Acts of Easter

This is the text of my ministry message for the April 2017 newssheet at Lakes Parish UCA.

Several weeks ago, I read to you a prayer which I wrote in 2011, a prayer entitled “An Act of God”.  As I write today Cyclone Debbie is pounding its way across the Queensland coast, and whole tribes of television Karlites and Kochies are battling the rainstorm and wind to provide up-to-the-minute reports.

 In today’s Queensland storm, and yesterday’s 38 degrees in Lakes Entrance, I am reminded that while climate and weather can play havoc with our human plans, God’s plans are not thwarted.  Whether your theology suggests that God sends storms, or allows storms, or that God has simply set the world in motion and lets the elements look after themselves, I am convinced that God remains in overall care and charge of the world.  For me, as I prayed first in 2011 and then last month in the face of immanent fire and flood disaster in New South Wales and Western Australia, the assurance that God has all things in hand in the work of the Church is ever present.  Remember, the Acts of God are not the storms themselves but the work of the local Christians in responding to the needs of neighbour and stranger in the aftermath.

As we move toward Easter in the next two weeks, through it in the middle of April, and beyond it as we head toward May, let us remember that we have a role in what God is doing in the world.  The greatest Act of God was seen in the death of Jesus on the cross, but God is still at work amongst, amidst, and because of those who remain faithful to the call to call forward the Reign of God in the world.  Our gospel is one of salvation, which implies that the world needs to be saved/salved, so we are conscious that we live amongst danger.  The gospel requires a response, not just a “sinner’s prayer” that gets us a grace-based, forgiveness assured ticket to Heaven when the time comes, but that we resist evil where we see it and that we bring healing to those who have been laid low by it.  That time has come.

Equality

This is my minister’s message as presented to the people of The Lakes Parish (Uniting Church) in their March 2017 newsletter

Shalom ye Gippslanders of God.

Equality is one of those words which has become loaded with all sorts of meanings in our post-modern world.  In contrast to the selfless character of Jesus it seems that grasping for sameness in position, authority, value, and income is a necessary and desirable activity.  Today (March 5th) we read of Eve and Adam seeking equality with God, and thereby breaking the sacred trust between God and humankind.  As the pinnacle of Creation man and woman were made to be stewards of creation and co-workers with God, however our desire for more than what had been provided breaks the whole system.

 With that in mind I wonder about the gaps between women and men in our day.  Not only in terms of gender inequality (women get less money and do more vacuuming), but economic inequality (the poor are getting sicker), social inequality (the loud ones rule the world), and spiritual inequality (dogma trumps love) is our world fallen.  Our need for Jesus is not limited to restoring what Eve and Adam destroyed in the garden, but extends to the need for grace in what every woman and man has done since in the city, the wilderness, and the home.

 In God’s perfection equality is not something to be demanded or snatched (Philippians 2:6, Genesis 3:5), but something to be revealed as people in community act with the fruit of the Spirit in their interactions with each other.  So, in this season of Lent I urge you in the Spirit to defer to one another in love; to acknowledge the worth of the person with whom you are speaking, rather than insisting that they acknowledge your value back to you.  If Christians act as if the people around us are only a little lower than the angels in value perhaps no one will feel the need for aggression about their perceived inequality.

 Damien.

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

The in a car notional faith

Going to a church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.  I have heard that before.  I have said that before.  I used to agree with it, and in some ways I still do.

But not completely.

Because, they are different, garages and churches I mean.  There is a point at which the analogy breaks down.

Garages aren’t designed to turn you into a car: that’s not what they’re for.  Depending on the type of garage you have in mind the purpose of the garage is either a place to park a car (which is already a car and has no intention of being anything else), a place to repair a car (along the same parameters), or a place to refuel a car (ditto).  Garages are for storage and repair, not for transformation.  Even if your Ride is to be Pimped, the car remains a car throughout the process.

Churches on the other hand are designed to turn you into a Christian: that is what they are for.  Depending upon the type of church you have in mind…well actually that doesn’t matter because all churches are supposed to make people Christian.

I have heard that some people, indeed many people, go to church for stupid reasons.  You know, stupid things like being dragged along by your parents, or because you’re lurking for lerve and churches have a unique kind of talent, or because you want to be seen in church, or because you are hoping to do business networking with actual Christians when you are actually not one.  Or maybe the stupid reason is that you’ve always gone to church and you no longer remember why at all, any more.

Yet I believe in grace, mercy, and a somewhat interventionist God.  I believe that if you’re going to be made a Christian you’re better off in a church than not in a church.  The proviso of course is that the church you are in is a positive, Christ-centred, love producing fellowship of worshipping believers.  If that’s not your church then you are, no doubt, better off in another one, but you’re still better off in a mediocre church in place of a bad church than in no church at all.

