Thursday, 27 December 2018

Book review: “In His Own Strange Way” by Geoff Thompson

Geoff Thompson, “In His Own Strange Way”: A Post-Christendom Sort-of Commentary on the Basis of Union, 2018:  MediaCom Education.

Reviewed by Bob Faser.

I need to make one admission at the outset.  When I was asked to review this book, my initial thought was “But hasn’t the Basis of Union been done to death already?” 

However, by writing this book, Geoff Thompson has provided the Uniting Church with a strong resource for ministry, for three compelling reasons.

The first reason is that Thompson prefers to allow the Basis of Union to speak to us on its own terms, rather than placing the Basis into any particular doctrinal straitjacket, whether “evangelical”, “progressive”, “neo-orthodox”, or any other.

The second reason is in the description of this book as “Post-Christendom”.   This study takes seriously the fact that the relationship between the Christian churches and the broader society, both in Australia and in other western nations, has changed radically in the decades since the Basis of Union was written and the UCA was inaugurated.

The third reason is in the fact that this study is structured in sixteen segments that can be used for group sessions.  Each session contains a brief commentary on the relevant section of the Basis of Union, brief statements on how our “Post-Christendom” situation relates to the particular section of the Basis, discussion questions, and relevant passages of scripture. 

This book looks like a good starting point for reflection by a more ambitious adult study group in a local congregation, one which wants to spend an extended time with a single resource.  It would also work well with a group of Ministers of the Word, Deacons, Pastors, and Chaplains in a local area wanting some sustained opportunity for group theological reflection.  If a group such as this exists in your congregation or presbytery, this may be the resource for them.  In either case, competent group leadership is essential as this is not a pre-packaged small-group study.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

On the Sunday after Christmas, the Lectionary gave to me ... forty-two blokes a-begetting, ... five feisty females, ... and a passage we ignored in Seminary: a sermon (Matthew 1:1-17)

This is the first time in my life I’ve ever preached on today’s gospel lesson.  Normally, I use the three-year Revised Common Lectionary when I preach.  Today’s lesson, from the Narrative Lectionary, doesn’t appear in the three-year lectionary on any Sunday.

The only times I ever use the Narrative Lectionary for preaching are those occasional Sundays when I lead worship here at Hobart North. 

It’s the passage that, in theological seminary, we called (using a bit of King James-ish terminology) “the begats”. (“Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob,” and so on and so on.)  And there was a whole lot of begatting going on.  (Or, rather, there was “a whole lot of begetting”.  It was one of those irregular verbs:  beget, begat, begotten.)  Anyway, the passages of scripture with all the “begats” were passages I never really studied as a theological student, and neither did most of my colleagues.

But, in the midst of all these men with polysyllabic names (from Aminadad to Zerubbabel) all begetting like crazy, it now seems (according to a growing number of New Testament scholars today) that the real meaning of this passage is found, not so much in the forty-two men begetting with enthusiasm, but in the five women who are also mentioned in the passage.

As a result, I gave my sermon a title which I think is best sung:   “On the Sunday after Christmas, the lectionary gave to me: … forty-two blokes a-begetting, … five feisty females, … and a passage we ignored in Seminary.”

Two gospels give us a genealogy of Jesus, near or at the beginning of the gospel, Matthew and Luke.  While there are a number of differences in detail between the genealogies, there are two big differences between these two genealogies:

  • The first difference is that Matthew’s version of the genealogy of Jesus goes back to Abraham, while Luke’s genealogy goes back to the dawning of human life.
  • The second difference is that the genealogy found in Luke is an all-male list, while Matthew’s version mentions five very significant women.

These differences can both be seen as a result of the different cultural contexts of these gospels.  Matthew wrote his gospel for a congregation with a background in Jewish faith and culture, while Luke wrote for a congregation of Graeco-Roman gentiles.

  • Matthew wanted to demonstrate that Jesus lived within the context of Abraham obeying the command of God to venture out into the desert with the message of God’s call to faith.  Luke wanted to put Jesus into a more universal context of the life of the whole human race.
  • Luke’s readers, though, were Graeco-Roman sexists who were not terribly interested in the accomplishments of women.  On the other hand, Matthew’s readers came from a Jewish background and honoured those feisty women who, throughout the history of their people, stepped up to the plate and did God’s thing, particularly at times when their menfolk were faltering.

Increasingly, many New Testament scholars today – of a variety of denominations, and of both genders - say that the real key to the meaning of Matthew’s version of Jesus’s genealogy is found in these five women.

