“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.
Kings, Queens and Princes, the great and the small, the young and old, will all meet death and face the judge of the earth. As the writer to the Hebrews explains, “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
The grave is a great divider for it tears people apart and it separates the living from the dead, and the soul from the body.
Shakespeare’s Calpurnia was wrong when she assumed before Caesar, “When beggars die, there are no comets seen; The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”
It is Ecclesiastes which faithfully records our own foreordained end, “For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered; the days have already come when both have been forgotten. Like the fool, the wise too must die! (2:16)
Susan and I stayed up to watch the funeral service for His Royal Highness, Prince Philip. It was midnight here in Melbourne but one should not overlook momentous occasions such as this. The funeral was orchestrated with solemnity, with military procession and precision, marching in step to Beethoven’s funeral march. It was also obviously deeply personal, to reflect Prince Philip’s life and the devotion of a grieving wife.
The constraints of a global pandemic were evident, with only 30 guests permitted to attend the service inside St George’s Chapel, compulsory mask wearing for Princes and Princesses. Much of the Chapel was deserted as a choir of 4 sang in an empty space. The simplicity and scarcity did not however detract from the dignity and import of the event. If anything, the sight of Her Majesty sitting alone during the service brought to bear the awful reality of grief.
The television presenters spoke of Prince Philip’s ‘faith’. For a moment, one commemorator referred to Duke of Edinburgh’s ‘Christian faith’, but quickly corrected his social faux pas by returning to the vague universal category of ‘faith’.
As we viewed the royal funeral from our sofa, absorbing the sight of the ceremonial and the personal, the figure of a Queen in mourning and the sound of stunningly beautiful music, the common face death struck a note.
Yes, the world lost a remarkable man, but a woman lost her husband and children their father.
We are divided by death and united in death: Duke, accountant, teacher and boilermaker alike. Behind the awe inspiring grandeur of this yet simple royal funeral, probably overlooked by many and yet very present, a word of hope was offered. It is a wonderful hope and it is offered to those mourning in St George’s Chapel and to the 100s millions like Susan and I who were watching from our homes.
The word spoken promises a breakthrough from the grave and the undoing of death. I have no idea whether Prince Philip personally believed this good news and entrusted his life to the Sovereign care of his Redeemer, but the message resounded throughout the service for all to hear: for royals and commoners alike, from the cook to the chorister, the private soldier to the Field Marshall: One who is greater than all Queens and Princes has conquered death and he gives certain hope of resurrection to all who receive him.
This is the portion of Scripture that was read,
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “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?”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (John 11:21-27)
The leveller of life is not only death, it is our critical need for a God who forgives sinners and who can gift eternal life. No matter our status or reputation, even Princes need a saviour.
Christians don’t believe in an afterlife, Jesus holds that there will be an event of far greater consequence and reality: resurrection. Our physical remains share the maggots and soil for a time, only to be resurrected on the last day and to participate in a new creation where there will be no disruption or ending of joy and happiness and life. Jesus identifies the one through whom this gift is made possible: He is the resurrection and the life.
As Jesus asked Martha we may ask ourselves, ‘Do we believe this?’
We will all walk through the shadow of death. Our bodies grow weak and sick and tired. They will all exhaust, beaten down by transgressions and life in a corrupted world. Death will result for those we love and those we despise, and it will also swallow us. This great defeater has itself been defeated. The Messiah came and announced the very news that last night rang true, as it is true for every funeral I have conducted over the years, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”
Jesus’ words are no hollow gesture. Following his conversation with Martha Jesus approached the tomb where his friend Lazarus lay. In what is the shortest verse in all the Bible we read, “Jesus wept”. This God is not unmoved by the awfulness of death. Even more, to prove the worth of his word this same Jesus who was crucified, rose from the dead on the third day. He was physically and really alive, and never to die again. It is this resurrection that is the guarantee of our resurrection. As the Apostle Paul explains,
“And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:17-20)
Whether it is a royal funeral or the deaths of 3 million people to COVID-19 or our own eventual dying, we need hope that holds fast beyond grief and surpasses our own strength. Thank God for his Son and for the hope of resurrection that is ours in Him.
2020 has proven to be a troublesome and challenging mountain to climb. Not least of all, the year proved inordinately difficult for school students who were completing their studies and aiming to prepare or life post-school. VCE is difficult enough in normal circumstances, but 2020 compounded the normal with pandemic and lockdown. With months without onsite learning, the troubles associated with virtual classes, unable to complete practical assessments, and sensing the surrounding stresses facing families and society, it is a wonder that students completed their final year.
