What Melbourne’s Earthquake reveals about ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“satisfies your desires with good things

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.” (Matthew 24:6-8).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boys at local High School targeted

The local high school in my suburb made the news yesterday. I have friends with children at this school and know many families with children attending Parkdale Secondary College.

Several Victorian schools have made headlines this year as students engage in inappropriate and even abusive behaviour. On this occasion, it wasn’t the students who did anything wrong, rather they were subjected to a demeaning and abusive tirade.

A youth worker from the local city council was invited to give a presentation as part of  a ‘diversity and inclusion’ program. According to eyewitness accounts, year 11 boys were “ordered to stand up in class”. What followed was anything but diverse and inclusive. 

The Herald Sun reports that the boys were then “slammed by a council youth worker for being white, male and Christian ­“oppressors”.

“If the students were “ if they were “white”, “male” and “Christian”, they were made to stand and face public humiliation as this youth worker  “ told them they were responsible for being “privileged” and “oppressors”.”

A 16 year old students spoke to the Herald Sun, 

“It was so messed up, we thought for a moment it was a joke, but then we realised it wasn’t and we were so upset and angry by it all,” the 16-year-old said.

“She basically said straight, white, Christian males were oppressors and they held all the power and privilege in ­society.”

She said the male students had felt “ashamed” and “targeted” during the presentation.

“We were shocked but it was quite difficult to say anything because she was also talking about LGBTQI+ and if you spoke out against that you feared you’d be called homophobic,” she said.”

Students were understandably shaken by this unjustifiable shaming by an individual who knows nothing about the personal lives of these boys. Parents are understandably angered. Thankfully the school is also disappointed and has complained to Kingston city council. Also pleasing is how Kingston Council has apologised and began an investigation. Kingston City Council chief executive, Tim Tamlin, said,

“It is never council’s intention to enter into identity politics … we are carefully reviewing the youth services program and will take measures to ensure this can never happen again.” 

Well done to both the school and the Council for these positive responses.

On this occasion, the intolerant attitudes attached to identity politics were met with rebuke. This is often no longer the case as academic institutions and workplaces assume these ideologies and compel faculty members and employees to subscribe without question. The kind of thinking presented to these school students is now flowing mainstream in our culture This story at Parkdale secondary College further highlights how this ideology is no longer kept inside the shadows of a lecturer’s study or limited to the next Netflix series; there is a confidence in these self appointed truth-tellers to publicly shame students in school. Again, these boys were not judged guilty for doing any wrong, but simply on account of their skin colour, their gender, and their potential affiliation with the Christian religion. 

It’s hard to overlook the fact that in Victoria a person can face imprisonment if they pray or speak with someone about sexuality in line with Christian beliefs, but school children can be subjected to racial or gender abuse by a council employee. Again, thankfully this school has spoken up but how many other schools are teaching this nonsense? We know that this is not the only school to have this situation; boys at a Warrnambool school faced a similar attack only a couple of weeks ago. I look forward to the Victorian Education Minister responding to the incident.

We don’t fix one problem by introducing another

There are real issues of gender based abuse in our society and issues of racism. we have been reminded of these around the country this year. Burying our heads in the sand is not going to help anyone. However replacing one problematic attitude with another is no solution. Destroying one culture by introducing one that is worse will not benefit our children. The rules of wokeology are unscientific and immoral. Propagating this kind of harmful teaching will not solve the issues society is wrestling with, it will only produce a new wave of trouble and end with moral and social disillusionment. Let the reader understand, this is the very design and goal of today’s social educators. I’m sure many people jump on board some of these ideas because of attractive rhetoric and out of desire to make a better society, but words have meaning and purpose. Let us be clear, authors of today’s anthropological story have quite adamant ambitions: the eradication of Christianity, the removal of the family unit, and the disintegration of gender is the aim. In 2017,  Roz Ward, a chief architect of safe schools , admitted the underlying political agenda but the government of the time chose to ignore the confession. Doubters should read Carl Truman’s latest volume, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution.

