What Happens On The Sabbath (Pentecost 2B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered at Morwell and then at Narracan on Sunday 2nd June 2018.

1 Samuel 3:1-10; Mark 2:23-3:6

I must admit I groaned in pain when this week’s lectionary gospel reading appeared.  I won’t say I hate this story, because I don’t.  I won’t even say that it’s very difficult to preach on, because it isn’t, and in the next hour or so you’ll see I’ve done a great job of exegesis and hermeneutics on it.  Sigh, no, this passage annoys me because I have written on it so many times.  So. Many. (Many!) Times.  It is the favoured passage of a certain Professor Emeritus of the theological college I attended, and I have written at least three essays, and a complex synoptic comparison on it. Oh begone “Jesus walks through a field of grain on the Sabbath”, begone.

Having said that, I have made no reference to those essays or synopses in preparing this sermon, so we’re good.  It also means that I’ve been able to take a fresh look at Mark’s version which we read today, and I found something new.  But let’s get to that in a minute because we need to ask why the disciples of Jesus were engaging in behaviour which violates the Jewish laws around keeping Sabbath in the first place.  Sadly, for you, I don’t want to answer that question; and if you look at the text, Jesus doesn’t actually give a very good answer himself.  The situation Jesus uses as a counter-argument wherein David as a refugee fleeing for his life, and hungry for anything food, pauses before eating to discuss theology with the high priest, is quite different to the random picking and chewing of the disciples on their Saturday afternoon stroll.  The twelve are not starving, and they are not being chased; but maybe the reason Jesus didn’t give much of an answer is that he didn’t think it much of a question: aren’t the Pharisees just being pedantic here?  I mean, come on, the disciples are taking a casual stroll and grabbing a few heads as they pass through the field, even if they aren’t the army of David, it’s not as if they’re actually harvesting.  Work is forbidden on the Sabbath, but mindlessly grabbing at the corn while you meander through the paddock: that’s not really work is it?

Still, in defence of the Pharisees we must remember that Sabbath keeping is one of the Ten Commandments.  It’s not one of those pesky religious rulings made up by scholars with nothing better to do: it is an actual decree of God given to Moses in God’s own handwriting on tablets of stone.  So, it pays to look at what Jesus is doing here.  He is not questioning pettiness, although he does that in plenty of other places and that certainly is part of what he’s doing here: no, Jesus’ primary critique is for the traditions of interpretation.  The way Jesus is speaking about Sabbath is akin to a prophet today claiming a divine mandate to redefine murder, or theft, or adultery and marriage.  And what does Jesus say?  How does The Word of God –  The Word made Flesh reinterpret a central teaching of Jewish scripture?  He says that people are always more important than doctrine.  In other words, if your interpretation of The-Word-of-God-revealed-in-scripture inhibits any person’s wellbeing, (including your own), then you need to rethink your interpretation.  God is never in error, and scripture is never in error, but the way you’re reading and thinking just might be.  According to Jesus sabbath is foremost a blessing, a gift of God, an entire day set aside each week for the fullness of shalom.  It’s not just an R.D.O., or a public holiday, and it certainly isn’t a day of mandated boredom in the name of some malevolent, laser-eyed god looking to obliterate anything that blinks or breathes before the precise instant of sundown on Saturday.  Jesus says that to be legalistic about the Sabbath is to be wrong about the Sabbath.  In other words, to be legalistic about this teaching of scripture is to be in profound theological error since Sabbath is not a legalistic matter.  Legal yes since it does pertain to the Law: but its application is never punitive.  If you want to know what is lawful on the Sabbath read on to Mark 3:4 where Jesus asks a group of lawyers gathered at worship that question.  What has been legislated, and how is it interpreted, Jesus asks.  What did Parliament decree and how have the majority of local magistrates understood and applied this?  What is the legal precedent here as established by the full bench of the High Court?  Is it lawful to do good or to do evil on the Sabbath: to save life or to kill? asks Jesus.  Now as a one-time English teacher I can tell you that this is an open question: Jesus is asking a question that requires a sentence answer because he gives a number of options.  Which is it, kill or save?  Which is it, good or evil?  And what do the scholars answer?  What?  Well they don’t answer do they: but if they had been brave enough I wonder what they would have said.  Probably “save and do good” right?  Wrong.  Think of what they believe about God: I think they would have answered with a closed answer, one word, “no”.  Just “no”.  Is it lawful to do good or evil?  No.  Is it lawful to save or kill?  No.  “Jesus,” they say, “you need to understand that it’s not lawful to do anything on the Sabbath.  Even if you do good then you are guilty of doing something simply by doing: to do good is just as horrific as to do evil because to do is to sin!”

