Near Molong, NSW 2011

One Man's Web

There were no indigenous people where I lived growing up. My nanna told she thought they had all died out. I found out later that was a lie; they were still there, they are still there, and the deaths didn't just... happen. But already, many people— Nanna included— didn't know they were not telling us kids the truth. They were simply repeating what they had been told. Indigenous people had already been made invisible in my part of the world by the 1950's.  And most of us didn't know people like the local farmer, for example, who showed one of my colleagues, with some pride during the 1990's, the rifle "great-grandpa used for hunting aborigines."

We didn't know about the massacres— even the one down the creek from our farm. And when, up north, I met indigenous folk who had witnessed massacres, and survived them, it was a shock. I didn't realise, even then, that the continent is littered with massacre sites.  I didn't know that the war of resistance against white invasion that had been fought in the Kimberly— I found this in an obscure book on my parent's shelves, but no one seemed to want to talk about it— I didn't know this war  had been fought all over the continent from the earliest days of the invasion. 

I didn't know— we didn't know— that indigenous people built houses, hay stooks, ingeniously engineered weirs and fish traps. We didn't know that entire ecosystems had been destroyed by the introduction of sheep and cattle. In the 60's, as a child, I wondered why things were so different and so much drier than the stories of the grandparents: it was us, and our farming.

We didn't know indigenous people were forbidden to speak their own languages, and now, still, have European school-teachers marking them down in class, and discouraging the indigenous ways of speaking English which indigenous people in many localities have developed to survive. It's fine to use Americanisms in our speech, and change all our spelling to suit Rupert Murdoch's papers, but indigenous people report that the use of language— I'm guessing— like deadly, or proper-dark, or sister-girl... which all describe real things, have teachers telling their children, "You are wrong: Don’t speak and write like that! " Here

Walk in the cities and towns of Australia with your eyes open and it is immediately apparent that indigenous people are treated... very differently. 

And this stuff is ingrained within us.  My daughter is named for her Pitjantjatjara mother, a wonderful, inspiring Christian leader, a human being among human beings, and yet I find that prejudice rises in me, unbidden. I hate this. Pitjantjatjara people gave me my life... and yet the old prejudice will not die... Read on >>>>

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Searching for a gold reef, the prospector Lasseter died alone in central Australia. Fifty years later a group of elderly Pitjantjatjara men told me stories of the original white incursions into their lands, including that of Lasseter. We tried to help him, they said, but he kept shooting at us, so we left him alone. Perception changes everything. It can turn an offer of salvation into a thing of death.

There is a sense in which we are blind to our perceptions, and ruled by them. Not only do they colour what we see, they almost define what we are able to see. But perceptions are never innocent. Perceptions serve a purpose. Perceptions are often about the preservation of privilege. They are an unconscious tool for keeping us safe, although sometimes I think we know...

In Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe relates the story of an intricately engineered fish trap in a purpose built weir, where fish, directed by the weir through a loop, would trigger a spring constructed from a sapling which flung the fish out of the water for the fisherman. This is what the invading colonist who observed this wrote:

I have often heard of the indolence of the blacks and soon came to the conclusion after watching a blackfellow catch fish in such a lazy way, that what I had heard was perfectly true. (Bruce Pascoe Dark Emu pp7)

Pascoe speaks of a potent mix of the "power of ... assumptions... of morally justifiable and probably inevitable... [ideas about] ... the advance of civilisation" but also of "the need for colonists to legitimise their presence." (Ibid 5)

If the colonist had seen the indigenous fisherman as part of a sophisticated culture then he could no longer justify seizing the land from an inferior being; he would become a conscious invader.

In theological terms this incident becomes, at base, an example of idolatry. Our perceptions are always part of a worldview carefully curated to keep us at the centre of things, both with respect to God and to other people, which is to allow us to remain as our own masters.  (And I deliberately use that gendered term to again illustrate the purposefulness of a 'natural' perception of superiority.) God works to subvert our idolatry in order to bring us to our full freedom as created and contingent beings made in God's image... Read on >>>>

There are two quick things we might note about Jesus' baptism. Firstly, John is not greater than Jesus. The baptism by John, is not a sign that John is in charge. Instead, it is a sign that Jesus is doing as God requires.

The second thing is that in his baptism Jesus repents! Matthew carefully shapes the story so that we see John called people to repent (3:1) and so that we then see that people were baptised and then confessed their sins as a result. (3:6) It's a subtle change from Mark who said John came "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." (Mark 1:4)

We might conclude that, for Matthew, repentance is the constant turning of our lives towards God, and the living of life in God's direction, as we become aware where God is calling us, and  aware of what God is showing us. We tend to think of repentance as something we do after sinning— and it's a good thing if we do that, but... perhaps sinning is more what we do when we will not repent. Sin is what follows from our refusal to repent.