Wilhelm Reich may have written, The Sexual Revolution in 1936, but Trueman explains Reich’s influence on today’s culture, 

“Reich also believes that the state must be used to coerce families and, where necessary, actively punish those who dissent from the sexual liberation being proposed. In short, the state has the right to intervene in family matters because the family is potentially the primary opponent of political liberation through its cultivation and policing of traditional sexual codes. … What is significant in Reich’s comment is not so much the principle of state intervention to stop abuse but the underlying definition of abuse with which he is operating. It is a psychological one, specifically one rooted in a highly sexualized psychology. … The importance of Reich’s point here can scarcely be overestimated. It has had a decisive influence on Western political thought, most obviously for the Left but, as it connects to the rise of a psychological conception of victimhood, for Western society in general. When oppression comes to be thought of as primarily psychological, then victimhood becomes a potentially much broader—and much more subjective—category. This affects everything…”

Trueman then explores how,

“The sexual education of the child is simply of too much social and political consequence to be left to the parents. After all, it is the parents as those in authority who actually constitute the problem. The family as traditionally understood needs to be dismantled.”

Attitudes and ideas deriding boys and heterosexuality and Christianity are not in their infancy in Victorian schools. Much of this is already present and taught. For example, Safe Schools and Healthy Relationships are now part of the curriculum in every Government school and many private schools. These programs describe heterosexuality in negative ways. To assume heterosexuality is considered a form of sexism and bigotry. Our children are taught to doubt their biological bodies and encouraged to experiment sexually. Despite the volume of material on offer, almost none discuss marriage. Where marriage does appear, it is usually held up as a negative illustration. Safe schools has been deemed so dangerous that the Federal Government banned the material a few years ago, although the State of Victoria responded with loud enthusiasm.

What is new is the unabashed confidence among some who are now teaching our children.

Parents, talk to your your school

Parents, ask questions to your school about what your children are being taught and told on important social issues. You may discover that even the schools are unaware of the some of the content being fed to students.

Parents, take responsibility as the primary carers and educators of your children. As a father of two boys and a girl, I understand the pressures, failures and struggles like other parents. Let’s not however rescind our roles and hand them over to schools and to the Government. I’m not saying schools have no role to play but they are not meant to be our children’s father and mother.

“Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction

    and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.

They are a garland to grace your head

    and a chain to adorn your neck.” (Proverbs 1:8-9)

“Start children off on the way they should go,

    and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

An alternative vision of inclusion

Down the road from Parkdale Secondary School is Mentone Baptist Church, where I serve as a pastor. While no church is perfect for we are all a work in progress, we do experience a very real glimpse of what it means to a multiethnic and multigenerational community where people find love and community and identity in God. We don’t ignore or condone the sins of our society. We ourselves don’t pretend to be without fault. We confess our own sinfulness and look to Jesus Christ who graciously forgives and atones for all our wrongdoing. Instead of standing in shame, we stand together on Sundays to worship God and celebrate who we are in Christ Jesus: men and women, married and single, young and old, white, yellow and brown, professionals and tradies, together finding friendship and enjoying God.

The answer to sexism, abuse, racism, and a host of other evils is not current progressive and neither is it old school conservatism. It is found in local churches like Mentone Baptist (and countless others around Melbourne). It is ironic and even predictable, that the very idea that these local high school students were told is oppressive is in fact God’s freeing vision of reconciliation, healing, and dignity for every human being: namely the person and work of Jesus Christ. 

Can Churches Sing or not?

The day after Victoria was declared COVID free, the DHHS reversed their directive and introduced a ban on singing in churches.

Yesterday my church gathered together for the first time in almost nine months. We did all the rights things in regard to social distancing and mask wearing, registering attendees and cleaning before and after each service. We didn’t share morning tea as we love to do. We even bought prepackaged communion wafers and cups. 

I preached a sermon on Psalm 33,  which begins with a call to worship, 

“Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous;

    it is fitting for the upright to praise him.

Praise the Lord with the harp;

    make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.

Sing to him a new song;

    play skillfully, and shout for joy.”

To obey the Christian call to worship in song has now been forbidden by the DHHS. Earlier in November we spoke to a DHHS officer who guaranteed that we are allowed to sing in church, so long as we wear masks. The Health directives on the Government website, even as late as last night, still stated in one section that singing is permitted for indoor religious ceremonies. 

First of all, I have no doubt that those working in the DHHS have much on their plates. There is an enormous breadth of decisions to make, including producing directives for areas of community life where they have little experience or understanding. This is hard at the best of times. I appreciate how the tragic events that Victorians have experienced this year does not make  producing health advice or directives any easier.

