I’ve written a book!

I’ve written a little book, ‘Symphony from the Great War’.

In ‘Symphony from the Great War’ an Australian takes his family to northern Europe to retrace the steps of his Great-grandfather during the First World War on the Western Front. As they visit famed places like Plugstreet, Messines, and Villers-Bretonneux, Murray Campbell offers theological insights into the nature of warfare and the human condition.

History records moments of courage, genius, and creativity. Not everyone who participated in the dramas of the past is afforded such roles. William Campbell fought on the Western Front but he was no Ajax or Achilles. This is the story of an ordinary Australian who survived the Great War without fame or note.

If you are interested in Australian history, the First World War, and some theology sprinkled into the mix, you might like to buy, own, and read ‘Symphony from the Great War’. Available now on Kindle

click on the graphic below for the link

Australia: Healthy Pluralism or Dogmatic Secularism?

Australians are understandably focused on combating COVID-19 right now. We are also beginning to highlight the threat Communist China is posing to geopolitical stability around the globe. Indeed, perhaps because of the issue of Communist China’s ambitions it is important for Australians to understand and appreciate the values of our democratic system.

I’m not sure if it’s deliberate or if it stems from a failure in our university education, but it’s clear that there is an abundance of confusion regarding religion’s relationship with Australian public life. Indeed, this remains one of the key issues facing Australia, as evidenced by the same sex marriage debate in 2017 and ongoing discussions over the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill.

Take for example, these tweets by Jane Caro last night. Jane Caro is a well known social commentator here in Australia. She said, 

“I fiercely believe in separation of church and state and that religious beliefs should not be privileged (tax free status anyone) over any other beliefs. Theocracies are deadly dangerous, particularly to women and LGBTQI people. I don’t want to ban them, or privilege them.”

First of all, pretty much no one wants or believes in theocracies.  Is there a movement in Australia to turn our democracy into a theocracy?  This line of argument is a red herring. Supporters of theocracies are negligible, and it is certainly not what Christian Churches in Australia posit. 

Second, Christians strongly believe in the separation of church and state. It is after all, an historic Christian view. It was Jesus who said, 

“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

Jesus wasn’t arguing for the exclusion of religious ideas from the political sphere and neither was he fusing them together. Similarly, the Australia Constitution doesn’t advocate for a secularism without religious ideas and contributions, but rather that Government will not be controlled by any single religious organisation.

It is important to realise that the social pluralism we enjoy today is deeply embedded in Judeo-Christian beliefs. Indeed, Australia’s political and social pluralism  is one of the byproducts of Christian theism. If, as some hardline secularists want, that we rid our culture of all public vestiges of Judeo-Christianity, we will in fact destroy the underpinnings for a healthy pluralistic society and instead create one that is far more authoritarian and far less tolerant. Do we want to take that road?

No one disputes that there have been alternative views over 2,000 years of history, but our nation’s position on Church and State is the result of centuries of Christian influence and ideas. Christian’s aren’t wanting to diminish these distinctions.

Third, Caro’s real position is not in fact the separation of church and state, but the separation of religion and state. These are two quite different philosophical views. Caro’s public record demonstrates that she believes religious ideas should be squeezed out of the public square and receive no benefit of existence from Government.

To be fair, in last night’s Twitter exchange she later tried to backtrack a little, “Nope. As far as I am concerned you can keep your beliefs, proselytise them all you want, run & finance your schools & hospitals, exercise your right to vote, stand for office, pay your taxes & live according to your own values, just all the rest of us – no more & no less.”

In other words, tax benefits should only be given to organisations that represent a secular (which is now commonly although erroneously understood as atheistic) contribution to public life. The problem is, that’s not social pluralism.  

Earlier this year, Caro complained when the Prime Minister offered a prayer. She said, 

“Praying is fine, dedicating Australia – a secular, pluralistic democracy – to his god is not. It’s not his country to dedicate to anyone, and 30% of us have no faith & many that do – worship a different god from his. That was my issue.”

“As I responded at the time, the problem with Caro’s argument is that it falls flat no matter what the Prime Minister believes. If he was a Hindu and prayed to one of the thousands of Hindu gods, he would be out of sync with the majority of Australians. If the PM was an atheist and in principle refused to prayer, he would be out of step with the many millions of Australians who are praying during this crisis.

The Prime Minister praying for our nation doesn’t undermine our pluralism, it is a shining example of it.” 

Dr Michael Bird notes in the 2016 article, Whose Religion? Which Secularism? Australia Has a Serious Religious Literacy Problem, the parameters of secularism have been redefined, “no longer as the freedom of the individual in religion, but as the scrubbing of religion from all public spheres.”

A pluralist society allows difference whereas authoritarian secularism demands sameness. Which offers a better understanding of equality? 

