The Straw Man is about to burst!

The straw man mock-up of the Religious Discrimination Bill is getting stuffier with every passing day.

It wasn’t enough for Judith Ireland and Luke Beck to write a couple of fictional pieces last week for Fairfax. Their collation of hypotheticals have been mistaken by some readers as fact, but in the end, their scaremongering ended up belittling religious and irreligious Australians alike!

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Apparently, the straw man has yet more room to fill. A string of articles this week (once again thanks to our friends at Fairfax) have continued to make hay out of the Religious Discrimination Bill. This overstuffed straw man is about ready to burst, even before they even finishing preparing to light the bonfire.

Take, for example, The Royal Women’s Hospital. According to reporting in yesterday’s The Age, they are arguing that the Religious Discrimination Bill will lead to Doctors refusing to perform abortions and even to abortion freedoms being stifled.

First, Doctors are already protected by law to refuse to perform an abortion. Second, and contrary to the straw man, this Bill is primarily aimed at protecting already existing freedoms of religious Australians, not introducing new rights. Third, if abortions laws are tightened in the future, it won’t be the consequence of this Bill but because Australians once again acknowledge that unborn children are human beings and therefore must be treated with due dignity and worth.

Former High Court Justice Michael Kirby has joined the fray with a piece in The Age, arguing that the Bill will divide Australians and not unite them.

What is Michael Kirby’s evidence that this will be the case? For the most part, he entertains a similar line of hypotheticals that have already been paraded in the street. There is however one concrete example. He mentions the case in Victoria where a Doctor allegedly refused to prescribe contraception or advice to a patient about IVF. It is important to note however that this alleged incident has nothing to do with the drafted Religious Discrimination Bill. This case has arisen under existing laws in Victoria and not because of a Bill that has yet to be even debated before the Parliament.

It is worth noting the kind of language Justice Kirby employs to describe the kind of person who is advocating for the Bill:

“it actively facilitates intolerance and will work to divide rather than unite Australians”

“support those who use religious belief as a weapon against non-believers.”

Is this really the state of mind and heart of religious Australians? We are wanting legal protection for the purpose of using our beliefs as a weapon? There is more…

“This is something obsessive religious proponents demand”.

Of course, any person who supports this Bill is obviously ‘obsessive’ and unreasonable and a fool! For a decisive knock out punch, Justice Kirby concludes by bringing out one of the big words,

“We should be vigilant to preserve it, not erode its legacy by enacting laws to appease an extreme minority.”

Are our mainstream Christian denominations now to be described as ‘extreme’? Are Anglicans, Presbyterians and Baptists, ‘extreme’. Extreme in what and how? For affirming what Christians have believed and practised for 2,000 years? For cherishing ideas that have created the freedoms and societal goods that we enjoy today in this country?  We all know how appalling extremists are, but labelling people in this false way is incredibly slanderous.   I understand, resorting to this kind of rhetorical game can be effective and persuasive, but it does nothing to aid truth-telling and it only further exemplifies the fracturing of civil society. Of course, there are some religious tools in our community; I don’t see anyone denying that. But this narrative being spun by Kirby and others is simply disingenuous.

As I wrote earlier in the week, I’m not saying that the Bill cannot be improved. My preference would be that we live in a society where such legislation isn’t required.  It is important to remember why this Bill is even being considered: it is because of the unreasonable and hardline secularists who will not tolerate Australians who do not fully endorse their narrow way of looking at the world. The same people who cry out for love speech are calling fellow Australians bigots for not supporting their causes, and are going to great lengths to silence these Australian and even remove them from their places of employment.

Wouldn’t it be advantageous and refreshing to see disagreeing Australians discuss these matters with civility and sitting down together without spitting coffee at each other?  I remember one such example. Back in 2017, Andrew Hastie and Tim Wilson sat down with a Coopers beer in hand and chatted about their differing position on gay marriage. It was polite, honest, and respectful. Yet within hours, social media was alight with hate, and with photos of people destroying bottles of Coopers and with pubs declaring that they would no longer serve the Aussie beer. That’s the problem, we no longer wish to talk across the table or to show kindness to those who disagree with us. There is only one flavour in town and that is ‘outrage’.

