I am Rohingyan

Last Saturday I found myself again at the steps of WA Parliament. The rally was organised at short notice to give public expression to the grotesque genocide and horrendous ethnic cleansing that is taking place in Myanmar (Burma) for the Rohingyan refugees. 

The media have brought us tragic images of over 400,000 ethic Rohingyan refugees fleeing their homes and burning villages to cross the border over to Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world and almost totally unable to cope with the hungry, traumatised and stateless Rohingyans. 

I attended and spoke at the rally as a leader of a Christian church. Most of those at the rally were Moslems. Yes, Rohingyas are Muslims but when there is suffering and injustice it is not an issue of religion but of humanity. These Muslim Rohingyas have been the target of violence, rape and brutal military oppression by the Burmese military. The news pictures show the squalid conditions that these refugees are forced to live in.

I was at the rally as a Christian and as a fellow human being. Someone in the crowd shouted out, “I am a Rohingyan”. They may have been, but I think that they were reminding us that we are members of the human family, when it comes to being in solidarity with those who are poor and suffer.

My Christian faith invites me to love my neighbour unconditionally, where he or she be Hindu, Buddhist Jew or Moslem.

My Christian faith reminds me that God’s care and compassion as modelled in Jesus cuts across every religious, social and political divide.

Yes, I am a struggling Christ follower, but also I share in God’s universal passion to seek the wellbeing of all people, whether they be in Burma or in Brisbane.

It will take a considerable humanitarian effort from the world community to begin to alleviate the terrible suffering of these people. We continue to demand that our government and all governments who can, to make this an urgent priority. Disease and needless death will grow if there is no immediate action.

As we lift our voices in protest, as we put our hands together in prayer, as we dig deep into our pockets with donations, as we empathise and act for Rohingyan, maybe we too can say  “I am a Rohingyan”.

Rev Steve Francis

A new Strategic Plan and the BIG question: Where do we go from here?

After more than a year in preparation, the Synod endorsed the Strategic Plan 2017-2020 last weekend. Plans however need to be put into practice, so where do we go from here?

It is however, first worth taking another look at the core principles of the Strategic Plan. Our vision is to be a Christian community for everyone by uniting in God’s mission to the world; growing communities of Christ-followers; and being grounded in our worship of God, our witness to God’s grace and our service to others.

That sentence states both our vision and our purpose and these are intricately interconnected. It also reflects, in a practical sense, how we, as the Uniting Church Western Australia can carry out both Jesus’ Great Commission (To go out into the world to make disciples) and the Great Commandment (To love both God and our neighbour).

The Uniting Church is, in my view, quite distinct in its approach to community.

Our core value is inclusivity – deep at the heart of who we are, is the call to a ministry of reconciliation. We are inclusive, we open our doors, we should not discriminate. This too, is at the heart of the gospel. God came among us in Christ, to bring together both Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female – for we are all one in Christ. (Galatians 3:28)

Sadly though, the church through the ages has discriminated on various issues of law and Biblical interpretation – are you baptised RIGHT? Do you RIGHTLY interpret Scripture? Do you RIGHTLY honour the Sabbath? The Communion Table? The Second Coming? Leadership in the church? Many of these things are legal interpretations and lead us into the realm of Law. But this is not the Gospel.

The Gospel is open. Yes, there are boundaries but these are not exclusions, simply ways to understand the infinite extent of God’s love.

As the Uniting Church we live in the tension of these things. We seek to understand the Gospel within the tension which exists in the supreme call of Christ and the selfishness of our human frailty. This is our ethos – we don’t always do it well, but our heart is right. Sometimes we become critics ourselves – we stand in judgement of others, but this is not our default position.

Instead, we are “A Christian Community for Everyone” and our desire is to join with God in the mission to reach the world with good news of God’s reconciling action in Christ. We are working WITH GOD to make disciples who are grounded in worship of God, in witness to God’s grace revealed in Christ and service to others for the glory of God.

The development of the Strategic Plan sought to incorporate all these things.

In God’s eyes, this is not an impossible tension. Indeed, it is the way God intended the church to be.

  • We will seek to build community!
  • We will seek to join with God in the mission to the world!
  • We will seek to grow communities of Christ-Followers!
  • We will worship God as our first priority!
  • We will witness to God’s grace revealed in Christ Jesus!
  • We will serve others for the glory of God!

