Oh whatevs!

This is the text of my ministry message for the monthly newsletter for Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry.

You all know that I once worked as a school teacher, and I know that many of you have done so too. In fact several of you still do. One of the questions I was often asked by my pupils was whether they would use this skill or topic as adults; a sometimes tricky question to answer. I suppose it depends upon what sort of adult the child would become and what sort of job he or she would have. I have made use of most subjects I learned at school primarily because I then went on to teach them; that‘s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy I guess. But Algebra in umpiring football: 6g+b=t (when g is number of goals, b is number of behinds, and t is total score), Syntax and Grammar in writing, reading, and preaching, and History and Geography in background to preaching have all come in handy at various times. Right now I‘m learning to read the New Testament in Greek, which I hope will be useful in study and not just as a distraction during this incarceration.

So imagine this situation: You‘re at ministry college in 2009 where you are learning to be a pastor and in your Preaching unit an assignment question reads Your Congregation is unable to meet on Sundays due to a pandemic, how do you continue to provide worship and instruction to a dispersed and homebound congregation? My first response would probably have been the title of this. Oh whatevs! as if that‘s gonna happen in Australia! My written response, much more respectful (and Distinction grade worthy), would probably have been something about home visitation for communion with shut-ins, emails with Bible study links, lots of Facebook posts, and regular updates of the church blog. Or maybe that‘s hindsight: in 2009 there was no thought about churches having their own YouTube channel (unless they were Hillsong), and a pastor could not assume that everyone in his congregation had access to the Interwebs anyway, even email.

Primary School prepares us for the wider world, and the world of the future, by teaching us basic skills which can be implemented and connected in new ways. Some of these connections are made at Secondary School, others in University (or TAFE), and others by experience in the world. I was never specifically taught how to minister in a global pandemic, and my plan above is unworkable because I am expressly forbidden from visiting you in your home with communion. We do not have a church blog, but while we do have a church Facebook page not all of you are online to read it. But college did equip me with skills to manage (and thrive) in this situation and I am honestly excited at the opportunity to see Church done in this new way. You also have been equipped for this, if you‘re ready, by the discipleship that Christ himself has been guiding you through in the past days and decades. Like homeschooling where we do not expect kids to sit at the kitchen table for six hours a day as if they were at school (an hour each of literacy, numeracy, reading, and home-cooking is probably enough) there is no expectation that you take hours today to do church stuff. What matters most to Christ, and to me, is that you are learning to love him and to follow him. Spend time with your Bible, use the notes I have prepared if they help or don‘t; spend time in prayer, again follow the KSSM plan or not; walk in your garden, or around the block, or a lap of the wetlands and enjoy Creation; drink good coffee and eat your favourite biscuits at 10:35 each morning; be a child of God who is also a woman or man of faith.

It seems likely that we will not be gathering as congregations until September, that will be six months of household worship (Acts 16:31). I pray that you can use this time to explore your faith and your hope in God in quietness and solitude with Christ. Not everyone is an introvert like me, so quietness might be uncomfortable for you; but that‘s okay because Christianity is a social religion and we are supposed to do it in groups. So please do get on the phone, or the social media, and share what you‘ve found about God.

It‘s April, and that means it‘s Easter. Today (if you‘re reading this new) is Palm Sunday, next week is Good Friday and then Resurrection Sunday. Then its seven weeks until Pentecost, (so you‘ll need to wear a purple top today, white thereafter, and red on 31st May, white on 7th June, then green), and who knows how long after that until we can gather. I encourage you to make use of the lectionary New Testament readings from Acts; they tell the exciting story of the Christians from the week after Jesus‘ ascension until the raising up of the second and third generations. Maybe we, like them, are pioneering a new way of being the Body of Christ in the dispersion. I look forward to the day when we can gather as one once more.

Damien.

Theology is Biography

This is the text of my message for the KSSM monthly pewsheet for March 2020. 

