Messages of Hope

Month: December 2014

Five Questions for Crossing the Threshold

Published / by Sandy

This “New Year” thing is a curious fiction, isn’t it? The planet on which we’ve hitched a ride has been wheeling through space a lot longer than 2,014 years. And the hoopla we make at midnight on December 31st is a tad over the top for one more tick of the clock.

But this annual ritual allows us to imagine that maybe, just maybe, we’re on the threshold of something new and better — and some of our imaginings might come true, depending on what we do. Here’s a small poem that’s large with wise guidance for threshold-crossing:

We look with uncertainty
by Anne Hillman

We look with uncertainty
beyond the old choices for
clear-cut answers
to a softer, more permeable aliveness
which is every moment
at the brink of death;
for something new is being born in us
if we but let it.
We stand at a new doorway,
awaiting that which comes…
daring to be human creatures,
vulnerable to the beauty of existence.
Learning to love.

I’m going to pass on making New Year’s resolutions this time around. Instead, I’ll take Rilke’s* famous advice about “living the questions,” and carry into the New Year a few of the wonderings Hillman’s poem evokes in me:

• How can I let go of my need for fixed answers in favor of aliveness?
• What is my next challenge in daring to be human?
• How can I open myself to the beauty of nature and human nature?
• Who or what do I need to learn to love next? And next? And next?
• What is the new creation that wants to be born in and through me?

We look with uncertainty to the year ahead. But if we wrap our lives around life-giving questions — and live our way into their answers a bit more every day — the better world we want and need is more likely to come into being.

Happy New Year, everyone! May 2015 be a year of light and life for you and yours. And may we help make it so for others with whom we share this ride.

*…I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
(from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, translation by M.D. Herter Norton)

Five Questions for Crossing the Threshold by Parker J. Palmer

posted 31 Dec 2014 by Sandy

Smuggling God into the world

Published / by Sandy

Last week, Sydney CBD was shut down because of a siege in a cafe, which ended tragically with the loss of three lives. Even as the siege unfolded, reports spread quickly about the religious identity and nationality of the gunman, as well as the involvement of a black flag with the words of the Shehada, the Muslim affirmation of faith, on it. Anti-Muslim sentiment rose quickly in some parts of the community, with people quickly jumping to conclusions. The primary hashtag, #SydneySiege, came to embody the occasional and predictable ugliness of the internet, with xenophobic and anti-Muslim tweets. An ultra-right group, the Australian Defence League, threatened confrontations in the Muslim-majority Sydney suburb of Lakemba. The ABC Radio in Sydney received calls from Muslim listeners saying they were too scared to ride on public transport and to be in public places.

We live in a culture of fear. It fills the air, even in the Christmas season.

People of goodwill in Australia quickly realised how vulnerable Muslim people would be in any backlash. 

It was incredibly heartening to see how social media quickly enabled a wave of support, using the hashtag, #illridewithyou. The hashtag appears to have come from a Facebook post from Rachael Jacobs who was riding on a train, and noticed a Muslim woman quietly take off her head covering, the hijab, ostensibly out of fear of being targeted. In her Twitter post she said: “I ran after her at the train station. I said ‘put it back on. I’ll walk with you.” An act of compassion, solidarity and support.

Another woman took to Twitter and wrote: “If you regularly take the bus between Coogee to Martin Place, and you wear religious attire, and don’t feel safe alone: I’ll ride with you”.

In the face of overwhelmingly complex issues in our world, here was an opportunity to make a small practical gesture, responding to the sorrow that someone would ever feel unwelcome and unsafe in the community because of their beliefs. In a climate of fear and uncertainty, the Australian community has banded together to show their support for the Muslim population, which comprises less than 2% of the 23 million people in Australia but has a great deal more of unhelpful media attention.

The twitter hashtag, #illridewithyou, has gone viral around the world, prompting a social movement with many acts of kindness to strangers.

It prompted my own imagination. I’ll ride with you. I’ll walk with you. I’ll be with you.

The church proclaims Emmanuel on this day that indeed God is with us. The story of the Hebrew people is an endless rhythm of turning towards God and turning away from God. The rhythm echoes in our own lives. Turning towards God, turning away from God.

And the story we celebrate this day is that God was revealed most fully in the life of Jesus Christ, born as one of us, human in every way. It is as if God has said, I’ll ride with you. I’ll walk with you. Wherever you are, I’ll be with you.

The prophet Isaiah (57.15) had described God as “the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity,” and by and large, though different language and symbols are used, all the major faiths of the world would tend to agree. Judaism calls God Yahweh. Islam calls God Allah. Buddhism and Hinduism use terms like Brahman-Atman or the Void or the One. All of them point to the ultimate spiritual Ground of existence as transcendent and totally other. The reality of God is so radically different from anything we know as real that in the last analysis we can say nothing about God except what God is not.