Whether it is Michael Kirby or Luke Beck, the media, and the rest of us (including those who support some kind of religious discrimination bill), we really need to put the straw man out to pasture and rediscover those out-of-fashion virtues, kindness and authentic tolerance. The Religious Discrimination Bill is aimed at going some way to hold together this fraying society, but I do hope that wherever it finally lands, Christians will keep speaking truth in love and to love our neighbours whoever they may be. Yes, sometimes we will fail to do so, and so we should ask for forgiveness. We should hold to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. If our society so determines that this is extremism, then so be it. Let us be extreme in loving God and in wanting good for others

 

 

Australia is wrestling with Religious Freedom

The fight against the Religious Discrimination Bill is heating up with a submission from some of the nation’s powerful Unions and with a bank telling everyone to love their way or go away.

The Sydney Morning Herald is reporting that the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Australian Industry Group have written a letter to Attorney General, Christian Porter, warning the Government about perceived flaws in the Bill.

I am not saying that the Bill is perfect and that improvements cannot be made. I personally wish there was no need for a Religious Discrimination Bill in Australia, but hardline secularists continue to threaten religious freedoms and raise the temperature against religious Australians such that a Bill has become important, if not necessary. 

So what are the Unions’ concerns? According to Dana McCauley, the primary issue relates to “a risk of harm to the staff and customers of Australian businesses”.

“Employers are concerned the provision will conflict with their obligation under workplace laws to provide safe environments free of bullying and harassment, risk damage to their reputations, harm productivity and make it harder to recruit and retain staff.”

The argument goes like this: this Bill will give religious people license to be mean and say horrible things to other workers and customers and employers won’t have the power to stop it. But is this the case?

Associate Professor, Neil Foster, has detailed that “The Bill does not authorise all religiously motived” acts, and second, the Bill does not create rights to new forms of horrible speech, but it does protect freedom of speech that operates against the background of already existing rights.

“The “right” to make offensive remarks, is a right which already exists as part of our long tradition of protecting free speech, even speech which we don’t like and which upsets people. That is why we need a right to free speech- none of us are tempted to censor speech we agree with!”

There has been a tidal wave of pressure to succumb to the new sexual code of conduct, and I can’t but help conclude that the ACTU and AI are just the latest to succumb. To be fair (relying on the SMH’s reporting), they are not against the Bill altogether, but those parts that they believe will undermine the employer.  Part of the issue with this tidal narrative is that religion is seen as a threat to business and as a threat to social cohesion. In reality, it can serve as a constructive partner. It is a little odd that Australian businesses are wanting to squeeze out religion when globally the world is becoming more religious.  As Dr Brian J. Grim (President of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation) has observed through his research,  “religious freedom is good for the economy, good for society, and good for business”.

Underneath this wave is a strong current to strip religious Australians of their freedom to hold and speak of their beliefs. This is no mere hypothetical; the proof is in the Israel Folau case, and in many other cases that have not gained attention by the media. Remember, it was not the tone of Folau’s Instagram posts that led to his dismissal (even I took issue with his tone), for as Rugby Australia’s CEO, Raelene Castle, admitted, even quoting the Bible would have been cause for Folau’s sacking. 

There are many workers who speak with me in private, employed across professions and industries, and who have been frightened into silence by their workplace, afraid they will lose their job if they dare mention their faith in Jesus Christ.  To be more accurate, the fictitious Jesus who embraces the new sexual morality is permissible, just not the Jesus who subscribes to the Bible. 

Both the ACTU and AI have an invested interest in this discussion and ought to be heard. I get it, anyone believing the straw man arguments may well express concerns over religious workers causing “workplace bullying, aggression, harassment including sexual harassment, discrimination, or other unreasonable behaviour”.  In reality, such cases are unusual. Is there no room for discussion and disagreement over life’s biggest questions, either in the workplace or on people’s private social media accounts? This rhetoric about harm and bullying too easily becomes political speak, cloaking what is really going on under the guise of justice and human rights. 

In some quarters, bullying is now code for, this Christian doesn’t support gay marriage. Or, that employee doesn’t join in workplace rituals for LGBT celebration days. And, I don’t like the article my colleague shared on his Facebook page and so I’m reporting him to the HR department.

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Let’s look at the ANZ’s new messaging. ANZ has released a document entitled, “Your Guide To Love Speech“.

“During the 2020 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival, ANZ is taking a stand against hurtful language and has launched #LoveSpeech – a national campaign to educate Australians on the impact that hurtful language has on the LGBTIQ+ community.”

