24 April 2017

Is Peace Possible?

America recently dropped a really big bomb on eastern Afghanistan and the media gave it almost as much attention as the rugby league gets every night. It was affectionately dubbed the 'mother of all bombs' (M.O.A.B) and was the largest conventional bomb ever developed. If there was a ‘father of all bombs’ title it would have to go to a nuclear missile ironically named ‘The Peacekeeper’. This missile was longer than a bus and could fly 10,000 km then deploy 10 individually targeted 300 kiloton warheads. Now if my math is correct that equates to the destructive force of about 150 of the atom bombs dropped on Japan in WW2. 'And hey. Why stop at just 1 'Peacekeeper', America built 114 of them!'

Mercifully they have now all been decommissioned - although they did recycle the warheads into smaller, less offensive nuclear missiles (whatever that means). I love the late Carl Sagan’s quote that ‘The nuclear arms race was like two sworn enemies standing waist deep in gasoline, one with three matches, the other with five.’ The stakes were, and still are apocalyptic in scale.

For as long as people have been fighting, men (lets be honest it's not women) have been feverishly perfecting the art of destruction, stockpiling our ‘peacekeepers’ and giving them ominous names so everyone else knows that you better not pick a fight with us. Even 2200 years ago Archimedes (another man) invented weapons named ‘The Scorpion’, ‘The Claw’ and ‘The Death Ray’ to fend off the Roman empire. And while we have not experienced anything like the horror of the major wars of the 20th Century for many decades, despite our apparent enlightenment and all our cleverness, war is ever present somewhere on earth.

Perhaps, as Ecclesiastes 3.8 says, there is ‘a time for war’ in the face of great evil. But war remains a futile and tragic manifestation of our deep brokenness which mostly fails to produce lasting peace. Martin Luther King Jr said it well when he said ‘Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.

This Anzac day, we rightfully honour the brave men, women and their families across the wars who sacrificed everything for the freedom we have. We recognize that the life we enjoy came with a very high price, paid not by us, but for us. This, a shadow of the greatest sacrifice of Jesus, laying down His life for us, so we might all have life.

Is peace possible? Ultimately peace in our families, communities and among nations won’t be cultivated from the seeds of violence. A lasting peace that saturates all of life (shalom) grows in the soil of peace with God and peace within. It grows as we die to ourselves, as we lay down our agendas, egos and anxieties. It grows as we let Jesus be our Prince of Peace and greatest desire. The apostle Paul wrote ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 4:6-7)

Where is peace absent from your life today?
What anxiety could you bring to Jesus, to exchange for His peace?

‘Peace I (Jesus) leave with you; my peace I give you. 
I do not give to you as the world gives. 
Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.’
(John 14:27)

16 April 2017

The war people seem to ignore

For years now we’ve been hearing about the ‘war on terror.’ Yet across the globe another war has been building momentum for decades with little public recognition - the war on Christianity. In the birthplace of Christianity, the middle east, persecution regularly manifests in the bombing of churches, ultimatums, executions, socioeconomic exclusion and exile. The Palm Sunday bombings in Egypt last week are yet another deadly example of this terrifying reality.

In the West, the war on Christianity is subtler but becoming less so. Sure, it seems petty compared to what Christians are facing in other places, but I do think we are becoming increasingly marginalised, misrepresented and silenced by secularism. And, to be fair, part of this is our fault for failing to protect children and cover up abuse in the church. And the waning affection for Christianity is also in part a reaction to our inability to communicate and demonstrate the timeless gospel in an ever changing social landscape. Perhaps the church in Australia is beginning to taste what was normal for disciples twenty centuries ago.

In light of this, I was surprised that I was surprised by the news this week of some public schools choosing to remove any reference to Easter in an effort to be sensitive and inclusive. Apparently, by using the word Easter,  some people may be offended because it doesn’t represent all other religious traditions and celebrations happening at this time of the year.

Following that logic, if someone might be offended or feel excluded by another belief or tradition, we should ensure they feel included by redefining or removing the existing shared traditions, even if it may offend everyone who was included the first place. Now that makes sense! I can’t see how celebrating a core tenant of one belief system becomes an affront to every other belief system. Are we all that insecure? Is this not political correctness gone mad?

So it’s  no longer an ‘Easter hat parade,’ it’s a ‘funny hat parade!’ Personally I don’t really care what they call the silly parade. I’d be quite happy to kill off everything that turns the grand story of God’s love and sacrifice into a novelty, a free day off and an eating binge. I'm not saying we all boycott chocolate this Easter, my kids would kill me. But remember that Easter is no more about hats and chocolate bunnies as Christmas is about Santa and Christmas trees. These (largely American) trimmings distract from the real message of Easter and Christmas turning something meaningful into something trivial.

Jesus did wear a hat of sorts, and he did march in a parade. Only his hat wasn’t adorned with fluffy chickens, freshly painted polystyrene eggs and springy multicolored pipe cleaners.

His head was covered in long thorns, a twisted garland of torture and mockery. He wore that crown in an agonizing march up a hill to the place where nails were driven into his limbs then he was hoisted naked up a recycled Roman cross for all to see. No proud mums posting their children’s catwalk creations. No laughter, no applause. Just a grieving mother in an atmosphere of shame and loathing and helplessness.