There is no need to attack the DHHS or impugn motives that we are not aware of. My aim here is understanding and to ascertain a helpful explanation from the DHHS.

I have been informed that over the past week there has been confusion within the DHHS and with the DHHS’s messaging. Official Government’s websites have simultaneously allowed singing and prohibited singing for religious ceremonies. The permission granted to my church for singing has not been overturned in writing. However it is my understanding that the DHHS will today confirm on their website that singing is not permitted for religious ceremonies. 

On the surface the DHHS reversal makes no rational sense. The day after Victoria is declared COVID free, the DHHS impose (or at the very least, confirm) a prohibition on singing in churches? 

The question is, what is the justification for reversing the decision on singing?

Several months ago, suggestions were made by some medical experts that singing could play a role in spreading the virus. We certainly want to listen carefully to the findings of research. I note that this information was available months ago and it do not prevent the DHHS from giving religious groups in Victoria the green light for singing. Let me stress, with this information widely available, the DHHS decided that singing was permissible. 

Since those early indications that singing causes COVID to spread, more recent research has found that singing is not more problematic than speaking.

The BBC reported in August, 

“Singing does not produce substantially more respiratory particles than speaking at a similar volume, a study suggests.”

“Dr Rupert Beale of the Francis Crick Institute, said: “This important research suggests there is no specific excess risk of transmission due to singing”

It is not for me to discern how COVID-19 spreads and whether singing is a worse offender or not. I believe in listening to the science. To my knowledge, no new evidence linking singing to the spread of COVID-19 has come to light in the last couple of weeks, the same time frame that has introduced this 180 degree change by the DHHS. Perhaps new scientific data has become available in the past week. If so, it is incumbent upon the DHHS to explain.

This policy reversal is even more bizarre given the fact that Victoria has recorded zero new cases of COVID-19 for 31 days. There has been an entire month with zero new cases, despite many 1000s of people being tested every single say. It’s not as though the health situation is growing more perilous. Indeed, on November 28th Victoria was declared COVID-19 free! 

The logic is quite strange – while there remained a few cases of COVID-19 in Victoria, Churches could sing. Now that there are no cases and Victoria is declared COVID safe, churches can no longer sing?

It is not asking too much for the DHHS to detail the precise reasons to the1000s of churches and 100,000s of religious Victorians who are finally beginning to meet again after almost nine months of severe restrictions

Government bureaucrats perhaps do not appreciate the importance people of faith place on meeting together for worship, and the key role singing plays in these services. For Christians, to sing is one of the great joys and imperatives. It is an essential aspect of Christian worship. 

In 3 week time there will be crowds of 25000 people shouting and singing and chanting at the MCG’s Boxing Day Test. I intend to among that crowd! Groups of noisy patrons are already filling our pubs, sharing spittle as they talk over tables and cheer across the room. While people are amassing in restaurants and pubs 2sq m apart, people in church must sit 4sq m apart. 

There is a moral obligation for the DHHS to demonstrate this ban is necessary, because, for 1000,000s of Victorians, singing is a necessary expression of the faith we hold. If the DHHS has genuine cause for introducing the ban, okay. We will respond appropriately, as we have done so throughout 2020. 

Operation Soteria

The Victorian Government gave the infamous hotel quarantine program the code name, Operation Soteria. In light of the disastrous outcomes from the program, ‘goddess of rescue’ is hardly a suitable name; Eris seems far more appropriate. 

The city of Melbourne is slowly emerging from the worst disaster in her 185 year history. The past six months has revealed Melbourne’s heart and the diagnosis is not altogether positive. Good has been uncovered and also much that should concern anyone who knows that a malfunctioning heart is likely to cause future grief. 

The Covid 19 pandemic in Victoria has thus far resulted in over 20,000 cases and 781 deaths. In terms of global statistics these numbers are relatively small, but of course in June the State was approaching almost zero cases, following a small first wave. Something like 90% of all Victoria’s COVID-19 cases and almost all the deaths have occurred in the second wave. Since July 100,000s of VICtorians have lost their jobs, 1000s of businesses may never reopen, the economy is bleeding a $1 billion every week. The impact on individual lives can scarcely be measured. The pandemic has compounded mental health issues, children’s education impacted, churches closed.

