Celebrating the Real World

Celebrating ….

In a world where rockets are landing, their lethal voice muffled by the sour scream of air-raid sirens;

in this world where loved ones – a lover, a beautiful daughter, a wise father, a jocular aunt – are missing, covered by rubble and rocks;

in this world where food comes only when rare aid trucks come through;

in this world where the flimsy plastic of a bottle carries life-saving water;

in this freezing world, where, even wrapped in rescuers’ blankets, the minus ten-degree nights are passed shivering awake;

in this world where the task of restoring home and family seems herculean;

in this world, there is hope, still hope.

Celebrating the love shown by neighbours and strangers when worlds fall to dust.

Celebrating the strength and care of first responders whose own homes are in peril too.

Celebrating the hope of a world without violence, a world of peace, a world where billions now spent on rockets and fighter jets are spent on food security, on clean water, on sturdier houses.

In a world where famine lacerates the stomachs of the poor;

In a world where babies languish dying for want of mother’s milk or formula;

In a world where potentates, indifferent to their fellow citizens’ lives, dwell in indecent luxury;

In a world where food crops fail when crops for First World profits have ravaged the earth;

In a world where exhausted men and children, desperate to eat, burrow into dark and unsafe tunnels for minerals for Westerners’ phones;

In this world where you watch your loved ones slowly shrink then obscenely swell with malnutrition before they die;

In this world, there is hope, still hope.

Celebrating the hope of a world where our food, even now abundant, is shared equitably;

Celebrating the hope of a world where all people enjoy the dignity of providing rightly for their families;

Celebrating the hope of a world where all women, men and children can find joy in feasting and laughter;

Celebrating the hope of a world where humans delight in caring for this beautiful world of waterfalls, and butterflies, and stupendous Uluru.

In a world where rampaging floods overwhelm towns and farms;

In a world where animals bleat and drown in the unrelenting watery flow;

In a world where loved ones, like my Great-Granny Bridgeman, are swept away from their kin for ever;

In a world where livelihoods go under in the spreading floods;

In a world where life-giving water goes rogue and kills;

In this world where people try in vain to stay afloat;

In this world, there is hope, still hope.

Celebrating the hope of a world where nature and humanity are in harmony;

Celebrating the hope of a world where the kindness of neighbours is life-saving and life-giving;

Celebrating the hope of a world where the development of cities and towns is driven by concern for each other and the environment;

Celebrating the rainbow which shines its seven-fold spectrum in hope for a more lovely and loving world.

Abstract, but luminously beautiful

Noel Jeffs SSF, Walking in Stealth: after Pushkin,
Penrith NSW, Moshpit Publishing 2022

37 pages, paperback

$25 online

Reviewed by Ted Witham tssf

My first pass at reading Brother Noel Jeff’s second book of poetry, Walking in Stealth, left me bewildered. I could see the beautiful edifice of the poems, but I felt I was on the outside walking around looking for a way in. These are complex and mysterious poems. Many are in sonnet-like forms, with rhymes that surprise and an attention to musicality, both in the sounds of words and the overall effect of the poems. They are best appreciated read aloud.

Writing in the New Yorker about the 19th Century symbolist French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, Alex Ross said, ‘After only a few lines of Mallarmé, you are engulfed in fine mist, and terror sets in.’ I had a similar sense of being put off balance by Noel Jeff’s 18 poems.

These poems ‘were [Noel’s] morning meditations as the sun rose over [his] right shoulder and dawned the day…’  The way into the poems, I am finding, is to stand in imagination next to the poet and look at the dawn with him. The different elements of the morning – the sky, especially, and ‘the grace of birds’, ‘the creating moon’ don’t exactly come into focus, but they float around in the beauty of the words creating an abstract painting.

As these images come into view, the concerns of the poet bubble to the surface of the words: awe before the opening sky, contrasts between the simple beauty of a ‘limpid lake’ and ‘spokes of noise’ (22), the constraints of the human body, the paradox of the beauty and the destructive power of the sun. (31) Physical desire is ‘Crotches burning’ which ‘spin this top in a world’ (30). There are no final answers, just abstract shapes, beautiful Rorschach blots. It’s probably no coincidence that Brother Noel trained as a psychotherapist.

A reader could hunt through these poems simply for arresting images: ‘my own ram’s horn to make a shawm’ (18) takes me straight to Psalms and the Jewish shofar. ‘try perfume lathering’ (13) mixes delight into the two senses of smell and touch.

I found hints of the Franciscan Dun Scotus’s theology of the ‘Word’. Each creature, Scotus taught, is a little ‘Word’ opening itself to the viewer and telling its story of the Creator. Each word in the poems likewise opens into a celebration of the Creator. Noel Jeff’s vocation as an Anglican Franciscan friar is at home in this Creation Theology.

