My suburb of Mentone was struck with awful news on Sunday evening. A teenage boy was killed by a man driving erratically on the wrong side of Nepean Hwy. Lachlan McLaren died at the scene, outside my local supermarket, and his girlfriend sustained injury.
It was his 16th birthday.
Despite some 24,000 people living in the suburbs of Mentone and Parkdale, I have been surprised by how interwoven peoples lives are in this community. I never had the privilege of knowing this young man but my eldest son was in the same Grade 5/6 class as Lachlan in 5 years ago. All my children attended the school where Lachlan’s mum teaches, and we have friends who know the family and we know children who attend Mentone Grammar School. These layers of connections intensify the sense of shock and sadness that our community is experiencing this week. Most of us barely know each other and yet we are interconnected. Of course, our shock is nothing compared to the grief that a family is now undergoing just a few streets away from where I live.
As a dad living in Mentone, my heart goes out to the McLarens and my prayers are with them. All parents know how precious their children are. It is not for us to second guess the sorrow and distress of another, for each person’s grief is profoundly personal, and yet we want to share the burden that must be carried.
As a pastor of a church in Mentone, I have sat in many homes over the years with grieving families and conducted many funerals. Each one is accompanied by great sadness. Trying to make sense of the incomprehensible is natural but not always possible. It is often impossible for us to offer words to what is inconceivable. Sometimes we must simply sit in the dust and mourn with them.
I recall how the Bible recounts the occasion when Jesus hears news that his friend Lazarus has died. When Jesus arrived at the family home, he saw Lazarus’ sisters weeping and the community grieving. We read, Jesus was “deeply move in spirit and troubled”.
We are then told in what is the shortest verse of the Bible and yet one of its of tender, “Jesus wept”.
He wept because he loved his friend. Jesus wept because death is awful. Indeed, the Bible describes death as God’s enemy. As Jesus grieved he also knew that the grave is not the end, death will not win in the end.
Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Life is fleeting. Life is inestimable.
Parents, hug your children and tell them that you love them. Teenagers, yes it may feel a little awkward, but let your mum and dad have that moment to give you that hug.
Teenagers, tell your friends how you appreciate them.
I thank God that he hates death. I thank God that he understands grief; his only Son died on a cross. And I thank God that because of Jesus he will one day remove death forever. I thank God that in Jesus he promises resurrection and reconciliation.
I watched the first Presidential debate yesterday. Over the last two months I have also been watching many of Premier Daniel Andrews daily press briefings during the Melbourne lockdown. To say politics has been both enthralling and disturbing in 2020 is an understatement. There is much that is concerning, polarising, frustrating, and even dangerous.
At Mentone Baptist we made the decision to preach through the book of Revelation during the latter months of 2020. We settled on this last book of the Bible for several reasons, among them is how Revelation reminds us that the local church is key to God’s eternal purposes.
Jesus authored the book of Revelation. He tells John to write down everything he sees and hears and to have messengers send the manuscript to the 7 churches. These 7 churches were real and historical churches, each located in what is today Western Turkey (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea). In apocalyptic literature the number 7 also denotes wholeness, suggesting that Revelation is not only for those original 7 churches but for the entire church. The timeframe in which Revelation is set (from Jesus’ resurrection to his return) and the way Jesus addresses those who are forgiven and are made citizen of his kingdom, all strongly suggest that this book is for all churches regardless of time and place.
Importance in our society is laid at the feet of Governments, education institutions, and celebrity opinion. Public conversation and newspaper columns are filled with stories about politics, disasters, and sport. What is remarkable about Revelation is that as Jesus interprets the world and defines justice, life and death, it is to his churches that he speaks. He does not address Governments, Prime Ministers or Presidents. His attention is not toward political representatives, corporate CEOs or university Vice Chancellors. His message is for his churches.
Not only is Revelation addressed to the church, the message is largely about the church. The central message is the triumph of Jesus Christ over death and evil, but this Gospel is tightly connected to the church, both the challenges they will face in this temporary world and the hope that is guaranteed to all who persevere to the end.
For example, the first of two visions that are recorded in Revelation (1:12-20) explains that the Son of Man is among his churches. Jesus Christ is described in terms of holding sovereign authority and majesty and yet is found among the 7 golden lampstands. He is with his churches and he is concerned for them. The seven letters that follow this vision (chs. 2 and 3) demonstrate the love Jesus has for his churches, whether he is consoling them or correcting them. Not only is the Son of Man addressing his churches, but God reveals the Church to be more pivotal than any other institution, and to have greater influence than even an Empire such as Rome and an Emperor such as Domitian.
This vision strikes a different song to the one our own culture plays on repeat. Keep in mind that this was equally the case in the First Century AD, only those churches had even less public capital and fewer legal protections. As apocalyptic literature reminds us, what we see and what is, are not always identical. This is no excuse for entertaining speculations and gnostic theories about Governments and cultural power brokers. The function of Biblical apocalyptic is to reveal that which would otherwise be veiled. In a world like ours where secular ideals takes centre stage and where progressive religion serves as priest, Revelation reminds us that the message is Christ triumphant and his church is where God is centralising his work and purposes.
In other words, the best thing Christians can do in this unhealthy political environment is to invest in your local church: join, commit, persevere, serve. There is an important role for Christians in politics and in the public square, but we must not engage at those levels at the expense of the mission and life of the local church. As Jonathan Leeman often reminds, the best solution to the mess and fears and divisiveness that mark our culture is to ‘build healthy churches’.
Is this counter intuitive? It is certainly counter-cultural, for it means investing in a covenant community that is assumed by many as irrelevant, antiquated, and even as a threat to society. That is why Jesus’ words to his 7 churches are so poignant for churches today. Let his word rules our hearts and let his purposes set our agenda. If the Son of Man identifies his church as central to the purposes of God, how can we suppose otherwise?
