3 Beautiful Children

Children should be seen and not heard

I don’t know if anyone uses this old English proverb today, but I certainly remember being told this as a child; I have no idea why!  Seeing and hearing young children is one of the wonderful experiences in life. There is an instinctive joy that bubbles up when we watch the unrehearsed and unexpected but most natural interactions of little children. Whether it is the smiles and giggles of a one year old baby, or the unsteady steps of a 15 month old, or contented sleep of a newborn child, such pictures bring us smiles and delight and awe.

Stories about children make us laugh and cry, they give us great joy and excitement, and also tremendous sorrow.

Last month the newly married Duke and Duchess of Sussex visited our shores during an official royal tour. While meeting school children at the NSW town of Dubbo, a young boy ignored protocol, by giving both Royal Highnesses a hug. The boy was transfixed by Prince Harry’s facial hair and he began stroking the ginger beard. This 5 year old boy with Down Syndrome captured the hearts of millions of Aussies as they saw the footage of this beautiful scene of innocence meeting royalty, and of the kindness the Prince showed in return.

It was hard to avoid the jarring juxtaposition that this encounter presented. While we adored this royal exchange, the fact is, fewer children with Down Syndrome are now being born, and in countries like Iceland, the number has been reduced to zero. In many Western nations, Down Syndrome is being eradicated as the overwhelming majority of children with the condition are aborted prior to birth. A recent Western Australia study found that now 93% of babies with Down Syndrome are being killed in the womb.

Last week I read a story of a young Australian couple who have adopted a five year old boy from Taiwan. He has spent his first 5 years of life in an orphanage. Now, he has been adopted into a new family, to be loved and nurtured and raised.

 

Over the weekend a video was shared across social media. The scene depicts an adorable young baby girl, only a few months old.  The camera gives us a close-up shot of her face and her big blue eyes. One of her tiny arms is outstretched, as though she is trying to touch the camera, and us as we watch through the lens.

These words then appear on the screen,

“She deserves to be loved.”

Who would challenge this indisputable fact?

The camera then returns to the girl who is now laughing with all possible cuteness. A second statement appears, “she deserves to be wanted”.

Everyone is now drawn in with unanimous agreement. And then comes a final statement which represents the punch line,

“She deserves to be a choice”.

This is an advertisement for Planned Parenthood. This little girl who is recognised as deserving love is the new poster child for abortion.  While the video is 3 years old, it has received over 2 million views over the past weekend.

Long gone are the days where people justify abortion on the grounds that the child is not yet human, but is a mere clump of cells. As our scientific knowledge expands, we discover even more beauty and wonder of children inside the womb. Their bodies are forming and their minds interacting earlier than was previously understood, and children as early as 22 weeks have now survived outside the womb. There is no cutoff point whereby a baby is not fully human; from conception, a new life is created. This new promotional video by Planned Parenthood demonstrates this shift in thinking. Here is a child, a real human being, and yet they have no inherent right to live and the mother has the right to take this life away.

Does anyone truly believe that it is morally acceptable and right to kill that little girl, should she have been a little younger and still in her mum’s womb?

The assumed answer in the video is, “yes”.

Instead of believing that every human life has inherent worth and dignity, life is now measured by the opinions of others. What value do I attach to this person or to that group in the community? Is a person’s life now defined by what they can offer me or by the measure of happiness they can bring to my situation? Apparently, so.

The video is sickening, and it exposes the sheer evil behind abortion. Here is a beautiful baby girl who deserves love, and yet we are told that her life only has value so long as the mum determines. This kind of utilitarianism has been the ethic behind many of the most egregious societies in history. It has been (and remains in use) the moral framework used to exterminate different races and tribes, to kill gays and lesbians, the disabled, the elderly, and infants. We are proficient at justifying ending the life of those whom we believe will interfere with our dreams and ambitions in life.

Perhaps the video will become an effective testimony against abortion, for again, how can anyone see this baby girl and conclude that there should be a choice to extinguish her life? The responses will be revealing.

 

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With all our sophistry and genius and moral outrage for ‘equality’ and ‘love’, we are bloody and we are responsible for the killing of innocence. The State of Queensland recently legalised abortion of babies up to 22 weeks. Victoria permits abortion up until 36 weeks. A private members bill was introduced by MP Rachel Carling-Jenkins in 2016, to limit abortions to 24 weeks, but this gained little traction in the Parliament. White Ribbon, a nationwide movement that speaks to preventing men’s violence against women, recently removed their support of abortion. The immediate and vicious outcry by Australian feminists bullied the White Ribbon Council into once again ‘fighting’ for women’s reproductive rights.

Of these three stories, which are truly loving and good? Which story disturbs, even if we are in principle supportive of ‘pro-choice’?

The words of the Psalmist resonate because they are true,

“For you created my inmost being;

    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

    your works are wonderful,

    I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you

    when I was made in the secret place,

    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

 Your eyes saw my unformed body;

    all the days ordained for me were written in your book

    before one of them came to be.

How precious to me are your thoughts, God!

    How vast is the sum of them!