So, who here today would like to belong to that religion?  Not me!

I should say very quickly, in case you are confused, that that religion is not Judaism.  Jesus is the ultimate Jew and is speaking to other Jews about the God of Abraham: so, don’t get all cocky in your Christianity.  The Pharisees were acting poorly as Jews in this example, Jesus was acting perfectly as a Jew.  That broad kindness always trumps the finest point of legislation is a Jewish concept, and Jesus didn’t invent it.

Anyway, Jesus is justifiably angered by the lawyers’ response, and by the lack of it, and the man is healed regardless.  Notice that the man is healed by his own action.  Jesus doesn’t actually do anything, Jesus doesn’t actually break the commandment even according to the Pharisaic definitions because it’s the man who sticks out his hand to petition and receive God’s healing.  That is when Jesus turned to the Pharisees and Herodians and said “you wanna argue about the Sabbath some more then talk to the hand.”  Of course, Jesus didn’t actually say that, but I reckon I probably would have.

But what is Jesus actually angry about?  What’s the actual trigger that moves him from despair to disappointment and rage?  Well in Mark 3:5 we read that Jesus is angered by the leaders’ hardness of heart.  “Why does the man have to bring up his troubles on the Sabbath,” they seem to be asking.  “And in the synagogue too.  Why can’t he just stay home with gloves on and come tomorrow if he wants to be healed?”  And let’s be honest, they do have a point, don’t they?  I mean, when presbytery made the effort to build a manse next to the church what is wrong with Monday?  And why do these people who need God have to interrupt church?  I’m glad you laughed there, this would have been my last Sunday here if you hadn’t.  But I wonder how far our patience really would extend if someone we didn’t know came looking for God’s miracle during our regular Sunday event.  Or worse still, someone we do know; someone who should know better than to be noisily troubled one Sunday when, after all, we all know where Damien lives and we’re sure he won’t mind giving up his Monday off if it means we can all get out of here unruffled and before 11:00 this morning.

Oh Lord we want our church to grow, please send us an interruption!!

Rituals must be subordinated to the needs of living people: but so must work be subordinated to the needs of living people.

As we listened to 1 Samuel 3 being read this morning I was reminded that Samuel was in bed and almost asleep when God spoke to him, even if he was in the sanctuary.  Had Samuel been living a 24/7 existence I think he would not have had time or energy for the voice of God to penetrate his exhausted haste.  It is for this reason, among others, that early nineteenth century Methodists were the leading voices in advocating for sabbath keeping.  This was not because they were as pious as Pharisees but because they agitated for the sacred right of every workingman to have time for sleep, eating, relaxation, and worship.  In view of this I wonder about those Christians who do not have a healthy attitude toward the Sabbath; some believing that taking one whole day in seven is an instance of old covenant, Old Testament Law to be set aside in the name of new covenant, New Testament Grace.  Really?  God’s ordained and directed regular pause to experience the peace that passes all understanding is a demand of legalism and not a fruit of grace?  Really?  So, where does Paul tell us that we are no longer obligated to have a day off?  Imagine a religion free of the compulsion to rest, and to let your slaves have a day off.  How awesome is Christianity that we are free to work 24/7 and to expect the same of our employees, especially the Christian ones. How remarkable is this good news that we are no longer enslaved by a blood covenant that commands a day off as if not working on Sundays was as important as not committing murder, rape, or fraud.

So, who here today would like to belong to that religion?  Not me!

