Friday, 8 December 2017

"The Man who Invented Christmas": a film review

I must say I was seriously predisposed to like this film from the minute I first head about it.

After all, I'm a serious Christmas tragic, and I'm a serious 19th Century nerd on top of that.  And this movie is about Charles Dickens writing A Christmas Carol.  Let's get personal for a minute.  I collect DVDs of film versions of a Christmas Carol.  I even wrote an adult study guide on A Christmas Carol.  I was seriously predisposed to like this flick.  It's a Scroogefest, in the best sense of the term.  For me, what's not to like about this film? 

The film was about the struggles experienced by Charles Dickens in writing A Christmas Carol toward the end of a long - and uncreative - dry spell following the phenominal success of Oliver Twist.  Dickens was played by Dan Stevens, better known as "Cousin Matthew" from the series Downton Abbey, whose character's death in a motor vehicle accident was the single closest time the series ever came to "jumping the shark".

There is a strong supporting cast including Christopher Plummer (Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music), Miriam Margolyes (Aunt Prudence in Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries), and Ian MacNeice (Bert Large in Doc Martin). 

But, even with all these veteran actors, the strong moral centre of the film is provided by the relative newcomer Anna Murphy, playing Tara, the Dickens family's teenage Irish housemaid, who functioned throughout the film as Dickens's conscience.  In this film, it is Tara who convinced Dickens not to let Tiny Tim die at the end, as he did "with poor Little Nell" in The Old Curiosity Shop.  (For those interested in a work of fiction in which Dickens's Tiny Tim as an adult is a minor character, you may be interested in my recent "counterfactual" The Better Angels of our Nature.)

Being a good 19th Century nerd, I have to point out at least one historical anachronism, and the only one I found in the film was an absolute doozy.  In the opening scenes, during one of Dickens's lecture tours of the United States, a band in a theatre in New York City in 1842 was playing a song that wasn't written until 1904.  This is the sort of moment in a film that any sort of history nerd just dreams of.

Nevertheless, this is a brilliant film.  It shows the ups and downs of the creative process experienced by any writer (or anyone else involved in the creative arts). 

It also shows the real role played by Dickens in reinventing the celebration of Christmas in the English-speaking world.  A Christmas Carol had the impact of drawing a link between the specifically Christian and the generally festive aspects of Christmas, at a time when the Christmas celebration had been neglected among English speaking people (ever since the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell two centuries before). 

The fact that the link drawn by Dickens between the spiritual and festive dimensions of Christmas also had a strong sense of universal philanthropy and moral/ethical transformation has given us the Christmas that we celebrate today.  Thinking of the Christmas we celebrate today, Charles Dickens was truly "The Man Who Invented Christmas", and we'd all be poorer (morally, ethically, culturally, and spiritually) without his efforts.

You don't have to be either a Christmas tragic or a 19th Century nerd to enjoy this film.  In the words of "Molly" Meldrum, "Do yourself a favour."  See this film.

And, if you'd like some of my reflections on Advent and Christmas sitting on your bookshelf as well as on your computer, you may want to buy my book  Christmas Lost and Christmas Regained from Amazon.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

When is a congregation "too big"?

About two weeks ago, my post on this blog asked the question, "When is a congregation 'too small'?"  This post asks the related question "When is a congregation 'too big?"

In my opinion, big congregations, of whatever the faith tradition, can be good congregations. 
  • They can provide a good environment for people to be encouraged in their journey of faith. 
  • They can provide a variety of more focussed opportunities for nurture in faith, depending on the different needs of different people. 
  • The larger number of people available to a large congregation, and their diverse talents, means that the congregation has the chance to offer a level of excellence in its worship and in the other aspects of its life than a smaller congregation cannot.
  • The resources of a large congregation means that they can be generous to a range of community and wider needs.
  • The comparative anonymity of a large congregation can be a liberating thing for many people. 
Big congregations can be good congregations.

However, in my opinion, a congregation has become "too big" when essentially it has become merely a vehicle for the ego of its minister, priest, vicar, rabbi, imam, pastor, etc.  When the main (or at times, the only) point of contact among the members of the congregation is the person "up-front", that's when the congregation has become too big.

