Faith in the Marketplace: 1 Peter 1.

[This blog is from a sermon preached on the 30th April 2017 at St George’s Anglican Church Paddington in Sydney. The text for the day was 1 Peter 1:13-25.
Thanks to my St George’s friends for their hospitality.]

I will begin with a famous passage published by John Bunyon in 1678.

… Then I saw in my dream, when they were got out of the wilderness, they presently saw a town before them, and the name of that town is “Vanity”; and at the town there is a fair kept, called “Vanity Fair”; it is kept all the year long. It bears the name of Vanity Fair, because the town where ’tis kept is lighter than vanity; and also because all that is there sold, or that comes thither is vanity…

This fair is no new erected business; but a thing of ancient standing. I will show you the original of it.

Almost five thousand years agone, there were pilgrims walking to the Celestial City, as these two honest persons are; and BEELZEBUB, APOLLYON, and LEGION, with their companions, perceiving by the path that the pilgrims made, that their way to the City lay through this town of Vanity, they contrived here to set up a fair; a fair wherein should be sold of all sorts of vanity, and that it should last all the year long.

… at this fair are all such merchandise sold: as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms; lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts – as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not.

… moreover, at this fair there is at all times to be deceivers, cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues and that of every kind.

Within the story of Pilgrim’s Progress, as the two central characters named Christian and Faithful journey to the Celestial city,  they meet characters set to waylay them at every turn.

Here in chapter six, they come upon a corrupt city, a place of crooked dealing, with an evil marketplace.

This passage can be read in a number of different ways, each of them showing us a little of what Christians tend to think about the marketplace, and the world.

  1. The Evangelical Individual: Resisting the Market

Although this book was written hundreds of years ago, still today Christians can feel beset in the marketplace on every side; overwhelmed by the amount of worldly enticements or temptations that must be overcome.

The evangelical church was born from protest, and has focused upon resisting the evil that is constantly offered, the “lives, blood, bodies, souls” that are being sold by the world.

Within this paradigm, the passage of 1 Peter can be read a certain way,

“Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed”

There are many relics of this kind of thinking. In January, we happened to be travelling through the rolling countryside of New South Wales, when we came upon the town of Spring Hill near Orange. In this tiny village, was a Temperance Hall, established in 1883.

The temperance movement was strengthened by a group of Christians who drew upon this type of reading of “the world” as found in Bunyon’s passage. Prohibitionists in the United States also saw the world this way.

Individuals, such movements argue, are susceptible to the corruption of the marketplace and likely to make bad decisions. Ordinary people will only abstain from an action if it is prohibited, and the consequences enforced by the state.

In particular, these Christians argued that alcohol clouds our judgment, and must be prohibited.

But the argument goes much deeper, and is based upon the thought that left to our own devices, we tend to be unable to make good choices.

Any market in which all options are available, is a test. Each of us must be continually exhorted to stay true to Christ, just as Faithful and Christian do in Pilgrim’s Progress.

2. (Mis)recognised Metaphors: Embracing the Market

Unfortunately, these strong metaphors Christians have drawn upon for the world and its influence can be easily turned around or misused, in the sense that “the world” can refuse this characterisation.

The first editor of the American magazine Vanity Fair, Frank Crowninshield, happily drew upon the influence of Bunyon’s allegory. He declared his magazine a celebration of America’s “increased devotion to pleasure, to happiness, to dancing, to sport, to the delights of the country, to laughter, and all forms of cheerfulness.”

Surely, he seems to say, Christian and Faithful just saw the marketplace wrongly. Vanity Fair is not a place to be feared. The market creates new opportunities, and facilitates desires that are fundamentally good.

Individuals are only really unable to resist temptation if they are flawed. But, this argument goes – why resist at all? Why not truly enjoy what is good?

And thus, some Christians (maybe Pentecostal Christians shhhh!) would place the emphasis upon the passage in Peter upon the hope in Jesus Christ, and the possibilities of the Lord revealed.

This argument continues that, rather than making us boring people, Christians should be intriguing, and invoke questions because of the hope they profess and the possibilities of their future.

3. The Corrupt System of the Market

Interestingly, experts in literature often read the famous chapter six of Pilgrim’s Progress differently, not as a direct condemnation upon “paganism” or the ancient English markets where impulsive purchasing occurred, but instead as an indictment upon Roman Catholicism which commercialised the Christian religion.

Bunyon’s picture of Vanity Fair, they claim, echoes another market depicted in the gospels, in which Jesus turns over the tables. This market was only corrupt because it was selling objects of worship. In this reading, the moral of the story is that true religion is not to be sold, but must be free.

This reading emphasizes the corrupt systems of the world as they extract a fee from all those who engage in them. Buyer or sellers, we all are implicated as the market forces control the setting. No matter the choices we make as individuals, we are corrupted simply by because Vanity Fair exists.

Buyer or sellers, we all are implicated as the market forces control the setting. No matter the choices we make as individuals, we are corrupted simply by because Vanity Fair exists.

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4. A Modern Vanity Fair

Bunyon’s actual meaning is left uncertain. But many of these ideas continue to influence the way we see ourselves as Christians in the urban context, and thus how we interpret the passage of 1 Peter. The apostle Peter continues,

As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.

In the modern environment, of course, many of us work for corporations. So, we may decide, this text indicates that we should live in our cities with sober judgment, making good decisions. As obedient children, we should grow up and make good choices. The passage continues,

18 For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.

Christians are reminded by Peter’s words that they were bought, and not with an ordinary price, or at an ordinary market. He continues,

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart

Often scriptures such as 1 Peter are cited in church in order to help us see that Christians must work hard for the corporations we work for, and as the Beatles sang, “all you need is love.”

