A Sacramental Community for All

In practising its sacraments the Christian Church finds its deepest purposes reflected.  In the sacrament of baptism a person is brought into relational union with named persons (Father, Son, Spirit) and he or she obtains belongingness with the Church.[1]  In participating thereafter in the sacrament of communion the Christian continues in fellowship,[2] re-membering again her or his entry into and full participation within the ecclesia holy, catholic, and apostolic.[3]  What makes a congregation a church, in other words a bearer of the identifying marks of “The Church”, is found in its participants utilising opportunities to learn and teach the Word, the Sacraments, and Discipleship.    It is to the question of access to giving and receiving ministry in each of the cognitive, emotional, physical, social and spiritual domains that I wish to direct the attention of this essay.

I begin with the question of what might be a positive, inclusive Christian view of disability regarding the Church, its ministry, and its sacraments, and what is discordant about other views.  While liberationist theologies proclaim that there is no such thing as common human experience,[4] I offer that human experience itself suggests the same.  In this way to speak of “the disabled” is to offer a disservice to a broad group of people who are each unique.  Conversely the Church has, at times, considered all disabilities as either the consequence or punishment of sin, or a trial of obedience to be endured and welcomed.[5]  “The disabled” were therefore to be avoided as sinners, or venerated as living saints, but there seemed no place for them to be welcomed as sister-brothers. John Foskett, a mental health chaplain in the United Kingdom, noted that meaning can be found in suffering only through faith, scientific views of suffering cannot address the topic of meaning[6], but that is not to say that the purpose of suffering is meaning-making.  Suffering has no intrinsic purpose.  It is true that pastoral care which speaks of the hope found in Christ, even in the suffering of Christ himself, conveys love that secular forms of advice cannot,[7] but the theological meaning which can be found in mental illness does not mean that madness (to use Foskett’s own term) is a positive trait.

I once heard the story of a young woman who, while she was on her honeymoon, suffered a nerve injury which paralysed one side of her face.  She became frightened that her new husband would not want her any more.  “Perhaps”, she is said to have thought, “if we’d been married for a lifetime he would have that history of love to look back on, but with only our courtship and a few days of marriage what history do we have?”  The story ends with the young husband coming to the hospital and twisting his mouth around so that when he kissed his bride their lips would meet.  The parallels between this story and our received traditions of Jesus are evident, Jesus is the only whole person and he makes everyone feel whole.  But it is not good ministry to say to a paraplegic or a schizophrenic that “all are broken anyway” and each person in need of the Great Physician’s healing.  To say to an amputee that “yes, you are missing a limb but we are all in the same spiritual boat,” is to miss both the possibility of learning from another’s lived experience of life without that limb, and the pertinent story of self-identity of that person who already believes him- or herself whole in Christ and therefore not requiring of condescension or understanding of his or her imperfection.  Rather than speaking to people with disabilities of how “we are all disabled in some way” regarding the perfection seen in Christ Jesus, it behoves practitioners of good ministry to speak of the wholeness of the person who is the fullest possible expression of the imago dei despite a personal insufficiency of serotonin, functioning neural-pathways, or fingers.

In The Disabled God Nancy Eiesland prescribes accessibility for all to the rites and sacraments of the congregation: those who have been disenfranchised through disability have a personal responsibility to access the socio-symbolic reality of faith.  Inversely the congregation is obliged to pursue access to the socio-symbolic reality of those of its members who live with a disability.[8]  Kate Swaffer, who was diagnosed with Young Onset Dementia at age 49 speaks of “prescribed disengagement”[9] and of how she was directed by her diagnosing doctor to retire from all forms of life including her job and her tertiary studies, to put her affairs in order, and to start attending sessions at her local high dependency aged care facility in preparation for a permanent move due to her immanent senility.  Kate rejected this advice as unsuitable for a woman of her age, and proceeded to do all that she could to remain active and alert, albeit with the help of her husband and the disability support service at her university.  Eight years later Kate has completed an undergraduate and a postgraduate degree, written two books about her lived experience of dementia, two further books of her poetry, and is a passionate speaker and advocate for the human rights of people with dementia.

In her essay “Enabling Participation” Ann Wansbrough writes of feeling alienated in church by prayers and messages which seem ignorant or denying of her lived experience of disability.[10]  This saddens me since, as Wansbrough has observed, the participation of all members of the congregation must matter to leaders of worship if collective worship is to be a worthwhile activity of the church.  Worship which is self-centred on the part of the worship leader,[11] or the majority, is disempowering to others and excludes their full participation in this central activity of the Church.  Wansbrough understands that the key to inclusive worship is engagement in real life between those who lead worship and the congregation;[12] I suggest that Kate Swaffer might agree with the sentiment.

