Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Mr de Botton, It’s all very nice but...

Peter Lockhart

Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists fits into that category of book that I found interesting at points but wondering why at the end.

Whilst it might be refreshing for some that de Botton takes a less vitriolic approach to the denial of God, as other atheists do, I kept wondering as I read ,"Why would anyone want to reject the foundational convictions and beliefs of religion and then try to grasp at holding on to the various practices of those religions?"

Maybe as an atheist Alain de Botton is just a super nice guy who has vision of a world in which people will all be pleasant to one another (ala Pleastanville). Or maybe, he is just a little confused about notions of the nature of being (ontology). Again and again he referred to the “soul” which for me grated against the idea of rejecting religion.

Without a coherent meta-narrative to explain spirituality and the soul atheism is left grasping at teleological straws and at times this how de Botton’s book felt.

Despite these deeper flaws I found myself interested in his critique of the humanist approach totally divorced from religion and his hankering for practices he deemed as good processes for the development of peoples’ lives.

Amongst his many examples I was introduced to quite a number of practices and insights into a variety of religions and even Christian practices which I knew little about. Having said this there were moments when he was analysing aspects of Christianity that I could hear myself saying, “he just doesn’t get it” – disconnecting the spiritual practice from the God in whom we believe just didn’t make sense.

Maybe Kim Fabricus’ comparison gave me fair warning of how insipid de Botton’s book was going to be - I couldn’t help thinking maybe de Botton should really have called it “Religion for Agnostics”.

Would I recommend reading? Maybe it fits into that Douglas Adams kind of thinking “Mostly Harmless”, so a bit of light reading with some helpful inisghts, but if you are searching for deeper answers and a bigger vision of hope I wouldn’t recommend it.

The year King Uzziah died!

Peter Lockhart

"In the year that King Uzziah died".

What significant weight these words carry may easily be lost on us who have no kings, who are removed in time and history from the ancient world, who live in a democratic fluid culture.

Yet, significant they are, even to us!

In the year that King Uzziah died.

The death of a king and particularly this king was a tumultuous event in the ancient world.

Not long before his death King Uzziah had been smote by God with a serious illness for his pride. He had sought to make the offering of a priest in the Temple despite the attempted intervention of the Priests of the day. The consequence for King Uzziah was living in quarantine until the day of his death.

Add these circumstances to the general sense of dislocation and instability that came with the death of a King, Isaiah’s words begin to carry some weight, even for us so far removed.

As one Biblical commentator put it we might begin to get a sense of the event if we compare it to the assassination of JFK in the USA or maybe the more recent events of 9/11, that terrible day when the planes flew into the World Trade Centre.

If we can have a sense of the upset connected with these events we can begin to have a sense of the climate of the time in which Isaiah saw his vision. Now, it may be that some of us feel the dislocation and disturbance in our own era as we consider the global issues which confront us: terrorism, the economic crisis, abject poverty and ecological issues.

It is in the midst of human loss and suffering, in the midst of separation and disconnection that Isaiah sees a vision that despite all this the ever living praise of God continues in the mouths of the seraphim:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts:
The whole earth is full of your glory!”

Do you recognise these words?

The church invites you and I to join this eternal song of the angels adapted in the sanctus of the communion liturgy.

Holy, holy, holy Lord,
God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

These powerful words of praise join us not only with the song of the seraphim but also with the saints and martyrs of every time and place. These words derived from scripture are the oldest known aspect of the modern liturgy of the church. They date back as far as the first century and became an integral part of the Eucharistic worship of the church by the 6th century.

When we say these words we are transported into the throne room of God’s presence as the divisions created by time and space crumble away and as the false divisions of our human brokenness as the church are transcended. These words thus act as a symbol of our unity as God’s people and with all those divine and earthly who offer praise to God.

They are words not only of praise but of hope. Hope in the unity that we long for and hope that in the face of whatever we might be experiencing God is being worshipped and adored.

Drifting back to my comments about the context of Isaiah’s vision we are reminded that whatever the event occurring, the death of King Uzziah, war, terrorism, economic meltdown, ecological crises, the death of someone we love, the terminal prognosis, the anxiety and depression that afflicts us, or whatever trial we may be experiencing God’s is being praised and is worthy of such praise.

