Devonport: a word offered when no words can be found

A devastating tragedy struck the Tasmanian town of Devonport yesterday. On what should have been a fun filled celebration for Grade 6 children who were finishing their final day of primary school, became the worst of nightmares. Children were playing on a jumping castle when a sudden gust of wind swept it high into the air, before plummeting 10m to the earth. Five children have died and another four remain in critical condition. 

One dares not speak a word, for what can one say? Even as a parent with 3 children, what words can I utter? One cannot understand what these families are going through unless one has already experienced such loss ourselves. How do we make sense of the senseless? The death of any child is beyond words, but five lost to such circumstances? The reporter on the news last night added the note that this accident has happened so close to Christmas.

I don’t think the proximity to Christmas makes this awfulness any more harrowing than it already is. But perhaps there is something in the Christmas story that touches and empathises with the inexplicable. 

Soon after Jesus’ birth, a tragic incident occurred in Bethlehem, and it forms part of the Christmas story. It is part of the original Christmas although we don’t often read it. And fair enough, it was a terrible event that involved the deaths of many little children.

“A voice is heard in Ramah,

    weeping and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children

    and refusing to be comforted,

    because they are no more.”

There are words in Scripture that speak the word of unspeakable grief in losing a child. The circumstances and time and place are different but they nonetheless echo the human heart. Indeed, those words from the prophet Jeremiah are all poignant and jarring for the loss of those little ones in Bethlehem following the birth of another child, the Christ.

This Son of God, whose name is Jesus,  would one day preach a sermon which today echoes through the generations and still pierces light and life into the darkness. In the address, Jesus spoke these words,

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

He is willing to comfort those who cannot be comforted.

On another occasion, in Jesus’ inaugural public address, he chose for his Bible text, verses from the book of Isaiah,

“the people living in darkness

    have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of the shadow of death

    a light has dawned.”

What an astonishing announcement, the darkness will not win. The shadow of death is long and thick, but its hold will not last forever. For you see, this same Jesus doesn’t only offer comfort, he has walked the path none of us wishes to undergo and yet will do so one day. He accepted the cross and descended to the dead so that he might punch through the darkness and bring the light of life that can never be dimmed.

We may struggle and grasp to find words to express our sorrow for these families in Devonport today, and that’s ok. For what can one say?  Sometimes all one can do is sit and quietly grieve. 

The one thing I can say to my fellow Aussies as we look on is this: the message of Christmas has a word to offer in every situation, even the darkest grief and unknown. Strip away Christmas from all the presents and food and decorations, and we uncover in the biblical story a God who hates death. He is appalled by it. He opposes it.  His only Son experienced the harrowing of that darkness, for us, that one day death may be defeated forever and all who call on him will know his resurrection power.

We cannot answer the ‘why’ of much that happens in life. The unfathomable can sit like an incurable pain. The Jesus of Christmas tells us there is one who knows and we can go to him, not because we can explain everything, but because he has already taken that journey through death and he has broken through to life again. 

Let us rediscover the power of forgiveness

As  I watched one of my boys play a cricket match over the weekend, I chatted with one of the dads for much of the time. As we talked about how our kids are growing up and the challenges they face in the big mean world of Melbourne, the conversation turned to the topic of forgiveness. This cricketing aficionado said to me with a tone of sadness, we live in a time where people no longer know how to forgive. 

I agreed. One of the key ingredients for human living is forgiveness, and it’s now lost. Our societal impulse is no longer to forgive (let alone understand the other). In today’s Australia, the first to throw the stone is the victor, regardless of whether the offence is real or just perceived. Anger is the mood of today. Controlling the story line and asserting individual rights is the power play at work.

It is interesting to observe that as our self-appointed cultural adjudicators assess the merits of Christianity and move from defining her teaching as half-baked to harmful, we should not be surprised to see our society also shifting away from forgiveness. 

Expressive individualism is god and politics, education, and social media are the priesthood. People and society exist to serve my interests, rather than I have a duty to love my neighbour as myself. But what good is a power play like this if we lose our soul in the process? In ditching the message of Jesus Christ, we are not gaining, we are losing.  If you don’t believe me, spend a few moments on Twitter today.

I’m not suggesting that only Christians know how to forgive (and yes, some Christians need to relearn this basic good), but I am saying that it is because of this Christian message our world learned how to forgive. As we turn away we leave behind key ingredients that keep society together.

There is a distinctive element in this Jesus framed understanding of forgiveness, one that is inescapably powerful in its goodness. Forgiveness isn’t something we practice because of self interest (although forgiveness brings benefits to the person doing the forgiving in important ways). Forgiveness isn’t a decision we bring to the table when we believe the offender is deserving of those words, ‘I forgive you.’ The very nature of forgiveness is that the offending party has wronged you and shouldn’t expect a semblance of peace making. 

Forgiveness is acting in mercy toward an individual in light of their transgressions toward you. In what is one of the greatest words ever spoken, on the cross Jesus sees those responsible for his public execution and prays, “Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

All this is to preface a word of grace and forgiveness that was spoken recently by a young woman at the funeral of her father. It is a word she shared about what she now wants for the man who murdered her dad.

Police Officer Richard Houston, of Mesquite, Texas, was killed in the line of duty by 37-year-old Jaime Jaramillo during a domestic disturbance.

At Mr Houston’s funeral, she said, 

“I remember having conversations with my dad about him losing friends and officers in the line of duty.

I have heard all the stories you can think of, but I’ve always had such a hard time with how the suspect is dealt with.

Not that I didn’t think there should be justice served, but my heart always ached for those who don’t know Jesus—their actions being a reflection of that.

I was always told that I would feel differently if it happened to me. But as it’s happened to my own father, I think I still feel the same.

There has been anger, sadness, grief, and confusion. And part of me wishes I could despise the man who did this to my father.

But I can’t get any part of my heart to hate him.

All that I can find is myself hoping and praying for this man to truly know Jesus.

I thought this might change if the man continued to live, but when I heard the news that he was in stable condition, part of me was relieved.

My prayer is that someday down the road, I get to spend some time with the man who shot my father—not to scream at him, not to yell at him, not to scold him—simply to tell him about Jesus.”

Do you find in her intent something hideous or something beautiful? Are we repelled by her attitude or intrigued?

The enacting and receiving of forgiveness is fast becoming a social memory. We all know how important it is, but the identity games that control social media and politics is creeping into our homes and every aspect of living. And it’s not only forgiveness that is being lost, we are also losing our grip on patience and gentleness and kindness; all virtues that are necessary for maintaining healthy relationships and a civil society. 

So long as we’re the one holding the stone or the dislike button, and everyone’s retweeting our version of justice, we can get by for a while. However, sooner or later we are the ones needing forgiveness. Indeed, one day the toll will toll for thee!

Jesus once taught his disciples to pray this,

“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.’

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

Is this Jesus so dangerous that a young woman finds in Him the power to want good for her father’s killer? Even that she might one day be able to tell him about Jesus? No one is ignoring the fact of the heinous crime or pretending justice should not be acquired. Just as we cannot live in a world without justice, we cannot live without forgiveness and neither will we survive for long without knowing the One who purchased for us Divine forgiveness.

May I suggest, don’t listen to our cultural overloads, avoid getting swept up by the tides of rage and intolerance that’s drowning our souls and dividing our society. Instead, let’s reconsider the powerful story of the Christ whose forgiveness so reconfigures the human heart, that we can be moved to desire good for those so undeserving. If we restart our own story with the definitive story of forgiveness, I can guarantee it will move our lives forward in ways that will surprise and surpass everything else.

