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.