It such a realisation as this that no doubt leads Isaiah to his confession: “Woe is me for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.”

As human beings our lives appear to be plagued by a myriad of problems, many of which are of our own making. Exposed in the light of God’s glory we confess that we are an imperfect people who need God’s help and the good news is that God offers us such help.

For Isaiah it comes in the form of a burning coal borne by angel’s wings and touched upon his lips but ultimately it comes to whole world as it is born from above.

The good news conveyed in the story from the third chapter from John is that God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world but in order that it might be saved through him.

It is God’s work to transform us, by sending the Son and the Spirit to renew us in our relationships as people with one another and with God.

As Jesus points out to Nicodemus and others mentioned in Chapter 2 believing in Jesus because he does cool miracles is not enough, in fact believing in Jesus for any reason is not enough! It is the work of God’s Spirit giving birth to us from above that transforms who we are into who we are made and called to be as people.

Being born from above is not simply an individualistic event that opens the gates of heaven to us but is a cosmic renewal as God sends the Son into the whole world in order that it might be saved through him and come to exist bound together in God’s love as God always intended.

Baptism celebrates this renewal and affirms our conviction that God does indeed stay true to his promises. To be born again means that we are disengaged from all human bonds, the bonds of biology, the ties of nationalism, the parochialism of community and we are reconnected, renewed and reinvigorated as citizens of the coming kingdom bound one to each other and with all people, the world, for whom Christ came.

As the scholar Dylan Bruer indicates:

We are invited to relate to others, whether related to us by blood or not, as sisters and brothers, beloved children of the same loving God.

Take that deeply in, and you'll find much more transformed than just your inward disposition. Take in that every child of God is your sister or brother, and you'll feel personally swept up in wanting each one fed, given clean water, an education, decent health care, a real chance in life. Take in that every child of God is your sister or brother in a family of faith following Jesus, and you'll find yourself with genuine desire and taking pleasure in coming closer to the kind of free and full interchange of every gift to which you have access that characterizes the communion of the Trinity. [End quote]

When we baptise not only do we declare God’s love of the individual we are baptising we as a community of faith are reminded of our true calling to live out of that transformation given to us in Jesus and through the power of the Spirit. We live eternity life now – expressing that hope which we have for each other and all the world – on earth as it is in heaven.

The paradox of our Christian existence is that whilst we are born from above, whilst signs of the kingdom do break in, whilst we do with one voice praise God with the sanctus, we live in the tension of still having unclean lips. We harm one another, in pride we compete for power and position, we neglect the cry of our brothers and sisters who do not even have the basic necessities of life. We carry a message of love and hope yet struggle to be all that we are called to be, even to those whom we love most dearly.

We are the world for whom Christ died; we have been saved, we have been made whole. We are constantly being renewed by his love as we continue to enter his presence to have our lips touch by the burning coal and like Isaiah, like Nicodemus, we are given an opportunity to respond, saying ‘Here I am send me’, even when the message we carry is a difficult one to understand, live by and proclaim to a world that wants to ignore it.

Friday, 25 May 2012

The Meaning and Purpose of the Church

Peter Lockhart

Today we celebrate the day of Pentecost. It is the day that we remember that the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples. The significance of this event has been recognised in that Pentecost is often referred to as the birthday of the church.

The pouring out of the Holy Spirit of the on the early Church means that the church is the Church in the Power of the Holy Spirit. There is a famous theological book written by Jurgen Moltmann with that very title “The Church in the Power of the Spirit”.

The source of life and meaning stem not from a human decision to create some concocted religious institution but by the very intervention of God in history, God establishes the Church by binding people with God and each other through the Holy Spirit.

The presence of the Spirit in the church is not some vague and erratic power which responds to our will but has a specific purpose and direction.

Jesus summarises the work of the Holy Spirit for his disciples in this way. He says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

For me this means that ultimately the presence of the Spirit is to ground us in what God was doing in and through the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Even more than that, as the church in the power of the Spirit our purpose and meaning come from God and what God was up to in Jesus!

So here we sit this Pentecost remembering the birth of the church and as many a person does on their birthday we are reflecting on what we are meant to be doing with our life as the church.