The essential message of Christmas – Emmanuel, God with us – invites these questions: Who is this God – and how is God with us?

To the first we may answer from our tradition, ”The high and lofty One who inhabits eternity”.

And the answer to the second question is the claim that Christianity makes for Christmas: that at a particular time and place God came to be with us. In a town called Bethlehem, a child was born who, beyond the power of anyone to account for, was the high and lofty One made low and helpless. The One who inhabits eternity comes to dwell in time. The One whom ‘none can look upon and live is delivered in a stable under the soft, indifferent gaze of cattle. The God of all mercies is placed at our mercy. The hope of the world, born into a culture of fear – fear of the Romans, fear of Herod, even a distorted fear of God.

Year after year the ancient tale of what happened is told – raw, preposterous, holy – and year after year the world in some measure stops to listen. It was a profoundly human event – the birth of a human being, by whose humanity we measure our own. It also gave birth to a movement that quenched retribution and hate with redemption and love

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth,” says the prologue to John’s Gospel (1:14). Or, as Eugene Peterson puts it, God moved into the neighbourhood.

Emmanuel. God with us. God who walks with us on our ordinary and sometimes complex human journey. God who rides with us through the storms of life. God with us. Emmanuel.

And this child would grow to be a man – God with us – who walked with people on those dusty roads, who ate with people, who wept with people, who laughed with people, who shared common humanity with people. A man who believed it to be true that there would be good news for the poor, that prisoners would find pardon, that the blind would recover their sight, and the burdened and battered freed (Luke 4). This man, who had the echoes of his mother’s song ringing in his ears that the proud would scattered, the mighty brought down and the lowly lifted up, and the hungry filled with good things. (Magnificat, Luke 1)

What keeps the wild hope of Christmas alive year after year in a world notorious for dashing all hopes is the haunting dream that the child who was born that day may yet be born again even in us.

In a sermon about Mary’s response to God, Barbara Brown Taylor once said: “If you decide to say no, you simply drop your eyes and refuse to look up until you know the angel has left the room and you are alone again. Then you smooth your hair and go back to your reading or whatever it is that is most familiar to you and pretend that nothing has happened…. Or you can set your book down and listen to a strange creature’s strange idea. You can take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees. You can agree to smuggle God into the world inside your own body. (From “Mothers of God ” in Gospel Medicine)

Smuggling God into the world, as Mary did. That others may recognise this God within each of us. That this Christ Child may be born and grow in us. That we may be the ones who smuggle God into the world in our own lives as we say to others, to the poor and lowly, to the vulnerable and those who have lost hope, to those seeking safety and comfort: I’ll walk with you. I’ll ride with you. I’ll be with you. May it be so. Amen.

(This sermon includes media reports of the siege, and some of Frederick Buechner’s reflections)

A Christmas Day sermon by Rev Sandy Boyce at Pilgrim Uniting Church for Christmas Day 2014

posted 25 Dec 2014 by Sandy

I beg to differ

Published / by Sandy

It has been extra-ordinarily hard to prepare these reflections in the context of the tragic events that have unfolded this week. The story of Mary, her encounter with the angel, her ‘yes’, and her song of praise we know as the Magnificat, are a familiar pattern in our year as we head towards Christmas. I have read this story again in the context of the events of this past week and have been challenged by the story in new ways.

Mary’s was a song of praise and hope. Aspirational. A longing – and a confidence – that things could change, that God’s reign would upend the wealthy and powerful and the privileged in favour of the poor, the dispossessed. Her context was Roman occupation and her song was a song of defiance.

Someone once said, ”A candle is a protest at midnight. It is a non-conformist. It says to the darkness, ‘I beg to differ.’”

I beg to differ.

How long do we hold such hope? How long can we ‘beg to differ’?

This week the world witnessed one sole, mentally unstable religious extremist gunman take hostages and force a lock down in the Sydney CBD. We saw the faces of the victims who lost their lives, Tori Johnson, the cafe manager, and Katrina Dawson, a lawyer and mother of 3 young children. The Sydney paper screamed the headline, ‘The day we changed forever’, determined to change our thinking and behaving, because this moment had, apparently, become a defining moment – even before we knew any details. Australian gun laws started to be discussed again – how might we protect ourselves from a repeat of such a tragic incident? Australian immigration policies were discussed again – how could he have been allowed into Australia? The judicial system was being discussed – how could he have been allowed out on parole? Domestic violence was discussed – again. The word ‘terror’ was used frequently, as if to link the Sydney siege with acts of terror that have happened so frequently in recent years, including the horrific actions of the Taliban in a school in the Pakistani city of Peshawar where at least 132 children and 9 staff were killed.

