Pubs, Churches, and Government Rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The article alleged, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Churches, give people a message of hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revelation 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christians must not contend as the world fights

Tim Keller sent out this tweet on Saturday, 

“the demonization and dehumanization of the other side must stop. When professing Christians do it, it is triply wrong.”

The statement shouldn’t be controversial for Christians, but in today’s America (and to a lesser degree, Australia), it was outrageous for Tim Keller to make this suggestion.

Despite many people appreciating his comment (and others that he has recently made on social media), there has been a lot of backlash and complaints. For example, 

“Another comical and tone deaf statement by Keller. It’s triply wrong when Christians do it because we expect non-Christians to be awful people that do crappy things.”

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Tim Keller is observing a very real and concerning problem in our societies. Public debate no longer has room for grace, kindness, and patience.  Genuine conversations are hard to find and even more difficult to start because of the cacophony of stereotypes, insults, and shouts that now dominate public space. The force of political diatribe is sweeping aside nuance and fairness and patience. There is little toleration for paving a new path in this age in intolerance. Keller is rightly noting how it is all too easy for Christians to slide into the assumed poles that are being defined by left and right, progressive and conservative.

Today’s posture is the opposite of Proverbs 18:13 which says, 

“To answer before listening— that is folly and shame.”

The reality is, Christians may agree with a moral principle but we may believe that there are different ways to approach the issue and we might feel more or less passionately about the issue than the next Christian. Among these matters are abortion, racism, refugees, and climate change. We can agree that these are important ethical issues. We grieve over how our culture buys into and even celebrates theories and policies that dehumanise our fellow human beings. It is quite possible, indeed it is inevitable, that while concurring that a certain belief or action is wrong, there is often diverse opinion about how to best approach the issue. It may be unpopular to suggest this, but these disparate positions often have less to do with shared theological convictions and more to do with political philosophy (ie. what is the role of Government?) and personal experience. Instead of recognising the way we form our views, we have wrongly purchased the arrogant absolutism that is now pervading our society. 

I have seen this happening even in Australia as the nation deals with the latest manifestations of the sexual revolution, with bushfire crisis and now with the COVID-19 pandemic. A person may rightly identify an important issue, but if we respond to evil with more sin, how have we contributed in any constructive way? If we only react according to our sense of ‘righteous indignation’, are we not in danger of relying upon rhetorical power to fend off terrible things rather than ‘grace seasoned with salt’? 

If I need to resort to slander, gossip, and caricature, in order present my case, I have already lost.  

As I casual onlooker of American culture and someone who lives inside Australian culture, it is clear that we have foot faulted, and convinced ourselves that because others are getting away with it, so can we. One of the consequences is that instead of adorning the Gospel, we attached a pugnacious moralism.

The harder path is the road less trod. A myopic culture may not see much benefit in taking this path, but as Christians we are surely looking ahead toward eternity, not just the next social schism or election. 

Another response to Keller’s tweet said this, 

“Are we implying Christians have NO BATTLE to fight? Demolishing arguments and exposing unbiblical ideologies ≠ attacking individuals. Let’s not forfeit the battle to “the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”

The comment is quite revealing, for it makes the very mistake that Tim Keller is urging Christians to avoid. There is a battle, but we do not fight as the world fights. We don’t resort to the same tactics that are employed by Government and corporations, by Hollywood and by social media platforms. The Bible is clear, we take our stand with truth and faith and righteousness. Our feet are readied with the ‘gospel of peace’. Notice this, Paul describes God’s good news about Jesus Christ as the gospel of peace. The staggering truth is, this is inauguration of peace for those who are not at peace with God. This is a peace for people who are not at rest but who are struggling against God and even ourselves. In this way, the Christian path in our secular age is to proclaim reconciliation and forgiveness through Christ.

When our political and social commitments speak louder than our Gospel convictions we inevitably begin to mirror the culture and not the Church of Jesus Christ. The cross is not a weapon to beat down opponents, it is God’s amazing news of salvation for sinners, of whom I am the worst. 

This is the place to begin each day and every conversation, 

“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” (1 Timothy 1:15)

When we view ourselves in light of the cross, it changes the ways we understand ourselves and the way we view others. We can mourn the days in which we live (and there is much reason for mourning). There are sometimes godly reasons for anger. But the cross will surely recompose our attitudes and ambitions and avenues.

