Sunday, 26 March 2017

Compassion and "the little grey cells": a sermon for Mothering Sunday (John 9:1-41)

There are many paths down which a person in a pulpit could walk today on this fourth Sunday in Lent.

I could pick up the theme of Refreshment Sunday, one of the traditional names of this day.  It’s a mid-way point during Lent, and a day when Lenten disciplines are relaxed at least a little bit.  The message of this is that being kind to ourselves is also an important part of the life of faith.  We need to make it very clear, both to others and (more importantly) to ourselves that the life of faith should never be a life of masochism.

Picking up another traditional name for this day, there’s Mothering Sunday, with a wealth of possibilities.

  • One possibility is to pay tribute to all who’ve exercised maternal (or at least maternal-like) compassion in their lives:  mothers, stepmothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, mothers-in-law, stepmothers, aunts, teachers, child care workers, pet carers, and so on.

  • Another possibility is to express compassion to those mourning the deaths of their mothers, whether the grief is recent or long-standing.

  • Compassion can also be expressed to those whose memories of either parent – or their memories of both parents – are not happy memories:  people with memories of their parents dominated by abuse, cruelty, neglect, absence, unreliability, or of merely growing up in an environment in which every day was expected to be Mothers’ Day, or Fathers’ Day, or both.

  • Another theme is how churches can be creatively countercultural.  In countries that celebrate Mothers’ Day on its North American date in May, if a church celebrates Mothering Sunday during Lent, there’s at least an implied critique of all the commercialised humbug that now surrounds Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day.

  • Another aspect of Mothering Sunday is a social justice one.  There was always a strong theme of child welfare and youth welfare running through the observance of Mothering Sunday in the British Isles, particularly with a concern for the well-being of young people who lived away from home because of work commitments. Similarly, in the early development of Mothers’ Day in North America, an important theme was the notion of the mothers of the world taking united action to promote peace.  (And, in the US, it was originally called “Mothers’ Day for Peace”.)

  • And, if the person in the pulpit wants to be really radical, there is a whole range of maternal metaphors for God within the scriptures that can be explored.  Particularly in the book of Isaiah, there are images of God as giving birth to humanity, and of God breast-feeding humanity.  These are not the predominant images of God in the scriptures, but they’re there, and we need to hear them.

And, moving away from Mothering Sunday, there’s our scripture readings as listed in the three-year lectionary.   The gospel lesson for this day is the incident of Jesus healing a man who was born blind, and doing so on the Sabbath.

While Jesus’ reaction to the blind man was described as immediate, he still needed to weigh up a whole range of concerns in the process:

  • There was Jesus’ profound compassion toward human suffering, a compassion that said “Heal this person now!  (Do not pass GO.  Do not collect …)”

  • There was also Jesus’ profound respect for, and love of, the Torah and traditions of the Jewish people, a respect and love that may have been saying to him “Heal him, but why not wait until the moment the Sabbath is over.”

  • There was also possibly a concern for the well-being of the disciples.  Were they ready … really ready … to face the opposition of the ultraconservative elements in the community, ultraconservative elements sadly found in every faith community? … Could the disciples cope with the wrath of the “Moral Majority” or the spite of the “Religious Right”?

Jesus had to weigh up all these concerns.  He needed to do so quickly.  He used what Hercule Poirot liked to call “the little grey cells”.  And I believe that Jesus calls us to use our “little grey cells” as part of the life of faith.

And Jesus came firmly down on the side of compassion.  And he calls us to do the same thing.  Jesus calls us to a consistent compassion in each aspect of our lives, even if our “little grey cells” may be telling us to fudge the compassion a bit.

And I believe there is a two-fold message in this lesson:

  • Let us use our “little grey cells” in the life of faith.

  • Always, always, come down firmly on the side of compassion.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

“Now we are Forty.” … or is that “Now we are Five-Hundred”? (First draft)

“Now we are Forty.” …
or is that “Now we are Five-Hundred”?
Some thoughts on the anniversaries in 2017 of the inauguration of the Uniting Church in Australia and of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Anniversaries, particularly anniversaries ending with a zero (and most particularly those ending with multiple zeros), are often occasions both for looking back and for looking forward.  With most such anniversaries, whether the looking forward is useful or not is often determined by the extent to which the looking back is dominated by uncritical self-celebration, merciless self-flaggelation, or sober self-assessment.

