Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Tell them about the dream

Just about everybody has heard of Martin Luther King Jr's 'I have a dream speech'. But not everyone knows that, if it wasn't for Mahalia Jackson saying 'Tell them about the dream, Martin', the most famous parts of that speech may never have happened. While Martin Luther King Jr's speech is known - and rightly so - as one of the greatest speeches of the 20th Century, sometimes it is Mahalia's Jackson's words that I continue to dwell on.

'Tell them about the dream, Martin.'

So often our dreams are silenced - either by ourselves or by others. We share our dreams with nobody, convinced that nobody wants to hear them and frightened that if they did they'd laugh. Or we do tell someone and they do laugh. They tell us our dream is impractical, unrealistic, idealistic or just plain stupid. The greater the dream, often, the greater the ridicule.

Sometimes a dream is silenced so well that it stops having a voice even inside our own minds. And a dream that isn't speaking to anyone ceases to be a dream at all.

Does it matter? Maybe our dreams are impractical, unrealistic and idealistic. Maybe we're better off forgetting about them.

But it's the impractical, unrealistic and idealistic dreams we have to listen to. It's the impractical, unrealistic and idealistic dreams that have the power to change the world.

When you listen to Martin Luther King Jr's 'I have a dream' speech, it's obvious that he dreamed big. His dream wasn't something he realistically expected to happen in his lifetime. He didn't have a step-by-step process of how to get there. It was 'I have a dream' not I have an achievable goal'. But he still dreamed - and still he told others of his dream. And while not all of his dream has come to fruition even now, I think it's fair to say that his dream helped change the world.

Jesus spoke a lot about the Kingdom of God. And for the people listening to him, it must have seemed at times like an impractical, unrealistic, idealistic dream.

And maybe it was a dream. But if it was a dream, then it was God's dream. And it continues to be God's dream. And God doesn't dream achievable goals. God dreams big.

And I'm glad he does. Who wants to follow a God that has a plan for the world that doesn't aim too high? What's the point of hoping for the Kingdom of God, if it just involves hoping for things that we can realistically expect to see?

We have a big God and he has big plans. Plans that seem not only impractical, unrealistic and idealistic - but plans that often seem impossible. But because it's God, the impractical, the unrealistic, the idealistic dream he has is not just going to happen, but it's happening now.

And as Christians we are invited to enter into that dream - to imagine it with God and to participate in the ways it is already coming true.

And maybe our impractical, unrealistic and idealistic dreams are actually pointing us towards God's dream. Maybe the reason they seem so unachievable is because they're part of God's dream - and God dreams big.

So maybe it's time we stopped silencing our dreams. Maybe it's time we gave our dreams a voice. So if you do have a dream, don't hide it away, tell them about it! Because in listening to our dreams, we may just be listening to God.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Every Asylum Seeker has a name

What do you think of the term 'boat people'? Note I didn't ask what you think of refugees, but the term itself. When you see or hear the term 'boat people', what immediately comes to mind?

For me, it's boats. Makes sense really. That's the first word. People, used almost as an afterthought.

So I think of boats - not people, not faces, not names and not stories. Boats.

I don't stop with boats. The people, the faces, the names and the stories follow afterwards. But my guess is I'm not the only person whose initial thought when faced with the term 'boat people' is boats.

And I don't think that's an accident.

The Guy Sebastian song, 'Get Along' contains the lyrics, 'And it's easy when they're faceless, to hate the other side.'

It's not only easy to hate people when they're faceless, it's harder to show compassion. We humans may not seem like it at times, but we really do care about other humans - that is when we see their faces, learn their names and hear their stories. Some may show more empathy than others. But the person who can look into someone's eyes and hear their story of suffering or pain or loss and not be moved in any way is rare.

But if we generally care about individuals we're not so good about caring about strangers - particularly groups of strangers - whose names we don't know, whose faces we haven't seen and whose stories we haven't heard.

It's like the natural inclination to care about other humans stops - perhaps because in some way we stop seeing them as humans - or at least as humans the same as us. We've been doing it for hundreds of years. We say they're not like us - not civilised like us or not Christian like us or not intelligent like us or not feeling like us. We turn them into groups with labels, rather than seeing them as individuals. We refuse to hear their stories. We refuse to learn their names. We refuse to look into their faces.

And the more removed we are from those names and those faces and those stories, the easier it is not to care.

So how much easier is it to turn away from the plight of refugees when we see 'boats' rather than people? A boat is a thing, a mode of transport, a problem, a threat. A boat deserves no compassion, no empathy.

Those boats are filled with people - but it's so hard to care about those people when their names and their faces and their stories remain hidden from us.

The Gosford Anglican Church has had some very good signs up recently. But this one I think is my favourite:

Every Asylum Seeker has a name.