At the end of the day, hardline secularists are not aiming for equality but for conformity. Behind this is either an intellectual laziness or dishonesty. The assumption is, secularism is morally superior and morally neutral. This doesn’t stack up on even a superficial level. Everyone brings to the table their own theological and moral commitments, which are always religious in some shape and form.

As Jonathan Leeman observes in his book on political theology, 

“secular liberalism isn’t neutral, it steps into the public space with a ‘covert religion’, perhaps as liberal authoritarianism…the public realm is nothing less than the battle ground of gods, each vying to push the levers of power in its favour’.

My point in writing today is this, the conversation about the role of religion in society isn’t going away soon. It’s not even on pause, the issue is simply gurgling quietly behind the scenes. Twitter is probably not the most useful way for challenging popular misconceptions about the partnership between religion and state, but conversations need to be had. 

Should the Victorian Government extend the State of Emergency until late 2021?

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been an advocate for Victorians doing the right thing & respecting the rules in place. That doesn’t mean agreeing every decision or that implementation of rules is always easy,  but we have nonetheless accepted that there are experts working hard to give their best advice to the Government. 

It won’t surprise anyone to note that there are always some Victorians who will do the wrong thing, no matter the social or legal compulsion. However, the overwhelming majority of the people are adhering to the rules, despite the significant costs. 

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

As the months progress I fear that what is already a difficult year is becoming a greater burden for huge numbers of Victorians. I am not making light of COVID-19 and the detriment it is to peoples’s lives; it is a serious disease. It is important to also highlight that a pandemic is never one dimensional; it impacts lives and communities in multi-dimensional ways. These costs are mounting: 100,000s of Victorians are unemployed, suicides related to the lockdown have been reported, mental health services are struggling, the economic picture is becoming more bleak with each passing week. On top of this, after 6 months of living under tight restrictions, the general wellbeing of people has been tested. 

For those have secure jobs and whose physical and mental health is unaffected, it is relatively easy to go along with any and every decision coming from Spring St. Not everyone is facing such a comfortable position. Indeed, eventually their costs will become ours.

Premier Daniel Andrews yesterday announced that he is requesting a 12 month extension to the State of Emergency, which will give the Government ongoing control over the everyday and personal lives of 4.9 million Melbournians, and a further 1 million Victorians who live in regional areas. This doesn’t mean that the Government will enforce all these powers for the full duration of time, but it does mean that they can do so at any time.

The announcement is a clear indication that the Government doesn’t trust the people to do what right. I understand the logic behind the thinking but I believe there is an alternative to extending this extraordinary set of powers: we trust the Victorian people to continue behaving in safe and appropriate ways. Victorians have had several months of practicing social distancing and learning to wear masks. The Government can provide detailed guidelines for businesses, schools, churches, and for outdoor activities. The Department of health and human services can provide regularly updates and inform the public of outbreaks and concerns. It remains in everyone’s interest to keep acting responsibly. Those who don’t are, for the most part, probably the very same individuals who are currently flouting the rules. 

If after 6 months the people of Victoria are facing staggering costs, how much more are we prepared to pay should another 12 months be added? Some are suggesting a compromise, perhaps allowing for a 3 month extension; the proposal has warrant. Let’s be clear, the issue isn’t only about public health and safety, nor can it be reduced to economics, but there is an issue here that drives to the very heart of democratic government. Should the people relinquish their civic freedoms and responsibilities and hand it all to the Government and to unelected officials? This may not feel like an urgent matter right now, but it rarely does. Isn’t that the point? The strength of societal freedoms and responsibilities are most tested during a trial such as this. It is a dangerous precedent that we would do well to avoid.

It is no small thing for millions of citizens to give up their democratic and social freedoms to a tiny few. No Government in Australian history has ever assumed such power. No Government in modern history, outside authoritarian regimes, has taken it upon themselves to exercise this kind of absolutist rule. Keep in mind, this includes two World Wars and the Great Depression.

At yesterday’s conference Premier Daniel Andrews made the following admissions:

  1. If there is no vaccine available in 12 months time he will consider extending the emergency powers for another year. That would make a total of 2.5 years, ending in September 2022.
  2. Should a vaccine be found, it will take considerable time before it is available for the public to use.
  3. Should a vaccine be found and made available, no one knows how effective it will be and whether it require subsequent tops ups.

I appreciated the Premier’s candour on this occasion. I’ve noticed in recent days that the Government has taken on board some criticisms and requests that are coming from various quarters of the State. For example, more information is now being provided at daily press briefings and Government websites are about to include more detailed data and information. I’ve also appreciated my local MP who is regularly keeping his constituents informed about COVId-19 related issues. I hope that the Government will now listen to these concerns.

COVID-19 pandemic is leading to more Australians praying and reading the Bible

Anna Patty highlighted in The Age yesterday that Australians are “opening their minds to spirituality and prayer.”

McCrindle research has found evidence that a growing number of Australians are considering prayer and reading the Bible during the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is both unsurprising and welcoming. When faced with the reality of our mortality many people begin to ask the important questions about life and death and God. When life loses its security and certainty we start looking for someone in whom we can place our hope. 

