How will COVID-19 change the world?

Last week I wrote a piece noting 7 (possible) trends for Churches that are emerging through the COVID-19 pandemic. In this piece, I am thinking more broadly about culture and society, rather than specifically about Churches. In regard to the future of Christianity in Australia post-COVID-19, I am circumspect, trusting the Sovereignty of God and the power of His Gospel, but also noting limitations of people’s ability or willingness to change.

Without the Holy Spirit sanctifying minds and hearts, we are even less likely to choose positive change. Of course, I believe in God’s common grace that he pours out onto the world and which is received by believers and unbelievers alike. Where human progress and good achieved, we should be thankful for the evidence of this grace. As political analysts, economists, and social academics, begin to theorise about ‘what next’, what should we be thinking? Will the world change or not?

For the sake of avoiding a public stoning or being held up as a prophet of sorts, let me be clear: I don’t know what Australia will look like in 2021, let alone in July 2020. There are more variables at play here than in predicting what the weather will be like in Melbourne on any given day.

For example, no one knows what this virus will do next. Will it dissipate with time or with a change of season? Will it morph into new and more deadly strains? Indeed, there is a growing suggestion that we may not transition into a post-COVID-19 world, but rather, we may have to learn to live with COVID-19.

It is also unclear what Governments are aiming to achieve. Two months ago the objective was to flatten the curve so that our health system wouldn’t be overwhelmed. This didn’t mean more people wouldn’t catch COVID-19 but that we would slow the spread. However, toward the end of April, the rhetoric began to change, suggesting that we might eradicate COVID-19 from Australia. From my humble perspective, surely this requires either 1. long term social restrictions (including keeping national border closer indefinitely), or 2. reaching herd immunity, or 3. finding a vaccine. Depending on which immunologist or epidemiologist we listen to, a vaccine may be available as early as late this year, others suggest sometime 2021/2022, while other experts are more circumspect and are raising the possibility that an effective vaccine may never be found. It is important for Governments to be transparent with the people about what their objectives are as they look to the future.

There are two obvious conclusions that we can draw thus far. First, even the experts have little idea where we will be in 6 months time,  in terms of fighting the disease, social health, and global and local economics. Second, built into this pandemic, including responses made by Governments across the world, are some long term changes to society.

COVID-19

 

The new will be like the old

Predicting the future is a dangerous task and usually ends with inflations, conflations and misinterpretations. Looking forward is however an important step for making decisions today. We want to avoid crazy conspiracy theories like the plague, but are there indications of what tomorrow may look like?

As a Christian, I believe in listening to the experts. Scientists, economists, and psychologists are important voices to be listened to in this crisis, along with our political representatives. No one is suggesting they won’t make mistakes or that their agendas are pure as snow, but it is nonsense to ignore professional advice. As a Christian, I am also guided by Scripture, which sets our expectations for life and teaches us how to live in the midst of life’s myriad seasons.  For example, in Jesus’ famous apocalyptic sermon in Matthew ch.24, he describes life in the world between his first and second comings. He says,

“Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.”

If you think that these words are like the world today, as well as the world 6 months ago or 20 years ago and 200 years ago, you would be correct. Wars and natural disasters are not signs of the imminent return of Christ, but a description of the pattern of life that will be experienced until He returns. That means, events like a pandemic are not fuel for conspiracy theories and they are unlikely to be the great catalyst that fundamentally changes the world. This is an extraordinary time for us living through COVID-19 but it is not so out of place in the broad sweep of history. Such events have happened before and will reappear in the future. Whether it is disease or economic disaster or armed conflict, these things remind us that we live in a fallen world, filled with uncertainty and sin and death.

It is worth noting that in his apocalyptic sermon, Jesus tells us not to be alarmed by such events. God hasn’t been taken by surprise. He hasn’t let go of his Sovereign hand over the universe.

 

The new will also be different.

