The verse from which I want to base my reflection
about Christmas is taken from Daniel 3:4-6: “Then the herald loudly proclaimed,
“Nations and peoples of every language, this is what you are commanded to do: As
soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all
kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King
Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship will
immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.”

King Nebuchadnezzar had made an image of gold and had set
it up on the plain outside of his palace. Then an edict was issued throughout
his extensive kingdom, perhaps the world’s biggest kingdom ever to exist, that
when the music sounded, the people were to worship the image of gold. It is
generally assumed, that the purpose of the image and the state’s enforcement of
worshipping it, was to promote unity throughout his ethnically diverse kingdom.
His citizens could still worship their own gods, but had to worship his image
or their defiance would be regarded an act of  treason. The companions of Daniel (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego), had no intention of falling on their faces before the
image. They worshipped the true God and would worship or serve him only (Deut 6:13).
The threat of being burnt alive did not induce them to compromise, so as we
remember the story from Daniel ch 3, they were thrown into the blazing furnace
but were miraculously delivered.

Each day, due to the marvellous development of modern technology,
we are induced and almost commanded by the high priests of a new religion to
worship a god which has been erected as the focus of our modern society. It is
the god Materialism which demands our allegiance. His consort is called, The
Economy, and if Materialism is not worshipped, then his consort Economy will
not be happy. She will bring upon the face of our cities, unemployment and
declining living standards as punishment for our failure to consume. Like all
gods, Materialism promises happiness, security and blessings upon his adherents.
He will confer status and smile benignly as the cash is handed over in worship.
No wonder his adherents crave his attention and favours.

The edicts of this god are disseminated throughout his
kingdom by way of the advertising which bombard us on our televisions, radios, billboards
or the flood of glossy junk mail in the letterbox.  The arrival of his summons to offer
appropriate worship is announced by the sound of music playing that gets our
attention at the beginning of an advertisement. In what has become one of the
most successful propaganda coups in recent human history, this god Materialism
has formed an alliance with the Christian festival of Christmas. This alliance
has resulted in a powerful amalgam where the adherents of Materialism are made
to feel as if they are actually worshipping the baby of Bethlehem, Jesus. In
reality, all the gift giving, ostensibly for to celebrate the birth of King Jesus,
is being made out of fear or guilt, induced by this new god Materialism.

Under the pressure to conform to Materialism’s expectations, we must not surrender. It does not mean that we simply give up buying presents for our loved ones; we must remember why we buy them and for whom it made this possible. In fact, we might deliberately increase our giving to God in rebellion against the god Materialism’s seemingly unassailable claims and sophisticated propaganda machine. This will be a political and religious act of defiance. But we can never surrender for to do so, will invalidate that Jesus is Lord in our life. It is not a war which will occur with battles out in the open; or in our streets. It will be first and foremost, a hidden war; a war within our hearts. But we must never surrender or believe that the god Materialism, is true, or all powerful, or all-knowing of our deepest needs. Only the God of Israel, revealed in the Jesus Christ, has these qualities because they rightfully belong only to God himself. The act of giving sensibly to Christians and supporting Third World poor, is an act of political subversion; it is to assert in the face of the certainty of Materialism, that we will maintain a theocentric view of the world at Christmas, and not give way to Materialism as the sum of all life’s meaning.

 

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You might have noticed that my production of blogs has decreased over the past year. The reason is simple. My energies have been spent elsewhere. I’ve been trying to write several chapters of a book. Progess is slow, but it’s happening and despite interruptions and occasionally the feeling of despair that its worthwhile, I’ve continued to push on with it. Confirmation that I’m onto something has come when I’ve tested its content out with those who I see as a spiritual director and those I meet who have been a little damaged by life and are now a bit frayed around the edges of their psyche.

I went on a retreat for the first three days of this week. It was a directed retreat which used the framework of Parker Palmer’s book, “Let your life speak”.

Some thoughts in solitude from the retreat:

The patterns, ignored and pushed aside,
begin to re-emerge,
like people’s faces from a fog.
What was inarticulate,
what was forgotten and not recognised,
has begun to emerge.
I feel like an archaeologist who is kneeling
beside the body of a deceased person,
patiently brushing aside the accumulation of centuries of dust
to expose the face of a man
which had been lost and hidden.

