Pastoral Letters

26 Mar 2020 by Janise Wood in: Formation and Discipleship Resources

Rev Dr John Squires

The times, they are are a-changin’.

The times, they are are a-changin’.

Change is happening around us. We are noticing changes taking place in society. The COVID-19 virus has forced a range of changes on us. Decades ago, Bob Dylan penned a folk song, “The times, they are a-changin’”, which has come to be seen as an anthem celebrating the changes that are always taking place in our society.

But in the present time, as we live under significant restrictions on gathering in person, as we keep our distance and stay at home for all manner of things, we sense that our times, are, indeed, a-changin’. So let’s ponder those changes.

Some of these are not good changes. Some may well be beneficial changes. We have had to let go of some valued ways of operating. We have also had to learn new skills and adopt new practices. This is what happens during a time of transition: many things can change. How we deal with these changes is important. What we choose to accept, and what we chose to reject, is up to us.

William Bridges has written an insightful book about such processes, entitled Managing Transitions (2009). Bridges talks about transitions in terms of three stages (as the graphic indicates): first, there is the letting go; then there is the neutral zone of being in-between; and finally, the connection into a new place, a new way of being.

In that neutral, in-between zone, there is a need for us to develop a capacity to live within the discomfort of ambiguity which arises during the experience of loss, as we move away from the familiar. That is the space we are in now, in the midst of restrictions on gathering, as we work to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. We are experiencing, in various ways, the discomfort of ambiguity, as things shift under our feet.

In that liminal space, that unfamiliar territory, we have the time and space to reconsider, to review, to reshape, to remake ourselves. What changes will we accept? What changes will we reshape? What changes will we reject?

****

Some changes taking place in society feel difficult. Unemployment rates are rising, and many people who move out of employment will find it hard, if not impossible, to gain work after the restrictions end. Funerals are taking place with friends and most family unable to attend; weddings are occurring with even less people physically present. People who live alone are experiencing more intense feelings of loneliness and are craving real human interaction.

People who are vulnerably housed will have far fewer options for shelter at night during winter, as Safe Shelter programs will not be running because of the risks of passing on the virus. The rates of domestic violence are rising, as pressures in the home situation grow, for some, to boiling point. More people are drawing on the social services network provided by our government, but they will hit the ground with a thump after the restrictions end, when benefits will return to their “normal” level (well below the poverty line).

Some small businesses are looking at a glum future, considering the prospect of having to close for good. Tourism companies and travel agencies are particularly impacted, and their reduced business means loss of employment for significant numbers of people. Apparently more than 16,000 new coronavirus-related online domains have been registered since January 2020—many of which are believed to be set up to enable malware and hacking tools to be sold through COVID-19 “discount codes”.

But some changes are good. More than $1 billion has been saved in poker machine losses in the first five weeks of COVID-19 restrictions in Australia, according to the Alliance for Gambling Reform. There have been 25% less call outs of paramedics in the Ambulance Service in the ACT, because “people are not out and about so much, they are taking things very easy.” In the NT, the same decrease has been observed, because “there’s less traffic on the roads, so less motor vehicle accidents.”

Seeds have sold out, as people plant their own vegetables in anticipation of food shortages. Laying pullets are scarce and those for sale are selling at two or three times the normal price, as people look to guarantee their supply of eggs. Backyard gardening is making a comeback!

“We’ve been riding bikes for years, now, and we have never experienced so many people out and about walking and riding bikes on the bike trails!”, a number of our friends have commented. Meanwhile, in my region, there are no electric bikes available for sale at the moment—all stock has been sold out!

Local communities have rallied together in so many places. People are much more attuned to those folks who are shut-ins or who are self isolating because of their medical conditions or age. Phone calls and food drops at the front door have been made on a regular basis, and online coffee and chat groups are springing up to maintain connections amongst friends who cannot see each other in person.

Pollution rates have fallen across the globe at the moment; satellite observations showed that levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) decreased quite significantly over China in the first month that COVID-19 infections were occurring there, February 2020. The same pattern is now taking place in other countries where restrictions on travel, because of the corona virus, means less traffic, less pollution, less NO₂.

(The NO₂ in our air is almost entirely from combustion. When coal and wood burn, nitrogen trapped in the fuel is oxidised as NO₂. Cars and trucks make NO₂ in their engines when they break down nitrogen in the air at extremely high temperatures. It makes a significant contribution to air pollution, which causes acute respiratory issues like asthma, as well as long-term diseases such as stroke, heart disease, and cancer. The World Health Organisation estimates that in recent years, seven million deaths a year have been attributable to air pollution.)

