Thursday, 2 December 2021

Joy to the World - Aussie version 2021

     Joy in the bush, the magpies sing

As earth receives her King

Let Christmas bush grow tall for him

Let Christmas bells be rung for him

And sky and bushland sing …

 

Joy at the beach, Life Saviour’s crown

Revives and rescues all

Let tides and fathoms rise to him

Let grains of sand count time for him

Let crashing waves bow down …

 

Joy in our hearts, God’s love and grace

Restores us to new life

Let every soul rejoice in him

Let every language pray to him

And look upon God’s face …

 (c) A.Koh-Butler 2021.

Silent Night - Australian version 2021

Silent Night, Holy Night

Masks we bring, phones alight

Gospel stories resound in the air

Distanced greetings to show that we care

Christ, the Saviour, is born…

 

Silent Night, Holy Night

Flocks of sheep, dusty sight

Chirping cicadas herald the babe

Picnic blankets see feasting arrayed

Christ, the Saviour, is born…

 

Silent Night, Holy Night

Southern Cross shines so bright

Seven sisters lighten the way

As we celebrate Jesus’ birthday

Jesus, light of the world!…

(c) A.Koh-Butler 2021. Permission given to use for Christian Worship in the southern Hemisphere.

Friday, 5 November 2021

Prayers of the People

Good and Gracious God,

Help us to be still in your presence, to quieten and listen.

Still the confusion of ideas and voices that compete for attention.

May your Spirit settle and dwell with us in this praying.

Our hearts are full of thanks, hope, fear, doubt, longing and faith.
So praying feels feel chaotic, with words and phrases clamouring around as names and needs comes to mind.

Call forth wisdom and teach us to pray.
Lift our words beyond our distracted minds and disjointed phrases.

Hold us in your heart. Comfort us is pain and sorrow.

Relieve us of stress and fatigue, self-doubt and selfishness.

Relieve us of worries about provision and scarcity.

These things are easier said than done, God. We need you.

Guide us to treasure things of eternal value and release our reliance on temporary fixes. We ask for your help in making life-giving choices. Give us courage to choose well.


God, our prayers feel flawed because we feel flawed.
We long to be renewed and repaired. We long for wholeness.

Draw us close.
Fill us with gratitude and allow our hearts to sing and be joyful.
Delight in us and fill us with your joy and wonder...


And we pray, using the words your son taught us.
Saying,

Grand designs… heaven shaping telling

 Link to sermon for Nov 7 2021

Tuesday, 2 November 2021

Bodily Awareness

This is my body, given for you…


On a scorching and smoking summer day in Sydney in December 2019, my friend Mary
broke bread and passed it to the half dozen of us standing around my husband’s bed. His
body was beyond receiving bread at that point, so we used a dropper to moisten his lips
from the cup of life. Did it comfort him? I don’t know.

As the spirit leaves the body, there is mystery and wonder and sadness and gratitude. They
weave together in a story that is ending and beginning at the same time. At such a time,
body-mind-spirit hold a strange little farewell dance. In final days or hours, when the spirit
seems ready to depart, the body can have a last brief blossoming. Time pauses, making
room for a different kind of moment. Some people call it Kairos

kairos means time or season, and it is a noun used to represent a fitting season or opportunity, an occasion. (Strong’s Greek Concordance)

Having been a university chaplain, I am a body donor. I carry a little card in my wallet stating
that upon my death, the university medical school should be contacted so that my body
parts can be used to help health professionals learn their craft – of keeping other bodies
going. When they have finished with my remains a cremation will occur and the ashes will
be boxed up for my kids to take to be scattered by elders on Adnyamathanha country. Ikara
(Wilpena Pound) is a sacred remote wilderness land in Northern South Australia. My
Adnyamathanha sisters and brothers are descendants of the oldest known civilization on
the earth… 60,000 years! The spot we have chosen for the ashes is near the grasstrees, also
known as medicine trees. They will nourish the earth. It is the logical endgame for recycling.

After all, our bodies are made from the earth and to the earth our bodies will return.
2019 feels like such a long time ago now. Bushfires create thunderstorms. The storms bring
lightening, igniting more fires. The fire-storm cycles are noisy and terrifying. Air feels
constantly thick and heavy. Our normal humid Sydney summer had been dry beyond
imagining… to go outside was to battle breathing and dehydration. I remember, after
months of bushfires and instructions not to go outside, emerging into the great outdoors of
scorched earth. I can remember in my body.

