Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Bling

Abu Dhabi’s seven star Emirates Palace Hotel is expected to set a Guinness World Record with their display of the most expensive Christmas Tree in the world, valued at $US 11 million. The tree is lavishly decorated with 181 pieces of jewelry and precious stones including diamonds, pearls, emeralds, sapphires and other precious stones. The 13 metre faux evergreen is located in the gold leaf bedecked rotunda of the hotel. Emirates Palace Hotel has also announced a special weekend package, where you can enjoy the tree and also the services of a private butler, a chauffeur-driven Maybach luxury car, as well as accommodation and a private jet available for trips to other countries in the region. The cost of the weekend package is a cool $US 1 million and though they do not mention it in their publicity, you would hope that you might also get free breakfast, valet parking and a late checkout.

What a tragedy that as a hotel in a Muslim country looks to the West and their Christmas tradition, all they can see is bling! How sad that they don’t look back a little further in the Christmas tradition and realize that the whole thing actually has a very Middle Eastern flavour.

After all Joseph and Mary were a couple of teenagers growing up in what some today call Israel but others call Palestine. The stargazers (the Magi who we often refer to as the Wise Men) of the ancient world came from the East – which probably means they were Persian or maybe Babylonian, from what is now modern day Iraq. There were gifts of precious stones and perfumes, but the gifts were a bi-product of the story, not the story itself.

Of course the clash at Christmas between East and West also goes right back to the historical source of the story. The Magi clashed with the Roman (Western) ruler, Herod, whose desire for intelligence stemmed from his political insecurity, which sounds rather similar to current dramas between East and West. The pact between Herod and the Magi resulted in deceit, denial and ultimately threat and intimidation, all of which are much more central to the Christmas story than fir trees from Germany.

It is hardly surprising that all the wrong elements of the Christmas tradition get emphasised, as the truth of the story remains somewhat politically and culturally dangerous. The birth of a Saviour implies that we need rescuing. The declaration of peace suggests that our conflict with God has descended to war. The picture of humility remains a challenge to a people obsessed with power and bling. The divine claims of a baby in a manger threaten our view that even if there is a God He is supposed to serve us. The worship and adoration of a bunch of rough country lads (shepherds) suggests these events were much more important than most soppy Christmas cards let on today.

We can’t blame Abu Dhabi for being overwhelmed with bling when we too have done everything in our power to avoid the birth of Jesus.

“Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2: 11

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sins of the Fathers

Mark and his younger brother Andrew grew up in New York with privilege that knew no bounds, with outrageous wealth and with the status of a father whose brilliance as a money manager guaranteed their lifestyle. Not surprisingly Mark and Andrew both joined their father’s business from college and rose to senior positions. Mark seemed to have a life that was envied by most: a beautiful wife, two children and an apartment in the up market SoHo district of Manhattan, all evidence of his multi-million dollar lifestyle.

Then just a few days ago on 11th December, Mark was found dead with a suicide note explaining his despair. The date was significant as it was the second anniversary of the arrest of his father, Bernie Madoff. Madoff senior is serving a 150 year gaol sentence for operating the largest fraud in the history of the USA. The family business was in fact a $40 billion (no one knows the exact figure) Ponzi Scheme that operated for over two decades. The scheme never invested any money – it simply paid generous returns on any money invested by using the next person’s money in the scheme to pay the interest for the last person who invested. Much like a game of musical chairs, it worked until the music stopped - but when it did stop, everyone realised that the chairs had been stolen. The scheme conned thousands of people including famous investors like Stephen Spielburg and many huge Jewish charities and banks from all over the world. Mark Madoff and his brother had repeatedly claimed that they knew nothing of what was going on, but in recent times they had been named in a civil lawsuit and speculation was growing that the sons would face criminal charges. With his father in gaol, his mother forfeiting the family's $80 million worth of assets and apparently now working delivering meals to housebound people in Florida, and with pressure building up, it all seemed too much for Mark.

It is a tragedy all round. When the Bible talks about the sins of the fathers passing down the generations, people assume that God is vindictive in His judgment. In fact, the Bible warns us repeatedly about sin and its dangers precisely because God wants us to avoid the pain that our sins can cause to us, and sometimes, our descendents. The language of sin in the Bible is unfashionable today, as we like to ignore evil and its consequences. But every so often our sinfulness and the sin of others stares us so aggressively in the face that we cannot ignore the ugliness of what we see.

