Pubs, Churches, and Government Rules

The strict and prolonged lockdown in Victoria has tested the most resilient among us. As the State slowly opens up we should not be surprised if we find ourselves affirming some decisions and disagreeing with others. Where discrepancies appear and they are irreconcilable, it is incumbent on the Government to explain and to justify their rationale.

The example I want to talk about here concerns churches. On September 28th Eternity newspaper approached me for comment on Victoria’s roadmap to recovery. I said, 

“The Premier’s announcement on Sunday was encouraging because it means 130,000 people are returning to work and primary aged children returning to school…While I appreciate this, most of Melbourne’s restrictions remain in place. In my view, the Government’s roadmap is treating churches fairly at the moment, although we are still a couple of months away from being allowed to gather in any sizeable number.”

Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. As of today (October 19), in regional Victoria pubs and restaurants can now have 40 patrons indoors and 70 patrons seated outdoors. Churches, however, can only have 20 people gathered outside and no church of any size is permitted indoors. At the moment all churches in Melbourne are closed and so we are watching with interest the roadmap in regional Victoria. The disparity between churches and pubs is unfortunate. I trust this is nothing more than an oversight which will be quickly resolved, rather than the beginning of a longer term trend.

At yesterday’s press conference the Premier made a comment about why greater numbers of people are allowed in pubs than in homes. The reason given is,  restaurants and cafes are a regulated industry. But what of churches? I trust the implication isn’t that churches cannot be trusted to organise and regulate safe COVID-19 practices.

On the Neil Mitchell show this morning on 3AW, Victoria’s new Health Minister, Martin Foley, claimed that the reason for the differences between pubs and churches is that international and local evidence points to church communities being unsafe.  

Where is the evidence? What international scientific research is Mr Foley referring to? 

In July the New York Times in July made a similar statement and it was quickly proven incorrect.

On July 8 The New York Times published an article claiming that churches were Covid-19 super spreaders. The headline read, “Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are a Major Source of Coronavirus Cases.”

The article alleged, 

“Weeks after President Trump demanded that America’s shuttered houses of worship be allowed to reopen, new outbreaks of the coronavirus are surging through churches across the country where services have resumed.”

The problem with the NYT article is that the maths didn’t add up. Even the evidence mentioned in the piece contradicted the main thesis. The article cites several churches where multiple cases of COVID-19 were found, and it also disclosed the total number of COVID-19 cases linked with churches: 650. At the time, the United States had 3 million confirmed cases. The total number of cases connected with churches across the entire nation represent 0.0002% of all cases in the country.  Writing for Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer noted that a tiny number of churches had not done the right thing, but the overwhelming majority were conducting church according to strict Covid-19 plans.

“Churches have been remarkable partners in the fight again the coronavirus, with the vast majority closing their gatherings all around the country. Yes, there have been a few outliers, but their paucity demonstrates the cooperation of churches with officials throughout this pandemic.

Churches have overwhelmingly been partners with health authorities and have carefully taken each small step.”

I know many pastors and churches around the world and interstate. As they reopen they are taking Government policies seriously and acting responsibly and pastorally toward the people under their care. It is part of what we do in loving our neighbours. 

Throughout the pandemic Church leaders have spoken regularly and consistently about obeying Government directives, and about ensuring churches have responsible plans in place for a return to public gatherings. We continue to pray for our Prime Minister and our Premier and all who lead in Government and in health agencies. Churches are not asking for special treatment, but it is not too much to request that churches be permitted to open up with parity to restaurants and pubs and other analogous organisations and events.

Governments play an important role in society, but they do not give meaning to people. Governments provide structures and protections for its citizens, but offering the message that nourishes the soul, brings forgiveness to transgressors, and eternal life is beyond their job description. Churches are essential for Victorian communities. In a year where millions of Victorians have struggled and where many have lost everything, we need a message of hope. We need good news of hope that surpasses the material and temporal, and a hope that is more secure and certain than what we had once relied upon. It is possible that churches have never before been so important for this State and the future wellbeing of the people.

The Bible offers a message of living hope, not only to churches but even for those who have considered themselves disinterested in things spiritual. By definition, it is a breathtaking announcement for people who have lost hope,

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” (1 Peter 1:3-4).

People are not disembodied beings. We are physical creatures who require physical presence and social interaction. We are also more than flesh and blood. We are mental and spiritual beings, who depend on more than food and sleep for life. It was Jesus who famously said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”

Churches provide one of the few remaining places where people can meet and share the joys and sorrows of life, and where supportive relationships are created. Zoom and social media are a blessing but they are no substitute for real and personal meeting. Indeed, church by definition is the physical gathering of Christians, meeting to worship God and to encourage one another. 

I trust the Victorian Government will correct this unnecessary discrepancy between pubs and churches, and avoid similar and further disparities in coming months. 