In any event, it is an interesting coincidence that this year of 2017 sees both the fortieth anniversary of the inauguration of the Uniting Church in Australia (22nd June 1977) and the five-hundredth anniversary of the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Luther posting his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg (30th October 1517).

For any of us in denominations that see Luther’s act as a part of our heritage, and particularly for those of us within the particular community of the Uniting Church in Australia, this year can be a useful occasion of sober self-assessment.

The heritage of the Reformation

For all of us who are heirs of the Reformation, there are many gifts that this sixteenth-century movement has given to the whole Christian faith.  Most prominent among these gifts, in my mind, are the following affirmations:

·        Our relationship with God is firmly grounded in God’s grace and mercy, not in any attempt on our own part to “earn” a relationship with God.

·        The life of Christian faith must involve an encounter and an active interaction with the Scriptures, both the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures.

·        Solid, critical scholarship (biblical scholarship, theological scholarship, historical scholarship, ethical scholarship) is a healthy and essential element of the life of the Christian community.

·        Lay Christians are active participants in the ministry and mission of the Christian Church, not merely passive recipients of ministry.

Five hundred years following the beginning of the Reformation, these affirmations (while characteristic of the Reformation) are not exclusively Protestant concerns.  These are affirmation which, in my observation, are made as enthusiastically by Christians within Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglo-Catholic contexts as they are by those within Protestant contexts (and, in some cases, even more so).

Nevertheless, I believe the situation is changing.  Two phrases I use frequently in this context involve:

·        the necessity of all Christians today to do their faith with “a Catholic heart and a Protestant mind”, and

·        the need for those of us in churches which reflect the heritage of the Reformation to move into a “post-Protestant” stage in our life together.

This paper is an attempt to encourage the development of a “post-Protestant” faith within the UCA, and one that clearly operates with “a Catholic heart and a Protestant mind”.

Has Protestantism passed its “use-by date”?

I strongly suspect that, on its own, the Protestant movement within the Christian Church has reached its “use-by” date, like a can of antique peaches in a supermarket.  Just as Communism had “Use by 1989” on its “label”, and just as Market Capitalism had a “label” saying it was “best by” either 2008, 1987, or 1929 (depending on the economists and historians to whom one listens), so also the Protestant movement within Christianity reached its “use-by date” sometime during the past few decades.

It all has to do with our cerebral style of worship.  Most mainstream Protestant churches have a style of worship in which the dominant elements of the service are teaching and learning.  This is the case whether:

·        the teaching and learning takes the form of a traditional sermon or some other form,

·        the style of music and liturgy is “traditional” or “contemporary”,

·        the theology expressed in the worship service is “conservative evangelical”, “liberal / progressive”, “neo-orthodox”, or something in the middle of these three extremes.

In each case, there is the goal (spoken or unspoken) that all worshippers present will learn something about their faith as a result of attending worship.

During our lifetimes, a cultural shift took place in terms of attendance at public worship.  It was no longer seen as necessary for a person to attend a church or synagogue to be regarded as a positive and respectable member of the community.  People no longer felt a need to have an affiliation with a local congregation for a range of non-religious reasons.

When I was a theological student, our lecturer in preaching reminded us never to assume that everyone in the congregation was a believing Christian, and that (particularly in the middle-class congregations most of us would be serving) there would be a significant number of agnostics in the congregation, attending worship for a range of cultural, but non-religious, reasons.  That comment may have reflected the time in the 1950s during which our lecturer was a parish minister himself, but even by the time he made these comments to us in 1975 (let alone by now), most agnostics had already stopped attending worship services.

In all this, our teaching-learning style of worship is based on the assumption that people attend worship services at least partly to learn information about religion.  This is no longer the case, if it ever was.  People living today now have a range of ways (both face-to-face and, increasingly, online) to learn all sorts of information (admittedly, of a wide range of quality) about religion. 

I believe that people today who attend worship services, either regularly or occasionally, do so because they wish to encounter the God worshipped by the community gathered for worship.  In practice, I believe this means that congregations whose service of worship is focused on teaching and learning, and in which the focus is on speaking about God rather than relating with God, may not be the communities of faith that most meet the needs of our wider communities.

What does this mean for the Uniting Church in Australia today?

The UCA’s decline is not a result of Union.