To paraphrase from the Scriptures, notably the only quote from the Bible used in the Basis of Union in the Uniting Church in Australia, God’s work in Jesus Christ was the reconciliation of all things to God.

Jesus presence in the world tells us 2 things. First, that the world, and more specifically people, are in conflict with God. Second, that despite this conflict God acts to bridge the gap, to reconcile and renew the relationship.

This is what God was up to in Jesus Christ. When we examine his life we see that Jesus walks about the earth, God among us, building bridges between people, re-establishing community, through healing and teaching, opposing evil as he cats out demons, declaring God’s mercy as he forgave those alienated from God and others.

And, ultimately, on the cross bearing within himself those things which are not of God and God’s love and bearing them down into the ground with him as he descended into the dead.

The resurrection declares that all that can bears us down into death, all that oppose God in this world, cannot hold God’s love for us within the tomb of our despair. God gives us hope.

When the Spirit is poured out at Pentecost it precisely to enjoin the disciples and so the church with God’s will to reconcile and renew people in their lives.

Jesus life, death and resurrection whilst encased in a particular moment in history transcends the boundaries of time to connect all peoples with this hope, this message.

God’s will for humanity is not enmity, it is not judgement and rejection, it is not retribution or revenge. In Christ we see that God’s will for those who would reject God and forget God’s ways is love, is mercy, is providence, is generosity, is joy, is peace, is justice, is hope.

This is the good news and the purpose, or the mission of the church is this, to share with others what God’s mission in Jesus Christ was, is and will be.

Living on this side of the resurrection we have glimpsed something profound and marvellous about God and God’s love and God’s desire for reconciliation but no less do we live in a world in which we and others continue to reject God.

The rejection God is not simply the decision to become an atheist but to live opposition to the way of love that God always intended.

In the sometime unpopular jargon of the church we call this problem of being out of step with God sin. It is the inclination to think we know better and that we don’t need to God.

The consequences are as we know devastating. Humanity has never had a period in its history free from war. We sit here in safety whilst Australian troops serve overseas. We can say all sorts of things about why there are wars but in the promise of God’s life war has no place for we will not find enemies among each other as human beings.

But war can feel far and removed from we who sit here yet that does not mean we are free from the problem of sin. Sin is an insidious and complex beast. We are schooled in our western culture that we must buy more and more things to be happy – it is actually called coveting.

To provide the more and more and more that we want we, often with little awareness, participate in destructive and exploitative systems. For example, in this congregation we buy “Fair trade” coffee which is like an act of penance because we know that when we sit in a coffee shop later in the week we may be drinking coffee with beans picked by children used as slaves, so we can enjoy our latte.

These complexities of exploitation are beyond you and I to solve, although one might argue every little bit helps, so we come and we confess and we are confronted with the news that we too need Jesus who reconciles us with each other and God. We cling to the message of hope that these systems of sinfulness will find an end.

I could go on – my point is clear to quote the apostle Paul “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

The Spirit we celebrate that was poured out on this day joins us again to God’s life despite this problem of sin and draws us in to what Jesus was on about.

The purpose of our birth, the mission of the church to be technical, is to be found in understanding and being drawn by the power of the Spirit into the mission of God in Jesus Christ.

We are to be a people who work for the end which God in view for all things – reconciliation!

Let me take us back to the day of Pentecost from the scriptures to begin to glean what that is about.

The Day of Pentecost was one of the great Jewish Festivals, it was a harvest festival. In the book Leviticus beyond the offerings and worship of God the people were to the following as part of their celebration of the harvest, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.”

God’s concern, right from the earliest days, is providence for all peoples. The poor and the alien should be treated with charity and equity. This is about human dignity and the ability of all people to enjoy the abundance of life, which is a gift from God.

Jesus own life reflects just such a concern for the poor and the church in the power of the Spirit is empowered to reflect this in its own life. Our celebration of God’s goodness must always be accompanied by the practical outworking of God’s concern for all people’s as we leave the edge of our harvest for the poor.

This might mean sponsoring a child, or donating to charity, or working on an ecumenical coffer brigade. As we do these things our worship and service become witness that God’s agenda is love and equity and justice.