But, the question is, can we see more here in this particular scripture than just the formation of good citizens for transnational corporations and the state?

Is there perhaps something more we can learn from the church in Asia Minor, as it to read aloud the words of Peter aloud?

Something more profound, and deeply resonant than simply what our context today allows?

“Be Holy, for I am Holy

Perhaps what we must learn is held within the saying “be holy, because I am holy.”

In Peter’s epistle, God is not asking the church to be formed to serve the marketplace.

God is asking the church to be formed, indeed to be con-formed, to Him.

Peter exhorts the Christians to follow the lead of Jesus.

What He is, they must become. And God is holy. So the question is, what does this strange word “holy” actually mean?

Within the Bible there are 34 direct commandments to “be holy.”

  • Leviticus, (11:44): “I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by [eating] any creature that moves along the ground
  • Numbers (6 v 5): sets out rules around the temple Nazirites and holiness is demonstrated through growing hair.
  • Deuteronomy, (23): “For the Lord your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you. Your camp must be holy, so that he will not see among you anything indecent and turn away.”
  • Jeremiah (31:40): God even stakes a claim upon the rubbish tip, saying “The whole valley where dead bodies and ashes are thrown, and all the terraces out to the Kidron Valley on the east as far as the corner of the Horse Gate, will be holy to the Lord. The city will never again be uprooted or demolished.”

These things may seem very ordinary.

Eating. Cutting hair. The way Israel acts while camping. The rubbish tip. In each case, Israel must “be holy.”

But the passage most relevant for us today in relation to 1 Peter, is I suspect, found in Leviticus 20. It states,

“You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.”

1 Peter: A Letter Written From the Imperial City

You see, Peter writes his epistle to the church in Asia Minor from a place he identifies as “Babylon.” Most scholars believe that he is writing from Rome, the Imperial city and the seat of Emperor Nero.

John Calvin noted that its audience is largely the early Christians of modern day Turkey, many converted Gentiles. Perhaps some are even Roman citizens.

Taking into account the date and region, it is highly likely that those in modern day Turkey were struggling with fear regarding the way the Christian faith was perceived by  Roman leaders.

And perhaps, as is often the case, those Peter writes to could feel public sentiment swirling against them, as they gathered to worship and eat together. Perhaps they feared for Peter’s life. Perhaps they feared for their own.

But Peter, after witnessing firsthand what happened to Jesus, is no stranger to this kind of atmosphere. Surely the disciple who denied his rabbi three times before the rooster crowed, knows how it feels to be afraid, and also to give in to fear. He knows how it feels to deny Christ. And from his words we can detect little chance of that even happening again.

If these Christian were, in fact, struggling with fear, it would not be completely unfounded.

History tells us that in the year 67AD, Rome burned with a great fire. Some historians suggest that Nero lit the fire himself. Thousands burned to death, as this blaze raged for nine days.

‘Tacitus’ a young boy writes this Roman history down. He speaks of the followers of Christus, the founder of a group put to death as a criminal by Pontius Pilate. He says,

“Therefore, to stop the rumor [that he had set Rome on fire], [Emperor Nero] falsely charged with guilt, and punished with the most fearful tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were [generally] hated for their enormities.

… Accordingly first those were arrested who confessed they were Christians; next on their information, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city, as of “hating the human race.”

In their very deaths they were made the subjects of sport: for they were covered with the hides of wild beasts, and worried to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when the day waned, burned to serve for the evening lights. Nero offered his own garden players for the spectacle, [mingled] with the common people in the dress of a charioteer, or else standing in his chariot.

For this cause a feeling of compassion arose towards the sufferers… because they seemed not to be cut off for the public good, but were victims of the ferocity of one man.”

Tacitus suggests that Nero’s persecution caused some Roman Christians to forsake their faith and their love for one another, and to testify against each other.

We are left wondering what how they felt, as they faced their death. We don’t know the answer. We don’t know for sure what happened, or to whom.

But we do know that shortly before this, Peter tells the Christians of Asia Minor in his letter,

Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

Peter sets the holiness of Christ as the church’s model and guide.

Within this letter Peter warns them,

“All people are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of the Lord endures forever.”

You might right ask … if this is Peter’s final manifesto, why doesn’t he invoke intelligent and subversive political maneuvers? Why doesn’t he write a manual on non-violent direct action? Why does he not encourage Christians in Asia Minor to advocate to Rome on his behalf?

Eusebius later claims that it is, in fact, Nero who orders Paul’s death.

And that it is Nero who commands Peter crucified, in his chosen position, upside down in order to honour his Lord, Jesus.

Despite this, Peter’s message in his letter is not radical.

So how do we reconcile this – that an apostle senses disquiet, and yet, there is no call to arms. There is no overthrow of the market. There is no request for political solidarity or even asylum. There is only the declaration to “be holy in all you do.”

Miroslav Volf suggests that perhaps this is the profound moment that many scholars of Peter search for. He says,

“The call to follow the crucified Messiah was, in the long run, much more effective in changing the unjust political, economic, and familial structures than direct exhortations to revolutionize them would ever have been. For an allegiance to the crucified Messiah—indeed, worship of a crucified God—is an eminently political act that subverts a politics of dominion at its very core.”

The message of 1 Peter can arguably be misread. It may even perhaps be misused by the powers that be, just as Bunyon’s text has been read in many ways, likely different from his original intention.

But the truth is that the powers that be are no match for the risen Christ.

