Yesterday I was given a marvelous gift from a remarkable artist of both life and embroidery. This is a person of great grace and determination who, little known to most people, was a courageous female pioneer in her field of work, also engaging with Indigenous people in other places long before it was 'fashionable' (if it ever has been in a positive sense). At the same time, she has been an amazingly skilled and prolific needlewoman, whose creations, soaked in prayer and deep reflection, richly adorn not only much of the parish of St Luke Toowoomba but many other places besides.
I was overwhelmed by the generosity of this gift and also the beauty, skill and insight which has gone into it. For as my blessed benefactor put it, in an accompanying card:
Traditionally the needlepoint group gave a piece of needlepoint to outgoing priests from this parish. This continues that practice.
It was worked with care and consideration in in appreciation of all you have done in the parish and community.
The four arms of the cross symbolise the outreach in all directions.
Celtic knot work has no beginning or ending but one has to start somewhere - so in your new position may that outreach continue.
On the eve of the feast of St Hilda of Whitby, it is hard to express the Celtic Christian call to mission better, in a medium so resonant of Celtic spirit. I feel richly blessed.
One of the great joys of recent times has been the recovery of the ancient traditions of Christian meditation. It has been good to share in this and see new groups grow locally, including our regular Wednesday 5 pm group at St Luke's Toowoomba. Across the world this continues to be so, making new relationships of depth with God, ourselves, one another, different faith traditions, and the planet. The World Community of Christian Meditation is one key focal point in this global (re)development and it is lovely to see how new steps in the journey are forming, including the new home of WCCM at Bonnevaux in France. Check out more information at the WCCM website, WCCM Twitter feed or view one of the videos on the WCCM You Tube page. Best of all, just start meditating! :-)
As I sat in a doctor’s waiting room recently, I saw the words be. here. now. prominently displayed. How appropriate I thought. For a doctor’s waiting room is typically made up of people who would rather not be there at that moment. Indeed, in such a liminal space, we are usually full of thoughts, hurts and fears which do not make it easy for us to be present. We may be occupied with concerns about the past, such as the mishaps or illness which has brought us to that moment. We may be absorbed with worries and anticipations about the future. We may be full both of regrets and forebodings. However, whilst very human, none of this really take us very far. In the face of the, sometimes profound, dislocation of time, space and meaning caused by dis-ease, we need to be able to acknowledge and express these things. Yet ultimately they are not the deepest truth of our lives at the moment and they do not provide pathways to healing. When time, space, and meaning seem to be collapsing around and within us, knowing that we are still ultimately OK, right where we are, is vital. Terrible pain and suffering can of course certainly make it almost impossibly hard even to breathe, never mind acknowledge this reality. However what some of us call 'the divine embrace' is still always there for us, right here and now. Can we trust, and, even in death, let that eternal presence heal and re-create us?...
It is easy to become afraid these days. After all, we live in a very fast-paced world and today’s media brings us immediate revelations of fresh horror and violence anywhere across the globe. These can quickly disturb our thoughts and emotions and magnify such troubles out of all proportion. They can also lead us to mistrust others different from us, not least those who themselves are survivors or potential victims of the very forces which may be challenging us. We live in times therefore when we badly need to grow love among all people. For love, expressed in prayer and wise action, is the only true antidote to fear. When fear rises within and around us, will we close the doors of our lives and world to others, as the first disciples did after the terror of Jesus’ death? Or will we, like those first disciples, re-open those doors and re-connect with others in new ways, as we experience and grow more deeply in the peace of Christ? Being sensitive to fear and violence is human but how we handle these things is what shows God among us.
A wonderful sign of the divine presence in the midst of our troubled world was the All for Peace gathering at St Luke’s this July. It came about at the request of our Iraqi Muslim community who asked if we would host something to acknowledge the pain of Iraq and the wider world. Muslims asking Christians to host a joint event – in a church building -for peace: imagine that in many parts of our world! What a lovely expression of the model of loving community for which so many parts of our city of Toowoomba have been working and praying so hard. It was certainly a moving occasion, with a nearly full St Luke’s, and with contributors including our Mayor, Federal MP, District Police Inspector, faith leaders, St Saviours school children, and many more! We reflected together on the violent acts which had recently taken place in France, Germany, Turkey, the USA, Sudan and elsewhere. We lit candles. We placed flowers outside in a public witness. We recommitted ourselves together to help make Toowoomba even more of ‘model city of peace and harmony’. For one good model or example can be like the one candle which dispels the darkness which can seem so threatening. Each of us, in the strength of Jesus’ nail-marked hands, can be that candle for our own fears and violence, signs of divine love for everyone, lightening up our world.
