Responding to the Australian Bush Fire Crisis

We spent the first three days of 2020 driving to and from Canberra, for a family wedding. Once we drove across the border from Victoria into NSW, visibility on the road slowly deteriorated as the air became more dense with smoke. By the time we reached Canberra, we could see less than 100m in front. Getting out of the car, the smoke clung to our clothes and flushed into our throats as we breathed, causing everyone to cough and eyes to sting.

We had the radio tuned to the ABC for reports on the fires. As we drove into Canberra we listened to a pollution expert explain that air quality index readings above 200 are considered hazardous to health. That day in Canberra (as it was for most days in recent weeks), the readings spilled over 2,000, and even reaching 5,000 during parts of the day. Canberra wasn’t only the dullest city in Australia, it now has the worse air quality of any city in the world.

Our hotel was situated just around the corner from  Parliament House. The flag and spire on top of the building that usually dominates the area, couldn’t be seen due to the blanketing haze. We drove across Lake Burley Griffen with its famous fountain but all was invisible to us.

Picture this, the situation around the country worsened over the week. Returning home to Melbourne on the Thursday, we drove south along the Hume Highway. For the entire 700km journey smoke covered the roads and the paddocks and hills on either side. 700km of smoke from bushfires. As we approached Albury/ Wodonga the smoke thickened, and at times visibility on the road was less than 200m. We stopped for lunch in Wodonga, where the smoke was heaviest. Our food had little taste for the smoke covered everything. The air tasted of ash, and its’ heaviness found a home in our throats and noses.

I have passed through bushfire areas before. Growing up in country Victoria, I’ve experienced burnt out bushland and smoke lingering around the hills, but never anything so thick and covering an area of such staggering size. Something like 10 million hectares of land is now scorched black. That’s an area larger than many entires States in the USA. More than 20 people have died, 2000 homes destroyed, and it is said that half a billion animals have been killed.

Cooler and wetter conditions mean that most of the fires are now either under control and at least temporarily dampened until the weather changes once again. We can be thankful for this temporary reprieve.

The reason for writing this post less about sharing our recent family road trip and more about offering some advice. Unlike most bushfires in Australian history, this time everyone has an opinion. Some of the suggestions are helpful while others should be avoided.

I want to offer 6 responses that Christians can make following these weeks of fire (and in preparation for the rest of the fire season which we mustn’t forget has another two months to go). I want to begin where I think the Bible encourages us to begin

1. Weep with those who are weeping and mourn with those who are mourning. 

“mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15)

If we cannot start here and empathise with those who have lost much, frankly our opinion about the rest is little more than a noisy gong being played out of rhythm. Fast-forwarding to politicking and virtual signalling is uncouth and uncaring.

2. Avoid the heated and at times disgusting politicisation of these events.

In one sense it is impossible to separate the fires from politics altogether. Of course, understanding what has happened and learning how to better manage the future matters enormously.  However, over the last month, we have seen some of the grossest grandstanding and vilest commentary that I have witnessed in Australian political history.

No, I am not referring to the Prime Minister here. I recognise Scott Morrison has made errors of judgement in his initial responses (in my opinion, taking his family on a one week vacation over Christmas is not one of them). I also think that the opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, has overall addressed the crisis well. While I frequently disagree with the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, he has conducted himself well and served Victorians well throughout this crisis. There have been however too many loud and loquacious voices using this tragedy for political point-scoring.

In such dangerous and exhausting circumstances as the nation has witnessed, there is naturally going to be anger and frustration, especially by those who are closest to the fires. But much social media and media responses have only served to fuel anger and encourage outrage in an irresponsible way, and often by people who know little about the subject matter. My plea is, don’t dump more petrol on the crisis.

Think before you tweet. Check before you share articles. Ask, is this righteous anger or are you justifying your disapproval of political opponents?

3. Don’t claim to be an expert when we are not

I have been asked to write some thoughts on the bushfire emergency. Until now I declined. Let me share why. There are two reasons why I have hesitated in writing anything on the fires. The first reason is that when someone’s house is on fire you don’t stop to argue about how the fire started, you go in and help them. There is a time to critique and analyse, and there is a time to get on with the job of helping out. As I suggested under point 1, many Aussies who have a megaphone in hand have skipped the important step of mourning and weeping, and instead jumped straight to blaming and shaming. Second, while I understand there are 25 million experts on climate change in Australia, I am not one of them. I can offer a point of view about fires and climate change, but I no more an expert than most of my 25 million fellow Australians. The problem is of course, that by even admitting such, there will some critics who assume I must be one of those evil climate deniers. Anything other than shrilling at the top of my lungs has become reason to cast suspicion on a person.

