Generally, I don’t think it is a good idea to brag (show off). But I can’t help myself.
Sherrin is an iconic sports brand in Australia. It has been so for over 100 years. In 1880, my granddad Sherrin and his brother Uncle Tom designed and hand stitched a ball that when thrown on its indented point bounces back to the thrower – something a rugby ball won’t do. The characteristics of the Sherrin ball enabled the development of the fast and furious game called ‘footy’ in Australia, or as known around the world, Australian Rules Football.
For any person living in Melbourne – in the 1940’s and 50’s the one essential was to have a footy team. “Who do you barrack for (support – follow)”? would commonly be the first question asked in any meeting. It was asked of me by my class mates on the first week in primary school. There were ten League teams in Melbourne and you had to support one. No exceptions allowed.
Footy suits Australia. From the beginning of the game, the Australian Aborigines loved the game and they excel at the sport. Post WW2, refugees and migrants almost doubled Australia’s population. Many of the children were playing footy before they could speak English. Soon we could not pronounce the names of the game’s super-stars and this integration of refugees by footy continues. Currently, a star player comes from sub-Sahara Africa.
This fanatic ‘brand loyalty’ to footy teams effected the way I saw another principal interest in my life – namely religion.
My family was Baptist. There were other religious brands but they were clearly inferior to mine. Although we didn’t compete in sport, in the coming grand-final in the sky – ‘heaven’ or the ‘second coming’ – I was quite sure the Baptists would be the winners - box seats and wonderful crowns and medallions. As for the others, my understanding was the Catholics would not be there at all, there would be some Methodists (non-drinkers and against dancing), only a few Presbyterians, (they drank and danced) and maybe an occasional Church of England. I wasn’t sure about the Salvos (Salvation Army) because despite their good works they were not baptised as believers.
In my teens, I spent quite a deal of energy arguing the superiority of the Baptists and the failings of the other religious brands. On one occasion in front of a large youth forum, I disputed with a professor from a theological college about ‘Baptism’. I asserted that believer’s baptism by immersion was the only baptism that God approved. The professor thought I was an upstart. I didn’t care. I quoted chapter and verse and right was on my side.
My ego was dented when I entered theological college. Until then I had only read the Bible with the help of notes – Scripture Union notes. This meant that after reading the passage for the day, you read the notes and the notes told you what the passage meant. In theological college, you had to ‘study’ the Bible. Study meant comparing Bible passages, searching out contradictions and duplications, understanding the historical events of the times, reading the Bible in its original language (a struggle for me), and facing up to the insights of ‘form criticism’ (a way of analysing documents to discover who wrote what).
I had often heard that going to theological college led to students losing their faith. I now understood what this meant. ‘Reading’ the Bible with the help of your favourite notes was so much easier than ‘studying’ the Bible. I now have the impression that many dogmatic preachers have never studied the Bible but only read it with the help of their favourite notes
In my early thirties, I had a type of nervous breakdown causing me to leave the ministry. I could hold on to a job but that was it. After work, I was unable to do anything. Feeling I needed to go to church, I attended my friend’s church. He was preaching a series on the end of the world and the second coming of Christ. These themes were of no help to me. Surviving each day was where I needed help. In desperation, I tried another church, a Congregational Church led by the radical Presbyterian minister and psychiatrist, Rev Dr Francis McNab. There was not much Bible in his preaching but there was much that helped me to cope. Cracks were appearing in my brand loyalty and my certainty about ‘who was in and who was out’ was shaken.
Further down this path I entered the Presbyterian ministry which involved more years in theological college and more Bible study. My greatest struggle was with the baptism of infants. I couldn’t believe and still don’t, that the sprinkling of water moves a child from spiritual limbo into the family of God. In my view, every child is always part of God. However, I see value in the ceremony. It is a commitment by the parents and it invites the congregation to pray for the child and family.
Since becoming a Presbyterian Minister (and then along with most Presbyterians in Australia, joining the Uniting Church of Australia) I have never been employed full time by any church. In a part-time capacity, I was employed by the World Council of Churches, the Australian Council of Churches and the Australian Council of Christian Education. I have worked with high churches (Anglo-Catholic), low churches, Cathedrals and tiny congregations. As for church brands (denominations), I have covered the waterfront; Pentecostal prayer gatherings, ceremonies in glorious buildings with statues and icons, Salvation Army citadels and watched men in gorgeous robes waving smoke around an altar.
What I have observed is this. Wherever, however, Jesus is taken seriously, a spirit of hope and healing is present. How groups worship varies enormously, but in as much as the focus is on Jesus, a positive and helpful atmosphere is created. However, when the trappings, the dogma, the robes, the music become more important than this Jesus focus – then this spirit is dissipated. If, however, this determination is to use various forms to access and approach Jesus then the power remains.
Because of these experiences I long ago gave up trying to rank churches, denominations and ways of worship, on a ‘who’s in and who’s out’ scorecard.
In recent years, an even more seismic shift has taken place within me. I have come to believe that the presence of Jesus is everywhere, just like the Bible says, “in all and through all”. What is more, I have come to understand that spirit of Jesus can be accessed by people everywhere in more ways than I had imagined. That is, I began seeing the handprint of Jesus in other faiths and his footprint in different spiritual paths.
For years, my mind about other religions and people of no religion had been dominated by verses like this. Peter’s words to the Council of Jerusalem, Acts 4:12 (KJV) “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” As a young man, I assumed this meant that if a person was to be saved then the name of Jesus must be said by the evangelist, counsellor, whoever, and must be heard by the person being counselled. In this way, I viewed it rather like the magic word ,Abracadabra. Long ago I realised that this cannot be so.
There are fifty plus names given to Jesus in the scriptures. They all describe an aspect of him and his work. He can’t be contained in a string of letters. That is not where saving power is to be found. It is in his essence, in what he does.
I come back to three words which Jesus used to describe himself – the truth, the way and the life.
What is the truth? God is love and love is at the heart of all things.
What’s the way? We are born to serve.
What is the life? We are all to live as forgiven people in a community of all races, classes and creeds, where male and female, old and young, creatures and the environment are all valued and are all contributors.
I find evidence of understanding of this way, truth and life all over the place; in ancient writings, in the teaching of spiritual giants, in people who have no church connection, in other cultures and religions. I now believe I was making a total mistake to try to constrain God and put Jesus with his 50 names, in a box. In my early years, I was being driven by ego and not insight when I argued he (God - Jesus) is here and not there, on my team but not on theirs,.
Now just in case you think I am getting a bit soppy here I need to say that all the above I see in the context of the cross and resurrection. There really is no such thing as ‘a free lunch’. This is not a ‘happily ever after’ world. We have all mucked up and caused hurt to ourselves and others. All the good things I mentioned above are only possible because of the love of God for us, and despite the hurt we have caused, that love keeps on coming. That love is our hope and this truth is the thermo-nuclear source that powers the universe.
In Jesus God has shown us his face. This is what the way, the truth the life looks like in human form and in human situations and interactions. Throughout the ages wise people have sensed these things. In Jesus, God has made it plain – accessible.
I am so happy to be part of a living, pulsing, but by no means perfect, church. I am glad I can regularly listen to, participate in, the stories and the spirit which originates in Jesus. Our church and community centre is only a tiny part of the life of God, but it is a part.
And that’s how I moved from being a ‘who’s in and who’s out’ Melbourne footy-style, kind of person, to being so open and accepting that some people find me most annoying. Can’t help it! That’s what life has done to me. I’m grateful.