Let’s not waste the season God gives

On Saturday, Greg Clarke (former CEO of the Bible Society, Australia) sent out the following tweet,

“I remember as a young Christian at University in the 80s when we felt we would have to work really hard in Australia to ‘keep the rumour of God alive’. At the moment, it’s wall to wall God stuff.”

Greg Clarke is right. I’m not aged well enough to remember university in the 1980s but we don’t have to peer so far. Even looking back a few short years, I remember Christians being frustrated and saddened by the fact that God was absent from most conversations and seemed to be rarely on people’s agendas. It was as though the culture was erasing God for the public conscience, and it was only a small number of persistent believers who could jump-start God into the conversation.

Australia is experiencing are the most unusual season at the moment. For three months social media has been filled with conversations about religion and God and Christianity, and every day there is more reporting and more opinion pieces published about Christianity. Who would have guessed that the topic of hell would become an election issue? For a nation that is supposedly post-Christian and secular, we are engaging in a significant national conversation where God features.

To be sure, some of the conversations are less than edifying. Not all, but some reporting is little more than crude and unoriginal Christian bashing. Some of the commentary that is passing for Christianity is nothing of the sort. There are also atheists defending Christians. Even Professor Peter Singer, who preaches some of the most repugnant ideas that can be heard anywhere in the world today, last week wrote a constructive and reasoned article in support of Israel Folau. Other remarks come from well-meaning Christians, who are nonetheless being unhelpful and take conversations down misguided paths. There is also much anger being vented from various quarters and doubling down on caricatures of different people and ideas.

To argue that there is no issue of religious freedom in Australia is to close your eyes and ears to the growing number of cases that are being disclosed in many areas of Australian life, from sport to business and to education. Sure, as human beings we are sometimes guilty of exaggerating the socio-political climate; we are not living in the Soviet Union and this isn’t 1984. But neither is the culture static and neutral. I find it ironic that the voices most ardently insisting that there is no agenda to limit religious freedoms, are those lauding Rugby Australia for sacking Israel Folau and those urging for Christians Schools to lose their funding if they don’t subscribe to the sexual revolution, and on and on the list continues. Religious freedom is one of the pivotal tests of this generation. Without it we lose the capacity to be a truly pluralistic society. This topic should matter to all Australians, whether we are Christian or Jewish or Hindu or atheist. Do we really want to live in a State where corporate business dictates religious doctrine and where Government defines theological values? I have detailed this case on other occasions, my aim here is to underline another matter that is even more close to my heart.

As I read and agreed with Greg’s tweet, I thought a little more and my attention turned to 2 Corinthians chapters 5 and 6 (which I am currently preaching through at Mentone). For example, in 6:2 God defines the age in which we are living. He does not say that this is a post-Christian or post-modern or post or pre anything age. Rather, the announcement is,

“I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”

Not was, not might be, and not maybe one future day, but today. The epoch of history in which we live is the day of salvation. That’s exciting!

Is the current Australian discourse on religion a final gasp before we venture into a new and intolerant and irrational era of religious restrictions, or will common sense prevail? We don’t know yet. What interests me is the fact that talk about God and Christ and the Bible is filling newspapers paragraphs and trending on social media every day at the moment. Have not Christians been praying for opportunities to give the reason for the hope we have? Do we not ask God for conversations where introducing Jesus is a natural progression?

That day is today.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we can let this season slip past our attention, or we can engage in loving and useful ways.

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Here are 3 suggestions.

First, we can pray. Let us pray often, repeatedly, fervently for God to make known his Gospel love, just as he has shown us great mercy and kindness. Pray for our fellow Australians, regardless of their worldview and moral inclinations. If we are praying for them, we will have no time or desire to be spiteful or demeaning toward them.

We have the opportunity to break the cultural narrative and show Christ-like love to those who are vulnerable.  At Church this morning we prayed,

“Father in Heaven, help us to uphold your holiness and goodness. In an age of sexual confusion teach us clarity and to trust that your ways are good. May we present your Gospel with love and gentleness, patience and care. May Mentone Baptist Church be a safe place for people to investigate Christianity, to be welcomed and encouraged.”

Second, let us love

Be the best of friend, the most loyal work colleague, the gentle and helpful student, and be a kind voice on social media. Offer hospitality and ask permission to share the message that has changed our own lives.

Third, let us speak

In 2 Corinthian 5:11-18, the Apostle Paul employs 3 verbs to describe his intent in evangelising: persuasion, compulsion, and regard.

 “Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. 12 We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. 13 If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

First, Christian evangelism is not compulsion, it is clear and passionate persuasion, presenting the facts of Jesus Christ and leaving it for people to make their decision. Second, it is not bigotry or ignorance motivating Christian evangelism but love; we don’t want anyone missing out on the astonishing benefits that come from knowing Jesus Christ. As one reads through the above portion of the Bible we don’t see any picture of oppression or forced faith, but freedom that surpasses any temporary offerings. Third, we ought to regard people not through the grid of any current cultural paradigm but through the sense of God’s good news about Jesus. This means we may not affirm every belief, idea, and action but we fight for the dignity of every person.

