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 

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

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

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

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

What are we meant to be doing?

The church lives in a changing culture and in the post Christendom era, we are being challenged by declining and aging congregations, and a struggle to find relevance in this new world. In this environment the Synod is working on the development of the strategic plan for the Uniting Church WA. Last time, I wrote about our Core Values and for ease of reference, I repeat them below:

  1.  To follow Jesus through life, death and resurrection
  2. Being community which safely embraces people beyond gender, cultural, economic, national and racial boundaries
  3. To act with God alongside the oppressed, the hurting and the poor
  4. To encourage wisdom and faithfulness in the use of the finite resources of the earth
  5. To exercise wisdom and faithfulness in the use of God-given gifts, talents and skills
  6. To live a creative, adventurous life of faith, characterised by openness, flexibility, hope and joy.

These are values stated 40 years ago at the inception of the Uniting Church, and which, I would hope, remain relevant today, even in our rapidly changing world. From these values, we can begin to build towards a mission statement.

Many authors, including Aubrey Malphurs, author of the book Advanced Strategic Planning for Churches and Ministry Leaders, talks about the need to define purpose (why we are here) and mission (what we are supposed to be doing). By and large, they agree that we are here to glorify God and we are meant to be making disciples, or helping people to be followers of Jesus.

I particularly like the choice of the word ‘glorify’. I have appreciated John Marsh’s definition of this in his commentary, Saint John. He speaks of ‘glory’ meaning “the manifest presence of God in the ordinary.” Thus, throughout John’s gospel, the apostle writes of such things as “my glory is not yet revealed,” “he thus revealed his glory” and “the Son of Man has been glorified”. So, if our purpose is to glorify God, this definition means that we are being called to reveal the presence of God in the ordinariness of our life, in all the things we do and say.

So let’s now go to the Scriptures and look at the commissions of Christ recorded for us by the gospel writers. “Go and make disciples”(Matthew 28:19), “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel” (Mark 16:15), “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8), “These things are written that you may know that I am the Christ” (John 20:31).

Clearly there is a sending forth and a teaching or sharing of what we know of Christ.

But the church is more than that. We are also a community – a community which loves one another and the world, and which shares hope in Christ with this world and the next. The church is both a resourcing and a sending community. It is a community in action seeking to be actively involved in Missio Deo, the mission of God.

With that background, we can begin to derive a mission statement, which embraces those sentiments and gives some definition to our mission and purpose. This is then our preliminary mission statement: growing communities of Christ followers uniting in God’s mission to the world.

Some questions we may ask are: Is it short enough to remember easily? Does it embrace all of who we are – congregations, schools, agencies, social justice or Uniting World?

One final and crucial question: Is this what we are actually meant to be doing?

Rev David de Kock

General Secretary

First Post of 2017: Core Values, Strategic Plans and our 40th Anniversary

This is my first update on our blog for 2017, and I hope that everyone has had a great and joyous start to the year.  

For the past couple of months, I have been working with several people on developing a Strategic Plan for the Synod of Western Australia. Interestingly, a similar exercise has been taking place in the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia. The Assembly also collated a list of the Strategic Plans of the other Synods (which saved us from having to undertake that work ourselves).

The results of all the work so far is revealing: possibly because we are referencing the same or similar source documents and almost certainly because, as a Christian community across Australia, we have a common bond of faith, a desire to be an embracing community and a concern for the oppressed.

Our common source documents are the Bible, The Basis of Union, the Constitution, and the Declaration to the Nation made in the founding of this movement which is the Uniting Church in Australia. The Assembly also conducted a nationwide survey on perceptions of the Uniting Church, an understanding of its responsibilities and a review of its strengths and weaknesses. 

From all of this background we have provisionally identified the following as our Core Values.

CORE VALUES

  1. To follow Jesus through life, death and resurrection;
  2. Being community which safely embraces people beyond gender, cultural, economic, national and racial boundaries;
  3. To act with God alongside the oppressed, the hurting and the poor;
  4. To encourage wisdom and faithfulness in the use of the finite resources of the earth;
  5. To exercise wisdom and faithfulness in the use of God-given gifts, talents and skills; and
  6. To live a creative, adventurous life of faith, characterised by openness, flexibility, hope and joy.

Following Jesus is at the core of our being. It is for this reason that we gather and move forward as a pilgrim community, joined together on this journey through life, death and resurrection.

We are also a community which values the life and faith which we share. We are not bound by the things which so easily divide us in the secular sense. In our journey we support each other, encourage one another and lead one another.

But our focus is not on us alone. We also have concerns for the oppressed, the hurting and the poor. And we seek to be wise stewards of the earth’s resources.

In our journey we also recognise that we each have different gifts. No man is an island, and we seek to use our individual gifts, talents and skills to serve God, each other and the world with all wisdom and faithfulness.

