Tuesday, 8 November 2016

The Wesleyan Clinton and the Calvinist Trump

I've tended to say little on this blog about today's US Presidential election since the two candidates were determined.

It occurred to me today (while I was on my exercise bike this morning, in fact) that the key factor in the differences between the ideas of the two main candidates is actually their religious upbringing. 

This may sound odd at first, given that both the practicing Methodist Hillary Clinton and the nominally Presbyterian Donald Trump are associated with denominations which, in the United States and elsewhere in the western world, are seen as classical (and essentially interchangeable) expressions of middle-of-the-road Christianity.  In fact, in many countries, such as Canada and Australia, denominations exist which combine Methodist and Presbyterian components among others.  (I happen to be a minister in one of these denominations.)

However, there are some real differences (at least in the history of these denominations) in terms of their views about the nature of humanity.  This may give some idea about the ideas that motivate both candidates.  (From my own perspective, I grew up in a Methodist congregation, studied theology in a mostly Presbyterian setting, and am now a minister in a denomination in which Methodist and Presbyterian dimensions are present.)

Presbyterianism, from its founding in the 16th century by John Calvin in Geneva and John Knox in Scotland, had a strong sense of pessimism about human nature.  Calvin's theology says that our human nature is corrupt in its very being.  "Total depravity" is a typically Calvinist term about our human nature.  Churches following in the heritage of Calvin and Knox tend to have a pessimistic view of human nature.  According to Calvin, we are predestined by God to either good or evil, and most of us are predestined to evil.

Generally, politicians on the political "Right" tend to have a Calvinist view of human nature.  This is the case whether the individual politician is religiously a "Calvinist" or not, whether the politician is religiously a Christian or not, and whether the politician is personally religious (of any sort) or not.  Political conservatives tend to have a gloomy (Calvinist?) view of human nature, and tend to call their followers to vote for them according to a shared sense of (Calvinistic?) gloom.  This can well be the case with Mr. Trump.

Methodism, founded in the 18th century in England by the brothers John and Charles Wesley, took a different view.  The Wesleys rejected predestination.  They embraced the notion that human beings have free will, that we can choose good or evil. 

Methodism, following the Wesleys, has had a much more optimistic view of God than churches following in Calvin's theology.  Methodism has also had a much more optimistic view of humanity.  Methodists typically look for the best in people.  It's difficult to find a person of a Methodist background talking about the "total depravity" of humanity.  People of Methodist background are more likely to look for the virtues of others and celebrate them, rather than to denounce the transgressions of others.  The far more hope-filled language of Ms. Clinton may reflect her Methodist upbringing.
Inclusivity is also a Methodist characteristic.  Methodist churches (and churches such as mine with a strong Methodist influence) practice "open communion".  We don't turn people away from the Lord's table.   In the wider world, Methodists see it as a good thing when all our human communities are inclusive of people of all sorts and conditions.  Methodists typically like to build bridges, not walls.

In any event, I hope this reflection, which began on an exercise bike, may be useful to some of us as we contemplate the sources of the thinking of the two candidates, both the Wesleyan Clinton and the Calvinist Trump.

Reflections of a recently retired minister: a sermon

Over the past four-and-a-half years and the next two years, as I ease my way into retirement, there have been (and will be) a number of moments of transition.

Almost four-and-a-half years ago, in July of 2012, I concluded full-time ministry and we returned home to Tasmania and a series of overlapping part-time ministry gigs. I started to describe myself as “semi-retired” (and, occasionally, as “recycled”).
A year ago, I formally retired as far as the Uniting Church in Australia, the Australian Tax Office, and my super fund were concerned, but nothing really changed in terms of my working arrangements at that point. 

In about two years from now, I will reach that magic age of 65-and-a-half, when Centrelink considers me to be pensionable, and where there need be no “semi” at all in terms of my retirement. 

Today however, as I conclude my time of casual supply ministry here at Sorell (even as my hospital chaplaincy gig continues), this is the main occasion in which my process of retirement is marked liturgically. So it gives me an opportunity ... particularly given some difficult, painful, and courageous decisions recently made by this congregation ... to reflect from a pulpit on the life of the church in fairly broad strokes … at least without making too much of a bore of myself. 