When it comes to the art of persuasion most often this is best done away from sharing thoughts and articles of social media, but instead taking an interest in the lives of people around us, listening to the dreams and fears of work colleagues and friends, and sharing how we believe Jesus is the ultimate answer.

In my opinion, the most unhelpful and loudest critics that I’ve heard during the Folau controversy are not from gay and lesbian Australians, but from comfortable and secure North Shore Sydneysiders who take virtue signaling to a new level. I have also heard about other social media interactions that hurt and insult people, and where gay and lesbians feel denigrated. Christians need to stand alongside gay and lesbian Aussies against such vitriol. A case in point is Israel Folau today speaking against those who have abused Magda Szubanski online for her sharing an opinion about the Rugby player.

This is no time to be sticking our heads in Bondi’s sand or holidaying in New Zealand. The whole nation is talking about Christianity. If God is right, and “now is the time of salvation”, let us be praying and loving and speaking.

The world’s best food is found in Menton(e)

Mentone has been awarded one of the world’s most prestigious culinary titles, “the world’s best restaurant.” This highly charged competition creates a stir every year as judges tour the world, noting the restaurants that offered them the finest dining experiences. Restaurants and Chefs rise to global attention, while others are shunned. Taste buds, noses, and eyes survey plates, tables, and venues, looking for originality, composition, and that good old subjective sense of ‘wow’.

In the recent award ceremony held in Singapore, the world’s best restaurant for 2019 has been given to Mentone! Yes, we are on the map! Global recognition has finally reached this beachside area.

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Ok, the award is for Mentone France, not Mentone in Melbourne. And in Mentone, they drop the final e, making it Menton. There does exist a close relationship between two towns for Mentone is named after Menton; just that one knows how to spell this English name and the other doesn’t!

The Menton restaurant that has been awarded this prestigious title is Mirazur.

Mirazur is described in the following way:

What makes it special: Unrivalled views of the French Riviera, three levels of cascading vegetable gardens churning out the sweetest produce and a team of outrageously talented cooks and front-of-house staff combine to make Mirazur the ultimate restaurant experience. Mauro Colagreco’s unique cuisine is inspired by the sea, the mountains and the restaurant’s own gardens, including Menton’s emblematic citrus fruits.”

I like to eat delicious food. I appreciate fine food. Susan and I once enjoyed a meal at last year’s “world’s best restaurant”, years before it was recognised as such.

It would be pretty cool if Mirazur had opened its doors in the Mentone of the south. We could do with a few locations for foodies. Mentone may not be a choice suburb for fine dining, but we do have a food experience of another kind, and I reckon it is even better. In contrast to this restaurant that sounds truly quite amazing, Mentone (Baptist Church) is serving up a very different meal. This meal costs a huge price and yet it is free. It is deeply satisfying and yet we are welcomed to eat and drink some more. It is intense in flavour and yet delicate on the palate. It is beautiful to behold and yet it is not pretentious.

At Mentone, we don’t expend all our energy on the packaging. No one is photographing what we serve. The building in which we meet looks as though it belongs to a vintage garage sale. The people are quite ordinary in appearance. The website doesn’t have the habit of making viewers drool at the sight of artistically plated courses. The meal, however, is worth everything.

The meal is in the message, and the message is about a person. It is God’s loving message about his Son, Jesus Christ. The message is one that engages the mind and moves the heart and feeds the soul.

Jesus said,

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)

Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” (John 6:27)

““Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)

This meal is regularly available to anyone who wants to visit Mentone, and indeed many of the other Churches around Melbourne that love Jesus. Churches are not interested in awards, community recognition, or popular adulations (or at least we ought not). We have been invited to eat at the grandest table, not because we are rich or famous or because we have the right contacts in the culinary world, but on account of a loving God who hates spiritual destitution and dereliction.

To the poor, to the hurting, to the hungry goes this invitation. A table filled not with egos but with gratitude, not with critics intent on deconstructing the slightest fault, but hearts and stomachs filled with unspeakable delight and joy.

I love good food. For one reason or another, I’ve had the opportunity to sit down at a table of some of the world’s great restaurants. These are memorable experiences, for which as a Christian I can acknowledge the creative genius of men and women and enjoy the astonishing tastes and smells of God’s creation. The best of food is like viewing a Picasso or Pollock, only that you get to eat it. But these delectable delights are momentary and passing compared to the food that God offers in Jesus Christ. In fact, heaven is described as a banquet, the supersize table where forever God’s family are welcomed to enjoy him and one another and a feast without ending. You see, Christianity doesn’t starve the intellect, the body, or the soul, the Christ of the Bible stimulates the senses and amazes us with the deepest satisfaction.

To those who can afford to eat out and enjoy the world’s best restaurants, there is better food available for your body and your soul. Why live for that which ends up in the toilet when we can eat food that gives eternal life?

