Messages of Hope

Month: October 2020

Contemplating a ‘new normal’

Published / by Sandy

As Melbourne comes slowly out of lockdown this week, we all breathe a collective sigh of relief across Australia. (Well done, Victoria! It’s been hard but you’re on the way now).

In this time we can tentatively begin to describe as ‘post-lockdown’ (post-COVID is a long way off yet), it will be tempting to simply pick up life and begin the return to ‘normal life’. What will the ‘new normal’ look like? We’ve had months to contemplate what is possible, that we never considered possible before or even thought possible.

The following is an edited excerpt from a conversation between Common Grace CEO Brooke Prentis and Christian ecological ethicist Dr Byron Smith, facilitated by Common Grace’s Creative and Communications Director, Brigitta Ryan. It is titled 2020, the Year of Disruption: COVID-19, Black Lives Matter and the Climate Crisis. Listen to the full conversation here.

DR BYRON SMITH: So, one of the things the pandemic has done is reveal that the window of possibility [for climate action] is wider than perhaps we thought. And that, I think, is one of the key lessons. Change is possible. Another world is possible. And, you know, that cuts both ways. Things can actually get worse, faster than we think as well. Things can get better, faster than we dare to dream. The question is, will we allow ourselves to be defined by the stories of the past and the stories that have shaped and governed our lives, stories of capitalism and technologism and individualism and stories in which the profits of the few, are placed ahead of the health of the many and the health of the planet, or how are we going to live out new life-giving stories grounded in ancient wisdom from First Peoples and in the Scriptures but creatively applied to our new context? And that really is the challenge of today.

BRIGITTA RYAN: We’re talking about the resources for change and how we could go about creating change to care more deeply for God’s Earth. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, who’s been described as one of the world’s leading marine biologists, said in Time magazine that “we can’t solve the climate crisis without people of colour but we could probably solve it without racists.” That’s really a frank way of putting what you’re saying there Byron, that the interests of a few are really being placed ahead of the interests of many.

DR BYRON SMITH: If I could jump in there, it’s not just the interests of the few being ahead of the interests of the many. It’s the interests of the few and the preferences and whims of the few put ahead of the needs of the many. What the rich have to lose is their opulent riches, unnecessary riches, and their immense, unaccountable power. What the poor have to lose and are currently losing are their lives.

BROOKE PRENTIS: I realise my lived experience of injustice is as an Aboriginal person in these lands now called Australia. We are exhausting ourselves, trying to make the possible possible, but we actually need the rest of the Australian population to come on board to change the systems and the structure, the systemic racism, the systemic injustice in so many of the structures built in these lands now called Australia. And so it’s not just about fixing them. We actually have to ‘dismantle’ these systems. And then we’ve got to build something new.

Richard Rohr talks about the movement from Order to Disorder to Reorder. This year we have seen the sudden movement from ‘order’ to ‘disorder’ with the global pandemic. He wrote recently: Disorder is already upon us by reason of our planet, our history, our politics, our economy, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the widespread increase in mental and emotional unhealth. Our job is to make “Good Trouble”* – and probably even “Necessary Trouble”* – so that humanity can spiritually and politically mature. It is about falling – but, as always, falling upward.

What does this liminal time in history call us to do and to be? What will the ‘new normal’ look like that will bring health and healing and wholeness to all, and not just a few. What systems and structures need to change? What might ‘good trouble’ and even ‘necessary trouble’ look like?

(*US Senator John Lewis, who died of pancreatic cancer this year, said,
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”)


Published / by Sandy

1 Thess. 1:1-10
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the Christian community in Thessolonica, in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you, and peace. We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith – your faithful service, and labour of love, and perseverence and steadfastness of hope and in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that God has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction and assurance. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.

