I am excited to announce that Dr Gwyn McClelland and I are seeking expressions of interest for a study tour to Japan during Easter next year (8–16 April, 2020).
The trip offers an opportunity to encourage ongoing learning about past mission, issues of colonialism, peace and reconciliation, and the contextualisation of Gospel. The tour includes participation in Good Friday Mass at the Urakami Cathedral, which was destroyed in the blast and is only 500 metres from Ground Zero, a visit the Atomic Bomb Museum, the Nagai Takashi resource room, and, if possible, speaking with a survivor about their experience of the bombing. We will also visit the remote Goto Islands, relevant to the Hidden Christians who were persecuted for over 250 years.
On Friday we were exposed once more to the unfathomable depths of human evil. We may have believed that it couldn’t happen here. But we were mistaken. In fact, while some have spoken of this event as unprecedented in New Zealand, tragically it is not. Wayne reminded us down at Araiteuru marae yesterday that in 1864, during the land wars in New Zealand, about 100 Māori women, children, and the elderly took refuge in Rangiaowhia in face of Governor Grey’s attempts to conquer Māori settlements in the Waikato and seize their land. The women, the children and the elderly took refuge while the men prepared to engage in battle elsewhere. Bishop Selwyn was told, and was asked to convey the message that Rangiaowhia would be a place of sanctuary. But on a Sunday morning the crown forces went to Rangiaowhia and slaughtered all those who had taken refuge there.
The massacre on Friday was not unprecedented in New Zealand. Atrocities like that have struck us before. We have been exposed before in this country to the depths of human evil, and it is probably the case that we will be again. Hatred takes root in the soil of indifference, and in fields of complacency. It grows there undetected until it unleashes its terrible violence and destructiveness. We cannot pretend that New Zealand’s soil provides no nourishment for the seeds of hatred and evil. We cannot pretend as some memes on social media have put it, that this is not us. Racism, intolerance and hatred are nourished here too. The man who drove past the mosque in Linwood on Friday and yelled out the window, ‘I’m here to celebrate’, or those who watched the live feed on Facebook of the killer at his work and cheered him on, are people in our midst, here in Aotearoa New Zealand, in this place that we thought was immune to all this.
We are not immune. So what are we to do?
Many of us will have started out already to embrace our Muslim friends, to try to assure them that this is their home too. Sadly, for now, they have good reason to doubt it. We may try to reach out to ethnic minorities in New Zealand and try to assure them that they are welcomed and their culture is respected. But sadly, their everyday experience frequently tells a different story.
We ought to reach out in these ways wherever we can, but we also have other work to do; it is the work of confession. We are not, as a country, as hospitable, as welcoming, as compassionate as we imagine ourselves to be. The seeds of hatred, nourished by indifference and complacency, can grow here too.
Our Gospel reading this morning is a reading for the season of Lent. It continues the story of Jesus making his way toward Jerusalem. Jesus knows what he will face there. He did not need the warning some Pharisees brought to him that Herod was seeking to kill him. Jesus already knew of the darkness and evil that lay ahead. And yet he continues on.
But for a moment he pauses, and utters a lament for the city toward which he journeys. ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem’, Jesus says, ‘the people that killed the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’
A little later, when in sight now of the city, Jesus pauses again. This time, Luke tells us, Jesus wept over the city, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognised on this day the things that make for peace! … Indeed the days will come upon you when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave you with one stone upon another’.
This is Jesus’ lament for the city. He is speaking of Jerusalem, of course, but we can claim it also for Christchurch today. ‘Your enemies will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you’.
Where do we belong in this story of lament? We want to stand with Jesus of course, joining in his lament for the city, shedding our own tears, longing for the city that it might be comforted, and that it might find a path to peace. It is right that we should stand with Jesus offering our lament.
But we are also those who are lamented over. ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together’, Jesus says, ‘as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’ We are among those lamented over, and we must confess our resistance sometimes to Jesus’ way of love. For all that we do in seeking to follow Jesus, we could do more. We, I’m afraid, take time off now and again, let our own prejudices show, tire of the work of compassion, and harbour intolerant thoughts. We belong also with those for whom Jesus laments: ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’ We have work of confession to do.
In a third place of belonging in this story, we may hear a lament for the Muslim community. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you …’ Not only children, but brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers have been crushed by the gunman in Christchurch. We can claim Jesus’ lament for them, and for us wherever we stand in solidarity with them.
