Wednesday, July 30, 2008

In praise of... a more humane immigration policy

The recently announced changes to Australian immigration law seem to be a step in a good direction: an end to mandatory detention; access to more legal services in detention; more frequent and independent reviews of detainee status; and (for those not deemed to be a security risk) a chance to live in the community while their claims are assessed. This is one small victory against a politics of fear.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Running from the past: Breakfast with Jesus VI

An Easter sermon from John 21: part VI
But let’s keep our attention on Simon Peter. The charcoal fire on the beach is a subtle reminder of a similar fire just weeks earlier, of the unfinished business between Jesus and the one who had denied him. After breakfast, Jesus takes him aside and gently but firmly gives him the words he couldn’t find for himself. Three times he had denied Jesus. Three times Jesus asks him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter the rock is being reminded that he is also Simon, the failure. He can’t keep running from his past. He has to face it. Jesus is allowing him to start again, but not by saying “forget about it; it doesn’t matter” or “let’s put it behind us”. This is not an erasure of the error, a burial of the past. It is a creative re-making of a new future. Each time Simon affirms his love, Jesus recommissions him: “feed my sheep”. Remember, Jesus is the good shepherd, and he includes Simon in that important task.

Simon is not earning forgiveness by his affirmations of love. No, Jesus is graciously showing him that Simon can still be Peter, that failure is not final, that his error neither disqualifies him nor needs to be hidden.
Series: I; II: III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX.

The fine print

Is Christianity too good to be true?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

God and the Artist: Hart at New College lectures 2008

Last year's New College lectures by Oliver O'Donovan on moral wakefulness were excellent. This year, another top notch scholar (also from Scotland) is coming to present what may well be an equally fascinating series. Trevor Hart, Professor of Divinity & Director of the Institute for Theology and the Arts at the University of St Andrews, Scotland will deliver the 22nd annual New College lectures on 2nd-4th September. Here is the series outline:

God and the Artist: human creativity in theological perspective
1. ‘The lunatic, the lover and the poet’: divine copyright and the dangers of ‘strong imagination’
2. The ‘heart of man’ and the ‘mind of the maker’: Tolkien and Sayers on imagination and human artistry
3. Giveness, grace and gratitude: creation, artistry and Eucharist
Unfortunately, I'll be in Rome listening to O'Donovan again at the time, so I'll miss them. More details to come on the New College website. Given that I am about to begin studies at a (slightly older) New College, things could get a little confusing...

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Christianity Today looks at tomorrow

The flagship of popular evangelicalism in the US, Christianity Today, has published an article by their editor-in-chief David Neff in which he argues that a healthy biblical eschatology leads us to more not less concern for ecological responsibility. Titled "Second Coming Eschatology: We care for the environment precisely because God will create a new earth", the article concludes like this:

When I was growing up, eschatology meant "end times"—that is, my church focused on the timing and manner of final events. But Jesus and the apostles played down the time element and even the manner of the End. Instead, they emphasized the inbreaking of God's rule and the way our ability to see his rule helps to transform the present.
If we are given that ability to see God at work, bringing the present into contact with the End, we cannot be indifferent to the way things are. We cannot be deaf to the groanings of Creation. And we can treasure every gift God gives us as a sign of his promises."
Articles like this give me some hope that the tide of popular Christian opinion may yet be turning.

Railroading the discussion

Did you know that rail transport is five times as energy-efficient as road? Or that air transport takes about 420 times the energy of rail to move the same amount of weight? And so why would we give road travel an artificial boost with a promise of cent-for-cent excise reduction to cover any rise in petrol under an emissions trading scheme? Quite apart from being a disappointing cave-in that sends precisely the wrong message (the Government will protect you and your car), it also means that rail freight will be disadvantaged over road. In their wisdom, our leaders obviously consider it to be a necessary political sweetener to wash down the bitter pill of the end of our energy-intensive lives.

When there is soon national hand-wringing and finger-pointing over QANTAS needing to be bailed out or being bought out in the coming consolidation of air carriers, spare a thought for poor underfunded RailCorp and CityRail.
H/T Doug for the statistics.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A miracle in Sydney

World Youth Day miracle recorded by mainstream press.