First of all, I want to say that I do not believe that the decline in membership which many congregations of the UCA have experienced in recent decades is the result of the Union that took place in 1977.  This decline is part of being a teaching-and-learning-oriented Protestant denomination in our time of history.  Overseas denominations of similar traditions, but which have not experienced a recent union, have still seen similar declines in membership to that experienced by the UCA.  I believe that, had Union not happened, the UCA’s three parent churches would now be in a similar state of numerical decline as the UCA is now in, or possibly (as I suspect) worse.

There is much to celebrate about the UCA.

Secondly – despite the decline and the malaise we’re currently experiencing as a church – there is much we can celebrate about the life and ministry of the Uniting Church in Australia.

·        We maintain a diverse network of services meeting human need across Australia, through a variety of agencies, including services offered in some of the nation’s most remote areas.

·        We actively stand alongside many of our nation’s most vulnerable communities, including indigenous people, immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

·        We strongly affirm the ministry of women in every one of our church’s ministries, both lay and ordained.

·        An increasing number of our congregations have committed themselves to be safe places and to be places of welcome for LGBT people.  As a denomination, we are at least open to ministry by LGBT people (with that openness being more of a fact in some places than others).

·        Almost every one of our church’s congregations has a policy of an “open table” at Holy Communion.

·        Across the nation, our local congregations provide effective communities of pastoral care and mutual support both to their members and to people in the congregations’ wider community networks.

There is much we can celebrate about what God is doing in our church.

Our communities need the UCA.

Thirdly, I believe – despite the decline and the malaise we’re currently experiencing as a church – the Uniting Church in Australia needs to continue in existence as worshipping congregations in local communities, for the pastoral good of the communities where we minister. 

·        At a time when many Christian churches in Australia only ordain men, our communities still need the UCA. 

·        At a time when some Christian churches do not welcome members of other churches (or divorced-and-remarried members of their own church) to the Lord’s Table, our communities still need the UCA.

·        At a time when many Pentecostal and Evangelical churches have sold their soul to the “dark side” and live in a Faustian relationship with the extreme political Right, our communities still need the UCA.

·        At a time when many Christian churches do not fully welcome LGBT people into their congregations, our communities still need the UCA.

I don’t know if the UCA will have strength to carry on until our particular existence as a denomination is no longer needed by our communities.  Pray that we may.

The UCA needs to look critically at its worship.

Fourthly, however, we still need to look critically at what we are doing as a church on Sunday mornings.  Whatever else a church may be doing well, if a church is not worshipping well, there is a strong dimension of malaise in the church’s life.

I do not believe that a pattern of church life in which almost all our Sunday morning gatherings, in almost every congregation, are primarily focused on teaching and learning is a sustainable pattern of church life for the UCA in the long term, whether the style is that of:

·        a 1950s-style Preaching Service (the traditional Protestant Service of the Word, but with everything in the service adapted to attention spans formed by commercial television), or

·        a 1970s-style Childrens’ Service (any service that is oriented toward the involvement of children, whether it’s called a “Family Service”, “All-age Worship”, “Messy Church”, or anything else), or

·        any other style of an essentially teaching-and-learning-oriented style of worship.

If these teaching-and-learning experiences are our only worship choices, our future as a worshipping community will not be sustainable in the long run.

Four possible future “strands” of congregational life in the UCA.

For the UCA, or for any other denomination within the mainstream of the Protestant strand of the Church’s life elsewhere, I believe that (if the church is to develop in a healthy way into the future) local worshipping congregations will increasingly be found to express one of four main strands in terms of their worship.

I call the first of these four strands ecumenically liturgical.  Worship each week in this strand is seen as comprising both Word and Sacrament.  There would be a balance of contemporary and traditional language in worship, as there would also be a balance of musical styles.  In some ways, this gathering for worship may look, sound, and feel very similar to a Roman Catholic Mass in the tradition of the Second Vatican Council.  However, there are two highly significant differences between this gathering and the Mass, even in its Vatican II mode:

·        In this gathering for Word and Sacrament, the invitation to receive the Sacrament would be extended to all who are present, rather than only to some (as it is at Mass).

·        In this gathering for Word and Sacrament, the person presiding at the Eucharist could be of either gender, of any marital status, and of a varied range of sexualities, as compared to the person presiding at Mass who is expected to be male, celibate, and heterosexual.

I call the second of these four strands charismatically contemporary.  The weekly gathering in this strand reflects the “praise and worship” tradition of the Pentecostal churches.  However, there are some significant differences between this strand and the average Pentecostal church:

·        These gatherings for praise and worship would be led by people who have a wider grasp of the tradition of the Christian faith, and a more mature and comprehensive understanding of scripture, than is the case in many Pentecostal congregations.