Indeed, Volf suggests that it is within the very act of refusing to be defined by their enemy that Christians have indeed been able to live free. He says,

But how can people give up violence in the midst of a life-threatening conflict if their identity is wrapped up in rejecting the beliefs and practices of their enemies? Only those who refuse to be defined by their enemies can bless them.

Peter’s call to the church in Asia Minor is to be defined only by Christ.

And, this is indeed a radical call.

Christ and him crucified.

In the words of another ancient Christian, St Patrick, who was able to forgive his enemies. I will finish with this as a prayer for us today:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Is the Australian Church NDIS-Ready?

Australia is currently in the midst of a reform called the National Disability Insurance Scheme or NDIS. This reflects a widespread national recognition that change is necessary for the way that we care for and support those with disabilities. This scheme rolls out in 2017 in New South Wales.

Under the NDIS, Australia’s funding will now be allocated to and controlled by the individual with a disability rather than by service organizations, which traditionally provided programs that individuals had to fit or miss out. This change will enable eligible people to structure their income and their activities around their goals.

This potentially opens new opportunities for people with disability, as they gain voice and control and are able to decide what matters to them as a person.

In recent years, there has been increasing recognition that “disability” is not a medical diagnosis, but a bio-psycho-social one, as in the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Functioning (ICF). This just means that our understanding of what disability often reflects our social environment. Advocates suggest that the word “dis-ability” indicates a limitation on the abilities of a person whom it describes.

With the technology we now have available and use today, many physical limitations can be now overcome – for example, people who wear reading glasses probably don’t see themselves as “disabled” while those of us who use wheelchairs and are unable to get access to the places where we do ordinary life are likely to identify themselves as having a “disability.”

The 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities or UNCRPD (http://www.un.org/disabilities/convention/conventionfull.shtml) has now been signed by approximately one hundred and forty nations, including Australia. The UNCRPD is a commitment from governments to change the way they provide support to citizens with disability. This is of particular importance because many studies link disability to low socioeconomic status or poverty.

The Centre for Disability Studies, an affiliate of The University of Sydney, has been involved in some of the preparatory work for the NDIS.

And one of the interesting findings is that Australia’s NDIS may mark the potential reappearance (or more regular appearance) of many people with lifelong disabilities into Australia’s religious communities.*

In 2015 at the L’Arche 50-year Symposium conference hosted by The Centre for Theology & Ministry at Melbourne University, Dr Vivienne Riches and Dr Tanya Riches presented their research, outlining the self-reported religious affiliation of 246 Australians with disability during a trial assessment. This was the basis for a scholarly article for AlphaCrucis’ AustralAsian Pentecostal Studies (APS).

Of our respondents, 14 (5.7%) replied that they had ‘no religious affiliation’. The majority of others (92.5%) identified themselves as ‘Christian’, with many specified denominational affiliations.

There was another theme in the interviews with people with disability – staff was largely unable (or, occasionally unwilling) to take people with disability to church. Support for religious activities on the weekends within group homes has been patchy at best.

Now under the new funding arrangements, a person with a disability could articulate their goals as involvement in a faith community, and receive adequate support in order to attend church every weekend, visit the venue each week for music rehearsals, or regularly attend youth or discipleship meetings.

In most Australian cities, this finally marks the arrival of a real weekend for many people with moderate to profound disabilities. The weekend is the time when most people do social things. But until now, support staff structured support around their schedules – and most carers worked midweek.

Interestingly, however, within much of the Christian church, the massive impending social changes that are possible with the NDIS have not even raised an eyebrow. Perhaps this highlights a disconnect with the needs of our community, How much do we really love our neighbour with a disability?

Jesus was highly interested in people with disability – especially those who were dis-abled by their society. Jesus did not see disability as a curse (John 9:1-3). He often healed symptoms, of course, but his main contribution was in solving the wider social problems related to the stigmatisation of people.

Paul wrote several times of his physical weakness (e.g. 2 Cor 12:7-10). The great leader Moses had a speech impediment (Exodus 4:10- 16). Elijah was depressed to the point of suicidality in 1 Kings 19. And one of the most beautiful stories of hospitality in the Bible is the way King David treated Mephibosheth, the son of his friend Jonathan, who had a physical impairment (in 2 Sam 9).

Perhaps the church needs to be more open and connected to the needs of the people within it? …. Is your church community ready to wholeheartedly say “Welcome home” to those rolling over to the NDIS in 2017? new-year-2017-diary-9-2

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*It’s worth saying that service provision is more difficult in Australia’s remote and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, where services are often further away. In many of these communities, however, there are also different conceptions of what “disability” is, and also different views about social responsibilities to kin.

It’s not the wildlife you have to be afraid of in Sydney, it’s the Baby Boomers…

So. That might be a controversial title. But I’ve just been to see French economist Thomas Piketty speak at the Opera House, and I thought I’d share a little of my thoughts.

In the audience were a lot of economists, some socialists, and two Pentecostals.

Classily, as we were assailed on the front steps by the Socialist Alliance paper, Dreu quoted Oscar Wilde “…the trouble with Socialism is that it takes too many evenings.” Which we laughed at because so does Pentecostalism, actually. There’s a lot of dancing, and giving, and … oh well back to the topic.

I actually find macroeconomics very sexy. Oh, speak to me softly in Keynesian. I did a political economy degree at the University of Sydney, and I very nearly did my PhD in it.

