Branch Churches

Written by Anthony Douglas on Saturday, 13 April 2019.

Palm SundayMany Christians mark the Sunday before Easter as Palm Sunday, and around the world and in various denominations, there are a range of ways the day is celebrated. My first encounter was the common craft activity of weaving a flat reed into the shape of a cross.

An interesting fact: while all four gospels record the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, they each have a different take on the whole ‘palm’ thing. Matthew and Mark both record the crowds cutting branches from trees and laying them in Jesus’ path, but the words they use don’t really fit with palm foliage. Luke isn’t interested in his greens, mentioning only the cloaks laid by the crowd. John is the only one to mention palm branches, but the crowd carry them rather than laying them on the road. It’s not quite our mental picture, is it?

So why Palm Sunday, as opposed to Cloak Sunday, or Donkey Sunday? What was it that led the church in ancient times to pick the palm branch as the reminder of the beginning of Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem? There’s a hint in my tortured prose in the last sentence, where I took care to avoid the words ‘triumphal entry’. It’s thought that palm branches were associated with victory, and suited the arrival of Jesus, God’s King, to proclaim peace to the city.

While I don’t mind Palm Sunday as a tradition, it would be wise to be on our guard. For we could equally call it False Friends Sunday, if we recall that the fickle crowd was baying for Jesus’ blood only a few days later. They were in for the victory, but not for a cross and the shame that went with it.

Let’s make sure that we hold fast to the Jesus who died and rose, and that we are branches who remain in the true vine, not just the palm tree.

X Marks the Spot

Written by Anthony Douglas on Saturday, 06 April 2019.

Things look quite different from a distance - whether in space or in time.  Today, we’d be embarrassed to be labelled a ‘wowser’, but if we knew our story better, we would perhaps rejoice.

In the late 19th century, throughout Australia, a new organisation was formed. It was called the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and, you guessed it, the main agenda was to restrict the sale and consumption of alcohol. They had some success, enabling the restriction of liquor licences and bringing in the six o’clock closing hour in pubs.

Oh dear, we think. Such fuddy-duddies. Couldn’t they have thrown their energy into something more helpful, like evangelism? Did they have to add to the church’s reputation for only being interested in spoiling people’s fun?

So perhaps we should recognise their motives. Firstly, they wanted to see alcoholics saved through Christ, and knew that ready access to alcohol was standing in their way. Secondly, they were campaigning against domestic violence: the vast majority of incidents were fuelled by excessive drinking. Saving souls, protecting the vulnerable - sign me up to be such a wowser!

X VoteThese were smart women. They knew how to achieve their objectives, and they quickly worked out that the single largest change they could make would be to give women the vote. Throwing their weight behind the campaign for female suffrage, they were the decisive factor in its success. In South Australia, for instance, they gathered two thirds of the signatures on the petition to parliament that won the day. The reason for Australia’s world-leading adoption of female suffrage was the dedicated compassion of Christian women.

Who knew a cross could be so powerful?

Sorely Not!

Written by Anthony Douglas on Friday, 29 March 2019.

PainlessJo Cameron, a 71-year-old woman who lives near Loch Ness, has never been able to tell her kids, ‘This hurts me more than it will hurt you.’ That’s because she is completely unable to feel pain, at all. She has a genetic mutation that elevates a particular chemical in her body, and all her pain pathways are in a permanent state of bliss. There are some downsides - she regularly irons herself by accident, and her family reckon that her constant happiness can get wearing. But it does seem like she’s had the better of this quirk.

Until you look deeper. When Jo was a child, she broke her arm, and nobody noticed for three days. Her mutation makes her a rapid healer, but what if she injured herself in a way that needed immediate attention? Would she even notice a heart attack coming on?

We live in a world that deals out pain, and sadly, we need to know it. Otherwise, we are left defenceless... and not just in a physical sense. CS Lewis argued that our sense of pain fulfils the vital role of telling us something is wrong with the world, and denying us any false contentment. “Pain is unmasked, unmistakable evil,” he wrote, “It is [God’s] megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

People often use the existence of suffering as an argument against there being any gods. A kind and all-powerful being wouldn’t let us suffer, they claim. No doubt an all-powerful being can think for himself or herself, but they don’t need to point out the obvious. We actually believe in pain, once we call it justice and have it applied to those who have done wrong. What we really want is to see pain applied only as justice - and that, of course, is exactly what the gospel tells us God has intervened to achieve.


Written by Anthony Douglas on Thursday, 21 March 2019.

UnlockedThe strong man is an iconic figure in all sorts of cultures. From Gilgamesh the original hero to Hercules and his prodigious strength, from the giants of Norse mythology to the almost invulnerable Achilles - well, it seems human beings love their Superman figures. For the people of Israel, the lead contender was of course Samson.

We love our heroes because they represent security and freedom, I’d argue. The strongest man in the room can do as he chooses; nobody can compel him otherwise. He doesn’t need to fear opposition, because he can squelch it easily enough.

That’s why the punster in me loves the fact that Samson’s weakness came from his haircut. When he was ‘unlocked’ he could no longer provide that security that had been his greatest strength (ahem!) as a leader. The contradiction that Samson’s tale establishes is that God can work through weakness; indeed, Samson’s biggest achievement only came about because of his bout of weakness.

It explains why the gospel makes such a big deal about the weakness of Jesus as he went to his death. Beaten to within an inch of his life, he cannot even muster the strength to carry his own cross. Hanging from that cross, broken, defeated, Jesus epitomised weakness. And at that very moment, when his feeble last breath left his lungs, Jesus won the supreme victory. God’s strength works indeed in weakness.

So, if you’ll forgive one last pun: we don’t need to be dis-tressed about our security. Our sovereign God rules all things, and our safety lies not in our strength, but our Saviour. He has done all our heavy lifting!

More, Or Less?

Written by Anthony Douglas on Saturday, 16 March 2019.

MoreWe don’t remember her name much today, but in her time, Hannah More was a famous literary figure. She managed to turn her talent as a writer into a decent fortune in England during the 18th and 19th centuries. That, however, is not why she is remembered around Bristol.

Rather, it was what she did with her wealth. She was extraordinary in her generosity, and on top of that she founded a number of schools for those who couldn’t afford the expensive private institutions of her day. We know of at least a dozen, but there were certainly others.

Yet of greater significance than this was her tireless work in the campaign to end the slave trade. It took decades, but a small posse of abolitionists succeeded in ending slavery throughout the British Empire, and More’s pen was a valuable weapon in the court of public opinion.

She lived to 88, and increasingly depended on the support of her household servants for her physical needs. Thus, it was a cause of grief to learn that they had, collectively, conspired to defraud her for years. They would throw parties for their friends from the local area, elaborate and expensive balls.

When she found out, it was hard to believe. “Susan unfaithful, who has lived with me so many years? And Timothy, whose relations I have fed and clothed? And Teddy and Rebecca and Jane? What? Not one faithful?”

So the old woman left her home, never to return. And to each thieving servant she gave three months’ wages - a woman of grace to the end. Those who have been loved love much, even in the face of betrayal.

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