Drug arrests in Chicago have been measured at 42% lower during March, as drug dealers have no choice but to wait out the economic slump. El Salvador reported an average of two killings a day during March, down from a peak of 600 a day a few years ago. Even criminals are practising social distancing, social isolation!

And our Chief Medical Officer is now saying that we need to ensure that some changes in the way we relate to one another remain permanent, and we don’t go back to old ways—he advocates that we keep our distance from each other, continue our good hand hygiene habits, and don’t shake hands with other people. (This will lower the spread of all forms of viral infections, not just COVID-19.)

Changes are happening in society. Which of these beneficial changes will hold fast into the future? Which ones do we really want to hold on to? Which ones do we want to keep, just a little modified, in the future?

*****

We are also noticing changes that are happening in churches. For instance, I have been keeping a collection of comments from people in my home congregation about the positive nature of the changes they are experiencing, such as: “We can see the faces of people at worship with us, instead of the backs of their heads.” “Morning tea was more lively, I got to talk with different people, people that I normally don’t talk with.” “It was easy to go to church, I can sit in my comfortable chair and don’t have to get going early.”

And some more: “We have seen people come to online church who haven’t been able to come to church in person for months.” “We need to keep on offering services by ZOOM for those who can’t get to church in person.” “Finding happiness in the present moment and situation is such a great way to live. Not always easy to pull off, but a great goal.”

A recent conversation I heard between two people was very succinct: “I’m still learning.” “Aren’t we all!” And I have just seen online an elderly man who has never seen the need for a mobile phone, let alone a computer, who got his technologically-literate son to buy him a second-hand laptop, so he could join the Sunday morning worship. He set ZOOM himself and has been participating every week since!

Another ZOOM meeting I attended recently included people from across a number of Congregations who have been in office, in some cases, for quite some time. Someone from one of the places further away from Canberra (where Presbytery staff and most office bearers are based) said, “It’s nice to put a face to a name after all this time”. Another tick for people from dispersed locations meeting together online!

In another Synod-wide online meeting, a comment was made that “the current crisis has brought to a head some long-running issues; we now need to deal with them and get involved in a constructive way”. The situation has stimulated proactive engagement in situations where the tendency had been to hold back and “let’s hope things sorts out by themselves” (which, of course, they rarely, if ever, do!)

I have heard one person comment that they have turned to the Psalms for spiritual nurture, and they observed that, wherever the psalmist reflects desolation, that is almost always followed by a sense of consolation. Perhaps that idea can undergird our prayers and reflections on the current situation.

Another colleague has observed that new, and positive, connections are being made between previously disconnected and distanced communities and individuals, which has been good for the health of the whole body. The challenge of disruption has generated a new pattern of collaboration and hopefulness.

One regional body is taking advantage of this interruption to “business as usual” by focussing on mission planning for the future, asking, “what are we learning in this current disrupted period, that we can apply to being the church in a renewed missional way?”

And many times, now, I have heard a story that runs along the same lines: since we have been in this period of restrictions on gathering, we have been making intentional connections with people who had drifted away from our Sunday gatherings. Now we have refreshed our connections and we are feeling that many of them seem to be “part of us” once again.

Some of the changes are, to be sure, experienced as less than desireable. “How many people are clicking on to online worship more as voyeurs than as fully engaged disciples?”, asked one colleague. Another mused, “my minister seems to be spending all their time playing with technology rather than making contact with people”. These are practices that we need to find a way to balance better.

I’ve heard one person articulate the need to move away from “leading worship well” towards a way to “equip people to grow in their own discipleship”. Some colleagues are devoting significant time, not just to preparing the Sunday worship, but to collating, writing and distributing resources that are available for personal use in the home—reflective worship times, meditations on scripture, studies to deepen discipleship, questions to challenge people to seek new ways of serving in the post-COVID period.

Another church leader has identified the challenges that are immediately before us as we consider how we might serve people with particular issues: people living with disabilities, people dealing with longterm mental illness, people who are vulnerable housed and dependent on church and community provision of safe shelter (especially in winter time). For such people who depend so much on in-person connection, the online manner of connecting leaves much to be desired. (And, for some, they lack any capacity to have the capability of regular, trustworthy online connection.)

