As Minister of Pitt Street Uniting Church in Sydney, it is a great joy and encouragement to stand in a powerful lineage of prophetic ministry. The more I come to know, the more I appreciate its vital significance to Sydney, and the wider world, in providing light, inspiration and hospitality to so many. As a community Pitt Street Uniting Church mourns the recent loss of Bishop Spong from our lives in this world, but rejoices in what he shared with us and so many others. We give thanks that we were able to offer a space for him to share God's love even when others were sometimes so hostile. Here above is a photo of the old Pitt Street Uniting Church's celebratory 'Bishop John Shelby Spong Greeting Card'!
(we still rejoice to wear that stole too :-) )
When I worked in the national and NSW ecumenical council offices in Sydney, I once had a close colleague who had previously been employed in HR departments for big business. He was a lively contributor to our shared endeavours but it took him a while to become used to office email and conversational exchange. ‘I just can’t get my head round all of this’, he said one day, ‘people keep signing off with ‘best wishes’ and ‘blessings’ and say ‘thankyou’ for all kinds of simple things. I am being disoriented by kindness.’ Now my friend may have had a particular bleak earlier work experience. Many secular workplaces have very positive atmospheres as well as respectful staff protocols. Christian workplaces can also be full of unstated, and sometimes open, hostilities and negative undercurrents. The ecumenical office we worked in certainly had its mix of all of that! Yet it is true to say that, where human beings are intentional about giving thanks and sharing praise, a positive spirit surely develops. Even when we do not feel particularly thankful or gracious, such practice can transform us and others.
Our parish stewardship and thanksgiving developments this year have certainly helped us on the way to being a more thankful community. They have also made us more capable of responding to our diocesan call to grow in faith and generosity. It has been wonderful to see how so many people have responded positively to the challenge to consider how to become more open to God’s love and share our particular blessings with others. Even those who have been a bit nervous about considering the financial and other implications seem to be have been at least touched by this life-renewing spirit of consideration. May this long continue to grow and flourish among us!
What highlights will we take forward from our stewardship and thanksgiving initiative this year? For many the Thanksgiving Festival in August was certainly a huge delight. On the Saturday we shared a wonderful community day at St Luke’s, with food, music, children’s activities, chalk drawings and a welcome for all, including to several visitors. It was indeed a lovely example of what we can do to use the St Luke’s site as a ‘Minster’, sharing blessings for all. Then, in the evening, we had a terrific parish meal together, with great food prepared by our generous cooks and a feast of music from Robin and his band. ‘We must do this again’, was the feeling of many. Thanksgiving is infectious!
A remarkable thing is happening today. People of many different backgrounds are rediscovering the importance of gratefulness – giving thanks for the simple gifts of our lives. For giving thanks is a major source of happiness, even when things are really tough. Educationalists, workplace advisers, Oprah Winfrey, and many others, have found this for themselves and are commending this to others in their work. Oprah, for instance, has kept a journal for many years, in which, each day, she writes down five things for which she has been grateful. Others have tried this for a set number of days, like the Australian workplace guru Toni Powell with her 30 Day Challenge. For as we record those things which bring us strength and joy, we notice better those aspects of our lives which bring us happiness and we appreciate better the kindnesses and care of others. This is something which the world’s great wisdom traditions have always known, not least the Christian tradition, with its emphasis on appreciating the gifts of God born among us.
So why not try a new way of approaching Christmas this year? For as we prepare for Christmas, we are often stressed about buying material gifts. Sometimes this can actually make us less grateful for the gifts of life and others around us! Perhaps what is really needed is not so much sharing special material gifts as appreciating the simple everyday gifts of life and one another. Why not then join with the Anglican Parish of St Luke Toowoomba in using the time before Christmas as a ‘season of gratefulness’? One way to do this is by using a Gratefulness Advent Calendar. It is easy to make one, or use an ordinary calendar for the month of December. What you do need are 25 boxes or spaces, one each for the first 25 days of December. These make up an Advent Calendar to help us cultivate gratefulness at this time. Each day of December, then fill in a box with 3-5 things, people, moments, or events which have brought you strength or joy (anything from the beauty of a flower or shaft of light, to the joy of a bird or animal, to an achievement or good coffee, video, book or meal, to the kindness or care of someone for you or others in trouble, or something heart-warming in the news). Maybe, if you write down a person’s name, you will also find a way to give thanks to them personally in a special way? Try this for the 25 days to Christmas and see what a difference it makes…
Check out our Blog at http://stluketmba.wordpress.com
and the Network for Grateful Living website at www.gratefulness.org
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (I Thessalonians 5.16-18)
The great song of Jesus’ mother in the Bible is often known by its Latin title of Magnificat. This means ‘let magnify’ or ‘let thanks and glory be given’. It is the cry of Mary when she realises that she is pregnant and is full – or will soon be full - of the love of God in human form (that is the boy-child we know as Jesus). With all the joy and excitement and anticipation she feels, Mary is crying out as loud as she can – let thanks and glory be given, let life come to birth. Mary’s whole heart, her whole being, is caught up in thanksgiving and in the process of bringing new life into being. Can we join in with her?
Advent – the immediate weeks before Christmas Day – is a great time for renewing the spirit of thanksgiving and for pondering on what is coming to birth, or might come to birth, in each of us and in our broken world. What gifts do we want to thank God for? What joyful things can we see in our lives and/or in the world around us? What new things is God doing in us that we want to bring into being? For each of us is called to sing, and live, our Magnificat.
Mary's song is just one more reason why we have renewed our Season of Gratefulness initiative for Advent this year. This is not blind to the pain and struggles of our lives and world. Rather this is also about justice, seeking to rejoice, like Mary, in the presence of that Love which has brought light out of darkness in the past, and will again: not least, as we, if we would but know it, can ourselves be pregnant with the Spirit of God.
My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour.
He looks on his servant in her lowliness; henceforth all ages will call me blessed.
The Almighty works marvels for me. Holy his name!
His mercy is from age to age, on those who fear him.
He puts forth his arm in strength and scatters the proud-hearted.
He casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly.
He fills the starving with good things, sends the rich away empty.
He protects Israel, his servant, remembering his mercy,
the mercy promised to our forebears, to Abraham and his descendants for ever.
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.