Considering God is the most natural thing in the world; not because we need a crutch to lean on but because He has wired us to know him and to seek after him; it’s in our spiritual DNA. 

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

In times of prosperity, health, and freedom, we too easily blind ourselves and settle for lesser things. Why need God if I can control my future? When these things are stripped from us, questions about life’s meaning remain and the issue of hope becomes paralysed. 

Photo by CDC on Pexels.com

I am encouraged to hear that Aussies are reconsidering the question of God, and the value of prayer and Bible reading.

Let’s be honest though, prayer can act like a placebo, serving to trick my  consciousness into believing everything will work out. Placebos can sometimes provide temporary relief but they don’t resolve the underlying issues for which we turned to them in the first place. For prayer to be the real deal it requires praying to a real God who can really hear and listen, and who is personal and powerful. 

Take for example, what Jesus taught his disciples to pray, what today is known as the Lord’s Prayer. Consider his words for a moment, 

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.”

This God is personal. Jesus says he is our Father in heaven. He is not a cruel Father, selfish and unsafe, he is loving and kind and good. He is a God who is in charge, who hears our requests and who is able to answer them. He is the God who provides our daily provisions and who is able to do the harder work, of forgiving us our sins. 

Jesus follows this beautiful prayer by repudiating the naturalist worldview and materialist culture which is familiar to us living in 21st Century Australia. His words are insightful, incisive, and breathe life into weary souls. They are well worth the 2 minutes that it will take to read them.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy,[d] your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Jesus’ analysis sheds light and grace into our world that is obsessed with materialism and superficial success. He doesn’t ignore material and temporary needs. Rather, Jesus observes that we think too little ourselves and we have thought too little of God. 

 “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”

During this pandemic at least some Australians are waking up to the fact that the answer to Jesus’ question is, yes. 

Whether we like it or not, this pandemic has changed the world; not as profoundly as some might suggest, but the social and health ramifications will reorient many lives for sometime and the economic costs will remain for a generation or more. 

Are you one of the many Australians who are wondering about prayer and the Bible? 

If you are wanting someone to pray for/with you or you are interested in reading the Bible, ask. This is something I love doing with other people, whether they are Christians or not. 

I also belong to a local church with many people who would be very happy to help out.

At Mentone Baptist we also run a course for people who are investigating Christianity called, ‘Making Sense of Christianity’. If you are interested please send me a message.

If you live in another part of Melbourne (so not in Kingston or Bayside Councils) or in another part of the country, I’m I can try to suggest a church for you to connect with.  

Churches may not be meeting at the moment, but what is holding us back from praying and reading the Bible? If Jesus is right, the end result isn’t delusion or some stupid spiritual placebo.  Instead, as the Psalmist put it, “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.”

The Victorian people need greater clarity from the Government for pandemic objectives

Throughout this pandemic I have encouraged my fellow Victorians to follow government restrictions and the official health advice from the Department of Health and Human Services. Not understanding an issue or not agreeing with a policy is not sufficient reason for ignoring the rules. As a Christian the Bible tells us to honour those in authority and to follow the law, this is something I take seriously. It is also the case that in our system of Government we are able to participate and to ask questions and to be informed about reasons for public policy. 

I can only imagine how difficult this year has been for our decision-makers. This is not only the first pandemic in a century to hit Australia but this disease is new and scientists still know very little about how it works. 

Governments around the world have approached COVID-19 in different ways and these varied approaches don’t always conform to a set pattern or align with success ratios of other countries that are following a similar set of rules and guidelines. This is not a criticism of any single approach but simply noting that when it comes to tackling COVID-19, certainty is elusive and only with hindsight will we really know what was the most sensible strategy.

Many have made the crucial point that in the pandemic there are competing issues and concerns. I agree, it would be derelict of us to focus on just one aspect of the pandemic at the neglect of others.

To repeat, I don’t envy those who have responsibility for making these decisions. One thing I am continually doing (as is my church and many others too) is praying that those in authority will have wisdom and understanding, and choose the best path forward. Indeed, we are doing more than pray, for this is a time to assist our fellow Victorian in all manner of practical ways. 

In my role as a Melbourne church pastor, I listen to people who are struggling and finding life difficult.

I am concerned for the mental health of many Victorians.

I am concerned for school students and their education this year, and for their mental, social, and physical well being.

I am concerned about the economy and 100,000s of Victorians who have lost their jobs. Losing $1 billion per week from the Victorian economy is not about the money, it is about peoples jobs and livelihoods. I am also concerned about the staggering debt we are accumulating which our children and their children will have to pay back one day.

I am concerned for thousands of Victorians who are too afraid to visit their GP or to receive the medical treatments that they require.
Victoria’s State of Emergency powers is set to expire after being in place for 6 months. On Sunday, the Premier announced that he wants a 4 week extension. There is also the State of Disaster powers which were brought into play at the beginning of August and will continue until September 2nd. Such powers are rightly limited in duration because under normal circumstances, it is inappropriate and immoral for the State to limit the rights of citizens to work, travel, and participate in everyday activities.

