A voice from the past

 

We can so easily be seduced by the new, the latest research, the cutting edge technology, the paradigm shifts. No one wants to be left behind in the frenzy of change that is all around us.

We can be afraid of being out dated, old fashioned or a dinosaur in a rapidly changing cosmos. Having our head in the sand or in the clouds are not places we need to be.

In my journey as a Christian, I want a foot in both worlds; listening and learning for the ancient and not so ancient past, while being open, flexible and alert the changing cultural climate and the new thing that God may be doing.

Christians are existentialists, in the sense we value the present, historians in that we appreciate the past and futurists in that we have a hope filled eye on the future.

I was reading one of my favourite authors the other day, Eugene Peterson. He describes in his book “the Pastor” how one day he walked into his study and removed all the academic diplomas from his walls. He replaced them with three photos of people whose company he wanted to keep in forming his identity as a pastor. It wasn’t that he was putting the world of academia behind him, indeed he was in demand as an adjunct professor and visiting lecturer. Rather he felt his degrees pointed to the world of the intellect, classrooms and libraries. While he valued these, as a pastor his world was more about “intimate relationships, a tradition of holiness and the cultivation of souls”. He was seeking to integrate learning into prayer and worship and the ordinariness of everyday living. His focus was not so much the lecture theatre or library but the sanctuary, workplaces and households that would keep his vocation local and personal.

The first picture on the wall of his study was that of John Henry Newman, who left the verified air of Oxford University for the rather polluted world of industrial Birmingham. While Newman lived nearly two hundred years ago, Peterson felt this Englishman with a sharp intellect and pastoral heart would be a good invisible companion in his pastoral journey. Newman’s influence in the Church of England was magisterial. For a while his was the name on everyone’s lips. Then he abandoned his elegant Oxford surroundings, with its intellectual prestige and religious influence and chose to be a Roman Catholic priest next to the belching steel furnaces and among children and adults who could not read or write.  I find Newman’s story an inspiring voice from the past. So have others. Mother Teresa and the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity adopted Cardinal Newman’s prayer “Radiating Christ” as a daily community prayer. The first part of the prayer goes like this.

“Dear Jesus

Help me spread your fragrance everywhere I go.

Flood my soul with your Spirit and life.

Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that all my life may only be a radiance of yours.

Shine through me, and be it so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel your presence in my soul.

Let them look up and see no longer me but only Jesus.”

I treasure this prayer from the past and I am struggling to make it my own. How about you?

Happy Clappers?

 

Christians get called all kinds of things these days. I have been called “a conservative”, “a liberal” and once “a religious nutcase”! Sometimes I hear phrases like “Bible believing” or “Spirit filled” or “born again” Christians. Added to this list are equally unhelpful terms like “progressive”, “evangelical” or “radical”. I want to say yes and no and maybe to most of them. Labels tend to box people in and they rarely do justice to the complexities of Christian faith.  At best I am a Christ follower, a struggling disciple of Jesus who hangs my hat with the Uniting Church. The other day on the front page of the West Australian newspaper I saw a headline describing Christians as “Happy Clappers”. It was used in a derogatory way to describe some members of the Christian community who are active in state politics. The tone of the article suggested ‘beware, these people have a sinister agenda and can’t really be trusted’. They were being compared to certain sections of the trade union movement who occasionally are accused of attempting to take over political parties. I nearly wrote a letter to the editor but thought better of it, instead I can vent on my blog.

I couldn’t help thinking that in a democracy we need a variety of good people, with good policies and good ethics, to be part of our parliamentary process. We need unionists to represent the interests of working people, we need entrepreneurs and business people who can stimulate our economy, we need people who are passionate about the environment, least we pollute our planet to death. We also need people of a strong social conscience and moral compass. Part of this mix must include people of faith and no faith working together in a pluralist society. Christians have every right to be part of this political enterprise. Indeed they are needed to bring the unique contribution that a compassionate Christian world view brings. We won’t always agree with them, or vote for them, but their presence across the political spectrum is generally a good thing. In my view they are not to be feared as the article implied but welcomed for the contribution they can make.

And as for “happy clappers”? My guess is that this term refers to the less liturgical kind of churches where Christians display happiness in worship and occasionally put their hands together to show their appreciation to God. The suggestion is that perhaps their worship is rather more emotional than rational, more spontaneous than planned.