Anyway, let’s have a quick look at the “five feisty females” mentioned by Matthew.

Tamar provided an example in the scriptures of what we, in recent months, could call a “Me Too” moment.  She had experienced incest, and it took place as part of a complicated story.  She nearly was put to death because of her irregular pregnancy, but talked her way out of it in a way that led the man who caused her pregnancy to admit his own fault.

Then there’s Rahab.  She was a prostitute, probably the “madam” of her brothel.  She wasn’t Jewish herself, but a citizen of Jericho.  She hid the spies sent by Joshua to check out the land, and lied about it when the authorities came looking for them.  There’s no two ways about it.  Rahab served God by betraying her country.

Like Rahab, Ruth was also foreign.  She was an immigrant, one of that great class of people whom the less salubrious sort of politicians today, those who inhabit the sordid underbelly of politics, like to condemn, without looking at their solid contributions to society.  The story of the romance of Ruth and Boaz (Rahab’s son, according to Matthew) became the great “romcom” of the Old Testament.  Ruth herself became the great-grandmother of King David. 

Speaking of David, we then come to Bathsheba, who isn’t mentioned here by name but is merely called “the wife of Uriah”.  This is another “Me, Too” moment in the genealogy of Jesus.  The rape of Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah definitely constituted the ethical low point of David’s reign.  And, morally, it was rape.  What with David being a king, Bathsheba would not have had the power to consent or not to consent.   It was a definite “Me, Too” moment.

And then we come to Mary, who is really much more interesting than the demure young woman in the blue dress whom we see in statues, paintings, icons, and nativity sets.  When she reflected on the significance of the child whom she was to bear, she celebrated the idea of the powerful being brought down from their thrones and the lowly being lifted up, of the hungry being filled with good things and the rich being sent away empty.  This was one radical lady.  As they say on the TV talk shows, “You go, girl!”

And the birth of Jesus took place in the context of the lives of these “five feisty females”, just as much as it did in that of the “forty-two blokes a-begetting”.  And many scholars today believe the “five feisty females” are the real key to understanding why this list of polysyllabic names is found in the gospel, more than as an endurance test for people who read lessons in worship.

Anyway, what takeaways can we find from the “five feisty females” in Jesus’s genealogy, according to today’s gospel?

The first is this:   We find God in the presence of those whom our society and culture despises.

The second is this:   We find God in the presence of those who choose to live with courage and compassion.

I’ll repeat that.  It’s important.

We find God in the presence of those whom our society and culture despises.

We find God in the presence of those who choose to live with courage and compassion.

“On the Sunday after Christmas, the lectionary gave to me: … forty-two blokes a-begetting, … five feisty females, … and a passage we ignored in Seminary.”

Friday, 21 December 2018

"Baby, It's Cold Outside!": a cultural and ethical reflection

This month, there's been some controversy in North America over a song.  A number of radio stations in the USA and Canada have been removing the song "Baby, I's Cold Outside" from their playlists over the Christmas holiday season, given concerns that the song depicts a seduction that may not be 100% consensual on the part of the woman in the encounter.  The controversy over the song follows many of the concerns of the "Me Too" movement, following the revelations concerning sexual harassment and, at times, actual sexual assault by a number of high-profile figures in business, politics, entertainment, and the law.

Anyway, the song was removed from the playlists of a few radio stations, and the strident response from some political and cultural ultra-conservatives was predictable.  (Can one of you gentlemen please inform me which amendment protects the "right of seduction"???) 

Part of me is actually rather surprised that the inhabitant of the Oval Office has not yet entered the fray on this one, describing (for example) "Baby, It's Cold Outside" as one of his "favourite Christmas carols" in a similar way as he once described "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" as his "favourite Bible verse".

It's all complicated by the fact that the song, in recent years, has become associated with the Christmas holiday season, even though the song doesn't mention Christmas (or, for that matter, any other holiday).  Because the song is set in the winter, when "... it's cold outside", it's become a song that's played a lot in the lead-up to Christmas, and then disappears from the airwaves even though (in North America) winter continues (and, in many areas, intensifies) during the months following Christmas.  (It's even funnier here in Australia, where it's played during the lead-up to Christmas in early summer.) 

"Baby, It's Cold Outside" isn't alone here.  Other songs with a generically winter theme which are almost exclusively associated with Christmas, even though they never mention Christmas in the actual song, include "Let it Snow!  Let it SnowLet it Snow!", "Sleigh Ride", "Winter Wonderland", and even "Jingle Bells".

