionary work and being a monk but they weren’t the same. Ordination was for life. Full-time.

Thus began the myth that clergy (or nuns or monks) are closer to God because of their time commitment. Ha. It’s like saying you’re closer to heaven if you live in a high-blocked house.

Instead of getting better, my guilt got worse because I soon learned that when he speaks about losing things in this passage, he’s actually talking about ‘destruction’. Destroy my life? Come on.

Well, I thought, at least I’ve got a few mates out there who congregate with me week after week, they’ll tell me that it’s OK for me to believe he’s not being serious and I’ve just read it wrong, right? Wrong.

The most difficult observation, though, was that most of us choose to ignore this passage. We’d rather read something nice. We’d rather hear the challenge and ignore it rather than surrender to it.

Precious are the few who can lay everything on the line for the gospel, it seems, but the majority can’t/won’t. The words, though, aren’t going to disappear as if by magic. We can’t avoid them; neither can we ignore their call.

What we tend to do is to fit church into our life as best we can. Most of us simply put it into the open spots on our calendar. The more we can fit it, the more committed we are in the eyes of the beholders.

“Does your mum practice her faith?” I asked a sad son whose ma had just been admitted to hospital.

“Oh, no” he responded, “She doesn’t practice it, she does it for real.”

Matthew 16:21-28 moves from a focus on Jesus and his vocation to his demands for his disciples. Jesus has just congratulated Peter for his recognition that he (Jesus) is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” and in the same breath uses words that talk of authority, privilege and power. It’s all good.

Then, in a surprising move, Jesus begins to reinterpret what being the Messiah actually means and what following that Messiah really entails. If Peter can’t bear the revelation of Jesus’ coming suffering, which he can’t, how will he respond when the focus shifts to those whose fate mimics that of Jesus?

Many of us know only too well that we fall far short of Jesus’ standard. By contrast, perhaps our culture needs the reminder, too. One of the cultural issues I’m struggling to overcome is the insidious assumption that God wants us all to be happy little Vegemites.

Ask any bride and groom what they want from their marriage and see if I’m not wrong. The quest for happiness has become like a weed that is slowly suffocating us.

It’s pursuit is aided by Christian music. There are countless choruses and songs that celebrate how much we love Jesus and how great he is. Open any Christian website and you’ll be flooded with invitations to buy the latest Self-Help book. At one level it looks good, as I say.

The happiness assumption has wriggled its way so far into our collective psyche that we’ve become almost incapable of being challenged by Jesus’ own words. Right there is our challenge.

Can we hear that God just might be calling us to a radical commitment and that this just might mean losing our life? It’s a tough question.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Reflections from The Hill – Speaking Up

There’s a lot of chat on the streets about Jesus and who he is. Everyone’s got an opinion, from the bishop (any bishop) down: the bro who’s dealing joints, your hairdresser or the friendly barista at Gloria Jean’s.

It’s no surprise to know that there are opinions in those sepulchres of advanced learning, too. Scientists and philosophers are particularly vocal but plenty of others will give you a potted course in their version of Christology at the drop of a stethoscope, too.

Just thumbing through the Gospels ourselves, we see that quite a number of people there have a view of Jesus as well, not all of them complimentary: Mary’s son; a prophet without honour in his own country; the king of the Jews; a prophet, a rabbi and a pain in the neck.

He can heal your sick child, cast out your demons, forgive your sins, raise your mate from death and lead the revolution. He’s the bloke to invite to dinner and the bloke to invite to leave the district.

He’s been alive, dead and risen again; some say he’s coming back for a third shot, which raises the question about how many times he needs to get it right; and, of course, he’s Lord and God.

People say lots of things about Jesus, spiritually, theologically, historically, colloquially, pastorally or biblically. They shout out his name on building sites, on the internet, at the kitchen table, from pulpits and in psych wards. You can hear the word used in anger, joy, bitterness and any other emotion, or none.

People describe him, decry him, defend him, and deconstruct him. They explain him; complain about him, and just plain yak about him. Jesus is easy to talk about. Pick your context, pick your method, and go for it, says Anna Florence in Lectionary Homiletics.

The one place that talking about Jesus can be tricky, however, is at church. Ever tried it at the morning tea after the Service?

“We have boundaries Ian,” I was told after one such attempt, “There’s a time and place for everything, you know.”

We do have limits, sure. There are things about Jesus that you can’t say about him, not if you want to pass your theological exam anyway. So we learn very quickly what line the examiners want to read, what the selection committee members want to hear, what the denominational view is.

The trick with this is to learn how to honour all of the above and maintain one’s integrity at the same time, so that what people say about Jesus intersects with what we say. That’s the place where formation happens, that’s where we are moulded. What people say does shape us, about that there is no doubt.

In a curiosity of life pretty much limited to the miraculous, what people say about Jesus turns into something far greater than what the sum total of their words could ever do.

So how do we make the jump from what people say to what we say about Jesus? This is really the touchstone of this week’s Gospel Reading.

It’s the touchstone of the Gospel because it is the foundation for a person to mature in the faith of Christ, a Confirmation requisite.