During the earliest weeks of my widowing, I did not want to be physically present to others.
Physical absence was too fresh and dominating, so I turned to chaplaining faculty and
students online. I became the ‘home contact person’ for a complimentary medicine
exchange group who had gone to our sister university in China. Even though I am half-
Chinese, I am ashamed to say I did not even know where they were – some place called
Wuhan.

The group stayed an extra week to assist their colleagues before being recalled by our
Government to spend forty days in off-shore quarantine. By the time they returned home in
February 2020, those of us who had been supporting them were preparing for potential
SARS outbreaks. As Multifaith Chaplain, I attended a Conference of health and emergency
workers. I was meant to be comforting people who were scaring me. At that conference, we
practiced protocols dictated by specialist epidemiology nurses and infection control public
health experts.

By the time public health orders were introduced, I already had access to university data
and projections. I was learning share information in new ways digitally and started designing
‘lockdown life’ a few weeks before we started our community ‘stay-at-home health order’
restrictions. I organised for deliveries of ‘things I might need’ to tide me through what I
assumed could be 6-8 weeks of isolation. I made sure I had plants to grow my own fresh
greens and dry goods to keep me fed. I was well-stocked for my bodily needs.

I spent 120+ days in official ‘lockdown’ this year. During that period, the only bodily touch I
experienced was when I went to donate blood. (Blood donation is considered an exemption
as it is an essential service). My friends in Melbourne spent 267 days in lockdowns between
March 2020 and October 2021. Some of them were utterly reliant on technology for human
contact. Spending so much time physically isolated from others has a mental health cost. In
Australia, most of our emergency departments were not full of COVID cases. They were full
of suicide attempts. Isolation from human contact is costly.

The term haptic refers to touch and non-verbal communication and connection. In the last
couple of weeks I have been part of a conversation about haptic wondering, online
sacraments and spirituality. In February 2020, believing lockdowns were coming, I published
a ‘Liturgy of empty hands’ for the World Methodist Council. It contained a Great Prayer of
Thanksgiving, based on our Communion/Eucharistic prayers. However, it was written with
the assumption that we would not be able to share bread because we could not gather as a
body. I have heard from many people around the world about their experiences of sharing
their common empty hands. However, where I am, my community chose not to go in the
same direction.

Since April 2020, my oversighting church has authorized pastors to conduct online
Communion. I was more than a little challenged by the decision. The questions and concerns
were layered. Yet, today, I look forward to zoom communion. Together, we hold up bread
and juice and know the Body of Christ is supported by both an online and unseen cloud of
witnesses. Somehow I am comforted that God’s imagination is still creating new things.

This is my body, given for you...

When we hold our bread up to the camera and invite the community to bless one another’s
bread from a distance, we are performing a rite physically. We each feel the bread. We each
see the people. We each hear the words. We each sing of the holiness of God. We each
offer a blessing of peace in deaf-sign language. This we-eachness is part of my body in
isolation becoming part of the Body of Christ with others. As the United Church of Christ
puts it in their prayer of affirmation:

We are not alone. We live in God’s world.

During our extended lockdown, we were allowed to go outside for exercise (on our own or
with one other socially distanced person). I would sometimes find myself walking and
enjoying the clean air (no bushfires and no cars). I would experience a moment of delight or
joy and then be almost brought physically crashing down by a tsunami of grief, making it
difficult to breathe or keep standing. Apparently, this is quite common. I don’t remember
learning about it in seminary, but several other widows and widowers (and my grief
counsellor) have confirmed that it passes – eventually. Their encouragement helps me keep
faith. The experience confirms for me the linking of body-mind-spirit. Sometimes my body
recalls me to live as one whose faith is in resurrection, but not as one who denies death.
In August (our winter), we sent sunflower seeds to members of our congregation. They
planted them and now we are beginning to see the plants shoot up tall. As I write that very
sentence, I have just received emails with photos…




1 Corinthians 15:36-38 - The Message

35-38  Some skeptic is sure to ask, “Show me how resurrection works. Give me a
diagram; draw me a picture. What does this ‘resurrection body’ look like?” If you
look at this question closely, you realize how absurd it is. There are no diagrams
for this kind of thing. We do have a parallel experience in gardening. You plant a
“dead” seed; soon there is a flourishing plant. There is no visual likeness between
seed and plant. You could never guess what a tomato would look like by looking
at a tomato seed. What we plant in the soil and what grows out of it don’t look
anything alike. The dead body that we bury in the ground and the resurrection
body that comes from it will be dramatically different.