To the majority who can never afford to pay for such a luxurious food experience, God offers food that will never spoil or perish, and that one day will make Kings and Chefs envious for that they passed it up in favour of a short-lived morsel.

Netball Australia sets the right tone for civil disagreement

The Israel Folau saga is reaching new levels of the ridiculous. It now seems as though it’s an enormous issue for Maria Folau to support her husband publicly.

Maria Folau is a star of International netball, representing New Zealand and playing for the Adelaide Thunderbirds.

What did she say that was so terrible and controversial?

She wrote a single word on her Instagram account, “Support”, along with reposting her husband’s statement where he explained why he was pursuing legal action and how people could support the costs, should they wish to do so.

 

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Netball Australia and Netball S.A succumbed to public pressure (or in this case, I think they preempted the coming tsunami) and released a statement in support of Maria Folau. They made it clear that they were not agreeing with Israel Folau’s views, but also that Maria had not breached any rules.

It is important to quote the following statement in full.

Statement by CEO of Netball South Australia – Ms. Bronwyn Klei

First and foremost, I want to be very clear that Netball South Australia is fiercely determined to provide an inclusive environment that allows anyone to participate in the great game of netball regardless of gender, religious belief, age, race or sexual orientation.

We also believe in fairness and perspective.

Like millions of other people across Australia, Maria Folau uses her personal social media platform to share her life and beliefs with her family, friends, and fans. This week, she shared her husband’s controversial Go-Fund-Me post.

While Netball SA in no way endorses the reposting, we do not believe Maria has contravened our social media policy.

Maria is a key member of the Thunderbirds. Not only has she provided great strength and leadership on court, she attends and works with netballing clinics, spends a lot of time with fans, engages with local communities and passionately encourages young kids with their netball dreams. We continue to support her as we support all our players.

To the thousands of people that play netball across South Australia every week:

Netball SA is not endorsing Maria’s repost.

Netball SA is committed to diversity and inclusion.

Netball SA and the Adelaide Thunderbirds support and encourage everyone wanting to play this great game.

And finally, we want to get out on that court today, play a great game of netball and win this game.

Media requests and further information please contact Grays Public Relations:

Cathy McHugh
0412 515 819
cathy@grayspr.com.au

 

My daughter plays netball.  I for one appreciate this public statement. Australian netball has acted wisely and impartially, taking what only a few years ago would have been considered a sensible and reasonable course. But of course, we no longer live in such a culture.

Liz Ellis, a former Australian netball Captain, responded,

“Yeah nah not good enough. How about this: There is no room for homophobia in our game. Anyone who is seen to support or endorse homophobia is not welcome.”

We are left wondering, what would Liz Ellis like to see happen? Does she believe that Maria Folau should be sanctioned or suspended? Does Ellis expect Netball Australia and the Adelaide Thunderbirds to publicly denounce Maria Folau for supporting her husband? Is this what family members should expect in the future?

Once again, a lot hangs on the interpretation of Israel Folau’s original comments. Liz Ellis is among those who assume it is ‘homophobia’. Let the reader understand, under this assumed language (that is by the way never defined or articulated), the Bible itself and Christianity would need to be defined as ‘homophobic’, for Israel Folau was simply paraphrasing parts of the Bible. Indeed, thousands of sermons in normal Christian churches throughout Australia would fall under this category every month, even though none of the preachers or congregations are fearful of or hateful toward people who identify as homosexual. Indeed, they welcome and are close friends with people who identify across the sexuality spectrum. Sometimes we forget, Churches are not communities for the self-righteous but for sinners, as Jesus himself put it.

Indeed, in the moral blitzkrieg that’s sweeping Australia, the Apostle Paul would find himself tarred and feathered. John the Baptist? We know what happened to him when he challenged the marriage of Herod! And Jesus? I can already hear the Aussie crowd yelling out, “Crucify him, crucify him”.

That’s the problem. There used to be an ethical category called loving disagreement which was employed regularly by Jesus Christ, the Apostles and by most Christians ever since (granted that Christians have sometimes failed in this regard).  This was about presenting an alternate position not because you thought less of another person or because you carried a dislike for them, and neither was the problem one of ignorance. Rather, out of concern that they were exercising a lifestyle that you believe is harmful or disadvantageous to their spiritual or social wellbeing. Indeed this ethical framework can still be found in use today in some quarters of society, for example among friends or with parents explaining to a child that their choices are not particularly good or helpful.

Loving disagreement has largely been bullied out of the public square, but others have at least wanted to hold onto civil disagreement, but even this is too much for the authoritarian secularists who wish to use sexuality as a weapon against religious thought and speech.

