Holy Spirit, Helper

Pentecost 2015                 St George’s Dunsborough


Gospel:  John 15:26-26, 16:4b-16

When the Lord God created the first human being, he was incomplete. It was not good for the man to be alone, God said. He needed, so Genesis tells us, a ‘helpmeet’, a companion who would be by his side to take his side. The word for ‘helper’ in Hebrew is a beautiful word, ‘ezer’.

God brought the animals to the man to see what he would call them. And the man gave the animals their names. But they were not the helpmeet the man was looking for. Maybe he was their helpmeet, their champion, their companion who could speak for them and make sure their world is a place in which they can thrive. But the animals were not a helpmeet for him.

But God put the man into a deep sleep (the first recorded instance of anaesthetics), and took from the man’s side a rib, and perhaps a grain of salt. We don’t have to take these foundation myths as literal history. They are stories that tell us the truth about ourselves. That’s why they are so important.

Creation of Eve by Paolo Veronese

From the rib, God created the first woman, and brought her to the man. She was bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh. The same but different. Equal but not the same. She was the ‘ezer’, the helpmeet the man had been looking for; someone who could be a companion and a champion, speaking up for him when he could not. That was the ideal, anyway. And the reason she could be a helpmeet when the animals could not, was that not only could she be a helpmeet for the man, he could be a helpmeet for her. There was mutuality in the relationship. “The mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have of the other”, as the old Prayer Book describes marriage.

Those of us who are blessed with marriage know something of what it means to have an ‘ezer’, a companion and a champion, someone who stands beside us and stands up for us. I thank God every day for the ‘helpmeet’ God has given me. And I know I am more human, a more complete human, because of Rae, because I am married. We men can be a little sub-human without our helpmeets.

And Genesis is describing not only marriage but other close friendships and partnerships. We may have an ‘ezer’ in an adult child, or in a friend we’ve had since childhood, or in someone we’ve only met recently.

People who study friendship say most of us have two or three, and at the most four or five people in our lives, who are close companions and who believe in us no matter what, and who we can speak up for too when necessary. I wonder too, whether an individual dog or horse might be an ezer for a human being. Is there a possibility of mutuality of care between species? Genesis doesn’t seem to think so, but seeing a recent program on ABC TV about dogs helping returned soldiers with PTSD made me wonder again.

The gift of a ‘helpmeet’ is a wonderful provision from God. But in the Old Testament God often describes himself as our ‘ezer’. Think of Psalm 46. ‘God is our help and strength, a very present help in trouble.’ – ‘ezer’. God promises to stand beside us and to stand up for us. He is our companion and our champion. God believes in us, and possibly the most difficult step of faith is to realise the depth to which God believes in you. God knows that you are not perfect, but he does not believe that you are therefore rubbish, he believes that you are of infinite value and worth. God will go to extraordinary lengths for you. Listen to what God says:

I have called you back from the ends of the earth, saying, ‘You are my servant.’ For I have chosen you and will not throw you away. – Isaiah 41:9

 God championing us in this way makes us more human, more complete. God standing beside us and standing up for us makes us more who we are; it gives us the confidence and strength to grow into our true selves. So it makes sense to allow God to be our ‘ezer’, to stand by us in this fruitful way.

So what of Pentecost?Holy Spirit card_sgl

‘When the Helper comes,’ says Jesus, ‘the Spirit of truth, he will bear witness about me.’ (John 15:26). The Helper, the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is our ‘ezer’, and this Helper comes to abide with us, to be the ongoing companion and champion for us. Jesus reveals the name of the Helper, our ‘ezer’, it is the Spirit of Jesus, his ongoing presence with us.

And he also reveals something else: Jesus invites us into a mutuality with the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is our ‘ezer’, our Helper, and we rejoice in that wonderful presence in our lives, and he is also inviting us to be his ‘ezer’. Jesus is asking us to be his companion and his champion, to stand beside him and to stand by him in love; to speak up for him when appropriate, to make sure the world is a place where he can thrive.

Being a Christian is mutual; it is for the ‘mutual society, help and comfort’ that Christ and we have one for the other. And the more we allow the love of the Spirit, the Helper, to permeate our lives, the more human we become, the more truly human we become.

