Monday, November 30, 2009

It's Advent Again

Advent - the start of the church's year, comprising four Sundays before Christmas - is upon us.  'Advent' means 'coming', and refers to the coming of the Messiah, both his first coming in the incarnation, and his return.   These are the first and second Advents.
The service readings set for this season do two things.
On the one hand they take us back to the prophets, to Isaiah, Malachi, Jeremiah, standing with Israel looking forward to her redemption.  The call is to get ready, to prepare for the Day of the Lord, when he will visit and rescue his people.  This is a time of both  liberation and retribution, a season of great joy, and also the most painful regret over sin unrepented.
On the other hand, the set readings take us to Jesus' announcements of future judgment, when he tells of his return as judge, to complete the inauguration of the Kingdom of God.  His reflections are full of foreboding and concern lest his listeners be found unready on that great and terrible day.  These tie back into the prophets, as their culmination.
In Advent the church looks forward to the incarnation – to the first coming of the Messiah –  as if standing with Israel centuries BC,  but the key energy in the season of Advent,  the great power which speaks from the readings, is a focus on his Second Coming.  The  sense of anticipation originates with the Hebrew prophets, and flows through the gospels towards God's future for the world.
The thing is, the Christian church in the West today seems to find it a lot easier to focus on the incarnation and Christmas during Advent, than on  the Second Coming and future judgement.  So Advent gets subverted into a kind of pre-Christmas shopping, cooking frenzy, instead of a season of fasting, self-examination, repentence and solemn reflection, which is where a focus on the Second Coming leads us.  What we end up with is a truncated, frozen-in-time perspective on God's saving plan,  held in suspended animation somewhere near Bethlehem.  It is good - indeed essential - to remember, to reflect deeply on the incarnation, but the amazing event of the birth of the Messiah is a signpost into God's future, to his saving intentions for the whole world.  For this season, let our focus be to look forward at this time, towards Christ's Second Advent.  Let us get our hearts ready, not simply to celebrate Christmas, but to await his Second Coming.  The real question for each heart who follows Christ in this season is not 'Am I ready for  Christmas, celebrating Christ's First Coming' but 'Am I ready for his Second Coming.'

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Seed Sown Bears Much Fruit

While I was in Korea recently, speaking on the contribution of St Mary’s to the Korean church, I had a memorable conversation about mission. This was at a Presbyterian church in Busan founded by Australians, where they have a memorial in the grounds dedicated to J.H. Davies. I pointed out that five young missionaries who went from St Mary’s—including Davies—lost their lives soon after reaching their field of work: two from sickness in India and Korea, and three from violence in China.

At the time St Mary’s vicar, HB Macartney, was criticized by the press for sending these young people as if to their deaths. Even in St Mary’s Jubilee booklet of 1908 there was relatively little attention given to these five, and no mention of the three China martyrs at all. It was almost as though this sacrifice was not something to honor.

How different was the reaction of the congregation to the loss of lives in World War I: the magnificent plaque set up on the back wall records their names for perpetuity. Yet from the perspective of the Koreans, J.H. Davies’ mission to Korea was a remarkable success. Over twelve million Korean Christians today are testimony to the fruitfulness of his vision, as many others were inspired by Davies’ example to follow in his footsteps.

The lives of the five young missionaries from St Mary’s were sown deep into the fertile soils of India, China and Korea, and even today they continue to bear a plentiful harvest for the Kingdom. My heart is grieved that people in Melbourne may have regarded the loss of these lives as a mistake.

Jesus said “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:23-25)

Monday, November 2, 2009

New Blog and a New Site

I'm reorganizing my blogging. From now on I'll be using this Vicar's blog for issues related to St Mary's, life as a Christian in Melbourne and anything which might be of interest to friends of St Mary's Caulfield.

For issues to do with responding to Islam, and other more general issues, I'll be using markdurie.blogspot.com.

For links to all my blogs, and information on my books, articles etc, visit markdurie.com.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Big Problems, Small Solutions

Sometimes very big problems need only small solutions. I learned of a case in Vietnam, where the horrendous problem of child malnutrition can be substantially solved by encouraging families to add tiny shrimps, small fish and crabs found in the rice fields and ponds to their meals. See Recipes for Success Improve children's nutrition in Vietnam.