Churches, give people a message of hope

Tom Holland is the spiderman of historians. His latest conversation with Glen Scrivener is well worth the listen for it includes more than a few intriguing thoughts in the web of ideas.

I really appreciate his thoughtfulness and honesty. It was this reflection by Holland that especially struck a chord with me. He said, 

“I felt that over the course of this year the churches have been a let down. I think that the experience of pandemic, it sets you to asking why is this happening…it raises profound issues of theodicy.”

He mentions one moment that stood out to him, when he watched the Pope give an open air mass in the middle of an empty St Peter’s Square. Otherwise the message he’s heard from churches is much like what one would find on a Government help line. 

“I felt that the response of churches was a kind of pallid echo of public health announcements. That’s what public health officials are for. I kind of think that churches are there to give answers and to situate our happening.”

When Glen asked what Churches could be doing, Holland suggested,

“I think it can be expressed in open air services…an attempt to root what’s happening in the cultural and  the scriptural inheritance of what has gone before. I haven’t almost nothing about why this is happening…what does the Bible have to say about plagues…This seems to me an incredibly important source…”

Could Tom Holland, an agnostic, be urging churches to do church and to preach Bible messages that explain the world today through the lens of Scripture? I think so.

Holland’s remarks are like a bucket of icy water, or least they should be. It could also be likened to a defibrillator. The admonishment reminds me of the Church in Sardis. Jesus addresses this church in Revelation ch.3 and he rebukes her for having a reputation for being alive but in reality, the church is dying and has little breath remaining.

Holland isn’t knocking churches for talking about their buildings, social distancing and COVID-19 plans. He notes that these things are important. The overall presentation of Christianity that he has heard and seen over the last 6 months (and keep in mind Tom Holland is a studious observer of Christianity), the message he’s received is overall bland and uninspiring and offers little hope to a world he says is desperate for salvation.

I know enough churches, not only here in Australia but also win the UK and USA, to realise that Holland’s critique is partial. There are churches trying to reach people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Sadly, this message is often drowned out by a cacophony of noisier and more appealing narratives and agendas.

It is also the case that many Churches are simply trying to remain alive during the time, keeping care of congregation members and encouraging some semblance of online discipleship. It is nonetheless worth considering the vision we are leaving the world during this time of pandemic.

For months the message from many of our churches has been dominated by hygiene rules and facial masks. In recent weeks I’ve noted that churches are increasingly calling Governments to allow a return to public worship services. Letters are being written and petitions signed, even here in Melbourne. I haven’t signed any such letter, but I understand Christians wanting their freedom back to worship God publicly in their church community. I am supportive of some reasons and may yet sign a letter in the future. It is interesting to note though how some of these arguments proceed. They explain that churches are essential; I agree. However, instead of offering the Biblical reasoning for Church, Christians are instead deferring to more secular rationales to convince Governments to reinstate public church gatherings. For example, church provide sanctuary and help for people struggling with mental health and with loneliness, and church provide so many positive contributions to local communities. This is all true and important, but it’s also falling into the same kinds of milky lukewarm explanations that Tom Holland believes are inadequate. Our community needs something more. Our world needs a bigger message, a greater story, and we have one to give and yet we are so often reluctant to tell it.

This Sunday at Mentone Baptist I’m preaching on Revelation chapters 4 and 5. The Bible doesn’t get any bigger than this passage. The message of Christianity is spelled out here with a grandeur and beauty and wonder that is unsurpassed. In our world that is despairing through a pandemic and with climate change and racism and geopolitical uncertainties, the vision of Revelation is truly stunning and shocking. 

Chapter 5 begins with a search for someone who is worthy to take the scroll from God, the scroll with contains the plans of God in the world. No one is found. John (the disciple of Jesus), is witnessing this heavenly scene and he weeps because there seems to be no answer. But then, a lamb appears. Not just any lamb but one who has been slain. This lamb however is called the lion, which means King. This lion/lamb is worthy to take and open the scroll. Who is this person? It is Jesus who was crucified, risen and now reigning.

Melbourne needs a vision beyond lockdown rules and the pandemic and eventual reopening and kickstarting schools and the economy. Churches, by the grace of God, have this vision to share and proclaim and preach to our city. Let’s do it

Revelation 5

“Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits[a] of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
    and they will reign on the earth.”

11 Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. 12 In a loud voice they were saying:

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
    to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
    and honor and glory and praise!”

13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
    be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”

14 The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.”

Operation Soteria

The Victorian Government gave the infamous hotel quarantine program the code name, Operation Soteria. In light of the disastrous outcomes from the program, ‘goddess of rescue’ is hardly a suitable name; Eris seems far more appropriate. 

