Minister’s Musings

Winter
(August 2017)

Och, it’s been so cold recently! I have been full of admiration for those of you who have made it to church services on such very cold Sunday mornings – voluntarily! – and full of envy for those of you who have had holidays in the many places that are warmer than Melbourne is at the moment.

You have probably heard me moaning about the weather, and complaining that if we wanted to experience temperatures this low the Hannah and Jones families could have stayed in Scotland and England. A friend of mine who was born in Yorkshire grew up in Brisbane because his father looked at the migrant hostels throughout the British Empire and headed to the one closest to the equator. Australia’s international image is of a sun-drenched country, and even though those of us who live here know that we don’t really live in a land of endless summer the shortened days, long nights and winter cold can come as a surprise.

Yet winter is a stunning season. The sky has been incredibly clear; the sunlight illuminating sea and shore. Williamstown is breathtakingly beautiful and the winter sun has been reminding us of that. As the sun goes down the beauty continues. When I manage to run I do so at about 5 pm, when I can enjoy the sunset and the lights of Melbourne shining across Hobsons Bay. Every time I walk along the Strand I’m reminded how very lucky I am to be living here in any season.

Winter reminds us that creation has a rhythm of birth, growth, decline and death, followed by new birth. Human lives also have seasons, and all of them are equally valuable. We need winter seasons in our lives; times to rest and stand still and think about what we have experienced and learned in spring, summer and autumn. Winter is a good time for us to do this, when the cold and the dark encourage us to turn inwards and the world around us reflect the world within us.

The end of life is another, even more important, winter season. Just as the plants divest themselves of leaves and fruit and flowers, our final years of life is a time for us to divest ourselves of everything, material and spiritual, that we no longer need. Just as the seeds lie hidden, waiting for the inspiration of spring, so we lie quietly, preparing for the blossoming of new life that will come after death. One of my favourite lines in the Uniting Church funeral service is that: ‘while death marks the end of mortal life, it marks a new beginning in our life with God’. We believe that in death we, like plants in winter, will rise through the darkness into the warm glow of God’s springtime, to blossom and flourish in God’s garden.

One of my favourite descriptions of winter is this poem by Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855):

O thought I!
What a beautiful thing
God has made winter to be
by stripping the trees
and letting us see
their shapes and forms.
What a freedom does it seem
to give to the storms.

The beauty and freedom that Dorothy saw winter gives to trees and storms is the same beauty and freedom that God gives us as we journey towards Her. In death God strips us of everything unnecessary and shows us our true shapes and forms as children of God. And then we will blossom again, while the love we have shown in our lives continues to bear fruit.

Thank-you
(October 2016)

Hello, everyone. I’m back!

At the end of June I met with the Associate General Secretary of the Synod and she helped me to make a decision that I had been avoiding. As a result, I spent July, August and September on sick leave.

I live with serious clinical depression. Most of the time my illness is managed with the help of medication and occasional visits to a psychologist, but this year it stopped being managed and became acute. Depression is extremely common. At least 350 million people live with depression and it’s the leading cause of disability worldwide. One million people in Australia experience depression each year, and one in six Australians will experience depression over their lifetime. Throughout the world almost one million people die from suicide every year; in Australia it’s around 2,500 people every year. Women are more likely to suffer from depression than men; men are more likely to die from suicide. Depression is a serious, life-threatening, illness.

Despite its prevalence and severity, apparently only about one-third of Australians with depression seek treatment. I know how difficult it is for people to admit that they, we, have a mental illness. There is still some stigma about mental illnesses compared to physical illnesses. It is also hard for us to take seriously an illness that feels as though it is ‘all in our head’. In my case, I felt that taking sick leave would be letting the congregation down. Then there are all the practical and financial difficulties that come with taking time off work because of any long-term illness, mental or physical.

This is why I want to say an enormous and sincere thank-you to all of you. From the moment I admitted that I was sick the church has taken care of me.

