Category Archives: Faith

Beyond #changethedate, how do we #changetheheart?

Here we are again. January 26. A day on which I am often tempted to engage with all kinds of ideas and questions and debates. Last year, I posted about some of the things that I have learned over the last couple of decades that have led me to think we need to #changethedate.

But this year, through listening to some of my Aboriginal sisters and brothers I have learned it is so much more than that.

We need to #changetheheart in order to #changethenation. 

Because in terms of the big picture, the reality is that since this time last year, nothing has really changed. Australia still has the world’s largest life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people. A Human Rights Report Card released this month gives us a dismal F-minus for progress on indigenous rights this year. And changing the date will not itself change these realities.

Hearing again the statistics leads me to mourning and despair again. But I also know that my own heart has been softened, challenged, and broken further over this past year. And that is probably a good place to start.

This year I’ve tried to open my eyes to see the First Nations people around me in my city, to appreciate what I have to learn from them and to be confronted with the suffering too many of them are enduring.

While in Israel in April, what I saw challenged me to recognise myself as someone who lives on a land that is not my own, and to consider what it would mean in practice to identify myself this way.

After coming home, I took some time to read through and reflect on the Uluru Statement from the Heart. How can I respond to its calls for truth telling and walking together?

In June I was challenged to learn each day of National Reconciliation Week, hearing and sharing some of the horrific stories of the history of our nation’s response to our indigenous people.

In October I had the privilege of standing side by side with Aboriginal Christian leader Brooke Prentis as our church accepted her hand of friendship as we continue to journey in listening to our Aboriginal sisters and brothers.

This week I attended a service of Lament and Prayer and joined with indigenous and non-indigenous sisters and brothers in hope for a better future in this land.

I don’t list these things to make it sound like I have achieved anything or arrived anywhere. Each of these have been simple and small steps, and I have still have so much to learn.

But I want to keep challenging myself, and I want to challenge you, to keep taking steps of friendship and reconciliation. To let my heart and not just my head be impacted by what this day means for First Nations peoples and so to grow in understanding, respect and acknowledgment.

These are the things that have been changing my heart and I hope there are more to come. What is changing yours?

Photo of Common Grace #changetheheart flyer for 2019 prayer services

Blue Christmas: Lament and Hope

We held a Blue Christmas service at my church last night. This is a tradition I have found helpful over the last few years, attending a couple of similar services, although this was the first time I have been involved in leading one. Blue Christmas is about naming the fact that for many people, the joy, celebration, and expectation of this time of year is often tinged with sadness. It is an opportunity to take time to sit in the darkness, to bring before God our sadnesses and sorrows, to recognise that there are often no easy answers or quick fixes, but to seek hope in the midst of wherever we find ourselves.

I’ve learned from the psalmists that we need time and space to be honest and vulnerable before God and his people. The lament psalms give us permission to be brutally honest; to name our sadness, doubt, confusion, or even anger in prayer.

We met last night, on what for most of the world is the longest night of the year, the night of greatest darkness, which comes just a few days before we remember the dawning of hope in the birth of Jesus. Of course, living in the southern hemisphere, it is not physically for us the longest night but one of the shortest, but that doesn’t mean many of us don’t feel like we are experiencing dark or long nights, and so we joined with sisters and brothers throughout history and around the world seeking the Light of the world in the middle of the darkness.

For many centuries, Christians have been lighting candles to represent giving their prayers and themselves to God. This isn’t necessarily part of my own church tradition, but we built our time together around the lighting of candles: the central (white) Christ candle, representing Jesus, the Light of the world, surrounded by four blue candles representing the different circumstances some of us find ourselves in.

There are many different ways of doing this, but we linked the four candles to the Advent themes of hope, peace, joy, and love.

The first candle represented those experiencing grief, who have lost someone they loved. We took time to remember them, expressing our aching hearts to God, and the way death makes us feel angry and cheated. We looked to Him to sit with us in our grief and make known His love. We then heard the words of Isaiah 40 speaking comfort.

The second candle represented those experiencing sickness, sadness, loneliness, anxiety, despair. We took time to acknowledge the burdens we carry, expressing our sadness and confusion to God, and the way suffering can make us feel alone and misunderstood. We looked to Him to sit with us in our pain and make known His joy. We then heard the words of Jeremiah 31 speaking restoration.

The third candle represented those experiencing broken relationships, conflict, tension, separation in their families. We took time to acknowledge the messiness we live in, expressing our longing for reconciliation, resolution, and forgiveness to God, and the way brokenness can make us feel incomplete. We looked to Him to sit with us in our discord and make known His peace. We then heard the words of Psalm 23 speaking tenderness.

The fourth candle represented those experiencing unmet expectations, shattered dreams, dashed hopes. We took time to acknowledge the deep longings and unanswered prayers, expressing our emptiness to God, and the way our lacks can make us feel troubled  and bitter. We looked to Him to sit with us in our yearning and make known His hope. We then heard the words of Lamentations 3 speaking solace.