Hallinan suggests that it is central that the local congregation defend its members with disabilities against the medicalisation of their spirituality[13].  My experience as a person with a mental illness was to value the medical treatment of my symptoms of depression and anxiety, but to match that with a personal desire to protect my capacity for spiritual ecstasy and my exercise of pastoral empathy from being pharmacologically dulled.  This is not quite the point that Hallahan was making (she’s more interested in the desire of some to add spiritualisation as a treatment) but her phrase rings true for me.  I am not “sick” just because I am an introverted mystic, but neither is Christian meditation and/or exorcism the whole solution to my physical lack of serotonin and my disequilibrium in gut flora.

The question might then be asked how a church can include people with disabilities as members.  A simple solution is to treat all Christians as brother-sisters and not as objects of mission.  Subjects of love yes, with consideration for their humanity (we don’t ignore their unique needs for accessibility), but never as “cripples” requiring only charity.

However, the unique experience of living with a disability must never be overlooked or assumed by the community seeking unity by inclusion.  As an example, I offer the story of one member of a congregation to which I belonged struggled with the language of the Eucharist.  She would decline the invitation to receive the elements if she heard the servers using language along the lines of “the body of Christ, broken for you” since she understood from scripture that Jesus died without any broken bones.  She confided tearfully to me one Sunday that to speak of a broken Christ was heretical to her.  Yet for others, including me in my emotional and cognitive disability, to speak of that which was whole, the living, functioning physical body of Jesus, as “broken for me” on the cross speaks of Christ’s redeeming all brokenness by adopting it.  The one who had healed the infirm and had restored sight, mobility, and even life by his touch, dies in the depth of despair of exsanguination and exhaustion.  The perichoretic Son of the Father dies alone and forsaken.  I understand that this is what the Eucharist can recall for somewhat permanently broken people.  For some the dis-abled, rendered-incapable Jesus is a necessity because he identifies with disabled people.  Because of my broken mind, I have no trouble speaking of a Jesus who dies with his bones intact, but his flesh pierced and torn and his heart broken (and ultimately impaled), even as I acknowledge my friend’s literal attention to scripture.

Stookey describes the sacraments as utilising the real stuff of the earth as a sign that all hope is not lost and redemption is possible.[14]  All that exists, and all who exist, are bound by existence to the purpose of Creation which is divine self-expression: Stookey observes that humankind was made by God to be shared with.[15]  This should involve all of humankind and include, without qualification, those members who are less able than the rest in some facet.  It is my opinion that such earthiness in our view of the sacraments speaks of universal belonging.

Hauerwas wrote that in baptism all Christians belong to each other, thereby all children belong to the congregation of parents[16] such that the burden of care is the vocation of all members, not just the biological parents.  I suggest that the same is true of the brother-sister relationship between adult believers.  In the work of the congregation to seek to include the disabled man or woman I must begin with the understanding that he is my brother, (she is my sister), my own.

At this point it is pertinent to ask how a church can best minister to people with disabilities.  I understand the Church to be a foreshadowing fellowship of the now and arriving Reign of God, especially within the New Creation, words borrowed from Volf.[17]  Volf went on to describe how the City of God is the people, not the place nor the infrastructure of the place.  The city is the people amongst whom God dwells: a local church is a body of neighbouring believers who practice the sacraments and are in community with other congregations.[18]  Indeed Volf has said that “where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, not only is Christ present among them but a Christian church is there as well”,[19] and this speaks to me of inclusion of all believers by their involvement.  Since the time of the first churches the mark of the Church has been participation in baptism and Eucharist:[20] a woman or man becomes a Christian through baptism[21] and practices his or her faith through publicly accessing the Lord’s table.[22] Volf offers that ecclesiality requires communion and that any church is only a part of The Church for as long as it is ecumenical.[23]  A church which excludes any Christian (someone professing faith in Jesus Christ) from the practices of the Church is no church and has no part in the Church.[24]  To minister to any believer, including the believer with a disability, is therefore to enable and encourage him or her to practice the faith by participating in the practices of the Church.

Cahalan describes practices as bodily acts, suggesting that they must be embodied to be enacted:[25] practices are only such if they are done,[26] and to be done they must be learned.[27]  Since it is the role of the minister (clergy) to teach the practices it is pertinent that these Christian leaders ask how the practices can be modified to fit modified bodily forms.  In the same way that a teacher must consider the needs of a child who cannot fully engage in PE so the leader of the congregation must look for creative ways of engaging and ensuring participation of all worshipping disciples.  How this might be orchestrated in any given circumstance is beyond the scope of this paper, other than to say that the consideration of the person with a disability as a complete brother-sister in faith is paramount.  The person with a disability is no less a Christian for his or her diminished capacity in one area or another.

