Happy St Polycarp’s Day

PolycarpOne of the letters that Ignatius sent on his way to Rome was to Polycarp, the young leader of the church in Smyrna (now Izmir in Turkey). In the letter, Ignatius encouraged Polycarp to take seriously his responsibilities as a minister and remain firm in his faith.

For over fifty years, Polycarp showed that he took Ignatius’s advice seriously. He served the church and preached the gospel. His great pupil, Irenaeus, tells us that Polycarp was a gifted teacher, “a man who was of much greater weight, and a more steadfast witness of truth, than… all the heretics.” His teaching was extremely important and influential at a time when the church was working out what it should believe, as well as fighting heresies from across the spectrum of crazy.

When Polycarp was eighty-six, the Romans began and large-scale persecution of Christians in Smyrna. Germanicus, an elderly Christian in Smyrna, was one of the first to be tried. When he refused to deny Christ, he was thrown to wild animals for the Roman’s enjoyment. But the crowd wasn’t satisfied, and called for the church leader, Polycarp, to be executed as well.

Polycarp went into hiding, but was soon found, and willingly went before the Roman authorities. When Polycarp refused to worship the emperor, the judge ordered him to cry, “Out with the atheists!” But Polycarp, turning and pointing at the crowd, replied, “Yes, out with the atheists!” (Romans would call Christians ‘atheists’ because they didn’t believe in the Roman gods.)

The judge threatened to burn him alive at the stake. Polycarp answered that the judge’s fire would only last a few minutes, but the eternal fire would never go out. “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he has done me no evil,” Polycarp said, “How could I curse my king, who saved me?”

As he was tied to the stake and kindling was piled around he feet, Polycarp thanked God that he was allowed to share in Christ’s sufferings and die for his sake. His godly example has inspired Christians for millennia.

Happy St Polycarp’s Day

Review: Calvary

Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson in Calvary

A guest post by friend of the zine Zac Fergie.

“Despair not, one of the thieves was spared; presume not, one of the thieves was not.”
– St Augustine

Calvary is a troubling film. Straight off the bat, the title is unapologetically bold. With a title like this, one expects a serious film, perhaps something like Passion of the Christ. The themes of the film match the gravity of the title, and fittingly, the theme of substitutionary atonement runs through this film from the first scene to the last.

The first scene opens onto a confessional, showing only Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson). A voice is giving his confession, recounting his experience of  sexual abuse at the hands of a priest, long dead. As punishment, the man promises to kill Father James, a “good priest”, in one week. The film is then divided into seven chapters, one for each day of the week. Father James, the good priest, needs to set things in order before he faces his death.

But here’s where the film bothered me. It doesn’t really establish that Lavelle is actually that good. I know that the film probably wants to show that no one is perfect, and Father James does have his moments. We see him trying to talk a troubled young man out of joining the armed forces. “I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues,” we hear him.

His truly redeeming scenes are those with his daughter Fiona, who has returned from London severely depressed, and to whom he shows real care and love. Fiona is one of the few characters apart from the Father that shows some complexity. But, then there are the scenes where he drinks like a fish before starting a pub brawl, implicitly condones hiring prostitutes, turns a blind eye to overtly criminal activities of his parishioners.

The parishioners themselves simply cannot be believed. I know Father James is a “hands on” type, but these guys hate him without reason. Christian virtues are completely lacking in them, which is troubling when you think about the Father’s role in encouraging these people on toward love and good deeds. This may be a deliberate move; they are almost archetypes. In a curiously meta conversation with the Father, the town GP  (Aidan Gillen) remarks that playing a jaded doctor is boring. Then again this could be an attempt to make Father Lavelle look more saintly by comparison to his truly devilish parishioners.

Visually, the film is stunning. The natural landscape surrounding the small Irish village is used to good effect to reflect the film’s bleak themes. The beautiful scenery also give the audience a well-deserved moments of respite from the town’s unmitigating petty evil.

Child sexual abuse is the ostensible theme of the film, a brave decision for director John McDonagh. The spectre of the Church’s complicity in these appalling crimes haunts Father James throughout the film. No one ever seems to trust him, even though he is, by all appearances, a man of integrity. This ties back into the title: Lavelle is a good man taking the punishment for the bad. Even though this dynamic is complicated by Lavelle’s flaws, it’s thought provoking stuff. I don’t know enough about Irish Catholicism, but part of me thinks that priests are meant to take on the sufferings of their community in this way.