May I suggest a prayer – just a one-off, or to do regularly? You can do this by the beach, under the stars, or in the quiet of your own home, or right now as you sit in the pew. Take some moments to quiet your breath. Maybe do some controlled breathing, counting up to 30 or 40 slow breaths. Then imagine opening your whole self outwards. If you have room, you may spread your arms outwards. Then imagine the warm love of God surrounding you, and pouring into you from every side, filling you, leaving no room for anything else. This warmth is the fire of the Spirit of God. Hold onto the warmth and carry this feeling with you through the day.

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We dare to think that because we also agree to be Christ’s Helper, our love for Him will make him, in some mysterious way, more Christlike. Jesus continues the work that he began on the Cross through us. The Father has tasked him with bringing the world back to him, and Christ works, not by forcing his way through the evil that resists him, but by the gentle power of love, dripping like water on stone.

What we do can reduce that resistance, can open the paths of love, can help heal the pain of lovelessness, can sometimes even remove the stones that block the path of Christ. Look for acts of kindness, however small, opportunities to bring peace, and practise the way of Christ. There’s a saying attributed to St Francis of Assisi. ‘Preach the Gospel always, if necessary, use words.’

So it is extraordinary first to take in that God loves us, believes in us without reservation, and that we can allow ourselves to bear the fruits of peace, love, joy, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal. 5:22-23) that appear in our lives just from being close to the Spirit. It is even more extraordinary to know that we are invited, as Christ’s companions, to share in his work, so that with the Spirit, he is more able to bring this world to the loving end that the Father has decreed.

Desert Stockman


 EASTER V (April 26) 2015

 John 10:11-18

 It’s tough being in the desert. It doesn’t matter whether you’re on horseback, motor-bike or quad-bike. It’s particularly tough if you have to bring in a big mob. Or a mob that’s due to calve or lamb. You have to make sure you and the stock have water and feed – just enough, and a bit more. You have to keep the animals together. You have to be able to follow the faint tracks to the waterholes, because they are the life-line. And if you get to the windmill and it’s been fouled by foxes, or if the windmill has been knocked over by a mob of feral camels, you have to be able to fix the windmill, and get the water flowing again.

It takes all this to be a good stockman. You have to be tough, and capable, and resilient. You have to care about the stock, but not be a wimp. You couldn’t do the job if you didn’t care, if you weren’t committed 120% to the animals.

You know where this is heading. The word in Latin for a stockman is ‘pastor’. A good pastor, a good shepherd, is caring, tough, intelligent and committed. The desert of Judea is similar to the outback deserts of Australia. The job of stockman essentially is like the Palestinian shepherd.

‘I am the good shepherd,’ says Jesus. He made some of his fellow-Jews angry by saying ‘I am’: it sounds simple, but ‘I am’ is very close to the name for God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3: ‘I am who I am.’ He was making a claim to be God; and he was making a claim that God was at least Father and Son. Both were blasphemous claims, both were dangerous. Maybe he could be stoned to death. Better to find another excuse to have him put to death.

‘I am God, and God is a good stockman.’ That seems to be what Jesus is claiming. God cares for his mob, God is tough, resilient, capable and 120% committed to the mob. The good stockman, Jesus says, gives his life for the mob. This weekend we are surrounded by reminders of men who gave their lives for their country. But they didn’t. They gave their deaths for the country. And we express gratitude for the freedom their sacrifice has bought us. But the good stockman gives his life. He is prepared to die for his flock, but his main attribute is that all his life, for eternity, is given in the service of his people and of all creation. That’s commitment.

It is also an invitation for us in the Church to model ourselves after Jesus. Those of us who are designated pastors are called to be good stockmen and women.

The environment is tough, so no-one would set themselves up as a pastor in the Church unless they were called. And then God graces them to be tough, resilient, capable and 120% committed to the mob. Pastors follow the tracks as they dig into Scripture and lead people to nourishment in the Spirit. In our tradition they empower with Word and Sacrament, with preaching and teaching, and Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. The tracks in the desert are Word, and the waterholes are Sacrament.