By the same token, those whose particular challenge has been that they live at a significant distance from their place of worship, and need to undertake lengthy drives each time they attend worship, fellowship, or church council meetings, have found that being able to attend online, from the comfort of their own home, has many benefits.

So I think that, overall, my take on all of this can be articulated in some short and simple comments: Community is more important than worship. Service is at the centre of the Gospel. Discipleship engages us with the whole of society, not simply the inner club. Consistent relationships with other human beings are crucial. Creativity can flourish when we are thrust into unfamiliar situations. Disruption can deepen our faith, extend our understandings, refresh our mission.

******

Dr Kimberley Norris, an authority on confinement and reintegration at University of Tasmania, has undertaken a detailed study of the mental health of Australians who have overwintered in Antarctica. She found that those who have been through a period of isolation value the experience for what it has taught: They have a better idea of their personal values, and they’re more committed to acting on them. (See https://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/coronavirus-covid19-isolation-third-quarter-phenomenon-has-begun/12190270)

The study indicates that the positives from this liminal period can be valued and retained, even as we shed the negatives and less desireable aspects from our time of social,distancing and self isolation.

Dr Norris believes that post-COVID, “we will see differences in the way people engage with each other, in the way people work, in the priorities given to the environment, and the way people think about travel.” And another interesting comment she has: “A lot of people expect spirituality to increase.”

That study clearly indicates that we stand in a critical period of time, during which we have the opportunity to explore our priorities—personal, as disciples, and communal, as a church—and to make commitments to refreshed and innovative ways of operating in the future. It’s an opportunity, not a threat. We ought to rejoice in, and focus on our strengths, not bemoan our situation and become fixated on the weaknesses it has exposed.

So what changes do we want to keep? What things can we change to ensure that the good things that have been happening continue? What new things do we plan to introduce as a result of the changes we have experienced in this period of time? What strategies are we developing to be well placed for the post-COVID situation?

What are your thoughts?

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/19/pastoral-letter-to-canberra-region-presbytery-on-covid-19-pandemic/


Rev Andrew Smith

Surprising and Questionable Lives

How the Uniting Church has adapted to the restrictions surrounding COVID-19 is surprising and not surprising at the same time.

For some in ministry leadership, it has been a surprise to see what has been achieved in such a short time in taking worship online, and having copies emailed or hand delivered. It has been a surprise that some of our people have mastered getting connected when previously they may have thought it was too hard or they were too old to connect for online worship. So, it has been surprising.

At the same time, there has been a fair bit of pressure to take worship services online because that is what other churches were doing. In fact, that is what many parts of our community have been doing. Jujitsu, karate and dance classes are offered online. Education for school and university has been taken online. Car Models of Braidwood and Sandalwood Homewares of Braidwood have been advertising their online shopping so as not to lose the business of those who would normally have taken a pleasant drive to make their purchases. It seems that many have responded by taking their services online. So, it is not surprising that the Uniting Church has also adapted to offer its services online.

Our response to COVID-19 is surprising and not surprising at the same time.

Michael Frost in his handy little book “Surprise the World!” is urging the church to surprise the world. His five habits of highly missional people are habits to which we are called as faithful followers of Christ and are also habits that will lead us to living surprising “questionable lives”.

Frost coins the phrase “questionable lives” from his understanding of a biblical model for evangelistic mission seen in Colossians 4:2-6 and 1 Peter 3:15-16. It is a twofold approach to evangelism that includes 1) Gifted Evangelists and 2) Evangelistic Believers. Many of us feel like we are not the gifted evangelists who can proclaim boldly the Good News of Jesus, but that does not get us off the evangelism hook. Rather, all believers are called to live questionable lives – the kinds of lives that evoke questions from their friends giving rise to opportunities for faith sharing.

Living questionable lives is important for surprising the world because there is an old communication theory that goes like this: “When predictability is high, impact is low. In other words, when the audience thinks they know what you are going to say, and you go ahead and say it, it makes very little impact. On the other hand, when an audience is surprised or intrigued, they will think long and hard about what they’ve heard”.

Frost contends that living the five missional habits will take us along the way to living surprising questionable lives – generous, hospitable, Spirit-led, Christlike lives. As such, we will become “a godly, intriguing, socially adventurous, joyous presence in the lives of others” that evokes questions.

