Rev Felicity Amery concluded her time as Presbytery Minister of the Pilgrim Presbytery of Northern Australia on Monday 29th of April, and will be inducted into her new role as the Synod General Secretary of South Australia tonight. We hold her in our prayers as she takes on this new role. Rev Dr L Lee Levett-Olson has accepted a call to the role of Intentional Interim Presbytery Minister of the Pilgrim Presbytery of Northern Australia. Below is a devotion he prepared for the Pilgrim Presbytery Standing Committee, which the members requested be shared more broadly with the Synod.
Next to the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress is the most published book in English. For generations, the vision of life as a pilgrim journey has inspired Christians seeking to walk with God. It was also an image guiding the creation of the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union, which calls the church “a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal” (Paragraph 3). That ‘promised goal’ is “the reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation”. In other words, our pilgrimage is not a journey for our own sake, but a sign of renewal for the whole created universe.
According to the apostle Paul, God not only invites us on this journey but actually ‘entrusts to us the message of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5): we are the ‘firstfruits’ of the renewal of creation for which the whole cosmos is ‘groaning as in childbirth’ (Romans 8). We in the UCA are part of this cosmic vision; we belong “to the people of God on the way to the promised end” (Paragraph 18).
All on pilgrimage need guidance, but if the destiny of the whole cosmos depends on our journey, we need the best Guide of all. And that we have: according to the Basis, “we have the gift of the Spirit”, given to all church people “as a pledge and foretaste” of the promised goal, a particular grace for pilgrims in order “that we may not lose the way” (Paragaph 3).
This month, the United Nations’ IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services warned that over 1 million species face the threat of extinction because of human actions (https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/). That dire prediction suggests that the ‘groaning of the cosmos’ is not in hope for human compassion but a cry of anguish at human arrogance.
The Uniting Church has embraced the bold international statement on ‘The Rights of Nature and Future Generations’ which says bluntly and simply “The driving of species to extinction is forbidden” (https://unitingjustice.org.au/environment/uca-statements/item/479-the-rights-of-nature-and-the-rights-of-future-generations).
Here in the ‘Pilgrim Presbytery of Northern Australia’, in living covenant with the Northern Regional Council of [the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian] Congress, we gather and worship and serve on land where future generations have been extinguished and extinctions are already accelerating through human actions. What does it mean to be pilgrims in this place and this time?
Perhaps trusting us with the message of reconciliation was God’s gravest mistake?
Perhaps, here in this ‘Great Southland [Terra Australis] of the Holy Spirit’, we have so completely rejected the ‘gift of the Spirit’ that we have utterly lost the way?
More than twenty years ago, UCA representatives gathered in Perth for the 1977 Assembly that has become known, for good reason, as ‘The Assembly of Tears’. Yet it was at that Assembly we agreed by consensus that the Basis was not merely a historic document of our beginnings as a church; it was to have ‘continuing authority’ as a statement of our faith. In other words, it was not just the UCA founders who had the gift of the Spirit – we have the gift of the Spirit in this critical year of 2019, so that we do not lose the way.
And at that same Assembly, we received wonderfully prophetic words about what that implied for our cosmic call to reconcile all things to God.
Dr Vicky Balabanski is one of those rare treasures – an eminent scholar of immense erudition able to share deep insights in plain, approachable, and inviting language. Her Bible Studies at the Perth Assembly were so powerful that they were gathered into a book with that great phrase as its title: That we may not lose the way (UTC 1997).
In the studies, as the Assembly of Tears confronted major reports on education, sexuality, authority in the church, and the Stolen Generations, Dr Balabanski looked at four examples of pilgrimage from the Scriptures: the Exodus Israelites in the wilderness; three women’s journeys to Bethlehem; Jesus’ 40 days in the desert; and the painful journey out of ‘Christendom’. In each case, as she reveals, the Bible can guide us through by the gift of the Spirit.
Study 3 is based on two little verses, Mark 1:12-13: And the Spirit straightaway hurled him out into the wilderness. Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on [‘deaconed’] him.
With the author’s permission, I quote here some of the wisdom shared at that Assembly:
It seems to me that Jesus is reconnecting here with the Exodus traditions of closeness with God and liberation, in a way which goes beyond the regular pilgrim festivals … (p 29)
I discovered that God has particular care of the wild beasts. They are mentioned specifically in Genesis 1 and declared ‘good’. In the flood stories, they are carefully gathered, and when the flood is over …God then made a covenant with Noah … and every wild beast of the earth (Genesis 9:9) The wild beasts are important enough to warrant a covenant with God!
… The Psalms express God’s care for the wild beasts. And this care for them is enshrined in the Law, too. In Exodus and Leviticus we read that in the Sabbath year, the land is to rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of the people may eat, and what they leave the wild animals may eat. Here the fate of the poor and of the wild beasts are linked, both marginal, but both under God’s care … (p 31)
Probably because of time constraints, Dr Balabanski’s scholarship skipped over my own personal choice for the portrait of God’s care for wild creatures – the extraordinary ‘answer to Job’, when God confronts the suffering human from the wildness of a cyclone. God’s response to Job’s ‘Why?’ seems brutal and tactless: ‘How dare you judge me, you little arrogant human!’ But as the answer goes on, a pattern emerges that perfectly presages Romans 1: God’s eternal power and mystery totally displayed by what God has made.