"Baby, It's Cold Outside" was never intended to be a song for the Christmas holidays.  The Broadway songwriter Frank Loesser (best known for "Guys and Dolls") wrote the song in the mid-1940s as a party piece for himself and his wife, the singer Lynn Garland.  In this piece, the sleaziness and sliminess of the man, and the naivete of the woman, were exaggerated for comic effect.  One factor in the comic effect of the song as a party piece in its early years was that the people hearing this song were well-aware that the two participants in that mock seduction scene were, in fact, a married couple.  A few years later, Loesser sold the song to a Hollywood studio for use in a film and it became a popular "lounge" standard, rather than merely the Loessers' party piece.

Once "Baby, It's Cold Outside" entered the public zone, rather than the social zone of the Loessers and their friends at private cocktail hours and dinner parties, the potential creepiness of the song began to speak for itself.

Contrast "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with another song from the mid-'40s with a generic winter theme, but which has also become a Christmas season standard, Sammy Cahn and Jule Stynes's "Let it Snow!  Let it SnowLet it Snow!"   The "Baby, It's Cold Outside" guy is definitely trying to manipulate the young lady into bed, while the "Let it Snow!  Let it SnowLet it Snow!" guy is far more of a gentleman, knowing that he and his girlfriend will not be spending the night together but, instead, realises that "... all the way home, I'll be warm."

All of this points to changing moral standards within our community.  In some ways, our moral standards have become more flexible since the days of my youth (and I happen to be a proud "Baby Boomer"), while in other ways, our standards have become far less flexible.

Ways in which our community moral standards have become more accepting and flexible since my own "Baby Boomer" youth include:
  • a greater acceptance of LGBT people, 
  • a greater acceptance of unmarried couples cohabiting, and of single parents,
  • a greater acceptance of couples, married or otherwise, of different racial, religious, or cultural backgrounds.
My response to these social changes is, simply:  "Brilliant!"

Ways in which our community moral standards have become more demanding include:
  • far less tolerance regarding adults sexually preying on underage people (with this change of values reflected in a number of high-profile court cases in a number of countries, some of which are still sub judice, so I'll say no more),  
  • far less tolerance of married men having a "bit on the side", 
  • far less tolerance of men seducing women who are not completely enthusiastic re the arrangement (even when the seduction falls short of actual rape or sexual assault), as illustrated in "Baby, It's Cold Outside".
My response to these social changes also is, simply:  "Brilliant!"

I believe that both sets of changes in values are definite improvements for the well-being of our culture.  The relaxation within some attitudes is very good.  The tightening up within other attitudes is equally good.

I'm not a fan of censorship, but I realise there's a significant difference between censorship and quality control.  If a radio station removes "Baby, It's Cold Outside", with its tale of a clumsy, ham-fisted seduction, from its December playlist, I believe it's less of an act of censorship than it is an act of quality control. 

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Christmas with the “Caganer”

Being a self-confessed “Christmas nerd”, it isn’t every day I learn a new fact about Christmas.  I learned a new Christmas fact a few weeks ago watching a TV panel quiz on the ABC.
In many places in Europe, public Nativity Scenes are large, involving an army of shepherds, a huge choir of angels, many hangers-on in the Wise Men’s entourage, multiple guests eating and drinking in the inn, and a variety of people working on nearby farms.  In many areas of Spain, there is also a figure of a man in an obscure corner of the Nativity Scene engaged in relieving himself.  This figure is called a “caganer”.
I’d never heard of the “caganer” until a few weeks ago.  I checked the facts.  I didn’t just trust the TV presenters, even if the programme was initially shown on the highly salubrious and reliable BBC.  I consulted with that noted authority on all things factual, Professor Google.  It checked out.  It wasn’t “Fake News” (as the man with the funny comb-over says).
In many Spanish communities, the “caganer” helps to engage the interest of children in the Nativity Scene, as they try to find the hidden and obscure “caganer” in a “Where’s Wally?” sort of way.  

Theologically, the “caganer” has an important and profound message for us.  When God chose to come into our world as a human being, the Christ-child was born into the midst of our real world, not in some artificial, prettied-up, Disney-style world.  The “caganer” attending to an urgent call of nature at the same moment when the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us bears testimony to this. 

Have a Bless├ęd Christ-Mass, a Merry Christmas, and some Happy Holidays.

The Word has become Flesh, and lives in our midst.

Have a good one!