So how does this happen right NOW, in our present context?

We begin by understanding that God, in Christ, has given to all people in the church the Holy Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal, which is the end view for the whole creation. The church’s call is to serve that end so that, by the Spirit, people may trust God as their Father and acknowledge Jesus as Lord (Basis of Union, Para3).

Beyond this however, is the world which lives apart from God. For many within Western culture today, religion has no place and the number of those seeking to live faith-based lives is in decline. Church is seen as outmoded and out of date, and for some, even a source of hurt and pain.

And yet, Christ’s call to us is unchanged. We may have misinterpreted it, but the call is still there; to share faith, build lives and to care for each other, for others and for creation. This is strong in Africa, Asia and South America, and growing. In our own context we see this in the immigrant communities of our multicultural congregations.

When our worship of God, our witness to God’s grace and our service to others is at the forefront of our lives, we will indeed become a Christian Community for Everyone.

NEXT WEEK: More on Collaborating Communities as the essence of the Strategic Plan 2017-2020.

Rev David de Kock
General Secretary 

In Praise of Friendship

One of most popular and endearing television programs was sitcom series Friends.

It struck a rich cord in our society. Each episode reminded us that friends matter.

To be alone and friendless is the scourge of our a society that is too often individualistic and self-centred. Frequently in movies, there is a scene or two of tragic loneliness; a guy or girl in a bar drinking by themselves and hoping to be picked up.

Friendship is more richer and deeper that any flirtatious affection. Unlike romantic relationships or the bonds between siblings, “friendship is entirely voluntary, uncovered and unencumbered by any send of duty or debt”(Wesley Hill).

Friendship is uniquely precious, mysterious and uniquely rewarding. True friendship often has minimal obligations and maximal liberty. With friends you can be yourself without fear of judgement. Mark Slouka’s novel, Brewster is the story of two school kids who fall into an unlikely friendship. On reflecting on the friendship one of them comments “it was as close to having a brother as I’ll ever get”.  Such can be the strength and warmth of the bond of friendship.

I love the Old Testament story of David and Jonathan, they were great mates who loved each other. They loved being with each and shared life’s deepest struggles and supported one another. How life-giving this is. I think also of the story in the gospels about Simon of Cyrene who carried Jesus’s cross. Jesus needed a friend, the Roman cross was too hard to bear. Simon stepped in and befriended Jesus.

Even the Son of God needed friends.

Bearing each other’s burdens is part of what friends do. In our Western culture we are in danger of downgrading or dismissing the value of non-sexualised friendship. Ben Myers, an Australian theologian has outlined a series of ways that friendship has be pushed to the margins of our society. He challenges Freud’s suspicion that all relationships , at base involve eroticism.

Close male friendship are not inevitably homosexual. While marriage needs to be highly valued and respected as a relationship of mutual love and deep intimacy, close friendships and singleness can be rich sources of joy, mutuality and strength.

Indeed as retirees, divorced people and the newly married will tell you, marriage does not meet all our relational needs.

We sometimes forget that Jesus never married and was great at making deep friendships. He invited his followers into a divine friendship with him. He called his disciples into a community of equals where friendship is a core value.

As the debate on marriage rages, let us not forget the in-estimate value of friendship.

Rev Steve Francis

About Christophobia: Is Jesus welcome here?

Is Jesus welcome here?

We hear a lot today about phobias. Phobias are extreme or irrational fears that can take over given a certain set of circumstances.

I have come across people who have suffered from acrophobia (fear of heights), agliophobia (fear of pain), ailurophobia (fear of cats), arachnophobia (fear of spiders) and aviophobia (fear of flying). 

In more recent years, there have been claims of homophobia and Islamophobia. Our fears and phobias usually require careful attention as they prevent us from growing and lock us in to fear-filled behaviour.

May I suggest that in our modern culture there are traces of a new phobia, Christophobia. It is essentially the fear of Christ and the influence of Christianity. Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins believes “religion poisons everything”.

