Churches, give people a message of hope

Tom Holland is the spiderman of historians. His latest conversation with Glen Scrivener is well worth the listen for it includes more than a few intriguing thoughts in the web of ideas.

I really appreciate his thoughtfulness and honesty. It was this reflection by Holland that especially struck a chord with me. He said, 

“I felt that over the course of this year the churches have been a let down. I think that the experience of pandemic, it sets you to asking why is this happening…it raises profound issues of theodicy.”

He mentions one moment that stood out to him, when he watched the Pope give an open air mass in the middle of an empty St Peter’s Square. Otherwise the message he’s heard from churches is much like what one would find on a Government help line. 

“I felt that the response of churches was a kind of pallid echo of public health announcements. That’s what public health officials are for. I kind of think that churches are there to give answers and to situate our happening.”

When Glen asked what Churches could be doing, Holland suggested,

“I think it can be expressed in open air services…an attempt to root what’s happening in the cultural and  the scriptural inheritance of what has gone before. I haven’t almost nothing about why this is happening…what does the Bible have to say about plagues…This seems to me an incredibly important source…”

Could Tom Holland, an agnostic, be urging churches to do church and to preach Bible messages that explain the world today through the lens of Scripture? I think so.

Holland’s remarks are like a bucket of icy water, or least they should be. It could also be likened to a defibrillator. The admonishment reminds me of the Church in Sardis. Jesus addresses this church in Revelation ch.3 and he rebukes her for having a reputation for being alive but in reality, the church is dying and has little breath remaining.

Holland isn’t knocking churches for talking about their buildings, social distancing and COVID-19 plans. He notes that these things are important. The overall presentation of Christianity that he has heard and seen over the last 6 months (and keep in mind Tom Holland is a studious observer of Christianity), the message he’s received is overall bland and uninspiring and offers little hope to a world he says is desperate for salvation.

I know enough churches, not only here in Australia but also win the UK and USA, to realise that Holland’s critique is partial. There are churches trying to reach people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Sadly, this message is often drowned out by a cacophony of noisier and more appealing narratives and agendas.

It is also the case that many Churches are simply trying to remain alive during the time, keeping care of congregation members and encouraging some semblance of online discipleship. It is nonetheless worth considering the vision we are leaving the world during this time of pandemic.

For months the message from many of our churches has been dominated by hygiene rules and facial masks. In recent weeks I’ve noted that churches are increasingly calling Governments to allow a return to public worship services. Letters are being written and petitions signed, even here in Melbourne. I haven’t signed any such letter, but I understand Christians wanting their freedom back to worship God publicly in their church community. I am supportive of some reasons and may yet sign a letter in the future. It is interesting to note though how some of these arguments proceed. They explain that churches are essential; I agree. However, instead of offering the Biblical reasoning for Church, Christians are instead deferring to more secular rationales to convince Governments to reinstate public church gatherings. For example, church provide sanctuary and help for people struggling with mental health and with loneliness, and church provide so many positive contributions to local communities. This is all true and important, but it’s also falling into the same kinds of milky lukewarm explanations that Tom Holland believes are inadequate. Our community needs something more. Our world needs a bigger message, a greater story, and we have one to give and yet we are so often reluctant to tell it.

This Sunday at Mentone Baptist I’m preaching on Revelation chapters 4 and 5. The Bible doesn’t get any bigger than this passage. The message of Christianity is spelled out here with a grandeur and beauty and wonder that is unsurpassed. In our world that is despairing through a pandemic and with climate change and racism and geopolitical uncertainties, the vision of Revelation is truly stunning and shocking. 

Chapter 5 begins with a search for someone who is worthy to take the scroll from God, the scroll with contains the plans of God in the world. No one is found. John (the disciple of Jesus), is witnessing this heavenly scene and he weeps because there seems to be no answer. But then, a lamb appears. Not just any lamb but one who has been slain. This lamb however is called the lion, which means King. This lion/lamb is worthy to take and open the scroll. Who is this person? It is Jesus who was crucified, risen and now reigning.

Melbourne needs a vision beyond lockdown rules and the pandemic and eventual reopening and kickstarting schools and the economy. Churches, by the grace of God, have this vision to share and proclaim and preach to our city. Let’s do it

Revelation 5

“Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits[a] of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
    and they will reign on the earth.”

11 Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. 12 In a loud voice they were saying:

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
    to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
    and honor and glory and praise!”

13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
    be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”

14 The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.”

A Response to Victoria’s Roadmap

Yesterday was Father’s Day. it was also the day when Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced the roadmap to the State’s recovery. 

Instead of enjoying a family lunch and celebrating the usual quirkiness of Dads, many households were attentive to the livestream of the Government’s announcement. 

