18 December 2017

A place at your table

Well it’s just a week to Christmas. For many, the pressure is really on now – racing those unwilling shopping trolleys around Coles, bulging with supplies for the eat-fest. Or racing the Victa over the back lawn in preparation for that afternoon cricket match. There’s the pressure of finding cheap (but not too cheap) presents for people you mostly like, who really don’t need anything at all and a calendar full of pre-Christmas get togethers. It is all building to that climactic moment when the doorbell rings and the Christmas day festivities begin.

And after all the craziness of the week that will have passed, there will be those few but precious moments, maybe snapped and posted on your facebook page, where you experience the delight that this season is meant to evoke – maybe.

Or then again, this week could be a slow build to the most forgettable day of the year. That agonising reminder that the doorbell wont ring, the decorations can stay in their box again and you are shopping for one. A day when you feel most alone and you avoid facebook just that bit more because it hurts to see everyone else sharing their happy family memories while you sit alone at home…watching the annual rerun of Home Alone.

If you watch the way advertisers present the Christmas season – it's all family fun, happy children and socialising with your inner circles of friends. But according to a new Australian Red Cross survey, one in four of Australians – or 5.6 million people – are lonely almost all of the time or on a regular basis.

It may be due to the death of a loved one, illness or old age, family breakdown or just a lack of social connections. Whatever the reason, Christmas is salt in the wounds of loneliness for a quarter of our community.

Social isolation is a common theme throughout the gospels. Jesus repeatedly gravitated to the people who perhaps most acutely felt the sting of loneliness - the demoniac, the woman at the well, the disabled, the tax collector. These were the invisible people, the lepers of the social scene – the ones that respectable, well connected people ignored or avoided.

Jesus continually made room for these people – and my hunch is so can we.

The problem of loneliness seems impossibly big and I imagine most of us shrug our shoulders and conclude there is nothing that we can do about it – so we do nothing about it. But perhaps, like Jesus, our part is not to solve this for everyone, but simply to find the one who you can open your life and home to this year. To lengthen the Christmas table, add a chair and include someone into your family, or your inner circle of friends who otherwise wouldn’t be there. They will be blessed and so will you.

I'm reminded of Psalm 68.6 which says "God sets the lonely in families." I guess He does that when families first open their doors to the lonely.

We are fortunate to have several wonderful people joining us this Christmas day at our family table - some we’ve known for a while and some we just met a week ago. It’s the thing I’m most looking forward to this Christmas.

I wonder, who might you include this year at your table?

And hey thanks for joining me this year in Lifewords! I hope you’ve been challenged and encouraged. I’ve enjoyed the process of reflecting and writing and I always appreciate your comments and feedback.

May you have a joyous, restful end to the year and may you know the hope and the peace that Jesus can bring.

17 November 2017

Same Sex Marriage - Conclusions

The SSM poll is behind us now and as was widely predicted, the yes vote is the clear majority. I know I’ll have some people close to me cheering, and others telling me the countdown clock to Armageddon just sped up. No one really knows what the implications will be till the legislation is finalized, though I’m not losing sleep over it. Frankly, any form of ‘religious persecution’ that may come from the change is a trifle compared to say, what our Christian brothers and sisters in Egypt, Syria or North Korea face every day of their tortured lives. I’d be embarrassed to call just about anything our essentially reasonable politicians can throw at us as ‘persecution.’

The church in Australia (and certainly my own church, Georges River Life Church) have always had only 2 options. We either sincerely open our doors and hearts to anyone to come, or we continue to shrink from society and betray the kingdom that Jesus ceaselessly embodied.

That kingdom is not an exclusive club for the righteous. No, it is a regal wedding invitation gone viral, shouted from every street corner to anyone who would come—just as they are (Matthew 22.9). That kingdom is like a giant fisherman’s net that indiscriminately scoops up everything in its pathway (Matthew 13.47). And that kingdom demonstrates a radically subversive power in strange ways—like an innocent king willfully hanging on a Roman cross for a world gone mad, lost in its own distortions of the ‘good life’.

Jesus’ kingdom is the paradoxical marriage of a perfectly good and holy God with perfectly broken and unholy people. His invitation is to all people to come and be re-formed by His truth and grace, from the inside to the out. Which is why Jesus also described his kingdom as like yeast - a tiny amount works its transforming power slowly and invisibly through all the ‘dough’ of our lives (Matthew 13.33).

Surprisingly, Jesus, post-resurrection gave his followers, the church, the task of being his ambassadors, representing and progressing that same kingdom. That decision through history has looked like a tactical blunder at times, and equally an act of sheer brilliance. Either way, the church today must constantly ask itself this question: ‘Are we accurately representing the kingdom Jesus inaugurated or something else?’ If the LGBTIQ community are left feeling like lepers at the front doors of our sanctuaries, then I suspect we need to go back and re-read the gospels.

Does that mean we all roll over and say anything goes? I’m not suggesting that at all. What I am suggesting is that Jesus is always the one who does the heart surgery and the churches role is to not scare people away from the operating theatre.

