Thursday, July 28, 2022

"Please sir... I want some more"

For seventeen years I was an Officer in The Salvation Army. I was very grateful for the opportunity I had to serve in this way. Leaving Officership was incredibly difficult but I'm also happy with the new life I'm living now. 

In financial terms, I didn't receive much by way of an allowance as an Officer. In fact, it was below minimum wage. Around $500 per week. I also grew up hearing many stories of Officers scraping by each week on a meagre amount of money and living "by faith" week in, week out. That was part of "the calling". I knew what I was getting into when I signed up and so I 'endured' this 'life of poverty' as a good soldier of Christ. 


I never openly complained about it but I also didn't refuse help from people where it was offered. If someone offered to pay for a meal I never said no. Sometimes someone would provide a gift of some kind. I always accepted. On the surface I did and said the right things, but in reality I was also playing into a cultural expectation of what Officership is like. 

As I reflect on it know I realise that the reality was very, very different. As an Officer I was provided with the following

  • A house, rent free
  • A car, lease free
  • Petrol for the car
  • Health insurance (hospital) for me and my family
  • Officer's Health Assistance for extras for me and my family
  • Guarantee of employment and appointments within that employment. 
Having left Officership and now in regular employment I have come to realise just how valuable these things are and just how much I took them for granted. I have come to realise that the allowance I received was really disposable income and I was able to afford many things then that I would have no hope of affording now. 

I'm now working for a small Catholic theological college where I work with many people who are part of religious orders. They have committed themselves to ministry and taken on certain vows associated with the different orders they are a part of. The "vow of poverty" usually appears high on the list. 

In a conversation around the coffee pot a few weeks back one of the lecturers jokingly commented 
"It's easy to take on a vow of poverty when someone else is paying the bills." 
I've been reflecting on that ever since. It really struck a chord (and prompted this post). I've considered my life of poverty as an Officer in The Salvation Army and, if I'm honest, I had it easy. Someone else was paying most of my bills. Whether that was the organisation paying for my rent, car lease, petrol etc. Or friends and family offering to pay for dinner if we went out for a meal. In many, many settings my 'vow of poverty' was easy because someone else was paying the bills. 

Now, I have deliberately framed this using personal pronouns because I don't want to universalise my experience. Single officers, for example, I imagine would have a much more difficult time making their allowance cover everything they needed. However, there is a cultural norm associated with Officers that they take on a life of poverty to fulfil their calling and serve Christ through The Salvation Army. 

As I look back I realise that's a lie and I perpetuated it with ease. 

Because someone else was paying the bills. 

Friday, July 8, 2022

How do we talk about death?

Trigger warning: Death, Suicide

This is a post I've be thinking about for a long time. The trouble has always been that someone I know has been struggling with the death of a loved one and so, in trying to be sensitive to their situation, I've chosen not to post it. 

But here we are. Death is inevitable.

So why is the church so bad at talking about it? 

I mean *really* talking about it. 

So many funerals, social media posts, or conversations about death and the most obvious word to use (death, died, or its cognates) is avoided. I grew up in, and was an Officer in, The Salvation Army where we spoke of people being "promoted to glory." Other euphemisms are used all the time (I can sense Monty Python skit coming on).


Why?

We don't need to do that. 

One of the earliest funerals I conducted was due to a death by suicide. I was forced to consider how I would handle this within the funeral. I read a text which provided me with a principal I have followed ever since.

You've got to mention it. 

As difficult as it may seem, and as counter-cultural as it may be (and really that's all it is), you've got to mention the cause of death. Indeed I would even say "say it and say it early." 

On that occasion the deceased was someone who lived very much on their own and so I simply stated that they "lived their own way and died their own way." Later I used the word "suicide" deliberately so that it was clear for all. 

As a principal I applied this into all funerals I lead. I would say something like "we are gathered here today as (name) has died from (cause of death) and we are grieving together."

There are good practical and emotional reasons for this. It names the "elephant in the room". This brings relief to those present, and this is particularly true in those funerals where the death has been hard (e.g. suicide, long sickness, death of a child). I've been quite amazed at some funerals where there is a coffin in the room that doesn't even get acknowledged! But there are strong theological reasons for using the word "death/died".

Death has been defeated! In the words of Paul "Where, o death, is your victory? Where, o death, is your sting?" (1 Cor 15:55). Avoiding naming death is to give it power that it no longer holds and no longer deserves. Think about this in another way. We don't use a euphemism to describe Jesus dying on the cross ("Jesus passed away on the cross"). Why should we use them in describing other deaths?