The environment is tough, and most pastors in their lives have a time when those tough conditions get to them and they get hurt, or burnt out, or otherwise needing time out. When I was first ordained, priests who needed to take time off were not treated very well, and were expected back on the job as soon as possible. You know the routine: the stiff upper lip, not talk about it to anyone, just get on with it. These people often became less human and less able to pastor their people.

I was extremely lucky that after 6 months of sick leave from a parish, a friend, who was Rector of another parish, offered me a job as Associate Priest, on condition that I took my time, as much time as I needed, to get better. That generosity was great for me, and also ended up suiting the parish well, as I was able to plug some gaps over the next five years.

These days, you would hope that we can be absolutely generous with pastors, giving them as much space, time and eventually support as they need to heal so they become better human beings because of their experience, and therefore better pastors.

Not only are there individuals designated as pastors, the whole church is corporately a pastor, a good stockman, for the whole community, providing nurture and direction to the wider world. The ‘Manna and Mercy’ free dinners are a great example of this.

Just this week, a letter to ISIS came into my Inbox. It was slick communication, obviously aimed at the same young men who are attracted by the online propaganda ISIS puts out. Only this letter was a love letter from the Church, pleading with followers of ISIS to return to the ways of goodness and truth, to put aside their bloodshed and destructive ways. The letter calls the young men ‘brothers’ and acknowledges that we are all sinners before God. It wants to drench the Middle East with love, not hatred. Surely this is an example of the Church corporately being a good stockman: caring and committed in a tough environment, showing the way to true life.

As individuals, we are each called to be a good stockman or a good stockwoman, to show the way in a desert world to the oases of love that God provides to the individuals we meet.

When we look at the outback, we often choose to see only the expanses of empty unchanging desert; harsh, dry tracts of impoverished earth, dotted here and there with waterholes. Aboriginal people have learned the trick of seeing the positive image. Instead of emptiness, they see a rich network of journey-lines, song-lines, joining waterholes and leading the way through the annual cycle of hunting, gathering, and corroboree. It’s one of the reasons they can survive in the desert.

The Songlines (Bruce Chatwin)

Jesus calls us to be good stockmen and women, to see the journey-lines traced by the Bible in the desert and to be nourished by the waterholes of bread and wine. Jesus the good stockman leads us to life.

What is Prayer? (II)


for the Pastoral Care Group at  St George’s, Dunsborough

 23 April, 2015

On February 13 in 2008, I was on my way to a meeting south of Melbourne. I remember because I caught a taxi at 9 a.m. and heard on the taxi radio the Prime Minister’s apology to Australia’s indigenous people, and I was very moved.

Our meeting was at the Community of the Holy Name, a community of Anglican nuns, and lasted three days. Mother offered me a lift to the airport coach to save the cost of a taxi on the way back. Sister Jenny, who I hadn’t met, jumped at the chance to volunteer to drive me to the coach stop. She talked non-stop. She wanted to know about my back, why my mobility was limited, and why I was putting up with pain.

Surely I should be able to fix it by prayer. I told Sister I had prayed, and as far I was concerned, I had been completely healed. I could walk – which was in doubt before my operation in 1969, and I had had 30 years of rich living as a husband and father, a school chaplain, a parish priest, head of an inter-church organisation (YouthCARE). In fact, I rather resented what Sister was saying, and in my mind, I christened her Sister Grinch.

She insisted that I should go to a healing service with Margaret Court when I got home. We parted, not very happily, because everything she said to me about prayer was rubbing me up the wrong way.

I know the theory: we are God’s children. God wants the best for us. There is nothing good that we cannot ask from God, and God will give it. Simply have faith. The implication of Sister Grinch’s sermonising was that I didn’t have enough faith. That may be true, but it was certainly not for her to judge me. If God doesn’t give what we ask, then there must be a reason: God must be teaching us something. Again, that may be true, but I experience life as more random than that. I believe God is in control of the big picture, but I don’t expect to work out the reason for everything. I’d go mad as a pastor trying that approach on the kids I buried who had committed suicide; or the boy in Special Ed. whose body simply gave up living on his 14th birthday.

God is not like Santa Claus, granting our wishes simply because we ask. Rae and I prayed hard that our son would be OK, that he wouldn’t have a problem, but he’s still struggling with mental and physical illness at 33 years old.

