Blog

I’ve never consulted a geneticist to ask; but I suspect creative writing must be in my family genes somehow. My grandfather was an accomplished author and journalist; his father was owner-editor of a newspaper; and my daughter is a Media & Communications professional. I wrote poetry as a child, then stopped entirely (probably with the male machoism of puberty). The writing gift has been rekindled spontaneously in the past decade or so, which I attribute to God’s Spirit.

This blog is thus far the chief outlet for my scribal passions, apart from letter writing to newspapers. Many submitted letters appear here, whether published in print or not. (Commonly the latter – that’s life for us letter writers, generally.)

My social or political comments are mainly targetted at a general audience, occasionally with reference to the interface between faith and society.

My blog also includes sermon texts and devotional reflections. These are intended mainly for Christian readers.

Mal’s folly

Ok here’s my take on the NBN debacle …Tony Abbott was ideologically committed to trashing Labor’s legacy, root and branch. He tasked his shadow cabinet members with crafting minimalist policies to replace Labor’s, so he could claim to be covering the bases in areas the voters would want, but in ways that would support his neoliberal philosophy (small government, minimal-spend, big business, anti-science).

That’s the beginning point of policies like Turnbull’s NBN and Hunt’s ‘Direct Action’ climate policy. Having started from that ideological base, the Turnbull government has little choice but to defend these policies to the last man. I still remember Tony’s launch of the Coalition’s answer to Labor’s NBN. The day he credited Malcolm T with virtually inventing the internet. (Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.) I recall that Mal, standing beside Tony to announce the plan, looked as comfortable as a pork butcher in a synagogue. But this was the price he’d decided to pay to stay within reach of the crown in an Abbott cabinet. To this day, my gut feeling has remained that Mal has known all along that the bastardised NBN policy that bears his name is rubbish.

But what do you do when in the fulness of time you’ve seized the coveted crown, and now it’s your job to lead the team to the election with the policies your ousted predecessor believed in (which you didn’t and don’t)? Well you do the only thing that won’t make you look an unprincipled prat. You lie through your teeth to defend what you know to be indefensible nonsense, and hope like mad either that your rhetorical skills will carry the day, or that your opponents will look even less impressive.

Welcome to the coal and copper future.

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Video

Mercies in disguise

Being a fogey I naturally don’t keep up with the latest in contemporary Christian music. So an awful lot passes me by, interspersed with haphazard moments of discovery.

A couple of weeks back I happened to be driving and chanced upon a Christian radio station. A song I’d never heard was playing, and I was transfixed. The song was released in 2011, and deservedly led to awards and heightened recognition for the artist, Laura Story. (Yep, you guessed it .. I hadn’t heard of her either. That will let younger Christians know what sized rock I’ve been hiding under.)

The song is simply titled “Blessings”….

 

It’s seriously one of the most moving and theologically satisfying songs I’ve ever heard on the theme of suffering in the journey of discipleship. As so often with musical or other reflections on suffering throughout Christian history, the rich biblical insights the song expresses are borne of real trials in the life of the artist. The following line from the refrain says so much …

What if trials of this life are your mercies in disguise?

This song ministers mightily to my spirit, as it clearly has done to many many others over the past 5 years. Highly recommended to any who’ve been hiding under the same rock as I …

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Batting for Jesus on a rough wicket

The teacher set the class the common task of designing their own respective coats of arms and matching life mottos. Our son’s motto was simple and to the point:

Cricket. Nothing more, nothing less.

Cricket always was a metaphor of life, and that includes the Christian life surely. Listening to the commentary, one learns that there are many types of wickets. Flat wickets, grassy wickets, crumbling wickets (and that’s quite apart from the dreaded and proverbial ‘sticky wicket’).

Another is the rough wicket. The kind you might get on day 3 of a test match, but never ever for T20. Spin bowlers relish it. No one wants to bat on it. But alas, that was just the kind of pitch prepared by the curators down at the ABC for last Monday’s test match under lights, otherwise known as Q&A. And a handpicked Christian side were sent in to bat. No one saw a pink ball, but it was tough out in the middle.

