Be refreshed by God

Another way I am to encourage readers during this time is with this new podcast. My aim is to publish a couple of short messages each week that you can listen to on your phone. They are only a few minutes in length.
In today’s episode, I present a meditation on Psalm 23, as an encouragement for us to spend time with God and to be refreshed by him in his word.
If you want to listen and to subscribe, click on the graphic and follow the link
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Imagine there is God

Imagine there is no ultimate meaning, purpose or goal toward which our lives are headed.

Imagine there is no overarching design and no inherent significance. 

Imagine if our lives were reduced to the pot luck outcome of billions of years of impersonal atoms and molecules running around hitting and missing, making and destroying.

Imagine a world where the reality of conscience and moral choice has no grounding in a purpose beyond that of group survival in the evolutionary race to the top.

Imagine human affections are ultimately an illusion, a cruel joke orchestrated by the impersonal rules pf physics.

Imagine all the people living for today, for tomorrow is the end.

Welcome to the world offered by John Lennon’s song, Imagine.

A group of celebrities have posted a new version of Imagine. The only reason this is going viral and being watched by millions of people is that these people are celebrities. Otherwise, the at times tone-deaf warbles in the rendition of this average pop song would probably have attracted zero attention. Music criticism aside, the song itself is hardly a suitable anthem for a time like this, or for any time in the world history for that matter.

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In contrast to Lennon’s nihilist proclamation, people want to know that there is hope beyond a crisis and that there is hope when faced with mortality. Times of economic uncertainty can drive people to the kinds of selfish and greedy hoarding of supplies that we have been witnessing. A health crisis can lead to further fragmentation in societies. Indeed, the longer this crisis continues the more likely we are going to witness the breaking of social cohesion. And yet as these economic, social and health pressures tighten, it is all the more necessary for people to hear news of hope.

There is little consolation to a gravely ill person that not only is death imminent, but that it is ultimately meaningless. This atheistic ethic doesn’t do much to help grieving families who have just witnessed a loved one being ripped from their lives.

We want there to be a heaven, a better world with a better life. We want the cessation of sorrow and suffering, but Imagine cannot offer any such promise. 

At the same time, hell is also a necessity, for we do not want to live in a world where evil wins or where injustice prevails. While we should be thankful for our judicial system, it is not full proof and many terrible deeds are never prosecuted. People need to know that in death the wicked do not escape justice. Imagining there is no hell would be a form of hell its self.

John Lennon’s song collapses in on its own irrationality. He imagines ‘living life in peace’, and there being no “greed or hunger”, but such talk demands a form and purpose, but atheism and naturalism cannot provide such a definition. 

The COVID-19 crisis is a voracious reminder of the fragility of life and the uncertainty of building society on credit. Hedonism is vanity. Pushing against greed and social disharmony suggests meaning, but meaning is disqualified in a God absent universe. As Solomon the wise wrote in the book of Ecclesiastes, 

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”

    says the Teacher.

“Utterly meaningless!

    Everything is meaningless.”

Nietzsche was right, at least as far his logic is concerned, that “the masses blink and say ‘We are all equal – Man is but man, before God – we are equal.’ Before God! But now this God has died.” A contemporary of Nietsche, Anatole France retorted without regret,

“It is almost impossible systematically to constitute a natural moral law. Nature has no principles. She furnishes us with no reason to believe that human life is to be respected. Nature, in her indifference, makes no distinction between good and evil.”

What if there is heaven and hell? What if God exists? Everything must change. What we think and say has greater import. How we live and how we treat others has far more consequence. 

What if the God who exists is the God of the Bible: who is Sovereign, and altogether righteous and loving, just and kind? What if Jesus Christ is the perfect image of God, the One who as John testifies, 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

These words are far more sustainable and substantial than the sentiment of living in a world without Divine structure. A Biblical view of the world both assesses its beauty and its horror, the worth and the uncertainty. These Scriptures bring us to the most astonishing words, ones that counter John Lennon’s pipe dream with concrete hope, 

 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Mentone’s COVID-19 Policy: neither alarmism nor complacency

We have communicated with the Mentone family our policy for COVID-19. Of course, with changing circumstances, the policy may well change over coming days. I’ve posted a copy here for readers as an example of what one church is communicating.