You kept paying my stipend, so I could live and afford treatment. (I also want to thank Australia’s public health system, because most of the costs of visiting the doctor and psychologist were reimbursed by Medicare, and my medication is on the PBS.)

The Synod reassured me that they would support the congregation financially so that worship and ministry could continue without me. The Church Council did an amazing job finding replacement ministers, including gifted members of our own congregation who led worship and provided pastoral care. I received cards and emails and phone calls and text messages from congregation members all telling me that I was appreciated and missed and that I was to take the time I needed to get better. I missed everyone, but I was reassured that the congregation was flourishing without me.

Because of all this practical and pastoral support I was able to take sick leave with as calm a mind as it is possible to have when experiencing depression. I am now much better and back at work half-time. I am still recovering, which means listening to my body, not working at 110%, and leaving some things undone. At the moment I am still having afternoon naps, which does make me feel as though I am 90 rather than 43. But I am getting healthier and by the end of the year I hope to be completely well.

Again, thank-you, thank-you, thank-you. At my induction you promised to care for me as I promised to care for you, and you have definitely done that over these past few months. Well done, good and faithful congregation.

Celebrating Easter – The Silly and the Sublime
(29 March 2016)

The church’s celebration of Easter lasts for fifty days, from Easter Sunday to Pentecost. It’s an appealing aspect of the Christian faith that after fasting for the forty days of Lent the church feasts for an extra ten days during Easter. There is more joy than there is penitence in the Christian calendar.

Luckily for us, in the wider world Easter only lasts for the four days from Good Friday to Easter Monday. I say ‘luckily’ because the Easter holiday seems to inspire some silliness among non-celebrators, and there have been three particularly silly Easter-related items in the media this year.

The first is an internet meme that circulates every year at this time claiming that the Babylonian goddess Ishtar’s name was pronounced ‘Easter’ and that Easter was originally a fertility festival that celebrated the goddess, before the Roman Empire stole it and made it all about Jesus. Even otherwise quite sensible people seem to share this story, despite there being no evidence that Ishtar’s name was ever pronounced ‘Easter’. Further, most countries actually refer to the festival English-speakers call ‘Easter’ by a name that refers to its origins in the Jewish Passover. (Quick examples: the French call it Paques; the Italians call it La Pasqua; in contrast the Germans, who share an Anglo Saxon heritage with the English, call it Ostern.) This reference to Passover also makes an appearance in English-speaking churches when we light the Paschal Candle. There’s no evidence that the Christians ‘stole’ Easter from the pagans (unlike Christmas, where we do seem to have chosen December 25 as the date for celebration to piggy-back the birth of Jesus onto existing mid-winter festivals) but I can guarantee that some of your friends and acquaintances will believe the fertility festival myth.

Meme from the the Facebook Page of The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (Official)This year’s second silly item was in The Age. Columnist Tim Dick suggested that Australia needs to set a fixed day for Easter. For most people Easter is, he writes, a civil public holiday, and it’s simply inefficient to allow public holidays to be moveable feasts. ‘The gross inconvenience of having public holidays wandering about the calendar depending on the stars and the priests is with us still because the churches can’t get it together to choose a fixed day, as they did for Christmas centuries ago.’ (‘We need to agree on a fixed date for Easter’, The Age, March 27 2016.) I am all for the various streams of Christianity getting together to choose a common date for Easter. The Western and Eastern Churches celebrate on different days because we follow different calendars, and the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Coptic Orthodox Pope are currently in discussions about it. Maybe a fixed date for Easter would make our lives easier. But the churches have a very good reason for not choosing a fixed day and it’s not because we can’t get our act together. Easter follows Passover, and the Jewish calendar is a lunar one rather than a solar one. A wandering Easter is a solid reminder of Christianity’s Jewish roots and the fact that Jesus was a Jew, and given the history of Christian anti-Semitism we need all the reminders of that we can get.