“By changing hateful messages to give them new meaning, we hope to create awareness, understanding, and unity. That’s what Love Speech is all about.”

I assume the document (with its accompanying posters) are mandatory in ANZ workplaces. I also assume that ANZ board are comfortable for staff to share this messaging outside of work. Indeed, ANZ specifies that this is a “national campaign to educate Australians”.

I am all for ‘love speech’, but what ANZ mean by love is, the unqualified affirmation of the new sexual ethic. And what they consider hate speech includes what are reasoned and deeply held beliefs for millions of Australians. It is quite extraordinary but ANZ feel so confident about their posturing that they can explicitly state that mere expression of a belief in heterosexual only marriage is a form of hate speech.

My question to ANZ is, what will happen to employees who cannot get behind this campaign and who hold a different opinion? What is to become of employees who are discovered expressing a different opinion? What will happen to the employee who either at work or in public voices disagreement with this campaign?

Are we to conclude that affirming gay marriage and transgenderism is an inherent requirement for employment at a bank?

It’s not as though ANZ, Rugby Australia, and some Unions hate religion, they just can’t accept religion that doesn’t fully embrace their virtue signalling.  This is about controlling religion (specifically Christianity). This wave of authoritarian secularism pervades our education systems, now employment, the public square, and may soon pour inside religious institutions and churches. We are fools to think otherwise. The gods of secularism will not tolerate an alternative, even if means dismantling the faith upon which the structures and fibres of our great society were built. Religion is to be controlled, much like during the good old days of Ancient Rome or in today’s Communist China, where Christianity is permitted so long as all the non-communist bits are deleted. This would all sound crazy and like the ravings of religious nut stuck on hyperbolic drive, except that Australia has already begun witnessing this cultural control. 

And that is why the Religious Discrimination Bill matters. The Bill aims to preserve the kinds of freedom Australians have enjoyed for decades. This is about maintaining a healthy pluralism and retaining an essential ingredient of a civilised society.  It is difficult to assess the Union’s letter through the lens of a newspaper article, for the spin may not accurately represent the written concerns; I don’t know. Is there warrant for further consideration of the “Folau clause”? Perhaps so. Of course, we should want the Bill to be as fair and useful as possible.

The broader issue is of course, that the culture has shifted. Increasingly, religious people are being informed that their opinions are not welcome in the public square. It is not acceptable to believe in heterosexual-only marriage. It is only okay to share views that fully conform to the narrow and intolerant sexual agenda that is being preached in most almost every sphere of life in contemporary Australia.  The Federal Government is acting to introduce the religious discrimination Bill for the very reason that religious Aussies are losing their jobs and being squeezed out of schools, because of their religious convictions. 

Whatever the outcome of this religious discrimination bill, I hope and pray Christians will continue to follow the ethic give to us by the Lord Jesus Christ: to honour him and to respect those among whom we work, to be gentle and kind and to give reason for the hope we have and to not shy away from the good news we have come to know and cherish above everything. 

Hypocritical Leadership (Matthew 23)

Our Bible text at Church yesterday was Matthew chapter 23. It is a difficult passage to preach, not least because a pastor teaching about sinful leadership is a hazardous undertaking. As I meditated on Jesus’ words last week, and even now, I am aware of my own sinful proclivities and failings. Christ’s words cause me to reflect on my own life and public ministry, which of course is a good thing to do.

It was also difficult to preach on this Scripture without being aware of recent revelations of spiritual and moral failings by high profiled Christian leaders. One does not need to be intimately involved in these stories to sense a degree of dismay, anger, and sadness; people have been abused and betrayed, and the Gospel dragged into the mud.  The Church is meant to reflect the character of Christ and should be the safest environment on earth for people. Often this is the case, but not always.

I am not about to impose Matthew ch.23 on each of those situations or to assume that behind these men are the same set of motives and attitudes that Jesus is exposing among the Pharisees and teachers of the law. I am not writing in response to these cases, but am rather thinking more broadly about leadership because of having just preached on Matthew. ch.23. Having said that, as we come to terms with the nature of Christian leadership and the kind of leaders our churches and organisations need, Jesus’ address raises several invaluable cautions and helps.