We may not ever learn their names. We may bundle them altogether in one group called 'boat people' and replace images of their faces with images of boats in our head. But their names don't disappear just because we give them a number and turn them into a statistic. Their faces don't become blurry just because we label them 'boat people'. And their stories aren't erased just because we haven't heard them.

And chances are - human nature being what it is - if we learnt their names and saw their faces and heard their stories, we would care.

So let's care anyway - as if we had learnt their names and seen their faces and heard those stories. Because those names and those faces and those stories still exist - even if we do try and hide them behind the term 'boat people'.


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Now is the time to fight for justice and compassion

So Australia now has a more selfish government. That's not just my opinion. That's the opinion I've seen stated in any number of articles, posts and tweets.

And it seems that this was the Australia Tony Abbott and the Liberal National Party were trying to get people to vote for. Their pre-election material focused a lot on jobs, the economy and roads and not at all on helping the disadvantaged or the marginalised. There was a lot of emphasis on growth and the economy and not much on justice and compassion. Their pre-election promises including cutting foreign aid, stopping the boats and ending the carbon tax.

In a recent article for the Guardian, George Monbiot said "Abbott’s policies are really about removing the social and environmental protections enjoyed by all Australians, to allow the filthy rich to become richer – and filthier."  (If Abbott is elected, Australia'snatural wonders will gradually be rubbed away)

Is this the Australia we want? Well according to the election results, yet it is. Or at least it's the Australia that some of us voted for.

But not everybody is happy with it. Since Saturday night, my Twitter and Facebook feeds have been filled with comments from people who are disappointed with the result. Not all of us wanted a more selfish Australia after all.

So what do we do now? Vent on social media, throw up our hands and start counting down to the next election? Decide that the fight for justice and compassion is over for another three years?


Now is the time that those of us who don't want a more selfish Australia need to fight even harder for justice and compassion. If we are to live in a more selfish Australia, those of us who want something different need to ensure our voices are heard.

We do need to accept the result. But we don't need to just lie back and accept the fallout.

I hope that the many people who voiced disgust at the result on social media also tell the newly elected government what they think. I hope they write letters to their MPs telling them what they want Australia to look like. I hope they protest against every decision the LNP Government makes that they don't like.

As Martin Luther King Jr said, 'Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.'

So let's make sure we're not silent.

But our fight for justice and compassion shouldn't end there.

The commentators who have said Australia under a LNP-led government would be more selfish have got it wrong in one respect - it's the government that will be more selfish, not necessarily the country. And the country is filled with many people who don't have to be selfish just because our government's policies are.

Justice and compassion should never be relegated to the governmental sphere, regardless of who's leading the country. It should start in our own lives.

So now, more than ever, let us be the ones to show kindness and compassion to others. Let us to be the ones to help our neighbours in need, wherever in this world they may live. Let us be the ones to look after this earth and do all we can to protect it. Let us be the one to treat all people, regardless of country of birth or religion or sexual orientation or socio-economic status, equally and justly. Let us be the ones to help the oppressed and the marginalised and the disadvantaged. Let us be the ones to let our own lives reflect the kind of country we wish we had.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Why I'm a Christian and support marriage equality

In the wake of Kevin Rudd's response to a pastor about same-sex marriage on Q and A last night, I wanted to say something (and warning, this is a very long soap-box type post).

I too have sometimes had people say to me that I can't be a Christian and support same-sex marriage. Well I support marriage equality because of my faith, not despite it.

I believe in marriage equality because I know that we ignore lots of things in the bible while saying that the verses about homosexuality can't be ignored. (I for one would prefer us to focus on the laws about women separating themselves from everyone during their periods - or the laws about the Year of Jubilee where all debts were repaid. Let's worry about them, instead of the verses about homosexuality which actually cause people a lot of pain). 

I believe in marriage equality because I know that the bible was written in a specific time and was influenced by the culture of its day - and in a new context and a new culture (and with new scientific knowledge about sexual orientation which the bible-writers did not have at the time) we need to rethink things.

I believe in marriage equality because I believe that our understanding of God is not static, but changes and evolves over time. Just as we changed our understanding of slavery, so too I believe it's now time to change our understanding of homosexuality.

I believe in marriage equality because I believe the 300 plus verses about justice are more important than the few about homosexuality.

I believe in marriage equality because I believe God created everyone and loves them just the way they are.

And like Kevin Rudd, I believe the central message of the Gospels is love. The church's views on homosexuality has caused so much pain and hurt over the years. I can't believe that this is what the God of love would want.