After periods of fallow or fasting, our fields and bodies are cleansed and renewed. We are
ready, not to go back to old ways, but to start fresh. We hope we can integrate the wisdom
of our discipline and experience. We pray we can offer our bodies as a worthy and living
sacrifice of praise. As we emerge from solitary confinement Down Under, we are planning to
weave into our lives connection and diversity, beyond what was previously sought or
tolerated. While the earth remains, our experience of it has changed. We have learnt to
connect differently. We have learnt how to inhabit our bodies with each


This is the Body of Christ.
In the breaking, we become the promise of resurrection.
[online Communion liturgy, Eastwood, Sydney, 2021]

When my spirit is freed to go home, I pray my body can continue to be good news for the
student doctors who learn and the patients they will treat. I pray the dust of my bones will
nourish God’s good earth.

Monday, 1 November 2021

Blessings of works and faith: a take on James

(James 1:17–27)


My doctoral supervisor, Dr Roberta King, worked for many years at Daystar University in Nairobi. She told me about a Kenyan proverb: “When you pray, always remember to move your feet.”….   What starts in contemplation and spiritual offering has to find its way into the embodied and enacted world.

In James, we hear the same sentiment. He emphasizes moral action and attention to the social justice issues of the day. Martin Luther considered the focus on good works by James to be an affront to Paul’s assertion in Galatians 2:16 that “a person is justified not by the works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ.” Luther questioned the letter’s apostolic authority and famously referred to it as “an epistle of straw.”


James does nothing more than drive to the law and its works. Besides, he throws things together so chaotically that it seems to me he must have been some good, pious man, who took a few sayings from the disciples of the apostles and thus tossed them off on paper – Martin Luther


Luther thought about faith and works as separate entities—as opposite poles in a binary system. But for James, works arise as a natural outgrowth of genuine faith. Works tell the tale of whether true faith exists. The works themselves are not separate from faith but are a part of the whole. Works are acts of living as a community who “cares for orphans and widows in distress.”

James calls us to to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” James’ use of the word hearers an allusion to the Shema, a foundational verse of scripture found in Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

The use of the word SHEMA carries a second, equally emphatic meaning: “to obey.” When I say “listen to me,” I generally also expect people to respond to what I have said. If they fail to act, I might legitimately question whether they have heard.

The writer of James keeps the relationship between hearing God’s word and doing what the Lord commands. Hearers and doers are the same disciples; the posture of hearing produces obedient action, an experience which in turn opens the faithful person to a deeper relationship with the God who originates “every generous act of giving.” Hearing God and responding to God’s call are bound together for the purpose of providing care for the most vulnerable.

Last week, in the 8am service, we were joined by my friend and colleague, Ann.  She mentioned in our conversation that in her region she started a Prayer Fence. A box of ribbons is left out near her fence and people are encouraged to tie a ribbon on the fence as an indicator of someone or something to pray for. Ann and her congregations will pray for all those who tie a ribbon on the fence.

But it didn’t stop there.

Cath (a member of Eastwood) was inspired and decided to pick up the idea to use with her school. If you walk past Cath's home, you can see the ribbons already starting to flutter. Others are picking up the idea too. We can be the VISIBLE community of prayer in these isolating and invisible days.

Only a couple of decades ago, when people sought a pastoral conversation, there was an understanding, “I know what I am supposed to do in life, but I am struggling to do it.” In the safety and privacy of the pastoral relationship, the pastor or carer was to communicate, “In here there is no right or wrong, only total acceptance and unconditional grace.” The hope was that in this nonjudgmental environment the broken places could be healed and people could get back to life.


But now the culture has changed. When people talk to their ministers or carers today, their cry is often not “I know what I am supposed to do; I just can’t do it,” but “With the confusion of voices I hear in the world today, I do not know what I am supposed to do.” People can be quite unsure about what constitutes the shape of a life that matters, about what it means to live a life that has moral substance. To suspend the categories of right and wrong would do nothing but exacerbate the situation. When we are inundated with information overload that, we know, contains both truth and fake news, how do we find our way through the noise?