Another great example could be the 'ridge blade', a turbine electricity generator which sits on the ridge of a building, and collects the wind using the slope of the roof. The prize-winning ridge blade can generate the electricity requirements of a residence, and works 24 hours, even in light wind conditions.
It is also visually unobtrusive. Surely this clever idea could revolutionize the way green power is generated across our cities.

Spiritually it seems true too, that seemingly insurmountable problems can find profound but 'small' solutions. A good example was the heart-rending persecution of Christians under Communist China, and confiscation of church properties and institutions by the state. The solution? Humble house churches: people meeting to worship, learn and pray in each others' homes. The church in the end didn't need its hospitals, schools, universities and so on to survive. It just needed people meeting together in the presence of God, living Christian lives.

Often we cannot see just what wonderful resources God has placed in our own hands, because our ways of thinking have become tangled with other priorities, or we have just become accustomed to fear and defeat.

Be on the look out for that small solution to your next big problem.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Talk on Tuesday June 23 2009

Attached here is a PDF of a talk given today on the Exceptions and Exemptions Review.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Exemptions to Equal Opportunity Laws

A committee of the Victorian parliament is currently conducting a review of 'exceptions and exemptions' to Victorian Equal Opportunity laws. The Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee has produced an Options Paper, outlining ways in which the laws could be revised.

The issues relating to religious freedom and human rights are complex and poorly understood in Australian society. There is also a rising sense of anxiety about religious freedom at the grassroots level among many (but not all) Australian Christians. At the same time among secularists there is a good deal of hostility to church's claims for exemptions from human rights legislation.

A position argued for by an Anglican 'taskforce' has been that protection of human rights through legislation could be desirable, but only provided that the standards set in the International Covenant and Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) are followed, and adequate safeguards are built in to protect freedom of religion and conscience. For example, anti-incitement legislation could be supported, provided that incitement was narrowly defined (in terms of the ICCPR protocols) and not loosely as in the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. To protect religious rights it is also necessary to provide reasonably broad exemptions to anti-discrimination legislation. At present religious bodies enjoy such exemptions in Victoria. However there is a strong push from secularists to remove these exemptions, or severely curtail them. The list of options in the review of exceptions and exemptions to the Equal Opportunity Act (currently before the Victorian Parliament) reflects this push.

The recent Victorian abortion law reform, which did not allow doctors to follow their conscience in the matter of assisting a patient procure an abortion, is a symptom of the prevailing current sentiment against making allowances for religious freedom. Not a word in the Act was changed, despite the most intensive lobbying.

Human Rights and responsibilities can conflict with each other. If one right is fully granted, another will be limited. For example the right to privacy can impinge upon the right of a community to live in safety. The right to equal opportunity in employment can conflict with the rights of religious groups to organize themselves in accordance with their doctrines, as it could limit their ability to use a religious test when employing staff.

Legislation and regulations to manage conflicts between human rights has been called 'balancing' of rights. This balancing process can implement a 'hierarchy' of rights: some rights will trump others, so to speak.

For example the exemptions and exceptions for religious groups in equal opportunity legislation mean that religious freedom rights can overrule equal opportunity rights, under some circumstances. For example, churches and some church agencies can employ staff, such as receptionists and counsellors, using religious tests.

Up until now religious rights, through the exemptions and exceptions system, have tended to rank high in the hierarchy of rights. There is pressure to downgrade this status.

The argument for this downgrading is essentially a) there is a view that religious groups have resorted to special pleading to avoid their human rights responsibilities and this now needs to be corrected, and b) religion is essentially a private matter, and full religious freedom should be granted only to those functions which are 'internal' to the faith.

For example, it is claimed by secularists that when a church offers a public service, such as a playgroup, a counseling centre, or an adoption agency, then religious considerations should give way to other more 'public' rights. For example, the church might not be able to insist on having a Christian playgroup coordinator, as playgroups are claimed not be a core internal function of the religion. The church might be instructed to take religious slogans off the walls of the playgroup space, because this discriminates in some way against non-Christians accessing the service.

