Over a coffee recently, I learned that to ‘encourage one another and build each other up’ is not the norm! My coffee partner was a young Lane Cove woman discovering the riches of Christianity. She was quite taken by this piece of biblical wisdom (1 Thessalonians 5:11) which I had shared on Facebook recently. I was surprised, because I thought this was obvious. As we discussed it further, it became clear her surprise was justified. Encouraging and building each other up can easily be replaced by a competitive spirit. Unfortunately, people tend to be pitted against each other in business, sporting, educational and many other environments. Relationships can become a trade commodity based upon, ‘How can you benefit me?’ When this carries over into family dynamics, it is particularly sad. Commodifying someone is to dehumanise them.
I enjoy competitive games and I like to win, but not at all costs. (I hope this doesn’t come as a surprise to my family and sporting friends!) Valuing my opponents as people and their self-esteem should always be my first priority. Competitive environments are the trickiest area for me in applying this wisdom. Seeking to encourage others is now a way of life for me in other areas. It causes me to reflect that it hasn’t always been this way. It is something I have learned through a drip feed of decades of Christian teaching. My self-esteem has also grown via the same source and through wonderful encouragers, who told me what they saw in me, when I couldn’t see it myself. Hearing the teaching, augmented by my personal experience of encouragement, combined to produce this good fruit in me, over time.
To sincerely encourage someone can help them tremendously. They may not tell you, nor show immediate signs of the benefit. If they have been subject to many discouraging or dehumanising experiences, they may even reject your encouragement initially. Their emotional ‘bucket’ may be so depleted of helpful, encouraging content that it will take a long time to fill again. They may not be able to ‘hear’ encouragement, particularly in some areas of their lives where damage has been done. But if you do care for them, continue to try and find an area of their life to build up where they can hear you. Remember, there is good and bad in everyone. Let’s choose to focus on the good and acknowledge it.
My life was rich and full in my late 40’s. I was happily married with 3 young adult children whose lives were full of interest and change, completing high school and discerning career pathways. I loved my role as Associate Pastor at our local Church which was diverse and demanded my best effort. Why pursue this Period of Discernment when it hadn’t led in the direction I was discerning? Because I am a woman of my word – and I had committed to the full process. Besides, there was still a niggle that there may be a further call on my life.
Over the decades of going to Church, I had on 2 occasions read a leaflet near noticeboards about Deacon (previously Deaconess) Ministry. Both times I remember thinking that the description of a Deacon fitted my interests perfectly. But I quickly dismissed them with an attitude of ‘I’m not good enough to be ordained and haven’t been called to it in anyway’. Coincidentally, both my Period of Discernment (PoD) Supervisor and my Ministry Supervisor were both Deacons, despite this being a minority role in the Uniting Church. One had been a long-term missionary in south-east Asia, the other a Mental Health Chaplain. A Deacon role was concerned with making a way for congregational members to enact their Christian faith in service of their local community; enactment of social justice; and as an innovative and passionate leader creating new forms of Christian leadership – to name a few. My PoD Supervisor suggested books for me to read and one of them connected with this last aspect of leading innovative change in the Church. This book spoke to me convincingly, as I read with amazement how I embodied the suggested characteristics of such a ministry agent so fully. Maybe this dissatisfaction with the status quo of our thriving church was from God after all?
I finally decided to become a Candidate for Minister of Deacon while doing the required introductory subject about Ministry in the Uniting Church. I was doing my reading while flying over to Tasmania to see my brother, concerning roles of Minister of the Word (MoW) and Minister of Pastor. It felt dead to me. I was already a Pastor in my Church and the MoW description just didn’t resonate with me. Again, I thought the process was over. On the flight home, I read the Minister of Deacon summary. It was very similar to the MoW description – just giving a different emphasis to which ministry roles were prioritised – more of an outward-looking, community focus. Unexpectedly at the time, this one resonated! Looking back, I see this as unsurprising, but at the time it startled me into action.