Here goes.

Since well before the time of my ordination in late 1979, the continued decline of many mainstream churches has been a fact of life in most denominations.  


Many theories have been advanced for this decline. Some of these theories are mutually contradictory.

Some say that the decline of the churches has been because the leadership of the churches has been too conservative and too out-of-touch with the contemporary world. Others say the decline is because the leadership of the churches isn’t conservative enough (or, I suppose, out-of-touch enough).
Some say that the decline of the churches has been because worship in many congregations has been too traditional. Others say that the decline has been because worship in other congregations hasn’t been traditional enough.  
Some say that the decline of the churches has been because parents won’t expect their children to attend church. Others say that that the decline of the churches is because those who were forced to go church as children reacted by forcing their own kids not to go.
And in all these conflicting theories and assumptions, there are a few grains of truth and a few grains of falsehood.
Can I offer a few theories of my own as to the reasons for the seeming decline of so many churches in recent decades?
1. My first theory is that the time in history we use as a comparison to our own was a time of artificially inflated church attendance: the twenty years following the end of the Second World War. The period from 1945 to 1965 was a period in most English-speaking countries when a lot of people went to church, far more than was normal in previous decades. The decline we’re experiencing now is actually much closer to the normal levels of church participation in, say, the 1890s or 1920s. By comparing ourselves now to churches in the post-war years, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.
2. My second theory is that the religious “pie” is divided up into more slices now than it was in the post-war years. In a sizable Australian country town 60 years ago, there may have been between four to seven churches: C of E, RC, Methodist, Presbyterian (particularly in Victoria), perhaps Baptist, perhaps the Sallies, Brethren in Tasmania (particularly in the North and North-West), Lutheran if you were in South Australia or Queensland, and that was it. Double that number of congregations today. With a smaller percentage of the population going to church in the first place, more congregations make the sense of decline even greater.
3. My third theory is that people who used to go to church for non-religious reasons have stopped going to church. My worship professor at Princeton once told us to remember that some of the people we’d be preaching to would be agnostics. He was a bit behind-the-time when he said this in 1975, but there was a time in the post-war years when a number of agnostics went to church. It was how people demonstrated that they were positive, respectable, civic-minded members of the community. You get involved in a local church of some respectable denomination (even if you didn’t really believe much of it). However, by the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it was no longer necessary to go to church to show you were a “solid citizen”, and this showed in the decline in attendance.
4. My fourth theory is that the churches haven’t told their story of recent years very well.
  • Many of our neighbours haven’t picked up the little fact of the ecumenical movement, for example. There was a time – in many of our lifetimes - when many Christians were very bigoted toward other Christians. For those of us who are regular worshippers, this is a thing of the past. For many who are not regular worshippers, this little bit of news hasn’t quite registered.
  • Similarly, our attitudes as Christians has changed for the better toward people of other living faiths – Jews, Muslims, and others. You get a few weirdos who try to whip up some religious bigotry in the community, but these mostly are people who don’t hang out in churches much.
  • Most churches are much more welcoming now than we were a few decades ago to single parents, unmarried couples, divorced people, or same-gender couples.
  • Most churches have made their peace with science.