End mandatory detention

You may not realise this but there are still hundreds of people in immigration detention across Australia. Although conditions have improved somewhat from the nadir of a few years ago, many of the policies of the Howard era are still in force.

Finally, however, the Government is ready to listen and has launched a genuine Inquiry into detention. This is a great chance to call for a more humane system and thus give the Government a strong mandate for change. Chances like this don't come very often - to end a regrettable chapter of Australian history that caused unimaginable suffering to some of the world's most desperate and downtrodden.

It seems that this Inquiry signals that the Government genuinely wants to put an end to Australia's inhumane detention regime, and for the first time they are asking for our views. If ever you have despaired at the treatment of asylum seekers, put your name to GetUp's petition submission and help end this ongoing national shame. The inquiry closes at the end of this week so be quick.
Adapted from a recent campaign email from GetUp. GetUp's position on detention is as follows:

GetUp recognises that there has been a number of positive changes in detention policy in recent years, but we believe that there is still a long way to go before the policy will be acceptable to the community.

GetUp, along with a number of other refugee advocacy organisations, believes that Immigration detention should meet the following principles (revised 22 July 2008):
  1. Immigration detention should not be mandatory. It should be used as a measure of last resort for all people, not just children. It should be used only for legitimate necessary purposes: for health, character, identity and security checks, or where there is a proven ongoing security need.
  2. Immigration detention should have clear time limits, with public and legal scrutiny and detained people must have the ability to challenge that detention.
  3. Immigration detention should have all the ordinary standards expected by the rule of law, with a framework governed by legal rules, not by discretion.
  4. Immigration detention should be conducted with every step taken to ensure that a person in detention can access all necessary legal and welfare services and to ensure that every detainee can properly realise their right to legal advice.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Running from the past: Breakfast with Jesus V

An Easter sermon from John 21: part V
2. A stranger on the shore
Except this morning, in our passage, Simon can’t even catch any fish. So it’s no surprise that when a stranger on the shore gives them such astoundingly good advice, Simon is once more the first to respond. Leaving the others to do the hard work of bringing in the bumper catch, he leaps into the water and races to the shore. Just like he had been first to race to the tomb when he heard it was empty. He is a man with unfinished business. This figure has shown them where to find abundance and sustenance, and so Simon knows it must be Jesus - the very one he had failed. He is not running from this chance to address the past, though he doesn’t know what to say. Having rushed to be first with Jesus, Simon then hangs back to help out when the rest of them arrive in the boat with nets bulging with fish.

But notice that Jesus doesn’t need their fish. He is already cooking fish and bread when they bring in their catch, “yet he invites them to bring what they have to share with him, as he gives what he has to share with them.” (Rowan Williams, Resurrection, 28). A beautiful and rich image of Jesus’ generosity and humility; he doesn’t need our gifts, but he invites and accepts and uses them nonetheless. And there are many other fascinating details in this story, like how Jesus is both known and yet a stranger, both the same one they have known and loved and followed, and yet somehow more than that too.
Series: I; II: III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion

Oliver O'Donovan has just released a new book published by Wipf and Stock called Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion. Here is the publisher's blurb (which, given the Latin, I assume probably originated with the author):

What if the challenge gay men and women present the church with is not emancipatory but hermeneutic? Suppose that at the heart of the problem there is the magna quaestio, the question about the gay experience, its sources and its character, that gays must answer for themselves: how this form of sensibility and feeling is shaped by its social context and how it can be clothed in an appropriate pattern of life for the service of God and discipleship of Christ? But suppose, too, that there is another question corresponding to it, which non-gay Christians need to answer: how and to what extent this form of sensibility and feeling has emerged in specific historical conditions, and how the conditions may require, as an aspect of the pastoral accommodation that changing historical conditions require, a form of public presence and acknowledgment not hitherto known? These two questions come together as a single question: how are we to understand together the particularity of the age in which we are given to attest God's works?
H/T Halden.