Ultimately, however, Brother Noel’s delight is in words, their beauty and how the meaning of words shape-shifts.

It was said of Mallarmé that the challenge was not to translate his French poetry into English; what was needed was a translation into French! You could say the same for these poems; they would be impossible to translate into English! And yet, they deserve time, opening yourself as readers to the play of meaning, the gambol of musical words, and finding an ineffable effect on you, drawing you back into the words.

I know too little about Pushkin to understand the link with Pushkin, but Noel Jeff’s poems can be enjoyed without knowing the connections. The reader simply needs time to find a way in. They are beautiful on the inside as on the out.

Seven times seven

Seven times seven

I don’t remember Australia Day in 1949. But Mum told me it was a sunny day, tennis day in Lake Grace. I was nine weeks old, and rapidly losing weight through pyloric stenosis. It was also a Sunday, so at 3 p.m., the tennis players walked from the courts still dressed in their whites to Saint Anne’s Church (now the church hall) for the baptism of three babies, including me.

I assume my Dad was there, supporting Mum. Dad was not a churchgoer. I didn’t know what Dad believed until, when I was about 10, he crouched in a ploughed paddock, picked up a handful of soil, and poured it slowly back onto the ground. Dad believed in the beauty and fecundity of nature.

Driving around the farm, he would point out with reverence birds in their trees, lovingly remarking on their colours and their habits, or showing us handsome plants and lizards, or pretty patterns of clouds.

The baptism ceremony went well. It was only after, as the certificates were being signed, that my most recent food reappeared. Pyloric stenosis causes projectile vomiting, and the milk and blood regurgitated can be sprayed up to 3 metres. My vomit splashed over the certificates and the ink smudged on my baptism certificate remains as evidence of the power of projectile vomiting.

Splattered milk and smudged ink, however, did not camouflage the importance of the day: this was the day God promised that God’s Spirit would hold me for ever.

I do have a memory of my confirmation in St Mildred’s in Tenterden. It was the first time I wore long pants, long scratchy grey serge pants. I was just 12 years and 9 days old on November 21 in 1960, and Mum asked me to wear my uniform for Christ Church Grammar School where I was starting as a boarder in the New Year.

Bishop Hawkins preached on duty to Mother, duty to Mother Church and duty to Mother Country (in 1960, that still meant England, I think). Mum reminded me frequently, with a small smile, of Bishop Ralph’s sermon.

My Nan had prepared me for my Confirmation. Every Wednesday of my Grade 7 year, during Scripture period she and I withdrew into the boys’ shelter shed where Nan walked me through the Catechism, explaining how God had come into the world as Jesus Christ, and still loves us through the Holy Spirit.

Even as a 12-year-old, I wondered how much the bishop’s sermon had to do with the Christian faith that Nan had expounded. I voted for Nan!

After the rite of Confirmation, I received Holy Communion for the first time. The power of the bread and wine grows over time. In 1960, I took it because Nan and Mum told me so. But now, after maybe 5,000 occasions on which I have received this sacrament, I strongly appreciate its power. Through it, God turns my natural laziness into love for others and gratitude for all God gives.

I marvel at the variety of places God has come to me in the Eucharist: in churches like St Mary’s in Tambellup, and Christ Church in Claremont and St David’s in Applecross, and, in the past two years, at St Brendan’s in Warnbro: with splendid music in St George’s Cathedral; in the Chapel at Christ Church Grammar School with its stunning backdrop of Freshwater Bay; in the bush accompanied by birdsongs; in Italian and French in historical Roman Catholic churches in Europe; in Uniting Churches, with the Baptists and Churches of Christ; in French in St Thomas’s in Beau-Bassin, Mauritius; cramped onto tiny tables in hospital; in our homes and the homes of friends and parishioners; chaotically in nursing homes; so many places, so much grace.  

It was almost as if I was ticking off the seven sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion are the two ‘Dominical sacraments’. Our Lord (Noster Dominus) had commanded those two explicitly. According to the catholic theology Anglicans inherited, confirmation was the first of five lesser sacraments. So that made three of the seven!

At the end of 1969, my fourth year at University, I was in major pain and waiting both for my final exams and surgery on my back. As a resident at Saint George’s College, I was part of the Chapel community. Chaplain Ian George prepared a group of us over several weeks for the Sacrament of Holy Unction. We learned how Jesus had healed the sick, and how James had told sick people to call the elders for the laying on of hands and the administration of oil.

We learned how that developed into Holy Unction and how, sadly, Unction was associated more frequently with the dying. It should be a robust prayer for healing in all situations – including mine.

So Ian George duly laid hands on my head with prayer and anointed my forehead with blessed oil. As I knelt at the communion rail in the Chapel, I felt a heavy load lifted: I knew, whatever happened in my surgery, God healed me. It was a wonderful boost to my faith and the confidence it gave me never left through weeks of rehabilitation.  