COVID-19

 

Dear Church,

Over the last two Sundays at Church we have explored Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. Our preaching schedule is usually organised months in advance and in God’s providence he has been provided us with a timely word. In light of living in this age, the Lord Jesus cautions us against both alarmism and complacency. We don’t need to resort to panic or irrational behaviour because God is Sovereign and the Lord Jesus remains on the throne. Neither should we be careless or thoughtless.

The certainty of our hope in Jesus Christ gives us great freedom and impulse to love our neighbours. A significant way we can serve one another during this current health crisis is to adopt sensible measures as a church.

Mentone Baptist Church will follow government and health department advice and wish to put forward the following as our policy from today:

1. If you have been in countries now on the travel ban list or have high cases of infection (China, South Korea, Iran, Italy), you are required to quarantine yourself for two weeks before gathering with your brothers and sisters from Mentone Baptist Church. 

We expect this list will expand in the near future. In light of this, we are requesting that anyone who has recently travelled internationally to not attend Sunday services for 2 weeks (upon the date of your return to Australia).

2. If you suspect you have been in contact with any of the community COVIC-19 infections that are being reported in the news, please consult a GP and also self-quarantine.

3. There are also regular colds beginning to circulate among us that aren’t and won’t be COVID-19. We ask that you use commonsense.  If it is not COVID-19 there is no need to quarantine yourself. However please be mindful of others in the church community and minimise the chances of infection by taking care in your personal contact and when we gather.

4. As a policy, we will now be urging our church members not to shake hands or hug (or high-five) with one another. Given the nature of Christian community, this is not easy among brothers and sisters in Christ, but we do so in order to love our neighbour and honour those who are in authority over us.

5. In addition, cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing with a tissue, or cough into your elbow.Dispose of the tissue into a bin and then wash your hands afterwards. 

6. Wash your hands regularly, using soap and water, including after using the toilet, and before eating. Alcohol-based sanitiser (greater than 60 per cent alcohol) is a good back-up if soap and water is not readily accessible.

7. If you are planning not to attend a service, we encourage you to contact us (Mike or myself) and let us know how you are going and if there is anything we can be doing to help.

We are monitoring advice that is being issued from the BUV (Baptist Union of Victoria) and from Government agencies. We will keep you informed if the situation arises where we need cancel public gatherings for a period of time (inc. Sunday services). In the event of cancelling public gatherings, we will inform you of alternative arrangements (ie livestreaming).

We encourage you to look after each other by following these steps. Also, given there is a shortage of some supplies in supermarkets, if you are needing something please ask people in our church family. The church’s private facebook group is an easy way to do this. Let us show generosity toward one another.  Let us check on the elderly in our church and ensure that are ok. Let us pray for each other, and pray for our local community.

Above all, know that the Lord Jesus is sovereign over his people and he tends his flock like a shepherd (Isa. 40). We have his love and peace and security over our lives because nothing can separate us from his love (Rom. 8). So go in peace to love and serve him even in the midst of this crisis. Speak liberally and graciously about the peace Jesus offers to those who are most anxious and worried at this time.

Is the human race special?

If you’re looking for a pick me up message for today, I don’t recommend this contribution on the ABC website, The human race is not special. So why do we think we’re immune to mass extinction?

Geoff Dawson, whose bio says he is a psychologist and Zen Buddhist teacher, explains that human beings are no more important than any other species on the planet and that we should not over concern ourselves with our potential demise.

He asks the question, “Could we face a mass extinction of human beings in our lifetime?”

Dawson acknowledges that,

“To contemplate mass extinction is indeed a dark place to go to and a difficult conversation to have — even more difficult than global warming itself — because it is to think the unthinkable.”