As the Lord Jesus hung on the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

How can a Christian live and speak and act without seeing that it was my sin that held him there?

“It was my sin that held Him there

Until it was accomplished

His dying breath has brought me life

I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything

No gifts, no power, no wisdom

But I will boast in Jesus Christ

His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward?

I cannot give an answer

But this I know with all my heart

His wounds have paid my ransom”

Australia: Healthy Pluralism or Dogmatic Secularism?

Australians are understandably focused on combating COVID-19 right now. We are also beginning to highlight the threat Communist China is posing to geopolitical stability around the globe. Indeed, perhaps because of the issue of Communist China’s ambitions it is important for Australians to understand and appreciate the values of our democratic system.

I’m not sure if it’s deliberate or if it stems from a failure in our university education, but it’s clear that there is an abundance of confusion regarding religion’s relationship with Australian public life. Indeed, this remains one of the key issues facing Australia, as evidenced by the same sex marriage debate in 2017 and ongoing discussions over the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill.

Take for example, these tweets by Jane Caro last night. Jane Caro is a well known social commentator here in Australia. She said, 

“I fiercely believe in separation of church and state and that religious beliefs should not be privileged (tax free status anyone) over any other beliefs. Theocracies are deadly dangerous, particularly to women and LGBTQI people. I don’t want to ban them, or privilege them.”

First of all, pretty much no one wants or believes in theocracies.  Is there a movement in Australia to turn our democracy into a theocracy?  This line of argument is a red herring. Supporters of theocracies are negligible, and it is certainly not what Christian Churches in Australia posit. 

Second, Christians strongly believe in the separation of church and state. It is after all, an historic Christian view. It was Jesus who said, 

“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

Jesus wasn’t arguing for the exclusion of religious ideas from the political sphere and neither was he fusing them together. Similarly, the Australia Constitution doesn’t advocate for a secularism without religious ideas and contributions, but rather that Government will not be controlled by any single religious organisation.

It is important to realise that the social pluralism we enjoy today is deeply embedded in Judeo-Christian beliefs. Indeed, Australia’s political and social pluralism  is one of the byproducts of Christian theism. If, as some hardline secularists want, that we rid our culture of all public vestiges of Judeo-Christianity, we will in fact destroy the underpinnings for a healthy pluralistic society and instead create one that is far more authoritarian and far less tolerant. Do we want to take that road?

No one disputes that there have been alternative views over 2,000 years of history, but our nation’s position on Church and State is the result of centuries of Christian influence and ideas. Christian’s aren’t wanting to diminish these distinctions.

Third, Caro’s real position is not in fact the separation of church and state, but the separation of religion and state. These are two quite different philosophical views. Caro’s public record demonstrates that she believes religious ideas should be squeezed out of the public square and receive no benefit of existence from Government.

To be fair, in last night’s Twitter exchange she later tried to backtrack a little, “Nope. As far as I am concerned you can keep your beliefs, proselytise them all you want, run & finance your schools & hospitals, exercise your right to vote, stand for office, pay your taxes & live according to your own values, just all the rest of us – no more & no less.”

In other words, tax benefits should only be given to organisations that represent a secular (which is now commonly although erroneously understood as atheistic) contribution to public life. The problem is, that’s not social pluralism.  

Earlier this year, Caro complained when the Prime Minister offered a prayer. She said, 

“Praying is fine, dedicating Australia – a secular, pluralistic democracy – to his god is not. It’s not his country to dedicate to anyone, and 30% of us have no faith & many that do – worship a different god from his. That was my issue.”

“As I responded at the time, the problem with Caro’s argument is that it falls flat no matter what the Prime Minister believes. If he was a Hindu and prayed to one of the thousands of Hindu gods, he would be out of sync with the majority of Australians. If the PM was an atheist and in principle refused to prayer, he would be out of step with the many millions of Australians who are praying during this crisis.

The Prime Minister praying for our nation doesn’t undermine our pluralism, it is a shining example of it.” 