John, one of Jesus’ disciples put it this way,

“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.”

The real boy called Christ(mas)

I admit it. I’m a bit of a fan of Christmas movies. It doesn’t fall as low Hallmark, but put on a classic Christmas show I’ll make the popcorn.  As a kid and now with children of my own  I love sitting down and watching the snowfall and a Christmas tune and trying to take in the smell of pine and fir trees through the tv screen.

Home Alone, the Grinch, and A Christmas Carol are perennial favourites in our house. Even a Harry Potter Christmas scene is enough to take me in.

At this time of year, everyone is churning out new seasonal Christmas movies. Among the most anticipated Christmas movies for 2021 is ‘A boy called Christmas’. The movie features a lineup of British actors including Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent and Toby Jones.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but the trailer certainly caught my attention. First of all, ‘A boy called Christmas’ has all the hallmarks of another half-decent, fun viewing, film for families. It has the right amount of snow and pretty lights and elves and Christmas jargon to draw us into the story being told.

But if the movie is anything like the messaging that’s promoted in the trailer, ‘A boy called Christmas’ deserves an eye roll the size of Hollywood.

Covered with enough sugar dusted on top to make it all sweet, the story projects a couple of myths about Christmas.  

Before I dare follow the well-trodden path of the Grinch and criticise anything connected with Christmas, let’s keep in mind that this new version of the origins of Christmas is fantasy and fiction; the producers and writers aren’t pretending otherwise. Nevertheless, ‘A boy called Christmas’, reinforces (as truth) two myths that are perpetually bouncing around our culture today.

First of all, Maggie Smith’s character makes a claim as she tells  a group of children the story of Christmas,

“Long ago nobody knew about Christmas. It started with a boy called Nicholas.”

Ummm….no. There was once a man named Nicholas. He lived in the 4th Century AD and served as a Christian Bishop in the city of Myra (located in what is today, Turkey). But Christmas didn’t start with him, nor was it about him. In fact, one can pretty much guarantee that Nicholas would be appalled by any suggestion that he invented Christmas.

The event that we know as Christmas today certainly started with a boy, but his name wasn’t Nicholas; it was Jesus.

It’s worthwhile separating the day on the calendar called Christmas and the original event it is honouring. By Christmas, I’m not referring to the public holiday or to December 25th, but to the event that changed the world and which the world has sought fit to mark with a celebration every year in December. In fact, while Christians have always believed and held onto the birth of Jesus as a crucial step in God’s plan of redemption, no one celebrated a day called Christmas for hundreds of years. 

I realise the name kind of gives it away, but in case we’re unsure, Christmas has something to do with Christ. Indeed, it has everything to do with the Christ. Christ of course is the Greek noun for the Hebrew name, Messiah. It’s a title that denotes ruler and anointed King. Christ is God’s promised ruler who will receive a Kingdom that will never end, fade, or perish.  

“The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” (John 4:25—26)

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.” (1 John 5:1)

This first faux pas from ‘A boy called Christmas’ is forgivable, in the same way, Narnia and Dr Seuss aren’t given to us as history or sacred writ, but please make sure our kids realise this is the case. It is this next line from the movie trailer (which presumably features as a motif) that is nothing short of inane. A young Nicholas is given this advice, 

‘Things only exist if you really believe in them!’

What a stupid thing to say! Does gravity only work when we believe it exists? Is Mount Everest only real because it has been seen and climbed? Do I cease to exist because most people on the planet have never heard my name or seen my face?

The advice, as insipid as it is, is however true to form. The movie is mimicking the way we are now trained to think and make choices and choose beliefs today. In Western culture, truth is no longer truth. Truth is your truth. Truth is the set of ideas that you preference and want to hold onto for meaning and guidance in life. One of the startling consequences of this is that we now live in a post-science age. For example, biology no longer determines reality, what matters is how you feel inside. Whether the issue is vaccines or climate change or a host of important issues, the scientific task is often considered little more than an instrument used to promote various socio-political agendas.

In a similar fashion, history has succumbed to revisionist keyboards, where events are rewritten and retouched according to a priori commitments to identify politics and other prevalent social preferences. 

Here’s my advice, don’t learn theology from Netflix. Don’t use Hollywood as a history book or as a manual for learning about God, or pretty much anything for that matter. I guess this advice is kind of obvious, and many of us not only agree but respond with a rather dull ‘duh’. However, perhaps we underestimate the extent to which movies and tv shows influence the way we think about issues and the way these mediums inform our understanding of history and world events. 

Movies are successful, not only because of their entertainment value, but because of the ways they both mirror the culture and change the culture. Hollywood, Netflix and Stan each echo the clarion call from our academic institutions and leading social activists. They are today’s poets and preachers, both teaching and enticing us to adopt new ways of thinking and living. Movies are designed to recalibrate attitudes and even to normalise ideas that are not yet embraced by our neighbours.

The real story of Christmas exceeds Netflix’s best attempts. It is more powerful and stunning and dangerous and wonderful than the best of fantasy writers, except the Biblical story is true. 

The birth of Jesus is not a fact of history because I choose to believe. I believe because the events are historical and because they speak of wonders that are too good to ignore.

The Bible (yes, that ancient book which is supposedly unreliable and bad for your health), says some pretty startling things about belief and what is true and the great existential dilemmas. 

The Bible authors insist on recording history with accuracy. The Bible writers also provided an explanation for the meaning of these events. Historians do not doubt the birth of Jesus Christ, and historians do not deny that the Bible is the earliest and most reliable source for retelling the circumstances of His birth, and life, death, and resurrection. Of course, some of the details are astonishing, for example, the presence of angels and the virgin birth. But this is the point, amidst seemingly ordinary history, such as the birth of a child, there was something extraordinary taking place.

In 2014 (note: this was said before the pandemic), historian Dr John Dickson went on the front foot to expose the view that real historians doubt the historicity of Jesus’s birth. He said,

controversial enough to get media attention. They have just enough doctors, or doctors in training, among them to establish a kind of “plausible deniability.” But anyone who dips into the thousands of secular monographs and journal articles on the historical Jesus will quickly discover that mythicists are regarded by 99.9% of the scholarly community as complete “outliers,” the fringe of the fringe. And when mainstream scholars attempt to call their bluff, the mythicists, just like the anti-vaccinationists, cry “Conspiracy!” 

Christianity isn’t true because we choose to believe. We believe in this Jesus Christ because he is proven true and we trust him with all life because he is demonstrably good and efficacious. 

So yes, I’m looking forward to watching ‘A boy called Christmas’, but kids please don’t get your theology from Hollywood. Parents, it’s okay to let your children enjoy these Christmas movies, but take a moment and explain to them that these are fun but untrue stories, and the real story is better than any fiction. 

I thank God that the advice given to Nicholas isn’t true. Think about it, what a burden to carry if truth and reality were dependent on my understanding and adherence. I thank God truth doesn’t come from within. Thank God truth doesn’t depend on me believing it to be so. 

Christmas didn’t not with some boy named Nicholas, but with God sending his one and only son into the world. He didn’t hide away in a toy factory. He didn’t hand out bicycles, lego, dolls, X-boxes, and puppy dogs wrapped in colourful paper. He laid down his life for us. As the book of Romans testifies about the Christ,

“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.” 

The incarnation (that is, God the Son becoming human) is inescapable. The imprint of Jesus coming not only remains at Christmas but is all around us today. As we follow this Jesus we gain the greatest gift that no Christmas tree can hold or no toy factory manufacture: Peace with God, the forgiveness of sin, and eternal life. 

