To those who fast this Lent, don’t forget the freedom you’ve received

To those who fast this Lent, don’t forget the freedom you’ve received

It’s nearly Ash Wednesday, the traditional commencement of the Christian season of Lent, a time of fasting and repentance in readiness for Easter. I’m occasionally asked why not all Protestants observe Lenten fasts and I explain it’s basically about freedom from legalism. But it’s also about sausages. Yep, a lot of Protestants don’t observe Lent because of the humble wiener.   Way back in the sixteenth century, a dissident group of Swiss Christians were putting together a new translation of the Epistles of St Paul. The edition was being published by a very prominent citizen of Zurich, the printer, Christoph Froschauer. Printing was still a relatively new trade, and wildly popular, so Froschauer had become a wealthy businessman, prestigious and influential. He was also a Protestant, having been caught up in the liberation and excitement of the Reformation that had begun to sweep through Germany and was creeping into eastern Switzerland. Froschauer’s priest, the forceful and charismatic Ulrich Zwingli had brought the teachings of Martin Luther to Zurich, and he had seized upon the need to publish the New Testament in the vernacular, as well as distributing tracts and sermons to the citizens of the city. The priest and the printer became a formidable duo. Anyway, in the spring of 1522, as the first copies of the new edition of

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Should we prioritize Christians before helping others in greater need?

Should we prioritize Christians before helping others in greater need?

Should we be helping other Christians before we help non-Christians in greater need? This question came into even sharper focus recently when the Trump administration announced that its nominee to become director general of the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) was Ken Isaacs. The IOM has an annual budget of over $1 billion and is tasked with providing secure, reliable, flexible and cost-effective services for those needing international migration assistance. Refugees, basically. So alarm bells started sounding for some when it was revealed that Ken Isaacs, currently the head of international relief for Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse, has made comments that in some cases Christians should receive preferential treatment when being resettled from hostile areas. These comments appear to have been made on social media, reflecting on the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, and were coupled with disparaging references to Islam as a violent religion. Mr Isaacs has since apologized for these remarks and said, “I pledge to hold myself to the highest standards of humanity, human dignity and equality if chosen to lead IOM.” Okay, give the guy his due. He has been committed to helping refugees and has a long history of assisting those who are suffering. But his remarks, though retracted, reveal an underlying belief within the Christian community that we should help Christians

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A Misplaced Habit: the slow death of the newsagent (and the church?)

A Misplaced Habit: the slow death of the newsagent (and the church?)

When I was a kid there were all sorts of shops that don’t exist today. And I don’t mean a few local stores went out of business. I mean those kinds of shops hardly exist any longer. Our town had a little local hardware shop and a plant nursery, both of which were gobbled up by a big box hardware store and garden center. The haberdashery store closed. So did the pinball parlour and the billiards hall. The local post office closed and moved into a tiny shop above a Chinese restaurant. I get it. Things change. I guess there were blacksmiths and coopers before my time. But there is still one last vestige of the 19th and 20th centuries holding on, although I think it’s days are numbered. I’m talking about the once ubiquitous newsagent’s shop. The newsagent’s shop is a particularly British thing. North America has its newsstands, but in Britain and Australia we had these stores that sold newspapers, magazines, cigarettes, snacks and sweets. They were usually dark because their windows were plastered with newspaper advertising. They doubled as the local stationers, the only shop where you could get your school supplies like pencils and pens, exercise books, cardboard, glue, and plastic for covering your textbooks. The newsagent’s was a place of fascination to children, a darkened room full

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Advent – you might be doing it wrong

Advent – you might be doing it wrong

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya   In recent years, even the most non-liturgical branches of the church, those who usually recoil against anything that even smacks of ritualism, have discovered the Christian season of Advent. But typical of someone a bit late to the party, many of them seem to have missed the memo on what it actually means. Contrary to all the Baptist and evangelical websites proclaiming that Advent is all about “getting ready for Christmas”, the season has a far richer meaning, one usually entirely overlooked by low churches. The word itself is derived from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming,” but the coming that we celebrate during Advent isn’t just Jesus’ first arrival as the babe of Bethlehem. Advent is the time to also focus on Jesus’ second coming. Advent is a four-week season, usually beginning on the last Sunday in November (this year it begins on Dec 3) and ending on Christmas Eve, where we celebrate the revelation of God in Christ, through whom all of creation might be reconciled to God. The First Advent of Christ inaugurates that reconciliation, a process in which we now participate. And the Second Advent signals its consummation, something we anticipate. Participation and anticipation are

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Nonviolence is our Strength: bringing justice and power together

