Thursday, August 30, 2007

Stupid Acronyms

I'm sure that most of you can remember the first aid acronym, ABC. Meant to be a guide to help your average Joe confidently apply first aid principles, ABC reminded people to check the Airway, Breathing and then Circulation in a victim, in that order. It was clever, not only because it was easy to remember, but also because the ABC corresponded with the fundamentals of first aid.

Then one day, some bright spark discovered that perhaps checking the airway was not always the prudent first step to take. For instance, if the victim had been electrocuted and there were live wires around, the only thing checking the airway would do is to create a second victim. So the powers that be decided to add DR to the front of the acronym, standing for checking Danger and a Response in the victim. Accordingly, far fewer people coming to the rescue found themselves getting injured in their rescue efforts, but a clever acronym was spoiled forever.

Some acronyms were never clever. Living in a room that used to be part of a hotel, I still have the instructions for what to do in case of fire. The acronym? RACE. For what it's worth, the acronym stands for the following:

Remove people from danger area
Alert people nearby and raise an alarm
Confine fire and smoke
Extinguish and contain fire and evacuate

Reasonable advice, but could they have come up with a more stupid acronym if they tried? I mean, if there's a fire, you want to respond in a calm and composed manner to the threat. RACE simply doesn't conjure up the idea of calm and composure. I surprised that they didn't come up with PANIC:

Push others out of the way
Argue with the designated fire warden
Neglect to use common sense
Inhale smoke fumes
Collapse on floor

At least then the acronym would be consistent with the advice.

So, as the first official Ministry of Incompetence competition, I'd like to ask readers to tell me about some of the most stupid acronyms they've come across. An unimpressive prize goes to the winner.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Memoirs of a Washed Up Preacher

Once upon a time I preached with unfettered confidence. I was ready and willing to set the pulpit on fire for Jesus. There was nothing that would stand in my way – I had a message to give and come hell or high water that message would be heard.

Back then, I was a very different person. How blissfully oblivious I was to the complexities of life and how wonderful it was that I could speak with utter conviction and clarity without even a twinge of conscience. What noble misapprehensions I laboured under. True enough, I believed in lies – but what beautiful lies they were.

As I look back upon the headstrong twenty year old boy preaching his first sermon, I reflect back with nostalgia, although not without a twinge of sadness. I lament over what has been lost. Over what will never be redeemed. Little did this boy know what would be stolen from him through the vicissitudes of life. First, he lost his sense of self-assured certainty. Once so safe and predictable, the world becomes an intricate web of variables that interact together to confound his preconceived formulas. Then he lost his sense of integrity. Sins once darkened by the shadows of ignorance reveal themselves in the light of a new morn. His pretensions were forever dashed.

Preaching became increasingly hard for me in this new world. I could feel myself becoming less articulate day by day and was sure that my listeners could sense it too. It was easy to preach powerfully and passionately when I believed that the ideas I believed in were as stable as the ground below me, but once the ground opened up and swallowed me whole, I knew that there was no turning back. I considered myself a fraud. How could I preach about something that I wasn’t absolutely sure about? How could I preach about selfishness when I was selfish to the very core? I concluded that to continue on could only be regarded as the epitome of hypocrisy. And then one day, I made the decision that I could never preach. That I would never preach again.

If I was sure about anything, it was my decision to never preach again. However, this too proved to be unstable. Steph asked me if wished to speak at Space For God. Since I wasn’t expected to stand out in front of a pulpit, I reluctantly agreed. I still remember that night. To my mind, it was a technically flawed performance. I felt that I didn’t communicate clearly and that I stumbled over my words. I felt as though I was a pale remnant of my yesteryear. But apparently the effort was appreciated and I was asked to speak again – and again I agreed reluctantly. I have since spoken a few times and still feel uncomfortable at the prospect. Still, it is gratifying to know that I can contribute to the life of the community.

It has occurred to me that I am condemned to preach - but to preach what? I have made the conscious decision, however awkwardly, to preach those things about which I know best. I will preach my doubts, my fears and my failings. I will preach my depression, my demons and my struggles, as well as the love of God in amongst all of this messiness and my utter dependence upon his grace. How can I do any more? How can I do any less? It is the only way that I can speak with clarity and truthfulness. I've realised that I don't need to know all the answer to communicate something close to my heart. I think Peter Cameron expressed it most beautifully when he talked about the role of a minister:

"The minister to my mind was not a hierophant - a revealer of sacred things - but a fellow traveller, someone whose task it was to be more honest and open about his frailty and doubts than anyone else, a professional doubter, an intellectual rather than a moral conscience."

