Back in Tassie (13) – Good News Christian Church

Why did we spend 3 months in Hobart Tasmania this year?  Answer: we were invited by a church on Hobart’s Eastern Shore to act as their pastor while their pastor for the past 10 years took 3 months off as long service leave (LSL).

Taking LSL is an Aussie delight that gives workers 5 – 7 days’ paid annual leave, taken every 10 – 15 years and after at least 5 years of continuous service.  LSL is (or should be) a wonderful opportunity to do some in-service study, extended travel, or consultation, or to fulfil a dream like writing a book or extending one’s house.  I have twice found my LSL to be refreshing, instructive, and horizon-widening.

Three months seemed a long time to be away from home: we have done a few previous church “locum” terms, but never longer than 7 weeks.  We also found it hard to get much information from the inviting church.  But many of our roots and memories are in Tasmania, we have 4 siblings around Hobart, and we love the island’s natural beauty, historical sites and autumn weather.

I my previous 12 posts I have shown and told many of the “stories” that resulted.  In this last post of this series, I want to reflect on the Christian and church scene as we observed it.

  • 130625-1We were greatly heartened by the church which had invited us.  We soon came to love this church: it had been through hard times during its history of over 50 years, talked openly about its troubles, but was determined to work for a better future.  As a clear sign of this, they “road-tested” a young new pastor during the first months we were there and unanimously invited him to come and work with them on our last Sunday together.  This strongly common mind surprised many, and this man has since accepted their “call”.  God had been at work!
  • This church is not large (about 130 of all ages) but its age spread is representative and the members are committed and good givers.  Together they could shape a budget with a 3 year plan in mind.  Another sign of God’s work.
  • the church's main programs are inviting and well advertised
    the church’s main programs are inviting and well advertised

    We met a considerable number of people who were not members but had started attending in recent years.  The church was running Sunday and weekday programs which were attracting local and new people into their number.  Yet another sign of “the mind of Christ” there.

  • Their pastor of the past 10+ years was not a full-timer, having been through a midlife “sea change” that involved university study and starting a counselling practice.  This had taken him past the age and life situation of being able to relate easily to the church’s younger families and future leaders, so he and the other current leaders had been realistic and developed a succession plan: hence the outcome of appointing a new pastor.  The plan includes that for the foreseeable future the two generations will work as a team, something I have done with great pleasure and fruit.  Also something that seems good to God and to this church.
  • 130625-4While in Hobart I was often reminded of the new churches that have been “planted” in recent years and the close and harmonious work of Reformed and Presbyterian churches and leaders that have worked towards this happening.  Many of Hobart’s 200,000 inhabitants now have an evangelical / Reformed / Presbyterian / Anglican church in their neighbourhood.  I think this is wonderful, although sadly I believe it is also unique in Australia.
  • On Pentecost Sunday (or Whitsunday) afternoon Helen and I joined some 2000+ other Christians at the Derwent Entertainment Centre for “Church Together”, an annual celebration organised by many of Hobart’s churches.  It was clearly run by and for the city’s younger and most energetic Christians, and (sadly) most of the seniors and the Reformed and Presbyterian leaders chose not to be involved.
    the Drop-Inn Tuesday morning for seniors
    the Drop-Inn Tuesday morning for seniors

    It was a welcome remedial for us: Meeting as a church twice every Sunday for 13 weeks with never more than 100, and seeing several church properties of our youthful memories now sold or demolished made us wonder about the shape of the Christian church in the city at large.  “Church Together” made it clear that God is certainly not dead in Tasmania.

  • We also heard of and met several churches that seemed to be in terminal decline.  I believe that God is ultimately in control of world history and my history, but that we humans have been given a lot of power and responsibility – which can be used for good or ill.  As with individuals, churches can sometimes die in circumstances beyond their control, but usually the story of a church is a reflection of its good choices or failure to make them.
    This is all the more reason we were so happy and comfortable spending 3 months loving and being encouraged by a church that seems to have turned a vital corner.
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3 comments

  1. Hi Fred.

    Thanks for another thoughtful set of reflections. Hopefully, they will land in fertile soil and achieve your intentions for the evangelical movement that you so dearly love.

    Recently I have had some experience as a recipient of chaplaincy services and I thought it may be helpful to add my experiences and perception to what you have already written.