It’s the touchstone of the Gospel because by it people are formed and moulded into Christ themselves. Their participation in church practices – singing, praying, serving, feeding, foot washing and the like – deepens what they say about Jesus by immersing them in what others say.

It’s not just a matter of knowing stuff, like how to pronounce Old Testament words or of knowing what “eschatology” means. Information is readily available and people knock their eyes out satisfying their curiosity.

It’s Peter gives us the clue. He sets aside what others have said and listens to what the Lord is saying to him in the depths of his spirit: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” he blurts.

"Blessed are you, Simon," crows Jesus. "No human being could have told you that. You really must be listening."

For each of us, the moment comes when what people say about Jesus no longer satisfies us. We can’t hide behind their words anymore. We can’t pretend what they say is ours. We can’t substitute what people say for what we say. We only can listen to God and speak up for ourselves.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Reflections from The Hill – Limping

You may have gathered by now that I have a bit of a leaning toward the Old Testament, particularly when it comes to the Isaac, Jacob and Joseph sagas.

For an amateur wordsmith like me, these yarns are lively examples of God’s dealing with some of the world’s rogues, cheats and ne’er-do-wells, many of whom could easily have been members of my own family.

Move over Underbelly and Power Without Glory. Nothing, and I mean nothing, compares to the Readings we’re hearing in Church currently. Don’t ever let anyone ever tell you that Church is boring.

That’s not the way our society tells it. Out there in society-land, Church is boring and God is portrayed as everyone’s friend, as the giver of all good things, is always on the look out to bless us in abundance and would never harm a fly.

This view makes the current episode about Jacob a bit disturbing. In fact, when one looks at all of this week’s Readings, you’d have to say that anguish is at the heart each of them, a far cry from the God-as-wooss view.

This part of Jacob’s story is unsettling, to say the least. Not only does the story lack clarity, there is the presence of this shadowy, dark, figure with whom Jacob wrestles all night. All night? No ‘best of three falls’ in this match here, obviously.

Jacob’s trying to get home to patch up things with his brother, the hairy Esau, whom he swindled out of an inheritance. As an aside, maybe Jacob was the one who started the saying “Where’s there’s a will there’s a relative”. Whatever; Jake is about to square things off with his big bro and, as he goes, is fast becoming a candidate for Valium, such is his anxiety.

In the dead of night, Jacob is set upon by a shadowy stranger who engages him in a fight that exceeds anything you’ll ever see on Smackdown. What a match.

I suspect the stranger was either a politician, a lawyer or a journo: he made no comment and neither confirmed nor denied who he was. Jacob becomes convinced that Mr No-Name is, in fact, God himself. With a history of looking to get an advantage, Jacob wasn’t going to let Him go without being paid back for the sand in his eyes.

“If this is God whom I’m wrestling, the least he can do is give me a blessing,” says Jake. But, here’s the scary bit: God gives him a blessing, but dislocates Jacob’s hip in the process.

“Some God you’ve got there, old boy,” we say. “I thought He cared for people …” It’s literally a low blow but, in the end, Jacob gets both a blessing and a limp for his troubles: “blessed but crippled” as someone has put it.

Personally speaking, I wouldn’t’ be making this story the centrepiece of an evangelistic crusade or an advertising campaign for Back To Church Sunday, but that’s only my view.

At an experiential level, however, there is something familiar about this story because many of us can identify with Jacob: assaulted by God, assaulted by the Church, by our family, by the world, by everything.

For many, a relationship with God is a real wrestle, often through long night-watches. It often happens when we’re on a journey to put something right, when we’re really working at drawing near to God and becoming the person God wants us to be and all we get is a shadowy, elusive and uncooperative presence in return and a pile of grief that leaves us limping for life.

Of course, I can be, and have been, grateful for the blessings that have reshaped my life and have borne fruits of gratitude from deep within that might otherwise not have come. Often I can recognise the unmistakeable fingerprints of God all over the wrestle. But that’s hindsight, where 20/20 vision reigns.

Often, when one’s actually in the fight, it would be nice to know there might have been another, gentler, way, a way that didn’t leave a scar that still causes us to limp, a cup of suffering that we didn’t have to drink.

Many have walked away from wrestling at this point, sans dislocation and sans blessing. It all gets too hard and we wonder which is the best option: stay and get injured or walk away in freedom. It’s a helluva choice.

Perhaps I’m a dreamer and there is no other way. It’s an odd comfort that tells me Jesus didn’t find that way, either, if there was one. He wrestled with God and copped wounds that have never been healed, either. So we hang in there.

If God is the central character in all of these sagas, then one would have to say that He’s got a funny way of showing His love for us. Clearly, He wants only the best for his people but wrestling to the point of injury? Come on.

He’s obviously no namby-pamby God who faints at the sight of blood nor wimps out on making the cuts that will reconstruct us into the Imago Christi, the likeness of Jesus.

This is a God whose love is tough enough to wound us when it is the only alternative to bring us into the blessings that have been made possible for us by our wounded saviour.