The Bible’s call to repent is not some outdated irrelevance, but an ever present warning that what we do in secret may one day be revealed for all to see. The Bible's call to avoid temptation is not a wowserly whine but at a courageous declaration that character matters more than income, that integrity matters more than success, and goodness is better than evil.

Do not hold against us the sins of the fathers; may your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need. Help us, O God our Saviour, for the glory of your name; deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake.” Psalm 79: 8-9

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fading Gods

What has happened to the Australian cricket team? After almost two decades of domination of the cricket world, it seems we have come back to earth with a thud. For the past 20 years we have witnessed some extraordinarily brilliant cricketers playing for this country and now we have come back to reality. In the current series against England we seem to have three main problems: Firstly, their bowlers are better than ours; more experienced, more talented and more likely to cause trouble in all conditions. Secondly, their batsman also seem better than ours; younger, more at the peak of their game and more confident. Finally, even their fielding seems better than ours. It's not that long ago that the West Indies were the most feared cricket team in the world and then their glory faded. Our team dominated next with the likes of Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, the Waughs, Ponting, Hayden and so many others providing supremacy. But that era is now over and who knows, a new golden age of English cricket may now be upon us?

In the last 20 years in much of the western world we have also witnessed an era where bankers and financiers have been the superstars. Money has promised victory at every point. New and inventive ways of financing our world promised an era where prosperity would grow forever, even if our income did not match this prosperity. But this era of endless affluence, much like the Aussie cricket team, may have its best days behind it. Huge personal and corporate debt threatened to derail the party when the Global Financial Crisis hit in 2008. The danger was averted by government stimulus packages as well as governments guaranteeing the banks. Governments kept the party going by taking on for themselves huge borrowing. Instead of fixing the problem, the excessive debt passed from private and corporate balance sheets to the government's balance sheet. And now the problems have exposed a number of countries like Greece and Ireland, with many fearing that Spain, Italy and others may be next. Once again the problem has been moved, with groups like the EU (a collection of countries) bailing out these heavily indebted countries. But again the problem has not been fixed – it has only moved to a higher body. Much like a sporting team that refuses to face the reality that the glory has faded, the western world keeps trying to convince itself that better days are just around the corner.

Maybe at a time where the material dream is fast becoming a nightmare, it is time for a comeback of spiritual values and hopes. Though most of us love winning, experience also suggests that character and meaning are more often discovered in defeat, rather than victory. To learn to pray may yet prove a more enduring quality than spending. Thrift and patience, with its companion of contentment, may even challenge the supremacy of a gold Amex card. Worshipping the Creator rather than the creation may yet be resurrected.

They say every dog has its day. We may realise in time that materialism itself – the god of bling – is indeed a dog.

“Look, here comes a man in a chariot with a team of horses. And he gives back the answer: ‘Babylon has fallen, has fallen! All the images of its gods lie shattered on the ground!’”” Isaiah 21: 9

Monday, November 29, 2010

Not As Hard As It Seems

I recently read the best selling book about food by journalist, Michael Pollan, called 'Food Rules'. Pollan’s approach to food is simple. In an age of complicated diet and nutritional theories, Pollan’s approach can be summed up in one sentence:

Eat food (by which he generally means simple, non-processed food that your grandmother would recognise), mostly vegetables (meaning less meat and more fresh vegetables and fruit) and not too much (meaning not too much).

His short book includes advice like spending more time on the edges of the supermarket where the fresh food is and less time in the middle where the processed food abounds. This makes common sense but I have found it is easier to read than actually put into practice.

Strangely we often find in life that the theory is much simpler than the practice.

Losing weight (or at least not gaining weight) is really quite simple - we need to exercise more and eat less. Simple yes, in theory, but not so simple in practice.

Likewise if we want our finances to improve, it's also really obvious - spend less than you earn and save and invest what is left over (or at least use that to reduce personal debt). Of course many of us don’t have any left over, so we have only two options – either try to earn more or spend less. Simple yes, but not always so simple to do.

When it comes to knowing God, things are also not that complicated.