The third silly item was about a topic close to my heart – chocolate. Apparently many manufacturers of confectionary no longer put the word ‘Easter’ prominently on their chocolate goods. Instead they are described as ‘Mini Eggs’, ‘Hunting Eggs’ and ‘Chocolate Eggs’. This has incensed the federal member for Hughes, Craig Kelly MP, who has proclaimed that: ‘next Easter, I’m going to boycott any chocolate Easter Eggs or Easter Bunnies that aren’t sold and labelled as “Easter” Eggs or “Easter” Bunnies’. His Facebook post on the matter has been shared 158 times.

Photo from @ChrisKellyMP

I completely agree with Mr Kelly that ‘In today’s world, even chocolate can be political (sic) incorrect.’ Unlike him, I do not think this is necessarily a bad thing. I’m absolutely in favour of people being discerning in their purchasing of chocolate eggs – I myself always buy those that are Fairtrade or UTZ certified in the hope that no child labour went into their manufacture. But to suggest that the name that commercial companies put on chocolate eggs has anything to do with the celebration of the Feast of the Resurrection leaves me flummoxed.

(I am not even going to mention the story of Easter Egg hunt in Connecticut in which adults apparently trampled children; look that up yourselves if you want to be saddened by further evidence of the idiocy of the human race.)

To the non-Christian world, Easter is now over. The internet memes claiming that it was originally a pagan fertility festival will be put away til next year; no one will worry about the wandering dates of public holidays that are past; and, sadly, the shops will be empty of chocolate eggs. But for the next fifty days churches will continue to celebrate Easter. We will light the Paschal Candle, we will sing resurrection hymns, and we will rejoice that in the resurrection God defeated death and hatred and darkness and sin. Even when the season of Easter is ended and we’re back in Ordinary Time we will continue to celebrate the resurrection every Sunday, remembering that ‘first day of the week’ when the women went to the tomb and found it empty.

Then, having celebrated the resurrection each Sunday, we will go into the world to live it out, serving the world for which Christ died and bringing life and love and light and joy and peace to every part of it. A fertility festival that celebrates the Babylonian Ishtar might be fun (I’ve never actually taken part in one myself) but Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection, is much more meaningful.

Will Love Make a Way? (1 March 2016)

Love Makes A WayIs the tide turning?

On Tuesday the 23rd of February I spent five hours sitting with seven other people in the office of the Liberal Party Headquarters in Victoria, praying, singing and making 267 origami hearts. At the end of the five hours we were escorted out of the building by some very nice police officers.

There was method in our apparent madness. We went to Liberal Party Headquarters to ask the Prime Minister and the Minister for Immigration to allow the 267 asylum seekers currently at risk of being sent back to Nauru or Manus Island to be allowed to stay in Australia and to bring all asylum seekers currently on Nauru or Manus Island into Australia. We were willing to sit and pray until those commitments were made, but we left peacefully at the end of the day rather than forcing the police officers present to physically remove us.

This was the latest in the many actions of the nationwide movement #LoveMakesAWay movement, which seeks an end to Australia’s inhumane asylum seeker policies, including offshore detention and holding children and their families in detention, through non-violent civil disobedience. So far, 174 religious leaders from a wide range of denominations have been arrested after holding prayer vigils in offices of MPs from both major parties, including the offices of Mr. Turnbull and Mr. Dutton.

The vigil is also part of the wider movement #LetThemStay, a series of nationwide actions that have involved thousands of individuals and groups including doctors, lawyers, comedians, unions, teachers and concerned citizens. #LetThemStay is asking that the government not return to Nauru the 267 asylum seekers currently in Australia for medical treatment. This includes 37 babies born to asylum seeker parents in Australia, children who have never lived on Nauru.

Last week doctors and nurses at the Lady Cilento Hospital in Brisbane refused to discharge a baby brought to the hospital for treatment for burns because they did not believe that detention in Nauru would provide a safe home environment for her. After people spent days in vigil at the hospital to make sure that the family was not forcibly returned to Nauru, Asha and her family received a temporary reprieve and are now in community detention in Australia.