From my perspective, before any such extensions are given, it is incumbent upon the Victorian Government to explain their objectives and to be clear about the details with the Victorian people. It is not healthy for any Government to keep Victorians in the dark. 

At this stage, Melbourne will remain under Stage 4 until September 13th. We have not been told under what conditions these restrictions be relaxed, nor when we will return to Stage 2, which is the point where most Melbournians can return to work, restaurants opening, and with schools and sport resuming. Under Stage 2, only the smallest of churches can recommence normal services.

It may be the case that the Department of Health and Human Services and the Premier have not decided what numbers are required before loosening the restrictions. It is apparent from various medical doctors who are publicising their views, that there is wide and varied opinion about what the aims should be in fighting COVID-19.  This is unsurprising, given the nature of this disease. When medical doctors and scientists voice their opinions in the public square (which they are entitled to do), it is not always helpful and sometimes it exacerbates public confusion. For example, are they simply expressing their opinion or are they trying to influence government directives? Are we aiming to lower the curve or to reach elimination? Is the aim of the lockdowns to have zero community transmission? Are Governments planning to suppress social freedoms until there is vaccine? 

While many are hopeful that a vaccine will be soon discovered and made available, no one yet has any idea what length of time we’re talking about. The Prime Minister has this week indicated there are positive signs about a vaccine coming from Oxford University, which sounds promising. At the moment estimations for having a vaccine in our hands range from 6 months to 12 and 18 months time. This is assuming that a suitable vaccine is found.

I am not advocating for a Swedish method or for a China style lockdown or anything in between. There are enough arm chair experts in our community without me becoming another annoying one. All I am saying is that we are now 6 months into this pandemic and there is uncertainty in our community about what the objectives are, both for the short term and the longer term. 

The request is simple and it’s important, the Victorian people deserve greater clarity about what the goal is for September 13th, and what the Government’s goals are for each following stages on the path to recovery. This information will not only assist compliance with rules, but also help business, schools, churches, and community groups to begin planning for the future. 

Rest assured, I continue to pray for our Federal and State Governments, and for our Health officials as they tackle this pandemic. 


Since writing this piece I have learned that the Oxford Vaccine “makes use of a cell line cultured from an electively aborted human foetus.” This raises important ethical questions about its use here in Australia. See https://www.eternitynews.com.au/world/covid-vaccine-protest-by-three-archbishops/

Outrage or empathy? A President’s brother dies

President Trump’s younger brother died today. As the news broke on Twitter, the phrase ‘The wrong Trump’ started trending. This was among the less ghastly things being said about the Trump family this afternoon. Take for example The Washington Post who chose this headline for the obituary, “Robert Trump, younger brother of President Trump who filed lawsuit against niece, dies at 71”.

As Jesus once said, “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:32)

Let’s be honest, we live in a world filled with hate. Twitter is a dumping ground for all manner of human bile. Twitter has become a place where people go to vent and speak the words they dare not speak to another in person. It’s a verbal firing range, often committed in anonymity. 

It is one thing to affirm and speak kindly of people you like and who agree with you, but what about people with whom you share less in common? What about people with whom you disagree on religious issues or political matters? How hard it is to find kindness and understanding across the political divide. 

The Bible, as it is so often, turns the world the right way round and flattens human wisdom and ego. The Scriptures say, ‘mourn with those who mourn’. 

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.Do not be conceited.” (Romans 12:14-16)

Granted, these words are written to Christians (and I hope they take them seriously), but they’re not a bad set of suggestions for anyone.  

In our polarised age, it’s evident that many people no longer even pretend to express sympathy. In the game of cultural power play showing niceness to ‘opponents’ is a sign of weakness. The cultural clappers want outrage and fighting words, and anger and verbal diarrhoea aimed at all those social heretics. 

The world is returning to a fragmented past where tribalism is triumphing. We’re jumping into Lord of the Flies and instead of being repelled we’re enthralled. The President of the United States’ brother dies and it is too much for to simply offer a word of sympathy. Instead, it is an excuse to pile on a family because of political dislike. This shouldn’t be about politics. This isn’t about approving of Donald Trump’s character or his polices. It’s about treating fellow human beings with a degree of respect. If we are unable to choose a word of empathy to a family who have lost a brother, we have lost one of the most basic aspects of our humanity and become truly pathetic. 

Yes, President Trump’s behaviour has often added to the social mess in which we are squelching and churning, but the origins of our situation are far older and deeper. Both Twitter and the real world need more kindness. We need grace and mercy to cut through the vitriol that is consuming and destroying societies before our very eyes.