So what do I think? I accept that the globe is warming and that human beings have contributed to this problem. I am not a climate change scientist and neither are most of us. One cool fact though is that at Mentone Baptist Church we have an actual climate change scientist, and conversing with her is more than helpful. In addition to accepting the science on Climate Change, I also accept reporting that has revealed many of the fires that have started this season are the result of human agency; arsonists. Extreme drought conditions in many parts of the country and years of ignoring Indigenous practice of fuel reduction burning are also a combustible combination. It seems as though there are multiple factors contributing to the terrible fires burning across the country, including climate change. Indeed, it only makes sense that climate change will produce more volatile conditions (i.e. droughts and heat) leading to bushfires. It is vital that experts once again meet and provide workable and important solutions for future seasons (which include pathways to introducing more renewable energies). Believing in responsible policies and avoiding extreme rhetoric does not amount to Climate Change denial. These are my 2 cents worth of comments, spoken as an Aussie novice in this area.

4. Donate without playing to the crowds.

When donating to any of the organisations collecting for fire relief, don’t grandstand. It’s helpful to promote organisations who are doing good work but we don’t need to know how generous you are personally.

5. Pray.

Prayer isn’t useless. There are Aussies fighting the fires and who have escaped the fires who’ve been praying and they stand by prayer. Pray is effective for those who pray to a living God who is Sovereign over all things. Christians pray to a loving Father, who is the creator of all things and who is compassionate. We don’t pray because we understand everything that happens, we pray because we trust God who sees all things.

Pray for those fighting the fires. Pray for the communities who are facing fire. Pray for rain. Pray for our Government and political representatives that they will make wise decisions both in their immediate responses and for planning for the long term future. Here is a suggested prayer written by Glenn Davies, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney:

“Our heavenly Father, creator of all things and especially the creator of this land and its original peoples, we call out to you in these desperate times as fires have swept across several parts of our country.

Our hearts cry out to you for those who have lost loved ones, and those who have lost properties in the wake of these ravaging fires 

Father we pray, in your mercy, restrain the forces of nature from creating catastrophic damage; in your mercy protect human life.

Guard those volunteers, rural fire service personnel and emergency services who selflessly step into the breach to fight these fires. Guide police and authorities who help evacuate and shelter those who are displaced.  Bring comfort and healing to all who suffer loss.

Remembering your promises of old that seedtime and harvest will never cease, we pray that you would open the heavens to send refreshing rain upon our parched land. 

In your mercy, we pray for drenching rain. 

We pray that despite the forecasts, in your miraculous power you would bring forth rain to quench these fires and to bring life back into the earth, so that crops may grow and farmers may bring forth the harvest of the land again.

We bring these requests before your throne, in the name of your Son, who died and rose again for our deliverance,

Amen.”

 

6. Put your hope in God

Before Christmas, I wrote an article about hope, because I am increasingly hearing and seeing a young generation express hopelessness and despair. There are many reasons why millennials are sensing a world without hope, and chief among them is the issue of Climate Change.  In that piece, I suggested something that amounts to blasphemy according to some, but it is true and needs saying:

“Climate change isn’t the existential threat facing the planet and humanity. It is a symptom of an ancient problem that we have afforded to ignore for far too long. If there is no God, why should we ultimately concern ourselves with altruism? Why bother with protecting the environment for future generations if purpose is found in the individual and defined by personal satisfaction? The fact that we understand that there are moral boundaries and that the future does matter, is not an argument against Divine purpose but the only rational explanation for having such concerns. How we behave toward one another and how we use the planet is important because this isn’t a meaningless existence.

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

There has been a cosmological battle taking place for millennia, and it is ultimately against the Creator, not the creation. The ancient mandate to care for the world remains, but the growing call to save and redeem the world is not one within our purview. Those who believe we can save the planet have far too high regard for human capability and moral will. I’m not saying, don’t bother reducing carbon omissions and forget about investing in renewable energy; far from it. The house I live in won’t stand forever but it doesn’t mean I neglect the building. I neither wreck the house nor place all my energy and hopes in the house. I’m just pointing out the fact that people putting their ultimate hope in other people will always disappoint in the end. The role of global saviour is too big a job. You see, I don’t believe things are as bad as we suggest they are; despite even the good around us the reality is far more perilous.”

The Bible tells us that the world in which we live, with all its beauty and wonder, is also a dangerous place. It is cursed and corrupted and corroding like those old fashioned corrugated iron roofs that mark the Australian landscape. The hope for creation lies not in our management skills and commitments, but in the Gospel alone. When Christians forget this, we place too great a burden on our children to fix that which we cannot, and we may slide into preaching a Gospel to Australia which is no Gospel at all.

 “19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” (Romans 8:19-25)

We can’t survive without hope. Hope in the world or hope in humanity is an age-long route to despair. Human responsibility is noble and right, but the hope of the world cannot rest on the shoulders of any given generation.

“And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us” (Romans 5:5)

President Trump is wrong about Evangelicals but he is not to blame

“Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth.” (Psalm 2:7)

 

The necessary divorce

Is this the necessary divorce? The match wasn’t made in heaven. It was a coupling that shouldn’t have been, and yet some leading Christian voices in the United States laid down their theology and ascended the White House. In the last 48 hours, this special relationships has unravelled. Government and Church can be good friends but they make a lousy married couple.

Following an article written by Christianity Today’s Editor in Chief, Mark Galli, President Trump has attacked the magazine and ‘defended’ evangelicals. With what appears to be a sense of betrayal, the President has resorted to his usual public naming and shaming on twitter.