The second example I would give to you is from the day of Pentecost described by Luke in the book of Acts. On that day people spoke in different languages but others heard those words in their own. God’s Spirit intervenes to break down the barrier of language created by human culture without taking that culture away.

For those of you who remember the story of the tower of Babel it is a reversal of God’s scattering of the people who had sought to storm heaven in their arrogance. Now once again in this moment people have the ability to hear one another again – they are reconciled from the barrier which had kept them apart. Humanity is given back it s unity in Christ and through the Spirit.

The church in the power of the Spirit, its purpose, its mission is to build bridges of understanding. Anytime such bridges are built God’s will becomes apparent – we are not to be strangers separated by language or culture we are brothers and sisters in the love of God.

As we celebrate on this day of Pentecost the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, we celebrate the good news that God’s agenda in Jesus is reconciliation – God’s love transcends our desire for conflict.

Over the next 6 weeks as a congregation we are going to travel more deeply into understanding the purpose and meaning of our birth as the church, or to use the jargon to seek to understand the mission of the church. Our starting point though is this: the Holy Spirit has been poured out to help us to know and understand and be joined to the mission of God in Jesus Christ. So if he our true north let us set our compasses and embark on this journey open to the teaching of the Spirit and ready for the invitation to hope.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

"Journey to the common Good"

by Peter Lockhart

In my reading for a current project I was given a little book by Walter Bruggemann "Journey to the Common Good".  At only 122 pages it packs enough of a punch to get you really thinking about how we live and where we are heading as God's people.

From the outset Burggemann is up front with how he defines the common good.  It is "the common good that God wills for the world."  Given how incoherent some discussions about the common good are Bruggemann rightly asserts that for Christians the common good can be no less than what God wills for the world

In exploring this issues I can imagine many people, within and beyond the walls of the church, would rankle at Bruggemann's interpretation and critique of our contemporary Western culture through his analysis of Exodus, Jeremiah and Isaiah.

There is a clear theme running through the book which questions the pursuit of power and objects over against the pursuit of God's love and mercy for all people - redefining our concepts of justice, economics, relationships, worship.

The book was quite readable and so I could see how the book could be used well with small groups or Bible studies to really challenge the vision of the Christian life in which we are engaged.

I must admit I skimmed the book quickly but am left with a sense that what Bruggemann says is being said by so many within and beyond the church about the consumerist culture in which we live.

What I think will stay with me is the strength of the alternative vision of life Bruggemann presents, one which flies in face of so much of how we live and behave in Western society.  How do I live differently when I and the people I love are so deeply immersed in this culture?

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Love Wins: What's the fuss

Peter Lockhart

I finally got around to reading the somewhat controversial book by Rob Bell "Love Wins".  The 200 pages flew by in not much more than an afternoon and I kept waiting for the big issues to emerge and by the end thought to myself "so, what was all the fuss about?"

Then again maybe I needed to be a bit more of literalist or fundamentalist to feel the rage that it appears many have.  And, having already given a congregation member the book, who also read it in an afternoon,  I was not expecting a deep theological exploration of the implications of the incarnation.  This means that I didn't feel like pulling it apart theologically because it just wasn't operating on a level that I felt I wanted to do that.

The opening story Bell tells about where some random person thought Ghandi ended up after death brought to mind Ulrich Zwingli's peopling of heaven with all sorts of persons - because God's grace and choosing is not limited and is certianly not reliant on the quality of our response.

I like what Bell does as he asks all the questions that are quite frankly pretty obvious for anyone who has begun to grapple with the stories of the Scriptures and to put them alongside one another.  At some points it feels like an activity in proof-texting which demonstrates the uneven ground and message that the scripture can give.  And, as he repeats his questions and expands them it does get a little tedious but he gets his point across and I think gives his readers the right to keep asking questions.

I heard in the book Bell's own internal conversation with his American evangelical roots, a critique and a grasping for real hope in the message of Jesus.  He sought to balance a vision of the presence of God's promises now with the future realisation of God's promises and to engage readers with how we might participate and respond to the possibility of those promises in our lives.

As Bell says, "What the gospel does is confront our version of our story with God's version of our story."