Dr Michael Bird notes in the 2016 article, Whose Religion? Which Secularism? Australia Has a Serious Religious Literacy Problem, the parameters of secularism have been redefined, “no longer as the freedom of the individual in religion, but as the scrubbing of religion from all public spheres.”

A pluralist society allows difference whereas authoritarian secularism demands sameness. Which offers a better understanding of equality? 

At the end of the day, hardline secularists are not aiming for equality but for conformity. Behind this is either an intellectual laziness or dishonesty. The assumption is, secularism is morally superior and morally neutral. This doesn’t stack up on even a superficial level. Everyone brings to the table their own theological and moral commitments, which are always religious in some shape and form.

As Jonathan Leeman observes in his book on political theology, 

“secular liberalism isn’t neutral, it steps into the public space with a ‘covert religion’, perhaps as liberal authoritarianism…the public realm is nothing less than the battle ground of gods, each vying to push the levers of power in its favour’.

My point in writing today is this, the conversation about the role of religion in society isn’t going away soon. It’s not even on pause, the issue is simply gurgling quietly behind the scenes. Twitter is probably not the most useful way for challenging popular misconceptions about the partnership between religion and state, but conversations need to be had. 

COVID-19 pandemic is leading to more Australians praying and reading the Bible

Anna Patty highlighted in The Age yesterday that Australians are “opening their minds to spirituality and prayer.”

McCrindle research has found evidence that a growing number of Australians are considering prayer and reading the Bible during the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is both unsurprising and welcoming. When faced with the reality of our mortality many people begin to ask the important questions about life and death and God. When life loses its security and certainty we start looking for someone in whom we can place our hope. 

Considering God is the most natural thing in the world; not because we need a crutch to lean on but because He has wired us to know him and to seek after him; it’s in our spiritual DNA. 

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

In times of prosperity, health, and freedom, we too easily blind ourselves and settle for lesser things. Why need God if I can control my future? When these things are stripped from us, questions about life’s meaning remain and the issue of hope becomes paralysed. 

Photo by CDC on Pexels.com

I am encouraged to hear that Aussies are reconsidering the question of God, and the value of prayer and Bible reading.

Let’s be honest though, prayer can act like a placebo, serving to trick my  consciousness into believing everything will work out. Placebos can sometimes provide temporary relief but they don’t resolve the underlying issues for which we turned to them in the first place. For prayer to be the real deal it requires praying to a real God who can really hear and listen, and who is personal and powerful. 

Take for example, what Jesus taught his disciples to pray, what today is known as the Lord’s Prayer. Consider his words for a moment, 

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,

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

Give us today our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.”

This God is personal. Jesus says he is our Father in heaven. He is not a cruel Father, selfish and unsafe, he is loving and kind and good. He is a God who is in charge, who hears our requests and who is able to answer them. He is the God who provides our daily provisions and who is able to do the harder work, of forgiving us our sins. 

Jesus follows this beautiful prayer by repudiating the naturalist worldview and materialist culture which is familiar to us living in 21st Century Australia. His words are insightful, incisive, and breathe life into weary souls. They are well worth the 2 minutes that it will take to read them.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy,[d] your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Jesus’ analysis sheds light and grace into our world that is obsessed with materialism and superficial success. He doesn’t ignore material and temporary needs. Rather, Jesus observes that we think too little ourselves and we have thought too little of God. 

 “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”

During this pandemic at least some Australians are waking up to the fact that the answer to Jesus’ question is, yes. 

Whether we like it or not, this pandemic has changed the world; not as profoundly as some might suggest, but the social and health ramifications will reorient many lives for sometime and the economic costs will remain for a generation or more. 

Are you one of the many Australians who are wondering about prayer and the Bible? 

If you are wanting someone to pray for/with you or you are interested in reading the Bible, ask. This is something I love doing with other people, whether they are Christians or not. 

I also belong to a local church with many people who would be very happy to help out.

At Mentone Baptist we also run a course for people who are investigating Christianity called, ‘Making Sense of Christianity’. If you are interested please send me a message.

If you live in another part of Melbourne (so not in Kingston or Bayside Councils) or in another part of the country, I’m I can try to suggest a church for you to connect with.  