Eiesland speaks of her own experiences of stigma and practical excommunication due to her physical incapacity to participate along with the congregation.[28]  Eucharist became for her a “ritual of exclusion and degradation” where she “felt like a trespasser among the whole-bodied”.[29]  I too have lived experience of  what Eiesland describes as “the default initiation for the disabled”,[30] the laying on of hands, and the stigma and exercising of coercive shame of not being healed of a disability.[31]  Yet she writes also of the great strength she has received and been able to offer at other times through this Charismatic offering; Eiesland and I have each been ministered to by being invited to minister to others.

When author John Swinton was asked how he would wish to be treated if he were diagnosed with a cognitive disability Swinton responded that he would want to be cared for and loved just for who he is, even if who he is had become difficult to handle.[32]  This is the nature of the gospel and the way in which God responds to us.  Swinton went on to say that when wellness is thought of within a theological framework it can be described as life in the presence of the relational God rather than the simple absence of illness.[33]  With his focus placed firmly upon the person rather than the person’s condition or behaviour I believe Swinton gets to the heart of the question of ministry.  More so in the situation of a person with a dementia, Swinton speaks of dementias as an erosion of the self,[34] and asks that if salvation is given freely to those who call on the LORD (Romans 10:10) what happens when the LORD is forgotten through cognitive diminution.[35]  I understand that to be ministered to is to be reminded of one’s value as imago Dei and as an integral constituent of the community of faith: even if all that one can bring is one’s self that is enough. (We are remembered by the LORD even if we forget God.) By faith we are brother-sisters alongside people who have disorders, not people who are each a disorder (or disordered persons).  In this regard the maintenance and development of relationships is central to the congregation’s work in conveying the message and reality of hope[36] which is the very centre of ministry.  Where Swinton has observed that the primary loss of people with a disability is not the loss of ability but the loss of value accorded to them by a society frightened by the presence of the disabled[37] it is the role of the local church to subvert this tendency.  The offer of friendship on equal, not patronising terms, is imperative.[38]

As a final investigation into the ministry of the church to people with disabilities it is requisite to ask how a congregation might empower those same people to minister to the Church.  LaCugna offers that to do what is true, (which is how she chooses to define “orthopraxis”), requires that each Christian engage meaningfully in relationships which serve God in word, action, and attitude.[39]  The question I would like answered is what this looks like in practice, and that if it is a true statement on the part of LaCugna then how might each Christian be made welcome and assisted to participate in ministry activity.

In Paragraph Seven of its Basis of Union the Uniting Church assumes responsibility for the discipling of its members, which is to say those it has baptised, and Cahalan believes that disciples have a communal and a personal relationship to Jesus and to each other.[40]  In agreeing with Cahalan and mindful of the Basis of Union the necessity of the (Uniting) Church offering opportunities for all members to act as ministers toward each other seems obvious.  This is the meaning I take from the Biblical understanding of a “priesthood of all believers”, not that there is no need for a paid clergy but that each Christian can be of help to his or her friends, neighbours, and encountered strangers.

From such an understanding I see two paths, the first of which is open to all disciples.  Christians as Christians, without prejudice to their uniqueness, are gifted in ministries by God through the Holy Spirit, and are accountable to God and the Church for the employ of those gifts.

The second path, which is not distinct from the first, is the recognition of the unique gifts provided within the lived experience of disability.  My experience of physical and mental illness[41] has provided me with an enhanced awareness of my kinaesthetic and emotional self, and Eiesland writes of a similar understanding suggesting that people with disabilities understand that they cannot take their being for granted.[42]  Where daily life is more challenging for the person with a specific disability than for people with a more complete ability the awareness of that specific element of personhood or existence is enhanced, not as simply as heroic overcoming but as a deep knowledge to be shared and taught.[43]  To use a Biblical example we might think of the greater insight of Job in the final chapter of his tale regarding what he knew of God and personhood in the first chapter.  Through his experience of loss and renewal it is fair to say that Job came to know God far more intimately: the sense that he came to know God “in the Biblical sense” does not seem inappropriate to me.

Those who have experienced disability are very often knowledgeable guides to the alternative pathways.  They (we) are the regular users of roads less travelled because of blockages on the expressway, we are the knowers of the alternative exits (which may be behind you) since our aeroplane really has crashed and there is fire outside the most obvious door.  As a one-time Londoner who hosted Australian tourist friends I know that anyone can read a Tube map, eventually, but I know the way so well that I can cross London in four different, instantaneously flexible ways, if required by line closures.  As a traveller of alternative pathways my experience of God and the Church is similarly broad and lithe, but no less orthodox for being so.

If the Christian Church is identified in any local place by its proclamation of the Word, its public celebration of the sacraments, and by its modelling and practising discipleship, then this can be no less the case if some of the Christians in any local place are people with disabilities.  There is no reason why people with disabilities should be excused or excluded from participation in ministry as practitioners or recipients simply because of their deficiency in one area.  To suggest otherwise is to subvert the meaning, and the purpose, of the Christian Church.

Bibliography:

Cahalan, Kathleen A.  Introducing the Practice of Ministry. Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2010.