Huh, what sort of a statement is that? Theology is biography sounds very academic and complicated, in fact I‘m sure it‘s not even correct grammar. Actually what it does mean is that the way you speak about God and what you think God is like is revealed in your life‘s story.

About twenty years ago I attended a job interview at a Christian school, to be the Grade Seven teacher for fourth term while the tenured teacher took maternity leave. The Headmistress (and that she was, certainly not a Principal) asked me the question What does being a Christian mean to you Mr Tann? I‘m pretty sure that she was asking for a definition, but what I gave her was biography. She probably wanted me to say something like Christianity is belief in the saving grace of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins: what I actually said was something like Jesus Christ is my light and breath, so being a Christian is life itself in all of God‘s abundance. That‘s what it meant to me to be a Christian, it meant everything. (It still does, and yes I did get that job).

About thirty-five years ago one of my dad‘s ministry peers wrote a book entitled The Fifth Gospel, the point being that it‘s you. Many people won‘t read Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, but I wonder how many people in Kaniva have read Damien Tann in the last eighteen months. Maybe I‘m the only good news about Jesus Christ they know, or maybe you are. There are many books with that title: both that you can find several authors using it if you Google, and that each one of us is The Fifth Gospel to our world. This is especially important if the people you know have been misled about the other four gospels and have been told that the Bible and the Christian Religion say they aren‘t worthy of God‘s love (they are, God made them in God‘s image) or worthy of God‘s grace (they weren‘t, but Christ rose again). Perhaps only The Fifth Gospel can speak the bits in brackets, and if you can say those words as much as I can then it‘s only because of personal experience, and your own story of your own life. Theology is biography.

Innocent as Doves

This is the text of the ministry message I wrote for The Vision in March 2020, the quarterly newsletter of KSSM.

Recently I read a history of the persecution of The Church: mainly about how the outside world and especially governments have caused pain to Christians through policies and violence. Sadly some of that persecution came from the denomination in power and inflicted upon the other denominations present in society. Since the day of the execution of Jesus around 30 AD and right up until this week women and men who stand in loyalty to God and the Kingdom of Heaven above all other claims for loyalty have suffered at the hands of the greedy and powerful.

I remember from school chapel services (I went to an independent Christian school) that visiting drama and music groups would come to lead us from time to time. Oftentimes the message was a challenge whether we would be bold enough in our Christian witness to resist the KGB/Gestapo and choose to take a bullet for Jesus rather than spit/stomp on the ikons if our Undergroud Church was ever raided. Since we didn‘t worship in an Underground Church, and our Christian school was public and obvious, and as Charistmatics we didn‘t have ikons, it always seemed like a bit of a puzzle for me. And to be fair I always thought it would be much easier to take a bullet or a sword for Christ than to take daily beatings or years in a labor camp. The Gestapo never worried me, but the Gulags did. Less frightening than the Gulags (and Tyabb doesn‘t have any) were the bullies who would tease me for being a Christian, but then it was a Christian school and our ideology was in the nominal majority. I remember one boy asking if I really was a Christian, (he really put the derision in Chrish-chen); I simply answered that yes I was, as were all of the teachers and about a third of our classmates before walking off un-bothered.

Life in Kaniva and Serviceton is not hard for Christians as Christians: in towns of this size where everyone knows everyone else and a person‘s faith is public, whether or not they wear a cross or their car has a fish, noone is in danger of a bullet or a fist for Jesus‘ sake. The question is how we would handle a personal sneer or perhaps being excluded from a social event (in a town this size). How do you feel when Christianity itself is questioned because of seeming hypocrisies around present day GLBTIQA+ exclusion and historical institutional child sexual assault? How should we respond to accusations against our Prime Minister targeted specifically at his being Pentecostal, and his demonstrative eyes-shut-hands-raised worship? What do you say when asked about the Vatican‘s wealth, or even the land holdings of our own denominations, in the face of global poverty and the Biblical mandate to tithe?