I love the approach of Megan Defranza - an intelligent, beautiful and gently spoken evangelical theologian - and the light, rather than heat, she is trying to bring to intersex and gender discussion from a Christian perspective (particularly in relation to intersex people but with implications for much more). I also identify very much with her thinking of herself as 'a bridge builder rather than a culture warrior' and her story of the Vietnam Vet praying for her, "because I know that in war, bridges are the first targets to be taken out”!
From an orrthodox Christian perspective, as Megan says, we are not called to conform to (ideas of) Adam or Eve, but only to be who we are in Christ'.
read more here:
(including a video interview)
The theme for this year's Reconciliation Week has been particularly fruitful for those of us who are practising Christians. It has provided another positive link between our faith and the journey of healing and justice in our land. For each element of the threefold heading has meaning for both the Christian pathway and that of Australia's many peoples. Indeed it was a delight to preside at baptisms this week in this dual context. For 'Our History' calls us to reflect, and act, upon, the question 'where do we come from?' Neither an individual, nor a nation, can go far without acknowledging and being in proper touch with the bedrock of our lives, whether our historical memory or spiritual 'dreaming' and relationship to God. 'Our Story' similarly calls us to reflect, and act, upon, the question 'what do we belong to?'. This is vital for both individuals and communities. In the Christian case, this involves participation in the 'Jesus Christ', or biblical 'God' Story: in a sense, our Christian 'Dreaming'. Meanwhile, 'Our Future' calls us to reflect, and act, upon the question 'where are we going?' This is vital for purpose and meaning, new life and the realisation of our individual and shared gifts and potential. For Christians, this involves living further into the promise of shalom which God has for us and all his/her children. May all we have thus shared this week strengthen our ancient foundations, our walking together, and life in the Spirit of renewal.
Lovely this week to receive copies of the recent book 'This is my body: hearing the theology of transgender Christians'- a welcome boost for transgender Christians (and for transgender people in general in changing awareness). Edited by Anglican priest and hospital chaplain Christina Beardsley and writer, lecturer and advocate Michelle O'Brien, this includes contributions from many associated with Sibyls, the UK based confidential spirituality group for transgender people & allies. It marks an important step forward for visibility of transgender Christians and transforming Christian negativity. For as another notable Anglican transgender priest, Rachael Mann, puts it, this 'announces the growing confidence of trans Christians and our refusal to be treated as second-class and welcome under sufferance.' Of course there is a long way to go, but it is an insightful and readable contribution to the journey.
One of the interesting features of criticism raised by some to aspects of 'progressive orthodox' Christian faith is the perceived relationship between love, God and Judaeo-Christian scripture. Progressives can certainly be guilty of simplistic and sentimental thinking, including syllogistic fallacies around such themes. Yet it appears to me that conservative theology sometimes runs the risk of driving a wedge between the God of scripture and healthy, life-giving, human love. In a recent local marriage equality discussion for example, it was somewhat extraordinary to hear a vigorous opponent assert a radical difference between God and human love. In responding to a particular interpretation of 1 John 4.16b - 'God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them' - they were right in drawing attention to the wider context of that verse, including the prevenient nature of God's love and primary focus in Christ. However such divine love was precisely embodied in the very human life and love of Jesus, expressing the presence of such love throughout creation, in all kinds of different ways. Part of the religious genius of historic Christian Faith has been the ability to hold these different elements in tension, understanding the creative paradox of i John 4.12 that 'No one has ever seen God; (yet) if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.' Both love, and sin, in my view, are far more complex and mysterious than many 'plain Christian' theologies allow for.
Perhaps part of the contrasting responses of Christians lies in how holy scripture is itself conceived. One young man for example said to me recently that the Bible and Christian Faith were not really about love but about salvation. He is on a genuine journey of exploration into these matters and we had a cordial and mutually illuminating conversation. Yet such a view reflects a very common but restricted framework which some Christians have imposed, and continue to impose, on the Bible. In reality of course such a lively and diverse set of scriptures have many contrasting themes. Salvation is a vital, and perhaps particularly distinctive Christian, one. Surely however salvation is but one way of approaching love, rather than the reverse? For all its misuse over the centuries, what has always 'saved' holy scripture is the longing for, and experience of, God which human beings have found in it. Rather than being the Procrustean structure of a salvation machine, the Bible is witness to the eternal love story of God, humanity and creation, embodied, for Christians, most fully in Jesus Christ.
'When someone starts talking about principles, watch your back!' This was one of many 'bon mots' I learned from Geoff Garner, my delightful supervising vicar when I was a curate in the East End of London. Partly what he was saying was that when human beings become agitated, for or against a controversial proposal, humanity and genuine love go out the window. So called 'principles' and 'values' become used as weapons: at best providing insulation from genuine engagement, or, often, simply being used to harm others. Geoff himself knew well to his cost how this worked. As a founding member of LGCM (originally the Gay Christian Movement), as an inter-faith adviser to the Bishop of London, and in the open and humane way he ministered with others, he was frequently a target of others' internal difficulties and defensiveness. For Geoff, and for me, this is far from how Jesus lived, taught and acted.