What Melbourne’s Earthquake reveals about ourselves

On the day Melbourne equalled the world record for the longest lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic and during another day of violent protests in our city, we were struck by a surprising visitor.

About 9:15 in the morning, our house began to shake violently. For the first 3-4 seconds I assumed a large truck was speeding down the road past our home. I soon realised then that this was more than a vehicle travelling too quickly. The floor and the walls continued to sway for over 20 seconds. 

The earthquake hit 6.0 on the Richter scale, just north of Melbourne. Thankfully no one was injured and the damage was limited to 40 buildings.  

Melbourne isn’t exactly the epicentre of earthquakes. Australia sits comfortably in the middle of a tectonic place, and yet even this seat proved unstable.

At the time my 12 year old daughter  described the event as “surfing on concrete”.  Over the course of the morning Melbournians came together in a way we rarely see, and on Twitter of all places! Comedic memes and funny one liners appeared. One of the best ones was a take on our Premier, then Dan Andreas Fault! Even better was the meme featuring Melbourne’s Federation Square with the tag line suggesting that the earthquake has improved this iconic building.

As the day progressed, people tried to explain the earthquake. Scientists suggested New Zealand was responsible, an explanation that makes sense to most Aussies. Apparently it’s something to do with moving plates and the Kiwis jumping and breaking them in order to keep our nuclear subs away.

Other people pointed to the protests erupting in Melbourne or the Government for its continued lockdown rules.  Others again, suggested the event was some kind of Divine sign, even if most said it in jest. 

It’s this last thought connection which is most interesting. There remains in Melbourne’s subconsciousness, a reference to God and the supposition that behind cataclysmic events is God. Sadly though we less often associate all the good things and beautiful things with God, even though God, 

“satisfies your desires with good things

so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103:5)

This thought process isn’t a drop of evolutionary dross that remains to be drained from our minds, it is evidence of the God whom we are trying to shut out.

Should we connect the earthquake with God generally or with God’s anger more specifically? The Bible has much to tell us about this question. For example, God is Sovereign and the earth is His. He made all that is and he remains in control.

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

Earthquakes are mentioned in the Bible, usually as historical events and other times as analogies illustrating God’s activities and character. And of course, as Jesus hung on the cross and died, there was a violent earthquake in Jerusalem. 

Perhaps the most poignant Biblical reference to earthquakes is found on the lips of Jesus, 

“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.” (Matthew 24:6-8).

Jesus is describing the world as it is and the world that will continue to be until the Son of Man returns to judge. Jesus’ explanation doesn’t ignore a scientific one, he is answering the why question rather than the how. To be clear, Jesus’ summary of world history is not connecting specific ‘natural’ events with particular human transgressions, as Melbournians suggested with humour yesterday. For example, in Luke’s Gospel the story is retold of a tower collapsing in Jerusalem and 18 people died. Jesus says of this tragedy, “do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” The answer was, no. 

You see, the jokes about judgement, while missing the mark in one sense, are in another way closer to the truth than may realise. Earthquakes, bush fires, pandemics, and wars each defy and destroy the hopes we have. They are violent reminders telling us that life isn’t right and that the world isn’t what we long for it to be. This is why, even in our subconsciousness we desire for things likes  restoration and reconciliation. Even in our secular age where unbelief is the passport to intellectual and popular success, we cannot escape the inbuilt desire to explain our world in design with God, and with a God who both judges and saves.

Today Melbourne has taken the world record for having the longest lockdown, and we know that are many more weeks to go. Dreams have been shredded. Securities have come up empty. Suffering is real. For many, hope has fallen through the cracks.

Jesus understands. He has interpreted the world for us and his words are written down to prepare us. Jesus doesn’t leave us with a world of hopeless despair. He entered it with us and for us, even death on a cross. Through resurrection from the grave, he offers something we need, not just for heaven, but to make sense of today and to give the peace and joy today.

In the same message where he talks about earthquakes, Jesus also says this, 

“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it[e] is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

The 20th Anniversary of 9/11

16,000kms may separate Australia from New York but no distance could keep us apart from our American friends on that day, September 11th 2001.

I don’t remember the exact moment I turned on the television. I think it was about 11 pm. Susan and I were getting ready for bed but I thought to quickly look at the late night news before going to sleep. 

On the screen, I saw a plane crashing into what appeared to be a skyscraper in New York City. For a few moments, I asked myself, what movie is this? It took me several seconds to release that this was no Hollywood production. I was seeing a real passenger airplane explode into a ball of fire as it struck the World Trade Centre. I called out to Susan and for the next 3 hours we sat in horror at the unfolding scenes taking place in New York City, Washington DC and a Pennsylvanian field. In real-time we saw real people jumping out of buildings and those buildings crash to the earth. In real time we saw the Pentagon billowing with fire and smoke. 

Our generation had never witnessed an event on this scale: Three thousand people murdered by a group of Islamic terrorists who hijacked four civilian aircraft, filled with innocent passengers. 

Susan and I were living in Sydney at the time, and I was studying first year of a Divinity degree at Moore College. As we woke up in the morning in the safety of our home and street, I turned on the news again. As the Manhattan skyline was filled with choking smoke, our suburb of Erskineville and Newton was in stunned silence. I don’t recall everything that happened that day at College but I do remember the community gathering to pray. My first-year chaplaincy group later met across the road at a cafe called the Green Iguana, where we sat, shared, and prayed. 

Twelve years later, in 2013, Susan and I took our 3 children for a holiday in the United States. For 5 weeks we lived in New York. The city of Seinfeld, Home Alone, and the Muppets had enthralled my imagination since childhood and the opportunity to visit with our children was too good to decline.

 

Our Greenwich Street apartment was situated only 50m away from where the Twin Towers once stood. Outside our window, we would see the queue forming each day as people waited to visit the 9/11 Memorial. Every morning we walked past the NYC Fire Fighters memorial wall as we went about enjoying the incredible city that is New York. For that short time, we were New Yorkers, observing the tourists.

One afternoon I visited the 9/11 Memorial with a friend. His father had worked on the construction of the Towers in the late 1960s.

There is an entire generation of Australians and Americans growing up with no recollection of 9/11 and with little appreciation for what took place. I’m so glad my children have seen the area in lower manhattan and know what happened on September 11th 2001. Although, even now it is impossible to grasp how Greenwich Street was once filled with thousands of fleeing office workers, a ferocious dust storm, twisted metal, and millions of paper sheets drifting through the air. The streets are still noisy with people and the occasional blaring of a siren from police or fire trucks. But it in the late Autumn of 2013 the city of New York was healing, Christmas celebrations were gearing up, and the new skyscraper that is One World Centre was well on its way toward completion. 

Today marks the 20th Anniversary of 9/11. In the 20 years that have past it is not only the New York skyline that has changed. While American resilience and muscle proved to be strong in the months following the attack, and the world largely stood alongside our American friends, today the world is very different. It is the same world with the same fundamental flaws and sins, but the pieces are shifting on the global stage. 

America was proven to be vulnerable that day. Not only the United States but the West itself. Years followed with terrorist attacks all over the world and armed conflict in the Middle East. At the same time, these 20 years that have gone by have also produced years of economic growth, technological advancement. Yet the cracks are more pronounced. The West no longer needs enemies abroad. Al Qaeda may have injured the West, the West is killing itself. Block by block we are removing the very foundations that created the modern secular and pluralist society we enjoy. Tolerance is giving way to strident opinion. Basic facts about the human condition can no longer be spoken without fear of losing one’s job and place in society. The ability to listen and engage the other is now a luxury few can afford. Words are now rarely used to unite and bring peace, they are weapons of power used to breed fear, and to humiliate and silence those who think differently. 

