Messages of Hope

Month: March 2019

‘Vale’, John Smith (‘Smithy’)

Published / by Sandy

Motivational Speaker, Doctoral Researcher of Cultural Anthropology, Author, Advocate, Social Commentator, Academic, Human Rights campaigner, Biker, and Unorthodox Evangelist. He addressed the United Nations, nearly faced execution in the Philippines, founded numerous charities and spent much of his life with outlaws and the marginalised. An impressive bio.

Many people will remember John Smith’s contribution to the God Cares campaign in SA schools in the early 80’s. John died on March 6th, 2019, and a memorial services was held on Saturday 23rd March. Rev. Dr John Smith was an international speaker, author, and founder and President of God’s Squad Christian Motorcycle Club International, Concern Australia and St Martin’s Community Church in Melbourne. He was an evangelist and and a leader of great integrity and authenticity. He had a profound impact on the lives of so many, from bikers to school students, business leaders and academics, church leaders and politicians, university students, the poor and marginalised, and outlaw motorcycle club members. John lived faithfully the liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ. He somehow found time to complete a doctorate on the Jesus movement in Australia.

Eternity News recently published an article on John Smith which captures something of his passion for sharing the gospel. His leadership was less about self-promotion and self-importance, and more about a humility of spirit that pointed people to God and the life of Jesus. He was a straight talker and a ‘counter-cultural warrior’ – fiery, direct, enthusiastic, prophetic, passionate, and compassionate. In his presentations, he held culture in one hand and the Bible in the other, quoting poetry by Henry Lawson alongside lyrics from contemporary musicians, alongside the words of Scripture.

Rev Dr John Smith (‘Smithy’), founder of God’s Squad

An article by God’s Squad Christian Motorcycle Club: “He taught us how the Bible was not a book to pull ‘proof texts’ from, to justify personal gain. Neither should we conveniently skip over the hard to read passages, like loving your enemies and doing good to those who persecute you. He introduced us to new travelling companions in the scriptures such as Jeremiah and his laments, the counter cultural prophetic voices of Amos and Micah, which saw him at his most animated, in full flight preaching on a festival stage. He highlighted the frailty of King David, and introduced us to the blues songs in the Psalms that pointed to the hope of the gospel”.

John’s ministry with the God Squad seemingly came out of nowhere. At the time, he was an “orthodox” Baptist minister, beginning to feel drawn towards people on the fringes of society.
“While driving towards Bendigo, I passed a bunch of menacing-looking outlaw bikers parked by the side of the road. Oddly, I felt a surge of compassion for these guys who no one really wanted to know. Despite their apparent toughness, I found they were often vulnerable and lost but searching for a better life. Also the more I dug into Jesus’s life, the more I was challenged by the way he ministered to the outcasts of his day. I reckoned the bikers had to be the “lepers” of our society. So I began to pray that God would raise up someone able to get alongside such outsiders and show them something of the love of Christ. I sensed a reply, “Why don’t you answer your own prayer?”, but initially doubted the call. I was far too straight for the job. As time went on, John became increasingly convinced of God’s call to be “the answer to my own prayer”.

In the early 80’s, John spent time in Adelaide for the Godcares school campaign, riding his bike into school grounds and addressing the secondary school students. It had a huge impact on everyone. Geoff Boyce had taken a year’s leave of absence from teaching at the time to work alongside John, and to help make inroads into schools ministry. This led to the formation of United Christian Forum (UCF) which Geoff led for 5 years (leave without pay). UCF, with a team of talented youth workers and musicians, conducted Christian Option seminars in schools around the State. The work of UCF eventually led to the formation of Schools Ministry Group which continues to this day.

I remember at that time, I was involved in producing CTA (Christian Television Association) spots, and we did one with John. Miraculously, we were able to edit a 60 second CTA spot from John’s long monologue (which was brilliant, just hard to edit down to 60 seconds!).