This is why I am what I am - a Minister of Incompetence.

As I Sat Sadly By Her Side

Lyrics by Nick Cave (2001)

As I sat sadly by her side
At the window, through the glass
She stroked a kitten in her lap
And we watched the world as it fell past
Softly she spoke these words to me
And with brand new eyes, open wide
We pressed our faces to the glass
As I sat sadly by her side

She said, "Father, mother, sister, brother,
Uncle, aunt, nephew, niece,
Soldier, sailor, physician, labourer,
Actor, scientist, mechanic, priest,
Earth and moon and sun and stars
Planets and comets with tails blazing
All are there forever falling
Falling lovely and amazing"

Then she smiled and turned to me
And waited for me to reply
Her hair was falling down her shoulders
As I sat sadly by her side

As I sat sadly by her side
The kitten she did gently pass
Over to me and again we pressed
Our different faces to the glass
"That may be very well" I said
"But watch the one falling in the street
See him gesture to his neighbors
See him trampled beneath their feet
All outward motion connects to nothing
For each is concerned with their immediate need
Witness the man reaching up from the gutter
See the other one stumbling on who cannot see"

With trembling hand I turned toward her
And pushed the hair out of her eyes
The kitten jumped back to her lap
As I sat sadly by her side

Then she drew the curtains down
And said, "When will you ever learn
That what happens there beyond the glass
Is simply none of your concern?
God has given you but one heart
You are not a home for the hearts of your brothers

And God does not care for your benevolence
Anymore than he cares for the lack of it in others
Nor does he care for you to sit
At windows in judgment of the world he created
While sorrows pile up around you
Ugly, useless, and over-inflated"

At which she turned her head away
Great tears leaping from her eyes
I could not wipe the smile from my face
As I sat sadly by her side

Exciting News ...

I found out something truly exciting this morning and have already told a few people the news. However, the rest of you will have to wait for a few weeks until all the formalities are settled. One must be discerning about such things ...

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Phillip Jensen on Reputation and Criticism

A few of my own insights at Sydney Anglican Watch, critiquing Dean Phillip Jensen's opinions about the reputuation of the Sydney Diocese, St. Andrew's Cathedral and Moore College.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Launch of Sydney Anglican Watch

After much reflection, I've decided that it is the right time to open Sydney Anglican Watch - a site dedicated to promoting honest and open discussion about matters pertinent to the Sydney Diocese. I've long been concerned about the phenomenon of censorship in the Sydney Diocese, but over the last few months my concerns have been greatly increased. Whether censorship is a more localised phenomenon or something intrinsic to Reformed theology I cannot profess to know (of course, one might wish to point to Calvin's adventures with Servetus), but this is largely irrelevant. The fact is that I feel compelled to act and to deny this compulsion would be irresponsible in the extreme.

I have stated my aims and objectives of the project here.

If you are a reader from the margins, this is a chance for you to freely discuss issues in a manner that was perhaps not available to you before. If you are a Sydney Anglican reader, I welcome your views and opinions too and would be more than happy for people to be involved with a sustained defence of the behaviour of the Sydney Diocese. As the Scriptures say, "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another".

Monday, August 20, 2007

What Could I Be Getting Up To?

I do apologise for not posting much recently, but something very big is about to happen.

Updates shortly ...

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Inaugural Space For God Weekend Away

Last weekend Space For God went for their inaugural retreat at Yaraandoo in Fiddletown. If you don't know where Fiddletown is, then you're in good company because neither did we. Basically, it's at the other end of the earth, beyond Galston and as such, beyond any sense of civilisation. Of course, if one wants to get there, it's particularly helpful to have an accurate map. We didn't, but miraculously found our way there regardless.

There was no real agenda for weekend except for the intention of basking in the warmth of each other's company. We found this to be a fairly time consuming task - when you only see one another once a week there is a lot of catching up to do. It's also helpful to see each other outside of the context of church to get to see a completely different side of their personality. I'd like to think that I was able to learn something about each person that I wouldn't have unless I took the opportunity to attend the retreat:

Paul is a pretty handy cook and not too bad with a sword either.

Julie is particularly fond of Elmo and has pyjamas to prove it.

Luke is not adverse to a bit of collusion to improve his chances of winning a board game.

Clare has a real problem with guys who feel the need to show off in their car.

Bek is quite disdainful of academic language despite the fact that she is currently completing her PhD.

Katishe is the best person to ask if you have a headache and want something strong to take away the pain.

Steph regards herself as an evangelical.