The Lectionary begins a journey through the earliest letter of Paul, written to the Christian converts and fledgling church in Thessaloniki.
Thessaloniki was (and still is) an important seaport about 300 km north of Athens. In Paul’s day, the northern region of Greece was known as Macedonia. The city had supported Emperor Augustus, so the Romans made Thessaloniki a free city in 43 B.C. We’re told that Paul, Silas and Timothy went to Thessaloniki, and attended the Jewish synagogue 3 times to present their case for Jesus as the Messiah. As a result, there were converts, primarily among devout Greeks (Acts 17:4) – Gentiles who were sympathetic to Judaism, but had not yet converted to the Jewish faith.
So there were those in Thessaloniki who continued with worship of idols, those who were part of the Jewish faith, and those who became followers of Jesus. The different faith traditions continue today. In Greece, religious affiliation is aligned with ethnicity – to be Greek is to be Orthodox. It is the state religion. Non-Orthodox churches can face legal restrictions and discriminatory governmental obstacles. They have to have a permit from the Ministry of Education and Religion to operate legally as a ‘House of Prayer’. The Pastors of Protestant Churches can be taken to court for proselytizing.
Paul and his team were preaching and proselytizing, and faced determined opposition. The Jewish leaders at the time were enraged and caused a riot, which was enough to run Paul out of town. Paul headed south to Berea and began to preach again, but the Jewish leaders followed him there and again caused a stir. So Paul headed south again, this time to Athens, and then to Corinth. We are told he was by that time he was in weakness, in fear and in much trembling (1 Cor 2:3). He was very discouraged. And yet, his attention was focussed on the churches he had founded. He didn’t want to leave them with only a distant memory of his teaching. You see, there was no church building or church ecclesial structure as we know it. Just a group of new believers who had responded to the teaching about Jesus and chose to follow the Jesus way. Then Silas and Timothy came to Paul from Thessaloniki with great news: the church there was going strong. The local organization was basic, but sufficient enough to carry on the business of the church, even when Paul was no longer present to guide them. Paul became so excited that he dashed off this letter to the Thessalonians. It’s what we’re reading today, and understood to be the first letter penned by Paul. He wanted to help focus their attention on being a community of mutual interest, care and fellowship.
The Thessalonian Christians had experienced the integrity of Paul and his colleagues – their unselfishness – their agape love. They were confident that Paul and his colleagues were truthful and that they were serving God rather than promoting some sort of private agenda. Having decided Paul and his team were people to be trusted, the new Christians in Thessaloniki responded by imitating them. Then, in turn, they became examples to others in their community. Everybody asked, ‘What has happened to these Thessalonians? These people have broken their idols: they worship the one God; they trust in Jesus. They are no longer drunken, dishonest, impure, contentious.’ The new believers became witnesses to others by the way they lived. People noticed the difference in their lives.
The new believers simply shared with their neighbours and friends what God had done in their lives. They explained the new joy and peace that had come into their hearts. Then, when their friends began to ask questions about what had happened, they shared their faith with them.
Now, being a busy seaport, the word about the new believers in Thessaloniki spread all over the country, silently, and without fanfare. People far and wide were stirred by what was happening in the lives of the new believers. Faith is not merely belief; it is something that changes you. Faith makes you turn from what is wrong to what is right, from dark and hurtful things to right and true and healthy things.
Paul writes to them, that they are beloved of God. Now, the Jewish people reserved this descriptor for supremely great men like Moses and Solomon, and to the nation of Israel itself. Now, this accolade is being extended to the humblest of the Gentiles. You are the beloved of God.
Henri Nouwen wrote: “Personally, as my struggle reveals, I don’t often “feel” like a beloved child of God. But I know that that is my most primal identity and I know that I must choose it above and beyond my hesitations. Strong emotions, self-rejection, and even self-hatred justifiably toss you about, but you are free to respond as you will. You are not what others, or even you, think about yourself. You are not what you do. You are not what you have. You are a full member of the human family, having been known before you were conceived and moulded in your mother’s womb. In times when you feel bad about yourself, try to choose to remain true to the truth of who you really are. Look in the mirror each day and claim your true identity. Act ahead of your feelings and trust that one day your feelings will match your convictions. Choose now and continue to choose this incredible truth. As a spiritual practice claim and reclaim your primal identity as beloved daughter or son of a personal Creator”.
In this letter, Paul writes the famous triad for the first time: faith, hope and love. But Paul’s stress is not on these virtues as an end in themselves, but rather upon what they produce. Their faith produced work – as is the nature of true faith. Their love produced labour. The ancient Greek word used for work implies toil that is strenuous and sweat-producing. Their hope produced patience, which is the long-suffering endurance needed to not only survive hard times, but to triumph through them. Paul writes in this way so that we may see these as the great motives of the Christian life.