What is so astonishing about Matthew ch.23 is that the people Jesus is calling us to avoid were the model citizens of that culture. The Pharisees and scribes were the spiritual and social leaders of the day. People looked up to them and tried to emulate them. Jesus says, do otherwise. No fewer than six times does he call them hypocrites (and hypocrite is among the more polite names he uses here). The hypocrite is a pretender, someone uses religion to feed their own ego, they use people to fuel their pride and hold onto power. Jesus is not directing his attention at individuals who have committed a single sin; he is describing a pattern of behaviour that stems from an egotistic (and perhaps even narcissistic) attitude of the heart. This is habit-forming behaviour.

These are ominous words for anyone who holds a position of authority in a local church, and they are words of wisdom and grace for the rest of us who sit under the leadership in our churches. You can listen to the sermon via this link. What I wish to do here is offer six reflections on leadership based on my meditations on Matthew ch.23.

1. Jesus knows our hearts.

If Jesus knows the motivations of the Pharisees and exposes them before the population of Jerusalem, surely he is aware of the attitudes and impulses that shape our own lives and ministry.

“Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:13)

2. Jesus opposes hypocrisy

As difficult as Bible passages like Matthew ch.23 are, they are a good and gracious word from God. Jesus is showing us that God both sees injustice and he opposes hypocrisy. God is not okay with people being used and abused.  Some of the strongest language used in Scripture is found here coming from the mouth of the Lord Jesus.

The Lord Jesus not only denounced hypocrisy in the strongest terms, he explains why this is necessary. The first ‘woe’ outlines the justification for Jesus’ judgment.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.  (v.13)

Hypocrisy has a devastating effect on those who are under such leadership. While outward appearances suggest spiritual vitality and attractiveness, the inner realities are very different.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

 Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (vv.25-28)

Such leadership confuses people, misleading people into believing error and into acting inappropriately and coming to the wrong conclusions about God. Hypocrisy distorts  God’s vision for his Church.

3. Be careful who we follow

Jesus’ words are not hypotheticals but address real men who abused their authority and who were responsible for causing real damage to real people.  The purpose of his words is to inform and to warn so that we avoid following the hypocrite. Of course, part of the problem is that we often only make this discovery after the fact. Even as Jesus explains, it’s hard to spot a hypocrite.  There are signs and we can learn to discern the traits, but it’s not always an easy task. For those who are taken in, you are a victim of malicious intent. The rest of us need to recognise the abuse for what it is, own up to our failings in protecting people, and learn to more effectively guard the flock as God calls us to do.

When we see a brilliant public speaker, or erudite thinker, or captivating person, be slow, be wise, and test them. Don’t ignore character for charisma. Don’t dismiss godliness because of personality. The wolf may appear cute and fluffy, but don’t be fooled!

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Spotted this wolf in Montana back in 2013

Under God’s providence, in the different spheres of life there are authorities, small ‘a’ authorities whom we ought to respect and follow. For example, our parents, the boss at work, the Government, and the Elders at Church. However, we should not blindly follow any of them.

Indeed, one of the sharp contrasts Jesus establishes is that between the leaders in Jerusalem and the true leader, whom he identifies as ‘Father in heaven’ and as ‘Messiah’.

And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. (vv.9-10)

At the end of the day, we have one Lord and he can be trusted. He doesn’t treat his own with disdain, for he loves his own.

4. Be careful who we appoint

It is no small thing for a church to appoint pastors, elders, and deacons. The Scriptures urge us to to be slow and deliberate. The New Testament outlines prerequisites for those desiring to serve as pastoral ministry, and we would do well to rely heavily upon these Biblical processes.

As a Pastor, I understand the pressures of never having enough people to serve in different ministries. I also understand the pressures of appointing the vocal member, the eager member, or the well-liked member of the congregation. They may or may not be suited to the role but we are not serving our churches well by shortcutting due diligence.

5. Be careful who we claim to be

Dr. Jonathan Haidt, is a distinguished moral psychologist from Virginia University. He introduces his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, with the unsettling observation,

“It is the realization that we are all self-righteous hypocrites”

In another volume, The Righteous Mind, Haidt writes,

“We are indeed selfish hypocrites so skilled at putting on a show of virtue that we fool even ourselves.”

Leaders turn to hypocrisy because opportunity and position affords them to exercise the already existing condition in the heart. Where in our own lives are we aware of the Pharisaic tendencies? How do Jesus’ words make us uncomfortable about the realisation of our own desires?