Were I to count them,

    they would outnumber the grains of sand—

   when I awake, I am still with you.” (Psalm 139)

As I think of those 3 children, the boy in Dubbo, the orphan in Taiwan, and the baby girl on the video, I am reminded of another child. He came into the world and was honoured and loved by a few, and he was despised by many. In fact, the local government sent out a detachment of police to find this child, and to have him not only removed from society but to have him killed. He wasn’t the kind of child that the government thought would benefit society. If anything they thought he might create a disturbance, such was the uniqueness of the description given to this boy. The little boy lived, with his family fleeing the country and taking refuge in Egypt. Remaining in their hometown were other young boys, and the State had every single one put to the sword.

“A voice is heard in Ramah,

    weeping and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children

    and refusing to be comforted,

    because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:18)

“He was despised and rejected by humankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.” (Isaiah 53:3)

This child, the Lord Jesus, came into the world to love those who did not love him, to serve those who did not want him, and to die for those who rejected him. God so loved the world. The creator of life made himself the object of derision, to redeem not moral do-gooders, but those who have denied God and the imago dei.

This is one of great the truths of Christianity which is sometimes blindsided in these moral arguments: Christianity is about life, and it is about new life, but it is a life offered to those who have in a multitude of ways messed up life, for themselves and for others.

As we express anger at those who produced this video, and as we note with sorrow the increasing and ugly dehumanisation project that is sweeping our society, let us keep the good news of Jesus Christ front and centre:

“Surely he took up our pain

    and bore our suffering,

yet we considered him punished by God,

    stricken by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,

    he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was on him,

    and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,

    each of us has turned to our own way;

and the Lord has laid on him

    the iniquity of us all.”  (Isaiah 53:4-6)

The War Never Ends

William Campbell exchanged a coal mine for a trench, a cap for a soldier’s helmet, one shovel for another and added a rifle with fixed bayonet*.

Born in Wallsend, NSW, my great-grandfather joined the ranks of the 35th Battalion, 3rd Division, known famously as ‘Newcastle’s own’. We don’t know much about William Campbell’s experience of war. No stories have been passed on through the generation, and until a couple of years ago, I didn’t know that he had sought in the Great War.

He was shipped out to England in 1916 where the newly formed Division trained and trained and prepared to fight in France. Their commanding officer was a General who was yet to make his name, John Monash. Prior to Christmas they arrived in France and settled into a ‘quiet’ sector of the front, just east of Ypres.

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My great-grandfather is not remembered for any heroics. In fact, almost nothing has been recalled of his service in the First World War. He had a habit of going AWOL, and was even imprisoned at one stage for doing so. He was often sick and sent to a hospital in England. He survived the first weeks of frontline warfare, during the cold of winter and venturing on raiding parties across no man’s land. He fought at Messines, witnessing the tremendous mine explosions made famous in the film, Beneath Hill 60. Hundreds of his fellow soldiers were injured or killed in a gas attack the night before. He and the surviving members of his Battalion went over the top and drove the Germans back. Nine months later he was wounded at Villers Bretonneux, with the official war record stating that he ‘remained at duty’, but was later invalided to the UK.

I don’t know the reasons why William Campbell habitually ran off from his unit and from hospital. Was it fear? Was it an Aussie larrikinism taken to the extreme? Did his first sight and smell of battle push him over the edge? Perhaps so, but he did return to fight another day. By war’s end, he was disgraced and was never allowed to collect his medals.

This Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the end to the war that was to end all wars. After four years of violent bloodshed, with 12 million dead (including 60,000 Australian dead), the time was set for the final volley of cannon and rifle shot. At 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918, the guns fell silent on the Western Front.

On that day William Campbell was detained in barracks and so he missed the eery and long forgotten tranquility that reappeared over Flander’s fields. Whatever his actions, both good and wrong, he went home and most of his mates did not.

This Sunday’s commemoration of the end of the First World War is worthy of attention. In part, we remember because it signifies the cessation of awful sacrifice. We must not forget or ignore the past. We should not neglect the blood of Australians that has been offered up for the security and stability of the nation. We also remember, more horrifically, that this date served as a catalyst to even greater and bloodier conflicts throughout the 20th Century: the Russian Revolution and the rise of Communism, the birth of fascism and 70 million dead of the Second World War, the so-called Cold War that piled the dead into untold millions more.

War begets war. Violence encourages violence.

Human beings have colossal value. It is why we fight so vigorously for life and it is why death appalls us so. The First World War revealed to modern man what we are capable of achieving when we are resolute. With the Enlightenment and Nietzsche’s declaration of the ‘death of God’ we did not evolve into better people, rather, we invented ways to more effectively wage war. It is true that the First World War so appalled some nations, including Great Britain, that in the 1930s they did their utmost to blow away the storm clouds of Nazism through diplomacy. War is hell, and damn to hell those who want another war.

We are being naive to believe that the world will not again witness warfare with such brutality. While recent wars may not have resulted in as great a loss of life for Western nations, we are largely ignorant of the huge numbers of casualties suffered over the last 20 years in Central Africa and in the Middle East. And this is only taking into account conflict through war, and not the many other issues that devour humanity.

We need a new paradigm for dealing with human conflict. We need an alternative narrative. The First World War reminds us of the glory and shame of humanity, and of the repeated incredulity of believing that we can be our own Saviour. Surely the First World War ought to cause us to turn from ourselves and to seek one who is greater than us and better than us, and who is loving enough to remove the greed and selfishness that is at the heart of these conflicts, and to change us and fill us with a love for our neighbour as ourselves.