The call of Samuel is one story of how a person, in this case a quite young boy, can best hear God when he or she is at rest in the world.  God speaks peace, shalom to the frazzled and anxious mind.  But once the mind is settled into shalom then God is able to reveal the wonders of grace and the message of God’s will.  Samuel had not sought the Lord’s voice, but because he was at peace in his life he was in the best place when God sought him.  Those among us today who are currently seeking God for some specific answer, or just for the sense of being closer to the One you worship and adore, would do well to take a sabbath.  Let God rest you, calm you, still you, and guide you.  Don’t let the legalists tell you what is or is not appropriate for a Christian or a Sunday – seek God and allow God to seek you.

And if Sunday is the only day that you have time and space in your week to do that, then do that.  If not this afternoon, then next Sunday.  You have my permission to not come to church next week if you need to go up to the mountains or down to the river to pray: just make sure that you do.  Maybe you’ll just have a pleasant time like the disciples, maybe you’ll be healed by God like the man with the once-withered hand, or maybe God will tell you fearful and wonderful news about the world and your place in it.

Let me know how you go.

Amen.

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Slowly Relentless (Epiphany 5B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 4th February 2018, the fifth Sunday in Epiphany in Year B.

Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39

When I began blogging back in the 2000s I had a few pages on the go.  One blog, which had, (and still only has) one post was called “3Rs”.  No, it was not about my skills in literacy and numeracy; and just as well because Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic are not three Rs at all, but one R, one A, and a W.  I know this because I was once a Primary School teacher, and they learned me that at NTU where I got teached stuff for my Graduate Diploma in Primary Education.  No, my 3Rs were Resolute, Relentless, and Resilient.  After a few tough years, the toughest ever, where my 40 days in the wilderness had lasted four years so far and didn’t look like ending any time soon, I began to write about my desire to see the journey through with blood, sweat, tears, and a few other, less pleasant bodily fluids.  Resolute, Relentless, Resilient.  I was going to push through with all of mine and God’s strength.  The blog never saw a second post because the journey was too painful, complicated, and downright weird to try to put into words.

Today’s message, ten and a bit years later, and posted to my current blog I have entitled “Slowly Relentless”.

In Mark 1:31 we read that Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law by taking her by the hand and lifting her up.  Her response to healing is to engage in ministry, diakoneo, the work of a ministering angel.  The same word is used in Mark 1:13 when Jesus is assisted in his recovery after the forty days in the wilderness.  This woman is raised up not to be a mere woman doing “women’s work” or “being a housewife” as if those activities were not important anyway; as if a healed father-in-law could have just moved from bed to chair with Jesus and demanded a beer but the woman must serve and not be served.   No, she is restored to her act of ministry because Jesus’ healings are not just restorative, they are also empowering.

In Mark 1:32-34 we are told about many other women and men in Capernaum who were healed through Jesus’ ministry to weakened bodies, minds, and souls.  I wonder, did Jesus expect the same from these renewed people as he did in the house of Simon?  Imagine that next day in Capernaum, a village filled with active and restored people, buzzing with excitement that God’s grace had been manifested amongst them and how they were now able to do what they had been limited from doing for however long.  What a fabulous day that would have been!

How many of you long for the day when Jesus will take you by your hand and lift you up?  I know I do.

I live with a mental illness, you all know that, and many of you have taken to wearing the beyondblue wrist bands in support of me and my ilk.  And yes, that mental illness came about back in those wilderness days when I needed to be intentionally resolute, relentless and resilient.  Sometimes life today for me is more about mental ill-health for me than actual illness because some days I have the emotional version of a sniffle and some days I have the emotional version of quadriplegia.  Each of these conditions impact on my physical activity (or lack thereof) to that extent.  I’m not always flat on my back, and I’m not always sneezing, mentally speaking, but some days I am one of those two things, or something in the middle.  On many days I’m in mentally good-health; “mental healthy” rather than “mental healthish” as it were.  So, yes, I long for that day when Jesus will take me by my hand and lift me up so that I can go about the work of ministry.  Ministry to him, ministry to you, ministry to myself.