Religion, it is claimed, has a negative and corrupting effect on us and therefore we need to be cleansed from its influence and power. It sounds a little phobic, even a little Stalinist. People of faith were placed in the gulags and salt mines of Soviet Russia so they would not contaminate the atheist society. Jesus was not welcome. It does however raise the question, how welcome is Jesus in our society?

Last week my attention was drawn to an article in the Australian newspaper that read “Jesus not welcome in school yards”. The article was about primary schools in Queensland. Queensland education officials have moved to “ban references to Jesus in the primary school yard”. The prohibition suggests that talking about Jesus in conversation should be stamped out as it “could adversely affect the schools ability to provide a safe, supportive and inclusive environment”. The ban on Jesus also included the sharing of Christmas cards and creating Christmas decorations.

When I read this I began to wonder if Christophobia is beginning to emerge in Australia.Thankfully for the next few days there was a howl of protest.

Atheists wrote in saying religion should not be off limits in a school yard. Students should be free to talk about their beliefs, questions and doubts. Democrats wrote in saying in a democracy, freedom of speech is a basic human right. Educationists wrote in saying a well-rounded liberal education must include the discussion of religion inside and outside the class rooms. People of other faiths wrote in wondering why only Jesus was banned and what was the status of Buddha, Mohammed and Moses; where they also barred?

Why pick on Christianity?

Even Christians wrote in pointing out that Jesus, teaches us love our neighbours and enemies and go the extra mile in caring for people was hardly damaging to a “supportive or inclusive environment”.  One letter writer also pointed out many  Christmas cards contain the positive message of “peace on earth” and “good will to all people”, not words that could undermine the well-being of human community. Children sending Christmas cards to their friends is not breaching inclusivity or mind polluting.  One wonders what will be next and what has motivated the educational bureaucrats to behave in such a negative way towards Christianity.

Why do they fear?

It feels and looks like an irrational fear or phobia. Character Strengths and Virtues by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman shows research that Christians are less aggressive, have better marriages and family life and care for others more than those of no faith. It turns out that Christianity rather than poisoning everything when carefully applied actually enriches people’s lives with harmony, peace and meaning. Of course Christians can be hypocritical and judgmental, but when Christianity and the teaching of Jesus are generously applied to the life of an individual or a society the world is a better place. In my view we need to make more room for Jesus not less.

I don’t know about you but Jesus is most welcome in my life and in my world.

Steve Francis

Grey is the Colour of Hope: Remembering Irina Ratushinskaya

I was driving home a few days ago from a difficult meeting.

The people weren’t difficult but the issues were.

As I arrived in my drive way I began reflecting on the struggles and the frustrations that we had faced in our meeting. My wife’s car was not in the drive way, she had not yet returned from her meeting. So I decided to switch on the radio and unwind a little. I was so glad I did. I caught the last few minutes of an interview with a remarkable Russian Christian poet, essayist, and human rights advocate, Irina Ratushinskaya

Irina studied physics at university and was approached by the KGB in the early 1980’s to befriend foreigners and gather information that might be useful to the Soviet communist state.

The KGB told her that this would probably involve having sex with whoever she was being assigned to. She refused on the grounds of her Christian ethics. It seems the KGB noted her dissent. Irina’s gifting and passion was not in physics but in poetry. She wrote beautiful poems about life and faith in the oppressive totalitarian state. Inevitably Irina was arrested and in March 1983 and after six months of interrogation, she was sent westward to a remote prison camp in Mordovia where she was housed in a camp within a camp for female political prisoners. Irina published the story of her experiences in the prison camp in her book Grey is the Colour of Hope.

In this concentration camp she quickly assimilated into a tightly knit band of a dozen women prisoners. United as one, they resisted their captor’s efforts to punish them physically or break them psychologically.  For her resistance, Ratushinskaya served several stints in solitary confinement.

She kept going through her faith and her poetry. Daily she wrote poems on bars of soap using the burned ends of matchsticks because they would not give her any paper or pen. She memorised hundreds of her poems and somehow managed to smuggle the out of prison. They were published in several languages, prompting many writers from Europe and North America to campaign for her release.

On the day before the Reykjavik summit in the summer of 1986 she was released on the orders of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, as a gesture of good will towards the west. Her life in camp was full of grey, but her hope was never extinguished. At the close of the radio interview the journalist told the listening audience that the interview was taped several years ago and was played because Irina had died last week in Moscow.