Several Uniting Churches, including Brunswick Uniting and St John’s Essendon in our presbytery, have offered to be places of sanctuary for the asylum seekers currently in Australia at risk of being sent back to Nauru. This would probably involve breaking the law, since it is unlikely that the common law right of sanctuary applies in Australia (it’s never been tested). In response the President of the Uniting Church, Stuart McMillan, issued a pastoral statement in which he said to such churches: ‘For those congregations who have decided to extend sanctuary, God bless you for your courage and compassion.’

The Uniting Church has been opposed to the mandatory detention of asylum seekers for decades. We are deeply opposed to off-shore detention, believing that the conditions on Nauru and Manus Island breach the human rights of those in detention. The Uniting Church’s latest statement on Asylum Seeker and Refugee Policy, Shelter from the Storm, was approved at the National Assembly last year. For much of this time, we have been speaking to a community that is either indifferent or actively hostile towards asylum seekers. But the tide may be starting to turn. When the premiers of NSW and Victoria, and the AMA, have backed the call to #LetThemStay, it is obviously not just a fringe group.

Stuart McMillan ended his pastoral statement: ‘please pray for God to grant us the strength of character to follow fearlessly Christ’s exemplary life of compassion in the days and weeks ahead, that the love of God may be made known.’ Amen.

 

To give up chocolate or eat sausages? (1 February 2016)

Pieter Aertsen Peasants by the Hearth 1560sEaster is a ‘moveable feast’. The date of Easter is based on the lunar cycle which is much more complicated than the solar calendar; it occurs on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox (in the Northern Hemisphere – for us it’s the autumn equinox). Easter Sunday can be any date between March 22 and April 25. The Archbishop of Canterbury recently suggested that the world’s churches might agree on a common date for Easter, which might be the second or third Sunday of April. That would make all our lives easier, but I don’t think we should hold our collective breath waiting for it.

This year we have an early Easter Sunday, the 27th of March. Even though we’ve barely finished celebrating Christmas, we are about to leap into the period of preparation and penitence that is Lent. For forty days, from Ash Wednesday on the 10th of February to Holy Saturday on the 26thof March, Christians will spend time in solemn penitence. In church the Easter candle will remain unlit and there will be no flowers.

In the early Church those seeking to join the Church were baptised at Easter. They spent forty days before their baptism in preparation and fasting in imitation of the forty days that Moses, Elijah and Jesus fasted. From about the seventh century, all Christians were encouraged to join catechumens in their preparation and Lent as we know it was established. Since the foods that people fasted from included eggs, cheese, and cooking fat, as well as meat, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday became a time to eat up everything that would be forbidden for the next forty days. Hence Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) and the tradition of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.

Those of us in the Uniting Church who observe a Lenten Fast usually do it in a minimal fashion by simply giving a luxury up. Eggs, cheese and meat stay on our diet. The Ex-President, Andrew Dutney, suggests that even this minimal fasting might be too much. Rather than fasting during Lent, Protestants should be eating sausages.

In the Swiss town of Zurich the Protestant Reformation started with the eating of sausages during the Lent of 1522. Ulrich Zwingli, a preacher who supported the ideas of Martin Luther, was present at a sausage supper served by a printer, Christoph Froschauer, to his workers who, Froschauer claimed, were exhausted from putting out the new edition of The Epistles of Saint Paul. The eating of meat during Lent was prohibited, Froschauer was arrested, and Zwingli defended him in a sermon in which he claimed that fasting should be voluntary, not compulsory, because there is no mention of Lenten fasting in the Bible. It is probable that the sausage supper happened to give Zwingli the chance to proclaim Reformation ideas; historian Diarmaid MacCulloch says that there was ‘a suspiciously biblical tally of twelve’ people at the supper.

Pieter Aertsen Peasants by the Hearth 1560s

Thus, with sausages, the Reformation was introduced to Zurich. In memory of Froschauer and Zwingli and as a reminder of Christian freedom, Andrew Dutney keeps a basket of chocolate eggs in his office.