·        These gatherings for praise and worship would have far less of a “showbiz” feel than many services do in Pentecostal congregations.

·        In these gatherings for praise and worship, the sacrament of Holy Communion (however frequently it would be celebrated) will have a more central role in the congregation’s life than it does in many Pentecostal congregations.

·        These gatherings for praise and worship would certainly reject the Faustian relationship that has existed between some Pentecostal churches and the extreme political Right in many English-speaking countries, including Australia.

I call the third of these four strands experientially contemplative.  The gatherings for worship in this strand of church life, which may be weekly or which may be offered at some other frequency, would offer worshippers diverse opportunities to deepen their faith experientially.  These may include such experiences as the profound silence of a Quaker-style Meeting for Worship, … meditation using Eastern Orthodox icons, … walking a medieval-style labyrinth, … reflection on Scripture using the discipline of lectio divina, … exploring Celtic styles of Christian spirituality, … singing meditative worship songs from the TaizĂ© Community… etc.

And the fourth of these strands of congregational life is our existing pattern of teaching-and-learning-oriented congregations, offered for those many worshippers in the life of our congregations who honestly, sincerely, and conscientiously regard this particular pattern of Sunday gatherings as the best way for them to do church and to be church, at least at this time.

Into the future

I believe that the future of the Uniting Church in Australia (and of similar churches overseas) would be best secured if each of these strands of church life were offered in all major centres where the Uniting Church is found. 

I believe the first three strands I’ve mentioned are necessary to carry the UCA into its future, while the fourth strand is essential now if we are to continuing ministering well to the people with whom the UCA is presently in ministry.  Enabling the first three strands of congregations to develop in many communities will depend on the generosity of congregations in the fourth strand.  I have confidence in this generosity.

I believe this future would require that congregations in each of these four strands would need to recognise, affirm, and respect congregations in each of the other strands as being part of the same Uniting Church.  While I first wrote the previous sentence including the phrase “it goes without saying”, I believe we need to say it overtly.  This paper was my attempt to say it.

This paper has recently been accepted for publication in a periodical.  It's been edited and (in my opinion) improved in the process by the publication's editor.  When the paper is published in hard copy later this year, I will post the edited and improved version on this blog.  As of now, I will describe this paper in its title as a "first draft".

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Reflections on a child's t-shirt

Just earlier today, in a supermarket, I saw a little boy wearing a t-shirt that read ...

... "Be thankful I'm not your kid!"

I was concerned.

I didn't know the child, but the little boy seemed like any other child.  He seemed nice enough.  He didn't appear, for example, as if he was trying to maim his sister in any way.

Why would a parent buy this shirt for their kid?

It sends two messages to the child, both negative.

One message was that there was something wrong with this kid.  If a total stranger (such as myself) should be thankful that he was not my child, the implication is that the parents are not thankful that he is their child.  That's a bad impression for any parent to give any child, ... that the child is simply not good enough to be thankful for.

The second message that this t-shirt gives is almost as bad as the first (not quite as bad, but almost as bad).  This message is that the kid is expected to misbehave.  You're saying, "Hey world, watch out for my kid.  He's trouble," whether he is or not.  You're saying is that this child will spend his school years as a Bart Simpson and will grow up to be a Donald Trump.

It gives the signal
  • that this is the kid who will be expected to throw a tantrum in the biscuits aisle,
  • that this is the kid who will be expected to eat the chocolate bar before it's paid for, 
  • that this is the kid who will be expected to pick a fight with another kid, just for the sake of picking a fight.
whether or not this is what is the particular child is actually like. 

Epic fail, parents, epic fail.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Thoughts on the Royal Commission

Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is nearing the end of its lengthy process, nearly five years after it was first commissioned.  The Royal Commission has examined the workings of many organisations (governmental and non-governmental, religious and secular, profit and non-profit, mainly professional and mainly volunteer) that work with children and young people in Australia in terms of the quality of the responses of these organisations to complaints of the sexual abuse of children and young people within these organisations.  The Royal Commission deserves our thanks for the thoroughness of its work.

In my opinion, a few comments need to be made about the information uncovered by the Royal Commission so far:

1.  No organisation that works with children and young people is immune from the issue of child sexual abuse.

2.  The Royal Commission was scrupulously fair in its treatment of all relevant organisations.  No organisation was the recipient of a cover-up.  No organisation was the object of a witch-hunt.