What are your thoughts? I'd be interested to hear other people's experiences of times when the word "Death/died" was avoided. How did it feel? If you did it yourself, how come? Share a comment to continue the conversation. 

Friday, June 17, 2022

The Tradition of Scripture

An interesting online conversation I was in the other day got me thinking about the relationship between "tradition" and "scripture." In my theological training there was much made of the Wesleyan quadrilateral and the inter-relatedness of "Scripture," "tradition," "reason," and "experience." What I've been thinking a lot about, lately, those is the fact that Scripture itself is a tradition.

What do I mean by that?


Well, no one alive today was there when the texts of Scripture were written. Every one of us receive the text(s) of Scripture from someone else, who received them from someone else, who received them from someone else... and so on. They are passed from person to person, or more specifically from peoples to peoples, as a tradition. When we receive them we accept that they are treated as Scripture within the tradition in which we receive them and this we do so as an act of faith. That is, if they are indeed received within a faith tradition we receive this text in the belief that they have not just come from the person(s) who gave us the text but in some way this has come from God.

In the church I am now a part of the liturgy reinforces this concept when we say at the end of each reading "This is the Word of the Lord" or "This is the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ." After this the congregation joins together and proclaims "Thanks be to God" (or similar). 

As a result, we confess together that the text is something more than the text and we believe that in faith. Indeed to call it Scripture is to confess something well beyond the historical facts of the reception of the text.

And that's OK. Indeed, it's a good thing. If we were left to prove the historical reliability of each individual text contained within Scripture every time we read it we'd never get on with the any of the work of the Kingdom.

So, all this is to say that the dichotomy between "Scripture" and "Tradition" is a false one and irrelevant. Things like the "Wesleyan quadrilateral" need to be reconsidered, reworked, nuanced, or abandoned as a result. 

Friday, June 10, 2022

Here we go again

It's been a long time since I posted here. In fact my life has completely changed over the last couple of years. I separated from my wife. Left my ministry as an Officer in The Salvation Army. Was remarried at the beginning of this year and recently began work at a theological college in Melbourne. 


Things are very, very different for me now.

There's been a whole lot of pain, shame, and, fortunately, gains as well. I'm happy in my new marriage. I continue to progress along the journey of completing my PhD (I will get there eventually). I've published two peer-reviewed journal articles this year alone and I have a small book currently at the editors. Sure, there are still significant challenges along the way but overall it has been a necessary and positive move for me.

I hope to pick up this blog and start writing again. Writing has been the biggest challenge for me in the PhD process. I have the ideas in my head but getting them onto the page in an orderly manner is so difficult. I'm hoping that I can use this blog to try and develop my skills in this area and, hopefully, free up some brain space for the work I need to do.

If no one comes along for the journey, that's OK. But if you do find yourself still reading at this point then send me a note. I'd love to know that you're along for the journey.

Thanks
Adam

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Do you see this protestor...?


Jesus reclines at the dinner table of a powerful man in the community. He’d been invited to join with them, but he had to earn his place there. The normal customs afforded a guest in the home were ignored. Jesus was there but he wasn’t welcomed. This was a meal but it was also a display of power; a test to see if Jesus knew where he reallysat in the scheme of things. A prophet? A teacher? A rabbi? Not likely. The meal table of a powerful man was where the movers and shakers wanted to be found. Jesus had been granted a spot at the table. He’d better be grateful for the privilege.

Then in comes a woman. Luke tells us she had “lived a sinful life” (Luke 7:37), but the euphemism isn’t lost on the reader. She’s a sex worker. The men don’t sit on chairs at a table but recline with their feet furthest from the centre. They all look away from her presence but it is difficult to ignore; especially when it is accompanied by such confronting behaviour. 

She touches his feet. She weeps on his toes. She wipes away the dust from the road with her long, beautiful hair; the marketing tool of her trade now being used to clean up the mess she’d made.

Then there was the perfume. Normally a few drops would be enough for her to grab the attention of a potential client who passed by her on the street. Here she lavishly pours it out on Jesus’ feet and fills the room with its powerful smell. What could be tolerated in small amounts becomes engulfing when the senses are overwhelmed. This smell would last for days, even weeks; contaminating clothes and furniture alike. And whenever anyone who was there caught even a passing whiff of it again the powerful olfactory memory it generated would quickly bring to mind this event. This sex worker. This sinner.