Overall I found the book a good read, almost enjoyable even, as Bell sought to explicate in simple terms how he understands the good news.  It may lack depth for some, or it may confront some with ideas that appear foreign and risky (like the Scripture contradicts itself) but in the end I am glad I read it and I would recommend it, especailly to any lay person who wants to explore some different thinking about their faith.

To finish as Bell does with the note of hope and blessing:
"May you know deep in your bones that love wins."

Friday, 18 May 2012

Sent into the world

Peter Lockhart

“After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said.”

Our reading from the gospel of John this morning misses this vital verse from the 17th chapter which sets the words which we heard today in their context. These words are Jesus’ at prayer. They are Jesus entering into the intimacy of his relationship with God and through his words drawing the disciples into that relationship.

This prayer has always sounded a little convoluted to me as Jesus describes the intimacy of his relationship with God and then prays that his relationship with God be shared with the disciples: that same intimacy.

As he prays he affirms them in the truth of his words and actions as he has walked alongside them claiming a unique authority in his relationship with God: words of comfort for the disciples for whom the moment of confrontation was drawing near. Jesus’ prayer is his final prayer with them before they head out to the Kidron Valley to meet with Judas.

Jesus appeals to God for the sake of the disciples whom he declares were never his but given to him by God. The undercurrent of God at work in people’s lives is there, more palpable even than his teaching of John 15 “You did not choose me, I chose you” now Jesus recognises in this prayer that he had received the disciples as gifts from the one he called Father.

The mystery of God’s choosing lies beyond our understanding but the context and direction of the choosing of the disciples is clear – a share in Jesus ministry in the world.

Despite the looming spectre of his betrayal the disciples can hear the hope and promise in Jesus prayer “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” To know Jesus and to hear his words are to share in his joy.

What confronting words of hope these are given Jesus is about to submit himself to betrayal, torture and death. What is Jesus joy? Is it knowing God and knowing the promise that God has in store that when he is raised up all will be raised with him? Is Jesus joy in the relationship he has with the disciples? Has not the joy of God’s promise of renewal and reconciliation been the whole content of his life as described in John’s gospel?

Sent into the world, the world that in John’s gospel appears to be organised in its opposition to God! Sent among his own people, but his own people failed to recognise him! Yet still he comes!

The word became flesh and lived among us!

He lived teaching of God’s love in word and action. He cast out demons. He healed the sick. He raised the dead. He restored community and renewed people’s lives. He questions worldly authorities, be they religious or political, and pointed people back to the world’s creator, the one whom he called Father.

Jesus' life is an expression of God’s concern for the world and all people, and despite ending in rejection and death, God’s love rises above the worst that the world can do when Jesus is raised from the dead.

This is why Jesus’ prayer is not a prayer to take the disciples out of the world but to send them into the world protected by God’s love and knowing God’s joy.

The disciples were to carry on Jesus ministry: proclaiming to a world that rejects God and God’s love that God stills cares about the world and its people.

So just as with Jesus the world responded to his teaching and ministry with disdain and death so too the disciples would experience this as well. As Jesus acknowledged, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”

The rejection of the disciples according to Jesus prayer was because the disciples actually recognised that they belonged to God, God was their origin and their destination. This was not to say that the world is not important or that the focus of the disciples attention was some ethereal other life. It was recognising where true authority lay, not in the half truths of the world but in the truth of God, Jesus himself.

Ultimately, Jesus presence in the world meant that the future of the world was intrinsically tied to his future, new life.

Jesus prayer is not, however, simply for those who were gathered him at the time. Jesus prayer transcends time as does Jesus himself in his resurrection.

If we were to read on Jesus also prays for those who will believe even though they have not seen and this means us.

The implications for us are profound. Drawn into Jesus life and ministry we too are sent into a hostile world.

Coming here on a Sunday is important, even vital to the expression and understanding of our faith, but the risk of coming here is that we might hear Jesus speaking to us and hear that like the disciples we are being sent our into a world that hates us week after week after week to share in his ministry.

To proclaim good news to the poor, to heal the sick, to free the oppressed!

Too often the church is hated for the wrong reasons, you only have to read any critique of the church to know this – to read Dawkins or Hitchens. Unfortunately, some of that hatred is well justified.