Tim eats a lot, but is discrete enough to avoid being detected.

Ahh, good times.

As much as we tried, it was impossible to go through the entire weekend without reflecting upon our shared identity as people of faith. Though the way each of our faiths manifest themselves differ somewhat, it is clear that we seek to be disciples and that our discipleship is what spurs us on towards love and good deeds. We are not merely, as I have heard it alleged, a glorified "good works club". Though good works and social justice is a central part of our platform, we only partake in these activities because we believe that we called to do so by a God who affirms the intrinsic dignity and worth of humans and indeed, of all life.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Last Post For Signposts

Some two weeks ago I learnt about It didn't take me long to get involved with discussions on postmodernity, homosexuality and Hillsong and to find people who both strongly agreed and disagreed with what I said. I'd suggest that the diversity of views reflects very favourably upon Phil and Dan McCredden and the latitude that they gave to open discussion and enquiry. Perhaps the only thing that annoys me more than dogmatic conservative Christians is dogmatic progressive Christians, especially when they are operating under the declaration of being open-minded. To their credit, Phil and Dan did not let this happen, welcoming views from all over the theological spectrum.

It would appear that Phil and Dan are now deciding to shut Signposts down. While extremely disappointing (especially considering that I arrived so late on the scene) the decision is completely understandable. I can only imagine that keeping Signposts running for as long as Phil and Dan did would have been rather draining on their time and resources. Their quest for inclusivity has also incurred the ire of some, which is rather unfortunate. I wish both Phil and Dan Godspeed in their future endeavours - may they continue to be a positive influence upon others.

Having had a taste of this community, I am still in denial. I want to keep it running. I want to keep the flame alive. How about others? I'd be particularly interested in hearing from other Signposters about the prospect of continuing along on the journey, pursuing questions and embracing a more holistic faith. If it's possible, I'd love some of you to leave your thoughts here about where we can go as a community and other ideas that may seem even remotely relevant to keeping the dream alive.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

A Tribute to Geriatric Characters in Children's Entertainment

To tide me over until my current sense of malaise has passed, I thought I should introduce you a new blog started by Derek, my team leader called My Views and Thoughts on Everything. What can I say about this blog but that it is a quirky series of reflective essays about everything from the joys of catching the 610X bus from the city to Kellyville to the unique Australian phenomenon of the local chemist. However, perhaps my favourite essay is the following piece about a character who seems oddly out of place in a video that Derek was watching with his 4 and 3 year-old daughters.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Being Rich Towards God

At Space For God on Sunday night we discussed what it might mean to be rich towards God. In a sense this is quite ironic because I'm not really feeling particularly wealthy as I write this article. Perhaps this is partly due to lack of sleep and partly due to anxiety over my final few College of Law exams, but at the back of my mind there is also this feeling of unworthiness and illegitimacy about my walk as a disciple of Christ. At the moment I don't really feel that I have a lot to offer God and this is currently manifesting itself in a real sense of writer's block. God only knows what I will write.

I guess my first impression is that it is very easy to fool ourselves into believing that we are being rich towards God. We often believe that saying, believing or doing the right kinds of things is a substitute for real spirituality. We might go to church, perform religious rituals or volunteer for church project in the mistaken belief that these things of our own accord make us more committed to God. Perhaps we might pray, read our Bible or dedicate our lives to helping the poor with the same intention, only to be disappointed. While these things may be helpful spiritual disciplines, they do not in themselves guarantee a life in which we have drawn close to God. This reminds me of the following passage:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. - 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

I understand this passage as saying that it not through being religious that we are rich towards God, nor by knowing great and profound things about Him, nor by having great faith, nor by doing great deeds. It is through having great love, which will manifest itself both in our devotion to Him. As Jesus points out, whatever we do for the least of His brothers or sisters we also do for him (Matthew 25:40), so to be rich towards others is to be rich towards Him. Indeed our love towards others should be the natural outworking of our love towards Jesus. As John points out, it is impossible for us to hate our brother or sisters and yet love God (1 John 4:20).

A rich faith as I understand it, is a holistic faith. It isn't a faith that clocks in just before church starts and clocks out just after church finishes - it should be a part of our everyday life. It is not just a Sunday thing. Being rich towards God is not merely something we are doing during explicitly religious activities - we can be rich towards God in the more mundane pursuits of everyday life. Indeed, I truly believe that this is when the true extent of our richness towards God is most clearly highlighted.

