Category Archives: Thoughts

Faith, a piece of cake?

Rodney Eivers

31st January 2019

            For some 20 years I have been providing morning tea at our Acacia Ridge Uniting Church between 10 and 11 a.m. every Thursday. In all this time it has been disappointing.  I had hoped that, during these get-togethers, members of our congregation would take the opportunity to discuss “theological” questions in a warm, friendly and safe non-judgemental atmosphere.

            That has not happened. The morning teas have been convivial enough but there has been no discussion beyond the mundane day to day events and perhaps an occasional diversion into the current congregational politics.

            I recognised why this might be when one officer of the congregation put it this way.

“Rodney likes to ask questions but I prefer not to do that.  If I asked questions relevant to my Christian faith, I might start to think I was wrong about some things and then my whole faith would collapse”

            I love my colleagues and do not wish to make them uncomfortable over their orthodoxy, so do not press such issues.

            Perhaps the best I can do is just be a “witness”.  We had a visit from a Presbytery officer last Sunday,  I assumed he did not know me very well, So what I usually do when I get into conversation, with others known to  me to be Christian, is usually state, to be clear on where I stand, “You need to know that I am a “progressive”  Christian.”

            I was a bit taken aback when he responded. “Oh yes, we in the Presbytery know all about you and your “progressive” Christianity.”   In the end I was very pleased about this. It means there is no need for me to be preachy and, so far as I am aware, I remain on friendly terms with all those with whom I interact (including my congregation)

            But to get back to morning tea. It so happens that lately we have been joined regularly by a man who “dropped in” one day.  He is a Baptist and very secure in his orthodoxy. What has attracted him to the morning teas, however, is that we can have these “theological” differences, talk about them and still remain on friendly terms.

            Then this morning we were joined by a member of my own congregation, she is one who is prepared to explore a little but only goes so far.

            The subject of faith came up.

            Karen explained it thus.  It is like someone offering you a cake to eat. It tastes good. You’ve eaten many cakes before and no harm has befallen you. Thus you take it on faith that accepting that cake will be a good thing to do. You don’t question it.

            I responded, and Karen saw the point. “Yes, but I may have been offered cakes like this before and they have turned out to be not at all what I was expecting.” Therefore I want to question

 What’s in the cake? Who made it? How old is it?  Can we freshen it up a bit?

            So that is the difference between blind faith and questioning faith. It does not mean that in the end eating the cake or having the faith is not worthwhile. But, in being confident in “what works” for us rather than in supernatural expectations which we struggle to demonstrate we can have a secure foundation in how we see and operate as Christians in this wonderful, complex world of ours.

oOo
           

Who is Jesus for us today?

Sermon preached by Rev Dr Noel Preston last Sunday.

Psalm 23. and Luke 4. v. 16- 21; 9 v.18 – 21

We are here today because of Jesus of Nazareth – that is the simple fact. So who is this Jesus, the one who traditional Christianity has named “the Christ”, and the “second person of the Trinity”.

I want to preach about brother Jesus today because, more than any other, his life has influenced mine and the lives of others who have most influenced me. In fact I have a memory that when I was a seven year old I went to my father and said, “I want to give my life to Jesus.” That commitment remains. (though my understanding of it has evolved over a further 70 years)

I have another reason: I made a deal at Christmas time with my teenage grandson, who rarely goes to church, that I would try to preach a sermon for him which conveys who Jesus of Nazareth is and what he is to us today.

If we are to understand Jesus, we must situate him in his time. He lived in a period when the Roman Empire controlled his home country. Actually, he was probably known as “Joshua” in his time. The name we give him is the result of Graeco-Roman influence. He was a Galilean. And Galileans were simple folk. He was not a Christian. He never read the Christian Scriptures. He read the Hebrew Scriptures, and developed his faith from them.

Apart from the Christian scriptures the only historical record of him is found in the work of a Roman Jew historian named Josephus. Nevertheless, his impact on history has been profound and his message has been a saving grace to millions.

As far as the detail of his life, our knowledge comes initially from the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The account attributed to Mark, was the first written, some decades after Jesus’ death. Inspired as Mark’s Gospel is, this and the other versions of the Gospel, rely much on fallible human memory and oral story telling.

Nonetheless, as our Gospel readings today reveal, Jesus himself went through a gradual process of self-discovery. Our second Gospel reading describes Jesus sounding out who his disciples thought he was. In the other reading from Luke we heard how : At the outset of his ministry in the Synagogue of Nazareth he chose a significant passage from Isaiah – his mission statement if you like – I am here to give sight to the blind, free the oppressed and bring good news to the poor. As that mission unfolded, apparently titles like “son of man” and “son of God” were used of him.

In my lifetime, there have been many commentaries on who Jesus is for us today. Scholars have done much detailed analysis on questions like –
who did Jesus himself think he was?
Or, how are we to interpret the miracles recorded in the Gospels?
Or, what do we really know about his birth and the stories we recall at Christmas time?
Or what is the meaning of his cruel death?
Or, how are we to understand the Easter faith of the disciples who declare his Resurrection?

It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that biblical scholars began applying the blow torch of historical criticism to the Gospels. A German biblical scholar by the name of Albert Schweitzer (who, incidentally, was one of Europe’s finest organists) published a book titled The Quest for the Historical Jesus and that scholarly quest continues today.

And the Jesus story keeps being told by endless and various story tellers. When I began my ministry there were the musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar which made Jesus a rock star and Godspell popularizing him as a clown. Then there was Monty Python’s irreverent Life of Brian which had a measure of truth in it, and would’ve had the real Jesus laughing in his grave I’m sure. In a way these pop culture presentations have humanised Jesus by correcting what I call the dehumanising of Jesus. This “dehumanising” happens through idolatrous beliefs and practices which make him half-human and half divine, a process which was underlined by the Nicene Creed adopted in the 4th century AD. The writers of the Creeds may have lost touch with Jesus of Nazareth and his early followers who were known as “followers of the Way”. Jesus never said, “Worship me” but he did say, “ Follow me.” Of course, it is much easier to worship him than follow him daily.

Reading the traditional Creeds today, you may conclude that they lose sight of the life Jesus lived and what he taught. The language they use attempts to make him someone to worship rather than a brother who is “Saviour and Lord” – He is my Saviour and Lord because he exemplifies and calls us and empowers, to be the best that humanity can be, by living a life of unconditional compassion.

Thus far, I have tried to give some background as to how I answer my grandson’s question : “Who is Jesus for us today?” But there is more to tell.