Two words explain what we need to do to relate to God: believe and repent. We need to believe that God is God and repent of the view that we are God. We need to believe that God’s ways are best and repent of our foolish and stubborn rebellion. We need to believe that our sins have separated us from the love of God and that our only chance for rescue is the forgiveness offered through Christ. We need to believe that without God we are lost. We need to turn away from our morality of convenience and return to God’s ways that, after all, are for our best. Simple no, but God is even willing to pour out His Holy Spirit into our lives, that we might know His power, even in our weakness.

Simple yes, but somehow a stubbornness exists within the human soul, that thinks we can eat as much as we want, that thinks we can spend as much as we want, and that thinks that we know a lot more than everyone else, including God.

Humility is a very underrated virtue.

“Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2: 38

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

How The Mighty Have Fallen

While reading the local newspaper back in November 2009, I had a rather nauseating experience. The paper was gushing about the opening of stage one of a new shopping centre at Top Ryde. I was led to write the following letter to the local paper….

"Like most I am delighted to see a replacement for the old Top Ryde shops. However reading last week's Northern District Times, I wondered what was actually being opened in Top Ryde. The over the top praise, the obsequious gushing and the ads and editorials from the local politicians, left me wondering what all the fuss was actually about! Is it a bunch of nice shops or is it something more?

In a society that seems to have lost its moral and spiritual conscience, shopping is our new religion, with shopping centres our new temples of worship. Arguably the whole Global Financial Crisis is ultimately the result of a Western World that believes spending is its greatest virtue. Reading the words of adulation and thanksgiving made me think we were opening something really useful like a hospital, a school, or a true place of spiritual enlightenment.
A little perspective please – it’s just a glitzy market!"

I must admit I had always been a bit of a critic of this development. Word was that the developer and owner, a man named John Breville, was developing this huge new shopping centre with the aid of almost entirely borrowed money. The figure that was talked about locally was a cost of about $1 billion – and most of it was borrowed. We are not exactly short of shops or shopping centres around here and the investment skeptic in me wondered how it could possibly work.

Well, now less than a year since its final stage opening by none other than the Prime Minister of Australia, the centre is on the market at the insistence of Mr Breville’s bankers. As first tier creditors they are most likely to get paid, but at an advertised price now of $700 million the second tier lenders, Valad Property Group, reportedly seem unlikely to recover anything.
The gods of this age appear so impressive – but they are not God, and every so often their nakedness is exposed.

Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold. Exodus 20: 23

Monday, November 15, 2010

Time and Patience

In Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel, War and Peace, the old Commander in Chief of the Russian Army, Mikhail Kutuzov, warns his young charges, faced with a seemingly unstoppable French Army led by Napoleon, that sometimes the greatest force is not to fight but to wait. Tolstoy attributes this idea to Kutuzov, that the most powerful allies in any fight are time and patience.

One person who has had to show the most incredible patience has been Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy activist in Myanmar. Having spent the best part of the last 20 years in either detention or under house arrest, Suu Kyi was released this week to the praise of many of the leaders of the world. President Obama described her as one of his heroes. In radio interviews this week she appeared strong, determined, quietly spoken and surprisingly hopeful for the future of Myanmar. Her personal story is heartbreaking, having been separated from her children (now adults) for decades and having been unable to reunite with her dying husband or even attend his funeral.

We are used to Hollywood fiction where the good guys always win and thus at times we fail to see the persuasive and seemingly impenetrable forces of evil that so often prevail. The military junta of Myanmar is such a force and has dominated, oppressed, brutalised, exploited and mal-administered a great nation, whilst isolating Myanmar from the rest of the world. The junta will continue to claim that they alone have the strength to govern such a diverse, tribal and disparate nation. Yet Suu Kyi’s popular appeal is something that no amount of injustice seems to be able to overcome.

Of course we should not be foolish enough to forget that the dark forces could pounce again and Suu Kyi could find herself back under house arrest or much worse. Often in international, national and even local politics, we are powerless in the face of evil and our only refuge is prayer, with time and patience. In the end evil's greatest weakness is that it does not work. Hitler’s promise of world domination to the Arian race in fact delivered death to over 50 million people and economic hardship for decades. Pol Pot's promise of utopia delivered genocide. Stalin’s determination to complete the revolution for the good of the people of Russia and Mao’s ideological reforms supposedly to benefit China’s poor, probably resulted in more deaths than WW2. The reign of the 'bad guys' can have a longevity that defies cheap optimism. However, ultimately evil fails to produce good.