Churches may not be meeting at the moment, but what is holding us back from praying and reading the Bible? If Jesus is right, the end result isn’t delusion or some stupid spiritual placebo.  Instead, as the Psalmist put it, “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.”

Outrage or empathy? A President’s brother dies

President Trump’s younger brother died today. As the news broke on Twitter, the phrase ‘The wrong Trump’ started trending. This was among the less ghastly things being said about the Trump family this afternoon. Take for example The Washington Post who chose this headline for the obituary, “Robert Trump, younger brother of President Trump who filed lawsuit against niece, dies at 71”.

As Jesus once said, “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:32)

Let’s be honest, we live in a world filled with hate. Twitter is a dumping ground for all manner of human bile. Twitter has become a place where people go to vent and speak the words they dare not speak to another in person. It’s a verbal firing range, often committed in anonymity. 

It is one thing to affirm and speak kindly of people you like and who agree with you, but what about people with whom you share less in common? What about people with whom you disagree on religious issues or political matters? How hard it is to find kindness and understanding across the political divide. 

The Bible, as it is so often, turns the world the right way round and flattens human wisdom and ego. The Scriptures say, ‘mourn with those who mourn’. 

“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.” (Romans 12:14-16)

Granted, these words are written to Christians (and I hope they take them seriously), but they’re not a bad set of suggestions for anyone.  

In our polarised age, it’s evident that many people no longer even pretend to express sympathy. In the game of cultural power play showing niceness to ‘opponents’ is a sign of weakness. The cultural clappers want outrage and fighting words, and anger and verbal diarrhoea aimed at all those social heretics. 

The world is returning to a fragmented past where tribalism is triumphing. We’re jumping into Lord of the Flies and instead of being repelled we’re enthralled. The President of the United States’ brother dies and it is too much for to simply offer a word of sympathy. Instead, it is an excuse to pile on a family because of political dislike. This shouldn’t be about politics. This isn’t about approving of Donald Trump’s character or his polices. It’s about treating fellow human beings with a degree of respect. If we are unable to choose a word of empathy to a family who have lost a brother, we have lost one of the most basic aspects of our humanity and become truly pathetic. 

Yes, President Trump’s behaviour has often added to the social mess in which we are squelching and churning, but the origins of our situation are far older and deeper. Both Twitter and the real world need more kindness. We need grace and mercy to cut through the vitriol that is consuming and destroying societies before our very eyes.

Imagine if God treated us the way we deserved? He didn’t wait for us to treat with with honour. Instead, he pursued us in love even while we were sinners. This God of the Bible is patient and longs to demonstrate grace and kindness, even toward the wicked, and even for you and me. 

“ ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” (Ezekiel 33:11).

Learning to Face Death

“Death lies on her like an untimely frost
Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.”
(Act IV, Scene V, Line 33)

 

Over the past 24 hours, 19 Victorians died as a result of COVID-19. In light of the volume of new cases that we are seeing, many more Victorians will die from this terrible virus over the coming days and weeks. Each and every single one of these people is a life to be mourned.

Victoria averages between 3000-4000 deaths per month, from all kinds of causes. That’s over 300 people dying every day in our State. Each of them is a loss to our community and is cause for grief.

Julie Power, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald (‘Even in a pandemic, most people shun talk about death and dying’, August 11), has highlighted how Australians are “reluctant to think about death or make plans for how they want to go.”

According to a recent survey conducted among 1,100 people in NSW, 70% of Australians prefer to avoid addressing the issue of death.

Power’s suggests that “The deaths of older Australians alone and isolated from friends and families during the pandemic highlights the need to talk about what constitutes a good death.”

I agree, we need to talk. We appreciate that such conversations are difficult at the best of times. Who among us is keen to discuss our final days and to make decisions about funerals? Contemplating death is altogether horrible, even more, when we are considering people we know and love. Death is, to quote the Bible, ‘the last enemy’.

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Unlike most cultures for much of history, we have managed to sanitise death with our modern medicines, clean white sheets and closed doors. We have successfully delayed death through vast improvements in medicine and technology, with greater standards of livings, by educating people about health, and through legislating thousands of laws guarding public and workplace safety. Despite all this, we cannot account for the unexpected accident, a natural disaster, or the coming of a pandemic. Even when we evade such tragedy, our bodies have been in motion since birth, taking the road of gradual deterioration and decline.

