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

40 Hours of Prayer- a Crazy Idea?

 

Today I finished 40 hours of prayer.

Not 40 seconds or 40 minutes or 4 hours but 40 hours. What’s going on?

I didn’t do it on my own, I shared the prayer marathon with the President and General Secretary of the Uniting Church along with a number of other Moderators and Synod General Secretaries.

To make the experience more deeply meaningful I and several others fasted for the 40 hours, no food or coffee, just water.

No, there is no pending nuclear attack, global financial crisis or crisis in the Uniting Church. Indeed the event was stimulated by a major celebration, it’s the 40th anniversary of the Uniting Church. In 40 days time, we will celebrate 40 years since that historic moment took place, the joining together of three churches, the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational. I was 20 plus at the time. If you are on social media, tag us using #40prayers.  

So our prayers began with praise, thanking God for many of the things that God has done in and through and at times in spite of our church over four decades. There is a lot to give thanks to God for; our congregations, our schools, our agencies, our growing relationship with the First peoples Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress.

At the 40 hour prayer marathon, we celebrated many things such as our cross cultural/inter cultural dimensions, our great diversity in suburban, country and remote areas. We thanked God for decades of faithful people who have loved God and their neighbour in the name of Christ and the Uniting Church. The list could go on and on. We also prayed repentantly recognising our many mistakes and sins.

We remember that Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness in prayer and preparation for his ministry and how the Hebrew people wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Our prayers were full of thanksgiving, repentance, supplication and hope.

My main take home was that prayer and lots of it , must come from the margins and be central to our life together.

May God teach us to be praying church.

Steve Francis
Moderator

PRAYER – for what it’s worth

When I became a Christian (still thinking about the right way to say that …) I had lots of advice from all kinds of well-meaning people. There were those who told me about behaviour, those who warned me about dangers and those who gave me instruction about the things I had to do and the rules I had to comply with. I heard them but largely ignored the advice.

It seemed to me that the most important part of being a follower of Jesus was that I should have a relationship with him. Few gave me any advice on how that might happen. I struggled initially through reading the Bible, attending worship services and joining fellowship groups. All were helpful in one way or another.

The common thread was prayer and I began to explore prayer as the way in which I could best relate with God. I found the old classics on prayer, Rosalind Rinker’s “Conversational Prayer” and O Hallesby’s book on prayer. I was drawn into this space and now spend a few hours in the early part of every day in conversation with God.

Of course, its not like a human conversation, but I speak and I listen. In my listening, (or meditation) I “hear” responses to my speaking. This has been the pattern of my forty years of building this relationship with Jesus. I used to write prayers in my journal, now I post them on Facebook. And while I get many “likes” each day, this is not what prayer is really all about. The written prayer is simply the end result, or summary, of a conversation.

There are many different ways of praying.

What I have described is the approach in my personal life. There are also community prayers, where prayers are prepared for or spoken out extemporaneously in the public space, particularly in worship services. I usually encourage people to say those prayers in their heart as the leader prays, rather than simply listening to them. In this way they “own” the prayer for themselves. I must admit that I do struggle with public prayers still, I am often too focussed on the human listeners, and getting the words right, rather than the Divine Listener but this is an ongoing journey. We also need more space to listen back in our public prayers.

On Sunday May 14, the Uniting Church in Australia begins 40 days of preparation to commemorate the 40 years of our existence since 22 June 1977. It begins with a 40 hour prayer meeting beginning on Sunday 14 May. The call to prayer has come from the President Stuart McMillan, and the Moderators and General Secretary’s from each Synod will be gathered in Melbourne for this time. Please join with us wherever you are in this time. If you are on social media, tag us using #40prayers.

I love the fact that the 40 days are being marked as Forty Days of Prayer. It is putting the focus in the right place – not on what we have done but what God has done through us. There are moments when we have been able to take strident steps, in the area of First People, Congress, Refugees and other human needs. The current Social Reinvestment WA program is particularly important. The program seeks to address ways of keeping people out of jail through focussing on correcting the conditions which might lead to offences. There have, of course, also been times when we have been unchallenged by the evangelistic call of the gospel, and even limited our involvement in sharing the Good News.

2 Chronicles 7:14 reminds us “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” It is a call to prayer, humility and repentance with the promise of restoration. We need this so much in the world today, and it will only begin when those who are already followers of Christ apply this in our own lives.

For more about the 4oth anniversary celebrations and guidelines for prayer for the 40 days click here.  You can also find worship resources here.

Rev David de Kock
General Secretary

Beauty and Arson

Australians love fireworks. And it’s not just on Australia Day.

Almost every week it seems someone in the metro area is letting off fireworks as a way of celebrating a special event. As a child I grew up loving fireworks. In those days you could buy them from the local shop and set them alight wherever you wanted to. Eventually due to the negative effects of fireworks, things like severe burns, physical injuries and damage to property, they were banned.

The authorities rightly thought the risks outweighed the benefits. A few weeks ago, I came across a little book that I warmed to the title, The Imperfect Pastor by Zack Eswine. I haven’t read it yet but I can so identify with the title. I tend to shy away from books about being a successful or high achieving pastor. They tend to depress me as I fell that I fall short of their high bars of expectations.

Back to fireworks, in Zack Eswine’s book he likens passion or desire to a firework. It can light up the sky or it can burn down a house. Our passions require careful examination because they can end up like fireworks- being creative or destructive, either instruments of beauty or unsuspecting weapons of arson.

When Christ followers and especially Christian leaders begin to scrutinize their passion for ministry and service sometimes we can detect that they can be tainted by a desire to be noticed or to control. For me, it is not enough to simply be passionate about the gospel, discipleship, worship or justice, we have to look a little deeper to see if the passion is something of Godly beauty or of worldly ambition.