3.  The men (and they were almost all men, rather than women) who were accused of child sexual abuse were inclined to abuse young people before they were in the relevant professional or volunteer roles.  ... They were paedophiles before they were teachers.  ... They were paedophiles before they were policemen.  ... They were paedophiles before they were scoutmasters.  ... They were paedophiles before they were football coaches.  ... They were paedophiles before they were priests or pastors.  ... They went into their jobs because they saw opportunities to groom potential victims.

4.  In the case of faith communities (both Christian and otherwise), while issues of child sexual abuse are far worse in some groups than in others, no faith community is immune from this problem. 

5.  However, two factors exist that determine why the problem of child sexual abuse is far more severe in some faith communities than in others.
  • Child sexual abuse has been a far worse problem in faith communities where the ordained clergy is made up solely of men than it is in those faith communities where both women and men serve as ordained clergy.
  • Child sexual abuse has been a far worse problem in faith communities in faith communities where the only people to whom clergy are accountable are other clergy than it has been where the people to whom clergy are accountable in the conduct of their ministry consist of both lay people and other clergy.
These two factors affect seem to affect both the level of child sexual abuse in any particular faith community and the adequacy of the faith community's response to the abuse.

Again, I believe the Royal Commission deserves our thanks for the solid work that it has done.  Now the hard work begins, as organisations of many different types begin the process of seeking, on the one hand, to make amends with those whom people representing their organisations have injured in the past and, on the other, to safeguard the young people with whom they work from those who would seek to exploit them in the future.

Friday, 27 January 2017

How to oppose populism (even if you're not all that political)

Wherever we live in the western world, we need, sadly, to deal with populism as a political and cultural fact of life.

Populism comes in different forms in different countries.  You can find populism on both the right and the left of the political spectrum.  Right-wing politicians such as Donald J. Trump, Binyamin Netanyahu, Nigel Farage, and Pauline Hanson can all be called populists.  As well, some left-wing politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn, Lee Rhiannon, or Bernie Sanders have populist tendencies.  If you happen to live in Northern Ireland, the province's two main opposing political parties, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, are both parties with an essentially populist appeal.

Populism bases itself essentially on the search for social and political scapegoats.  Populism seeks to tell the public that, whatever problems exist in the community, the nation, and the world, they're essentially someone else's fault. Someone else can be blamed.   And, what's more, the someone else is someone who is radically different from you:  someone of a different skin colour, someone of a different religious faith, someone of a different language background, ... some bastard who didn't goof off in school as much as you did

As we all are aware, populism has become very influential in recent years.  And, for those of us who want a decent public life in any western (or western-style) nation, populism is the foe we need to confront and defeat.

However, the struggle against populism cannot be a fight that's reserved for those of us who are particularly interested in politics.  If that's the case, the populists have won.  The only way we can successfully resist populism is to ensure that it's not only the political junkies who are doing the resisting.

Here is a somewhat long-ish list of practical suggestions (twelve, to be exact) for opposing populism, even for those who aren't terribly interested in politics.  Find a few of these you can do now.  Don't feel guilty about the others.  (But you may want to pick up on some of the others later, so it may be an idea to bookmark this article on your computer.)

1.  Read

The first suggestion is pretty simple:  read.  Read a lot.  Read different sorts of things.  Read fiction.  Read non-fiction.  Read a daily newspaper, particularly if it's a good one (i.e., one that isn't owned by the Murdoch family).  Better yet, read a number of different papers, if you have the time. 
  • Read non-fiction.  Read fiction. 
  • Read the classics.  Read popular stuff. 
  • Read for work.  Read for pleasure.
Just read!  The fact that Donald Trump says he "never reads" is a good indication of the positive impact that reading has on a person's character.

There are two particular types of fiction that I believe are particularly good for us all to be reading at the present time: nineteenth-century British novels and murder mysteries.  Here's why.

In nineteenth-century British novels, the courtesy and the respect that are almost universally shown by all to all are a useful antidote to the lack of respect and the lack of courtesy that is a mark of our public and private life in the era of populism, in era in which basic human decency is mocked and derided as "political correctness". 

