Looking For Justice

The case of George Pell is one of the most important legal trials to be heard in modern Australian history. Not only is the Cardinal the highest ranking Catholic clergyman to be convicted of child sex crimes (with the conviction being overturned as of yesterday), he became representative of all the anger and frustration that has been mounting in the community as a result of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

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Throughout the entire process, from the time police began their investigation until yesterday’s High Court ruling, I remained quiet. I declined from offering an opinion, not because I didn’t have thoughts on the matter, but because I am not privy to the truth of the allegations. The last thing I want to do is cast aspersions on someone who is coming forward as a victim of child sexual abuse. At the same time, I was also aware (through friends who work in law) that there were significant legal shortcomings with the case. These issues have come to light in the High Court and were responsible for all seven High Court Justices overturning the guilty verdict against George Pell.

I hate the abuse of children. As a Father with 3 children, the idea that there are people in the community who would commit such evil acts sickens me in the stomach. Even in writing about the subject, I can feel the temperature rising in my gut. Also, as a pastor of a church, anger is too poor a word choice to describe how I feel toward clergy who have betrayed trust and destroyed the lives of thousands of young innocence. While I loathe the idea of children being abused in any context, there is something particularly ugly about this taking place by men who claim to serve God.

In 2016 I was interviewed by journalists at The Age.  I had spoken up for concerned citizens in Mentone who were bewildered that their local Parish priest remained in office even though he had been found guilty by the Melbourne Catholic ArchDiocese for mistreating young men.

When George Pell was convicted in 2019, I accepted the verdict. Yesterday, I accepted the High Court’s decision. I didn’t accept these decisions because they confirmed any prior opinions that I held. The fact remains, I do not know what happened. If we took a snapshot at the last 24 hours it appears as though everyone knows what took place.

Lest we pretend that a virus has united the country, as soon as the Court announced its findings, social media divided into two very loud and unrelenting camps. Emotions are running high and prejudices are unyielding. It is a dangerous thing for opinion makers to ignore the High Court ruling and to insist upon Pell’s guilt. The cries of vindication by some conservative voices is not pleasant either. Indeed, much of the public posturing in the last 24 hours, from Premiers to newspaper columnists and to needy musicians, has been disgraceful. It would seem that no matter the findings of Courts, we all know better. Each of us has the truth because whatever our gut tells us must be true. It is an insane way to address such important matters, but that this is the landscape Australians have created for themselves. We have judged ourselves to be the purveyors of truth telling and righteousness, and authorities can only be trusted when they support our course.

The fact remains, you don’t know what happened and neither do I. We can theorise and speculate, and we can mould the evidence according to our prior assumptions, but let’s be careful about throwing our personal judgments about in public.

I note the irony and irreconcilable nature of this following observation, but of all the commentary that I’ve read in the past day, the most gracious remarks that have been written thus far are by the complainant and by George Pell.

Sometimes, the wisest option is to suspend personal judgment and to trust the legal system. We can be thankful for our judicial system, even with its imperfections. Having said that, this inner compulsion for justice and right doing requires us to look beyond ourselves and the very best of humanmade systems, and dare to hope there is God who will judge rightly and without any error.

Psalm 7 offers this kind of hope, a comfort to victims and a warning to perpetrators,

“Lord my God, I take refuge in you;
    save and deliver me from all who pursue me,

or they will tear me apart like a lion
    and rip me to pieces with no one to rescue me.

Lord my God, if I have done this
    and there is guilt on my hands—

if I have repaid my ally with evil
    or without cause have robbed my foe—

then let my enemy pursue and overtake me;
    let him trample my life to the ground
    and make me sleep in the dust.

Arise, Lord, in your anger;
    rise up against the rage of my enemies.
    Awake, my God; decree justice.

Let the assembled peoples gather around you,
    while you sit enthroned over them on high.

    Let the Lord judge the peoples.
Vindicate me, Lord, according to my righteousness,
    according to my integrity, O Most High.

Bring to an end the violence of the wicked
    and make the righteous secure—
you, the righteous God
    who probes minds and hearts.”

