For this year's Toowoomba Harmony Day celebrations, it has been a delight to write a special affirmation of peace and harmony for Toowoomba faith leaders to share. Taking up some of the themes of our journey together, including the local Indigenous significance of the Bunya tree, the Goodwill Committee of Toowoomba hope it may be a declaration we can also share and develop in the future. With every blessing upon our many peoples, faiths, and cultures which enrich us all...
We come from many backgrounds
and have journeyed many roads.
We give thanks for these good things of our past.
We rejoice in the first peoples of this land
and their continuing cultures.
We celebrate with all who have left other nations,
brought their learning and made a home in this place.
Just as the Bunya tree has given life for so many generations,
so may we offer shelter and sustenance
and share smiles of peace and harmony.
We bring many gifts and outlooks.
We give thanks for these good things of the present.
We rejoice in the strengths and diversity
of our shared community.
We celebrate our many faiths and stories,
our business and our art.
Just as our environment gives delight to our Garden City,
so may we scatter seeds of understanding,
grow flowers of friendship, plant peace and harvest harmony.
We share many hopes and dreams.
We give thanks for these promises of the future.
We rejoice in its possibilities.
We re-commit ourselves to the common good.
Just as earlier diverse communities gathered
for the great Bunya festivals of the past,
so may we walk together
into a more joyful and reconciling world.
Honouring our elders and raising up children of hope,
may we be a model city of peace and harmony.
It makes all the difference, John O'Donohue once said, whether you see God as an artist. Once you do, everything changes. For, as he observed so rightly, we have so over emphasised the will of God, and so devastatingly neglected the imagination of God, that we have deeply impoverished ourselves. For:
Each of us is an artist of our days; the greater our integrity and awareness, the more original and creative our time will become. (in To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings)
I didn't used to regard myself as an artist. That is only for special people, I used to think, and you have to be very good at it. Now I know that that is bunkum. We are all artists. Some work with paint, clay, or other materials. Some with the human body and its expression. Others with music or words. Others shape places, communities, moments or people. For we are all made in the image of God, and the first divine blblical characteristic (read Genesis) is creativity: then, now and always. That is something I love about St Luke's church in Toowoomba. It comes marvelously alive when, at Carnival and at other much more ordinary times, it is clothed with the grace and creativity of God in human artistry. And it can happen every day, if we let it and embrace it...
For me, the church is therefore what a brave man once called 'an art school of divine majesty'. Think of that, or, better still, imagine that: feel it, and see what a difference it makes to your life and faith and that of others. What Fr George Tyrrell (see photo left) was trying to say is that being part of a religious tradition and community is like being part of an artistic tradition and community. There may be great 'masters' like Rembrandt who show the way. An artist may sit at their feet and learn and develop in that art school. For we do not make art by ourselves. That is an individualist fallacy. Yet there will come a time when every artist need to make this task their own. Perhaps they will even overthrow some of the foundational assumptions and shapes of their master: all however in the cause of deeper beauty, love and truth. Isn't that, said George Tyrrell, how faith evolves and expands?
Tyrrell was a man of great courage. For, drawing on God's grace and the riches of the Church's tradition, he used his creative imagination, scholarly intelligence, pastoral sensitivity and deep religious learning to give new life to the Church of his day. Today many of his insights have been accepted, further critiqued and developed by Catholic and Protestants alike. However he was condemned by Pope Pius X, with other so-called Catholic Modernists, expelled from the Jesuit order, denied the sacraments, and finally excommunicated. He was not allowed a Catholic burial and was interred in an unmarked grave. A priest friend, Henri Bremond, who had the grace to make the sign of the cross over the grave, was himself, as a result, then suspended for a while. For being a religious artist is not always easy - just see what happened to Jesus. Yet being an artist, and part of an 'art school of divine majesty', is part of the gateway to resurrection: to greater and deeper life, beauty, truth and love, for us and for others. May the divine artist flourish in everyone.