Today, a man who openly mocks a disabled person and who boasts about grabbing women by their private parts can be nevertheless elected to high office.  In the world of the nineteen-century novel, however, everyone is addressed with respect.  Even a misanthrope such as Dickens's Ebenezer Scrooge, a hypocrite such as Trollope's Obadiah Slope, or an absolute bounder such as Austen's George Wickham is still spoken to (and about) with courtesy, respect, and decency.  The behaviours now derided as "political correctness" were once the behaviours that showed one was a "lady" or a "gentleman".  Read, learn, mark, and inwardly digest.

And, in the world of the murder mystery, there is great reverence paid to that neglected commodity:  truth.  While a wise Jewish bloke of 2,000 years ago (1) spoke of the truth which liberates (and my undergraduate college - as a result of his words - has the Latin motto Veritas liberabit: "The truth liberates."), many of our populist movers and shakers treat truth as an "optional extra".  We are said to live now in a "post-truth" world in which "alternate facts" abound.  A banal "truthiness" is offered as a substitute for the full and complete truth. 

However, in the world of the murder mystery, there is no such thing as a "post-truth" world.  There are no "alternate facts".  There is no "truthiness" to function as an anaemic substitute for truth.  Truth is precious.   Truth is liberating.  Truth is transformative.  Truth is majestic. 

As well, murder mysteries teach us the important lesson that finding the truth often is hard work.  Sometimes innocence looks like guilt, and guilt looks like innocence.  Sometimes good looks like evil, and evil looks like good.  Holmes, or Poirot, or Miss Marple, or Father Brown, or Rabbi Small, or Phryne Fisher, or any other classic sleuth needs to actively engage what Poirot called "the little grey cells" to discover the liberating, majestic truth.  And using the "little grey cells" is bloody hard work.  And populist politicians hate it when we use our "little grey cells", because it means they'll soon be out of a job.

Read.  We need to create more Fitzwilliam Darcys and Bob Cratchits in a Donald Trump world, and more Jane Marples and Phryne Fishers in a Pauline Hanson world.  Reading helps you do that.

2.   Save

Save some cash, if you can.  Even for those of us without a great deal of disposable income, most of us can find some cash to save.  This accomplishes a few things.
  • Deciding what little economies we can make so as to save a bit gives us practice in using our "little grey cells", so we're less susceptible to populist appeals.
  • Realising that we're well off enough to save some money - even a little bit - combats the "Poor Me!" mentality that fosters the growth of populism. 
  • Having money in the bank - even a little bit - makes a person sceptical toward populism.  Instead, we start looking for ways to Trump-proof, Hanson-proof, and Brexit-proof the modest savings we have.

3.  Donate

Donate some money to a worthy cause, even if it's a small amount.  Do it regularly.  (Just as most of us can find some cash to save, so also most of us can find some cash to donate.)  Find a cause you like and an organisation you trust, whether its focus is local, or global, or a bit of both.  In addition to assisting those who are less well-off than ourselves, donating helps combat the "Poor Me!" attitude in which populism takes root and grows.

4.  Volunteer

Don't just donate your money.  Donate your time.  Volunteer.  Get involved in spending time doing something that helps others.  Whatever you're good at, there's some way to put that skill to use to help someone else.  In addition to helping the people involved, you're also helping yourself to get rid of the "Poor Me!" attitude in which populism grows. 

5.  Join

Join something.  It can be a service club such as Rotary, CWA, or Lions.  It can be a choir, a sporting team, or whatever.  (I'll say more about religious congregations in a later section.)  People who are members of community organisations have a positive impact on their communities.  They make a difference. 

Members of community organisations also tend not to fall for the sense of powerlessness and the "Poor Me!" mentality that encourages the growth of populist politics, on either the right or the left.  Populists want you - and other members of the public - to feel isolated from others.  That's where their power comes from.  Join something.

6.  Mind your manners

Courtesy, respect, and basic human decency cost nothing ... nada ... nix ... zero .... zilch .... zippedy-doo-dah ... and sweet Fanny Adams.  I hope I didn't mince my words here.  It doesn't cost you a thing to be polite and respectful to other people. 

In particular, it doesn't cost you a thing to be polite and respectful to those who are the vulnerable ones in our society:   the poor, the elderly, the disabled, children, women, members of minority groups (whether racial, religious, or cultural), those who are ill in any way.  Trump showed just how pitiful a specimen of humanity he was at the moment when he chose to make fun of a disabled person.

As Aretha Franklin said:  R-E-S-P-E-C-T!