Human warfare ought to provoke in us a desire for peace, and it should at the very least cause us to consider the One who claims to be the Prince of Peace. After all, if the last 100 years teaches us anything, it is that despite all our intelligence and sacrifice and our strength and ingenuity,  we are unable to produce a lasting and true peace for this world.

In the book of Revelation we are told that Jesus Christ redeems, rules and judges through the sword of his mouth, which is the word of God (1:16; 2:12; 19:15). Christians have sometimes forgotten this crucial truth, but more often they have lived by it. The Kingdom of God and the rule of peace comes through the proclamation of this Gospel of Jesus Christ. Men and women are turned from being God’s enemies to enjoying his peace through this Gospel, and as they are united to God in amazing love and joy they are also reconciled together. Jesus spoke of the love demonstrated by laying down one’s life for a friend. The Bible speaks of an even greater love that we would do well to adopt, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us…if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:8 and 10).

This is a battle won not by the strong and the wise, but by a good God who redeems the weak and the sinful. In this, the Gospel of Jesus Christ turns the world upside turn in order to make it right. Instead of power corrupting and power destroying, God’s power is saving. Imagine God coming into the world, and laying down his life for his enemies. Imagine, while understanding and condemning all our wrongdoing, he yet offers us lasting peace and reconciliation, bought by blood but not our own, but with the willing once for all sacrifice of Jesus Christ for us.

Australian society, like many Western cultures, is now further entrenched in Nietzsche’s proclamation. We may not all believe God is actually dead, but we certainly think he is irrelevant. Maybe take him out on special occasions, pray a prayer on Remembrance Day, but be quick to close the good book until the next auspicious occasion. What if we’ve been wrong all this time? What if the slaughter of humanity signals not the failure of God but the persistent unbelief of humanity to believe the grace of God?

 

 

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*His stated occupation was in fact ‘fireman’, but the battalion he joined was largely made up of Newcastle coal miners.

Part of this article was first published by the Gospel Coalition Australia as part of the centenary commemorations of Gallipoli in 2015

A return to common sense pluralism in Victoria?

Matthew Guy, leader of the Victorian State Opposition, has announced that “a government I lead will bring back religious instruction in schools because it’s very important.”

This is encouraging news, not only for Christian families but also for Victorians in general. Let me explain.

But first of all, it is important to premise my commentary with this statement: when I talk about various policies or pieces of legislation, one shouldn’t read into this an advocation for any one political party.  I don’t believe it is the role of a pastor to dictate or to suggest to their congregation (or to others) how to vote. I also recognise that there are many important issues which influence the way we vote and on these Christians may differ. One, however, may comment on specific policies, for such things are designed to influence and to shape aspects of society, and therefore they can very real consequences for constituents. It is a misstep however for the reader to conclude that either giving praise or criticism is a signal to vote in any one direction.

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Having said that, let’s address the issue at hand.

In 2015, the Victorian State Government announced that Special Religious Instruction (SRI) classes would cease in our schools, during class hours, as of January 2016. This was not a policy that State Labor took to the election.

At the time, Education Minister, James Merlino, offered this reason for SRI’s removal, ‘We can’t have kids missing out on essential teaching time.’ However, he then announced that a new program will be introduced to schools, replacing SRI, which includes instruction on faith and ethics. The reasoning behind the axing morphs again when the Australian Education Union supported the decision, stating that SRI is at ‘odds with Victoria’s secular education system’.

To be fair, Mr Merlino also made it clear that SRI could continue “outside the curriculum.” I am sure that Mr Merlino was and is aware of what every parent knows, and that is our children already have multiple programs running during lunchtimes and after school. During those breaks when they are not having sport or music practice, they need that downtime to relax and to play with friends.  Yes, schools are permitted to run SRI, but the goal posts were moved so frequently that almost no one knew what was permissible, and the red tape has been wound so tight that most schools were unable to give students an option. Despite the rhetoric about schools being allowed to run religious classes, by design, there is a massive disconnect between optics and what is actually possible on the ground.

One of the results of this move is that many Victorian families no longer feel welcomed in State Schools, and instead have been pressured into moving their children into religious schools, often at significant and unplanned cost to these families. This movement may have benefited independent schools, but our State Schools are the poorer for it. Matthew Guy’s announcement is welcoming and sends the message that all children are welcome.

It is also important to note that under the current Government (and the previous Government), important lessons were learned in relation to the training of religious instructors and to preferring an opt-in approach. Mistakes were made by SRI providers, but the sensible answer, however, was never to rid schools of these classes.

Once again, I understand that Matthew’ Guy’s announcement is enmeshed in politics and an upcoming election; so let me repeat, that’s not my interest here. What can be said is that (whatever the motivation) the Liberal’s position on this issue better reflects the Australian ethos than does the current position on religion in schools. The announcement permits and encourages healthy pluralism, as opposed to the narrow ideology that is currently being forced upon an entire generation of children.

A return to opt-in SRI also better reflects the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948:

‘Every child shall enjoy the right to have access to education in the matter of religion or belief in accordance with the wishes of his parents or, as the case may be, legal guardians, and shall not be compelled to receive teaching on religion or belief against the wishes of his parents or legal guardians, the best interests of the child being the guiding principle.’