The final scene reveals who the potential murderer is. It’s anyones guess why the town butcher owns a handgun so large Clint Eastwood would think twice about owning it. Their final encounter on the beach is an interesting one, and one that asks questions directly of the audience. Lavelle (and the audience) is asked: “Did you cry when your dog died?” Yes. “Did you cry when you heard about all those children that were raped and had their lives ruined by people they trusted?” No. Why not? The film doesn’t give us an answer. Why don’t we cry when we hear of terrible things on the news? After Lavelle’s murder, the film ends with a montage of the parishioners continuing with their lives of sin, seemingly without hope of redemption now that Lavelle is dead.

It takes a good man to make a good priest, and a good priest can make a good difference to a community. But this leaves out the most important thing. It takes the power of God to truly change someone’s life, to actually bring about redemption. This film shows a lot of what happens when people try to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps”, and perhaps that is why the film is pervaded by a sense of hopelessness. The good news is that through Jesus’ death and resurrection at Calvary, we have a real hope of new life brought about by the power of God.

Review: Calvary

Difficult Father Nathaniel

Flickr | camil tulkan

At the First Things blog, Wesley Smith tells the story of Father Nathaniel, an Orthodox monk whose tom-foolery was a thorn in the side of his abbot and the local Soviet authorities alike.

The church in Russia suffered eighty years of violent persecution at the hand of the Soviets, yet survived and is now thriving, thanks to faithful Christians like Nathaniel. The monk’s gift was rebelling even as he was doing the very thing he had been asked:

Fr. Nathaniel repeatedly thwarts attempts by the abbot to inspect his cell. Finally, the dreaded invasion could be prevented no longer. As the abbot enters the room, he asks, “Why is it so dark in here? Don’t you have electricity? Where is the light switch?”

Fr. Nathaniel tells him mildly that it is on the right. “Just turn the handle.” A horrible cry rent the air, as if some unknown force had cast the abbot straight out of the pitch-black darkness of the cell, into the corridor. Speeding out after him into the light came Father Nathaniel. Within one second, he closed and triple-locked the door of his cell once again.”

His domain safely secured, Fr. Nathaniel tells his (literally) shocked superior about how the light switch broke back in 1964 “on the occasion of the Feast of the Protection of the Mother of God,” the very day that Khrushchev was removed from power. “That was a sign!” he tells the abbot, explaining why he never repaired the switch. “Come, I’ll just open the door again, and we’ll slip back in!” But the abbot had already fled in ignominious defeat, never to mount another incursion.

But Nathaniel’s gift for obedient rebellion was felt most sharply by the Soviet authorities on an election day:

The First Secretary of the Regional Communist Party insisted that the “black beetles” vote in town rather than at the monastery as a way of teaching “the atavistic deviant non-working-class element of society” a lesson. Before the abbot could protest, Father Nathaniel whispered into his ear “a piece of advice that was both innocent and extremely subtle in its defiance.”

On election day—a Sunday, of course—“from the monastery gates came streaming forth a magnificent procession of the cross, with priests bearing crosses and icons . . . in a long line, singing hymns and in full ceremonial dress towards the polling place.” When horrified bureaucrats protested, the abbot declared that they were just doing their duty as Soviet citizens as required by the First Secretary.

Nathaniel’s story and those of other faithful Russian Christians is told in a little book Everyday Saints and Other Stories, newly translated from Russian. I haven’t read it, but maybe I’ll put some other stories up when I do.

Difficult Father Nathaniel

Worry, weeds and the Pope

The landscape is changing

One of the surprising things about Jesus is that he was usually pretty relaxed about things. In fact, he spent a lot of time telling people not to worry. Over and over in the gospels, while teaching the crowds or talking with his disciples, Jesus basically says, “Don’t worry; God has things under control.”

Beside the obvious sayings in the Sermon on the Mount, where he compares us favourably with the birds and the grass (if God looks after them, how much more will he look after us), there’s a similar message in a number of Jesus’ parables and other teaching.

The seed sown among thorns is choked by the worries of this life. The rich fool dies in his bed with barns full of grain because he worried about body more than soul. Martha is told to stop worrying and to sit down with Mary.