Warning signs of this pastor-centeredness include:
  • Many people in the congregation tend to agree uncritically with all of the pastor's opinions, not only on specifically religious issues (which is bad enough), but also on issues of politics, sex, bioethics, gender, parenting, etc.
  • Some people in the congregation tend to copy the pastor's catchphrases, mannerisms, jokes, musical tastes, and even dress style
  • In the wider community, many people refer to the congregation, not by its name, but as "Rev. [name]'s church".
  • Within the denomination, some people joke about the congregation as being "Rev. [name]'s fan club".
  • The only ecumenical, denominational, or community programmes supported by the congregation are those for which the pastor is personally enthusiastic.
  • If the pastor is on annual leave, study leave, or long service leave, attendance at worship drops until he/she returns.
  • When the pastor moves to another congregation, retires, becomes seriously ill, dies, leaves the denomination in anger over some doctrinal issue, or is convicted for embezzlement or some other offense, half the congregation will leave as well.

Big congregations can be good congregations.  Most of them are.

Some big congregations, particularly if they are unhealthily pastor-focussed congregations, can be very dysfunctional congregations.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

When is a congregation "too small"?

OK, to begin with, I know the bit about "two or three gathered together".  I understand that, when necessary, the smallest number of people gathered in God's name is an appropriate number of people to worship God.  "Two or three gathered together" may be just the right number of people to worship God together in, say, a sickroom.  I really get this.

Nevertheless, I also get that some congregations are just really far too small for their own good, for the good of their communities, and for the good of the mission of the whole people of God, ecumenically speaking.  (I also realise that some congregations are far too large, and I'll address this issue in a later post.)

In my opinion, the Jewish notion of the minyam has a lot going for it.  In a traditional Jewish context, a service can start when a minyam is present:  ten adult men.  Not wanting to be sexist about this, and looking at this in terms of the demographics of Christian congregations (at least among mainstream denominations) today, if ten adult men are present for worship, there are probably also at least twenty-five to thirty adult women.  There could also be (depending on the ages of the adults) a few children or young people (as many as, say, ten).  In terms of Christian churches today (at least here in Australia), a congregation of thirty-five to fifty people is a pretty decent-sized congregation.  The minyam has a lot going for it.

Here are some signs, based on my own experiences in ministry, of when a congregation has become too small for its own good, for the good of its community, and for the good of the mission of the whole people of God, ecumenically-speaking.  They are arranged in no particular order.

1.  If a person in a key leadership role in the congregation expresses a desire to step down from that role, more energy is spent trying to talk her/him out of stepping down from the job than in finding someone new to take on the role.

2.  The majority of people in key leadership roles in the congregation have been in these jobs for more than five years. 

3.  There are a number of examples of people in key leadership roles in the congregation who hold more than one such role. 

4.  If the organist (or other musician) takes a holiday (or gets sick), it creates a crisis for the congregation.

5.  Similarly, if the treasurer takes a holiday (or gets sick), it creates a crisis for the congregation.

6.  There are a number of examples of people in key leadership roles who are family members of other key leaders in the congregation.

7.  A person is described as a "new member" of the congregation, even if he/she has been part of the congregation for over three years (and, in some cases, much longer).

8.  If the "Sharing of the Peace" is part of the congregation's liturgy, the expectation is that everyone present rushes around and greets everyone else present, rather than greeting only those in their immediate vicinity.

9.  Conversation during the refreshments following the service is frequently dominated by noting the absence of those who are not present, and speculating why.

10.  People of a more introverted nature may visit the church once or twice and, given the lack of an opportunity just to be an anonymous worshipper, cease attending.

11.  The prayers of intercession (particularly if they are led by lay members of the congregation) are dominated by concerns for the health of members of the congregation and their families, with scant attention paid to more global concerns.

These signs (and I'm sure you can think of more) can serve as symptoms of a congregation being too small for its own good, for the good of its community, and for the good of the mission of the whole people of God, ecumenically-speaking.  They also can be among the reasons why the congregation is too small.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Announcing my new book: The Better Angels of our Nature.