6. The leadership our churches need

“The greatest among you will be your servant.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (vv.11-12)

These words are foremost autobiographical, for who is the greatest and who has humbled themselves more the Lord Jesus Christ? He did so first as our substitute and for our salvation; he humbled himself even to the point of death on the cross. And second, His life is our guide showing us how to lead and love God’s people.

God hasn’t preserved these words of Christ in Holy Scripture so that we would neglect them. They serve as a timely word to Churches whom Christ loves. They are a public admonishment to structures and offices who neglect their duty before God. These words are a call to repentance for leaders who have used and abused the people under their care.

Jesus asks,

“How will you escape being condemned to hell?” 

He then adds,

“Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers.”

The question is for those of us who are in leadership is, will we listen?

What I’ve observed from an exchange with Peter FitzSimons

Last night Peter FtizSimons tweeted an article that was published in the Fairfax newspapers, written by Monash University’s, Associate Professor Luke Beck. With the headline, “Religious discrimination bill backfires on Christians”, Beck mounted a shallow and rather silly case in which he not only threw paper-thin arguments at Christians but also managed to insult everyone else.

I wrote a letter to the Editor, which was published in The Age yesterday (see below), and I tweeted my response to Fitz last night. He asked a couple of polite questions which I responded to with the brevity that Twitter only permits. But then, with a mountain of surprise as thick as thin a slice of toast, the retorts came thick and fast from twitter’s moral mob.

Following this brief exchange with the Fitz, I have been reminded of the following:

1. Ignorance of Christianity is sky high in Australia.

2. Churches failing to deal with sin in their midst have done enormous damage to the Gospel

3. Churches who protect bad theology and promote false versions of Christianity have caused huge social confusion and damage.

4. The sins of the past are not forgotten

5. Lots of people must be learning their history from the back of cereal boxes or from National Geographic rather than from, you know, actual history. (I speak as someone who studied history at university)

6. People are prepared to whitewash the historical record in order to sustain their point of view.

7. People are getting their information about the religious discrimination bill from the media outlets who propagate their already formed views. Responding to or challenging misconceptions is like trying to roll a boulder up a mountainside.

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What should Christians do?

1. Own our sins, confess them and repent of them

2. Stop protecting and promoting garbage theology that comes from Marx’s cell in hell

3. Don’t whitewash history. Some people have done horrendous things in the name of Christ

4. Remember the Gospel is good news. It really is true and good and beautiful and life changing.

5. Become more like the Lord Jesus: Love God and love our neighbours

6. Do good to those who don’t like you

7. Twitter is a poor platform for exchanging ideas and having meaningful conversations

Finally, I’m reminded of these words spoken by the Lord Jesus,

“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7)

 

 

My letter in The Age (Feb 21):

Luke Beck’s attempt to scare Christians away from the religious discrimination bill amounts to shooting blanks; noisy but harmless. Firstly, Christians are quite used to people insulting their faith. It’s been happening for 2,000 years and there’s little reason to think that will change.

Second, I suspect many unbelieving Australians will be surprised by Beck’s small opinion of them, suggesting that they would stoop so low that “Employers will be able to ridicule Christians in the workplace” and “Doctors will be able to humiliate Christian patients.”

If you’re mean to us, we’ll be mean to you! While Beck seems content to attribute that modus operandi to our society, I much prefer Jesus’ ethic, “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you”.

 

 


The Age published a response to my letter today (Feb 23):

“Pastor Murray Campbell knows his theology but perhaps not his history. Christians, over many centuries, have not merely insulted, but tried to obliterate the faiths of others. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the burning of witches, missionaries as agents of the colonial power in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australia…the list goes on.

It’s difficult to reconcile the pastor’s words of love and tolerance with the history of the institutions he represents

All over the world, Christians have attempted to wipe out cultural and spiritual practices and even committed genocide in the name of their God. Take a look at the record. Christians are not the victims here

Susan Green, Castlemaine”

3 brief responses to Susan:

Hi Susan

  1. Like I mention above, I studied history at university. In fact in both of my degrees I have studied lots of history.
  2. Your examples go some way to demonstrate the kinds of issues I have raised in this blog post about popular history telling.
  3. Perhaps you could have read something I’ve written before declaring my ignorance of history.

The Myth of Finding a Church like me

“I’m looking for a church that is just like me.”

Few people would say it quite so crassly, but the sentiment is commonplace. When visitors come to Mentone, and when people join the church and when others leave, too often the issue has to do with finding a church that has the right fit. By which people mean, it’s just like me. I need a church that provides the ministries I am looking for and with people I can identify with and where the style reflects my personal preferences.