But I’m not so fussed about my failing eyesight.  I’ve worn spectacles for short-sightedness for almost forty years, since I was six, and I now have the reading glasses of a man who was six years old almost forty years ago.  I am not fussed about that,  and I do not long for the day when I have 20/20 vision at last, although I’d take it if it came.  Like many men I’d like to be thinner around my abs, thicker around my quads, biceps and triceps, and more powerful in heart and lungs, although I’m happy with the covering of hair I wear.  So, it’s just the mental thing, and the sleep apnoea connected with it that I want fixed.  I need the lifting-out-of-bed hand of Jesus, and I need it many days a week, because of what happens in my mind.  I would love to have it once-and-for-all, but God’s grace is sufficient, and every morning Jesus helps me make it out of bed.  Some mornings it is before 8:00am, other mornings it is after 11:00am, but it’s always morning and it’s always Jesus.

So, I get excited when I read that God healed a whole town, or at least all of those who asked it of God, through the ministry of Jesus.  I know how excited I’d be to hear the promise that I’ll never be midday-dozy or fidgety again. I know how excited I’d be if Jesus did that for the whole Latrobe Valley, at the very least the western bit where Moe, Morwell, Narracan, Newborough, Yallourn and Yallourn North are.  I’m excited that Jesus is amongst us, and about us, even though this mass miracle of lifting to minister seems unlikely, simply because it hasn’t happened for a while.  I don’t believe that Jesus can’t heal our whole cluster and the towns in which we live, but I acknowledge that he hasn’t.  Maybe, like those few at Capernaum, we need to ask.  Maybe we need to rock up at sundown and bring all who are sick or possessed with demons and gather around the door.

Or, maybe, we need to look for something else.  Without discounting for a second that God could heal our bit of the City of Latrobe and the Baw Baw Shire, and give us a new energy, there is something else we can rely on from God in the interim.

It’s in Isaiah 40:31, and it is always, ALWAYS EVERY SINGLE TIME quoted incorrectly by Christian card manufacturers, poster makers, and rabble-rousing preachers.  Always until today of course.  After all, you’re not a rabble so why would I want to rouse you?

God has not abandoned the weary, rather God has extended salvation to all who seek God from wherever it is they begin to seek.  In Isaiah’s day the Israelites were in exile, and they were tired, and they were weary, and they were very close to being worn out.  God’s message to these people is that God is aware of the people and their circumstance, and because God is actively directing history (rather than sitting back and letting it unfold while God sits on the couch with divine Tim Tams and a six-pack,  of Victorious Draught), God will intervene presently.  In the meantime as we read in Isaiah 40:28-29 God is present, present at present, and God’s current work is strengthening and upholding the fainting and exhausted.  That’s been said before, and that’s all good; it’s the next bit that Koorong’s suppliers can’t seem to get right.

It’s not about being an eagle.

There you go.  Isaiah 40:31 is not actually about being an eagle, and how God is going to make you into a herculean pterodactyl or whatever.  The renewing of your strength is found in…wait for it…keep waiting…a bit longer…okay now…realising that you have permission to slow down.  Look at Isaiah 40:31, look at the order of the verbs:  you mount up, then you run, then you walk.  If you are a bird then my birdy friend you are coming in to land, you are not taking off.  It’s not wander out of the nest, have a run up and then lift off, no this verse is very much swoop about for a bit, come in to land at a run, and then slow down.  Having flown with God but come out of the skies you will be strengthened in God to land safely, running without weary legs after your wings have become too tired to carry you, and then walking to a standstill on your own feet.  You don’t crash, you don’t collapse.  You land safely.

Yes, of course all that eagle stuff is also true.  There are soaring times in God’s presence, and in God’s strength when you are ministering away from the gathered body.  I have been there, I have “soared with you in the power of your love”, and I hope that you have too.  But I have also heard, and I now teach the wisdom of God, that there is a place in ministry and in discipleship when you need to return to the ground and to the nest.

After all, it’s what Jesus did.