You may disagree with me. But don't say I'm not a Christian or I need to read my bible. I am and I do - and I still believe it's time for marriage equality.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Why I'm not a big fan of economic growth

People sometimes tease me for not thinking the economy is important. It's not that I think it's unimportant. But I do think we place too much emphasis on it. And I think often decisions are made as if economic growth was the most important aim, when there are other things that are far more important. We've prioritised the economy over well-being, when it should be the other way around. 

Let's take two policy decisions by the Labor Government recently.

The first is the decision to take all single parents off Parenting Payment when their youngest child turns eight and place them on Newstart instead. Newstart is not enough to live on - so it forces these parents into any work they can find - and their choices are limited because of their child-caring responsibilities. 

From an economic perspective, this makes sense. On one hand, you can hand out money to parents to stay at home. On the other hand, you force people into working so they're not only contributing to the economy with their labour, but also through paying for child are and more consumer spending.

However, is the economy really the most important thing here? Shouldn't the most important thing be the health and well-being of our children. I was lucky enough to be able to work from home until just recently, when my youngest was 11. And while we may not have had much money, what we did have was way more precious - time together. I'm not saying all parents should stay at home until their children finish primary school. But I do believe those that want to should be encouraged. No, they don't contribute as much to the economy, but they contribute an awful lot to the well-being of their children and often the wider community. 

The next area is refugees. I received something in my mailbox the other day about how much illegal boats are costing us. We've reduced real people who are hurting and suffering to a dollar figure. If the economy is the most important thing, then maybe this makes sense. But it's a sad world we live in, if that's the thing that matters most.

Compassion is never cheap. In dollar terms, what we spend when we're compassionate will often exceed what we receive. But in well-being terms, what we receive is priceless. Being compassionate does have benefits - not only to those who are helped, but to those who are helping. 

And if we remove the economic focus, let's look at what refugees bring to Australia. Not only do they bring the opportunity for us to show compassion, they bring their lives, their culture and their stories. They bring the opportunity to enrich the lives of all those who come into contact with them. Surely that's worth something!

The other problem I have with economic growth is that it can suggest that it is only economic transactions that are important. Health, love, enjoyment, nature - all are seen in dollar terms. Instead of weddings being seen as a chance to celebrate love and begin a life together, they're huge events that require lots of consumer spending. Weight management, match-making and Eco-tourism are huge industries. A hug, a giggle, a walk in our local neighbourhood don't contribute to economic growth. But if someone can find a way to make money out of them, they will. 

And does consumer spending really equal happiness? How much of what we buy is actually making our lives better? And often our buying is a reflection of things that are wrong, not how happy we are. Yesterday I spent money on a pillow for my sore neck and medication. Yes, they contributed to my well-being - but I'd say the conversation I had with my sons in the evening probably had more to say about my general well-being that my consumer spending did.

The economy is important. We need money to provide the basic services that people need. And there's nothing wrong with wanting Australians to have good lifestyles beyond those basic services. But growing the economy shouldn't be the ultimate goal. Improving the well-being of people should. The economy is just a tool to help us do that. When people's well-being suffers because it's not good for the economy, then something is wrong.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sex outside marriage: is it okay?

In my old church, sex outside marriage was seen as a sin. That doesn't mean that people didn't do it. But people were expected to wait until marriage before having sex and not have sex unless they were married. Anything else was wrong. They considered this the 'biblical' view and therefore God's view.

It's also been the traditional view. Throughout history, Christians have generally considered sex outside marriage as a sin. However, it was a sin that lots of people were prepared to commit. And generally, people didn't seem to worried about it. Popes have been known to not only have mistresses, but illegitimate children. Men were often actually encouraged to sow their wild oats and even after marriage a mistress on the side was perfectly acceptable - often even expected. So sex outside marriage wasn't considered that big of a deal.

Unless of course you were a woman. Then the rules were completely different. Women were expected to be a virgin on their wedding day and never to take a lover. Obviously some still did. But women's 'fornication' or 'adultery' was seen as a much graver matter than men's 'fornication' or 'adultery'.

Biblical interpretation doesn't exist in a cultural vacuum. And in every time and age people are most likely to interpret the bible in a way that fits well with their cultural ideas. It is quite possible that one reason why sex outside marriage has been seen as a sin for so long is because it kept women from having sex outside marriage. And it was in men's best interests for women to be virgins on their wedding day and remain monogamous. And it suited their culturally formed ideas about what women were meant to be like.

The bible does not exist in a cultural vacuum either. So to understand the bible's teachings on sex outside marriage, we need to understand the culture it was written in. Women had far less status in society than they do today. They had little rights on their own and were often considered to be man's possession. Therefore, to have sex with a woman outside of marriage was to despoil another man's property (either her father's, her future husband's or her husband's).

