Last week marked the beginning of a new chapter in my life. After 8.5 years on staff at Baptist World Aid I have finished as an employee and taken on two new projects. The first sees me returning to BWAA in a consultancy role three days a week. I’ll work with the organisation on its theological formation, on the development of education programs, conduct research into strategic areas for future development, and provide advice in the area of advocacy. It’s been a strange, stretching, and at times difficult, experience stepping out of employment into self-employment, and out of a formal leadership role into a consultancy role. It’s also been something of a learning curve, both at a personal and at a practical level.This past few weeks I have registered business names, opened a post office box, consulted an accountant, registered for GST, and issued my first invoice.
Most importantly, this change in my life has afforded me the opportunity to seriously act on this question: if I have five to ten years of working life left in me, where can I most effectively invest it? I love Baptist World Aid and what it stands for, and it is my hope that this new role will enable me to speak into its life and its future in a way I was unable to previously, while at the same time allowing me to continue contributing towards a Baptist movement that keeps growing into God’s heart for justice and mercy.
Alongside this, I’ll be kicking off “A Just Cause”, a new ministry with Australian Baptist Ministries. Over the last ten years I have been involved in helping churches in the Baptist movement learn about and advocate on global justice issues. And we have taken to these causes with a vengeance. In many of the campaigns with which I’ve been involved people from Baptist churches have been very healthily represented. But when it comes to domestic justice issues, such as how we respond to asylum seekers and refugees, homelessness and disadvantage, indigenous well-being, our voices seem to be underrepresented. Part of the reason for this is a lack of national infrastructure by which people within our movement can speak out for justice in these areas. Certainly in a number of states there has been action at either a local or state level, but there was nobody organising combined action at a national level. And so I’ll be launching a new ministry, under the auspices of Australian Baptist Ministries, that will resource and mobilise churches and people within the Baptist movement into advocacy on issues such as these. First cab off the rank will be a campaign on refugees and asylum seekers. Look out for a July 1 launch.
Life takes some unexpected turns, but I’m looking forward to what this one holds.
Rain falling onto a tin roof. It is the only sound i can hear. Thousands of drops of the most precious liquid to be found on the earth, flung from the heavens, their descent temporarily interrupted by sheets of inclined colorbond down which they slide, before falling, falling again until, with a dull thud, they are consumed by a hungry earth.
I am on the verandah of a rambling farmhouse with neither neighbour nor another building in sight nor earshot. The crickets and frogs have fallen silent. The family are all inside. It’s just me.
The rain becomes to me a sign of grace. I do nothing to make the rain fall. It is simply part of an amazing system gifted by my Creator. It enables grass to grow, flowers to bloom, dams to fill. Without it everything dies. With it we have the opportunity to flourish.
I am an activist. So I want to extend the reflection, to think on ways we are changing the world’s weather patterns, the ways we hoard God’s good gifts so that millions are without clean drinking water. But I stop myself from going there. There will be plenty of time for that tomorrow. For now I simply want to be thankful for this incredible gift falling from the heavens onto the tin roof above my head, then descending with a gentle thud onto a thirsty earth.
All my life I’ve understood the bible to tell the story that God created a perfect world, a world filled with all things good, free from suffering, pain, and death. This world became disordered as a result of human sin, from which Christ came to redeem us and creation. This constitutes a powerful story by which I have made sense of life.
But it has always stood in tension with the evolutionary account of beginnings. Even when I embraced the notion that Genesis was a powerful story rather than a history, I have never been able to explain how the suffering inherent in evolution was compatible with the Biblical worldview.Lately however, I have been wondering whether my reading of the creation stories has been flawed. I am not convinced they teach that God created a perfect world.
Genesis 1 does not describe creation out of nothing, but begins with an already existing earth that is “formless and void’ It is lacking shape, chaotic, disordered. Creation involves God bringing order to it. The outcome is a world that is “good”, which commentators describe as meaning fit for purpose, which in the text seems to be equated with fitness to multiply and sustain life. This is a far cry from a “perfect world” understood as one without anything that mars.
This becomes even more interesting in the account in Genesis 2. Years of being taught that the world as originally created was paradise blinded me to the simple fact that in the story, the Garden of Eden is atypical.
In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground — then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the LORDGod planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The earth God creates is one where not yet fit for human habitation. Yet apparently the author envisages humans soon living there, for Adam and Eve’s sons find wives outside the garden and, after murdering his brother, Cain fears reprisals from those dwelling across the earth.