John’s ministry had a profound impact for decades in and beyond Australia. For Smithy, the world was very much his parish. ‘Right to the end, John Smith remained a man of rugged hope, born from his radical commitment to and love for Jesus of Nazareth’. (a line from an excellent article here about John by Sheridan Voysey, including links to Youtube videos).

Well done, good and faithful servant.


Published / by Sandy

Prayers for our sisters and brothers in New Zealand. #Christchurch
The President of the Uniting Church and all Moderators of our Synods are currently in New Zealand meeting with the leaders of the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches in Aotearoa New Zealand. They have released the following statement.
“As Moderators and President, we are here in New Zealand with the ex-president of the Methodist Church in New Zealand and the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand. We are deeply distressed to hear of the shootings at the Deans Avenue Mosque and the Linwood Masjid in Christchurch, New Zealand. We offer our prayers and support to all those affected, particularly victims and their families. As people of faith our hearts go out to our Muslim sisters and brothers. An attack on people of faith is an attack on us all, who seek to worship in safety and peace.
We invite all Uniting Church members to join members of the Methodist Church in Aotearoa New Zealand and the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand in observing a minute’s silence on Sunday, to pray for the New Zealand community and society and for those most directly affected”.

We Pray in the Wake of the Horror of Violence
God, present with us in Christ,
Supporting and guiding us in the Spirit,
Embrace us in your compassion,
Hold us in your truth,
Infuse us with your love,
For the world can be a dark and violent place,
Where what transpires is unfair and wrong,
And where innocents suffer for the agenda of evil.
Calm our fears and worries.
Give us strength of peace.
And the power of hope.
We think of victims and their loved-ones.
Be with all who need solace and comfort in their time of distress.
Work for healing with all who need it.
When we turn our thinking to the perpetrators,
Smack down any self-righteousness within us.
Teach us how to unclench our souls as prejudice and judgement arise within our mindset.
When we start to label people or name people as enemies,
Corrupt our thinking with your grace, love and compassion,
Reminding us of the teaching of Jesus about such people.
May we not let go of our sense of horror at wrongdoing,
Not seek to excuse acts of cruelty or hate,
But transform these in your grace,
So that understanding, forgiveness,
and reconciliation become the orders of the day.
May we work with you in this world,
So that the day might come sooner than ever,
Where peace is the priority,
Injustice is resolved in good and right ways,
Where no-one dies because of the cause of others,
And that we might live together,
If not in unity, at least with respect and tolerance.
Christ, may we better learn your way,
And better live it together,
So that the horrors of humanity might end.
This we pray,
Now and always. Amen
(Source: Jon Humphries, Prayers that Unite)

Fr Rod Bower writes: From Christ Church Gosford to Christchurch New Zealand….. we join our broken heart to yours. Our thoughts and prayers are with you but they are not enough. Only a wholehearted commitment to truth and non-violence will ensure such crimes against humanity cease to occur. We should not be surprised that such an act of terrorism could emanate from Australia. We have allowed bigotry and racism to infiltrate our national discourse. We have rewarded vilification of ethnic and religious minorities with political success. We have used division to create the illusion of unity. This heinous act of terrorism is the result of the lazy, cheap and divisive political discourse that has diminished our communal soul. This must stop. We must find a better way.
Salam (peace) to the fallen.
Salam to the injured.
Salam to the grieving.
Salam for our future.

Osman Faruqi: “…We begged you to stop amplifying and normalising hatred and racism. But you told us we were ‘politically correct’ and ‘freedom of speech’ was more important. The more you gave the far-right a platform, the more powerful they got. We begged you…”

Brad Chilcott: “What can one say when the hate that has been amplified and validated by political leaders and media spills over into violence and terror? We stand with the victims, with New Zealand’s Muslim communtiy and all New Zealanders in love, sorrow and solidarity. We condemn prejudice and the politics of fear, along with all who weaponise diversity for their own gain. We commit afresh to building a society where all are welcome to belong, contribute and thrive; where leadership is measured in the ability to bring people together not drive them apart; where people of all faiths and cultures are respected and every human is afforded the same right to dignity, justice and opportunity. And again we mourn that this is not yet so – and we grieve with those who continue to suffer until it is”.