 

Leaving the George Pell case aside, there’s no avoiding the fact that the Catholic Church has a lousy record when it comes to child sexual abuse, both in the number of cases and in the ensuing cover up and protecting of guilty priests. Their history is truly appalling. While Catholic Institutions are at the fore of public attention, they are not the only ones who have been found wanting. Most Christian denominations have examples, and many other organisations (such as the Scouts) have also been found as having sexual predators in their midst.

As a result of the Royal Commission and the countless stories that are coming to light, I understand why trust in Churches has been shredded. We should be able to say of Churches, these are safe communities for families. The reality is that most Churches are amazing communities where people may come and join, and discover the most important and beautiful truths that can be known to the world; namely the good news of Jesus Christ. And yet, how can we blame our fellow Aussies for doubting and for suspecting Churches of being complicit with the Devil?

For example, I was saddened by this comment that I saw today under a twitter thread belonging to Annabel Crabb. A woman said,

“Let the children come to me.  Makes me ill now. It used to be my favorite page in my illustrated bible.”

How can one respond to her? There will always be people who detest Christianity because of firmed moral commitments and because of stubborn a priori epistemological beliefs, and yet when Churches shame the name of Jesus, there is something profoundly wrong. In this case, it has led a woman to doubt the goodness of Jesus’ words. I wanted to reach out to this person and say to them, you can trust the words of Jesus. He remains true and good. Yes, many Churches have failed, but Jesus will not. Take a look at the meaning of Easter to see how loving and good Jesus is. He went to the cross, he endured the shame and guilt of the world out of love to redeem the unloveable and those crying in the silence. He rose from the dead to defeat the depravity of death and evil, and to offer genuine hope of healing and new life.

This draws us back to Psalm 7. If the words of the Psalmist resonate with our inclinations and hopes for justice and for healing, then take time this week to look at where God has most vividly demonstrated his justice and love, on the cross.

 

Yes, many Churches have failed, but Jesus will not.

Mocking prayer or turning to prayer?

The Prime Minister of Australia prayed for the nation and asked other Australians to join him.  There was a rare muted response by some of the usual religious critics, quite possibly due to an awareness that this is not the time to knock our national leaders or God for that matter. But as predictable as a toddler throwing their late afternoon tantrum, other secularists couldn’t control their outrage at Scott Morrison.

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Arguments against the Prime Minister praying in public are varied, from the ridiculous to the illogical and to the popular but erroneous.

For example, one of the first complaints I saw on social media took aim at  Scott Morrison for using the Prime Minister’s office and Government time to broadcast this prayer. Seriously? Give the man a break. He’s probably working 100 hours a week at the moment, sleeping little, and barely seeing his own family. Are we really going to take issue with him for taking a few minutes to pray?

One complaint, that might at first seem to carry some weight, is the perceived undermining of cultural pluralism. For example, Jane Caro tweeted,

“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.”

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. Unlike Communist States where religion is banned and unlike religious totalitarian States like Iran, our political representatives have the freedom to speak of their deep-seated beliefs about God and the world. We can agree or disagree. We can support them or not. We are free to join with them or not. 

Jane Caro is known for wanting to remove religion from the public square altogether. She is okay with religion being practised in private but not in public. This, however, is neither secularism or pluralism, it is, as a friend suggested last night, fundamentalism. This is the state of play in countries like North Korea and China. Do we really want Australia following their lead?

A truly secular society can never be a religion-free zone. That is a fictitious position that can only exist in the theoretical world and is posited by persons who are themselves reacting against set religious thinking (usually Christian theism). Classic secularism (of which Australia is an example) is designed to provide a civil public life which encourages the discussion of life’s big questions without control by any single ideologue. Secularism provides a framework for social pluralism, and pluralism shouldn’t drive religion underground but encourage honest adherence.

But what about s.116? This section of the Constitution has been floated as a directive against the Prime Minister’s action. For example, this tweet,

“s.116 of the constitution states we have no official religion. Previous PMs have been more sensitive to our diverse polis. Using the PM’s office to dedicate the nation to his particular denominational god is poor form.”