Perhaps we are suffering from an Ephesus problem. Have we forsaken the love we had at first? Our attention and affection is drawn elsewhere and we have little time for giving effort in our local church. There are plenty of distractions and demands on us and Jesus recognises that Church life is not always easy. The 7 letters to the church show how church life can be rocky at times, and yet see how Jesus persists with even erring churches.
Are you concerned about ideological changes that are grabbing hold of our society? Are you concerned by the lack of integrity and humility that so often absent from the public square? Are you frustrated by dangerous theories that are sexualising our children in perilous ways? Do you fear the lack of resolve among political leaders to address issues that effect the most vulnerable in society?
Instead of entrenching ourselves into partisan politics, we need deeper roots in our local church. Rather than sliding into the ditch of either pole in the culture wars, and lobbing tweets at opposing views, our allegiance to Jesus Christ expects us to hold tightly to his word.
In an apocalyptic world there remains one message of salvation; the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Even in an apocalyptic era, the one who is the Alpha and the Omega remains with his churches; this is the testimony of Revelation. Jesus’ words being true, how can Christians therefore consider abandoning the local church or diminishing ones commitment? In this fracturing world we need healthy local churches more than ever. Recent Barna research indicates that during the pandemic many Christians are deciding to think less of church and even of leaving altogether. For any who confess the Lordship of Christ, to take that route is to ignore the words of the Son of Man and to be played as fools by the world around us.
As Christ said to the church of Sardis,
“Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent’
While we have been addressing a global pandemic, there is another issue which continues to quietly work behind the scenes. One of the Victorian Government commitments is to introduce legislation to ban conversion practices. They reaffirmed their intention as recently as June 2020 in the Discussion Paper for the Victorian LGBTIQ Strategy.
Victoria had a reputation for wanting to be the vanguard for progressive sexual ethics in Australia. In recent weeks both the ACT and Queensland recently pushed through Bills to prohibit conversion practices ahead of Victoria. It is not only the States that are considering the issue.
Last week The Conversation published a piece,Why Australia needs a national ban on conversion therapy, written by Larissa Sandy, Anastasia Powell, and Rebecca Hiscock (all lecture at RMIT). In light of urgency of COVID-19 issues I initially missed the article, but I want to visit it now for a number of important reasons. The piece is calling on the Federal Government to follow the example of the ACT and Queensland, and introduce a national ban on conversion practices. Upon reading, the article is little more than mud throwing and recycling disproven rumours. Unfortunately the narrative is popular and powerful. In today’s world what is true and good has little bearing on socio-political agenda, it’s all about story and spin. For this reason alone the article deserves a response.
Allow me to make these following observations:
Firstly, the authors repeat the untrue claim that conversion practices are widespread in Australian churches. They write,
“There are no studies of the prevalence of conversion therapy in contemporary Australia, but a 2018 Human Rights Law Centre/La Trobe University report pointed to the United Kingdom as a reasonable comparison.
The UK’s 2018 national LGBT survey saw 2% of respondents report having undergone conversion therapy, with a further 5% reporting they had been offered it. People from multicultural and multi-faith backgrounds were up to three times as likely to report being offered it.
As The Age reported in 2018, conversion therapies are commonly encountered in religious settings.
[They are] hidden in evangelical churches and ministries, taking the form of exorcisms, prayer groups or counselling disguised as pastoral care. They’re also present in some religious schools or practised in the private offices of health professionals.”
First of all, the authors admit that no studies exist in Australia that indicate how prevalent or rare conversion practices are. That doesn’t prevent the authors from suggesting it is commonplace in Australian Churches. Citing a dubious survey from the UK is hardly sound and quoting the opinion of a journalist is not what I would call sound reasoning.
Take for example, the UK survey. The authors of the survey did not ask the general population about conversion practice but only those who identify as LGBT. Second, the authors admit that they offer no definition of ‘conversion practice’, it’s whatever people think it to be. Third, only 2% of people said that they had undergone some kind of therapy. Fourth, the survey revealed that while half of the 2% received conversion therapy from a faith group, 49% received the undefined therapy from medical professionals, family members and unstated organisations.
It’s not enough to wrongly suggest that conversion practice is commonplace in churches, in order to build the case of how terrible and horrific conversion practices can be, these authors repeat the words of others, even suggesting that “Even more extreme measures throughout history have included castration, lobotomy and clitoridectomy.”
A person who has no knowledge of Churches would be understandably disturbed by these descriptions, as am I. The problem is, such disgusting things don’t happen in Australian Churches or institutions. Pause for a moment, do you really believe that churches are wanting to engage in chopping off peoples’ penises and breasts in order to cure them of their sexual preferences? Really? If this does occur we already have laws that speak against such abhorrent activity. Certainly there have been in the history of western civilisation some indefensible practices but trying to draw links with Christianity today is grasping at straws. I know that in some Islamic countries, gays and lesbians are treated horrifically but our academics from RMIT are not arguing against what happens in Iran. The examples offered by the RMIT trio are in fact profoundly ironic and sad: The only people in Australia who are today castrating and filling people who hormonal treatments and gender altering surgeries are those believe the current sexual and gender theories.
The reality is, almost no Australian Church practices or has ever endorsed conversion therapies. When I was first interviewed by a journalist on the topic I had no idea what they were talking it. After doing some digging of my own it was obvious that conversion therapy was a marginal and rare occurrence that took place in organisations that had adopted a secular strand of psychology that was practiced in the 20th Century. The authors don’t admit it, but gay conversion practice is something that took place in a psychologist’s room not in a church. The few churches that ever adopted the idea (and put their own religious spin on it), probably had good intentions but they were not in line with Biblical teaching. Did some harmful practices ever happen in religious organisation? Yes. Was it commonplace? No. Is it happening today? Not that I am aware of.