Rev. Ray Coster, World Council of Churches Central Committee member from Aotearoa New Zealand: “We share with sisters and brothers in the wider ecumenical family our pain and grief in one of New Zealand’s darkest hours and crave their prayers for the many Muslim families grieving at this time. Some of these families may be migrants or refugees. They are part of us. Many came seeking refuge and safety as Aotearoa New Zealand is perceived as a safe place. As a nation we value compassion, kindness and tolerance. What we have seen today has no place in our culture.”

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches: “This terrible crime against women, men and children at the time of their prayers is an attack on all believers and an assault on the bonds of shared humanity and peaceful coexistence which unite us all. The WCC stands in solidarity with all Muslims at this time, especially the Muslims of Aotearoa New Zealand, and expresses the strongest possible condemnation of these actions and of the hateful and dangerous ideologies that stand behind them.”
Tveit expressed his deep condolences to the Muslim community, and all the people of Aotearoa New Zealand, for this massacre is an attack on the whole nation and its values of inclusion and respect for all its citizens. He added: “We pray that all the communities of Aotearoa New Zealand will come together to support those who have suffered so dreadfully and to reaffirm the nation’s commitment to the safety and flourishing of all its people”.
Tveit concluded: “At this time the WCC reiterates its long-standing commitment to dialogue and harmony with the Muslim communities of the world. We affirm to all our Muslim friends and partners that we utterly reject such actions and call on all Christian people to follow in the way of Jesus Christ by seeking to live in peace and respect with all our neighbours, and especially committing ourselves to the protection of vulnerable minorities.”

A testing time: 40 days in the wilderness

Published / by Sandy

Rev Dr John Squires reflects on the Gospel reading for Lent 1 (originally posted on his blog).

The story of Jesus being “tempted in the wilderness” is told early on in three canonical Gospels. The shortest and most focussed version is in the earliest of these Gospels – the account of the good news of Jesus, the anointed one, the Son of God, which we attribute to the evangelist Mark.

This brief and focussed account (Mark 1:12-13) simply notes the bare minimum. The location is “the wilderness”. The duration is “forty days”. Present with Jesus throughout these days were both “wild beasts” and “angels”. What was the purpose of this challenging, difficult experience? Mark says that Jesus was there to be “tempted by Satan”. Under whose auspices did this all take place? The first line of the Markan account is, “the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness”.

So this short, succinct, concentrated version already gives us key pointers to the significance of this story. The forty days in the wilderness stand at the start of the public activity of Jesus, as a declaration of what he is on about. And these days are part of the intention that God has, for Jesus, to prepare for his role.

The story also appears in the book of the origins of Jesus, the anointed one, the son of David, the son of Abraham, which we attribute to Matthew, and place as the first Gospel in canonical order in our scriptures. But this wasn’t the first Gospel written; the author (by tradition, Matthew) quite clearly knew, and made use of, the earlier account of “the good news” which we link with Mark.

So in this later work, the details of the story are expanded and the plot line is filled out (Matt 4:1-11). The forty days in the wilderness becomes a time when Jesus fasted (Matt 4:2; something not mentioned in the earlier Markan account). Here, Jesus engages in a disputation with “the tempter” (Matt 4:3, which uses the language already found in the Markan version)

Of course, the role that is enacted by this figure – the tempter, the devil, the tester, the Satan – is the role of divine advocate, the one we know from the book of Job as the prosecuting attorney, the accuser, the one who puts the case that Job needs to answer. The whole of that book demonstrates how such a courtroom setting plays out, as the argument is investigated, the evidence is explored, the case for a verdict is painstakingly built.

The forty days in the wilderness was undoubtedly an intense experience for Jesus. The role of “the tempter” in this story is not actually to tempt Jesus to stray into immoral or unethical or unrighteous actions. On the contrary, the role of “the tempter” is actually to test Jesus, to probe and analyse his understandings, in to hypothesise and offer alternative strategies, to help Jesus to clarify and focus on what is central for him. It is a test of his character, his core qualities, and of his commitment to the mission to which he has been called.