UPDATE: In the UK, the book has been published by SCM with the title, A Conversation Waiting to Begin: The churches and the gay controversy. This is, I believe, a superior title in that it better reflects the tone and content of the text. The breathlessness of the US title seems to be more concerned with trying to shift copies. A good review of the book can be found here.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The end of teaching the Bible?

Michael Jensen wants us to stop teaching the Bible.

I agree and am off to preach my second-last sermon at All Souls.

Running from the past: Breakfast with Jesus IV

An Easter sermon from John 21: part IV
For some of the disciples, for a while, they don’t know what to make of the thrilling yet confusing events of Easter Sunday. They make a return to their old lives, their old jobs as fishermen in Galilee. Their families need to be cared for; a living needs to be earned; nets need to be mended; fish must be caught.

But for Simon, there is another layer to this story. He had been with Jesus from the start, and was the most keen, the first to jump in with an answer. To him, Jesus had given a new name: Peter, meaning "the rock". And with it a new task: to be rock solid in his faithfulness to Jesus and God’s kingdom. On the night before Jesus died, when Jesus had started to speak of what was coming, Simon had pledged to be Peter, to follow Jesus no matter what, even to die for Jesus if it came to that.

Of course, within merely hours, it had come to that, and he had failed – twice. First, in the heat of the arrest, he had pulled out a sword and started swinging, full of courage, but demonstrating that he hadn’t understood Jesus' message or purpose after all. And then, even worse, while sitting round a charcoal fire outside the trial at which Jesus was being condemned to death, he had denied even knowing his friend and master in order to save his own skin. Three times. He denied the past three years of his own life. Peter, the rock, had turned out to be just Simon the fisherman after all. His exciting new identity proved to be as mortal as the one who had bestowed it.
Series: I; II: III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX.

Friday, July 18, 2008

In praise of... pardon

Boxologies is consistently one of the most gracious and rational voices discussing Middle East politics that I've come across, written by one who has lived and worked in the region. This piece reflecting on the recent prisoner exchange between Israel and Lebanon is an excellent example.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Running from the past: Breakfast with Jesus III

An Easter sermon from John 21: part III
1. Back to the old life
The final chapter of John has a lot to say to all of us who just can’t seem to escape our history of failure, no matter how hard we try.

The disciples have spent a very eventful and exciting three years following Jesus all over the place. They’ve seen him open the eyes of the blind, lift the lame to their feet; they’ve tasted the water he turned into wine, the bread he multiplied to feed the crowds; they’ve felt him wash their feet as a humble servant with the hands that touched lepers and made them clean; they’ve heard him call a dead man out of his tomb and proclaim the good news that God is going to be king; they’ve smelt the sweat of the donkey and the crowd when he rode in triumph into Jerusalem. In all this, they’ve started to dare to hope, to believe that this wandering prophet might just be God’s promised Messiah, come at last to set his people free.

But then, just when Jesus was at the height of his influence, disaster struck: a betrayer amongst their number. A kiss. An arrest. A series of hasty and dodgy trials. A flogging. A cross. A tomb. A burial of all their hopes.

But then, on the third day, a confusing surprise. The body – gone! Stories from the women of a stranger, a friend, a someone just like Jesus but different too. And then – Look! Now! Here! – amongst them, his hands, his feet, his side, his breath. He lives! Even the doubter is convinced. But… what does it all mean?
Series: I; II: III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX.

Points update

During this relative lull in posting, I will also be giving the monthly points tables a break. However, I ought to tidy up the June table, which was dominated by the usual suspects. Ten bonus points go to Peter J; five to Anthony and three to Jonathan. This very nicely brings Pete into equal third with Jonathan.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Studying Jesus

A shameless plug
I try to keep ads here to a minimum, but since this one is for my brother, I couldn't resist.

Google ‘Jesus’ and you get 152 million results. He may have cultivated more discussion, interest and controversy than any other person in world history. Who was he? What were his ethics, his teachings, his motivations? In the MCSI subject, Jesus: Person, Politics & Ethics, you’ll look in-depth at Jesus’ life and words, what we know about him and what difference he made (and is still making) to the world.
Curious about Jesus? Want to find out how historians think about him, rather than ministers, sports stars and journalists? The Macquarie Christian Studies Institute is offering a second semester course called Jesus: Person, Politics and Ethics at both Macquarie University and UNSW that is open to everyone, though most Australian university students will be able to take it for credit.

