Sermons

What river runs through your life?

What river runs through your life?

Maybe you lived by it.  Maybe you holidayed beside it.

What did your river teach you?

Braided River4

This is the Tawa Union Church logo.  I am told it is a depiction of a braided river.  What does the logo represent for us?  What does it say about who we are and what we value?

I once got talking to a retired engineer, at the mouth of the Waitaki river.  There are fishing camps north and south of the river mouth and he lived in one of them.  He had come down, as I had, to look at the river.  He told me that there is very little river sand in the river.  Because of that boats on the river need special anchors that will grab the gravel sufficiently to hold them.  He recommended a couple of spikes attached to a couple of car suspension springs welded to a short length of railway iron.

He said that only around a third of the water from the river flows above the surface of the shingle that forms its bed.  The rest flows through the shingle which acts like a giant filter.

All large rivers have plumes where they enter the sea.  Often they are obvious after a storm; the water from the swollen river is a very different colour to that of the surrounding sea.  The fresh water plume from the Waitaki extends a long way out to sea.  In the days of sailing ships, ships were able to replenish their drinking water without having to come in to land.

My mother’s old neighbour is a geography teacher at the Girl’s College.  Each year she takes the girls on a field trip along the length of the river.  I asked her where the river begins.  She laughed.  ‘It is usually traced from the beginning of its longest tributary,’ she said.  ‘We say it begins at the Temple Basin at the head of Lake Ohau.’  She gets the girls to observe and measure the river stones along the course of the river.  ‘It is a bit hit and miss, because the three hydro dams on the Waitaki hamper the movement of the stones down the river.

ISS_Waitaki_River,_Canterbury_and_OtagoThe Waitaki has one of the biggest catchment areas of any river in New Zealand.  Snow melt from the Temple Valley, Mount Cook, Mt Tasman and from further north in the Southern Alps, feeds the glacial lakes of Ohau, Pukaki and Tekapo.  Their rivers flow into the hydro lake of Benmore.  When it leaves Benmore it is finally called the Waitaki, and it passes through two more hydro lakes on its 110 km journey to the sea.  It is a braided river.  It frequently divides and merges along its course.  While its main channel is always deep, some of its strands are stream-like and easily waded.  With all this movement you might think that the overall course of the river would be full of twists and bends.  It is not.  If you look at this aerial photo you can see that the course of the river from when it leaves Benmore is surprisingly straight.

taieri-scroll-plainIts straight course is very different from the course of the river that was part of my growing up, the Taieri River.  The Taieri is a river full of sinuous bends.  In fact, its whole course is one great bend.  Its mouth is not all that far from its source as the crow flies.  In rivers that snake like the Taieri, sometimes the beginning of one of its bends is quite close to the end of the bend.  When the river floods it may change its course and carve a short cut through the land separating the beginning and the end of the bend.  When the flood recedes the bend is now cut off from the river.  It has become what is called an oxbow lake.  Given that it no longer has an inlet or an outlet it may eventually dry out.  In the upper reaches of the Taieri River there is a scroll plain where this has happened over and over.

We are commissioning people to be our leaders this morning.  How does all this talk about rivers connect with our life together at Tawa Union Church?  What questions does it raise for us?

I want to draw your attention to three areas that might bear our consideration.  You may have others.

1)The first is to do with habitat.  Braided rivers are full of shingle islands.  These islands lying within the riverbed between the strands of the river teem with insects.  This makes the islands an attractive habitat for our native wading and water birds –  oyster catchers, banded dotterels, wrybills and the rare black stilts.

 And the river isn’t just home to the waders.  I knew someone years ago who did some bird counting for DOC along the Waitaki.  He came back with an incredible photo of a New Zealand falcon.  He had unwittingly got too close to its nest and it buzzed him.  He said he could feel the wind from wings on the top of his head.  He held his ground and when the falcon came again he took the photo.  Its wings were fully spread as it pulled itself up from its dive, just avoiding him.

These precious habitats need to be considered when it comes to management of the water ways.  Changes in water flow can lead to increases in weeds.  It may also mean that predators like wild cats and rats and ferrets can reach nests and young birds more readily.

What are we doing to identify and nurture the precious life that exists along and between the strands of our TUC water way? 

2) A place of constant movement and change   Instability and change are inevitable features of braided river systems.  These river systems are in constant movement.  Small shingle bars appear and disappear as river channels shift and water flows vary.  Birds that nest in these areas have adapted to these changes.  For instance, many of these birds do not build elaborate nests, so they can rebuild them quickly if destroyed by flood.

How lightly are we holding things?

Are we living expecting things will change?  Because on a braided river they certainly will. 

3) Connecting, disconnecting and reconnecting

Along a braided river the different water courses within the river bed are always moving in and out of each other.  But the overall course of the river is remarkably straight; it is clearly heading in the same direction.  At TUC we are very proud of our different strands – different services, different programmes for different tastes and needs.  We are good at recognising difference and making space for it.   But how good are we at connecting and reconnecting and at moving together across the strands?  Are we only this wonderful community because we don’t see much of one another?  If that were so it would be a poor sort of Christian unity, and it would only pay lip service to our diversity as well, because we would never be getting close enough to really get to know our differences.

Our Tawa Union Church logo has a pleasing balance to it, with the curves on either side of the main stream suggesting alternate strands.

Does our logo look closer to a river with ox bow lakes or a braided river/ Or, more importantly, are we acting like a braided river or are we simply making ox bows and a scroll plain?

When did you last have a meaningful interaction with someone outside of the group you usually relate to in TUC?  What are you going to do about that?

Clare Lind

Beware of the Kids :- John 6:1-12

You know the story of the Emperor’s new clothes.

The Emperor was a very vain man.  He loved fine clothes.  A parade was coming up on his Imperial calendar; it was time to get a new outfit.  So tailors were invited to come up with something that was fit for an Emperor.

Emperor's New ClothesTwo confidence tricksters, who knew of the Emperor’s vanity and his love of clothes, came forward.  They told the Emperor that they could produce a set of clothes for him that would be so fine and exquisite that those with common eyes would not even be able to see them.  Only those whose tastes were noble and refined, like the Emperor’s, would be able to appreciate them.

Well that well and truly appealed to the Emperor’s sense of superiority, and the two tricksters got the job.  They insisted on working in secret, and they frequently came back to ask for money for this material or that.  It was turning into the most expensive set of garments the Emperor had ever had made.  ‘Still,’ the Emperor reasoned, ‘that was to be expected given the exquisiteness of the outfit.’

Finally the day to try on the outfit arrived.  With great anticipation the Emperor entered the fitting room.  But to his horror when the tricksters displayed what they said was the outfit the Emperor couldn’t see it.  They made a great show of helping him into it.  Smoothing a wrinkle here, removing a thread there, and they pronounced it a perfect fit.  The Emperor looked at himself in the mirror.  It was not any more visible to him with the mirror, than it was without it.