Both Minister of the Word and Minister of Deacon are ordained roles in the Uniting Church of equal status. Ordination has different meanings and regulations in the variety of Christian denominations, but basically the person to be ordained commits to lifelong availability for service within the Church. The Church confers a new status upon the person and also commits to their welfare. More details here .
Much process and many hurdles followed, including becoming an extremely reluctant Bachelor of Ministry student at age 50! But most subjects were enlivening and eye-opening, and at times, extremely challenging. I wouldn’t have made it through, especially given some huge personal hurdles over this period, if it hadn’t been very clear to me that I was called to this. Life was hectic and I learned that perfectionism had to go if I was going to make it through.
Despite the difficult path and clear call, it appeared there was no placement for me to be ordained into that matched my specific passion to be a change agent in the Church. But after I prayed for direction for my future, my current position of Community Chaplain, 1400kms away in Sydney, was brought to my attention within 20 minutes! This is a whole new story, but suffice to say for now that God led me very surely to meet a faithful, generous congregation, who had been arduously planning this role for many years too.
Numbers 23:19 (ESV Bible)
“God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”
Hebrews 10:23 (ESV Bible)
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”
My voluntary Church role began with providing and organising pastoral care for the congregation and caring for our newcomers. I loved it and my areas of responsibility expanded. Several years in, the Church decided to formalise the role to Pastoral Assistant and paid me too! The Church continued to grow and more help was required, so a new role of Associate Pastor was created to replace the former one. I experienced most ministry roles in this position and often mixed with ordained Ministers from many denominations, thanks to our inclusive Senior Minister who loved to mentor and encourage me. My view of the Church and its role in our community enlarged further.
However, I was shy and eschewed most ‘platform ministry’, preferring to remain behind the scenes. Over this period, I was challenged by a few people to add preaching to my role. Usually there wasn’t much need to do so and as I had no aspirations in this direction, I simply declined. When the Senior Minister asked me to fill in for a specific date, a few months’ ahead, I wondered if God may be giving me a nudge. Still not keen, I offered God a deal – if I was to pursue preaching, I wanted to be trained to do so before that date. It shouldn’t have happened, as most preaching courses require a semester and the time was less than this. However, a local Church of another Denomination suddenly offered a short preaching course for lay people, so I concluded God had answered me in the positive. Facing my fears, I was trained and immediately preached my first sermon.
Still feeling inadequate as a preacher, I enrolled in a Public Speaking course at our Theological College sometime later. If I was going to do this, I wanted to do it well! I was directly challenged – twice – to consider ordained ministry over this time. I reluctantly accepted a leaflet. Whereas I continued to enjoy my role at the Church, a little dissatisfaction had been bubbling under the surface for some time, with regard to those who didn’t come to worship on Sunday. We had playgroups, Breakfast Club in the local school, various outreaches and invitations to the wider community to come and join us. A few people did, but largely our Church grew with people who moved from other churches. I knew from mixing with other Ministers that this was a common story. From my perspective, something different needed to happen. I knew there was a good and loving God, who could change peoples’ lives beneficially, but they weren’t hearing this message from us. The underlying frustration was challenging me…
For some years, I had been a leader of our mission partnership in Thailand, entailing annual visits with team members from our congregation. My husband and I wondered whether we may eventually be called to serve overseas longer term in some capacity, especially given my ‘call’ as a 15-year-old. Hence, I decided to give the yearlong ‘Period of Discernment’ a go, to confront this ‘call’ to overseas ministry finally. This PoD is the Uniting Church’s process of serious vocational discernment and a pre-requisite to ordained ministry, amongst other outcomes. After the first 6 months, I had discerned that long-term overseas mission was not my call. I was going to end my PoD, when a little voice inside reminded me that I had signed up for a full year. I asked my supervisor what else there may be to discern?
Far from being a moment in time, my ordination story spans most of my life. It has definitely been a step by step process, rather than a sudden burst of inspiration. Becoming ordained was not something I intended, nor strove to achieve. In most parts, it is a story of God over-turning my resistance to each step along the way!