When God plants a garden it is unlike the rest of the earth, for it is abundant in trees “that were pleasing to the eye and good for food”. There God places the human he formed from the dust of the uncultivated ground outside the garden, tasking it with tilling. Are we meant to infer that this is the possibility for humankind? That as humankind emerged outside the garden, tilled the earth and lived in love toward one another and Creator, the earth would be transformed into paradise?
Yet Adam and Eve found themselves incapable of living in the garden and were expelled from it.Rather than the garden standing as a symbol of where humankind was headed, it becomes a symbol of our inability to trust God, leaving us in the wastelands outside the garden, where we work the land by the sweat of our brow, experience enmity with the animals, and know pain in the natural processes of life, such as childbirth.
The “curses” then are not a cataclysmic change in the shape of creation, turning it from benign to difficult, but an acknowledgement that this is how life is outside the garden.
The upshot of all this? There is, I think, room to argue that the biblical creation stories do not describe some pristine universe, but one where order and meaning is brought to a disordered and chaotic reality. They point not to a pristine past, but to a pristine future, if only God will save us from ourselves.
According to the Commonwealth Bank, Australians are set to spend more than $7.9 billion this year on Christmas gifts. Here are three ways we could collectively better spend this money.
1. Reinstate our spending on global poverty. The Federal Government has slashed $656 million from this year’s budget. Surely if we can send $8 billion on Christmas presents, we can give back the $656 million we have taken from the poor?
2. Lift our refugee resettlement intake from 6,000 to 27,000. The Federal Government spends $550 million per year on resettlement services for refugees. Lifting the intake from the current 6,000 pa to the 27,000 recommended by the Refugee Council of Australia would cost an additional $1.93 billion. Mmm…another pair or red undies or a refugee finding safety?
3. Lift the value of welfare payments. According to the Australian Council for Social Services 2012 Poverty Report, 2,265,000 Australians (12.8% of all people) are living below the poverty line, defined as 50% of median income. Unemployment benefits are as low as $35/day. ACOSS is calling for a $50/week increase, which would cost $1.5 billion.
These three alternatives would eat up just half of our Christmas gift spending. What else/different would you suggest?
Nelson Mandela, the greatest statesmen of the past fifty years, passed away this morning. He will be eulogised, lionised, and turned into a god. Yet what strikes me about Mandela was his vivid awareness of his humanity, his humble recognition that he was just a man like any other. As he wrote in his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom
I wanted first of all to tell the people that I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become leader because of extraordinary circumstances. (p676)
It strikes me that this may well have been the true genius of Mandela. History is littered with dictators who started out as “one of the people” but then become convinced that they are anything but. Convinced of their grandure, they become the new oppressors.
Nelson Mandela could have unleashed a bloodbath if he had spoken the words. He could have seized power and taken South Africa down the path of neighbouring Zimbabwe. Yet he seems always to have been aware of his humanity-both his strengths and weaknesses-and the humanity of others-their strengths and weaknesses-and the ways we are shaped by the systems in which we live. This allowed him, for example, to empathise with his enemies
I knew that people expected me to harbour anger towards whites. But I had none. In prison, my anger towards whites decreased, but my hatred for the system grew. I wanted South Africa to see that I loved even my enemies while I hated the system that turned us against one another. Long Walk to Freedom p680
Here Mandela’s philosophy resonates with the apostle Paul, who on the one hand recognises that we are all “sinners”, yet also sees us as captives to forces of evil greater than ourselves. This acute awareness of our weaknesses and capacity for evil demands the sort of humility and self critique Mandela displayed, while our recognition that we are shaped by the systems in which we live grants us the ability to understand the actions of others even when they are evil.
Yet it wasn’t only human frailty of which Nelson Mandela was aware, but our capacity for greatness.
Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom. (2005 Trafalgar Square Speech)
Here Mandela resonates with the spirit of Jesus, who called people to great heights, and the author of Psalm 8. Absent an awareness of our capacity for greatness we are lulled into a world of low expectations and resignation to the status quo. Nothing changes that way.
I wonder if this is Mandela’s greatest legacy, for this takes us beyond the historical particularity of South Africa. Adopting Mandela’s approach would revolutionise how we engage with the difficult person at church, with people of other faiths, with asylum seekers, and more. It will free us from scapegoating and demonising others, and from misplaced pride that exalts ourselves and our culture above others.
RIP Nelson Mandela