So our personal experience has coloured our ideas of prayer. In a nutshell, prayer for me is not about curing people from problems, prayer is a way of drawing closer to God and to the people prayed for. Of course, I’ve seen some extraordinary healings, and I celebrate those. But they don’t seem to be God’s usual way of working with people.

So I see prayer a bit differently:

Firstly, it is not primarily about asking God for things. We pray because Jesus prayed. We pray because, as we follow Jesus, prayer keeps us close to Father, Son and Spirit. Prayer keeps us, as St Paul says, in Christ.

 Secondly, prayer is recognising that we live in a broken world, as Jesus did. Jesus had the courage both to face the crowds of the sick and lame in Capernaum, and to move on to other villages and towns, leaving behind many not healed. He forgave those who betrayed him, and those who nailed him to the cross. He gazed on the world with love. That gaze can be our prayer too.

Thirdly, prayer is offering ourselves in love and service to that broken world, as Jesus did. Prayer is often only holding out our heart – but our heart is powerful. The gift of our solidarity with the suffering can be transformative. There is nothing I can say to someone dying of liver cancer. It is painful and quick, often only a few weeks from diagnosis to death. But I can gaze with love on the person – not look away – and stand with the person in prayer, and that can be the gift that truly heals, that opens up for that person a new wholeness in their last pilgrimage on earth.

Sometimes the prayer of solidarity turns into something practical that only I can do. Instead of telling God to do something, the prayer empowers me to act. A word, a card, a recommendation, an insight, a hug. But these practical prayers are only the tip of the iceberg. The invisible heart of prayer, the 90% that is mystery, is the solidarity, the standing with the suffering person.

Of course, there’s much more to prayer than that. When teaching kids or adults new to the faith, I use a mnemonic:


A for Adoration. All prayer starts in praise and worship.

C for Confession. We can only pray when we acknowledge the distance between us and God.

T for Thanksgiving. Our whole life should be Eucharistic, one big Thank You to God; and

S – and note it’s last – for Supplication. We ask God to help those who suffer. This is the portion of prayer we’ve been discussing today, and only really scratching the surface of intercessory prayer or Supplication.

We can’t help praying as Christians, because we can’t help loving. Prayer is a way of loving a person or people in need, and meaning it, and discovering the living Christ in that space also loving you and the one in need. What transformation can come from that!

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Handout : Click here:  What is prayer

Breaking down walls of division

NO Islam; NO Sharia; No Halal! These were the slogans on one side of yesterday’s demonstrations.

Ignorance breeds racism. Australia welcomes all. These slogans were shouted back.

Picture courtesy perthnow.com

There’s real pressure on us to take sides. We have beliefs about our friends’ beliefs, about our fellow-tertiaries’ strong opinions, about our fellow-Christians’ ideas, and our default position is to follow what we think they think!

Of course we do. We are social animals. I want to go to Perth and stand with Christians who welcome refugees and embrace Muslims. I can argue the case for inclusion with vigour and clarity. But therein lies a problem. To be a vigorous advocate at the moment risks creating divisions and fomenting hatred in the community.

Rather than practising my lines bolstering my ‘side’ of the current arguments, I should be walking in the shoes of people who have different views.

One exercise in our training for non-violence involved splitting into two sides at opposite ends of the room and emphasising the differences in the two groups. Then individuals crossed the line in the middle and looked at the issue from the point of view of the other group. These actions brought the group back together.

I’ve studied Islam, and rather than shout at people with hateful catchphrases like ‘NO Sharia!’ I should acknowledge that there is real fear in the community. People look at societies like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan and see the punishments certain Muslim governments mete out. We would not stand for the way women are banned from driving. We are outraged that people are put to death – often in barbaric ways – for converting from Islam. Rather than shouting back at those who shout ‘NO Sharia!’ I should agree. I fear a Muslim government that treats its citizens like that.

I don’t think Halal certification of meat costs the average shopper. I do know that certification provides a livelihood for ordinary Australian family farmers who sell livestock to the abattoirs in Katanning. I agree that the certifying most foods for sale is unnecessary and confusing and worth resisting. It’s more complex than saying either ‘No Halal’ or all certification is good. A conversation where there is more trust and less fear would benefit all.