Liz Ellis’ comment, which has been retweeted and quoted thousands of times since Sunday afternoon, reinforces the narrow but now mainstream view that only certain religious beliefs should be freely expressed in the public space. Such beliefs are no longer defined by religious institutions or by a sacred book, but by self-appointed moral elitists who insist that all society conforms to the rigid sexual ethic that they have created. This is somewhat problematic because their grid is constantly changing and being redefined according to how many letters need adding, and even then we are now discovering that L and T have turned in on each other. Lesbians are now finding themselves being chewed and spat out of organisations because they find problematic men who identify as women. One of tennis’ all-time great players, Martina Navratilova, was sacked earlier in the year from her role as ambassador to an LGBT group for raising concerns about this issue.

Netball Australia has suggested a return to the centre, to at least try and resurrect the notion of civil disagreement. Well done to netball for exposing Rugby Australia’s overreach and for modeling to Australians are sensible and reasonable course. It reminds of the stance the Carlton Football Club took during the marriage plebiscite. They issued a statement in which they said,

“As a Club, we respect that this is about personal choice, and as such don’t intend to campaign on the issue, but we do strongly reinforce our Club’s absolute commitment to equality – and a community that is free from any form of discrimination.”

The response was instant and vitriolic.

It will be interesting to see what further backlash will come upon Netball in Australia because of the stance they have made. We may well hope that their example will encourage other sporting codes and organisations to also stand for fairness and neutrality, but one suspects a whistle has already been purchased from Sportsmart and self-appointed referees are about to blow that whistle and shout that there’s been a court violation and send Netball into the magistrate’s office for re-education.

 

 


June 26: Liz Ellis has written a piece for Fairfax in which she clarifies her tweet & so it’s only fair to include a link here – https://www.theage.com.au/sport/netball/super-netball-and-thunderbirds-missed-a-chance-with-folau-statement-20190625-p52112.html

“Not every policy is scientific Murray”

I’ve been hearing this line of argument over and over again for the past four years. Ours is a post-scientific age, where what is true is no longer measured by empirical evidence and objective reality, but by what each individual feels is real for them.

A clear and blunt example of this epistemological transition was recently recorded in Scotland. A 17-year-old school student by the name of Murray suggested to his teacher that there are only two genders. The conversation was recorded on the student’s phone (not a move that this Murray condones), and the commentary is telling. The student was asked to leave the classroom, with the teacher informing the student that he should keep his opinion to ‘his own house’. In other words, in this Scottish school which is following the national education curriculum, there is no safe place for students to suggest the biological fact that there are two genders.

Murray responded to the teacher who defended teaching the set curriculum,

“That’s not scientific whatsoever.”

To which the teacher replied,

“Not every policy is scientific”

Scotland was once the seat of the Enlightenment and a key player in Scientific Revolution. I imagine Scotland’s Enlightenment thinkers now wanting to be raised from the dead and come back to educate Scotland’s teachers (and haunt them at the very least!).

Most of us like to view ourselves as rational and as believers in science, but the reality is, we drop the truth into the toilet as soon as it clashes with a priori commitments to our preferred moral and preferences and worldview. If truth doesn’t support my moral inclinations, then flush it down the sewer. I am who I think I am, which is somewhat problematic if I identify as an 6-year-old girl (as one 46-year-old Canadian man decided), but isn’t prejudice that we dare question what he believes himself to be?

If as in the case of gender, we affirm the biological reality of male and female, and that biology and sex and gender belong together, there is an obvious tension when there’s a disconnect between what is true and how I feel. It becomes necessary to claim an alternate reality. This alone can create a plethora of problems because not every self-identity is good for the individual or for the relationships around them.

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This conversation has a renewed relevance in my home State of Victoria. We are already the world sporting capital and food capital and atheist capital (some say), and we’re now vying to be the most progressive capital in the world. Let’s kill off the unborn up to point of birth and let’s kill the terminally ill, and let’s feed our economy off the backs of the vulnerable through gambling, and let’s beat Scotland to be even more progressive with our school curriculum.

As I said, this Scottish teacher’s honest slip of the tongue has an immediate application in Victoria at the moment. The Victorian Government is renewing its intent to amend the birth certificate laws to enable people to change the gender on their birth certificate in order to match how they wish to be identified.

Birth certificates were once sacrosanct and rightly treated as definitive legal documents. What was once subject to facts surrounding the birth of a child, can now be repeatedly altered according to how individuals wish to reconstruct their sexual identity. Does this undermine the very nature of such documents?

I want a pause for a moment and recognise that gender dysphoria is real but rare.  am not without personal knowledge of Victorians who are genuinely struggling and suffering due to gender confusion, and they seek resolution and acceptance (which does not always mean being identified in ways contrary to their biological sex). I want to affirm their dignity and humanity and pray that they would come to know the God who loves and gives us the greatest and most fulfilling identity, of being in Christ and knowing him. 

My intent is not to cause people greater consternation, but to alert the fact that Labor’s proposal is no solution at all.