Eiesland, Nancy L. The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability. Nashville TN: Abingdon, 1994.

Foskett, John.  Meaning In Madness: The Pastor and the Mentally Ill. London: SPCK, 1984.

Hallahan, Lorna. “On Relationships Not Things: Exploring Disability and Spirituality” in Ageing, Disability & Spirituality: Addressing the Challenge of Disability in Later Life edited by Elizabeth MacKinlay. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2008.

Hauerwas, Stanley.  Dispatches From The Front: Theological Engagements With The Secular. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.

LaCugna, Catherine Mowry. God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.

Stookey, Laurence Hull. Eucharist: Christ’s Feast with The Church. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993.

Swaffer, Kate, Lee-Fay Low. Diagnosed With Alzheimer’s Or Another Dementia. London: New Holland, 2016.

Swinton, John. Dementia: Living In The Memories of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012.

Swinton, John. “The Importance of Being a Creature: Stanley Hauerwas on Disability” in Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader, edited by Brian Brock and John Swinton, 512-545.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012.

Volf, Miroslav. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.

Wansbrough, Ann. “Enabling Participation” in Worship In The Wide Red Land edited by Douglas Galbraith, Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1985.

[1] Catherine Mowry LaCugna. God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life, (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992) 404.

[2] ibid. 405.

[3] ibid. 406.

[4] Rebecca S. Chopp. “Forward” in Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville TN: Abingdon, 1994) 9.

[5] ibid. 11.

[6] John Foskett. Meaning In Madness: The Pastor and the Mentally Ill (London: SPCK, 1984) 163.

[7] ibid. 166.

[8] Nancy L. Eiesland. The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville TN: Abingdon, 1994) 20.

[9] Kate Swaffer and Lee-Fay Low. Diagnosed With Alzheimer’s Or Another Dementia (London: New Holland, 2016) 47.

[10] Ann Wansbrough. “Enabling Participation” in Worship In The Wide Red Land edited by Douglas Galbraith (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1985) 38.

[11] ibid. 39.

[12] ibid.

[13] Lorna Hallahan. “On Relationships, Not Things: Exploring Disability and Spirituality” in Ageing, Disability & Spiritualty: Addressing the Challenge of Disability in Later Life, edited by Elizabeth MacKinlay (London: Jessica Kingsley, 2008) 98.

[14] Laurence Hull Stookey. Eucharist: Christ’s Feast with The Church (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993) 15.

[15] ibid.

[16] Stanley Hauerwas.  Dispatches From The Front: Theological Engagements With The Secular. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994) 182.

[17] Miroslav Volf. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998) 128.

[18] ibid.

[19] ibid. 136.

[20] ibid. 152.

[21] ibid.

[22] ibid. 153.

[23] ibid. 158.

[24] ibid.

[25] Kathleen A. Cahalan. Introducing the Practice of Ministry, (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2010) 108.

[26] ibid. 109.

[27] ibid. 110.

[28] Eiesland. The Disabled God. 112.

[29] ibid. 113.

[30] ibid. 116.

[31] ibid. 117.

[32] John Swinton. Dementia: Living In The Memories of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012) 2.

[33] ibid. 7.

[34] ibid. 9.

[35] ibid. 10.

[36] ibid. 139.

[37] John Swinton. “The Importance of Being a Creature: Stanley Hauerwas on Disability” in Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader, edited by Brian Brock and John Swinton (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012) 517.

[38] Swinton. Dementia. 141.

[39] LaCugna. God For Us. 383.

[40] Cahalan, Introducing the Practice of Ministry. 5.

[41] I have lived through Chronic Fatigue Immunodeficiency Syndrome and an Anxiety Disorder alongside Depression.

[42] Eiesland, The Disabled God. 31.

[43] ibid.c

Advantageous Overview

This is the text of the message I preached at Delamere Uniting Church on Sunday 11th December 2016, the third Sunday in Advent in Year A.

Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

“Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return…” (Clap four times).  As it was two weeks ago on the first day of Advent so today we are reminded of the Jewish people progressing up to Jerusalem in celebration.  Two weeks ago we heard Psalm 122  and learned about the songs of ascent and the pilgrims going up to a festival at the temple, but today’s reading is from the prophets, not the psalms, and this journey carries a deeper meaning.  This is the story of the returning exiles, the members of a second exodus going up to Jerusalem after their time of imprisonment in Mesopotamia.  Look at how God is apparently being selective here: in Isaiah 35:8 it reads that the redeemed shall return, but the unclean won’t even be allowed to begin the journey. This is a consecrated road of return from exile to the land of promise; the road itself is safe from both lions and losers.  We’ll hear more about that later, but for now let’s jump back a few verses and look at Isaiah 35:5-7 in the light of our gospel story.