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Good news for the boy of Timaeus’s: a sermon (Mark 10:46-52)

I plan to arrive at the encounter of Jesus and Bartimaeus by a rather circuitous route.  Please bear with me.

Often, if I read a novel before it’s made into a movie or a TV series, I often don’t like the screen version.

It’s different if I see the film or the TV series first.  It’s often a good introduction to the book.

My introduction to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was via the various film versions which I saw as a young boy well before I read the book.  Please don’t judge me if I tell you that my favourite was the “Mr. Magoo” version.  (I was only ten or so, after all.)

Similarly, my introduction to Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited came, as it did for many people, through the classic TV adaptation in the early 1980s.

Both became favourite books of mine, which I’ve re-read frequently.  (And, you know, I even collect DVD versions of A Christmas Carol.)

If, on the other hand, I read the book first and it had a powerful impact on me, I’m often reluctant to view any later film or TV version of the book.  For example, I haven’t seen the drama series The Handmaid’s Tale on SBS, even though I found Margaret Atwood’s novel incredibly gripping.

It’s set in a chilling version of the future, in the Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States, in which a fanatical sect of supposedly “Christian” religious fundamentalists (the sort of “Christians” who give Christians a bad name) … a fanatical sect staged a coup and implemented a series of oppressive policies including reducing all women essentially to the status of slaves.

The main character in the book is a woman named Offred.  The two parts of her name says it all: “Of” and “Fred”.  She was the sex slave – or “handmaid” – of a man named Fred.  She was the handmaid of Fred.  All she was known as was Offred.

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale during one of my early Tasmanian ministries in the 1980s, in a rural community.  In this community, many people persisted in referring to a married woman by her husband’s first name.  A married woman in that community was frequently called Mrs. Ed Smith, even by people who knew her name was Betty.  It wasn’t only in formal settings where such language could be expected, but even in some casual settings.  People would say to one another, “I was talking to Mrs. Ed this morning”, as if it was the most normal thing in the world to say … in the 1980s!  (I don’t think it happens there now, thankfully.)

Think of Offred and Mrs. Ed as we hear of the time when Jesus met Bartimaeus.  Mark tells us that Bartimaeus was the son of Timaeus.  That’s true. but possibly a bit redundant.  Bartimaeus means “Son of Timaeus”.  When Mark refers to “Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus”, he was literally saying the same thing twice.

In Aramaic, “bar” in front of a name means “son of”.  This sort of thing goes on in other middle-eastern languages, with “ben” in Hebrew and “ibn” in Arabic also meaning “son of”. 

This also happens in other language groups as well.  For those who have a Celtic surname such as MacArthur, or O’Brien, or Williams, or Pendennis, your surname began in terms of one of your ancestors being identified – somewhat like Bartimaeus was – as the son of Arthur, or Brian, or William, or Dennis.

Here in Tasmania, there was a similar language thing going on, particularly among rural communities and working-class communities, until fairly recently.  A child or a teenager was frequently called “the boy of Kellys” or “the girl of Smiths”, rather than Tom Kelly or Jane Smith.  If an adult was still called “the boy of Kellys” or “the girl of Smiths”, it was a sign that the community held fairly low expectations of him or her, and was fairly open about its low expectations. 

This sounds cruel, but anyone who’s ever lived in a country town or a working-class suburb knows that both settings can be cruel places for those who don’t really “fit in”.  I say this from my own experience as someone who grew up in a working-class suburb and who’s been a minister both in country towns and in working-class suburbs.

Now, Bartimaeus was an adult.  The fact that he was still called, in effect, “the boy of Timaeus’s” may have indicated a similar set of low expectations on the part of his community.  That may have merely been because of his blindness, or it could have been for other reasons.

Jesus met Bartimaeus on Bartimaeus’s own terms, not on the terms of some stereotyped “boy of Timaeus’s”.  He treated Bartimaeus as a person of value.  This has made all the difference.  Jesus calls us, as people who seek to follow him, to do the same thing.

This, then, is good news, not only for the boy of Timaeus’s, but also for the boy of Kellys, … the girl of Smiths, … Offred, … and Mrs. Ed. 

It’s good news for you and for me.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.


Tuesday, 28 August 2018

The Letter of James: the most underrated book in the New Testament (a sermon)

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. …

For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.   (James 2: 14-18, 26, NRSV)

Today, as the lectionary begins a series of five Sundays when one of the readings is from the Letter of James, my talk is on the topic “the Letter of James: the most underrated book in the New Testament”.