CELEBRATING OUR 40TH ANNIVERSARY

Finally, as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia this year, we reflect on the 40 year journey of the pilgrim people of God from Egypt to the Promised Land. That journey was often hard, frequently troublesome and spiced with conflict within and without.

We do not want our journey as the Uniting Church in Western Australia to be like that – core to our being is that we will be creative and adventurous in our life of faith, always open with each other, flexible in circumstances and full of hope and joy!

In my next post, I will share our provisional mission statement.

Rev David de Kock
General Secretary

A Christmas Sermon

wise-men-desert

CHRISTMAS IS AMAZING

In fact its utterly beyond comprehension, which is probably why we do all the crazy things we do at this time of the year.

We eat too much, we put up lights everywhere, we bring trees into our houses, we buy things for people we see everyday, and wrap them in beautiful paper which we will just throw away anyway – whole forests disappear in December which is a real headache for concerned conservationists. All of this is just our feeble attempt to somehow celebrate something which is incredibly amazing, so big, so vast, so utterly unbelievable that we do these things to mark the occasion.

How do you get to grips with “Emmanuel” – God with us? Can you actually get your mind around it? God coming to us – the Creator within His creation. Its really hard to get the picture, isn’t it?

I was reading about the Rev Robert Evans this week in Bill Bryson’s “A short history of nearly everything.” Rev Evans is (was) a retired minister in the Uniting Church in New South Wales, a writer on modern evangelical revivals and a part time astronomer. His claim to fame is that he has discovered more Super Novas than anybody else, even more than the great scientists in their huge observatories.

Now listen to this …

A Supernova is an exploding star whose light can outshine an entire galaxy for about a month. How it explodes is an interesting phenomenon. Over time, millions of years, its inner gravitational pull becomes so strong that initially it implodes, drawing everything into itself. Its gravitational pull is so strong that it sucks in everything, including light – it becomes a black hole in the universe.

And its core becomes incredibly heavy. Imagine a million cannonballs squeezed into the size of a marble. As Rev Evans says, just a teaspoon full of this imploded star could weigh 90 billion kgs … And then suddenly it explodes outwards sending all kinds of matter into space. It’s a nuclear explosion of such gigantic proportions that it makes Hiroshima look like a Christmas cracker. It would be the equivalent of a trillion hydrogen bombs all going off at once.

But you don’t need to worry about it. The nearest likely candidate to be a Supernova is a star called Betelguesewhich is a mere 50 thousand light years away. To put that in perspective, to get there you would have to travel at the speed of light for 50 thousand years. In contrast, travelling at the speed of light, it would take you a mere 1.3 seconds to get to the moon, or 8.3 minutes to get to the sun.

Its hard to fathom God’s creation – its mind boggling.

We see pictures in books of our own solar system but they can never be to scale. If the earth were the size of a pea, Jupiter would be 3 lengths of a rugby field away,and Pluto, the furthest “planet” from earth would be 21/2 kilometers away. The nearest star outside our solar system, Proxima Centauri,  would, on this scale, be 16000 kms away. There is absolutely no prospect whatsoever that any human being will ever travel to the edge of our solar system and our solar system is just a dot in the universe.

Amazing isn’t it…

And the God who made all this came right inside His creation. RIGHT INSIDE!

He who flung stars into space by speaking them into being, who spoke the separation of sky and earth, who announced light, and life.

This God came as a baby born of a virgin mother. The Lord of all creation, the master of the universe – God, made himself utterly dependent on man. Formed in the womb of a virgin girl, He came to us. It’s so hard to believe but it’s the real reason for the season.

This amazingly, fantastically big God became a child, a baby in a virgin’s womb – following his own rule for a nine month gestation period, and the years needed to be lived in order to grow to be a man – so that he could lay down the life He took up in order to change our destiny. To turn around everything that we had messed up in our life and history and to give us a new beginning.

Its no wonder that we do crazy things like coming to church in the middle of the week, and eating a roast lunch just a few days after the summer solstice.

I grew up on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. I haven’t yet seen the deserts of Australia but let me tell you, the Kalahari Desert is not a glad place. It’s dry and parched. In places its just moving sand, in other places, its hot sheets of stone, in still other places, the pebbles are the size of golf balls, black as the night and always shiny and hot and hard.

It does not rejoice. It drains the energy from you like a supernova. Despite everything it never quite has life – what life there is hides away, survives on little and blooms very seldom.

BUT, in God, the prophet Isaiah (Ch 35) tells us, the desert will be glad!

The wilderness will rejoice! It will burst into bloom and shout for joy! It is a metamorphosis! And its coming, says the prophet…so strengthen your hands, steady your knees, be strong, do not fear…

GOD IS COMING TO SAVE YOU!