In many ways we have surprised ourselves with how we as church have responded to the COVID-19 restrictions on gathering. While we are on this good run of surprising ourselves, let us milk it for all its worth by going on to live “questionable lives” that will surprise not only us, but also surprise the world.


Rev Dr John Squires

It’s been just over a month—but there have been lots of learnings!

It’s been just over a month since we moved into a period when restrictions on social gatherings came into force because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 1.5 metres between individuals, no more than two people at an outdoor gathering, no more than five people at a wedding, no more than ten people (including the minister) at a funeral, and certainly no gathering together as a congregation for worship, whether that be as twelve people, or 45 people, or 200 people in one church building.

There is no doubt that this will be an extended period while we need distancing and isolating. There will be weeks, even months, ahead of us in the same mode. We will have plenty of time to reflect on our situation, and to look forward to the time when restrictions are eased and regathering becomes possible.

But a month, give or take, is a good time to step back and assess: what have we learnt, during this intense and most unusual period of time? I want to offer some reflections from my own perspective. Here are a handful of things that I have learnt.

1 Relationships are critical.

Human beings are relational creatures. We like to, and need to, relate to other people. Spending far more time in our own homes, and far less time at work or at school, in social outings and family gatherings, is proving to be a challenge.

Social distancing and self isolation are essential to ensure that we minimise, as much as possible, the spread of the COVID-19 virus. But they are challenging to the very core of our being, as humans. Social engagement and interpersonal connections are what we need, and value, in our lives. We need one another. Relationships are critical.

2 Worship is important.

For people of faith, gathering together each Sunday (usually in the morning) is seen as the centre of what it is to be church. Worship is important, but conversation and connection is more important. My home congregation gathers-apart each Sunday, meeting up online via ZOOM, and people are clear that they appreciate the work of our minister (my wife, Elizabeth) each Sunday, in leading prayers, curating musical items, and offering reflections on scripture. Worship is important.

But the group “comes alive” in two moments: at the start, when people recognise others from the Congregation as they join the gathering, and see the faces of their friends appear on the screen; and after worship, during the virtual morning tea, when the conversations really flow. This is where the energy of the group coalesces and builds. Indeed, some congregations have pre-recorded worship which they then follow with live morning tea times, so people can interact over a cuppa. Connection is incredibly important.

3 Good communication is desirable.

We rely on good communication in everyday life. But how good it is depends on the ability to read subtle signs, to see body language and micro signals, to have conversations that ebb and flow in a natural rhythm, like breathing. Online communication diminishes our capacity for subtle communication. It is a blunt instrument.

Being able to see each other on the screen and talk with each other across the ether is very good—but it lacks some critical elements. We can rejoice that we live in an age when we can communicate online across vast distances. Nevertheless we need to recognise how that medium shapes our communications and inhibits deep connection with, and understanding of, one another.

Perhaps we can take this learning on into the post-COVID 19 situation and allow it to inform how we communicate with and relate to others? We need up-close, person-to-person engagement, for good, effective communication to occur.

4 Creativity can flourish under pressure.

I have watched in awe as my various ministerial colleagues have demonstrated great creativity, offering their preaching and praying gifts in new ways. I have read imaginative poems, heard engaging sermons, entered into deep prayer, watched striking short videos, and appreciated the fine photos that have been offered by ministers and pastors, lay preachers and other lay worship leaders, as they nurture their people by creative ways in worship.

Humans are innately creative beings, and creativity can flourish, even (perhaps especially) in pressured situations. Let us hope that this creativity can continue and indeed flourish into the future time, when gathering-together once again will be possible.

5 New skills can be acquired rapidly.

Given the will (and perhaps also the need) to learn new skills, people are capable of fast tracking the process and acquiring new skills very quickly. I have now been told of so many people of mature—very mature—ages, who have taken the challenge, downloaded ZOOM, learnt how to enter a ZOOM meeting, start their video camera, and mute and unmute their speakers—all skills that they never envisaged they could do, just a month or two ago!

What might our churches look like, if we learnt from this? If we took on the challenge to reshape our worship, start fresh expressions of church, adopt new patterns of gathering and sharing and deepening our faith? How might the current experience of individuals learning new skills provide a template for communities setting out on experimental or pioneering pathways? It’s an exciting prospect!