The city of Melbourne is slowly emerging from the worst disaster in her 185 year history. The past six months has revealed Melbourne’s heart and the diagnosis is not altogether positive. Good has been uncovered and also much that should concern anyone who knows that a malfunctioning heart is likely to cause future grief. 

The Covid 19 pandemic in Victoria has thus far resulted in over 20,000 cases and 781 deaths. In terms of global statistics these numbers are relatively small, but of course in June the State was approaching almost zero cases, following a small first wave. Something like 90% of all Victoria’s COVID-19 cases and almost all the deaths have occurred in the second wave. Since July 100,000s of VICtorians have lost their jobs, 1000s of businesses may never reopen, the economy is bleeding a $1 billion every week. The impact on individual lives can scarcely be measured. The pandemic has compounded mental health issues, children’s education impacted, churches closed.

Victoria, especially Melbourne, is living with the greatest restrictions imposed on personal liberty and social freedom that has ever been witnessed in Australian history. A strict curfew has been enforced for months and Melbournians cannot leave a 5km radius from their homes. Schools are shut and most of the workforce must work from home. Churches have not met since March and may not for some considerable time. Families and friends are not permitted to mingle, either indoors or outdoors. 

The pandemic and how it has been handled in Melbourne reveals human nature in ways that we may find uncomfortable. Once the second wave has left our shores, I imagine millions of Melbournians wanting to move on and to leave behind 2020 as we would an awful nightmare. Relief is a powerful medicine, albeit a placebo. I want to offer three observations about how the pandemic is revealed our societal health.

1. Self Preservation or Self Sacrifice?

The pandemic began with hoards of people rushing to supermarkets and emptying shelves of essential goods. The situation deteriorated to the point that supermarkets set aside the first hour of each day for our senior citizens, so that they would not go without because of the surge of people fighting over toilet paper and grabbing the final bag of rice or pasta.

We became a state of dobbers. In May alone, Victorian police received 80,000 calls from Victorians who were reporting on their fellow citizens for allegedly breaking restrictions in one way or another. I am not excusing those who foolishly think they can live in disregard for the law. Yes, there are cases of people being ignorant of the rules, but more often this exposed a selfish impulse. However, the fact we have accumulated 100,000s of complaints over the course, and that the Government urged us to betray our neighbours, is quite telling. Personally, while I am irritated by people who think they can live above law, I find it sad that we were so quick to dob on our neighbours to the police.

In the meantime, many other Victorians worked tirelessly to fight the virus and keep people alive. Working long hours and putting themselves at risk in order to care for the sick and for those who are most vulnerable. 

There is a telling disparity between those who preference self preservation and those who choose self-sacrifice.

2. Fear or Love?

Whether we like it or not, the base motivator that has been used to control peoples behaviour during the pandemic is fear.  Government press conferences and newspaper articles have been primed with scaring people into submission. 

Let it said, it is foolish to think that COVID-19 isn’t a serious and deadly disease. It is no Spanish flu or Bubonic Plague, but the virus is nonetheless highly contagious. The Corona Virus is a life threatening disease for the elderly and for people with certain preexisting medical conditions. Without diminishing these facts, it has been interesting to watch the narrative used to force compliance. There is little talk about loving our neighbour, instead many threats have been made and cataclysmic proclamations given to funnel the population into ‘doing the right thing’. 

Fear can be a useful tool. We should not discount it altogether. Even the Bible speaks of fear as being the correct response to particular scenarios. However, what does this prevalent public narrative say about our society? What kind of city are we living in and raising our children in where the threat of punishment rather than compassion has become the normal modus operandi?

3. Suspicion or Trust?

This leads to a third observation, who do we trust. On the one hand, reactions to the Government’s position on COVID-19 soon fell into political partisanship and conspiracy theorists were not going to let this opportunity slide either. Yet overall, Victorians have followed the restrictions. This may be a sign that we trust the Government or that we’re afraid of fines and even longer lockdown (I suspect the truth is a mix of both). 

The speed at which Victorians gave up basics freedoms was interesting to watch. The willingness in which the people have filed away the State’s Human Rights Charter probably speaks to a combination of self sacrifice and fear. Once upon a time we would look at the world’s most authoritarian regimes, perplexed at how people give up freedoms to the State. A question for Victorians is now, for what other reasons are we prepared to accept rigid limitations on personal liberty? Are there other scenarios in which we would lay down our freedoms to associate, work, play, and live? My underlying observation is that while we have built our nation on certain myths, these are more fiction than fact, and among them is our belief in independence and self making. 

While there is certainly an air of trust in Government directives and following public health warnings, the COVID-19 response was not be built on the premise of trust, but of suspicion. The Government anticipated that people won’t follow best medical advice and that people won’t follow reasonable measures (ie social distancing). Their suspicions have some warrant. 

