On neighbours

This week threw up complex choices about where to be and who to be with complicated by Covid hotspot definitions and various responsibilities.

Interestingly, I was (and still am) to speak on the story of the Good Samaritan in our church this Sunday, something I postponed at one point, thinking I would be elsewhere.

With its message of loving your neighbour, Jesus’ ancient parable was a fitting backdrop for a week of trying to understand what that might look like among some competing relational priorities.

There was an opportunity to be in Canberra enjoying family for a special occasion. Seems like an obvious choice, something we longed to do.

But there are other family members in an area of Sydney still classed as a hotspot, who are vulnerable and value our support. To visit them pretty much ruled out visiting Canberra.

Who is my neighbour in this case? They all are of course in the sense of extending love and respect. But it highlights why the teacher of the law asked Jesus, ‘But who is my neighbour?’ because we are finite, and the opportunity to love and be neighbourly is without end.

Now family is a special case, our primary responsibility is to our families, and of course they are the keepers of our fondest affections. But even here are difficult choices and a need for patience and poise.

All of this to say that the point of Jesus’ parable was not so much to answer the teacher of the law’s question, but a different one:

‘Who are you?’

The neighbour in Jesus’ story was not so much the man beaten and robbed, but the man of a despised racial group who showed practical mercy and compassion as it was needed,

In telling this parable, Jesus is saying to the teacher of the law, to all of us: when you have room in your heart for compassion and mercy for others that moves you to cross the road and help another, then you will know who your neighbour is. Until then, its a pointless theoretical debate.

He finishes the discussion after the parable by saying, go and do this constantly. Go and let compassion and mercy and a love for God, others and yourself be the hallmark of your life.

So we visited our Sydney relatives, cooked them dinner, served up watermelon for dessert, did some Christmas decorating, got things down from high cupboards and put other things away. We brought some encouragement in what has been a long and challenging year, especially for the elderly.

And we face-timed our Canberra relatives who are celebrating this weekend and they were gracious and generous in response.

And then this morning I decided to write this all down, as a precursor to sharing here my modern day telling of the conversation of Jesus with the teacher of the law and the famous parable that resulted. (If you want to hear more, join us on Sunday.)

Jesus meets the celebrity psychologist at Costco

A celebrity psychologist sees Jesus at Costco in Sydney’s southwest.

‘Man, how strange seeing you here! I’m just doing some pandemic research for a spot on Nine tonight. You know the toilet paper crazies and everything?’

‘Oh yeah, no worries. I’m here with Pete, he’s picking up some toilet paper for the crew,’ Jesus replied.

‘Ok. Well… Hey we should get a selfie together, it will go off on social, great for our profiles! You could say you are, I don’t know, maybe, mixing with the real people?’

‘Yeah, nah.’

‘Fair enough… although I might sneak one.’

He ducks in beside Jesus, produces a perfect smile, and presses silently on his phone.

‘By the way, I’ve been very keen to ask you what you think it is in your religion that can help people live a peaceful, inclusive and compassionate life?’

Two women barge between Jesus and the psychologist, gripping a large pack of toilet paper. One of them treads on the psychologist’s foot.

‘Seriously ladies, what are you thinking!’ the psychologist exclaims.

Turning to Jesus, he whispers: ‘I hate coming to these places…’

Peter arrives with a pack of 96 rolls of toilet paper. Jesus takes it off Peter and hands it to the woman who lost the toilet paper fight. She grabs it in a bear hug, and walks off, but stops, looks over her shoulder, and mouths ‘thank you’.

Peter stands staring in disbelief, shakes his head, and trudges back to the toilet paper aisle.

Jesus returns to his conversation with the psychologist.

‘You were asking about a good life, so, what have you read?’

With a slight puff of the chest and a glance around the small group of straggling shoppers now beginning to gather, the psychologist clears his throat before speaking in a more baritone voice.

‘I understand your Scriptures say that to live a good life you should love God with everything you have and love your neighbour as much as you love yourself.’

‘That’s well said,’ replies Jesus, and the psychologist seems to stand a little taller.

‘Now go and do this every day and all the time, wherever you are really.’

The psychologist seems to shrink a little. He looks around at the multicultural crowd and, crinkling his nose, edges a few inches away from a small dark man holding a very large salami.

‘Oh sure’, says the psychologist, running his finger inside his designer shirt collar, and taking another step away from the salami.

‘But, well, the idea of neighbour is a complex social construct and not at all easy to tease out. I’m not even sure I could define who my neighbour is.

‘I mean, people like me know many people and are recognised most places we go. We would need some boundaries around the idea of “neighbour”.’

Jesus considers the women queuing with their large packs of toilet paper, still glaring at each other. He looks around the massive warehouse store with every consumer item on display. The people grazing up the aisles with their trolleys like lost sheep.

‘Mmm, I didn’t realise your neighbour was an ‘idea’…. In any case, I don’t think the issue is, ‘who is your neighbour?’ That’s pretty obvious really.’

The psychologist leans in, a frown on his botoxed forehead, the smart phone spinning in his fingers.

Peter returns with another large pack of toilet paper. Jesus takes it off Peter and gives it to the psychologist.