Art5(2) Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981)

Replacing Safe Schools with a curriculum safe for our children

Matthew Guy has also announced that a Coalition Government would remove the  Safe Schools curriculum from Victorian schools. This is a safe option for our children.

While some of the intent of Safe Schools needs affirming, it was unnecessarily but inextricably enmeshed in unscientific and dangerous theories that have potential to cause immense damage upon our children. To teach our children to respect others, regardless of their sexuality, is right and important, but to teach that gender is fluid, to encourage exploration in sex, and to encourage children to transition to another gender despite research indicating that most children will recover from dysphoria with maturity, it is morally and intellectually reprehensible to have such things taught in our schools. To label children who believe in heteronormacy as ‘sexist’ is itself sexist, and demonstrates the hypocrisy that’s woven into the program. The whole saga has been troubling; Safe Schools isn’t about anti-bullying, it’s about forcing on our children a particular and narrow view of sexuality. When the very authors of the curriculum pointed out this fact, the Government were quickly dismissive.

Since the introduction of Safe Schools, two separate and academic reviews have been conducted (the first by Professor Louden and one by Professor Parkinson), both demonstrating significant flaws and problems with material, including dependence on fake statistics, unscientific theories, and in places presenting as fact ideas that remain highly contested within the medical fraternity. Following Professor Louden’s Review, the Federal Government announced significant changes to the curriculum, but Victoria has insisted on ignoring the findings and implementing the program without change.

What has happened in Victoria over the past 3 years is that a ½ hour opt-in religious program was removed and then replaced with compulsory curriculum (not only Safe Schools but also Respectful Relationships). In addition, the Government began designing a ‘general religious’ curriculum course for schools, which is to be compulsory across our schools (I am not aware if this course has been implemented as yet).

Don’t fall for revisionist views of secularism

According to The Age, “Australian Education Union Victorian branch president Meredith Peace said special religious instruction had no place in the curriculum of secular public schools.

She said there was already room to learn about religion and its role in society and history in state schools.”

“But it shouldn’t be taught by unqualified people who come into the schools with a very different purpose.”

These remarks prove the point. Contrary to Meredith Peace, secular does not mean non-religious or keeping religion out of public education and other public domains. The definition of secularism is not private religion, as Peace implies. True secularism allows for and encourages the plurality of ideas.

Also contrary to Meredith Peace, it is sensible that those who teach the Bible, should be qualified people (whether teachers or volunteers) who understand and believe the Bible’s message, rather than skeptics who explain away and misrepresent the Bible’s message.

Neutral education is a fairy tale, and it’s simply disingenuous for anyone to suggest such. This bias is clearly demonstrated by the Department’s own statements in the draft general religious studies program. As someone who holds an honours degree in theology I am in some way able to speak to the following statements.

According to the Education Department, these are the key premises of Christianity:

“There is one God, consisting of the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit. God is the creator and sustainer of the universe. God became human in the person of Jesus, the Son.

People have one life and its purpose is to live in a loving relationship with God, with others and with the world. The life and teachings of Jesus show how this is done and make possible the life-giving changes needed in individuals and society. Christians are empowered by the Holy Spirit and are called to demonstrate God’s love, compassion and justice in all their relationships and interactions. Most Christians believe in an afterlife; that after their physical death, they will live forever with God.

The Bible is the sacred text for Christians. The Bible has two parts, known as the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament contains Jewish books and teachings, before the time of Jesus. The New Testament records the teachings of Jesus as well as the history and teaching of the early Church which is based on the teaching and example of Jesus.”

Some of the above statements align with Christianity, while others are blatantly wrong, and some of the most central tenets are altogether missing.

Here is one example of a basic error, ‘Most Christians believe in an afterlife; that after their physical death, they will live forever with God”. No, all Christians believe in an afterlife, and this life beyond death will be physical.

Notice how there is no mention of sin, Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection, and of salvation on account of God’s grace. There is no mention of hell. Without these things, there is no Christianity. It is not enough to make the excuse, we can’t say everything in a few paragraphs, the core of Christianity has been ripped out and in so doing it is presenting a Christianity that is inauthentic and inaccurate.

To quote the Bible, Christianity is about “Christ and him crucified”.

My point is this, if the Education Department is unable to fairly and accurately summarise the Christian faith, how can we trust what they want to be taught about any and all religion?

Would we want our children being taught maths by a teacher who doesn’t understand algebra? Would we be happy to learn that the school biology teacher doesn’t believe in male and female anatomy? Is it acceptable for sports teachers to deny the value of physical exercise? Why is it, therefore, acceptable when it comes to Christianity specifically, and religion more generally.

This is not about imposition, this is about recognition.

Why shouldn’t we give our children an opportunity to explore the greatest book that has ever been written? A book to which we owe more than any other? A book that has given shape to millennia of civilisation (not only in the West but also in the East), and has given our society its ethical and political moorings?

An intolerant secularism that is claiming the public space.

The version of secularism that now dominates much public and political conversation in Victoria feints intellectualism and freedom, but it is simply the guise for a new wave of intellectual totalitarianism, where dissent is squashed by a tirade of shout downs.

Barney Zwartz made this astute comment in the The Age,

“This attitude masks a more serious problem in the widespread contemporary misunderstanding of what “secular” means, one that I suspect is shared by Fairness in Religions in School. It has never meant, as many imagine, the absence of religion from the public arena but simply that no religion should be privileged (as, for example, the Church of England is in Britain).