Victoria, especially Melbourne, is living with the greatest restrictions imposed on personal liberty and social freedom that has ever been witnessed in Australian history. A strict curfew has been enforced for months and Melbournians cannot leave a 5km radius from their homes. Schools are shut and most of the workforce must work from home. Churches have not met since March and may not for some considerable time. Families and friends are not permitted to mingle, either indoors or outdoors. 

The pandemic and how it has been handled in Melbourne reveals human nature in ways that we may find uncomfortable. Once the second wave has left our shores, I imagine millions of Melbournians wanting to move on and to leave behind 2020 as we would an awful nightmare. Relief is a powerful medicine, albeit a placebo. I want to offer three observations about how the pandemic is revealed our societal health.

1. Self Preservation or Self Sacrifice?

The pandemic began with hoards of people rushing to supermarkets and emptying shelves of essential goods. The situation deteriorated to the point that supermarkets set aside the first hour of each day for our senior citizens, so that they would not go without because of the surge of people fighting over toilet paper and grabbing the final bag of rice or pasta.

We became a state of dobbers. In May alone, Victorian police received 80,000 calls from Victorians who were reporting on their fellow citizens for allegedly breaking restrictions in one way or another. I am not excusing those who foolishly think they can live in disregard for the law. Yes, there are cases of people being ignorant of the rules, but more often this exposed a selfish impulse. However, the fact we have accumulated 100,000s of complaints over the course, and that the Government urged us to betray our neighbours, is quite telling. Personally, while I am irritated by people who think they can live above law, I find it sad that we were so quick to dob on our neighbours to the police.

In the meantime, many other Victorians worked tirelessly to fight the virus and keep people alive. Working long hours and putting themselves at risk in order to care for the sick and for those who are most vulnerable. 

There is a telling disparity between those who preference self preservation and those who choose self-sacrifice.

2. Fear or Love?

Whether we like it or not, the base motivator that has been used to control peoples behaviour during the pandemic is fear.  Government press conferences and newspaper articles have been primed with scaring people into submission. 

Let it said, it is foolish to think that COVID-19 isn’t a serious and deadly disease. It is no Spanish flu or Bubonic Plague, but the virus is nonetheless highly contagious. The Corona Virus is a life threatening disease for the elderly and for people with certain preexisting medical conditions. Without diminishing these facts, it has been interesting to watch the narrative used to force compliance. There is little talk about loving our neighbour, instead many threats have been made and cataclysmic proclamations given to funnel the population into ‘doing the right thing’. 

Fear can be a useful tool. We should not discount it altogether. Even the Bible speaks of fear as being the correct response to particular scenarios. However, what does this prevalent public narrative say about our society? What kind of city are we living in and raising our children in where the threat of punishment rather than compassion has become the normal modus operandi?

3. Suspicion or Trust?

This leads to a third observation, who do we trust. On the one hand, reactions to the Government’s position on COVID-19 soon fell into political partisanship and conspiracy theorists were not going to let this opportunity slide either. Yet overall, Victorians have followed the restrictions. This may be a sign that we trust the Government or that we’re afraid of fines and even longer lockdown (I suspect the truth is a mix of both). 

The speed at which Victorians gave up basics freedoms was interesting to watch. The willingness in which the people have filed away the State’s Human Rights Charter probably speaks to a combination of self sacrifice and fear. Once upon a time we would look at the world’s most authoritarian regimes, perplexed at how people give up freedoms to the State. A question for Victorians is now, for what other reasons are we prepared to accept rigid limitations on personal liberty? Are there other scenarios in which we would lay down our freedoms to associate, work, play, and live? My underlying observation is that while we have built our nation on certain myths, these are more fiction than fact, and among them is our belief in independence and self making. 

While there is certainly an air of trust in Government directives and following public health warnings, the COVID-19 response was not be built on the premise of trust, but of suspicion. The Government anticipated that people won’t follow best medical advice and that people won’t follow reasonable measures (ie social distancing). Their suspicions have some warrant. 

Suspicion can be a powerful delusion and for others it is a source for angry repose. In some circumstances it can also serve as a wise friend. Unfortunately, our suspicious minds have led to an ‘all or nothing’ dichotomy. This absolutism has controlled much of the rhetoric causing needless divisions  in the community and had the effect of pushing aside reasonable and respected voices from the medical fraternity and from the Melbourne world of law, business, and economics.

