Recently I have been leading a men’s discussion group studying a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas.
Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor who spoke out against the political developments in his country in the 1930s. He saw grave danger in the rise of Führer cult which merged the two Nazi ideals of a militarized state and a utopian world base on the Aryan “super race”. The joining of these forces resulted in a world war with the death of millions, the Jewish holocaust, and the devastation of a continent.
In the years before the Third Reich gained ultimate power, Bonhoeffer saw the magnitude of the threat long before others. He spoke up with courage, becoming being ridiculed even amongst church colleagues. When he dared question Hitler’s assurances, he was painted an alarmist. In response he wrote, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
The eighth of May this year was the 70th year anniversary of the surrender of Germany which ended World War II in Europe. While the world has seen progress in many areas since, wars continue to rage across the world. No matter where they are, nations still engage in conflicts and remain vulnerable to rule by totalitarian administrations.
Even in Australia there is evidence of totalitarian tendencies. Read more >>>
At the Tasmanian Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast last week I took the opportunity to give a short introduction to this annual event. I thought you might like to read a transcript of my speech titled, Christians the as many attendees were very encouraged by what I said:
Tasmanian Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast | August 19, 2015
As we gather in the name and spirit of Jesus of Nazareth, we do so in the midst of great cultural turmoil. Within our community are forces at work endeavouring to overturn century-old norms and practices around key moments in life – at birth, marriage, and death. I speak, of course, about abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia.
In that maelstrom of competing voices and visions of the future, many find the very notion of a ‘prayer’ breakfast somewhat strange, antiquated and even dangerous.
Despite the place Christianity has played in Australia’s history, and despite its ongoing contributions, to call oneself a Christian in Australia today invites responses of curiosity, condescension and cool dismissal. Christians are often painted as intolerant, naïve, superstitious, and even backward. It is not uncommon to hear Christians put down, not only in casual conversation, but across social and mainstream media.
This caricature, I suggest, is false. It falls a long way short of many Christians who join with others to care for millions of Australians in homeless shelters, refuges, aged care facilities, disability services, soup kitchens, detox facilities etc. The contrast between them and the Christianity portrayed is quite striking.
But why? Why such a contrast?
Today in Australia, across large sections of the media and most State run education institutions, the Church comes into its fair share of criticism, some of it quite dismissive, but often hostile and some abusive.
However this is nothing new. Things haven’t changed much since the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove. Here, at Australia’s beginning, the church was represented by military chaplains such as Johnson and Marsden. Sadly they were estranged from convicts, who saw them as moral policemen; and shunned by the authorities as nuisances. From the beginning the church didn’t sit comfortably in the new colony.
In stark contrast, early America’s Christian leaders had a different position on the side of, not against, the general population. In Australia, rather than seeing the convicts as those who needed help, they were more often than not viewed as sinners who needed punishment.
When the authorities appointed the chaplains to act as Civil Magistrates, the already strained relationships were exacerbated. The association of chaplains with the imposition of authority, punishment and discipline became entrenched such that any compassion or care shown by the chaplains was lost in translation.
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In a series of messages on revival the great Welsh preacher-teacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones turned to the end of Mark 9.
Here Jesus comes off the mountain to find the disciples unsuccessfully trying to free a boy from a demon. After a quick rebuke, Jesus heals the boy and the disciples ask why they couldn’t do it. Jesus explains how this kind is only expelled by prayer. Lloyd-Jones suggested Jesus used this incident to teach his disciples a lesson: the ordinary, business-as-usual way of doing things, no longer worked. Different times calls for different measures.
Using the story as an allegory, Lloyd-Jones suggested the boy represents contemporary Western culture; the demon is its underlying assumptions, and the disciples are the church. His conclusion was that our past methods of evangelism, while perfectly good for their time, no longer worked in today’s world. The world had changed. The old methods no longer applied. We are dealing with a different, difficult ‘spirit’.
Although the Lloyd-Jones’ message was given in 1959, it is still relevant today.
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There are many implications for Christians in the increasingly secular and Christophobic Australian culture. The decline in comprehensive, considered and constructive religious reporting in our media is but one of those.
In accepting the Ridley Marketplace Institute and ETHOS Faith and Work Awards earlier this year, recently retired Age journalist, Barney Zwartz, lamented that the time is fast approaching when religion “will mostly be ignored in the news columns… and that will accelerate wider society’s dissociation and ignorance.”
In many ways his insights reflect an ignorance already at work in our community. Most Australians think of Christianity as outmoded and irrelevant to modern society, yet despite this 60% of them still tick the “Christian” box on Census night. Strangely they are willing to criticise Christianity while at the same time continue to label themselves Christian.
Such an ironic contradiction illustrates just how ignorant Australians are of what it means to be a Christian and to follow Christ.
The typical stereotyping of Christianity as a white, male, European, English speaking religion also adds to the misunderstanding. The reality is quite different.
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We are getting to the shortest day of the year when the sun sets early and rises late. The nights are long and there is little sun. While scientists admit it is still a mystery, they do agree that some people do suffer from a winter depression.