How do you respond when you experience trials? The car is broken down and you are strapped for cash. The kids are sick mid-winter and the demands at work seem intolerable. The planned holiday has to be deferred because your aging parent is ill and needs your assistance. The financial markets crash and your superannuation has been reduced by a quarter. Our bodies may develop a disease and need treatment. You get the idea I’m sure. My natural response to trials in my life is to complain or even become resentful.

In contrast, James asks his readers (Jas 1:2-4), when they face trails of any kind, whether they consider the experience as joy. Me? Most likely not. I notice that James does not offer an explanation about where trials come from, their source. My default position as part of the ‘Western tradition’ is to philosophically speculate about the cause of the trial. James does not. They may come from our foolishness, poor choices; they may occur simply because of the situation we find ourselves in. For example, other people whom we have no control over, may make decisions we do not agree with. Nevertheless, these events become a trial and test us.

What James is more concerned about is how we respond to them when they occur. And they (trials) will occur as we are not promised a perfect, pain free life. He asks: do you consider it joy when trials come? After I have exhausted all the various people to blame, my last resort is to blame the dog. (Did you know that on the eighth day, God did one final act of creation? It was to create dogs. After Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they had an huge  argument. Eve was so angry that Adam blamed her for what had happened that she banished him from the house. God saw their need of something which would love them in the same way he does us, so his final act was to create a dog for them. Now Eve could banish Adam to the dog house.)

Trials, James highlights, are good for us because they mature us. They strengthen our faith to produce endurance; and if we allow the process to continue, we become mature and complete, lacking nothing. Without trials, we will not grow and mature. Perhaps the well-known illustration will help. About twenty years ago (1987-1991) when scientists built Biosphere 2, a vast, enclosed ecosystem in the mountains of Arizona, they planted, among other things, acacia trees. The trees inside the sealed enclosure grew more rapidly than their wild cousins outside. But they were thin and weak with underdeveloped root systems. Some even fell over from their own weight. At first scientists were mystified. Why would trees not thrive in this “perfect” environment? Then they realized that the trees were weakened by the absence of the one thing not included in Biosphere 2: wind. In the wild, trees must withstand strong wind and as a result develop what botanists call stress wood – strong, fibrous wood that vastly improves the quality of life for a tree.

In our own lives, it is the trials of life that strengthen our faith and spur our growth. An unfortunate effect of a trial on us is that they can crush us. If they are persistent, we can in response to them, develop a toughness within us that informs everything we do. Our hearts can become hardened to God and to life; self protecting.

None of us willingly want to embark on a journey with God that involves a trial. I undertook some qualitative research to assess how other people respond to trials, so I interviewed on person, a young woman about 20 yrs old, a full time university student when I was on the way to our annual church camp on the weekend. She worked about 25 hrs a week and drove 56 kms into the city each day to attend the university where she studied psychology and arts. I asked her why she worked so many hours when she was a full time student. Wouldn’t the excessive hours of work compromise her studies I asked? She explained she had recently bought a new car (her second), she had speeding fines she was paying back by installments and she liked to travel. She went overseas every year to somewhere in Asia. She liked to escape the grind of study, work and financial stress (her trial), by taking overseas holidays. Her response was a common one to a trail: to seek an escape.

James has a realistic understanding of our nature – we don’t consider it joy, but as a wise parent, he asks us to see the big picture and the long term purpose of why trials are necessary. But if we lack this insight, James encourages us to seek wisdom (Jas 1:5-8), not the popular choice of escape. Wisdom will be given by God, a generous gift giver. Wisdom in the book of James is not the Greek form of speculative wisdom, but an awareness of how to live one’s life according to God’s pattern, especially from the Old Testament. This pattern might be to live according the Law or the moral examples illustrated in the lives of the Old Testament saints. Later in his letter, James cites the example of the prophets and Job (Jas 5:10-11), who were patient during a time of suffering.

Do we hear God’s invitation in this teaching by James, that this trial in our life is the very thing that we need, to deepen us as a Christian? Or are we more likely to resist it and will not accept that a particular trial might be God’s way, God’s method of shaping and strengthening us? James’ perspective highlights that his teaching is for the mothers of young children who are stressed with all the demands toddlers place on their life; the frustrated worker who is unappreciated, the person who feels that life is unfair.