So, after all the rainbow-colored balloons have deflated, the flags folded and last drinks are had at the victory parties; after the media move on to the next story; after the surge of new marriages have been registered at the office of births, deaths and marriages; after the gloom of those who feel disaffected or betrayed by it all; and after we settle into a new norm in the Australian landscape; I have a sneaking suspicion that the answer, the real answer to all our angst and longing for validation, significance and hope will ultimately remain unfulfilled.

I seriously doubt an equality utopia will now suddenly descend from the heavens and people will live unoffended, unoppressed or burden-free lives. No earthly marriage of any kind, and certainly no legislation (just look at Indigenous Australia) will quiet the nagging ache of our souls nor our innate propensity toward brokenness. The gospel reveals that progressive or conservative, straight or gay, rich or poor, privileged or unprivileged—our crafted identities and mini kingdoms only go part of the way toward a life that is truly free and flourishing. Jesus and his kingdom remains the ultimate answer to all our hopes and fears—and maybe this is a time for getting our focus back onto that message.

So now may we walk in the beautiful tension of living uncompromisingly, disagreeing respectfully, engaging purposefully and loving relentlessly.

06 November 2017

Why are we all so busy?

Well I’m back from an extended break from writing and accessing that app on my phone that stars with F. Incidentally, I have the Facebook app located in a random folder inside a folder inside a folder on my phone, so it takes just long enough for me to think about why I’m accessing it before I do – which is surprisingly helpful sometimes.

Why the break? Why not! Resting from being ‘productive,’ resting from expectation and denying oneself that consuming habit of checking your news feed is simply good for the soul sometimes.

So, I’d like to say I was just totally resting, but that is not completely reality, is it? I find rest so incredibly hard to do at this stage of life – and I know I’m not alone. If there is one narrative I hear more than any other in people’s lives today, it is that life is ‘soooo busy’ (and frankly I’m often no exception). Busy is not just the realm of the high-flying executive, the school teacher, the tradie nor the parents of young ones. Busy finds most of us, and sadly, busy defines many of us. I'm acutely aware that many in my community perceive me as a busy person - perhaps too busy to interrupt. My dilemma is that busy is not what I want to be known for, nor the example I want to set - but I am.

Now busy is not necessarily bad. Living productive, full lives can be immensely rewarding. However, busy is not typically something we are aiming for in life because of the effect that it has on so many dimensions of life. For example, I and my pastoral colleagues in every church I can think of lament the same trend in their faith communities. Attendance is becoming increasingly sporadic, as people are torn between commitment to the rhythm of weekly worship and everything else that seems to crowd in. Sadly, it is common these days for people to come monthly to a worship service or not at all. I conclude that the problem is not necessarily the waning spirituality of the people. It is more possibly the unprecedented demand on their time and the dilemma of how to make the average week work when Sunday may be the only moment to breathe, (or catch up on everything else that didn’t get done the other 6 days).

For those who feel like that today, can I say, I get it. The pace of life leaves us all constantly choosing between the urgent and the important – and usually the urgent wins.

But let’s push back a little on this trend, because in as much as busy is a reality we all know; we are not simply passive victims of time and circumstance. We all make real choices with the same 24-hour time period that everyone has enjoyed through all of history. And perhaps we need to examine the why behind all those choices?

For example, why do I need to earn that much money? Why do I need to work so many hours? Why must my kids be in 5 different activities or private school? Why is the football game more compelling than friends or worship? Why do I need to fill every spare minute with some kind of digital stimulus or media? Why do I feel guilty doing nothing? I could go on but I’m sure you get the idea. Why is such a great question.

I’m sure we all think we have sensible answers for our choices. But our choices are probably the truest manifestation of the real values of our life. Sometimes we genuinely feel powerless to change our situation, but my hunch is that in most cases, we are strongly motivated by the need for a type of control and comfort. We have a deep longing to be in control of our circumstances and relationships, and obtain whatever we think will satisfy. And we buy the story that when we have control and comfort, happiness, significance, security and peace will then flood into our lives. But does it? And if it does, for how long?

I wonder how often our sensible choices sabotage the very life we long for?

God makes people not machines. We are flesh and blood, designed to both work, and rest. And rest is not simply a sleep in on Sunday, rest is far more purposeful.

The Bible’s answer to this is Sabbath, a concept largely overlooked today. Sabbath is the work and rest pattern woven into creation. The land was to be worked for 6 years and rested the seventh; people were to toil 6 days and rest the seventh. God is into sustainability – sustainable use of the land and sustainable lives. The Sabbath was a day of ceasing from toil and exchanging it with fellowship and worship. A positioning of our lives around abiding and connection to God, and each other. Jesus in John 15 would say that it is only from this position that real flourishing in life happens.

There is great wisdom in this ancient pattern which is as relevant today as it has ever been. Jesus was frequently critical of religious types who applied Sabbath in legalistic and prescriptive ways. But Jesus never disregards the Sabbath and he says in Mark 2 ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’

The Sabbath was a gift for people to keep them from ceaseless toil and create margin where their hearts and lives could be reoriented toward God and one another.

I wonder if it is worth considering how we build this pattern back into our lives?
Where would you begin? Here is an interesting exercise to try:

1. Make a two-column table with ‘Toil’ on left side and ‘Sabbath’ on the right. Take a look at your calendar for say a month and categorise all your activities into one column or the other. Ask the ‘why’ question behind each activity.