Both as a pastor of a church and as a church member, I’m aware that finding a church that mirrors my own cultural and personality preferences isn’t an easy task. There are not many churches in Melbourne where I can find fellow opera listening, cricket watching, Carlton supporting, history loving, fine food eating, Rothko admiring, Christians. It’s not that I’m a cultural snob as such, but that everyone else is a philistine (don’t be offended, that’s a joke…sort of!).

 

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There are good reasons for joining and leaving a church, and not so good reasons. There are sad reasons and sinful reasons. But among the most common that I hear relates to what I’m calling a spiritualised version of natural selection.

I’ve given up trying to recall all the times’ someone has said to me, ‘Murray, there are not enough young families at ‘your’ church’. Or, there are too many children. Or. the youth group is too small. Or, there are not enough people my age. Or, where are all the elderly people? Or, the Church is too large….too small. The music is too new….too traditional. No doubt, you’ve also heard all these reasons, and perhaps you’ve used them yourself. The problem is, these categories don’t come to us from the Scriptures, but from the world around us.

Why do we place so much value on finding people our own age or people who share our social preferences? On one level, it is natural for us to congregate with people like ourselves. Uni students are naturally drawn toward other uni students. Families with children find it easy to mix with other families who have children. None of this is wrong as such, but the Gospel brings together people not on the basis of natural and intuitive networks but on the basis of a supernatural work of God’s Spirit in the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

If we dig a little deeper into the psyche behind natural selection, we discover that there is something rather insidious about choosing a church based on natural selection rather than criteria set by the Gospel of reconciliation.

The Bible reveals a vision for God’s church that is better and is the perfect counterpoint to the monotonous song that remain no.1 on the Aussie charts. One of God’s goals through the Gospel is to bring together people who have nothing in common and yet in Christ share everything.

At the time when Paul wrote to the Church in Ephesus, the great cultural divide was between Jews and Gentiles. Paul reminded them of who it is that brought them together,

“remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.”

To the Galatians the Apostle said,

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:18)

God didn’t choose us according to the rules of natural selection, but according to supernatural grace. When we judge our church according to the whim of natural selection we are cutting against the very means by which a church is formed and grows.

In contrast, the early churches consisted of an array of people from different cultures and classes. The fact that rich and poor, men and women, Jew and Gentile, alike were members of churches, serving one another in love, was one of the realities that made the church attractive to surrounding people. Here was a place where status didn’t matter, and where otherwise unlike people found the deepest and most stable bond that can be had in this world.

There are of course some criteria that do matter when it comes to joining a church and remaining in that Church. For example, theology. There needs to be sufficient theological alignment, otherwise, you’ve already set the trajectory for an unhappy ending. Language is another important factor. It’s difficult to talk and listen and build relationships when you don’t share the same tongue. And we mustn’t neglect location. If you’re travelling 40 minutes each way to Church on a Sunday, how involved can you be in the life and health of that Church? Are you prepared to drive that distance every week, on Sundays and for a midweek Bible study? Are your neighbours and friends (who presumably live near your home and whom you’re inviting to church) also prepared to travel that distance? Perhaps you should find a local church or be prepared to move closer to the church that you have covenanted to join.

When we allow the Bible’s vision of Church to inform and transform our own agendas and expectations, the gains are immeasurable. We begin building a church on grace, not on personal gain. We prove to the world that Christ is true and that he is enough. We demonstrate the breadth and beauty of Gospel reconciliation.

So long as we live by the insatiable individualism that is eating away at our culture, we will diminish the beauty of the church, we will deny the power of the gospel, and we hamstring Gospel centred grace and growth. To be blunt, we will walk away from brothers and sisters for the simple reason, they are not quite like us

When Susan and I were living in London we joined a small group made up of members from the church we were attending. At 23 years of age, I was the youngest in the group. The eldest was well over 80. Each week we met in someone’s living room, 12 people from very different walks of life: students, workers, retirees, singles and married, children and no children. The fact that we had little in common with other members of the group didn’t detract from the group. The opposite was true. Together we had Christ and this unity in Christ was enough Jesus. Around Christ, we learned to love and encourage one another. That’s what the Gospel does. It brings people together who in other spheres of life would never connect let alone build friendship.

