Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Is This Good News Or Bad?

2011 is turning into a fascinating year in the Middle East. So far public protests have unseated two entrenched dictatorial powers in Tunisia and in Egypt. These two events alone are astounding, unexpected and breathtaking. Six months ago who would have believed that these two regimes would have fallen? Now there are huge demonstrations happening in Libya and Bahrain, where there have been large numbers of unconfirmed deaths. Amazingly the stranglehold of power by Colonel Gaddafi in Libya is looking tenuous, with reports that one major city has fallen to the rebels. Gaddafi has appeared on TV to squash rumours that he had fled the country. Protests are now also breaking out in Morocco and one report I read suggested that, amazingly, Saudi Arabia could be next in line. Dictators all over the world must be sleeping in their clothes, ready for a knock at the door. 
Much like the slightly crazy neo-conservatives in the USA predicted at the time of the Iraq invasion, some believe that democracy is beginning to flower all over the Middle East. Or is it? Can we have any confidence in who will replace these regimes? Will the military in Egypt hand over power to people who are popularly elected? What if those elected represent the forces of fundamentalist Islam, intent on the introduction of Sharia Law? Many of us remember the overthrow of a corrupt dictatorship in Iran in the seventies, only to be replaced with a form of Islamic totalitarianism that has plunged a rich and cultured nation into darkness. And we also remember the excitement of the almost overnight collapse of the Iron Curtain and the destruction of the USSR in the late eighties. What followed in many of those countries was a period of lawlessness, replaced in time by more corruption and the rise of a ruling class dominated by organized crime. In much of the old Soviet Union things have changed but not always for the better. Will the Middle East fare any better this time? 
Change is inevitable. Despots do have their day. But we should not be fooled by some form of latent lazy philosophical darwinianism that assumes humanity is on an uninterrupted path of improvement, freedom and betterment. History warns us that sometimes things can get much worse.
We are called to live with much uncertainty. Uncertainty in politics is a certainty - just ask Kevin Rudd. Longevity in power does not overcome insecurity. At a personal level, very few things in our lives are as certain as we think they are. Relationships at their best unexpectedly end in all sorts of ways. Health radiates all the beauty of a spring flower, but like a flower can fade before our eyes. Even our favourite bookshops may not be in business for long, reminding us that their vouchers are little more than a temporary promise.
Faced with uncertainty we are called to make the most of today, our most underrated gift. Somehow we must not allow yesterday's regrets, pains, disappointments and disasters to overwhelm today. Planning and preparation for tomorrow is good but there is no point putting too much store in tomorrow’s insecure promises.
Today is our blessing – a blessing to be savoured, treasured and lived.
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”  Matthew 6: 34

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Getting The Facts Right

During the recent floods in Queensland there were many reports of loss and devastation. In all likelihood some of these reports understated the extent of the disaster. But in at least one case the extent of the flood was not quite as bad as first determined. One newspaper article explained the terrible loss of animal life in the area of Baralaba in central Queensland. The account noted the fact that 30,000 pigs had been washed away from one farm – and that quite naturally, the farmer was devastated by the terrible loss.
Now if you think about that story for a moment you might be a little suspicious of the numbers. Baralaba has a human population of about 259, so it seems a little unlikely that the total pig population in the area would be anywhere near 30,000. Pigs are pretty big animals and take up a reasonable about of space. Sure, intensive farming has reduced the space needed but 30,000 seems a huge number of pigs in one district, let alone on one farm.
Eventually the story was corrected and the error was admitted. The journalist had in fact misheard the farmer. We all know that Australians tend to mumble quite a bit and north Queenslanders are not known for their crisp diction, but the journalist can hardly be excused for his error. What actually happened was the farmer had told the journalist that he had lost 30 sows and pigs in the floods. And so 30 'sows and pigs' became the lead story of the loss of 30,000 pigs.
Many people wonder whether the stories we find in the Bible are, accidently or on purpose, based on the same sort of exaggeration or misreporting. It is widely believed by many skeptics that the Bible’s message was stretched a little to enhance its teaching and elevate its message.
The problem with this theory is that the Bible’s message is so over the top it is obviously beyond exaggeration. The idea of God coming in human form in the person of Jesus, born of a virgin, performing the most incredible miracles and then being raised from the dead is much more than poor reporting or exaggeration. The Bible’s extravagant message of God’s love is not in any way easy to accept, because it is so far beyond our experience or understanding. But it is clearly not a mistake or exaggeration.
Jesus was not just a decent man who did okay things - He is presented as God come in the flesh with power over nature, with the divine right to forgive our sins and all the time holding the keys to life and death.
Journalists make all sorts of mistakes all the time and we all ought to be a little more skeptical about what we read. By contrast we may, as a society, be a little better off if we were less skeptical of the Bible's extraordinary message.
““But what about you?” he asked.  “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied,  “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.”  Matthew 16: 15-17