2. In the Toil column put a question mark next to anything that may need further reflection. Why must this activity remain on my list?

3. Consider and pray about what you may need to reduce and how you may need to restructure your time to create more margin for Sabbath.

Experience tells me that when people get super busy the first thing to go is the right-hand column and the priority of Sabbath activities. What if we valued this right-hand column so much that we would instead ask ‘what needs to go from all my toiling?’ Perhaps we would eventually discover not only a more sustainable life, but a more productive one too?

31 October 2017

Trick or Treat?

Some of my best childhood years were lived up state New York, a magical place of white Christmas’, thanksgiving turkeys, Autumn leaves and trick or treat - the yanks really do holidays well. Halloween in that context was one of the most exciting times of the year. Each year we’d hollow out the pumpkin for the jack o lantern and dress up as ghosts or other characters. Then we’d go house to house with our bags, expectant of a great haul of assorted sweets. And oh did we clean up! Parents today would be horrified by the amount of sugar consumed in the next few weeks. If I get diabetes one day, I’ll blame those years in America. There, Halloween made sense, it was fun and there was nothing perceivably dark about it. Here, Halloween seems odd, a blatant attempt at selling confectionary and cheap costumes.

But Halloween must be getting some traction because even Aldi had a Halloween sale a few weeks back and my local Coles rolled in a giant pallet of Halloween pumpkins which have all since been sold.

Are we being Americanized? Are we participating in a pagan festival? Are we identifying with evil, or at least the evils of commercialism? Well, if we take that approach then Christmas and Easter should also be out because there is a lot of commercialism, and one or two pagan elements there too. And if we are uptight about themes of magic or witches, then best not read Tolken or CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia either.

Halloween’s meaning depends on your perspective but doesn’t really have any clarity in most people’s minds because it’s a foreign concept to the majority of Australians. There are Christian roots in All Hallows’ Eve, conceived in the 9thc, which celebrated or “hallowed” all the saints and martyrs on November 1st (all Saints day). This was preceded the night before with a vigil of liturgical ceremonies and prayers. Interestingly popular culture today has substituted the celebration of Christian saints and martyrs with spooky ghosts, zombies and themes of death but its origins are actually more in celebration of the resurrection of the dead.

The pagan roots of Halloween are really vague. Seasonal harvest festivals in Europe and the British Isles’ developed independently and had their own mythologies around preparation for a northern hemisphere winter, a symbol of death. As Ross Clifford in his book Taboo or To Do writes that in modern times neo-Pagan witchcraft groups celebrate October 31 as one of their eight major festivals in their ritual calendar, which together form the “Wheel of the Year myth”. Fascinatingly the wheel of the year myth concerns a virgin goddess carrying a child of promise who grows up to fight the power of the Dark Lord of the underworld. This child dies and rises again. Now if that isn’t a conversation starter, I don’t know what is!

Halloween is a convoluted mix of beliefs around seasons and harvest food, death and the dead, sprinkled with a lot of secular commercialism. Tonight is Halloween and if you live in a busy street, you may have some visitors come knocking. So will you shut the blinds and act like no ones home, or open the door and start a conversation? What other time in the year do neighbours knock on each other’s doors and give gifts to one another? Yes, Halloween has some dark connotations, but perhaps, instead of being the killjoys of the neighborhood, we can redeem the moment. We could use it as a way of connecting with people, sharing the back-story of Halloween, and pointing to the best story of how God loves us and delivers us from the evil one.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:21-23 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel that I may share in its blessings.

20 September 2017

Questions of equality and simplicity

took my kids to the park last Saturday to ride bikes and kick the soccer ball. The park was littered with dozens of children and parents enjoying the spring warmth, picnic rugs sprawled across freshly cut grass. And amongst the crowd were two men in their 20’s laying affectionately in each other’s arms, kissing (a lot) and chatting to each other as they scrolled and swiped their phones. I intermittently watched this scene for almost an hour as people passed by. I was curious to observe any reactions people might have to this demonstrable display of affection. Thankfully, no one harassed them, they weren't taunted or bullied, the police didn't come and move them on.

Of course, you’ll always get some people being cruel, rude and ignorant towards others - for all manner of reasons. And that is never acceptable. But don't you think Australia is changing and on the whole, we've become a far more tolerant, accepting nation around people who are same sex attracted? I believe so, and I am grateful for that change!

Only a few decades ago, homosexuality was a taboo topic and ‘coming out’ was newsworthy. Today most of society doesn’t bat an eyelid. People who are gay confidently hold some of the highest positions in government and corporate sectors without fear of limited opportunity e.g. MP Tim Wilson and Qantas CEO Alan Joyce.

Registered same sex de-facto couples and their families have the same entitlements as registered opposite-sex de facto couples thanks to the governments same sex reform package which passed parliament in November 2008. According to the Department of Social Services website, this reform removed discrimination against same-sex de facto couples and their families in areas such as taxation; superannuation; social security and family assistance; the PBS and Medicare Safety Net; aged care and veterans' entitlements; immigration and citizenship; child support and family law (1). Not withstanding there are still inconsistencies across states that will be fixed, the legal status of same sex couples who wish to register their relationship is in place.

