Sing for your faith


1462742661-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_Keith and Kristyn Getty, Sing! How Worship Transforms your Life, Family and Church, Nashville TN: B&H Books, 2017. 176 pages hardback.

ISBN:  9781462742660. Not yet in Public Libraries.
Online $15 second-hand, $17 new. (My second-hand copy in new condition cost $7)

Reviewed by Ted Witham

What an encouragement to be told that Christians must sing: for the Gettys, congregational singing is both privilege and obligation. They point to many places in the Bible where we are commanded to sing, and, while conceding a place in worship for song as performance, their focus in Sing! is on the central place of congregational singing.

The Gettys make a living from writing and performing songs and encouraging the Body of Christ in music. Many of us have sung their In Christ Alone, an example of a singable melody and strong Biblical content. The chapter headings of Sing! assert that we are created to sing, commanded to sing and compelled to sing. We are to sing with heart and mind, with our family and with our local church. They write of the radical witness when congregations sing, and in a series of ‘bonus tracks’ provide checklists for pastors and elders, for worship and song leaders, for musicians and for songwriters and ‘creatives’.

Each chapter is followed by questions for reflection or discussion in a study group. Sing! would work well as a book club discussion, or a study for the whole congregation.

Sing! invites Christians to consider the first principles of congregational singing. It critiques performances that do not help the congregation to sing. The Gettys affirm the wisdom of a familiar repertoire, limiting the number of new songs and hymns.

In many congregations the idea that singing is compulsory will be controversial. As a musician and priest, however, I am pleased that the case for singing is put so strongly. How much stronger in faith singing congregations can be. How much stronger in faith are families and individuals who sing or listen to the songs and hymns they have sung in church on Sunday. And how much joy is evoked by the beauty and artistry of good music and poetry.

Sing! is not primarily for pastors and worship leaders. They don’t need convincing. A resource for all Christians Sing! will encourage all of us to sing more heartily.

Prime Ministers and Christianity


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Photo: Courtesy Agence France

In Church this morning, someone thanked God for our new Christian Prime Minister. I felt disappointed by this rush of enthusiasm. Before I lose my readers, let me state that I am very happy that Mr Morrison is a regular church-goer. I rejoice that God calls Christians to the vocation of politics: our country needs them. However, I reject the implied criticism of Mr Turnbull. For Scott Morrison’s faith to be a welcome novelty is simultaneously a judgement that Malcolm Turnbull is not one.

Mr Turnbull converted to Roman Catholicism. He chose not to politicise his faith.  In his recent book God is Good For You, in interviews with Malcolm Turnbull, journalist Greg Sheridan ‘was astonished at the depth of his knowledge of Catholic theology.’ Sheridan comments that Turnbull ‘affirms his belief if asked, nonetheless doesn’t talk publicly about religion all that much, but he very frequently makes reference to love. Perhaps he uses the word ‘love’ more than any previous prime minister.’ (p. 175)

Turnbull’s use of the word ‘love’ is significant as the way he parlayed his faith into the public realm. Even his enemies have noticed this intensely theological language. In fact, one of his detractors mocked his use of ‘love’ in the wake of his defeat.  But Turnbull chose not to use his faith as the public face of his policy making. He believed that arguments in the public sphere must stand on their own merits and not on their theological rationale.

Bill Shorten, too, is a convert, in his case from Catholicism to Anglicanism, the faith of his wife Chloe. Shorten is a product of a Jesuit school. Sheridan, no Labor apologist, is impressed by Mr Shorten’s’ serious knowledge’ of Christianity. Shorten takes into the public realm a quote from the legendary Jesuit Pedro Arrupe, ‘to be men for others’ as a key theological virtue. But like Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten disciplines the boundary between his faith and public life.

The stance of Turnbull and Shorten may even make us question politicians who let their faith be known because it is good politics. It may (or may not) increase Mr Morrison’s vote, but it won’t justify the decisions he makes a Prime Minister.

So, all power to PM ‘ScoMo’. I will pray for him as duty bound, and with added interest because he is a fellow-believer. But I thank God for Mr Turnbull too, and for all who choose to serve the community as politicians. It’s a hard job, and they need all the help they can get.

Believing: a tangled skein


I heard of a priest who was asked recently, ‘Do you ever have moments of doubt about your Christian faith?’ The priest replied, ‘On some days I have moments of faith.’