In Matthew 11:5 Jesus addresses the doubts of John the Baptiser as a prophet and speaks of his own ministry as the fulfilment of John’s prophecy, and of Isaiah 35:5-7.  “Tell John”, says Jesus, “what is happening before your own eyes”.  We must remember that John in gaol at this stage, the involuntary guest of the local Herod, so he’s not able to see what the disciples of John, still at large, can see.  The very signs prophesied by Isaiah as the marks of the road of return are evident in the ministry of Jesus.  The blind, lame, leprous, deaf, dead, and poor are restored to fullness.  This is all the sign you need.  Note that Jesus doesn’t actually answer John’s question with a yes or a no, Jesus never says “I am he” or “I am not he”; what Jesus actually says is “look at the evidence and draw the obvious conclusion”.  There is blessing for those who recognise the obvious truth demonstrated in the real world by observable proof.  Use your senses, and be sensible.

In Matthew 11:10 it reads that Jesus proclaims John the Baptiser as the greater than the greatest prophet.  I suggest that Jesus said this because John had the sole privilege of pointing out the Messiah in person.  Where all other Jewish prophets had spoken of the one to come as an historical figure in the future, John was able to say “there is one coming, and that’s him over there, the one with the beard and the Galilean accent”.  Yet Jesus goes on to say, and Matthew records this in 11:11, that even the least person in the Kingdom of God is greater than John.  So, John is greater than any of the prophets and the patriarchs, not just greater than Isaiah and Elijah but greater than Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as well, but he’s a nobody compared to the most insignificant Christian who has ever lived.  How is that possible?  Jesus says that each of you is greater in prophetic strength than even John the Baptiser, can you believe it?

Well it’s true, and it’s true because we each have the privilege of the lived experience of Jesus.  John pointed to a man on the riverside, and then met him in the act of baptism.  But then Jesus departed for his own ministry in Galilee and John was nicked by the old bill and taken off to Chateaux Herod.  Unlike John, but like John’s disciples who carried his questions to Jesus, we have the evidence of Jesus the healer, the preacher, and the exorcist living amongst us.  I can testify to Jesus because of things I have seen, and you can do the same.  This is the advantage we have in this Advent season, the lived experience of being where Jesus is ministering to us, to others, and to others through us.  (And to us through others of course.)  John the Baptiser didn’t get to see any of that, neither did Moses, and even the disciples of John only got to see it when Jesus was physically present with them.

We are eyewitnesses to the Reign of God, the places and the times when the lived experience of the Kingdom of God really is “on Earth as it is in Heaven”.  No-one who lived before the first century CE ever saw that, and some places on Earth still haven’t.

It seems clear that John had his doubts.  Perhaps the very fact that he was in prison made him question whether Jesus was who John thought he was.  After all if you’ve just heralded the messiah and all that that means in Jewish history you might be asking yourself, and the aforementioned messiah, why the righteous are in gaol and the Romans are in Jerusalem.  Perhaps he didn’t have doubts so much as he felt out of the loop: as we have said John hadn’t been present for any of Jesus’ ministry so news of the eyewitnesses was enough for him.  Either way John’s questions gave Jesus the opportunity to give some great answers.  “Look at the evidence in light of the prophets” says Jesus, “I’m doing the things that Isaiah said would be done”.  Seeing is believing, Jesus knows this, and Jesus suggests that it is actually okay to doubt.  Jesus doesn’t castigate John for his questions; he simply points John towards the evidence, and praises John’s faith and obedience behind John’s back.

Doubt is not unbelief; doubt it is various locations along the road to deepening belief.  In today’s epistle James points to the example of the prophets who spoke the truth of God with patience, speaking out confidently what they were very unlikely to see fulfilled.  In the time of John the Baptiser Jesus’ work was underway but it was yet to be completed, so Jesus’ message to John was to not lose heart.  As a prophet John had foreseen the end and he had foretold that which was coming, but Jesus reminded him that the end was not there yet and the coming is still coming.  It is still coming, you were right and you can have faith in God, but be patient.

This message is good for us too, isn’t it?  For all that we have seen in this broken world so desperate for more of the sovereignty of God to roll across it with healing and unity we have also seen where God’s sovereignty has been rolled out already.  We have seen miracles, we have heard the good news, and the signs of truth and relentless advance are there (here) before us.  We too can be patient for what we want to see, based in the confidence of what we have seen.

So what of the unclean who aren’t allowed a look in?  Remember them from page one and Isaiah 35:8A highway shall be there and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it.  But it shall be for God’s people; no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.  My goodness, that sounds a little harsh and dismissive, doesn’t it?  Elitist? In closing I offer you two responses.

First thing of two.  Isaiah is saying that the road is free of predators.  It’s not that only the religious in-crowd get to use the road but that it is safe from the deliberately evil muggers and murderers.  Remember, this is a road through the wilderness, so you need to be on guard for bushrangers and Bedouin.  Just as in Isaiah 35:9 where it reads there are no lions or ravenous beasts so it reads in Isaiah 35:8 the road is safe from ravenous men.

