Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Giveaway

Retailers and the religious both love Christmas, but for humble shop workers and church ministers and staff, Christmas is also a lot of work. Having had 25 Christmases as a church pastor and at least half a dozen before that in retail, I don’t always begin this season with complete relish. Having said that, sometimes the commercial, formulaic and folksy way we celebrate Christmas is shaken by an event or a person that seems to let the light of Christ shine through.
Back in 1988 a major supplier of commercial Christmas cakes realized that their sales were low and they faced a huge stockpile of unsold cakes. The company, Big Sister, donated many thousands of cakes to the Anglican Church in Sydney, who realized that they could not move them all in a short space of time, so they offloaded them to various other denominations. The Presbyterian Church received a couple of thousand and passed 300 on to me, as the pastor of a tiny little church in the south west of Sydney. That’s where one of my most wonderful Christmas adventures began.
Basically we went door to door in the public housing estate of Bonnyrigg with the following message: “Hi, we are from Parklands Presbyterian Community Church and we would like to wish you Merry Christmas and give you a free Christmas cake”. Then the fun really began! “What’s the catch?”; “Is this a scam?”; “What’s the deal?”; “Why are you doing this?”: were the constant responses. Eventually, with a lot of persuasion we convinced people that there was no catch – it was just a free gift. After a while of doing this we began to have a crowd of local kids as our escort. “Can I have one for my Aunt Mary?” People were dubious but eventually thankful for a very unexpected Christmas gift. Like any parent of young children on Christmas morning, there is something special about watching as a gift is received with joy and excitement.
For God too His delight is in our response to His gift. God in His mercy gave us much more than cake. He gave us the opportunity of peace with Him, though our sins had made us His enemy. He gave us the opportunity of light, when our actions have often revelled in darkness. He gave us the opportunity of grace, when we are so fixated with merit. He did that all in the form of His greatest gift to humanity in the Baby of Bethlehem, full of grace, light and peace.
There were sheepherders camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over their sheep. Suddenly, God's angel stood among them and God's glory blazed around them. They were terrified. The angel said, "Don't be afraid. I'm here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David's town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you're to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger." Luke 2: 10,11 (The Message)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Thinking The Worst

Bad news does sell more newspapers than good news. Not surprisingly then, journalists are by nature cynical and criticism is their first response. When a Prime Minister reshuffles her ministry and cabinet (a strange description for sacking, demoting, shifting sideways and promoting), our journalists always assume her motives are sinister. The Daily Telegraph declared the changes as “Gillard’s Revenge” and an online magazine decried, “Will it save her in the polls?”. Others described it as an attempt to shore up support against a possible future challenge from Mr. Rudd, or simply an attempt to secure more factional support. No doubt such conclusions are partly true, but maybe there is another side to the story. Shareholders tend to trust CEOs when they restructure and the sporting public loves it when an old warhorse is flicked for a rising star. Occasionally we might all benefit if we realised that mixed motives are not the preserve of politicians alone.
When we only think the worst about the people with whom we are in relationship, then relationships tend to be very difficult. When a wife assumes her husband’s best intentions are actually self serving (which they probably are, at least in part), then no matter what he does she will never be satisfied. Parents often have every reason to question motives and intentions of their teenagers, but when trust breaks down altogether no amount of goodwill can bring reconciliation. What is really dangerous in relationships is when one party takes on the role of judge, not only of the actions of the other, but also of the intentions behind those actions. At that point breakdown is hard to avoid.
The media often takes this moral high ground in our culture. They question every politician’s actions and the motives behind those actions. We thus increasingly do not trust our leaders and somehow the whole system leads to despair and disrespect.
By contrast, when a respected media organization sets out to break the world record for the longest radio or TV interview (in this instance lasting 24 hours), we are presented with a novel, quirky and playful idea to test the journalists’ stamina and mettle. From another perspective, the whole exercise could easily be described as a bit of self-serving, self-promotion from a pair of journalists, whose inflated egos thought we might be interested.
Morality is always ugly when one side decides they have the moral right to judge others. To be honest, religion often smells like this too, but Jesus Himself had little time for morality that did not start with self-appraising humility. Most of us are great at assessing the false motives of others, while ignoring our own duplicity.
Who can say, “I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin”?  Proverbs 20: 9

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Dropping The Ball Too Regularly

