…in a tongue not understanded of the people.

It is one of the great principles of the Reformation (and even the Catholics caught on by Vatican II) that worship should be offered in the vernacular, that is, in the common everyday language of the people.  Long gone are the days when a Western Christian in Australia (I recognise here the adherence to more ancient tradition of churches such as the Orthodox and the Copts) would expect to worship in Latin or Greek or indeed even sixteenth-century English.  We expect to be able to understand, respond to and participate in what happens when we gather as a body for worship.

This principle has given me a great deal of pause for thought of late, as I have struggled with what it might mean to offer worship that is accessible to people for whom spoken or written language is not intuitive.

A bit of background.  I was approached by someone else asking me for help in providing an opportunity for prayer and worship for children on the autism spectrum, and with related challenges.  “Of course!” was my immediate response.  Followed very quickly by, “…but I have no idea how to do that.”  As I read and sought advice from others, some ideas took shape.  Avoid being abstract.  Avoid metaphor.  Keep it clear and concrete, and as much as possible rely on visual and other sensory information, rather than on words (written or spoken).

I spent time with books on different kinds of prayer.  Here were some suggestions; prayers that were done with movement, or with creative expression; kids could paint pictures of their prayers instead of forming words, that sort of thing.  Ok.  We could do that.

Also, we really needed something from the Bible.  Preferably a gospel story, I felt, if we wanted to claim this as Christian worship rather than just something spiritually undefined and wishy-washy.  Problem: a lot of the Bible is abstract or metaphorical.  And all of it is words.  I looked around for books of stories with lots of pictures, but didn’t find something I felt would work.  My boss had a bright idea – Bible cartoons.  We found some here, and I sorted through looking for one I thought could work.

Other details took shape too; the use of music, the layout of the space, the flow and pace of events so kids weren’t expected to sit still for very long but there was a focus on moving around.

We hope to trial this in coming weeks.  I don’t know how successful it will be; although I hope that God will be able to use it to do something good.

But one thing I’ve discovered is that some people – parents of kids on the spectrum, or otherwise concerned people – are upset at this being an attempt to offer something distinct, instead of integrating these children into our main worship service.

Integration is important; these kids as much as anyone else belong at the Lord’s table and amongst his people, and exclusion of them is absolutely not ok.  But I found myself answering a mother who wanted to know why we would do this, “Well, I wouldn’t expect you to worship in Latin; so why would I expect someone whose way of connecting with the world and making meaning is not verbal and abstract, to worship in that way?”

I don’t intend this to be a replacement for “normal” church attendance and participation.  But most churches don’t have the ability (or let’s face it, the willingness) to totally overhaul their worship into what would be a more natural idiom for a person with autism.  I hope, that by offering something which can supplement other opportunities, and which is constructed with the particular strengths and gifts of these kids as the starting point, we can create a liturgical experience which speaks of the gospel in different ways, and perhaps helps people to make connections which otherwise would go unmade.

Because everyone deserves to be able to talk about, and to, God in their own language.



Apostolic spirituality

This is the text of a sermon for St. Matthew’s day, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scripture it references is Psalm 119:65-72.

I wonder how many of you have heard someone describe him or herself as “spiritual but not religious”? It’s a growing phenomenon, this way of thinking about life, so much so that that source of all profound knowledge – I refer of course to Wikipedia – tells me that perhaps one third of Americans today fall into this category. Wikipedia didn’t have similar statistics for Australia, but I suspect that as a similar society, it’s likely to be a serious phenomenon here as well.

But what does it mean? What does it mean to be spiritual? And if we are religious, what does that imply about spirituality for us? Perhaps spirituality is a smorgasbord of ideas and behaviours and practices from which we can pick and choose to fashionably accessorise our faith? Or indeed is it a matter of fuzzy thinking best ignored by the wise?

Well, I think it is possible to be religious without being spiritual. But I also think it is dangerous; that way lie dogmatism, fundamentalism, legalism, and institutionalism. We’ve all seen the damage that these approaches to a life of faith can do, and I’m sure I don’t need to encourage you to avoid them.