In 1975, after three years of study, Archbishop Geoffrey Sambell ordained me: deacon on February 9 and priest on Advent Sunday, November 30. Before each ordination, the candidates, Chris Albany, Len Firth, Peter McArthur, Geoff Newby and I, were sequestered for a four-day retreat. These intense days of prayer and addresses invited us deeper into the mystery of God.  

A pattern was developing: preparation, then sacrament. I was beginning to learn that these sacraments were not so much about empowering me (though they do have that effect); sacraments are much more a statement about God and how God continues to work through frail fallible human beings.

In 1978, I fell in love with my dearest Rae. We were engaged on August 6, the feast of the Transfiguration, when everything changes for the better. Our parish priest, Michael Pennington and Archbishop Sambell both played their part in preparing Rae and me for the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony.

The Archbishop married us on December 9 in 1978 in St David’s Church in Ardross. Michael Pennington celebrated the Nuptial Eucharist. Our families and friends crowded St David’s. Two of our friends played Grieg’s ‘Wedding Day at Troldhaugen’ and Bach’s ‘Wachet Auf’ for oboe and organ as our wedding present. Aunty Jean Witham presented us with her stunning tapestry version of Michelangelo’s ‘Last Supper’. (It still hangs on my study wall.) Our wedding was another declaration of God’s determination to go on loving us.

Rae and I were not content just with the sacraments we had received. In 1979, we started our formation as Franciscan tertiaries and were professed in 1983. It’s not hard to draw a straight line between my Dad’s celebration of nature and me grasping St Francis’ appreciation of all creation.

It is not my tradition to make a formal regular confession; even so, I have used Sacrament Number 7, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, on many occasions. It, too, is a wonderful affirmation that, whatever stupidity and evil I have done – and I have been stupid and evil at times (often simultaneously)  – God still loves me. God is still prepared to treat me as though I had a clean slate, just like I had before I vomited all over my baptism certificate.

Gravis: the Order of Priests

Fear the Lord

On this day 47 years ago (November 30, Advent Sunday, 1975) I was kneeling before Geoffrey Sambell, the Archbishop of Perth, in his Cathedral waiting, with some trepidation, for him to lay hands on my head. He was about to say the prayer,

‘Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a priest in the Church of God…’

The trepidation was because I had only been discharged from hospital four days earlier. In a game of tennis, I had twisted my newly repaired spine, and was still in some pain. I knew that the Archbishop needed only impose his hands lightly on my hair, but the custom was that all the other priests would then lay their hands on the Archbishop’s hands: somewhat medieval as a custom, but freighted with meaning.

The Archbishop assured me beforehand that he would lay his hands on my head, start the prayer, then lift his hands and take the weight of the other hands on his. I hoped it would work!

I was conscious that behind me in the first pew of the Cathedral were my parents, Aunty Jean and Nan. Nan, frail and determined, had asked her doctor bluntly, ‘If I go to Perth for my grandson’s ordination, will it kill me?’

The doctor knew Nan. ‘If you go to Perth,’ he replied, ‘it might kill you. But if you don’t go, it most certainly will kill you.’ So, Nan had made the 4-hour car journey from Tambellup to Perth. She was staying with her sister, Aunty Jean. The two sisters were unlike in every way. I loved them both dearly, but, put them together in the same house and sparks could fizz.

Nan had been the first to suggest, when I was about 10 years old, that I should be a priest. She instructed me in the basics of Christian faith. She literally taught me the Catechism (‘What is your name? N. or M.’ was the first question, and it took me years to work out what ‘N. or M.’ meant.)

When I was a teenager in boarding school, Nan asked me about my experiences in chapel services. She encouraged me to be part of the College Chapel when I was at University. She knew I had spent all my savings when I was sent to a private hospital while I was at theological college in Melbourne, and she sent me, out of the blue, a cheque for $2,000 to pay for my trip home from Melbourne at the end of my studies.

So, like the imposition of hands, Nan’s presence behind me was heavy. Gravis, the Latin for ‘heavy’, also means ‘serious’. Nan reached back into the 19th Century and her formation as a Christian in St John’s Church in Northam. Nan had been a crucial part of my experience of the faith at St Mary’s in Tambellup.

Nan’s presence in the Cathedral was heavy. The weight of her expectations on me was not so much that I would be a successful priest, but that I would be faithful to the calling. Gravis.

I had dreamed several times before Ordination Day of the Second Sunday in Advent, the Sunday after the Ordination. I would be in Bruce Rock. In my dream, the congregation waited in the church. In the vestry, I robed in my alb, amice and girdle as I had hundreds of times. I put the purple stole around my neck instead of slant-wise as I had as a deacon. But for the first time, I lifted the purple chasuble over my head and laid it on my shoulders.  It was too heavy. I could not bear the weight. I took the vestment off and laid it back on the table. I woke in panic each time. Gravis.