I'm announcing the publication of my new book, my first work of book-length fiction.  It's an example of the variety of historical fiction known as a "counterfactual" or an "alternate history".  It raises the questions:
  • What if Abraham Lincoln chose not to go to war to preserve the Union?
  • What if Lincoln lived to his 80s, including a number of years spent in Britain and Australia?
  • What if the vast land area between Mexico and Canada was, from 1861 to 1926, the location of not one, nor two, but five different nations?
  • What if both slavery and polygamy persisted in the Empire of Texas for a generation longer than they did anywhere else in North America?
  • What if such Europeans as Florence Nightingale, Alfred Dreyfus, and Dickens's "Tiny Tim" all spent time on the North American continent?
  • What if those who died during the Spanish Influenza epidemic in 1918 included a psychiatric patient in a Georgia hospital named John Wilkes Booth and an inmate in a prisoner-of-war camp in Pennsylvania named Adolf Hitler?
I hope you like it.  It's now available for purchase on Amazon.  And you can go to my book's page by clicking this link. 

Monday, 9 October 2017

Why I won't be celebrating Reformation Day on the 31st of October

I'm not planning to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation on the 31st of October.

I recognise that, in many ways, I'm a child of the Reformation.
  • I celebrate the fact that the denomination of which I'm a member and a minister (the Uniting Church in Australia) ordains and commissions both women and men to every ministry within the church, without exception.
  • I celebrate the fact that the denomination of which I'm a member and a minister has committed each of its congregations to provide a safe and welcoming community for LGBT people.
  • I recognise that congregational singing is an important part of worship for me, and I further recognise that the hymns which cause the hairs on the back of my neck to particularly stand at attention are such Reformation-era German hymns as "Now thank we all our God..." and "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty...". 
  • Above all, I celebrate that a commitment to an "open table" is a reality that is deep within the DNA of the vast majority of congregations within my denomination.
In all these ways, I'm a child of the Reformation, and I know it.

Nevertheless, I choose not to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation on this coming 31st of October, for a number of reasons.

1.  I take issue with the notion, strong in some "Protestant" circles,
that "getting your theology right" is an essential precondition to a healthy relationship with God.  Now, I know that this was never taught by Luther, even if Calvin came close to it.  When Luther wrote about "faith", he meant a bedrock trust in God's radical grace.  Over the centuries, though, many "Protestants" have promoted the idea that those who "get their theology wrong" are somehow destined to become fuel for an eternal BBQ.  I refuse to celebrate this destructive idea.

2.  I also take issue with the way that Luther's idea of sola scriptura ("Scripture alone") has been used to turn the Bible into almost an idol in some "Protestant" churches.  I believe that the person of faith should take the scriptures "seriously, but not literally" (as an advertisement for one congregation once said).  The scriptures are a sourcebook for faith, with which the person of faith should engage in on-going dialogue, with the dialogue occasionally becoming robust debate, if not a knock-down, drag-out brawl (metaphorically speaking, of course).  Turning the scriptures into an infallible oracle, or a idol, is simply an abuse of scripture.  I refuse to celebrate this destructive idea as well.

3.  I also take issue with the way that worship has merely become a teaching event in so many "Protestant" churches.  Now, I'm not talking about the "megachurch" experience in many "evangelical" churches where a congregation's Sunday gatherings are part second-rate pop music gig, part motivational speaker, and part political rally.  That particular liturgical atrocity is far outside the experience of most of the churches I know. 

My concern is with the congregations within the "Protestant" mainstream where the teaching-learning dimension of worship dominates every other aspect of worship.  This happens regardless of a congregation's denomination or theological emphasis.  This happens regardless of whether the congregation's worship style is a 1950s "preaching service", a 1970s "all-age family service", a 1990s "Fresh Expression", or the standard-issue Uniting Church  "blended-blanded" service (where the highlight of Sunday morning is usually the refreshments following the service).  In all these, the teaching element of worship predominates.

I believe that people who choose to attend worship in our day do so with the intention of experiencing communion with the God worshipped by the congregation, not merely to "learn things about religion".  I do not choose to celebrate a state of affairs in which worship has been so marginalised.

4.  Finally and in my mind most importantly, the divided state of the Christian Church today is a continuing scandal.  A particular scandal is the inability of any Christian to fully participate in the Eucharist / Lord's Supper / Holy Communion / Mass in many other gatherings of Christians for worship.  I refuse to celebrate a divided Christian church.  Therefore, I refuse to celebrate the 31st of October.

