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.

Screen Shot 2019-12-12 at 8.32.46 am.png

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.

img_4335

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.

Two Campbells and a Bird sat down to chat

Nathan Campbell has responded to recent articles written by Mike Bird and myself, criticising the tone and contour of what we said.

94ab1aeadf838faa2f9a9b8e786c1a67

First up, I want to say that I’d be happy to play the bagpipes and swap stories about the MacDonalds with my fellow Campbell any day of the week. More than that, I love my brother Nathan’s passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ; his faith in the power of God’s good news is an example for Christians across the country.

I agree with so much of what Nathan has written: Yes, the laws are dumb, yes Christ is triumphant, yes Daniel Andrews’ policies are small fish in comparison with what many believers are suffering in the world. His reminders of the Christian hope are wonderfully important and refreshing in an age where we can get bogged down in some of the daily mud of life.

At the same time, Nathan has profoundly misunderstood our tone, and his critique of our alleged lack of Gospel-centredness is disappointing and off the mark.

First, he conflates voicing concern with fear and panic. I don’t feel afraid or panicked, and neither am I suggesting that we should feel as such. On the other hand, it is not unreasonable to express legitimate concerns over legislation that will impact religious freedom in Victoria. 

Second, I sense as though Nathan doesn’t appreciate the role of rhetorical devices when illustrating points for readers. Of course Daniel Andrews is not Henry VIII or Julius Caesar; but his disdain for opposing viewpoints and his desire to squash religious liberties is real enough, and that’s the point.

Third, and this one troubles me the most, Nathan has confused us expressing concern over a current issue with having a myopic view of God’s Kingdom, and of diminishing Christ’s victory over the grave.

I am happy to concede that if my latest blog piece was the only thing people ever read of mine, readers might misconstrue the reality which drives me; as they say, context is everything. But of course, this is only one of many articles dealing with multiple theological, social, and political matters. For the most part, the Gospel is front and centre, and when it is not, the Gospel is nonetheless serving in the background as the framework in which I express my views. Must every article contain an explicit ‘this is the Gospel’ clause?

Indeed, it is our confidence in the Gospel that give us courage to respond to current issues. We are not afraid to speak and even to lose these battles, because we know who has ultimately won.

Nathan wrote, “I capitalise this because we’re worried about a piddling little thing like the Premier of the State of Victoria; not exactly a global superpower”. 

That is easy to say if you’re not one of the 5 million piddling Victorians living in this State. To be honest, I think our friend from Queensland has on this occasion  denuded the situation in Victoria in a way that is a little unhelpful. Evangelicals should never put too much emphasis on our present circumstances, but neither should we make it altogether redundant.

As a way of outlining some Gospel perspective to the matters Nathan has raised, let me reiterate portions of a piece that I wrote for TGCA in June this year,

“We must concede that Churches no longer occupy a position in the middle, but we don’t want to evacuate the public space altogether. I want to argue that it is worth fighting for a voice in public discourse, but we do so with the belief that the Gospel does not depend upon it. So why should we defend notions of ‘freedom of speech’.

First of all, we have something to say. We have good news to speak and show our neighbours, and so why would we walk away from secular principles that give us freedom for speaking and contributing?

Secondly, we should defend the right to speak for the sake of those who speak against us. Is this not a way in which we love our neighbour?  Is it also not a sign of a mature society, one that is big enough to allow a plurality of voices, and to say ‘I disagree with you, but let’s hear you out and then talk it through’.

Thirdly, we are members of a democratic society, which in principle gives permission for Christians and atheists alike to speak and offer their opinion.

Our democratic liberties give Christians a platform and context for doing public ministry, and we are thankful for this, but the Gospel is not curtailed by the limitations or freedoms of liberal democracy. Indeed, history demonstrates that Churches have often flourished where they have been most resented. More importantly, Jesus Christ taught a theology of the world which lives in opposition to God and which hates those who follow Jesus. Why should we assume Australia is any different?

Are, as Greg Sheridan suggests, ‘churches in crisis now on all fronts’? It depends on how one defines the mission and role of the church.

Our aim is to love others, whether our convictions are affirmed by others or not.

Our goal is not relevance, for the Gospel we believe is not defined by a popularist epistemological current, but by the word of the cross, which is foolishness to the wise and powerful of this world. Instead, our purpose is to preach this foolishness for through it God works to redeem and heal.

Our mission is not to set up power structures at the centre of society, but to speak the Gospel and to love others no matter where we find ourselves situated in relation to broader society.

Freedom of speech has become the gordian knot of our day. Politicians, lawyers, and academics will ponder and debate and try to find a way to navigate through the many layers of twisted and knotted rope, and while their answers will have implications for Christian speech and life in public, our hope does not lay with them, but in the Gospel, a word that is sharper than a two edged sword. Our hope rests in the Christ who has promised that he will build his church and not even Hades can stand against it.

Sadly many Christians have sold their soul in order to buy a place at the centre of public life, and they are now being marshalled into following the lead of the social progressives, and others are instead holding tight to their conservative neuroses. There are however exceptions; across the land there are churches growing and people are becoming Christians, and there are Bible colleges in Australian cites who are training more men and women than in the previous generation. There are Christians serving in Parliament, teaching in universities, and working in a thousand different jobs. And to these men and women, keep preaching and living the Gospel, loudly from the centre or whispering it from the edge, and through it God will keep working his grace and growing his Kingdom.”