For these RMIT lecturers to suggest conversion practices are commonplace in Australia today is a gross misrepresentation of the reality. Frankly, it is disappointing to see such claims being published on The Conversation, a journal that often produces great material. Sadly, in the world of sexual ethics, if someone repeats a rumour often enough, it soon becomes an accepted truth.
Second, the description of conversion practices is deliberately broad and vague.
“Conversion therapy involves practices aimed at changing the sexual orientation, gender identity or expression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender diverse people.
In Australia, religious-based conversion therapy is most common, and includes things like counselling for “sexual brokenness”, prayer, scripture reading, fasting, retreats and “spiritual healing” .
This description is similar to those espoused by the ACT and Victorian Governments, which in itself is not a problem, except that they each have a habit of blurring the issues. One of the problems is that conversation surrounding conversion practices is highly polarised and doesn’t permit nuance and the real positions that Christians (and other religions) in fact hold. The descriptions are so broad and general that they are simultaneously useless and dangerous. They are useless in the sense that it lacks the specificity and cogency required for law, and it is dangerous in that it subtly drags into question basic and essential beliefs of Christianity. What should be a conversation about rare and extreme activities, has become an assault on core Christian beliefs and practices.
The authors refer to a report from the Human Rights Law Centre in 2018. This is one of two reports that the Victorian Government have relied upon for their 2019 paper outlining their position for banning conversion practices. The Andrews Government is currently defining conversion practice as:
“(i) any practice or treatment that seeks to change, suppress or eliminate an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity,
(ii) including efforts to eliminate sexual and/or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same gender, or efforts to change gender expressions.”
The Government acknowledges that there are narrow and broad definitions available and that they have chosen to accept the a broader definition. To be clear, the proposed definition is so broad that it includes more than a psychologist’s clinic or a counselling room.
The HRLC report wants included under the umbrella of conversion practice,
“pastoral care which includes (or claims to include) ‘counselling’, ‘healing’, claims about ‘curing’, ‘changing’ or ‘repairing’ a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, or claims about improving a person’s mental or physical health, would likely still be classified as a health service, and the above regulations would apply.”
Indeed, the definition is so expansive that it may include sermons, Bible Studies, marriage courses, counselling, and prayer. Before this is denied, let’s allow the HRLC to speak for itself,
Under the heading of, “RELIGIOUS CONVERSION THERAPY IN AUSTRALIA TODAY”, the HRLC report refers to new forms of conversion practice, which include promoting self-control and abstinence.
“Instead, they are beginning to promote activities designed to help same-sex attracted people live chaste and celibate lives, in accordance with the sexual ethics of their religious traditions.”
As one academic in the field of gender studies has said to me in private, according to the above assertion, “self control is conversion therapy”. In one foul stroke, significant portions of the Bible would have to be removed.
The examples don’t end there. According to the same report, affirming the historical and biblical definition of marriage is also considered a form of conversion therapy,
“This ‘welcoming but not affirming’ posture equates to a more sophisticated version of the old evangelical adage, ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’. LGBT conversion therapy is not prominently promoted. However, LGBT people worshipping in communities that present cisgendered heterosexual marriage as the only valid form of gender and sexual expression are positioned to repress and reject their LGBT characteristics and to seek reorientation.”
In other words, the intention is not to prohibit rare and extreme practices, the purpose is to control and change historical beliefs and teaching of Christian churches. I am not yet saying that this is the intention of Governments, but it is a repeated message that is articulated by voices who are agitating to ban conversion practices.
Thirdly, conflating conversion with coercion. I have explained this point on many previous occasions. It is so important (for Christians and non Christian alike) that I want to restate it here.
The aim of Christianity is not to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender. The Bible does however call Christians to sexual purity; this does not mean that a person experiences a change in sexual orientation. The fact is, in becoming Christian many gay and lesbian people will not become heterosexual. When people become Christians, there is however always a change in life. What point is there in becoming a follower of Jesus Christ if nothing changes? In beginning the Christian life, there are newly found desires for sanctification. Let me repeat, this does not imply that people cease to struggle with aspects of their past, including sexual orientation, but it does mean that they now want to be godly in their sexuality. According to the Bible, sanctification includes affirming that sexual practices should remain within the loving, exclusive, mutually consenting, covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.
Without diminishing any of the above, the fact is, some people do change their sexual orientation and gender identity over time. For example, it is a well documented fact that the majority of children wrestling with gender dysphoria overcome it by adulthood and will happily identify with the gender of their birth. There are adults who find that their sexual orientation changes; Rosaria Butterfield is one high profiled Christian who testifies to her own change. Even the Victorian Government now allow people to alter the stated gender on their birth certificate, once every 12 months.
As a Christian Pastor, I gladly speak against coercive practices, unscientific therapies, and unbiblical ideas. Where these things do occur we can have a national conversation. But when academics, politicians, and social commentators, continue to espouse false claims, broad generalisations and caricatures, and to ignore what churches really teach and practice, what we have is not an honest dialogue but a bullish ideologue.
Most Australians are appropriately focusing on how to live with COVID-19, and addressing important issues of mental health, children’s education, and saving the economy from disaster. These matters all require our attention. To prepare for forthcoming legislation in Victoria, we also need to raise awareness of the arguments surrounding conversion practices.
Christians don’t believe in forced conversions. We believe in persuading others of a message that is good and attractive. Christianity is by definition a conversion religion. People become Christians as they are convinced by the truthfulness and goodness of Christianity’s message, the Gospel of Jesus of Christ.
As Christians speak to the issue, take a reminder from the Apostle Paul and speak with grace and gentleness, and always with truthfulness. If a religious group is practicing a genuinely harmful activity, then Christians should be the first to call it out. When we teach the Bible’s portrait of human sexuality do so with clarity and again with grace. Christianity is not a religion for moral purists but for those who are not and who become captivated by the better story offered in Jesus.