Properly understood, that works to protect people of all religions and none, and to foster an open, vibrant, tolerant public culture.”

Are we so frightened of the Bible that we must prevent our children from spending 1/2hr of the week from exploring it in a safe and fun environment? It is sad to see children having taken from them the freedom and opportunity to explore what is the greatest book to have influenced Australian life and culture.

I said it in 2015, and it remains the case today; 20 years from now, a generation of Victorians will look back upon the decisions that have been made, and we will recognise the diminished experience that we have given our children, having kept from them the very ideas that gave birth to Augustine and J.S Bach, C.S Lewis and Martin Luther King, and many of the greatest thinkers, scientists, artists, writers, and humanists of history.

I would encourage the Government to reconsider their own policies on these issues, and to realign them true secularism and with best scientific and medical research. Surely for the good our children and the future of the State, it is worth it.

Religious Freedom and Civil Speech: the insane, the fair, and the good

Narrative is important. In 2018, the winning argument doesn’t rely on facts and accurate information but depends upon telling a story which will garner the outrage of one’s constituents. Anger is power. Anger is persuasion. Truth-telling has become optional; useful when it supports one’s thesis, and redundant when it does not.

In this current age of rage and rhetorical bashing (which both progressives and conservatives are utilising), alternative narratives are often not presented with accuracy and fairness. It is proving increasingly difficult, and at times, near impossible to engage in civil discourse, because the climate is reaching temperature levels that resist reasoned and gentle speech.

The test case was the now infamous 2017 conversation promoted by the Bible Society and featuring Tim Wilson and Andrew Hastie. The point of the exercise was to demonstrate that it is possible to conduct a civil conversation over a beer while disagreeing on same-sex marriage.  Apparently, the very notion that Australians could enjoy polite disagreement on SSM was too much, as beer drinkers all over the nation raged and smashed bottles of Coopers’ Beer in protest. Coopers’ was threatened with boycotts to the point that they were forced to recant and join those waving rainbow flags (despite the fact that they were never sponsoring the video in the first place). Sadly, this response is now normal in Australia today.

One month ago, most journalists in the country were saying very little about the Ruddock inquiry into religious freedom…until a Christian became Prime Minister. Since then there has been an almost absurd flurry of attention given to this review in which the Government is still yet to release its decisions. Don’t get me wrong, there is a legitimate story here as to why the Government has been so slow in releasing its findings from the Ruddock review, but instead of waiting to find out what the Government’s position will be, media outlets began hypothesising and arguing points based on speculation, and when a summary of the Ruddock report was leaked to the media, everyone went nuts.

In the first few days, Fairfax published no fewer than 19 articles, in which they argued that the Government was taking steps to give religious schools freedom to expel gay students.

It soon became apparent that this was not a measure that the Government was considering, in fact, this provision already existed and it was introduced by the Labour Government in 2013. More importantly,  Christian schools across the country came out, saying that they were not aware of this policy and they certainly did not support or practice it. Eternity newspaper made inquiries around the nation and found the whopping sum total of schools who were expelling gay students to be zero. The other day I asked a teacher who works at a Christian school in Melbourne and they were stunned that the media would argue that this was a practice inside Christian schools.

In other words, the whole story was a beat up. But it hasn’t stopped anti-Christian hysteria, with numerous social commentators and now members of Parliament attacking this dangerous practice that doesn’t exist.

ABCs Media Watch presented an excellent summary of this sloppy journalism.

To be fair, since publishing the first 19 articles, Fairfax has now allowed two pieces which finally offer an alternate perspective. Both articles are indeed excellent and worth reading.

Come this morning, I wake up and the top of my Twitter feed is sprucing another article, with this title, “Sydney Anglicans set to ban gay weddings and pro-LGBTI advocacy on church property

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The problem with this piece is that it is neither new news nor is it news at all. The Sydney Anglican Diocese, like other Anglican Dioceses around Australia, already have a position on marriage and their clergy and property is already constrained to practice weddings that conform to their definition of marriage. I realise that journalists are under growing pressure to write articles that are provocative and opinionated because such writing can increase audience reach and circulation, but this does not cultivate better public conversation. 

Deep into the article, after readers have already been won over to once again tut tut these  incredulous Christians, Michael Koziol, adds this important detail, one which in fact completely debunks that click-bait headline,

“Bishop of South Sydney Michael Stead, the senior clergyman who authored the proposal, told Fairfax Media that the use of church property had “always been governed by various regulations” and the new policy merely sought to consolidate those into a single document.

“The new policy doesn’t represent a change in our position and I wouldn’t expect it to have an effect on any activities currently occurring on church trust property,” he said.

“Because the federal government has changed its definition of marriage, the policy makes clear the church’s doctrine of marriage has not changed and that property use scenarios relate only to man/woman marriage.”

Is it so shocking that a Christian denomination should reaffirm their already stated beliefs? Is it so outrageous that Christians should practice what they preach? How dare Christians believe what Christians have always believed and practiced!

There is literally no point in publishing this article on the Anglican Synod, other than trying to add weight to the narrative that’s being spun, namely that conservative Christians in general, and especially Sydney Anglicans, are awful people who are intolerant, and who are fighting a rearguard action against the inevitable tide of sexual and moral progressiveness. Just so readers come away believing that Sydney Anglicans are really out of step, Koziol finds a few quotes to suggest that most Christians (certainly Anglicans) don’t support this out of touch view of marriage. Readers are told that Sydney Anglicans are just playing power games of ‘privilege’.