The task of defending the Christian faith is certainly made more difficult when another church leader is accused of wrongdoing. Bishop Eddie Long was the leader of one of the most influential and powerful African American churches in the US. He has now been accused repeatedly of grooming and having sex with young men in his church. Though he denies the allegations, he has now stood down temporarily while he tries to repair his marriage. Long, an ardent critic of gay rights and the gay lifestyle, has a considerable number of serious allegations to answer.
The ‘party line’ statement to make in regard to these types of unproven allegations is that they are a smear against an honourable man. It is true that one false allegation can besmirch a reputation, but like the presidential contender and part time preacher, Herman Cain, when repeated allegations start lining up a pattern seems to emerge. The simplistic explanation is that one bad apple does not spoil the whole barrel, thus excusing one rogue preacher as an aberration. However, to be honest, there are too many high profile fallen preachers, priests and bishops to defend them as an aberration.
No, the church has to face either one of two possibilities: either there is something seriously wrong about the way many Christians and Churches live and practice their faith; or there is something seriously wrong with the whole idea of faith.
My vote, not surprisingly, is for the former - that there are widespread issues that Christians are getting wrong which are making these things happen more regularly. Any reading of the history of Christianity and the Church will reveal that the Church has always struggled with three issues: money, power and sex. In our modern era churches continue to rail against the world’s sexual agenda when it is is very different from the Bible’s perspective, but repeatedly adopt an uncritical embrace of the world’s values of money and power.
Historically churches have been careful to make sure that pastors cannot profit financially from the success of their ministry. Tragically and repeatedly in many churches today this has been overturned. Church governance systems of elders and denominational authority existed to be a check on the power of one individual. But in an era where in the name of efficiency and success many churches have granted almost royal powers to their pastors and allowed them to enjoy the financial fruit of their multimedia empires, not surprisingly the genie of sex has also escaped out of the bottle.
Five hundred years ago the church needed a major reformation when money, power and sex were symbols of ecclesiastical influence and success. Fancy clothes, pompous titles, unquestioned ecclesiastical power, questionable methods of extracting money from the poor while the church and its leaders enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, and a dubious approach to sexual morality, coupled with a huge gap between preaching and action, were some of the key concerns that led to the reformation of the sixteenth century.
In an earlier era Jesus encouraged his followers to be harder on themselves than on the world. Jesus also railed against the religious leaders of his day, who likewise loved money and were in bed with power. We need to reform the church before we can reform the world. 
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother,  ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”  Luke 6: 41-42

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Politics of Compromise

Why is it that we consider people who never change their minds as more virtuous than people who look for compromise? With some sections of the media those voices farthest to the left, in our system represented by the Greens, are seen as the most principled and thus the most virtuous. Other sections of the media look to the hardline right wing positions of the Nationals, and especially the Queensland Nationals, as the only principled politicians in the system. But is the idea of compromise really such an unprincipled position?
When it comes to people arriving in Australia by boat, the extremes not only describe these people differently but are also sure their solution alone is correct. The right is convinced that these ‘queue jumpers’ aided by ‘people smugglers’ must be halted at all costs. According to the left these ‘poor refugees’ must be treated with compassion, justice and mercy. I have never written about boat people before as I find that the analysis of both the left and right on this issue shows both are partially correct and both are to some degree misguided. Surely someone has to admit that this is a very difficult issue with competing values and objectives. We do want to be a just and caring society. But at the same time we don’t want to be a soft touch, encouraging people to take risky sea journeys and fuelling an industry that exploits people who are both vulnerable and willing to take the law into their own hands. When someone knocks on our church office door for money we face the same dilemma. We want to be kind and find a way to genuinely help people, some of whom have very real needs. But if our policy is too soft and we simply hand over cash, we don’t actually help most people and in fact the message seems to get out and the problem only grows.
When it comes to deciding what to do about water allocations in Australia, we face another right - left divide which again is not that simple. If we listen to the right, then the needs of farmers and food security trumps the environment. If we listen to the left, then the river’s health is more important than the maintenance of farming families and communities under threat.
The much-scorned act of political compromise may be more virtuous than it first appears. Surely to balance competing interests is to really understand the issue from both sides. Is that not what we do every day in our most important relationships? Great relationships - friendships, marriages and even business partnerships, are fuelled by a willingness to consider someone else’s needs, not just our own. Ideological husbands destroy their marriages and exasperate their kids. Domineering, controlling wives and mothers leave a trail of relational wreckage. Teenage immaturity is by definition when a 15 year old cares only about his or her own needs.
If you take the words of Jesus seriously, then we need to understand as well as be understood. We have to give as well as take. We need to do unto others as you would have them do to you. 
Do to others as you would have them do to you.  Luke 6:31

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

One Man’s Weeds

Like most gardens our Sydney suburban block contains its fair share of weeds. Some are nasty but only grow for a season. Others are persistent and are hard to eradicate. My greatest enemy has always been Tradescantia Fluminernsis. You have probably never heard of Tradescantia Fluminernsis because the weed has the much more common and much less politically correct common name of Wandering Jew. Two of my adjoining neighbours have the weed in plague proportions and with moisture and heat the weed seems to quickly pass through fences and appear in abundance in our yard. It is not a difficult weed to remove but its sheer bulk can be something to behold. It creeps along the ground with shallow suckers and roots and if the slightest amount is left it will spread the weed again.