Yet we are called to go out into the world which has declared God is dead and has not risen, because God never was, and to share the good news not only that there is a God but that God lived among us.

It is easy to water down the message of our faith and turn it into a model for social work without holding onto the fundamental truth that our actions are a sign and witness to God’s love for the world and the future promise for all peoples. Maybe it is because we don’t want to be viewed as Bible bashers or crazy people that we so often hide our faith. Maybe it’s because we simply want to be liked.

Yet our sending into the world is grounded in Jesus sending into the world, who through all his actions pointed at God and God’s love for the world: God's willingness to forgive and to renew and to reconcile.

For our joy to be complete involves an engagement with hearing the fullness of Jesus word to us and sharing that word with the world. When our actions disconnect from our proclamation we offer nothing to the world in terms of hope which is different to the next well meaning or good natured humanitarian. But when we ground our actions in Christ we point to a life beyond death, a hope which transcends the antagonism of the world to God and people towards each other.

When "Jesus looks up and says" - when Jesus prays - I believe we should sit up and listen for the God who is at work in him, speaks beyond that moment and into our own lives. Jesus draws us into his prayer and into his life which gives us joy and hope, and then sends us out to point not at our own actions but at what God has done, is doing and will do: reconciling all things to himself.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Undone by Willamon

Peter Lockhart

Each year I read a book on preaching during Lent to help me prepare for Easter. This year I chose William Willamon’s Undone by Easter: Keeping preaching fresh.

I must admit as a ploughed through the 97 pages I felt like I had been dragged back into the classroom for a refresher course not simply on preaching but in faith: preaching 101.

Given part of my task in reading books such of these during Lent is to refresh my preaching I found myself feeling being quietly corrected as Willamon drew on one of his inspirations, Karl Barth. “Barth suggests that there is a word for my desire to be fresh, new, and interesting in the pulpit. The word is idolatry.”

Page after page I felt drawn back towards by Reformed roots, to Calvin, to Barth, to Bonhoefffer as Willamon reiterated again and again the work of proclamation is God’s. “It isn’t a sermon until God says it’s a sermon.”

Yet this stark theme of God at work did not leave me, the preacher, with nothing to do. He reminded me that, “Preaching is a form of prayer in which preacher and congregation show their utter dependence upon God to enter time, seize time, and speak – now.” And so in entering into this prayerful task preachers are called to tell the story of Christ again and again.

“Faithful repetition is what we do; making it fresh is God’s business. Our chief task is not to succeed but to try to preach again next Sunday, to keep at it, to keep saying the gospel, over and over again, confidently repetitious, sure in the conviction that God gives the gospel the hearing it deserves if we will stick with words akin to the God who sticks with us.”

As I came to end of reading the book and admittedly feeling somewhat chastened I considered again the passages for Sunday and wondered what God might say through me, beyond me, even in spite of me this week I sought to proclaim the gospel.

For anyone engaged in the task of preaching I would highly recommend this little book. At less than a 100 pages it packs a pretty good punch as I was left ruminating over phrase, quotes and thoughts and more to point inspired not to preach freshly but to listen again faithfully to God’s speaking in the midst of the congregation.

This book is a follow up to Willamon’s longer reflection on preaching Conversations with Barth on Preaching which now sits among the current pile of books I am reading.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

On Mother's day and the Church

Peter Lockhart

Historically Mother’s Day as we know it has not been around very long, about 100 years or so. Mothering Sunday does have a longer history but it too does not date back very far.

The inspiration for these days to honour mothers arose out of a range of issues including:

• a day on which Mary the Mother of Jesus was honoured,
• a response to the horror of war and a movement for peace,
• and remembering of mothers who had died.

In addition, there is a sense in which honouring the role of motherhood has become a key aspect of what Mother’s Day is about.

Whilst there is no doubt there are valuable motivations that lie behind Mother’s Day like many things in life it is a day which is rife with many problems as well.

To begin with Mother’s Day for many is a painful day. It is a day when people remember the broken relationships of their family; a day when a mother that has passed away is mourned; a day when mothers who have lost children feel keenly aware of such losses; a day in which whilst many celebrate the gift of motherhood other mothers, ignorant of the celebration, struggle simply to live through another day.