There you have it; it doesn’t matter what’s true or not, just insert one of those key intersectionality words, like ‘privilege’, and the story is complete; Sydney Anglicans are bad!

I’m reminded of a conversation that I had with a Fairfax journalist not so long ago. They shared with me how most journalists have little understanding of religion, in general, let alone comprehending Christianity. Of course, sometimes Christians add to the confusion by doing and saying things that are not true of Christianity. This kind if misinformation happened in the time of the New Testament Church. Take, for example, Alexander the metalworker whom Paul mentions as having “done him a great deal of harm”.

There are many fine journalists around Australia, some are Christians, many are not. I wonder though, how can we reach out to journalists and help educate them as to what it is Christians do and don’t believe?

Regardless of what one’s personal suppositions and moral inclinations are, Australian society needs to find ways to reduce the dangerous and at times disingenuous reporting and commentary that is taking over the public square. It would be great if our politicians would show the way, and societal conversations would certainly be strengthened if media outlets stepped away from speculative and sensationalised reporting.

Regardless of how others decide to debate ethical and political issues, Christians must follow the guidelines that are set out by the very Scriptures which our society deems as foolish and immoral.

Early this week I was reminded of this timely words written to Timothy by his friend and mentor, Paul,

 Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.  And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.  Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth,  and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” (2 Timothy 2:22-26)

That’s not a bad place for us to begin.

AFL Passion

Only once have I missed the AFL Grand Final, and that was in 1999.  We were living in London at the time, but even then, I woke up at 4 in the morning to read the then minute by minute updates that were being published on the internet (yes, this was before the days of live-streaming).

It doesn’t matter whether my team is playing on Grand Final day or not, it’s un-Melbourne not watch and enjoy the game.

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mysterious photo of the MCG,  taken the night before football

There will be 100,000 people filling the MCG this afternoon and living out their love for football, with millions more watching on television at home or at the pub.

Where ever one walks in the city, there are kids and adults dressed up in their football colours. Houses are fitted out in black and white, and the very rare and very brave, yellow and blue.  Everywhere you look, men, women and children are wearing footy jumpers and scarves. The only news today is about this single game of football. Football fans are not hard to spot: they are committed to supporting their team, they’re enthusiastic, they attend matches and if they can’t they will watch it on tv, they talk about footy at work, there are footballs lying around the house to hold and caress. 

Think about how much interest we take in the footy, how many conversions begin or end with footy, how passionate we get during the game (even if our team isn’t playing), and how the entire day revolves around the AFL.

Our own household has descended into the deep navy blues, pondering the good old days of 1995 and 1987, remembering that we are still the most successful club in AFL history, and will again rise…maybe.

Grand Final day is so important to Melbourne that we now celebrate a public holiday on the day before Grand Final!

For the 3.5 Melbournians who don’t love footy, there will be something else that you’re passionate about – art, music, gardening, cooking, technology,  spending time with friends, travel.

To prove that I’m not just another nodular barely-civilised football fan (can’t think why Collingwood comes to mind!), remember that famous balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet where Juliet is standing outside in the night sky and Romeo sees her, and is smitten and starts talking to himself, 

‘See how she leans her cheek upon her hand. O that I were a glove upon that hand, That I might touch that cheek.’

Romeo would be satisfied to be a glove on her hand so that he could touch her cheek. It’s all very romantic, but that’s what happens with passions and desires. Whatever the heart most desires, we think and talk and dream about it.

Football, music, and poetry are among the many good things we enjoy under a good God, and every year Grand Final week makes me wonder why Christians don’t exhibit similar enthusiasm for the good news of Jesus Christ?

Listen to what the Apostle Paul wrote,

“I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit—  I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race.”

I think of Jesus who as he approached Jerusalem, wept, and said,

‘“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace’

Where is this Gospel driven passion today? Where is the deep-heart-convinced desire to tell Melbournians the Gospel? We are passionate about many things and yet the purposes of God in Christ is rarely one of them.

Imagine if Christians preferenced time with Church over lazy weekends and sporting events?

Imagine if Christians gave just a portion of their football fanaticism to the Great Commission instead?

Charles Spurgeon once remarked, ‘‘Have you no wish for others to be saved? Then you’re not saved yourself, be sure of that!”

The thing is, while we may give intellectual assent to Surgeon’s question, what we truly desire is evident by what we give our energies too and the decisions we make in life.

Imagine, if Christians put first in their lives, God’s mission into the world?

Like everyone, I have limited time and energy, and so I need to be wise and ensure that how I live is being driven by the reality that I am persuaded is of greatest value. Friends, make it the Gospel.

FYI Collingwood by 11 points!

(This is a revised version of the article that was first published for the GF in 2015)

Pray for China

The Chinese Government has recently reasserted Sinicization, the project aimed at conforming Christianity into the likeness of Communist China.

Over the past 70 years China has born witness to one of the greatest movements the world has ever seen. At the close of the Second World War and with the rise of Communism, Western missionaries were removed from China and many left wondering what would happen to the fledgling Churches left behind in that extraordinary land.