FIRST A STORY. I have a fellow retired minister friend with whom I was talking recently about this topic. I mused with him. “Some of the supernatural elements which do not fit 21st century knowledge, like the Virgin birth and the Ascension into heaven, have kept the Jesus story alive over the centuries. If we strip the story of these parts, how do we keep the Jesus story alive today?” Instantly Bob, whose mind is burdened by Parkinson’s disease, said: “We keep it alive by living it.” (Repeat)

I have a book by a South African Catholic priest, Albert Nolan, which I have found very helpful. Called “Jesus today”, it explores Jesus’ spirituality, how his mind and spirit were nurtured in the intimate relationship he had with the One he called, in his language, “abba”, a word which means “father”.

Nolan’s opening sentence is challenging: On the whole we don’t take Jesus seriously – whether we call ourselves Christians or not.

I have to confess that’s true for me – the demands of discipleship can be overwhelming – remember the story of the Rich Young Ruler ‘Go and sell all you have and give it to the poor and then come and follow me’! What of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5) where Jesus teaches us to love even our enemies. Or, if we took seriously the parable of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son, what a conversion that might involve!

Nolan interprets Jesus as a deeply mystical prophet, one who had a special relationship with his abba, his God experience, the intimate father, whose love was boundless. That relationship is the secret of his extraordinary life – and death: A Love that has no limits. So intimate was the relationship between Jesus and his abba that about 100 years after his death, the writer of John’s Gospel has him saying “I and the Father are one.” Jesus’ abba relationship was expressed in his friendship with the downtrodden. He practiced inclusion not exclusion in relationships. He lived by a sense of oneness with all. He empowered others to see through religious hypocrisy and stand up to the abuse of power in the Temple or by Roman overlords. Though he was radically critical of his society, Jesus never blamed, accused or condemned any individual person but his attitude to people labeled ‘sinners or outcasts’ was strikingly different from that of other religious leaders.

Jesus of Nazareth is a breakthrough in human history calling us to be truly human.

Of course no account or interpretation of Jesus the Christ is complete without engaging with the fact and the meaning of the end of his life. The Crucifixion of Jesus is the climax of a life lived so close to abba that the dereliction and abandonment of those cruel hours demands explanation.

But the explanation consistent with the Jesus I have tried to describe is not one about a sacrifice for our sins to placate a god who doesn’t sound one bit like Jesus’ abba. No, the meaning of the Cross is that it is the culmination of a life which challenged the powers that oppress the downtrodden through the costly way of compassionate Love. This demonstration of LOVE to the bitter end means that the cross cannot be the end. So it is that his followers, then and now, claim the realization by faith that Jesus’ life is not extinguished by a burial. But, his followers must learn that the significance of the Cross is that it must become OUR CROSS.

Jesus becomes the one who never goes away, who meets us today, who invites ongoing interpretation of the relationship of our life to his, whose challenges to us may change, but who persists through history as a challenge in all times and cultures. He does not go away; he keeps invading our lives, our society – so, it is not atrivial question to ask, “What would Jesus do ?” “What is the Jesus way of handling this matter in our time?”

I mentioned Albert Schweitzer earlier, the author of a ground-breaking theological treatise, “The Quest for the Historical Jesus”. I also said he had fame throughout Europe as a musician. The real story about Schweitzer’s quest is that in his thirties, his life changed direction. He came to the conviction that Jesus is to be known and followed in deeds not just words, costly deeds for the needy . So he took up medical studies and became a Doctor and spent the rest of his long life as a missionary Doctor in Africa.

In the final paragraph of The Quest he prefaced this change in discipleship:
He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word, “Follow thou me” and sets us to the tasks he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings that they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their experience, WHO HE IS.

SILENCE – your response

Noel Preston 13th January 2019

oOo

Confessions of a Saboteur and Subversive Agent of the Jesus Liberation Movement.

Today I have decided to confess that for the last sixty years I have been a covert subversive revolutionary for the outlawed organisation the Jesus Liberation Movement, (JLM). I was recruited to this organisation in 1956 at the tender age of 16 years with the promise that I would become a vital agent of change for this revolutionary body. The liberation movement was aimed not only at liberating people controlled by internal and external forces, but to insure that the Spirit of Jesus our founder was also liberated to be a continuing influence in the world and not controlled by any one person or body. So often we hear Christian church leaders and state and national politicians falsely claiming allegiance to the Spirit of Jesus by calling themselves Christian, but they are proclaiming their own message about Jesus rather than his message about living graciously with a commitment to social justice for all people. These leaders, by their actions and words have demonstrated that they are morally incoherent, because they are more concerned with gaining personal power than empowering others. It is their actions that belie their words. The true spirit of the Jesus message must be once again established in the community.

Prior to this decision, I had been oblivious that for many years, my mother, who persistently encouraged me to believe that the world in which I lived could be a better place, had subjected me to an initial grooming for this role. She had encouraged me to believe that all people should be afforded the opportunity to develop their full potential and that it was possible to establish a more socially just and financially equitable society. Further, she insisted that we could not leave these tasks to others, that we all had a responsibility to ensure these were not simply hollow words, but through our own endeavours we could make this a living reality.

I am now aware that even as a small child my thoughts and actions were being formed and even manipulated by my mother who encouraged me to look for the best in people and to do whatever I could to help them to achieve their full potential. She also encouraged me to read the subversive literature of Hugo, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. However, the impact of this indoctrination only became significant when at the age of sixteen, I came in contact with the JLM it was here that my mother’s grooming in my early years began to blossom.

It was explained to me at the time of my recruitment that the revolution to which I was being called, as mentioned earlier, had in fact been operating for nearly 2000 years and that many organisations such as national Governments and the Christian Church had attempted to destroy it. They had subtly pretended to adopt its principles whilst all the time undermining its authority by watering down its principles, beliefs and practice. The major task of the true revolutionary was to smuggle the influence of the JLM not only into the Christian Church and the administration of civil government activities but in fact into all aspects of living. I was given strict instructions to operate covertly, for fear that as soon as people realised what my true mission was they would pretend to support it with the prime purpose of emasculating its power.

It was made abundantly clear to me by my mentors at the time of my recruitment that my role was to be a covert one. I was to at all times remain under cover so that the real purpose of my orders could be carried out without detection. It was suggested that I should belong to the organised church as my cover and even to accept a full time working arrangement. It was also made abundantly clear that I should not allow myself to be seduced by the orthodox approach of the Christian Church, but that I should remain true to my commitment to the revolutionary arm of the JLM and all that it stands for. To maintain my true mission goals I needed to continue to remain in a covert operation so as to prevent these from being undermined.

