The Good News of Christmas is at its heart the audacious claim that God in the birth of Jesus invites us into the heart of God.
This is indeed a moment of Grace, an expression of Love on behalf of God towards all.
During my recent trip to the UK I was struck by the influence the Methodist Church has had on the Uniting Churches understanding of God and the Church. The Methodist Churches focus on Holiness and how people engage in a life of Holiness speaks into an understanding of Christmas as God's gift of reconciliation. This is prevenient Grace (Grace before we are even aware of God's activity in our lives) open and available to all in the public sphere, the place in which relationships are built and the life of Holiness is witness to.
But a life of Holiness doesn't stop there. It grows in relationship to engagement with scripture and tradition, with experience and relationship with others of faith. This process of growing into God's all encompassing Grace never finishes we are constantly called into such a life.
A life of Holiness though is not one self contained to personal piety, but sends us to transform the lives of others, the unjust structures of society and the care of creation. Christmas and its message of Good News turns the world upside down and all of us are invited into this life of God.
May you take time to celebrate the Good News of Christmas this year and allow it to transform your life and those around you.
Christmas Greetings to you all
Discerning the Movement
The Uniting Church in Australia has at its heart the core starting point of God’s reconciliation and renewal of the whole creation (2 Cor. 5: 19 & BoU Par 3). Sometimes referred to as Missio Dei or God’s Mission for the whole creation. This mission of God is most fully revealed in Jesus. Jesus reveals what a renewed and reconciled creation looks like. How people live together. How creation is cared for. What relationship with God looks and feels like.
Disciples have long sort to look towards Jesus to discern what God is up to, where they might join in with God’s mission. This is not as easy as it might seem at first glance. The scripture is silent or the context is so different on many topics than is experienced today.
The Church down through the ages has in response to this experience sort to practice “spiritual discernment”. Individuals too have long exercised this discipline of discernment, seeking the will and direction of God that they might align their lives and actions to those of God.
How does the Church and individuals practice such discernment?
There are many ways in which such a discipline is exercised. One of those ways the Uniting Church is very familiar with is meeting as councils of the church, praying together, seeking the wisdom of scripture, looking to the wisdom of the Church’s tradition and placing new experience alongside these concerns. When together we practice such discernment, the church does its best, despite its human and institutional frailty to listen deeply to God’s direction and call.
Other practices have included Lectio Divina: an intentional reading of the scripture, pondering sacred text and listening to the voice of God coming through to us in images, words, voices. This is a four-step process:
Lecito – listening for the setting and the outline of the passage. We allow our imagination to take us into the scene.
Meditatio – reading again the passage we ask what is the significance of this passage? How do we understand God in this passage and where do we see ourselves in these characters?
Oratio – reading again and allowing our feelings to surface. Talk with God about how you feel about the text and what you hear.
Contemplatio – sitting quietly now, let your inner self listen in your heart for God’s leading
African and South American cultures inform us of ways of reading scripture that enable us to discern God’s leading through a series of readings and responding to the passage with each other.
Another practice has been the use of “Centering Prayer”. It is a practice that allows us to let go of the baggage and assumptions we come with to conversations of discernment. It is often practiced at the beginning and end of meetings.
There are resources for these three practices on the website or contact the presbytery office.
In a time when the Church and our Canberra Region Presbytery is faced with many discernment questions and choices to be made about directions to take and where resources are to be deployed. We would do well to start practicing the discipline of discernment and take up some of these ancient Faith Practices that alien us with God’s dream of a reconciled and renewed world.
Forming Faith has become the focus for the Canberra Region Presbytery this year.
This means that as a presbytery we encourage congregations to strengthen one another’s faith, to bear one another’s burden’s and exhorting them to fulfil their high calling in Christ Jesus.
What is our high calling in Christ Jesus, but to love God with our whole being and love our neighbour as our selves.
I recently attended the Inter-Synod Mission Pioneers Gathering where people from across most of the Uniting Church’s Synods gathered to share stories, ideas and support each other in their experiences of new expressions of church. One of the recurring conversations that happens as people gather to consider how the church is responding to growing faith and forming people of faith is “how do we get there”.
While there are many institutional challenges faced by all parts of the church in being focused on faith formation and shifting into being a movement and balancing the needs of institution. It becomes clear quickly that “getting there” can be very simple when individuals within the church and as a community of faith we focus on some key things.
Keeping focused on the way of Jesus Christ and the scriptures that tell us about the way of Jesus.
It’s about hospitality and relationship.
Working with the “heart burst - passions” of people.
Organising our life together around hope and not conflict.
Being clear about our core values (why do we do what we do around here and how is that shaped by being followers of Jesus) particularly when conflict arises.
Creating a permission giving culture.
Get organised and manage well the things we do.