Finally, being rich towards God means giving our whole selves over to Him. This may mean being honest about our weaknesses, our doubts and our fears. It is precisely in these dark places that true redemption can take place. And it is only when we are truly weak that we can be of any use to God. To illustrate this point beautifully, I shall conclude with one of my favourite Kierkegaard quotes:

Confess your weakness and face it. Perhaps just in this weakness God will meet you and come to your aid. This much is certain: the greatest thing each person can do is to give himself to God utterly and unconditionally – weaknesses, fears, and all. For God loves obedience more than good intentions or second-best offerings, which are all too often made under the guise of weakness.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Retaliation of the Priest

An interesting story has been doing the rounds about the behaviour of a prominent Melbourne priest who retaliated against a group of boys who trespessed onto church property to skateboard on the premises. This retaliation involved a flurry of swearing, a few racist slurs and even some physical abuse by the priest. I had wanted offer my thoughts on the subject since I became aware of the issue a few days ago, but was concerned that I would unleash a torrent of unjustified anti-Catholic sentiment by raising the issue. That said, now that the video has circulated itself widely throughout both the media and the Christian community, I see no point in holding back from providing my commentary. Before I do so however, here is the video of the incident, which I would suggest you watch before proceeding to read the rest of my article. Just to offer the standard cliched disclaimer, some viewers may find the following footage distressing. Having said that, I have all but guaranteed that the vast majority of people who come across this post will now watch the video:

The first thing I think I need to say is that I have no right to take the moral highground. Of course, this is a cue to make a confession. Late last year, at a time when my pacifistic stance was only just taking shape but nonetheless existed, I took umbrage against a man who quite deliberately shoved me out of the way to get on a train. I shoved him back forcefully enough to let him know that I was annoyed. This wasn't a particularly wise thing to do, since he shoved me back, this time with much more aggression. This would have been fine, but for the fact that I was holding a yoghurt that I had recently bought at the time. I ended up second-best with the yoghurt spilt all over my suit. Very angry at the time, I was actually quite tempted to throw the remains of my yoghurt through the open train door at his face. Quite possibly because I will soon be seeking admission as a solicitor and that fact the Law Society of New South Wales does not look kindly on such behaviour, I held back. That and the fact that given the temperament of the man, further annoying him may have encouraged him to lash out in even more serious violence. It seems like a self-evident response, but refraining from retaliating for the second time was the wisest thing I did all day.

Having acknowledged my profound wrongdoing so that there are no real skeletons in the closet concerning my own behaviour, I have to say that I completely understand the response of the priest. He was mercilessly taunted by the boys and to respond as he did was perfectly natural. This said, I was also disgusted by his behaviour, especially his physical abuse and his racism. Especially as a man of the cloth, the priest should know that his behaviour serves as a witness both to the Church and to Jesus. By acting as he did, he has brought both the Church and Jesus into disrepute. When Jesus tells us to "turn the other cheek" when we are struck, be it literally or metaphorically, he truly means it - he is not speaking in hyperbole. I should point out that to his credit the priest has since shown deep contrition for his behaviour, for which I must commend him, although it is strange that his apology has only occurred since the issue has become public.

As a pacifist, this incident raises many interesting questions for which I have no easy answers. Here are my questions, for which I would also be interested in seeing how others respond:

(1) How would I have responded to the belligerence of the skateboarders?
Unfortunately, as much I might like to, I can't guarantee that I would not have retaliated - though I am almost certain that I would not have made racist slurs and fairly certain that I would not have physically struck out.

(2) How should one act in such situations?
It is important to recognise that pacifism should not be equated with "passivism". We are to turn the other cheek and refuse to respond to violence with violence, but this does not mean that our non-violence response cannot serve to deeply shame our attackers. I am sure that Jesus would have been able to come up with a response that would have stopped the cocky skateboarders in their tracks, but unfortunately, I can't. I certainly wouldn't have been able to come up with a calm and collected response that shamed these skateboarders in the heat of the moment.

(3) What is the logical conclusion of my pacifism?
It has recently dawned on me that if I say I am a pacifist, not only must I refuse to respond with violence myself, but I must refuse to take advantage of any resort I may have to address the situation through violence means, even if by proxy. As a pacifist, does this mean that I should not take advantage of the police force, since to do so would not be to act non-violently, but simply to delegate my violent response to another party, who indeed can retaliate far more effectively than I could in the first place? And yet this may be precisely what Jesus calls us to do.