Australia is not going to become a Muslim country overnight. At the 2006 Census, 63.9% of Australians claimed to be Christians as against 1.7% Muslims. The 2011 numbers have not been analysed yet, and, while it is true that the proportion of Muslims has grown, the size of the Muslim community is still a tiny minority. We are a strong community. We can handle that much diversity. But we must take care, as a settler society, to make changes slowly.

So I admit to being tempted to man the barricades, to take a stand on one side of this debate, and imagine that will make society more inclusive. I need to resist that temptation and find ways of healing division, of understanding legitimate fears and concerns and creating harmony. That seems to be the Franciscan way, the way of Christ for me.

What is Prayer (I)?

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent 2015 St George’s, Dunsborough Gospel: John 12:20-33 Some weeks ago, a friend emailed to say that his dear friend had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I could tell this story dishonestly and say that I prayed for his friend and the tumour turned out to be benign, and we gave thanks to God. Those facts happen to be true; but actually what he asked me was not to pray from him and his friend, but, “What is prayer?” That’s a much harder question. Especially as we know that many times, most times, we pray for someone to be healed, and it doesn’t happen, or it doesn’t happen the way we expect. We don’t need much experience in prayer to learn that God is not some kind of cosmic Santa Claus granting our wishes just because we ask. In fact, it would be a little scary if our prayers caused anything to happen. If there was any cause behind the fact that our friend’s tumour was not life-threatening, apart from random cell growth, that cause is God, not our prayers. God heals, not our prayers. We don’t begin to know what to ask. We do learn that sometimes we batter on heaven’s door for a healing and God does not seem to answer. We also learn that sometimes God surprises with a healing that is unexpected and even un-prayed for. Jean Vanier is the founder of l’Arche communities where the mentally disabled live in community with the able. He tells the story of the parents of Vincent, a mentally disabled boy in Bangladesh. The parents felt great pain because of their son’s disability. They prayed and prayed that God would heal him. They were surprised when God answered their prayer – but not in the way they expected. They changed, not Vincent. They discovered they were more compassionate. They discovered that God had given them more strength to care for Vincent. They saw Vincent in a new light, as a loving son. They had buried his delightful personality by thinking of him as a problem, as a disability, and not a person. But we do want prayer to fix things. People with too much time on their hands have set up scientific experiments trying to show whether prayer works. In one experiment, they prayed anonymously for some patients recovering from heart surgery and not others to see whether their healing was fast-tracked. The results were inconclusive. Other scenarios have been tried, but prayer remains stubbornly inaccessible to science. You can’t prove one way or the other. The data is too vague. We Christians persist in praying. And this morning’s Gospel reading gives five indications why we pray and what prayer is.

  • In prayer we follow Jesus.
  • In prayer we recognise with Jesus that we live in a broken world.
  • In prayer we offer ourselves in solidarity and love, as Jesus did.
  • With Jesus we lose ourselves in the situations of others, hoping that our self-giving will bring transformation and life.
  • Prayer is an intention to serve the need of others.

Jesus does not see the world with rose-coloured glasses. He invites us, like him, to see the world as it is, a broken place. He gives us the strength to look steadily at its reality: not to look away from the friend with cancer, or the child with a mental disability, or the world at war, or the greed of corporations making the homeless hungry and Africans in the Congo desperate. We do live in a world where our children leave us for the Eastern States or overseas, and where the friends who we thought loved us the most betray us – like Judas. We can look at it all. Not to be overwhelmed by it, but to see it as Christ does, and still love it. The key word for me is solidarity. We give away our selves. In other words, we stop worrying about our needs. We stop putting ourselves at the top of the list of people to be served. We offer our own time and energy and strength in solidarity with the one in need. Often we cannot do more than hold out our heart in solidarity. Because of distance, or other practicality, there may be nothing more we can do. But our heart is powerful. When we when we hold out our heart to the one in need, when that is our prayer, we find Christ also standing there in solidarity with the one in need. That mutual solidarity can transform even the most hopeless of situations, even though, like Vincent’s parents, we cannot tell in advance what form that transformation will take.