Develop wider community partnerships.
That to make things life giving for all involved and to develop longevity within the faith community’s practices.
It’s good to focus on:
Theologically and Pastorally reflective on the reality of life for people
Connecting the faith practices to the biblical witness
Creating practices of faith that supports and sustains people
Sometimes as a church we tend to make things more complicated than they need to be and we lose touch with what really matters. So, in focusing on the “how do we get there” question let’s keep it simple. Let’s take small steps and commit as a community of faith to one simple practice of faith.
Like a daily prayer practice. – Use a simple resource like Pray as you Go, direct to your phone or email daily http://www.pray-as-you-go.org
Like a weekly community practice of hospitality – have a meal together and have intentional faith conversations, forget about the weather for just a little while and talk about why being a person of faith matters to you.
Like develop a faith story resource for families in your church so they can talk together as a family about a bible story that week. Put it on line so they can access it at any time they want.
That well-known theologian Michael Leunig also reminds us that “how to get there” is not that hard really if indeed we keep it simple. First, as individuals and as communities of faith we have to act, we have to get up and walk to the gate – we have to want to do this. We need to go through the gate and head to the horizon. There is no knowing of where that might take us, but along the way we have “the gift of the Spirit in order that the church may not lose the way”. Along the way we need to rest and practice things that sustain us for the journey ahead and then start again and keep on going as far as you can – that’s how to get there.
HOW TO GET THERE
Go to the end of the path until you get to the gate.
Go through the gate and head straight out towards the horizon.
Keep going towards the horizon.
Sit down and have a rest every now and again,
But keep on going, just keep on with it.
Keep on going as far as you can.
That’s how you get there.
© Michael Leunig 2017
Thank you for being patient with me
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enjoy your weekend
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Enjoy your day
Soul Space: Supporting and equipping participants to attend to the Spirit and lead Quite Days and Retreats.
The Soul Space program for the formation of retreat leaders is offered by Barnabas Ministries Inc. and will be facilitated by Sue Dunbar, Sarah Bachelard and Neil Millar.
The program is for those who sense that God is calling them to grow in their own contemplative formation and in their capacity to generate environments for others to experience and reflect on the Spirit’s presence in their lives.
The program is experientially based and offers an option of one or two stages of training.
The first stage focuses on the gifts/skills needed to facilitate quiet days, the second on leading longer retreats. The program is designed to develop participants’ contemplative practice through seminars and workshops, quiet days and regular worship drawing from various Christian traditions. More information here: applications close 29th September 2017
The Uniting Church celebrates its 40th birthday on the 22nd June 2017 and to celebrate the past and imagine the future the Canberra Region Presbytery is holding and event at City Uniting Church this Saturday the 17th June.
Colleen Geyer, the General Secretary of the Assembly will be with us and along with others from the presbytery we will be looking to the future of the Uniting Church.
Look forward to seeing you there 12.30pm for a 1pm start - drinks and nibbles during the afternoon. Parking available off Rd St Civic
At the recent Canberra Region Presbytery meeting mention was made of a Do It Your Self (DIY) Resource from the Vic/Tas Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia.
This is a wonderful resource that enables lay leaders to build capacity and learning about a whole range of things relating to being the church, growing as disciple of Christ and offering leadership. Each unit is a stand alone one that has a clear and easy to use guide with all the resources you need. As well as instructions on how to do it.
The DIY Resource as a whole package can be purchased for $40 from the website, however you can also download for free each of the 39 units as you wish. The DIY Resource can be found here: www.ctmresourcing.org.au/lay-ministries/
To encourage you further to have a look at this resource here is just a couple to get you started: The ministry of Church Council, The Call To Faithfulness In These Changing Times and Major Themes of the Bible.
This DIY Resource would be a great way to start a Faith Formation plan for your congregation and church council - check it out and give it a go.
Would love to hear what you think about it and how it goes in your congregation.
I in invite you to do some balcony viewing viewing across the landscape of the Canberra Region Presbytery.
We have reviewed our Property and how we use it for ministry and mission.
We have also looked at the Health & Wellbeing of congregations: what is the health and wellbeing of your congregation?
Marks of the Movement have been explored as well: holding in tension the sense of being a movement of the Spirit and the necessary processes of good order in an institution.
Now as a presbytery we are being invited to turn our attention to Faith Formation.
If we are to be healthy churches who practice wellbeing in relationship with God, then faith formation lies at the centre of our very being as communities of faith. It is this practice of intentionally listening to the “Call” of God on our lives that draws us into communities of faith.
It is this solid basis of attending to our faith and the spiritual practices of Christian living that will enable communities of faith to discern the mission of God in our local areas. Faith Formation enables communities of faith to understand themselves to be also communities that are “Sent” into the world for the sake of the world to be the hands and feet of Christ.