There are three important Jameses in the New Testament.

·        The first is James the son of Zebedee, and the brother of John.  He was one of the Twelve disciples, and part of a group of three (along with his brother John and with Peter) whom Jesus spent time with when he needed to relate to a smaller group of disciples than the Twelve.  This James became a martyr early in the book of Acts.

·        There’s another James, known as James the Less.  He’s the patron saint of people with low self-esteem.  He was also one of the Twelve. 

·        Then there is the James known as James the Brother of the Lord, or James of Jerusalem, or James the Just.  Early Christian writers assume that this James wrote the Letter of James.  He was the brother of Jesus.  For at least part of Jesus’ public life, James thought his brother had gone bonkers.  In the Book of Acts, however, James emerged as a significant leader in the Christian Church, particularly in the congregation at Jerusalem.  He engaged in major theological debates with Paul, of which we see evidence in the Book of Acts, in Paul’s letters, and in the Letter of James.

This letter was often a controversial addition to the New Testament.  The 16th century reformer Martin Luther called it an “epistle of straw” and doubted that it really belonged in the New Testament.  In many ways, this was because of Luther’s dependence in his own beliefs on the ideas of Paul and Luther’s reluctance to give much credence to any ideas that seemed to be in conflict with those of Paul, even if hey were found in the Bible.

For a while there was a theory that the Letter of James was based on a pre-Christian Jewish document, with a little bit of Christian language added in.  This theory is no longer really given wide acceptance.

The view now is that the Letter of James was the product of the early Jewish-Christian community in the first century of the Christian faith.  It reflects a Jewish style of spirituality and a very practical Jewish approach to personal and social ethics.  It presupposes a knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures.  But, it does not give any attention to Jewish ritual practice.  All of this points to an origin in a Jewish-Christian community rather than among either non-Christian Jews or among Gentile Christians.

At the time it was written, the small Jewish-Christian communities within which, and for which, the letter was written were already very vulnerable, under pressure from two sides.
·        On one side, they were under pressure from the fact that, in the years after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70, the Jewish faith was redefining its beliefs and practices with greater precision, so that it was able to survive and thrive without a Temple.  In particular, the Jewish faith was redefining itself in a way that did not include within the faith those who affirmed Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah.

·        Similarly, following the success of the mission led by Paul to the Gentiles of Europe, Christianity was becoming far less a movement within Judaism and increasingly a Gentile religion appealing to the Greek and Latin speaking communities of the Roman Empire.

·        There was the beginning of the parting of the ways between the Christian and Jewish faiths.  And, at some points, this parting of the ways was bitter.  We see this bitterness particularly in some of the language of the Gospel of John.  In addition to becoming a Gentile religion, Christianity was tragically allowing an anti-Judaic perversion of its faith to develop.

The small Jewish Christian communities by whom and for whom the Letter of James was written saw themselves both as good Jews and as good Christians.  They did not want to participate in the parting of the ways, but it was forced upon them from both sides.  I believe that the rather improbable survival of this letter is a gift of God’s grace.

This letter in many ways represents James’s side of the robust theological argument he had with Paul.  It’s very important to note that the same New Testament contains both sides of the argument between Paul and James.  Just as Christians today have real diversity in our beliefs and our spiritualities, a similar diversity was present among the earliest generation of Christians.  The fact that this diversity is found in the New Testament itself tells us that this diversity is a good and healthy thing.

In many ways, when Paul and James argued the toss with each other about the relationship between faith and works, they may not have really been listening to each other.  In any event they had very different definitions both of “faith” and of “works”.

When Paul spoke about faith, he was referring to a bedrock trust in the love, grace, and generosity of the Living God.  James tended to use the word “faith”, not in Paul’s terms, but in terms of a list of beliefs, a lifeless and loveless orthodoxy.  “Do you believe in this … and this … and this … and this?  If so you’re OK.  It not, you’re in trouble … eternal trouble.”  So it made perfect sense, then, for Paul to place greater value on faith in the life of the people of God than James did, as he had a much more positive and healthy definition of “faith” than James. 

Similarly, though, when James spoke about works, he referred to actions in our lives which reflected the love of God to others in a very practical way.  Paul used the word “works” to speak of the sort of religious “busy-work” that can be found in the life of any religious community, including Christianity (and, yes, including the Uniting Church, and including each of our three parent denominations).  So it made perfect sense, then, for James to place greater value on works in the life of the people of God than Paul did, as he had a much more positive and healthy definition of “works” than Paul. 