6 Patience is paramount.

In a stay-at-home situation, this is the case; even in a regular situation where we come and go each and every day, patience is at a premium. People who live by themselves are learning a new level of patience, as they wait for fleeting encounters with other people at their front doors, or on the phone, or on the screen.

People who live in families with energetic bundles of energy (children) on hand 24/7 are learning another level of patience, as they isolate together as a family and attempt to conduct the business required to draw a wage and feed a family, even whilst supervising learning-at-home programs. Patience is paramount, in these, and in every, situation that people find themselves at this time.

7 We are well off.

Yes, we are very well off. Indeed, we are very, very, very well off! The great toilet paper panic was an ugly and unsightly episode, but it illustrates how privileged we actually are. At least we have toilet paper to use. Many people don’t. The constant injunctions to wash our hands are important. But we have water on tap (literally) to wash our hands with. Many, many people don’t.

And we have space, the space in our houses and the space on our streets, to practice social distancing. Many, many, many people do not have such space; they live in crowded homes, in overcrowded city areas, where keeping appropriate distance is just not possible. By comparison, it is clear: we are well off.

8 Science is invaluable.

The advances in scientific understanding in recent centuries have enabled us to understand how pandemics (what used to be called plagues) spread. Microbiologists and infectious disease specialists are able to harness their specialised understandings and insights for the benefit of the common good. Medical researchers are able to focus on possible drug treatments, conduct experiments, and produce guidance as to what will assist, and what will not help, as we seek to minimise the spread of the virus.

Science and medicine reporters are doing a fabulous job on the media, providing us with technical insights into how diseases work and how our bodies respond, breaking this information down into understandable bites of information, assuring us of the steps that are being taken to find the vaccine for this virus. We can be grateful for scientific and medical insights.

9 Faith provides a bedrock foundation.

When living in troubled, challenging times, people have regularly turned to some form of faith, for comfort and assurance. We have seen that throughout history. Perhaps that may be happening, these days, when we see the upsurge of interest that has been experienced by churches offering online worship. Many report large “attendances” at online worship, larger than the in person gatherings of past months. It may be too early to tell—but could it be that people are turning to spiritual resources in this time of need?

Certainly, people of faith are active and to the fore, in regular times and now in this unusual time, in ensuring that the vulnerable people in our society are given care and support in these challenging times. I know of many people of faith who are making extra phone calls and offering a compassionate listening ear to people in need.

I know of other people of faith who make home deliveries of food packages to elderly people, or who are staffing food banks operating out of church facilities. Protocols about social distancing are being observed, and needy people are being supported. Looking to the material needs of people in society is important. And in this regard, we clearly see that faith in action undergirds our society. So many people of faith are involved in these kinds of projects. This demonstrates how true religion is (as James writes), “to care for orphans and widows in their distress”.

That’s what I have learnt, this far into the process of social distancing and self isolating. What do you reckon? What are your key learnings?

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/


Rev Andrew Smith

I will journal throughout the week all the ways I alerted others to the universal reign of God through Christ


In an online worship service I participated in recently the preacher spent some time with the words of the resurrected Jesus in John 20: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”. In what the preacher went on to say I was encouraged in these times of COVID-19 restrictions to think and act for ways of safely being with and blessing our local communities again. 

Reflection on how the church has invested its time and energy in this first month of restrictions indicates that on balance we have dealt first with the inner life of the church – that is, getting worship and pastoral care sorted. We also need to recall our outer life – that we are a sent people. We are sent from our gathering at a distance for worship and pastoral care to live in and with our local communities as part of the light of Christ. The preacher was urging us to recall that we are a sent people (and of course there are wonderful examples of congregations already doing this).
To help us find our way in being a sent people in these times of COVID-19 restrictions, Mike Frost has listed 35 ways to love your neighbour right now. You can see these at: https://mikefrost.net/35-ways-to-love-your-neighbors-right-now/ Since Frost is writing for a world wide audience, some suggestions may seem fitting for our context while others may not.
Frost gives these suggestions because he is wanting you to begin to identify yourself as a missionary – a sent one. This is the reason for his fifth habit of highly missional people in his handy little book “Surprise the World”. The fifth habit is … “I will journal throughout the week all the ways I alerted others to the universal reign of God through Christ”.