Several years ago I met an American man by the name of Mack Stiles. His story is well known. He and his wife have a heart for the Middle East and to share Christ with Muslim people. Their decision to leave the United States and move to UAE was interrupted by 9/11, or least one would have thought so.  Instead, the Stiles resolved that the Gospel is good news even for the millions living in the Middle East. On September 13th 2001 the Stiles sold their home. They then flew to Dubai. For the last 20 years they have been serving Christ, planting Churches and loving Muslim people in the UAE and in Iraq. 

Without ever diminishing the evil done that day 20 years ago, and without us pretending that the sins committed against us are ever okay, there is an alternative to hatred and the persistent rage, selfishness, and hostility that is now controlling public discourse in many Western societies, including Australia and America. Now, I am not a pacifist. I accept Romans 13 which speaks of Government having authority in taking up the sword. Sadly, Governments often wield the sword unjustly, even if it there was justification in unsheathing it to begin with. What I am saying is that the answer our societies so desperately need is the good news we are turning our back on. We are not rejecting it through sword, but with words and heart. With a hubris that it’s only matched by the indignation shown toward the very worst of public sins, our cultural leaders deem Biblical Christianity to be a threat to society. In some Australian States, our Governments are even beginning to legislate in order to protect society from Christian teaching. This is a mistake. 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

“For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:10)

What if we grasped that God has loved those who do not love him? What if we understood that the God of complete holiness is also the God of mercy? What if we had ears to hear the announcement that God who just in punishing evil has also spoken a word of forgiveness and reconciliation? This isn’t something we should be deleting from the social consciousness but resurrecting in order to save us from community self-harm and cultural destruction.

In the day following 9/11 Mack Stiles was persuaded by the Christian message such that he left his home to love and serve a people who were despised in the West. If this Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to do that, think of the good this same message can accomplish in Australia today, and in America, Afghanistan and across the world. If it is wrong to bite the hand that feeds us, let us not despise the Son of God who died to save us.

I will never forget 9/11, but even more I pray that we will never forget the One who laid down his life for his enemies.

Why We Can’t Sign the Ezekiel Declaration. An Evangelical Response.

This post is co-published with David Ould.

Over the past week a letter has been promoted and circulated around many churches and religious organisations. The Ezekiel Declaration (“the Declaration”) is addressed to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and outlines concerns over a potential “vaccine passport” that would be required for church attendance. The letter has now received 2000+ signatures of religious leaders from across Australia, and for that reason alone it is gaining much attention receiving quite a splash. For every signatory there are certainly many more Christian leaders who have not signed their names. Still, 2000+ names and the organisations that they represent is a significant number.

In some respects there are a number of clear core statements in the Declaration that we (David Ould and Murray Campbell) would want to support. We strongly agree that there is a serious question to be asked about “vaccine passports”, particularly when they impact upon church attendance. We are also in robust agreement with the authors of the Declaration that “conscience should never be coerced”.  

Nevertheless, we have declined from adding our names and support to this manifesto. While we share some of the concerns raised in the Ezekiel Declaration, we are unable in good conscience to align ourselves with other aspects and the overall tone and content. 

Our purpose here is to explain the reasons why we have not signed the Ezekiel Declaration and to also caution others from doing so. While we respect how some religious leaders have and will wish to affirm this document and continue to respect those leaders as individuals, we encourage people to think through the issues that we raise here before adding their endorsement to what we consider to be a confused and ultimately unhelpful document.


First, the tone of the letter is combative rather than cooperative.

Both the title and subtitle suggests a posture of hubris and even spiritual smugness: “The Ezekiel Declaration” and  “Watchmen, it’s time to speak”.

Really? Are the authors claiming a prophetic word or preaching Divine judgment upon those who are drafting COVID policies?  This level of rhetoric continues throughout the letter. For example, the authors refer to “medical apartheid” and “the dangerous precipice of a therapeutic totalitarianism”. This seems to be inflammatory language that does not accurately represent the current situation.

Straight away the letter therefore signals an ‘us versus them’ position; we the churches against a bullish and autocratic Government. At this point in time in Australia the situation is more akin to Daniel ch.1 than Daniel ch.6. We are appealing for a fair hearing before the Government, not open defiance with our lives being threatened for any dissent. We are seeking to persuade, not calling for civil disobedience.

We understand the issues at stake and we share concerns about any proposed vaccine passport, but from the outset the tone of the letter communicates an angry sermon rather than bridge building.

We will further address the theological implications of this title below but, for now, simply note that the Declaration takes on a combative approach.

We are also concerned that the Declaration is unnecessarily political. We are entirely convinced that there is a place for responsible engagement with political parties (at times working with them and at times challenging them) but a genuine danger in being seen to be overly partisan. The Declaration has already been leveraged by one political party for political purposes and this does nothing to allay fears that the Declaration is first and foremost a political document, and one that comes from a particular political position.


Second, the letter nowhere encourages people to be vaccinated and it fails to affirm the safety and efficacy of the available COVID-19 vaccines. 

There is a single word that is accepting but not positive ofin favour of vaccinations, and even then it is partnered with a word of dissent,

While some individuals will receive the vaccination with thanks, others may have good and informed reasons for declining. 

The Declaration does not define what these ‘good and informed reasons’ are. It then proceeds to misuse the words of the Federal Health Minister in February 2021 in support of refraining from being vaccinated. 

One such reason [for declining vaccination] is highlighted in the statement of the health minister Greg Hunt: 

“The world is engaged in the largest clinical trial, the largest global vaccination trial ever, and we will have enormous amounts of data.”

When we read the linked transcript of the interview we see the Minister endorsing the vaccination process, not casting aspersions upon it. He states, 

One of the things that is absolutely fundamental to confidence is the belief in safety. And the essence of safety is a full and thorough assessment…that’s ultimately about making sure we have the maximum take-up in Australia, and above all else, safety, safety, safety. That’s our duty. But it also leads to confidence and take-up.

Hunt’s argument is not that the vaccine is unsafe. On the contrary, he is stating that the approval process for the vaccine is there to provide confidence in it; confidence in the face of the uncertainty that some feel – the same uncertainty that the Declaration promotes.

We see a similar failure to handle sources responsibly in the reference to a CDC study when discussing the efficacy of vaccines. The Declaration states, having referenced the study, “it is evident that vaccines do not prevent infection”. This is, at best, misguided language. Nobody claims that the vaccines prevent infection, simply that they greatly reduce the rate of infection and the negative outcomes from those infections. Further, the report that is linked in the Declaration to support this claim closes with these words,

While numerous studies have shown that the vaccines don’t work as well against the delta variant as they did against other strains, health officials say they are still highly effective, especially in protecting against severe illness and death. Roughly 97% of new hospitalizations and 99.5% of deaths in the U.S. are among unvaccinated individuals, U.S. health officials repeated this week.

The CDC also said the data has limitations. The agency noted that as population-level vaccination coverage increases, vaccinated persons are likely to represent a larger proportion of Covid cases. Additionally, asymptomatic breakthrough infections might be underrepresented because of detection bias, the agency said.

The CDC also said the report is “insufficient” to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the authorized vaccines against Covid, including the delta variant, during this outbreak.