What does s.116 say?

‘The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.’’

This clause does not preclude people of faith from holding public office or force them to keep their convictions at home while they work. S.116 explains that Australia will not be governed by any single religion, as though Australia should become an agency of the Anglican or Roman Catholic Church. It should be noted that the framers of the Australian constitution used Judeo-Christian principles to establish our secular nation. By secular they did not mean banning religious thought from politics and public discourse. Let’s not pretend that atheism equals moral and philosophical neutrality or superiority. Some of the most extreme and inhumane regimes in the world today are those controlled by atheistic political systems.

True secularism means the freedom to speak regardless of one’s religious affiliation or lack thereof. What would violate the Constitution are demands that politicians keep their religious beliefs away from the public square.

As Australians begins a third week of self-isolating, we have already learned that Governments are unsure what to do. Plans are changing almost daily. Medical experts are offering the best advice they can, while still not knowing how COVID-19 will play out in coming days and months. Economists are grappling with the short term survival requirements and theorising about the long term damage that will be made to the economy. It is natural and necessary for us to lift our eyes and to inquire of God and to ask God for his grace and mercy. I for one am thankful that such a God exists and that through Jesus we are invited to call upon him in times of need.

“Hear my prayer, Lord;

    let my cry for help come to you.

Do not hide your face from me

    when I am in distress.

Turn your ear to me;

    when I call, answer me quickly.”

(Psalm 102:1-2)

Prime Minister prays to ‘Our Heavenly Father”

As the media report Scott Morrison’s prayer, they are evidently befuddled by his use of the Bible and him referring to God as “heavenly father’. I don’t know if they are trying to suggest that the Prime Minister holds to strange beliefs or if their understanding of Christianity is so shallow that they don’t realise that Father is the normal way Christians have always addressed God.

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Anthony Galloway writing for The Age,

“Mr Morrison also offered prayer for the “Heavenly Father” to “give us strength in this country, give us wisdom, give us judgment, give us encouragement and let your peace rein let your love shower this nation at this time”.”

To be fair, I’ve read the pieces for Fairfax and in the Guardian. The journalists have tread carefully and done a decent job in reporting the story. I’m sure all the hysteria from the usual social commentators will follow shortly. One thing is already clear, journos don’t know how to make sense of the fact that an Australian Prime Minister is calling God, “Heavenly Father”.  I don’t blame them, but it is revealing.

My interest here has nothing to do with politics, but I want to explore for a moment, this idea of calling God ‘Father’.

To pray, ‘Our Father in heaven’ is to pray in line with Jesus’ teaching. The famous Lord’s Prayer that we read in Matthew ch.6 is a paradigm for praying that is given to us by Jesus himself. The disciples ask him, ‘teach us how to pray’, and so He begins, “Or Father in heaven…”

Far from the notion of God being an abstract concept or as a distant being or an impersonal force, Jesus reveals God as Father.

Jesus says later in Matthew’s Gospel, 

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.[27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

To address God as Father is an extraordinary idea. It signifies that God is personal and relational. It speaks to communication and knowing. It suggests that God is interested in us, and even that he loves and care for us as Father who loves and cares for his children.

By no means is this a right, as though I can address God as I please. The Christian message talks about this as being a gift, just like in adoption. When parents decide to adopt a child, the child has no inherent rights over the family. As a decision of love and grace, the parents welcome the child into the family, both legally and relationally. Adoption is a beautiful gift. The same is true when a gracious God welcomes us.

We might already appreciate that God made the world. We might believe that God judges the world. To know God as Father is quite different and exceptional. As Jesus also indicates in Matthew 11, it is through him that we can come to know God as Father.

‘Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves’…I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:9-11, 14)

In other words, if we want to know this beautiful Christian teaching for ourselves, personally and really, Jesus says, understand and accept him. To believe the Son is to know the Father. To connect with the Son is to gain access to the Father.