Take the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God,’ the Archbishop intoned, ‘now committed unto thee by the imposition of my hands…’

I felt the Archbishop’s hands gently and firmly on my head. I felt him lift his hands as the priests leaned in. The Archbishop tried to hold them, but he couldn’t, and the combined weight of a dozen priests’ hands came pressing down on my hair, on my head, on my neck, on my spine. Gravissimus!

I barely heard, ‘And be thou a faithful dispenser of the Word of God and of His Holy Sacraments…’ I managed to stay upright in the kneeling position, but I was grateful for the two Archdeacons who helped me stagger to my feet.

My first Eucharist at St Peter’s in Bruce Rock was a good occasion. And I rejoice that, when my health permits, I still occasionally consecrate bread and wine with other Christians.

Nan did not die as a result of her trip to Perth: she lived to see me ‘dispense the Word of God and His Holy Sacraments,’ in St Mary’s Church in Tambellup. 

I shared that ordination with Chris Albany, Len Firth and Peter McArthur. Chris and Len are still friends 47 years later. I share the day with  Bryan Shattock, a fellow-retired priest in St Brendan’s parish, who was ordained 8 years later. I still value the collegiality of the priests who laid their hands on me on that day (and all the others who have come since) and welcomed me into the Order.

My marriage is more precious, but my ordination is still at the heart of who I am. It is still gravis.

Luscious book on Aboriginal Journey Ways

Even the arrival date (of Noongars in southwest WA) is still 35 to 40 thousand years before Homer, before Stonehenge was built, or scribes began to write the Old Testament.

Noel Nannup OAM and Francesca Robertson,
Aboriginal Journey Ways: How ancient trails shaped our roads.

Main Roads Department and Edith Cowan University, 2022

Reviewed by Ted Witham

It is no accident that contemporary roads often trace the paths of the ancient trails used by the Aboriginal people of this State for trade and ceremony. The topography of the land often dictates the best route to travel whether on foot or in modern vehicles.

This captivating coffee-table book explores the State from the Kimberley to the Eucla, from Gaambera country in the far north to Noongar country in the south-west and tells the story of the roads and trails of WA.

The details of these journey ways are depicted in clear maps, but what makes the book stand out for me is the lavish illustrations of Aboriginal art and glorious photos from many parts.

Stories from every time in our 60,000-year history are told: ancient stories, alongside the recollections of Indigenous folk and summaries of more Western knowledge are included.

It’s intriguing and humbling to learn that it took five to ten thousand years after first settlement for the First Peoples to spread from the north to the south-west. Even that arrival date is still 35 to 40 thousand years before Homer, before Stonehenge was built, or scribes began to write the Old Testament. These time-periods are truly astonishing.

I grew up in tiny Tambellup, a Great Southern town on the borders between Koreng and Minang Country. Of course I checked to see whether Tambellup was represented in the volume..  There are vivid descriptions of Tambellup and recollections of Elders from there – so I am well satisfied! I am interested to know that Aunty Gabrielle Hanson derives the town’s name from the tamar wallaby. I have heard other versions that say the town was named after the Nyoongar word for ‘thunder’. (Though that’s unlikely: the usual Noongar word for ‘thunder’ is ‘malkar’.)

Noongar knowledge-keeper Uncle Noel Nannup OAM and social work academic Associate Professor Francesca Robertson have collaborated on this and three earlier books (published by Batchelor Press) sharing their research of how people have moved around this State for tens of thousands of years.

I recall the research of Uncle Len Collard showing that about 50% of place names in WA are Aboriginal names. We have done better than other parts of Australia in remembering the names of this ancient country. But this current book brings to mind many more place names and how the places were connected one with another.

Indigenous people speak of their efforts in bringing language and culture back to life after nearly 200 years of colonisation in WA. Aboriginal Journey Ways revives even more of this Country for all of us – Indigenous and wajelah.

I am so enjoying the quality of the photos and artwork in this book that I wish I did not have to return it to the library! If you can find it in a library, it is a book I highly commend. 

What is God like?

What is God like?

Reflection on the Gospel Luke 20:27-38

One of my favourite lecturers at theological college was Max Thomas. Dr Thomas was an expert in Orthodox spirituality, and he often enthused about how much Anglicans can learn from our Eastern brothers and sisters.

Max was closely involved in our student lives. Most days he chose to eat lunch with us where his presence provoked lively theological discussion. Even though Max was way ahead of us intellectually, he still needed that kind of interaction.