I am intrigued by atheists who seem to think that if they can knock one argument out from under a Christian, they will have of necessity knocked the person off their Christian stool. Comedian Ed Byrne, for example, talking to agnostics, ‘If you haven’t heard God speak to you in a sunset or a beautiful landscape by the time you’re 40, you’re an atheist.’ His assumption appeared to be that just one thing could make the difference between being a Christian or not.

I experience being a Christian not as a series of skittles to be knocked over, but as a tightly tangled skein of meaning-making, experiences and fellowship. Included among my persuasions are doctrines, ethics and aesthetics, the ever-fascinating engagement with the Bible, my identity and my incorporation into particular parts of Christ’s Church.

So atheists sometimes try to win the argument by asking what I would believe it were proved that some bones were definitively identified as the remains of Jesus. The empty tomb is only one little part of my believing, so, depending on the day, my answer is either a confident argument from logic, ‘It will never happen’, or an answer from conviction, ‘It would make no difference to my foundational belief.’

Some Christians trip over philosophical wires by trying to solve the puzzles of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries. What does it mean to call God a Trinity? The Prophet Mohammed was one person for whom the doctrine of the Trinity disproved Christian faith. He founded a new religion with monotheism front and centre. Five times a day, his followers now proclaim the Shahada, ‘There is no God but Allah.

trinityflyer‘One God in three persons’ makes less sense for our times because of the philosophical assumptions at the time the Creeds were written. Faith that God is one in three is always faith, however, and Christians can choose simply to believe it, or like Catherine La Cugna or Karl Rahner in the 20th Century devise completely new philosophical pre-suppositions for the doctrines of Trinity.

Other Christians recite the Creed each Sunday, ‘We believe in One God’ – the Trinity – as a statement of the historical faith of the Church. This is the Church and its beliefs in which I choose to belong, even while holding lightly to the details of these dogmas.

I have many moments of not believing or understanding how Jesus Christ can be completely human and completely divine: there are just too many paradoxes in the doctrine to contemplate at once. However an atheist who shows me how irrational this belief is will not therefore persuade me out of being a Christian.

Bedrock to my faith is the person of Jesus, yet many atheists join me at the core of acclaiming Jesus as a provocative teacher of good living, although some atheists try to make Jesus interchangeable with other gurus and guides.  I do stick to the uniqueness of Jesus. This comes partly from my ongoing fascination with the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Many atheists find they can reject Christian faith without reading the Bible. I find its books more and more intriguing as I read them, whether it’s unravelling the insights of Wisdom literature or attempting to interpret the Book of Revelation.

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Saint Jerome – courtesy brittanica.com

As I read the Gospels, I find more and more to surprise me. In the ‘Good Samaritan’, Jesus tips the world of loving upside down. Unlike his peers, Jesus calls us loving outsiders as equal a duty as loving our families. Another surprise: Being a neighbour is not so much about those whom I can help, but about who I allow to be neighbourly to me.

Much of my experience of being a Christian comes from the Church which has shaped me, paid for my theological education, and which continues to give me support. Just this fortnight with my wife away, I am experiencing the practical help of the local congregation bringing me meals. Of course, such do-gooding is not limited to Church people, but the fact that it is Church people living out charity as part of their faith reinforces my Christian identity too.

I cannot undo my experiences. I have discovered God in the music of Olivier Messaien. I can try to explain it away in psychological terms, but nothing can change what Messaien has revealed to me.

There are days when I try to persuade myself out of faith, but it can’t be done, I don’t think, because my faith is too vigorous a garden and grows by weeding and digging out old growth. One-punch atheists don’t get the complexity of religious faith as they believe it is a single flower.

