Thursday 26 September 2013

What's the point?

This is a question that often arises when hope seems thin. When energy runs low and we wonder about how wisely we are spending each hour we search for results and indicators of success. This is no different in ministry. At times there are so many demands on our time that some activities do not seem like good stewardship. It is at times like these that I need to remember that we do not always see the fruits of our labour.

Today, I had a beautiful conversation with a man at Tea Chat in Augusta. Carers and the elderly from around town come to have morning tea in our church every Thursday. I spend my morning making cups of tea and coffee and sitting chatting to people. Most of the time the conversations are around the weather, families or something that has happened in town. Occasionally, the words cut straight through the layers to some deeper level. This happened today.

I sat down next to this gentleman and straight away he told me there was something he wanted to tell me. "I feel very comfortable in this building", he said. "I feel comfortable talking to you even though you are a minister." He proceeded to explain how his ability to feel calm and peaceful in a church setting again had seen him attend the Catholic church last Sunday after 30 years away.

I asked him how he found it. It was like coming home. It felt good. At this point, I could have turned bitter that he had not chosen to come to our church. Instead my heart felt warmed. I had never dreamt that providing tea and scones would lead to someone returning to their faith tradition after so many years. It was never about gaining people for our church, but about relationship that leads to wholeness.

What's the point? Maybe we will never know. We can only plant seeds in faith.

Sunday 22 September 2013

How do we speak of God?

One of the topics that has arisen at times during the Common Dreams conference is how we speak of God. The opinions amongst the delegates were extremely diverse. Some have gone to the extreme of describing God as a human-made construct, while others want to hold on to a God that is real, perhaps even tangible. This, of course, has implications for many aspects in our faith life. One of these is prayer. 

One of the lectures we had was on the topic of "Praying when God is not a person: Non-theistic prayer". Although it was an interesting presentation, I was left wondering what the purpose of prayer might be and who or what God was in order that we would even choose to pray. Today, I got some clues.

Margaret Mayman, from New Zealand (but soon to move to Sydney), spoke about critical realism when speaking of God. She shared an excerpt talking of God that included the following. "Not as real as daisies, but as real as 'I love you'" God is certainly real, but cannot be expressed or even given evidence for. There is something about this way of trying to understand God that is more... More than I  can get a grip upon. 

Bruce Sanguin also offered a very helpful reflection. He expressed that "God is not a person, but is deeply personal". He concludes that God cannot be less than personhood, but is also more. Sanguin told us about Ken Wilber's "1,2,3 of God". God is described in three persons; the one speaking (first person "I am"), the one spoken to (second person "beloved other") and the one spoken about (third person "source of life, energy, light etc."). What a fascinating way to reinterpret the Trinity. 

Sanguin expressed his concern that the progressive movement has tended to forget about the second person of God, the beloved other. This is the God to whom we devote our attention. To reclaim and remember the beloved is to find a place for prayer and contemplation. This image of God does not have to be like a person, but is deeply personal. This person of God is the object of our love, attention and devotion. This is the God that is more than words can express, but closer than our heartbeat.

Apocaholics and Seeing Beauty

One of the speakers that I have enjoyed learning from here at the Common Dreams Conference is Bruce Sanguin. Before arriving, I had heard of Sanguin but never read any of his material. During tonight's public lecture he encouraged us with some recommendations for moving into the future. He listed and explained ten different points, but a few of them,for me, were centred around a similar theme.

I learnt a new term during the explanation- apocaholic. This describes a person who is obsessed with what is wrong in the world. They see no goodness or beauty around them, only doom and gloom. They see oppression, injustice, pain and suffering almost exclusively. Sanguin encouraged us to open our eyes to the goodness, the beauty and the love that surrounds us. We need to be aware and ready to see. We need to offer hope and tell the stories of beauty from our own life experience.

I found it very easy to see the beauty in life today. I was fortunate to be able to catch up with an "old" friend from my days in Tonga. We shared lunch together and I got to meet her husband and their six day old baby. Memories of a beautiful country and a people, familiar smiles and the hope and potential bundled into a new born all lifted my heart and warmed my spirit. For a few hours, any despair I may have felt about the situation in Syria, the plight of asylum seekers, the decline of the church or anything else were put aside as I bathed in the goodness of being in the present moment. 

And tonight, on returning to our apartment we watched the last quarter of the AFL preliminary final. This may not seem such a big deal, but I am not a footy person usually. For those of you unaware, the Fremantle Dockers were playing Sydney Swans for a place in the grand final next week. Fremantle won convincingly! But what came next filled me with hope as I watched the beauty and goodness unfold. The crowd erupted, united in support of their team who were to play in their first ever grand final. The players graciously congratulated each other on a good game. And the winning team payed tribute to an opposing player who was retiring from the game. Goodness, beauty and love abounds!