Imagine if God treated us the way we deserved? He didn’t wait for us to treat with with honour. Instead, he pursued us in love even while we were sinners. This God of the Bible is patient and longs to demonstrate grace and kindness, even toward the wicked, and even for you and me. 

“ ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” (Ezekiel 33:11).

Learning to Face Death

“Death lies on her like an untimely frost
Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.”
(Act IV, Scene V, Line 33)

 

Over the past 24 hours, 19 Victorians died as a result of COVID-19. In light of the volume of new cases that we are seeing, many more Victorians will die from this terrible virus over the coming days and weeks. Each and every single one of these people is a life to be mourned.

Victoria averages between 3000-4000 deaths per month, from all kinds of causes. That’s over 300 people dying every day in our State. Each of them is a loss to our community and is cause for grief.

Julie Power, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald (‘Even in a pandemic, most people shun talk about death and dying’, August 11), has highlighted how Australians are “reluctant to think about death or make plans for how they want to go.”

According to a recent survey conducted among 1,100 people in NSW, 70% of Australians prefer to avoid addressing the issue of death.

Power’s suggests that “The deaths of older Australians alone and isolated from friends and families during the pandemic highlights the need to talk about what constitutes a good death.”

I agree, we need to talk. We appreciate that such conversations are difficult at the best of times. Who among us is keen to discuss our final days and to make decisions about funerals? Contemplating death is altogether horrible, even more, when we are considering people we know and love. Death is, to quote the Bible, ‘the last enemy’.

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Unlike most cultures for much of history, we have managed to sanitise death with our modern medicines, clean white sheets and closed doors. We have successfully delayed death through vast improvements in medicine and technology, with greater standards of livings, by educating people about health, and through legislating thousands of laws guarding public and workplace safety. Despite all this, we cannot account for the unexpected accident, a natural disaster, or the coming of a pandemic. Even when we evade such tragedy, our bodies have been in motion since birth, taking the road of gradual deterioration and decline.

One thing this pandemic has proven is how much we wish to rage against the dying light, to fight and resist it with all our might. Death is not a friend, it is an enemy to struggle against.

It is one thing to have discussions about dying well, as Julie Power is urging, but it is quite another to die with or without hope. Hope doesn’t evade death, and neither does it remove painful grief, but it makes all the difference in the world.

A young mum whom I knew, died from ovarian cancer on August 1st. She grew up with an atheistic worldview, but when confronted with cancer and receiving a poor prognosis, she began asking questions and searching for hope. Suffering didn’t reinforce her atheism, it led her to seek out God. In learning about the person and work of Jesus Christ, she didn’t feel repulsed or angry at God for her cancer, rather her life was transformed by the beauty and warmth of Jesus. This wasn’t Christianity offering her a placebo in the face of death, but her becoming convinced about the reality, goodness, and certainty of the Christian Gospel.

“he will swallow up death forever.

The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears

    from all faces;” (Isaiah 25:8)

There is never a good time to talk about death. Conversations about funeral arrangements and taking care of those who remain behind are important. These are difficult discussions we need to have with close family members; not because death is imminent for most of us, but because we do not know when the hour will come.

As a Pastor of a Church, it is my great privilege to spend time with people who are facing their final days on the earth and to sit with grieving families in their homes and to stand with them at the graveside. The question of hope is rarely left alone as people grapple with the reality of the grave.

On one occasion Jesus arrived at the home of his friend Lazarus, who had died some four days earlier. Visiting the tomb of his friend, we read what is the shortest sentence in the entire Bible,  “Jesus wept”. Mingled with grief, Jesus also spoke confidently of hope, not only for Lazarus but for all who look to him.

“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Vatican aiding China with Sinicization

China is pursuing its policy of Sinicization, reshaping Christianity into the image of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Australian newspaper is reporting that Beijing is to extend its deal with the Vatican, despite high ranking Catholic officials protesting, including Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen.

“The two-year provisional agreement will expire next month.

Bishop Sorondo, a close friend of Pope Francis, is on record as claiming the ­Chinese state exemplifies Catholic social justice teaching, a claim dismissed as “absurd’’ by Vatican-based US cardinal Raymond Burke.

Renewal of the deal, which has given the Chinese state control over the appointment of bishops in China, would spark outrage across the church and cause deep sadness among persecuted Catholics in China and Hong Kong.

Renewal would come as religious persecutions are being stepped up in China, which is increasingly flexing its military might in the Indo-Pacific region.”

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While the Vatican is refusing to release all the particulars of the arrangement, it is widely believed that it will allow the Vatican to have greater say in appointing future Bishops in China (but not full control). This is contingent upon Pope Francis formally recognising seven Catholics Bishops who have already been appointed by the Chinese Government.

The New York Times reported in 2018,

“The ruling Communist Party sees the compromise with the Vatican as a step toward eliminating the underground churches where Chinese Catholics who refuse to recognize the party’s authority have worshiped for generations. With the pope now recognizing all bishops and clergy members in the official Catholic churches approved and controlled by the party, the underground church may have no reason to exist.

