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Moderator on 30th Anniversary: Still a pilgrim people

Moderator of the Uniting Church Queensland Synod Rev Dr David Pitman
The Moderator of the Uniting Church Queensland Synod Rev Dr David Pitman spoke at a dinner in Mackay this week to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia. This is the text of his address.

This is a very significant year for a number of reasons.

300 years ago, Charles Wesley, brother of John and hymn writer par excellence was born.

200 years ago, due in large part to the courageous efforts of William Wilberforce, a deeply committed Christian, the English Parliament finally abolished the slave trade throughout the British Empire.

100 years ago, the Methodist Conference of Queensland formally endorsed the establishment of the Methodist Central Mission, now Wesley Mission Brisbane. It was my privilege to be Superintendent Minister of the Mission for six years prior to taking up the role of Moderator for the second time.

And – 30 years ago, the Uniting Church in Australia was inaugurated, and that is why we are here tonight.

During the recent meeting of our Synod we took the opportunity on the Saturday night to celebrate those 30 years. On Sunday I joined with the people of our Tarragindi Congregation for the same purpose and will do so again with the people at Maroochydore next Sunday.

It has been good to hear about the way in which so many of our congregations are marking this special milestone in our life as the Uniting Church….positive, joyful occasions that help people affirm the story and the vision of the Uniting Church, and give expression to the unity and fellowship we share in Christ.

We must never forget the faith and vision of those who worked to bring the Uniting Church into being. That faith and vision is encapsulated in the first paragraph of The Basis of Union
The Congregational Union of Australia, the Methodist Church of Australasia and the Presbyterian Church of Australia, in fellowship with the whole Church Catholic, and seeking to bear witness to that unity which is both Christ’s gift and will for the Church, hereby enter into union under the name of the Uniting Church in Australia. They pray that this act may be to the glory of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

They give praise for God’s gifts of grace to each of them in years past; they acknowledge that none of them has responded to God’s love with full obedience; they look for a continuing renewal in which God will use their common worship, witness and service to set forth the word of salvation for all people. To this end they declare their readiness to go forward together in sole loyalty to Christ the living Head of the Church.

It is a grand and exciting vision to which we need to commit ourselves again and again, both to remind ourselves of the vision that brought our church into being, and to provide a means of evaluating our contemporary plans and strategies.

The original vision also serves another purpose. It helps us to interpret our experience as a church in the light of our understanding of the Kingdom of God, and so reminds us that we are but one part of God’s greater plan and purpose for the whole world. Whenever we become too preoccupied with our own concerns, overly distracted by immediate issues that seem so pressing, it is tremendously reassuring to look again at the bigger picture of what God is doing in our world.

We all need opportunities to engage with the truth about the Kingdom of God in a manner which helps us transcend our own limited experience and move beyond the boundaries that our own experiences can impose on our thinking and our faith.

In his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson says…

Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset. Religion is understood as a visit to an attractive site to be made when we have adequate leisure. For some it is a weekly jaunt to church; for others, occasional visits to special services. Some, with a bent for religious entertainment and sacred diversion, plan their lives around special events like retreats, rallies and conferences. We go to see a new personality, to hear a new truth, to get a new experience and so, somehow, expand our otherwise humdrum lives. The religious life is defined as the latest and the newest….We’ll try anything – until something else comes along… The Christian life cannot mature under such conditions and in such ways.

He quotes the words of Friedrich Nietzsche… The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is…that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living. (From, Beyond Good and Evil)

Peterson continues… It is this ‘long obedience in the same direction’ which the mood of the world does so much to discourage. In going against the stream of the world’s ways there are two biblical designations for people of faith that are extremely useful: disciple and pilgrim. Disciple says we are people who spend our lives apprenticed to our master, Jesus Christ. We are in a growing-learning relationship, always…Pilgrim tells us we are people who spend our lives going someplace, going to God, and whose path for getting there is the way, Jesus Christ.

What God calls us to is “a long obedience in the same direction.”

You are most likely familiar with the story of Australian climber, Lincoln Hall, who was left for dead on the upper slopes of Mt Everest, but discovered by other mountaineers the next day to be still alive. He’s safely back in Australia now, with an amazing story to tell. Many others have not been so lucky. There are dozens of dead bodies on Mt Everest. They’re still there because it’s virtually impossible to get them down.