In recent months, data coming from overseas and now locally is demonstrating the substantial effectiveness of these vaccines in lowering the risk of people being seriously ill and dying with COVID-19, a benefit that far outweighs the very small recorded risk of vaccine side-effects.

Christian leaders have an obligation to quote people in context and to represent their position with fairness. Christian leaders also have a duty of care to listen to experts,  convey accurate information, and to refer people to their local GP, rather than publicly undermine health advice. We have documented how at two critical points in its argument the Declaration does not do this.

We appreciate how some Australians are hesitant to take the vaccine at this point in time and are sympathetic towards them. Our intention isn’t to ‘force’ the conscience. We also understand and affirm that there are valid medical reasons why a limited number of Australians cannot use these vaccines. We also understand that as time progresses our understanding of COVID-19 and the best ways to fight against it will improve and at times perhaps change tack. Our concern here is how the Ezekiel Declaration offers no encouragement and no positive information about COVID-19 vaccines. At best this is disappointing, at worst this is knowingly misleading and may undercut people’s confidence in being vaccinated when it is actually the best decision for most of our population when the relative risks are properly assessed.

Finally, we note that it is now well-established that widespread vaccination is the single greatest accelerator for achieving an opening up of our communities and a more “normal” life, the very thing that the Declaration strives for.


Third, the arguments are a kaleidoscope of confusion, conflation, and misrepresentations. 

We have already noted above some serious errors in the way the Declaration handles other material. More generally it seems to us that there is an unhelpful and unclear mixture of different arguments being made. Had the Declaration not contained much of this it would be more useful. Instead the authors have chosen to roll in additional arguments that do little to support their case, especially when (as we have shown) their arguments are based on poor use of external material.

One more example is helpful.

The authors spend much time addressing the issue of mental health. While this is pertinent to discussions surrounding the pandemic, including ongoing lockdowns, it isn’t directly relevant to the question of mandatory vaccine passports for churches. Our hearts ache for those who are overwhelmed and exhausted mentally and emotionally. As pastors we tend to congregation members who are suffering and struggling because of the pandemic. The growing strain is palpable and we too are concerned at the emotional, social, economic, and spiritual toll this is taking on millions of lives. We are pleased to see that politicians, doctors and the media are beginning to address these issues with increasing urgency. These factors, however, are separate from the question of vaccine passports and whether the government should introduce them and even mandate them for public worship services. To conflate them as the Declaration does is to confuse the argument.

The Declaration presents itself as a call against mandated vaccination for attendance at worship service. In reality it also attempts to argue against lockdowns and repeats discredited anti-vaccination arguments and does so with questionable use of source. By rolling in these two extra divisive issues in the manner that it does it presents a far less cohesive argument, let alone fails to garner comprehensive support amongst a wider Christian cohort.


Fourth, the list of signatories raises some concerns in a number of ways. We are uncomfortable signing our names to an alliance of ‘Christian leaders’ where the list includes members of a non-Christian sect and numerous ‘churches’ and other organisations that are considered fringe if not heterodox any other day of the week.

One notable example is the endorsement of Reignite Democracy Australia, an anti-masking anti-lockdown and anti-vax group whose founder was recently charged with incitement following on from illegal anti-lockdown demonstrations.

In addition we have been personally contacted by those who tell us their names have appeared as signatories on the Declaration without their action or consent. We have also had correspondence with those whose professional background includes the investigation of data integrity and they have raised concerns with some elements of the data as it is presented. None of this is to suggest in any way that the writers and promoters of the Declaration have deliberately falsified the signatories, yet there remain concerns about how some of the signatories have been recorded.


Fifth, instead of offering clear Gospel hope to our country, this letter creates suspicion and suggests that Christians are more interested in their own freedom rather than the common good.

At a time when Australia desperately needs to hear and see the beauty of God’s good news, this letter fails to deliver. Despite the closing language affirming the gospel, the message given is not one filled with grace and hope, but rather one of frustration, unbelief, and defiance which obscures and even contradicts the final gospel call. 

Gospel and Biblical fidelity will always be a concern with any declaration made by Christian leaders but particularly one styling itself after the “watchman” of Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 33 we learn what the watchman’s role is:

Ezek. 33:1-6   The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, speak to your people and say to them: ‘When I bring the sword against a land, and the people of the land choose one of their men and make him their watchman, 3 and he sees the sword coming against the land and blows the trumpet to warn the people, 4 then if anyone hears the trumpet but does not heed the warning and the sword comes and takes their life, their blood will be on their own head. 5 Since they heard the sound of the trumpet but did not heed the warning, their blood will be on their own head. If they had heeded the warning, they would have saved themselves. 6 But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes someone’s life, that person’s life will be taken because of their sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.’

EZEKIEL 33:1-6

In the context of the writing of Ezekiel (the impending judgment of Judah under God’s hand by the means of Babylon) the watchman’s role is clear; he calls the people to repentance for their sin in the face of judgment (a judgement signalled as imminent by the blowing of a trumpet). In other words, it is the role of any gospel minister to warn of the coming judgement and urge people to find their refuge in Christ. This document does not do that. By using the title of “Ezekiel Declaration” it confuses that great eternal moment of decision with a lesser, albeit significant, matter before the churches. It frames the question of vaccine mandates in the churches (and more general questions around vaccination and lockdowns) as on a scale with the Babylonian invasion and destruction of God’s people. The immediate remedy it suggests is not the gospel of Jesus. The Declaration communicates a defiance of God-ordained authority rather than trusting submission of the Lord as we engage with a difficult moment in our common life. By using the language of the “watchman” it also labels those who do not agree as failed watchmen who have neglected their solemn duties as stewards of the gospel. We are firmly convinced there is a much higher threshold for this charge of abandoning the gospel than disagreement over the matters raised in the Declaration. It is deeply divisive.

Why We Can’t Sign the Ezekiel Declaration

There is a genuine issue relating to vaccine passports, both in general and specifically when tied to church attendance. We will be extremely concerned if Governments decide that religious organisations must mandate vaccination for attendees and participants in public worship services and other religious meetings. There may yet be a need to respectfully make our case and even courageously refuse to place a limit on who may gather together with the people of God. But we are not at the moment yet, nor has any such potential restriction even been announced. Our concern is that the Ezekiel Declaration neither provides a productive pattern by which opposition should happen if required nor increases the opportunity for productive engagement with Governments before then.

Finally a personal word. The two authors have come to publish this position with some hesitancy. We are both known, perhaps even notorious, for standing for gospel purity within our own denominations. That has sometimes come at personal cost. Nor have we been shy when it comes to public engagement with the authorities, be they media, governmental or other. Where necessary we have taken the opportunity to speak of Jesus in the public sphere especially when his word is not well-received. We respectfully do not believe that the charge of “selling out” or cowardice can be levelled against us. We are also acutely aware that many of those that we are effectively criticising here are our natural allies in many of these struggles, not to mention those that we are at times more comfortable with when it comes to political expression. One of us has spoken on your platforms and been featured in your websites. We have spoken plainly about “culture wars” and the like and will continue to do so. We are fellow evangelicals.

Despite this we felt the need to write. We ask that the above be received as it was intended, “wounds from a friend that can be trusted” (Prov. 27:6). We long for gospel unity with all our brethren and offer this letter in that spirit.

To the rest of our readers we ask you to consider whether adding your endorsement to the “Ezekiel Declaration” is the wisest choice at this moment in time or even if you ought to now ask for it to be removed. We believe that the Ezekiel Declaration is an unhelpful move, unnecessarily political, confused in its argumentation and ultimately divisive at a time when the church should be known for its united loyalty to Jesus and his gospel, expressed in an appropriate engagement with the world.

