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
Moderator

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
Moderator

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

Homelessness: The issue of the filthy rich and relationally poor

I am getting sick of television.

There is such shallowness to so much viewing; whether is programs about cooking, rebuilding houses or artificial, highly scripted and formulaic reality shows. It’s generally banal entertainment. 

Then like a breath of fresh air comes last week’s SBS’s three part series “Filthy rich and homeless”. I found it challenging, confronting, informative and inspiring. The basic plot was taking five wealthy people from highly privileged backgrounds and taking away their phones, bank cards and money and making them homeless for ten days. As I watched each night, my admiration grew for each them. It takes a lot of guts to live on the streets or in homeless shelters when the only deprivation in life you have experienced is a cold latte or the battery on your mobile has run out. One of the five had never even made a coffee for themselves, another had never used a washing machine or made their own bed, such was their position of privilege. To be put out on the streets, penniless, lonely and homeless on ten wet and cold winter’s nights in Melbourne was more than a culture shock; it was a life changing experience. The purpose of the experiment was to show the realities that tens of thousands of homeless people face every day around Australia.

It started me thinking about how I approach the homeless on the streets of Perth. I must confess I struggle, really struggle. According to Homelessness Australia, there are 9,595 people are experiencing homelessness in Western Australia

Part of me wants to just look the other way, shades of the priest on the road to Jericho in the story Jesus told of the Good Samaritan; the priest avoided the bashed up man lying on the roadside, his head and heart space were somewhere else. Part of me thinks maybe the homeless are lazy and demotivated and so giving money doesn’t help.

I am reminded that on the streets of Calcutta, Mother Teresa told her workers never to give beggars money. But this is not Calcutta, it’s Perth or in the case of the SBS series, Melbourne.  A few dollars would help buy food or a bed for a night. Part of me feels ashamed that somehow I have never really taken on board a love for homeless people despite trying to live by the Jesus mantra of loving your neighbour as yourself.

There are so many ways to help, but where do we start? One practical way you can help the homeless is by assisting organisations that provide key services for homeless people. UnitingCare West for example is holding their 2017 Winter Appeal to raise $150, 000 to open Tranby Centre on the weekends for services to homeless people, as most centres for the homeless close on Saturdays. 

This mini-series pushed me to re-examine my prejudices and hidden fears. I am mindful that Christians believe that it is possible to see Christ in the face of the poor. Instead I have tended to see someone on the streets as someone to be disengaged from.

Maybe I am part Christian, part Pharisee. The SBS series helped me see that the problem of homelessness requires a multiplicity of responses. There is the response of the individual, with kindness, compassion and practical care. There are the wider responses of local Councils, State and Federal governments. There is a great need for more funds for homeless housing, safe shelters and financial support.  

We spend billions on sporting stadiums but too little on those who are on the margins, the homeless.

There is the deeper need to respond to domestic violence and family breakdown that often leads to someone leaving a dysfunctional family and ending up on the street. We need preventative strategies as well as emergency care. There are drug addiction issues and mental health concerns that our society is struggling to deal with.

In summary the challenge of homelessness is massive. As a wealthy nation we need to do much better. I am so grateful that the SBS series has opened up the conversation and pushed many of us to confront what we would prefer to ignore. Some times when I am facing a moral challenge I ask myself, what would Jesus do? I think I know the answer and it deeply challenges me.

 

May the love of Christ disturb us all.

Steve Francis
Moderator

The Deconstructing of Mystery

Australians seem to love mystery. One of the most popular television and film genres is the murder mystery. The literature world thrives on mysteries of one kind or another. The secret of a great script is to keep everyone in suspense and suspicion for as long as possible. Mysteries are about the secretive and the inexplicable event. In an age of technology, precision and predictability the mysterious has great intrigue and great appeal about it.

