Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Back in late 2007 when the Federal ALP was swept into power under the leadership of Kevin Rudd, it seemed the Labor Party was set to enjoy a golden age of power. Not only did Rudd win with a considerable majority, but the Labor Party also led the State Governments of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. The only conservative remnant of power left in the country was the then Lord Mayor of Brisbane. Now less than 5 years later the political landscape of Australia is remarkably different. Before last weekend the State Governments of Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia had all, in recent times, replaced long serving Labor premiers with conservatives. Following an electoral tsunami last weekend in Queensland, the conservative LNP (Liberal National Party) has now taken power in Queensland. The ALP did so badly that people are asking, “What is the difference between the ALP in Queensland and a Toyota Tarago?” The answer, of course, is that a Tarago has 8 seats – slightly more than the Queensland ALP now has in the Sunshine State.
The Labor Party is hanging on by a thread in minority governments federally and in Tasmania, and with a small majority in South Australia. Back in 2007 Labor supporters were suggesting that their conservative opponents were on the edge of oblivion, but less than 5 years later many fear it is the ALP that might now, at best, be heading for an extended period in the political wilderness.
Life is more seasonal than most of us appreciate. Sporting teams have their times or even eras in the sun and return just as quickly to periods of darkness and defeat. Personally we too have periods in our lives when things go our way: when we achieve our goals; when life follows a predictable path; when love seems to answer all our needs; and when we seem to be able to handle with confidence this thing we call life. But it normally does not stay like that for long. Relationships are fickle and change, often for the worst. Careers have a knack of changing direction with lightning speed. Sickness has a habit of humbling the well. Misadventure seems to unsettle those so sure they were lucky. And then old age invades even those most determined to stay young.
The Old Book encourages us that God is the God of all the seasons of life, for the seasons of life are as inevitable as the seasons of the year. We are called to enjoy God in the good times and seek His comfort in the struggles. In the depths of winter we can trust God that in time we will feel sunshine on our backs again. And when the sunshine seems too good too last, we can enjoy the moment knowing our future is secured, not by the season but by the One who ordained the seasons.
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:”  Ecclesiastes 3: 1

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Pulped Fiction

What do the well respected Encyclopedia Britannica and the not so well respected ‘lads’ magazine FHM have in common? Not much, you might say.

Encyclopedia Britannica has been in print for 244 years and can be found in most English speaking libraries in the world. As even a rival concludes… “Since the 3rd edition, the Britannica has enjoyed a popular and critical reputation for general excellence.” FHM was first published in 1985 and was described as a glossy feast for those interested in grog, gadgets, gags and girls. Both originate in the United Kingdom but strangely enough that is not the thing they most have in common. No, last week both announced that their publications were coming to an end. Britannica seems to have finally succumbed to its ubiquitous online nemesis, Wikipedia. In the end there were not enough people left to pay thousands for a multi-volume encyclopedia that was out of date by the time of delivery, even though its reliability and credibility were never challenged. The explanation for the termination of FHM’s Australian edition in May was declining sales, because reportedly men have found similar ‘information’ online.
The rise and fall of magazines, newspapers, books and other print material highlights the remarkable longevity and survivability of the greatest old book, the Bible. It too has its online versions now but is still very much in print: in hundreds of languages; in all sorts of editions; in quite a few different translations; and with a future that seems assured.
When I first read the Bible in my late teens, it surprised me for a number of reasons. Firstly, in a good modern translation it was far more accessible than I had imagined. As much of the Bible is taken up with a mega multigenerational story, and then smaller stories within that story, it was surprisingly interesting to read. Secondly, I was surprised how much of the Bible was familiar, even to someone who had not read it before. So many of the stories, lessons and even phrases permeate western culture, plus I must have absorbed more Hollywood Biblical classics than I cared to admit. I kept reading and thinking – is that where that comes from? Finally, reading the Bible was a lot more serendipitous than I expected. The passage or story I read not only made sense to me – it made sense to today, to what was happening in my life, the very day I was reading it.  
When I was given a Bible as a 19 year old, my friend left me with a simple encouragement – “This is the Word of God – read it and live”. It was good advice and I am still reading it and more convinced than ever that it is the eternal Word that will never pass away.
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words (Jesus said) will never pass away.   Luke 21: 33

