Friday, December 06, 2013
Broken Hill bound
I’m off to Broken Hill for the weekend. It’s a town of some 18,000 people, some 520 kilometres from Adelaide.
I’m going for the Ordination of one of our Uniting College Candidates, Jo Smalbil. Three years ago, Jo embarked on an experiment with us. After discussion with her Presbytery, she crossed the border (Broken Hill is in New South Wales, not South Australia). She spent the first year with us in Adelaide.
But for the last two years, she has been studying with us from Broken Hill. In sum, after some initial relational building, she’s down 2/3rds of her training in her local context.
Study wise, she comes down for our intensives and does the rest by distance. Relational wise, we pay for her to travel 9 times a year, to our monthly Leadership Formation Days, up and back in a day. This gives her a sense of connection with candidates. Fieldwork wise she has worked in her local church and participated in Frontier patrol work.
It’s a fascinating, and in Jo’s case, effective experiment, the fruit of which is evident over the weekend.
The only down side is that the only flight for Broken Hill leaves at 6:45 am Saturday, and returns 7 pm Sunday. It makes for an early start and a long weekend.
intuitive worship: baptism, ministry, deeper water and Psalm 42
Today we farewelled a colleague. They had expressed a desire for a ritual moment, so over a number of days, by email, among a number of folk, a service of leaving was sketched.
It’s been a hectic week at College and with one of the key folk sick, I wasn’t convinced that all the i’s were crossed or t’s were dotted. Just in case, I grabbed a Bible as I left my office – a useful tool in case of emergencies.
Sure enough, it emerged on the walk over that no-one was down to do the Bible reading. I’d suggested it, so was happy to read. Especially since I had a Bible.
It was the Psalm for today in the Lectionary, Psalm 42. It fitted really well with the opening song. The colleague loves Paul Kelly, so we’d chosen Deeper Water, a song about growth, journey, life.
Deeper water, deeper water,
Deeper water, calling them on
As the song played live, I began to wonder were to stand to read. My eyes settled on the baptismal font. Water. An intuitive link gets made in my mind.
So as the song ended, I stood and walked to the baptismal font. I introduced the Psalm as about deeper water, as about where is God in deeper water. (As a hart longs for flowing streams (v. 1); Deep calls to deep at the thunder of thy cataracts; all thy waves and thy billows have gone over me (v. 7).)
As the Psalm ended, I returned (Djed) the lyrics of the song. “Deeper water, calling you on, and you’re never alone.” I dipped my hands in the water of the baptismal font and walked across to our departing colleague and bent to make the sign of the cross on his forehead.
An intuitive moment – a mix of Paul Kelly, Psalm 42 and the Christian ritual of baptism. For it is in our baptism that we are called into ministry. So a re-affirmation of baptism as that which holds us on the ongoing journey into ministry.
A few extra seconds, wordless, in which the waters of baptism were applied. And I returned, in silence to my seat. It had felt, intuitively the right thing to do.
Creationary: a space to be creative with the lectionary (in this case, baptism, ministry and Psalm 42). For more resources go here.
Thursday, December 05, 2013
gravity: an earthed theology
“Gravity” is a shooting star in the cinematic universe. From the opening sounds of silence, to the beauty possible when planet earth becomes a visual backdrop, “Gravity” blazes across our screens, a reminder of the immersive potential possible when sounds and visuals collide.
A medical researcher (Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone) and an astronaut (George Clooney as Matt Kowalski) find themselves adrift in space, their routine mission torn apart by exploding debris. Alone, radio contact lost, they traverse space’s inky weightlessness, from shuttle to station to re-entry rocket, seeking life.
While “Gravity” is undoubtedly enhanced by the star power that is Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, it is the five year search for perfection from director, Alfonso Cuaron, that makes “Gravity” the movie of the year, if not the decade.
To make “Gravity” Cuaron had to remaster the laws of physics. The behind the scenes technological innovations are breathtaking. They include a camera fitted with 4,096 LED’s, all separately controllable, to capture the divergent sources of light in space. Further, a guitar was submerged in water to capture the vibrations emitted by a breathing body as it panics, trapped in plastic space suit. Actors were rotated like puppets, hanging in a wire rig, in order to capture the out of control spin generated by a space disaster.
Together these innovations make possible the long, complex, tracking shots, a signature motif of Alfonso Cuaron. The Mexican director has sought previously, in movies like “Children of Men” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” to generate elaborate continuous sequences over large and shifting distances. In “Gravity,” such techniques are enhanced and elongated. We spiral with Bullock as she spins out of control through a weightless space, slowly drawn ever closer to the terror scrolling across her face. As an audience we find ourselves immersed, transformed by technical innovation from observer to participant.