In a fascinating kind of way “mystery” has always been part of the Judaeo/Christian heritage. Nearly a century ago a Lutheran theologian Rudolf Otto became disenchanted with the theological liberalism of his day with its emphasis on the reason and tradition. Drawing on Luther’s insistence that faith needs a special religious category beyond the rational and  influenced by Schiermacher’s “Sense of the Eternal”, Otto published his classic work “The idea of the Holy” (1917). He spoke of the “mysteriosum, the “fascinans”, and the “tremendum”. Here was a new way of talking about absoluteness, grace and wrath of God. God for Otto was more of an experience, an encounter, a sacred connection. Otto rejected universalism and pointed to the non-rational dimension of religious experience. He spoke of “the feeling of the numinous” that must be awakened in us. Building on the experiences of the prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, Otto wanted to stress that God is awesome, breathtakingly holy and beyond our mere intellectual comprehension. Such a Biblical insight has been found down the centuries with Christian mystics from Francis of Assisi to Teresa of Avila and in more recent days Thomas Merton.

In my view all this emphasis on the mystery of God is healthy and life giving. We can never fully understand or compute or Google ‘God’. There is always the unknown factor when it comes to God. The brightest minds never even get close to fully describe or articulate God.

Having said this I find it mildly disturbing that the mysterious side of God is being overplayed in Christian literature and sermons. I hear people who reduce almost everything about God to mystery. Recently in a conversation a colleague of mine spoke about “the Mystery” and was unable to talk in Trinitarian terms of God being Father, Son and Holy Spirit. On another occasion baptism was described as a mystery and a ritual, without any reference to the clear teaching of Scripture that baptism is strongly connected to belief in Christ, belonging to Christ’s community and sharing in Christ’s mission. I have similarly heard the resurrection of Christ described as “mystery” and not something to believe in.

By contrast the gospels and the preaching in Acts present the resurrection as a historical event, God’s greatest miracle and an affirmation of Christ’s ministry and mission. Clearly the early church believed in the resurrection, and they were prepared to go to their persecuted death rather than deny its truth and transformation. Similarly several of the creeds speak of belief in resurrection. When the role of mystery is overstated the role of revelation is overshadowed and devalued. It is not all mystery because God has revealed God’s self to the world, through creation, the prophets, and supremely and uniquely in Jesus Christ. The unknown has become known. God has been revealed. The light has come. Hence Paul writes in Romans 16 that the mystery of God is now no longer as mystery since Jesus has revealed to us the nature and purpose of God. Of course there are things about God that we will never understand and will always be a mystery to us (Ephesians 5: 32). We need to remain humble at this point. But the good news of the incarnation (God becoming flesh) and the gospel of Christ, is that God is not all shrouded in unknowable mystery. God has clearly and powerfully shown us the way, the truth and the life in the one Lord Jesus Christ. So we are to in Paul’s words “proclaim the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:20). That is graciously tell people what we do know of God from what we have learned from his Son, Jesus Christ. Or in the words of the letter to the Colossians 1: 26 “the mystery hidden for ages and generations is now revealed to the saints…God’s mystery which is Christ” (Chapter 2 verse 2).

The cat is out of the bag, the mystery of God is solved in Jesus Christ. Mystery has to some extend be deconstructed in Christ. So rather than just shrug our shoulders and say “all this God stuff is just a mystery”, because of what God has done in Jesus Christ, we may fall on our knees and confess that Jesus is Lord and live in his glorious light. 

Rev Steve Francis
Moderator

Working on the Building

I’m going to show my age – do you also remember Elvis’ song, “I’m working on the building”? It’s a gospel song about discipleship – building your life on the true foundation of Jesus. The lyrics add, “I never get tired, tired, tired of working on the building.”

Eugene Peterson, used a similar idea in his commentary on Jeremiah entitled “Run with horses: The Quest for Life at its Best” when he wrote about “a long obedience in the same direction” (which is also the title for his commentary on the Psalms).

