Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Fine Line

Spare a thought this week for the American golfer, Kyle Stanley. In his first few seasons of professional golf, this week Stanley almost won his first ever PGA title. Coming into the last round he had a comfortable 6 shot lead. Half way through his round he extended the lead to 7. Coming into the last hole, a par 5, which for pro golfers are normally the easiest holes, Stanley led by 3 strokes. He hit two solid shots up the 18th fairway, only to see his third approach shot to the green land safely but roll back down a slope into a water hazard. After taking a penalty Stanley landed what was his fifth shot on the back of the green and then he three putted for a three over par 8. That meant he tied with Brandt Snedeker, who probably could not believe his good fortune. The tie was decided in a sudden death play off one more hole. Amazingly Stanley recovered to score one under par (a birdie) the next hole, but Snedeker matched him. On the second play off hole, following his opponent’s par, Stanley again three putted the hole and lost by one stroke. If you are not a golfer you may not understand all of the technicalities, but you will understand this. By finishing second Stanley earned $US 648,000, but had he won he would have earned $US 1.08 million, meaning his last hole meltdown cost him $US 432,000.
At times golf looks unnervingly like life. Defeat often reappears just when we thought victory was at hand. Life unravels more quickly than we imagine when a mistake, a misjudgement, a misadventure or a misdemeanour can sometimes redirect our life with alarming speed.
Just ask Kerry O’Brien, one of the ABC’s much-loved political journalists. O’Brien found himself in court this week after a speed camera nabbed him travelling more than 30kms over the speed limit. A three-month licence suspension was surely not in his plan for 2012. Some will be very judgemental but many others will remember, at least on an odd occasion, when they have done the very same thing, but fortunately without a camera around to record and convict.
Life can change very rapidly for any of us. The Bible never promises anything less. There are no false promises that our golf swing, our marriage, our business, our family, or even our health will not fall apart. What the Old Book promises is a relationship with the God of the universe who takes a personal interest in our plight. Knowing God is to know the One who is indeed our rock, our support, our strength and our guide.
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.  Psalm 46: 1-4

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Not Too Big To Sink

MS Costa Concordia was the largest Italian passenger ship ever built. Only six years old and built at a cost of 450 million Euro, this Italian cruise ship was rather extraordinary. Nearly 300 metres long, with a layout consisting of 13 decks, with 1500 cabins (550 with private balconies), 4 swimming pools (2 with retractable covers), 5 jacuzzis, 5 spas, a pool-side movie screen on the pool deck, 5 restaurants, 13 bars (including a cigar and cognac bar) and the world’s largest exercise facility at sea, boasting a 6000 sq metre fitness centre, a gym, a thalassotherapy pool (whatever that is) and a turkish bath. 
The name ‘Concordia’ was supposed to express the wish for continuing harmony, unity and peace between European nations. However the ship began life with a less than perfect launch, when at Senstri Ponente on 2nd September 2005, the champagne bottle failed to break.
In a time when financial markets around the world, especially in Europe and the USA, are obsessed with the maxim ‘too big to fail’, MS Costa Concordia has proven again that no ship is too big to sink. Strangely, the picture of a luxury liner sailing irresponsibly close to the rocks, only to crash into them ripping a huge hole in the hull, bears a nervous parallel to a European Economic Union, which also seems to be in very shallow water. In spite of the tragic loss of life, in many ways it remains a marvel that over 4000 passengers and crew were rescued. We can only hope that when the single currency Euro and EU inevitably lists and then rapidly takes on water, that the economic tragedy is also limited. As in the past we can pretty much guarantee that when the finance ships sink, the captains of banking will take the only life boats and it’s pretty unlikely any of them will ever see the inside of a court room or an Italian gaol. We can only hope that governments will be quick on the scene, will attempt to quell panic, will encourage an orderly abandonment of ship and will feed, house and clothe the survivors.
‘It won’t happen’, you say! ‘It can’t happen’, you say! ‘We know what we are doing’, you say! ‘Yes, we are in shallow water, but our technology won’t let it happen’, you say! 
Well, tell that to the passengers of the Costa Concordia - at least the lucky ones who are still alive.
How the mighty have fallen in battle!  2Samuel 1: 25 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Eternal Bling

A new fashion statement seems to be creeping into popular culture. At this stage it seems only the preserve of the rich and dodgy, but I fear it may only be a matter of time before it is embraced much more widely. Last week Neal Todorovski, a member of the Lone Wolf Bikers, was buried in Cabramatta after being murdered in cold blood at Sans Souci in southern Sydney on 4th January. Todorovski’s biker mates passed the hat around, so to speak, and chipped in a total of $42,000 to pay for the ultimate in eternal bling - a gold plated coffin.
The casket was the same model as those used to bury Melbourne underworld figure Carl Williams and pop icon Michael Jackson. The statement was emphatic. The gods of gold have long been popular in life, so it was only a matter of time before they were enlisted for transport in death. Coffin bling may become the ultimate flashy, ostentatious, elaborate accessory that all the hip people will need. It is also the most stupid and aimless waste of money, as the beneficiary hardly gets to enjoy either the luster of the gold or the impression it is supposed to have on his friends. 
Death, though ever present, is in many ways an area that contemporary culture does not really know what to do with. After abandoning God as a culture, the obvious conclusion is to mourn the loss of life and to grieve the fact that death without God is the end of existence. What we do instead is to turn funerals into ‘celebrations of life’ – which though palatable is ultimately just another form of denial. Increasingly funerals in Australia are taken by civil celebrants, something that is quite correct, as it does reflect people’s lack of belief. But these celebrants are left with little to say, except to ignore death and celebrate life. Without a God to seek in prayer, without God’s Word to read, and without the hope of resurrection, there really is not a lot to say.
The Bible encourages us to face the bleakness and loss that is death with real hope. No amount of metallic luster can ever mask the ugliness and loss that death delivers. But to believe that Jesus died to take the punishment that our sins deserved and then rose to defeat death, gives hope to all who trust in Him. No amount of money, no show of wealth, no boast of power has any gravitas in the face of death.
The One who died and rose again remains our richest hope.
“We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”  1Thessalonians 4: 14