Toowoomba has been at the heart of controversy over the provision of state school chaplains, with local resident Ron Williams driving the national legal case against. What a huge delight it was today therefore to hear from two local state school chaplains, speaking of the joys and deep challenges of their work. One had returned to school this year to help the school community face up to the murder of a child and mother from their midst. The other spoke of the challenges of walking with young people in the face of terrible scarring, self-harm and suicide. Sure, pastoral care workers also contribute immensely and heroically. Yet the chaplains contribute vital extra resources and dimensions in these situations, and in so many other, thankfully, less crisis relationships. This all takes place in an increasingly underfunded and undervalued state system. To hear their stories is therefore to rejoice in the ways in which, through school chaplaincy, many young people are helped to find their worth and purpose.
It was also encouraging to hear Scripture Union leadership reflect on how the legal case (back in court again on new grounds) has not only helped better law, but has also built much better understanding and community communication and ownership (including by MPs from across the mainstream political spectrum). On a wider level, school chaplaincy has thereby been a key issue in helping Australians, with various religious commitments and none, work out together how to live in a secular state without privileging any specific viewpoint, including that of secularism: not denying our communities the positive benefits of religious-based care, compassion and commitment, yet not opening the door to proselytism or favouritism. It is a case study in becoming a more post-Enlightenment society: no longer seeking to prevent long-gone 19th century battles of sectarianism, but enabling the energies of all, and encouraging every group (religious, agnostic and secularist) to value each other's contributions and to exercise appropriate self-restraint in the public realm. In my opinion, there is much more to explore, especially in terms of providing first-class education (rather than patchy provision of instruction) into different religious and secularist lives and outlooks. It seems very odd, and a significant loss to our shared community self-understanding, that Australian schools typically provide so little in helping children and young people understand what their different fellow Australians believe and live by religiously and philosophically. Perhaps we can all begin by valuing our school chaplains even more as part of the answer rather than as part of the problem?
Despite the beauty of the 'Garden City', Toowoomba is not best known as a hotbed of ecological protest. So the level of recent popular agitation concerning Garnet Lehman park is quite unusual. As a nearby resident who often runs, cycles or walks a dog through the park, it is very heartening that others have a similar response to me.
The destruction of so many native trees and other proposed changes to the park are motivated by well-meaning but misconceived Council thinking. The idea is to provide a water detention basin to help mitigate flood dangers. As someone who was all but swamped in my car at the very edge of Garnet Lehmann park in the fateful afternoon of 10 January 2011, I have some sympathy. No one would like to see a repeat with the loss of life and upheaval to homes and families. Yet the proposals would only make a small contribution (allegedly protecting perhaps only 4 buildings at a cost of $4.59 million) and even the authorities themselves admit there are alternatives which can be considered. Why then rip up a deeply-loved park with a highly distinctive character? For, unlike the highly managed, and even manicured, parks elsewhere in Toowoomba, Garnet Lehmann was deliberately planted with native trees with a much wilder aspect than elsewhere. Such trees have been shaped by the climate, and dare I say it, the very spirit of the land, in a way not found elsewhere. Council plans for replacement trees, behind a huge wall and other fortifications, thus do little to delight the soul. Nearby 'Lake' Annand park may have its value for instance, but it is so conventionally tame and 'European'. Rarely in Toowomba City iitself is there an accessible piece of our environment which speaks from a deeper place and soul connections.
This controversy is connected to a wider issue in the Toowoomba region about development processes. For not all voices are equal and often especially not that of the land itself. 'Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?' The divine cry in Isaiah (6:8) is not just for humans. As my friend and Toowoomba Catholic social justice colleague Mark Copland says, when he reflects on the CSG, mining and development struggles in Queensland today: yes, we hear much noise, vested interests and some wisdom from various sides, but who who will speak for the land itself? Perhaps we do well to learn something from the work of the 'engaged Buddhist' eco-philosopher and activist Joanna Macy and the Australian 'deep ecology' and rainforest campaigner John Seed, not least exercises such the Council of All Beings, which was first created in Australia in 1985. Thank God too for groups such as The Australian Network of Environmental Defenders. Sadly, these are all too often sidelined by unreflective and powerful development interests or drowned in an avalanche of unthinking industry propaganda and short-term government policy. Appropriate development will, and should, happen, but with grace and proportion and soul/mindfulness. Thank God therefore for the usually fairly complacent and conservative residents of Toowoomba. Who will speak for the trees? We will...