Ps. Murray Campbell, Lead Pastor Mentone Baptist Church, Melbourne.

Rev. David Ould, Senior Associate Minister St John’s Anglican Cathedral Parramatta.

Australia, it’s time to lament

“How deserted lies the city,

    once so full of people!

How like a widow is she,

    who once was great among the nations!

She who was queen among the provinces

    has now become a slave”. (Lamentations 1:1)

Today, August 19th 2021, marks 200 days of lockdown in Melbourne since the pandemic began last year. Beginning March 30th 2020 there have been 200 days where 5 million residents have been forced to stay at home. Over these 18 months we have experienced weeks without lockdown, but those days have all been lived with tight restrictions. 

The streets of Melbourne are deserted. Schoolyards are empty, apart from the occasional gust of wind that moves the leaves from one end to the other. Office buildings have become catacombs. Football grounds are empty of competition and of children chasing the footy.

What lessons will we learn through this once in a 100-year pandemic? What truths will resurface now that so many of our habits have stalled and excesses moved into lockdown?

As the months move sketchily forward, Australians are eager for a day of celebration; a national day of festivities to announce the end of the pandemic. Many Aussies are also skeptical and wonder if this day will be pushed further and further back as Government directed expectations change. I’m certainly keen for the day to arrive when we are assured of no more lockdowns and when we reach 80% of the population fully vaccinated. However, if we fast forward to rejoicing we are bypassing important lessons that can be uncovered now.

I am not one to dismiss momentary distractions that serve to alleviate the pandemic symptoms that we’re all facing. Thank God for some of these helpful diversions. We are not however acting wisely if we use these to cover over the widening crevices that are appearing in our society and in our own souls. We have a moment, dare I suggest, a God-given moment, to reevaluate the big questions of life.

Last year I proposed a series of life topics where the pandemic may impact. Among the suggestions was a question mark over the sexual revolution. Would COVID-19 cause the sexual revolution to slow down? At the time I wasn’t sure. What we have seen over the last 18 months is that moral progressivism hasn’t taken a back seat to the pandemic. Its course is deliberate and continues to drive through our culture in first gear. Far from applying brakes, the sexolution has navigated the roundabouts and traffic lights of this pandemic with great skill, ensuring that legislations continue unabated.

Victoria is the State that adopted legislation that may imprison Christians for speaking to or praying with a person about sexuality or gender.

On the one hand, our society speaks against the mistreatment of women, while on the other hand, Victoria is decriminalising sex work, as though this is a great emancipation moment.

In life there is time for play and pleasure. There is a time for rejoicing and celebration. There is also a time for mourning.

Last week a national campaign was given a megaphone in our newspapers. The aim was to increase unbelief in God just as Aussies participated in Census 2021. Dropping God  became a national talking point, when instead we should be bowing  our knees before our Maker and asking for his mercy. 

Despite the mantra of “of all being in this together”,  what  we are witnessing is an awful lot of boasting, selfishness, political chest-beating and growing civil restlessness.  The phrase “this is not a time for politics” has lost all meaning, that is, if it ever had any substance to start with. Far from being an empty phrase, it is sharpened into a political weapon for striking opponents and causing further division.

This hubris is shared by the left and right and everywhere in the middle. Imagine how much more unified and together we will be if this pandemic continues into 2022?! 

Part of the problem is how our Aussie psyche demands happiness without repentance. We want success without humility. We want prosperity without generosity. What if the Australian dream is faulty? What if we are cheating ourselves of a better life because of a wrong posture we’ve assumed?

We are not very good at learning from history. For example, in the 6th Century BC the city of Jerusalem was laid waste. The population had progressed, or so they believed. They had moved on from many of their traditions and old ways of thinking.  They didn’t remove belief in God as such, but they did manufacture new gods to support the sexual and economic policies they wanted normalised. And they deconstructed all those Scriptures  that didn’t offer unwavering support to their new life pursuits. 

As Jerusalem lay in ruins, the book of Lamentations was written. Lamentations is one of the most forgotten books of the Bible. Given the subject mater, one understands why.  But perhaps our extraordinary situation requires us to open this difficult book. It is a distressing book to read given the account it retells of what went wrong and of the severe suffering that was left behind. The author of Lamentations speaks of people mocking those in distress and hardening their resolve against God. This expansive lament is honest in its recognition of human sin, the rightness of God, the despair accompanying the suffering, and the single source of hope:

Do we concur with these sentiment?

“The Lord is righteous,

    yet I rebelled against his command. (1:18)

Can we speak words like these?

I remember my affliction and my wandering,

    the bitterness and the gall.

I well remember them,

    and my soul is downcast within me.

Yet this I call to mind

    and therefore I have hope:

Let him sit alone in silence,

    for the Lord has laid it on him.

Let him bury his face in the dust—

    there may yet be hope. (Lamentations 3:19-21, 29)

Can we conclude,

“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,

    for his compassions never fail.

They are new every morning;

    great is your faithfulness.

I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;

    therefore I will wait for him.” (3:22-24)

Understand, the Lamenter didn’t arrive at the place of hope without first lamenting his condition. Again, this is one of our regularly failings as Aussies. Instead of blaming God or excluding God, the writes takes responsibility. It is this requisite for humility that we have become accustomed to avoiding. Instead of learning, it appears that we Aussies prefer to hold onto this hubris, and that does not bode well for the future. 

Learn from author of Lamentations. And listen to the book of James, 

“Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”  (James 5:9-10)

It must be said lest anyone reads into my words a meaning that’s not there: we cannot equate particular suffering with particular sin. God has not spoken a word about COVID 19. That means we should treat with extreme caution anyone who makes such assertions. We can however say that suffering in general is a sign of a world that’s cursed and fallen, and that these pains can serve as a loud call to understand our mortality and our need for a Saviour of Divine nature.

Neither does finding purpose in trials diminish s the very real suffering attached to plagues and other trials.  The Apostle Peter could simultaneously speak of finding joy and suffering grief in the same event, 

“In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1:6).

Above all, remember Jesus who endured all manner of hardship, which not only characterises him as the understanding God, but this served for Him to our substitute . He is the Son of God who need never suffer and yet in love chose that path for us.

“He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.”
(Isaiah 53:3-4)

Instead of discrediting this length period of pandemic, we could slow down a little and ponder the very questions we spend so much of life trying to avoid. You see, trials scratch away the surface and expose our deepest longings and fears and dreams. They also serve to teach us how we should not take for granted the many things we enjoy in life. Too often, our habit is to mistranslate our copious freedoms and pleasures and turn them into rights and demands as as though God owes us anything.

Charles Spurgeon was a man who was more than familiar with suffering. He offers this astute observation “Trials teach us what we are; they dig up the soil, and let us see what we are made of.” 

What are we learning about ourselves during COVID-19?

John Donne is one of the great poets of the English language. Donne lived through one of the many plagues that struck Europe over the centuries.  Like so many living in the 17th Century, John Donne was familiar tragedy. 5 of his children died before the age of 10 and his wife died at a young age. As the city of London was again ravaged by disease, John Donne fell ill.  He survived, but during each of the 23 days of sickness he wrote a meditation. Meditation 17 is the most famous. for these 2 lines,

“no man is an island” 

and 

“ask not for whom the bell tolls, for it tolls for thee.”

Each day the church bells of London rung out to announce the most recent deaths of Londoners. As Donne lay in his sick bed, not knowing whether it would become his death bed, he could hear the bells toll. He was not oblivious to this daily public cry, but rather in the sound he heard a gracious reminder.