So, as heirs of the Protestant Reformation, we have no need to fast during Lent. We know that it isn’t required of us, and that it won’t make us better Christians. But we also have the freedom to fast if we wish. We are not the hard-working and hungry printers of Zurich; the Lenten discipline of giving up a luxury won’t cause us too much deprivation. We will simply be reminded that during Lent we are preparing for the commemoration of Jesus’ death and the celebration of his resurrection. And our celebration of Easter will be heightened by feasting!

(And if you do plan to give something up for Lent, consider joining with the Electra-Lights in their fundraising for girls’ education in Afghanistan. If you want to learn more about that, talk to Judy, Tracey, or any of the Electra-Lights.)

But do feel free to eat sausages this Lent.

 

Hearts on Fire (26 June 2015)

On Sunday the 12th of July I will be heading off to Perth to attend the 14th National Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia. Despite the fact that this will involve seven full days of meetings, usually not the most enticing of prospects, I’m looking forward to it. It’s a privilege to be able to attend the Assembly and get a sense of the breadth of our Church. We worship God, witness to Christ, and serve the world in so many amazing and different ways.This Assembly the theme, chosen by the incoming President, Stuart McMillan, is ‘Hearts on Fire’. Stuart says, among other things: ‘Fire is a rich symbol for the First Peoples of Australia. If you are to enter another Clan/Nation’s country you light a fire at the Nation’s boundary to make your request to enter or pass through … Fire, burning, shining and hearts are all rich symbols used in Scripture … I am thrilled by the passion (hearts ablaze) of the young adults in our church. A passion for justice for all peoples, for the care of the environment and for living the way of Jesus. I see this same flame in many members, communities and agencies of our church. I love the flame of excitement which the various cultures that make up our church have brought.’

Stuart McMillan at the last Assembly

Stuart McMillan has lived in Darwin since 1982. He speaks the Yolngu language of Arnhem Land, has been adopted into a clan of the Yolngu nation, and was given the skin name bulany meaning red kangaroo. Many of us have seen him at previous Assemblies translating for Yolngu-speaking members of the Assembly.

There are always interesting visitors at an Assembly, including representatives from other churches in Australia and overseas. This year the Assembly will hear from the Chair of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Justice, Peter McClellan. That he is taking the time to come and talk to us indicates, I think, the understanding of the Royal Commission that that Uniting Church is completely committed to its work and willing to do anything we can to support the victims of child sexual abuse and to make sure that, as far as possible, such abuse never happens again.

The Assembly will discuss some major reports. The Doctrine Working Group has written a report on ‘The Theology of Marriage and Public Covenants for Same-Gender Relationships within the Uniting Church’. Out of this report has come a proposal that the Assembly Standing Committee ‘establish a Task Group to investigate the implications of changing the Church’s current relationship with the Commonwealth Government with respect to the conduct of marriages’, reporting to the next Assembly in 2018. Should ministers continue to act as marriage agents for the Attorney-General? Other proposals may also be brought to the Assembly on this topic; it will be interesting to see what they are and what the Assembly decides.

UnitingJustice has brought a proposal that that Assembly adopt ‘Shelter from the Storm: A Uniting Church in Australia Statement on Asylum Seeker and Refugee Policy’. They have also brought proposals that, among other things, we again call on the Australian government to ‘end the policy of the mandatory and indefinite detention of asylum seekers and refugees’ and ‘end the offshore processing of asylum seekers who arrive or attempt to arrive in Australia by boat’. The Uniting Church has been saying this to both ALP and Coalition governments for at least a decade, and I suspect that we will continue to say this as often and as long as we need to.

There are many other proposals and reports and they are all publicly available on the Assembly website. Reports from the Assembly will also go up there daily, so you can keep in touch with what’s happening. Remember that the secular media doesn’t really understand the church, and it’s better not to believe what you read in newspapers or see on the TV. I will be taking the service on the 19th of July with a report on the Assembly rather than a sermon, so you’ll hear about any decisions made very quickly.