And what God both made and continues to delight in is the untameable diversity of wildness. The stars above us, the winds that shake us, the beasts too wild to even be found or who mock every human attempt to domesticate them; behemoth and leviathan and wild donkeys and stallions – it is precisely their identity as wild beasts that so pleases God. Clearly Job’s answer includes a recognition that human definitions of justice and fate will never be able to control the Creator like an ox’s yoke. God is the One who first made wildness and will never cease to joy in its very imperviousness to human control. Is it a surprise that God’s beloved would likewise delight in the company of the wild beasts?
Dr Balabanski then – to my astonished enlightenment – elicited Jesus’ awareness of his own cultural tradition in memory of Isaiah 11, where the Messiah is predicted as ‘a shoot from the stump of Jesse’ who ‘with righteousness shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth’. And precisely because of that Messianic ‘preferential option for the poor’, it will also be the mark of his Messianic work that
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the goat-kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them …
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Once again, “the fate of the poor and of the wild beasts are linked”, and the work of the Messiah is to shield them, forever, from all violence and harm.
It is hard for me to understand how anyone, Christian or not, could read the stories of Jesus and not recognise that care of the poor is the quintessence of following him, since ‘what you did to the least of these my sisters and brothers, you did to me’ (Matthew 25:40). But only Mark – the shortest and most concise, as well as the earliest, of the gospels – seems to grasp what Isaiah’s vision meant, and saw in Jesus not only the fulfilment of that prophecy but also the restoration of the original blessedness of the Eden garden, where humans are kin and co-workers with every animal God placed there.
But Dr Balabanski was not finished yet. She went on:
We share God’s delight in diversity when we celebrate the differences we see around us, the different ways God has created us. God forbid that any vision of the reign of God [which Jesus announced as his central message immediately after this wild pilgrimage] should be anything other than a vision of diversity living in mutual respect.
… Mark’s brief account hints that Jesus understood this reign as fulfilling the biblical traditions of a reign reconciling all of creation. It was this type of reign that was drawing near … in Jesus’ own person. It was a reign that benefited not just the chosen people, but the Gentiles, too; and not just the Gentiles, but the wild beasts too, and not just the wild beasts either but the whole of the eco-system, the whole of the world, and indeed the whole of all worlds. If our kingdom vision, our vision of the reign of God, has room only for ourselves as participants, only the church, or only those who think as we do, then our kingdom vision is too small (p 33).
Today these words ring more true than ever; yet the gospel has not changed. Jesus came to redeem the universe as one vast interwoven creation-kinship, diverse beyond our imagining, ranging in scale from quarks to galaxies and all in between. All of it matters beyond our imagining, since ‘God loved the cosmos so deeply that God sent God’s only Son, so that whoever trusts him shall not perish but shall have eternal life … [and] so that through him the cosmos might be saved’ (John 3:16-17). Extinction is not only forbidden; it is no longer even possible. What we believe has ‘perished’ is forever embraced in the life shared by the eternal trinity of God’s love.
But the ultimate truth of eternal cosmic life does not happen by itself. It is not even ‘fore-ordained’ – because God has ‘entrusted us with the message of reconciliation.’ We are called into the Messianic pilgrimage from death to life, in order to fulfil God’s promise, as the firstfruits of that renewed creation.
All those years ago, Dr Balabanski sounded a warning to the church that has now been echoed by the scientific community, and which we ignore to our eternal peril. Like many attuned to the beauty of creation, she confessed:
I have certainly tended to assume that the creation will continue to tell the glory of God without my help. But with the habitat of the wild beasts disappearing, and no Sabbath year of respite, the wild beasts are fast losing their ability to praise their creator by just being who they are. And so, I am beginning to recognise this as an issue of the reign of God – a kingdom issue. The poor and the wild beasts are on the margins, and so stand under God’s special care … for us, with a theology of God’s reign that is not limited to the church or even to humanity, but embraces the whole of creation, we must critique [the economic rationalist system all governments follow] and maintain that all creation is valuable simply because it is God’s creation (p 34).
Had these prophetic words been heeded in 1997, the IPCC report in 2019 would read very differently. It may even be too late. Good luck, Leviathan, when the deepest ocean trench on the planet has been polluted by our plastics!
Yet before we decide the only thing left is to ‘soothe the pillow of a dying race’ of animals and habitats revealing God’s glory, just maybe we Christians can restore our original evangel.
Jesus came to reveal God’s good news to the poor. That good news is not simply that God loves them, and wants to save them; it means more than that. The true evangel is that God is revealed by the poor and the vulnerable, the wild and untameable, the threatened and besieged. They show us who God truly is. As Jeremiah urged of the exiles in Babylon, it is only in their shalom-wholeness that we will find our own.
Here in Australia, especially in the Northern Synod, we have the deep privilege of being mentored and guided in our care for the wild and the threatened by the people God first placed in this land. Aboriginal Australians’ refusal to be tamed into assimilation and their poverty at the front doors of our palaces of privilege, ought to wake us up with a shock to recognise the God revealed in them. Through their ancestral wisdom and law and science and governance and art and faith, which the Uniting Church proclaims was given by God before any missionaries arrived, it is not too late to bring good news to this climate-threatened, radically dis-Spirited current age.
The world needs a church willing to travel into wilderness – and discover there, as Moses did with Jethro and Zipporah, as Jesus did with wild beasts and angels, that God is still alive and full of joy, still boldly trusting us to carry the reconciliation vision to the wider world.
The councils of the church exist for one reason only: to encourage and support the ministry of all who follow Jesus as they carry the message of a cosmos reconciled forever, in all its wild diversity, and to care as though caring for Jesus for all that is wild and vulnerable, the poor amongst humans, and the ‘beasts’ to whom we will always be bound as flesh and breath.
We confess our complicity … we hear our forgiveness … we follow: thanks be to God!