Jesus said that he came “not to be served, but to serve” (Mt 20:28, Mark 10:45). The verb douleuo (to serve) was apparently never used in a religious sense in pagan literature. No Greek or Roman could take in the idea of ‘serving’ a God… There was no room for it in their religion. If life was to be a moral service rendered to God, it must be to a God quite different from the ancestral worship.
In reflecting upon this passage this week, I remembered my friend Verena, a German woman who has been living in Thessaloniki for about 3 years, supporting the refugees. She attends the International Protestant Church in Thessaloniki, where about 8-10 people take turns preparing the services. Small, just the way the early church began. She wrote to me this week, reflecting on the passage from 1 Thessalonians. “I remember the first time in Thessalonica when we were reading passages from Thessalonians. Three years later, I still get excited reading this passage.The Bible has become even more personal since I moved to Thessalonica and this passage (1 Thess. 1:1-10) has become precious to me. It has been encouraging in times of my personal difficulties when moving to a foreign country, learning a language, figuring out daily life.
This passage has been encouraging in the work with refugees. In the camp where I have been going I play with and teach the children. It has been encouraging in the work on the streets where we distribute food, clothes, and sleeping bags, and in the organisations where I am working.
It’s been encouraging when on every Tuesday and Saturday we distribute groceries, vegetables and clothes. Families, many with children, don’t have any support from the government. So they are coming because they have literally nothing to eat anymore. When I start to think about the coming winter, I know there will be hundreds of people in the city of Thessalonica who will hide themselves in the street in order not to be found by the police who are doing illegal pushbacks – to Turkey. I think about past winters and the snow we had one year ago and the flimsy tents that broke down under it.
(1 Thess 1:6) “For you received the word in much affliction…” Verena says, I see the refugees in Thessaloniki who were able to leave the island of Lesvos in Turkey, and the Moria camp which has now burnt down, and who say “we want to go back to the hell of Moria, because here it’s worse.”
(I think you may have heard the same sentiment from those living in the hell of indefinite detention in Australia and offshore in immigration detention).
In Thessaloniki, the refugees live in an overcrowded camp or on the streets. The traumatized children cannot stop screaming or are frozen or simply don’t speak anymore. The shoes of the people are inadequate, too small, too big, too cold. A desperate situation that is getting worse and worse.
She says, Then I am thankful to know, to see, to live what I can read (1. Thess:1.5): “because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” This power is so necessary in this work, where is no end in sight. Where people after years still don’t speak English or Greek. Where there is no infrastructure and the camps are not made for integration. Where things are not getting better but worse because the European Union is happy with the Dublin II-law that determines that refugees have to apply for asylum in the country in which they arrived – which of course are the few countries on the edge, one of them being Greece.
“…to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess 1:5) Thessaloniki has so many people in need. How could I do this only by myself? I can’t. Knowing that God put me here to serve makes it possible. When people ask me what they can do for us here, I ask them what Paul did for the church of the Thessalonians then: “constantly mentioning [us] in [your] prayers” (1 Thess 1:2).
So, please hold Verena in your prayers – and the people she supports.
Her experience has many parallels with life for refugees and those seeking asylum in Australia. Refugee advocates report that over 60 asylum seekers – including women, children and infants – who are in community detention in Adelaide have been given just 3 weeks to find work and a new place to live (now extended to six weeks). The youngest is just 8 months old. They are being transitioned to “Final Departure Visas”, which means they will receive no income support. Some individuals are already without an income. If they cannot find work, authorities have advised they “will need to return to a regional processing country or any country where they have a right of residence.” A third of these people are stateless. This would be a huge challenge for anyone at any time, but the fallout from the COVID19 pandemic takes this desperate situation to a whole new level. Community groups are assisting with food, bus tickets, mobile phone vouchers, medicine, utility bills and emergency accommodation. (If you would like to donate a few dollars in support, head to COFA Circle 110).
Last week I did the ‘drop off’ of food packages to families as part of the program to support refugees and those seeking asylum who have no work due to COVID. You know Libby Hogarth had been involved in this program, coordinated with Catherine Russell. I’d love to hear from you if you’re interested in being available to help in any way with packing or delivery.
And on a really positive note, an Afghan family Libby has been working with were able to board their flights to Australia yesterday. The sponsor (husband and father) is already in Adelaide and has been struggling with the weight of all the stress. He looks forward to welcoming his family including his teenage daughter who is seriously ill and needs medical attention. Pray for this family, on this long flight, and for the joyous reunion that awaits them.
Let us continue to be the kind of community that is known by faithful service, labour of love, and perseverence and steadfastness of hope in Jesus Christ. Amen.