So, in Christian phraseology, I now believe the opposite.  Belonging in a local fellowship will enhance and equip you in discipleship.  If it isn’t, well maybe the place you are going to isn’t actually a church at all…

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 as Modernist

Extra effort at Modernist practice will not address the issues of the post-modernising culture beyond our stained glass walls.  It is not lack of effort that is sinking us; it’s the unknown and misunderstood that no-one saw coming.  More so I believe it is the “misunderestimated” in Dubya parlance; that which some had seen coming but those some were shunned and silenced. Culture to people is like water to a fish, it is all around and vital, but it is invisible and take for granted.  The culture of the Church in the West is highly influenced by Modernism, but as Westerners we cannot see that.  What the Church does in the way of common-sense is linked to what the State does in Europe and North America; we don’t know any different nor recognise any need for difference.  Christianity in the West has discovered equilibrium within Modernity.  However, a disturbed equilibrium is a disaster if it cannot be countered in some way.  Like native fauna destroyed by the introduction of foxes and cats, extinction over a very brief time is a very real possibility. When faced with extinction it is not helpful to go back to the drawing-board and recalibrate the common-sense system.  What is killing the fish (and the Church) is most likely something outside the common-sense categories of scientific knowing.  You cannot plan for what you have not seen, and planning for a second time using the same set of variables just makes the dying worse.  When the established categories of observation no longer fit upon the observable world it is time to change the categories; and it is not time to reinforce them by pressing harder.  It is these newly-imagined categories that shape the new mapping.

We have been taught that the world is a Newtonian machine: data-in-data-out, the whole is the sum of the parts.  Such a mindset does not work when the system itself has come into question and there is a transition between world-views rather than stages within the one.  Unlike the Newtonian world the future for us is not predictable, so our theories of futurism must be adapted to think beyond clinical extrapolation.  In a very strong sense we don’t actually know where we are heading, just that it’s “out” and “away from here”. Purpose (teleology) must be aligned to planning and not siphoned off as internal and personal.  The vision statement of a Christian community, its planning and forecasting, and its short- and long-term goals cannot be separated from the purposes of God.  It is not good enough to build a business model and then tack scriptures on to the end of each dot point as proof texts, not good enough at all.  Planning must be driven by interaction with the God of Mission at Mission if it is to be at all relevant to the forward movement of any local church.  Without actively attentive engagement with the story of God any church’s planning becomes purposeless, since engaging with the Mission of God is the Church’s sole purpose.  We can no longer leave engagement with God in the private sphere if we are to engage in mission in the world.

It’s not just the immediate cultural thing of the country being like the 1960s in terms of neighbourliness and pace of life.  It’s that the 1960s were highly modernist and so then is the thinking of country people.  It’s not that they aren’t urbanites it’s that they aren’t Post-Modern.  We reached a Tipping Point: incremental changes in seemingly unconnected facets abruptly and dramatically tipped the balance and now everything is different all of a sudden.  Our problem is this changed reality, our problem is not theology or management or sexuality.  Those are Modernist responses, a means of trying to define the problem in terms of a box.  The box is gone, the whole system is gone, and it is our inability to read the new system and to recognise that there is one at all which is the problem.  With that in mind we don’t actually know what is emerging or what the new Church will look like to need to look like.  This is why we need to be map-makers and leaders in adaptation for our communities of worship and mission.  We can be excited that God is calling us forward to a new thing, a New Creation where all things are different and not just revamped.  We are entering World 2.0, (or even New World 1.0); not World 1.9 with patches.

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.

Secular sensitivities

In Church and Countryside Tim Gibson observed that local church must not fall into the trap of trying to define its form of community in secular-sensible terms.  The community of faith is God’s answer to the troubles of the world: strong community should look like what the Church looks like at its best because secular ideas of community are always going to fall short.  The world’s terminology simply cannot tell the full story of what God intends from the Church as the fellowship of the elect typified by the interrelationships of humankind made in God’s image and likeness.  Gibson connects the Church’s story to the life flowing out of Eucharist: what shapes the community of faith within itself and motivates local Christians to volunteer in greater proportion within the village is the worship life of the table.  Mission amongst rural people is about being ‘one of us amongst us’ in the way that Immanuel was, which is to say not uncritically. Jesus challenged the culture he lived in, calling it back to the ideals and practices of the Reign of God even as he participated in the activities of a shared life.  This is the work of the Church in mission, the whole Church, so context and inculturation are important.  This is also the way of Paul (1 Corinthians 9:20-23) who became a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks.  Where a new to the district pastor might ask what it would mean to live more like a Kangaroo Islander and less like an Adelaidean she might choose to give up her preferences and ways of doing things (and showing her expertise).  She might learn to do it ‘their’ way so as to minister more effectively to ‘them’.  This must occur with a necessary critique of bad habits and old ones, but it must be done; however, this is true not only of city ministers moving to the country but of country churches seeking to serve the local lost.  Our projects matter not nearly so much as our being with people; Jesus wants ‘us’, not our ‘programme’, to be the means of evangelism and discipleship.  The church exists for mission and true mission is both incarnational and sacrificial for life because even diminishing, dying churches find vitality when they are active in giving out.  Inculturation is about learning to belong and then living that belonging out in Christ honouring, people-favouring ways.