Journaling is a helpful tool. Frost points out that it will help you sort through the myriad everyday ways you operate as God’s ambassador in your world. Further, “it will start to shape the way you think about yourself. You will eventually come to self-identify as a missionary, a sent one. You’ll be looking at your life and how you conduct yourself differently”.
As we think about journaling all the ways we alert others to the universal reign of God through Christ, you may ask, what does the reign of God look like? Frost offers some suggestions:
  • It looks like reconciliation: reconciliation between God and humankind, and between people and all creation. So journal how you mediated between warring colleagues at work; how you’ve reconciled with an estranged friend or family member; how you shared the Good News that God reconciles us to Godself through Jesus; or how you cared for creation.
  • It looks like justice: the call to defend and uphold the dignity and well-being of all persons, especially the poor and powerless. So journal your involvement with drug reform; your support for refugees and asylum seekers; your advocacy for affordable housing; your purchase of fair-trade products; your donations to causes; and the list goes on.
  • It looks like beauty: beauty often leads us to an awe-encounter with God – Psalm 8: “When I consider … the work of your fingers … what is humankind that you are mindful of them?”. So journal the times you take friends hiking, climbing mountains or walking on beaches. Journal when you create beautiful music, art, craft, and food for others.
  • It looks like wholeness: check out Luke 7:22 for the credentials Jesus gave to prove he was the Messiah – the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. So journal how you help bring emergency relief to victims of natural disasters or when you are part of repairing a broken relationship. Frost wants us to go further. He wants us to pray for supernatural healing in people’s lives and to journal the prayers and what happens.
I mentioned above that there are congregations already recalling they are sent people. In these times of COVID-19 restrictions these congregations are already alerting others to the universal reign of God through Christ. The most recent examples I’ve come across are from St George’s Uniting Church in Eden. Have a look at their website for creative ways they are being with their local community, and are being part of forming the community into reflections of the reign of God. Here is the link: https://eden.uca.org.au/about-us/

To help you grow in self-identifying as a missionary – as a sent one, take on this fifth habit of journaling throughout the week all the ways you alert others to the universal reign of God through Christ.

Rev Dr John Squires

Not this year. So what about next year?

Crowds attending ANZAC Day events, it has reported for many years now, are growing. The further away we are from the events of Gallipoli, Lone Pine, the Kokoda Trail, and Long Tan, the more people are flocking to crowded public events: at dawn services, at Cenotaph gatherings, at local town war memorials, and in major city marches.

But not this year. No social gatherings, no travel except for essential purposes, meant no ANZAC gatherings: no large Cenotaph dawn services, no massed marches, not even any local services at the town war memorial. Instead, a grassroots movement saw thousands of people standing outside their house, at the front of their driveways, as the sun rose.

TV news reports this year showed streets with one, two or a handful of people outside each house, a string of candlelights stretching along the street, as the sun rose. Gathering apart, no close contact, no large crowds. In some enterprising streets, musicians played The Last Post on bugle, trumpet, clarinet, or saxophone.

And those official events that did take place, with just a handful of invited “dignitaries” in attendance, were seriously pared-down events: no massed singing; no droning long addresses on the valour and bravery of those who died in war; no string of people, one after another, laying wreaths in remembrance. Instead, a short statement, the traditional Last Post and Reveille, the Ode of Remembrance, just a few words to mark the occasion; perhaps the national anthems of Australia and then New Zealand.

Then, it was over. Short, succinct, sombre.

****

Central to the Christian story of Jesus is the death and burial of Jesus, followed by his being raised from the dead on the third day. Central to the Christian Church is the annual remembrance of those crucial events, over the four days of the Easter weekend.

Quietly reflective recollections of the last meal of Jesus on Thursday evening, subdued recollections of the story of his crucifixion and death on the Friday, a time of silent vigil on Friday afternoon and, for some, throughout Saturday; then, the early Sunday morning fire (in some denominations) and the grand Sunday morning celebrations, recalling our baptism, hearing the Gospel read and proclaimed, gathering at the table of the Lord. This is what Easter is. This is what the church does so well.

Indeed, every Sunday morning throughout the year, in purpose-built structures and and in rented halls, in majestic cathedrals with stained-glass windows and in modest wooden country church buildings out in the paddock, people of faith gather to be reminded of the good news, to be strengthen in their faith, to be challenged in their discipleship. The Gospel is read and interpreted, hymns of praise and reflective tunes are sung, prayers are offered, then tea and coffee are drunk as people share news and gossip.