And, if you're a parent, or a grandparent, or an aunt or an uncle, or a teacher, please teach the children for whom you are responsible a similar level of R-E-S-P-E-C-T (particularly respect for the vulnerable).

7.  Develop a taste for classical music

I really believe that a love for classical music ennobles the human spirit.  I really believe that spending time with the music of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, etc. helps most of us to bring out what Abe Lincoln once called (in another context) "the better angels of our nature".

Think about it.  Could you imagine Trump or Hanson choosing to enjoy Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus, Bach's Christ lag in Todesbanden, Faure's Requiem, or Purcell's Bell Anthem?  I couldn't. 

8.  Develop a sense of humour

A sense of humour is crucial here.  The only way we can survive with our mental health intact in a world increasingly dominated by the Donald Trumps and the Pauline Hansons is to laugh our little butts off.

Importantly, political humour is only funny when you "punch upwards".  Political humour is never funny when you "punch downwards".  Laugh at the powerful; never laugh at the vulnerable.

9.  Re-connect with your faith tradition

Now, people who know me know I'm a clergy type.  I'm about to talk religion here (as well as in point 10 following this one).  If you can't cope with people talking religion, meet me at point 11 down the page a bit.

Now, I think one of the best ways to resist the Trumps and Hansons of this world is with positive, constructive faith communities.  (Most of the support base for these politicians is among people who have minimal practicing contact with religious faith of any sort.) 

I know these populist characters are trying to network with various ultra-conservative religious weirdos, but the majority of faith communities around the place (of whatever faith you care to name) are not dominated by ultra-conservative religious weirdos.  It may be time to re-connect with the faith of your upbringing, whatever that faith may be.

Find a good local congregation of your faith, one that respects a reasonably wide diversity of beliefs, practices, and lifestyles.  Look around.  You can probably find one in your area.  

If your experience with your faith community in the past (or even in the present) was/is negative, don't be discouraged.  See if you can find a better and more inclusive expression of your faith located in your area.  You probably can.

A good faith community (whether it's called a church, a synagogue, a mosque, a temple, or whatever) could be a great source of support and meaning in confronting the madness of these days.  If you're not part of one, try to re-connect with one.

10.  Learn about someone else's faith tradition

But it's not only a matter of learning about your own faith tradition.  Learn a bit about a faith tradition other than your own.  And, when you do, try to learn from people within that faith, rather than people outside the faith who may have negative attitudes about the faith.  (This idea isn't original to me.  This comes from a brilliant Swedish theology professor and bishop named Krister Stendahl.)

Let me also suggest that, when you do this, that you start by trying to get to know a faith tradition that many of the people around you have a lot of prejudices against.   For many of us, this means that you may start by getting to know the faith of your neighbours who happen to be Jewish, or Muslim, or Mormon, or Catholic.  (Seriously, this would be a brilliant place to start.  And I say this as a person who happens not to be a member of any of these four faith groupings.)  Learn what the faith means to real people in real life.

11.  Make Friends

OK, now, I've stopped talking religion.  Those of you who are a bit religiophobic can come out now.

Another suggestion here is to make friends, particularly to make friends with people who are different from you in significant ways.  Take the initiative to make friends with the sort of person whom you were taught to distrust, to fear, and to hate.  And that's whether you were taught this distrust, hate, and fear by the loudmouth at the pub, by the shock jock on the radio, or at your granny's knee, or possibly even from the pulpit.  And if you are being taught from the pulpit now to hate anyone:  ... change churches ... now(Sorry, I'm talking religion again.) 

By making friends who are racially, religiously, or culturally different from you, you are challenging the whole foundation of populism.  Populism tells us that it's safer to stick with those who are culturally similar to ourselves.  By experiencing the fact that people who are culturally different from us "don't bite" (2), we undermine everything that the professional bigots and the populists stand for.  And that's a good thing.

12.  Get Out More

Populists don't get out a lot.  That's part of what makes a populist a populist.  They stay at home and watch TV.  If they have a job, they go to work.  They go shopping.  They have a quick beer or three at the pub on their way home from work, and then they go home to the tube.

Get out more.
  • If you like sports, go to a live match occasionally rather than just watching it on the tube.
  • If you like music, go to an occasional live concert.
  • See a movie at the cinema occasionally instead of waiting until it's on TV.
Do things that get you out into the wider general public.  Trust me, they won't bite.