In the book of Hebrews, the unknown author also shares James’ view, that trials are an essential part of the Christian’s experience. This author adds a dimension which James has not touched on. Trials are God’s way of disciplining us (Heb 12:7). This is to say, trials are God’s means which shape our character. Trials purge from us the qualities which do not glorify him and the qualities which keep us from acting as a mature Christian. I’ve noticed over the years, that many trials ‘burn’ away the temptations sown in my heart leaving me more free to engage with God and others. This is God’s discipline of me. The author of Hebrews sees God in this context, as being like a parent who disciplines his children (Heb 12:8-12). It’s not a pleasant experience, but we can at least have the consolation of knowing that God only disciplines his children – therefore, such discipline is an affirmation that I am at least his child. Otherwise, I would be left to go feral.

What is a wise response to trials then?  Gratitude and not resentment that God is both with us and using them to deepen and mature us. As James reminds his readers later, the God who is with us in suffering or trials, is a compassionate and merciful God (Jas 5:11). Gratitude that through this process, I will be matured so that I can withstand greater trials and perhaps be a source of encouragement to others in a similar situation, that God’s purposes are being outworked in our lives, through the tough experiences we encounter.

I had recently become a Christian and I was 21 years of age. My then mentor took me to a special worship service which was run by and featured a visiting English evangelist called David Watson. David Watson had become a well-known Anglican minister in the English speaking world for his teaching, preaching evangelism and particularly as a leader of what is called the Charismatic Movement that was coincidently, sweeping across Australian churches in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

I settled into my seat in a large university auditorium a little uncertain about what would happen next. The lights dimmed and for the next 2 hours there was uplifting contemporary songs, a clear sermon based on the text of the Bible, and several skits professionally executed by a team of actors. There was also liturgical dance at several points as well. At the conclusion, David calmly announced that there would be a time for people to come forward to be prayed for, especially those seeking healing or wanting to become Christians. Many then came forward. There was no shouting, pleading or emotional appeals by him. The thing I remember distinctly about this worship experience, was the sense of calm which had settled over the auditorium. God’s presence was there and Holy Spirit was gently, but quite obviously at work in the lives of those who had come for healing and prayer. David Watson possessed a crisp Midlands English accent that could have announced the cricket on the radio, but he was speaking on behalf of God. He was not showy, or sensationalist but a humble servant of God. He was known by the fruits in his life, the congregation he lead in England and in the lives of those touched by God.

This experience in the unversity auditorium has deeply imprinted itself. I was like a duckling or wolf cub, both of whom are imprinted by the image of their parents at birth and who then follow that image until maturity. I had been imprinted with an image of what worship might be, yet so often is not. I didn’t understand at the time, that my preference is for silence, short, sharp prayers and space.

Sometimes to simply survive the day is in itself, success. But as we wait for the evening to come, we wait with the expectation that God is outworking his will and purposes in our lives and in the lives of those we pray for and this creates hope.

Sometimes to simply survive the day is in itself, success. But as we wait for the evening to come, we wait with the expectation that God is outworking his will and purposes in our lives and in the lives of those we pray for and this creates hope.

Throughout Lent I’ve been writing a series of Bible studies which follow the Psalms that are used during this period of the year. These have been used by the home groups which are part of the congregation I am a minister in. The following is an introduction to the Psalm set for this Sunday, Psalm 119.

What would you consider to be the greatest achievement or success for the United States of America? For me, I would nominate sending the first men to the moon and back again. What about the greatest achievement for Australia? I don’t think it would be the haul of gold medals at the Sydney Olympics of 2000. Our greatest achievement is found in our political life. We have had a stable democracy for over 160 years from the Eureka Stockade in Victoria, through the establishment of the federal parliament and the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975 to today’s minority government. We have not descended into civil war, unlike what has occurred in the USA, France or the UK, such is the ability and robustness of our political system to represent divergent views and competing opinions. Our political life is a carefully balanced blend of a liberal, capitalist society with the expectation of social policies which are egalitarian. What then would you consider the finest achievement for the Israelites? I think it would be the composition of this psalm, Psalm 119.

For the Israelites, their success was not measured in impressive buildings or philosophy or by expanding their borders and conquering other nations through war. Some civilizations like the ancient Greeks, achieved all three. Success for Judaism was to be found in the area of culture and more specifically, literature and writing. They have been and continue to remain, a people of the Book, a characteristic which can be extended to the other two Abrahamic faiths, Christianity and Islam. For the Israelites, God’s word has been expressed and recorded for posterity in the words of the Prophets, the Holy Writings and the Law of Moses. This gave rise to a high level of literacy in their society as it was expected that the men (sorry ladies), were expected to both know and be able to read Scripture in public worship. We see this in the way even a carpenter’s son, Jesus, was expected to be able to read in public  (Luke 4:16-17).