(A sermon at Pilgrim UC by Rev Sandy Boyce, Sunday 18th October 2020)

Build Back Better – & the National Budget

Published / by Sandy

The President of the Uniting Church in Australia Dr Deidre Palmer has welcomed the Federal Government’s investment in job creation and recovery measures but says the 2020 budget is a missed opportunity to bring about a more equitable and fairer Australia.

Dr Palmer commended the Government’s focus on getting people back into work, particularly young people, but says the budget as a whole neglects those who need the most support to recover from the pandemic.

“As we noted in our Build Back Better statement, COVID-19 has highlighted the stark inequality and disparity in our Australian society,” said Dr Palmer. “Going forward we need a plan that will build resilient communities and a sustainable future, but this budget fails to live up to those hopes.”

The Budget announced last night failed to raise the base rate of JobSeeker, a move which would have provided much needed security to those who are out of work and who do not qualify for the tax cuts at the centre of the Budget.

Unless further changes are announced, those on JobSeeker will return to the pre-COVID-19 rate on 31 December 2020.  

Last week Uniting Church women leaders called on the Government to prioritise measures to support women, but the budget has little support for women struggling right now.

The Government has prioritised incentives for construction and infrastructure, over social care services, sectors which employ high numbers of women and which would generate far more overall economic benefits.

Other missed opportunities include no investment in more affordable housing and no significant funding for renewable energy or climate action. Rather the Government has invested more than $60million in gas projects and infrastructure.

Also, disappointingly, the refugee humanitarian intake has been cut and financial support has dropped for asylum seekers living in Australia.

In a media release issued last night, UnitingCare Australia National Director Claerwen Little warned that despite record spending and investment, millions of Australians are still at risk of deepening disadvantage.

“We are disappointed that the Government has not taken this moment to raise the base rate of JobSeeker and provide confidence and hope for millions of Australians facing poverty and a very bleak Christmas” said Ms Little.

“This budget is also a missed opportunity to invest in social housing and ensure that everyone has shelter in the storm of this recession.” Watch the video of Ms Little address media in Canberra this morning. 

Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress Interim Chairperson Pastor Mark Kickett said despite some measures to support Closing the Gap and specific health measures, overall our First Peoples have been neglected.

UnitingWorld National Director Sureka Goringe welcomed the $4billion for Overseas Development Aid including additional money to assist with COVID-19 recovery in the Pacific but was concerned it fell short of addressing the growing need in the global context of the pandemic.