The pressure to downgrade religious rights will be greatest on 'public authorities' (defined in the Victorian Human Rights Charter. These are basically bodies providing a service to the public, and especially those in receipt of government funding to meet what is regarded as a responsibility of the state. At present religious schools are not considered to be public authorities, but this could change.

These developments are highly significant.

The evidence from overseas is that the impact of these changes could be far-reaching.
In the UK and parts of the USA the Catholic church has moved out of adoption services altogether because of the implications of such developments (they decided that accepting government regulations for adoption, including to same-sex couples, would violate their conscience). A Church of England Bishop was fined over £50,000 for sacking a gay church youth worker. These are both cases where the rights to anti-discrimination on the ground of sexual preferences took precedence over rights to religious freedom.

In a worst-case scenario, the churches might need to withdraw from providing services across a wide range of areas, or else surrender their Christian character, or only offer these services in very limited fashion to members of their religious community, and on explicitly religious terms. Whether or not the agency is under the direct control of a religious body could be a critical factor. For example one of the options before Victorian parliament is to award a higher level of religious exemptions only to schools which are under the direct control of a religious body. A parish primary school might be able to insist on its Christian character in employment of teaching staff, but an independent church school might not.

We in Victoria could be facing a significant threat to our liberties. One of the problems in achieving a coordinated response is that comfortable middle-of-the road Christians tend to just assume everything will continue on for ever as in the past. This could be a great mistake.

The determination with which the Victorian Government brought in the abortion law reforms, trampling on religious rights of conscientious objectors to abortion, suggests to me that Victorians cannot afford to fall asleep on the watch with this issue. We must take it extremely seriously.

I have prepared a briefing paper for Christians, which be downloaded here.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Does God judge nations today?

Like many other Melbourne pastors I was disturbed by Danny Nalliah's press release, issued to the nation on February 10, which asserted that the Victorian Bushfires were the direct result of Victoria's abortion laws. This was based, he said, upon a dream he had last November.

It was irresponsible of Nalliah to release his message without first submitting it to church leaders for evaluation, including those of recognised prophetic insight (1 Corinthians 14:29-32). Danny states that his desire was to call the church to repentance, but by rejecting the oversight and testing of the church in Victoria, he has undermined and greatly damaged his credibility, and shut the ears of many to his voice. The timing of the message right in the middle of the most profound suffering and agony, and the idea of issuing it as a 'press release' was hurtful.

I don't disagree with Nalliah that our abortion laws are 'incendiary', nor that their passing was a dark day for our state, but such concerns do not give him the right to pour further pain and suffering upon the bushfire victims right at the time when body counts were mounting day by day. His actions have been interpreted by many as a form of spiritual grandstanding.

It is hardly surprising that atheists on the blogosphere compared Nalliah to Islamist jihadists, such as those who found in the bushfires evidence of Allah's punishment of Australia. (Local Muslims rejected these claims.)

Yet, having expressed my deep concern about Nalliah's chosen path, I was also disturbed to read respected Christian leaders, in opposing Nalliah, appear to deny God's sovereignty and justice, even to the extent that they appeared to question the possibility of judgement in this life at all.

Dr Wynand De Kock, Dr John Capper and Pastor Mark Conner all seemed to be saying that since Christ came, God no longer acts in this world to judge people for their sins.

De Kock and Capper, both of Tabor College, seem to reject the idea that any disaster can be attributed to God. Such an understanding would be "a misunderstanding of both God's purpose and God's nature." They say that the people of Israel "in the early days" had such a view – here De Kock and Capper seem to be implying that this was only what the Israelites thought, not what the Bible teaches – but today it seems we should know better. Although they allow that some Christians "may still be of this opinion", they seem to be saying that since the coming of Christ this view has become invalid.

Conner explains his views as follows:
"...we need to realise that we are in the time of God’s favour NOT of God’s judgment. ... Jesus introduced a day of grace and mercy for people, and we are still living in that time. ... That doesn’t mean that people today won’t at times suffer the consequences of their actions but this is not the day of God’s judgment."
I certainly do not support Nalliah's statements, but to deny even the possibility that God's actions might include sending judgment upon communities is a very strange claim indeed. Many atheists, responding on Barney Zwartz's blog, were incredulous that Christians might happily accept blessings as coming from God's hands, whilst fervently rejecting the possibility that God could have a hand in disasters. They found it hypocritical that Christians might thank God for rain, but reject the possibility that God withheld rain in a bushfire.