The achievement of Israel’s rich body of literature is due to one simple reason. Their literature preserved God’s word so that they might worship him correctly and ‘walk in his ways’. The study of God’s word was always focused on this practical end: how do we live with God and honour him in our daily life? God’s word would tell them what God’s requirements were if they were to enjoy the sweet fellowship they had tasted and longed for. Book learning, in part for its association with God’s word and worship, has always been celebrated, revered and cherished in God’s people, the Jews.

In contrast, book learning was not cherished in the wider Australian society as I grew up. People who were considered ‘bookish’, along with abstract learning, were regarded by others with suspicion. (Their knowledge would often be dismissed as being ‘academic’.) The emphasis in Australian society has generally been on being practical (‘handy with one’s hands’) and possessing practical knowledge of a ‘how to’ kind. A good reason for this value on practical knowledge is due to the sheer physical demand of carving out and establishing farms from marginal land. It has also been the Australian experience (aspiration?) to build your own house but because there has been a shortage of skilled labour or because this labour has been too expensive to use, the owner-builder with their practical knowledge has been quite common. An additional reason has been a spirit of self- reliance by those living in the country and also by those who have come from overseas or who moved interstate without the support of their extended family.  This negative attitude toward book learning and serious study has unfortunately also crept into the Church in some circles of Christianity.

I would like to think that this Psalm (Ps 119) challenges our assumptions about the place of learning in general, and God’s word in particular. It crystalizes why learning to read and write has been so important to Judaism, but also for Christians. It also answers the question of why both Jews and Christians, have devoted the time and money to the reproduction of the Bible for God’s people. Without this book, Jewish culture and even its society was in jeopardy of fragmentation or destruction from outside influences (See 2 Kings 22:3- 23:25; Ezra 10:1-3). The same can be said of Christianity. No Bible, no meditation on its contents, no careful study of it and no teaching of it, and we also face extinction, to say nothing of offending God and incurring his wrath and loss of blessing.

For the first time in my life, I think I might have experienced what it is like (to some small degree) to be an Aborigine. What I am referring to is an active discrimination by a section in our society which ridicules my faith, claims that it is only mythology and that it has no place in our Australian society. This is what white people have done for nearly two hundred years with Aborigines. I do not want for a moment, detract or minimise the discrimination, racism and hate which Aborigines have received by various governments, their agents and by the general ‘white’ population, but I sense that their experience is increasingly becoming my experience as a Christian.  And like the experience of Aborigines, we Christians are now being pushed to the margins of society by a campaign which seeks to disenfranchise us from public life by a small and vocal group of atheists who want an entirely secular school system.  Just as Aborigines had their land stolen and were denied justice when they complained that they needed this land as a location in which to practice their religion, now the same is occurring to Christians who offer Christian religious education under the provisions of the Education Act of Victoria which allows Special Religious Instruction. What has been our right to practice our faith by teaching it in schools for approximately a hundred years, is now in all likelihood, to be stolen by a vociferous elite. If we complain or object, we are told to go away and be silent, with the reassuring gesture by these elites, that of course, they are not denying us our right to practice our faith; it must now be done in private.

In an analogous way to what has happened to Aborigines, I find the same regularly occurring in the daily newspapers when self-appointed spokespeople (often led by the Age education reporter, Jewel Topsfield), argue that our religious faith and its tenets have no place being taught in the primary schools as Special Religious Instruction. The most recent article on Friday 2 March in the Age by Stan Van Hooft, professor of philosophy at Deakin University, highlights the campaign for what it is – discrimination by one elite within our society against another with the aim of reducing or removing their legal rights. This is being done by using a variety of methods which when examined, are misleading, false, deeply offensive (to Christians) and designed to cause hurt in the Christian community.

It was no mere coincidence that the particular article in Prof Van Hooft was published the day after the article by Jewel Topsfield which drew attention to the complaint currently before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) by three parents who claim that their children were discriminated against when they, the parents’, opted out of the special religious instruction program offered in their primary school. The frequent reporting of the case throughout the latter part of 2011 and the issues it raises are in the public interest, but it is the concerted and distorted campaign by the Age which merits comment, particularly when an article by Prof Stan Van Hooft appears to give good reasons for Christian education to be removed from our primary schools.