I suspect many people would like to see a return to the old normal; it is familiar and safe. Others are preaching that this is the time for radically reorienting society. For example, Leader of the Australian Labor Party Anthony Albanese this week announced a “Vision Statement on Australia Beyond the Coronavirus”. He has said that this is a ‘once in a life time opportunity’ to redefine and redirect Australian society. Which will it be? A return to normal or will a radically different Australia energy from COVID-19?

 

Here are 5 aspects of life that are likely to change due to COVID-19.

1. Socialising

While many people are eager to return to face to face relationships, others are reluctant about entering someone’s home let alone offering a hug or handshake. It is quite possible for two opposing trends to coexist and I suspect we’ll see both these attitudes running juxtaposed.

Given the 3 Stage plan to recovery that the Federal Government announced (and note that Stage 3 is far from what we can describe as normal) any return to usual socialising will take longer than many wish. We are not talking weeks or even months, but perhaps a couple of years. This will take a toll on people’s wellbeing, and it will seriously aggravate mental health issues. On May 15th the Federal Government have recognised this and so announced a $48 million Mental Health package to help with this endemic emerging in our suburbs and streets.

Human being are social beings. We need interpersonal contact and relationship for our mental health and for community strength. We should be patient and understanding with friends who are slow to take up invitations to meet in person. We also need to encourage a return to in-person relationships.

There is a cost attached to letting people congregate together and there is a cost for keeping people apart.

 

2. Unprecedented Government spending and debt.

State and Federal Governments are spending and handing out staggerings sums of money. In the space of two months, $100s billions have been committed to keeping the economy afloat during the pandemic. The forced closures of businesses and schools and communities have required Governments to step in with financial assistance, but it all comes at a cost.

There are already voices calling for some of these initiatives to remain permanently, including paid child care and the job seeker allowance (which has been doubled temporarily). This leads to deeper questions about how we want society to be structured and the role of Government.

The day is coming when we will have to pay off this debt, either with higher taxes or with austerity measures, or a combination of both. We are blindsiding ourselves if we don’t appreciate that this is likely to have long term and significant impact on employment levels, housing affordability, investments, household spending, and the viability of many thousands of businesses, community groups, sporting clubs, and churches.

 

3. Our dependence on China must change.

China isn’t an ally, she is a trading partner and a geopolitical competitor. The rise of China has been a gift to Australia and also a danger. There are enormous trade and economic benefits from the relationship, but have we been ignoring the costs?

I think the Australian Government is right to be asking serious questions of China’s role in the Corona Virus pandemic and to demand transparency. China’s evasiveness throughout the pandemic has once again demonstrated that this Communist State should not be trusted. Let me be emphatic, I am not talking about Chinese people, but the Government of China, which is a totalitarian and oppressive regime with a long record of dishonesty and human rights abuse.

China’s role in covering up the true extent of the Corona Virus and their influence over the World Health Organisation (WHO) is far from the worst of it. 1 million Uyghurs remain locked away in ‘education’ camps in northwestern China, Christian Churches are continually oppressed and Christians arrested, and there is China’s growing interference in Hong Kong and their military expansion in the South China Sea.

For the most part, Australia has, alongside many countries, tried to benefit from and also feed a China hungry for economic and political expansion.

You don’t placate a bully, you stand up to them.

I first came across Peter Jennings in an interview with John Anderson last year. Peter Jennings is the Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. In a recent article, he warns against China’s bullish tactics and their interference in the accurate transmission of information and application of international standards,

“As Beijing hardens its position on what it considers to be acceptable applications of the One China policy it is reacting badly to international judgments that Taiwan very effectively suppressed the spread of Covid-19 without resorting to the punitive measures we saw in Wuhan.

This week China’s ambassador to New Zealand sharply rebuked Wellington for backing a growing international call to make Taiwan an observer at the WHA meeting. The foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said New Zealand should “immediately stop making wrong statements on Taiwan, to avoid damaging our bilateral relationship”.

China’s ever more strident and stringent demands for countries to publicly acquiesce to Beijing’s political agenda is seemingly having the opposite reaction.”