We have also read this morning from Psalm 58. It is a Psalm of bitter anguish cried out to God in the face of atrocity. It is not a Psalm we read often in church, for in crying out for vengeance, the psalmist expresses sentiments that don’t seem to fit very well with the way of Christ. Jesus calls us to love our enemies. We are enjoined to respond to evil with love. Can a Psalm like this, crying out as it does for vengeance, have any place in Christian worship?
I want to suggest to you this morning that it does have a place. Psalm 58 is a psalm of outrage, and outrage is exactly what we should feel in the face of what went on in Christchurch on Friday. Approval is unconscionable and indifference is also a failure. In the face of such terrible evil, we should feel outrage alongside our sorrow. What is more, this is precisely the place where that outrage should be expressed – before God, in worship and lament.
But it is important for us to recognise what we are doing in bringing our outrage here. The psalmist pleads that God will bring vengeance upon his enemies, and in doing so, in placing the outrage before God, the psalmist waives the right to seek vengeance himself. To place our outrage in the hands of God is to offer it up for God to deal with.
‘O God break the teeth of the wicked in their mouths’, cries the psalmist, ‘tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!’ The psalmist has witnessed terrible atrocity and he brings his outrage to God. Outrage is the appropriate thing to feel, but having prayed a prayer like that, the psalmist must leave his bitterness and anger in the hands of God. And then he must wait upon God’s answer to his prayer.
That brings us back to Jesus and his journey toward Jerusalem. Jesus goes to Jerusalem precisely to face the suffering and the evil of our world. Despite the warning of the Pharisees, he does not turn away. He faces the evil by bearing it himself. ‘Vengeance is mine says, the Lord, I will repay’. In Jesus we find that the Lord repays evil by taking its consequences upon himself.
How are we to respond to the atrocity that has taken place in our midst? Outrage is an appropriate response, but we must bring it here and place it in the hands of God. And then we must seek to be faithful to the God we discover in Jesus who does not return evil for evil, but responds to evil with love. It is our Muslim brothers and sisters who need our love most of all just now. We must be diligent in offering our love and our support.
But there is another job for us as well. When we see the evil of racial intolerance appearing among us, or among our friends and acquaintances, when we see the evil of hatred and prejudice manifesting itself in casual remarks among our peers, or in attitudes embedded in our communities, we followers of Christ must call it out and answer it with Jesus’ way of compassion, and kindness, and love.
I sympathise with the thousands of people who have posted on social media and protested before television cameras that the evil unleashed in Christchurch is not our way. But we cannot take that for granted. Compassion cannot be taken for granted. The overcoming of racial prejudice cannot be taken for granted. The removal of religious suspicion and intolerance cannot be taken for granted. We have to work at it, and in that work, we desperately need God’s help.
Let us pray.
Lord we are deeply saddened by what has taken place in our midst. We acknowledge our feelings of anger that an evil man has wrought such destruction among us and brought us all so low. We come before you with our anger, with our sorrow, and also with our confession that we have work to do ourselves to overcome those feelings of intolerance and suspicion and mistrust that we find at times within our own hearts and minds. We need your help, O Lord. We need your help. Do not delay we pray in bringing your aid to all of us, and especially to the Muslim community with whom we mourn today. Amen.
Preached on 17 March at Pine Hill Church, Dunedin, 17 March.
Murray Rae is Professor of Theology at the University of Otago.
‘Regard: from the French, meaning a steady gaze or esteemed.
To lead a place of reconciliation is to think of the stories that have been disregarded, that have been discarded, cast away, considered peripheral, or ignorable, and to know that people who have lived fragmented lives need to have their edges re-enlivened. Stories of hatred and stories of survival, stories of hope and stories of dreams where dignity is a reality. Reconciling involves making mistakes while trying to do good. Sometimes bad mistakes.
Even if we cannot make dreams true, we can regard each other. Because one thing is true: we are perfectly capable of making nightmares real. Just look around. Regard’.
– Pádraig Ó Tuama, ‘The Place Between’, in Neither Here nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality, ed. Timothy Carson (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 2019), 17.
I had grieved. I had wept for a night and a day
over my loss, ripped the cloth I was married in
from my breasts, howled, shrieked, clawed
at the burial stones till my hands bled, retched
his name over and over again, dead, dead.
Gone home. Gutted the place. Slept in a single cot,
widow, one empty glove, white femur
in the dust, half. Stuffed dark suits
into black bags, shuffled in a dead man’s shoes,
noosed the double knot of a tie round my bare neck,
gaunt nun in the mirror, touching herself. I learnt
the Stations of Bereavement, the icon of my face
in each bleak frame; but all those months
he was going away from me, dwindling
to the shrunk size of a snapshot, going,
going. Till his name was no longer a certain spell
for his face. The last hair on his head
floated out from a book. His scent went from the house.
