Irrepressible spirituality flows through all creation
Former Moderator, Rev. Myung Hwa Park gave her outgoing report on the first day of Synod. This was followed by the Rev. Tara Curlewis’s Minute of Appreciation
For the last three years, I have spoken in many public engagements and on each occasion I began by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land by using the inspiring words prepared by the Aboriginal poet Jonathan Hill.
“Today we stand in footsteps millennia old. May we acknowledge the traditional owners whose cultures and customs have nurtured, and continue to nurture, this land, since men and women awoke from the great Dream. We honour the presence of these ancestors who reside in the imagination of this land and whose irrepressible spirituality flows through all creation.”
For such a time as this !
Four and half years ago, I was asked as a part of the discernment process, “At the end of your term as Moderator, what would you like to have achieved or changed?”
I said, “I would love people to see how marvellous God’s mighty work is and to know God is present among us. I also want to see the church waking up to God’s mission, to be responsive to what’s happening around us and to heed the call to God’s mission.”
During three years of immense privilege while being your Moderator, I have tried to witness to the presence of God in the life of individuals I’ve met, churches that I’ve visited and in my own response to God’s calling in my reflections, conversations, writing and preaching.
Despite my best intentions, today I confess in the presence of God and before you the Synod of NSW and ACT that I have not always kept every word, clause, and interpretation of Regulation 18.104.22.168 – that’s the section titled the “Duties of the Moderator”. Nor indeed have I managed to satisfy people’s hopes and expectations. So I seek your forgiveness and God’s mercy for my shortcomings.
At the time of my appointment someone on Facebook said that , “A foreign widow has been elected to be the moderator of the Synod of NSW/ACT”. This strange remark became a metaphor for my response to God’s mission, God who sent Elijah to the widow of Zerephath, an acute reminder of our church’s history, of the UCA as a multicultural church since 1986, and a sure affirmation for me as to who I am and whose I am.
Whatever my failure to fulfil expectations as Moderator, I am confident to say that God was never short of grace and mercy which I have endeavoured to reflect.
Every Moderator before me has brought his or her special gifts and skills into the church with their unique leadership. They responded to the challenges and demands of the different circumstances which confronted them. And I believe that I have walked in their footsteps. You have entrusted me with the task of being the eyes, ears and mouth of the Synod for the last three years, so I would like to share a few things that I want the Synod to hear from me.
Issues that acutely challenged us during my term
Shortly after I took up the role, I learnt that our church was listed to be part of the hearings at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
From this experience, we’ve learnt the hard lesson that our church is no different to any other institution in its need to ensure the protection of children in our care. We must build safe environments for these children whether in church schools, out of home care services, Sunday schools or any of our church activities.
Apologies and saying sorry
One of the hardest things for the nation and churches to do is to admit our past wrongdoing or mistakes even though they happened without our direct involvement or bad intentions. On behalf of the Synod, I have offered an apology to the people who have been hurt by people in the church or badly treated by the structural processes of the Church. It is my prayer and hope that injustice will not be experienced by anyone but if anyone does have to deal with such a problem, I trust there will be a fair process in place to resolve the issue. We need to remember how many times our Lord Jesus encourages us to forgive each other (Matthew 18:21) and what a good shepherd does when a sheep is lost. (Luke 15: 1-7).
Care for the environment, Murray Darling Basin Tour
A very special experience that brought me great joy and learnings were the Murray Darling Basin tours that I took each year for the last three years. Since 2014 a group of concerned members of our Synod has organised a Murray Darling Basin Tour as an expression of the church’s pastoral concern for those people living in areas affected by the Millennium drought. I have travelled on this tour each year. This has given me the opportunity to share with over 100 people in our church for the last three years. The tour helped us not only to see that the Murray, Darling and Murrumbidgee Rivers are the main water sources for the life of the nation but also it challenged our anthropocentric mentality when we saw the interdependency between the river, the red gum trees, birds, farmers and towns. As we travelled, we listened and learnt about the wider community’s concerns and as a church we offered our non-judgemental response and prayers for the wellness of all people and the environment surrounding them. I was so proud to be with members of our Church who cared enough to travel beyond their comfort zones and courageous enough to be challenged for their lack of awareness beyond their worshipping communities. I thank God for an amazing people, growing smaller in number but big in hearts!
Evangelism – Gospel Yarning
Over the last three years I have always enjoyed opportunities to share about my stories and faith journey, while also listening to the stories of individuals and communities of faith throughout our Synod.
In sharing our stories, we discover and rediscover God’s story of love which is active and alive – and deeply interwoven with our stories through the story of Christ.
I especially like to stress our cross cultural stories, which can help us to paint the God of many colours, many names and many songs and bring a picture of the wonderful tapestry of God’s story.
But I wonder, can we move ourselves a little bit further to accommodate each other and be prepared to hear a new story in a new rhythm and new flavour?
I truly hope so.
I welcome the theme of this Synod “Telling our story”. I pray that our new Moderator will encourage and invite people to tell their stories, so that we will be enriched by each others stories and the world encouraged to enjoy the beauty of God’s people.
UTalk – Sharing Moments of Enlightenment
The Uniting Church, is an inter-conciliar church, and this means that we relate, connect, communicate and listen to each other between the Synod, the boards, Presbyteries, the Congregation, the Schools and care providers.
I have had many opportunities to meet the ministry agents of our Synod both retired and active, ministers in congregations, presbyteries, the Synod, schools, hospitals, aged care and the UAICC.