The problem was that the two of them were not really listening to each other.

The good news is that both James the practical Christian disciple and Paul the visionary Christian mystic had their writings included in the same New Testament.  If we had the writings of either of them, but not both, our faith would be much poorer and much less balanced.

But there’s a big downside to James.  He saw Christianity essentially as a branch of Judaism and was very apprehensive about the outreach to the Gentile world in which Paul was engaged.  Had James’ view prevailed, both Christianty and Judaism would have been much the poorer for it.  It was tragic that the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity was as bitter as it was (and, historically, the vast bulk of the blame for this bitterness must be laid squarely on Christian shoulders).  Nevertheless, it was essential for the positive future of both faiths that they became independent of each other. 

The following centuries were a highly creative time for both faiths:
·        Christianity developed its understanding about the nature of the Incarnate Christ, both fully divine and fully human, and about the nature of God as Trinity.

·        Judaism developed its understanding about how the community would live and worship without a Temple or a sacrificial system; a faith with an emphasis on study, on lifestyle, and on ethics.

These creative tasks would have been much harder for both faiths if James had his way and Christianity remained a branch of Judaism.

Still, James the brother of the Lord … James of Jerusalem … James the Just … is regarded as a saint of the Christian Church.  This shows us the great and liberating good news that God doesn’t require us to be right all the time.

I believe that the Letter of James is the most underrated book in the New Testament.  In our lessons over the next few weeks, we’ll continue to have an opportunity to hear some of James’ perspective on the practicalities of Christian faith.  Sometime, please take the opportunity to read all of this short letter in one sitting.  It will take you less than half-an-hour.  It will open your horizons to the practicality of a significant mind within the life of the early Christian church

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. …

For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.  

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

A welcome to the 25-millionth Australian

On the TV news a few minutes ago, they said something about your arrival later this evening, probably around 11:00 p.m. or so.  They're not sure yet if you're a newborn baby or a newly-arrived immigrant. 

In any event, to use an all-purpose Australian greeting, "G'day!"

If you're a baby, I don't know whether you're:
  • Tarquin or Charlotte from Toorak (or whatever happens to be your state's Toorak), or
  • Will-yum or Maree-uh from Gagebrook (or whatever happens to be your state's Gagebrook).
If you're an immigrant, I don't know whether you're:
  • Maeve from Ireland,
  • Ahmed from Bangladesh,
  • Hosea from Tonga, or
  • Mercy from South Sudan.
But, in any event, welcome.  It's great to have you around.

If you're new in this country, like Maeve or Mercy, let me tell you that most people in this country are pretty decent.  I've lived in this country since 1980 and I'll let you know that there will be a few people who'll try to give you a hard time because of your accent, or because of the colour of your skin, or because of your religion.  Don't judge the rest of us on the basis of a few idiots (even when they happen to be idiots who sit in Parliament or read the news on TV).  Most of us will agree with you that these "professional bigots" are not the driest wine in the cellar, or the spiciest curry on the menu; and that they're a few elephants short of a zoo, a few salamis short of a deli, and a few tenors short of a choir.  (By the way, in case you haven't realised, I've just introduced you to some useful Australian idioms.)

And that goes just as well for you if, like Tarquin or Will-yum, you're not only new in this country but new in this world.  Most people are pretty decent.  Having lived in this world since 1953, I'll tell you that a big part of growing up is learning which people are worthy of your trust and which ones are not.   Get that one right, and the rest becomes a lot easier.

Anyway, Ahmed (or is that Maree-uh), thinking both about your life in this country and your life on this planet, may I share with you that great Australian greeting:  "Have a good one."

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Child safety talk

For the past few weeks, I was working part-time for my Presbytery, contacting some congregations on child safety-related issues while the relevant staff member was taking some leave.  For those interested, here's a sample of my talk to the congregations.


Thank you for the opportunity to speak about child safety here with your congregation. 

Earlier this year, I began serving as the Child Safety Contact Person for the [xxx] and [xxx] congregations.  More recently, I’ve been asked to contact a number of other congregations about this issue on behalf of the Presbytery while [xxx] is on leave.

I’m sure each one of you (like me) is horrified (and – to use language I would have used in my student days - absolutely "grossed out") at the fact that some adults sexually abuse children and adolescents. 

I’m sure that each one of you (like me) is offended at the fact that some of these people use churches and other faith communities as settings where they locate and groom potential victims.