The will was read. See, he was vanishing
to the small zero held by the gold of my ring.
Then he was gone. Then he was legend, language;
my arm on the arm of the schoolteacher – the shock
of a man’s strength under the sleeve of his coat –
along the hedgerows. But I was faithful
for as long as it took. Until he was memory.
So I could stand that evening in the field
in a shawl of fine air, healed, able
to watch the edge of the moon occur to the sky
and a hare thump from a hedge; then notice
the village men running towards me, shouting,
behind them the women and children, barking dogs,
and I knew. I knew by the sly light
on the blacksmith’s face, the shrill eyes
of the barmaid, the sudden hands bearing me
into the hot tang of the crowd parting before me.
He lived. I saw the horror on his face.
I heard his mother’s crazy song. I breathed
his stench; my bridegroom in his rotting shroud,
moist and dishevelled from the grave’s slack chew,
croaking his cuckold name, disinherited, out of his time.
In February 2019, I will be coordinating and teaching an intensive class on Theology and the Arts at Whitley College. The class is an introductory-level doorway into a range of other related subjects, including those on film, on imagination, on poetry, and on creativity and spirituality. It is aimed at practising artists, theologians, curators, pastoral workers, and anybody else with interests in the arts and/or Christian theology.
‘Humans yearn for places of respite, opportunities to be free from the ugly madness of the corporate world. We need to know there are still some precious sites left intact, ecosystems whose richness, scale and enduring health afford us hope for the future, even if we never get the chance to visit them ourselves. For our own sanity and honour we want to believe there are some habitats we won’t destroy, places so special they’ll never be offered up to the maw of industrialisation. Not now. Not ever. I believe Ningaloo is one of those places’.
Criticising contemporary worship songs has become pretty old hat. It’s such an easy target, with favourite gripes including (but not limited to): the lack of good theology, the ever-increasing prominence of ‘me, myself and I’, and the combination of complex musical arrangements with simplistic melody lines, or complicated melody lines with predictable arrangements, depending which side of the bed we emerge from.
But I think we are wrong. While I agree there are problems with contemporary worship music; I don’t agree that this is the sum total of the problem. There is a problem, but it may not be the music’s fault.
If you went back sixty years to many churches, you had people singing from hymn books, accompanied by an organist, perhaps strengthened by a choir, and in between the singing they were led through the service by a pastor, priest or minister. This person led prayers, said blessings, and ushered the congregation through the story-line that is worship. God welcomes us, we praise and confess, God speaks to us, God feeds us, we respond in prayer and offering, God sends, we go. The hymns belonged in the midst of this well-worn journey. Yes the hymns were richer in doctrine, or perhaps ‘thicker’ is a better word sometimes. And how could they not be when they have five to seven verses and no repetition?! But like then, as now, I don’t think the hymns were doing all the heavy lifting for giving the worship services its depth and meaning. Rather it was this careful curation through the worship journey of God encountering people, people responding, God blessing, people going – which was punctuated with spoken prayer, acts of blessing, celebrating sacraments and passing the peace as well as sung worship. Music was certainly part of that, but it was only part of it.
Recently I went to a seminary to teach some ministry students about worship. I asked them what their standard church services looked like. To be truthful, I asked them for their ‘liturgy’. This was their response:
two to three upbeat songs
two more upbeat songs plus prayer
Notices. Kids go out
two more reflective songs plus prayer
one more reflective song, ministry time
As you can see, they covered some of the ‘how’ of worship, but they left the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ untouched. They weren’t able to tell me if the opening songs were functioning as a Call to Worship or as songs of adoration and praise. The prayers were not routinely prayers of confession or intercession, just whatever was ‘on the worship leader’s heart’. I don’t actually think it’s their fault, much like I don’t think it’s the fault of a generation of contemporary worship songwriters who have written theologically impoverished songs. Because the music was never meant to carry the liturgy, the liturgy was meant to carry the music. The liturgy is the order of what we do and why we do it, which was the task of the pastor, priest, minister, and it gave meaning to the songs we sang, the responses we made, the prayers we offered, and the gifts we brought. The old hymns didn’t exist in a theological vacuum, but most of our contemporary worship songs are expected to. We betray this when we ask the congregation to stand and sing with the words, ‘let’s worship’ – because music is now the only worshipful activity that remains to us. Perhaps what we are remembering when we recall the hymns, is not just the richness of the pieces of music themselves, but the general coherence of the service as a whole.