However, don’t be fooled into thinking that this dark place holds any real meaning. Dawson explains that this conversation isn’t difficult because there is some overarching meaning to life or because human life is intrinsically more important than other life forms. Far from it, he would say. The extinction of people only warrants a problem for those who are facing termination.

“If one’s view of the world is based on science, we are not special, we were not placed here by a God to be the custodians of the Earth (and if we were, we have let the Almighty down big time!) and like all other species, we will have our place in the sun.

We will die out, and other, more adaptable, life forms will take our place.

The myth that we are somehow special and will continue to live forever as a dominant species is based on a deluded human-centric form of existential narcissism.

We may wring our hands and our hearts may ache at the rapid destruction of wildlife that is happening right now before our eyes, but we never seem to seriously consider that we may go the same way.”

What fantastic news! Don’t worry about the future because you are not special.  Our significance is no greater than that of any other species on the planet. Your impending death may not be a particularly pleasant experience for you or for the people who have affections for you, but in real terms, you’re just preparing the ground for future species. In the grand scheme of meaningless time, we are no more special than the dinosaur, the Dodo, or the Sabre-toothed Tiger.

Feeling better now? Probably not, but our Zen Buddhist friend insists that this is science. Although, why Dawson is bothered with science remains a mystery to me, because one of the basic assumptions of Zen Buddhism is that intellect and language of ethereal and true meaning can only be found by disengaging from both. 

Contradictions aside, what Dawson describes is not science, but naturalism, which is a way of interpreting scientific evidence based on the prior assumption that there is no God. In this way, both Zen Buddhism and naturalism share some common threads. The world has no overreaching design or telos, and one creature is not inherently more valuable than another. What makes human beings important is the evolutionary roll of the dice, that has resulted in cognitive, physical, and social strengths that enable us to control and use other species. Naturalism believes that people only sit at the top of the world because of power. All these conscious thoughts and beliefs about inherent dignity and greater worth than a tree or a frog are simply evolutionary mechanisms put in place to maintain the survival of our species. In fact, the very notion of human rights presupposes superiority over other things; perhaps this should be revisited!

By now, I’m sure you’re feeling the love. If you weren’t already questioning your self-worth, you probably are by now. But of course, this is the natural course when believing there is no God. Should we ignore this logic and feign belief in intrinsic human worth or do accept the world of Geoff Dawson? If the latter,  why bother addressing issues of Global warming or caring for endangered species? After all, it’s all a game of power and serving self-interest.

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I suspect most of us are uncomfortable with Dawson’s evaluation. We do not believe that goats and rats or even our pet dog are as important as other human beings. This raises an important question, why?  Why do most of us find Dawson’s comments not only unsatisfying but even grotesque?

Why should your thoughts or feelings or relationships matter any more than those of non-Homo Sapiens? Why should my desires and plans bear any more weight than that of non-sentient objects such as the rainforest or mountain or bushland?

Surely, it is because we know that while birds and fish and kangaroos are wonderful creatures and who add beauty and wonder to this world, we are not those things. Human beings are unique. We are physical beings, but also sentient and moral beings. We have a mind, soul, and spirit. There are vast cognitive differences between a human being and every other species on the planet, and to argue otherwise is stupid and anti-science. None other, despite their astonishing habits and works, come remotely close to the glory of man and woman.  But in our world of today, the obvious cannot be spoken, and the evidential is denied. People know that they are superior to animals and yet it is almost blasphemous to say so.

The answer humanity’s greater worth is not limited to this existential knowing, it is also grounded in a knowing that is more ancient than the universe itself. One might even say, that it is a Divine word that has created this knowledge of ourselves and of the world.

Rather than denigrating human beings, belief in God elevates our stature in a way that is both congruent to experience and that fills us with meaning and purpose. You were not just a clump of moving cells in flesh; you are made in the image of God. You are no mere animal with no more rights than an orangutan or cow or goldfish. At the same time, neither are we God. While I cannot speak for other religions, the Christian view pushes against both insignificance and self-absorption. Christianity repudiates the ultimate meaningless of naturalism and its companion, ultimate hopelessness, and Christianity also rebukes greed, consumerism, and abuse.