We finished with perhaps my favourite Christmas carol, crying out for Jesus to come to us right where we are, in the middle of whatever darkness we are facing, just as He came and met the hopes and longings of His people on that first Christmas night:

Come Thou long expected Jesus

Born to set Thy people free

From our fears and sins release us

Let us find our rest in Thee

Israel’s strength and consolation

Hope of all the earth Thou art

Dear desire of every nation

Joy of every longing heart

Then each person lit a small individual candle to represent seeking the Light of Jesus in their own circumstances, and took home a blue Christmas decoration as a small reminder of what we had shared with God and His people that night. We gave people the opportunity to pray for and with one another, or just to sit in the silence and stillness for as long as they needed. I think we all found it helpful to have the space to do that, especially at this time of year.

I think that nearly all of us are carrying stories of brokenness, grief, doubt, sadness, and darkness. This is difficult at any time of year, but particularly so if we are surrounded by celebrations, busyness, and expectations, as we often are at Christmas. Maybe you can find a Blue Christmas service near you this year to share in a time of lament and hope with God’s people. Maybe you can create one for others. Or maybe you can just create your own space to name the sadnesses and darknesses you are carrying and allow yourself the freedom to sit in them for a time, expressing them to God and looking for Him to meet you in the middle of them.

 

Today would be a good day to be in Nazareth

It’s hard to believe 5 months have flown by since we were in Israel. Today I’m wishing I could head back for the day to one of my favourite towns. Nazareth is most famous as the place where Jesus and His family lived and it is great to ground some of the stories of His life in this place. It’s also just a really lovely place to hang out, observe and share life in today.

What have I loved about Nazareth?

Like many places, it is the combination of geography, history, and culture, that weaves the story and invitation of this place.
Nazareth is located in Galilee, in a natural ‘bowl’ surrounded by hills. This great view of the city is found from Mt Precipice, believed by some to be the place where the people of the town wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff after his sermon in their synagogue.

The mountain looks out over the Jezreel Valley, the most fertile part of Galilee, and standing there makes me feel like I’m standing in the middle of a map.

In the city itself is a maze of donkey-track streets going up and down, round and about, what I have found to be a great place to wander and a tricky place to drive!

I love seeing the beauty of houses from different eras built side by side, standing as testimony to the many lives and stories in this place over generations.

Nazareth today is a large town with a largely Arab population, about 1/3 Christian and 2/3 Muslim. Near the central old market is the beautiful old White Mosque.

Even older again is the so-called Synagogue Church, a simple room built atop crusader ruins to remember  and evoke the church where Jesus preached.

And even simpler (and older) again are the caves located underground where it is believed Christians hid during Roman persecution.

The layers of history are also seen at the Catholic Church of the Annunciation. The large church was built in the 1960s.

Inside is a church within a church, with an 18th century altar.

This is located inside the grotto, an ancient church where 5th century mosaics have been located.

Outside, excavations underneath the church have discovered the remains of the village from Roman times.

In the bustling town today people live and shop and socialise in the footsteps of this history. Take this carpenter’s workshop for example, its owner following in the traditional profession of the town’s most famous resident and His father.

Or the renowned Elbabour spice shop, milling and grinding local produce for over 100 years.

When travelling without the larger group, I’ve had the privilege of staying in the beautiful Fauzi Azar Inn.

The staff and volunteers of this guesthouse have a heart for the local community and were engaged in numerous projects including this youth drop in centre with its juxtaposition of modern facilities in an ancient location.

What have I learned from Nazareth?

There are two experiences in Nazareth that I have found educational in complicated and unexpected ways. The first is Nazareth Village, an open-air museum built to reconstruct and reenact life in Jesus’ time.

I have mixed feelings about this place.

It is certainly helpful for bringing the biblical story to life …

… and evoking imagination about a different time and place.

But it is run by non-locals and has a distinctly Western flavour.

And, I think it is fair to say, it can feel a little bit kitsch.

The other place I continue to ponder is the Church of the Annunciation itself. It contains some of the most beautiful modern stained glass windows I have ever seen, which shaped some of my reflections in a previous post.

But it is also decorated by mosaics from around the world depicting the annunciation story.

Each one depicts the story from their own national perspective.

On one hand I do like the idea of drawing our own connections to the significant stories of our faith.

On the other hand, it feels like perhaps we are re-creating Mary and Jesus in our own image.

I have used these photos in some of my biblical studies classes to raise this question.

And of course inevitably someone asks about the Australian artwork, which I have to admit I personally find one of the more difficult to engage with.

I think in the end my favourite is the one from Nazareth itself, both because of its simplicity and because of its authenticity to the story’s location within history, geography, and culture.

It reminds me again that there is still much to learn from the people who make Nazareth their home today. Apparently the bulk of visitors to this city do a day trip to see a combination of these main sites but don’t actually stay in the town. If that’s true, they are missing out. The generosity and hospitality of the local people here, despite significant political and social challenges, is inspiring and challenging. I hope to spend more time among them if I can.