Made Strong (Pentecost 7B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Yallourn Parish Uniting Church gathered at Newborough on Sunday 8th July 2018.  It was a day upon which we shared Eucharist.

2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

Power in weakness is one of the great themes in Christian preaching, especially in Evangelical circles.  The idea that we are nothing without God, but we are enough and have more than enough with God is a great concept to return to when your key theme in preaching is salvation and the need for God in all things.  That God’s power can be overcome by human weakness is less popular an idea, but the idea that your prayers depend on your faith is well known, even if it has been exaggerated at times.  That God is enough, but your faith is not, so you must continue to live in distress is not a happy message, but it is also not uncommon.

So, God’s power triumphs over human weakness, but human weakness can inhibit God’s power from completing the work of restoration.  There, that’s not too hard to understand is it?  Who said the Bible was self-contradictory?  Hmm.

Often when I have heard the passage from 2 Corinthians 12 spoken on, or perhaps written about in books, mainly biographies or autobiographies, the context of the passage is human sickness.  Where God’s power is needed most is in human weakness, and that’s good because that it what the passage suggests, but the story goes on to suggest that the deepest need, the greatest human weakness, is human illness.  And of course, the deeper the illness the greater the story of heroism.  The great phrase “when I am weak, then I am strong” taken from 2 Corinthians 12:10 is a ready-made title for the story of a Christian undertaking Chemotherapy, or learning to walk after a double amputation, or maybe life after an acquired brain injury.  However, as someone who has lived with profound disability in the past, and who continues to live with an obvious weakness where God’s strength is a daily (hourly) necessity, I yet remain unconvinced.

In 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 we read what many scholars believe to be a first-person account of an episode in Paul’s life, and of the revelation given to him.  Paul says that he sees no sense in boasting, particularly in this instance when the truth is so amazing, even if he does share this first-person experience as a third-person story.  Paul is directly opposing the boasters, other preachers of Jesus who have come to Corinth and waved their credentials around.  Paul has credentials of his own, his testimony of what God has brought him through, but he withholds the complete truth in his correspondence and preaching lest anyone think him arrogant.  What Paul will boast in (without embellishment of the facts, just gushing praise) is his particular weakness through which God has upheld him.  This is where those Christian autobiographies come in, the story of brave women and men of God, usually girls or boys if truth be told, who have battled the ravages of cancer or pain or both.  In one translation of the Bible into English, a translation called “The Passion” the pertinent verses are rendered as when I am weak I sense more deeply the mighty power of Christ living in me or as an alternative The Power of Christ rests upon me like a tabernacle providing me with shelter, and because of my love for Christ I am made yet stronger.  For my weakness becomes a portal to God’s power. In these words, we read that Paul’s delight is not in his own strengths and achievements, but that God is at work through him, and in his discovery that the less there is of Paul in the ministry space the more there can be of God.

Jesus’ action in sending out the twelve in pairs as recorded by Mark 6:1-13 tells a similar story.  Yes, similar.  The messages of Paul and Jesus are not contradictory, even where God works wonderfully through Paul’s weakness, but the miracles of Jesus are inhibited by the weakness of the Nazarenes.  The common link is not human weakness, but human surrender.  Paul surrendered to God, got out of the way of God and let God work, whereas the unbelieving Nazarenes did not surrender to God but remained defiant in their religious zeal and sibling rivalry.  God did not work though Jesus in Nazareth because the Nazarenes refused to see anything that Jesus might have done as God’s action.  God was not inhibited by their lack of faith, God chose not to act because God is not a show-off.

As Jesus sent out the twelve he commanded them to cast out demons; not as a sign of God’s power over demons, (which is undoubtably true, but is not the main point), but as a sign of the Kingdom at hand.  The message is repentance, human surrender to the power of God.  Not that God wants to overpower humanity, as if the human race is to be defeated by a stronger force in God, but that God wants to power-up humanity with God’s fullness. But God cannot fill you with Godness unless you are empty of yourself.  If you are full of yourself then you can’t be filled with God.  Paul was empty, and God filled him.  Jesus was empty, and God filled him.  The boasting evangelists of Corinth and the know-it-all villagers of Nazareth were full of themselves, so God walked past them and went where the twelve went.  Sometime God filled the hearers of the message, sometimes there were no hearers and God walked past and the pair shook the dust off.