I live in a smaller city (Hobart, Tasmania), where we have a wide range of public festivals.  The ones I like to get to every year are the Taste of Tasmania, the Festa Italia, and the Festival of Voices.  There are many others as well.  In a bigger city, wherever you are, there are even more festivals.  These are opportunities to be part of the broad general public enjoying the public event in the public space, and enjoying the reality of the wide variety of people in your area. 

The monk Thomas Merton (here I go, talking religion again)
one day had to leave his monastery to see a dentist.  It was his first time out of the monastery since he became a monk.  As he walked through the city streets, he saw the people passing by, of a variety of races and nationalities (or as much of a variety as you could find in Louisville, Kentucky), and he was almost ecstatic.  He felt a profound connection with the people around him and a profound gratitude for each of them, in their diversity.  He prayed, "God I thank you that I am like other people."

It's this profound gratitude for the whole human race in its all its diversity that will ultimately defeat the populists.

As I said earlier, you don't have to be terribly political to fight Trump, Hanson, and similar populists.  Just be a decent human being.


(1)  Jesus of Nazareth, if you hadn't guessed.

(2)  The importance of learning that people who are culturally different "don't bite" was a comment made in an address by the singer Brian Ritchie at a citizenship ceremony, I attended in Glenorchy, Tasmania, yesterday, 26th January 2017.  Both members of the majority culture in a country and members of minority cultures in the same country need to learn that the others are not a threat and "don't bite".  This can best be achieved through personal friendships.

Monday, 23 January 2017

"Call the Midwife" (season 5): a television review (SPOILER ALERTS)

Now that the fifth season of Call the Midwife will soon be shown on free-to-air television in Australia (ABC-TV, Saturday evenings), here are some reflections based on when I viewed this series on DVD early last year.  (I'm not sure why DVD versions of some overseas television series are sold by retailers here in Australia as early as a year before they're seen on free-to-air TV, but I'm glad they are.)

This season confronts a range of significant social issues with the same honesty and commitment as earlier seasons.  As this series is set in the early 1960s, such medical-related issues of the day as the relationship of thalidomide use and birth defects are strongly in evidence, as is a story line on the growing concern over the health impact of smoking.  (SPOILER ALERT:  And, yes, the doctor finally gave up the smokes.)

The developing same-gender relationship of two of the nurses is blossoming, and is treated by the two nurses involved with the sense of it being something clandestine as would have been expected in the 1960s.

Trixie is dealing with her alcoholism by (SPOILER ALERT) trading one addiction for another and becoming a 1960s precursor to a 1980s "gym junkie".  (I always found the "Trixie-is-an-alcoholic" storyline a bit unconvincing.  Yes, she enjoyed a drink or three.  But her drinking only became a problem during the time when her engagement went down the tubes in the previous season.  Cut the lady some slack.  If anything, I've always thought her constant smoking was a greater potential problem for Trixie.)

As with other series of CTM, there is a wedding and a funeral providing the emotional "heart" of the series.  (I won't provide spoilers as to whose wedding or whose funeral they are.)

As a clergy-type myself, I'm personally impressed by the way the vicar and the community of nuns are portrayed.

Jack Ashton's Tom Hereward is rapidly becoming one of my favourite TV clerics.  He's without caricature, whether the caricature is that of:
  • the impossible perfection of Mark Williams's Father Brown or the late William Christopher's Father Mulcahy,
  • the overwhelming self-confidence of Dawn French's Geraldine Grainger, or
  • the "Moe, Larry, and Curly"-ness of the inhabitants of the Craggy Island Parochial House.
Tom Hereward is utterly decent, utterly flawed, and always utterly human. 

But the real heroes of Call the Midwife (in each season and in each episode) are the members of the small community of Anglican nuns who make up the Sisters of St. Raymond Nonnatus.  (And, yes, there really was a St. Raymond Nonnatus.) 

Trained nurse-midwives as well as nuns, they work in the most trying conditions.  They have a great local knowledge and a deep understanding of human nature.  In contrast to our culture's stereotype of people of faith (and particularly those whose "day job" relates to their faith), they show a great acceptance of human weakness and human foibles.  They are always there for the families they serve, the young nurse-midwives they support, and for each other.

As a positive (yet rarely "preachy") portrayal of people of faith, Call the Midwife is always a pleasure.

While it's always easy for any popular series to "jump the shark" into the realms of predictability and self-parody, this season of Call the Midwife is easily as excellent as its predecessors.