This year we received a couple of new additions to the family in the form of a pair of rather cute Isa Brown chooks, who we named Hattie and Rosie. In recent times two more crossbred Rhode Island Reds, Holly and Molly, have joined them. What has surprised me most about these fowls is their love for Wandering Jew. I built their considerable run over my most out of control Wandering Jew patch at the back of our yard, which is now weed free. Now I delight in harvesting the weeds in other places in the yard in anticipation of giving the girls their greens. Without a Monsanto owned chemical in sight, my weeds are being processed into very yummy eggs. One man’s weeds are indeed another chooks delight.

In our little back yard I am amazed at the cycle of life that delights everyday: the frogs that come occasionally to lay their tadpole eggs in our little wine barrel pond at our back door; the lizard that lives under the wine barrel and enjoys a lazy sunny day on our pavers, but scurries back under the barrel when interrupted; the native parrots that have adapted to feeding off a Pink Salvia that probably had its origins in South America; the blue tongue lizards that enjoy a crunching good snack on those pesky snails.

Don’t get me wrong - it’s not the Garden of Eden. I still haven’t worked out the place in nature for those stink bugs on my citrus that stain my hands for weeks when I try to relocate them to a bucket of water. The native birds that are a delight also seem to occasionally enjoy a bite from my Japanese strawberries. Tiny slugs can decimate seedlings in hours and seem to delight in eating young vulnerable plants, when they are welcome to have a munch on the old stuff.
The Old Book has a simple conclusion for God’s creation – that it is good: the mountains, the sea, the sky, the rivers, the lakes and even a suburban backyard. I must admit I love to travel and see the beauty of the world, but I also love to pause in my own backyard to see the same wonders of creation at work.

Consider yourself fortunate that I have reached my word limit and the compost sermon will have to wait until another day!  

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.  Genesis 1: 31

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Lot Can Happen In A Week

Last Sunday I heard the very sad news of the death of Peter Roebuck, aged 55. If you’re not a cricket fan that name might not mean much to you, but for cricket fans Roebuck was one of the most respected and loved voices of radio cricket, as well as a much admired cricket columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Roebuck never tired of having his own unique perspective on the game. His radio commentary was always lucid, often humorous, deeply insightful and occasionally even a little caustic. In many ways his columns continued the legacy of the late, great Bill O’Reilly with wit, irreverence and charm. The upcoming cricket season will be much the poorer without the presence of Peter Roebuck.
The mystery of his death has been widely reported in Australia. The Australian press stated that there was nothing suspicious about his death and that the last person to see him was a police officer who said he was in a somewhat distressed state. The Australian press repeated the phrase that he was found dead in his hotel room. It has now been reported, first in other countries and now belatedly in Australia, that Roebuck committed suicide. It is now being widely stated that he had fallen (jumped) to his death from his sixth floor hotel room following a visit from the police.
In his last column Roebuck, responding to the debacle of Australia’s defeat in South Africa, reflected on which Australian players may be facing the axe. Ironically Roebuck’s penultimate sentence used these words:
“Mind you, a lot can happen in a week.“

To take one's life is a decision based on the conclusion that there is no other way out. When despair and depression overtake our normal mindset, we become convinced that nothing will ever change. Faced with life’s problems and the despair of our own weakness, many often feel like there is no hope. When we have an abundance of problems caused by others, by ourselves, or by bad luck, we often feel there is no way forward.

For believers our hope is always for a better day. A lot can happen in a week. A run of luck can change. The impact of others on our lives can be reduced by their behavior changing or our reactions being different. Even our darkest personal problems can find light when we face the mess, humble ourselves before God and determine to start again. Sometimes God mercifully parts the clouds and the sun shines again. To know that our mess is always still in God’s hands is a comfort and blessing.

Our circumstances will often seem bleak and at those times, with faith, we need to live in hope, as …. a lot can happen in a week.

My times are in your hands; deliver me from my enemies and from those who pursue me.  Psalm 31:15