Ironically, one quietly spoken, reasonable, peace-loving woman remains a threat to a government with vast military, economic and coercive powers. In the tradition of Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King and Jesus, one voice for goodness, with time and patience, can sometimes achieve far more than any army.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Matthew 5: 5

Monday, November 8, 2010

Why Banks Really Deserve To Be Bashed

Bank bashing is somewhat of a national pastime in a place like Australia. The last few weeks have seen this in somewhat plague proportions, as politicians of all persuasions are falling over each other in an attempt to land blows on the Australian banks. Somehow in the process a number of rather important facts have been lost.

Firstly, we ought to be a little respectful of just how fortunate we are in Australia when it comes to banks. In many parts of the world the poor would dream of access to a safe place to put deposits and a ready and available place to borrow money at what is still, in any historical perspective, quite inexpensive rates. Add to this that our Government currently guarantees our deposits and we should realise how privileged we are. Secondly, unlike many parts of the western world, none of our banks have been in serious financial trouble and thus the Government has not had to waste taxpayers' money in bailing them out. In the UK, in Ireland, in Iceland, in many other places in Europe and in many instances in the USA, banks have faced either insolvency or some form of nationalisation.

Having been nice to our banks, I then wonder why politicians on all sides miss one very important issue in the current dilemma. Over the last 10 to 15 years banks in Australia have been able to grow and grow and grow, as the overall amount of money they have loaned has grown and grown and grown. This credit growth has only been achieved as our banks have increased their borrowings overseas, thus making them (and us) vulnerable to international interest rate markets. Over the last decade banks, who once required a deposit of 25% for a person to buy a home, have often loaned sometimes over 100% of the value of a home. 'Low doc' loans have meant that many people borrowed by simply declaring they could afford to pay it back. Credit card limits have steadily been increased and we have lapped it up. The banks even invented new terms like 'equity mate' as a smooth way of convincing us that we were not really borrowing - we were just 'unlocking our equity'. Bank profits have grown as credit has grown.

But guess what? With the GFC the credit growth party is starting to peter out. Banks addicted to growth now face the prospect of not being able to actually get us as a nation much more in debt. With $140 Billion in personal debt (including $ 45 Billion on credit cards) and over a Trillion Dollars owed on home loans, we are at last starting to lose our appetite for more debt. And so the banks, it seems, now have a new strategy – increase the cost of our current debt and that will ensure their profit growth is maintained.

Of course no politician in her right mind is going to criticise the banks for lending too much, because we gladly received the credit to inflate our standard of living. Home loans at 7.8% are really still cheap if you consider where rates have been over the last 30 years. But when we owe over one trillion dollars, then every 1% increase in interest rates will cost the borrowers across this nation 10 billion dollars more in interest payments, every year.

The Bible warns that the borrower is always the servant of the lender. We might not like banks but maybe we only have ourselves to blame.

The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender. Proverbs 22: 7

Monday, November 1, 2010

Hot Tip For The Melbourne Cup

For the first time ever Word4Life comes this week with a hot tip for the Melbourne Cup. Here is my tip: walk past the TAB, walk to your bank and place a bet on something sure - reducing your debt!

So you think you can pick a winner? My advice is simple: the only real winners are the bookies and the TAB. So do something Shocking with Profound Beauty, break Precedence and follow your head to the bank to reduce your debts, just like Mr Medici would. With people drowning in a trifecta of personal, credit card and mortgage debt, the hot tip is to watch the race but bet on a sure thing - reducing your debts.

Churches and welfare organisations are reporting increasing numbers of people struggling to pay the bills and feed their families because of debt. In this context, why not consider not wasting your money on a horse race where you are almost sure to lose, when you could take your money and reduce the debt on your credit card, which is charging you up to 20% interest.