Added to these very real human emotional struggles is the fact that mother’s day has been taken over by the consumerist juggernaut of Western culture. Ann Jarvis, who had campaigned to have Mother’s Day recognised in the USA, later fought against the commercialism of the day and before her death is said to have expressed her regret at ever starting the day.

As followers of Jesus who have enthusiastically embraced such cultural celebrations it is important that we are measured in how we enter into the spirit of the celebration. It is important for us to reflect on how what we will do honours the God revealed to us in and through Jesus of Nazareth who came to reconcile and renew all things, including what it means to be a mother.

In what ways might your celebration of Mother’s Day honour and give hope to those for whom this day is painful? How do you resist the consumerism of days such as these and celebrate in a way which focuses on people not goods?

Rather than let Mother's day take precedence in worship I am setting aside a time in worship this week for a Mother's Reflection (in place of the Children's Address).  I am going to ask questions of Mother's of different geenrations and compare some of the changes.  This will link with the sermon I am praching about "Singing a new song". 

Photo Creative Commons

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Sing a New Song

Rev Peter Lockhart

In a conversation with one of my colleagues recently he suggested a good way to test if a person was growing in their faith was to ask the question, “What was the last song that they had learned which had an impact on their faith and how long ago was that?”

For people who love music and a sung faith I believe this is a poignant question. Even for those of you who may struggle with music and singing there is something in this.

Through the scriptures the Psalmists especially encourage the people of God to have a sung faith and there can be no doubt of the power of music in our lives and in our faith generally. We remember songs. They bring back memories. They speak to our souls. They can enfold us in a warm hug like an old friend or lead us to feel again old hurts long past.

I have discovered through my ministry that often our favourites hymns embedded themselves in our lives at an early age, often as children, teens or young adults. Why? I suspect this is because our identity and sense of being is largely determined in these formative years, particularly with respect to our faith.

In these years our emotions are strong, there is vitality and hope in our outlook, there is passion for life and for love.

In terms of singing our old favourites are often associated with times of new and surprising discoveries about our lives, or our faith or about God.

Despite how beneficial our sung faith is to our spiritual growth and nurture I learnt many years go that the same sort of emotions evoked by our religious songs could be experience beyond the walls of the church

Like the Jimmy Barnes gig I went to at the Lismore RSL the night before my 18th birthday or the Hoodoo Gurus gig at the Mansfield Tavern or the James Taylor concert at the Boondall entertainment centre when his songs wafted through the building and left me soaring.

In fact it is because music is so powerful in our lives that I would constantly want to challenge people about whether hanging on to the favourite songs holds us back from new experiences that might help us to continue to grow.

The Psalmist encourages and yes also warns us to “Sing a new song to the Lord.”

Now singing a new song is an entirely personal experience because a new song is simply one that I have not sung before.

I can well remember the first time I sung the hymn ‘Lo! He comes’ at Toowong church about 15 years ago. I knew it was one of the minister’s favourite advent hymns.

Initially I saw the hymn as archaic; another dirge for the organ. But the reality was I was singing new song to God. It didn’t matter that it was a few hundred years old – it was new to me and I did not like it – I felt it was hard to sing and old fashioned.

Yet if old favourite’s fit like my comfortable old ugg boots then maybe new songs sometimes are like a new pair of shiny black school shoes. They might cause a few blisters but in time they can be worn in and their true purpose and comfort to protect and support my feet will be found.

“Lo! He Comes!” is now one of my favourite hymns – it has become like another old friend who reminds me of the promise of Jesus return and God’s love for me. It just took some time for me to get used to it.

Now I might have just well have chosen a contemporary song, or a more ancient hymn of the church to give my example. My point is that sometimes learning the new song, singing the new song, and doing it exuberantly, as the Psalmist suggests, is not that easy. It involves taking the risk to actually sing that new song and be open to new things in our journey of faith.

This is not a carte blanche to novel understandings of the faith rather a learning process of remembering God’s faithfulness. The Psalm invites new songs to be song about what God has done.

Generation to generation the music in the church has changed. I once read a sermon by a Presbyterian Minister from New Zealand written in the late 1800s suggesting that the organ was the devil’s instrument. I have heard the same things said of drums and electric guitars. At my wedding a Piper lead us from the church – no true Scot would have done that. The Pipes were banned in churches because they are an instrument of war – the clans were lead by their pipers into battle.