The strength of Jesus’ ministry, and his ability through God’s direction to heal and restore the women and men who came to him as he did, was Jesus’ own ministry.  By that I mean his ministry to himself.  When Jesus needed restoration he went to the source, to the Father, with the advocating assistance of the paraclete, the Holy Spirit.  When Jesus was at the walking stage, which as I say is not a bad stage, he sat, (or perhaps knelt, or lay, or stood still), and there he prayed as Mark 1:35 tells us.  And why did he pray?  Well for the reasons I have just said, he was tired to walking pace, but also because of Mark 1:36.  And Simon and his companions hunted for him as the NRSV says.  They did not “seek” him or “search for him”, the did not “inquire into his whereabouts”, and certainly didn’t “await his return”.  No, the Greek text here, which I use to highlight the specific word chosen by Mark, is the word katadioko.  It means “pursue with hostility” in the sense of “hunted him down”.  The disciples didn’t just try to find Jesus, they sent the dogs out.

I do not wish to imply that this congregation has ever set dogs on me.  You have not: I promise, you haven’t.  But I’m sure you can each relate to what Jesus might have felt.  Perhaps you are or were a parent who couldn’t even use the toilet without having your toddler follow you into the loo, and leave the door open after finding you.  Perhaps the light at the end of the tunnel, late one afternoon after a hectic day at the office, was really your boss with a torch and an overflowing folder of apparently urgent paperwork.  There are times when it is right in The Spirit to not soar, not run, and not even walk, but to stop.

God knows, and I know, and your mental health specialist will also tell you, that that is true.  Where Psalm 46:10 says “be still and know” the sense of the Hebrew there is “Freeze!  Hear and understand!” This message is no less (and no more) a Biblical imperative than “Onward Christian Soldiers”, or “an as I wait I’ll rise up like an eagle and I will soar with you, your spirit leads me on”.  There is power in God’s love, and more often than we might like to think that power is the wing under which the hen gathers and shields her sleepy chicks.

God alone can raise you up on eagle-like wings, God alone can take your hand and lift you up to minister again.  If that is what you need to do today, then do that

Let God.

Amen.

In the Shadows

This is the text of my minister’s message for the June 2017 newssheet at Lakes Parish Uniting Church.

Several weeks ago, I became part of a conversation on the topic of “getting over” trauma.  The man with whom I was speaking has had a rough life, rougher at some points in his life than others, and he has a few memories that he is struggling to move past.  My life’s story is similar, not that I have experienced what this man has experienced, but that I have memories which needed healing, and troubling relationships with organisations and people in my past which proved difficult to move beyond.

In Psalm 23:4 David writes of the truest source of security in his life, a steadfast knowledge which gives him the confidence to walk through the darkest valley without fear of evil: the confidence that the LORD is with him and that the LORD carries all that is needed to keep David safe.  In Psalm 27:13-14 David declares his steadfast belief that he will see the LORD’s goodness while he lives, if only he takes heart in the wisdom that the LORD will come through for him.  David is not expecting vindication of his faith after his death, as if Heaven is the answer and reward to all of life’s problems.  That might be true, but for David the sure promise of God is that David will not die until David has seen God act for David’s benefit and God’s own Glory.

Experience has taught me, and then my studies in theology have supported this understanding, that God does not expect or require us to “get over” anything.  If the life and songs of David tells us anything it is that God takes the faithful woman or man “through”, not “over”.  We are to walk through the valleys of shadows, we are to continue through life with patient confidence, and we are to do so in the company of the shepherd who walks beside us or sometimes a step ahead of us with his crook and staff.

I have a book mark which reads “Patience is not to sit with folded hands but to learn to do as we are told.” There was a time in my life when what I was told was to sit and wait for God, and I obeyed and sat.  But much of the time the call to trust and obey requires that we continue moving forward, even when it is dark and even when the shadows creep towards us.  His presence, assured to us in scripture, is Christ’s blessing upon all Christians in the world.

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

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.

Lighten Darkness

The text of a message I preached at Dudley (Penneshaw) and Kingscote Uniting Churches on Sunday 19th April 2015.