Although Stan Van Hooft is a professor of philosophy, he shows sloppy scholarship and even lapses into a non sequitur on occasion in his attempt to disparage Christians. Furthermore, he uses the old argument of guilt by association to suggest that Christians believe in a set of myths and for this reason, their beliefs should treated with disdain.  Let me explain. He claims that ‘Australia is a society that guarantees freedom of religion and separation of church and state.’ This claim is made, without any evidence or citation of his source. At first glance, it seems plausible. But which government? State or federal? The federal government does not and is not able to guarantee the freedom of religion because it is not enabled under the constitution to enact such legislation. What the state government does under the provisions of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 is provide definitions of what constitutes a breach of respecting another person’s religion and what constitutes vilification. And as for their being a ‘separation of church and state’, there are no legal provisions or conventions. Quite the opposite in fact occurs. Both federal and state governments provide funding to religious based groups, tax concessions and permit chaplains in high schools, hospitals, universities and the armed forces to offer pastoral care and a spiritual perspective on life. Each state government varies in its relationship with church bodies and institutions according to the political climate of the day.

I assume that this unjustified claim by Prof Van Hooft is cited in order to suggest that Christians, and in particular, ACCESS Ministries are not acting in accordance with his hypothetical and misleading understanding of the separation of church and state.  Then there is the matter of what exactly does he understand ‘freedom of religion’ to mean? Does he mean freedom to practice one’s religion without interference from others, including the government, or freedom from the activity by religious groups promoting their particular faith or beliefs? His offhand citation is so ambiguous in its meaning that I assume given the context that he is writing against ACCESS Ministries that he was thinking of the latter: freedom from religious groups promoting their tenets.

Then Prof Van Hooft makes his non sequitur. He writes: “It is a liberal society in which everyone is entitled to the religious beliefs they hold and to follow their religious practices as long as they cause no harm. This means religion is a private matter.” Even if I accept his statement that this is a liberal society, it is a huge leap to then conclude that the practice of one’s religion is a private matter. The truth of this assertion does not follow from the preceding facts (hence the non sequitur). One may practise our religious faith and do no harm, but it does not follow that they must do so in private. Often, the public expression and practice of one’s religious faith is axiomatic to the very nature of a religion. For many adherents, if their religion is to be practiced, it must affect all of one’s life and for certain faiths in particular, such as Islam and Christianity, their religious faith must be expressed in public life. However, when the ruling elite or political and social hegemony is challenged by Christians, as it is by ACCESS Ministries,  then this call is made viz: that it can only be practiced in private.  A historical example of this was the demand by the Nazi regime of Germany that Christians were free to practice their religion providing that their beliefs and practices were subsumed under the Nazi claims to define what was acceptable and that they were practiced in private.

Van Hooft goes onto say: “Private matters are those that touch on the consciences or lifestyles of individuals which those individuals are entitled to pursue because they have no public impact.” Here the blatant hegemony is exposed by this educational elite. He wishes to circumscribe issues of conscience or lifestyle to the purely private sphere – but the question must be raised: on what basis? Who says? Why? This is a deft piece of sophistry by the professor which must be exposed for what it is: the denial of the individual in a society to hold to an ethic or religious conviction which may affect the wider society. It is the denial of the individual to assert, what to their conscience is in the public interest. This is apparent when he goes on shortly to say: “Schools set up by a liberal state and pursuing public good should not be intruded upon by the private convictions of any groups within society.” Let’s for example, compare this statement with what happens in Sweden, Finland, Denmark and to some degree, the United Kingdom, countries I am sure the professor would agree, have ‘liberal’ societies and governments. These countries see no problem or incompatibility between pursuing the public good in a liberal society by allowing the intrusion of the private convictions of a group into the schooling system, government and political life in the form of the Lutheran Church and Church of England. The reality is that there will always be the intrusion by the convictions of groups within our society into our schools and individuals motivated by their private conscience. He himself is his own example of an individual exercising his private conscience to determine or influence the public schooling system, but then he has the audacity to claim the higher ground and deny this right to others who differ from him. The professor’s problem is that he doesn’t like people of faith particularly Christians and he does not seem aware that it is an impossibility to have the schooling system left free from or devoid of any influence by a group of people.