One thing this pandemic has proven is how much we wish to rage against the dying light, to fight and resist it with all our might. Death is not a friend, it is an enemy to struggle against.

It is one thing to have discussions about dying well, as Julie Power is urging, but it is quite another to die with or without hope. Hope doesn’t evade death, and neither does it remove painful grief, but it makes all the difference in the world.

A young mum whom I knew, died from ovarian cancer on August 1st. She grew up with an atheistic worldview, but when confronted with cancer and receiving a poor prognosis, she began asking questions and searching for hope. Suffering didn’t reinforce her atheism, it led her to seek out God. In learning about the person and work of Jesus Christ, she didn’t feel repulsed or angry at God for her cancer, rather her life was transformed by the beauty and warmth of Jesus. This wasn’t Christianity offering her a placebo in the face of death, but her becoming convinced about the reality, goodness, and certainty of the Christian Gospel.

“he will swallow up death forever.

The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears

    from all faces;” (Isaiah 25:8)

There is never a good time to talk about death. Conversations about funeral arrangements and taking care of those who remain behind are important. These are difficult discussions we need to have with close family members; not because death is imminent for most of us, but because we do not know when the hour will come.

As a Pastor of a Church, it is my great privilege to spend time with people who are facing their final days on the earth and to sit with grieving families in their homes and to stand with them at the graveside. The question of hope is rarely left alone as people grapple with the reality of the grave.

On one occasion Jesus arrived at the home of his friend Lazarus, who had died some four days earlier. Visiting the tomb of his friend, we read what is the shortest sentence in the entire Bible,  “Jesus wept”. Mingled with grief, Jesus also spoke confidently of hope, not only for Lazarus but for all who look to him.

“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Vatican aiding China with Sinicization

China is pursuing its policy of Sinicization, reshaping Christianity into the image of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Australian newspaper is reporting that Beijing is to extend its deal with the Vatican, despite high ranking Catholic officials protesting, including Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen.

“The two-year provisional agreement will expire next month.

Bishop Sorondo, a close friend of Pope Francis, is on record as claiming the ­Chinese state exemplifies Catholic social justice teaching, a claim dismissed as “absurd’’ by Vatican-based US cardinal Raymond Burke.

Renewal of the deal, which has given the Chinese state control over the appointment of bishops in China, would spark outrage across the church and cause deep sadness among persecuted Catholics in China and Hong Kong.

Renewal would come as religious persecutions are being stepped up in China, which is increasingly flexing its military might in the Indo-Pacific region.”

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While the Vatican is refusing to release all the particulars of the arrangement, it is widely believed that it will allow the Vatican to have greater say in appointing future Bishops in China (but not full control). This is contingent upon Pope Francis formally recognising seven Catholics Bishops who have already been appointed by the Chinese Government.

The New York Times reported in 2018,

“The ruling Communist Party sees the compromise with the Vatican as a step toward eliminating the underground churches where Chinese Catholics who refuse to recognize the party’s authority have worshiped for generations. With the pope now recognizing all bishops and clergy members in the official Catholic churches approved and controlled by the party, the underground church may have no reason to exist.

The move is part of a broader push by the government to clamp down on all aspects of society since Xi Jinping took power as the party’s leader in 2012.”

For the most part, in history, Church and State have been duly recognised as separate entities, concerned with different spheres of responsibility, jurisdiction, and authority. That is not to suggest that there is no overlap. The Scriptures themselves testify to this in places such as Romans 13:1-7. Indeed, the Apostle Paul on one occasion appealed to Caesar without any sense of overstepping the line.

At their best and when the dynamics are suitably valued and practised, the State and Church serve society in a healthy partnership, understanding their distinct roles and appreciating the other. It’s not as the State is void of religious content; Christians and non Christians alike, and people of other faiths, are welcomed into Parliament and can contribute ideas that have been formed by their convictions and worldview. We don’t live in an a-theistic state, but a pluralistic culture.