The move is part of a broader push by the government to clamp down on all aspects of society since Xi Jinping took power as the party’s leader in 2012.”

For the most part, in history, Church and State have been duly recognised as separate entities, concerned with different spheres of responsibility, jurisdiction, and authority. That is not to suggest that there is no overlap. The Scriptures themselves testify to this in places such as Romans 13:1-7. Indeed, the Apostle Paul on one occasion appealed to Caesar without any sense of overstepping the line.

At their best and when the dynamics are suitably valued and practised, the State and Church serve society in a healthy partnership, understanding their distinct roles and appreciating the other. It’s not as the State is void of religious content; Christians and non Christians alike, and people of other faiths, are welcomed into Parliament and can contribute ideas that have been formed by their convictions and worldview. We don’t live in an a-theistic state, but a pluralistic culture.

At worst, the State has intruded and sought to control or disrupt churches and even to work for their destruction. And Churches, in a vain attempt to retain some semblance of relevance or to keep their institutions alive, have become complicit with immoral and anti-Christian agendas.  We have seen this happen with Christian denominations capitulating on the marriage issue. This has happened amongst evangelicals in the United States as they conflate the cause of Christ with the Republican Party. Indeed, the Vatican’s deal with Xi Jinping is reminiscent of former days when Rome (and also some Protestant denominations) was found to collaborate with Nazism in the 1930s-40s. The idea was, if you keep our doors open, we’ll give you our support. We’ll betray your cultural heretics and cede some of our independence so long as you let us be.

The Lord of the Church once said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”  Apparently, some ecclesiastical minds are of the opinion that one can do both.

When I wrote about this story two years ago, I suggested Daniel ch.3 as an analogy. President Xi Jinping is sounding like King Nebuchadnezzar, while Pope Francis is appearing as one of his astrologers who betrays Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Since then, more fuel has been added to the fire, and this new blast of oxygen from St Peter’s isn’t going to dampen the growing threat posed to Christians and religious minorities in China. It is one thing for the secular citizen to sell their the soul to a dominant regime, but for the overseers of a Church to throw into Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace the people under their care, they themselves are in danger of another fire where no angel will tread and save.

Communist China is an evil regime that has little regard for religious freedom, let alone political and social freedoms. The world has evidence of 1 million Uighurs, a Muslim minority group, being forced into concentration camps. For decades churches have been closed, destroyed, pastors imprisoned, and families threatened because they profess faith in Christ. Millions of Chinese Christians cannot meet to worship God in public or read the Bible. The threat of discrimination is a constant one. For the Vatican and Pope Francis to make a deal with the Devil is a grave misjudgment.

This is a timely reminder to thank God for the religious freedoms we enjoy in Australia, and not to take them for granted. There are sometimes tensions, but not every disagreement amounts to discrimination against Churches or religion in general. Nonetheless, this should also serve as a warning to Australian Churches and Governments alike.

When this deal with first agreed upon in 2018, I suggested,

“We are a long way from the politico-religious scene of our northern neighbour, and yet it is not irrational to suggest that should some Australian political parties and notable social commentators have their way, we would be aiming toward an Australian Sinicization, conforming Christianity into the likeness of Australian humanistic secularism.”

This threat remains. And no, I am not referring to current Governmental rules for religious organisations in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Writing for ABC’s The Conversation last week, Professor Nicholas Aroney spoke of new research that has found that government-based religious discrimination is on the rise around the world. While much of the attention is duly on other countries, he notes that “the threat in Australia is real”.

We are far from the situation found in Communist China, but we do have, for example, a State Government that has previously attempted to interfere with basic religious freedoms and is currently drafting legislation that may soon see parts of the Bible banned, classical teaching on marriage prohibited, and prayers for sexual sanctification outlawed. I am of course referring to the Victorian Government’s plan to introduce legislation in 2020 to ban conversion practices.

We need to guard our own backyard while also speaking up against religious suppression that is taking place across the seas.

Melbourne: State of Disaster

The world’s most liveable city is now largely deserted. Her 4.9 million residents are now required to stay in their homes, apart from a few limited and important reasons.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews yesterday afternoon declared a State of Disaster. The streets are now largely empty, office blocks abandoned, schools and universities closed, and the roads eerily quiet. There was no slow procession of peak hour traffic outside my home this morning.

The trams are running empty of passengers and our sporting stadiums have turned into relics to a yesterday that we long to return.

As of last night, there is now a curfew in place. No one is allowed to drive, walk or cycle, in their suburbs from 8pm until 5am. The curfew along Level 4 restrictions will continue until at least September 13th.

 

melbourne

 

The last 5 months have been challenging and I expect the next 6 weeks will be even more difficult. Many Melbournians are already tired and anxious. Any prolonged disruption to ‘normal life’ brings with it stresses; how much more when even the basic elements are put on hold. I feel for the 100,000s plus students trying to study for their VCE during this lockdown. The economic uncertainties are real and not going to be easily fixed. The Victorian economy is losing $1 billion each week and with thousands more losing their jobs.