Second thing of two.  Isaiah is saying that this road passes through what once was desert, but is not any more.  In Isaiah 35:1 the wilderness is glad and the desert is in full bloom. In Isaiah 35:5-7 we read of the miracles accompanying the travellers on this road, miracles seen in the ministry life of Jesus.  There are no unclean upon this road because everyone who walks this road is made clean by walking it.  If the dead can be raised and the blind made to see anything ritually or morally inappropriate carried by a pilgrim cannot last long on that road.

The road we walk, the road of miracles and the road of the coming king, is the redeeming road of the Lord.  We know it is because we see the acts of healing and restoration taking place all around us, where the once-leprous are stopping to touch the blossoming of the desert itself and the once-lame and once-dead are dancing alongside us on the road.  Advent means that the promises we have heard, just like the once-deaf have heard, and the promises we have begun to see unfold, just like the once-blind have seen, fill us with hope for the more which is to come.

Our job, as ever, is to follow the example of the disciples of John at the instruction of Jesus.  “Go, and tell what you have seen”, and we can tell because we have seen.  This is why John who is the greatest of all who have been born on earth is also the least of us.  We have the privilege of telling what we have seen.

So, what’s stopping you?  Go.  Tell.

Amen.

Are there key features that characterise appropriate styles of leadership for rural congregations in South Australia?

This is the abstract of my coursework thesis for the degree of Master of Theological Studies, submitted to Flinders University (Adelaide, Australia) on Wednesday 7th September 2016.  I shall not be publishing the dissertation on this blog, but if you’re interested in what I’ve said here you’ll be able to access it via Flinders University or  Adelaide College of Divinity after assessment and review.

That life in a country town is different to life in a capital city’s suburbs is universally acknowledged, but the ways in which these differences manifest in the styles of leadership appropriate to local churches appears less well understood.  This study explores those differences and it seeks to present them in ways which might be helpful to placements committees within Uniting Church presbyteries and to ministers seeking to move from a suburban to a rural placement.  Such leaders in ministry must be willing to learn and embrace the specific ways in which life is different in rural areas and what the implications of those differences are on the ways in which ministry is gone about.  Interviews with former and current practitioners of rural and urban ministries in South Australia were undertaken alongside a literature review.  What was found was that whilst it is thought preferable to have ordained leaders in congregations it is actually better to have appropriately trained local lay members presiding than to bring in an accredited stranger.  Where an ordained minister is present he/she is most effective when he/she acts primarily in the mode of dialogue partner and facilitator of the congregation’s ministry rather than as a resident theologian or expert.  It is vital that local lay members are empowered to serve and lead their congregations, therefore a catalytic style of leadership is the best fit since rural placements often do not last long enough for ongoing mentorships to be effective.  The minister must enable and equip the local people such that that when he/she departs to take up a placement elsewhere the ministry is not left without direction or directors.  Ministers within rural communities are expected by their congregations to serve and comfort the community beyond the church; a rural minister, isolated from other ministers, may be the only person available to fill the many representative roles required, therefore he/she must have a preparedness and a willingness to do so.  It was also found that ministers in isolated placements need to take greater personal responsibility for their own and their family’s self-care and resilience than urban ministers who tend to have support networks closer-by.  Whilst the majority of people who live in rural areas are socially and theologically conservative this is by no means the case for everybody.  The minister must be able to lead the whole congregation in discipleship and learning with respect for every person’s theology and worldview whilst simultaneously upholding the distinctive flavour and form of the Uniting Church.

Church Attendance for Other Reasons

Some people attend Church for reasons other than worship.  This might include the desire to deepen their sense of belonging alongside meeting what Long describes as the need for human community[1].  It is no great surprise to anyone that people go to church to be with each other as well as to be with God, but in the twenty-first century Church are these desires in conflict?  What of those who wish to meet with God in solitude, or those who wish to participate and communicate without religion?  Such expressions have been known in the past, but in which direction is the general flow?  The reasons that people have stopped attending local churches are therefore twofold.  On the one had spirituality has become a personal pursuit and is done in reading or meditating alone, or on spiritual retreats, rather than in the local parish church. Why join the church when I can meditate and listen to worship CDs at home?  (Yet congregations founded on intimacy and small group modes of connection are also booming.)  On the other hand, service clubs provide the needs of those who wish to be helpful and make friends in the local area without the need for religious activities.  Why join the church when Lions Club makes me feel valued?

So how are such people to be lead?

[1] Thomas G. Long. Beyond the Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2001) 25.

Love in a time of Darkness

This is the message I preached to the people of Kingscote Uniting Church on Sunday 3rd May 2015.  It treats the readings from the Lectionary for Easter 5B.

Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

Last Saturday, eight days ago and not yesterday, I had the privilege of leading at Anzac Day for the first time. In opening my address to the gathered people at Penneshaw I reminded them that the best known Bible verse to be associated with Anzac Day comes from John 15:13 where Jesus says greater love has no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends. I told the people that the central story of Christianity is that the purest form of love was personified in Jesus Christ who, in turn, represents God whose fullest nature is to give love, and that above claims made by us religious types about God’s saving grace, forgiveness, strength and power, what the Bible says is that love is the most central meaning of the Christian story. Today’s message is also about love, and it begins like all good stories do beside a road out the back of nowhere.

We heard from Acts 8 this morning of how an angel sent Philip to the wilderness road where he met an Ethiopian god-worshipper. Philip was encouraged to help the man interpret what he was reading and we can identify this text as the servant song of Isaiah 53:7-8. The original hearers of this passage would have understood it to refer to the leaders of Israel in their day, and possibly to the unjust treatment meted out to prophets like Isaiah who had to bring such harsh words to the nation. No one likes the man who stands up in church, or in parliament, and who says that God is angry enough to smash you; even in 700 BCE the first response was to shoot the messenger. So in the time of Isaiah this passage did not refer to the future Messiah, but it did make very clear what happens to prophets who challenge the royal and religious leaders in the way that Jesus later did. Note that Luke who wrote Acts does not say that Philip says the passage is speaking about Jesus, but that beginning with the passage Philip speaks about Jesus. The story is not that Isaiah prophesied the coming of the Messiah but that a man of God speaking to the people of God through the word of God challenges those people by accusing them of preferring to kill the prophet and shut him down than hearing the word of correction against their injustices. This is exactly what happened to Jesus, as Peter made clear in Acts 3-4 which we have read together over the past two weeks.

So why does Philip start to witness to Christ with this passage? Why not John 3:16? Why not walk the unbeliever along the “Romans Road” of Evangelicalism?   Well of course there are two reasons, a practical one and a historical one. I’ll give you the historical one first: John 3:16 and Paul’s letter to the Romans had not been written at that stage. Even though John 3:16 appears on page 1912 of my Study Bible and today’s passage is on pages 1972 and 1973 the gospels hadn’t actually been written in Philip’s time. And allowing that Saul is still a fanatical anti-Christian Pharisee at this point in history, and that his conversion story doesn’t actually appear until Acts 9, we can rule out the Romans Road too. There can be no Romans Road without the Damascus Road. So there was no John 3:16 to quote, and no Romans, and that’s the historical reason why Philip didn’t start there.

But the practical reason is the better one anyway, and would apply to us even today when we do have the entire Bible to use in our faith-sharing. Philip started in Isaiah 53 because that is where the Ethiopian eunuch was reading from. In all of our personal evangelism we must always start where the person is and then point them to where Jesus is. If the person is in Isaiah 53 then that’s where we start. If the person is in Deuteronomy 5-6 then that’s where we start, and if the person is in Genesis 1-2 then that’s where we start, and if the person is in Revelation 17-18 then that’s where we start. So Philip tells the story of Jesus beginning where the Ethiopian man is at, and when he has explained the gospel Philip agrees to baptise the Ethiopian in response to the Ethiopian’s new understanding of who Jesus is. This is the story of an individual gentile who chooses to trust in Jesus, and this is one of several such stories that some before we get to the full-blown conversion of the Gentiles and the missionary work of Paul. This is an exciting story not only because Philip is miraculously teleported in and out of the location, but because it is a story about God’s preparation of the Church prior to God’s pouring out the Spirit across all Gentile nations and the whole planet.

That, for me, is a cause of celebration. God knows who the marginal are and God makes plans to include them.

So now we turn to the Psalm for today: and just look at the cascade of imagery!

In Psalm 22:25 we read “from you comes my praise”. God is the source of our worship and in 22:26 we glorify God because of the work of justice which is acts of love on behalf of the afflicted. Those who seek God will praise God; those who live life under the reign of God will give glory to God and tell true things about God. In 22:27 we read of how the whole world shall be reminded of God because of the faithfulness of the disciples who work for justice, and how people from every nation will worship God in this way because the evidence of God’s loving-kindness will not be hidden from anyone. In 22:28 we acknowledge that God is the true and rightful ruler of every realm and because of this God alone reigns in the places where God alone is worshipped and obeyed: indeed in 22:29 the worshippers of God are not restricted to the living but also to the dead. The dead worship God and the living live out their worship of God. “And I shall live for him” declares the psalmist, or an alternative reading says “and he who cannot keep himself alive” suggesting that the person who is alive to worship God is alive only because God has sustained him or her. In 22:30 the generations to come are brought in to the communal act of worship, the universal act of worship when those not yet born will be told by their ancestors about what God has done. And what has God done? God has delivered the afflicted and forsaken. God has heard the cry and God has answered with salvation and restoration.