Again, leaving politics aside, if you’re curious about Scott Morrison’s prayer and why Christians speak of God as Father, take some time to wrestle with Jesus’ words and let me know what you think.

What are Pastors doing during the Pandemic?

One of the questions I’m often asked by unbelievers is, so what do you do? Once I have explained that I’m a pastor of a local church, the follow up question is often (and sometimes by Christians too), do you only work on Sundays? What do you do for the rest of the week? 

I’m sure there are a few people who are curious to know what pastors are doing during this pandemic, given that Sunday Church services are postponed for the foreseeable future. Walking the dog and watching Netflix aside, there are one or two responsibilities that occupy a pastor’s time. 

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The principal of Ridley College (Melbourne), Brian Rosner, has written an excellent article on the ABC, Coping with coronavirus disappointments: Five lessons from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rosner highlights, 

“Bonhoeffer’s approach to prison life was not to allow the confinement to restrict his activity. Quite literally, he did not sit still while waiting for his hope for freedom to materialise”

Not that any of us are in prison, but parallels with today’s restrictions have some warrant. Speaking of his incarceration, Bonhoeffer wrote,

“I read, meditate, write, pace up and down my cell — without rubbing myself sore against the walls like a polar bear. The great thing is to stick to what one still has and can do — there is still plenty left — and not to be dominated by the thought of what one cannot do, and the feelings of resentment and discontent.”

So how are pastors spending this time during Stage 3 lockdown? In short, the work never ceases. In fact, the past three weeks have proven to be extra busy and particularly stressful. They are also exciting, not because of the threat to peoples’ health and livelihoods, but because we believe in a Sovereign God who can exercise his grace and mercy even during a season such as this. 

Here are some of the things Pastors are continuing to do during this season of uncertainty (not in any particular order):

  1. Pastors will be praying for their congregations, neighbours, community and nation. Pastors will be praying for the sick, for medical workers, and for our Governments.
  2. Pastors are reflecting theologically on this crisis in order to rightly direct Christians and non Christians alike to think and respond in appropriate ways.
  3. Pastors are listening to Government advice and guidelines so that our churches adhere to best practice in order to flatten the curve.
  4. Pastors will continue to study the Scriptures, in order to be refreshed and to refresh others.
  5. Pastors will continue to shepherd their Churches, exercising responsibility for the spiritual health of the body.
  6. Pastors are regularly connecting with church members: phone calls, emails, live conferencing, etc.
  7. Pastors are meeting with their leaders in order to see that they are doing ok and are equipped to carry out their responsibilities 
  8. Pastors are finding new ways to teach and using older models of teaching. Among the methods I’m using are: preaching a weekly sermon, writing short articles, publishing short podcasts, personal conversations (virtual) with particular people, and starting an online cohort who are studying a subject at Bible College.
  9. Pastors will continue to guard their churches against bad theology which rots peoples’ lives and offers misleading hope.
  10. Pastors are organising Sunday gatherings for their congregations online, and discerning what is theologically appropriate and pastorally edifying. 
  11. Pastors are maintaining the administrative side of church, ensuring that the every day behind the scenes structures remain in place and are in working order
  12. Pastors are organising spiritual, financial, and practical care for people.
  13. Pastors continue with the task of evangelism
  14. Pastors are trying to model godliness in the face of uncertainty.
  15. Pastors are helping at home, loving their spouse and children, and finding more time to help make homestay a success.
  16. Pastors will continue to serve the sick and the dying
  17. Pastors will continue to conduct weddings and funerals

These are some of the activities that require a Pastor’s attention and energy.

The stresses experienced by many pastors will be similar to those of a small business owner: for many, financial difficulty is a very real prospect. And yet the analogy only goes so far, for pastors are not selling products to consumers, they are Shepherding God’s people. 

A pastor’s work can also be likened to that of a medical professional, although we are not fighting against physical disease but caring for both peoples’ temporary and eternal condition. As has been witnessed in Italy, sadly many doctors and nurses have fallen ill and even died from COVID-19, and by their sides many priests have also become ill and died. 