    Six months ago, I was diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia which saw me plucked from my normal existence and placed in a hospital bed for three months, while they injected my veins with some modern miracle of medical science. The basic deal seemed to be that if it didn’t kill me, there was a palpable chance that it might well cure me.

    Clearly, I am still here to tell the tale, so praise be to all those medical scientists and geneticists who count Charles Darwin amongst their intellectual ancestors.

    During my journey I encountered several chaplains and my partner has turned to the local evangelical church for social support. All these people were almost uniquely well intentioned – say compared with some (but definitely not all) medical staff who were at work rather than in God’s service.

    I am eternally grateful for the help they extended to this mere stranger in their lives. I hope that will be seen as a given, as I add some more critical observations; hopefully in the spirit of what you have written; open enquiry leading to better outcomes.

    For me, all these relationships with these chaplains were dominated by an overpowering evangelical ideology; we were there, first and foremost, to prove the existence of God and the mystical power of Jesus Christ. And as mainly Fundamentalists, these people had rather unalterable views on what that all meant.

    In the meantime, I the helpee (and potential lost sheep) was searching for my own spiritual centre. My biggest frustration in this area was conveying the notion that I was not a spiritual blank sheet of paper.

    During my stay in hospital, Geraldine Doogue ran a series on Compass about people swapping religious homes; in one episode a Hindu went to live with an evangelical Christian and vice versa.

    The Indian guy asked about the Christian Heaven with the intention of sharing his spiritual journey and sort of comparing notes. He was shocked and clearly felt rejected when these enthusiastic Christian teenagers told him that unless he converted to Christianity, he woulod find himself in the hothouse rather than in their Heavenly destination. Clearly any talk about his alternative spiritual journey was not on their agenda.

    Not unexpectedly he was deeply hurt by the encounter; and will probably feel justified when India next beats us to a pulp in the cricket. Hopefully, the fruits of hurt feelings will stay on the cricket field, rather than moving to the twin towers in New York.

    In this context, the Ecumenical agenda is vital. All these separate ideologies about God were quite functional when we lived in villages separated by oceans and high mountains. It mattered not that we used different words for the same inner feelings of religiosity; because back then we never met with each other.

    Times have changed. Sadly we now live a mere bomb throw from each other. The old ditty suddenly has an urgency about it; “Let there be peace on Earth and Let it begin with me!”

    And the best place to start is with an open mind.

    Clearly, Christians have a proud tradition of selfless service to others as well as nurturing spiritual meaning within our relatively successful western culture.

    However, the God story in the Bible begins with creation and this creative consciousness is progressively handed over to humanity, firstly in the Garden of Eden when we learn to think for ourselves and later in the Book of Job when we learn to dialogue between God (the unknown mysteries) and our consciousness; when God and Job begin a dialogue.

    And perhaps the apocalyptical scenes in Revelation are far more about the tensions between the known and unknown, than it is about a God returning to Earth to put things right.

    And this, for me, is why the Christian Church is struggling; especially in its more conservative corners. Rather than concentrating on dialogue and the creative dialectic, it has convinced itself that it has all the answers and all it needs to do intellectually is practice the rituals until God returns to smote the infidel. Beware lest you become the modern Pharisees whom Jesus so roundly rejected in his culture.

    In this context, the Church is fortunate to have Brother Fred and others like him. Over the years, I have seen him trying to maintain the dialogue between conservativism and modernity. It is a hard row to hoe; stuck between rapid, turbulent global change and a congregation that as Dillon said, “has God on its side.”

    And as someone who recently needed the help of a Chaplain I would offer this observation. If you want to really help me, don’t just see me as a lost soul; a blank spiritual slate upon which to write your ideology. Please see me as fellow seeker, who probably grew up in a different village from you, but who with mutual goodwill is seeking the same mountain top.

    Not every successful counselling session has to end with you reciting your favourite prayer. Maybe the other bloke has given these things a bit of thought too.

    May we all prosper and maintain our precious planet together.