“….have a Radical Left nonbeliever, who wants to take your religion & your guns, than Donald Trump as your President. No President has done more for the Evangelical community, and it’s not even close. You’ll not get anything from those Dems on stage. I won’t be reading ET again!

“A far left magazine, or very “progressive,” as some would call it, which has been doing poorly and hasn’t been involved with the Billy Graham family for many years, Christianity Today, knows nothing about reading a perfect transcript of a routine phone call and would rather…..”

“guess the magazine, “Christianity Today,” is looking for Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or those of the socialist/communist bent, to guard their religion. How about Sleepy Joe? The fact is, no President has ever done what I have done for Evangelicals, or religion itself!”

I’m not writing to comment on the impeachment or to even comment on President Trump’s policies. I’m not here to defend Christianity Today either. My issue relates to the necessary separation of Evangelicalism from the White House (and any single political party for that matter).

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In response to President Trump’s assertion about looking after evangelical interests, it is not the role of Government to guard the evangelical faith. That is beyond the purview of a President’s responsibilities. The Church is not the State and the State does not control the Church.

Government and Church have different spheres of responsibility. The keys of the Kingdom belong to the Church while the Government holds the sword of justice. The different roles don’t mean there is no conversation between the two and that one cannot be of service to the other, but they are not institutions designed for a wedding. This important separation of Church and State is not an argument for the removal of religion from the public square, for all politics is religious. Some pundits argue for the removal of any semblance of religion in proximity to government, but this is neither biblical nor is it ideologically possible. Whether in the foreground and background everyone brings their convictions with them into the public square. We are all shaped by views about God and the world and these beliefs impact political priorities and policies.

It shouldn’t need saying, but just in case, the Government is not tasked with the responsibility of guarding one subsection of society, but caring for all its citizens by upholding the constitution, the law, and working for the good. Christians are part of the constituency, not the whole.

Also, President Trump understands Evangelical Christianity through a political lens that sees everything through a false binary: You’re either Conservative or socialist, you either vote Republican or Democrat. This is to misunderstand the nature of Christianity and the message of the Christian Gospel.

The Christianity Today article has spoken boldly about the importance of character,

“It’s time to say what we said 20 years ago when a president’s character was revealed for what it was.”

Indeed,  too many Christians threw this qualification into the recycling bin for a season. I also remember at the time of the 2016 election, leading evangelical voices were cautioning Christians and reminding them that character matters. Ed Stetzer, Russell Moore, and Al Mohler were among them. The reality is that some evangelicals wedded Trump while others stood at a distance. By in large, the Australian media ignored all this and instead ran with the preferred narrative of evangelicals supporting Trump. The reality is far more complex than has been reported. This doesn’t take away from the fact that many Christians in the United States, especially with notable names like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jnr, anointed Trump with a sacred calling that he and no President can hold.

Lest we conclude the problem is all Trump, we would do well to recall remember some of the things that have been said recently by Democratic presidential nominees in the name of Christianity. Pete Buttigieg, for example, takes the identity of Christian while supporting many ethical positions which are irreconcilable with the Christian faith, both politically and personally.

Should we blame the President? He is certainly responsible for what he believes and says. But is he to blame for the marriage with Evangelicals? No.

The greater responsibility lies with the fact that many Evangelicals in the United States fused their hopes and aspirations onto the Presidential bandwagon. They sacrificed integrity for expediency. I am not saying that voting Democrat is the alternative. How can one support a party that advocates the killing of unborn children and the destruction of sexual norms?

Sometimes there is no viable option. Surely this has been the predicament for Christians in many cultures during many seasons in history. The Bible never gives Christians a voting card. We are meant to honour, obey and pray for the Governing authorities, and to keep doing good to all. Some Governments are better than others, and we should wisely decide whom to support.

In none of this am I making a statement about who to vote for; not at all. The issue at hand is far more important and pressing; do not fuse the Christian faith with a political party or leader. Do not give to the State that which belongs to the Church. Do not sacrifice the Great Commission in order to maintain a place in the halls of Washington DC.

This isn’t an evangelical problem alone. Conservatives and Progressives alike make this blunder with a place too much emphasis on common grace and not enough episodes on the churches mission which centres in particular grace

It has been sad to watch a word which has holds such rich theological and historical significance, being undone in such a short time. Evangelical has been regularly misappropriated not only by political pundits but also by Americans themselves. True evangelicalism has little to do with the political aspirations of right-wing America, and everything to do with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Authentic evangelicalism is defined by this Gospel as presented in the Bible, not by the political right or left, not with Democrats or Republicans, and for the Australian context, neither Liberal nor Labor.

Terribly, “evangelical” America supported Donald Trump and have been tarnished for doing so. I cannot see how this association will advance the cause of Jesus Christ. If anything, the word may become irretrievably immeshed in a cause that is not the Gospel.

It is one thing to be part of a Presidential term, but it is quite another to one day stand before the Judge of the earth and give an account for how our lives have adorned or maligned the Gospel of Christ.