Instead, my PhD is situated at the intersection of anthropology and development, and charts emergent ways that Aboriginal Christian leaders are using their congregations to insulate themselves from the devastating policies that increase Australia’s racial inequality, or “the gap.” During my studies, I spoke with 88 Christians attending churches with Aboriginal pastors. They spoke about the intersection between Dreaming culture and Christianity, and the ways they help people in their community get car licenses, stop smoking, do aerobics and work for NGOs. They are reducing inequality. This is the invisible Australian church.

Anyways, the summary of this Piketty presentation is that global inequality is rising, and in some places around the world has gone back to levels before WW2. Inequality is most troubling, interestingly enough, where there is oil revenue – e.g. in The Middle East, where the top 10% of income earners take almost 60% of the income.

Piketty doesn’t want to predict another war, of course, but at the same time, he provides historical links to inequality (of both income and wealth), characterizing this as “instability” that may give rise to conflict. Which certainly stacks up with development theorists.

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There was something very interesting about sitting with thousands of people in the Opera House listening to this presentation.

It felt like church. Although the Today Tonight crew are desperately against more progressive Pentecostal religiosity, the reality is that it provides a collective identity, and a motivation to redistribute wealth. Jesus is a pretty compelling reason to limit your income, particularly for those at the top of the income ladder. And, it turns out, the poor in Pentecostal churches actually do see a material gain in income. If you’re desperate for stats, I can point you to many, from all over the world.

The true problem of our world is that the rich cannot see how rich we really are.

It is a virtue to truly be able to see yourself. This kind of sober judgment doesn’t come overnight.

The irony is that due to negative gearing and 0% tax on wealth inheritance (which Piketty made into a lovely joke), those who could attend this seminar in the Opera House in Sydney are truly the 1%.

I love the city of Sydney. But let’s be honest, it’s no longer tenable to live in. Without inherited wealth or a wealthy benefactor, you’re unable to afford the city at all.

For example, we live three kilometres out of the CBD in the converted basement of our besties: a surgeon and a business consultant. They got into the market well before the heist. But a 2-bed apartment-no-car-space across the road sold four months ago for $1.1 million.

There are thousands of apartments going up in our area. Three blocks away, there is a 2 bedroom faux-terrace that real estate agents predict will sell off plan for $2 million. It might lie vacant until the buyer deems they have made enough profit from it to resell.

The reality is, most Australians simply can’t afford to slap down $1-2 million on an apartment and let it lie vacant. 

But this is how it works at the centre of our city.

All the workers that staff the shops, the university students at major institutions, and most of the CBD professionals now travel in from other precincts.

I can only reflect upon my own journey. After giving six years of my life to administrating United Live unpaid, which turned out to be one of the most successful musical exports of Australia (don’t worry, I didn’t get a cent, or a movie ticket, so obviously I was only imagining how important it was for me to be doing those 80 hour weeks, which is reassuring), I walked away without any superannuation, and decided to complete further study. But there is no incentive for young people to pursue the Arts in inner-city Sydney anymore.

My husband works with youth at risk in the Chatswood area. His organization does not take a cent of government funding. They raise it all themselves. Which means that we often brush shoulders with the philanthropic set, usually when they are highly inebriated, which of course helps make them feel compassionate towards street kids. There is no incentive for people to create innovative social services in inner-city Sydney anymore. 

There is no incentive in Sydney other than money.

You either play to existing rules, or you’re forced to move out.

The five km radius from the CBD creates the perfect city for Baby Boomers with inherited wealth who want freedom from millennials. And children. And anything else that challenges the idea that this isn’t really “the good life” that they paint it to be.

I’m not suggesting we run screaming down the street aka Chicken Little, but I am suggesting that we look very seriously at the spirit of our city.

Or, if you still refuse my assertion that there are some benefits from participation in a religious community, then at least read Thomas Piketty.

A Sermon in Three Acts: Of Grief, Of Fear and Of Faith.

Last weekend I preached at St George’s Anglican Church. This is one of Australia’s many churches that use The Lectionary, a three-year plan for each scripture to be read aloud in the public service. Each denomination’s lectionary is slightly different, but most weeks are allocated four scriptures. This is what I was given:

Lamentations 1:1-6

Lamentations 3: 19-26

2 Timothy 1:1-14

Luke 17:5-10

When I got the text message, I shuddered a little – two passages from Lamentations?! These are some heavy going scriptures. Although a preacher doesn’t have to preach from all four, as I thought about it during the week, I realized that there was indeed a deep connection.

So I decided to construct this sermon in three Acts: of Grief, of Fear and of Faith.

Many film writers have used the Three-Act Structure to tell stories. Of course, we don’t experience life as a play. But this is really just an exercise in reflecting upon fundamental human experience in light of the Word of God. In any three-act play, the first act sets the scene. So I will do that here.

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 ACT I – OF GRIEF

Most of the activity in my life at the moment happens under the bed. Let me explain… we live in a terrace house in Annandale that our best friends cut into two. I live in the basement with Tim my husband. In order to make this space work, our bed is on stilts and I sit and work underneath it, on a desk. It also doubles as the closet, which is kind of complicated to explain when I have a Skype appointment.

From under the bed, I encounter the world. I dissertate, and write books and songs. In order to feel some connection to outside, I regularly Facebook stalk.