But not this year. The doors of every church, every cathedral (and every synagogue, every mosque, every temple, every meeting house) were shut for Easter, and will remain closed, locked, not to be opened until the wave of viral infections has well and truly passed. Inside, the vacant spaces, the silenced pulpits, the empty tables, all point to the way that we are now “being church” in different ways—in ways that, not so long ago, we never imagined or expected to see.

So the worship services have been transferred to online platforms: ZOOM, YouTube, Facebook Streaming; or resources are collated and emailed to people; or printed and posted, or even hand delivered to letter boxes or front doors. We have demonstrated both great ingenuity and also focussed energy, devoted to ensuring that we maintain contact with everyone connected to our church communities.

And more than worship—now, morning teas that once took place around tables in church halls, now take place online, in chaotic but warm and friendly conversations on ZOOM. Church Council meetings that once required everyone attending in person, now also meet online by ZOOM. We have held on to our connections, and are ensuring that nobody is left out.

*******

Churches, of course, are more than just worship. Lots of community-oriented activities are integral to the life of the church. Op Shops with low cost clothing and kitchen items, weekly Free Meal programmes, Emergency Relief and Food Pantry programs for vulnerable people in society, book libraries at the front door of the church building with free books available for borrowing and swapping, are some examples.

Fellowship Groups for lonely people to meet and talk together on a regular basis, the availability of overnight accommodation as Safe Shelter in church halls for people who are vulnerably housed, and Community Gardens operating from the grounds of churches. All of these activities are fundamental ways that faithful followers of Jesus live out their discipleship. Caring for others, especially the lonely and the vulnerable, is at the heart of how people of faith live out the command to “love your neighbour”.

Such activities happen day in and day out, throughout the year, each year. But, for the most part, not this year. Some of these activities have had to be suspended for the duration of the period that restrictions are in place. Some of them have been able to continue, albeit with significant changes to the regular way in which they were operating.

Food pantries have adopted strict social distancing and thorough disinfecting protocols. Some meals programs continue by providing pre-cooked, individually packaged take away meals for regular clients. Many Op Shops, unable to provide space to enable appropriate social distancing, have closed for the duration.

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What will ANZAC Day look like in 2021? Assuming that restrictions are eased and “life returns to normal” by April next year, we might well expect to see the return of the massed gatherings, the carefully-choreographed dawn services and the modest meetings at thousands of small town and suburban war memorials, the long, extended city marches, followed by the inevitable breakfasts, two up games and afternoon drinking sessions. ANZAC Day will likely “return to normal”.

What will Easter look like in 2021? Again, if we assume that restrictions are lifted, most churches will undoubtedly offer their usual array of worship services across the weekend; people will gather to reflect, to grieve, to give thanks, to celebrate. And Easter egg hunts will presumably be able to be held once again!

What will church look like in 2021? Will it simply “return to normal”? Or will we take this opportunity to change things, to do church differently, to step out into a new way of gathering and serving?

Will worship go back to “Sunday morning at 9:30am, everyone in the same building”? Or will a variety of ways of gathering be offered, including options that continue online participation from those least able to be present in person?

Will food programs revert to the “business as usual” pattern of past years, or will there be important learnings about hygiene, work patterns, seating, or other matters, that will inform new practices?

Will church-based Community Gardens open up to all members of the community with “free seed collection” days, so the people can benefit from the produce in their own gardens?

What will church look like, near year? and the year after? What are your thoughts?


 Rev Andrew Smith

I will spend at least one period of the week learning Christ

During this time of being homebound there are stories of people being quite creative in and around the home. For some this is out of necessity to be keeping children entertained and to stimulate their learning. For others there may be a little more leisure in their creativity. People are setting up chook houses in their backyards (maybe to have a surer supply of eggs when shelves are sometimes empty!). Others are spending more time in the garden. Perhaps someone in your home is experimenting in the kitchen with new recipes. Being around the home more, there is greater opportunity for recipes having several preparation steps that need to be done at intervals in advance of cooking. Marinating comes to mind. It always takes organisation and time. The more time the better, and tastier!!

Marinating is an image that Michael Frost uses for his fourth habit of highly missional people in his handy little book “Surprise the World”. He speaks of us marinating our minds and souls in the life of Jesus Christ through the habit of spending at least one period of the week learning Christ. This is going to take time. And like marinating food, the more time the better, and the greater distinctive flavour you’ll have as a Jesus follower.