Some Victorians are pleased with the proposed roadmap. Some Victorians are angry. Many if not the majority of Victorians are frustrated (whether agreeing or disagreeing with the Premier’s roadmap). There are Victorians who are enjoying the opportunities arising from lockdown (ie more time with children, working from home), while many others are struggling to cope with loneliness, anxiety, and economic devastation. 100,000s of Victorians have lost their jobs, 1000s of businesses will close down, and dozens of churches, if not 100s, will not survive.

As of next Sunday it will have been 6 months since our Church has met. Most school children have only had 3 weeks of onsite learning since April, and the Premier admitted yesterday it’s possible that children won’t return this year (apart from Prep-2, and VCE). 

There have been 675 COVID-19 related deaths in Victoria and close to 20,000 cases. The vast majority of these deaths and diagnoses have happened during the second wave. 

What’s next for churches in Victoria?

For Churches, the best case scenario is that groups of 10 will be permitted to meet outdoors from late October. To reach this stage, the entire State must average fewer than 5 new cases/day for a period of 14 days and have a total less than 5 cases with no known source. 

If Victoria has zero new cases for 14 days, from November 23rd  churches can open their doors and recommence services according to the Government’s density quotient.

A return to normalcy then requires 28 days of zero new cases and zero active cases in the entire State, and zero outbreaks of concern in other parts of Australia. 

In short, a medium sized Church like Mentone Baptist is almost certainly not going to meet as a whole until 2021. Based on the Government’s  plan, it may well be Easter before Churches are gathering as usual, even later. 

If this news causes you grief, as I hope it does, then pray for God’s grace and mercy, and observe the best medical advice that is being presented to the public.

Christians (and Victorians generally) are today sifting through the fine print of the Government’s roadmap and we’re also assessing our own thoughts and feelings toward the fair grim announcements that have been made for the State. I want to encourage us to avoid certain pitfalls and to stay on course in a way that honours the God and doesn’t diminish the Gospel.

  1. Don’t be an Eliphaz. 

This first word is largely for those not living in Victoria, but I suspect it’s also true for we Victorians as well. 

During a pandemic there are thousands of armchair experts, who apparently know without question what the right pathway should be. There are plenty of Job’s friends offering their thoughts and proverbial manure on social media. In contrast, I appreciated two Christian brothers from Sydney who instead of posting annoying platitudes about a situation there’re not facing, they called me and asked how am I going, and how are people feeling in Melbourne right now. When I told them, they prayed. I am thankful to God for friends whose names are not Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.

2. Pray for those in authority.

I don’t care if you voted for Daniel Andrews or not, it is the duty of Christians to pray for our Governments. Ask the God of grace to grant our political leaders and health officers the wisdom they need to do serve the State and make decisions for the good of our society. A Christian may espouse vociferous  political views, but it’s little more than noise pollution if it doesn’t begin with practicing prayer for our Governments. 

3. Follow the Rules

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” (Romans 13:1-6)

Must I agree with every rule before I obey the law? Must I understand everything exhaustively before I comply? The answer is a clear no. 

There are genuine issues relating to extending the State of Emergency powers and to banning protests. Any citizen who takes democratic freedoms seriously, should ask questions (I say this while not supporting the current protests in Victoria), but there are constructive ways to do this and unwise (and selfish) ways.

The circumstances in which a Christian disobeys a Government are rare and exceptional, and we have not entered that territory during the pandemic. I have made it abundantly clear that such a scenario may arise in the future here in Victoria (cf the proposed ban on conversion practices), but we have not reached that point, far from it. We must not confuse our political preferences with Gospel convictions. We must not conflate our personal desires with Biblical mandates. 

4. Love and serve your neighbour

Enormous numbers of Victorians are struggling emotionally, mentally, and financially. We shouldn’t assume that Government will or can care for every need. Do you know of someone who could do with a phone call or a meal? Let’s not neglect the people whom God brings into our lives and with whom we have opportunity and the means to assist

5. Avoid false binaries

As a pastor it concerns me when I hear Christians slipping into political lanes and becoming stuck and unable to critique their own preferences and political heroes. By all means have a preference but don’t assign allegiance to political groups with the kind of zeal and commitment that you ought only to have for God. If a Christian is wanting to have a Gospel impact in Victoria right now, stop mimicking Labor or Liberal or Greens. 