Space has always invited divine pondering. Perhaps it is the primal human impulse to experience mystery in the starward gaze. Or the medieval notion that God is up. Whatever the impulse, something prompted Yuri Gagarin, the first astronaut in space, to reputedly make note of his inability to find God beyond the pull of earth’s gravity.
In concert with Gagarin, some have claimed that “Gravity” is thus the perfect movie for a godless age, offering an empty universe in which the only hope is our human salvation.
Intriguingly, it is in space that Ryan Stone utters her first prayer. Her words lack a religious beginning and a holy Amen. Nevertheless, they stand as her honest, albiet stumbling, cry to the unknown. They mark a turning point. Like all prayer should, they galvanise her into a determined demand for life and ignite her reentry.
It is a heaven to earthbound trajectory that evokes Incarnation, God grounded with us. Viewed in this light, Stone’s final words, her heartfelt “Thank you” becomes a benediction. It is an affirmation of life. Through space, from the heavens above, she has learnt to pray, learnt to walk, learnt to say “Thank you” for life.
Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.
Wednesday, December 04, 2013
in the guise of a small child: an Advent spirituality
I’ve been offered a new way of engaging Christ – one that seems strangely relevant in this Advent Season. In the 12th century, an English mystic, Christina of Markyate, wrote of her experience of the divine:
an unheard-of-grace. For in the guise of a small child [Jesus] came to the arms of his sorely tried spouse and remained with her a whole day, not only being felt but also seen.
The experience can be found in The Life of Christina of Markyate (Oxford World’s Classics). It is fascinating, for God in Christ is encountered not as a baby (at Christmas), nor as an adult (in the gospels), but as a small child.
The experience was a turning point for Christina. There is more evidence of compassion, more active care for friends, more concern for the church, more peace in prayer. There is a new joy evident, a greater depth of celebration of Christmas. (According to Grace Jantzen, “The womb and the tomb,” in Wounds that Heal – Theology, Imagination and Health, edited by Jonathan Baxter, SPCK, 2007, 176)
It opened up some new imaginative space in prayer for me. What might I experience if Christ came to me, today, as a small child. What “Christology” might I encounter? I identified four things – simplicity, mindfulness, play, surrender. I realise that these are a form of reader response – that I am most likely bringing my (idealised) experiences of small children – to the encounter. But it offered a new sense for me of engaging with God. It made fresh sense of the Incarnation, that God as fully human can relate to all of life. It made me realise again the gift that is all-age, inter-generational worship, that I can encounter God in the actions, questions and questions of a child.
I also reflected on what might be the opposites of simplicity, mindfulness, play, surrender. I identified complexity, history, rationalism, suspicion. I was reminded of the sour and corrosive power of these behaviours – often the domain of adults, and perhaps adults who are academics. These became for me moments of confession, as I reflected on my last 24 hours, the email I send and receive, the conversations I have.
“In the guise of a small child”, is proving a generative Advent spirituality.
Monday, December 02, 2013
what our founding stories say about our identity
One of the richness of Uniting College is the diversity of students. Over the week I’ve marked work from a class that included a school principal, a chaplain, a church planter, an Anglican priest, a multi-cultural leader, a denominational worker – all working out how their ministry experiences have shaped their understanding of the practice of ministry. I’ve read about the spirituality of dissent, children’s spirituality, pioneer imaginations, leadership metaphors and gender perspectives. It’s been so rich.
Anyhow, one of the students was exploring the relationship between church, Kingdom and ministry. They began with tradition, including the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.
Article XIX defines how we view church on a local and global level:
‘Of the Church
The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.
As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred: so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.’
So what does this found story say about identity? What has got me thinking is the second paragraph. The church has erred. Does this introduce humility, that we’re a group of pilgrims who will continue to err? And so all our ongoing ceremonies, all our “fresh expressions” of living and worship and theological writings, will have the potential to err?
Or does this introduce an arrogance, that they’ve made mistakes and so we should separate ourselves from them, because we’re more pure and holy?
Both approaches have huge implications for being one, worldwide, catholic church. Either you are part of an erring community, and so will see other denominations and churches in history as humble, fellow failing pilgrims. Or you will see yourself as better than other denominations and churches in history and will remain ever eager to point out their erring, while being forever eager to maintain your own purity through separation.