So, what of discrimination or equality? These are two very popular words at the moment. Is equality only reached when all differences among people are erased? And if that’s the case, what happened to the push for diversity? And if ‘diversity’ is of such a high value today, is there no place for the appreciation of a diversity of ways that people can express and equally validate their relationship? Or does that fall into the realm of discrimination?

Discrimination is not simply that people don't all enjoy the same treatment or benefits or outcomes in life. (You may need to read that last sentence twice). This notion is both philosophically and practically unworkable because we are all different people with different skills, interests, capacities and temperaments which lead to different opportunities and outcomes in life.

Discrimination becomes discrimination when another person is treated differently for an irrelevant or ‘bogus’ reason. For example, if I was barred from becoming a Qantas pilot on the grounds that I was gay, that would be cause for discrimination because my sexual preference is irrelevant to the basic criteria for flying a plane.

So, as I think about it, the real question concerning marriage becomes this — Is the existing definition of marriage (male/female complementarity in an enduring exclusive union) of value, and worth preserving — or is this basic criterion now irrelevant? Because if this criteria is now irrelevant, then it is fair to say that any and all prohibition of people to the institution of marriage could be considered discriminatory. But on the other hand, if it is not irrelevant, then the opposite holds true.

Let’s assume for the moment that the traditional criteria is irrelevant and it’s time for change. What then should be the new non-discriminatory criteria? If the criteria is simply ‘love’ — because we are told all love is the same (which if you think about it, can't be) — then it follows that anyone should be free to marry anyone or any number of people they choose. Is that what we want?

That may not be what the current reforms are about, but logically, how could this precedent not trigger equally valid claims by other parties such as bisexuals who have two loves and wish to marry both a male and a female partner? Because the arguments are the same. Under the current reforms will we really achieve the headline goal of ‘marriage equality’, or just equality for one small but powerful minority? And who is the next minority? And at what point with future revisions will marriage become so nondescript that it ceases to be a meaningful term at all? Do we further undermine and weaken marriage by fundamentally changing its essential criteria? And why is that fair?

Some people will quickly label these questions as diversionary or fear mongering, or homophobic or irrelevant, because it’s easier to do so than to seriously address them.

Now, what if the existing heterosexual criteria in marriage that has been essentially in place across the expanse of all human history — through which we all owe our existence — is still relevant? What if that procreative function of marriage, regardless of whether couples can conceive, or even want to, is a fundamental component of the definition, and to remove it is to create an entirely different relationship category?

Could anyone seriously believe that? On a global scale — yes, lots of people. A heterosexual definition of marriage is not simply a Christian position, as portrayed in the media, but is held by the overwhelming majority of the world’s faiths including indigenous Australian, Muslim, Hindu and even Buddhism, which is at best neutral on the matter. It is equally championed by some secular and libertarian thinkers and even some quarters of the LGBTI community. This doesn't prove anything really other than debunking the notion that globally, marriage as a heterosexual construct is on the way out.

There is intense pressure to view SSM as a simple decision of promoting fairness and equality for all. That is the primary message of the ‘Yes’ campaign. But this is not a simple decision, and to say so is disingenuous. I think ‘simplicity’ is a clever strategy aimed at capturing the undecided and swinging voters (no pun intended). Are the wider implications of a change to the fundamental building block of society also irrelevant - such as the rights of a child to have the opportunity to be raised by both biological parents or the value of knowing your biological parents or grandparents?

Senator Sarah Hanson Young, at a ‘Yes’ rally last week said that ‘love is above politics’. Yes, this is true, but legislation is not above politics and this is actually about a legislative change. With regard to legislation, the attorney general’s department has advised there would be approximately 60 consequential changes across 25 Commonwealth Acts in addition to changes to state acts and anti-discrimination, charity and inheritance law. That is not simple.

Moreover, if ‘love is above politics’ then that is an ethical directive used very selectively. For example, our foreign aid budget is around 30% lower now than it was in 2013 after 4 consecutive years of budget cuts.

And what about those national values of freedom of religion, conscience and speech — and not just for religious practitioners, schools and cake bakers as popularised in the media; but for anyone at all who holds traditional views? Given that no actual legislation can be provided for these human rights — how can we know that it’s simple or fair for all regardless of their views?

Only 7 years ago, Labor’s position was not supportive of SSM. Now, by 2019 the Labor party will mandate that it’s MPs must affirm the party position on marriage to retain their preselection. By inference, people of devout faith who hold traditional views about marriage are no longer welcome in the party. Is that equality?

In the corporate sector, we are seeing company boards and CEO’s somewhat opportunistically marketing their stance on SSM and leaning on their employees to tow the company line (which has nothing to do with the terms of their employment). Last week small business owner Madlin Sims sacked a staff member because they expressed in social media that it is “ok to say no”. Similarly, people have been forced to resign from boards (e.g. Mark Allaby) and, like the cover photo I snapped of Martin Place yesterday — apparently, the City of Sydney Council is all voting 'yes.' Sports bodies like the ARU have declared their positions on behalf of all their code’s players (note the public backlash against Israel Folau for expressing his personal views). The same applies to Margaret Court who faced calls to have her name struck from the arena named in her honour; to Dr Pansy Lai who faced a petition to have her deregistered as a GP; and to Coopers Beers who were boycotted to the point of its survival for its “keeping it light” campaign. And then there is Catholic Archbishop Julain Porteous who was hauled before the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission simply for expressing basic Catholic doctrine on marriage to his church community.

