End of the World?


Many have noticed the flaws in democracy. These days, you have only to glance at Trump, or watch Britain unravel over Brexit, or notice the hung parliaments and unconvincing votes around the world. Is it time to find a new system?

Climate change has defeated democratic decision making. The main parties are beholden to the big end of town, especially coal and gas, and rather than choosing to oversee a rational transition to renewable sources, politicians have dug their heels in and promoted products and practices that add to harmful emissions. The science is indisputable – or should be.

Don’t imagine that politicians are happy with their alliances with coal and banks. Their overreactions to the #Extinction Rebellion sit-ins have revealed how sensitive they are to criticism. To suggest mandatory jail and cutting protestors’ welfare payments is despotic. Messrs Littleproud and Canavan should note: Blocking roads is not new. I can remember sitting on Riverside Drive at peak-hour in 1969 to protest the danger for pedestrians crossing to and from The University of WA.

 The argument in This is Not a Drill, a series of opinion pieces by supporters of Extinction Rebellion (Penguin 2019) is that the democratic process has failed us by not taking dramatic action to mitigate climate change. In Australia, emissions are increasing, and sales of coal are growing. Younger people fear for their future: coastal flooding, the melting of polar ice, wildfires year-round and cycles of severe drought should cause fear. The mass extinction of many species and the destruction of much of the world’s coral reefs, including the beautiful Great Barrier Reef, should be cause for alarm and grief.

#Extinction Rebellion aims, in part, to shut down capital cities until governments declare a climate emergency. No one likes the disruption to daily life this causes, but it is far less that the disruption that climate change unchecked will bring.

Writers in This is Not a Drill argue that not only must clean energy be generated and coal and gas phased out, but also the whole economy must be re-made. The ‘free market’ with its dependence on growth and consumer addiction to constant purchasing are the cause of climate change. These writers argue for a more distributive economy, local and equitable. As they say if fewer than 10% control more than 80% of the wealth, the system is loaded for reform.

The #Extinction Rebellion street actions have an element of fun. Some placards are humorous, playful floats function as centrepieces. Food shared generously creates a party atmosphere. Rowan Williams, formerly Archbishop of Canterbury, pleads for a place for delight: this is God’s world we are trying to preserve, and our Scriptures describe the act of creation as a form of divine play. If there is no joy, but only earnest protest, #Extinction Rebellion becomes a negative, maybe destructive force. With the element of delight, however, the movement is showing what a renewed world will be like.

The claims of #Extinction Rebellion disturb me deeply. Has democracy failed? Can a new and loving politics replace it? I fear the answer to both questions is ‘Yes’. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to act to preserve their world. Democracy will evolve – it must – but we must fight for the future.

Naming our land


As a writer and language teacher, I know the power of language. We express ourselves in words and sentences. With language we persuade others to see things the way we do. The language of others influences the way we see the world. 

Think of the differences between Ayers Rock and Uluru: the former celebrating the Chief Secretary of SA at the time explorer William Gosse sighted the rock in 1873; the latter marking the complex relationship the Anangu have formed with Uluru-Kata Tjuta over tens of thousands of years.

The English names in our country reflect the dispossession of the land by its Second Peoples. Ayers Rock, backed up by the colonists’ military power, rendered Uluru invisible.  This has been repeated time and again across Australia. The obliteration of Aboriginal names may not have been a deliberate policy, but it was part of the large-scale destruction of Indigenous culture by the incomers.

We should rejoice that, at times, the settlers listened to the locals and used their name for the place. (According to Professor Leonard Collard, about half of south-western Australia’s placenames are Noongar.)

Wejulahs (my mob!) enjoying the ‘water that is there when all else is dry’, Lake Toolbrunup

Toolbrunup, the name of the lake on our family farm and of the mountain on the horizon, is` close to the original. It means ‘the place which has water when all else is dry’, which was true until 20 years ago. Sadly changing land use has turned the lake into a place which is perpetually dry, but the name still reflects the memory of the Koreng people who gathered there year after year at the end of the hot season well into the European period.

For this is the power of Aboriginal placenames: they record a staggeringly long bond between people and land. They are memory; they are the keepers of value; they are part of the record of the most ancient continuous culture in the world. It is arrogant to continue to give places new European names if they are already named.

Of course, it is appropriate that the built environment should be named both for Aboriginal and wejulah reasons. A new school can be called the Bob Hawke College, but another one could be named the Wagyl Kaip College after the inland region of Wardandi country. Above the Forrest Highway could be the Mokine Overpass. Our history now, for better or for worse, is a joint story.