In 1 Corinthians 7:2, Paul says that men should have sex with their own wife and wives should have sex with their own husband. That seems very plain. However, this is also the chapter where Paul says it is better for the married to stay unmarried. If we had heeded this advice, we probably wouldn't have the population problem we have now. And admittedly, Paul does not say they cannot marry. Indeed, he says it is better to marry than to burn with passion. However, it doesn't seem like good long-term advice.

And we are given some reason for that advice later on in the chapter. Paul says it is 'because of the present crisis' that it is better for people to remain unmarried. And in 1 Corinthians 7:29, he says the time is short. This was a time when people were expecting the Lord's return any day. They were not making plans for 2000 years of Christianity.

This is not to say that sex outside marriage was only bad in Paul's time. However, it is worth noting that we now (with the exception of religious orders in the Catholic Church) have disregarded most of what Paul had to say about remaining unmarried. Can we really still hold fast to its advice about sex outside marriage?

I mentioned before that women's status has changed since biblical times. Indeed, women's inferior status was a constant throughout much of Christianity's history. So too were their lives. It has only been in relatively recent times that a woman's life has consisted of far more than marrying early and spending her life bearing children. In the past, women had little chance to earn money or support themselves. They were totally dependent on their husband. They also had far fewer ways of preventing pregnancy and were greatly disadvantaged if an unwanted pregnancy occurred. In such a context, refraining from having sex outside marriage was a very good idea.

But things have changed. Women now not only can earn money but often want to put children on hold for a while as they pursue a career. And with the invention of the pill, they're able to do that and still enjoy a healthy sex life. In the past, if a woman was not married by the age of 20, she might be seen as a spinster. Now, it's quite common for women to wait until they're 30 before getting married. It's also quite common for women to go travelling or pursue other interests in their 20s. Women are doing a lot more than they used to. And marriage and children are getting delayed.

And I personally think that can be a good thing. I had my first child while I was 24. And while that's not as young as some other people I know, it did mean I didn't get the chance to travel or pursue a career or even have the same kind of social life that other people in their 20s often get. Not that I regret it, of course. And there are lots of benefits to having children young. But I can also see the benefits of waiting until you're older. 

So should sex have to wait until someone's 30? Different people will have different answers to that. But whatever the answer is, we have to recognise that waiting until you're 30 to have sex is completely different to waiting until you're 15!

But this does not mean we should just dismiss any biblical teachings about sex as culturally irrelevant. If the bible says something, it's worth asking questions about why it says it. Is it just because those teachings met cultural expectations? Or is there a deeper reason?

I think one thing the bible constantly says about sex is that it is a special act. It binds you to another person - not just physically, but emotionally. While I do not think this necessarily means we have to wait until we're married to have sex, we do need to carefully consider who we have sex with. And we need to be aware that it a special act and that it does have emotional consequences.

Society's expectation nowadays is often the complete opposite to what the traditional and biblical view on sex before marriage was. Now, we're told we can have sex with whomever we want, whenever we want. It doesn't matter. It's not important. It's just two consenting adults having fun.

And yet this view of sex can damage people - particularly women, who are far more likely to make an emotional investment in the act of sex. Since the sexual revolution, how many women have had sex with a man thinking he likes her only to find out he just wanted sex? My guess is millions. How many women find themselves having sex when they're don't really want to, just because they feel it's expected of them? Just because society tells us it's okay to have sex now doesn't mean it won't cause us pain.

A few writers have made the comment that, while the sexual revolution was meant to bring women a whole more freedom in the area of sex, all it really ended up doing was make women more sexually available for men. Men often benefited just as much as women - maybe even more so.

And while women's status has improved, the sexual revolution might be said to have actually diminished women's status, rather than improved it. Women are now much more likely to be seen as sexual objects and expected to be sexually available. And sexual objectification is just another way of seeking to possess someone.

I'm not saying that people should never have one-night stands. Nor am I saying that women shouldn't want to be sexy. We are sexual beings. And that's okay. It seems to me that God made us like that. Maybe we should acknowledge that, rather than trying to ignore it. However, it's because we're sexual beings that sex is important, and I think we need to acknowledge that too.

We can't take the bible's teaching on sex and transplant them to our own culture as though nothing has changed. It has. But nor can we dismiss them as culturally irrelevant. They still have something to teach us. And in the end, what people do with those teachings is really a matter between them and God.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Life without germs is not much of a life

Last week in Australia came the news that the government had created stricter hygiene and sanitary regulations for childcare centres. These new standards included children not being allowed to blow out candles on a communal birthday cake and having to use hand-sanitiser before and after playing in the sandpit.

Later on came the news that a study by Stanford University revealed that actually exposing children to some germs may be good for them, as it builds up their immune system. Out of all the mothers I have spoken to about it, not one was shocked by this news.