Then the professor argues for general religious education to be taught in place of Special Religious Instruction. However, it is left unsaid who will teach this curriculum. One assumes it is to be delivered by the classroom teacher, even if they are neither competent to teach it nor willing to teach it due to their own individual conscience, which is informed by their religious beliefs and philosophical standpoint.  In other words, he assumes that classroom teachers will be committed to this policy and committed to the teaching of religious pluralism, even if it contravenes their personal beliefs. But leaving the apparent conflict which emerges between the reality of the teacher being asked to teach something they do not believe in and his earlier statement that private conscience is to have no place in public life, he then moves on to an argument that Christianity is based on a mere myth by the old method of guilt by association.

Here he writes: “Indeed, children may come to see that such beliefs  [“that Jesus rose from the dead, but that others believe that the Prophet was carried bodily by angels from Mecca to Jerusalem . . .”] are about as credible as their belief in Santa Claus, in Superman and in their imaginary friends.” This is a cheap way to disparage another person’s cherished beliefs. He assumes both children and adults are unable to discern the difference between fantasy and religious assertions and beliefs. What would be said if he was to say the same about an Aborigine’s religious beliefs when in our society we recognise the importance and place of the Aboriginal religious beliefs and their central role to their culture and life? There would be complaints.  When Van Hooft writes: “Children do not have the capacity to critically assess the ideas that are presented to them.”, he highlights why general religious education should not be taught. Children are being exposed to religious pluralism without their parent’s permission or awareness. General religious education appears to be fair to all, but the philosophical belief in pluralism remains camouflaged. At least with a provider delivering explicit religious education, children and parents are aware of what is being taught. Under general religious education it is by no means explicit or certain what is being taught.  Furthermore, if a general religious education is to be taught, it might be modelled on the UK program, which explicitly acknowledges the place of religious faith in society and the validity of religious faith to be part of the national curriculum.  This stance in the UK is quite different from the negative of Prof Van Hooft.

If Prof Adrian Van Hooft wishes to see the maintenance of a truly liberal society where a diversity of views are promoted and learnt, then the position which is provided under the Education Act of Victoria to allow special religious instruction should be promoted by him to encourage other religious groups to participate. Other religious groups currently provide special religious instruction; the problem is one of money, volunteers and organisation that limit their ability to teach their religious beliefs.  ACCESS ministries is able to do all three because it represents and is funded by Christians who represent the majority religious group in our society. As unpalatable this fact might be, this is the situation.  For parents like myself who are Christians and value government funded public schools and who pay our taxes, we see no reason why our faith should be marginalised, ridiculed and left at the gate of the school and our children denied the opportunity to learn about our religious tradition which occupies an important role in our wider society.

This article in the Age on Friday highlighted to me, the over-reaching claims now being made by the atheists in order to move Christians out of the schools and to the margins of public life.  Through their arguments, they are attempting to marginalise Christians and in particular, their influence and contribution in public life, even though the Christian faith has both renewed and reformed our society in the past.  In many respects, the very same arguments have been in past made to disparage the religious beliefs and practices of Aborigines and like the Aborigines, Christians will not be silent.

I am thinking of adopting the phrase ‘to travel light’ as a statement to guide me for the year ahead. This comes from my recent holiday at the beach. I decided not to take everything to cover every possible contingency, which I would normally do. I thought, I’m taking enough stuff already. Why not try to do with less? As it turns out, I decided not to take my anti-inflammatory drugs. I considered it as I put my essential tablets in my toilet bag, but I was, after all, only going for four days. I was not going to be doing anything strenuous which would stir up my recurring lower back pain. On the morning after my first night’s sleep at the holiday house, I woke up, felt good, until that is, I tried to get out of bed. My back had ‘gone’. I was in quite a bit of pain. I don’t know what triggered it this time. So here I was, miles from home, in need of my anti-inflammatories and no doctor around to prescribe more. But I survived with rub downs and the swimming in the cold sea water was excellent. The first thing I did on returning home was to go straight to the bathroom and find that missing anti-inflammatory drug.

