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.

The cost of FIFO

Steve with John Dihm Jimblebar

Steve with Rev John Dihm at Jimblebar

Four decades ago I lived and worked in the Pilbara. I worked for a large mining company who owned half the town. Despite the heat, the iron ore dust and occasional sense of remoteness, life was good. The primary and high schools were full. The sporting clubs had enough teams to complete and the faithful went to church. Family life seemed fairly normal. Dad and maybe Mum went off to work each day and came home in time for children to play, dinner to be prepared and good conversation over a background of television and homework. Life was good, wages were high and community life seemed to prosper. There were of course some social problems. Some men drank too much. There was a shortage of single women. Marriages were strained by the demands of long hours and living away from home without mum or day, aunt or uncle in the next suburb. I lived in a single men’s quarters where the meals were great but there was not a lot to do. Some men were lonely and the lure of high wages sometimes did not seem enough compensation for the tyranny of distance.  Life was not idyllic but there was a sense of community and evidence of strong family life. Enter the mining boom and the age of FIFO (Fly in/Fly out).

A radical and well documented shift has taken place in those mining towns. A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting several Pilbara towns with Frontier Services chaplain, Rev John Dihm. The first thing I noticed was the empty houses, sometimes five or six in a row. The mining decline has meant that once booming towns are now struggling. Many miners have moved back to the city or back interstate. The schools, churches and sporting clubs are no longer full of people, many have closed down due to lack of members. The fabric of the towns has dramatically changed. The small single men’s quarters of the seventies have been replaced with huge mining ‘villages’, where you need a special pass to enter. There is also a sign outside that prohibits entry to anyone who has not got the right safety gear. These mining camps are huge, with some of them housing over 1500 people. The mining companies try their best to make life comfortable for the inhabitants, with high quality food, cheap alcohol, single rooms with television, en suite and internet access. I was struck by how long and hard a day in the life of a FIFO can be. The pre-start is at 4.30am with testing to ensure workers are alcohol free. In the seventies where the unions dominated the workplace a job in a mining company seemed like a cushy job. How things have changed. Most people I talked to worked long and hard and by the end of the day were exhausted. Maybe a drink or two in the wet mess (bar) followed by dinner in the dry mess (canteen) then a call home and set the alarm clock for an early start.

I glimpsed the life of a FIFO worker. There may be big bank balances but for some men the real cost is bankrupt relationships, separations, family alienation and most tragic of all, suicide. Rev John Dihm mentioned that there had been eighteen over the past two years. It seems while as a nation we prospered economically through the mining boom, we have tended to overlook the social cost to families and individuals. Mining companies do care. I met a number of compassionate people who are serving the call to support the FIFO worker. But the FIFO concept, taking men and women away from their families and communities to live in isolation for long periods of time is not conducive to healthy marriages and family life. It depletes communities and individuals. Too often a FIFO returns home and, in the struggle for adjust to family life and the family to adjust to the returnee, relationships are strained and sometimes damaged. Too easily a FIFO returns back to the mining camp with family or marriage issues unresolved and in real danger of escalating. I thank God for people like Rev John Dihm. In God’s name, he is a listening ear and gives wise counsel. He steps calmly into crises and offers the kind of ministry that brings the possibilities of hope and healing. I was a FIFO observer for a few days, he lives each day in these communities. How I wish we could clone him a dozen times over, for the need is great. Maybe in a decade or two we will look back at the FIFO experiment and conclude it was too costly; good for the economy but bad for our well-being.

Blessings,

Steve

Clear directions

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I hate getting lost. I find it very frustrating going the wrong way, taking the wrong road or ending up not where I want to be. I thought all my troubles would be over when I was given a Tom Tom or satellite navigating system. When I finally worked out how to use it, I felt very confident that my days of getting lost and getting hot and bothered were over. Not so. While the additional technology has been a great help, and has steered me accurately to places that would have been very hard to find, this technology is not perfect. On several occasions I have typed in a Uniting Church only to be guided not to the church building but to the manse. In several cases that has added to my confusion given a number of our manses are let out on the real estate market and the occupiers have never heard of the Uniting Church!

I have always believed that God guides and that God calls and I have relied on this truth throughout my Christian life. The Bible is full of stories about God calling people: Abraham, the prophets, the calling of disciples, and the Damascus road experience of Paul. God, however, is not a GPS. The call of God and the guidance of God is not an exact science. We do have the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit and wise Christian counsel as great resources, but they are not in a sense, infallible. We can misread Scripture; we can be guided by our own ego or flawed intuition, and our Christian friends can sometimes give the wrong advice. (the current Archbishop of Canterbury, candidated for the ministry and he was told he would never ever become an Anglican priest. He just didn’t have the goods. Thankfully he applied a second time and was accepted). So the sign posts to the future are not always clearly marked. Faith and trust are key ingredients in the Christian journey. When God does call it may not always be clear. Some are given guidance from God that is so clear and convincing. I am delighted for people when that happens. On other occasions the future next steps seems hazy and confusing. Sometimes there is not one clear choice but several paths before us. Which job to take, which person to marry, which church to join, which house to buy, which areas to live in, can present us with an array of confusing choices. For Christian people we pray and activity seek guidance, but we also live with some ambiguity.