The answer to human misuse of the environment is not to relegate human beings to the place of monkeys, snakes, or the koala. Rather, it is to renew a proper understanding of what the Bible refers to as stewardship. And it is to recognise the reality of the incarnation, where at a direct point in history, God the Son took on flesh. John announced in his famous prologue,

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)

The fact that God became man, more than anything in history, says that every single person matters. They are not neglected by God or of no consequence to him. Indeed, God entered this space, becoming fully human without stripping his Divinity. The Gospel describes how this Jesus suffered the full gamut of human trials, and went through death that we might not be extinguished. Indeed, according to the Christian Bible extinction isn’t the end, but there is genuine hope of redemption and resurrection.

I appreciate that among my readers, you may or may not accept the Christian worldview. But my question, for now, is this – Which is better, the world of Geoff Dawson or the world explained by Jesus Christ? Should we suck it up and conclude that you and I are not special, and so treat each other accordingly? Or perhaps this Jesus has more to show us about both human worth and failing, and global trauma and reconciliation, than we perhaps realise.

Is the human race special? Are you special? Let me conclude by turning to these words of the Psalmist,

“You have searched me, Lord,

    and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;

    you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

    you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue

    you, Lord, know it completely.

You hem me in behind and before,

    and you lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,

    too lofty for me to attain….

 

…For you created my inmost being;

    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

    your works are wonderful,

    I know that full well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you

    when I was made in the secret place,

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

16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;

    all the days ordained for me were written in your book

    before one of them came to be.

17 How precious to me are your thoughts, God!

    How vast is the sum of them!

18 Were I to count them,

    they would outnumber the grains of sand—

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

Responding to the Australian Bush Fire Crisis

We spent the first three days of 2020 driving to and from Canberra, for a family wedding. Once we drove across the border from Victoria into NSW, visibility on the road slowly deteriorated as the air became more dense with smoke. By the time we reached Canberra, we could see less than 100m in front. Getting out of the car, the smoke clung to our clothes and flushed into our throats as we breathed, causing everyone to cough and eyes to sting.

We had the radio tuned to the ABC for reports on the fires. As we drove into Canberra we listened to a pollution expert explain that air quality index readings above 200 are considered hazardous to health. That day in Canberra (as it was for most days in recent weeks), the readings spilled over 2,000, and even reaching 5,000 during parts of the day. Canberra wasn’t only the dullest city in Australia, it now has the worse air quality of any city in the world.

Our hotel was situated just around the corner from  Parliament House. The flag and spire on top of the building that usually dominates the area, couldn’t be seen due to the blanketing haze. We drove across Lake Burley Griffen with its famous fountain but all was invisible to us.

Picture this, the situation around the country worsened over the week. Returning home to Melbourne on the Thursday, we drove south along the Hume Highway. For the entire 700km journey smoke covered the roads and the paddocks and hills on either side. 700km of smoke from bushfires. As we approached Albury/ Wodonga the smoke thickened, and at times visibility on the road was less than 200m. We stopped for lunch in Wodonga, where the smoke was heaviest. Our food had little taste for the smoke covered everything. The air tasted of ash, and its’ heaviness found a home in our throats and noses.

I have passed through bushfire areas before. Growing up in country Victoria, I’ve experienced burnt out bushland and smoke lingering around the hills, but never anything so thick and covering an area of such staggering size. Something like 10 million hectares of land is now scorched black. That’s an area larger than many entires States in the USA. More than 20 people have died, 2000 homes destroyed, and it is said that half a billion animals have been killed.

Cooler and wetter conditions mean that most of the fires are now either under control and at least temporarily dampened until the weather changes once again. We can be thankful for this temporary reprieve.