Here’s are a few questions that require attention:

  1. Children can apply to alter their birth certificate, but doing so with the approval of their parents and with a supporting statement from either a medical practitioner or psychologist. One question that needs to asked, however, is what will happen when a child wishes to change their gender on the birth certificate and the parents believe that such action is not in the best interest of their child? Are we to expect a similar situation to what now takes place in Victorian schools where children can be given resources to transition without parental consent and knowledge?
  2. Will the new legislation, like its predecessor in 2016, allow persons to change their birth certificate every 12 months, or is only one change permitted? As the medical and scientific fraternity attest, the major of people dealing with gender dysphoria will grow out of it by adulthood, identifying comfortably with their biological sex. What will happen in these cases?

On another occasion, I’ve quoted from this article in The Atlantic and it is worth repeating here (it should be noted that it’s not a conservative publication). The author warns against moving quickly to intervene in cases of gender dysphoria. Keep in mind, in this instance the Victorian Government is not proposing psychological or medical intervention (which already happens) but a legal declaration.   This is more than recognising that a person feels like they are a certain gender, this is the State announcing that a person is their chosen gender.

“the World Professional Association for Transgender Health…states that while some teenagers should go on hormones, that decision should be made with deliberation: “Before any physical interventions are considered for adolescents, extensive exploration of psychological, family, and social issues should be undertaken.” The American Psychological Association’s guidelines sound a similar note, explaining the benefits of hormones but also noting that “adolescents can become intensely focused on their immediate desires.” It goes on: “This intense focus on immediate needs may create challenges in assuring that adolescents are cognitively and emotionally able to make life-altering decisions…But some clinicians are moving toward a faster process. And other resources, including those produced by major LGBTQ organizations, place the emphasis on acceptance rather than inquiry. The Human Rights Campaign’s “Transgender Children & Youth: Understanding the Basics” web page, for example, encourages parents to seek the guidance of a gender specialist. It also asserts that “being transgender is not a phase, and trying to dismiss it as such can be harmful during a time when your child most needs support and validation.”

“Ignoring the diversity of these experiences and focusing only on those who were effectively “born in the wrong body” could cause harm. That is the argument of a small but vocal group of men and women who have transitioned, only to return to their assigned sex.”

We have entered a very new and strange space where what is true is no longer true, and what is good is considered bad for society, and where people crying for help are told there is nothing wrong. I also suspect biology teachers may soon be out of work, or at best they’ll be transitioned into the humanity’s department.

Our culture has tried to kill off God and now we’re displacing science. One thing is clear, the path forward is not befitting of the word, progressive. I heard it once, and I’ve been trying to say it regularly ever since a day is coming when a generation of disillusioned and damaged Victorians are going to need safe places for healing and love. Governments may play the game of identity politics and flaunt the neo-marxist ideas that are pulling strings out of the universities, but there is a better way. We can affirm a fellow human being and acknowledge their struggles and needs without approving of every self-belief. Perhaps the Labor Bill will pass on this occasion and join the growing line of regressive ideological positions that have been enshrined inside Parliament over recent years. Perhaps common sense will win the day. Whatever the outcome, I trust our Churches will have doors wide open to welcome, love, and care for those who come inside looking for hope and resolution. 

While being careful to avoid misapplying texts of Scripture, I’m noting at the back of my mind that this Sunday we are preaching on 2 Corinthians 5:1-10. It is not a passage about gender dysphoria but it does hint at dysphoria more broadly speaking. The verses recognise that there is a groaning and discontentment in the human condition and a longing for permanency and settling into what is good and right.

“While we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”

 

Campbell Football Glory

My daughter has made her school’s soccer team and is playing in a tournament today. Hurray, the Campbell traditions continue.

I decided that I would share the history of my soccer prowess with her, to spur her on to greatness on the pitch today.  I’ve played the world game across the world, even as far away as England, and dribbling my skills before Englishmen, Scots, Irish, Welsh, and players from across Europe. My football history (we true appreciators of the game should never refer to it as soccer, so very American!) belongs to the annals of the game.

During my first match in England, I started on the bench. This is understandable for I was new to the team and they had only seen glimpses of what I was capable of during training. I finally got my chance. I ran onto the pitch, ran up and down tirelessly, and up and down once more, and touched the ball off the boot with a deftness that few can imagine.

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Cornhill Football Team 2000

We’ve all seen how difficult it is for sportsmen to transition from one code of football to another. The Rugby into AFL experiment proved to be an enormous and undeniable success: it can’t be done! At training one Tuesday evening, I forgot that I was playing the ballet of football, for anytime I was within metres of another play I was meant to fall down, contort my face, and let out a cry. Instead, I knocked the team Captain to the ground and awarded him concussion for the night.

It’s one thing to lapse into old habits during training, but AFL is in the blood of Melbournians. One game, one infamous game between Cornhill and Oak Hill, instincts took over when I rushed forward to stop the Oak Hill midfield who were fast nearing their goals. One Marcus Nodder (if my memory is right) was dribbling just inside the box when from behind I launched my body into his and tackled him successfully to ground. But being soccer, instead of me being awarded a free kick, the whistle blew for a penalty and the soon scored.