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Not So Predictable

Many longstanding readers of Word4Life often second-guess my topic for the week. People frequently comment: “I knew you would write about that!” My guess is that everyone will be surprised when I announce my topic for this week – art, or more particularly, sculpture.
I confess to being rather unschooled when it comes to this topic. But at this time every year, Wendy and I head off to an art exhibition that about half a million people in Sydney adore. Every year a sublime coastal walk is transformed into a seaside art gallery, as over 100 works of sculpture are spread across the cliffs and on the beach from Tamarama Beach to Bondi Beach. What’s even better is that it’s free, as long as you can find somewhere to park. http://www.sculpturebythesea.com/exhibitions/bondi.aspx
People of all ages, and especially children, love this yearly event, starting this year on 3rd November and running for almost three weeks. Yes it is crowded if you go at a busy time, but being on show from dawn to dusk for 17 days gives people ample time to enjoy some very accessible art. Each year I am inspired, not only by the skill of the people who make the sculptures, but by the ideas that lie behind their creations. A giant waterspout with matching hot and cold taps set on a cliff sounds like a really weird idea, but each year the creativity is something special.
For many, what really makes this exhibition is the setting that forms the backdrop of the sculptures. Sydney is blessed with a coastline that is in itself a glorious work of art, but when the artists not only locate their sculptures in such beauty, but also use the setting to highlight their art, then the art and the coast come together, at times almost as one.
My senses appreciate not only the art but also the artist who created the work. It’s obvious that these works are not random accidents, but the painstaking work of design, creativity, imagination and skill.
The same set of senses declare, at least to me, that the cliffs, ocean, beaches and sea seem also to be the work of creative design. Sure that part of the coast has had some man made changes, but in spite of human involvement the coast is still so beautiful. The colours and moods can change with the fluctuation of the weather. The cliffs and beaches are also changing over time with the ravages of the wind and waves.
Still the picture remains the work of creation, design and wonder.
The sea is his (God’s), for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.  Psalm 95: 5

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Post Gaddafi Paradise? I Still Doubt It.

Understandably the capture and death of Muammar Gaddafi was widely celebrated by the people of Libya, but surely many others around the world must have watched his bloody body being paraded in the streets and his summary execution as frightening developments. He may have deserved this treatment in every way, but the mob taking revenge on the streets can hardly give confidence to the West that the future will be better than the past in any way. The USA and NATO’s military support for this supposed flowering of democracy seems to have again completely ignored the reality of Islam in that part of the world and the popular desire to replace Gaddafi, not with a liberal democracy, but with a Muslim State based on Sharia Law.
Last week, while celebrating his country’s new-found freedom, the Head of the Interim Government, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, indicated that one of the fruits of the revolution would be the reintroduction of polygamy. Under Gaddafi a law was passed that stipulated that wives had to grant permission for their husbands to acquire a second wife. The result of Gaddafi’s law was that polygamy was very rare in Libya. Mr Jalil defended what he believed the people had been fighting for:
“This law is contrary to Sharia and must be stopped,'' Mr Jalil said, vowing the new government would adhere more faithfully to Sharia. The next day he reiterated the point: ''Sharia allows polygamy,'' he said.

Of course the remarks outraged women in Libya and many others throughout the world. The French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, whose forces had helped overthrow Gaddafi said: ''This is a problem for us, especially in regard to respect for the dignity of women.''

It seems that in the West we hold to two absolute religious mantras that we refuse to reconsider in spite of overwhelming evidence. The first mantra is that religion in most people’s lives is really not that important. The second is that all religion is essentially the same thing and in the end pretty benign, private and irrelevant. In many ways our theological naivety may be opening a door to the sort of religious practices that not only oppress women, but lead to the most regressive, harsh and intolerant societies.

Ask the Coptic Christians in Egypt if they think the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ is resulting in freedom and democracy. Tony Blair recently said that if we want to understand the world today, then we are going to have to understand religion. It’s about time the West overcame its secular delusion and faced the reality that for millions, their dream is not liberal democracy but Sharia law. 

“The fool folds his hands and ruins himself. Better one handful with tranquillity than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.”  Ecclesiastes 4: 5-6

Monday, October 24, 2011

Cultures Can Change.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers tells the story of research that was done a number of years ago regarding plane crashes. The research was disturbing because it suggested that the ethnicity of the pilot was a large contributing factor. Though no one wanted to accept the research it seemed that if you were flying on a plane piloted by some nationalities you were in much greater danger. You can imagine the sort of interest there was in suppressing or even ignoring such research; for fear that racial typecasting would simply lead to more ignorance and racial bigotry.
Fortunately with air safety the greatest determination was made to examine why pilots of some ethnic backgrounds had a higher percentage of crashes. Their training after all was all the same. Standards were not the issue. It was not a question of ability or intellect or skill as all professional pilots were of the highest caliber. After more research it became clear that one issue that was linked to culture began to stand out as a major safety risk.
Co pilots are trained to follow the orders and direction of the senior pilot of a plane. It is generally the rule, the co pilot does what he or she is told. However, co pilots are also trained to take responsibility especially if they are convinced the pilot is in error. They are trained to question, challenge and if necessary override a pilot who is either in error, negligence or for whatever reason is functioning incorrectly. What the researchers discovered was for some cultures this was almost impossible as respect for authority, or respect for those older or simple cultural “ niceness” meant that the co pilot would rather obey than avert disaster.

In the end the problems were solve when pilots of certain ethnic backgrounds were re trained to insist that their flying protocols were to override culture. Everyone was taught to question when necessary, even someone culture tells us to unquestioningly respect.