I suspect that these leaders do not fully believe what they are preaching. (Indeed Conner, in a subsequent post, seems to have retreated from his earlier statement.) Do they really wish to imply that since the time of Christ, God will not bring retribution against tyrants? That God now stands so aloof that the only judgement in this world takes the form of 'consequences of actions'.

I suspect that these Christian leaders feel themselves pushed into downplaying the sovereignty of God at this time because they are appalled at the negative pastoral impact of Nalliah's press release. This is part of the collateral damage of Nalliah's actions: he has polarized people, and shut off avenues for important discussion and theological reflection. His timing was excruciating.

The question of the character of God and the extent of his responsibility for disasters is indeed a very painful one. (Many Jews became atheists during the Holocaust.) But despite what some Christian leaders are saying in response to Nalliah, the possibility of judgment has always been at least one of the factors which Christians have considered in times of disaster. Even Christ and the apostles make references to God's judgment in this life.

Clearly the question of suffering is a deeply sensitive one. (I discuss it at greater length in my recent sermon.) I would encourage people, in this time of great sorrow and distress – a season of ashes and tears — to take the time to consider it deeply and thoroughly, taking into account the many and rich contributions which the scriptures make. Nalliah's action was unwise, but so is rushing in to provide rather-too-comforting theological assurances.

People in crisis do ask profound questions about God. They deserve Biblically-grounded answers which can provide the solace and support to sustain them through the desolation of grief. For an example of such an answer I can commend readers to Tim Anderson's opinion piece of this past week, which was published by the Herald Sun.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Peace now a Distant Hope

Letter to the editor
The Herald Sun.

From
The Revd Dr Mark Durie

I was shocked to read your editorial of 9 January 'Peace now a distant hope'.

Did you seriously mean to imply that the road to peace was beautifully 'passable' until just a few weeks ago? That peace was no 'distant hope'? That Hamas had been on the verge of accepting peace conditions?

The references to settlers was bizarre. Surely you cannot have meant to refer to Gazan settlers, as no Jews are resident in Gaza any more - the Israelis having unilaterally extracted all the settlers by force three years ago.

No, you must mean your readers to regard all the state of Israel as 'their (i.e. Palestinian) lands',
and all the Jews in Israel are to be considered as 'settlers'! At least your bias is clear!

Most distressing of all, as a Christian pastor, I found it deeply offensive, that you could equate the Jewish King Herod - as a would-be killer of Christ - with the nation of Israel (and Mary and Joseph with the rocket-launching Hamas jihadis).

I never thought I would see the Herald Sun seeking to exploit the ancient 'Christ-killer' libel in such a way. To do so during the week of the celebration of the Christian festival of the Epiphany (which commemorates the visit of the Magi and the flight of Jesus' family into Egypt) is reckless and cruel. Your editorial only adds credibility to this kind of visceral hatred.

There has been a flood of antisemitic incidents around the world this past week, including many attacks on Jewish properties. Hamas, for example, on its official website (posted December 31, 2008 at the site hosted by Emirnet, United Arab Emirates) urged Muslims to attack Jews across the world, claiming that,

a Jewish adolescent boy in an Australian synagogue, a Jewish minister in the Georgian government, a Jewish businessman at the New York Stock Exchange, and an illiterate Jew from the Ethiopian desert… they all belong to the same gang and the same nation, apart from the rest of humanity.

Have you not read Hamas's constitution or considered the clearly stated and long-held positions of its leaders on the issue of Israel's existence and on the Jews? The sad fact is that Hamas' positions on these issues are exactly the same now as they were a month ago. And they are the same as those held by for decades by Muslim Brotherhood (the organization from which Hamas emerged).

Please, in the name of all humanity, reconsider your deceptive rhetoric, which can only inflame dangerous passions at this painful time.


Sincerely,

Mark Durie