The reason for writing this post less about sharing our recent family road trip and more about offering some advice. Unlike most bushfires in Australian history, this time everyone has an opinion. Some of the suggestions are helpful while others should be avoided.

I want to offer 6 responses that Christians can make following these weeks of fire (and in preparation for the rest of the fire season which we mustn’t forget has another two months to go). I want to begin where I think the Bible encourages us to begin

1. Weep with those who are weeping and mourn with those who are mourning. 

“mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15)

If we cannot start here and empathise with those who have lost much, frankly our opinion about the rest is little more than a noisy gong being played out of rhythm. Fast-forwarding to politicking and virtual signalling is uncouth and uncaring.

2. Avoid the heated and at times disgusting politicisation of these events.

In one sense it is impossible to separate the fires from politics altogether. Of course, understanding what has happened and learning how to better manage the future matters enormously.  However, over the last month, we have seen some of the grossest grandstanding and vilest commentary that I have witnessed in Australian political history.

No, I am not referring to the Prime Minister here. I recognise Scott Morrison has made errors of judgement in his initial responses (in my opinion, taking his family on a one week vacation over Christmas is not one of them). I also think that the opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, has overall addressed the crisis well. While I frequently disagree with the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, he has conducted himself well and served Victorians well throughout this crisis. There have been however too many loud and loquacious voices using this tragedy for political point-scoring.

In such dangerous and exhausting circumstances as the nation has witnessed, there is naturally going to be anger and frustration, especially by those who are closest to the fires. But much social media and media responses have only served to fuel anger and encourage outrage in an irresponsible way, and often by people who know little about the subject matter. My plea is, don’t dump more petrol on the crisis.

Think before you tweet. Check before you share articles. Ask, is this righteous anger or are you justifying your disapproval of political opponents?

3. Don’t claim to be an expert when we are not

I have been asked to write some thoughts on the bushfire emergency. Until now I declined. Let me share why. There are two reasons why I have hesitated in writing anything on the fires. The first reason is that when someone’s house is on fire you don’t stop to argue about how the fire started, you go in and help them. There is a time to critique and analyse, and there is a time to get on with the job of helping out. As I suggested under point 1, many Aussies who have a megaphone in hand have skipped the important step of mourning and weeping, and instead jumped straight to blaming and shaming. Second, while I understand there are 25 million experts on climate change in Australia, I am not one of them. I can offer a point of view about fires and climate change, but I no more an expert than most of my 25 million fellow Australians. The problem is of course, that by even admitting such, there will some critics who assume I must be one of those evil climate deniers. Anything other than shrilling at the top of my lungs has become reason to cast suspicion on a person.

So what do I think? I accept that the globe is warming and that human beings have contributed to this problem. I am not a climate change scientist and neither are most of us. One cool fact though is that at Mentone Baptist Church we have an actual climate change scientist, and conversing with her is more than helpful. In addition to accepting the science on Climate Change, I also accept reporting that has revealed many of the fires that have started this season are the result of human agency; arsonists. Extreme drought conditions in many parts of the country and years of ignoring Indigenous practice of fuel reduction burning are also a combustible combination. It seems as though there are multiple factors contributing to the terrible fires burning across the country, including climate change. Indeed, it only makes sense that climate change will produce more volatile conditions (i.e. droughts and heat) leading to bushfires. It is vital that experts once again meet and provide workable and important solutions for future seasons (which include pathways to introducing more renewable energies). Believing in responsible policies and avoiding extreme rhetoric does not amount to Climate Change denial. These are my 2 cents worth of comments, spoken as an Aussie novice in this area.

4. Donate without playing to the crowds.

When donating to any of the organisations collecting for fire relief, don’t grandstand. It’s helpful to promote organisations who are doing good work but we don’t need to know how generous you are personally.

5. Pray.

Prayer isn’t useless. There are Aussies fighting the fires and who have escaped the fires who’ve been praying and they stand by prayer. Pray is effective for those who pray to a living God who is Sovereign over all things. Christians pray to a loving Father, who is the creator of all things and who is compassionate. We don’t pray because we understand everything that happens, we pray because we trust God who sees all things.