  • Most churches have largely given up the idea that God will send people to be fuel for an eternal BBQ merely for getting their theology wrong.
  • Et cetera … et cetera.
All of this is old news to most of us, but it’s not old news to many of our neighbours. This may be something they’ve never heard. It may be part of the reason why we don’t see them in worship. 
5. And then there’s a fifth theory of mine, one that applies more to the Uniting Church and to similar churches elsewhere.
For churches like ours, a big aspect to our decline is because of the strong emphasis on teaching and learning that dominates our gatherings for worship, regardless of a particular congregation’s theological emphasis, worship style, or size; and regardless of whether the “teaching-learning” component takes the form of a traditional sermon or some other form. 
I believe that, if a person turns up at a worship service, the main reason is not that the person wants to learn information about religion. Seriously, there are many other– far better – ways to learn information about religion than turning up at a worship service. 
A person who attends worship – whether regularly or occasionally – does so to encounter and to experience the God whom the congregation worships, not merely to learn information about religion. 
  • That’s why I believe all congregations need to celebrate Holy Communion far more frequently than many of us do. 
  • That’s why I believe we need to have far more silence as part of our worship, and particularly as we gather for our worship, than many of us do. 
  • That’s why I’m frequently tempted, whenever someone greets me after church with “Nice sermon”, to ask “And what was wrong with the rest of the service?” 
For our Uniting Church – and for similar churches overseas – I believe much of our current malaise as a denomination is based - at least in part - on our teaching-learning worship style.
  • It leads some people to assume “If I disagree with what I hear in worship here, I’d better shop around for another congregation – or even for another denomination – where the preacher agrees with me.” 
  • It leads other people to assume “I’ve heard all this before. Last Sunday had to be at least the eighth time, I’ve heard someone preach on the Good Samaritan. Perhaps I’ve learned everything this church can teach me. Perhaps it’s time for me to graduate from church and do something else with my Sunday mornings.” 
And both the “church-shopper” and the “church graduate” are results of our strongly “teaching-learning” style of church life. 
Despite our current malaise as a church, I am strongly committed to the ongoing life of the Uniting Church.
  • I celebrate the fact that the vast majority of UCA congregations – including every one I’ve ever served - maintains an “open table” at Holy Communion.
  • I celebrate the UCA’s commitment to women serving in every ministry of the church.
  • I celebrate the UCA’s inclusion of people of all sexualities in our church’s life.
  • I celebrate the UCA’s commitment to its ecumenical and interfaith relations, and to its covenantal relationship with indigenous people.
If, in all this, I’m also observed to be a Uniting Church minister who is frequently found in Anglican, Catholic, or Quaker pews, please regard this behaviour as part of the spiritual dimension of the self-care in which the Uniting Church’s Code of Ethics asks all of our ministers – active and "recycled" – to engage.   For my own spirituality to be healthy, I sometimes need to experience worship with a more obvious sense of God's presence than is sometimes found in some of our UCA congregations.  If this makes you uncomfortable, please note that this is not my intention.   
Even in the midst of the decline experienced by many churches, the Table around which we gather is still our source of hope.
  • Even as the churches experience dwindling numbers, the risen Christ still greets us at the Table.   
  • Even as the churches experience dwindling prestige, the crucified Christ still offers us himself in the bread and the wine.  
  • Even as the churches experience dwindling influence, the incarnate Christ still becomes one with us as food and as drink.
Thanks be to God, the Trinity of Love. Amen.