Take for example this new Bill that the Government is brining before the Parliament, ’COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2020’. If it passes any citizen can be appointed and given the authority to detain any fellow citizen who is suspected of having COVID-19 and whom authorities believe may not fully comply with quarantine.  In theory, as an untrained citizen who is not a police officer, I can be employed to report, check on, and even detain fellow citizens in a manner reminiscent of the Stasi. 

A significant number of QCs and SCs have written a letter outlining concerns about this Bill, including Retired High Court judge Michael McHugh and former Federal Court judges Peter Heerey and Neil Young. They explain,

Authorising citizens to detain their fellow citizens on the basis of a belief that the detained person is unlikely to comply with emergency directions by the ‘authorised’ citizens is unprecedented, excessive and open to abuse”.

“The bill would also allow any person the secretary considered appropriate to be authorised to exercise emergency powers”.

“There would be no requirement that persons authorised be police officers, or even public servants.”

As astonishing and dangerous as this Bill is to a free and democratic society, the Government not only has the gall to argue for it, but many Melbournians I suspect will be okay with it.  I suspect this doesn’t bode well for the future.

Choosing suspicion over trust works both ways. I’ve noted voices making unrealistic expectations and unsympathetic calls, condemning any and all mistakes. This fails to appreciate the nature of this pandemic; it is new and scientists are still trying to understand how the virus works and what is the best public approach. We may not know for another year which nation stumbled into the most advantageous roadmap. There is also a difference between mistake and incompetence. In the swamp of news conferences, tweets, and inquiries, discerning the truth is not always easy. 

The Victorian people deserve to know the truth of what happened in the Melbourne hotels which has crippled our State, and yet it seems increasingly likely that we will remain in the dark. 

Just today, Health Minister Jenny Mikakos fell on her sword, the morning after her boss stabbed her in the back. Sure, there have been apologies for “Operation Soteria” and even admissions of mistakes made, and yet when it came to the Inquiry no one it seems knew the answers to key questions. Instead, there was lots of blame shifting. It is quite extraordinary (and sadly predictable) that in the case of the worst disaster in our State’s history no one is taking responsibility. How can the State expect its people to behave with integrity when its leaders play blame games in order to save their own political skin? 

This has been a difficult year for everyone. For those who have lost loved ones the pain is excruciating. For those who face financial ruin, the road ahead is long and uncertain. If anything, 2020 is a rehearsal for times that are yet ahead, and challenges that will shake our city to the very foundations. 

We need a better rescue plan

“Operation Soteria” has proven to be an ironic an even sardonic name. The rescue turned out to be a sinking ship. 

To be fair, what COVID-19 is revealing about Melbourne  did not begin with the pandemic, rather it shone a light on our preexisting condition. To build relationships on trust, to do right out of love, and to self sacrifice: these are noble virtues and they are far too rare and absent in our city.

During the inquiry into the hotel quarantine the Bible was held aloft, and yet sadly its message is all too often ignored. Instead of making promises on the Bible perhaps we should open its pages, then read and follow what it says. On the sacred page is a story of the original and best, Operation Soteria. It’s not another Greek myth or Melbourne fiction, but the account of the Son of God whose trust triumphed over worldly suspicion, whose love conquers all fear, and who laid down his life for the sake of his enemies. 

Melbourne has long turned its gaze away from the person of Jesus Christ. As we seek to recover surely it’s time to revisit him and to discover the One who truly rescues. As our city has faced the pandemic our foundations have been proven frail. I suspect that as Summer arrives, in our desperation for normalcy we’ll try to forget the year that has been. I understand the sentiment, but there are harder and deeper lessons to learn, ones which require us to look beyond even health and economic issues and into the very soul of our city. 

The Season that was Melbourne


Melbourne, Oh Melbourne,
How the proud has fallen.
Deserted streets and closed doors,
Schools without children and the MCG in darkness.


The public is masked and commanded to stay indoors.
Work, study, lonely, tired.
Don’t leave the radius, 
Charged by the dynasty of Flavius.


The most liveable city in the world,
They gasped at us and saw our triumph,
That was Melbourne in a smiling portrait,
Luna Park has now lost her grin.