Indeed, the devil here fills the role more of “the tester” than “the tempter” – and the Greek word used here (peirasmos) is quite capable of this alternative translation. It is most often used in Greek literature to describe the process of testing as to whether something is viable or possible, and that is the way it is intended elsewhere in the Gospels when it occurs. It only gains the secondary sense of “tempting” or soliciting something that is sinful, in relatively few instances, mostly within the letters of Paul and James.

The author of Luke’s Gospel clearly knew the earliest account (in Mark); it may well be that he also knew a version such as we have in Matthew, and he has reshaped and reinterpreted it at various points throughout his account. This may be one such instance. In the version of the story of the forty days in the wilderness which appears at Luke 4:1-14, there are words added, sentences rewritten, and the order of things is slightly varied. But there is still the same process of back-and-forth between accuser and accused, shaped by the scripture texts that are cited.

So Luke and Matthew both give us deeper insight into the testing that Jesus experienced during those forty days in the wilderness. They show that “the tester” utilised scripture as the basis for the trial that Jesus is undertaking. And this, it must be said, is thoroughly predictable – given that we are dealing with a text from the first century of the common era, emerging out of the context of faithful Judaism, telling the story of a faithful Jewish man – Jesus – and his earliest circle of followers – Jewish men and women. They all express the piety and faith of the Judaism of the time, for that was their religion and their culture.

Scripture sits at the heart of Jewish life and faith. Young Jewish boys, like Jesus, were taught to read the Hebrew text of scripture, and to memorise it. They were grounded in the Torah, the books of the Law, which set out the way of life, the way of faithful living, that they were to follow. They needed to know this, to have it deep within their hearts. That would have been the upbringing experienced by Jesus.

As they grew older, these Jewish boys were taught the next stage, the midrashim, the teachings which provided explanation and application of the laws and stories embedded in Torah. There were two types of midrashim: there was haggadah, which was telling stories (and the Jewish teachers, the rabbis, were excellent at telling stories!); and there was halakah, which was discussion and debate about how best to interpret and apply the laws found in Torah.

It is this latter form of teaching that we encounter, in the story of the forty days in the wilderness. The back and forth between the person on trial – Jesus – and the person charged with testing and probing his case – the accuser – is couched entirely in terms of sacred scripture. Each time an accusation is put before Jesus, the accuser quotes a passage of scripture. And each time the person on trial – Jesus – responds, another text from sacred scripture is quoted.

Think about that for a minute: both the accuser and the accused are citing scripture, arguing on the basis of what is found in the tradition and heritage and sacred story of the people of Israel. They are both engaged in this task, to get to the heart of the matter; to penetrate to the essence of the issue, through exploration of scripture and its relevance to Jesus and his mission.

This is typical Jewish midrashic argumentation. This is the way that, throughout the centuries, Jews have sought to encounter the truths of scripture – through discussion and debate, by one posing a proposition and then another arguing back in counter-proposition, through the adding of additional scripture passages into the argument, in a process of refining, sharpening, and clarifying the intent of the initial scripture text.

This was par for the course for ancient Jews. This is still the way that faithful Jews engage with scripture. My years as a member of the Uniting Church Dialogue with the Jewish Community immersed me into precisely this culture on a regular basis. It was quite an experience! To us polite, constrained Westerners, it seems like an unruly mess. To Jews, schooled in this process since their early years, it is natural, and results in deep and profound understandings of scripture.

So this is what was happening in the story that our Gospels recount: a time of testing, a testing which was designed to cut through to the centre of the issue, to engage deeply with the heart of the matter. It wasn’t an attempt by the devil to get Jesus to go off the rails, to misbehave badly, to succumb to unrighteous behaviour, to sin. Rather, this was the way that ancient Jews sought to crystallise the issue and define key matters of faith and life. That’s what was going on for Jesus during those forty days in the wilderness.