I am not keen on a return to the earliest centuries of Christianity where we were bait for lions, or later centuries where we were galley-slaves chained forever to an oar. But as the history of The Church has shown, The Church has survived every threat of violence and despair thrown against it and it has come out stronger and deeper because of its dependence on Christ who is the Way, Truth, and Life. My prayer for us in the next three months is not that we will survive the bullying media (which is really a mild irritation and nothing more): my prayer is that we embrace the challenge to reflect Christ more and to show his glory in our discipleship. May we take on board the critiques of our witness so as to live with light and salt in a world craving these. May we model in a consumerist and increasingly self-preserving world that with Christ we have enough.

Persecution has never defeated the witness of Christ in the West, but increasing Nationalism and Capitalism might.

Damien.

The Advent of Loss: 2 (Blue Christmas)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the community Blue Christmas service in Kaniva for 2019.  The service was hosted by the Uniting Church on behalf of all of the town churches.

John 1:1-14

Imagine a Christmas without all the pageantry. In a field of loss that might be nice, and December 25th itself might pass in quietness, another Wednesday in the world, with nothing to set it apart. Imagine if Christmas Day was just another birthday, someone else’s birthday, and joy to them and all of that, but good that I wasn’t invited, or even aware, because I’m not in the mood for celebration. In fact, even if it was my birthday, and it isn’t, but even if it was I’m just not into it.

Do any of you know what date of the year my birthday is? It’s okay, I don’t know when yours are either. It’s probably no surprise to you that your birthday this year was just another day for me, unremarkable, I don’t even remember what I was doing: unless it was a Sunday of course, in which case I was probably preaching, but then I preach most Sundays anyway so I’m sorry if I didn’t notice your special day. Or was it a Saturday in winter and I was at the footy, same answer, sorry I didn’t notice.

There are days like that for all of us. Not just birthdays, but other significant days and the anniversaries of significant days. There are people in this room, at the very least in this town, who lost friends and family to death this year: but what was I doing on the day that that happened? Can’t say. Others observed days of anniversary: a year, two, ten, perhaps fifty since a loved one died, again days unremarked by me or the rest of you, for the most part. And generally that’s okay, we often don’t need the whole world party to our personal grief, especially when healing has begun and the years have made the memories more fond for what was had and less sharp for what was lost.

But then, then there’s Christmas. I know two people for whom Christmas Day is the anniversary of a father’s passing. But even without that, Christmas Day is a loud and bright day, especially in Australia where it’s all-but midsummer, so the parties are outside with cricket in the street and barbeques in the back yard and it’s hard to hide from celebration even if you want to. That’s not to say that there aren’t lonely people, grieving people, distressed people even on the Day when we celebrate Santa’s coming to earth in human form, it’s just that those sad-sacks get their noses rubbed in by their boisterous neighbours and their cordial-powered, remote-control wielding children.

In John’s gospel and the opening chapter, which is really a prologue to the story than the opening of the story itself, we have Christmas without the paraphernalia. No wise men, no shepherds, no angels; no star, no animals, no manger; no baby. What we have is light and a word; a word which is a who (and not a what), a word who is glorious and alive, a word who is light whom banishes the darkness. I wonder what a Christmas pageant would look like if we based it on John’s account rather than Matthew’s or Luke’s. Would it actually be less boisterous if there was no bunch of kids dressed as a flock of lambs, and one solitary boy was dressed as everlasting light instead? I never got to be Joseph when I was a child, although I did play him in a monologue when I was about 42. I wonder how I would have felt had I been chosen to play the real light – the light that comes into the world and shines on all mankind as John 1:9 puts it.

The Good News Translation overlooks the phrase, but in the New American Bible (amongst others) we read in John 1:12 that to those who did accept him he gave the power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name. Now is not the time for a full theology of the Name of Jesus, but briefly, at Blue Christmas, let me say this. The name of the Word who came as light, is Jesus, and that name means “God Saves”. It’s the same Hebrew name as Joshua (Yehu’shua), the one who fit de battle of Jericho and the walls come a tumblin’ down. The phrase “in his name” also means to accept Jesus for all he is and all he stands for: the whole being of Jesus and his story. If you acknowledge and receive Jesus, the one who exists and proclaims the salvation of God, then you will become a son or daughter of God. Many did not accept Jesus when he came, during his life between 4BC and 30AD or whenever exactly it was, John 1:11 tells us that and we know it from other parts of the New Testament too. Many since then and right up to today have also not accepted him, either they have heard the story and rejected it for whatever reason, or they haven’t heard the story properly told at all for whatever reason. That’s why John 1:12 specifically says to those who did accept him, because in John 1:11 we’ve just been told that many didn’t.