We too easily forget that “Happy clapping” has an ancient history. We see it the Psalms and elsewhere in the Old Testament where the people of God are caught up in enthusiastic praise and break out in joy and in applause. Is this such a bad thing? When I go to an AFL game, or the theatre, or a music concert I inevitably find myself uplifted, emotionally moved and clapping. Does worship have to be unhappy or expressionless? Of course worship can include times of lament, silence, reflective meditation and deep stillness. All these things are good, but to be joyful in worship (“happy”) and expressive of that joy (“clappers”) is a good thing too. A couple of years ago I spend some time in a huge slum in Nairobi, Kenya. The worship was electrifying. Those who gathered were very poor, many were unemployed and some were victims of the high crime rate in the slum. The worship was full of infectious joy, very noisy, thoroughly God centred and very renewing. Yes they were happy and they clapped despite their desperate struggles. It was quite a contrast to some middle class suburban churches that I have visited where worship can seem sombre and sad. Maybe we need a bit more joy and responsiveness in our worship. Being a “happy clapper” is not such a bad thing.

Standing on Holy Ground

m_Navg4

Rev Eira Clapton recently visited Sri Lanka with UnitingWorld staff, to see the work of the Methodist Church of Sri Lanka which is supported by the partnership of the Uniting Church in Australia Synod of Western Australia

I start a new notebook for this Sri Lanka trip, because a pen and paper are quickly accessible when you want to make notes in a foreign country. On the title page I write these words: “What if we were standing on holy ground”?

Holy ground is difficult to get to. For us it involves a very early start. At 3.51am I climb into a small bus and we set off on crowded roads out of Colombo to the more remote north and east of the country. These are the areas which have been devastated by the double disaster of civil war and tsunami. There are fewer people to do the work in these areas – many of the young were killed in the war, or the disaster, or left disabled by them. The roads are poor so the villages are hard to get to, isolated from each other and from government services. The bus rollicks over dry creeks beds and picks its way at a snail pace around deep potholes.

I visit a Church hall in Muthur, where some tiny children have gathered to greet us with their mothers and preschool teacher.  They place garlands of flowers around our necks as we enter. This is a Church run school for those who can’t afford to send their children to government run preschools. One mother explains that she sells goods to provide for her family. Sometimes there is money for education, sometimes none. In this place everyone is welcome to come – it is a multi-faith school.  The preschool turns no-one away, even though the Church has no funding to support it.  The teacher has not been paid for months, and the only food provided to the children comes from what the parents can bring.

The children sing us a song, which sounds like “head and shoulders, knees and toes”, and we all smile at each other.

Eira’s Law of Spiritual Economics says “you know you are getting close to the kingdom of God when there is not enough money to do the work”. I conclude that we are very close today.

In the next district we visit more preschools in which teachers work for next to nothing and the churches provide emergency aid type nutrition packs for children, as the whole population is under-nourished.We are treated as special guests each place we go.

If you feel jaded about the church, visiting the projects that your church supports with funds, and meeting the passionate workers at the other end, will make you feel better.

In my notebook I write that I am thinking of all the faithful donors to appeals, and wishing they could have been with us.  We are thanked over and over by each preschool community, but of course they don’t mean to thank us personally -we just represent the Australian churches.

Anyone seen the kingdom of God? Maybe they could start looking around here.

If you want to be part of sharing the work of the Kingdom of God in this place, you can support the preschool project by donating to:

BSB 036-001  Account 92-1834Uniting Church in Australia

Reference Sri Lanka Preschools

Cheque – made payable to Uniting Church in Australia

Send to: Social Justice Unit, Uniting Church Synod of WA, GPO Box M952, Perth WA 6843

or email social.justice@wa.uca.org.au

Please note that donations to this appeal are not tax deductible.

 

 

 

Faith as an ellipsis

English was my favourite subject as school; I loved literature, poetry and plays, but sadly I always found grammar hard going. I still do.

The other day I came across some grammar that I was totally unaware of, yet I use it all the time. The discovery was an ellipsis. It is the triple dot punctuation that indicates a pause in speech or an unfinished thought. I realised that faith in God is a bit like this. When for example we are waiting for God to answer a prayer , it’s a period of ellipsis. We can give up or hang on. We can get angry with God or stay patient with God.

Ellipsis reminds us that often faith is about waiting, trusting and hoping. Prayers can be answered or unanswered. Jesus once told a story of a woman who just didn’t give up and kept bothering the judge until she got justice. Jesus in this story encourages the quality of persistence; not being discouraged or despondent and bailing when God doesn’t seem to come through.

In this instant age where we hate waiting and want answers straight away, a period of ellipsis is probably good for us, it builds character and deepens us. Faith in God is as Eugene Petersen put it is “a long obedience in the same direction”. That means lots of ellipsis along the way. Hang in there.

Steve