Mokine – image courtesy Elders Real Estate

Local governments around Australia are developing commendable policies of dual naming, reviving the hidden Aboriginal name for places alongside the European name. Some have also adopted the principle of first using the Aboriginal placename (with appropriate permission from local elders).

The theme for National Reconciliation Week 2019 is ‘Grounded in Truth: Walk Together with Courage’. What better place to start finding the truth is in the literal ground, the land beneath our feet? Sensitivity to placenames will speed this recovery of truth and memory and help wejulah to absorb more of Indigenous culture and reality and walk together with courage into the future.

Wejulah is the Noongar name for non-Noongars.   

Kneel!



I have a childhood memory of Grandad kneeling in his striped flannel pyjamas at his bedside saying his prayers. Those were the days when the reflexive response of a congregation to the liturgical command “Let us pray” was to instantly fall to its knees.

Like the American tourist in London overawed by the Tower and the Beefeaters, we didn’t think about it. When the tourist heard one uniformed Tower guard call to another, “Neil! Neil!”, he responded instantly as in church and fell to his knees.

In his diminished height in the kneeling position, in every folded part of his body, Grandad was demonstrating his belief that he was in the presence of One far greater than himself. To bend before such a One is the only way to dare to enter into conversation with the Eternal One.

The Usher sings in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury, “Silence in Court, and all attention lend. Behold your Judge! In due submission bend!”

More telling for us Christians is the Biblical example. The Hebrew word “shachah” means “to bow down” and implies kneeling and touching the ground with the forehead. Abraham, Moses and many others “bow down” at least 172 times. In the New Testament, the Greek word for “I bow down” is “proskuneo”. It means literally, “I kiss, like a dog licking its master’s hand”, and occurs 60 times in the New Testament. The people of God expect to bow down, to show loving submission to their God.  

We, as a church, have made considered decisions over the past 30 years to abolish kneeling. We have decided to stand as the redeemed people of Christ to hear the Words of Institution during the Eucharist. In many churches, altar rails have been removed to open the space and to encourage people to receive communion standing. These decisions are now inscribed as rubrics in our modern Prayer Books.

What we do in church and in ritual prayers at home is drill or repetitive training. And in those days when we knelt, we were training our bodies, minds and souls to enter the presence of God with adoration, awe and humility.

By standing where we used to kneel, we now train ourselves to stand upright, taking on the posture of people who are not bound and folded up in sin but forgiven and free. I think these changes are a nett gain to us.

What we do in church changes and evolves to meet the needs of today’s Christians. But we have lost much. We must be a people who can bend in the presence of the Almighty. However earnestly I may plead, I doubt habitual kneeling will be restored to general liturgical practice. In any case, I can no longer physically kneel, and as the church ages, there will be many like me.

But I suggest four changes to church we can make:

  1. To be aware of kneeling as a proper liturgical posture, and to ask ourselves when kneeling is appropriate.
  2. To kneel before and after Communion and before and after the service to mark those times of prayer.
  3. To choose to kneel on occasion to receive Holy Communion to express humility.
  4. For leaders to never say, “Sit for the prayers”, but allow people to kneel by instructing, “Kneel or sit for the prayers as you are comfortable”.

And at home review our posture for our own individual praying. Should we always be relaxed and comfortable in an armchair? Are there times when kneeling is the best posture, like my Grandad at the bedside before we commend ourselves to God’s keeping while we sleep?

A Date with Australia

Should they protest until change happens, or should change happen by changing the mainstream celebration?


Ngaala kaaditj Noongar moort keyen kaadak midja boodja

On Australia Day in 2013, I blogged as a native, but not indigenous, Australian that we should prize the anger that comes from seeing this day as Invasion Day: anger that fuels social justice and reconciliation. I believed that we should celebrate the Aboriginal culture, with its complexity, subtlety and beauty, that has survived as Survival Day, and even rejoice in the culture that came from Europe but which has now been modified by its exposure to Aboriginal culture.

Australians all, let us rejoice seemed to be the theme of my blog six Australia Days ago. I still think my piece said it well for a whitefella.

But there has been a change in six years. The #changethedate campaign has made Australians more uncomfortable about celebrating on Invasion Day. But that campaign and others has also had another effect: it has empowered Aboriginal people to make something else of Australia Day.

Yothu Yindi. Photo Mushroom Music

Yesterday on the ABC I watched a smoking ceremony, I was welcomed to Eora country, I heard Yothu Yindi sing Tjapana and Treaty, I thrilled at superb didjeridoo playing, I was intrigued by those who spoke in language, and I felt unexpectedly proud when Advance Australia Fair was sung in an Aboriginal tongue.