Once the capital of sport, culture, and coffee,
fashion, food,  and education.
Our domination has turned to obliteration. 
This desirable city has been truly flattened.


Trust built on vanity,
Faith pumped with hubris.
We preached a message of greatness,
That’s now exposed for being ever so shallow.


Now the world looks on,
And observes with ponderous note,
What has happened to that once great metropolis,
That promised land of flowing milk and honey?


The Bible always warned,
“Pride goes before destruction, 
a haughty spirit before a fall”.
But we knew better, for we are superior,
To all those lesser places of Paris, New York, 
and Bendigo.  


Disasters come and they’re hard to take,
Lives are altered and even taken.
Hardship forced upon unwilling participants,
And prosperity’s security is proven fake.


The day will dawn and Melbourne reopen,
Sport will play and coffee drunk,
Shops will fill and come the Boxing Day Test too.
But what will Melbourne do with her ostentation?


Sailing on the bay,
And jogging the tan,
Trams running along Swanston Street,
Clogged with Melbourne’s Renaissance man.


To repeat Rome’s folly,
Is the drunken bloke’s slur.
Dressing wounds and crying peace,
Our prophets are prolific.


“Stand at the crossroads and look
    ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
    and you will find rest for your souls.
    But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.

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.”

A new course exploring Christianity

Making Sense of Christianity is a new course designed to present and explain the message of Christianity.

It’s starting in 6 days time (July 28th, 7:3pm)

The 4 week course examines some of the biggest questions of life:

  1. God and the universe
  2. Humanity, sin, and death
  3. Jesus Christ
  4. Christians and the church

The material is written by a Melbournian (me) and for Melbournians

To register, email Murray at pastor@mentonebaptist.com.au

Make sure you include your name, contact details, name of church (if you attend one), and why you’re interested in doing the course.

Check out the intro video

 

It’s beginning to look like Christmas

It’s beginning to look like Christmas…

If you’re living in and around Mentone why not join us this Christmas?

Our Christmas Carol Service is on December 15th and begins at 6pm. There’s a scrumptious Christmas supper following the service.

Our Christmas Morning Service starts 9:30am.

Everyone is Welcome

 

 

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Mark Dever encourages Melbourne Churches

In Melbourne last week The Gospel Coalition of Australia (Victorian chapter), organised a day gathering for pastors and lay leaders. There are 2-3 similar gatherings held each year. The purpose of these meetings is to encourage men and women through faithful expository preaching, by praying for Victoria and for each other’s ministries, and to facilitate networking and building of relationships between churches and between Christian leaders.

 

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In a city that is notoriously tribal, whether it’s football or even Christianity, TGCA is proving to build bridges amongst many of the Churches and parachurch groups. Last Wednesday around 250 men and women attended, representing over 100 churches and parachurch organisations, from across many denominations. Such gatherings are unusual in Melbourne, but they are certainly a beautiful sign of God’s grace and of the power of the Gospel to draw people together. It is a joy to see TGCA serving as a means for bringing evangelicals together from around Victoria. 

Mark Dever (the Senior Pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC and President of 9Marks) was visiting Australia and speaking at a number of events across our major cities (and Sydney), and he graciously agreed to speak at the Victorian gathering. Without repeating everything that was said and discussed throughout the day, here are 4 things that stood out to me, which I would like to share with you.

 

1. Ministry isn’t performance

The venue hosts (to whom we are greatly thankful for their generosity and hospitality), were setting up the auditorium’s lighting and sound when Mark requested that the lights be turned up. Why? Christian ministry isn’t a show with the spotlight shining on the preacher and where he can’t see the faces of the congregation/audience. Christian ministry, including the public teaching of God’s word, is not an exercise of spiritual manipulation or creating chasms between the ‘expert’ preacher and the congregation. Mark wanted to see and engage with the people present. For example, during question time, he would ask for peoples’ names and the church they belong too. 

Observing this short interaction just prior to the event beginning reminded me of this salient point; ministry isn’t performance. It isn’t about the preacher or whoever is standing on the stage. Sometimes we complicate ministry by adding unnecessary elements which can create unhelpful theological and pastoral barriers. In public teaching or certainly for Sunday church, are we relying upon or utilising special effects in order to create the moment or to elucidate a response from the congregation? Does our architecture, our stage managing, and our use of multimedia support our ecclesiology and our trust in the power of the Gospel and the sufficiency of Scripture, or are we undermining these things?