Nonviolence is our Strength: bringing justice and power together

Justice and power must be brought together, so that whatever is just may be powerful, and whatever is powerful may be just. ~ Pascal   This week I participated in another nonviolent direct action (NvDA) to highlight my government’s mistreatment of hundreds of asylum seekers under their jurisdiction. Along with several other Christian leaders, I chained myself to the gates of the Prime Minister’s Sydney residence and refused to leave when instructed to by Australian federal police. We were eventually cut free by Police Search & Rescue and arrested for trespass. It wasn’t the first time I’d been arrested for such an action, and inevitably my decision to participate in it has attracted criticism from some Christians who believe it is wrong to disobey our political and legal authorities. But nonviolent direct action is, in my opinion, an entirely Christian act. NvDA refers to any method of protest, resistance, or intervention without physical violence in which the members of the nonviolent group do, or refuse to do, certain things. Other names for it are people power, civil resistance, satyagraha, nonviolent resistance, pacifica militancia, positive action, and more. When Christians undertake an NvDA we are rejecting the use of physical violence to fight injustice because we know that violence cannot be overcome by more violence.   As followers of the Prince

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Doing what we should have always been doing

Doing what we should have always been doing

When Danica Roem became the first transgender person elected to a state legislature in Virginia last month, there was outrage from some sectors of the American church. One affronted church leader tweeted, “Christian parents, the nation’s first transgender elected official enters American history tonight. What are you doing to prepare your children for that?” In response, bestselling author and University of Houston professor, Brené Brown tweeted:   We’re doing what we should have always been doing: loving God and loving others. But are we? Is that what we’ve been doing, because if it isn’t, I suggest the church should get back to it. In my homeland of Australia, we recently had a national survey on the question as to whether same-sex marriage should be legalized by the parliament. There was a hard-fought campaign waged on both sides of that debate. It wasn’t always very pretty or edifying. In the end, the Yes vote romped it in – 61.6% to 38.4%.  For some perspective, if a federal election was won by that margin it would be the most comprehensive landslide in Australia’s history. As a result, many church leaders are asking a similar question to the one we began with here: what are we doing to prepare ourselves for being the church in the new era of Australian society in which

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A sign pointing to God

A sign pointing to God

In his best-known book, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Nobel laureate, Gabriel Garcia Marquez tells of an isolated jungle village called Macondo in which the entire population has become infected with insomnia and associated amnesia. To avoid forgetting important things, the inhabitants begin labeling everything. One of the first signs they erect reads, “God exists”. But the main protagonist José Arcadio Buendía begins to dread what will happen when the Macondans have even forgotten how to read. He sets to work trying to make a daguerreotype (photograph) of God, to prove His existence and help everyone not to forget Him. I fear we live in a similar time. Our culture is in danger of forgetting that God exists.   But God’s intention was that the church would be the sign that would help people never to forget. This is why some people talk about the church being “the hope of the world.” Technically, the church isn’t the hope of the world – Christ is (Col.1:27). But the church is the sign, the last hope for a world suffering from spiritual amnesia, saying “God exists.” Sadly, while José Arcadio Buendía’s fear was that his village would forget how to read, ours might be that our neighbors can read only too well. When they look at the contemporary church, instead of reading “God

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Do you have a radical Christian faith or just a radicalized one?

Do you have a radical Christian faith or just a radicalized one?

After a terrorist attack in the West, it’s not uncommon to hear the parents of the attacker reveal how shocked they were to discover their son or daughter had become radicalized via the Internet. Muslim families are regularly counselled to put in place safeguards to ensure that the process of radicalization doesn’t take root with their children. But radicalization isn’t only a Muslim issue. You and I need to be aware of what radicalization is and how to avoid it, not because it will necessarily lead us to commit acts of terror, but because it monkeys with our capacity for empathy and morality. Earlier this year I heard a stimulating paper on the Internet as a 4th Space presented by Jessie Cruickshank. She has a Harvard degree in neuroscience and is particularly interested in how brain development is affected by our screens. She began by pointing to a number of studies that have shown that there is an inverse relationship between screen time and empathy. In other words, the more time you spend looking at a screen (texting and on social media) the less importance you place on moral, ethical and spiritual goals. Higher texting frequency was also consistently associated with higher levels of ethnic prejudice. Jessie Cruickshank writes, “Part of the struggle with the high engagement of social media

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Hey Bart, progressive Christians aren’t the only ones on the road to atheism

