Last week I had fairly significant eye surgery and for a couple of days knew what it was like to be one-eyed, and even now am operating with a good right eye and a still very blurry, sore left one. Strangely enough this minor trauma seems to have given me an even better vision of matters not requiring perfect eyesight.
The tragedy of Christchurch has brought a greater focus for me about things of faith and more particularly our work here in the Mid North Coast Presbytery.
A great risk of church life is that you can easily find yourself living in a kind of bubble. Our world becomes walled in by the need to simply keep things going. The trauma of the Christchurch shootings has hopefully shocked us out of any bubbles that may insulate us from what is sometimes terribly real.
I travel around congregations quite a bit these days, and I am very aware that so many of our congregations are doing a fair old job of looking after our own; but we generally seem to struggle to make meaningful connections with those outside our doors. I would also like to say that we may not even be really engaging with our own as well as we think.
A couple of weeks back Veronica and I – along with a number of local UCA people – attended the opening of the new Wesley Mission Hub operation in the heart of Taree’s CBD. Wesley have more than twenty people employed in supporting the marginalised across a wide area of this part of our presbytery.
The next morning I enjoyed a lengthy breakfast conversation with Rev Keith Garner, the Superintendent Minister of Wesley Mission. We shared a little of our personal faith journeys and considered what a stronger partnership with Wesley might look like for us locally. It was easily the most encouraging and uplifting couple of hours that I have experienced for a long time.
I have spent most of my ministry life as a change agent. Either revitalising an existing scenario and encouraging fresh hope, or even going to completely new ground and start to turn over the soil, discovering what the Spirit might be saying in this new place. I have never been particularly interested in spiritual museums where we allow nostalgia to reign and make sure that we keep the dust under control.
If all that we do is remind people of what was, and affirm the flock of what is, without allowing the light of what might be to break through, then we are in a very difficult and sad place indeed.
The common concerns over my now more than two years as Chair of this presbytery have been invariably self-focused. For all of my experience in new church work and that much under used word: evangelism; most of the contact I have revolves around what I collectively call ‘stuff’.
The stuff can be about my least favourite church subject; regulations (though they are important as our General Secretary reminded us last month). It can be stuff that concerns finance, disagreement about theology and / or doctrine, personality clashes, ministers (generally the lack thereof) and all of this stuff can be sometimes be mixed in with a solid mix of suspicion, cynicism and distrust, to make a less than savoury cake for people to enjoy.
As with all of us I have a whole Bible full of favourite stories and texts; but the one that I am regularly drawn back to is the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. This story was a part of my formation of faith and whenever I stray into that necessary, but not always helpful stuff, I will go back to this story in Luke 19.
Zacchaeus, marginalised, friendless and likely despised by many, is called down from his ridiculous position up a sycamore tree to be the host of Jesus for dinner.
‘So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.’
And all of the good people who witnessed this amazing moment rejoiced over this event? Well, no, they grumbled:
‘All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”’’
When Jesus called Zacchaeus down from that tree, he offered a simple message to this reviled Tax Collector. He said; ‘You belong.’ ‘You are one of us.’ He didn’t do a background check, sort out his faulty theology or list all of the reasons that he didn’t belong.
‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.'
The enduring image of the Christchurch horror for me has been the moment that the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern comforted the Muslim community wearing the traditional hijab. The PM is apparently an atheist.
When Julia Gillard became Prime Minister someone rang me to ask that I pray against this atheist lady who had assumed the ultimate position of authority in Australia?! Really?
My call as a pastor / leader / evangelist is to be active in both Word and Deed, something that Wesley Mission is very big on. My challenge is to call others to prick our various churchy bubbles, cease dusting the museum exhibits and simply BE the disciples of Jesus we are called to be. You don’t even need eyes for that! Just a heart for all.
Blessings – John