My stint as a defender was short lived. I volunteered to kick the ball in instead of our goalkeeper. It left the foot awkwardly but found a player with precision…from the opposing team who then quickly steamed forward and kicked a goal.

By the end of the game, few of our team were standing. Rolling on the pitch in uncontrollable laughter and bursts of hysteria, Oak Hill tried to take the advantage but you see our team had two secret weapons, and none of them was the young lad from Melbourne Australia. We won. I won.

A year later, now being assigned to Sydney, where all the former greats end their careers, I found myself once again putting on the footballs. I was playing for Moore College (yay…boo…and yay some moore), and we were entering the annual grudge match against Morling College. During an intensely fought game for ecclesiastical superiority, the moment arose and I found the ball at my feet. With a swift motion and without thought, I curled the ball into the net and SCORED!!! One team was overjoyed, the other not: 1-0 to Morling. From that day forward I was treated with suspicion at Moore College and was called to undertake special education classes. The situation became so perilous that the Archbishop visited my year and warned us against the perils of Baptists. Let the reader understand, Morling is Baptist and Moore is Anglican. As a Baptist, I was naturally conflicted, torn, rent asunder.

By the time I finished sharing these exploits with my daughter she had long left the room with her eyes still rolling and wondering if I truly understood the definition of prowess.

Is Big Brother listening to your sermons?

Ok, I’m reading George Orwell’s 1984 at the moment, as it seems many people are doing! Leaving aside the somewhat hyperbolic imagery, there are important observations to be made regarding the interactions between Churches and the public space.

Would you like the media to enter your home and report to the world what was spoken? Would you appreciate a journalist attending a local club meeting and sharing the juicy bits on social media? Are you ok for a reported to look around your Facebook page and to publish content on a newspaper?

This week Israel Folau has provided our media with a new installment of gossip, slander, and innuendo. He was preaching on Sunday at his church in Western Sydney and the sermon was uploaded to the church’s Facebook page. It’s not as though a journalist took the time to visit the church and to hear everything that was said and done that morning and to observe all of Izzy’s words and interactions that morning. Rather, they listened to the sermon (and quite possible only parts of it), and with the nuance of a tank the headlines in our newspapers were,

“Folau launches fresh attack on gay and transgender people”

“Israel Folau intensifies stance on homosexuals”

“Israel Folau launches new LGBT attacks in church sermon”

“Israel Folau launches fresh homophobic attacks in church sermon”

Rugby Australia, Qantas, and much of the media have already succeeded in their quest to have Folau sacked and publicly disgraced for comments he made earlier in the year on social media. It appears as though the wolves are still hungry for more.

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This isn’t the first time that journalists have taken the courageous step to digging up church sermons in order to publicly tar and feather Christians. Back in 2016, there was a media campaign to have churches banned from renting public buildings in schools on the Central Coast, NSW. These churches were accused of homophobia and inciting hatred against gays and lesbians. Of course, this wasn’t the case, but telling the whole truth doesn’t always fit the narrative that click-bait journalism is seeking to portray.

There is today a growing antagonism toward Christianity, at least much of the media and among the back slapping cultural dominants in Australia. We are to be suspicious of Christianity. Engaging with the Christian message on its own terms isn’t required anymore, but ignorance necessitates a flurry of rhetorical bashing against those who believe Jesus is Lord. Of course, recent scandals and sins among some Christian organisations have understandably dented public trust. It would be unhelpful to judge those who judge churches for the terrible things down by supposed ‘men of God’. Nonetheless, the Folau controversy has nothing to do with these issues.

There are States around the world where officials are sent to visit local churches, to check on what is being taught and said. Thank God that’s not happening here in Australia. Instead, we use the media and public opinion to manipulate and to scare.

The media’s trolling of Israel Folau’s church raises questions about the dynamics and interactions between Churches and outside entities. Consider these other recent inquisitions:

  • In Victoria, Religious Instruction classes have been driven out of public schools.
  • The attempt has been made (and temporarily thwarted) to install the Government as an Ecclesiastical figure to oversee Christian schools, with the purpose of influencing doctrine and determining what is and isn’t ‘inherent belief’.
  • Sporting codes (and allegedly major corporations who sponsor them) are pressured into preaching the new moral orthodoxy and to provide special education classes to players who are found to hold a heterodox sexual ethic.
  • Universities are cracking down on faculty and students who articulate theological views that are not in keeping with the slippery and ever-changing moral environment of these institutions.

Of course, the situation differs from State to State, and from school to school, and from club to club. Many Aussies are reasonable and fair and think that the ‘God’ police are ridiculous and overreaching their authority.  The situation before us is one where secularists are attempting to take religion out of the public area and they are also beginning to step into the religious and to make pronouncements about that space also. This is somewhat concerning.