Hey Bart, progressive Christians aren’t the only ones on the road to atheism

You might have seen various conservative Christian bloggers and websites reporting on Bart Campolo’s recent announcement that progressive Christians are on the road toward atheism. Bart Campolo is a “humanist chaplain” at the University of Southern California, where he says he inspires and supports non-believers to “band together to actively pursue goodness in an openly secular way”.  In a recent podcast and an interview, he made the claim that so-called progressive Christianity is merely a doorway to unbelief. This was Campolo’s own journey, at least. The son of well-known evangelical leader, Tony Campolo, Bart says he started tweaking his theology to account for the poverty and suffering he encountered in urban ministry. When his prayers for the poor went unanswered, he eventually rejected the whole idea of an interventionist god, which in turn led to his flirtation with progressive Christianity. But rather than providing a way to remain a Christian, progressive Christianity was the doorway toward his current atheism. Campolo explained, “I passed through every stage of heresy. It starts out with sovereignty goes, then biblical authority goes, then I’m a universalist, now I’m marrying gay people. Pretty soon I don’t actually believe Jesus actually rose from the dead in a bodily way.” But Campolo wasn’t only reflecting on his own experience. He thinks progressive Christianity is the last stop

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Things to do before I die

Things to do before I die

Each year at Morling College I teach a subject called the History of Christian Mission. Since I’m a storyteller and not an historian, I tell my students this course is church history minus the boring bits. They like that introduction. So they hear all about Adoniram Judson strung up by his feet in a Burmese prison cell, and Lillias Trotter and her Bible-reading drum circle in a native cafe in the Casbah, and David Livingstone slashing his way through the Okavango. They get stories of morphine-addicted CT Studd going bonkers in the Congo, St Boniface chopping down the Tree of Thor, and Francis Xavier and his Samurai warrior sidekick, Anjirō, traveling to Japan. We cover the Haystack Prayer Movement, the Student Volunteer Movement, and the Church Growth Movement. They look at the Nestorians, the Hibernians, and the Moravians. It’s all very exciting actually. Well, the way I tell it, it is. And then I heard recently that an old colleague of mine had died. Rev Mike Dennis was full of years and wisdom, a fellow minister in the same family of churches as me. He was old enough to be my father, but he treated me like a brother. Mike was superb preacher and a remarkable leader. He was humble and godly. And he was funny. And the guy had

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Is it Christian to love your country?

Is it Christian to love your country?

I don’t love my country. There, I said it. I’m a citizen of Australia, a relatively peaceful, prosperous, liberal democracy with a pleasant climate, kangaroos, beautiful beaches and an impressive opera house. I’m grateful for the considerable benefits my citizenship brings. I’d rather be Australian than Syrian or North Korean or South Sudanese. I cheer enthusiastically for our national rugby team and politely explain to Americans how Australia and New Zealand are different countries and why being Australian is better. But I don’t love my country. (I don’t even really think it’s better to be an Australian than a New Zealander). In fact, whenever I allow myself to give into those tribal inclinations to defend my country as better than any other I can’t sense the Holy Spirit behind that at all. It’s tribalism. It’s factionalism. It’s divisiveness and superiority. It deceives me into overlooking the racism and injustice perpetrated in my country’s name and to focus on flimsy and ill-defined definitions of my national “character”. And yet so many Christians appear to equate national loyalty with faithfulness to God. Billy Sunday, the most celebrated and influential American evangelist during the first two decades of the 20th century, once wrote, “Christianity and Patriotism are synonymous terms, and hell and traitors are synonymous.” It’s a trap, surely, to confuse the Christian

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At worship in the church of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

At worship in the church of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Watching One Love, the concert for those affected by the recent terrorist bombing in Manchester, was a strangely quasi-religious experience, and a fascinating insight into the secular rituals that have come to define public mourning in the secular West. Scheduled on a Sunday, the event was designed partly as an act of defiance by Ariana Grande and her management team, and partly as a semi-religious grief ritual for the city of Manchester. Some of the songs performed at the concert made passing reference to religious themes, like the Black Eyed Peas’ song Where is the Love, a kind of prayer for world peace, which includes the line, “Father, Father, Father help us/ Send some guidance from above.” Robbie Williams sang his oddly quasi-religious song, Angels, and Coldplay did Viva la Vida with the cryptic lines about the bells of Jerusalem, missionaries in a foreign field, and something about St Peter not calling my name. While other songs, although not specifically religious, were performed with a kind of gravity befitting a secular hymn. Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Don’t Dream It’s Over and Don’t Look Back in Anger united the audience in a type of collective optimism usually reserved for religious singing. Or football anthems.   Of course, there were some explicitly religious moments, like when Justin Bieber declared that “God is good

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