Get up! Get ready! Get going! The eyes of the blind will be opened. The ears of the deaf unstopped. The lame will leap like a deer. The mute tongue will shout for joy. It’s a transformation! Deserts are blooming, invalid people are being restored. Have you thought about that… invalid people, in-valid people. Same word, different pronunciation, same meaning. People without worth, or value. The nothings of creation are becoming the somethings.

In Peter’s first letter, he says this, “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Once you were not a people – you were in-valid, but now you are a chosen people, a people belonging to God. We easily miss the reference to the names of the unfaithful children of Hosea. God spoke through that prophet of starting all over again. The unloved became the loved and those without mercy received mercy – it’s the Message of Christmas!

God has transformed His creation.

He has taken a people made in His image, who through sin had made themselves in-valid, and He has, in His Son, born of a virgin, dead on a Cross, risen into glory, given us back the value we first had in Him. He started again.

Once you had not received mercy, now you have received mercy.

Christmas is the season of Emmanuel.

It is God with us and there can never, ever, be a better cause for celebration.

When John the Baptizer was becoming uncertain of his own future, he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask the question, “Are you the One, or should we wait for another?”

Christ’s answer was simple – He quoted from Isaiah 35 – “Tell him what you see,  the eyes of the blind are opened, the ears of the deaf are unstopped, the lame leap like a deer and the mute tongue shouts for joy.”

In more words than were necessary He was saying, I AM THE ONE!

Observe the fulfillment of prophecy! Look at broken, in-valid people being restored!  My friends, water is gushing forth in the wilderness, there are streams in the desert, the burning sand has become a delightful pool, the land which at first sucked in the moisture is now a bubbling spring.

Its turnaround time. Its Christmas!

This celebration today says, “I believe this!”

We believe this promise is for everyone. This is the celebration of the greatest event which has ever, ever taken place. The Almighty entered into his creation to take sadness and sighing away from us and to overwhelm us with his gladness and joy.

Listen to the voices of those who discovered this in the beginning, when Christ was born amongst us:

Mary, the virgin mother. God chose to enter the world through her womb…

“My soul glorifies the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has been mindful

of the humble state of his servant.

 

Zechariah, the father of John:

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,

because he has come and has redeemed his people.

 

The angels..

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favour rests.

Simeon, the old priest in the Temple

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,

you now dismiss your servant

in peace.

For my eyes have seen your salvation,

which you have prepared in the sight of all people,

a light for revelation to the Gentiles

and for glory to your people Israel.”

 

Because Christ has come, everything is different now!

God is with us!

 

Merry Christmas and God bless you all.

 

Rev David de Kock

General Secretary

Looking for the Open Door

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Acts 16 gives us an account of an incident on Paul’s second missionary journey. The intent had been to reach further in to Asia Minor, but God had another plan. The vision given to Paul of a man of Macedonia calling out to them to “come over to help us”, is a constant challenge as we seek God’s direction in our personal lives and in the life of the Church.

Here are four thoughts for us as we think about where God might be leading us:

  1. Be Open to New Possibilities

Paul and his team set out on this mission shortly after the Council of Jerusalem, where it had been agreed that Gentiles could be followers of Christ without first becoming Jews. There had been some opposition to this; some were demanding fulfilment of the ritual requirements. The Council however decided that new followers needed to simply follow the moral law rather than ritual law. The outcome was that the church was encouraged to flourish in cultural contexts other than Judaism.

What event have we experienced which has created new possibilities for us? Perhaps it was a move to another place, or a new job. When these things happen we need to be open to the possibilities.

We are in the process of restructuring the Synod and Presbytery, and the final touches will take place at the Presbytery meeting on November. It came about because we had agreed in September 2015 for the Regional Committee of Congress to become a Presbytery.  That transition is not going to happen just yet, but it caused us the review our structures and to see the benefits of the change required to have a second Presbytery. The door was open to new possibilities.

  1. Be Ready to Change

The next thing is that we need to be ready to change.

In preparing for the second missionary journey it was intended that Paul and Barnabas, his partner on the first journey, would lead this second expedition. But Paul didn’t want to take John Mark along because he had deserted early in the first expedition. There was a disagreement and Paul and Barnabas parted ways.

Paul took Timothy with him instead. And what an advantage that was. His mother was Jewish and his father was Greek – he understood the contrast of Jewish/Gentile culture, and how they could co-exist far better than could Paul with his ultra conservative Jewish background.

We don’t need to always do things the same way. The experience of new possibilities opens the door for new opportunities. The falling out between Paul and Barnabas created the opportunity for two teams to lead the thrust of the gospel message. John Mark continued to be encouraged and later, in writing to Timothy, Paul asks him to bring Mark to come to help him.

Sometimes our vision becomes so focussed that we begin to exclude some people. Paul fell into this trap and saw John Mark as a hindrance to the mission. But he was not without grace. As the mission expanded, by God’s, rather than Paul’s, direction, John Mark was in the field, trained by Barnabas and able to help. Paul changed his attitude as he began to see God’s vision.