So why do we have such stringent requirements when it comes to sanitation and hygiene? And what is that doing to us?

The emphasis on germs really began in the post-war period. This was a period when women were forced back into the home after doing work during the war. It was also a period when a new wave of household appliances supposedly freed up house-wives' time. It was also a time when consumerism really took off.

Having more stricter cleanliness requirements not only meant that women were kept busier, but that there was a ready market for more products particularly aimed at house-wives.

Things have changed a bit since that time, but I can't kept thinking that at least some of our ideas about cleanliness, hygiene and sanitation come from the very companies that are trying to sell us products.

We've all seen the ads where a women cleans the bathroom, but (shock, horror) doesn't get all the germs. No, if she wants the germs, she has to buy this particular brand of product that is guaranteed to pick up germs that the other products leave behind.

I remember when I was a new mother, receiving a free magazine and pack. The pack contained lots of samples of things I might need for my new baby. The magazine was filled with ads for more products. And looking back, I would say that many of those ads really capitalise on the fears that a new mother has. Many a new mother would have looked at those ads and thought they immediately needed to go out and buy a million and one things just to keep their baby safe, healthy and free from germs.

And this is probably a good time to say that an emphasis on hygiene and safety can be a good thing. The discovery that it was important to wash hands in hospital actually saved lives. And I for one am pleased that someone created products to keep cupboards locked so that little fingers (and mouths) could not get into them.

But have we gone too far?

The rules about birthday cakes are only for childcare centres. Parents can still choose to have a communal birthday cake at their own party if they wish. And I'm sure that many parents will. But will some parents see these new laws and suddenly worry that their child should not eat any cake where another child has blowed out the candles. I can all too easily imagine a scenario where little Tommy has a birthday party and little Jane's mother says Jane can't have any birthday cake if Tommy blows out the candles - spoiling the moment for both Tommy and Jane.

Birthdays are special, magical, joyful times for children. And one of the best things about birthdays (besides the presents, of course) is blowing out the candles. Children have been doing it for years. And I don't think we've suffered too much for it. And if any of us did catch someone else's cold, it's a small price to pay for sharing this moment together.

And that's one thing about strict sanitary regulations. It keeps people apart. Yes, when we share things, we may share germs. But we also share special moments. We are together as a family, a group or a community. The occasional cold is a small price to pay for that.

Some churches have now stopped allowing parishioners to share from the same cup during communion. Again, this is an attempt to stop the spreading of germs. And while I can see times when this might be a good practice (for example, when deadly viruses are widespread), it kind of ruins the meaning of sharing communion. In communion, we all come together. We partake in the one bread and the one wine. We share in the one faith. That's symbolic and it's special. And yes, we can still have that drinking from separate communion glasses. But something is lost if we do.  

At some point we need to ask ourselves if the price we're paying to keep ourselves free from germs is actually worth what we are losing. And part of what we are losing is our sense of belonging to the one community. We focus on the individual rather than the shared sense of being together.

We are not only isolating ourselves from each other. We are isolating ourselves from nature. The hand-sanitising before and after sandpit use is an example of how we wish to protect ourselves from dirt (and often nature).

Nature can make us dirty. Nature can expose us to germs. Nature can make us cold and wet and lower our immune system. Nature can bite and sting and hurt us.

So what do we do in our super-safe, super-sanitised (and super-comfortable) world we have created? It's telling that many eco-holidays are now held in very clean, very comfortable and very safe resort type settings. People get to experience nature without being exposed to any of the risk. But it kind of seems that that super-safe, super-sanitised and super-comfortable experience of nature is missing at least some of what nature has to offer.

And what about the backyard? Or the park? Or general everyday places where kids get to experience nature? Do we keep our kids far from any of that because they might get hurt or they might catch germs? I personally think that a childhood where we don't experience nature is far worse than a childhood where we might get sick or get stung now and then.

My son got stung by a bee just recently. I asked him whether he thought it would have been better to not play outside, because therefore he wouldn't have got stung by a bee. His answer was no. When asked why he said, 'Because then I wouldn't get any exercise or any sun and I wouldn't have fun.' When I said, 'What if you knew you would get stung by a bee again if you played outside, would you still play outside?' His answer, 'yes' and he didn't really need to think about it too much.

There's one way to keep children safe. Keep them isolated in sterilised rooms, with nothing dangerous and no contact with anyone or barely anything. But that's not living.

We're not meant to live highly sterilised, highly safe, highly comfortable lives. Whether we like it or not, we are connected to each other and we are connected to nature. And that involves some risk. But the risk is worth it. Because a life that's connected to other people and connected to nature also contains much joy. And anyone who has experience that joy would say that it was worth the risk to get it.  