Monday, 24 July 2017

“Taking Care of the Family Business”: a sermon (Genesis 29:15-28)

“Taking Care of the Family Business” . . .
. . . or is that . . .
. . . “Taking Care of the Family Bidness”?

In some parts of the United States, particularly the Southwest, the word business is often pronounced “bidness”, as if it were spelled b-i-d-n-e-s-s.  For example, you’ll hear the word “bidness” if you watch an old episode of Dallas.  Ol’ J.R. Ewing, he was quite a bidness-man.

And, in a real sense, it’s not just a question of a regional pronunciation, but a difference of ethical attitudes.  Business and bidness are two different things.
  • Both business and bidness are about making a profit, of course.
  • Business is also about producing a good product and providing ood jobs.  People like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, or Sir Richard Branson are involved in business.
  • Bidness, on the other hand, is about wheeling and dealing and trying to pull off a fast one on the other person.  Perhaps we can say that bidness is primarily about “The Art of the Deal”.

In the negotiations between Jacob and Laban, Laban was trying to do a bit of bidness with Jacob.  And Jacob fell for it.

Now, it’s not as if Jacob was a total innocent himself when it came to bidness.  This is the man who conned his hungry brother into trading his birthright for a bowl of soup.  This is the man who conned his almost-blind father into giving him the blessing reserved for his brother.  Jacob was not an innocent here.  He knew how to wheel and deal.  Jacob knew how to do bidness. 

But this time, Laban did the wheeling and the dealing, and Jacob was on the receiving end of the bidness.  Here’s how it happened.

Jacob was on the run.  His brother Esau was angry once he realised the extent to which Jacob cheated him.  He made his way to the home of his uncle Laban, his mother’s brother.  Laban had two daughters, Rachel and Leah.  The writer describes both daughters.
  • Rachel, the younger daughter, was “graceful and beautiful”
  • Her older sister Leah, we are told, had nice eyes.  (Perhaps the writer was being diplomatic, and focusing on one notably good feature.)

Jacob, being a red-blooded young bloke, fell for Rachel.  It doesn’t say anywhere what feeling either of the sisters had for Jacob.  It didn’t seem to be the kind of question that the writer would have thought important.  It was a culture which practiced arranged marriage - and polygamy.  Such cultures rarely asked how a young girl felt about a prospective suitor. 

Anyway, Jacob and Laban agreed that Jacob would work for Laban for seven years in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage.  Seven years of work later, it was time for a wedding.  It was only when the heavy - and opaque - veil was lifted from the bride’s face in the marital boudoir that Jacob realised, “This woman is Leah!  Laban has done some bidness with me!”

A few angry words passed the next morning between son-in-law and father-in-law.  And then it was time for bidness.  The following deal was wheeled by Laban:   A second wedding will happen in a week’s time.  And this time the bride will be Rachel.  In return, Laban will get seven more years of unpaid work from Jacob.

Again, there’s nothing about the opinions and feelings of either Rachel or Leah on these arrangements.

The story continued (with a good deal of bidness from all concerned). 
  • A rivalry developed between the sisters as to which one could provide Jacob with more sons. 
  • Jacob, through some creative management of Laban’s flock of sheep, found himself with a bigger (and healthier) flock than Laban.
  • Jacob and his (by-now very large) family fled from Laban’s house with their possessions (along with some of Laban’s possessions).
  • Laban caught up with Jacob at a place called Mizpah, where they finally parted company.

Now, I can remember when some church groups – particularly some women’s fellowship groups - traditionally ended their meetings by reciting together something they called “the Mizpah Benediction”.  In the language of the old King James Version, it goes like this:  “The Lord watch between me and thee while we are absent, one from the other.” 

This was a statement made by Laban to Jacob in this passage, but it wasn’t a blessing in anyone’s imagination.  In its context, what Laban said to Jacob at Mizpah was: 

“I’ve conned you.
You’ve conned me.
Even if we don’t trust each other
any further than we can throw each other,
let’s call it a draw.
Let God be the witness that the bidness is over.” 

(I find it more than vaguely amusing that the statement is often used as a benediction.)

“The Lord watch between me and thee while we are absent, one from the other.” 

So, Laban did bidness with Jacob ... and Jacob did bidness with Laban.  And, surprisingly enough, God is in the midst of it somewhere.  