A year or two after my return to WA, Max was appointed Bishop of Wangaratta in Victoria. It was not a happy appointment. We heard that he was an idiosyncratic bishop, and his clergy were not too sure how to take him.

For example, when he visited a parish on a Sunday, he chose not to robe and lead the service, but to sit in the back row and take notes on the sermon. He told me that the biggest fault in the sermons he heard was that they were not theological enough. By this, Max meant that the preachers did not explore and explain what God is like.

Sermon critique, however, was perhaps not the best form of pastoral care!

Max would have rejoiced in today’s gospel with its lively theological discussion between Jesus and the Sadducees. In this discussion, they refer to the Bible. They discuss subjects relevant to everyday life. Above all, they argue about what God is like.

The Sadducees try to wedge Jesus with their question. If Jesus tries to answer their question, ‘Whose wife is she?’, he will end up contradicting himself because the question is phrased in such a way that there can be no logical answer. If he denies that the seven brothers and their serial wife will be ‘in the resurrection’, the Sadducees have trapped Jesus into agreeing with them that there is no life after death.

But Jesus avoids the wedge. The real issue, he says, is not about sex in the afterlife. The real issue is not even about the afterlife. Nor is the real issue about the extent of the Bible, whether the first five books are the only authoritative ones, as the Sadducees claimed, or whether the prophets and the writings also speak to us of God.

The real issue, says Jesus, is God and what God is like. (Max Thomas’s question!) God’s life and influence extend beyond any of those things. The ‘God of the living’ is the living God, and we all live in God. The patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob live, because God gives them life and goes on giving them life. ‘Before Abraham was, I AM’, Jesus claimed (John 8:58).

There is no limit to God. God transcends anything human minds can comprehend, and we human beings are embraced by God’s ongoing life. The issue in this passage is not life after death, but life with God, ongoing life, life now and for ever.  The difference is crucial.

Three attempts to catch Jesus out

Surprised by shock inclusion

Sermon for Pentecost 18, 2022

Sermon – St Brendan’s By The Sea, Warnbro

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, October 9, 2022

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Luke 17:11-19

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke.

Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten men with a skin disease approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14 When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’s feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? So where are the other nine? 18 Did none of them return to give glory to God except this foreigner?’ 19 Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

The Gospel of the Lord.

Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.

In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I want to start with an unpleasant thought experiment.

So, before that, a joke.

An old Irishman walks into a bar, hauls his bad leg over the stool, and asks for a whisky. ‘Hey,’ he says, looking down the bar, ‘is that Jesus down there?’ The bartender nods, so the Irishman orders Jesus one too.

An ailing Italian with a humpback walks in, shuffles up to the bar, and asks for a glass of Chianti. Noticing Jesus, the Italian orders Him a glass of Chianti too.

A redneck swaggers in and hollers, ‘Barkeep, set me up a cold one! Hey! Is that God’s Boy down there?’ The bartender nods, so the redneck orders Him a bottle of beer.

As Jesus gets up to leave, He touches the Irishman and says, ‘For your kindness, you are healed!’ The Irishman jumps up and dances a jig.

Then Jesus touches the Italian and says, ‘For your kindness, you are healed!’ The Italian’s humpback straightens, and he does a flip.

Just then the redneck yells, ‘Hey! Don’t touch me. I’m on disability pension!’

So this is the thought experiment:

What is the worst kind of person you can think of? They may be so morally depraved that even thinking of them makes you feel disgusted, even a bit dirty. They may be so lacking in empathy that there is no lid on their violence; they are happy to lash out with fist or weapon at anyone, child or adult, ordinary citizen or officer of the law.

They may be so different from you that you feel you can’t understand them and their culture. You wouldn’t want your granddaughter to marry one, or even get friendly with one.

I remember my Dad and others of his generation talking about the Japanese as Nips who were both cruel and not real men. Thankfully, that intolerance has gone away as memories of the war have faded.

During the dangerous times of Covid-19, people were intolerant of those who wouldn’t be vaccinated. In fact, some people thought anti-vaxxers should be segregated from the rest of us, like lepers. And I heard anti-vaxxers say similar things about Government officials and employers.   

In some parts of the community, people think of refugees in that way; not as terrified folk fleeing for their lives, but as terrorists and opportunists coming to take our land and our children’s jobs. But in most surveys church people in Australia welcome refugees. So, we in this room are less likely to hold that prejudice.

You may have thought of sex offenders, nasty folk who prey on children and other vulnerable people. Maybe you want a separate town where these people are sent to live; or their addresses known so you can tell kids which houses to avoid.

You may have thought of dictators. There are some at the moment, one or two, who I feel the world would be better without. Put them on an island in the South Pacific, I say, without their armies and nuclear weapons and their egos, and let them get on with each other. Just so long as they don’t threaten our peace.