I have a Facebook friend named Jake Heath. His mother has early onset Dementia, and she has been fading away now for eleven years. He has started to document her life as it is, because that’s all he actually remembers of her. In the last ten years she’s lost the ability to speak, walk, talk, eat solid food or even recognize her family members. She has panic attacks and paranoia. He published some of the events that have structured the last decade of his life in a story called “the long goodbye”. It has been covered by The Huffington Post, the Daily Mail and other papers all over the world. This week, he posted again, and I will read it now:

If you watched the video I posted last night, you’ll want to read this. This time yesterday I had just packed my bags to head down to Batemans Bay. I was trying my hardest not to cry because I knew that if I started that I wouldn’t be able to stop. I knew that trying to drive four hours while having an emotional breakdown wouldn’t be safe. I got here at around 4pm and went straight to the hospital. When I walked in I saw my dad standing over the hospital bed where mum was curled up. She was fast asleep, with tubes hanging out her nose and an IV drip in her arm. He was looking tired and stressed. I choked my tears back and stood there for half an hour or so before dad and I decided to go to the pub.

After all, there was nothing we could do. Mum was warm and comfy, and the hospital informed us that they would call if things took a turn for the worse. She had a fever and had not been able to handle fluids or food for the previous 24 hours. It was finally time to say goodbye. It was time to say farewell to the long goodbye.

After the pub dad and I went home. We watched TV, we had a few laughs, we discussed business – anything except facing the reality that we would be saying goodbye to Jacquie very soon. Went to bed about 1am, but couldn’t sleep, so I woke up exhausted this morning. We made our way to the hospital. I dropped dad off and went and bought us breakfast so that he could have some alone time with her.

… I walked in 15 minutes later with hash browns and coffee to a lot of commotion. “You’ll never believe it Jake…” dad said as I walked in. “She’s done it again.” I looked over the nurse’s shoulder at mum and she was up and active. Dad was feeding her, and she was gurgling with what I imagine was delight at having food. I stood there for a few minutes not knowing how to react. To be honest, I still don’t know how to react. After spending a decade knowing that this time would come, I thought it was finally here.

I knew it would be extremely hard, but I also knew the journey would soon be behind us and we could finally get on with our lives with some sort of closure. So instead of 12 minutes or 12 hours, it might be 12 days. It might be 12 weeks…. Some might say that this is good news, but I don’t think it is. All it means is that the long goodbye is now even longer. It’s like running a marathon and thinking you’re about to cross the line, only to find that the line is nowhere in sight. I thank you for [your many touching messages], but I felt weird ‘liking’ them, so I didn’t. The condolences with early onset dementia are ongoing and still apply, so thank you.

Mum is on her way back from the hospital in an ambulance. When she gets here she’ll go back to her special chair. She’ll get fed and looked after. She’ll continue to barely exist, while we sit here trying our hardest to enjoy life. It’s going to continue being difficult for a while – I truly hope that it’s not too long.
I don’t know what it’s like to watch your mother disappear. But I resonate with Jake’s honesty, and indeed grief, because I think all of us know what it is to lose someone or something that matters to us. And even it’s not this extreme, we all know what it’s like to watch our hopes disappear into a terrible, frightening mess.

This weekend I have spent a number of hours speaking with a family member whose marriage is slipping away in front of their very eyes. It’s barely a year on from the happiest wedding ceremony I’ve ever been to. But the pain between the words they say that gets me, because I love these people. I don’t want them to be packing up each other’s belongings. But neither can back down yet. And so, until there is a glimmer of light, we must live with the grief.

In Lamentations 1 that was read today, the city of Jerusalem sits as a lonely widow, mourning the loss of her relationship. Verse 2 reads,

She weeps bitterly in the night,

with tears on her cheeks;

among all her lovers

she has no one to comfort her;

all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,

they have become her enemies.

It  says that Judah also weeps with loss. The prophet depicts the nation of Israel as ruined by her inability to stay faithful to God.

And therefore God leaves as hurt lovers will do, and Israel is left as a nation to itself. The situation has become more and more toxic, and Zion is silent. There are no festivals or visitors, it is a complete wasteland. Instead, the evil inside her has taken over, and to intents and purposes, it looks like they have won. She is destroyed by them.

The only way for the city again fill with dancing is for Jerusalem to call her lover home and to make amends. But yet she does not, she cannot, she will not.

Under the bed this week, I also encountered Australian politics – or more accurately “the social exclusion of Aboriginal disadvantage” – which structures my research into the intersection of Aboriginal Christianity and The Dreaming. This week, yet another Aboriginal man died in custody. But this time it all played out on my Facebook feed in real time – finding out something had gone awry in the prison, and a call to prayer. Then a heartbreaking final post commemorating his life. A brother, killed while incarcerated by the state. And I thought about the things that we just haven’t done as a nation. The 339 recommendations from the Royal Inquiry into Deaths in Custody that still lie unimplemented.

…. when things are left to themselves, well, it results in entropy. I’m no hard scientist but I feel this lack of order; a gradual decline into disorder in so many parts of my world. It’s like a rot that gets into the fabric of my heart and mind, and it pushes me from life and the Spirit of God.

I don’t think that’s just me. It’s now a cliché, spoken so many times “If God were real then… “ and the things we list after those five words are so meaningful to us. There’s just so much common humanity in those statement.

We cannot protect those we love from death. And yet, so fearful about experiencing this deep grief, we can also spiral ourselves into experiencing the very things that we fear the most.

Which is where the curtain closes and reopens upon Act II, and all the complexities of this story.

ACT II – OF FEAR

The theologian Walter Wink says, “So many people, if the truth were known, live their lives on two levels. The principles they fight about are often at odds with the complicated and often frustrated lives they live. This is why there is so much intensity.”

We find this intensity in another of today’s readings.  After Paul’s release from prison in Rome and his fourth missionary journey, he was again imprisoned under Emperor Nero. During this time he wrote his second letter to Timothy. In contrast to his imprisonment in which he had lived in a “rented house,” he now languished in a cold dungeon chained like a common criminal. Paul knew at this point that his work was done and that his life was nearly at an end.