Communism has little time for religion, as has been demonstrated in 100 years of socialist run States. Belief in God is deemed to be a threat to social harmony and to those who have power over the people.

As the bamboo curtain descended in the 1950s, God did not turn away from the Chinese people, but behind the scenes, he began an amazing work which has led to so many people becoming Christian, no one can count the number. Estimates range between 40 and 80 million followers of Jesus Christ in China today, possibly more Christians than in any other nation on earth.

It is somewhat ironic that the most ‘Christian’ nation is one with a communist Government with a capitalist facade!

 

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Over the past 20 years, China has gradually opened its doors to the world outside, and in some Provinces, religious toleration is greater than in others. As the bamboo curtain rose a little, Anglo-European Christians discovered that God does not need Western Christianity in order to grow the Gospel elsewhere. The Holy Spirit does not travel through western missionaries into indigenous groups but rather, the Spirit is God’s gift given directly to all who come to faith in the risen Christ. This is not to denigrate centuries of European witness to the Gospel, for we should be thankful for the fact that men and women traveled to China, and many died in order to give the Gospel to that great land. Today there are still many non-Chinese men and women who are serving in a variety of ways inside China, to love the people and show people the reality and good news of Jesus.

Once again, Chinese Christians are facing persecution. The Government is clamping down on Christianity with new intent and severity. According to a report in the ABC, the crackdown includes:

  • removing Bibles from online stores
  • removing Christian objects from buildings
  • closing hundreds of churches
  • and forcing Christian icons to include or be accompanied by images of Mao Zedong.

The last of these measures reminds me of Daniel ch.3 where King Nebuchadnezzar exercised religious toleration by requiring all of his subjects to submit to a statue in his image. Who doesn’t like to think of the cross with an image of Mao Zedong standing over it!

One Pastor explained what has happened to his church,

“And then they [the authorities] came into the church saying that things inside should be removed.

“For example, the banner saying: ‘For God, so love the world’ and the scriptures were torn down, and all things related to the Bible and faith had to be cleared out.”

All this would be bad enough, but news this week is highlighting collusion with the Chinese Government by the Vatican.

While President Xi Jinping is beginning to sound like King Nebuchadnezzar, Pope Francis is appearing as one of his astrologers who betrays Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

Writing for the New York Times, Ian Johnson has suggested that recent negotiations between the Chinese Government and the Vatican are designed to further stamp out underground Churches. In other words, to reduce even further any little autonomy and freedom Christian Churches might have had in China.

“Beijing’s goal in the agreement, however, appears to be the same as with the church demolitions: greater control over the rapid spread of Christianity, which gained a permanent presence in China in the 16th century.”

The deal will allow the Vatican to have greater say in appointing future Bishops in China (but not full control), and this was contingent upon Pope Francis formally recognising seven Catholics Bishops who have already been appointed by the Chinese Government.

According to Johnson,

“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.”

The founder of ChinAid, a Christian human rights organisation, Bob Fu, has responded to the deal,

“While we understand the eagerness of Vatican for seeking more legitimacy in the eye of the Chinese Communist Party, this reported deal is nothing but a betrayal of both the millions of suffering persecuted Christians in China and the global Catholic Church.” 

In other words, Pope Francis has struck another deal with the devil, one which will essentially hand over millions of Chinese Christians (especially Protestant Churches) into the unforgiving hands of the Government. According to all accounts, the Chinese Government is using the Vatican as a tool to increase pressure on underground Churches, to either close or to formally register and come under their authority and control.

It is fair to say that many Christians in Australia are concerned with where things are heading in our own country. There are signs suggesting that new forms of authoritarian secularism are gaining momentum, and the project to limit religious freedom and to control public Christianity has certainly gained ground in recent times. These moves need to be called out and pushed back for the sake of all Australians who believe in social pluralism and freedom of conscience, speech, and association. Do we really want to live in a country where the government or where self-appointed militia get to choose how Christian Christians can be or to police how Jewish Jews can be or how Hindu Hindus can be? 

Perhaps we should have one eye looking toward China, and ask ourselves, is that the kind of religious freedom we want to have here? 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.

With a wonderful sense of Divine irony, the future of Christianity in Australia, at least in part, lays with Chinese believers. As many Aussies of European descent turn their backs on God, preferring to worship plastic images of the self, large numbers of Chinese men and women, and of many from other ethnic descent, are becoming followers of Jesus Christ in Australia. It is exciting and encouraging. It’s as though the stupid identity politics and intersectionality ethics created by white middle-class university students, is being blown up before their very eyes.

The reason for writing this post is to raise further awareness of what is unfolding in China and to encourage Christians to pray.

When Paul shared his troubles with the Church in Corinth,  he mentioned the efficacy of the prayers offered for him by the Corinthians,

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10 He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.” (1 Corinthians 1:8-11)

Sometimes when we see terrible things in other parts of the world; we are saddened, concerned, but we feel helpless not knowing what to do.  As Christians, there is always one thing we can do, no matter where we are are in the world,  and that is pray.

Prayer is not wasted breath to a nonexistent God, as our atheist friends might suggest. We pray to God our Father, who remains Sovereign over all nations even today, and who loves his people dearly, and who is committed to seeing his Gospel grow both here in Australia and in China.

A season for pruning churches in Australia

Does God sometimes allow unbelievers to do the work Churches should be doing themselves?