This final point is not only true for American Christians but also Australian Christians. When will Christians learn not to place undue hope in Government? The election has exposed a messed up eschatology and misplaced soteriology, which will not only disappoint, but will prevent people from seeing Christ. However Donald Trump decides to build his wall along the Mexican border, it is nothing compared to the wall evangelicals have built-in this election which will block out the wonder of the Gospel. How will true evangelicals work to dismantle this false gospel? What will we do publicly and in our Churches to redress the damage caused by this political misalignment?

Bethel causing greater grief

In 2018, Bethel Church (Redding California), sponsored and organised a revival rally in Melbourne. At the time, Stephen Tan of Regeneration Church, myself, and others expressed concerns about the event because of Bethel’s reputation for teaching and practicing ideas that are at odds with orthodox Christian faith. The backlash to these criticisms was sizeable, and yet since then many of the original concerns have remained and been reaffirmed.

One year later, there is a new and disturbing story coming out of Bethel. The two year old daughter of one of Bethel’s music leaders, Kalley Heiligenthal, died over the weekend.

The grief of losing a child is a grief no parent ever wishes to know. I am truly sorry that this family are experiencing such a trauma. We can pray that Kalley, her husband, and family are surrounded by friends at this dreadful time.

A photo of their daughter is being shared on social media through Bethel, but I will not show it on this post as I believe it is inappropriate. The reason for writing now is because Bethel is making an assertion that is incredibly harmful,  and because of their widespread influence around the world including Australia, it is appropriate to respond.

 

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Grief is hard enough in the best of circumstances. Grief is compounded by bad theology and misplaced hope. Bethel Church have posted a request on their facebook page, including a statement from Heiligenthal, asking for prayer that God would raise their daughter from the dead.

“Our God is the God of miracles, and nothing is impossible for Him! We are asking you, our global church family, to join with us in prayer and in declaring life and resurrection over @kalleyheili and @apheiligenthal’s daughter, Olive Alayne! Kalley, Andrew, and Elise, we stand with you in faith and in agreement for Olive’s life!

Read Kalley’s Post:
We’re asking for prayer. We believe in a Jesus who died and conclusively defeated every grave, holding the keys to resurrection power. We need it for our little Olive Alayne, who stopped breathing yesterday and has been pronounced dead by doctors. We are asking for bold, unified prayers from the global church to stand with us in belief that He will raise this little girl back to life. Her time here is not done, and it is our time to believe boldly, and with confidence wield what King Jesus paid for. It’s time for her to come to life.”

If it wasn’t already established back in 2018, the signs are clear that Bethel is producing strange and errant teachings, ones that create false hopes for grieving families.

To quote the Apostles Creed,

“I believe in the resurrection of the dead.”

I believe along with all Christians that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead on the third day. It was a bodily resurrection, not a spiritual awakening or temporary resuscitation. Indeed, the credibility and efficacy of the Christian Gospel depends upon this resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave.

“if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith… 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15)

The Bible explains that the resurrection of the dead is tied to the return of Christ and the unveiling of the new creation. In the mean time, the Bible speaks of suffering and patience, death and hope. For example in Romans chapter 8,

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that[h] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”

Since posting the prayer request two days ago, thousands of people have shared it on social media and thousands have posted prayers in which they ‘claim’ the power of God to bring this little girl back to life. There’s the problem. That’s the reason for saying something today. Errant theology produces false hopes and misleads people into believing and expecting wrong things from God. It also gives unbelievers reason to dismiss Christianity as a load of nonsense. If you are not yet convinced of the ongoing and dangerous influence of the ‘Signs of Wonders’ movement, surely this persuade you? 

The Scriptures themselves warn us about teachers who allege an early resurrection.

“Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have departed from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some.” (2 Timothy 2)

Losing a child is horrible beyond imagination. A Church has responsibility to love and comfort people in their grief, not to entertain, encourage, or promote unbiblical and false hopes. It is one thing for parents to wish for an alternate outcome, but for a Church to affirm this request is pastorally irresponsible and biblically aberrant.

 

 

 


Postscript

I believe that the parents have now asked for the prayers to cease.

Again, this is an awful situation that no parents wish ever to experience. I feel for them. May they turn to the God of grace in this time and know the comfort of family around them

(December 22 2019)

 

 

 

Hope for a generation without hope

During the course of 2019, I have observed a growing sense of hopelessness being felt and expressed by people across the globe, especially among teenagers. Climate change, political agendas and social uncertainties are compounding and amplifying a disillusionment about the future.

There is an audible disquiet and growing despair spilling over from social media and into our schools and onto our streets. My children’s school was so concerned about this that they wrote a letter to parents, urging us to address these matters in a calm and constructive manner.

This year we have heard young people declaring that they will never have because of threats facing the globe. Members of the British Royal family have also joined the chorus, announcing that they will have fewer children because of the perils posed by climate change. 

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It is not only Climate Change that is of concern. Western societies are experiencing a rise in anti-Semitism, stories of sexual abuse rarely leave the headlines, and the question of religious freedom is no longer limited to the theoretical. The oft forgotten issues of alcohol, drugs, and gambling continue to destroy homes and lives across our suburbs and towns. There is also the situation facing Hong Kong, the forced internment of over one million Uyghurs in China, and a 1000 who have been killed in Iran recently protesting in support of freedoms in that land.