When Jesus cried out from the cross “My God why have you abandoned me”, quoting Psalm 22:1 all who heard him were immediately reminded of Psalm 22 in its entirety. Today, in this time between Easter and Pentecost we are reminded of the same thing. The story of Easter began with a man hanging crying on a cross, but it will end with the proclamation to every future generation and every ethnicity on the planet the magnificent deeds of salvation performed by God. And what is this salvation? What salve does the Psalmist offer on behalf of the faithfulness of God? Salvation from poverty, salvation from affliction, and salvation from abandonment. More than the forgiveness of the sins of disobedience and mutiny against God, God offers restoration of relationship and the deep knowing and feeling of being held close, safe, and dear to God. You are loved, loved beyond your ability to comprehend.

Now isn’t that a God worth worshipping and a truth worth proclaiming with great joy?

(If you were Pentecostals you’d yell “Amen!” at this point.)

But if there is any doubt that God offers such love then the apostle John won’t have a bar of it. Not only does John tell us in 1 John 4 that God is loving and steadfast John goes further and says that God is love. Let there be no doubt of this, love is not something that God does and love is not something that God offers. Love is what God is: God is love.

And what is this love that is what God is, that is the nature and character of love? The love that God is is salvific. The love of God is atoning in that it is reconciling and restorative. The love that God is repairs what was broken and especially broken relationships. The love of God is soothing and healing. John makes clear in 1 John 4:12 that whilst no one has ever seen God God is known by the love that is in us and the love that is shared among us as that love is being perfected. The more love we share amongst each other the better we get at doing it, and the more God is made known in our midst and amongst those who come to the places we are, or are in the places to which we go. God does not make Godself known through wrath or teaching or morality, God is made known through the fullness of love and the love than which no love is greater. And what is the greatest form of love? Greater love has no man than this, that he should lay aside his own life for the ones he loves. That’s the words of Jesus and our many war memorials (or “peace monuments” as one veteran told me last Saturday).

Those who love like God loves are the ones who do the will of God. The ones who love like God loves have God’s presence within them. As 1 John 4:9 says God’s love was revealed amongst us and 4:20-21 says that those who love God must also love their brothers and sisters too. It is not enough to say that you love God; it isn’t even enough that that statement be true and that you do dearly and truly love God. Unless you also love your brothers and sisters in faith, the people around you this morning and other believers who you encounter in your every day life, then you cannot truly be loving God. In other words the evidence that you love the One who is unseen is that you are demonstrating your love for the ones you do see.

So what does this love look like? Well we’ve already seen that in the Psalm and in the passages from Acts and Isaiah. Love is not affection, love is justice. Love is not kindliness, love is compassion. Love is not gooey, love is sacrificial. Love is not giving you heart to someone, love is the continuous preparedness to give your life for someone.

Well if that is all true then love is hard. No wonder John speaks about love as being perfected, it certainly needs to be an ongoing process and it does appear that even John thinks the process will not be completed on earth. We can never love as completely as God loves, our physicality gets in our way. But this is where more good news comes in, and that good news comes from John in his gospel.

In the first few verses of John 15 Jesus speaks about himself being like a vine and he says that he is the source of every good thing. This is a metaphor of course, we cannot take it literally. The literal word of God here is that Jesus literally spoke about himself using a metaphor, Jesus is not literally a plant and no one would suggest that that is the case. But with Jesus imagined as a vine and God the Father imagined as a vine-grower we can talk about Christ being the stem and the roots where we are the branches. In the story of love we can say that God revealed in Christ is the source of the love we express even as the grapes on a vine are fed by the water and nutrients sourced from the soil by the roots and stem. Like a branch cut off from the soil’s nutrition a Christian cut off from Christ will not flourish. In the same way a branch cut away from the other branches will not flourish, we need each other too.

A Christian away from Christ cannot love as God intends. We have said that even as Christians we can never love to the depths and extents that God loves, but if we remain fruitful in the work of God, that is to say if we continue to work at loving others, then Christ will continue to send love to and through us for the glory of God and for the expansion of the vine. The practical reality is that if we are cut off from people we cannot love as God intends, because as John said we cannot demonstrate that we love God unless we are busy loving other people. So if you are planning on going off and sitting in a cave alone with God for a while so that you can focus on loving God without interruption, don’t stay away too long. God does call us into times of solitude to teach us, and love on us 1:1, but if you try to live out there you’ll soon be lonely. God will allow you to feel lonely because having been disciple by the Father you are supposed to come back here and get on with the work of loving us in the midst of us in the same way that the rest of us love you.

So do it. Love one another. Be excellent to each other if you must. Are you the one God could choose to send to the wilderness road? Are you the one God could choose to sing praise to God for the gifts of love including the gifts that empower us to love? Are you the one God could choose to be the Jesus-with-skin on wherever a hug is required today in Kingscote?

Be that one. That is God’s supreme plan for you today