In tackling Faith Formation as a presbytery and as a council of the Uniting Church, we start to take seriously the work of creating an eco-system where people can explore faith inter-generationally. An Eco-system is where individuals, families and communities of faith adopt practices that create a rhyme to life – how we live and the priorities we adopt, bear witness to our faith.
Another way to look at this question of faith formation is to turn our attention to the scriptures, like the passage from Mark 12: 28-33. In this reading we hear that one of the basic tenets of the Christian faith is summed up in the question “how shall I/we live a “good life” both here and now and into the future?”
All three synoptic gospels tackle this question in the encounter with Jesus by a Lawyer, a Scribe or a Pharisee, depending on the gospel account. In two of the accounts the people come trying to trick Jesus into taking up a religious/political position that they could then oppose and discredit him. Jesus turns the question around and back towards the questioner.
In Mark’s account the Scribe enters the debate and gets more than perhaps he expected from the Law/Torah. Jesus offers a way to live in relationship with God and neighbour.
“Hear O Israel: the Lord our God is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. You shall love your neighbour as yourself” Mark 12:29-30
The Christian faith is not so much about signing up to a set of doctrines but to a way of life. It is as easy and as hard as that, it is a movement that individuals and communities take on and shape their way of life around. The Rev Dr Chris Budden in a recent sermon posed this same idea, like this:
“Faith isn’t about the spiritual things, faith is about the way we inhabit the world. Or to put it another way, faith is about the way we engage with the ordinary moments of life as a people who seek to follow the teachings and life of Jesus”.
All this begs a series of questions for the life of faith for congregations and individuals who take seriously the ministry and mission context they find themselves in presently.
How do we live as people of faith in this present time?
What practices and rhythms will we adopt and follow, to shape our lives in community?
What if as a community of faith, we take seriously being people, who integrate into our very existence, practices and ways of being that love God and love our neighbours as ourselves?
What resources and encouragement do you seek to live such a life of faith and spiritual practice?
“Faith is about the way we inhabit the world" not just Sunday morning or a little bit here and there, but rather 24/7.
Not just in the physical world but digitally and through virtual communities.
Not just with the people we know and hold views like our own but everyone.
The church has given different expressions to this desire to be disciples of Jesus across the ages in the early part of the 1st century the Jesus Movement: gathered in communities of faith, practicing collective participation in hearing from the scriptures, prayer and praise. They practiced their faith through supporting each other physically and materially and serving those in need and those on margins of society. People like widows and orphans. It was in many ways a private faith and action integrated into everyday life and it brought them into conflict with the states values and practices
As time went on the state sort to bring the Jesus Movement into the states/kings control. We generally call this time Christendom. The church got into bed with the King/State. The church was at the centre of society and influenced government and society generally. The church practiced public worship and rites of passage, integrating people into the faith and the society. However, the practice of faith was generally done in private.
In the present time, the churches role in society has shifted away from the centre of society to the margins. We generally call this time post-modernity. The church generally has little influence on government policy and its moral stances are dismissed and the linkage once seen clearly by society to the practice of faith has been severed. There is a very real tension between Movement and Institution and a move away from people joining up to organisations generally.
However in this ”post era”, there is also a seeking for spiritual meaning and purpose in life, of practicing faith in the way people live and the rhythms they adopt. (That may not include attending worship on a Sunday morning.)
Alongside of this is public action that seeks to speak into the public sphere an alternative ethic of life.
The church seeks to transform peoples experience of social exclusion and alienation and so enters into “mission” to deliver services, to be a transformative catalyst wherever people encounter the “other”. At the heart of such a way of life is the Christian faith and the formation of people who are deeply rooted in the faith, who understand why they engage with people on the margins. Who adopt ways of inhabiting the world that offer people a place to belong, a purpose to believe in and a task to do.
I wonder how in your congregation you go about doing some of these things?
Today, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the 40 days of Lent.
Traditionally Lent has been a time of prayer and penance in the lead up to the beginning of Spring and Easter day.
In Australia of course our seasons are the opposite way around and we head into Autumn. One of my favourite Easter hymns Tis 382 "Now the green blade rises", reminds me of the cereal grain planting season in eastern Australia. Seeds buried in the dark earth come to life and sprout green shoots around Easter time, they reminding me of new life emerging and the harvest that is to come. It may not be spring time but new life emerges just the same.
Some people give things up for Lent as a way of focusing on the coming sacrifice of Jesus.
Some folks fast during Lent as a spiritual discipline, examining their lives and committing themselves to love God and neighbour. In this sense it is a similar process to the fasting associated with Ramadan.
Of course the other way to go is to add something positive to Lent that connects you spiritually to the story of Lent and Easter.
I pray that the journey of Lent this year will a blessing to you.