Melbourne is my home. I was born here, went to school and studied at university here. Susan and I married in Camberwell. After 4 years of exile (in Sydney) we returned and have since lived, worked, and raised our children in Mentone.

The experience is new to almost all of Melbourne’s residents. It is certainly my first time to live in a city with a curfew and where leaving ones home may result in a visit from the police. Thousands are defence force personnel are also patrolling our suburbs and checking on residents. It is a strange and dystopian view.

I don’t want to exaggerate; while no one wants to be in this position many people seem to be doing ok. Life is different, and at times annoying but overall they’re doing pretty well. I also appreciate that many other Melbournians are becoming frustrated and even angry. I have noted how even our  ‘progressive’ leaning media outlets are now turning on the State Government. I’m not going to pretend that the pandemic has been handled perfectly by Governments or the people alike. Isn’t that part of the reality of facing new and extraordinary times? Our fallibilities our exposed, our best efforts fall short, and the stubbornness of others intrudes to the detriment of others.

I am though urging my fellow Melbournians to adhere to the new rules. This isn’t about asserting personal rights, listening to idiotic theories, or playing political games. Most of us recognise that mistakes have been made. Had people done the right thing and had authorities better-equipped personnel during hotel quarantine we may not be in the position we are now facing. There is a time for those conversations, but now, we need to focus on following the law and looking out for the vulnerable, the anxious, and the lonely.

Our Church is praying regularly our Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Cabinet, for Premier Daniel Andrews and his Cabinet, and for those health officials giving advice each day. This is important.

This pandemic has already taken lives. It has forced many thousands to reconfigure their lives because of illness or financial hardship. Stories coming out of age care homes are horrific. The mental and social toll is near impossible to measure. Dare I suggest, not as a pessimist but as a realist, more difficult days lay ahead. Once Level 4 restrictions are lifted there were will be 4.9 million sighs of relief. The audible heave, however, won’t blow away other restrictions that will remain for some time. The economic toll for thousands of businesses will be devastating, and we don’t yet know the cost that is being born by our children.

We’re not fighting to rid ourselves of COVID-19, but to control it; according to the Victorian Government we are trying to uncover the source for 100s of mystery cases and to control (or eliminate?) community transmissions. Melbourne will come through to the other side, bruised and changed, but we will make it. But even as we stagger to our feet there is an even greater threat looming over our shoulders, namely that of an authoritarian and hungry red dragon. Could this dystopian season be but the first chapter of more to come?

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute advises the Federal Government and also informs the Australian public about the rapidly growing issue of Communist China. In an interview last week, Michael Shoebridge noted that Government military and strategic plans for the 2030s are being fast tracked for employment now. There is growing consensus that conflict in the region within months is not only possible but is now “credible”.

Melbourne has enjoyed a long summer: 75 years of tremendous progress, pleasure, and safety. There have been interruptions, but nothing like this.

Ecclesiastes ch.3 reminds us that there are many times in life. Not every season continues into perpetuity.

“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:

   a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,

  a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,

  a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,

  a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,

 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,

   a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,

    a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.”

 

Melbournians, for the most part, have grown up with the belief that we deserve our choice of the above times, and that those other experiences are what happens to people in other parts of the world. We are now learning that not even the world’s most liveable city is exempt.

Only a few sentences later the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “He has also set eternity in the human heart”.

Each new day is preparation for eternity; Melbourne has too often failed the test. We’ve been caught out. We can’t rely upon our prosperity, security, and health, to see us through; they are unreliable gods. This is a time where our deepest desires and most earnest hopes are being tested. If the world’s most liveable place cannot make certain our hopes and security, where must we look?

Psalm 62 takes us to one whom Melbourne believed was no longer necessary. And yet, this God remains the one firm foundation we have:

“Truly my soul finds rest in God;
my salvation comes from him.

Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.

How long will you assault me?
Would all of you throw me down—
this leaning wall, this tottering fence?

Surely they intend to topple me
from my lofty place;
they take delight in lies.
With their mouths they bless,
but in their hearts they curse.

Yes, my soul, find rest in God;
my hope comes from him.

Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.

My salvation and my honor depend on God;
he is my mighty rock, my refuge.

Trust in him at all times, you people;
pour out your hearts to him,
for God is our refuge.

Surely the lowborn are but a breath,
the highborn are but a lie.
If weighed on a balance, they are nothing;
together they are only a breath.

10 Do not trust in extortion
or put vain hope in stolen goods;
though your riches increase,
do not set your heart on them.