As noted by Professor of Law at Sydney University, Patrick Parkinson, ‘the issue is not so much the individual instances but the silence of our political leaders on the most fundamental breaches of religious freedom. We are not sufficiently shocked by this.’

I know, I know, that’s not we are voting on. But does anyone really know what we are voting on? I want to believe the best from our leaders but verbal assurances around the fundamental freedoms that we have in Australia aren't the same as legislation.

So, the silly postal survey is asking a simplistic question whilst offering no substance or detail. I guess all my rambling is just to say I don’t know how I feel about that. I liken it to voting on the introduction of GM (genetically modified) food with all it’s unknown implications by being asked ‘do you like to eat?’

I don’t believe these are homophobic questions nor am I homophobic for asking them. I have several people in my life who are gay and I think they are all great people who I value. No these, in my mind at least, are just valid questions to a very complex matter that we really have no clarity on at this stage. Some will protest that these kinds of questions or concerns are a diversion tactic away from the ‘real issue.’ But then again, maybe calling it a diversion is in itself a diversion from other ‘real issues’ that are actually interrelated.

I can certainly acknowledge the deep desire of committed same sex couples to want freedom to formalise their relationship and I have absolutely no desire to demonise them or that desire, nor traffic fear on this topic. But I also want us to champion the other freedoms that we value in our brilliant nation.

Stepping back from all this ‘logic’ — I feel disappointed that the answer to all this tension and pain is a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’; a winner and a loser. That just doesn’t seem to be the way of Jesus. So, I wonder if there is a third way; a way of grace; of honour; and of reconciliation. I’m up for that conversation.

I hope that whatever comes, we will look back in a decade or two and be in a better place.

31 August 2017

The why behind why people don't see eye to eye

Tim Minchin’s rendition a couple of weeks ago of I still call Australia home-(ophobic) was watched 2 million times and counting. According to Tim, if you vote ‘no’ you are a homophobic, ‘bigoted c#nt.’ Which is about as silly as that myth that all gay men must have had poor father figures growing up. The ones I know seem to have had great dads. Where is the Myth Busters team when you need them!

Why is it that we have this tendency to bypass moderation and portray the very worst version of our opponents to others? Why is it we want to shut down alternative viewpoints while we take the liberty to shout all the more loudly at them? I just wonder how productive this is.

If we zoom back from the matter of SSM, I think it’s good to remember there is much that we all share in common. Now I am proposing this via my Jesus-shaped world view which is still forming (over the past 30 years); and you may not share it. But humour me for a moment and see if we can agree on something:

Do you think all people have the same worth? 

The opening chapters of the bible explicitly teach me that life is sacred, every human being is created equal and bears the same image of God. A person's dignity is therefore a divine bestowal and not merely a product of people's approval of them.

If God does exist, could God love you?

The bible, and specifically the Cross teaches me that God’s love is indiscriminate and unbiased.
No one can claim to have a greater access to God nor greater merit based upon their lifestyle or works. This grace, by the way, is distinctive to Christianity among all the world’s religions.

Do you make mistakes? Have you ever hurt someone?

Again the bible reveals how we ALL miss the mark, make mistakes and struggle with desires and influences competing for our heart. The bible calls this ‘sin’—and though people don’t like the word, it’s what we experience every day—both from us and toward us. 

Do you think you are right most of the time?

We all want to be proven right, rationalise our actions, be excused from blame and affirmed in our opinions and behaviours. We have an innate ability to judge others,
but we are highly resistant to being judged.

Have you ever felt anxious or a little insecure?

We are all consciously and subconsciously wrestling with that nagging question of identity.
Who am I? Do I matter? Am I ok?
And we find all sorts of ways to reinforce and protect our identity.

Do you need people in your life? 

We all long for intimacy. We are all wired for deep abiding relationships, to be loved,
to be known and not cast off. And we each search for our people
—the ones that we can share life and story with in community.

Have you changed in any way in the past 5 years? 

We are all in process. We dream, learn, we succeed, we fail. The experiences of life are
formative to our belief systems and resulting behaviours, as are the voices we listen to.
We are all changing, but we’re not all changing in the same areas at the same time. 

If you can answer yes to most of these questions then surprise, we have much in common!

So what? 

So firstly, we can perhaps recognise that when we are talking about the ‘issues’, we’re not talking about aliens or some strange mutation of humanity. We are talking about people who are not so different after all and have very similar drivers in their lives. Perhaps we should cut one another some slack. I have a small number of people in my life who are same sex attracted and I find them to be warm, generous and gracious people in spite of having been deeply wounded by so many throughout their lives.

Secondly, could we also acknowledge that our similarities become major points of difference in the light of our conscious and unconsciously formed worldviews. Our worldview provides us with a map by which we interpret those similarities. And, as we see in the present debate, that map can lead you in very different directions.

What is your map? How do you make up your mind about anything? Do you tend to go with the flow of popular opinion? Are you moved by what moves you emotionally? Do you prioritise your desires or what will satisfy them?  Whose truth claims have you adopted as your own?  Perhaps Freud’s? Marx’s? Depack Chopra’s? The Kardashians’? Your Facebook feed even? Or maybe you have embraced the truth statements of your parents, or your peers, or your political party.