“No man hath affliction enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction…Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it.  Another may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction, digs out, and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger, I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.”

As we all look forward to the day when mass restrictions are behind us and when some semblance of normalcy returns, let’s not push aside the treasure found in this moment, the treasure grasped by John Donne and millions beside. 

The Lord’s Prayer in Victorian Parliament: Be careful what we ask for

We need more prayer, not less prayer. In a season when we have been reminded of our mortality and the acute limitations of being human, the wise learn how much more do we need Divine grace, wisdom, and strength. Instead of praying, the Victorian Parliament is arguing about Christianity again! This time, the dispute is over the Lord’s Prayer and whether it has a place inside Spring St.

Fiona Patten is introducing a motion to have the Lord’s Prayer replaced with a moment’s silence at the start of each Parliamentary sitting. The Legislative Council member from the Sex Party (sorry, it’s know called the ‘Reason Party) believes that our pluralistic society should exclude this prayer. Okay, I am being slightly facetious. Patten’s reasoning is that many Victorians are not Christian and the prayer discriminates against other religions and Victorians with no religious affiliation. 

Premier’s Chair!

What would I decide? Of course, I’m not sitting in the Premier’s chair nor in any chamber at Parliament. As a Christian minister living and serving in Victoria I do have some thoughts.

Fiona Patten has a point although it’s not without reasonable rebuttal. Reading the Lord’s Prayer in the Parliament serves to perform two important functions in our society. First, this is an audible reminder to Victorians of the fact that Australia has been profoundly and positively shaped by Christianity. The prayer offers both an historical and cultural connection to the worldview that has provided vital and foundational influence on Australian life. The Lord’s Prayer serves as one of the few remaining signals in Parliament to our nation’s Christian past. This is a past that many wish to have erased although doing so will also remove the very foundations upon which our society depends for stability, tolerance, and viability. 

Second, the Lord’s Prayer is a salient reminder of our humanity and our dependence on God who is Sovereign and good. We ultimately need a God of Biblical proportions to give us wisdom and understanding as we lead, serve and live. 

However, what’s missing in this debate is an explanation of what the Lord’s Prayer is about. This prayer which brings great comfort is also dangerous to pray. The words Jesus taught are not vague spiritual notions; nice and innocuous. In anything, the Lord’s Prayer should probably come with a warning sign or some kind of disclosure before reading. Indeed, there are bigger and better reasons for avoiding this prayer (and for praying it). Let me explain.

The prayer begins with Jesus addressing,

“‘Our Father in heaven,”

Jesus invites us to call God, Father. This is an incredibly wonderful idea and it’s one that’s unique to Christianity. To know God as Father suggests that he is not an impersonal being, but he is relational and personal. What a remarkable concept Jesus is teaching!

However, God is not everyone’s Father, and it’s imprudent to call him such. It is inappropriate for any child to call me dad, only my children can do that. Similarly, only God’s children can truly address him as Father. It is exclusive and yet it is also wonderfully inclusive, for no one is born Christian but we are adopted by grace, a gift from God. The Bible shows us that the privilege of knowing God as Father comes through faith in his Son. This is one of the great possibilities that’s opened in Christianity, we can come to know God as Father.

It is either a bold or very foolish politician who addresses God as Father if they have not first put their faith in his Son. 

Notice also how the Lord’s Prayer petitions God to end this fallen world and to judge wrongdoing,

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

This prayer is asking  God to bring an end to all sin, evil ,and death, and to judge the guilty. It is also an appeal for God to unveil his rule publicly and universally that we might live under and enjoy eternity with him in the new creation. Are we ready to pray for Divine judgment on the Victorian Parliament, and all our attitudes and actions? 

The Lord’s Prayer recognises God who provides our daily provisions and who is able to do the harder work, of forgiving us our sins: “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Such a petition is humbling, requires honesty, and it  provides a stunning possibility; Divine forgiveness. There is a hypocrisy and hubris to ask God for forgiveness and to speak words that depend on a crucified and risen Christ while neither intellectual or heart assent to them. 

If we’re being honest, prayer can act like a placebo, serving to trick my  consciousness into believing everything will work out. Prayers, even in many churches, have become about upholding tradition rather than the intended purpose which is about knowing and delighting in God. One cannot read this prayer with understanding and come to those conclusions.

Fiona Patten’s reasons for removing  the Lord’s Prayer isn’t really about pluralism, it is simply the latest move in the Victorian Parliament to  further diminish the role Christianity holds in our society.

I understand why some Christians (and even unbelievers) are wanting the Lord’s Prayer to remain in Parliamentary program and I’ve above outlined two reasons above. At the same time, I note how this Parliament, earlier in the year, made it illegal for Christians to pray with and converse with another person about sexuality and gender. I am neither surprised by the move to remove the Lord’s Prayer, and frankly how hypocritical would it be if it continued. I am not keen to see our political representatives heaping more coals on their heads by speaking words that condemn them before an authority that exists above their own station.

Removing the Lord’s Prayer is another indication of a culture turning its back on the very beliefs upon which the very best of society is built. However its continuation is not a sign of living faith but of hypocrisy and dead religion. While there is great sadness in seeing my State of Victoria walk away from the God who exists, lives, and saves, the answer is not found in Parliament but in the local church. Christians should take care in how we argue, for we are mistaken if we conflate civil society with the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God and the cause of Jesus Christ isn’t extended through such cultural nodding toward Christianity. The Lord’s Prayer belongs to the Church. The cause of the Gospel will be advanced by Christians believing, praying, and living out what Jesus taught us to pray.

This prayer that provides comfort to millions of Christians is far more weighty and formidable than I suspect many assume. My advice to the Victorian Parliament today is to pause and read it very carefully and to ponder the theological statements Jesus is making. Ask this question, do I believe this? Can I ask speak these words with a clear conscience? Perhaps, just perhaps, ask yourselves, does this God of the Lord’s Prayer really exist and can I known him and receive the blessings that are promised to those who know God as Father?


Update: The motion failed to gain sufficient support. For the time being the Lord’s Prayer will continue to be recited. However the Government’s Attorney General has indicated that Labor will proceed to remove it following the next State election (assuming they win)

Tokyo Olympics Imagine the wrong song

I enjoy the Olympics. I’m not one these anti-sport types or anti-cultural wowsers. There’s no doubt that my family and I will be watching the Aussies over the next couple of weeks. We expect to see some amazing athleticism and competition, and we’ll be cheering on as proud Aussies. There are plenty of non Aussies that I’m keen to see compete as well. And ‘yay’ to Tokyo! I’m happy for the people of Tokyo. Despite the trauma and uncertainty of the past 18 months the game have begun; well done!

There was much to enjoy and amaze in what was a scaled down opening ceremony. The cauldron is spectacular. And yes, mask wearing athletes waving to a near empty stadium is kind of weird but welcome to 2021. I also assumed there would be some element at the Games that’ll make us cringe. On this occasion, the irksome bit was in fact the contribution made by Australia’s very own Keith Urban. Or rather, Urban shared the honours with a Legend named John and two other singers who each represented a different continent.

Together they performed a virtual rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine. Really? Yep. We couldn’t think of something more imaginative to captivate the audience? Even a few lines from Puccini would have given us a better dose of goose bumps than Lennon’s dreary Imagine. Despite Lennon’s best efforts to produce a mediocre song,  Imagine has become something of a global anthem for times of trouble and bizarrely even at Christmas time.