Last weekend I spoke at the Toowoomba Marriage Equality event, sharing my own, positive, perspectives on what is too often an area of Christian 'principled' resistance and denial (click here for my address on that occasion). At the meeting, I was once more struck by the qualities of love, joy, and kindness so many LGBTI+ people have for one another and others. Since then, I have once more been overwhelmed by the generosity and warmth of fellow marriage equality supporters with whom I have corresponded. This, I believe, reflects the immense wellspring of love within the LGBTI+ community which still longs for full release. It is a powerful contrast with the spirit of some Christian circles which persist in turning their backs on this wonderful source of renewal for us all.
Most certainly, there is also Christian discomfort about marriage equality which is neither bigoted nor defensively armed with principles. One of my close Anglican colleagues for example is wary of marriage equality legislation because they feel some advocates are themselves equipped with principles (such as exaggerated 'rights' discourses) which they can wield like aggressive weapons. Perhaps, but I saw none of this last weekend in the keynote addresses of Marriage Equality leaders such as Shelley Argent and Rodney Croome. Instead they spoke with humour and humility about those things which touch all our lives: love and family, pain and joy, being valued, recognition and relationships. These are not abstract principles but the realities of life which bind us together.
One Christian leader who has upbraided me since last weekend accuses me, among other things, of being infected by humanism. It is one accusation - unlike many others - which, with qualifications, I am happy to own. For a healthy Christian humanism is surely an antidote to picking up the weapons of principle. Like my mentor Geoff Garner, I see in Jesus the embodiment of the humane as well as the the holy, someone who stood not on principle but in the power of love: in that sense being both fully human as well as fully revealing of the mystery of divine love which transcends all our human differences (male and female, Jew and Gentile, and all the rest - including queer and straight).
Julia Baird, in a recent article, reflects, in a typically incisive and balanced manner, on the challenges of discerning what is 'free' speech and what is 'hate' speech in the marriage equality debate. My sense is that part of the answer is in returning with prayerful discernment to the Christian injunction about 'speaking the truth in love' (Ephesians 4.15). Too often this can mean Christian justification for simply being mean, aggressive, demeaning, or worse. When I hear or read the words 'I just want to say this to you in Christian love', I am also instinctively tempted to duck for cover, just like Geoff Garner. It is hardly that I do not care about truth and truth-speaking. Part of my problem is that parts of the Church do not really want to explore truth and sometimes actively seek to silence the truths of others. No, the heart of the matter is what we mean by love. Is it truly an openness to genuine truth-seeking and the fresh insights of the Holy Spirit, or is it only a cover for ego and group fear and defensiveness? Whatever our views on marriage equality - and, sadly, the debate is likely to go on in the Church as a whole for ages after it is settled in Australia in law - when we come to 'speaking the truth in love', perhaps we need to spend more time on that last word love. It is too easy to leap to principle without love. For those of us who share in pastoral care, the ability to share a prophetic word is also important. Yet we need to be kind and compassionate in how, as well as what we say. For me, much maligned 'political correctness' often seems really to amount to no more than being polite and respectful to others - precisely the opposite of the Pharisaism, wielding principles like weapons, which Jesus so abhorred and transcended. We are not all agreed, not will we be, with or without a plebiscite. Most Christians however, for and against, genuinely seek to honour God and our conscience. So let us seek the truth indeed, but let us be gentle with it.
For several years Toowoomba hosted the major Christian gathering called Easterfest. This brought great life to the city and many people, especially young people, from far and near. St Luke's happily hosted part of the 'Gospel in the Chapel' program in recent years, with some magnificent Christian bands, individual musicians and dance perfomers. The closure of Easterfest last year therefore left a major gap in the Toowoomba city, as well as local Christian, calendar. As a response, many in the Christian community collaborated this year with the Regional Council in something new - the Streets and Lanes Festival - bringing new life to the city centre on Holy Saturday with various music performers and other activities in the streets and lanes. St Luke's was a key site. Here is a brief report:
All day people came to St. Luke's to enjoy the friendly atmosphere, share food and fabulous coffee, and wander among the various stalls. Children particularly enjoyed the three stations of activities prepared for them, around the themes of suffering, rising and walking to Emmaus. Their green and yellow footsteps painted on calico formed a wonderful addition to our worship on The Sunday after Easter. The range and skill of the performers, dancers and musicians who graced the afternoon was tremendous and certainly added to the beauty of the afternoon, and the rain held off until the last note was played and the last two walkers completed their meditative walk around the labyrinth. Meanwhile in church dozens of people enjoyed the quiet atmosphere and the chance to reflect upon the visual meditation on the passion and resurrection ably curated by Sharon Roberts. All in all a blessed afternoon that we hope to repeat in years to come.
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian and justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice and sustainable creation.