Frontier Services National Director Jannine Jackson welcomed increased funding for mental health care but warned this may prove insufficient for the combined impacts of COVID-19, bushfires and drought and failed to address the gap in health services for people living in rural and remote areas.

Dr Palmer added: “As we chart a path to recovery at this critical time in our nation’s history, we strongly encourage the Government to prioritise measures that support the well-being of all Australians.”

Build back better

Published / by Sandy

In responding to the COVID19 pandemic, governments all around the world did things that previously they had resisted doing. Support for people who were no longer in paid employment was doubled. Homeless people were provided hotel accommodation, to protect them and the broader community from the spread of the virus. Child care services were provided without charging families a fee for them.

The COVID-19 crisis still has a while to run yet. Many developing countries will be very vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19 due to their more limited health care systems.

The question we face as a community is, do we need to return to the way things were before the COVID-19 crisis, or can we build back to something better?

On May 15th, the World Council of Churches, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, the Lutheran World Federation and the Council of World Mission issued a joint statement about the world we seek to build as we move to recover from the COVID-19 crisis. They stated:
Even as capitalism supplants the impulses to love, care, and share with the urge to compete, the crisis has seen communities all over the world mobilizing deep reserves of compassion, kindness, and generosity, particularly where markets have failed. This underscores the potential of an economy based on care of the most vulnerable, each other and the earth‘.

The church bodies called on all of us to be nurturing communities:
Loving, caring, and connectedness are key elements for resilience in the face of Covid-19. Physical distancing has needed to be counterbalanced by familial and social solidarity. As we nurture community, it is possible that new models and values for our economies could flourish rooted not in competition but in care for each other and the earth; that new conceptions of family beyond the restrictions of patriarchy and kinship relations and led by the visions of the most vulnerable would form the foundation of our communities; that borders would fall, racism be dismantled and xenophobia be replaced by radical hospitality’.

They called on churches and church members to play a prophetic role at this time, seeking to transform systems:
Covid-19 is overshadowing many with fear, overturning their security and even undermining their faith. In this moment of crisis, we need a liberative theology coupled with a redemptive economy. The human causes and systemic roots of this pandemic point to the exigency of systemic change if we are to be converted by the revelation Covid-19 is offering us, even as, like some latter day Shepherd David, it brings some of those giant systems to their knees. We must build back better, to ensure an Economy of Life that is founded on justice and dignity for all.
This is a prophetic moment. As churches we can see here a path towards the new creation. This struggle could bear the fruit of the earth’s redemption from wanton exploitation. This is eschatological hope rooted not in the end of days, but in the fall of sinful systems. All shall be changed (1 Corinthians 15:51) if the truth is told, the old idolatries of empire and economy cast down, and the care of the Creator reflected in a creation not exploited endlessly but blessed deeply’.

This is a bold and loving vision. We may be sidetracked by the bleak path that screams at us from the media. We may be immobilised by our anger and disbelief at greed and corruption. This gloomy future would involve governments slashing services and reducing taxes, with voices in the media owned and controlled by billionaires already making such calls. Like excluding environmental groups from the Australian budget lock up, where is is expected that details of the Coalition’s plan for job creation will be revealed, including an expansion of gas extraction and fast-tracking of project approvals. Like reducing the top-up payment by $300 to welfare recipients in September, which will leave 2 in 5 people living on less than $14 a day after paying their rent (Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) report). Four in five people living on pandemic-boosted welfare payments will be forced to skip meals if the coronavirus supplement is reduced. Almost half of recipients will also have to ration their medicines. Meanwhile many Executives have pocketed millions from JobKeeper payments. Unbelievable corruption and waste while so many people are in dire situations.

We must resist the bleak vision and put forward the prophetic vision that reflects God’s love for all humanity and for the planet. Let us all play our part.