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the freedom to preach was taken away in England. Preachers and pastors who didn’t comply with the State’s oversight of religious affairs were imprisoned and congregations shut down. We may look back to that era and think how ridiculous and unnecessary it was. Of course, we don’t want Government intruding upon traditional religious beliefs and practices. Don’t we believe in a separation of Church and State? This distinction never meant that there is no overlap between religion and State, for that is an impossible and undesirable position to hold. To make the public square and the political arena void of religious ideas is to attempt the status quo of China. As China exemplifies, it is an impossible task because it necessitates the Government to introduce policies about religion and to intrude into the religious space as well.

I am not suggesting that journalists, skeptics, and the irreligious shouldn’t visit a local church or listen to their sermons online. This blog regularly has journalists, social commentators and politicians reading it. Hey, I’d love them to also listen to our sermons at Mentone Baptist Church, so long as they quote words in their real context! Better still, come and visit us on Sundays. But there is also an element of hypocrisy in the interest surrounding Folau’s sermon at his local church. At a time where the secular world is wanting to squeeze religion out of the public sphere, the same people are peering into the religious arena and wanting to interfere that in that space.

This is not all bad. It’s a good opportunity for churches to ask some important questions. Why do churches post sermons and messages on websites and social media.? Is it for public consumption and education? Is the aim to provide a service to church members who couldn’t be present for that Sunday? Who the intended audience is and who else may end up listening?

If a church isn’t prepared for ‘outsiders’ to listen and to critique, my advice is, don’t publish your sermons online. Do we however really want to create a culture in Australia whereby churches no longer feel free to publish sermons online or are pressured into leaving out bits of the Bible because of who might hear and report on it in a skewed fashion? At the same time, there is a positive lesson and opportunity here. Preachers ought to take care of what we say and how we speak these words. This is no reason for watering down the good news of Jesus Christ but it is a great incentive for us to teach with clarity and compassion, faithfully and thoughtfully.

John Bunyan lived at the time of the restoration and was imprisoned for his preaching and for organising a church gathering that wasn’t sanctioned by the Government. His initial term of imprisonment was extended from 3 months to 12 years because he refused to cease preaching upon release from jail.  He famously said,

“What God says is best, is best, though all the men in the world are against it.”

This isn’t an argument for blunt and insensitive preaching. Bunyan wasn’t suggesting that we teach the Bible without appreciating its nuances or ignoring the real lives of the real people who are listening. The conviction was that truth and goodness is not defined by a poll or by the academia or even by the Government, but by God himself as revealed in his written word about his Son Jesus Christ. It is a word that challenges our moral preferences and even our deepest heartfelt intentions, not to crucify us but to redeem us and to fill us with a life of immeasurable joy.

At the end of the day, what we are discovering is that Aussie society doesn’t know what to think of Christianity. And I suspect many Christians are also unclear and they are unsure about how to go about relating to the broader culture: to love, be kind, and to relay a message that many find unfit for human consumption.

Media Freedom and Religious Freedom

According to the last few weeks of media reporting, George Orwell’s 1984 has come to roost in Australia. A headline in yesterday’s The Age announced that “This country’s treatment of whistleblowers has strong echoes of Orwell”. While acknowledging Orwell’s novel is set suspiciously in Oceania and that ‘Big Brother’ was headquartered on the Gold Coast, I reckon that the population of Hong Kong have a better understanding of the Orwellian State than we Aussies.

I am thankful for the fact that we live in a country where the press has the freedom to report issues. They don’t need to hide under a blanket and with a pseudonym, uploading stories to those who are brave enough to click on them This is not the case in every nation, and it’s a blessing that we shouldn’t take for granted.

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Journalists perform a vital task in modern societies: to investigate and to inform people of news stories. Media is a key source for attaining information regarding all manner of news items, and so it is essential that they have freedom from Governmental control and influence (and indeed, freedom from the control of big business and influential identities). I’m suspect that self-interest sometimes serves as a journalist’s catalyst which can encourage boundaries to be pushed or even crossed,  whether it is fame, extra clicks and likes, or corporate profit. I’m also sure that many work with personal convictions and integrity and are seeking to do good for the public interest. 

There was been a strong and immediate reaction to two raids made by Federal Police over the last couples of weeks, one in a journalist’s home and the second at the ABC’s Sydney office. Authorities enacting newly introduced laws that are aimed at protecting information sensitive to national security. 

In today’s The Australian, Labor Senator, Kristina Keneally said,

“When freedom of the press — a basic tenet of our democracy — is seen to be under attack, the government must speak up.”

While not all journalists are concerned by this ‘news’, across the media’s ideological spectrum there has been a fairly unified expression of concern. 

In an interview on ABC radio Melbourne last week, Kerry O’Brien commented

”people have to be really clear about what’s at stake here”.

“If they care about democracy, this does go to the heart of democracy and the democratic process”.

