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