Experiencing a short time in heaven around age 10, when I prayerfully dedicated my life as a Christian, was possibly the beginnings of the call. Having no knowledge of others’ conversion experiences, I mistakenly believed that although extremely special to me, this was a ‘normal’ experience at this juncture in a person’s life. Now that I know differently, I reflect, ‘to whom much is given, much is required’. (Luke 12:48) Being ‘given much’ applies to most people I know and we all bear this responsibility to give from our position of wealth. However, I have been given much in this particular spiritual way, so it is unsurprising that I now seek to give back in this realm.
In year 10, we had missionaries come and speak to us at our school assembly. I was very moved by their story and felt ‘called’ to mission service from that point. When I entered a World Vision office 6 years later to sponsor a child, I was gently asked whether I had considered working overseas in my capacity as a laboratory technician. I explored that path with the anticipation of doing so, learning French and increasing the breadth of my technical capacity with the help of my employer. It didn’t happen in the end, much to my parents’ relief, who feared Pol Pot would reinvade Cambodia where I was to be stationed. At that point, I met my husband and soon began raising a family.
Raising the family wasn’t easy in those early days. My babies didn’t sleep much and were constantly sick and the same went for me. When I was approached to be an Elder by a lady from my Church, I laughed! Was this woman crazy? But when the Minister also asked me, I decided to consider it. My practice in special times of discernment is to lay it before God as a possibility. So I said to God, ’If YOU want me to do this, please make it clear to me’ and went on with my life as normal. I also raised two objections before God: Firstly, I was a woman and I wasn’t too sure that women were called to be leaders in the Church, and secondly, my children were all-consuming at that point. I had a daily Bible reading habit, so continued reading with a heightened awareness that God could speak to me in this way. One day, I reached 2 John chapter 1 verse 1 (NIV) and read with amazement:
‘The elder, To the lady chosen by God and to her children, whom I love in the truth--and not I only, but also all who know the truth.‘
I couldn’t argue with that specificity and I tend not to argue with God (it’s an unfair fight as Jacob found out!), so I agreed to be nominated and became an Elder of that Church. Hence, I began to learn about the deeper workings of the Church and ministry. A few years later, a new Minister arrived. By this time, we had 3 children, but the older ones had begun school, so I was still a busy mum, but had some availability during the day. At an Elders’ retreat he enquired whether I would assist him on a voluntary basis? I decided to put my toe in and have a look at what a Minister did from day to day…
F=ma is a formula we instinctively realise when a heavy object is speeding towards us. No need to explain that F stands for the force that’s going to hit us if we don’t move quickly! Multiplying the mass of an object by its acceleration is a simple law of physics that calculates force accurately. It produces a known outcome that works every time. Not all questions can be solved so simply. As a Minister, I am often asked why God allows, or does, certain things. Why does a good God allow such terrible suffering? Why does one person miraculously recover from illness, but not my loved one? Why do bad people enjoy comfortable lives, while good, honest Mr. X suffers? I read many inspiring explanations for these questions, but rarely do they satisfy the questioner. We may point to certain Scriptures, but usually they will be argued against. If there was a formula to explain God’s actions, however complex, it would make my life easier! There are many ‘tendencies’ I have observed about the way God acts, but no formulaic response. I infer God is a specialist, not a generalist.
In my mind, the answer is simple. God is infinitely beyond our comprehension, wisdom and intelligence. God does what God determines to do. I don’t know why and freely acknowledge I don’t have the full picture. Here’s a Scripture I love which backs up my stance:
Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. (The Bible, 1 Corinthians 13:13, New Living Translation)
Frustrating as it may be for those who want definite answers now, it’s not yet our time for answers to these complex questions. Our intelligence and breadth of knowledge about life and its complex interactions across time, place, people, environment and so much more, is deficient. Personally, I am grateful I don’t need to carry the weight of such decisions.
We are not powerless however. Many people will testify to amazing answers to their prayers. But not every prayer gets a ‘yes’ and we should be grateful for this. Some of these prayers would ill affect us, as a result of the chain of consequences following the course change. As a simple example, if I pray for rain to water my garden in Sydney, where hasn’t it fallen instead? Maybe on the farm that provides my (and many others’) food. So, when I ask, God hears and weighs the answer, and decides. Either way, our faithful response at its best, is gratitude.
