Tag Archives: Church

Thinking about words in this season …

There are so many words that could be said, and are being said, about living in these difficult coronavirus times. We’re learning new words and phrases like  ‘covidiot’ and ‘zoomed out’,  we’ve understood the meanings of  ‘pandemic’ and ‘flattening the curve’, we’ve endured the unprecedented use of the word ‘unprecedented’. A number of conversations and experiences over the past month have got me thinking (out loud) today about the power and importance of language in all this.

Some of the words we use no longer seem relevant, perhaps revealing the cavalier and even meaningless ways in which we too often use them. Conversation starters like ‘how are you doing?’ and ‘what are you doing?’ sound jarring as we realise the answers are, respectively, everything and nothing. We need to find new words to connect with one another … and hopefully move beyond starting every online meeting with a literal ‘can you hear me?’ to words of genuine affirmation:

‘Yes, I hear you.’

Some of the words we share need to be more carefully parsed or compassionately toned. With different people and different places at different stages of response in my community, how do we avoid judgement and finger-wagging while sharing community wisdom and best practice? A friend shared her challenge in knowing how to tactfully respond to someone asking her family over for dinner. Is it simply, ‘No, we can’t do that anymore,’ or is there an opportunity to dig deeper and ask, ‘what is the heart of what we’re missing’ and ‘how can we do life together in new ways?’ Online, the disparity between where people in different countries are at amplifies the need to use our words with grace and care.

Some of the aspirational words we have been using about our communities are now being tested in the fire of new situations. Or as my pastoral colleague says, now is our opportunity to live out who we say we are. Our church has been deliberately using the word ‘gathering’ rather than ‘service’ for a few years, how does this helpfully shape our choices in how we move online?  What does it really mean to call our church ‘family’ in a time when we are advised to only have contact with those who live in our household? And on a global scale, how do we even begin to talk about the coming impact of this disease on poorer communities and recognise the privilege inherent in language like ‘social distancing’ or ‘lockdowns’?

In my own small ways, I’m finding that giving people space to use words in creative ways has seemed to resonate for many. Our gathering last Sunday included the creation of a word-cloud where we each contributed words that captured something of where we have seen God at work in the midst of this difficult season (picture at top). The resulting image has been widely shared and provides a picture not just of our shared language, but our shared experience of grace and hope in the midst of the darkness. A performance poet friend inspired me with the idea of #bookspinepoems, creating a poem out of the titles of books on your shelf. I enjoyed and found it strangely moving to create my own and have taken much delight in seeing those of my friends; gaining glimpses into how they are travelling at this time (or at least what their preferred reading genres are). As a verbal processor, and for all of us in wrapping our heads around things, I hope there are many more of these ideas to come.

And then there are the words we pray in this season.

We continue to proclaim the truths we believe even when they are difficult to see. Last Sunday, I had one of the most awkward and yet beautifully profound worship experiences of my life, with our worship leader on my computer screen, an older member of our congregation on the other end of my phone, and me in my living room, all singing out of sync, and yet affirming the same words of hope and truth about the Cornerstone in whom we find hope through the storm. I’m intrigued that Nigerian singer Sinach’s Waymaker went ‘viral’ among churches in the months leading up to this season, with its declaration of a promise-keeping God who never stops working, even when we don’t see or feel it.

The words of the Psalms continue to provide comfort and point the way. I taught a class last week on lament and I know this is a language we will embrace more and more in the coming weeks and months. The lament psalms give us permission to name our sadness, anger, doubt, confusion or fear; to wrestle honestly with God in an act of bold faith that declares nothing is out of bounds when speaking with him. Making these words our own declares our conviction that we have a God who hears our deepest and darkest groans, who is present with us in the darkness, and who enters into the darkness with us. As we prepare for Good Friday this week, the truth of a God who participates fully in our suffering may be more important for us than ever.

And of course, there are many times when words simply fail us. In numerous settings over the last few weeks I have found myself starting a prayer with and for others with a simple, honest, ‘I don’t know what to say God…’ as we sit in these unfamiliar and uncomfortable spaces and listen for his still small whisper. Praying for a friend in Africa waiting for the ‘tsunami’ that is coming left me grasping for words and babbling like a toddler.  I wonder if naming that I have no words is sometimes the most significant language I have to offer.

And for no one but myself, a simple practice these weeks has become to light a candle each night before I go to sleep, and simply sit in the presence of Jesus with the gift that is wordless prayer. There I am finding a peace that passes understanding, which I’m quite sure no words of mine will ever be able to adequately explain.

 

A Fringe review and some reflections

It’s Mad March in Adelaide again, which means the Festival, the Fringe Festival, Writers Week, the now oddly-cereal-like named Superloop 500, Womadelaide and much more. Living in the city is ideal at this time of year, and I’ve loved the opportunity to wander down to the riverbank to see the Symphony for our World (which was an outstandingly beautiful reflection on creation and creativity) and Yabarra: Gathering of Light (which is an engaging and vital project grounding the city in its long history and culture).

In terms of the Fringe, so far I have seen a truly terrible comedian (who I won’t name and shame here) and an absolutely enjoyable choir performance that I have not only been singing the songs from for days, but has also had me reflecting on some deeper themes it touched on.

So, this is my part review and part reflection on The Choir of Man.

Nine talented performers singing well known songs in impressive harmonies is always going to be a recipe for a good night out. The talent on display is pretty remarkable, including a piano virtuoso, a Dein Perry-esque tap dancer, a poet or three, comedic timing, audience participation, multiple instruments and dancing styles, all held together by nine strong voices. Songs covered include those that had the audience clapping and singing along, like Welcome to the Jungle, I Would Walk 500 MilesSome Nights, and the iconic Aussie favourite You’re the Voice; others that showcased impressive soloists telling stories through melody, like Adele’s Hello, Don Quixote’s The Impossible Dream, and Sia’s Chandelier; a heartrending rendition of Luther Vandross’ Dance With My Father during which you could have heard a pin drop; and an almost benedictory traditional closing song, The Parting Glass.