Acts 3:12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36b-48

I must admit, not that it actually needs admitting but I’m just saying, that I have a lot on my mind this week. In theory I am on holidays, yet in practice I have been very busy and the busyness of this period has another month to run. It is mid-semester break at university, but I have not been able to stop. I spent a long weekend in Melbourne last weekend to attend a family reunion, and I got home on Monday night. Today I am preaching twice, Penneshaw in the morning and Kingscote in the evening and tomorrow I go to Adelaide for some medical tests prerequisite to my attending the presbytery selection panel weekend, and on Tuesday I am attending half a day of training with beyondblue. The moderator, Deidre Palmer, will be here on Wednesday evening to assess my preparation and leadership of a Bible Study group in Kingscote so I shall be need to be back from Adelaide for that. On Saturday I am speaking at the centenary of ANZAC service in Penneshaw, before heading back to Kingscote for the dedication of the soldiers’ memorial gates and then the football in the afternoon when Kingscote kick off their season at home to Wonks. Tomorrow week I am speaking to the Lions Club in Parndana on behalf of beyondblue, and I have an essay on the place of Young People in Ministry due next Thursday. Then it’s the selection weekend itself starting Friday afternoon, so I’m back to Adelaide for that before returning on Saturday afternoon after a full twenty-four hours of interviews and reflection to preach at Kingscote on Sunday morning, a fortnight from today. Finally, following my birthday on Tuesday and Mother’s Day on Sunday I’ll be going in to Adelaide again where on Monday night May 11th I will graduate from Adelaide College of Divinity with a Bachelor of Ministry degree, and on Wednesday morning I will present a tutorial to the class I am taking in the Gospel of John. Today is April 19th, I’ve been running since 22nd March when I spoke at the Black Dog ride, (on behalf of beyondblue), right through Easter to now. I get to stop on May 14th, before umpiring my second football games for the weekend at Parndana on May 16th. (I miss the matches at Dudley on May 2nd because I’ll be in Adelaide.)

Phew!

With all of that on my mind I was very taken by the NRSV’s translation of Psalm 4:1 where the psalmist says to God you gave me room when I was in distress. I hasten to add that even though I am very busy right now I am not in distress, but a passage from scripture that promises “room” is a Godsend in every use of the term. God sends and makes room. Thanks be to the God of room.

The story of the resurrected Christ is the story of hope for all who wish to find hope. To the people around him in Psalm 4:3 the psalmist sings that God has set apart the faithful for Godself and that God hears those faithful when they call out from the experience of distress. From the tone of that verse it appears that the psalmist feels mocked, so he must defend himself by saying that far from being rejected by God those who experience pain are the ones drawn closest by God if they will cry out. The psalmist goes on to say in verses 4:4-5, perhaps to those who are themselves suffering, that they must not allow their distress to lead them to sin but instead trust in God by withdrawing from the things that make them tense and stressed and just rest and be silent. When you are disturbed, says the psalmist, don’t fly off the handle but pay attention to worship and doing life God’s way and put your trust in God to cover you.

In Acts 3:16 we read how by faith in the name of Jesus a man who had been lame since birth was made strong and given perfect health. This man had been barred from entry to the temple by his disability; not only because he wasn’t physically able to enter but because legally he wasn’t allowed to. After Peter prays and the Spirit of Jesus moves on the man the first thing he does on his new legs is go into the place of worship where people gather about him in awe and amazement. The testimony of the psalmist might also be the testimony of the man seated at the gate: you mock me in my suffering, you ignore me as you pass me by to go to worship and you bar me from the company of believers, but God came, and God found me at the gate, and God brought me inside on healed legs and feet where now you can see me. This man, like the psalmist who sits close to God in his distress, is the recipient of divine restoration of body, mind, and spirit. Indeed in view of this Peter speaks of Jesus who was also closest to God but rejected by the religious people. But Peter does not fight fire with fire, he does not speak on behalf of Jesus with a message of rejection, rather the call to repentance spoken by Jesus’ apostles is a call to recognition of ignorance.