The Conversation article is very poor and it is an unjustified call to create a society where there is forced conversion: where religious groups no longer have freedom to teach in line with their religious convictions but where the State dictates what a Church can and can not teach and practice when it comes to human sexuality. This will of course breed a less tolerant and less free society, and it will only add to the sexual confusion and pain that our society is already experiencing.
The original version of this piece had an error in it. I said La Trobe when the university is in fact RMIT. Apologises.
The world’s most liveable city is now largely deserted. Her 4.9 million residents are now required to stay in their homes, apart from a few limited and important reasons.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews yesterday afternoon declared a State of Disaster. The streets are now largely empty, office blocks abandoned, schools and universities closed, and the roads eerily quiet. There was no slow procession of peak hour traffic outside my home this morning.
The trams are running empty of passengers and our sporting stadiums have turned into relics to a yesterday that we long to return.
As of last night, there is now a curfew in place. No one is allowed to drive, walk or cycle, in their suburbs from 8pm until 5am. The curfew along Level 4 restrictions will continue until at least September 13th.
The last 5 months have been challenging and I expect the next 6 weeks will be even more difficult. Many Melbournians are already tired and anxious. Any prolonged disruption to ‘normal life’ brings with it stresses; how much more when even the basic elements are put on hold. I feel for the 100,000s plus students trying to study for their VCE during this lockdown. The economic uncertainties are real and not going to be easily fixed. The Victorian economy is losing $1 billion each week and with thousands more losing their jobs.
Melbourne is my home. I was born here, went to school and studied at university here. Susan and I married in Camberwell. After 4 years of exile (in Sydney) we returned and have since lived, worked, and raised our children in Mentone.
The experience is new to almost all of Melbourne’s residents. It is certainly my first time to live in a city with a curfew and where leaving ones home may result in a visit from the police. Thousands are defence force personnel are also patrolling our suburbs and checking on residents. It is a strange and dystopian view.
I don’t want to exaggerate; while no one wants to be in this position many people seem to be doing ok. Life is different, and at times annoying but overall they’re doing pretty well. I also appreciate that many other Melbournians are becoming frustrated and even angry. I have noted how even our‘progressive’ leaning media outlets are now turning on the State Government. I’m not going to pretend that the pandemic has been handled perfectly by Governments or the people alike. Isn’t that part of the reality of facing new and extraordinary times? Our fallibilities our exposed, our best efforts fall short, and the stubbornness of others intrudes to the detriment of others.
I am though urging my fellow Melbournians to adhere to the new rules. This isn’t about asserting personal rights, listening to idiotic theories, or playing political games. Most of us recognise that mistakes have been made. Had people done the right thing and had authorities better-equipped personnel during hotel quarantine we may not be in the position we are now facing. There is a time for those conversations, but now, we need to focus on following the law and looking out for the vulnerable, the anxious, and the lonely.
Our Church is praying regularly our Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Cabinet, for Premier Daniel Andrews and his Cabinet, and for those health officials giving advice each day. This is important.
This pandemic has already taken lives. It has forced many thousands to reconfigure their lives because of illness or financial hardship. Stories coming out of age care homes are horrific. The mental and social toll is near impossible to measure. Dare I suggest, not as a pessimist but as a realist, more difficult days lay ahead. Once Level 4 restrictions are lifted there were will be 4.9 million sighs of relief. The audible heave, however, won’t blow away other restrictions that will remain for some time. The economic toll for thousands of businesses will be devastating, and we don’t yet know the cost that is being born by our children.
We’re not fighting to rid ourselves of COVID-19, but to control it; according to the Victorian Government we are trying to uncover the source for 100s of mystery cases and to control (or eliminate?) community transmissions. Melbourne will come through to the other side, bruised and changed, but we will make it. But even as we stagger to our feet there is an even greater threat looming over our shoulders, namely that of an authoritarian and hungry red dragon. Could this dystopian season be but the first chapter of more to come?
The Australian Strategic Policy Instituteadvises the Federal Government and also informs the Australian public about the rapidly growing issue of Communist China. In an interview last week, Michael Shoebridge noted that Government military and strategic plans for the 2030s are being fast tracked for employment now. There is growing consensus that conflict in the region within months is not only possible but is now “credible”.
Melbourne has enjoyed a long summer: 75 years of tremendous progress, pleasure, and safety. There have been interruptions, but nothing like this.
Ecclesiastes ch.3 reminds us that there are many times in life. Not every season continues into perpetuity.
“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.”
Melbournians, for the most part, have grown up with the belief that we deserve our choice of the above times, and that those other experiences are what happens to people in other parts of the world. We are now learning that not even the world’s most liveable city is exempt.
Only a few sentences later the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “He has also set eternity in the human heart”.
Each new day is preparation for eternity; Melbourne has too often failed the test. We’ve been caught out. We can’t rely upon our prosperity, security, and health, to see us through; they are unreliable gods. This is a time where our deepest desires and most earnest hopes are being tested. If the world’s most liveable place cannot make certain our hopes and security, where must we look?
Psalm 62 takes us to one whom Melbourne believed was no longer necessary. And yet, this God remains the one firm foundation we have:
“Truly my soul finds rest in God;
my salvation comes from him.
2 Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.
3 How long will you assault me?
Would all of you throw me down—
this leaning wall, this tottering fence?
4 Surely they intend to topple me
from my lofty place;
they take delight in lies.
With their mouths they bless,
but in their hearts they curse.
5 Yes, my soul, find rest in God;
my hope comes from him.
6 Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.
7 My salvation and my honor depend on God;
he is my mighty rock, my refuge.
8 Trust in him at all times, you people;
pour out your hearts to him,
for God is our refuge.
9 Surely the lowborn are but a breath,
the highborn are but a lie.