The topic of church music came up during question time: Does our music encourage the saints to sing, to encourage each other and to glorify God, or are they passive bystanders watching, admiring or criticising the band? Does the band function as an edifying accompaniment or as the main act? As someone who used to earn a living from playing music, I appreciate fine musicianship. I enjoy listening to a full & loud sound from a band. Even more, I love hearing the congregation sing. Let’s not interfere with or discourage the sounds of the congregation. The point is so simple and yet we sometimes miss it.  I am less seeking to answer these questions here, but to raise them for others to wrestle with them in their own context.

 

2. Ministry is foremost about remembering old things, not searching for new things

“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.” (1 Corinthians 15:1)

“He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” (Titus 1:9)

A comment that I heard repeated throughout the day was that people were not always learning new things, but they were being reminded of truths which they already new and believed, and were thankful to God for these reminders. This is not to say that we cannot learn new things in theology and in how we go about doing ministry; far from it. We want to be humble students of the Word and also to learn the culture in which we are serving. We can expect God to teach us things that we have previously misunderstood or not thought about. Ministry, however, is far more about practicing consistently what we know to be true rather than looking for new ideas to ground and to direct our Churches. Paul didn’t teach the church in Ephesus to move onto neoteric ideas, but to remain rooted in what they had come to believe. But remaining in God’s word growth would inevitably come (Eph 4:11-16).

Pastors are not immune to being enticed by new ideas and by promises of success in building large churches and gaining peer recognition. There’s a reason why books that unveil the ‘secret’ to growth are so popular; pastors and churches get sucked in and buy them. It is perhaps one reason for the popularity of some Christian conferences; we pay and listen to buy the formula which will save and grow our Churches… and then, after trialing and failing we then move on to the next faddish book and ministry. 

With an air of unoriginality and yet wonderfully refreshing, Mark spoke about the role of preaching and the ministry of prayer and about discipling others in the faith and of the God-given grace of patient perseverance. Again, it was simple, and yet our fidgety minds are sometimes too eager to complicate and move from these basic principles of pastoral ministry.

As Mark said, “faithfulness is the yardstick for success”.

3. Membership really matters

The subject of church membership was addressed in Mark’s presentations and it was again raised during question time and in the panel discussion.

It is staggering to see how many churches don’t practice church membership, and those which do, often think little of it. Church membership is biblical, and it is also sensical and pastorally helpful. No doubt, membership cuts against the grain of our individualistic culture, where we join and leave workplaces, clubs, courses, and relationships, more regularly than any previous generation. We are a noncommittal generation, wanting to try and taste without any meaningful responsibility. Our yes is yes until there is a moment’s disagreement or patch of discomfort and then we turn our yes into a no.  This pursuit of individualism and a lack of emphasis on biblical church membership hamstrings long term Church health and unity. I’m reminded of something Murray Capill once wrote about Paul’s Second letter to the Corinthians,

“The letter shows, somewhat plainly, that church life is not always happy, relationships are often complicated, our best attempts are easily misunderstood, the gospel and the church is constantly under attack, divisions easily occur, mistrust can develop, and even great pastors can come unstuck.”

Church membership is one of the forgotten branches of Christian spirituality. Membership is amazing and arduous. I am praying that one of the outcomes from last week will be pastors and lay leaders going away and thinking more deeply about this all-important topic of membership. Without it, we are working against the spiritual vitality of each believer under our care and against the wellbeing of our Churches.

 

4. Let us not neglect the love of God

“Love is not an optional part of Christianity”. Mark Dever

In the evening session, Mark expounded 1 John 4:7-21, reminding us of the extraordinary love of God in Christ Jesus. Christian ministry must be ground in God’s love, a cross-centered love, which frees us to love God and to love each other. Indeed, it was a great place for ending an encouraging day

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

 

I was encouraged by the teaching and by meeting and praying with many other believers from across Melbourne and Victoria. If you are interested to find out about future events, please visit this link and sign up – http://www.thegospelcoalition.org.au/victoria/

 

Confusing Friends with Family

“How good and pleasant it is
    when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head,
    running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
    down on the collar of his robe.