We all live from a biased worldview that shapes our thinking about personal and social issues (there’s another similarity). But all too often people can’t seem to articulate what it is, or how it got there. So, in the absence of that information, we turn to simplistic slogans like ‘love is love’ or ‘Christians are bigots’ or conversely ‘god hates gays’ (and while I’m here - this last slogan is so abhorrently evil and biblically so fundamentally inaccurate, I have no idea how anyone, especially one who claims to follow Jesus, can utter the words). Maybe we resort to these simplistic, generalised and judgemental statements because it’s too complex or too draining to really dig any deeper.

At the base of all these baseless slogans lies for me some elementary questions that we’re not asking of ourselves and for that matter, each other anywhere near enough—the why behind the why:
What are the real sources of authority behind our lives and beliefs? 
Are those sources trustworthy and why? 
I think this may be the underlying reason why people can be so similar, and why they can be poles apart on an issue such as SSM.

I am a Christian but I don't typically use that term because sadly, it’s become vague and laden with baggage these days. More descriptively, I’m a person with Jesus constantly on my mind and thoroughly compelled by both how Jesus lived and what Jesus taught. This is not a popular confession in our enlightened post-Christian society. But Jesus and more broadly the bible is my roadmap for life and, in all my imperfect ways, I choose to walk it out and maybe help others do likewise. If nothing else, I am at least showing my hand in terms of the authority source and rationale behind my beliefs. Perhaps that has more integrity than peddling beliefs that come from unidentified, ephemeral sources or merely one’s own flawed determination of what constitutes good and evil.

I get why Tim Minchin may feel righteously offended by 'Christians.' So do I, and I'm one of them! And perhaps there is also a back story here for Tim that fuels his rage? But does respectful disagreement between people really warrant the throwing of rhetorical grenades like 'homophobic' or 'bigoted c#nt?' Should rampant materialism, greed or indifference within society not also attract an equally passionate response? It doesn’t seem to.

And I can't help but ponder the long term ramifications for a society where everyone is an authority in themselves and there is no yielding to a unifying, enduring truth beyond us, that we can all navigate by? What might unravel as we progressively dismantle the spiritual and ethical foundations upon which our nation was built? What kind of people will we become? Will anything remain sacred? Ultimately, will life even matter?

What do you think?

14 August 2017

Is Pluralism Dead in Australia?

Australia has become an incredibly diverse, cosmopolitan society over the past 50+ years. We are many races, religions and cultures hopefully learning how to live together in freedom and peace. We’re all welcome to retain our cultural and religious story and our nation asks us to celebrate, or at least tolerate the diversity of others with mutual respect. I think for the most part, we do this well and this is the strength of a pluralistic society.

Pluralism is where different ideas, beliefs or sources of authority are freely encouraged to coexist in a society. From a Christian standpoint, I used to think pluralism was a dirty word - you know, all that post-modern ‘believe what you want’, ‘truth is all relative’ mumbo jumbo. And while I still squirm at relativism, I realise that pluralism creates a much better atmosphere in which to do life than say, a totalitarian regime like North Korea—where you are told what to believe.

How does pluralism work?
Person A accepts that person B has a different set of beliefs and worldview to them.
Person A accepts that person B has a right to express those views; even when they disagree.
Person B accepts that person A doesn't hold those beliefs.
Person B accepts that person A has a right to not hold those beliefs and express that view.

Pluralism relies on people’s ability to respect each other's differences whether we approve of them or not (within the constraints of what is legal).  Yes we can voice our view and we can challenge one another; but pluralism at its best means there are two reasonably mature voices in the room, who moderate their zeal to maintain dialogue toward a mutually acceptable outcome. But is that just an impossible ideal?

The recent British reality show ‘Eden’ was canned after the ratings nose-dived. The social experiment sought to discover what would happen if you could form a simple community of 23 curiously all good-looking twenty-somethings, free from the trappings of modern life. Could you return to an Eden-like state? As you'd expect, it didn't go so well. Over the year, half the participants left and the community was riddled with sexual jealousy and conflict. Sadly, the garden of Eden is long gone because the natural state of the human heart is full of conflict, fear and insecurity—and we inevitably bring that into our relationships.

So I wonder, do we really have the maturity to actually be a pluralistic society? I think the present ‘debate’ on same sex marriage indicates we probably don't. Our media and social media is awash with this subject at the moment with people voicing, or echoing their brilliant case, their knock-out punch to the other side. So much of the language on both ends of this issue is misleading, disparaging and adversarial.

As a Christian right now, the social pressure and indeed manipulation to either say nothing, or say what your audience expects is quite overwhelming. I have people share with me how they are afraid to say anything at all, even to their Christian friends. If your personal view leans toward the ‘yes’ vote, you can expect more than a few fellow Christians to be horrified and you may be called a 'liberal.' But if your view leans toward the ‘no’ vote, you can anticipate being branded as just another homophobic Christian! Or worse, it could be a career limiting move because your employer can't accept your personal convictions. So as a result, many people end up adopting the socially correct line—or saying nothing at all.