In Matthew 13, Jesus tells another such parable, this time specifically about the kingdom. A man sows his field with wheat, and during the night an enemy comes and sows weeds among the wheat. They both sprout and grow, and when the servants see the weeds, they get ready to go and cut them down. But the master tells them not to worry. Let the wheat and weeds grow together, he says. Wait until harvest time, and then separate them, the wheat into the barns and the weeds into the fire.

Jesus tells the disciples this parable just after he’s explained the parable of the sower. He knows that soon the disciples will be starting churches, and when they do, there will be hard ground and good ground, wheat and weeds. So Jesus says, don’t worry. Don’t worry about trying to pick out the weeds. Instead, leave it up to Jesus to judge at harvest time. Until then, wait and look after the field.

(Jesus is not, of course, talking about false teachers, which he elsewhere calls ferocious wolves.)

One of the glories of the Church is its diversity – there’s a place for everyone, and a hundred ways of doing things. We’re blessed to live in a time when the Church is doing many different things with many different people. But this diversity can also be worrying. What if there are people in our churches who are weeds? What if some of the churches in our denomination are weeds? What if this or that way of doing things is a weed in the kingdom?

Jesus say, don’t worry. There will always be weeds. Instead, work out your own faith, care for your own church, and wait for harvest time, when the wheat will be gathered.

Last night the Pope announced that he would abdicate at the end of this month. He is 85 and he is feeling his age, and he has wisely decided to step aside for the sake of the Roman church. It’s a courageous decision, and a surprising one, but I have been dismayed to see brothers and sisters use the news as an opportunity for jokes at Catholics’ expense, or worse.

There may well be some weeds in the Roman Catholic church. There may be weeds in our own churches. There could quite possibly be churches in your city which are weeds. Some of the things we do might be wheat, and some might be weeds. Your church may be the only stalk of wheat in your whole weedy suburb. But Jesus says, don’t worry. Wait until harvest time, and he will deal with the weeds. Until then, he just asks us to tend the field.

Worry, weeds and the Pope


A guest post by Roz Zanich

So I’m taking a gap year. Except it hasn’t been the usual travel-the-world-type year that’s expected when a 20-something decides to take a year off. I get a few raised eyebrows when I explain this. What does one do with a whole year without responsibilities if not travel? For me this year has been a year of learning. This seems to further confuse the raised-eyebrow crowd. Who takes a year off after completing their degrees to learn? Apparently I do.

This adventure started mid-last year as I finished up my degrees and honours thesis. Burnt-out and exhausted with graduation looming I realised that jumping straight into full- time degree-related work just wasn’t a good fit for me. And if I planned to survive the corporate world I needed to learn to rest.

I realised that sustaining me throughout this exhausting period was a great God. I also found that the times I was most happy was when I was using my gifts and talents to glorify Him. I found that despite the over-full weeks, marathon writing sessions and a to-do list longer than a wet week I always felt revived when I returned to scripture, regularly attended Bible study and made concerted efforts to engage with my church community through service. With that in mind the gap-year made sense and the year began to take shape.

I was convicted with the knowledge that with time on my side and few grown-up responsibilities to attend to I was well placed to invest my year in ways that time-poor friends couldn’t. But where to start? Where to invest? After much prayer I talked through some options with a friend. We discussed my strengths, hopes, availability and areas where I was willing to be challenged. I prayed for opportunities that would inspire me, challenge me and help me to grow. Not long after opportunities began to present. But I was mindful that this year was also about rest and that taking on every opportunity was not wise.So what can one accomplish in one year of rest, service and learning? Thus far I have:

• helped plan and run Unichurch Camp 2011

• sewn four dresses, a skirt and two blouses

• thrown a dessert party

• made time to read the Bible with friends

• taken TAFE classes and learned how to make my own sewing patterns

• explored Sydney

• learned to cook Coq au Vin, raspberry

soufflés, biscotti and pie

• visited family in Manjimup

•made centre pieces for friends’ weddings

• taught Sunday School

While the shape of my year continues to confuse the eye-brow raised set, I am excited and grateful for the opportunities I have been given to use my rest, my service and my learning to glorify God and encourage others. However, the icing on the cake has been the way that this year has given me opportunities to explain how I have chosen to spend my time with non-Christian friends.and family. My choices have opened doors for conversation, a most precious gift indeed.