In Australia 30 years ago it was an unquestioned cultural norm to have a top load washing machine. Over the years increasing numbers of us have realized that our Aussie culture was wrong and the Europeans front loaders use less water and basically wash clothes a lot better, without creating lint. Owner ship of front loaders has grown in Australia from 13% in 2005 to 31% in 2011. 

Some cultures on mass embrace religion or certain religions while in other cultures the dominant reaction is to reject all faith. For some culture and religion are the same things. Tragically in many countries today to abandon a certain religion is punished by governments with floggings or even death.
Culture does matter but cultures do over time change. We should seek a world where belief is determined by truth and experience and not by the dominance of cultural belief or unbelief.

“Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth.  Sing to the LORD, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day.  Declare his glory among the nations, his marvellous deeds among all peoples.  (Psa. 96:1-3, NIV)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

In the recently released movie, 'Crazy Stupid Love', the lead character Cal, played by Steve Carell, is a middle-aged guy who has lost his way in many areas of his life. His wife has had an affair and at least in the mind of one new friend, it is pretty much Cal’s fault, as he has forgotten what it means to be a man. Cal meets a young hip guy who takes him on as a project and begins by addressing his numerous fashion crimes. 
As I watched the movie, this story line began to make me feel uncomfortable. Cal is firstly rebuked for wearing a suit that really is a size too big for him. I am not sure how many middle-aged guys are guilty of this, but I felt a bit uneasy watching the movie thinking about my current suit that, arguably, is a little baggy on me. I’d like to convince myself that I have lost weight, but the thought that buying a suit too large was not just an innocent mistake but rather a generational marker, did make me squirm. 
When the hapless Cal finally agrees to a makeover, he goes to meet his young trendy friend while wearing a yellow short sleeve polo shirt. Wouldn't you just know it? It looked a lot like a shirt I was planning to wear again this summer when the warm weather finally arrives. I’d always liked my yellow shirt, but somehow on Cal it looked rather pathetic. His final unforgiveable crime was that he was wearing a particular brand of white joggers with his blue jeans, which apparently unless you are the recently deceased CEO of a major computer company, is rather bad form. I sort of agreed with this and relaxed knowing that I much prefer to wear my RM Williams boots with my blue jeans. But then I remembered that before the movie we had been for a long coastal walk and although I had changed from my shorts to jeans, I had saved on time by wearing the same shoes – white joggers. I was relieved to remember that our practice of staying until all the credits are finished was probably going to save me a great deal of fashion embarrassment. 
Of course fashion is a very fickle thing. What is in today is out tomorrow. Tragically religion and faith are, for whatever reason in much of the western world, really just not a fashionable thing to be involved in. It's not what the cool people do! Mind you spirituality is okay but a personal confessional faith in a living God, expressed corporately through membership of a believing community like a church is, in the eyes of many, the ultimate fashion crime.
And that to me is the ultimate crazy,stupid reason to ignore the true and living God. To care more what men think of us than what God thinks of us is to miss out on the sort of divine love that really is unconditional and eternal. 
“Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.”  Galatians 1: 10

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

No Jobs

Steve Jobs' death at age 56 is so tragic. As a long term member of the Apple tribe, I am sad to see Jobs' death at a relatively young age. His achievements and willingness to think differently deserve praise and reflection. His remarkably wide impact on not only the computer industry but animated movies and the music industry is something so rare. 
Jobs was a brilliant and remarkable individual. His technical ability was very special, but what I admired most was his ability to take good technical ideas and make it work for the average person. Jobs did not invent the Macintosh operating system, he bought it from another company who had spent 10 years developing it, but could not see a future for it. Jobs didn’t invent portable music or even the mp3 player, but he helped build a product that was so easy to use it wiped out the competition. When George Lucas gave up his dream of computer animation and sold Pixar to Jobs for $10 million, he never imagined that one day, after so many hit movies, Job’s would sell the same company to Disney for $7 billion.  When Jobs suggested that he would make a cell phone, many must have reminded him of names like Nokia and that it really was too late to get into that market. But the iPhone did what Apple computers could never achieve - it finally convinced millions of diehard, committed and loyal tribal PC users that Apples were much sweeter than they imagined.
Having said all that, Jobs has hardly saved the world. Computers may be user friendly but humans continue to be very violently unfriendly to each other. In animated movies even the toys are kind to each other, but in life kindness is most often seen as an unaffordable weakness. System failure may be avoidable with sweet computers, but the systems that support our marriages, commerce, banking and governments crash way to often with devastating consequences. Viruses may be rare on some fruity computers, but in life viruses, bacteria, diseases and tragically cancers continue to threaten our very existence.  
One american recently lamented: “10 years ago we had Steve Jobs, Bob Hope and Johnny Cash. Now we have no jobs, no hope and no cash". 
God alone deserves the honour as the greatest inventor and maker. Jesus remains our only Saviour who has defeated the most persistent enemies of sin and death. The Holy Spirit continues to be a deposit, guaranteeing our inheritance. From the Bible comes the idea that God alone is the ultimate apple of our eye.
Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.  Psalm 17: 8