So many questions ... so few answers

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Debrief From the Steve Chalke Talk

Last night I had the privilege of listening to the prominent social activist Steve Chalke at the Wesley Centre. Chalke spoke powerfully as he argued that as Christians we must allow our Christology to determine our missiology, which in turn determines our ecclesiology. All too often, he suggested, Christology and missiology takes place within the ivory towers of the church and thus our mission becomes ineffective while our Christology becomes distorted. By seeing how Christ does mission and how he understands community, we can be far more effective in mission while being more genuine in community.

Recounting his first ever sermon as an ordained minister which centred around the narrative of Jesus turned water into wine, Chalke suggested that according to Jesus, the Kingdom of God is a "party for the poor". Jesus came first and foremost to the sick, the sinful and the disenfranchised to bring healing to a broken world. Although Jesus came to bring spiritual healing, he also came to heal people emotionally, physically and financially. To Jesus, the Kingdom of God is not some otherworldly phenomenon - it is an imminent reality based in the present. Chalke suggested that we cannot think of the good news of Jesus without of our responsibility to bring holistic healing to disenfranchised individuals. While this doesn't mean that people will always be in good health, it does mean that we should do whatever we can to make affordable and effective health care attainable. While this doesn't mean that people will be rich, it does mean that we should do whatever we can to fight against structures that exploit the poverty of others. While this doesn't mean that people will always be happy, we should do whatever we can to bring grieving people comfort. To do all of these things is to do the work of God and indeed to proclaim the gospel.

I found Chalke's talk quite thought provoking at many points, but what surprised me was the level of importance that he granted to theology. He rightly asserted that everybody, even the village atheist does theology - the only question is whether we do good theology or bad theology. All of this would be music to the ears of conservative evangelicals, who have long suggested that good theology is of critical importance. That is, until they discover that Chalke believes that conservative evangelicalism does quite terrible theology at several critical points.

It may come as no surprise to my readers that I have come to the conclusion that Chalke is right both about the importance of theology and the fact that conservative evangelicalism does theology incredibly poorly. Indeed, during his talk Chalke made reference of a newspaper article that suggested that "evangelical scholarship" is a contradiction in terms. I believe that there is some substance to this accusation. By and large, evangelical scholarship is concerned not with open and honest enquiry, which should be the object of true scholarship, but with defending the parameters of evangelicalism. Evangelical scholarship is not so much scholarship as it is glorified apologetics. And because theology is so cherished in evangelical circles, those who rise to the ranks of greatness in evangelical scholarship become cult figures adored by their followers. That is until these evangelical scholars do what scholars should do and actually act in a scholarly manner by not being afraid to take one's thoughts to their logical conclusion, at which point they dramatically change from hero to villain, becoming pariahs in the evangelical community and traitors to the tribe. There is no more perfect example of this than in the case of N.T. Wright. It is still a source of much amusement to me that evangelicals who are in raptures of Wright's more orthodox arguments think that the same brilliant mind has lost the plot when it comes to his writings on subjects on which they disagree with him.

While I am utterly convinced of the fact that conservative evangelicalism does theology incredibly poorly, I would have to concede that progressive Christianity does not do theology much better at lay level. I believe that this might be because there is generally a poor level of Bible knowledge among progressive Christians. I guess this is where I believe I have a role to play. To its credit, conservative evangelicalism has endowed me with not only a fairly strong knowledge of the Bible, but also a great love for the words within. But unbeknown to them and indeed unbeknown to myself at the time, they created a monster of their own making. I believed that to properly read the Bible was more important than simply defending the sacred cows of the tribe. Indeed, if reading the Bible led me to believe that the sacred cows should be slaughtered, I believed it was my responsibility to do so. I still believe that it is my responsibility to do so. With all of this in mind, conservative evangelicals should realise that to the extent that I undermine the foundations of conservative evangelicalism, it is conservative evangelicalism that is responsible for what occurs. I can say with the utmost of sincerity that I have conservative theology to thank for equipping me with the tools to knock over their Tower of Babel and conservative evangelicals only have conservative evangelicals to blame for its unwilling and unwitting assistance in my mission.

I would like to encourage all of those progressive Christians out there to become better acquainted with your Bible and particularly with the teachings of Jesus. Let me suggest that it is not only your privilege to be able to read the Bible, but it is your birthright and your responsibility. It is your responsibility because we live in a society that believes that the message that Christianity has to offer is that God hates them. Indeed, last night I learnt the disturbing statistic that over half of all people who commit suicide and leave a note in the United States have committed suicide for issues relating to their sexuality. A significant proportion of these people have had considerable exposure to conservative evangelicalism. This cannot continue. This must not continue. We cannot allow conservative evangelicalism to claim the title "Biblical Christianity" for itself by default. The time for action is now.