Australians currently owe over one trillion dollars in mortgages on their houses and over forty billion dollars on their credit cards. Traditionally in NSW and Victoria alone, almost one hundred million dollars is bet on the Melbourne Cup. The GFC around the world was caused basically by two things: Government debt, that in many countries is out of control; and private and corporate debt, which in many countries is also enormous and crippling. Australia was saved the worst of the GFC because our Government did not have debt, but we as a people sure do. Now the Government has saved us by taking on debt, we are all very vulnerable and the lesson to be learned from overseas is he who has the largest debt is eventually in the most trouble.

A horse race with a large field means most people, most years, lose on the Melbourne Cup. Sure it’s a national obsession and media frenzy, but maybe listening to the prophet is more important than allowing the gambling industry to make a profit. I have no doubt that I will be called un-Australian for this note, but who cares!

The old saying is true that gambling is a tax on the stupid.

It’s about time we wised up and invested in a sure thing - the reduction of our debts.

The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender. Proverbs 22: 7

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Fight For Good

Marisol Valles Garcia is just 20 years old, the mother of a baby son and still a student studying criminology. But she is also the newest Chief of Police in a drug-plagued region of northern Mexico. There are two reasons why Ms. Valles Garcia is now the new Police Chief of Praxedis Mexico: the first reason is that she wanted the job and the second reason was that no one else wanted it. After the death of the previous Mayor and numerous police officers, it sounds like the script of a bad old wild west movie. The only difference is that this is not a movie and the story highlights the terrifying reality of a society where evil wins and everyone loses.

We forget so easily that the peace, the stability, the order, the rule of law, the freedom and the prosperity we enjoy in a place like Australia, is at best fragile and always under threat. In popular culture we glamorize the taking of drugs, we entertain ourselves with TV shows about underworld crime, and we drool over the lives of the rich and famous, even those whose colourful antics are clearly on the wrong side of the law. We take for granted that our police will always be there to protect us, anticipating like some cheap Hollywood cop show that the bad guy will always get caught and the good guys will always win.

What we fail to see is that society's battle with evil is the same battle that goes on in every soul. We expect good to prevail over evil in society but often convince ourselves that we can personally dance with the devil, even for a little while. We watch a society that had no intention of ever surrendering to evil, somehow unable to fight back when the dark forces have literally become insurmountable. Tragically the same battle can be lost personally when conviction makes way for compromise, compromise leads to carelessness, carelessness surrenders to criminality, and before long we are consumed.

The famous writer, CS Lewis, once said that his conversion to Christianity came with an unexpected gift. He learned through faith that good was indeed good. He was not made perfect. He still battled the things we all battle. But faith in God as Creator and the knowledge that he was a sinner who needed a Saviour, somehow revealed to Lewis that the battle between good and evil needed to be led with a conviction that good is good and evil’s consequences are hell.

Marisol Valles Garcia deserves our prayers, for she will surely need them.

The fight for good needs many more brave volunteers.

Proverbs 11: 23 The desire of the righteous ends only in good, but the hope of the wicked only in wrath

Monday, October 18, 2010

Good News And Bad News

The little Aussie battler, also known as the Australian dollar, reached parity last week with the greenback, the American dollar. For so long tourists and Aussies who purchased anything in US dollars have been used to paying the best part of $2 for every US dollar. Now it's one for one and who knows, with the shape of things in the USA, we soon might find ourselves in an even better situation. If you are traveling, if you are purchasing goods online, or if you are thinking about buying imported goods from the USA, things have rarely been better.

Of course there is always another side to the story. If you are a tourist operator in Australia, if you run a university or college with many overseas students, if you are a farmer who exports his crop, if you actually make things in Australia for export, and even if you are a mining company being paid in American dollars, then things are not so rosy. Many of these businesses are facing huge pressures that will seriously affect their profits and maybe even impact the viability of businesses and industries here in Australia.

But in places like the USA the reverse is just as true. Traveling to a whole lot of countries now seems outrageously expensive and imports also look rather unattractive. However the sleeping giant of American manufacturing may find that once again they can compete in international markets and farmers may experience the rare joy of actually making a return for their labour.

