Andrea Bocelli sings ‘Amazing Grace’

The world famous operatic tenor, Andrea Bocelli, performed a live concert over Easter at Milan’s Cathedral. The performance was given the apt name, “music for hope.” Many millions of people have already watched the stunning combination performance.

What grabbed my attention was the final song, ‘Amazing Grace’.  This Christian hymn offers great encouragement & hope, more than we perhaps realise at first. 

What is the message of Amazing Grace?

Who wrote this most popular hymn and why?

I offer an explanation here in this short podcast.

 

 

The Paradox of the Cross

This headline appearing in The Age caught my attention, ‘Bad weather in Victoria is a “blessing” for social distancing’.

“Victoria’s Deputy Health Officer Dr Annaliese van Diemen called the bad weather over the Easter Weekend a “great blessing” in keeping people at home.

She said there were only four reasons people should be going out: food and supplies, medical care and care giving, exercise and work or education and that police would be out in force issuing fines.

“Chocolate can be considered a food and can be sold in supermarkets, people are allowed to leave home to get food and essential supplies,” she said.”

Leaving aside the apparent argument over whether chocolate should be considered a food, there’s little disputing the fact that the weather in Melbourne has deteriorated over the Easter weekend. It’s been raining, the wind is blowing, and the Autumn cool has arrived.

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It wasn’t the predictability of Melbourne’s unpredictable weather that grabbed my attention, but the intentional paradox made by Victoria’s Deputy health officer: our “bad” weather is a “blessing”.

This partnering of bad and blessing, and especially the bad being the cause of something positive, cuts against the logic of how we usually think of life. We readily assume that bad is the opposite of blessing, and with good reason.

However, Dr van Diemen’s words are a timely illustration of the paradox that belongs to Easter. The days leading up to and including Good Friday can be aptly described as bad. Indeed, it was truly horrendous. Jesus was innocent of all wrongdoing. The judge at the trial, Pontius Pilate, declared the Nazarene’s innocence. It was said that Jesus was the Son of God, a claim that Jesus himself attested to throughout his life, and yet he was now being ridiculed as a heretic and as an enemy of the State.

Good Friday was truly awful: the crucified one was the one without sin, the one who offered perfect love, kindness, and compassion, the one who didn’t play games with the rich and influential but who sought out the poor and the weak and welcomed them. The most holy man to have ever walked the earth was put to death in the most gruesome way imagined, slowly, deliberately, and to cheers and applause of those looking on.

It was bad and yet it was also a blessing because the Bible explains that Jesus’ death was not him losing, rather it was God bringing about a decisive win over death and evil. The cross recognises the naked reality of human corruption and enduring love of God who was paying the penalty in our stead. The Old Testament speaks of anyone hanging on a tree as being cursed by God. As Jesus announced in his cry of dereliction, Jesus willingly endured that curse on the cross so that we might experience the undeserved blessing of God.

Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, summaries this paradox in this way,

“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).

In his death, Jesus was taking the justice of God that is aimed at all the injustice in the world. The blessing or good news of Jesus’ death is that it means guilty people are forgiven, broken people can be healed.

The world cries out for the paradox: for justice and for mercy, to punish wrongdoing and yet also to forgive.

As Melbourne theologian, Dr. Michael Bird suggests,

“The proclamation of the cross sounds like folly to many, when in fact it is God’s wisdom.

What looks like powerlessness is God’s power.

What sounds like a tragedy is stunning victory. The death that looks so shameful has established God’s honor.

What appears as a cause to mourn is a cause for inexpressible joy.

God has triumphed in the cross of Jesus, and we share the triumph with him.”

Easter is the most significant of all Christian celebrations, for it marks the beginning of all Christian hope. The cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s answer to the greatest paradoxes, tensions, and hopes that we share. It is why the good news message of Jesus remains compelling and why it is cherished by so many millions of people to this day.  It is not a message however for those who think highly of themselves and who count their morality or spirituality as wise and strong. This is a message for people who grasp their unworthiness before a holy God and yet who become convinced that, through that weekend in Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago, God is more forgiving than we can possibly imagine.

As we remain indoors this Easter weekend, perhaps we can take time to ponder this most astonishing of paradoxes.

Looking For Justice

The case of George Pell is one of the most important legal trials to be heard in modern Australian history. Not only is the Cardinal the highest ranking Catholic clergyman to be convicted of child sex crimes (with the conviction being overturned as of yesterday), he became representative of all the anger and frustration that has been mounting in the community as a result of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Pell

Throughout the entire process, from the time police began their investigation until yesterday’s High Court ruling, I remained quiet. I declined from offering an opinion, not because I didn’t have thoughts on the matter, but because I am not privy to the truth of the allegations. The last thing I want to do is cast aspersions on someone who is coming forward as a victim of child sexual abuse. At the same time, I was also aware (through friends who work in law) that there were significant legal shortcomings with the case. These issues have come to light in the High Court and were responsible for all seven High Court Justices overturning the guilty verdict against George Pell.