Latika Bourke reported last Friday that Australia’s dependence on China places us in a vulnerable position. For example,

“An international study of essential supply lines has found that Australia relies on China for critical medical technology more than any other ‘Five Eyes’ nation.”

China’s behaviour is also creating unusual alliances. In what is a remarkable statement, The Australian Worker’s Union last week joined forces with Australia’s conservative Federal Government in calling China to account,

“Free trade must be fair.

Australia must stand up to China and protect our national sovereignty and local jobs.

The Chinese Government is threatening massive trade tariffs on Australian barley, beef and other products in response to our demands for a COVID-19 investigation and action taken against the illegal dumping of products by China.

Dumping of imported goods, by selling products like steel and aluminium below cost, is a trade violation which aims to destroy Australia’s industries and make us more reliant on foreign supply.

We have the right to stop cheap, low quality steel and aluminium from reaching our shores, jeopardising tens of thousands of Australian jobs. Every other country does this.

Threatening crippling tariffs against Australia’s world leading agriculture industry is a bullying tactic.

The AWU is calling on Scott Morrison and the Federal Government to stand up to China’s bullying, protect Australian sovereignty and jobs, and declare its intentions to work with nations that support fair, free trade.”

When it comes to China, we are not witnessing the awakening of a sleeping giant panda, but a dragon. In December 2019 Niall Ferguson argued that a new Cold War had begun.

“Something [else] changed in 2019. What had started out as a trade war — a tit for tat over tariffs while the two sides argued about the American trade deficit and Chinese intellectual property theft — rapidly metamorphosed into a cluster of other conflicts.

In short order, the United States and China found themselves engaged in a technology war over the global dominance of the Chinese company Huawei in 5G network telecommunications and an ideological confrontation in response to the abuses of Uighur Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang region, as well as a classic superpower competition for primacy in science and technology. The threat also loomed of a currency war over the exchange rate for the Chinese yuan, which the People’s Bank of China has allowed to weaken against the dollar…”

If a new cold war hasn’t descended, it should be clear by the falling autumn leaves and the dropping temperature that winter is coming. These next few years will be pivotal in determining how cold or how hot this economic and geopolitical standoff will become.

 

4. Time to rebuild traditional models of University

University education in Australia is huge. Never before has there been such a large menu of courses to choose from and so many students and so much money to be made. Education is Australia’s 3rd largest export industry, worth $10s of billions annually.

In 2017, there were almost 800,000 international students enrolled in education programs in Australia, including 350,000 studying in universities. With the arrival of COVID-19, huge numbers of students are unable to travel to Australia and many others have been forced to leave and return to their home country.

According to Peter Hurley of the Mitchell Institute,

“The university sector faces cumulative losses of up to A$19 billion over the next three years due to lost international student revenue.

Modelling from the Mitchell Institute shows the next big hit will come mid-year when $2 billion in annual tuition fees is wiped from the sector as international students are unable to travel to Australia to start their courses for second semester.

Such losses are not just a university problem. ABS data show for every $1 lost in university tuition fees, there is another $1.15 lost in the broader economy due to international student spending.

This means the Australian economy could lose more than $40 billion by 2023 because of reduced numbers of higher education international students.”

This should not be taken as a negative word toward international students. Far from it, my personal encounters with students from China, Malaysia, Brazil, and Uganda, and from across the world, has been incredibly positive. In many respects, I am glad that they have an opportunity to study here and I have valued the friendships I have formed with many students. Indeed some of these students make Australia their home, and they are welcomed and vital members of the community. The issue isn’t international students, it’s the model of education that looks more like a $ sign than actual education.

A related issue is the indulgence of our higher learning institutions to provide courses and degrees that lead to nowhere. The breadth of inane and dead-end tertiary courses is truly ridiculous.