So lets keep our eyes open to the beauty around us lest we become an apocaholic.

Friday 20 September 2013

Christians without borders

I am currently in Canberra at the third Common Dreams Conference. This is a conference for those exploring progressive theology. We have been blessed already with a myriad of thought provoking speakers and presenters speaking about a variety of aspects. It is exciting to be listening to some of the people I have been reading for many years. Often, when you see or hear authors in person, it can be disappointing. That is certainly not the case so far. 

One of the difficult things in "progressive" circles is finding a way to describe who we are. As it has been pointed out a few times already, we are a group united by what we don't believe rather than what we do believe. The label "progressive" does not really do justice to what we really are on about and is problematic in a number of ways. 

Val Webb, in her address this morning, suggested a possible alternative - "Christians without borders". I like her thinking. She commented that we are defined by who we are at the centre, seekers of the sacred. Marcus Borg said much the same thing the night before when he described "progressives" as having a deep intention at the centre with soft or no boundaries on the periphery.

To have soft or no boundaries can be very threatening and foolish for those who live with fear. Who or what will get in? Will my core, my centre, be safe? I am not sure of what or whom it is that I need to be afraid, but I can only speak from my own experience. The softer the borders of my periphery have become, the deeper my centre has delved. The search for the sacred mystery in my life has caused my soul to whisper constantly, "tear down those walls". And now I can see new horizons and possibilities, now I have a freedom from the fear that I had hidden behind for too long. 

Sunday 15 September 2013

The antidote to cynicism

On Friday I was driving to Perth to attend the annual Synod meeting. Usually, I zone out a bit in the car listening to a CD I haven't heard in a while. I had left in a bit of a hurry, however, and forgot to grab some new music to keep me occupied. Instead, I found myself listening to talk back radio.

As I was nearing Perth a segment came on that looks at the issues around the world and locally and a couple of guests chat with the host about their thoughts on the subject. This particular morning they had an extra guest phoning in from the eastern states - Billy Bragg. I must say I did not know much about this artist, only that my husband has at least one of his CD's on our shelf.

He was fascinating to listen to. At one point the host brought up the fact that in a previous interview he had commented that our greatest enemy was cynicism. I found this conclusion fascinating. I have found, from experience, that cynicism is contagious. If I hang around people who are negative and distrusting it begins to rub off on me and my optimistic, hopeful self retreats under the table. This is, of course, alive and well in the church. 

But, Billy Bragg then announced that he had an antidote for cynicism. My ears pricked up! Activism is the cure! How is it that during growth points in our life everything and everyone seems to be speaking straight to us? Did Billy Bragg eavesdrop in on one of my conversations?

What is the point sitting around whinging about what is going on? Get involved and make a difference. (My hopeful self peers out from under the table and has a look around.) It sounds so obvious, but with a heightened awareness I am surprised at how the epidemic of cynicism can take over. Like anything, it is easy to talk about, but harder to put into practice. 

For me, this weekend, it has played out in getting more involved in the church. I don't know where this will lead or what my role may be, but I am no longer a prisoner to cynicism as I hold on to hope with a firm grasp. 

Wednesday 4 September 2013

Drinking from the well

I had very little to do with the planning of our trip to Israel. I was not really fussy about where we went and what we saw. I guess, in many ways, I was overwhelmed just with the thought of being in these places of which I had only dreamed. I did, however, make one request. If it was at all possible, I would like to visit Jacob's Well. 

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while will understand the importance of this place to me. (See this link for a reminder and this one too.) It is the inspiration for the name of this blog and a lot of what I am passionate about in ministry. When making this request I had no idea where the well was or even if it would be close to the roads we would be travelling. Jacob's Well is in Nablus, a town in the West Bank. I was told that we would try to visit, but it may not be possible for us to enter the town. I was, therefore, very careful not to build up my hopes.

We left the Dead Sea, visited Jericho and began our journey towards Nablus. We had no troubles entering Nablus and the kangaroo signs on our car (along with our looking very lost) possibly helped the Palestinian people not to be too suspicious of our arrival in an Israeli car. The challenge was finding the well in the town. It was not signposted particularly well. Eventually we arrived at the church that now houses the well. 

Jacob's Well is perhaps the most authentic ancient site in all of Israel. As the guide book put it, "it is very difficult to move a 40 feet deep well to another place". I could hardly believe that I was going to stand in the place where Jacob and Rachel met and where Jesus told the Samaritan woman about living water. We entered the church and descended the steps down below the altar. There it was! It was much smaller than I thought it would be. The man demonstrated how deep it was by dropping a cup of water into the hole. 1 and 2 and 3 - splash. No wonder the woman asked Jesus where his bucket was. 