But let’s stop for a moment and use our brains. Think about the lyrics. Forget about the ho-hum melodic line. Leave aside the earnest yodelling of Keith Urban, the swaying arms of a choir and the army of drones circling above to create a unified world. Truth ain’t measured by a spectacularly scripted show!

Imagine is hardly good news. It’s a pop song designed to imagine life without ultimate meaning and hope. Despite its claim, it doesn’t bring people together for it erases any story that’s bigger than ourselves and strong enough to heal the unreconcilable. It’s the perfect anthem for our neighbourhood nihilists, not for a hurting world.

At a time when the world in the thralls of a pandemic, facing enormous financial debt, geopolitical threats of warlike imminence, and the fracturing of western civilisation, Imagine is not the song we need to hear. What does this imaginary song offer us?

Imagine there is no ultimate meaning, purpose or goal toward which our lives are headed.

Imagine there is no overarching design and no inherent significance. 

Imagine if our lives were reduced to the pot luck outcome of billions of years of impersonal atoms and molecules running around hitting and missing, making and destroying.

Imagine a world where the reality of conscience and moral choice has no grounding in a purpose beyond that of group survival in the evolutionary race to the top.

Imagine human affections are ultimately an illusion, a cruel joke orchestrated by the impersonal rules pf physics.

Imagine all the people living for today, for tomorrow is the end.

Imagine’s meaning isn’t so great, is it?

In contrast to Lennon’s nihilist proclamation, people want to know that there is hope beyond a crisis and that there is hope when faced with mortality. Times of economic uncertainty can drive people to the kinds of selfish and greedy hoarding of supplies that we have been witnessing. A health crisis can lead to further fragmentation in societies. Indeed, the longer this crisis continues the more likely we are going to witness the breaking of social cohesion. And yet as these economic, social and health pressures tighten, it is all the more necessary for people to hear news of hope.

There is little consolation to a gravely ill person that not only is death imminent, but that it is ultimately meaningless. This atheistic ethic doesn’t do much to help grieving families who have just witnessed a loved one being ripped from their lives. To quote one friend, Imagine is “tone deaf”.

We want there to be a heaven, a better world with a better life. We want the cessation of sorrow and suffering, but Imagine cannot offer any such promise. 

At the same time, hell is also a necessity, for we do not want to live in a world where evil wins or where injustice prevails. While we should be thankful for our judicial system, it is not full proof and many terrible deeds are never prosecuted. People need to know that in death the wicked do not escape justice. Imagining there is no hell would be a form of hell its self.

John Lennon’s song collapses in on its own irrationality. He imagines ‘living life in peace’, and there being no “greed or hunger”, but such talk demands a form and purpose; atheism and naturalism cannot provide such a definition. 

The COVID-19 crisis is a voracious reminder of the fragility of life and the uncertainty of building society on credit. Hedonism is vanity. Pushing against greed and social disharmony suggests meaning, but meaning is disqualified in a God absent universe. As Solomon the wise wrote in the book of Ecclesiastes, 

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”

    says the Teacher.

“Utterly meaningless!

    Everything is meaningless.”

Nietzsche was right, at least as far his logic is concerned, that “the masses blink and say ‘We are all equal – Man is but man, before God – we are equal.’ Before God! But now this God has died.” A contemporary of Nietsche, Anatole France retorted without regret,

“It is almost impossible systematically to constitute a natural moral law. Nature has no principles. She furnishes us with no reason to believe that human life is to be respected. Nature, in her indifference, makes no distinction between good and evil.”

What if there is heaven and hell? What if God exists? 

Everything must change. What we think and say has greater import. How we live and how we treat others has far more consequence. 

What if the God who exists is the God of the Bible: who is Sovereign, and altogether righteous and loving, just and kind? 

What if Jesus Christ is the perfect image of God, the One who as John testifies, 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

These words are far more sustainable and substantial than the sentiment of living in a world without Divine structure. A Biblical view of the world both assesses its beauty and its horror, the worth and the uncertainty. These Scriptures bring us to the most astonishing words, ones that counter John Lennon’s pipe dream with concrete hope, 

 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Kanishka Raffel, the weeping Archbishop

“I will weep and wail for the mountains and take up a lament concerning the wilderness grasslands. They are desolate and untraveled, and the lowing of cattle is not heard. The birds have all fled and the animals are gone.” (Jeremiah 9:10)

Kanishka Raffel was tonight installed as the new Anglican Archbishop of Sydney. It is indeed a significant position not only for Sydney Anglicans but for Australian Christianity. 

Much as been said about Kanishka in recent weeks, his Sri Lankan heritage, his background in law, his gifts of teaching and preaching, his intellect, and his commitment to indigenous reconciliation. There is something else I have noticed. It’s something I first saw in him some years ago and it has come to fore this month at Synod, during an ABC radio interview with Richard Glover, and again tonight while Kanishka was preaching; Kanishka Raffel is the weeping Archbishop. 

Jeremiah is famously known as the weeping prophet. He saw the hardened hearts of the people and the coming judgment of God. He didn’t preach with enthusiasm or vitriol, but with tears. “If you do not listen, I will weep in secret because of your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly, overflowing with tears, because the Lord’s flock will be taken captive” (Jer 13:17).

Even more staggering is what we learn from the shortest verse in all the Bible,  “Jesus wept”. Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazurus. He shed tears not only because his friend had died, because of course Jesus was about to raise him from the dead. Jesus wept because he more than anyone understands the depths of human sin and the horror of death. It is of course the reason why the Son of God came: to die in the place of sinners and to give new life.

The reason for Kanishka’s tears is, I believe, his deep deep gratitude to God for Jesus Christ and his longing for others to know Him. It’s not difficult to see that Kanishka has never gotten over how amazing God’s grace is and how wonderful it is to know Divine forgiveness. I have been with him and others, when tears were flowing down his face as he prayed.  Tonight at St Andrew’s Cathedral as he spoke of the beauty and power of the cross of Christ, it was again evident how much the Gospel means to him.

As he concluded his sermon tonight , Kanishka said, 

“At the foot of the cross which is all the world to me, I am nothing more than a grateful and forgiven sinner”.

When we strip away all the costume and plastic that covers everyday living and that consumes our affections and effort, we are naked sinners before a holy God. When we remove our hubris and dependence upon health, intelligence, and ingenuity, we really are frail and broken human beings. We can maintain the charade for a while, but not forever. When the Apostle Paul considered his own people, he exclaimed, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people.” Oh, that we would feel a tenth of that anguish for our neighbours, friends, and work colleagues. 

Tonight Kashiska spoke about the cross of Jesus Christ. Why? This is the Christian message. It doesn’t take much to realise that the cross is often derided and shamed in today’s Australia. The cross represents a part of Australian life that is weak and irrelevant to most. It’s a symbol of oppression and religious idiocy. But of course, the cross held those connotations in the First Century too. It was in this weakened man crucified, that God displayed his glory and love. It is by the cross God saves. Yes, the cross of Christ is everything. It is the centre of the Christian faith, the reason for life and hope. 

Tears of joy and tears of sorrow are familiar companions for pastors. As I once again see Kanishka’s gratitude to God for the Gospel overflow, I too am thankful and am reminded of how wonderful is God’s good news. May we never get over this grace. May we never forget how deep is the Father’s love. May this grace fill us with longing and tears for those who don’t know Christ, so that we might have courage and love to tell them of what the Lord has done for them. 

I’m no Anglican, but I’m a Christian brother who is thankful for this weeping Archbishop, and I’ll be praying for him as he leads the Sydney Diocese into the future.