For example, my eldest child is reaching the stage in high school where students are exploring what type of vocation interests them and therefore what university course they should consider undertaking. As part of this conversation, we have spoken with several people who work in a field that he’s interested in and who teach this area in our universities. The overwhelming feedback that we received was that it is nearly impossible to make a career in this area and to even get a job. Apparently, only two graduates for every 80 end up successfully working in this industry.

Could the massive loss in income force our tertiary institutions to recalibrate and return to traditional models of education and research? Might our universities rid themselves of the shackles of profit-making and rediscover learning? Instead of offering useless degrees that cost students $10,000s and with no job at the end, can we rewrite the young people’s ‘success manual’ and create pathways from school into careers without the ‘middle man’?

5. The social engineering project of authoritarian secularism.

This includes the latest chapters in the sexual revolution, identity politics, and religious freedom issues.

Socio-political agendas that existed prior to COVID-19 will remain afterwards. The sexual revolution may have been forced into hibernation for the time being (at the very least the media is currently distracted by other issues), but as life returns to some sense of normalcy, we can expect these social threads to be taken up once again.

There is a question mark over how successful or popular these agendas will be once we have adjusted to COVID-19. Will a few months of breathing space help us to regain our senses and to starve these already vacuous ideologies of their droplets of oxygen? Perhaps, but then again,  a survey of the 20th Century demonstrates that two World Wars, the Nuclear threat, and Vietnam, didn’t subtract from the evolving abandonment sex’s natural paradigm. The sexual revolution with its demand for moral allegiance is far from over. However, like the French Revolution, this is a movement that eats its own. Feminists, lesbians, gays, are being publicly cancelled as they don’t pay full homage to the latest theories on gender and sex. I anticipate that the West will continue to dismantle itself in the attempt to follow Romans 1:18-32 word for word. The rest of the world will look on and laugh at our foolishness.

 

Conclusion

Evidence suggests that COVID-19 will change the world, but it is not yet possible to see the extent to which these new normals will impact the average Aussie. Old attitudes and dreams will continue but newly laid roads will redirect our paths. The rush for a return to the old normal will be strong and understandable but there are socio-economic factors and geopolitical manoeuvrings that will likely stifle this revival.

Even as we are surprised and even shocked by some of the changes, none of this takes God by surprise. I am reminded of the Lord Jesus’ declaration, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”

Life in this world sometimes appears like sailing with a gentle breeze and at other times, the sea is rough and turbulent and we are knocked about and fear for life itself. There is however one old message that will stand the test of time. The One who stilled the storm rose from the dead and His word of life has outlasted the greatest cultural changes of history. His Gospel is cosmic in scope and personal in efficacious power.

At Mentone Baptist Church today I gave an exposition on Colossians 1:15-23, and I think it’s a worthy place on which to conclude these reflections on COVID-19,

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of[g] your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.”

7 (possible) Church trends emerging from COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting almost all parts of society. The impact is minimal in some areas of life, and in others, the change is significant and life altering. Churches are not immune from the broader tremors that are shaking core social and economic foundations.

Today is our seventh Sunday without Church. Each week I am preaching a sermon which is then posted online for our congregation. On Sunday mornings many of our people join on zoom to listen to the sermon and then spend time catching up and prayer together. But it’s not church. During the week small groups once again meet on zoom for Bible study and prayer, and there are numerous other interactions taking place every day.

While the current arrangements are far from ideal, we understand them. Life has required Australians to make adjustments, some which cause grief and uncertainty. Most Churches I suspect are still adapting and finding a rhythm to manage society’s new pace, let alone thinking of what the status quo will be like in six or twelve months time.

It is now 3rd May 2020. No one knows how long the pandemic will continue and what the long term repercussions will be. Most States across Australia are beginning to relax restrictions. Although in  Victoria, Stage 3 restrictions remain, but even here I anticipate that small groups will be allowed to start meeting again from later this month. Large gatherings, however (including church services) are probably months away.