Suspicion can be a powerful delusion and for others it is a source for angry repose. In some circumstances it can also serve as a wise friend. Unfortunately, our suspicious minds have led to an ‘all or nothing’ dichotomy. This absolutism has controlled much of the rhetoric causing needless divisions  in the community and had the effect of pushing aside reasonable and respected voices from the medical fraternity and from the Melbourne world of law, business, and economics.

Take for example this new Bill that the Government is brining before the Parliament, ’COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2020’. If it passes any citizen can be appointed and given the authority to detain any fellow citizen who is suspected of having COVID-19 and whom authorities believe may not fully comply with quarantine.  In theory, as an untrained citizen who is not a police officer, I can be employed to report, check on, and even detain fellow citizens in a manner reminiscent of the Stasi. 

A significant number of QCs and SCs have written a letter outlining concerns about this Bill, including Retired High Court judge Michael McHugh and former Federal Court judges Peter Heerey and Neil Young. They explain,

Authorising citizens to detain their fellow citizens on the basis of a belief that the detained person is unlikely to comply with emergency directions by the ‘authorised’ citizens is unprecedented, excessive and open to abuse”.

“The bill would also allow any person the secretary considered appropriate to be authorised to exercise emergency powers”.

“There would be no requirement that persons authorised be police officers, or even public servants.”

As astonishing and dangerous as this Bill is to a free and democratic society, the Government not only has the gall to argue for it, but many Melbournians I suspect will be okay with it.  I suspect this doesn’t bode well for the future.

Choosing suspicion over trust works both ways. I’ve noted voices making unrealistic expectations and unsympathetic calls, condemning any and all mistakes. This fails to appreciate the nature of this pandemic; it is new and scientists are still trying to understand how the virus works and what is the best public approach. We may not know for another year which nation stumbled into the most advantageous roadmap. There is also a difference between mistake and incompetence. In the swamp of news conferences, tweets, and inquiries, discerning the truth is not always easy. 

The Victorian people deserve to know the truth of what happened in the Melbourne hotels which has crippled our State, and yet it seems increasingly likely that we will remain in the dark. 

Just today, Health Minister Jenny Mikakos fell on her sword, the morning after her boss stabbed her in the back. Sure, there have been apologies for “Operation Soteria” and even admissions of mistakes made, and yet when it came to the Inquiry no one it seems knew the answers to key questions. Instead, there was lots of blame shifting. It is quite extraordinary (and sadly predictable) that in the case of the worst disaster in our State’s history no one is taking responsibility. How can the State expect its people to behave with integrity when its leaders play blame games in order to save their own political skin? 

This has been a difficult year for everyone. For those who have lost loved ones the pain is excruciating. For those who face financial ruin, the road ahead is long and uncertain. If anything, 2020 is a rehearsal for times that are yet ahead, and challenges that will shake our city to the very foundations. 

We need a better rescue plan

“Operation Soteria” has proven to be an ironic an even sardonic name. The rescue turned out to be a sinking ship. 

To be fair, what COVID-19 is revealing about Melbourne  did not begin with the pandemic, rather it shone a light on our preexisting condition. To build relationships on trust, to do right out of love, and to self sacrifice: these are noble virtues and they are far too rare and absent in our city.

During the inquiry into the hotel quarantine the Bible was held aloft, and yet sadly its message is all too often ignored. Instead of making promises on the Bible perhaps we should open its pages, then read and follow what it says. On the sacred page is a story of the original and best, Operation Soteria. It’s not another Greek myth or Melbourne fiction, but the account of the Son of God whose trust triumphed over worldly suspicion, whose love conquers all fear, and who laid down his life for the sake of his enemies. 

Melbourne has long turned its gaze away from the person of Jesus Christ. As we seek to recover surely it’s time to revisit him and to discover the One who truly rescues. As our city has faced the pandemic our foundations have been proven frail. I suspect that as Summer arrives, in our desperation for normalcy we’ll try to forget the year that has been. I understand the sentiment, but there are harder and deeper lessons to learn, ones which require us to look beyond even health and economic issues and into the very soul of our city. 

COVID anger, frustration, and recalibrating our hearts

Earlier this week a young woman was refused permission to attend her own father’s funeral in Queensland. The daughter lives in Canberra where there has been zero COVID-19 cases for two months. There are not 5 actives cases or even 1. For 60 days there has been 0 cases. The Queensland Government initially gave the woman permission to travel to Queensland to visit her dying father, but only after she quarantined for 14 days. During that time her father died. When she asked for permission to attend the funeral she was refused, and even informed that she should no longer be in the State? Why? Because her stated reason for travelling to Queensland was to visit a dying parent, it was not for attending his funeral.