11 One thing God has spoken,
two things I have heard:
“Power belongs to you, God,

12     and with you, Lord, is unfailing love”;
and, “You reward everyone
according to what they have done.” (Psalm 62)

A young Victorian mum has died and is now with Christ

A young Chinese woman with a little girl started attending Mentone Baptist Church three years ago. She was battling cancer and had decided that she needed answers. It is one thing to understand a medical diagnosis, but accompanying such devastating news are other and even bigger questions. Why me? What is life meant to be about? Is there a God who is interested and cares?

backlit cemetery christianity clouds

Christine grew up in a family and culture that was atheistic, and she assumed that this was the way to view the world. A highly intelligent and capable woman, being informed that she had terminal cancer broke apart what she believed to be true about the world

Suffering didn’t reinforce her atheism, it led her to seek out God. In learning about the person and work of Jesus Christ, she didn’t feel repulsed or angry at God for her cancer, rather her life was transformed by the beauty and warmth of Jesus.

Christine quickly made friends with several of the women at church and started attending a Bible study group.

In early 2019 it was evident that the cancer would take her life. She battled on while recognising the awful and difficult path she was taking.

In Christine’s own words,

With the time I spent more with bible group, i started to be more curious about Jesus Christ. As I said before, I used to live that hard and trying that much to prove myself and now I had cancer. My whole life was ruined. If there is a God, could Jesus give me a new life.

Just at that time, my cancer was coming back again, only 1 and half year time after the operation and chemo. I was shocked and felt lost. The doctor told me that  I had no chance to be cured. I was too tired, I had been tried that hard to stand up. I just got the chance to see the light of new life.

Different from last time, I thought of Jesus Christ almost immediately. I remembered in the Luke, Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God” That probably was my first real pray from the bottom of my heart, I kept asking Jesus Christ to save me and hoped he could guide me and change me if I had done anything bad and wrong. I realized no one could help me now except Jesus Christ.”

Her young body was failing. There were days when getting out of bed was impossible. Although her body was terribly weakened by the cancer, she wanted to publicly profess her faith in Christ through baptism. With a couple of Christine’s friends from church, it was my great joy and privilege to sit with her in her home: listening and sharing, hearing her story and encouraging her with the Scriptures. It was clear that she was convinced about the Gospel and now knew and loved Jesus.

We spoke about baptising her in her home, but she wanted to show the world the difference Jesus made. Even the night before we were unsure whether Christine would be well enough to leave her house and come to the church.

That Sunday morning in April 2019, Christine stood in front of the church and spoke about what the Lord Jesus had done for her, and how despite her suffering, she was safe in him.

She shared,

“I now believe and trust Jesus as my Lord and Saviour, knowing that even though I denied him for past 30 years, he died on the cross for my sins and is willing to forgive me. I know that God has accepted me as his daughter and loves me.

I am still in the middle of treatment, reading God’s words every day is motivating me to continue to trust him and rely on him. I still feel scared and worry about my cancer sometimes. The difference is I have God to rely on and he is willing to take my worry. More exciting is I find my life is changing slowly, I am spending more time with my friends and family. I am not willing to spend time being angry anymore, because I appreciate every single day God gives to me.

I am so weak and little in this world, and I used to be  a terrible person, but God loves me and I now love him and I can trust him for the future.”

Christine then stood in the pool with me. I asked the same two questions that we ask everyone who is getting baptised,

“Do you believe Jesus is God’s Son who died on the cross for your sins and who was raised to life to give you new life?”

“Have you repented of your sins and are trusting Jesus for salvation, and with His help will you follow him all the days of your life?”

With a confident yes to both questions, Christine went through waters of baptism, signalling to family, friends, and the church, Jesus had redeemed her and gifted her eternal hope.

It was one of those moments a pastor never forgets. I suspect no one present that morning will ever forget.

Not long after, she needed to move to another part of the city and so connected with another church, although she was never well enough to attend. They have supported in her final months. Her mum and dad have since both become Christians and have stayed by her side throughout this entire journey. Christine also remained close friends with several people at Mentone, who have supported her right through to the end.

In the early hours of this morning, Christine lost her fight against cancer and but with Christ, she has triumphed over death. The Apostle Paul’s belief, “to be away from the body is to be with the Lord”, is right now her experience. She no longer lives by faith but with sight.

“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57)

Christine’s name and life won’t be mentioned in the news today, and that’s ok. Deaths resulting from COVID-19 are understandably making news each day.  Death is however always with us, even when it is taking place away from the public gaze. She was one of many Victorians who today have died from cancer or from other afflictions. Yet, her life and story have impacted the people who knew her. Her testimony will remain with us at Mentone Baptist Church, and encouraging us to place our hope in the only Saviour there is.

Christine has finished her race and has received from her Lord and God the crown of righteousness. For those who are left behind the grief is palpable. It is intense, and I can only imagine the difficult days that lay ahead for Christine’s daughter especially, and also for her parents and closest friends. One thing I do know, we don’t grieve as those without hope. “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” (1 Thessalonians 4:14)

Jesus once asked Martha,

“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Christine’s answer was, ‘yes’.

I wonder, where are other Victorians are placing their hope?