At the same time, though, it is definitely possible to have a spirituality which isn’t firmly anchored in a relationship with God, and that’s just as dangerous in its own way. That way lie the occult practices which the Bible explicitly forbids, as well as pursuit of whatever makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside, perhaps at the expense of our emotional maturity and indeed our common sense. That way, too, lies the risk of projecting our own psyche onto the universe and then wondering why the universe seems so muddled!

The reason that I’ve started by raising questions about spirituality is that this morning I want to consider the Psalm we just sang, but I want to talk particularly about its spirituality and what that might have to offer us. And I want to think with you – on this feast day of St. Matthew – about what that might add to our understanding of what it is to be an apostolic church. More on that later.

The psalmist wrote, “I have trusted in your commandments…I keep your word…teach me your statutes…I will keep your commandments…my delight is in your law…I may learn your statutes…the law of your mouth is dearer.” On the face of it, this psalm can look like an obsessive-compulsive’s hymn to legalism. Over and over the psalmist focuses on God’s law.

And yet we do well, to notice amongst the mentions of the “law,” words about grace and life and delight. And we might also do well to ask, how it is that the psalmist found these things in the law?

Well, the first thing we should note is that the word we translate as “law” – Torah – is not about a legal system. It has at its root the Jewish verb for “to teach” or “to instruct.” For the psalmist, then, delight comes from accepting God’s teaching, rather than living within a set of “rules.” That teaching is not just a set of moral or behavioural precepts; it refers above all to God’s revelation of Godself to Israel. But notice that the psalmist does not treat God’s teaching as fixed or finished; he asks that God continues to teach him. This is a faith which expresses itself in a relationship which is open, trusting and dynamic.

The psalmist’s spirituality has what has been described as a “warm doctrine of God.” The God of this psalm is not withdrawn or neutral; he is present and available to the person who reaches out to Him.

The psalmist had a faith very firmly grounded in what he knew of God. His spirituality wasn’t something he made up as he went along, but at every point he turned back to let his life be formed and re-formed according to the word of the Lord. For us, coming after the time of Christ, our knowledge of God has expanded to include the apostolic witness to Christ; the gospels, the creeds of the early church, and the foundation of the tradition in which we have been nurtured. In order to be truly apostolic, we need to take that as seriously as the psalmist took the teaching he had received.

A further thing to note about this psalm is that it is not an expression of purely individual faith. Whatever the circumstances in which it was written, it was incorporated into the sung worship of the Jerusalem temple, and has continued to be part of the corporate prayer life of both Jews and Christians to this day. Even our use of it this morning is intended to be as much an exercise of prayer and worship as of intellectual processing. It points us to the fact that we connect with God at times in each other’s company and even through each other, through mutual service and the sharing of our gifts and wisdom. And it points us to the fact that God’s self-revelation impacts the decisions and priorities not just of individuals but of communities.

But let me come back to the questions I started with this morning. Is spirituality a bit of a smorgasbord, something from which we can pick and choose as we wish to enhance our faith? I suggest that the psalm we’ve read this morning offers us a qualified answer which says, “yes and no.” Yes, spirituality, even for Christians, offers us a huge variety of ways to connect with God and discern His will. Even the diversity of Scripture shows us that; we can pray and praise our way through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and encounter a huge variety of genres of writing, of moods, of characters and stories.

At the same time, the psalm also says, no, Christian spirituality – apostolic spirituality – isn’t entirely undetermined. It is a response to God’s love and self-revelation in Christ. Christian spirituality includes the imperative to obedience, to trust and faith, to coming back again and again to the touchstones we have in Scripture and in tradition, to ensure that we are firmly anchored in the life of faith. It highlights the necessity of facing up to the things in life of which we are afraid, and points us to the resources we have to do so.

The question of what it means to be faithfully apostolic is real and urgent.  It has consequences for our identity and ethos. It is in being faithful to the teaching about God in Christ, which we have received from the apostles, that we can be faithful heirs to the legacy of St. Matthew.