The story gets worse because the Prime Minister contacted Queensland’s Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, asking for special dispensation for the young woman to attend the funeral with her family. The response was for the Premier to take aim at Scott Morrison in public and in the Queensland Parliament by accusing him of ‘bullying’. She then suggested that the decision was not hers to make but that of Queensland’s Chief health officer Jeanette Young.

Speaking of which, last night, Dr Young explained why Queensland is giving exemptions to some people. She said, “I’ve given exemptions for people in entertainment and film because that’s bringing a lot of money into this state.”

The double standards are pretty gross. I understand that no approach to the pandemic is going to be always clean, clear, and consistent. There are competing issues and needs, but in trying to protect human life we are in danger of dehumanising real people. This is not a zero-sum game. There are genuine and vital competing issues that require attention and balancing. When grieving families cannot be together, when a couple cannot marry, when mental health issues are considered a lesser problem, we as a society are skirting along a dangerous path. I fear that as politicians make decisions, hubris take control and that the science and advise from the breadth of the community takes a back seat.

Take another example from this week. I don’t agree with the Roman Catholic practice of the ‘last rites’ but I know how important it is for Roman Catholics. In Victoria, priests are not permitted to give the last rites to dying parishioners. This is a startling infringement on religious freedom. Governments should not exist to strangle the freedoms of their citizens but to protect and preserve them.*

I am not having a go at any single Government, it is all to easy for people to politicise the pandemic I appreciate that Governments and their advisors are under are extraordinary stress and they are facing daily and often competing issues. This is one of the reasons my church is regularly praying for them. But of what value is it in preserving a State if the very means of salvation requires the demolition of communities? The question is not without warrant, what if the cure is worse than the disease?

It is okay to be angry at the decisions made in Queensland and of their woeful follow up defence about profiting from Hollywood. However, do not sin in your anger. Instead, “mourn with those who mourn” (Rom 12:15). Indeed Romans ch.12 gives the Christian much practical wisdom for dealing with difficult times. I find that when I’m being swept up with the emotion of peoples stories and the news that frustrates and disappoints, I need to turn my eyes back to the Bible. Scripture has this powerful effect of recalibrating the heart and adjusting the lens through which I measure hope and the ways I ought to see people. I encourage you to do the same.

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

14 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.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:9-21)

We can long for Governments to behave in such a way, but as Christians we must, and we ought to begin living this out without waiting for others to first treat us well. Remember God, he didn’t wait for us to act rightly before showing us grace and compassion; it is because he first loved us.

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 6:-8)

—————————————————————————-

*The Victorian Premier has just announced that he will rectify the issue over performing the last rites in Victoria


A Response to Victoria’s Roadmap

Yesterday was Father’s Day. it was also the day when Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced the roadmap to the State’s recovery. 

Instead of enjoying a family lunch and celebrating the usual quirkiness of Dads, many households were attentive to the livestream of the Government’s announcement. 

Some Victorians are pleased with the proposed roadmap. Some Victorians are angry. Many if not the majority of Victorians are frustrated (whether agreeing or disagreeing with the Premier’s roadmap). There are Victorians who are enjoying the opportunities arising from lockdown (ie more time with children, working from home), while many others are struggling to cope with loneliness, anxiety, and economic devastation. 100,000s of Victorians have lost their jobs, 1000s of businesses will close down, and dozens of churches, if not 100s, will not survive.

As of next Sunday it will have been 6 months since our Church has met. Most school children have only had 3 weeks of onsite learning since April, and the Premier admitted yesterday it’s possible that children won’t return this year (apart from Prep-2, and VCE). 

There have been 675 COVID-19 related deaths in Victoria and close to 20,000 cases. The vast majority of these deaths and diagnoses have happened during the second wave. 

What’s next for churches in Victoria?

For Churches, the best case scenario is that groups of 10 will be permitted to meet outdoors from late October. To reach this stage, the entire State must average fewer than 5 new cases/day for a period of 14 days and have a total less than 5 cases with no known source. 

If Victoria has zero new cases for 14 days, from November 23rd  churches can open their doors and recommence services according to the Government’s density quotient.

A return to normalcy then requires 28 days of zero new cases and zero active cases in the entire State, and zero outbreaks of concern in other parts of Australia. 

In short, a medium sized Church like Mentone Baptist is almost certainly not going to meet as a whole until 2021. Based on the Government’s  plan, it may well be Easter before Churches are gathering as usual, even later. 

If this news causes you grief, as I hope it does, then pray for God’s grace and mercy, and observe the best medical advice that is being presented to the public.

Christians (and Victorians generally) are today sifting through the fine print of the Government’s roadmap and we’re also assessing our own thoughts and feelings toward the fair grim announcements that have been made for the State. I want to encourage us to avoid certain pitfalls and to stay on course in a way that honours the God and doesn’t diminish the Gospel.