There are all types of depressions that afflict people and it is not uncommon for Christians to experience a spiritual darkness far deeper than the passing of winter. John of the Cross, a fifteenth-century Christian writer, called it ‘la noche oscura’ or dark night.
Martin Luther was so afflicted by melancholy that it threatened to destroy him; CS Lewis suffered following the death of his wife; Mother Teresa struggled from the founding of her Missionaries of Charity for the rest of her life; and Charles Spurgeon spoke of how he was “almost completely crushed in spirit” and experienced “deep spiritual depression”.
They are not alone . . .
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Throughout the centuries Christians have constantly wrestled with what it means to live as Christ’s followers in societies and communities that are morally and culturally challenging to their faith.
Even at the beginning, when small, fledgling churches were first established across the Roman world, Christians were surrounded by a pagan culture filled with mystery cults, mysticism, philosophical debate and speculation. The New Testament is full of letters to these churches, letters aimed at helping these Christian communities navigate how they are to follow Christ each in their particular context. The question of how the church relates to the surrounding culture and how the surrounding culture affects the church was ever before them.
These questions remain with us today. In our (post) modern culture we are surrounded with tsunami-like changes spanning across a wide range of religious, secular and scientific thought. Our faith is constantly being challenged and we are prompted to wonder just how we are to live in and relate to the culture in which we live.
Historically the church’s response has swung between two extremes: on the one hand capitulation/accommodation and on the other, separation. Neither of them is biblical. Read on >>>
The recent massacre of Christian students in Kenya by Islamic militants was another gruesome reminder of the increasing persecution of Christians around the world.
According to Open Doors USA, “2014 will go down in history for having the highest level of global persecution of Christians in the modern era.” Open Door predicts it will only get worse.
In its annual World Watch List, Open Doors identifies the top 50 countries where Christians face intense persecution. It takes many forms including torture, imprisonment, loss of home or assets, rape and death. Each month, on average 322 Christians are killed for their faith, 214 properties (churches or Christian homes) are destroyed and 722 acts of violence are committed.
Estimates are that over 100 million Christians are persecuted worldwide, making us the most persecuted religious group in the world, with Islamic extremism being the main source in 40 of the 50 countries on the list.
Last week, on April 14, it was one-year since the kidnapping of 276 girls from Chibok, Nigeria. They remain in rebel custody and little is known about their whereabouts or their circumstances. A small number who managed to escape from the Boko Haram camp reported being raped almost daily and that some have been killed because they refused to renounce their Christian faith.
Dr. Stephen Davis, an Australian negotiating to secure their release, says, “I have visited many villages and towns attacked by Boko Haram. I have seen firsthand the devastation and talked to families in the attacks. These are tragic stories of loss of life, slaughter, rape and the worst abuses of human life one can imagine.”
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Pastor and author A. W. Tozer once wrote, “the Presence of God is the central fact of Christianity. At the heart of the Christian message is God Himself waiting for His redeemed children to push into conscious awareness of His Presence.” Tozer wasn’t referring to our Christian gatherings on Sundays and through the week, but to every moment in our lives.
For many years Christians around the world have been inspired by the book The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence (c. 1614 – 1691), a lay brother in a Carmelite monastery who did just as Tozer suggests.
Lawrence spent most of his life in a priory working in the kitchen and towards the end of his life repairing sandals. It was in these routine and ordinary tasks that he sought to connect with God. Each day and every hour was a new beginning and a fresh opportunity to love God. He endeavoured to do everything to the glory of God, including washing pots and pans. His life was one giant prayer, talking to God all day long as he worked. When he died in 1691 he had practiced living moment-by-moment in God’s presence for over forty years.
In our fast paced, consumer-orientated world we can easily go for hours, maybe days without giving God a thought, and many have found Brother Lawrence’s approach refreshing and helpful. The reality is that God is always at work in the world and doing thousands of things in our lives, but we are often unaware of them. And if we are aware, it is most likely that only two or three of them will be in our focus.
God is very much at work in the world, but it takes discipline and grace for us to move past the immediate, and the busy, to see it.
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In these weeks leading up to Easter I am focusing on the “Seven Sayings of Christ from the Cross.”
This week it’s Jesus’ words of abandonment taken from Matthew 27:46, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which translated means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Hanging on the cross, his body in agony from the torture of crucifixion, Jesus uses the opening verses of Psalm 22 written by David to express the depths of his agony. But it was not the physical pain that was the source of his cry, although it was no doubt intense, it was something far deeper and darker. In that excruciating moment, he felt the unbearable painfulness that comes from rejection and separation.
Jesus entered into a place where, as Paul the apostle expresses it in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (NIV).
Such is the mystery and the majesty of the salvation of humanity that we can’t possibly know the depths of what Jesus felt in that moment. We can however appreciate it in some measure. Why? Because Jesus was as human and you and I are. His experience was that of every human being. His suffering was a mirror of our sufferings.
There are times when many of us, perhaps all of us, have experienced dark times when it felt like God had abandoned us. Life was hopeless, prayers went unanswered and despair was overwhelming. It such moments we too cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But that’s not where the story ends. Read More >>>