At worst, the State has intruded and sought to control or disrupt churches and even to work for their destruction. And Churches, in a vain attempt to retain some semblance of relevance or to keep their institutions alive, have become complicit with immoral and anti-Christian agendas.  We have seen this happen with Christian denominations capitulating on the marriage issue. This has happened amongst evangelicals in the United States as they conflate the cause of Christ with the Republican Party. Indeed, the Vatican’s deal with Xi Jinping is reminiscent of former days when Rome (and also some Protestant denominations) was found to collaborate with Nazism in the 1930s-40s. The idea was, if you keep our doors open, we’ll give you our support. We’ll betray your cultural heretics and cede some of our independence so long as you let us be.

The Lord of the Church once said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”  Apparently, some ecclesiastical minds are of the opinion that one can do both.

When I wrote about this story two years ago, I suggested Daniel ch.3 as an analogy. President Xi Jinping is sounding like King Nebuchadnezzar, while Pope Francis is appearing as one of his astrologers who betrays Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Since then, more fuel has been added to the fire, and this new blast of oxygen from St Peter’s isn’t going to dampen the growing threat posed to Christians and religious minorities in China. It is one thing for the secular citizen to sell their the soul to a dominant regime, but for the overseers of a Church to throw into Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace the people under their care, they themselves are in danger of another fire where no angel will tread and save.

Communist China is an evil regime that has little regard for religious freedom, let alone political and social freedoms. The world has evidence of 1 million Uighurs, a Muslim minority group, being forced into concentration camps. For decades churches have been closed, destroyed, pastors imprisoned, and families threatened because they profess faith in Christ. Millions of Chinese Christians cannot meet to worship God in public or read the Bible. The threat of discrimination is a constant one. For the Vatican and Pope Francis to make a deal with the Devil is a grave misjudgment.

This is a timely reminder to thank God for the religious freedoms we enjoy in Australia, and not to take them for granted. There are sometimes tensions, but not every disagreement amounts to discrimination against Churches or religion in general. Nonetheless, this should also serve as a warning to Australian Churches and Governments alike.

When this deal with first agreed upon in 2018, I suggested,

“We are a long way from the politico-religious scene of our northern neighbour, and yet it is not irrational to suggest that should some Australian political parties and notable social commentators have their way, we would be aiming toward an Australian Sinicization, conforming Christianity into the likeness of Australian humanistic secularism.”

This threat remains. And no, I am not referring to current Governmental rules for religious organisations in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Writing for ABC’s The Conversation last week, Professor Nicholas Aroney spoke of new research that has found that government-based religious discrimination is on the rise around the world. While much of the attention is duly on other countries, he notes that “the threat in Australia is real”.

We are far from the situation found in Communist China, but we do have, for example, a State Government that has previously attempted to interfere with basic religious freedoms and is currently drafting legislation that may soon see parts of the Bible banned, classical teaching on marriage prohibited, and prayers for sexual sanctification outlawed. I am of course referring to the Victorian Government’s plan to introduce legislation in 2020 to ban conversion practices.

We need to guard our own backyard while also speaking up against religious suppression that is taking place across the seas.

A young Victorian mum has died and is now with Christ

A young Chinese woman with a little girl started attending Mentone Baptist Church three years ago. She was battling cancer and had decided that she needed answers. It is one thing to understand a medical diagnosis, but accompanying such devastating news are other and even bigger questions. Why me? What is life meant to be about? Is there a God who is interested and cares?

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Christine grew up in a family and culture that was atheistic, and she assumed that this was the way to view the world. A highly intelligent and capable woman, being informed that she had terminal cancer broke apart what she believed to be true about the world

Suffering didn’t reinforce her atheism, it led her to seek out God. In learning about the person and work of Jesus Christ, she didn’t feel repulsed or angry at God for her cancer, rather her life was transformed by the beauty and warmth of Jesus.

Christine quickly made friends with several of the women at church and started attending a Bible study group.

In early 2019 it was evident that the cancer would take her life. She battled on while recognising the awful and difficult path she was taking.

In Christine’s own words,

With the time I spent more with bible group, i started to be more curious about Jesus Christ. As I said before, I used to live that hard and trying that much to prove myself and now I had cancer. My whole life was ruined. If there is a God, could Jesus give me a new life.