Richard Flanagan’s piece for Guardian goes even further,

“The AFP media raids aim to suppress the truth. Without it we head into the darkness of oppression

If mass surveillance is brought in, how will we know about it? Is national security best served by the inevitable abuses of such a scheme about which we are never told and which would go unpunished? Would national security be enhanced or weakened were Mr Dutton to use such powers for political advantage or to enable political persecution without our knowledge?

And if we cannot know the truth of such fundamental matters, what security as a democracy do we have?”

Professor Peter Greste has offered what appears like a more even-handed analysis, suggesting that, 

“We are not suggesting that those laws be repealed – clearly, we need to update our national security framework to deal with evolving threats – but if in the process of trying to make us safer, we undermine the very system that has made us one of the safest countries on the planet in the first place, something has gone terribly wrong.”

The legislation, if accurately summarised by Damien Cave in the New York Times, does seem needlessly broad and vague.

“The most recent expansion of governmental secrecy came last year with an espionage bill that increased criminal penalties for sharing information deemed classified, even if a document happened to be as harmless as a cafeteria menu, and broadened the definition of national security to include the country’s economic interests.”

It’s a little tricky to work out what all the relevant parties think about the Federal Police raid on the ABC. For example, both the Coalition and Labor last year supported the legislation which gave license to this police investigation. It was also last year that Greens Leader, Richard Di Natale, called for Parliament to introduce legislation to crack down on journalists who were allegedly engaging in “hate speech” (by which he meant, social commentary that he didn’t agree with). Last week, he was whistling a very different tune.

The Age newspaper ran with the headline, “without fear or favour”. It is a perfectly sensible ideal and many journalists aim to live up to this high standard. The benchmark is, of course, an impossible one, for no media corporation is without bias and no reporter is morally or politically neutral. Indeed, as society becomes more polarised, we are seeing a diminishment of this kind of “without favour” reporting, with many journalists spouting popular ideology and replacing evidential and reasoned reporting with sloganeeing, sometimes without the faintest idea of the subject matter that they are talking about. The topic of religious freedom is an all too obvious and rather ironic example of this.

There is more than a touch of incongruity in the middle of this public outcry. Many of the same voices who are today yelling grave concerns for journalistic freedoms have been quite prepared to deny similar freedoms to religious people when it comes to speaking and persuade in the public square. 

Parallels between media freedom and religious freedom

Indeed, I suspect some members of the press would squirm at the realisation that there are striking correlations between the media and religious communicators. 

Firstly, both groups have little protection under Australian law. Professor Peter Greste explains,

“Like a lot of people, I’m really concerned about the last two raids … it imposes an extra level of intimidation and that’s really unhealthy.

“That’s why it demonstrates to us the need for a media freedom act, that acts as a buffer to prevent these kinds of activities.”

Two South Australian Senators, Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff, have announced plans to introduce legislation to amend the Constitution in order to give the press similar protections to those enjoyed by American journalists under their Constitution. 

At the same time, legal experts have also been calling for the Government to give protection to religious organisations, schools, and churches so that they can continue to adhere to their values and to speak, without fear of Government intrusion and without businesses defining appropriate religious belief, as we have witnessed in the recent Israel Folau case. 

Secondly, both groups have a role and responsibility to broadcast and communicate a message. 

It is worth noting that the Biblical language for religious speech is not dissimilar to that of the reporter. To preach means to herald a message. To teach is to inform and to impart information of importance to others. The preacher may analyse social events and cultural trends but foremost they are to present the truth of Jesus Christ without “fear or favour”. In this way, I can empathize with journalists who feel as though the Government is attempting to intimidate and control.

Some of our media have mud in the eye today, or is that a plank? Sadly, I don’t think they’ve spotted it as yet. Freedom for the press, but not freedom for religious speech. Freedom from Government intrusion, unless you’re a religious organisation in which case the Government has every right to interfere. If only some of our most vocal journos practiced what they preached, “without fear or favour”, they might be receiving a little more sympathy today. Despite their lack of concern for the freedom of other Australians to present, speak, and persuade in the public square, other Aussies understand that there is an important principle at stake for both groups. With that in mind, might I suggest the following 5 points.

5 Points for Consideration

As I calculate the actions and reactions in light of the police raids, here are 5 thoughts for consideration:

1. Freedom of the press is paramount for sustaining a liberal democracy. We ought to defend the media’s freedom to pursue and publish stories that are of public interest and importance, without undue external pressures being applied.

2. Journalists shouldn’t work outside the law (I’m not saying that’s the case here with the ABC. The fact is, we don’t yet know). 

3. We should be slow to impute bad motives on our police (and on the Judge(s) who signed the warrants)

4. We should be cautious about making unsubstantiated judgments about Governmental interference. Rumouring and speculating don’t aid the cause of the media, nor that of the public. If we are truly concerned about ‘fake news’, we mustn’t let rhetorical flair escape the evidence at hand

5. If recently instated laws are unnecessarily inhibiting journalists from setting about their work with integrity and thoroughness, it is appropriate for the Government to reevaluate these laws (as well intended as these laws may be).