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As we approach two months of COVID-19 restrictions, I have noticed a number of trends beginning to emerge among Australian Churches. These indications are based on my own experience and the many conversations I am having with pastors across the country. Also, standing behind the observations are these 3 theological premises:

  1. God remains Sovereign over the world today.
  2. Human nature doesn’t change. The Bible’s doctrine of total depravity remains the status quo.
  3. The Gospel of Jesus Christ remains good, true, and powerful today.

 

1. A godly hunger.

Not only at Mentone, but as I speak with pastors and Christians from around the country, I am seeing and hearing countless stories of service and kindness. People are making an effort to serve others practically, in prayer, and in word. This eagerness to love the body of Christ is accompanied by a growing hunger for being together again as a church. Praise God!

At Mentone, we are not trying to replicate church on Sundays or to pretend that what we’re doing is church. We consciously avoid using the language of ‘church’ or ‘service’, and we have made deliberate choices not to include every element that would be present on a Sunday service. For example, we are not commemorating the Lord’s Supper while we are apart. Doing this, being clear about what we are and are not doing during this season, is not only theologically responsible but it is creating a godly hunger among our people to be together again in person, to see one another face to face, and to worship God as church, and to partake of the Lord’s Supper again.

If these weeks of isolation create a hunger in God’s people to love the church and long to be together as a church, then that is a sign of God’s grace.

“Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy.” (2 Timothy 1:4)

“But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. 18 For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? 20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy”. (1 Thess 2:17-19)

2. An ungodly separation

While many members of our churches are using this season to draw closer to Christ and to his church, others will sadly use the situation to create distance.

Without regular face to face church, it is easier for people to walk away. Churches will lose people during this pandemic. These people were probably already drifting prior to the restrictions, but without the accountability of regular and public gatherings, the cover of forced separation is their justification for leaving your church and perhaps Christ also.

I shared these verses from 1 Peter with Mentone during the week, to help us combat this temptation,

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”

 

3. The shift from fast to fatigue and then to rest

Adapting to the new environment has required an immense amount of time and energy. The ministry and mission of a local church don’t fundamentally change, but the immediate and drastic constraints forced upon us have necessitated rapid learning, quick responses, high energy mixed with headaches and new anxieties. It’s a classic recipe for fatigue.

Speaking personally, after running at a sprint for the first 5 weeks, I needed to take 3 days rest last week; I was toasted, baked, and grilled, all in one. Rest is important. Indeed, our doctrine of God becomes real to us. If he remains Sovereign over the world and if Christ is still Lord of his church, then we can rest in Him and trust that he has everything under his loving care. It’s okay to turn off the laptop. It’s okay to produce a sermon that’s not quite finished. It’s okay for online presentations to be a little rough. It’s okay if you didn’t manage to call everyone you had on your list for that week.

Government restrictions are likely to continue for some months, even if the tightest limitations begin to loosen during May. Therefore pace ourselves, set realistic goals for each week, be content with less efficiency and lower productivity. In this, we can rediscover the grace of resting in Christ and practising our doctrine of God.

 

4. Breaking the back of Christian consumerism?

My expectation is that apart from the grace of God our bad habits will continue on the other side of COVID-19.  This fourth observation is, however, a call for change. The example I have in mind here is the consumerism and obstinate individualism that is deeply ingrained in Australian culture and which is also pervasive in Christian attitudes toward the Church. Consumerism works against discipleship and long term committed members and instead creates short term attendees and parasitic Christians. The Church’s manual becomes some poor religious version of Vogue or Netflix when it should be the word of God and church covenants.

The pandemic is a great opportunity to go simple and return to Bible basics. Do we need a professional band in order to worship God acceptably and to lift our hearts? Do we really need stand up comics in our pulpits? Are academy award winning visuals necessary for weekly announcements? 

I’m not saying that aiming low is somehow more sanctified. Let’s be clear, the quality of production is not a measure of faithfulness, whether it is created by a television crew or by a 6-year-old helping out Dad to press record on his iPhone.