The unit convenors are Ian Packer, Director of Public Theology at the Australian Evangelical Alliance, and Murray Smith, PhD candidate in Ancient History at Macquarie University working on early Christian second coming expectations (Murray is a hero and mentor of mine - and also my brother).

Enroll online before July 31. Here is the course outline:
Week 1: Faith, History and Worldview
Week 2: Gospels - Canonical and Apocryphal
Week 3: The Quests for the ‘Historical Jesus'
Week 4: The Social and Political World of First Century Palestine
Week 5: Jesus in First Century Judaism
Week 6: Jesus, Eschatology and the ‘Kingdom of God'
Week 7: Jesus, Ethics and the Law
Week 8: The ‘Sermon on the Mount'
Week 9: Messianic Ethics for Today?
Week 10: Resurrection?; Counter-cultural community
Week 11: Wealth and Poverty
Week 12: Violence, War and Peace
Week 13: Resistance, Assimilation and Protest
I think this will be a great course with excellent teachers (even if I am biased...).

PS Murray is also teaching an online course in second semester with John Dickson comparing five major world religions.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Only theology can save the Earth?

“It may well be that only theology – good theology – can save the Earth now.”

- Jim Wallis, God's Politics: Why the right gets it wrong and the left doesn't get it, 353 (Oxford: Lion, 2005).


Alastair on Girard on mimetic desire

Alastair, who has been having a lengthy break from blogging over the last year or so, is back and he has now graduated from the University of St Andrews. He has a wonderful summary of René Girard's influential and insightful concept of mimetic desire.

Girard claims that we learn what to desire by imitating the desires of others. This form of behaviour is easiest to observe in the case of children. Put two children in a room with a hundred toys and it is quite likely that they will end up fighting over the same one. Rather than arising spontaneously or being fixed on predefined objects, each child’s desire for the object is mediated and reinforced by the desire of the other. Girard argues that desire is ‘mimetic’ in character; our desire does not directly fix itself on objects, but is mediated by the desire of others for certain objects. Invested with the aura of the other’s desire, certain objects can become suddenly greatly desirable to us.
This simple idea is then applied to all kinds of areas: love triangles, rumours, Oedipal attraction, scapegoating, masochism and, ultimately, sin. If you're unfamiliar with Girard, this is a great introduction.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Running from the past: Breakfast with Jesus II

An Easter sermon from John 21: part II
Our mistakes seem unable to be fixed. Isn’t it sometimes better to give up and move on, make a fresh start elsewhere? This relationship is going nowhere, we have both failed too many times. Mightn’t it be easier if we stopped seeing each other and started new lives with other people? My sister has hurt me so often that it’s better to steer clear of her. This church has become too difficult; too many bridges have been burned. Mightn’t it be easier to switch to one down the road?

Sometimes, even our memories can be too painful to face, and so we push mistakes out of our heads, as well as our lives. How many of us are running from a buried past, trying to make a new start?

Doesn’t Easter give us the story of just such a fresh start? We like the image of the slate wiped clean, turning over a new leaf, leaving our mistakes for dead and being given a new life. But while it works for a while, if we’re honest, the past has a habit of catching up with us.

In what is probably my all time-favourite film, Magnolia, there’s a great line that is repeated again and again by different characters: “we might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” Is it really possible to escape our past?
Series: I; II: III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Running from the past: Breakfast with Jesus I

An Easter sermon from John 21: part I
Introduction: Sweeping it under the carpet
From here, Britain is on the other side of the world, about as far from home as it's possible to go without joining NASA or using illegal substances. And up the very top of Britain is Scotland. Near the north-eastern corner of Scotland is the grey, cold city of Aberdeen (no points for this picture!).