The Emperor is a snob, and he is caught by that.  He is too embarrassed to question what he is being told by the tricksters, because that might mean admitting that he is too common and unrefined to see what they are telling him is there.  And what if members of his court can see them and he can’t?  That would mean that there were people in his court who were more noble and refined than he is.  So he acts as though he can see them.  And he goes in the parade wearing his wonderful new costume, which is so exquisite that only those of noble tastes can see it.

And his entire court goes along with it.  They are either as snobbish as he is, or they are aware of who pays their bills.  And so the parade goes on, until a child who has no social etiquette whatsoever, nor any political sense ….  a child who is not afraid to trust what his eyes tell him, asks his parents in an over loud voice, ‘Why isn’t the Emperor wearing any clothes?’

And so the child becomes the truth teller for the crowd and the Emperor.  He gives permission to the people to acknowledge what is in front of their eyes.  He may be watching an Emperor, but that child is, at that point, the most powerful person on the street.

…..

Old_family_photo_by_allwellHave a look at this photo.  It illustrates a social and family expectation.

It is telling us that these boys are miniatures of their Father.  They are dressed like him; they stand in the same pose as him.  They are growing into him.  (If there had been girls, perhaps they would have sat on the near side of their mother on chairs that got progressively smaller).

Remember the boy in the story who told it as he saw it.  Remember the times when children, whom you know, have done that.  Do not discount the wisdom that is sitting there in your children and grandchildren, your nephews and nieces and great nephews and nieces.  Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that we are the only ones with things to teach.  That they are empty containers waiting for all our knowledge and wisdom.  That they are somehow meant to echo everything that we think and so reassure us of our conclusions and our prejudices.  God did not give us our children to make them into miniatures of ourselves.

Yes we will undoubtedly shape them, and they may end up having interests and views of life and of God that are not far different from our own….  Or they may not.  For those who keep an eye on children, one of the hardest things to learn and relearn is that those under our care need the freedom to make their own journeys at their own pace.  To allow someone that freedom is an act of love.

We are not the same people as we were at 5 or 15, or for the older among us, 25, 45, 60…  We need to allow others that same privilege of growth and discovery.  If we do that we may be in a place to make some discoveries of our own, through them.  Remember the boy in the story.

It is quite possible that the children whom we rub shoulders with, may grasp a part of the truth that we have never noticed or have long since forgotten.  Their journey may encourage and inform our own.

…..

The story of the Feeding of the 5000 is found in all four gospels.  John’s account is the only one that mentions the boy.  The other gospels just give a count of the loaves and the fish.  John’s mention of the boy is responsible for turning this story into the Sunday School lesson favourite that it has become.  This is a story that is frequently used to teach our children that even children can do helpful, kind things (which is true, children can do kind and helpful things, and we would want to encourage them to do so).  However we don’t want to be eyeballing the children to let the adults off the hook.  You see the real barb in this story is for the adults.

Beware of the kidsLet’s have a think about that boy in the Bible.

How did he know that Jesus and his disciples were talking about food and how to cater for the crowd.  For that boy to know, he was most likely close in to where Jesus and his disciples were.  He was not among a bunch of kids mucking about on the edge of the crowd at the lake shore.

Did Andrew see him nearby and notice his lunch box?  Or had the boy wormed his way through the crowd (as children are good at doing)?  Was he watching, and did he overhear Jesus and the disciples conversing and so offer what he had to Andrew?

The story doesn’t tell us.  But when Andrew, the disciple, draws attention to the boy, Andrew doesn’t do it because he believes it is the solution to the catering problem.  He does it as a possibility to be discarded.  ‘There’s a boy here with 5 little loaves of barley bread and a couple of fish.  But what good is that with all these people?’  It is a bit like saying, ‘well we could go that way, but we know that just around the corner the bridge is out, so we wouldn’t get very far.’

But even if Andrew didn’t see it as a solution, I think that the boy may have offered it as a solution.  Interestingly, Jesus takes it as one, or uses it as the basis for one.  This is a subversive story.  The gospel readings talk about a crowd of around 5000 men.  They don’t count the women and the kids, though we know that women were among Jesus’ disciples and this boy indicates the presence of children.  It was a mixed group of varying ages who had come out to hear Jesus.  Around 5000 men in that crowd, but the germ of a solution has come from one of those who weren’t counted.  It has come from a child.

It can be foolish and arrogant to discount the ones that don’t count.

Beware of the kids….  The ones that tell it like it is, that tell the truth….  The ones that observe and wonder….  The ones that aren’t put off from doing or suggesting something because the grownups think it is impractical.  If you want a staid and settled life instead of a continuing journey, watch out for those kids.

 

Something About Mary – Luke 1:46-55

We have heard the story of Esther- the courageous wife and queen. We have heard the story of Ruth, the loyal and loving daughter in law. Today we come to the story of Mary, a woman who is famous for being a mother – the mother of Jesus.

Amid Catholic and orthodox circles Mary receives a lot more attention than Protestants tend to give her. In Catholicism, May is Mary Month. In different places around the world there are processions that venerate Mary. These celebrations celebrate the Catholic understanding of Mary as the Queen of Heaven (after all her Son is a King)

Some of these processions have a number of displays, with each display picking up a different title for Mary and honouring it. Some are large outdoor processions. But in many churches the procession may be a small one inside, where a statue of Mary is carried around and decorated with a garland of flowers.

That most Catholic of practices, the rosary has a strong focus on Mary. Legend has it that the concept of rosary beads as a prompt for prayer, came to St Dominic in the 13th century when he had a vision of the Virgin Mary. The prayer that is repeated most often in the course of saying the Rosary is the Hail Mary.

‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.’ That part is a repeat of the Angel Gabriel’s words to Mary when he announces to Mary that she will have a son.

It is followed by a prayer…

‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our need.’

The mysteries that are remembered during the saying of the rosary recall events from Mary’s life as well as Jesus’. The purpose of the rosary is to come to Christ through Mary and so to come to the Father through Christ.

mary2No doubt you have seen pictures similar to this of Mary.

Of the three Jewish women we have talked about – Esther, Ruth and Mary, – Mary is the most in danger of being lost under all the veneration that has come her way; buried among all the things that people have wanted to put upon her.

We were looking at some old photos the other day, some of them very old. There was a severe one of my Great grandmother, surrounded by eight of her nine children. There was one of my mum, looking slightly hassled as she tried unsuccessfully to get four of her five children to look at the camera. There was one of me looking rather bleary, taken not long after the birth of our oldest.

We looked nothing like this depiction of Mary. There was nothing serene or sentimental about those images of motherhood. My mother wasn’t sentimental about her parenting of us, and great grandmother Jensen didn’t look the sentimental sort at all. While I have enjoyed being a parent tremendously I have never been sentimental about it.

