Rev Cathie Lambert is the Uniting Church Minister in Margaret River, and coordinated the worship at the recent 14th UCA National Assembly in Perth. She reflects on the captivating rose window in Winthrop Hall, University of Western Australia, where the meeting took place.
Mandalas are used by many spiritual traditions as a symbol of healing and wholeness. In Winthrop Hall, the amazing mandala is found towering in the front of the meeting hall, in the form of a rosary window. There is nothing like a mighty archetype of wholeness as a constant reflection point as we talked about who we are as the church and how we relate to each other.
The church talks a lot about wholeness. It is what we hope for ourselves, the world and others. Many of the stories of Jesus are centred around a search for wholeness. Our western society, however, has a way of disintegrating us, fragmenting us. We are divided into flesh and spirit; physical, psychological and spiritual; while all we long for is to be integrated and one.
As I meditated on the mandala, I became very aware of the ways that the church can fragment rather than bring wholeness. It was very clear that for some in the church the work of wholeness is a lot easier than for others. I certainly felt this privilege throughout the Assembly meeting. Not once did I feel, for any reason, that I did not belong, that I could not contribute or that I may be judged. I did, however, experience others making themselves extremely vulnerable; those who had difficulty expressing themselves in the dominant language, those who with great courage crossed cultural differences to engage in our way of making decisions and those who risked sharing their hurts of being judged for their sexual orientation.
As I looked into the faces of these people silhouetted by the mandala behind them, I was left with nothing but admiration. Their longing for wholeness and acceptance in the church was a struggle. The place where grace and wholeness should have been readily available had often be the stumbling block. It is a challenge to keep in sight the vision Jesus had for our world and our relationships. We get so tied up with doing church that we forget to be church. It is hard work.
My prayer for myself in the days ahead is that each person I meet will have that window of wholeness behind them as a reminder to work for wholeness for all people in all situations.
“Bala limurr roŋyirr ŋorraŋgitjlil”. This phrase from the languages of the North East Arnhemland Yolŋu clan/nations was first spoken to me more than 15 years ago by my brother-in-law who was my boss and my mentor, the Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM. An interpretation goes like this: “Let us return to the white ash of the fire”. The rich meaning of this phrase is greater than I can fully comprehend. However, for our context it urges us to return to the foundations of faith, to look at the way the people of God, and the communities of Christ have been sustained and enlivened by the Spirit’s flame, for generations. To remember the wonderful people, our ancestors of faith who have gone before and who were warmed by the fires of the Spirit.
The late chairperson of the Northern Regional Council of Congress the Rev M Garawirrtja said: “We return to these white ashes of the fire and know the place for the first time.” For First People it’s a remembrance of the ancestors who have cared for this land, protected life and law and kept clan/nations strong and in covenantal relationship. The fire of the Creator Spirit gives them life!
If you know fire, you will know that with some kindling and a little blowing, from the white ash will come forth new flame, and fire will burst into life.
“Bala limurr roŋyirr ŋorraŋgitjlil”. How might this rich concept speak to us as the Uniting Church? How might God be speaking through First People to us at this time?
The book of Acts may be considered an account of the foundations of faith, of the beginnings of the Christian movement. And so for me returning to the white ash of the fire and knowing the place for the first time has meant re-reading Acts, alert to the Spirit’s leading. This is why I pray for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Friends, the flame of the Spirit’s sacred love carried in our hearts needs to be rekindled so that it burns with inextinguishable blaze! When we look at the result of this filling of the Spirit in Acts 4 we see that the believers were “one in heart and mind” (v32).
At this 14th Assembly we will celebrate the 30 years of relationship/communion with Congress and the 30 years since declaring we are a multi-cultural church. We will be encouraged to think about the concept of ‘unity in diversity’ as a grace gift. Not uniformity, which is assimilationist in practise, but a oneness in Christ, a oneness of heart and mind.
Charles Harris, one of those whose vision birthed Congress, speaking of his hopes for the covenant between First and Second Peoples within the Uniting Church said the covenant would: “contribute to a more just church and nation”. And Djiniyini Gondarra, also one of the visionaries who birthed Congress, speaking of a ‘new Australia’ said prophetically: “God seeks a new kind of leadership in Australia built on a new heart and mind which the prophet Ezekiel speaks of”. It is my belief that both these statements continue to set before us a Godly vision and vocation for us as the Uniting Church in Australia.
Charles Harris spoke of justice in our nation, and the psalmist declares (89:14) righteousness and justice are the foundations of God’s kingdom. Could these then be the foundations of faith, the white ashes of the fire which the Spirit would rekindle as fire in every heart?
John Smith says of compassion it is “to feel what it is like in someone else’s skin”. I have always said it is to ache with the ache of a sister or brother. I admire the young adult leaders in our church. One recent example of this “aching with” I speak of, occurred earlier this year when the Australian government was about to transfer young pregnant women, and mothers and their babies from the detention facility in on the outskirts of Darwin to offshore detention centres.
My young friend was physically and emotionally “aching with” each of these women, and particularly the ones she had grown to know through regular visits to the detention facility. It was her aching heart, joined together with other compassionate hearts which led to all night prayer vigils outside the detention facility and to a service of worship being shifted from a local Uniting Church, one Sunday morning to a veranda in front of the Country Liberal Party, Federal member’s office.
The good outcome of these compassionate acts of protest, and other actions around the nation, were that the women were not transferred.
However we continue as the people of God to be ashamed of our government’s policies relating to asylum seekers and in particular, children in detention. Mothers and infants together with children have since I prepared this sermon been moved out in the dead of night to be sent off shore. One wonders at our government’s shame that they do this under the cover of darkness for indeed it is evil.
These actions together with the colonising approach we have used showing little regard for any other nation’s concerns has turned our warm and lucky country into a Dickensian, Scrooge like, cold hearted nation.
Sister José Hobday was a Native American Elder and story teller, and a member of the Franciscan order. She died in 2009 at the age of 80. I want to quote what she said when speaking about generosity for it speaks to me of the Spirit’s warmth carried in the heart. “We used to say you could tell if a person was an authentic native whether or not she had a ‘red’ heart. A red heart had to do with whether the heart had blood from being massaged by good works, especially sharing.”
Our church does amazing things to help those most disadvantage and often marginalised in our society. And friends, in adversity, when we come together as the body of Christ, for the sake of the least, God does amazing things! Graham Kendrick, a contemporary Christian songwriter wrote the song ‘God of the Poor which included these words: “Change our love from a spark to a flame”. That happens through the work of the Spirit and when we act like “body”, when we come together in the name of Christ, for his love compels us (2Corinthians 5:14a).
“Bala limurr roŋyirr ŋorraŋgitjlil”. Let us return to the white ashes of the fire, inviting the Spirit to blow upon us to rekindle the flame of God’s sacred love so that it becomes an inextinguishable blaze! Together as First and Second peoples let us strive in Christ’s name for a more just church and nation.Through the spirit of generosity at work in us, through acts of justice and love may our hearts be truly red. And let us stand in unity, one in Christ who is our head.
May our lives with integrity tell a story of love and faithfulness as we retell the story of Christ’s love and faithfulness; beloved go and bear fruit in Jesus name. Amen.