I’m sure that each one of you (like me) wants to get our response to this issue right, and to get it right the first time, so we don’t get bogged down in some of the bizarre responses to this issue by churches we sometimes see reported in the media, particularly recently, including here in Tasmania.

Different churches found their problems of child abuse taking shape in different ways, according to the culture of each denomination.  (And I don’t particularly want to waste your time commenting on the problems of other denominations.)

The vulnerable point for us, in our Uniting Church setting, is found in the fact that, up until the mid-‘70s, our three parent churches had absolutely brilliant programmes for children, adolescents, and young adults.  These programmes died out for demographic reasons outside our control (which I won’t go into now). … It’s really not our fault. … But most of us still feel really, really guilty about it.  

So, when someone comes along and says, “I just love working with kids.  In fact, I’m just a big kid myself.  I’ll do your children’s ministry for you, I'll do it from scratch if necessary, and I can do it by myself, without anyone else's help,”: our response has often not been to check the dude out and see if he’s kosher.  Instead, we just say to ourselves, “Oh, isn’t he lovely???” 
If you don't remember anything else I say this morning, remember this:  If someone shows a “king of the kids” mentality when working (or seeking to work) with young people in a church, our alarm bells need to go off.

People who try to groom potential abuse victims are really trying to groom three groups of people:

1.     They’re trying to convince the child or young person to think, “Here’s an adult who really understands me … more than my teachers, … more than my parents, ... definitely more than that joker in the pulpit.”

2.     They’re trying to convince the parents to think, “Here’s someone who is on my side as I try to raise this child.”

3.     They’re trying to convince the church or other organisation where they’re grooming their victims that they’re really an asset, and that anyone who’s raising uncomfortable questions about them has lost the plot (and probably has a seriously dirty mind on top of it all).

Where do we go from here? 

An important first step is to adopt the Uniting Church's Code of Conduct for child safety.

An important next step is to appoint a Contact Person for Child Safety. 

A few more things need to happen.

Firstly, we need to make key people aware of what needs to happen in the rare (and let me emphasise this, very rare) circumstance of a complaint or a potential complaint.

Secondly, we need to promote the Working With Children cards among all those working with kids and all those who are up front whenever children are present in worship.

On the subject of the Working With Children cards. 

·        You do have to fill out an application.  It can be an involved process.  But help with the application process is available if you want help.

·        There is a cost involved.  (It’s cheaper for volunteers than for people working with kids in their “day jobs”.)  Nevertheless, you shouldn’t have to pay it yourself.  If you’re reluctant to ask the congregation to pick up the tab (and morally I believe the congregation should pick it up), there is some Presbytery money set aside for children’s ministry than can cover it.

There will be a training session for key members of congregations.  The next session in our area is on [xxx] at [xxx].

In all this, we have three types of congregations:

1.     There are those with larger numbers of kids, where the programme for them is fairly organised and formalised.

2.     There are those with fewer kids, where the programme for them is smaller and more casual.

3.     There are those where the only times children are present are for special occasions such as a Christmas carol service, or when a child is visiting grandparents for the school holidays.

In each case, though, the Uniting Church is committed to the safety of each of these kids, however often or however rarely they show up, and however organised or however casual the programme offered for them.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

“How many are out now?”

“How many are out now?”

For most of us, over the past few days, when that simple question was asked, no further clarification was needed.

“How many are out now?” referred to the twelve boys of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach, trapped underground in a cave near Chiang Rai, Thailand.

There was a loud collective gasp of relief which seemed to be heard around the globe as the last of the Wild Boars were out of the cave.

Well done to all the Thai and international participants in the rescue efforts. 

There were moments of tragedy in the rescue.  A volunteer diver (a former Thai Navy SEAL) died in the process of trying to assist the boys.  The Australian doctor who cared for the team after they were found in the cave learned soon after getting out of the cave about his father’s death.

Nevertheless, there was a strong affirmation of our shared humanity in this whole experience.

People of widely differing faiths prayed for the same group of kids.  The same God heard the various prayers, whatever the faiths of those praying.

It was a point of interest that the boys in the Wild Boars team included some stateless refugee children from the country known as Myanmar by its government (and as Burma still by many of its people).  This is an interesting idea:  Giving refugee children the opportunity to play soccer and to explore caves (even with the risks involved) sounds like a much better idea than locking them up to demonstrate just how hairy-chested the politicians can be.

Anyway, how many are out now?

All thirteen.

You little beauty!!!