Whoever this group of people is, your desire is to exclude them from society. One way or another, you want them gone.

Ordinary people in Jesus’ time thought that way about lepers. Whether or not the skin disease in the Bible was the modern Hansen’s disease, the lepers then had severe disfigurements, difficult to look at. It was better to put them out of the towns and villages so you didn’t have to look at their deformed faces, running sores, or twisted bodies.  Living with a leper in close quarters, washing them, having them cough over you, over a period of months you may catch it. Better to separate them from the rest of us.

Even 1300 years later in Europe, in the time of Saint Francis of Assisi, people still felt that way about leprosy.  Push lepers away from society, avoid all contact with them, let them survive on the fringes of the community with the bandits and the very poor.

So, for Jesus to get near enough to lepers to talk to them would have seemed totally unadvisable. Not only might Jesus catch the disease, it gave the wrong message. Don’t encourage them to think they can get better.

Even so, it didn’t seem to bother Jesus. Saint Matthew tells us of another occasion when a leper knelt before Jesus and Jesus ‘stretched out his hand and touched him.’ (Matthew 8:3) Actually touched him. Like hugging a pedophile. Disgusting.

So the unpleasant thought experiment boils down to the question, ‘Who is your leper? Who would you put out of the community?’

Jesus’ actions are astonishing. He approaches lepers. He speaks kindly with them. He blesses them. He heals them. Once the priests certify that they are clean, they can pay their thank-offering. They can go back to their family, to their community. Jesus doesn’t just heal their disease, but he gives them their whole world back.

Imagine your lepers. Imagine Jesus blessing your lepers. Because, be assured, that is what Jesus does. He accepts and embraces the very people you and I can’t stand.

And we are challenged to see that acceptance as Good News. We are invited into a world in which your lepers and mine are included, blessed, healed, welcomed by Jesus.

The Gospel goes a step further. It invites us to emulate Jesus, to copy his way of loving. Not only are we to rejoice that Jesus welcomes those terrible people, but also Jesus dares us to reach out to them in love, and so heal them and reconcile them back into our community.

I mentioned Saint Francis, because he changed his mind. He admits that he was disgusted by lepers. Seeing a leper one day as he rode by, he dismounted, walked over to the leper and embraced him. Then, Francis recalled later, everything changed. Everything that ‘had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body.’ (The Testament, 1, FAED I, 124.) In fact it was so transformative that Francis realised later that he had embraced Jesus.

With his brothers, Saint Francis went on to set up a rough hospice for lepers, risking contagion and finding joy in nursing them. Saint Francis encourages us: if we are willing to imagine a way to bless our lepers, and act on the imagining, that action will bless us in return.

We can start by praying for them – regularly, every day. It’s amazing how holding our lepers up to God helps us see them as God sees them, as whole, healed human beings.

We can imagine their lives; how they’ve got to where they are now. How their disability or twisted personality has cost them relationships; how they miss out on love because of how others see them, maybe because of the way you see them. Once we know their name, and their story, we see them as an individual, and when we have seen their unique personality, their special contribution to the world, we can’t unsee it. They change from ‘them’ to ‘you’.

When we see them as people, we might risk reaching out to them. What do they most need? We all need to know we are loved. What practical things can we do to ensure that our lepers know they are loved by God?

Gary Chapman is a Baptist pastor and author from North Carolina in the US. He speaks of five ‘love languages’, five practical ways we can express love to other human beings.

The first love language is ‘words of affirmation’. Encouraging and supporting people builds their self-esteem.

The second love language is ‘quality time’. You express how valuable a person is to you by giving the gift of your attentive time.

The third language is ‘receiving gifts’. Physical gifts are symbols of our love. Using this language is as much about the humility of receiving gifts as it is about giving them.

The fourth is ‘acts of service’; doing tasks for a person that will make their life easier.

And last of all is ‘physical touch’, because we all need more than FaceTime and Zoom. We need to feel the bodily presence of a person to know they care about us.

  • Words of affirmation.
    • Quality time.
    • Receiving gifts.
    • Acts of service.
    • Physical touch.

If you haven’t heard of the Five Languages of Love, it’s worth searching on the internet for ‘Gary Chapman, Five Love Languages’. (https://www.supersummary.com/the-5-love-languages/summary/)

With your leper, you don’t have to do all five aspects of practical loving. Start with one of the languages. One may be enough to turn them from despised to esteemed.

There’s one more surprise twist in this morning’s Gospel.  

Samaritans were hated by Jews: pious Jews travelling from Galilee to Jerusalem refused to travel through Samaria, which was the straight and easy route. They crossed the Jordan and travelled down on the Transjordan side before crossing back to get to Jerusalem: a longer trip, and through more desert country than the Samaritan route.