A likely scenario is that Churches with high production value online will most likely attract the greater number of visitors once the crisis ends. This is great news if it is the Gospel drawing people. My question is, are our online ‘services’ reinforcing the consumer mindset or can we break the culture by doing things differently? By different, again I’m not arguing for anti-excellence, but rather I’m calling for simple faithfulness that is driven by core Gospel principles. These include making disciples, the centrality of reading and preaching the Word, preaching the whole counsel of God, permeating everything with prayer, and letting the congregation be heard when singing.

5. Churches may become more local and smaller

This point may seem to contradict the above suggestion, but not necessarily. Culture normally shifts in multiple directions and so it’s quite possible for two different paths to be true at the same time.

Are the days of mega-churches over? I doubt it (and this isn’t a criticism of large churches), but the longer restrictions remain in place for large gatherings there may be a turning toward people joining local and smaller churches. For example, the ABC last week reported that large crowds may not be permitted to meet until a vaccine is available; that means 2021 or even beyond.

With restrictions on large gatherings and with people driving less and staying closer to their own community, we may see a transition toward local church. I do think such a shift will benefit Gospel work. Of course there is is no ‘right’ size for a church. Every size and location has peculiar strengths, but there is something compelling about belonging to a church that’s found in your local community. It enables closer and deeper Gospel community and it created more evangelistic opportunities. Is it easier to invite a friend living 5 minutes drive away or 50 minutes?

6. Financial loss and ministry recalibration 

Churches are very much part of society. When the community is hurt or impacted, so are Churches, and that is not a bad thing. Many Australians have lost jobs in the past month, and many more are now working reduced hours with less income. Given that most churches rely solely upon the generosity of God’s people, it’s inevitable that churches will face financial reduced giving.

There are options available for assistance from both Federal and State Governments, which may alleviate some of the financial pressures (there are pros and cons for churches joining these programs). The reality is, as a result of long term restrictions and economic downturn, some churches will close permanently, others will need to reduce staff, and the way churches conduct ministry may need to change.

To repeat my earlier contention, what we believed prior to this crisis is what we will carry with us through to the other side. Hence, for many declining churches the fundamental problem is not the pandemic but years of poor teaching and bad theology that has left congregations destitute and spiritually dry. Churches who sold their soul to the culture will simply advertise the fact when they put the ‘for sale’ sign outside their front doors. There is also grief for small and faithful churches who will struggle to remain open into 2021. We can do without faithless churches but Australia doesn’t need fewer faithful churches.

Given the huge numbers of people who are losing jobs, the extraordinary debts now being accumulated by Governments and businesses, economic constraints are likely to continue for a very long time. This acute situation may also serve as grace to force churches to reconfigure their mission and ministry priorities. It is a time to be asking, what is the church? What is the mission? How can be best arrange Gospel priorities in our budget?

 

7. People looking for hope

“now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2)

I think it is true to say that many Australians are nervous and even fearful of the future. There is an audible note of despair and reassessing life values. Whether this results in people turning to Christ or not, we’ll learn over the coming months.

Time will tell whether this pandemic is the watershed moment that’ll bring about revival or further wash Christianity into the culture’s sewers. My sense is that we are unlikely to witness either. History shows that significant social events rarely create the ground for revival or great influx of people returning to church. If two World Wars, the Great Depression, the threat of nuclear war, September 11, and the 2008 Stockmarket crash, didn’t cause societal attitudes toward Christianity to improve, why do we think this most current crisis will be any different? 

Jesus teaches that such things have always been and will continue to be experienced,

“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.  Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.”

Accompanying world events, Jesus also explains,

“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come”.

While I’m reticent to place confidence in a ‘changing’ world, the Bible tells us that “today is the day of salvation”.  God remains Sovereign and the Gospel remains good, true and powerful. Therefore God is perfectly able to grow his Kingdom beyond our expectations and prayers. God is not bound by my glass half empty views.

If people are asking questions, let’s offer the good news of Jesus Christ. If people are fearful, let’s offer His comfort. If people are looking for hope, let’s present the secure hope of Christ.