Another reason for my consideration about ‘travelling light’. There was a recent radio program which has highlighted the dangerous working conditions for the people who work on assembling the Apple iPhones. (I first heard about it on a radio program here which was replayed on Radio National (Australia) on 25 January. Many workers have died; they are frequently exhausted from shifts of 12 to 16 hours; the chemical used to clean the screens is carcinogenic and occasionally, there are under age workers. It is not uncommon for a worker to suffer from repetitive strain injuries because they do not circulate the workers through different tasks. When their bodies are injured, they simply sack them.(Here)  (See here) (And here)That got me thinking. Do I need such a device? Do I really need the latest one? Why not wait until my existing mobile phone dies before I upgrade? And do I need to acquire an Apple product?

Yet another reason for travelling light. Every fortnight I take a huge bin out filled to the top with our recyclable materials (It’s 240 litres in size.) Bottles, glass, plastics, paper and cardboard are all put in the bin. In a year, that is twenty five of these bins. And almost every house along the street puts out the same amount of rubbish for recycling. Who pays for this stuff? I do each time I purchase a product. The cost of the can, the bottle, the polystyrofoam plate is included in the cost of the product. The daily newspaper is obviously paid for by me too with only the junk mail being free. So in effect, I am throwing away perhaps $500 or a $1000 a year in packaging and used newspapers. It would be difficult to live without the convenience and safety of the steel can which keeps our food fresh and free from spoiling. But do I need to purchase all the stuff which occupies our consumerist culture here in the West? Several years ago, it seems like everyone upgraded their televisions to humungous flat screen ones. This might have been prompted by the Olympic Games or the World Cup Soccer. The evidence has been seen on the hard rubbish collection with what appears to be working CRT tube televisions being thrown out by literally every house in the street.

Making do has disappeared. I actually found it enjoyable using my imagination to cover the shortfall or missing item while on holidays. We had to borrow a can opener which opened up a conversation and relationship with the neighbouring camper. At the holiday house I needed to bake a cake, but there was no electric beaters and no cake tray, so I had to make do with using those things at the end of your arms (ie: your hands), a spoon and a  thinner, wider tray which worked ok.  My camera has also needed a smaller wrist strap. I’ve tried various sorts and none have been satisfactory, but I spied the thin rope handles of a (trendy) paper bag used by a clothing store. I cut one off, looped it through the camera’s ring tied a reef knot in it and its worked fine. Cost: nothing.

Where is trusting in God to supply our daily needs when we want to cover every possible contingency – a luxury we enjoy only in the West? So I’m in the mood for simplifying, slimming down things, commitments and what I’ll take. De-cluttering is also part of it, but that will remain a topic for another occasion.

Inverloch 1.I’ve been away from the blog for two months. During December I was busy and had a week of holidays in Adelaide. After the busyness of Christmas, I was away for several weeks again, but this time it was two different locations of the Victorian coast. This post is dedicated to the author of the blog Metanoia, Robin who has been on a long and often difficult journey in recent years.

When people come to us as spiritual directors, they do so from any number of places. Some arrive broken by life’s events. Some will come trailing their sins behind them, seeking desperately for healing, someone or something who will relieve their shame. Others are well, but seek God and want to go further, deeper. Some are ‘stuck’ in a hard place and others, want answers and want to discern what choices they need to make.  The temptation for the director when a person comes to us in the depths of despair is to shift from offering spiritual direction to offering pastoral care, particularly when pastoral care is understood to be one of healing, sustaining and guiding. (Angela H. Reed, Quest For Spiritual Reality (London: T&T Clark, 2011), p. 20. It should be noted that although Angela Reed offers this summary of the main tasks of pastoral care, she later criticises the pastoral care and counselling movement. See Reed, p. 56, note 9.)

A common and quite human response, is to want to help the person to be relieved of the unhappy feelings they are experiencing. But this is not a commonly understood aim of spiritual direction. It is to listen with them to see where God is at work in the midst of their despair. Another goal might be to sustain them as they seek to find God and meaning within their personal disaster. In fact, by making some tentative goal of what we practice explicit, whether it is pastoral care or spiritual direction, we also clarify the differences which exist between them.  It might also be said  that offering spiritual direction is good pastoral care! Although the person requires deep compassionate listening to, spiritual direction is focused on God as the key to all meaning and life itself; whereas pastoral care is more often focused on relieving feelings and helping the person to cope.