The ‘laws’ of physics, and other disciplines, allow for formulae to help us predict outcomes with great success. These laws are a gift to us. But do not assume that everything will fit into a neat formula. Where is the excitement, variety and challenge of that? God offers us a loving relationship, where we may gradually develop an understanding to request outcomes that are often granted. But there is no law involved here, only grace. Let us be thankful for wisdom that surpasses our own.
Over a coffee today, I learned that to ‘encourage one another and build each other up’ is not the norm! I shared this piece of biblical wisdom (1 Thessalonians 5:11) on Facebook recently. My coffee partner was a young Lane Cove woman discovering the riches of Christianity. She was quite taken by this verse. I was surprised because I thought this was obvious. As we discussed it further, her surprise was justified. Encouraging and building each other up has largely been replaced by a competitive spirit, at least in modern Sydney. Unfortunately, people tend to be pitted against each other in business, sporting, educational and many other environments. Relationships can become a transactional commodity based upon, ‘How can you benefit me?’ This can even carry over into family dynamics, which is particularly sad. Commodifying someone is to dehumanise them.
I enjoy competitive games and I like to win, but not at all costs. (I hope this doesn’t come as a surprise to my family and sporting friends!) Valuing my opponents as people and their self-esteem should always be my first priority. Competitive environments are the trickiest area for me in applying this wisdom. Seeking to encourage others is now just a way of life for me in other areas. It causes me to reflect that it hasn’t always been this way. It is something I have learned through a drip feed of decades of Christian teaching. My self-esteem has also grown via the same source and through wonderful encouragers who told me what they saw in me when I couldn’t see it myself. Both the theory, and in being the recipient of the practice of encouragement, combined to produce this good fruit in me over time.
To sincerely encourage someone can help them tremendously. They may not tell you, nor show immediate signs of the benefit. If they have been subject to many discouraging or dehumanising experiences, they may even reject your encouragement initially. Their emotional ‘bucket’ may be so depleted of good, encouraging content that it will take a long time to fill again. They may not be able to ‘hear’ encouragement, particularly in some areas of their lives where damage has been done. But if you do care for them, continue to try and find an area of their life to build up where they can hear you. To continually look to encourage others is a positive way to live anyway. There is good and bad in everyone. Let’s choose to see the good and acknowledge it.
Last night our Book Club delved into our experiences of suffering, amazing timing and dealing with loss. When it came to lived experience, I had some relevant ones which I shared with the group. After the group dispersed, I felt uneasy, unmasked. Had I exposed too much of myself? Compared to the people in our current book, ‘Any Ordinary Day’ by Leigh Sales, the answer would be a definite ‘No!’ My experiences were shared with a small, known group of people – unlike Leigh’s cases whose stories were recorded for an unknown audience of potentially millions. Yet, these were my stories, told from my perspective and I felt vulnerable.
There is a potential risk of telling your story or sharing your honest opinion – as the next move is out of your control. It’s your audience’s call how they will respond. I feel honoured when people share their stories, or their perspective with me, because their implicit trust is conveyed in this action. It usually draws us closer as a result. It’s important we honour the storyteller. We need to keep confidences and respond with appreciation to the valuable insight into their lives we have been given.
In these strange times, while we are forced to become more localised than we were before, cultivating depth in relationships is more important than ever. To do that, we need to take the plunge and share something of ourselves, with trusted others, who are interested to know us better. The depth of that sharing depends on how much we trust them. It should be gradually deepened, to gauge the reality of that trust and minimise the risk incurred. Leaders tend to take that risk more readily, as they anticipate the benefits of a reciprocal response.
Living with uncomfortable feelings, such as I experienced last night, are essentially growing pains. Our innate ‘radar’ detects threats to our safety and should be heeded. However, if it is very highly tuned, we need to weigh the consequences of taking a risk to build a relationship, against being unknown at a deeper level. The consequence of being too protective could be loneliness, now or in the future. Go gently, gently at first, with someone who seems kind and is not a threat to you.