It was an ABC concert, so I wasn’t surprised that actor and PlaySchool presenter Luke Carroll acted as one of the hosts, but his presence was a pointer to the extent to which the concert was coloured black! It was an Aboriginal takeover, and I felt moved. I felt pride that this was our land, and I felt warmly welcomed into its deep culture. 

There were intense emotions expressed on the streets of capital cities at Invasion Day marches, and it is obvious that not all Indigenous people agree on strategy: should they protest until change happens, or should change happen by changing the mainstream celebration?

Source: Getty

Whichever is the most effective strategy, Aboriginal people are speaking loudly. They must say whether Australia Day can be rescued or whether we can only express our belonging together on a day without the historical resonances of invasion and frontier wars.

I for one look forward to a celebratory date with Aboriginal and all Australians.

In the dark


In the dark  – the night of Christian faith

I didn’t expect, at age 70, to have to contend again with the dark. Not the dark of my childhood, when I feared a dressing gown draped over the door was an alien axe-wielding murderer, but the darkness of not knowing the God of my Christian faith. 

Each time the darkness comes, I find it is easy to forget all I have been taught. Each time the darkness comes, I feel shame; shame as if the relationship with God I thought I had was sham; shame as if the faith I have taught I no longer experience; shame at the thought of having to profess publicly that I was wrong. 

Along with the shame comes fear. At age 70, my thoughts turn healthily to my coming death and whatever follows. What if there is no “life after death”? What if there is no “beatific vision”? What if there is nothing? What value then do I have? 

So it is good to be reminded by French Franciscan Thaddée Matura, in his essay An Ardent Absence, that darkness in Christian life is the norm, that grand encounters with God are infrequent and fleeting. Matura recalls us to the teaching that God is a fiery furnace, and if we were to encounter him as he is, we would immediately be burnt to nothing. It is due to his grace that we do not see him face-to-face in this lifetime. 

Father Matura also reminds us that despite the darkness, we can continue to follow the paths to God to which we are committed. We are to prepare for the beatific vision, for the great meeting that will raise us to God ’s presence. 

The darkness is hard. As we pass through it, we do not know what we are doing. We experience both fear and boredom. We may encounter the ‘plague that destroys at noonday’ (Psalm 91), the acedie of the desert fathers and mothers, as we question the whole of Christian life; we wonder if this darkness is the normal, then why? Why? 

But I hang on to those fleeting moments of revelation, those traces, hints of reality. A realisation grew through 1969, the year of the Leighton Ford crusade, that friendship with Christ is the heart of Christian living. I remind myself of the dove I saw [in my mind] flying up and expanding its wings over the congregation after we had received communion on the Fourth Sunday in Easter in 1974 in St Mark’s, Fitzroy. I revisit my tears when, meditating in the hard seats in the chapel in Perth’s Wollaston College, I felt enveloped by love. I feel my heart jump when the icon of St Francis behind the chapel of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in Brisbane appeared to move and gaze back at me. 

And I can simply be affirmed by Thaddée Matura, as I am by St John of the Cross, by St Francis, by St Richard of Victor, by a lengthy list of Christian teachers, that we make our way through this world blind, in darkness, and our joy is real — but anticipatory.  

George Appleton, the prayerful Archbishop of Perth during the 1960s, once wrote, ‘I go on in cold faith only because you push me.’ That push from an-Other keeps me going. 

Last Things – and more Last Things


At church yesterday, it could easily have degenerated into a heated argument about the end times. ‘What did I think of Trump deciding that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel?’ was the question that initiated our discussion.

We quickly agreed that:

  1. Tel Aviv was of no importance in God’s plans.
  2. If God could work through Cyrus, I said (Isaiah 45:1-13), he can surely work through Trump. ‘And Darius,’ added my interlocutor quickly (Ezra 5-6).
  3. My interlocutor argued that making Jerusalem the capital put paid to the two-state solution. I replied that it is not beyond human ingenuity to have two states and a Jerusalem capital. One possibility was that Jerusalem could be capital of both Israel and Palestine. Surprisingly, he conceded this point.
  4. I learned from my friend that Mr Trump had spent time with African-American churches in the South. We agreed that it is easier to see the worldly influences on the President than the Christian ones.

I tried to argue that our modern idea of the nation-state was not the same as the Bible’s. I don’t think I won that point, even though it’s obvious to me that the ‘goyim’ (nations) in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are more tribes than geographical locations delimited by boundaries.

