Lake Hart, SA, 2016

What Do you Believe?

Jan: Tell me some more of this paradox of belief and unbelief that we touched on in our first conversation.  What do you believe?

David: Jesus is as relevant as ever.  The way that life was lived still is a viable model to day.  Indeed I’d say it was a ‘saving’ model, if you like.

Jan: But you mean saving in a different sense?

David:  That depends.  If you’re into eternal damnation vs. being saved, I guess I am!  But that is a pretty narrow view of salvation.  I mean saving now, regardless of what comes after dying.  Living a life modelled or disciplined on his life begins making our life valid and authentic and whole now.

Jan: So you should wear sandals and walk around the country and not have a job?

David:  It’s a bit more subtle than that!  We’re talking about the characteristics of the life--  the actual working out of the details will depend on who we are and where we live.

Jan:  I want some detail here.  I always think it’s around this point that Christians explain away the call to discipleship and prove they need 2 cars and a house in a nice suburb!

David:  Yes!  In his time it was viable and acceptable to have travelling preachers who essentially lived off the land.  In Wesley’s time [John Wesley] you could stand up in a paddock and preach and people would come to listen.  Now you just get emus and sheep.  What is it that works to get the message across in our time?  If you can ‘live off the land’, so to speak, well and good.  But it’s not the how so much as the what of the message.

The what was about inclusiveness.  He didn’t reject people because they were different.  He was the antitheses of National Action, for example.  He was compassionate with people--  he looked at their need rather than whether they were meeting the rules of the elite.  And he was very political, radically challenging the ‘done things’ of his day.

Jan: So the compassion and inclusiveness separate him from just being a politician?

David:  Yes  He was not sectarian or partisan in party politics.  His inclusivity stops that.  And he stood for the tradition of justice that came from the Hebrew prophets.  He was also a man of ‘spirit.’  He could see through or beyond the merely material and ephemeral things of the moment to something deeper.

Jan: The supernatural?

David:  Goodness no!  That’s a terrible term.  Everything is natural if God has made it.  It’s more about connection with God—with the ultimate reality, ‘Capital UR’, of everything that is.  We can either live like animals on a very instinctual level, or we can become aware and grow in that awareness of a deeper reality.

Jan:  Describe that.

David:  One person is unconscious of what drives them; the other knows themself.

One person sees money to be made, another sees beauty and feels a real, though hard to define, pull at their heart when they look at the same landscape.

One bloke thinks of sex and food and ownership when he thinks of the woman in his house.  The other is full of wonder at this being who is so much a part of him and yet so separate.

The visitor goes crazy in a quiet weekend visit to a remote farm; the farmer sends ten hours a time on the tractor, just watching and being.

Being spiritual is a trait that attracts people (or scares them.)  Jesus had it in large measure.  People flocked to him. They felt he was in touch with the deeper reality some many of us long for but can’t quite grasp.

Jan:  There’s huge passion in you here!  What don’t you believe?

David:  Before that, I want to say more about saving.  I think Jesus as a person to disciple oneself on is ‘saving’ for the world, not just individuals.  “God so loved the WORLD that he sent his only Son.”  Living Jesus way has at the very least got ecological implications.  His level of justice and compassion cuts across the injustice and greed that is exploiting the biosphere into catastrophe.  If all things are connected in the way we have seen that they are just on the ecological level, then living Jesus way has cosmological significance!

Jan:  That’s several conversations on its own!

David:  Just a few…

What I don’t believe in, is the way we typically model all this in the church.  And that’s at two levels.  It’s at the level of church structure and at the level of metaphor and symbol.

Jan: Um- let’s take the church first.

David:  OK. In our country, we have a congregation which has a minister it pays to do things: baptise, marry, bury, and preach, basically.  And visit the sick.  That’s falling apart because it’s economically unsustainable. 

Jan: This is because not enough people are committed to church and to Christianity?

David:  Well, we see churches closing down and tend to blame ourselves for not being good enough Christians, or “not reaching out to the youth,” etc. But what we fail to see is that the model of church we are using no longer works.  Churches I have seen close down or combine  are not necessarily dead as churches, they are financially unviable.  They can’t afford the upkeep of a building or to pay a minister’s stipend.

Jan:  But they are running out of people, too!

David: yes, but I’m not sure the committed Christians ever did financially upkeep the church.  I think the society also wanted churches— the church provided the sports clubs and the gyms and the local dance— lots of these things. Now with TV and other sports clubs and computers and gyms and so on people don’t support the church.

Jan: So you’re saying the wider society subsidised the church?

David:  Well yes.  The actually paid for services.  They still do—people pay quite happily for weddings and funerals.  Even where I have refused money for a funeral people frequently come and give the money to me anyway.  The even try and pay for baptism of their kids!  We’re a fee for service society, and people are more than happy for that.

Jan:  But we’ve lost some of our market?

David:  That’s right!  And it’s worse in that we are running out of people.  The people who like church how it is are getting older and fewer.

Jan:  It needs to reform—  the church, that is.

David:  It does, but we can miss the point here.  You see, It’s not the gospel that’s the problem.  It’s only the model of church that’s a problem.  “Get more young people in,” they say.  Well, the way we do it doesn’t work for younger people.  My kids are theologically astute and spiritually aware, but church leaves them cold.  The way we do it doesn’t work for them.  It doesn’t provide a focus for their passion.  And the real problem is that we don’t provide a focus for the passion of most people.  It’s not that they don’t believe, or they’re un-spiritual philistines.  Some are, but basically the church is modelled around the style and aspirations of education people of the sixties.  (That’s the Uniting Church, anyway.)

Jan:  That’s a pretty sweeping statement!

David: I know.  But look at us.  Each congregation reflects a period of time.  Some are 1950’s Methodists, with a fundamentalist bent.  (Lets just stay in the UCA here--  other denominations are different again.) Some are driven by New Age Fundamentalism—

Jan: What--!

David:  I’m being cheeky.  I mean the late 70’s and early 80’s trained clergy who tend to conservatism—their congregations tend to be in the newer suburbs with 8-10 year old kids through to the teens.  But the ruling class of the UCA—the bulk of us, were in our young adulthood in the sixties and early 70’s.  The new young EMU people and the older conservatives, are outnumbered, despite all their trying.

Jan:  I’ll keep using your pseudonym!  What are you getting at here?

David:  In my conversion, as you call it, I have lost my belief in the church.  Not The Church, and not the Gospel.  Not even The Uniting Church in Australia.  But in the local parish which employs its own fully stipended minister, type church.
The signs are clear everywhere.
We simply cannot pay for them.  Part time ministry is booming for all the wrong reasons.  There is huge anger at the clergy among the church.

Jan:  But we’re always the scapegoats!

David:  Yes, but I reckon this is different.  We are not just scapegoats, we’re seen as the problem.  I’ve heard so much of it lately, it makes me think that it means our usefulness and value is seen to be much lower than it was.

The other thing is that I’ve never heard ministers so dissatisfied.  Their hope for the future is low.  Numbers of my friends get their satisfaction working outside their parish.  Frustration and boredom at propping up dying structures which refuse to change is rife amongst us—‘liberal’ or’ conservative.’

Jan:  Yet we have too many people who want to be ministers!

David: We do!  And if we are willing to depart from church-speak jargon, we find many Australians are spiritually alive, and keen to talk once they know we won’t clobber them.  And many others are hungry for something deep in life.

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