For more information, check out:
Council plans and viewpoints and the Lehmann Park Under Threat facebook page.
No wonder Jesus so enjoyed meeting and eating with those who shared different spiritual journeys and diverse moral and religious viewpoints. It is both great fun and enriching in many ways. A recent meal with friends from our local Toowoomba Baha'i community was a beautiful example of this. Not only was the food and company delightful but, among other things, I was given fresh perspectives on the often fraught distinction between evangelism and proselytism.
Unlike some 'progressive' Christians, I have never had a problem with evangelism as a core part of Christian life. Just as birds sing and dogs bark, what are Christians to do but share 'the faith that is in us'? Whilst I have met some people of other faiths who have had legitimate concerns about how some Christians seek to evangelise, they too tend not to have any real issues with evangelism as such. Instead they are supportive when they hear that many Christians have taken great pains to distinguish what is proselytism from what is (even very lively, energetic and challenging) evangelism. What I had not properly realised, until my Baha'i meal, was how others can help Christians with constructive approaches to evangelism through their own experiences.
My wonderful hostess not only cooked a gorgeous meal but also spoke briefly about her experience as a Baha'i 'pioneer'. Before she ever came to Australia, she had left her native Iran with her immediate family to settle in Liberia, sharing her life and faith there as a natural part of the local community. In doing so, she had responded to the Baha'i challenge to leave home to journey to another place (often another country) for the purpose of passing on the Baha'i Faith. Steering clear of words like 'evangelist' or 'missionary' (the latter because of its associations with narrow and more bigoted forms of communication), this is what is meant by 'pioneering'. Clara and Hyde Dunn were just such pioneers when they came to Australia from the USA in 1920 and began the Baha'i Faith here. Today, there are therefore Baha'is throughout the world, adding their loving energies to community, not least in Queensland (from where the logo above comes - a witness to the creativity of a Brisbane-based Baha'i creative artist).
What was magnificent to me was the way in which my dear friend spoke so movingly of the people and place to whom she had given her heart. It expressed so beautifully the joy as well as the challenge, and heartbreak (on leaving), of a true bearer of 'evangelion', good news. I was also struck by how much we all might learn from appreciation of such journeys and conversations across faiths and cultures. For at the heart of Baha'i pioneering is a deep respect for those whom they meet, reflecting the consideration and restraint that is lacking in proselytism (in whatever faith). As, the Baha'i Universal House of Justice expressed it in 1982:
It is true that Bahá'u'lláh lays on every Bahá'í the duty to teach His Faith. At the same time, however, we are forbidden to proselytise, so it is important for all the believers to understand the difference between teaching and proselytizing. It is a significant difference and, in some countries where teaching a religion is permitted, but proselytising is forbidden, the distinction is made in the law of the land. Proselytising implies bringing undue pressure to bear upon someone to change his Faith. It is also usually understood to imply the making of threats or the offering of material benefits as an inducement to conversion. In some countries mission schools or hospitals, for all the good they do, are regarded with suspicion and even aversion by the local authorities because they are considered to be material inducements to conversion and hence instruments of proselytisation.
This, and other reflections on pioneering by Baha'is may have value for Christians too, as we grow out of our history of deep lack of respect for even Christian difference and live in a world of continuing conflict of ideas. Of course it will not end the terrible persecution of Christians by others but it may add light to our own efforts to be bearers of light not heat. Jesus himself called Christians to be salt and yeast: qualities which enhance but destroy a good meal if they are not applied with care. In which regard, my fabulous hostess that evening showed the way with her marvelous Persian rice. 'What's the difference to ordinary rice', I asked. "Oh', she said, with a typically beautiful smile, 'its just a little thing I add': but no, I thought, not just a little dill, but a wonderful touch of love.
Rejoicing today with the consecration of our first Australian female diocesan bishop (Dr Sarah McNeil as the 11th Bishop of Grafton) - and giving thanks for those who (as Olive Schreiner put it) 'made the track': thus finally getting round (as a Lenten discipline) to sharing some of the stories of my inspirational and heroic first-wave Christian feminist sisters and brothers, with accompanying prayers for those still struggling for peace & justice today.
My Making the Track blog can be found here
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.