Ghislaine Howard (1953 – ) The Methodist Collection of Modern Christian Art No. 40

There will be times when, in the strength of Christ, we offer not only our heart, but our practical help. So when I pray, I should be looking not to get God to do something, but looking for something I, and often only I, can do. My prayers often turn into cards and words. Sometimes they become phone calls, conversations in which I may have some particular knowledge or insight, or just share the load over a cup of tea. Sometimes they turn into Betadine on a scratched knee, or a letter to a politician, or a referral to a physiotherapist who has soothed the pain in my back and might do the same for the one in need. But in reality, those practical things are a small part of prayer. They are the tip of an iceberg. The main part of prayer – the nine-tenths that is mystery, that is hard to see – is the offer of solidarity, the sharing of love. We pray because, as Christ’s people, we can’t help expressing love. Real love involves letting go of our ego – losing our life for Christ’s sake, and standing in solidarity with Christ and the one in need. The end result of dying and rising with Christ is service, a life of service, and prayer means letting our selfish needs go so we can be transformed to serve. Prayer is a way of loving the one in need, and meaning it, and discovering the living Christ in that space also loving you and the one in need. What transformation can come from that! Books have been filled trying to answer the question my friends asked, ‘What is Prayer?’ I would encourage you: keep praying. Keep gazing on this broken world. Keep looking for ways to love it. Keep sharing your heart. You will continue to be surprised by Christ loving the world alongside you, and turning your tiny seed of love into a flowering of sharing and solidarity.

A Man on the World Day of Prayer

Talk for the World Day of Prayer

6 March 2015 – Theme of the Service: Domestic Violence

The reading set is: John 13:1-15 (http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=292090860)

I can’t help worrying about Simon Peter. He’s an angry man, and angry men can be a worry for all of us. We live in a world made dark by the shadow of angry men.

First, let me thank you for the privilege of speaking to you today. The World Day of Prayer has long been a movement which brings together Christian women and men to pray and to be together, and, I believe, is a real force for good.

Our Bible reading this morning is a story about Jesus. And nearly every story about Jesus brings us closer to his cross, and in this story in particular, John helps us to prepare for the great events of the crucifixion and resurrection.

In this story, at the last supper, Jesus lays aside his outer clothes to prepare for ministry.

On the cross, Jesus lays aside his human life to prepare for his death and resurrection to eternal life.

Jesus washes the feet of his disciples in water to make them clean – and this cleanliness goes beyond the physical cleansing of dirty feet. It is described as an all-over clean; holistic cleansing.

Jesus washes away our dirt in the blood of the cross. I know this metaphor is not always pleasing to Anglicans; it’s not a pleasant image, but it’s a strong Biblical metaphor and totally unavoidable.

And the thing about being cleansed by Jesus is that once you are clean, you stay clean. “A person who has bathed does not need to wash,” Jesus says. Once you have accepted the cleansing power of the Cross, your sins are forgiven; you start again with a clear page; you are a new person.

Jesus accomplished this cleansing by giving himself. He takes the role of a servant – even more than that, as we will see – to wash his friends’ feet. He gives his whole life on the Cross to wash the lives of all humanity, of all who will hear and accept.

This is what upsets Simon Peter. Offering to wash his disciples’ feet is more than a role reversal. It’s more than Jesus just taking the part that a slave would normally take. Or a woman. In poorer homes without a slave for this task, visitors would be welcomed by a woman to wash the dust of the road off their feet. It’s bad enough for Peter that his Rabbi and Lord is acting the role of a slave — or a woman, God forbid – but foot-washing seems to take too much away from Peter.

It’s hard for those who are frail to accept someone helping them to shower. It seems to be a complete loss of dignity. I’ve been in hospital when nurses and other care-givers have helped me with my daily routine. I had to swallow my pride. I can’t imagine how hard it would be if my Archbishop came to help me shower. Embarrassed, angry, a complete loss of self-respect. At least, that would be my first reaction.

I think that’s what provoked such a strong reaction from Peter. His Lord and Teacher was offering to do something for him for which, in part, Peter had to swallow his pride. He was embarrassed and angry. “Lord, do you wash my feet?”