While it may be counter-intuitive, by joining a church where you are perhaps one of only a handful of under 25s  or the only family, you may well become that new branch whom God uses to bring more young adults or more families into the church. Instead of try and walk out, why not trust and commit?

Finding a church filled with people like me is a myth that we need to dispell. As an individual who has his own social preferences, I understand the pull to find people with whom we have many things in common. These patterns of socialising can be a good from God and therefore to be enjoyed, but they ought not to be the criteria upon which we join or leave a church.

Instead of looking for a church that is like me (or like you), let’s join and serve churches that look like Jesus and want to become more like Him.

Meditating before the KAWS

Melbourne may think of herself as a secular city but she remains very religious.

This Saturday the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is being turned into a spiritual centre, with hundreds of people paying to gather around a KAWS sculpture for meditation.

The NGV’s newest major exhibition consists of works by the Brooklyn based pop-artist, Brian Donnelly. The exhibition includes a series of really tall cartoon-like sculptures made of bronze. I can’t make up my mind if they’re re-imaging Elmo, Mickey Mouse, Krusty the Clown, or a synthesis of several different stuffed puppets. They are a fascinating combination of cute and sad, of adorable and melancholy. These sculptures are impressive and thoughtful.

 

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photo from NGV

Sitting around the largest of the sculptures, titled, Gone, will be 350 paying guests who are hoping to lose their minds and find themselves. The two forlorn figures represent the emotions that accompany loss. I am not quite sure what role Gone will perform during the meditation. Perhaps it is a symbol for the exercise, to lose ourselves or to excise the losses we experience in life.

The event is a collaboration with Manoj Dias of A-Space, a yoga and meditation teacher based here in Melbourne.

In an interview for Broadsheet, Dias shares his journey into meditation:

“Manoj Dias had a career in the advertising industry. He worked 70 hours a week. He drank four cups a day. And then Manoj Dias had a panic attack.

His doctor prescribed anxiety medication, but that didn’t sit right with him. So a friend recommended a yoga class with a Buddhist monk. Though Dias grew up in a Buddhist household in Sri Lanka, he’d lost touch with the traditions when his family immigrated to Australia. Despite his distance from meditation practice, he struck up an immediate connection with his new teacher. “I practised with him every day for five years and he’s still my guru today,” says Dias.

Dias and Lynch created A-Space with two intentions in mind: help people connect with their own thoughts, and therefore connect with others. It’s a space to slow down, be introspective and “genuinely feel connected to the person next to you”, says Dias.

“Meditation has given me a moment to genuinely feel something – that what I’m doing right now is really meaningful.”

 

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The NGV is advertising the event with this befitting tagline by Friedrich Nietzsche,

‘Invisible threads are the strongest ties.’

It is apt because, like Nietzsche who was a nihilist, meditation is often an expression of nihilism. The aim is to disconnect yourself from the material and from life’s desires. You overcome by avoidance. You find yourself by disengaging. Peace is experienced by removing all the distractions and troubles and responsibilities that usually absorb our attention.

Buddhism and Nihilism share a common thread, and that is life is ultimately a sardonic joke, an illusion to either escape or will eventually consume us. This NGV event will no doubt be popular because it pulls on peoples’ desires for inner peace. True peace isn’t found by disengaging with the world or by introspection but looking to the one who was crucified and who raised to life. If Gone is the end of the story we are indeed lost and a few moments of quiet introspection won’t offer lasting consolation.

Ironically, according to the NGV’s description of Gone, the work is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s, Pietà. This sculpture by Michelangelo depicts the lifeless body of Jesus Christ, cradled by Mary.

If only we would grab hold of that reference point and meditate beyond ourselves and look to that crucified one, not via a sculptured image but in the words that reveal God to us. My contention is that the crucified Christ offers a more substantive and satisfying answer for those who are searching for peace and hope.

Glen Scrivener puts it this way,

“The answer to suffering is not detachment but attachment”

Instead of disconnecting from the pressures, sufferings of this life, Jesus came to us and experienced them for us. The God who exists didn’t ignore or wish away the depths of human despair and depravity, but he bore the sins of the world on that cross.

When the Apostle Paul entered the great city of Athens, he noted the culture’s obsession with spirituality. In order to cover all the bases, the Athenians had built a statue to ‘the unknown god’. Paul announced and reasoned with the city’s population, evidencing that God has made himself known and that He is greater and better than our imaginings.