Just at that time, my cancer was coming back again, only 1 and half year time after the operation and chemo. I was shocked and felt lost. The doctor told me that  I had no chance to be cured. I was too tired, I had been tried that hard to stand up. I just got the chance to see the light of new life.

Different from last time, I thought of Jesus Christ almost immediately. I remembered in the Luke, Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God” That probably was my first real pray from the bottom of my heart, I kept asking Jesus Christ to save me and hoped he could guide me and change me if I had done anything bad and wrong. I realized no one could help me now except Jesus Christ.”

Her young body was failing. There were days when getting out of bed was impossible. Although her body was terribly weakened by the cancer, she wanted to publicly profess her faith in Christ through baptism. With a couple of Christine’s friends from church, it was my great joy and privilege to sit with her in her home: listening and sharing, hearing her story and encouraging her with the Scriptures. It was clear that she was convinced about the Gospel and now knew and loved Jesus.

We spoke about baptising her in her home, but she wanted to show the world the difference Jesus made. Even the night before we were unsure whether Christine would be well enough to leave her house and come to the church.

That Sunday morning in April 2019, Christine stood in front of the church and spoke about what the Lord Jesus had done for her, and how despite her suffering, she was safe in him.

She shared,

“I now believe and trust Jesus as my Lord and Saviour, knowing that even though I denied him for past 30 years, he died on the cross for my sins and is willing to forgive me. I know that God has accepted me as his daughter and loves me.

I am still in the middle of treatment, reading God’s words every day is motivating me to continue to trust him and rely on him. I still feel scared and worry about my cancer sometimes. The difference is I have God to rely on and he is willing to take my worry. More exciting is I find my life is changing slowly, I am spending more time with my friends and family. I am not willing to spend time being angry anymore, because I appreciate every single day God gives to me.

I am so weak and little in this world, and I used to be  a terrible person, but God loves me and I now love him and I can trust him for the future.”

Christine then stood in the pool with me. I asked the same two questions that we ask everyone who is getting baptised,

“Do you believe Jesus is God’s Son who died on the cross for your sins and who was raised to life to give you new life?”

“Have you repented of your sins and are trusting Jesus for salvation, and with His help will you follow him all the days of your life?”

With a confident yes to both questions, Christine went through waters of baptism, signalling to family, friends, and the church, Jesus had redeemed her and gifted her eternal hope.

It was one of those moments a pastor never forgets. I suspect no one present that morning will ever forget.

Not long after, she needed to move to another part of the city and so connected with another church, although she was never well enough to attend. They have supported in her final months. Her mum and dad have since both become Christians and have stayed by her side throughout this entire journey. Christine also remained close friends with several people at Mentone, who have supported her right through to the end.

In the early hours of this morning, Christine lost her fight against cancer and but with Christ, she has triumphed over death. The Apostle Paul’s belief, “to be away from the body is to be with the Lord”, is right now her experience. She no longer lives by faith but with sight.

“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57)

Christine’s name and life won’t be mentioned in the news today, and that’s ok. Deaths resulting from COVID-19 are understandably making news each day.  Death is however always with us, even when it is taking place away from the public gaze. She was one of many Victorians who today have died from cancer or from other afflictions. Yet, her life and story have impacted the people who knew her. Her testimony will remain with us at Mentone Baptist Church, and encouraging us to place our hope in the only Saviour there is.

Christine has finished her race and has received from her Lord and God the crown of righteousness. For those who are left behind the grief is palpable. It is intense, and I can only imagine the difficult days that lay ahead for Christine’s daughter especially, and also for her parents and closest friends. One thing I do know, we don’t grieve as those without hope. “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” (1 Thessalonians 4:14)

Jesus once asked Martha,

“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Christine’s answer was, ‘yes’.

I wonder, where are other Victorians are placing their hope?

Original Sin, COVID-19, and Personal Accountability

Two Christian doctrines of humanity that often create controversy are original sin and total depravity. I understand, these concepts cause us discomfort because of what they suggest about humanity in general, and me personally. However, this Biblical understanding of what went wrong in the world is part of our story and it’s vital if we are to understand ourselves and the world around us today. Indeed, just a doctor needs to diagnosis the illness before treating it successfully, we need a detailed and accurate diagnosis of the human condition.