Wear your mask to hide from Coronavirus – not from each other!
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. (from The Bible, Peter 4:8)
Recently, I visited a sick friend in hospital where she is hoping to recover, but that recovery is far from certain. She confessed with some difficulty that she had found herself wishing she would die. Later in our conversation she asked if I would conduct her funeral should that be necessary. When I agreed, I saw her smile for the first time as she said ‘Thank you. I was worried about that and now I can relax.’
Shortly afterwards, a church friend my own age had a fall and subsequently died in hospital in great pain and another friend was severely injured by a car and remains suspended between life and death even now as I speak.
These events have caused me to reflect on death and how I understand it. What happens to us after death? Traditional Christianity has its own truth - that we will be raised to resurrected life and will join Jesus in heaven with the
Saints who have gone before us. I’ll say more about the Christian understanding of death a little later.
Contemporary theology, influenced by the critical thinking of science is rather circumspect in what it says about life after death. Progressive theologian John Shelby Spong simply says when he dies, he wants to be where Jesus is and leaves the matter there, not offering anything more.
Medical science makes clear that we are made up of organic materials which deteriorate at death and makes no claim about a soul.
Some modern philosophy says we have no soul, no ghost in the machine, just a body and as that finally disintegrates, there is nothing left to go anywhere.
Other philosophies point to the unsolved mystery of consciousness suggesting that our human consciousness is a reflection of the consciousness of the universe, another way of naming God. They hold that to get in touch with our human consciousness through meditative experiences is to be aware of our true selves as distinct from the person we think we are based on our history and circumstances. To experience such consciousness is, in this spiritual philosophy, to have a taste of the life to come and hopefully, to find release from fear of death.
Now, I to return to current Christian theology as expressed by Anglican theologian Cynthia Bourgeault. Bourgeault believes in the wisdom of the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ as the way to understand that the one who would save their life will lose it and the one who is willing to lose their life will find it.
We can understand this loss of life for another literally, of course. Jesus says there is no greater love for another than choosing to die for him or her. But losing our life for others is more generally interpreted metaphorically. As we take up our cross, that is, put the concerns of our ego behind us and live outwardly for others and inwardly for God, we shall have a taste of the joy of the life to come. In other words, to die to the self and to gain the joy that death to the self brings is to have a glimpse of life after death before we literally die.
We are newly free to be courageous, compassionate and generous. We are not alone as we know God is with us all the time. The gifts of the Holy Spirit - gentleness, peace, forbearance, love and joy shape us into those who are not afraid to die.
If we have already discovered this Gospel truth and we are approaching the end of our life, death will not make us fearful despite the challenges that ageing bodies go through. But there are some at the end of their lives who, not having a secure faith, are very fearful. They may want to have help to die before their natural time and that raises the contentious issue of euthanasia. I won’t go there today, but I would argue that such suffering people can find great relief in having support from others who do have a strong faith. Somehow, that unspoken confidence can be experienced by the one who is suffering and he or she can gain strength to keep going.
It makes sense to me that, as we age, we will benefit greatly from considering our attitude to death rather than pushing such thoughts away. Meditation, focussing on each moment we still have to appreciate the richness of life, reaching out to others as we are able and taking time to converse in prayer with God are great ways to come to terms with our death. And understanding that we shall one day pass away is the royal road to understanding the meaning of being alive now.
Ultimately, we cannot know in any scientific, objective way what happens to us after death.
Perhaps poets and artists can give us more helpful ways to imagine what death and dying will be like.
We can start with the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam where the poet acknowledges that we can’t know about life after death til we get there:
‘Strange, is it not? that of the myriads who before us passed the door of Darkness through,
Not one returns to tell us of the Road which to discover, we must travel, too.’
Then we can move to a verse from William Blake who refuses to accept the reality of death in the following verse:
‘Do not go gentle into that good night, old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’
and finally, some words from ‘The Prophet’ by Khalil Gibran who writes more enigmatically:
‘For what is it to die, but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides,
that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?….