In fact I don’t think that I have never met any woman who has been sentimental about her own motherhood. A woman might get sentimental about their mother’s motherhood, or the Duchess of Cornwall’s motherhood, for instance, but probably not their own. Sentimentality requires a certain disconnect and distance. Your own motherhood is, I suspect, too particular and concrete and close to allow you that distance.

What I am saying, then, is that the overlay that has stuck to Mary over centuries of veneration, almost certainly doesn’t reflect how she thought about herself and her role in raising Jesus and the rest of her family. She would have been far too busy and immersed in the concrete realities of life to ever think of herself like this, if she even possessed a shiny surface to look at herself in. It is also unlikely that Jesus and his brothers and sisters thought of Mary, in this sort of idealised way. She wasn’t a cartoon or an icon. She was their mum, with all that meant in warmth and grumpiness and rightness and wrongness, and similarities with and distinctness from anyone else’s mum.

As a young person on the edge of adulthood she had said, ‘yes’ to an astonishing proposition from God, and learned that ‘yes’s’ to God can have far reaching implications and consequences. Almost certainly that dawned on her long before she found herself heavily pregnant and a long way from home. And no doubt, as a mother, she said, ‘Yes’, again and again. For that is what most mothers do in the long haul commitment they make to the wellbeing of their family.

mum and toddlerIt is perhaps their long haul commitment to that, that puts a mother among the most influential people in her children’s lives. However you think the divine and human worked out in Jesus, (as if we can ever really know), Mary would have left her mark on him. Hers is the voice that comforted him and the others. She was the one who taught him his first words and who sang to him as she rocked him to sleep. The one who told him stories.

Mary’s song, which we heard this morning, is steeped in the Jewish scriptures. It has strong similarities with the song of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Although the pleasure that Hannah expresses at enemies getting their just desserts, has no part in Mary’s song.

What is interesting is that it has the same turning upside down of the social order that is found in Jesus’ teaching and interactions with people. It is not Mary’s invention, of course. The Jewish prophets were talking this way long before Mary. But Mary has grasped it. The God she has said ‘yes’ to is the God who restores the fortunes of the poor and who feeds the hungry, who brings down the arrogant and makes those who expect to come first, and grab the most, wait.

That is not so far from the Isaiah passage that Jesus uses 3 chapters later, to announce his ministry.

‘The Spirit of the Lord has come upon me, and has chosen me to tell good news to the poor, proclaim release to the prisoner, give sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed.’

One of the unusual and controversial things about Jesus the rabbi was the way that he was happy to teach women and even include them in his inner circle. That says something about God’s valuing of people, whatever their gender. Perhaps it also says something about Mary, his mother, and the intelligence and openness to God that he had seen in her.

God is a mystery. But we know how humanity works. It is inevitable that something of Mary would have rubbed off on her son.

Clare Lind

A Prayer for the World

A Prayer for the World ……by Ron Bichan

A photo in the news this week
of a small child being carried dead from the surf
has haunted the world –
a living reproach upon how some
conduct themselves towards others.
A prolonged cry for action
to deal with refugees has been sounded.
Something has to be done,
by someone, somewhere.
Creator God, see our concern
and send forth your light
through lives such as ours.

 

People are gathering in other places
(from all over the place).
… driven by wars, by poverty,
by pollution of their space,
by fear of their neighbours,
by climate changing
where they have lived for ages passed.
Loving God, we cry out on their behalf,
send forth your light and your truth,
through lives such as ours.

 

People are searching for work, for a safe home,
for space free from violence for their loved ones,
for someone who will care in a careless world.
God of peace, let Jesus be found sowing his peace.
send forth your light and your truth
through lives such as ours.

 

In the faces of so many we see written
the dangers  they have passed through,
The privations they have experienced,
and the evil they have suffered.
God grant that somewhere on this earth
there may be new life for them.
Send forth your light and your truth
Through lives such as ours.

 

These faces may haunt us for a while,
But what next, O God?
Will our response condemn us also?
Will there be some who can open their lives
to the ones who stumble along life’s way?
God grant that there will be an inn
to shelter them,
A kindly heart to welcome them,
open hands to offer sustenance,
healing and mercy
from whatever wrong has been done.

 

Send forth your light and your truth,
Through lives such as ours.
 

                                                                       Ron Bichan

A Bad Day – a story for Girls’ Brigade

It had been a bad day… a really bad day.  When Ella thought about it, it was hard to think of anything that had gone right.  She had woken up late, and by the time she got down to breakfast her little brother had eaten the last of the Coco Pops, and that had meant that Ella had had to have cornflakes.  When she grumbled about it, her mum said, ‘Well there is always toast.’

‘I don’t want toast,’ said Ella.

‘You were happy with toast yesterday,’ said her Mum.

‘That was yesterday,’ said Ella.

‘Well, it will have to be cornflakes, then.’  And her mum put a bowl of cornflakes down in front of her.  Ella looked at the bowl of cornflakes.  She sighed and took a couple of mouthfuls from it.  It was not as good as coco pops.  Her brother Hamish was down from the table now and playing with his Duplo in the lounge.  ‘Hamish gets all the good things,’ she said.  ‘He is allowed to play and he ate all the coco pops.  He is full of coco pops happiness… my coco pops happiness.’

Her mother was fixing the lunches at the kitchen bench.  ‘Are you eating up Ella? Come on we need to head out to school soon.’  Ella took another mouthful of cornflakes.  Then she pushed her spoon through the middle of them and made a channel of milk down the centre of the bowl.  They had been learning about New Zealand at school.  ‘This is the North Island and this is the South Island and this is the Milk Strait,’ she said to herself.

‘Ella, are you eating or playing?’

Ella took another spoonful of cornflakes.’  and the North Island is not so big anymore.’

Hamish came in to show her the truck he had built.

‘That is not a very good one,’  she said.

‘Tis good one,’  said Hamish and his bottom lip trembled.

 ‘Teeth, Ella!’ called her mum from the kitchen.

Ella ran to the bathroom before Hamish started to cry.

Her Mum came in to the dining room and picked up Hamish.  ‘There, there, Hamish, what are you crying for?’ she said.  ‘What a lovely truck you have made.  Ella,’ she called ‘where is your lunchbox.  It is not in your bag and it is not on the bench.’

The lunch box was nowhere to be found.  ‘It’s a good lunchbox.  You need to look for it at school,’  said her Mum.

So Ella ended up having to take her lunch in her old lunchbox with the embarrassing Little Mermaid picture on it.  ‘I am so over the Little Mermaid,’ she scowled as she climbed into her booster seat in the back of the car.  They were late for school because of the lunchbox, and Mrs Rennie, her teacher, sent her to the office because she had already marked the roll.  It was not a good day.

At playtime Suzy Swanson didn’t want to play with her because she wanted to play with Bronwyn Wright instead.  That meant that Ella had to play with Elizabeth Fraser and Moana Erueti.  Moana was all right but Elizabeth was bossy.