My reason for coming in from the cold at this time is to reveal, in the life I have left to me, what my allegiance to the JLM has meant personally and why I have given my life to the task of smuggling Jesus into the Christian Church and into everyday living against all opposition. In the person of Jesus I have discovered a human being who has a faith and belief in the inherent goodness of common humanity, and who seeks to offer the opportunity for all people to be liberated from the fears and restrictions placed upon them by the structures of society and their own feelings of insecurity. Our founder, the sage, Jesus of Nazareth, had been quick to point out the dangers to civil liberties of a hierarchal religion and a power obsessed, brutal government.

My role over the years has undergone a process of refinement but the revolutionary zeal still remains. My mother’s encouragement to be an agent of change is I believe stronger today than at any other time in my life. I have tried to assist the people I meet to personally discern that they have the ability to reach a sense of wholeness of being, by recognising the power that resides within them, in much the same as did the founder of our revolutionary movement.
I was carefully taught that the best modus operandi was to alert people to the fact that the power to change was within them, in much the same way that the founder of our revolutionary movement had been able to effect change: this indwelling power he claims is connected by a spiritual force to the great energy of the universe. This energy becomes visible not only through the words and actions of people operating in normal everyday situations but often in a subversive way such as through humour, wit, sarcasm, or exaggeration. Many people who became influential in this movement are unaware that they had become instruments of the revolution. Some of the greatest exponents of liberation would not be able to raise to consciousness the reasons for their behaviour, which in no way demeans their efforts.

My coming out will not deter me from continuing my mission, as it has now become a vital part of who I am and what I have become.

Viva la Revolution.

John W H Smith
February 2018

oOo

The Future Spiritual Community

The Future Spiritual Community – John Wessel

22nd September 1932 – 29th December 2018

[Presented to the Gold Coast SoFia Conference, 2012]

Yesterday, Karen Armstrong spoke about the urgent world wide need to establish a Charter of Compassion. Today I intend to present a practical way that Future Spiritual Communities can become agents to make this Charter a reality. I want you to be courageous enough to-

IMAGINE – WE CAN CHANGE THE WORLD

Gretta Vosper in her book With or Without God says

“When we allow the progressive scholarship of the past century to challenge us to reconsider the foundations of our faith, we find ourselves left with an enormous task: constructing something viable to replace what we find to be no longer working”

We who have gathered have entered a process of walking with a group of people, however slowly, toward the future.

What I intend saying has a Christian perspective about it simply because Christianity is my spiritual home, I know no other. We each inherit our particular faith, along with our language and our culture so then that particular faith becomes ‘right’ for each of us. However, I believe what I have to say is also applicable to all religions because all future spiritual communities will have to take into account the modern social and cultural context in which they must work.

I believe that the church has not come to grips with, or has understood the effects that post-modern cultural change is having of the thinking of modern people. By clinging to the past we not only lose sight of the present but we fail to allow the future to be born.

Hugh Mackay – a well know social annalist has said – “the cultural shift is so radical that it amounts to the discovery of a new way of thinking…. a new kind of change is taking place in our society… we are at a turning point… these recent changes have affected Australia’s’ view of life and religious faith in a very profound and irreversible manner”

A whole new way of presenting the Christian story will have to be developed if it is to make sense to our modern world.

The traditional package we offer to this new world came out of a completely different culture and world view and is no longer adequate to deal with the challenge of this age. Religions have always been based on the human search for meaning. The central question for all religions is, “What do humans want?” In Christianity the traditional answer has been salvation from sin.

When we reply today to the question “What do humans want?” with the above answer, we find it is an answer that only a few are seeking and for the majority it has little meaning. Modern culture wants to find harmony and liberation; wants to find some wisdom for living in the here-and-now, in an otherwise religion- less world.

We are living through what may be the greatest time of change in Christian history. All institutions, political, secular and religious, are being questioned.

Bp. John Spong says: – I believe Christianity is in deep decline because it cannot bring itself to face the fact that the presuppositions on which our faith story was erected in the past are today no longer self-evidently true or even believable. We are living through a cataclysmic transition from the presuppositions by which we once lived – and have no idea how to tell our faith story in terms of the emerging world view for which our religion of yesterday has no relevance. So churches are dying. Church’ business as usual’ is a prescription not only for disaster, but for extinction”.

What have all the above statements been saying? They have clearly said that because of globalisation which had its birth following the Second World War and in the light of our now pluralistic world, along with many other issues, there is an urgent need for all religions to implement some radical change from within.

The spiritual community of the future must not be based upon what we believe so much as on how we live. It must be a pathway we walk, a journey we take, into the Divine Presence; a journey of connection with people, not just about ideas and dogma which too often divide. It must therefore proclaim a new concept and understanding of “Incarnation”…..What do I mean?

In his book “Eternal Life” John Spong says “ if we read John’s Gospel through a mystical lens we see that his story is not of a divine life invading the world, as we have been accustomed to reading it, but a portrayal of Jesus as a human being having a relationship with the holy – an inseparable unity. “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” What this means is that the time has come when we need to define humanity –®
as that in which the life of the Divine lives,– define
human love as that through which the Divine loves- and how in humanity
the being of the Divine is made manifest in the world.”

This means that the Divine is not met beyond life but at the very heart of life. Therefore the task of any future spiritual community becomes no longer that of clinging to creeds and doctrines that are based on a dated world-view that is bound by the idea of an external theistic deity: the task of such a community is to seek a humanity in which the divine is part of, and indeed, at the very heart of what it means to be fully human.

To walk in Jesus’ footstep is to be conscious of the indwelling of the Divine Presence in all people. This then will direct and influence the way we live,… how we relate to others,.. and to the world at large. Thus our presentation must teach and live the Way of Jesus – as follows.

First, Unconditional love is an important aspect for any New Community. Unconditional Love. Think about what ‘Unconditional’ means.

Then, if love matters in our personal lives, we must also find ways to give love expression in the public and political arena. That is, in the justice of political systems; systemic justice. Such love is grounded in the interconnectedness of all life

Secondly the New Story must break down all barriers that divide. Read the Gospels and you will clearly see that Jesus broke down so many of the religious and cultural barriers of his time- this was important for him, it must be important also for us. However, from the time the Creeds were formulated they have created division and barriers, both within the church itself and beyond.

Coupled with this, and part of the breaking down of barriers, any future spiritual community must eradicate prejudice in all its forms by the way all of its people think, speak and act.