It’s a hard lesson for Simon Peter: first to accept the loving care that Jesus offers, and then to be told to offer and receive that level of care from others. The implication for Peter is that he has to put aside that pride in himself for ever if he is going to be any use in offering loving service, and if he is to continue to have the joy of receiving loving service from others for himself.

We know Peter takes a while to learn, but St John thinks he gets the message after the resurrection, (in John 21:15-19) when Jesus asks him three times, “Do you love me?” If you still have that macho pride inside, you can’t answer that question, even if the answer is yes. As long as you carry that pride inside saying “I love you” is a sign of weakness. That’s why Jesus insists Peter makes the declaration, “Lord, you know I love you!” otherwise it’s a waste of time telling Peter to “Feed my sheep.”

You see Peter has two choices after his feet have been washed and the blushing has receded from his face: either he can put the old pride back in his heart and go on being an angry man, the kind of man that lashes out with a sword and cuts off the ear of a servant (John 18:10). That’s only a few steps away from the kind of anger that fuels terrorists who coolly cut off the heads of their captives.

Or he can learn to dismantle that pride by accepting the loving service of others offered to him, with the implication that he is a vulnerable human being. Giving and receiving love leads to intimacy and to a genuine experience of love, of being cleansed from anger and pride. St John knew that Peter was a work in progress.

I don’t find this path easy. I am definitely a work in progress. We men would rather hang on to our macho pride of independence. That’s the picture of manhood our culture teaches us, and to be different requires an effort. But I see the positive effect that strong vulnerable Christian men have on others.

All of us, men and women, are challenged to lives of mutual self-giving service, and the vulnerability that goes with that.

Women, and men, too as mothers, fathers, or grandparents are challenged to give their sons and grandsons a cleaner picture of what makes a strong man: the angry, macho self-reliant hero, or the caring, strong and vulnerable servant-leader.

The more there are of us who tell the story of strength in vulnerability, the more we push the shadow back, and the more God is revealed.

From David’s Harp to Praise Songs in the 21st Century

Tim Dowley, Christian Music: A Global History, Oxford: Lion Hudson Plc (2011)

ISBN: 0745953247 / 9780745953243

263 pages, illustrated, hardcover from $AU 29.50 online.

In Australian Libraries: http://trove.nla.gov.au/version/203573249

Reviewed by Ted Witham


Tim Dowley is a church historian who has written biographies of J.S. Bach and Robert Schumann. Christian Music is an historical survey of everything musical in Christian worship from David’s harp to 21st Century praise music. It covers contemporary Christian music on every continent, including Australian and the Pacific, and every style of music from choral to hymns to instrumental.

It was good to be reminded of the rise of Christian rock and the banning of early practitioners like Larry Norman, 1970s pioneer of “Jesus Music”, and to see his place in the development from Gospel to praise music.

The strength of this book is its breadth, and the clarity with which such a wide range of music is described. It is beautifully and generously illustrated adding a further dimension of understanding: depictions of early instruments with comments on their accuracy are a great aid to understanding a little better how the music of each period sounded. A few screenshots show the development of musical notation and its impact on composition without drowning the reader in technical description, and sensitive portraits make the viewer ponder the sensibility of individual composers.

Seven specialist contributors take the reader to places where Dr Dowley was not so familiar: Dr Mark Evans is the guide for Australia and the Pacific, Lisbon-based Orthodox priest the Reverend Dr Ivan Moody explores Orthodox music.

Of course, breadth leads to mistakes of over-simplification. Gustav Mahler, for example, whose music has a complex and intentional Christian dimension, is dismissed in a sentence: “Gustav Mahler, a convert to Catholicism, confessed he could not compose a mass because he could not affirm the Credo.” (p.165). In contrast the sceptic Verdi and the Jewish Mendelssohn rightly receive one page and three pages respectively for their efforts in writing music around Christian themes (p.162, pp.159-161).

To produce a book like this, charmingly presented, wide-ranging and clearly written, of course involves many choices about inclusions. It is too easy to nit-pick on the basis of what has been left out. What has been left in covers a huge range of material placed in a narrative which reveals the dynamism, inventiveness and beauty of music inspired by Christian faith and used in Christian worship.

It will remain on my shelf as a reference and a companion to treasure.

Dr Tim Dowley


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