Close to 47,000 teenagers from around Victoria are today finding out the results from their VCE. Thousands of year 12 students also chose not to receive an ATAR this year. Just finishing year 12 in a year of pandemic was challenging enough. Many students will be pleased, many others disappointed. Some will be relieved while others will be anxious.
First of all, congratulations on completing the VCE. It is no small feat. Even though I finished the VCE last century, I remember it well, both the highs and lows, and mostly the lows. I stuffed up big time! My original plans went cascading down the mountain with such momentum that I was never going to stop that fall. However, I am so grateful for the way God used my mistakes and shortcomings to redirect life down the path where I find myself today, now 25 years after finishing school. It didn’t take me 25 years to grasp this; within a year of finishing VCE I became captivated by the way God began to orient my life along a new and more exciting road. I was still somewhat embarrassed by the way my school and friends were aghast at my performance but I was thankful for the new turn toward the future.
An ATAR is something but it is far from everything. Your ATAR isn’t the end of the story. To be blunt, a place in the top 1% doesn’t secure anything in life, except the first day of a university course.
To those students who are happy and content, well done. You are being rewarded for two years of hard work.
To those students who are dissatisfied, or even despondent now, life is so much more than study and school, and university and even work. Yes, it opens doors that can lead to amazing experiences, but the likelihood is that the dreams and pursuits you now hold onto will change significantly from those you will have when you are 25. Indeed, many of the happiest and most content people I know didn’t knock their VCE out of the park. Some were clean bowled and others didn’t get onto the pitch at all.
A word to parents, chill. Don’t measure your children by this result for they are worth more than a thousand top ranking ATAR scores and scholarships to university. Remind them, they are worth more than their 99.95 or 75 or 35 or whatever score they achieve.
For both parents and kids the Lord Jesus has spoken a word that befits a day like this, whether we are feeling pumped or deflated.
Jesus gently warns us,
“19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Following, Jesus encourages us,
“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? 26 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? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 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? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
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.
Melbourne is slowly emerging from the worst disaster in her 185 year history. The past nine months have 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 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.
The pandemic has revealed our 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. Yet, 2020 has exposed realities about our societal health that we would do well to carefully and humble examine.
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 were 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.
In the meantime, many other Victorians worked tirelessly to fight the virus and keep people alive. Working long hours and putting themselves at risk 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 behaviour during the pandemic is fear. Government press conferences and public commentary were primed with scaring people into submission.
Let it said, it is foolish to think COVID-19 is not a serious and deadly disease. It is no Spanish flu or Bubonic Plague, but the virus is nonetheless highly contagious and is life threatening for the elderly and people with 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 didn’t let this opportunity slide either. Yet overall, Victorians followed the rules. This may be a sign that we trust the Government or that we’re afraid(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 we 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, 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? While Australia was built on certain myths, these are more fiction than fact, and among them is our belief in independence and self making.
This is an uncomfortable truth, Victoria’s COVID-19 response was built on the premise of trust, but rather that of suspicion. The Government anticipated that people won’t follow the best medical advice and that people won’t follow reasonable measures. Their suspicions had 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.
The Victorian people deserve to know the truth of what happened in Melbourne hotels, and yet it seems increasingly likely that we will remain in the dark.
A few have fallen on their sword while also being stabbed in the back. Apologies have been offered, blame shifted, and still no one seems to be at fault. It is quite extraordinary 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” proved to be an ironic and even sardonic name.
To be fair, what COVID-19 reveals 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 and 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.
The prophet Isaiah wrote of the coming Christ,
“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.”
This article is a revised version of a post from September
“The field today doesn’t look much like a place for sport. Then again, neither did it in 1914. While the ground is still soggy and uneven, in 1914 it was also filled with shell holes, barbed wire, unexploded bombs, and human body parts. War is an ironic and awfully sardonic affair. “Silent night” hovered over a battlefield. The message of “peace on earth” found a temporary home on that violent soil of Flanders.
The unofficial Christmas armistice lasted for one day, although along some other sectors of the Front, troops were reluctant to fire their weapons for several days. It required officers to threaten their men with disciplinary action, should they not repent of fraternising with the enemy. A snippet of grace amid continual bloodletting. A single day of peace during four years of unspeakable suffering. But like the sudden alarm clock that arrests a serene night’s sleep, peace evaporated with the inevitable, although probably reluctant, first shot fired.
This famous soccer pitch can be visited today, as we did two days before Christmas in 2018. Two markers note what took place on the field on Christmas Day 1914. One is located on the very edge of the ground, placed by the famed khaki chums (an organisation of army enthusiasts). Across the road, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) unveiled a humble yet befitting memorial on the centenary of that game with a modest sculpture. Lying in front is a box filled with soccer balls of all colours, although now faded and deflated with the seasons. Standing behind is a fir tree decorated for Christmas.