And that’s where we find ourselves on Blue Christmas, and others find themselves blue at Christmas, because the story is unacceptable. Here’s a story about eternal light entering the world. Here’s a story about the Word of God, so God’s creative power (remember God created by “saying”) and God’s authority, entering the world. Here’s a story about a man who embodies all of the above and his name is literally “God Saves”, if not “God’s Salvation” as if the man is himself the saviour, and not just a living prophecy whose name is a message, he himself with the name is also the means of salvation. And yet here I am, on Thursday night 19th December 2019 (or Wednesday morning 25th December), and here I am mourning because God did very much NOT save. If God saves then why am I a widow, or an orphan, or a divorcee, or a bankrupt, or a quadriplegic, or a neurotic? Why? All this light you’re speaking about just makes my darkness even more obvious, and it’s just as painful as the noise of children on their new bikes and the sound of their dads on their fourth beer.

You say “God saves”, but I say that’s very hard to accept, let alone believe.

As a pastor I hear that, and I will not trample it. Yes I am a pastor, but only because I am a survivor in life,; and I’m a survivor in life only because I am a Christian. I’m not saying that you cannot survive life without Christianity, but I am saying that I would not have made it this far without Jesus. My story is that I have lost a lot. My grandparents have all died, so my parents (whom I dearly love) have lost their parents (whom they dearly loved). I have lost friends to death, and friends to distance. I have also lost friends to hatred, people who once were close who have turned against me and my family. I have lost health, and poor health has stolen decades of my life; in fact I’m going to say that much of my adulthood has been lost to sickness and disability. I was sexually molested as a child and I have lost most, if not all, of what it means to be in a romantic relationship. So, when you say that God’s salvation is very hard to accept, let alone believe, I believe you, and I accept your story as accurate and true.

But so is John’s story, accurate and true, and I know this because it is also my story. That I am here, after all of that, to tell my story and even more to tell John’s story from the Christian Bible, is all down to the fact that God does save, did save, will save, and that Jesus is the means by which that is accomplished. I am a Christian, a recipient of salvation, because God saved me and not because I saved myself. When I stopped trying to save myself and faced the overwhelming tide of death, because I was out of energy and motivation, that is when God has lifted me out and up and away. If you aren’t there yet well I’m not going to gloat, or accuse, or deny your pain. I will be respectful this Christmas of you in the way that I missed in Christmases past when others denied, excluded, and accused me.

Imagine a Christmas without all the pageantry: in a field of loss that might be nice, and December 25th itself might pass in quietness, another Wednesday in the world, with nothing to set it apart. You know, you are allowed to have it that way, you really are. But if you don’t want to, we’ll be here at 9:00am next Wednesday, and we’ll be telling the stories of how Jesus is God’s Salvation. And we’ll be nice about it too.

Amen.

Were we even given a choice? (WWHS)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Kaniva Day Centre (WWHS) for the chapel service on Tuesday 10th December 2019.  This was the final service for 2019.

Luke 1:26-38

Today’s story is often told on 25th March, or at least the Sunday closest to it, and it is the story that some Christian traditions call “The Annunciation” and other Christian traditions seem to ignore. It is the story of Gabriel coming to a twelve year old peasant, Mary, with the news of Emmanuel and her role in the LORD’s own coming.

Well, there’s a lot that can be said about this episode, and a lot has been said, on various 25th of March in years past. So this morning, 10th December of all days, I want to focus on one thing. Or rather not a thing but a person: a man. Joseph.