I wonder if there is a silent majority of people both Christian and not, who say nothing because the response either way will be well, critical to say the least (and sometimes shades of totalitarian Kim Jong-un).

But then again, perhaps this is just a taste of what LGBTI people have felt from sectors of the Christian community for decades. Perhaps condemning words, moral superiority and unmetered insensitivity has been an exponentially greater sin. Perhaps, in terms of the popular opinion of Australian society, we in the church are reaping what we’ve sown—the stigmatiser has become the stigma now—the labeller has attracted its own labels.

I find it quite sobering that a major reason why same sex couples and families didn't want a plebiscite in any form was because of the expectation that the ‘no’ vote (aka the church) would be promoting more hatred and bigotry. Hatred and bigotry from the people who are supposed to be known by their love! Some believe that the psychological harm argument is just a very clever piece of propaganda, but given the LGBTI community have the highest rates of suicide in the country, I think this concern is something important and to be considered. If there are people in our community who are clearly in pain, our response should be protective and compassionate.

This matter of same sex marriage is an extremely personal one for many people on both sides of the fence. It is too simplistic to say that this is just about modifying the marriage act because we are asking the vast majority of the population to alter the worldview that has been handed down to them uncontested for well, a very, very long time. It’s a view that is deeply ingrained into their religious and cultural traditions and that needs to be acknowledged and respected rather than vilified.

Either way we all need to take a step back, moderate our language and genuinely listen to one another—remembering we are all more than the sum of our political, sexual or theological orientations. And if anyone should be taking the lead on that front—I’d hope it is the Australian Church of which I’m still proud to be a part of.

Is pluralism dead in Australia? I guess that depends what we all do next.

08 August 2017

Are You Living in the Cause, or the Effect?

There were tears at opening ceremony of the 2017 Garma Festival at Uluru last week as delegates mourned the sudden death of a great Australian - G Yunupingu, one of the most celebrated indigenous artists of our time. A person’s name or image is not used in YolÅ‹u custom after death so his people now refer to him as Gudjuk. 

Gudjuk was a gifted musician with a hauntingly beautiful voice. He blended the indigenous language and culture of his people with the universal language of music, appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and performing on a world stage with fellow greats like Elton John and Sting. I didn't personally know Gudjuk, but I do personally know people who did—sharing life together on Elcho Island in north east Arnhem Land. So last week I asked them for a first-hand reflection on the man they knew, as I was particularly interested to hear about his spirituality and faith.

There were so many dimensions to this man—his musical brilliance; his bridging the cultural divide; his deepening spirituality and authentic faith as a Christian. And I wonder of the influences—the little church at Galiwinku, Elcho Island and the role of Christian hymns in his musical development; the remarkable Christian missionaries like those on Elcho Island who were champions of indigenous culture and language, investing their lives into the translation of the bible into indigenous dialects (rather than demanding our First People learn the white man’s tongue).

But what I find most striking is how Gudjuk saw his world and God. My contact who knew him and his mother like family, said to me ‘I think Gudjuk’s faith can be summed up in the words of his own song (History),’ - ‘I was born blind and I don’t know why, God knows why, because He loves me so'. Blind from birth, Gudjuk navigated life differently to the majority of us, and while his blindness may be classified as a disability, perhaps he saw the world in ways those with sight never can.

Gudjuk reminds me of a story in the bible in John Chapter 9 where Jesus also meets a man blind from birth. His disciples insensitively ask ‘Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?’ Their question reveals a world view still common to this day—that bad things happen to people because they are being punished (by God). Jesus quickly corrected them saying ‘neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this has happened so that the works of God might be displayed in his life.’

What does Jesus’ answer mean? Well it doesn't mean God made him blind to get the glory one day—that is an equally ugly interpretation. And if you follow that logic, then every natural disaster and every cancer cell might be somehow God-inspired, and if that is true, God may be powerful but he is not good. No, Jesus is saying that the premise of their question is wrong. As much as we can't help but form our questions of suffering around who’s to blame (who sinned) or the cause, they are questions that are largely without answer in this life. Just read the story of Job and you’ll get that message.

The question Jesus is answering is not about the ‘cause’, but the ‘effect’. If we can't know the cause of our suffering, what at least will be the effect of our suffering? What becomes of us in our diminishment, our loss, our pain? Do we become defined by what is wrong? Do we live as a victim, or sink into despair? Do our questions lead us to unbelief and bitterness?

Or, is there a way we can rise above what we don't have and use whatever we do have for good? Is there a chance that our intrinsic worth as people can be magnified even in our weakness and loss? Is it possible to find a life, even when there are parts of it that we’ve lost?

Gudjuk was blind, he didn't know why and neither do I. But his heart told him that the best answer was to find peace in that reality and remind himself that God loves him. And his response was to utilise what he could do, develop his musical giftedness, and gift it to the world.

What I’m about to say may make little sense apart from personal experience. But, whatever situation you find yourself in at the moment, in whatever questions that have gone unanswered, God knows you and he loves you—he even likes you!

Right now, in all the mess or grief of life there is one who not only showed that love on a cross and an empty tomb, but who goes on personally revealing the truth that God is for you. To know and experience this reality in a personal way is a profoundly liberating thing.