Friday, 4 November 2016

Book review: Sympathy for Jonah

David Benjamin Blower, Sympathy for Jonah: Reflections on Humiliation, Terror, and the Politics of Enemy-Love, Eugene OR (USA):  Resource Publications, 2016.

David Blower’s brief (60 pages) study of the Book of Jonah challenges the main foundation of most popular interpretations of this book, i.e., Jonah was a bigot whose exaggerated hatred for the people of Nineveh led him to “run away” from God’s call to preach to the people of Nineveh.  Not only did Jonah seek to evade God’s call, he did so via the ridiculous action of getting on a ship going as far away in the opposite direction from Nineveh as possible.  Speaking personally, I have promoted this popular interpretation of Jonah over the years in preaching sermons, leading Bible studies, and conducting retreats. 

However, Blower sees a serious flaw in this interpretation.  He feels it can lead (particularly in the hands of an interpreter who is hostile to Jews and Judaism) to the false notion that Jonah’s bigotry is somehow characteristically Jewish.  This can then lead to an artificial (and frequently antisemitic) contrast between “Jewish exclusivism” and “Christian universalism”. 

Blower works from a radically different starting-point than the popular view of “Jonah-as-Bigot”.  His starting point is that Jonah’s loathing for Nineveh was well-grounded in reality.  The Assyrian Empire, of which Nineveh was the capital, was a particularly cruel empire in terms of its treatment of its enemies and its conquered peoples.  Blower compared Jonah’s eventual preaching in Nineveh to that of a person standing up in the midst of an ISIS stronghold or a Nazi rally to proclaim an alternate viewpoint to that of the prevailing ideology.  Jonah’s initial wish to avoid going to Nineveh need not have been a sign of bigotry.  It was merely a sign of an intelligent desire for self-preservation. 

Jonah’s eventual decision to proclaim God’s message in Nineveh, leading to the surprising repentance of the Ninevites, stands at the heart of the Book of Jonah.  God is able to radically transform even the most destructive realities found in our world.  This, according to Blower, is the subversive message of the Book of Jonah.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Book review: "Who gave you permission?"

Manny Waks and Michael Visontay, Who gave you permission?:  the memoir of a child sexual-abuse survivor who fought back.  Melbourne:  Scribe Publications, 2016.

Reviewed by Bob Faser

This book is concerned with child sexual abuse within a faith community.  It’s a true story, written by a survivor of abuse.  As a rare account of abuse written by a survivor, this is a particularly valuable resource.

While Manny Waks’s story is set within the particular context of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Melbourne, it is relevant to anyone with a concern for justice for those who have experienced child sexual abuse. 

This book tells of how the author was sexually abused as a child, with the abuse taking place by people respected and trusted by his family and, at times, within sacred spaces. 

It tells of the negative impact this abuse had on the author during his adolescence and young adulthood. 

It tells of the author’s decision as an adult to go public with his complaints against his two abusers, of the implications of this decision as felt both by him and by his family, and of his on-going quest for justice, both for himself and for other survivors and victims of child sexual abuse.

Three themes stand out at the end of Manny’s book. 

The first theme is that, well into adulthood, the abuse experienced by Manny (both by his sexual abusers and by those who pressured him to remain silent about the abuse) is still deeply traumatic, both for Manny and for his family.

The second theme is the fact that this abuse – and the cover-up – took place in a religious context has led to a deep loss of faith for Manny.  This is a common theme for many survivors of child sexual abuse in faith communities.

The third theme is that … even in the midst of the trauma, … even in the midst of the loss of faith, … even in the midst of his on-going struggle for justice for himself and for others, Manny still exhibits a profound generosity of spirit toward all concerned:  a generosity of spirit which I find seriously impressive.

If you read only one Australian non-fiction book in the next few months, read this one.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Some thoughts on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)

I'm not preaching this week, but here are some of my random thoughts on Sunday's gospel lesson.

First of all, let's not confuse the "Lazarus" in this parable with the "Lazarus" who appears as the brother of Mary and Martha in John's gospel.  The pool of possible names that people were given in that time was somewhat limited.  Just as the gospels give us multiple Marys, Johns, and Jameses, so also are there two Lazaruses in the gospels.

Secondly, the fact that the rich man was anonymous while Lazarus was named was significant, in my opinion.  (In some traditions, the rich man was called "Dives", but that was only because of the word for "rich man" used by Jerome in his Latin translation of the scriptures.)  For many people, the anonymity of the rich man and the naming of Lazarus would have been a reversal of what usually happened.  ("Wasn't that a great party as Dives's place last night?  Too bad he has to cope with that homeless bum hanging around at his gate!")  In God's viewpoint, the poor and the marginalised are always regarded with dignity, including the dignity of a name.