Please pray for the whole Assembly, for the President-Elect, Stuart, and for me over the course of the meeting. It will undoubtedly be a long, difficult, inspiring and invigorating week!

Look how much we raised!

Thank you to everyone who sponsored me in the Act for Peace Ration Challenge. I have raised $1,918.97 so far (anyone want to add the $81.03 to get me to $2000?) and overall the Ration Challenge raised over $400,000, enough to feed 1852 Burmese refuges for a year. Hooray!

 

 

 

The Act for Peace Ration Challenge (27 May 2015)

I am frequently overwhelmed by a sense of how lucky I am.

That sense can come when I’m walking by the sea, when I’m reminded of how lucky I am to live in Williamstown. It can come when I’m leading worship, when I’m reminded of how lucky I am to be able to follow my vocation. It can come when I’m playing with my nephew, nieces, or any of the many other children in my life, when I’m reminded of how lucky I am to be have children to love even though I don’t have any of my own. It can come when I’m browsing in a bookshop, when I’m reminded of how lucky I am to be able to buy a book without worrying about my budget. It can come when I watch the news at night, when I’m reminded of how lucky I am that I was born in Australia. I wasn’t merely born in Australia; I was born to a stable, Anglo-Celtic, middle-class family. In so many ways, through absolutely no effort on my part, I won the birth lottery.

Given all this luck I don’t think it’s enough for me to simply thank God for everything She’s given me, even though I do that every day. I have to do something, however small, to share my luck with others.

So during Refugee Week, from 14-20 June, I will be doing the Act for Peace Ration Challenge and surviving on the same rations as a refugee from Burma.Ration Challenge1

I will be asking people to sponsor me as I do it. The money raised will go to provide rations, seeds, tools and training to help Burmese refugees have enough to eat. Last year $60,000 were raised, which was able to feed 277 refugees for an entire year.

In the Ration Challenge Kit I will get: 3,500 g of rice; 280 g of split peas; 250 g of fortified flour; 155 g of fish; 40 g of salt and 125 ml of vegetable oil. I can also drink as much water as I like, but nothing else. No coffee!!! Apparently, however, according to participants from last year, I can make myself burnt rice tea.

Burnt Rice Tea

“After cooking rice, leave the stuff stuck to the bottom in the saucepan. Cook it for a bit longer to make sure it’s burnt good and proper (brown not black, though!). Then add water and simmer for a while to brew and reduce. Scrape the white frothy stuff off the top. Pour out the tea and enjoy!”

This doesn’t sound at all appetising to me!

Some refugees living in camps on the Thai-Burma border are able to grow vegetables. I won’t be able to grow vegetables, but I can earn them through fundraising. For instance, if I fundraise $200 I can choose a flavouring like chilli flakes to add to my food. If I fundraise $400 I can add a piece of fruit. (I’m definitely hoping to earn more than $400!)

If you would like to support me, my sponsorship page is here.

Eating for only one week what refugees on the Thai-Burma border eat all the time, and being able to drink unlimited clean water as I do, feels like such a small thing to do. But I am hoping to raise lots of money to go to Burmese refugees and that, I hope, will make a real difference to their lives. Given how undeservedly lucky I am, this seems to be the least that I can do.

I’ll by keeping people updated as I undertake the challenge here on my blog. And I apologise in advance for any grumpiness during the challenge!

 

Love Makes A Way (1 June 2014)

Recently I was arrested for trespass. I don’t imagine that that’s something you expected to hear when you called me here as your minister, so I’ll explain exactly what happened.

On Monday the 19th of May two groups of Christians, one in Melbourne, one in Sydney, entered the foyers of the electorate offices of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition; sat down; and began to pray. When the groups were asked to leave, we refused – unless the Government and the Opposition agreed to release the more than one thousand children currently in immigration detention. The eight people sitting and praying in Tony Abbott’s office was removed and arrested after three hours. The twelve people in Bill Shorten’s office were removed and arrested after nine hours.