If you go even further north from Aberdeen you’ll eventually come to a little town called Mintlaw. North of Mintlaw is the village of Strichen, where the accents are nearly incomprehensible and the food nearly inedible. A good drive outside Strichen is a byroad through the middle of nowhere. On a sidebranch of that byroad is a little house. And that is where my friend lives – about as far from Sydney as it is physically possible to get.*

Here we are in the local pub when we visited him two years ago. On the table is the food: deep-fried, plastered with pastry and washed down with Scottish ale. Also on the table is a map so that we wouldn’t get lost while driving from this obscure village to my friend's even more obscure house.

Although I love him, I’m not showing my friend’s face, because this man is on the run.

He hasn’t always lived in the backwaters of Scotland. For years he lived in Australia, and had a life and friends and a future all here. He proposed to a lovely local girl and she accepted and they were planning a wedding, a marriage, a life together. But sadly, it didn’t work out. Just weeks out from the big day, it was all called off. Having had a few friends go through this situation, I know something of how messy, painful, embarrassing, confusing and awful it can be.

And so, as far as I can tell, my friend ran away. He left his broken engagement, his confused friends and family, his once bright future here and went about as far as it’s possible to run into the obscurity of rural Scotland. He started a new life elsewhere and didn’t want to talk about his old life, the failed engagement or the girl who had once filled his life with promise and hope. The bitter disappointment was too much, and it’s easier sometimes to sweep it under the carpet, to move on.**

It's a common phenomenon. Although my friend's flight from his past was obvious and extreme, in more subtle ways I’ve done it myself over many things. Faced with a mess, with a mistake, with a hurt, it’s easier to cover it up, deny it happened, avoid the topic, avoid the person, avoid the whole situation, to walk away and start again elsewhere with a clean slate. Have you ever done this?
*Some details changed.
**At least, this was how his actions appeared to me. I could be wrong on this. He may have had other excellent reasons for the move. NB I preached this sermon before I knew I was going to Edinburgh myself. Unsurprisingly, a few parishioners have since asked me what I'm running from.
Series: I; II: III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Peak Oil continues to go mainstream

On the front cover of today's SMH: a CSIRO-led study predicting petrol could be at $8 per litre within the next ten years.

This issue will soon become far bigger economically (and so politically, socially, personally and spiritually) than an emissions trading scheme or even the global credit crisis and yet it has received far less attention than either. If you're still new to the term "Peak Oil", then check out this introduction.

Before you start calculating how much it will cost to fill up your car for $8 a litre, or working out how to upgrade to a hybrid, spend a little time thinking what such oil prices could do to the cost of food and hence to the political stability of most developing nations. Think also about the superpowers' efforts to secure supplies from the Middle East.

We need a far bigger solution than cutting taxes by 5c/litre.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Save $5,000

I forgot to take a picture of the previous sign, which received a mixed response ("Is the prize you're chasing worth the price you're paying?"), but here is our latest effort, based on a parishioner's suggestion, which I just put up:
If you don't get it or you're not from Sydney, then the relevant background is that there has been something of a scandal in the headlines here recently when the State government announced a new fine of over $5,000 for annoying a pilgrim at World Youth Day (which is to be held here in Sydney soon).

UPDATE: Whenever he goes on holidays, my rector tells me to get the sign into Column 8. I managed it last time with Death Sucks and then Jonathan just pointed out that this latest one was also successful. I've already updated it to a suggestion from my wife: "Lost Pilgrims Welcome Here".

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Seasoned with salt: grace-filled conversations IV

All you need is love?
While talking with a friend about Christian beliefs and practices regarding sex, he commented that Jesus was all on about love, and so proposed an attitude based on the claim "love is all you need". Is love all we need? What kind of love? Do you think Jesus would agree that love is enough?

I'm not sure my response at the time was particularly coherent or helpful, though thankfully my wife was there to give a much better one!
I introduced this series back here.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

GAFCON links

Here is the final statement published at the recent Global Anglican Future Conference in Jerusalem (and a video of the "Jerusalem Declaration" being read by Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi).

And some responses:

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury;
N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham;
Robert Forsyth, Bishop of South Sydney;
Mark Thompson, President of Anglican Church League of Sydney Diocese; and
Dave Walker, cartoonist.
Anyone know of other responses worth reading? This is a complex topic and I'm not going to try to make a comment myself at this stage.