Not Jesus. Luke makes a point of telling us that Jesus was travelling through Samaria. Jesus was taking his disciples the quick way to Jerusalem, through the territory of the despised neighbours, the Samaritans. And the only leper who turned back to give thanks to Jesus was a foreigner, a dirty foreigner, a darky, a Nip, a loathed Samaritan.   

This Samaritan, this ex-leper, give thanks, and Jesus commends him for it. This foreigner gets it right, the other nine miss this step.

How hard it must have been for the disciples to hear that a Samaritan got it right with God. We too have been welcomed, blessed, healed and restored by God, just like the Samaritan, and this despised alien shows us how we should respond to Jesus. Our lives, like his, should be lives of gratitude.

Bryan spoke last week of faith. We already have it. The answer to every prayer, Bryan said, is ‘I am with you.’ Our faith is real. And our faith is that the marvelous healer Jesus continues to be involved in our lives. What can we say to that except ‘Thank you’, and go on saying ‘Thank you’?

The Samaritan is the model of Christian spirituality. Not a Jew. Not St Peter who recognizes Jesus as the Son of the Living God. But a Samaritan. Just as the Samaritan earlier in Luke showed us how to love our neighbour. Our leper shows us how to love God. We should be surprised. And we should go on giving thanks. We will know the sweetness of soul and body as we are embraced by Jesus.   

Wisdom: My review of Jill Firth’s Honoring the Wise

. Sometimes wise, sometimes provocative, and sometimes surprising, Honoring the Wise displays the depth of influence the Hebrew Bible has on Christian thought and behaviour.

Jill Firth & Paul Barker, editors, Honoring the Wise: Wisdom in Scripture, Ministry, and Life: Celebrating Lindsay Wilson’s Thirty Years at Ridley, Wipf and Stock 2022.

281 pages + 25 pages Introduction

Paperback ISBN: 978-1-6667-3647-2
Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-6667-9480-9
eBook         ISBN:  978-1-6667-9481-6

Paperback from $45, Hardcover $70. Kindle $11

Reviewed by Ted Witham
(first published in Anglican Messenger, July 2022)

Old Testament scholar The Rev’d Dr Jill Firth, a former West Australian, with her colleague Paul Barker at Ridley College in Melbourne, has produced this splendid collection of 18 essays to mark Lindsay Wilson’s thirty years as a teacher of Old Testament at Ridley.

Dr Wilson’s central area of scholarship is the Wisdom literature in the Old Testament, and the title, Honoring the Wise, reflects a wide scope: some of the contributions are specifically on Wisdom texts, others honour Dr Wilson as a wise teacher and scholar.

Honoring the Wise is structured in five parts: Wisdom as Narrative, Wisdom in the Writings, Wisdom in Prophecy, Wisdom in Preaching and Teaching, and Wisdom in Life.

As with all collections like this, some chapters appeal more than others to the reader. I was intrigued by Andrew Judd’s exploration of Judges 19 – an obscure horror story for most of us – and his insistence that this fable-like story is an invitation to seek wisdom and to infer better ethics in a society where there is a king, and where Levites behave with wisdom.

According to Judd, “We are invited to sit with the wise and observe the messiness of reality, with all its ambivalence and discontinuity; to get on top of it, take counsel, and then, only then, to speak out.” (26)

Dr Firth’s own contribution on finding relational wisdom in the book of Jeremiah concludes that “In his prophecy and confessions, Jeremiah comes to know God through apprenticeship, questioning, dialogue, and lament.” (58) This fourfold pattern suggest a workable framework for helping Christians come to wisdom in a world where there is conflict and pain.

Ridley College’s biblical theology has a strong reputation both for its academic rigour and its evangelical flavour: here you will find, for example, a consistent belief not shared by all scholars of the Hebrew Scriptures, that the “whole Gospel” is contained in the Old Testament. This collection of essays will appeal to all who wish to be refreshed and challenged in their understanding of the place of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The book has a striking cover by Victorian artist and theology graduate Dr Anne G. Ellison.

The publisher’s insistence on American spelling in a book showcasing Australian scholarship irritated me.

Honoring the Wise deserves an audience wider than the Ridley community and broader than evangelical Christians. Sometimes wise, sometimes provocative, and sometimes surprising, it displays the depth of influence the Hebrew Bible has on Christian thought and behaviour.  

Practicing Peace: Michael Wood’s new book

270 pages
ISBN 9781666735307
Paperback $45, Hardcover $60, Kindle $11.99

Michael John Wood, Practicing Peace: Theology, Contemplation and Action,
Wipf & Stock, 2022.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Michael Wood’s eloquent new book aims to show how the non-violent practice of peace arises directly from God’s nature: God is love, and so we are to treat each other and all creatures lovingly.