The Uniting Church contingent

Both groups were part of the ecumenical Love Makes A Way movement of Christians seeking an end to Australia’s inhumane asylum seeker policies through prayer and non-violent love in action. Those arrested included ministers and members of the Baptist, Catholic, Churches of Christ, and Uniting churches. Among others, I was arrested with the ex-President of the Uniting Church, Alistair Macrae, and with Brigid Arthur, a Brigidine Sister. Those arrested in Sydney included Rev. Brian Brown, the current Moderator of the NSW and ACT Synods.

I don’t imagine I need to explain why we are asking both major political parties to agree to the release of all children in immigration detention. The Uniting Church has spoken out for years against Australia’s increasingly brutal treatment of asylum seekers. The Church is intensely aware of the need to prevent desperate people risking their lives on leaky boats, but doesn’t believe that the need to stop the boats justifies the mistreatment of those who arrive on them. Throughout the asylum seeker debate the Uniting Church has also been willing to put our money where our collective mouth is by caring for asylum seekers in the community. Most recently the Uniting Church wrote to the Australian Government to offer sanctuary for all children without parents currently held on Christmas Island as an alternative to them being deported to Nauru. No definite answer was received, but unaccompanied children have been sent to Nauru.

After years of writing to politicians on all sides; meeting with them; holding church services; and marching in the streets, some of us feel that the time has come to also take part in acts of peaceful civil disobedience. This includes praying peacefully in the offices of members of parliament and refusing to leave when requested. Church leaders aren’t usually law-breakers; we hope that by being willing to break the law we will prompt others to think about the issue. As Alistair Macrae put it: “Through our peaceful direct action we seek to challenge the government’s cruel approach to the treatment of asylum seekers, and to encourage other Australians to embrace a more welcoming response to those who seek asylum here.”

Luckily for us, the Uniting Church recognises that sometimes Christians are called to civil disobedience. After our arrest the Moderator of the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, Dan Wootton, put out a press release saying: “The Uniting Church’s Code of Ethics for ministers in the Church specifically allows for acts of civil disobedience. In Section 6 of the Code it says ‘It is unethical for ministers deliberately to break the law or encourage another to do so. The only exception would be in instances of political resistance or civil disobedience.’ The willingness of Uniting Church ministers to participate in an act of civil disobedience reinforces the deep concern that is felt for children in detention. I commend them for their courage and join their calls in asking for a bipartisan commitment to get all children out of detention centres with their families.”

We were arrested, but not charged. I don’t know whether or not we will be charged. But I know that we are all willing to be arrested, charged and convicted if by doing so we might help the voices of asylum seekers to be heard. We believe that this is something God is calling us to do.

 

The Importance of Aging and the Gift of Senescence (10 May 2014)

Notes: ‘senescence’ comes from the Latin senescere, meaning “to grow old”; ‘generativity’ is the concern for establishing and guiding the next generation and comes from a sense of optimism about humanity.

Oh no! Australians are living longer and so the population is aging. The Treasurer, Joe Hockey, tells us that we should “celebrate the fact that effectively, one in every three children born today are going to live to 100,” but he also tells us that this means we will have to work longer, because all these centenarians are just going to cost us too much. They’ll increase Australia’s health costs, and take up hospital beds because there won’t be enough nursing home places. Woe is us!

Maybe an aging population isn’t such a great disaster. It is certainly better than the alternative – life expectancy in Sierra Leone is a mere 47 years!

What matters is not how old we will all get, but whether or not that aging will be meaningful, healthy and positive. This is something that the Uniting Church is particularly concerned with. We are an aging church. Most Uniting Church members are aged sixty-plus. How can the church ensure that our aging is a good experience rather than a frightening and depressing one?

One extremely helpful book I have read on aging well is called exactly that: Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development, (written by George E. Vaillant and published in 2002). The Harvard Study of Adult Development started with a Harvard University Health Services examination of 268 members of Harvard classes between 1939 and 1944. This began with a physical exam and included regular follow-ups over the years. The second arm of the study began with Harvard Law Professor Sheldon Glueck recruiting 456 young men from inner-city Boston neighborhoods between 1940 and 1945 as controls for a study of juvenile delinquency. They were added to the study in the 1970s.