Now our worship songs (which are, let’s face it, more theologically lightweight than their forebears) are framed in a significantly vaguer space than before. We might know how many songs we do before the welcome, and then how many more before the notices, but we no longer remember what function those songs are meant to perform. Is it any wonder our songwriters struggle for depth? We have them playing in the paddling pool!
Now I’m not advocating a return to worship how it was ‘back in the good ol’ days’. I’m advocating that pastors, priests and ministers reclaim their role as liturgical theologians. Given the influence of the charismatic movement initially, compounded later by a shift in priorities for pastoral leaders as well as a heightened consumeristic expectations from church folk, pastors have largely abdicated having direct input into the worship service apart from the message, and they have handed that role over to musicians. One might ask, have those musicians begun to receive resourcing and training to enable them to lead the congregation in worship, to give voice to the spirituality of a whole community before God? In my experience, no. This situation may not strike us as odd because we are so used to it, but consider this scenario. How weird would it have been, ‘back in the good ol’ days’ to have let the organist lead the service, pick their favourite songs, and lead all the prayers (off the cuff) from the console? It didn’t make sense then, and I’m not sure it makes sense now.
Pastors are uniquely qualified to give logic and coherence to a worship service. They are pastorally linked in to what is happening in the congregation, they are theologically astute in order to let the great themes of Scripture seep through a whole service, and they are wordsmiths. Just the sort of people to craft prayers which gather up our hopes and our fears, and hold them alongside the promises of God. When the pastor abdicates this role to the guitarist, or leaves the guitarist with too few resources to draw upon, then the worship service starts to feel like a variety concert, rather than a pilgrimage into the heart of God, and then with God into the world.
What am I suggesting? If you’re in a church where the worship service is completely in the hands of the musicians, perhaps it’s a matter of sparking up some conversations with your key leaders, helping them to move beyond their own spirituality and into facilitating a experience of worship that is hospitable for the whole congregation, linking them with the cadence of God’s story. Introduce them to the rhythms of worship, the back and forward nature of God calling and people answering.
When we share the liturgical load across the service, I suspect we won’t find so many things lacking with our songs anymore. The strength of the contemporary worship song is that they are often simple; offering space to allow a truth to sink deep within us, or for us to reflect or wonder. Exactly the kind of liturgical experience that will deepen and enrich a thoughtfully tailored worshipping journey. These songs belong in a rich tapestry of artful worship, not hung out on their own.
When there is a coherence to our worship, and depth and meaning to our prayers, prayers where the word ‘amen’ comes out of us with conviction rather than out of habit, words of welcome and sending that draw people out of their small, fractured worlds, into the wide-open spaces of God, then I think we’ll be in a place to write even better songs as well.
Malcolm Gordon is the Worship, Music and Arts Enabler at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. [Reposted from Candour.]
Over at Art/s and Theology Australia, the wonderful Clare Boyd-Macrae has shared a reflection on Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. Here’s a snippet:
They poured out their very souls in these letters, in a way that I suspect contemporary lovers rarely do with their instant messaging and their moving in together five minutes after they ‘hook up’. The sheer longing for each other in these epistles is a world away from the instant gratification we have come to expect in everything, including sex. I’m not wishing myself back there exactly – I do wonder how marriages panned out when these heightened times were over and a couple had to settle down to jobs and housework and the daily irritations that are a part of a long love. But the contrast with current practices is staggering.
Those interested in submitting short essays, reviews, poems, photos, and critical reflections to ATA can do so here or via email.
Gracious God, persevering through the years, persevering to the end,
As we face the future as a community of your people in this place,
May we know afresh your faithful love, and see afresh your loving faithfulness.
May it be these – may it be You –
For whom we yearn in every season.
May it be your words of life for which we listen, and by which alone we live.
Wind of God –
entirely at home in this world, entirely at home here in this place, here among us.
You blow the world out of nothing into abundance.
You blow the church out of hurt and despair into healing and fresh expressions of faith.
You blow to make things new that never were.
Breath of God –
Rush us beyond ourselves,
Rush us beyond our hopes,
Rush us to follow Jesus wherever he may be found in this unstable world and its uncertain future,
Rush us to hold firmly what is too fragile on its own,
Rush us beyond our fears, until we enact your newness in the world.
Come, come, Breath of God.
With lightly-held reverence for our past, and with hearts of true flesh, help us with courage and wisdom and freedom to welcome and to pursue and to participate in the new things you are doing in and around and despite us, and beyond.
Continue to raise up leaders who will serve your people with humility, and with deep humanity bear witness to your Good News.