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Last Days

Australia has had the most amazing week of weather. Coming off the worst floods in Queensland in decades, this week’s weather in Australia has been extreme. North Queensland experienced its largest and fiercest cyclone in recorded history. Good management, good luck and maybe even answered prayers were the only reasons that the cyclone did not cause more devastation and loss of life. Heavy rain from the cyclone was experienced as far west as Alice Springs and as far south as Melbourne. In Sydney we have just experienced our continually hottest week on record, with seven days over 30 degrees and with quite a few in that spell over 40. Last Saturday was the hottest night ever recorded in Sydney, with the mercury tipping 30 degrees at midnight. Finally, rather severe bush fires have scorched Perth, with over 70 homes lost and a dozen people hospitalized by smoke inhalation. And then in my safe little street in Eastwood, one of our dear residents in her late seventies was attacked repeatedly in morning daylight by a possum, leaving her in hospital with scratches, abrasions and a smashed hip that had to be replaced, from the fall that followed the attack. As I have shared this story I have been repeatedly told that possums do not attack. But at least one seems to do so in my street!  
One Australian apologist for the Christian faith expressed what many fear when he asked, “What have we done wrong?” Others are asking, "Are we living in the last days?"
Actually the Bible continually warns that we are living in the last days. Firstly, yes the clock is ticking in terms of the life of this planet. We enjoy an incredible window called life but it will not be open forever. Whether it is our own stupidity and mismanagement, or whether it will simply be a more natural cycle, one day our window of life on this planet will come to a close. If the date is fixed then every day brings us closer. Much more importantly our own days are numbered, with every one exhausting our limited supply. Some will become morbid at such a thought; others will be convinced that distraction and denial are easier companions. 
The Bible challenges us to respond to our finite reality:
We are called to be thankful for every breath we enjoy.
We are called to be responsible with our limited resources
We are called to be wise and manage what we have with care.
We are called to bless those around us with the time we have.
We are called to plan for our life beyond.

 “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions; your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’  Acts 2: 17-21

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The second coming

God is back! After a three-year retirement from Sydney radio, John Laws, the man who was affectionately referred to at his previous station 2UE as God, is back on the wireless. Laws has announced that he is bored and wants to 'keep the dream alive'.
Laws has returned to radio station 2SM, the great radio leader of the seventies that in recent years has slipped to the very bottom of the radio pecking order. So the man who was once the greatest star with the most loved voice on Sydney radio, is back on the station that at the moment has virtually no listeners. Will he convince his old audience to move up the dial to 2SM? Will it be the makings of a station desperately in need of a Messiah? Will Laws still be at his best or at 75 will his golden tonsils be sounding a little tarnished? The first caller to greet Laws’ return, quite probably a plant, was under no doubt – it was nothing short of the second coming.
In a godless age false gods will be raised up. They will have their days of glory. They will wane.  They then may enjoy a brief comeback, but they will eventually fade like cut flowers. Messiahs of all descriptions rage for attention, promising one form or another of salvation. When these Messiahs eventually flag there will always be calls to bring them back. As the Australian cricket team struggles there have even been calls to ask Shane Warne to make a comeback. At best comebacks briefly delay the inevitable - our glory is not eternal and our battery has a use by date.
God doesn’t seem to bother playing our game at all. He rarely turns up when we demand His attention. He doesn’t seem to like the limelight at all. He seems content to neither shout nor spin. He appears a little unimpressed with the powers and principalities of this world, that promise us all sorts of things but ultimately just seek their own glory.
God did show up in the Babe of Bethlehem. In Jesus we see a star that will never fade. His life gives us the truest picture of God’s glory. His death opens an eternal passageway to salvation. His unlikely resurrection confirms His divinity. His very real second coming will not bring about an extension of his career, but a day of reckoning for us all.
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."   (Heb. 9:27-28, NIV)