There were ham sandwiches in her lunch, when her Mum knew that she liked Nutella ones.  Elizabeth was so bossy that Ella went off to play on the bars by herself.  It looked like Moana was thinking about joining her but in the end she didn’t.

Mrs Rennie took them to the library after lunch, but Ella wasn’t allowed to get a book out because she had forgotten to bring the book, that she did have out, back.  She was mad about that, because it wasn’t much of a book.  It was all about ice skating.  She had only got it out because Suzy Swanson liked ice skating, and Suzy was her friend.  But not today.  Suzy was sitting down beside Bronwyn Wright looking at a magazine together and smiling.  ‘I hope she sits on a nettle,’ thought Ella.

Just before home time Mrs Rennie took them out for PE.  They played four square, but today Ella couldn’t get past the second square.  She was sure that Bobby Williams had called her out when she wasn’t.  It was a bad, bad day.

Mum was a bit late to pick her up so she had to wait.  When she climbed in she kicked something under Mum’s seat with her foot.  It was her lunch box.  ‘Not much use finding it now!’ she thought.  Then they had to go shopping for a raincoat for Hamish because he was getting too big for the one he had.  There was a purple jacket that Ella liked, but Mum said that her one had lots of wear in it yet.  Hamish was singing about his new coat as he held on to it in his car seat in the back of the car.   And that just made Ella think about how she wasn’t allowed one.

‘You know,’ she announced when they got home ‘ I might just look for a new family.’  And she stomped up the passage kicking Hamish’s truck to pieces on the way, and slamming the door to her room.  A minute later while Mum was busy giving Hamish a hug, she quietly opened the door and stuck a sign on it.  ‘KEEP OUT!!!’

It was very quiet down that end of the passage for a long time.  When Dad opened the door to tell her it was teatime Ella was asleep.  He closed the door again quietly.

When he came back again later with a tray of food Ella was awake.  ‘Hey, kiddo,’ he said, ‘how was your day?’

‘Not so good,’ she said.

‘Tell me about it.’

And so she did.  ‘Whew,’ he whistled, ‘that was quite a day, wasn’t it?’

‘Yep,’ she said, it was a bad, bad day.

And that night after her bath, her dad sat on her bed and read her a story.

………………….

Princess AngieThe tiny kingdom of Fifefirey was ruled by the Fury family.  Princess Angie was a Fury.  From the time she was born she could bellow so loud that it could be heard around the greater part of the Kingdom. 

‘Ah,’ said her father, King Ferdinand the Furious, proudly, ‘Listen to that wailing.  That is the sound of a Fury.’ 

Her mother, Queen Jane, bought ear muffs. 

By the time she was three Princess Angie could yell so loudly that the vibrations would knock pictures off the walls two rooms away.  She had a fearsome temper.  There was a ding in her nursery wall where she had hurled the golden rattle, which her father had foolishly given her.  It was lucky for her that she was a princess or she would have had no toys that were unbroken.  Her nannies never stayed long.  Her tutors came and went.  She was her mother’s worry and her father’s pride and joy.  ‘Such lungs!’ he would exclaim.  ‘Such spirit! Angie, my angel,’ he would call her.  But to almost everyone else she was ‘Angie the Angry.’ 

Ferdinand the FuriousAngie may have been a princess, but her life was touched early by tragedy.  Her father, King Ferdinand, had a temper as fierce as his daughter’s.  Queen Jane did her best to contain it, but one day when his toast was too cold, and his bath was too hot, and his prime minister was too late, he picked up a lead candlestick and hurled it at the Palace window.  Unfortunately it hit the masonry and bounced back and hit him on the head. 

It was a tragic and untimely end – death as a result of an accident at his own hand.  Queen Jane had to rule in his place until Princess Angie was old enough to take over.

PatienceAngie had a cousin on her mother’s side whose name was Patience Fairweather.  It can be lonely being a princess, and Patience was Angie’s very best friend.  Patience was a sweet girl with a lovely singing voice.  Whenever Angie was worked up over something Patience could somehow quieten her down.  She never shouted at her.  She did not run to and fro like the adults did.  She just sat and swung her legs and hummed or sang or played.  In fact she acted as though Angie wasn’t even in the room.  After a while Angie would blow herself out, enough to see that there was just her and Patience, and she would quieten down.  Then Patience would say, ‘ Hey Ange want to do this?’ or ‘Shall we play that?’ The adults would return to find the 2 girls happily at play.  Patience was a very good friend.

Then one day Patience got sick, and quite suddenly she died.  Everybody was sad.  Patience was such a loveable girl.  Angie was sad too.  She was sad and angry all at the same time.  In fact she was furious.  She shut herself in her room and she bellowed and she broke things, and people were afraid to enter in case she threw something at them.  She was in there for days and the queen was very worried.  She summoned the Royal Physician. 

The Physician looked around the family portraits of all the Fury’s on the wall, all the old kings and queens of Fifefirey, including the late king.  ‘Your Majesty,’ he sighed ‘it is easier to deal with a little fury than a big one,’ he said.  ‘If you act now you may avert a bigger tragedy later.’

Ferdinand the Fierce1The Queen looked at the portraits too… So many of those Furys had died young.  …her own husband, King Ferdinand the Furious… his father King Ferdinand the Fierce, who had simply exploded in rage, in an explosion so fierce that they never ever found his royal slippers.  The Royal Physicist at the time had maintained that they must have spontaneously combusted.  His uncle Vernon the Volatile who had walked off a cliff in blind fury.  Such a waste of life.  And here was her own little Angie threatening to go the same way.

That made Queen Jane angry, in a way that she had never been angry before.  She had had enough of this Fury family and the way it destroyed itself.  It could not be allowed to continue to happen.  She marched down to Princess Angie’s room, and ducked the jug of juice that was thrown at her.  ‘You are coming with me’, she said.  ‘I have something to show you.’  She grabbed her daughter’s hand.  Princess Angie was so surprised that she went with her.  They stood in front of the family portraits and Queen Jane told her daughter all the stories about them that she knew….  so many people who died too young destroyed by their anger.

Queen JaneShe gave her daughter a hug and looked her in the eyes.  ‘I know you are upset because Patience died.  I am upset too.  She was a wonderful girl and a very good friend to you.  Life can be hard, Angie.  Often it doesn’t turn out as we wanted.   But do you think that shutting yourself in your room, and trying to hurt anyone who comes near you, is a good way to remember Patience?  Do you think Patience would want you to do that?  Wouldn’t it be better to remember Patience by doing some of the things that you used to like doing together?

It is not wrong to feel angry, but you can choose what you do with it.  You mean so much to me.  I would be so terribly sad if you chose to let anger destroy you.’  And the Queen shed a tear or two and Princess Angie did as well. 