Like many things in life, the good news often has a corresponding negative impact. The joys of engagement and marriage are haunted by the very real flip-side of the loss of independence and freedom. The blessing and incredible joy of having children carries a cost and burden never fully appreciated until you drive home from hospital with a newborn. The pleasure of a pay rise at work often comes with the sting of added responsibility, workload and expectations. The freedoms of retirement come with the pain of aging bones. The glory of success on any field carries the insecurity of victory and the knowledge that today’s peacock is tomorrow's feather duster.

It is hardly surprising then, that contentment is a key to determining our reaction to events that are often beyond our control. The Bible does have its share of bleak prophecy and gloom brought about by human weakness and sin. But the Bible's climax is dominated by a picture of crucifixion that is defeated by the hope of resurrection. The sunshine of resurrection is our hope when the economic, social, political and relational clouds can fill us with despair.

Believing in God, trusting in His plan, accepting His will and refusing to despair are central to surviving good times and bad.

“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Philippians 4: 12-13


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Give Peace A Chance

Following a weekend when the world celebrated what would have been the 70th birthday of singer, songwriter and peace activist, John Lennon, there are rumours that a peace deal is being discussed in Afghanistan between President Karzai and the leaders of the Taliban. Karzai has taken the incredibly radical step of traveling to the south of the country he is supposed to be leading, to discuss peace with the Taliban. The Taliban have indicated that they could not consider such a peace deal until the occupying forces leave, which is ironic because if a peace deal were brokered, in all likelihood the occupying forces would gladly leave.

But you ask, how can the legitimate, democratically elected leaders of Afghanistan have meetings with the Taliban, who we all know are nothing more than terrorists? Well the problem with that logic is that the words 'legitimate' and 'democratic' have to stretch a long way to fit in the same sentence as Karzai. Other words like 'corrupt' and 'exploitative' could easily fit in that sentence. It is true that the Taliban are notorious for their Islamic extremism, their harsh promotion of Sharai law and their oppression of women so there is no use looking for the 'good guys’ to support. Of course the problems predate September 11, 2001, the supposed reason for the US led invasion, now almost nine years ago. They predate the ten-year conflict with the Soviet Union, where the Soviet army battled insurgent forces who were financially and militarily supported by the CIA. The problem's genesis goes back even further to the state's modern existence as a buffer state between Russia and the British Empire. Maybe the descendants of the ancient religions of the Zoroastrians, Hindus and Buddhists might point to invasions by Arabs many centuries before these problems.

While cynics would suggest that peace couldn’t work in such a tribal and problematic place, it is not unreasonable to be reminded that war does not seem to have a very good track record. The British, the Soviets and now the Americans in Afghanistan have found that war is a rather clumsy, expensive, deadly and ineffective tool. Giving peace a chance sounds like a hippy slogan, but the conclusion that war is an abject failure is hard to deny. Diplomacy is a messy compromise where justice and morality rarely win the day. But when war seems such a monumental failure, there seems little alternative than to sit down with your enemies and dare to dream of peace.

Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. Psalm 34: 14

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Saints Will Have Their Day

Back in 1975 I was a fairly committed Eastern Suburbs Roosters Rugby League fan. Actually my first love was Eastwood Rugby, but when my childhood hero defected to Rugby League to join Easts, my support defected as well. I had a good mate at high school at that time who was a St George Dragons supporter. With the kindness of free tickets won from the radio station 2SM, young Ab and I went to the 1975 Grand Final between Easts and St George. It was a great day for me but a bad one for my mate. The great Dragons full back, Graeme (Changa) Langlands, played his last game as captain coach, relying on pain killing injections and experimenting with white boots. Both were a failure as Changa had a shocker; he did not play well. Easts won 38 to nil and Langlands retired soon after the game. It was a happy day for a Roosters supporter and if I remember correctly, I may have gloated just a little to my mate who supported the Dragons.

Thirty-five years have passed and last weekend the Dragons had their revenge. Their victory in the 2010 NRL Grand Final was 32-8. I really ought to ring up young Ab and congratulate him. If you wait long enough many things turn around. Often the greatest victories and the most arrogant of victors turn out to be only temporary.