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Book Review: A Genuinely Theological Church

Here's a book review that I wrote for the July issue of Crosslight.  Now that the paper has been distributed, here it is on my blog as well.


Geoff Thompson, A Genuinely Theological Church:  ministry, theology and the Uniting Church, Reservoir:  Uniting Academic Press, 2018.

reviewed by Bob Faser.

I hope you didn’t groan when you saw the title of Geoff Thompson’s book, A Genuinely Theological Church.  I’m afraid that “theology” has become a bit of a “dirty word” in some sections of the Uniting Church. 

In some UCA circles, whenever the “T-word” (theology) is mentioned, it’s common to see many people looking rather tense, as if they assume an all-in brawl will soon follow.  Thinking of the theological brawls our church has experienced over the decades since Union, particularly over “the Four Bs” (Baptism, Bishops, Biblical Interpretation, and Bedroom Ethics), this tension is understandable.

At the very least, Dr. Thompson has given us a book with a provocative title.

This book has had its genesis in some recent changes in the education, training, and formation for the UCA’s specified ministries (ordained and otherwise), to the extent where some Synods are now operating according to significantly different models of ministry formation than others. 

In examining this situation, Dr. Thompson has broken two persistent taboos within the UCA that have long needed to be broken. 

·        The first is the taboo against admitting that the ethos of the UCA varies according to the region of Australia in which we happen to be located. 

·        The second is the taboo against admitting that whichever of the UCA’s parent churches with which we identify (if any) still has a profound impact on our understanding of the UCA (and of the Christian faith more generally). 

By breaking both of these taboos, Geoff Thompson has done us all a service.

Dr. Thompson continues with an exploration of the theological vocation of the UCA in a cultural context he describes as “post-secular”, “post-liberal”, “post-colonial”, and (drawing on contemporary politics) “post-truth”.  He concludes with a consideration of ministry education in a “post-Christendom” age.

This is a brief book, but an important one.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

“Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”: a sermon (Mark 5:21-43)

My talk is at least partly based on a quote that’s sometimes attributed to a former Beatle, the late John Lennon:  “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”  (Actually, he wasn’t the first person to say it.  The quote was around for a few years before that, but Lennon used the quote in his song “Beautiful Boy”, celebrating the birth of one of his sons.  But even though someone else said it first, almost everyone now attributes the quote to John Lennon.)

Anyway, whoever said it first, it’s a good quote:   “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”   I’ll get back to it in a few minutes.

Our gospel lesson tells us about a time when Jesus was interrupted in the middle of doing something important – to do something else which was equally important.

Jesus was asked by a man named Jairus to see his daughter, who was ill and on the point of death.  Jesus agreed and went with Jairus to his home to see the little girl. 

Now, there’s one interesting thing about Jairus.  Mark describes Jairus as being either one of the “leaders of the synagogue” or one of the “rulers of the synagogue”, depending on the translation you’re using.  In the original Greek, the word used for Jairus and his colleagues was archisynagogus. 

To be an archisynagogus, didn’t mean that Jairus was a rabbi or anything like that, but a lay member of the congregation with a lot of responsibilities around the place. 

·        It may have been that no one else could be bothered doing anything, so “Good ol’ Jairus’ll do it”.   

·        Or it may have been that Jairus really liked being the bloke in charge of things and didn’t want to share the responsibilities.

Mark doesn’t really tell us, but the tone in which he tells the story gives the feeling that Jairus was a decent bloke.  (And that’s the thing about archisynagoguses:  ministers tend to complain and joke about the bad ones (I know I do!), but many archisynagoguses are good people, like Jairus.)

Anyway, from my almost 39 years of experience in ministry, I know that one of the keys for a minister to survive in ministry is how the minister relates to the Jairuses and the other archisynagoguses in the congregations.

Anyway, Jesus, and Jairus, and the disciples were on their way to Jairus’s house to check out how the little girl was doing when … something else happened.  A woman suffering from a debilitating gynaecological ailment decides that all she needed to do was to touch Jesus’s clothing and she’d be healthy.

That’s what she did.

Voila!  That’s what happened.

Jesus has a bit of a conversation with the lady and then it’s back on the road. 

By the time they get to Chez Jairus, the child had died.  While it’s touch-and-go for a while, Jesus does his thing.  By the end of the story, the kid was alive, awake, healthy, and eating lunch.

Meanwhile, the lady whom Jesus encountered on the road was starting to get on with her life again.

And, as we’re reminded in the song, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”