Here is a link to the clip of Gudjuk’s song ‘History

Post script. Perhaps, like I, you've travelled around the world marvelling in the history of other cultures—the Romans; the Egyptians; the Chinese; the Thai. Did you know that the oldest continuous living culture on the earth today belongs here with our Indigenous Australians who carry a rich oral history in song, dance and custom that is older than the pyramids? Do you know anything about that history? I know I really take for granted the cultural treasure around us and perhaps it is time to honour and champion the ancient heritage we’ve inherited from the First Australians. I for one support a substantive and meaningful constitutional recognition of our Indigenous peoples. What do you think?

01 August 2017

Bikinis, Burqas and Bibles

My 7 year old son Curtis and I were standing at the crossing beneath that iconic arched Surfers Paradise sign on the Gold Coast last week. We'd just devoured 2 chocolate donuts by the beach and were heading back to the hotel. Holding Curtis’ sticky hand, we waited at the crossing for the lights to change. Two ladies wearing skimpy gold bikinis, cowboy hats, boots and Surfers Paradise sashes were welcoming passers by with their ultra white smiles. I didn't know where to look! A few meters away stood a cluster of women wearing dark Burqas revealing just their eyes - it was the starkest of contrasts. And stationed right in the thick of it by the crossing was a man, bible in hand shouting at us all something about abominations, homosexuals, fornicators and repenting. This was one of those bizarre moments where world views collide in a spectacular way and you realise what a privilege it is to live in Australia.

But the atmosphere at the crossing was dominated by the stern voice of the street evangelist. I felt like I was in trouble and I reckon everyone at the lights in that moment became people of prayer — we were all were praying the lights would change!

And as I stood there holding my son’s hand for what seemed an age, my sense of internal agitation continued to grow as I thought to myself ‘Oh would you please shut up!' Suddenly Curtis turned to me with a startled look on his face — I realised that my mouth must have been attached to that thought after all. Slightly embarrassed, I apologised to him — and mercifully the lights changed.

But just a few meters further along the esplanade appeared an elderly couple motionless under the shade of a Yucca Tree . They had erected an A-frame and with brochures in hand about something to do with creation, they stood like statues waiting in an awkward silence for someone to stray a little too close to their side of the pavement. It was like I'd walked into an evangelistic mine field. Again, all I could think was how quickly could we walk and how far away these people were from a truly meaningful engagement with the people passing by, myself included.

Now on reflection, I suspect that that these people are genuinely nice people. They are taking seriously Jesus’ explicit call on all his followers to share the gospel (something the majority of Christians balk at). I applaud their boldness, their obedience and their willingness to be uncomfortable for the sake of the gospel.

But my hunch is that this abrasive and invasive style of communication does more harm than good. If it turns off fellow Christians (like me), how much more does it turn off those already cold to Christianity?

I’m also really passionate about talking with people about Jesus and there are plenty of opportunities to do so each week. Even as I write this I’ve just been sitting next to an older lady in a cafe. As she sipped her green tea and read her Kindle we found ourselves both drawn to the TV on the wall watching Whitney Houston’s video clip of “I will always love you” (remember The Bodyguard with Kevin Costner?). My book and her Kindle seemed less interesting than this cheesy clip because something deeper was happening than just an old memory of a schmaltzy film from the 90’s. For just a moment we both were thinking the same thing — this beautiful virtuoso was actually dead. Her life away from the cameras a prison of addiction and substance abuse and self-loathing. After it ended I voiced that thought, and this stranger and I lamented together on the tragedy of her death and the fragility of life. We both had to leave, but with a little more time this point of connection could have easily developed into a conversation about Jesus that was totally natural and unforced.

People don't want to be shouted at or preyed upon, but they do want connection and I think the vast majority of people want to talk about meaningful things when they have the time and feel safe. And from my experience, there is something very gratifying in fostering those simple, unthreatening yet meaningful conversations with people that sometimes lead nowhere, and sometimes everywhere.

If you’d like to make more intentional yet unforced connections with people about the deeper stuff of life here are a few discoveries I've made along the way that can transform your capacity to connect with the people around you:
  1. Be present. Being physically and emotionally present for the people around you is a mindset. In public spaces (like the cafe you frequent) tear yourself away from that screen, look up, make eye contact, smile, say hello and ask people how their day is. Without a posture of being present, you can be in a crowded room all by yourself. 
  2. Be curious. If you strike up a conversation, don't make it all about you. Being curious about life and how someone else is experiencing it builds connection. You may be the only person that has spoken to them in ages and letting them speak is a great gift to them. I’m constantly surprised what people will disclose after just a few minutes connecting. People like to talk about themselves, so let them. 
  3. Be relaxed. Your only agenda should be to leave someone feeling encouraged. Remember, people aren't simply ‘souls to win,’ they are simply people to be loved. If you are all tense about connecting with people (or nailing the four spiritual laws), they will pick up on it and become tense too. 
  4. Be safe. One reason why people don't talk to strangers may stem from being told not to in childhood. So fear cripples us from living out some of the most basic instructions of Jesus. Yes, be wise in who you will connect with. Don’t place yourself in an unsafe situation. But also remember you need to be a safe person. This looks like always leaving the other person with the balance of power, not forcing the conversation or moving faster than they want. When they need to go, let them.
God really likes that person in front of you. Your privilege is to reveal it.