Thirdly, playing around with "Dives" as a name for a moment, and realising the Latin nature of the name, there were these two men somewhere in Galilee:  the rich man and friend of the Empire with his Latin name and the poor beggar with a definitely Hebrew name.  If we were telling this story elsewhere, could we do something similar?
  • An Anglo Dives and an Hispanic Lazarus in El Paso?
  • Jock MacDives and Paddy O'Lazarus in Belfast?
  • An Anglo Dives and an indigenous Lazarus in many Australian country towns?
Fourthly, this parable is the only time in Jesus's teaching where he speaks of an individual as being in "hell" (or "hades", to be precise).  Now, those who know me know that "hell" is not a major theme of my theology and that I have serious doubts about much of what conservative Christians (and, particularly, conservative "Protestants") say about "hell".  An interesting thing here is that the rich man's fate doesn't seem to be about any of the things that many conservative Christians seem to think are reasons to consign someone to "hell".
  • It doesn't seem that he got his theology wrong.
  • It doesn't seem that he approached his faith with an insufficient level of emotional fervour.
  • It doesn't even seem that he engaged in any outrageous sexual shenanigans.
It merely seemed to be the result of his lack of concern and his passive cruelty toward the poverty and suffering which presented themselves to him.  Perhaps, paradoxically, the source of the rich man's damnation was just not giving a damn.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

A Faith that can sing the Blues: a sermon (Luke 15:1-10)

A number of years ago, a reporter from The New York Times went to Mississippi to write an article about how, in the words of his article’s title:  “The Blues is dying in the place where it was born.”  In the article, the reporter made the point that it was “the very authenticity of the Blues that endangers it.” 

For the article the reporter interviewed a number of Blues musicians, including an elderly, African-American guitarist named CeDell Davis. This old-time bluesman defended the integrity of the Blues in contrast to more recent forms of popular music, especially one musical form that he particularly despised:  hip-hop.
CeDell Davis said: 

"The Blues is about people, and as long as there's people, there will be Blues.  The Blues tells a story.  Hip-hop don't tell no story.  It don't tell no story about women, men, trains, buses, cars, birds, alleys, stores.  The Blues is about things."

·        “The Blues is about people.”

·        “The Blues tells a story.”

·        “The Blues is about things.”

The Blues, then, is a lot like our Christian faith. 

·        Our faith is about people. 

·        Our faith tells a story. 

·        And our faith is “about things”. 

I believe we have an opportunity offered to us by Christ to develop a faith that can sing the Blues.  This is an opportunity we should not miss, because the alternative is a faith that is mere “hip-hop.”  (And there really is a lot of “hip-hop” religion in our world today.)

1.       “The Blues is about people.”  Our faith is also about people.

In the gospels, Jesus acted with compassion in the face of human need: disease, poverty, fear, hunger, grief.  In his encounters with people, Jesus always sought to address the real needs of real people.

At its best, the Christian faith always seeks to address the real concerns of real people.  Christianity takes very seriously issues of

·        the relationship between couples,

·        the relationships between parents and children,

·        illness,

·        fear, violence, and our response to both,

·        dying,

·        bereavement. 

Our faith seeks to address these concerns with sensitivity and with the love of Christ.

·        A faith that can sing the Blues seeks to show support to people in the times of life’s crises. 

·        A faith that can sing the Blues rejects the temptation to promote guilt in other people or to manipulate people’s emotions.

“The Blues is about people.”  So is our faith.  A faith that is not about people is just so much “hip-hop”.
2.       “The Blues tells a story.”  Our faith also tells a story.

In the gospels, we see Jesus as a master storyteller.  Most of Jesus’ teaching took place as parables - as stories.  Jesus’ stories have become a major part of our culture.  Even for people who are not of Christian faith, phrases like “Good Samaritan” or “Prodigal Son” are still part of the culture and the language.

As well, we find this sense of story more broadly in our faith.  We are part of the story of the people of God:

·        from the Hebrew Scriptures,

·        through the New Testament,

·        through the history of the Christian Church,

·        to centuries upon centuries after us,

we are part of the ongoing story of the people of God.

There’s a theological word for this sense of being part of the broader story of faith: “tradition”.  Now, the word “tradition” is too often treated as a dirty word in many churches.  But in its most basic sense, the word “tradition” is about this idea that we are part of the broad story of the life of God’s people.

·        A faith that can sing the Blues gives us a story of which to be a part.

·        A faith that can sing the Blues does not leave us needing to reinvent the wheel every day in our life as God’s people. 

“The Blues tells a story.”  So does our faith.  A faith that does not tell a story is just so much “hip-hop”.
3.       “The Blues is about things.”  Our faith is also “about things”.