I offer this short piece as one flower of my thinking as a Christian.

m

 

Helpful Whiff of Heresy


5111brslwkl-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_Lorraine Parkinson,
Made on Earth: how the gospel writers created the Christ, Richmond, VIC: Spectrum Publications, 2016.
ISBN 9780867862546
Online: Paperback $49, Kindle $11.99

Reviewed by Ted Witham

For some years, I’ve held lightly to the doctrine that Jesus Christ was fully human and fully divine. It’s not that I wish to demote the importance of Jesus, which was the purpose of the original dogma. It’s more that a pre-modern conception of divinity does not do justice to the ways in which Jesus of Nazareth actually  connects me with the sacred world.
Lorraine Parkinson’s new book Made on Earth helps me on my journey of belief by adding to the ways in which I can articulate my unease about Christology. She systematically works through the gospels in the order of their writing – Mark, Matthew, Luke and John – to show how the message of Jesus about the kingdom was deliberately transformed into a message about the identity of Jesus as the expected Messiah.
Lorraine Parkinson is a retired ordained minister in the Uniting Church based in Victoria, and is in demand as a speaker for meetings of progressive Christians around Australia.
She tells the story crisply of how the infancy narratives appear to have been added to Matthew and Luke inventing the idea of Jesus being conceived by the Holy Spirit, and thereby being God’s Son. She reveals how the life of Jesus was fitted into the typology of Moses or Elijah to further the argument for Jesus’ more than human status. The gospels

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incomprehensible?

were a sermon to persuade readers that Jesus had transcended Judaism and that his followers needed to distinguish themselves from the Jews.

 
She makes a plea for ‘progressive Christians’ to turn back to the original teachings of Jesus. The gospel of Jesus as the one Messiah  has led to a church that

  1. relies on fear (making sure you are right with God so you can enter the afterlife),
  2. that promotes anti-Semitism (the Jews are depicted as Christ-killers), and
  3. that ends up as Christendom (the Church as a new Roman Empire focused on power).

Returning to a simple reliance on the Sermon on the Mount and the parables of Jesus will invigorate individual followers of the Way of Jesus and remove the weight of having doctrinal commitments to a divine Christ.
She asks us to remember that the Gospel writers were ordinary human beings who believed they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Her arguments here appear to be based on common sense alone and I would have liked her to wrestle with the theology of inspiration a little more deeply. As followers of Jesus, understanding God’s truth and how we know it is an important issue.

 
This book is dangerous. It emits a whiff of heresy. I admire Lorraine Parkinson’s honest courage in questioning the 3rd and 4th Century interpretations of the meaning of the Gospel. We need prophets to show the way forward for followers of Jesus of Nazareth, and Made on Earth is an important step on that path.

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Sant’Apollinare, Ravenna – mosaic

Rejection


Rejection

—They’re dazzling Da-Esh with wonders and signs
Across widespread Islamist latitudes,
Where gospel is grounded in physical confines
And must be proved by miracles’ certitudes.

—We in Nazareth are more Word-based, of course,
Our gospel is rooted in reason’s deep grace,
In doctrine and Midrash is Jesus’ real source,
In text and good preaching we see Jesus’ face.

So Jesus can stand and read the whole scroll,
he can sit and discourse and be learned as well,
he can count off the ways he will save your soul –
but he cannot act. No! We’ll move to expel.

Your water to wine, your sadness to joy,
disrupting our world prepared to destroy.

  • Luke 4:21-30

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Christ Preaching in the Synagogue at Nazareth. 14th c. fresco (detail).
Visoki Decani Monastery, Kosovo

 

Transfiguration


Transfiguration

I walk this distant red gorge path alone.
My feet seek strength but I fear its sheer side,
I reach out searching for my God: unknown.
I touch nothing and weep; my faith has died.

I trudge on with the bread and blood and Word
These connect me to the church not to God.
“Scriptura sola” is literally absurd
My only joy is that others have trod

This way; and overstepped the bounds of linking.
I’ve lost the power to feel where God creates,
Abandoned zeal, fearing downfall, am sinking —
Instead of love, my worship isolates.

I falter, fall, free-fall down the chasm deep,
I faithless, God grasps me, who makes the leap.

  • Luke 9:28-36 (February 7, 2016)
    “Scriptura sola” – Latin tag meaning “Scripture alone”.

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Image courtesy http://www.australiasnorthwest.com/Destinations/The_Pilbara

Impossible Things for Breakfast


Gospel: John 6:1-21

You never seem to come to an end to this reading from St John’s Gospel.

When I was about nine years old, I discovered a book on my grandparents’ shelves called The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas… or was it A.J. Cronin’s The Keys of the Kingdom? The book explained the miracle of the feeding by suggesting that the little boy sharing his lunch shamed all the people into sharing the picnics they had brought with them.