In verse 4:6 of the psalm the singer says that many cry out for some sign of light, O that we might see some good they cry, let the light of your face shine on us O Lord. Those in the dark cry out for light and God listens and responds. In the story from Acts 3 the people in the dark don’t know they need light, they are ignorant of their sin, but God through Peter still comes and offers illumination and an opportunity to repent.  The affirmation of the psalmist in 4:7 is that God had made his heart glad, gladder than when there is abundance of grain and wine, so the witness of the one who was distressed and disturbed is of answered prayer, understood pain, and restored relationship based on the dependability of God and the trusting loyalty of the true believer. The psalmist concludes his song by saying that he will both lie down and sleep in peace because in God alone is found security and safety. As one who has experience of Anxiety and Depression as disorders of the mind and not just the consequence of circumstances I can tell you that to both lie down in peace and to sleep in peace are indeed two separate things. This is not a man who has collapsed in exhaustion from tears and pacing but a man who drifts into peaceful and restorative slumber from a place of quietness and confidence in the God who promises peace.

 Peace be with you says Jesus to his startled disciples in Luke 24:36. Why are you frightened? Why do doubts arise in your hearts? Can’t you see who it is? Can’t you see that it’s me? This event takes place on the evening of Easter day, according to Luke’s timing, and Jesus appears in the locked room in Jerusalem just as the men from Emmaus have finished telling the story of how the resurrected one appeared to them on the road. It’s the same story that Jesus told on the road; the voice of hope and love speaks quietly and with assurance, but not fanfare, of the continuing story of God’s active presence in the lives of the people of the community of faith. Beginning with Moses and the prophets Jesus speaks out the whole history of Israel from the perspective of the saving God to explain what has occurred over the preceding forty-eight hours. Luke says in 24:41 that within their joy at seeing Jesus again they were still disbelieving, so the story is told and they are commissioned by Jesus as witnesses. He tells them what they have seen, so that they will understand what had until then been only visual and aural. Then the disciples are sent out to live and minister within the context of their doubts. The message of the Church is the message of how we find hope in the story of Jesus on earth and God in creation as we live out our faith.

But how can we be confident that this will work? How can we be witnesses if we still have doubts? Again the story is grace and how God draws close to Godself those who are prepared to be honest and vulnerable in their wresting. Within ten weeks of this event the event narrated in Acts takes place and Peter and John are found teaching so boldly and provocatively in the temple.  Regardless of his means of death, that of execution by the government, the Jesus known to the apostles is no zombie or no ghost. Jesus is not a corpse with breath returned; neither is he a disembodied but eternal apparition: Jesus is alive in an altogether new way, a way which one of my commentaries describes as “resurrected life is embodied existence”[1].

So we believe in spite of our doubts, knowing that in Jesus hope and peace and security is found and if we stay close to God we will learn more and more about what is actually going on. In his pastoral letter to a group of local Christians John tells us that the capacity to live without sin is the result of acknowledging the love of the LORD. This John who was in the room when Jesus returned to the eleven, this John who was standing with Peter when the man was raised to his feet and the fisherman son of Jonah proclaimed the grace-filled wisdom of God, this John writes of how ordinary men and women are made sons and daughters of God. I wonder what you make of 1 John 3:6 and the statement that no-one who abides in Christ sins. Would John really have it that believers never sin? This is more than a little optimistic, even for the best of us, if we think of sin as disobedience. But if we think of sin in the way that John in his gospel wrote of sin, that sin is unbelief, and then it is self-fulfilling because believers cannot be condemned for unbelief.   And take note, doubt is not unbelief, doubt is belief being fashioned. Belief for John was never about holding steadfast to doctrines or proofs, rather belief is hope, trust, and obedience placed in the One who sustains all. If John were to be asked for a simile for belief his answer would lean more towards words like devotion than words like orthodoxy.

John suggests that those whose hope is in God will live with a grace-filled underpinning to sustain and guide them. This is what the psalmist sang of when the one who found himself in distress due to circumstance and frailty gathered together his faith and hope and cried out to the One who is faithful. If we are believers then we can live without rebellion and the desire to go it alone because of the grace of God that holds us close to God. The Word of God says to us what he said to his frightened disciples “peace be with you”. Why are you frightened can’t you see that I am here with you? Don’t you know who I am?

This is why even though I am incredibly busy right now, and I have a medical predilection to fright, fight and flight, I am not in distress.

Amen.

[1] Joel B. Green, “Luke,” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, (Nashville TN: Abingdon, 2003), 1903