PS The graphic was apple computers first logo - it obviously needed a little modification 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Those magnificent players from Eastwood are here

Late last year I was asked by Sports Chaplains Australia whether I was interested in being an honorary chaplain to either Eastwood or Gordon Rugby Club. As a very ex-colts and junior player for Eastwood, where our traditional arch enemy had always been Gordon, it was not a difficult choice. My exact words to the guy who rang me was I was interested in Eastwood, but Gordon could go to hell!  He was a little shocked until I explained my tribal humour.
It has been, to say the least, a fascinating ride as Eastwood’s first ever chaplain.
Some in the club have warmly welcomed a spiritual presence, others have been decidedly indifferent, and many somewhat hostile and derogatory. It has probably helped me that the club has arguably had its best ever season, capped off last Saturday with a heart pounding narrow victory in extra time in the first grade grand final.
To be honest, I have loved the rugby. Rugby is far from a universal male delight, but for many the body contact games like Rugby Union, Rugby League, AFL, American Football and Ice Hockey really do challenge and delight the male of the species. While there are some women who likewise love these sports, many others simply scratch their heads in dismay at games that do involve skill and speed, but also seem to be a great deal about brawn. But therein lies the appeal that starts in young boys and seems more enduring as we age. Yes, it is gladiatorial - where the strength, courage, teamwork, speed, skill and brute force of men in their twenties at their physical peak is something to behold. It's hardly noble but it’s better than war.
But young men don’t stay young for long. As their twenties fade, careers move into a twilight stage or are quickly replaced by new younger gladiators. Boys look up to elite footballers dreaming of their day, while we older males painstakingly glory only in our past.
The glory of humans fades so quickly. Games are fun but were only meant to be games. The drugs (normally alcohol) used to sustain and entertain the gladiators, are hard to let go of and often cause a lifetime of relational, physical and psychological pain. Rugby is a great sport but a lousy god. Human glory is a wonder but not our ultimate hope or purpose. To know of a glory that will never fade is to hope in One who delivers the ultimate victory.
His (God's) pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, nor his delight in the legs of a man; the LORD delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love.”  Psalm 147: 10-11

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

It's Only A Game

There is only one thing more depressing than watching the Australian Wallabies Rugby Union Team lose their match to Ireland last Saturday night. That is watching it on Channel 9, who broadcast it as a delayed telecast after some other sport and then had the hide to fill the game with more ads than a Sunday night movie. After watching for what seemed like an hour and a half and only getting to half time, I went to bed in disgust and saved myself the pain of watching another 90 minutes of try-less humiliation at the hands of the Irish. To be honest, the Irish are a good team and have almost done the same thing to us in other World Cups. So with Kiwi support and spoiling tactics, they earned their win.
New Zealand now has one hand on the cup, but when the  Wallabies won the World Cup in 1991, they did so by defeating the All Blacks in a semi final - something they might need to do again. Of course history is against that happening, as beating the All Blacks on home turf is about as likely as the Greek Government repaying their debts. New Zealand has their own issues to deal with in regards to not always playing at their best in World Cups, but Australia’s World Cup for 2011 seems mortally wounded.  
Sport is a fun part of life, but it is just a game. In fact none of it is real. The game is just a made up set of rules supposedly refereed by an impartial expert, who often has problems with his eyesight. The rules are gazetted but over the years some are modified and others are completely changed. A synthetic, pumped up, oval shaped ball is thrown (backwards only), carried and kicked (forwards only) around a field, while lines on the ground take on mystical qualities, defining the field of play from the ground which is out of bounds. Most mysterious of all is the idea that if you get the artificial ball over a made up line, without dropping it and while having it make contact with the ground, before you get to another made up line, then a man blows a whistle and awards you five points, that are just imaginary for they don’t really exist. You can also kick the ball from a special place in line with your try, and if that kick goes from the ground and over a horizontal bar and between two vertical bars, even if it is higher than the vertical bars so long as you can imagine them going up indefinitely, then you are awarded another two imaginary points. In the process there are some very strict rules about what you can and can't do in a ruck, a different set of rules for a maul, and then some more rules to tell you the difference. One rule that always exists is that you can’t run with the ball with someone on your team standing in front of you, as that is unfair – unless you do the same thing from a lineout when it is redefined as wonderful forward play.
It is only a game. 
For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.  1Timothy 4: 8