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Accepting women's nakedness - Eve and the Garden of Eden

Eve was naked in the Garden of Eden.

We're used to those pictures where Adam and Eve have appropriately placed fig leaves. But until they ate from the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve would not have been wearing them. They would have been well and truly naked.

And not naked, in a 'provocative, over-sexualised, look at me and ogle me' way. Naked in a 'this is who I am, exactly as God intended' way.

Unfortunately, it wasn't too long until they ate from the forbidden fruit. It was only after this that they tried to cover themselves with fig leaves. It was also after this, that they were removed from the garden and God made them coverings of animal skins. Remember, that Adam and Eve had already tried to cover themselves. And remember that God was quite happy for them to be naked before they ate the forbidden fruit. When God provided animal skins, I don't believe he was saying that they shouldn't be naked.

I should quickly clarify that I'm not about to suggest we all start stripping off our clothes. What I am suggesting is that maybe we need to get a lot more comfortable with women's nakedness - not in the sense of wearing no clothes, but of accepting all aspects of a woman's body.

Imagine for a moment that they didn't eat the forbidden fruit, that Eve remained in the Garden of Eden in her naked state.

She would have gotten her periods, had babies, breastfed. She may have even talked about her vagina! I imagine during the birth of her babies, it may have come up in conversation. She would have grown old. Her tummy would not have been so flat anymore. Her breasts would not have been so perky. She would have gotten wrinkles and grey hairs.

And I kind of think Adam and God would have been cool with that. In fact, I kind of think that if Adam had even thought of complaining, God would have been very quick to tell him, I made her that way.

This is no airbrushed, photoshopped version of Eve's nakedness. It's real nakedness. It's nakedness where nothing about a woman has to be hidden away. It's a nakedness where a woman's natural ageing processes and natural nurturing functions are on view and accepted.

We're a long way from the Garden of Eden.

Last year, a US politician was banned from addressing the Michigan House of Representatives after using the word 'vagina'.

Last week, a woman was told to stop breastfeeding her baby at a public pool. Sunrise host, David Koch, said women should be 'discreet' and 'classy' when breastfeeding in public.

Yesterday, Mama Mia gave a thumbs-up to Nigella Lawson for refusing to allow her tummy to be photoshopped out. (http://www.mamamia.com.au/social/nigella-lawson-and-a-big-photoshop-win/). What's sad about this is the fact that they even want to photoshop tummies out. 

But then someone refusing to be photoshopped is news. The large amount of photoshopping that goes on every day (removing wrinkles, tummies and anything else considered unattractive) is not. It's too common to rate a mention.

We live in a world where there's quite a large amount of women's flesh on show. But it's not real women's flesh. It's not wormen-affirming flesh. It's flesh where all the faults have been removed. It's flesh that is well-presented and 'perfected'. It's flesh that's there to be looked at. (And I use the word 'flesh' intentionally here, because that's what it seems like - that women are just flesh.)

And if we dare to show women's bodies in a way that shows they're not flesh, that they actually are designed for something so much more important than being looked at, we are told to do it in a way that's classy and discreet - presumably not to offend anyone who might be 'looking' at us.

I suspect that Adam liked looking at Eve's body. And I suspect God did too. But it was an appreciation borne out of seeing Eve as she really was, and understanding her as a person and not just something to be ogled. It was an appreciation that could accept Eve in her true naked form.

We can't return to the Garden of Eve. But may we all learn to accept women's nakedness a little bit more - without necessarily taking off any clothes J  

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Religious sensitivities and anti-discrimination laws

A new bill by the Australian Labor Party will give religious organisations in Australia the right to discriminate against those who might cause "injury to the religious sensitivities of adherents of that religion."

It seems that the press wanted to present this in as controversial a way as possible, with many news outlets reporting that religious organisations were free to discriminate against those they considered 'sinners', which is not the actual wording used - and makes no sense at all in a Christian context, as we are all sinners.

However, one might well ask what does "injury to the religious sensitivities of adherents of that religion" actually mean?

I am a Christian. And I can think of no person whose employment would cause injury to my religious sensitivities. As a Christian, though, who believes God's love and compassion extends to all people, I do feel my religious sensitivities may be injured should someone be refused employment on the basis of sexuality, gender, marital status or religion.

The same stories that used the word 'sinners' also said:

"Under current exemptions to legislation, religious groups can reject employees for being gay, single parents or living "in sin"." (Read more: http://www.news.com.au/breaking-news/national/sinner-story-a-beat-up-christian-lobby/story-e6frfku9-1226554925167#ixzz2IPSaHuB6)

So are these the type of people who would injure 'religious sensitivities'? I would say no. But at the same time, I fear that it is these kinds of people that will be discriminated against.