Matthew will give us a stunning example later in the gospel, in Chapter 15, where a Canaanite woman shows Jesus' that God's plan for humanity is even greater than he had imagined. Jesus paid attention and immediately changed the way he lived! If only we would do the same!

There is a third thing to see in the story of Jesus' baptism, and perhaps it is the key thing in this very short reading today. In his baptism, Jesus goes down into the River Jordan which is the place where Israel crossed into the Promised Land.

Now, remember that in his Gospel, Matthew is presenting us with an picture of Jesus which is designed to make his Jewish country-people think of Jesus as a modern day Moses... in fact, as the new and greater Moses for God's chosen people.... so... do you remember... that Moses went down to Red Sea? Read on >>>>

When we sit in church next Sunday, fire will be upon people's mind. Will older folk who have paid attention to the news, along with their grief, be secretly glad of coming death so that they may avoid what is to come? What will be in the hearts of younger folk who must live through what is coming? They tell me they are "terrified for my children," and that they "see no hope for our survival." My neighbour says, "Humankind is working for its own destruction."2020112london 

There is something different about the fires this year. It's only January 6 and already in this fire season twice the area of the Amazon fires has been burned here in Australia. The maps of the UK and the US in this post, already out of date by the time of your reading, don't mean much to me because the 5.8 million hectares (in excess of 14.3 million acres) is an inconceivable figure. 20200112adelaideBut when I apply the same overlay of the burned area to my own state of South Australia I am filled with foreboding. I understand we are on the burning edge of climate change; we are living the future which is coming to the rest of the planet. (You can click on the images to see them full size.)

Matthew says a lot about burning. The lectionary tends to leave it out. I suppose this is because it seems unworthy of the Gospel, but perhaps it is time to reconsider.

I have expanded the reading set for the day to include some of the surrounding text.

3:1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ ... 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with [the is not in the Greek] Holy Spirit and fire.fn112His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan...

Do you see that Jesus comes into a world of fire and judgement? John understood, as does Matthew, that we live in a world of consequence. How we live shapes the world in which we live. It is a simple feedback loop true of our "social ecology" and of ecology of land and sea.

"Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan," the place of Israel's entry to the Promised Land,

to be baptized by him... Read on >>>

I don't train, I commute. My work sites require a 60 or 70km round trip for the day. Ride into work two or three days a week, and training is done!  This is because the key issue for touring, and for endurance rides, is simply having lots of miles under the belt.  It's not about speed or sprints, but simply riding the distance. I often say to people that if I asked them if they could ride up to Mt Lofty the answer would be, "No!" But most folk could walk up there because they walk all the time.  Ride all the time, and physical training is 90% done. 

Add to this the fact that any long ride is as much mind as it is body, and training looks like a different thing.  Mind and strategy is huge in racing, too, but in the longer day after day rides, mind is often the key factor, especially when conditions are bad.

We are coming up to the Tour Down Under. Deb and I will do the full Community Ride, which is 162km to Murray Bridge, and then we plan to ride back to her place east of the city, which will be another 80km. It requires a climb home through the Hills, and we will take a less direct route to stay out of traffic (Friday night pubs and bikes are not a good mix.) I'm then hoping to do at least another 250km, but this will be very weather dependent. In the new Australian climate it is entirely possible, if not likely, that the entire event will be cancelled due to catastrophic fire danger... Read on >>>

When it comes to despair and fear there are no experts. None of us can sit apart from these things. None of us can escape the biological and genetic conditioning to stay alive at any cost. We can only live with fear; courage lives with fear. The one with no fear is a fool, or has been dehumanised.

This means that no human being can speak objectively or from outside our dilemma; beware those who appear to do this, for they are either lying, in denial, or have not yet woken up to themselves and to just how dire the human situation is.

Indeed, to be afraid, to grieve, to despair of the future is to be human. Our best selves come from living in the full consciousness of who we are: limited, contingent, frightened creatures who are subject and subordinate to the biosphere. It is our refusal as a species to live in this place which has brought us to this point, particularly the refusal of the cultural west with its technologically powered consumer excess. We have thought we owned this place, and have denied what is well understood by many indigenous cultures: this place owns us and demands our respect.

The fear and despair that climate change brings to consciousness was always going to come to us. Death is inevitable. Most species that ever were, are now extinct. It takes a certain death-denying hubris to think we could beat this.  We know that it is likely the sun will eventually engulf the planet. And we have known since childhood that the children of millions of people suffer and die in the heat and societal breakdown which we now recognise will come to us.