If weighed on a balance, they are nothing;
together they are only a breath.
10 Do not trust in extortion
or put vain hope in stolen goods;
though your riches increase,
do not set your heart on them.
11 One thing God has spoken,
two things I have heard:
“Power belongs to you, God,
12 and with you, Lord, is unfailing love”;
and, “You reward everyone
according to what they have done.” (Psalm 62)
A young Chinese woman with a little girl started attending Mentone Baptist Church three years ago. She was battling cancer and had decided that she needed answers. It is one thing to understand a medical diagnosis, but accompanying such devastating news are other and even bigger questions. Why me? What is life meant to be about? Is there a God who is interested and cares?
Christine grew up in a family and culture that was atheistic, and she assumed that this was the way to view the world. A highly intelligent and capable woman, being informed that she had terminal cancer broke apart what she believed to be true about the world
Suffering didn’t reinforce her atheism, it led her to seek out God. In learning about the person and work of Jesus Christ, she didn’t feel repulsed or angry at God for her cancer, rather her life was transformed by the beauty and warmth of Jesus.
Christine quickly made friends with several of the women at church and started attending a Bible study group.
In early 2019 it was evident that the cancer would take her life. She battled on while recognising the awful and difficult path she was taking.
In Christine’s own words,
“With the time I spent more with bible group, i started to be more curious about Jesus Christ. As I said before, I used to live that hard and trying that much to prove myself and now I had cancer. My whole life was ruined. If there is a God, could Jesus give me a new life.
Just at that time, my cancer was coming back again, only 1 and half year time after the operation and chemo. I was shocked and felt lost. The doctor told me thatI had no chance to be cured. I was too tired, I had been tried that hard to stand up. I just got the chance to see the light of new life.
Different from last time, I thought of Jesus Christ almost immediately. I remembered in the Luke, Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God” That probably was my first real pray from the bottom of my heart, I kept asking Jesus Christ to save me and hoped he could guide me and change me if I had done anything bad and wrong. I realized no one could help me now except Jesus Christ.”
Her young body was failing. There were days when getting out of bed was impossible. Although her body was terribly weakened by the cancer, she wanted to publicly profess her faith in Christ through baptism. With a couple of Christine’s friends from church, it was my great joy and privilege to sit with her in her home: listening and sharing, hearing her story and encouraging her with the Scriptures. It was clear that she was convinced about the Gospel and now knew and loved Jesus.
We spoke about baptising her in her home, but she wanted to show the world the difference Jesus made. Even the night before we were unsure whether Christine would be well enough to leave her house and come to the church.
That Sunday morning in April 2019, Christine stood in front of the church and spoke about what the Lord Jesus had done for her, and how despite her suffering, she was safe in him.
“I now believe and trust Jesus as my Lord and Saviour, knowing that even though I denied him for past 30 years, he died on the cross for my sins and is willing to forgive me. I know that God has accepted me as his daughter and loves me.
I am still in the middle of treatment, reading God’s words every day is motivating me to continue to trust him and rely on him. I still feel scared and worry about my cancer sometimes. The difference is I have God to rely on and he is willing to take my worry. More exciting is I find my life is changing slowly, I am spending more time with my friends and family. I am not willing to spend time being angry anymore, because I appreciate every single day God gives to me.
I am so weak and little in this world, and I used to bea terrible person, but God loves me and I now love him and I can trust him for the future.”
Christine then stood in the pool with me. I asked the same two questions that we ask everyone who is getting baptised,
“Do you believe Jesus is God’s Son who died on the cross for your sins and who was raised to life to give you new life?”
“Have you repented of your sins and are trusting Jesus for salvation, and with His help will you follow him all the days of your life?”
With a confident yes to both questions, Christine went through waters of baptism, signalling to family, friends, and the church, Jesus had redeemed her and gifted her eternal hope.
It was one of those moments a pastor never forgets. I suspect no one present that morning will ever forget.
Not long after, she needed to move to another part of the city and so connected with another church, although she was never well enough to attend. They have supported in her final months. Her mum and dad have since both become Christians and have stayed by her side throughout this entire journey. Christine also remained close friends with several people at Mentone, who have supported her right through to the end.
In the early hours of this morning, Christine lost her fight against cancer and but with Christ, she has triumphed over death. The Apostle Paul’s belief, “to be away from the body is to be with the Lord”, is right now her experience. She no longer lives by faith but with sight.
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57)
Christine’s name and life won’t be mentioned in the news today, and that’s ok. Deaths resulting from COVID-19 are understandably making news each day.Death is however always with us, even when it is taking place away from the public gaze. She was one of many Victorians who today have died from cancer or from other afflictions. Yet, her life and story have impacted the people who knew her. Her testimony will remain with us at Mentone Baptist Church, and encouraging us to place our hope in the only Saviour there is.
Christine has finished her race and has received from her Lord and God the crown of righteousness. For those who are left behind the grief is palpable. It is intense, and I can only imagine the difficult days that lay ahead for Christine’s daughter especially, and also for her parents and closest friends. One thing I do know, we don’t grieve as those without hope. “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” (1 Thessalonians 4:14)
Jesus once asked Martha,
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Christine’s answer was, ‘yes’.
I wonder, where are other Victorians are placing their hope?
History is littered with iconoclasts, from the Babylonians to the Romans, from Henry VIII to the Puritans, from ISIS and now to Justin Welby.
It wasn’t so many years ago that Christians faced ridicule for decrying art and film that depicted Jesus Christ in mocking ways. Netflix’s, ‘The First Temptation of Christ’ came out only one year ago. I was only a kid at the time, but Melbournians still remember the controversial ‘Piss Christ’ that hung in the National Gallery of Victoria.
Christians were scorned for their protests and narrow-minded bigotry toward popular expressions of human thought and creativity. Expressions of Jesus and of God are more than permissible, they are lauded no matter how grotesque and inaccurate they are.