The scriptures frequently show how the ordinary things of life can make profound points about God and about our lives:

·        In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus spoke of the persistent nature of God’s love by using images of a woman looking for a lost coin and a shepherd seeking a lost sheep.

·        In last week’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, Jeremiah watched a potter at work, correcting his mistakes as he went along, and used it as an image of how God calls all people of faith to renew their lives.

·        In last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus spoke of a builder planning a project intelligently, and used this image to encourage us all to give good attention to our own priorities in life.

·        In next week’s gospel lesson, Jesus told a story about the wheeling and dealing of a dishonest manager and used this story to motivate people of faith – and other people of good will - to expend least as much energy in doing good as the villains of this world expend in doing bad.

Our faith is “about things”.

In our Christian faith, the most sacred moments involve ordinary substances: 

·        the water in which we wash;

·        the bread that keeps our bodies alive;

·        the wine that, for many of us, transforms our eating into dining.

In our faith, ordinary substances are regularly given a sacred meaning.  Our faith is “about things”

Our faith calls us to get involved in the ordinary stuff of life:

·        in the struggle for justice, peace, and human dignity;

·        in living lives of integrity and humanity within the wider community.

Our faith is “about things”.

·        A faith that can sing the Blues sees the presence of God in ordinary things. 

·        A  faith that can sing the Blues never makes us so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good.

“The Blues is about things.”  So is our faith.  A faith that is not “about things” is just so much “hip-hop”.

"The Blues is about people, and as long as there's people, there will be Blues.  The Blues tells a story.  Hip-hop don't tell no story.  It don't tell no story about women, men, trains, buses, cars, birds, alleys, stores.  The Blues is about things."

·        “The Blues is about people.”  Christ reminds us that our faith is about people.  A faith that is not about people is just so much “hip-hop”.

·        “The Blues tells a story.”  Christ reminds us that our faith tells a story.  A faith that does not tell a story is just so much “hip-hop”.

·        “The Blues is about things.”  Christ reminds us that our faith is “about things”.  A faith that is not “about things” is just so much “hip-hop”.

Christ calls us and enables us, I believe, to develop a faith that can sing the Blues.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Book review: Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many

Geoff Thompson, Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many:  theology provoked by the Basis of Union, Northcote:  Uniting Academic Press, 2016.

Since 1977, there have been numerous studies of the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia (introductions, commentaries, histories, etc.).  Nevertheless, this recent volume by Dr. Geoff Thompson (Co-ordinator of Studies in Systematic Theology, Pilgrim Theological College) breaks new ground.

At the beginning of this book, Thompson indicates that the intentions of those who framed the Basis of Union was not to cobble together a church structure that could accommodate three denominational traditions, along with a variety of different emphases of belief and practice.  Rather, in the words of the first report of the Joint Commission on Church Union, The Faith of the Church, the task of the Basis of Union would be no less than “a fresh confession of the faith of the Church”, with the knowledge that such fresh confession would “disturb much and disturb many”.  (p. 1)

This book is an exploration of the ways in which such a “fresh confession of the faith of the Church” would impact on the issues confronting the UCA today, including relationships with indigenous Australians (both inside and outside the church) and the inclusion of LGBT Christians within the church.  I felt the chapter on theological relativism is particularly useful.  I personally cheered when I read Thompson’s call for the UCA to formally affirm the existing practice of most UCA congregations to celebrate Holy Communion with an “open table” (p. 113).

I’m sure that, like the Basis of Union itself, Thompson’s study will “disturb many”.

If you cannot deal with a church which affirms critical biblical scholarship and which welcomes the ministry of LGBT people, be prepared to be disturbed.

If you believe such historic Christian affirmations as the Incarnation and the Trinity are artifacts of the past rather than a source of liberating possibilities in the present and the future, be prepared to be disturbed.

If you believe that the UCA (like Ms. Mary Poppins) is already “practically perfect in every way” (particularly in your own congregation) rather than a work in progress, be prepared to be disturbed.

In any event, enjoy the disturbance.
(This review first appeared in the September 2016 issue of Crosslight.)