A feather on the breath of God

Today, the church remembers in its calendar St. Hildegard, abbess, spiritual writer, and generally all-round very impressive person of the twelfth century.

Seeing that in the lectionary reminded me of a quote of hers which has been a personal favourite for a long time:

“Listen: there was once a king sitting on his throne.
Around him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honour.
Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground, and he commanded it to fly.
The feather flew, not because of anything in itself but because the air bore it along.
Thus am I, a feather on the breath of God.”

I love this image because of the sense of freedom and encouragement it offers.  Hildegard was a woman who worked hard; doctor of the church, theologian, scholar, composer, leader of her community and mystic, I have no doubt her days were full and busy.  And yet in what she did, she knew that ultimately the results rested not on her efforts, but on the grace and power of the one who upheld and carried her (and indeed her religious community and the whole church).

Here is an invitation to let go of anxiety, and to find oneself to be caught up in the image and on the breath of God, borne along as we work towards the accomplishment of the good works we are each given to do, confident that our own inadequacies are not the determinant of the final outcomes.

Thus may each of us be; a feather on the breath of God.


I have found my limit

I am – as I have written about before – someone who enjoys and celebrates the diversity of Christianity.  I actively seek out dialogue across difference, and when I get the chance to listen to and learn from Christians who hold different opinions than mine, I’m glad to have the chance to broaden my understanding by learning from them.

But today, I have found my limit.  I have found the point at which I’m not willing to engage any more.  I’m not willing to try to listen, or to figure out how what we hold in common has given rise to such different expressions.  Today, I found that the Rise Up Australia Party (motto: “Keep Australia Australian!”), whose leader is also the president of Catch the Fire Ministries,  has published on its Facebook page an image which is intended to represent the political climate in which the party is operating.  I have added the image below.

In the commentary on the Facebook page, they explain the image thus:

“For the fourth time, “The regional conference of the World Congress of Families” has had to be relocated because of the unhappy musings of the 21st Century mobile Munich beer Hall “tolerance” putsch.

Many high profile politicians have fled the nightmare scenario in their mind. The goosestepping stilettos of the “gaystapo” being too much for them. Alas, the Agenda 21 lackeys and unwitting, default “useful idiots 4 Islam” have met their “Alamo”/ “Stalingrad”.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-08-29/kevin-andrews-cancels-appearance-at-families-conference/5705364 .”

Now, let me be clear.  The World Congress of Families might not be my favourite group in the whole wide world and outer space, but I support their right to meet in peace and safety.  I also support the right of various venues to decline to host them.  I can understand that that refusal might be irritating, and that by the fourth refusal you might be intemperate.

But when that intemperate irritation is expressed in comparing one’s critics to the Nazi party, you’d better be standing on very solid ground.  And these guys are not.

The World Congress of Families has speakers who are known for spreading medical misinformation, for their unwillingness to support freedom of religion, for their promotion of rigid gender roles (with all of the social problems that go with that), and so on and so forth.  Their position is open to critique on rational and even theological grounds.  To lower themselves to dismissing and ridiculing that critique – and the genuine concerns underlying it – by comparing their critics to the Nazis (and implying that it’s driven by the gay lobby, when in fact that is only one voice among many) is beyond being a cheap shot.

It’s intellectually and morally bankrupt.

And it misrepresents the power dynamics that are really in play here; these are not frightened and disempowered people being silenced by threat of death.  They continue to occupy their positions of political and spiritual influence with the same protections afforded every other citizen.

Today, I feel I have more in common in outlook with the abortionists, the gay lobby, the “idiots 4 Islam” and all the rest of the people that this group vilifies, than I do with these brothers and sisters in Christ.  (And for me, by nature a rather conservative personality, that’s not a small thing to say!)  These are my brothers and sisters, and that’s not something I can or would want to change.  But until they can grow up a bit, reflect on their own stance, learn to engage with others with some compassion and openness to repentance, I consider them estranged.

Because I can’t hold meaningful dialogue before a Nazi swastika on a rainbow.


Rise up Australia image