And Inclusiveness is a keystone that needs to be central in any New Story. (e.g. The stories of the Good Samaritan, of Jesus eating with the tax collectors, his touching lepers, and his conversation with the woman at the well.) All are about inclusiveness.
If you think about it, for some to be “Chosen” means that there are others who are ‘unchosen’ (excluded). This can have no place in any future Spiritual Community.

Jesus early followers were known as followers of The Way. This Way was a way of life…. Jesus called his followers to interact with their world with peace, compassion, respect, tenderness, grace and justice.

Any New Story needs to stop concentrating on the after-life, on judgement and the rescue role of Jesus and face the spiritual and practical needs of this life. It needs to help all people find LIFE, life in all its fullness in the here-and-now. It will need to teach people “how” to live and NOT dwell on ‘what” to believe. It must encourage people to walk, every day, within the divine Presence.

Jesus followers felt that the Divine Presence was part of who Jesus was and now that same Spirit was calling them to give expression of its presence in their lives. Humanity was seen as the vessel in which the divine lives and loves. That is what has been lost and it is that which must be experienced anew in any future community.
The challenge that confronts all religions today is a practical one. It calls me, as a Christian, to actually live my understanding of what it means for me to follow the Way of Jesus. But, I cannot do this alone.

This brings me to my final point.

This Way of life that I have described was what Jesus meant when he spoke of The Kingdom of God. This phrase appears 140 times in the four Gospels. Thus, for Jesus, and the gospel writers, this phrase embodied a concept of primary and foundational importance and perhaps was the very core of his message to the world.
He had lived his whole life in bondage to an occupying, dominate power. Israel knew many dominate powers during its history. His followers would have clearly understood the difference between dominate kingdoms and that of Jesus’ “Kingdom of God.”

It involves giving who you are and all you have completely, wholly away to something greater than yourself. The Divine Presence is at work in each of us, in you and me and yet, there is also a cosmic reality about it that no longer rests on the narrow association with any one religion.

At a gathering in Brisbane where Lloyd Geering was the guest speaker I had the opportunity to ask him what his vision was for the future church. His reply was “The Kingdom of God”. I did not immediately understand what he meant until I read his book, “Christian Faith at the Crossroads”. In it he explained that the Old Testament and the Jewish faith did not look for salvation in another place called “heaven” which was beyond earth; it looked for the Kingdom of God to be established on Earth (when the Messiah would come.) Jesus would have known this, he was a Jew, a man of his time, so when he spoke about the Kingdom of God he was teaching and living an example of what the Kingdom will look like when we humans live in such a way as to make the Kingdom come, here on earth.

For 2000 years, because of the Gentile influence, we in the church have got it wrong. We have placed the emphasis in the wrong place. We have allowed the dualistic concept of natural and supernatural – of earth and heaven – to blur us from hearing what Jesus was saying to us.

He was pleading with us to actually live in such a way as to enable the Kingdom of God to be experienced here on earth. He saw that the Kingdom can be a present reality. It is not a future hope to be found elsewhere as was developed by later Gentiles.

The concept of the Kingdom of God is not clearly understood in modern Australia. We do not live under, nor have ever lived under, a dominate king, so to use words that capture Jesus concept and place them in a modern context, I want to alter Jesus’ wording, as suggested by John Dominic Crossan, and use in its place the phrase The Companionship of Empowerment.(R)
This means that together we are to empower each other to live Jesus dream for the human race.(R) .
As a companion, as a mate, we empower, we encourage each other to:-

Love unconditionally
To rid ourselves of prejudice
To dismantle all barriers that divide
To seek justice for all – both personal and systemic
To respect other people… and our planet Earth
And to live with compassion

Any future spiritual community needs to create an atmosphere, an expectation, a Companionship of Empowerment to ensure that ALL people whoever they are and wherever they live experience abundant life.

We stand today on the edge of a new, exciting journey;
a journey of unknown opportunities and perils;
a journey of yet unfulfilled hopes and dreams

The question is… have we the nerve and the will?

Our choice lies between continuing the spiritual decline that we see today, which is clothed in private comfort and security… and a spiritual greatness where the inner spirit breathes new life and new hope into the world.

You may ask, “Can I do this, can we do this?”
My answer is YES –YES – Why? – Because,

“The K of G is within you”®

All human life is part of who the Divine Mystery is and what it is, and this Mystery is part of who we are and what we are.

As a human being Jesus modelled this generosity; modelled, this new Way of living, which became the experience in others that gave birth to Christianity.(R)

This birth took place when his followers “saw” (realised), after the shock of the crucifixion had passed, that they too could model this Way of Jesus’, by giving who they were and all they had completely, wholly away to something greater than themselves.

Tim Costello recently said,

The Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed involved the transformation of our hearts and minds, our society, our politics and our economics.

If only, that insight into what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God, became today the motivating force and the Way of life within the modern Spiritual community, as it did with his disciples, Jesus’ dream for humanity would be fulfilled and that Future Spiritual Community would breath NEW LIFE into the world.

Such a community would be the place where we freely and openly reflect and process our life experiences with others, in such a way, that it encourages us all,
empowers us all, to become more compassionate, more loving human beings whose life’s goal is to seek justice for all and thus through whom the love of the Divine Presence becomes known.

I conclude by saying that any future Spiritual Community must seek a global ethic through which salvation is not found in… or confined to… any one set of theological doctrines, rather;

Salvation is to be found in people’s hearts; a salvation that is experienced daily and which governs the way we live and how we relate to all people by showing them respect, compassion and seeking justice.

I may be too idealistic but such a Community, I believe:-

Would indeed be “Good News” for our modern, confused and angry world.

So I invite you to go from this place and simply

ENJOY THE JOURNEY.

oOo

 

 

Genuine Hospitality

Hospitality as a Way of Life

When we say it is our responsibility to offer hospitality to the alien and stranger what exactly do we mean and in particular where does this impetus come from?

Firstly, as Australians our government has committed us to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights; which defines a refugee as:

“A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”?

Thus, by simply being an Australian we have a responsibility to ‘refugees’ regardless of our religious beliefs, because our country is a signatory to the “Convention relating to the status of Refugees”. If you like it is our civil responsibility.
When we say that it is our responsibility to offer “hospitality” what does this mean? A simple definition of the term hospitality is;

“The quality or disposition of receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm and friendly way.”

However, as we are people from a Judea/Christian heritage does this mean that more is being asked of us? In response to this question let us briefly turn to both the Old Testament and the New for assistance in understanding our responsibilities.