George Mallory was one of them, a famous mountain climber who may have been the first person ever to reach the top of Mt Everest. In the early 1920’s he led a number of attempts to scale the mountain, eventually being killed during the third attempt in 1924. His body was not found until 1999, well preserved by the snow and ice, 27,000 feet up on the mountain, just 2000 feet from the peak. We do not know whether he died ascending or descending the mountain.

Mallory was once asked why he wanted to climb Mt Everest. This is what he said: “The first question which you will ask and which I will try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mt Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘it is no use!’

“There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. We may learn a little about the behaviour of the human body at high altitudes, but otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in us that responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself, upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. That is what life means and what life is for.”

Take a moment to reflect on Mallory’s response. Life for him was an adventure. He found meaning and joy in the challenges that confronted him and in the struggle to achieve the goals and objectives that those challenges represented.

How would you respond if someone asked you: “What gives meaning to your life?” or “What is the purpose of your life?”

50 years ago, Lewis Sherrill wrote a book entitled The Struggle of the Soul ” In the book he described three different attitudes to life. He called them treadmill, saga and pilgrimage

TREADMILL people are those for whom life is monotonous and routine. They are locked into a lifestyle that is safe and predictable. They live their lives within the parameters they have established. They do not look for new experiences and do not expect anything new or different to happen, and so, of course, it usually doesn’t. Treadmill people are not necessarily unhappy, but their lives are largely devoid of meaning or any real sense of excitement and achievement.

SAGA people are those who live for challenge and adventure. Saga people are excited by challenge and actively seek new experiences and opportunities to test their skills and achieve new goals.

George Mallory was a saga person. He once said, “One must conquer, achieve, get to the top; one must know the end to be convinced that one can win, the end, to know there’s no dream that mustn’t be dared.” Saga people often accomplish amazing things while their minds and bodies have the capacity to keep up with their dreams. But as their physical and mental ability diminishes they can easily lapse into disillusionment and even despair.

PILGRIMAGE PEOPLE are those who understand that life is a journey, a journey characterised by experience, learning, personal growth, opportunity, challenge, success and failure, joy and sadness. Pilgrimage people know that the journey is ongoing.

They appreciate the opportunity from time to time to rest and renew their energy and strength, but they always move on to embrace the next phase of their life, whatever it may bring. Pilgrimage is the lifestyle identified in the Bible. It is the lifestyle of the people of God. It is a lifestyle grounded in faith.

Jesus was a pilgrimage person, and he said that the fundamental purpose of his life was to know and to do the will of God and to work out what that meant on a daily basis. His pilgrimage of the spirit was translated into an actual journey that took him to Jerusalem and the cross on which he died.

Our journey begins from the moment of our conception, for that is when life begins. But our life in the world begins the moment we are born.

The first description of birth is found in the creation story of Genesis 2, with its focus on the birth of the human race.  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. (Genesis 2:7)

Within the context of the story, this dramatic image declares that we are created as spiritual beings. God’s very Spirit has been breathed into us. Our life is first and foremost a spiritual existence. At the core of our being we are spiritual persons.

It is in this sense that we are created in the image of God. Being made in God’s image has nothing to do with our physical appearance. It has everything to do with our capacity to function as spiritual beings in relationship with the God who has made us, and to grow as the people God intended us to be.

Having created us for relationship, God spends the rest of our lives reminding us of that truth. We may hear and experience that message in many different ways, but Paul says that every time we hear it or experience it the Holy Spirit is at work, “bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” (Romans 8:16)

We understand that Jesus was the perfect living, breathing example of a human being made in the image of God. Humanly speaking, Jesus represents the kind of person we are meant to be. The more we become like him, the more we are conformed to the image of God. This is a spiritual reality made apparent through the quality of our life and relationships.

We have been made for a life in the Spirit. Such a life can never be “treadmill”, monotonous, devoid of meaning and purpose, the repetition of the same routine day after day. Nor can it be only saga, dependent for meaning on the excitement and adventure of new challenges.

Life in the Spirit is always pilgrimage. We are on a journey, a journey with God. It is a journey of life and it is life-long. As our Basis of Union says, “We are a pilgrim people, always on the way to the promised end.”

This means that we can dare to dream and to vision for the future! This means that we can trust God to go on equipping each of us, and all his people, with the gifts of the Spirit! This means that we can confidently commit ourselves afresh to that pilgrimage of the spirit to which Christ calls us!

Let us pray that the journey will be truly significant and life-changing for us all and commit ourselves to that journey and to that purpose in the name and the spirit of Jesus, who is the head of the church!

Photo : Moderator of the Uniting Church Queensland Synod Rev Dr David Pitman