That this performance is set in a working bar, a classic English pub, where both the performers and the audience are invited to authentic fun and engagement (and to a pint or two) and is drawn together by a narrator who reflects on mateship, community, love and loss, adds to the enjoyment, but also leads me to my deeper musings.

“Some pubs have a football team or a darts club,” we are told. “This pub has a choir.”

The show is a bit of an ode to the local pub, the place where regulars can get together for a drink and share something of life. But we are also told it’s not a “boys don’t cry” kind of pub, and the idea of a community where genuine experience and emotion can be shared and supported – whether just by listening or by lending a hand – is significant throughout the storyline. To me, this is mateship. Friendship. What community should be. What for me as a Christian and a pastor, the church should be. My church is currently doing a sermon series exploring ideas of friendship and community, family, work, rest and play together, and so this show resonated with some of the same ideas, both encouraging and challenging me. Encouraging me that the church at its best has something valuable to say to our culture on this; challenging me that we can too often think we have a monopoly on it or hold it to ourselves, rather than championing it wherever we see it and inviting others into it.

This is also a show by, for, and about men. The (male) friend who recommended it to me warned that I might find it “a bit blokey.” And I did. But in a way that I loved. The characters in the pub are all pretty blokely blokes. (And yes, there is a song performed at a urinal). As a group, there’s a lot of testosterone on display. But there are men with hipster beards and man buns, as well as men with six pack muscles and classically strong jawlines. There are also men of less than average height and of over average weight. More importantly, these are not only men who sing and dance together, but men who are unafraid to both laugh and cry together. These are men who provide a glimpse into what male camaraderie and mateship can be.

And while there is some serenading of women in the audience and relationship woes played for laughs, at the end of the night I realised that they had managed to put on a public performance of broad-shouldered masculinity that didn’t need to objectify or degrade women to do so. (Unlike the aforementioned comedian, who the less said about the better). One review of The Choir of Man I read said this was a picture of the “opposite of toxic masculinity” and that’s not a bad description. In a cultural moment where there are certain voices criticising feminism for seeking to emasculate men, these guys affirm that it is a not an either/or proposition. They reminded me in some ways of my brothers and what I love about them. And in a week where unfortunately I had yet again had some (men) devalue what I do simply because of my gender, I needed to be reminded of that.

Of course, these brothers of mine, in my church family and community, go much further than a 90-minute performance. They don’t just meet the minimum standard of “not degrading women,” but champion and advocate for women, make space for us, support us and honour us, all without compromising their masculinity.  I value what they as men have to offer that I cannot, as they value what I as a woman bring. I love doing life alongside them.

As I watched this performance, in the back of my mind was the sermon I had been writing for Sunday. Perhaps that’s what put me in such a reflective mood. Talking about what ‘rest’ and ‘play’ look like for the church, I was challenged to consider how we encourage one another to explore and appreciate creativity in all its forms, and where we are talking about what we see and hear and experience in art, song, comedy, music, where it resonates with the creativity of our Creator, and how it keeps us hearing his calls to life in all its flourishing.

For me, the ongoing questions are how Jesus calls men and women to life together, and all of us to the expression of community, in ways that reflect and point to who He is and what He is bringing about.

Today would be a good day to be at Ephesus

I’ve been marking final essays for my New Testament class this semester. So I’ve been thinking about the historical and social contexts of the first churches and the letters written to them that continue to speak into the lives of millions of Christian churches today. Its helpful to imagine walking in their shoes as they figured out how to daily live out this transformative encounter they had had with the risen Jesus. So if I could take a quick jaunt to anywhere today, it’d be great to visit one of the best preserved NT cities: Ephesus, a place where people long ago and yet not so different from me sought to walk in the same footsteps in which I daily choose to walk.

What did I love about and learn from Ephesus?

Ephesus today lies on Turkey’s western coast. It was then was the capital of the Roman province of Asia, an impressive city home to two amphitheatres, one of the world’s largest libraries, and the famous Temple of Artemis.

The apostle Paul spent two or three years here, living out the gospel among the people of this place. He preached in the large theatre and caused a riot that likely landed him in prison.

The church in Ephesus was largely made up of non-Jews, and Paul writes to encourage them by articulating who they are and how they fit into God’s plan for the world.

The letter speaks of the ‘mystery’ that has been revealed: that God’s plan is to bring all things, seen and unseen, under Christ. That’s a huge challenge when what you can see is the might and power of the Roman empire!

This revealed mystery is demonstrated in a completely unexpected and seemingly insignificant way: through a new kind of community, this group called church, where people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, socio-economic circumstances, and statuses seek to live together as family.

Seeing the houses, shops, and public facilities of ancient Ephesus helps me imagine what this might have looked like. I can envision some of its its practicalities and some of its challenges.

These were real people living in a real place, seeking to embody a new way of doing life and being family together in the midst of a city that didn’t quite get what they were trying to be.

Its a similar challenge many face today. I know I do as I seek to do life with my local church community and we try to be a new kind of family to one another.

Its messy and complicated and not always easy. We certainly don’t always get it right as we sit in the tensions between our culture and the gospel.

We hope in and live out of a new story that others may not think makes sense or looks true, and yet we see the transformation it is bringing little by little in our lives and our neighbourhoods.

And we continue to walk in the footsteps not only of the millions who have come before us, but of the risen King we worship and who is making all things new.