The Jewish instructions respecting strangers/aliens pervade all the writings of the OT from the history through to the Torah and the prophets. For example in Leviticus 19:34 we read:
“The stranger/alien who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you and you shall love him (them) as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.”

And in Deuteronomy 14:29 we read:
“The Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.”

In Job 31:32
“The Stranger/Alien has not lodged in the street. I have opened my doors to the traveler.”
The New Testament adds an even greater demand on us regarding the stranger/alien or person in need. The most appropriate translation of the English word ‘hospitality’ from the Greek word Philoxenia means a ‘love’ of the guest or stranger. Emphasising that it not just what we do, but how we personally regard the one in need. Our hospitality should be a way of life and an embrace of the other, rather than a simple response to someone in need.

Our response to people in need is perhaps best brought to our attention by the words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew 25:31ff.

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” v35

And when his disciples asked him, “when was this?”, he responded by saying:
“Truly I tell you as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” v 40

The charge then is this; we must treat all we meet as if they are a loved one and by responding with love we are responding to the Spirit of Jesus.

It is not only in the words of Jesus, it is also in his actions that we understand the importance of a personal response to others. For example Jesus practices “Open Commensality” or more simply open table; where everyone is invited to share the meal with equal status. The stranger is not simply tolerated, but respected and is welcome at the table.

If we follow the actions of Jesus then that we become in Dom Crossans’ terms, ‘companions in empowerment’ because as the story of Ruth illustrates it is through her steadfast loyalty that the offer of love and acceptance from Naomi is returned in even greater measure, when Ruth proclaims:
“Where you go I will go; where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God” v16

Ruth was an outsider she was a Moabite, or in today’s terms she was one of ‘them’, but Naomi needed her for the completeness of her character as much as Ruth needed Naomi for the fulfillment of hers.

Is it possible that we need the stranger more than they need us? As Henry Nouen in his book “Reaching Out” suggests, hospitality is about offering a safe space where the stranger can enter and become a friend. Hospitality is not designed to change people, but to offer a space where a relationship can take place.

So the challenge to us as people of faith is clear; genuine hospitality is a deeply personal commitment to love the stranger. It is not some act we perform, but something that defines the people we are by the way we share our lives.

Hospitality then is a way of living life and living it more abundantly by sharing not only what we have but, who we are.

John W H Smith
December 2018

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Embracing the Joy of New Discovery

Did you see the previous post? Westar Institute – a new video about its work. Westar is a lighthouse for exploration of Christianity for modern thinkers – but we can all take part in the exploration….

John Smith takes us into a reflection on the notion of looking at, and enjoying, what is new in our learning about Christianity – (as always your comments are welcome – at “Leave a reply”)

I am always fascinated by the verse in the second chapter of the gospel of Matthew where the writer is referring to the response of the wise men. He says that on seeing the star of Bethlehem they were, “Beside themselves with joy.” How often do we become so excited by a revelation or discovery that we are beside ourselves with joy? What is it that excites the blood and sends the pulse racing for us?

Finding new ways of exploring traditional Christianity has become for many an exciting and fulfilling journey. Particularly, for people who have become disenchanted with a dogmatic, fundamentalist Christianity that claims to be the only true pathway to God. Many of these explorers have left the traditional Churches, but are still searching for a spiritual meaning to their lives; these are the people Bishop Spong refers to as the ‘believers in exile.’ They are people who are seeking an answer to their spiritual thirst that is not quenched by the tradition of the earlier Christian church.

There are others who have stayed with the Christian Church, but who have made compromises between what they believe, how they worship and how they act in everyday life. Some will tell you that they are caught in the moral dilemma of mouthing the words of prayers, doctrines and creeds that their intelligence tells them cannot be right. They have become moral pretzels twisted in on themselves, so that there is no longer a beginning and an end. People caught in this web are trying to justify Christianity as the only pathway to God and boxing themselves into a corner, which cannot be defended. Some Clergy have even spoken about living in a schizophrenic state because they are being asked to perform duties that conflict with their personal integrity.

In 2005 I read a book by Jim Burklo called “Open Christianity – Home by Another Road”. Jim was a Presbyterian Minister from Sausalito in California and I met with him in October 2005 after attending a Conference in Santa Rosa. Jim’s book is about the dilemmas being experienced by many congregations in the United States. These dilemmas we have been facing for some years in Australia, dilemmas about how to be true to our faith whilst being constructively critical about our theology and our public and private worship.

Jim suggests in his book that, outdated theological concepts only tend to serve the separate identities of the various faiths and the only way forward is to accept that the Christian church’s organisational structures of the future will need to be different. He says, “… the church needs to break free from its triumphal mission of dominating the planet, putting magnificent sanctuaries in every neighborhood, enlisting lots of members and raising lots of money.” He argues for a church with greater flexibility, more of a movement without walls than an organisation with a more responsive and inclusive theology. Further, we need to accept that Jesus of Nazareth may be for us a gateway to God; but others will find other pathways.

There is no one form for the future church, no one size fits all, in fact there needs to be as many responses as there are needs. Jim particularly challenges the language of the church as in need of reform; he claims that we need to use the language of the day if we are to communicate with people outside the church. When Matthew claims that the tax collectors and the prostitutes will enter the kingdom of heaven before, and instead of the church elders, it is quite possible he is insinuating that we can learn more about God’s love and compassion from those outside the church. We can learn more from those considered to be the dregs of society, than the leaders of our faith community. Matthew also is alluding to the belief that the Jewish leaders of the day are hypocrites. Can these same accusations be leveled at us today?

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves the question, “If the church as we know it ceased to exist would God’s work continue?” What is it that the church adds to our understanding of the society that makes for a better world?

These are the questions that we must honestly face and wrestle with if we are to be followers of Jesus of Nazareth rather than Jesus the Christ. Is it possible that by looking outside the square of traditional Christianity that has in many ways restricted us; we just may find the true soul of God? How compelling to contemplate such a proposition, but also how challenging. Does the proposition of such an exploration quicken your pulse and speed your blood? Are you beside yourself with joy?

OR
Are you afraid of taking away something, which is comfortable and secure, even if it is intellectually untenable?

John W H Smith. December 2018

Note: Jim Burklo’s “Open Christianity” is an invitation to keep the faith but drop the dogma. Many Christian-heritage seekers struggle with conflicted yearning. They value much that the tradition offers. But the church door feels closed unless they accept beliefs at odds with logic and the truth of their hearts. “Open Christianity” maintains that yes, you can leave behind that which has ceased to make sense, and still be very Christian. Burklo’s discussion of complex topics such as “a theology of ‘enough’,” “soulful sexuality” and “the gospel truth” will be controversial–but enlightening. A product of the author’s work as a Stanford chaplain, a Protestant pastor, and an urban/street minister, this book encourages spiritual growth that won’t founder on efforts to believe the unbelievable. (Available from Amazon Australia).