There is much to see in our world today that can overwhelm young and vibrant hearts. Indeed, has there been another year in living memory that has exuded so much negativity and sense of despair?

Our city streets are regularly clogged with protests. Once upon a time, we might see 3 or 4 such marches during the course of a year, but now it is almost every week. And the people protesting have also changed. There are fewer industry unions standing for the rights of the working class. The demonstrations are about sexual rights and the environment: save the planet, save animals, and kill the unborn. If that final inclusion sounds a little distasteful, that’s because it is. Children are now joining in these rallies in their thousands, skipping school to express dread and discouragement as they consider their future.

These conditions are a dangerous recipe. Passionate citizens and concerned people can be exploited by vociferous ideologues. History is littered with such examples and even some current movements have also been used and turned by less than helpful campaigners. How quickly we forget. For example, when Safe Schools was launched, its chief architect, Roz Ward, explained that the curriculum was designed to introduce Marxist thinking into our schools. Far from assisting youth who are wrestling with their sexual identity, they became pawns in a political subversion game being played among academics and social activists.

There is something particularly disconsolating in watching a generation lose hope. Sure, some of it is virtual signalling. Of course, adults need to take responsibility for the over the top rhetoric they sometimes apply to public issues. And yet, we should recognise that many young Australians are feeling the weight of a less than certain future.

When we looked back we remember that ours isn’t the first generation of young people to experience despondency. The generation of 1914-18 was marked by the trauma of world war. The following generation grew up during the Great Depression and was soon struck down by a global war more terrifying and bloody than the one their parents survived. Children of the 1950s learned to duck and cover, in the event of a nuclear attack that many believed was inevitable.

We could dig further back into history and look to the time of the Exodus or to the age of exile in Babylon. What were those people living through?  How did they feel? And where did they place their hope?

Of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt for 400 years, 

“During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God.  God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.”

Of the people living in exile for 70 years, 

“They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’” (Ezekiel 37:11)

Millennials are not the first generation to face enormous life changing obstacles and they won’t be last. This is not to dismiss Climate Change. My purpose here is not to contest the science for I am no expert in this area. I have no reason to doubt the research being conducted by so many and where there is broad consensus. Indeed the issue fits neatly with a biblical understanding of the world and of the human capacity to care for and to abuse the creation in which we live. 

Are we reaping the fruit of generations of greed and selfishness? Probably. We are also reaping the benefits of generations of ingenuity and progress. I can almost hear Charles Dickens penning those famous words, 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.”

In some respects, we are living in the best of days. Our standard of living has never been higher. Our children have more opportunities and experiences open to them than could have been imagined 20 years ago. In many areas, life has never been better, but the rhetoric of doom is drowning out much else.

Call me a heretic but Climate change isn’t the existential threat facing the planet and humanity. It is a symptom of an ancient problem that we have afforded to ignore for far too long. If there is no God, why should we ultimately concern ourselves with altruism? Why bother with protecting the environment for future generations if purpose is found in the individual and defined by personal satisfaction? The fact that we understand that there are moral boundaries and that the future does matter, is not an argument against Divine purpose but the only rational explanation for having such concerns. How we behave toward one another and how we use the planet is important because this isn’t a meaningless existence. 

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

 There has been a cosmological battle taking place for millennia, and it is ultimately against the Creator, not the creation. The ancient mandate to care for the world remains, but the growing call to save and redeem the world is not one within our purview. Those who believe we can save the planet have far too high regard for human capability and moral will. I’m not saying, don’t bother reducing carbon omissions and forget about investing in renewable energy; far from it. The house I live in won’t stand forever but it doesn’t mean I neglect the building. I neither wreck the house nor place all my energy and hopes in the house. I’m just pointing out the fact that people putting their ultimate hope in other people will always disappoint in the end. The role of global saviour is too big a job. You see, I don’t believe things are as bad as we suggest they are; despite even the good around us the reality is far more perilous. 

At least in the West, millennials are following their parents lead and ditching Christianity in favour of either vague and undefinable spirituality or choosing a-theism and an irrational universe. I reckon this pursuit is partly responsible for hopelessness that is weaving itself through our communities. It is time to revisit the person of Jesus Christ. Indeed, for most Australians, it is to visit Him for the very first time. The Gospel of Matthew declares, 

“In his name the nations will put their hope.” (Matt 12:21)

And this, 

 “And again, Isaiah says,

“The Root of Jesse will spring up,
one who will arise to rule over the nations;
in him the Gentiles will hope.”

” May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:12-13)

Here are words of profound hope. Here is a person in whom we can rest our hope. Jesus wasn’t a virtual signaller. He came into a hostile world and to a people without hope. He demonstrated his Divinity in the most powerful and loving ways. He chose to take a road to crucifixion. He was raised to life on the third day. He has ascended to heaven. He will hold the nations to account. He will hold all of us to account. He brings hope and healing, peace and reconciliation. Some Churches have done a great job at confusing and even betraying these things, but the message stands the test of time. Indeed there are millions of millennials turning to the Gospel all over the world today and discover the kind of hope they need and cannot find in anything else.

