Final stories from Gospel Yarning
From Rev Andrew Smith
Presbytery Minister - Congregation Futures
This week we have some final stories from the Gospel Yarning Conference that took place over three days in late February. Thirteen people from our Presbytery participated in the conference, some of us were there in-person at the Centre for Ministry in North Parramatta, while others of us zoomed in to the sessions. Here are some reflections on the experience of the conference by Robbie Tulip (Kippax Congregation and Presbytery Secretary) and Riana Kok (Yarralumla Congregation).
Gospel Yarning brought together an immensely valuable network within the Uniting Church, sharing ways to present the gospel story that resonate with contemporary ethics. A main question raised by the conference was who will lead the church to grow in evangelism. The discussions showed how the concept of evangelism, spreading the good news of Christ, is changing. New theology emerging within the Uniting Church has a focus on inclusion and acceptance, affirming people’s identity, rather than traditional ideas about conversion.
A first example arose from the discussion about Intentional First Nations Ministry with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. A message that indigenous people have often received from conservative Christian evangelism is that their cultural identity is inferior, so to become Christian means to become white. This racist message reflects the imperial history of the church with its close association with colonial conquest. By contrast, the Uniting Church has a theology that affirms indigenous identity and can work to develop relationships of trust and partnership.
A second example of affirming theology came from the discussion at Gospel Yarning about the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Speakers highlighted how major features of conventional evangelical theology create an enabling environment for sexual predators. The idea that Jesus Christ substituted for us to take the penalty we deserve for our sin has unfortunately had this evil effect. Church leaders have used this theology of the cross to demand silent obedience to abuse, and have rationalised their abuse with the false psychology that their faith in Christ means they are forgiven. A repentant Biblical theology that fully affirms the dignity of victims, seeing Christ in the least of the world, is needed to transform how the church thinks about its central ideas of salvation, forgiveness and love.
I am sure I have heard the term “yarning” (Indigenous Australian term meaning to “have a chat”) before and was supposed to know and remember by now what it means, (Yarralumla's own newsletter is known as "Yarra Yarns") but sometimes my Afrikaans mind (or just my very own mind) quickly follows its own order of memory and logic - the word must have been derived from “yarn”, so the conference must all be about “knitting the yarn of the Gospel together”, to try and make sense of it!
Maybe not too bad a metaphor, but not how it was meant to be understood!
Nevertheless, some great missional and theological patterns emerged from which gorgeous gospel garments will hopefully get “knitted” together over time, thanks to those few days of “yarning”!
I think what most excites me about the Gospel Yarning gathering, is the emphasis on the narrative, on "story". I remember fondly, as a child, being drawn to the bible through its fascinating stories, which I would read again and again, once I could. Perhaps my theological studies and ordained ministry in a sense, always have been a search to reconnect with that. And maybe my time spent "between" my previous denomination and becoming an affirmed UC minister, yet again in a sense, was a search for it elsewhere, as I too, like so many other people, sadly felt it amiss in the church of our times, which I think became more of an institution of moral direction through the centuries, of "cutting" wrong from right (so-to-speak), and have had us lose our connection and place in the greater scheme of creation, time -and space, life -and death, and of who we are and where we belong. And that we belong together, to nature and creation, to the earth and ultimately to God.
We also furthermore, have been drawn into the narrative of the Gospel of Mark, chapter 8, through encouragement of deep listening and the "yarning" process, and by having a "glance" through Dietrich Bonhoeffers' "glasses" ( so-to-speak), considering the incarnate, crucified Jesus and resurrected Christ. We were challenged to consider not our "fellowship" with Jesus and one another, but our "followship" of Jesus, and what that would mean with regards to our relationship with God, one another and our place on earth and in life of the "kingdom-come". What would our answer be to Jesus' question to his disciples: "But you, who do you say I am?", over and against their offering of what some or others were saying, namely that Jesus was (the incarnation of) Elijah, John the Baptist or a prophet. And what would it mean?
Even though we were prompted that we should let the biblical stories speak for themselves, in our case Mark 8, we were nevertheless asked in the end where we would place ourselves in terms of the characters of the narrative - perhaps one of the Pharisees asking for a sign, supposed to see and understand who Jesus was and what he came to do, but remaining blind; or maybe the blind man who have been brought to Jesus by others, seemingly doubtful, and hesitantly letting Jesus touch him, but who also needed further healing, after only having blurred vision at first; or the disciples having seen and following all along, but not fully grasping or understanding what it means or entails being followers of Jesus, and which Peter verbalises when acknowledging that Jesus is the Messiah, the designated saviour or anointed One from God, as foretold by the prophets, but then could not accept Jesus' revelation about his mission and role of suffering and dying, as such.
Indeed the question arose, as to whether the disciples could accept that this incarnate One was also to be the suffering servant and crucified One, as foretold? Again Peter's response, pose the challenge where we as readers or listeners might find ourselves too in terms of Jesus' revealing mission and role of suffering and death, though naturally we tend to look upon it from a post-resurrection point of view.
As far as it goes with regards to myself, this is the question I have come away with from the conference and as we approach Easter, still finding ourselves in Lent, perhaps I will be paying much more attention to the significance and meaning for us again, not only in so far as crucifixion Friday is concerned, but also, and maybe more so, the burial time before resurrection Sunday, which I think we tend to jump ahead to.