In addition to the devotional value of growing closer with Jesus through this habit, there is the missional value: we need to know Jesus Christ if we are going to share him as the reason for the hope we have. As Frost says: “’Learning Christ’ helps us understand Jesus better and provides the tools for appropriating his example into our lives”.

Frost doesn’t want this habit to replace whatever other regular devotional or Bible reading habits you currently have. Rather, he wants this habit to work in addition to those habits. He suggests three things you might do with the additional time:

  • Read, reread, and reread again the four Gospels;
  • Read about Jesus in the many scholarly and popular works written about him;
  • View filmed versions of the Gospels.

In doing this we will marinate our minds and souls in the story of Jesus – slowly but surely orienting our lives toward the things of Christ, and becoming deeply familiar with his story “so we can share it whenever anyone asks for the reason for the hope we have in him”.

Imagine being so caught up in the life Jesus Christ that it bubbles up in your choices, your actions and your words – somewhat like a teenager who is captivated by a celebrity, or a sportsperson who admires and emulates a professional sportsperson, or an intellectual whose worldview is framed by a particular scholar.

In this time of being homebound perhaps you are finding yourself with more time. Perhaps you are finding yourself with less time as boundaries between work, home and schooling children become very blurred. In either case, Frost urges us to marinate our minds and souls in the story of Jesus.

PS – For those who are balancing being parents and teachers for their children’s schooling, is there the space to use Gospel versions pitched at your children’s reading level as part of their reading program? This might even be something that could be done together – multiple minds being marinated


 Rev Andrew Smith

I will spend at least one period of the week listening for the Spirit’s voice

In this time of isolation in our homes I wonder whether you are finding any solitude. Isolation does not necessarily translate to solitude. Your isolation may well be very busy with people working from home, children being home from school and finding ways to entertain yourself and others. With everyone home it may be hard to find a quiet space or time for solitude.

Solitude, silence and prayer are central to Michael Frost’s third habit of highly missional people in his handy little book Surprise the World. The third habit is: “I will spend at least one period of the week listening for the Spirit’s voice”.

Frost gives some useful hints for setting up regular times of solitude, silence and prayer, including setting aside a designated time, eliminating distractions and using centering prayer to listen to the Holy Spirit rather than telling the Holy Spirit what you want. The article in last week’s Presbytery notices by Rev Elizabeth Raine about creating a sacred space in your home helps our thinking about a regular space for solitude, silence and prayer, particularly in these times of being housebound.

This listening for the Spirit’s voice is important as God shapes us as missionaries and fills our hearts with love for those to whom he sends us, and nurtures and sustains us in the practices of generosity and hospitality for the first two habits of blessing and eating with others.

So what might you hope to hear from the Spirit in these times of solitude, silence and prayer? Frost suggests that the “Spirit might bring to your mind the name or the face of a person you are to bless or eat with” or prompt you to reengage with someone you blessed last week, or bring to mind something you could have said to someone but didn’t. Frost also acknowledges that as we seek to live missional lives in our local communities we will be faced with negotiating the extremes of entering fully into a social setting that might be considered ungodly on the one hand, and on the other hand being withdrawn and judgmental of those settings. As we negotiate these extremes, we might hope to hear from Spirit about how to sit somewhere in the middle – “a godly, intriguing, socially adventurous, joyous presence in the lives of others”.

Stories from across the Presbytery gives us an inkling of the Spirit’s promptings for congregations to bless some of the most vulnerable of our local communities in these times of COVID-10 restrictions:
  • A congregation stretching to see if it can safely bless people who are homeless by making a shower in its buildings available for use following the closure of the regular showering facilities at the local swimming pool. 
  • Another congregation with a food relief service imagining how they can partner with delivery runs of local restaurants and chemist for delivery of food hampers when their own volunteers are too much at risk for undertaking the deliveries themselves. 
  • A member of the church creating a facebook group for the families of the child services that his children had attended. This way the children and families can stay in touch with each other, retaining some familiarity in times of immense change for the little ones.

Maybe you would like to share how you suspect the Spirit may be prompting you and your congregation for mission with your local community during and beyond the COVID-19 restrictions. If you’d like to be in touch, here are my contact details – Rev Andrew Smith – ministerc@cruc.org.au – 0437 011 338.
 
In this time of isolation, may you find solitude. And in that solitude may you hear the Spirit’s voice shaping, nurturing and sustaining you as missionaries.