A pastor’s duty is also analogous to that of a teacher, trying to establish healthy discipline among students, encouraging them to learn and not give up or become distracted in this virtual world of online education.

By no means is any of this meant to play up or down the work anyone is doing during this time. A pandemic requires a whole community approach. I simply sharing with readers the kind of activities pastors are engaging in at the moment. While pastors are very much conscious of their responsibilities, we are also thankful for and reliant upon the Chief Shepherd. We will make mistakes. We will grow tired and grumpy and not handle every situation with grace. There is one Saviour to whom we direct our congregation, and for whom we serve. He is our great joy and it is our great privilege to be engaged in his work at this time.

I’m reminded of what Peter wrote to the elders of the churches in Asia, 

 “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.” (1 Peter 5:1-4)

Stay at Home

Stay at home. This is the new warning being issued to my suburb.

I’m typing away on a beautiful autumn day here in Melbourne. The sun is out, the sky is blue and the temperature is nudging toward a perfect 25.

Dare I say it, it’s almost beach weather. It would be a stunning day for lazing about at the beach except that my local council has today closed all the beaches in the City of Kingston. I happen to live in a beachside suburb of Melbourne. In fact, both Parkdale and Mentone beaches are within walking distance of my house. Despite the close proximity, I have a small confession to make, I rarely wander down to the sand and water. As a lifelong Melbournian, Melbourne and beach have never quite synchronised, as they do for Sydney. Melbourne should be about food and culture, enjoyed under gloomy skies and drizzly rain, not this pseudo subtropical lifestyle for living in Byron Bay and Bondi.

 

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Speaking of Bondi, last night we discovered that Melbournians are as poor at doing maths as our northerly neighbours in Sydney. Only a day earlier we tut-tutted the masses in Bondi for flouting the new social distancing rules, but then St Kilda beach revealed that we are as stupid.

The warning coming to us beachside homemakers has become, Stay Home. 

The new limitations being brought to bear on our lives are a challenge for many. We don’t like our freedoms being curbed. Like the Law of Moses, we read a prohibition and subconsciously begin to plot how we can break it. 

In Australia, we have lived the dream. We have maximised pleasure and autonomy. Melbourne is regularly voted the most liveable city in the world, and not without good reasons. But what are we discovering? All this is fleeting. The good life is not certain. 

The book of Ecclesiastes should become required reading for this season. We would do well to listen to the wise person and in their pursuit for meaning.

I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. “Laughter,” I said, “is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?” I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.

I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem[a] as well—the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.

10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;

    I refused my heart no pleasure.

My heart took delight in all my labor,

    and this was the reward for all my toil.

11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done

    and what I had toiled to achieve,

everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;

    nothing was gained under the sun.”

The COVID-19 crisis will eventually subside and a new normalcy will settle into our lives. We will return to the beaches and to the footy. We’ll once again hang out at the cafe and pub, and splurge on shopping and holidays. These can be good things to enjoy, but will we learn the lessons that are now being forced upon us? How will we understand life’s meaning? Will we return to all the extras and scoff them down in a frenzied attempt to make up for lost time, to will we discern that contentment and happiness can be had without them?

Here is a simple word of advice: don’t waste your stay at home. This forced homestay presents us with an unusual and unique moment. We could, by God’s grace, learn the answers to the biggest and most important of questions.

Accompanying these social closures are some very real dangers; we can anticipate growing social distancing and loneliness. Authorities have good reason to be fearful about increased domestic abuse in our homes. We need to be conscious of these awful realities and to combat them.

Without diminishing the negative, there are also enormous benefits and possibilities to be seized at this time. Here are a few:

  1. We can spend more time with our children
  2. We can rediscover the long lost art of creative thinking
  3. We can reevaluate the big questions of life
  4. We have the time to form healthy spiritual disciplines: regular prayers and Bible reading
  5. We can catch up on sleep
  6. We can develop intentional habits for looking out for friends and neighbours
  7. We can learn how to enjoy and be content with the simple things

How are you planning to maximise your home stay?