The difference is that the climate crisis is abruptly stripping us of all our defences and pretences.... Read on >>>>

One of the difficulties for us westerners is that we think (and pray) from such a position of privilege. For many of us, and for many issues, life simply goes on regardless. We can contemplate policies, vote against certain politicians or parties, even rage at them, but for us, regardless of the outcome, life will not be too badly altered. I wonder if part of the anger and fear and grief we feel about climate change, is that suddenly, it all really does matter. Climate change threatens everything we have. In some ways, this is the first time this has ever happened to me.

We perceive this at a very deep level. The thing we think of as "us" or "me" is not quite a single unified being. Many of us know the experience of something happening quite rapidly— a crash, or a fall... and along with that, a kind of slow motion observation and even commentary, by another part of ourselves. Even deeper than this "observer of me," I have begun to discern a subterranean instinct which scents danger of which the surface me is quite unconscious. It moves me before I am aware of anything happening. I know before I know. I know even if I am saying something different.... Read on >>>>

Olia is two months past her expected birth date, but was born much earlier. We met for the first time a few nights ago, and I was inspected by calm dark eyes which felt far older and more knowing than I expected. She sat up straight in her sister's arms like an icon Christ child. In such a child, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. (Col 1:19)

In such a child as this...

Think for a moment or two about your recollection of the Christmas story...

We tend to blend the Christmas story from Luke and the Christmas story from Matthew into the one story. There is some sense to this: they both speak of a child born at God's command— a child conceived by the Holy Spirit, a child who is descended from David. Each gospel tells of the birth of the Messiah.

But they are also two quite different stories.  I think we tend to read the story from Luke, which is one of the gospel readings set by the Lectionary for today and tomorrow, and we import a bit from Matthew; mostly just the story of the three Magi at the manger. And this means that on Christmas cards, and in much popular art,
• Jesus is born at night because of the story of the shepherds,
• it's serene like the Carol Silent Night,
• the animals are gathered around the manger, (that detail got its big boost from St Francis' nativity scenes over a thousand years later) 
• and the three Magi or Wise Men, arrive on their camels. (Actually Matthew doesn't say three, and he says nothing about camels.)

The thing about Luke's story is that it portrays the power of God over all that is happening in the world. Caesar has called a census of all the world— something Jewish people often understood to be a kind of idolatry— and all Caesar achieves is that he gets the Messiah to Bethlehem just in time to be born as scripture had foretold; God is in control.

But when we read Matthew on his own, we enter the stark and often terrible world in which his people lived.

So tonight we are going to hear the story of Jesus' birth and then what happens after that, according to Matthew. Let's listen to Matthew 1:18 – 2:18... Read on >>>>

As I reflect:

  1. Scott Morrison may yet be one of Australia's great anti-witnesses to the Faith, up there with Pell and others. His public faith and his Pentecostalism, his links to Hillsong, and his appalling judgment over going to Hawaii during the fires, not to mention lumps of coal in Parliament, and his scepticism and vacillation on Climate Change will all come together. People of all political persuasions and ages are beginning to rage at him. He is shaping as a scapegoat, the one who pays for the sins of the nation. John Hewson wrote recently that

Ironically, climate probably offers Morrison his best chance to show leadership, and to earn the genuine support of the “quiet Australians”. It will take honesty and courage… Morrison just needs to out this rump in his government and discipline or manage them. He would be surprised at just how much slack voters would cut him for doing so.

Not doing this could be his undoing.

  1. As I consider the depth of feelings in our house over one day of fire in the Hills, and just up the road, here in Adelaide, I wonder what the month of living in smoke in Sydney is doing to people… not to mention to the people in the fire zones.

  2. I see that Climate change is not simply a mortality reminder, not simply a reminder that I will die. It says something about the culture. If we have any compassion for people we surely see that for all our violence and other limitations as a species, what is happening here is the undoing of the best of people's desires. Despite all the greed and fear, and in its midst, this planet has been a place of people seeking to be something more, seeking to transcend mere brutishness. Most people seek to live for the good as they understand it. And it is all coming to an end. So it's not just that we all die and so there is no faux immortality via our descendants. It is also a great grief about the death and failure of the human endeavour.

  3. And I am startled at how, despite all my knowledge of the scapegoating mechanism, and despite all my efforts to transcend it, at how much in the last 24 hours I have caught myself transferring anger onto others. When it comes to our interpersonal relations, I suspect the fires have barely started.

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