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

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

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

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

Why Voting is a Complex Issue

Welcome to my first blog post of the year. It is a brand new month, season and I hope everyone has been well.

For this post, I will be focusing on our upcoming WA elections. Every day in this pre-election phase we are being bombarded with messages about who to vote for and why.

For Christian people thinking carefully about who to give their vote to is an important issue. I am reminded that perhaps the best known theologian of the twentieth century Karl Barth as a young pastor was appalled when he learned that many of his theological mentors at the beginning of the First World War had sided with the Kaiser and the war strategy. It led Barth to seriously question their ethics and theology.

It is possible to back the wrong party.

At election time, we need to ask lots of questions of our politicians and political parties. Several questions readily come to mind. How do your policies look after the most vulnerable in our society, the elderly, the unemployed, the First peoples, asylum seekers, those with disabilities and those on low incomes? Jesus clearly had a “bias” towards the poor, so should we?

Another question might be about the environment. How does your party care for our fragile, beautiful and sacred environment?

Last week I attended a gathering at St George’s Anglican Cathedral where farmers, scientists, environmentalists and a moral theologian spoke of the potential environmental damage that fracking can do. They called for a five year moratorium so that more independent consultations and science based reviews can be conducted before we plunge headlong into this industry. It made a lot of sense to me. Where does your preferred party sit on this issue?

Last week I also had the opportunity to attend a Youth Care meeting. I learnt more about the great work over 400 school chaplains are doing in our WA schools. They do not proselytise but rather they fill an important gap in the pastoral care of students, teachers and parents.  To do this work they rely on a combination of church, school, state and federal funding. It is important to ask if your preferred political party is supporting this much needed program.

Politics is a complex business and probably no party ticks all the boxes we Christians would like them to. In any congregation there will be a diversity of political opinions. The Uniting Church will never tell you how to vote, but hopefully we will help each other to ask good questions of those who seek to be part of our state’s governance.

Like the prophet Jeremiah said, we are to seek the prosperity of all our citizens and like Jesus we are to seek that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven.

May God give us wisdom, understanding and insight to this end.

Steve Francis
Moderator 

Good will hunting at Christmas and beyond

 

It is sometimes said “where there is a will there is a way”. May I rephrase it slightly and say “where there is good will there is a good way forward”. One of my favourite films is Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon and the late Robin Williams. I love the story-line because it emphasizes what we can so easily forget, that seeking the good will of another can lead to really good outcomes all round. It is a theme that is picked up in the Christmas story. The angel’s announcement of the birth of Christ includes the declaration of intent “Peace on Earth and good will to all people” (Luke 2:14 KJV). It is hard to imagine peace without goodwill. Yet as Christmas draws closer there seems in some sections of our local and international community a distinct lack of good will.

Yesterday we had the government’s financial report. As a nation we are continuing to live beyond our means. Our debt is huge and something must be down. But as I listened to both sides of the political spectrum there was little good will on display. Both major parties blamed each other for the problem and neither side seemed prepared to give ground in order to help solve our economic problems. Remember the fruit picker’s tax? It took months and months of bitter haggling and point scoring before a last minute solution was brokered. Fruit farmers were beside themselves; so much for good will. I was also deeply saddened by recent events in Jakarta where the Christian Governor Purnama is on trial for blasphemy. Hundreds of thousands have protested on the streets for several days against him when it appears he has not been intentionally offensive. Not much tolerance.  Not much good will hunting.

My heart also goes out to the refugees stuck in Aleppo, Syria. Once again as men, women and children live on the edge of starvation the evacuation of the  city has been painfully slow. There is an urgent need for good will to prevail to halt the horrendous suffering of innocent people. There was simply insufficient good will.

The birth of Jesus reminds us afresh that good will or seeking the good of others is fundamental to human community functioning well. God acts for our good in sending God’s Son, Jesus, to our self-absorbed world. Jesus role models the good life with special attention to those who were so easily forgotten and forsaken. Like peacemaking, good will hunting is a beatitude that needs daily practice. Part of the good news involving doing good. I love the description of Dorcas, “she went around doing good” (Acts 9:36), in other words she was good at good will hunting. And what about you and I? Are we good will hunters or do we just hope that good will will come to us? Over this festive season it would be valuable to spend a few moments thinking about someone who we need to express a special dose of good will to. It could make the world of difference. Happy hunting.