She faced daily hardship, cruelty and isolation yet somehow survived and resisted with resilience and faith.

Her story reminded me that Irina is one of millions around the world who have suffered dreadfully because of their faith and their non-conformity. Her moving story powerfully reminded me that my grey times are in comparison petty and minor. In my down moments may the stories of courage and faithfulness inspire me to find hope.

Steve Francis

New Frontiers: Of Strategic Directions, Community Missions and Training of Ministry Agents

It has been a busy few weeks for me. I have been:

  • Working through the Synod Strategic Plan with the Strategic Advisory Group,
  • At the President’s Conference on the Honouring of First People in Darwin,
  • At the General Secretary’s meeting and Assembly Standing Committee in Sydney, and
  • Participating in discussions and planning around the UCA commitment to the Commonwealth Redress Scheme.

The Strategic Advisory Group, with a broad spread of representatives from the Synod, Presbytery, Schools and Caring Agencies met in Shoalwater for a weekend in mid-June. Significant progress was made in defining goals and objectives for the next five years. In broad terms, the plan recognises the struggle the Church currently faces in an increasingly secular world, admits that current structures and approaches are no longer helpful and focusses on building a new platform based on our Strategic Directions, our potential for Community Mission and need for new skills in leadership.

The latest data from the Census and National Church Life Survey has not been encouraging but we are a people of hope who serve the living God and we believe implicitly that we are called to build the church in its many facets of community, denomination and commitment to justice and peace.

Strategic Directions

The Strategic Directions for the Synod and Presbytery were established in 2015, as follows:

  1. Developing a Culture of Open Communication
  2. Promoting a Culture of Faith Formation and Faith Sharing
  3. Developing and/or Promoting Relevant Education, Training and Leadership Development Resources, Programs and Projects
  4. Increasing the Church’s Capacity for Community Engagement

It is really important to recognise that these are not separate directions but four energies which move us in the same direction so that we are:

  • Uniting in God’s Mission to the World
  • Growing Communities of Christ-Followers
  • Present in Worship, Witness and Service

Community Mission

While numbers in membership has declined throughout the Christian church, we do have a strong property base established by past generations who had a commitment to presence on virtually every street corner. This is one of our strengths but how do we use it to reach the community when numbers have declined to critical levels.

The Strategic Advisory Group have endorsed a Centres for Mission approach which establishes one place as a resourcing centre for several nearby congregations. It is like a Parish model on steroids. The concept is not new, in fact it was the basis of a plan prepared 20 years ago but never fully put into effect. While we might regret the loss of the past 20 years, I believe that now is the Kairos (God’s timing) for this plan.

The approach will require a strategic review of each and all of our congregations and church sites throughout the State, as well as the development of new sites in the areas which have mushroomed in the past decade.

Funding will be sourced through a new Foundation Trust which will be presented for approval at the Synod meeting in September. The existing Foundation will then be settled. While we still await the consent of the Resources Commission and Investment Fund for release of funds, it is anticipated that the corpus of this Fund will provide a sufficient investment return to establish at least one new Centre for Mission each year as well as providing funding for training of ministry agents and future leaders.

Training of Ministry Agents

I use the term to include lay leaders rather than simply the ordained ministry.

Our capacity to provide adequate ministry oversight in the current climate is severely limited. Not only are many of our ministry leaders at or beyond retirement age, but we have not produced student graduates from Theological Hall in anything like the numbers we need. Further, it is really difficult to attract younger talent from the eastern States, or even from overseas. We need a training program which will produce adequately skilled ministry leaders for today’s world in the shortest time possible. For this reason we have employed Rev Dr John Squires to work on this program in order initially to upskill current ministers and lay leaders and to provide for a continuing succession of ministry agents who will be able to lead the Church into the future.

In my devotions recently, I read a comment made by President John F Kennedy. He said, “We stand today on a new frontier … but the new frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises – it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.”

This is where we also stand today – we have before us, not a set of lovely promises, but some strong challenges.

It is my prayer that what the Strategic Advisory Group have developed will provide sufficient means for us each to take on the challenges which lie before us.

Rev David de Kock
General Secretary