And maybe that’s part of what John is saying to us: that when we recognise that people are hungry, we should share the little we have with our friends and neighbours and that will encourage a spirit of sharing in the community, and there will be enough to go around and more.

I think I knew even at nine that this explanation was a brush-off. Obviously sharing is a good thing, far better than the alternative, but a little disappointing if that was all Jesus was teaching. All the sharing that has happened since then has not made a dent in world hunger, and in any case, the people in the story were hungry, not for food, but for teaching and for a leader, a Messiah.

This is a story about two shocking events: a man who can feed 5,000 with virtually nothing, and who can walk on water. The story is firstly about who Jesus is, not about our puny efforts to feed the world.

I don’t know what to make of the two events. I don’t do miracles. But that in fact is the point. John is introducing a person who does things that cannot be done; a person who doesn’t fit the normal world we live in. We can’t go back in a time-machine and see exactly what happened, but we can be sure that Jesus was so far out of the ordinary that John shocks us into a new recognition: Jesus is no ordinary man. I may not do miracles; but I have spent my life trying to come to terms with who this Jesus is.

On the basis of John’s evidence, I can’t come to an honest conclusion. Jesus continues to escape my understanding. But if he feeds human beings with bread, and, not only with fish and bread, but with symbolic bread, himself, his presence, then, like the crowds, I want to keep following him. If his presence in stormy seas makes the journey more bearable, then, like the disciples, I’m glad to invite him aboard.

The crowds couldn’t pin Jesus down. They saw the signs he had been doing on the sick. These signs pointed to something important, something good, but exactly what Jesus was doing when you closely examined the signs was a bit harder to grasp. Not universal health-care; not every human being without health problems, but a sign that God’s kingdom was breaking in in a new way. While it may seem that evil and disease have the upper hand, the signs Jesus were doing on the sick were pointing to a different reality, and therefore worth following up, worth finding out more.

Maybe he was the Messiah who had come to throw off the Roman yoke. Jesus organised the crowd into men and women. In Mark’s version, they were in companies of 100 and 50, just like an army.

It’s a three-day forced march from Galilee to Jerusalem. There were, presumably, Roman spies in such a large crowd. The crowd acclaimed Jesus as the Prophet, and calculated that they could get to Jerusalem before spies could get to Roman headquarters at Caesarea and alert the Roman legion there, who would take many hours to prepare and then two days to march from Caesarea to Jerusalem.

A popular uprising could just work on that timetable. On the other hand, an uprising like that could be violently put down too. As soon as Jesus saw the way the crowd was thinking, he disappeared. He was not a political Messiah.

If not a political Messiah, then something else. The disciples stuck around to find out.

They were intrigued by Jesus’ handling of the fragments. Twelve baskets full. And of course John, as a master story-teller, is well aware of the symbolism. By the time John writes his Gospel, the Temple has been destroyed, the Jewish nation has been smashed, and only fragments are scattered throughout the Middle East. The twelve new tribes, the twelve fragments, so carefully and lovingly picked up by Jesus, are the new Israel, the followers of Jesus, the Church.

So is Jesus the new Moses? Like Moses he distributes bread to people in the wilderness. Like Moses he teaches on a mountain. As with Moses, the Passover is at hand. Jesus is to lead his people out of slavery to a new promised land. However, this cannot be a geographical Exodus. So what will this new Moses mean? What will his Exodus look like?

John doesn’t tell us that Jesus is God. He doesn’t make the equivalence. But he does tease us, and shock us, into asking the question, well, if not, what? If not God, what is Jesus? If not a political Messiah, what sort of Messiah? If not a new Moses, what sort of Moses? If not only a healer, then what sort of healer?

As I said earlier, I don’t have an answer. Of course, you can’t turn five barley loaves and two fish into bread for five thousand with twelve baskets left over. Of course, you can’t walk on water. But the response of the crowds, and the response of the disciples tells me that Jesus did things that cannot be done, and just like them, I want to know more.

In nearly 50 years of trying to find out who Jesus is, I have found that he feeds me. I gain an enormous amount spiritually and personally from exploring the scriptures and from sharing the Eucharist with you, my brothers and sisters. I have found that when life is hard, frightening, worrying, then in the midst of that, Jesus is there, and suddenly, I am through the storm.

And who Jesus is keeps just out of reach. I need to keep on following someone so intriguing whose only attitude to me is one of enormous love and goodwill.