As Christians, we are not meant to become judgmental moralists, but we can spend some time considering the how scripture informs wisdom and ethics. We should seek to have the conversations that help people discern what how grace is to be lived out. What does contemporary morality look like?


Prayer ribbons on fences is one way to start to become visible about faith. Another is what some of us have been doing over past weeks by chalking the footpaths. Another is leaving PEACE rocks. Sometimes I find rocks or pebbles that have been painted and decorated or some that simply have the word PEACE written on them. They are left on walks as an encouragement and sign of blessing.


Sometimes it can be hard to identify - what work can I do? Especially when the world seems to have closed in. What can I do from lockdown? What good work can I participate in? Even at home I can sing. My friends, Craig and David, wanted to send a song they had written to be considered for the new supplement to the Church of Scotland hymnbook. In this digital world, they messaged me on Facebook messenger to ask if I could record a vocal track. They sent me a music karaoke-style file to play on my iPad, so I could listen through headphones while recording to my computer. I sent the track back to them and they built an accompaniment around the voice. Then they added graphics.

 

Craig got the ball rolling, but he didn’t try to do everything by himself, even in lockdown. Did I mention that David lives in Brisbane and Craig lives in Melbourne? We were only able to do this work together because we are learning how to do ‘good work’ from home. We are trying to find new ways to bless people from the situation we find ourselves in.


James encourages us to hold a magnifying glass to the ethics of everyday life. Doing good is okay in its own right. We do not do good to store up riches in heaven. We do not do good for personal gain – indeed, doing good will often mean sacrifice. We do not do good to people in the expectation of changing them, but are called by God to follow the example of unconditional love. Doing good is the right thing to do. It doesn’t need to be complicated. Good works can start with a ribbon or a rock or a chalk mark. They can grow into movements that support Afghani refugees and break apart systems of racism and house the homeless. Big works start with small works.


We can see works as blessings. Blessing is the idea that we draw out the best – in others, in ourselves, in life. In the exchanges of daily conversation, we can offer blessing. When we make peace in close and sometimes strained personal relationships, we can offer blessing. When we care “for widows and orphans in their distress”, we can enter into a life well worth living.


We can seek to live in such gentle ways that we reap a “harvest of righteousness”.


When we are hearers and doers who exhibit faith through works, we are praying while moving our feet.





Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Crashing chez moi

Walking on the path beside the river, I hear myriad bird calls and the breathing movement of weather in the trees. I pause to appreciate a moment. Then, I am almost bowled over, taken out, left cringing and unable to move. I feel like a train has hit me. Am I on the ground or still standing ? It is hard to tell, for consciousness swirls around me, daring me to pass out or call out.

 

I know what this is. 

 

It follows me round, lurking and preparing to pounce of I get too comfortable or if I smile too readily. It is an inhuman thing, this angry terror that prepared to attack any sign of vulnerability brought into presence by memory. This dark demon dances around me, moving seductively, beckoning engagement. He lures with promises of remembered delights, only to snatch them greedily away, scoffing at my naivety and finding designer salt for my wounds.

 

The seduction is painstakingly planned. Days of significance, anniversaries, birthdays, celebrations, sorrows – they all form a calendar and game plan for torture and torment. The tsunami overwhelms me momentarily. The easing of anxiety permits a breath or two before the life is sucked out again and life reverts to slow motion.

 

Welcome to the life of awake death. This is widowhood.

 

I have regular phone calls with friends. A dear friend mérite mr for breakfast and a walk each week. Other friends call me and check in. They sustain me and I am grateful for their sensitivity and gentilness. At the same time, I long to disappear from their view and simply curl up nd sib myself to oblivion. The problem is – if I give in to the darkness, is it possible to come back ?  Perhaps my soul will get swallowed into Job’s big fish ? Choice has hidden herself. The only realistic path is to dress to impress and try to outrun the evangelical judgment. 

 

Have mercy on me.

 

The memories pursue me in a thick band, surrounding me and choking off light and air. I can feel my heart trying to out-thump the chorus of voices. I can hear chorus’s upon chorus of platitudes.