From this dungeon he proclaims out the words we read in 2 Timothy today, “God did not give us a spirit of fear, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

That seems quite complicated.

I can only call it a paradox. If I got to watch more science fiction movies under my bed, I would perhaps be better able to describe how the two realities exist together, and that at any one point in time, we can operate in either realm. There is a red pill and there is a blue pill. We can and do in fact make our very deepest fears come true. And similarly, we can choose to move towards something else, the “deeper magic” that Aslan speaks of in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.

So, how do we move ourselves from one realm to another? …. Well, as a songwriter, I listen for the narrative arc begin to shift within the lyrical progression. And, in verse 22 of Lamentations 3 it does. In the midst of the lament, comes the turn.

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.

Although Israel has been turned away, even still, yet Israel’s soul may hope in God.

This is a hesitant, faltering step of faith. It is a incomplete move. But it is indeed faith, as it is “the evidence of things hoped for, and the assurance of the things unseen”.

This narrative turn continues throughout all of scripture. In fact, it is unmistakable as the story of the people of God.

You see, The Bible does not offer people of faith a promise that we will be inoculated from the entropy of the world. Instead, God offers us Himself. But yet, we too often wait in our pain, in our shame, in our failings and our shame, before we take the narrative turn and move towards the Creator of the systems.

 ACT III – OF FAITH

And this leads us into Acts III, the scene of faith. The final scene of a story, is usually the confrontation that brings everything to a finale. In the Timothy passage Paul also writes,

This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

This points towards the conclusion of this conflict, which ended with Christ upon the cross. So in verse 8 Paul appeals Timothy his protégé,

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner.

Paul writes this because within the Christian understanding, all the cosmic powers of the world were stopped in their tracks as God hung in shame upon the cross and offered what Walter Wink calls “the third way.” This was the end of the retributive cycles.

And thus Jesus, when he was with the disciples, points towards this potential, the power of the seed as a metaphor for faith. In Luke 17: 5-6,

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

Traditionally, this verse has been preached in two ways. Many of the Pentecostal preachers I grew up with, they wanted a “power encounter” in which the powers of this world were shamed into submission to Christ’s witness through healings, and the many other miracles that were to take place among the people of God.

I certainly believe in miracles. I do believe that God can indeed heal. I believe that we should indeed pray for healing, for change, for the Creator to break open the systems of the world in the here and the now.

But the greatest miracle of all is that we are no longer beholden to these systems, but can choose a new way thanks to the cross.

As Walter Wink states, “the ‘peace’ the gospel brings is never the absence of conflict, but an ineffable divine reassurance within the heart of conflict; a peace that surpasses understanding.”

I cannot speak for my friend Jake, or to how his long goodbye has affected his faith.

But from the biblical text, God shows us that he does not draw away while we grieve. In fact, he draws near, to indeed experience the very pain of it with us. And, because God draws near to Creation, the promise is that the world and all its death and destruction will be made again new. Renewed.

And thus, the curtain falls upon the world each night we can believe that tomorrow can bring something new, something redemptive, and that we do indeed have hope.

And that is what faith is all about. Not waiting for a quick fix so that we can cope. It is about living life, and life in all its abundance.

Marketing a Christian Self: Pastoral Care in a New Media World

I had a moment on Facebook the other day. I was flicking through my feed disinterested about my PhD edits. And a friend who I admire greatly had posted a video clip. It disturbed me.

 Firstly, because of who she was in posting it – a thinker and church leader with great influence.

 Secondly, because of what it was communicating about Jesus.

The video was entitled “Keep yo’ business off of Facebook.” The urban dictionary defines business as “pointless meaningless life-consuming spirit-draining activity.” So, I guess, in this context, “business” means anything from a bad romantic break up through to study woes, through to ventures gone wrong.

Now, the song is very catchy, with beautiful gospel harmonies. It’s a contemporary Christian original, clearly sung for a congregational audience.

It’s not singing to or about Jesus, per se, but it’s a humorous take on Christian engagement with social media. It’s written by a pastor. And the chorus pleads with Christians to (breathe) “Keep yo’ business off of Facebook.”

The underlying theme is that it’s unwise to put all the messy details of your life online. And sure, oversharing (and personality disorder, for that matter) is a thing. But the whole point of Facebook is self-disclosure. So before you get all judgey at me, let’s remember that.

I suspect some people will disagree, so I’ll outline my thoughts, and then it’s over to you for comment. This video makes me intensely uncomfortable for a number of reasons. I’ll try and explain.

You can view it and sing along here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2axEKrms2g

I wish I had this video clip when I wrote a chapter about Christian pastoral care in the 21st century (and particularly its intersection with worship ministry) for the book entitled Congregational Music-Making and Community in a Mediated Age.

A couple of months before I was asked to write this chapter for my colleagues, I had a mind-bending moment in which I moved for a brief second from the “church is wonderful and I love it” group into the “maybe church is a brainwashing cult” group and back again. I personally think every Christian leader needs a window into life on the other side. Now, I see this event as a gift, which I’ll explain here.

I’d been happily attending choir practice for six months every week (that I feel like some people may not believe this is kind of the point of this story). I knew I had a European music tour and scholarly fieldwork coming up, and I was nervous about both. So, I thought maybe I could “ground” myself in Sydney between these trips by singing. I’ve sung all my life, including at Fuller Theological Seminary, where I helped lead the chapel team. I thought that if I participated in my local church every couple of weeks, it would make the lonely “on the road” nights a little better.