Jesus instructed the pairs not to dally in debate, even as he did not stick around Nazareth to argue.  The work of the gospel was to get in and preach then get out and preach elsewhere.  Don’t let the dust slow you down, shake it off and keep moving – time is short and there are no second chances for those who are petulant when the gospel arrives at their house.  The same is true for us.

It would appears from scripture, and other sources of history, that Jesus never again set foot in Nazareth after this episode.  He moved his home to Capernaum and returned there when in Galilee.  Maybe we need to do the same.  Now I am not saying that you need to walk out of Moe or Newborough or Yallourn North, but I am saying that if God is calling you to share the news of the Kingdom that you can’t get sentimental.  Tell who needs to know, tell them what they need to know, and then move on and tell someone else.  Let the message of the Kingdom speak for itself, don’t get into debates on the finer points – because if you do then you’ll be delayed in your mission and someone else will never get the chance to hear you preach because you never got there because you got stuck.  Do you think Jesus ever wept over Nazareth?  Did he cry for the frustration of his siblings, for Joseph and Mary’s friends, for the boys and girls he had grown up with who were now adults and hardhearted at his message?  Of course he did.  But he never returned, because he had other towns and villages to take the message to.

And this is where I get to my key point.  It is a good and Christian message to offer your weakness to God and ask God to make you strong.  I have lived experience of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Depression and Anxiety, I have been debilitated and made frail by illness, and I have prayed again and again for God to make me well.  I have prayed that God would fill my weakness with God’s strength, my sickness with God’s health,  my brokenness with God’s wholeness.  I have done this, and I shall continue to do this.  I commend you to the same activity.  But the real answer, the real prayer which has put me here in Newborough’s pulpit and not in a Tasmanian hospital bed or a South Australian cemetery is this.

Lord, take my strength and replace it with your strength.

It is easy and obvious to give our weakness to God.  A friend of mine who lived with Multiple Sclerosis once invited me to share my story of Chronic Fatigue with her because in her own words “I have been sick for a long time and I know a lot about being sick.”  Sadly, for her and for me, she did not know a lot about being healthy, and our friendship petered out.  She had made her illness her strength: she was wise in the ways of bedrest and massage and an expert in being unwell, and as I got well she lost interest in me.  And me in her to be fair.  I wasn’t a minister then and I didn’t need a friend shaming me for being well.

The Nazarenes and the Corinthians were strong.  So strong were they that they didn’t actually need God.  They did not believe that God helps those who help themselves, they believed that God gets out of the way of the strong and lets them get on with it.  Paul and Jesus held a different view.  Paul and Jesus held the view that God helps those who get out of God’s way and rely on God to be their source, even in areas in which they have skill, especially in areas where their skill is the result of a life lived in the gifts and fruit of the Spirit.

I think it might be possible for me to write a sermon without God.  I’m not sure, I haven’t tried for a while.  But I do have identifiable gifts in public speaking, in writing and composition, and in scholarship.  I know you know this because you have often remarked on it.  I speak well, and I make you think: that’s what you’ve told me anyway.  Preaching is possibly my greatest strength as a minister – but do you think I would ever try to do this without God?  No way.  Would I ever say “you know what Lord, I’ve got this preaching thing covered.  I have four university degrees, two in theology and ministry, one in teaching, and one in language.  I have preaching and teaching experience in church and in the classroom.  I’ve got this.  So, Lord, if you don’t mind I’ve got a sermon to preach now so maybe you could just wait over there until I need you for the things I’m not very good at – like listening to someone else preach or sitting in a meeting where there is tension and conflict.”  I would never say that, and I have never thought it.

My prayer, like Paul’s, is that God would fill me where I am empty.  Where I am weak may God be by strength.  Where I am full may God guide me in humility to receive God’s refreshing of whatever I am full of, and guide me in surrender to give God my fullness to partner with God’s energy for the proclamation of the Kingdom.  Where I am weak, then I am strong.  Where I am strong, then I am humble.  And may the memory of the times when I have been arrogant and missed God’s activity remain as a thorn in my flesh.

Amen.

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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.

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.