What makes this field pertinent for Campbell history is that this is where the 35th Battalion ascended on the morning of the battle of Messines. That morning when the whistles blew, it wasn’t to start a football match, but to announce the launch of an attack; what General Monash referred to as his Magnus Opus.”
Victoria should we known as the State of Confusion.
A beautiful announcement was made in Victoria yesterday. Victorians who have lost a baby during pregnancy can now apply for a certificate from the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.
13 years ago Susan and I were overjoyed to learn that we were having another child. This elation broke on the day he had the ultrasound and learned that our little one’s heart was no longer beating. Even today, there is an echo of grief in our hearts as we remember our child. There is also a joy and anticipation in knowing that the day of resurrection is coming and we will be reunited in heaven.
Susan and I are but one of 100,000s of couples in Victoria who experience a miscarriage. It is believed that perhaps 1 in 5 pregnancies ends in miscarriage.
The concept for the certificate started with a Ms Moran, who works for SANDS, an organisation who supports families through miscarriages, stillbirths, and newborn deaths. This recognition by the State of the life and value of these little children will be welcomed; it is a wonderful idea.
Victoria’s Attorney General Jill Hennessy commented,
“These certificates are a meaningful way to recognise this significant event,” she said.
“It’s important we remember those children who were taken too soon.”
Victoria’s decision comes with an elephant of mammoth proportions. On the one hand, we are affirming the life and value of little ones who die in the womb, while also advocating the killing of children in the womb.
Under Victorian law (since 2008), a mother may abort her child, even up until the point of birth.
In 2015, Dr Rachel-Carling Jenkins MLC introduced a Bill to the Victorian Parliament, calling to ban abortions after 24 weeks. It was defeated. Jill Hennessy, who was the Health Minister at the time, rejected the Bill. She said,
“The really challenging decision that women may have to make about the future of a pregnancy is one that should be kept between the woman and her doctor. This is a matter that has been settled for a long time in Victoria, and we intend to ensure that continues to be the case”
Legislative Council member, Ms Patten responded to the Bill,
“I can’t believe that in 2015 we are even discussing abortion laws any more”.
Five years later, babies who die in the womb, even in the earliest weeks, can now be formally acknowledged by the State. And this, while we continue to legally permit many thousands of abortions every year, even at the point of birth.
There is a ghostly horror lurking behind this irreconcilable contradiction. Either there is a human being in the mother’s womb or there is not. They are a child or they are not. This isn’t rocket science. Indeed, with more technology at our disposal and with greater knowledge, the more we have discovered about life in the womb. We can see the heartbeat of a baby in the earliest weeks. We can delight at a child’s fingers and toes growing at 6 weeks. We now know that babies can hear and respond to music by 16 weeks; the next Mozart is already learning to feel and marvel at the beauty of sound.
If the State now recognises an infant who dies in the womb, how can we also persist with the view that it is right to kill a child of the same age? The disjunction is obvious and grotesque.
Behind claims of equality and human dignity are assumptions that contradict such public speech. Human life in Victoria does not have inherent or equal worth. Rather, life is defined subjectively and only carries the value assigned by other individuals. This is the law for the unborn. A child is not to live and have life because they are intrinsically human and have inherent worth; under Victorian law these are qualitative and conditional features assigned by a mother who chooses to keep her pregnancy.
With knowledge comes responsibility. With information comes accountability. Instead, my own State of Victoria which I love sadly testifies to the fact that wisdom doesn’t also accompany greater knowledge. Righteousness does not necessarily flow from increased learning.
To argue, it is the women’s choice, does not stand to moral or scientific reasoning. If this child is a person, as Victoria’s Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages now recognise, and as medical science has long established as fact, we can no longer sustain the view that the child’s life depends on a woman’s choice.
Should we be surprised that most media outlets have overlooked the fantastic story of the certificates? Or is likely that the jarring contradiction is too obvious for public consumption?
I am reminded of a young couple whose little boy died one week after he was born. The Dad fell into deep grief. This same man later wrote a Psalm where he not only expends his grief but also his contrition for decisions he made which led to this overwhelming situation. The Psalm is pertinent for Victoria because on the day our consciences are shocked by the reality of decisions we have made, and we are disturbed at the thought of what we have done, we will look for One who can forgive us. Thank God that such a God exists and who forgives more fully than we can ever imagine or deserve.
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me
Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me” (Psalm 51:1-12)
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 forChristianity 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.
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
“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. 2 And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” 3 But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. 4 I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. 5 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.”
6 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. 7 He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. 8 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. 9 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.”
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.
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