Jim Wallace from the Australian Christian Lobby explains it differently. He says it's not a matter of vetting people, but of employing people who share the same beliefs. He gives the example that an environmental organisation would not employ someone who was an 'ardent logger'.

The difference is, of course, that environmental organisations (quite rightly) are subject to discrimination laws.

And however it's painted, in practice, I fear it's going to be used mainly as an excuse refuse employment to homosexuals.

And quite frankly I don't think that's right and I don't think that's Christian. For a start, why is that many (certainly not all, but many) Christian churches focus on this one group of people? They'll employ just about anybody and accept just about anybody - except for homosexuals.

I have heard many Christians say that a person cannot be a Christian and a homosexual. Why not? Even if they do believe it's a sin - there's lots of sins mentioned in the bible. I think it's safe to say that we're all guilty of at least one of them - and I include in there the sins mentioned as abominations. Lying is an abomination. Women wearing men's clothing is an abomination. There's lots of them. (For a full list of them all, go here: http://richardwaynegarganta.com/abomination.htm)

I'm pretty sure that there aren't too many people who are being refused employment by a Christian organisation for cheating or lying or oppressing the poor. We're perfectly willing to employ those people. But homosexuals, no, can't be done. That would offend our religious sensitivities.

And I do understand that some Christian organisations (such as schools) want to employ people who share those Christian beliefs. That does make sense. But if it ends up getting used mostly as an excuse to discrimination against people, then that's not right.

We believe in a God who has created us all and loves us all. We have the example of the Good Samaritan to show that even the people we detest may end up being the ones who do a lot better job of loving their neighbour than the 'right' people do. We have what might be considered an anti-discrimination verse in Galatians 3:28: ' There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.'

We also have a lot of bible verses and passages that tell us not to be judgmental, Matthew 7:1-5 being just one of them:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye."

Christians should be the people who accept others, the people who love others, the people who are least likely to judge others. We should be the least likely to discriminate, not the legal exception to anti-discrimination laws.  

I do realise that the press has probably not done the best job in reporting this story. Controversial stories sell more papers - I should know, I bought one myself when I saw the front page of The Canberra Times. And I also realise that there are many religious organisations who do not discriminate based on age, gender, sexuality, race or religion.

However, I also wonder how the average Australian sees the church at this time. Do they see a church that is accepting and welcoming, that represents a God that loves them? Or do they see a church that wants to exclude people and that dislikes certain groups of people? And which one really is more representative of the God who created everyone, who loves everyone and his son, Jesus Christ, who died for everyone?

(Picture taken from "Religious groups free to discriminate" on www.smh.com.au -  http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/political-news/religious-groups-free-to-discriminate-20130115-2crlw.html)

Monday, January 14, 2013

Praise and persecution

On Palm Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, as a large group of people praised him. Just one week later, in the same town, a large group of people were calling for his crucifixion. Quite possibly, many of the people in the original group were there in the latter group as well. Just one week and everything changed. What happened?

I think what happened is that those people who were praising Jesus as he rode in a donkey were not only praising Jesus, they were praising what they expected him to be. They thought he was going to get rid of the Romans. They thought that he was going to gain Jewish independence. They had plans for the Messiah and thought Jesus was probably a pretty good fit for those plans. They thought that with the Messiah on their side, the Romans didn’t stand a chance.

I imagine quite a few people would have been shocked to hear that Jesus had been arrested. But perhaps they were still kind of okay with it. I mean, Jesus wasn’t following their plan exactly the way they had decided he should, but they could handle a few slight detours along the way. Maybe he was planning to use his arrest to overthrow the Romans and put the Jews in charge again? But he didn’t. Instead, he meekly submitted to their authority.

When Pontius Pilate said he would release one of the prisoners, I’m pretty sure that by then they realised that Jesus wasn’t going to follow the agenda at all. They would have known (or thought they knew) that any real Messiah wasn’t going to gain his release by the Romans agreeing to let him go. That’s not part of the plan. No way. So perhaps right about then they decided that because this Jesus guy wasn’t following the agenda, that he wasn’t really the Messiah at all. I mean the real Messiah would do what they wanted him to do, right? So what to do with Jesus, this guy who ‘pretended’ to be the Messiah, but failed to follow their rules? May as well crucify him. He probably deserves it for giving everyone the wrong idea.

But Jesus was the Messiah. Just because he didn’t do things the way people expected him to didn’t mean he wasn’t the right guy. He just did things his way (and God’s way) rather than their way. He wasn’t out to meet anybody’s agenda. He had his own agenda to take care of.