This morning an older woman has come to see you named Naomi. Deeply etched lines on her face betray the hard life she has lived and the many disappointments in her life. She is not as well-known as her daughter in law Ruth, and this is entirely understandable given that Ruth is remembered for three outstanding reasons: she is the great-grandmother of king David, the greatest king in Israel’s history and that despite being from the nation of Moab, a people despised by God and Israel (Deut 23:3; Nu 25:1ff), she was accepted into the royal lineage (Matt 1:5).  And of course, there is her wonderful faith and character which shines between the verses of sacred Scripture, which surprises the editor of the book which bears her name as much as the men of Bethlehem who commonly refer to her ‘the Moabitess’ (1:22, 2:2, 2:6, 2:21; 4:5; 4:10).

As Naomi takes her seat, you notice her  face looks vaguely familiar:  it is the face of the woman we see on the television news following the floods in Queensland, the anguished woman’s face following the earthquake in Iran, the wailing woman on a  Cairo street whose son lies dead following the recent protests against the government. After Naomi has sat down, straightened her dress and cast a few furtive glances around the room to get her bearings, she tells you her story. It is relatively straightforward.  Due to famine she left the home of her upbringing, her ancestors homeland and with her husband and two sons, travelled to another land.  Then her husband died and her sons married Moabite women (a shameful thing). Each son then died leaving her destitute and vulnerable and without men in her life to protect her from to exploitation or attack (Ruth 1:1-6).  Due to a rumour that the famine has ended back home, she leaves with only her daughter in law Ruth joining her. On her arrival in Bethlehem, the townspeople are surprised to see her again – that she is still alive and looking so deeply affected by her trials (1:19).  At this point you have been following the story from one point to another relatively easily. But then she makes her confession to you of how she views the tragic events in her life. God has been dealing with her bitterly she tells you. It is God who has taken everything away from her that she considered precious and now she has returned empty. Due to these events, which she believes God has dealt her, she now wants to change her name to Mara, meaning ‘bitter’ (1:20-21).

What response do we make to her ‘creed’ which presents a distorted and a self-enclosed world where God is to blame? The narrator of the of Biblical text offers some clues at this point. He or she has carefully crafted the story by opening it in 1:1 with the solemn news that there is famine, but in the last verse of the chapter, that Naomi and Ruth arrive just as there is harvest (1:22). Below the tragic events in her life, God has been at work. How do we accompany someone who is unable to see the whole story? What questions will we ask? Where is grace seen and God’s care experienced in these events? What Naomi is currently unable to see through the tears of grief and disappointment is that God is present and at work within her life and the tragic events which have unfolded. Where will we sit in relationship to her in this hard place? Of course, we tell ourselves, we would not sit in a place above her, the all knowing professional, but alongside her. But have we sat in her world? What would you like said to you by your spiritual director if you were that woman on the television news with your son now lying dead in the street?

I suspect that it will take more than one quick trip to the spiritual director before Naomi has moved on from this place of despair. From the personal experience of accompanying someone in depression and who had lost much (which contributed to the depression), it was sitting with them, time after time over several years before there was any sense of movement; any sense of hope or that God might be there in what had happened. Even if there was some tentative movement, the next time we met, I would find we would be back where we started from. Often my friend could not mentally take in a theological truth; they had to find it for themselves as we painfully picked through their story and experience which had engulfed them, leaving them without hope and faith. It was not I, but God’s patience working within me that allowed me to stay with them, month after month, until several years had slipped by.

It is the story behind the story or the story which lies beneath the story which is told that I now listen for. Sometimes it completely eludes me; on other occasions I must try and postpone my excitement or check the certainty that I know in order to allow the sacred space for God’s Spirit to continue his work.  Is there a deeper story which Naomi must tell? What would you say to her in response to her confession of faith in 1:20-21 and perhaps most importantly, when would you say anything? One of our roles as spiritual directors is to support those as they undertake the most demanding and dangerous journey in their lives. It is a solemn trust given to us and a privileged place to listen to the heart of someone else. It has frequently taken me to places I daren’t not go myself, because I felt vulnerable in becoming aware of the issues which might overtake me on my journey. Yet we must be honest and answer the call by God and sit with the Naomi’s who are brought across our paths and resist the temptation to “fix”, or to be the pastor when our calling is primarily to be the spiritual guide, accompanying those as they make their way home to where their hearts can find solace and reconciliation with God, life’s events and possibly themselves. As the narrator of Naomi’s story obliquely hints, it is a graced journey that this woman has undertaken (4:14-16).



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