How quickly the culture turns.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has just announced that the Church of England will reconsider hundreds of statues and portraits that portray Jesus Christ, Mary, and other Biblical figures. The reason for this break with centuries of tradition?They are too white. The Archbishop’s statement is a direct response to the Black Lives Matter Movement that is sweeping around the world. Statues around the world are toppling faster than in a game of 10 pin bowling.
To be clear, racism is real and there are legitimate concerns relating to how people of different ethnicities are treated. In Australia, racism is not as widespread as some would have us believe and it is more commonplace than many others appreciate. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read Shai Linne’s story that was recently published by The Gospel Coalition. There is also an important conversation to be had in Australia about our ignorance of indigenous history.
I think there is a valid argument for removing statues of people who were involved in the slave trade or were slave owners. It’s also important to note here in Australia, while there are voices calling for monuments to go and for names to change, some indigenous leaders are arguing that these concrete and marble edifices should remain.
Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt has spoken against the removal of statues,
“I don’t believe removing statues contributes positively to this conversation”.
“These statues should remain as a reminder of a point in time in our lives – even when detrimental. They serve as prompts to encourage people to talk about history.”
“As Indigenous Australians we have sought to have the true history of this nation told so that it reflects both Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives and history.”
While some of the targeted statues represent person directly involved in slavery, other historical monuments been vandalised have either distant connections with slavery and at times, none.
In America, General Ulysses Grant may have led the Union army to victory over the Confederacy but that’s not enough for saving from the spray paint, rope, and hammer. Rioters even defaced a statue of Matthias Baldwin, a figure involved in the abolitionist movement!
In the United Kingdom, the famed statue of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn was last week defaced, despite the fact that he lived 400 years before the infamous slave trade.
The University of Liverpool is now considering renaming Gladstone Hall, not because the former Prime Minister was involved in slavery but because his father owned slaves.
It’s not only public edifices that are facing demise; the prophetic title, ’Gone with the Wind’ has come to pass, shows on Netflix are being removed, the children’s cartoon, ’Paw Control’ is in trouble for depicting police through the positive prism of a friendly dog. Another Australian beer (‘Colonial’), has found itself being removed from bottle shops. And perhaps with a note of irony, one of the world’s most progress leaning newspapers, ‘The Guardian’, is also facing the shredding machine because of its connections with slavery in the 19th Century. The Guardian’s founder, John Edward Taylor, was a slave owner and during the American Civil War, the paper opposed Abraham Lincoln and the Union.
History, including our Australian history, is a complex mix of the good and the evil, the noble and the ignominious. Past generations were either blind to or supportive of sins in their day, as will future generations look upon us with horror at some of the practices we have embraced. Understanding history requires humility, not hubris. Appreciating the pain experienced by people in our communities requires patient listening and wise reflection.
Others are making the point, rather than destroying history, is it not better to relocate genuinely offensive sculptures to a more appropriate setting, perhaps a Museum?
What about Churches? Many a Puritan in heaven is probably saying right now, “well, we did tell you”.
Many church artefacts have historical significance, and some have artistic and cultural importance. I may be an iconoclast, but I’m not a Philistine! Even Baptists can appreciate art and history. I love visiting Westminster Abbey and soaking up history and listening to exquisite music. Unfortunately, it’s not good theology that has finally caught up with the Church of England but woke culture that is forcing the arm of this now largely derelict institution. What a sad indictment on a church who ignored centuries of preachers and pastors calling for reforms. I’m not saying that we should ignore cultural shifts when they come knocking, but churches should not succumb to mob rule. This is what has led to today’s confrontation on the doorstep of Canterbury.
It’s not all bad. Indeed, there is merit in reevaluating the presence and prominence of many church figurines and works of art. After all, Christianity is a religion of the word. We worship a God who cannot be seen, not a God who is represented by the artist’s brushstroke or chisel.
If there is to be repentance about Christian iconography, it should be less about a particular cultural expression of Jesus Christ, and more about the fact that our religious forebears thought it a great idea to depict Jesus at all.
As the Church of England evaluates the objects and art that adorns her beautiful buildings, I hope they realise that this won’t be an easy fix. Justin Welby is mistaken if he believes that removing a few statues of an Anglo- Saxon Jesus will appease the broader narrative that is taking hold of the West. Cultural vigilantes either don’t know how far to go or they are fully cognizant of their intentions, which in some cases seems to be the dismantling of western culture. Addressing racism is, as far as Christians are concerned, a Gospel issue. Agitating for the complete destruction of our history and of Western values is quite another story.
I can foresee the situation where there will be very little left in Westminster Abbey and many an English Cathedral. Once all the sinners will have their names scratched out and their memorials removed, what will the glorious buildings have to offer?
Western civilisation has always been a faulty tower; it is, after all, built by sinful human hands and imaginations. At the same time, there is much good to be found and these are goods that have come about because of Christianity. The imago dei and therefore equality of all people, secularism and religious freedom, the scientific revolution, the music of J.S. Bach and Mendelssohn, the art of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, hospitals, universities and orphanages, are all flowers born out the Christian worldview. This is certainly a vast improvement on the alternatives that are built without reference to Christianity (cf. North Korea, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia).
However, we never conflate the Kingdom of God with the West, that is a tragic mistake which needs to be repented of in parts of even Australian Church thinking. Part of the dynamism of the Church is her ability to make a home across cultures. Language is no barrier. National borders are not an inhibitor. The Church is not the Church of Germany or England, Africa or Asia; it is the Church belonging to Jesus Christ.