Every year it annoys me that I can’t remember what it was called, because I’d love to find it and be able to have a copy. Anyway, about 15 years ago while I was living in England, the BBC put on a story of the Passion, a mini-series which they had made, and it was shown on BBC One at Easter. In a particular episode the adult Jesus is talking with Mary, and he’s explaining what God is calling him towards in the coming week, so the crucifixion and all that. However distressing it is for Mary, she must understand that he must follow the will of The Father. You can imagine it, “yeah sorry Mum, but God says there’s a cross for me Friday week, and you’ll just have to accept it because I’m the Christ, yeah”. It’s not quite that direct, or Cockney, but anyway the important thing is what Mary responds with, and this I remember pretty much verbatim. She says “don’t you presume to tell me what the will of The Father entails, I know the call of The Father. Don’t you think, can you even imagine, what if Joseph had said no.”

What if Joseph had said no.

Not everyone who is called by God, not even everyone who is specifically and uniquely set aside by God, follows God. Think of Jonah who was called east and so he went west. Think of all the kings of Israel and Judah who inherited the throne promised to David’s line (and in Judah they were David’s grandsons) but who did evil in the LORD’s sight. We are blessed that Mary said yes, and her song Magnificat expresses the depth of her yes. In Luke’s gospel account Joseph doesn’t get a say, Mary meets Gabriel and the next thing she’s at Elizabeth’s house for six months. It’s only in Matthew 1:18-25 that we are told that Joseph has the opportunity to do the honourable thing and divorce Mary, (so that she can then marry the unborn child’s real father before it’s too late), and God’s messenger tells him the real story. We are blessed that Joseph said yes, and that Joseph did not say no.

What then happens within Mary’s body we are not expressly told. Did God fertilise one of Mary’s ova, or was Emmanuel a fully established zygote implanted in Mary as a surrogate? We know Joseph had no part in this, but I wonder whether Jesus actually looked like his dad growing up. I look like my father, and I have a baby nephew who looks like me because he looks like his mum, my sister. Jesus could have looked like anyone really, if he wasn’t genetically the son of his parents. That’s a bit deeper than we need to go now, the nature of the incarnation and the form that God The Son took as The Son of Man has been argued for as long as Jesus has been proclaimed LORD. But I’d like to think that Jesus bore a family resemblance to his dad and mum, and to his younger brothers and sisters; not because it matters to theology or salvation doctrine but just because in a world where Joseph might have said no, God said yes and gave the Carpenters of Nazareth a boy who fitted in.

But it is a little bit important, I think. Not significant for salvation, Jesus could have been angelically blonde and blue eyed and his death as messiah still would have cured our sins. But significant in that we can trust God to do right by us when we place our lives in God’s hands to do God’s will. God chose Mary, and by choosing Mary God also chose Joseph, and in choosing Joseph God did not set him up for embarrassment by allowing Mary to give birth to a boy so remarkable that he was obviously not the son of Joseph, setting off a scandal.

The story of the annunciation is the story of a trustworthy, faithful God. It is safe to follow The LORD’s leading, God will not abandon you to shame and God is considerate of what you will face in God’s name. This is not to say that discipleship is easy, Jesus died and Mary watched it happen, but God was kind as far as God could be, and the story of God with us, Emmanuel, remains so. God gets what it is to live amongst men and women, Jesus lived amongst men and women, and God has got your back if you have got God’s mission.

Amen.

Reputation

This is my ministry message for The Vision, the quarterly newssheet of KSSM, for December 2019.

In the December pew-sheet I wrote about respect and how in Australia the reputation of The Church has suffered with the ongoing news reports of Christians behaving badly. Not only across many channels of TV news and through the print media of newspapers and magazines, but also online through Facebook and Twitter many people of many forms of faith have been making heard their complaint. This is rightly so to some degree. But I made that point in the pew-sheet, and I have made that point in my public prayers on Sundays, so I don’t need to make it again.