I find it intriguing to then lay this alongside the founding stories of the emerging church. There are many instances of new forms of church starting because they are aware of the erring of other forms. Does this, has this, led to a humility, an acceptance of the erring of other forms of church? Or has this led to a separation, a relentless pursuit of purity?
And, finally, does this Anglican ecclesiology, have any impact today on the development of fresh expressions, which owes so much to the energy and vision of the Anglican denomination in England?
Sunday, December 01, 2013
a haunted culture
The presence of Christianity continues to haunt our culture. Like above, in this 2013 poster advertising an Adelaide film festival. Or the lingering presence of “ritual” in very small type (Rewarding the ritual) in this October 2013 advertisement, fused with some fascinating reflection on male identity. Playful, irreverent, but still present.
Or this piece of theology, in a local coffee shop in June 2013, in which God is entwined with a creation narrative and mission. Once again, playful, irreverent, but still present.
Mieke Bal, the Dutch cultural theorist suggests three ways to understand these ongoing traces within western society.
- Christianity is present, making it impossible to think about cultural analysis without acknowledging the theological underpinning of the western world (and so the visual rifting of red-robed religious beings).
- Christianity is a cultural structure, informing the cultural imaginary whether people believe or not (and so words like ritual and worship remain)
- Christianity is just one of the structures, it is not the only cultural structure, nor the only religious structure that underpins who we are or have come to be (and so the work that people do with “God” will vary).
I’m reading and thinking about this in a more focused way, given I’m part of teaching a topic, Bible and culture, on the Flinders University campus this summer. The course is inviting us to explain the ongoing appropriation of Christian imagery in contemporary culture, the religious presence on film posters, the Bible references in movies as bizarre as Pulp Fiction, the fascination with church in the David Bowie Next day video.
A course for which we will need some accessories – prizes for the person who finds the most pop cultural references to Psalm 137 or O come, O come Emmanuel – prizes like Pulp Fiction Ezekiel reference Tshirts, buddy Jesus fridge magnets and God is a DJ henna tattoos.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
when listening expects speaking: a proposal for a theology of evangelism
I sat in a conversation yesterday. The person shared, deeply, openly, vulnerably. I asked if they felt they had been heard and they said yes.
But it wasn’t enough. My listening seemed to have created space. A space that demanded more than my ongoing silence.
A space in which I needed to speak. For me not to speak would have left the person who initiated the sharing feeling vulnerable – that they had shared, that they had opened up, but that they not been given a gift of my vulnerability in return.
There is a power in withholding. My perceptions remain untested, my prejudices unexplained. These needed to be exposed, tested, tried. I needed to be vulnerable, not by listening, but by speaking.
The co-creation of meaning was not possible unless my listening was followed by my speaking.
At times the church has not spent enough time listening. Equally at times the church has spent too much listening at others.
The church needs to listen. It also needs to learn to speak, vulnerably, haltingly, of what little we do know and have experienced, to test our perceptions and let our prejudices be named, heard, examined.
In other words, the church has a faith to share, in order to remain respectful of the vulnerable space created by listening.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
seeking Director of Christian Education and Discipleship
Due to one of our team being called by another part of the church …. we at Uniting College need to find a Director of Christian Education and Discipleship. It’s a crucial part of our life as a College – we took the risk in 2009 of moving away from the traditional academic divisions of Bible, Theology and Pastoral – to four streams – Bible, Missiology, Leadership and Christian Education/Discipleship. So this role is crucial in ensuring the formation, discipling, learning piece. Here’s the brief advertisement, if you want more information, contact me on steve dot taylor at flinders dot edu dot au
Essential to Uniting College is a commitment to placing discipleship and faith formation at the heart of learning, leading and living. We seek a Director of Christian Education and Discipleship (0.7-1.0), to equip for Christian discipleship and resource congregational formation for Christian living in daily life. The role includes academic leadership, teaching and co-ordination of VET. Applications close 5 December, 2013.
a pilgrim church needs pausing places
One of the three main images of the church is that of the pilgrim people (the other’s are people of God and body of Christ, For a full 99 images of church in the New Testament, see the amazing Images of the Church in the New Testament (New Testament Library)). Behind the image of pilgrimage is a metaphor – of movement, of journey, of travelling light. The Biblical saint of pilgrimage is Abraham, who in Hebrews 11 is commended for his faith in making “his home in the promised land.” What is intriguing is that the pilgrim finds a home. They settle.
Yesterday I was in a meeting discussing future property needs. The phrase pilgrim people was used and it got me thinking about the Biblical tradition. (Bad Principal, I was meant to be thinking property and there I was, lost in a fog of theological and missiological reflection of pilgrimage as a practice.) I began to wonder about the settledness, the pausing places in the Abraham narrative.