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Sinking Sand

The passing of the tenth anniversary of September 11 brings hidden emotions to the surface. I know how deeply many in Australia feel at this time and we can only imagine the feelings and pain that is stirred in the US. It was a day that changed the world. Many can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. For some in this part of the world the events interrupted the screening of a West Wing episode. For others, like me, we went to bed that night knowing nothing of the unfolding drama, only to wake to the morning radio news in disbelief and horror.
I remember many of my first reactions: “People don’t hijack planes any more”; “Surely not four planes.” As I turned on the TV news I was not to know I was watching a replay, as I yelled to my wife: “At least the buildings are still standing”; and then as the replay rolled on, “Oh no, one of the towers is collapsing!”; and finally, “Oh no – now the other tower is coming down too.” 
I have one other rather unusual memory of that tragic week. Just the Sunday before I had finished up with a church I had worked at for nearly ten years. The job had been the ride of my life, so leaving was understandably tinged with sadness. We sang songs of praise that night and the last song was an old hymn sung to a more contemporary tune. The song ended with the hauntingly moving words …
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus' blood and righteousness.
No merit of my own I claim,
But wholly lean on Jesus' Name.
On Christ the solid rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand.

When you are leaving a job of ten years to start again, your world feels like sinking sand. When a pastor leaves a church the members can feel that their church life is not as secure as they imagined. But that week showed that even if you are in one of the grandest, tallest, most secure buildings in the world, it too can become just sinking sand. The financial district of New York, the symbol of security, wealth, achievement and grandness, was turned into a pile of sand and dust.
To trust in Jesus is to put our hope not just in this world, but the next. To trust in Jesus is to acknowledge that we, and this world are passing away, so our hope must be in more than material. To believe that our future is secure, not in earthly peace or human achievement but in the graciousness of our creator God, is truly our hope. To know Christ, His death and resurrection, is to truly stand on the solid rock.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Hide or seek?

It remains one of the most remarkable and nonsensical legal convictions of all time. In 2006 Marcus Einfeld, a former Federal Court Judge, contested a $72 speeding fine on the grounds that he was not driving his car, but had loaned it to a friend. In the end it turned out that the friend had died some three years earlier and Einfeld was convicted of knowingly making a false statement under oath. He pleaded guilty to perjury and perverting the course of justice and was sentenced to three years in prison. Einfeld paid a high price for trying to save $72. He was recently released from prison after serving two years of his sentence and he commented that, sadly, in prison he had 'lost God'.  Einfeld put it like this:
"I grew up believing I had some capacity to communicate and I lost it. I felt bereaved about that for quite a while. I felt that at the time I needed Him (God), He wasn't there.''

Einfeld is not the first person to have lost his faith in prison, but surprisingly there have been a great many people who have found faith in God while in prison. Likewise in the theatre of war some people abandon their faith in God, bitter that such conflict and suffering seems inconsistent with any understanding of a God of love. However just as many people find faith in the heat of battle and suffering, convinced that they have no other hope in the face of the evils of humanity. So too sickness, misadventure, financial struggles and grief do lead some to abandon their faith, while many others find solace and strength in the security of God, when everything around them is insecure. Even really good times, good news and exceptional circumstances lead some people to abandon a God they seem to no longer need, while the same joy drives other people to praise, thanksgiving and faith.

So maybe our circumstances are less important to faith than our attitude. Humility, trust and an acceptance that God is greater than us seems to be a path to faith in any circumstance. Pride, foolishness and bitterness seem to cloud the mirror of faith, such that God seems to disappear. God seems quite accessible when genuinely sought, but remote when we demand or expect. The Bible encourages us to seek, but when seeking is replaced by demanding, then we have dethroned God and, not surprisingly, He appears remarkably absent.

In his pride the wicked does not seek him; in all his thoughts there is no room for God.  Psalm 10: 4

Monday, August 22, 2011

Post Gaddafi Paradise? I Doubt It.

If you believe much of the talk in the Western media over the last few days, the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya is about to usher in genuine democracy and freedom for the people of Libya. After all, that is why the USA and NATO have supported the uprising against Gaddafi. The 42-year despotic reign is about to end and Western style democracy is about to flower. Call me a cynic but I fear the celebration might need to be tempered.
Did democracy and freedom flower in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, when President Bush famously declared, "Mission accomplished"? No! In fact a brutal dictatorship has been replaced with something possibly even worse. Civil war, tribal intolerance, religious hatred, economic malaise, escalating poverty, the destruction of most basic infrastructure (roads, power, water, schools etc) and the breakdown of society has followed. The fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, now almost ten years ago, has also not resulted in flowering democracy. The Taliban fled to the hills but are still fighting and now leadership is in the hands of a plethora of warlords, some of whom we now deem friends, though the stench of corruption, injustice and threat is as bad as ever. Clearly the flood of refugees suggests that somehow removing one tribe with a big knife (or a series of guns and rocket launchers) often results in the next guy with a big knife (or artillery). Egypt had its spring revolution which again promised so much, but many of the minorities, especially Christians, are under the greatest threat to their existence in decades, with increasing fears that the power gap in Egypt will eventually be filled by the most organized and the most militant - the Muslim Brotherhood. 
Of course then there are the other supposed people's uprisings against tyranny that the west is simply ignoring. Syria’s bloody suppression of its own people gets harsh words from the West, but no action, because maybe deep down the West knows that as bad as Assad is, the alternatives are either unknown or unimaginable. There are also a few other places where the West has done and said nothing, when protesters have been dispatched with the brutality and excess of Tiananmen Square in China.
When I was at university in the early 1980s, our visiting American tutor in International Politics was a former CIA operative. He later went on to become the US Ambassador to Israel under the Clinton administration and these days is often seen chatting to Tony Jones on Lateline. He had one overriding principle that he drummed into us about International Politics: that morality had no part to play. Yes, you read correctly. The one principle he hoped we learned from his course was that International Politics was about self-interest, national interest and not morality.
So don’t be surprised when we talk about freedom but then support the next thug who might also be on our side. Unfortunately human nature is very complex and dark. The bad guys are rarely as bad as we portray them and our motives and desires are rarely as noble as we insist.
A spiritual Kingdom and hope becomes even more real as the bad guys are rarely replaced by good guys and the good guys are a long way short of good.
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?  Jeremiah 17: 9 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Not all our eggs in one basket