It is as if the dew of Hermon
    were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
    even life forevermore.” (Psalm 133)

The Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne sent out this tweet this morning, following a service which saw Peter Commensoli installed as the new Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne:

“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”  (Ps 133:1). @catholicmelb honoured by Anglican, Greek, Coptic, Antiochian, Lutheran, UCA, VCC, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh guests @BishopComensoli Reception @ABFreier @BishopSuriel @MelbAnglican

 

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For the sake of Gospel clarity, there are some important things that need saying.

First of all, we should enjoy friendship and mateship with people across the religious spectrum. We want to love these neighbours and to do good to them; they are valued fellow Australians. But pretending that we are somehow united to God together is appalling, for the simple reason, it’s not true.

I have no issue in inviting people from other religions to church, for special occasions, and for normal Sundays. While Church is for Christians, you don’t have to be Christian to visit church services. One of the things I love about my home church is how people are welcomed from all kinds of religious and nonreligious backgrounds; it’s fantastic.

To quote a friend of mine on twitter today,

“Muslim Friends: Are you sure it’s okay that we keep coming to church? We’re Muslims, but want to learn more about Jesus.

Us: (Internal voice) YES! THIS IS THE BEST! YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW EXCITED WE ARE TO HAVE YOU!!! LOVE IT SO MUCH!

(Out-loud voice). Yes, you’re most welcome.”

I said a big ‘Amen’ to my friend’s comments. There is a difference, however, between inviting and welcoming leaders from other faiths to a Christian event and assuming some spiritual or theological unity between everyone.

Second, it’s important to note that while this tweet contradicts Christianity as found in the Bible, it does, however, fit with the theological revisioning that took place at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Karl Rahner’s term, anonymous Christian, was adopted by the Catholic Church, which is a signal for soft universalism. Anonymous Christian refers to people who are formally outside the Roman Catholic Church and yet are still be saved by Christ, whether they are from Protestant Churches and even from other faiths. The idea is that Baptists, Muslims, Hindus, and even atheists could find themselves in heaven with God. Apparently, they even know the Christian God, despite being unaware of the fact or viewing God with a different name and personality.

This tweet by the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne isn’t speaking out of sync with its own theological position, however, it was strange to see the Melbourne Anglican Archbishop, Philip Frier, retweeting the comment. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t agree with the misuse of Psalm 133, and yet it does send an unhelpful message to Anglicans, Christians, and Melbournians in general.

Third, so what does Psalm 133 in fact mean?

Psalm 133 is a short and wonderful Psalm, lauding the beauty of unity among God’s people. God here is not undefined and does assume unity among gods. The context of his Psalm explains that this is a unity established in the God of Israel, who has made himself known and covenanted himself to his people. This is the same God who spoke at Mt Sinai saying,

 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

 “You shall have no other gods before me.

 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,  but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:2-6)

Imagine if I went home today and said to my wife, “babe, you know I love you and believe in you, but I now think our marriage should be broader and more accommodating of other women.”  Does anyone think that Susan would or should be happy with that attitude? Would any spouse welcome a third party into the marriage? Why then would we think that it’s ok to try and force onto God, religious polygamy?

We can learn how to respond to our multi-religious society by looking at examples like that of Paul in Athens (Acts 17:16:34). When the Apostle Paul visited Athens and noticed the religious pluralism that stretched across that culture, he didn’t respond by suggesting, ‘hey, look, I see we all worship the same god, but we just call him by different names and worship him in different ways’. He could have conformed to the zeitgeist of First Century Greece, but instead, Paul adopted a loving and honest approach.

Paul didn’t walk around Athens admiring their gods nor did he stop to graffiti their statues and temples. The alternative to religious pluralism isn’t strong-arming people or adopting uncouth tactics like we see in some other places around the world. Paul spoke. He explained. Paul began by acknowledging the Athenian worldview, and their hopes and noting their own acknowledged ignorance. Paul then proceeded to explain who God is, and to persuade with words and argument that Jesus is Lord. The outcome was that some people hated his message, some dismissed him, some were curious and others were convinced.

This is yet another sad and recent example of Churches muddying the waters, and confusing Australians about God and the Lord Jesus.  No wonder most Australians attache little relevance, truth, and beauty to the Gospel of Christ when they see churches walking down the aisle with adultery on the mind. This is not communicating unity, it is communicating conformity to a philosophic position that God heavily criticises in the Bible.