  2. Brian, your Comments are always welcome: they are always thoughtful, perceptive and interesting, and at times they even make me smile (often wryly); I think we’re on the same page in many ways.
    I’m the poorer in a way that I have never been at the receiving end of a chaplaincy visit, and I was sorry to hear about your illness; I trust you’ll win this battle and am sure you’ll be the better for it regardless of the outcome.
    My chaplaincy training and contacts with colleagues have led me to expect that most people serving as such will have aims and hopes such as you mention. But of course and as you say there are many from fundamentalist backgrounds and with little training who visit our hospitals and other care and helping establishments. Sadly, many needy folk will not be greatly helped by the attitudes and aims you mention, but I’m glad you have given us some valuable reflections on your own experience.
    It’s always gratifying to me that although I get the inevitable and very occasional person who asks me to pass them by, most people seem to be helped and many express what seems to be genuine gratitude.
    Although more is recorded of what Jesus said than of what he noticed, I believe he must have done a lot more perceptive listening and observation than speaking. May that be true of all of us. Some people do need a timely clear and firm word, but most need somebody who as you say, will listen carefully and help them to find and hold onto some light in their time of darkness.

  3. Yes, Fred, the Chaplaincy Service is a vital ingredient in the healing process, especially now that Nurses have been loaded up with a technological workload that leaves them with very little time to sit on the corner of the bed and just chat about what it all may mean.

    And I hope that what I have said (in my usual blunt insensitive way) will be seen as a contribution to enhancing this process of metaphysical healing, rather than any suggestion that we should abandon the idea.

    I suspect that I may be coming to the end of my journey with medical science. The chemo was tough but endurable; but the next phase of injecting someone else’s bone marrow into my body is not sitting well with me. It all feels a bit counterproductive.

    I have this strong feeling that my genes are trying to tell me something. I am pretty close to my allotted three score and ten years and it seems significant that my own genes have produced this malfunction, in rather mysterious circumstances; is it old age or a chemical toxin or what?

    The spiritually significant point for me is that my system has made an adaptation which in the fullness of time will lead to the physical collapse of my body. And at my age I cannot see any reason to fight this seemingly natural process with such a brutal technology. Apparently, if the new and the old bloods are incompatable, the resulting rejection will make the chemo look like a picnic.

    If I was 40 with young kids, I am sure I would draw a different conclusion. But at my age, I feel it is time to vacate the planet in favour of the fruits of my once healthy genes. Perhaps it is just written.

    Not that I am going to die today. I have responded to the chemo extremely well and I have not felt as healthy as this in a long time. But the Doctors assure me that my particular mutation means that the cancer will return sooner rather than later. (But should I believe them?)

    Either way, I hope I will still have some more time to put things right before I move on.

    When I was a young kid, I used to ride this racehorse without a saddle or bridle. For a stupid young kid, it was the ultimate experience of being out of control. We would gallop for home and try to stop her by aiming for a fence. And then I would wrap my I arms around her neck as she skidded to a halt; what a buzz? I have decided that death would be nice for me if that horse of my childhood would simply jump that fence and we could gallop on together, out into the Universe.

    And then I ask myself, what part of me (and the horse) will jump that fence and continue on. My only answer, so far, is consciousness; the I AM.

    Do you think this earthly experience may be a precursor, on the material plane, for a much larger experience within a much larger etherial energy field? Obviously, we can’t stay here for ever; the place is already getting too overcrowded.

    But the rest of the Universe is apparently huge with lots of space for everyone; albeit perhaps in a non-material form.

    It is an exciting thing to look forward to. And thank God for our speculative imagination that is capable of such optimistic metaphors. And thank you, Fred, for being a professional support for our religious instincts. I am sure we are going to need the Church or something like it here on Earth for a long time to come.

    But do you think the Church may be ready to give up the certainty of faith in exchange for the skepticism of science?

    As I lay here contemplating my own future, I think there is comfort in the mystery of it all. I really don’t know what comes next, but that is ok. It feels very human to construct optimistic spiritual metaphors of how it might be, but it is also important for our cultural sanity to remember that we do not really know. The alternative seems to be a destructive war over who has the only true faith.

    But is it not important to remember that they are only metaphors and that your metaphor may be different from mine; but both can be equally valid? Metaphors are not about proof and certainty. They are about the evolutionary power of our imaginations to project our minds forward into the unknown and in the process to hopefully create a future which is better than our past (the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil).

    Perhaps, we need to take out the artificial certainty of fundamentalism and rekindle our curiosity and creative imagination in the face of a mysterious Universe so that the Church can continue to feed our religious instincts and our scientific curiosity for as long as it is needed, here on Earth.

    Thanks for chatting to an old man trying to make sense of it all.

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