As some link the Sydney siege with acts of global terrorism, our world view begins to be defined and shaped by an alternate world view where fear rules the day.

For Mary, her context was ancient Palestine with Roman occupation. Today, ours is an ‘occupation’ of a different kind. Our world view and the things we value – our sense of community, our commitment to care for others – are now threatened by the occupation of alternate world views. As the Christian church finds itself increasingly marginalised in contemporary culture, the defining values, hopes and aspirations it has embodied are also marginalised. And into this vacuum, other values take their place including violence, xenophobia, and wild speculation in the media. In this alternate reality, the ‘other’ who is different to me must become the one who I must distrust. In this alternate reality, faith traditions that are different to mine must be those that are denigrated and demonised.

I beg to differ.

The flowers left in Martin Place in Sydney began as a touching tribute to the innocent victims of the Sydney siege, but may now be considered indulgent. Tens upon tens of thousands of dollars will have been spent on flowers in a week when the Government announced further drastic cuts to the foreign aid budget. But the flowers are another form of protest, and say, ‘I beg to differ’. Of saying, we will gather with friends and strangers in a public place, and place our symbols of tribute and protest together as a way of saying: there is another way that is live-giving and hopeful and peaceful, and we will seek and follow that way and not be overwhelmed by sorrow and despair. We will stand with the stranger in our midst, and look for opportunities where the stranger may become a friend. The notes that have been left with the flowers represent an expression of solidarity, comfort, unity and empathy. They are also in their own way an act of defiance – there is another way to that of fear, violence and retribution.

Thomas Zinn, partner of Tori Johnson, said when he visited the makeshift memorial he could “smell the flowers through Sydney”. He said, “I think it’s amazing that he has been able to make our city smell like flowers. There is no more beautiful thing that he could have imagined”.

This week I went to the Marion Mosque, which was opened especially for prayers on the night of the siege, and also so that people of all faith traditions could gather to pray and to affirm solidarity in service and friendship across faiths. It was another ‘I beg to differ’ moment – that we were not prepared to make way for the occupation of an alternate world view where suspicion and violence would define relations between faiths. Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky was there and was invited to read a psalm from the Hebrew Scriptures. A woman, a Jewish rabbi, without a headscarf, reading a psalm from the ancient Scriptures sacred to Jews, in a Muslim mosque. The moment was breathtaking. She said, ‘I wanted to show my support for the Australian Muslim at a time when I feared some would condemn this entire faith group. I hope and pray that Australians can distinguish between the perpetrator and a faith whose adherents in Australia are strong supporters of the values we share’.

They are small but significant moments of ‘I beg to differ’. If not for these moments, the vacuum in our global moral compass would allow for alternate world views based on division and suspicion to occupy and permeate our thoughts and minds and actions, our community, our nation and the world. And this alternate reality that is seeking occupation in our lives is as if we have chosen to say ‘no’ to God’s ways, and thus perpetuate the growing distance between the rich and poor, the unjust distribution of the world’s resources, and the destruction of the earth and its ecosystems. It is to give our ‘yes’ to greed and self-interest and neglect of the vulnerable and marginalized.

I was reminded about a wonderful children’s story book, The Never Ending Story by German writer Michael Ende. The film told the first part of the story, but it’s worth reading the whole book. I used to read it aloud to my classes when I was teaching. It was captivating with its imagery and ideas. Its central plot was the creeping nothing that was taking over the land, town by town. Person by person. One character described it this way: The creeping Nothing around you – and inside you – just grows and grows. It’s the emptiness that’s left. It’s like a despair, destroying this world. Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. So the Nothing grows stronger.”

The vacuum left by the marginalisation of faith in our contemporary society allows for such a ‘creeping nothing’. And allows for that vacuum to be filled with groups based on radical ideology rather than transformational faith. The ‘nothing’ is ‘something’, but it is not the reign of God.

Perhaps this invites us to strengthen our resolve to live by the values of God’s reign, just as Mary’s testimony defined her living. And let’s be clear – not simply the values of a ‘civil society’ that has adopted core values from the Christian faith, but by the values of the reign of God as embodied by Jesus. Love your enemies, forgive others, serve others, welcome others, clothe the naked and feed the hungry etc. These values and practices are what define the lives of those who follow the Jesus way.