But as often happens at the cricket, the crowd reaction was at least as interesting and varied as anything on the ground. The reaction of fans was richly varied; everything from those who rated the batting side’s performance a raging success to the ones who felt utterly let down by a singular lack of courage and not a single boundary.

Now one can understand the disappointment, the sense of lost opportunity. But here’s a thought … Maybe the most dejected fans were the ones who hadn’t thought carefully enough about the batting conditions. Nowadays rough pitches are the norm for Christian batting in what has become a very secular game, in which we’re by and large the minnows. That’s a frustration for those who recall the glory days of Christian ascendancy in the public sphere. And it’s a bore for those who now think the real action is in T20, where every second balls is lofted into the stand.

On my take, the batting conditions for Christian engagement in public discourse today (of which Monday’s match was but a single session in a very long game) are like this: The program’s brief was to evaluate Christianity’s contribution to modern Australia. A utilitarian approach, in other words. That means the secular world’s asking the questions, and we’re answering on its terms. That’s a big determinant of what can possibly be said (what kinds of strokes can be played). I thought the panel did pretty well with the rough wicket they were batting on.

Or to put it another way — The Q&A setup is more a test match pitch with mainly spin bowling, meaning a batsman who expects to hit 4s and 6s won’t last long. 2 runs an over and maybe the occasional 3 all run is a good strategy, even if the crowd does get bored and start throwing beach balls. 

I suspect many Christian critiques of the program come from folks who’ve gotten a little too used to T20.

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What about the birds?

My vote on July 2 will go to the party whose leader can most satisfactorily answer the weightiest moral and economic question of our time. That question of course is

Have the birds got jobs?

Voters with a moral conscience will well remember the first raising of the matter in cinemas everywhere in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”1back in 1979. It is surely a scandal of modern times that the question is yet to be answered or even taken seriously by politicians. Our avian friends deserve much better.I want Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten to tell the Australian people honestly just what it is that their parties have against the birds, that this defining question of our age could remain unanswered for so long.Let there be an end to all frivolous political rhetoric and commentary.

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Cakes, weddings and Jesus

I’d like to raise a question I haven’t raised before anywhere. I’m thinking aloud, so this isn’t a ‘position’ in any sense. More an exploratory question …

To date I’ve shared common Christian concerns for Christian bakers, photographers, etc as we anticipate an altered social and legislative landscape with ‘same-sex marriage’. And I do want to see religious freedom appropriately enshrined in our democracy. Among other things, I want our’s to be a society where the bakers and the rest are able, should they so choose, to make socially unpopular decisions according to religious conscience, without fear of prosecution.

But all that said I’m just wondering whether our approach to the matter needs a rethink, at least in part. It’s one thing to want the protections I’ve just referred to, to be in place. It’s another to recommend that such stands as those taken by the now proverbial bakers, necessarily be taken.

I’m thinking about where we are now socially, versus maybe 50 years ago, re de facto marriages and single parenting. Back then (ok, so I was only 7) it wasn’t uncommon for clergy to insist that a non-church couple living together separate and/or cease intimate relations as a condition of a ‘church wedding’. Likewise some would refuse (politely or otherwise) to consider baptising a child whose parents weren’t married. People living in de facto relationships and unwed mothers had good reason to feel uncomfortable in churches. They commonly felt they were being gossiped about and judged; and they were probably right very often. Similar observations could have been made in the wider community among professionals such as teachers, doctors or even shopkeepers; the more so if the service providers were evangelical Christians, but not them only.

To relate the matter more closely to the subject at hand, I’m wondering how a Christian baker in 1950 might have taken a request for a ‘Christening’ cake for a child whose parents weren’t married. Yes, it’s a hypothetical; people didn’t have parties and cut work-of-art cakes every 5 minutes back then. But if such a thing did happen, my guess is an awkward transaction at the very least, and maybe even a decline.

