In our modern world how can we talk about God in a way that does justice to the reality and yet the mystery of who we call God? Besides all the passages I have chosen to be read today the one I really want to focus on is Isaiah 42:1-4.
1. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;
2. Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.
3. A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Here the commitment of God to justice is associated with the work of the Holy Spirit. Look at the beautiful images of caring associated with these verses: A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.
When I think of talking about God I have to start with my own experience.
When I was at High School I had a strong sense that God was calling me to be a minister of the Methodist Church. I didn’t really know what a minister did. When I told my father, he said “you can do better than that my son.” When I told my minister, he said that I was too young and that I would need to go and do what I would normally do and so I went to university and studied science and mathematics.
When I turned 20 I applied to train as a minister and after a year long selection process I was accepted and start my theological training the month I turned 21. I was the youngest candidate minister in the Methodist Church of New Zealand for about 10 years. I consider my theological education to be the most satisfying educational experience I have had both my initial training at Trinity College in Auckland in the 1960s and my later doctoral experience in Sydney and San Francisco. To be taught by greater minds and encouraged by one’s peer group is a very satisfying experience.
During my training I indicated that I would be willing to serve overseas in the Solomon Islands, not because I felt a particular call but when the General Secretary for Overseas Missions painted a picture of the interesting challenge of life in another culture in a foreign country something in me said “I can do that.” I was not allowed to go overseas until had served three years on probation and become ordained. I was ordained in November 1971 and was immediately sent to the Solomon Islands for six years.
After I returned to New Zealand at the beginning of 1978 I had a strong sense that I was not called to go into a parish in New Zealand. I wanted to look for something that would use the cross-cultural experience I had acquired overseas and so I took a year off and spent it with my family in the South Island of New Zealand. A few months later I was asked to be the Synod consultant for World Mission and Social Justice in Perth, Western Australia. A position that I enjoyed for the next 8 years and explains how I ended up in Australia.
In 1981 as part of my work with the WA Synod I was involved in a major confrontation with the WA Government about mining on an Aboriginal sacred site at a place called Noonkanbah in the Kimberleys. I attended a minister’s retreat and at that retreat I had a premonition that the WA Government was going to do something big. I shared this with my fellow colleagues in an open session. The next day the WA Government announced that it had organised for a convoy of 70 mining trucks to leave Eneabba 200 Kms north of Perth to travel to Noonkanbah some 2500Km further north in the Kimberleys. All those at the retreat gave up their afternoon recreation and I shared with them my analysis of the situation. One of my clergy friends said that I needed to go and be with the Aboriginal people at Noonkanbah and he said he would pay my air fare to get there. All the other clergy said that I should not be there by myself and so they took up a collection and raised enough money to pay for another minister the Rev Don McCaskill - who was trained in anthropology - to go with me. I then left the meeting and returned to Perth where I contacted the Uniting Church Assembly in Sydney who then made arrangements for two national Assembly ministers, the Revs Charles Harris and Rev Bernie Clarke to go with me. The Anglican Church also arranged for one of their clergy to go. All five of us went to Noonkanbah, and ended up meeting the Nunganawilli Aboriginal Community, sleeping on the road overnight with 21 Aboriginal people as we tried to stop the convoy of 70 mining trucks from going onto Noonkanbah cattle station. The following morning, we were all arrested for obstructing traffic and taken to the goal at Fitzroy crossing and charged. I spent 10 days in court and was exonerated on all counts proving that the WA Government had not properly gazetted the road into the station as a public road and that passive resistance does not constitute resisting arrest. How all these coincidences came together for me to be at Noonkanbah amazed me.
When I had finished the Synod position I was appointed to be the minister in a housing commission area at Girrawheen in the northern suburbs of Perth. After 3 years I felt the need to go back to university to study Aboriginal anthropology, sociology and politics at Murdoch University in Perth. This then led to my appointment as the National Director for Social justice with the Uniting Church Assembly in Sydney for 6 years. When we arrived in Sydney we were initially put in a house in the suburbs an hour by train from the centre of the city. When visiting friends in Redfern we saw a terrace house for sale next to where two Catholic Sisters were living. We purchased the house and this led us to live in the Aboriginal Community on the Block near the Redfern Railway station, a place where many taxi drivers were not prepared to go. When I had finished serving with the Assembly I became the CEO of the local Community Centre which ran programs for the Aboriginal families on the Block. This I did for three years. One of the most difficult jobs I have ever done.
On leaving Sydney in 2003 we settled in Heidelberg here in Melbourne to be near family. This led my last appointment as minister in the neighbouring suburb of Rosanna. It was during this time that we hosted a refugee from West Papua for five years and this led me to a deep long-term commitment to justice for the people of West Papua.
In 2015 I was travelling on a plane going from Bali to West Papua when I had a strange encounter. I had this strong sense/vision that I was in the West Papuan bush and something was telling me that I was being welcomed to West Papua. I have visited West Papua twice and now considered the Chaplain to the Women’s Office of the Federal Republic of West Papua. This has brought me in touch with the mystic beliefs of the West Papuans who belief that God will ultimately liberate their country from domination by Indonesia. The realpolitik in me says that they have got no chance but the faith of my West Papuans say it is only a matter of time. God’s time.
These are some of what I can only call my mystic experiences of God active in my life.
In and amidst these experiences there is the transcendence, the mystical experience of the Holy Spirit just like God calling Moses through the burning bush or Paul on the road to Damascus but not quite as dramatic.
There is the Biblical idea of a God who calls us to follow, like Abraham, Joseph, Samuel, Moses, Isaiah, Paul and the disciples.
The experiences also illustrate the way that God prepares us for service like God did for Joseph, Moses, Jeremiah,
There is the God who calls us to be the children of God where everyone is equal and loved by God.
There is the God who calls us into the community of faith called the Church. We are not just called as individuals but to be the community of God’s people to be the Church present in the world.
There is the God who is present in world events, where we can see the hand of God in the events when we look back just like Moses.
There is the God who is present supporting justice for the indigenous people of the land against the WA Government as in the Noonkanbah confrontation. Just like Elijah in the story of Naboth’s vineyard in 1 Kings 21 1-16.
Having shared these experiences I feel a little bit like Paul when he talks about how easy it is to boast, I hope it does not come across like that, it is just the adventures that I have had following a mysterious God who has laid his hand upon me and life has never been boring.
In many ways I feel it has been like the General Secretary of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjold who wrote in his book Markings:
I don’t know who – or what – put the question. I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer “Yes” to Some One – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life in self-surrender had a goal.
I now invite you to reflect on your own experience of the mystery God in your life when, like Moses, you are stuck in the cleft of the rock and looking back you can see God’s hind parts.
~ Robert Stringer