So what are we to make of Anglo-Saxon versions of Jesus Christ? It shouldn’t need saying but just in case, Jesus wasn’t Scandinavian. He wasn’t an Englishman or an Italian. Neither is Jesus American or Australian. Jesus was Jewish, as was Mary and the first disciples. If anything Jesus was more brown than white, and he had dark hair and he was circumcised. This Narazene, however, came into the world for his own people and for the nations.This Jesus born in Bethlehem, who is the eternal God, is the Lord over the nations.
“Great and marvelous are your deeds,
Lord God Almighty.
Just and true are your ways,
King of the nations.
Who will not fear you, Lord,
and bring glory to your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship before you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed.” (Revelation 15)
This King of the nations theme is first indicated in the covenantal promises to Abraham. Further details are revealed as the Old Testament progresses. With the birth of Jesus Christ, the Kingly theme finds fulfilment: He is the Saviour of the world. He is the one whose Gospel goes to the nations. It is his Gospel that has Divine power to save both Jew and Gentile.
The real and living Jesus, as opposed to the artist’s imagination, was born of a particular ethnicity and he transcends ethnicity. In this sense, there can be an argument for representing Jesus as white, or as brown or black or yellow. He is the Jewish Messiah who will bring healing to the nations. As the Apostle Paul explains in his letter to the Colossians,In Christ,
“there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3:11)
Here lies the good news message that brings death to racism. On this, I do believe Justin Welby and myself are in agreement.
It is not Western civilisation that will ultimately win, no more than it will be Persian, Chinese, Ethiopian, or Greek. Jesus both supersedes culture and he will transform culture. Indeed, despite being profoundly indebted to this Christian message, Anglo-Saxon societies are gradually moving away toward atheistic secularism and even toward old fashion paganism and panentheism. It is across Africa and China, in Brazil and Iran that Christianity is growing at tremendous rates. In this single message of forgiveness and love, people of all colours are finding home and hope.
My advice is, let’s give up trying to make Jesus’ out of concrete, stone, and paint. Let objects of historical or artistic value be taken to a museum. A Church is no place for icons, lest of course Westminster and Canterbury qualify as museums rather than places for Christian worship. Instead, let’s speak the message of Christ in the languages of the world that everyone might hear of the true King who reconciles sinners, dismantles racism, and creates unending peace.
Here’s a vision worth preaching,
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2)
I have never written an email of this nature to you before. I do so out of love for you all and also love for our neighbours.
I understand that among us there will be different reactions to the events transpiring in America this week, and there will be varied thoughts about how to respond.
As a church, we, of course, hold substantial agreement on account of our union with Christ. We confess Jesus is Lord. He is the One Saviour of the world. Together we affirm all human beings are made in the image of God and all are therefore equal before him and have inherent worth. We affirm that racism is anti-Christian, anti-God, and is destructive to society.
This week we are being reminded of how highly charged and partisan our societies have become. In the name of ‘love’ and ‘truth’ too many people have given up love and truth and instead turned on one another. Sadly, cultural movements often have the effect of dividing rather than uniting. We need to resist those temptations and false binaries, both in the church and as we live in the community.
There is a mass protest being organised in Melbourne city this Saturday, to support ‘Black Lives Matter’.
As your pastor, while recognising our freedom both in Christ and in the State to voice our concerns, I want to draw your attention to the following important points:
In the State of Victoria, there remain strict laws enforcing social distancing and limiting meeting in large numbers, both indoors and outdoors. COVID-19 remains a health issue in our society. Both the Federal and State Governments, and the State Police are urging Victorians not to attend because of the COVID-19 situation
Authorities have issued a warning, informing the public that there are protesters planning to incite violence and disorder.
The organising group behind this particular city protest (Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance) does not recognise Australia’s legal system and has called for the dismantling of Australia.
I’m not arguing against the principle of public protest, nor am I telling anyone what they should or should not decide. I personally don’t think protests and marches are the best way to argue a point. But I acknowledge that there can be value for this kind of social action. I have friends who have participated in different protests in the United States in recent days, and many who have not and yet they are very much grieved by the events in Minneapolis last week. It is incumbent upon each of us to make decisions that are appropriate and reflect love for neighbour and that don’t dishonour the Lord Jesus in any way.
To anyone planning to protest this week, know why you protest and understand your aim. If you are joining with others, know why they are protesting and what they are aiming to achieve.
We can stand against racism and not join this particular protest at this time. You might like to post a statement or prayer on social media to express our belief in the dignity of Indigenous Australians or call for greater measures to tackle the terrible numbers of Aboriginal people who have died in custody since 1991. You could post appropriate Bible verses.
When restrictions are lifted then perhaps organise an appropriate event: a prayer vigil, or prayer walk, as I’ve seen Christians doing in the US this week.
I’ve just heard Mike preach on Psalm 34, which was recorded for this Sunday. I encourage you all to listen on Sunday; it is a good and timely word. We want to be focused on God, we want his word to direct our motives and attitudes and thoughts. Even as a church where we agree racism is evil, we may want to respond in different ways. Be gracious to one another when we talk and share. Be prayerful. Find ways to love your neighbour: welcome them into your home, speak a kind word, ask them how are they doing.
We want to avoid the danger of falling into popular narratives from the left and from the right. Instead, our identity and our lives are now defined by the Gospel of Christ; this is what it means to be Christian. Therefore, let our motivations, words, and actions promote this good news. Doing so doesn’t make our voice weaker, it is more powerful and attractive.It allows us to grieve with those who grieve,to express anger for those who are trodden on, to forgive, and to know God will do right.
“The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are attentive to their cry;
but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil,
to blot out their name from the earth”. (Psalm 34:15-16)
“He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight”. (Ps 72:14)
“Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)
Australians live many thousands of kms from the shores of the United States, but we are watching a compelling and disturbing drama unfold. It is difficult to look on and not feel a wave of strong emotions.