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For the New Year – a positive view from George Stuart

With another new year approaching, we have looked for something encouraging, hopeful and good in humanity to launch our thinking about the future. From George Stuart‘s yet to be published book: Starting all over again…Yes? or No?

So what for me now?
I was very pleased the other day to receive an email which commenced with,

There is nothing in nature like the daily acts of kindness that characterise humanity. We are by far and away the most altruistic of all known species.

There was no identifying sender and no attribution of the quote given. However I thought, “I’m pleased that at least someone can say something good about humanity.”

Having done a lot of ‘faithful questioning’ with this fundamental, I wish to change the emphasis and remind myself of the following injunction as being an appropriate and wholesome attitude to life, even my life.

Finally brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8.)

I find it very sad that the mantra for the mass media seems to be,

Finally publishers, whatever is false, whatever is criminal, whatever is unjust, whatever is profane, whatever is vile, whatever is corrupt, if there is any scandal, if there is anything worthy of punishment, publish these things. They sell!

My belief is that humans are basically good but, of course, capable of wrong doing in the extreme. As I have previously asserted, God Within gives us all a positive divine dimension. God Within is exposed in a million places by millions of people in millions of unreported human encounters. These loving encounters are sometimes prompted in rebellion to the behaviour of the powerful, when they behave badly, irresponsibly or corruptly.

Many of the expressions of love and compassion occur quite spontaneously, especially in response to some particular and present human need. Recently my wife had a serious fall in a public carpark. When she fell, she chipped a front tooth and hurt one of her knees badly. She was crying and calling out for help. I have never seen her so distressed. Thankfully no bones were broken. Within a few seconds, literally, there were four strangers with us, all wanting to lend assistance. They were able to help and for that, we were very thankful. This example demonstrated to me what just about always happens when someone is in trouble like that. It is ordinary and probably that is why it never gets into the TV news. It’s not sensational. Thank goodness it’s ordinary. It happens all the time. Little people keep love alive.

Why do I think that humans are basically good? It is because I believe that God is inherent in all life, within in a way that human-beings can experience, appreciate and respond to. This God dimension, I suggest is not dependent on adherence to any particular set of creeds or beliefs, not especially evident in religious people, not the prior possession of any particular human group or culture, but universally inherent. Human goodness, the God dimension of humanity is exposed, expressed and seen whenever love and compassion are lived. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that humans are spontaneously good and concerned for one another. I believe it is the millions of little people who produce this evidence. Why are there so many voluntary organisations which depend totally on the good will, support and effort of ordinary people?

In his last essay, Steve Jobs, before he died, wrote,

There is a big difference between a human being and being human.(1)

He is using the word ‘human’ in a positive sense and I think he was affirming that goodness is at the basis of humanity. I agree. He is implying that to be ‘human’ is to be good.
I am certainly not saying that humans are in no need of forgiveness and reconciliation, but I am saying that this is not the whole story, as is suggested to me by the early Genesis stories and the hymns I am constantly requested to sing in church services. In my lyrics below, I suggest there is a praiseworthy side of humanity. So much spontaneous love and concern as well as premeditated love and concern is shown by human beings to other human beings with no thought of reward or even recognition. Many may not call their behaviour actions of love and concern, but that’s what they are. Recently I heard of a neighbour breaking a window of a house which was on fire, to rescue two elderly people trapped inside. After the fire was put out and the two elderly people were safe and well, someone said to the neighbour who had risked his own life, that he was a hero. His reply was, “Well that’s a bit ridiculous. Anyone else would have done the same.” This sort of comment is made so often by ordinary people. Little people keep love alive. This is my experience in life and my beliefs need to reflect it.

From my lyrics No. 9.
Humans Do Amazing Things
Tune: Ebenezer

When surrounded with adversity
Humans do amazing things.
When struck down by grim calamity
Humans do amazing things.
Strangers risk their lives to rescue;
Danger ignored; the trapped must be freed;
People are of priceless value;
All to help each one in need.

I was speaking to one of my friends the other day and asked her about what she was doing. She said she was putting a lot of her time into helping refugees, Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar who had settled in Australia. She said she helped with English language learning classes on a weekly basis and recently had bought and made available sewing machines to some of the women who wished to learn how to make their own clothes, etc. She said this latest exercise took a lot of time and effort from her, because all sewing machines are different and she had to learn how to use them before she could teach anyone else how to use them. I was surprised because I though sewing machines were just sewing machines. Even though she sometimes got worn out with the refugees’ many and varied requests for help, she said she loved it all. “Sometimes the children call me Mother.” I do not believe she told me all this to get praise from me but she told me just in answer to my questions. She was telling me about her life and activities. However, I felt inspired. What a wonderful way to spend one’s life. Little people keep love alive. In different words and from my theological background, I wish to say, “The kingdom of God is alive and well.” Are we all ‘utterly depraved from conception’?

From my lyrics No. 10.
The Beauty Within Us
Tune: To God be the Glory

The beauty within us – the impulse to care
Is God’s image planted, of which we are heir;
For friend and for stranger when need is severe
Our heart gives attention; our help is sincere.
When we heed others’ need
And no matter how small,
When we heed others’ need
We respond to God’s call;
With God deep within us, our spirit is bold;
The Christ is then present; his love we unfold.
I believe there is an innate goodness in human-beings. God Within shines so brightly if we decide to let it.

I have to ‘faithfully reject’ what I understand to be this fundamental of the orthodox Christianity’s emphasis I have been taught, regarding the sinfulness and unworthiness of humanity. I don’t have to ‘Start all over again’ but I have to modify and reconstruct considerably, this emphasis that I have been taught in the past by the church.

  1. Steve Jobs – The world’s six best doctors

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Celebrating the Banquet of Jesus

I remember vividly the most heated theological debate during my time in theological hall. It wasn’t about a doctrine or creed as such, it was whether a dying person had really received the ‘host’ at Holy Communion just before death. There were a number of student theologians present including Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Catholics.

The debate included a wide range of opinions such as if the person vomited immediately after taking the bread and wine can we honestly claim they had received the ‘last supper’. Or if they died within a few minutes of receiving Holy Communion had they actually participated in accepting the body and blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Many in the debate argued that if a person held the elements in their mouth for more than three minutes it was sufficient to claim that they had received the ‘host’. Others argued that they would have to digest the elements to the point that they had entered the blood stream before such a claim could be made.