Princess Angie still got angry.  Sometimes she got very angry, but somewhere in her anger her mother’s words would come to her.  ‘You can choose what to do with it Angie.  You mean so much to me that I would be terribly sad if you chose to let anger destroy you.’  And Princess Angie would remember her friend Patience, and she would sit where she and Patience used to sit and she would hum one of the tunes that Patience used to hum.  And when she did that, it seemed like Patience wasn’t so far away from her after all, and somehow her anger dissolved away.

……………………

‘And that, Princess Ella, is the end of the story.’

‘Thanks Dad,’ said Ella.  She leant over and gave him a kiss.  ‘I think I will stay in this family after all.’

‘That’s a relief,’ said Dad.  ‘You know, of course, that in this family we don’t slam doors.

Ella nodded.  ‘Sorry,’ she said.

‘Hey, tomorrow is a new day,’ said her dad.  ‘And at least you found your lunch box.’  And with that he kissed her goodnight.

A Matter of Love:- Romans 13:8 -14:3

I worked with university students for a while. I can remember reading over an essay for an overseas student once to check his grammar. It was an economics essay from memory. It was full of unnecessarily big words! Even more than a subject like economics would normally use. It was as though he had gone to the thesaurus and picked the longest equivalent word in the list and put that in his essay. I challenged him on it, and said ‘Why have you said it that way when you could have just said this? Because this is all you mean isn’t it?’

It was a conversation between an English Graduate and a commerce student with English as a second language. But he didn’t understand that if something can be put simply, that is probably the best way to put it. He made the assumption that many people who are not trained to write make. He thought that the longer the word, the more impressive and important things will sound… The more likely that the essay will get a good grade, because the marker will think this person must know what they are talking about, because look at the words that they are using! …Big, long dictionary words.

But that is actually not so. Unless it is a French vocabulary test it’s the thought that matters more than the words.

It is an interesting thing about the English language, that it is the short words rather than the long words that are most important. Maybe that is so in other languages as well. Unless it is a technical situation the short words are generally more useful and important than the longer words. ‘Go’ is more important than ‘proceed’, ‘help’ is more important than ‘render assistance’, ‘car’ is more important than ‘automobile.’

In the English speaking world the most important things are usually said with words of 3 syllables or less.  And one of those words, one of the most important, is ‘Love’. Four letters, one syllable, but with more meanings and nuances than we will ever know. ‘Love’.

As Paul turns towards the end of his letter to the Roman Church to give advice on how they should live as a Christian community, how they should relate to one another and to the wider community beyond the church this little word, ‘love’ and its practical implications crop up again and again.

In the first part of our reading he makes a point that is similar to the one that I have made about the short word for something being the most important. He refers to the Jewish law and its many commandments stretching over whole books in the Bible, and he says, ‘Look, this is what it all boils down to… This one overarching commandment, ‘Love others as you love yourself’. All the complexity of the law, and chapter after chapter of the law, can be summed up in this short word, ‘love’. It is all that the law demands. Love. In your life together, this is what you owe one another. Love.

Paul goes on to encourage the church members in Rome to be up and active when it comes to living out their Christian faith. He reminds them that they are part of the new thing that God is bringing into the world through Jesus Christ. They are part of the coming dawn. They need to let their lives be defined by that rather than by the night that is coming to an end… the night where deeds are characterised by selfishness, and abusiveness, disrespect, quarrelling and jealousy.

Now we may want to argue with some of this light and dark language. We might want to point out that the night is not completely black, that those who say they belong to the light are not without their darkness and that the promised dawn is a long time coming. But those arguments do not get us off the hook with the central challenge of what Paul is saying. Yes there has always been some light in the darkness There is a strong biblical tradition that the whole world is God’s and that God’s Spirit ‘blows both inside and outside the fences’ (J.K. Baxter). And yes the people of God don’t have a clean record, apart from being in Christ. And yes the dawn has proved to be further away than anyone in the early church envisaged.

But to live mostly by self- interest, to think that the meaning of life is to have more and more things, to be ground down by work, to not know the freedom that comes through knowing the love of God, to treat others as less than human, to live in fear, to believe that might is right, to trash the earth, to give no thought for others or for tomorrow… Surely these are forms of darkness or blindness. This is the sort of night that Paul says is coming to an end. Sad, dark, dangerous ways of living together that even many modern pundits are warning must come to an end, saying they are undesirable and unsustainable.

The word apocalyptic means something that is revealed or disclosed. The Christian faith is an apocalyptic faith. It is focussed on a future that started with Jesus Christ and is still in the process of being fully revealed. But what will be revealed will be in keeping with what Jesus talked about when he talked about God’s Kingdom. It will be in keeping with the life he lived. So Jesus is not only the beginning of this revelation of God’s new future, he is the pattern for it as well. He is our pattern… a pattern of self- giving love.

And so, when Paul encourages the Christians to live as though the future is here, he tells them to keep the Lord Jesus Christ close, as close as the clothes on their backs. Jesus is their model and their guide into God’s future – a future that operates in a very different way to the politics, social norms and expectations of the great city of Rome where they lived and worked…. A future that operates in a different way to greater Wellington where we live and work. Keep Jesus close Paul says, then you won’t be so easily side tracked by your own selfishness.

Our reading this morning ended with Paul tackling an issue that divided the Roman church, about whether it was alright to eat meat or not. If the meat was sold at the market place there was no way to know how and where the animal it came from was killed. That meant that it may have come from a pagan temple. Some were very bothered about this issue and others not much at all. Paul’s response is interesting. ‘Learn to live with your differences’, he says. ‘Do what your conscience tells you and allow others the space to do what their conscience tells them. Don’t be critical of someone because they don’t share your way of looking at things. God has welcomed them and so should you.’ Just as Jesus is the pattern for the Christian life, God’s hospitality to all sorts is the pattern for the Christian community.

Paul makes it clear then that if you are going to be part of God’s future today the way you do things will be challenged. Jesus’s pattern is not a focus on oneself but a focus on others. God’s hospitality is not just toward a particular group that mostly believes the same. God welcomes people who are like us and people who are not at all like us. And when we find that hard to handle it is not God that needs to change.

Love signThat word love is a simple, sweet sentimental little word from a distance. But up close and personal it has the power to challenge us to the core and change us. It is a tough word that pushes us out beyond ourselves to engage honestly and humbly with others. And we will begin to recognise that people say love in all sorts of ways… that some of them have perhaps been saying it to us all of our lives even though they hardly ever spoke the word out loud.

It is a word that will take us to our limits. It is a word that will force us to lean on God, because only then will we have the strength to love as God has loved us. If we take that track we will learn again and again that God is love. And that that love is spoken to us through other people, through mercies on the way, through the beauty and the steadying rhythms of the world around us. And sometimes we may even catch sight of the way that God has spoken love into other’s lives through us.