Furthermore, this is a God who has the tough courage to be wounded by us, and crucified by us over and over again, rather than let us walk off unscarred, unsure whether we have got what it takes to face the fears of tomorrow.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Reflections from The Hill - Custody of the Eyes

Reflections from the Hill – Custody of the Eyes

Sometimes our eyes deceive us; sometimes it’s easier to get a new set of specs than fall into a mess of sin; sometimes we need to exercise custody of the eyes, unlike that manipulating, self-serving liar called Jacob.

He’s a big man in the Biblical story, and quite significant, as we’ve heard over the past couple of weeks – and we’re about to hear a doozie of a story this week – but the truth is, I am constantly amazed at how God uses someone like him.

It’s almost as if being a miscreant and living in immorality are prerequisites for holiness. If they are, then I’m afraid that I’ve missed it.

Let’s set the scene: Jacob’s on an eastward trek looking to obtain a wife from his mum’s brother, the crafty old Laban, and comes across a group of blokes watering their sheep.

While the pleasantries are taking place, Jacob spies a young lady coming in his direction. She’s a stunner – and rich. In a scene that might have come direct from any Townsville nightclub on a Friday night, Jacob falls in love with her straight away.

He takes her by the hand and, like the gentleman he is (not), plants a big smoochie on her. Emotions run high, hearts race, stars cross – and Jacob goes all dewy-eyed. Loudly.

Rachel’s knees give way under the weight of the hormones and, because she’s really a good girl, she takes off for home lickety-split to tell the old man what has happened. The old bloke, Laban, is overjoyed: “I like this guy’s style.”

The family reunion continues for days, even weeks; there’s a lot of hugging and kissing, but Laban listens carefully as Jacob tells him the whole bag of tricks, including the bit about Esau, and figures that Jacob is on the make.

“Surely you are bone of my bone,” says Laban with a vast amount of cynicism and fawning approbation, “Welcome to the family. Now, what do you really want?”

“Want? Me? Well, if you insist – how about your daughter Rachel?”

You could have knocked Laban over with a feather. He was planning for Leah to get married. Leah, his eldest, the one who had the soft, doe-like eyes and may not have been all that bright, was twiddling her thumbs and waiting for a man to turn up; any man.

So Jacob and Laban cut a deal: Jacob will work for 7 years for Rachel. That’s all. High fives all round with a handshake and the deal is done. (Sometimes I dream of weddings at St James’ Cathedral being as simple).

When the 7 years were up, and it seemed but a few days for our lover-boy, Jacob went to collect his pay. “Ok, Laban, I’ve done the time, now give me Rachel so we may commence with the consummating …”

”Not so quick, young fella, there’s a whole celebration to organise here. We’re going to need the caterers, for starters.” So Laban makes the arrangements but you can tell that he has another plan in mind.

During the wedding ceremony, the bride came heavily veiled, and after the reading of the marriage contract, the groom wrapped his bride in the cloak he wore, and then took her into their version of the honeymoon suite, the marriage tent, where they spend their first night together.

Maybe it was dark, maybe she really was heavily veiled, maybe he was drunk, but the morning after … Jacob, submerged in that warm and fuzzy honeymoon fog, rolled over to kiss Rachel, his new wife, only to find Leah lying next to him, all curled up and smiling.

Jacob’s been caught in a sting of the first order. What goes around, comes around, they say, and the crafty old Laban’s snapped another one.

Jacob runs to Laban “What have you done? This isn’t what I agreed to: I wanted Rachel; I worked for Rachel; and I’m in love with Rachel. You pulled the switch, and now I’m saddled with this … this … other one.”

Funny, isn’t it, that a person’s birthright was the reason for the switch? The one who played that card a little while before has been trumped at his own game.

Uncle Laban doesn’t stop there, though. He reaches into his storehouse of monkey-tricks and pulls out yet another deal: “Stay with Leah through the week and you’ll get Rachel. What’s more, for you I can do this for the special, low, low price of seven years.”

Laban’s got Jacob over a barrel; Laban played on Jacob’s love for Rachel, unloaded both daughters and got fourteen years of free labour out of the boy. By the end of the week, however, Jacob had Rachel too. It’s like something out of The Hustler or The Sting.

Let’s stay with Jacob. He got swept away when he saw something he wanted; and he worked for it, and is patient until the day he gets it. And then, the morning after, he wakes up with the other sister. Talk about custody of the eyes.

Who among us hasn’t had that experience? Who among us, after wanting something so badly that we would do anything to get it, hasn’t woken up one day and realises, “This isn’t what I bargained for.”

How many married men have sat at the breakfast table and said to themselves “Really? I married her? … This isn’t the one I married; my wife was beautiful …”

Or wives, the first time they discover him sleeping on the couch with chips all over his tee-shirt, snoring away with the TV blaring and the remote still in his hand, thinks, "Seriously?

Jacob learned that God’s plans are bigger than his eyes made provision for. He learned, too, that God has a longer vision: He knows the end from the beginning.

By waiting the extra week for Rachel, God raised up Joseph (of Technicolour Dream-Coat fame) and His story was able to roll on.

When things go awry, it’s easy to get mad, retreat to the desert and allow our eyes to call the tune. Maybe it’s better to take the long view “Wait it out the week, and at the end, you’ll get Rachel too.”