I am writing as an outsider and conscious of that fact. I have twice visited the USA, and have made many friends during those stays. I have visited some of the great cities that are now facing upheaval. Only yesterday I saw footage of the street where I lived for a month in Washington DC, as vehicles and trucks of the National Guard drove through carrying soldiers to a hot spot. Across the road from the Capitol Building, I have sat in a restaurant and enjoyed lunch with a brother in Christ. He is an African American and a member of the Church where I attended while in DC. As we broke bread together, we chatted and I listened to his thoughts about racial tensions in the United States. We have remained friends on Facebook. As I see him and other friends posting on Facebook this week, I am reminded to pray for them.
Many Images coming out of America
There are many images being shown across the world from Minneapolis to Washington DC, from Atlanta to Los Angeles. We are hearing multiple narratives told by media, politicians, and by the general public. The problem in weighing up all this information is that much of it is conflicting, some of it is unverifiable, and a lot is infused with different political and ideological agendas.
The fact is, leaving aside exchanges with friends, the noise of social media gives little place for nuance and calm. Public opinion sadly feeds off anger and loud rhetoric. Twitter is hardly known as a platform for peacemaking.
One week ago a man was murdered on the streets of Minneapolis. George Floyd was killed by a police officer who used excessive and brutal force. Floyd’s cry, “I can’t breathe”, was ignored by all four police officers present at the scene. It is difficult to watch the video and hold back from shouting at the officers to let him go. It is horrifying to watch. George Floyd’s death was so unnecessary; it was an act of evil.
Since the murder of George Floyd on May 25th, many cities in America have erupted in social turmoil.
I am hearing that many African-Americans are fearful, angry, and hurting. Many are not on the streets protesting, but the sting of May 25th is very real. Others are protesting, quietly or loudly, fervently with purpose.
There are many peaceful protesters. There are also violent rioters and looters. I suspect some are lashing out in anger and fear, not knowing how else to respond. It is also clear that George Floyd’s murder is being exploited by criminal elements, including ANTIFA. It is only right for police to prevent these people from destroying property and harming human life, and to arrest them when they do.
There are members of the media doing their job impartially and in a considered manner, while others agitate the situation by throwing flammable words on television and in the news. It’s not only American media, but Aussie reporting of American stories is often blinkered and biased.
We have witnessed politicians and community leaders speak with passion and reason, and we have also heard politicians from across the spectrum use the situation to push their own drum. The political grandstanding and ideological manipulating of some is disgusting and is so counter productive.There is already blood on the ground, without piling on rhetorical mud and manure from self interested people wanting to win votes or to buy more viewers.
Obviously, I am not an American, nor am I a person of colour, but we do share our humanity. I feel grief and anger for those who are mistreated on account of their race. Pain runs deep and the past is not quickly healed. How can one watch images of African Americans crying in the streets and shaking with fear…it should not be. All human beings are God’s image-bearers. All are wonderfully made by God and deserve to be treated with dignity and great value.
Amidst the footage that shows escalating violence, there are also many beautiful images to be found: a policeman embracing a young African American boy who is trembling, a police chief removing his riot gear and joining a crowd of protestors in solidarity with them. People need to see these stories of peacemaking in order to help change the narrative that is dominating the news. How can we encourage peace and progress if our newsfeeds are cluttered with violent scenes and with angry commentators hurling abuse at political opponents? Of course, we need to recognise the ugly and the evil, but we must also display the good.
There is one image that has taken hold of the story today, and it is of President Trump standing outside St John’s Church in Lafayette Square, holding up a Bible in his right hand. The previous night rioters had set fire to the building. Today it was used as a symbol of Presidential fight back.
As a Christian and as a pastor of a church I am less than pleased to see the Bible being used in this way. I trust many more Christian leaders will speak up about this Presidential stunt.
The Rector of St John’s and the Bishop of Washington have both expressed anger and dismay at President Trump using the outside facade of St John’s and him holding a Bible.
Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington said of the uninvited visitor,
“I am outraged…And I just want the world to know, that we in the diocese of Washington, following Jesus and his way of love … we distance ourselves from the incendiary language of this President. We follow someone who lived a life of nonviolence and sacrificial love”
I think it’s wrong for the President to stand outside and use a church building without the express permission of its clergy. What’s worse is him holding up God’s word for a political photo-op. Keep in mind, President Trump is not the first American leader to misuse God’s word in public office and he won’t be the last. But this calculated image is foolish. It is foolish because few people are convinced the President takes the Bible seriously, let alone reads, believes and practices what the Bible says. It’s also foolish because the Bible isn’t a book to fool around with.
As the writer to the Hebrews says,
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
By this word God saves and he judges. By this word, God mocks rulers and the nations, and he speaks comfort and peace to those who humble themselves. It is this word that alone declares all people are made in the image of God and are therefore equal in his sight. It is this word that declares Jesus Christ is Lord and that all people are accountable to Him for how we live. It is this word that speaks of God who loves us profoundly, such that his only Son laid down his life for sinners. Indeed, the very Bible President Trump held in his hand with that defiant face, is the word that says,
“Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
12 Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” (Ps 2:10-12)
A friend of mine noted the irony of this chosen site for politico-religious vanity. Outside St John’s, the cameras took photos of a President who does not believe the Scriptures nor does he practice what they teach. Inside St John’s Church, there are clergy who also do not believe or practice the Scriptures. St John’s Church and the presiding bishop of Washington are known for their errant views about Christianity. Both inside and out, they treat the Bible with disdain.
The most profound irony is that this Bible, when opened and read and considered, offers truth that sets people free. It offers life to those who believe. It brings forgiveness to those who repent. It lifts up and gives hope to those who are hurting. If people are serious about racial reconciliation and the healing of political and social wounds, don’t copy the President and avoid listening to clerics who similarly misuse the Bible. Rather, open it and hear the word that changed the world and can also change us. Here is sound advice from Jesus,
“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. (John 5:24)