‘Love others as yourself’. ‘Be ready to live in the light.’ ‘Let The Lord Jesus be as near to you as the clothes you wear. Then you won’t act selfishly’ ‘Welcome all the Lord’s followers…. After all, God welcomes everyone.’ Love…. Practical love. It all boils down to love.

Hagar and Ishmael – Genesis 16 & 21

Recently a baby was brought into the Waikato Hospital A&E. It had been knocked around in its own home.  Because of the severity of its injuries it was transferred to Starship Hospital in Auckland.  A few days later it died.  It was 9 months old. Read more →

Significant Women 4: Sister Annie Henry (1879- 1971) Missionary to the Urewera, New Zealand

Ann Henry was born in the Deep South in 1879.  Her father was a saw miller.  She was educated at the local school and then at Riverton District High School.

Annie HenryShe became a teacher and was heavily involved in Sunday School and Bible Class movements.  By the turn of the century she had moved to the North Island, and in 1913 she was appointed as the first matron of Presbyterian Manunui Boys’ Agricultural College which was close to Taumarunui.

She went on from there to train as a deaconess.  During that time she made a start on learning Maori.  At the beginning of 1917 she was appointed by the Presbyterian Church as a missionary to Tuhoe.  She was to be based at Ruatahuna.

Tuhoe leaders had been petitioning the government to establish a school to serve the area for a number of years.  Relationships with Tuhoe and government had been rocky.  Things had come to a head just a year before Annie’s arrival in the district.  Fearful of what was going on at Maungapohatu in the Ureweras and suspicious of the following that the Maori prophet Rua Kenana had drawn around himself, government troops had stormed the pa and arrested Rua and taken him off to prison.  Rua’s son was among the fatalities of the day’s action.

When Annie turned up with a companion, Ms Monfries, at Rotorua, they were met by educationist and Presbyterian, William Bird, who remarked that they must have been from the farthest end of Southland, because no woman living any nearer than that would dream of entering the Ureweras at that time.

Presbyterian Maori mission minutes recorded:- ‘There were two places, Te Whaiti and Ruatahuna where the children run like hares from the sight of a Pakeha; where there are no schools and no other church has even attempted work; where the natives are so poor and so unlearned in the cultivation of their land that in winter they are on the verge of starvation.  Mr Bird assured her that the government would put up a school whenever someone goes in and gathers the children together.’

Ruatahuna was very isolated.  It took the women several days to make the journey in from Rotorua.  They had a car for the first day.  However the roads proved too taxing for it.  The radiator kept overheating, the engine refused to turn over when cranked and they often had to push.  In the end they gave up and walked to give the car a rest.

The next day they had a horse and buggy.  But on the steep winding road the horse was unable to take them and their luggage, so again they had to walk a lot.  The local constable was about to send out a search party when they finally arrived well after midnight.

The women had been offered a three bedroom whare in which to set up their new school.  Two of its rooms had dirt floors and it had holes for windows.  By this stage Ms Monfries was ready to go back home.  Even Sister Annie’s optimism was severely challenged when the local rats visited them during the night.  The two women lost no time finding alternative accommodation in the morning.

The arrival of two white women created a stir.  Many in the community had never seen a white woman.  One later recorded that he was quite young when he saw Sister riding along.  He got such a shock that he jumped the farm fence and tore off into the bush.  He thought that he had seen a ghost.

Tuhoe CountryA year later, Rev John Laughton arrived at Ruatahuna.  Annie and John Laughton were to forge a firm friendship and a close working partnership.  Laughton had been posted to Rua’s stronghold, Maungapohatu, to set up a school and do other mission work there.  Rua had by this time returned from prison.  While John Laughton was waiting for permission to proceed there, he and Rev Henry Fletcher with the help of local Maori built a schoolhouse out of palings for Sister Annie and her pupils.

John Laughton had no teaching experience.  Sister Annie accompanied him to Maungapohatu and helped him to set up the school there.  She continued to keep an eye on its progress and would cart in supplies for it when she visited.  It was 30 kms from Ruatahuna to Maungapohatu.  On one occasion she famously took over a big school blackboard by packhorse for Laughton’s school.

Sister Annie’s school roll grew rapidly as people found out about it.  In its first year its roll went from 51 to 72.  To keep on top of the class numbers the adult students were split off into a night school.  Sister Annie won the hearts of those whom she worked among.  She took a real interest in her pupils, and would arrange for the gifted ones to receive access to further education, sometimes paying their fees herself.

The closest hospital to Ruatahuna was two days away in Rotorua.  Sister Annie was often called upon by the community to deliver babies and care for the sick.  She nursed people through the terrible flu epidemic, and through outbreaks of whooping cough, and typhoid, and other illnesses.  It was said that she was also quite skilled at pulling teeth.

From early on she held religious services.  Te Kooti had brought the Ringatu faith to Tuhoe.  Rua Kenana’s belief system was an offshoot of Ringatu.  Both were a syncretism of traditional Maori belief and Christianity.  Ringatu kept the sabbath and also a prayer day on the 12th day of the month.  Sister Annie would attend these services, and after them she would invite everyone to attend Presbyterian services with her on the Sunday.

She built some close relationships with the spiritual leaders of the Urewera.  They recognised her generosity and kindness, and her commitment to working for the good of their people.  She in her turn had a genuine respect for who they were as people.  She was to describe Rua Kenana as a ‘big hearted man, kindness in itself, a very intelligent man always ready to help.’ In 1927, after she had been working in the area for around a decade she attended a large gathering of Ringatu in Rotorua with a colleague.  It was recognition of her mana that the two of them were invited to give an address during the main service of that gathering.

Sister Annie had a heart for young people.  She had two favourite songs she would teach them.  Jesus Loves Me and I’m H.A.P.P.Y..  Both are still sung at tribal gatherings around Ruatahuna.  Often I’m H.A.P.P.Y.  was followed by a Sister Annie variant, I’m L.O.V.E.D.

While she never married, she adopted a couple of Maori children.  One had contracted polio and was paralysed below the waist when he came to live with her.  She arranged for him to undergo surgery and rehab at Rotorua Hospital.  This meant he could walk with the aid of crutches.  The second, Rata, died in his teens of tuberculosis.

In 1929 acknowledging her standing among the people of the area, she was made a Justice of the Peace.  She was one the first women in New Zealand to hold that position.  She was a diehard rugby fan and was probably the first woman in the world to be the president of a rugby club – the Ruatahuna Rugby Football Club.

When she retired in 1948 she had been serving the people of the Urewera for 32 years.  Once she moved to Ohope Beach she continued to keep an eye out for her people.  She would regularly visit Tuhoe patients at Whakatane Hospital.  In their turn the people of Ruatahuna kept her in firewood.  In 1951 she received an MBE for services to the Tuhoe people.  She died in 1971 aged 92.  Her tangi at Ohope Marae was huge.  Afterwards the funeral cortège visited numerous Marae on the way to her final resting place at Ruatahuna.