Most versions of the Bible, today, put a heading at the beginning of this story: “The Temptation of Jesus”. I wouldn’t label it as such. I would prefer to call it, “The Testing of Jesus”. What is his mission all about? Is he clear about how he will carry out that mission? What strategy does he have, as he enters into the public proclamation of his good news about God’s kingdom? These are the issues that are at stake in this particular story.

The Gospel writers believed that the forty days in the wilderness was a time for Jesus to face testing, and that this testing was mandated by God. The final point that underlines this way of understanding the story, comes when we look at the top-and-tail of each account.

The shortest and earliest account states that “the Spirit drove him into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12). There is a violence, an aggression, in the term used here. But it is an action of the Spirit, forcing Jesus to enter this trial. It is something that he had to do, under the impulse of God’s direction.

One later account modifies this, and softens the verb to say that “Jesus was led up by the spirit into the wilderness” (Matt 4:1). We find this in Matthew; and that version ends with “the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him” (Matt 4:11). That picks up on what Mark had said, that “the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:13). So the story ends with an implicit approval, by the divine, through the vehicle of the angels, regarding what has transpired in the wilderness.

Another later account makes this quite clear and explicit. The version we attribute to Luke begins “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness” (Luke 4:1). That intensifies the sense of divine guidance and approval in what is about to take place. And the account ends with a similar note: “The devil departed from him … then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee” (Luke 4:13-14). Could it be any clearer?

Indeed, a still later account, which is not in the canon of New Testament books, but was revered by some in the early church, includes a section that reports on something from this story, placed onto the mouth of Jesus: “even so did my mother, the Holy Spirit, take me by one of my hairs and carry me to the great Mount Tabor”—a reflection of the section of the story that talks about Jesus being taken up to a high mountain (Matt 4:8). [That comes from the Gospel according to the Hebrews, and is quoted by Origen in his Commentary on John 2:12.] So in this version, the testing of Jesus is actually carried out, not by the devil, but by the Spirit!

My proposal is that, as we read this story, we need to banish thoughts of “temptation” and the notion that Jesus might choose a false and unrighteous pathway. What is actually taking place, is a strenuous and engaged encounter, in which Jesus is challenged to clarify his divine calling and better equipped to live out the mission that he has been given, by God, during his adult life. He is being tested.

In that sense, this story is not a remote, back-then, archaic account …. it is a living, here-and-now, immediate insight into how we, ourselves are to live out our faith in the hustle and bustle of our own lives. That is precisely the pathway that we are encouraged to enter, as we stand at the start of the season of Lent, and as we experience our own time of re-evaluation and reassessment of our own walk of faith today. What is God calling us to do? Who is God calling us to be? How can we best live that out in our lives?

International Women’s Day – Friday 8 March 2019.

Published / by Greg Elsdon

International Women’s Day – Friday 8 March 2019.

“Today is a day to celebrate women and their contribution to our global community in our governments, workplaces, communities, families and churches.” [Dr Deidre Palmer, President of the Uniting Church in Australia]

Check out Deidre’s special IWD video message:

Australia’s IWD 2019 theme, More Powerful Together, recognises the important role we all play – as women, men, non-binary and gender diverse people. It takes all of us, working in collaboration and across that which sometimes divides us, breaking down stereotypes and gendered roles to create a world where women and girls everywhere have equal rights and opportunities.

International Women’s Day is a special focus at our 9.30am Service at Pilgrim Uniting Church on Sunday 10 March. Under the theme – ‘Better the Balance Better the World’ – the contribution of women will be celebrated with special focus on some of the amazing women who pioneered the women’s suffrage movement in South Australia in the second half of the 19th century.  Many of these women – including Mary Lee, Mary Colton, Elizabeth Nicholls, Catherine Helen Spence, Augusta Zadow, Selena Lake and Rosetta Birks – considered their commitment to the suffragist movement to be an important expression of their Christian faith.