  1. Don’t be an Eliphaz. 

This first word is largely for those not living in Victoria, but I suspect it’s also true for we Victorians as well. 

During a pandemic there are thousands of armchair experts, who apparently know without question what the right pathway should be. There are plenty of Job’s friends offering their thoughts and proverbial manure on social media. In contrast, I appreciated two Christian brothers from Sydney who instead of posting annoying platitudes about a situation there’re not facing, they called me and asked how am I going, and how are people feeling in Melbourne right now. When I told them, they prayed. I am thankful to God for friends whose names are not Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.

2. Pray for those in authority.

I don’t care if you voted for Daniel Andrews or not, it is the duty of Christians to pray for our Governments. Ask the God of grace to grant our political leaders and health officers the wisdom they need to do serve the State and make decisions for the good of our society. A Christian may espouse vociferous  political views, but it’s little more than noise pollution if it doesn’t begin with practicing prayer for our Governments. 

3. Follow the Rules

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” (Romans 13:1-6)

Must I agree with every rule before I obey the law? Must I understand everything exhaustively before I comply? The answer is a clear no. 

There are genuine issues relating to extending the State of Emergency powers and to banning protests. Any citizen who takes democratic freedoms seriously, should ask questions (I say this while not supporting the current protests in Victoria), but there are constructive ways to do this and unwise (and selfish) ways.

The circumstances in which a Christian disobeys a Government are rare and exceptional, and we have not entered that territory during the pandemic. I have made it abundantly clear that such a scenario may arise in the future here in Victoria (cf the proposed ban on conversion practices), but we have not reached that point, far from it. We must not confuse our political preferences with Gospel convictions. We must not conflate our personal desires with Biblical mandates. 

4. Love and serve your neighbour

Enormous numbers of Victorians are struggling emotionally, mentally, and financially. We shouldn’t assume that Government will or can care for every need. Do you know of someone who could do with a phone call or a meal? Let’s not neglect the people whom God brings into our lives and with whom we have opportunity and the means to assist

5. Avoid false binaries

As a pastor it concerns me when I hear Christians slipping into political lanes and becoming stuck and unable to critique their own preferences and political heroes. By all means have a preference but don’t assign allegiance to political groups with the kind of zeal and commitment that you ought only to have for God. If a Christian is wanting to have a Gospel impact in Victoria right now, stop mimicking Labor or Liberal or Greens. 

It was fascinating (and frustrating) to engage in one Facebook thread yesterday. It was probably unwise of me to comment, but my intention was to help explain not inflame his post. A Facebook friend from interstate was trying to defend the Victorian Premier. He suggested that,

 “The best science we have says movement restrictions are what’s needed in a major outbreak. The government enacts movement restrictions. The science projects a resulting reduction in cases, and that’s precisely what happens. The same science advises a cautious pace for reopening, if further outbreaks are to be avoided. The government designs a process following the science”

Is this true? I suggested to my friend that leaving aside predictable political mudslinging, there is a growing number of medical experts who believe there is a valid and alternative roadmap to the one announced by the Premier. I pointed out that mainstream media have now interviewed several high ranking medical experts in Victoria who are convinced there’s another way. In addition, last week a group of doctors wrote a letter to the Premier, offering a plan to move the State forward. Over 500 doctors have now signed this letter, including several of the most senior doctors in the country. 

All this should be fairly straightforward and uncontroversial. Well, I was wrong!

The logic applied by various respondents on the thread was quite astonishing. At first, I was told that these doctors mustn’t be real doctors or perhaps they are anti science doctors (which is kind of weird!). When I noted  that the 500+ doctors include some of the most respected medical names in Victoria, the next line of attack was to say, “but they’re not epidemiologists”. Apparently, the only doctors who have anything worthwhile to say about a pandemic are epidemiologists. Leaving aside that strange assumption, I then shared an article in The Age where three Professors of epidemiology expressed concerns over the Government’s direction. Not even this wasn’t enough to convince these people that the science isn’t an infallible papal edict. I was then told that the views of these epidemiologists is irrelevant because they are not working for the Government. 

Nowhere did I make a partisan statement, but I was accused of being political. Nowhere did I suggest the Government’s modelling was inaccurate or that the State’s Health Officer’s conclusions were incorrect. I simply noted that there isn’t consensus among the scientific community as to how we should proceed for dealing with the pandemic. For stating these simple facts and demonstrably showing these facts, it was insinuated that I am science denier!  

My point in sharing this example is twofold. First, if as a Christian your political commitments don’t allow you to question or critique your own side, it is a problem (whether it’s right or left or up a gumtree). Second, please avoid false binaries. False binaries add to the ugly polarisation that now dominates our society. It doesn’t lift public conversation and it doesn’t honour the Lord Jesus. In addition, as in the above example, such myopism amounts to burdening science with an absolutism that it cannot sustain.