Pray for those fighting the fires. Pray for the communities who are facing fire. Pray for rain. Pray for our Government and political representatives that they will make wise decisions both in their immediate responses and for planning for the long term future. Here is a suggested prayer written by Glenn Davies, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney:

“Our heavenly Father, creator of all things and especially the creator of this land and its original peoples, we call out to you in these desperate times as fires have swept across several parts of our country.

Our hearts cry out to you for those who have lost loved ones, and those who have lost properties in the wake of these ravaging fires 

Father we pray, in your mercy, restrain the forces of nature from creating catastrophic damage; in your mercy protect human life.

Guard those volunteers, rural fire service personnel and emergency services who selflessly step into the breach to fight these fires. Guide police and authorities who help evacuate and shelter those who are displaced.  Bring comfort and healing to all who suffer loss.

Remembering your promises of old that seedtime and harvest will never cease, we pray that you would open the heavens to send refreshing rain upon our parched land. 

In your mercy, we pray for drenching rain. 

We pray that despite the forecasts, in your miraculous power you would bring forth rain to quench these fires and to bring life back into the earth, so that crops may grow and farmers may bring forth the harvest of the land again.

We bring these requests before your throne, in the name of your Son, who died and rose again for our deliverance,

Amen.”

 

6. Put your hope in God

Before Christmas, I wrote an article about hope, because I am increasingly hearing and seeing a young generation express hopelessness and despair. There are many reasons why millennials are sensing a world without hope, and chief among them is the issue of Climate Change.  In that piece, I suggested something that amounts to blasphemy according to some, but it is true and needs saying:

“Climate change isn’t the existential threat facing the planet and humanity. It is a symptom of an ancient problem that we have afforded to ignore for far too long. If there is no God, why should we ultimately concern ourselves with altruism? Why bother with protecting the environment for future generations if purpose is found in the individual and defined by personal satisfaction? The fact that we understand that there are moral boundaries and that the future does matter, is not an argument against Divine purpose but the only rational explanation for having such concerns. How we behave toward one another and how we use the planet is important because this isn’t a meaningless existence.

“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)

There has been a cosmological battle taking place for millennia, and it is ultimately against the Creator, not the creation. The ancient mandate to care for the world remains, but the growing call to save and redeem the world is not one within our purview. Those who believe we can save the planet have far too high regard for human capability and moral will. I’m not saying, don’t bother reducing carbon omissions and forget about investing in renewable energy; far from it. The house I live in won’t stand forever but it doesn’t mean I neglect the building. I neither wreck the house nor place all my energy and hopes in the house. I’m just pointing out the fact that people putting their ultimate hope in other people will always disappoint in the end. The role of global saviour is too big a job. You see, I don’t believe things are as bad as we suggest they are; despite even the good around us the reality is far more perilous.”

The Bible tells us that the world in which we live, with all its beauty and wonder, is also a dangerous place. It is cursed and corrupted and corroding like those old fashioned corrugated iron roofs that mark the Australian landscape. The hope for creation lies not in our management skills and commitments, but in the Gospel alone. When Christians forget this, we place too great a burden on our children to fix that which we cannot, and we may slide into preaching a Gospel to Australia which is no Gospel at all.

 “19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” (Romans 8:19-25)

We can’t survive without hope. Hope in the world or hope in humanity is an age-long route to despair. Human responsibility is noble and right, but the hope of the world cannot rest on the shoulders of any given generation.

“And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us” (Romans 5:5)

You are more than an ATAR

60,000 teenagers from around Victoria are today finding out the results from their VCE. Many students will be pleased, many others disappointed. Some will be relieved while others will be anxious.