Annie Henry was a woman who lived a really significant life.  She is a bit of a legend in the PCANZ.  Yet, paradoxically, she did it by investing deeply in a community and a place that was in most people’s judgment very out of the way and insignificant.  Like her master Jesus, she made friends among people whom others were frightened of, or didn’t understand, or couldn’t be bothered with.  She was a woman of boundless energy and grit, and great kindness.  She was a proficient organiser.  She evidently had a good sense of fun.  I also have it on good authority that she could be crabby when she was tired.

Post script

When I was researching this sermon I unearthed a couple of Tawa Union connections with Annie Henry.  She died only 44 years ago.  I found that there are two members of our congregation, at least, who have been in the same room as her.  One is Ron Bichan.  He confessed to being in the same room as her once.  He said she was on one side of the room and, by this stage, quite famous and highly respected, and he was on the other side of the room and not at all famous.  He did however know her colleague, John Laughton, quite well.

The other person from our congregation to have the distinction of being in the same room as Sister Annie is Mavis Duncan.  Mavis in fact shared several rooms with Sister Annie over a couple of years.  When Mavis was in her early teens she lived for a time with Sister Annie at Ruatahuna and helped her keep house.  She remembers Annie’s son Rata, living in a tent because of his tuberculosis.  From what I can figure out this would have been in the late 1920s.  This house here would have been the one that she shared with Annie Henry.

PotikiIf you want to hear a bit more about Sister Annie and perhaps about how Mavis ended up delivering a baby, I suggest you ask her.

 

Biblography

*Hihita and Hoani – Missionaries in Tuhoeland, Wayne Te Kaawa, Whakatane District Museum and Gallery, 2008

*James Veitch. ‘Henry, Annie’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 30-Oct-2012
URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/3h16/henry-annie

*‘Hihita – Sister Annie Henry (1879-1971)- Passion for Service’, Allan Davidson – sermon St Luke’s, Remuera 6 May 2012.  www.stlukes.org.nz  › Sermons  2012

*Conversations with Rev. Ron Bichan and Mrs Mavis Duncan

 

Significant Women 3 – Antoinette Brown Blackwell (1825- 1921)

I have talked about a couple of women who were significant influences in the Methodist Church and Disciples of Christ/Christian  Churches – Susanna Wesley and Clara Celestia Hale Babcock.

Antoinette Brown BlackwellWhile I was trying to figure out which Church of Christ was the one in our Associated Churches of Christ family tree, I came across the website of the United Churches of Christ of the USA.  It is not part of the Tawa Union Church family, but it is related to the Congregational Church, which is one of our NZ UCANZ partner churches.  It was here that I began to unearth the story of Antoinette Brown Blackwell.  It’s a fascinating story of a woman whose faith spurred her on to engage actively and publicly with many of the key social issues of her day.  It’s a story that deserves to be told.

Antoinette Brown was born in Henrietta, New York, in 1825.  Her parents had a farm.  Antoinette was the seventh of their ten children.  Antoinette’s grandmother would read her grandchildren Bible stories and Pilgrim’s Progress.  Antoinette’s parents joined the throngs at Christian revival meetings.  The family attended a Congregational Church.  Antoinette had a keen sense of God from an early age.  She was admitted as a full member of her church at the age of nine.  One story goes that when she was eight she told her Sunday School teacher that she wanted to be a minister.  Her Sunday School teacher promptly told her that girls couldn’t become ministers- full stop.

From the sounds of it she was never a girl who fitted the standard mould.  She disliked needlework and other feminine pursuits, preferring to help out with the traditional boy’s tasks around the farm.  Her parents recognised her individuality and her intelligence and were supportive of her.  It is said, that her mum at one point pinned a white ribbon to the inside of her collar as something for her to hold on to when others criticised her or did not understand.  Her father would pay her to do threshing so that she could earn money to further her studies.

When she finished school she taught for a while to save money for higher education.  Many tertiary institutions in her day would not take women students.  She found one that did – a Congregational college in Ohio, Oberlin College.  When she completed her two year course in literature she applied to be admitted to the college’s theological course.  While the college might have been happy to admit women into a number of its courses, theology was men only.  And, obviously, that had to be so, because ministers were men only.

After some determined lobbying (Antoinette was articulate and persistent) the faculty grudgingly agreed to admit her to the course.  However they made it clear to her she wouldn’t receive any recognition for her studies -no degree.  She also had to get special permission from her teachers to be allowed to speak in class and from the Theological Literary Society to be able to present essays.  Even so she managed to get some of her exegesis printed in the college quarterly magazine (with a disclaimer from one of her teachers).

Antoinette was a very gifted speaker, a clear thinker and a tenacious campaigner.  They may have tried to hide it with snipes and condescension, but she would have been the terror of the theology department.  She completed her theological studies in 1850.  As promised she received no degree.  It took a year of lobbying before the Congregational Church relented and gave her a licence to preach, but they refused to ordain her.

In her time at Oberlin College she had become more and more active in the anti-slavery, temperance and women’s rights movements.  These interests saw her lecturing and preaching at a number of churches, halls and conventions.  After lecturing in South Butler, New York, the First Congregational church there decided to call her as their minister.  She was ordained there in September 1853.  Two months later she became the first woman to officiate at a wedding in the USA.  That same year she got thrown out of the World Temperance Convention in New York because she was a woman and had had the temerity to try to speak.  On top of this that year she was also a signatory to what was to become one of the important early women’s rights documents in America – ‘The Just and Equal Rights of Women.’

She was in the South Butler parish for less than a year.  There were financial issues with the church, she had some health issues and she was finding it increasingly difficult to fit within the constraints of the Congregational Church.  1855 saw her working as a voluntary community worker in the prisons and ghettos of New York City.  A series of newspaper articles written out of this experience were gathered in a book- ‘Shadows of our Social System’.

In 1856 she married Samuel Blackwell.  Samuel’s sister, Elizabeth was the first woman in the USA to graduate from Medical School.  Samuel’s brother, Henry, was married to Lucy Stone, an old friend of Antoinette’s from Oberlin College.  Lucy, like Antoinette, was a prominent feminist.  It was an extraordinary extended family.  The three women came to be known as the Blackwell women.  Samuel and Antoinette had seven children, two died in infancy.  For much of the next twenty years she concentrated on bringing up her family, writing and her work in the suffrage movement- the movement that laboured to get women the vote.  She had a breadth of interests.  She was in brief correspondence with Charles Darwin and wrote a response to his evolutionary theory.  She was one of very few women at the time to be elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  She also wrote a book of poems, ‘Sea Drift’.