There is actually no easy way to financially prepare for retirement. Greece and Ireland (and to a lesser extent Italy and Spain) have shown that relying on a generous government pension is only as secure as the finances of that government. Worse, you are actually relying on the wise financial decision making of politicians, which is at best tenuous and at worst a pipe dream. The USA has a generous government retirement program called Social Security, where in theory the government takes some of your tax as you work and puts it aside for your retirement. I say in theory as repeated US Administrations of both Republican and Democrat flavours have raided the cookie jar and the program is now substantially, if not entirely, unfunded.

In Australia, at least since Paul Keating was Treasurer, we have a program where the money really is put aside and 'wisely invested' for our retirement. The bulk of that money has been invested in the stock market, which seemed for a long time to be a guaranteed strategy for providing security for retirement. However in the last few years it has not been looking so attractive. Over the last five years the Australian stock market has actually returned zero. Alan Kohler explains:
For the past five years the market has given nothing. After the 20 per cent correction between April 11 and August 8, the ASX 200 accumulation index (capital return plus dividends) has now produced a zero five-year return. (Business Spectator 15/08/11)
Of course the superannuation industry will have taken out quite a bit in fees, so the overall result is that for most people over the last five years their super has earned nothing and is probably now less than what they have contributed. Under grandma's bed is starting to look like a cheap and attractive alternative!
The point is not to give up on super, but to acknowledge that funding 20 or 30 years of non-earning is not an easy process. There are so many variables, not least knowing how long we will actually live.
It is good to do our best to financially prepare for the period in our life, post work. But maybe we should also prepare for the period beyond that. These days the topic of death and the question of the afterlife are rarely discussed. The ultimate spiritual questions have been removed from our public agenda. To prepare for retirement is seen an essential for all – to make our peace with God is considered the weird pursuit of a few.
We are all destined to get old, retire and die, though not necessarily in that order. Our super will either run out before we die or we will run out before our super. Either way a secure eternity, guaranteed by a loving forgiving non-commission taking God, must be our ultimate hope and security.
“Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”  Hebrews 9: 27-28

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Back to earth with a thud

Sometimes it seems we come back to earth with a thud, when the unexpected turns out to be a little worse than we planned or envisaged. But at other times the reverse is true and the disaster we fear is unfolding around us turns out to either be not as bad as we feared, or actually much better than we dared to imagine.

Last week Zoe Sievwright, a 29 year old Scottish woman, took part in a solo parachute jump in Perthshire, Central Scotland in memory of a brain tumour victim. Sievwright jumped out of a plane at 1000 metres off the ground and counted the required time before she opened her chute. But when she pulled the cord the parachute tangled and refused to open. She was unable to fix the problem, so in desperation she pulled the second cord to open the emergency chute. As this chute opened it became tangled with the failed main chute and Ms Sievwright plummeted to the earth at 190 kph.  

After free-falling a kilometre, Ms Sievwright crashed to the ground some 2.4 kms from the drop zone. Amazingly she survived the impact and then discovered that her only injury was a broken ankle. Her remarkable escape was explained by the tangled parachutes slightly slowing her descent and the field presumably being softened by Scotland’s wet weather.
Many of us stress and worry about the things we cannot control. It is natural that when we are free-falling we fear the inevitable thud. The Bible encourages us to worry less, to concentrate on the things we have control over and to hand the rest over to God. It may sound simplistic but we have little other choice. So much of life is beyond our control and learning to let go liberates us to enjoy the ride a little more.

The pain of yesterday’s falls will heal and a broken ankle will eventually reset. The fear of what might happen tomorrow can mean that we eliminate all the risks, but in the process we miss the opportunity to fly.

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”  Matthew 6: 34