During this animated discussion I was aware of an anger rising within me. I was mentally asking myself the question, “Have we lost our way? Here is a person dying and wanting to be comforted, the bread and wine are symbols only. Was it possible that our supportive presence at the bedside was really the Holy Communion, in that we were sharing the presence of the God we had found in Jesus whilst recognizing the divine spirit in the person seeking our offer of comfort and assurance? Is it in the sharing of intimate thoughts and feelings and particularly those, of a spiritual nature, that is in reality Holy Communion? Why would we want to waste precious moments in being concerned about whether someone had ingested the elements or not when the suffering person is seeking assurance that they are worthwhile, and they are surrounded by a powerful source of love.

There is general agreement amongst biblical scholars that eating together and sharing are central elements in the life of Jesus and his followers. The emphasis on his eating habits is so pronounced that in Matthew (11:19) we read that Jesus is labeled a ‘glutton and a drunkard’. There does not appear to be any evidence that Jesus himself initiated the ‘Eucharist’ or ‘Holy Communion’ and it is more likely that it was a practice established some time after his death.
There are four significant accounts of the tradition of the ‘Lord’s Supper’ in the New Testament, these being; Paul in 1st Corinthians 11: 23-26, Mark 14:22-25, Matthew 26: 26-29 and Luke 22: 15-20. We have an account also in John’s gospel (John 13: 1-15) of Jesus at supper with the disciples and it is interesting to note there are no special words or actions used. Hence, rather than one single format there is a multiplicity of supper styles.

What was Jesus attempting to convey in his emphasis on table etiquette? John Dominic Crossan writes that meals for Jesus were a practice of ‘Open Commensality’, or simply ‘Open Table’ (the term ‘mensa’ coming from the Latin meaning ‘table’). They are egalitarian in style and format in that all are welcome as pronounced in his Parable on the Great Dinner (Luke 14: 15-24).
Does our current practice of Holy Communion convey the message of Jesus or has it become some secret little ritual where the terms we use, such as ‘body’ and ‘blood’, are an anathema to many of our members and total confusion to outsiders. Like the theological student debate are we more concerned with ritual than conveying the message of Jesus, which is to accept all people and welcome them to share the table with us?

Table fellowship is not just eating and drinking together it is a sharing of ourselves, the giving of ourselves to each other in the spirit of love. In our current practice are we sharing the spirit of God in Jesus with each other in a concrete practical way?

In his excellent book “The God of Jesus” Stephen Patterson states that many Christians discover the spirit of Jesus more in the sharing of meals than in contemplating the execution of Jesus at the hands of the Roman Empire. The open table fellowship means being accepted for who you are and being forgiven for your human frailties which is a profound spiritual experience.

Therefore, is it time to give our current practice of Holy Communion the ‘Heave Ho’ and replace it with the ‘Celebratory all-inclusive banquet of Jesus’ where all are welcome?

In our Church liturgy is it time to give all of our rituals a contemporary overhaul instead of preserving traditional forms developed by an early church, but with little relevance to 21st century language and practice. The language we use in our liturgy is more suitable to the first century of Imperial Rome and the life of Caesar Augustus who was referred to as: Lord, Almighty, Saviour of the World, and Son of God than to the historical Jesus.

We should welcome people with a real sense of hospitality to the banqueting table, where all human beings are considered equal and all life forms are respected. It is here that we can enjoy the hospitality of the God that we have experienced in the life of Jesus. It is here that we can witness to the transforming influence of God’s spirit.
John W H Smith
December 2018

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The Humanity of Jesus

John Smith has provided us this reflection. John (bio below) is the author of Honest to GOod (see below). Comments are welcome at ‘Leave a reply’ (above).

I recently had a conversation with a friend who had just been to a retirement party. It was with some amusement that he told his story. Apparently he was enjoying some nibbles and a few drinks with friends from the office. He was happily chatting about old times when the formal part of the evening began. There was an impressive array of speakers waxing lyrical about the retiree. As my friend listened, he could not connect what was being said with the real flesh and blood person that he knew in reality. They were well into the speeches when he realized that the ‘saintly’, ‘wise’, ‘can do’ person that they were talking about was himself. So good were the compliments that for a brief moment he thought he had died and gone to heaven.

He became aware for the first time that all of the character traits that he disliked about himself were, in the eyes of others, noble strengths. Suddenly his ‘nitpicking’ became a special eye for detail and his ‘in-your-face’ aggression was, in reality a gentle confronting of people to look at themselves and to judge their own actions. His often used ‘cruel sarcasm’ to put people down were actually witticisms embedded in an unconventional wisdom. He wasn’t taking the ‘Mickey out of people’ he was helping them to be reflective and to gain insight into their own actions. His outbursts with people who made mistakes now became an expectation that the person could do so much better. It was an indication of his belief in the others potential and his commitment to excellence that were in evidence here.

The strangest thing about these comments was that the people making them were genuine and so he had to ask himself why is this. Were they afraid to tell him what a pain he had been and what they really thought of him? Were they so pleased to see him go from the firm that they didn’t mind lying about it?

Suddenly the penny began to drop, when the third speaker said through a flood of tears, that they loved him and wondered how they would cope at work without him and his support. Here was the answer; people somehow had come to love and care for him and truly only saw the best in him. Those who worked with him were able to honestly put a positive spin on all of his negative behaviours and to enlarge and make almost miraculous his many positive characteristics.

In a radio interview Professor Lloyd Geering comes to a similar conclusion about the gospel writer’s portrait of Jesus of Nazareth. He imagines that if Jesus had been listening to what they said about him he would not believe his ears. Jesus would probably have been like my friend and place his behaviour into a more human and realistic perspective. He most likely would have been appalled to hear that he considered himself the only avenue to God, when we know how inclusive his attitude to life was. Jesus being ‘the way, the truth and the life’ or the ‘light of the world’ or the ‘bread from heaven’ or the ‘Son of God’ was more a statement by the writer of John’s gospel than the actual words of Jesus. It is most likely that the interpretation of the so-called miracles would have been another source of irritation for Jesus; whether this was the miracles involving the control over nature or the feeding of the five thousand. The interpretation of the healing narratives and the formalizing of the Jesus movement into a church may not have met with Jesus earnest endorsement.

It is most likely that there were times when people did not understand Jesus’ humour, or his anger about injustice, or times when they misinterpreted his words and actions to justify their own behaviour.

We need to ask the question who is the real Jesus?