The Age’s chief reporter Chip Le Grand, said last night, “Daniel Andrews has placed great faith in epidemiological modelling which, by its nature, is an inexact science. He should start placing more in business, industry and others with a significant stake in Victoria’s social and economic revival.”

How can Le Grand say such a thing about the modelling? Le Grand understands what doctors appreciate although it is sometimes politically dangerous for them to admit it in public. In fact Le Grand was repeating the views expressed by Melbourne University epidemiologist Tony Blakely, who co-authored the very modelling that the Andrews Government is using! 

That does not mean that the modelling is faulty or shouldn’t be used, far from it. My point is, don’t attribute truth claims to data and information that even the experts say is unwarranted.

6. Ignore Conspiracy theories

The reality is, COVID-19 is a new disease and the best minds around the globe are still trying to understand how the disease works and how to best treat it and how to guide communities into living with it. None of these uncertainties are reason though for turning to or promoting conspiracy theories. It is worrying to hear Christians espousing conspiracy theories, arguing that COVID-19 is a hoax and so on. Most Christians don’t believe these crazy rumours, but some do. I’ve written at length about conspiracy theories this year, and so I’ll defer to those articles. In summary though, it is sinful for Christians to promote speculations and dangerous theories. 

 “Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly”. (1 Timothy 4:6)

“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” (Colossians 2:8)

7. Put your hope in the Lord

Here is a wonderful that is worth meditating on this week. Psalm 130,

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;

    Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
    to my cry for mercy.

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?

But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.

I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
    for with the Lord is unfailing love
    and with him is full redemption.

He himself will redeem Israel
    from all their sins.”

This Psalmist’s focus reflects a healthy and Christian response to a pandemic. We lament the suffering we see around us and that we experience. We listen to the authorities and follow their directives, but our hope is found in God and his unfailing love.

Times of crises reveal our heart’s deepest desires and where we ultimately place our trust. Trials test us and they expose our fears, foibles, and sins.

Without question, 2020 is a test. What is life really about? In whom am I truly depending for hope? Am I satisfied with materialism or hedonism, or will I let God be God?

Pandemics rarely change people, rather, they bring our bring our true character to the surface. Let us not be found wanting or wandering during this pandemic. 1 Peter is a letter written to Christians who are experiencing exile. They were away from home and the life they wanted to lead. Peter says to them, 

“In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

If you get this perspective right, and keep our eyes focused on Christ, it will have the remarkable effect of aiding us to avoid conspiracy theories and false binaries, and to practice humble, loving, and God pleasing lives in Victoria, for the sake of our community.


The Australian newspaper has today published this important article, with interviews of scientists who have been behind the modelling being used by the Victorian Government –

“World-leading scientists linked to the modelling Daniel Andrews has used to lock down Melbourne say the research has been misrepresented and have urged the Premier to rethink the restrictions as his virus ­suppression targets are impossible to meet.

Melbourne University’s dean and head of medicine is urging the Victorian Premier to rerun the model with more ­realistic data that could allow an earlier move to ­restrictions being lifted….”

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/politics/professors-message-for-daniel-andrews-redo-the-coronavirus-modelling/news-story/5cf65533b11cce3ef23f3cfedd247143

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.”

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’.

photo-1579255971754-8c6b1385a2b5

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?”

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?

Giving Jesus a bad name

“There is a time to be silent and a time to speak”

 

It’s hard enough persuading Aussies about the wonder, truth and goodness of Jesus Christ without Christians mucking it up. We can have a hundred churches faithfully and lovingly speaking and living out His Gospel, but the foolishness of a few can quickly undo much good.

Let me begin by reminding ourselves, Jesus wasn’t exactly a popular guy in the first century AD. Crowds were drawn to him because of his memorable speeches and because of his miraculous deeds, but scarcely did they love him. In fact, the culture’s leaders conspired to have Jesus arrested, put him on trial in a kangaroo court and then killed in the most gruesome and public manner ever invented by humanity. As they did this, the crowds cheered on Jesus’ crucifixion.

Down the centuries and in every culture that has had contact with Christianity, Jesus Christ has been controversial. To many, he has been recognised as the Son of God, the resurrected Lord, and the only Saviour of the world. Through faith, this Jesus has destroyed great evil, removed personal sin and guilt, and has gifted new lives, new communities, and transformed cultures in ways that we continue to benefit from today. Much of what we have today is the result of this Jesus who changes beliefs, attitudes, and lives.

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Jesus Christ remains a controversial figure in the world of 2020. Many people allege a liking for Jesus…until they read and understand things like the cross, God’s justice, and his claims of Lordship. In other words, a Jesus that we mould into our own image is likeable. This kind of Jesus is given special mention in our ripostes against organised religion and in our sermons that espouse the latest moral dictums.