We can’t survive without hope. Hope in the world or hope in humanity is an age-long route to despair. Human responsibility is noble and right, but the hope of the world cannot rest on the shoulders of our children. You may doubt what I suggest, but at the very least, why not open a Bible to the Gospel of Luke or the Gospel of John, read and consider this hope before you discount him?

“And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us” (Romans 5:5)

Finding a cricket role model for my children

It’s not always easy to find positive role models in the sporting world. Sure, if all we’re looking for is success or strength, there are plenty of examples in Australia. But what about sportsmen and sportswomen who also have integrity, and who speak and act in ways that you can say to your own children, there’s someone to look up to? There’s been more than a few times when I’ve had to say to by kids, sure this person excels in their sport but… It is refreshing when one can complete the sentence without needing to introduce the ‘but’!

All of my three children play cricket. My boys have been playing for years and my daughter is playing her first season. I love watching my kids train and play. I love that the fact that I can no longer face my boys in the nets, too many bruising deliveries now. I love watching a beautiful cover drive and hearing the sound of the ball reverberate off the willow. I love how my daughter and her friends enjoy every moment of a game and encourage each other, and even make a rep team after only 3 months of playing!

Cricket is a beautiful sport to watch and to play.  And yes, cricket is also frustrating. Seriously, in few sports does a single ball or shot have such repercussions for an entire game. Sometimes, as I tell my kids,  you have to accept the fact that Umpire made a mistake (or just possibly maybe, my own kids played the wrong shot).  Whether they played well or not so well, I can say to them now, remember the perspective Marnus Labuschagne has spoken about.

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Those living in a cricket playing nation will almost certainly have heard the name Marnus Labuschagne. Marnus Labuschagne is emerging a truly great cricketer for Australia. While debuting for Queensland in the Sheffield Shield during 2014-15 and receiving his baggy green in 2018, it was during the recent Ashes tour of England that Labuschagne’s reputation shot into the sky. Filling in for an injured Steve Smith, he batted beautifully for Australia and retained the spot for the rest of series.

Yesterday during the First Test against New Zealand, Marnus Labuschagne scored his third consecutive century during the Australian Summer. He is an impressive young Aussie cricketer and has easily cemented his place in the nation’s first 11.

There is another quality about Marnus Labuschagne that I can point out to my children. For Labuschagne there is more to life than cricket and sporting success. Obviously, to play at such a standard he is clearly gifted at the game and no doubt he trains tirelessly, at yet, he is open to sharing what life is about for him.

He says, 

“Sport is a fickle game and injuries play a big part. In the big scheme of things, what you’re worth, what you put your value in, isn’t out there on the pitch; it’s internal and in Christ… cricket is always going to be up and down and if you have [Jesus Christ as] a constant in your life, it makes life a lot easier.”

His mum would write Bible verses in his shoes, to remind him of greater things, and on his bat there is a picture of an eagle, to remind himself of the Bible verse, Isaiah 40:31. “For those who hope in the Lord, He shall renew their strength. They shall soar on wings like eagles; they shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not be faint.”

This is such a healthy perspective to have on sport and life. You can enjoy the sport and keep God central. It is possible to be a leading international cricketer and practice Christianity. It is possible to love the game but have your identity found in Christ.

I haven’t met Marnus Labuschagne, but I’m encouraged by what I’ve heard him say.  I’m wrapped to find another Aussie sportsperson of whom I can say to my kids, listen to what he just said, what he’s saying is true and worth thinking about. You can try to play cricket like Marnus Labuschagne and place “your worth…in Christ”.

Going Bananas over Art

I may be in the minority here, but I think there is something going on in Maurizio Cattelan’s work titled ‘Comedian’.

The Italian satirical artist has ‘created’ a work of art by using two common objects: an overripe banana stuck to a wall with a strip of duct tape. The work which is being exhibited at the famous Miami Gallery, Art Basel, has just sold for $120,000US.

 

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Before the mockers mock and critics criticise, it is worth observing how successful this Cattelan original has become. Some might say that the work itself should be subject to ridicule. Add a $120,000 price tag, and the jeering and sneering is more than audible. But the story of this captivating banana isn’t yet finished. A performance artist by the name of David Datuna visited the Art Basel and while admiring ‘Comedian’ up close, he committed the great heresy of reaching out and touching the banana. He didn’t stop there. He ripped the banana and its duct tape from the wall and then proceeded to peel the banana and eat its flesh. Onlookers gasped while others laughed. A security guard appeared, horrified. Datuna exclaimed that his was a work of art and he gave it the name, ‘Hungry Artist’.

He was quickly taken away but later emerged as a free man, free to perform and eat again.

Posting on Instagram he said,

“Art performance by me. I love Maurizio Cattelan artwork and I really love this installation. It’s very delicious,”

The director of the gallery, Lucien Terras,  told the Miami Herald,

“[Datuna] did not destroy the art work. The banana is the idea”.

The $120,000 banana has since been replaced with a fresh banana.

As this work of art captivates people all over the world, I’m thinking, who is acting the fool here? Friends are rolling their eyes all over social media and decrying the waste of money.  People are quick to point out the foolishness.