“If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

Jesus is failing the test. Anyone who wants to retain a spot in this position of power must disassociate themselves from people like this. Or, at least keep such associations well and truly secret. The smell of the perfume on the feet of Jesus is nothing compared to the stain her sinfulness will leave upon him.

And he calls himself a prophet?

So Jesus tells a story. The men listen in.

“Tell me, teacher” Simon the Pharisee, and host of the meal, says to him.

It’s a story about forgiveness. About perspective. About prejudice. Two people are given a loan. One owes 500 denarii, the other one 50. Neither can repay the debt. Remarkably, both are forgiven. Both set free from the loan.

It’s a nice story.

But Jesus isn’t in the business of telling nice stories. The moral is teased out of the host.

“Now which one will love the forgiving moneylender more?”

“I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus says

But the power of the story doesn’t end there. This isn’t just about passing a test. Simon needs to truly learn this lesson. 

Try and visualize Jesus’ physical movement as Luke describes it – he “turned towards the woman.” To this point she is on the floor, behind Jesus, wiping his feet with her hair. For the men, she’s safely out of sight, hidden behind Jesus’ body. She’s “over there.” She’s “a sinner.” A theoretical category of a person whose smell we might have to endure but we can keep her in her place by defining her as “other.” Jesus moves to open up Simon’s line of sight so that the woman is visible to him and, to drive the point home, makes him look at her directly.

“Do you see this woman?”

Look! Look at her! Don’t just talk about her and try and define her away. Look! Here! Now!

“DO. YOU. SEE. THIS. WOMAN!”

With the scathing rebuke that follows Jesus compares Simon’s lack of respect with her emotion-filled acts of love towards Jesus. He rehumanises this “sinner” and confronts the abuse of power at the same time. She is brought out into the open, revealed to be a human deserving of God’s love, forgiven of her sins, and then dismissed in peace.

She is seen.

She is heard.

She is human.

Jesus speaks directly to her, having seen her confession in her acts of contrition. He gives to her the words she so desperately needed and they are spoken directly to her; “Your sins are forgiven.” Having been forgiven a lot she loves a lot.  In the process, the powerful are reminded of their place at the table; of their role in society.

It’s a reminder that we need today.

“Thugs” (@realdonaldtrump, Twitter, May 29. 2020)

It’s easy to sit in a distant room, separated by time, space, and power, and label the other in a way that means you don’t have to act. If they’re “Thugs” then it’s not within the President’s power to address the problem. Send in the National Guard and bring back “law and order.”

“When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Into this situation I imagine Jesus, sitting on the other side of The Resolute Desk, grabbing the attention of the President away from his iPhone for just a moment, to tell him a story of forgiveness. It’s a simple story, told in terms that a billionaire can understand.

It’s a story about forgiveness. About perspective. About prejudice. Two people are given a loan. One owes $2 billion, the other one $2,000. Neither can repay the debt. Remarkably, both are forgiven. Both set free from the loan.

“Now which one will love the forgiving moneylender more?”

“I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus says

But the power of the story doesn’t end there. The President needs to truly learn this lesson.

Jesus turns on the TV and makes sure the volume is down. He finds a news channel and there is the face of an angry protestor. She feels completing powerless to do anything to stop the pain, to stop the senseless murder of black men and women just like her at the hands, and knees, of police. The “right” way isn’t working. It hasn’t worked for years. And so she resorts to the “wrong” way. As always, her presence on the television screens and Twitter feeds of the powerful makes them uncomfortable and they resort to the same old tactics. Just like the perfume, they can cope with black people rising to positions of power, as long as it happens in the “right” way.... the “white” way. When black people attempt to take power in any other way.... they’re lawbreakers, protestors... “Thugs.”

Jesus pauses the image on the screen and moves up close to it and points to the tear-filled, angry, desperate black person that fills the screen.

He points at her.

“Do you see this woman?”

Look! Look at her! Don’t just talk about her and try and define her away. Look! Here! Now!

“DO. YOU. SEE. THIS. WOMAN!”

I came into your house. You served me hamburgers and a diet coke. You did not show me any way that you’ve used your position of power  to serve the needs of the poor, the vulnerable, the needy. But this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped fighting for what is right. For freedom for her people. Freedom from tyrannical rule. Freedom from you. You did not even shake my hand, but she has not stopped shaking the present to make for a better future. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

"Please sir... I want some more"

For seventeen years I was an Officer in The Salvation Army. I was very grateful for the opportunity I had to serve in this way. Leaving Offi...