During 21 Utalks I have met more than 250 ministers who shared their moments of enlightenment – their “God experiences” which sustain their calling and enhance their ministry. In our vast and fast-changing society, our ministry context and especially the roles of ministers are deeply affected and challenged.
So it is absolutely vital therefore for our ministry agents to have a clear and strong sense of calling to the ministry.
The last UTalk was focused on “ordination”. The Reverend Professor Andrew Dutney’s sound theological reflection through the Basis of Union and people sharing their stories of calling on that day made for a very affirming and encouraging experience for all who attended. The discussions especially affirmed the unique calling for ordained ministers in the life of the church.
Today we are seeing increasing numbers of churches in both rural and urban settings facing difficulties in affording a full-time minister and relying on lay leadership and becoming lay-led ministry churches. This brings us a challenge for a new way of being a church especially into the lay-led faith community.
As a pilgrim people, we are more than ever called to be open to the transforming power of God for God’s people in the 21st Century.
Voice for voiceless
On behalf of the Synod, I have represented and raised my voice in various campaigns: for refugees and asylum seekers, in rallies with thousands of other people to support those most vulnerable to climate change, I’ve spoken out about decriminalising illicit drug use, and led our delegations at an Affordable Housing assembly.
Campaigns and rallies are an important means of raising public awareness and support. However the more important response that the Church can make is to be salt and light for the world which gives a taste for food and preserves the food for good, and gives light to cast out the darkness. Our own acts of daily witness, welcoming strangers into our home and appreciating and respecting differences are more life giving than a banner saying “Refugees are welcome here” on the corner of a church building while the world passes by.
I believe that we can do better than offering lip service especially when we are called to exercise “Space for Grace” for same-gender sex marriage (I prefer to call it “marriage equality”.) Here the grace is not our grace but the grace of God which invites us to experience that all are welcomed and accepted in the house of God.
We should never allow the current questions around marriage equality that the nation is testing through a postal survey to undermine us – we who truly trust the grace of God and letting that grace hold a space for everyone no matter who or what they are or who they love.
For such a time as this, I believe our true calling as a Church is simply to reflect the law of God which is fulfilled in Christ Jesus. God’s grace and mercy in Christ accepts all people just as rain falls on both good and evil.
Called to be a Covenanting church
One of the highlights from the last Synod meeting was the experience of hearing many passionate stories shared at the Open Space session. One of the great joys of my role was to realise my great dream of learning more about the wisdom of Australia’s First Peoples.
Through an invitation by the leadership of NSW UAICC I was able to be one of 53 people to walk on Bundjalang country near Lismore in the Far North Coast Presbytery region. It was a life transforming experience for those who travelled together as we walked softly and listened deeply to the stories of joy and pain. It was a most profound experience for us to witness the pride and dignity in the faces of our UAICC chair Di Torrens and her people on her land.
I cannot imagine an ultimate contextual theology for us Australians without reflecting a deep appreciation and connection with this 60,000 year old land, it’s people and their stories.
So one of the great highlights for me, was the opportunity I had to walk alongside a wise and gentle leader, Auntie Di, the chair of UAICC and getting to know the UAICC NSW congregations. This relationship has enhanced my deep appreciation of the spirituality of the First people.
Sadly though, I do not see evidence of efforts being made to build covenanting relationships with the First People in our churches. If we don’t do this, we will miss out on the gifts of the land and its people who have lived in this place from time immemorial.
I have a dream for our Church, that one day, we will become a church in Australia that proudly reflects the life and experience of the land and its people through our worship, witness and service.
On a cross cultural journey toward the promised land
The National Church Life Survey tells us of a strong growth in culturally diverse congregations and also of a strong future leadership potential in these congregations.
Whether we’re ready or not, our society is increasingly becoming multi-faith, multilingual, and multicultural.
If we want to share the good news with others, we need to develop a better cross cultural understanding and greater skills in all levels of ministry.
We sing that the church is not a building with a steeple and pews to fill but a people. But without worshipping communities no matter how small or large, we find it hard to express ourselves as living signs of communities of faith.
And I have watched this struggle among many of our culturally diverse congregations especially new ones.
Our Synod has the highest number of CALD congregations in Australia. This means that we have more resources and experiences to develop the necessary cross cultural understanding and skills.
However most of our CALD congregations are struggling with lack of resources
such as property and financial assets, for their growing congregations. If we can empower our CALD congregations now, it is not rocket science to predict what our church will be tomorrow.
As paragraph 18 of the Basis of Union says: we are a pilgrim people on a journey toward the promised end. As the people of God on the way, we should not hold on to things here but share whatever we have to sustain each other for our journey together as we seek to reach our destiny, the promised land.
I have wished to see the church wake up to God’s mission, to be responsive to what’s happening around us and heeding the call to God’s mission.” And today I have seen that many have woken up to God’s mission but there are still more to be encouraged.
I, a foreign widow, was able to serve the Church because of the grace of God and the help of many wonderful people whose support and prayers enabled me to complete my role.
Although the past three years have been like a whirlpool on a roller coaster, I have not been washed away, or tangled by knots or thrown off track. Thanks to many great people who held me close in their prayers, sustained me with their knowledge and wisdom, and encouraged me with their friendship and love, helped me with practical assistance and accepted me with unconditional love.
But what would be a more affirming and reassuring thing for me to say to you is that I have never lost my smile, and felt renewed and transformed by the very ministry I have carried out over the last three years. Serving the Synod has also enabled me to see a future direction for my next journey, so I give thanks to God in my loudest voice “My God, my life is overflowing with your blessings!”
Thank you and may God’s Spirit be with you!
Rev. Myung Hwa Park