As we talked, my companion revealed a belief that God’s plan included a battle, presumably on the plains near Jerusalem which some scholars identify as Armageddon. I agreed that this agenda could well have been pressed on Mr Trump by his evangelical supporters. It may even have been the reason that Trump’s ‘recognition’ of Jerusalem as the capital was precisely to hasten this outcome.

This is where I part company with my friend. Obviously, there is likely always to be violence in the background as God’s plans are played out – that’s human nature, sadly. It is unlikely, however, that God would intend violent collateral damage (such as the destruction of the Palestinians), or that God would choose violence to further God’s plans.

What made up my mind some years ago were the pleas of Palestinian Christians: wouldn’t you imagine that God had a better plan than their destruction? As I thought about that, I realised that God would not plan the destruction of any Palestinians, Christian, Muslim or Jewish. On the contrary, God wants all Palestinians to flourish.

I cannot countenance violence because in the Bible Jesus accomplishes his victories only by non-violent methods. Love your enemy, Jesus insists.

‘You have heard that it was said, love your neighbours and hate your enemies, but I say to you, love your enemies.’ (Matthew 5:43-44).

This non-violent love is for me the end of my searching the Scriptures; the point where I come to when I have exhausted all other possibilities for God’s plans.

My interlocutor of yesterday, however, at the end of his searching the scriptures, finds four points, including God’s use of violence, that indicate when the end of all things is at hand. I didn’t argue this point with him; I doubt I could change his mind.

I don’t spend energy searching for indicators of the end-time. I take seriously Jesus’ injunction that we ‘do not know the day our Lord is coming’ (Matthew 24:42). Why spend time on a search that will end up being fruitless?

The thing about God is not his timing at all. For God, all time is one. We are not to worry about when God is coming, we are to be concerned about whether we are ready today. We show our readiness by loving our enemies as well as those who love us (Matthew 5:46-47).

refugee_camp
Refugee Camp

Advent’s Four Last Things: JUDGEMENT


JUDGEMENT

The last judgement takes place on the first page of the Bible: ‘in the beginning,’ speaking of the creation, ‘God saw that it was good… God saw that it was very good.’ (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 24, and 31 (‘very good’). God’s judgement that creation is good is a refrain that echoes throughout the first chapter of Genesis.

tob_ Hebrew letters

The Hebrew word ‘tov’ is full of rich meaning. The meanings of ‘tov’ include ‘righteous’ and ‘right’ as well as ‘fitting’ and ‘beautiful’. ‘Good’ is a good translation of ‘tov’ if we hold in our minds both moral and aesthetic goodness.

God’s judgement is that what God has made is morally and aesthetically very good.

Michelangelo’s great painting gives us a picture of a ‘last judgement’ taking place at the end of time, with the righteous received into heaven and the wicked being cast out of Christ’s presence. [See below.] It is a powerful but misleading metaphor. The ‘last judgement’ in the New Testament is not so much an apocalyptic judgement at the end of time as the revelations of the ultimate judgement. The Latin word ‘ultimus’ means both ‘last’ and ‘ultimate’. Ultimately, the wicked are never close to Jesus, the good always proceed from his presence.

Jesus’ imagery of sheep and goats show what has been right and beautiful from the beginning to the end of time. It is always good to feed the hungry; it is always good to visit the sick and imprisoned; it is always good to clothe the naked. It is always bad not to (Matthew 25:31-46). It is always wrong and ugly to refuse to give to those in need.

My Grandad once sat me down on a pew in our little bush church and admonished me that God is judging me now as he always will right until I stand before God at the end of time. (I must have been naughty to get that lecture!) I don’t remember Grandad telling me, that, in the end, God’s judgement of me is that I am good; I am very good.

The good news is not some version of Father Christmas where the good will get their presents and those who have been naughty will miss out. The Last Judgement as described in the Bible is far more serious than that. The Judgement is that God’s world ultimately reflects the nature of God, God’s goodness in the richest sense of the word (Genesis 1:27). In the end nothing can extinguish that light (John 1:5).

The baby Jesus embodies the Last Judgement. Despite his poverty, homelessness and human vulnerability, Mary and Joseph, shepherds and magi are judged by the infant Jesus. He brings out their goodness. The death of Jesus spotlights human cruelty, greed, jealousy and fear. It shows them for what they are, and that evil cannot stand against the love that flows from God’s goodness.

The Ultimate Judgement is for all time: goodness was the judgement in the beginning, we judge the present by the standard of God’s goodness, and goodness will be the criterion until the end of time. It is a judgement not of punishment, but of grace. Our response is not fear, but joy.

A joyous Christmas!

michelangelos-last-judgment
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), The Last Judgement (1536-41)