It wasn’t really very complex. I didn’t even care where I sang – on the front row, in the back row, behind a curtain. But I did feel like I wanted to serve in weekend services, because that’s what marks “legitimate” from “non-legitimate” involvement in the Christian musical context…

So I went to the vocal training sessions and tried to get a hold of a leader to do an audition, which I knew was the right process. There was some really weird stuff going on, in my opinion. I clearly hadn’t been seen by the right people, or at least, I had people regularly lean over to me and say in a weird meaningfully-edging-on-sinister tones “I haven’t seen you around lately” while I stood right there beside them in the room. I’ve perfected the art of sliding under the radar in public meetings, I guess. Or not. Anyways, it was a comedy of errors, and I couldn’t work out how on earth to get an audition. Which was all I really wanted.

When the girl I was driving home each week ended up chatting to me happily about her audition date (and later tearfully let me know she had failed), I honestly wondered what was wrong with me.

The next morning I posted something vaguely funny and very confused about this experience on Facebook. And within ten minutes I had forty comments. I guess that should have been a clue. By the end of that day, it was two hundred.

That day I got over five calls from pastoral care leaders, including staff and non-staff from my church and other churches. Some knew me, but others I had never officially met. I had clearly shamed people into acting. And they did with a range of responses – everything from getting the facts straight, to apologies, to empathy and inviting me to another church, to outright anger and blankly asking me to remove my post.

Gosh. What a mess. I could hear myself in every single one of those phone calls and text messages. I’ve “cared for” hundreds of young musicians and singers. I’ve been a worship pastor at a medium sized church. I’ve led interns in chapel in two different seminaries. I felt exhaustion in their tone, and I related to it.

How is it, after all these years as a Christian leader, I still don’t have the tools to help myself when I’m slowly disintegrating in this fast paced global life? When I’m tired, I ignore it. When I’m upset, I read the Bible, pleading with God for clues.

I’ve pastored people through miscarriages, death, grief, singleness, and marriage troubles. I’ve seen other very good pastors completely destroyed. And I wear the scars on my heart like trophies. I’m still around. Those who get it, they rejoice with me. Others look at me with skepticism or get competitive. But what I don’t say often is “oh my gosh, at times it hurts.”

Christian leaders are usually really, really good people. But I think we set ourselves up to fail.

We do it in our seminaries, in our bible colleges, but more than ever we do it in the way our internalized models fail to engage our emotional lives, online or otherwise. We have largely abandoned the notion of pastoral care in favour of good biblical teaching, and better communication methods. But this is not how we do the “soul work” of being a Christian.

We market an attractive Christian self. We call it evangelism. Anything less, we think, will embarrass our pastor.

I was genuinely and completely shaken by this really dumb experience. I had an audition (they were kind enough to move heaven and earth to give one to me) and I shook like a leaf the entire time. I passed it, but in the end, I had to let my desire to sing with the team go. I can only explain it as finding myself trying too hard to fake the correct emotion in the one place that had always been a place of non-performance or truth for me. In worship.

This has made me hunger to see something deeper and more profound in my own pastoral care, and the care offered by churches across the globe. And so, my chapter was a manifesto on how I wanted to care for other Christians. I’m not sure I’m there yet. But I’m trying.

Pastoral Care is an ancient art. It began in the early church, and is first noted in Latin through the word “pastorem”. It drew upon the image Jesus painted of himself, as a shepherd. The interaction between watching, and hearing is important to Jesus. Sheep hear the voice of the shepherd, and keep close. But if lost, they must be found. And this is the shepherd’s role.

The shepherd follows the sheep to the place where they fell off track, and he picks them up and he carries them home.

According to Clebsch and Jaekle (1994), pastoral care takes the form of four roles:

  • encouraging congregation members towards wholeness and healing
  • sustaining them in situations where healing is impossible
  • reconciling relationships and embedding them into the community
  • guiding decision-making via wise advice

I’ve had to recognize that our Neoliberal world wants workers to perform and to look a certain way. It asks us to navigate our losses and risks and continually get up again unscathed. This is often made into a virtuous pursuit by Christians.

But you don’t need to appear “put together” for the shepherd. Jesus (as well as those who follow in His way of shepherding) sees it all anyway. That gritted teeth moment. That comment where you’re slightly insecure. That one you wish you hadn’t said. The fact you’re on Tinder and your profile shows you’re not celibate. All your business, whatever that is.

So as far as I’m concerned, you can put your business on Facebook. Because it’s not about censorship. When you’re transformed by Jesus from the inside out, we really want to see it, and celebrate it with you.

What is more important than looking like you’ve got your business together, is engaging in the deep work God asks of us. It is cultivating the soul. And whether you preach on the weekend, or you’re in the back row – we’re all in that together, honey.

Christianity is not about having it together. It’s about having a shepherd.

vintage-performing-monkeys-poster.jpg

What’s Going on With Aboriginal Youth in Australia?

This week in Australia, Four Corners screened a program called “Australia’s shame”. It confirmed what Aboriginal elders and leaders had been telling our nation for many years. They had stated over and over again that Australia’s juvenile detention program was costing them the next generation. But, sadly, the government doesn’t tend to listen to black Australian leaders.

No. It took an ABC hour-long episode to break open the case, and make it visible to conscious citizens.

And the footage we saw is astounding. Let’s just say, it’s way worse than the miniseries Orange is the New Black. But the critical word here is “juvenile” detention. Meaning everyone is under eighteen.

