Pure Church: Understanding Who the Church Is

I once met someone who worked in a café in Iceland. She told me that one of the specialities of the café was pure water. It was bottled and labelled but the water did not come from a factory. The café owners simply filled the bottles from the pure mountain stream than ran behind the café. Apparently the tourists could really taste the difference, no additives or preservatives.

We look for the pure. Whether its pure water, pure wool, pure juice or pure motives. After all, our world is full of the impure and the polluted.

Every now and then one of our rivers has dead fish washed ashore. Pollution kills. In some cities like Beijing it’s hard to breath because the air is so polluted.

We long for pure air, water and food. We also are mindful that our minds can so easily be polluted. I think of what Internet porn is doing to innocent minds; it’s a form of mental pollution that can lead to other harmful effects. Jesus once said “Blessed are the pure in spirit for they shall see God”. (Matthew 5: 8). Jesus was not advocating a new kind of pharisaic perfectionism. He defined and lived out a new kind of purity, where the love of God, liberated people to welcome and embrace people who were considered unclean and unwanted, the poor, the leper and the prostitute. It was a holy and moral love without straying into moralism or sentimentality.

This pure undiluted love of God flowed freely in Jesus and is what he encourages in the awesome sermon on the mount. It is aspirational, for one of the first things we discover about ourselves is that we are far from pure.

We are a mix of good and bad. Saint and sinner, capable of great good and frightening evil. Still we aim high, with the help of the Spirit , the guidance of God’s word and the encouragement and correction of others.

We don’t need to hang around the church for very long before we discover that it is not a sinless community. As the American New Testament theologian Scot McKnight says, ‘the church is a hospital for sinners, not a retirement centre for the perfect”.

Many centuries ago, a group of Protestants were intent on purging the Anglican Church in England of all traces of Catholicism. They wanted a pure church. In the end, frustrated and disillusioned, they got in boats and became American Pilgrims.

Some of them followed a sad five step pattern out of the church.

  1. Step one, they discovered the glories of the church in the New Testament, while overlooking the flaws of the fragile community.
  2. Step two they had a fresh vision of the church, which was very idealistic and unrealistic.
  3. Step three they had real problems achieving their vision, not surprising they face opposition and their own fallen humanity.
  4. Step four, they got discouraged and became very critical of the church.
  5. Step five they withdrew from the church.

What began with hope and idealism ended with frustration and failure. Where did they go wrong?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, renowned Christian minister, professor, in his great little book, Life together speaks about people who have created a dream image of the church that doesn’t exist. He says “those who love the dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community.”

Looking for pure or perfect Christians in a pure and perfect church is a failure to understand who the church is.

At our best we demonstrate in word and deed, the love, truth and unity of Christ, at our worst we are jealous, arrogant, loveless and self-centred. This does not mean that we give up on God or the church but rather  we recognise that following Jesus is always about being in a community of faith, loving others in strength and in weakness. We are celebrate each other, while at times admitting our weaknesses and repenting of our sin. Truth is we need each other. With Christ and each other we can be the best we can be.

We hope and pray and work for the renewal, reformation and reimaging of the church. We are to love each other, despite our failings. That’s not about perfection, but it is about a journey forward together, being a pilgrim people.

This is what I have signed up for, what about you?

Rev Francis

I am Rohingyan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rev Steve Francis

In Praise of Friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even the Son of God needed friends.

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

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

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

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

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

Rev Steve Francis

About Christophobia: Is Jesus welcome here?

Is Jesus welcome here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why pick on Christianity?

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

Why do they fear?

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

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

Steve Francis

Homelessness: The issue of the filthy rich and relationally poor

I am getting sick of television.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May the love of Christ disturb us all.

Steve Francis

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

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

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

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