  1. Be Obedient to God’s Leading

So Paul’s team, with Timothy, set out for Asia Minor. Despite the fact that the Jerusalem Council had given them an open door to engage freely with other cultures they did not even realise that they were keeping themselves confined to the same (Mid Eastern) culture. Oh yes, they had branched out from Judaism to the Gentiles but apart from religious ritual, the culture was pretty much the same.

But, it seems, God did not want the gospel contained within a culture and so He closed the door to Bithynia and opened the door to Europe.

It is not always easy to change our ways. As I have said, sometimes our vision becomes so focussed that we begin to exclude people, but sometimes we also exclude God.

It is said that the words on the tombstone of the church will be “we never did it that way before.” We do need to be ready to change and to recognise the leading which God gives us.

  1. Be Optimistic

Finally, we need to be optimistic – to trust that God’s intention for His church will prevail in every situation.

It must have been challenging to enter into a new culture with the gospel, where the religious direction was vastly different. But trusting in God, Paul and his team crossed the sea.

They found a Jewish woman – Lydia from Thyatira – and she became the first convert. They cast a demon out of a young slave girl – the second convert, and her owners turned the town against them. Paul and his team were imprisoned. An earthquake had opened the door and loosened their shackles but they did not escape. They stayed until it was right to go and the surprised jailer and his family became the next converts.

Without hope, life can easily devolve into pessimism. But Christ offers us hope – we can be optimistic and hopeful of His leading.

In 2 Chronicles 20, King Jehoshaphat is threatened by a vast army. He prays to God” “Lord, we have no power, we don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” He marches out with his small army and finds the Moabite army already defeated.

We can trust God’s leading!

A Ship’s Tale

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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about facing the crisis, noting that crisis includes both danger and opportunity. Today I want to tell a story…

Imagine a ship of yesteryear which sets sail for a faraway place. It has a young crew of enthusiastic sailors with adventure in their heart. On board are all the provisions for the journey; the hold is stocked with bread and wine, with all the other essentials.

The journey is long and arduous, no-one really knows the destination but there is an old map and a tale which goes with it, describing a great journey and an amazing city. Hope lives on in the heart of the sailors. They persevere despite storms and rough seas. Occasionally one is washed overboard and a funeral service takes place. Sometimes one of the sailors, or a group of them, jump ship to join sleeker more modern craft hoping for a quicker arrival at the destination. The rest of the crew, mourn briefly but remain resolute.

The ship is becoming harder to handle with fewer sailors, and as they get older it is more difficult to climb the masts and set the sails. They are weary. And the ship is beginning to leak, there are sometimes more below decks pumping water than there are above to hoist the sails.

Then an awful reality dawns on them. The ship may not last to their destination, sinking is a very real possibility.

On a calm day, they gather in the galley to review their options. All the lifeboats are gone, the lifebuoys are perished and the holds are steadily filling with water. The captain suggests that they build another craft from the good material of the old ship. He paints a picture of opportunity to be redeemed from the failing old galleon but warns also of the dangers. There is danger in doing nothing but there is also danger in how they use the material of the old ship – if they take too much, they may simply hasten its demise, if they take too little, there may not be enough to build an adequate craft and if they build too slowly they may not be ready when the ship finally sinks.

There were some who loved that old ship and did not want to give it up. They wanted to struggle on; they were convinced that all would be well. There were some who were tired of the old ship and were excited about doing something other than bailing water. And there were many who simply didn’t care.

Stories can be told to elicit a particular answer, or sometimes to make you think about alternative answers. Jesus told stories and left them hanging in the air – very few of them were explained, and now two thousand years later, we still find preachers interpreting some of those stories. This story is about creating a future. We can create a future by hanging on to the past, or we can try to make things different, or we can simply do nothing. Each is a valid alternative but they will create different results.

If you read the General Secretary’s report to Synod for 2016, you will see that we are trying to create a different future for the Uniting Church in WA by making things different now. I encourage you to read it.

To close, let me quote from the Rev Peter Laurence OAM, CEO of the Anglican Schools Commission in WA writing in the Anglican Messenger dated August 2016, “The reality is that the average person is not engaging regularly with the conventional structures of the church. They are not in our pews on a Sunday, attending Bible Study on Wednesday night or Mother’s Union on a Friday morning. What they may not realise is that the church, in all her forms, will cross their path many times throughout their year. It may not be through Sunday worship. It may be through our caring agencies, whose arms stretch far and wide throughout all age groups and social classes. It may be through aged care provision for themselves, their parents or grandparents. It may be through our schools, who alone educate well over 150,000 Australians.”

We have a different future, it just depends on how you look at things now, and what you do about it.