Interestingly, in this second wave of COVID-19 that is responsible for locking down my city of Melbourne, we are seeing an analogy of these doctrines. The analogy isn’t perfect but nonetheless, I think it is a poignant illustration. I’ll come to this analogy shortly.

 

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Photo by CDC on Pexels.com

 

It is worth noting that the phrase, ‘original sin’ has reappeared in our vocabulary over recent months. Original sin is now employed to help explain the current issue of racism in both Australia and in the United States, and to find its connection with historical slavery. There is some warrant for using this category in a sociological and historical manner, but theologically it comes unstuck. Europeans didn’t introduce sin to these shores,  although we have urged it on, being living representations of the Christian doctrine of total depravity.

The Biblical notion of original sin begins in Genesis ch.3 where Adam and Eve doubted the truthfulness and goodness of God’s word by disobeying his clear instruction. The Apostle Paul traces every sinful thought, attitude, word and action back to this cataclysmic moment in the garden.

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12)

One of the resistances to the Biblical idea is the argument of justice. How can I be made responsible for the sin of another? Why should I pay the price for what someone else did thousands of years ago?

Just as the Bible explains sin’s origins in the one act of disobedience, it also explains how every human being chooses this path for themselves. Jesus responded to the Pharisees and teachers of the law in his day who argued for external adherence to religious laws by uncovering the heart of the issue,

“Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 18-23)

In other words, we are responsible for our own hearts and the motives and lives that follow.

We may inherit the condition put in motion in Genesis ch.3, but we also embrace them. This doctrine of total depravity isn’t suggesting that we only transgress but that we are inclined to reject God and his righteousness and instead to create and justify our own moral truths, often with disastrous consequences. As God’s image bearers, we carry hints of the glory of God and exquisite glimmers of his purposes. That there is love among us is reflective of the fact that God is love. And yet, this image bearing is broken and we often take pride in this fracturing.

The Apostle Paul concludes his gut wrenching exposition of God’s justification for judging the world by saying,

“There is no one righteous, not even one;

there is no one who understands;

    there is no one who seeks God.

All have turned away…” (Romans 3:10-12)

Let’s now turn to the analogy. It is believed that Melbourne’s second wave of COVID-19 began with a single source, connected with security guards working in hotel quarantine. One transgression has led to thousands of people contracting COVID-19 and a growing number now dying. The analogy that I want to draw your attention to isn’t so much virus but the chain of social disobediences that has ensued.

Every day there are dozens of people caught and fined for breaching the rules of the lockdown. Yesterday one Melbourne woman was arrested by police for flaunting the rules and posting her defiance on social media in front of police. Others, echoing that ancient serpent, “did God really say,” have insisted that they don’t need to follow the restrictions because they think the pandemic is a hoax.

The single actions of hotel security guards has led to the situation where we are in a serious medical and social situation. Can the Bunnings Karens blame these guards for their own actions? Should those refusing to wear masks or continuing to gather illegally in groups defer responsibility to those guards? Despite those original actions that has produced the crises in which we find ourselves, is not every Victorian responsible for their own actions? Of course.

The analogy does break down at this point: many Victorians (most) are complying with the restrictions, whereas the Bible explains how every person is sinful and breaks God’s intention for us, by nature and by choice. As I said at the beginning, the illustration isn’t perfect, but it shows how one action produces an environment where others do what is wrong. The former created the situation but the latter cannot use this as a defence for their own actions.

It is also true that while we are responsible for our own sins, we can also be victims of other peoples wilful and selfish behaviour. This is evident for everyone to see in this pandemic. Thousands of Victorians are now ill because some decided that following rules didn’t apply to them. Even yesterday, as police and ADF members visited the homes of Melbournians who’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19, some of these people couldn’t be found because they had decided to return to work.

We may disagree with original sin, but the world around us and even our own lives bear testimony to it.

There is, of course, good news. The problem of sin has an answer, but it’s not found from within but from an outside source. The God who responded to original sin by cursing creation also offered his own life as an atoning sacrifice for our sins,

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” “(Galatians 3:13)

“For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous”. (Romans 5:19)