What then of the good reputation of Church? Is there still a place, indeed are there many places, where local Christians have a good name and are held in good regard, or at least even regard (rather than negative) in Australia? I say yes.

Thirteen years ago when I was living in London and participating in a local church with a globally recognisable name, (if not brand), one of the annual events was “The Summer Party”. Now this church did parties all the time; it was a church where the majority were in their twenties and thirties, and the minority were those who liked hanging out with people in their twenties and thirties. It was also a church with a large minority of Commonwealth ex-pats, especially from southern hemisphere nations. (The majority of people were in fact British, but with so many Aussie-Kiwi-Saffa-Zim-Canadians around that wasn’t immediately obvious.) Anyway, lots of parties, lots of fun, lots of shared joy; and one big party in August in particular. The Summer Party was formal, but more like a school formal or a wedding reception than a black-tie event with the Queen, and everyone enjoyed sprucing up for the night. As a formal event it was always held at a proper venue; the year I am thinking about was 2006 and we gathered in a nightclub in London Bridge which we had hired out for the night. And we came, we saw, we partied, we had fun, and we went home.

There were two outcomes of that particular party.

1. The management told us that we’d not be invited back. Why not? Well, it was because we hadn’t purchased enough alcohol. The story goes that the venue ran a loss that night; even with 500 of us (a sell-out) paying a cover charge. With a house full of Christians many weren’t drinking alcohol at all, and those who were had two or three drinks rather than ten. The ticket price did not cover the venue’s costs and our alcohol purchases still left them short.

2. The staff wanted to know who the dickens we all were. Five hundred Aussie/Kiwi/Saffa/Zim/Can and British twenty-somethings went on the tear in London-Town on a summer’s night and there was barely any cigarette smoke (and what there was was tobacco), there was drinking but no drunkenness, there was not a single fight, and no-one spewed. Most of all, and this is what they really emphasised, the girls were safe. There was no groping, no leering, no lewd talk: it was as if everyone was out with their best mates, and their sisters and brothers; every one of the 500 was comfortable and not one of the 500 felt threatened.

You mayn’t come back here, but please, tell us when your next party is, and may we come too?” Imagine if that was the reputation The Church had in society. (You know what, in some places it still does.) May we in Kaniva and Serviceton in 2019 be like Ebeneezer Scrooge at the end of his story, may we be a people of such reputation that it is said of us that we always did Christmas well.

Damien.

Burn

I was blessed to begin my year second year at KSSM with a time of retreat alongside some of the other pastors from the Churches of Christ in Victoria and Tasmania.  One of the retreat speakers taught us about burnout and how God works with the willing to restore those who have been left in ashes and sawdust by life.  There are four keys to this.

In Acts 3:6 we learn that as a minister you can only give what you have got.  This passage can be read that Peter gave the man what he really needed, rather than what the man had asked for, (and there is that too), but for today let’s look at what Peter said about what he did have to share.  “I don’t have that,” said Peter, “but I do have this and so here’s the best of what I have”.

In Isaiah 40:28-31 we learn to rely on God for strength.  God has more than enough strength for us, we can never exhaust God through relying on The LORD’s strength for our journey.  When ministry has drained you, return to the source.

In Mark 12:30 we learn to return love to God with everything in our heart soul, mind, and strength.  In burnout it might seem counter-productive to be giving everything out, but in worship we are emptied of ourselves so that we can be filled by God.

In John 15:2 we learn that God is a wise gardener who prunes what is dead and useless.  In the same way we need to stop giving energy to things that are dead: we need to commit to activities and relationships which are life-giving and affirming of the gospel.  Sometimes the stuff we have to do to get well again is more about stopping doing stuff.

Within a priesthood of all believers everyone can take these words about ministry to heart: even if you are not ministering in the same way that the elders and deacons do this is wisdom for every disciple of Christ in his or her daily life.  So as November brings the beginning and preparation for the harvest, and the holidays, and the holy days, let’s all remember to draw close to God for refreshing and renewal before we burn ourselves to the ground.  (And then maybe we won’t burn ourselves to the ground.)