Styles and instruments and words change and we are ever invited to sing a new song to the Lord. Those new songs may be ancients sung discovered anew or freshly words and tunes for our new age. Yet, wherever they come from they are an indication of a broader issue that we are growing together as a congregation.

Of course the question of singing a new song might be applied to every aspect of our faith as well. God is constantly calling us to new expressions of who we are and what we are doing.

In the book of Lamentations we read: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness. "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him."

We believe in a God who comes to us afresh day by day to reinvigorate our souls, to create the new moment in which we are to live and to remind us of the constancy of God’s love revealed in Christ.

A constancy declared by the scripture which we heard today:

The good news shared with gentiles: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

The intimacy declared to the disciples: “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”

And the mystery of our participation in God’s grace: “And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”

In the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church it declares in Paragraph 11, “The Uniting Church thanks God for the continuing witness and service of evangelist, of scholar, of prophet and of martyr. It prays that it may be ready when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds.”

Our whole faith is to become a new song as it adapts to the news rhythms of life around us and the cacophony of new ideas, whilst not losing touch with that ungirding and grounding beat of the creation’s song described by the Psalm and the gospel which we proclaim.

The question that lies before us as a congregation is what is the new song we are to be singing now? The new song of our faith!

Sometimes like singing a new song the possibility of change might seem a bit of a difficult ask, it might take a little time for us to get used to a new situation and embrace it, yet still we do the new thing that we believe God is calling us to in faith. We focus on the composer of life, its creator, sustainer and redeemer and we sing our faith with every aspect of our being.

If music is representative of our faith then singing new songs reflects our growth not just in musical appreciation but in our relationship with God.

I wonder when you last learnt a new song to the Lord and came to appreciate anew the gift of grace for the mercies of God which are indeed new every morning so great is his faithfulness.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Earth is Full

Rev Peter Lockhart

So begins Paul Gilding’s book “The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis will bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World”.

When I read the opening line of Gilding’s book I could not help but recall a story of a somewhat anonymous Jewish couple 2000 years. They travelled to Bethlehem for a census only to find the inn was full.

Despite the spare room being full a place is found in which God can break into our existence. A child is born, the Word incarnate: Jesus.

As I read Gilding’s book I was struck by the flow of his text from confrontation and confession into an invitation to repentance and renewal. Whilst not in any way obviously motivated by a Christian fervour there was for me a sense of the movement of the liturgy.

What I found striking about Gilding’s analysis of our human predicament was his attempt to identify not simply the symptom, climate change, but the cause of the problem.

We are, Gilding argues, addicted to growth. I found empathy with this thesis and was drawn to recall Clive Hamilton’s book “Requiem for a Species”. However, whilst Hamilton has a much bleaker view of our future Gilding pins his hopes in human ingenuity and the ability to what is required when the time comes.

Gilding admits throwing off the addiction to growth will not be easy. It will involve a great disruption – wars, refugees, widespread shortages in the basics of life; but, he believes, we will through.

As much as I would like to get on board Gilding’s train of hope in human ingenuity I remain just a little sceptical of placing my hope in a world where, “While we strive for larger televisions, DVD screens in our cars, and the perfectly grilled steak, they die for a glass of clean water or a bowl of rice.”

I don’t think our behaviour is necessarily malicious yet the consequences of our concupiscence, ignorant or otherwise, are wide ranging as we choose our own ends again and again over God’s.

Gilding’s words may have a sense of the prophetic about them and what he predicts may come to pass, for this reason I think the book is a very worthwhile read.

Yet I cannot help but think again of the source and direction of hope found in the Christ who even though the inn was full found space to come into our midst and is coming always into our present from a future yet to be revealed.

As I read "The Great Disurption" I felt myself travelling on the journey with Gilding with eyes wide open that despite our addicition to growth the God who made all things is at work in the world and asking:
Though the earth may be full can we not find confidence that the incarnate God will come among us, drawing us into the hope of the healing of the whole creation?  Is God not inviting us to witness to the promise of the reconciliation of all things in Jesus by considering our own relationship with the stuff we consume?