It was fascinating (and frustrating) to engage in one Facebook thread yesterday. It was probably unwise of me to comment, but my intention was to help explain not inflame his post. A Facebook friend from interstate was trying to defend the Victorian Premier. He suggested that,

 “The best science we have says movement restrictions are what’s needed in a major outbreak. The government enacts movement restrictions. The science projects a resulting reduction in cases, and that’s precisely what happens. The same science advises a cautious pace for reopening, if further outbreaks are to be avoided. The government designs a process following the science”

Is this true? I suggested to my friend that leaving aside predictable political mudslinging, there is a growing number of medical experts who believe there is a valid and alternative roadmap to the one announced by the Premier. I pointed out that mainstream media have now interviewed several high ranking medical experts in Victoria who are convinced there’s another way. In addition, last week a group of doctors wrote a letter to the Premier, offering a plan to move the State forward. Over 500 doctors have now signed this letter, including several of the most senior doctors in the country. 

All this should be fairly straightforward and uncontroversial. Well, I was wrong!

The logic applied by various respondents on the thread was quite astonishing. At first, I was told that these doctors mustn’t be real doctors or perhaps they are anti science doctors (which is kind of weird!). When I noted  that the 500+ doctors include some of the most respected medical names in Victoria, the next line of attack was to say, “but they’re not epidemiologists”. Apparently, the only doctors who have anything worthwhile to say about a pandemic are epidemiologists. Leaving aside that strange assumption, I then shared an article in The Age where three Professors of epidemiology expressed concerns over the Government’s direction. Not even this wasn’t enough to convince these people that the science isn’t an infallible papal edict. I was then told that the views of these epidemiologists is irrelevant because they are not working for the Government. 

Nowhere did I make a partisan statement, but I was accused of being political. Nowhere did I suggest the Government’s modelling was inaccurate or that the State’s Health Officer’s conclusions were incorrect. I simply noted that there isn’t consensus among the scientific community as to how we should proceed for dealing with the pandemic. For stating these simple facts and demonstrably showing these facts, it was insinuated that I am science denier!  

My point in sharing this example is twofold. First, if as a Christian your political commitments don’t allow you to question or critique your own side, it is a problem (whether it’s right or left or up a gumtree). Second, please avoid false binaries. False binaries add to the ugly polarisation that now dominates our society. It doesn’t lift public conversation and it doesn’t honour the Lord Jesus. In addition, as in the above example, such myopism amounts to burdening science with an absolutism that it cannot sustain.

The Age’s chief reporter Chip Le Grand, said last night, “Daniel Andrews has placed great faith in epidemiological modelling which, by its nature, is an inexact science. He should start placing more in business, industry and others with a significant stake in Victoria’s social and economic revival.”

How can Le Grand say such a thing about the modelling? Le Grand understands what doctors appreciate although it is sometimes politically dangerous for them to admit it in public. In fact Le Grand was repeating the views expressed by Melbourne University epidemiologist Tony Blakely, who co-authored the very modelling that the Andrews Government is using! 

That does not mean that the modelling is faulty or shouldn’t be used, far from it. My point is, don’t attribute truth claims to data and information that even the experts say is unwarranted.

6. Ignore Conspiracy theories

The reality is, COVID-19 is a new disease and the best minds around the globe are still trying to understand how the disease works and how to best treat it and how to guide communities into living with it. None of these uncertainties are reason though for turning to or promoting conspiracy theories. It is worrying to hear Christians espousing conspiracy theories, arguing that COVID-19 is a hoax and so on. Most Christians don’t believe these crazy rumours, but some do. I’ve written at length about conspiracy theories this year, and so I’ll defer to those articles. In summary though, it is sinful for Christians to promote speculations and dangerous theories. 

 “Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly”. (1 Timothy 4:6)

“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” (Colossians 2:8)

7. Put your hope in the Lord

Here is a wonderful that is worth meditating on this week. Psalm 130,

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;

    Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
    to my cry for mercy.

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?

But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.

I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
    for with the Lord is unfailing love
    and with him is full redemption.

He himself will redeem Israel
    from all their sins.”

This Psalmist’s focus reflects a healthy and Christian response to a pandemic. We lament the suffering we see around us and that we experience. We listen to the authorities and follow their directives, but our hope is found in God and his unfailing love.

Times of crises reveal our heart’s deepest desires and where we ultimately place our trust. Trials test us and they expose our fears, foibles, and sins.

Without question, 2020 is a test. What is life really about? In whom am I truly depending for hope? Am I satisfied with materialism or hedonism, or will I let God be God?

Pandemics rarely change people, rather, they bring our bring our true character to the surface. Let us not be found wanting or wandering during this pandemic. 1 Peter is a letter written to Christians who are experiencing exile. They were away from home and the life they wanted to lead. Peter says to them, 

“In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

If you get this perspective right, and keep our eyes focused on Christ, it will have the remarkable effect of aiding us to avoid conspiracy theories and false binaries, and to practice humble, loving, and God pleasing lives in Victoria, for the sake of our community.