Who is the fool? Maurizio Cattelan? After all, all he did was take a banana and stick it on a wall. Far from acting the fool, Cattelan is looking at us and laughing with a $120,000 wry grin, shaped like a banana. More significantly, Cattelan’s genius is him successfully drawing us into conversation and debate about a slightly smelly piece of fruit. We are the suckers, falling into Maurizio Cattelan’s world of satire. The banana isn’t the subject, we are the subject. Even eating the art piece forms part of the ever evolving expression that has been set in motion by the artist.

So are we the fool? Well, we are certainly silly monkeys for eating into his artistic expression, and then, of course, there’s the fool who paid $120,000 for old fruit and a strip of duct tape!

In the world of commonsense, we would be regarded as fools,  as we offer up our half-digested opinions about a piece of fruit stuck to a wall. However, the world today isn’t ruled by reason. Rather, we have become eager participants in Cattelan’s pantomime. In this upside-down world where right is now wrong, and wrong is lauded, and where such divisions are even removed altogether, the only fool here is the security guard who dared assume that eating the banana was an act of vandalism. And yet, as Lucien Terras has declared, even the guard has become an aspect of the artist’s expression.

Art has merged into life. Or should that be, life has merged in art? Everything becomes art. We are the artist’s subject as much as that banana, and all the subsequent bananas that will replace the mould and smell.

As far as originality is concerned, Cattelan’s object is little more than a spin-off from Andy Warhol’s portrait of a banana. He is simply replacing a painting with the object itself. And yet, here we are, talking about a banana.

Now that we’ve established that all of us are fools and yet none of us is the fool, is there a right way to be looking at ‘Comedian’? Is there any single interpretation of ‘Comedian’ that is the right one? Indeed, should we even be talking in such categories?

The sculpture isn’t designed to elucidate a set response, but to create an entire spectrum of reactions. It is a portrait of the absurd and the absurd is us. There is no fixed meaning, just meanings. There is no primal purpose, just a bunch of ripening and then slowly rotting contributions.

I’m not quite sure whether ‘Comedian’ is mocking today’s avant garde or is an example of its stupidity. Either way, it is certainly revealing something rather sad and disillusioning about our society. What if the real world is also without overarching meaning and design? What if all we have is 7 billion opinions and convocations and divisions? It would be a truly satirical place to live. In such a world, why shouldn’t we eat and destroy an expensive work of art? Why shouldn’t we deride or laugh or even destroy? Why not spend $120,000 on a banana instead of giving the money to charity?

A universe without God is such a world. In such a closed material construct the only fool is the one who stands up and says “no, you mustn’t do that”. Instead, let people be, to steal, to take, to laugh, to admire, and however else we choose to express ourselves.

If Cattelan’s ultimate objective was to communicate the irreverence and heresy of particular meaning, the joke rests finally on him, for it was after all necessary for Cattelan to image the idea in his mind and then to make it with his hands. There is no art without the artist. Even the aleatoric movement of John Cage and company, the author could not fully remove himself.

The universe God created and in which we live is not such a place. It is filled with careful design and purpose. Not all opinions and reviews are equal. Not every action is good. Not every investment is wise or useful. The scary thing is that this world’s creator takes an active interest in things and he is concerned for how we treat his creation including one another. As Psalm 2 indicates, he is a God who laughs and scoffs at us for deluding ourselves into pretending that our speculations and philosophising can subvert and replace his revelation.

“The One enthroned in heaven laughs;

    the Lord scoffs at them.

He rebukes them in his anger

    and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,

“I have installed my king

    on Zion, my holy mountain.” (Psalm 2)

How much better is the portrait God has given us of his creation. How much more stunning and meaningful and satisfying is the Creator’s plan for the canvas on which you and I exist and have our being. Indeed, it involved the artist entering his own creation for the sake of redeeming us and reconciling us to His Divine purpose.

“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.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 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.”

This isn’t the final word

Rugby Australia and Israel Folau have come to an agreement. The terms of the settlement remain confidential but both parties have released a joint statement in which Folau affirms he never intended to offend anyone and where Rugby Australia apologise to Folau.

Israel Folau will be remembered as a greatly gifted player, who was nevertheless a disaster for rugby.

AAP

Not everyone is satisfied. Lawyers are expressing their preference to see the case played out in court, not necessarily because of prejudice against either party but for the sake of clarifying where Australian Law sits in regard to religious freedom. Other Aussies are disappointed because the case has ended in ex-communication for Folau rather than social execution. For 18 months, Peter FitzSimons has used his privileged place in the Australian media to call for and support the sacking of Israel Folau. He is far from the only voice, but Fitz has perhaps been the loudest and most consistent.  Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday, FitzSimons has expressed his disappointment over the final outcome and has tried to type out the final word on the Israel Folau saga.

“From the point of view of resolving the many issues raised, however – and more particularly holding Folau to account for his damaging actions – it is singularly dissatisfying.”