God has this commitment, you see, to humanity, warts and all:
  • not just when we’re at our most presentable,
  • not just when we’re at our most ethical,
  • not just when we’re at our most religious,
  • but all the time.

God is always in our midst.  Jacob eventually found this out.  (Even if it took a wrestling match with a mysterious stranger and a dislocated hip before the lesson sunk in.  That’s in the lesson from Genesis next week.)  

So we have a story about a wheeler-dealer, who was occasionally wheeled and dealed himself.  The story is also about the living God who is always present in our midst, even when we assume - by our actions - by our bidness - that God is absent.
  • God is in our midst, offering love, even when we’re not at our most loveable
  • God is in our midst, even when we’re in the midst of bidness.
  • God is in our midst, confronting us - and confronting all people - when our bidness leads to harm to others.
  • God is in our midst, transforming us into people who are about the true business of life:  doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with our God and our neighbour.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Being a person of two nationalities

Like many people here in Australia, I was flabbergasted with the resignations, in rapid succession, of (first) Senator Scott Ludlam and (then) Senator Larissa Waters for the reason that they both recently learned that they were ineligible to sit in the Australian Senate because, in addition to being Australians, Senator Ludlum was also (shock, horror!) a New Zealander and Senator Waters was also (also shock, horror!) a Canadian.  Given an old (and, in my humble opinion, outdated) provision in the Australian Constitution, people holding dual citizenship are ineligible to sit in either house of the Australian Parliament.

OK, OK, they should have checked it out, but it appears that both acted in good faith.  Each seemed to believe honestly, prior to this week, that their Australian citizenship was their sole citizenship.  And this thing has been a running political sore here in Australia for years.  Politicians of all sorts and conditions, regardless of their party or their ideology, have innocently run foul of this outdated constitutional provision.

The fact that they were both articulate members of the more pragmatic wing of Australia's left-of-centre Green Party is also curious.  I hope this doesn't mean that the "fundamentalist" wing of the Greens will use this as their chance for a political comeback.  To the members of the Parliamentary Greens, I'd say (paraphrasing Oscar Wilde) "To lose one of your best members is a misfortune.  To lose two seems like carelessness."

But, anyway, this affects many of us.  There are some nations whose citizenship, once acquired by birth is almost impossible to lose.  The Italian government, for example, has a number of parliamentary seats for representatives of Italians living abroad.  Many Australian males of Greek heritage are reluctant to visit the land of their parents' (or even grandparents') birth during their young adult years, even for the wedding or funeral of a close family member, for fear of being drafted.  (This may be - at least partially - an urban myth, as every version of this story I've heard begins with the words "This happened to a friend of a friend .....", but you get the idea.)

However, this is all part of my own story.  In January of 1980, I flew from the United States to Australia when invited to accept a position as a minister of a Uniting Church parish in Tasmania.  I stayed.

For anyone who left the nation of their birth to move to some other country, and then stayed permanently, there is a sense of mental and emotional dual nationality, even if there is no legal dual nationality.  Personally, while I've lived here in Oz for more than half my life, I'm still enough of a Yank to celebrate Thanksgiving Day every year, to support the Mets and the Steelers, and to get a tingle down the spine when singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" or "We Shall Overcome".

It moves in three stages.
  • The first stage lasts about two to four years, or at least until the first visit to the "old country".  You are filled with nostalgia for the country you left and find everything different about your new land rather objectionable.
  • After this, there's another stage, which lasts about ten years or so.  You are not really "at home" in either country.
  • Finally, after about twelve to fifteen years, you regard yourself as being "at home" in either country and (even better) moving towards becoming a "citizen of the world".
From my perspective, the angst of the first two stages is well worth the sense of global integration found in the third.

And, really, for a person of dual nationality (whether legally or emotionally), particularly when the countries are both democracies with friendly relations with each other, the only time we really experience any conflict of interest in our loyalties is when teams representing the two nations play each other in the Olympics or some other international sporting competition.

Anyway, Scott, enjoy some "fush and chups" in your post-political career.  Take some time, Larissa, to go "oot and aboot".  Know that there are also plenty of us who, while not legally of dual nationality, are still people of mental and emotional dual nationality.   Welcome to the tribe.