Blessings,

Steve Francis

What’s wrong with a little sledging?

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Many decades ago, in the last century, I played cricket. I think they were short on numbers. I  batted for my school and post school. I tried to put bat to ball in the factory team where I  worked.

I loved the game. Beautiful green ovals, the bonding of being part of a team, the competitive edge  and the chance to develop one’s skills while learning from the skills of others. I never felt it was  the game they play in heaven but I did think it was lots of fun. Last year when Philip Hughes was  killed by a bouncer I felt the fun had gone from a great game. Like tens of thousands of  Australians I left my old cricket bat and cap outside our front door as a mark of respect for a great  cricketer. Accidents happen in all sports; this was one of the most tragic.

In reviewing his death, discussion has begun about the role of sledging in cricket. Some argue it’s harmless and all part of fiercely competitive sport. Others claim that Australians are among the worlds worse ledgers. I guess the idea behind the sledge is if you do it often enough and deep enough you will gain a psychological advantage and put your opponent off their game. I once got sledged while playing Poole. It had the opposite effect. It made me try harder. This suggests to me that sledging is misplaced and also unsportsmanlike. Every coach should teach their team members to play the ball not the person. Sledging today often involves the use of gutter language and personal threats. It does not enhance a game but it diminishes it. I would even suggest that sledging in cricket somehow legitimises the verbal abuse of others. When I watch Parliament on television it sounds like off the field sledging.

The biblical letter of James reminds us that words matter; they can heal or hurt, they can build up  or destroy. Verbal abuse is unacceptable in a family or in a marriage, in an office or in a playground and dare I suggest in a sporting contest. Personally I would give sledging the red card. We are better off without it.

Bless people rather than curse them.

In Christ,

Steve Continue reading

Moderator’s column: Do we pass the welcome test?

A friend of mine spent a few years away from church. She was burnt out. Eventually she decided it was time to return to a worshipping congregation, but wondered which one. She decided to go visiting congregations on a Sunday morning in the hope she might be welcomed beyond a handshake at the door and a copy of the news-sheet.

She worked out a ‘cup of tea’ test. The plan was to hold her cup of tea after the service, very slowly sip it, and smile at everyone who walked past, hoping that someone might be interested enough to pause and talk with her.

Sadly, several churches failed the cup of tea test. Thankfully, at least one church passed the test when someone noticed her, engaged her in conversation and seemed genuinely interested in her wellbeing.

Too easily we conclude we are a friendly congregation, when it may be the case that we do not notice or go out of our way to look after the newcomer or the stranger. We may have created a place of welcome for the regulars, but not so much for the hesitant visitor.

In congregational ministry I regularly encouraged our leaders to follow the ‘two-minute’ rule. I would suggest that straight after the benediction every leader resist the temptation to gravitate towards their friends. Rather, in those two minutes they should cast a careful eye around the congregation for the visitor or stranger and go straight to them with welcoming words and see where it might lead.

It is often said that in the twenty-first century people move from belonging to believing, rather than the other way around.

That means we have to be constantly on our toes to ensure we are genuinely communities of welcome. People are not looking so much for a friendly church, but to make friends. There is a difference.

The early church went way beyond cups of tea in a church hall. In the book of Acts we read that they practiced the gift of hospitality in all kinds of ways. In Acts 21 v4 we read that Paul and his friends were on a trip to Rome and unexpectedly arrived at Tyre. They found the disciples there and stayed with them for seven days, virtually unannounced.

A similar thing happened in Caesarea, where they stayed with Philip the evangelist. Philip had four unmarried daughters. This means there were at least six in the house already, making it very inconvenient. But at the drop of a hat, he makes room for Paul and his friends. And if that’s not enough, he also squeezes in Agabus (v10).

Hospitality was clearly evident in the early church; I wonder how evident it is in your church or mine?

Every day we have opportunities to be a welcoming, friendly person to another. We do it out of love, not duty. God has welcomed, loved and accepted us; we are to do the same to others. One church I know has a welcoming committee and regularly meets to try and think of more creative and caring ways to be a welcoming church. It is no coincidence they are a growing church.

May all of our churches and communities be truly welcoming places.

Blessings,

Rev Steve Francis, moderator of the Uniting Church WA

This article originally appeared in the Uniting Church Western Australia’s bi-monthly magazine, Revive, August 2016 edition.