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (Colossians 4)

 


I’ve written (May 17) a follow up piece, but this time examining potential changes to the culture at large – https://murraycampbell.net/2020/05/17/how-will-covid-19-change-the-world/

The Paradox of the Cross

This headline appearing in The Age caught my attention, ‘Bad weather in Victoria is a “blessing” for social distancing’.

“Victoria’s Deputy Health Officer Dr Annaliese van Diemen called the bad weather over the Easter Weekend a “great blessing” in keeping people at home.

She said there were only four reasons people should be going out: food and supplies, medical care and care giving, exercise and work or education and that police would be out in force issuing fines.

“Chocolate can be considered a food and can be sold in supermarkets, people are allowed to leave home to get food and essential supplies,” she said.”

Leaving aside the apparent argument over whether chocolate should be considered a food, there’s little disputing the fact that the weather in Melbourne has deteriorated over the Easter weekend. It’s been raining, the wind is blowing, and the Autumn cool has arrived.

MentoneBaptist Church easter

It wasn’t the predictability of Melbourne’s unpredictable weather that grabbed my attention, but the intentional paradox made by Victoria’s Deputy health officer: our “bad” weather is a “blessing”.

This partnering of bad and blessing, and especially the bad being the cause of something positive, cuts against the logic of how we usually think of life. We readily assume that bad is the opposite of blessing, and with good reason.

However, Dr van Diemen’s words are a timely illustration of the paradox that belongs to Easter. The days leading up to and including Good Friday can be aptly described as bad. Indeed, it was truly horrendous. Jesus was innocent of all wrongdoing. The judge at the trial, Pontius Pilate, declared the Nazarene’s innocence. It was said that Jesus was the Son of God, a claim that Jesus himself attested to throughout his life, and yet he was now being ridiculed as a heretic and as an enemy of the State.

Good Friday was truly awful: the crucified one was the one without sin, the one who offered perfect love, kindness, and compassion, the one who didn’t play games with the rich and influential but who sought out the poor and the weak and welcomed them. The most holy man to have ever walked the earth was put to death in the most gruesome way imagined, slowly, deliberately, and to cheers and applause of those looking on.

It was bad and yet it was also a blessing because the Bible explains that Jesus’ death was not him losing, rather it was God bringing about a decisive win over death and evil. The cross recognises the naked reality of human corruption and enduring love of God who was paying the penalty in our stead. The Old Testament speaks of anyone hanging on a tree as being cursed by God. As Jesus announced in his cry of dereliction, Jesus willingly endured that curse on the cross so that we might experience the undeserved blessing of God.

Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, summaries this paradox in this way,

“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).

In his death, Jesus was taking the justice of God that is aimed at all the injustice in the world. The blessing or good news of Jesus’ death is that it means guilty people are forgiven, broken people can be healed.

The world cries out for the paradox: for justice and for mercy, to punish wrongdoing and yet also to forgive.

As Melbourne theologian, Dr. Michael Bird suggests,

“The proclamation of the cross sounds like folly to many, when in fact it is God’s wisdom.

What looks like powerlessness is God’s power.

What sounds like a tragedy is stunning victory. The death that looks so shameful has established God’s honor.

What appears as a cause to mourn is a cause for inexpressible joy.

God has triumphed in the cross of Jesus, and we share the triumph with him.”

Easter is the most significant of all Christian celebrations, for it marks the beginning of all Christian hope. The cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s answer to the greatest paradoxes, tensions, and hopes that we share. It is why the good news message of Jesus remains compelling and why it is cherished by so many millions of people to this day.  It is not a message however for those who think highly of themselves and who count their morality or spirituality as wise and strong. This is a message for people who grasp their unworthiness before a holy God and yet who become convinced that, through that weekend in Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago, God is more forgiving than we can possibly imagine.

As we remain indoors this Easter weekend, perhaps we can take time to ponder this most astonishing of paradoxes.

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)