I took out my camera to take a photo and was told that no photos were allowed. This was okay - the memory would be enough. Neville began to explain to the man that this was the only site that I had requested to visit and it was very special to me. Hearing this, the man quickly changed his tune and invited me to drink from the water and have my photo taken at the well. There was absolutely no hesitation in drinking the water. I didn't even consider whether it was clean. The water tasted wonderful, cool and fresh. 

The visit was brief, but pivotal. Drinking from the well was the central point of our trip. It was the turning point between the hustle of Jerusalem and the peaceful setting of Galilee. Looking back now it was probably a turning point for me personally as well. In the last few years I have described my faith journey as diving deep into the well into the living waters below. There is something about this delving that has left the well itself behind. Visiting Jacob's Well was a timely reminder of the well through which I had travelled, my own faith tradition. But from the depths of the water the well looks a whole lot different. The challenge for me now is to reflect on what it means to look up a well rather than down. 

Monday 2 September 2013

More than Enough

After the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem, Galilee was a breath of fresh air. After the frenzy of tourists trying to touch and kiss the sacred spots of Jesus’ life, walking by the calm waters of Galilee I could actually imagine Jesus loving this place. After constantly dodging crowds of people down narrow lane ways, I needed a “lonely place” to sit and be still for a while.

Tabgha was just the place. A ten minute drive from the holiday town of Tiberias, the roads thinned, the crowds dispersed and I felt my body starting to relax before we even arrived. We turned into the parking area only to discover two large tour buses. My heart sank. So much for Jesus’ lonely place. Were the crowds following us too?

We went inside the old church and saw the famous Byzantine loaves and fishes mosaic just before the altar. And there it was, just like the other churches we had visited in Jerusalem, the stone where it happened right under the altar. This was supposedly the place where Jesus blessed the loaves and fishes. But, no hoards of people madly jostling to touch it or kiss it – it was just there. We spent a little time in the church allowing the last, straggling tourists from the buses to move on ahead of us and then found a path leading down to the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

It was so peaceful and serene, I could understand why Jesus would retreat to here. Down at the shore was a simple, but stunning outdoor chapel. We had caught up with the stragglers, but as is often the case they didn’t have long before the bus would be leaving and then we were alone. I sat listening to the water lapping on the beach and imagined Jesus sitting here taking a few deep breaths while he was able.

Neville, our “tour guide”, suggested that this would be a great spot for our daily meditation. This had become our practice each day, to spend about 45 minutes reflecting and meditating. In Jerusalem, we had found a semi-quiet corner in the courtyard of our guest house. In Galilee, there would be plenty of places along the way. Today it was Tabgha.

As we were arranging ourselves closer together, a small critter jumped up on the altar table. Someone else wanted to join us for the morning. Our meditation was delayed by the photo opportunity that now presented itself, but once we began the critter became my focal point. It stayed perfectly still for the whole 30 minutes we meditated. More still than I was capable of being on a hard log. Neville often ended our meditation with a simple “amen”, but today he said, “All God’s creatures long for fulfillment.” Then the next tour bus of people arrived.

The little critter, we discovered later, was a hyrax (a wild rock rabbit). The hyrax is mentioned four times in the Bible. Two of these are found in, in Deuteronomy 14: 7 and Leviticus 11:5. These are both eating laws instructing the Jewish people not to eat the hyrax even though it chews cud, because it has a divided hoof. The other two instances are in Proverbs 30: 26 and Psalm 104:18. These instances describe the hyrax as a wise, trusting creature that lives amongst the crags of the rocks.

This little creature, perhaps insignificant and out of sight to many, knew its maker and, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, trusted God . That day, the hyrax reminded me that I had more than enough. I had more than enough to sustain me physically. I do not want for food, or drink or a roof over my head. I had more than enough to sustain me spiritually. Although travelling in the high season, we had plenty of moments of complete solitude for our meditation time before being inundated with people once again. And I have more than enough in my ministry. Five loaves and two fishes, a picnic lunch, caused a ripple of generosity that even left crumbs behind for the local hyrax. More than enough!

All I have to offer is the little I have.  It may not be much, but once it is offered it can become more than enough. On leaving Tabgha I found a lovely postcard of the loaves and fishes mosaic. I didn’t buy it for the picture of the mosaic, however, it was the saying that inspired me. “Love is like Five loaves of Bread and Two Fish. Always too little until you start giving it away."

(Tabgha is the place on the shore of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus was thought to feed 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish. See Matthew 14: 13-21, Mark 6: 31-44, Luke 9: 10-17 and John 6: 5-15)