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.’
There are some professional tree pruners outside and I can hear troublesome branches crashing several metres to the ground. They have cleared away items likely to be damaged, our curious cat is being monitored by the apprentice, and branches are falling in safe zones. All is under control in the hands of these professionals and I am grateful.
We like being in control, don’t we? Prosperous countries, such as ours, have become adept at controlling many aspects of our lives and our surrounding environment, so that we feel safe and secure. That was until a mysterious pandemic appeared and we suddenly realised we had lost control of so much that seemed certain. Much tragedy has unfolded and we know more awaits us – but we don’t know how much or for how long…
Loss of control, in itself, is not such a bad lesson for us to learn. As a person of strong faith, I aim to live with less control of my life! Whereas my tendency is to control, there is freedom in a ‘let go and let God’ mentality. An implicit trust in a beneficent God is required to live this way. Many decisions are still required, but there are others where leaving a space for what may eventuate, is releasing. For example, I have been completely dependent on people responding to everything I do as a Community Chaplain, from the beginning. Which people would engage in something so new and different was completely unknown. Living this way is tense at times, sometimes disappointing, sometimes elating. However, if I’ve done my best, with good intentions, I trust God to do the rest. I believe God is for us, has a far greater perspective and ultimately will prevail. Why would God not be faithful to me, given He loves me and I am trying to cooperate?
A further benefit of letting go of some reins is that we are no longer central to the outcome. Did I hear a sigh of relief? That’s how I feel. Handing control over to God, means we are no longer fully responsible – for better or for worse. No inflated pride and no crippling shame. Being important (involved, heard, respected), but not central, is a great place to be. I credit Graham Bond, long serving Pastor and CEO of Wayside Chapel with this wisdom.
Giving up control takes humility. We are not so important after all! From this place, we are better able to hear others and allow God some room to move. A previous mentor would say, ‘Lift empty hands to God’. When we have fulfilled our responsibilities, we can simply let go and trust it to the God who cares more than we do. Try it and feel the anxiety drain away…
As a young woman, it didn’t take much to spark my anger. Poking this bear was looking for trouble! Although assisting marginalised people was compelling, being amongst activists raised my anger level unhelpfully. I backed off, not wanting to become a constantly simmering pot of anger. Having dealt with some underlying issues, I am much calmer these days. But I also recognise that controlled anger can be well-utilised to call for justice.
Nevertheless, I have re-engaged with social justice activists with trepidation. Happily, I have found a group who are respectful and intelligent in their approach: my local Sydney Alliance group. Initially, we build relationships with others concerned for the common good of those around them. It’s enriching to meet these compassionate people, intent on making a positive difference for others. There is encouragement in working together. We are guided by experienced Sydney Alliance leaders to formulate an informed approach, based on our combined strengths and connections. No specific agendas are forced upon us and we agree on one cause which is a high priority for us all. Recently, we heard personal stories of the huge dilemma of international students who lost their jobs and the desperate circumstances which resulted. After raising our collective voice to ask for support for them during COVID-19 restrictions, we thanked those responsible for providing an allowance to them. Recently we became aware of many local ‘at risk’ youth, and how the local organisation Streetwork is having a very positive impact upon them. We are currently strategising how to best support 'Streetwork' to multiply its impact.
If you would like to be peacefully proactive and productive, here is an opportunity to gain some skills to write to, and meet with, your local State or Federal MP. (This enables them to do their job well in representing us, their constituents.) Lane Cove Uniting Church has organised an online training session with Uniting’s Advocacy Team. Everyone is welcome:
I appreciate these approaches where expertise and information are shared, enabling us to be productive and efficient together. I am blessed to have these new people in my life too. It’s energising to be part of an eclectic team, making a difference for people who really need an advocate, simply by dedicating an hour or two a month to their cause. Is it something you would like to do too? Click on one of the bold, underlined links to find out more.
Hi! I'm Karen, the Lane Cove Community Chaplain. I am pondering life here and in general. Some of my blog articles are originally found in our local paper, The Village Observer, and are repeated here because I would love to hear your response too.