First of all, congratulations on completing the VCE. It is no small feat. Even though I finished the VCE last century, I remember it well, both the highs and lows, and mostly the lows. I stuffed up big time! My original plans went cascading down the mountain with such momentum that I was never going to stop that fall. However, I am so grateful for the way God used my mistakes and shortcomings to redirect life down the path where I find myself today, now 25 years after finishing school. It didn’t take me 25 years to grasp this; within a year of finishing VCE I became captivated by the way God began to orient my life along a new and more exciting road. I was still somewhat embarrassed by the way my school and friends were aghast at my performance but I was thankful for the new turn toward the future.

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An ATAR is something but it is far from everything. Your ATAR isn’t the end of the story. To be blunt, a place in the top 1% doesn’t secure anything in life, except the first day of a university course of your choosing. 

To those students who are happy and content, well done. You are being rewarded for two years of hard work.

To those students who are dissatisfied, or even despondent now, life is so much more than study and school and university and even work. Yes, it opens doors that can lead to amazing experiences, but the likelihood is that the dreams and pursuits you now hold onto will change significantly from those you will have when you are 25.  Indeed, many of the happiest and most content people I know didn’t knock their VCE out of the park. Some were clean bowled and others didn’t get onto the pitch at all.

A word to parents, chill. Don’t measure your children by this result for they are worth more than a thousand top ranking ATAR scores and scholarships to university. Remind them,  they are worth more than their 99.95 or 75 or 35 or whatever score they achieve.

For both parents and kids the Lord Jesus has spoken a word that befits a day like this, whether we are feeling pumped or deflated.

Jesus gently warns us, 

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Following, Jesus encourages us, 

 “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? 26 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? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 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? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Facing our mortality

When beggars die, there are no comets seen; The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.  (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene 2)

In any given population there will be a few individuals whose death will be reported by media and mourned by grieving masses. Some people make the news, not because of their life but because of the tragic circumstances in which they died. Many more will people die without even a footnote in the local obituary, and yet their death is as a real and the grief from loved ones as profound.

More celebrities will depart this world in 2017, and countless thousands of anonymous people will join them in the grave. This isn’t being facetious or morbid, but stating what is inevitable

As we have been assailed with stories of people dying we respond to death with revulsion, and rightly so, for it is a destroyer of life and friendship; death is our enemy. When we have witnessed someone suffer for an extended season, there can be relief in their passing, but it is not their life that wish to see ending but their suffering.

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Their mortality reminds us of our own, and it is wise for us to give due consideration to our beliefs and hopes over the grave.

It is not uncommon for people to sentimentalise and even trivialise death. Perhaps we do so in the hope of defying this great adversary.

Death is nothing at all.

It does not count.

I have only slipped away into the next room.

Nothing has happened.

(Henry Scott-Holland)

Another approach, and one that is probably more common, is that of rage and anger, as Dylan Thomas famously cried,

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

There is however an alternative to uncertain optimism and despair, and it is spelled out in the good news of Jesus Christ,

“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.

“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 15:51-57)

Throughout the life and ministry of Jesus Christ we see God who empathises with those who grieve. John ch.11 records the story of one of Jesus’ close friend, Lazarus, falling ill and dying. When Jesus reached the town where Lazarus lived and died, he mourned with the family and outside the tomb “he wept”.

Jesus not only sat alongside those in the midst of grief, but he has walked the path of death. He endured its full horrors, not because of sickness or tragic circumstances, but he chose to enter into death out of love for humanity and to face hell for us. Indeed, in the hours before his crucifixion he told his disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” (Matt 26:38)

We are all approaching death, faster than we imagine; it is the great wall that cannot be avoided. But it does not have to be journeyed alone, and it does not have to endured without certain hope of resurrection. Imprinted into the fabric of the deathly world is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead; real, historic, physical, and forever resurrection.

We can choose to pin our hopes on imagined sleep-like permanence, or fight off all thoughts of death until the moment arrives and we explode with fearful rage, or we can place our confidence in the one who has defeated death and who promises eternal resurrection to all who accept him, to the celebrity and the unknown, the beggar and the prince.