I hate the abuse of children. As a Father with 3 children, the idea that there are people in the community who would commit such evil acts sickens me in the stomach. Even in writing about the subject, I can feel the temperature rising in my gut. Also, as a pastor of a church, anger is too poor a word choice to describe how I feel toward clergy who have betrayed trust and destroyed the lives of thousands of young innocence. While I loathe the idea of children being abused in any context, there is something particularly ugly about this taking place by men who claim to serve God.

In 2016 I was interviewed by journalists at The Age.  I had spoken up for concerned citizens in Mentone who were bewildered that their local Parish priest remained in office even though he had been found guilty by the Melbourne Catholic ArchDiocese for mistreating young men.

When George Pell was convicted in 2019, I accepted the verdict. Yesterday, I accepted the High Court’s decision. I didn’t accept these decisions because they confirmed any prior opinions that I held. The fact remains, I do not know what happened. If we took a snapshot at the last 24 hours it appears as though everyone knows what took place.

Lest we pretend that a virus has united the country, as soon as the Court announced its findings, social media divided into two very loud and unrelenting camps. Emotions are running high and prejudices are unyielding. It is a dangerous thing for opinion makers to ignore the High Court ruling and to insist upon Pell’s guilt. The cries of vindication by some conservative voices is not pleasant either. Indeed, much of the public posturing in the last 24 hours, from Premiers to newspaper columnists and to needy musicians, has been disgraceful. It would seem that no matter the findings of Courts, we all know better. Each of us has the truth because whatever our gut tells us must be true. It is an insane way to address such important matters, but that this is the landscape Australians have created for themselves. We have judged ourselves to be the purveyors of truth telling and righteousness, and authorities can only be trusted when they support our course.

The fact remains, you don’t know what happened and neither do I. We can theorise and speculate, and we can mould the evidence according to our prior assumptions, but let’s be careful about throwing our personal judgments about in public.

I note the irony and irreconcilable nature of this following observation, but of all the commentary that I’ve read in the past day, the most gracious remarks that have been written thus far are by the complainant and by George Pell.

Sometimes, the wisest option is to suspend personal judgment and to trust the legal system. We can be thankful for our judicial system, even with its imperfections. Having said that, this inner compulsion for justice and right doing requires us to look beyond ourselves and the very best of humanmade systems, and dare to hope there is God who will judge rightly and without any error.

Psalm 7 offers this kind of hope, a comfort to victims and a warning to perpetrators,

“Lord my God, I take refuge in you;
    save and deliver me from all who pursue me,

or they will tear me apart like a lion
    and rip me to pieces with no one to rescue me.

Lord my God, if I have done this
    and there is guilt on my hands—

if I have repaid my ally with evil
    or without cause have robbed my foe—

then let my enemy pursue and overtake me;
    let him trample my life to the ground
    and make me sleep in the dust.

Arise, Lord, in your anger;
    rise up against the rage of my enemies.
    Awake, my God; decree justice.

Let the assembled peoples gather around you,
    while you sit enthroned over them on high.

    Let the Lord judge the peoples.
Vindicate me, Lord, according to my righteousness,
    according to my integrity, O Most High.

Bring to an end the violence of the wicked
    and make the righteous secure—
you, the righteous God
    who probes minds and hearts.”

 

Leaving the George Pell case aside, there’s no avoiding the fact that the Catholic Church has a lousy record when it comes to child sexual abuse, both in the number of cases and in the ensuing cover up and protecting of guilty priests. Their history is truly appalling. While Catholic Institutions are at the fore of public attention, they are not the only ones who have been found wanting. Most Christian denominations have examples, and many other organisations (such as the Scouts) have also been found as having sexual predators in their midst.

As a result of the Royal Commission and the countless stories that are coming to light, I understand why trust in Churches has been shredded. We should be able to say of Churches, these are safe communities for families. The reality is that most Churches are amazing communities where people may come and join, and discover the most important and beautiful truths that can be known to the world; namely the good news of Jesus Christ. And yet, how can we blame our fellow Aussies for doubting and for suspecting Churches of being complicit with the Devil?

For example, I was saddened by this comment that I saw today under a twitter thread belonging to Annabel Crabb. A woman said,

“Let the children come to me.  Makes me ill now. It used to be my favorite page in my illustrated bible.”