Sometimes I think we do the same thing now. We have our own ideas about what God should do and when he should do it. We expect God to follow our agenda. But God doesn’t always go along with our plans. He has his own plans. And sometimes perhaps we may wonder whether God’s actually in something at all. I mean if it doesn’t go the way we expect it to, maybe God’s not really in it, right? But just because things don’t go the way we want, doesn’t mean that God’s not there.

There’s a quote from Abraham Lincoln that I absolutely love. It goes like this: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right” The reason I love that quote so much is because it draws our attention to the fact that we shouldn’t be making our plans and expect God to go along with them. We should instead be making sure we’re following God’s plans. It also reminds us that just because we decide to do something and call on God to help us doesn’t necessary mean that God is on our side.

We can’t decide to go to war and expect God to sign up as a valuable recruit.  Instead, we should be looking to sign up as recruits in his army. We need to fight against the things that he tell us to fight against, like poverty. We need to fight for the people that he tells us to fight for, like the weak and the marginalised. We need to try and work towards God’s plans succeeding, rather than making our own plans and expecting God to help us achieve them.

Palm Sunday is coming up in a couple of days. It’s generally a time for remembering the praise that people gave Jesus as he rode in on his donkey. But perhaps it should also be a time for thinking about whether we’re following Jesus as he really is, or Jesus as we want him to be. Are we making sure we’re on God’s side? Or are we making plans and just expecting God to be on our side?


Monday, January 7, 2013

The good news of the Gospel

The Gospel literally means ‘good news’. When people talk about the gospel or the Christian message, they are meant to be talking about good news. It’s the kind of thing that people are meant to be happy to hear, the kind of message they should get excited about. When people are told about Christianity, it should feel like getting the news that you’ve got a promotion or you’ve won the lotto or someone has paid for you to go on a European holiday. So why is it that when people hear about Christianity, they often feel like they’ve just been told that they’re going to jail.

Now the argument could be made that the Christian message is only good news to Christians. There are two responses I’d like to make to that. Firstly, not all Christians hear the Christian message as good news. They might have started off that way, but what at first made them feel like they were at a wedding now makes them feel like they’re at a court hearing. A lot of this depends on whether the church is heavy on the guilt or heavy on the grace. Or even if they understand and believe in the good news message of Jesus, what they hear from the pulpit may seem like the complete opposite at times.

Secondly, shouldn’t the Christian message at least look like good news – even for those who are not Christians? In the New Testament, Jesus and Paul preached the gospel. It was accepted and believed by people who had never heard of Jesus before. They accepted and believed it because It sounded like good news. If it was bad news, they wouldn’t have been interested. I believe that the gospel still needs to sound like good news to everyone today, even to people that aren’t interested in Christianity. Maybe one of the reasons why so many people are so antagonistic or disinterested in the church is because they only see it as a bearer of bad news.

For example, the Christian message is often summed up in this way: ‘If you are not a Christian, you’re going to hell.’ Doesn’t sound like good news to me. In fact, it sounds as though the ‘good news’ of Jesus has been warped into the ‘bad news’ of the church. It gets even worse when we consider all the other things that Christians are prone to saying:

  • All other religions except Christianity are bad
  • You are a sinner and need to be punished
  • God hates homosexuals and Muslims and those who have abortions
  • If you want to become a Christian, you need to change (because God doesn’t like the way you are)
  • Once you’re a Christian, you’ll need to stop drinking, smoking, swearing, having sex and doing all the things you typically enjoy doing.
  • If you don’t accept all the right doctrines, then you’re really not a Christian at all and you’re still going to hell.
  • Christians are better than all other people.
  • You’re just not good enough.

Now some of these may not actually be said, but they’re the kind of messages that people are getting from Christians. Doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of news that you break open the champagne and tell all your friends about now, does it? You could be forgiven for thinking that Christians don’t actually have any good news to tell.

But the message of Jesus is a good news message. As a Christian (yes I really am a Christian) I believe it has good news for everybody. Not just the regular church-goers and born again Christians, but everybody. And here’s what I think this good news is:

  • God loves you exactly the way you are.
  • Even though you’re not perfect, nobody is, but God accepts us anyway.
  • God wants to be in relationship with us.
  • God wants us to live full and satisfying lives and gives us guidelines for doing this.
  • If we want him to, God will help change us into the kind of people we want to be.  
  • Jesus died so that our sins may be forgiven.
  • We don’t need to earn our way into Heaven. We just need to believe the good news.

I am well aware that this is still not a good news message for all. Some choose not to believe. Some will reject Christianity no matter how it is presented. But at least it sounds like good news. And even if people don’t want to accept the entire message of Jesus, I hope that they can find something worth celebrating in what is presented here. I believe that our task as Christians is simply to present the good news. Whether people accept it or reject it is up to them. But let’s make sure we are presenting the good news of Jesus, not the bad news of the church.


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