 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:24-31)

This news may have fallen out of favour in parts of Melbourne today, but surely it is worth revisiting. Melbournians are searching.

Christianity doesn’t dismiss the idea of meditation altogether. The Bible speaks of a form of meditation that has value. This meditation does not look inward, but outward. It doesn’t involve emptying the mind but filling the mind with God who has made himself known. Christian meditation involves communing with God by remembering, reading and understanding his words, promises, and works, and through this, we truly find ourselves and the peace and hope that each of us longs for.

“I gave an account of my ways and you answered me;

    teach me your decrees.

Cause me to understand the way of your precepts,

    that I may meditate on your wonderful deeds. 

My soul is weary with sorrow;

    strengthen me according to your word.” (Psalm 119:26-28)

“Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” (Joshua 1:8)

The KAWS exhibition in Melbourne is a timely reminder of humanity’s sense of lostness and of that craving to find peace, love, and hope. The answer is not in ourselves and to accept the black hole that is nihilism but to discover the God who made us with design and good purpose, and who entered this world and embraced suffering and death that we might come to know him.

A Funeral for 2411 foetuses. Why are we shocked?

Dr. Ulrich Klopfer died in September last year when, in his Chicago garage and car boot, thousands of human remains were discovered. The abortion doctor who worked in Indiana had kept the remains of 2,411 foetuses, storing them on his property in plastic medical bags filled with formalin.

A mass funeral was held today with a ceremony laying these young ones to rest.

 

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South Bend Indiana was one of the cities where Dr Klopfer practised.  It is a name that has become associated with the 2020 Presidential race. Ironically (or perhaps sadistically), the former Mayor of that city, Pete Buttigieg, who is running to be President of the United States,  recently reaffirmed his commitment to allow abortions up until the moment of birth. Today, a cemetery in South Bend has become the final resting place for these thousands of babies. Mr Buttigieg said that this was “extremely disturbing”, but also hopes it “doesn’t get caught up in politics at a time when women need access to health care.”

The question I am keen to ask is this, why are we so shocked? Why is this story so appalling that the media couldn’t ignore it?

If unborn babies are just a clump of cells, as we are often told, why is there, dare I say, a natural and righteous anger? Why are we appalled, and convinced that we ought to be appalled by Dr Klopfer?

Should we not put Dr. Ulrich Klopfer’s behaviour down to oddity or inappropriateness? Perhaps he should have asked for permission from the parents before taking their foetuses, but is that the only issue we have? It’s not as though he was collecting human limbs that had been amputated by, you know, actual people. A clump of cells is more akin to having a weird thing for human waste products or storing up human skin and hair that had fallen off patients. Or it could be that reality ultimately betrays the veneer of myth-making that we use to justify killing the unborn.

Kopfer’s medical license was suspended in 2016 for “shoddy record-keeping and substandard patient monitoring”. Most people would agree that storing the remains of aborted foetuses extends well beyond those charges. But even that doesn’t do justice to the instinctive sickness we feel upon hearing these revelations.

Why does storing thousands of clumps of cells in a Doctor’s home cause us to gasp and gag and to ask, how can this be?

Is it because a foetus is not merely a clump of cells, but a human being. A foetus is a life who has inherent worth and dignity. We may resist and try to suppress this reality in order to sustain a way of life or for political gain, but eventually what is true forces our attention. 2411 human beings were stored in plastic medical bags, like a morbid exhibition at a museum or like an insect collection in a child’s bedroom. We are rightly disgusted because these were babies, people like us.

Illinois Attorney General Curtis Hill was one of more than one hundred people who gathered for the funerals. He said, “The shocking discovery” of the remains “was horrifying to anyone with normal sensibilities”… Regrettably, there is no shortage of depravity in our world today, including due regard for the most vulnerable among us.”


The Bible declares,

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. (Psalm 139:14).

We know the Psalmist is right, otherwise, we would not celebrate and rejoice in the wonder and miracle of new life.

Ulrich Klopfer has now met his maker and has been required to give an account for thousands of lives he has taken. Will we accept reality and learn from the sins of the recent past? By starring evil in the face, we are given a choice.

There is wonderful and true forgiveness when we turn around. The God who made us has also provided true and loving forgiveness through the Lord Jesus Christ: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). But also, as Jesus said, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” I wonder, how will our societies respond to the funeral of 2411 babies?