But as Jesus himself said,

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20 Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21 They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. 24 If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. 25 But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’ (John 17:18-25)

People will often accept a God who conforms to their own heart’s desires, but without Divine grace, they will find the God and Father of Jesus Christ repellent. As Jesus explains the world’s response to him, he includes a word for those who follow him; the world will hate them.

This idea of societal suspicion and even rejection of Christianity and Christian people is one of the regular reminders in the New Testament. Christians shouldn’t be surprised when there is backlash for believing the Gospel and for affirming God’s ways as good and true. This reaction is quite normal.

However, not all opposition to Churches and Christians is because of the Gospel or because we are doing what is right. Sometimes Christians are called out publicly because we are acting in foolish ways and even sinful ways. It can be difficult to always distinguish between foolishness and sin, partly because we are not privy to peoples’ hearts. Actions and words are however powerful communicators, and they can usually adorn the Gospel or confuse the Gospel.

Like in every crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic is not only witnessing the best and worst of humanity, but we are also seeing the best and the not so good of Christians.

Take, for example, Grace Community Church in California. Thousands of Christians from all over the world look up to this church and to their Senior Pastor, John MacArthur. His many decades of ministry has been a source of encouragment for significant numbers of Christian men and women, including here in Australia. Last week, the Elders of Grace Community Church decided to defy local Government orders and return to their normal Sunday services.

Before casting stones it is important to read the statement by the Elders at Grace Community, and also to read this response published on 9Marks.org by Jonathan Leeman. I concur with Leeman’s reflections, which in summary includes a general agreement with the theological convictions of Grace Community but disagreement over how they have applied these beliefs. For example, Lehman suggests,

“I personally wonder if defying government orders for the sake of a pandemic is the most judicious opportunity to exercise those muscles.” 

There are serious threats to religious freedom in our societies. With an increasingly secularised and polarised culture, there are reasons for believing life will become more difficult for Christians exercising their belief and practices. Is this pandemic really one of those issues?

Leeman again,

“Right now, the guidelines restricting churches also restricts restaurants, movie theaters, museum, gyms, funeral homes, non-essential offices, shopping malls, barbershops, and more. As those restaurant and gym owners cast a glance over at our churches, will our refusal to abide by the same restrictions which are causing them financial distress help the witness of the gospel, especially if we could find other ways to comply, such as meeting outdoors?”

Leeman also suggested,

“What’s implied in MacArthur’s statement is that his elders don’t believe there is a real threat with Covid-19.”

This is correct. Indeed photographs of their ‘triumphal’ return to Church last Sunday reinforces this message that COVID-19 is not the serious disease medical experts and Government authorities are communicating. Whether this was intended or not, this was the effect.

Was it necessary for Grace Community Church to recommence their services at this time? Does their decision show love to their neighbours?

Let’s take an example closer to home. A Christian school in Melbourne has today made the news for what was a stupid and unnecessary reason: they are demanding students to only wear face masks that match their school uniform and school colours. I think SBS is throwing a cheap shot at the school; this is hardly worthy of national news, and yet it now is.  A Christian school has made a needless decision that adds to the pointless growing number of examples of Christians making an unnecessary stand.

In addition, throughout the different stage of lockdown, there have been examples of churches flaunting the rules. The number of cases is tiny, but we already know that the media love to name and shame a Church when possible. Why give them a reason?

More serious are Christians who repeat and give oxygen to conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19. Stop it, repent, and stop taking the Lord’ name in vain. The pandemic is difficult enough with medical experts trying to understand the nature of this terrible virus and how to best combat it, without armchair experts encouraging rumours, gossip, slander, and other sinful speech. I understand how some Government messaging is confusing and how medical opinion has at times conflicted. I appreciate that these serious restrictions are uncomfortable and difficult. But as a Christian, I am to honour and obey those in authority, even when I disagree with them. I am to love my neighbours, and I am not to create stumbling blocks for people. Aussies are already resistant to the Gospel of Christ without me building extra walls blocking out the beauty and glory of God that shines in the face of Christ.

Some of the examples I’ve cited above are not necessarily Christian behaving sinfully, but they are unwise. They may not represent many Christians but it does mirror far too many.

In this year of grave uncertainty and instability, of growing anxiety and fear, we as Christians have the greatest message of hope to offer our neighbours. Let it not get lost in the midst of needless biases, prejudices, and preferences.

As the Apostle said to the Colossians, “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.”

Australians don’t need to hear every thought and every theory that is gurgling around in our stomachs. They don’t need us to insist upon every tertiary preference. They need us to be wise, full of grace and adding salt (which is the Gospel not our speculative thoughts on immunology).

 


Here is an interview on Fox news with John MacArthur explaining their decision