Perhaps the real reason why there is a war of sorts on Christianity, is because when we are exposed to the raw gospel, the gospel exposes us and beckons us to follow the way of cross-bearing, sacrifice and servanthood. And frankly, that’s not popular.

Knowing this, Jesus reassured his disciples, ‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.’ (Matthew 5.11-12)

10 April 2017

What are you looking for?

Over the past fortnight I’ve been trying to read Ernest Becker’s 1974 Pulitzer prize winning novel, ‘The Denial of Death’ on kindle. It’s certainly not light reading and probably meant for someone with a much higher IQ than I’ll ever have, but I’ve persisted because it is so highly regarded as a book. Becker, an atheist, analyses the work of some of the great psychoanalysts of the past few centuries. What you discover is that many thinkers such as Søren Kierkegaard, Otto Rank and Becker himself acknowledge the universal longing for a transcendent ‘beyond’ (God), in which to find redemption and to surrender one’s life to. Rank would say that the ‘need for a truly religious ideology is inherent in human nature and its fulfilment is basic to any kind of social life.’ And in the absence of this spiritual narrative, people reach for the ‘next best thing to fulfill them’ which, as Becker admits, ‘at the same time limits and enslaves them.’

Powerful stuff, but what does all this mean? I think it means we are all longing to make sense of the story of our lives and understand how we fit in the universe. And when we lose that transcendent story of God, we lose part of ourselves and become a prisoner to all our God-substitutes.

In western history, Christianity was that redemptive story that provided a foundation for identity, morality and life. But with the rise of secularism and the retreat of Christianity, people are left without a God, without a redemptive story and without a common truth foundation on which to find meaning and orient their lives.

I wonder how that is working out for us?

I suspect that in spite of all our enlightened thought, all our technology and scientific genius, people today are actually more disoriented, depressed, conflicted and confused than ever before. Perhaps the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes is as true today as ever - we are prone to become lost in the pursuit of our God-substitutes which is simply ‘a chasing after the wind.’

In that classic U2 song from the 80’s, Bono tapped into the deep unsatisfied yearning in us all. He sang,
I have kissed honey lips, Felt the healing in her finger tips
It burned like fire, I was burning inside her.
I have spoke with the tongue of angels, 
I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night, 
I was cold as a stone.

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

I wonder, have you found what you are looking for?

This week we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. This historical event changed the course of world history in more ways than I have space to list. But more so, the death and resurrection of Jesus changes the course of personal history, as it did for me many years ago and continues to do so today. What if, after all our searching and all our advances, we realise that the deepest longings of our life lead to a blood stained cross and to a king who takes your shame and exchanges it with forgiveness and freedom.

Jesus plainly said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ and authenticates that claim with his resurrection. What if Jesus actually is what we have been looking for?

You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross of my shame
Oh my shame, you know I believe it.
(Lyrics: U2, Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For)

04 April 2017

Defusing Division

Last week the Federal government’s proposed amendments to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act was defeated in the senate. The act made it illegal to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’ anyone on the basis of race and the government wanted to change that wording to ‘harass and intimidate.’

What’s the difference you say? It seems the difference is in how you define racial discrimination. Is it a narrow definition around actions that clearly harass and intimidate people? Or is it broader to including any offensive thought expressed in public, like a cartoon, speech or newspaper column? The difference reveals the dilemma of how to create a society where people have protection from offensive, hateful words and equally, freedom to voice their own views. This is clearly complicated but I’d hope that we want both, yet recognize that no amount of legislation will guarantee either.

The 18C debate grabbed my attention because it reveals the growing diversity of our nation. A nation in which Christians are increasingly becoming a minority group. And this diversity produces, as philosopher John Rawls said ‘a plurality of conflicting conceptions of the meaning, value and purpose of human life.’ In other words, it’s really hard to get along when we all think so differently. Whether it’s over political, racial, religious or ethical issues, it feels like we are more fragmented and factionalised than ever. Am I being too dramatic? What do you think?

So what do we do with our long mental lists of differences? How do we champion peace amid the tension of pluralism? And how does faith become the instrument of peace rather than a path to division? Here are four thoughts that we all could apply in most of life’s situations.

1. Suspend your judgement
The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said ‘It is impossible to live at peace with those we regard as damned.’ Jesus went further to say in Matthew 7, ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged’. When we start with a conclusion about someone, we immediately close ourselves off from truly understanding them, and we take the place of God as their judge. So when judgement rises in us, pause and hold back on drawing conclusions.

2. See your plank
Jesus said, ‘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?’ One of our greatest needs is to honestly evaluate our own thoughts and desires and recognize our own failings. When offence begins to rise, pause and think about your own errors and insecurities.

3. Stand in their shoes
Our narrow beliefs form behind what John Rawls called ‘the veil of ignorance.’ Jesus understood our world because he was a part of it rather than apart from it. We have a greater opportunity for peace when we enter into another person’s world and seek to understand the problem through their eyes. This is an antidote to ignorance and enables us to see the person, not just the problem.

4. Choose your Words
After we pause, look at our own world and consider theirs. Then we may be more able to speak to the person with a language and tone that defuses division and promotes peace. Jesus simply said ‘to love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.’ Love doesn’t mean I disregard my convictions, but it does mean I express them with humility and an appreciation of the other viewpoint. Only then, can we begin to build bridges over our differences and see each other as Jesus sees us all.

Who don’t you see eye to eye with?
How might you respond differently?