The Rev’d Michael Wood, former Chaplain to The University of Western Australia, and a long-term priest in the Diocese of Perth, has written Practicing Peace as a handbook for peace-making, using, among others, the insights of Open Space Technology.

Practicing Peace emphasises the New Testament concept of a Christlike God; that God is in every way a peacemaker as was Jesus himself. Wood writes the clearest exposition I have read on René Girard’s theory of mimetic rivalry. We reflect the desires of others and want what they want, creating a conflict between people that can be overcome by ‘recognizing and releasing’ the conflict.

The second part of Practicing Peace is a handbook for peace. We engage in contemplative practices in order to shine a light on our own disoriented desires. We then listen to each other to create an agenda, share assessments of the situation and options for a more peaceful way forward, and commit to trying those options, a process Wood calls ‘collaborative emergent design’.

While the theology of Practicing Peace is profoundly Christian, the insights into peace-making can be used by any people of good will.

Each section of this book is written with a beautiful clarity and is summarised in a series of appendices and charts which turn the declarative theology into useful visuals. An extensive bibliography rounds out the book. West Australians will note references to local authorities and activities – like salsa dancing at Scarborough Beach!

Michael Wood’s book contains much for Christian leaders to mull, and more importantly, practise! All Christian leaders including clergy in formation and clergy in parishes will find here a way of Christlike leadership that will attract others to the dance. I wish I had this wise book when I served parishes and a not-for-profit!

Practicing Peace is a profoundly hopeful book. ‘Imagine the church,’ Wood writes, ‘as constituting an international academy for peace, focused on the Christlike God, shaped by contemplative prayer, and practicing the art of dialogue. This could be a small contribution that Christians could make to the world.’ (223)

Practicing Peace is itself a substantial contribution to a more peaceable world.

A Spectre, Haunting: Communism and the Christian today

A Spectre, Haunting is above all a masterly commentary on Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto, written with humour and compassion.

China Miéville, A Spectre, Haunting: On the Communist Manifesto, Head of Zeus, 2022

ISBN 9781803282244

Paperback from $29, Kindle $13.19

Reviewed by Ted Witham

For most bourgeois (and I have to admit to being bourgeois), becoming a Communist is a taboo, a step too far. Even for one with progressive politics, the idea of throwing out the whole system by which society governs itself, and starting again, is too, well, too revolutionary.

China Miéville is an English writer I look out for. His fantasy ‘steam punk’ novels explore the use of power and the experience of the underclass. His writing has vigour and joy, so A Spectre, Haunting appealed to me because of its author. If nothing else, it would be well written.

Miéville himself is active in socialist and communist circles in England, so his commitment was no surprise. A Spectre, Haunting is above all a masterly commentary on Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto, written with humour and compassion. The book includes the whole text of the Manifesto and Engels’ prefaces to later editions. It is rounded out with a comprehensive bibliography.

Miéville assures us that Karl Marx was the main author of The Manifesto. The central problem that Karl Marx discerns is that too much wealth is in the hands of too few. In order to create a fairer society, in which everyone has enough and has opportunities to develop themselves, that 1% must be divested of its money and power, so that all can benefit: a commonwealth.

The French Revolution, say Marx and Miévelle, did not go far enough. It replaced the nobility’s hold on the bulk of the wealth in favour of the bourgeoisie. The paysans and the urban poor still missed out.

The difference today is that the wealth is held not only by Queen Elizabeth II and the Sultan of Brunei, but also by Elon Musk and Rupert Murdoch, bourgeois capitalists who, like their royal forebears, have no intention of sharing!

So, the solution to the inequality Marx discerned in 1848 is still the same in 2022: replace the hegemony of the capitalists with government by the workers and the underclasses. Miéville claims that Marx was not idealistic about this. The working classes still need to grow into that role, because as exploited human beings, they have been conditioned by the rich capitalists into the view that they do not have the capacity to build a fairer world.

In 1848, a year of aborted revolutions, Marx whimsically described communism as ‘a spectre, haunting … [a]ll the powers of Old Europe.’ The Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Thirty-three years later, communism still seems to be a spectre, haunting the globalised world. Though technically dead, its persuasive analysis of capitalist society and its attractive vision of a world where everyone has enough to flourish, still sits in the back of our collective mind.

As Christians, we have a love-hate relationship with Communism. Our analysis agrees with that of Marx: that the greed of the very rich robs the poor of a dignified life. But we are suspicious of Marx’s non-violence. We know, right from the Cross, that non-violence resistance usually provokes the violence of the system, however, my reading is that The Communist Manifesto is too ready to condone that violence.  

Maybe China Miéville, writing so compelling about the revolution, will be part of a movement to bring the haunting spectre back to life. Given the ravages of capitalism, we should arise, because ‘we have nothing to lose except our chains’.