Morally in Australia at the moment we seem to be advancing quickly in a particular direction. This year in NSW same sex relationships have begun to be registered with the Department of Births, Death and Marriages and same sex couples can now legally adopt. In November the NSW Parliament will debate the legalization of euthanasia and surrogacy. In the Federal Parliament it seems inevitable that same sex marriage will be debated and possibly approved. This follows the legalization of casinos, the decriminalization of prostitution, the simplifying of divorce and a host of laws that essentially allow for a more libertarian moral code. It appears inevitable that our society seems to have decoupled itself from its Judeo-Christian moral heritage and is on a constant slide towards a more liberal atheistic worldview.

These changes may be inevitable but they may not be permanent. Some of us may not live to see the change, but the basic problem with moving away from a Christian worldview is that it will not necessarily produce a better society. Over the past 2000 years especially, public morality has been consistently cyclical. Moral liberalism has been tried in the past and found extremely wanting. Societies ignored God and his moral laws and then found that like the so called 'laws of nature', opposing them only caused unexpected pain and complications. Societies like the Ancient Roman and Greek civilizations allowed all sorts of moral indulgence, which inevitably led to a breakdown in these civilizations.

I think it is worthwhile for Christians to try and hold back what seems to be a falling moral tide. My fear is that there are many battles left to lose - but one day the tide will turn!

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.”(Eccl. 3:1-8)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

His Dog Up And Died

"He spoke through tears of fifteen years how his dog and him…Traveled about. His dog up and died, yes he up and died, after twenty years he still grieved."

The quote above is from a popular song recorded by many artists. Can you remember the name of the song? Well done if you remembered 'Mr Bojangels'!

I’ve always liked the song, but last Friday it came back to me with a jolt when our dog of nearly twelve years quite unexpectedly and most suddenly 'up and died'. I came home early from work on that day and mowed the lawn – something that Mickey always loved me doing, as it put me out in the yard and left him with a nicely mown lawn. He ate his dinner as if everything was normal. We went out to dinner and when we returned home we found him near the back door, slumped forward after breathing his last. Twelve year old dogs are living on borrowed time, but it was still the most awful shock.

A death is the most horrible thing. We forget how wonderful living things are – growing, moving, developing, interacting, responding and relating. Faced with death we are reminded of its starkness, its bleakness, its coldness, its emptiness and its finality.

It is not surprising that the Bible describes death as the enemy. All that we have, all that we hope for, all that we desire, and all that we value, is snatched away in an instant by death. Death spares no one and cannot be evaded, even by the most powerful and wealthy. Death, in theory, respects the young and only troubles the old. But in practice death threatens every life every day, sometimes waiting but occasionally pouncing with unexpected power.

The hope that Christians celebrate every time they gather is based on the belief in resurrection - that death cannot be avoided but it can be defeated. When Jesus died His friends were defeated and His movement seemingly destroyed. But His followers were renewed and His movement was restored as His death was followed by life. A Christian funeral service is filled with the most unlikely language, that as Christ died and was raised, so all who trust in Him will also die and yet be raised. Thus resurrection is not a reward for faithful service but a gift graciously received. We are called to follow Christ from life to death and then from death to everlasting life.

Without hope we respond to death with unmitigating despair. With hope in Christ death is still the most terrible loss, but tinged by an extraordinary confidence that death has indeed lost its sting.

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?” 1Corinthians 15: 51-55

Monday, September 20, 2010

A deadly balance of power

I have had many friends and people I respect admit to me that at the recent federal election they voted for the Greens. For many whose economic policies lean towards fairness, equality and justice, the Greens seem to be the new alternative. For those convinced that climate change, particularly for those young enough to be around long enough to see some of the feared changes, the Greens seem the strongest advocate. To anyone anxious about Australia’s involvement in war at the behest of our allies, again the Greens seemed to offer the only real alternative. So it is not surprising that many, especially the young, were convinced to vote Green. To be honest, I don’t relish the role of an aging conservative, but when it comes to the Greens my fear has always been that when given a sniff of power, the agenda outlined above is secondary to the social agenda the Greens rarely talk about before elections, but pursue relentlessly in many parliaments across this nation.

To prove my point, Senator Bob Brown has announced that his first priority is to push for the introduction of laws permitting euthanasia - something that I do not remember hearing much debate about in the recent election. The advocates of euthanasia point to widespread community support for the freedom of people to choose their own mode and time of death. The Prime Minister has indicated that she is not opposed to discussing the subject and you can sense that a conscience vote will be considered a fair way to determine policy, or a subtle way of thanking the Greens for their parliamentary support for the ALP gaining government (depending on how cynical you are).