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Atheists Encouraged To Steal From Religion

Alain de Botton is an atheist who has a new international best selling book about what he likes about religion. Even though de Botton does not believe in religion, his book argues that he wants to ‘steal’ religion’s best features, because atheism does seem a little empty. I know this sounds rather far fetched but the public is literally buying it in very large numbers.
De Botton admits that atheism has never been very good at building community the way a local church does. He admits that when the faithful face trial and death, they seek not only the counsel of their faith but they seek the support from their pastor or priest. He admits that religion has that ability to put humans in their place: to make us, in the good sense of the word, seem small; to recognize that the world does not revolve around us; and that there is a higher purpose and calling. Finally de Botton admits that humans are not very nice to each other most of the time and that religion has played a part in advocating morality and encouraging people to be more loving and kind.
In many ways the popularity of de Botton’s book is more interesting than the book itself. Atheism and agnosticism have had the philosophical and popular ascendency for much of the last hundred years in the western world, but for many a desire within continues to yearn for something more. We medicate with alcohol and drugs, but awake hung over rather than satisfied. We fill our lives with things in a vain attempt to ease the emptiness, but only accumulate clutter. We obsess about sex and relationships which not only fall short of our desires, but often remind us of our personal failures. We dream that a politician will rise up and fulfill our hopes, but their rhetoric is somehow never matched by reality.
De Botton may well have noble desires, but religion without belief seems a little like promoting the virtues of marriage without an understanding or belief in love. Stealing religion without belief may be as useful as a smart phone without a network. How can a community of faith work if no one has faith? How can you face trial and death without a belief in the afterlife? Why would you bother praying if you knew there was no one to hear? Ultimately humility is bound up not just in us feeling small, but experiencing that smallness next to the vastness of God.
Real atheists will reject de Botton as a sell out.
Real believers will weep at the continued stubbornness of humans to resist the God who we cannot see, but continue to sense is there.
The LORD looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God.” Psalm 14: 2

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rats in The Ranks

There is a lot more goes on in a suburban backyard than we dare to imagine. During the day a garden can look so serene, calm, tranquil and charming. Flowers and shrubs, trees and lawn can hide a darker side. For many years we had a wonderful Border Collie called Mickey, who patrolled our perimeter fence day and night to ward off any possible rodents. Occasionally one would foolishly enter our suburban block and Mickey would pounce, leaving his trophy catch on our back doorstep. With Mickey’s passing some time back, it was only a matter of time before the rodents would return. Some weeks ago I spotted one in broad daylight, so it was time to head to the produce store to buy a rat trap.
I mentioned my rat trap in a sermon at church a few weeks ago, to illustrate the point that disobedience to God was a little like taking the bait in a rat trap – pleasurable maybe, but somehow with consequences far worse than we could ever imagine. As a preacher you hope a carefully crafted illustration will deliver a seam of spiritual response, with people convicted of the need to repent. Unfortunately I am yet to see that spiritual response, but I have, by accident, become my church’s consultant, advisor and mentor on catching rats. It seems our backyard is not unique. With Sydney’s continued mild and damp summer turning into an even more damp autumn, the rats have enjoyed somewhat of resurgence. I have been encouraging many in our church to face their rats with bravery and resolve.
Most people in Sydney are blissfully unaware of what crawls around their gardens in the middle of the night. I don’t really know either but I do know one thing: there are now 14 less rats active in my yard than when I starting using the trap a few weeks ago.
When it comes to our lives, our hearts and our minds, most of us underestimate the darkness than lurks there as well. We seem to be quite proficient at seeing it in other people. We question their motives, we judge their actions and we condemn their foolishness. Somehow in others sin seems so easily recogised, but our own faults and foolishness seem to blend into the background.
One of the greatest gifts that God promises us is that His Holy Spirit will convict us of our sin. It might not sound like a gift, but the ability to see our own weakness can save us so much pain. We cannot control the strife and pain we experience in life, but when our sin is exposed we have a chance to at least reduce and maybe even heal our abundant self-inflicted wounds.
“But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.  When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment:”  John 16: 7-8