So here they are ….
“So Abram went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he pitched his tents. There he built an altar to the Lord.” Gen 13:18
“The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.” Gen 18:1
“Abraham … lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar.” Gen 20:1
“Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.” Gen 23:4
“So Ephron’s field in Machpelah near Mamre … was deeded to Abraham as his property.” Gen 23:17
So there we are, even the great saint of pilgrimage had property. The narrative has numbers of different pausing places – to rest, to encounter God, to bury your dead.
Which dare I say it, sounds a lot like the reasons I hear today for church buildings! When you lay this alongside the commendation in Hebrews, to make homes in promised places, it suggests that a key spiritual practice of pilgrims still includes theologies of Incarnation.
Monday, November 25, 2013
seeking birth in death: a new way of discerning fresh expressions
I’m currently reading The Faith Lives of Women and Girls. Qualitative Research Perspectives. Edited by Nichola Slee, Fran Porter and Anne Phillips, recently published by Ashgate, it offers 19 chapters of original research on key aspects of women’s and girl’s faith lives. It uses a range of approaches – ethnographic, oral history, action research, interview studies, case studies – to help explore faith from a feminist perspective.
I’ve got stuck on the chapter by Jennifer Hurd, “The Relevance of a Theology of Natality for a Theology of Death and Dying and Pastoral Care: Some Initial Reflections,” (Chapter 17, 195-205). Hurd is a minister, aware from her experiences in recent years that there are changes in attitudes and practices within church and society concerning death and dying. She sets out to research the pastoral and theological relationships between birth and death.
As a theoretical frame, she uses the work by Grace Jantzen on natality, who has argued that the predominant choice of western civilization from Graeco-Roman times to the postmodern age has been characterized by violence and death. Jantzen calls this “necrophilia.” The result has been destructiveness, fascination with other worlds to the detriment of this one, and an antipathy toward the body and sexuality.
Jantzen suggests an alternative, which she terms “natality,” one characterized by beauty, creativity, new beginnings, flourishing and love of life. Her focus is the potential to make new beginnings, evident in new birth. But not only about birth. All beginnings that are becomings that make for creativity, life, health and wholeness.
Hence the Christmas Carol, Angels from the realms of glory
Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar:
Seek the great Desire of nations;
Ye have seen his natal star:
Hurd then interviews people experiencing death and dying and argues that in these narratives is the presence of natality. She draws out four threads from Jantzen – embodiment, engenderment, relationality, hopefulness.
So why am I stuck?
- First, I read Jantzen in my PhD and it has been helpful to my current writing to re-find her.
- Second, with my dad dying, I’ve recently been through the valley of the shadow of death.
- Third, I’m concerned about gender and leadership development.
- Fourth, I’m fascinating by how change does, or does not happen. Hurd comments how “often, feminist theology has responded to the necrophilia of patriarchal church and society by declining to address death.” (Hurd, 199).
So why am I stuck? Well it’s got me thinking. You see, it’s so tempting, especially in church circles to avoid the hard conversations about death and decline, and it’s fascinating to read how Hurd argues that both death and natality are threshold experiences, a shared liminal experience.
“Undoubtedly, natal elements have always been a major part of Christian theology and pastoral care.” (205).
But Hurd finds natal elements not after the death, but in death, dying and bereavement. This includes a continued relationality, “contrasting with the ‘letting go’ which is sometimes part of pastoral care in bereavement.” (205) Which for me is truly fascinating. This is not a “letting go” of declining bodies (and by extension, dying churches). This is finding a new becoming in their midst.
What I’m pondering is not a “inherited church” dies, so that “fresh expressions” live. Rather lets explore natality in all of life – in ways that offer relationality, hope, embodiment, for all.
It also means that while death is inevitable, the process will not be seen as failure, but as a pathway through which new life is possible.
Friday, November 22, 2013
connecting networks: a sausage, a story, a space
At Uniting College last night, we played host to the Urban Mission Network. Drinks and nibbles began at 6 pm, followed by a bbq in the common space. The 60 people present were then divided into three groups and inviting to participate in three different learning spaces, around which they rotated every 15 minutes. In each space was a different dessert and a different presentation.
One was our new Vanier space, in which the story of it’s birth was told. Another was a lecture room in which three Faculty presented in 5 minutes each something from a recent lecture. In a third space, highlights from the 2013 year were shared, linked to our Strategic plan.