Like Mary, you and I are God bearers. We will therefore resist the steady and insidious occupation of other values based on fear, violence, suspicion and speculation. Our lives as followers of the Jesus way give testimony to the statement, I beg to differ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

posted 21 Dec 2014 by Sandy

Feeling our way Forward

Published / by Jana

Once upon a time, I lived on a wee Scottish Island. My memories of that time and place are many and varied, and all of them cherished. I remember one night when a group of us were walking from the abbey to the village hall, deep in winter. We left the warm pool of light at the abbey entrance and headed towards the twinkling welcome of the village. Suddenly, the power went out on Iona and Mull, the larger island across the Sound. There was no moon; there were no stars. We could not see – our hands in front of our faces, or one another even standing nose to nose…and most definitely not the ground beneath us.

I can remember having no clue how to move, how to stay on the way. We bumbled along like fools but did make it to the hall, where others had the candles lit and the whisky poured. And all was well.

The thing about the darkness that night was not that it was frightening. It wasn’t especially. It was just so unexpectedly total. In an instant, we were plunged into an alternate reality. We knew the way, from abbey to hall, and yet in this new reality our knowledge didn’t count for much. We literally had to feel our way.

I think of the people who made their way out to the river to John the Baptiser at the beginning of the gospel of Mark. When they came up out of the water, having been baptised, they found themselves in a new and alternate reality. They had not gone to the well-lit temple for the repentance of sins; they had gone out to the wilderness. From then on, they would be feeling their way.

The experience of one of these seismic shifts in our reality is not always so benign. Sometimes, they threaten to make us lose our way.

The gospel of Mark ends with the women fleeing from the tomb – running away. The darkness of the empty tomb in the darkness before morning…it was so unexpectedly total. And it was frightening.

Grief can be like that…unexpectedly total….leaving us feeling our way.

Blessing When the World is Ending
by Jan Richardson

Look, the world
is always ending

the sun has come
crashing down.

it has gone
completely dark.

it has ended
with the gun
the knife
the fist.

it has ended
with the slammed door
the shattered hope.

it has ended
with the utter quiet
that follows the news
from the phone
the television
the hospital room.

it has ended
with a tenderness
that will break
your heart.

But, listen,
this blessing means
to be anything
but morose.
It has not come
to cause despair.

It is simply here
because there is nothing
a blessing
is better suited for
than an ending,
nothing that cries out more
for a blessing
than when a world
is falling apart.

This blessing
will not fix you
will not mend you
will not give you
false comfort;
it will not talk to you
about one door opening
when another one closes.

It will simply
sit itself beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
will come,
gathering itself
about you
as the world begins
– Jan Richardson

It’s been a week of utter quiet following the news from the television. What can we do but feel our way through?

Such bad news, everywhere. If John the Baptist were at the river, I would go down, just to be washed clean of it, of all that human beings like me can be so ready, willing and able to do to each other.

Where, how, when – with what loving friends, in the midst of which particular natural beauty that stirs your heart, or immersed in what exquisite work of art or piece of music…how will we find our way to receiving the blessing of the Present One, who sits “among the shards/and gently turn(s) our face(s)/toward the direction/from which the light/will come,/gathering itself/about (us)/as the world begins/again.”


posted 10 Dec 2014 by Jana

An Informed Hope

Published / by Jana

How is it that one can, at a certain age and station in life, fall asleep in the chair in front of the television with no trouble at all but try to do the sensible thing and retire to the bed…and find yourself wide awake?

It’s a question for the ages, that.

What are the circumstances that keep us awake to the advent of the good news? This season is a reminder, a recalling, to remain alert at all times to the possibility…the possibility of grace, the possibility of light in spite of the gloom, the possibility that is actually a certainty – that morning does follow night.

How do we do it, stay vigilant to hope? It isn’t by reading the news, but neither is it by ignoring the signs of doom that surround us. Ignorance is not bliss; it’s just ignorance. The ignoring of reality, with all of its crashing disaster, is not an option for a person of faith. What compels us, what keeps us awake, is an informed hope.

And so we seek out ways to inform ourselves of hope. We come together and share simple things that speak of that which sustains us: bread made from grain grown in a good earth that wills our nourishment, bread kneaded by the industry and creativity of our fellow human beings. We come together and avail ourselves of the genius of our kind: music and the gifted artistry that brings it to life, the mechanical wonders that render it possible. In nature, in silence, standing under the stars…we try to remember our true place, which is not at the apex of creation but somewhere in the midst, interconnected with all that lives and breathes and has the being it has evolved to express the shared life force.

What are the circumstances that keep us awake to the something more that pulses throughout all things, that persists despite our best damning efforts to quell it? We each have our own eternal springs from which to drink: nature, music, prayer, art, family. And in coming together we remind ourselves to drink, drink. May we be refreshed this Advent by the living waters, our hope restored and our witness to the light renewed.

posted 01 Dec 2014 by Jana