The picture nowadays is I think rather different. It’s not that evangelical pastors, churches or people have watered down our moral convictions about godly living according to Scripture. We still teach and disciple our church members by the same standards as our forebears did. But what has happened, as I perceive it, is a realisation that we ain’t living in Christendom. We don’t expect regenerate lives and behaviour from unregenerate people. We haven’t decided that de facto marriages and single parenting are perfectly ‘ok’ now. But at a pastoral level we’re inclined to live with some moral ambiguities, even if only as means to the end of people being among us long enough to see Jesus’ lovely character in us, and of us having an opportunity to invite them to receive salvation in him.

So my question is for the Christian community generally, as we anticipate the altered landscape that’s likely ahead – and that won’t be a passing phase. I ask it of Christian providers of goods or services to the general public, and I ask it of my fellow pastors – we who will counsel, disciple and encourage the former among us. Will it be biblical and best serve the cause of the Gospel, for Christian providers of goods and services, particularly but not only in the ‘wedding industry’, to decline service to same-sex couples or families on grounds of conscience? Or might we rather serve graciously and generously, regardless of our vastly differing moral convictions, so as to be able to serve the Gospel? I submit that we’ve largely adopted the latter perspective with de facto couples and single parents, and rightly, in my view. Is it not likely that the same will become our approach to same-sex couples and the children they raise, in a world where – failing an extraordinary work of revival – we will be increasingly peripheral?

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Why Pell is not the tree to bark up

I’m getting frustrated with much of the media commentary on Cardinal Pell and the Royal Commission. This isn’t about whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy, whatever that would mean. It’s about everyone’s failure to exegete the Catholic Church’s leadership structure. It’s understandable in the case of victims and the general populace; but media organisations really should do some half-decent research. Is that out of fashion nowadays?

My beef is that we’re all being misled about what Pell can do for us, for anyone. Yes, he can and darn well should answer for what happened in the past, including within his own spheres of knowledge, authority and influence. But he can do precisely nothing about the present and future, and I’m troubled that the victims are pinning hopes on him as a change agent.

The central question is who Pell now is as far as the Catholic church in Australia goes. The answer is … wait for it … NOTHING. Yes that’s right, Cardinal George Pell can now do nothing about anything that happens in the Australian Catholic world. What’s singularly unhelpful is the bandying about of phrases like “Australia’s most senior catholic” and “the third highest ranking” at the Vatican, and even in one case something like “CEO of the Catholic Church in Australia”. Many things are wrong with those pictures. In what follows I’ll elaborate what I understand to be the case. My Catholic friends might correct me on any nuances.

To begin with – even when he was still in Australia, most recently as Archbishop of Sydney, Pell’s authority over any other bishop in Australia was nil. The dioceses and archdioceses are each their own domain. At the episcopal (bishop / archbishop) level, it’s a flat structure. The (arch)/bishops are equals. “But hang on,” you say, “he was a cardinal, and the only one, right?” Yes indeed. But here’s where things are not as they appear to the typical observer. Cardinals don’t ‘outrank’ bishops as such. A cardinal is a Vatican official. In modern times, most of them are also bishops, and usually senior ones. But their authority as cardinals is related specifically to their Vatican responsibility. Some of them are physically based at the Vatican; others are scattered around the world. In the case of the latter, their local and Vatican responsibilities are distinct entities. They have no jurisdiction in any other bishop’s diocese, or any authority over any other bishop at the pastoral level. So even when he was still in an Australian role, Pell was no more and no less than the senior bishop of the Sydney archdiocese.

But further, he’s no longer in an Australian post. Yes he’s an Australian (presuming that moving to the Vatican, a separate nation state, doesn’t change his citizenship). But his entire role is within the Vatican, where his portfolio is entirely disconnected with his national origin. He has authority specific to his brief within the Vatican structure, in the Secretariat for the Economy. He may be a senior figure in the Vatican bureaucracy, but he doesn’t even have a key to a toilet block in Australia (so far as I know).

By all means grill the guy about what happened in Ballarat, Melbourne and Sydney. And please God, he may now repent of and even apologise for some things in the past. And may there be some healing for someone somewhere as a result. But please dear Australian commentariat, do some basic research (if Wikipedia’s good enough for Environment Minister Greg Hunt, it’s good enough for you), and save abuse victims from any more false expectations and dashed hopes for change than they already suffer.