As John Ortberg points out, a classic example of the lack of a divine GPS is in the book of Acts. The church had to decide if God is calling them to include Gentiles in a radical new way. After much prayer and discussion they send out a letter with these words; “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”(Acts 15:28). “It seemed good”? The future of the entire human race is at stake and the best they could do was a rather humble “it seemed”. Interestingly the church leaders were quite comfortable sending out this letter. God’s will and guidance was not precise and bold. It did not demand certainty. Rather it called for sincere obedience, an openness to the Spirit and to each other.

Part of the great adventure of the Christian life is being open to the guidance of God and getting some wonderful surprises where God ends up leading us. Just don’t expect every road to be well signposted.

Blessings,

Steve

Bad days and good days

Bad days help us appreciate good days.

I have recently spent over a week in bed with the flu. I had forgotten how frustrating and debilitating it can be to be unwell. Day after day, horizontal and feeling like I had been run over by a Mac truck. In recovering it made me a little more grateful for the health that I often take for granted. If every day were a good day, there would be no good days. Without bad days we would have nothing to compare them with. I started to think about how incredibly blessed most of us are. And how rarely we express our profound thankfulness. If we woke up this morning with more health than sickness we are more blessed than hundreds of thousands of people who will not survive the week. Famed psychologist Abraham Maslow noted “All you have to do is go to hospital and hear all the simple blessings that people never realized before were blessings being able to urinate, to sleep on your side, to be able to swallow, to scratch an itch.”

If we have never experienced the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the agony of torture or the pangs of starvation we are better off than maybe five hundred million people.

If we attended church last Sunday and no one harassed us, beat us or imprisoned us we are more blessed than millions of others in the worldwide faith community. If we have food in the refrigerator, clothes on our back, and a roof over our heads we are better off than tens of thousands of other Australians. If we have money in our  wallet or in the bank or even spare change in a jar we rank in the top eight percent of the world’s wealthy. If you can read this blog you are more blessed than hundreds of millions of people who cannot read at all. We need not only to count our blessings, we need to tell ourselves and others how blessed we are and seek to be a blessing to others. Of course life could be better, but it could also be worse. Yes suffering, injustice, illness, loneliness and unemployment suck. We must never minimize, overlook or trivialise the pain of others, whatever its source. But our perspective on life remains really important. Some days our glass will feel half empty or completely empty, but when we count our blessings and include among them the love and grace we find in God, some days our glass will feel like its overflowing (Psalm 23:5).

Blessings,

Steve

The world needs love?

 

We live in a world where the harshness of life, its brevity, its seemingly random catastrophes, its hollowness, its moments of malignancy , and its violence suggest that there is no God and if there is a god, not a god of love. Yet the Christian community continues to insist that however bleak and confusing the human condition is, there is a God of love.

To believe in a God of love seems to be naïve and sentimental, a bit like believing in Father Christmas. Yet a search of the New Testament discerns a unique kind of love, the holy love of God, mirrored in Jesus Christ. This love is at the heart of the universe and it is demonstrated at its most vulnerable and profound in the cross of Christ. If there is one verse most Christians have memorised its John chapter three verse sixteen which begins, “For God so loved the world that he gave his son”. This gift of love is viewed not just in the loving and compassionate life of Jesus but supremely in his selfless death on the cross. Love for Christians is not all sugary and fuzzy, it is not shaped by Hollywood but  by the cross; self-emptying, self-giving and sacrificial love. Sometimes we think of the love of God in very human terms, like romantic love or self-indulgent love. The love of God has an altogether different quality.

Many years ago I read Anders Nyrgren’s book Agape and Eros. His book was more than a narrow study of two Greek words for two different types of love-agape and eros. Rather he was arguing that there is a love that comes from above, from God, agape love and a love that begins below, human love. While Nyrgren has his critics I think he makes a helpful point. There is the kind of love that begins with God and the kind of love that begins with self. One is essentially God centred while the other can be self-centred. Maybe it’s a bit like a story Jesus told about two people praying, a Pharisee and a tax collector (Luke 18). In the story both come to the temple, both pray, but their prayers come from very different places and so their lives are lived out in two very different ways. The tax collector, probably a collaborator of the Roman occupiers, would have been deeply resented by most of the occupied population of Palestine. Tax collectors were known as having an unsavoury reputation; they lined their own pockets by overcharging and exploiting their position. The Pharisee by contrast was highly respected, a pillar of society, morally upright and in a position of influence. He was punctilious and devout .Moreover he was proud of his religious practice, parading it like a virtue.

The Pharisee was proud and self-sufficient. This led to a sense of self-congratulation and ultimately self-delusion. By contrast the tax collector was humble, deeply aware of the flaws in his humanity and painfully aware of what he had become. While the Pharisee looked to himself, the tax collector looked to God. The Pharisee wanted applause and recognition from others, while the tax collector wanted grace and forgiveness from God. One loved himself too much while the other knew he needed the love of God. The parable points to two kinds of love and two sources of love; human and divine. Not every expression of love is a good love. Like any gift from God, love can be distorted, misused and misdirected. At worse it can become narcissistic.

Yes the world needs love, but not any kind of love. The best kind is the one we find in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This holy love brings the best out in us and in others: and has the potential to bring healing, forgiveness and reconciliation to our broken world. This love is the love of Christ. I don’t know about you but I need more of it.