Antoinette Brown Blackwell2By the end of the 1870s she was beginning to get back into public speaking.  Around this time she and her husband reconnected with organised religion.  She became a Unitarian minister, though it was not until 1903 that she served as a minister of a Unitarian Congregation.  Mostly she concentrated on lecturing.  Her main focus by this stage was women’s suffrage.  She recognised that gaining the vote was only a part of what was needed to improve women’s status in society.   She saw that having the vote would have little impact if it wasn’t accompanied by real opportunities for leadership for women.  Only then would women be able to speak for themselves in the places that mattered.

Unlike a number of her peers she did not see Christianity as an impediment to women’s rights movement.  It was its out dated interpretation based on poor exegesis and fossilised in church institutions that was the problem.  Antoinette Blackwell was active in women’s suffrage associations right up into her eighties.  She was a legend in her own lifetime.  She lived until she was 95 years old and was one of only a few of the pioneers of the suffrage movement to still be alive by the 1920 presidential election, the first US election in which women were allowed to vote.  She died in 1921.

Antoinette Brown Blackwell was a woman of considerable intelligence and talent.  She was a woman who was ahead of her time and that got her into strife with those who wanted to preserve things as they were.  She found too much to challenge within the organized church, and it is unsurprising that she spent so little time in pastoral ministry.  She would have been uncomfortable company, in part because she drew attention to uncomfortable truths.

Her most fruitful ministry was out in society.  Her faith in God led her to fight what she saw as unfair and unjust.  She had a heart for those who were at the bottom of the heap and she used her gifts to advocate for them.  She was a perceptive critic of her society.  She could see that the injustice that she and others ran up against was imbedded in the structures and attitudes of her society.  Effective change wasn’t simply going to be a matter of confronting tyrants.  The tyrants were merely a symptom of the system.  The system was what needed to be challenged and transformed.  And that was the work that she went at with courage, tenacity and intelligence.  That was how she fulfilled God’s call on her life.

Bibliograpy

*Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antoinette_Brown_Blackwell

*http://winningthevote.org/F-ABBlackwell.html

*Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography http://uudb.org/articles/antoinettebrownblackwell.html

All Saints 2 – Clara Celestia Hale Babcock (1847-1924)

The second person I want to talk about in this series is a woman called Clara Celestia Hale Babcock.  She holds a significant place in the Christian Churches’ tradition.  She was born in 1850, a little over a hundred years after Susanna Wesley died.  She was an American, born in Ohio, the daughter of a Methodist preacher.  Her father died when she was too young to remember him.  From an early age she was interested in the Christian Temperance movement.  This was the movement whose response to alcohol abuse was to try to outlaw the manufacture and sale of alcohol.   She met and married Israel Babcock in 1865.  She and Israel had 6 children, though only 2 of them survived into adulthood.

The pair of them joined the Christian Churches movement in 1880 after hearing an evangelist at a revival meeting.  Clara was active in women’s civic organisations, particularly temperance ones.  She was gifted, intelligent communicator and was in demand as an evangelist and a temperance speaker.  In 1888 she came to lecture about temperance at the Christian Church in Erie, Illinois.  They liked her so much that they asked her to stay as their pastor.

Clara Celestia Hale BabcockSo Clara Babcock became the very first woman in a recognised denomination to be ordained to an extended ministry in a congregation in the United States.  She was a very successful evangelist during the period of what is called the Second Awakening.  It is said that she baptised 1502 people over the course of her ministry.  Her ordination and those of the women who followed opened a fierce debate within the Christian Churches movement.  It was one of the factors along with the place of musical instruments and other essentials of the faith, that eventually in 1906 caused the movement in the States to split into the more conservative Churches of Christ and the more open Christian Churches/ Disciples of Christ movement.  Today in the United States the Disciples of Christ has a woman leader who is in her 2nd term of office, and the Churches of Christ are still debating the validity of women preachers.

Paul’s statement in Galatians that there is neither male nor female in Christ was central to Clara Babcock’s understanding of the validity of her ministry.  When it was questioned she simply pointed to what she did.  Here is what she says about one of her years at Thomson Illinois.

‘The visible results of my work are 96 additions – 38 heads of families, 8 from the Methodist Episcopals, 6 from the Baptists, 9 reclaimed; preached 240 sermons, 16 funerals, 12 weddings, 470 visits made, 1500 miles travelled to and from my labour.  I am currently in perfect health and I haven’t missed an appointment in over four years’
Perhaps that last remark was directed at those who argued that a woman’s constitution was unsuited to pastoral ministry.  Like Susanna Wesley it seems she had a tremendous capacity for work.

Clara Babcock held a number of pastoral positions in Illinois and Iowa and South Dakota over her 35 years of ordained ministry.  She was involved in active ministry right up to the end of her life.  She died in 1924.

But I discovered something that shocked me about her when I was reading through old newspaper clippings.  One recorded that her funeral service was packed and that Women’s club, the Ladies Aid Society and the women’s Auxiliary of the KKK attended in a body.  Later on it said that the Erie KKK escorted the funeral procession to the cemetery.  Did KKK mean what I thought it did?  It appears so.  ‘Should I be talking about her at all?’ I wondered.  I started to read a bit around the women’s auxiliary of the KKK in Illinois at that time.

In 1919 Abolition came in and the temperance movement that Clara Babcock and many from the churches were part appeared to have won.  What happened of course was that Abolition was extremely unpopular and the bootleggers arrived and the mob started to make a lot of money out of illegal grog.  Those of you who have been watching the Boardwalk Empire series on TV will have some inkling of what went on.  There were law and order issues.  There were very few blacks in Illinois; the KKK at that stage was more anti catholic and anti-newcomers from Europe than anti Black.

The Klan styled itself as patriotic upright white Protestant American, upholders of morality and community standards.  Perhaps that’s not all that different from what Klansmen do today, but the real difference is that in the early 1920s they had wide general support in the community, especially the church community.  They seemed to be on the same page.  There were alliances that we would not be at all comfortable with today with the benefit of hindsight.  Clara was a woman of her time and it would appear that through her temperance associations she had these other less desire able connections.

On a more positive note one of her obituaries reads, ‘Her life, her work in Erie and elsewhere is the most fitting and lasting eulogy that could be written of this noble woman.  Beloved by the community she was always a welcome visitor to their homes or social gatherings.  She was always ready and willing to assist in any undertaking for the good of the community.’  Another of her legacies was that there were at least 15 other women who were ordained as preachers either directly or indirectly through her influence.

When one person is prepared to follow where their God given gifts lead them, they open up space for others to do likewise, and the church and the community are the richer for that.  Both Clara and Susanna Wesley illustrate that.

Who has made space for you to develop your God given gifts?

Whom have you made space for so that they can develop their God given gifts?

Let’s give thanks for those who have helped us and for those whom we have helped.

 Sources:

The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Cambell Movement:Christian Church (Disciples of Christ/Churches of Christ) ed.  Douglas Allen Foster, Eerdmans 2004
Erie Cemetery History Project- www.angelfire.com/folk/foec/babc001.html
www.discipleshistory.org/history/people/clara-hale-babcock

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