“As one who has followed the issues closely since Folau first disgraced himself by putting up a post endorsing the view that gays are destined for hell, and who has written and ranted about it extensively, I am more aware than most of the damage he has done, the hurt he has caused. In the 21st century, his homophobic gibberish – you heard me – simply has no place. And it is no excuse that the gibberish in question is sourced from the Bible. I was hoping the court would confirm that, hence the dissatisfaction.

It was for that reason my first reaction on hearing the news – and I write in the first few minutes thereafter – was the settlement was, firstly, a great pity. Secondly, my stronger reaction was I hoped RA kept the presumed payment to him to an absolute minimum.”

FitzSimons has been quick to call out rumours on social media that suggest the size of the settlement, and yet here he is, acting as a judicial speculator,

“have no inside knowledge of the terms, not even a hint, but my bet is it will be about $200,000 to $300,000…. Any sum more than that and I hope RA would have said, “bring it on, we’ll see you in court”.

Finally, he writes,

“Goodbye, Israel. You will be remembered as a greatly gifted player, who was nevertheless a disaster for rugby. The day you severed the final strands of your relationship with Rugby Australia was a good day for the game.

Good day to you, I said good day.”

FitzSimons may be posturing to give the final word, but this is far from over. The ‘Rugby Australia and Israel Folau’ chapter may have been signed off, but the issue of religious freedom in Australia is only just beginning.

Peter FitzSimons may not speak for all Australians, and probably not for mainstream Australia either, but he does represent a group of self-appointed moral arbiters who have significant public and influential voice. He has made it clear that believing and publicly affirming the Bible’s teaching on sexuality amounts to phobia and gibberish and it has no place in Australia today.

“In the 21st century, his homophobic gibberish – you heard me – simply has no place. And it is no excuse that the gibberish in question is sourced from the Bible.”

Back in July, Rugby Australia’s CEO, Raelene Castle, admitted that had Israel Folau only quoted Bible verses, that would be sufficient grounds to have him sacked. The Folau case was never really about contract law. This was always a case of cultural signalling, with Rugby Australia proving its wokeness to the world. Regardless of what one thinks about Folau’s post, he dared break the new moral code that is being pressed upon Australians, and that is, do not question the new sexual narrative. We are to fully subscribe to the new sexuality paradigm, and failure to do so requires a public cancelling and shaming. This forced social subscription may have found a high profile case in Australia but there are countless examples appearing all over the country, including Margaret Court, Coopers Beer, legislative moves by the Victorian Government, and more. Indeed, as Victoria pushes to ban conversion practices they have set the parameters so broadly that it may impact normal teaching and praying that occurs within church ministries.

Peter FitzSimons is an example of broad cultural ignorance toward the Christian Gospel. The entire premise of the Christian Gospel is that God disagrees with us, and yet he loves us. God’s disapproval of human attitudes and actions isn’t an example of phobia, and neither is Christian disagreement with the current sexual narrative. Peter FitzSimons is perpetuating the myth that the only good Christian is the Christian who embraces the atheistic ethic. Yes, it’s illogical and he is not entirely to blame.  It seems as though FitzSimons takes his theological education from the progressive Christian voices whom our culture hasn’t yet cancelled out. Of course, there is no need to silence the priest of Gosford and others. These are nice Christians who have signed up to the neo-Proletariat. They have given up the Gospel for a seat among our society’s culture club. Christians need to work harder at countering these fake Gospels and to do so in a manner that confirms the Gospel and not with the kind of behaviour that contradicts the message we claim to believe.

Like I said, the final word on religious freedom in Australia hasn’t been spoken.

The Federal Government’s religious discrimination Bill has recently returned to the drawing board, following criticisms from both religious and non-religious groups. As it stands, when it comes to religious freedom, Australian law remains unwritten.

Part of the reason behind this legal mess is because Australian law was not framed to deal with a culture that turns against the very belief system which provided its societal and legal foundations. Like a game of Jenga, you can only remove so many blocks before the entire structure comes crashing down. Of course, that hasn’t happened as yet, but that’s part of complexity facing many Western cultures today. How do we remove Christianity without destroying the very fabric upon which our culture depends?

Christians would be fools to bag their hopes in any future law. The law ought to function for the common good of all society (not only for Christians). The law should exist as a friend to its citizens by protecting freedoms. The difficulty of today’s Australia is that we have become the dog chasing its own tail. We allege freedom and toleration but by eating away at freedom and toleration.

More important than the law, will Australians learn to rediscover the art of civil disagreement? We are fast losing both the cognitive and moral ability to engage with opposing worldviews and to live together despite these differences. Social pluralism is being fast replaced by an ugly and authoritarian secularism that reigns with tackless hubris. Christians need to grow thicker skin and realise that the culture has set course. We need to stop that pointless dreaming about a ‘Christian Australia’ which by the way never existed, and we need to stop falling into modern trap of dumping our hope into the societal structures and systems. We must not give up on kindness, patience, or truth telling, on gentleness, love, or faithfulness. There is no need to play by the rules that Rugby Australia, Peter FitzSimons, and others insist upon. Hell is too awful and heaven too wonderful, and we want to serve our fellow Aussies well by offering a better story.

God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.” (Hebrews 6:10-12)