So why did people tell these stories about Jesus? Why did they embellish the stories about Jesus so as to make them almost impossible to believe? Was it to draw a connection between God and Jesus? Did the gospel writers want to establish evidence that Jesus was divine by attributing to him miraculous acts?

Or like my friend, did people tell stories of the larger-than-life Jesus because he meant so much to them. Did they embellish the stories because they loved him and wanted others to know how important he was? The stories of Jesus maybe possibly be a reflection of the regard that people had for him rather than factual details. However we interpret this it does indicate that this man from Nazareth had a profound impact on the people he met and developed relationships with.

We too can enter into a relationship with the authentic Jesus, but to do so it may require us to be more perceptive about human frailty than we currently are.

John W H Smith

Honest to GOoD is the story of a personal journey in search of spiritual wholeness with intellectual integrity. It is written in the hope that it will encourage others to explore the spiritual dimension of their lives and not be satisfied with easy answers or pronouncements by religious authorities, especially when they conflict with reason and personal experience. The writer asserts that we should recognise and affirm the presence of this spirit of the sacred energy, which he calls God, and which Jesus claims resides within and around all people in the ordinary events of life. Further, we should be prepared to follow its promptings, even if they confound conventional wisdom. Each spiritual journey is a unique experience in that each person must find his/her own religious voice – anything else is heretical. The God of Jesus is present and comes to visibility in our interpersonal relationships with others. The Jesus message that the reign of God is present is a most revolutionary one, because it challenges the Christian Church to reveal the presence of this sacred energy by affirming its visibility in every circumstance. This book is a message of hope because it affirms that the God Spirit is with us and is continually revealed in random acts of kindness and generosity.

The book retails at $25.00 plus postage and John has copies available should people wish to buy it.  Contact John Smith

John W H Smith. C.V.

Rev John Smith is a recently retired Uniting Church minister who was ordained in 1974 in the Methodist Connexion. John has had a varied ministry including, welfare management, chaplaincy and parish ministry. As a trained social worker with a Masters degree from Flinders University John is best known for his pioneering work with children, especially those in need of care and protection, including young offenders. His pioneering work in assisting adults who have intellectual disabilities to become accepted and recognised for their abilities, has received national recognition. John was a welfare service manager for 27 years.
He is a founding member of the Progressive Christian Network of Victoria and continues as a member on the state committee. He is also a founding member of Common Dreams Conferences and continues to serve on the national committee planning team.
He writes articles on the historical Jesus for faith communities and has co-edited with Rex Hunt on “Why Weren’t We Told? A handbook on progressive Christianity,” as well as “New Life Rediscovering Faith: Stories from progressive Christians”. His most recent book “Honest To GOoD Discerning the Sacred in the Secular” is the story of his personal journey in search of spiritual wholeness with intellectual integrity.

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CHRISTMAS… AN EXTREMELY DIFFICULT GIG TO CHRISTIANISE!

From Rev Rex Hunt

Christmas and Popular Culture.
I preached/gave this at a Unitarian Fellowship in Sydney last Sunday.

[Comments welcome at ‘Leave a reply’, above]

I’ll call him Merv. A young Sydney Anglican minister fighting Christmas crowds.
Looking for a special gift at one shop,
a toy another place, a card at still another.

Eventually he finds something he likes, or more importantly,
that he thinks someone else will like.

The salesperson wishes him a ‘Merry Christmas’ as she hands back his purchase and change.
Merv responds with a smile and a cheerful, “Have a materialistic Christmas.”

Apparently the saleswoman misses the sarcasm,
for she returns the smile before moving on to her next customer.

Pleased with his protest, Merv moves on, too.
Not only is he determined to avoid the frantic shopping crowds
that seem to grab everyone else in December,
he will make a statement as well.

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The Christmas that Australians celebrate today seems like a timeless weaving of
custom and feeling beyond the reach of ordinary history.
Yet the familiar mix of cards, carols, parties, presents, tree, and Santa
that have come to define December 25 is little more than 135 years old.

In 1788 when the First Fleet arrived from England, Governor Arthur Phillip not only established a penal colony he also won the land for ‘protestant’ Christianity. (Breward 1988:2)

According to some historians Phillip saw religion as a “useful package of warnings and admonitions that supplemented the cell, chains, the lash, the gallows, or the rewards and remissions for good conduct.” (Blainey 1987:429)

Hence christianity was in the main rejected by the convicts and only slightly embraced by the free settlers in latter years. Which has led others to conclude that in Australia, Christianity has always been rather a casual affair. And at best, the nation was only ever superficially christianised.

As an event in Australian society, Christmas in the early days of the colony held little importance. Unless Christmas Day fell on a Sunday a holiday was not declared. And the day was usually celebrated with a compulsory Anglican church parade or, if punishment had to be administered to a convict, perhaps a reduction in the sentence was ordered.

It would appear that on Christmas Day in 1788 a convict was arrested for stealing and,
because it was Christmas Day, had his sentence of 200 lashes reduced to 150.
At other times, a double share of rum and rations was offered.

It wasn’t until the mid- to late- 1800s that much of what we in Australia identify as ‘Christmas’ was really celebrated.

And this came about as the result of the influence of several events, primarily in England and America, including changes in technology, the development of the ‘penny post’ system, and
at least three samplings from within popular culture:
(i) an imaginative poem written by a protestant American minister of religion for his three daughters, called ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’;
(ii) some art sketches inspired by that poem, along with a series of commercial advertisements for an American soft drink manufacturer, and
(iii) a Christmas morality story published in England by Charles Dickens
originally called A Christmas Carol, in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.

Much later, when Christmas did begin to influence the social and religious life of the colony,
it was mostly through secular ‘nostalgia’ rather than religious leanings.

Old customs and symbols such as the tree and presents were yearned for, and the arrival of food stuffs and other items were eagerly awaited as ships from England docked in December.
These old traditions were never totally abandoned, but aspects of the festival were ‘Australianised’ and became increasingly nationalistic. Australian Christmas Card art competitions were held, with cash prizes. The small tree, aptly named ‘Christmas Bush’,
which was growing in great abundance around Sydney, became a popular substitute for the fir (Christmas) tree.

And while American artist Thomas Nast introduced a ‘winter’ Santa Claus to the world in the 1860s, some enterprising Australian artists a few years later, gave him a cooler ‘summer’ outfit,
complete with kangaroo driven sleigh.

It was a big transition to form a southern Christmas in peoples imaginations when for so long the Christmas imagery focused on the north with mid-winter snow on a fir tree and a log fire in the grate!

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