Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Living by faith

One day last week I clicked on the Sydney Morning Herald website and noticed a story that seemed a little strange. The article was about debt in Australia (yes you are right - one of my pet themes) and the headline reported that credit card debt had now overtaken mortgage debt in Australia. The article quoted some survey indicating that there was now more credit card debt in Australia than mortgage debt - about 36% of the debt being credit card related and 33% being mortgage related. I read the article a few times and I was sure that this claim was simply not true. With three minutes of internet research I proved to myself that I was right, as credit card debt in Australia is about $42 billion and mortgage debt is a staggering $1.1 trillion. I was going to post a note on the SMH website but hunger got the better of me and I decided I would pop home for some lunch.

In the car I listened to the 1pm ABC news that led with the story, “Credit Card debt in Australia now exceeds mortgage debt”. The news simply quoted the SMH story and likewise was completely wrong. With my lunch now spoiled, I phoned the ABC and, after a little run around, I spoke to a journalist who wrote the news. After a little persuasion she too realized that the story was wrong and promised to look into the wording for the next bulletin. In the meantime I rang the SMH and they told me the story was from the Age in Melbourne. I emailed the journalist in Melbourne who replied quickly, saying that the story was an AAP wire story that the paper had just reprinted and added his name as a by-line. He too promised to check my figures. Within 20 minutes his story added an extra paragraph saying that not withstanding this report, the total mortgage debt in Australia was $1.1 trillion and the total non-mortgage debt including credit cards was $140 billion. By 2pm the story had disappeared from the ABC radio news.

On the ABC 7pm TV news the story appeared this time with a much clearer presentation. According to the Melbourne survey, 36% of people in Australia now have credit card debt, while 33% have mortgage debt, though of course that mortgage debt is in total 25 times larger. The whole exercise showed how inaccurate our media can be. We tend to accept by faith that a lead story in the paper or on the radio will be true, but headlines can be deceiving.

To believe in a God we accept by faith and not sight, seems too risky to many. But perversely, we trust in the men and women we can see but who often do not tell us the truth. The Scriptures point us to the God we cannot see, but who we can get to know and rely on. To trust in the true and living God is a step of faith, but one that has been examined and re-examined down the centuries and will stand a lot longer than a great deal of journalistic hype that sometimes doesn’t even last an hour.

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.” (Heb. 11:1-2)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Forgotten War!

Back in the 80s there were twin brothers from NSW who came to prominence in elite cricket circles – their names were Steve and Mark Waugh. Both were incredibly talented all-rounders. Steve made it to the Test Team in the mid 80s, but the stylish and elegant batsman, Mark, did not really become a permanent fixture in our Test Team until the early 90s. For many seasons Mark had a rather unusual nickname - he was called Afghanistan. At the time Afghanistan was occupied by the Soviet Union and a long, pointless, deadly, and in many ways, forgotten war was being fought. Mark Waugh was nicknamed Afghanistan because, for many, he too was the forgotten Waugh.

Fast forward twenty or so years and the forgotten war has one significant difference – now the USA, with the help of its allies (including Australia), is the occupier in Afghanistan. For the families, friends and fellow soldiers of Jacob Daniel Moerland, 21, and Darren James Smith, 25, the war is far from forgotten. In the last week these two young Australians died trying to defuse bombs from a war that has now gone on for nearly nine years, with no end in sight. Over 1000 Americans have died and one could only hazard a guess at the death rate amongst the locals.

Does anyone remember why this war started and what will determine a successful outcome? It started because of September 11. If we are honest it was in part an attack inspired by the horror of those planes flying into the twin towers. It was an attempt to capture Osama Bin Laden and neutralise the forces and environment that fuelled terrorism. Osama was never captured and the bases of terrorism have moved, hidden and multiplied. From a nationalist point of view, war is right because we say 'right' is on our side. From a Christian point of view, war is almost always wrong, because as someone once said, it tends to break all Ten Commandments simultaneously. Scholars, philosophers and theologians have reluctantly agreed that maybe some wars are 'just wars', when aggressors cannot be halted without force. But the day we get comfortable with war is the day we ourselves pay a terrible price.

When our media is dominated with a new tax on mining, a soccer tournament and the increasingly risky behaviour of teenage sailors, we ought to pause a little longer and grieve with the families of Jacob Moerland and Darren Smith. As we grieve we have to ask again, "What are our soldiers doing there at all?" For the followers of the Man called the Prince of Peace, the One who called us to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek and to forgive, a seemingly unwinnable nine years of occupation makes little sense.

In recent days the new UK Government has indicated that they can’t really economically afford to be in Afghanistan. There are many more compelling reasons for an exit strategy from a war whose justification is cloudy and whose outcome seems not in sight.

““You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” Matthew 5: 38-41

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Polls souls and false gods!