How can one respond to her? There will always be people who detest Christianity because of firmed moral commitments and because of stubborn a priori epistemological beliefs, and yet when Churches shame the name of Jesus, there is something profoundly wrong. In this case, it has led a woman to doubt the goodness of Jesus’ words. I wanted to reach out to this person and say to them, you can trust the words of Jesus. He remains true and good. Yes, many Churches have failed, but Jesus will not. Take a look at the meaning of Easter to see how loving and good Jesus is. He went to the cross, he endured the shame and guilt of the world out of love to redeem the unloveable and those crying in the silence. He rose from the dead to defeat the depravity of death and evil, and to offer genuine hope of healing and new life.

This draws us back to Psalm 7. If the words of the Psalmist resonate with our inclinations and hopes for justice and for healing, then take time this week to look at where God has most vividly demonstrated his justice and love, on the cross.

 

Yes, many Churches have failed, but Jesus will not.

Mocking prayer or turning to prayer?

The Prime Minister of Australia prayed for the nation and asked other Australians to join him.  There was a rare muted response by some of the usual religious critics, quite possibly due to an awareness that this is not the time to knock our national leaders or God for that matter. But as predictable as a toddler throwing their late afternoon tantrum, other secularists couldn’t control their outrage at Scott Morrison.

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Arguments against the Prime Minister praying in public are varied, from the ridiculous to the illogical and to the popular but erroneous.

For example, one of the first complaints I saw on social media took aim at  Scott Morrison for using the Prime Minister’s office and Government time to broadcast this prayer. Seriously? Give the man a break. He’s probably working 100 hours a week at the moment, sleeping little, and barely seeing his own family. Are we really going to take issue with him for taking a few minutes to pray?

One complaint, that might at first seem to carry some weight, is the perceived undermining of cultural pluralism. For example, Jane Caro tweeted,

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

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

The Prime Minister praying for our nation doesn’t undermine our pluralism,  it is a shining example of it. Unlike Communist States where religion is banned and unlike religious totalitarian States like Iran, our political representatives have the freedom to speak of their deep-seated beliefs about God and the world. We can agree or disagree. We can support them or not. We are free to join with them or not. 

Jane Caro is known for wanting to remove religion from the public square altogether. She is okay with religion being practised in private but not in public. This, however, is neither secularism or pluralism, it is, as a friend suggested last night, fundamentalism. This is the state of play in countries like North Korea and China. Do we really want Australia following their lead?

A truly secular society can never be a religion-free zone. That is a fictitious position that can only exist in the theoretical world and is posited by persons who are themselves reacting against set religious thinking (usually Christian theism). Classic secularism (of which Australia is an example) is designed to provide a civil public life which encourages the discussion of life’s big questions without control by any single ideologue. Secularism provides a framework for social pluralism, and pluralism shouldn’t drive religion underground but encourage honest adherence.

But what about s.116? This section of the Constitution has been floated as a directive against the Prime Minister’s action. For example, this tweet,

“s.116 of the constitution states we have no official religion. Previous PMs have been more sensitive to our diverse polis. Using the PM’s office to dedicate the nation to his particular denominational god is poor form.”

What does s.116 say?

‘The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.’’

This clause does not preclude people of faith from holding public office or force them to keep their convictions at home while they work. S.116 explains that Australia will not be governed by any single religion, as though Australia should become an agency of the Anglican or Roman Catholic Church. It should be noted that the framers of the Australian constitution used Judeo-Christian principles to establish our secular nation. By secular they did not mean banning religious thought from politics and public discourse. Let’s not pretend that atheism equals moral and philosophical neutrality or superiority. Some of the most extreme and inhumane regimes in the world today are those controlled by atheistic political systems.

True secularism means the freedom to speak regardless of one’s religious affiliation or lack thereof. What would violate the Constitution are demands that politicians keep their religious beliefs away from the public square.

As Australians begins a third week of self-isolating, we have already learned that Governments are unsure what to do. Plans are changing almost daily. Medical experts are offering the best advice they can, while still not knowing how COVID-19 will play out in coming days and months. Economists are grappling with the short term survival requirements and theorising about the long term damage that will be made to the economy. It is natural and necessary for us to lift our eyes and to inquire of God and to ask God for his grace and mercy. I for one am thankful that such a God exists and that through Jesus we are invited to call upon him in times of need.

“Hear my prayer, Lord;

    let my cry for help come to you.

Do not hide your face from me

    when I am in distress.

Turn your ear to me;

    when I call, answer me quickly.”

(Psalm 102:1-2)