Today, just 68 of the Harvard cohort are still alive, many in their early 90s, while 120 of the Glueck Study are alive, most in their early to mid-80s. Over their adult lives, the subjects of the have answered biennial questionnaires, allowed health information to be gathered from their doctors, and sat for in-depth interviews. In recent years, they’ve also submitted to neuroimaging scans and have given blood for DNA analysis.

What has the study found? It has found that ‘positive aging is not simply avoidance of physical decay, and it certainly is not about the avoidance of death’ (p. 161). It has found seven factors that predict healthy aging: not being a smoker or stopping young; adaptive coping style; absence of alcohol abuse; a healthy weight; a stable marriage; getting some exercise; our years of education (pp. 206-10). And it now provides wonderful pointers on how we can all grow old with grace.

  • She cares about others, is open to new ideas, and within the limits of physical health maintains social utility and helps others. Unlike King Lear, who demanded that his daughters take care of him, she remembers that biology flows downhill.
  • He shows cheerful tolerance of the indignities of old age. He acknowledges and gracefully accepts his dependency needs. When ill, he is a patient for whom a doctor enjoys caring and remembers to be grateful. Whenever possible he turns life’s lemons into lemonade.
  • She maintains hope in life, insists on sensible autonomy (to do for oneself what one is able), and cherishes initiative. She remembers that all life is a journey and that development goes on for all of our lives.
  • He retains a sense of humor and a capacity for play. He willingly sacrifices surface happiness for basic joy. As Voltaire suggested, he cultivates his garden.
  • She is able to spend time in the past and to take sustenance from past accomplishments. Yet she remains curious and continues to learn from the next generation.
  • He tries to maintain contact and intimacy with old friends while heeding Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s injunction that “the seeds of love must be eternally resown.”  (pp. 310-1)

Another extremely helpful book I’ve found was written by Mary d’Apice and is called Noon to Nightfall: A journey through midlife and aging. The author is writing specifically from a religious background and so she talks a lot about the spirituality of aging.  She writes so beautifully that I’d just like to share a few quotes from her for you to reflect on:

  • Each season has its own special beauty, its time of blossoming and of producing its distinctive fruit. (p. 28)
  • We find a genuine expression of love in the willingness to receive from others as well as to give. To accept help, kindness or concern from another means to surrender the dominant position, which rests always with the giver, and to allow the other to take that position towards us. (p. 67)
  • Generativity is the prelude to the advent of wisdom. It is out of the pain and trauma of accepting our own limitedness that springs the capacity to be a bearer of life and hope to others. (p. 69)
  • The coming of senescence, a gentler term than aging, is usually the time to hand over to younger generations the many responsibilities assumed in midlife, to quit the centre stage and leave the throne of power for the seat of wisdom. (p. 168)
  • To age graciously is perhaps one of the most difficult of life’s tasks for those who live in a western society. (p. 168)
  • Death need not take us by surprise. The whole of life is filled with opportunities to rehearse this final passage. The ready letting go of youth, of health, of plans and perhaps of friends, when this is asked of us, can all become a preparation for the last great renunciation that each is called upon to make. (p. 229)

Politicians tell us to worry about our aging population. The media tells us to worry about ourselves: will we have somewhere to live; enough to live on; something meaningful to do? But God reminds us that we are deeply loved, worthwhile, at any age, from the very beginning of our existence in our mother’s womb until we make that final journey and find ourselves at home with God. We can age graciously and look to death as simply the last of life’s passages, rather than something to be feared.

As for me, I’m now apparently well into middle life. According to Mary d’Aspice: “The movement into midlife brings with it a deepening concern for all one has produced in life whether it be children, institutions or ideas … The person who can put aside self-interest for the good of others is the caring, generative adult.” (p. 22)

I hope very much that I will grow into a caring, generative adult, and then into a graciously loving old person – with a cheerful tolerance of the indignities of old age!