I have a pet theory about Australian politics that I cannot prove, but it seems to match all the evidence. After years of popularity at the start of 2007, the polls turned against the incumbent Liberal government. That whole year went by and the government just could not believe its slide in popularity. The government’s line was that our economy was fine and people had never had it so good. But rising interest rates, the threat to real wages from 'work choices' and the gathering economic storm called sub-prime, worried people. My theory is that the unwritten rule of Australian politics has been: 'Make us richer and we will vote you in - Make us poorer and you have failed, so it's time for an alternative'. Under the previous government most people, for over a decade, became richer (especially in asset wealth), but much of that wealth was built on consumer and mortgage debt. So as interest rates rose, the vast and indebted populace was threatened enough to trust a man who promised to look after 'working families'.

Enter Mr Rudd and through 2008 the economic dark clouds converged into the perfect storm that might sink the whole economic ship. With massive government spending, cheques in the mail, free insulation and a new hall for every school in Australia, the polls reflected Mr Rudd as a conquering hero. We all loved our Rudd money, our Rudd buildings, tax cuts for business to invest in capital and the Reserve Bank helped by slashing interest rates. The debt burden felt lighter and then with gifts of tens of thousands of dollars (in the form of grants to first time home-buyers), a new generation of home-buyers was encouraged to increase the mortgage debt to keep the property market alive. And the polls rewarded the government with record approval, as Mr Rudd and Mr Swan boasted that they had saved Australia from the Global Financial Crisis.

But now 2010 feels a lot like 2007. Interest rates have increased rapidly again on an even more indebted population. Spending a fortune of government stimulus quickly revealed mistakes and mismanagement. The storm clouds are now gathering again in Europe as the international debt has moved from banks to governments. Retail sales are down, the stock market is sliding, the property market seems to be wobbling, new home starts have fallen off a cliff, and an even more heavily indebted nation is starting to fear again. Like 2007, the government's popularity is plummeting and the big new tax on mining feels like a government determined to pay its debts by killing the goose that was laying the golden egg.

In a weird way politics and religion have fused. The worship of all things material fuelled by cheap credit is a false god that is guaranteed not to deliver. When the worshippers of mammon vote, they will look for scapegoats and we may be in for more instability. In the end the solution may not be political at all. De-leveraging (at a government, corporate and personal level) a period of reducing spending, declining asset prices and paying off debt can only be achieved by the realization that we are not as rich as we thought we were. And we might all have to tighten our belts, work harder, look after those who sadly will lose their jobs, re-learn the word thrift and realize that money is not god. It won’t be popular but it might be good for our souls.

“What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” Mark 8: 36

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Messianic Disappointments

Adam Turner, a gadget guru, wrote this week about his strange adventure at the launch of the Apple iPad in Sydney:

“We were somewhere around Bondi Junction, on the edge of the iPad launch, when the Kool Aid began to take hold. The opening of an Apple Store has always had the feel of a Pentecostal revival meeting. The passion. The conviction. The showmanship. All those within the traveling tent united in the unfaltering belief that the good word from the Book of Steve, and a generous cash donation, can heal their broken lives. I've seen new Apple Store employees run laps of shopping centres on an opening day, possessed with the spirit and speaking in tongues as they fired up the crowd. Many bore witness as the sick were healed that day and the blind granted sight. Forming a guard of honour, or perhaps preventing escape, the temple priests lined the entrance and welcome the faithful into Apple's newest house of worship.”

As an Apple fan I must admit this is a bit ridiculous. Steve Jobs is a great guy but he joins my long list of potential messiahs who don’t deliver….

· Steve Jobs - great tech and design guru (but really he is a bit strange)

· Kristina Keneally - Premier of NSW and supposed saviour of the ALP in NSW (good luck!)

· Sonny Bill Williams - rumored to soon become an All Black so that they might win the next world cup (hope the ink dries on the contract)

· Kevin Rudd - supposed economic saviour (but increasingly makes even Labor voters miss John Howard)

· Barak Obama - the hope of the world (but he can’t even shut down an oil leak)

· Tiger Woods - (enough said)

· Facebook - the place to reconnect our community (and exploit people’s personal information for a profit - thanks!)

Messiah is a title that humans can never really live up to.

By contrast, Jesus' claims to be the messiah remain impressive. Having never written a book, stood for office, sold a product, made a fortune, commanded an army or even owned a house, Jesus' teaching remains revered, His life remains an inspiration and His death captures the mystery of how the true and living God somehow glories in defeat rather than victory. The Man who was ridiculed by the power elite of His day remains a persuasive force for good, millennia after their tin pot regimes have wasted away. His consistency of life, His moral compass and His non-judgmental love continue to shine in a world where hypocrisy is one of our most universal human traits. Jesus continues to be ignored, misunderstood and used as a swear word, while His followers adhere to His teaching of never raising a sword in His defense.

His Kingdom is not of this world – it’s too good for this world!

“I (Jesus) am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:9-10, NIV)