Christian ministry is not about the Babel tendency to make a name for itself, it is all about servant-hood that models the humility of Christ and shares in the passions he had.

Frequently local ministers, pastors and priests are called not to light up the sky with their personality and charisma but to seemingly insignificant un-applauded and dull chores over a long period of time. Jesus exposed the unworthy desires of James and John (Mark 10:35-52) as they passionately sought a position of privilege and status. When preaching the other day I had to ask myself, “am I wanting to impress a congregation with wise words and please people? Or am I simply willing to proclaim God’s word whether or not people find it palatable or not?”.

The art and practice of deep spiritual inner examination of our thoughts, words, deeds and desires is all too rare in our culture and in the church.

I am off to a retreat next week for a few days asking that God will help me discern the beauty from the arson in my passions.

Rev Steve Francis
Moderator

Being a Christian Community for Everyone

The first case study I was exposed to at Business School was the very famous 1960’s study by Theodore Levitt called Marketing Myopia. He points out that “the history of every dead and dying ‘growth’ industry shows a self-deceiving cycle of bountiful expansion and undetected decay.” He uses the illustration of the railroad business which was failing because they thought they were in the railroad business rather than the transportation business. They kept their eyes on locomotives and rail tracks rather than the needs of the changing market – they were product oriented rather than customer oriented. Their view was short-sighted and they failed to see developments in road vehicles, airplanes and other modes of transport.

It can be the same with the church. Are we too short-sighted in our planning?

Is it enough to swing open the doors on Sunday and hope people will attend the worship service? We’ve being doing that for a really long time with consistent results. Albert Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

The church has become really good at preaching to the choir – trying to convince the already convinced. We focus almost exclusively on ourselves – though we might possibly have a sign outside the church building inviting others to join us, if they can pluck up the courage to enter a room full of strangers who already know each other fairly well.

For some years as a Church Growth Consultant, I would visit congregations incognito, a bit like an undercover food critic. There was usually a lively hubbub as everyone caught up with each other, but I was mostly ignored. I would take a look at the notice board and the publications table. A lot was out of date and mostly it was about themselves in a language that would have been strange for an outsider.

The church however, in the words of some unknown and wise author, is the one institution which should exist exclusively for the benefit of the non-members. The reality is that we exist for ourselves, the same as every other club or group.

I have been working on a Vision Statement for the Uniting Church in Western Australia. If you have read the previous blogs, I wrote about our core values first, and followed that with a preliminary mission statement – Growing communities of Christ followers uniting in God’s mission to the world.

A vision statement declares what you want to become, and with the warning about not being myopic we might ask how we see ourselves in the future. I tested a number of thoughts on a lot of different people and the conversations always ended up with the thought that heart of the Uniting Church is for uniting people under the Lordship of Jesus. In fact, we are seeing the “Uniting Church. Uniting People” by-line appearing everywhere now.

At the launch of the Uniting Church, 40 years ago, the intention was to be a uniting movement, rather than a denomination. The hope was to be an inclusive community of Christ followers who shrugged off the constraints of tradition, customs and various practices which have historically separated Christian denominations. That does make us rather different – we are open to all and everyone who seeks to follow the journey of Christian faith. In practice, this is not always true, but at least it is our intention. We want to be a Christian community for everyone.

The trick to achieving this is that we must do more than simply open the door on a Sunday morning.

Rev David de Kock
General Secretary

The Mocking of Easter

I love humour.

Our sad and melancholic world needs more of it. Laughter is a therapy and one of God’s great gifts. I am told that Orthodox priests often begin the Easter Sunday worship service with a joke, seeking to underline the joy of Easter morning, the movement from sadness to celebration, death to life. We cross the line however when we move from mirth to mocking. Luke’s gospel tells us that the Easter story begins with scorn and ridicule.

En route to the cross Jesus endures insults from three different groups of people who had almost nothing in common with each other.

The first group was religious leaders. They sneered at Jesus saying “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is God’s Messiah”. (Luke 23 v 35). Their mocking was a rejection of the claims Jesus made about his identity and purpose. Somehow that could not fathom that God’s Messiah could be God’s “suffering servant”. A messiah, they conjected, would powerfully win and not end up on a cursed cross. They thought Jesus was a bad joke. Spiked on a Roman cross, Jesus certainly looked powerless. They missed that in a paradoxical way there on the cross was the creator God became the suffering God.

The Roman soldiers were next in line to knock Jesus. From a military point of view only losers ended up on crosses. In the only piece of writing we know of from Jesus’ time (New Testament writers wrote a decade or two later) they gave their verdict as they scribed the words “King of the Jews”. They didn’t seriously believe Jesus was a king, so they thought they would just have a bit of fun at Jesus’ expense. There was no crown of jewels only a crown of thorns. Jesus was another Galilean tragic who was the object of their fun. They could not have conceived that Jesus was more than King of the Jews, he was and is King of the Universe.

And then there was a terrorist, probably a guerrilla fighter or murderous bandit who from his own cross joined in the taunts and hurled insults at Jesus. If Jesus was a revolutionary it was a revolution of love. If Jesus was subversive, it was because of his counter cultural gospel. If Jesus had weapons they were the sword of the Spirit and the breastplate of salvation. Jesus seemed like a failure, a lost cause and therefore someone to make fun of. God however has a way of getting the last laugh. On Easter Sunday the ridiculed one was the risen Lord. The mocked one was the majestic Lord triumphing over death. The one who faced mirth with words of forgiveness now offered new life, eternal life, life to the full, to those who would follow and be part of his Resurrection community.

Is Jesus still mocked today?   

Rev Steve Francis
Moderator