The Australian newspaper has today published this important article, with interviews of scientists who have been behind the modelling being used by the Victorian Government –

“World-leading scientists linked to the modelling Daniel Andrews has used to lock down Melbourne say the research has been misrepresented and have urged the Premier to rethink the restrictions as his virus ­suppression targets are impossible to meet.

Melbourne University’s dean and head of medicine is urging the Victorian Premier to rerun the model with more ­realistic data that could allow an earlier move to ­restrictions being lifted….”

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/politics/professors-message-for-daniel-andrews-redo-the-coronavirus-modelling/news-story/5cf65533b11cce3ef23f3cfedd247143

A new course exploring Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out the intro video

 

Our Rubicon River

Should a cricket club have freedom to appoint persons who share the values of their club?

Should a political party have liberty to pre-select individuals who support and will promote their policies?

Should not a corporation employ professionals who will abide by the values and vision of that institution?

For most of our nation’s history Churches and Governments have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship; understanding their distinct roles while together serving for the good of society. Both have had their failings as well as making enormous contributions to building our society, but Australians have always been careful not to confuse the two.  Tomorrow (Tuesday 8th November) this judicious relationship may come to an end as the Victorian Government proposes a hostile takeover of all religious organisations.

The Victorian Legislative Council will tomorrow debate and vote on the proposed Inherent Requirements test. The purpose of this amendment to the Equal Opportunity Act is to require religious organisations to demonstrate that their employees must necessarily subscribe to the beliefs and values of that church, school, or charity. 

Religious organisations currently have freedom to employ persons who affirm the beliefs and practices shared by that organisation; this is only sensible. Should this legislation pass, a tribunal will be appointed by the Government who will determine what constitutes inherent requirements for all religions across the State. In other words, the Government is posturing itself as a teacher and arbiter of theology, with power to inform Churches, Synagogues, and religious schools whom they are to employ.

The Government has presented the amendment as a natural extension in the fight for equality, but the reality is quite different. Labor wants sameness not equality. This Bill will inevitably work against a pluralist and diverse society, and instead demand that Victorians fall into line with a rigid and historically dubious view of secularism.

Dr Michael Bird was right when he called out the inherent requirement test as an example of Secularized Erastianism, a philosophy which asserts that the State shapes and controls religious belief and practice.

I can imagine some secularists will be ecstatic at hearing the Government’s plan to further diminish religious freedom in Victoria, but is there not an air of hypocrisy in all this? Do atheistic humanists really want the Government functioning as bishops over churches, religious schools, and charities? Do nonbelievers genuinely think they have the academic credentials, expertise, and the right to define the theological parameters for synagogues and churches, explicating what is inherently required of that religion or not?

As Dr Bird notes, the problem is that “demonstrate a necessary connection” between beliefs and roles is notoriously subjective. There are no objective criteria here since beliefs and roles will vary from religion to religion and from organization to organization. So who is going to decide when a “necessary connection” exists between beliefs and roles and exactly how they will decide?’

The ‘inherent requirement’ test is all the more ironic, given how the Andrews’ Government has spent the last two years introducing several policies designed to push out Christian involvement from the public square, and now they are intent on invading religious spaces.

I cannot speak for all religious organisations, but when it comes to Christian Churches they are, for the most part, welcoming of anyone from any cultural, religious, sexual orientation background. I am not denying that there are appropriate rules and requirements for those who would serve in a formal capacity, and neither am I ignoring that associations can sometimes get it wrong. But the Christian Gospel is all about welcoming men and women who have no rights on God, no inherent claims on him, and yet in Jesus Christ we are lovingly forgiven and welcomed. This conviction has forged a tradition throughout the world of Christians starting not only churches, but also schools and hospitals and aged-care facilities, without which both our Government and society would collapse.

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Former Victorian Crown Counsel, Mark Sneddon, recently offered this caution against the Bill,

“The proposed bill amending the Equal Opportunity Act will not encourage Victorians to get along with each other. It won’t enable Victorians to live and let live. In fact, it is more likely to exacerbate division by creating legal weapons for forcing some voluntary associations to host or endorse views with which they deeply disagree.

Deep differences of moral vision will not be resolved by trying to legislate one view to supremacy and squashing others. Rather, we should accept that there are different views, and defend each other’s rights to hold and live out different views. Importantly, we should also commit to respectful communication so we can understand each other and agree how to live together peacefully with our differences.”

All the good that this Government may achieve is being swallowed up by their rigid and aggressive social agenda. This legislation is not only nonsensical, it is dangerous; they have reached the Rubicon and are intent on crossing it, and Victorians have no assurances that the Government will stop there.

As our representatives vote, I trust common sense will prevail and that freedom of association and religion will remain after November 8.