I am drawn to these thoughts today by some words heard in a staff meeting about “working in the system” (implying a church head office) and “real” ministry in a “normal” ministry setting (probably meaning in a congregation). I can identify completely with the idea. I often feel trapped in “the system” and about every third day, I wonder what it would be like to be back in “real” ministry again. And then I am jolted back to reality. This too is ministry, as is the work undertaken by anyone in the service of the Gospel, whether it is the preacher in the pulpit, the welcomer at the door of the chapel or those who find themselves in the ivory tower of the system.

We all serve the cause of Christ, and together we are the Body of Christ – we are all, “working on the building.” Some are bricklayers, some are plasterers and some painters – each is important in achieving the intended goal. It is a challenge though. It is unhelpful, for instance, to have impatient painters painting the bricks before the plasterer has arrived. It is however always helpful to offer assistance when required, to stand back when the pressure is on and to step up when the real person doesn’t turn up.

For two Sundays, I was asked to step in to assist where the minister was unable to be there (for Holy Communion in both cases). I must honestly say that I loved it. I enjoyed the preparation of the message and the liturgy, I found myself in a wonderful place in talking with the congregation both before and after the services and I was energised in leading worship. It was a “third day” experience again. I felt that I was in “real” ministry and wondered if I should hang up my hat in the Synod office and look out for a congregation seeking for a minister.

Then I remembered! “Real” ministry is not only what happens on Sundays – that’s the glory bit. Real ministry is every day, in every place, bringing the peace and hope of Christ into a variety of situations. It is a long obedience in the same direction and it can happen also in the ivory tower!

The Uniting Church Centre exists to resource people so that they can fulfil the ministry of Christ wherever they may find themselves – in a school, church, hospital, even remote areas in the Pilbara. It is in this resourcing work that those in the ivory tower are also able to fulfil the ministry of Christ.

We are all “working on the building!”

I want to encourage everyone out there in “real” ministry to access and use the resources that are available in the Uniting Church Centre. We have people with many skills and we are able to “serve those who serve” with gladness of heart. And I want to encourage those in the “system,” including myself, to think afresh about God’s call to service and to “never get tired, tired, tired of working on the building.”

Rev David de Kock
General Secretary

The Art of not Holding Back

When I was growing up I warmed to rock, blues and jazz music. I found these expressions of music full of vibrancy, spontaneity, creativity and imagination. I am old enough to remember the release of the epic Sargent Pepper’s album by the Beatles. It broke all the rules of the pop music industry with lyrical verve and musical inventiveness.

As a young adult I never really got classical music. It seemed stuffy, elitist and dull. The musicians seemed obsessed with technique and perfectionism. Somehow they failed to stir my soul.

Then I came across the cellist Jacqueline du Pre. She was not like all the others. While she had flawless technique she did not hold back. Watching her play it was obvious she put her heart and soul into each performance. Her body would caress her instrument. Her movements were full of emotion and elation. She gave herself totally to her art with an enthusiasm and dedication that filled concert halls across the world.

She did not hold back.

I want to live like that, giving myself totally to God and others. Too easily we hold back. Enthusiasm and passion are often viewed with suspicion by those who love the rational, the ordered and the predictable. I was at a worship service recently where a most beautiful prayer was prayed.

At the conclusion of the moving prayer I wanted to shout out hallelujah but I feared if I did I might be ejected. It is sad to see that worship can be an expression of suppression of the emotions. Where the cerebral rules the spontaneous is out of order. God would not be happy unless every word is scripted and performed to perfection.

I read of a different God in the Scriptures; a God who is breath takingly creative, boldly imaginatively and full of surprises. Jesus did not hold back. He broke the stuffy Pharisaical conventions. He wept, he hugged, he touched, and he partied. He did not hold back in loving, praying and serving all the way to the cross. He even described his purpose as helping each of us to live life to the full (John 10:10).

 Lord, help me learn the art of not holding back.

Steve Francis, Moderator