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Mind The Gap

A very strange event occurs this weekend in Sydney. In fact it will occur this weekend and will be repeated next weekend and if necessary the weekend after that as well. For the first time in its almost 80 year history, the Sydney Harbour Bridge will be closed for up to three weekends in January for major maintenance on the road surface. While the Bridge has been closed before for sporting events and even the odd picnic, closing for maintenance for three weekends is unique. Of course there are alternative crossings of the Harbour, namely the Harbour Tunnel and the Anzac Bridge, but Sydney-siders will no doubt experience quite a few traffic dramas over the next few weekends.
Somehow 80 years ago Sydney did survive without a bridge. In my childhood my late grandfather used to entertain me with stories about travelling to and from the city each day, when the daily commute included lengthy delays for the ferry/punt that used to cross from North Sydney. He himself was rarely troubled by the queue, as he drove a large motorbike and simply glided through the cars to await the arriving boat.
The image of a bridge has been a popular one in trying to explain and defend the Christian faith. The idea that there is a gulf between humans, who are far from holy, and God who is Holy, is not an idea unique to Christianity. Indeed most, if not all religion, deals with ways of overcoming this moral gap between God and humanity. Even Aussie religious cynics acknowledge their unworthiness before God, when they joke that if they entered a church there may be some type of divine reaction that may include the roof collapsing. The standard religious solution common to most world religions is that the gap between a Holy God and a less than perfect humanity can be addressed by some form of religion inspired improvement to make a person worthy. Christianity is unusual in that it affirms the gulf between humans and God can never be overcome by human improvement, religious practice, or even inner reflection. The gap is simply too large and even the best human effort leaves us a long way short. The only solution is something, or rather someone, who can straddle the gap between a Holy God and a sinful humanity.
Jesus carries a number of formal and religious titles including Messiah, Saviour and Redeemer, which some have simplified and popularised quite simply as a Bridge. (http://www.navigators.org/us/resources/illustrations/items/bridge)
This Bridge is toll free, open to all, is not closing for maintenance and provides the only effective path for humans to be restored to God.
"... we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."  Romans 5: 1

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

When Arrogance Leaves You Looking Silly

Confidence is a wonderful thing, but sometimes when it slips over into arrogance we can be left looking rather silly. In recent years science has made huge advances in the understanding and prediction of weather and an understanding of the factors that seem to be impacting our changing climate. In 2011 the Australian Government made what many consider to be a wise and sensible decision to introduce a carbon tax, because the most well respected climate scientists are convinced that increasing carbon pollution is causing an increase in global temperatures. The carbon tax law was passed in November 2011. Long before it will be enacted the environment (at least in my part of Australia) seems to have reacted with fright, delivering us the coolest December temperatures in over 50 years. Of course there is no connection, but it is amusing that whenever we humans are convinced we know it all, we soon discover we have a lot more to learn.
After a long period of drought back in 2006, the water storage levels in the huge Sydney catchment were at record lows, approaching 30% of capacity. The State Government, faced with predictions of global warming and more drought, announced they would build Australia’s largest desalination plant, at a cost of about $2 billion. It seemed as though the day after the minister made the announcement that it started to rain, so now in 2012 we have a desalination plant producing a huge amount of fresh water that we don’t really need, because the dams are now over 80% full. Hindsight is a great thing but humility can help us overcome a great deal of pain.
Though never officially advertised as such, the Titanic’s popular reputation as the unsinkable ship did little to help the poor people who lost their lives, due not only to the ship sinking but also to the lack of provision of lifeboats. The 19th century dream of overcoming the tyranny of distance by land, sea and even sky were all realized with the development of trains and cars, diesel powered ships and eventually modern aviation. But then the 20th century also saw these incredible advances used to bring the greatest human losses ever inflicted, with over 50 million deaths in WW2, aided in considerable part by man’s mastery of land, sea and air.
In the Bible there is an ancient story about a group of guys determined to build the biggest skyscraper of their day in Babel and they called it a tower. Their desire was to reach the heavens and make a name for themselves, but all they achieved was confusion. We humans are always reaching for the sky, or trying to pass through the sky, or even trying to control the sky. Ambition with humility is all about realizing our God-given potential. Arrogance without reference to God at best leaves us with laughter and not infrequently with tears.
When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.  Proverbs 11: 2