The approach allowed lots of participation from the College team, it got people into the range of learning spaces that make up the College, it allowed for variety in presentation.
Finally we gathered for worship, concluding at around 9 pm.
It was wonderful to be hosting folk from the church, to be telling the College story, to hear the buzz of conversation and questions as people engaged and participated.
The Uniting Church in South Australia has around six active mission networks. Each meet regularly, moving around different churches, who take turns to host and to tell their story.
Hence the obvious idea, to suggest to each network that they consider us as a church. Could we take a turn to host, to tell our story, to participate in the natural rhythm of their life? So we asked, and the Urban mission network were the first to respond and a great night was had by all.
We hope in the future there will be more mission networks, willing to let us offer them a sausage, a story and space.
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Mahara tutorials – a 21st century College
As part of commitment to quality education at Uniting College, next year we’re making Blended learning a focus. We want to maximise the mixing of students face to face and online.
As part of that, we’re experimenting with a programme called Mahara. In a few sentences, Mahara is a personal learning environment mixed with social networking, that lets you to collect, reflect on and share your achievements and development online. It’s a student space, perfect for collecting all their work over the space of a degree, perfect for a lecturer to point to an essay, or a paragraph and say “You really should make that public for the class to see.” It lets you build your resume, it syncs seamlessly with Moodle, it lets you blog, it lets you decide what to make public and to whom.
We are running some introduction sessions on this side of the summer holidays.
- Thursday the 21st Nov 1:30-3pm (Common Room at Uniting College)
- Thursday the 28th Nov 1:30-3pm (Common Room at Uniting College).
An opportunity to get going with a Learn! Lead! Live! tool over the summer holidays!
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
I journal religiously twice
I journal religiously twice. Religiously because it is a paired set of spiritual practices, that keep me in grounded, reflective and in community.
I journal religiously once, publicly, on this blog. It is a place to collect what I’m reading and doing. It’s been a discipline for over 11 years now. I began because I wanted to connect beyond Sunday with my congregation and to explore this new way of being human that is a digital world. It helps me reflect on ministry. I regularly think about stopping but then a helpful comment opens up a new insight and I realise the gift that is communication in community.
I journal religiously a second time, my own handwritten journal. It’s been a discipline from when I began formally training for ministry. I never think about stopping, for handwriting grounds me, connects me. I need to save insights, to record my pain, to jot down the spiritual insight of a moment walking or reading.
Over time, I’ve introduced new practices. Every Saturday I try and collect the achievements of a work week in a few simple dot points. This is essential, for my current work is overwhelming and relentless and I need to remind myself of progress. Or I use Celtic knots to untangle the complexity of an issue. Sometimes these notes can be worked up for public consumption, an insight becomes a sermon, a section allows me to capture a moment.
I handwrite much more than I used to and it’s such a precious space. The increase in handwriting has been a fascinating byproduct of the job. I think it’s because I need to find myself in the rush of a 7 meeting day.
I began to reflect on journalling because one of my handwritten journals is coming to an end. I’m always sad. I’m losing a familar friend and I hate the starting of something new, those first fresh pages speak of no life lived. I often leave the first page blank. A space for God to be God. And a way of beginning, of saying I’ve simply started.
This finished journal will be filed, along with others. As I come to year’s end or to an annual performance review, I will pull out my journal and read through the year. I will begin to catch patterns I’d not seen before. It helps give shape to my becoming, to the work of God in the hard places of life.
I journal religiously twice, a paired set of spiritual practices. But what is really interesting is that I have written this here – digitally – not there – in the handwritten journal.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Big Year Out Co-ordinator Appointed!
Uniting College is pleased to announce the appointment of Dan Anear as the Co-ordinator of the new Big Year Out program.
Dan is a strong Christian, with a Diploma of Ministry and broad ministry experience working with young adults. He is also a very experienced VET educator, and will compliment the strong Faculty inputting throughout the program.
Dan says: “I’m thrilled to be beginning in this role, launching this exciting new program. I understand the dynamic and exciting journey that faith can consist of in the young adult years. Big Year Out is an excellent opportunity for young adults to deeply explore the Christian faith, partnering with their church.”
Big Year Out is a unique 1-year discipleship program for young adults, either alongside other study or as a gap year experience. It involves interactive study, community sharing and unique missional experiences. In 2014, it is likely to include partnerships with groups in two other states of Australia, making it a genuinely national growth opportunity.
Those with young adults interested in the Big Year Out, can view the brochure here, or come to the Info night on 3 Dec at 7:30pm at Uniting College, 34 Lipsett Tce, Brooklyn Park.