Differentiation in the Rural Church

Differentiation in the rural Church is necessary.  We cannot be ‘The Church of Everyone’s a Hand’, but we also need to have more than one hand in every body.  The Church’s unity in Christ is found also in the unity of God as we worship.  At the same time hangers-on and the legalising mentality of some people at times of conflict and stress can be unhelpful[1].  Must we really all conform so forcefully to survive this moment?  How compelling the party line is usually associated with how great the outside influence towards anxiety.  This is where dictatorships win the day, in the fall of the Weimar Republic just as much as in the “circled wagons” of the Evangelical Right.  However, as in the case of the fall of (once triumphant) Sovietism, the imposition of dictatorships based on hard conformity sows the seeds for rebellion and revolution.  Togetherness based on diversity and selfhood is life-affirming and inclusive, seeking to explore difference through curiosity and discussion of each other’s uniqueness rather than proscription of sameness and angst of difference.  More blessed are the confident and flexible who are less likely to label and judge others for being their other selves for they shall see cooperation and completion of the task at hand.  Where mutual respect is weak and others are seen to be wrong the path to change is much more difficult.  Such a community is reactive and anxious rather than collaborative and effective.  Communication and trust are lacking in such a people. A siege mentality can only foster closed mindedness, which is dangerous when innovation and creativity to face difficult situations is what is actually required. A differentiated leader can take a well-defined stand while remaining connected in a meaningful way with others.  Poorly differentiated people act like viruses, not healthy cells; such people are infectious and parasitic.  DON’T get caught in the “emotional triangles” of gossipy anxiety and getting stuck in other people’s problems.  A well differentiated leader is like a blastocyst, a non-anxious presence, who can tolerate other people’s discomfort to remain confident in self.  Bad leaders try to sabotage good leaders, the good leader’s non anxious response is the sign that he/she is succeeding.  A good leader is a skilled observer of individual differences, e.g. Jesus’ dealing with each of Mary and Martha.

[1] Ronald W. Richardson. Creating A Healthier Church: Family Systems Theory, Leadership, and Congregational Life. (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 58.

Walls.

Recently I was invited into a discussion about walls.  I like walls and find them particularly useful:  Walls hold things up, and they hold things in.  A church with which I once belonged locally met in a building where the roof was holding up the walls, perhaps a theological metaphor for something best explored in another place.

We like to think that the Church is better without walls.  We like to think that beyond the confines of our chapels, auditoria and sanctuaries that the People of God should diffuse throughout the world as leaven or perfume amidst (amongst) the People of Flesh.  I am prompted to remember another church with which I once belonged locally who met in a building that did not have walls, just windows of floor-to-ceiling louvers.  Light and sound moved in and out freely, although happily the fly-wire kept most of the bugs out.  Fly-wire in a window is a useful wall.

But I wonder whether the church/Church has thought about the merits of its walls?  After all if walls are such a bad thing why do we not meet on Sundays on the lawn out the front, rather than in our century-old duckpond-stone hotbox/deep freezer?

Walls keep us safe.

Safe from the elements.  Walls hold yup the roof which itself holds off the rain, sun, and otherwise bothersome effects of local climate known as weather.  Walls do a similar job for those effects which are somewhat horizontal, as well as the aforementioned bugs.  Walls keep us dry and safe, or cool and safe, and reliably unbitten.

Safe from interruption.  Church services engage with the senses, so it’s nice when we are having a time of quiet or attentiveness that the traffic does not intrude with its sound or its smog.

Safe from embarrassment.  Some people don’t like to be seen in church, perhaps their faith is a secret and they wouldn’t want to be seen in public with Christians.  Fair point.

When I worked in a prison I liked our walls, although most of them were “fences” if you want to get technical.  The walls and fences, and the gates and doors therein, were for security and safety.  Inmates were kept safe from vendetta-filling vigilantes, the community was kept safe from men with reputations for violence, and prison staff were kept safe to go about their work in defined and secure locations wherever they were employed.

But this leads me to the story of Jesus the gate; in other words Jesus the hinged-wall.  I wonder what we have considered the alternative to be.

Is Jesus a gate, and therefore a wall (since a gate on its own is a bit pointless) where once there was free passage?

Has our right of access to God been denied by the Christ who fenced off the Father and then said “over my dead-yet-powerfully-resurrected body, mate, you need to get by me first”.  Is Jesus some hulking bouncer who stands with crossed arms before the eye of a needle keeping us scummy earthlings out of heaven? Whose safety is preserved by Jesus the gate?

Or is Jesus a gate where once there was only a wall?

What was once a blanket denial of access is now a right of way with a door in place:  Where once our sin was a wall to keep God out of our lives has Christ provided a way through to the Father once more?  Here Jesus says to the world “over here, over here is a way in.  Don’t look anywhere else, everywhere else is wall and more wall, but here is the door and you are welcomed through.”  In this way Jesus may well be a hulking bouncer, but he’s there to keep the entering saved safe upon approach and to keep the scum of sin and hell out of heaven.  “This doorway cost me six dying hours on a Roman cross with my back torn to the bone, take me on at your peril oh Powers of Darkness because these people are mine…”

Jesus, the gate, keeps us safe.