So what is wrong with letting people choose their time of death? Well let me suggest a few reasons why we should be very anxious about supporting this new initiative:

1. People with terminal illnesses are already under extreme pressure. Do they really need the extra pressure of making this terminal decision?

2. Many fear that given the choice of euthanasia, women in particular may choose to die simply to avoid being a burden on their families. And sadly their families may not oppose the decision, wishing to avoid their own pain.

3. There does not have to be just the stark choice offered between euthanasia and dying in pain. When quality palliative care is available (and we should all be lobbying for more of this), there is a viable alternative to the bleak choice between a supposedly dignified death and painful suffering.

4. Understandably many people with terminal illnesses suffer depression. Is it really a good idea to allow people with depression to choose to die? If it is, then what about all the non-terminally ill people with depression who may also choose to die?

5. Watching someone you love die can be a terrible experience. But will watching them agonise over deciding the timing of a lethal injection, or watching that lethal injection given be any easier?

6. It is not surprising that in opinion polls the majority think euthanasia is a good idea. Who can argue against reducing suffering, unless by accident you add new layers of confusion, pressure, exploitation and indeed suffering.

Christians will ultimately advocate this as a sanctity of life issue, fearing that given power, the strong and the young will often override the best interests of the weak and the old.

Atheists will argue that humans have the right to determine whether they live or die - that if we have the right to put down a dog, we have the right to put down ourselves.

Most doctors will run from an argument that will see them having to give lethal injections, while a few very loud medical advocates are already designing and promoting machines that allow people to 'self administer' their own death.

Palliative care medical experts will argue there is an alternative to suffering or euthanasia.

If ever there was an issue that calls for round table discussions, listening and compromise rather than blind ideology, it is the issue of euthanasia.

The Greens, who promise so much, will in all likelihood deliver assisted suicide as the first legacy of their very real political clout. How sad!

“O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas. O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”Psalm 8: 1-9

Monday, September 13, 2010

Believing In Things Unseen

Last week I was re-reading one of the great chapters of the Bible – Hebrews Chapter 11. As I personally prepared for a challenging day, I enjoyed reading again through the list of heroes of faith; Abel, who risked giving up the best; Noah, who built because of an inspired weather forecast; Abraham, who trusted God when he was called to be a refugee; Joseph, whose faith inspired a view that there was a better day to come; Moses, who risked his cash flow to honour His God; Joshua, who believed God’s unconventional battle plans; a prostitute, who risked death to finally do what was right; and others who …..

".... through acts of faith, they toppled kingdoms, made justice work, took the promises for themselves. They were protected from lions, fires, and sword thrusts, turned disadvantage to advantage, won battles, routed alien armies. Women received their loved ones back from the dead. There were those who, under torture, refused to give in and go free, preferring something better: resurrection. Others braved abuse and whips, and, yes, chains and dungeons. We have stories of those who were stoned, sawed in two, murdered in cold blood; stories of vagrants wandering the earth in animal skins, homeless, friendless, powerless—the world didn't deserve them!—making their way as best they could on the cruel edges of the world." Hebrews 11: 33-35 (The Message)

Anyone who thinks the Bible is a dull book has never read and enjoyed Hebrews Chapter 11. As well as all the action stories, this chapter also includes a most sublime definition of faith:

"Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we cannot see." Hebrews 11: 1 (NIV)

The skeptic will question how you can believe in things you cannot see. But faith will reply that some of our most precious and revered human experiences are experienced without sight. Love’s ferocious attraction and seemingly irresistible appetite is experienced but never seen. Gravity holds us to the earth but evades our sight. Music remains one of the most treasured of human creations but can only be appreciated by sound, not sight. Even human constructs like companies, churches, charities and causes are really just collections of ideas grouped together with common bank accounts, objectives and meeting places. Have you even seen a marriage? Sure you can see two people, wedding rings, funny costumes and flowers, but the marriage remains an idea that binds us together with vows. TV remains the popular favourite but radio still rates!

Sight remains the most precious of our senses but maybe not the only way to truth.

We live by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5: 7, NIV)