At the Dondale Youth Detention Centre, children were locked up in solitary confinement for twenty three hours a day, weeks at a time. They were housed in tiny dark, human excrement smeared holes without running water in hot environments. When accidentally freed from his cell one fateful night in 2014, the footage shows an inmate unscrewing a light fitting, and enact his pent-up rage against the walls that held him. The response? Eight minutes of tear gas exposure on all the boys in solitary confinement.

But the various events that led to this night were also outlined. Kids acting out. Violent retributions from the guards. How we are treating our most damaged children is basically by sending them to war.

In contrast, Sydney has various juvenile detention centres where children finish school, eat three meals a day and learn life skills in a relatively stable environment. It’s not Disneyland, but it’s definitely not Dondale.

Our federal government responded immediately, with the Prime Minister calling for a Royal Commission. And, John Elferink, the Northern Territory’s Correction Minister was sacked (by that, it means he retained his portfolios for Health, Children, Families and Mental Health).

But many people may be wondering what the fuss is about. So while the nation is open to listening, I want to outline some reasons that people working within the sector are spamming Australians with information, and hoping they will call their local member of parliament and add momentum while we can.

  1. Few Australians understand this, but Australia has two populations: a first world, and a developing nation one.

Within the literature, this phenomenon is called “The Aboriginal Disadvantage of Social Exclusion”, or “the gap”. Which tends to infer that the situation is created through exclusion. And, if you were thinking that, you’d pretty much be right.

This situation emerges not only out of British invasion of the land, but also from what’s called “White Australia Policy”. This  was entrenched in the first law that Australia passed in 1901 and was the big idea behind the federation of the states.

Through various laws and failure of approaches to this issue, we’ve managed to now get to a point where there actual clear difference in life expectancy. That means that on average, Aboriginal people live 10.6 years less than their non-Indigenous counterparts. But it’s often closer to 20, and in some places, maybe 30 years difference. The quality of life for Aboriginal people in Australia is also entirely different in many, many ways.

Now you might think here “oh that’s lefty propaganda”. Which would be rude, of course, but I guarantee that’s happening here. Well, my friend, Aboriginal leaders from both the left and right unanimously unite on the issue of “the gap” and how it has occurred. They may not unite on an appropriate response. But where we are at is entirely fact.

2.There are, however, many reasons for youth juvenile detention. Nobody is saying the boys are blameless. They have stolen property, damaged cars, and even in some instances, assaulted people.

And thus, there is no doubt the state needed to intervene. But how it does so with juveniles is crucially important. What these boys learn in prison will go on to form the rest of their lives. Here’s a little more information:

image-20160726-31178-1bd80d8

 

This might sound super depressing. But, I see it this way – if we can stop the cycle now, and if Aboriginal elders and leaders can work with the state to create new ways of helping angry, delinquent boys channel their strength into positive outcomes, then we are literally reversing “the gap”.

It’s too important a moment to miss out on.

I’m sure you’re asking here: what can I do?

At Common Grace, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Justice team has been working furiously to figure out what an appropriate response could be. Most of our members are Christian, and their interest is in promoting Jesus-like love in Australian society.

And that helps because 73% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people self identify as Christian. 

So this seems like an opportunity. And, we wanted to figure out how to resource our peeps to do something really tangible.

  1. We’ve joined with an organization named “Change the Record” who are calling upon the government to make this a state-wide, independent commission. It calls for targets to be set in regards to youth detention.

In my view, collaboration in Australia is important. We have a history of various Christian denominations working separately, and even sometimes against each other. This means that many initiatives weren’t accountable, and we didn’t promote best practice across the board. But “honour where honour is due”.

Change the Record has a long, brilliant history of engagement in this issue, and we’re calling upon all Christians to promote and support this initiative.

Let’s be clear, our action is not secretly motivated by evangelism or building churches. The church in Australia has certainly been guilty of this in the past. (And did I mention that 73% of Aboriginal people are Christian? That’s more than the general population at 61%).

This is about praying and acting to see “thy kingdom come”, in the Amos 5 sense of “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

2. And, Brooke Prentis, Common Grace spokesperson and Waka Waka woman has put out a statement calling churches to ready themselves to act on this issue.

I would love you to read her statement and pray about how you and your church can respond. Her words definitely ring true for me, after having interviewed 88 people in five cities who attend churches with Aboriginal senior pastors, and spending my time talking with many Christians about this issue.

“In community we know these stories – heartbreaking, sad and real stories… My heart and call is still for the churches to wake up to where Jesus is calling us. And to act. The churches continue to reduce funding to Aboriginal ministries, close down our churches, have us operating in derelict buildings, do not fully employ Aboriginal pastors, Aboriginal youth pastors, Aboriginal prison chaplains, Aboriginal court chaplains, and not support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian Leadership development. Sometimes churches don’t do anything at all.”

She also says this:

You can stand with us by contacting your own church pastor, head of church, minister or denominational leader and asking them to make a public stand for justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, in response to the Four Corners report. 

These are her specific asks:

  • Will they commit to standing up to racism inside and outside the church?
  • Are they open to listening and learning from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters on how we can work together towards justice?
  • Could your church potentially fundraise to resource Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ministries, churches, prison chaplains, court chaplains, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian Leadership Development?
  • Could your church look into grassroots efforts led by First Nations peoples that they could partner with and/or support?
  • How can your church continue to open its members’ minds in support of the ongoing struggle for minority and First Nations people achieving justice?
  • How can your church make opportunities for Christians to engage biblically with topics that are often put to one side, such as material issues of land rights, prisons, law and the distribution of wealth in Australia.

 

If we can’t talk about this stuff inside church, well, I don’t know where we can talk about it. If your church wants to move from singing about justice to actually doing it, Australians, this is your opportunity.

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x Tanya