May we dare to dream and to risk what we have never imagined – free, unencumbered, joyous, just, obedient.
And along the way, save us from empty slogans, from senseless controversies, and from the delusion that we are at the centre of your work around here.
God before and God behind,
For all that has been – thanks.
For all the will be – Yes!
We pray in the name of Jesus, in whom we see you a little more fully and ourselves a little more clearly.
‘I would have thought those who have shared the bread and cup with, or worked alongside, brothers and sisters from Latin America would be pushing back against the dehumanization of people labeled in high places as “animals” and “invaders.” I would have thought they would be generously supporting groups that are helping to provide for the needs of those in the “caravan.” I would have thought they would be advocating for more judges and translators to be sent to the border to process asylum claims.
Sadly, these things, by and large, have not been happening. That leads me to wonder what this says about the role of STM [short-term mission trips] trips in helping to change lives and produce disciples who care about the plight of those whom they served. And what it says about the state of the Church in America’.
Recently, a wee menagerie of art lovers and theologians met to imagine some ways that we might together provoke theological reflection, and to promote research and networking, on the conversations that occur between the arts (broadly conceived) and Christian theology/spirituality.
This led to a commitment to pursue some modest experiments – joint publications, organise some conferences, offer some courses, and develop a new website, Art/s and Theology Australia.
We are now looking for writers, poets, composers, academics, artists, theologians, and other creatives and endangered species who might be willing to share their work and to help build this network and public depository. If you’re interested to be involved, check out the website and get in touch.
You can also subscribe to posts via email, and/or follow the site via Twitter.
I am among a countless number of pastors and god-botherers who have been absolutely blessed through your ministry and witness, especially through your words – words that saved me on more than one occasion. Thank you so much.
May the Lord bless you and keep you …
For any listening in, who could forget that timely- and perceptively-diagnosed challenge and invitation with which Peterson began his extraordinary book Working the Angles?
American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries. Their names remain on the church stationary and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling. They have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries.
A few of us are angry about it. We are angry because we have been deserted. Most of my colleagues who defined ministry for me, examined, ordained, and then installed me as a pastor in a congregation, a short while later walked off and left me, having, they said, more urgent things to do. The people I thought I would be working with disappeared when the work started. Being a pastor is difficult work; we want the companionship and counsel of allies. It is bitterly disappointing to enter a room full of people whom you have every reason to expect share the quest and commitments of pastoral work and find within ten minutes that they most definitely do not. They talk of images and statistics. They drop names. They discuss influence and status. Matters of God and the soul and Scripture are not grist for their mills.
The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns – how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.
Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping, to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs; while asleep they dream of the kind of success that will get the attention of journalists. “A walloping great congregation is fine, and fun,” says Martin Thornton, “but what most communities really need is a couple of good saints. The tragedy is that they may well be there in embryo, waiting to be discovered, waiting for sound training, waiting to be emancipated from the cult of the mediocre.”
The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades.
‘Supreme art is a traditional statement of certain heroic and religious truths, passed on from age to age, modified by individual genius, but never abandoned. The revolt of individualism came because the tradition had become degraded, or rather because a spurious copy had been accepted in its stead’.
– William Butler Yeats
… and a poem – ‘The Fascination of What’s Difficult’ – from The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989):
The fascination of what’s difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart. There’s something ails our colt
That must, as if it had not holy blood
Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,
Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt
As though it dragged road metal. My curse on plays
That have to be set up in fifty ways,
On the day’s war with every knave and dolt,
Theatre business, management of men.
I swear before the dawn comes round again
I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt.
‘If I conclude that my Christian brothers or sisters are deeply and damagingly mistaken in their decisions, I accept for myself the brokenness in the Body that this entails. These are my wounds, just as those who disagree with me are wounded by what they consider to be my failure or even betrayal. So long as we still have a language in common and the “grammar of obedience” in common, we have, I believe, to turn away from the temptation to seek the purity and assurance of a community speaking with only one voice and to embrace the reality of living in a communion that is fallible and divided. The communion’s need for health and mercy is inseparable from my own need for health and mercy. To remain in communion is to remain in solidarity with those who are wounded as well as wounding the Church, in the trust that within the Body of Christ the confronting of wounds is part of opening ourselves to healing’.
– Rowan Williams
Image: Bruce Herman, ‘Elegy for St. Catherine’ (2004).
“There is no mysticism in the American concept of the state or of the nature or origin of its authority. We set up government by consent of the governed, and the Bill of Rights denies those in power any legal opportunity to coerce that consent. Authority here is to be controlled by public opinion, not public opinion by authority ….
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”