God used Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians as a weapon of judgement against Judah, and God used Cyrus as an instrument to bring God’s people back to the land and to see the Temple rebuilt.

While we cannot say with certainty that any specific person or organisation has been handed the pruning shears by God (for the simple reason, God hasn’t told us), we do know from the Scriptures that God is concerned with cutting off dead branches, pruning lives branches, and bearing fruit in the lives of his disciples.

In John ch.15 Jesus uses one of his many analogies to describe his relationship with his people, namely that of the vine and branches.

Jesus says,

 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

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There is no doubt that churches have been entangled in many scandals over recent years. Clergy have been guilty of committing terrible abuses on children, while other ecclesial authorities have at times covered over these crimes. Popular preachers have been called out for marital unfaithfulness, embezzling money, acting like mini-dictators, and saying some really dumb and unwise things relating to an array of social and political issues.

Australia has a band of public figures and journalists who are always quick to castigate, shame, and then to investigate, all manner of evils perpetrated by Christians (and by people of various kinds of religious perspectives). This is no bad thing, for why should Christians be given a jail free pass, simply because they allege a diplomatic Jesus card?

At the same time, Churches and Christians are being increasingly condemned for believing and practising things that are in line with their Scriptures. Whereas abusing children is abhorrent and aberrant to the Christian faith, believing in heterosexual only marriage is consistent with biblical and historical Christianity, and yet many do not care for such moral distinctions.

Broader Australian culture has lost its cognitive awareness, rarely knowing what is and isn’t Christianity (and this blurring will only increase as Governments further squeeze out Christian education and religious freedoms); let’s return to the good old days of Pliny the Younger, who assumed the Lord’s Supper consisted of Christians eating the flesh and drinking the blood of fellow human beings! Weeds, plants, trees, and grass, all look the same, and the temptation to mow it all down is too great for some. This unfortunate and unsurprising trend toward religious ignorance is one reason why our society struggles to differentiate between the real sins in Churches and Churches who are properly exercising their faith.

Another problem is that in the world of today’s social media madness, the noise is at a crescendo, with people shouting and screaming at everything they don’t like, forgetting that not everything that they disagree with is necessarily wrong or harmful or evil. Religious and irreligious people are both guilty of the unsociable new norm, and it’s a worrying trend because when the volume reaches triple forte, it becomes near impossible to any worthwhile and important discourse.

Juxtaposed to these Metallica like screams is a deafly quiet that we find in some religious quarters. Rare moments of stillness can be of some value, but we should not confuse the appearance of saint-like silent meditation with spiritual authenticity; sometimes it’s nothing more than a magician’s trick to hide cowardice or complicity.

You see, at one level we can’t blame the culture, because it defines good and bad by its own standards, even if those moral lines keep moving around like a cat chasing a laser light. We are not expecting secular Australia to define moral goodness according to the Christian faith, because we understand, even as Jesus taught, that the two are not synonymous.

It’s not as though God’s righteousness is only true for the Church and is irrelevant to the outside world, for there is nothing in creation that escapes God’s good design and intent. The entire cosmos, including Governments, is subject to the rule of God, and yet they are in a state of rebellion, whereas the Church is meant to be a redeemed people, a city on the hill revealing the glory of Christ.

The greater responsibility lays with Churches and religious organisations, who have too often neglected the faith once for all delivered, and have instead adopted the moral and epistemological posture of the prevailing culture.

One of the persistent problems we have in Australia is with many Christian leaders failing in their responsibility. They have failed to stand for orthodox teaching. Instead of refuting bad and dangerous doctrines, these ideas are promoted and taught, or they give a silent endorsement. After all, can anyone really say that they know what the Bible says? Surely, only a puffed-up bigoted Pharisee would ever suggest that Biblical truth is clear and mandated? While far too many theologians and pastors have hired smoke machines to create ambiguity over pretty much every Christian doctrine, others have failed to act against bullies and abusers, perhaps through incompetence, more often, through neglect or not being willing to pay the cost.

The question is if Churches are unclear about discipleship and if Church leaders are failing to fulfill their ordained responsibilities, perhaps God will employ another to do that all-important work of pruning?

I understand why some Aussies look at our backyard, and conclude, religious and especially Christianity is waning. The culture has shifted, and every leaf and twig not conforming to the new pattern will be picked off for mulch. But that is to misunderstand what is happening. When a tree is pruned, it looks so bare and feeble that some might mistake it for being dead. That was certainly the reported diagnosis in the wake of last year’s national census, and with regular reminders about church closures and dipping church attendances. Is the Church dying? Is Christianity on the way out? Or is God in the process of cutting off dead branches and pruning those that bear fruit?

While many Australian Christians are concerned with happenings both inside Churches and in our surrounding communities, it would be wrong to respond with despair or hopelessness. It is a work of grace that God so loves his church that he attends to it: watering, feeding, and yes even pruning her. The vine is Jesus, and the branches are those who have been united with him. Remaining in Jesus is the only way to be fruitful, and remaining in Him is to remain in his word, namely to keep trusting and obeying his words. 

Surely we can be thankful as dead Christendom is removed from the scene, and while the culture isn’t savvy enough to discern between real and fake Christianity, the season can also be used of God to refine and prepare. In other words, pruning may hurt, but it’s good, and it’s the necessary prelude to a bumper crop.