‘No, I think what would help most people live a good life is to consider who they are. Are they a neighbour? Do they have room to love a neighbour, any neighbour, in their heart, or just room to love themselves?’

Jesus takes the toilet paper off the psychologist and offers it to the small dark man with the very large salami.

He grins widely, with a few missing teeth, and offers Jesus the giant salami in exchange. Jesus, who is quite dark himself, takes the salami with a smile and a nod of thanks. They both turn and join the queue.

‘Friends, why not go and do this continually, then you will have a good and godly life,’ Jesus says to the group around him, the small dark man and the psychologist.

The psychologist ducks his head and walks quickly towards the exit.

The small dark man pats Jesus on the back and smiles even more widely, nodding his head.

Peter rolls his eyes and walks off towards the toilet paper aisle.

Christmas speaks to the messy, bloody birth waters of our soul

Birth of Jesus by RembrandtChristmas as we know it has been culturally crafted over thousands of years around a base narrative concerning a family in Roman-occupied Israel.

Each December various scientists, atheists and pot-shotters are trotted out with their latest theories debunking Christmas and erstwhile Christian intellectuals and apologists bravely rally to defend the seasonal ground. Others argue over various cultural accoutrements to Christmas such as dates and customs and commercialistation. They act as if the average person is not intelligent enough to distinguish between later attempts to mark something significant and the significant thing itself.

Certainly the habitual attacks on the historical origins of Christmas or Easter or any Christian belief along with the confusing but largely irrelevant criticisms of the cultural artefacts that accompany those traditions, have a gradual, destabilising effect on the faith of the wavering or nominal who are probably the majority of believers in our nation. Around the globe however the effect is infinitesimal and Christian faith continues to thrive and multiply in amazing diversity with scant disregard for broadsheet column centimetres.

That is because at the heart of it, the Christmas story – to quote myself – ‘a base narrative concerning a family in Roman-occupied Israel’ is so shockingly familiar to our own human experience it reaches us where the debunkers and apologists never could, in the messy, bloody birth waters of our soul.

Here are just a few examples, in no particular order:Read More »

Mother reminds world of Justin’s Christian origins

“No 15-year-old wants to be around his mother 24/7. And no mother wants to be around her 15-year-old 24/7, either.”

Sounds like a pretty down to earth comment really and the interesting thing is that it was made by Pattie Mallette, the mother of 16-year-old pop star, Justin Bieber.

Ms Mallette has been in the news this week for reminding the world of her son’s Christian origins. In a discussion about the star’s commitment to remain a virgin until marriage, his mother said, ‘He’s expressed his desire to stay pure, and honour women, and treat women with respect. So hopefully that stays valid.’

Apart from the slightly obscene aspect of the world discussing a 16-year-old’s virginity, it is an intersting insight into ridiculous fame crashing headlong into real people in real family.

Pattie Mallette was just 18 when she became pregnant with Justin, who was born on March 1, 1994, in Stratford, Ontario. She worked low paying office jobs as she raised Justin as a single mother.

While Justin taught himself  to play the piano, guitar and trumpet by the age of 12, Pattie began posting videos of his performances on YouTube with a clear strategy in mind.

It seems that she had a strong Christian faith and at some point, as many parents do, had in a very real way ‘given’ her son over into God’s hands, seeing him as a possible modern day prophet Samuel.Read More »

Trouble with trust except where it belongs

Sorry, but I don’t trust the Israelis and I don’t trust the Palestinians. I don’t trust the activists and I don’t trust the media. And that’s just one issue.

I don’t trust the miners and their crying poor, and I don’t trust, but less, the unions and politicians pushing the super tax.

I don’t trust the scientists who advocate climate change and I don’t trust those that deny it and I don’t trust myself to know the truth if I heard it.

I’m struggling to trust all the books claiming new-ancient ways of doing church because the next book always qualifies the first and starts to sound like what we are already doing.

I don’t trust high-profile Christians in the marketplace to always do the right thing because I can’t always do the right thing and I probably face less pressure than they do.

I often don’t trust journalism (sorry my friends) today because opinion has taken over and whose opinion is it anyway.

I do trust Tony Abbott when he tells us that some of the time he can’t be trusted but I’m not sure if that leaves me ahead or behind.

I don’t trust the next great big thing that’s going to change the world, even those with a Christian veneer, because humans have always had the next big thing and the first was called Babel.

It’s no surprise or tragedy that trust is so often unwarranted. We are all so easily swayed by our own gain whether it be for wealth, warmth or welcome.

Strangely, I do trust a God who I have never seen or heard, who leads me beside stormy waters and quieteth not my soul. Because just when I think I’ve had it, the storm abates, the peace comes and I see and hear him in some way deeper than my senses.

I trust Jesus, and even as I write these words, I feel his goodness pervading in a way that warms my soul and encourages me to love this world anyway.

I trust my wife, the truest heart I’ve ever met, and I trust my love for her and our children, and them for us, trust to die by. And when I think about it there are many family and friends I trust deeply.

Perhaps I’m more trusting that I realise. Knowing helps trusting but knowing is more elusive than ever.

As for the big, wide world out there, it’s not that I’m untrusting, but I’m learning that we don’t need to trust to love and have faith. They are a sacrifice of a different kind… PH