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Jesus and Anzac

I’m just back from a half-day’s Anzac Day commemoration here in Cooma. Part 1 – the Anzac Service at the Cooma Cenotaph. Part 2 – the semi-formal lunch at the Cooma Ex-Serviceman’s Club, complete with post-lunch two-up in the presence of a passive and smiling police inspector. Another welcome cultural experience for this still fairly green country town pastor.

It was my lot to be the ‘Anzac Chaplain’ for 2014. This consisted of delivering the ‘Anzac Oration’ during the service, and saying grace before the subsequent lunch .. oh, and a seat at the high table too.

Some random reflections …

  • probably about 1000 attended the service. Not too shabby in a town of 8000. A fine opportunity for further public exposure, which is pretty important in rural ministry.
  • a privilege to address the Anzac theme so closely in the shadow of Easter. Gold, when one considers the shrinking scope for pointing largely non-church Australians to the gospel of Jesus in a public way. Praying that some people were given cause to consider Jesus as the preeminent exemplar of humility and self-giving in his Cross.
  • thankful that in a country community the church and clergy are still at some level embraced as central to the community. For how much longer? Who knows … but may we use the resulting opportunities, such as this one, well.
  • perplexed by christendom’s death throes. ‘Chaplain’ kind of says it really. That and the fact that the traditional RSL Anzac service is basically a liturgy of Christian hymns and prayers (albeit with a little doubtful theology here and there), but in language Christians don’t use anymore and with the ‘chaplain’ as an invited guest for a single part. Not whinging at the latter, please understand, but certainly much pondering.
  • wondering … Is there a possibility of recovering a more central role in this event (given it’s tacitly ‘Christian’ nature)? Or is it better to let it gradually die and seek other entry points?

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Say “No” to all domestic abuse

Fairfax’s “Shine a light” campaign on domestic violence is an exemplary instance of harnessing the power of a major media organisation for social good. Former Queensland premier Anna Bligh’s public leadership for the same cause is equally welcome and commendable. (“Former Queensland premier Anna Bligh on how we can stop domestic violence“, CT, 19/4). Any success by either promises immeasurable benefits to our common life for generations.

However it would be regrettable if such efforts were to focus on physical violence to the exclusion of mental, emotional, sexual or other forms of abuse mainly perpetrated against women and children, in homes across the country. Whether or not the victim ever suffers physical harm, all forms of domestic abuse arise from one (most usually male) person’s ingrained sense of entitlement to control and dominate those closest to them. All such domination deprives the victim of their personhood, with the same ripple effect of destroyed lives and relationships, often for generations.

Say ‘No’ to all domestic abuse.

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Too much spark

The only truly surprising thing about the excessive revelry of New Year’s Eve indulgence in Fitzroy North’s Edinburgh Gardens, is that it wasn’t replicated in a dozen other neighbourhoods. Are we really surprised that scores of marauding, tanked up partygoers would gather, carouse to excess, urinate, defaecate, graffiti, and leave oceans of detritus for others to clean?

The merrymakers were merely having a ‘good time’ as portrayed by our cultural exemplars. Our political leaders lack any will to sever the marketing nexus between alcohol and sport. Our civic leaders invest our taxes and rates in the never-ending annual quest for pyrotechnic supremacy. We provide free transport for the paralytic. And then the evening news leaves us in no doubt that the wildest are the winners. What can we do but clean up the mess yet again?

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Up the poll

Is there no end to the prevailing obsession with polls? When for the past 3 years our senses have been numbed and our reasoning capacities neutered by almost daily electoral horoscopes, I suppose one shouldn’t pause at a front page ‘EXCLUSIVE … Age poll’ about the Federal Labor leadership ballot. But after the gangrenous impact of polling paranoia on the late government, is democracy now truly served by further forecasts of a ‘cliffhanger’ in a ballot limited to Labor members? Will our respect for our nation’s parliament grow by speculating on the roles the factions will play in the ballot, who might swap sides, and which side Mr Rudd is ‘expected’ to take? Enough of this fatuity.

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